Indoors there was a cheerful company; the mildness of the evening had enticed two neighbors of Mrs. Thacher, the mistress of the house, into taking their walks abroad, and so, with their heads well protected by large gingham handkerchiefs, they had stepped along the road and up the lane to spend a social hour or two. John Thacher, their old neighbor's son, was known to be away serving on a jury in the county town, and they thought it likely that his mother would enjoy company. Their own houses stood side by side. Mrs. Jacob Dyer and Mrs. Martin Dyer were their names, and excellent women they were. Their husbands were twin-brothers, curiously alike and amazingly fond of each other, though either would have scorned to make any special outward demonstration of it. They were spending the evening together in brother Martin's house, and were talking over the purchase of a bit of woodland, and the profit of clearing it, when their wives had left them without any apology to visit Mrs. Thacher, as we have already seen.
This was the nearest house and only a quarter of a mile away, and when they opened the door they had found Mrs. Thacher spinning.
"I must own up, I am glad to see you more'n common," she said. "I don't feel scary at being left sole alone; it ain't that, but I have been getting through with a lonesome spell of another kind. John, he does as well as a man can, but here I be,—here I be,"—and the good woman could say no more, while her guests understood readily enough the sorrow that had found no words.
"I suppose you haven't got no news from Ad'line?" asked Mrs. Martin bluntly. "We was speaking of her as we come along, and saying it seemed to be a pity she should'nt feel it was best to come back this winter and help you through; only one daughter, and left alone as you be, with the bad spells you are liable to in winter time—but there, it ain't her way—her ambitions ain't what they should be, that's all I can say."
"If she'd got a gift for anything special, now," continued Mrs. Jake, "we should feel it was different and want her to have a chance, but she's just like other folks for all she felt so much above farming. I don't see as she can do better than come back to the old place, or leastways to the village, and fetch up the little gal to be some use. She might dressmake or do millinery work; she always had a pretty taste, and 't would be better than roving. I 'spose 't would hurt her pride,"—but Mrs. Thacher flushed at this, and Mrs. Martin came to the rescue.
"You'll think we're reg'lar Job's comforters," cried the good soul hastily, "but there, Mis' Thacher, you know we feel as if she was our own. There ain't nothing I wouldn't do for Ad'line, sick or well, and I declare I believe she'll pull through yet and make a piece of luck that'll set us all to work praising of her. She's like to marry again for all I can see, with her good looks. Folks always has their joys and calamities as they go through the world."
Mrs. Thacher shook her head two or three times with a dismal expression, and made no answer. She had pushed back the droning wool-wheel which she had been using, and had taken her knitting from the shelf by the clock and seated herself contentedly, while Mrs. Jake and Mrs. Martin had each produced a blue yarn stocking from a capacious pocket, and the shining steel needles were presently all clicking together. One knitter after another would sheathe the spare needle under her apron strings, while they asked each other's advice from time to time about the propriety of "narrerin'" or whether it were not best to "widden" according to the progress their respective stockings had made. Mrs. Thacher had lighted an extra candle, and replenished the fire, for the air was chillier since the sun went down. They were all sure of a coming change of weather, and counted various signs, Mrs. Thacher's lowness of spirits among the number, while all three described various minor maladies from which they had suffered during the day, and of which the unseasonable weather was guilty.
"I can't get over the feeling that we are watchin' with somebody," said Mrs. Martin after a while, moved by some strange impulse and looking over her shoulder, at which remark Mrs. Thacher glanced up anxiously. "Something has been hanging over me all day," said she simply, and at this the needles clicked faster than ever.
"We've been taking rather a low range," suggested Mrs. Jake. "We shall get to telling over ghost stories if we don't look out, and I for one shall be sca't to go home. By the way, I suppose you have heard about old Billy Dow's experience night afore last, Mis' Thacher?"
"John being away, I ain't had nobody to fetch me the news these few days past," said the hostess. "Why what's happened to Billy now?"
The two women looked at each other: "He was getting himself home as best he could,—he owned up to having made a lively evenin' of it,—and I expect he was wandering all over the road and didn't know nothin' except that he was p'inted towards home, an' he stepped off from the high bank this side o' Dunnell's, and rolled down, over and over; and when he come to there was a great white creatur' a-standin' over him, and he thought 't was a ghost. 'T was higher up on the bank than him, and it kind of moved along down 's if 't was coming right on to him, and he got on to his knees and begun to say his Ten Commandments fast's he could rattle 'em out. He got 'em mixed up, and when the boys heard his teeth a-chattering, they began to laugh and he up an' cleared. Dunnell's boys had been down the road a piece and was just coming home, an' 't was their old white hoss that had got out of the barn, it bein' such a mild night, an' was wandering off. They said to Billy that't wa'n't everybody could lay a ghost so quick as he could, and they didn't 'spose he had the means so handy."
