THERE are long stretches in the course of the Connecticut River, where its tranquil current assumes the aspect, of a lake, its sudden bends cut off the lovely reach of water, and its heavily wooded banks lie silent and green, undisturbed, except by the shriek of the passing steamer, casting golden-green reflections into the stream at twilight, and shadows of deepest blackness, star-pierced, at remoter depths of night. Here, now and then, a stray gull from the sea sends a flying throb of white light across the mirror below, or the sweeping wings of a hawk paint their moth-like image on the blue surface, or a little flaw of wind shudders across the water in a black ripple; but except for these casual stirs of Nature, all is still, oppressive, and beautiful, as earth seems to the trance-sleeper on the brink of his grave.
In one of these reaches, though on either side the heavy woods sweep down to the shore and hang over it as if deliberating whether to plunge in, on the eastern bank there is a tiny meadow just behind the tree-fringe of the river, completely hedged in by the deep woods, and altogether hidden from any inland road; nor would the traveller on the river discover it, except for the chimney of a house that peers above the yellow willows and seems in that desolate seclusion as startling as a daylight ghost. But this dwelling was built and deserted and weather-beaten long before the date of our story. It had been erected and inhabited during the Revolution, by an old Tory, who, foreseeing the result of the war better than some of his contemporaries, and being unwilling to expose his person to the chances of battle or his effects to confiscation, maintained a strict neutrality, and a secret trade with both parties; thereby welcoming peace and independence, fully stocked with the dislike and suspicion of his neighbors, and a large quantity of Continental “fairy-money.” So, when Abner Dimock died, all he had to leave to his only son was the red house on “Dimock’s Meadow,” and a ten-acre lot of woodland behind and around the green plateau where the house stood. These possessions he strictly entailed on his heirs forever, and nobody being sufficiently interested in its alienation to inquire into the State laws concerning the validity of such an entail, the house remained in the possession of the direct line, and in the year 18—belonged to another Abner Dimock, who kept tavern in Greenfield, a town of Western Massachusetts, and, like his father and grandfather before him, had one only son. In the mean time, the old house in Haddam township had fallen into a ruinous condition, and, as the farm was very small, and unprofitable chestnut-woodland at that, the whole was leased to an old negro and his wife, who lived there in the most utter solitude, scratching the soil for a few beans and potatoes, and in the autumn gathering nuts, or in the spring roots for beer, with which Old Jake paddled up to Middletown, to bring home a return freight of salt pork and rum.
The town of Greenfield, small though it was, and at the very top of a high hill, was yet the county town, subject to annual incursions of lawyers, and such “thrilling incidents” as arise from the location of a jail and a court-room within the limits of any village. The scenery had a certain summer charm of utter quiet that did it good service with some healthy people of well-regulated and insensitive tastes. From Greenfield Hill one looked away over a wide stretch of rolling country; low hills, in long, desolate waves of pasturage and grain, relieved here and there by a mass of black woodland, or a red farm-house and barns clustered against a hill-side, just over a wooden spire in the shallow valley, about which were gathered a few white houses, giving signs of life thrice a day in tiny threads of smoke rising from their prim chimneys; and over all, the pallid skies of New England, where the sun wheeled his shorn beams from east to west as coldly as if no tropic seas mirrored his more fervid glow thousands of miles away, and the chilly moon beamed with irreproachable whiteness across the round gray hills and the straggling pond, beloved of frogs and mud-turtles, that Greenfield held in honor under the name of Squam Lake.
Perhaps it was the scenery, perhaps the air, possibly the cheapness of the place as far as all the necessaries of life went, that tempted Judge Hyde to pitch his tent there, in the house his fathers had built long ago, instead of wearing his judicial honors publicly, in the city where he attained them; but, whatever the motive might be, certain it is that at the age of forty he married a delicate beauty from Baltimore, and came to live on Greenfield Hill, in the great white house with a gambrel roof and dormer windows, standing behind certain huge maples, where Major Hyde and Parson Hyde and Deacon Hyde had all lived before him.
A brief Northern summer bloomed gayly enough for Adelaide Howard Hyde when she made her bridal tour to her new home; and cold as she found the aspect of that house, with its formal mahogany chairs, high-backed, and carved in grim festoons and ovals of incessant repetition,—its penitential couch of a sofa, where only the iron spine of a Revolutionary heroine could have found rest,—its pinched, starved, and double-starched portraits of defunct Hydes, Puritanic to the very ends of toupet and periwig,—little Mrs. Hyde was deep enough in love with her tall and handsome husband to overlook the upholstery of a home he glorified, and to care little for comfort elsewhere, so long as she could nestle on his knee and rest her curly head against his shoulder. Besides, flowers grew, even in Greenfield; there were damask roses and old-fashioned lilies enough in the square garden to have furnished a whole century of poets with similes; and in the posy-bed under the front windows were tulips of Chinese awkwardness and splendor, beds of pinks spicy as all Arabia, blue hyacinths heavy with sweetness as well as bells, “pi’nies” rubicund and rank, hearts-ease clustered against the house, and sticky rose-acacias, pretty and impracticable, not to mention the grenadier files of hollyhocks that contended with fennel-bushes and scarlet-flowered beans for the precedence, and the hosts of wild flowers that bloomed by wood-edges and pond-shores wherever corn or potatoes spared a foot of soil for the lovely weeds. So in Judge Hyde’s frequent absences, at court or conclave, hither and yon, (for the Judge was a political man,) it was his pretty wife’s chief amusement, when her delicate fingers ached with embroidery, or her head spun with efforts to learn housekeeping from old Keery, the time-out-of-mind authority in the Hyde family, a bad-humored, good-tempered old maid,—it was, indeed, the little Southerner’s only amusement,—to make the polish and mustiness of those dreary front-parlors gay and fragrant with flowers; and though Judge Hyde’s sense of the ridiculous was not remarkably keen, it was too much to expect of him that he should do otherwise than laugh long and loud, when, suddenly returning from Taunton one summer day, he tracked his wife by snatches of song into the “company rooms,” and found her on the floor, her hair about her ears, tying a thick garland of red peonies, intended to decorate the picture of the original Hyde, a dreary old fellow, in bands, and grasping a Bible in one wooden hand, while a distant view of Plymouth Bay and the Mayflower tried to convince the spectator that he was transported, among other antediluvians, by that Noah’s ark, to the New World. On either hand hung the little Flora’s great-grandmother-in-law, and her great-grandfather accordingly, Mrs. Mehitable and Parson Job Hyde, peering out, one from a bushy ornament of pink laurel-blossoms, and the other from an airy and delicate garland of the wanton sweet-pea, each stony pair of eyes seeming to glare with Medusan intent at this profaning of their state and dignity. “Isn’t it charming, dear?” said the innocent little beauty, with a satisfaction half doubtful, as her husband’s laugh went on.
