Hiram Gum, the Fiddler

The last red rays of the evening sun disappeared below the mountains and
the gray twilight settled over the valley. The mill ceased its rumbling.
The mower that all day long had been clicking merrily in the meadow
behind the store stood silent in the swaths, and the horses that had
drawn it were playfully dipping their noses in the cool waters of the
creek. The birds–the plover, the lark and the snipe that had whistled
since daybreak over the fields and the robins and sparrows that had
chirped overhead in the trees–had long since made themselves comfortable
for the impending night. By and by the woods beyond the flats assumed
a formless blackness and from their dark midst came the lonely call of
the whippoorwill. The horses splashed out of the creek and clattered
through the village to the white barn at the end of the street. The
Miller padlocked the heavy door of the mill and bid good night to his
helper, who trudged away over the bridge swinging his dinner pail. Then
he beat the flour out of his cap on the hitching-post and lounged up to
the store. He threw himself along the floor, and after propping his back
against a pillar, lighted his pipe.

“‘Hen it comes to fiddlin’,” the Chronic Loafer was saying, “they is few
men can beat Sam Washin’ton. Why I’ve knowd him to set down at a party at
seven at night an’ fiddle till six next mornin’ an’ play a different tune
every time.”

“Did you ever hear o’ Hiram Gum?” asked the Patriarch.

“Hiram Gum!” cried the G. A. R. Man. “My father used often to speak o’
him, but he was afore my time. Drowned in the canal.”

“Wonderful, wonderful, I’ve heard tell,” exclaimed the Miller. “I can
jest remember seein’ him oncet ’hen I was a wee bit o’ a boy–a leetle
man with long hair an’ big eyes an’ a withered arm.”

“Yes, yes,” the old man murmured, beating his stick upon the porch. “An’
a wonderful fiddler was Hiram Gum. They was few ’round these parts could
han’le a bow with that man.”

“But Sam Washin’ton’s the best fiddler they is,” the Loafer interposed
emphatically.

“My dear man, Hiram Gum was more’n an earthly fiddler,” the Patriarch
retorted. “He hed charms. He knowd words.”

“I don’t b’lieve in them charms furder then they ’fect snakes an’ bees.”

“But Hiram Gum was more’n an ord’nary man, an’ I otter know, fer I
remember him well. He was leetle, ez the Miller sayd, an’ hed long black
hair an’ a red beard that waved all around his neck, an’ big black eyes,
an’ cheeks that shined like they was scoured. Then his left arm was all
withered an’ wasn’t no use exceptin’ that he could crook it up like an’
work the long fingers on the fiddle-strings. No one knowd how old Hiram
was, no more’n they knowd where he come from ’hen he settled up the
walley sixty years ago, fer he never sayd. No one ever dast ask him ’bout
sech things, fer he’d jest look black an’ say nawthin’, an’ give you sech
a glance with them big eyes that you felt all creepy. Aside from that he
was allus a pleasant, cheery kind of a man, an’ talked entertainin’, fer
he’d traveled a heap.

“Hiram settled in a little lawg house that stood on South Ridge near
where Silver’s peach orchard is now. Peter Billings’s farm joined his
lot, an’ it wasn’t long ’fore the leetle man tuk to strollin’ over to see
his neighbors of an evenin’. By an’ by he seemed to take a considerable
shine fer Peter’s dotter Susan. First no one thot nawthin’ of it, fer
it hairdly seemed likely that ez pretty a girl ez she would care much
about sech a dried-up leetle speciment ez Hiram Gum. Besides, fer a long
time she’d ben keepin’ company with young Jawhn McCullagh, whose father
owned ’bout the best piece o’ farmin’ land up the walley. He was a big,
fine-lookin’ felly, a bit o’ a boaster, an’ with a likin’ fer his own way.

