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WHITE MONKEY WEEK
CUTTING and drawing the year's supply of firewood to the door occupied us for a week; and following this we boys had planned to take matters easy awhile, for the old Squire was to be away from home. Asa Doane had left us, too, for a visit to his folks. As it chanced, however, a strenuous emergency arose.
A year previously the old Squire had made an agreement with a New York factory, to furnish dowels and strips of clear white birch wood, for piano keys and passementerie.
At that time passementerie was coming into use for ladies' dresses. The fine white-birch dowels were first turned round on small lathes and afterwards into little bugle and bottle-shaped ornaments, then dyed a glistening black and strung on linen threads.
On our own forest lots we had no birch which quite met the requirements. But another lumberman, an acquaintance of the old Squire's, named John Lurvey (a brother of old Zachary Lurvey), who owned lots north of ours, had just what we needed to fill the order.
Lumbermen are often "neighborly" with each other in such matters, and with John Lurvey the old Squire made a kind of running contract for three hundred cords of white-birch "bolts" from a lakeside lot. Each one made a memorandum of the agreement in his pocket note-book; and as each trusted the other, nothing more exact or formal was thought necessary.
The white birch was known to be valuable lumber. We were to pay two thousand dollars for it on the stump, — one thousand down, — and have two "winters" in which to get it off and pay the balance of the money. And here it may be said that in the Maine woods a winter is supposed to mean the snowy season from November till April.
Meanwhile other ventures were pressing. In company with a Canadian partner, the old Squire was then getting spruce lumber down the St. Maurice River at Three Rivers, in the Province of Quebec. This New York birch contract was deferred a year, the plan being finally to get off the birch in March of the second winter, when the crews and teams from two other lumber-camps could conveniently be sent to the lake, and make a quick job of it.
But in December of that second winter John Lurvey died suddenly of pneumonia. His property passed into the hands of his wife, who was by no means easygoing. She overhauled this note-book agreement, took legal advice of a sharp lawyer, and on February 21st sent us legal notification that the agreement would expire on February 28th, the last day of winter, according to the calendar. The notification also demanded payment of the second thousand dollars. Her scheme, of course, was to get the money in full and cut us off, in default, from removing the birch lumber from the lot. The old Squire himself had gone to Canada.
The notification came by letter, and as usual when the old Squire was away, grandmother Ruth opened his mail to see what demanded our attention. We were all in the sitting-room, except Halstead, who was away that evening.
"What can this mean?" grandmother suddenly exclaimed, and handed the letter to Addison. He saw through it instantly, and jumped up in excitement.
"We're trapped!" he cried. "If we don't get that birch off next week we shall lose two thousand dollars!"
Grandmother was dismayed. "Oh, that wicked woman!" she cried. "Why, winter always means through sledding!" .
"I'm afraid not, in law," said Addison, looking puzzled. "Winter ends either the first or the twenty-first of March. I think a good argument could be made in court for the twenty-first. But she may be right, and it's too late to take chances. The only thing to do is to get that lumber off right away."
Addison and I went out to the stable to talk the matter over; we did not want to excite grandmother any further. At best, she had a good deal to worry her that winter.
"Now what can we do?" Addison exclaimed. Five or six days would be required to get the old Squire home from Canada.
"And what could he do after he got here?" Addison asked. "The teams and the choppers are all off at the lumber-camps."
"Let's take our axes and go up there and cut what birch we can next week," said I, in desperation.
"Oh, we boys couldn't do much alone in so short a time," replied Addison.
Still, we could think of nothing else; and with the loss of two thousand dollars staring us in the face, we began planning desperately how much of that birch we could save in a week's time. In fact, we scarcely slept at all that night, and early the next morning started out to rally what help we could.
Willis Murch and Thomas Edwards volunteered to work for us, and take each a yoke of oxen. After much persuasion our neighbor Sylvester promised to go with a team, and to take his son Rufus, Jr. Going on to the post-office at the Corners, we succeeded in hiring two other young men.
But even with the help of these men we could account for scarcely a seventh part of the contract, since one chopper could cut not more than a cord and a half of birch bolts in a day; and moreover, the bolts had to be removed from the lot.
But as we rushed round that forenoon, it occurred to Addison to hire a horse-power and circular saw that was owned by a man named Morefield, who lived near the wood-sheds of the railway-station, six miles from the old Squire's. It was a rig used for sawing wood for the locomotives.
Hurrying home, we hitched up, drove to the station, and succeeded in engaging Morefield and his saw, with two spans of heavy horses.
But other cares had now loomed up, not the least among them being the problem of feeding our hastily collected crew of helpers and their teams sixteen miles off in the woods. Just across the lake from the lot where the birch grew there was a lumber-camp where we could set up a stove and do our cooking; and during the afternoon we packed up supplies of pork, beans and corned beef, while in the house grandmother and the girls were baking bread. I had also to go to the mill, to get corn ground for the teams.
