Hannah Dawston's Child
IN the summer of 1867, a man from the North came to the mountains of Virginia, and there purchased at a nominal price one of the fine old places that the impoverished condition of the land-holders threw upon the market. Being of a speculating turn of mind, he repaired and renovated the mansion, introduced hot and cold water with sundry other modern innovations, and announced his willingness to accommodate summer boarders. The enterprise was a successful one. People who came to stay a week lingered until the autumn, and failed not to return the next season, filling the rural scenes with the eccentricities of the mode, and the simple minds of the inhabitants with wonder and admiration. Among these visitors were a Mr. and Mrs. Markham, who had come hither in search of something different from the hackneyed round of wateringplace attractions. He was an active and not over-scrupulous man, fond of his wife, but especially fond of his ease, and rendered uncomfortable only when the former interfered with the latter, as was too frequently the case. She was a pretty, faded woman of five and thirty, who speut her life in grieving inconsolably for the loss of her ouly child. If she had been clever, she could have found interest and occupation in books ; if she had been vain, the society of the gay world would have afforded her the amusement and diversion she craved ; if she had been poor, the cares of her household would have distracted her mind, and helped to drive away her sad memories ; but, unhappily, she was rich and idle, — a warm-hearted, impulsive, unreasonable little woman, with nothing to employ her in the present, and nothing to look forward to in the future. She did not care for books, she was not fitted to shine in society ; she would have made a model nurse for an invalid husband, a model mother for a half score of naughty children. What she needed was some tender, helpless, loving companionship day by day ; and without it she was growing into a querulous, discontented middle age. Her husband, with whom this morbid melancholy of his wife was a perpetual shadow on every enjoyment, had tried in vain to induce her to adopt a child, hoping it would gradually take the place of her own dead baby ; but she had capriciously refused to harbor the suggestion, objecting to it on grounds more or less reasonable, until at last he ceased to urge it, and resigned himself to the situation. Fate, however, or accident, decided matters otherwise. One day, a woman came to “ Brooks’s Tavern,” as the place was generally called, to do a day’s washing, and brought her youngest child with her, because she feared to leave it at home to the mercies of its brothers and sisters. Mrs. Markham, going to the laundry on an errand, was struck with the extreme beauty of the infant, and its remarkable resemblance to her own child. She stopped to play with it, and finally carried it off to her room. Her husband, coming home, heard a sound of great laughing and talking, and wondered what guest could have excited his wife to such unwonted hilarity. He opened the door ; then stopped on the threshold with an expression of amused astonishment.
“ Whose child is it ? ” he asked, when she eagerly challenged his admiration.
“ Hannah Dawston’s; she comes here to do washing. She is a very nice woman, but very poor. Her husband, they say, is a drunken creature, utterly good for nothing.”
“Yes,I know him; he’s a blacksmith down in the village ; not a brilliant member of society, certainly. But the baby is beautiful. How long have you had him ? ”
“ All the morning. I am afraid every moment she will come and take him away.”
After this Mrs. Markham paid frequent visits to Hannah Dawston’s cottage. Sometimes she stopped in her walks, ostensibly to ask for water ; sometimes she brought work for Hannah’s diligent fingers, plain sewing or a basket of stockings to be darned. During these visits her acquaintance with the baby progressed rapidly. He held out his arms to come to her now, and sometimes put up a pitiful mouth to cry when she went away. As the time drew near for her return to the city, she felt more and more reluctant to leave this child, and confided to her husband her ardent desire to adopt him as her own. He, attributing her improved health and spirits entirely to this new interest in life, entered with warmth into the scheme, and they talked it over together many times, planning out the child’s future, with all the good things they would bestow upon him.
“ If his mother will only let us have him,” said Mrs. Markham, full of doubts ; “but I should be afraid to ask her.”
“ Why afraid ? ”
“ Because she might refuse. I do not think she likes me very much. It may be that she is a little jealous because the baby is so fond of me.”
“I will speak to Dawston himself,” was the reply, “ and if I can get him to enter into the scheme he will be able to persuade his wife to consent to it. It would be absurd for them to refuse, when they are so poor, and we can give the child such advantages ! ”
Accordingly he broached the subject to Silas, stopping at the blacksmith’s shop one evening at sunset, ostensibly to have a loose shoe clinched. He had grown very well acquainted with the country people during his two summers’ sojourn in this region, and, being of an affable and social disposition, let himself down to their level without effort and without condescension; indeed, he was exceedingly popular. A man who was always ready to treat, and not above accepting similar favors in return, who was interested in local politics and agriculture, and the discourse of long-winded old rustics on these well-worn themes, was not without his value in this stagnant rural district.
Silas listened in silence until he found his companion expected a reply ; then he scratched his head, and said, —
“ Hanner an’ me never thought we’d keer about partin’ with ary one o’ the chillun.”
