By Greg Clark, February 8, 1936
“It’s the axle,” said Jimmie Frise.
“Then,” stated I, not indignantly, “we’re here for the night.”
“I guess so,” said Jim, staring around the strange little village, with its steamy windows throwing a faint light on the deep snow banks piled high against little stores, sheds, cottages.
“What does the garage man say?” I asked.
“He says it’s the axle,” replied Jim. “And it will take at least three hours to fix, and he’s got an engagement tonight.”
“An engagement?” I cried. “Do you mean to say he won’t fix our car because he’s got an engagement? An engagement? Whoever heard of garageman having an engagement?”
“He’s a very nice young fellow,” said Jim. “I told him we weren’t going any place except fox hunting, and we’d put up here for the night.”
“Is there a hotel?” I demanded.
“No, but he said he would run around and find a place for us.”
“Some old widda,” I snorted. “Damp spare beds, unslept in for fifteen years. An ice cold spare room, with golden oak dresser and an afghan…”
“Well, it’s a broken axle,” reminded Jim.
I entered the garage with Jimmie and we stood looking at the car, from under which scrambled a handsome young man wiping his hands hastily on waste.
“Well, young man,” said I, “I hear you’ve got an engagement. Do you suppose there is anything two visitors like us might do in this town?”
The young chap studied us excitedly for a moment.
“You might like to come with us,” he said.
“A sleighing party,” said he.
Jim and I looked at each other.
“I haven’t been on a sleighing party,” cried Jim, “for thirty years!”
“Perhaps the young ladies,” I said, “wouldn’t care to have a couple of elderly strangers horn in on what really is a very merry and intimate occasion.”
“It’s a stag sleighing party,” said the young garage man. “That is, kind of.”
“Stag?” said I, “What is it, a lodge? Or a Liberal rally?”
“It’s a kind of church affair,” explained the young fellow, unbuttoning his brown overalls and starting to peel out of them. He did not look to me like a Bible class young man.
“We’ll come,” said Jim, eagerly. “I don’t fancy going to bed at a quarter past eight.”
“Come on, then,” said the lad. “We can arrange where you stay after we come back. Leave it to me.”
So we left our bags and hunting gear in the car and followed the young chap out into the wintry world where he led us at a fast swinging stride up the village street under a moon so glorious, so round and radiant. it was like day. There was an air of excitement about our young friend. Past the church we hastened, where lights glowed in the basement windows. Past the end cottages. Out a couple of hundred yards past the end of the village, to a side road.
A Little Bit Puzzling
“Gents,” said the young man, “we are gathering at a farmhouse a little way up. Will you wait here? Just till I explain to the boys who you are.”
“Fine, fine,” said Jim and I. “It’s a lovely night to be waiting at a crossroads.”
And he left us and sped away up the road, while we stood under the splendor of the winter moon, amid the deep drifts, inhaling the crystal air and looking back at the shadowy village with its quiet lights.
“Jim,” I cried, “what a great way to live. Just drop down into a village like this, and right away enter into the heart of it.”
“Ah, the country,” said Jim, waving his arms and beating his chest with them. “The longer I live, the more foolish I feel for ever coming into a city.”
“Think,” I said, “of the simplicity and beauty of this life. This gentle village. This wide, quiet world of snow and moonlight. Of peace and kindliness.”
“Compare it,” said Jim, addressing the wide empty night, “with the strife and warfare of cities. That splendid young man we are with. So excited over a simple thing like a sleighing party. In a city, that young man would have to be up to all sorts of hellery to work up an excitement like this. Just a sleighing party. A church affair.”
Far off, we heard sleigh bells. We stared up the road and presently saw a big object moving down the snowy road towards us.
“Jim,” I stated, “there is an innocence about country life that we have lost in cities forever.”
“I thank heaven,” confessed he, “that I am still able to be thrilled by a sleighing party.”
And thrilled we were, as the mellow jangle of the sleigh bells grew louder, and the huge sleigh, hauled by sturdy horses, squealed across the snowy road towards us, and we heard the ringing laughter and shouts of young men.
The sleigh pulled up and our friend, accompanied by three or four other young chaps, leaped out and welcomed us gaily. And in a moment we were being hoisted aboard the sleigh and buried deep in buffalo robes and heavy blankets smelling richly of horse.
Beside me sat a very short, heavily built young man who seemed, under his rowdy cap, to be the least likely member of a young men’s Bible class I had ever met with.
“What an interesting group,” I said to him, as the sleigh lurched forward and the whip cracked and the bells and voices raised a din. “I understand this is some sort of church affair?”
“Sort of,” admitted the heavy youth, huskily.
“I associate church sleighing parties,” I conversed, “with a more, a more … shall I say?… a more …”
“Sissy?” helped the young man.
“Well, not sissy, exactly, but a less muscular and hearty type of young man,” I explained. “More reserved. Your companions are such a gay and hearty lot. It must be wonderful to attend a meeting of your Bible class.”
“It sure must be,” admitted the young fellow beside me, and he started a song. It wasn’t exactly a sleighing party song. The last time I heard it was east of Arras twenty years ago.
So there I sat, across from Jim, while we lurched and tugged through the night, under the ambient moon, turning north off the highway into a road aisled with tall cedars and balsams, and the young men sang and shouted gaily, and at the front, a group of the party stood up and cheered the horses on.
The horses, as a matter of fact, plodded much more rapidly than any I remembered of old sleighing parties. I remarked this to Jimmie.
“Sleighing parties,” he confessed across to me, over the fragrant buffalo robes, “seem to have pepped up.”
And after we had lurched and jangled two or three miles up lonely country roads, we sensed a gathering excitement in our twenty friends. Many of them leaped out and ran beside the sleigh at the hills and grades. And the crowd up at the driver’s seat, standing, were like rooters at a game.