Theodora and Ellen were eager to go and do the cooking at the camp; but grandmother knew that an older woman of greater experience was needed in such an emergency, and had that morning sent urgent word to Olive Witham, — "Aunt Olive," as we called her, — who was always our mainstay in times of trouble at the old farm.
She was about fifty-five years old, tall, austere, not wholly attractive, but of upright character and undaunted courage.
By nine that evening everything was ready for a start; and sunrise the next morning saw us on the way up to the birch lot, Aunt Olive riding in the "horse power," on a sled, which bore also a firkin of butter, a cheese, a four-gallon can of milk, a bag of bread and a large basket of eggs.
One team did not get off so early, neighbor Sylvester's. He was to start two hours later and draw up to camp the heaviest part of our supplies, consisting of half a barrel of pork, two bushels of potatoes, a peck of dry beans, a hundredweight of corned beef and two gallons of molasses.
Twelve miles of our way that morning was by a trodden winter road, but the last four miles, after crossing Lurvey's Stream, had to be broken through three feet of snow in the woods, giving us four hours of tiresome tramping.
We reached the lot at one o'clock, and during the afternoon set up the horse-power on the lake shore, at the foot of the slope where the white birch grew. We also contrived a log slide, or slip, down which the long birch trunks could be slid to the saw and cut up into four-foot bolts. For our plan now was to fell the trees and "twitch" them down-hill with teams to the head of this slip. By rolling the bolts, as they fell from the saw, down an incline and out on the ice of the lake, we would remove them from Mrs. Lurvey's land, and thereby comply with the letter of the law, by aid of which she was endeavoring to rob us and escheat our rights to the birch.
There were ten of us. Each knew what was at stake, and all worked with such good-will that by five o'clock we had the saw running. The white birches there were from a foot up to twenty-two inches in diameter, having long, straight trunks, clear of limbs from thirty to forty feet in length. These clear trunks only were used for bolts.
Plying their axes, Halstead, Addison, Thomas and Willis felled upward of forty trees that night, and these were all sawn by dark. On an average, five trees were required for a cord of bolts, but with sharp axes such white-birch trees can be felled fast. Morefield tended the saw and drove the horses in the horse-power; the rest of us were kept busy sliding the birch trunks down the slip to the saw, and rolling away the bolts.
By dark we had made a beginning of our hard week's task, and in the gathering dusk plodded across the lake to the old lumber-camp, expecting to find Aunt Olive smiling and supper ready.
But here disappointment awaited us. Sylvester, with the sled-load of supplies, had not come, did not arrive, in fact, till half an hour later, and then with his oxen only. Disaster had befallen him on the way. While crossing Lurvey's Stream, the team had broken through the ice where the current beneath was swift. He had saved the oxen; but the sled, with our beef, pork, beans and potatoes, had been drawn under and carried away, he knew not how far, under the ice.
A stare of dismay from the entire hungry party followed this announcement. It looked like no supper — after a hard day's work! Worse still, to Addison and myself it looked like the crippling of our whole program for the next five days; for a lumber crew is much like an army; it lives and works only by virtue of its commissariat.
But now Aunt Olive rose to the emergency. "Don't you be discouraged, boys!" she exclaimed. "Give me twenty minutes, and you shall have a supper fit for a king. You shall have white monkey on toast! Toast thirty or forty slices of this bread, boys," she added, laughing cheerily. "Toast it good and brown, while I dress the monkey!"
Addison, Thomas and I began toasting bread over the hot stove, but kept a curious eye out for that "white monkey."
Of course it was figurative monkey. Aunt Olive put six quarts of milk in a kettle on the stove, and as it warmed, thickened it slightly with about a pint of corn-meal.
As it grew hotter, she melted into it a square of butter about half. the size of a brick, then chipped up fine as much as a pound of cheese, and added that slowly, so as to dissolve it.
Last, she rapidly broke, beat and added a dozen eggs, then finished off with salt and a tiny bit of Cayenne pepper, well stirred in.
For five minutes longer she allowed the kettleful to simmer on the stove, while we buttered three huge stacks of toast.
The monkey was then ready. All hands gathered round with their plates, and in turn had four slices of toast, one after another, each slice with a generous ladleful of white monkey poured over it.
It was delicious, very satisfying, too, and gave one the sense of being well fed, since it contained all the ingredients of substantial food. As made by Aunt Olive, this white monkey had the consistency of moderately thick cream. It slightly resembled Welsh rabbit, but we found it was much more palatable and wholesome, having more milk and egg in it, and far less cheese.
We liked it so well that we all wanted it for breakfast the next morning — and that was fortunate, since we had little else, and were exceedingly loath to lose a day's time sending teams down home, or elsewhere, for more meat, beans and potatoes.
