From Harper's Bazar Vol. XXIX No. 50 (December 12, 1896)
“Let me see — there was somebody else I wanted to ask you about. Oh, I know — Desire Ann Mitchell — how is she getting along?”
“She is pretty well. I heard her husband has had the rheumatism a little of late years. They're livin' in the east village just the same. They've got the house fixed real pretty; two bay-windows and a piazza, and the front yard all laid out with flower-beds.”
“They haven't got any children?”
“No; and it's lucky they haven't, for Thomas Mitchell is such a hand to worry, that if he had children to worry over he'd wear either them or himself into the grave. Some folks are heavy burdens enough for themselves, without loadin' up with more like them. It's just thirty years ago to-morrow that Desire Ann and Thomas spoke out their minds to each other. Well, they've made a happy couple; she was just right for him, and he for her — it was one lucky outcome from that dreadful unlucky Christmas.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Lucy Maria Patch, haven't you ever heard the story of that unlucky Christmas?”
“No, I never did.”
“Didn't Angeline ever tell you?”
“Well,” said the other woman, scornfully, “I'll say this much, if she is my sister — Angeline always did act as if talking was spending. Silence may be a virtue, but I think it can be carried too far. How you can have lived next door to Angeline for twenty years, and she your own cousin, and she not told you about that awful day — well!”
“She never did,” said Lucy Maria Patch. Her fair old face, softly curtained with yellow-gray hair, airily capped with frills of fine lace and dainty knots of pale pink ribbon, reflected the other woman's look of indignation, diluted to meek complaint.
“Well!” repeated the other, who was Mrs. Sylvia Mead, Caleb Mead's widow, sister to the silent Angeline, and cousin to Lucy Maria Patch, who had never been married. People had always wondered why — she had been such a pretty girl, and her disposition was so sweet and gentle. “Enough sight prettier and more ladylike than either Angeline or Sylvy ever was, and both of them got married,” people often said. If one does not wear a crown, it is something to excite wonder and indignation that it is lacking, especially when it is at the expense of the crowned.
Lucy Maria Patch, who had a comfortable little income, enough to keep her daintily clad in her old-maiden silks and cashmeres and laces, and had the old Patch house for her dwelling, lived in a sort of gentle and reserved state. If she was lonely, there might have been a certain comfort and credit in her loneliness from the knowledge that it had been her own choice.
“You could have married a dozen times, and had a house full of children, if you'd wanted to, and you know it, Lucy Maria Patch,” the neighbors often told her; and Lucy Maria would smile, with a faint blush of maiden modesty and pride on her old cheeks. Then, when she went home, she would enter her spotless and orderly precincts alone but complacent, that although it was as it was, it yet might have been otherwise.
Lucy Maria was in the habit of going once a year to spend a week with her cousin, Mrs. Sylvia Mead. It had been long deferred this year, for one reason and another, and it was December before she arrived, in the stage-coach connecting Barre, the nearest railroad town, and Laneville, with her embroidered black bag and her bandbox.
“Much as ever you got here at all this year,” Mrs. Mead had said, standing in the door, when Lucy Maria came up the gravel walk. Her face had worn a grim twist rather than a smile of welcome, but that signified little. Her harsh, loose-skinned visage lent itself so easily to expressions of grim emotion that it exaggerated them. She was really glad to see Lucy Maria. She had made great preparations — the fragrance of best green tea was strong in the house; and squash pie made with cream, which Lucy Maria had loved when she was a girl, ornamented the table like a disk of gold.
After tea Mrs. Mead, as was her wont, locked her house doors, and closed and locked her sitting-room shutters. When all was fast, and the two women sat down in their swaying rocking-chairs before the fire, they seemed as if in a sort of shell of impenetrable snugness and security. The warmth and light and a subtler comfort, as of the spirit, were all locked in with them. It was a sharp night out-of-doors; now and then a blind twitched angrily at the windward window; but the shutters were firm.
“It's a bitter night out,” said Mrs. Mead. “They've got a Christmas tree down to the vestry. I'm glad I 'ain't got to go to it.”
“So am I,” assented Lucy Maria. “What was it about that unlucky Christmas, Sylvy?”
“You're sure you haven't heard about it? There isn't any use my wasting my breath going over all that rigmarole if you have.”
