Calhoun County

Calhoun Fiddler


J. D. ROSE, Editor and Proprietor
Terms: $1.50 a year



By Mary Hartwell Catherwood

November frost lay on the ferns and mosses along the Calhoun bluffs, and on the castellated mass of rock with round turrets which hangs over the cove known as French Hollow. From a divide in the wooded hills a small stream came down unfrozen, quivering over pebbles and clean sand. Crossing an alluvial plat of ground it turned beside a cabin to meet the broad and whispering Illinois.

In all Calhoun County – that long narrow ridge located between two great rivers – there was not on height or in cove such another cabin. It was fifty-two feet square and two stories high, with a Norman projection of the caves. The house, with its back to a road winding at the foot of the bluffs, sat facing the historic Illinois – a river now yellow and wrathful with floods, now spreading in blue or seashell tints away – to the opposite forest.

In the days of Antoine Dejarnet the builder of this log house, and the first Frenchman who ever set foot in Calhoun County, hospitality had overflowed the now silent place. Then there was dancing over Sunday after mass, in the great undivided lower story like a feudal hall; and the family violin was coaxed to heavenly tunes by Antoine Dejarnet himself.

But long before this November afternoon the French colony in Calhoun County had dwindled to a remnant; the forty goats, which used to climb those heights or stand captive to half old Antoine’s many daughters while the rest milked them, had not a single descendent; and the last Dejarnet carried his name locally disfigured into DeZhireley.

Jeanne Sattory, following a road beside the stream, was coming down the hollow. The mail carrier cantered below her toward Kampsville, riding a nervous pony, and having the letter pouch strapped behind him. Twice a week he thus carried news through Calhoun County, where there are neither railroads nor telegraph lines, neither banks nor thieves. But such a courier feels his freedom and importance; he impudently kissed his merry finger-tips to the pretty girl in the slope. She hid behind a rock until he was out of sight. The mail carrier had seen this girl before, and desired to have a closer look at her. The usual type in Calhoun County was broad Dutch maids, whose stock was superseding the French. But Jeanne Sattory had a dread, riding to terror of all men. Her first recollection was of a stepfather who made her take to trees like a cat, every time he approached the dwelling. Her next was of his son, who finished the small rites of her mother’s funeral by taking the orphan’s car, in his grip, leading her to the limit of the garden patch, and dismissing her, with the threat of a kick if she ever came back there again. He kept her mother’s own household goods and the few belongings left by her father, and nobody took it in hand to interfere with him. She came back across the Illinois River to her native county; but even yet shrunk from old Henry Roundcounter, whose family afforded her a home.

The Roundcounters had held land under the first Dejarnet. As Roundcounters, and farmers of their own small holding, they now kept up hereditary interest in that last De Zhirley, who since his mother’s death had lived solitary in the great square cabin. Mrs. Roundcounter baked bread for him; and once a week she went down the bluff to tidy his bachelor hall, except when rheumatism detained her. This afternoon Jeanne Sattory was sent reluctantly to the task.

The last De Zhirely was a ferryman; and it must be owned that voices calling him from the other side of the river were often drowned in the muscle of his fiddle. In clear summer nights he walked a sandy strip in front of his cabin, hugging the fiddle beneath his chin and playing tunes which had come down from his forefathers.

The ferryboat could now be seen at the farther bank of the Illinois. Jeanne knew she might do her work before it could again cross the current. The cabin door is always left unfastened in that primitive county. She noticed a fresh coon skin nailed on the logs beside the door, as she entered with shrinking this haunt of man.

The imposing old dancing hall of the De Zhirely gave her a welcome from its ruddy fireplace hooded with a pent house. Jeanne’s first care was to push the embers together, heap on more of the wood which lay ready, and clean the stone hearth. She then hung a pot on the crane, and filled it with spring water. Before the water was scalding hot there was time to sweep the floor, and beat up a feather bed which had grown as hard as a mat on its corner bedstead.

An unrailed stairway mounted beside the front wall. Jeanne had heard Mrs. Roundcounter tell how many little rooms were overhead, and what stores family goods were piled there, disregarded by a young man who cared for no wife but his fiddle.

No attention could be given to the upper rooms. Amid all her services, the girl was full of starts and panies, turning her head and widening her eyes at any stir without. She mopped the broad boards worn by footmarks of dead dancers; she washed log-embedded windows and an accumulation of yellow bowls, and pewter; and drew the only easy chair to the hearth. Something in a green bag hung on the wall farthest from the fire, which Jeanne knew to be the De Zhirely fiddle. She touched it carefully with a turkey-wing duster; recoiling from its faint sting as if some charm had been ignorantly worked.

Dried meat and scarlet peppers, a gun and a powderhorn hung on the richly smoked hewn joists. She felt keen, quiet delight in the place and reluctance to leave it. The jollity of former times, perhaps, lingered, making a fit atmosphere for girlhood.

