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
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
"O father, do let me go," said Jem.
"Write to your aunt, and tell her to expect you next Thursday," said he,
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
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
"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
"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
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.
THE NEIGHBORS LOOKED ON IN BEWILDERMENT.
"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
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
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
"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
"He might fence in the meetin'-house with 'Old Hundred,'" suggested
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.