The Haunted Hearthstone

“All houses wherein men have lived and died are haunted houses”.

“Do I believe in haunted houses?” said the aged woman, speaking rather to herself than to the fair, sweet grandchild, who nestled at her feet and looked up so earnestly into the wrinkled face. VIC5819“Yes, indeed I do. There’s not a house in this whole village, nor for miles around, but that to me is haunted, — none, though, so much as this.”

“Haunted,” continued she, speaking the word so slowly that a solemn emphasis seemed to rest on each letter, “yes, yes, there are such things as haunted spots.” And then she dropped her knitting, took off her glasses, wiped her eyes, and, leaning back in her arm-chair, seemed lost in a sad yet holy communion with the earlier passages of life.

It was a dark, stormy winter’s night. The wind howled fiercely around the old farm-house, drifting the snow high on the window-sills, fastening it to the rough panels of the doors, sifting it through the crevices of the mossy roof, and heaping it up like giants’ graves all along the pathway and throughout the garden. But in doors all was bright and. of a summer’s warmth. The huge back-log had been dragged in ere twilight, and was now slowly dropping into coals ; while the flames from the lighter wood, which every few moments was cast on with so free a hand, blazed high and ruddy, and cast a genial light and glow into the darkest comer, scintillating on the time-darkened ceiling like polar flashes on a midnight sky.

It was one of those ‘bitter nights that make the hearthstone the ‘bonniest’ spot on all the earth, — a night when the sheltered lift up their hearts in thanksgiving, when the homeless bow in supplication ; a night when children kneel before the fire and read bright prophecies in the living coals, when the aged draw their chairs yet nearer to the blaze and warm their shivering memories; a night when all turn their backs to the darkness, their faces to the light.

“It is a night to make ghost-stories relish well,–do, grandmother, tell me one.”

The head of the young girl rested on the knees of the aged lady, and, as the latter lost the thread, her dream, and looked down, she could see an enthusiastic eagerness pictured in the bright blue eye, a longing for some tale of romance, that,- dropping into her heart, should vivify its dormant passions. She hesitated a few moments, and then, tenderly caressing the one lone pet of her bosom, she. said : ” I will tell you a story about a haunted hearth-stone; and, Lizzie, it will be no tale of fiction. The plot is drawn from living memories, the scene is laid — here, here.” But her tremulous voice now quivered with added notes, and, after a moment’s stem but useless effort at self-control, it burst, into sobs so loud and wild that they rivaled the cries of the winter wind.

The young girl seemed not much frightened, and spake no soothing words, but only clasped the hand she had taken as she asked the story with a tighter grasp, showering it with kisses.

The paroxysm did not continue long ; but, as it passed away, she rose and turned her trembling steps toward the dark, cold bed-room, and, going in, closed the door, and was absent a long while. The tear streamed down Lizzie’s cheeks when left alone, and it was evident that the aged relative had some secret sorrow over which she mourned intensely.

When she returned and again seated herself in her usual chair, only drawing it a little closer to the fire, there was such a calm, beautiful, spiritual look, expressed upon her countenance, that you could not but fancy she had conversed with the angels.

Without any allusion to the past, without any preface, she began, after a silence of perhaps a half-hour, the promised story. Handed down to me, it reads like this:

It was a night much like this; perhaps forty years or more have passed since its winds blew and its snows drifted, since its cold palsied and its darkness frightened. Beside this same hearthstone, the same, only that then it was not worn so smooth, for the house then had tested but thirty instead of as now seventy and odd winters, — an aged man and his wife sat before the blazing fire, striving to wile away the long evening hours. There were not then, as now, daily mails coming into even our remote little village, freighted with news in every shape ; the press did not teem, as now, with magazines and books; it was rare to see a newspaper in this old kitchen, and rarer any volume, save the one. The old man had studied that some time, and carefully replaced it, — the Bible did not then,. as now, grow dusty, while other books were thumbed to pieces. He had eaten his apples, drank his cider, and cracked some walnuts for his wife, whose teeth were sounder than his own ; and now sat close as he could draw himself to the flames without scorching his home- spun garments, nodding good-by to the sky-bound sparks. The old lady had rolled up her knitting, and, with her broken-fork, — in those days they had not heard of nut-picks, — with her two-tined fork, which had lost one of its members, sat digging out, with a patience worthy of the gold miners of these times, the rich, sweet kernel.

