OLD HEARTH STONES, AND THE TALES THEY TELL

A  series of articles that appeared

in the 1876 Arthur’s Home Magazine

No. 3 … The Fortune-teller and Fate

 

‘Dear me! So that is where a family lived long, long ago, is it? Oh, oh! The poor souls! What a lonely place! Ugh! I'll never forget this ugly place as long as I live!" and the young girl gathered up the reins of the bridle and turned her horse's head preparatory to galloping down the hill and out of sight.

 

"Not so fast, Minerva," said her companion, "you must remember that fifty years ago yon hill was a wild wood, full of grapevines running up the majestic oaks, clinging to the tops of the saplings, and making beautiful arbors roofed with living green. Why I can think of nothing finer! Now, the old hill is bleak, and uprooted, decaying apple-trees, gray stubble, bare, clayey spots, and the gashes cut by the storms of many years in these steep places, do make it seem doleful, surely. There, where stands a lonely lilac, you see the old heap of hearth stones; and there was once a limpid spring, now only a slimy pool for frogs and watersnakes; here stood the loom-shop; and that gray boulder yonder was once the daily resort of pattering little feet. Below us, in the hollow, once babbled a brook; there where you see the brambles and the wild rose-bushes struggling for the mastery, is a grave — the grave of one beloved — but, alas, the hands that planted the roses and watered them have given that tribute over to others."

 

"A grave in this lonely place!" said the gay young girl. "Why, I cannot conceive of anyone wishing to be buried on the farm where the family lives. Is there a story about it? Or how did it happen. I wonder?" and she turned an inquiring look upon her companion.

 

"Aunt Patty will tell us if we ask her," replied the other.

 

That evening, after the milking was done, and the farm-house quiet and tidy, and Aunt Patty busy with her knitting, the girl-visitor, Minerva, reminded her cousin of the promise, and said: "If aunt is as hard-hearted as mother is about telling stories, we'll not get to hear that one about the grave; will we, Carrie?"

 

But Aunt Patty was willing; she liked to tell stories of old times; liked to make the young folks of now-days laugh and cry over the tales of other years. It was a strange kind of a story, and because I have often heard it I can tell it almost as well as Aunt Patty.

 

Long, long ago, in Massachusetts, lived a family in moderate circumstances, the Flemmlngs. There were the father, and mother, and Job, and Mercy, and Luke, and two little boys, I forget their names. Job was a very steady young man, who cared for nothing but work, work. He rose with the lark, and — well, he retired with the lark, too; while Mercy and Luke were the very opposite. They were very much attached to each other; wherever one went the other went also; they were very gay and frolicsome, and attended all the dances and parties for miles around. They kept no secrets from each other; and this was how it came about that one time, when their father and Job were to be absent from home two days, they made up the plan that they would both go to a fortune-teller's in the mountains and have their fortunes told, without consulting their parents or asking their permission.

 

It was a long, brisk, hard, horseback ride to be accomplished in one day; but these young people, with high hopes and expectations, and backed up by robust health, started long before daylight, and reached the astrologer's by noon.

 

He lived in a cave among the shelving rocks in the side of the mountain — a queer, old, ill-looking man, surrounded by cabalistic characters on the walls, and by an odd combination of articles that quite filled up the half-lighted cavern. Some skins of wild beasts were hung across one end of the little room, and all the secrets of the necromantic art were within the enclosure. His hands were like claws, and his unshaven hair and beard gave him the appearance of a wild animal. His voice, though gruff, was not a repulsive one, and his language was good.

 

Luke told the fortune-teller that they had ridden a great distance, and wanted to return that afternoon, and asked him not to detain them unnecessarily.

 

One at a time they went with him behind the impromptu curtain, and the mysteries of the future were revealed.

On their way home, Luke was very quiet, and his face was sad, and he never spoke except when his sister addressed him, and then frequently in monosyllables. The horses were flecked with foam, and when within a few miles of home they began to ride slowly. Both the brother and sister were troubled and uneasy, but neither betrayed it by any form of speech until evening, when, weary, they sat alone under a tree in the dooryard.

 

"Luke," said Mercy, " I'll tell you what he told me if you'll tell yours."

 

But  Luke sighed, and leaned his head on his hands, and remained moody all the evening, making no reply to her proposition, only saying: "I do wish we'd not gone, for maybe there is some truth in fortune-telling, after all."

In a few days the dull brother brightened up a little, and then they exchanged secrets. Poor Luke! He was to die young, and death was to come suddenly by drowning. The fortune-teller had even described the wild stream and its rugged banks, and the gray rocks that loomed up like massive walls, and the gloom of the pines that hedged in the narrow, swift river, even the glimpse of blue sky that looked down from above between the mingled branches of the green trees. He drew a graphic picture of the last view on earth that his dying gaze would fall upon.

 

Mercy was startled, but comforted her brother by telling him that it was merely conjecture, that it was very unlikely the old man knew anything more of the future than they did themselves.