But for every butterfly there comes an end to summer. The flowers dropped from the frames and died in the garden; a pitiless winter set in; and day after day the mittened and mufflered schoolboy, dragging his sled through drifts of heavy snow to school, eyed curiously the wan, wistful face of Judge Hyde’s wife pressed up to the pane of the south window, its great restless eyes and shadowy hair bringing to mind some captive bird that pines and beats against the cage. Her husband absent from home long and often, full of affairs of “court and state,” —her delicate organization, that lost its flickering vitality by every exposure to cold,—her lonely days and nights,—the interminable sewing, that now, for her own reasons, she would trust to no hands but her own,—conscious incapacity to be what all the women about, her were, stirring, active, hardy housekeepers,—a vague sense of shame, and a great dread of the future,—her comfortless and motherless condition,—slowly, but surely, like frost, and wind, and rain, and snow, beat on this frail blossom, and it went with the rest. June roses were laid against her dark hair and in her fair hands, when she was carried to the lonely graveyard of Greenfield, where mulleins and asters, golden-rod, blackberry-vines, and stunted yellow-pines adorned the last sleep of the weary wife and mother;for she left behind her a week-old baby,—a girl,— wailing prophetically in the square bedroom where its mother died.
Judge Hyde did not marry again, and he named his baby Mehitable. She grew up as a half-orphaned child with an elderly and undemonstrative father would naturally grow,—shy, sensitive, timid, and extremely grave. Her dress, thanks to Aunt Keery and the minister’s wife, (who looked after her for her mother’s sake,) was always well provided and neat, but no way calculated to cultivate her taste or to gratify the beholder. A district school provided her with such education as it could give; and the library, that was her resort at all hours of the day, furthered her knowledge in a singular and varied way, since its lightest contents were histories of all kinds and sorts, unless one may call the English Classics lighter reading than Hume or Gibbon.
But at length the district-schoolma’am could teach Mehitable Hyde no more, and the Judge suddenly discovered that he had a pretty daughter of fourteen, ignorant enough to shock his sense of propriety, and delicate enough to make it useless to think of sending her away from home to be buffeted in a boarding-school. Nothing was left for him but to undertake her education himself; and having a theory that a thorough course of classics, both Greek and Latin, was the foundation of all knowledge, half a score of dusty grammars were brought from the garret, and for two hours every morning and afternoon little Miss Hitty worried her innocent soul over conjugations and declensions and particles, as perseveringly as any professor could have desired. But the dreadful part of the lessons to Hitty was the recitation after tea; no matter how well she knew every inflection of a verb, every termination of a noun, her father’s cold, gray eye, fixed on her for an answer, dispelled all kinds of knowledge, and, for at least a week, every lesson ended in tears. However, there are alleviations to everything in life; and when the child was sent to the garret after her school-books, she discovered another set, more effectual teachers to her than Sallust or the “Graeca Minora,” even the twelve volumes of “Sir Charles Grandison,” and the fewer but no less absorbing tomes of “Clarissa Harlowe"; and every hour she could contrive not to be missed by Keery or her father was spent in that old garret, fragrant as it was with sheaves of all the herbs that grow in field or forest, poring over those old novels, that were her society, her friends, her world.
So two years passed by. Mehitable grew tall and learned, but knew little more of the outside world than ever; her father had learned to love her, and taught her to adore him; still shy and timid, the village offered no temptation to her, so far as society went; and Judge Hyde was beginning to feel that for his child’s mental health some freer atmosphere was fast becoming necessary, when a relentless writ was served upon the Judge himself, and one that no man could evade; paralysis smote him, and the strong man lay prostrate,—became bedridden.
Now the question of life seemed settled for Hitty; her father admitted no nursing but hers. Month after month rolled away, and the numb grasp gradually loosed its hold on flesh and sense, but still Judge Hyde was bedridden. Year after year passed by, and no change for better or worse ensued. Hitty’s life was spent between the two parlors and the kitchen; for the room her dead mother had so decorated was now furnished as a bedroom for her father’s use; and her own possessions had been removed into the sitting-room next it, that, sleeping or waking, she might be within call. All the family portraits held a conclave in the other front-parlor, and its north and east windows were shut all the year, save on some sultry summer day when Keery flung them open to dispel damp and must, and the school-children stared in reverentially, and wondered why old Madam Hyde’s eyes followed them as far as they could see. Visitors came now and then to the kitchen-door, and usurped Keery's flag-bottomed chair, while they gossiped with her about village affairs; now and then a friendly spinster with a budget of good advice called Hitty away from her post, and, after an hour’s vain effort to get any news worth retailing about the Judge from those pale lips, retired full of disappointed curiosity to tell how still that Mehitable Hyde was, and how hard it was to make her speak a word to one! Friends were what Hitty read of in the "Spectator,” and longed to have; but she knew none of the Greenfield girls since she left school, and the only companion she had was Keery, rough as the east wind, but genuine and kind-hearted, —better at counsel than consolation, and no way adapted to fill the vacant place in Hitty’s heart.
So the years wore away, and Miss Hyde’s early beauty went with them. She had been a blooming, delicate girl, —the slight grace of a daisy in her figure, wild-rose tints on her fair cheek, and golden reflections in her light brown hair, that shone in its waves and curls like lost sunshine; but ten years of such service told their story plainly. When Hitty Hyde was twenty-six, her blue eyes were full of sorrow and patience, when the shy lids let their legend be read; the little mouth had become pale, and the corners drooped; her cheek, too, was tintless, though yet round; nothing but the beautiful hair lasted; even grace was gone, so long had she stooped over her father. Sometimes the unwakened heart within her dreamed, as a girl’s heart will. Stately visions of Sir Charles Grandison bowing before her,—shuddering fascinations over the image of that dreadful Lovelace,—nothing more real haunted Hitty’s imagination. She knew what she had to do in life,—that it was not to be a happy wife or mother, but to waste by a bedridden old man, the only creature on earth she loved as she could love. Light and air were denied the plant, but it grew in darkness,—blanched and unblooming, it is true, but still a growth upward, toward light.
Ten years more of monotonous patience, and Miss Hyde was thirty-six. Her hair had thinned, and was full of silver threads; a wrinkle invaded either cheek, and she was angular and bony; but something painfully sweet lingered in her face, and a certain childlike innocence of expression gave her the air of a nun; the world had never touched nor taught her.
But now Judge Hyde was dead; nineteen years of petulant, helpless, hopeless wretchedness were at last over, and all that his daughter cared to live for was gone; she was an orphan, without near relatives, without friends, old, and tired out. Do not despise me that I say “old." you plump and rosy ladies whose life is in its prime of joy and use at thirty-six. Age is not counted by years, nor calculated from one’s birth; it is a fact of wear and work, altogether unconnected with the calendar. I have seen a girl of sixteen older than you are at forty. I have known others disgrace themselves at sixty-five by liking to play with children and eat sugar-plums!