“No, I haven't. What was it, Sylvy?”
Mrs. Mead laughed grimly. “Well, if I'm going to tell it, I'm going to begin at the very beginning,” said she, “and that was as early Christmas morning as anything could be. It was just thirty years ago to-morrow, at one o'clock in the morning, that that dreadful Christmas day began. It's kind of creepy, you know, Lucy Maria Patch. You ain't going to lay awake all night thinking of it, are you?”
Lucy Maria paled a little, and rolled a timid and dubious eye at her. “No, I sha'n't,” said she, in a trembling voice. “You go on, Sylvy. That was the year I went down South with brother Jonathan, on account of his health.”
“So it was. I suppose that was why you didn't hear of it at the time; and then Jonathan's dying afterward, and everything, put it out of sight and mind. Then maybe we didn't tell you because we knew what a nervous thing you always were. You're sure you won't lay awake?”
“I ain't as nervous as I used to be, near,” said Lucy Maria. “I wish you'd begin, Sylvy.”
“Well, it began at one o'clock in the morning, with a sign —” Mrs. Mead stopped short and stared at Lucy Maria. Her own face was white.
“What is the matter, Sylvy?” asked Lucy Maria, tremulously.
“I never thought about your brother Jonathan dying. I don't know but it was a sign of that as well as — Well, I'll begin. It was before Angeline was married, and the year after my husband died. I'd come home to live. Father and mother were both alive then, and poor sister Louisa. Desire Ann Lennox, that was, lived with us; she came, you know, when her father died; she taught the west-district school, and lived with us. Father wouldn't take a cent for her board. Thomas Mitchell he lived next door. You know that, Lucy Maria: he lived there when you used to come visiting when you were a girl.”
Lucy Maria nodded.
“Well, he used to come over to the house pretty often, but we none of us suspected he was waiting on Desire Ann. Caleb Wellman had been coming to see Angeline quite regular for three months, and we all thought that was as good as settled. You remember Caleb Wellman, Lucy Maria?”
Lucy Maria nodded.
“Then, beside Desire Ann, there was that pretty little Simmons girl, Doretta. She'd lived with us 'most a year, working a little, so as to say she paid her board and make her feel independent; but, land — she couldn't do much, little delicate thing. Just as pretty as a picture, but no backbone. Mother and Doretta's mother had always been 'most like sisters, and when Doretta's mother died and her father got the gold fever and went West and died, nothing would do but Doretta must come and make a long visit at our house, and she did. We were all glad enough to have her. She was one of the kind that never grow up, if they live to be ninety — poor Doretta didn't see thirty; but she would have been a child no matter how long she'd lived, and everybody would have tried to get between her and the wind and take heavy things out of her hands. Lord! mother petted Doretta enough sight more than she ever did us! You remember Doretta, Lucy Maria?”
“Yes, of course I do, Sylvy.”
“Young Abraham Ray was waiting on Doretta — not very steady, as Caleb Wellman was waiting on Angeline — but still we all thought he might mean something. Angeline used to have a fire in the parlor Sunday nights for Caleb, and Doretta had the sitting-room. Mother had to most fight to keep father out. I can see father now, looking at her, kind of stuffy, all headed for the sitting-room door, and mother shoving him back.
“Angeline had worked some beautiful slippers for Caleb for a Christmas present; and folks didn't get Christmas presents much in those days, either. Poor little Doretta had knit Abraham Ray some nice mittens. He'd said he wanted some. I know she kind of thought he'd give her something. We had poked a good deal of fun at her for giving the mitten to Abraham, and she'd color up and laugh just as pretty. Poor little thing, she wouldn't have given the mitten to anybody.
“Well, the night before Christmas Angeline she'd sat up late finishing Caleb Wellman's slippers, and Doretta with her finishing Abraham's mittens. The clock struck twelve before they came up stairs. They slept together in the south chamber.
“I heard them coming up stairs, Doretta kind of giggling in that little soft way she had, and I heard the south-chamber door open and shut. I always wake easy, but drop off to sleep again without any trouble, and I did that night. I don't suppose it was more than three minutes after I heard them that I was sound asleep, without turning over. Then, the first thing I knew I was wide-awake again, with the most awful sounds ringing in my ears. I sat right up in bed and listened. I felt as if I were carved out of wood. I couldn't have screamed if I'd wanted to. I couldn't have got out of bed to save my life. The sounds kept on —”
“What was it?” whispered Lucy Maria Patch.
