‘Twas the Night Before Christmas
Clement Clark Moore
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St. Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes–how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”
An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving
Louisa May Alcott
Sixty years ago, up among the New Hampshire hills, lived Farmer Bassett, with a house full of sturdy sons and daughters growing up about him. They were poor in money, but rich in land and love, for the wide acres of wood, corn, and pasture land fed, warmed, and clothed the flock, while mutual patience, affection, and courage made the old farm-house a very happy home.
November had come; the crops were in, and barn, buttery, and bin were overflowing with the harvest that rewarded the summer’s hard work. The big kitchen was a jolly place just now, for in the great fireplace roared a cheerful fire; on the walls hung garlands of dried apples, onions, and corn; up aloft from the beams shone crook-necked squashes, juicy hams, and dried venison—for in those days deer still haunted the deep forests, and hunters flourished. Savory smells were in the air; on the crane hung steaming kettles, and down among the red embers copper sauce-pans simmered, all suggestive of some approaching feast.
A white-headed baby lay in the old blue cradle that had rocked seven other babies, now and then lifting his head to look out, like a round, full moon, then subsided to kick and crow contentedly, and suck the rosy apple he had no teeth to bite. Two small boys sat on the wooden settle shelling corn for popping, and picking out the biggest nuts from the goodly store their own hands had gathered in October. Four young girls stood at the long dresser, busily chopping meat, pounding spice, and slicing apples; and the tongues of Tilly, Prue, Roxy, and Rhody went as fast as their hands. Farmer Bassett, and Eph, the oldest boy, were “chorin’ ’round” outside, for Thanksgiving was at hand, and all must be in order for that time-honored day.
To and fro, from table to hearth, bustled buxom Mrs. Bassett, flushed and floury, but busy and blithe as the queen bee of this busy little hive should be.
“I do like to begin seasonable and have things to my mind. Thanksgivin’ dinners can’t be drove, and it does take a sight of victuals to fill all these hungry stomicks,” said the good woman, as she gave a vigorous stir to the great kettle of cider apple-sauce, and cast a glance of housewifely pride at the fine array of pies set forth on the buttery shelves.
“Only one more day and then it will be time to eat. I didn’t take but one bowl of hasty pudding this morning, so I shall have plenty of room when the nice things come,” confided Seth to Sol, as he cracked a large hazel-nut as easily as a squirrel.
“No need of my starvin’ beforehand. I always have room enough, and I’d like to have Thanksgiving every day,” answered Solomon, gloating like a young ogre over the little pig that lay near by, ready for roasting.
“Sakes alive, I don’t, boys! It’s a marcy it don’t come but once a year. I should be worn to a thread-paper with all this extra work atop of my winter weavin’ and spinnin’,” laughed their mother, as she plunged her plump arms into the long bread-trough and began to knead the dough as if a famine was at hand.
Tilly, the oldest girl, a red-cheeked, black-eyed lass of fourteen, was grinding briskly at the mortar, for spices were costly, and not a grain must be wasted. Prue kept time with the chopper, and the twins sliced away at the apples till their little brown arms ached, for all knew how to work, and did so now with a will.
“I think it’s real fun to have Thanksgiving at home. I’m sorry Gran’ma is sick, so we can’t go there as usual, but I like to mess ’round here, don’t you, girls?” asked Tilly, pausing to take a sniff at the spicy pestle.
“It will be kind of lonesome with only our own folks.” “I like to see all the cousins and aunts, and have games, and sing,” cried the twins, who were regular little romps, and could run, swim, coast and shout as well as their brothers.
“I don’t care a mite for all that. It will be so nice to eat dinner together, warm and comfortable at home,” said quiet Prue, who loved her own cozy nooks like a cat.
“Come, girls, fly ’round and get your chores done, so we can clear away for dinner jest as soon as I clap my bread into the oven,” called Mrs. Bassett presently, as she rounded off the last loaf of brown bread which was to feed the hungry mouths that seldom tasted any other.
“Here’s a man comin’ up the hill, lively!” “Guess it’s Gad Hopkins. Pa told him to bring a dezzen oranges, if they warn’t too high!” shouted Sol and Seth, running to the door, while the girls smacked their lips at the thought of this rare treat, and Baby threw his apple overboard, as if getting ready for a new cargo.
But all were doomed to disappointment, for it was not Gad, with the much-desired fruit. It was a stranger, who threw himself off his horse and hurried up to Mr. Bassett in the yard, with some brief message that made the farmer drop his ax and look so sober that his wife guessed at once some bad news had come; and crying, “Mother’s wuss! I know she is!” out ran the good woman, forgetful of the flour on her arms and the oven waiting for its most important batch.
The man said old Mr. Chadwick, down to Keene, stopped him as he passed, and told him to tell Mrs. Bassett her mother was failin’ fast, and she’d better come to-day. He knew no more, and having delivered his errand he rode away, saying it looked like snow and he must be jogging, or he wouldn’t get home till night.
“We must go right off, Eldad. Hitch up, and I’ll be ready in less’n no time,” said Mrs. Bassett, wasting not a minute in tears and lamentations, but pulling off her apron as she went in, with her mind in a sad jumble of bread, anxiety, turkey, sorrow, haste, and cider apple-sauce.
A few words told the story, and the children left their work to help her get ready, mingling their grief for “Gran’ma” with regrets for the lost dinner.
“I’m dreadful sorry, dears, but it can’t be helped. I couldn’t cook nor eat no way, now, and if that blessed woman gets better sudden, as she has before, we’ll have cause for thanksgivin’, and I’ll give you a dinner you won’t forget in a hurry,” said Mrs. Bassett, as she tied on her brown silk pumpkin-hood, with a sob for the good old mother who had made it for her.
Not a child complained after that, but ran about helpfully, bringing moccasins, heating the footstone, and getting ready for a long drive, because Gran’ma lived twenty miles away, and there were no railroads in those parts to whisk people to and fro like magic. By the time the old yellow sleigh was at the door, the bread was in the oven, and Mrs. Bassett was waiting, with her camlet cloak on, and the baby done up like a small bale of blankets.
