THE dull grey dawn was breaking dimly when Jessie Cameron opened her eyes. She had slept heavily throughout the night, and her slumbers had been visited by pleasant dreams of Jock and little children. She was soon up and dressed, ready to commence the day’s work. She threw open the shutters of her bed-room and gazed out; the rain was falling with a dull monotonous music, and the winds that had whistled all night long were laid. Unlocking the door of the room, she entered the kitchen, singing to herself with a light heart. All was still and dark, till she threw open the kitchen shutters. She was about to open the outer door, when a low sobbing sound broke suddenly on the silence; she started and turned pale. She turned hurriedly round, but saw nothing unusual. But the low sobbing sound, which had ceased for an instant as she listened, was repeated.
Jesse walked towards the bed trembling all over. The mystery was cleared in a moment. Wrapt in an old shawl, and lying half-awake on the pillow, she saw a little baby, very pinky in the face, and with open querulous eyes.
She was stunned with the surprise; her head swam, and her heart began to throb violently. But she was a strong girl, and did not faint. She stood with her mouth and eyes wide open, and her hands lifted, utterly lost in astonishment. She had no time to reflect; but the thing was incomprehensible. Pressing her hands to her temples, she sank into a chair with a suppressed cry. It seemed like a strange dream. Might it not be a dream indeed? To make the matter certain, she rose up and peeped again at the intruder.
It was the smallest and the pinkest of babies; a preposterously babyish baby, with puffed pinky cheeks, and a head as bare as St. Dunstan’s shaven poll. Its great staring blue eyes were wide open, busy in astonished contemplation; its red crimpled tiny fist was in its mouth instead of a lollipop; its little fat toes were poked out kicking from underneath the shawl. Plainly, a careless baby, new to the world of men and women.
It was not till the baby began to cry after babies’ fashion, that Jessie began to comprehend 19 the consequences of its presence in that house. Who would believe her incredible story? Certainly not those incredulous canny queer folk of which a Lowland Scotch village is composed. The purpose of the wretched mother seemed evident; she had sinned the woman’s sin, and was attempting to throw the shame on innocent shoulders. What could poor frightened Jessie plead to save herself in her great dilemma? Nothing satisfactory. Sins of that sort had often been cleverly concealed until the appearance of the new-born accuser. No one would believe her. Heaven seemed against her. She was lost.
By a sudden affrighted impulse she had lifted up the child, and was lulling it on her bosom as these thoughts passed through her brain. Every sound startled her as she did so. What if some of the neighbours should hear the cries? She walked up and down the house, trembling all over, holding the baby in her arms. It was soon quieted; the great staring blue eyes resumed their composure, and the sucking operation was resumed. The pale morning light fell upon the girl’s pale frightened face, blinding her; she closed the shutters. She felt as if she would go mad if the tears did not come to relieve her; but they came not—they were scorched up by her great fear.
The woman in the gamekeeper’s cottage was wrong. Jessie never attempted to alarm the neighbours. Her clear Scotch head detected the whole danger of her situation at once. A medical man might have cleared her, had she thought of that alternative; but there was no doctor in that neighbourhood. The simple fact of the imputation staggered her. But it would have been better far had she alarmed the neighbours; by her secrecy she only laid herself open to more suspicion.
A fierce black element of her nature—an element which lies ready in most natures, but is not always developed by circumstances—was uppermost in her bosom once or twice. She thought of her lover and the slanderous tongues of the villagers. A mad impulse to make away with the child seized upon her; her face darkened, her fingers twitched, and only a strong effort prevented her from strangling the child as it lay, so quietly, in her arms.
Then the womanly instinct arose in her, and conquered all other feelings. She understood the pleading of the little wide eyes, the small pinky face, beaming so innocently with the new life that sinners had given it. Her heart softened. The first scalding tears fell over her cheek; the full fresh torrent burst out, and she wept like a child. The small baby fell asleep. She placed it in bed, tucking it up as tenderly as if it had been her own. Then it was tears, tears, tears.
