The Fillmore Elderberries
by Lucy Maud Montgomery
“I expected as much,” said Timothy Robinson. His tone brought the blood into Ellis Duncan’s face. The lad opened his lips quickly, as if for an angry retort, but as quickly closed them again with a set firmness oddly like Timothy Robinson’s own.
“When I heard that lazy, worthless father of yours was dead, I expected you and your mother would be looking to me for help,” Timothy Robinson went on harshly. “But you’re mistaken if you think I’ll give it. You’ve no claim on me, even if your father was my half-brother—no claim at all. And I’m not noted for charity.”
Timothy Robinson smiled grimly. It was very true that he was far from being noted for charity. His neighbours called him “close” and “near.” Some even went so far as to call him “a miserly skinflint.” But this was not true. It was, however, undeniable that Timothy Robinson kept a tight clutch on his purse-strings, and although he sometimes gave liberally enough to any cause which really appealed to him, such causes were few and far between.
“I am not asking for charity, Uncle Timothy,” said Ellis quietly. He passed over the slur at his father in silence, deeply as he felt it, for, alas, he knew that it was only too true. “I expect to support my mother by hard and honest work. And I am not asking you for work on the ground of our relationship. I heard you wanted a hired man, and I have come to you, as I should have gone to any other man about whom I had heard it, to ask you to hire me.”
“Yes, I do want a man,” said Uncle Timothy drily. “A man—not a half-grown boy of fourteen, not worth his salt. I want somebody able and willing to work.”
Again Ellis flushed deeply and again he controlled himself. “I am willing to work, Uncle Timothy, and I think you would find me able also if you would try me. I’d work for less than a man’s wages at first, of course.”
“You won’t work for any sort of wages from me,” interrupted Timothy Robinson decidedly. “I tell you plainly that I won’t hire you. You’re the wrong man’s son for that. Your father was lazy and incompetent and, worst of all, untrustworthy. I did try to help him once, and all I got was loss and ingratitude. I want none of his kind around my place. I don’t believe in you, so you may as well take yourself off, Ellis. I’ve no more time to waste.”
Ellis took himself off, his ears tingling. As he walked homeward his thoughts were very bitter. All Uncle Timothy had said about his father was true, and Ellis realized what a count it was against him in his efforts to obtain employment. Nobody wanted to be bothered with “Old Sam Duncan’s son,” though nobody had been so brutally outspoken as his Uncle Timothy.
Sam Duncan and Timothy Robinson had been half-brothers. Sam, the older, had been the son of Mrs. Robinson’s former marriage. Never were two lads more dissimilar. Sam was a lazy, shiftless fellow, deserving all the hard things that came to be said of him. He would not work and nobody could depend on him, but he was a handsome lad with rather taking ways in his youth, and at first people had liked him better than the close, blunt, industrious Timothy. Their mother had died in their childhood, but Mr. Robinson had been fond of Sam and the boy had a good home. When he was twenty-two and Timothy eighteen, Mr. Robinson had died very suddenly, leaving no will. Everything he possessed went to Timothy. Sam immediately left. He said he would not stay there to be “bossed” by Timothy.
He rented a little house in the village, married a girl “far too good for him,” and started in to support himself and his wife by days’ work. He had lounged, borrowed, and shirked through life. Once Timothy Robinson, perhaps moved by pity for Sam’s wife and baby, had hired him for a year at better wages than most hired men received in Dalrymple. Sam idled through a month of it, then got offended and left in the middle of haying. Timothy Robinson washed his hands of him after that.
When Ellis was fourteen Sam Duncan died, after a lingering illness of a year. During this time the family were kept by the charity of pitying neighbours, for Ellis could not be spared from attendance on his father to make any attempt at earning money. Mrs. Duncan was a fragile little woman, worn out with her hard life, and not strong enough to wait on her husband alone.
When Sam Duncan was dead and buried, Ellis straightened his shoulders and took counsel with himself. He must earn a livelihood for his mother and himself, and he must begin at once. He was tall and strong for his age, and had a fairly good education, his mother having determinedly kept him at school when he had pleaded to be allowed to go to work. He had always been a quiet fellow, and nobody in Dalrymple knew much about him. But they knew all about his father, and nobody would hire Ellis unless he were willing to work for a pittance that would barely clothe him.