“Now, Eph, you must look after the cattle like a man, and keep up the fires, for there’s a storm brewin’, and neither the children nor dumb critters must suffer,” said Mr. Bassett, as he turned up the collar of his rough coat and put on his blue mittens, while the old mare shook her bells as if she preferred a trip to Keene to hauling wood all day.
“Tilly, put extry comfortables on the beds to-night, the wind is so searchin’ up chamber. Have the baked beans and Injun-puddin’ for dinner, and whatever you do, don’t let the boys git at the mince-pies, or you’ll have them down sick. I shall come back the minute I can leave Mother. Pa will come to-morrer, anyway, so keep snug and be good. I depend on you, my darter; use your jedgment, and don’t let nothin’ happen while Mother’s away.”
“Yes’m, yes’m—good-bye, good-bye!” called the children, as Mrs. Bassett was packed into the sleigh and driven away, leaving a stream of directions behind her.
Eph, the sixteen-year-old boy, immediately put on his biggest boots, assumed a sober, responsible manner, and surveyed his little responsibilities with a paternal air, drolly like his father’s. Tilly tied on her mother’s bunch of keys, rolled up the sleeves of her homespun gown, and began to order about the younger girls. They soon forgot poor Granny, and found it great fun to keep house all alone, for Mother seldom left home, but ruled her family in the good old-fashioned way. There were no servants, for the little daughters were Mrs. Bassett’s only maids, and the stout boys helped their father, all working happily together with no wages but love; learning in the best manner the use of the heads and hands with which they were to make their own way in the world.
The few flakes that caused the farmer to predict bad weather soon increased to a regular snow-storm, with gusts of wind, for up among the hills winter came early and lingered long. But the children were busy, gay, and warm in-doors, and never minded the rising gale nor the whirling white storm outside.
Tilly got them a good dinner, and when it was over the two elder girls went to their spinning, for in the kitchen stood the big and little wheels, and baskets of wool-rolls, ready to be twisted into yarn for the winter’s knitting, and each day brought its stint of work to the daughters, who hoped to be as thrifty as their mother.
Eph kept up a glorious fire, and superintended the small boys, who popped corn and whittled boats on the hearth; while Roxy and Rhody dressed corn-cob dolls in the settle corner, and Bose, the brindled mastiff, lay on the braided mat, luxuriously warming his old legs. Thus employed, they made a pretty picture, these rosy boys and girls, in their homespun suits, with the rustic toys or tasks which most children nowadays would find very poor or tiresome.
Tilly and Prue sang, as they stepped to and fro, drawing out the smoothly twisted threads to the musical hum of the great spinning-wheels. The little girls chattered like magpies over their dolls and the new bed-spread they were planning to make, all white dimity stars on a blue calico ground, as a Christmas present to Ma. The boys roared at Eph’s jokes, and had rough and tumble games over Bose, who didn’t mind them in the least; and so the afternoon wore pleasantly away.
At sunset the boys went out to feed the cattle, bring in heaps of wood, and lock up for the night, as the lonely farm-house seldom had visitors after dark. The girls got the simple supper of brown bread and milk, baked apples, and a doughnut all ’round as a treat. Then they sat before the fire, the sisters knitting, the brothers with books or games, for Eph loved reading, and Sol and Seth never failed to play a few games of Morris with barley corns, on the little board they had made themselves at one corner of the dresser.
“Read out a piece,” said Tilly, from Mother’s chair, where she sat in state, finishing off the sixth woolen sock she had knit that month.
“It’s the old history book, but here’s a bit you may like, since it’s about our folks,” answered Eph, turning the yellow page to look at a picture of two quaintly dressed children in some ancient castle.
“Yes, read that. I always like to hear about the Lady Matildy I was named for, and Lord Bassett, Pa’s great-great-great-grandpa. He’s only a farmer now, but it’s nice to know that we were somebody two or three hundred years ago,” said Tilly, bridling and tossing her curly head as she fancied the Lady Matilda might have done.
“Don’t read the queer words, ’cause we don’t understand ’em. Tell it,” commanded Roxy, from the cradle, where she was drowsily cuddled with Rhody.
“Well, a long time ago, when Charles the First was in prison, Lord Bassett was a true friend to him,” began Eph, plunging into his story without delay. “The lord had some papers that would have hung a lot of people if the king’s enemies got hold of ’em, so when he heard one day, all of a sudden, that soldiers were at the castle-gate to carry him off, he had just time to call his girl to him, and say: ‘I may be going to my death, but I won’t betray my master. There is no time to burn the papers, and I can not take them with me; they are hidden in the old leathern chair where I sit. No one knows this but you, and you must guard them till I come or send you a safe messenger to take them away. Promise me to be brave and silent, and I can go without fear.’ You see, he wasn’t afraid to die, but he was to seem a traitor. Lady Matildy promised solemnly, and the words were hardly out of her mouth when the men came in, and her father was carried away a prisoner and sent off to the Tower.
“But she didn’t cry; she just called her brother, and sat down in that chair, with her head leaning back on those papers, like a queen, and waited while the soldiers hunted the house over for ’em: wasn’t that a smart girl?” cried Tilly, beaming with pride, for she was named for this ancestress, and knew the story by heart.
“I reckon she was scared, though, when the men came swearin’ in and asked her if she knew anything about it. The boy did his part then, for he didn’t know, and fired up and stood before his sister; and he says, says he, as bold as a lion: ‘If my lord had told us where the papers be, we would die before we would betray him. But we are children and know nothing, and it is cowardly of you to try to fright us with oaths and drawn swords!'”
As Eph quoted from the book, Seth planted himself before Tilly, with the long poker in his hand, saying, as he flourished it valiantly:
“Why didn’t the boy take his father’s sword and lay about him? I would, if any one was ha’sh to Tilly.”
“You bantam! He was only a bit of a boy, and couldn’t do anything. Sit down and hear the rest of it,” commanded Tilly, with a pat on the yellow head, and a private resolve that Seth should have the largest piece of pie at dinner next day, as reward for his chivalry.
