Page images

I did not in the least doubt it. To any one who had had an opportunity of witnessing Mrs. Prescott's daily battle with dust, dirt, and decay, in their innumerable forms; and her many and marvellous solutions of the everreturning problem how to make the few things she could bring herself to use, serve as substitutes for the multitude that it would have broken her heart to summon forth from their life-long inaction; it was not difficult to believe in any marvel of preservation that had been achieved under her own strict domestic rule. My faith was strong that, if she could only be spared to cherish it, that beloved mahogany table would survive the crumbling of empires, and resist the tooth of Time; and, outliving the earth itself, would be no very preposterous candidate for admission into that extremely material heaven, which certain dust-clogged imaginations are so fond of presenting to our view.

I left the subject of the table untouched, however, and confined myself to the business in hand.

"I hope you intend to be impartial in your invitation, Mrs. Prescott. Cannot these two friends of mine find an opening for their respective talents, somewhere in the afternoon's work?"

Mrs. Prescott stared in undisguised amazement.

"I mean to have Alice go," she said, with a mixture of austerity and amusement; "I'm going to paper the keeping room down there, and she's got to help me. As for Ruth, I should like to have her go, of course; there's not the least danger of our having too much help; many hands make light work. But if you can get her to go, you'll do more than I think you will-that's all I've got to say about it."

And Mrs. Prescott walked off, not to waste time on a subject of so little importance.

Ruth looked at me imploringly. "You don't mean it, Miss Frost! you know I can't go!"

I hesitated. Immediately, Alice rose and went quietly

out. I could not but marvel at the fineness of her instincts. Doubtless, she understood, as well as if I had told her so, that her presence was, at that moment, a constraint upon me. Struggle against it as I may, my affections, my sympathy, and my emotions, will always refuse to utter themselves freely in the presence of a third person,-a looker-on,-no matter how congenial to me may be that person's self, nor how thoroughly in sympathy with the spirit of the moment. Then I put my arms round my excited companion. "Ruth, it is the first favor I have asked of you. And I have set my heart upon it."

She burst into tears.

"Of course,

I cannot refuse, if

you insist,-when you have done so much for me. But you don't know what a trial it will be to me! I can't bear all those eyes!"

If it had really been a favor for myself, in any narrow sense, I could not have insisted. But it was for Ruth's

own sake that I steeled myself.

"You need not look at any eyes but mine, and they intend to keep very tender watch over you. Not because of anything I have done for you,-that is nothing,-but to show me that you love me, Ruth!

And so, finally, she promised.




N nearly every New England village, I find, there is some one dwelling that enjoys a sinister distinction over its neighbors. Either, it had its foundation in some ugly and ominous circumstance; or it is stained through and through with an ever-darkening story of horror; or a dim shadow of mystery lurks in its corners; or it is

pervaded by the faint, misty, elusive scent of ghostly revelries. Now and then, there appears to have been a sufficient germ for this luxuriant, legendary foliage, in some actual fact. Oftener still, it has grown out of the gray old structure by a process analogous to that which has covered its roof with moss and its walls with mould; without any more fertile soil wherein to have taken root, than the bare fact that its builder came of an unknown stock, or that it has, at some period of its history, stood for a long time untenanted. And an empty house, in a quiet New England town, is the lawful playground of the imagination, the readiest material for all the latent superstition of the place to work upon. The winds take up their abode in it, and fill it with solemn whispers capable of manifold interpretation,-birds and bats people it with vague, flitting forms, its chill, damp, vault-like atmosphere is thrillingly suggestive of ghostly occupants,-dry-rot gets into its timbers and gnaws away at their heart like the

tooth of an uneasy conscience, its silence is full of inexplic able sound, its darkness flashes with mysterious light,— its very exterior is believed to have some indefinable peculiarity. Strange whispers-originating no one knows where, and swelling no one knows how-are afloat concerning it; and people who do not believe them in their hearts, are ready enough to give them currency with their lips. By and by, children are afraid to pass it after nightfall; and their elders glance at it half-curiously, half-nervously, reasoning vaguely within themselves that, where there is so much of inference, there ought, for consistency's sake, to be some small residuum of fact. The eerie character of the house is established. It will take years of commonplace occupancy to obliterate its claim to a dismal distinction; and a long course of the plodding prose of daily life to dispel the half-poetic charm that environs it.

Mrs. Prescott's house is of this class. Its one undeniable peculiarity is, that it has never had either a birth or a death under its roof;-a curious enough fact, in a dwelling that is nearly a century old; but explicable by the shifting character of its occupancy. It has missed, therefore, somewhat of that gentle consecration of love and grief, which makes the walls of a genuine home half sacred in their aspect and influence, and a dim recognition thereof is, doubtless, latent in the feeling with which it is regarded.

If you ask, generally, of its history, you will be told that it was built, and first occupied, by a strange, silent family; that came nobody knew whence, lived nobody knew how, and went nobody knew whither. To this will be appended the vaguest tale-with hardly enough of definite outline to be anywise transferable to paper-of three fair daughters, who were visited one by one, with some inscrutable and malignant fate; and waxed unutterably wan and spirit-like under its touch; and slowly faded out of existence (but not in the house, its mysterious immunity from death must needs have prevented that); and whose spirits had been

seen flitting through the dense shadow of the orchard, on moonlight nights. If you push your inquiries more particularly, however, you will succeed in extracting as much information about this unknown family as could reasonably be expected to survive it; in a community where it had not sojourned long enough to establish, by means of inter-marriage, birth, death, and familiar intercourse, any abiding claim upon its sympathies. The real truth seeming to be, that the Gwynnes (for such was their name) had once known better days; had here found a brief foothold upon the slippery bank of Oblivion; and, sliding thence, had made that final plunge beneath its dark waters, beyond which none but attached friends and hound-scented lawyers would care to follow them. After them, came a number of tenancies, of the briefest individual duration; and then, a long period of emptiness and neglect, during which rumors and conjectures thickened around the deserted dwelling, not less rapidly than the dust gathered on its floors, and the mosses and lichens on its roof.

Finally, Mr. Prescott, his health having failed him in a neighboring town, pitched upon it as a convenient residence for the remainder of his own fast lapsing life; and one, moreover, where his wife, in the event of her being left a widow, would be within easy reach of the kindly offices and sympathies of her paternal home. If the shrewd New Englander had any unacknowledged idea of cheating death of his lawful prey, in his own case, by removing to a house that was reported to enjoy an immunity from his dread visitations, the event proved, to the great edification of curious lookers-on, how equally inevitable were the stroke of doom, and the mysterious spell that hedged round his dwelling. Mr. Prescott died, suddenly, at a wayside inn, while on a short journey; and, in curious confirmation of the received theory that death was, in no shape, to enter that charmed precinct, he was never again permitted to cross the threshold of his home. For, on the arrival of

« PreviousContinue »