Horace Holyoke can remember Oldtown as he had known it when he was a boy, a quiet little village beside a tranquil river in Massachusetts. Surrounded by farmhouses deep in green hollows or high on windy hilltops, Oldtown consists of one rustic street, where the chief landmarks of the community stand. Among these landmarks are the meetinghouse with its classic white spire, the schoolhouse, the academy, a tavern, and the general store, which is also the post office.
As was common in those days, when New England was changing from a Puritan theocracy of little villages to being part of a group of states under a federal government, the minister was still the leading citizen of the town. Mr. Lothrop, descended from generations of ministers, was an Arminian in his views, a sedate, sensible man whose sermons were examples of elegant Addisonian English. His wife, the daughter of an aristocratic family of Boston, had never forsaken the Church of England, and each Easter, Whitsunday, and Christmas, she traveled in her coach to Boston to attend services in Christ Church. The people of Oldtown called her, without disrespect, Lady Lothrop.
As the story goes, famous John Eliot has come to Oldtown as an apostle to the Indians. Three generations later, Horace Holyoke’s father arrives in the town to teach in the local academy. There he falls in love with Susy Badger, one of the prettiest of his pupils, and marries her. With marriage comes responsibilities that dim forever his hopes of completing his education at Harvard College. Horace’s father’s household is a place of penny-pinching hardships. His mother’s beauty fades and his father’s health, weakened by his attempts to provide for his family and to continue his studies, slowly breaks. Horace is ten years old and his brother, Bill, a few years older when their father dies of consumption. Horace grieves as only a small boy can over his father’s death.
Horace’s chief comfort in those dark days comes from Sam Lawson, the village handyman and do-nothing. Many people call Sam shiftless. A few pity him because his wife is a scold. Of good humor and garrulous tongue, he is never too busy to take small boys on fishing or hunting trips and to tell them stories.
After the funeral, Mrs. Holyoke and her sons live with her father, Deacon Badger, a leading farmer and miller of Oldtown. He, like Mr. Lothrop, is an Arminian, and a serene, affable man. His wife is a strict Puritan Calvinist, as fond of theological dispute as she is of cleanliness. Horace overhears many arguments between the two, with scriptural texts flying thick and fast in proof of their contentions. Their unmarried daughters are named Keziah and Lois. Keziah is a romantic-minded woman with a reputation for homeliness. Lois is like a chestnut burr, prickly and rough on the outside but soft and smooth within, as her tart tongue and warmhearted nature prove.
Just as the life of the village revolves around the meetinghouse, so the center of the Badger household is the spacious, white-sanded kitchen. There the friends of the family gather—Miss Mehitable Rossiter, daughter of a former minister of the town, Major Broad, Squire Jones, Sam, and others. While there, Horace listens to discussions on politics, religion, philosophy, and varied local lore, all of which will influence him throughout his lifetime. There, too, it is decided that his brother, Bill, who shows very little promise as a scholar, is to work on the farm with Jacob Badger, his mother’s brother, while Horace will be allowed to continue his studies in the village school. Horace grows into a dreamy, imaginative boy. Sometimes he feels that auras suggestive of good or evil surround people whom he meets. Often he dreams of a silent, lonely lad of about his own age. The boy begins to fade from Horace’s visions, however, after he finds a friend in young Harry Percival.
Harry’s father is an English officer, the younger son of a landed family, who brought his wife to America near the end of the Revolutionary War. The wife is a curate’s daughter with whom the officer had eloped and married secretly. The husband proves worthless and dissipated, and at last he deserts his wife and two children when his regiment returns to England. He takes his wife’s wedding certificate with him and leaves behind a letter denying the legality of their marriage. Friendless and without funds, the wife sets out...
(The entire section is 1805 words.)