The Village Watch Tower

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Author: Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin

The Eventful Trip of the Midnight Cry.

In the little villages along the Saco River, in the year 1850 or thereabouts, the arrival and departure of the stage-coach was the one exciting incident of the day. It did not run on schedule time in those days, but started from Limington or Saco, as the case might be, at about or somewhere near a certain hour, and arrived at the other end of the route whenever it got there. There were no trains to meet (the railway popularly known as the "York and Yank’em" was not built till 1862); the roads were occasionally good and generally bad; and thus it was often dusk, and sometimes late in the evening, when the lumbering vehicle neared its final destination and drew up to the little post-offices along the way. However late it might be, the village postmaster had to be on hand to receive and open the mailbags; after which he distributed the newspapers and letters in a primitive set of pine pigeon-holes on the wall, turned out the loafers, "banked up" the fire, and went home to bed.

"Life" Lane was a jolly good fellow,—just the man to sit on the box seat and drive the three horses through ruts and "thank-you-ma’ams," slush and mud and snow. There was a perennial twinkle in his eye, his ruddy cheeks were wrinkled with laughter, and he had a good story forever on the tip of his tongue. He stood six feet two in his stockings (his mother used to say she had the longest Life of any woman in the State o’ Maine); his shoulders were broad in proportion, and his lungs just the sort to fill amply his noble chest. Therefore, when he had what was called in the vernacular "turrible bad goin’," and when any other stage-driver in York County would have shrunk into his muffler and snapped and snarled on the slightest provocation, Life Lane opened his great throat when he passed over the bridges at Moderation or Bonny Eagle, and sent forth a golden, sonorous "Yo ho! halloo!" into the still air. The later it was and the stormier it was, the more vigor he put into the note, and it was a drowsy postmaster indeed who did not start from his bench by the fire at the sound of that ringing halloo. Thus the old stage-coach, in Life Lane’s time, was generally called "The Midnight Cry," and not such a bad name either, whether the term was derisively applied because the stage was always late; or whether Life’s "Yo ho!" had caught the popular fancy.

There was a pretty girl in Pleasant River (and, alas! another in Bonny Eagle) who went to bed every night with the chickens, but stayed awake till she heard first the rumble of heavy wheels on a bridge, then a faint, bell-like tone that might have come out of the mouth of a silver horn; whereupon she blushed as if it were an offer of marriage, and turned over and went to sleep.

If the stage arrived in good season, Life would have a few minutes to sit on the loafers’ beach beside the big open fire; and what a feature he was, with his tales culled from all sorts of passengers, who were never so fluent as when sitting beside him "up in front!" There was a tallow dip or two, and no other light save that of the fire. Who that ever told a story could wish a more inspiring auditor than Jacob Bean, a literal, honest old fellow who took the most vital interest in every detail of the stories told, looking upon their heroes and their villains as personal friends or foes. He always sat in one corner of the fireplace, poker in hand, and the crowd tacitly allowed him the role of Greek chorus. Indeed, nobody could have told a story properly without Jake Bean’s parentheses and punctuation marks poked in at exciting junctures.

"That ’s so every time!" he would say, with a lunge at the forestick. "I’ll bate he was glad then!" with another stick flung on in just the right spot. "Golly! but that served ’em right!" with a thrust at the backlog.

The New England story seemed to flourish under these conditions: a couple of good hard benches in a store or tavern, where you could not only smoke and chew but could keep on your hat (there was not a man in York County in those days who could say anything worth hearing with his hat off); the blazing logs to poke; and a cavernous fireplace into which tobacco juice could be neatly and judiciously directed. Those were good old times, and the stage-coach was a mighty thing when school children were taught to take off their hats and make a bow as the United States mail passed the old stage tavern.

Life Lane’s coaching days were over long before this story begins, but the Midnight Cry was still in pretty fair condition, and was driven ostensibly by Jeremiah Todd, who lived on the "back-nippin’" road from Bonny Eagle to Limington.

When I say ostensibly driven, I but follow the lead of the villagers, who declared that, though Jerry held the reins, Mrs. Todd drove the stage, as she drove everything else. As a proof of this lady’s strong individuality, she was still generally spoken of as "the Widder Bixby," though she had been six years wedded to Jeremiah Todd. The Widder Bixby, then, was strong, self-reliant, valiant, indomitable. Jerry Todd was, to use his wife’s own characterization, so soft you could stick a cat’s tail into him without ruffling the fur. He was always alluded to as "the Widder Bixby’s husband;" but that was no new or special mortification, for he had been known successively as Mrs. Todd’s youngest baby, the Widder Todd’s only son, Susan Todd’s brother, and, when Susan Todd’s oldest boy fought at Chapultepec, William Peck’s uncle.