Suddenly she dropped both fork and nut, and in another instant started to her feet, her pan falling from her lap, and threatening many a grease-spot on the well-scoured floor. Hastening to her husband, she shook his shoulders, saying, “Wake up quick, and listen.”

Half-frightened, he jumped, and came near setting his stockinged feet upon the living coals; but his watchful wife, drawing him off the hearth, whispered, a little wildly, “Listen, now ! don’t you hear it?”

“Hear what?” said he, still half asleep.

“Why, the sound, like a child crying. There, there, now it goes again! Do go to the door.”

The old man, now fully roused, stood with his hand to his ear, the right one, the left had been deaf for many a year. “It’s the wind, wife. Don’t you know it? It ‘s a fashion it has of crying when it ‘s cold.”

“It wasn’t the wind,” said she, solemnly, with a little nervous agitation yet visible in her face. ” I know the cry of the wind ; it never made a sound like that. There,” and she clung to him, quivering like a dead leaf, ” don’t you hear it?”

He certainly did hear something that sounded like, the cry of a child; and now it did not die away, like it had when his wife had noticed it, with a single sob, but lengthened into screams. But how it could sound so near, or whence come, was a mystery, for the house stood then far away from any other house; but it was a child’s cry, that was certain.

“I will go and see,” said he, summoning courage to his somewhat faint heart, and he turned to the door. His wife followed close and fast on his steps. As he withdrew the little slip of wood that fastened the latch, — there wasn’t then a bolt or lock in the town, — and opened the door, a bundle, so it seemed| though of what it was hard to guess, fell into the room with a heavy, lifeless sound. The wind blew a white sheet over it, ere they could again fasten the latch.

Half horror half wonder struck, they dragged the coarse blanket to the hearth,and, unrolling it, discovered a woman and child, the latter struggling to free itself from its many wrappers, and screaming with all its might; the former motionless as a corpse, with lips as ashy and cheeks as sunken.

A half-hour’s charity to the babe, who seemed to have seen a twelvemonth, completely revived it; and it lay on a pillow, with Its little white feet stretched to the fire, as happy as love could have made it, cooing as sweetly as though nestling on a mother’s warm bosom. But it took longer to bring back a pulse to the wrist of its pale protector; and many times did the good Samaritans turn from her, leaving the sheet drawn over her, as we cover a corpse. But a sigh, so faint that it seemed a dying breath, at length encouraged them, and they plied restoratives till satisfied she would yet live.

But it was many a weary day ere she could leave her bed; and when at last she stole from it, and sat up in the old lady’s rocker, and lulled her baby with old songs, she seemed to her watchers more like a spirit than a sick, sad stranger. But gradually, through their tender nursing, she recovered strength, and not only tended her child, but assisted the old lady in many of her domestic duties. But she said very little — less than they could have wished; for in their hearts they longed to know her story. They knew she was a sinner, — knew it by the meek, penitent way in which she hung her head when they read the Bible, at morn and night; knew it by the stained face she raised to them after each prayer. But they loved her all the more, or rather were all the kinder to her. And, though she revived memories that it was agony to bear; they folded her to their affections as they would their own lost lamb had she not gone ere they could reach her.

The winter passed, and still the stranger lingered, filling with her little one a small place in the house, but a large one in each aged heart. One bright, golden spring morn, after assisting in the morning as had been her habit, she went into the bedroom with her babe, and soon reappeared wrapped in the same coarse garments they had worn on that frosty night of their arrival.

“Give her one kiss, grandma, and you, grandpa,” said she, holding the child first to one and then to the other wrinkled face ; ‘^ and now, there, mother, — do let me call you so this once ! — give the unwedded mother one, and we will go, and wherever we go I will pray for you, and she shall be taught to” and she rushed wildly to the door.

They stopped her, caught her child, and pleaded with her to stay. “Be to us still what you have been so long, our daughter, and do not take from usour darling baby. We should die without her.”

Great drops gathered on to the still pale brow, while tears rushed down her cheeks, and her lips quivered with a fearful agony. She wrung her hands, she beat her heart, she lashed her limbs — she seemed like one who is half mad.

