The Story of Waitstill Baxter
The Story of Waitstill Baxter
Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin
The Story of Waitstill Baxter
I. SACO WATER
FAR, far up, in the bosom of New Hampshire’s granite hills, the Saco has its birth. As the mountain rill gathers strength it takes
“Through Bartlett’s vales its tuneful way,
Or hides in Conway’s fragrant brakes,
Retreating from the glare of day.”
Now it leaves the mountains and flows through “green Fryeburg’s woods and farms.” In the course of its frequent turns and twists and bends, it meets with many another stream, and sends it, fuller and stronger, along its rejoicing way. When it has journeyed more than a hundred miles and is nearing the ocean, it greets the Great Ossipee River and accepts its crystal tribute. Then, in its turn, the Little Ossipee joins forces, and the river, now a splendid stream, flows onward to Bonny Eagle, to Moderation and to Salmon Falls, where it dashes over the dam like a young Niagara and hurtles, in a foamy torrent, through the ragged defile cut between lofty banks of solid rock.
Widening out placidly for a moment’s rest in the sunny reaches near Pleasant Point, it gathers itself for a new plunge at Union Falls, after which it speedily merges itself in the bay and is fresh water no more.
At one of the falls on the Saco, the two little hamlets of Edgewood and Riverboro nestle together at the bridge and make one village. The stream is a wonder of beauty just here; a mirror of placid loveliness above the dam, a tawny, roaring wonder at the fall, and a mad, white-flecked torrent as it dashes on its way to the ocean.
The river has seen strange sights in its time, though the history of these two tiny villages is quite unknown to the great world outside. They have been born, waxed strong, and fallen almost to decay while Saco Water has tumbled over the rocks and spent itself in its impetuous journey to the sea.
It remembers the yellow-moccasined Sokokis as they issued from the Indian Cellar and carried their birchen canoes along the wooded shore. It was in those years that the silver-skinned salmon leaped in its crystal depths; the otter and the beaver crept with sleek wet skins upon its shore; and the brown deer came down to quench his thirst at its brink while at twilight the stealthy forms of bear and panther and wolf were mirrored in its glassy surface.
Time sped; men chained the river’s turbulent forces and ordered it to grind at the mill. Then houses and barns appeared along its banks, bridges were built, orchards planted, forests changed into farms, white-painted meetinghouses gleamed through the trees and distant bells rang from their steeples on quiet Sunday mornings.
All at once myriads of great hewn logs vexed its downward course, slender logs linked together in long rafts, and huge logs drifting down singly or in pairs. Men appeared, running hither and thither like ants, and going through mysterious operations the reason for which the river could never guess: but the mill-wheels turned, the great saws buzzed, the smoke from tavern chimneys rose in the air, and the rattle and clatter of stage-coaches resounded along the road.
Now children paddled with bare feet in the river’s sandy coves and shallows, and lovers sat on its alder-shaded banks and exchanged their vows just where the shuffling bear was wont to come down and drink.
The Saco could remember the “cold year,” when there was a black frost every month of the twelve, and though almost all the corn along its shores shrivelled on the stalk, there were two farms where the vapor from the river saved the crops, and all the seed for the next season came from the favored spot, to be known as “Egypt” from that day henceforward.
Strange, complex things now began to happen, and the river played its own part in some of these, for there were disastrous freshets, the sudden breaking-up of great jams of logs, and the drowning of men who were engulfed in the dark whirlpool below the rapids.
Caravans, with menageries of wild beasts, crossed the bridge now every year. An infuriated elephant lifted the side of the old Edgewood Tavern barn, and the wild laughter of the roistering rum-drinkers who were tantalizing the animals floated down to the river’s edge. The roar of a lion, tearing and chewing the arm of one of the bystanders, and the cheers of the throng when a plucky captain of the local militia thrust a stake down the beast’s throat,—these sounds displaced the former war-whoop of the Indians and the ring of the axe in the virgin forests along the shores.
There were days, and moonlight nights, too, when strange sights and sounds of quite another nature could have been noted by the river as it flowed under the bridge that united the two little villages.
Issuing from the door of the Riverboro Town House, and winding down the hill, through the long row of teams and carriages that lined the roadside, came a procession of singing men and singing women. Convinced of sin, but entranced with promised pardon; spiritually intoxicated by the glowing eloquence of the latter-day prophet they were worshipping, the band of “Cochranites” marched down the dusty road and across the bridge, dancing, swaying, waving handkerchiefs, and shouting hosannas.
God watched, and listened, knowing that there would be other prophets, true and false, in the days to come, and other processions following them; and the river watched and listened too, as it hurried on towards the sea with its story of the present that was sometime to be the history of the past.
When Jacob Cochrane was leading his overwrought, ecstatic band across the river, Waitstill Baxter, then a child, was watching the strange, noisy company from the window of a little brick dwelling on the top of the Town-House Hill.
Her stepmother stood beside her with a young baby in her arms, but when she saw what held the gaze of the child she drew her away, saying: “We mustn’t look, Waitstill; your father don’t like it!”
“Who was the big man at the head, mother?”
