Story of Thomas Jefferson - J. W. McSpadden

A Challenge

Over three years passed away after that night. The storm of Indian troubles that caused Colonel Peter Jefferson many a long march and bloody skirmish was lulled and the brave pioneer himself laid to rest. Thomas, owner now of Shadwell, his father's best farm, but the poorer for the loss of that father, was nearly seventeen. He was ready to go to college, and William and Mary, at Williamsburg, five days' ride from Shadwell, was his goal.

The boy traveled slowly, stopping now and then for a day or two at the house of some relative or friend.

When evening was falling, one spring day in 1760, he turned his tired horse into a broad driveway that led towards a white, wide-verandaed house sitting well back from the road behind a screen of trees. Figures flitting past the lighted windows, the sounds of a violin and gay; laughing voices told of what was going on within. Tom urged his horse.

A hearty welcome awaited him. After he had been refreshed by a bountiful meal and had hastily changed his clothing from the extra garments he carried in his ample saddle bags, he went down to join the fun below stairs.

At the doorway he paused. The room into which he looked was a long one with a floor well polished for dancing. At one end was a raised platform and upon it an aged negro sat playing the fiddle, patting one large flat foot and nodding his gray woolly head in time to his music. Around the sides of the room were chairs, where a number of persons were sitting about talking. The floor itself was thronged with girls in pretty, billowy gowns of various dainty tints, and young men in long-tailed coats, knee-breeches and buckled shoes.

A stately minuet was being danced. Pretty girls stepping gracefully, their curls nodding about laughing faces and half hiding sparkling eyes; tall youths bowing grandly or taking the fingertips of their partners to lead them in dignified promenade—what a gay sight it was, and how hard it seemed for a rosy-cheeked young blade over near the corner' to step about with such dignity!

When the dance was over, the young people gathered in a knot in the center of the room to hear something the jolly-looking youth had to tell them. In a moment, while Tom still stood hesitating in the doorway, a shout of laughter from the boys and a chorus of merriment from the girls shook the circle apart.

"Fie, Patrick!" called a young girl in a dainty blue dress, shaking her fan at him and whirling to catch sight of Tom's tall figure. "Here's our great Cousin Thomas Jefferson who will think you are a hare-brained rascal. He's laughing at us all this minute!"

Tom, slender, square-shouldered, ungainly, his long coat creased from its narrow quarters in the saddle bag, came forward and stood towering above her. His sandy-red hair was carefully brushed back from his fine white forehead and tied in a short queue. This good-natured hazel eyes beamed with pleasure, and a broad smile lighted his homely, freckled face. He held out his hand awkwardly to the fun-maker.

"I'm glad to know you, Mr. Henry," he said, quietly. "You folks seem to be having a good time."

"Mr. Jefferson. Glad to know you."

Patrick Henry shook hands vigorously and then turned briskly around and held up his arms.

"Let's speed things up!" he called, in a jolly voice. "We'll ask Mr. Jefferson, who I hear fiddles himself, to play. Then I'll give you something that will make everybody's head and heels spin. What do you say?"

A general chorus of delight drowned young Jefferson's answer, and the party moved with one accord to where Jonah sat blinking as he rested from his labors. Patrick Henry seemed to be master of the fun.

"Here, Jonah, let me have your little pet there and I'll give it to Mr. Jefferson, who will be mighty kind to it," he commanded, taking the fiddle from the old man's ready hand. "Now, Mr. Jefferson, let's hear something from your noble hand."

Torn raised his hand.

"Listen a minute, all of you," he pleaded. "Let's elect Mr. Henry to play. He'll do it better than I can."

"Oh, come now, Cousin Tom!" Barbara put her hand on his arm. "You know you can play!"

"Now, Thomas Jefferson," called a short, stout boy, "none of your airs just because you're going to college. Go on!"

"I'll tell you what let's do!" struck in Barbara. "Let's have a fiddler's fair! Patrick against Tom. Challenge him, Tom!"

"A challenge! A challenge!"

"Go on, Tom!"

Patrick Henry, drawing down the corners of his mouth to a solemn gravity, folded his arms and placed himself directly in front of Thomas.

"What sayest thou?" he inquired sternly. "A challenge, is it? This to me? Say on!"

Thomas, still holding the old negro's fiddle under one long arm, looked around the circle and laughed a little.

"Well, then," he said, "if you're bound to have it! Now then, here it is. Ahem! I challenge you, Patrick Henry, to fiddle against me. Old Jonah shall be the judge."

A great clapping of hands was his answer as he and Patrick solemnly clasped hands again. Tom handed the fiddle to the other and turned toward the door.

"I'll just run upstairs and get my own fiddle," he called, over his shoulder.

When he came back with the little kit, as a small fiddle was called, he found the company seated in a circle about the fiddler's platform, and Patrick Henry standing before it, Jonah's fiddle ready for the trial. Old Jonah, chuckling delightedly at the nonsense of "de young white folks," sat in state on the platform, wearing a cloak Patrick had placed on his bent shoulders to represent the robes of a judge.

The "fair" was a jolly one. After a few quick strokes to see whether the kit was in tune or not, and the twist of a peg or two, Thomas began to play. A brisk, pleasant little air came tripping off the strings, and as he played the tall figure of the youth seemed to lose some of its lanky awkwardness in the skill of the musician. At the last note, Patrick Henry flourished his bow and, striking it on the strings with a bounce, broke into a rollicking country Jig that set everybody's feet keeping time. A shuffling sound was heard from the veranda, where the house negroes were standing, their white teeth gleaming as they watched the scene.

"Hyah, hyah!" chuckled a fat negress. "Dat Marse Henry he sho kin scrape de old fiddle!" She nodded her turbaned head in time. "Dat Misto Jef'son cain't hol' a can'le—"

"Sho, Sukie! De quality'll heah yo! Jes wait 'twell Marse Tom gits limbered up an den dey ain't no Marse Henrys in de worl', kin ketch him!  I done heard him befo'!"

Patrick's jig gave place to a reel on Thomas's kit and that, in turn, to another from Patrick Henry, each faster and more furious than the last. It seemed that mortal fingers could fly no faster, and the whites of old Jonah's eyeballs shone in the candlelight as he rolled them. At the end of Tom's last tune, which was a veritable whirlwind, Patrick threw up his hands.

"I'm done for!" he called out. "He's a mountain-peak of song! He's a mocking-bird and a nightingale in one. He's a—well, he's everything I'm not with a fiddle. I surrender without the honors of war!"

Chuckling with delight, Jonah broke into gay tune, partners were chosen in a hurry, and Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Barbara and the rest were soon hard at it again, all of their former attempts at style and stateliness forgotten.

When the dancing was at last over, and the girls and their mothers and cousins and aunts of elder years had trooped up the wide stair to their rooms, the boys stood or sat about the fireplace for a final talk. Tom found Patrick Henry beside him, and before many minutes their talk turned to the College of William and Mary and the town of Williamsburg.

"You've been to Williamsburg, of course?" he asked.

Patrick shook his head and sighed.

"Not yet, but I'll be there before I'm much older. I've been reading about it, though—everything I can get. It's a fine place. Wait, I've a paper here that tells something."

The two bent over the page while Patrick read aloud:

"The city of Williamsburg, which is the seat of the vice-regal court, a court that is second only to that of St. James in London in elegance, is gayest in the wintertime. Then, the carriages of the gentry, the entertainments given at the palace and the splendor and wealth of the fashionable world make it a center of refinement and beauty!"

Thomas drew a long breath.

"So that's  what it's like," he murmured, half to himself, and sat back thinking, his long square chin on his hand, while Patrick Henry and the others went on talking.