In the Gray Goth, by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
If the wick of the big oil lamp had been cut straight I don't believe it
would ever have happened.
Where is the poker, Johnny? Can't you push back that for'ard log a
little? Dear, dear! Well, it doesn't make much difference, does it?
Something always seems to all your Massachusetts fires; your hickory is
green, and your maple is gnarly, and the worms eat out your oak like a
sponge. I haven't seen anything like what I call a fire,—not since Mary
Ann was married, and I came here to stay. "As long as you live, father,"
she said; and in that very letter she told me I should always have an
open fire, and how she wouldn't let Jacob put in the air-tight in the
sitting-room, but had the fireplace kept on purpose. Mary Ann was a good
girl always, if I remember straight, and I'm sure I don't complain.
Isn't that a pine-knot at the bottom of the basket? There! that's
Let me see; I began to tell you something, didn't I? O yes; about that
winter of '41. I remember now. I declare, I can't get over it, to think
you never heard about it, and you twenty-four year old come Christmas.
You don't know much more, either, about Maine folks and Maine fashions
than you do about China,—though it's small wonder, for the matter of
that, you were such a little shaver when Uncle Jed took you. There were
a great many of us, it seems to me, that year, I 'most forget how
many;—we buried the twins next summer, didn't we?—then there was Mary
Ann, and little Nancy, and—well, coffee was dearer than ever I'd seen
it, I know, about that time, and butter selling for nothing; we just
threw our milk away, and there wasn't any market for eggs; besides
doctor's bills and Isaac to be sent to school; so it seemed to be the
best thing, though your mother took on pretty badly about it at first.
Jedediah has been good to you, I'm sure, and brought you up
religious,—though you've cost him a sight, spending three hundred and
fifty dollars a year at Amherst College.
But, as I was going to say, when I started to talk about '41,—to tell
the truth, Johnny, I'm always a long while coming to it, I believe. I'm
getting to be an old man,—a little of a coward, maybe, and sometimes,
when I sit alone here nights, and think it over, it's just like the
toothache, Johnny. As I was saying, if she had cut that wick straight, I
do believe it wouldn't have happened,—though it isn't that I mean to
lay the blame on her now.
I'd been out at work all day about the place, slicking things up for
to-morrow; there was a gap in the barn-yard fence to mend,—I left that
till the last thing, I remember,—I remember everything, some way or
other, that happened that day,—and there was a new roof to put on the
pig-pen, and the grape-vine needed an extra layer of straw, and the
latch was loose on the south barn-door; then I had to go round and take
a last look at the sheep, and toss down an extra forkful for the cows,
and go into the stall to have a talk with Ben, and unbutton the
coop-door to see if the hens looked warm,—just to tuck 'em up, as you
might say. I always felt sort of homesick—though I wouldn't have owned
up to it, not even to Nancy—saying good-by to the creeturs the night
before I went in. There, now! it beats all, to think, you don't know
what I'm talking about, and you a lumberman's son. "Going in" is going
up into the woods, you know, to cut and haul for the winter,—up,
sometimes, a hundred miles deep,—in in the fall and out in the spring;
whole gangs of us shut up there sometimes for six months, then down with
the freshets on the logs, and all summer to work the farm,—a merry sort
of life when you get used to it, Johnny; but it was a great while ago,
and it seems to me as if it must have been very cold.—Isn't there a
little draft coming in at the pantry door?
So when I'd said good-by to the creeturs,—I remember just as plain how
Ben put his great neck on my shoulder and whinnied like a baby,—that
horse know when the season came round and I was going in, just as well
as I did,—I tinkered up the barn-yard fence, and locked the doors,
and went in to supper.
I gave my finger a knock with the hammer, which may have had something
to do with it, for a man doesn't feel very good-natured when he's been
green enough to do a thing like that, and he doesn't like to say it
aches either. But if there is anything I can't bear it is lamp-smoke; it
always did put me out, and I expect it always will. Nancy knew what a
fuss I made about it, and she was always very careful not to hector me
with it. I ought to have remembered that, but I didn't. She had lighted
the company lamp on purpose, too, because it was my last night. I liked
it better than the tallow candle.
So I came in, stamping off the snow, and they were all in there about
the fire,—the twins, and Mary Ann, and the rest; baby was sick, and
Nancy was walking back and forth with him, with little Nancy pulling at
her gown. You were the baby then, I believe, Johnny; but there always
was a baby, and I don't rightly remember. The room was so black with
smoke, that they all looked as if they were swimming round and round in
it. I guess coming in from the cold, and the pain in my finger and all,
it made me a bit sick. At any rate, I threw open the window and blew out
the light, as mad as a hornet.
"Nancy," said I, "this room would strangle a dog, and you might have
known it, if you'd had two eyes to see what you were about. There, now!