 

And her fortune? She was to marry a little, black-eyed, sprightly fellow, who loved her dearly, but was to lose him a few years after marriage — the man did not tell how she was to lose him, though she asked him twice; he only shook his head, and went on making characters on a black cloth which was spread upon the ground. She inferred that it was not quite plain to himself how the sprightly husband was to be lost. Her second husband was to be an old man with a bald head and plenty of money. Her life was to be rather cheerful and pleasant, though barely supplied with needed comforts, and her home was to be in a distant land.

 

In less than two years she did marry Jed Truman, a fiddler, and one of the finest dancers in that neighborhood. His father, old man Truman, had friends in the far West who were always writing to him to come out and let his boys "grow up with the new country," a favorite expression of the early settlers of the West.

 

So Jed packed up his dancing-slippers, and put his fiddle in the accustomed green baize bag, hung it in the back end of the wagon, and took his young wife and moved West with his father.

 

They entered lands adjoining. The desolate old place overgrown with weeds, the cabin gone save a heap of hearth stones, and the old orchard uprooted and decaying — the place where the gay girl reined up her horse and ughed over the loneliness, in the beginning of our story — that was the home in the wilderness to which Jed Truman brought his young wife, Mercy, in the year of our Lord 1812.'

 

Now one would not think it possible, but really that fiddle of Jed's came out of its green sheath, on an average, one evening in a week, for merrymakings even in those early days. Dancers were common among our ancestors, and the fiddler held as respectable a position then as a justice does now.

 

But a fiddler could hardly be expected to attend dances and fiddle all night without something to keep his spirits up; and this was the way Jed Truman came to be fond of liquor, and in time to feel the effects of the over-stimulating drug.

 

So, while poor little Mercy Truman stayed at home and spun, and wove, and bore children, whose care fell upon herself, easy Jed played the fiddle all night, and slept off the effects of the excitement and the carousal, curled up in bed, all day, except when he got up and ate his regular meals.

 

Sometimes, when he lay snoring, his jetty, tumbled curls all over his forehead, and the blue veins showing in his temples, and the red flush on his cheeks, poor Mercy would stand and look at the sleeper, and think with a touch of pride of the times when he used to come courting, and the evenings when he used to come and escort her to the dances; and forgetful of the change, and forgiving, she would say in a whisper: "What a beautiful dancer Jed was! Ah me!" And then she would go back to her spinning, proud of the poor fellow still.

 

Afterwhile he neglected his work, and but for the assistance of his father, his land would have become forfeited and his family homeless. The thirst for strong drink grew upon him, and he frequently cut wood at the still-house for what he could drink. That was the custom with poor intemperate men in those early days. The thirst so overpowered them that they were glad to cut wood and do little jobs of work about the stillhouses just for what they could drink. The seething still seemed to fascinate them, and hold them in thrall, and rob them of the strength and dignity of their manhood.

 

One time, perhaps five years after Mercy's young husband had acquired the longing for liquor, he was engaged to play the fiddle at the home of a wealthy farmer about three miles distant, on the occasion of an infair.

 

Jed washed and shaved and put on his best clothes; and, because of a regretful tenderness that filled Mercy's heart on that eventful evening, she took the pains to curl his hair as she had often done in the early days of their marriage, by winding the little slips around her fingers and making of them crisp, compact ringlets that were pretty as tendrils on a vine.

 

Poor girl! all the years of her life to come she was glad of that tender expression of wifely kindness, because she never saw him again.

 

He left the house where the party was held an hour or two before dawn; he was sober and in good spirits. It was supposed that he endeavored to go through the woods the shortest way home, and got lost, and was devoured by wolves. Another supposition, and the general one, was, that in the darkness he mistook his way and wandered into a singular low swamp, where the soil was a mere covering — a little, rooty mat of brittle grasses that overspread a treacherous, thick, sticky mud, which was unsafe to tread upon — and when he stepped thereon he gradually went down, sinking slowly, until the tough, black mud covered him — buried him forever.]

 

It was dreadful to contemplate; that poor man in the lonely darkness, with none near, to go down into that dismal grave in the bleak swamp — a grave that no man knoweth, and over which the wild grasses would wave in all the years to come.

 

So the old fortune-teller in the cave in the mountain was right when be said her husband would be lost; because he was most strangely lost.

 

Who knows I the old swamp is in process of a complete system of drainage now, after all these long years have passed away, and maybe sometime yet the modern ploughshare may unearth the bones of poor Jed Truman the fiddler, and some of us may look upon the crumbling skull that went down, down into that horrible grave in the Western wilderness, adorned with the tendril curls that were shaped upon the little taper fingers of the wife who loved him.

 

Then, in her bereavement, the kind neighbors of those early days drew very near to her. One gave her a cow, another a sheep, another potatoes and corn, and another gave her a dollar to pay for a reel. When the first blast of November whistled its doleful tune around her rude stick chimney, the neighbors came and made daubing for her cabin, in the clayey hollow among the beeches, and they put it on with little wooden paddles instead of trowels; and they banked up about the walls, and put heavier weight poles on the clapboard roof, and made a lighter sweep for the drawing of water from the well; and indeed everything was done to make comfortable the widow and her little children. the youngest was soft, and timid, and exceedingly sensitive.

