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An essay by David Grayson

An Auction Of Antiques

Title:     An Auction Of Antiques
Author: David Grayson [More Titles by Grayson]

"I would not paint a face
Or rocks or streams or trees
Mere semblances of things--
But something more than these."

"I would not play a tune
Upon the sheng or lute
Which did not also sing
Meanings that else were mute."

John Templeton died on the last day of August, but it was not until some weeks later that his daughter Julida, that hard-favoured woman, set a time for the auction. It fell happily upon a mellow autumn day, and as I drove out I saw the apples ripening in all the orchards along the road, and the corn was beginning to look brown, and the meadows by the brook were green with rowen. It was an ideal day for an auction, and farmers and townsmen came trooping from all parts of the country, for the Templeton antiques were to be sold.

John Templeton lived in one house for seventy-eight years; he was born there, and you will find the like of that in few places in America. It was a fine house for its time, for any time, and not new when John Templeton was born. A great, solid, square structure, such as they built when the Puritan spirit was virile in New England, with an almost Greek beauty of measured lines. It has a fanlight over the front door, windows exquisitely proportion, and in the center a vast brick chimney. Even now, though weathered and unpainted, it stands four-square upon the earth with a kind of natural dignity. A majestic chestnut tree grows near it, and a large old barn and generous sheds, now somewhat dilapidated, ramble away to the rear.

Enclosing the fields around about are stone fences representing the infinite labour of John Templeton's forebears. More toil has gone into the stone fences of New England, free labour of a free people, than ever went into the slave-driven building of the Pyramids of Egypt.

I knew John Templeton in his old age--a stiff, weather-beaten old man driving to town in a one-horse buggy.

"How are you, Mr. Templeton?"

"Comin' on, comin' on." This was his invariable reply.

He had the old New England pronunciation, now disappearing. He said "rud" for road, "daown" for down, and gave an indescribable twist to the word garden, best spelled "gardin." He had also the old New England ways. He was forehanded with his winter woodpile, immaculately neat with his dooryard, determined in his Sunday observance, and if he put the small apples in the middle of the barrel he refused to raise tobacco, lest it become a cause of stumbling to his neighbour. He paid his debts, disciplined his children, and in an age which has come to look chummily upon God, he dreaded His wrath.

He grew a peculiar, very fine variety of sweet apple which I have never seen anywhere else. He called it the Pumpkin Sweet, for it was of a rich yellow. I can see him yet, driving into town with a shallow wagon box half full of this gold of the orchard; can see him turn stiffly to get one of the apples for me; can hear him say in the squeaky voice of age:

"Ye won't find no sweeter apples hereabout, I can tell ye that."

He was a dyed-in-the-wool abolition Republican and took the Boston Transcript for forty-six years. He left two cords of them piled up in a back storeroom. He loved to talk about Napoleon Bonaparte and the Battle of Waterloo, and how, if there had not been that delay of half an hour, the history of the world might have been different. I can see him saying, with the words puffing out his loose cheeks:

"And then Blooker kem up--"

To the very last, even when his eyes were too dim to read and his voice was cracked, he would start up, like some old machine set a-whirring when you touched the rusty lever, and talk about the Battle of Waterloo.

No one, so far as I know, ever heard him complain, or bemoan his age, or regret the change in the times; and when his day came, he lay down upon his bed and died.

"Positively nothing will be reserved," were the familiar words of the poster, and they have a larger meaning in an old country neighbourhood than the mere sale of the last pan and jug and pig and highboy. Though we live with our neighbours for fifty years we still secretly wonder about them. We still suspect that something remains covered, something kept in and hidden away, some bits of beauty unappreciated--as they are, indeed, with ourselves. But death snatches away the last friendly garment of concealment; and after the funeral the auction. We may enter now. The doors stand at last flung widely open; all the attics have been ransacked; all the chests have been turned out; a thousand privacies stand glaringly revealed in the sunny open spaces of the yard. Positively nothing will be reserved; everything will be knocked down to the highest bidder. What wonder that the neighbourhood gathers, what wonder that it nods its head, leaves sentences half uttered, smiles enigmatically.

Nearly all the contents of the house had been removed to the yard, under the great chesnut tree. A crowd of people, mostly women, were moving about among the old furniture, the old furniture that had been in John Templeton's family for no one knows how long--old highboys and lowboys, a beautifully simple old table or so, and beds with carved posts, and hand-wrought brasses, and an odd tall clock that struck with sonorous dignity. These things, which had been temptingly advertised as "antiques," a word John Templeton never knew, were only the common serviceable things of uncounted years of family life.