One kind of youth still remained to Hitty Hyde,—the freshness of inexperience. Her soul was as guileless and as ignorant as a child’s; and she was stranded on life, with a large fortune, like a helmless ship, heavily loaded, that breaks from its anchor, and drives headlong upon a reef.
Now it happened, that, within a year after Judge Hyde's death, Abner Dimock, the tavern-keeper’s son, returned to Greenfield, after years of absence, a boldfaced, handsome man, well-dressed and “free-handed,” as the Greenfield vernacular hath it. Nobody knew where Abner Dimock had spent the last fifteen years; neither did anybody know anything against him; yet he had no good reputation in Greenfield. Everybody looked wise and grave when his name was spoken, and no Greenfield girl cared to own him for an acquaintance. His father welcomed him home with more surprise than pleasure; and the whole household of the Greenfield Hotel, as Dimock’s Inn was new-named, learned to get out of Abner Dimock’s way, and obey his eve, as if he were more their master than his father.
Left quite alone, without occupation or amusement, Miss Hyde naturally grasped at anything that came in her way to do or to see to; the lawyer who had been executor of her father’s will had settled the estate and gone back to his home, and Miss Hyde went with him, the first journey of her life, that she might select a monument for her father’s grave. It was now near a year since Judge Hyde’s death, and the monument was on its way from Boston; the elder Dimock monopolized the cartage of freight as well as passengers to the next town, and to him Miss Hyde intrusted the care of the great granite pillar she had purchased; and it was for his father that Abner Dimock called on the young lady for directions as to the disposal of the tombstone just arrived. Hitty was in the garden; her white morning-dress shone among the roses, and the morning air had flushed her pale cheek; she looked fair and delicate and gracious; but her helpless ignorance of the world’s ways and usages attracted the world-hardened man more than her face. He had not spent a roué life in a great city for nothing; he had lived enough with gentlemen, brokendown and lost, it is true, but well-bred, to be able to ape their manners; and the devil’s instinct that such people possess warned him of Hitty Hyde's weakest points. So, too, he contrived to make that first errand lead to another, and still another,—to make the solitary woman depend on his help, and expect his coming; fifty thousand dollars, with no more incumbrance than such a woman, was worth scheming for, and the prey was easily snared.
It is not to be expected that any country village of two streets, much less Greenfield, could long remain ignorant of such a new and amazing phase as the devotion of any man to any woman therein; but, as nobody liked to interfere too soon in what might only be, after all, a mere business arrangement, Greenfield contented itself with using its eyes, its ears, and its tongues, with one exception to the latter organ’s clatter, in favor of Hitty Hyde; to her no one dared as yet approach with gossip or advice.
In the mean time Hitty went on her way, all regardless of the seraphs at the gate. Abner Dimock was handsome, agreeable, gentlemanly to a certain lackered extent;—who had cared for Hitty, in all her life, enough to aid and counsel her as he had already done? At first she was half afraid of him; then she liked him; then he was “so good to me!” and then—she pitied him! for he told her, sitting on that hard old sofa, in the June twilight, how he had no mother, how he had been cast upon the charities of a cruel and evil world from his infancy; reminded her of the old red school-house where they had been to school together, and the tyranny of the big boys over him, —a little curly, motherless boy. So be enlarged upon his life; talked a mildly bitter misanthropy; informed Miss Hyde by gradual insinuations that she was an angel sent on earth to console and reform a poor sinner like him; and before the last September rose had droped, so far had Abner Dimock succeeded in his engineering, that his angel was astounded one night by the undeniably terrestrial visitation of an embrace and a respectfully fervid kiss.
Perhaps it would have been funny, perhaps pathetic, to analyze the mixed consternation and delight of Mehitable Hyde at such bonâ-fide evidence of a lover. Poor woman’s heart!—altogether solitary and desolate,-starved of its youth and its joy,—given over to the chilly reign of patience and resignation, —afraid of life,—without strength, or hope, or pleasure,—and all at once Paradise dawns!—her cold, innocent life bursts into fiery and odorous bloom; she has found her fate, and its face is keen with splendor, like a young angel's. Poor, deluded, blessed, rapturesmitten woman!
Blame her as you will, indignant maidens of Greenfield, Miss Flint, and Miss Sharp, and Miss Skinner! You may have had ten lovers and twenty flirtations apiece, and refused half-a-dozen good matches for the best of reasons; you, no doubt, would have known better than to marry a man who was a villain from his very physiognomy; but my heart must needs grow tender toward Miss Hyde; a great joy is as pathetic as a sorrow. Did you never cry over a doting old man?
But when Mrs. Smith’s son John, a youth of ten, saw, by the light of an incautious lamp that illuminated a part of the south parlor, a good-night kiss bestowed upon the departing Abner by Miss Hitty Hyde and absolutely returned by said Abner, and when John told his mother, and his mother revealed it to Miss Flint, Miss Flint to Miss Skinner, and so forth, and so on, till it reached the minister’s wife, great was the uproar in Greenfield; and the Reverend Mrs. Perkins put on her gray bonnet and went over to remonstrate with Hitty on the spot.
Whether people will ever learn the uselessness of such efforts is yet a matter for prophecy. Miss Hyde heard all that was said, and replied very quietly, “I don’t believe it.” And as Mrs. Perkins had no tangible proofs of Abner Dimock’s unfitness to marry Judge Hyde’s daughter, the lady in question got the better of her adviser, so far as any argument was concerned, and effectually put an end to remonstrance by declaring with extreme quiet and unblushing front,—
“I am going to marry him next week. Will you be so good as to notify Mr. Perkins?”
Mrs. Perkins held up both hands and cried. Words might have hardened Hitty; but what woman that was not half tigress ever withstood another woman’s tears?
Hitty’s heart melted directly; she sat down by Mrs. Perkins, and cried, too.
“Please, don’t be vexed with me,” sobbed she. “I love him, Mrs. Perkins, and I haven’t got anybody else to love,—and —and—I never shall have. He’s very good to love me,—I am so old and homely.”
“Very good!” exclaimed Mrs. Perkins, in great wrath, “good! to marry Judge Hyde’s daughter, and—fifty thousand dollars,” Mrs. Perkins bit off She would not put such thoughts into Hitty’s head, since her marriage was inevitable.
“At any rate,” sighed Hitty, on the breath of a long-drawn sob, “nobody else ever loved me, if I am Judge Hyde’s daughter.”
So Mrs. Perkins went away, and declared that things had gone too far to be prevented; and Abner Dimock came on her retreating steps, and Hitty forgot everything but that he loved her; and the next week they were married.
