Grandmother's Story: The Great Snow
IT had been snowing all day, and when father came in at dark he said that the wind was rising, and the storm gathering power every moment, and that before morning all the roads would be fast locked.
Grandmother is a gentle, sweet old lady, whom I remember always with the same serene face, bearing all earthly troubles with such holy patience as lifts this common life to heaven; she sits for hours in unbroken silence, while her face wears the rapt, mystical look of one who talks with angels, and then we move softly about her, and not one of us would by words of our own call her down from the mount of vision. Within a year or two she has grown quite deaf, and since this her life seems yet more isolated ; sometimes, however, like most deaf persons, she hears words spoken in low tones that are not meant for her, perhaps because at times the spirit is vividly awake, and more than usually quick to catch at and interpret what else might beat in vain upon the dull, corporeal sense.
She put by her knitting at father’s words, and rose and walked feebly to the window, where she stood a long time looking out at the death-white waste, shut in by the morose, ominous sky. Then, turning slowly, her face alight and beautiful with that beauty which is fairer than youth, she said, “ It puts me in mind of the Great Snow, Ephraim, — it puts me in mind of a good many things ! ”
Then she came back to the fire, and sat down again in her corner. Memory was stirring, the Past unfolding its scroll. The knitting-work fell unheeded from the old, trembling fingers. She was a girl again, and the story of that far-off girlhood fell softly upon the evening silence.
“ I was only eighteen years old, Ephraim, when your grandfather moved down from the new State. I had lived up there in the wilderness all my life ; and I was as shy as a wild rabbit, and, in my own fashion, proud. Father was poor in those days, for there were six of us children to feed and clothe, and mother was delicate and often ill ; so we moved into a low, one-story house, that was old too, as well as small; but as we had always lived in a log-house, and this was a frame one, we were more than satisfied. We did not mind if the snow blew in at the cracks in the roof, and nestled in little drifts on the counterpane, for we were used to it. I remember that one bright star always peeped down at me in the winter through the open spaces between the boards, and shone so calm and clear that I used to fancy it was God’s home, and somehow my prayers seemed surer of getting to him when I said them in the pure light of this star. But that was while we were in the new State. When we moved down country, I was a grown-up girl, able to turn my hand to any chore about the house ; and I went to meeting in the meeting-house at the Corner, and had got over my childish notions.
“ Elder Crane was a very pious man, and he always preached long sermons and made long prayers. The sermons were easier to bear than the prayers, for the people sat through the sermon ; but if you had sat down during the prayer, you would have been thought dreadfully wicked, and the Elder might have called your name right out the next Sabbath, and prayed for you as a poor sinner whom Satan was tempting. And so you stood up, of course, though the children sometimes got asleep and fell down, and often the girls used to faint away and be carried out. Semantha Lee did, at one time, almost as regularly as the Sabbath came round, until at last a church committee was sent to labor with her. But Semantha was a very free-spoken girl, and she said some hard things against Elder Crane’s prayers. I always thought that it was more her corsets than the length of the prayers.
“ I never fainted; for up in the new State I had run wild in the woods, and, though I was a frail thing to look at, I had a deal of strength in me. But my thoughts rambled a great deal too often ; and sometimes I doubted if I was as near God in Elder Crane’s church as I used to be lying on my bed in the chamber of the log-house, and saying my prayers to the bright star that looked down so friendly. I asked mother about it one day, and she said that surely God was about us everywhere ; but she added that the church was the appointed means of grace, and that I must follow Elder Crane closely, and try to make my heart feel the words, I did try, but there was so much about the Israelites in the house of bondage, and Moses, and the sacrifices, that, do what I would, I always lost myself in the Red Sea, and the chosen people entered the Promised Land without me. At such times, when my thoughts went wandering, my eyes followed them, and most frequently they went right over to Mr. Jacob Allen’s pew. I could not well help it, indeed, for his was a wall pew, directly opposite ours. Mr. Allen seldom came to meeting, being old and rheumatic, but his wife and girls came, and his son, Ephraim.
“At first I noticed Ephraim Allen just as I did the cobwebs upon the walls, and the yellow streaks in the wainscoting ; afterward I began to see what a fine figure he had, — a whole head above his companions,— and how broad-shouldered and erect and manly he was ; the narrow-backed, shortwaisted coat that made the rest look so pinched and uncomfortable sat gracefully and easily upon him. He had a wide, white forehead, — though I did not notice this for a long time, — and short curly hair, that looked very black beside the fair skin. Then his cheeks were as bright as a rose, and his eyes — but I seldom got so far as his eyes, because by some chance they always met mine, and then I was much confused and ashamed. But always, in going out of meeting, he used to bow to me in passing, and say, ‘ Good morning, Mercy’; and then I saw that his eyes were a clear, dark blue, and I thought they were very honest, tender ones. They said that Semantha Lee had been setting her cap at him a good while, and I wondered if he liked her.
