A Story of Thanksgiving-Time
OLD Jacob Newell sat despondent beside his sitting-room fire. Gray-haired and venerable, with a hundred hard lines, telling of the work of time and struggle and misfortune, furrowing his pale face, he looked the incarnation of silent sorrow and hopelessness, waiting in quiet meekness for the advent of the King of Terrors: waiting, but not hoping, for his coming ; without desire to die, but with no dread of death.
At a short distance from him, in an ancient straight-backed rocking-chair, dark with age, and clumsy in its antique carvings, sat his wife. Stiffly upright, and with an almost painful primness in dress and figure, she sat knitting rapidly and with closed eyes. Her face was rigid as a mask; the motion in her fingers, as she plied her needles, was spasmodic and machine-like ; the figure, though quiet, wore an air of iron repose that was most uneasy and unnatural. Still, through the mask and from the figure there stole the aspect and air of one who had within her deep wells of sweetness and love which only strong training or power of education had thus covered up and obscured. She looked of that stern Puritanical stock whose iron will conquered the severity of New England winters and overcame the stubbornness of its granite hills, and whose idea of a perfect life consisted in the rigorous discharge of all Christian duties, and the banishment, forever and at all times, of the levity of pleasure and the folly of amusement. She could have walked, if need were, with composure to the stake; but she could neither have joined in a game at cards, nor have entered into a romp with little children. All this was plainly to be seen in the stern repose of her countenance and the stiff harshness of her figure.
Upon the stained deal table, standing a little in the rear and partially between the two, reposed an open Bible. Between its leaves lay a pair of large, old-fashioned, silver-bowed spectacles, which the husband had but recently laid there, after reading the usual daily chapter of Holy Writ. He had ceased but a moment before, and had laid them down with a heavy sigh, for his heart to-day was sorely oppressed; and no wonder ; for, following his gaze around the room, we find upon the otherwise bare walls five sad mementos of those who had “gone before,”— five coarse and unartistic, but loving tributes to the dead. There they hang, framed in black, each with its white tomb and overhanging willow, and severally inscribed to the memories of Mark, John, James, Martha, and Mary Newell. All their flock. None left to honor and obey, none to cheer, none to lighten the labor or soothe the cares. All gone, and these two left behind to travel hand in hand, but desolate, though together, to the end of their earthly pilgrimage.
There had, indeed, been one other, but for him there hung no loving memorial. He was the youngest of all, and such a noble, strong, and lusty infant, that the father, in the pride of his heart, and with his fondness tor Scriptural names, had christened him Samson. He, too, had gone ; but in the dread gallery that hung about the room there was no framed funereal picture “ To the Memory of Samson Newell.” If in the tomb of his father’s or mother’s heart he lay buried, no outward token gave note thereof.
So the old couple sat alone before the sitting-room fire. It was not often used, this room, — scarcely ever now, except upon Sunday, or on those two grave holidays that the Newells kept,— Thanksgivingand Fast-Day. This was Thanksgiving-Day. The snow without was falling thick and fast. It came in great eddies and white whirls, obscuring the prospect from the windows and scudding madly around the corners. It lay in great drifts against the fences, and one large pile before the middle front-window had gathered volume till it reached half up the second row of panes ; for it had snowed all night and half the day before. The roads were so blocked by it that they would have been rendered impassable but for the sturdy efforts of the farmers' boys, who drove teams of four and five yokes of oxen through the drifts with heavily laden sleds, breaking out the ways. The sidewalks in the little village were shovelled and swept clean as fast as the snow fell; for, though all business was suspended, according to the suggestion in the Governor's proclamation, and in conformity to old usage, still they liked to keep the paths open on Thanksgiving-Day,— the paths and the roads; for nearly half the families in the place expected sons and daughters from far away to arrive on the train which should have been at the railroad-station on the previous evening, but had been kept back by the snow.
But Jacob and Ruth Newell had neither son nor daughter, grandchild, cousin, relation of any nearness or remoteness, to expect; for the white snow covered with a cold mantle scores of mounds in many graveyards where lay their dead. And they sat this day and thought of all their kindred who had perished untimely,— all save one.
Whether he lived, or whether he had died,— where he lay buried, if buried he were, — or where he rioted, if still in the land of the living, they had no notion. And why should they care ?