But she was standing with her shawl over her head, casting back a last look, when some hand blundered at the latch outside. She sprang upstairs and put the first door between her and the intruder on the lightening of impulse. Some person entered, and seemed to pause and listen suspiciously. Her heart labored like the beating of a steamer, and she expected to hear feet following her up the stairs. But after uncertain shuffling the comer dragged a chair, and with a suggestion of effort, sat down.

Jeanne knew it could not be young De Zhirely, whom she had just seen through a window lighting the current in mid river. He had a loaded wagon and a pair of restless mules on board; and he ran back and forth outside the railing of his boat, now poling, now steering, and now pulling with a wing-like oar. Jeanne could have been at the top of the bluff before his return. And here she was, trapped in an upper room, vaguely ashamed; unable to come down and face eyes which might insult her, yet terrified by the prospect of indefinite hiding.

Daylight’s gradual fading out was of more interest to her than the accumulation of De Zhirely things around her. She listened for the crunch of the ferryboat prow on gravel; and voices and departing wheels at last moved at last moved by the cabin, and the proper owner entered. She stealthily unlatched her door and set it ajar, so the crack intersected the hearth. There in the seat she had taken thought to set ready, sagged the drunken person of her stepbrother; renewing her shuddering sense of having ties with a beast.

“You here, Billy Irons?” said young De Zhirely, as he approached the fire; and his voice had no joy in it. His blind eye was toward the stair door; for the Calhoun fiddler was a one-eyed man. This defacement scarcely marred the beauty of the athletic man thrown out by firelight. Jeanne Sattory had, indeed, never seen him without pitying people who were two-eyed. His mis-used skin yet held the milk and wine flush of childhood, and his fleece of red gold rings was a gift not to be spoiled.

“Yes, I’m here, Theodore,” said the man in the chair, thickly.

“Mother Roundcounter has been here, too” added De Zhirely, as he looked around. “It makes a feller feel good to see his house clean and smell new bread.”

He hung a teakettle on the crane, and thrust a fork through some bacon to toast on the polished hearthstone. Then he drew his table toward the fireplace, and Jeanne could see his appreciative touch on the yellow ware she had washed.

“What do you want, Billy? Did you come in to take a bite with me?”

“No.” Irons stirred from his doze. “I’m buyin cattle, Theodore”

“No cattle to sell here.”

“I know it, Theodore. You’re a poor man by the side of me.”

Indifferent to this fact De Zhirely turned his bacon and proceeded to make coffee.

“You’re a poor man, Theodore,” repented the heavy guest. And I’ve got all my father had.”

“And all his second wife had,” added young De Zhirely, with a one-eyed glance of contempt, at which Irons made a fist. “You go up stairs and sleep off what’s the matter with you, after I give you some coffee.”

"That’s not what I come for. You’re a poor man, Theodore.”
“Well, don’t let that keep you awake; it don’t me.”
“You hain’t got no cattle, nor much land, nor even two eyes.”
“And what do you want on my blind side, Billy?”
“But you’ve got a fiddle. Yes, you’ve got a fiddle.”

De Zhirely moved back and took his violin off the wall with a jealous motion. It was his custom to play while his supper cooked; but as he felt the bow with his thumb, and fitted the instrument to his neck, he looked distrustfully at Irons.

The first sweet long ery filled the cabin. The fiddler gradually approached the hearth playing as he came, and Iron’s head, hands and feet responded to the magic.

De Zhireley’s back was toward Dejarnet, but she saw joy in his whole hearing, and felt herself the piercing rapture of sound.

“Let me see that fiddle,” demanded Irons, when the young man finished and put down his bow and brought the coffee pot to set on the coals.
De Zhireley turned a distrustful eye, but no precious violin toward the guest.

“Let me see that fiddle, I say,” repeated Irons, rising up.
“Behave yourself,” said the young man, standing a head above him, and humoring him as a child might be humored by half granting his request.
The fellow shouldered his body, and looked at Stradivari’s inscription.
“What’s that there, Theodore?”
“That’s the maker’s name.”
“Seventeen hundred and – what’s them figgers?”
“That’s the year it was made.”
“Then it’s a mighty poor old thing, ain’t it?”
The fiddle said nothing, but tried to recover his violin, to which the tormentor hung with both hands.
“I can sell it for you, Theodore. It’s worth fifty dollars.”
De Zhireley’s face expressed impatience to regain his instrument.
“Yes, it’s worth a hundred dollars. I have been talking to a man, Theodore, that’s why I came in. You give this fiddle to me and I’ll make some money for you. You’re a poor man Theodore.”
“Let go of it,” exclaimed DeZhireley. I don’t want to sell my fiddle.”
“It’s worth five hundred five hundred dollars.”
“Let go of it! You don’t know what you’re doing. You ain’t fit to do anything now. Let go,” cried DeZhireley, as he felt the greedy, drunken hands, crushing his treasure. “If you don’t let go, I’ll kill you.”

