THE VILLAGE PRIZE

By Joseph Ingraham

In one of the loveliest villages of old Virginia there lived, in the year 175– and odd, an old man, whose daughter was declared, by universal consent, to be the loveliest maiden in all the country round. The veteran, in his youth, had been athletic and muscular above all his fellows; and his breast, where he always wore them, could show the adornment of three medals, received for his victories in gymnastic feats when a young man. His daughter was now eighteen, and had been sought in marriage by many suitors. One brought wealth—another, a fine person—another, industry—another, military talents—another this, and another that. But they were all refused by the old man, who became at last a by-word for his obstinacy among the young men of the village and neighborhood. At length, the nineteenth birthday of Annette, his charming daughter, who was as amiable and modest as she was beautiful, arrived. The morning of that day, her father invited all the youth of the country to a hay-making frolic. Seventeen handsome and industrious young men assembled. They came not only to make hay, but also to make love to the fair Annette. In three hours they had filled the father's barns with the newly dried grass, and their own hearts with love. Annette, by her father's command, had brought them malt liquor of her own brewing, which she presented to each enamored swain with her own fair hands.

"Now my boys," said the old keeper of the jewel they all coveted, as leaning on their pitch-forks they assembled around his door in the cool of the evening—"Now my lads, you have nearly all of you made proposals for my Annette. Now you see, I don't care any thing about money nor talents, book larning nor soldier larning—I can do as well by my gal as any man in the county. But I want her to marry a man of my own grit. Now, you know, or ought to know, when I was a youngster, I could beat any thing in all Virginny in the way o' leaping. I got my old woman by beating the smartest man on the Eastern Shore, and I have took the oath and sworn it, that no man shall marry my daughter without jumping for it. You understand me boys. There's the green, and here's Annette," he added, taking his daughter, who stood timidly behind him, by the hand, "Now the one that jumps the furthest on a 'dead level,' shall marry Annette this very night."

This unique address was received by the young men with applause. And many a youth as he bounded gaily forward to the arena of trial, cast a glance of anticipated victory back upon the lovely object of village chivalry. The maidens left their looms and quilting frames, the children their noisy sports, the slaves their labors, and the old men their arm-chairs and long pipes, to witness and triumph in the success of the victor. All prophesied and many wished that it would be young Carroll. He was the handsomest and best-humored youth in the county, and all knew that a strong and mutual attachment existed between him and the fair Annette. Carroll had won the reputation of being the "best leaper," and in a country where such athletic achievements were the sine qua non of a man's cleverness, this was no ordinary honor. In a contest like the present, he had therefore every advantage over his fellow athletæ.

The arena allotted for this hymeneal contest, was a level space in front of the village-inn, and near the centre of a grass-plat, reserved in the midst of the village denominated "the green." The verdure was quite worn off at this place by previous exercises of a similar kind, and a hard surface of sand more befittingly for the purpose to which it was to be used, supplied its place.

The father of the lovely, blushing, and withal happy prize, (for she well knew who would win,) with three other patriarchal villagers were the judges appointed to decide upon the claims of the several competitors. The last time Carroll tried his skill in this exercise, he "cleared"—to use the leaper's phraseology—twenty-one feet and one inch.

The signal was given, and by lot the young men stepped into the arena.

"Edward Grayson, seventeen feet," cried one of the judges. The youth had done his utmost. He was a pale, intellectual student. But what had intellect to do in such an arena? Without looking at the maiden he slowly left the ground.

"Dick Boulden, nineteen feet." Dick with a laugh turned away, and replaced his coat.

"Harry Preston, nineteen feet and three inches." "Well done Harry Preston," shouted the spectators, "you have tried hard for the acres and homestead."

Harry also laughed and swore he only "jumped for the fun of the thing." Harry was a rattle-brained fellow, but never thought of matrimony. He loved to walk and talk, and laugh and romp with Annette, but sober marriage never came into his head. He only jumped "for the fun of the thing." He would not have said so, if sure of winning.

"Charley Simms, fifteen feet and a half." "Hurrah for Charley! Charley'll win!" cried the crowd good-humoredly. Charley Simms was the cleverest fellow in the world. His mother had advised him to stay at home, and told him if he ever won a wife, she would fall in love with his good temper, rather than his legs. Charley however made the trial of the latter's capabilities and lost. Many refused to enter the lists altogether. Others made the trial, and only one of the leapers had yet cleared twenty feet.

"Now," cried the villagers, "let's see Henry Carroll. He ought to beat this," and every one appeared, as they called to mind the mutual love of the last competitor and the sweet Annette, as if they heartily wished his success.

Henry stepped to his post with a firm tread. His eye glanced with confidence around upon the villagers and rested, before he bounded forward, upon the face of Annette, as if to catch therefrom that spirit and assurance which the occasion called for. Returning the encouraging glance with which she met his own, with a proud smile upon his lip, he bounded forward.

"Twenty-one feet and a half!" shouted the multitude, repeating the announcement of one of the judges, "twenty-one feet and a half. Harry Carroll forever. Annette and Harry." Hands, caps, and kerchiefs waved over the heads of the spectators, and the eyes of the delighted Annette sparkled with joy.

When Harry Carroll moved to his station to strive for the prize, a tall, gentlemanly young man in a military undress frock-coat, who had rode up to the inn, dismounted and joined the spectators, unperceived, while the contest was going on, stepped suddenly forward, and with a "knowing eye," measured deliberately the space accomplished by the last leaper. He was a stranger in the village. His handsome face and easy address attracted the eyes of the village maidens, and his manly and sinewy frame, in which symmetry and strength were happily united, called forth the admiration of the young men.