The Widder Bixby’s record was far different. She was the mildest of the four Stover sisters of Scarboro, and the quartette was supposed to have furnished more kinds of temper than had ever before come from one household. When Peace, the eldest, was mad, she frequently kicked the churn out of the kitchen door, cream and all,—and that lost her a husband.

Love, the second, married, and according to local tradition once kicked her husband all the way up Foolscap Hill with a dried cod-fish. Charity, the third, married too, — for the Stovers of Scarboro were handsome girls, but she got a fit mate in her spouse. She failed to intimidate him, for he was a foeman worthy of her steel; but she left his bed and board, and left in a manner that kept up the credit of the Stover family of Scarboro.

They had had a stormy breakfast one morning before he started to Portland with a load of hay. "Good-by," she called, as she stood in the door, "you’ve seen the last of me!" "No such luck!" he said, and whipped up his horse. Charity baked a great pile of biscuits, and left them on the kitchen table with a pitcher of skimmed milk. (She wouldn’t give him anything to complain of, not she!) She then put a few clothes in a bundle, and, tying on her shaker, prepared to walk to Pleasant River, twelve miles distant. As she locked the door and put the key in its accustomed place under the mat, a pleasant young man drove up and explained that he was the advance agent of the Sypher’s Two-in-One Menagerie and Circus, soon to appear in that vicinity. He added that he should be glad to give her five tickets to the entertainment if she would allow him to paste a few handsome posters on that side of her barn next the road; that their removal was attended with trifling difficulty, owing to the nature of a very superior paste invented by himself; that any small boy, in fact, could tear them off in an hour, and be well paid by the gift of a ticket.

The devil entered into Charity (not by any means for the first time), and she told the man composedly that if he would give her ten tickets he might paper over the cottage as well as the barn, for they were going to tear it down shortly and build a larger one. The advance agent was delighted, and they passed a pleasant hour together; Charity holding the paste-pot, while the talkative gentleman glued six lions and an elephant on the roof, a fat lady on the front door, a tattooed man between the windows, living skeletons on the blinds, and ladies insufficiently clothed in all the vacant spaces and on the chimneys. Nobody went by during the operation, and the agent remarked, as he unhitched his horse, that he had never done a neater job. "Why, they’ll come as far to see your house as they will to the circus!" he exclaimed.

"I calculate they will," said Charity, as she latched the gate and started for Pleasant River.

I am not telling Charity Stover’s story, so I will only add that the bill-poster was mistaken in the nature of his paste, and greatly undervalued its adhesive properties.

The temper of Prudence, the youngest sister, now Mrs. Todd, paled into insignificance beside that of the others, but it was a very pretty thing in tempers nevertheless, and would have been thought remarkable in any other family in Scarboro.

You may have noted the fact that it is a person’s virtues as often as his vices that make him difficult to live with. Mrs. Todd’s masterfulness and even her jealousy might have been endured, by the aid of fasting and prayer, but her neatness, her economy, and her forehandedness made a combination that only the grace of God could have abided with comfortably, so that Jerry Todd’s comparative success is a matter of local tradition. Punctuality is a praiseworthy virtue enough, but as the years went on, Mrs. Todd blew her breakfast horn at so early an hour that the neighbors were in some doubt as to whether it might not herald the supper of the day before. They also predicted that she would have her funeral before she was fairly dead, and related with great gusto that when she heard there was to be an eclipse of the sun on Monday, the 26th of July, she wished they could have it the 25th, as Sunday would be so much more convenient than wash-day.

She had oilcloth on her kitchen to save the floor, and oilcloth mats to save the oilcloth; yet Jerry’s boots had to be taken off in the shed, and he was required to walk through in his stocking feet. She blackened her stove three times a day, washed her dishes in the woodhouse, in order to keep her sink clean, and kept one pair of blinds open in the sitting-room, but spread newspapers over the carpet wherever the sun shone in.

It was the desire of Jerry’s heart to give up the fatigues and exposures of stage-driving, and "keep store," but Mrs. Todd deemed it much better for him to be in the open air than dealing out rum and molasses to a roystering crew. This being her view of the case, it is unnecessary to state that he went on driving the stage.

