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A BORN FARMER
by Sarah Orne Jewett
Jacob Gaines looked like a king as he sat by the kitchen window and turned to face his wife and his young son and daughter, who were standing in the middle of the room in a completely astonished little group. Young Jacob still wore his cap and overcoat; he had brought his father a letter from the village post-office, besides the county newspaper and the "New England Farmer," but these had both fallen on the floor. The broad sheet of the letter was still in the elder Jacob's hand, and it told the news of a legacy from his cousin and old playmate, who had lately died, a very rich man, in Minnesota.
"Did you say fifty thousand dollars? You didn't mistake the sense, readin' it so fast; you don't mean it says fifty thousand?" asked his wife, who was pale and frightened, while Jacob wore a splendid air of triumph.
"Yes, I did say so, too -- you can read it yourself and see. Conscience' sake, what are we goin' to do with such a lot o' money! There ain't a man in town could raise more 'n half of it," and his face suddenly fell. Jacob Gaines had always been a hard-working man, who never could do half he wished to do for his family, but work had always been his best pleasure, while the farm life had always been unwelcome drudgery to his wife.
"Fifty thousand dollars!" she repeated, and an expression of relief and perfect delight shone on her small, anxious face, while Jacob now grew graver every moment, and at last he turned squarely round and looked out of the window.
"I guess you'll have to buy me that sorrel colt o' Forsyth's, now," said young Jacob, triumphantly; "a hundred and twenty-five dollars don't look so big as it did this morning."
"He's good for nothing but show," said the father impatiently, taking refuge in something appreciable. "Poor weedy thing, and I told you so from the first. You can look about for a better colt than that," his voice broke, as if he could not say another word without crying; he turned again and put his shoulders close to the glass, like a child, and pretended to be looking sharply at something in the lower meadow.
"Poor old Nat," he said presently, with deep emotion. "I never expected he'd remember me so. He knew this farm wan't ever goin' to be a gold mine. I guess he knew I'd had it hard, but he needn't ha' done so much. Lord, how many days we've played together! I wish he was 'live again, and the money might go hang."
"Well, there," said Mrs. Gaines. "He is gone, and I'd feel to enjoy it if I was you, after he remembered you."
"I shall. I've been dreadful anxious, times enough when none o' you knew," said Jacob, coming bravely back to his every-day manner. "It's a godsend for me an' all of you. You shan't ever have it so hard again. You shall have help, all you want. Adeline. You've been real uncomplainin', and I've felt grateful for it, but I didn't know no other way but to pinch and save till I could get free o' my mortgage. My, how big that last six hundred dollars looked to me this morning, when I thought o' raisin' it outside our livin'. I've worked to keep it growin' smaller, payin' a little somethin' right along, and now 'tis all over."
Jacob Gaines's face had grown pale with excitement, and the three listeners were moved by the deep feeling of the moment; it seemed as if, for the first time, they understood the difficulties and anxieties of the past, but it was much easier to accept the thought of a rich and comfortable future. The wife took a step nearer to Jacob, and then bent over and kissed him, and then Mary Ellen followed her, and then the young son, who felt half ashamed before the two women, though he really understood his father better than they, came and kissed him, too. Jacob could hardly keep from bursting into tears. They were not a demonstrative family, but he was a very affectionate man at heart. He was already beginning to look like an old man at forty-nine, with many years of hard work on the unwilling soil of his small farm.
"Well, I must be right off to my chopping, same 's usual," he announced cheerfully. "That cord o' wood's promised to Dr. Marsh's folks to-morrow morning, certain sure. Land! how I wish I'd ventured to drain that lower meadow before the ground froze; somethin' kep' tellin' me to, but I'm goin' to pitch in an' do it another year."
"Oh, you ain't goin' to stay right here an' drudge on this plaguey farm an' work yourself to death!" complained his wife in a sharp, strange voice. "Oh, I ain't goin' to have you do so, Jacob! The children ought to have somethin' different, and as for you an' me, we're most drudged to death now."
Jacob flushed and looked up at her, full of wonder.
"Why, it's our home, ain't it, Addie?" he said, too much astonished to be able to put the vague apprehension of his heart into words. "An' we're goin' to have everything just as easy as we want it, now. Jakey, I guess you'd better come along an' help me this afternoon, if you ain't got to go right off colt-huntin'."
