In the afternoon of a sunny Autumn day, nearly two hundred years ago, a young man was walking along one of the newly opened roads which led into Salem village, or what is now called Danvers Centre, in the then Province of Massachusetts Bay.
The town of Salem, that which is now the widely known city of that name, lay between four and five miles to the southeast, on a tongue of land formed by two inlets of the sea, called now as then North and South Rivers. Next to Plymouth it is the oldest town in New England, having been first settled in 1626. Not till three years after were Boston and Charlestown commenced by the arrival of eleven ships from England. It is a significant fact, as showing the hardships to which the early settlers were exposed, that of the fifteen hundred persons composing this Boston expedition, two hundred died during the first winter. Salem has also the honor of establishing the first New England church organization, in 1629, with the Reverend Francis Higginson as its pastor.[Pg 2]
Salem village was an adjunct of Salem, the town taking in the adjacent lands for the purpose of tillage to a distance of six miles from the meeting-house. But in the progress of settlement, Salem village also became entitled to a church of its own; and it had one regularly established at the date of our story, with the Reverend Samuel Parris as presiding elder or minister.
There had been many bickerings and disputes before a minister could be found acceptable to all in Salem village. And the present minister was by no means a universal favorite. The principal point of contention on his part was the parsonage and its adjacent two acres of ground. Master Parris claimed that the church had voted him a free gift of these; while his opponents not only denied that it had been done, but that it lawfully could be done. This latter view was undoubtedly correct; for the parsonage land was a gift to the church, for the perpetual use of its pastor, whosoever he might be. But Master Parris would not listen to reason on this subject, and was not inclined to look kindly upon the men who steadfastly opposed him.
The inhabitants of Salem village were a goodly as well as godly people, but owing to these church[Pg 3] differences about their ministers, as well as other disputes and lawsuits relative to the bounds of their respective properties, there was no little amount of ill feeling among them. Small causes in a village are just as effective as larger ones in a nation, in producing discord and strife; and the Puritans as a people were distinguished by all that determination to insist upon their rights, and that scorn of compromising difficulties, which men of earnest and honest but narrow natures have manifested in all ages of the world. Selfishness and uncharitableness are never so dangerous as when they assume the character of a conscientious devotion to the just and the true.
But all this time the young man has been walking almost due north from the meeting house in Salem village.
The road was not what would be called a good one in these days, for it was not much more than a bridle-path; the riding being generally at that time on horseback. But it was not the rather broken and uneven condition of the path which caused the frown on the young pedestrian’s face, or the irritability shown by the sharp slashes of the maple switch in his hand upon the aspiring weeds along the roadside.[Pg 4]
“If ever mortal man was so bothered,” he muttered at last, coming to a stop. “Of course she is the best match, the other is below me, and has a spice of Satan in her; but then she makes the blood stir in a man. Ha!”
This exclamation came as he lifted his eyes from the ground, and gazed up the road before him. There, about half a mile distant, was a young woman riding toward him. Then she stopped her horse under a tree, and evidently was trying to break off a switch, while her horse pranced around in a most excited fashion. The horse at last starts in a rapid gallop. The young man sees that in trying to get the switch, she has allowed the bridle to get loose and over the horse’s head, and can no longer control the fiery animal. Down the road towards him she comes in a sharp gallop, striving to stop the animal with her voice, evidently not the least frightened, but holding on to the pommel of the saddle with one hand while she makes desperate grasps at the hanging rein with the other.
The young Puritan smiled, he took in the situation with a glance, and felt no fear for her but rather amusement. He was on the top of a steep hill, and he knew he could easily stop the[Pg 5] horse as it came up; even if she did not succeed in regaining her bridle, owing to the better chances the hill gave her.
“She is plucky, anyhow, if she is rather a tame wench,” said he, as the girl grasped the bridle rein at last, when about half way up the hill, and became again mistress of the blooded creature beneath her.
“Is that the way you generally ride, Dulcibel?” asked the young man smiling.
“It all comes from starting without my riding whip,” replied the girl. “Oh, do stop!” she continued to the horse who now on the level again, began sidling and curveting.
“Give me that switch of yours, Jethro. Now, you shall see a miracle.”
No sooner was the switch in her hand, than the aspect and behavior of the animal changed as if by magic. You might have thought the little mare had been raised in the enclosure of a Quaker meeting-house, so sober and docile did she seem.
“It is always so,” said the girl laughing. “The little witch knows at once whether I have a whip with me or not, and acts accordingly. No, I will not forgive you,” and she gave the horse two or[Pg 6] three sharp cuts, which it took like a martyr. “Oh, I wish you would misbehave a little now; I should like to punish you severely.”