“So no one ever dreamt anything ’ud come o’ Hiram Gum loafin’ over at
Billings’s. But, boys, ’hen you’ve lived ez long ez I hev, an’ seen ez
much o’ the worl’ ez I hev, you’ll come to the conclusion that they is a
heap o’ truth in the old sayin’ that matches is made in Heaven. But it do
seem sometim’s like they wasn’t much time or thot spent in the makin’.
Fust thing we heard that Hi hed ben drove off the Billings’s place an’
Susan was kep’ locked in her room fer a week. An’ sech a change ez come
over that man. It was airly in the spring ’hen it happened. He’d allus
met a man with a hearty ‘howde’ before, but after that he never spoke
’hen he passed. From one o’ the pleasantest o’ men he become one o’ the
blackest. From comin’ to store every day, he got to comin’ only ’hen he
needed things. The rest o’ the time he spent mopin’ up in his placet on
the hill. Susan changed too. She lost color an’ got solemn like. Many a
time I seen her leanin’ over the gate, lookin’ away up the ridge to where
Hiram’s placet lay.

“Then come the Lander’s big party. It was the last o’ the season fer the
hot weather was near ’hen they wasn’t no time fer swingin’ corners, let
alone the overheatin’ that ’ud come by it, so everybody in the walley
was there. Young an’ old danced that night. They was three sets in the
settin’-room an’ two in the kitchen; they was two in the entry an’ one on
the porch. Save fer layin’ off at ten o’clock fer sweet-cake an’ cider we
done wery leetle restin’. They was mighty few wanted to rest much ’hen
Hiram Gum played. He’d no sooner tuk his placet in the corner then every
inch o’ the floor was covered with sets. Bow yer corners! an’ we was off.”




The old man beat his stick on the porch and waved his body to and fro.

“My, but that was fiddlin’! It jest went th’oo a man like one o’ them
’lectric shockin’ machines. Yer feet was started an’ away ye went; ole
Hiram settin’ there with his withered arm crooked up to hold the fiddle,
the long, crooked fingers flyin’ over the strings, the bow goin’ so
fast ye could hairdly see it, his big black eyes lookin’ down inter the
instermen’, his long hair an’ beard wavin’ ez he swung to an’ fro. Now
yer own! Oh, them was dancin’ days ’hen Hi Gum played!

“They never was a more inweterate hat-passer then Hiram, fer be his
playin’ he made his livin’, an’ never a note ’ud he make tell they was
fifty cents in his ole white beaver. Then he’d play that out an’ ’round
he’d come agin. That night he didn’t ast a cent, but jest sat there glum
an’ never oncet stopped the music.

“Susan was a wonderful dancer–jest ez quick ez a flash, untirin’, an’
so light on her feet that ye felt like ye was holtin’ to a fairy ’hen
ye swung corners with her. She was on the floor continual’. I done one
set with her an’ noticed how she could scarce keep her eyes offen Hi. She
only danced one set with McCullagh an’ lay kind o’ limp like in swingin’
corners an’ didn’t say nawthin’, so ’hen they finished he left the house.
I seen him go out o’ the door with a black look in his face.

“Most all hed gone ’hen I left Lander’s airly in the mornin’. We lived
over the river, an’ ez they wasn’t no bridge we use to cross in a couple
o’ ole boats that was kep’ tied along the bank jest below the canal lock.
I went down over the flat an’ th’oo the woods tell I come to the canal,
where I crossed the lock an’ walked along the towpath, whistlin’ all the
time fer company. It was a clear night. The moon was shinin’ bright th’oo
the trees. The canal was on one side o’ me, an’ th’oo the open places in
the bushes on the other I could see the river gleamin’ along. I got to
the bend jest a couple of hundred yards above where the boats lay an’ was
jest steppin’ out inter the clearin’ there ’hen sudden I heard a loud
voice. I stopped. Then it come louder, an’ I recognized Jawhn McCullagh’s
rough talk. I went cautious tell I was out o’ the woods. There, jest
ahead, I seen him, near the path, facin’ ole Hiram Gum, who, with his
fiddle under his arm, was standin’ with his back to the canal, lookin’
quiet at the big felly. I dropped to the ground an’ watched, scarce
breathin’ I was so excited.

“Jawhn raised a heavy stick, an’ shook it, an’ stepped slow-like toward
the leetle fiddler, crowdin’ him nearer the bank.

