OLD HEARTH STONES, AND THE TALES THEY TELL

A  series of articles that appeared

in the 1876 Arthur’s Home Magazine

No. 2 ...Cap’n Marshall’s Haunted Cabin

 

Fifty-five years ago! It really don't seem possible that more than half a century has passed since old Cap'n Marshall died, does it, Aleck?" said an elderly man to father the other day, as he slapped his hand down on his knee in wonder and surprise.

 

"Why, no," said father, brushing his iron-gray hair clear back from his forehead, a gesture that he always makes when something comes up to remind him of his boyhood. It always seems to me that that gesture is significant of brushing aside the years that have slowly and cautiously crept up on him until the accumulation has footed up a half century of time since manhood.

 

I had often heard the story about "Cap'n Marshall," as all the old eastern people pronounced the name. I remember, too, the little square snuggery of a log-house that the captain built. When I saw it, the Browns lived in it — great lovers of roses, the Browns were — and that was why I went home with Martha Ellen, one day at noon, from school, to get some rare cabbage-roses to stick all round my head under the wide ribbon band that held my stubborn hair in place.

 

On our way back to school, Martha Ellen grew very communicative, and when we went through the hazel-thicket I remember that she whispered and asked me if I thought I would be afraid to sleep in their upper chamber. She said she and Jacky slept there, and they didn't believe that old dead Cap'n Marshall ever haunted the house at all; that her father said dead men didn't go gerrymandering about o'nights.

 

And this was the first I ever heard of haunted houses. My mother never allowed us to hear stories of ghosts, and witches, and hobgoblins, and perhaps this was why I drew nearer to Martha Ellen, and put my arm through hers and coaxed her to tell me all about the Cap'n Marshall cabin, and the marvellous stories that were afloat concerning it among the superstitious ones in our oldtime neighborhood.

 

I remember yet how the little girl, Martha Ellen Brown, crept closer to me and lowered her voice and told the story with emphasis, no doubt trying to make it seem as scary as possible; the same story that her grandmother, a feeble-minded old crone, had told the gaping little Browns while she essayed to keep them in-doors and quiet and a-near her as she sat knitting by the sense of feel.

 

And this was the story: That Captain Marshall, who commanded a militia company, long, long ago, 'way down in Vermont, was married to a very homely woman — a woman cross-eyed and hair-lipped, who was always sick — but a patient, loving, affectionate wife. They had one child, a fretful, ailing baby. His life would have been very lonely — the story ran — only for the sunshiny presence of a sprightly, handsome girl who lived with them and looked after the affairs of the household. In time, a guilty love grew between them. The poor wife, with sharpened perception, saw and understood all. As her iliness increased, so seemed their attentions, to her, to grow kinder and tenderer. She saw and comprehended the loving looks that passed between them, even about her bedside, she saw their hands clasp frequently, and their eyes scan each other critically and affectionately.

 

In time, the woman died, and then, when public indignation began to mutter threats, the captain and the bright-faced hired girl, and the poor little wan baby disappeared one dark night. They drove away softly in a wagon with a few household goods. It was a long, tedious journey away to "the Ohio" which they reached after six week's travel. Only the captain and the girl whom he called his wife; sunburnt, ragged, travel-stained, were the ill-assorted pair, the tall, straight, graceful man of forty-five and the small, quick, shrewd, thin-voiced girl of twenty summers.

 

A week after their arrival, two more families came; they had journeyed some distance on the way with them. Their first inquiry of the Marshalls was: "Where on airth's the baby?"

 

They said the baby died on the way and was buried — the first one in a new graveyard.

 

A story can grow out of a very small beginning, and it was nothing very strange, considering the dearth of news in those early days, if a story did grow from this, unfeasible though it doubtless was.

 

To-day, if you stood upon the beautiful site of the old-time cabin-home that Cap'n Marshall built, and would ask any of the old pioneers for information about the Marshall family of sixty years ago, he would tell you that people did say in those early days that the cabin was haunted by an emaciated, bone-and-skin baby with its head cut off, and a gory towel wrapped about the bloody neck.

