SUFFER a merry and homely legend illustrating some phases of life in these secluded country regions.
Shadrack Abednego Pruce was an orphan that is to say, his father and his mother were both dead. They died before Shadrack Abednego became an orphan, and when they were buried, Shadrack Abednego planted a yew tree and a rose-bush on their grave, and said, ” I am an orphan.” He sat down on the grave and cried for nearly three minutes, and said, ” I am an orphan.” He walked up and down the churchyard, reading the inscriptions on the tombstones, peeping into the church, watching the rooks in the elm trees and muttering over and over again, I am an orphan.” He thought that meant something, and the words seemed to comfort his bereaved heart. Then he sat swinging on the gate that led into the meadow at the back of the church, and then he wept and thought, and ” I am an orphan ” came to his lips, and the rusty hinges creaked back, ” Orphan ! orphan!” Then he went home to dinner.
This was just a week after the funeral of Shadrack’s mother, and ten days after that of his father. In the house the pictures and the looking-glasses were still toward the wall, for old Susannah she was Shadrack’s aunt on his mother’s side, and now his sole protector was somewhat superstitious and did not wish to see in the mirror the face of her lately-deceased sister.
” Not that I believe in such things,” she said to the neighbors, ” but there’s no telling what might happen.”
” That’s true, Aunt Susie,” was the reply from every-body ; ” it’s always best to be on the safe side.”
So every picture, portrait and looking-glass in the house had its safe side turned to the public, and even the silver tea-pot on the cupboard had a cloth thrown over it, so that the dead should not be tempted to come again.
The effect of this was that poor Shadrack Abednego had not been able to comb his hair properly for more than a week, and, as he had very long and very red hair, he did not look quite so neat as he should have done. Once he went out to the well and sought to see himself in its clear waters, but his aunt followed him and expressed her horror at his audacity so vigorously that Shadrack thought it best not to hurt her feelings again. She even cried for nearly an hour at the bare thought that as likely as not before many days dear Shadrack would be lying beside his father and his mother. Then she looked at the sturdy, rugged urchin, and she dried her eyes with the corner of her gingham apron and offered to comb Shadrack’s hair herself. But Shadrack was now sixteen years old and five feet seven inches high, and he boldly declared no woman or man, either, for that matter should comb his hair ; upon which defiant rejection of her kind offer, Aunt Susannah dropped off into hysterics, and for twenty minutes her next door neighbor, who ran to her assistance when she heard her scream, thought it was doubtful if she would escape with her life. Hysterics, however, do not kill, and after copious doses of brandy and repeated applications of burning feathers to her nose and of cold water to the back of her neck she gradually recovered. Then the kind-hearted neighbor suggested that Shadrack should be severely punished, but Aunt Susannah said, ” Poor boy ! he is an orphan ;” and she went back to her task of peeling potatoes for dinner.
So on the day that Shadrack Abednego planted. the bushes on his parents’ grave his hair was, as the saying is, all sixes and sevens, his face had tear-tracks down his cheeks, his necktie was upside down, and he looked exactly what he called himself and everybody else called him an orphan. Thus he sat down with Aunt Susannah at the table. He was both sad and hungry, and he ate away at the roast goose and boiled potatoes, and afterward at the apple-dumplings, with all the delight and zest imaginable. As the half-grown girl who did the rough work about the house said, ” Live folks must eat, and as long as Master Shadrack wanted a good dinner he should have it” She had ideas of her own about Master Shadrack, but, having once had her ears pinched for observing to Aunt Susannah that he was becoming a fine young man, she kept them to herself. Aunt Susannah wanted no nonsense over Shadrack Abednego. Least of all did she want anybody to fall in love with him. That had been the trouble with his mother a girl that was worth her weight in gold till she got married, and then trouble began. No; Shadrack should grow up like the great oak on the village green grand in himself, noble in his solitude. But, for all that, the half-grown girl had her eye on Shadrack, and she longed for nothing so much as to comb out his radiant locks and wash his grief- and dirt-stained face and kiss his bright red lips.
Shadrack ate his dinner; then he drank half a mug of ale; then he sat back and looked fondly and contentedly into Aunt Susannah’s admiring face.
“A nice goose, Aunt Susie,” said he.
“The best in the yard,” she replied ; “the very one your dear father thought so much of.”
Poor Shadrack began to cry, and found it not so easy as it had been before dinner.
“Don’t cry, my orphan nevy don’t cry,” said Aunt Susannah, sympathetically; “people must die, and so must geese, but don’t ee cry.”
” No, I won’t,” muttered Shadrack ; ” but just to think how fond father was of this goose, how it would run after him and eat out of his hand, and now we have ate the goose!”
” There’s enough left for another dinner, Shaddy dear. So don’t ee cry, but go out and see if the men are all right in the yard, and if the bay mare’s colt is in the meadow. These are all your things now.”
“Yes, aunty, I am an orphan ;” and Shadrack Abednego went out to see if old Solomon, the unofficial but very officious overseer, was getting on well with the men and the things of the farm.
Old Solomon was a childless widower. His better half had been dead nearly sixteen years, and never but once in all that time had his heart been moved by emotions of love. Unfortunately, it had been so effectually moved that it quivered yet. He had worked on the farm from boyhood. When a stunted lad of thirteen, he had driven the horses at plough and helped hold the sheep at the shearing. He had grown up an able and a trusted laborer, had served as wagoner and as shepherd, and now at the age of sixty he had without formal appointment dropped into the general management of the whole farm. Good wages and a free cottage, to say nothing of the possession of authority, made him a man of some importance so much so that, next to the parson and Shadrack’s father, he was regarded as the great man of the parish. And from his exalted position old Solomon looked down upon one of his womanly acquaintances one whom he had known from her cradle, one whom he had admired from her girlhood, and one whom he had loved from the day he laid his wife beneath the sod. This acquaintance was none other than Miss Susannah, Shadrack’s aunt, and now his mistress. Not that he had ever told his love; it was his heart’s delight and his heart’s secret.
” Does she take it very hard?” asked old Sol when, on the afternoon of which we are speaking, Shadrack stood beside him watching the cows coming up for milking.
” Who ?” asked Shadrack.
” Miss Susannah,” replied old Sol.
“Rather,” was the laconic reply.
” Poor soul!” said old Sol ; “poor soul ! And hasn’t she turned the looking-glass round yet ?”
” Nor given the cat skim-milk instead of cream ?” “No; she says the cat’s heart needs comforting as much as anybody’s.”
” Kind-hearted creature ! Isn’t she a beauty ?” The first part of this observation applied to Miss Susannah ; the latter, to a remarkably fat cow passing at that moment.
Shadrack thought both remarks applied to his aunt. ” I say, Sol,” he put in, ” none of that !”
“‘What?” in a tone of surprise.
“Oh, you know well enough, I say none of that; we have trouble enough.”
“I know it,” said old Solomon ; “but she would fetch a high price any time. I know a man who would give anything for such a beast.”
“Gently,” said Shadrack ; “gently, old man. I tell thee I will hear none of that.”
“No, no!” continued Solomon, still thinking of the cow ; “no, no ! She’s too rare a breed to part with. There’s not such another brute in this parish, nor the next So Mr. Philips said t’other day.”
“If you were not an old man, I’d pitch thee into yonder water;” and Shadrack went off in great anger.
” Impatient as his father,” said the old man to himself as he turned down toward the barn.
Into the house went Shadrack Abednego, and as soon as he found Aunt Susannah he began :
” Aunt Susie, old Solomon has called you a beast !” “Ugh, the wretch!” and the words hissed through her teeth.
” Yes, and he says you are a brute.”
” The scoundrel ! he shall go ! He shall leave the premises this very night ! To think that your own mother’s sister should be called a brute and a beast!” Aunt Susannah was too angry to cry.
“But that isn’t all of it,” continued Shadrack: “he declares you are too rare a breed to part with, and that skinny Philips said so.”
“The villain ! the tramp ! the outcast ! the disgrace of his sex ! I’ll prosecute him ! I’ll have him sent to the assizes ! I’ll ” and poor Aunt Susannah’s rage stopped her words as well as her tears. Her face was white ; her hands trembled; her teeth were tightly set. There was silence ; then she said, ” Tell me all about it, Shaddy dear.”
” That’s all,” replied Shadrack ” though, to be sure, he did say you were a beauty.”
“Oh !” The tide began to turn, for her gray eyes, red hair, sharp nose and chin, high cheek-bones and angular figure made Aunt Susannah anything but a beauty.
“And he also called you a kind-hearted creature.” “Now, are you sure of that ?” very much mollified. ” Yes, certain.”
” He’s not such a bad fellow, after all,” said she, musingly, as though speaking to herself.
” What ! not when he called you a brute and a beast ?”