They made a very pretty picture, the little jet-black mare, and the mistress with her scarlet paragon bodice, even if the latter was entirely too pronounced for the taste of the great majority of the inhabitants, young and old, of Salem village.
“But how do you happen to be here?” said the girl.
“I called to see you, and found you had gone on a visit to Joseph Putnam’s. So I thought I would walk up the road and meet you coming back.”
“What a sweet creature Mistress Putnam is, and both so young for man and wife.”
“Yes, Jo married early, but he is big enough and strong enough, don’t you think so?”
“He is a worshiped man indeed. Have you met the stranger yet?”
“That Ellis Raymond? No, but I hear he is something of a popinjay in his attire, and swelled up with the conceit that he is better than any of us colonists.”
“Oh, well, I have not seen him yet. But they say his father was a son of Belial, and fought under the tyrant at Naseby.”
“But that is all over and his widowed mother is one of us.”
“Hang him, what does it matter!” Then, changing his tone, and looking at her a little suspiciously. “Did Leah Herrick say anything to you against me the other night at the husking?”
“I do not allow people to talk to me against my friends,” replied she earnestly.
“She was talking to you a long time I saw.”
“It must have been an interesting subject.”
“It was rather an unpleasant one to me.”
“She wanted me to join the ‘circle’ which they have just started at the minister’s house. She says that old Tituba has promised to show them how the Indians of Barbados conjure and powwow, and that it will be great sport for the winter nights.”
“What did you say to it?”
“That was all she said to you?” and the young man seemed to breathe more freely.
The girl was sharp-witted—what girl is not so in all affairs of the heart?—and it was now her turn. “Leah is very handsome,” she said.
“Yes—everybody says so,” he replied coolly, as if it were a fact of very little importance to him, and a matter which he had thought very little about.
Dulcibel, was not one to aim all around the remark; she came at once, simply and directly to the point.
“Did you ever pay her any attentions?”
“Oh, no, not to speak of. What made you think of such an absurd thing?”
“‘Not to speak of’—what do you mean?”
“Oh, I kept company with her for awhile—before you came to Salem—when we were merely boy and girl.”
“There never was any troth plighted between you?”
“Yourself. Answer me plainly. Was there ever any love compact between you?”
“Oh, pshaw! what nonsense all this is!”
“If you do not answer me, I shall ask her this very evening.”
“Of course there was nothing between us—nothing of any account—only a boy and girl affair—calling her my little wife, and that kind of nonsense.”
“I think that a great deal. Did that continue up to the time I came to the village?”
“How seriously you take it all! Remember, I have your promise, Dulcibel.”
“A promise on a promise is no promise—every girl knows that. If you do not answer me fully and truly, Jethro, I shall ask Leah.”
“Yes,” said the young man desperately “there was a kind of childish troth up to that time, but it was, as I said, a mere boy and girl affair.”
“Boy and girl! You were eighteen, Jethro; and she sixteen nearly as old as Joseph Putnam and his wife were when they married.”
“I do not care. I will not be bound by it; and Leah knows it.”
“You will not!” said the young man passionately—for well he knew that Leah’s consent would never be given.
“No, I will not!”
“Then take your troth back in welcome. In truth, I met you here this day to tell you that. I love Leah Herrick’s little finger better than your whole body with your Jezebel’s bodice, and your fine lady’s airs. You had better go now and marry that conceited popinjay up at Jo Putnam’s, if you can get him.”
With that he pushed off down the hill, and up the road, that he might not be forced to accompany her back to the village.
Dulcibel was not prepared for such a burst of wrath, and such an uncovering of the heart. Which of us has not been struck with wonder, even far more than indignation, at such times? A sudden difference occurs, and the man or the woman in whom you have had faith, and whom you have believed noble and admirable, suddenly appears what he or she really is, a very common and vulgar nature. It makes us sick at heart that we could have been so deceived.[Pg 11]
Such was the effect upon Dulcibel. What a chasm she had escaped. To think she had really agreed to marry such a spirit as that! But fortunately it was now all over.
She not only had lost a lover, but a friend. And one day before, this also would have had its unpleasant side to her. But now she felt even a sensation of relief. Was it because this very day a new vision had entered into the charmed circle of her life? If it were so, she did not acknowledge the fact to herself; or even wonder in her own mind, why the sudden breaking of her troth-plight had not left her in a sadder humor. For she put “Little Witch” into a brisk canter, and with a smile upon her face rode into the main street of the village.
Categories: English Literature