Hillsboro People/In New England
IN NEW NEW ENGLAND
This is a true story, for I have heard it ever so many times from my grandmother. She heard it from her grandmother, who told it about her own mother; and it began and ended right here in our village of Hillsboro, Vermont, in 1762.
Probably you think at once of the particular New England old town you know, and imagine Hillsboro of that date as an elm-shaded, well-kept street, with big, white, green-shuttered houses, full of shining mahogany furniture and quaint old silver. But my grandmother gives an entirely different picture of old times in this corner of Vermont. Conditions here, at that time, were more as they had been in Connecticut and Massachusetts a hundred and forty years before. Indeed, the Pilgrim Fathers endured no more hardships as pioneers in a wild, new country than did the first Vermonters.
Hillsboro had been settled only about fifteen years before this story begins, and the people had had to make for themselves whatever they possessed, since there was no way to reach our dark, narrow valley except by horse back over the ridge of the Green Mountains. There were no fine houses, because there was no sawmill. There were little, low log cabins of two rooms each, and the furniture, such as it was, was rough-hewn out of native woods. Our great-grandfathers were too busy clearing the forest and planting their crops to spend much time designing or polishing table-legs.
And the number of things they did not have! No stoves, no matches, no books, no lamps, and very few candles; no doctors, no schools, no clocks, and so nearly no money that what they had is not worth mentioning. But the fact that there were no schools did not mean that life was one long vacation for the children.
"No, indeedy!" as grandmother always says emphatically.
In the urgent bustle of pioneer life, the children could not be spared from work for long school-hours. They picked up what they could from the elders of their families, and worked, as grandmother puts it, "as tight as they could leg it" from morning to night. Everybody else worked that same way, so the children did not know that they were being abused. Indeed, grandmother seems to doubt if they were.
At any rate, they all ran about as fast as ants in an ant-hill, and the busiest of all was sixteen-year-old Hannah Sherwin. Since she was my grandmother's grandmother's mother, at last the story is really begun.
Hannah had been a baby of eighteen months when the Sherwins came over the mountains from the old home in Connecticut, so she knew nothing about any other way of living than what she saw in rough little Hillsboro. But her elder sister, Ann Mary, who was a tall girl of nineteen, remembered—or thought she remembered—big houses that were made all over of sawn planks, and chairs that were so shiny you could see your face in them, or else stuffed and cushioned in brocade as soft—"as soft as a feather tick!" she told Hannah.
Her listener, having no idea of what brocade might be, and taking the feather-tick simile literally, must have imagined a very queer kind of chair.
Hannah was a short, fair, rosy-cheeked child, who passed for good-looking enough; but Ann Mary was slender and dark and a real beauty, although Hillsboro people did not realize it. She looked fragile, as if she could not do much hard work and that is always a serious blemish in feminine beauty to the eyes of pioneers.
So far in her life she had not been forced to do any hard work, because Hannah had done it all for her. Their mother had died when they were both little girls, and their father was so busy outdoors, every minute he was awake, that, for all his affection for them, he did not know or care which of his daughters cooked and washed, and swept and spun, so long as these things were done. And Hannah delighted to do them, because she adored Ann Mary, and could not bear to have her sister troubled with any of the coarse tasks which made up her own happy, busy day.
Now, all that grandmother ever tells me about the beginning of this story is that when the lovely Ann Mary was nineteen years old she "fell into a decline," as they called it. She grew pale and thin, never smiled, could not eat or sleep, and lay listlessly on the bed all day, looking sadly at Hannah as she bustled about.
A great many girls in those days fell into declines and died. Of course, nobody knows the reason for most of the cases, but it seems as plain as the nose on my face that Ann Mary's sickness was entirely Hannah's fault for not letting her sister do her share of the house hold work. There she was—pretty and ignorant and idle—with nothing to interest her, and nothing to look forward to, for in those days marriage was the only thing a girl could look forward to, and in the workaday little world of pioneer Hillsboro nobody would dare to think of marrying a girl who looked like a tea-rose and did not know how to make soft soap. No wonder she lost her appetite!
