Levi jogged along slowly on his journey that he might look at the country leisurely. When he came into that part of the State of New York in which his informant resided, he inquired for the name of Pettingill. No one knew of that name At last an old lady from a village five miles distant, said there was a very poor, distressed family named Pettingill whe once lived over on the hill road, eight or ten miles from them.
Without manifesting any unusual interest, Levi drove down into the old lady's neighborhood the next day, and there, after much inquiry, learned that the family had been taken to the almshouse about two years previous.
Was it possible that this could be his father and his family! At any rate, he would visit the poorhouse under pretence of wishing to adopt a boy ten or twelve years old. What mingled feelings and emotions thronged his mind as he hitched his horse at the bars before the dilapidated and forbidding county almshouse.
Levi was a man of fine personal appearance, and looked like the gentleman that he was.
The urbane proprietor escorted him through the different departments. Alas, alas! it seemed that the fervent, earnest, angry prayer of Brother Simpkins, in the deserted household, long years before, on that well-remembered occasion, was fulfilled to the very letter!
In a cell, behind cold iron grating, was the wreck of the wily widow, Salome Chester. She was haggard beyond description. Her hair was cut short and stood bristling all over her head. Her hands were like talons. One loose garment, the hem of which was frayed and fringed into hanging tatters, half covered her emaciated form. Her teeth were few and jagged; her eyes, wild, and dark, and devilish, glared out from cavernous sockets. She sat on the ground eating wheaten grits, from an old tin pan, with her skinny fingers; a tin cup half full of buttermilk stood beside her.
She had inherited insanity from her mother, and would never recover. Near her, in another cell, was her son, a youth of twenty or twenty-five years of age. He had been an inmate of the almshouse for more than a dozen years. He was harmless, generally, but when the fits of frenzy or madness came upon him, he was dangerous, and for this reason they kept him confined all the time. He had some pieces of old cloth, and was busy cutting out and making what he called mittens, although they bore no resemblance to mittens, whatever. The thumbs were cut out and sowed on, and some of them were half as large as the mittens themselves.
"Well, Henry, you are still busy, I see," said the proprietor, in a cheerful voice.
"Yaas," was the drawling reply. "I'm alius to work; I'm never glum. I want to git my stent done afore dark."
"Henry!" That was the name of the father — Levi's father — and he shrank back as he thought of it, and knew that the same blood, the blood of the Pettingills, was alike flowing in their veins. And this sprawling idiot, who had reached the full stature of manhood, was his brother — the son of the same father! But while he was repelled, he pitied.
A large, sleepy-eyed girl lay on a cot-bed playing with a button and a string. Her laugh was frequent, and no more like real human laughter than the braying of an ass. She could not talk, instead she made a noise: "Jubba-jubba-jah! Jubba-jubba-jah!" and seemed to need nothing else to amuse her. She was a pitiable object. Her hair was cut short, her mouth large, nose flat, and her narrow forehead receding painfully.
Another girl was intelligent enough to assist in the almshouse kitchen, if someone kept strict watch over her.
At last they entered the large room set apart for the old, and crippled, and invalids.
An old man with rather good features and with long, white hair hanging down to his neck, sat in a rickety chair with his feet laid up on a stool. He had only one arm. Rheumatism had drawn his limbs until they were twisted out of every degree of shapeliness. He had long been a sufferer from chronic rheumatism. He looked up an instant and then looked down again at the cloths which wrapped his limbs.
Levi knew by the description that this man was his father. He longed to hear his voice, and putting on an air of indifference, he kindly, but carelessly, said: " You are afflicted by a painful disease, sir."
"Yes, it is almost more than I can — more than I can — can," was the reply, in a voice that. had once been strong and full, but was now cracked and whining.
"Would you be glad to get away from here?" asked Levi, looking down at the broken and bowed form before him.
"Oh, sir, I would, I would!" was the childish, 'plaining answer, and he looked up eagerly and inquiringly.
"It must be a lonely, sad life," said Levi, walking away and turning his attention to another inmate who was even in a worse condition than his father.
Levi talked alonr with the proprietor, and the conference ended with the promise of having the old man's clothes clean and ready by the morrow, when he was to be removed. All this was to be kept from the knowledge of the poor inmate.
That night, after Levi had retired, he had leisure to think over what he had done, and for an instant he was startled at the step he had taken.
What would his mother say? Would it be right to carry home with him this imbecile old man who had once so shamefully and heartlessly wronged that gentle wife and mother? Would it be right to shelter that heavy old head under the same roof?
He tossed in bed uneasily, but after midnight he fell asleep, and in his dreams a vision came to him, his mother. With a benignity of countenance that was radiant and beautiful beyond all expression, she smiled on Levi and acquiesced with his decision. That dream satisfied him.
The next day, he drove over to the almshouse. He stood before the feeble old man, and in a low, but distinct, voice said: "I come for you; I am going to take you away from here, and give you a home while you live. Do you know who I am? Can you surmise who would come and take you from this poor bondage?"
Henry Pettingill, the broken, shattered, trembling, old man, looked up and a blank expression crept over his twitching, pallid face, his eyes stared, and he swung his head with a see-saw motion as he whined out, in a dazed way: "Are you — are you? oh, I don't remember — that must have been a long, long time ago, wasn't it? Let me think — did you fetch us here that snowy day, when they put the quilts all over my head to keep — to keep — was that the time? and they told us — they told us they were takin' us to a better house! Ah, yes, I mind! you drove the horses, and you cracked the whip at them, ha, ha! ha, ha! Well, we will go and ride again, will we? ha, ha, ha! Yes, we will ride, ha, ha! thankee, sir, yes, ha, ha!"
It was very, very sad. An old bed was laid in the little spring wagon and a comfortable place made for the decrepid old man.
