Corn Balls for Christmas: A Thrilling Tale: 1870s

harriet ann corn balls

HARRIET ANN’S CHRISTMAS

by Mary E. Wilkins

I was 12 years old three weeks before that Christmas , but I was small for my age and looked no more than 10. There were four of us. I was the eldest. Then there were a girl of 10, one of 8 1/2 and a boy of 7. In October we had moved to the house on the shore of Lonesome lake, which was very lonesome indeed. It was a solitary little sheet of water on the top of a hill, almost a mountain. There were no neighbors nearer than a mile. Father had moved to this farm on Lonesome lake because his father had died that fall, and the property had to be divided between him and his brother, Uncle William. Uncle William was not married, though he was older than father, and he and father and grandfather had always lived together and work the home farm, sharing the profits.

After grandfather’s death father and Uncle William had some difference. I never knew what it was about. One night after I had gone to bed I heard them talking loud, and the next morning father and Uncle William looked very sober at breakfast and mother had been crying. That afternoon she told us that we were going to move because the property was to be divided, and were to have the farm on Lonesome lake, near Lebanon. Lebanon is a little village about ten miles from Wareville, where we were living then. Mother said she was sorry to go away because she had lived there so long, and she was afraid she would be pretty lonesome in the new home, but she said we must make the best of it. Uncle William was the eldest son and had a right to the first choice of the property, and of course since he was a bachelor, it would be very hard for him to go to live at Lonesome lake.

We children rather liked the idea of moving and began packing at once. Flory and Janey had their dolls and their wardrobes all packed within an hour. Flory was the sister next to me, and I thought her rather old to play with dolls. I had given up dolls long before I was as old as she.

Two weeks after grandfather died we were all moved and nearly settled in our new home. There had been no one living in the house for several years, except when father and Uncle William, went up there every year in haying time to cut and make hay. Everything seemed pretty damp and dismal at first, but when we got our furniture set up and the fires started it looked more cheerful. The house was large, with two front rooms looking on the lake, which was only about 20 feet distant. One of these rooms was our sitting room; the other was our parlor. Back of these rooms was a very large one, which was our kitchen and dining room. There were a dark bedroom in the middle of the house, a bedroom out of the kitchen, one where father and mother slept, out of the sitting room, and four chambers.

Thanksgiving came about a week after we had moved, and we had a rather forlorn day. We all missed grandfather and Uncle William. I am sure mother cried a little before we sat down to the table, and father looked sober.

When Thanksgiving was over, we began to think about Christmas . Mother had promised us a Christmas tree. The year before we had all the measles and been disappointed about going to the tree at the Sunday school, and mother had said, “Next year you shall have a tree of your own if nothing happens.” Of course, something had happened. Poor grandfather had died, and we had moved, and we wonder if that would put a stop to the tree. Mother looked a little troubled at first when we spoke of it. Then she said if we should not be disappointed if we did not have many presents and the tree did not have much on it except popcorn and apples she would see what she could do.

Then we children began to be full of little secrecies. Mysterious bits of wool and silk and colored paper and cardboard were scattered about the house, and we were always shutting doors and jumping and hiding things when a door was opened. Each of us was making something for father and mother, even Charles Henry. He was working a worsted motto, “God Bless Our Home.” Then, of course, we were all making presents for one another.

It was a week and one day before Christmas . We had our presents at most done, and mother had promised to take two of us the very next day and go down to the village to do some shopping-we had been saving money all the year to come boughten presents -when the news about Uncle William came. A man rode over from Wareville quite late at night and brought word that Uncle William was dangerously sick and father and mother must come at once if they wanted to see him alive. Mother said there was nothing for it but they must go. She said if they had not come away just as they had, with hard words between father and Uncle William, she would have let father go alone and staid with us children; but, as it was, she felt that she must go too. She and father, though I can understand now that they felt anxious while trying to conceal it from us, did not think there was any real danger in our staying alone. They reasoned that nobody except the people in the village would know we were alone, and there was not probably one ill disposed person there, certainly not one who would do us harm. Then, too, it was winter and we were off the main traveled road, and tramps seemed very improbable. We had enough provisions in the house to last us for weeks, and there was a great stock of firewood in the shed. Luckily the barn was connected with the house, so I did not have to go out of doors to milk–it was fortunate that I knew how–and we had only one cow.

Mother staid up all that night and baked, and father split up kindling wood and got everything ready to leave. They started early next morning, repeating all their instructions over and over. We felt pretty lonesome when they had gone, I especially, not only because I was the eldest and felt a responsibility for the rest, but because father had given me a particular charge. I was the only one who knew that there was $583, some money which father had from the sale of a wood lot in Wareville a month after we had moved and had kept in the house ever since, locked up in the secret drawer in the chest in the dark bedroom.

