Henry Trafton's Independence

James Trafton had never been a successful man. He had worked hard all the days of his life, but had never seen the time when he could say that he had one hundred dollars ahead. When he died — his wife had died three years before — his three children were left to shift for themselves. These children were all young. The oldest — Henry — was a boy of fourteen. Alice and George were respectively eleven and seven. Attached to the hired house in which they lived was an acre of moderately good land. The house itself was small, containing only four rooms, and the furniture was of the plainest kind. The furniture, with a few dollars in cash, was all that the orphans had to begin the world with — an inconsiderable inheritance, certainly. The morning after the funeral, as the children were sitting at their humble meal, the sound of wheels was heard, and a moment afterwards a tall, sour-looking man entered the room, without the preliminary ceremony of knocking.

“Good morning, Mr. Graves,” said Henry.

“Morning,” said the stranger, shortly. “Well, I’ve come after your brother and sister, and you’re to come with me too.”

“What do you mean?” asked Henry, surprised. “This is the first time I have heard of any such plan. Where do you propose to carry us?”

“Where do you expect? Your brother and sister are going to the poorhouse, and you’re to work for me for your victuals and clothes. That is, as you won’t earn so much the first year, your furniture is to be thrown in to make it right.”

By this time Henry’s cheeks were flushed with indignation, not only at the proposition, but at the coarseness with which it was conveyed.

“Mr. Graves,” said he, “you will find yourself mistaken. I don’t intend to work for you, nor shall my brother and sister go to the poorhouse.”

“They shan’t, hey?” sneered Mr. Graves, in surprise and anger. “Perhaps you’re going to support ’em yourself.”

“That is what I shall try to do.”

“Well, you needn’t expect the town will help you unless you go to the poorhouse.”

“I don’t expect the town to help me. I’m strong of my age, and I guess I can earn the little we shall need. I don’t know of any law that will make us paupers, whether we want to be or not.”

“Oh, you can do just as you please, but I reckon you’ll be glad enough to ask help of the town before six months are out.”

“Not if I have health. Good morning, Mr. Graves.”

“Well, he’s a little upstart. Pride and poverty always go together, they say. I should have liked to have had him work for me, because I could have got more than the money’s worth out of him. But I reckon he’ll have to come to it at last.”

Henry Trafton was a boy of spirit and energy — very different from his father in these respects — and he had that proper pride which made bitterly repugnant to him the thought of his young brother and sister becoming dependent upon the town for support. He felt considerable confidence in himself, and in the Providence which watches over all, however humble and obscure, and he was not disposed to give up without a stout struggle. Immediately after breakfast Henry went to call on Squire Castleton, of whom his father had hired the house. The squire had an excellent disposition and received Henry kindly.

“I called to inquire how much rent father used to pay you for our place.”

“Fifteen dollars a quarter,” said the squire. “I suppose you wish to give it up.”

“No,” said Henry, hesitating. “I thought if you were willing I should like to keep it.”

“Indeed! I thought that — at least Mr. Graves told me —”

“I suppose he told you that I was going to work for him, and my brother and sister were going to the poorhouse,” said Henry, coloring.

“Why, yes, I believe he did say that.”

“I did not hear of it till this morning; but, Squire Castleton, I can’t bear the idea of any of the family coming on the town, and I thought if you would still let us the place, I might, with what I could get off the land and what work I could get to do, be able to keep the family together. We shouldn’t expect to live very extravagantly, but it would be so much pleasanter if we could still be together.”

“Give me your hand, my boy,” said the squire, warmly. “Your resolution is a manly and noble one, and you shall not want my encouragement.”

“Then we may still have the house?”

“Yes, and at a reduced rent. I guess it won’t be any loss to me in the end if I let you have it at ten dollars a quarter instead of fifteen.”

“But indeed, Squire Castleton, you are too kind. I shan’t feel as if I was really depending on myself.”

“No scruples, Henry. Don’t you see that it is for my interest to have you stay? If you left I might be without a tenant for six months or a year, or else get one that abuses the house and perhaps neglects to pay the rent. Besides, if you get on well this year, I may increase next.”

Henry’s sensitive pride was appeased by this representation of the kind-hearted Squire, and he thanked him earnestly.

“And hark you, my boy,” continued Squire Castleton, “you’ll want all your money till you get well underway, so you can wait and pay me the rent all in a lump at the end of the year. No thanks— it will be just as convenient to me. How soon do you propose to plant your land?”

“I suppose it is about time now. I thought I would try to hire a man to come and plough it within a day or two.”

“As to that,” said the squire, “my oxen are not in use this forenoon, I will send them right over with my man Mike, and they can have it done by dinner.”

“I shall be very glad to make that arrangement, and will pay you whatever the regular price is.”