“Well, Shaddy, you know that’s the way of some men, especially of such as have to do much with cattle. In your dear father’s eye a cow was the pink of perfection. He used to call your mother ‘Cowey,’ and whenever he saw anything that pleased him he would say, ` As fine as old Bess ;’ that was the name of one of the Durhams. Oh no, there’s nothing at all in the words `brute’ and `beast, when you consider where they come from.”
“Well,” exclaimed Shadrack, with the slightest possible contempt in his voice ” well, aunty, you are, as he said himself, a poor soul!”
“Humph ! he’s quite tender-hearted,” in the softest of tones. ” Now go, Shaddy dear, and take a look around. See if you can find some bait for fishing, for you must try for a trout to-morrow.”
Shadrack stood thinking for a moment. He said nothing and went out. But he thought, ” What’s come over aunty now? She’s getting a better woman every day. To see how quickly she forgave the old scoundrel ! That comes of learning the parson’s texts every Sunday. It takes all the spirit out of her, but it makes her good, fit to go to heaven, that’s certain.” He took his spade and went down to the willow trees by the pond to dig for grubs and worms.
This was the burden of Aunt Susannah’s soliloquy: ” He says I am a kind-hearted creature ! Well, well ! That’s what I call thoughtful and manly. Oh, I remember when he was a spry young man and used to swing me under the apple tree. That’s thirty-five years ago, now, I’ll be bound. We have both changed since then. I would like to peep into the looking-glass, but that will never do. Only he’s a good strong man yet stronger than many a younger one. And folks said he was kind to his first wife and cried when he buried her. A faithful servant he’s been. I always thought a deal of him. To think of the dear fellow calling me a brute and a beast ! That’s just like a boy calling his sweetheart ‘ ducky’ and ‘ goosey,’ only from a man ‘brute’ and ‘beast’ mean more. Well, well !” and Aunt Susannah began to wonder if the legend so ran that the mirrors should have their faces turned to the wall after the corpse left the house. “I thought it was fourteen days after the funeral,” she said to herself, “but I may be mistaken.” The more she thought of it, the more certain she was of her mistake. Then she remembered that when Rebecca Short died they put everything to rights the same day that she was buried. But when two died within a few days of each other? That was a problem, and Aunt Susannah began to get bewildered. ” He said I was tender-hearted; no, kind-hearted : that was his word. I don’t think two deaths would make any difference, and Shaddy’s hair does want combing. I think I’ll venture it. I do wish I had somebody to advise me what to do.” She looked at the pictures and the mirrors, so dismally displaced. She thought out every thought she had. She sighed till she suddenly remembered that sighs were dangerous and cut so many hours off one’s life, and then she stopped. Up and down the room she walked, out of the window she looked; then she deliberately took the cover off the silver tea-pot. She seemed startled at her daring, but nothing happened, so she turned first the picture of the old duke around, then that of his late Majesty, then that of a famous prize greyhound, and so on till all the pictures were in their proper position. She dusted each of them off, thinking rather more of old Solomon than of the risk she was running. Once the half-grown girl peeped in and exclaimed,
” Laws, missis ! be’st thee not afraid ?”
” Go and scrub out the pantry, you impertinent thing!” and Betsey departed.
Nothing happened. Twenty minutes passed ; still no vision on any of the glittering surfaces. Then, with an air of desperate firmness, she turned around one of the mirrors. The first thing she saw in it was her own face, and she nearly fainted. She looked again. Her heart began to cease its fluttering. ” He said I was pretty a beauty. The glass shows I am passable. Humph ! passable ! So Ezekiel said ; every man has passed me by, Still, many a high-born lady has red hair, so that’s nothing ; and gray eyes : they are nothing. After all, it’s handsome is that handsome does. To think that old Solomon called me beautiful ! What would Mary that’s dead and buried say if she heard it? I’ll knit him a pair of blue worsted stockings for winter, the good man !” and she continued admiring her charms, smoothing her hair and eyebrows, adjusting her dress and meditating upon the thoughtful and discerning kindness of old Solomon.
Into the room walked Shadrack Abednego. His aunt was in too great an ecstasy to hear the sound of his footsteps. He watched her for an instant, then he exclaimed,
“Aunt Susie, what have you done? What have you done ? Don’t you know I am an orphan ?”
Oh, Shadrack, how you frightened me !” cried Aunt Susannah, pale with fear and trembling with excitement. ” You shouldn’t come in so quiet as that. It’s terrible to be startled so.”
“But why have you turned things around ?” asked Shadrack.
” I was thinking of you, Shaddy dear. You do need washing up and combing so badly.”
” Dear, kind aunty !” said Shadrack, with undisguised admiration. ” You are always thinking of me.’ Just to think of your turning the glass for my sake ! Loving mother-aunt, let me kiss you.”
Aunt Susannah blushed not at the kiss, but at the abuse of praise. She held her peace.
Thus in the evening of the day our story begins this was the emotional state of the hearts belonging to the four individuals we have introduced: Shadrack loved his aunt for her devotion; old Solomon felt tender toward Aunt Susannah because of her recent grief and his own inspiration; Aunt Susannah admired herself more than ever, thought Shadrack was a good boy, and looked more kindly on old Solomon because he had discovered her charms ; Betsey, the half-grown girl, was simply and completely in love with Shadrack.
When the shades of night overspread the land and crickets on the hearth and owls in the field kept watch, Shadrack and Solomon slept in peace. Aunt Susannah dreamed of the seven fat kine of Egypt and thought she was drowning in the Nile or the Red Sea, she was not sure which, when old Solomon perhaps it was the Sphinx ; she could not say : therefore it was most likely Solomon jumped in and saved her, whereupon the king of some place married her and she became a paragon of loveliness. Poor Betsey tossed about in her trundle-bed for hours. She was happy and troubled. When first she got into the garret, she snuffed out the candle : that was a clear sign of matrimony. Then she lighted it again and stuck a pin through the wick, repeating some mystic lines about piercing Shadrack’s heart and his coming to her in spirit. She watched the candle burn below the pin ; it did not drop out, therefore he would be sure to appear. To be doubly sure, she set her shoes under the bed in the form of a T, and, placing one stocking under the pillow and hanging the other over the foot of the bed, she knelt down to say her prayers. These were short and simple just the heads, you know,” Betsey used to say ; for, poor girl ! by bedtime she was tired out. However, hours passed this night before she could get to sleep. She lay there thinking and building castles in the air, hoping it might be her lot to be a Cinderella and marry the prince Shadrack Abednego. When she felt her foot, though, she was pretty sure, if it were a very, very small slipper, she would never get it on ; so she let Cinderella go and thought of herself as a female Dick Whittington, only Shadrack was her London and she had no cat. Anyway, she got Shadrack that is to say, in her fancy and she was married in fine style and had a half-grown girl to wash the dishes and mind the baby. Then she dropped asleep, but no Shadrack came ; not even a dream of Shadrack crossed her mind. She slept till the gray dawn appeared, and then she got up disappointed and less hopeful, but comforting herself with the thought, ” Poor fellow ! he’s an orphan he’s an orphan. And an orphan is an exception to all rules.”
Now, it came to pass some few days after this that the village parson called upon Aunt Susannah and Shadrack Abednego to condole with them upon their bereavement. He had been expected, so Shadrack’s hair had been cut; and when the parson arrived, the orphan looked a bright and presentable youth. His new mourning-suit fitted him neatly and greatly enhanced his appearance. His aunt was also looking her very best.
The clergyman was good and kind, as all clergymen are. He brought them his warmest sympathy, which they had looked for ; he brought them something else, which they had not looked for.
This something else was a young girl of sixteen summershis own daughter, Myrtle Muriel, a blithe, winsome maiden with long dark hair, brown eyes, rosy cheeks and pearly teeth. She was a fairy such as Shadrack had never seen before. He thought her wonderful, and blushed bright scarlet every time she spoke to him, and glowed with excitement every time she looked at him. His aunt listened attentively to the kind parson, and at the same time watched her nephew and thought of the noble oak on the village green. Myrtle was at one moment running over a list of French adjectives, the next composing a letter in her mind to her dear friend and schoolmate Valentine Louise Teeson, then watching the poultry in the yard, and thus running through things congruous and things incongruous, and thinking no more of Shadrack than she did of the mummy in the Shortstown museum. She asked Shadrack if he thought the brook had as many fish in it as in days gone by, and it was as much as he could do to gulp down his heart in order to tell her that possibly there were less. Her sweet voice seemed to fascinate him. He never felt so happy be-fore in his life. He even thought it was a good thing to be an orphan, so as to bring the parson and his daughter to the house.