It might not have gone any further, however, if Hannah, distracted with anxiety, had not run to all the old women in town about her sick sister. Every one of them had had a niece, or a daughter—or at least a granddaughter—who had died in a decline; so, of course, they knew just what to do for Ann Mary, and they came and did it.
Then poor Ann Mary was sick, indeed, I promise you! They shut her up in the inner room of the little log house, although it was the end of May, and the weather was fit for the angels. They darkened the one window, and kept the door closed, and put the sick girl to bed between two mountains of feathers. They gave her "sut" (soot) tea and "herb-drink," and steeped butternut bark, and goodness knows what else; and they tiptoed in and out, and stared at her mournfully, and shook their heads and pursed up their lips, until it is a wonder to me that Ann Mary did not die at once.
Very likely she would have died, if one day in June there had not come through Hillsboro a trader on his way from "over the mountain" up to Canada, looking for furs. That morning, when Hannah got up, she found the fire in their big fireplace completely extinguished. She snatched up the warming-pan—not a polished brass one with a smooth, turned handle, like those you see in Colonial museums, but a common iron pan, fastened to a hickory sapling; and she went as fast as she could, without running—for girls never ran "before folks" in those days—over to the nearest neighbor, to "borrow a handful of fire."
The neighbors were just getting up, and their fire was too low to spare any, so Hannah had to wait until some hardwood sticks got well to burning. While she waited, the trader, who was staying overnight in that house, went on with a long story about an Indian herb-doctor, of whose cures he had heard marvelous tales, three days' journey back. It seemed that the Indian's specialty was curing girls who had gone into a decline, and that he had never failed in a single case he had undertaken.
You can imagine how Hannah s loving, anxious heart leaped up, and how eagerly she questioned the trader about the road to the settlement where the Indian lived. It was in a place called Heath Falls, on the Connecticut River, the trader told her; but he could not find words strong enough to advise her against trying the trip.
The trail lay through thick woods, filled with all the terrors of early New Englanders—bears and wolves and catamounts. And when she got to Heath Falls, she would find it a very different place from Hillsboro, where people took you in gladly for the sake of the news you brought from the outside world. No, the folks in Heath Falls were very grand. They traveled themselves, and saw more strangers than a little. You had to pay good money for shelter and food, and, of course, the doctor did not cure for nothing. He was a kind man, the trader, and he did his best to keep Hannah from a wildly foolish enterprise.
But his best was not good enough. She went home and looked at her poor Ann Mary, as white as a snow drift, her big dark eyes ringed with black circles, and Hannah knew only two things in the world—that there was a doctor who could cure her sister, and that she must get her to him. She was only a child herself; she had no money, no horses, no experience; but nothing made any difference to her. Ann Mary should go to the doctor, if Hannah had to carry her every step!
A spirit like that knows no obstacles. Although Hillsboro held up hands of horror, and implored John Sherwin to assert his parental authority and forbid his girl such a rash, unmaidenly, bold undertaking, the end of it was that Hannah got her father s permission. He loved his daughters dearly, did John Sherwin, and, although he could not see how the thing was to be managed, he told Hannah she might go if she could.
Now it happened that the wife of one of their neighbors had long coveted the two great feather-beds between which Ann Mary lay sweltering. Hannah went to her, and said that she could have them if she would loan her son, a sturdy boy of fourteen, and two horses, for the trip to Heath Falls. The neighbor-woman hesitated; but when Hannah threw in the two pewter candlesticks, which came from her mother's family, she could resist no longer. In her own family they had only spike-iron candlesticks, and it was her one chance of acquiring a pair of fine ones. So she wheedled her husband into agreeing to the bargain; and there was Hannah with her transportation provided.
As soon as it was definitely settled that she was to make the long journey, people began to take rather a proud interest in her grit. As everybody liked her, they gave what they could toward helping her get ready—all but the old women, who were furious that Ann Mary was to be taken away from their care.
There was in town a saddle with a pillion back of it, and this was loaned for Remember Williams, the neighbor's boy, to ride and carry Ann Mary behind him. Hannah folded a blanket across her horse's back, and sat on sideways as best she could. Behind her was a big bundle of extra clothing, and food, and an iron pot—or, as she called it, a "kittle"—for cooking their noonday meals. Her father brought out all the money he had—one large four-shilling piece—and Hannah was sure that so much wealth as that would buy anything in the world.
