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In My Youth by  James Baldwin
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THE RAISIN' AND THE QUILTIN'

[438]

T
HE day for the house-raising was at hand. All the men in the Settlement had been invited to come—at least all that belonged to the meetin', besides several Methodisters and a few reputed unbelievers. And to make the occasion as enjoyable as possible, mother and Cousin Mandy Jane had arranged for a "quiltin' and comfort tackin' " at the same time, and had asked all the wives and old maids to come with their men-folks, assist in the labors of the day and partake of the raisin' dinner.

According to their custom on such occasions, Cousin Sally and her mother came over two or three days beforehand to render their valuable aid in matters pertaining to the culinary arrangements. Chickens and ducks were beheaded, the fatted calf was slain; the choice treasures of the pantry, the varied products of orchard and field, were all brought into requisition to celebrate the rare occurrence and make glad the hearts and stomachs of our neighbors and friends.

"I hain't counted 'em up," remarked Cousin Mandy Jane, "but I calc'late they won't be no less'n a hundred folks here to dinner, not countin' the children and them that comes without bein' axed."

"It'll be a good deal like the company that comes to a big quart'ly meetin'," suggested Cousin Sally.

[439] "Gee whiz! Naw!" growled David, coming in with the hind quarters of the calf upon his shoulder. "The biggest crowd we ever had to the biggest quart'ly meetin' wa'n't no patchin' to what this'll be."

Oh, my Leonidas, the memory of that time is still like the roll of a drum beat in the early morning! You may at some time in your life behold the hurry and hustle on lower Broadway, but if you live to outnumber the years of your grandfather, you will never see so busy a time as that was on the day and morning preceding our ever-memorable house-raisin' and quiltin'.

Long tables for the diners were extemporized on the lawn at the farther end of the yard. The quiltin' frames were set up underneath the historic cherry trees. Innumerable blocks of wood and a few rough backless benches were provided for seats for the multitude. A camp-fire, to supplement the work of the inefficient cookstove, was built in close proximity to the kitchen door; kettles were swung over it, the old skillet oven was placed on the coals beside it, and the long disuse tin "reflector" was set up in the full glare of the flames, with half a dozen monstrous broilers inside of it, roasting and sizzling in the glowing heat.

"It seems right smart like old times when we used to have the fireplace," said mother as she thrust some sweet potatoes into a heap of hot ashes to be roasted.

And poor old Aunt Rachel, sitting on a block as close to the fire as safety would permit, puffed contentedly at her pipe and concurred in the opinion.

"It is raaly cheerin'," she quavered; "but after all, there ain't nothin' quite so bracin' as the chimly corner with plenty of red coals in the ashes."

The timbers for the great two-story frame house had [440] all been hewn and "framed," and were lying at convenient places, each marked and numbered with red keel for easy identification. Here, in separate piles, were the beams and corner posts, the sleepers, the sills, the studs, the joists, the braces, the plates, the girders, the rafters, the sheathing boards, even the wooden pegs for fastening the timbers together. All the mortices had been made, the auger holes had been bored, the tenons had been shaped—nothing remained to be done save to put each piece in its proper place, raise into position the various parts of the frame, drive home the pegs—and there you are, as complete and strong a structure as it is possible for the ingenuity of a common carpenter to devise.

People don't build in that way now, my Leonidas. All the timber that is put into a modern two-story building would scarcely make a small bedroom in a house like that of ours; and how slender and frail are all the frames now!—"balloon frames" we used to call even the heaviest of them. They tremble if you but lean against them, they seem ready to collapse in the first brisk gale, and yet a kind providence holds them up. But father built for eternity, and he was opposed to the tempting of providence. He therefore made his frames so strong that, to this very day, the Western cyclones steer shy of the neighborhood where some of his barns and houses still stand, the silent but expressive memorials of an honest man.

And now, everything being in readiness, all of us who were in the habit of praying (and some, alas! who were not) began to send up secret petitions to the Arbiter of Sun and Storm to grant us fair weather and good appetites until the close of the long-looked-for day. Whether [441] these brief mental ejaculations were heard or not, we never knew; but we speedily forgot about them when the appointed morning broke, clear as a crystal sea and perfect as mornings are ever made; and we were immediately so busy that we also forgot to be thankful to Him who sends such days.