Mrs. Mead shook her head. “Don't ask me.”
“What was it like?”
“Everything — banging and stamping and thumping and clattering. One minute it sounded as if somebody was throwing all the chairs on to the floor, and pounding on the walls with the poker and tongs, and the next as if all the dishes were tumbling off the pantry shelves. It was awful. All of a sudden it stopped short. I hopped out of bed and lit a candle, then got back, an' it began again worse than ever.”
“What do you suppose it was, Sylvy?”
“Don't ask me. Well, it kept on awhile longer: you never heard such a racket. It seemed to come in waves, and every wave higher than the one before it. I couldn't think; I couldn't stir; I wasn't anything but ears for that awful noise.
“Then — it stopped, and didn't come again. I sat waiting — it seemed to me it must; but it didn't. Then the first thing I knew my chamber door flew open, and in rushed Angeline and Doretta and Desire Ann in their nightgowns, as white as spooks. They just pounced on to the bed — the whole three of them — as if the Old Nick was after them and that was the only safe place, and grabbed hold of me. My arms were black and blue for a week.
“‘Oh, Sylvy — oh, Sylvy!’ says Doretta, all choking. She looked as wild as a hawk, and kept drawing her breath hard, as if she were crying, but her eyes were staring dry. Angeline kept saying over and over, in a dreadful queer voice: ‘What is it, Sylvy? What is it? What is it?’ But Desire Ann she was the worst of all. She just shook and moaned the pitifulest little moan you ever heard.
“I began to see somebody had got to come to their senses, or we'd all be in a lunatic asylum. So I made an effort and spoke up sharp — though I was so scared myself that I felt as if my last hour had come. ‘It ain't anything to make any fuss over, most likely,’ said I. ‘Let go of me.’ I began to get out of bed, but Angeline clutched me harder than ever.
“‘What are you going to do — oh, Sylvy?’ says she.
“‘Do?’ says I. ‘I'm going to see what has made all this rumpus, if I can.’
“‘Oh, Sylvy, you'll be killed!’ says she. Then they all shook and sobbed and moaned, an' held on to me harder'n ever. But I'd got my courage up, and I shook them off and got out of bed. I put on some slippers, and a shawl over my shoulders — it was bitter cold. I lit another candle, so they shouldn't be left in the dark, an' I started, they all crying to me to come back — except Desire Ann: she couldn't speak. She just kept on moaning. ‘Come back?’ says I. ‘I'm going to see where father and mother and Louisa are; I guess there are other folks to be looked out for in this house beside ourselves.’
“With that Angeline begins to choke out that they were all killed — she knew they were. Angeline never had a mite of grit; but I didn't stop to listen. I started.
“I remember now how, determined to go as I was, and my spirit all up in arms, that candle shook in my hand, and how I thought I must be sure and hold it well away from me, lest I set myself on fire.
“Poor Louisa slept in the little northeast chamber, a little away from the rest of us. I started to go there first, and I wished afterwards I had, though I don't know as it would have made much difference; but my chamber opened right on to the head of the stairs, and I thought to myself I'd go down first and see if father and mother were safe — my first duty was to them. So I called out to Angeline to go and see if Louisa was all right, and kept on.
“Father and mother always slept in the bedroom out of the sitting-room. I had to go down stairs and across the entry and sitting-room to reach them. Well, I was creeping down stairs, my knees shaking under me — and the candle was smoking and flaring, I held it so unsteady — When I heard somebody coming up the cellar stairs that ran right under the front ones where I was. I stopped and listened, and knew I was right; I heard the heavy shuffling steps on the cellar stairs, and heard them creak. The cellar door is right around the corner, you know. Well, I waited, and the steps came nearer and nearer; then a long black shadow shot across the entry ceiling, and then a flare of light. Then I just leaned over the banisters, and I called out, in as gruff a voice as I could, ‘Who's there?’”
“I don't see how you ever dared to,” gasped Lucy Maria Patch.
“My spunk was up. Somebody had to do something.”
“Who was it, Sylvy?”