Father had been intending to drive over to Wilton, where there was a bank, and deposit the money, but had put it off from one week to another, and now Wilton was too far out of his way for him to go there before going to see poor Uncle William.

Father called me into the parlor the morning they started, told me about the money and charged me to say nothing concerning it to the others. “It is always best when there is money to be taken care of to keep your own counsel,” said father. He showed me the secret drawer in the chest in the dark bedroom, the existence of which I had never suspected before, thought I was 12 years old, and he taught me how to open it and shut it. If the house caught fire, I was to get the children out first, then go straight to the secret drawer and save the money. If there had been no possibility of fire, I doubt if father would have told me about the money at all, and I would have been saved a great deal of worry.

The money was on my mind constantly after father and mother were gone. I kept thinking, “Suppose anything should happen to that money while I have the charge of it.” I knew what a serious matter it would be, because father had not much money and was saving this to buy cows in the spring, when he expected to open a milk route. I was all the time planning what I should do in case the house caught fire and in case the robbers came. The first night after father and mother went I did not sleep much, though the others did. We three girls slept in one room, with Charley in a little one out of it, and we were all locked in.

The next night I slept a little better and did not feel so much afraid, and the next day Samuel J. Wetherhed came, and we all felt perfectly safe after that. He came about 10 o’clock in the morning and knocked on the south door, and we all jumped. I don’t suppose anybody had knock on that door three times since we had lived there, it was such a lonesome place. We were scared and did not dare to go to the door, but when he knocked the second time I blustered up enough courage. I told Flory, who was as large as I and stronger, to take the carving knife, hide it under her apron and stand behind me. Of course I thought at once of the money and that this might be a robber. Then I opened the door a crack and peeped out. The minute I saw the man who stood there I did not feel afraid at all, and Flory said afterward that she felt awful ashamed of the carving knife and afraid that he might see it and be hurt in his feelings.

He stood there, smiling with such a pleasant smile. He did not look very old, not near as old as father, and he was quite well dressed. He was very good looking, and that, with his pleasant smile, won our hearts at once. He more than smiled-be fairly laughed in such a good natured way when he saw how we were all peeking, for the younger children was behind Flory, and I found afterward that Charley, who had great notions of being smart and brave, though he was so little, because he was a boy, had the poker, shaking it at the stranger. The man laughed and said in such a pleasant voice, pleasanter this his smile even: “Now, don’t you be scared, children. I am Samuel J. Wetherhed.”

The man said that as if it settled everything, and we all felt that it did, though we had never heard of Samuel J. Wetherhed in our lives. We felt that we ought to know all about him, and Janey said that night that she was sure she had seen his name in The Missionary Herald, and he must be a deacon who gave a great deal to missions.

Samuel J. Wetherhed went on to tell us more about himself, though I am sure we should have been satisfied with the name. “I have married sister who lives in Wareville. She married a man of the name of Stackpole.” said he, and we all nodded wisely at that and felt that it was an introduction. We knew Mr. Stackpole. He was the man to whom father had sold his woodland. “I went to visit my sister last week,” said the man. “I haven’t got any settled work. Yesterday my sister’s husband saw your father, and he told me how he had left you all alone up here and felt sort of worried, and I thought as long as I was just loafing around and no use to anybody I might just as well come up here and look after you a little and stay till your folks got back and look out there didn’t say wolves or robbers or anything get you.” The man laughed again in such a pleasant, merry way when he said that, and then he went on to tell us that his sister’s husband said Uncle William was better and the doctor thought he would get well, but he guessed father and mother would have to stay there for awhile. We asked the man in, and he made himself at home at once.

It seemed to me I had never seen a man so very kind as he was, and he was so quick to see things that needed to be done. He went out of his own accord and drew a pail of water, and he brought in wood for the sitting room fire. We children all agreed when we went up stairs to bed that night that there never was a man so good, except father. We had told him our plans for Christmas , and he was so much interested. He said of course we could have a tree. He would cut a fine tree, and if Uncle William was not well enough for father and mother to leave him on Christmas day he would go to Wareville himself and stay with Uncle William, so they could come home. He said, too, that he could go down to the village on foot, and if we would make out a list of the things we wanted he would go down and buy them for us. He went the very next day. We gave him all our money, and be brought back everything we wanted. We decided to make him some presents , too and I began a little wash leather money bag, like the one I had made for father. Flory made a penwiper and Janey a worsted bookmark.

Samuel J. Wetherhed cut a beautiful tree for us, taking us all into the woods to pick it out. Then he set it up in the parlor so firmed that it did not shake. He rigged some sockets for candles and help us string popcorn for decorations and make candy bags. He could sew as well as mother. Samuel J. Wetherhed was the most industrious man I ever saw. He was not idle a minute. He milked and did all the barn chores, he made the fires and drew water and swept the floors and washed the milk pails for me, and all his spare time he was at work upon our Christmas preparations as busily as we were. He found some boards and tools of father’s and made some wonderful things with them. There was a nice box, which he showed us how to line with flannel, for mother to keep knives and forks in, a little boat for Charley and a number of other things.