The neighbors began to arrive soon after sunrise, some of them in expectation, no doubt, of a supplementary breakfast and a cup of mother's rare sassafras tea—an expectation in which they were not disappointed. By eight o'clock, all the able-bodied adults in the Settlement, with numerous babies and quite a sprinkling of growing boys and girls, were assembled in knots and groups and various other combinations in our yard and garden, barn lot and lane. Among the last contingents to arrive was Old Enoch Fox, who came winding his way along the woodland pathway, followed by his entire family of seven womenfolks and Little Enick.

"Yes, there she is!" I heard Patience whisper to Jonathan. "I knew he wouldn't leave her at home. He's afraid thee might steal her."

" 'Twouldn't make much difference one way nor t'other," he answered stolidly; but his face lit up like the full moon in its glory when the cheery voice of Esther Lamb was heard returning the greetings of her friends and neighbors in the yard.

"How's thee, Mandy Jane? How's thee, Aunt Margot? How's thee, Levi? And I declare, here's Little Hanner Ann! Howdy, Hanner Ann, howdy, howdy!" And thus the salutations continued, seemingly without end.

But soon Patience rushed forth from the kitchen and, meeting the Foxes as they were strolling bewildered [442] among the groups, gave them the heartiest welcome of all.

"Howdy, Becky! Howdy, M'rier, and M'lindy!" shaking hands with each of the seven. "I'm so glad to see you all. Come down to the barn with me, and take off your things. We have to use this end of the barn for sleeping-rooms till the new house is ready. Just lay your bonnets right there on the beds."

And Charity was likewise busy with the other women friends, cheerily greeting each and all, showing them where to put their "things," making every one instantly feel at her ease and at home. Cousin Sally, in her newest, reddest apron, was busy superintending the dinner; Cousin Mandy Jane was occupied in marshaling the forces for the quiltin' and tackin'; and mother, overwhelmed with the social functions devolving upon her, was dividing her attentions between the elderly women and the infants.

It was amusing to listen to her. "How's thee, Aunt Mary? Take a cheer. Thee looks mighty spry for thy age. I reckon thee won't want to go out to the quiltin' jist yet a while. Set down and try a little of my elderberry wine for thy stummick." And then espying a young mother with a three-weeks-old infant in her arms, she would leave Aunt Mary to take care of herself, and hasten to greet this latest arrival. "And is this the baby? How pretty it is? Boy, or girl? I'm glad it's a boy. What's his name? Hezekiah? Well, that's a mighty pretty name and it's Scripter, too." And thus she went on, to the great comfort and edification of everybody.

Meanwhile the men-folks had begun active operations [443] at the other end of the yard. Amid clouds of dust and the crash of falling timbers, a contingent of a dozen sturdy fellows under the direction of Levi T. was not long in demolishing the old cabin and carrying the logs to a suitable spot in the lane, whence Jonathan would some day drag them away to his forty-acre piece by the Four Corners. Two other companies under the command respectively of father and 'Lihu Bright, were putting together the timbers of the new house, preparatory to raising them into position. As the work proceeded the excitement increased. The old house was cleared away, the foundations of the new were laid. On every side might be heard the sound of axes and hammers pounding, of old and new logs tumbling, of sturdy men's voices shouting, of dogs and boys forever putting themselves in the way; and above all, rang the clear commanding cry of the foreman:—

"Now, boys, all together! Hee-oh-heave! Right along with her, there! Up with the eend! Now, easy! Whoa!"

And so the merry work proceeded.

Under the cherry trees, around the quilting frames, the womenfolks were more quietly but none the less busily occupied; and, as the quilts were being quilted and the comforts were being tacked, the flow of genial conversation and neighborhood news never lagged nor was for a moment impeded. Here were gathered the younger married women and the older maidens who wished to be married; and the jokes and repartees and sly bits of information that were handed round were not of a kind to be repeated. Nevertheless, the fingers that manipulated the swiftly passing needles or tied the in- [444] tricate "comfort knots," were known to be the skillfullest and most diligent in all the New Settlement, if not in all the Wabash Country.