“This is a curious sleighing party,” I shouted to Jim.
And then we heard our friends shouting:
“There they are, there they are! Giddap, giddap, sktch, sktch, give ’em the gad, Tom.”
Jim and I stood up. Far ahead on the road we beheld a dark object.
“Another sleigh,” cried Jim.
“It’s a race,” I exclaimed. “Let’s hop out and help.”
So Jim and I got out and ran beside the sleigh, holding on. The big sleigh sped, the bells clashed and sang and twenty figures bobbed and leaped alongside, while the driver of our sleigh wielded his whip and the horses broke into a blundering canter.
“They see us!” shouted someone.
And the sleigh ahead, which we had been rapidly overtaking, began to move more quickly.
With shouts and urgings, with bells and squealing of runners, we chased. I got winded and managed to haul myself aboard the sleigh. Presently Jim joined me.
“What thrill,” I shouted. “But what a shame our side is handicapped by us.”
“We were invited,” gasped Jim, recovering his wind.
“A racing sleigh party,” I cried, “Who ever heard of such a delightful way to spend a night. It takes the country to think things up.”
Now we could see dark figures piling out of the sleigh ahead and running alongside to lighten it. But slowly, slowly, we gained on them. Through another dark aisle of cedar and spruce we plunged and again out into a wide and shining open stretch. But ahead loomed a slow rise and when our plunging friends outside the sleigh saw that, they yelled in triumph. And steadily, steadily, we overlook the other party.
As we neared, it seemed to me like a boarding party in the old pirate days. I could hear the shrill screaming of feminine voices. Snowballs, hunks of hard snow off the road whizzed past us. When a piece of wood about the size of a stove stick thudded into the sleigh, I began to get anxious.
“Jim,” I said, “I don’t like this.”
But already we were overtaking the first sleigh, and crowding past it, forcing it over towards the ditch. Already some of our party had bounded ahead and were clasped in mortal combat with men who leaped out of the leading sleigh. Inside of half a minute, amid the screams of girls, the jangling of bells and the snorts of excited horses, twenty wild fighting figures were tumbling in the show, with yells, grunts and shouts and thuds. And suddenly over the side of our sleigh came very large young man who dealt me terrific punch on the side of the head, one of those country swings, and then trampling all over me, charged bull-like at Jimmie.
The Annual Thrill
Thus we were engaged in speechless heaving and grabbing and heavy breathing amidst the tumult for a few moments, until I heard a girl’s voice above me saying: “Oh, you brutes.”
But by the time we got to our feet, while the fighting was still going on in spots and spasms, out along the ditches and fences I saw my short heavy friend, grasping a girl by the elbow with each hand and dragging them from the other sleigh into ours.
And inside of one minute, the whole entire load of ladies was shifted. They yelled and laughed and protested. One young lady was weeping bitterly. Several strange young men charged forlornly at our sleigh but were violently thumped and tripped and flung backwards. Meanwhile, two or three of our party were unhitching the horses of the other sleigh, and presently brought them around and tied them to the back of ours. By this time our sleigh was jammed to suffocation and a valiant rearguard stood around us to beat off the failing attacks of the enemy. And with a final uproar of shouts of okay and ready we lurched into action and moved away.
Behind us, some of them following part way with fists shaking and gestures of despair, were left on the road the men of the first party.
And down under the vastly grinning men, we rode while girls’ voices screeched and laughed and still the young lady wept.
“Aw, cut it out, Grace,” called one girl from the tangled heap of robes and laughed.
“I won’t,” stamped the weeping girl. “I saw Eddie’s nose bleeding. You brutes.”
But presently there was singing, and working his way heavily back to Jim and me came the squat young man of my acquaintance leading large bundled figures behind him.
“That was the Bible class,” explained him to us. “Gents, I’d like to introduce our chaperones to you. They’ll be your partners, Mrs. McGiffin and Mrs. Hawtrey.”
And Mrs. McGiffin and Mrs. Hawtrey were squealing loudly the way chaperones do and waggled themselves space in the sleigh and sat with us, telling about the annual thrill when the church sleighing party is always ruined by the bad boys of the village.
With horses afore and aft, and merry bells thundering and songs rising one after another, we smothered across the white country and down the dark aisles and came at last to the village.
And in the village we drew up, with shouts and cheers, before the church where people came rushing out to welcome us and we all raced excitedly into the church basement where there was rich dark smell of coffee and long tables were spread under glaring lights with pies and cake and fruit and jam and sandwiches of ham, cheese, chopped egg, pork, cold beef, salmon, pickle salad and some private mixture that one never met before and never will meet again.
And there we ate and sang and ate again and looked at fifty bright and ruddy faces and eyes so clear and strange and filled with shy and lovely expressions that you never see in cities anymore; and a little old minister got up and spoke to this unexpected flock of young men, making hay while the sun shone, he explained; and after everything was eaten and the songs were being gone over for the third and even the seventh me seventh time – that seventh timer was the one about the music goes round and around ho,ooo,ooo,ooo – a few shy, angry young men came creeping down the basement entrance and into the door where they were met with loud and wild cheers of derision and crusts were flung at them; all but one brave, slim fellow with a bruised nose, who strode whitely and furiously in and sat down beside the little girl who had been weeping.
And under the silver radiance of the moonlight we went forth and Mrs. McGiffin took us into her house and she was a widda and the furious young man with the bruised nose was her son and we sat and had another tea and our room was the spare room, and the dresser was golden oak and there was an afghan and the floor was icy cold. But the bed was high and deep and dry and warm.
And the next morning we went fox hunting.