“ This was all the acquaintance we had for two years and more. There was not much chance for young people to meet in those days, especially where they were strictly brought up, as I was ; for father and mother were both very pious, and at that time church-members thought it was sinful to join in the profane amusements of the world. So when an invitation came for me to a husking-frolic, or a paring-bee, or a dance, I was not allowed to go. I was shy, as I told you, but I had a girl’s natural longing for company; and many were the bitter tears I shed up in my garret because I could not go with the rest. Mother used to look at me as if she pitied me, and once she ventured to speak up in favor of my going ; but father said sternly that these sports were the means Satan used to win away souls from God, — and father was a good deal set in his way, and mother gave up to him, as she always did.
“ Once or twice Ephraim Allen came to our house, but somehow my shyness came over me when I heard his voice at the door, and I hid myself in the pantry, and pretended to be very busy turning the cheeses ; and so I was, for I turned them over and over again, till mother came and said I must n’t waste any more butter. Ephraim stayed and stayed, and kept talking about the oxbow he had come to see about a great deal longer than I thought there was any need of; and I could not get courage enough to go out, though I was sore ashamed and vexed at my foolish shyness.
“ So the whole two years slipped away, and good morning was all we had ever said to each other. About this time I began to notice that Deacon Lee got in the way of looking at me in meeting, and his face was very sober, as if something displeased him. Semantha, too, would push past me in going in and out, and did n’t speak to me as she always used to do before she went down to Boston to make that long visit among her relations. Deacon Lee had a brother living in Boston who was said to be a very rich man. Father was at his house once when he went down to sell the butter and wool,—as he did every winter, — and he said we could not imagine how beautiful it was,— carpets on all the floors, and even in the entry, which mother thought must make a deal of work with people coming in and out, especially in wet weather. But then father said the Lees had negro servants to do the work, and that Mrs. Lee and her daughters had nothing to do but sit in the parlor all day long. When Semantha came back after her long visit, she brought a great many fine things that her cousins had given her. She used to come into meeting, her high-heeled slippers clattering, and her clocked stockings showing clear down to the peaked toe; she wore a pink crape gown, and over that a white muslin cape that came just down to the waist in the back, and crossed over in front, and was pinned to her gown at the corners ; it was bound around with blue lutestring, and her bonnet had a blue bow on it. It was a Navarino bonnet, and cost an extravagant price, seeing that it couldn’t be done over.
“ None of us had ever seen such fine things before ; and when Semantha came in, Elder Crane might as well have sat down, for everybody looked at Semantha. I thought it was well that her bonnet hid her face ; for if she was like me, it must have been crimson. I am sure I should have died of mortification to have been so stared at.
“ Mother said she feared it was sinful for a deacon’s daughter to make such a display, and wondered if Semantha remembered what the Apostle Paul says of the ornaments that women ought to wear.
“ But in talking of Semantha, I have forgotten Deacon Lee’s queer behavior. He would look at me awhile, and then at Ephraim Allen. It was so curious, I began to fear that he was deranged. But at last I found out what it meant.
“ One day as I was coining out of meeting, and Ephraim had just said, ‘ Good morning,’ I looked around and there was Deacon Lee close beside us, watching us with a severe expression in his face. ‘Young man,’ said he, and the tone was so awful that I trembled all over, — ‘ young man, I have noticed for some time past your attempts to attract the attention of this young woman, who, I am grieved to say,’ — turning to me, — ‘does not receive this notice as she ought. Instead of assuming an expression of severe reproof, she blushes from time to time, and casts down her eyes, and I cannot discover from her face that this ungodly conduct is displeasing to her.’
“ I was so overwhelmed by this rebuke that I could not look up or speak, and in a minute more I should have cried in good earnest. It was Ephraim’s voice that stopped me. ‘ I am sure I beg Mercy’s pardon and yours, Deacon, if I have done anything improper. I suppose I looked at her because my eye could n’t find a pleasanter resting-place. You won’t pretend that Elder Crane is handsome enough to make it a pleasure to look at him.’
“ I was astonished, and Deacon Lee looked horrified, but Ephraim’s face glowed all over with smiles.
“ ‘ Ephraim Allen,’ said the Deacon sternly, ‘ if you were a professor, I should present you to the church for irreverence. As it is, I have done my duty ’; — and with that he went away.
“ Most of the people had left the meeting-house by this time, but a good many of them were turning back to look at me where I stood near Deacon Lee and Ephraim Allen, I suppose they did n’t know what it could mean ; for in those days we always walked soberly home from service, not profaning the holy day by common talk. And this was the reason that I was surprised and frightened when Ephraim, instead of going away by himself, walked down the steps with me, and along the road at my side. It was a good two miles home, and I had happened to come alone that day, father being laid up with a cut in his foot, and mother staying at home to nurse him.
“ The path was a beautiful one, leading through deep, still woods, now coming out into the edge of a clearing, and now running along a brookside where there were flowers nodding over the water, and bird’s-nests in the thick grass on the bank ; I thought sometimes that the walk did me as much good as going to church, particularly if I came alone, and stopped now and then to read my Bible by the way.