“ I can understand that very well,” said the other ; “ but you should not let your affection for the child interfere with his welfare. I can give him every advantage,— money, education, influence, everything to secure his future happiness and prosperity. If you should die tomorrow, your children would be obliged to make their own living, — probably be ' bound out ’ until they were of age to strangers, and subjected to harsh treatment and ill usage; whereas, if you let me have this one, I will bring him up as my own son.”
But Silas still shook his head, and seemed unconvinced. Then Mr. Markham proceeded to draw a graphic picture of the sufferings of the community : the incessant toil for the barest livelihood ; the suffering from poverty, hunger, and cold; the privations to which this child would be subjected all its days, instead of the ease and luxury of the other life, which he could open to it. Indeed, he dwelt so eloquently upon this theme that Silas interrupted him with, “ Oh, come now, mister, we ain’t so bad off as all that. As fer bein’ cold, ther’s allus wood enough to keep warm by, an’ we kin gin’rally scratch along an’ git enough to eat; wot with ’coons an’ ’possums an’ rabbits in the fall o’ the year, an' a pig an’ a roas’n’-year patch an’ wot chickens an’ aigs the wimmen folks kin raise. Wot makes me so pertickler hard up is that spell o’ sickness I told you about, when I broke my leg an’ Luke Miles got all my customers, — the year of the fresh, when the petaters rotted, an’ the cow died, an’ all the corn got swep’ away. Then I had to borry money, an’ ther’ warn’t a man in the place as would go my security ; so I had to give a mortgage on the shanty an’ the garden spot. Sence then I hain’t ben able to make it up, fer ther’ ain't nothin’ to be made in the shop, an’ I carn’t git trusted fer a cent’s wuth at the store. So you may jest take yer davy ther’ ain’t much to put by fer a rainy day.”
“ Exactly ! ” cried the other triumphantly. “ You cannot make enough to live on from day to day, and you have a millstone of debt round your neck in addition. Now listen to me. I have plenty of money and no children; you have plenty of children and no money: give me one of your little ones, and I will give you the money to start fresh in the world with. You will never succeed at your trade. What do you say to a nice little country store, now, and a fair stock to begin with ? ”
The blacksmith’s eyes sparkled, but he was sharp enough to perceive his companion’s eagerness, and to know that he could name his own terms; he therefore declined to be convinced by any argument, and affected great unwillingness to consent to the arrangement.
“Well,” said the gentleman, at last, “ of course you must do as you think best; but be very sure you do not stand in your own light. I shall be in this neighborhood for a few weeks longer, so if you change your mind the question is still open between us. Good-night.” He stooped, as he spoke, and dropped some money into Dawston’s palm, in payment for his services ; then, gathering up the reins, dashed off rapidly down the dusty road, leaving a white trail behind him, like some erratic comet whisking suddenly into space.
Silas stood gazing after him until the last sound of the horse’s hoofs died on the still evening air; then he put out the fire in the forge, hustled himself into the rusty coat that hung on the wall, locked the door, and took his way meditatively homeward.
Through the village he went, past the drinking-shop, where already the lighted lamp cast a cheerful reflection on the glass jars containing sticks of peppermint candy, grown soft and porous with long standing ; for there was little demand here for so purely luxurious a commodity, and the sticks remained to add dignity and elegance to the bareness of the shelves, and to fascinate the gaze of impecunious urchins sent hither to exchange a dozen eggs for “ the wuth of ’em in tea,” or a few pounds of rags for a pint bottle of kerosene. It was not the candy, however, that arrested the progress of Silas, and caused him to fumble over the bit of money the stranger had given him. In a dark corner of the dingy room was the barrel whose contents, albeit reinforced, as tradition asserted, from time to time with red pepper and other noxious elements, besides a plentiful replenishing of spring water, possessed a strange charm for every man in the neighborhood. Silas debated with himself whether he should enter now, and possess himself of a draught of this delectable fluid, or wait until after supper, when its flavor would be enhanced by the society of other choice and convivial spirits. He decided in favor of the latter course, and pursued his journey rather heavily up the hill-side.
“ Quare, now,” he said to himself, “ that she should have took sitch a fancy to one o’ them chillun ! Not such a bad idee, either, though I would n’t let him see as I sot store by it. Yer see, he takes the child ; he gives it good close, good bread an’ meat, a good eddication. Say by 'n' by I wants money, — ’t aint likely, o’ course, but s’pose’n I does. I goes to him, an’ I sez to him, ‘ I’m ’bleeged to have setch an’ setch a sum; ’ ef he gives it to me, well an’ good : ef he don’t, why I takes back the child. I gits the good close an’ the eddication, besides his keep all the time t’other fellow had him. I don’t see as I can lose anythin’ by it, anyhow you fix it. I wonder what Hanner will say to it, now.” He came to the top of the hill at this point of his reflections, and within a stone’s-throw of the house. On the porch sat Hannah, with the baby in her arms. The sunlight still lingered here, though in the valley it was dark, and the floor was checkered with the flickering shadows of the morning-glory vines she had trained on the rough posts that supported the roof. Through the open door Ann Cather’n could be seen bustling about to prepare the evening meal, which consisted of corn cakes baked on a “ spider ” set over the hot coals. Lije sat in the corner, trying to mend some rusty old plow harness, and outside, perched astride on the fence, were Polly and little Jim.
