A QUESTION OF NOURISHMENT.
"And how is he?" said Robert, as he came in from his day's work, in
every moment of which he had thought of his child. He spoke in a whisper
to his wife, who met him in the narrow entry at the head of the stairs.
And in a whisper she replied.
"He is certainly no worse," said Mary: "the doctor says, maybe a shade
better. At least," she said, sitting on the lower step, and holding her
husband's hand, and still whispering,--"at least he said that the
breathing seemed to him a shade easier, one lung seemed to him a little
more free, and that it is now a question of time and nourishment."
"Yes, nourishment,--and I own my heart sunk as he said so. Poor little
thing, he loathes the slops, and I told the doctor so. I told him the
struggle and fight to get them down his poor little throat gave him more
flush and fever than any thing. And then he begged me not to try that
again, asked if there were really nothing that the child would take, and
suggested every thing so kindly. But the poor little thing, weak as he
is, seems to rise up with supernatural strength against them all. I am
not sure, though, but perhaps we may do something with the old milk and
water: that is really my only hope now, and that is the reason I spoke
to you so cheerfully."
Then poor Mary explained more at length that Emily had brought in Dr.
Cummings's Manual about the use of milk with children, and that they
had sent round to the Corlisses', who always had good milk, and had set
a pint according to the direction and formula,--and that though dear
little Jamie had refused the groats and the barley, and I know not what
else, that at six he had gladly taken all the watered milk they dared to
give him, and that it now had rested on his stomach half an hour, so
that she could not but hope that the tide had turned, only she hoped
with trembling, because he had so steadily refused cow's milk only the
 Has the reader a delicate infant? Let him send for
Dr. Cummings's little book on Milk for Children.
This rapid review in her entry, of the bulletins of a day, is really the
beginning of this Christmas story. No matter which day it was,--it was a
little before Christmas, and one of the shortest days, but I have
forgotten which. Enough that the baby, for he was a baby still, just
entering his thirteenth month,--enough that he did relish the milk, so
carefully measured and prepared, and hour by hour took his little dole
of it as if it had come from his mother's breast. Enough that three or
four days went by so, the little thing lying so still on his back in his
crib, his lips still so blue, and his skin of such deadly color against
the white of his pillow, and that, twice a day, as Dr. Morton came in
and felt his pulse, and listened to the panting, he smiled and looked
pleased, and said, "We are getting on better than I dared expect." Only
every time he said, "Does he still relish the milk?" and every time was
so pleased to know that he took to it still, and every day he added a
teaspoonful or two to the hourly dole,--and so poor Mary's heart was
lifted day by day.
This lasted till St. Victoria's day. Do you know which day that is? It
is the second day before Christmas; and here, properly speaking, the
ST. VICTORIA'S DAY.
St. Victoria's day the doctor was full two hours late. Mary was not
anxious about this. She was beginning to feel bravely about the boy, and
no longer counted the minutes till she could hear the door-bell ring.
When he came he loitered in the entry below,--or she thought he did. He
was long coming up stairs. And when he came in she saw that he was
excited by something,--was really even then panting for breath.
"I am here at last," he said. "Did you think I should fail you?"
Why, no,--poor innocent Mary had not thought any such thing. She had
known he would come,--and baby was so well that she had not minded his
Morton looked up at the close drawn shades, which shut out the light,
and said, "You did not think of the storm?"
"Storm? no!" said poor Mary. She had noticed, when Robert went to the
door at seven and she closed it after him, that some snow was falling.
But she had not thought of it again. She had kissed him, told him to
keep up good heart, and had come back to her baby.
Then the doctor told her that the storm which had begun before daybreak
had been gathering more and more severely; that the drifts were already
heavier than he remembered them in all his Boston life; that after half
an hour's trial in his sleigh he had been glad to get back to the stable
with his horse; and that all he had done since he had done on foot, with
difficulty she could not conceive of. He had been so long down stairs
while he brushed the snow off, that he might be fit to come near the
"And really, Mrs. Walter, we are doing so well here," he said
cheerfully, "that I will not try to come round this afternoon, unless
you see a change. If you do, your husband must come up for me, you know.
But you will not need me, I am sure."
Mary felt quite brave to think that they should not need him really for
twenty-four hours, and said so; and added, with the first smile he had
seen for a fortnight: "I do not know anybody to whom it is of less
account than to me, whether the streets are blocked or open. Only I am
sorry for you."
Poor Mary, how often she thought of that speech, before Christmas day
went by! But she did not think of it all through St. Victoria's day. Her
husband did not come home to dinner. She did not expect him. The
children came from school at two, rejoicing in the long morning session
and the half holiday of the afternoon which had been earned by it. They
had some story of their frolic in the snow, and after dinner went
quietly away to their little play-room in the attic. And Mary sat with
her baby all the afternoon,--nor wanted other company. She could count
his breathing now, and knew how to time it by the watch, and she knew
that it was steadier and slower than it was the day before. And really
he almost showed an appetite for the hourly dole. Her husband was not
late. He had taken care of that, and had left the shop an hour early.