“‘Hiram Gum!’ he sayd, ‘I’ve hed ’nough o’ you. Git out o’ this country
an’ never come back, or you’ll never fiddle agin!’

“Hiram lowered his fiddle an’ answered, ‘You can’t skeer me, Jawhn
McCullagh, fer Susan doesn’t keer fer you!’

“‘You sha’n’t run off with her!’ the other yelled, shakin’ his stick.

“I could see his face workin’ ez he swung his club up an’ down, an’
step be step kep’ edgin’ the leetle felly nearer the wotter. I jest lay
tremblin’, I was that frightened, fer I was but a lad in them days. I
knowd I otter run out an’ stop it, but ’fore I got me couritch up I hear
the soft notes o’ the fiddle. There was ole Hiram with his withered hand
holdin’ the instermen’, his long fingers flyin’ over the strings, the bow
slidin’ slow like up an’ down.

“‘Swing yer corners, Jawhn!’ he cried, fixin’ them black eyes on the big
feller.

“Then the notes come quick an’ short. Jawhn’s stick dropped, an’ his arm
fell limp like. He passed one hand confused over his forehead. He bowed.
The notes come faster. In another minute he was swingin’ corners with
his arms graspin’ the air. The dead sticks cracked under his feet ez he
flung around. An’ ez ole Hi called the figgers he followed him, yellin’
’em louder an’ kickin’ like mad. It was the wildest dancin’ ever I seen.
He bowed an’ twisted, back’ard an’ for’a’d, an’ chassayed an’ chained,
his feet movin’ faster an’ faster ez the notes come quicker an’ quicker
an’ the bow slid to an’ fro like lightnin’. Ole Hiram kep’ movin’ ’round
cautious like, never takin’ his eyes off the dancer tell he was on the
river side an’ Jawhn skippin’ ’round on the beaten towpath.

“Them was awful minutes fer me. I could do nawthin’, fer the playin’ kind
o’ spelled me. ’Hen I seen the fiddler begin to move toward the canal an’
the mad dancin’ felly backin’ nearer an’ nearer the bank, I tried to git
up but I kicked out with both feet an’ fell sprawlin’ on the groun’.

“‘Back to your corner, Jawhn!’ the ole man called.

“‘Corners next!’ yelled the dancer, kickin’ up his heels an’ th’owin’ out
his arms like he was grabbin’ somethin’. Then come an awful cry. They was
a splash. He’d gone over the bank.

“I jumped out, fer the music hed stopped, an’ started toward the spot.
But ’fore I got there Hiram hed th’owed away his fiddle an’ run to the
canal, an’ was down on his knees starin’ inter the wotter. A head come
above the surface. Then an arm reached wildly out. The ole man bent over
an’ grasped the hand. But it wasn’t no uset, fer he’d nawthin’ to support
himself with. He took holt o’ the bank with his withered fingers, but the
arm give ’way an’ he toppled over. Fer a minute all was still. I leaned
over the wotter an’ waited. They was a ripple toward the middle, an’
two heads come up. I seen Hiram Gum’s long black hair an’ beard an’ his
drawn face ez he looked at the sky overhead. Then they disappeared agin.
The surface of the canal become quiet an’ still like nawthin’ hed ben
happenin’. Then I turned an’ run.

“I flew along the towpath, acrosst the clearin’, inter the woods agin,
an’ down toward the river where the boats lay hid among the willer
bushes. An’ ez I went crashin’ th’oo the branches I hear a girl’s voice
callin’.

“‘Hiram,’ she sais, ‘why was you fiddlin’? I thot you was never comin’.’

“Another second an’ I was th’oo the willers an’ on the bank. There,
settin’ in a boat, her hands on the oars ready to pull away, was Susan
Billings.”

The Patriarch beat his cane softly on the floor and hummed a snatch of a
tune.

There came a short, quick puffing as the Loafer drew on his pipe, until
the bright coals shone in the darkness.

“But Sam Washin’ton—-”

The old man arose slowly.

“I don’t keer ’bout Sam Washin’ton. I must be goin’ home. I’ll git
the rhuem’tism on sech a night sure, fer I’ve no horse-chestnut in me
pocket.”