Susie Rolliffe's Christmas by E. P.
Picnicking in December would be a dreary experience even if one could
command all the appliances of comfort which outdoor life permitted.
This would be especially true in the latitude of Boston and on the
bleak hills overlooking that city and its environing waters. Dreary
business indeed Ezekiel Watkins regarded it as he shivered over the
smoky camp-fire which he maintained with difficulty. The sun was
sinking into the southwest so early in the day that he remarked
irritably: "Durned if it was worth while for it to rise at all."
Ezekiel Watkins, or Zeke, as he was generally known among his comrades,
had ceased to be a resident on that rocky hillside from pleasure. His
heart was in a Connecticut valley in more senses than one; and there
was not a more homesick soldier in the army. It will be readily guessed
that the events of our story occurred more than a century ago. The
shots fired at Bunker Hill had echoed in every nook and corner of the
New England colonies, and the heart of Zeke Watkins, among thousands of
others, had been fired with military ardor. With companions in like
frame of mind he had trudged to Boston, breathing slaughter and
extermination against the red-coated instruments of English tyranny. To
Zeke the expedition had many of the elements of an extended bear-hunt,
much exalted. There was a spice of danger and a rich promise of novelty
and excitement. The march to the lines about Boston had been a
continuous ovation; grandsires came out from the wayside dwellings and
blessed the rustic soldiers; they were dined profusely by the
housewives, and if not wined, there had been slight stint in New
England rum and cider; the apple-cheeked daughters of the land gave
them the meed of heroes in advance, and abated somewhat of their ruddy
hues at the thought of the dangers to be incurred. Zeke was visibly
dilated by all this attention, incense, and military glory; and he
stepped forth from each village and hamlet as if the world were
scarcely large enough for the prowess of himself and companions. Even
on parade he was as stiff as his long-barrelled flintlock, looking as
if England could hope for no quarter at his hands; yet he permitted no
admiring glances from bright eyes to escape him. He had not traversed
half the distance between his native hamlet and Boston before he was
abundantly satisfied that pretty Susie Rolliffe had made no mistake in
honoring him among the recruits by marks of especial favor. He wore in
his squirrel-skin cap the bit of blue ribbon she had given him, and
with the mien of a Homeric hero had intimated darkly that it might be
crimson before she saw it again. She had clasped her hands, stifled a
little sob, and looked at him admiringly. He needed no stronger
assurance than her eyes conveyed at that moment. She had been shy and
rather unapproachable before, sought by others than himself, yet very
chary of her smiles and favors to all. Her ancestors had fought the
Indians, and had bequeathed to the demure little maiden much of their
own indomitable spirit. She had never worn her heart on her sleeve, and
was shy of her rustic admirers chiefly because none of them had
realized her ideals of manhood created by fireside stories of the past.
Zeke's chief competitor for Susie's favor had been Zebulon Jarvis; and
while he had received little encouragement, he laid his unostentatious
devotion at her feet unstintedly, and she knew it. Indeed, she was much
inclined to laugh at him, for he was singularly bashful, and a frown
from her overwhelmed him. Unsophisticated Susie reasoned that any one
who could be so afraid of HER could not be much of a man. She had never
heard of his doing anything bold and spirited. It might be said,
indeed, that the attempt to wring a livelihood for his widowed mother
and for his younger brothers and sisters from the stumpy, rocky farm
required courage of the highest order; but it was not of a kind that
appealed to the fancy of a romantic young girl. Nothing finer or
grander had Zebulon attempted before the recruiting officer came to
Opinquake, and when he came, poor Zeb appeared to hang back so
timorously that he lost what little place he had in Susie's thoughts.
She was ignorant of the struggle taking place in his loyal heart. More
intense even than his love for her was the patriotic fire which
smouldered in his breast; yet when other young men were giving in their
names and drilling on the village green, he was absent. To the war
appeals of those who sought him, he replied briefly. "Can't leave till
"But the fighting will be over long before that," it was urged.
"So much the better for others, then, if not for me."
Zeke Watkins made it his business that Susie should hear this reply in
the abbreviated form of, "So much the better, then."
She had smiled scornfully, and it must be added, a little bitterly. In
his devotion Zeb had been so helpless, so diffidently unable to take
his own part and make advances that she, from odd little spasms of
sympathy, had taken his part for him, and laughingly repeated to
herself in solitude all the fine speeches which she perceived he would
be glad to make. But, as has been intimated, it seemed to her droll
indeed that such a great stalwart fellow should appear panic-stricken
in her diminutive presence. In brief, he had been timidity embodied
under her demurely mischievous blue eyes; and now that the recruiting
officer had come and marched away with his squad without him, she felt
incensed that such a chicken-hearted fellow had dared to lift his eyes
"It would go hard with the Widow Jarvis and all those children if Zeb
'listed," Susie's mother had ventured in half-hearted defence, for did
she not look upon him as a promising suitor.
"The people of Opinquake wouldn't let the widow or the children
starve," replied Susie, indignantly. "If I was a big fellow like him,
my country would not call me twice. Think how grandfather left grandma
and all the children!"
"Well, I guess Zeb thinks he has his hands full wrastling with that
"He needn't come to see me any more, or steal glances at me 'tween
meetings on Sunday," said the girl, decisively. "He cuts a sorry figure
beside Zeke Watkins, who was the first to give in his name, and who
began to march like a soldier even before he left us."
"Yes," said Mrs. Rolliffe; "Zeke was very forward. If he holds out as
he began—Well, well, Zeke allus was a little forward, and able to
speak for himself. You are young yet, Susan, and may learn before you
reach my years that the race isn't allus to the swift. Don't be in
haste to promise yourself to any of the young men."