I felt much easier in my mind about the money after Samuel J. Wetherhed came.

We have given Samuel the bedroom out of the kitchen to sleep in. He said he would rather have that, because it was so handy for him to build the fire in the morning, and I did not have the first suspicion that anything was wrong until the night of the day but one before Christmas . I had been sleeping well since Samuel came through feeling so safe, though I had as I afterward remembered, often started awake, because I thought I heard a noise, but that night I did not go to sleep as soon as usual. I was very much excited thinking about Christmas and father and mother coming home. Samuel had gone down to the village that morning and got a letter for me from mother in which she said that they were coming home Christmas morning, since Uncle William was well enough to be left. We were all delighted the more so because we thought now that Samuel could stay and have our Christmas tree with us. He laughed and thanked us when we said so, but in a moment afterward I notice that he looked very sober, even sad. Well, thinking over everything made me very wide awake, and I guess it must have been as late as 11 o’clock when I was sure I heard somebody down stairs in the sitting room, which was directly under our room. I thought at once that it might be a robber and perhaps I ought to speak to Samuel in case he should not hear the noise. I waited till I heard the noise again very plain and was sure that I knew where it was-some one was trying to open the door of the dark bedroom, which stuck and had to be forced down before pulling. The children did not awake, and I made up my mind that I would not speak to them and get them scared to death. I thought that I would go down stairs very softly, steal past the sitting room door and go through the other day to the kitchen and wake up Samuel.

I got up and put on my dress. Then I went down stairs, and I don’t believe I made any more noise than a cat. I saw a faint light shining from the dark bedroom, and I knew I had not been mistaken. Then all of a sudden I thought that father and mother might have come home and father be looking to see if the money was safe. I thought I would make sure before I called Samuel.

I went into the sitting room and crept across to the dark bedroom, keeping close to the wall. I peeked in, and there was Samuel rummaging in the chest where the money was. Then I knew that, however good Samuel might be in other ways, he could take things. It was an awful shock. I wonder why I did not scream and run, but I kept still. I went back up stairs and locked myself into the chamber and sat down on the edge of the bed to think. It did not seem to me that it was of any use for me to stay down stairs and watch Samuel. I did not think he could find the secret drawer without any help. I could not stop his taking the money if he was determined. Then, too, I reasoned that if he did not find it that night there would be time enough for me to hide it tomorrow, and father and mother were coming home next day.

I did not sleep any that night. I took off my dress and lay down. Before daybreak I had my plans all made. I tried to treat Samuel just as usual when I saw him in the morning, and I guess I did. After breakfast I carried a pitcher of water into the parlor as if I were going to water the plants. Then I lighted a match and touched it to one of the candles on the Christmas tree to make it appear as if I had only wanted to see how it would look, and then I touched it to the tree, and it blazed up. I waited until I dared wait no longer, and then I dashed on the water and screamed fire at the top of my lungs. They all came running in Samuel first. He rushed for more water and the fire was out in a minute, but the tree was badly singed, and the children began to cry.

“Now, don’t you cry,” said Samuel “I’ll go this minute and cut another tree.”

So Samuel started off and Charley with him, and then I made Flory and Janey go upstairs. “You two have just got to go up stairs and stay there while I fix a surprise,” said I. Surprises were a favorite amusement with us children. Flory and Janey laughed and ran off up stairs for a minute.

I set some molasses on to boil. Then I got the money out of the secret drawer and made six little parcels of it, rolled as tightly as I could and wrapped in letter paper. Then as soon as the molasses was boiled I made popcorn balls. Luckily I had enough corn popped. When I called the girls down stairs, I had two plates of corn balls. The bills in one were of extra size with strings attached all ready to hang on the tree, and in six of them were hidden the little rolls of money. The balls in the other plate were smaller, and those were to be eaten at once.

When Samuel and Charley came home, I gave them some of the little corn balls, and when Samuel had set up the tree I hung on the others. Then I thought the money was safe, but I wondered all the time what I should do if Samuel should come to me and ask me right out where the money was for I did not want to tell a lie.

That night we all went up stairs as usual, but I did not go to sleep. It was not very late when I heard Samuel moving about below, and presently he came to the foot of the stairs and called me.

I went to my door. My heart was beating so hard it seemed to choke me. “What do you want,” I made out say as softly as I could, so as not to wake the children.

“Come down here a minute,” said Samuel, and I went down to the sitting room. I want to ask you a question,” said Samuel. He tried to smile, but he was very pale and looked as if he was as frightened as I was. I was so afraid he would asked me right out, “Where is the money?” but he did not.