The picture was a homely one ; every night he came back to the same familiar scene, the same familiar group. He was not an affectionate husband and father, —a selfish man, rather, caring little, so that his own wants were gratified, what means were used to accomplish their gratification ; but to-night, some old chord stirred in his hard nature, blunted and degraded as it was, and be regarded the little scene with a feeling of unwonted tenderness. He could not make up his mind to broach the subject to Hannah, for with the reaction in himself came the consciousness that she would receive the proposal with vehement indignation. After all, for themselves, what did it matter ? and the life to which the children had been accustomed was the one that would suit them best! He stooped over Lije in the corner. The harness was neatly mended with a leathern thong; what a handy fellow he was, to be sure ! He passed into the house, where Ann Cather’n, with her dress pinned up, lifted a flushed face from her cookery to regard him ; truly, whatever happened, Ann Cather’n could not be spared ! He laid a rough hand on Polly’s carroty curls, and wondered that he had never noticed before what a nice little girl Polly was growing to be. He lighted his corn-cob pipe, and sat down on the step, hoping that the smoke would drive away his perplexities. Little Jim, dismounting from the fence, came to him, holding up a brown, bare foot, with the request that he would extract the thorn, and during the operation laid his rosy face wearily against his father’s arm; then Silas knew what he had before suspected, that little Jim was his favorite child.
He thought it all over and over. He watched Hannah moving about with patient tenderness, never angry or disturbed by anything the children could do. He fancied the gap even one of these little people would leave in the family circle, and he drew his hard hand roughly across his eyes, lest their unwonted moisture should betray his emotion.
“ I’m glad I did n’t give him no incurridgement,” he said to himself. “ So long as we kin scratch along an’ keep soul an’ body together, we won’t go fer to have the chillun scattered round, this one here an’ t’other one there, like puppies out ’n the same litter wot ain’t drownded afore their eyes is opened to the mesries of this wicked world.”
Meantime, the gentleman cantered back through the dewy August night to the hospitable retirement of Brooks’s Tavern, with its background of mountains and distant glimpses of the broad Potomac. He was late for his supper ; that he could see at a glance through the open door of the bare dining-room, with its fire-place filled to the mantelpiece with the fretted globes of muskmelons and fragrant cantelopes; but he was not forgotten; on the table still were a few dishes neatly arranged near his plate, over which a small negro boy stood sleepily waving a fly-brush made of a peacock’s tail, and not improving matters by occasionally dipping the same into the cream pitcher, and sprinkling that unctuous fluid very liberally on all surrounding objects. He smiled at the scene, but he did not offer to eat his supper, and thus relieve the small butler of his arduous duties ; he went up the staircase and into his own room. Emily met him at the door, with eager questions as to the result of his mission. When he told her of Dawston’s refusal to accept their proposition, the disappointment, after the hope she had been living on, was too much for her, and she began to cry in her weak, hysterical way, reverting to the old trouble of her own child’s death, until her husband, now thoroughly disheartened and miserable, strode out of the room, shutting the door behind him.
“ Something must be done,” he said to himself, as he went down-stairs in the dark. “ If Emily continues to go on in this way, she will kill herself and drive me crazy. If she has set her heart upon this child, and is going to fret about it, as she has always done about the other, I‘must use every effort to get it for her. Life is a burden under the present state of affairs.”
In the dining-room, the small negro had fallen asleep, with his head against the wall, and the fly-brush erect, but motionless, in his hand. On the table, in the peaches and cream, the cottage-cheese, and other rural delicacies, the flies were holding high carnival; they had imbedded themselves in the butter, and drowned themselves in the iced tea. Altogether supper was a failure; it was pleasanter on the veranda under the stars, with a cigar and the tinkling of distant sheep-bells as a running accompaniment to his own meditations.
It was two or three weeks afterwards that Silas stood again at the door of his shop, looking idly out on the landscape, and listening disdainfully to the echoing strokes on his neighbor’s anvil. He was so engrossed with his own bitter thoughts that he did not hear the sound of approaching hoofs in the opposite direction, until the voice of the rider accosted him, and he turned around to recognize the deputy sheriff, handsomely mounted on a gray steed with trappings of buff leather and burnished steel. This official, being in the pay of the government, and not dependent for subsistence on the scant yield of the soil, could afford to be portly and rubicund, arrayed in jaunty clothes of the latest fashion, with riding gloves that reached to the elbow and a whip of costly and delicate construction.