Ellis had not gone to his Uncle Timothy until he had lost all hope of getting a place elsewhere. Now this hope too had gone. It was nearly the end of June and everybody who wanted help had secured it. Look where he would, Ellis could see no prospect of employment.
“If I could only get a chance!” he thought miserably. “I know I am not idle or lazy—I know I can work—if I could get a chance to prove it.”
He was sitting on the fence of the Fillmore elderberry pasture as he said it, having taken a short cut across the fields. This pasture was rather noted in Dalrymple. Originally a mellow and fertile field, it had been almost ruined by a persistent, luxuriant growth of elderberry bushes. Old Thomas Fillmore had at first tried to conquer them by mowing them down “in the dark of the moon.” But the elderberries did not seem to mind either moon or mowing, and flourished alike in all the quarters. For the past two years Old Thomas had given up the contest, and the elderberries had it all their own sweet way.
Thomas Fillmore, a bent old man with a shrewd, nutcracker face, came through the bushes while Ellis was sitting on the fence.
“Howdy, Ellis. Seen anything of my spotted calves? I’ve been looking for ’em for over an hour.”
“No, I haven’t seen any calves—but a good many might be in this pasture without being visible to the naked eye,” said Ellis, with a smile.
Old Thomas shook his head ruefully. “Them elders have been too many for me,” he said. “Did you ever see a worse-looking place? You’d hardly believe that twenty years ago there wasn’t a better piece of land in Dalrymple than this lot, would ye? Such grass as grew here!”
“The soil must be as good as ever if anything had a chance to grow on it,” said Ellis. “Couldn’t those elders be rooted out?”
“It’d be a back-breaking job, but I reckon it could be done if anyone had the muscle and patience and time to tackle it. I haven’t the first at my age, and my hired man hasn’t the last. And nobody would do it for what I could afford to pay.”
“What will you give me if I undertake to clean the elders out of this field for you, Mr. Fillmore?” asked Ellis quietly.
Old Thomas looked at him with a surprised face, which gradually reverted to its original shrewdness when he saw that Ellis was in earnest. “You must be hard up for a job,” he said.
“I am,” was Ellis’s laconic answer.
“Well, lemme see.” Old Thomas calculated carefully. He never paid a cent more for anything than he could help, and was noted for hard bargaining. “I’ll give ye sixteen dollars if you clean out the whole field,” he said at length.
Ellis looked at the pasture. He knew something about cleaning out elderberry brush, and he also knew that sixteen dollars would be very poor pay for it. Most of the elders were higher than a man’s head, with big roots, thicker than his wrist, running deep into the ground.
“It’s worth more, Mr. Fillmore,” he said.
“Not to me,” responded Old Thomas drily. “I’ve plenty more land and I’m an old fellow without any sons. I ain’t going to pay out money for the benefit of some stranger who’ll come after me. You can take it or leave it at sixteen dollars.”
Ellis shrugged his shoulders. He had no prospect of anything else, and sixteen dollars were better than nothing. “Very well, I’ll take it,” he said.
“Well, now, look here,” said Old Thomas shrewdly, “I’ll expect you to do the work thoroughly, young man. Them roots ain’t to be cut off, remember; they’ll have to be dug out. And I’ll expect you to finish the job if you undertake it too, and not drop it halfway through if you get a chance for a better one.”
“I’ll finish with your elderberries before I leave them,” promised Ellis.
Ellis went to work the next day. His first move was to chop down all the brush and cart it into heaps for burning. This took two days and was comparatively easy work. The third day Ellis tackled the roots. By the end of the forenoon he had discovered just what cleaning out an elderberry pasture meant, but he set his teeth and resolutely persevered. During the afternoon Timothy Robinson, whose farm adjoined the Fillmore place, wandered by and halted with a look of astonishment at the sight of Ellis, busily engaged in digging and tearing out huge, tough, stubborn elder roots. The boy did not see his uncle, but worked away with a vim and vigour that were not lost on the latter.
“He never got that muscle from Sam,” reflected Timothy. “Sam would have fainted at the mere thought of stumping elders. Perhaps I’ve been mistaken in the boy. Well, well, we’ll see if he holds out.”