The two men struggled, and there was a crackling, cwanging sound, followed by Irons’ curses. Then De Zhireley caught him by the neck, dragged him to the cabin door and kicked him far out into the dark.
Jeanne hid her face. She heard her stepbrother battering at the fastened door, and finally a stone dashed through the window, to fall with splintered glass upon the floor. A storm of drunken curses surrounded the house, and died away in mutterings along the bluff road. Through this clamor an awful silence made its void in the cabin.

De Zhirley had set his foot upon a chair, and was nursing the mangled instrument on his knee, examining every part. His tense face denied despair but the broken neck hung down by its strings, the bridge lay beside his foot. Jeanne watched him, forgetting the darkness of the bluffs and her dreadful ambush.

When De Zhirley first came in she had decided to let herself down from an upper window rather than face him. When he recommended her stepbrother to a sleeping room upstairs, she looked about in panic for something which could be made an immediate rope or ladder. But when she saw the violin’s destruction, it was to hang outside in a passion of sympathy. She had been the most solitary creature in Calhoun County, but this supreme sharing of the young fiddlers anguish broke the shell of her dumbness; she felt her soul spreading out its crumpled wings like a new butterfly.

He laid the violin on the chair, and with a sudden abandonment of all restraint, shook his fist above his head, wailing and sobbing:

“O my life, my life! What will I do now?”

It was the agony of an artist, of a lonely soul, of unspeakable bereavement.

Jeanne cried in her shawl. She had thought her hunger for the unknown best thing in the world was a singular experience. She waited until her tears and hers could be wiped off, and then opened the door and came lightly downstairs.

De Zhirley huddled his violin again in his arms, as if dreading the descent of more drunken men; and in the embarrassment and anguish of a man whose weakness has been spied upon, turned his face to the hearth. Jeanne stopped at the foot of the stairs and drew her shawl over her head. They continued in silence while the coffee bubbled up and firelight flickered on the wall.

DeZhirley understood her errand into his cabin, with the simplicity of primitive manhood. He knew she always took to flight when her stepbrother appeared. When he could speak without a sob, he said, acknowledging all she had done for his comfort that afternoon:
“I’m much obleeged.”

Jeanne on her part, ignored the services.

“Is it bad hurt?” she murmured, with unconscious maternal pathos.
He offered to yield the wreck to her hands, and drawn from her place, she went and stooped on one knee to the firelight. DeZhirley dropped on one knee beside her, and they tried to fit the mangled parts in place again.
“It’s such a spite,” said Jeanne, and her trembling voice comforted him as a mother comforts her child. He has a queer instant anxiety to make the calamity appear less to her than it really was.

“Mebby by patchin’ and glue I can put it together again – tho I don’t know whether it’ll sound the same again. I’ve always thought so much of it,” he apologized.

I wish he had broken my neck instead of this fiddle’s, said the girl with passion.

“I’d like to see him try such a thing,” responded the fiddler sternly. “I’d killed him as’t was, if I hadn’t been bigger than him.”

“I must go back,” exclaimed Jeanne, stirring to rise from this post-mortem. “They’ll think I’ve fell in the river.”

“I’ll go with you,” said DeZhirley, “It’s dark now, and that fellow ain’t gone far.”

“Oo,” objected Jeanne, with sudden terror of what her neighborhood called a beau. “I don’t want no one with me.”

DeZhirley took up his cap with gentle insistence like the courtliness of a great seignor. He smiled at Jeanne, and she gave him back a look of which she was unconscious.

“Your supper’s all ready,” she reminded him.

“I ain’t hungry like I was when I come in from the ferry. Won’t you set down and take supper with me?” invited the young man, sincerely.
The mere suggestion sent Jeanne Sattory to the door. Their hands mingled upon the latch, and she slid hers away, hating to part from a touch which she yet eluded.

DeZhirley made the door pause while he looked down at her and said, with a shaking voice:

“If it hadn’t been for you there ain’t no tellin.”
Jeanne had no reply to this acknowledgement of sympathy, but drew her shawl together under her chin. Chin and mouth-corners were tempting even to a one-eyed man, but he continued without startling her.
“Spite my fiddle’s getting broke, I b’lieve this is the best day this cabin ever seen.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Cause it’s the first time you ever came to the house.”
“I’m pbleeged for you politeness,” trembled Jeanne, turning scarlet; and she lifted a laughing dark glance. “If you’ll be a little politer, and let me out I won’t come no more.
“Then I’ll go where you are,” said the Calhoun fiddler. “I’ll follow you from this time on.”
“You’ll have to walk on the other side of the road if you do,” said Jeanne Sattory: and they stepped out and took the way up the bluff, two figures indistinct darkness, with a width of wagon track between them.

Transcribed Feb 2006 by Peggy Lorton

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