“ Howdy, Silas,” he said, affably. “ Pleasant morning, ain’t it ? Cool fer this time o’ year.”
Silas assented ; then, with a misgiving as to the errand of this potent personage, and a vague desire to conciliate him, he said, —
“ Glad ter see you, Bill; ain’t seen you afore fer a month o’ Sundays.”
“ Thanky,” said Bill. “ Fact is, Silas, I ain’t so mighty pertickler glad ter see you. I’ve got some bad news fer you this mornin’, my boy.”
“ Bad news ain’t no news to me,” said Silas, with a ghastly grin. “ It’s all the kind I’m used to.”
“That so? Well, I s’pose I may as well up an’ tell you first as last. Old Mr. Shugars, as got the mortgage on your place, is a-goin’ to sell you out. He would ’a’ done it long ago, ef he had n’t knowed he could n’t make nothin’ by it. He knowed none o’ the neighbors would bid aginst you, on Hanner’s account an’ the chillun’s. But now there’s a man come here from the North som’eres that wants to go to cattle-farmin,’ an’ he is goin’ to buy your place an’ the Widder Dorlin’s trac’, alongside o’ yourn. As soon as old Shugars heared o’ that, he ups an’ offers him your place fer four hundred dollars, which will pay your debt an’ ’low him a pretty good interest. So ef you can’t raise the money in the next few days, I’m afeared it’s all up with you.”
“ This is not fair,” gasped Silas. “ I ought ter have had longer notice.”
“ It’s ben advertised in the paper ever sence last Feb’uary,” said the sheriff. “ Lor’, Silas, you’ve knowed that all along. It would ’a’ ben put up at oction long ago, ef ev’rybody had n’t ’a’ said they would n’t bid agin you.”
“ I don’t see as how I kin raise it,” said Silas, “ ’less you could lend it to me yerself, Bill.”
“ Lord,” said Bill, looking at his watch, in great trepidation, “ ef my debts wuz paid to-morrer, I should n’t have five dollars left in the world. I'm mighty sorry I can’t accommodate you, Silas, seein’ we’s neighbors an’ setch old friends ; but we ’re all pore alike.”
So saying, he struck his spur into the flank of his gallant steed and galloped away. Silas stood still, staring after him. There had come a blur over the landscape, so that the well-known objects no longer wore their familiar aspect : the lightning-struck tree, the little foot-bridge across the brook, the lines of clean clothes hung out to dry, — what made them seem to whirl and spin round so strangely before his eyes ? He went back into the shop, but, fearing to be disturbed by public curiosity, he went round to the back, and sat down on a broad, hewn log that formed the doorsill, resting his head in his hands. Here grew the rank and noisome foliage of the " Jimson weed,” and under its broad leaves motherly hens scratched and clucked to their little chickens. Except for this, there was no sight or sound to break the almost slumbrous calm of the summer day. By degrees the first feeling of bewilderment wore off, and he was able to think soberly of the situation. With that wonderful capacity for putting off the evil day peculiar to men of his indolent, happy-go-lucky temperament, he had never regarded the foreclosure of the mortgage as a thing likely to happen in his generation; and if he thought of it at all it was only as a thing to be dreaded in the remote future, and not likely to affect any present plans or calculations. Even the advertisement in the paper, alluded to by the sheriff, had not shaken his happy security, trusting as he did in his neighbors’ good nature and his own good luck, notwithstanding events had proved this last to be a most treacherous dependence. Now, when the blow had actually come, he felt utterly stunned and helpless, and though he sat revolving the matter over and over in his mind, he could think of no way out of his difficulties. To him the sale of the house and bit of land attached to it meant starvation and death, for on that alone the family depended for subsistence ; and there was no one who would lend him the money, or whom he could ask to share with him the burden of maintaining a needy and clamorous household. Suddenly through the gloom of his meditations, a flash of recollection recalled Mr. Markham’s offer to adopt one of the children. The objections that had once seemed to him so potent melted away in the desperate necessity of the moment. He got up quickly, and putting on his hat strode through the shop, locking the door after him, and set out at a steady, resolute stride to follow the road that led to Brooks’s Tavern. The cool morning had turned into an intensely hot day; the grass and leaves seemed quite parched and withered in the sun, and the dust in the road blew up in red clouds, as it was stirred by the hot breath of the summer wind. Every now and then a covey of partridges whirled past him from some hidden retreat in the long, sedgy grass, and a grasshopper, singing a dreary song of drought, blundered into his face, to be driven off with vehement, rural expletives, which the uninitiated might have mistaken for swearing. The road was long, but Silas would fain have had it longer when, on reaching the brow of a hill, he looked down upon the goal of his journey nestled at the base, with a thrifty background of barns and stables, hen-houses and cattle-sheds. It was an old house, built of stone, with wide porches running around all four sides of the building. Vines were trained to every post and pillar, and lafe, sweet roses clambered up on the rough walls and laid their pink, pale faces against the glossy green of the ivy leaves, whose tendrils ambitiously strove to attain even to the lichen-covered shingles of the roof. On the porch, with his chair tilted back against the wall and his polished boots elevated on the railing, Silas recognized his friend, Mr. Markham, with a sudden sinking of the heart, which impelled him to turn around and hurry back over the road he had just traversed, rather than State his errand and go through with the coming interview. It was too late, however; the recognition was mutual. The gentleman scrutinized him through the eye-glasses dependent from his watch-chain, then removed his feet from the railing, pushed back his chair, and advanced to receive him.