He had been a strong-willed and wild lad. He had disobeyed the injunctions of his parents while yet a boy. He had not loved the stiff, sad Sabbaths, nor the gloomy Saturday nights. He had rebelled against the austerities of Fast-and Thanksgiving-Days. He had learned to play at cards and to roll tenpins with the village boys. He had smoked in the tavern barroom of evenings. In vain had his father tried to coerce him into better ways ; in vain had his mother used all the persuasions of a maternal pride and fondness that showed themselves only, of all her children, to this brave, handsome, and reckless boy. He had gone from worse to worse, after the first outbreaking from the strict home rules, until he had become at length a by-word in the village, and anxious mothers warned their sons against companionship with wicked Samson Newell, — and this when he was only seventeen years of age.
Perhaps mildness might have worked well with the self-willed boy, but his father knew nothing but stern command and prompt obedience in family management; and so the son daily fell away, until came the inevitable day when his wrong-doing reached a climax and he left his father’s roof forever.
It was on a Thanksgiving-Day, fifteen years ago, that the boy Samson, then seventeen years old, was brought home drunk and bleeding. He bad passed the previous night at a ball at the tavern, against the express command of his father, who would have gone to fetch him away, but that he could not bear to enter upon a scene he thought so wicked, and especially upon such an errand. When the dance was over, the boy had lingered at the bar, drinking glass after glass, until he got into a fight with the bully of the village, whom he thrashed within an inch of his life, and then he had sat down in a small side-room with a few choice spirits, with the avowed purpose of getting drunk over his victory. He had got drunk, “gloriously drunk” his friends at the tavern styled it, and had been carried in that state home.
Oh, the bitterness of the misery of that Thanksgiving-Day to Jacob Newell! He may live a hundred years and never know such another.
The next day Samson awoke from a wretched stupor to find himself weak, nervous, and suffering from a blinding headache. In this condition his father forced him to the barn, and there, with a heavy raw-hide, flogged him without mercy. That night Samson Newell disappeared, and was thenceforward seen no more in the village.
The same night one of the village stores was entered, the door of an ancient safe wrenched open, and something over a hundred dollars in specie taken therefrom. So that on Samson Newell’s head rested the crime of filial disobedience, and the suspicion, amounting, with nearly all, to a certainty, that he had added burglary to his other wrong-doing.
His name was published in the papers throughout the county, together with a personal description and the offer of a reward for his arrest and return. But as he was never brought back nor heard of more, the matter gradually died away and was forgotten by most in the village; the more so as, from respect and pity for Jacob Newell, it was scarce ever mentioned, except privately.
Eight years elapsed from the time of his flight and supposed crime, when the fellow he had thrashed at the tavern was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for a murder committed in a midnight tavern-brawl. In a confession that he made he exonerated Samson Newell from any participation in or knowledge of the burglary for which his reputation had so long suffered, stating in what manner he had himself committed the deed. So the memory of the erring son of Jacob Newell was relieved from the great shadow that had darkened it. Still he was never mentioned by father or mother; and seven years more rolled wearily on, till they sit, to-day, alone and childless, by the flickering November fire.
Sore trouble had fallen on them since their youngest son had disappeared. One by one, the elder children bad passed away, each winter’s snow for five years covered a fresh grave, till the new afflictions that were in store for them scarcely seemed to affect them otherwise than by cutting yet deeper into the sunken cheeks the deep lines of sorrow and regret.
Jacob Newell had been known for years as a “ forehanded man ” in the rural neighborhood. His lands were extensive, and he had pursued a liberal system of cultivation, putting into the soil in rich manures more in strength than he took from it, until his farm became the model one of the county, and his profits were large and ever increasing. Particularly in orchards of choice fruit did he excel his neighbors, and hia apples, pears, and quinces always commanded the best price in the market. So he amassed. wealth, and prospered.
But, unfortunately, after death had taken away his children, and the work in the fields was all done by hired hands, the old man became impatient of the dulness of life, and a spirit of speculation seized him. Just at that time, railroadstock was in high favor throughout the country. Steam-drawn carriages were to do away with all other modes of public travel, (as, indeed, they generally have done,) and the fortunate owners of railroad-stock were to grow rich without trouble in a short time. In particular, a certain line of railroad, to run through the village where he lived, was to make Jacob Newell and all his neighbors rich. It would bring a market to their doors, and greatly increase the value of all they produced ; but above all, those who took stock in it would be insured a large permanent income. Better the twenty and thirty per cent, that must accrue from this source than to loan spare cash at six per cent., or invest their surplus in farm improvements. So said a very fluent and agreeable gentleman from Boston, who addressed the people on the subject at a “ Railroad Meeting” held in the town-hall; and incautious Jacob Newell (hitherto most prudent throughout his life) believed.