 

By some means a rumor took form and shape, saying that on the journey from the East to Ohio, the guilty couple, overtaken by night and not near any stopping-place, tarried in a lonely way side cabin, or rude trapper's hut, mayhap, until the morning; that the baby, sick and crying, became such a positive annoyance and burden, that, in an angry mood, they took its life and buried the body in a corner of the cabin before they resumed their journey. That a report should lose nothing, it was furthermore asserted that n butcher-knife in the possession of the captain had a stain of bright crimson blood on the handle, and a blotch of stain, corroded, and dark, and ineffaceable, on the blade. Indeed, some of the wise old women in the new neighborhood, for the purpose of better convincing themselves, had contrived to get their wary hands on the knife, and they had scoured it "to their own satisfaction," as they expressed themselves. One of them used soap and sand; another sand and lye strong enough to bear up a goose egg; and another used ashes and then rushes out of the Golden Bottom, and "it' 'twa'n'ta mite of use," for the blood was meant to' stay there, a judgment against the guilty offenders.

 

Later, Cap'n Marshall opened the first tan-yard in the new country and made the first leather that the pioneers had. He was a moody, silent man, who never said anything unless spoken to, while his wife was as arrant a little flirt as ever glided over a puncheon floor to the music of the fiddle. I can remember of hearing gray-haired boys tell about taking tea at Cap'n Marshall's by invitation of his wife, and how they ate and praised the cream-cheese, and puffy corn-cakes, and yellow butter, and how often they passed their cups to be replenished with sage tea, all the while smiling and saying pretty things to the cap'n's wife just to torment the poor old fellow and make him jealous.

 

One time the captain and his wife had to go to one of the adjoining counties to visit some relatives, and they told one of the Lowry girls if she would come and stay during their absence and take care of things, she might have all the butter she could make from the fresh milch cow.

 

That was a rare offer, for butter was worth ten cents a pound at Gilkison's store in the only village in the county. The girl, Hannah, invited another girl to go and stay with her, both averring that were not "afeard."

 

The first night they stayed alone they took all the necessary precautions to guard against witches, of which they both stood in awe. A horse-shoe was hung above the cabin door, some pulverized brimstone scattered on the sill, an old bridle thrown across a chairback and the chair placed directly in front of the bed in which they slept, the other chairs were stood on the ends of the posts and leaned up against the wall, and the splint-broom was left standing in a convenient place, easy of access.

 

When they buried the embers for the night, and the cabin was left in total darkness, they undressed and went to bed backward.

 

To the initiated, all precautions had been observed, nothing was left undone.

 

The horse-shoe over the door debarred any witch from entering, and the brimstone on the sill kept the very foot of a witch from stepping thereon, but if it chanced, as it did frequently, to come down the chimney, the chairs turned upside down were indicative of inhospitality, while the broom and bridle meant "take a ride."

 

The girls were a long time getting to sleep that night. They talked and talked; told stories, those old, old ones that amused all of us in our childhood, and which we have since heard read and translated from the original German language in our own households. Then they discussed all the neighbors, and the neighbors' affairs, pro and con, not forgetting the old story of the dead baby, headless, and with a gory towel about its neck, that came back sometimes and made the moody father moodier than ever. The two girls talked until they became afraid and excited, and lowered their voices into a whisper. Suddenly the backlog in the wide fireplace, which had consumed until it was a mere shell, burned through in the middle and the two ends fell apart, the sparks flew upward and glimmered and a little creeping blaze darted up weakly from one of the pieces.

 

"Lordy! I thought sure it was a witch!" shrieked Hannah, clutching the other girl by the back.

 

Sometime during the night the cat jumped up on the ladder, and this made the frightened girls cling closer to each other than ever, and about that time the water-pail on the bench sprang a leak, and the little stream dribbled and puddled down on the floor in a very mysterious manner. Both girls were afraid to look out and more afraid to get up; they were certain the cat was the headless baby, and dribbling water was the flowing of blood from its neck. But the morning light made plain the mystery, and again the brave girls asserted that they were not "afeard."

 

The same precautions were observed the next night on retiring, and again were they frightened.

 

In the midnight they heard a noise that was nothing else than sods falling upon 'a coffin. Hadn't they heard sods fall upon coffins three or four times? and wasn't it a sound that never could be forgotten or mistaken for any other? They vowed and resolved that they'd leave that haunted cabin in the morning no matter what the consequences would be. But the morning's dawn made a revelation, and Hannah concluded, with a very sheepish face, that when butter could be had for the making, butter worth ten cents a pound, it was better to accept of It.

 

The sound of sods falling upon a coffin was caused by two little pokes of dried grapes and dried plums falling from a peg where they hung, down into a big kettle that stood up against the broad jamb-stone in the corner.