The old women had prophesied that Ann Mary would not be strong enough to sit upon a horse, even clinging to Remember Williams's thick waist; but, judging from what grandmother says, I surmise that Ann Mary, without being really aware of it, was a little sick of being sick. At any rate, she took a great interest in the preparations. She asked over and over again about the girls the herb-doctor had cured; and when the day for their departure came she was quite pleased and excited, and walked out through the crowd of sympathetic neighbors. To be sure, she leaned weakly on her father, but there was a little faint color in her cheeks.
"A very bad sign!" the old women whispered. "She'll never live the journey out. If only Hannah were not so headstrong and obstinate! But then you can't blame the child for it all—the Sherwins are that way!"
As for Ann Mary, she sat up quite straight and looked as pretty as possible when the little company rode off. After all, she had been "declining" only about a month, and people had vigorous constitutions in those days.
You may think it odd that she was not afraid to make the long journey, but there are advantages in being of a dependent nature. Hannah had always done everything for her, and had kept her safe from harm. Hannah was with her now, so there was nothing to fear. She left all that to Hannah, who did it, poor child, with the greatest thoroughness!
Now that the excitement of overcoming Hillsboro opposition was passed; now that they were really started, with herself as sole leader and guide, responsibility fell like a black cloud upon her young heart. There was nothing she did not fear—for Ann Mary, of course—from wolves and Indians to fatigue or thunderstorms.
A dozen times that day, as they paced slowly over the rough trail, she asked her sister anxiously if she were not too hot or too cold, or too tired or too faint, imitating as best she could the matter and manner of the doctoring old women. However, Ann Mary surprised herself, as well as Hannah, by being none of the uncomfortable things that her sister kept suggesting to her she might very well be. It was perfect June weather, they were going over some of the loveliest country in the world, and Ann Mary was out of doors for the first time in four weeks or more.
She "kept up" wonderfully well, and they made good time, reaching by dusk, as they had hoped to do, a farmer's house on the downward dip of the mountain to the east. Here, their story being told, they were hospitably received, and Ann Mary was clapped into the airless inner room and fed with gruel and dipped toast. But she had had fresh air and exercise all day, and a hearty meal of cold venison and corn bread at their noonday rest, so she slept soundly.
The next day they went across a wide, hilly valley, up another range of low mountains, and down on the other side. The country was quite strange to them, and somehow, before they knew it, they were not on the road recommended to them by their hosts of the night before. Night overtook them when they were still, as the phrase has come down in our family, "in a miserable, dismal place of wood."
Hannah's teeth chattered for very terror as she saw their plight; but she spoke cheerfully to Ann Mary and the boy, who looked to her for courage, and told them that they were to have the fun of sleeping under the stars. Boys were the same then as now, and Remember Williams was partly shivering with dread of bears and Indians and things, and partly glowing with anticipatory glory of telling the Hillsboro boys all about the adventure. Hannah soothed the first and inflamed the second emotion until she had Remember strutting about gathering firewood, as brave as a lion.
Very probably Ann Mary would have been frightened to death, if she had not been so sleepy from her long day out of doors that she could not keep her eyes open. And then, of course, everything must be all right, because there was Hannah!
This forlorn terrified little captain wrapped the invalid in all the extra clothing, managed to get a fire started, and cooked a supper of hot cornmeal mush in her big iron "kittle." Ann Mary ate a great deal of this, sweetened as it was with maple sugar crumbled from the big lump Hannah had brought along and immediately afterward she fell sound asleep.
Soon the soft night air of June was too strong a soporific for Remember's desire to keep awake and hear the catamounts scream, as he had heard they did in those woods. Hannah was left quite alone to keep watch and to tend the fire, her heart in her mouth, jumping and starting at every shadow cast by the flames.