“ Come in,” he said cordially, offering a slim, white hand to the grimy grasp of the blacksmith’s fingers; “come in, and sit down. You look warm and tired; will you have a glass of whisky and water ? ”
The members of the household who looked into the darkened dining-room on this sunny afternoon wondered to see this singularly assorted pair sitting together in close converse, with the decanter of whisky between them. Gossip was rife among the summer boarders this afternoon, — what could these two have to say to each other ? When Silas rose to go, he buttoned a roll of notes into his pocket, and pulled his old hat far down over his eyes.
He tramped back wearily enough over the long road that lay between him and the village. There was a path leading straight to his house that would have saved a mile of the distance, but he persuaded himself that he needed something to keep up his spirits, and took the round-about course which led past the little drinking-shop, known in the neighborhood as “ Tav’ners.” It was an innocent place enough in appearance: a log-cabin set back from the street in a small yard which womanly thrift and love of ornament had striven to decorate with flowers, failing by reason of the predatory propensities of the horses tethered to the small and stunted saplings planted round the house, and struggling for life against every possible disadvantage. The shadows of these saplings had attained dimensions which the substance could never hope to reach, when Silas pushed open the rickety gate and walked up the path to the door. Before he could enter he heard his name mentioned once or twice, and lingered to listen to what they were saying, with the laudable desire to know what his neighbors thought of him, which he shared in common with the rest of humanity.
Of course, he verified the old proverb: the men playing cards on a dirty board laid across two chairs knew no good of him. His troubles had got abroad, and instead of the sympathy which he had fancied they would excite he heard himself denounced as a good-for-nothing rascal, together with the hope that now he would have to go to work, “ an’ stop layin’ about drunk, to be supported by Hanner an’ that oldest boy o’ his’n,” with much more to the same effect. This was hard to stand from men no better than himself, the old companions of his frolics ! He pulled his hat over his eyes, and slunk away. He told Hannah he had a headache, and would go to bed without his supper ; but she made him a cup of tea, and insisted on his drinking it, although he felt as if every drop were choking him, and her kindness were adding the last touch to his misery. The next day he paid his debt to Mr. Shugars, much to that gentleman’s surprise, and somewhat to his disappointment, as the affair was creating a pleasurable excitement in the neighborhood, and he had hoped, besides, to make a profit out of the transfer of the property. Silas explained that he had succeeded in borrowing the money from a friend “ up the country,” and went away with a full acquittance in his pocket. The story, getting out, was a nine days’ wonder; everybody heard it but Hannah, who, absorbed in her household duties, and rarely going abroad, never knew the interest her affairs excited, or suspected the web that fate was spinning about her feet. Silas passed the time in a kind of suppressed excitement. Again and again he resolved to tell Hannah what he had done; but he was a coward by nature and by long habit, and every day brought fresh proof that she would never consent to give up the child. She might have been persuaded to part with one of the others, for the sake of the advantages offered; but this baby, who slept in her arms, who depended upon her for the very breath he drew, — he knew that she would rather starve upon the hill-side than retain the cottage upon such terms as these. He believed honestly that if the child were dead she would grieve for him for a little while, and then become resigned and reconciled to his loss ; but to give him up living to another woman, — that she would never do ! Truly, he was a very wretched creature in these days, not daring to face Hannah with his miserable story; while Mr. Markham, now returned to the city, wrote him peremptory letters demanding why he did not personally deliver the child, according to the terms of the agreement, and hinting darkly at swift retribution if there were any treachery or double-dealing on foot in the matter. At last, fairly at his wits’ end, he sat down and indited the following epistle :
“ mr. Markum, i cant git banner toe giv him up, yu mus cum an git him yoself shee mus nott noe enythin abowt it i am afeared toe tel her, shee wil tel evry boddy els yore tru frend Silus d. p. s. the Nabers wood tar an fether mee ef tha knowed.”
This letter written and secretly dispatched, Silas, having shifted part of the burden to another’s shoulders, calmly waited.