 

In a year or two her brother Luke, the companion and playmate of her young years, came to the West to be her protector and her provider.

 

Her joy at seeing him, and her welcome, were very comforting to the poor fellow. He performed nearly all the journey a-foot, with his knapsack on his shoulders, on top of which was strapped an extra pair of boots and some little presents for the children.

 

After the little ones were all asleep that first night, Luke and Mercy sat beside the fire and talked of the past and of the present.

 

"So a part of your fortune did come true, didn't it, Mercy?" said he, gloomily. "And the Lord knows whether mine will or not; but it's awful hard to meditate on."

 

Now, Mercy was dreading lest this subject should be mentioned and she endeavored to treat it lightly by saying: "I don't believe in such nonsense, Luke, and the less one thinks about these superstitions the better for them. You will live with me and the children, and I don't see why we cannot have a power of comfort together, and if that old bald pate comes about here we'll invite him to go on, and not try to make one in our family," she said, laughing and alluding to the story told by the astrologer.

 

So, Luke and Mercy lived together. He cleared the land, and the little ones picked brush, and Mercy took in weaving, and sometimes spinning, and they were very comfortable and happy. There was a wet place beyond the cabin, and Luke dug down and found a living spring, and that was a valuable acquisition to the comfort and cozeyness of the cabin home. Then Luke planted an orchard of fruit trees, which were a free gift from Johnny Appleseed to the widow. Johnny was always willing and anxious to bestow favors of this kind.

 

In those days money was very scarce, and some of the enterprising pioneers conceived the wild plan of constructing great boats made of heavy timber, loading them with some of the surplus produce for which they had no market, and transporting them along the creeks or tributaries of the Ohio River, thence into the Mississippi down to New Orleans. This was a great undertaking for those times, when men had poverty and everything else discouraging to contend with. All honor to those brave souls who would rise up and fight so manfully against such tremendous obstacles and difficulties!

 

These boats were from forty to sixty feet in length, and from twelve to sixteen feet in width, and would carry from three to five hundred barrels of flour. They were constructed on the banks of the creek, made bottom side up of two-inch plank, the seams caulked, sides put on them, about three feet high, then, when ready to launch, as many men as could surround the boat did so, one end of it was worked down over the bank and then by united effort the boat was turned over into the water, and it was soon in readiness to load. The load was made up of barrels of flour, whisky, beef, pork, pickles and whatever was saleable, and with the complement of hands started. It was managed by poles in the small streams, but when it reached the large rivers it was allowed to go with the current. Sometimes the owner sold out at Louisville or Cincinnati, if not he went to New Orleans. All the advantage that he realized was that of turning his cargo into cash.

 

One of the judges was going down to New Orleans one fall with a load of produce, and he had only two men to man his craft besides himself. They could not travel during the night on small streams because of danger from rocks, and roots, and shallow places, and the second night after their departure from home, he ordered one of the men, Luke Flemming, to tie the boat.

 

It was a wild place, shut in by bluff banks and' rooky points, where two streams came together.

 

The judge himself went into the little corner where the provisions were kept and began to prepare supper. They intended supping early and then going below, where the water was quiet and deep, to fish for bass for breakfast .

When the supper of cold boiled ham, fried chickens, corn bread, butter and tea was ready, the judge went forward and called his men. Only one of them came, and supposing that the other, Luke, was cutting fishing-poles and would soon be there, the hungry men sat down and ate.

 

He did not come, and they grew impatient, and after while put away the waiting supper and sat down to smoke, thinking that perhaps he had gone across to a village about two miles distant.

 

What was their horror, a few minutes later, to find the poor body of that doomed man, Luke Flemming, lying in the still depths of the crystal water only a few feet from where the boat was tied! He lay with his face upturned and a cruel gash cut in his white forehead, a look of suffering on his face — and, that was all.

 

No one ever knew any more than this. It was supposed that he fell upon one of the jagged rocks that formed the wall lining the bluff bank next the stream, and that he was rendered senseless and drowned. Had anyone been near, his life might have been saved. The judge was tilled with remorse because he had over-persuaded the poor man to accompany them. He went against his will.

 

The body was carried back home and buried in one corner of the garden, and again was poor Mercy bereft of her nearest friend. It was very sad to look upon her sorrow. She blamed herself for urging him to come to the West and live with her. She thought, perhaps, the doom that hung over him might have been averted, and that a long and useful life might have been his. She bewailed the day that, in their thoughtlessness and recklessness, they had visited the old fortune-teller.

 

A few years after and Mercy and her children went back to her old father's to reside at the dear familiar homestead in Massachusetts, and that cut off the thread of the story, and we cannot tell whether the astrologer told all the truth, or only half a truth, for we never heard whether she married a bald-headed man or not .

 

© 2011 Peggy Mershon                                                                                     Contact at marwelmer@aol.com