Here, by every law of custom, ought my weary pen to fall flat and refuse its office; for it is here that the fate of every heroine culminates. For what are women born but to be married? Old maids are excrescences in the social system,—disagreeable utilities,—persons who have failed to fulfil their destiny,—and of whom it should have been said, rather than of ghosts, that they are always in the wrong. But life, with pertinacious facts, is too apt to transcend custom and the usage of novel-writers; and though the one brings a woman’s legal existence to an end when she merges her independence in that of a man, and the other curtails her historic existence at the same point, because the novelist’s catechism hath for its preface this creed,—“The chief end of woman is to get married”; still, neither law nor novelists altogether displace this same persistent fact, and a woman lives, in all capacities of suffering and happiness, not only her wonted, but a double life, when legally and religiously she binds herself with bond and vow to another soul.
Happy would it have been for Hitty Hyde, if with the legal fiction had chimed the actual existent fact!—happy indeed for Abner Dimack’s wife to have laid her new joy down at the altar, and been carried to sleep by her mother under the mulleins and golden-rods on Greenfield Hill! Scarce was the allotted period of rapture past half its term, scarce had she learned to phrase the tender words aloud that her heart beat and choked with, before Abner Dimock began to tire of his incumbrance, and to invent plans and excuses for absence; for he dared not openly declare as yet that he left his patient, innocent wife for such scenes of vice and reckless dissipation as she had not even dreamed could exist.
Yet for week after week he lingered away from Greenfield; even months rolled by, and, except for rare and brief visits home, Hitty saw no more of her husband than if he were not hers. She lapsed into her old solitude, varied only by the mutterings and grumblings of old Keery, who had lifted up her voice against Hitty’s marriage with more noise and less effect than Mrs. Perkins, and, though she still staid by her old home and haunts, revenged herself on fate in general and her mistress in particular by a continual course of sulking, all the time hiding under this general quarrel with life a heart that ached with the purest tenderness and pity. So some people are made, like chestnuts; one gets so scratched and wounded in the mere attempt to get at the kernel within, that it becomes matter of question whether one does not suffer less from wanting their affection than from trying to obtain it. Yet Hitty Dimock had too little love given her to throw away even Keery’s habit of kindness to her, and bore with her snaps and snarls as meekly as a saint,— sustained, it is true, by a hope that now began to solace and to occupy her, and to raise in her oppressed soul some glimmer of a bright possibility, a faint expectation that she might yet regain her husband’s love, a passion which she began in her secret heart to fear had found its limit and died out. Still, Hitty, out of her meek, self-distrusting spirit, never blamed Abner Dimock for his absence or his coldness; rather, with the divine unselfishness that such women manifest, did she blame herself for having linked his handsome and athletic prime with her faded age, and struggle daily with the morbid conscience that accused her of having forgotten his best good in the indulgence of her own selfish ends of happiness. She still thought, “He is so good to me!” still idealized the villain to a hero, and, like her kind, predestined to be the prey and the accusing angel of such men, prayed for and adored her husband as it he had been the best and tenderest of gentlemen. Providence has its mysteries; but if there be one that taxes faith and staggers patience more than another, it is the long misery that makes a good woman cringe and writhe and agonize in silence under the utter rule and life-long sovereignty of a bad man. Perhaps such women do not suffer as we fancy; for after much trial every woman learns that it is possible to love where neither respect nor admiration can find foothold,—that it even becomes necessary to love some men, as the angels love us all, from an untroubled height of pity and tenderness, that, while it sees and condemns the sin and folly and uncleanness of its object, yet broods over it with an all-shielding devotion, laboring and beseeching and waiting for its regeneration, upheld above the depths of suffering and regret by the immortal power of a love so fervent, so pure, so self-forgetting, that it will be a millstone about the necks that disregard its tender clasping now, to sink them into a bottomless abyss in the day of the Lord.
Now had one long and not unhappy autumn, a lingering winter, a desolate spring, a weary summer, passed away, and from an all-unconscious and protracted wrestling with death Hitty Dimock awoke to find her hope fulfilled,—a fair baby nestled on her arm, and her husband, not all-insensible, smiling beside her.
It is true, that, had she died then, Abner Dimock would have regretted her death; for, by certain provisions of her father’s will, in case of her death, the real estate, otherwise at her own disposal, became a trust for her child or children, and such a contingency ill suited Mr. Dimock's plans. So long as Hitty held a rood of land or a coin of silver at her own disposal, it was also at his; but trustees are not women, happily for the world at large, and the contemplation of that fact brought Hitty Hyde’s husband into a state of mind well fitted to give him real joy at her recovery.
So, for a little while, the sun shone on this bare New England hill-side, into this grim old house. Care and kindness were lavished on the delicate woman, who would scarce have needed either in her present delight; every luxury that could add to her slowly increasing strength, every attention that could quiet her fluttering and unstrung nerves, was showered on her, and for a time her brightest hopes seemed all to have found fruition.
As she recovered and was restored to strength, of course these cares ceased. But now the new instincts of motherhood absorbed her, and, brooding over the rosy child that was her own, caressing its waking, or hanging above its sleep, she scarce noted that her husband’s absences from home grew more and more frequent, that strange visitors asked for him, that he came home at midnight oftener than at dusk. Nor was it till her child was near a year old that Hitty discovered her husband's old and rewakened propensity,— that Abner Dimock came home drunk,— not drunk as many men are, foolish and helpless, mere beasts of the field, who know nothing and care for nothing but the filling of their insatiable appetite;— this man’s nature was too hard, too iron in its moulding, to give way to temporary imbecility; liquor made him savage, fierce, brutal, excited his fiendish temper to its height, nerved his muscular system, inflamed his brain, and gave him the aspect of a devil; and in such guise he entered his wife’s peaceful Eden, where she brooded and cooed over her child’s slumbers, with one gripe of his hard hand lifted her from her chair, kicked the cradle before him, and, with an awful though muttered oath, thrust mother and child into the entry, locked the door upon them, and fell upon the bed to sleep away his carouse.