When they left, Shadrack was another being. He watched her pretty figure down the lane till she was out of sight. That night he asked Betsey to tell him the words of a certain incantation to be uttered over a cup of cowslip wine, which she, taking this to be a sign that her love-charms were working upon him and that ere long he would be hers, did with pleasure. The Object, of course, was to enable him by a dream to foresee the joy that awaited him. Carefully did he go through the prescribed formula and drink the enchanted wine ; then he lay down to sleep, and in his sleep the vision of glory came. He thought that he was standing before the altar at the hour of daybreak. The surpliced priest was there ; the red sunlight fell upon the company and made the church strangely beautiful and strangely weird. The great edifice was still and empty; only here in the chancel were the friends and neighbors of the bridal-pair. By his side was the lovely Myrtle, crowned with the orange-wreath and robed in satin-cream. Her face was more than beautiful, it was more than earthly. He looked into her eyes, and there he saw himself and love. He touched her hand, and affection like an electric current ran from heart to heart. The vows were made, the solemn words were spoken, and then he and his bride turned away, and the radiance of the early morn followed them down the nave out into the great world of sunshine. Oh how dazzling ! oh how bewildering ! Shadrack watched himself and Myrtle till it seemed that they had vanished in the later meridian splendor.
” Oh, it was beautiful,” said Shadrack to Betsey in the morning as he. met her at the dairy door.
Betsey colored and said,
” Did ‘ee see her ?”
” Yes ; she was lovely, a bonny bride something like Queen Esther, you know, and ten thousand times sweeter than any other maiden I have seen.”
What did she wear ?” asked Betsey.
” I am not sure I saw only her eyes but I think she wore a garland of daisies and a pink-colored dress.” ” What eyes had she ?” inquired Betsey.
” That, again, I don’t remember. They were beautiful full of love; not dreamy, but bright; a sort of But there ! I can’t say. But she was splendid, that’s certain. To see her in the sunlight you’d have thought her a what-d’ye-call-it come down from heaven. Oh, Betsey, if I could have gone with her ! I thought, when I saw her fade into the sunbeams, that she disappeared as a lark vanishes in the bright sky. I don’t know, but”
Just at that moment Aunt Susannah, who kept a strict watch over the half-grown girl and ever associated Shadrack and the lone, lorn oak together, appeared on the scene.
” Bet, you good-for-nothing girl,” she cried, “back to your work ! and you, Shad, be off! Wasting time like this first thing in the morning ! I’ll give the both of you a trouncing !” and into the dairy Betsey went, saying to herself ” I’m the bride, that’s certain ; I’m the bride.” And Shadrack went down to the orchard and exclaimed, “What a bride she was ! Oh what a bride I”
Time passed by and the autumn came, and one day, when the leaves were falling fast, old Solomon made up his mind that he would tell his love to Aunt Susannah. He fancied that for some months past she had treated him in an unusually civil manner. She had inquired about his health and had given him some roasted Jerusalem artichokes a mark of special favor, for Jerusalem artichokes were her delight. Therefore it was that one afternoon when going his rounds through the neighboring wood he became sentimental. The trees stripped of their foliage, the wind whistling through the bare branches, the soddened ground and swollen streamlets and the dying sunlight, brought into his tender heart that sweet melancholia which inspires and encourages love. He had been in full possession of that sublime emotion for years ; but when he saw the naked boughs, and especially the white trunks, of the birch trees, he felt the emotion was getting too great for him. His heart was too small for it. Something must be done, or the emotion in his breast would burst forth in volcanic earthquakes and eruptions.
” Oh, Susannah,” he exclaimed as he sat down on the stile ” oh, Susannah, I must have thee ! Lord, thy will be done, but oh, give me Susannah ! She is the best hand I know of to make onion-gruel ; and onion-gruel of a cold winter night is not so bad. I used to take it when I was a boy, thickened with oatmeal and seasoned with sage and thyme chopped up small. The old woman used to say it was good for chills and cramps, and in bad weather I had one or other ‘most every night, the gruel was so good. Howsoever, Susannah is tiptop at that. She knows how to work and make a man comfortable, and that’s everything. She’s got money, too, and that’s more than everything. She’s not proud, so that marrying a poor man would be no come-down to her. Not that I am so poor, after all. I have three hundred pounds in the three per cents., sixty pounds in the bank, two suits of Sunday clothes and a good houseful of furniture. I’ll ax her yes, this very night I’ll ax her. She can say only one thing or t’other; and if I don’t ax her she’ll say neither. So I’ll go home and dress up in my Sun-day best and face Susannah this blessed night. God knows I am a pretty good sort of fellow, and all I want now is Susannah ;” and old Solomon got off the stile and hurried home as fast as he could, so that he might see the object of his affections as soon as possible. Into his Sunday habiliments he carefully deposited himself that is to say, he dressed himself for the occasion. Then he ate a good supper, for, as experience teaches, sweethearting upon an empty stomach is not what it might be. He also drank a quart of real home-brewed -a virtuous proceeding characteristic of our fathers and strongly helpful to sentimentalism. Into his buttonhole he stuck a scarlet geranium-flower, and in his coat-pocket he carried a bunch of lavender. The moon was coming up when he started for the farm, about half a mile away. A clear sky seemed a propitious omen, and the recollection that Aunt Susannah had smiled at him a fortnight since was further cause for encouragement.
Neither Shadrack nor Betsey thought anything of Solomon’s asking to see Aunt Susannah alone, for he often consulted her upon matters connected with the farm. Even his Sunday-like appearance did not surprise them, seeing that a fair was then going on in a neighboring town and he might have been there for the. afternoon.
So they went out of the room, leaving Solomon and Susannah together.
” Miss Susannah,” he began, ” I believe I am an old fool.”
” Lawk a daisy, Solomon ! you are not the only one.”
Well, I am the biggest one, any way.”
” I don’t know that,” replied Susannah, after a thoughtful pause ; ” I don’t know that. There’s no man around here knows a horse better than you do, and, as to a manager, you couldn’t be better.”
” Perhaps not. But do you know, Susannah I mean Miss Susannah I think a sight of you ?”
“And I’m sure you are not a fool for that,” said she, slightly blushing.
” But I think you are a seraph or a sylph, and that’s going a long way.”
“But there’s nothing foolish about it,” she replied, softly and coyly. ” Only, what is a sylph?”
” It’s a sort of cypher, I believe ; I saw it in the news-paper the other day. You go on adding up and adding up a person’s good qualities, and that is called sylphering or cyphering.”
” Oh yes, I see, but I didn’t know that my good qualities would make up a sum.”
” There’s not an angel in heaven to compare with you, and, for that matter, nor in the earth beneath, nor in the water under the earth.”
“You don’t mean that ?” and Aunt Susannah thought her heart beat faster than ever before.
” Don’t I ?” exclaimed the enraptured Solomon. “Don’t I? I tell thee I am a man, and I know what a woman is. There’s not another such. Why, you know old Matilda Cumstock ?”
Susannah nodded assent and turned up her nose slightly.
” Well, she thinks she is the skim-milk of perfection.” ” The upstart !” muttered Susannah.
” She can spin.”
” So can I.”
” She can milk a cow.”
” So can I.”
She can knit.”
” So can I.”
” She can read the Bible from beginning to end.” “So can I”
“There’s nothing she can’t do.”
” She can’t beat me,” said Susannah, firmly and defiantly.
“No, and therefore I say you are ahead of her. Lord ! you are ahead of all the Cumstocks in the world. Your Jerusalem artichokes are not to be equalled any-where. If ever woman was born to make a man happy, you are the one.”
” You are the first one that ever told me so,” said the delighted Susannah ; and she applied her pocket-handkerchief to her eyes and her bottle of smelling-salts to her nose, not being quite sure whether it would be more becoming and grateful to cry or to faint.
” Ah ! there are few men outside of heaven,” continued Solomon, “who know the fine points of female character and beauty as well as I do. I have not lived for sixty years with my eyes in my head and not learned something.”
“I know it,” replied Susannah; and tear number one hung like a dewdrop upon her left eyelashes and glittered in the candlelight. Solomon thought he had never seen anything so lovely.
There was silence. Shadrack and Betsey were in the kitchen together devising charms and telling ghost-stories. The room was chilly; Solomon laid a fresh log on the dying embers. Then he returned to his chair and accidentally pushed it a yard nearer to Susannah. Tear number one trickled down her cheek, and tear number two started from her right eye. She had resolved not to faint.
There was silence for five minutes. Solomon and Susannah were both thinking. The candle needed snuffing. Solomon snuffed it, and somehow or other, before he had again taken his seat, his chair got within a foot of that of Susannah.
” I tell thee, Miss Susannah,” he said, with a profound sigh” I tell thee it is nice in old age to have somebody to lean upon, somebody to comfort you. I am not an old man, nor are you an old woman-”
“Only forty-nine,” put in Susannah.