“ So we walked along, Ephraim and I; and presently we passed a great clump of witch-hazel bushes that were in all their bridal white, and Ephraim picked a bunch of the flowers, and gave them to me. He had not spoken a word since we started, but now he said, ‘Are you very much put out with Deacon Lee, Mercy ?’
“ This made me feel very much ashamed again, but I said I hoped I knew better than to bear anger against anybody ; and then — quite excited and eager — I said I wanted him to forgive me if I had looked his way more than was. proper, and not think I meant to be forward or unmaidenly. And Ephraim made reply that he would never believe any ill of me, no, not if all the deacons in the world were to testify to it; and he said that he owed Deacon Lee thanks for so bringing us together, for he should never have had the courage to come to me, though he longed for a sight of my face every day, and was constant at church, never missing a Sunday, so that he might see me. All this he said in such an earnest, sincere manner, and his voice was so gentle that I could not rebuke him, though I feared that his heart was in a dark, unregenerate state, if he cared so much more for me than for Elder Crane’s sermons.
“You won’t care to have an old woman tell any more of her love-story. Now-a-days these things are all written in novels, and I should think the bloom of a girl’s delicacy must be long gone before she hears such words said to herself. Then it was different. I had never dreamed of anything so beautiful.
“ The woods were very still all around us, only once in a while a bird would sing out, and then the silence fall again all the sweeter for the song. When the woods opened we caught glimpses of the green grain-fields and orchards in blossom. Achipmonk darted across the path, and, scampering up into a beechtree, clung to the great brown bole, and looked down at us, perking his head so mischievously that I could not help thinking he knew our secret. And so on and on. I ’ve often thought that walk was like the life we lived together, and a prophecy of it, — bright, and full of songs and flowers and sweetness, leading sometimes through shady places, but never losing sight of God’s sweet heaven, never missing the warm winds of its inspiration and its hope.
“ But before this a dark time was to come.
“ We must have been a good while going home, for when we came in sight of the house there was mother standing in the door, shading her eyes with her hand, and watching for us, and all at once I remembered that she must have been anxious ; there were bears in those woods, and the next winter one was killed in the very path where we walked.
“ When mother saw us coming, she smiled, and came down to the road to meet us, and shook hands with Ephraim in such a friendly way that my heart danced ; I had been thinking what it father and mother should not approve of him.
“ Father was friendly too, and while they sat in the fore-room, and talked, mother made some of her cream biscuits for tea. Now I knew by this that Ephraim would find favor in her eyes, because in our house all unnecessary labor was forbidden on the Sabbath, and no small thing could have tempted mother to break over this rule. When I went to call them to supper, I knew that Ephraim had been speaking to father, and that he was kindly disposed towards Ephraim. Father named me in asking the blessing, and Ephraim also, speaking of him so tenderly that it brought the tears to my eyes.
“All the rest of that summer is very dear to remember. When I think over my life, much of it seems misty and far away; but that summer is as distinct to my mind as it was when its roses had but just faded, just as sweet and wonderful in its sunshine, its blue skies, its fresh-blowing winds, its birds and flowers, as it seemed to me then, — only now I know what it was that so glorified it.
“ Ephraim had a much greater flow of spirits than I had. I was grave beyond my years. But I caught the love of fun from him, and mother and father wondered at the change in me. I think a girl always changes when she is engaged. A whole world of feeling that has slept is now awakened. Even shallow women bloom out for a brief time, and sparkle and shine wonderfully. To be sure they fade full soon oftentimes, and only the dry leaves are left of all the charm and fragrance.
“ And so autumn came, and winter, and with the winter the frolics which Ephraim was so fond of, and which he persisted stoutly were as innocent as church-going. But father was so disturbed when I spoke of going that I gave it up at once, and told Ephraim that, as long as I lived at home, I could n’t feel right to disobey father. So at first Ephraim stayed contentedly with me, but by and by the old love stirred. A bit of dance-music would start his color, and set his feet in motion, and it was plain to see where his heart was. I was sorely grieved at this ; nay, I was more than grieved. I wanted him all to myself. I could not bear that he should need anything but me. Ephraim said I was exacting, and I thought him cold and unkind. And so there gradually grew up a coldness between us; and yet the coldness was all on my side. Ephraim was always gentle, even when I was pettish and cross. For so I was. It was partly physical. I was not well that winter. I did not sleep, or when I did by fits and starts, I woke frightened and crying. Now, my doctor would call it nervous sensitiveness ; but then people did not give fine names to their humors, and mother only looked sorry, and said she was afraid I was growing ill-tempered.
“ While things were in this state, Ephraim’s mother invited me to come and spend a week with them, I did n’t feel acquainted, and I was shy about going; but Ephraim urged it, and mother advised it, and so at last I consented to go.