"Little danger of my promising myself to a man who is afraid even of
me! I want a husband like grandfather. He wasn't afraid to face
anything, and he honored his wife by acting as if she wasn't afraid
Zeb gave Susie no chance to bestow the rebuffs she had premeditated. He
had been down to witness the departure of the Opinquake quota, and had
seen Susie's farewell to Zeke Watkins. How much it had meant he was not
sure—enough to leave no hope or chance for him, he had believed; but
he had already fought his first battle, and it had been a harder one
than Zeke Watkins or any of his comrades would ever engage in. He had
returned and worked on the stony farm until dark. From dawn until dark
he continued to work every secular day till September.
His bronzed face grew as stern as it was thin; and since he would no
longer look at her, Susie Rolliffe began to steal an occasional and
wondering glance at him "'tween meetings."
No one understood the young man or knew his plans except his patient,
sad-eyed mother, and she learned more by her intuitions than from his
spoken words. She idolized him, and he loved and revered her: but the
terrible Puritan restraint paralyzed manifestations of affection. She
was not taken by surprise when one evening he said quietly, "Mother, I
guess I'll start in a day or two."
She could not repress a sort of gasping sob however, but after a few
moments was able to say steadily, "I supposed you were preparing to
"Yes, mother, I've been a-preparing. I've done my best to gather in
everything that would help keep you and the children and the stock
through the winter. The corn is all shocked, and the older children can
help you husk it, and gather in the pumpkins, the beans, and the rest.
As soon as I finish digging the potatoes I think I'll feel better to be
in the lines around Boston. I'd have liked to have gone at first, but
in order to fight as I ought I'd want to remember there was plenty to
keep you and the children."
"I'm afraid, Zebulon, you've been fighting as well as working so hard
all summer long. For my sake and the children's, you've been letting
Susan Rolliffe think meanly of you."
"I can't help what she thinks, mother; I've tried not to act meanly."
"Perhaps the God of the widow and the fatherless will shield and bless
you, my son. Be that as it may," she added with a heavy sigh,
"conscience and His will must guide in everything. If He says go forth
to battle, what am I that I should stay you?" Although she did not
dream of the truth, the Widow Jarvis was a disciplined soldier herself.
To her, faith meant unquestioning submission and obedience; she had
been taught to revere a jealous and an exacting God rather than a
loving one. The heroism with which she pursued her toilsome, narrow,
shadowed pathway was as sublime as it was unrecognized on her part.
After she had retired she wept sorely, not only because her eldest
child was going to danger, and perhaps death, but also for the reason
that her heart clung to him so weakly and selfishly, as she believed.
With a tenderness of which she was half-ashamed she filled his wallet
with provisions which would add to his comfort, then, both to his
surprise and her own, kissed him good-by. He left her and the younger
brood with an aching heart of which there was little outward sign, and
with no loftier ambition than to do his duty; she followed him with
deep, wistful eyes till he, and next the long barrel of his rifle,
disappeared in an angle of the road, and then her interrupted work was
Susie Rolliffe was returning from an errand to a neighbor's when she
heard the sound of long rapid steps.
A hasty glance revealed Zeb in something like pursuit. Her heart
fluttered slightly, for he had looked so stern and sad of late that she
had felt a little sorry for him in spite of herself. But since he could
"wrastle" with nothing more formidable than a stony farm, she did not
wish to have anything to say to him, or meet the embarrassment of
explaining a tacit estrangement. She was glad, therefore, that her gate
was so near, and passed in as if she had not recognized him. She heard
his steps become slower and pause at the gate, and then almost in shame
in being guilty of too marked discourtesy, she turned to speak, but
hesitated in surprise, for now she recognized his equipment as a
"Why, Mr. Jarvis, where are you going?" she exclaimed.
A dull red flamed through the bronze of his thin cheeks as he replied
awkwardly, "I thought I'd take a turn in the lines around Boston."
"Oh, yes," she replied, mischievously, "take a turn in the lines. Then
we may expect you back by corn-husking?"
He was deeply wounded, and in his embarrassment could think of no other
reply than the familiar words, "'Let not him that girdeth on his
harness boast himself as he that putteth it off.'"
"I can't help hoping, Mr. Jarvis, that neither you nor others will put
it off too soon—not, at least, while King George claims to be our
master. When we're free I can stand any amount of boasting."
"You'll never hear boasting from me, Miss Susie;" and then an awkward
silence fell between them.
Shyly and swiftly she raised her eyes. He looked so humble,
deprecatory, and unsoldier-like that she could not repress a laugh.
"I'm not a British cannon," she began, "that you should be so fearful."
His manhood was now too deeply wounded for further endurance even from
her, for he suddenly straightened himself, and throwing his rifle over
his shoulder, said sternly, "I'm not a coward. I never hung back from
fear, but to keep mother from charity, so I could fight or die as God
wills. You may laugh at the man who never gave you anything but love,
if you will, but you shall never laugh at my deeds. Call that boasting
or not as you please," and he turned on his heel to depart.
His words and manner almost took away the girl's breath, so unexpected
were they, and unlike her idea of the man. In that brief moment a
fearless soldier had flashed himself upon her consciousness, revealing
a spirit that would flinch at nothing—that had not even quailed at the
necessity of forfeiting her esteem, that his mother might not want.
Humiliated and conscience-stricken that she had done him so much
injustice, she rushed forward, crying, "Stop, Zebulon; please do not go
away angry with me! I do not forget that we have been old friends and
playmates. I'm willing to own that I've been wrong about you, and
that's a good deal for a girl to do. I only wish I were a man, and I'd
go with you."
Her kindness restored him to his awkward self again, and he stammered,
"I wish you were—no, I don't—I merely stopped, thinking you might
have a message; but I'd rather not take any to Zeke Watkins—will,
though, if you wish. It cut me all up to have you think I was afraid,"
and then he became speechless.
"But you acted as if you were afraid of me, and that seemed so
He looked at her a moment so earnestly with his dark, deep-set eyes
that hers dropped. "Miss Susie," he said slowly, and speaking with
difficulty, "I AM afraid of you, next to God. I don't suppose I've any
right to talk to you so, and I will say good-by. I was reckless when I
spoke before. Perhaps—you'll go and see mother. My going is hard on
His eyes lingered on her a moment longer, as if he were taking his last
look, then he turned slowly away.