” Forty-nine’s nothing. You look as fresh as a wench of twenty. Still, it is nice to have one near to you to make you happy and protect your rights. As my old woman used to say to me, ‘ Solomon, you are the boy to make a wife contented ;’ and so I was, and am yet. I never swore at a woman in my life, and couldn’t; nobody else would that called himself a man. As the parson says, ‘ Swearing lips are a’ something I forget the word to the Lord.’ But don’t you think, Miss Susannah, it is pretty to see the ivy twined around the oak, the vine climbing on the wall and the sweet peas and kidney-beans growing up the poles ?”
” It’s a beautiful symbol of affection, Solomon. It’s as beautiful as a rainbow resting on a cloud.”
“That’s what I say. Miss Susannah “his chair was close to her now” you have learning; you know what’s what. Now, let my shoulder be the cloud and your little head the rainbow;” and he slipped his arm along the back of Susannah’s chair, and in another moment the red tresses were lying in blissful repose against his stalwart side.
There was silence. The log on the fire hissed and blazed. Solomon looked into the fire ; Susannah looked down the years.
” Do you know,” said Solomon at last, “that I love you love you with all my heart?”
” You don’t mean it,” replied Susannah ; “you men say such things without thinking about it.”
” Did ever any man say that to you before ?”
” No at least, not that I remember.”
“You would have remembered if one had; so you ought not to say I don’t tell the truth.” This with a slightly-injured accent.
” I didn’t mean it, Solomon,” This very penitently. “I only said it to try you. I know you love me ; I knew you loved me from the day you called me a brute and a beast.”
” I never called you that.”
” Shadrack said you did.”
” I’ll make him prove it.”
” Never mind ; it was all right. I gave you credit for being a kind-hearted man.”
” Well, I never said it; I’ll swear to that. I couldn’t do such a thing.”
” Only figuratively, as the parson says ; and I took it figuratively, and thought more of you ever since.”
” Do you think enough of me to take me for better or for worse ?”
Oh, Solomon !” this softly and happily.
” I have loved you, Susannah, for sixteen years. Will you have me ?”
” I must think about it.”
“No, no ! don’t think about it. Take me without thinking. Oh, Susannah, if you don’t marry me, I shall die!”
“You’ll do that, any way; you’re sixty now, and you’ll not live another twenty years.” She spoke sympathetically and dolefully.
“I shall not live twenty days if you say’ No.’ Be kind, Susannah, and don’t let me go before my time.” ” I don’t want you to die.”
” You are the only one that can save my life.”
” Then I suppose I must save it. It would only be a charity to keep a good man in the world.”
Solomon kissed Susannah, and Susannah kissed Solomon. There was silence, there was sweetness, there was sublimity.
” Solomon dear, you had better go home.”
” Yes, Susannah. Good-night. Shall Christmas be the wedding-day ?”
“If you are good. Now go, but please don’t tell any-body.”
” No, no ! Bye-bye !”
And as Solomon’s footsteps died away in the distance Aunt Susannah said to herself, ” He said I was a beauty, and now I am to be his wife. Dear me ! how my head aches ! I have never been through such a time in my life. He’s a good, a dear good, man. Now, I wonder what Shadrack and Betsey are at ? I had forgot all about them. But he’s a dear good man ;” and away she went to the kitchen.
This was what Shadrack and Betsey were doing: first of all, both were trying to discover what time had in store for them secondly, both were seeking for fuel to feed the fire burning in each of their hearts; and thirdly, each was striving to comfort the other. In the first of these objects Betsey had the advantage, for she knew all the omens and charms then and thereabouts believed in ; in the second Shadrack was the better equipped, for he was poetically inclined and had the ideal of the beautiful Myrtle in his mind; in the third each had equal powers, for each knew the joys of love and the griefs of unrequited affection. For one thing, they had never been left alone so long before, and therefore they had a fair chance to procure the best of their desires. Betsey gave Shadrack the remains of a huge apple-pudding, and while he was eating it she told him a story of a haunted house that made his blood run cold and his skin get ” goose-fleshed.” He ate the pudding and listened. It seemed some beautiful girl broke her heart over a faithless swain and then took to walking in the night-time. Betsey said she was sure she would do the same if any chap were false to her. How any ” chap ” could be we know not, for, though Betsey was but a half-grown girl and a kitchen-maid to boot, she had all the making of a good-looking—and, indeed, a handsome woman about her. Shadrack thought that next to Myrtle she was perfection, but he further thought that between the two girls was a difference as great as that between the rose and the dandelion. If any man deserted her, he said he would drown him ; to which Betsey replied rather pointedly that the one she had selected would never break his word. Shadrack nodded assent, and said he was glad to hear it. Then he told her over again, as he had done many a time before, that he loved a sweet girl, but he never gave the name so Betsey was sure it was she.
” I don’t know whether she loves me,” he said. ” I am sure she does,” exclaimed Betsey.
” Because she can’t help herself”
Shadrack was tickled at the delicate flattery. Then they got the leaves out of the tea-pot and put them in a saucer of water; and when Betsey saw the forms they assumed, she was more confident than ever in her own and Shadrack’s good fortune.
“The one you want,” she said, “you will have, and the one I want I shall have.”
“Are you sure of it ?” asked Shadrack.
” Certain ; everything says so.”
” Well,” said Shadrack, thoughtfully, ” Providence is always kind to orphans. You’re an orphan, Betsey ?” “Yes,” she replied, with some pride.
“So am I, and therefore we agree on that point.”
To think that they agreed even so far was joy inexpressible to poor Betsey. She only wished that Shadrack would see how much farther they could be one, but he, unconscious youth, held his peace. So they sat by the fire talking and dreaming, seeing visions in the fantastic embers and getting happier as the future seemed to dawn with glory. They were very still when Aunt Susannah came in. Shadrack was leaning over as though in deep study, and Betsey was sitting beside him smoothing his red locks and wondering why he did not speak the mystic words. His thoughts were far away far away from the simple maiden at his side-with the Myrtle Muriel whom he had seen but once and thought he should now love for ever.
” That’s what you’re doing!” said his aunt, recalling him from his reverie and frightening Betsey almost into a fit. ” Be off to bed, you bad, good-for-nothing Betty, and you too, Shadrack, and let me never see you do that again.”
” What ?” asked Shadrack.
” Never mind. Be off; that’s all.”
” I wonder if that is all ?” said Betsey to herself as she went up the garret stairs. ” I only wish it were. But never mind, old Susannah; I shall have Shadrack one of these days.”
” I shall have Myrtle,” said Shadrack as he got into bed ; ” darling Myrtle will be mine.”
” The little wretch!” said Aunt Susannah to herself as she went to her room ; ” she’s after my orphan-boy, I’ll pay her up in the morning. I’ll keep her on bread and water for a week : that’ll cure her. And I am to have Solomon dear, good soul ! and he said I was a beauty a beauty !”
The Christmas-tide had always been celebrated in true English and ancient form in the old farmhouse when Shadrack’s father was alive, and now that he was dead Aunt Susannah decided the custom should be kept up the same as ever. Moreover, Christmas morning was to witness the completion of her own and Solomon’s hopes. The day before more than the usual preparations were made. The house was adorned with evergreens the holly and the ivy, laurel, bay, box and rosemary, and a huge bunch of mistletoe in the middle of the kitchen. The mighty Yule-log was drawn in triumphantly and left ready to roll on the festive fire; geese, ducks and turkeys were plucked plum-puddings and mince-pies were made; a great haunch of venison and a still greater sirloin of beef were prepared ; a more than necessary quantity of bread was baked, but bread baked on Christmas Eve never gets mouldy ; and Betsey saw that there was plenty of spice and crab-apples to put in the ale, and other condiments to make up the wassail-bowl. All the servants on the farm, the relations and friends, and even strangers, were invited, as in the days of yore. The wedding-cake had been made for more than a fortnight and carefully locked up in the parlor cupboard, where every day, and sometimes twice in the day, Aunt Susannah went to see if it were all right neither stolen by the fairies nor eaten by the mice and to think for a few minutes of the precious Solomon. Shadrack did all he could to further the al-most endless arrangements. He made up his mind that old Solomon would die before long, so the wedding made but little difference. After all, it was better for Aunt Susannah to marry a man on in years, because, if matrimony disagreed with her, the end would not be so far off. Betsey said it was the very best thing that could happen, and she had foreseen its coming from the very day the cuckoo was first heard last spring and she found in Aunt Susannah’s shoe a hair the actual color and shade of old Solomon’s.