“I only want to ask if your father left some money in the house when he went away,” said he, looking away from me as if he were ashamed.

“Yes he did,” said I. I had to or tell a lie.

“Well,” said Samuel in a queer , shaking voice, “I would like to borrow that money for a little while. I need some money right away, and as long as your father ain’t using it”-

“I would rather you waited and ask father,” I said. “I don’t think father would like it if I lent you money.”

“I will make it right with your father,” said Samuel. “Did your father tell you where the money was?”

“Yes he did,” I answered. I had to or tell a lie. I trembled for the next question.

“Where did he tell you it was?” asked Samuel.

“In the chest in the dark bedroom,” said I. That was the truth, and it did no harm.

“Whereabouts in the chest?”

“In the secret drawer.”

“Oh! So there’s a secret drawer. Did you father tell you how to open it?”

I said he did.

“Well, you just come in here and show me how to open it,” said Samuel.

I went with Samuel into the dark bedroom and showed him how to open the drawer. I could see nothing else to do. I stood back while he opened it. I wonder if it would be wrong for me to cry out as if I were astonished when he discovered that the money was gone. Then all of a sudden I heard a sound that made my heart jump with joy. I heard sleighbells and then father’s voice shouting to the horse. “Father has come,” said I.

Samuel made one leap and was gone, rushing through the kitchen and out the back door.

I ran and unbolted the south door, and there was father and mother come home sooner than I expected. When I saw their faces, I just broke down and sobbed and sobbed and told them all about it in such queer snatches that they thought it first I was out of my mind. Father said afterward that he never heard such a jumble of popcorn balls and secret drawers and Samuel. When father fairly understood what had happened, he lighted the lantern and searched out in the barn and the sheds to be sure that Samuel was not lurking about the premises, but he did not find him. Father said he knew the man; that he belonged to a good family, but had been sort of shiftless and unlucky.

When we were all settled down again for the night and I felt so safe and happy with father and mother at home, I could not help feeling troubled about poor Samuel out in the storm. I hope he would not die of cold and be found dead when the snow melted in the spring. There was quite a severe snowstorm. That was the reason why father and mother had reached home so late. They had been obliged to drive slowly on account of the gathering snow.

We were just sitting down to our Christmas dinner next day when we all stopped and listened. Then the sound came again, and we were sure that somebody was out in the storm calling faintly for help.

“It is the man!” said mother. “Do go quick as you can.” Mother has been worrying about Samuel all day. She said she did not want him to perish if he had tried to wrong us, and father had been all around the farm looking for him. He thought, however, that he had gone down to the village the night before.

We opened the door, and we could hear the calls for help quite plainly. Father pulled on his big boots and started out. The storm was very thick. Soon we could not see father, but we could hear his shouts and the faint cries in response, and then we saw father coming back half carrying Samuel J. Wetherhed.

Samuel was pretty well exhausted, beside being frightened and ashamed when he saw where he was, back in the house of the man he had tried to rob. He tried to stop on the threshold of the outer door, spent as he was. “I guess you-don’t-know,” he began, but father interrupted him. “Come along in!” cried father in a hearty way that he has. “You have been good to my children and as long as you didn’t do what you set out to there’s no use talking about it.”

Samuel was pretty well exhausted. He had spent the night in an old barn on the other side of the mountain and had been floundering about in circles all day, trying to find the road. However, he was able to eat some Christmas dinner with us, though he hesitated about that, as he had done about entering the door, and all of a sudden his knife and fork, bent his head down over his plate, and we saw that he was crying, though we tried to take no notice.

Samuel stayed with us that night and was present at the Christmas tree, though he seemed very sober and dashed his hand across his eyes a good many times when his name was called and he got his little presents .

The next day the storm had stopped, and father put the horse in the sleigh and took Samuel down to Lebanon to take the train. We never saw him again after he had shaken hands with us all and thanked mother in a voice that trembled so that he could scarcely speak and father had driven him off in the sleigh.

That day we girls pulled the corn balls to pieces and found the bills inside, not sticky at all. The next day father took the money to the bank, though he said he didn’t know corn balls were safer, since robbers knew that money was in banks, but he didn’t think they had any suspicion of its being in corn balls.

We spent the next Christmas in our old home in Wareville, for father and Uncle William had made up and we had gone back there to live. We had a tree, and the day before Christmas a great box came by express with a handsome present for each of us. There was no name sent with them, but we always knew as well as we wanted to, and father and mother thought so, too, that they had come from Samuel J. Wetherhed, who, we had heard, had settled out west and was doing very well.

The Christian Recorder [Philadelphia PA] 21 December 1899

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Well-done, Harriet Ann!  Mrs Daffodil considers that she was being over-scrupulous in not at least slightly paltering with the truth, but a happy ending and a happy Christmas all round.

 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

 

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