And as he came in and looked at the child from the other side of the
crib, and smiled so cheerfully on her, Mary felt that she could not
enough thank God for his mercy.
ST. VICTORIA'S DAY IN THE COUNTRY.
Five and twenty miles away was another mother, with a baby born the same
day as Jamie. Mary had never heard of her and never has heard of her,
and, unless she reads this story, never will hear of her till they meet
together in the other home, look each other in the face, and know as
they are known. Yet their two lives, as you shall see, are twisted
together, as indeed are all lives, only they do not know it--as how
A great day for Huldah Stevens was this St. Victoria's day. Not that she
knew its name more than Mary did. Indeed it was only of late years that
Huldah Stevens had cared much for keeping Christmas day. But of late
years they had all thought of it more; and this year, on Thanksgiving
day, at old Mr. Stevens's, after great joking about the young people's
housekeeping, it had been determined, with some banter, that the same
party should meet with John and Huldah on Christmas eve, with all
Huldah's side of the house besides, to a late dinner or early supper, as
the guests might please to call it. Little difference between the meals,
indeed, was there ever in the profusion of these country homes. The men
folks were seldom at home at the noon-day meal, call it what you will.
For they were all in the milk-business, as you will see. And, what with
collecting the milk from the hill-farms, on the one hand, and then
carrying it for delivery at the three o'clock morning milk-train, on the
other hand, any hours which you, dear reader, might consider systematic,
or of course in country life, were certainly always set aside. But,
after much conference, as I have said, it had been determined at the
Thanksgiving party that all hands in both families should meet at John
and Huldah's as near three o'clock as they could the day before
Christmas; and then and there Huldah was to show her powers in
entertaining at her first state family party.
So this St. Victoria's day was a great day of preparation for Huldah,
if she had only known its name, as she did not. For she was of the kind
which prepares in time, not of the kind that is caught out when the
company come with the work half done. And as John started on his
collection beat that morning at about the hour Robert, in town, kissed
Mary good-by, Huldah stood on the step with him, and looked with
satisfaction on the gathering snow, because it would make better
sleighing the next day for her father and mother to come over. She
charged him not to forget her box of raisins when he came back, and to
ask at the express if anything came up from town, bade him good-by, and
turned back into the house, not wholly dissatisfied to be almost alone.
She washed her baby, gave him his first lunch and put him to bed. Then,
with the coast fairly clear,--what woman does not enjoy a clear coast,
if it only be early enough in the morning?--she dipped boldly and wisely
into her flour-barrel, stripped her plump round arms to their work, and
began on the pie-crust which was to appear to-morrow in the fivefold
forms of apple, cranberry, Marlboro', mince, and squash,--careful and
discriminating in the nice chemistry of her mixtures and the nice
manipulations of her handicraft, but in nowise dreading the issue. A
long, active, lively morning she had of it. Not dissatisfied with the
stages of her work, step by step she advanced, stage by stage she
attained of the elaborate plan which was well laid out in her head, but,
of course, had never been intrusted to words, far less to tell-tale
paper. From the oven at last came the pies,--and she was satisfied with
the color; from the other oven came the turkey, which she proposed to
have cold,--as a relay, or piece de resistance, for any who might not
be at hand at the right moment for dinner. Into the empty oven went the
clove-blossoming ham, which, as it boiled, had given the least
appetizing odor to the kitchen. In the pretty moulds in the woodshed
stood the translucent cranberry hardening to its fixed consistency. In
other moulds the obedient calf's foot already announced its willingness
and intention to "gell" as she directed. Huldah's decks were cleared
again, her kitchen table fit to cut out "work" upon,--all the pans and
plates were put away, which accumulate so mysteriously where cooking is
going forward; on its nail hung the weary jigger, on its hook the spicy
grater, on the roller a fresh towel. Everything gave sign of victory,
the whole kitchen looking only a little nicer than usual. Huldah herself
was dressed for the afternoon, and so was the baby; and nobody but as
acute observers as you and I would have known that she had been in
action all along the line and had won the battle at every point, when
two o'clock came, the earliest moment at which her husband ever
Then for the first time it occurred to Huldah to look out doors and see
how fast the snow was gathering. She knew it was still falling. But the
storm was a quiet one, and she had had too much to do to be gaping out
of the windows. She went to the shed door, and to her amazement saw that
the north wood-pile was wholly drifted in! Nor could she, as she stood,
see the fences of the roadway!