But the tears exhausted themselves in time; the girl became pale and calm. Her brain was again busy with the strange mystery. She moved to the door; there were no marks of violence; it must have been opened, if opened at all, by a false key. She tried the window next, but found nothing to determine her suspicions; it was firmly shut and bolted, and nobody could have opened it without first breaking the pane. Yes! there was only one clue to the mystery. Somebody must have possessed a latch-key fitting the outer door, and have used it for the purpose of entering during the night. But somehow or other, Jessie did not feel quite satisfied with this solution of the riddle.
Oh! that her stepmother were there to advise her! Even that woman, she thought, would help to relieve her great fear. What was to be done?
The time rolled on. The village was astir; there was a sound of feet and voices. But still Jessie Cameron sat in the little cottage, her head hidden in her hands and her heart quivering through all its pulses. There was no fire in the grate, the shutters were closed, and the place was dark and cold.
Hark! the baby began to cry again! She sprang to her feet, lifted the child from the bed; but in vain. Luckily it struck her that the little thing might want food. There was milk on the dresser; she took it down and broke bread into it. With trembling hands, she began to feed the child.
The morning was wearing on. Jock supped his porridge, put on his coat, and made his way to the smithy. He paused opposite the cottage, but there was nobody visible. Whistling a tune, he took down his shutters. He turned round to look over the way again. The door of the cottage was closed, and the shutters were up. Queer, thought Jock. He entered the smithy and commenced work. No use; he found himself shaking his head, looking over the way, and wondering.
“Can onything hae gane wrang wi’ the lassie?” said Jock to himself.
The bare thought of such a thing was painful. He threw down his tools and stood hesitating.
“I maun e’en gang ower and see if a’s richt wi’ her,” he said.
He walked across the street and paused outside the cottage door. A low sobbing sound fell on his ears as he did so. He trembled in spite of himself. He knocked softly. No answer. Strange, he thought. He tried the door quietly, and found it unlocked. He pushed it open and looked in. There was a loud startled cry inside. His eyes fell upon Jessie Cameron, with the baby on her lap.
His heart leaped up into his mouth. The terrible thought which Jessie dreaded flashed upon him. Jessie could not speak; her tongue refused its office. The man walked over with a fierce look, and placed a firm hand on her shoulders.
“Wha’s wean hae ye there, Jessie Cameron?” he said, between his set teeth. But the girl made no answer; she sat with a dull, stupid look, white as snow.
“Wha’s wean hae ye there, I’m askin’ ye?” he repeated, savagely.
Then, sobbing as if her heart would break, Jessse fell at his feet, with the child in her arms. His suspicions were confirmed by her pale haggard look, and her frightened gestures. She told him the story at last, with hurried words and beseeching looks; the hot true tears fell on the child’s face as she spoke. But he broke out into oaths and bitter curses. Anger at the silly audacity of her falsehood was mingled with anger at her sin. How he would be laughed and pointed at! He felt no pity. His love, which had never been of the most sublimated or unselfish kind, was insulted and wronged. His coarse abuse was horrible to 20 hear. He called her by the foulest of woman’s names, and almost struck her. Then it was that her tears ceased. Her blood began to rise; her eyes lost their look of mild reproach, and kindled into rage. She rose up, with the child in her arms, flushed with passion. She pointed to the door, talking thickly. She placed the baby on the bed, and cried:
“Out o’ this house, man!—and God forgie ye for your fause leein’ names. Awa’, I say, ye coward! Ye fause-hearted, puir-spirited coward! Awa wi’ ye!”
He retreated unconsciously, before her dark flushing face.
“Shame on ye for a sinner, Jessie Cameron!” he cried fiercely, as he crossed the threshold. She closed the door after him. The place swam round her—dark blots floated before her eyes—and she fell on the floor heavily, with a hysterical sob. The excitement had been too much for her.
There she lay, a thing piteous to see, with only half her senses about her, the most innocent of human beings. The hours passed on; but there she lay, oblivious to all save her own misfortune. The baby fell asleep, and lay quiet as a lamb.
