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Three Little Candles by Susan Coolidge


The winter dusk was settling down upon the old farmhouse where three generations of Marshes had already lived and died. It stood on a gentle rise of ground above the Kittery sands,—a low, wide, rambling structure, outgrowth of the gradual years since great-grandfather Marsh, in the early days of the colony, had built the first log-house, and so laid the foundation of the settlement.

This log-house still existed. It served as a lean-to for the larger building, and held the buttery, the “out-kitchen” for rougher work, and the woodshed. Moss and lichens clustered thickly between the old logs, to which time had communicated a rich brown tint; a mat of luxuriant hop-vine clothed the porch, and sent fantastic garlands up to the ridgepole. The small heavily-puttied panes in the windows had taken on that strange iridescence which comes to glass with the lapse of time, and glowed, when the light touched them at a certain angle, with odd gleams of red, opal, and green-blue.

On one of the central panes was an odd blur or cloud. Cynthia Marsh liked to “play” that it was a face,—the face of a girl who used to crawl out of that window in the early days of the house, but had long since grown up and passed away. It was rather a ghostly playmate, but Cynthia enjoyed her.

This same imaginative little Cynthia was sitting with her brother and sister in the “new kitchen,” which yet was a pretty old one, and had rafters overhead, and bunches of herbs and strings of dried apples tied to them. It was still the days of pot-hooks and trammels, and a kettle of bubbling mush hung on the crane over the fire, which smelt very good. Every now and then Hepzibah, the old servant, would come and give it a stir, plunging her long spoon to the very bottom of the pot. It was the “Children's Hour,” though no Longfellow had as yet given the pretty name to that delightful time between daylight and dark, when the toils of the day are over, and even grown people can fold their busy hands and rest and talk and love each other, with no sense of wasted time to spoil their pleasure.

“I say,” began Reuben, who, if he had lived to-day, would have put on his cards “Reuben Marsh, 4th,” “what do you think? We're going to have our little candles to-night. Aunt Doris said that mother said so. Isn't that famous!”

“Are we really?” cried Cynthia, clasping her hands. “How glad I am! It's more than a year since we had any little candles, and though I've tried to be good, I was so afraid when you broke the oil-lamp, the other day, that it would put them off. I do love them so!”

“How many candles may we have?” asked little Eunice.

“Oh, there are only three,—one for each of us. Mother gave the rest away, you know. Have you made up any story yet, Eunice?”

“I did make one, but I've forgotten part of it. It was a great while ago, when I thought we were surely going to get the candles, and then Reuben had that quarrel with Friend Amos's son, and mother would not let us have them. She said a boy who gave place to wrath did not deserve a little candle.”

“I know,” said Reuben, penitently. “But that was a great while ago, and I've not given place to wrath since. You must begin and think of your story very hard, Eunice, or the candle will burn out while you are remembering it.”

These “little candles,” for the amusement of children, were an ancient custom in New England, long practised in the Marsh family. When the great annual candle-dipping took place, and the carefully saved tallow, with its due admixture of water and bayberry wax for hardness, was made hot in the kettle, and the wicks, previously steeped in alum, were tied in bunches so that no two should touch each other, and dipped and dried, and dipped again, at the end of each bundle was hung two or three tiny candles, much smaller than the rest. These were rewards for the children when they should earn them by being unusually good. They were lit at bedtime, and, by immemorial law, so long as the candles burned, the children might tell each other ghost or fairy stories, which at other times were discouraged, as having a bad effect on the mind. This privilege was greatly valued, and the advent of the little candles made a sort of holiday, when holidays were few and far between.

“I suppose Reuben will have his candle first, as he is the oldest,” said Eunice.

“Mother said last year that we should have them all three on the same night,” replied Cynthia. “She said she would rather that we lay awake till half-past nine for once, than till half-past eight for three times. It's much nicer, I think. It's like having plenty to eat at one dinner, instead of half-enough several days running. Eunice, you'd better burn your candle first, I think, because you get sleepy a great deal sooner than Reuby or I do. You needn't light it till after you're in bed, you know, and that will make it last longer. When it's done, I'll hurry and go to bed too, and then we'll light mine; and Reuben can do the same, and if he leaves his door open, we shall hear his story perfectly well. Oh, what fun it will be! I wish there were ever and ever so many little candles,—a hundred, at the very least!”

“Hepsy, ain't supper nearly ready? We're in such a hurry to-night!” said Eunice.

“Why, what are you in a hurry about?” demanded Hepsy, giving a last stir to the mush, which had grown deliciously thick.

“We want to go to bed early.”

“That's a queer reason! You're not so sharp set after bed, as a general thing. Well, the mush is done. Reuby, ring the bell at the shed door, and as soon as the men come in, we'll be ready.”