“ I was a good deal mortified that I had nothing nice to wear. My best gown had been in use two winters, and there were only three breadths in the skirt, and Semantha Lee said that nobody in Boston thought of making up less than four.But mother’s wise counsel reconciled me. She said that the Allens knew we had no money to spend on fine clothes, and would only expect me to be clean and neat and well-behaved.
“ Ephraim, too, praised me boldly to my face, and pretended to think that nothing could be so becoming as my faded hood. It was yellow silk, and was made out of a turban that mother had worn when she was a girl.
“ After I was in the sleigh with Ephraim, all my unhappiness and anxiety fled, and I enjoyed every bit of the ride. It was a lonely road, and part of the way it went through the woods where the lately fallen snow lay in pure white sheets that were written all over with the tracks of birds, and rabbits and other wild animals; and the stillness of the great woods was so deep and solemn that our love-talk was silenced, and we rode on singing hymns. Then out of the woods, and sweeping down into a hollow where pleasant farms were nestled snugly together, and so up to Ephraim’s door. Mr. Jacob Allen was a forehanded farmer, and the house was by far the best in town.
“When we drove up to the door, Mary Allen was at the window, watching for us. She ran out to the sleigh, and when Ephraim told her here was her sister Mercy, she laughed, and shook hands, — women did not kiss each other then, — and said she was glad I was come to stay a week. So my meeting her was not at all dreadful.
“ While Ephraim went around to put up the horse, Mary took me into the fore-room, where there was a fire, and helped me with my things, and was as sociable as if she had known me all her life.
“ The room was a great deal nicer than anything I had ever seen. I was almost afraid to step on the carpet at first; but then I remembered that it must have been meant to be stepped on, or it would n’t have been laid on the floor.
“ Pretty soon Mrs. Allen and Prudence came in. Mrs. Allen was a very notable woman, and when she had told me how she made her cheese, and that she put down her butter in, cedar firkins,— she seemed to think that pine ones were not fit for a Christian to use, and that my mother must be a terribly shiftless person to put up with them, — she said she must go and see to the pics that were baking. I don’t think she was still five minutes at a time while I was there, but just driving about the house from morning till night. And yet there were her two girls to help her, and mother and I did the work for eight, and took in spinning all the year round.
“ I think Prudence did n’t like housework. She was very intimate with Semantha Lee ; and what Semantha said and did and wore was pretty much all her talk. All that week she was at work on old gowns, altering them to be like Semantha’s. Prudence did n’t seem to fancy me at the very first; and though I don’t want to speak evil of her, she was certainly rather a hard person to get along with.
“ One day she would remark that I would be quite good-looking if my nose was n't such a pug. And another day that it was a pity I had red hair, for really my other features were not so bad ; and she said that my gown was just like one she had hung up in the garret; and so in this way she picked me to pieces, until it seemed as if she couldn't find a good thing in me. But this was not as bad as the way in which she talked to me about Semantha.
Nobody was so handsome or so good or so smart as Semantha; and Deacon Lee was the most forehanded man in town. As a great secret, she told me that Ephraim and Semantha were once as good as engaged, and she did n't doubt, if anything should happen to break up the match between Ephraim and me, that Ephraim would go back to Semantha.
“ I was terribly angry at this, and I felt my lips stiffen, and it was as much as I could do to say, ‘ What could happen to break our engagement ? Ephraim is solemnly promised to me, and it is just the same in God’s sight as if we were married.’
“ Prudence looked at me a minute, and then said she ‘ had no idea I had such a temper. She had heard that I talked of uniting with the church, but after what she had seen, she should n't think — ’ And here she stopped, and it was as much what was not said as what she did say that vexed me so. I was heartily thankful that she was only a half-sister to Ephraim, for I began to fear I should hate her.
“ With all this Mary did not seem to dare to be her own pleasant self, and even Ephraim acted as if he wasn't quite at his ease. I began to be sadly homesick. I almost hated the sight of the carpet on the floor, and the highcurtained bedstead, and the tall chimney-glass, and I longed for the love and peace of my humble home.
“ I had been at Mrs. Allen’s three days, when Semantha Lee came over to spend the day. She came in the morning, and sent back the hired man with the sleigh, because she meant to stay all night with Prudence.
Semantha was dressed very elegantly. She had a scarlet cloth cloak that came down to the bottom of her gown, and the gown itself was green silk, with great bishop sleeves lined with buckram, so that they stood out, and rattled like a drum when they hit against anything. Mary laughed at her because she could not go through our chamber door without turning sidewise ; but Semantha said they were all the fashion in Boston.
“ She was very lively and full of fun that day, though she did n't take much notice of me. In the evening we had popped corn and apples, and when we pared the apples and threw down the long coils of peel, Semantha’s took the shape of a letter E. She laughed and blushed, and pretended to be very much vexed, but she was really as pleased as she could be. Mary whispered to me not to mind, and said Prudence had given the peel a sly push with her foot to shape the E ; but for all that I could hardly help crying.