Here was an undeniable fact before Hitty Dimock, one she could no way evade or gloss over; no gradual lesson, no shadow of foreboding, preluded the revelation; her husband was unmistakably, savagely drunk. She did not sit down and cry;—drearily she gathered her baby in her arms, hushed it to sleep with kisses, passed down into the kitchen, woke up the brands of the ash-hidden fire to a flame, laid on more wood, and, dragging old Keery’s rush-bottomed chair in front of the blaze, held her baby in her arms till morning broke, carcless of anything, without or within but her child’s sleep and her husband’s drunkenness. Long and sadly in that desolate night did she revolve this new misery in her mind; the fact was face to face, and must be provided for,—but how to do it? What, could she do, poor weak woman, even to conceal this disgrace, much more to check it? Long since she had discovered that between her and her husband there was no community of tastes or interests; he never talked to her, he never read to her, she did not know that he read at all; the garden he disliked as a useless trouble; he would not drive, except such a gay horse that Hitty dared not risk her neck behind it, and felt a shudder of fear assail her whenever his gig left the door; neither did he care for his child. Nothing at home could keep him from his pursuits; that she well knew; and, hopeful as she tried to be, the future spread out far away in misty horror and dread. What might not become of her boy, with such a father's influence? was her first thought;—nay, who could tell but in some fury of drink he might kill or maim him? A chill of horror crept over Hitty at the thought,—and then, what had not she to dread? Oh, for some loophole of escape, some way to fly, some refuge for her baby’s innocent life! No,—no,— no! She was his wife; she had married him; she had vowed to love and honor and obey,—vow of fearful import now, though uttered in all pureness and truth, as to a man who owned her whole heart! Love him!—that was not the dread; love was as much her life as her breath was; she knew no interval of loving for the brute fiend who mocked her with the name of husband; no change or chance could alienate her divine tenderness,— even as the pitiful blue sky above hangs stainless over reeking battle-fields and pest-smitten cities, piercing with its sad and holy star-eyes down into the hellish orgies of men, untouched and unchanged by just or unjust, forever shining and forever pure. But honor him! could that be done? What respect or trust was it possible to keep for a self-degraded man like that? And where honor goes down, obedience is sucked into the vortex, and the wreck flies far over the lonely sea, historic and prophetic to ship and shore.
No! there was nothing to do! her vow was taken, past the power of man to break; nothing now remained but endurance. Perhaps another woman, with a strong will and vivid intellect, might have set herself to work, backed by that very vow that defied poor Hitty, and, by sheer resolution, have dragged her husband up from the gulf and saved him, though as by fire; or a more buoyant and younger wife might have passed it by as a first offence, hopeful of its being also the only one. But an instinctive knowledge of the man bereft Hitty of any such hope; she knew it was not the first time; from his own revelations and penitent confessions while she was yet free, she knew he had sinned as well as suffered, and the past augured the future. Nothing was left her, she could not escape, she must shut her eyes and her mouth, and only keep out of his way as far as she could. So she clasped her child more tightly, and, closing her heavy eyes, rocked back and forth till the half-waked boy slept again; and there old Keery found her mistress, in the morning, white as the cold drifts without, and a depth of settled agony in her quiet eyes that dimmed the old woman’s only to look at.
Neither spoke; nor when her husband strode into the breakfast-room and took his usual place, sober enough, but scarcely regretful of the over-night development, did any word of reproach or allusion pass the wife’s white lips. A stranger would have thought her careless and cold. Abner Dimock knew that she was heartbroken; but what was that to him? Women live for years without that organ; and while she lived, so long as a cent remained of the Hyde estate, what was it to him if she pined away? She could not leave him; she was utterly in his power; she was his,—like his boots, his gun, his dog; and till he should tire of her and fling her into some lonely chamber to waste and die, she was bound to serve him; he was safe.
And she offered no sort of barrier to his full indulgence of his will to drink. Had she lifted one of her slender fingers in warning, or given him a look of reproachful meaning, or uttered one cry of entreaty, at least the conscience within him might have visited him with a temporary shame, and restrained the raging propensity for a longer interval; but seeing her apparent apathy, knowing how timid and unresisting was her nature,— that nothing on earth will lie still and be trodden on but a woman,— Abner Dimock rioted and revelled to his full pleasure, while all his pale and speechless wife could do was to watch with fearful eyes and straining ears for his coming, and slink out of the way with her child, lest both should be beaten as well as cursed; for faithful old Keery, once daring to face him with a volley of reproaches from her shrill tongue, was levelled to the floor by a blow from his rapid hand, and bore bruises for weeks that warned her from interference. Not long, however, was there danger of her meddling. When the baby was a year and a half old, Keery, in her out-door labors,—now grown burdensome enough, since Mr. Dimock neither worked himself nor allowed a man on the premises,—Keery took a heavy cold, and, worn out with a life of hard work, sank into rest quickly, her last act of life being to draw Hitty’s face down to her own, wrinkled and wan as it was, scarce so old in expression as her mistress’s, and with one long kiss and sob speak the foreboding and anxious farewell she could not utter.
“Only you now!" whispered Hitty to her child, as Keery’s peaceful, shrouded face was hidden under the coffin-lid and carried away to Greenfield Hill. Pitiful whisper! happily all-unmeaning to the child, but full of desolation to the mother, floating with but one tiny plank amid the wild wrecks of a midnight ocean, and clinging as only the desperate can cling to this vague chance of life.
A rough, half-crazed girl, brought from the alms-house, now did the drudgery of the family. Abner Dimock had grown penurious, and not one cent of money was given for comfort in that house, scarce for need. The girl was stupid and rude, but she worked for her board,—recommendation enough in Mr. Dimock’s eyes; and so hard work was added to the other burdens loaded upon his silent wife. And soon came another, all-mysterious, but from its very mystery a deeper fear. Abner Dimock began to stay at home, to be visited at late hours by one or two men whose faces were full of evil and daring; and when, in the dead of the long nights, Hitty woke from her broken and feverish sleep, it was to hear muffled sounds from the cellar below, never heard there before; and once, wrapping a shawl about her, she stole down the stairways with bare feet, and saw streams of red light through the chinks of the cellar-door, and heard the ring of metal, and muttered oaths, all carefully dulled by such devices as kept the sounds from chance passers in the street, though vain as far as the inhabitants of the house itself were concerned. Trembling and cold, she stole back to her bed, full of doubts and fears, neither of which she dared whisper to any one, or would have dared, had she possessed a single friend to whom she could speak. Troubles thickened fast over Hitty; her husband was always at home now, and rarely sober; the relief his absences had been was denied her entirely; and in some sunny corner of the uninhabited rooms up-stairs she spent her days, toiling at such sewing as was needful, and silent as the dead, save as her life appealed to God from the ground, and called down the curse of Cain upon a head she would have shielded from evil with her own life.
Keen human legislation! sightless justice of men!—one drunken wretch smites another in a midnight brawl, and sends a soul to its account with one sharp shudder of passion and despair, and the maddened creature that remains on earth suffers the penalty of the law. Every sense sobered from its reeling fury, weeks of terrible expectation heaped upon the cringing soul, and, in full consciousness, that murderer is strangled before men and angels, because he was drunk!—necessary enough, one perceives, to the good of society, which thereby loses two worse than useless members; but what, in the name of God’s justice, should His vicegerent, law, visit upon the man who wrings another life away by slow tortures, and torments heart and soul and flesh for lingering years, where the victim is passive and tenacious, and dies only after long-drawn anguish that might fill the cup of a hundred sudden deaths? Yet what escapes the vicegerent shall the King himself visit and judge. “For He cometh! He cometh to judge the earth; with righteousness shall He judge the world, and the people with equity.”