It was a good supper. The generous heat of the great fireplace in the Marsh kitchen seemed to communicate a special savor of its own to everything that was cooked before it, as if the noble hickory logs lent a forest flavor to the food. The brown bread and beans and the squash pies from the deep brick oven were excellent; and the “pumpkin sweets,” from the same charmed receptacle, had come out a deep rich red color, jellied with juice to their cores. Nothing could have improved them, unless it were the thick yellow cream which Mrs. Marsh poured over each as she passed it. The children ate as only hearty children can eat, but the recollection of the little candles was all the time in their minds, and the moment that Reuben had finished his third apple he began to fidget.

“Mayn't we go to bed now?” he asked.

“Not till father has returned thanks,” said his mother, rebukingly. “You are glad enough to take the gifts of the Lord, Reuben. You should be equally ready to pay back the poor tribute of a decent gratitude.”

Reuben sat abashed while Mr. Marsh uttered the customary words, which was rather a short prayer than a long grace. The boy did not dare to again allude to the candles, but stood looking sorry and shamefaced, till his mother, laying her hand indulgently on his shoulder, slipped the little candle in his fingers.

“Thee didn't mean it, dear, I know,” she whispered. “It's natural enough that thee shouldst be impatient. Now take thy candle, and be off. Cynthia, Eunice, here are the other two, and remember, all of you, that not a word must be told of the stories when once the candles burn out. This is the test of obedience. Be good children, and I'll come up later to see that all is safe.”

Mrs. Marsh was of Quaker stock, but she only reverted to the once familiar thee and thou at times when she felt particularly kind and tender. The children liked to have her do so. It meant that mother loved them more than usual.

The bedrooms over the kitchen, in which the children slept, were very plain, with painted floors and scant furniture; but they were used to them, and missed nothing. The moon was shining, so that little Eunice found no difficulty in undressing without a light. As soon as she was in bed, she called to the others, who were waiting in Reuben's room, “I'm all ready!”

A queer clicking noise followed. It was made by Reuben's striking the flint of the tinder-box. In another moment the first of the little candles was lighted. They fetched it in; and the others sat on the foot of the bed while Eunice, raised on her pillow, with red, excited cheeks, began:—

“I've remembered all about my story, and this is it: Once there was a Fairy. He was not a bad fairy, but a very good one. One day he broke his wing, and the Fairy King said he mustn't come to court any more till he got it mended. This was very hard, because glue and things like that don't stick to Fairies' wings, you know.”

“Couldn't he have tied it up and boiled it in milk?” asked Cynthia, who had once seen a saucer so treated, with good effect.

“Why, Cynthia Marsh! Do you suppose Fairies like to have their wings boiled? I never! Of course they don't! Well, the poor Fairy did not know what to do. He hopped away, for he could not fly, and pretty soon he met an old woman.

“'Goody,' said he, 'can you tell me what will mend a Fairy's broken wing?'

“'Is it your wing that is broken?' asked the old woman.

“'Yes,' said the Fairy, speaking very sadly.

“'There is only one thing,' said the old woman. 'If you can find a girl who has never said a cross word in her life, and she will put the pieces together, and hold them tight, and say, “Ram shackla alla balla ba,” three times, it will mend in a minute.'

“So the Fairy thanked her, and went his way, dragging the poor wing behind him. By and by he came to a wood, and there in front of a little house was the prettiest girl he had ever seen. Her eyes were as blue as, as blue as—as the edges of mother's company saucers! And her hair, which was the color of gold, curled down to her feet.

“'A girl with hair and eyes like that couldn't say a cross word to save her life,' thought the Fairy. He was just going to speak to her. She couldn't see him, you know, because he was indivisible—”

“'Invisible,' you mean,” interrupted Reuben.

“Oh, Reuben, don't stop her! See how the tallow is running down the side of the candle! She'll never have time to finish,” put in Cynthia, anxiously.

“I meant 'invisible,' of course,” went on Eunice, speaking fast. “Well, just then a woman came out of the house. It was the pretty girl's mother.

“'Estella,' she said, 'I want you to go for the cows, because your father is sick.'

“'Oh, bother!' said the pretty girl. 'I don't want to! I hate going for cows. I wish father wouldn't go and get sick!' Just think of a girl's speaking like that to her mother! And the Fairy sighed, for he thought, 'My wing won't get mended here,' and he hopped away.

“By and by he came to a house in another wood, and there was another girl. She wasn't pretty at all. She had short stubby brown hair like Cynthia's, and a turn-up nose like me, and her freckles were as big as Reuben's, but she looked nice and kind.

“The Fairy didn't have much hope that a girl who was as homely as that could mend wings. But while he was waiting, another woman came out. It was the turned-up-nose girl's mother, and she said, 'I want you to go for the cows to-night, because your father has broken his leg.'

“And the girl smiled just as sweet, and she said, 'Yes, mother, I'll be glad to go.'

“Then the Fairy rejoiced, and he came forward and said—Oh, dear!”

This was not what the Fairy said, but what Eunice said; for at that moment the little candle went out.