"Good-by, Zeb," she called softly. "I didn't—I don't understand. Yes,
I will go to see your mother."
Susie also watched him as he strode away. He thought he could continue
on steadfastly without looking back, but when the road turned he also
turned, fairly tugged right about by his loyal heart. She stood where
he had left her, and promptly waved her hand. He doffed his cap, and
remained a moment in an attitude that appeared to her reverential, then
passed out of view.
The moments lapsed, and still she stood in the gateway, looking down
the vacant road as if dazed. Was it in truth awkward, bashful Zeb
Jarvis who had just left her? He seemed a new and distinct being in
contrast to the youth whom she had smiled at and in a measure scoffed
at. The little Puritan maiden was not a reasoner, but a creature of
impressions and swift intuitions. Zeb had not set his teeth, faced his
hard duty, and toiled that long summer in vain. He had developed a
manhood and a force which in one brief moment had enabled him to compel
"He will face anything," she murmured. "He's afraid of only God and me;
what a strange thing to say—afraid of me next to God! Sounds kind of
wicked. What can he mean? Zeke Watkins wasn't a bit afraid of me. As
mother said, he was a little forward, and I was fool enough to take him
at his own valuation. Afraid of me! How he stood with his cap off. Do
men ever love so? Is there a kind of reverence in some men's love? How
absurd that a great strong, brave man, ready to face cannons, can bow
down to such a little—" Her fragmentary exclamations ended in a peal
of laughter, but tears dimmed her blue eyes.
Susie did visit Mrs. Jarvis, and although the reticent woman said
little about her son, what she did say meant volumes to the girl who
now had the right clew in interpreting his action and character. She
too was reticent. New England girls rarely gushed in those days, so no
one knew she was beginning to understand. Her eyes, experienced in
country work, were quick, and her mind active. "It looks as if a giant
had been wrestling with this stony farm," she muttered.
Zeb received no ovations on his lonely tramp to the lines, and the
vision of Susie Rolliffe waving her hand from the gateway would have
blinded him to all the bright and admiring eyes in the world. He was
hospitably entertained, however, when there was occasion; but the
advent of men bound for the army had become an old story. Having at
last inquired his way to the position occupied by the Connecticut
troops, he was assigned to duty in the same company with Zeke Watkins,
who gave him but a cool reception, and sought to overawe him by
veteran-like airs. At first poor Zeb was awkward enough in his
unaccustomed duties, and no laugh was so scornful as that of his rival.
Young Jarvis, however, had not been many days in camp before he guessed
that Zeke's star was not in the ascendant. There was but little
fighting required, but much digging of intrenchments, drill, and
monotonous picket duty. Zeke did not take kindly to such tasks, and
shirked them when possible. He was becoming known as the champion
grumbler in the mess, and no one escaped his criticism, not even "Old
Put"—as General Putnam, who commanded the Connecticut quota, was
called. Jarvis, on the other hand, performed his military duties as he
had worked the farm, and rapidly acquired the bearing of a soldier.
Indomitable Putnam gave his men little rest, and was ever seeking to
draw his lines nearer to Boston and the enemy's ships. He virtually
fought with pick and shovel, and his working parties were often exposed
to fire while engaged in fortifying the positions successively
occupied. The Opinquake boys regarded themselves as well seasoned to
such rude compliments, and were not a little curious to see how Zeb
would handle a shovel with cannon-balls whizzing uncomfortably near.
The opportunity soon came. Old Put himself could not have been more
coolly oblivious than the raw recruit. At last a ball smashed his
shovel to smithereens; he quietly procured another and went on with his
work. Then his former neighbors gave him a cheer, while his captain
clapped him on the shoulder and said, "Promote you to be a veteran on
The days had grown shorter, colder, and drearier, and the discomforts
of camp-life harder to endure. There were few tents even for the
officers, and the men were compelled to improvise such shelter as
circumstances permitted. Huts of stone, wood, and brush, and barricades
against the wind, lined the hillside, and the region already was
denuded of almost everything that would burn. Therefore, when December
came, Zeke Watkins found that even a fire was a luxury not to be had
without trouble. He had become thoroughly disgusted with a soldier's
life, and the military glory which had at first so dazzled him now wore
the aspect of the wintry sky. He had recently sought and attained the
only promotion for which his captain now deemed him fitted—that of
cook for about a dozen of his comrades; and the close of the December
day found him preparing the meagre supper which the limited rations
permitted. By virtue of his office, Zeke was one of the best-fed men in
the army, for if there were any choice morsels he could usually manage
to secure them; still, he was not happy. King George and Congress were
both pursuing policies inconsistent with his comfort, and he sighed
more and more frequently for the wide kitchen-hearth of his home, which
was within easy visiting distance of the Rolliffe farmhouse. His term
of enlistment expired soon, and he was already counting the days. He
was not alone in his discontent, for there was much homesickness and
disaffection among the Connecticut troops. Many had already departed,
unwilling to stay an hour after the expiration of their terms; and not
a few had anticipated the periods which legally released them from
duty. The organization of the army was so loose that neither appeals
nor threats had much influence, and Washington, in deep solicitude, saw
his troops melting away.
It was dark by the time the heavy tramp of the working party was heard
returning from the fortifications. The great mess-pot, partly filled
with pork and beans, was bubbling over the fire; Zeke, shifting his
position from time to time to avoid the smoke which the wind, as if it
had a spite against him, blew in his face, was sourly contemplating his
charge and his lot, bent on grumbling to the others with even greater
gusto than he had complained to himself. His comrades carefully put
away their intrenching tools, for they were held responsible for them,
and then gathered about the fire, clamoring for supper.
"Zeke, you lazy loon," cried Nat Atkinson, "how many pipes have you
smoked to-day? If you'd smoke less and forage and dun the commissary
more, we'd have a little fresh meat once in a hundred years."
