Chapter IV – The “Horse House” Deed
Know all Men By These Presents, that I Seth Towner of Braintree, in the County of Suffolk & Province of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, Gent. In Consideration that I may promote & encourage the worship of God, I have given liberty to Ephriam, and Atherton Wales, & Th’o:s Penniman of Stoughton who attend Publick worship with us to erect a Stable or Horse House, on my Land near the Meeting House, in the South Precinct in Braintree afores:d, to serve their Horses, while attending the service of God—and to the intent that the s:d Ephriam, Atherton & Thomas, their Heirs or assignes shall and may hereafter So long as they or any of them incline or Desire to keep up & maintain a Horse House for the afores:d use and Purpose; have s:d Land whereon s:d House Stands without mollestation: I the said Seth Towner for my Selfe, my Heirs, exec. and admin.: Do hereby Covenant promise bind & oblige my selfe & them to warrant & Defend the afores:d Privilege of Land. To the s:d Ephriam Wales, Atherton Wales, & Tho:s Penniman their Heirs or assignes So long as they or any of them keep a Horse House their, for the afores:d use: they keeping s:d House in Such repair at all times, as that I the s:d Seth Towner, my Heirs or assignes, may not receive Damage by any Creature Coming through s:d House into my Land adjoining. In Witness Whereof, I the s:d Seth Towner have hereunto set my Hand & Seal the first Day of November One Thous. and Seven Hundred Sixty & four: in the fifth year of his Majesty’s Reign George the third King etc. Signed Sealed and Del:d presence of Seth Towner, Daniel Linfield, Simeon Thayer.”
Ann’s two uncles by adoption, and Thomas Penniman of Stoughton, were well pleased to get this permission to erect a stable, or Horse-House, as they put it then, to shelter their horses during divine worship. The want of one had long been a sore inconvenience to them. The few stables already erected around the meeting-house, could not accommodate half of the horses congregated there on a Puritan Sabbath, and every barn, for a quarter of a mile about, was put into requisition on severe days. After the women had dismounted from their pillions at the meeting-house door, the men-folks patiently rode the horses to some place of shelter, and then trudged back through the snow-drifts, wrestling with the icy wind.
So this new “Horse-House” was a great benefit to the Waleses, and to the Pennimans, who lived three miles from them over the Stoughton line. They were all constant meeting-folks. Hard indeed was the storm which could keep a Wales or a Penniman away from meeting.
Mrs. Polly Wales’ horses were accommodated in this new stable also. In the winter time, there were two of them; one which she and Ann rode, Ann using the pillion, and one for Nabby Porter. Phineas Adams always walked. Often the sturdy young blacksmith was at the meeting-house, before the women, and waiting to take their horses.
One Sunday, the winter after the Horse-House was built, Mrs. Polly, Ann, Phineas, and Nabby went to meeting as usual. It was a very cold, bleak day; the wind blew in through the slight wooden walls of the old meeting-house, and the snow lay in little heaps here and there. There was no stove in the building, as every one knows. Some of the women had hot bricks and little foot-stoves, and that was all. Ann did not care for either. She sat up straight in the comfortless, high-backed pew. Her cheeks were as red as her crimson cloak, her black eyes shone like stars. She let Mrs. Polly and Nabby have the hot stones, but her own agile little feet were as warm as toast. Little Hannah French, over across the meeting-house, looked chilled and blue, but somehow Ann never seemed to be affected much by the cold.
The Wales pew was close to a window on the south side; the side where the new stable was. Indeed Ann could see it, if she looked out. She sat next the window because the other women minded the draught more.
Right across the aisle from Mrs. Polly’s pew was Thomas Penniman’s. He was there with his wife, and six stalwart sons. The two youngest, Levi and John, were crowded out of the pew proper, and sat in the one directly back.
John sat at the end. He was a tall, handsome young fellow, two or three years older than Ann. He was well spoken of amongst his acquaintances for two reasons. First, on account of his own brave, steady character; and second, on account of his owning one of the finest horses anywhere about. A good horse was, if anything, a more important piece of property then than now. This one was a beautiful bay. They called him “Red Robin.”
To-day, Red Robin was carefully blanketed and fastened in the new stable. John thought when he tied him there how thankful he was he had such a good shelter this bitter day. He felt grateful to Lieutenant Seth Turner, who owned all the land hereabouts and had given the liberty to build it.