“Well, I am glad you got as far as you did,” whispered Cynthia, “for I guess the turned-up-nose girl could mend the wing. Now, Reuby, if you'll go into your room I'll not be two minutes. And then you can light my candle.”

In less than two minutes all was ready. This time there were two little girls in bed, and Reuben sat alone at the foot, ready to listen.

“My story,” began Cynthia, “is about that girl in the window-pane in the ell. Her name was Mercy Marsh, and she lived in this house.”

“Is it true?” asked Eunice.

“No, it's made up, but I'm going to make believe that it's true. She slept in the corn chamber,—it was a bedroom then,—and she had that yellow painted bedstead of Hepzibah's.

“There was a hiding-place under the floor of the room. It was made to put things in when Indians came, or the English,—money and spoons, and things like that.

“One day when Mercy was spinning under the big elm, a man came running down the road. He was a young man, and very handsome, and he had on a sort of uniform.

“'Hide me!' he cried. 'They will kill me if they catch me. Hide me, quick!'

“'Who will kill you?' asked Mercy.

“Then the young man told her that he had accidentally shot a man who was out hunting with him, and that the man's brothers, who were very bad people, had sworn to have his blood.

“Then Mercy took his hand, and led him quickly up to her room, and lifted the cover of the hiding-place, and told him to get in. And he got in, but first he said, 'Fair maiden, if I come out alive, I shall have somewhat to say to thee.' And Mercy blushed.”

“What did he mean?” asked Eunice, innocently.

“Oh, just love-making and nonsense!” put in Reuben. “Hurry up, Cynthia! Come to the fighting. The candle's all but burned out.”

“There isn't going to be any fighting,” returned Cynthia. “Well, Mercy pulled the bedside carpet over the cover, and she set that red candle-stand on one corner of it and a chair on the other corner, and went back to her spinning. She had hardly begun before there was a rustling in the bushes, and two men with guns in their hands came out.

“'Which way did he go?' they shouted.

“'Who?' she said, and she looked up so quietly that they never suspected her.

“'Has no one gone by?' they asked her.

“'No one,' she said; and you know this wasn't a lie, for the young man did not go by. He stopped!

“'There is the back door open,' she went on, 'and you are welcome to search, if you desire it. My father is away, but he will be here soon.' She said this because she feared the men.

“So the men searched, but they found nothing, and Mercy's room looked so neat and peaceful that they did not like to disturb it, and just looked in at the door. And when they were gone, Mercy went up and raised the cover, and the youth said that he loved her, and that if the Lord willed, he—”

Pop! The second candle went suddenly out.

“It's a shame!” cried Reuben, dancing with vexation. “It seems as if the blamed things knew when we most wanted them to last!”

“Oh, Reuben! don't say 'blamed.'”

“I forgot. Well, blame-worthy, then. There's no harm in that.”

“We shall never know if the young man married Mercy,” said little Eunice, lamentably.

“Oh, of course he did! That's the way stories always end.”

“Now, Reuben, hurry to bed, and when you are all ready, light your candle, and if you speak loud we shall hear every word.”

This was Reuben's story: “Once there was a Ghost. He had committed a murder, and that was the reason he had to go alone and fly about on cold nights in a white shirt.

“He used to look in at windows and see people sitting by fires, and envy them. And he would moan and chatter his teeth, and then they would say that he was the wind.”

“Oh, Reuben! is it going to be very awful?” demanded Cynthia, apprehensively.

“Not very. Only just enough to half-scare you to death! He would put his hand out when girls stood by the door, and they would feel as if a whole pitcher of cold water had been poured down their backs.

“Once a boy came to the door. He was the son of the murdered man. The Ghost was afraid of him. 'Thomas!' said the Ghost.

“'Who speaks?' said the boy. He couldn't have heard if he hadn't been the son of the murdered man.

“'I'm the Ghost of your father's slayer,' said the Ghost. 'Tell me what I can do to be forgiven.'

“'I don't think you can be forgiven,' said the boy. Then the Ghost gave such a dreadful groan that the boy felt sorry for him.

“'I'll tell you, then,' he said. 'Go to my father's grave, and lay upon it a perfectly white blackberry, and a perfectly black snowdrop, and a valuable secret, and a hair from the head of a really happy person, and you shall be forgiven!'

“So the Ghost set out to find these four things. He had to bleach the blackberry and dye the snowdrop, and he got the hair from the head of a little baby who happened to be born with hair and hadn't had time to be unhappy, and the secret was about a goldmine that only the Ghost knew about. But just as he was laying them on the grave, a cold hand clutched—” The sentence ended in a three-fold shriek, for just at this exciting juncture the last candle went out.

“Children,” said Mrs. Marsh, opening the door, “I'm afraid you've been frightening yourselves with your stories. That was foolish. I am glad there are no more little candles. Now, not another word to-night.”

She straightened the tossed coverlids, heard their prayers, and went away. In a few minutes all that remained of the long-anticipated treat were three little drops of tallow where three little candles had quite burned out, three stories not quite told, and three children fast asleep.