Six months passed after Keery’s death, and now from the heights of Greenfield and her sunny window Hitty Dimock’s white face looked out upon a landscape of sudden glory; for October, the goldbringer, had come, pouring splendor over the earth, and far and wide the forests blazed; scarlet and green maples, with erect heads, sentinelled the street, gay lifeguards of autumn; through dark green cedars the crimson creeper threaded its sprays of blood-red; birches, gilded to their tops, swayed to every wind, and drooped their graceful boughs earthward to shower the mossy sward with glittering leaves; heavy oaks turned purple-crimson through their wide-spread boughs; and the stately chestnuts, with foliage of tawny yellow, opened wide their stinging husks to let the nuts fall for squirrel and bluejay. Splendid sadness clothed all the world, opal-hued mists wandered up and down the valleys or lingered about the undefined horizon, and the leaf-scented south wind sighed in the still noon with foreboding gentleness.
One day, Abner Dimock was gone, and Hitty stole down to the garden-door with her little child, now just trying to walk, that he might have a little play on the green turf, and she cool her hot eyes and lips in the air. As she sat there watching the pretty clumsiness of her boy, and springing forward to intercept his falls, the influence of sun and air, the playful joy of the child, the soothing stillness of all Nature, stole into her heart till it dreamed a dream of hope. Perhaps the budding blossom of promise might become floral and fruitful; perhaps her child might yet atone for the agony of the past;—a time might come when she should sit in that door, whitehaired and trembling with age, but as peaceful as the autumn day, watching the sports of his children, while his strong arm sustained her into the valley of shadow, and his tender eyes lit the way.
As she sat dreaming, suddenly a figure intercepted the sunshine, and, looking up, she saw Abner Dimock's father, the elder Abner, entering the little wicketgate of the garden. A strange, tottering old figure, his nose and chin grimacing at each other, his bleared eyes telling unmistakable truths of cider-brandy and New England rum, his scant locks of white lying in confusion over his wrinkled forehead and cheeks, his whole air squalid, hopeless, and degraded,—not so much by the poverty of vice as by its demoralizing stamp penetrating from the inner to the outer man, and levelling it even below the plane of brutes that perish.
“Good-day! good-day!” said he to his son’s wife, in a squeaking, tremulous tone, that drove the child to his mother’s arms,—“Abner to home?”
“No, Sir,” said Hitty, with an involuntary shudder, that did not escape the bleared blue eye that fixed its watery gaze upon her.
“Cold, a'n’t ye? Better go in, better go in! Come, come along! How d’e do, little feller? don’t know yer grandper, hey?”
The child met his advances with an ominous scream, and Hitty hurried into the house to give him to the servant’s charge, while she returned to the sittingroom, where the old man had seated himself in the rocking-chair, and was taking a mental inventory of the goods and chattels with a momentary keenness in his look that no way reassured Hitty’s apprehensive heart.
“So, Abner a'n't to home?”
“Don't know where he’s gone, do ye?”
“Don’t never know where he goes, I expect?”
“Well, when he comes home,—know when he’s a-comin’ home?”
“Well, when he doos, you tell him 't some folks come to the tavern last night, ’n’ talked pretty loud, 'n' I heerdGuess ’ta’n’t best, though, to tell what I heerd. Only you tell Abner ’t I come here, and I said he’d better be a-joggin’. He’ll know, he'll know,—h’m, yes,” said the old man, passing his hand across his thin blue lips, as if to drive away other words better left unsaid,—and then rising from his seat, by the aid of either arm, gained his balance, and went on, while he fumbled for his stick:—
“I'd ha’ writ, but black and white’s a hangin' matter sometimes, ’n’ words a’n’t; 'n' I hadn’t nobody to send, so I crawled along. Don’t ye forget now! don’t ye! It’s a pretty consider'ble piece o’ business; 'n’ you’ll be dreffully on't, ef you do forget. Now don’t, ye forget!”
“No, I won't,” said Hitty, trembling as she spoke; for the old man’s words had showed her a depth of dreadful possibility, and an old acquaintance with crime and its manoeuvres, that chilled the blood in her veins. She watched him out of the gate with a sickening sense of terror at her heart, and turned slowly into the house, revolving all kinds of plans in her head for her husband’s escape, should her fears prove true. Of herself she did not think; no law could harm her child; but, even after years of brutality and neglect, her faithful affection turned with all its provident thoughtfulness and care at once to her husband; all her wrongs were forgotten, all her sorrows obliterated by this one fear! Well did St. Augustine say, “God is patient because He is eternal”; but better and truer would the saying have been, had it run, “God is patient because He is love”: a gospel that He publishes in the lives of saints on earth, in their daily and hourly “anguish of patience,” preaching to the fearful souls that dare not trust His long-suffering by the tenacious love of those who bear His image, saying, in resistless human tones, “Shall one creature endure and love and continually forgive another, and shall I, who am not loving, but Love, be weary of thy transgressions, O sinner?” And so does the silent and despairing life of many a woman weave unconsciously its golden garland of reward in the heavens above, and do the Lord’s work in a strange land where it cannot sing His songs.
The day crept toward sunset, and Hitty sat with her wan face pressed to the window-pane, hushing her child in his cradle with one of those low, monotoned murmurs that mothers know; but still her husband did not come. The level sun-rays pierced the woods into more vivid splendor, burnished gold fringed the heavy purple clouds in the west, and warm crimson lights turned the purple into more triumphant glory; the sun set, unstained with mist or tempest, behind those blue and lonely hills that guard old Berkshire with their rolling summits, and night came fast, steel-blue and thick with stars; but yet he did not come, the untouched meal on the table was untouched still. Hour after hour of starry darkness crept by, and she sat watching at the window-pane; overhead, constellations marched across the heavens in relentless splendor, careless of man or sorrow; Orion glittered in the east, and climbed toward the zenith; the Pleiades clustered and sparkled as if they missed their lost sister no more; the Hyades marked the celestial pastures of Taurus, and Lyra strung her chords with fire. Hitty rested her weary head against the window-frame and sent her wearier thoughts upward to the stars; there were the points of light that the Chaldeans watched upon their plains by night, and named with mystic syllables of their weird Oriental tongue, —names that in her girlhood she had delighted to learn, charmed by that nameless spell that language holds, wherewith it plants itself ineradicable in the human mind, and binds it with fetters of vague association that time and chance are all-powerless to break,—Zubeneschamali and Zubenelgunebi, Bellatrix and Betelguese, sonorous of Rome and Asia both, full of old echoes and the dry resonant air of Eastern plains,—names wherein sounded the clash of Bellona’s armor, and the harsh stir of palm-boughs rustled by a hot wind of the desert, and vibrant with the dying clangor of gongs, and shouts of worshipping crowds reverberating through horrid temples of grinning and ghastly idols, wet with children’s blood.