On the lawn near by, or grouped conveniently about the open-air fire, were the mothers in Israel—ancient women like my chimney-corner aunts—each with her pipe in her mouth, her knitting in her hands, and a sweet reminiscence of bygone days in her heart. The long rough tables were being rapidly loaded with toothsome viands, and Cousin Sally and her young women helpers were as busy as nut-gathering squirrels, flitting ceaselessly, untiringly, back and forth from the kitchen stove and the improvised camp-fire.

But why dwell upon these scenes of homely industry—these incidents of the simple life, so insignificant, so old-fashioned, so foolish to the minds of an enlightened generation?

The Seth Thomas clock on the mantel-shelf of the kitchen struck the hour of twelve; the frame of the new house was "all riz" and nothing remained to be done save the placing of the rafters; the Joseph's-coat quilt—Cousin Mandy Jane's special property and pride—had been finished and hemmed, and was being handed round for the general admiration of mothers and daughters; and, more than all, the dinner was ready—the time of the times, for which this particular day was made, had arrived.

"Everybody git ready for dinner!" proclaimed Cousin Sally at the top of her stentorian voice. And the word was passed from mouth to mouth until it reached the ears of the master of ceremonies and house-raisings.

"Now, friends," he announced, standing on one of the topmost girders where all could see him, "I am informed that our dinner is ready. We will attempt nothing more [445] until after we have eaten and rested. Let all pass around to the tables, and take your places wherever the womenfolks may direct."

Very orderly and with a good-mannered appearance of hesitation, the men strolled across to the farther side of the lawn, where they gathered in groups and waited for further instructions. There was not much done in the way of slicking up for dinner. Some of the men wiped their hands and faces on their cotton bandannas, a few made some attempt to smooth their hair, and some of the younger ones whose girls were present ran down to the spring branch to make their toilets beside the flowing stream.

One long table was assigned to the "raisers" and the other, not quite so long, to the quilters and old women. It required the genius of a general to accomplish the satisfactory seating of the multitude, but Cousin Sally was quite equal to the occasion.

"Them that's been a-workin' may set down at the first table," she announced, "and them that's been a-playin' must wait till the second table."

This of course meant that we children and all loafers and hangers-on must be content with the leavings of those who were more favored at the feast because they had proved themselves more useful to the host.

Joel Sparker and Enoch Fox, as the eldest and most venerable of the company, were given the seats of honor at the head of the men's table; the others were arranged promiscuously without reference to rank—for there was none. At the women's table, the grandmothers and ancient aunts took precedence, the young mothers came next, and the old maids together with the little girls were crowded out to wait for the "second table."

[446] The feast was progressing with great satisfaction to all concerned. The head-waitress's injunction to "help yourselves and don't be bashful" was being literally obeyed. The long table was being rapidly denuded of its most valuable assets. Suddenly, in the neighborhood of the barnyard fence, where many of the boys had congregated, there were signs of unwonted excitement, and some of the young men whose curiosity was stronger than their half-satisfied appetites, rose from the table and ran to see what was going on. What they saw was not calculated to allay their interest.

Jonathan, wearing his "meetin' breeches and a biled shirt," his boots newly greased and his hair newly combed, was leading his filly from the barn. The latter was equipped with bridle and saddle as if for a ride, and behind the saddle was the small square blanket commonly used when the rider was to have a companion.

"Heigh, there, Jont, wheer's thee goin' to?" queried Little Enick, climbing upon the gate-post.

"Seems to me thee's slicked up right smart for a house-raisin' day," shouted Jake Dobson's big brother, Nate. "Is thee goin' to see thy gal?"

"Hello, Jonty! What's up?" asked Tim Bray's father, his mouth distended with the fried chicken he had snatched from the table.

" 'Tain't none of thy tarnal business," answered Jonathan huskily; "but if thee must know, I'll tell thee: I'm jist goin' to give the mare a leetle stirrin' up, like she gits every day—and I thought maybe some gal or other might kinder like to ride ahind me, pervided I was slicked up a bit." And, with that, he leaped into the saddle.