I've tipped the lamp over, and you just get a cloth and wipe up the
"Dear me!" said she, lighting a candle, and she spoke up very soft, too.
"Please, Aaron, don't let the cold in on baby. I'm sorry it was smoking,
but I never knew a thing about it; he's been fretting and taking on so
the last hour, I didn't notice anyway."
"That's just what you ought to have done," says I, madder than ever.
"You know how I hate the stuff, and you ought to have cared more about
me than to choke me up with it this way the last night before going in."
Nancy was a patient, gentle-spoken sort of woman, and would bear a good
deal from a fellow; but she used to fire up sometimes, and that was more
than she could stand. "You don't deserve to be cared about, for speaking
like that!" says she, with her cheeks as red as peat-coals.
That was right before the children. Mary Ann's eyes were as big as
saucers, and little Nancy was crying at the top of her lungs, with the
baby tuning in, so we knew it was time to stop. But stopping wasn't
ending; and folks can look things that they don't say.
We sat down to supper as glum as pump-handles, there were some
fritters—I never knew anybody beat your mother at fritters—smoking hot
off the stove, and some maple molasses in one of the best chiny
tea-cups; I knew well enough it was just on purpose for my last night,
but I never had a word to say, and Nancy crumbed up the children's
bread with a jerk. Her cheeks didn't grow any whiter; it seemed as if
they would blaze right up,—I couldn't help looking at them, for all I
pretended not to, for she looked just like a picture. Some women always
are pretty when they are put out,—and then again, some ain't; it
appears to me there's a great difference in women, very much as there is
in hens; now, there was your aunt Deborah,—but there, I won't get on
that track now, only so far as to say that when she was flustered up she
used to go red all over, something like a piny, which didn't seem to
have just the same effect.
That supper was a very dreary sort of supper, with the baby crying, and
Nancy getting up between the mouthfuls to walk up and down the room with
him; he was a heavy little chap for a ten-month-old, and I think she
must have been tuckered out with him all day. I didn't think about it
then; a man doesn't notice such things when he's angry,—it isn't in
him. I can't say but she would if I'd been in her place. I just eat up
the fritters and the maple molasses,—seems to me I told her she ought
not to use the best chiny cup, but I'm not just sure,—and then I took
my pipe, and sat down in the corner.
I watched her putting the children to bed; they made her a great deal of
bother, squirming off of her lap and running round barefoot. Sometimes I
used to hold them and talk to them and help her a bit, when I felt
good-natured, but I just sat and smoked, and let them alone. I was all
worked up about that lamp-wick, and I thought, you see, if she hadn't
had any feelings for me there was no need of my having any for her—if
she had cut the wick, I'd have taken the babies; she hadn't cut the
wick, and I wouldn't take the babies; she might see it if she wanted to,
and think what she pleased. I had been badly treated, and I meant to
It is strange, Johnny, it really does seem to me very strange, how easy
it is in this world to be always taking care of our rights. I've
thought a great deal about it since I've been growing old, and there
seems to me a good many things we'd better look after fust.
But you see I hadn't found that out in '41, and so I sat in the corner,
and felt very much abused. I can't say but what Nancy had pretty much
the same idea; for when the young ones were all in bed at last, she took
her knitting and sat down the other side of the fire, sort of turning
her head round and looking up at the ceiling, as if she were trying her
best to forget I was there. That was a way she had when I was courting,
and we went along to huskings together, with the moon shining round.
Well, I kept on smoking, and she kept on looking at the ceiling, and
nobody said a word for a while, till by and by the fire burnt down, and
she got up and put on a fresh log.
"You're dreadful wasteful with the wood, Nancy," says I, bound to say
something cross? and that was all I could think of.
"Take care of your own fire, then," says she, throwing the log down and
standing up as straight as she could stand. "I think it's a pity if you
haven't anything better to do, the last night before going in, than to
pick everything I do to pieces this way, and I tired enough to drop,
carrying that great crying child in my arms all day. You ought to be
ashamed of yourself, Aaron Hollis!"
Now if she had cried a little, very like I should have given up, and
that would have been the end of it, for I never could bear to see a
woman cry; it goes against the grain. But your mother wasn't one of the
crying sort, and she didn't feel like it that night.
She just stood up there by the fireplace, as proud as Queen Victory,—I
don't blame her, Johnny,—O no, I don't blame her; she had the right of
it there, I ought to have been ashamed of myself; but a man never
likes to hear that from other folks, and I put my pipe down on the
chimney-shelf so hard I heard it snap like ice, and I stood up too, and
said—but no matter what I said, I guess. A man's quarrels with his wife
always make me think of what the Scripture says about other folks not
intermeddling. They're things, in my opinion, that don't concern anybody
else as a general thing, and I couldn't tell what I said without telling
what she said, and I'd rather not do that. Your mother was as good and
patient-tempered a woman as ever lived, Johnny, and she didn't mean it,
and it was I that set her on. Besides, my words were worst of the two.