She knew that wild beasts would not come near them if a big fire burned briskly; and all that night she piled on the wood, scraped away the ashes, and watched Ann Mary to see that she did not grow chilly. Hannah does not seem to have been much inclined to talk about her own feelings, and there is no record of what she suffered that night; but I think we may be sure that it seemed a long time to her before the sky began to whiten in the east.
As soon as she could see plainly, she cooked a hearty breakfast of broiled bacon and fried mush, and wakened her two charges to eat it. They made a very early start, and there is nothing more to tell about their journey except that at about seven o'clock that evening the two tired horses crept into the main street of Heath Falls, and a very much excited girl asked the first passer-by where the Indian herb-doctor lived.
They found him in a little old house of logs—the only one that looked natural to them in the prosperous settlement. When Hannah knocked at the door, he opened it himself. He was a small, very old, dark-brown, and rodigiously wrinkled individual, who held up a candle and looked at Hannah with the most impassive eyes she had ever seen—like little pools of black water unstirred by any wind.
Hannah's breath came fast.
"Is this the Indian herb-doctor?" she asked.
"Aye," he answered.
When you remember that Hannah was only a little girl, and that she thought she had come to the end of a night mare of responsibility, it will not surprise you to learn that she now began to cry a little, out of agitation.
"I have brought Ann Mary," she said, "my sister, to be cured. She is in a decline. Will you cure her?"
The herb-doctor showed no surprise. He set the candle down on the shelf, and went out in the bright star light to where Ann Mary clung to Remember Williams's waist. When he put up his brown old hands to her, she slid down into them and upon the ground. He still held one wrist, and this he continued to do for some moments, looking at the white, drooping girl without moving a muscle of his solemn old face. Then he turned to Hannah, who had stopped crying and was holding her breath in suspense.
"Aye," he said.
At this Hannah caught her sister around the neck, sobbing joyfully:
"He will cure you, Ann Mary; he will cure you!" Then she asked the doctor: "And how long will it take? We can stay but a few days, for the boy and the horses must get back soon."
The herb-doctor considered for a moment.
"It is now the end of June month. By the end of September month she will be cured—not before."
I think I know that that was a black moment for Hannah. She said nothing at all, but the sick girl fell to weeping.
"But, Master Doctor, we cannot stay—we cannot! And now, after all, I shall not be cured!"
Hannah could not bear to see her sweet Ann Mary in tears, and she cried out stoutly:
"Yes, you shall, too! Remember can take the horses back without us, and tell our father. Somehow—I can earn—oh, we must!" Then a new fear sprang into her heart. "Oh, sir," she cried to the doctor, "is it dear, your cure? Must one have much silver for it?"
The stolid little old gnome did not look toward her or change his position as he said:
"It costs time—no silver." He moved toward the house. "Go to the minister's to-night," he called from his doorstep. "It is the house of brick." Just before he closed his door he added: "Come here to-morrow morning."
When they reached the great brick house, the other two hung back, afraid of so much grandeur; but three days of travel through the dangers of a primitive forest had hardened Hannah to the lesser fear of strange people. To the old minister and his wife she told their story very briefly, with a desperate kind of self-possession, so concerned about poor Ann Mary, tired and hungry, waiting out in the night air, that she did not remember to be afraid of the minister's fine linen and smooth, white hands, or of the laces and dark silk of his handsome, white-haired wife, or of the gold braid and red coat of a dark young man with a quick eye who sat in the corner.
The young man said nothing until after the old people had gone out to bring in the wanderers. Then:
"You must be fond, indeed, of your sister, my little lass," he said kindly.
"Sir," said Hannah, "you should see my sister!"
And just then he did see her. Ann Mary came into the brightly lighted room, her eyes wide and dark from the dusk outside, her long black hair, shaken loose from its fastenings, curling up beautifully with the dew, and making a frame for the pearl-like oval of her face. I have seen a miniature of Ann Mary in her youth, and I can guess how she must have looked to the young officer that evening.
The minister's wife gave them all a hot supper, and hurried them off to bed with motherly authority. For the first time in her life, Hannah found herself between linen sheets. She tried to call her sister's attention to this astonishing magnificence, but fell asleep in the middle of the sentence, and did not wake until late the next morning. Ann Mary had been awake for some time, but did not dare get up, so overcome was she by shyness and reverence for the grandeur of the room and of her hosts.