“ That night all of us girls slept in the great double-bedded room. Semantha was with Prudence ; and long after Mary was asleep I could hear them whispering, and every minute or two I would catch Ephraim’s name.
“I did not sleep much that night, and in the morning I was almost sick. Ephraim was very kind, and when Prudence said she was going to invite in some of die young people of the neighborhood that evening, he wanted her to put it off; but Prudence said she guessed I would be better, — she thought people could throw off sickness if they tried to do so. At this Semantha laughed so disagreeably, and looked over at Ephraim in so significant a way, that I am afraid I almost hated her.
“ The company came in the evening,— five or six merry young girls and young men. If my head and heart had been right, I could have enjoyed it too. But my head ached, and for the rest you would have thought it was Semantha who was engaged to Ephraim, and not I.
“ There was a young man there named Elihu Parsons. He was very handsome,— too handsome for a man,— and what with this and his pleasant ways he was a great favorite with the girls. I had only seen him once or twice, but he remembered me, and came and sat by me while the games were going on. I thought this was very good of him, for nobody was so much called for as he ; but he would not leave me, and was so sociable and pleasant that I tried to brighten up and entertain him as well as I could. We were in the midst of our talk, when I happened to glance up and saw Ephraim looking over at us,—looking, too, as I had never seen him. All at once it flashed upon me that I could make him suffer as he had made me. From that moment an evil spirit possessed me. I felt my cheeks flush ; my heart beat fast; I was full of wild gayety. I sang songs when they asked me. Elihu asked me to dance, and I danced, — I, who had never taken a step before in my life. I felt as light as air; I seemed to float through the figure.
“Ephraim never came near me the whole evening, but Elihu kept close to me, and we had a great deal of talk that I am glad to have forgotten. But I remember that he laughed at Semantha Lee, and made fun of her hair that he said was like tow, and her eyes that squinted, and her mincing gait; and I listened, and felt a malicious pleasure in this dispraise of Semantha. Through it all my head ached terribly, and I stupidly wondered how I dared be such a wicked girl, and what my mother would say if she knew it.
“ By and by it was ten o’clock, and then Semantha suddenly discovered that she must go home. Mrs. Allen tried to persuade her to stay. But no ! It was going to snow, she said, and she would not stay. Then Prudence said, if she must go, Ephraim would take her home in the sleigh, which, of course, was just what Semantha wanted.
“ I don’t know what made me do it, but upon this I rose and went over to where they were standing, and said that Elihu Parsons was going directly past Deacon Lee’s, and would be happy to take Semantha, and that I would rather Ephraim should not go.
“Prudence lifted up both hands, as if she was too horrified to speak, and looked at Semantha. Semantha giggled. She was one of those girls who are always laughing foolishly.
“ As for Ephraim, his face was dark, and his voice was cold and hard, as he said, 'From what we have seen tonight, Mercy, I don’t think it can make much difference to you what I do ’; and then, without another word, went out-
“ Presently I heard the sleigh-bells, and in a moment Ephraim came in at the front door. I hurried out to him. I would make one more effort, I thought.
“ He stopped on seeing me.
“‘Are you going to leave me for Semantha ? You are very unkind to me ! ’ I said passionately.
“‘ You are foolish, Mercy. Semantha is our guest, and I have shown her no more attention than she has a right to.’
“ ‘ Can’t you see, Ephraim ? ’ I cried. ‘ Don’t you know that she came here on purpose to make trouble between you and me, and that Prudence is helping her ?’
“ He looked surprised, then wholly incredulous. ‘You are mistaken, Mercy. You are prejudiced against Semantha. ’
“ I grew angry. I did not know that many men, acute enough to all else, are stone-blind where the wiles of a woman are concerned. ‘ You may go then, if you like. I see you don’t care for me,’ I said bitterly.
“ ‘ You know I do care for you,’ said Ephraim. His voice was softer. I might have won him then, if I would have stooped to persuade. But I would not. My pride was hurt. I turned away from him.
“ Presently Semantha came out and they drove off.
“ Pretty soon Elihu Parsons brought his sleigh round, flung down the reins, and came in to say good night He held my hand and lingered, talking, when I was eager for his going. My gayety had fled, and every word cost me a pang. At last he said, ‘ I am going by your house. Can I carry any message for you ? ’
“ A wild thought darted into my mind. ‘Going by our house ? O, if I might go too ! ’
“ ‘ You can ! ’ he said eagerly. ‘ I will take you with the greatest pleasure.’
“ In an instant I had resolved to go. It seemed to me that I should die if I stayed under that roof another night. So I begged him to wait a minute, ran up stairs, packed my things, and came down and told the family that I was going home. They seemed thunderstruck. Only Prudence spoke.
“‘Very well,’ said she. ‘But I suppose you know it is all over between you and Ephraim if you go off in this way.’
“ I told her that I knew it was all over, thanks to her, and I hoped it was a pleasure to her to reflect that she had separated two persons who would never have had a hard thought of each other but for her. Mary came out into the entry to me crying, and said she hoped we should make it up. But I told her that was not likely. And so we drove away.
