Chapter XXIII. A Bonfire and a Feast

It amused and interested me to see upon the children's faces such an eager expectancy as they hurried through our midday meal. Nothing greater than a bonfire was in prospect, yet few costly pleasures could have afforded them such excitement. I found myself sharing in their anticipation to a degree that surprised me, and was led to ask myself why it is that outdoor pursuits often take so strong a hold upon the fancy. I recalled traits shown by one of my former employers. He was a gray-headed man, possessing great wealth and an elegant city home, while his mind was occupied by a vast and complicated business. When he learned that I was going to the country, he would often come to me, and, with kindling eyes and animated tones, talk of his chickens, cows, fruit-trees and crops. He proved that the best product of his farm was the zest it brought him into his life--a zest that was failing in his other occupations and interests. What was true of him I knew to be equally so of many others to whom wealth brings no greater luxury than the ability to indulge in expensive farming. A lifetime in the city does not destroy the primal instinct which leads men to the soil nor does a handsome dividend from stocks give the unalloyed pleasure awakened by a basket of fresh eggs or fruit. This love of the earth is not earthiness, but has been the characteristic of the best and greatest minds. Washington would turn from the anxieties of a campaign and the burdens of state to read, with absorbing interest, the reports of the agent who managed his plantation, and to write out the minutest details for the overseer's guidance.

In my limited way and sphere I was under the influence of the same impulses; and, as I looked around the table at those so dear to me, I felt that I had far more at stake. I had not come back to Nature merely to amuse myself or to gratify a taste, but to co-work with her in fulfilling the most sacred duties. With the crops of the coming years these children must be nourished and fitted for their part in life, and I felt that all my faculties must be employed to produce the best results from my open-air toil.

Therefore, why should not I also be interested in the prospective bonfire? It would transmute the unsightly rubbish of the place into fertilizing ashes, and clear the ground for the plow. The mellow soil would produce that which would give brain and muscle--life to those whose lives were dear.

He who spreads his table with food secured by his own hands direct from nature should feel a strong incentive to do his best. The coarse, unvaried diet, common to many farmers' homes, is the result of stolid minds and plodding ways. A better manhood and womanhood will be developed when we act upon the truth that varied and healthful sustenance improves blood and brain, and therefore character.

I was growing abstracted, when my wife remarked, "Robert, will you deign to come back from a remote region of thought and take some rice pudding?"

"You may all fare the better for my thoughts," I replied.

The children, however, were bolting their pudding at railroad speed, and I perceived that the time demanded action. Winnie and Bobsey wished me to light the fire at once, but I said: "No, not till mamma and Mousie are ready to come out. You must stay and help them clear away the things. When all is ready, you two shall start the blaze."

Very soon we were all at the brush-pile, which towered above our heads, and I said: "Merton, it will burn better if we climb over it and trample it down a little. It is too loose now. While we do this, Winnie and Bobsey can gather dry grass and weeds that will take fire quickly. Now which way is the wind?"

"There isn't any wind, papa," Merton replied.

"Let us see. Put your forefingers in your mouths, all of you, then hold them up and note which side feels the coolest."

"This side!" cried one and another.

"Yes; and this side is toward the west; therefore, Winnie, put the dry grass here on the western side of the heap, and what air is stirring will carry the blaze through the pile."

Little hands that trembled with eagerness soon held lighted matches to the dry grass; there was a yellow flicker in the sunshine, then a blaze, a crackle, a devouring rush of flames that mounted higher and higher until, with the surrounding column of smoke, there was a conflagration which, at night, would have alarmed the country-side. The children at first gazed with awe upon the scenes as they backed farther away from the increasing heat. Our beacon-fire drew Junior, who came bounding over the fences toward us; and soon he and Merton began to see how near they could dash in toward the blaze without being scorched. I soon stopped this.

"Show your courage, Merton, when there is need of it," I said. "Rash venturing is not bravery, but foolishness, and often costs people dear."