Huldah ran back into the house, opened the parlor door and drew up the
curtain, to see that there were indeed no fences on the front of the
house to be seen. On the northwest, where the wind had full
sweep,--between her and the barn, the ground was bare. But all that
snow--and who should say how much more?--was piled up in front of her;
so that unless Huldah had known every landmark, she would not have
suspected that any road was ever there. She looked uneasily out at the
northwest windows, but she could not see an inch to windward: dogged
snow--snow--snow--as if it would never be done.
Huldah knew very well then that there was no husband for her in the next
hour, nor most like in the next or the next. She knew very well too what
she had to do; and, knowing it, she did it. She tied on her hood, and
buttoned tight around her her rough sack, passed through the shed and
crossed that bare strip to the barn, opened the door with some
difficulty, because snow was already drifting into the doorway, and
entered. She gave the cows and oxen their water and the two night horses
theirs,--went up into the loft and pitched down hay enough for
all,--went down stairs to the pigs and cared for them,--took one of the
barn shovels and cleared a path where she had had to plunge into the
snow at the doorway, took the shovel back, and then crossed home again
to her baby. She thought she saw the Empsons' chimney smoking as she
went home, and that seemed companionable. She took off her over-shoes,
sack, and hood, said aloud, "This will be a good stay-at-home day,"
brought round her desk to the kitchen table, and began on a nice long
letter to her brother Cephas in Seattle.
That letter was finished, eight good quarto pages written, and a long
delayed letter to Emily Tabor, whom Huldah had not seen since she was
married; and a long pull at her milk accounts had brought them up to
date,--and still no John. Huldah had the table all set, you may be sure
of that; but, for herself, she had had no heart to go through the
formalities of lunch or dinner. A cup of tea and something to eat with
it as she wrote did better, she thought, for her,--and she could eat
when the men came. It is a way women have. Not till it became quite
dark, and she set her kerosene lamp in the window that he might have a
chance to see it when he turned the Locust Grove corner, did Huldah once
feel herself lonely, or permit herself to wish that she did not live in
a place where she could be cut off from all her race. "If John had gone
into partnership with Joe Winter and we had lived in Boston." This was
the thought that crossed her mind. Dear Huldah,--from the end of one
summer to the beginning of the next, Joe Winter does not go home to his
dinner; and what you experience to-day, so far as absence from your
husband goes, is what his wife experiences in Boston ten months, save
Sundays, in every year.
I do not mean that Huldah winced or whined. Not she. Only she did think
"if." Then she sat in front of the stove and watched the coals, and for
a little while continued to think "if." Not long. Very soon she was
engaged in planning how she would arrange the table to-morrow,--whether
Mother Stevens should cut the chicken-pie, or whether she would have
that in front of her own mother. Then she fell to planning what she
would make for Cynthia's baby,--and then to wondering whether Cephas was
in earnest in that half nonsense he wrote about Sibyl Dyer,--and then
the clock struck six!
No bells yet,--no husband,--no anybody. Lantern out and lighted. Rubber
boots on, hood and sack. Shed-shovel in one hand, lantern in the other.
Roadway still bare, but a drift as high as Huldah's shoulders at the
barn door. Lantern on the ground; snow-shovel in both hands now. One,
two, three!--one cubic foot out. One, two, three!--another cubic foot
out. And so on, and so on, and so on, till the doorway is clear again.
Lantern in one hand, snow-shovel in the other, we enter the barn, draw
the water for cows and oxen,--we shake down more hay, and see to the
pigs again. This time we make beds of straw for the horses and the
cattle. Nay, we linger a minute or two, for there is something
companionable there. Then we shut them in, in the dark, and cross the
well-cleared roadway to the shed, and so home again. Certainly Mrs.
Empson's kerosene lamp is in her window. That must be her light which
gives a little halo in that direction in the falling snow. That looks
And this time Huldah undresses the baby, puts on her yellow flannel
night-gown,--makes the whole as long as it may be,--and then, still
making believe be jolly, lights another lamp, eats her own supper,
clears it away, and cuts into the new Harper which John had brought up
to her the day before.
But the Harper is dull reading to her, though generally so attractive.
And when her Plymouth-Hollow clock consents to strike eight at last,
Huldah, who has stinted herself to read till eight, gladly puts down the
"Travels in Arizona," which seem to her as much like the "Travels in
Peru," of the month before, as those had seemed like the "Travels in
Chinchilla." Rubber boots again,--lantern again,--sack and hood again.
The men will be in no case for milking when they come. So Huldah brings
together their pails,--takes her shovel once more and her lantern,--digs
out the barn drift again, and goes over to milk little Carry and big
Fanchon. For, though the milking of a hundred cows passes under those
roofs and out again every day, Huldah is far too conservative to abandon
the custom which she inherits from some Thorfinn or some Elfrida, and
her husband is well pleased to humor her in keeping in that barn always,
at least two of the choicest three-quarter blood cows that he can
choose, for the family supply. Only, in general, he or Reuben milks
them; as duties are divided there, this is not Huldah's share. But on
this eve of St. Spiridion the gentle creatures were glad when she came
in; and in two journeys back and forth Huldah had carried her
well-filled pails into her dairy. This helped along the hour, and just
after nine o'clock struck, she could hear the cheers of the men at last.