"Do you wear a flannel shirt, Jerry?" asked Pel Frost once. "I don’ know," he replied, "ask Mis’ Todd; she keeps the books."

"Women-folks" (he used to say to a casual passenger), "like all other animiles, has to be trained up before they’re real good comp’ny. You have to begin with ’em early, and begin as you mean to hold out. When they once git in the habit of takin’ the bit in their teeth and runnin’, it’s too late for you to hold ’em in."

It was only to strangers that he aired his convictions on the training of "womenfolks," though for that matter he might safely have done it even at home; for everybody in Limington knew that it would always have been too late to begin with the Widder Bixby, since, like all the Stovers of Scarboro, she had been born with the bit in her teeth. Jerry had never done anything he wanted to since he had married her, and he hadn’t really wanted to do that. He had been rather candid with her on this point (as candid as a tender-hearted and obliging man can be with a woman who is determined to marry him, and has two good reasons why she should to every one of his why he shouldn’t), and this may have been the reason for her jealousy. Although by her superior force she had overborne his visible reluctance, she, being a woman, or at all events of the female gender, could never quite forget that she had done the wooing.

Certainly his charms were not of the sort to tempt women from the strict and narrow path, yet the fact remained that the Widder Bixby was jealous, and more than one person in Limington was aware of it.

Pelatiah, otherwise "Pel" Frost, knew more about the matter than most other folks, because he had unlimited time to devote to general culture. Though not yet thirty years old, he was the laziest man in York County. (Jabe Slocum had not then established his record; and Jot Bascom had ruined his by cutting his hay before it was dead in the summer of ’49, always alluded to afterwards in Pleasant River as the year when gold was discovered and Jot Bascom cut his hay.)

Pel was a general favorite in half a dozen villages, where he was the life of the loafers’ bench. An energetic loafer can attend properly to one bench, but it takes genius as well as assiduity to do justice to six of them. His habits were decidedly convivial, and he spent a good deal of time at the general musters, drinking and carousing with the other ne’er-do-weels. You may be sure he was no favorite of Mrs. Todd’s; and she represented to him all that is most undesirable in womankind, his taste running decidedly to rosy, smiling, easy-going ones who had no regular hours for meals, but could have a dinner on the table any time in fifteen minutes after you got there.

Now, a certain lady with a noticeable green frock and a white "drawn-in" cape bonnet had graced the Midnight Cry on its journey from Limington to Saco on three occasions during the month of July. Report said that she was a stranger who had appeared at the post-office in a wagon driven by a small, freckled boy.

The first trip passed without comment; the second provoked some discussion; on the occasion of the third, Mrs. Todd said nothing, because there seemed nothing to say, but she felt so out-of-sorts that she cut Jerry’s hair close to his head, though he particularly fancied the thin fringe of curls at the nape of his neck.

Pel Frost went over to Todd’s one morning to borrow an axe, and seized a favorable opportunity to ask casually, "Oh, Mis’ Todd, did Jerry find out the name o’ that woman in a green dress and white bunnit that rid to Saco with him last week?"

"Mr. Todd’s got something better to do than get acquainted with his lady passengers," snapped Mrs. Todd, "’specially as they always ride inside."

"I know they gen’ally do," said Pel, shouldering the axe (it was for his mother’s use), but this one rides up in front part o’ the way, so I thought mebbe Jerry ’d find out something ’bout her. She’s han’some as a picture, but she must have a good strong back to make the trip down ’n’ up in one day."

Nothing could have been more effective or more effectual than this blow dealt with consummate skill. Having thus driven the iron into Mrs. Todd’s soul, Pel entertained his mother with an account of the interview while she chopped the kindling-wood. He had no special end in view when, Iago-like, he dropped his first poisoned seed in Mrs. Todd’s fertile mind, or, at most, nothing worse than the hope that matters might reach an unendurable point, and Jerry might strike for his altars and his fires. Jerry was a man and a brother, and petticoat government must be discouraged whenever and wherever possible, or the world would soon cease to be a safe place to live in. Pel’s idea grew upon him in the night watches, and the next morning he searched his mother’s garret till he found a green dress and a white bonnet. Putting them in a basket, he walked out on the road a little distance till he met the stage, when, finding no passengers inside, he asked Jerry to let him jump in and "ride a piece." Once within, he hastily donned the green wrapper and tell-tale headgear, and, when the Midnight Cry rattled down the stony hill past the Todd house, Pel took good care to expose a large green sleeve and the side of a white bonnet at the stage window. It was easy enough to cram the things back into the basket, jump out, and call a cordial thank you to the unsuspecting Jerry. He was rewarded for his ingenuity and enterprise at night, when he returned Mrs. Todd’s axe, for just as he reached the back door he distinctly heard her say that if she saw that green woman on the stage again, she would knock her off with a broomstick as sure as she was a Stover of Scarboro. As a matter of fact she was equal to it. Her great-grandmother had been born on a soil where the broomstick is a prominent factor in settling connubial differences; and if it occurred to her at this juncture, it is a satisfactory proof of the theory of atavism.