“Give me the child a moment,” she exclaimed; and, clasping it wildly to her bosom, she bathed its smiling face with drops wrung from her keenest woe, then kissed it passionately, and held it out to them. both stretched their hands, and the little one, with an equal love, gave to the one its right and to the other its left hand, and, upheld between them, crowed and screamed in baby glee.

“She is the child of sin,” said the mother, with a solemnity that awed for the moment the carol of her babe; “the child of sin, but herself pure and holy as was ever the offspring of a wedded tie. Will you keep her so, if I leave her here? If she goes with me, she will not be an angel, unless, indeed, God takes her ; would he had taken her mother when she was as young! If she stays with you, she may ever be one. Will you keep her?” and she screamed the words into their ears, as though she would have made their inmost nerves awaken.

“We will, we will ! ” said they, “and more; we will keep you, too. Stay with us — stay! You shall be to us a daughter — replace the one we lost ; we will be parents. It shall be home to us four.”

“I cannot,” said she, wildly. “Your daughter was a stainless girl — I am dyed in sin!” and she shook with agony.

And so did those she spoke to, and tears as hot as those that had scalded her face now flooded theirs. Awhile they wept as though their hearts would break; then gathered calmness, and, while the old lady clasped the two hands of the Magdalen, the old man placed his hand upon her head, and spake.

“Our daughter fled from us while in the beauty of her girlhood — fled with a stranger, who wooed her by false words to a fearful sin. The child of our old age, it almost broke our hearts ; and we came here, far away from the haunts of early years, to spend the remnant of our days in a struggle to forget. We cannot forget, but we long since forgave; ay, before we heard that she was dead. We have learned to be happy, even with the memory of our trial ever before us. But we miss the hopes that were born with her, and we would cherish you and your babe as we should her and hers, had she come back ere she relented, as they told us, and died.”

The old man’s woe was hushed. There was no sound but that of sobs, save when the baby cooed its little love-song. A cry of agony burst from the white lips of the stranger, as, loosening the hinds that held her, she fell at the feet of those who had been so true, — a cry, and then words.

“Father! mother! she did not die, — she lives! I am she — your Lizzie — your lost, found child!”

Let the curtain drop. It is a scene too holy for any but the sight of God and angels.

“Yes,” said the old grandmother, It was their long-lost, and, as they thought, dead Lizzie. She herself had forged the story of her death, to secure herself in the sin she had learned to love. But, when, after years of wretched crime, she became herself a mother, — when she felt upon her breast the touch of pure and holy lips, — then she became herself again, and felt how much, how deeply she had sinned; and she longed to have her babe nurtured as she had been. It was long ere she could escape from her sinful associates; but she at length succeeded, and reached, as I have told you, her father’s house.

She had meant to have concealed herself till they were asleep, and then left the babe and gone her way; for she had no hope that they would cherish her again — for Oh, she was very vile. But the cold was so intense she dared not leave the child, but was forced to keep it to her breast; and, worn and wearied with her long and tedious struggle with the drifts, at length became benumbed, and could no longer still the cries of her little one; and thus was brought back to love, to home, to Christ, by the voice of the angel on her heart.”

The old lady ceased her story, and there was no word spoken for a long while. Then the young maiden broke it, saying, “And what became of them all?”

” The two aged parents lived near score of years, happy in the love of their restored child, and in the caresses and tender care of her little one. They lie buried in the old church-yard. The grandchild lived to be a blessing to her mother for five-and-twenty years; then passed away, leaving a little one to make good her place. Motherless ere it had seen the face of her who gave it birth, it was fatherless ere the year was out.” Another long pause.

“Yes, it is a haunted hearthstone, this. Those aged Christians, that beautiful young mother, that noble father — they haunted it ; not as did ghosts of olden time, making it a weird spot for the heart, but with such holy memories that the hour spent in communion with them seems like a visit in the better land.’

“Hearthstones are ever haunted; but few, like this, have angels for their guests.”

The anniversary of that bleak winter’s night came round. The fire burned as brightly as before, the room was as warm and rosy ; but the young girl kneeled now before the fire. There was no lap for her to rest her head upon — the old arm-chair was empty. The hearthstone was haunted by another spirit — a spirit that had sinned suffered, and been forgiven.

New-Hampshire Patriot (Concord, NH) Vol 9; Issue 417; Page 4; Wednesday, May 16, 1855; MISCELLANY.From Home Life, or a Peep across the Threshold; THE HAUNTED HEARTHSTONE.

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