If the reader has followed me thus far, he will have detected the stupid clumsiness of the scheme adopted by the mother of the infant. I have already observed that a medical man could soon have cast new light upon the affair by exonerating Jessie. So, for that matter, could any matron in the village. The perpetrator of the villany had never thought of this. Obviously, she was a silly, ignorant woman, driven to despair through her dread of public exposure, and had thoughtlessly hazarded the dangerous expedient. It was certain that the truth—or the part of it which related to the innocent girl—must come out sooner or later. The scheme was rotten in itself, and would not stand the test of severe examination.
Jessie never dreamed of these hopes; she was overcome by the sense of danger. Jock was still blinder. He had not been bred up among perfect people; sins of the kind were common enough in most country places. He was of the Scotch breed, Scotchy, and did not take all externals for granted. Besides, Jessie’s face, pretty as it was, had not driven him crazy: he was fully aware that his sweetheart might have her little weaknesses—and her great ones. When he thought of a wife he acted like a man buying a cheese, in a cheese shop where the cheeses are many; he took the best and most profitable he could set eyes on. So he condescended to vulgar abuse, got into a violent passion, and, not having paid for it, thought fit to return his cheese as hard and hollow. Mind, I am not making a hero; I am simply describing a man. He neither tore his hair, nor went up in a balloon. He simply felt that he was an ill-used fellow, and that Jessie deserved all the odium that might be cast upon her. He never for a moment doubted her guilt; the circumstantial evidence fairly conquered his country head. He set to work, a little down-hearted, and made up his mind to a bad job. I am of course aware that he ought to have gone into heroics, and that my romantic reader will deem him a poor apology for a lover. Take him for what he is worth. There he is; and I assure you that you will meet with many like him in every Scotch village.
Jessie Cameron lay where she had fallen, with her head on the hearthstone. The hours passed slowly by, till it was mid-day. She rose at last, and walked instinctively to the bedside. Somehow or other, the child slept on, belying the childish nature. She bent over the little sleeper with the tears in her eyes.
“Puir wee thing,” she said, sadly, “ye hae fa’un on a sad warl. Oh, but ye’re bonnie, bonnie, wi’ your wee blue een and snaw-white brow! Ye come o’ a bad lot, my wee bit bairn; the Lord hae pity on ye.”
The girl started: there was a knock at the door. She made no answer, and stood stock-still, fear-stricken. There was a slight pause. A moment afterwards the lock moved, the door opened, and Mrs. Cameron entered, the big basket on her arm and the latch-key, which she had seemingly taken with her, in her hand. Plainly, she had not calculated on finding her step-daughter within. She started back with a low cry. The dull-eyed woman was thinner and paler than usual. She had the appearance of a person who had just recovered from a violent illness.
Jessie was about to rush forward, and pour the whole strange story into her stepmother’s ears, when the latch-key caught her eye. I don’t know how it happened, but she restrained herself in the sudden movement. A thought struck her, as new as it was fearful and extraordinary. She looked into the dull-eyed woman’s face; it was white with terror. The thought doubled and trebled itself in a moment; it became a terrible conviction. Some few suspicious recollections arose to endorse it. She ran quickly into the inner room. Strange to say, Mrs. Cameron seemed utterly stunned. Once or twice her lips attempted to utter words of anger and abuse; but the words died away unheard. The girl’s face seemed to appal and startle her. A cold sweat ran over her body. She was speechless and unable to move from the threshold.
Jessie returned to the kitchen in a moment, with her bonnet and shawl thrown loosely on. Her face was very pale, her lips were set closely together, and her hands were tightly clenched. But utter pity, not cruelty, was in her heart. As she walked calmly by the panic-stricken woman, she whispered hotly in her ears:
“If God forgies ye for the wrang ye hae wrought, woman, sae dae I. For the sake o’ the faither that’s gane, I forgie ye. I wadna tell on ye, and folk would ca’ me leear if I did. Nae words o’ mine shall say wha sinned the sin, and cam’ to my dead faither’s house i’ the nicht, to wrang my faither’s dochter. But look whaur it sleeps, the wee wean! Ye maun keep your ain!” She passed swiftly through the door into the street. The dull-eyed woman followed, and watched her till she disappeared. She had taken to one of the roads which led out of the village.