The three friends laughed, but Mrs. Thacher's face quickly lost its smile and took back its worried look. She evidently was in no mood for joking. "Poor Billy!" said she, "he was called the smartest boy in school; I rec'lect that one of the teachers urged his folks to let him go to college; but 't wa'n't no use; they hadn't the money and couldn't get it, and 't wa'n't in him to work his way as some do. He's got a master head for figur's. Folks used to get him to post books you know,—but he's past that now. Good-natured creatur' as ever stept; but he always was afeard of the dark,—'seems 's if I could see him there a-repentin' and the old white hoss shakin' his head,"—and she laughed again, but quickly stopped herself and looked over her shoulder at the window.
"Would ye like the curtain drawed?" asked Mrs. Jake. But Mrs. Thacher shook her head silently, while the gray cat climbed up into her lap and laid down in a round ball to sleep.
"She's a proper cosset, ain't she?" inquired Mrs. Martin approvingly, while Mrs. Jake asked about the candles, which gave a clear light. "Be they the last you run?" she inquired, but was answered to the contrary, and a brisk conversation followed upon the proper proportions of tallow and bayberry wax, and the dangers of the new-fangled oils which the village shop-keepers were attempting to introduce. Sperm oil was growing more and more dear in price and worthless in quality, and the old-fashioned lamps were reported to be past their usefulness.
"I must own I set most by good candle light," said Mrs. Martin. "'T is no expense to speak of where you raise the taller, and it's cheerful and bright in winter time. In old times when the houses were draftier they was troublesome about flickering, candles was; but land! think how comfortable we live now to what we used to! Stoves is such a convenience; the fire's so much handier. Housekeepin' don't begin to be the trial it was once."
"I must say I like old-fashioned cookin' better than oven cookin'," observed Mrs. Jake. "Seems to me's if the taste of things was all drawed up chimbly. Be you going to do much for Thanksgivin', Mis' Thacher? I 'spose not;" and moved by a sudden kind impulse, she added, "Why can't you and John jine with our folks? 't wouldn't put us out, and 'twill be lonesome for ye."
"'T won't be no lonesomer than last year was, nor the year before," and Mrs. Thacher's face quivered a little as she rose and took one of the candles, and opened the trap door that covered the cellar stairs. "Now don't ye go to makin' yourself work," cried the guests. "No, don't! we ain't needin' nothin'; we was late about supper." But their hostess stepped carefully down and disappeared for a few minutes, while the cat hovered anxiously at the edge of the black pit.
"I forgot to ask ye if ye'd have some cider?" a sepulchral voice asked presently; "but I don't know now's I can get at it. I told John I shouldn't want any whilst he was away, and so he ain't got the spiggit in yet," to which Mrs. Jake and Mrs. Martin both replied that they were no hands for that drink, unless 't was a drop right from the press, or a taste o' good hard cider towards the spring of the year; and Mrs. Thacher soon returned with some slices of cake in a plate and some apples held in her apron. One of her neighbors took the candle as she reached up to put it on the floor, and when the trap door was closed again all three drew up to the table and had a little feast. The cake was of a kind peculiar to its maker, who prided herself upon never being without it; and there was some trick of her hand or a secret ingredient which was withheld when she responded with apparent cheerfulness to requests for its recipe. As for the apples, they were grown upon an old tree, one of whose limbs had been grafted with some unknown variety of fruit so long ago that the history was forgotten; only that an English gardener, many years before, had brought some cuttings from the old country, and one of them had somehow come into the possession of John Thacher's grandfather when grafted fruit was a thing to be treasured and jealously guarded. It had been told that when the elder Thacher had given away cuttings he had always stolen to the orchards in the night afterward and ruined them. However, when the family had grown more generous in later years it had seemed to be without avail, for, on their neighbors' trees or their own, the English apples had proved worthless. Whether it were some favoring quality in that spot of soil or in the sturdy old native tree itself, the rich golden apples had grown there, year after year, in perfection, but nowhere else.
"There ain't no such apples as these, to my mind," said Mrs. Martin, as she polished a large one with her apron and held it up to the light, and Mrs. Jake murmured assent, having already taken a sufficient first bite.
"There's only one little bough that bears any great," said Mrs. Thacher, "but it's come to that once before, and another branch has shot up and been likely as if it was a young tree."
The good souls sat comfortably in their splint-bottomed, straight-backed chairs, and enjoyed this mild attempt at a festival. Mrs. Thacher even grew cheerful and responsive, for her guests seemed so light-hearted and free from care that the sunshine of their presence warmed her own chilled and fearful heart. They embarked upon a wide sea of neighborhood gossip and parish opinions, and at last some one happened to speak again of Thanksgiving, which at once turned the tide of conversation, and it seemed to ebb suddenly, while the gray, dreary look once more overspread Mrs. Thacher's face.
"I don't see why you won't keep with our folks this year; you and John," once more suggested Mrs. Martin. "'T ain't wuth while to be making yourselves dismal here to home; the day'll be lonesome for you at best, and you shall have whatever we've got and welcome."