"Yes, just about once in a hundred years!" snarled Zeke.
"YOU find something to keep fat on, anyhow. We'll broil you some cold
night. Trot out your beans if there's nothing else."
"Growl away," retorted Zeke. "'Twon't be long before I'll be eating
chickens and pumpkin-pie in Opinquake, instead of cooking beans and
rusty pork for a lot of hungry wolves."
"You'd be the hungriest wolf of the lot if you'd 'a' been picking and
shovelling frozen ground all day."
"I didn't 'list to be a ditch-digger!" said Zeke. "I thought I was
going to be a soldier."
"And you turned out a cook!" quietly remarked Zeb Jarvis.
"Well, my hero of the smashed shovel, what do you expect to be—Old
Put's successor? You know, fellows, it's settled that you're to dig
your way into Boston, tunnel under the water when you come to it. Of
course Put will die of old age before you get half there. Zeb'll be the
chap of all others to command a division of shovellers. I see you with
a pickaxe strapped on your side instead of a sword."
"Lucky I'm not in command now," replied Zeb, "or you'd shovel dirt
under fire to the last hour of your enlistment. I'd give grumblers like
you something to grumble about. See here, fellows, I'm sick of this
seditious talk in our mess. The Connecticut men are getting to be the
talk of the army. You heard a squad of New Hampshire boys jeer at us
to-day, and ask, 'When are ye going home to mother?' You ask, Zeke
Watkins, what I expect to be. I expect to be a soldier, and obey orders
as long as Old Put and General Washington want a man. All I ask is to
be home summers long enough to keep mother and the children off the
town. Now what do you expect to be after you give up your cook's ladle?"
"None o' your business."
"He's going home to court Susie Rolliffe," cried Nat Atkinson. "They'll
be married in the spring, and go into the chicken business. That'd just
"It would not suit Susie Rolliffe," said Zeb, hotly. "A braver, better
girl doesn't breathe in the colonies, and the man that says a slurring
word against her's got to fight me."
"What! Has she given Zeke the mitten for your sake, Zeb?" piped little
"She hasn't given me anything, and I've got no claim; but she is the
kind of girl that every fellow from Opinquake should stand up for. We
all know that there is nothing chicken-hearted about her."
"Eight, by George—George W., I mean, and not the king," responded
Hiram Woodbridge. "Here's to her health, Zeb, and your success! I
believe she'd rather marry a soldier than a cook."
"Thank you," said Zeb. "You stand as good a chance as I do; but don't
let's bandy her name about in camp any more'n we would our mother's.
The thing for us to do now is to show that the men from Connecticut
have as much backbone as any other fellows in the army, North or South.
Zeke may laugh at Old Put's digging, but you'll soon find that he'll
pick his way to a point where he can give the Britishers a dig under
the fifth rib. We've got the best general in the army. Washington, with
all his Southern style, believes in him and relies on him. Whether
their time's up or not, it's a burning shame that so many of his troops
are sneaking off home."
"It's all very well for you to talk, Zeb Jarvis," growled Zeke. "You
haven't been here very long yet; and you stayed at home when others
started out to fight. Now that you've found that digging and not
fighting is the order of the day, you're just suited. It's the line of
soldiering you are cut out for. When fighting men and not ditch-diggers
are wanted, you'll find me—-"
"All right, Watkins," said the voice of Captain Dean from without the
circle of light. "According to your own story you are just the kind of
man needed to-night—no ditch-digging on hand, but dangerous service. I
detail you, for you've had rest compared with the other men. I ask for
volunteers from those who've been at work all day."
Zeb Jarvis was on his feet instantly, and old Ezra Stokes also began to
rise with difficulty. "No, Stokes," resumed the officer, "you can't go.
I know you've suffered with the rheumatism all day, and have worked
well in spite of it. For to-night's work I want young fellows with good
legs and your spirit. How is it you're here anyhow Stokes? Your time's
"We ain't into Boston yet," was the quiet reply.
"So you want to stay?"
"Then you shall cook for the men till you're better. I won't keep so
good a soldier, though, at such work any longer than I can help. Your
good example and that of the gallant Watkins has brought out the whole
squad. I think I'll put Jarvis in command, though; Zeke might be rash,
and attempt the capture of Boston before morning;" and the facetious
captain, who had once been a neighbor, concluded, "Jarvis, see that
every man's piece is primed and ready for use. Be at my hut in fifteen
minutes." Then he passed on to the other camp-fires.
In a few minutes Ezra Stokes was alone by the fire, almost roasting his
lame leg, and grumbling from pain and the necessity of enforced
inaction. He was a taciturn, middle-age man, and had been the only
bachelor of mature years in Opinquake. Although he rarely said much, he
had been a great listener, and no one had been better versed in
neighborhood affairs. In brief, he had been the village cobbler, and
had not only taken the measure of Susie Rolliffe's little foot, but
also of her spirit. Like herself he had been misled at first by the
forwardness of Zeke Watkins and the apparent backwardness of Jarvis.
Actual service had changed his views very decidedly. When Zeb appeared
he had watched the course of this bashful suitor with interest which
had rapidly ripened into warm but undemonstrative goodwill. The young
fellow had taken pains to relieve the older man, had carried his tools
for him, and more than once with his strong hands had almost rubbed the
rheumatism out of the indomitable cobbler's leg. He had received but
slight thanks, and had acted as if he didn't care for any. Stokes was
not a man to return favors in words; he brooded over his gratitude as
if it were a grudge. "I'll get even with that young Jarvis yet," he
muttered, as he nursed his leg over the fire. "I know he worships the
ground that little Rolliffe girl treads on, though she don't tread on
much at a time. She never trod on me nuther, though I've had her foot
in my hand more'n once. She looked at the man that made her shoes as if
she would like to make him happier. When a little tot, she used to say
I could come and live with her when I got too old to take care of
myself. Lame as I be, I'd walk to Opinquake to give her a hint in her
choosin'. Guess Hi Woodbridge is right, and she wouldn't be long in
making up her mind betwixt a soger and a cook—a mighty poor one at
that. Somehow or nuther I must let her know before Zeke Watkins sneaks
home and parades around as a soldier 'bove ditch-digging. I've taken
"He'll be putting on veteran airs, telling big stories of what he's
going to do when soldiers are wanted, and drilling such fools as
believe in him. Young gals are often taken by such strutters, and think
that men like Jarvis, who darsn't speak for themselves, are of no
account. But I'll put a spoke in Zeke's wheel, if I have to get the
captain to write."