The people all sat quietly listening to the long sermon. Two hours long it was. When the minister perched up in his beetling pulpit with the sounding-board over his head, was about half through his discourse, Ann Wales happened to glance out of the window at her side. She rarely did such a thing in meeting-time; indeed she had been better instructed. How she happened to to-day, she could not have told, but she did.
It was well she did. Just at that moment, a man in a gray cloak sprang into the Horse-House, and began untying John Penniman’s Red Robin.
Ann gave one glance; then she never hesitated. There was no time to send whispers along the pew; to tell Phineas Adams to give the alarm.
Out of the pew darted Ann, like a red robin herself, her read cloak flying back, crowding nimbly past the others, across the aisle to John Penniman.
“Somebody’s stealing Red Robin, John,” said she in a clear whisper. They heard it for several pews around. Up sprang the pewful of staunch Pennimans, father and sons, and made for the door in a great rush after John, who was out before the whisper had much more than left Ann’s lips.
The alarm spread; other men went too. The minister paused, and the women waited. Finally the men returned, all but a few who were detailed to watch the horses through the remainder of the services, and the meeting proceeded.
Phineas sent the whisper along the pew, that John had got out in time to save Red Robin; but the robber had escaped. Somehow, he had taken alarm before John got there. Red Robin was standing in the stable untied; but the robber had disappeared.
After meeting the people all came and questioned Ann. “He was a very tall man, in a gray cloak,” said she. “He turned his face, or I saw it, just for one second, when I looked. He had black eyes and a dark curling beard.”
It seemed very extraordinary. If it had not been for Red Robin’s being untied, they would almost have doubted if Ann had seen rightly. The thief had disappeared so suddenly and utterly, it almost seemed impossible that he could have been there at all.
There was much talk over it after meeting. “Are you sure you saw him, Ann?” Mrs. Polly asked.
“Yes; I am sure,” Ann would reply. She began to feel rather uncomfortable over it. She feared people would think she had been napping and dreaming although Red Robin was untied.
That night the family were all in bed at nine o’clock, as usual; but Ann up in her snug feather-bed in her little western chamber, could not sleep. She kept thinking about the horse-thief, and grew more and more nervous. Finally she thought of some fine linen cloth she and Mrs. Polly had left out in the snowy field south of the house to bleach, and she worried about that. A web of linen cloth and a horse were very dissimilar booty; but a thief was a thief. Suppose anything should happen to the linen they had worked so hard over!
At last, she could not endure it any longer. Up she got, put on her clothes hurriedly, crept softly down stairs and out doors. There was a full moon and it was almost as light as day. The snow looked like a vast sheet of silver stretching far away over the fields.
Ann was hastening along the path between two high snowbanks when all of a sudden she stopped, and gave a choked kind of a scream. No one with nerves could have helped it. Right in the path before her stood the horse-thief, gray cloak and all.
Ann turned, after her scream and first wild stare, and ran. But the man caught her before she had taken three steps. “Don’t scream,” he said in a terrible, anxious whisper. “Don’t make a noise, for God’s sake! They’re after me! Can’t you hide me?”
“No,” said Ann, white and trembling all over but on her mettle, “I won’t. You are a sinful man, and you ought to be punished. I won’t do a thing to help you!”
The man’s face bending over her was ghastly in the moonlight. He went on pleading. “If you will hide me somewhere about your place, they will not find me,” said he, still in that sharp agonized whisper. “They are after me—can’t you hear them?”
Ann could, listening, hear distant voices on the night air.
“I was just going to hide in your barn,” said the thief, “when I met you. O let me in there, now! don’t betray me!”
Great tears were rolling down his bearded cheeks. Ann began to waver. “They might look in the barn,” said she hesitatingly.
The man followed up his advantages. “Then hide me in the house,” said he. “I have a daughter at home, about your age. She’s waiting for me, and it’s long she’ll wait, and sad news she’ll get at the end of the waiting, if you don’t help me. She hasn’t any mother, she’s a little tender thing—it’ll kill her!” He groaned as he said it.
The voices came nearer. Ann hesitated no longer. “Come,” said she, “quick!”