Only twenty per cent, was to be paid down ; no more, said the circular issued by the directors, might be required for years; perhaps there would never be any further call: but that would depend very materially on how generously the farmers through whose lands the road would pass should give up claims for land-damages. Jacob Newell needed excitement of some sort, and it took the form of speculation. He believed in the railroad, and subscribed for two hundred shares of the stock, for which he paid four thousand dollars down. He also gave the company the right of way where the track crossed his farm.
In six months he was called upon for two thousand dollars more; three months afterwards another two thousand was wanted ; and so it ran till he was obliged to mortgage his farm, and finally to sell the greater part of it, to meet his subscription. In vain he begged for mercy, and pleaded the statement that only twenty per cent, would be needed. A new set of directors laughed him, and others like him, to scorn. He would have sold his stock, but he found it quoted at only twenty-five cents on the dollar, and that price he could not prevail upon himself to take.
So he sat on this drear ThanksgivingDay despondent beside his hearth. With a hundred hard lines furrowing his pale face, telling of the work of time and struggle and misfortune, he looked the incarnation of silent sorrow and hopelessness, waiting in quiet meekness for the coming of Death, — without desire, but without dread.
It was not strange that on this day there should come into the hearts of both Jacob and Ruth, his wife, sad and dismal memories. Still his gaze wandered silently about the room, and she plied unceasingly her stiff, bright knitting-needles. One would have thought her a figure of stone, sitting so pale and bolt upright, but for the activity of the patiently industrious fingers.
Presently Jacob spoke.
“ Ruth,” he said, “ it is a bitter time for us, and we are sore oppressed; but what does the Psalmist say to such poor, worn-out creatures as we are ? ‘ The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord, and he delightetk in his way. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down : for the Lord upholdeth him with his hand. I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.’ Wife, we are not forsaken of the Lord, although all earthly things seem to go wrong with us.”
She made no verbal reply; but there was a nervous flutter in the poor, wan fingers, as she still plied the needles, and two large tears rolled silently down her cheeks and fell upon the white kerchief she wore over her shoulders.
“ We have still a house over our heads,” continued Jacob, “ and wherewithal to keep ourselves fed and clothed and warmed ; we have but a few years more to live; let us thank God for what blessings He has yet vouchsafed us.”
She arose without a word, stiff, angular, ungainly, and they knelt together on the floor.
Meanwhile the snow fell thicker and faster without, and blew in fierce clouds against the windows. The wind was rising and gaining power, and it whistled wratkfully about the house, howling as in bitter mockery at the scene within. Sometimes it swelled into wild laughter, and again dropped into low and plaintive wailings. It was very dismal out in the cold, and hardly more cheerful in the warm sitting-room, where those two jaded souls knelt in earnest prayer.
A railway-train was fast in a snowbank. There it had stuck, unable to move either backward or forward, since nine o’clock on Wednesday evening; it was now Thursday morning, the snow was still falling, and still seemed likely to fall, blocking up more and more the passage of the unfortunate train. There were two locomotives, with a huge snowplough on the forward one, a baggageand express-car, and four cars filled with passengers. Two hundred people, all anxious, most of them grumbling, were detained there prisoners, snow-bound and helpless. It was a hard case, for they were more than two miles distant — with three feet depth of snow between — from the nearest house. The nearest village was five miles away at least.
It was Thanksgiving-Day, too, and they had almost all of them “ lotted ” upon a New-England Thanksgiving-dinner with old friends, brothers, fathers, mothers, and grandparents. And there they were, without so much as a ration of crackers and cheese.
It was noticeable that the women on the train — and there were quite a number, and most of them with children in their arms or by their sides — made, as a general rule, less disturbance and confusion than the men. The children, however, were getting very hungry and noisy by this Thanksgiving-morning.
In one of the cars were clustered as fine a family-group as the eye would desire to rest upon. It consisted of a somewhat large and florid, but firmly and compactly built man of thirty years or thereabout, a woman, evidently his wife and apparently some two or three years younger, and three beautiful children.
The man was large in frame, without being coarse, with a chest broad and ample as a gymnast’s, and with arms whose muscular power was evident at every movement. His hair and beard (which latter he wore full, as was just beginning to be the custom} were dark brown in color, and thick and strong almost to coarseness in texture ; his eye was a clear hazel, full, quick, and commanding, sometimes almost fierce; while an aquiline nose, full, round forehead, and a complexion bronzed by long exposure to all sorts of weather, gave him an aspect to be noted in any throng he might be thrown into. There was a constant air of pride and determination about the man, which softened, however, whenever his glance fell upon wife or children. At such times his face was lighted up with a smile of peculiar beauty and sweetness.