 

There was undoubtedly something mysterious connected with Captain Marshall, even after making all allowance for the superstitious notions of some of the people in the new neighborhood, and for the meddlesome manners of others, and for the idle, groundless reports that fastened themselves upon his good name. Perhaps he felt that he had not dealt as kindly by his first wife as he should have done, or, maybe, away back in his boyhood was an old hurt that had shadowed his whole life; or, it may have been that he felt keenly the incompatibility between himself and the frivolous little thing to whom he was bound by the ties of marriage.

 

Some queer people in the community believed that the little cabin was really haunted. Sam Knowlton, a wild young fellow, declared that he saw a strange light one night, late, when he passed there, on his way home from a visit to Dolly Clarke. It was not like the light of a torch, or fire, or tallow dip, or pine knot — like nothing he had ever seen in the old Virginia, or Pennsylvania, or in the backwoods of Ohio. It was a pale, vapory, dim light — a whitish light, a little like a handful of snowy gauze falling softly to the ground; it rose and fell, and finally seemed caught up by the shadowy hand of a baby, a poor, little, wee, thin, talony, frail hand that must have belonged to the poorest and scraggiest sort of a baby. Then when it was caught up it seemed to go up, up, up, and disappeared with the mournfulest, pitifulest,

 

quivering baby-cry that ever fell upon the quickened hearing of any mortal. That was the way Sam told it, and Sam wasn't a man to fabricate lies or try to palm off a falsehood on anybody. He was wild and full of fun, but he wasn't a deceiver, or a fellow who was wicked at heart; he was the oldest son of Zebulon Knowlton, and he was a class-leader, and came from one of the best old families in Boston. The word of a Knowlton was as good in those days as ginseng ready dried, or spikenard in the sack waiting a chance to go to market.

 

When Mike Beam, the schoolmaster, went to the cap'ns to board his week, he only stayed there three or four nights. Old Mrs. Peabody, one of the shrewdest Yankee women in the neighborhood, was set to work to find out why Mike tarried such a little while there, and stayed at other places so long, but she said it would be worth something to find out the why and the wherefore of Mike's boardin* there. She said she had attacked him on all sides, and he remained as mute as a fish, though he did 'pear all the time as though he might be bustin' with information.

 

Sally Carter said, when she lived there a couple of weeks, there was hardly a night passed that she did not hear the old man Marshall moaning and carrying on in his sleep, and sometimes yelping out as though the hounds were after him, tooth and nail. She said he called his distress the nightmare, and said he had always been subject to it, but she knew that no nightmare ever clinched a mortal that way; if those groans, and moans, and yells wa'n't the probin's and the upbraidin's of a guilty conscience, then she was no jedge o' natur'.

 

A person instinctively feels and knows, sometimes, from the countenance of another, the estimation put upon his character. Captain Marshall must have read in his neighbors' faces the distrust, and the surmise, and the unspoken suspicion that some of them cherished toward him; at any rate, the man grew more morose, his sad countenance wore a "hang-dog expression," as old Aunt Caruthers called it, and he seldom went to town meetings, elections, sales, vendues and such places, where men in those days " most did congregate."

 

After while his health began to fail, and he coughed, and his shoulders wore a pitiful stoop, and he sat in the loft a good deal and wrote, page after page, which he laid away in a peddler's tin box on which was a padlock.

 

About this time he took in a partner, a bright, brisk, young fellow from York State, by the name of Stebbins, and in less than one month the gay lad addressed Mrs. Mary Ann Marshall as Minnie, and she called him Rob, and they both spoke of the captain as "the old man." Still, people in those early days had a free and easy habit of addressing each other by their first names; they do yet in little out-of-the-way villages where they are well known and feel an interest in each other's welfare.

 

This was in the fall. During the winter the captain had a long sick spell, from which he slowly recovered. Then he used to sit up in the loft with some coals of fire in an old bake kettle, beside the oiled paper window, and write, and write, storing his manuscript away in the peddler's box and carrying the key to it with him. His cough was dreadful, and after its paroxysms he would sometimes lie like one dead for several minutes.

 

One day Grand'ther Goudy called to visit him and have a long talk with him about spiritual matters. It was a comforting talk to the captain, and a satisfactory one to grand'ther, and when the two men separated, in the bottom of good old neighbor Goudy's weasel-skin wallet, along with a silver quarter — a pocket-piece that his sister had given him — jingled, in close companionship, the key to the peddler's tin box.