"Oh, Hannah! Would it not be like heaven to live always in such a place?" she said.
Hannah could not stop to be shy, or to think about how she would like mahogany beds all the time. She had too much on her mind. They must go at once to the herb-doctor's—they should have been there before—and they must hurry through their breakfast. It is, perhaps, worthy of note that both girls came down the stairs backward, ladders having been, up to that time, their only means of reaching elevations.
During their breakfast, the dark young man, who turned out to be a cousin of the minister's, sat in a corner, playing with his dog's ears, and looking at Ann Mary until she was quite abashed, although the younger girl, at whom he glanced smilingly from time to time, thought he looked very good-natured. After this, Hannah sent Remember Williams home with the horses, giving him fresh and elaborate directions about the right road to take. Then she marched Ann Mary to the herb-doctor's.
"Here, Master Necronsett," she said, "here is Ann Mary to be cured!"
When the doctor told them about his system, Hannah did not like the sound of it at all. Not a drop of "sut tea" or herb-drink was mentioned, but the invalid was to eat all the hearty food Hannah could earn for her. Then, so far from sleeping in a decently tight room, their bed was to stand in a little old shed, set up against Master Necronsett's house. One side of the shed was gone entirely, so that the wind and the sun would come right in on poor, delicate Ann Mary, and there was only an awning of woven bark-withes to let down when it rained.
But even that was not the worst. Hannah listened with growing suspicion while Master Necronsett explained the rest of it. All his magic consisted in the use of a "witch plant," the whole virtue of which depended on one thing. The sick person must be the only one to handle or care for it, from the seed up to the mature plant.
He took them up to his garret, where row after row of dried plants hung, heavy with seed-pods, and with the most careful precautions to avoid touching them himself, or having Hannah do so, he directed Ann Mary to fill a two-quart basin with the seed.
"That will plant a piece of ground about six paces square," he said. "That will raise enough seed for you."
"But who is to dig the ground, and plant, and weed, and water, and all?" asked Hannah. "If I am to be earning all day, who——"
"The sick person must do all," said the herb-doctor.
Hannah could not believe her senses. Her Ann Mary, who could not even brush her own hair without fatigue, she to take a spade in her——
"Oh, Master Doctor," she cried, "can I not do it for her?"
The old Indian turned his opaque black eyes upon her.
"Nay," he said dryly, "you cannot."
And with that he showed them where the witch garden was to be, close before their little sleeping-hut. That was why, he explained, the patient must spend all her time there, so that by night, as well as by day, she could absorb the magical virtues of the growing plant. Hannah thought those were the first sensible words she had heard him say.
She had promised the minister's wife to be back at a certain hour to see about employment, so she dared not stay longer, though it was with a sinking heart that she left her sister to that grim old savage, with his brusque lack of sympathy. However, the minister's wife reassured her with stories of all the other girls from far and near whom he had cured by that same foolish, silly method; so Hannah turned all her energies upon the spinning which a neighbor-woman had set her to do.
Hired workers have been the same from the days of the Psalmist down to our own, and Hannah, putting her whole heart into her work, accomplished, so her surprised employer told her, twice as much spinning as any serving-girl she had ever hired.
"And excellent good thread, too!" she said, examining it.
If Hannah kept up to that, she added, she could have all the work she had time for. She gave the little girl two pennies—two real pennies, the first money Hannah had ever earned. With a head spinning with triumph, she calculated that at that rate she could earn fourpence a day!
She spent a farthing for some fish a little boy brought up from the river, and a halfpenny for some fresh-baked bread, and a part of her precious four-shilling piece for an iron fry-pan, or "spider." Laden with these, she hurried back to see how Ann Mary had endured the old doctor's roughness. She found her sister very tired, but proudly anxious to show a little spot, perhaps six feet square, which she had spaded up with intervals of rest.
"The herb-doctor says that I have done well, and that I will finish the spading in a week, or perhaps even less." she said: "and I like Master Necronsett! He is a good old man, and I know that he will cure me. He makes me feel very rested when he comes near."
