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In My Youth by  James Baldwin
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FEVER 'N' AGUR

[178] THE caravan had scarcely got well started on its journey when our Jonathan was taken abed with a long-threatened "spell of fever'n'agur." A pallet was spread for him on the floor of the settin'-room in the big house, that being a more suitable place for a sick person than the dark cabin loft where the boys usually slept. When Cousin Mandy Jane and I returned from our walk to the Four Corners, we found him there with the "agur fit" already upon him.

It was pitiful to see him wrestling in a most helpless way with the grim, invisible, miasmatic field that had come up out of the swamps and bottoms to torment him. His face was wonderfully pale and pinched; his eyes were dull and lifeless, with dark semicircular lines underneath; his finger-nails were blue; his lips were compressed and drawn tightly together over his closed mouth. Then came the chill. His lower jaw relaxed and his teeth chattered like the rattling of pebbles in a "chany" cup. His body shook with a vehemence which, according to his own statement, fairly made the roof shingles of the big-house "stand up on end." For nearly an hour he groaned and tossed, helpless with the agur fit upon him, aching in every joint, shivering from head to foot.

A short respite followed, and the fever "came—" [179] a raging burning fever that took away his senses and caused his mind to wander and his white-coated tongue to babble foolishly. In his delirium he kept calling, calling, not for mother nor for Cousin Mandy Jane, "but—would you believe it?—for" Old Enoch's grand-daughter, buxom handsome Esther Lamb.

It was amusing to hear him, and Cousin Mandy Jane actually te-heed right in his presence, notwithstanding his woeful condition. But mother, soon coming in with a cold-water bandage for his aching head, reproved her with a look that sent her out of the room.

"Is that thee, Esther, dear?" muttered the poor fellow, not recognizing his best friend. "I knowed thee would come."

"It's me, Jonathan," said mother, gently smoothing his hair and tying the cold-water bandage about his temples.

"Yes, I know it's thee, Esther," he answered staring into her face. "Thee's a Lamb; thee ain't no Fox. Thee don't take after Old Enick a bit. I have my doubts if thee's related to him at all."

He took mother's hand in his big burning palm and held it very tightly. "Jist thee wait till I sell them there steers," he said.

"And then what will thee do?" queried mother.

"Why, I'll buy that forty-acre piece down by the Corners, and build a little house on it for thee and me," and then he wandered off into incoherency.

Presently, as he tossed about, the cold-water bandage became loosened and I went cautiously to the bedside to replace it. He glared at me wildly, and I sprang back in fear as he shouted, "Git out of here, thee Old Enick, thee! I'll have Esther n spite of thee. She [180] ain't no Fox. Git out I say! If thee wasn't so tarnal old, I'd give thee the best lickin' thee ever had!"

He made as if he would spring out of bed to strike me; but mother motioned to me and I retired from the room, greatly awed by reason of the young man's madness.

"What did he say to thee?" asked Cousin Mandy Jane, an unfeeling smile still lurking about her mouth.

"He thought I was Old Enick," I answered.

"Well, wasn't that funny? and she te-heed again in a very foolish manner. "Him and Old Enick don't git along together very well sence they had that fallin' out."

"What did they fall out about?" I asked.

"Well, I'll tell thee," she answered "eagerly—she was always eager to tell secrets—I'll" tell thee. Jonathan, he put on his meetin' clothes two weeks ago last First-day evenin' and went over to see Esther. He's been doin' that, on and off, for a year as thee knows. But this time he meant business. He went right into the house, and he axed Old Enick to let him have Esther;" and here she te-heed again, and looked around to see if mother or Aunt Rachel was in hearing distance. Then she added in a half whisper. "And what does thee reckon Old Enick done?"

"What did he do?"

"Why, he kicked  "Jonathan—leastwise," he pushed him. He pushed him right out of the house. Only think of it! And he told him, if he ever come there ag'in he'd set Old Bull on him. Ain't that a nice way for a elder in the meetin' to do?"

"Who told thee about it, Mandy Jane?"

"Why, Jonathan of course; and he said I mustn't [181] never, never whisper a word of it to a livin' "soul—and" I won't."

"I don't see why the Old Feller don't come and carry that Old Enick to the bad place," I said remembering my own experiences with the aged reprobate. "That's where he ought to be."

"Oh, he's too mean for the Old Feller to have anything to do with him," answered Cousin Mandy Jane. "He's jist too mean ever to go to the bad place. And it's my ‘pinion that it was his doin's that made our Jonathan have this spell of fever'n'agur."

Toward the middle of the afternoon mother came in with a pleased expression on her face and reported that the fever had subsided, and that the patient was sleeping soundly and "sweatin' like a plow horse."

"He'll be purty well again to-morrow," she remarked; "But the fever'n'agur with come on him again the next day, I'm afraid. He'll have to keep quiet and take his medicine reg'lar all the rest of the week."

"And Robert, there, he'll have to be the man of the farm," croaked Aunt Rachel from her seat in the chimney corner.

"Lands' sake! only think of it," cried Cousin Mandy Jane. "There's father and David gone to the ‘Hio, and here's our Jonathan down with the fever'n'agur, and there hain't nary other male man about the place ‘cept little Robert. But I reckon that him and me can keep things a-goin' along about as well as anybody. Don't thee think so, Robert?"

There was a touch of the rankest flattery in all this, but in my innocence I did not perceive it. The fact that I was the only able-bodied "male man" on the farm tickled my vanity more than you might suppose, [182] and I immediately began to imagine myself a lord of creation. Circumstances had made "me—yes, little me—the" the temporary head of the family. Grave responsibilities seemed resting upon my shoulders, and resolved to perform my duty cheerfully and courageously to the extent of my ability.

