A Colonial Wooing
Charles Conrad Abbott, M.D.
J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY
J. B. Lippincott Company.
Printed by J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, U.S.A.
RECALLING THE SEVERAL OCCASIONS WHEN THE FORTUNES
OF RUTH AND JOHN WERE SO EARNESTLY DIS-
CUSSED, IT SEEMS AS FITTING AS IT IS
PLEASANT TO DEDICATE THIS
WHOSE INTEREST THEREIN URGED ME TO
WRITE WHAT I HAVE WRITTEN.
C. C. A.
April 10, 1895.
BY DR. ABBOTT
There was a strange silence everywhere, as is not uncommon in the month of August, for now the promises of summer had been made good, and the world is at rest. Not a leaf stirred, and, except the plaintive note of some far-off bird, I could hear only my own foot-falls. The trees and fields and shaded winding lane were as I had seen them last, when darkness shut them in, but now, in the early morning, it seemed as if the sun had brought sad tidings. It has always appeared to me that August days are days for retrospection, and that the mind is supersensitive at such a time. It takes notice of those things which in the hurry and clatter of June are overlooked. This is no mere whim, and on this occasion the effect was to convince me that something unusual had happened or was about to occur.
I had heard of an oaken chest, with huge brass clamps, and to-day set out to find it. There was not a wagon to be seen when I turned from the lane into the township road, and so I had the dusty highway to myself, a furthering of my fancy. Even more lonely was the wood-road into which I turned, and of late it had been so little used, it was as much the meeting-ground of bird-life as of humanity. Everywhere it was shaded by cedars of great age or by elms under which the moss had grown since colonial days. Along this ancient way the rambler has little to remind him of the changes wrought in the passing century. What few houses are passed in the course of a long walk are old-time structures, and more than one has been abandoned. The reason was plain: the land is poor, and whatever inducements were held out to the original settlers had not been continued to the fifth and sixth generations. Still, not all the tract had reverted to forest. A little garden-plot about each of the cottages that were occupied was still held back, by spade and hoe, from the encroachments of wild growth, and in the last cottage to be reached, surrounded by every feature of an old-fashioned garden, lived Silas Crabtree. As a child I had feared him, and now I both disliked and admired him; why—as is so often the case—I could not tell.
The man and his house were not unlike. The cottage was a long, low building, one and a half stories high. A window on each side of the door barely showed beneath the projecting roof of a narrow porch extending the full length of the front. There was a single step from the porch to the ground. From the roof projected two squat dormer windows. The shingles were darkened by long exposure, and patches of moss grew about the eaves. Silas was like this. The windows and door and long low step recalled his eyes, nose, and mouth, overtopped by low projecting brows and unkempt hair, that were well represented by the cottage roof with its moss and dormers. So far the house and its solitary inmate; but the open well with its long sweep, the clump of lilacs, the spreading beech with initials cut long years ago,—these were a poem.
While the day was yet young, I passed by, and Silas was sitting on the porch. The quiet of this month of day-dreams was unbroken. The cat-bird hopped about the grass, but was mute; a song-sparrow was perched on the topmost twig of a dead quince-bush, but did not sing; a troop of crows was passing overhead in perfect silence. Feeling more strongly than ever the moodiness of the morning, I strove to break the spell by shouting, with unnecessary emphasis, "Good-morning, Uncle Silas." With a sudden start the old man looked up and stared wildly about him. Straightway the cat-bird chirped, the sparrow sang, and from over the tree-tops came the welcome cawing of the crows. Even a black cat came from the house and rubbed its arched back against Silas's knees. The spell was broken, and the old man growled (for he could not talk as other men), "I'm glad you've come."
"Oh, I was only passing by; were you asleep?"
"Sleepin' or not, I was thinkin' of you. Come in."
Stepping rather reluctantly into the yard, I sat down on the floor of the porch near Silas,—for he did not offer to get me a chair,—and waited for him to speak.
"As a boy," said Silas, in softer tones than I had ever heard before, "you had a grudge again' me, as your father had again' mine, and your grandpap again' mine, and so on away back. It never showed much, that I know of, but the feelin' was there: and yet we started even, for my folks came from England as long ago as yourn.