Pel intended to see this domestic tragedy through to the end, and accordingly took another brief trip in costume the very next week, hoping to be the witness of a scene of blood and carnage. But Mrs. Todd did not stir from her house, although he was confident she had seen "my lady green-sleeves" from her post at the window. Puzzled by her apathy, and much disappointed in her temper, he took off the dress, and, climbing up in front, rode to Moderation, where he received an urgent invitation to go over to the county fair at Gorham. The last idea was always the most captivating to Pel, and he departed serenely for a stay of several days without so much luggage as a hairbrush. His mother’s best clothespin basket, to say nothing of its contents, appeared at this juncture to be an unexpected incumbrance; so on the spur of the moment he handed it up to Jerry just as the stage was starting, saying, "If Mis’ Todd has a brash to-night, you can clear yourself by showing her this basket, but for massy sakes don’t lay it on to me! You can stan’ it better’n I can,—you ’re more used to it!"

Jerry took the basket, and when he was well out on the road he looked inside and saw a bright green calico wrapper, a white cape bonnet, a white "fall veil," and a pair of white cotton gloves. He had ample time for reflection, for it was a hot day, and though he drove slowly, the horses were sweating at every pore. Pel Frost, then, must have overheard his wife’s storm of reproaches, perhaps even her threats of violence. It had come to this, that he was the village laughing-stock, a butt of ridicule at the store and tavern.

Now, two years before this, Jerry Todd had for the first and only time in his married life "put his foot down." Mrs. Todd had insisted on making him a suit of clothes much against his wishes. When finished she put them on him almost by main force, though his plaintive appeals would have melted any but a Stover-of-Scarboro heart. The stuff was a large plaid, the elbows and knees came in the wrong places, the seat was lined with enameled cloth, and the sleeves cut him in the armholes.

Mr. Todd said nothing for a moment, but the pent-up slavery of years stirred in him, and, mounting to his brain, gave him a momentary courage that resembled intoxication. He retired, took off the suit, hung it over his arm, and, stalking into the sitting-room in his undergarments, laid it on the table before his astonished spouse, and, thumping it dramatically, said firmly, "I—will—not—wear—them—clo’es!" whereupon he fell into silence again and went to bed.

The joke of the matter was, that, all unknown to himself, he had absolutely frightened Mrs. Todd. If only he could have realized the impressiveness and the thorough success of his first rebellion! But if he had realized it he could not have repeated it often, for so much virtue went out of him on that occasion that he felt hardly able to drive the stage for days afterward.

"I shall have to put down my foot agin," he said to himself on the eventful morning when Pel presented him with the basket. "Dern my luck, I’ve got to do it agin, when I ain’t hardly got over the other time." So, after an hour’s plotting and planning, he made some purchases in Biddeford and started on his return trip. He was very low in his mind, thinking, if his wife really meditated upon warfare, she was likely to inspect the stage that night, but giving her credit in his inmost heart for too much common sense to use a broomstick,—a woman with her tongue!

The Midnight Cry rattled on lumberingly. Its route had been shortened, and Mrs. Todd wanted its name changed to something less outlandish, such as the Rising Sun, or the Breaking Dawn, or the High Noon, but her idea met with no votaries; it had been, was, and ever should be, the Midnight Cry, no matter what time it set out or got back. It had seen its best days, Jerry thought, and so had he, for that matter. Yet he had been called "a likely feller" when he married the Widder Bixby, or rather when she married him. Well, the mischief was done; all that remained was to save a remnant of his self-respect, and make an occasional dash for liberty.