The woman was of middle size, with fair hair, inclining towards auburn, blue eyes, and a clear red and white complexion. Her expression was one of habitual sweetness and good-humor, while a continual half-smile played about her rosy mouth. She was plump, good-natured, and cozy, — altogether a most lovable and delicious woman.
This pair, with their bright-looking children, occupied two seats near the stove, and were in constant pleasant converse, save when an occasional anxious and impatient shadow flitted across the face of the husband and father. On the rack over their heads reposed a small travelling-bag, which the day before had been filled with luncheon for the children. Upon its bottom was painted in small white letters the name, “ Samson Newell.”
It was, indeed, the long-lost son, returning on this day to answer, so much as in him lay, the prayers repeated for fifteen years by his father and mother,—returning to see his former home once more, and here, nearly on the threshold, stopped by a snow-storm almost unprecedented at that season. There was occasional bitterness in his impatience at the wearying detention, but he controlled it as well as he was able.
During the night the passengers had been quiet and uncomplaining. Wood taken from the tenders of the two locomotives in small quantities, and, when the engineers stopped the supplies in that quarter, rails torn from neighboring fences and broken up for firewood, kept them warm; but after the day had dawned, when the little treasures of luncheon were exhausted, and all began to feel the real pangs of hunger, things assumed a more serious aspect. Children in all the cars were crying for breakfast, and even the older passengers began to feel cross and jaded.
One pleasant fellow, with an apparently inexhaustible flask of whiskey in his pocket, and good-humor oozing from every pore of his jolly countenance, passed from car to car, retailing a hundred jokes to every fresh batch of listeners. But presently the passengers began to tire of his witticisms, and one after another “ poohed ” and “ pshawed ” at him as he approached. Then with infinite good-nature and philosophy ho retired to one of the saloons and peacefully fell asleep.
Almost equally amusing was a wizened, bent, and thin old man, draped from head to foot in coarse butternut-colored, homespun, and called “ Old Woollen ” by the funny fellow, who walked from car to car bewailing his hard lot.
“I ’ve left the old woman to home,” he whined, “ with all the things on her hands, an’ more ’n fifty of our folks comin’ to eat dinner with us to - day; an’ I ’ve got a note of a hundred an’ fifty dollars to pay,—to-morrow’s the last day of grace, — an’ I’ve been sixty-five mile to get the money to pay it. Now look here ! ” suddenly and sharply to the Funny Man, “ what do you think o’ that ! ”
“ Old Woollen,” said the Funny Man, with a tremulous voice and tears in his eyes, “ it’s a hard case ! ”
“ So ’t is! That ’s a fact! Call an’ see us, when you come round our way! ”
And the old gentleman, greatly mollified by the sympathy of his new friend, moved on to find fresh auditors for his tale of woe.
It came to be nine o’clock on the morning of Thanksgiving-Day, and still the snow fell with unabated violence, and still drifts piled higher and higher about the captive train. The conductor and one of the firemen had started off on foot at early dawn in search of food for the passengers, and now there arrived, ploughing nearly breast-high through the snow, a convoy from one of the nearest farm-houses carefully guarding a valuable treasure of bread, cheese, bacon, eggs, and pumpkin - pies ; but so many were the mouths to fill that it scarcely gave a bite apiece to the men, after the women and children had been cared for.
Then the passengers began to grow clamorous. Even the Funny Man had his woes, for some rogue entered the saloon where he slept and stole the whiskey-flask from his pocket. When he awoke and discovered his loss, he remarked that he knew where there was more of the same sort, and turned over to sleep again. But all were not so philosophical as he. Some cursed the railroad company, some cursed the fate that had placed them there, some cursed their folly in leaving comfortable quarters in order to fast in the snow on Thanksgiving-Day.
Presently the impatiently-pulled-out watches showed ten o’clock, and still it snowed. Then a rumor ran through the train that there were a couple of barrels of chickens, ready-dressed for market, in the express-car, and a general rush in that direction followed. One of the first to hear of it, and one of the first to be on the spot, was Samson Newell.
“ Stand back, gentlemen,” he cried to the foremost of the throng that poured eagerly into the car, — “ stand back a moment. This poultry is in charge of the express messenger, and we have no right to take it without his license.”
As he spoke, he placed himself beside the messenger. There was a determination in his eye and manner that held the crowd back for a short time.
“ The chickens are mine,” the messenger said; “ I bought them on speculation ; they will spoil before I can get anywhere with them, and they are now too late for Thanksgiving. You may have them for what I gave.”
“ I will give five dollars towards paying for them ”; and Samson Newell drew out his pocket-book.