Christmas Eve set in cold and clear. The ground was covered with snow and glistened as the star-beams felt upon it from out the frosty sky. From the old church-tower, nearly a mile away, came the sound of the merry peals, now louder, now fainter, as the wind blew. A goodly company were assembled in the large kitchen, and on the hearth blazed brightly the great log. A cheery crowd they were, too ; not a heavy-hearted one among them. They laughed and sang, now a carol, then a ballad, then a ringing chorus ; some told strange stories of hobgoblins and ghosts, but they felt safe, for on this night no spirits walk the earth ; then they danced ; then came blind-man’s-buff and puss-in-the-corner and hide-and-seek ; and then dancing again. Gayly played the old fiddler, and far more gayly did Solomon and Susannah lead the jig. And every time a pause came in each drank of the foaming ale or of the reeking wassail. Many a kiss was given under the mistletoe ; even Betsey got one from Shadrack, and, as she said afterward, it was better than anything else that -night. Other girls were made happy in like manner, but she discovered the prognostic of her bliss in the fact that that morning she had put on her left stocking wrong side out. Nor had she changed that stocking when she dressed for the evening, so that the good luck might not go from her, and therefore she wore both a blue stocking and a white one, which somewhat extraordinary fact had been noticed and commented upon by nearly every one in the room. Betsey got the kiss, and she didn’t care for anybody.
Three hours passed away, and a little before midnight and soon after a hearty supper the company began to disperse, some to sleep off the effects of the carousal, some to get ready for the morrow, and Solomon and Susannah to dream and dress for the bridal. As the clock struck twelve Shadrack and two or three of the other young men went out to the sheds to see the cattle go down on their knees, as they do at that time, following the example of those in the stable at Bethlehem, who thus did homage to the infant Redeemer. They also went to the hives to hear the bees sing their ” Gloria in Excelsis.”
Betsey went alone into the garden. She looked up at the bright stars and listened to the pealing bells as they so joyously heralded in the day of days. Then she went to the sage-bush and carefully plucked twelve leaves, but the shadowy form of the one who should make her a bride appeared not. She made a cross in the snow and laid thereon a sprig of holly full of red berries, but he came not. ” He’s an orphan, she said, in her disappointment, ” and, I suppose, is beyond the reach even of Christmas-Eve charms.” So she turned back, and ere long sought her little attic-bed. Poor Betsey! and she loved Shad rack better, far better, she said over and over again, than Susannah loved Solomon. But before she laid down she went to the tiny latticed window and looked out into the calm night. The bells still rang on, ringing down the changes rapidly and sweetly. She saw the garden quiet and deserted, the woods with their leafless and snow-laden branches, the cottages in the distance with their now-whitened thatch, the church on the hill far away and the light gleaming from the belfry, and now and then an owl sweeping silently across the fields and a brilliant meteor rushing amid the star-streams. And as she stood peering through the diamond panes she fell into musing this half-grown girl with an uncultured mind, but a loving heart. Would Shadrack Abednego ever be hers ? Would she, poor Cinderella II., ever be a bride ? Ah I maidens poor as she had been highly blessed, even as was Mary, the virgin mother. The Christmas story came to her the stable at the inn, the manger-cradle, the kindly Joseph, the Divine Child, the adoring shepherds. She saw it all, and almost thought she saw the heavenly host wheeling in clouds of light overhead : ” ‘ Glory to God in the highest!’ That was what the parson said the angels sang this blessed night, and he said the Babe was the good God that loveth even me ;” and she thought it passing strange that He who made the shining stars should look upon a poor kitchen-maid. Could he love a girl that scrubbed the floor and did odds and ends about the house ? No wonder the angels sang! She could sing too. And the tears began to flow, but they were not sorrowful tears.
Again Betsey looked down into the garden. There was the cross in the snow close by the old cedar tree. How dark it looked on the white ground! There were the scattered sage-leaves, and there were foot-tracks. That was all. No ! Betsey’s blood began to creep; she shivered with fear. Out in the shadow of the cedar she saw a misty figure, a white cloud in human shape. The enchantment was working at last ! Who could it be ? It must, of course, be Shadrack; who else could be Betsey’s groom ? The indistinct form moved out of the dark cedar shade, and against the clear snow became more vague than ever. It stopped at the cross and picked up the holly-sprig and one of the sage-leaves. Then it moved slowly away, till at last it vanished and Betsey saw it no more. She was both frightened and satisfied. She had hoped her charm would succeed, and yet she did not altogether believe it would. Now, beyond a doubt, Shadrack would be the one. The more she pondered the matter over, the more certain it became. Had not the figure Shadrack’s tall and youth-like form ? Was not the hair Shadrack’s hair ? Nobody else could come, for he was the one she loved. So, happy and hopeful, she lay down to sleep if possible, to dream of the good fortune which awaited her in the bright by and by.
Before the sun arose that Christmas morn came the waits with their hand-bells, and a little later village children singing carols. As their ” God rest you, merry gentlemen !” filled the clear air Shadrack hastened to the kitchen that he might help give each rustic minstrel and songster the customary dole. After breakfast the usual Christmas boxes were given and accepted. Among the many which Shadrack received was a flute from old Solomon, made by himself out of the wood of an elder tree which grew far beyond the sound of cockcrowing a great help to the melody of a musical instrument, for everybody knows that the song of the chanticleer dulls and injures the elder-wood. Shadrack looked upon the flute as a token of great affection, and he trusted that Solomon would live for some years yet to hear him play it an accomplishment he resolved forthwith to acquire. Nine o’clock was the time appointed for the wedding, and Shadrack, in spite of his improved feelings toward the bridegroom, was rather sorry he could not join his boy-friends in the time-honored Christmas sport of hunting owls and squirrels. Solomon came over dressed in a new suit very fine corduroy knee-breeches, a richly-decorated silk vest, a plush velvet coat, a great beaver hat and red cardinal hose. He was straight in figure and smiling in countenance. Everybody remarked upon his youthful appearance : Mr. Solomon never looked so well before Aunt Susannah had sent off to the churchyard before she began to dress, to make sure that no grave was open a point of vast importance. Then she arrayed herself in her gay attire, and in good time the whole party set out for the church.
Brightly shone the sun ; the sacred edifice was gay with festal dress and filled with interested spectators. The ceremony went on and was concluded, as nearly all such ceremonies are, without let or hindrance. Solomon and Susannah were pronounced man and wife; they were happy and Shadrack had an uncle. He even kissed his new relative, who in his delight at getting Susannah kissed first every woman in the company, then every man, and finished with the parson. Then the books were signed and the bells began to ring, and Solomon led his bride to the family pew. Soon the morning service began, and after a short sermon everybody started for home very well satisfied that the singers had never sung better, nor the parson preached more eloquently, nor the church appeared to greater advantage, nor a bridal pair looked more interesting.
Some good-natured neighbors threw several pairs of old shoes after the newly-married couple as they passed by, and on reaching the house broken cake was sprinkled over them. Betsey managed to be the first one to steal a pin from the bride and to rub her shoulder against her, which feats were regarded by all as highly fortunate and promising. All the other pins used by Susannah were as speedily as possible thrown away. Then the happy soul sat down and tried to cry. Woe betide the bride who on her wedding-day does not shed a tear ! But she could do nothing but laugh, she was so pleased and contented. They pinched her and tickled her ; one fat woman stepped upon her corn, but in vain. They brought a piece of beef highly seasoned with mustard, but she ate it and not a mist of moisture appeared in her eye. Some one urged Solomon to swear at her, but he declined. The more they tried, the more she laughed. She could not even go into hysterics, though they set seven bottles of smelling-salts in a row on the table before her. At last Betsey brought in a pan of onions and began to peel them under her nose, and in a few minutes the tears came. All was well. Solomon kissed her and the company were satisfied. Doubtless, Susannah would get along all right in her new sphere of life.
The day drew joyously to its close. Before the sun went down old and young were merry as merry could be. They feasted and drank gayly and heartily. The house rang with the happy revelry. Nobody thought of cares and toil to come. This was a happy Christmas, and a wedding-day besides, and who had evil heart enough to be sad?
” I say, Shaddy,” whispered Betsey to her wished-for lord as they sat for a few minutes in a distant corner of the room to rest after a violent game ” I say, Shaddy, it seems to me love is a sweet thing.”
“Yes, Betsey; that boy in the gray smock over there says it’s like bread and butter with sugar on the top.
“He doesn’t know. It’s more like sugar with the bread and butter thrown in. But just to see old Solomon and your aunt Susie in the chimney-corner beats all I ever heard of. First he kisses her, then she kisses him. Look at them now ! One moment she asks him if he likes roast turkey better than boiled goose; the next he asks her if she likes her ale warm with a roasted crab bobbing in it. And he smooths her dress, and see ! that’s the fifth time this very night she’s tied up his gar-ter. I believe he unties it on purpose. They seem to forget that there’s anybody here but themselves.”