Then she fled into the house, the man following. Inside, she bolted the door, and made her unwelcome guest take off his boots in the kitchen, and follow her softly up stairs with them in his hand.
Ann’s terror, leading him up, almost overwhelmed her. What if anybody should wake! Nabby slept near the head of the stairs. Luckily, she was a little deaf, and Ann counted on that.
She conducted the man across a little entry into a back, unfurnished chamber, where, among other things, were stored some chests of grain. The moon shone directly in the window of the attic-chamber, so it was light enough to distinguish objects quite plainly.
Ann tiptoed softly from one grain-chest to another. There were three of them. Two were quite full; the third was nearly empty.
“Get in here,” said Ann. “Don’t make any noise.”
He climbed in obediently, and Ann closed the lid. The chest was a rickety old affair and full of cracks—there was no danger but he would have air enough. She heard the voices out in the yard, as she shut the lid. Back she crept softly into her own room, undressed and got into bed. She could hear the men out in the yard quite plainly. “We’ve lost him again,” she heard one of them say.
Presently Phineas Adams opened a window, and shouted out, to know what was the matter.
“Seen anything of the horse-thief?” queried a voice from the yard.
“No!” said Phineas. “I have been asleep these three hours. You just waked me up.”
“He was hiding under the meeting-house,” said the voice, “must have slipped in there this morning, when we missed him. We went down there and watched to-night, and almost caught him. But he disappeared a little below here, and we’ve lost him again. It’s my opinion he’s an evil spirit in disguise. He ran like the wind, in amongst the trees, where we couldn’t follow with the horses. Are you sure he did not skulk in here somewhere? Sim White thinks he did.”
“I knew I saw him turn the corner of the lane,” chimed in another voice, “and we’ve scoured the woods.”
“I think we’d better search the barn, anyhow,” some one else said, and a good many murmured assent.
“Wait a minute, I’ll be down,” said Phineas, shutting his window.
How long poor Ann lay there shaking, she never knew. It seemed hours. She heard Phineas go down stairs, and unlock the door. She heard them tramp into the barn. “O, if I had hidden him there!” she thought.
After a while, she heard them out in the yard again. “He could not have gotten into the house, in any way,” she heard one man remark speculatively. How she waited for the response. It came in Phineas Adams’ slow, sensible tones: “How could he? Didn’t you hear me unbolt the door when I came out? The doors are all fastened, I saw to it myself.”
“Well, of course he didn’t,” agreed the voice.
At last, Phineas came in, and Ann heard them go. She was so thankful. However, the future perplexities, which lay before her, were enough to keep her awake for the rest of the night. In the morning, a new anxiety beset her. The poor thief must have some breakfast. She could easily have smuggled some dry bread up to him; but she did want him to have some of the hot Indian mush, which the family had. Ann, impulsive in this as everything, now that she had made up her mind to protect a thief, wanted to do it handsomely. She did want him to have some of that hot mush; but how could she manage it?
The family at the breakfast table discussed the matter of the horse-thief pretty thoroughly. It was a hard ordeal for poor Ann, who could not take easily to deception. She had unexpected trouble too with Nabby. Nabby had waked up the preceding night.
“I didn’t see anything,” proclaimed Nabby; “but I heerd a noise. I think there’s mice out in the grain-chist in the back chamber.”
“I must go up there and look,” said Mrs. Polly. “They did considerable mischief, last year.”
Ann turned pale; what if she should take it into her head to look that day!
She watched her chance very narrowly for the hot mush; and after breakfast she caught a minute, when Phineas had gone to work, and Mrs. Polly was in the pantry, and Nabby down cellar. She had barely time to fill a bowl with mush, and scud.
How lightly she stepped over that back chamber floor, and how gingerly she opened the grain-chest lid. The thief looked piteously out at her from his bed of Indian corn. He was a handsome man, somewhere between forty and fifty. Indeed he came of a very good family in a town not so very far away. Horse-thiefs numbered some very respectable personages in their clan in those days sometimes.
They carried on a whispered conversation while he ate. It was arranged that Ann was to assist him off that night.
What a day poor Ann had, listening and watching in constant terror every moment, for fear something would betray her. Beside, her conscience troubled her sadly; she was far from being sure that she was doing right in hiding a thief from justice. But the poor man’s tears, and the mention of his daughter, had turned the scale with her; she could not give him up.