Mrs. Cameron was reassured by those last words—the only absolutely heroic words simple Jessie Cameron ever spoke. Her dull eyes brightened. She found herself strong enough to run 21 among the neighbours, weeping maudlin tears and crying shame on her stepdaughter’s head. If talking is a proof of grief, she was very grieved indeed. The news of the affair soon spread over the village, and poor Mrs. Cameron was much sympathised with and pitied. One circumstance gave her the look of a martyr. The child was not to be blamed, she asseverated weeping; no. Her cruel, heartless daughter had left it behind her; but no matter. She herself would be a mother to it. You must imagine how the women praised this soft-hearted angel, who took so tenderly to the little innocent child.
I have little more to tell, and I will not exhaust my reader’s patience in telling it. The whole truth came out in good time. A year and some months after Jessie’s departure, the cholera passed over the village. Mrs. Cameron was one of its many victims. Before her death, this woman told the whole story to the minister, who lost no time in communicating it to Jock. The baby was her own; it had been born three days after her departure on a pretended visit to her sister. The place of its birth was the cottage of its father, Rab Simpson, a dissolute rascal who lived alone, and who reluctantly consented to receive the frightened mother. She asserted most positively that the crime had not been premeditated; it was suddenly suggested by her dread of shame and ignominy. On her departure from home, she had found the key among the loose things in her pocket, and the fact of its being in her possession had induced her to make the midnight visit. She had quieted the babe with laudanum before leaving it in the cottage. The minister sought for Simpson, who could have established the truth of this statement, but he had gone off (in a drunken fit) to the colonies.
Jock felt terribly down-hearted after this. For two or three months he tried in vain to find out his quondam sweetheart. He ascertained that, immediately on her departure from home, she had gone to a small town about thirty miles distant. There she had taken a farmer’s fee, under an assumed name, and had become a farm-servant. He tracked her from this place to Edinburgh, and thence to Glasgow, where he found her, on the point of emigrating to Australia. He repeated the old offer of marriage. But Jessie shook her head. She could never forget his cruel words, she said. The old love was gone; it was never a deep, all-absorbing love, and now it was all gone. She was deaf to his entreaties.
When Jessie Cameron sailed for Australia, the baby went with her; she adopted it then and there, as the only one of its relations who was willing to do so. She went out as a widow. What became of her and the child afterwards, goodness knows. I should like to chronicle some piece of unusual prosperity: but it is impossible. I have told all I know about the matter.
[Illustration by Frederick Walker.]
Back to Fiction: Short Stories
My Aunt’s Christmas
Illustrated Times (21 December, 1861).
MY AUNT’S CHRISTMAS.
BY WILLIAMS BUCHANAN.
“THANK goodness, I was never nervous!” (said my Aunt Martha, a tall, vigorous maiden lady of forty, country bred, and physically very courageous. It was Christmas Eve, and we—the sisters and brothers, and nephews and nieces of the speaker—were assembled in her cosy little parlour at Hampstead. Our design was to see in Christmas, and our method of beguiling the time was storytelling.)
Thank goodness, I was never nervous. I was a country girl, you see; I ate and drank heartily, I took plenty of exercise, I breathed pure air, and perhaps I believed that the privilege of being frightened at a mouse or a spider appertained solely to your fine ladies of quality. Nervous, no! — though I was sadly tried, mind you.
Father’s farm was down in the country—down at a lonely, outlandish-sort-of-place, called Caverford. Caverford, I think, was the name of the parish; and it was also the name of the village, which was some two miles from the farm. The village was a very small one, inhabited chiefly by agricultural people in the employ of the farmers.