“Lord! it wasn't anybody but father, and he was as scared as I was. I guess he didn't know at first who spoke, my voice was so gruff. Anyway he didn't answer for a second; I leaned farther over the banisters, and then I saw him peeking around the cellar door.
“‘Oh, it's you, father,’ says I.
“Then he came right up. He was white as a sheet; he had a candle in one hand and his stout cane in the other. ‘What was it — do you know, Sylvy?’ says he.
“‘No,’ says I.
“‘I thought it was down cellar,’ says father, speaking kind of quick and hoarse, ‘but everything is all right down there.’
“‘Well, you wait a minute, father,’ says I, ‘and I will go over the whole house with you. If there's anything in the house making such a racket as this, I think it's about time we looked into it.’
“Then father waited, and I run into the sitting-room and got the tongs — I wanted something in my hand I could hit with, if it come to it — and I peeked into mother's bedroom to see how she was getting along. There was mother down on her knees, beside the bed, praying.
“Well, father and I went into the parlor first, and everything looked just the same as ever; then we went into the kitchen and the pantry, and then up stairs. Father went ahead right up the garret stairs, and me after him. Everything was just the same as ever up garret. When we came down I looked into my chamber, and there were Angeline and Doretta and Desire Ann all huddled into bed together, rolling their eyes up over the blankets.
“‘Where's Louisa?’ says I.
“‘I didn't dare go,’ says Angeline. ‘Oh, father, what is it, what is it?’
“Well, I went as fast as I could then to Louisa's chamber, and found the poor child just coming out of a bad spell. She'd been scared almost to death. She looked like marble; her face was all twitching, and she couldn't speak. I hollered to father, and mother quit praying and came with the camphor-bottle, and we heated water, and rubbed her and worked over her all the rest of the night. She seemed better the next morning, but sometimes I think she never got over it. You know, she didn't live a year afterward. Something was wrong with her heart, the doctor said. Sometimes I think she'd been alive till this day if it hadn't been for that awful noise; but then again some held the noise was a warning of poor Louisa's death.”
“What do you suppose the noise was, Sylvy?”
“Don't ask me.”
“Didn't you ever find anything?”
“Well, the next morning we did find something strange. We never said much about it; but Desire Ann went into the parlor, and in a minute she gave a screech, and we all ran in, and there was the best looking-glass cracked from top to bottom, and right down in front of the fireplace was a little dead bird. Father and I hadn't noticed them the night before.”
“Those were dreadful signs, both of them, Sylvy!”
“I know it. Well, we never knew how the glass come to be broken, or how the bird got there. It must have fallen down the chimney, if anywhere; but it was too late for chimney-swallows.
“Well, we felt awfully about it. Mother had always been superstitious about a broken looking-glass, and we never told Louisa. There wasn't another thing in the house out of order.
“Well, to go on, it wasn't half an hour after breakfast before the next thing happened. Ephraim Jones fell down the cellar stairs and broke his leg. You remember old Ephraim Jones, that used to live on the brook road. Father had told him whenever he wanted some of our cider vinegar to bring over a jug, and he came that morning. Father was busy, and Mr. Jones knew where the vinegar was, and he told him to go right down and help himself. First thing we knew we heard him thumping down the cellar stairs, and when we ran there, he lay all doubled up and groaning at the foot.
“It was snowing hard that morning, and the poor old man's boots were all slippery with snow, and that made him stumble. Well, you can imagine what a time that was. His wife had to be sent for, and she was one of the kind that wring their hands and screech and don't do anything to help, and the doctor had to come. Poor father had to tramp a mile through the snow for the doctor. He started to harness the horse into the sleigh, but that was the next thing that happened; that steady old horse, that could almost harness himself, acted as if the witches were after him that morning. He kicked out when father was putting in his bits, and hit his leg against an iron chain that was hanging on the wall, and hurt himself so he went lame for a month. He couldn't be driven through snow-drifts after that, so father had to tramp.
“Well, the doctor came, and Ephraim Jones's leg was set, he groaning and screeching like all possessed, and his wife groaning every time he did. I shut all the doors, so poor Louisa shouldn't hear it and have another bad spell. The leg had to be set in mother's bedroom, of course, and he had to lay there quite awhile afterward, till the doctor thought he was enough over the shock to be moved. The doctor went to make some more calls, then he came back, and carried Ephraim Jones and his wife home.