She ran out again with the ready lighted lantern to the shed-door,--in
an instant had on her boots and sack and hood, had crossed to the barn,
and slid open the great barn door,--and stood there with her
light,--another Hero for another Leander to buffet towards, through the
snow. A sight to see were the two men, to be sure! And a story, indeed,
they had to tell! On their different beats they had fought snow all day,
had been breaking roads with the help of the farmers where they could,
had had to give up more than half of the outlying farms, sending such
messages as they might, that the outlying farmers might bring down
to-morrow's milk to such stations as they could arrange, and, at last,
by good luck, had both met at the depot in the hollow, where each had
gone to learn at what hour the milk-train might be expected in the
morning. Little reason was there, indeed, to expect it at all. Nothing
had passed the station-master since the morning express, called
lightning by satire, had slowly pushed up with three or four engines
five hours behind its time, and just now had come down a messenger from
them that he should telegraph to Boston that they were all blocked up at
Tyler's Summit,--the snow drifting beneath their wheels faster than they
could clear it. Above, the station-master said, nothing whatever had yet
passed Winchendon. Five engines had gone out from Fitchburg eastward,
but in the whole day they had not come as far as Leominster. It was very
clear that no milk-train nor any other train would be on time the next
Such was, in brief, John's report to Huldah, when they had got to that
state of things in which a man can make a report; that is, after they
had rubbed dry the horses, had locked up the barn, after the men had
rubbed themselves dry, and had put on dry clothing, and after each of
them, sitting on the fire side of the table, had drunk his first cup of
tea, and eaten his first square cubit of dipped-toast. After the
dipped-toast, they were going to begin on Huldah's fried potatoes and
Huldah heard their stories with all their infinite little details; knew
every corner and turn by which they had husbanded strength and life; was
grateful to the Corbetts and Varnums and Prescotts and the rest, who,
with their oxen and their red right hands, had given such loyal help for
the common good; and she heaved a deep sigh when the story ended with
the verdict of the failure of the whole,--"No trains on time to-morrow."
"Bad for the Boston babies," said Reuben bluntly, giving words to what
the others were feeling. "Poor little things!" said Huldah, "Alice has
been so pretty all day." And she gulped down just one more sigh,
disgusted with herself, as she remembered that "if" of the
afternoon,--"if John had only gone into partnership with Joe Winter."
IV. HOW THEY BROKE THE BLOCKADE.
Three o'clock in the morning saw Huldah's fire burning in the stove, her
water boiling in the kettle, her slices of ham broiling on the gridiron,
and quarter-past three saw the men come across from the barn, where they
had been shaking down hay for the cows and horses, and yoking the oxen
for the terrible onset of the day. It was bright star-light
above,--thank Heaven for that. This strip of three hundred thousand
square miles of snow cloud, which had been drifting steadily cast over a
continent, was, it seemed, only twenty hours wide,--say two hundred
miles, more or less,--and at about midnight its last flecks had fallen,
and all the heaven was washed black and clear. The men were well rested
by those five hours of hard sleep. They were fitly dressed for their
great encounter and started cheerily upon it, as men who meant to do
their duty, and to both of whom, indeed, the thought had come, that life
and death might be trembling in their hands. They did not take out the
pungs to-day, nor, of course, the horses. Such milk as they had
collected on St. Victoria's day they had stored already at the station,
and at Stacy's; and the best they could do to-day would be to break open
the road from the Four Corners to the station, that they might place as
many cans as possible there before the down-train came. From the house,
then, they had only to drive down their oxen that they might work with
the other teams from the Four Corners; and it was only by begging him,
that Huldah persuaded Reuben to take one lunch-can for them both. Then,
as Reuben left the door, leaving John to kiss her "good-by," and to tell
her not to be alarmed if they did not come home at night,--she gave to
John the full milk-can into which she had poured every drop of Carry's
milk, and said, "It will be one more; and God knows what child may be
crying for it now."
So they parted for eight and twenty hours; and in place of Huldah's
first state party of both families, she and Alice reigned solitary that
day, and held their little court with never a suitor. And when her
lunch-time came, Huldah looked half-mournfully, half-merrily, on her
array of dainties prepared for the feast, and she would not touch one of
them. She toasted some bread before the fire, made a cup of tea, boiled
an egg, and would not so much as set the table. As has been before
stated, this is the way with women.