“Oh, that’s a trifle. I shan’t make any account of it. But I’ll tell you what you can do. You can get your seed of me. I have got some capital potatoes — an excellent kind — which I can recommend.”

“But you must certainly let me pay for those, Squire Castleton.”

Feeling that Henry would really feel more at ease if he permitted this, the squire proposed that he should pay in work, which Henry gladly agreed to do.

“I’ve got half a dozen cords of wood that I want sawed and split,” said the squire. “There’s no hurry about it, though. It will do when you have done planting. I will deduct the price of what seed I supply you out of your wages.”

When Henry left Squire Castleton’s house, it would be hard to tell which was the better pleased, he or the squire. The latter felt a warm glow at his heart, such as a good action always brings with it, while the former rejoiced in the bright prospect of independence, which he saw before him. Henry had hardly gone when Mr. Graves, who, by the way, was overseer of the poor, came to see Squire Castleton. He had come with the benevolent purpose of urging the squire to turn the cold shoulder upon our hero, and decline to let him the house in which he now lived.

“Good morning, squire,” said the overseer.

“Good morning,” returned the squire, rather stiffly, for he had never felt particularly friendly towards a man who was notorious for his meanness.

“I’ve just been over to see the Trafton children,” said Mr. Graves.

“Have you?” said the squire.

“Yes, squire, and what do you think? They’ve set their backs up — at least Henry has — that they won’t go to the poorhouse.”

“Have they, indeed?”

“Yes, ain’t it ridikilus? Of course they can’t expect to live where they do now.”

“I beg your pardon, Mr. Graves. They propose to do so.”

“What! You ain’t going to let them stay, are you?”

“I have agreed to do so.”

“Well, I can tell you one thing, Squire Castleton — I wouldn’t give you ten dollars for all the rent you’re likely to get out of them.”

“I conceive,” said the squire, coldly, “that this is a matter which concerns me only. I feel under no apprehensions on that score. Henry Trafton is a fine, manly boy, and I have the utmost confidence in him.”

Mr. Graves left the squire a little discomfited, muttering to himself, “Well, it ain’t none of my business, I s’pose; but I reckon the squire’ll find by this time next year that I ain’t quite so far wrong.”

Indeed, had all looked upon Henry with the same disfavor as Mr. Graves, the latter’s prophecy would very probably have been verified. But, for the credit of human nature be it said, the boy’s spirit made him friends. By way of illustration, let me mention that Mr. Burbank, of the firm of Burbank & Co., who kept the village store, offered to give Henry six months’ credit on such articles as he might need from the store — the favor being the greater that the business was conducted on the cash system. Henry thanked him, and said that he preferred to pay cash when he had it, but might like a temporary accommodation now and then.

It took Henry about a week to get his land planted. At the end of that time he entered upon the job which he had engaged of Squire Castleton. At the end of this time he received an offer from a shoemaker to work during the spare time he had in his shop, while at the same time work at binding shoes was offered to his sister Alice. But Henry was not willing that either Alice or George should give up school for the sake of work. He felt that this would be but a poor investment of time. Accordingly, it was only during their leisure hours that they were called upon to do their part towards the family support. Fortunately, Alice knew how to cook, having been accustomed to do all the family cooking before her father’s death, and she still continued to do it. The family was so small that it did not require her to work beyond her strength, or fill up a large part of her time. Fortunately, the harvest was excellent, and Henry, after selling off one-half of his vegetables, had enough left to last their small family through the year.

At the end of the first year, to his great satisfaction he found that he had enough to pay the rent and some over. Certainly he had reason to congratulate himself on the success of his attempt to keep the family together. True, they had not lived luxuriously, but they had lived comfortably, and above all, they had retained their independence and their self-respect.

Three years passed, and Henry was now seventeen years old. What was his surprise when Squire Castleton came to him and proposed to him to cultivate his (the squire’s) farm at the halves.

“What!” exclaimed Henry, in surprise. “Would you trust me, who am so young, with so important a trust?”

“You are but seventeen, I know, Henry,” was the reply, “but I have watched you closely for the last three years, and I have found in you qualities which I consider far more valuable than mere experience. I may tell you in confidence that the position which I offer you has been sought by Mr. Graves, whose petition I declined without a moment’s hesitation.”

“My dear sir,” said Henry. “I accept your proposal with grateful thanks, and I will endeavor to so exert myself that you shall not repent it.”

When it came out that Henry Trafton had taken the squire’s large farm at the halves, everybody was astonished, and none more so than Mr. Graves. He loudly asserted that the squire had acted like a “natural born fool,” and that he would find it out at the end of the first year. But five years have passed, and Henry’s engagement still continues. I am inclined to think there is no chance of its speedy termination, as Henry is engaged to the squire’s pretty daughter, who will soon become his wife.

(First appeared in Gleason's Literary Companion, April 28, 1860)