Father, you know, was well-to-do; and if he hadn’t speculated so much he might have been wealthy. As matters stood he was considered a little better off than he really was, and his neighbours, the farmers, held him and his in high estimation. They courted his company, too, for he was hail-fellow-well-met with them all; and a merrier, more goodnatured man never proved a friend indeed to a friend in need. He would never put his name on paper to oblige an acquaintance, but he had always a guinea to spare for a poor friend, and never turned a deaf ear to an appeal for help. What else? Not much, perhaps, for father was rough, homespun, and poorly educated; but he knew how to work for hearth and home, and he was hospitable, and he kept up Christmas Day with the best of them.
When I was nineteen years of age, and when my sisters and brothers were quite children, poor mother died, and I had to take her place at father’s board. I had to see that father was comfortable, and to take charge of the little ones. Being strong and healthy, I found these duties quite bearable, and even pleasant; and, naturally enough, I hesitated before thinking of love or marriage. Now, I had no scarcity of admirers. Some admired me personally; for I was a good-looking girl, then, and wore real natural roses on my cheeks. Some admired the dowry which they expected would go with me. Others—widowers, these—admired my strong limbs and vigorous healthy body, thinking me fit to look after their young children. But I heeded none of them. I laughed, joked, romped with them, but cared for none of them seriously. Say, I forget. There was one young fellow for whom I had rather a liking, and who loved me warmly.
His name was Darrell, Tom Darrell, and he lived with his uncle at the latter’s farm, three miles distant.
Nobody could have disliked Tom.. He was tall and well built; had fine, flashing brown eyes, and wore great black whiskers, which made a man of him. Tom Dare-the-Devil, some people called him; for he was great in all sports where he ran any risk of breaking his head or his neck. Perhaps I liked him because he was overstocked with courage, and perhaps for the same reason I was rather afraid to encourage him; for men like Tom, however goodnatured they may be, don’t always make the best or most considerate of husbands; and he was the very pink of goodnature—all dash and rattle and laughter; and he could say sly things to one with his twinkling eye when the tongue kept still for discretion’s sake. Well, all the girls around ran after Tom, and Tom ran after me.
At first I didn’t encourage him at all; and I romped, laughed, and made free with him, just to show that he was no more to me than the rest of the men, and that I cared little about him. At last, however, when I was twenty, and when Tom was twenty five, I changed my mind, and thought I would give him a little encouragement. Why?
Perhaps because I in due time began to conceive an affection for him; perhaps because father looked with favour upon him; perhaps because——well, chiefly because I wanted to show his cousin, Seth Purvis, that I would have nothing to do with him, and that I had finally made up my mind whom to marry.
The two cousins lived with their uncle, Seth’s father. They seemed fond of one another, though their dispositions resembled each other as little as did their faces. I have told you what Tom was like, and, if you understood on what grounds I liked him, you will understand on what grounds I disliked the other. Seth was two years younger than Tom; he had straight, fair, hair and a white complexion, and he was stoutly made and short. His eyes were very faint blue, and they glanced up and down, this way and that, never meeting yours, and in a placidly suspicious manner. At times, too, they caught a green tinge, and looked cruel. What I disliked in Seth’s appearance applied also to his character. In his heart, as well as in his face, there was a lack of warmth and colour. The fresh, blushing vigour of young blood was wanting. He was staid, not lively, and too calm by half to be good at heart. I don’t believe in your placid, cold, smooth people, who never get into a passion, but keep their malice like a pent-up fire within their bosoms until such a time as it may start up in a blaze to do some one or other an ill turn. No; Seth Purvis was not the lad for my money. I was just civil to him, and that was all. He had taken a fancy to me, and would hang about the farm of an evening, time after time. He used to come regularly with Tom Darrell; and it was when Tom was laughing and romping, while Seth sat watching us in his pale way from a corner of the hearth, that one best perceived the difference between the two men. Somehow or other, I think Seth purposely put himself in the way. There was no getting a quiet word with Tom; for his cousin was sure to be close by, smoking his pipe, and opening his ears wide for every word, with a pallid smile. Now and then, too, I saw the green tinge come into his eyes; and it was then that I shuddered, as if in dreadful anticipation of what was to come. I’m not speaking figuratively, mind. When the cruel look came over Seth Purvis, his eyes were coloured with a real gooseberry hue, and looked quite dreadful. Let people say what they will, it is little signs like these which show the character. A good face is really a fortune, and Heaven always means it to be so; and there may be deformity without ugliness. Pure unmistakable ugliness springs from the heart, in my opinion. There! Satan is never suffered to put on the garment of a fine body without there is some little flaw in the garment by which the eyes of a woman may ascertain who it is that goes masquerading.