It thus may be gathered that the cobbler had much to say to himself
when alone, though so taciturn to others.
The clouds along the eastern horizon were stained with red before the
reconnoitring party returned. Stokes had managed, by hobbling about, to
keep up the fire and to fill the mess-kettle with the inevitable pork
and beans. The hungry, weary men therefore gave their new cook a cheer
when they saw the good fire and provision awaiting them. A moment
later, however, Jarvis observed how lame Stokes had become; he took the
cobbler by the shoulder and sat him down in the warmest nook, saying,
"I'll be assistant cook until you are better. As Zeke says, I'm a wolf
sure enough; but as soon's the beast's hunger is satisfied, I'll rub
that leg of yours till you'll want to dance a jig;" and with the ladle
wrung from Stokes's reluctant hand, he began stirring the seething
contents of the kettle.
Then little Hi Woodbridge piped in his shrill voice, "Another cheer for
our assistant cook and ditch-digger! I say, Zeke, wouldn't you like to
tell Ezra that Zeb has showed himself fit for something more than
digging? You expressed your opinion very plain last night, and may have
a different one now."
Zeke growld something inaudible, and stalked to his hut in order to put
away his equipments.
"I'm cook-in-chief yet," Stokes declared; "and not a bean will any one
of you get till you report all that happened."
"Well," piped Hi, "you may stick a feather in your old cap, Ezra, for
our Opinquake lad captured a British officer last night, and Old Put is
pumping him this blessed minute."
"Well, well, that is news. It must have been Zeke who did that neat
job," exclaimed Stokes, ironically; "he's been a-pining for the soldier
"No, no; Zeke's above such night scrimmages. He wants to swim the bay
and walk right into Boston in broad daylight, so everybody can see him.
Come, Zeb, tell how it happened. It was so confounded dark, no one can
tell but you."
"There isn't much to tell that you fellows don't know," was Zeb's
laconic answer. "We had sneaked down on the neck so close to the
"Yes, yes, Zeb Jarvis," interrupted Stokes, "that's the kind of
sneaking you're up to—close to the enemy's lines. Go on."
"Well, I crawled up so close that I saw a Britisher going the round of
the sentinels, and I pounced on him and brought him out on the run,
"Oho! you both ran away, then? That wasn't good soldiering either, was
it, Zeke?" commented Stokes, in his dry way.
"It's pretty good soldiering to stand fire within an inch of your
nose," resumed Hi, who had become a loyal friend and adherent of his
tall comrade. "Zeb was so close on the Britisher when he fired his
pistol that we saw the faces of both in the flash; and a lot of bullets
sung after us, I can sell you, as we dusted out of those diggin's."
"Compliments of General Putnam to Sergeant Zebulon Jarvis," said an
orderly, riding out of the dim twilight of the morning. "The general
requests your presence at headquarters."
"Sergeant! promoted! Another cheer for Zeb!" and the Opinquake boys
gave it with hearty goodwill.
"Jerusalem, fellows! I'd like to have a chance at those beans before I
go!" but Zeb promptly tramped off with the orderly.
When he returned he was subjected to a fire of questions by the two or
three men still awake, but all they could get out of him was that he
had been given a good breakfast. From Captain Dean, who was with the
general at the time of the examination, it leaked out that Zeb was in
the line of promotion to a rank higher than that of sergeant.
The next few days passed uneventfully; and Zeke was compelled to resume
the pick and shovel again. Stokes did his best to fulfil his duties,
but it had become evident to all that the exposure of camp would soon
disable him utterly. Jarvis and Captain Dean persuaded him to go home
for the winter, and the little squad raised a sum which enabled him to
make the journey in a stage. Zeke, sullen toward his jeering comrades,
but immensely elated in secret, had shaken the dust—snow and slush
rather—of camp-life from his feet the day before. He had the grace to
wait till the time of his enlistment expired, and that was more than
could be said of many.
It spoke well for the little Opinquake quota that only two others
besides Zeke availed themselves of their liberty. Poor Stokes was
almost forced away, consoled by the hope of returning in the spring.
Zeb was sore-hearted on the day of Zeke's departure. His heart was in
the Connecticut Valley also. No message had come to him from Susie
Rolliffe. Those were not the days of swift and frequent communication.
Even Mrs. Jarvis had written but seldom, and her missives were brief.
Mother-love glowed through the few quaint and scriptural phrases like
heat in anthracite coals. All that poor Zeb could learn from them was
that Susie Rolliffe had kept her word and had been to the farm more
than once; but the girl had been as reticent as the mother. Zeke was
now on his way home to prosecute his suit in person, and Zeb well knew
how forward and plausible he could be. There was no deed of daring that
he would not promise to perform after spring opened, and Zeb reasoned
gloomily that a present lover, impassioned and importunate, would stand
a better chance than an absent one who had never been able to speak for
When it was settled that Stokes should return to Opinquake, Zeb
determined that he would not give up the prize to Zeke without one
decisive effort; and as he was rubbing the cobbler's leg, he stammered,
"I say Ezra, will you do me a turn? 'Twon't be so much, what I ask,
except that I'll like you to keep mum about it, and you're a good hand
at keeping mum."
"I know what yer driving at, Zeb. Write yer letter and I'll deliver it
with my own hands."