This good-natured every-day joke helped to lighten a moment of strange tension, and they all laughed at Jakey, who wagged his head with a knowing air. Young Jacob was a well-grown person of eighteen years, just at the point where he was so afraid of not being recognized as a man that he constantly called attention to himself as a green boy, and seemed rather younger than he really was. But he had something of his father's heart, as well as his mother's quickness and persistence. He wore a pleasant, sober look as he helped his father to finish splitting, with axe and wedges, the tough cord of chestnut oak for Dr. Marsh at the village. Their bars of reserve and reticence were all down, and Jacob told, with wistful frankness, what a good fellow his playfellow, Nat, had been and what boyish tricks they had played together, with some fruitless follies of their young manhood. And the father and son talked man-fashion with each other on equal terms about life, and planned a happy future, which the younger Jacob thought but narrow, though it oddly enough seemed to fill the whole field of his father's vision. All his life long the boy would remember how close they came to each other's hearts that late November afternoon; piling the wood and working hard together seemed a perfect delight to them both, and the sweet cold winter air was strangely exhilarating. Such work was nothing but play, since they were going to be rich enough now to turn every day into a holiday.
It was no later than the first of January when Jacob himself locked the end door of the old farm-house an Pine Hill, and tried the latch once or twice to see if it were secure. His eyes were brimful of tears, and all the way to the depot he gave but gruff answers to the friendly and even jocular remarks of Hiram Ray, who was driving him to the train. Jacob was going to live in Boston. The oxen were sold and the cows and pigs; his old white horse, Fanny, was to be given to Hiram Ray for her keep. In late December, in the bitterest weather of that winter, Mrs. Gaines's brother and his wife had begged for a visit, and, together with a pleasing sense of their new riches and a constant desire to give his family all the pleasure that money could buy, Jacob had yielded to the invitation. It was easy enough to put a hundred dollars into his wife's hand the morning after they arrived, and to tell her that the bills for any large things for the house could be sent to him, but it was a startling difficulty to find the proposition awaiting him that he should accept a partnership in his brother-in-law's lumber business. His capital was promised an excellent interest; the outlook for building that spring was reported a third larger than in any preceding year. It was eagerly explained that there was no risk or uncertainty in the matter, that his experience as an owner of forest-land would count for much. The firm saw a chance to buy, at a bargain, double the lumber it had ever bought before, and the whole alliance seemed planned from the beginning of the world. And, as if to clinch the matter, a relative of the brother's wife was going to Colorado, and would let his well-furnished house at a discount from the usual rates to such a good tenant.
Jacob's head was giddy with talk and with trying to understand the lumber company's books. The whole tide of opinion was against him. Young Jacob was given work with excellent pay from the very first, and his wife and Mary Ellen were to live, as Mrs. Gaines said, "like other people." But, look which way he would, Jacob kept having a sad vision of the old gray story-and-a-half farm-house on Pine Hill; sometimes the setting sun brightened the small panes of the windows as if he were trudging home at nightfall from his day's work, and yet he had been swept farther and farther down the current during those few swift bewildering days of the Boston visit, until the matter, he hardly knew how, was all arranged, and the children were hilarious with joy, while his wife, in her smart new clothes, began to look like a girl again, so rested and hopeful, and a Boston girl at that.
The last Sunday at church in Upton Corners was an unexpected trial, because everybody was sorry to lose such good neighbors out of a scattered and self-dependent neighborhood, and there were hard wringing of hands and few words among the men, and many last messages and assurances and kisses and tears between the women. On Monday morning the mother and her two children had gone to Boston with their old-fashioned trunks and boxes and the bird-cage and the cat, and now Jacob Gaines himself, he would insist that it should be so, was following alone with the little old dog, after he had spent a wakeful night in the old house and put his home fire out, and eaten a sad, cold breakfast before dawn, so that the dog and he could get time for a last tramp through the snowy woods, where he stood so long leaning against one of the old pines that little Tiger whined and shivered and begged him to come away. He left his axe and mittens in their place in the old woodshed, and his old cobbled snow-boots and leggins, and put on his Sunday clothes with cold resentment of the formalities of life. At any rate, the good old home would be there all ready to take them in again; but the next moment this seemed the worst thing of all, to go away and desert the warm little old house that was next thing to a man's own mother.