The next morning Jonathan rose early and seemed but little the worse for his combat with the fever'n'agur fiend. But he was silent and morose and went about his daily duties in a half-hearted, acidulous manner that made all the rest of us very uncomfortable. Soon after breakfast he ensconced himself in mother's old rocking chair, opposite Aunt Rachel's chimney corner, and declared that he felt "right smart tired" and thought he would rest a while "before goin' out to the clearin'." And there he sat hour after hour, yawning, dozing, groaning, drinking great drafts of bitter herb tea, and keeping himself in a flood of perspiration beside the smoldering summer fire.

"Cousin Mandy Jane," he muttered whiningly, "I reckon thee and Robert will have to tend to things for a right smart while till I git over this spell of fever'n'agur. It's tuck hold of me tarnal hard, and I reckon I'll most likely have another shake of it tomorrow."

We had already begun to tend to things," and therefore his remarks were entirely superfluous. Together we spent the larger part of the forenoon in the new clearing "rightin' the numerous log heaps and rekindling the fires that had burned out since Jonathan's early morning visit to them the day before. With long handspikes of green ironwood, we rolled the half consumed logs closer together; we piled the smaller charred [183] "chunks" upon them, and stirred the red-hot embers until the flames leaped up and clouds of blue-black smoke ascended toward the sky. In all this labor, Cousin Mandy Jane proved herself to be a very present help in time of trouble, but I took care that she should never forget that I was the man of the farm and she nothing but an insignificant female too old to be a girl and too young to be a woman. This "rightin'" of the log heaps, however interesting it might appear to a looker-on, was a man's task which neither of us had ever attempted before. It required both skill and strength; but we undertook it with a will, and although a hand was blistered and an ankle strained and a petticoat scorched in its performance, we finally left the clearing with hearts beating like those of conquerors at the close of a hard-fought battle.

This, however, was only one of the score of daily tasks which we performed, singly or together, with an unvarying regularity, during the whole period of my short reign as the only man of the farm. From the earliest peep of dawn to the last glimmer of the gloaming I was as busy as the proverbial bee. I drove the cows to and from their distant pasture. I helped with the milking and the churning and the cheese-making. I groomed the wood and prepared the kindlings for the "cookin' fire." I weeded the garden and gathered corn for the fattening hogs in the "lane—and" I gave a great deal of very necessary advice to mother and Cousin Mandy Jane which they utterly failed to appreciate or observe. Often when I was in the midst of the storm and [184] stress of varying and exacting duties, it seemed to me that our "Jonathan—especially on his well days—might" have offered to lend a hand. But he availed himself of the sick man's privilege to its utmost limits, and during the entire period of father's absence he was about as useful in our household as the average drone in an overstocked beehive. Whether this was entirely the result of his illness or whether it was partly due to an intense hankering for a few days' rest, no one knew better than himself. On his well days, which alternated regularly with his chill days, he spent the greater part of his time in the chimney corner, drinking his tea and easing himself by groaning and grunting. But the strangest thing was this: At about two o'clock each afternoon, he rose from his chair, put on his heaviest coat, and went out for a walk, from which he did not return until sundown. One day, as he was starting out, I had the hardihood to call after him:

"Where's thee goin', Jonathan?"

He turned upon me with anger flashing from his "agury" eyes. " 'Tain't none o' thy tarnal business, thee little Towhead, thee," was his indignant reply. And with head inclined as though in deep meditation, he strode away and was soon lost to view in the woods behind the orchard.

Cousin Mandy Jane had heard him and such was her amusement that she te-heed quite audibly.

"Thee'd better look out, Robert," she said. " 'Tain't very safe to meddle with a feller that's got the "fever'n'agur—I" tell thee that, right now."

"I only asked him where he was going," I said.

"Well, I can tell thee where he's goin'. He's goin' [185] over to see that there gal of "his'n—takin'" a mean advantage of Old Enick while he's away to the "Hio. But I don't know as I blame him. Esther, she ain't no common sort of "gal—she's" a Lamb, she ain't no Fox!" Then she te-heed again, and resumed her churning.

On his chill days, however, Jonathan had the sincere sympathy of us all. The agur fit came upon him regularly a little before noon, and it was not until near sundown that his fever subsided and his pitiful delirium was succeeded by a peaceful sleeping. "Nevertheless—thanks to the herb tea and the sweating process, and perhaps also to this complete abandonment of every form of labor;—each" fit was less violent than its predecessor, and at the end of a week Jonathan had ceased to wander in his mind and therefore did not get out of his head. This I secretly regretted, for after I had learned that his temporary madness foreboded no serious disaster, I had come to enjoy his rapturous appeals to an imaginary Esther, and I had possessed myself, as I supposed, of at least one important secret.

Soon, also, I grew thoroughly tired of being the man of the farm. I found that it was an honor which entailed no end of laborious duties; and before the week had passed, I was secretly writhing under the intolerable burdens which had been shifted to my shoulders. There were so many things to be done that I had no time for recreation or for reading. My books reposed undisturbed upon their shelf, and my invisible playmate was almost forgotten. My legs ached, my back was stiff, my head was tired. Could it be that the fever'n'agur fiend was lying in wait for me also? And my chiefest wish was that father and our David [186] would hasten their return from the "Hio so that I might resign my commission and return to private life.

And my wish was duly and rather unexpectedly granted; for on the afternoon of the eighth day, as I was toiling at the wood-pile, I saw a covered wagon coming slowly up the lane from the highroad. The horses seemed very tired, the wagon was bespattered with mud, the driver looked grisly enough with unkempt hair and unshaven face, and the elderly man who was walking behind was only partially "visible—yet" I recognized them at the very first glance. I dropped my ax and hurried out to the gate to open it.


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