And of the men, who shall tell the story of the pluck and endurance, of
the unfailing good-will, of the resource in strange emergency, of the
mutual help and common courage with which all the men worked that day
on that well-nigh hopeless task of breaking open the highway from the
Corners to the station? Well-nigh hopeless, indeed; for although at
first, with fresh cattle and united effort, they made in the hours,
which passed so quickly up to ten o'clock, near two miles headway, and
had brought yesterday's milk thus far,--more than half way to their
point of delivery,--at ten o'clock it was quite evident that this sharp
northwest wind, which told so heavily on the oxen and even on the men,
was filling in the very roadway they had opened, and so was cutting them
off from their base, and, by its new drifts, was leaving the roadway for
to-day's milk even worse than it was when they began. In one of those
extemporized councils, then,--such as fought the battle of Bunker Hill,
and threw the tea into Boston harbor,--it was determined, at ten
o'clock, to divide the working parties. The larger body should work back
to the Four Corners, and by proper relays keep that trunk line of road
open, if they could; while six yoke, with their owners, still pressing
forward to the station, should make a new base at Lovejoy's, where, when
these oxen gave out, they could be put up at his barn. It was quite
clear, indeed, to the experts that that time was not far distant.
And so, indeed, it proved. By three in the afternoon, John and Reuben
and the other leaders of the advance party--namely, the whole of it, for
such is the custom of New England--gathered around the fire at
Lovejoy's, conscious that after twelve hours of such battle as Pavia
never saw, nor Roncesvalles, they were defeated at every point but one.
Before them the mile of road which they had made in the steady work of
hours was drifted in again as smooth as the surrounding pastures, only
if possible a little more treacherous for the labor which they had
thrown away upon it. The oxen which had worked kindly and patiently,
well handled by good-tempered men, yet all confused and half dead with
exposure, could do no more. Well, indeed, if those that had been stalled
fast, and had had to stand in that biting wind after gigantic effort,
escaped with their lives from such exposure. All that the men had gained
was that they had advanced their first depot of milk--two hundred and
thirty-nine cans--as far as Lovejoy's. What supply might have worked
down to the Four Corners behind them, they did not know and hardly
cared, their communications that way being well-nigh cut off again. What
they thought of, and planned for, was simply how these cans at Lovejoy's
could be put on any downward train. For by this time they knew that all
trains would have lost their grades and their names, and that this milk
would go into Boston by the first engine that went there, though it rode
on the velvet of a palace car.
What train this might be, they did not know. From the hill above
Lovejoy's they could see poor old Dix, the station-master, with his wife
and boys, doing his best to make an appearance of shovelling in front of
his little station. But Dix's best was but little, for he had but one
arm, having lost the other in a collision, and so as a sort of pension
the company had placed him at this little flag-station, where was a roof
over his head, a few tickets to sell, and generally very little else to
do. It was clear enough that no working parties on the railroad had
worked up to Dix, or had worked down; nor was it very likely that any
would before night, unless the railroad people had better luck with
their drifts than our friends had found. But, as to this, who should
say? Snow-drifts are "mighty onsartain." The line of that road is in
general northwest, and to-day's wind might have cleaned out its gorges
as persistently as it had filled up our crosscuts. From Lovejoy's barn
they could see that the track was now perfectly clear for the half mile
where it crossed the Prescott meadows.
I am sorry to have been so long in describing thus the aspect of the
field after the first engagement. But it was on this condition of
affairs that, after full conference, the enterprises of the night were
determined. Whatever was to be done was to be done by men. And after
thorough regale on Mrs. Lovejoy's green tea, and continual return to her
constant relays of thin bacon gilded by unnumbered eggs; after cutting
and coming again upon unnumbered mince-pies, which, I am sorry to say,
did not in any point compare well with Huldah's,--each man thrust many
doughnuts into his outside pockets, drew on the long boots again, and
his buckskin gloves and mittens, and, unencumbered now by the care of
animals, started on the work of the evening. The sun was just taking his
last look at them from the western hills, where Reuben and John could
see Huldah's chimney smoking. The plan was, by taking a double hand-sled
of Lovejoy's, and by knocking together two or three more,
jumper-fashion, to work their way across the meadow to the railroad
causeway, and establish a milk depot there, where the line was not half
a mile from Lovejoy's. By going and coming often, following certain
tracks well known to Lovejoy on the windward side of walls and fences,
these eight men felt quite sure that by midnight they could place all
their milk at the spot where the old farm crossing strikes the railroad.
Meanwhile, Silas Lovejoy, a boy of fourteen, was to put on a pair of
snow-shoes, go down to the station, state the case to old Dix, and get
from him a red lantern and permission to stop the first train where it
swept out from the Pitman cut upon the causeway. Old Dix had no more
right to give this permission than had the humblest street-sweeper in
Ispahan, and this they all knew. But the fact that Silas had asked for
it would show a willingness on their part to submit to authority, if
authority there had been. This satisfied the New England love of law, on
the one hand. On the other hand, the train would be stopped, and this
satisfied the New England determination to get the thing done any way.
