Aunt Elizabeth's Fence by George H. Hebard

The little village of H—— is a sort of double-header, having a centre at each end, so to speak. The end nearest the railroad is known as "The Three Corners," on account of a certain arrangement of the roads meeting at that point, while the farther assemblage of houses bears a similar appellation, "The Four Corners," for a similar reason. The two parts of the town are in reality two distinct villages, although existing as one corporate body, and are banded together like the Siamese twins by a road leading directly from the heart of one to that of the other. On each side of this rural street, at neighborly distances, stand pretty white cottages, a story and a half high, nestling behind white fences under shading maples. Midway between the two Centres these dwellings stand further apart and are more evidently farmhouses; and just beyond a peaceful green meadow one's attention is suddenly arrested by a queer house—an architectural oddity, having an insignificant main part, and numerous additions, of different heights, jutting forth in every direction without any seeming plan, but looking as if they might have crept together some cold winter's day for mutual warmth, or as if the middle house was a bantam trying to shield an overgrown brood, a solitary tower having the effect of a chicken on the mother hen's back.

It was in one of the rooms of this odd residence that our young hero, Jem French, was born. His father, like his house, is decidedly odd. Mr. Joseph French was a man of ideas, not a farmer as you might suppose from his living in such a locality, but a Jack-at-all-trades, and in spite of the proverb, good at all. Therein lays the secret of his queer-shaped house. One of the little extensions is a tin shop where he mends the pots and pans of the neighborhood, or creates any new vessels desired. Another projection is devoted to carpenter work, and in a third addition he makes boots and shoes for his own family and cobbles for others. In the room above, with the big glass window, the rustic beaux and belles sit like statuary, while he preserves their pictures in ambrotypes. Each part of the building seems to be devoted to some specialty. But in one part the door is always found to be locked and the window carefully curtained, and even the children are forbidden to enter. In this room Mr. French still spends hours and hours, sometimes days and weeks, inventing, nobody knows what as yet.

Jem early bid fair to become another such man as his father, though evidently that would not be to his pecuniary benefit, for the entire surplus earnings of his parent had thus far been spent in obtaining materials for further experimenting. Still Jem inherited the inventive talent. He was envied and admired by schoolfellows and playmates. Not even the richest among them could boast of owning such unique toys as Jem was constantly making. The little stream that ran through the meadow was spanned by miniature bridges of which he was sole architect. His sailing craft, of all kinds, and fully rigged, swam in the placid water. Dams were placed here and there, and sluice-ways conducted the water to its work of turning sundry over-shot wheels which in their turn operated little pumps or moved the machinery of a mill. He made his sisters various mechanical figures which moved to the swinging of a pendulum. Cardboard images were made to saw wood, fiddle, or dance for hours together, the motive power being obtained from sand running through an inverted cone. As for carving, he had ornamented the walls of the house with a profusion of brackets, wall-pockets, and the like, taking his designs of birds or flowers from nature's own pattern. He was, in fact, a veritable young Yankee with his jack-knife, and few were the things he could not fashion with it, and few the principles of physics studied at school which he did not seek to embody or illustrate; and he had advanced beyond the range of studies in a country school when he was withdrawn by his father to assist in "doing the chores." Then having little society except his own thoughts he gradually became discontented.

One day the mail-wagon stopped at his father's gate. "A letter for Mr. French," said the carrier.

Even such a commonplace occurrence had an interest for the listless Jem and he ran to pick it up. "It didn't come very far, I guess, for here is the village postmark," said he to his mother who came to the door and extended her hand for the epistle.

"It's from aunt Elizabeth," said she, looking at the superscription.

Jem puckered his lips to a whistle, for aunt Elizabeth was not on good terms with her brother and had little intercourse with the family. What news could his aunt have to impart, thus to break her usual silence? The more he thought about it the stronger grew his curiosity. Nevertheless it remained ungratified until his father made his appearance at the supper-table and broke the seal.

If chirography gives any clew to the character of a writer, the person who penned that letter was certainly plain, hard, and angular, while the composition of the epistle indicated the author was in the habit of bluntly freeing her mind. She began by telling her brother he was shiftless, progressed by referring to the great number of mouths he had to fill, and ended by offering to take the care of one of the children off his hands, and requesting Jem should be sent to her house at the Four Corners.

"O father, do let me go," said Jem.

"Write to your aunt, and tell her to expect you next Thursday," said he, at last.

The time that intervened seemed to drag slowly to Jem, but the supreme moment finally came, and he stood at the gate with his best suit on.

"Be a good boy, and try to be useful to your aunt Elizabeth," were his mother's parting words.

"Good-by, good-by," merrily shouted Jem, and waving a farewell salute with his handkerchief he started away with a quick, elastic step that would soon bring him to his destination only two miles away.

Miss Elizabeth French lived at the old homestead. She was a maiden lady and had lived alone ever since the death of her father. Once a year she made a bargain with the man who tilled the farm on shares and occasionally asked him a few questions relative to the crops.