When the pile sank down into glowing embers, I turned to Bobsey, and added: "I have let you light a fire under my direction. Never think of doing anything of the kind without my permission, for if you do, you will certainly sit in a chair, facing the wall, all day long, with nothing to cheer you but bread and water and a sound whipping. There is one thing which you children must learn from the start, and that is, you can't play with fire except under my eyes."

At this direful threat Bobsey looked as grave as his round little face permitted, and, with the memory of his peril in the creek fresh in mind, was ready enough with the most solemn promises. A circle of unburned brush was left around the embers. This I raked in on the hot coals, and soon all was consumed.

"Now I have a suggestion," cried my wife. "We'll have some roast potatoes, for here are lots of hot coals and ashes." Away scampered Winnie to the cellar for the tubers. Our bonfire ended in a feast, and then the ashes were spread far and wide. When the exciting events were past, Winnie and Bobsey amused themselves in other ways, Mousie venturing to stay with them while the sun remained high. Merton and I meanwhile put the horse to the cart and covered all the ground, especially the upper and poorer portions, with a good dressing from the barnyard.

In the evening Junior gave Merton a good hint about angle-worms. "Follow the plow," he said, "and pick 'em up and put 'em in a tight box. Then sink the box in a damp place and nearly fill it with fine earth, and you always have bait ready when you want to go a-fishing. After a few more warm days the fish will begin to bite first-rate."

Early the next morning Mr. Jones was on hand with his stout team, and, going twice in every furrow, he sunk his plow to the beam. "When you loosen the soil deep in this style," he said, "ye needn't be afraid of dry weather unless it's an amazin' long spell. Why, bless you, Mr. Durham, there's farmers around here who don't scratch their ground much deeper than an old hen would, and they're always groanin' over droughts. If I can get my plow down eighteen inches, and then find time to stir the surface often in the growin' season, I ain't afraid of a month of dry weather."

We followed Mr. Jones for a few turns around the garden, I inhaling the fresh wholesome odors of the soil with pleasure, and Merton and the two younger children picking up angle-worms.

Our neighbor soon paused and resumed: "I guess I'll give you a hint that'll add bushels of pertaters to yer crop. After I've plowed the garden, I'll furrow out deep a lot of rows, three feet apart. Let Merton take a hoe and scrape up the fine old manure in the barnyard. Don't use any other kind. Then sprinkle it thickly in the furrows, and draw your hoe through 'em to mix the fertilizer well with the soil. Drop your seed then, eight inches apart in the row, and cover with four inches of dirt. One can't do this very handy by the acre, but I've known such treatment to double the crop and size of the pertaters in a garden or small patch."

I took the hint at once, and set Merton at work, saying that Winnie and Bobsey could gather all the worms he wanted. Then I went for a half-bushel of early potatoes, and Mr. Jones showed me how to cut them so as to leave at least two good "eyes" to each piece. Half an hour later it occurred to me to see how Merton was getting on. I found him perspiring, and almost panting with fatigue, and my conscience smote me. "There, my boy," I said, "this is too hard work for you. Come with me and I'll show you how to cut the potatoes. But first go into the house, and cool off while you drink a glass of milk."

"Well, papa," he replied, gratefully, "I wouldn't mind a change like that. I didn't want you to think I was shirking, but, to tell the truth, I was getting played out."

"Worked out, you mean. It's not my wish that you should ever be either played or worked out, nor will you if you take play and work in the right degree. Remember," I added, seriously, "that you are a growing boy, and it's not my intention to put you at anything beyond your strength. If, in my inexperience, I do give you too hard work, tell me at once. There's plenty to do that won't overtax you."

So we exchanged labors, and by the time the garden was plowed and the furrows were made I had scraped up enough fine material in the barnyard to give my tubers a great start. I varied my labor with lessons in plowing, for running in my head was an "old saw" to the effect that "he who would thrive must both hold the plow and drive."

The fine weather lasted long enough for us to plant our early potatoes in the most approved fashion, and then came a series of cold, wet days and frosty nights. Mr. Jones assured us that the vegetable seeds already in the ground would receive no harm. At such times as were suitable for work we finished trimming and tying up the hardy raspberries, cleaning up the barnyard, and carting all the fertilizers we could find to the land that we meant to cultivate.