"Well, now, I'm satisfied, I can stay on and fight it out with a clear
mind. When Zeke marched away last summer, I thought it was all up with
me; and I can tell you that any fighting that's to do about Boston will
be fun compared with the fighting I did while hoeing corn and mowing
grass. But I don't believe that Susie Rolliffe is promised to Zeke
Watkins, or any one else yet, and I'm going to give her a chance to
refuse me plump."
"That's the way to do it, Zeb," said the bachelor cobbler, with an
emphasis that would indicate much successful experience. "Asking a girl
plump is like standing up in a fair fight. It gives the girl a chance
to bowl you over, if that's her mind, so there can't be any mistake
about it; and it seems to me the women-folks ought to have all the
chances that in any way belong to them. They have got few enough
"And you think it'll end in my being bowled over?"
"How should I know, or you either, unless you make a square trial?
You're such a strapping, fighting feller that nothing but a cannon-ball
or a woman ever will knock you off your pins."
"See here, Ezra Stokes, the girl of my heart may refuse me just as
plump as I offer myself; and if that's her mind she has a right to do
it. But I don't want either you or her to think I won't stand on my
feet. I won't even fight any more recklessly than my duty requires. I
have a mother to take care of, even if I never have a wife."
"I'll put in a few pegs right along to keep in mind what you say; and
I'll give you a fair show by seeing to it that the girl gets your
letter before Zeke can steal a march on you."
"That's all I ask," said Zeb, with compressed lips. "She shall choose
between us. It's hard enough to write, but it will be a sight easier
than facing her. Not a word of this to another soul, Ezra; but I'm not
going to use you like a mail-carrier, but a friend. After all, there
are few in Opinquake, I suppose, but know I'd give my eyes for her, so
there isn't much use of my putting on secret airs."
"I'm not a talker, and you might have sent your letter by a worse
messenger'n me," was the laconic reply.
Zeb had never written a love-letter, and was at a loss how to begin or
end it. But time pressed, and he had to say what was uppermost in his
mind. It ran as follows:
"I don't know how to write so as to give my words weight. I cannot come
home; I will not come as long as mother and the children can get on
without me. And men are needed here; men are needed. The general fairly
pleads with the soldiers to stay. Stokes would stay if he could. We're
almost driving him home. I know you will be kind to him, and remember
he has few to care for him. I cannot speak for myself in person very
soon, if ever. Perhaps I could not if I stood before you. You laugh at
me; but if you knew how I love you and remember you, how I honor and
almost worship you in my heart, you might understand me better. Why is
it strange I should be afraid of you? Only God has more power over me
than you. Will you be my wife? I will do anything to win you that YOU
can ask. Others will plead with you in person. Will you let this letter
plead for the absent?"
Zeb went to the captain's quarters and got some wax with which to seal
this appeal, then saw Stokes depart with the feeling that his destiny
was now at stake.
Meanwhile Zeke Watkins, with a squad of homeward-bound soldiers, was
trudging toward Opinquake. They soon began to look into one another's
faces in something like dismay. But little provision was in their
wallets when they had started, for there was little to draw upon, and
that furnished grudgingly, as may well be supposed. Zeke had not cared.
He remembered the continuous feasting that had attended his journey to
camp, and supposed that he would only have to present himself to the
roadside farmhouses in order to enjoy the fat of the land. This
hospitality he proposed to repay abundantly by camp reminiscences in
which it would not be difficult to insinuate that the hero of the scene
In contrast to these rose-hued expectations, doors were slammed in
their faces, and they were treated little better than tramps. "I
suppose the people near Boston have been called on too often and
imposed on, too," Zeke reasoned rather ruefully. "When we once get over
the Connecticut border we'll begin to find ourselves at home;" and
spurred by hunger and cold, as well as hope, they pushed on
desperately, subsisting on such coarse provisions as they could obtain,
sleeping in barns when it stormed, and not infrequently by a fire in
the woods. At last they passed the Connecticut border, and led by Zeke
they urged their way to a large farmhouse, at which, but a few months
before, the table had groaned under rustic dainties, and feather-beds
had luxuriously received the weary recruits bound to the front. They
approached the opulent farm in the dreary dark of the evening, and
pursued by a biting east wind laden with snow. Not only the weather,
but the very dogs seemed to have a spite against them; and the family
had to rush out to call them off.
"Weary soldiers ask for shelter," began Zeke.
"Of course you're bound for the lines," said the matronly housewife.
Zeke thought they would better enter at once before explaining; and
truly the large kitchen, with a great fire blazing on the hearth,
seemed like heaven. The door leading into the family sitting-room was
open, and there was another fire, with the red-cheeked girls and the
white-haired grandsire before it, their eyes turned expectantly toward
the new-comers. Instead of hearty welcome, there was a questioning look
on every face, even on that of the kitchen-maid. Zeke's four companions
had a sort of hang-dog look—for they had been cowed by the treatment
received along the road; but he tried to bear himself confidently, and
began with an insinuating smile, "Perhaps I should hardly expect you to
remember me. I passed this way last summer—-"
"Passed this way last summer?" repeated the matron, her face growing
stern. "We who cannot fight are ready and glad to share all we have
with those who fight for us. Since you carry arms we might very justly
think you are hastening forward to use them."
"These are our own arms; we furnished them ourselves," Zeke hastened to
"Oh, indeed," replied the matron, coldly; "I supposed that not only the
weapons, but the ones who carry them, belonged to the country. I hope
you are not deserting from the army."
"I assure you we are not. Our terms of enlistment have expired."
"And your country's need was over at the same moment? Are you hastening
home at this season to plow and sow and reap?"