“Well, they hadn't more than turned the corner before the next thing happened, or the next things, for there were three of them, one right after the other, and they were all hitched together, so to speak. Angeline was looking out of the window, watching the doctor drive away with Ephraim Jones and his wife, and all of a sudden she cried out, ‘There's Paulina an' Abel and little Mary and the baby coming!’ And then, before anybody could speak: ‘Oh, the horse has fell down! Oh, he's kicking, and they'll be hurt! Oh, Paulina! Oh, little Mary! Oh, the baby!’
“Well, everybody ran then. You know, Paulina Gregg was mother's sister's daughter; we all thought everything of her. She had come six miles from Williamstown in all that storm, with her husband and children, to spend the day.
“Abel Gregg was out of the sleigh trying to do something to quiet the horse that was kicking and struggling, and it did seem as if he would be killed. As for Paulina, she jumped out with little Mary and the baby, and stood there crying, and hollering to Abel that he'd get hurt, and to come away. Father was in the sitting-room warming his feet: he'd got very snowy going for the doctor, and he was subject to rheumatism. We hollered to him, and he ran out, just as he was, in his slippers, and he and Abel betwixt them got that horse up, though it did look as if somebody would be killed. Mother went into her bedroom and prayed again.
“We got Paulina and the children into the house, and started to make a cup of hot tea. They were all chilled through. It did seem as if Paulina was crazy, taking those children out in such weather. Then the next two things happened. You know where the pantry door is — right next to the kitchen fireplace. Well, the kettle had just boiled, and Angeline was pouring that scalding water into the teapot, when Desire Ann came full tilt out of the pantry with the sugar-bowl and ran against her. The sugar-bowl was knocked out of her hand and broke into atoms, and the teakettle out of Angeline's. The sugar-bowl was one that mother set great store by; it was pink china, with copper-gilt flowers on it, and had belonged to her mother; but that wasn't the worst of it — Angeline was pretty badly scalded in her right hand and arm. We got salve and linen rags and did her hand up, Desire Ann taking on a great deal worse than she did, because she'd done it, when all of a sudden we smelt something queer, and looked, and there was mother's britannia teapot all melted down on the stove. It had fallen over on the hot stove, and nobody had noticed that on account of Angeline's scald. I don't know but you might call it four things happened, for mother had always set by that teapot.
“Well, the next thing happened when we started to get dinner. I'd made a great chicken pie the day before, and we were going to have that warmed up, and boil some squash and onions and turnips and potatoes to go with it. I'd got the vegetables on, and mother said she thought the pie had better go in the oven — it would take a long time to heat it through, it was so thick; and I went to get it, and that chicken pie was gone.”
Lucy Maria Patch gasped.
“Yes, it was gone. I knew just where I'd left it, on the third shelf in the pantry, with a towel over it, and it wasn't there. We looked in other places, but I knew it was no use. It was gone.”
“Didn't you ever find out —”
“Yes, we did find out about that. I'll tell you by-and-by. Well, we didn't have a thing in the house for dinner but salt pork, and the storm was thicker; and if it hadn't been, the store was shut up, and no use in going to the village. I fried the salt pork as well as I knew how, and made a batter gravy, and we got along. It wasn't as though Paulina hadn't been our own folks, but it was a queer Christmas dinner.
“After dinner Doretta and Angeline got through their work as fast as they could and put on their best dresses. I knew as well as I wanted to that they kind of expected Caleb Wellman and Abraham Ray would drive over and stay to tea. I saw the slippers and mittens all done up in two nice little bundles on the parlor table. They made up a fire in there, and set a tall vase with a bunch of dried grass in it on the table in front of the cracked looking-glass.
“Well, the afternoon wore on, and we didn't none of us seem to feel in very good spirits. Father began to complain of rheumatism in his back; Paulina had the tooth-ache, and poor Louisa came down stairs, but she was so miserable she had to lie down on the sofa. Then little Mary teased for something she couldn't have every single minute, and was always trying to reach things she'd be sure to break, and being scolded.
“However, nothing really happened until three o'clock, when all of a sudden Paulina gave an awful screech, caught up the baby that had been creeping around the floor, and began poking her finger in his mouth; but it was too late — he had swallowed a button. She had seen him pick it up, put it in his mouth, and gulp it down before she could stop it. Well, then there was a great time. Abel had to harness up his own horse and go for the doctor.
