An Old Woman's Tale HTML version

An Old Woman's Tale
In the house where I was born, there used to be an old woman crouching all day long
over the kitchen fire, with her elbows on her knees and her feet in the ashes. Once in a
while she took a turn at the spit, and she never lacked a coarse gray stocking in her lap,
the foot about half finished; it tapered away with her own waning life, and she knit the
toe-stitch on the day of her death. She made it her serious business and sole amusement
to tell me stories at any time from morning till night, in a mumbling, toothless voice, as I
sat on a log of wood, grasping her cheek-apron in both my hands. Her personal memory
included the better part of a hundred years, and she had strangely jumbled her own
experience and observation with those of many old people who died in her young days;
so that she might have been taken for a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth, or of John
Rogers in the Primer. There are a thousand of her traditions lurking in the corners and by-
places of my mind, some more marvellous than what is to follow, some less so, and a few
not marvellous in the least, all of which I should like to repeat, if I were as happy as she
in having a listener. But I am humble enough to own, that I do not deserve a listener half
so well as that old toothless woman, whose narratives possessed an excellence
attributable neither to herself, nor to any single individual. Her ground-plots, seldom
within the widest scope of probability, were filled up with homely and natural incidents,
the gradual accretions of a long course of years, and fiction hid its grotesque
extravagance in this garb of truth, like the Devil (an appropriate simile, for the old
woman supplies it) disguising himself, cloven-foot and all, in mortal attire. These tales
generally referred to her birthplace, a village in, the valley of the Connecticut, the aspect
of which she impressed with great vividness on my fancy. The houses in that tract of
country, long a wild and dangerous frontier, were rendered defensible by a strength of
architecture that has preserved many of them till our own times, and I cannot describe the
sort of pleasure with which, two summers since, I rode through the little town in question,
while one object after another rose familiarly to my eye, like successive portions of a
dream becoming realized. Among other things equally probable, she was wont to assert
that all the inhabitants of this village (at certain intervals, but whether of twenty-five or
fifty years, or a whole century, remained a disputable point) were subject to a
simultaneous slumber, continuing one hour's space. When that mysterious time arrived,
the parson snored over his half-written sermon, though it were Saturday night and no
provision made for the morrow,--the mother's eyelids closed as she bent over her infant,
and no childish cry awakened,--the watcher at the bed of mortal sickness slumbered upon
the death-pillow, and the dying man anticipated his sleep of ages by one as deep and
dreamless. To speak emphatically, there was a soporific influence throughout the village,
stronger than if every mother's son and daughter were reading a dull story;
notwithstanding which the old woman professed to hold the substance of the ensuing
account from one of those principally concerned in it.
One moonlight summer evening, a young man and a girl sat down together in the open
air. They were distant relatives, sprung from a stock once wealthy, but of late years so
poverty-stricken, that David had not a penny to pay the marriage fee, if Esther should