Well, well, I'll hurry along just here, for it's not a time I like to
think about; but we had it back and forth there for half an hour, till
we had angered each other up so I couldn't stand it, and I lifted up my
hand,—I would have struck her if she hadn't been a woman.
"Well," says I, "Nancy Hollis, I'm sorry for the day I married you, and
that's the truth, if ever I spoke a true word in my life!"
I wouldn't have told you that now if you could understand the rest
without. I'd give the world, Johnny,—I'd give the world and all those
coupon bonds Jedediah invested for me if I could anyway forget it; but I
said it, and I can't.
Well, I've seen your mother look 'most all sorts of ways in the course
of her life, but I never saw her before, and I never saw her since, look
as she looked that minute. All the blaze went out in her cheeks, as if
somebody had thrown cold water on it, and she stood there stock still,
so white I thought she would drop.
"Aaron—" she began, and stopped to catch her breath,—"Aaron—" but she
couldn't get any further; she just caught hold of a little shawl she had
on with both her hands, as if she thought she could hold herself up by
it, and walked right out of the room. I knew she had gone to bed, for I
heard her go up and shut the door. I stood there a few minutes with my
hands in my pockets, whistling Yankee Doodle. Your mother used to say
men were queer folks, Johnny; they always whistled up the gayest when
they felt the wust. Then I went to the closet and got another pipe, and
I didn't go upstairs till it was smoked out.
When I was a young man, Johnny, I used to be that sort of fellow that
couldn't bear to give up beat. I'd acted like a brute, and I knew it,
but I was too spunky to say so. So I says to myself, "If she won't make
up first, I won't, and that's the end on't." Very likely she said the
same thing, for your mother was a spirited sort of woman when her temper
was up; so there we were, more like enemies sworn against each other
than man and wife who had loved each other true for fifteen years,—a
whole winter, and danger, and death perhaps, coming between us, too.
It may seem very queer to you, Johnny,—it did to me when I was your
age, and didn't know any more than you do,—how folks can work
themselves up into great quarrels out of such little things; but they
do, and into worse, if it's a man who likes his own way, and a woman
that knows how to talk. It's my opinion, two thirds of all the divorce
cases in the law-books just grow up out of things no bigger than that
But how people that ever loved each other could come to hard words like
that, you don't see? Well, ha, ha! Johnny, that amuses me, that really
does amuse me, for I never saw a young man nor a young woman
either,—and young men and young women in general are very much like
fresh-hatched chickens, to my mind, and know just about as much of the
world, Johnny,—well, I never saw one yet who didn't say that very
thing. And what's more, I never saw one who could get it into his head
that old folks knew better.
But I say I had loved your mother true, Johnny, and she had loved me
true, for more than fifteen years; and I loved her more the fifteenth
year than I did the first, and we couldn't have got along without each
other, any more than you could get along if somebody cut your heart
right out. We had laughed together and cried together; we had been sick,
and we'd been well together; we'd had our hard times and our pleasant
times right along, side by side; we'd baptized the babies, and we'd
buried 'm, holding on to each other's hand; we had grown along year
after year, through ups and downs and downs and ups, just like one
person, and there wasn't any more dividing of us. But for all that we'd
been put out, and we'd had our two ways, and we had spoken our sharp
words like any other two folks, and this wasn't our first quarrel by any
I tell you, Johnny, young folks they start in life with very pretty
ideas,—very pretty. But take it as a general thing, they don't know any
more what they're talking about than they do about each other, and they
don't know any more about each other than they do about the man in the
moon. They begin very nice, with their new carpets and teaspoons, and a
little mending to do, and coming home early evenings to talk; but by and
by the shine wears off. Then come the babies, and worry and wear and
temper. About that time they begin to be a little acquainted, and to
find out that there are two wills and two sets of habits to be fitted
somehow. It takes them anywhere along from one year to three to get
jostled down together. As for smoothing off, there's more or less of
that to be done always.
Well, I didn't sleep very well that night, dropping into naps and waking
up. The baby was worrying over his teeth every half-hour, and Nancy
getting up to walk him off to sleep in her arms,—it was the only way
you would be hushed up, and you'd lie and yell till somebody did it.