” Oh Betsey, love, you know, is always forgetful,” observed Shadrack, thoughtfully.
” Do you think so ? I don’t.”
” I couldn’t say for certain, but that’s the saying.” “Well, the saying is wrong. Do you think, Shadrack, you would ever forget the girl you loved?” “Never! never!» he replied, with unusual decision and vigor.
“Have you ever really loved ?” she asked, after a moment’s pause.
” Oh, Betsey, I am in love now. I love a beautiful girl the one, you know, I saw in my dream. I am dying with lave.”
You won’t die ; nobody dies with love. They may die with eating too much, but no man ever died with love.”
” Why not ?”
” They don’t love enough ; and if they do love enough; they always succeed before love kills them.”
“I love Oh, Betsey, I love as no one else ever loved. I do believe”
” That you are the first man who knew what love is ?” interrupted Betsey. “But I noticed you ate as much roast beef and as many mince-pies as the rest and if you were so deeply in love, you couldn’t eat like that. The larger the heart gets, the less room there is for the stomach.”
” I have to eat, you know. Uncle Solomon, there, has done little else but eat and drink all day. I believe we shall have to carry him to bed yet.”
” He’s an old fool,” said Betsey, decidedly. “But have you ever told your girl you loved her?”
” No ; I have had no chance, and I don’t believe I could. I don’t know what to say.”
” That’s another proof you’re not in love, Think of a fellow being in love and not knowing what to say ! Why,. love has a tongue of its own, and a tongue that can speak too, I tell you. All you have to do at least, all that you, Shaddy, would have to do is to go straight to your heart’s love and say to her, ` Sweetheart, may I love you?’ and she would say, ‘Love me? Ay, till death !’
I never could say that,” replied Shadrack ; ” I should drop before the words were out of my mouth.”
” Well, don’t say anything, then; actions speak louder than words sometimes. Sit down beside her and look into her face. You could do that ? All right. Then take her by the hand, then put your arm around her neck, then kiss her, and she will understand the rest.”
” But suppose she shouldn’t ?said the doubtful Shad-rack.
” But she will oh, I know she will! Every girl knows what that means. Just try it and see.”
” I will, Betsey. I’ll take the first chance, though I’ve never had one yet.”
” I suppose you keep putting it off and saying, ` Next time! next time!’ There’s no time like the present.
” That’s true. But see! Tom Hodges is looking for me. I must run.”
“Tom Hodges is always in the way,” said Betsey to herself after Shadrack had left her ; “another minute, and Shaddy would have been mine. Oh dear ! a heartful of love is a heavy burden. But the figure was Shaddy’s ; that’s as clear as cream. And hasn’t my right eye itched all day a sure sign that I should see my love ? And who could my love be but Shadrack ? If old Solomon got the aunt, why shouldn’t I get the nephew more so, seeing he’s an orphan? It’s all right; only I do wish Tom Hodges hadn’t come at all. Shadrack nearly got it out nearly told me I was the one he loved with all his heart. This is a merry Christmas for me But now for the dishes; I suppose I must go and help wash them. Oh, Shaddy, for your sake! for your sake!” and she left the room.
Over this day we drop the curtain drop it amid the flourish of trumpets and the scraping of violins; and again we move on to a bright day a year and a half farther down time’s stream, when June birds were singing and June flowers were blooming.
Beyond the fact of everybody and everything being so many months older, there was little change in the home where Solomon and Susannah now held united sway, and Shadrack awaited the time when he would become lord and master. There was peace. Solomon and Susannah were happy ; no disturbance had come near them. Their love flowed on in the same even course. Betsey had not yet heard the words that should rejoice her heart. She wondered, but still believed. In the mean time, she had developed into a comely damsel, and had received many compliments from the young men of the neighborhood, but she kept faithful to Shad-rack. Every charm she tried, whether successful or not, convinced her that he was destined for her. Why he held his peace she could not understand. She had again and again tried to help him, but he did not seem to grasp the idea. So, looking upon his silence as an infirmity of orphanage, she quietly and assuredly waited the time.
As to Shadrack, never but once had he seen the idol of his heart, Myrtle Muriel. That young lady had been away, and had only just returned to the parish. Rumors of her growing beauty had reached Shadrack and helped to strengthen his unswerving loyalty. He sought to see her, but for some time in vain, till one day he met her unexpectedly, and once and for all.
In an afternoon in June when the sun was shining brightly and the wind scarcely moved the fresh green leaves Shadrack was wandering alone in the woods. As he walked along the little path, now listening to the blackbird’s song, now admiring the white May-bloom, now peering into the thicket or the bush where busy songsters were building their nests, and now watching the tiny streamlet as it dashed down the hill, he thought and dreamed. Quite a philosopher had he become since the day when Cupid’s arrow rather than Betsey’s pin pierced his heart. Imagination had perforce to take the place of reality; and when imagination is thus obliged to work, it responds heartily and happily. So now . Shadrack walked on picturing to himself the glories of Myrtle Muriel. One moment he arrayed her in sylph-like drapery white as the peach-blossom ; the next she was as though dipped in liquid gold a sort of theatrical and bronze-tint appearance ; then she was radiant in rainbow hues, and then pure and white again. He rather liked to think of her with her hair hanging in long wavy tresses, her eyes bright and brimful of mischief and her sweet voice prattling merry nonsense. And today the old picture came up again, and the old dream went on the same as before, from the day she consented to be his bride till the early morn when the sun-glory fell upon them both, When he reached this stage in his castle-building, he began to whistle and move along more briskly. He felt already a joyous victory and fancied the laurel-wreath rested on his brow. As he continued to walk he suddenly came to a little knoll from the summit of which was to be had a fine view of both plain and woodland. He knew the spot well, but this time his heart began to leap ; for there, seated on this knoll, was none other than the dream of his life, the beautiful Myrtle. She was alone, sketching.
Shadrack stood still, at first scarcely knowing what to do. Yet so much had he thought of her, so often had he gone over imaginary interviews with her, that he felt brave enough for anything that might happen. He paused for a few seconds, and then advanced. She looked up, but evidently recognized him, or, at least, instinctively discerned him to be one from whom she had nothing to fear. She even went so far as to return his not ungraceful bow; and when he said, ” Good-afternoon, miss,” she replied, ” Good-afternoon, sir.” What a wonderful voice ! How sweetly its accents lingered in the summer air!
” This is a beautiful country, miss,” observed Shad-rack, both proud of his native parish and by this time able to appreciate such things.
” Yes,’ she replied, with almost equal enthusiasm ; ” I think that road yonder running under the avenue of elms by the old barn is lovely. I am trying to sketch it.”
” May I look at your picture ?” asked Shadrack, with respectful deference.
” Certainly,” said she, “but it is not what it might be. No artist could reproduce that green lane; it is better than anything I saw in Italy, and simply beyond copying. But I have done my best.”
” And your best,” said he, with unfeigned admiration, “is pure perfection. The sketch is prettier than the thing itself. That hedge is well done, and nothing could be better than the cow looking over the gate. I remember one evening when it was almost dark my aunt Susannah You must know her, Miss Myrtle, for I am Shadrack Abednego Pruce, her nephew.”
Myrtle nodded assent.
” Well, she was walking along that very lane when suddenly she saw what she thought was a ghost sitting on that gate. Away she ran as fast as her feet could carry her; but when I got up to the place I was be-hind, you know I saw it was nothing but a cow, just as you have it in your picture. How I laughed at her when I got home! She would say, `Any way, it had a long face,’ and I would say, ` So has the cow, auntie and she said no more. Now, when she says that a certain unmentionable individual has horns or hoofs or a tail, I always reply `So has the cow;’ and I do believe she prays every night that I may not be punished for my profanity by having to spend some time with that nameless gentleman. ` Should you,’ she observes, `you would never forget it ;’ and I don’t suppose I ever should. But you have hit it splendidly. i never saw anything so good.”
” I remember your aunt Susannah,” said Myrtle, pleased at Shadrack’s praise. ” You lost your father and mother, did you not?”
“Yes ; I am an orphan.”
” I know of course you must. be if your parents are dead and pretty lonely you must be.”
” Oh no,” replied Shadrack ; ” I am a lone orphan, as Betsey says, but I am not lonely. You see, I have plenty to do and my health is good. I am always well and can always eat, day or night, and never get tired.”
” Ah ! you are a big, strong young man.”
Shadrack felt that he had grown another ten inches at once.