Hannah felt a little pang to think that her sister should not miss her own brooding care, but when Ann Mary cried out joyfully at the sight of the food, "Oh, how hungry I am!" everything but pleasure was immediately swept away from the little sister s loyal heart.
They cooked their supper—Hannah still had some of the cornmeal and the flitch of bacon their Hillsboro friends had given them—and went to bed directly on the queer, hard bed, with a straw tick and no feathers, which Dr. Necronsett had prescribed, warmly wrapped up in the pair of heavy Indian blankets he had loaned them. They were so close to the house that they heard the old doctor moving around inside, and they could see the light of his candle, so they were not afraid.
Indeed, the two sisters were so sleepy that even if they had been timorous it could scarcely have kept them from the deep slumber into which they fell at once, and which lasted until the sun shone in on them the next morning.
That was the first day of that wonderful summer, and most of the days which followed were like it. Every morning Hannah rose early, made a little open fire, cooked their breakfast, and was off to her spinning. Just as her first employer had said, there was no lack of work for a spinner who worked as fast and yet as carefully as if it were for herself. In Hannah's thread there were never any thin places which broke as soon as the weaver stretched it on the loom, nor yet any thick lumps where the wool had insisted, in grandmother's phrase, "on going all kim-kam."
At first, she went about to people's houses; but, seeing her so neat and careful, the minister's wife loaned her one of her own wheels, and the minister had an old granary cleared out for her workroom. Here, day after day, the wheel whirred unceasingly, like a great bee, and Hannah stepped back and forth, back and forth, on her tireless young feet, only glancing out through the big door at the bright glories of the summer weather, and never once regretting her imprisonment.
Indeed, she said, all her life afterward, that she was so happy, that summer, it seemed heaven itself could hold no greater joy for her. Of course, first always in her thoughts was Ann Mary, pulling weeds and tending her witch garden, and growing plump and rosy, and so strong that she laughed and ran about and sang as never in her life before.
Hannah put very little faith in the agricultural part of the cure. She thought that very probably it was nothing more than a blind, and that Master Necronsett came out at night and said charms and things over Ann Mary as she slept. However that might be, she could have kissed his funny, splay feet every time she looked at her sister's bright eyes and red lips; and when she thought of the joy it would be to her father, she could have kissed his ugly, wrinkled old face.
But, besides her joy over her sister s health, the summer was for Hannah herself a continual feast of delight. Captain Winthrop, the minister's young cousin, was staying in Heath Falls to recover from an arrow-wound got in a skirmish with the Indians in Canada. He was very idle, and very much bored by the dullness of the little town, which seemed such a metropolis to the two girls from Hillsboro. One day, attracted by Hannah's shining face of content, he lounged over to the step of her granary, and began to talk to her through the open doorway.
It happened to come out that the little spinner, while she knew her letters from having worked them into a sampler, and could make shift to write her name, could not read or write, and had never had the slightest instruction in any sort of book-learning. Thereupon the young officer good-naturedly proposed to be her teacher, if Hannah would like.
Would she like! She turned to him a look of such utter ecstasy that he was quite touched, and went off at once to get an old "A-B, ab" book.
That was the beginning of a new world to Hannah. She took her young instructor's breath away by the avidity with which she devoured the lessons he set her. By the rapt air of exultation with which Hannah recited them, stepping back and forth by her wheel, you would have thought that "c-a-t, cat; r-a-t, rat," was the finest poetry ever written. And in no time at all it was no longer "c-a-t, cat," but "parallel," and "phthisis," and such orthographical atrocities, on which the eager scholar was feeding; for, Hannah's mind was as fresh as her round, rosy face, and as vigorous as her stout little body.
Captain Winthrop had several reasons for being interested in Hannah; and when he found her so quick at her spelling, he said he was willing to occupy some of his enforced leisure in giving her instruction in other branches. Hannah fell to at this feast of knowledge like a young bear in a bee-tree.
