Tom walked home with Bessie from meeting. He was generally cheerful and his words were even, and serene, and pleasant, but this day he was gloomy. Bessie rallied him on his despondency, but Tom's eyes filled with tears, his lips quivered and he leaned his head down on his arm on the rude puncheon table. Fanny, the puppy, always ready for a frolic with Tom, nestled her little pink nose between his feet and whined pettishly, and then she toyed with the rosette on his moccasin, but Tom heeded her not.

 

In the afternoon, Tom took down Bessie's little, blue sunbonnet from its peg on the wall, and, with a mournful smile, put it on her head and tied the bow under the pretty curve of her chin and then said: "Let us take a walk."

Their walk led to the now cabin. They went inside, and Bessie, with girlish glee, told how she would arrange their little stock of household goods, what would stand here, and what there. Then they went outside, and she thanked Tom for his thoughtfulness in leaving the young maple close to the window, and the forked elm where it would droop down upon one end of the cabin roof, and the pretty cluster of dogwoods on the shelving bank above the spring.

 

Tom was still gloomy. He drew her arm within his, and they walked down to the beautiful bank of the creek, and then followed its curve around to where he had cut the logs to finish the cabin. The white chips lay thick upon the green ivy that covered the ground like a carpet.

 

"And now, Bessie, I have something to tell you," said Tom, laying his hand on her shoulder, and turning her face full upon his own. "I don't think I'm whimsical, or full o' notions, or a bit like Grand'ther Jones, but I've seen something that I can't account for, no how. Don't be scared, now, but just listen to me and see what you make of it yourself. I was standing right here, yesterday, kind o' thinking and looking up the creek — it was well on toward evening — and what should I see but a coffin come drifting along. Just as plain and fair a coffin as I over laid eyes on in my life! I moved up closer and bent over and looked, and rubbed my eyes and looked, and shifted about, but yet it was the very same — a dark, red, stained coffin about six feet long. Some of the time the water'd splash up over one end of it, and sometimes it would veer around and float sidewise, and when it come about even with where I stood, it slowly sank — just like a coffin as it was going down into the grave — slowly and mournfully. I don't believe in signs or whims, but, Bessie, I can't help but think that one of us is going to die, and I believe it's myself. The coffin was nearer my length than yours. But how could the good Lord part us now, just when we're so happy," and the poor fellow sobbed a long, quivering sob that broke into a pitiful cry of sore distress.

The two sat down with their arms entwined about each other and wept. Then Bessie slowly ceased sobbing and said: "O Tom, we are silly -- just as like as not the coffin you saw was a bit of a log, or a box, or something of the kind," and the poor girl essayed to smile.

 

"Bessie, dear child!" was all the sorrowing lover said as he pushed back her hair and looked so tenderly into her large brown eyes.

 

So they tried to comfort each other as they walked home in the gray twilight, and the twinkling stars came out one by one, and seemed to look down upon the pair in pity — poor Tom and poor Bessie. They were loth to part that evening; they said good-bye again and again, and then when Tom closed the gate, he turned and, as she entered the door, he waved his hand. Bessie thought he never appeared so pretty as he did that day and evening, and she stood and watched him until he crossed the bars that led into the sugar camp.

 

The next day, Bessie was down at the meadow brook rinsing some skeins of flax thread that she had boiled in ashes and water. The last skein was shaken out and she stood floating it in the water and watching the brown threads separate, when she heard the tramp of a horse's hoofs swiftly coming down the lane. She looked up and saw a neighbor, Ralph Waterson, riding on Jack Slater's dapple gray. Strange! Jack never would loan Ralph his horse! What could be the matter?

 

"Ho, Bessie!" hailed the familiar voice; "awful, isn't it? Tom's killed down on the bank o' the crick! awful for tho Lawson's!" and he dashed past her in his shirt sleeves, without a hat, his hair blown back by the wind, and nothing on the horse save a rude halter.

 

Bessie remembered only of flying to the house and falling into her mother's arms, after that came a blessed season of unconsciousness.

 

Fisher told us the rest of the story as he sat, one winter evening, in the warmest corner with his arm-chair tipped back against the wall.

 

"I seed Tom as he went to his work that very mornin' with his ax on his shoulder. He was awhistlin' some sort of a mournful song that was rale techin'. He went to fall a tree an' it fell agin' another, leastaways that's how it 'peared to be, an' a big limb glanced and struck 'im right in the forehead an' it must 'a' been done so suddent that the poor feller never drempt o' what killed him. There wa'n't a piece of his skull left as big as the half o' my hand, an' his poor brains were spattered reound on the saplin's, an' ivy, and the logs, and the big white chips, awful like. Oh, it was a terrible blow fur the whole neighborhood! I thought the Carnahans and Lawsons would go clean daft over his death. Poor Tom! we gethered up the pieces and put 'em in a coffin in some sort o' shipshape an' laid a white towel over what 'peared to bo his head, an' then the girls, our Reuth an' some of 'em, heaped a lot o' posies into the jubious places inside the coffin .an' made it seem kind o' tolerable like. I'd never a doubt in my mind but what Tom had a warnin' when he see the coffin come a driftin' down the crick — I think, as grand'ther Jones used to say, that folks offen hev warnin's of death an' that they'd ort for to heed them and profit by them."

 

More than twenty years ago the railway invaded the sacred spot near which poor Tom Lawson built his little cabin. The site of the lowly home is now in one corner of a broad and beautifully sloping meadow. The big bend in the creek is spanned by a massive bridge of iron, and the tall oaks and sycamores look down upon the thundering trains as they go whizzing by, freighted with busy human lives. Tired travellers look out and their eyes brighten as they gaze upon the sylvan spot, and they exclaim, "how beautiful; how perfect the picture!" Little do they dream of the sad story interlinked with this bit of pretty landscape, little reek they of the tragic scene these old trees looked down upon more than half a century ago.

 

After many years Bessie married. Stricken in years, now she sits in her easy chair and smiles as she watches the graceful gambols of her grandchildren. The traveller on the same line of railroad often sees her, an old lady with snowy hair parted smoothly on her placid brow, sitting out on the poach at a low white cottage by the wayside, rocking softly and dreamily to and fro, sometimes her knitting lying in her lap, and sometimes the broad pages of the open Bible with the soft summer breezes playing with its precious leaves. Sometimes her head rests on a pillow that loving ones have gently placed there, and she sits and dreams and her little, shrunken hands lie folded over the gracious promises that soothed her to sleep.

 

When she smiles at the visions she sees in dreamland, and a glory seems to settle down on her calm face and make it radiant and beautiful, who knows but the old love of her girlhood has come back to her and together they hold sweet communion on the verge of that land which is bathed in the golden glow of immortality. Who knows?

50 YEARS AGO OR, THE CABINS OF THE WEST

 

A series of articles that appeared

in 1875 in Arthur’s Home Magazine

Back to Page 1 of this story

 

No. 4 … Tom and Bessie Page 2

© 2011 Peggy Mershon                                                                                     Contact at marwelmer@aol.com