Most men are bad hands at reckoning up character just because they can’t or won’t perceive trifles; but a gossamer will show which way the wind blows, and I’ve often enough learned the time of day by means of a flying tuft of thistledown. Tom Darrell thought Seth Purvis everything that is good; he estimated him at what he seemed, and took his love and friendship for granted. “Seth’s the best fellow in the world,” he would say, “to me, if one only understood his ways; he’s thoughtful, you see, and I’m harum-scarum; but a fonder, better fellow”—and so on. I said nothing; I only liked Tom the more and Seth the less; but it was not my place to cause disunion among relations. Sometimes, indeed, Tom’s goodness made me think I was mistaken in Seth. Good men are like light; they throw a radiance over everything with which they come in contact, until it is difficult to separate the good element itself from the men and things it illumines.
And now you shall hear all about my terrible Christmas.
I was twenty-one, and had at last engaged myself to marry Tom Darrell. He had begged and coaxed me so long that I thought it cruel to delay longer; and when my father began to hasten the match (he was afraid of losing Tom) I was quite contented. Seth Purvis saw that his case was a hopeless one, and he pretended to be unconcerned; but I knew that his heart was on fire with rage. He still continued to come visiting with Tom, and to watch us in his pale way, till I quite lost patience and showed him that I was displeased. Well, one day Seth and I happened to be alone in the kitchen. Father was out, and Seth had brought a message from Tom, to the effect that the latter could not keep a certain appointment we lovers had made the night before. Then, all of a sudden, up stood Seth Purvis, smiling.
“Martha!” he said.
“Are you busy? I want to have a word or two with you.”
I looked at him in surprise. Suddenly he caught me round the waist and drew me to him.
“Let me be!” I cried, struggling in his arms. He laughed and kissed me, and I began to scream.
“Hush, Martha!” he whispered fiercely. “Now, what’s all this nonsense between you and my cousin Tom?”
“Never you mind, Seth Purvis; and let me go, or I’ll tell Tom.” And I struggled in vain to escape.
“Sit you down, Martha, and hold your tongue. I mean to have my talk out with you. Look you, Martha, Tom Darrell doesn’t care twopence for you, and I know what I know about another sweetheart of his.”
I sprang away this time, with flashing eyes, and stood looking boldly into Seth’s pale face.
“You’re telling me lies, Seth Purvis!” I cried. “If you don’t be quiet you’ll get my blood up.”
“O, ho! and what then?” exclaimed he with a laugh. “Little I care for your anger, Martha Masters! But, hark you! You don’t marry Tom if I can help it; I’d sooner dash your brains out than let you marry him. Do you want to know why I object to the match? Why, simply because I mean to marry you myself.”
“Brag’s a good dog, Seth, but Holdfast is a better. You’re big in words, but”——
“I’ll be big in deeds, if you rouse me, my woman. Pooh! don’t be a fool I’m richer and steadier than Tom; I’m fond of only you, I love you better than he does, and I’ll make a lady of you.”
I laughed in derision; and I saw his face turn paler as the green light came into his eyes.
“Seth Purvis, I wouldn’t be your wife if you were to offer me this room filled with gold.”
Immediately afterwards father came home, and Seth went away hurriedly. When I told him the story father laughed, as I had done, but seemed inclined to pity the lad. He had a better opinion of Seth than I had. On consideration I thought it better not to tell Tom of what had taken place; and, strange to say, Seth continued his visits without ever alluding again to the same subject. Once or twice, however, when Tom and I were sitting together and talking in whispers, I saw him watching us with an expression that made me shudder.