Far, far away, the heavenly procession and their well-remembered names had led poor Hitty’s thoughts; worn out with anxiety, and faint for want of the food she had forgotten to take, sleep crept upon her, and her first consciousness of its presence was the awakening grasp of a rough hand and the hoarse whisper of her husband.
“Get up!” said he. “Pick up your brat, get your shawl, and come!”
Hitty rose quickly to her feet. One faculty wretchedness gives, the power of sudden self-possession,—and Hitty was broad awake in the very instant she was called. Her husband stood beside her, holding a lantern; her boy slept in the cradle at her feet.
“Have you seen your father?” said she, with quick instinct.
“Yes, d—n you, be quick! do you want to hang me?”
Quick as a spirit Hitty snatched her child, and wrapped him in the blanket where he lay; her shawl was on the chair she had slept in, her hood upon a nail by the door, and flinging both on, with the child in her arms, she followed her husband down-stairs, across the back-yard, hitting her feet against stones and logs in the darkness, stumbling often, but never falling, till the shadow of the trees was past, and the starlight showed her that they were traversing the open fields, now crisp with frost, but even to the tread, —over two or three of these, through a pine-wood that was a landmark to Hitty, for she well knew that it lay between the turnpike-road and another, less frequented, that by various windings went toward the Connecticut line,—then over a tiny brook on its unsteady bridge of logs, and out into a lane, where a roughspoken man was waiting for them, at the head of a strong horse harnessed to one of those wagons without springs that NewEnglanders like to make themselves uncomfortable in. Her husband turned to her abruptly.
“Get in,” said he; “get in behind; there’s hay enough; and don’t breathe loud, or I’ll murder you!”
She clambered into the wagon and seated herself on the hay, hushing her child, who nestled and moaned in her arms, though she had carried him with all possible care. A sharp cut of the whip sent the powerful horse off at full speed, and soon this ill-matched party were fast traversing the narrow road that wound about the country for the use of every farm within a mile of its necessary course, a course tending toward the Connecticut.
Hour after hour crept by. Worn out with fatigue, poor Hitty dozed and fell back on the soft hay; her child slept, too, and all her troubles faded away in heavy unconsciousness, till she was again awakened by her husband’s grasp, to find that dawn was gathering its light roseate fleeces in the east, and that their flight was for the present stayed at the door of a tavern, lonely and rude enough, but welcome to Hitty as a place of rest, if only for a moment. The sullen mistress of the house asked no questions and offered no courtesy, but, after her guests had eaten their breakfast, rapidly prepared, she led the way to a bedroom in the loft, where Abner Dimock flung himself down upon the straw bed and fell sound asleep, leaving Hitty to the undisturbed care of her child. And occupation enough that proved; for the little fellow was fretful and excited, so that no hour for thought was left to his anxious and timid mother till the dinner-bell awoke her husband and took him downstairs. She could not eat, but, begging some milk for her boy, tended, and fed, and sung to him, till he slept; and then all the horrors of the present and future thronged upon her, till her heart seemed to die in her breast, and her limbs failed to support her when she would have dragged herself out of doors for one breath of fresh air, one refreshing look at a world untroubled and serene.
So the afternoon crept away, and as soon as night drew on the journey was resumed. But this night was chill with the breath of a sobbing east wind, and the dim stars foreboded rain. Hitty shivered with bitter cold, and the boy began to cry. With a fierce curse Abner bade her stop his disturbance, and again the poor mother had hands and heart full to silence the still recurring sobs of the child. At last, after the midnight cocks had ceased to send their challenges from farm to farm, after some remote churchclocks had clanged one stroke on the damp wind, they began to pass through a large village; no lights burned in the windows, but white fences gleamed through the darkness, and sharp gable ends loomed up against the dull sky, one after another, and the horse’s hoofs flashed sparks from the paved street before the church, that showed its white spire, spectre-like, directly in their path. Here, by some evil chance, the child awoke, and, between cold and hunger and fear, began one of those long and loud shrieks that no power can stop this side of strangulation. In vain Hitty kissed, and coaxed, and half-choked her boy, in hope to stop the uproar; still he screamed more and more loudly. Abner turned round on his scat with an oath, snatched the child from its mother’s arms, and rolled it closely in the blanket.
“Hold on a minute, Ben!” said he to his companion; “this yelp must be stopped”; and stepping over to the back of the wagon, he grasped his wife tightly with one arm, and with the other dropped his child into the street. "Now drive, Ben,” said he, in the same hoarse whisper,—“drive like the Devil!”—for, as her child fell, Hitty shrieked with such a cry as only the heart of a mother could send out over a newly-murdered infant. Shriek on shriek, fast and loud and long, broke the slumbers of the village; nothing Abner could do, neither threat nor force, short of absolute murder, would avail,—and there was too much real estate remaining of the Hyde property for Abner Dimock to spare his wife yet. Ben drove fiend-fashion; but before they passed the last house in the village, lights were glancing and windows grating as they were opened. Years after, I heard the story of such a midnight cry borne past sleeping houses with the quick rattle of wheels; but no one who heard it could give the right clue to its explanation, and it dried into a legend.
Now Hitty Dimock became careless of good or evil, except one absorbing desire to get away from her husband,—to search for her child, to know if it had lived or died. For four nights more that journey was pursued at the height of their horse’s speed; every day they stopped to rest, and every day Hitty’s half-delirious brain laid plans of escape, only to be balked by Abner Dimock’s vigilance; for if he slept, it was with both arms round her, and the slightest stir awoke him,—and while he woke, not one propitious moment freed her from his watch. Her brain began to reel with disappointment and anguish; she began to hate her husband; a band of iron seemed strained about her forehead, and a ringing sound filled her ears; her lips grew parched, and her eye glittered; the last night of their journey Abner Dimock lifted her into the wagon, and she fainted on the hay.
“What in hell did you bring her for, Dimock?” growled his companion; “women are d—d plagues always.”
“She’ll get up in a minute,” coolly returned the husband; “can’t afford to leave a goose that lays golden eggs behind; hold on till I lift her up. Here, Hitty! drink, I tell you! drink!”
A swallow of raw spirit certainly drove away the faintness, but it brought fresh fire to the fever that burned in her veins, and she was muttering in delirium before the end of that night’s journey brought them to a small village just above the old house on the river that figured in the beginning of this history, and which we trust the patient reader has not forgotten. Abner Dimock left his wife in charge of the old woman who kept the hovel of a tavern where they stopped, and, giving Ben the horse to dispose of to some safe purchaser, after he had driven him down to the old house, returned at night in the boat that belonged to his negro tenant, and, taking his unconscious wife from her bed, rowed down the river and landed her safely, to be carried from the skiff into an upper chamber of the old house, where Jake’s wife, Aunt Judy, as Mr. Dimock styled her, nursed the wretched woman through three weeks of fever, and "doctored” her with herbs and roots.