One lovely autumn day, when the blue haze lay soft over the distant hills and the sunshine came down on the earth like a benediction, Hannah put the baby to sleep in his cradle on the porch, where it was warmer than in the house, by reason of the sunlight. She covered him up with an old shawl, and then went back to her work again. It was Monday, and the children had gone to the public school recently started in the village. Even little Polly had not escaped the general enthusiasm in the cause of education, and, primer in hand, had set out with the others, crying lustily all the way because she could not keep up with them. There was washing to be done in the shed behind the house, and if the baby was good his mother calculated to have all the clean clothes hung out to dry before noon; she therefore went to work at them with the sort of heartiness that insures success. There is always pleasure in any downright thorough exertion, whether it be physical or mental. Hannah enjoyed the lovely day, the healthful exercise of her muscles, the very soap-suds foaming up to her elbows. The warm blood crimsoned her face, and the steam curled the short hair about her face into little girlish rings. She sang, too, over her work the old rousing Methodist tunes that bring the sinner to a sense of his iniquities at camp-meetings and revivals, in a clear, high voice that woke the echoes in neighboring woods. Every now and then she stopped, and listened to hear if the baby were stirring ; but there was no sound of him, and the sunshine, swinging around, now darted slant bars of light into the clean, bare apartment which was kitchen, parlor, and bed-chamber in one. It was no unusual thing for him to sleep this way, after a night spent in keeping the rest of the family awake. After a time the washing was finished ; Hannah wiped the soap-suds from her wrinkled hands, and contemplated with pride the result of her labors. Then she went into the house, and kindled the fire to prepare the early dinner. Still the baby slept. Wondering a little, she put on the kettle, and then went out on the porch to look at him and see if he were covered up. To her amazement she saw the shawl lying on the floor. She flew to the cradle. It was empty! In vain sbe searched the house, saying to herself over and over that he must be there, while the dead, cold certainty at her heart told her that it was impossible. Then she ran to the out-buildings, lifted the logs at the woodpile, and craned her neck over the curb of the well ; but there was not a footprint in the moist earth, not a bubble on the calm surface of the water. At last, she threw her arms up above her head, with a wild cry, and rushed bare-headed down the hill-side and into the village. People ran to their doors as she passed, wondering ; and then, persuading themselves that it was their duty to see what was the matter, threw down their work and followed her. She did not stop until she came to the shop, where Silas stood lounging against the door. He knew what had happened long before she reached him, and strove so to steady his nerves that he need not betray himself. He tried to speak to her, but she cried out.
“ The baby, the baby ! my child, my child ! He is gone, and I can't find him! Oh, Silas,” with a wild gesture of appeal, " somebody has stolen my baby away ! ”
“ Stolen ! ” cried Silas, striking down the uplifted hands, “who could ’a’ stole him? You’ve done left him out some’eres with your keerlessness, an’ some wild varmint has dragged him away.” Hannah uttered a piercing shriek at this, and fell fainting to the ground. The village women crowded about her with rough sympathy, and, the excitement spreading marvelously, men left their teams in the road and their plows in the furrow to come and hear the story of the loss of Hannah Dawston’s child. While they stood about talking, a stalwart young fellow proposed that they should go and search for it. “Ef it’s been took by a wild-cat, or a painter,” he argued, “ we kin track it by the blood, an’ ef we don't lose no time we may git back the body afore it’s destroyed; an’ ef it’s a person, why we will see footmarks an’ signs. She would n’t notice, when she wuz so flustered an’ scairtlike,” making a compassionate gesture towards Hannah, lying with closed eyes with her head on a neighbor’s lap. The suggestion was adopted with enthusiasm, and men, women, and children joined eagerly in the search, Silas going at the head of the party. All day long they scoured the country, but not one particle of evidence rewarded their zeal. There was not a foot - print in the road or around the house, not a trace of blood, not the torn shred of a garment in all the adjacent woods and fields. For a week the excitement raged ; every day parties went out sworn to clear up the mystery before they returned. The story drifted out into the world and got into the newspapers; but nothing was ever found out, and by and by people grew tired of the subject, and stopped talking about it; then, naturally, they forgot it for days together, unless some chance allusion recalled it to their minds. But Hannah did not forget. She went mechanically about the house attending to her duties, but there had come hard lines into her face, which never relaxed now into smiles, and her voice grew to have a harsh, grating sound, as if it had become rusty from long disuse. The children marveled, and fretted at the change at first, but they adapted themselves to it in time, and showed that they noticed it only by whispering to one another, as if their mother’s presence imposed some mysterious restraint upon them. Silas, feeling himself to be vaguely under a cloud, spent less and less of his time at home, and more of it at “ Tav’ner’s,” unable to bear the burden of his guilty thoughts under the haunting gaze of Hannah’s sorrowful eyes. So it was that the autumn drifted into the winter. The corn was cut and stacked away for husking ; farm wagons brought in the golden harvest of pumpkins and the ruddy yield of the apple-trees ; and the morning-glory vines were torn from their rough trellises, and blown fitfully about, at the wicked will of the wind.