It was arranged that Tom and I should be married on New Year’s Day. A fortnight before that time I had to go to a town twenty miles away to make purchases. I had an aunt in the town, and I stayed with her till the day before Christmas. I should have returned home two days before, but what with shopping and visiting I was delayed till the last moment. I wrote to Tom asking him to meet the last train at the railway-station, and telling him to come on foot, that we might have the last walk and talk of lovers going home.
Well, the train left at ten. It was a wild, snowy night, with a great white moon, and the air was bitter cold. It had been freezing and snowing for a week past, and the ground was as hard as ice. We rattled along the night in fine style for half an hour, and then we came to a sudden halt. The snow had fallen in at one of the tunnels, and we could not proceed until a clearance had been effected. The task was not so easy. We sat shivering and fidgeting for fully three hours, with the telegraph-wires in perpetual agitation around us, and by the time I reached the station it was half-past one. I was the only passenger who got out at that station. When I looked about in search of Tom, he was nowhere to be seen. I asked the old station-master, but Tom had not been there, to his knowledge. Of course I was terribly annoyed.
The station was situated nearly three miles from our house, and the road home was very quiet and lonely. However, that didn’t appal me. After waiting half an hour, I made up my mind to start for home by myself. It seemed plain either that something unusual had occurred, or that my friends, taking into consideration the cold, wild weather and the lateness of the hour, had given me up for the night.
With my basket of purchases on my arm, I set off briskly. The distance was nothing to a strong girl like me, and it was simply the lateness of the hour which troubled me. Before I had got a mile on my journey, however, my clothes were wet and freezing cold, and my boots and stockings were full of melting snow. For the snow was more than ankle deep on the road, and I had on thin boots.
However, I pushed on. The road around and before me was white in the moonlight, and the hedges on each side were clothed in snow. No, I was not the least bit nervous. I simply felt annoyed at the delay which had taken place in my arrival. It was Christmas morning; and here was I, trudging along through the cold, while, doubtless, all the countryside was keeping up the festivities after having watched out Christmas Eve.
Halfway between our house and the railway station the country road took a long curve to the west, and a foot- passenger could save at least a mile by taking a short cut down a long dark lane and across some fields. I knew the locality well, and determined to take the shortest way. The lane was full of furze-bushes and brambles; and towards the end of it, where it ran into the fields, there was a small, thinly-wooded plantation. In the centre of the plantation was a deep dry well, called Saul’s Well, and said to be haunted. Down this lonely lane I walked, ankle deep in snow. The wind was sighing among the great white branches of the hedge, and shrieking further down among the fir boughs in the distant plantation. It was indeed a wild night for a young girl to be out alone.
Suddenly I halted, and I confess I was frightened at last. I heard a smothered cry just before me, then there was a struggle, and, finally, all again silent. The sound came from the centre of the plantation, which lay just before me, surrounded by a high stone wall. Scarcely knowing what I did, I crept on timidly. There was another sound, as of somebody dragging a heavy weight across the road. Stooping down under the shadow of the wall I crept to a high furze- bush, which grew for some feet above the wall, and through the branches of which I could look into the plantation. Almost breathless, I looked. The trees within were far apart, and the moon shone brightly on the spaces between them. It was then that I saw that which made me almost faint with horror. A man was dragging a dead or lifeless body along the ground, in the direction of Saul’s Well. His back was towards me, but I seemed to recognise him. The burden was a heavy one, but he at last gained the side of the well with it. Stooping and turning for a moment, he dragged it to the brink. There was dull, leaden sound as of a body falling, and the next moment the man rose to his feet, with his face towards me, in the full light of the moon. It was Seth Purvis.
I had no time to deliberate, for he was coming hastily in my direction. In a moment I crept under shelter of the neighbouring hedge, and stood hidden in the shadow. He had not seen me. He leapt the wall hastily, and hurried off in the direction of the fields. Close to the wall, however, he paused, stooping, and I saw him looking attentively at one of my footprints; he satisfied himself at last, and disappeared. I waited in my hiding-place for several minutes; then I crept out stealthily, and ran as fast as I could back to the highway.