“Well, the men went off after turning the castle out of window, but they said they should come again; so faithful Matildy was full of trouble, and hardly dared to leave the room where the chair stood. All day she sat there, and at night her sleep was so full of fear about it, that she often got up and went to see that all was safe. The servants thought the fright had hurt her wits, and let her be, but Rupert, the boy, stood by her and never was afraid of her queer ways. She was ‘a pious maid,’ the book says, and often spent the long evenings reading the Bible, with her brother by her, all alone in the great room, with no one to help her bear her secret, and no good news of her father. At last, word came that the king was dead and his friends banished out of England. Then the poor children were in a sad plight, for they had no mother, and the servants all ran away, leaving only one faithful old man to help them.”
“But the father did come?” cried Roxy, eagerly.
“You’ll see,” continued Eph, half telling, half reading.
“Matilda was sure he would, so she sat on in the big chair, guarding the papers, and no one could get her away, till one day a man came with her father’s ring and told her to give up the secret. She knew the ring, but would not tell until she had asked many questions, so as to be very sure, and while the man answered all about her father and the king, she looked at him sharply. Then she stood up and said, in a tremble, for there was something strange about the man: ‘Sir, I doubt you in spite of the ring, and I will not answer till you pull off the false beard you wear, that I may see your face and know if you are my father’s friend or foe.’ Off came the disguise, and Matilda found it was my lord himself, come to take them with him out of England. He was very proud of that faithful girl, I guess, for the old chair still stands in the castle, and the name keeps in the family, Pa says, even over here, where some of the Bassetts came along with the Pilgrims.”
“Our Tilly would have been as brave, I know, and she looks like the old picter down to Grandma’s, don’t she, Eph?” cried Prue, who admired her bold, bright sister very much.
“Well, I think you’d do the settin’ part best, Prue, you are so patient. Till would fight like a wild cat, but she can’t hold her tongue worth a cent,” answered Eph; whereat Tilly pulled his hair, and the story ended with a general frolic.
When the moon-faced clock behind the door struck nine, Tilly tucked up the children under the “extry comfortables,” and having kissed them all around, as Mother did, crept into her own nest, never minding the little drifts of snow that sifted in upon her coverlet between the shingles of the roof, nor the storm that raged without.
As if he felt the need of unusual vigilance, old Bose lay down on the mat before the door, and pussy had the warm hearth all to herself. If any late wanderer had looked in at midnight, he would have seen the fire blazing up again, and in the cheerful glow the old cat blinking her yellow eyes, as she sat bolt upright beside the spinning-wheel, like some sort of household goblin, guarding the children while they slept.
When they woke, like early birds, it still snowed, but up the little Bassetts jumped, broke the ice in their pitchers, and went down with cheeks glowing like winter apples, after a brisk scrub and scramble into their clothes. Eph was off to the barn, and Tilly soon had a great kettle of mush ready, which, with milk warm from the cows, made a wholesome breakfast for the seven hearty children.
“Now about dinner,” said the young housekeeper, as the pewter spoons stopped clattering, and the earthen bowls stood empty.
“Ma said, have what we liked, but she didn’t expect us to have a real Thanksgiving dinner, because she won’t be here to cook it, and we don’t know how,” began Prue, doubtfully.
“I can roast a turkey and make a pudding as well as anybody, I guess. The pies are all ready, and if we can’t boil vegetables and so on, we don’t deserve any dinner,” cried Tilly, burning to distinguish herself, and bound to enjoy to the utmost her brief authority.
“Yes, yes!” cried all the boys, “let’s have a dinner anyway; Ma won’t care, and the good victuals will spoil if they ain’t eaten right up.”
“Pa is coming to-night, so we won’t have dinner till late; that will be real genteel and give us plenty of time,” added Tilly, suddenly realizing the novelty of the task she had undertaken.
“Did you ever roast a turkey?” asked Roxy, with an air of deep interest.
“Should you darst to try?” said Rhody, in an awe-stricken tone.
“You will see what I can do. Ma said I was to use my jedgment about things, and I’m going to. All you children have got to do is to keep out of the way, and let Prue and me work. Eph, I wish you’d put a fire in the best room, so the little ones can play in there. We shall want the settin’-room for the table, and I won’t have ’em pickin’ ’round when we get things fixed,” commanded Tilly, bound to make her short reign a brilliant one.
“I don’t know about that. Ma didn’t tell us to,” began cautious Eph, who felt that this invasion of the sacred best parlor was a daring step.
“Don’t we always do it Sundays and Thanksgivings? Wouldn’t Ma wish the children kept safe and warm anyhow? Can I get up a nice dinner with four rascals under my feet all the time? Come, now, if you want roast turkey and onions, plum-puddin’ and mince-pie, you’ll have to do as I tell you, and be lively about it.”
Tilly spoke with such spirit, and her last suggestion was so irresistible, that Eph gave in, and, laughing good-naturedly, tramped away to heat up the best room, devoutly hoping that nothing serious would happen to punish such audacity.
The young folks delightedly trooped in to destroy the order of that prim apartment with housekeeping under the black horse-hair sofa, “horseback riders” on the arms of the best rocking-chair, and an Indian war-dance all over the well-waxed furniture. Eph, finding the society of the peaceful sheep and cows more to his mind than that of two excited sisters, lingered over his chores in the barn as long as possible, and left the girls in peace.
Now Tilly and Prue were in their glory, and as soon as the breakfast things were out of the way, they prepared for a grand cooking-time. They were handy girls, though they had never heard of a cooking-school, never touched a piano, and knew nothing of embroidery beyond the samplers which hung framed in the parlor; one ornamented with a pink mourner under a blue weeping-willow, the other with this pleasing verse, each word being done in a different color, which gave the effect of a distracted rainbow: “This sampler neat was worked by me, In my twelfth year, Prudence B.”
Both rolled up their sleeves, put on their largest aprons, and got out all the spoons, dishes, pots, and pans they could find, “so as to have everything handy,” as Prue said.
“Now, sister, we’ll have dinner at five; Pa will be here by that time if he is coming to-night, and be so surprised to find us all ready, for he won’t have had any very nice victuals if Gran’ma is so sick,” said Tilly importantly. “I shall give the children a piece at noon” (Tilly meant luncheon); “doughnuts and cheese, with apple-pie and cider will please ’em. There’s beans for Eph; he likes cold pork, so we won’t stop to warm it up, for there’s lots to do, and I don’t mind saying to you I’m dreadful dubersome about the turkey.”