There were several families of French-Canadians living at clearings on Lurvey's Stream, three miles below the like; and since I was the youngest and least efficient axman of the party, they sent me down there every afternoon to buy milk and eggs, for more white monkey. Of cheese and butter we had a sufficient supply; and the yellow corn-meal which we had brought for the teams furnished sheetful after sheetful of johnny-cake, which Aunt Olive split, toasted, and buttered well, as a groundwork for the white monkey.
And for five days we ate it as we toiled twelve hours to the day, chopping, hauling and sawing birch!
We had a slight change of diet on the fourth day, when Aunt Olive cooked two old roosters and a chicken, which I had coaxed away from the reluctant French settlers down the stream.
But it was chiefly white monkey every day; and the amount of work which we did on it was a tribute to Aunt Olive's resourcefulness. The older men of the party declared that they had never slept so well as after those evening meals of white monkey on johnny-cake toast. Beyond doubt, it was much better for us than heavier meals of meat and beans after days of hard labor.
From half an hour before sunrise till an hour after sunset, during those entire five days, the tall white birches fell fast, the saw hummed, and the bolts went rolling out on the ice-clad lake.
I never saw a crew work with such good-will or felt such enthusiasm myself as during those five days. We had the exhilarating sensation that we were beating a malicious enemy. Every little while a long, cheery whoop of exultation would be raised and go echoing across the lake; and that last day of February we worked by the light of little bonfires of birch bark till near midnight.
Then we stopped — to clear the law. And I may state here, although it must sound like a large story, that during those five working days the ten of us felled, sawed and rolled out on the ice two hundred and eighty-six cords of white-birch bolts. Of course it was the saw and the two relieving spans of horses which did the greater part of the work, the four axmen doing little more than fell the tall birch-trees.
The next day, after a final breakfast of white monkey, we went home triumphant, leaving the bolts on the ice for the time being. All were tired, but in high spirits, for victory was ours.
Two days later the old Squire came home from Three Rivers, entirely unaware of what had occurred, having it now in mind to organize and begin what he supposed would be a month's work up at the birch lot for the choppers and teams from the two logging-camps farther north.
Neither grandmother Ruth nor the rest of us could resist having a little fun with him. After supper, when we had gathered in the sitting-room, grandmother quietly handed him Mrs. Lurvey's letter, with the notification about the birch.
"This came while you were away, Joseph," she said to him, while the rest of us, sitting very still, looked on, keenly interested to see how he would take it.
The old Squire unfolded the letter and began reading it, then started suddenly, and for some moments sat very still, pondering the notification. "This bids fair to be a serious matter for us," he said, at last. "We have lost that birch contract, I fear, and the money that went into it.
"And I have only my own carelessness to thank for it," he added, looking distressed.
Theodora could not stand that another minute. She stole round behind the old Squire's chair, put her arms about his neck, and whispered something in his ear.
"What!" he exclaimed, incredulously.
"Yes!" she cried to him.
"Impossible, child!" said he.
"No, it isn't!" shouted Addison. "We've got that birch off, sir. It is all sawn up in bolts and out on the lake!"
"What, in a week?" exclaimed the old Squire. "All in five days, sir!" cried Addison and I.
The old gentleman sat looking at us in blank surprise. He was an experienced lumberman, and knew exactly what such a statement as ours implied.
"Not three hundred cords?" said he, gravely.
"Close on to that, sir!" cried Addison.
Thereupon we all began to tell him about it at once. None of us could remain quiet. But it was not till we had related the whole story, and told him who had helped us, along with Addison's scheme of hiring the horse-power and saw, that he really believed it. He sprang up, walked twice across the sitting-room, then stopped short and looked at us.
"Boys, I'm proud of you!" he exclaimed. "Proud of you! I couldn't have done as well myself."
"Yes, Joseph, they're chips of the old block!" grandmother chimed in. "And we've beaten that wicked woman!"
Mrs. Lurvey, as I may add here, was far from sharing in our exultation. She was a person of violent temper. It was said that she shook with rage when she heard what we boys had done. But her lawyer advised her to keep quiet.
During the next two weeks the birch bolts were drawn to our mill, four miles down Lurvey's Stream, and sawn into thin strips and dowels, then shipped in bundles, by rail and schooner from Portland, to New York; and the contract netted the old Squire about twenty-five hundred dollars above the cost of the birch.
But as I look back on it, I am inclined to think that Aunt Olive was the real heroine of that strenuous week.
___________________NOTE. The following recipe will make a sufficient quantity of "white monkey" for three persons. Put over the fire one pint of new milk in a double boiler. As soon as the milk is warm, stir in one teaspoonful of flour mixed with two tablespoonfuls of cold water. As the milk gets hotter, add slowly, so as to dissolve it, two ounces of cheese, grated or chipped fine. Then add one ounce of butter, a teaspoonful of salt, a dash of Cayenne pepper, and one egg, well beaten and mixed with two tablespoonfuls of cold milk or water. Let the mixture simmer five minutes, then serve hot on wheat bread or brown-bread toast, well browned and buttered.