Mrs. Pike's Prisoners by M. R. W.


EARLY on a cloudy April afternoon, many years ago, several little girls were playing in a village door-yard, not far from the fence which separated it from a neighbor’s. They were building a play-house of boards, and were so busily occupied, that none of them had noticed a lady standing at a little four-paned window in the house the other side of the fence, who had been intently regarding them for some time. The window was so constructed as to swing back like a door, and being now open, the lady’s face was framed against the dark background of the room, producing the effect of a picture. ’Twas a strange face, sallow and curiously wrinkled, with a nose like the beak of a hawk, and large black eyes, which seemed to be endowed with the power of perpetual motion. These roved from one to another of the busy builders, till suddenly one of them seemed to be aware that some one was looking at her, and turned towards the little window.

“Ah, I know you, Wealthy Robbins! Come here a minute, my little dear,” spoke the lady, in a shrill, quavering voice. And she beckoned to her with a hooked finger like a claw. But Wealthy shrank back, murmuring, “I don’t want to,” almost under her breath, and nudging with her elbow the nearest girl; “Hannah, Mrs. Pike wants something. See!”

“Is that you, Hannah Green? Come over here, and I’ll give you a piece of my Passover candy.” And the lady waved in the air a long candle-rod entwined with a strip of scarlet flannel, which made it look like a mammoth stick of peppermint candy.

This attracted the attention of all the  girls, and going close to the fence, they peered through, while she besought them, with enticing promises and imploring eyes, to come around under the window, for she had something to tell them.

“Don’t let’s go,” whispered Mary Green, the oldest of the group. “Mother told me never to go near her window when she’s standing there, for she’s a crazy woman. That stick isn’t candy no more than I am.”

“Come, Sarah; I always knew you were a kind little girl,” said Mrs. Pike, in a coaxing tone, to the youngest and smallest of the group; “do come here just a minute.”

At last, Sarah Holmes and her sister Jane went around, and stood under the little window. Jane said it could do no harm just to go and see what Mrs. Pike wanted, and if she was shut up in jail, she guessed she’d want a good many things.

“Now, you dear little lambs, you see I’m all alone in the house; and they’ve gone away, and forgotten to give me my dinner; and I’m very hungry. All I want is a little unleavened bread, for this is Passover Day, you know. Well, you just climb in through the dining-room window, little Sarah,—Jane can help you,—and unlock my door, so I can go to the buttery and get some bread. Then I’ll bring you out a nice saucer mince pie, and come back here, and you can lock me in. They’ll never know; and I shall starve if you don’t take pity on me.”

After some whispering together, the little girls did as they were bidden, notwithstanding the warnings of their mates the other side of the fence. When they had disappeared from view, Mary Green turned away, and began to hammer, as though she was driving a nail into Mrs. Pike’s head, or Jane Holmes’s, or somebody’s, ejaculating, “I guess they’ll rue this day.”

Which prophetic words came very near being verified at the moment they were spoken. For no sooner had Jane unlocked the door of Mrs. Pike’s room, than out sprang that lady, and clutched one of the little girls with either hand, almost shrieking, “Ah, I know you! you belong to that wicked and rebellious tribe of Korah. Why didn’t you come over to the help of the mighty immediately? Now, you shall see how you like dwelling in the Cave of Machpelah for a day and a night, and a month and a year, until He shall come whose right it is to reign.”

And she thrust the trembling, awe-struck children into the room that had been her prison, and turned the key upon them. Then away she strode out of the house and up the street, a noticeable figure, truly, in her short yellow nankeen dress, with pantalets of the same, and neat white Quaker cap, with long white ribbons crossed under her chin, and carrying an immense umbrella over her head. It was strange that none of the nearest neighbors should see her pass. The front door was on the opposite side of the house from where the little girls were playing; so they did not observe her exit; and thus it happened that the crazy lady, who had been confined in the house for weeks, escaped without any check upon her triumphant progress. Busy women, seeing her from their windows, thought Mrs. Pike must be better again, to be out, and did wish her friends wouldn’t let her walk the streets looking like a Dutch woman. Boys paused in their games almost respectfully, as she passed by; for notwithstanding her strange appearance and rapid movements, there was an air of mysterious command about the woman which checked any rudeness.

“There goes Madam Pike,” exclaimed one ragged-kneed boy, when she had passed out of hearing. “Got on her ascension-robe—hasn’t she? Wonder  if that umberil will help her any? I say, boys, do you suppose all the saints that walk the streets of the new Jerusalem look like her?”