” I am nearly six feet high and shall soon be eighteen years old,” said he, “and there’s not a man a surer shot than I am. I have killed a snipe on the wing a thing few sportsmen can boast of. Oh, but it was fun ! May I sit down on the grass and tell you about it ? Thank you. There isn’t much to tell, when I think of it. It was down in the low meadow there ; you can see the very spot from where you are sitting. I and Uncle Solomon were about with our guns looking for any-thing that might turn up. I had learned so much as to shoot a rabbit running, but I had never shot a snipe flying. ‘ Very few men ever have,’ said Uncle Solomon. ‘ What if I should?’ asked I. ‘ I’ll give you my best gun,’ he replied. The words were scarcely out of his mouth when up sprang a snipe. In an instant I fired, and the bird fell. He rubbed his eyes and cried, ` My best gun! my best gun ! But, Shaddy, old fellow, lend it me the rest of my days, and you shall have it when I am gone.’ How I teased him! No, I must have it there and then. I saw the tears in his eyes, so I promised to lend him the gun if he would stuff the bird for me. He did so, and it’s now in a glass case in our parlor. I have heard it said that I shall never shoot another snipe like that; the chance comes only once in a life-time.”
” How’s that?” asked Myrtle, very much interested in the boyish story.
“The bird flies so zigzag. Some say it’s like a girl : you see her here, and the next moment she’s there.” ” That’s true,” said Myrtle, smiling.
“No, it isn’t true,” replied Shadrack, positively; “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe half the things they say about girls. Solomon says there’s only one first-rate girl in the country, and that’s Aunt Susie, but I know there’s at least another.”
” That May-bloom over there is beautiful, isn’t it ?” said Myrtle, pointing to a hedge white with blossoms.
Yes ; but there, again ! the greatest beauty in the world is to be found in a girl’s eyes.”
Don’t believe it, Mr. Shadrack. Girls’ eyes are deceitful, sometimes, at least. They are pretty and changeable as April skies. The man who trusts them makes a mistake.”
“No, no !” interposed Shadrack; “the eye is the window of the heart, and there is nothing in a good girl’s heart but what is of heaven.”
” You are a young admirer of the sex. But then all girls are not good.”
” Perhaps not. I never saw one, though, that wasn’t good. My mother was good, so is Aunt Susannah, so is Betsey, so are you, and”
” But you don’t know me,” said Myrtle.
” Not know you !” said the enthusiastic youth. ” Do you think I don’t know every tree in this wood ? Well, I know you better than I know them. I have dreamed and thought of you for two full years, and, though I have seen you but once, I have lived as though I saw you all the time.”
Myrtle blushed rather with delight than with displeasure. She got up and said with a half smile,
“You read romances, fair sir; young gentlemen all do. But I must go ; so good-day. Many thanks for your company. No, thank you ; I’ll carry the book myself. There, now ! Good-bye.”
” But, Miss Myrtle,” said Shadrack, desperately ” Miss Myrtle, this is the only chance I may have of seeing you, and”
” Were you looking for a silly girl when you found me ?” she asked, laughingly.
“No; only I have been wanting to see you for so long, and this is the first time. May I not tell you all? I am only a country youth, but by and by I shall be next man to your father in the parish. I have red hair-I know it and am too big and gawky, but I have a good heart, and you know ”
“There, now ! not another word, my noble youth. You are a valiant knight to woo the first maiden you meet in the merry greenwood! Prithee walk a little farther off. So runs the language of the books, but you know them better than I. Nay, hold thy peace. Thou wilt swear by the waving poplar trees that thou dost love me. I see it in thine eye; I feel it in thy voice. Oh how the little darts fall upon my heart like the sharp hailstones in an August day ! Say not a word, my baron so bluff and bold, but walk on faster, lest the even shades fall upon us ere we reach the open road. Let me laugh, O my good Shadrack, let me laugh ! for, though thy hair be red, yet doubtless it ariseth from the scorching of the furnace. Thy namesake, you remember, went through fire ; you, I suppose, would go through fire and water for your ladylove ?”
” You have said for me, Miss Myrtle, much that I could not have said,” replied the slightly-crestfallen Shadrack. ” I never could have told you that I loved you, but ’tis true all the same. I am only a plain yeoman, or that’s all I shall be, but I speak truth when I say you tell the truth. It was bold of me to look up to a parson’s daughter to one who is the queenliest of all maidens ; but I have not sinned.”
” There’s no harm done, friend Shadrack,” she replied, more seriously ” no harm done; and if I thought the same of you, no doubt we should agree. However, you are kind to think of me as you do too kind, I fear. Only don’t speak of such things again. Now, this is my way,” pointing down the road which they had now reached, and that is yours; here we part, and there’s no harm done.”
“Let me walk with you a little way,” said Shad-. rack.
” No, not a step. You have said enough already.” ” I haven’t said anything at least, not all.”
” I know all the rest; so good-bye ;” and she tripped lightly away.
Shadrack stood watching her as she went up the road, so pretty, so light-hearted. He sighed and shook his head. ” It’s strange,” said he to himself, ” but still I, love her. I’ll have her yet. She’s young and giddy, but never mind. There! she’s gone. There’s no one else like her;” and he turned round and went home.
A few nights later was Midsummer Eve, when the country-people light bonfires and maidens watch in the church porch for their lovers. How the latter managed when, say, half a dozen sought the sombre portal for the same purpose, we are not told; but there is no doubt the believing damsel was oftentimes rewarded, for did not the young men know the custom, and did not they too watch and wait ?
It would have been unnatural for Betsey to have missed so good an opportunity of confirming her hopes and dreams. The fact that Shadrack was an orphan seemed to run counter to all her charms. Nothing worked exactly as it should, and she began to doubt whether it was he whom she saw on Christmas Eve long ago. However, her love was strong as ever, and she still clung to the belief that destiny had decreed in her favor. If he would only speak ! That was the trouble. He was in love, as any novice might see. Everything he did his absent manner, his dreamy words, his evident desire for sympathy showed that he was deeply wounded. One might almost fancy one saw the blood trickling from his broken heart, each drop sufficient to satisfy the most ardent maidenly longing. But why did he not tell his love? Why should he seek to hide it? Shadrack was an orphan: that was all.
So an hour before midnight Betsey started off for the old church. The people of the farm were feasting in the kitchen or around the huge bonfire, and therefore she got away unnoticed. Up the hill she basted, almost breathless with excitement, anxious to read fate and afraid lest fate should speak. The moon was just rising as she entered the churchyard. There was no sign of, living creature, not even an owl or a night-hawk. The graves lay, as graves generally do, silent and suggestive so suggestive that Betsey’s nerves began to give way when she looked at them. But it was near twelve o’clock, and now was the golden opportunity. Into the deep porch she went. It felt chilly and dismal. She shivered with fear, and did not help herself much when she thought that instead of a lover she might catch her death. Still, she was a brave girl, and withal a good girl ; so she repeated the Creed and said the Lord’s Prayer, and then she knew no evil could possibly be-fall her.
“Strange, though,” said she to herself, ” that nearly every time I have failed. Last year I took a clean garment and wetted it and turned it wrong side out and set it on the back of a chair to dry, but no sweetheart came to turn it right again. I lay on my back and stopped my ears with laurel-leaves, but he did not appear. I put beneath my pillow a coal which I found under a plantain-root, but that night I dreamt nothing. I have gathered a rose, walking backward to the bush, and I have kept it in clean paper till Christmas without looking at it, and then I stuck it in my bosom, but no lover came to pluck it out. I don’t know what I haven’t tried. Are all orphans like Shadrack ?” and then the great bell in the tower struck the first note of midnight.
Betsey trembled and muttered the words of incantation. The last note died away, and she saw nothing. Then she heard a footstep on the gravel-walk, and if she could she would have screamed. The footsteps came nearer the porch, but she stood motionless, unable to move hand or foot, unable even to think. Another instant, and Shadrack stood before he.
” Oh, Betsey, Betsey !” cried he. ” Quick ! come with me.” She neither moved nor spoke. ” I saw you come in. Don’t be frightened it is I myself, in my own flesh and blood. Come, come !” Her face was ashy pale ; the moonlight was beginning to fall upon her. Shad-rack took her by the arm : ” Oh, Betsey, do wake up ! A dreadful thing has happened. Myrtle is dead lying out here in the churchyard dead and stiff. I came up just now, and I saw the white form on the ground. Oh, come and see what can be done.” He half dragged her out of the porch.
“Shaddy,” Betsey gasped, ” I am bewildered.”
” But she is dead,” said Shadrack, still pulling Betsey along.
” Who ?” asked she.
“Myrtle. See ! here she lies.” He pointed to a figure lying on the green sward. ” It is Myrtle,” said he, with hushed breath. ” I have lifted her hand that Iies across her face ; she is dead. What can we do ?”
” Stay by her, Shaddy, while I run to the vicarage for help.”
Betsey was all right now; the evident anguish of Shadrack brought back her senses. She was off at once.