“ Here ’s a dollar ! ” “I ’ll give a half! ” “ Count me in for two dollars ! ”
cried the crowd, favorably struck with the notion of paying for their provender.
But one hulking fellow, with a large mock diamond in his shirt-front, and clumsy rings on his coarse and dirty fingers, stepped forward and said that he was a hungry man, that he had lost money by the ——— company already, waiting a day and a night in that blamed snow-bank, and that he was going to have a chicken, — or two chickens, if he wanted them,— and he was decidedly of the opinion that there was no express messenger on the train who would see the color of his money in the transaction.
Samson Newell was evidently a man of few words in a case of emergency. He paused for only an instant to assure himself that the man was in earnest, then he slid open one of the side-doors of the express-car, and stretched forth a hand whose clutch was like the closing of a claw of steel, He seized the bejewelled stranger by the coat-collar, shook him for an instant, and dropped him,— dropped him into a soft snow-drift whose top was level with the car-floor. Whether the unfortunate worked a subterranean passage to one of the passenger-cars and there buried himself in the privacy of a saloon is not known ; he certainly was not seen again till after relief came to the imprisoned train.
There was neither noise nor confusion in the matter of paying for and dividing the poultry. Samson Newell had already made himself prominent among the captive travellers, He had eaten nothing himself, that he might the better provide, so far as his limited provision went, for his wife and children; he had even gone through the ears with his scanty luncheon of cakes and apples, and economically fed other people's little ones, besides administering to the wants of an invalid lady upon the train, who was journeying alone. He was, therefore, a favorite with all on board. His action, enforcing payment for the provision that would very likely, but for him, have been taken by force, caused the passengers to defer to him as a leader whose strength and courage fitted him for the post, and so he presided at the distribution of the chickens without dispute.
The fuel in the stoves was replenished, and quite a large space was cleared to the leeward of the locomotive, where a fire was built from the neighboring fences, so that in an hour’s time from the finding of the poultry the entire body of passengers were busy picking the bones of roasted and broiled fowls. It was not so bad a dinner! To be sure, it was rather chilly, now and then, when the opening of a car-door, to let in a half-frozen gentleman with a half-cooked chicken in his hand, admitted with him a snow-laden blast from without; and then the viands were not served à la Soyer, but there was an appetite for sauce and a certain gvpsy-like feeling of being at a picnic that served as a relish. And so, in the year of our Lord 18—-, two hundred strangers sat down together at a most extraordinary Thanksgiving-dinner, of which no account has hitherto been published, if I except a vote of thanks, “ together with an exceedingly chaste and richly chased silver goblet,” (so the newspaper description read,) which were presented to the conductor by “ the surviving passengers,” after he had procured help and rescued them from their perplexing predicament.
But dinners end. Twelve o’clock came, and still the snow was falling thick and fast, and still the white plain about them mounted slowly and surely towards the skies. Then the passengers became yet more weary and unhappy. Old Woollen, the unfortunate, detailed his woes to more and more appreciative audiences. Even the Funny Man — with a fresh flask of whiskey -— sighed almost dismally between frequent uneasy “cat-naps.” And Samson Newell, first seeing his wife comfortably settled, and his little ones safely disposed about her, strode up and down, from car to car, with a gloom of disappointment on his face that was almost ferocious. “ Too bad ! ” he muttered, “ too bad! too bad! too bad! ”
One o’clock came, and the snow held up ! At first the passengers noticed that the flakes fell less thickly. Then, gradually and ever slowly decreasing, they finally ceased falling altogether. The clouds drifted from before the face of the heavens, and the sun came out. It shone over a broad surface of glistening snow, with here and there a fence-post obtruding into notice, but otherwhere a cold, blank expanse of whiteness. One or two remote farm-houses, with blue smoke rising in thin, straight columns from their chimneys, a wide stretch of woodland to the right, distant hills bounding all the prospect, —and everywhere snow. No fences, no roads, no paths,— but only snow !
The passengers gazed out of the windows or stood upon the platforms,— drawn thither by the warmth of the sun, — with feelings almost akin to despair. Presently it was proposed to make for the farmhouses, and fifteen of the more adventurous started. A few struggled through and arrived in something over an hour at the nearest house, wet to the skin with melted snow, and too much fatigued to think of returning, — but most of them gave out at the end of the first half-mile, and came back to the train.
So the prisoners sat down and whiled away the time as best they might, in the relation of anecdotes, telling stories, and grumbling. A few slept, and a large number tried to do so, without success.