“It’s all ready but the stuffing, and roasting is as easy as can be. I can baste first rate. Ma always likes to have me, I’m so patient and stiddy, she says,” answered Prue, for the responsibility of this great undertaking did not rest upon her, so she took a cheerful view of things.
“I know, but it’s the stuffin’ that troubles me,” said Tilly, rubbing her round elbows as she eyed the immense fowl laid out on a platter before her. “I don’t know how much I want, nor what sort of yarbs to put in, and he’s so awful big, I’m kind of afraid of him.”
“I ain’t! I fed him all summer, and he never gobbled at me. I feel real mean to be thinking of gobbling him, poor old chap,” laughed Prue, patting her departed pet with an air of mingled affection and appetite.
“Well, I’ll get the puddin’ off my mind fust, for it ought to bile all day. Put the big kettle on, and see that the spit is clean, while I get ready.”
Prue obediently tugged away at the crane, with its black hooks, from which hung the iron tea-kettle and three-legged pot; then she settled the long spit in the grooves made for it in the tall andirons, and put the dripping-pan underneath, for in those days meat was roasted as it should be, not baked in ovens.
Meantime Tilly attacked the plum-pudding. She felt pretty sure of coming out right, here, for she had seen her mother do it so many times, it looked very easy. So in went suet and fruit; all sorts of spice, to be sure she got the right ones, and brandy instead of wine. But she forgot both sugar and salt, and tied it in the cloth so tightly that it had no room to swell, so it would come out as heavy as lead and as hard as a cannon-ball, if the bag did not burst and spoil it all. Happily unconscious of these mistakes, Tilly popped it into the pot, and proudly watched it bobbing about before she put the cover on and left it to its fate.
“I can’t remember what flavorin’ Ma puts in,” she said, when she had got her bread well soaked for the stuffing. “Sage and onions and apple-sauce go with goose, but I can’t feel sure of anything but pepper and salt for a turkey.”
“Ma puts in some kind of mint, I know, but I forget whether it is spearmint, peppermint, or penny-royal,” answered Prue, in a tone of doubt, but trying to show her knowledge of “yarbs,” or, at least, of their names.
“Seems to me it’s sweet marjoram or summer savory. I guess we’ll put both in, and then we are sure to be right. The best is up garret; you run and get some, while I mash the bread,” commanded Tilly, diving into the mess.
Away trotted Prue, but in her haste she got catnip and wormwood, for the garret was darkish, and Prue’s little nose was so full of the smell of the onions she had been peeling, that everything smelt of them. Eager to be of use, she pounded up the herbs and scattered the mixture with a liberal hand into the bowl.
“It doesn’t smell just right, but I suppose it will when it is cooked,” said Tilly, as she filled the empty stomach, that seemed aching for food, and sewed it up with the blue yarn, which happened to be handy. She forgot to tie down his legs and wings, but she set him by till his hour came, well satisfied with her work.
“Shall we roast the little pig, too? I think he’d look nice with a necklace of sausages, as Ma fixed one last Christmas,” asked Prue, elated with their success.
“I couldn’t do it. I loved that little pig, and cried when he was killed. I should feel as if I was roasting the baby,” answered Tilly, glancing toward the buttery where piggy hung, looking so pink and pretty it certainly did seem cruel to eat him.
It took a long time to get all the vegetables ready, for, as the cellar was full, the girls thought they would have every sort. Eph helped, and by noon all was ready for cooking, and the cranberry-sauce, a good deal scorched, was cooling in the lean-to.
Luncheon was a lively meal, and doughnuts and cheese vanished in such quantities that Tilly feared no one would have an appetite for her sumptuous dinner. The boys assured her they would be starving by five o’clock, and Sol mourned bitterly over the little pig that was not to be served up.
“Now you all go and coast, while Prue and I set the table and get out the best chiny,” said Tilly, bent on having her dinner look well, no matter what its other failings might be.
Out came the rough sleds, on went the round hoods, old hats, red cloaks, and moccasins, and away trudged the four younger Bassetts, to disport themselves in the snow, and try the ice down by the old mill, where the great wheel turned and splashed so merrily in the summer-time.
Eph took his fiddle and scraped away to his heart’s content in the parlor, while the girls, after a short rest, set the table and made all ready to dish up the dinner when that exciting moment came. It was not at all the sort of table we see now, but would look very plain and countrified to us, with its green-handled knives and two-pronged steel forks; its red-and-white china, and pewter platters, scoured till they shone, with mugs and spoons to match, and a brown jug for the cider. The cloth was coarse, but white as snow, and the little maids had seen the blue-eyed flax grow, out of which their mother wove the linen they had watched and watered while it bleached in the green meadow. They had no napkins and little silver; but the best tankard and Ma’s few wedding spoons were set forth in state. Nuts and apples at the corners gave an air, and the place of honor was left in the middle for the oranges yet to come.
“Don’t it look beautiful?” said Prue, when they paused to admire the general effect.
“Pretty nice, I think. I wish Ma could see how well we can do it,” began Tilly, when a loud howling startled both girls, and sent them flying to the window. The short afternoon had passed so quickly that twilight had come before they knew it, and now, as they looked out through the gathering dusk, they saw four small black figures tearing up the road, to come bursting in, all screaming at once: “The bear, the bear! Eph, get the gun! He’s coming, he’s coming!”
Eph had dropped his fiddle, and got down his gun before the girls could calm the children enough to tell their story, which they did in a somewhat incoherent manner. “Down in the holler, coastin’, we heard a growl,” began Sol, with his eyes as big as saucers. “I see him fust lookin’ over the wall,” roared Seth, eager to get his share of honor.
“Awful big and shaggy,” quavered Roxy, clinging to Tilly, while Rhody hid in Prue’s skirts, and piped out: “His great paws kept clawing at us, and I was so scared my legs would hardly go.”
“We ran away as fast as we could go, and he come growling after us. He’s awful hungry, and he’ll eat every one of us if he gets in,” continued Sol, looking about him for a safe retreat.
“Oh, Eph, don’t let him eat us,” cried both little girls, flying up stairs to hide under their mother’s bed, as their surest shelter.
“No danger of that, you little geese. I’ll shoot him as soon as he comes. Get out of the way, boys,” and Eph raised the window to get good aim.
