ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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Fiction - Short Stories - My Aunt’s Christmas

 

My Aunt’s Christmas

Illustrated Times (21 December, 1861).

 

 

MY AUNT’S CHRISTMAS.

BY WILLIAMS BUCHANAN.

 

     “THANK goodness, I was never nervous!” (said my Aunt Martha, a tall, vigorous maiden lady of forty, country bred, and physically very courageous. It was Christmas Eve, and we—the sisters and brothers, and nephews and nieces of the speaker—were assembled in her cosy little parlour at Hampstead. Our design was to see in Christmas, and our method of beguiling the time was storytelling.)
     Thank goodness, I was never nervous. I was a country girl, you see; I ate and drank heartily, I took plenty of exercise, I breathed pure air, and perhaps I believed that the privilege of being frightened at a mouse or a spider appertained solely to your fine ladies of quality. Nervous, no! — though I was sadly tried, mind you.
     Father’s farm was down in the country—down at a lonely, outlandish-sort-of-place, called Caverford. Caverford, I think, was the name of the parish; and it was also the name of the village, which was some two miles from the farm. The village was a very small one, inhabited chiefly by agricultural people in the employ of the farmers.
     Father, you know, was well-to-do; and if he hadn’t speculated so much he might have been wealthy. As matters stood he was considered a little better off than he really was, and his neighbours, the farmers, held him and his in high estimation. They courted his company, too, for he was hail-fellow-well-met with them all; and a merrier, more goodnatured man never proved a friend indeed to a friend in need. He would never put his name on paper to oblige an acquaintance, but he had always a guinea to spare for a poor friend, and never turned a deaf ear to an appeal for help. What else? Not much, perhaps, for father was rough, homespun, and poorly educated; but he knew how to work for hearth and home, and he was hospitable, and he kept up Christmas Day with the best of them.
     When I was nineteen years of age, and when my sisters and brothers were quite children, poor mother died, and I had to take her place at father’s board. I had to see that father was comfortable, and to take charge of the little ones. Being strong and healthy, I found these duties quite bearable, and even pleasant; and, naturally enough, I hesitated before thinking of love or marriage. Now, I had no scarcity of admirers. Some admired me personally; for I was a good-looking girl, then, and wore real natural roses on my cheeks. Some admired the dowry which they expected would go with me. Others—widowers, these—admired my strong limbs and vigorous healthy body, thinking me fit to look after their young children. But I heeded none of them. I laughed, joked, romped with them, but cared for none of them seriously. Say, I forget. There was one young fellow for whom I had rather a liking, and who loved me warmly.
     His name was Darrell, Tom Darrell, and he lived with his uncle at the latter’s farm, three miles distant.
     Nobody could have disliked Tom.. He was tall and well built; had fine, flashing brown eyes, and wore great black whiskers, which made a man of him. Tom Dare-the-Devil, some people called him; for he was great in all sports where he ran any risk of breaking his head or his neck. Perhaps I liked him because he was overstocked with courage, and perhaps for the same reason I was rather afraid to encourage him; for men like Tom, however goodnatured they may be, don’t always make the best or most considerate of husbands; and he was the very pink of goodnature—all dash and rattle and laughter; and he could say sly things to one with his twinkling eye when the tongue kept still for discretion’s sake. Well, all the girls around ran after Tom, and Tom ran after me.
     At first I didn’t encourage him at all; and I romped, laughed, and made free with him, just to show that he was no more to me than the rest of the men, and that I cared little about him. At last, however, when I was twenty, and when Tom was twenty five, I changed my mind, and thought I would give him a little encouragement. Why?
     Perhaps because I in due time began to conceive an affection for him; perhaps because father looked with favour upon him; perhaps because——well, chiefly because I wanted to show his cousin, Seth Purvis, that I would have nothing to do with him, and that I had finally made up my mind whom to marry.