The slow hand of Time, moving more slowly for them than they remembered it to have ever moved before, crept on to three o'clock, and still there was no prospect of relief and no incident of note save the arrival through the snow of a dozen men sent by the conductor. They brought word that help was approaching from the nearest station where a sufficiently powerful locomotive could be
obtained, and that they would probably be started on their way during the next forenoon. These messengers also brought a small supply of provisions and a number of packs of cards, with the latter of which many of the passengers were soon busy. They now resigned themselves to another night in the drift.
But at half after three occurred an incident that restored hope of a more speedy deliverance to a few of the captives.
Through the low pine-lands to the right ran a road which was very thoroughly protected from drifting snow by the overhanging trees, and along this road there now appeared two pair of oxen. In front of the oxen were five men armed with wooden snow-shovels, with which they beat down and scattered the snow. Behind all was a small, square box on runners. It was very small and contained only one board seat. Three persons could sit and three stand in it: no more.
Upon the appearance of this squad of road-breakers with their team, three hearty cheers went up from the train. They were immediately answered by the approach of the apparent leader of the expedition. He was a small, active, spare old fellow, so incrusted with frozen snow, which hung all over him in tiny white pellets, as to resemble more an active, but rather diminutive white bear, than anything else known to Natural History. He scrambled and puffed through the snow till he found a mounting-place upon an unseen fence, when he arose two or three feet above the surrounding surface, and spoke, —
“ There ’s five on us, an’ two yoke.”
“Two yoke yender, an’ five on us.”
“Well! supposing there is?” from the train.
“ Five mile to town,” continued the White Bear, “an’ been sence nine this mornin’ gittin’ here. Five times five is twenty-five, but, seein’ it’s you, I ’ll call it twelve ’n’ ’arf.”
“ Call what ‘ twelve ‘n‘ ’arf,’ SheepShanks ? ” from the train.
“ That man don’t ride, nohow ! I ’ve marked him ! I don’t cal’late to take no sarse this trip ! Take any six or eight for twelve dollars an’ fifty cents right straight to the tahvern ! Who bids ? ”
“I ’ll give you fifteen dollars, my friend, to take myself, my wife, and three children to the village.”
It was Samson Newell who spoke.
“ ’M offered fifteen,” cried the White Bear, pricking up his ears; “ goin’ to the tahvern at fifteen ; who says fifteen ‘n‘ ’arf?”
“I do ! ” from a pursy passenger with a double chin and a heavy fob-chain.
He glanced round a little savagely, having made his bid, as who should say, “ And I should like to see the man who will raise it! ”
“ ’N’ ’arf! ’n’ 'arf! ’n’ 'arf! ’n’ ’arf!” cried the White Bear, growing much excited, — “ an’ who says sixteen ? ”
Samson Newell nodded.
“ Sixteen dollars ! sixteen ! sixteen ! We can’t tarry, gentlemen!”
The White Bear proved the truth of this latter assertion by suddenly disappearing beneath the snow. He reappeared in an instant and resumed his outcry.
“ I see the gentleman's sixteen,” quoth the man who had called the White Bear “ Sheep-Shanks,” “ and go fifty cents better ! ”
“ I see you,” replied the auctioneer, “an’ don’t take your bid ! Who says sixteen ’n’ ’arf?”
“ I do ! ” quoth the Double Chin; and he glowered upon his fellow-passengers wrathfully.
At this instant appeared Old Woollen on the scene. In one hand he bore his pocket-book ; in the other, a paper covered with calculations. The latter he studied intently for a moment, then,—
“ I ’ll give you sixteen dollars an’ sixtytwo ’n’ a half cents; an’ if you ever come round our way ”-
The jubilant auctioneer, fairly dancing upon the fence in the energy of his delight, broke in here, —
“ Can’t take no bids, gentlemen, short of a half-dollar rise, each time ! ”
Old Woollen retired, discomfited, and was seen no more.
From this point the bidding ran up rapidly till it reached twenty-five dollars, where it stopped, Samson Newell being the successful bidder.
It was a study to watch the man, now that his chance for reaching home that day brightened. Instead of being elate, his spirits seemed to fall as he made his arrival at the village certain.
“ Ah ! ” he thought, “ are my father and mother yet living ? How will my brothers and sisters welcome me home ? ”
How, indeed ?
In the village where dwelt Jacob Newell and his wife, an old man, lame and totally blind, had been for over thirty years employed by the town to ring the meetinghouse-bell at noon, and at nine o’clock in the evening. For this service, the salary fixed generations before was five dollars, and summer and winter, rain or shine, he was always at his post at the instant.
When the old man rang the eveningbell on the Thanksgiving-Day whereof I write, he aroused Jacob and his wife from deep reverie.