“There he is! Fire away, and don’t miss!” cried Seth, hastily following Sol, who had climbed to the top of the dresser as a good perch from which to view the approaching fray.
Prue retired to the hearth as if bent on dying at her post rather than desert the turkey, now “browning beautiful,” as she expressed it. But Tilly boldly stood at the open window, ready to lend a hand if the enemy proved too much for Eph.
All had seen bears, but none had ever come so near before, and even brave Eph felt that the big brown beast slowly trotting up the door-yard was an unusually formidable specimen. He was growling horribly, and stopped now and then as if to rest and shake himself.
“Get the ax, Tilly, and if I should miss, stand ready to keep him off while I load again,” said Eph, anxious to kill his first bear in style and alone; a girl’s help didn’t count.
Tilly flew for the ax, and was at her brother’s side by the time the bear was near enough to be dangerous. He stood on his hind legs, and seemed to sniff with relish the savory odors that poured out of the window.
“Fire, Eph!” cried Tilly, firmly.
“Wait till he rears again. I’ll get a better shot, then,” answered the boy, while Prue covered her ears to shut out the bang, and the small boys cheered from their dusty refuge up among the pumpkins.
But a very singular thing happened next, and all who saw it stood amazed, for suddenly Tilly threw down the ax, flung open the door, and ran straight into the arms of the bear, who stood erect to receive her, while his growlings changed to a loud “Haw, haw!” that startled the children more than the report of a gun.
“It’s Gad Hopkins, tryin’ to fool us!” cried Eph, much disgusted at the loss of his prey, for these hardy boys loved to hunt, and prided themselves on the number of wild animals and birds they could shoot in a year.
“Oh, Gad, how could you scare us so?” laughed Tilly, still held fast in one shaggy arm of the bear, while the other drew a dozen oranges from some deep pocket in the buffalo-skin coat, and fired them into the kitchen with such good aim that Eph ducked, Prue screamed, and Sol and Seth came down much quicker than they went up.
“Wal, you see I got upsot over yonder, and the old horse went home while I was floundering in a drift, so I tied on the buffalers to tote ’em easy, and come along till I see the children playin’ in the holler. I jest meant to give ’em a little scare, but they run like partridges, and I kep’ up the joke to see how Eph would like this sort of company,” and Gad haw-hawed again.
“You’d have had a warm welcome if we hadn’t found you out. I’d have put a bullet through you in a jiffy, old chap,” said Eph, coming out to shake hands with the young giant, who was only a year or two older than himself.
“Come in and set up to dinner with us. Prue and I have done it all ourselves, and Pa will be along soon, I reckon,” cried Tilly, trying to escape.
“Couldn’t, no ways. My folks will think I’m dead ef I don’t get along home, sence the horse and sleigh have gone ahead empty. I’ve done my arrant and had my joke; now I want my pay, Tilly,” and Gad took a hearty kiss from the rosy cheeks of his “little sweetheart,” as he called her. His own cheeks tingled with the smart slap she gave him as she ran away, calling out that she hated bears and would bring her ax next time.
“I ain’t afeared; your sharp eyes found me out; and ef you run into a bear’s arms you must expect a hug,” answered Gad, as he pushed back the robe and settled his fur cap more becomingly.
“I should have known you in a minute if I hadn’t been asleep when the girls squalled. You did it well, though, and I advise you not to try it again in a hurry, or you’ll get shot,” said Eph, as they parted, he rather crestfallen and Gad in high glee.
“My sakes alive—the turkey is burnt one side, and the kettles have biled over so the pies I put to warm are all ashes!” scolded Tilly, as the flurry subsided and she remembered her dinner.
“Well, I can’t help it. I couldn’t think of victuals when I expected to be eaten alive myself, could I?” pleaded poor Prue, who had tumbled into the cradle when the rain of oranges began.
Tilly laughed, and all the rest joined in, so good humor was restored, and the spirits of the younger ones were revived by sucks from the one orange which passed from hand to hand with great rapidity, while the older girls dished up the dinner. They were just struggling to get the pudding out of the cloth when Roxy called out, “Here’s Pa!”
“There’s folks with him,” added Rhody.
“Lots of ’em! I see two big sleighs chock full,” shouted Seth, peering through the dusk.
“It looks like a semintary. Guess Gramma’s dead and come up to be buried here,” said Sol in a solemn tone. This startling suggestion made Tilly, Prue, and Eph hasten to look out, full of dismay at such an ending of their festival.
“If that is a funeral, the mourners are uncommon jolly,” said Eph, drily, as merry voices and loud laughter broke the white silence without.
“I see Aunt Cinthy, and Cousin Hetty—and there’s Mose and Amos. I do declare, Pa’s bringin’ ’em all home to have some fun here,” cried Prue, as she recognized one familiar face after another.
“Oh, my patience! Ain’t I glad I got dinner, and don’t I hope it will turn out good!” exclaimed Tilly, while the twins pranced with delight, and the small boys roared:
“Hooray for Pa! Hooray for Thanksgivin’!”
The cheer was answered heartily, and in came Father, Mother, Baby, aunts and cousins, all in great spirits, and all much surprised to find such a festive welcome awaiting them.
“Ain’t Gran’ma dead at all?” asked Sol, in the midst of the kissing and hand-shaking.
“Bless your heart, no! It was all a mistake of old Mr. Chadwick’s. He’s as deaf as an adder, and when Mrs. Brooks told him Mother was mendin’ fast, and she wanted me to come down to-day, certain sure, he got the message all wrong, and give it to the fust person passin’ in such a way as to scare me ‘most to death, and send us down in a hurry. Mother was sittin’ up as chirk as you please, and dreadful sorry you didn’t all come.”
“So, to keep the house quiet for her, and give you a taste of the fun, your Pa fetched us all up to spend the evenin’, and we are goin’ to have a jolly time on’t, to jedge by the looks of things,” said Aunt Cinthy, briskly finishing the tale when Mrs. Bassett paused for want of breath.
“What in the world put it into your head we was comin’, and set you to gettin’ up such a supper?” asked Mr. Bassett, looking about him, well pleased and much surprised at the plentiful table.