“In the mean time Abraham Ray came driving over, all alone. Caleb Wellman wasn't with him. He said he'd stopped for him, and he said he'd got interested in a book, and he guessed he wouldn't come. I saw Angeline turn pale and then red, and give her head a toss, and I knew what that meant. She was prouder than Lucifer. Pretty soon I noticed one of the little bundles on the parlor table was gone. I saw Doretta slip the other, kind of sly, into Abraham's hand. He thanked her; but he acted kind of stiff and sulky, and said he guessed he wouldn't stay to tea. Pretty soon he drove off, and after he'd gone I saw the little package of mittens Doretta had given him laying on the parlor table. Doretta saw it when she came in, and she snatched it up and went off up stairs to her chamber; and when she came down, I knew she'd been crying.
“Well, neither Caleb Wellman nor Abraham Ray ever came into the house again, or paid Angeline or Doretta any more attention; but I don't know as it was so unlucky as it seemed, for Angeline got enough sight better man inside of a year; and as for Doretta, you know how well she married — that rich young man from Boston. It was a pity she couldn't have lived longer. He's never married again.
“Well, the doctor came, and he couldn't do much. The baby didn't act sick a mite, and he said he'd had a great many just such cases where no harm was done. He was just starting, when there was another excitement. Little Mary had been reaching around all the afternoon, and finally she reached up for a little china lamb on the sitting-room shelf, and somehow she contrived to pull off a clock, and broke that — it never would go again — and cut a gash in her forehead. Well, that had to be attended to. I told the doctor I thought he'd better stay to tea and spend the night at our house, for he'd have to come again; and sure enough he did; but I haven't got to that.
“Strange to tell, we had tea in peace; nothing happened. We got it early, because Abel and Paulina wanted to get home before the snow was any deeper. We tried to make them stay all night, but they wouldn't. We bundled them up in all our spare shawls, and heated soapstones, and they started; but it wasn't fifteen minutes before they came back. The horse fell down again, just outside our yard. Father had to go out again and get him up, and they made up their minds to stay. I made a fire in the spare chamber for them, and warmed the bed.
“We all went to bed early that night: it wasn't nine o'clock. I think we all had a feeling that we wanted to get such a dreadful day over as soon as we could and start fresh. We were all upstairs, and I had just blown out my candle, when I heard a dreadful thump on the front door; then another and another; then a shout. I jumped up quick, and lit my candle, and threw on a shawl, and rushed out. All the others were peeking — Desire Ann wasn't quite undressed. She had on her quilted petticoat and a pink sacque, and her black hair was flying in great curls, the way it always did when she let it down. Desire Ann was handsome as a picture that way. ‘What is it?’ says she — ‘what is it now, Sylvy?’
“I couldn't stop to talk, when I didn't know any more than she what the matter was. I just shook my head and kept on — I felt desperate. Thinks I, ‘If I'm murdered, to cap the climax, I will be.’ I got down stairs somehow, and Desire Ann she tottered after me. The thumps on the door and the shouts kept on, and I began to think I heard a word that made my blood run cold.
“‘It's Thomas — it's Thomas Mitchell,’ says Desire Ann.
“‘Thomas, is that you?’ says I.
“‘Yes,’ says he. ‘Open the door quick; the house is on fire!’
“Well, I guess I did open it quick, just as father came running out with his cane. We were glad enough Able Gregg staid that night and we had another man in the house, for the three men and us women had all we could do for a while.
“The fire had caught around the chimney, but it hadn't got much of a start. Thomas Mitchell had been over to his sister's, and was on his way home, and saw the first flicker of flame, I suppose. The snow on the roof helped us. They got the ladder, and we all worked like beavers and put the fire out. We formed a line up the garret stairs with buckets. If we hadn't had a pump in the house I don't know as we should have saved it.