To give additional force to Silas, John provided him with a note to Dix,
and it was generally agreed that if Dix wasn't ugly, he would give the
red lantern and the permission. Silas was then to work up the road and
station himself as far beyond the curve as he could, and stop the first
down-train. He was to tell the conductor where the men were waiting with
the milk, was to come down to them on the train, and his duty would be
done. Lest Dix should be ugly, Silas was provided with Lovejoy's only
lantern, but he was directed not to show this at the station until his
interview was finished. Silas started cheerfully on his snow-shoes; John
and Lovejoy, at the same time, starting with the first hand-sled of the
cans. First of all into the sled, John put Huldah's well-known can, a
little shorter than the others, and with a different handle. "Whatever
else went to Boston," he said, "that can was bound to go through."
They established the basis of their pyramid, and met the three new
jumpers with their makers as they went back for more. This party
enlarged the base of the pyramid; and, as they worked, Silas passed them
cheerfully with his red lantern. Old Dix had not been ugly, had given
the lantern and all the permission he had to give, and had communicated
some intelligence also. The intelligence was, that an accumulated force
of seven engines, with a large working party, had left Groton Junction
downward at three. Nothing had arrived upward at Groton Junction; and,
from Boston, Dix learned that nothing more would leave there till early
morning. No trains had arrived in Boston from any quarter for
twenty-four hours. So long the blockade had lasted already.
On this intelligence, it was clear that, with good luck, the down-train
might reach them at any moment. Still the men resolved to leave their
milk, while they went back for more, relying on Silas and the "large
working party" to put it on the cars, if the train chanced to pass
before any of them returned. So back they fared to Lovejoy's for their
next relay, and met John and Reuben working in successfully with their
second. But no one need have hurried; for, as trip after trip they built
their pyramid of cans higher and higher, no welcome whistle broke the
stillness of the night, and by ten o'clock, when all these cans were in
place by the rail, the train had not yet come.
John and Reuben then proposed to go up into the cut, and to relieve poor
Silas, who had not been heard from since he swung along so cheerfully
like an "Excelsior" boy on his way up the Alps. But they had hardly
started, when a horn from the meadow recalled them, and, retracing their
way, they met a messenger who had come in to say that a fresh team from
the Four Corners had been reported at Lovejoy's, with a dozen or more
men, who had succeeded in bringing down nearly as far as Lovejoy's
mowing-lot near a hundred more cans; that it was quite possible in two
or three hours more to bring this over also,--and, although the first
train was probably now close at hand, it was clearly worth while to
place this relief in readiness for a second. So poor Silas was left for
the moment to his loneliness, and Reuben and John returned again upon
their steps. They passed the house where they found Mrs. Lovejoy and
Mrs. Stacy at work in the shed, finishing off two more jumpers, and
claiming congratulation for their skill, and after a cup of tea
again,--for no man touched spirit that day nor that night,--they
reported at the new station by the mowing-lot.
And Silas Lovejoy--who had turned the corner into the Pitman cut, and so
shut himself out from sight of the station light, or his father's
windows, or the lanterns of the party at the pyramid of cans--Silas
Lovejoy held his watch there, hour by hour, with such courage as the
sense of the advance gives boy or man. He had not neglected to take the
indispensable shovel as he came. In going over the causeway he had
slipped off the snow-shoes and hung them on his back. Then there was
heavy wading as he turned into the Pitman cut, knee deep, middle deep,
and he laid his snow-shoes on the snow and set the red lantern on them,
as he reconnoitred. Middle deep, neck deep, and he fell forward on his
face into the yielding mass. "This will not do, I must not fall like
that often," said Silas to himself, as he gained his balance and threw
himself backward against the mass. Slowly he turned round, worked back
to the lantern, worked out to the causeway, and fastened on the shoes
again. With their safer help he easily skimmed up to Pitman's bridge,
which he had determined on for his station. He knew that thence his
lantern could be seen for a mile, and that yet there the train might
safely be stopped, so near was the open causeway which he had just
traversed. He had no fear of an up-train behind him.
So Silas walked back and forth, and sang, and spouted "pieces," and
mused on the future of his life, and spouted "pieces" again, and sang in
the loneliness. How the time passed, he did not know. No sound of clock,
no baying of dog, no plash of waterfall, broke that utter stillness. The
wind, thank God, had at last died away; and Silas paced his beat in a
long oval he made for himself, under and beyond the bridge, with no
sound but his own voice when he chose to raise it. He expected, as they
all did, that every moment the whistle of the train, as it swept into
sight a mile or more away, would break the silence; so he paced, and
shouted, and sang.
"This is a man's duty," he said to himself: "they would not let me go
with the fifth regiment,--not as a drummer boy; but this is duty such as
no drummer boy of them all is doing. Company, march!" and he "stepped
forward smartly" with his left foot. "Really I am placed on guard here
quite as much as if I were on picket in Virginia." "Who goes there?"