The tenacious Hyde constitution, that was a proverb in Greenfield, conquered at last, and Hitty became conscious, to find herself in a chamber whose plastered walls were crumbling away with dampness and festooned with cobwebs, while the unearpeted floor was checkered with green stains of mildew, and the very old four-post bedstead on which she lay was fringed around the rickety tester with rags of green moreen, mould-rotted.
Hitty sank back on her pillow with a sigh; she did not even question the old negress who sat crooning over the fire, as to where she was, or what had befallen her; but accepted this new place as only another misty delirium, and in her secret heart prayed, for the hundredth time, to die.
Slowly she recovered; for prayers to die are the last prayers ever answered; we live against our will, and tempt living deaths year after year, when soul and body cry out for the grave's repose, and beat themselves against the inscrutable will of God only to fall down before it in bruised and bleeding acquiescence. So she lived to find herself immured in this damp and crumbling house, with no society but a drinking and crime-haunted husband, and the ignorant negroes who served him,—society varied now and then by one or two men revolting enough in speech and aspect to drive Hitty to her own room, where, in a creaking chair, she rocked monotonously back and forth, watching the snapping five, and dreaming dreams of a past that seemed now but a visionary paradise.
For now it was winter, and the heavy drifts of snow that lay on Dimock’s meadow forbade any explorations which the one idea of finding her child might have driven her to make; and the frozen surface of the river no white-sailed ship could traverse now, nor the hissing paddle-wheels of a steamer break the silence with intimations of life, active and salient, far beyond the lonely precinct of Abner Dimock’s home.
So the winter passed by. The noises and lights that had awoke Hitty at midnight in the house at Greenfield had become so far an institution in this lonely dwelling that now they disturbed her sleep no more; for it was a received custom, that, whenever Abner Dimock’s two visitors should appear, the cellar should resound all night with heavy blows and clinking of metal, and red light as from a forge streamed up through the doorway; but it disturbed Hitty no more; apathy settled down in black mist on her soul, and she seemed to think, to care, for nothing.
But spring awoke the dead earth, and sleeping roots aroused with fresh forces from their torpor, and gent up green signals to the birds above. A spark of light awoke in Hitty’s eye; she planned to get away, to steal the boat from its hidden cove in the bushes and push off down the friendly current of the river,— anywhere away from him! anywhere! though it should be to wreck on the great ocean, but still away from him! Night after night she rose from her bed to hazard the attempt, but her heart failed, and her trembling limbs refused their aid. At length moonlight came to her aid, and when all the house slept she stole downstairs with bare, noiseless feet, and sped like a ghost across the meadow to the river-bank. Poor weak hands! vainly they fumbled with the knotted rope that bound the skiff to a crooked elm overhanging the water,—all in vain for many lingering minutes; but presently the obdurate knot gave way, and, turning to gather up her shawl, there, close behind her, so close that his hot breath seemed to sear her cheek, stood her husband, clear in the moonlight, with a sneer on his face, and the lurid glow of drunkenness, that made a savage brute of a bad man, gleaming in his deep-set eyes. Hitty neither shrieked nor ran; despair nerved her,—despair turned her rigid before his face.
“Well,” said he, “where are you going?”
“I am going away,—away from you, —anywhere in the world away from you!” answered she, with the boldness of desperation.
“Ha, ha! going away from me!—that’s a d—d good joke, a'n’t it? Away from your husband! You fool! you can’t get away from me! you’re mine, soul and body,—this world and the next! Don’t you know that? Where’s your promise, eh?—'for better, for worse!’—and a’n’t I worse, you cursed fool, you? You didn’t put on the handcuffs for nothing; heaven and hell can’t get you away from me as long as you’ve got on that little shiny fetter on your finger,—don’t you know that?”
The maddened woman made a quick wrench to pull away from him her left hand, which he held in his, taunting her with the ring that symbolized their eternal bonds; but he was too quick for her.
“Hollo!” laughed he; “want to get rid of it, don’t you? No, no! that won’t do,—that won’t do! I’ll make it safe!”
And lifting her like a child in his arms, he carried her across the meadow, back to the house, and down a flight of crazy steps into the cellar, where a little forge was all ablaze with white-hot coal, and the two ill-visaged men she well knew by sight were busy with sets of odd tools and fragments of metal, while on a bench near by, and in the seat of an old chair, lay piles of fresh coin. They were a gang of counterfeiters.
Abner Dimock thrust his wife into the chair, sweeping the gilt eagles to the floor as one of the men angrily started up, demanding, with an oath, what he brought that woman there for to hang them all.
“Be quiet, Bill, can’t you?” interposed the other man. “Don’t you see he’s drunk? you’ll have the Devil to pay, if you cross a drunk Dimock!”
But Abner had not heard the first speaker; he was too much occupied with tying his wife’s arms to the chair,—a proceeding she could nowise interfere with, since his heavy foot was set upon her dress so as to hold her own feet in helpless fixedness. He proceeded to take the ring from her finger, and, searching through a box of various contents that stood in one corner, extracted from it a delicate steel chain, finely wrought, but strong as steel can be; then, at the forge, with sundry tools, carefully chosen and skilfully used, he soldered one end of the chain to the ring, and, returning to his wife, placed it again upon her finger.
“Here, Bill," growled he, “where’s that padlock off the tool-chest, eh? give it here! This woman’s a fool,—ha, ha, ha!—she wanted to get away from me, and she’s my wife!”
Another peal of dissonant laughter interrupted the words.
“What a d—d good joke! I swear I haven’t laughed before, this dog’s age! And then she was goin’ to rid herself of the ring! as if that would help it! Why, there’s the promise in black and white,— ‘love, honor, and obey,’—'I take thee, Abner,’—ha, ha! that’s good! But fast bind, fast find; she a’n’t going to get rid of the ring. I’ll make it as tight as the promise; both of ’em ’ll last to doomsday. Give me the padlock, you scoundrel!”
Bill, the man he addressed, knew too much to hesitate after the savage look that sent home the last words,—and, drawing from a bag of tools and dies a tiny padlock and key, he handed them to Dimock, who passed the chain about Hitty’s thin white wrist, and, fastening it with the padlock, turned the key, and, withdrawing it from the lock, dropped it into the silvery heat of the forge, and burst into a fit of laughter, so savage and so inhuman that the bearded lips of his two comrades grew white with horror to hear the devil within so exult in his possession of a man.
Hitty sat, statue-like, in her chair; stooping, the man unbound her, and she rose slowly and steadily to her feet, looking him in the face.
“Look!” said she, raising her shackled arm high in air,—“I shall carry it to God!”—and so fled, up the broken stairway, out into the moonlight, across the meadow,—the three men following fast, —over the fallen boughs that winter had strewn along the shore, out under the crooked elm, swift as light, poising on the stern of the boat, that had swung out toward the channel,—and once more lifting her hand high into the white light, with one spring she dropped into the river, and its black waters rolled down to the sea.