Tilly modestly began to tell, but the others broke in and sang her praises in a sort of chorus, in which bears, pigs, pies, and oranges were oddly mixed. Great satisfaction was expressed by all, and Tilly and Prue were so elated by the commendation of Ma and the aunts, that they set forth their dinner, sure everything was perfect.
But when the eating began, which it did the moment wraps were off, then their pride got a fall; for the first person who tasted the stuffing (it was big Cousin Mose, and that made it harder to bear) nearly choked over the bitter morsel.
“Tilly Bassett, whatever made you put wormwood and catnip in your stuffin’?” demanded Ma, trying not to be severe, for all the rest were laughing, and Tilly looked ready to cry.
“I did it,” said Prue, nobly taking all the blame, which caused Pa to kiss her on the spot, and declare that it didn’t do a might of harm, for the turkey was all right.
“I never see onions cooked better. All the vegetables is well done, and the dinner a credit to you, my dears,” declared Aunt Cinthy, with her mouth full of the fragrant vegetable she praised.
The pudding was an utter failure, in spite of the blazing brandy in which it lay—as hard and heavy as one of the stone balls on Squire Dunkin’s great gate. It was speedily whisked out of sight, and all fell upon the pies, which were perfect. But Tilly and Prue were much depressed, and didn’t recover their spirits till the dinner was over and the evening fun well under way.
“Blind-man’s buff,” “Hunt the slipper,” “Come, Philander,” and other lively games soon set every one bubbling over with jollity, and when Eph struck up “Money Musk” on his fiddle, old and young fell into their places for a dance. All down the long kitchen they stood, Mr. and Mrs. Bassett at the top, the twins at the bottom, and then away they went, heeling and toeing, cutting pigeon-wings, and taking their steps in a way that would convulse modern children with their new-fangled romps called dancing. Mose and Tilly covered themselves with glory by the vigor with which they kept it up, till fat Aunt Cinthy fell into a chair, breathlessly declaring that a very little of such exercise was enough for a woman of her “heft.”
Apples and cider, chat and singing, finished the evening, and after a grand kissing all round, the guests drove away in the clear moonlight which came just in time to cheer their long drive.
When the jingle of the last bell had died away, Mr. Bassett said soberly, as they stood together on the hearth: “Children, we have special cause to be thankful that the sorrow we expected was changed into joy, so we’ll read a chapter ‘fore we go to bed, and give thanks where thanks is due.”
Then Tilly set out the light-stand with the big Bible on it, and a candle on each side, and all sat quietly in the fire-light, smiling as they listened with happy hearts to the sweet old words that fit all times and seasons so beautifully.
When the good-nights were over, and the children in bed, Prue put her arm around Tilly and whispered tenderly, for she felt her shake, and was sure she was crying:
“Don’t mind about the old stuffin’ and puddin’, deary—nobody cared, and Ma said we really did do surprisin’ well for such young girls.”
The laughter Tilly was trying to smother broke out then, and was so infectious, Prue could not help joining her, even before she knew the cause of the merriment.
“I was mad about the mistakes, but don’t care enough to cry. I’m laughing to think how Gad fooled Eph and I found him out. I thought Mose and Amos would have died over it when I told them, it was so funny,” explained Tilly, when she got her breath.
“I was so scared that when the first orange hit me, I thought it was a bullet, and scrabbled into the cradle as fast as I could. It was real mean to frighten the little ones so,” laughed Prue, as Tilly gave a growl.
Here a smart rap on the wall of the next room caused a sudden lull in the fun, and Mrs. Bassett’s voice was heard, saying warningly, “Girls, go to sleep immediate, or you’ll wake the baby.”
“Yes’m,” answered two meek voices, and after a few irrepressible giggles, silence reigned, broken only by an occasional snore from the boys, or the soft scurry of mice in the buttery, taking their part in this old-fashioned Thanksgiving.
The Black Cat
by Edgar Allen Poe
For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not — and very surely do I not dream. But to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburthened my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events. In their consequences, these events have terrified — have tortured — have destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to expound them. To me, they have presented little but Horror — to many they will seem less terrible than baroques. Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place — some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.
From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition. My tenderness of heart was even so conspicuous as to make me the jest of my companions. I was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by my parents with a great variety of pets. With these I spent most of my time, and never was so happy as when feeding and caressing them. This peculiarity of character grew with my growth, and, in my manhood, I derived from it one of my principal sources of pleasure. To those who have cherished an affection for a faithful and sagacious dog, I need hardly be at the trouble of explaining the nature or the intensity of the gratification thus derivable. There is something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute, which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man.
I married early, and was happy to find in my wife a disposition not uncongenial with my own. Observing my partiality for domestic pets, she lost no opportunity of procuring those of the most agreeable kind. We had birds, gold-fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat.
This latter was a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing degree. In speaking of his intelligence, my wife, who at heart was not a little tinctured with superstition, made frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise. Not that she was ever serious upon this point — and I mention the matter at all for no better reason than that it happens, just now, to be remembered.
Pluto — this was the cat’s name — was my favorite pet and playmate. I alone fed him, and he attended me wherever I went about the house. It was even with difficulty that I could prevent him from following me through the streets.
Our friendship lasted, in this manner, for several years, during which my general temperament and character — through the instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance — had (I blush to confess it) experienced a radical alteration for the worse. I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others. I suffered myself to use intemperate language to my wife. At length, I even offered her personal violence. My pets, of course, were made to feel the change in my disposition. I not only neglected, but ill-used them. For Pluto, however, I still retained sufficient regard to restrain me from maltreating him, as I made no scruple of maltreating the rabbits, the monkey, or even the dog, when by accident, or through affection, they came in my way. But my disease grew upon me — for what disease is like Alcohol ! — and at length even Pluto, who was now becoming old, and consequently somewhat peevish — even Pluto began to experience the effects of my ill temper.
One night, returning home, much intoxicated, from one of my haunts about town, I fancied that the cat avoided my presence. I seized him; when, in his fright at my violence, he inflicted a slight wound upon my hand with his teeth. The fury of a demon instantly possessed me. I knew myself no longer. My original soul seemed, at once, to take its flight from my body; and a more than fiendish malevolence, gin-nurtured, thrilled every fiber of my frame. I took from my waistcoat-pocket a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket ! I blush, I burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity.