“ I was dull enough now, and Elihu had the talk mostly to himself. It was not till we were almost home that he sard something which roused me up. And then I was angry with him, and asked him what he thought of me to suppose I would so readily on with the new love before I was off with the old. But I had no sooner made this speech than I burst into tears, and prayed him to forgive me, for I knew I had done wrong, and not say any more to me, since I was so wretched. I do not know well what reply he made, for before I had done speaking I was at home. There was the dear old house I had so longed for, — the little, homely, unpainted house, with the well-sweep taller than itself, and the great clump of lilacs by the front door.
“ I went up the path unsteadily; my head was swimming, and there was a curious noise in my ears. I pushed open the door. There was father with the open Bible before him, and his spectacles lying upon it; the room was bright with the fire and the light of the pine-knot, and mother was spinning on the little wheel, as she frequently did in the evening. Her face wore its own sweet, peaceful look, but when she saw me the expression changed to one of alarm. She said afterward that I looked more like a ghost than anything else.
“ ‘ Why, Mercy ! ’ she cried.
“Father turned slowly round, and beyond that I remember nothing. I fell on the floor in a dead faint.
“Mother said I talked all night about what had been troubling me. Through all my delirium, I had an aching consciousness that Ephraim was lost to me forever. I would rise to go to him, as I thought, but when I reached the place where he had been, there was only Prudence or Semantha.
“ In the morning the doctor came, and said it was scarlet fever. The other children had got over it in childhood, but it had waited for me till now.
“ I was very sick for a whole month. All that time mother was an angel of goodness to me. When I was able to sit up, she told me that Ephraim had been to inquire for me often. But she said no more, and I could not tell her the trouble then.
“ I was wasted to a shadow, and was as weak as an hour-old babe. Mother used to tuck me up in the great armchair, and then the boys would push the chair to the window, where I could look out.
“A great snow had fallen during my sickness. It had begun the night I came home, as Semantha predicted, and the roads had been almost impassable. But they were quite good again now, and father said the time had come for him to go down below. It was late in February, and he said we should not have a great deal more snow, he thought, and if he waited till the spring thaws came, there would be no getting to Boston.
“It was arranged that the oldest boy at home should go with father, so that there would be nobody left with mother and me but Jem and David. Jem was eight years old, and David six come May ; but they were both smart, and we thought, with their help, we could take care of the cattle till father came back.
“ I could not do much yet, and I sat in my arm-chair while mother fried doughnuts, and baked great loaves of bread, and made puddings, and roasted chickens, for them to take for food on the journey. Father’s way was to carry his own provisions, and stay at night with friends and relations along the road ; even if the sleighing was good, and nothing happened, he would be a week or more in going to Boston. So, of course, the supply must be pretty generous.
“ It was a still, bright morning when they set off, with a sky so clear that father thought there would be no storm for many days. After the excitement of their starting passed away, it seemed very quiet and lonesome ; for you remember, though I have not said anything about it, that my heart was aching for its lost love.
“ I had said nothing about it to mother yet, but after they were gone, and the chores done up for the night, and the boys playing with their cob-houses in the corner, she sat down beside me, saying, ‘Now, Mercy, tell me all about the trouble between you and Ephraim. As well as I could for crying, I told her, feeling very much ashamed when I came to the part about Elihu. But mother was very gentle, and only said, ‘ I fear, my child, that savors of an unregenerate heart.’
“ That was true. But while I had been sick I had thought very seriously, and I was thankful I had not been taken away while my heart was in such a state. I did not dare to tell mother how God’s goodness had shone down upon me while I lay ill in my bed, but I hoped and prayed that it would not leave me.
“It was a relief as well as pain to see that mother blamed Ephraim. She said he should not have allowed himself to be deceived and influenced by Prudence. I told her I was sure he could not have loved me as he ought, and that I thought I would send back to him the little presents he had made me, and say that I did not hold him to his promise.
“ Mother agreed with me, and the next day I made up the package. There was a string of gold beads, and a pair of silver shoe-buckles, and a Chinese fan, and a hymn-book, the bunch of witch-hazel blossoms he picked for me that day in the words, and, more precious than all the rest, a letter, six foolscap pages in length, that he had written in the fall, while I was visiting my cousin in Keene.
“ I could not help crying while I was putting them up, and I took out the letter twice, thinking I might keep that. But mother said, if we were indeed to be separated, it was my duty to forget my love for Ephraim, else it would darken all my life ; and life, she said, was given us for cheerful praise, and work, which is also praise.
“After I had sent my package by the mail-rider, who passed Mr. Allen’s house every other day, I thought my trouble would be easier to bear. But everyday made it harder. I fell into a miserable torpid state, taking no interest in anything, and feeling only my misery acutely. I could not even pray for help, for prayer itself was a cross.