"'T won't be lonesomer this year than it was last, nor the year before that, and we've stood it somehow or 'nother," answered Mrs. Thacher for the second time, while she rose to put more wood in the stove. "Seems to me 't is growing cold; I felt a draught acrost my shoulders. These nights is dreadful chill; you feel the damp right through your bones. I never saw it darker than 't was last evenin'. I thought it seemed kind o' stived up here in the kitchen, and I opened the door and looked out, and I declare I couldn't see my hand before me."
"It always kind of scares me these black nights," said Mrs. Jake Dyer. "I expect something to clutch at me every minute, and I feel as if some sort of a creatur' was travelin' right behind me when I am out door in the dark. It makes it bad havin' a wanin' moon just now when the fogs hangs so low. It al'ays seems to me as if 't was darker when she rises late towards mornin' than when she's gone altogether. I do' know why't is."
"I rec'lect once," Mrs. Thacher resumed, "when Ad'line was a baby and John was just turned four year old, their father had gone down river in the packet, and I was expectin' on him home at supper time, but he didn't come; 't was late in the fall, and a black night as I ever see. Ad'line was taken with something like croup, and I had an end o' candle in the candlestick that I lighted, and 't wa'n't long afore it was burnt down, and I went down cellar to the box where I kep' 'em, and if you will believe it, the rats had got to it, and there wasn't a week o' one left. I was near out anyway. We didn't have this cook-stove then, and I cal'lated I could make up a good lively blaze, so I come up full o' scold as I could be, and then I found I'd burnt up all my dry wood. You see, I thought certain he'd be home and I was tendin' to the child'n, but I started to go out o' the door and found it had come on to rain hard, and I said to myself I wouldn't go out to the woodpile and get my clothes all damp, 'count o' Ad'line, and the candle end would last a spell longer, and he'd be home by that time. I hadn't a least o' suspicion but what he was dallying round up to the Corners, 'long o' the rest o' the men, bein' 't was Saturday night, and I was some put out about it, for he knew the baby was sick, and I hadn't nobody with me. I set down and waited, but he never come, and it rained hard as I ever see it, and I left his supper standin' right in the floor, and then I begun to be distressed for fear somethin' had happened to Dan'l, and I set to work and cried, and the candle end give a flare and went out, and by 'n' by the fire begun to get low and I took the child'n and went to bed to keep warm; 't was an awful cold night, considerin' 't was such a heavy rain, and there I laid awake and thought I heard things steppin' about the room, and it seemed to me as if 't was a week long before mornin' come, and as if I'd got to be an old woman. I did go through with everything that night. 'T was that time Dan'l broke his leg, you know; they was takin' a deck load of oak knees down by the packet, and one on 'em rolled down from the top of the pile and struck him just below the knee. He was poling, for there wan't a breath o' wind, and he always felt certain there was somethin' mysterious about it. He'd had a good deal worse knocks than that seemed to be, as only left a black and blue spot, and he said he never see a deck load o' timber piled securer. He had some queer notions about the doin's o' sperits, Dan'l had; his old Aunt Parser was to blame for it. She lived with his father's folks, and used to fill him and the rest o' the child'n with all sorts o' ghost stories and stuff. I used to tell him she'd a' be'n hung for a witch if she'd lived in them old Salem days. He always used to be tellin' what everything was the sign of, when we was first married, till I laughed him out of it. It made me kind of notional. There's too much now we can't make sense of without addin' to it out o' our own heads."
Mrs. Jake and Mrs. Martin were quite familiar with the story of the night when there were no candles and Mr. Thacher had broken his leg, having been present themselves early in the morning afterward, but they had listened with none the less interest. These country neighbors knew their friends' affairs as well as they did their own, but such an audience is never impatient. The repetitions of the best stories are signal events, for ordinary circumstances do not inspire them. Affairs must rise to a certain level before a narration of some great crisis is suggested, and exactly as a city audience is well contented with hearing the plays of Shakespeare over and over again, so each man and woman of experience is permitted to deploy their well-known but always interesting stories upon the rustic stage.
"I must say I can't a-bear to hear anything about ghosts after sundown," observed Mrs. Jake, who was at times somewhat troubled by what she and her friends designated as "narves." "Day-times I don't believe in 'em 'less it's something creepy more'n common, but after dark it scares me to pieces. I do' know but I shall be afeared to go home," and she laughed uneasily. "There! when I get through with this needle I believe I won't knit no more. The back o' my neck is all numb."
"Don't talk o' goin' home yet awhile," said the hostess, looking up quickly as if she hated the thought of being left alone again. "'T is just on the edge of the evenin'; the nights is so long now we think it's bedtime half an hour after we've got lit up. 'T was a good lift havin' you step over to-night. I was really a-dreadin' to set here by myself," and for some minutes nobody spoke and the needles clicked faster than ever. Suddenly there was a strange sound outside the door, and they stared at each other in terror and held their breath, but nobody stirred. This was no familiar footstep; presently they heard a strange little cry, and still they feared to look, or to know what was waiting outside. Then Mrs. Thacher took a candle in her hand, and, still hesitating, asked once, "Who is there?" and, hearing no answer, slowly opened the door.