Nothing about the place was of any great value except the antiques, and it was these that drew the well-dressed women in automobiles from as far away as Hempfield and Nortontown; and yet there were men in plenty to poke the pigs, look sarcastically at the teeth of the two old horses, and examine with calculating and rather jeering eyes John Templeton's ancient buggy, and the harness and the worn plough and cultivator and mowing machine. Everything seems so cheap, so poor, so unprotected, when the spirit has departed.

Under the chestnut tree the swarthy auctioneer with his amiable countenance and ironical smile acquired through years of dispassionate observation of the follies of human emotion, the mutability of human affairs, the brevity of human endeavour, that brought everything at last under his hammer--there by the chestnut tree the auctioneer had taken his stand in temporary eminence upon an old chest, with an ancient kitchen cupboard near him which served at once as a pulpit for exhortation, and a block for execution. Already the well-worn smile had come pat to his countenance, and the well-worn witticisms were ready to his tongue.

"Now, gentlemen, if you'll give me such attention as you can spare from the ladies, we have here to-day----"

But I could not, somehow, listen to him: the whole scene, the whole deep event, had taken hold upon me strangely. It was so full of human meaning, human emotion, human pathos. I drifted away from the crowd and stepped in at the open door of the old house, and walked through the empty, resounding rooms with their curious old wallpaper and low ceilings and dusty windows. And there were the old fireplaces where the heavy brick had been eaten away by the pokings and scrapings of a century; and the thresholds worn by the passage of many feet, the romping feet of children, the happy feet of youth the bride passed here on her wedding night with her arm linked in the arm of the groom; the sturdy, determined feet of maturity; the stumbling feet of old age creeping in; the slow, pushing feet of the bearers with the last burden, crowding out--

The air of the house had a musty, shut-in odour, ironically cut through, as all old things are, by the stinging odour of the new: the boiling of the auction coffee in the half-dismantled kitchen, the epochal moment in the life of Julia Templeton. I could hear, occasionally, her high, strident worried voice ordering a helper about. Such a hard-favoured woman!

It is the studied and profitable psychology of the auction that the rubbish must be sold first--pots and bottles and jugs at five-cent bids, and hoes at ten--and after that, the friction of the contest having warmed in the bidders an amiable desire to purchase goods they do not want and cannot use, the auctioneer gradually puts forth the treasures of the day.

As I came out of the old house I could see that the mystic web had been spun, that the great moment of the sale was arriving. The auctioneer was leaning forward now upon the tall cupboard with an air of command, and surveying the assembled crowd with a lordly eye.

"Now, Jake, careful there--pass it along--steady.... We come now to the cheff dooves of the day, the creem delly creems of this sale. Gentleman and ladies, it is a great moment in the life of an auctioneer when he can offer, for sale, free and without reservation, such treasures as these...."

I could feel the warming interest of the crowd gathering in more closely about Mr. Harpworth, the furtive silences of shrewd bargainers, eagerness masked as indifference, and covetousness cloaking itself with smiling irony. It is in the auction that trade glorifies itself finally as an Art.

"Here, gentlemen and ladies, is a genuine antique, hand-wrought and solid all the way through. Just enough worn to give the flavour and distinction of age. Well built in the first place, plain, simple lines, but, ladies, beautiful."

It was the tall four-post bed he was selling and he now put his hand upon this object--a hardy service with a cunningly simulated air of deference. It was to be profaned by no irreverent handling!

"What am I offered for this heirloom of the Templeton family? Ten? Ten! Fifteen over there, thank you, Mr. Cody. Why, gentlemen, that bed cannot be duplicated in America! A real product of Colonial art! Look at the colour of it! Where will you find such depth of colour in any modern piece? Age varnished it, gentlemen, age and use--the use of a hundred years.... Twenty over there, twenty I hear, twenty, twenty, make it thirty.... Speak up now, Ike, we know you've come here to-day to make your fortune--do I hear thirty?"

No sooner had the great bed been sold ("it's yours, Mrs. Craigie, a treasure and dirt cheap") there came an ancient pair of hand-wrought andirons, and a spider-legged table, and a brass warming-pan, and a banjo clock....