He did all his errands with his usual care, dropping a blue ribbon for Doxy Morton’s Sunday hat, four cents’ worth of gum-camphor for Almira Berry, a spool of cotton for Mrs. Wentworth, and a pair of "galluses" for Living Bean. He finally turned into the "back-nippin’" road from Bonny Eagle to Limington, and when he was within forty rods of his own house he stopped to water his horses. If he feared a scene he had good reason, for as the horses climbed the crest of the long hill the lady in green was by his side on the box. He looked anxiously ahead, and there, in a hedge of young alder bushes, he saw something stirring, and, unless he was greatly mistaken, a birch broom lay on the ground near the hedge.

Notwithstanding these danger signals, Jerry’s arm encircled the plump waist of the lady in green, and, emboldened by the shades of twilight, his lips sought the identical spot under the white "fall veil" where her incendiary mouth might be supposed to lurk, quite "fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils." This done, he put on the brake and headed his horses toward the fence. He was none too soon, for the Widder Bixby, broom in hand, darted out from the alders and approached the stage with objurgations which, had she rated them at their proper value, needed no supplement in the way of blows. Jerry gave one terror-stricken look, wound his reins round the whipstock, and, leaping from his seat, disappeared behind a convenient tree.

At this moment of blind rage Mrs. Todd would have preferred to chastise both her victims at once; but, being robbed of one by Jerry’s cowardly flight, her weapon descended upon the other with double force. There was no lack of courage here at least. Whether the lady in green was borne up by the consciousness of virtue, whether she was too proud to retreat, or whatever may have been her animating reason, the blow fell, yet she stood her ground and gave no answering shriek. Enraged as much by her rival’s cool resistance as by her own sense of injury, the Widder Bixby aimed full at the bonnet beneath which were the charms that had befuddled Jerry Todd’s brain. To blast the fatal beauty that had captivated her wedded husband was the Widder Bixby’s idea, and the broom descended. A shower of seeds and pulp, a copious spattering of pumpkin juice, and the lady in green fell resistlessly into her assailant’s arms; her straw body, her wooden arms and pumpkin head, decorating the earth at her feet! Mrs. Todd stared helplessly at the wreck she had made, not altogether comprehending the ruse that had led to her discomfiture, but fully conscious that her empire was shaken to its foundations. She glanced in every direction, and then hurling the hateful green-and-white livery into the stage, she gathered up all traces of the shameful fray, and sweeping them into her gingham apron ran into the house in a storm of tears and baffled rage.

Jerry stayed behind the tree for some minutes, and when the coast was clear he mounted the seat and drove to the store and the stable. When he had put up his horses he went into the shed, took off his boots as usual, but, despite all his philosophy, broke into a cold sweat of terror as he crossed the kitchen threshold. "I can’t stand many more of these times when I put my foot down," he thought, "they’re too weakening!"

But he need not have feared. There was a good supper under the mosquito netting on the table, and, most unusual luxury, a pot of hot tea. Mrs. Todd had gone to bed and left him a pot of tea!

Which was the more eloquent apology!

Jerry never referred to the lady in green, then or afterwards; he was willing to let well enough alone; but whenever his spouse passed a certain line, which, being a Stover of Scarboro, she was likely to do about once in six months, he had only to summon his recreant courage and glance meaningly behind the kitchen door, where the birch broom hung on a nail. It was a simple remedy to outward appearances, but made his declining years more comfortable. I can hardly believe that he ever took Pel Frost into his confidence, but Pel certainly was never more interesting to the loafers’ bench than when he told the story of the eventful trip of the Midnight Cry and "the breaking in of the Widder Bixby."

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Chicago: Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin, "The Eventful Trip of the Midnight Cry.," The Village Watch Tower, ed. Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937 and trans. Townsend, R.S. in The Village Watch Tower (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1916), Original Sources, accessed April 25, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D13S8A7VYT3161L.

MLA: Wiggin, Kate Douglas Smith. "The Eventful Trip of the Midnight Cry." The Village Watch Tower, edited by Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937, and translated by Townsend, R.S., in The Village Watch Tower, Vol. 22, New York, A. L. Burt Company, 1916, Original Sources. 25 Apr. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D13S8A7VYT3161L.

Harvard: Wiggin, KD, 'The Eventful Trip of the Midnight Cry.' in The Village Watch Tower, ed. and trans. . cited in 1916, The Village Watch Tower, A. L. Burt Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 25 April 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D13S8A7VYT3161L.