“ Mother was very good to me ; she gave me light, pleasant work to do, thinking to keep me busy. But however busy my hands were, my thoughts were free, and used their freedom to make me suffer.
“ Father had been gone eight days, when one afternoon mother came in from the barn, where she had been to shake down some hay for the cows, with a face so sober that I was frightened at once.
“‘Why, mother! what is the matter?’ I cried.
“‘I ’m worried about your father, child,’ she said, and then she went to the window and looked out.
“‘Why, mother, if he started for home yesterday —'
He would be just in season to be caught in the snow,’ she interrupted, with a vehemence unnatural to her.
“ ‘ Snow, mother!’
“ I rose, and went to the window. The sky was full of great masses of gray clouds, that sometimes parted, and showed a steel-colored background, intense and cold, and immeasurably distant. Wide before us spread the waste, white, uninhabited fields,— the nearest house a mile away, and its chimney onlyvisible above the hills which hid it. A tawny, brazen belt of light lying along the west, where the sun had gone down, illuminated the snow, and gave a weird character to the whole scene. There was a high wind swaying the tops of the tall trees before the house ; and once in a while you would see a fragment of cloud caught from the great gray curtain, and torn into shreds, or ravelled into a thin web, which seemed for a moment to shut close down upon us. It was a strange night, a strange sky.
“ I felt a vague alarm. But I tried to speak cheerfully. ‘It is too cold to snow, mother!’
“ She pointed to the window. Even as I spoke the air was suddenly darkened by a multitude of fine flakes, that crowded faster and faster, and were swirled about by the wind, and quicklybuilt up a wall around the door.
“As it grew dark the storm increased. The wind, which had been blowing steadily all day, rose to a gale. It tugged at the doors and windows; it thundered clown the chimney; it caught the little house, and shook it till the timbers creaked ; the noise was truly awful. We got the boys into the trundle-bed as soon as we could, and then mother brought out her wheel, and I took my knitting. There was a great blazing fire on the hearth, and the room was so warm that the yarn ran beautifully. Mother made out her stint that night ; she was a famous spinner, and the wheel went as fast and the yarn was as even as if she had not been so dreadfully worried about father. But every few minutes she would stop and say she hoped he had not started, or that, having set out, he would be warned in time, and stop by the way.
“ It was so strange to see mother, who was usually calm, so put about that I got very nervous, and was glad when she stopped the wheel, and twisted up the yarn she had spun. But as she turned around toward me with it in her hand, she looked so strange that I cried out to know what was the matter.
“ ‘ It is nothing,’ she whispered ; but I took hold of her, and steadied her down into the arm-chair, and then ran for the camphor. That brought her round; but now she looked feverish, and was shaking all over, and I knew that she was going to have one of her ill turns, — possibly lung-fever.—for her lungs were but weak, and she rarely got over the winter without a fever. The thought made me half wild, but I dared not wait to cry or fret. I knew there was no time to be lost, and I hurried around, and gave her a warm foot-bath, and kept hot flannels on her chest, and made her drink a nice bowl of herb tea as soon as she was in bed; for I thought when the perspiration started she would be relieved. I was glad enough when the great drops stood on her forehead. Yet the hard breathing and the rattling in the chest were not cured. I kept renewing the steaming flannels, as the doctor always directed, till she fell asleep. She slept almost all night, and I sat in the chair by her, occasionally rousing up to put more wood on the fire, and listen to the wind, which still held as fierce as it was at sundown.
“ By and by I dozed, — I don’t know how long, but 1 was wakened by hearing Jem call out, ‘Mercy! why don’t it come day ? ’
“ I started up. My fire had gone down, and the room was dark. Mother was breathing heavily beside me.
“‘I say, Mercy, is n’t it morning? Why don’t we get up ?’ persisted Jem.
“ I begged him to be still, and, rising, made my way to the clock. I could not see the face, but by touching the hands I made out that it was eight o’clock. I knew now that we were snowed up, and that was the reason why it was so dark.
“ I kindled up the fire and lighted a pine knot. Jem and David came up to the hearth to dress, half crying and fretting for mother. But I pacified them with a breakfast of bread and milk, and while they were eating it I ventured to open a door. There was a solid wall of snow. I looked into the fore-room, — it was as dark as a cellar. Then I ran up my stairs, and here the little courage I had forsook me, and I grew weak and sick. For the snow was already even with the ledge of the chamber window, and all the outbuildings were as completely hidden as if the earth had swallowed them in the night.
“ I ran down stairs hastily, for I heard mother call.
“ She looked up at me anxiously. ‘ How is it, Mercy ? *
“ ‘ I ’m afraid, mother, we are snowed up,’ I said.
“ ‘ And I ’m sick ! ’
“ Mother was sick. That was the worst side of the trouble. It was a settled fever by this time, I was sure. We both knew it, we both knew that no help was to be had, and that she might die for want of it. We were both silent, neither daring to speak, not knowing how to encourage and strengthen the other.
