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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Stillwater Tragedy - Chapter 5
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The Stillwater Tragedy - Chapter 5 Post by :Barry_Garhammer Category :Long Stories Author :Thomas Bailey Aldrich Date :May 2012 Read :941

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The Stillwater Tragedy - Chapter 5

CHAPTER V

The humblest painter of real life, if he could have his desire, would select a picturesque background for his figures; but events have an inexorable fashion for choosing their own landscape. In the present instance it is reluctantly conceded that there are few uglier or more commonplace towns in New England than Stillwater,--a straggling, overgrown village, with whose rural aspects are curiously blended something of the grimness and squalor of certain shabby city neighborhoods. Being of comparatively recent date, the place has none of those colonial associations which, like sprigs of lavender in an old chest of drawers, are a saving grace to other quite as dreary nooks and corners.

Here and there at what is termed the West End is a neat brick mansion with garden attached, where nature asserts herself in dahlias and china-asters; but the houses are mostly frame houses that have taken a prevailing dingy tint from the breath of the tall chimneys which dominate the village. The sidewalks in the more aristocratic quarter are covered with a thin, elastic paste of asphalte, worn down to the gravel in patches, and emitting in the heat of the day an astringent, bituminous odor. The population is chiefly of the rougher sort, such as breeds in the shadow of foundries and factories, and if the Protestant pastor and the fatherly Catholic priest, whose respective lots are cast there, have sometimes the sense of being missionaries dropped in the midst of a purely savage community, the delusion is not wholly unreasonable.

The irregular heaps of scoria that have accumulated in the vicinity of the iron works give the place an illusive air of antiquity; bit it is neither ancient nor picturesque. The oldest and most pictorial thing in Stillwater is probably the marble yard, around three sides of which the village may be said to have sprouted up rankly, bearing here and there an industrial blossom in the shape of an iron-mill or a cardigan-jacket manufactory. Rowland Slocum, a man of considerable refinement, great kindness of heart, and no force, inherited the yard from his father, and a the period this narrative opens (the summer of 187-) was its sole proprietor and nominal manager, the actual manager being Richard Shackford, a prospective partner in the business and the betrothed of Mr. Slocum's daughter Margaret.

Forty years ago every tenth person in Stillwater was either a Shackford or a Slocum. Twenty years later both names were nearly extinct there. That fatality which seems to attend certain New England families had stripped every leaf but two from the Shackford branch. These were Lemuel Shackford, then about forty-six, and Richard Shackford, aged four. Lemuel Shackford had laid up a competency as ship-master in the New York and Calcutta trade, and in 1852 had returned to his native village, where he found his name and stock represented only by little Dick, a very cheerful orphan, who stared complacently with big blue eyes at fate, and made mud-pies in the lane whenever he could elude the vigilance of the kindly old woman who had taken him under her roof. This atom of humanity, by some strange miscalculation of nature, was his cousin.

The strict devotion to his personal interests which had enabled Mr. Shackford to acquire a fortune thus early caused him to look askance at a penniless young kinsman with stockings down at heel, and a straw hat three sizes too large for him set on the back of his head. But Mr. Shackford was ashamed to leave little Dick a burden upon the hands of a poor woman of no relationship whatever to the child; so little Dick was transferred to that dejected house which has already been described, and was then known as the Sloper house.

Here, for three of four years, Dick grew up, as neglected as a weed, and every inch as happy. It should be mentioned that for the first year or so a shock-headed Cicely from the town-farm had apparently been hired not to take care of him. But Dick asked nothing better than to be left to his own devices, which, moreover, were innocent enough. He would sit all day in the lane at the front gate pottering with a bit of twig or a case-knife in the soft clay. From time to time passers-by observed that the child was not making mud-pies, but tracing figures, comic or grotesque as might happen, and always quite wonderful for their lack of resemblance to anything human. That patch of reddish-brown clay was his sole resource, his slate, his drawing-book, and woe to anybody who chanced to walk over little Dick's arabesques. Patient and gentle in his acceptance of the world's rebuffs, this he would not endure. He was afraid of Mr. Shackford, yet one day, when the preoccupied man happened to trample on a newly executed hieroglyphic, the child rose to his feet white with rage, his fingers clenched, and such a blue fire flashing in the eyes that Mr. Shackford drew back aghast.

"Why, it's a little devil!"

While Shackford junior was amusing himself with his primitive bas-reliefs, Shackford senior amused himself with his lawsuits. From the hour when he returned to the town until the end of his days Mr. Shackford was up to his neck in legal difficulties. Now he resisted a betterment assessment, and fought the town; now he secured an injunction on the Miantowona Iron Works, and fought the corporation. He was understood to have a perpetual case in equity before the Marine Court in New York, to which city he made frequent and unannounced journeys. His immediate neighbors stood in terror of him. He was like a duelist, on the alert to twist the slightest thing into a _casus belli_. The law was his rapier, his recreation, and he was willing to bleed for it.