Further than that she had little to do with the outside world. One consequence was that her house and its surroundings showed the urgent need of a caring hand. Stones were missing from the chimney, and shingles from the roof. The frame was out of repair and there were only traces left of former coats of paint. Of the picket fence which had once bounded her possessions in front, not even a post remained. Years before, the slats had begun to decay, until the dilapidation became an eyesore to even Miss Elizabeth herself. But when the cow-boys in search of their charges that always pastured along the sides of the road, rattled their sticks over its surface, it became a nuisance she could no longer stand. So one morning after having been awakened unusually early by her noisy tormentors, she had every vestige removed, and the post-holes filled, leaving the yard as open and unprotected as the street itself.

It may have been the need of some one to help her put her outside world to rights, and her knowledge of Jem's peculiar talents, that inspired the unexpected invitation. However that might be, she stood at the window watching as Jem, red-faced and dusty from his walk, came up the path.

"So ye've come, hev ye?" said she as she let him in and relieved him of his satchel. "Ye look kind o' tuckered out. S'pose the folks must all be well, or ye wouldn't hev come. Yer father ain't doin' nothin' yet, I take it, 'cept shettin' himself up, same as ever, and leavin' his family to shift for themselves? Hungry too, ain't ye? That 'minds me."

But first she took him to a little room he was to occupy, that he might bathe his hands and face. The apartment was neat and cosey, for however slack she may have been with the outside of her mansion, Miss French was a good housekeeper. And by the time he had washed and looked over a little pile of books that lay upon the old-fashioned bureau, his aunt was calling him down to dinner.

"Well, Jem," said Miss Elizabeth, as they sat facing each other at the little table, "it seems good to see somebody a-sittin' here an' eatin' besides myself. Hope ye won't git lonesome."

"No danger of that, auntie, if you only give me something to do," was the cheerful response.

"If that's all ye want, the land knows there's enough to be done," said his aunt with a laugh.

"Well, then, what first?"

"Wal, what bothers me most jest now are them cattle walkin' round the yard. T'want only yisterday Squire Mullins'es cow hed to eat up the top of my pennyroyal geranium and trod down my eardrops and lady-slippers, and now they ain't anything left but bachelor's-buttons that's worth looking at. Ye might set somethin' alongside of the road, jest enough to keep out the critters. Don't s'pose ye could build a fence, could ye?"

"Well, aunty," said Jem, "I never did build one, but I think I could. What shall it be made of?"

"That's a question. I burned up all there was left of the old fence, for kindlin' wood. You might find somethin' out in the old workshop nex' to the barn. Father always use' to be tinkerin' around, an' there's lots of rubbish up under the roof."

"What kind of a fence would you like?"

"Oh, anything. Anything to keep out the critters. Ef ye could think of anything to git the best o' them cow-boys 'twould suit pretty well. Them boys are gettin' to be a reg'lar nuisance. They go 'long drawin' of their sticks on people's fences jist as if there was solid comfort in that eternal rattle, rattle, rattle. What makes boys think they can't never enjoy themselves unless they're a-makin' a noise? But I've had the best of them for two or three years. They had to stop in front of my place. But now the cows is gittin' to be wus than the racket, an' ef ye could think of any way to kill two birds with one stun, jest do it. I'll leave you to plan it your own way. Ye might look 'round this arternoon an' see what there is to do with."

So when dinner was over Jem began to "look 'round." In the old workshop were some sticks of timber that might serve for posts, but there were few boards and not half enough for pickets. Knowing that his aunt would be indisposed to lay out any money he looked very thoroughly through sheds and barn. In the latter place he moved a pile of rubbish in hopes of finding something beneath. The heap consisted mostly of half-inch iron rods of various sizes, and he was about to go elsewhere when he stumbled against a short piece and set it rolling to the middle of the floor. Picking it up he threw it back into the corner, where it clanged with a noise that sent a hen cackling from her nest in a remote part of the mow.

"Perhaps I could use these rods," mused he, "but then the boys could make more noise than ever and that would hardly do."

Just then his face seemed to be illuminated by an inspiration. His eyes twinkled with fun. But his reflections were interrupted by a call to supper. Tea time was occupied in the discussion of family matters and his aunt related bits of private history that kept his attention well occupied until eight o'clock, at which time Miss Elizabeth usually retired for the night. Jem was tired too, and was soon up-stairs and fast asleep.

It seemed hardly anytime at all ere Jem was in the barn again ready to begin work on the fence. He had now a clear idea regarding it and, smiling often, he worked with a will. First, he sorted the pieces of rod into piles according to length. If took some little time to accomplish this part of his task. Then, humming to himself as he worked, he would, both listening and humming as he did it, strike each piece with a stick to determine its suitability. If so, it was placed on some one of eight piles which he had labelled with brown paper as "A," "B," and so on. If not it was thrown back to the corner.