"Advance, friend, and give the countersign." Not that any one did go
there, or could go there; but the boy's fancy was ready, and so he
amused himself during the first hours. Then he began to wonder whether
they were hours, as they seemed, or whether this was all a wretched
illusion,--that the time passed slowly to him because he was nothing but
a boy, and did not know how to occupy his mind. So he resolutely said
the multiplication-table from the beginning to the end, and from the end
to the beginning,--first to himself, and again aloud, to make it slower.
Then he tried the ten commandments. "Thou shalt have none other Gods
before me:" easy to say that beneath those stars; and he said them
again. No, it is no illusion. I must have been here hours long! Then he
began on Milton's hymn:--
"It was the winter wild,
While the heaven-born child,
All meanly wrapt, in the rude manger lies."
"Winter wild, indeed," said Silas aloud; and, if he had only known it,
at that moment the sun beneath his feet was crossing the meridian,
midnight had passed already, and Christmas day was born!
"Only with speeches fair
She wooes the gentle air
To hide her guilty front with innocent snow."
"Innocent, indeed," said poor Silas, still aloud, "much did he know of
innocent snow!" And vainly did he try to recall the other stanzas, as he
paced back and forth, round and round, and began now to wonder where his
father and the others were, and if they could have come to any
misfortune. Surely, they could not have forgotten that he was here.
Would that train never come?
If he were not afraid of its coming at once, he would have run back to
the causeway to look for their lights,--and perhaps they had a fire. Why
had he not brought an axe for a fire? "That rail fence above would have
served perfectly,--nay, it is not five rods to a load of hickory we left
the day before Thanksgiving. Surely one of them might come up to me with
an axe. But maybe there is trouble below. They might have come with an
axe--with an axe--with an axe--with an--axe"--"I am going to sleep,"
cried Silas,--aloud again this time,--as his head dropped heavily on the
handle of the shovel he was resting on there in the lee of the stone
wall. "I am going to sleep,--that will never do. Sentinel asleep at his
post. Order out the relief. Blind his eyes. Kneel, sir. Make ready.
Fire. That, sir, for sentinels asleep." And so Silas laughed grimly, and
began his march again. Then he took his shovel and began a great pit
where he supposed the track might be beneath him. "Anything to keep warm
and to keep awake. But why did they not send up to him? Why was he here?
Why was he all alone? He who had never been alone before. Was he alone?
Was there companionship in the stars,--or in the good God who held the
stars? Did the good God put me here? If he put me here, will he keep me
here? Or did he put me here to die! To die in this cold? It is cold,--it
is very cold! Is there any good in my dying? The train will run down,
and they will see a dead body lying under the bridge,--black on the
snow, with a red lantern by it. Then they will stop. Shall I--I
will--just go back to see if the lights are at the bend. I will leave
the lantern here on the edge of this wall!" And so Silas turned, half
benumbed, worked his way nearly out of the gorge, and started as he
heard, or thought he heard, a baby's scream. "A thousand babies are
starving, and I am afraid to stay here to give them their life," he
said. "There is a boy fit for a soldier! Order out the relief! Drum-head
court-martial! Prisoner, hear your sentence! Deserter, to be shot!
Blindfold,--kneel, sir! Fire! Good enough for deserters!" And so poor
Silas worked back again to the lantern.
And now he saw and felt sure that Orion was bending downward, and he
knew that the night must be broken; and, with some new hope, throwing
down the shovel with which he had been working, he began his soldier
tramp once more,--as far as soldier tramp was possible with those
trailing snow-shoes,--tried again on "No war nor battle sound," broke
down on "Cynthia's seat" and the "music of the spheres;" but at
last,--working on "beams," "long beams," and "that with long beams,"--he
caught the stanzas he was feeling for, and broke out exultant with,--
"At last surrounds their sight,
A globe of circular light
That with long beams the shame-faced night arrayed;
The helmed cherubim
And sworded seraphim
Are seen in glittering ranks--"
"Globe of circular light--am I dreaming, or have they come!"--
Come they had! The globe of circular light swept full over the valley,
and the scream of the engine was welcomed by the freezing boy as if it
had been an angel's whisper to him. Not unprepared did it find him. The
red lantern swung to and fro in a well-practised hand, and he was in
waiting on his firmest spot as the train slowed and the engine passed
"Do not stop for me," he cried, as he threw his weight heavily on the
tender side, and the workmen dragged him in. "Only run slow till you are
out of the ledge: we have made a milk station at the cross-road."
"Good for you!" said the wondering fireman, who in a moment understood
the exigency. The heavy plough threw out the snow steadily still, in ten
seconds they were clear of the ledge, and saw the fire-light shimmering
on the great pyramids of milk-cans. Slower and slower ran the train,
and by the blazing fire stopped, for once, because its masters chose to
stop. And the working party on the train cheered lustily as they tumbled
out of the cars, as they apprehended the situation, and were cheered by
the working party from the village.
