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The Flying Weathercock by Edward Page Mitchell

 

There were two peculiar things that I remarked about the little brick meetinghouse on the hill at Newaggen. The first was the fact that it had once been chained to the ground, as are some structures on mountain summits. Big iron eyebolts were to be seen in the ledge on each side of the meetinghouse, and to one of them was still attached a rusty link of heavy chain. The hill was not high. A steep path led down to the harbor, and you could count the shingles on the roofs of the square, old-fashioned houses. On the other side of the hill was a boggy meadow, with scattering ricks of salt hay, bonneted with aged canvas. The front of the church breasted the wind that blew in across the islands from the ocean.

The second unusual feature was the vane on the stubby steeple. The vane was a great gilt codfish, evidently very sensitive to atmospheric influences. Its nose wavered nervously between south-southeast and southeast by east.

"Why was the meetin'house tied down to the rock?" repeated my companion, Deacon and Captain Silas Bibber. "Well, I'll tell ye. Because the congregation allowed that this here hill was a fittiner location for a house o' worship than the salt ma'sh yonder."

The deacon and captain paused to shy a stone at a disreputable sheep that was foraging among the gravestones.

"Why do we fly a weathercod instid of a weathercock?" he continued. "I'll tell ye. Because the rooster's the Devil's own bird."

He stooped for another missile just as the excited sheep, which had been surreptitiously flanking him while watching his movements with vigilant eyes, cleared the stone wall at a plunge and disappeared over the edge of the hill.

"Durn the critter!" remarked the deacon and captain.

The unwritten legends of the coast of Maine are kept by a generation that is rapidly going. Men and women are pretty old now who were young in the golden age of the seaport towns; when not only Portland and Bath and Wiscasset and the places to the eastward but also all the little settlements wedged in between rock and wave enjoyed a solid prosperity, based on an adventurous spirit and keen commercial insight in the matters of Matanzas molasses and Jamaica rum. Between the Maine towns and the West Indian ports there was and is a straight ocean way. Time was when direct communication with foreign parts brought sharp and increasing contrasts into the daily life of the coast people. This was the time, too, when the prevailing orthodoxy in theological doctrine still left room for a curious and in some respects peculiar supernaturalism that concerned itself chiefly with the malevolent enterprises of the Enemy of Mankind.

I

It appears from Captain Silas' narrative that about fifty years ago Parson Purington was the chief bulwark of the faithful against the Devil's assaults upon Newaggen. The parson was a hard hitter, both in petition and in exhortation. It was generally believed at the harbor, and for miles both ways along the coast, that nothing worried the evil one half so much as Parson Purington's double-hour discourses, mercilessly exposing his character, exhibiting his most secret plans, and defying his worst endeavors.

It was partly this feeling of triumph and pride in the prowess of their champion that led the congregation to construct a substantial church edifice, conspicuously situated on top of the hill, and possessing both a steeple and a bell that could be heard as far out at sea as Ragged Tail Island, with the wind favorable. The parson himself chose the site. He eagerly watched the progress of the workmen, and his heart was in every additional brick that went into the walls.

At half past eleven o'clock one moonlight Saturday night, just after the last touch of gilt had been put on the fine rooster vane--the donation of an unknown friend--Parson Purington ascended the hill on purpose to delight his eyes with the completed structure. Imagine the astonishment with which the good man discovered that no meetinghouse was there! No weathercock, no steeple, no belfry, no brick walls and wooden portico, not even the faintest trace of foundation or cellar!

The parson stamped his feet to see if he was awake. He wondered if the three tumblerfuls of hot rum toddy with which his daughter Susannah had fortified him against the night air could have played his senses such a trick. He rubbed his eyes and stared at the moon. The round face of that luminary presented its usual aspect. He gazed at the village under the hill. The well-known houses in which his parishioners slumbered were all distinctly visible in the moonlight. He saw the ocean, the islands, the harbor, the schooners at the wharves, the streets. He even made out the solitary figure of Peleg Trott, zigzagging home from the tavern, as if beating against a head wind. The parson tried to shout to Peleg Trott, but found that he had no voice for the effort. Everything in the neighborhood was as it should be, except that the new meetinghouse had disappeared.