“Well, after we'd put the fire out the first lucky thing that day happened; and I saw it, though I suppose I had no business to. I thought I'd just slip into the parlor and see if it was all right there, for it was the parlor chimney that had been on fire, when I heard somebody in there and stepped back. But the parlor door was ajar, and there was a great crack, and I stood looking, without really knowing I had no business to. There stood Desire Ann, in her quilted petticoat and her pink sacque, with her black curls flying, and her face all white and wistful, like a scared child's, looking up in Thomas Mitchell's, and it came across me quicker than a flash what I'd do if I were in his place. And he did it. The first thing I knew he had Desire Ann in his arms, kissing her, and telling her not to be frightened, he would always take care of her.
“I slipped away; but when we were settling down for the night, Thomas Mitchell had agreed to stay till morning, and he and Abel Gregg were to keep watch, lest the fire should break out again. Desire Ann came into my room, all rosy instead of white, and told me she supposed she should marry Thomas some time.
“I kissed Desire Ann — I thought about as much of her as if she'd been my own sister — and said I hoped nothing more would happen that day, and that this last lucky stroke had finished the unlucky ones. But it hadn't; it wasn't an hour before Paulina's baby came down with the croup, and Abel had to go for the doctor. That made four times the doctor had been to our house that day. The baby didn't have the croup very bad, but the doctor staid till morning. I guess he thought he wouldn't run the risk of having to go out in the storm again.
“The next morning the sun shone, and it was as beautiful a day as I ever beheld. Louisa was better, and Thomas Mitchell and the doctor staid to breakfast, and we had the chicken pie —”
“Where did you find the chicken pie, Sylvy?”
“Oh, Louisa had set it in the china-closet in the parlor; she was afraid the cat would get it in the pantry. We had a cat that was an awful thief. Not coming down to dinner Christmas day, she had heard none of the talk about it, and all the other things that happened had put it out of her head, so she forgot to speak of it, until she heard me wondering what we should have for breakfast.”
“Sylvy, what do you suppose made that noise?”
“Don't ask me.”
Lucy Maria Patch shuddered a little, yet with a certain enjoyment. She had that order of imagination which a hint of the supernatural titillates, but does not really intimidate. Lucy Maria might have been “nervous and creepy,” as her friends put it, but she had a morbid pleasure in her nerves and her creeps, which they did not dream of. Lucy Maria would have been disappointed had her cousin volunteered a natural solution of the mystery; every nerve in her body tingled with delicious horror when she answered her once more in that tone of dark meaning. “Well,” said she, “some things can't be explained.”
“No, they can't,” assented Mrs. Mead, grimly.
There was a little pause. Lucy Maria kept opening her lips, as if to speak, then compressing them again. “What is it?” asked Mrs. Mead, finally, with some curiosity.
“Nothing,” said Lucy Maria; but she looked at her cousin with a curious expression — there was humility in it, and also a furtive triumph. “I don't know but I might as well tell you,” said she, after a little; “it's so many years ago, it can't do any harm. Sylvy —”
“I — suppose — I had something to do with a little of the bad luck. Abraham Ray and Caleb Wellman both offered themselves to me that very same Christmas. I got the letters next day. I refused them, but that was the reason why they stopped going to see Angeline and Doretta.”
Mrs. Mead turned sharply on her cousin. “Lucy Maria Patch!”
“I don't see how I was to blame, Sylvy. I was sorry enough; I wouldn't have them, either one of them.”
“Did Angeline ever know?”
“I guess she did.”
“That's the reason why she never told you about that unlucky Christmas day, then. Well, she and Doretta got enough sight better men, both of them; and as for Caleb Wellman, he got enough sight better wife than he deserved, for he treated Angeline mean, though I don't honestly think she set enough by him to hurt her much. As for Abraham Ray, I never felt as if he was so much to blame, for I know he never got to courting-point with Doretta. He's never married — lives all alone in the old place.”
“Sylvy —” said Lucy Maria.
“I had a letter last week from Abraham Ray, and —”
“And what? — for the land sakes!”
“He's offered himself again, and I rather guess I shall marry him. I have got along well enough alone — I haven't been unhappy; folks have no need to think I have; but — I rather guess I shall marry him now. There ain't anybody to be put out about it now.”
“Lucy Maria Patch! Then you liked him, though you did give him the mitten! And it was all on account of Doretta!”
“I knew what a delicate little thing Doretta was, Sylvy —”
Mrs. Mead drew a long breath. “Well,” said she, “there can't anybody say that that unlucky Christmas didn't end in happy marriages.”