We can imagine the feelings that stirred the very fountains of his soul, as Levi drove down the lane that led from the door of the poor-house out into the state road. The proprietor opened the bars to let him drive through. The men shook hands. Tears were in their eyes, for both appreciated this scene in the sad drama of an ill-starred life — a life misguided, full of errors, blighted, and, as an unerring result, a failure. One wrong step will blight a whole life.
"Am I going home with you —eh?" laughed the old man, peeping up at Levi from his wrappings down in the wagon. Levi nodded his head.
It was a long journey, and his charge grew very tired and restless sometimes. After a night's rest, he was recuperated, and would sing as they drove slowly along under arching oaks and through beautiful stretches of wild wood. He would amuse himself an hour at a time singing the words: "The rat ran up the wall; the rat ran down the wall; the rat ran in the hole."
It was night when they reached the pleasant home of the Pettingills. The firelight was flickering fitfully, and throwing up glancing lights on the walls and against the white-curtained windows. The old man was asleep when the little wagon halted at the gate. Levi softly climbed out and tapped on the window-panes at his mother's bed-room. "Mother, I've come back," he said, brokenly. "My dear son, my dear son," she answered, in tones full of emotion.
"Well," he said; and that one word contained a volume. He paused.
"Is it well with you, Levi, my son?" said the mother.
He held her in his arms while, he told her the strange result of his visit.
"Mother, he is here now; he is out in the wagon at the gate. Can you blame me? Can you bear all this? Is it wrong that we — you and I — when he deserted long, long ago, should return good for that great evil? I wanted to do this, mother. I felt brave and strong, and was glad to do it. I was proud to gather up the remnants of his tattered life and try to make peace and good come out of the poor fragments. Say you are willing, mother!'' But the limp figure had slid down out of his arms and fallen at his feet; even while he spoke his words fell upon deaf ears.
The distorted old form of his father was borne into the house and cared for comfortably. Mary Pettingill’s husband was dead to her when he gave up her love for that of another; and she seemed to look upon this man, this diseased, ailing, pining, trembling pauper, even as she would look upon any of God's miserable creatures. To her he was as dead as though he had been buried thirty years before; her love for him was dead, her tenderness, her pity, her interest, all gone, but the one feeling of Christian charity. And though she cared for and ministered to his physical wants and necessities, it was mechanically done. No emotion stirred her pulses, no warmth gladdened her heart; she was repulsed even to loathing, only for the sake of the sweet revenge that came to her and to her boy. She could even sit at the same fireside and be warmed by the same ruddy glow, but he was no more to her than the cat lying on the rug or the dog beside the door. Hew fearfully had been answered the gushing and wrathful petition of the irate Brother Simpkins! Desolation had marked the path of the doomed man.
They lived thus two years, then the days of Henry Pettingill were numbered. One night he was taken violently ill, and when the disease assumed another form, lo, the shadows that had darkened his sky were gone!Like a pearly blossom that opened to the revivifying power of the blessed sunshine, the intellect cleared and shone out, and he was clothed in his right mind.
No womanly woman, under these circumstances oven, could accept a perfect reconciliation. But Levi and his father talked together, and the noble son accepted of his meek petition for entire forgiveness. He told Levi that the anguish of the accursed had been with him in all the years since he had left his wife and baby and united his fortunes with these of a cruel, heartless and designing woman. He said no earthly punishment could have been harder to endure. He died calmly, peacefully.
The sun was just setting, and its golden beams fell aslant from the western hill-tops, and shone in upon the face of the man whose sin-stained soul had gone to Him who gave it. The little room was still, and no one was in it then, and as Mary Pettingill softly passed the door she looked in. The face was glorified in the halo of soft sunlight. For a moment she thought of the Henry of her youthful years, and with stealthy step she stole in and softly kissed the face of the sleeper. Only for a moment, though, did the old-time tenderness warm her bosom. The sun went down as she stood there, and with its last rays departed the blessed influence that had guided her faltering steps to that bedside — that moment came up vividly the memory of Salome Chester, and the kisses that she, the syren, had laid upon the face wrongfully, wickedly, and here by no right given of God or man.
When the morrow's sunset came again, the little procession was winding its way down to the churchyard. A beautiful spreading beech-tree stood a little distance from the other graves, and under this was the sleeping-place designated and chosen by the lonely old man. Mary was not among those who surrounded the grave, but leaning against a native pinr at the other side of the yard, a woman's figurr was seen draped in black and closely veiled. She was standing there like a form in statuary when the procession slowly turned away and scattered in the directions of their several homes. When the gray twilight wrapped the earth in its gathering folds, the woman sadly walked to the newly-made grave, and stood in meditation many minutes. Then she turned and went away.
This was the story. I wish I could have told it in her own peculiarly vigorous style, and with the pathos with which it came to me. In a ten miles' ride across the beautiful country with Levi, I had an opportunity to learn all the particulars of this painful page of his life-history. He told it freely, and frankly answered the many questions I asked him.
Oh, these old cabin hearthstones! what stories do cluster about them. Everyone has its tale — some tragic, some terrible and full of sorrow, and some calm and peaceful and full of a restful satisfaction! Why sit down and write strange, wild, unreal things, drawn from a morbid imagination, when tales o'er true and full of interest, and full of comfort and sympathy, and allied to the trials and sorrows and scenes of our own daily lives, lie all about us waiting to be told! Better to gather up these spattering threads and weave them into a web—not such as we beheld glittering in our dreams, but such as we see clearly in every day that comes to us between the familiar bindings of sunrise and sunset.
50 YEARS AGO OR, THE CABINS OF THE WEST
A series of articles that appeared
in 1875 in Arthur’s Home Magazine
© 2011 Peggy Mershon Contact at email@example.com