     The two cousins lived with their uncle, Seth’s father. They seemed fond of one another, though their dispositions resembled each other as little as did their faces. I have told you what Tom was like, and, if you understood on what grounds I liked him, you will understand on what grounds I disliked the other. Seth was two years younger than Tom; he had straight, fair, hair and a white complexion, and he was stoutly made and short. His eyes were very faint blue, and they glanced up and down, this way and that, never meeting yours, and in a placidly suspicious manner. At times, too, they caught a green tinge, and looked cruel. What I disliked in Seth’s appearance applied also to his character. In his heart, as well as in his face, there was a lack of warmth and colour. The fresh, blushing vigour of young blood was wanting. He was staid, not lively, and too calm by half to be good at heart. I don’t believe in your placid, cold, smooth people, who never get into a passion, but keep their malice like a pent-up fire within their bosoms until such a time as it may start up in a blaze to do some one or other an ill turn. No; Seth Purvis was not the lad for my money. I was just civil to him, and that was all. He had taken a fancy to me, and would hang about the farm of an evening, time after time. He used to come regularly with Tom Darrell; and it was when Tom was laughing and romping, while Seth sat watching us in his pale way from a corner of the hearth, that one best perceived the difference between the two men. Somehow or other, I think Seth purposely put himself in the way. There was no getting a quiet word with Tom; for his cousin was sure to be close by, smoking his pipe, and opening his ears wide for every word, with a pallid smile. Now and then, too, I saw the green tinge come into his eyes; and it was then that I shuddered, as if in dreadful anticipation of what was to come. I’m not speaking figuratively, mind. When the cruel look came over Seth Purvis, his eyes were coloured with a real gooseberry hue, and looked quite dreadful. Let people say what they will, it is little signs like these which show the character. A good face is really a fortune, and Heaven always means it to be so; and there may be deformity without ugliness. Pure unmistakable ugliness springs from the heart, in my opinion. There! Satan is never suffered to put on the garment of a fine body without there is some little flaw in the garment by which the eyes of a woman may ascertain who it is that goes masquerading.
     Most men are bad hands at reckoning up character just because they can’t or won’t perceive trifles; but a gossamer will show which way the wind blows, and I’ve often enough learned the time of day by means of a flying tuft of thistledown. Tom Darrell thought Seth Purvis everything that is good; he estimated him at what he seemed, and took his love and friendship for granted. “Seth’s the best fellow in the world,” he would say, “to me, if one only understood his ways; he’s thoughtful, you see, and I’m harum-scarum; but a fonder, better fellow”—and so on. I said nothing; I only liked Tom the more and Seth the less; but it was not my place to cause disunion among relations. Sometimes, indeed, Tom’s goodness made me think I was mistaken in Seth. Good men are like light; they throw a radiance over everything with which they come in contact, until it is difficult to separate the good element itself from the men and things it illumines.
     And now you shall hear all about my terrible Christmas.
     I was twenty-one, and had at last engaged myself to marry Tom Darrell. He had begged and coaxed me so long that I thought it cruel to delay longer; and when my father began to hasten the match (he was afraid of losing Tom) I was quite contented. Seth Purvis saw that his case was a hopeless one, and he pretended to be unconcerned; but I knew that his heart was on fire with rage. He still continued to come visiting with Tom, and to watch us in his pale way, till I quite lost patience and showed him that I was displeased. Well, one day Seth and I happened to be alone in the kitchen. Father was out, and Seth had brought a message from Tom, to the effect that the latter could not keep a certain appointment we lovers had made the night before. Then, all of a sudden, up stood Seth Purvis, smiling.
     “Martha!” he said.
     “Yes, Seth.”
     “Are you busy? I want to have a word or two with you.”
     I looked at him in surprise. Suddenly he caught me round the waist and drew me to him.
     “Let me be!” I cried, struggling in his arms. He laughed and kissed me, and I began to scream.
     “Hush, Martha!” he whispered fiercely. “Now, what’s all this nonsense between you and my cousin Tom?”
     “Never you mind, Seth Purvis; and let me go, or I’ll tell Tom.” And I struggled in vain to escape.
     “Sit you down, Martha, and hold your tongue. I mean to have my talk out with you. Look you, Martha, Tom Darrell doesn’t care twopence for you, and I know what I know about another sweetheart of his.”
     I sprang away this time, with flashing eyes, and stood looking boldly into Seth’s pale face.
     “You’re telling me lies, Seth Purvis!” I cried. “If you don’t be quiet you’ll get my blood up.”
     “O, ho! and what then?” exclaimed he with a laugh. “Little I care for your anger, Martha Masters! But, hark you! You don’t marry Tom if I can help it; I’d sooner dash your brains out than let you marry him. Do you want to know why I object to the match? Why, simply because I mean to marry you myself.”
     “Brag’s a good dog, Seth, but Holdfast is a better. You’re big in words, but”——
     “I’ll be big in deeds, if you rouse me, my woman. Pooh! don’t be a fool I’m richer and steadier than Tom; I’m fond of only you, I love you better than he does, and I’ll make a lady of you.”