"Well, madam, after being away so long we felt like having a little
comfort and seeing the folks. We stayed a long as we agreed. When
spring opens, or before, if need be—-"
"Pardon me, sir; the need is now. The country is not to be saved by men
who make bargains like day-laborers, and who quit when the hour is up,
but by soldiers who give themselves to their country as they would to
their wives and sweethearts. My husband and sons are in the army you
have deserted. General Washington has written to our governor asking
whether an example should not be made of the men who have deserted the
cause of their country at this critical time when the enemy are
receiving re-enforcements. We are told that Connecticut men have
brought disgrace on our colony and have imperilled the whole army. You
feel like taking comfort and seeing the folks. The folks do not feel
like seeing you. My husband and the brave men in the lines are in all
the more danger because of your desertion, for a soldier's time never
expires when the enemy is growing stronger and threatening every home
in the land. If all followed your example, the British would soon be
upon your heels, taking from us our honor and our all. We are not
ignorant of the critical condition of our army; and I can tell you,
sir, that if many more of our men come home, the women will take their
Zeke's companions succumbed to the stern arraignment, and after a brief
whispered consultation one spoke for the rest. "Madam," he said, "you
put it in a way that we hadn't realized before. We'll right-about-face
and march back in the morning, for we feel that we'd rather face all
the British in Boston than any more Connecticut women."
"Then, sirs, you shall have supper and shelter and welcome," was the
Zeke assumed an air of importance as he said: "There are reasons why I
must be at home for a time, but I not only expect to return, but also
to take many back with me."
"I trust your deeds may prove as large as your words," was the chilly
reply; and then he was made to feel that he was barely tolerated. Some
hints from his old associates added to the disfavor which the family
took but little pains to conceal. There was a large vein of selfish
calculation in Zeke's nature, and he was not to be swept away by any
impulses. He believed he could have a prolonged visit home, yet manage
so admirably that when he returned he would be followed by a squad of
recruits, and chief of all he would be the triumphant suitor of Susie
Rolliffe. Her manner in parting had satisfied him that he had made go
deep an impression that it would be folly not to follow it up. He
trudged the remainder of the journey alone, and secured tolerable
treatment by assuring the people that he was returning for recruits for
the army. He reached home in the afternoon of Christmas; and although
the day was almost completely ignored in the Puritan household, yet
Mrs. Watkins forgot country, Popery, and all, in her mother love, and
Zeke supped on the finest turkey of the flock. Old Mr. Watkins, it is
true, looked rather grim, but the reception had been reassuring in the
main; and Zeke had resolved on a line of tactics which would make him,
as he believed, the military hero of the town. After he had satisfied
an appetite which had been growing ever since he left camp, he started
to call on Susie in all the bravery of his best attire, filled with
sanguine expectations inspired by memories of the past and recent
potations of cider.
Meanwhile Susie had received a guest earlier in the day. The stage had
stopped at the gate where she had stood in the September sunshine and
waved her bewildered farewell to Zeb. There was no bewilderment or
surprise now at her strange and unwonted sensations. She had learned
why she had stood looking after him dazed and spellbound. Under the
magic of her own light irony she had seen her drooping rustic lover
transformed into the ideal man who could face anything except her
unkindness. She had guessed the deep secret of his timidity. It was a
kind of fear of which she had not dreamed, and which touched her
When the stage stopped at the gate, and she saw the driver helping out
Ezra Stokes, a swift presentiment made her sure that she would hear
from one soldier who was more to her than all the generals. She was
soon down the walk, the wind sporting in her light-gold hair,
supporting the cobbler on the other side.
"Ah, Miss Susie!" he said, "I am about worn out, sole and upper. It
breaks my heart, when men are so sorely needed, to be thrown aside like
an old shoe."
The girl soothed and comforted him, ensconced him by the fireside,
banishing the chill from his heart, while Mrs. Rolliffe warmed his
blood by a strong, hot drink. Then the mother hastened away to get
dinner, while Susie sat down near, nervously twisting and untwisting
her fingers, with questions on her lips which she dared not utter, but
which brought blushes to her cheeks. Stokes looked at her and sighed
over his lost youth, yet smiled as he thought: "Guess I'll get even
with that Zeb Jarvis to-day." Then he asked, "Isn't there any one you
would like to hear about in camp?"
She blushed deeper still, and named every one who had gone from
Opinquake except Zeb. At last she said a little ironically: "I suppose
Ezekiel Watkins is almost thinking about being a general about this
"Hasn't he been here telling you what he is thinking about?"
"Been here! Do you mean to say he has come home?"
"He surely started for home. All the generals and a yoke of oxen
couldn't 'a' kept him in camp, he was so homesick—lovesick too, I
guess. Powerful compliment to you, Miss Susie," added the politic
cobbler, feeling his way, "that you could draw a man straight from his
duty like one of these 'ere stump-extractors."
"No compliment to me at all!" cried the girl, indignantly. "He little
understands me who seeks my favor by coming home at a time like this.
The Connecticut women are up in arms at the way our men are coming
home. No offence to you, Mr. Stokes. You're sick, and should come; but
I'd like to go myself to show some of the strong young fellows what we
think of them."
"Coming home was worse than rheumatism to me, and I'm going back soon's
I kin walk without a cane. Wouldn't 'a' come as 'tis, if that Zeb
Jarvis hadn't jes' packed me off. By Jocks! I thought you and he was
acquainted, but you don't seem to ask arter him."
"I felt sure he would try—I heard he was doing his duty," she replied
with averted face.
"Zeke Watkins says he's no soldier at all—nothing but a dirt-digger."
For a moment, as the cobbler had hoped, Susie forgot her blushes and
secret in her indignation. "Zeke Watkins indeed!" she exclaimed. "He'd
better not tell ME any such story. I don't believe there's a braver,
truer man in the—Well," she added in sudden confusion, "he hasn't run
away and left others to dig their way into Boston, if that's the best
way of getting there."
"Ah, I'm going to get even with him yet," chuckled Stokes to himself.
"Digging is only the first step, Miss Susie. When Old Put gets good and
ready, you'll hear the thunder of the guns a'most in Opinquake."
"Well, Mr. Stokes," stammered Susie, resolving desperately on a short
cut to the knowledge she craved, "you've seen Mr. Jarvis a-soldiering.