But there were some difficulties. Like the spelling, arithmetic was all very well, since she could do that in her head while she spun; but reading and writing were different. She would not stop her work for them, and so Captain Winthrop fell into the habit of going over to Master Necronsett's house in the afternoon with his books, and being there, all ready for a lesson, when Hannah came hurrying back after she had finished her day's "stint." As long as there was light to see, she pored over her writing and reading, while the young officer sat by, ready to help, and talking in a low tone to Ann Mary.
After a time there grew up a regular routine for Captain Winthrop. In the mornings he went out to the granary and read aloud to Hannah from a book called "The Universal Preceptor; being a General Grammar of Art, Science, and Useful Knowledge." Out of this he taught her about "mechanical powers" and "animated nature" and astronomy and history and geography—almost anything that came to his hand.
Up in our garret we have the very book he used, and modern research and science have proved that there is scarcely a true word in it. But don't waste any pity on Hannah for having such a mistaken teacher, for it is likely enough, don't you think, that research and science a hundred years from now will have proved that there is scarcely a word of truth in our school-books of to-day? It really doesn't seem to matter much.
At any rate, those were the things of which Captain Winthrop talked to Hannah in the mornings. In the afternoon, he went over to an apple-tree by the edge of the witch garden, and there he found Ann Mary; and what he talked to her about nobody knew but herself, although Master Necronsett passed back and forth so often in his herb-gathering that it is likely he may have caught something. It seems not improbable, from what happened afterward, that the young man was telling the young girl things which did not come out of a book, and which are consequently safe from science and research, for they are certainly as true to-day as they were then.
Once, in her anxiety to have everything exactly right for her sister, Hannah asked Master Necronsett about Captain Winthrop's being there so much.
"Master Doctor, will not Captain Winthrop absorb, perchance, some of the great virtue of the plant away from Ann Mary? Will he not hurt her cure?"
Grandmother never says so, but I have always imagined that even that carven image of an old aborigine must have smiled a little as he told her:
"Nay, the young man will not hurt your sister's cure."
At the end of September, something tremendously exciting happened to Hannah. She had been so busy learning the contents of that old calf-bound book that she had never noticed how a light seemed to shine right through Ann Mary's lovely face every time Captain Winthrop looked at her. The little student was the most surprised girl in the world when the young soldier told her, one morning in the granary, that he wanted her sister to marry him, and that Ann Mary wanted it, too, if Hannah would allow it.
He laughed a little as he said this last, but he looked anxiously at her, for Ann Mary, who was as sweet as she was pretty and useless, had felt it to be a poor return for Hannah's devotion, now after all, just to go off and desert her. She had said that, if Hannah thought she ought to, she would go back to Hillsboro, and they would have to wait ever so long. So now Captain Winthrop looked very nervously at Ann Mary's little sister.
But he did not know Hannah. She gave a little cry, as if someone had stabbed her, turned very pale, and, leaving her wheel still whirling, she ran like the wind toward Dr. Necronsett's. She wanted to see her sister; she wanted to see if this——
Close to the minister's house she met Ann Mary, who could not wait any longer, and was coming to meet her. After one glimpse of that beautiful, radiant face, Hannah fell a weeping for very joy that her dear Ann Mary was so happy, and was to marry the grand and learned and goodly Captain Winthrop.
There was not a thought in Hannah's mind, then or later, that she must lose Ann Mary herself. Grandmother explains here that the truth is that a heart like Hannah's cannot lose anything good; and perhaps that is so.
Thus, hand in hand, laughing and crying together, the two girls came back to the granary, where Ann Mary's lover took her in his arms and kissed her many times out of light-heartedness that Hannah would put no obstacle in the way. This made little Hannah blush and feel very queer. She looked away, and there was her wheel still languidly stirring a little. Dear me! How many, many times have I heard the next detail in the story told!
"And, without really, so to speak, sensing what she was doing, didn't she put her hand to the rim and start it up again? And when the other two looked around at her, there she was, spinning and smiling, with the tears in her eyes. It had all happened in less time than it takes a spin-wheel to run down."