One wild December night, Hannah sat alone in the cottage. The children, after talking together in whispers, crept away to bed, whence the sound of their voices uplifted in riotous glee reached their mother’s ears, until they were hushed in slumber. Silas had not come home to his supper, and the meal, carefully put by upon the hearth to keep warm for him, was slowly drying up in the heat of the fire.
The wind shrieked in the chimney; it tore at the shingles on the roof, and rattled the windows till it seemed every moment that the panes would fall shivering in upon the floor ; it blew gustily in under the door, and rocked the empty cradle, as if spectral hands were thus lulling the ghost of a child. Although Hannah was not a timid woman, the dread of the tempest and the loneliness, with that unaccountable fear of the supernatural that possesses us all at times, crept over her, and chilled her to the bone. She dared not look behind her, for every shadow had acquired an awful significance, and she put her hands up to her ears to keep out the wailing of the wind and the ghostly, monotonous sound of the swaying cradle. The clock struck nine ; then the slow minutes ticked out the half hour ; then a quarter; then a sudden knock echoed on the door. It was not loud, but imperative. Hannah started to her feet in amazement, but before she could answer the summons it was repeated. With a mind full of misgiving, she went to the door; as she opened it, the wind swept into the room, blowing out the candle, and scattering the fire-brands far and wide over the hearth. Peering out into the dark, she could only distinguish the muffled, shadowy outline of a small, slight figure.
“ What do you want ? ” she asked, raising her voice so that it could Ire heard above the roar of the storm. But the figure did not answer; it came up close to her instead, and held out something in its arms with a gesture that constrained acceptance. As it stood there, the wind swept aside the scarf, and revealed to Hannah a white, frightened face, which seemed, somehow, to her dazed senses strangely familiar ; the next moment, as it were in a whirl of the tempest, the apparition vanished utterly, and Hannah was left alone in the door-way staring out into the night.
It was almost a minute before she recovered herself sufficiently to shut the door; then she went to the hearth and knelt down, to examine her strange acquisition by the fitful light of the fire. It. was an odd bundle, folded carefully in a great shawl. Her fingers trembled so that she could scarcely unfasten it, while a mysterious premonition thrilling through her warned her what it contained. The next moment a sweep of white drapery flowing over her lap confirmed the truth. She snatched the covering away, and a child lay before her, — her child ! She uttered a little cry of rapture. It seemed too wonderful to be true; it must be a phantom, a delusion of her brain ! But she held him in her arms, and kissed him on eyes and cheeks and lips, and then she knew he was an actual, tangible reality. She sat for a long time holding him upon her knees, too absorbed in her new happiness for any other thought; but after a while it occurred to her that it was strange he did not wake. What had they done to him to make him sleep so soundly and so long ? Besides, he was so cold ! but then the night was cold, — bitterly, icily cold.
She held the little hands to the fire ; she chafed them between her own, and covered them with kisses. She pressed the small, cold face to her bosom, and strove, like the prophet of old, to infuse her own life into the chilled current of this baby’s veins ; but there was no unclosing of the waxen lids, no answering pressure of the tiny, marble fingers.
When Silas came in late in the night, he found the fire reduced to the back log and a bed of coals. There was a sort of dim light in the room, by which he distinguished Hannah sitting still by the hearth. He thought she was asleep, and laid his hand on her shoulder to rouse her, telling her thickly that it was time to go to bed ; but she did not move or speak, so he went over to the other side, and sat. down, trying with drunken gravity to mend the fire, and while he was thus engaged fell into a doze himself, with his head resting on the seat of a chair. He was awakened in the early morning by a feeling of intense cold, and, stiffened and cramped by the uncomfortable position in which he had been lying, he aroused himself with difficulty. The fire was entirely out; the door was open, and the snow had drifted in in'a white heap on the floor. By the faint, uncertain twilight of the winter morning, he saw that the spot where he remembered to have seen Hannah was vacant. " She’s gone to bed,” he said to himself, and bent over his task of making the fire. Soon there was a cheerful snapping and crackling of lightwood knots and hickory splinters, and the room was in a glow. While he warmed his hands at the blaze, he looked about him, and saw that the bed in the corner, in all the bravery of its patchwork quilt, was still unrumpled. This disquieted him a little, and he opened the door of the next apartment to see if she had lain down with the children. But no; the children lay huddled close together for warmth, with their heads covered up, but there was no sign of their mother. Then he went to the door, but whatever foot-prints had been made earlier in the night were obliterated now by the flakes, which continued to fall thick and fast, draping all the dim landscape in a kind of ghostly veil. It was clear that she must have gone out, since she was not to be found in the house; but nothing could be done towards finding her until it grew lighter, and it was dreary waiting for the dawn. How the slow moments dragged away he scarcely knew, but at last the sun rose up mistily in the east, and all the familiar objects stood out clearly in the white glare of the