 

If anyone had been hidden behind the bunches of dried herbs in the gloomy loft at the time the two men parted, they would have heard the poor captain's injunction: " I can trust you, grand'ther. After I am dead, and before my body leaves this house, do you take that key, remember, and open this box in the presence of my neighbors, and read aloud what I have written. I want them to know all; I want to stand clear in their sight; I want them to know everything."

 

One morning, about a week after this occurred, when breakfast was ready, the captain's wife called him to rise, that the meal was waiting. He did not come, and, growing impatient with his delay, she said to young Stebbins: "Let us eat, Rob; never mind the old fellow; it is a trick he has of being tardy."

 

The two sat down and ate, and laughed, and joked, and had a lively time, and when they left the table, she looked at the remains of the repast and said, with merriment in her light tones: "The poor old fox can pick the bones."

As Stebbins passed toward the door to go out to the tan-yard, he stooped down, slid his hand under her shapely chin, and turning her face up, kissed with unction the pretty, playful dimples in her cheeks. Not even a blush crept over her face; it was no new thing, this caress.

 

Two hours after, as she passed the bed-room door, humming a dancing tune, with a smile on her red lips, and all the springiness of young girlhood in her step, she carelessly paused and peeped in. She saw a sight that made her throw up both hands, and then cover her face and shriek long and loud. Her husband was dead, and the pillows were saturated with blood. The quilts and sheets and the bosom of his shirt were drenched in the crimson flow. He had died during the night in a fit of coughing, with no one beside him.

 

Before the friends and neighbors formed in rude, straggling funeral procession the next day, old Grand'ther Goudy spoke in a low voice to the lately widowed wife, and requested that the tin box be brought forth, according to the last private request of the deceased. It was nowhere to be seen. The lowly loft was examined, and they found the old creaking chair on which the poor captain used to sit and write, the kettle with the dead coals and the white ashes overspreading them, the stub of a quill pen, the ink-horn, some papers and notes in a square wooden box, some tobacco, and a bottle with cough medicine in it made of roots and barks; but nowhere in the search, from the ridge pole to the clapboard floor, could that box be found.

 

So the request of the captain, and his secret, and the mystery that wrapped him, all went down into that rude forest grave with him. I've heard old pioneers say they'd freely give the best horse they owned to know what that strange mystery was, but it is not likely that time will ever uncover the secret and make bare the revelation. People who had never felt much interest in poor Cap'n Marshall were roused to a new interest in him that day as they gathered around his last resting-place. They were sorry then that they had not been more charitable in their judgment of him.

 

Six weeks after his death, the late partner, Stebbins, and the widow were married. None of the neighbors noticed them, or visited them at all, and in less than half a year he was compelled to leave the place for the reason that he could not make a living. Everybody went to another tannery seven miles away.

 

Then the story burst into full blaze that the Marshall cabin was haunted by the old cap'n himself; that he had been seen gliding about in a gory shirt, with the stain of blood on his lips and throat, and with his pen and ink-horn in his hand, and a troubled, anxious expression on his awfully pallid countenance.

 

For years and years the cabin stood deserted; rails were piled into the door and windows, and weeds grew as high as the moss-covered roof. But when a village was laid out around it, and land became valuable, the hut was fixed up, and roses in luxuriant heaps and clusters piled themselves up beside the stone chimney and the once bleak, mud-daubed log walls. And that is my memory of the old Cap'n Marshall log-cabin of long, long ago.

 

To-day, where the cabin stood, the students have a croquet-ground, and gay lads and lasses trip lightly over the smooth plat, and they little think or care of the history that could be written of it in the annals of a neighborhood.

 

A great many years ago — perhaps twenty-five — some little school-girls were making play-houses in a ferny ravine, not far from where the cabin stood, when one of them caught her foot, fast in the old wire around the edge of a orooked piece of rusty tin-ware that had been out of sight among the dry leaves. An elderly man of the village passing at that moment, carelessly cast his eye upon it, and discovered that it had once been a tin box such as notion peddlers carry. The front of it, about the fastening, had been broken away. Nothing discernible inside of it except a small brass padlock.

 

Putting all things together, and connecting them by the links in the remembrance of old pioneers, it was the opinion of all that it was the old Cap'n Marshall box that contained the secret, the last message to the people among whom he lived and died suspected, and probably unkindly judged. No doubt it had been his box, stolen and secreted there. Whether or not the secret was buried with him, who knows?

© 2011 Peggy Mershon                                                                                     Contact at marwelmer@aol.com