"But there's no Crabtree besides me, and I wanted to get things in shape, for there's some would like the old cottage that ain't goin' to get it. I don't know that there's any more to tell you." And Silas looked out towards the road and into the woods upon its other side.
I kept my seat. I could not do otherwise. The Silas of to-day was not he whom I had known in years past. Although there was no evidence of it in the old man's words, I was convinced he had reference to me as his heir; but what of that? He might change his mind a dozen times, for he was not so very, very old,—not much, if any, over eighty; and what, indeed, had he to leave?
Many minutes passed, and then, as I made a slight movement, merely to change my position, Silas spoke in the same strangely softened voice. "Don't go, don't go; there's one thing more——" He suddenly paused, and stared, with a wild look, directly at me. The silence was painful; his strange appearance more so. In a moment the truth flashed across me: he was dead.
I was not surprised to learn, immediately after the funeral, that I had been left the sole legatee of the man whose death I had witnessed. When I took formal possession of the cottage and its contents, I entered the house for the first time in my life. To cross the threshold was to step backward into colonial times. How true it is that it needs at least a century to mellow a house and make it faintly comparable to out-of-doors!
The hall-way of the Crabtree cottage was neither short nor narrow, but you got that impression from its low ceiling and the dark wooden walls, which time had almost blackened. Lifting a stout wooden latch, I passed into the living-room, with its ample open fireplace, long unused, for a little airtight stove had done duty for both cooking and heating for many years. This was the only innovation: all else was as when its first occupant had moved into the "new" house and given over the log hut to other uses. The high-backed settle, the quaint, claw-footed chairs, a home-made table, with bread-trough underneath, seemed never to have been moved from their places since Silas's mother died. These made less impression than would otherwise have been the case, because with them was a very old and mysterious-looking desk. It was a bureau with five brass-handled drawers, and above them the desk proper, concealed by a heavy, sloping lid. The dark wood had still a fine polish, and the lid was neatly ornamented with an inlaid star of holly wood. It, with the three-plumed mirror on the wall above it, was the eclipsing feature of the room. All else, well enough in its way, seemed commonplace. Drawing a chair in front of the desk, I sat down to explore it, but was bewildered at the very outset. Lowering the lid, the many pigeon-holes, small drawers, and inner apartment closed by a carved door, took me too much by surprise to let me be methodical. Everywhere were old, stained papers and parchments, some so very old the ink had faded from them; but there was no disorder. At last, knowing it was no time to dream, I drew out a bundle of papers from a pigeon-hole, and noticed in doing so that a strip of carved wood, which I had taken for ornament, slightly moved. It proved to be a long and very narrow drawer, and this again had a more carefully hidden compartment in the back, as a narrow line in the wood showed. Peering into this, I found a scrap of paper so long and closely folded that it fell apart when opened; but the writing was still distinct. It was as follows: "It is his Excellency's, Genl. Howe's express order, that no person shall injure Silas Crabtree in his person or property." It was duly signed, countersigned, and dated Dec'r 9, 1776. So Silas, the great-grandfather, had been a Tory! I was prepared now for revelations of any kind. To look quietly over papers, one at a time, was too prosy an occupation, and the suggestion that there might be more secret drawers was followed until every nook and cranny had been laid bare,—and there were many of them.
The next day, as the place could not be left unguarded, I moved the old desk to my own home, and placed a tenant in the cottage; and now, there is not a scrap of paper among all that the desk contained that I have not read, and my comment is: colonial days were not so very unlike those of the present time. It is true, our ancestors' surroundings were very different, and much that was then accounted a luxury is now an absolute necessity, or so we think; but of one condition there can be no dispute, human nature was the same.
Among the many papers that had been so long preserved there chanced to be that rarest form of old documents, a journal. Almost two centuries ago, an eye-witness of the occurrences to be narrated made brief mention of the part he took therein. These, with various memoranda, which threw more or less light upon the doings of those days, were rolled together and enclosed in a quaint red leather wallet, from which the silver clasp had been taken; and from these time-worn records, which are still preserved, I have gathered the essential features of the story of Ruth Davenport, who in fact, and not merely in the author's fancy, was known to many as a "Quaker Fairy."