But the farm had no great possibilities; no other man who was less industrious could have managed to get a living and to pay, dollar by dollar, half the old mortgage besides. And Jacob was not really irresolute, even if tenderness of heart and a certain shyness had made him feel weak and timid. He would put it all behind him and remember that it was better for his children to know a city life. Even if he spent all his money on the old place, as his own heart was moved to do, it might bring no new opportunities or ambitions into their young lives. He gave a heavy sigh as Hiram urged old Fanny past the swampy meadow which he had always dreamed of draining, but by the time they had driven another mile Jacob was in sound control of his feelings, and on the depot platform he could shake hands and promise everybody with a bold and manly air to come back in the summer. On the train he looked out of the window and back at the western slopes of the long range of hills, until the poor old house, with its woods above on the height of land, was far out of sight.
It was one thing to make an ardently welcomed visit to a brother-in-law's family in Boston, and another to take one's place unnoticed by a cold world of indifferent neighbors in another part of the city. As for Jacob's new business, it was all that had been promised and more, but somehow or other his growing interest in it, and real pleasure in some honest-hearted acquaintances, men of his own sort and country-bred, did not bring much pleasure to his wife. She had seen all the great shops, but she was conscious of being a defenseless country stranger, and she had found too little to do in the new house. Housekeeping there seemed so easy at first that Jacob was puzzled to know why she so indignantly resented the idea of hired help, for which she had always been longing. Mary Ellen went and came gayly with the fast-expanding interest of the young, but the mother, who had ruled them all at home, seemed to be growing reluctant, and on the defensive now, and indifferent, and she insisted that the farm life had worn her out and was guilty of her discontent. Somehow she had never been hard to please in the old days; she was full of ambitions and industries, and in league with the social projects among her neighbors. With all his new affairs, Jacob was slow to notice the change, and only grieved that she seemed far from well, and felt that, perhaps, he ought to have left the old place sooner. Then there came the startling episode of a house-maid, but she was a good Prince Edward's Island Scotchwoman, who proved anything but a cinder in the family eye, being much of the same mind and experience as themselves, but Mrs. Gaines insisted that she took advantage and was forthputting. It was soon after this, however, that Mrs. Gaines began to find her only pleasure and interest in the consultation of a doctor, who found her in danger of a nervous breakdown. She had lent her neighborly hand and counsel in too many cases of illness, in the old neighborhood at home, not to be ready in the expression of her dangerous symptoms now; she could not sleep, and the doctor, being a young doctor and not gifted in the easy reading of human nature, took her symptoms at her own valuation rather than upon any observation of his own, and dosed her gallantly.
She could not sleep herself, and she would not let Jacob, for she thought, in wakeful hours, of so many objections to city-life that had to be spoken of at once. At first she came home well satisfied from church, having found much cordiality from those who were glad to welcome a newcomer; but one unhappy Sunday noon she burst out crying, and said it wasn't "meeting" to her where she saw nobody but strangers.
"There, I feel crowded myself, but I didn't think for a minute but you'd catch right hold," confessed Jacob. "I thought you'd strike root quicker 'n any of us; you felt eager to make the change."
"I did it for the good of others," protested poor Addie, "and now you all blame me!" And at this point Jacob hastily pretended to be asleep.
But one sad night toward the first of April Jacob came home to supper with a great story of some old country people, who had come to Boston to spend the day, and, when they were landed, sat close together in the old Fitchburg depot until their train returned in the afternoon. "John Beckley said the rest o' the folks urged 'em consid'able to go sight-seein'," reported Jacob, "but they stuck to it they didn't want to go no further; they could see all they wanted o' Boston just where they was."
"Needn't spend a lot o' money to do it either," young Jacob chuckled, being of a thrifty turn, but the mother flushed and looked most repellent, saying that she supposed that was said because she had complained of such a high rent and so little to show for it.
"Why, no, mother!" the boy protested, and Adeline Gaines sat down in the rockingchair and said that they were all against her, and began to cry. Jacob and his father looked at each other in dismay. They could not possibly have guessed, or she, least of all, that her state of mind came from lack of interest in her new occupations, and lack of the old exercise; it is a serious thing to pull up a human plant by the roots, and start it again with even the least delay in an unsuitable soil. But Adeline continued to lay all her discomforts at the door of their old farm. Perhaps she was right; perhaps it was too late to have made the change.