     I laughed in derision; and I saw his face turn paler as the green light came into his eyes.
     “Seth Purvis, I wouldn’t be your wife if you were to offer me this room filled with gold.”
     Immediately afterwards father came home, and Seth went away hurriedly. When I told him the story father laughed, as I had done, but seemed inclined to pity the lad. He had a better opinion of Seth than I had. On consideration I thought it better not to tell Tom of what had taken place; and, strange to say, Seth continued his visits without ever alluding again to the same subject. Once or twice, however, when Tom and I were sitting together and talking in whispers, I saw him watching us with an expression that made me shudder.
     It was arranged that Tom and I should be married on New Year’s Day. A fortnight before that time I had to go to a town twenty miles away to make purchases. I had an aunt in the town, and I stayed with her till the day before Christmas. I should have returned home two days before, but what with shopping and visiting I was delayed till the last moment. I wrote to Tom asking him to meet the last train at the railway-station, and telling him to come on foot, that we might have the last walk and talk of lovers going home.
     Well, the train left at ten. It was a wild, snowy night, with a great white moon, and the air was bitter cold. It had been freezing and snowing for a week past, and the ground was as hard as ice. We rattled along the night in fine style for half an hour, and then we came to a sudden halt. The snow had fallen in at one of the tunnels, and we could not proceed until a clearance had been effected. The task was not so easy. We sat shivering and fidgeting for fully three hours, with the telegraph-wires in perpetual agitation around us, and by the time I reached the station it was half-past one. I was the only passenger who got out at that station. When I looked about in search of Tom, he was nowhere to be seen. I asked the old station-master, but Tom had not been there, to his knowledge. Of course I was terribly annoyed.
     The station was situated nearly three miles from our house, and the road home was very quiet and lonely. However, that didn’t appal me. After waiting half an hour, I made up my mind to start for home by myself. It seemed plain either that something unusual had occurred, or that my friends, taking into consideration the cold, wild weather and the lateness of the hour, had given me up for the night.
     With my basket of purchases on my arm, I set off briskly. The distance was nothing to a strong girl like me, and it was simply the lateness of the hour which troubled me. Before I had got a mile on my journey, however, my clothes were wet and freezing cold, and my boots and stockings were full of melting snow. For the snow was more than ankle deep on the road, and I had on thin boots.
     However, I pushed on. The road around and before me was white in the moonlight, and the hedges on each side were clothed in snow. No, I was not the least bit nervous. I simply felt annoyed at the delay which had taken place in my arrival. It was Christmas morning; and here was I, trudging along through the cold, while, doubtless, all the countryside was keeping up the festivities after having watched out Christmas Eve.
     Halfway between our house and the railway station the country road took a long curve to the west, and a foot- passenger could save at least a mile by taking a short cut down a long dark lane and across some fields. I knew the locality well, and determined to take the shortest way. The lane was full of furze-bushes and brambles; and towards the end of it, where it ran into the fields, there was a small, thinly-wooded plantation. In the centre of the plantation was a deep dry well, called Saul’s Well, and said to be haunted. Down this lonely lane I walked, ankle deep in snow. The wind was sighing among the great white branches of the hedge, and shrieking further down among the fir boughs in the distant plantation. It was indeed a wild night for a young girl to be out alone.
     Suddenly I halted, and I confess I was frightened at last. I heard a smothered cry just before me, then there was a struggle, and, finally, all again silent. The sound came from the centre of the plantation, which lay just before me, surrounded by a high stone wall. Scarcely knowing what I did, I crept on timidly. There was another sound, as of somebody dragging a heavy weight across the road. Stooping down under the shadow of the wall I crept to a high furze- bush, which grew for some feet above the wall, and through the branches of which I could look into the plantation. Almost breathless, I looked. The trees within were far apart, and the moon shone brightly on the spaces between them. It was then that I saw that which made me almost faint with horror. A man was dragging a dead or lifeless body along the ground, in the direction of Saul’s Well. His back was towards me, but I seemed to recognise him. The burden was a heavy one, but he at last gained the side of the well with it. Stooping and turning for a moment, he dragged it to the brink. There was dull, leaden sound as of a body falling, and the next moment the man rose to his feet, with his face towards me, in the full light of the moon. It was Seth Purvis.