I ran and threw open the big gate, and he rode [447] briskly out and down the lane. He went no farther than the bend in the big road where a grove of sugar trees shut off our view of him, and there he turned and came back, the filly fairly flying before the wind.

As he approached the house, Patience ran out and, standing in the gateway, began to repeat with great animation her favorite ballad:—

"Oh, young Lochinvar is come out of the West,

Through all the broad Border his steed is the best."

The impatient animal pranced around the yard, eager for another swift canter, and Jonathan was never in prouder mood.

"Let her out ag'in, Jont," cried the small boys; and the young men looked admiringly and allowed that "that there mare is some punkins, sure as shootin'."

"Lochinvar," cried Patience, "will thy steed carry double?"

"Jist thee git on to her and see," he answered curtly, but with a half-repressed smile.

Immediately Patience ran out to the uppin'-block, and as the rider brought his steed within reach, she leaped skillfully up behind him, threw her arms around his waist—and they were off! Oh, but that was a rare sight, my Leonidas—a sight not so rare in those medieval times as now, but a sight sufficient to make any horse lover's heart beat hot and fast beneath his jacket. They were down to the foot of the lane, they were out on the big road and half a mile away in less time than it has taken me to tell you about it. And then, with merely a touch of the bridle, the filly stopped and turned and came walking back, as slowly and demurely as any broken-down plow horse at the close of [448] a day of hard work. When they reached the barn lot again, and Patience leaped laughing to the ground, the boys broke out into a shout that startled all the feasters at the tables and was very shocking to the pious nerves of good Joel Sparker.

"Stephen," said he, between great mouthfuls of roast veal and stewed pumpkin, "it seems to me that there is altogether too much levity among thy young folks. If thee would admonish them to think upon their latter ends before they come to thy table, perhaps thee might prosper better with the new house thee is puttin' up."

"What's all that noise about, anyhow?" queried Old Enoch with some difficulty.

"Oh, it's only Cousin Jonathan and his filly," answered Mandy Jane, helping him to a third plate of chicken and whole hominy. "He's jist givin' the critter a leetle exercise like he does every day, so as to keep her limbered up and in good condition."

"Does thee know where my Esther is?" growled Enoch, beginning to appear somewhat ill at ease.

"She's in the kitchen helpin' the girls git the dishes ready for the second table."

"Huh!" and the ancient man bent over his plate and renewed his gustatory labors.

Meanwhile the excitement of the barnyard continued, and several of the more temperate men rose from the table, leaving their plates half emptied, and hurried across the yard to see what was going on. The filly was prancing uneasily back and forth between the uppin'-block and the barn. She had just returned from another wild canter down the road.

"I wonder if there ain't no other young woman that would like to ride ahind me," said Jonathan exultantly.

[449] "Yes, I'd like it. Take me!" cried Cousin Sally, rushing from the kitchen door, her cheeks aflame with red blood, her apron tucked up in a double fold about her waist.

"Well, I wasn't a-keerin' about thee," blurted young Lochinvar, petulantly but good-naturedly; "yit, even so, if thee ain't afeard of they neck, come and git on."

She ran through the gate, and without making use of the uppin'-block, leaped upon the filly's crupper and dexterously seated herself on the scant blanket behind the saddle. She was known throughout the Settlement as the most daring rider among women, and her performance occasioned a shout of applause that caused Old Enoch to rise from the table before he had finished his third piece of pie. But the venerable friend at his right hand restrained and hindered him.

"Set still, Enoch," commanded Joel. "I know thee has still enough room under thy jacket for on one of Debby Dudley's doughnuts. Folks say they ain't nobody can bake 'em as good as she does. Have one."

And so he was fain to remain a little longer.

In the meanwhile Jonathan and Cousin Sally had returned, and as the latter ran laughingly back to her kitchen duties, the former sat carelessly, side-saddle fashion, on his filly and called for another recruit.

"Who'll be the next?" he shouted, in a tone the queerest I had ever heard issue from between his incapacious lips.

"Charity! Where's Charity?" inquired Patience, making her way through the crowd of children and men. "Charity would like that sort of sport I know."

"There she comes!" cried Ikey Bright from her perch [450] on the barnyard fence; and all eyes were turned the kitchen door.