I scarcely know how to explain it, but the sale of these inanimate antiques, so charged with the restrained grace, the reticent beauty, the serviceable strength, of a passing age, took hold upon me with strange intensity. In times of high emotion the veil between sight and insight slips aside and that which lies about us suddenly achieves a higher reality. We are conscious of

"Something beside the form
Something beyond the sound."

It came to me with a thrill that this was no mere sale of antique wood and brass and iron, but a veritable auction, here symbolized, of the decaying fragments of a sternly beautiful civilization.

I looked off across the stony fields, now softly green in the sunlight, from which three generations of the Templeton family had wrung an heroic living; I looked up at the majestic old house where they had lived and married and died....

As my eye came back to the busy scene beneath the chestnut tree it seemed to me, how vividly I cannot describe--that beside or behind the energetic and perspiring Mr. Harpworth there stood Another Auctioneer. And I thought he had flowing locks and a patriarchal beard, and a scythe for a sign of the uncertainty of life, and a glass to mark the swiftness of its passage. He was that Great Auctioneer who brings all things at last under his inexorable hammer.

After that, though Mr. Harpworth did his best, he claimed my attention only intermittently from that Greater Sale which was going on at his side, from that Greater Auctioneer who was conducting it with such consummate skill--for he knew that nothing is for sale but life. The mahogany highboy, so much packed and garnered life cut into inanimate wood; the andirons, so much life; the bookshelves upon which John Templeton kept his "Life of Napoleon Bonaparte," so much life. Life for sale, gentlemen! What am I offered to-day for this bit of life--and this--and this--

Mr. Harpworth had paused, for even an auctioneer, in the high moment of his art, remains human; and in the silence following the cessation of the metallic click of his voice, "Thirty, thirty, thirt, thirt--make it thirty-five--thank you--forty," one could hear the hens gossiping in the distant yard.

"There were craftsmen in those days, gentlemen," he was resuming; "look at this example of their art--there is quality here and durability----"

At this point the Great Auctioneer broke in upon my attention and caught up Mr. Harpworth's words:

"Yes, quality and durability--quality and durability. I also have here to-day, and will offer you, gentlemen, a surpassing antique, not built of wood nor fashioned in brass or iron, but a thing long attached to these acres and this house. I present for your consideration the married life of John Templeton and Hannah his wife. They lived together forty years, and the record scarcely shows a dent. In all that time hardly a word of love passed between them; but never a word of hatred, either. They had a kind of hard and fast understanding, like the laws of Moses. He did the work of the fields and she did the work of the house, from sunrise to sunset. On Sunday they went to church together. He got out at five o'clock to milk and harness up; and it made double work for her, what with getting the children cleaned, and the milk taken care of, and the Sunday dinner made ready. But neither he nor she every doubted or complained. It was the Lord's way. She bore him eight children. She told him before the last one came that she was not equal to it.... After that she was an invalid for seventeen years until she died. And there was loss of children to bear between them, and sickness, and creeping age, but this bit of furniture held firm to the last. Gentlemen, it was mad solid, no veneer, a good job all the way through."

As he spoke I thought that his roving eye (perhaps it was only my own!) fell upon Johnny Holcomb, whose married life has been full of vicissitudes.

"John, take this home with you; you can use it."

"Nope, no such married life for me," I thought I could hear him responding, rather pleased than not to be the butt of the auctioneer.

"Do I hear any bids?" the Great Auctioneer was saying, almost in the words of Mr. Harpworth. "What! No one wants n married life like this? Well, put it aside, Jake. It isn't wanted. Too old-fashioned."

It was Julia Templeton herself who now appeared with certain of the intimate and precious "bedroom things"--a wonderful old linen bedspread, wrought upon with woollen figures, and exaling an ancient and exquisite odour of lavender, and a rag rug or so, and a little old rocking chair with chintz coverings in which more than one Templeton mother had rocked her baby to sleep. Julia herself----

I saw Julia, that hard-favoured woman, for the first time at that moment, really saw her. How fiercely she threw down the spread and the rugs! How bold and unweeping her eyes! How hard and straight the lines of her mouth!

"Here they are, Mr. Harpworth!"

How shrill her voice; and how quickly she turned back to the noisy kitchen! I could see the angular form, the streakings of gray in her hair. ...

"What am I offered now for this precious antique? This hand-made spread? Everything sold without reserve! Come, now, don't let this opportunity slip by." He leaned forward confidentially and persuasively: "Fellah citizens, styles change and fashions pass away, but things made like these, good lines, strong material, honest work, they never grow old...."