Now, it wasn't many times since we'd been married that I had let her do
that thing all night long. I used to have a way of getting up to take my
turn, and sending her off to sleep. It isn't a man's business, some
folks say. I don't know anything about that; maybe, if I'd been broiling
my brain in book learning all day till come night, and I was hard put to
it to get my sleep anyhow, like the parson there, it wouldn't; but all
I know is, what if I had been breaking my back in the potato-patch since
morning? so she'd broken her's over the oven; and what if I did need
nine hours' sound sleep? I could chop and saw without it next day, just
as well as she could do the ironing, to say nothing of my being a great
stout fellow,—there wasn't a chap for ten miles round with my
muscle,—and she with those blue veins on her forehead. Howsomever that
may be, I wasn't used to letting her do it by herself, and so I lay with
my eyes shut, and pretended that I was asleep; for I didn't feel like
giving in, and speaking up gentle, not about that nor anything else.
I could see her though, between my eyelashes, and I lay there, every
time I woke up, and watched her walking back and forth, back and forth,
up and down, with the heavy little fellow in her arms, all night long.
Sometimes, Johnny, when I'm gone to bed now of a winter night, I think I
see her in her white nightgown with her red-plaid shawl pinned over her
shoulders and over the baby, walking up and down, and up and down. I
shut my eyes, but there she is, and I open them again, but I see her all
I was off very early in the morning; I don't think it could have been
much after three o'clock when I woke up. Nancy had my breakfast all laid
out overnight, except the coffee, and we had fixed it that I was to make
up the fire, and get off without waking her, if the baby was very bad.
At least, that was the way I wanted it; but she stuck to it she should
be up,—that was before there'd been any words between us.
The room was very gray and still,—I remember just how it looked, with
Nancy's clothes on a chair, and the baby's shoes lying round. She had
got him off to sleep in his cradle, and had dropped into a nap, poor
thing! with her face as white as the sheet, from watching.
I stopped when I was dressed, half-way out of the room, and looked round
at it,—it was so white, Johnny! It would be a long time before I should
see it again,—five months were a long time; then there was the risk,
coming down in the freshets, and the words I'd said last night. I
thought, you see, if I should kiss it once,—I needn't wake her
up,—maybe I should go off feeling better. So I stood there looking: she
was lying so still, I couldn't see any more stir to her than if she had
her breath held in. I wish I had done it, Johnny,—I can't get over
wishing I'd done it, yet. But I was just too proud, and I turned round
and went out, and shut the door.
We were going to meet down at the post-office, the whole gang of us, and
I had quite a spell to walk. I was going in on Bob Stokes's team. I
remember how fast I walked with my hands in my pockets, looking along up
at the stars,—the sun was putting them out pretty fast,—and trying not
to think of Nancy. But I didn't think of anything else.
It was so early, that there wasn't many folks about to see us off; but
Bob Stokes's wife,—she lived nigh the office, just across the
road,—she was there to say good-by, kissing of him, and crying on his
shoulder. I don't know what difference that should make with Bob Stokes,
but I snapped him up well, when he came along, and said good morning.
There were twenty-one of us just, on that gang, in on contract for Dove
and Beadle. Dove and Beadle did about the heaviest thing on woodland of
anybody, about that time. Good, steady men we were, most of us,—none of
your blundering Irish, that wouldn't know a maple from a hickory, with
their gin-bottles in their pockets,—but our solid, Down-East Yankee
heads, owning their farms all along the river, with schooling enough to
know what they were about 'lection day. You didn't catch any of us
voting your new-fangled tickets when he had meant to go up on Whig, for
want of knowing the difference, nor visa vussy. To say nothing of Bob
Stokes, and Holt, and me, and another fellow,—I forget his name,—being
members in good and reg'lar standing, and paying in our five dollars to
the parson every quarter, charitable.
Yes, though I say it that shouldn't say it, we were as fine a looking
gang as any in the county, starting off that morning in our red
uniform,—Nancy took a sight of pains with my shirt, sewing it up stout,
for fear it should bother me ripping, and I with nobody to take a stitch
for me all winter. The boys went off in good spirits, singing till they
were out of sight of town, and waving their caps at their wives and
babies standing in the window along on the way. I didn't sing. I thought
the wind blew too hard,—seems to me that was the reason,—I'm sure
there must have been a reason, for I had a voice of my own in those
days, and had led the choir perpetual for five years.
We weren't going in very deep; Dove and Beadle's lots lay about thirty
miles from the nearest house; and a straggling, lonely sort of place
that was too, five miles out of the village, with nobody but a dog and a
deaf old woman in it. Sometimes, as I was telling you, we had been in a
hundred miles from any human creature but ourselves.
It took us two days to get there though, with the oxen; and the teams
were loaded down well, with so many axes and the pork-barrels;—I don't
know anything like pork for hefting down more than you expect it to,
reasonable. It was one of your ugly gray days, growing dark at four
o'clock, with snow in the air, when we hauled up in the lonely place.