Her greatest fear was lest Mrs. Polly should take a notion to search for mice in the grain-chests. She so hoped Nabby would not broach the subject again. But there was a peculiarity about Nabby—she had an exceedingly bitter hatred of rats and mice. Still there was no danger of her investigating the grain-chests on her own account, for she was very much afraid. She would not have lifted one of those lids, with the chance of a rat or mouse being under it, for the world. If ever a mouse was seen in the kitchen Nabby took immediate refuge on the settle or the table and left some one else to do the fighting.
So Nabby, being so constituted, could not be easy on the subject this time. All day long she heard rats and mice in the grain-chests; she stopped and listened with her broom, and she stopped and listened with her mop.
Ann went to look, indeed that was the way she smuggled the thief’s dinner to him, but her report of nothing the matter with the grain did not satisfy Nabby. She had more confidence in Mrs. Polly. But Mrs. Polly did not offer to investigate herself until after supper. They had been very busy that day, washing, and now there was churning to do. Ann sat at the churn, Mrs. Polly was cutting up apples for pies; and Nabby was washing dishes, when the rats and mice smote her deaf ears again.
“I knew I heerd ’em then,” she said; “I don’t believe but what them grain-chists is full of ’em.”
“I am going to look,” quoth Mrs. Polly then, in a tone of decision, and straightway she rose and got a candle.
Ann’s heart beat terribly. “O, I wouldn’t go up there to-night,” said she.
“Yes; I am going. I’m going to satisfy Nabby about the rats in the grain-chest, if I can.”
She was out the door, at the foot of the stairs, Nabby behind her, dishcloth and plate in hand, peering fearfully over her shoulder. Ann was in despair. Only one chance of averting the discovery suggested itself to her. She tipped over the churn. “O, oh!” she screamed. Back rushed Mrs. Polly and Nabby, and that ended the rat-hunt for that night. The waste of all that beautiful cream was all Mrs. Polly could think of—prudent housewife that she was.
So in the night, when the moon was up, and the others were sound asleep, Ann assisted her thief safely out of the grain-chest and out of the house. “But, first,” said Ann Wales, pausing bravely, with her hand on the grain-chest lid, speaking in a solemn whisper, “before I let you out, you must make me a promise.”
“What?” came back feebly.
“That you will never, never, steal a horse again. If you don’t promise, I will give you up, now.”
“I promise I won’t,” said the man, readily.
Let us hope he never did. That, speeding out into the clear winter night, he did bear with him a better determination in his heart. At all events, there were no more attempts made to rob the new Horse-House at the Braintree meeting-house. Many a Sunday after that, Red Robin stood there peaceful and unmolested. Occasionally, as the years went by, he was tied, of a Sunday night, in Mrs. Polly Wales’ barn.
For, by and by, his master, good brave young John Penniman, married Ann Wales. The handsomest couple that ever went into the meeting-house, people said. Ann’s linen-chest was well stocked; and she had an immense silk bonnet, with a worked white veil, a velvet cloak, and a flowered damask petticoat for her wedding attire. Even Hannah French had nothing finer when she was married to Phineas Adams a year later.
All the drawback to the happiness was that John had taken some land up in Vermont, and there the young couple went, shortly after the wedding. It was a great cross to Mrs. Polly; but she bore it bravely. Not a tear sparkled in her black eyes, watching the pair start off down the bridle-path, riding Red Robin, Ann on a pillion behind her husband. But, sitting down beside her lonely hearth when she entered the house, she cried bitterly. “I did hope I could keep Ann with me as long as I lived,” she sobbed.
“Don’t you take on,” said Nabby, consolingly. “You take my word for’t, they’ll be back ‘afore long.”
Nabby proved a true prophet. Red Robin did come trotting back from the Vermont wilds, bearing his master and mistress before long. Various considerations induced them to return; and Mrs. Polly was overjoyed. They came to live with her.
Riding through the wilderness to Vermont on their wedding journey, Ann had confessed to her husband how she had secreted the thief who had tried to steal his Red Robin. She had been afraid to tell; but he had turned on the saddle, and smiled down in her face. “I am content that the man is safe,” said John Penniman. “Prithee, why should I wish him evil, whilst I am riding along with thee, on Red Robin, Ann?”