“ Mother grew worse all day, in spite of all that I could do for her. The darkness in the house was most depressing, and made the situation tenfold more painful; though I kept a fire and a light burning as at evening, I had to be economical of both, for there was only a small stock of fuel and a handful of pine knots in the house. It was painful to hear the poor cows at the barn lowing for food, and to know that it was impossible to reach them. I might, perhaps, have gone out on snow-shoes and managed to get into the barn by the window in the loft ; but father’s shoes were loaned to a neighbor, and, even if they had been at hand, I should hardly dare to risk my strength, not yet renovated after my sickness, and, which was so essential to mother’s safety, in an effort that might fail.
“ So the hours went on, and the day that was like night wore to a close. In the evening mother brightened up a little. She was calm now, and for the time free from pain. There was an unearthly beauty in the large, bright hollow eyes, and the thin cheeks, where the rose of fever burned. The disease had worked swiftly. Even this revival might be only a forerunner of death.
“ ‘ I want to tell you, dear,’ she said, ‘ what to do in case I should not get well.’
“ I hid my face in the quilt, and tried not to sob, while she went on, in a sweet, calm, thoughtful way, to tell me of the things that in my inexperience I might forget. I must not be wasteful of food or fuel; if the snow — which was still falling — should cover the chimney so that I could not make a fire, I must wrap myself and the children in all the warm things I could find,— there were some new blankets in the chest in the chamber, she said, that she had meant for me. I must get those if I needed them. ‘ And if I am not here to encourage you, my child,’ she said tenderly, ‘don’t give up hoping. Help cannot be very far off. Some of the neighbors will come to us, or father will work his way through the snow, and get home. And, Mercy, don’t be afraid of the poor body that I shall leave behind me. Think of it as the empty house that I have used for a little while, and be sure it can do you no harm.’
“ I promised all she asked, and hid my tears as well as I could. While she slept, and I could do nothing for her, I kept the children quiet with playthings and stories. I cooked bread and meat, and made a great kettle of porridge against the time when we might not be able to have a fire; I hunted in the garret for bits of old boards and broken furniture that might serve for fuel.
“For two days the wind held, and then there fell an awful silence as of the grave.
“ Sometimes I read from the Psalms, or from the Gospel of John, which mother dearly loved ; and though she did not take much notice, but lay in a stupor most of the time, the holy words were comfort and company to me. At other times I sat in mute grief, watching her painful breathing, and the gradual pinching and sharpening of her features as the relentless disease worked upon them. O, it was hard ! I don’t think many lives know so much and such utter misery. In my anxiety and grief, and the mental bewilderment resulting from loss of sleep, I forgot to reckon the days as they passed.
“But one day, as I sat by mother’s pillow, my mind full of the dread that seemed now as if it might any moment be realized, — of the awfulness of being left alone in that living tomb with the marble image of what was and yet was not my mother, the clock struck nine in the morning. Somewhere the sun was shining, I thought. Somewhere there were happy lovers, merry-makings in divers places, wedding-bells ringing.
“ A faint sound disturbed my revery. I started up and listened intently ; but the noise did not recur, and I dropped my head again, thinking my fancy had cheated me.
“ I don’t know why it was that what failed to reach my strained ear found its way to mother’s ; but all at once, from having been in a stupid state from which I could hardly rouse her, she opened her eyes, and said, ‘What is that ? ’
“‘Do you hear anything?’ I asked, trembling. But before she could answer, I too heard a shout.
“ Help was at hand ! And mother might yet be saved !
“ I burst into tears, and Jem and David set up a loud cry for company. Those outside heard it, for the next instant there was a great halloo. They were cutting their way through the drift, — they came every minute nearer and nearer. Pretty soon I heard a voice that set my heart beating and made me sob again. It was Ephraim’s.
“ ‘ Are you all alive ? ’ he cried.
“ ‘ We are all alive, but mother is very sick.’
“ I don’t know how long it took to tunnel that huge snow-drift. I sat holding mother’s hand till there was a noise at the door. I sprang up then, and the next instant stood face to face with Ephraim. And we did not meet as we had parted.
“ I was glad to think that we owed our deliverance to him. He had roused up the neighbors, and they came over that trackless waste on snow-shoes. On snow-shoes Ephraim went for the doctor, and mother began to mend from the time of his coming.
“It was a week before father got home. Yet he bad come as fast as the roads would let him, travelling night and day in his eagerness to reach us. He told us of houses snowed up, and people and animals perishing miserably. And by God’s grace we were saved, even to the cows, which in their hunger had broken loose from their stalls, and eaten the hay from the mow.
“And so my life’s greatest joy and pain came to me by the storm. It gave Ephraim back to me. For fortyyears as man and wife we had never a hard word.
“ ’T is thirty years since he went, — thirty years of Heaven’s peace for him, I did not think to wait so long when he went. The children have been very good to me, but I ’ve missed their father always. But I shall go to him soon. Son Ephraim. I am ninetytwo to-morrow ! ”