Dazed by that tremendous fact, the parson wandered aimlessly about the summit of the hill for fully half an hour. Then he perceived that he was not alone, for a tal! individual, wrapped in a black coat, sat upon the stone wall. The stranger looked like a Spaniard or a Portugee. His elbows were on his knees, his chin was in his hands, and he was watching the parson's movements with obvious interest.

"May I venture to inquire," said the stranger, "whether you are looking for anything?"

"Sir," the parson replied, "I am sorely perplexed. I came hither expecting to behold the sacred edifice in which I am to preach tomorrow morning for the first time, from a text in thirteenth Revelations. Not longer ago than this afternoon it occupied the very spot on which we stand."

"Ah, a lost meetinghouse!" said the stranger, carelessly. "Pray, is it not customary in this part of the world to send out the crier with his bell when they stray or are stolen?"

There was something in the tone of voice which caused the parson to inspect his companion more closely than before. The tall foreigner withstood the scrutiny with perfect composure, twirling his black mustachios. His eyes were bright and steady, and they seemed to grow brighter as the parson gazed into them.

"Well," said the stranger at last, "I fancy you would know me again."

"I think I know you now," retorted the parson, "although I do not fear you. If I am not prodigiously mistaken, it is you who have destroyed our meetinghouse."

The other smiled and shrugged his shoulders. "Since you press me on that point, I must admit that I have taken a trifling liberty with your property. Destroyed it? Oh, no; I have simply moved it off my land. The truth is, this hill is an old camping ground of mine, and I can't bear to see it encumbered with such a villainous piece of architecture as your brick meetinghouse. You'll find the whole establishment, to the last pew cushion and hymnbook, clown yonder in the meadow; and if you are a man of taste, you'll agree with me that the new site is a great improvement."

The parson glanced over the edge of the hill. True enough, there stood the new meetinghouse in the middle of the marsh.

"I know not," said the parson resolutely, "by what diabolical jugglery you have done it, but I do know that you have no just claim to the hill. It has been deeded us by Elijah Trufant, whose father and grandfather pastured sheep here."

"My pious friend," returned the other calmly, "when Adam was an infant this hill had been in the possession of my family for millions of years. Would it interest you to peruse the original deed?"

He produced from beneath his cloak a roll of parchment, which he handed to the parson. The parson unrolled the document and tried to read it. Strange characters, faintly luminous, covered the page. They grew fiery bright, and as the parson's hand trembled--for he afterward admitted that it did tremble--they danced over the parchment charring the surface wherever they touched. At last Parson Purington's hand shook some of the fiery hieroglyphics quite to the margin of the sheet, the edge curled and crinkled, a thin line of smoke went up, and presently the entire document was ablaze.

"Rather awkward in you," said the stranger, "but it's of no great consequence. I happen to have a duplicate of the deed."

He waved his hand. The same flaming characters, enormously enlarged, danced now all over the ground where the meetinghouse should have stood. The parson's head swam as his eyes sought in vain to decipher the unhallowed inscription. There lay the claimant's title, burned into the top of the hill. The dry grass caught fire, the twigs and blueberry bush stems crackled in the heat, and for a moment the tall stranger was enveloped in smoke and flame that cast a lurid light over the features of his forbidding countenance. He stamped his feet and the unnatural conflagration was immediately extinguished.

"You perceive that my title is perfectly valid. Nevertheless, I am not a hard landlord. You have set your heart upon this location. Suppose you occupy it as my tenant at will. It will only be necessary, as the merest form, to sign this little--"

"No, sir," shouted the parson, now thoroughly aroused. "I make no compact. Whether you be indeed Beelzebub in person, or only one of his subordinate devils, your claim is a lie, your title of fire is forged, and I shall defy you and all your works in the sermon which I shall preach tomorrow morning in that brick meetinghouse, no matter if it is on the hill or on the marsh, no matter if you have meanwhile spirited it away to the bottom of the bottomless pit!"

"I shall do myself the honor to listen to your discourse," replied the stranger, with an exasperating grin.

When the parson reached home his daughter Susannah heard his story, gave him another glass of hot rum toddy, tucked him comfortably in bed, and then dispatched the hired help to the other end of the village with instructions to arouse Peletiah Jackson, first mate of the hermaphrodite brig Sister Sal.