The trees were blazed pretty thick, I remember, especially the pines;
Dove and Beadle always had that done up prompt in October. It's pretty
work going in blazing while the sun is warm, and the woods like a great
bonfire with the maples. I used to like it, but your mother wouldn't
hear of it when she could help herself, it kept me away so long.
It's queer, Johnny, how we do remember things that ain't of no account;
but I remember, as plainly as if it were yesterday morning, just how
everything looked that night, when the teams came up, one by one, and we
went to work spry to get to rights before the sun went down.
There were three shanties,—they don't often have more than two or three
in one place,—they were empty, and the snow had drifted in; Bob
Stokes's oxen were fagged out with their heads hanging down, and the
horses were whinnying for their supper. Holt had one of his great
brush-fires going,—there was nobody like Holt for making fires,—and
the boys were hurrying round in their red shirts, shouting at the oxen,
and singing a little, some of them low, under their breath, to keep
their spirits up. There was snow as far as you could see,—down the
cart-path, and all around, and away into the woods; and there was snow
in the sky now, setting in for a regular nor'easter. The trees stood up
straight all around without any leaves, and under the bushes it was as
black as pitch.
"Five months," said I to myself,—"five months!"
"What in time's the matter with you, Hollis?" says Bob Stokes, with a
great slap on my arm; "you're giving that 'ere ox molasses on his hay!"
Sure enough I was, and he said I acted like a dazed creatur, and very
likely I did. But I couldn't have told Bob the reason. You see, I knew
Nancy was just drawing up her little rocking-chair—the one with the red
cushion—close by the fire, sitting there with the children to wait for
the tea to boil. And I knew—I couldn't help knowing, if I'd tried hard
for it—how she was crying away softly in the dark, so that none of
them could see her, to think of the words we'd said, and I gone in
without ever making of them up. I was sorry for them then. O Johnny, I
was sorry, and she was thirty miles away. I'd got to be sorry five
months, thirty miles away, and couldn't let her know.
The boys said I was poor company that first week, and I shouldn't wonder
if I was. I couldn't seem to get over it any way, to think I couldn't
let her know.
If I could have sent her a scrap of a letter, or a message, or
something, I should have felt better. But there wasn't any chance of
that this long time, unless we got out of pork or fodder, and had to
send down,—which we didn't expect to, for we'd laid in more than usual.
We had two pretty rough weeks' work to begin with, for the worst storms
of the season set in, and kept in, and I never saw their like, before or
since. It seemed as if there'd never be an end to them. Storm after
storm, blow after blow, freeze after freeze; half a day's sunshine, and
then at it again! We were well tired of it before they stopped; it made
the boys homesick.
However, we kept at work pretty brisk,—lumber-men aren't the fellows to
be put out for a snow-storm,—cutting and hauling and sawing, out in
the sleet and wind. Bob Stokes froze his left foot that second week, and
I was frost-bitten pretty badly myself. Cullen—he was the boss—he was
well out of sorts, I tell you, before the sun came out, and cross enough
to bite a tenpenny nail in two.
But when the sun is out, it isn't so bad a kind of life, after all. At
work all day, with a good hot dinner in the middle; then back to the
shanties at dark, to as rousing a fire and tiptop swagan as anybody
could ask for. Holt was cook that season, and Holt couldn't be beaten on
Now you don't mean to say you don't know what swagan is? Well, well! To
think of it! All I have to say is, you don't know what's good then.
Beans and pork and bread and molasses,—that's swagan,—all stirred up
in a great kettle, and boiled together; and I don't know anything—not
even your mother's fritters—I'd give more for a taste of now. We just
about lived on that; there's nothing you can cut and haul all day on
like swagan. Besides that, we used to have doughnuts,—you don't know
what doughnuts are here in Massachusetts; as big as a dinner-plate those
doughnuts were, and—well, a little hard, perhaps. They used to have it
about in Bangor that we used them for clock pendulums, but I don't know
I used to think a great deal about Nancy nights, when we were sitting up
by the fire,—we had our fire right in the middle of the hut, you know,
with a hole in the roof to let the smoke out. When supper was eaten, the
boys all sat up around it, and told stories, and sang, and cracked their
jokes; then they had their backgammon and cards; we got sleepy early,
along about nine or ten o'clock, and turned in under the roof with our
blankets. The roof sloped down, you know, to the ground; so we lay with
our heads in under the little eaves, and our feet to the fire,—ten or
twelve of us to a shanty, all round in a row. They built the huts up
like a baby's cob-house, with the logs fitted in together. I used to
think a great deal about your mother, as I was saying; sometimes I would
lie awake when the rest were off as sound as a top, and think about her.
Maybe it was foolish, and I'm sure I wouldn't have told anybody of it;
but I couldn't get rid of the notion that something might happen to her
or to me before five months were out, and I with those words unforgiven.