While Mrs. Pike walked rapidly on, with a keen appreciation of the fresh air and occasional gleams of sunshine, the little prisoners drooped like two April violets plucked and thrown upon the ground. They were so frightened and awe-struck, that the idea of calling for help from the open window did not occur to them; and they crouched upon the floor, melancholy and mute. After a while, some odd-looking garments, hanging in a row on one side of the room, attracted their attention; but they did not dare to go near them at first. Mrs. Pike was what was called a Second Adventist, and had read the Bible and Apocrypha with a fiery zeal, and an earnest determination to find therein proof of what she believed, and had attended Second Advent meetings, and exhorted wherever she could get a hearing, until her poor brain was crazed. But lately her husband and friends had kept her in doors as much as possible; and she spent most of the time knitting ascension-robes for the saints of the twelve tribes of the house of Judah. These were long garments, coming nearly to the feet, each of a single color, royal purple and blue being her favorites. She said that she must improve every moment, lest the great and dreadful day of the Lord should come, and she should not be ready, i. e., would not have a robe prepared for each of the saints to ascend in. When her son, a boy of twelve, died, she had him buried by the front doorstep, so, when the procession of saints should pass out at the door, Erastus could join them immediately, and not have to come from the burying-ground, a mile away.

It was after sunset when Mr. Pike passed along the village street, on his way home, and was informed by a good woman, standing at her gate, that his wife had gone by about one o’clock, and that, not long after, Jane and Sarah Holmes were missed. Some little girls they had been playing with had seen them get into Mr. Pike’s house through the dining-room window, and that was the last that had been seen or heard of them. Mrs. Holmes was going on dreadfully; for she thought that, as likely as not, Madam Pike had thrown them down in the well, or hid them where they would never be found, and then run away. The bewildered man hurried home to harness his horse, and go in search of his wife; for, with a trust in her better nature, worthy of a woman, he believed that she would tell him where the children were, if she knew. Fortunately, he found her in a tavern about a mile from home, preaching, as the children would say. As usual, she was exhorting her hearers to prepare for the great and terrible day of the Lord, etc., etc.; but when her husband appeared in the doorway, the thread of her discourse was suddenly broken, and she turned and accosted him with, “Ah, Mr. Pike, have you seen my prisoners in the Cave of Machpelah? They belong to that wicked and rebellious tribe of Korah, you know.”

“Well, Mary, let’s go home, and see how they are getting along,” said he, in a confident tone; for he instantly divined who her prisoners were, and that the Cave of Machpelah could not be far away.

Mrs. Pike was quite willing to go with him, and worried all the way home; for she said prisoners were always in mischief, and there were the robes hanging in the cave, which she had forgotten to put out of their reach. So when they arrived, her first act was to unlock the door of the children’s prison. And her next was to pounce upon them with even more vigor than when she emerged from it in the afternoon. For there they lay  asleep on the carpet, Jane in a purple robe, and Sarah in a green, their hands and feet invisible by reason of the great length of their garments.

“Don’t hurt them, Mary,” said Mr. Pike. For she was hustling off the precious robes before the little girls were fairly awake; and they might have fared hardly, had not the kind man been present to see that justice was done; to wit, that they were compensated for their imprisonment by pockets full of cakes and fruit, and sent home to their mother without delay. That happy woman did not send them supperless to bed, nor say a word about punishing them, either then or afterwards. Perhaps she guessed that their punishment had already been sufficiently severe.

“O, mother,” said Jane, “at first we didn’t dare to stir or speak, for fear the crazy lady was listening; and she seemed angry enough to kill us. I felt as if my hair was turning gray, and Sarah looked as white as the wall. Well, after a great many hours, we began to look about the room, and we saw those queer gowns she knits, hanging in a row; and we got up and looked at them. By and by we got so tired doing nothing, that we took them down and tried them on, and played we were the saints. We tried to fly, but the old things were so heavy and long, that we couldn’t even jump. And after a while we were so tired that we lay down and went to sleep, and never woke till Mrs. Pike came home. O, but ’twas the lonesomest, longest, dreariest afternoon we ever, ever knew—wasn’t it, Sarah?”

This was the story, with variations, which the Holmes girls had to tell to their mates the next day, and the next, and so on, until it ceased to be a novelty.

But Mrs. Pike’s prisoners were heroines, in the estimation of the village girls and boys, for more than one year, and doubtless still remember and tell to their children the story of their afternoon in the Cave of Machpelah.