When reason returned with the morning — when I had slept off the fumes of the night’s debauch — I experienced a sentiment half of horror, half of remorse, for the crime of which I had been guilty; but it was, at best, a feeble and equivocal feeling, and the soul remained untouched. I again plunged into excess, and soon drowned in wine all memory of the deed.
In the meantime the cat slowly recovered. The socket of the lost eye presented, it is true, a frightful appearance, but he no longer appeared to suffer any pain. He went about the house as usual, but, as might be expected, fled in extreme terror at my approach. I had so much of my old heart left, as to be at first grieved by this evident dislike on the part of a creature which had once so loved me. But this feeling soon gave place to irritation. And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart — one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself — to offer violence to its own nature — to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only — that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute. One morning, in cool blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree; — hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart; — hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence; — hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin — a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it — if such a thing were possible — even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.
On the night of the day on which this cruel deed was done, I was aroused from sleep by the cry of fire. The curtains of my bed were in flames. The whole house was blazing. It was with great difficulty that my wife, a servant, and myself, made our escape from the conflagration. The destruction was complete. My entire worldly wealth was swallowed up, and I resigned myself thenceforward to despair.
I am above the weakness of seeking to establish a sequence of cause and effect, between the disaster and the atrocity. But I am detailing a chain of facts — and wish not to leave even a possible link imperfect. On the day succeeding the fire, I visited the ruins. The walls, with one exception, had fallen in. This exception was found in a compartment wall, not very thick, which stood about the middle of the house, and against which had rested the head of my bed. The plastering had here, in great measure, resisted the action of the fire — a fact which I attributed to its having been recently spread. About this wall a dense crowd were collected, and many persons seemed to be examining a particular portion of it with very minute and eager attention. The words “strange!” “singular!” and other similar expressions, excited my curiosity. I approached and saw, as if graven in bas relief upon the white surface, the figure of a gigantic cat. The impression was given with an accuracy truly marvelous. There was a rope about the animal’s neck.
When I first beheld this apparition — for I could scarcely regard it as less — my wonder and my terror were extreme. But at length reflection came to my aid. The cat, I remembered, had been hung in a garden adjacent to the house. Upon the alarm of fire, this garden had been immediately filled by the crowd — by some one of whom the animal must have been cut from the tree and thrown, through an open window, into my chamber. This had probably been done with the view of arousing me from sleep. The falling of other walls had compressed the victim of my cruelty into the substance of the freshly-spread plaster; the lime of which, with the flames, and the ammonia from the carcass, had then accomplished the portraiture as I saw it.
Although I thus readily accounted to my reason, if not altogether to my conscience, for the startling fact just detailed, it did not the less fail to make a deep impression upon my fancy. For months I could not rid myself of the phantasm of the cat; and, during this period, there came back into my spirit a half-sentiment that seemed, but was not, remorse. I went so far as to regret the loss of the animal, and to look about me, among the vile haunts which I now habitually frequented, for another pet of the same species, and of somewhat similar appearance, with which to supply its place.
One night as I sat, half stupefied, in a den of more than infamy, my attention was suddenly drawn to some black object, reposing upon the head of one of the immense hogsheads of Gin, or of Rum, which constituted the chief furniture of the apartment. I had been looking steadily at the top of this hogshead for some minutes, and what now caused me surprise was the fact that I had not sooner perceived the object thereupon. I approached it, and touched it with my hand. It was a black cat — a very large one — fully as large as Pluto, and closely resembling him in every respect but one. Pluto had not a white hair upon any portion of his body; but this cat had a large, although indefinite splotch of white, covering nearly the whole region of the breast.
Upon my touching him, he immediately arose, purred loudly, rubbed against my hand, and appeared delighted with my notice. This, then, was the very creature of which I was in search. I at once offered to purchase it of the landlord; but this person made no claim to it — knew nothing of it — had never seen it before.
I continued my caresses, and, when I prepared to go home, the animal evinced a disposition to accompany me. I permitted it to do so; occasionally stooping and patting it as I proceeded. When it reached the house it domesticated itself at once, and became immediately a great favorite with my wife.
For my own part, I soon found a dislike to it arising within me. This was just the reverse of what I had anticipated; but — I know not how or why it was — its evident fondness for myself rather disgusted and annoyed. By slow degrees, these feelings of disgust and annoyance rose into the bitterness of hatred. I avoided the creature; a certain sense of shame, and the remembrance of my former deed of cruelty, preventing me from physically abusing it. I did not, for some weeks, strike, or otherwise violently ill use it; but gradually — very gradually — I came to look upon it with unutterable loathing, and to flee silently from its odious presence, as from the breath of a pestilence.
What added, no doubt, to my hatred of the beast, was the discovery, on the morning after I brought it home, that, like Pluto, it also had been deprived of one of its eyes. This circumstance, however, only endeared it to my wife, who, as I have already said, possessed, in a high degree, that humanity of feeling which had once been my distinguishing trait, and the source of many of my simplest and purest pleasures.
With my aversion to this cat, however, its partiality for myself seemed to increase. It followed my footsteps with a pertinacity which it would be difficult to make the reader comprehend. Whenever I sat, it would crouch beneath my chair, or spring upon my knees, covering me with its loathsome caresses. If I arose to walk it would get between my feet and thus nearly throw me down, or, fastening its long and sharp claws in my dress, clamber, in this manner, to my breast. At such times, although I longed to destroy it with a blow, I was yet withheld from so doing, partly by a memory of my former crime, but chiefly — let me confess it at once — by absolute dread of the beast.
This dread was not exactly a dread of physical evil — and yet I should be at a loss how otherwise to define it. I am almost ashamed to own — yes, even in this felon’s cell, I am almost ashamed to own — that the terror and horror with which the animal inspired me, had been heightened by one of the merest chimeras it would be possible to conceive. My wife had called my attention, more than once, to the character of the mark of white hair, of which I have spoken, and which constituted the sole visible difference between the strange beast and the one I had destroyed. The reader will remember that this mark, although large, had been originally very indefinite; but, by slow degrees — degrees nearly imperceptible, and which for a long time my Reason struggled to reject as fanciful — it had, at length, assumed a rigorous distinctness of outline. It was now the representation of an object that I shudder to name — and for this, above all, I loathed, and dreaded, and would have rid myself of the monster had I dared — it was now, I say, the image of a hideous — of a ghastly thing — of the GALLOWS ! — oh, mournful and terrible engine of Horror and of Crime — of Agony and of Death !