But presently the doctor's tonics seemed to have worked only to make her more nervous, indifferent to the shops, and unwilling to go alone any more in the trolley cars. The spring days grew longer, and there were more reasons for going out, and the narrow, uninteresting street seemed to the others more familiar, and even more like a neighborhood. Then Mary Ellen, the daughter, who had been most openly eager about their new friends, one day announced her desire to go back to Pine Hill to make a visit, and pouted unreasonably because somebody said that she had better wait until the ground was settled. It seemed to all of them as if they had been lonely Boston people for a whole year, when they had only been away from the farm three months. Mrs. Gaines, who had been the first to adventure, was the first to quail.
It was the early spring weather that made mischief with one member of the prosperous lumber company. One mild spring day poor Jacob walked all the way home from business, and could hardly bear the feeling of the soft air. It seemed as if he must hear the early frogs piping, and he winced as if with pain when he thought of the farm-work neglected; it was already worse than behindhand. He could not sleep very well that night with an interminable dream about broken fences and the big meadow all under water. He even had a terrible nightmare about being called up before the selectmen for these reasons, and seemed to see the faces of all the idlers in town crowding at doors and windows. He waked with a groan, and was ashamed to tell his wife what the matter was, which made a further coolness between them.
Jacob sat idle a while that morning in the busy office, and took no notice of a pile of circulars that gave his desk as busy an appearance as any one's in the office. He plunged his hands deep into his pockets, and wore a brooding and almost wrathful look as he tipped back his chair against the wall. Young Jacob's heart was deep in the affairs of the firm, but he gave more than one disturbed, affectionate glance at his troubled father, and at last crossed the room and put down a fresh handful of circulars to give a look of business to the interview, and asked him if he felt well. The young man was going by the eleven o'clock train on his first journey for the house to the north of New Hampshire, and had a sense of momentous importance, but he was now rebuffed like a teasing child. Jacob was usually the most even-tempered, affectionate man in the world, and the boy did not know what to do, after he had recovered from the first blaze of rebellion incident to his self-sufficient years. "Something's upset the old fellow," he considered deeply, with many solicitous glances. "He's too old to grapple with a business like this; I guess it's spring comin' on, and he wants to be at work." So he forgave everything with rare wisdom in one so young, and shook hands as he was hurrying off to catch the train. "When I get back perhaps they'll let you off to go up and see after the fences up home," he suggested.
"I can go now if I want to," began Jacob in haste, then the kind look in his boy's face softened him, and he shook hands again. "Guess I've got what they call spring feelings, Jakey," he said sorrowfully. "I've been eatin' like a leather judgment, an' I miss my work. Your mother's all out o' kilter, too; we ought to stayed at home."
Young Jacob glanced at the clock; there was plenty of time before the train went, after all. "Come along, father," he said coaxingly; "you'll feel better out o' doors. Walk along down to the depot with me."
"Ain't they been usin' you well in the office?" asked Jakey, like a whole-hearted champion, when they were on the street.
"First rate," said Jacob. "Square as a box, but I ain't been no kind o' real advantage from the first. My money may be worth something here, but I ain't. You know that well 's I do. They heave a lot o' them foolish circulars on to my desk; chest protectors an' soothin' surrups and buzz-saws, and I don't know what all. I got a list o' talkin' parrots, and another o' women-folks' gear yesterday. I expected there'd be a good deal o' goin' off up country viewin' lumber lots and large pieces o' growth, an' some kind o' out-door campaignin' to it. I can set the value o' timber on the stump just as well as any man. Lord, they don't do nothin' the old-fashioned way; some dapper little creatur' that never seen a tree, walks in and says he represents folks over to Mott Haven or down to Bangor. 'Tain't no such business as I expected."
"We're getting an awful big interest on our money," suggested Jakey.
"I don't care if we be," said Jacob. "'Tain't no business for a man right in his prime. You'd make a good smart clerk whatever you turned to, but just look at me! Settin' and settin' and signin' my name to papers they can't stop to have me read over, and this morning I couldn't fetch my wes'coat buttons nowheres near together. I've increased so in my girth, I'm wheezy as old Uncle Abel Potter, up home."