Meanwhile that fairy world of which every baby becomes a Columbus so soon as it is able to walk remained an undiscovered continent to little Dick. Grim life looked in upon him as he lay in the cradle. The common joys of childhood were a sealed volume to him. A single incident of those years lights up the whole situation. A vague rumor had been blown to Dick of a practice of hanging up stockings at Christmas. It struck his materialistic mind as a rather senseless thing to do; but nevertheless he resolved to try it one Christmas Eve. He lay awake a long while in the frosty darkness, skeptically waiting for something remarkable to happen; once he crawled out of the cot-bed and groped his way to the chimney place. The next morning he was scarcely disappointed at finding nothing in the piteous little stocking, except the original holes.

The years that stole silently over the heads of the old man and the young child in Welch's Court brought a period of wild prosperity to Stillwater. The breath of war blew the forges to a white heat, and the baffling problem of the mediaeval alchemists was solved. The baser metals were transmuted into gold. A disastrous, prosperous time, with the air rent periodically by the cries of newsboys as battles were fought, and by the roll of the drum in the busy streets as fresh recruits were wanted. Glory and death to the Southward, and at the North pale women in black.

All which interested Dick mighty little. After he had learned to read at the district school, he escaped into another world. Two lights were now generally seen burning of a night in the Shackford house: one on the ground-floor where Mr. Shackford sat mouthing his contracts and mortgages, and weaving his webs like a great, lean, gray spider; and the other in the north gable, where Dick hung over a tattered copy of Robinson Crusoe by the flicker of the candle-ends which he had captured during the day.

Little Dick was little Dick no more: a tall, heavily built blond boy, with a quiet, sweet disposition, that at first offered temptations to the despots of the playground; but a sudden flaring up once or twice of that unexpected spirit which had broken out in his babyhood brought him immunity from serious persecution.

The boy's home life at this time would have seemed pathetic to an observer,--the more pathetic, perhaps, in that Dick himself was not aware of its exceptional barrenness. The holidays that bring new brightness to the eyes of happier children were to him simply days when he did not go to school, and was expected to provide an extra quantity of kindling wood. He was housed, and fed, and clothed, after a fashion, but not loved. Mr. Shackford did not ill-treat the lad, in the sense of beating him; he merely neglected him. Every year the man became more absorbed in his law cases and his money, which accumulated magically. He dwelt in a cloud of calculations. Though all his interests attached him to the material world, his dry, attenuated body seemed scarcely a part of it.

"Shackford, what are you going to do with that scapegrace of yours?"

It was Mr. Leonard Tappleton who ventured the question. Few persons dared to interrogate Mr. Shackford on his private affairs.

"I am going to make a lawyer of him," said Mr. Shackford, crackling his finger-joints like stiff parchment.

"You couldn't do better. You _ought to have an attorney in the family."

"Just so," assented Mr. Shackford, dryly. "I could throw a bit of business in his way now and then,--eh?"

"You could make his fortune, Shackford. I don't see but you might employ him all the time. When he was not fighting the corporations, you might keep him at it suing you for his fees."

"Very good, very good indeed," responded Mr. Shackford, with a smile in which his eyes took no share, it was merely a momentary curling up of crisp wrinkles. He did not usually smile at other people's pleasantries; but when a person worth three or four hundred thousand dollars condescends to indulge a joke, it is not to be passed over like that of a poor relation. "Yes, yes," muttered the old man, as he stooped and picked up a pin, adding it to a row of similarly acquired pins which gave the left lapel of his threadbare coat the appearance of a miniature harp, "I shall make a lawyer of him."

It had long been settled in Mr. Shackford's mind that Richard, so soon as he had finished his studies, should enter the law-office of Blandmann & Sharpe, a firm of rather sinister reputation in South Millville.

At fourteen Richard's eyes had begun to open on the situation; at fifteen he saw very clearly; and one day, without much preliminary formulating of his plan, he decided on a step that had been taken by every male Shackford as far back as tradition preserves the record of his family.

A friendship had sprung up between Richard and one William Durgin, a school-mate. This Durgin was a sallow, brooding boy, a year older than himself. The two lads were antipodal in disposition, intelligence, and social standing; for though Richard went poorly clad, the reflection of his cousin's wealth gilded him. Durgin was the son of a washerwoman. An intimacy between the two would perhaps have been unlikely but for one fact: it was Durgin's mother who had given little Dick a shelter at the period of his parents' death. Though the circumstance did not lie within the pale of Richard's personal memory, he acknowledged the debt by rather insisting on Durgin's friendship. It was William Durgin, therefore, who was elected to wait upon Mr. Shackford on a certain morning which found that gentleman greatly disturbed by an unprecedented occurrence,--Richard had slept out of the house the previous night.

Durgin was the bearer of a note which Mr. Shackford received in some astonishment, and read deliberately, blinking with weak eyes behind the glasses. Having torn off the blank page and laid it aside for his own more economical correspondence (the rascal had actually used a whole sheet to write ten words!), Mr. Shackford turned, and with the absorbed air of a naturalist studying some abnormal bug gazed over the steel bow of his spectacles at Durgin.

"Skit!"

Durgin hastily retreated.

"There's a poor lawyer saved," muttered the old man, taking down his overcoat from a peg behind the door, and snapping off a shred of lint on the collar with his lean forefinger. Then his face relaxed, and an odd grin diffused a kind of wintry glow over it.

Richard had run away to sea.

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