Then, perhaps, when I went to sleep, I would dream about her, walking
back and forth, up and down, in her nightgown and little red shawl, with
the great heavy baby in her arms.
So it went along till come the last of January, when one day I saw the
boys all standing round in a heap, and talking.
"What's the matter?" says I.
"Pork's given out," says Bob, with a whistle. "Beadle got that last lot
from Jenkins there, his son-in-law, and it's sp'ilt. I could have told
him that beforehand. Never knew Jenkins to do the fair thing by anybody
"Who's going down?" said I, stopping short. I felt the blood run all
over my face, like a woman's.
"Cullen hasn't made up his mind yet," says Bob, walking off.
Now you see there wasn't a man on the ground who wouldn't jump at the
chance to go; it broke up the winter for them, and sometimes they could
run in home for half an hour, driving by; so there wasn't much of a hope
for me. But I went straight to Mr. Cullen.
"Too late! Just promised Jim Jacobs," said he, speaking up quick; it was
just business to him, you know.
I turned off, and I didn't say a word. I wouldn't have believed it, I
never would have believed it, that I could have felt so cut up about
such a little thing. Cullen looked round at me sharp.
"Hilloa, Hollis!" said he. "What's to pay?"
"Nothing, thank you, sir," says I, and walked off, whistling.
I had a little talk with Jim alone. He said he would take good care of
anything I'd give him, and carry it straight. So when night came I went
and borrowed Mr. Cullen's pencil, and Holt tore me off a bit of clean
brown paper he found in the flour-barrel, and I went off among the trees
with it alone. I built a little fire for myself out of a
huckleberry-bush, and sat down there on the snow to write. I couldn't do
it in the shanty, with the noise and singing. The little brown paper
wouldn't hold much; but these were the words I wrote,—I remember every
one of them,—it is curious now I should, and that more than twenty
"Dear Nancy,"—that was it,—"Dear Nancy, I can't get over it, and I
take them all back. And if anything happens coming down on the logs—"
I couldn't finish that anyhow, so I just wrote "Aaron" down in the
corner, and folded the brown paper up. It didn't look any more like
"Aaron" than it did like "Abimelech," though; for I didn't see a single
letter I wrote,—not one.
After that I went to bed, and wished I was Jim Jacobs.
Next morning somebody woke me up with a push, and there was the boss.
"Why, Mr. Cullen!" says I, with a jump.
"Hurry up, man, and eat your breakfast," said he; "Jacobs is down sick
with his cold."
"Oh!" said I.
"You and the pork must be back here day after to-morrow,—so be spry,"
I rather think I was, Johnny.
It was just eight o'clock when I started; it took some time to get
breakfast, and feed the nags, and get orders. I stood there, slapping
the snow with my whip, crazy to be off, hearing the last of what Mr.
Cullen had to say.
They gave me the two horses,—we hadn't but two,—oxen are tougher for
going in, as a general thing,—and the lightest team on the ground; it
was considerably lighter than Bob Stokes's. If it hadn't been for the
snow, I might have put the thing through in two days, but the snow was
up to the creatures' knees in the shady places all along; off from the
road, in among the gullies, you could stick a four-foot measure down
anywhere. So they didn't look for me back before Wednesday night.
"I must have that pork Wednesday night sure," says Cullen.
"Well, sir," says I, "you shall have it Wednesday noon, Providence
permitting; and you shall have it Wednesday night anyway."
"You will have a storm to do it in, I'm afraid," said he, looking at the
clouds, just as I was whipping up. "You're all right on the road, I
"All right," said I; and I'm sure I ought to have been, for the times
I'd been over it.
Bess and Beauty—they were the horses, and of all the ugly nags that
ever I saw Beauty was the ugliest—started off on a round trot, slewing
along down the hill; they knew they were going home just as well as I
did. I looked back, as we turned the corner, to see the boys standing
round in their red shirts, with the snow behind them, and the fire and
the shanties. I felt a mite lonely when I couldn't see them any more;
the snow was so dead still, and there were thirty miles of it to cross
before I could see human face again.
The clouds had an ugly look,—a few flakes had fallen already,—and the
snow was purple, deep in as far as you could see under the trees.
Something made me think of Ben Gurnell, as I drove on, looking along
down the road to keep it straight. You never heard about it? Poor Ben!
Poor Ben! It was in '37, that was; he had been out hunting up blazed
trees, they said, and wandered away somehow into the Gray Goth, and went
over,—it was two hundred feet; they didn't find him, not till
spring,—just a little heap of bones; his wife had them taken home and
buried, and by and by they had to take her away to a hospital in
Portland,—she talked so horribly, and thought she saw bones round
There is no place like the woods for bringing a storm down on you quick;
the trees are so thick you don't mind the first few flakes, till, first
you know, there's a whirl of 'em, and the wind is up.