snow ; then he went to the neighbors and told them his story. “ He had been afeared, ever sence the baby wuz took, that there was somn’at wrong with Hanner’s mind,” he said, and the men who listened consented readily to help him in his search. “ She can’t have gone fur,” they said to one another. But all day long they looked, and looked in vain ; at last, towards sunset, when they had almost given up the quest in despair, they found her in a bit of copsewood, not far from Brooks’s Tavern, lying at the foot of a tree, with the dead child in her arms. The men looked at one another in speechless wonder. This was the child whose mysterious disappearance had so excited the community a few months before. Whence had its mother procured it, and what strange chance had united in death these two so cruelly divided in life? Tears glimmered in the eyes of these rough backwoodsmen, and had to be winked away, while they constructed a litter of boughs, and bore the child and its mother to the nearest shelter. Good Mrs. Brooks refused to believe that Hannah was dead. She went to work immediately with the stimulants and hot applications needful to restore suspended animation, and after an hour’s exertion was rewarded by feeling the deadened pulse throb faintly, and seeing the heavy lids unclose. The room was full of strange faces, attracted hither by curiosity and sympathy, but the eyes of the patient wandered past them all in an eager, anxious way, as if they were seeking something they could not find, A sympathetic woman, interpreting the unexpressed wish, brought the dead child, and placed it beside her. She smiled faintly at this, and laid her poor wan cheek against the baby’s waving hair; but still there seemed something on her mind, and an undefined trouble showed in the eyes with which she anxiously scanned the faces about her. At last, she plucked the sleeve of a woman busied about the bed. “ The lady,” she whispered, — “ where is she ? ”
“ What does she say ? ” demanded the others, noticing the woman’s puzzled face.
“ She says she wants 'the lady,’ ” was the reply. “ What lady can she mean ? ”
“ Mrs. Markham, perhaps,” suggested a young girl, more quick-witted than the rest. “ She came last night. Shall I tell her, mother ? It can do no harm.” Her mother assented, and she went away, returning presently with the lady in question, shrinking behind her companion with a white face and wide, frightened eyes.
As soon as she entered the room, Hannah’s countenance expressed satisfaction, and she made them all understand that she wished to be alone with this new-comer. The women withdrew accordingly, and, wondering, left them together.
When they were gone, there was silence in the room, — silence so profound that the terrified Emily could hear the separate fall of each silver snow-flake against the window pane. She was alone with the woman she had wronged, and nothing in the world could screen her from the accusing gaze of this woman’s dying eyes. When she could endure it no longer, she covered her face with her hands, and cried out wildly, “ Oh, why do you look at me like that? I cannot bear it! ”
“ Why — did — you — take — my — child ? ” demanded Hannah, huskily, shaping the words with her lips rather than speaking them aloud.
“ Oh, forgive me! ” cried Emily, sobbing. “ I did n’t know. My husband told me you were willing I should have him. I — I loved him so.”
“You — loved —him,” said Hannah, dropping out her words, one at a time, “ and — yet — you — killed — him.”
Emily threw herself on her knees beside the bed. “ I will tell you! ” she cried. “ I never knew — believe me, or not, as you will — I did not know. The baby drooped ; he did not thrive, for all my care. One night he was ill, — so ill that I sat up and held him in my arms. I heard my husband talking in his sleep; he said things about the child, — things that frightened me. I waked him up, and somehow I found out the truth. Oh, forgive me ! I would not willingly have wronged you so! As soon as I knew, I set out to find you, to bring you back your child. My husband threatened me, but I did not mind. It is a two days’ journey, and the baby was ill, — so ill! Oh, you do not know how I watched the little feverish face, — how gladly I would have given up everything to restore him to you as he was when I took him away! ”
Her voice broke down utterly here, and she hid her face in the bed-clothes, sobbing.
“ I thought if I could bring him to you alive,” she went on presently, “ if he were once laid in your arms, he would get well again. I tried to come to you as fast as I could, but while I waited at the station the baby died. I saw the shadow creep up over his face, and then I thought I should go mad. I do not know why I brought him to you at last. I think I was afraid to keep him. I dared not bring him here, where they knew me. It frightened me to hold him in my arms. When the carriage came to the turn of the road, I made them stop and wait till I came back. It was cruel, I know, but I could not help it. I tried to speak to you then, but the words would not come. Ah, God forgive me, I believe I have killed you too ! ” She stopped, and the dusky stillness of the room was filled with the sound of bitter weeping. Presently, she felt something groping about her neck, and then a hand was laid lightly on her hair. It was Hannah’s hand thus blindly outstretched, in mute token of forgiveness. Emily caught it in her passionate, impulsive way, and covered it with kisses; but while she held it still, the poor worn fingers stiffened in her grasp, and grew cold, with a deadlier chill than that of the bitter winter’s day.
When she cried out in her fright, people came with lights, and cautious footsteps, and bustling, curious voices ; but Hannah Dawaton’s spirit had flown beyond their aid, and under the white winding sheet of the snow they laid her side by side with the child.
Lucy Lee Pleasants.