"Mayhap, sir stranger, you think you can beat that," said one of the by-standers, remarking the manner in which the eye of the stranger scanned the area. "If you can leap beyond Harry Carroll, you'll beat the best man in the colonies." The truth of this observation was assented to by a general murmur.

"Is it for mere amusement you are pursuing this pastime?" inquired the youthful stranger, "or is there a prize for the winner?"

"Annette, the loveliest and wealthiest of our village-maidens, is to be the reward of the victor," cried one of the judges.

"Are the lists open to all?"

"All, young sir!" replied the father of Annette, with interest,—his youthful ardour rising as he surveyed the proportions of the straight-limbed young stranger. "She is the bride of him who out-leaps Henry Carroll. If you will try, you are free to do so. But let me tell you, Harry Carroll has no rival in Virginny. Here is my daughter, sir, look at her and make your trial."

The young officer glanced upon the trembling maiden about to be offered on the altar of her father's unconquerable monomania, with an admiring eye. The poor girl looked at Harry, who stood near with a troubled brow and angry eye, and then cast upon the new competitor an imploring glance.

Placing his coat in the hands of one of the judges, he drew a sash he wore beneath it tighter around his waist, and taking the appointed stand, made, apparently without effort, the bound that was to decide the happiness or misery of Henry and Annette.

"Twenty two feet one inch!" shouted the judge. The announcement was repeated with surprise by the spectators, who crowded around the victor, filling the air with congratulations, not unmingled, however, with loud murmurs from those who were more nearly interested in the happiness of the lovers.

The old man approached, and grasping his hand exultingly, called him his son, and said he felt prouder of him than if he were a prince. Physical activity and strength were the old leaper's true patents of nobility.

Resuming his coat, the victor sought with his eye the fair prize he had, although nameless and unknown, so fairly won. She leaned upon her father's arm, pale and distressed.

Her lover stood aloof, gloomy and mortified, admiring the superiority of the stranger in an exercise in which he prided himself as unrivalled, while he hated him for his success.

"Annette, my pretty prize," said the victor, taking her passive hand—"I have won you fairly." Annette's cheek became paler than marble; she trembled like an aspen-leaf, and clung closer to her father, while her drooping eye sought the form of her lover. His brow grew dark at the stranger's language.

"I have won you, my pretty flower, to make you a bride!—tremble not so violently—I mean not for myself, however proud I might be," he added with gallantry, "to wear so fair a gem next my heart. Perhaps," and he cast his eyes around inquiringly, while the current of life leaped joyfully to her brow, and a murmur of surprise run through the crowd—"perhaps there is some favored youth among the competitors, who has a higher claim to this jewel. Young Sir," he continued, turning to the surprised Henry, "methinks you were victor in the lists before me,—I strove not for the maiden, though one could not well strive for a fairer—but from love for the manly sport in which I saw you engaged. You are the victor, and as such, with the permission of this worthy assembly, receive from my hands the prize you have so well and honorably won."

The youth sprung forward and grasped his hand with gratitude; and the next moment, Annette was weeping from pure joy upon his shoulders. The welkin rung with the acclamations of the delighted villagers, and amid the temporary excitement produced by this act, the stranger withdrew from the crowd, mounted his horse, and spurred at a brisk trot through the village.

That night, Henry and Annette were married, and the health of the mysterious and noble-hearted stranger, was drunk in over-flowing bumpers of rustic beverage.

In process of time, there were born unto the married pair, sons and daughters, and Harry Carroll had become Colonel Henry Carroll, of the Revolutionary army.

One evening, having just returned home after a hard campaign, he was sitting with his family on the gallery of his handsome country-house, when an advance courier rode up and announced the approach of General Washington and suite, informing him that he should crave his hospitality for the night. The necessary directions were given in reference to the household preparations, and Col. Carroll, ordering his horse, rode forward to meet and escort to his house the distinguished guest, whom he had never yet seen, although serving in the same widely-extended army.

That evening at the table, Annette, now become the dignified, matronly and still handsome Mrs. Carroll, could not keep her eyes from the face of her illustrious visitor. Every moment or two she would steal a glance at his commanding features, and half-doubtingly, half-assumedly, shake her head and look again and again, to be still more puzzled. Her absence of mind and embarrassment at length became evident to her husband who, inquired affectionately if she were ill?

"I suspect, Colonel," said the General, who had been some time, with a quiet, meaning smile, observing the lady's curious and puzzled survey of his features—"that Mrs. Carroll thinks she recognizes in me an old acquaintance." And he smiled with a mysterious air, as he gazed upon both alternately.

The Colonel stared, and a faint memory of the past seemed to be revived, as he gazed, while the lady rose impulsively from her chair, and bending eagerly forward over the tea-urn, with clasped hands and an eye of intense, eager inquiry, fixed full upon him, stood for a moment with her lips parted as if she would speak.

"Pardon me, my dear madam—pardon me, Colonel, I must put an end to this scene. I have become, by dint of camp-fare and hard usage, too unwieldy to leap again twenty-two feet one inch, even for so fair a bride as one I wot of."

The recognition, with the surprise, delight and happiness that followed, are left to the imagination of the reader.

General Washington was indeed the handsome young "leaper," whose mysterious appearance and disappearance in the native village of the lovers, is still traditionary, and whose claim to a substantial body of bona fide flesh and blood, was stoutly contested by the village story-tellers, until the happy denouement which took place at the hospitable mansion of Col. Carroll.