Jacob's tone had so nearly approached the melodramatic that Jakey felt safe in chuckling, and his father joined in, but not with any great heartiness.
"Now I guess we'll have to say good-by if you ain't in trainin' for a run," said the boy; "I've got to hurry the rest of the way."
"Yes, you'd better take an' run," said Jacob; "I've been kind of loiterin'," and the slender lad was off quickly across the crowded street. Jacob stood still and watched him wistfully, and gave a heavy sigh before he went his way.
"Just what he likes, but how be I goin' to get through the whole summer this way?" exclaimed the homesick farmer.
Something led his idle footsteps to the region of the great city markets, and the headquarters of farming implements, and Jacob's solemn face began to grow brighter again. He carefully examined the display of plows and harrows, and scoffed boldly at expensive planters and weeders, until the happy minutes had flown by to noon. Then he went into the market-house itself, and took a seat in an oyster stall and ate a sufficient but hurried meal, as if he were snatching a hasty nooning in haying time, or before a long afternoon of hoeing potatoes.
As he strolled down the broad aisle of the great building, meaning to go back to the office, one stall after another engaged his happy attention. The beef, the poultry, the astonishing supplies of eggs were full of enchanting interest; it was the idle moment of the day, and this lonely spectator found a friend in a pleasant old seller of the best Maine potatoes.
"Lord, what a price!" exclaimed Jacob, sociably, when he had heard what this new friend paid at wholesale. "I could raise 'em up to my place so I could let you have 'em for two-thirds the money, and favor myself well too."
"Wish you would!" said the potato man. "I'd take anywheres up to a thousand bushels right along through the winter."
"No, no, I'm all out o' farmin'," said Jacob Gaines, with such a sorry look that one might have thought him a man in distress who had met with sad losses.
"Good, hearty-looking fellow like you won't be out of it long," said his new acquaintance reassuringly; "you act to me like a born farmer."
"Just what I be exactly," announced Jacob, brightening up. "I ain't felt so much at home all winter as I do this minute talkie' to you. Lord, how good an' earthy them potatoes do smell!"
One day, toward the end of April, there was an arrival of two Boston persons with a small dog at the country depot nearest to the old Pine Hill farm. Jacob Gaines and his wife, very well dressed in the new clothes which even in Boston life they had worn but little, both carrying baskets and bundles as if they were coming home to Thanksgiving, alighted from the train with faces all ablaze with happiness. There was their daughter waiting to meet them, and Hiram Ray's son held old white Fanny by the head. The democrat wagon couldn't begin to hold their baggage, large and small; they had left their town house as it stood, without a sigh, and paid a quarter's rent, as if it were the price of liberty. Nobody had been told that they were coming for anything more than a visit and for the change of air, which Mrs. Gaines needed, since Boston had not suited her constitution.
But when the train had passed and Jacob Gaines breathed his native air in all its noble freshness, he clapped his hands on his sides and straightened up, as if he were going to crow, and laughed aloud when the station-master asked if he were not going to stop with them a spell. As for the democrat wagon, it was a veritable chariot of victory. Young Ray couldn't find a chance to ask any polite questions about city affairs, for all their interests were in fanning. Jacob's eye was like an eagle's, but he had to ascertain whether the frost was all out of the ground, and whether the grass was winter-killed everywhere as little as this, and how the up-country folks were getting forward with their plowing.
"There, Adeline, home's home, ain't it?" he asked grandly, when they were both together in the old kitchen. Mary Ellen had even brought her mother's geraniums home from the Rays' warm winter kitchen, and put them in their places in the south window. "I tell you this looks pleasanter to me than anything since we've been gone -- now I guess you're goin' to feel better."
But Adeline was impatient of idle talk. "I don't suppose there's any saleratus left in the cupboard, is there, Mary Ellen?" she asked imperiously, and came herself to look before she began to hurry about in her old cheerful fashion. "We brought a cold fowl and some raised bread an'
butter, so 's to have something for supper, but I guess your father'll like some o' those rye shortcakes if I ain't forgot how to make 'em. You step right out an' ask Mis' Ray if she won't lend me a quart o' rye meal."