The next thing he did was to set two posts at each end of the proposed line, with fifteen others at regular intervals between. Across the tops he secured his principal rail, with another to correspond a few inches from the ground. Boring holes through these cross rails he inserted one of the iron bars, letting it project six inches at the top and resting the bottom on a stake driven into the ground directly beneath it. The next bar was shorter than the first and a longer stake had to be driven in order that the top should be on a level with the first. As he went on, the rods were inserted without any seeming regularity of spacing. Passers-by stopped to gaze at the singular construction and made various comments concerning it.



"That's a kinder queer pattern for a fence, ain't it?" queried a lad who came along. "Here's a mistake, anyhow," said he, pointing to a space between the fourteenth and fifteenth bars, which was twice as great as any interval before. "Left one out, here. Or be ye going to leave this cat hole for dogs to git through?"

"That's to make boys ask questions," was the only reply vouchsafed.

One old farmer advised him to "put all the bars of one length together. Ye'll find it a good deal easier." Jem thanked him respectfully for the advice but neglected to follow it. His aunt also came to the front door occasionally to watch his progress, but shook her head as if doubtful of either the ornament or utility of his work.

But Jem went on steadily with the undertaking until he reached the end of his line, having just enough bars to finish, as it happened, or perhaps as he had planned. At the bottom he then boarded the fence to cover the stakes and the irregularity of the iron bars, and then he announced the completion of the work to his aunt.

"'Tain't jest sech a fence as I had been thinking of, but I s'pose it'll answer, only it won't be twenty-four hours before them everlastin' boys 'll be drawin' of their sticks on it. But jest let me ketch 'em at it an' I'll—I'll"—In fact his aunt seemed more troubled than pleased with her new fence, but Jem only smiled at her apprehensions.

Our young fence-builder was up before the sun next morning, and down-stairs peeping through the front blinds. At length he hears the sound of tramping hoofs and a cow comes lazily down the road, cropping a mouthful of grass here and there. On a distant fence he hears the old familiar rattling. Will it be kept up when the new fence is reached? Ah! there is the cow-boy. He is stopping to examine the new construction. Now he is satisfied, swings the butt end of his whip against the first rod, and starts along. Jem listens eagerly. A sound fills the air as of some one playing a gigantic harp. The cow-boy stops in amazement at the effect he has produced. Recovering from his astonishment he goes a little further and again comes the sound of—a tune which seems to grow familiar to the dazed performer. Finally he starts off on a run to the very end of the fence, when the tune is finished.

At this point Jem is conscious of the presence of his aunt, craning her neck through the window for a look. "Where's the music a-playin'?" said she.

Jem, laughing, pointed to the boy who had gone back to the starting point and was about to repeat the performance.

"Here, you young rascal!" screamed Miss Elizabeth.

But the lad had started the tune again, and was not to be deterred by threats, and Miss Elizabeth stared surprised and speechless as the note vibrated with great resonance. As the air was finished the second time, the boy acted as if suddenly made crazy. He shouted, he threw his cap in the air and himself on the ground, screaming and laughing as he rolled over and over on the grass. Suddenly he scrambled to his feet and ran towards home leaving the cow to take care of herself.

"Mercy!" said Miss Elizabeth, "ef that don't beat anythin' I ever heard on! A fence that'll play a tune! A 'Yankee Doodle' fence! What ever got into your head to git up such a thing as that? You're your father's own son!"

By this time the cow-boy had returned with half a dozen companions, all as excited as himself.

Miss French was now as eager for the boys to draw their sticks on her fence as she had been unwilling before. The patriotic tune rung out again and again. The neighbors came to the scene and looked on in bewilderment.

"I knew that chap was up to sunthin'," Jem could hear the farmer say who had proffered the advice on the day previous. "He's old Joe French's boy, you know."

"You might a-known then he was smarter 'n lightnin'," said another.

"Guess I'll get him to build me a musical fence," remarked a third, "only I'll hav' 'Home, Sweet Home,' cuz that's Samanthy's favorite tune."

"He might fence in the meetin'-house with 'Old Hundred,'" suggested Deacon Mullen.

But the novelty soon wore away and Miss French began to tire of the ceaseless repetition. Besides the boys were too impatient to have their turns in playing to allow their predecessors to finish ere they commenced. To cap the climax, one boy, having concluded, turned about and ran the other way playing the tune backwards to the great disgust of both the builder and proprietoress. Miss Elizabeth rushed out.

"See here," cried she, "I guess you've played that fence long enough for one morning. Now you'd better go home. Go home, I say!"

But the boys were not to be deprived of such an amusement, and they hammered away furiously wherever they could get a chance. Unable to make any impression upon them Miss Elizabeth turned fiercely upon poor Jem and said in a voice that admitted no compromise, "Take it down, I can't abide it no longer! It's wus than the cows!" and with that she seized one of the bars, while Jem, alarmed for his marvellous fence, gave a great leap and sprang—out of bed, broad awake.