She came briskly across the narrow yard space, looking neither to the right nor to the left, her movement reminding me strangely of a timid hunted animal, seeking some way of escape. What could ail our Charity, usually so bold? She wore a "split pasteboard" sunbonnet which was drawn so far forward as to conceal her features; and she had on a long linen riding skirt of the kind which some women of quality were in the habit of wearing when they went to meetin' on horseback. As she passed me at the gate, I saw that underneath the riding skirt there was a dress of richer material, and underneath the sunbonnet there was a face that was not Charity's. There were others who saw the same, but before any one could recover from his astonishment, she was on the uppin'-block, she had vaulted upon the filly's back, her right arm was about young Lochinvar's waist—and the filly was speeding away.

"Făther! O făther!" cried Little Enick, leaping off the gate-post and running toward the dining tables. "Our Esther, she's gone and rid away with Dudley's Jont! They're a-clippin' it down the lane to the big road right now!"

The anger and dismay of Old Enoch were plainly visible on his wrinkled countenance as with long quick strides he hurried over the lawn and joined the company of lookers-on. But he restrained his emotion as, shading his eyes with his hands, he saw the young couple just disappearing around the bend in the big road. They were riding rather slowly now, the filly gliding easily along, and not in the swift reckless manner of the two former occasions.

[451] "Jont, he's right smart more keerful of Esther than he was of the t'other gals," remarked one of Abner Jones's boys. "Jist see how 'mazin' slow he goes."

"But jist thee wait," returned Jake Dobson; "he'll make it up on the home stretch."

And 'Lihu Bright, observing Old Enoch's anxiety, kindly explained, "They'll be back in a few minutes. Jonathan is only exercising his filly, and he's been taking some of the young women with him, just for diversion. He takes 'em as far as the big mudhole around the bend, and then he turns and comes back."

"Wale! Thee says so," grimly returned the older man. "Maybe thee knows."

But they didn't come back. The diners at the first table had finished eating and were dispersed about the premises. The second table was called and the younger contingency, including the boys, big and little, the cooks, the waitresses and other helpers, were busily engaged in devouring the leavings. And Enoch, with a few of the middle-aged men, still lingered about the gate and waited.

"It's my 'pinion it's a ruse," finally remarked Abner Jones.

"That's been my 'pinion all along," said Enoch, going to the camp-fire and raking out a coal with which to light his pipe. "That there Esther of mine, she's up to most every sort of deceivin' trick. She's good at a ruse."

"It wouldn't s'prise me if they was to ride all the way over to Dashville and git married by the short cut," said John Dobson. "I've heerd that Jont's been a-threatenin' sich a thing."

"He's been a-threatenin', has he?" and Enoch's face, as he spoke, was strangely puckered with contending emotions. "Well, if I know anything about it, I guess him [452] and my Esther won't find no short cut yit a while, threatenin' or no threatenin'."

He turned squarely away from the group of men about the gate and strode back to the long tables, where his wife and daughters were variously occupied.

"Becky," he said with a quaver in his voice, "I ain't feelin' very well, and I reckon I'll be goin' home. As soon as thee's done thy duty a-helpin' Debby, maybe thee'd better come too, and fetch the gals along with thee."

"Yes, Enoch, I'll come right soon," answered Becky with kindly solicitude. "Thee'd better take a leetle drap of cordial when thee gits home, and, this evening, thee must bathe thy feet in warm water and mustard."

But before the half of the last sentence was out of her mouth, Enoch had turned around, and without saying farewell to anybody, was soon over the fence and striding homeward. We watched him as he threaded his way along the tortuous path, now in the calf pasture and now in the strip of new clearing; we saw him climb the fence and disappear among the low bushes in the outskirts of the big woods. A cloud seemed to cast its shadow over all our merriment. The word quickly passed from one group of friendly neighbors to another that Jont Dudley had "rid away" with Esther Fox, and that Old Enoch had gone home "firin' mad about it"; and from the group of dishwashers down by the spring branch, we shortly afterward heard the strong clear voice of Patience declaiming:—

"So faithful in love and so dauntless in war—

Have ye e'er seen gallant like young Lochinvar?"


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