Here my strong nerves served me in good stead. I determined not to yield to my fear and horror until I reached home, and could alarm the neighbourhood; but I felt myself grow quite white in the face in the struggle to keep down my agitation. I kept along the highway with a brisk, firm step, and was not more than half a mile from home when Seth Purvis leapt the hedge, and stood quite close to me, with the moon once more upon his pale, bloodless face. With a scream I sprang back, and he approached me quietly.
I was determined what to do. Should he suspect that I knew his crime, I would attempt to deceive him. Should he attempt further violence, I would resist to the best of my power. Feeling that my only hope lay in keeping calm and seeming friendly, I walked up and shook him heartily by the hand. I shall never forget the shudder that run through me as I did so.
“How you frightened me, Seth,” I cried. “O, I am so glad I have met you; I felt so alarmed.”
He looked at me in a sly, suspicious way, and I fancied that I saw the green light in his eyes.
“What are you afraid of?” he said, roughly. “Why, you’re trembling! Are you cold?”
“Very cold indeed. I have had a miserable journey. We were delayed a long time by the snow. I expected some one would have met me at the station, the road is so very lonely.”
“Yes, it’s lonely enough, especially”—here he was looking at me keenly—“down by Saul’s Well.”
“Ah, that’s a dreadful place, and the girls say it is haunted. However, that lay out of my way.”
I took his arm boldly, and we walked on quickly side by side. I now saw that his dress was slightly disarranged, and that there was a red stain on the front of his shirt. His eye met mine as I looked at this latter.
“What are you looking at, Martha?” he cried, halting suddenly and gazing into my face.
“At that mark on your shirt. Is it blood? Have you hurt yourself? Have you had a fall?”
I was dreadfully agitated, but I managed my agitation in such a way as to make it seem like friendly anxiety on his account. He seemed puzzled.
“Why, ye—es,” he muttered; “I had a tumble down among the fields yonder; but it is nothing particular. You needn’t mention it to anybody, as it’s of no importance.”
We were now within a hundred yards of the farm. Suddenly he caught me by the arm and stopped me.
“Do you know, Martha, that I was wandering down the lane by Saul’s Well some hours ago when I saw footprints on the snow which seemed to me very like yours. They were a woman’s anyhow.”
“Indeed,” I said with apparent unconcern. “What of that?”
“Oh, nothing; only it seemed strange, that was all.”
I was less and less able to control myself as we drew nearer to my father’s door. At the door we paused again, he looking at me in a strange, wild way. I knocked at the door.
“Martha Masters, why don’t you ask after Tom?”
A sudden horrible suspicion flashed upon me, as he crept close up to me, with his fierce eyes on mine, and hissed the words into my ears. In a moment I was overpowered by my fear; and my face showed the man that I knew his secret. He sprang at me with an oath, and I screamed aloud for help. Footsteps came along the passage; the chain was drawn aside. Seth seized me wildly with his left hand, and with his right held aloft a glittering knife. I drew aside just in time to escape the blow. Before he could raise his hand again my father sprung out from the threshold, and stretched him senseless on the snow with a blow of his cudgel. The farm hands came thronging round.
“Seize him! dont let him escape! He has murdered Tom Darrell, and the dead man is lying cold and bloody at the bottom of Saul’s Well.”
There was a cry of horror from all, and then consciousness forsook me. I was carried indoors, and lay for a week in a raging fever. When I recovered I had to appear as a witness at Seth Purvis’s trial.
It was too true; my fears proved correct. The two cousins had set out to meet me together, and not finding me at the station, and concluding that I had been detained in town, had returned towards home in company. Then Seth Purvis, in his mad jealousy, had stabbed Tom Darrell to the heart and had thrown him to the bottom of Saul’s Well.
Seth Purvis was hung, and no one ever came to supply murdered Tom Darrell’s place.
Next: A Heart Struggle
or back to Fiction: Short Stories