“His name is Jacob Cochrane, but you mustn’t think or talk about him; he is very wicked.”
“He doesn’t look any wickeder than the others,” said the child. “Who was the man that fell down in the road, mother, and the woman that knelt and prayed over him? Why did he fall, and why did she pray, mother?”
“That was Master Aaron Boynton, the schoolmaster, and his wife. He only made believe to fall down, as the Cochranites do; the way they carry on is a disgrace to the village, and that’s the reason your father won’t let us look at them.”
“I played with a nice boy over to Boynton’s,” mused the child.
“That was Ivory, their only child. He is a good little fellow, but his mother and father will spoil him with their crazy ways.”
“I hope nothing will happen to him, for I love him,” said the child gravely. “He showed me a humming-bird’s nest, the first ever I saw, and the littlest!”
“Don’t talk about loving him,” chided the woman. “If your father should hear you, he’d send you to bed without your porridge.”
“Father couldn’t hear me, for I never speak when he’s at home,” said grave little Waitstill. “And I’m used to going to bed without my porridge.”
II. THE SISTERS
THE river was still running under the bridge, but the current of time had swept Jacob Cochrane out of sight, though not out of mind, for he had left here and there a disciple to preach his strange and uncertain doctrine. Waitstill, the child who never spoke in her father’s presence, was a young woman now, the mistress of the house; the stepmother was dead, and the baby a girl of seventeen.
The brick cottage on the hilltop had grown only a little shabbier. Deacon Foxwell Baxter still slammed its door behind him every morning at seven o’clock and, without any such cheerful conventions as good-byes to his girls, walked down to the bridge to open his store.
The day, properly speaking, had opened when Waitstill and Patience had left their beds at dawn, built the fire, fed the hens and turkeys, and prepared the breakfast, while the Deacon was graining the horse and milking the cows. Such minor “chores” as carrying water from the well, splitting kindling, chopping pine, or bringing wood into the kitchen, were left to Waitstill, who had a strong back, or, if she had not, had never been unwise enough to mention the fact in her father’s presence. The almanac day, however, which opened with sunrise, had nothing to do with the real human day, which always began when Mr. Baxter slammed the door behind him, and reached its high noon of delight when he disappeared from view.
“He’s opening the store shutters!” chanted Patience from the heights of a kitchen chair by the window. “Now he’s taken his cane and beaten off the Boynton puppy that was sitting on the steps as usual,—I don’t mean Ivory’s dog” (here the girl gave a quick glance at her sister), “but Rodman’s little yellow cur. Rodman must have come down to the bridge on some errand for Ivory. Isn’t it odd, when that dog has all the other store steps to sit upon, he should choose father’s, when every bone in his body must tell him how father hates him and the whole Boynton family.”
“Father has no real cause that I ever heard of; but some dogs never know when they’ve had enough beating, nor some people either.” said Waitstill, speaking from the pantry.
“Don’t be gloomy when it’s my birthday, Sis!—Now he’s opened the door and kicked the cat! All is ready for business at the Baxter store.”
“I wish you weren’t quite so free with your tongue, Patty.”
“Somebody must talk,” retorted the girl, jumping down from the chair and shaking back her mop of red-gold curls. “I’ll put this hateful, childish, round comb in and out just once more, then it will disappear forever. This very after-noon up goes my hair!”
“You know it will be of no use unless you braid it very plainly and neatly. Father will take notice and make you smooth it down.”
“Father hasn’t looked me square in the face for years; besides, my hair won’t braid, and nothing can make it quite plain and neat, thank goodness! Let us be thankful for small mercies, as Jed Morrill said when the lightning struck his mother-in-law and skipped his wife.”
“Patty, I will not permit you to repeat those tavern stories; they are not seemly on the lips of a girl!” And Waitstill came out of the pantry with a shadow of disapproval in her eyes and in her voice.
Patty flung her arms round her sister tempestuously, and pulled out the waves of her hair so that it softened her face.—“I’ll be good,” she said, “and oh, Waity! let’s invent some sort of cheap happiness for to-day! I shall never be seventeen again and we have so many troubles! Let’s put one of the cows in the horse’s stall and see what will happen! Or let’s spread up our beds with the head at the foot and put the chest of drawers on the other side of the room, or let’s make candy! Do you think father would miss the molasses if we only use a cupful? Couldn’t we strain the milk, but leave the churning and the dishes for an hour or two, just once? If you say ‘yes’ I can think of something wonderful to do!”
“What is it?” asked Waitstill, relenting at the sight of the girl’s eager, roguish face.
“PIERCE MY EARS!” cried Patty. “Say you will!”
“Oh! Patty, Patty, I am afraid you are given over to vanity! I daren’t let you wear eardrops without father’s permission.”
“Why not? Lots of church members wear them, so it can’t be a mortal sin. Father is against all adornments, but that’s because he doesn’t want to buy them. You’ve always said I should have your mother’s coral pendants when I was old enough. Here I am, seventeen today, and Dr. Perry says I am already a well-favored young woman. I can pull my hair over my ears for a few days and when the holes are all made and healed, even father cannot make me fill them up again. Besides, I’ll never wear the earrings at home!”