II

After beating through all the streets of the little settlement, and sailing in great circles over several of the outlying pastures without making a port, Peleg Trott found himself about an hour after midnight halfway up the hill path, with a heavy sea on and the wind still dead ahead.

He sat down on a rock to take his bearings. "Peleg!" he shouted from his lookout on the forecastle deck.

"Aye, aye, Cap'n Trott!" he responded from the wheel. "Howz hellum?" he demanded from the forecastle.

"Har' down, Cap'n Trott," he reported from the wheel. "Makin' much starnway?"

"Beat's nater, the starnway, Cap'n Trott."

"Shake down the centerboard a peg, Peleg."

"It's clean chapped now, Cap'n Trott."

"Lez hear box ze compash. Believe ye're drunk agen; ye clapper-clawed--"

"Sartainly, Cap'n Trott. Cod, codcodfish, codfish becod, codfish; codfish-befish; fishcodfish, fish becod, FISH, Cap'n Trott."

"Whazzat light, Peleg, bearin' codfish becod, half fish?"

"Make it out for the moon, Cap'n Trott."

"Orright, Peleg. Head's she is till the moon's astarn, then make a half hitch an' drap anchor to low'rd new meetin'house to take 'zervation' ze wezzercock."

"Aye, aye, sir," and the difficult navigation was resumed, with Peleg and Trott both on deck.

At the brow of the hill Trott encountered the same surprising fact which had stupefied the parson an hour or more earlier in the night. The meetinghouse was not there.

"Salt me down ef the gale hain't blowed her off her moorin's," he muttered.

After carefully scrutinizing the horizon on every side, he continued:

"I'll be salted an' flaked ef she hain't adrift yonder on the ma'sh!"

Peleg studied the situation attentively. In none of his nocturnal voyages had he run against anything so extraordinary. His spiritual interest in the new edifice was perhaps less than that of any other inhabitant of the harbor, since he never went to meeting. Yet he had transported several cargoes of brick for the church from Wiscasset in his celebrated four-cornered clipper, the scow Dandelion, and his interest in the progress of the building had been greatly enlarged by an incident which happened several weeks before the night of which we are speaking.

One afternoon a tall, dark man, in an outlandish cloak, stood on the wharf at Wiscasset watching Peleg as he thrust bricks into the capacious maw of the Dandelion. "What's building?" asked the foreigner in excellent English. "Meetin'house," said Peleg. "Orthodox?" persisted the inquiring stranger. "No, Parson Purin'ton's at N'waggen," replied Peleg curtly. "Ali!" said the man on the wharf, "I have heard of that eminent divine. I am glad he is to have a new church. Have they everything they need?"

Peleg was about to say yes, for that was the last cargo of bricks and the other material was already on the ground. But his eye happened to wander to the steeple of the Wiscasset church, and an idea struck him. "Ef you're minded to contribute," said he, "they're desprit for a rooster vane like the there." The mysterious benefactor smiled. "I'll send them a bird," said he. In due course of time there arrived by schooner from Portland a fine wooden weathercock, properly boxed and ready for mounting and gilding. Peleg's story had been received with some incredulity at Newaggen, but now he found himself a hero. His presence of mind was highly commended by the deacons of the church, and they presented him with half a barrel of Medford rum. By the time the weathercock went aloft the half barrel was empty, and Peleg was chock full of rum and theological enthusiasm.

There was the meetinghouse fully a quarter of a mile off its anchorage. There was the well-known chanticleer--Peleg's especial joy and pride--resplendently conspicuous in the moonlight. But what strange spell was on the world that night? As Peleg gazed upon the bird, it appeared to him to be disproportionately large. There was no wind, and yet it began to revolve violently. Peleg distinctly heard a prolonged crow and the gilt rooster flapped its wings as if about to assay a flight into the upper air. True enough, up it went, carrying the meetinghouse with it, the church swaying and the bell tolling sadly as it rose, until the brick walls of the structure actually eclipsed the moon. Then the weathercock and its quarry slowly settled back to earth, hovering an instant over the waters of the harbor, and finally landing not in the meadow, but on top of the hill, not a dozen yards from where Peleg stood, his knees shaking, his teeth chattering, and his heart a-thump like the flat bottom of the Dandelion in a chopping cross sea.