Here the Shadowy Auctioneer broke in again and lifted me out of that limited moment.

"A true word!" he was saying. "Styles change and fashions pass away, and only those things that are well made, and made for service the beautiful things remain. I am offering to-day, without reservation, another precious antique. What will you give for such a religious faith as that of John Templeton? Worn for a lifetime and sound to the end. He read the Bible every Sunday morning of his life, went to church, and did his religious duty by his children. Do you remember young Joe Templeton? Wouldn't learn his chapter one Sunday, and the old gentleman prayed about it and then beat him with a hitching strap. Joe ran away from home and made his fortune in Minnesota. Nearly broke the mother's heart, and old John's, too; but he thought it right, and never repented it. Gentlemen, an honest man who feared God and lived righteously all his days! What am I offered for this durable antique, this characteristic product of New England? Do I hear a bid?"

At this I felt coming over me that strange urge of the auction, to bid and to buy. A rare possession indeed, not without a high, stern kind of beauty! It would be wonderful to possess such a faith; but what had I to offer that Shadowy Auctioneer? What coin that would redeem past times and departed beliefs?

It was curious how the words of Mr. Harpworth fitted into the fabric of my imaginings. When he next attracted my attention he was throwing up his hands in a fine semblance of despair. We were such obtuse purchasers!

"I think," said Mr. Harpworth, "that this crowd came here to-day only to eat Julia Templeton's auction luncheon. What's the matter with this here generation? You don't want things that are well made and durable, but only things that are cheap and flashy. Put 'er aside, Jake. We'll sell 'er yet to some historical museum devoted to the habits and customs of the early Americans."

He was plainly disgusted with us, and we felt it keenly, and were glad and pleased when, a moment later, he gave evidence of being willing to go on with us, paltry as we were.

"Jake, pass up that next treasure."

His spirits were returning; his eyes gleamed approvingly upon the newly presented antique. He looked at us with fresh confidence; he was still hopeful that we would rise to his former good opinion of us.

"And now before I sell the hail clock by Willard, date of 1822, I am going to offer what is possibly the best single piece in this sale...."

Here again the Old Auctioneer, having caught his cue broke in. When he spoke, who could listen to Mr. Harpworth?

"... the best single piece in this sale, gentlemen! I offer you now the Templeton family pride! A choice product of old New England. A little battered, but still good and sound. The Templetons! They never did anything notable except to work, work early and late, summer and winter, for three generations. They were proud of any one who bore the Templeton name; they were proud even of Jim, simple Jim, who got a job driving the delivery wagon at the hill store, and drove it for twenty-two years and was drowned in Mill River. I'll tell you what family pride meant to old John Templeton...."

I thought he leaned forward to take us into his confidence, motioning at the same time toward the house.

"You know Julia Templeton----"

Know her? Of course we knew her! Knew her as only the country knows its own.

"When Julia ran away with that sewing-machine agent--it was her only chance!--old John Templeton drove his best cow into town and sold her, he mortgaged his team of horses, and went after the girl and brought her home with him. They were firm and strong and as righteous as God with her; and they paid off, without whining, the mortgages on the horses, and never spoke of the loss of the cow--but never forgot it. They held up their heads to the end. Gentlemen, what am I offered for this interesting antique, this rare work of art?"

* * * * *

The auction was considered, upon the whole, a great success. Mr. Harpworth himself said so. Ike, the Jewish dealer, bought the family clock and the spring-tooth harrow, and even bid on the family crayon portraits (the frames could be sold for something or other); a Swede bought the pigs and the old buggy; an Irish teamster bid in John Templeton's horses, and a Pole, a good man, I know him well, bought the land, and will no doubt keep his geese in the summer kitchen, and get rich from the cultivation of the ancient fields. While old John Templeton bowed himself humbly before a wrathful God he would never go down on his knees, as the Poles do, to the fertile earth. And--I forgot--an Italian from Nortontown bought for a song the apple and chestnut crops, and busy third generation Americans loaded in the antiques and drove off with them to the city.

The last I saw of Julia Templeton, that hard-favoured woman, she was standing, an angular figure, in the midst of the wreck of the luncheon dishes, one arm wrapped in her apron, the other hand shading her eyes while she watched the company, in wagons and automobiles, trailing away to the westward, and the towns....

The sale was over; but the most valuable antiques of all found no purchasers: they were left behind with Julia Templeton: only she could use them.

[The end]
David Grayson's essay: Auction Of Antiques