And now was I indeed wretched beyond the wretchedness of mere Humanity. And a brute beast — whose fellow I had contemptuously destroyed — a brute beast to work out for me — for me a man, fashioned in the image of the High God — so much of insufferable wo! Alas! neither by day nor by night knew I the blessing of Rest any more! During the former the creature left me no moment alone; and, in the latter, I started, hourly, from dreams of unutterable fear, to find the hot breath of the thing upon my face, and its vast weight — an incarnate Night-Mare that I had no power to shake off — incumbent eternally upon my heart !
Beneath the pressure of torments such as these, the feeble remnant of the good within me succumbed. Evil thoughts became my sole intimates — the darkest and most evil of thoughts. The moodiness of my usual temper increased to hatred of all things and of all mankind; while, from the sudden, frequent, and ungovernable outbursts of a fury to which I now blindly abandoned myself, my uncomplaining wife, alas! was the most usual and the most patient of sufferers.
One day she accompanied me, upon some household errand, into the cellar of the old building which our poverty compelled us to inhabit. The cat followed me down the steep stairs, and, nearly throwing me headlong, exasperated me to madness. Uplifting an axe, and forgetting, in my wrath, the childish dread which had hitherto stayed my hand, I aimed a blow at the animal which, of course, would have proved instantly fatal had it descended as I wished. But this blow was arrested by the hand of my wife. Goaded, by the interference, into a rage more than demoniacal, I withdrew my arm from her grasp and buried the axe in her brain. She fell dead upon the spot, without a groan.
This hideous murder accomplished, I set myself forthwith, and with entire deliberation, to the task of concealing the body. I knew that I could not remove it from the house, either by day or by night, without the risk of being observed by the neighbors. Many projects entered my mind. At one period I thought of cutting the corpse into minute fragments, and destroying them by fire. At another, I resolved to dig a grave for it in the floor of the cellar. Again, I deliberated about casting it in the well in the yard — about packing it in a box, as if merchandize, with the usual arrangements, and so getting a porter to take it from the house. Finally I hit upon what I considered a far better expedient than either of these. I determined to wall it up in the cellar — as the monks of the middle ages are recorded to have walled up their victims.
For a purpose such as this the cellar was well adapted. Its walls were loosely constructed, and had lately been plastered throughout with a rough plaster, which the dampness of the atmosphere had prevented from hardening. Moreover, in one of the walls was a projection, caused by a false chimney, or fireplace, that had been filled up, and made to resemble the rest of the cellar. I made no doubt that I could readily displace the bricks at this point, insert the corpse, and wall the whole up as before, so that no eye could detect any thing suspicious.
And in this calculation I was not deceived. By means of a crow-bar I easily dislodged the bricks, and, having carefully deposited the body against the inner wall, I propped it in that position, while, with little trouble, I re-laid the whole structure as it originally stood. Having procured mortar, sand, and hair, with every possible precaution, I prepared a plaster which could not be distinguished from the old, and with this I very carefully went over the new brick-work. When I had finished, I felt satisfied that all was right. The wall did not present the slightest appearance of having been disturbed. The rubbish on the floor was picked up with the minutest care. I looked around triumphantly, and said to myself — “Here at least, then, my labor has not been in vain.”
My next step was to look for the beast which had been the cause of so much wretchedness; for I had, at length, firmly resolved to put it to death. Had I been able to meet with it, at the moment, there could have been no doubt of its fate; but it appeared that the crafty animal had been alarmed at the violence of my previous anger, and forbore to present itself in my present mood. It is impossible to describe, or to imagine, the deep, the blissful sense of relief which the absence of the detested creature occasioned in my bosom. It did not make its appearance during the night — and thus for one night at least, since its introduction into the house, I soundly and tranquilly slept; aye, slept even with the burden of murder upon my soul!
The second and the third day passed, and still my tormentor came not. Once again I breathed as a freeman. The monster, in terror, had fled the premises forever! I should behold it no more! My happiness was supreme! The guilt of my dark deed disturbed me but little. Some few inquiries had been made, but these had been readily answered. Even a search had been instituted — but of course nothing was to be discovered. I looked upon my future felicity as secured.
Upon the fourth day of the assassination, a party of the police came, very unexpectedly, into the house, and proceeded again to make rigorous investigation of the premises. Secure, however, in the inscrutability of my place of concealment, I felt no embarrassment whatever. The officers bade me accompany them in their search. They left no nook or corner unexplored. At length, for the third or fourth time, they descended into the cellar. I quivered not in a muscle. My heart beat calmly as that of one who slumbers in innocence. I walked the cellar from end to end. I folded my arms upon my bosom, and roamed easily to and fro. The police were thoroughly satisfied and prepared to depart. The glee at my heart was too strong to be restrained. I burned to say if but one word, by way of triumph, and to render doubly sure their assurance of my guiltlessness.
“Gentlemen,” I said at last, as the party ascended the steps, “I delight to have allayed your suspicions. I wish you all health, and a little more courtesy. By the bye, gentlemen, this — this is a very well constructed house.” (In the rabid desire to say something easily, I scarcely knew what I uttered at all.) — “I may say an excellently well constructed house. These walls — are you going, gentlemen? — these walls are solidly put together;” and here, through the mere frenzy of bravado, I rapped heavily, with a cane which I held in my hand, upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom.
But may God shield and deliver me from the fangs of the Arch-Fiend ! No sooner had the reverberation of my blows sunk into silence, than I was answered by a voice from within the tomb! — by a cry, at first muffled and broken, like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud, and continuous scream, utterly anomalous and inhuman — a howl — a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph, such as might have arisen only out of hell, conjointly from the throats of the dammed in their agony and of the demons that exult in the damnation.
Of my own thoughts it is folly to speak. Swooning, I staggered to the opposite wall. For one instant the party upon the stairs remained motionless, through extremity of terror and of awe. In the next, a dozen stout arms were toiling at the wall. It fell bodily. The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators. Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled the monster up within the tomb!
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