Ellis did hold out. The elderberries tried to hold out too, but they were no match for the lad’s perseverance. It was a hard piece of work, however, and Ellis never forgot it. Week after week he toiled in the hot summer sun, digging, cutting, and dragging out roots. The job seemed endless, and his progress each day was discouragingly slow. He had expected to get through in a month, but he soon found it would take two. Frequently Timothy Robinson wandered by and looked at the increasing pile of roots and the slowly extending stretch of cleared land. But he never spoke to Ellis and made no comment on the matter to anybody.
One evening, when the field was about half done, Ellis went home more than usually tired. It had been a very hot day. Every bone and muscle in him ached. He wondered dismally if he would ever get to the end of that wretched elderberry field. When he reached home Jacob Green from Westdale was there. Jacob lost no time in announcing his errand.
“My hired boy’s broke his leg, and I must fill his place right off. Somebody referred me to you. Guess I’ll try you. Twelve dollars a month, board, and lodging. What say?”
For a moment Ellis’s face flushed with delight. Twelve dollars a month and permanent employment! Then he remembered his promise to Mr. Fillmore. For a moment he struggled with the temptation. Then he mastered it. Perhaps the discipline of his many encounters with those elderberry roots helped him to do so.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Green,” he said reluctantly. “I’d like to go, but I can’t. I promised Mr. Fillmore that I’d finish cleaning up his elderberry pasture when I’d once begun it, and I shan’t be through for a month yet.”
“Well, I’d see myself turning down a good offer for Old Tom Fillmore,” said Jacob Green.
“It isn’t for Mr. Fillmore—it’s for myself,” said Ellis steadily. “I promised and I must keep my word.”
Jacob drove away grumblingly. On the road he met Timothy Robinson and stopped to relate his grievances.
It must be admitted that there were times during the next month when Ellis was tempted to repent having refused Jacob Green’s offer. But at the end of the month the work was done and the Fillmore elderberry pasture was an elderberry pasture no longer. All that remained of the elders, root and branch, was piled into a huge heap ready for burning.
“And I’ll come up and set fire to it when it’s dry enough,” Ellis told Mr. Fillmore. “I claim the satisfaction of that.”
“You’ve done the job thoroughly,” said Old Thomas. “There’s your sixteen dollars, and every cent of it was earned, if ever money was, I’ll say that much for you. There ain’t a lazy bone in your body. If you ever want a recommendation just you come to me.”
As Ellis passed Timothy Robinson’s place on the way home that worthy himself appeared, strolling down his lane. “Ah, Ellis,” he said, speaking to his nephew for the first time since their interview two months before, “so you’ve finished with your job?”
“Got your sixteen dollars, I suppose? It was worth four times that. Old Tom cheated you. You were foolish not to have gone to Green when you had the chance.”
“I’d promised Mr. Fillmore to finish with his pasture, sir!”
“Humph! Well, what are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know. Harvest will be on next week. I may get in somewhere as an extra hand for a spell.”
“Ellis,” said his uncle abruptly, after a moment’s silence, “I’m going to discharge my man. He’s no earthly good. Will you take his place? I’ll give you fifteen dollars a month and found.”
Ellis stared at Timothy Robinson. “I thought you told me that you had no place for my father’s son,” he said slowly.
“I’ve changed my mind. I’ve seen how you went at that elderberry job. Great snakes, there couldn’t be a better test for anybody than rooting out them things. I know you can work. When Jacob Green told me why you’d refused his offer I knew you could be depended on. You come to me and I’ll do well by you. I’ve no kith or kin of my own except you. And look here, Ellis. I’m tired of hired housekeepers. Will your mother come up and live with us and look after things a bit? I’ve a good girl, and she won’t have to work hard, but there must be somebody at the head of a household. She must have a good headpiece—for you have inherited good qualities from someone, and goodness knows it wasn’t from your father.”
“Uncle Timothy,” said Ellis respectfully but firmly, “I’ll accept your offer gratefully, and I am sure Mother will too. But there is one thing I must say. Perhaps my father deserves all you say of him—but he is dead—and if I come to you it must be with the understanding that nothing more is ever to be said against him.”
Timothy Robinson smiled—a queer, twisted smile that yet had a hint of affection and comprehension in it. “Very well,” he said. “I’ll never cast his shortcomings up to you again. Come to me—and if I find you always as industrious and reliable as you’ve proved yourself to be negotiating them elders, I’ll most likely forget that you ain’t my own son some of these days.”