I was minding less about it than usual, for I was thinking of
Nannie,—that's what I used to call her, Johnny, when she was a girl,
but it seems a long time ago, that does. I was thinking how surprised
she'd be, and pleased. I knew she would be pleased. I didn't think so
poorly of her as to suppose she wasn't just as sorry now as I was for
what had happened. I knew well enough how she would jump and throw down
her sewing with a little scream, and run and put her arms about my neck
and cry, and couldn't help herself.
So I didn't mind about the snow, for planning it all out, till all at
once I looked up, and something slashed into my eyes and stung me,—it
"Oho!" said I to myself, with a whistle,—it was a very long whistle,
Johnny; I knew well enough then it was no play-work I had before me till
the sun went down, nor till morning either.
That was about noon,—it couldn't have been half an hour since I'd eaten
my dinner; I eat it driving, for I couldn't bear to waste time.
The road wasn't broken there an inch, and the trees were thin; there'd
been a clearing there years ago, and wide, white, level places wound off
among the trees; one looked as much like a road as another, for the
matter of that. I pulled my visor down over my eyes to keep the sleet
out,—after they're stung too much they're good for nothing to see with,
and I must see, if I meant to keep that road.
It began to be cold. You don't know what it is to be cold, you don't,
Johnny, in the warm gentleman's life you've lived. I was used to Maine
forests, and I was used to January, but that was what I call cold.
The wind blew from the ocean, straight as an arrow. The sleet blew every
way,—into your eyes, down your neck, in like a knife into your cheeks.
I could feel the snow crunching in under the runners, crisp, turned to
ice in a minute. I reached out to give Bess a cut on the neck, and the
sleeve of my coat was stiff as pasteboard before I bent my elbow up
If you looked up at the sky, your eyes were shut with a snap as if
somebody'd shot them. If you looked in under the trees, you could see
the icicles a minute, and the purple shadows. If you looked straight
ahead, you couldn't see a thing.
By and by I thought I had dropped the reins, I looked at my hands, and
there I was holding them tight. I knew then that it was time to get out
I didn't try much after that to look ahead; it was of no use, for the
sleet was fine, like needles, twenty of 'em in your eye at a wink; then
it was growing dark. Bess and Beauty knew the road as well as I did, so
I had to trust to them. I thought I must be coming near the clearing
where I'd counted on putting up overnight, in case I couldn't reach the
deaf old woman's.
There was a man just out of Bangor the winter before, walking just so
beside his team, and he kept on walking, some folks said, after the
breath was gone, and they found him frozen up against the sleigh-poles.
I would have given a good deal if I needn't have thought of that just
then. But I did, and I kept walking on.
Pretty soon Bess stopped short. Beauty was pulling on,—Beauty always
did pull on,—but she stopped too. I couldn't stop so easily, so I
walked along like a machine, up on a line with the creaturs' ears. I
did stop then, or you never would have heard this story, Johnny.
Two paces,—and those two hundred feet shot down like a plummet. A great
cloud of snow-flakes puffed up over the edge. There were rocks at my
right hand, and rocks at my left. There was the sky overhead. I was in
the Gray Goth!
I sat down as weak as a baby. If I didn't think of Ben Gurnell then, I
never thought of him. It roused me up a bit, perhaps, for I had the
sense left to know that I couldn't afford to sit down just yet, and I
remembered a shanty that I must have passed without seeing; it was just
at the opening of the place where the rocks narrowed, built, as they
build their light-houses, to warn folks to one side. There was a log or
something put up after Gurnell went over, but it was of no account,
coming on it suddenly. There was no going any farther that night, that
was clear; so I put about into the hut, and got my fire going, and Bess
and Beauty and I, we slept together.
It was an outlandish name to give it, seems to me, anyway. I don't know
what a Goth is, Johnny; maybe you do. There was a great figger up on the
rock, about eight feet high; some folks thought it looked like a man. I
never thought so before, but that night it did kind of stare in through
the door as natural as life.
When I woke up in the morning I thought I was on fire. I stirred and
turned over, and I was ice. My tongue was swollen up so I couldn't
swallow without strangling. I crawled up to my feet, and every bone in
me was stiff as a shingle.
Bess was looking hard at me, whinnying for her breakfast. "Bess," says
I, very slow, "we must get home—to-night—any—how."
I pushed open the door. It creaked out into a great drift, and slammed
back. I squeezed through and limped out. The shanty stood up a little,
in the highest part of the Goth. I went down a little,—I went as far as
I could go. There was a pole lying there, blown down in the night; it
came about up to my head. I sunk it into the snow, and drew it up.