As for Jacob, he escaped to the barn, without once thinking of the effect of cobwebs on his best black hat. It would have seemed most comforting to inspect the pigs, but there was one of his own old red cows to look at, which Hiram Ray had sent back, and young John Ray was there putting up the mare in her old stall for the night, and Mr. Gaines went round to sake hands with the young man formally, as if they had not met before. "Here, you let me pitch down the hay," he said.
"No, no, I ain't goin' back till I have to," he said, gleefully, a little later. "Mary Ellen wan't ever contented after the very first, and Mis' Gaines was sick all the time, and I told 'em they might keep my money goin' in the lumber trade if they'd let me come home an' farm it and get my house and barn fixed up the best I know how. I can live here well 's I can there. Jakey's the only one that's got wonted; there ain't no farmer to him, an' never was."
That May night after supper Jacob stepped to the door to look across his fields and observe the weather before he went to bed. Down the lane, under the bare apple-tree boughs, were two figures walking slowly, close together.
"I guess Mary Ellen's put her heart right into farming, too," said the cheerful father. "Well, John Ray's a good boy. I thought he showed considerable interest in my spring work I've laid out. I guess he means more than coming over to help me plow. Well, Jakey'll always have a home to come to, but I grudge the boy's stayin' there in all that clatter and crowd."
And Jacob Gaines took another look at the starlit sky and the dim familiar shapes of the old Maine hills.
"I'm goin' to buy me the best steppin' horse now that I can find. Nat knew I'd look for a real good horse when he left me the money. Jakey can have the good of it when he comes home on his vacation; you know he had his mind on a smart colt," said Jacob later that night, apologetically, but his wife did not answer, for she was already sound asleep. She had never fallen asleep like that all the time they lived in Boston.
"A Born Farmer" appeared in McClure's Magazine (17:164-171) in June 1901, with illustrations by Bertha C. Day and was reprinted in Richard Cary, Uncollected Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett. This text is based on Cary's. Click here to see the illustrations. If you see errors or items needing annotation, please contact the site manager.
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The New England Farmer: Frank Luther Mott in A History of American Magazines (New York: Appleton, 1930), discusses a number of agricultural magazines to which the speaker of this story might refer. A likely candidate is the The New England Farmer that appeared in 1848-1870.
Prince Edward's Island Scotchwoman: Prince Edward's Island is a small Canadian province on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Scots were one of the main groups to settle on the island.
old Fitchburg depot: Fitchburg is in northern Massachusetts. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) in Walden (1854) notes that the Fitchburg railroad to Boston passes by Walden Pond.
eatin' like a leather judgment: This colorful phrase does not appear in standard dictionaries. In a humorous article from the Huron Reflector (Norwalk, Ohio ) July 13, 1830, reprinted from the New York Constellation, appears a dialogue suggesting that the phrase means to eat a lot:Inq. I suppose if he has a wooden head, he lives without eating, and therefore must be a profitable boarder.http://yesteryearsnews.wordpress.com/2010/03/26/taking-the-census-answer-a-fool-according-to-his-folly/
Mrs. T . O no, sir, you’re mistaken there. He eats like a leather judgment.
Other appearances of the phrase suggest different meanings. The London Advertiser for July 2, 1883 (p. 4) prints a joke in which an “Irate Customer” complains to a butcher that “that goose I bought here last week was as tough as leather judgment.” (See Google Newspapers) The phrase “tough as leather judgment” (for “exceedingly tough”) is also used in the 2001 novel The Penguin Man by Harvey Sawler. The phrase appears again in F. B. Sanborn’s Life of Henry David Thoreau, quoting from Thoreau’s Journal, in which Thoreau repeats an anecdote told in which some Baptists, hearing a commotion outside, rush out of church, “for they thought it was a leather judgment a-comin’.”
Research by John Woolley.
chest protectors an' soothin' surrups and buzz-saws: The Oxford English Dictionary says a chest protector is any covering or wrap to protect one's chest from cold. Soothing syrups are for colds and sore throats. A buzz-saw is a machine-powered wood saw.
Mott Haven or down to Bangor: Bangor is a city in east central Maine on the Penobscot River. Mott Haven appears to be fictional.
democrat wagon: A light uncovered wagon with two or more seats.
saleratus: potassium or sodium bicarbonate used as leavening, e.g. baking soda.
Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.
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