“Poor Myrtle !” said Shadrack. My Myrtle, now thou canst never be mine. Gone for ever !” He stood there in the moonlight looking down upon the lifeless body. This was the end of the dreaming, and the glory was not the early bridal and the meridian splendor, but midnight sorrow and a grave.
In a few minutes Betsey returned with a number of people among them, the clergyman. He stooped down and lifted his daughter’s hand, and cried, ” My Myrtle! My love !” but she was dead. They took her up and carried her to the house. ” It was her heart,” one whispered to another; ” her heart troubled her.” Shad-rack told them how he had found her. What took her to the churchyard at that time of night? It could not be that she might keep the village custom? No one could tell ; no one ever would know. Only when Shadrack and Betsey were about to leave for home the clergyman took him by the hand and said,
” She told me all about it, and she laughed, but she wasn’t angry. She didn’t know you ; but when I told her about you, she said she was sorry. That was all. Good night ;” and he went back to weep by Myrtle’s bed.
Betsey was not so smitten with grief as to forget that Shadrack had appeared to her at the midnight hour. She was sorry that a catastrophe had happened, but she was satisfied that the youth by her side was now her own. Not that she suspected for one moment Shad-rack’s feeling toward Myrtle. He had spoken of love in the abstract, and never in the concrete. It was there-fore with honest regret that she said as they were walking home,
” It’s a sad thing, Shaddy.”
” Yes, it’s dreadful,” replied he, mournfully.
” Everybody who loved her will be broken up,” she observed, gravely.
” Broken up completely, Betsey.”
” Such a beautiful girl ! Did you see how her long hair lay upon the grass ?”
The two walked on for some time without speaking. ” I am very sorry, Shaddy,” said she, at length. ” You are a kind-hearted body.”
They were home now.
Ere long Myrtle was laid in the ground, and Shadrack more than ever realized that his dream was gone. Every Sunday morning while the summer lasted he lay a garland of flowers upon her grave. Betsey helped to gather and arrange this weekly offering. But time works both changes and cures. Shadrack did not forget Myrtle, but he was young and could not grieve for ever. People wondered he was sad so long. Some said the sudden fright had unsettled his mind. Old Solomon said he would be all right when the partridge-shooting came in, and Aunt Susannah believed that when the blenheims ripened he would be the same cheery soul as of yore. Betsey had almost lost heart. She had no confidante, and she was obliged to hide her thoughts, but more than ever did she wish something would come true.
The day came at last.
” Betsey,” said Shadrack one October evening as they were looking for nuts ” Betsey, do you remember the dream I had long ago of the wedding of my wedding, you know ?”
” I remember it very well.”
” It can never be now, Betsey.”
“No? Why not ?”
” I haven’t any one to love.”
” No one to love !” exclaimed Betsey, astonished. ” No one to love ! Where am I?”
” Well, I might love you, but I never thought of you. Forgive me, Betsey, but I never thought of you.”
” I don’t wish you to think of me,” said she, in a penitent tone.
” No, Betsey, I won’t at least, not unless you wish me to.”
” I don’t wish you to, Shaddy : I am not good enough for you.” She stood in the golden autumn sunset, her blue eyes deep with shaded emotion, her cheeks brightly red. ” I am a nobody only an orphan ; not one for you to love.”
” I can’t help loving you a little,” he replied. You are so kind to me, and you do look beautiful in the sunlight almost like the maiden in my dream.”
” You must not look at me, Shadrack,” she said, ” but seek to find the dream come true in a better girl than I. So think not of me.”
“I won’t; only, the more I look at you, Betsey, the more I see you as the bride of my dream. Your eyes, your figure and your hair are hers. And now the light falls on you Nay, stand still and let me see you in the glory. Yes, Betsey, you are the very one ; only, it is in the evening and not in the morning light that I be-hold you.”
You are fancying this ;” and she stooped to pluck a blue flower. “Please don’t try to love me. If there’s nobody else in the world, don’t think of me. I am only Betsey.”
” But you are a queen,” said he, enthusiastically. No ; I am an orphan.”
” So am I. And I say you are a queen. Who can be more beautiful than you at this moment ? Who can stand beside you now ?”
” Let us go,” said Betsey. ” Aunt Susannah will won-der that we are not in before this.”
But Shadrack was being driven along in a current that grew swifter every moment.
” No, Betsey,” he said ; ” you say I must not think of you, but now I know I cannot help it. You say I must not love you, but for me not to love you is impossible.
I must love you, I will love you. Do not turn aside. I am Shadrack ; don’t you think you could love me ?”
” I might try, but who would love a youth so tall as you ?”
” Never mind; I only want you to love me.”
” I do, Shaddy. I have loved you for long.” And Shadrack kissed her.
Betsey’s triumph-day had come. The sun went down; and when she stood before Aunt Susannah in the kitchen, demure and silent, that worthy asked,
” What kept you so long in the orchard ? Dreaming, I suppose.”
” Yes, Aunt Susie, dreaming,” she replied.
That night Betsey slept in peace.
In the visions of the darkness Shadrack saw Myrtle standing beside him, and he heard her say, “Betsey is the bride ;” then, smiling, she vanished from his sight.
” I knew it,” said Aunt Susannah to her loving spouse when the news came out; ” I knew it. That minx was after Shadrack Abednego from the first.”
” She’s a likely wench,” observed Solomon.
” I have nothing against her, only that she’s going to have Shadrack,” said Susannah.
” Somebody must have had him, and why not Betsey ?”
“That’s so,” she replied, thoughtfully.
” That’s so,” he returned.
And it was so.
From the triumph-day to the wedding-day was not long; and when the bells rang out the bridal peal, the whole parish said Shadrack had the best of girls and Betsey had the best of men. Everybody, for a wonder, was pleased, if not satisfied. The envy common at such times was softened down, and no word or look reached the happy couple but of congratulation and good wishes. This was as it should be. At the same time, it may be doubted if a groom or a bride is not all the happier for knowing that he or she is looked upon with some little envy. Who wants a husband no other woman would have ? Who wants a wife no other man would seek ? There was not a maiden present who did not wish she was Betsey ; there was not a man who did not wish he was Shadrack. However, it was a good-natured feeling, and soon passed away a sort of soft April mist that disappeared in the sunshine.
One scene more, and we must leave our wedded orphans. In the dull November, when the leaves had all fallen, and bleak winds and chilly rains swept across the fields and made home more attractive than ever, a happy company were assembled in the old farmhouse. Solomon and Susannah, Shadrack and Betsey, and a few of the neighbors were sitting around the great open fire-place in the light of the blazing logs. They were laughing and joking as is the manner of free-hearted country-folk. Village gossip formed the staple of conversation. When it lagged, some one called out to Betsey for a ghost-story. Strange how people love such stories, and stranger still that civilization cannot destroy the fascination !
” No,” said Betsey ; ” I cannot tell one today. Mine are all old. Perhaps Shaddy will.”
” Now, Shad !” cried the company ; and after a minute’s thought he began.
“My story is true; mine own eyes saw that which I shall tell. You remember the parson’s daughter, Miss Myrtle Muriel, the one I found in the churchyard on Midsummer Eve? Well, early in the morning of my wedding-day, when I was running over in my mind the days gone by and the days to come, suddenly I saw be-fore me none other than the same Myrtle. She was robed in white and her hair was in long tresses. I was not frightened scarcely startled for I was thinking of her at that moment. She spoke to me and said, ` The bridal-day, good sir! I bless you and your bride.’ I could not speak ; I simply bowed. Love shall crown your life,’ she went on love shall crown your life.’ Still I looked, and I saw her fade away, and, though it was a spirit, yet was I glad. We stood before the altar Betsey and I and as the parson read the words that made us one for ever I saw beyond him on the higher step the figure of poor Myrtle. The sunbeams fell upon her and bathed her in more than earthly glory. She looked upon me with her soft, sweet eyes and seemed to breathe a benediction upon us. Oh, I saw her so plainly ! I fancied once she spoke, but what she said I could not tell. Then, when all was done, I saw a thin white mist before the altar; the sun shone brighter, and it had gone. That was all, and it is true.”
“What did it mean ?” asked Aunt Susannah.
” Yes, Shaddy dear,” put in Betsey ; “what did it mean ?”
” Nothing more than this that you can understand a blessing from the dead, a prophecy that love shall in-deed crown our life.”
” And so it shall, dear Shadrack,” cried the devoted Betsey.
Shadrack kissed his bride, and the company pledged their health in sparkling ale.
” No longer an orphan, Shaddy,” whispered Betsey. “No; a good wife is a second mother,” replied Shadrack.
The rain fell fast, the wind blew fierce, the fire blazed brighter than ever; and then, with loved ones beside them, Shadrack and Betsey sat hand in hand looking into the leaping flames and beyond them down the years the years that should be to them as a vineyard of ripened grapes, as a garden of sweet roses.