     I had no time to deliberate, for he was coming hastily in my direction. In a moment I crept under shelter of the neighbouring hedge, and stood hidden in the shadow. He had not seen me. He leapt the wall hastily, and hurried off in the direction of the fields. Close to the wall, however, he paused, stooping, and I saw him looking attentively at one of my footprints; he satisfied himself at last, and disappeared. I waited in my hiding-place for several minutes; then I crept out stealthily, and ran as fast as I could back to the highway.
     Here my strong nerves served me in good stead. I determined not to yield to my fear and horror until I reached home, and could alarm the neighbourhood; but I felt myself grow quite white in the face in the struggle to keep down my agitation. I kept along the highway with a brisk, firm step, and was not more than half a mile from home when Seth Purvis leapt the hedge, and stood quite close to me, with the moon once more upon his pale, bloodless face. With a scream I sprang back, and he approached me quietly.
     “Martha!”
     “Seth!”
     I was determined what to do. Should he suspect that I knew his crime, I would attempt to deceive him. Should he attempt further violence, I would resist to the best of my power. Feeling that my only hope lay in keeping calm and seeming friendly, I walked up and shook him heartily by the hand. I shall never forget the shudder that run through me as I did so.
     “How you frightened me, Seth,” I cried. “O, I am so glad I have met you; I felt so alarmed.”
     He looked at me in a sly, suspicious way, and I fancied that I saw the green light in his eyes.
     “What are you afraid of?” he said, roughly. “Why, you’re trembling! Are you cold?”
     “Very cold indeed. I have had a miserable journey. We were delayed a long time by the snow. I expected some one would have met me at the station, the road is so very lonely.”
     “Yes, it’s lonely enough, especially”—here he was looking at me keenly—“down by Saul’s Well.”
     “Ah, that’s a dreadful place, and the girls say it is haunted. However, that lay out of my way.”
     “Humph!”
     I took his arm boldly, and we walked on quickly side by side. I now saw that his dress was slightly disarranged, and that there was a red stain on the front of his shirt. His eye met mine as I looked at this latter.
     “What are you looking at, Martha?” he cried, halting suddenly and gazing into my face.
     “At that mark on your shirt. Is it blood? Have you hurt yourself? Have you had a fall?”
     I was dreadfully agitated, but I managed my agitation in such a way as to make it seem like friendly anxiety on his account. He seemed puzzled.
     “Why, ye—es,” he muttered; “I had a tumble down among the fields yonder; but it is nothing particular. You needn’t mention it to anybody, as it’s of no importance.”
     We were now within a hundred yards of the farm. Suddenly he caught me by the arm and stopped me.
     “Do you know, Martha, that I was wandering down the lane by Saul’s Well some hours ago when I saw footprints on the snow which seemed to me very like yours. They were a woman’s anyhow.”
     “Indeed,” I said with apparent unconcern. “What of that?”
     “Oh, nothing; only it seemed strange, that was all.”
     I was less and less able to control myself as we drew nearer to my father’s door. At the door we paused again, he looking at me in a strange, wild way. I knocked at the door.
     “Martha Masters, why don’t you ask after Tom?”
     A sudden horrible suspicion flashed upon me, as he crept close up to me, with his fierce eyes on mine, and hissed the words into my ears. In a moment I was overpowered by my fear; and my face showed the man that I knew his secret. He sprang at me with an oath, and I screamed aloud for help. Footsteps came along the passage; the chain was drawn aside. Seth seized me wildly with his left hand, and with his right held aloft a glittering knife. I drew aside just in time to escape the blow. Before he could raise his hand again my father sprung out from the threshold, and stretched him senseless on the snow with a blow of his cudgel. The farm hands came thronging round.
     “Seize him! dont let him escape! He has murdered Tom Darrell, and the dead man is lying cold and bloody at the bottom of Saul’s Well.”
     There was a cry of horror from all, and then consciousness forsook me. I was carried indoors, and lay for a week in a raging fever. When I recovered I had to appear as a witness at Seth Purvis’s trial.
     It was too true; my fears proved correct. The two cousins had set out to meet me together, and not finding me at the station, and concluding that I had been detained in town, had returned towards home in company. Then Seth Purvis, in his mad jealousy, had stabbed Tom Darrell to the heart and had thrown him to the bottom of Saul’s Well.
     Seth Purvis was hung, and no one ever came to supply murdered Tom Darrell’s place.

_____

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