Two or three cans of milk stood on the embers of the fire, that they
might be ready for the men on the train with something that was at least
warm. An empty passenger car was opened and the pyramids of milk-cans
were hurried into it,--forty men now assisting.
"You will find Joe Winter at the Boston station," said John Stevens to
the "gentlemanly conductor" of the express, whose lightning train had
thus become a milk convoy. "Tell Winter to distribute this among all the
carts, that everybody may have some. Good luck to you. Good-by!" And the
engines snorted again, and John Stevens turned back, not so much as
thinking that he had made his Christmas present to a starving town.
The children were around Robert Walter's knees, and each of the two
spelled out a verse of the second chapter of Luke, on Christmas morning.
And Robert and Mary kneeled with them, and they said together, "Our
Father who art in heaven." Mary's voice broke a little when they came to
"daily bread," but with the two, and her husband, she continued to the
end, and could say "thine is the power," and believe it too.
"Mamma," whispered little Fanny, as she kissed her mother after the
prayer, "when I said my prayer up stairs last night, I said 'our daily
milk,' and so did Robert." This was more than poor Mary could bear. She
kissed the child, and she hurried away.
For last night at six o'clock it was clear that the milk was sour, and
little Jamie had detected it first of all. Then, with every one of the
old wiles, they had gone back over the old slops; but the child, with
that old weird strength, had pushed them all away. Christmas morning
broke, and poor Robert, as soon as light would serve, had gone to the
neighbors all,--their nearest intimates they had tried the night
before,--and from all had brought back the same reply; one friend had
sent a wretched sample, but the boy detected the taint and pushed it,
untasted, away. Dr. Morton had the alarm the day before. He was at the
house earlier than usual with some condensed milk, which his wife's
stores had furnished; but that would not answer. Poor Jamie pushed this
by. There was some smoke or something,--who should say what?--it would
not do. The doctor could see in an instant how his patient had fallen
back in the night. That weird, anxious, entreating look, as his head lay
back on the little pillow, had all come back again. Robert and Robert's
friends, Gaisford and Warren, had gone down to the Old Colony, to the
Worcester, and to the Hartford stations. Perhaps their trains were doing
better. The door-bell rang yet again. "Mrs. Appleton's love to Mrs.
Walter, and perhaps her child will try some fresh beef-tea." As if poor
Jamie did not hate beef-tea; still Morton resolutely forced three
spoonfuls down. Half an hour more and Mrs. Dudley's compliments. "Mrs.
Dudley heard that Mrs. Walter was out of milk, and took the liberty to
send round some very particularly nice Scotch groats, which her brother
had just brought from Edinburgh." "Do your best with it, Fanny," said
poor Mary, but she knew that if Jamie took those Scotch groats it was
only because they were a Christmas present. Half an hour more! Three
more spoonfuls of beef-tea after a fight. Door-bell again. Carriage at
the door. "Would Mrs. Walter come down and see Mrs. Fitch? It was really
very particular." Mary was half dazed, and went down, she did not know
"Dear Mrs. Walter, you do not remember me," said this eager girl,
crossing the room and taking her by both hands.
"Why, no--yes--do I?" said Mary, crying and laughing together.
"Yes, you will remember, it was at church, at the baptism. My Jennie and
your Jamie were christened the same day. And now I hear,--we all know
how low he is,--and perhaps he will share my Jennie's breakfast. Dear
Mrs. Walter, do let me try."
Then Mary saw that the little woman's cloak and hat were already thrown
off,--which had not seemed strange to her before,--and the two passed
quietly up stairs together; and Julia Fitch bent gently over him, and
cooed to him, and smiled to him, but could not make the poor child
smile. And they lifted him so gently on the pillow,--but only to hear
him scream. And she brought his head gently to her heart, and drew back
the little curtain that was left, and offered to him her life; but he
was frightened, and did not know her, and had forgotten what it was she
gave him, and screamed again; and so they had to lay him back gently
upon the pillow. And then,--as Julia was saying she would stay, and how
they could try again, and could do this and that,--then the door-bell
rang again, and Mrs. Coleman had herself come round with a little white
pitcher, and herself ran up stairs with it, and herself knocked at the
The blockade was broken, and
THE MILK HAD COME!
* * * * *
Mary never knew that it was from Huldah Stevens's milk-can that her boy
drank in the first drop of his new life. Nor did Huldah know it. Nor
did John know it, nor the paladins who fought that day at his side. Nor
did Silas Lovejoy know it.
But the good God and all good angels knew it. Why ask for more?
And you and I, dear reader, if we can forget that always our daily bread
comes to us, because a thousand brave men and a thousand brave women are
at work in the world, praying to God and trying to serve him, we will
not forget it as we meet at breakfast on this blessed Christmas day!
Next: Stand And Wait
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