What do you think about it?"
"Well, now, that Zeb Jarvis is the sneakin'ist fellow—-"
"What?" cried the girl, her face aflame.
"Wait till I get in a few more pegs," continued Stokes, coolly. "The
other night he sneaked right into the enemy's lines and carried off a
British officer as a hawk takes a chicken. The Britisher fired his
pistol right under Zeb's nose; but, law! he didn't mind that any more'n
a 'sketer-bite. I call that soldiering, don't you? Anyhow, Old Put
thought it was, and sent for him 'fore daylight, and made a sergeant of
him. If I had as good a chance of gettin' rid of the rheumatiz as he
has of bein' captain in six months, I'd thank the Lord."
Susie sat up very straight, and tried to look severely judicial; but
her lip was quivering and her whole plump little form trembling with
excitement and emotion. Suddenly she dropped her face in her hands and
cried in a gust of tears and laughter: "He's just like grandfather;
he'd face anything!"
"Anything in the 'tarnal universe, I guess, 'cept you, Miss Susie. I
seed a cannon-ball smash a shovel in his hands, and he got another, and
went on with his work cool as a cucumber. Then I seed him writin' a
letter to you, and his hand trembled—-"
"A letter to me!" cried the girl, springing up.
"Yes; 'ere it is. I was kind of pegging around till I got to that; and
But Susie was reading, her hands trembling so she could scarcely hold
the paper. "It's about you," she faltered, making one more desperate
effort at self-preservation. "He says you'd stay if you could; that
they almost drove you home. And he asks that I be kind to you, because
there are not many to care for you—and—and—-"
"Oh, Lord! never can get even with that Zeb Jarvis," groaned Ezra. "But
you needn't tell me that's all the letter's about."
Her eyes were full of tears, yet not so full but that she saw the
plain, closing words in all their significance. Swiftly the letter went
to her lips, then was thrust into her bosom, and she seized the
cobbler's hand, exclaiming: "Yes, I will! I will! You shall stay with
us, and be one of us!" and in her excitement she put her left hand
caressingly on his shoulder.
"SUSAN!" exclaimed Mr. Rolliffe, who entered at that moment, and looked
aghast at the scene.
"Yes, I WILL!" exclaimed Susie, too wrought up now for restraint.
"Will what?" gasped the mother.
"Be Zebulon Jarvis's wife. He's asked me plump and square like a
soldier; and I'll answer as grandma did, and like grandma I'll face
anything for his sake."
"WELL, this IS suddent!" exclaimed Mrs. Rolliffe, dropping into a
chair. "Susan, do you think it is becoming and seemly for a young
"Oh, mother dear, there's no use of your trying to make a prim Puritan
maiden of me. Zeb doesn't fight like a deacon, and I can't love like
one. Ha! ha! ha! to think that great soldier is afraid of little me,
and nothing else! It's too funny and heavenly—-"
"Susan, I am dumfounded at your behavior!"
At this moment Mr. Rolliffe came in from the wood-lot, and he was dazed
by the wonderful news also. In his eagerness to get even with Zeb, the
cobbler enlarged and expatiated till he was hoarse. When he saw that
the parents were almost as proud as the daughter over their prospective
son-in-law, he relapsed into his old taciturnity, declaring he had
talked enough for a month.
Susie, the only child, who apparently had inherited all the fire and
spirit of her fighting ancestors, darted out, and soon returned with
her rosebud of a face enveloped in a great calyx of a woollen hood.
"Where are you going?" exclaimed her parents.
"You've had the news. I guess Mother Jarvis has the next right." And
she was off over the hills with almost the lightness and swiftness of a
In due time Zeke appeared, and smiled encouragingly on Mrs. Rolliffe,
who sat knitting by the kitchen fire. The matron did not rise, and gave
him but a cool salutation. He discussed the coldness of the weather
awkwardly for a few moments, and then ventured: "Is Miss Susan at home?"
"No, sir," replied Mrs. Rolliffe; "she's gone to make a visit to her
mother-in-law that is to be, the Widow Jarvis. Ezra Stokes is sittin'
in the next room, sent home sick. Perhaps you'd like to talk over
camp-life with him."
Not even the cider now sustained Zeke. He looked as if a cannon-ball
had wrecked all his hopes and plans instead of a shovel. "Good-evening,
Mrs. Rolliffe," he stammered; "I guess I'll—I'll—go home."
Poor Mrs. Jarvis had a spiritual conflict that day which she never
forgot. Susie's face had flashed at the window near which she had sat
spinning, and sighing perhaps that Nature had not provided feathers or
fur for a brood like hers; then the girl's arms were about her neck,
the news was stammered out—for the letter could never be shown to any
one—in a way that tore primness to tatters. The widow tried to act as
if it were a dispensation of Providence which should be received in
solemn gratitude; but before she knew it she was laughing and crying,
kissing her sweet-faced daughter, or telling how good and brave Zeb had
been when his heart was almost breaking.
Compunction had already seized upon the widow. "Susan," she began, "I
fear we are not mortifyin' the flesh as we ought—-"
"No mortifying just yet, if you please," cried Susie. "The most
important thing of all is yet to be done. Zeb hasn't heard the news;
just think of it! You must write and tell him that I'll help you spin
the children's clothes and work the farm; that we'll face everything in
Opinquake as long as Old Put needs men. Where is the ink-horn? I'll
sharpen a pen for you and one for me, and SUCH news as he'll get! Wish
I could tell him, though, and see the great fellow tremble once more.
Afraid of me! Ha! ha! ha! that's the funniest thing—Why, Mother
Jarvis, this is Christmas Day!"
"So it is," said the widow, in an awed tone. "Susie, my heart misgives
me that all this should have happened on a day of which Popery has made
"No, no," cried the girl. "Thank God it IS Christmas! and hereafter I
shall keep Christmas as long as love is love and God is good."