“ Oh, Jacob ! ” said the latter, “such a waking dream as I have had! I thought they all stood before me, — all,— every one,— none missing ! And they were little children again, and had come to say their prayers before going to bed ! They were all there, and I could not drive it from my heart that I loved Samson best! ”
His name had hardly been mentioned between them for fifteen years.
Jacob Newell, with a strange look, as though he were gazing at some dimly defined object afar off, slowly spoke, —
“ I have thought sometimes that I should like to know where he lies, if he is dead, — or how he lives, if he be living. Shall we meet him ? Shall we meet him ? Five goodly spirits await us in heaven ; will he be there, also ? Oh, no ! he was a bad, bad, bad son, and he broke his father’s heart! ”
“ He was a bad son, Jacob, giddy and light-headed, but not wholly bad. Oh, he was so strong, so handsome, so bright and brave ! If he is living, I pray God that he may come back to see us for a little, before we follow our other lost ones ! ”
“ If he should come back,” said Jacob, turning very white, but speaking clearly and distinctly, “ I would drive him from my door, and tell him to be gone forever! A wine-bibber, dissolute, passionate, headstrong, having no reverence for God or man, no love for his mother, no sense of duty towards his father; I have disowned him, once and forever, and utterly cast him out! Let him beware and not come back to tempt me to curse him ! ”
Still from the distance, overpowering and drowning the headlong rush of passion, came the soft booming of the evening-bell.
“ I hear the church-bell, Jacob : we have not long to hear it. Let us not die cursing our son in our hearts. God gave him to us; and if Satan led him astray, we know not how strong the temptation may have been, nor how he may have fought against it,”
Jacob Newell had nought to say in answer to this, but, from the passion in his heart, and from that egotism that many good men have whose religious education has taught them to make their personal godliness a matter to vaunt over, he spoke, foolishly and little to the point, —
“Ruth, did Satan ever lead me astray?”
“ God knows ! ” she replied.
There came a rap at the door.
The melody of the church-bell was fast dying away. The last cadences of sound, the last quiver in the air, when the ringer had ceased to ring and the hammer struck the bell no more, lingered still, as a timid and uncertain tapping fell upon the door.
“ Come in ! ” said Jacob Newell.
The door was slowly opened.
Then there stood within it a tall, muscular man, a stranger in those parts, with a ruddy face, and a full, brown heard. lie stood grasping the door with all his might, and leaning against it as for support. Meanwhile his gaze wandered about the room with a strange anxiety, as though it sought in vain for what should assuredly have been found there.
“ Good evening, Sir,” said Jacob Newell.
The stranger made no reply, but still stood clinging to the door, with a strange and horrible expression of mingled wonder and awe in his face.
“ ’T is a lunatic!” whispered Ruth to her husband.
“ Sir,” said Jacob, “ what do you want here to-night ? ”
The stranger found voice at length, but it was weak and timorous as that of a frightened child.
“ We were on the train, my wife and I, with our three little ones, — on the train snowed in five miles back, — and we ask, if you will give it, a night’s lodging, it being necessary that we should reach home without paying for our keeping at the hotel. My wife and children are outside the door, and nearly frozen, I assure you.”
Then Ruth’s warm heart showed itself.
“ Come in,” she said. “ Keep you ? —of course we can. Come in and warm yourselves.”
A sweet woman, with one child in her arms, and two shivering beside her, glided by the man into the room. They were immediately the recipients of the good old lady's hospitality; she dragged them at once, one and all, to the warmest spot beside the liearth.
Still the man stood, aimless and uncertain, clutching the door and swaying to and fro.
“ Why do you stand there at the door ? Why not come in ?” said Jacob Newell. “You must be cold and hungry. Ruth — that’s my wife, Sir — will get you and your family some supper.”
Then the man came in and walked with an unsteady step to a chair placed for him near the fire. After he had seated himself he shook like one in an ague-fit.
“ I fear you are cold,” said Ruth.
“ Oh, no ! ” he said.
His voice struggled to his lips with difficulty and came forth painfully.
The old lady went to a corner cupboard, and, after a moment’s search, brought forth a black bottle, from which she poured something into a glass. It smelt like Jamaica rum. With this she advanced towards the stranger, but she was bluntly stopped by Jacob,—
“ I am afraid the gentleman has had too much of that already!”
For an instant, like a red flash of lightning, a flush of anger passed across his features before the stranger meekly made answer that he had tasted no liquor that day. Ruth handed him the glass and he drained it at a gulp. In a moment more he sat quietly upright and proceeded gravely to divest himself of his heavy shawl and overcoat, after which he assisted in warming and comforting the children, who were growing sleepy and cross.