Just six feet.
I went back to Bess and Beauty, and I shut the door. I told them I
couldn't help it,—something ailed my arms,—I couldn't shovel them out
to-day. I must lie down and wait till to-morrow.
I waited till to-morrow. It snowed all day, and it snowed all night. It
was snowing when I pushed the door out again into the drift. I went back
and lay down. I didn't seem to care.
The third day the sun came out, and I thought about Nannie. I was going
to surprise her. She would jump up and run and put her arms about my
neck. I took the shovel, and crawled out on my hands and knees. I dug
it down, and fell over on it like a baby.
After that, I understood. I'd never had a fever in my life, and it's not
strange that I shouldn't have known before.
It came all over me in a minute, I think. I couldn't shovel through.
Nobody could hear. I might call, and I might shout. By and by the fire
would go out. Nancy would not come. Nancy did not know. Nancy and I
should never kiss and make up now.
I struck my arm out into the air, and shouted out her name, and yelled
it out. Then I crawled out once more into the drift.
I tell you, Johnny, I was a stout-hearted man, who'd never known a fear.
I could freeze. I could burn up there alone in the horrid place with
fever. I could starve. It wasn't death nor awfulness I couldn't
face,—not that, not that; but I loved her true, I say,—I loved her
true, and I'd spoken my last words to her, my very last; I had left her
those to remember, day in and day out, and year upon year, as long as
she remembered her husband, as long as she remembered anything.
I think I must have gone pretty nearly mad with the fever and the
thinking. I fell down there like a log, and lay groaning. "God Almighty!
God Almighty!" over and over, not knowing what it was that I was saying,
till the words strangled in my throat.
Next day, I was too weak so much as to push open the door. I crawled
around the hut on my knees with my hands up over my head, shouting out
as I did before, and fell, a helpless heap, into the corner; after that
I never stirred.
How many days had gone, or how many nights, I had no more notion than
the dead. I knew afterwards; when I knew how they waited and expected
and talked and grew anxious, and sent down home to see if I was there,
and how she—But no matter, no matter about that.
I used to scoop up a little snow when I woke up from the stupors. The
bread was the other side of the fire; I couldn't reach round. Beauty eat
it up one day; I saw her. Then the wood was used up. I clawed out chips
with my nails from the old rotten logs the shanty was made of, and kept
up a little blaze. By and by I couldn't pull any more. Then there were
only some coals,—then a little spark. I blew at that spark a long
while,—I hadn't much breath. One night it went out, and the wind blew
in. One day I opened my eyes, and Bess had fallen down in the corner,
dead and stiff. Beauty had pushed out of the door somehow and gone. I
shut up my eyes. I don't think I cared about seeing Bess,—I can't
remember very well.
Sometimes I thought Nancy was there in the plaid shawl, walking round
the ashes where the spark went out. Then again I thought Mary Ann was
there, and Isaac, and the baby. But they never were. I used to wonder
if I wasn't dead, and hadn't made a mistake about the place that I was
One day there was a noise. I had heard a great many noises, so I didn't
take much notice. It came up crunching on the snow, and I didn't know
but it was Gabriel or somebody with his chariot. Then I thought more
likely it was a wolf.
Pretty soon I looked up, and the door was open; some men were coming in,
and a woman. She was ahead of them all, she was; she came in with a
great spring, and had my head against her neck, and her arm holding me
up, and her cheek down to mine, with her dear, sweet, warm breath all
over me; and that was all I knew.
Well, there was brandy, and there was a fire, and there were blankets,
and there was hot water, and I don't know what; but warmer than all the
rest I felt her breath against my cheek, and her arms about my neck, and
her long hair, which she had wrapped all in, about my hands.
So by and by my voice came. "Nannie!" said I.
"O don't!" said she, and first I knew she was crying.
"But I will," says I, "for I'm sorry."
"Well, so am I," says she.
Said I, "I thought I was dead, and hadn't made up, Nannie."
"O dear!" said she; and down fell a great hot splash right on my face.
Says I, "It was all me, for I ought to have gone back and kissed you."
"No, it was me" said she, "for I wasn't asleep, not any such thing. I
peeked out, this way, through my lashes, to see if you wouldn't come
back. I meant to wake up then. Dear me!" says she, "to think what a
couple of fools we were, now!"
"Nannie," says I, "you can let the lamp smoke all you want to!"
"Aaron—" she began, just as she had begun that other night,—"Aaron—"
but she didn't finish, and—Well, well, no matter; I guess you don't
want to hear any more, do you?
But sometimes I think, Johnny, when it comes my time to go,—if ever it
does,—I've waited a good while for it,—the first thing I shall see
will be her face, looking as it looked at me just then.