After that day things happened fast. Captain Winthrop rode off over the mountains to Hillsboro, to ask John Sherwin if he might marry his daughter; and when he came back, there was John Sherwin himself riding along beside him, like an old friend. And when he saw his two dear daughters—Ann Mary, who had gone away like a lily, now blooming like a rose, and Hannah, stout little Hannah, with her honest blue eyes shining—when he saw his two daughters, I say—well, I'm sure I have no idea what happened, for at this point grandmother always takes off her glasses, and sniffs hard, and wipes her eyes before she can go on.
So there was a wedding at the minister's house, and everybody in Heath Falls was invited, because Hannah said they had been so good to her. Everybody came, too, except old Master Necronsett, and that was nothing, because he never went anywhere except to the woods.
I know just what the bride and Hannah wore, for we have pieces of the material in our oldest cedar chest; but, of course, as they weren't your own great-great-great-grandmother and aunt, perhaps you wouldn't care to have me tell you all about their costumes. It was a grand occasion, however—that you can take from me; and the family tradition is that Ann Mary looked like a wonderful combination of an angel and a star.
And then Captain and Mrs. Winthrop rode off in one direction, and Hannah and her father in another, and there were a great many tears shed, for all everybody was so happy.
Hannah went home with her head full of new ideas, and with four books in her saddle-bags—which, for those days, was a large library. These were the Bible, the "Universal Preceptor," a volume of the Shakespeare comedies, and Plutarch's "Lives." Armed with these weapons, how she did stir things up in Hillsboro! She got the children together into a school, and taught them everything she had learned in Heath Falls; and that was so much—what with the studying which she always kept up by herself—that from our little scrap of a village three students went down to the college at William's Town, in Massachusetts, the first year it was started, and there has been a regular procession of them ever since.
After a time she married Giles Wheeler, and began to teach her own children—she had nine—and very well instructed they were. She was too busy, then, to go into the schoolroom to teach; but never, then or later, even when she was an old, old woman, did she take her vigilant eyes and her managing hand off the schools of our county.
It was due to her that Hillsboro could boast for so long that its percentage of illiterates was zero. If, by chance, anyone grew up without knowing how to read, Aunt Hannah pounced on him and made him learn, whether he would or not. She loaned about, to anyone who would read them, the books she brought from Heath Falls; and in time she started a little library. Remembering the days when Captain Winthrop had read aloud to her in the granary, she had her children go about to read aloud to sick people, and to busy seamstresses or spinners who had no time for books.
And the number of girls in declines she cured by Master Necronsett's system! You would not believe it, if I told you. And she had our river named after that wise old heathen, and we think it the prettiest name possible for a river.
All this time, Ann Mary's position was getting grander and grander, for Captain Winthrop was on the American side when the Revolution came, and grew to be a very important man. Ann Mary dressed in brocade every day and all day, and went to Philadelphia, where she met General and Mrs. Washington, and ever so many more famous people.
Wherever she went, she was admired and loved for her beauty and gentleness; but she did not forget Hannah. Nearly every traveler from the South brought a message or a present from Madam Winthrop to Mistress Wheeler, and once she and General Winthrop came and made a long visit in Hillsboro.
Grandmother's grandmother was old enough, by that time, to remember the visit very clearly; and it was from talk between the two sisters that she learned all about this story. She said she never saw a more beautiful woman than Madam Winthrop, nor heard a sweeter voice. But how Hannah had to hush the unmannerly surprise of her brood of quick-witted youngsters when they found out that elegant Aunt Ann Mary did not know her letters, and had never heard of Julius Cæsar or Oliver Cromwell! For marriage did not change Ann Mary very much; but as her husband was perfectly satisfied with her, I dare say it was just as well.
However, when the Winthrop cousins begin to put on airs, and to talk about autograph letters from Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson addressed to their great-great-great-grandmother, and to show beautiful carved fans and lace handkerchiefs which she carried at State balls in Philadelphia and New York, I have to bite my tongue to keep from reminding them that they have no autograph letters of hers!
Then I go up into our garret, and look at Hannah's shabby old books, and I ride over to the place on the road where she tended the fire that night, and I think of the number of Hillsboro boys and girls to whom she opened the great world of books, and—somehow, I am just as well pleased that it was not the lovely Ann Mary who came back to our town and became my great-great-great-grandmother.