Ruth bustled about with her preparations for giving the strangers a comfortable supper, and Jacob and his unexpected guest entered into conversation.
“ I used to be acquainted hereabout,” the stranger began, “ and I feel almost like getting among friends, whenever I visit the place. I rode over with old Gus Parker to-day, from where the train lies bedded near the five-mile cut, but I was too busy keeping the children warm to ask him any questions. I came here because your son Mark Newell and I were old cronies at school together. I — I don’t see him here to-night,”-—the stranger’s voice trembled now, — “ where is he ? ”
“ Where we must all follow him, sooner or later, — in the grave ! ”
“ But he had brothers,—-I've heard him say,” the stranger continued, with an anxiety in his tone that he could by no means conceal; “ I believe he had — let me see —three brothers and two sisters. Where are they ? ”
“All gone!” cried Jacob Newell, rising and pacing the room. Then suddenly facing his singular guest, he continued, speaking rapidly and bitterly, “ You have three children, — I had six ! Yours are alive and hearty; but so were mine; and when I was a young man, like you, I foolishly thought that I should raise them all, have them clustering around me in my old age, die before any of them, and so know no bereavements! To-day I stand here a solitary old man, sinking rapidly into the grave, and without a relation of any kind, that I know of, on the face of the earth ! Think that such a fate may yet be yours! But the bitterness of life you will not fully know, unless one of your boys — as one of mine did — turns out profligate and drunken, leaves your fireside to associate with the dissolute, and finally deserts his home and all, forever ! ”
“ If that son of yours be yet alive, and were ever to return, — suddenly and without warning, as I have broken in upon you to-night, — if he should come to j'ou and say ‘ Father, I have sinned against Heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son ! ’ what should you say to him ? ”
“I should say, ‘ For fifteen years you have deserted me without giving mark or token that you were in the body; now you have come to see me die, and you may stay to bury me ! ’ I should say that, I think, though I swore to Ruth but now that I would curse him, if ever he returned,— curse him and drive him from my door!”
“ But if he came back penitent indeed for past follies and offences, and only anxious to do well in the future, — if j’our son should come in that way, convincing you with tears of his sincerity, you Surely would he more gentle to him than that! You would put away wrath, would j’ou not ? I ask you,” the stranger continued, with emotion, “because I find myself in the position we suppose your son to be placed in. I am going home after an absence of years, during all which time I have held no communication with my family. I have sojourned in foreign lands, and now I come to make my father and my mother happy if it be not too late for that! I come half hoping and half fearing; tell me what I am to expect ? Place yourself in my father’s position and read me my fate ! ”
While he spoke, his wife, sitting silent by the fire, bent low over the child she held, and a few quiet tears fell upon the little one’s frock.
Ruth Newell, moving back and forth, in the preparation of the stranger’s supper, wore an unquiet and troubled aspect, while the old farmer himself was agitated in a manner painful to see. It was some seconds before he broke the silence. When he spoke, his voice was thick and husky.
“ If I had a son like you, — if those little children were my grandchildren,— if the sweet lady there was my son’s wife, — ah, then ! —— But it is too late ! Why do you come here to put turbulent, raging regrets into my heart, that but for you would be beating calmly as it did yesterday, and the day before, and has for years ? Ah ! if my son were indeed here! If Samson were indeed here ! ”
The stranger half arose, as though to spring forward, then sank back into his seat again.
But the little child sitting in her mother’s lap by the fire clapped her hands and laughed a childish, happy laugh.
“ What pleases my little girl ? ” asked the mother.
“Why, ‘Samson,’” the child said,— “that ’$ what you call papa!”
Then Ruth, who stood by the table with a pitcher of water in her hand, staggered backwards like one stricken a violent and sudden blow ! — staggered backwards, dropping the pitcher with a heavy crash as she retreated, and crossing her hands upon her bosom with quick, short catchings of the breath ! Then crying, “ My son ! my son ! ” she threw herself, with one long, long sob, upon the stranger’s neck!
The story is told. What lay in his power was done by the returned prodigal, who did not come back empty-handed to the paternal roof. His wife and children fostered and petted the old people, till, after the passage of two or three more Thanksgiving-Days, they became as cheerful as of old, and they are now considered one of the happiest couples in the county. Do not, on that account, O too easily influenced youth, think that happiness for one’s self and others is usually secured by dissolute habits in early life, or by running away from home. Half the occupants of our jails and almshouses can tell YOU to the contrary.