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A short story by Harriet S. Caswell

Old Rufus

Title:     Old Rufus
Author: Harriet S. Caswell [More Titles by Caswell]

The memory of Old Rufus is so closely connected with the days of my childhood that I cannot refrain from indulging in a few recollections of him. The name of Old Rufus was not applied to him from any want of respect; but it was owing to his advanced age, and long residence in our vicinity, that he received this appellation. His name was Rufus Dudley. I remember him as an old man when I was a very young child; and his residence in the neighbourhood dated back to a period many years previous to the time of which I speak. He was born in the state of New York, where he resided during the early portion of his life, and where he married. His wife died before his removal to Canada. When he first came to the Province he located himself in a town a few miles from the village of C., where he married a second time. When first he removed to R. he was for some years employed in a saw-mill and earned a comfortable support for his family. My knowledge of his early residence in R. is indefinite, as he had lived there for many years previous to my recollection, and all I know concerning the matter is what I have heard spoken of at different times by my parents and other old residents of the place. It would seem, however, that his second marriage was, for him, very unfortunate, for to use his own words, "he never afterward had any peace of his life." I have been informed that his wife was possessed of a pleasing person and manners, but added to this she also possessed a most dreadful temper; which when roused sometimes rendered her insane for the time being; and finally some trouble arose between them which ended in a separation for life. They had two grown-up daughters at the time of their separation who accompanied their mother to a town at a considerable distance from their former home. In a short time the daughters married and removed to homes of their own. Their mother removed to one of the Eastern States. She survived her husband for several years, but she is now also dead. Soon after he became separated from his family Old Rufus gave up the saw-mill and removed to a small log house, upon a piece of land to which he possessed some kind of claim, and from that time till his death, lived entirely alone. He managed to cultivate a small portion of the land, which supplied him with provisions, and he at times followed the trade of a cooper, to eke out his slender means. His family troubles had broken his spirit, and destroyed his ambition, and for years he lived a lonely dispirited man. He was possessed of sound common sense and had also received a tolerable education, to which was added a large stock of what might be properly termed general information; and I have often since wondered how he could have reconciled himself to the seemingly aimless and useless life which he led for so many years. But in our intercourse with men, we often meet with characters who are a sore puzzle to us; and Old Rufus was one of those. When quite young I have often laughed at a circumstance I have heard related regarding the violent temper of his wife; but indeed it was no laughing matter. It seems that in some instances she gave vent to her anger by something more weighty than words. Old Rufus one day entered the house of a neighbor with marks of blows on his face, and was asked the cause. He never spoke of his wife's faults if he could avoid it; but on this occasion he sat for a moment as though considering what reply to make, and finally said: "O! there is not much the matter with my face any way, only Polly and I had a little brush this morning." I know not how serious the matter was, but Old Rufus certainly came off second in the encounter. This aged man is so deeply connected with the early scenes of my home life that I yet cherish a tender regard for his memory; although the flowers of many summers have scattered their blossoms, and the snows of many winters have descended upon his grave. He was upon familiar terms with almost every family in the neighbourhood, and every one made him welcome to a place at their table, or a night's lodging as the case might be; and I well remember the attention with which I used to listen to his conversation during the long winter evenings, when, as was often the case, he passed a night in our dwelling. I recollect one time when the sight of Old Rufus was very welcome to me. When about nine years of age, I accompanied my brothers to the Sugar bush one afternoon in Spring; and during a long continued run of the sap from the maple trees it was often necessary to keep the sugar kettles boiling through the night to prevent waste. On the afternoon in question, my brothers intended remaining over night in the bush, and I obtained permission to stay with them, thinking it would be something funny to sleep in a shanty in the woods. The sugar-bush was about two miles from our dwelling, and I was much elated by the prospect of being allowed to assist in the labors of sugar-making. My brothers laughingly remarked that I would probably have enough of the woods, and be willing to return home when night came, but I thought otherwise. During the afternoon I assisted in tending the