"You may split me, salt me, and flake me!" ejaculated the mariner when he had partially recovered from his stupefaction. "Am I Peleg Trott, marster 'n eighth owner of the skeow Dandy-line, or am I a blind haddock, a crazy hake, or a goramighty tomcod?"

Thus it happened that the people of Newaggen Harbor had information, more or less trustworthy, as to what occurred on the disputed territory that memorable night between the time of Parson Purington's departure and the arrival of the army of relief, led by Susannah and Peletiah Jackson.

When Peleg's somewhat incoherent story had been told, the parson's daughter turned to the first mate of the Sister Sal. "Peletiah," said she, "what is to be done?"

"My idee," remarked Deacon Trufant, "is that the adversary purposes to sperrit away the parson and the whole congregation. He is subtile and fule of wiles."

Peletiah Jackson was not a theologian, but he was a practical young man and very fond of Susannah. He took off his coat. "My idee," he said, "is that if we cut away the mainmast, the ship'll weather any gale the Devil can send. Somebody fetch a hatchet."

In ten minutes Peletiah Jackson's head was seen to emerge through the window opening above the bell deck. Two minutes later he was clasping one of the four little pinnacles that surrounded the base of the steeple. In a surprisingly short time he had a running noose around the stubby spire, high above his head. The story of his ascent is the heroic episode in the annals of Newaggen. A dark cloud threatened to obscure the moon. The group of eager spectators on the ground below watched with breathless interest the slow progress of the first mate up the steeple. If he should lose his hold? If the running knot in his rope should slip? If the moon should go behind the cloud? Worse than all, as Peleg Trott suggested, if the weathercock should choose this moment for another flight?

Up went Peletiah, hand over hand, until his arms, and then his legs, encircled the steeple. Now he scrambled aloft with the agility of a monkey. The free end of the rope was thrown around the very apex of the steeple, and in no time at all Peletiah, seated comfortably in a sling, was hacking vigorously at the woodwork under the gilt ball on which the diabolical rooster was perched.

Blow after blow resounded in the still night air. Down in the harbor settlement windows were thrown open and nightcapped heads appeared. The racket was infernal. The edge of the cloud covered the moon, and it was difficult to distinguish Peletiah's form, except now and then when a flash of lightning lit up the weathercock and its bold assailant. The strokes of the hatchet ceased. It began to rain and blow. The hatchet strokes were heard again. The people huddled together. "My idee," said Deacon Trufant, "is that the adversary will presently come in a cherriat of fire and--" A clap of thunder interrupted the development of the idea. Thud, thud, thud, thud went the hatchet, more viciously persistent than before. Another brilliant flash--was the weathercock toppling at last? Peleg Trott declared in an awestruck whisper that he saw the cock's wings flapping, as a preliminary to another flight, with meetinghouse, Peletiah, and all. At that instant the storm burst in full fury. There came a blinding glare, a deafening peal, a blast of thunder and hurricane combined that shook the church and the hill itself, a wild shriek overhead, half a human yell of triumph and half a chanticleer's defiant cry, and with a tremendous crash something like a ball of fire fell to the ground not a dozen yards from the affrighted group by the meetinghouse portico.

A moment later, Peletiah came down the rope on a run, dripping wet. Susannah put her arms around his neck and gave him a kiss which could be heard even above the uproar of the elements.

They searched the hill all over next morning for some trace of the flying weathercock. Not a splinter of wood nor a spangle of gilt was ever discovered, but on the ledge near where the fiery ball must have fallen there was found a mark like this, burned deeply in the granite: [Similar to footprint of three-toed bird--Ebook ed.]

On the highest point of Ragged Tail Island, seven miles out to sea, they still show you another footprint, also deeply indented in the rock. It is precisely similar to the first, and it points the same way. Taken together, the two tracks are held by the local demonologists to indicate a flying stride from the mainland to the island, a hasty departure from the latter point, and--who knows?--either a final flight into the upper air, or a despairing plunge into the deepest depths of the Atlantic Ocean.

End.

 
 
 

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