huge fires, and the singing of the birds, and the chippering of the squirrels as they hopped in the branches of the tall trees, delighted me, and the hours passed swiftly by, till the sun went down behind the trees and the shades of evening began to gather about us. As the darkness increased, I began to think the sugar-bush not the most desirable place in the world, in which to pass the night, and all the stories I had ever heard of bears, wolves and other wild animals rushed across my mind, and filled me with terror. I would have given the world, had it been at my disposal, to have been safely at home; and it was only the dread of being laughed at, which prevented me from begging my brothers to take me there. And when darkness had entirely settled over the earth, and the night-owls set up their discordant screams, my fears reached a climax. I had never before listened to their hideous noise, and had not the slightest idea of what it was. I had often heard old hunters speak of a wild animal, called the catamount, which they allowed had been seen in the Canadian forests during the early settlement of the country. I had heard this animal described as being of large size, and possessing such strength and agility, as enabled them to spring from the boughs of one tree to those of another without touching the ground, and at such times their savage cries were such as to fill the heart of the boldest hunter with terror. I shall never forget the laugh which my grown-up brothers enjoyed at my expense when trembling with terror, I enquired if they thought a catamount was not approaching among the tree-tops. "Do not be alarmed," said they, "for the noises which frighten you so much proceeds from nothing more formidable than owls." Their answer, however, did not satisfy me, and I kept a sharp look-out among the branches of the surrounding trees lest the dreaded monster should descend upon us unawares. Old Rufus was boiling sap, half a mile from us, and it was a joyful moment to me, when he suddenly approached us, out of the darkness, saying, "Well boys don't you want company? I have got my sap all boiled in, and as I felt kinder lonesome, I thought I would come across, and sleep by your shanty fire." The old man enquired why I seemed so much terrified, and my brothers told him that I would persist in calling a screech-owl, a catamount. Old Rufus did not often laugh, but he laughed heartily on this occasion, and truly it was no wonder and when he corroborated what my brothers had already told me, I decided that what he said must be true. His presence at once gave me a feeling of protection and security and creeping close to his side on the cedar boughs which formed our bed, while the immense fire blazed in front of our tent, I soon forgot my childish fears, in a sound sleep which remained unbroken till the morning sun was shining brightly above the trees. But it was long before I heard the last of the night I spent in the bush; and as often as my brothers wished to tease me, they would enquire if I had lately heard the cries of a catamount? Time passed on till I grew up, and leaving the paternal home went forth to make my own way in the world. Old Rufus still resided in R. When a child I used to fancy that he would never seem older than he had appeared since my earliest recollection of him; but about the time I left home there was a very observable change in his appearance. I noticed that his walk was slow and feeble, and his form was bending beneath the weight of years and his hair was becoming white by the frosts of time. I occasionally visited my parents, and during these visits I frequently met with my old friend; and it was evident that he was fast losing his hold of life. He still resided alone much against the wishes of his neighbours, but his old habits still clung to him. I removed to a longer distance and visited my early home less frequently. Returning to R., after a longer absence than usual, I learned that the health of Old Rufus had so much failed, that the neighbours, deeming it unsafe for him to remain longer alone, at length persuaded him to remove to the house of a neighbour, where each one contributed toward his support. His mind had become weak as well as his body; indeed he had become almost a child again, and it was but a short time that he required the kind attentions which all his old neighbours bestowed upon him. I remained at home for several weeks, and ere I left, I followed the remains of Old Rufus to the grave. I have stood by many a grave of both kindred and stranger; never before or since have I seen one laid in the grave without the presence of some relative; but no one stood by his grave who bore to him the least relationship. It was on a mild Sabbath afternoon in midsummer that we laid him to rest in the burial ground of R.; and if none of his kindred stood by to shed the tear of natural affection, there was many a cheek wet with the tear of sensibility when the coffin was lowered to its silent abode. I am unable to state his exact age, but I am certain that it considerably exceeded eighty years; and from what I can recollect of his life, I have a strong hope, that death opened to him a blessed immortality beyond the grave.

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Harriet S. Caswell's short story: Old Rufus