Thomas Bailey Aldrich
The Stillwater Tragedy
It is close upon daybreak. The great wall of pines and hemlocks that keep off the west wind from Stillwater stretches black and indeterminate against the sky. At intervals a dull, metallic sound, like the guttural twang of a violin string, rises form the frog-invested swamp skirting the highway. Suddenly the birds stir in their nests over there in the woodland, and break into that wild jargoning chorus with which they herald the advent of a new day. In the apple-orchards and among the plum-trees of the few gardens in Stillwater, the wrens and the robins and the blue-jays catch up the crystal crescendo, and what a melodious racket they make of it with their fifes and flutes and flageolets!
The village lies in a trance like death. Possibly not a soul hears this music, unless it is the watchers at the bedside of Mr. Leonard Tappleton, the richest man in town, who has lain dying these three days, and cannot last until sunrise. Or perhaps some mother, drowsily hushing her wakeful baby, pauses a moment and listens vacantly to the birds singing. But who else?
The hubbub suddenly ceases,–ceases as suddenly as it began,–and all is still again in the woodland. But it is not so dark as before. A faint glow of white light is discernible behind the ragged line of the tree-tops. The deluge of the darkness is receding from the face of the earth, as the mighty waters receded of old.
The roofs and tall factory chimneys of Stillwater are slowly taking shape in the gloom. Is that a cemetery coming into view yonder, with its ghostly architecture of obelisks and broken columns and huddled head-stones? No, that is only Slocum's Marble Yard, with the finished and unfinished work heaped up like snowdrifts,–a cemetery in embryo. Here and there in an outlying farm a lantern glimmers in the barn-yard: the cattle are having their fodder betimes. Scarlet-capped chanticleer gets himself on the nearest rail-fence and lifts up his rancorous voice like some irate old cardinal launching the curse of Rome. Something crawls swiftly along the gray of the serpentine turnpike,–a cart, with the driver lashing a jaded horse. A quick wind goes shivering by, and is lost in the forest.
Now a narrow strip of two-colored gold stretches along the horizon.
Stillwater is gradually coming to its senses. The sun has begun to twinkle on the gilt cross of the Catholic chapel and make itself known to the doves in the stone belfry of the South Church. The patches of cobweb that here and there cling tremulously to the coarse grass of the inundated meadows have turned into silver nets, and the mill-pond–it will be steel-blue later–is as smooth and white as if it had been paved with one vast unbroken slab out of Slocum's Marble Yard. Through a row of button-woods on the northern skirt of the village is seen a square, lap-streaked building, painted a disagreeable brown, and surrounded on three sides by a platform,–one of seven or eight similar stations strung like Indian heads on a branch thread of the Great Sagamore Railway.
Listen! That is the jingle of the bells on the baker's cart as it begins its rounds. From innumerable chimneys the curdled smoke gives evidence that the thrifty housewife–or, what is rarer in Stillwater, the hired girl–has lighted the kitchen fire.
The chimney-stack of one house at the end of a small court–the last house on the easterly edge of the village, and standing quite alone–sends up no smoke. Yet the carefully trained ivy over the porch, and the lemon verbena in a tub at the foot of the steps, intimate that the place is not unoccupied. Moreover, the little schooner which acts as weather-cock on one of the gables, and is now heading due west, has a new top-sail. It is a story-and-a-half cottage, with a large expanse of roof, which, covered with porous, unpainted shingles, seems to repel the sunshine that now strikes full upon it. The upper and lower blinds on the main building, as well as those on the extensions, are tightly closed. The sun appears to beat in vain at the casements of this silent house, which has a curiously sullen and defiant air, as if it had desperately and successfully barricaded itself against the approach of morning; yet if one were standing in the room that leads from the bed-chamber on the ground-floor–the room with the latticed window–one would see a ray of light thrust through a chink of the shutters, and pointing like a human finger at an object which lies by the hearth.
This finger, gleaming, motionless, and awful in its precision, points to the body of old Mr. Lemuel Shackford, who lies there dead in his night-dress, with a gash across his forehead.
In the darkness of that summer night a deed darker than the night itself had been done in Stillwater.
That morning, when Michael Hennessey's girl Mary–a girl sixteen years old–carried the can of milk to the rear door of the silent house, she was nearly a quarter of hour later than usual, and looked forward to being soundly rated.
"He's up and been waiting for it," she said to herself, observing the scullery door ajar. "Won't I ketch it! It's him for growling and snapping at a body, and it's me for always being before or behind time, bad luck to me. There's no plazing him."
Mary pushed back the door and passed through the kitchen, serving herself all the while to meet the objurgations which she supposed were lying in wait for her. The sunshine was blinding without, but sifted through the green jalousies, it made a gray, crepuscular light within. As the girl approached the table, on which a plate with knife and fork had been laid for breakfast, she noticed, somewhat indistinctly at first, a thin red line running obliquely across the floor from the direction of the sitting-room and ending near the stove, where it had formed a small pool. Mary stopped short, scarcely conscious why, and peered instinctively into the adjoining apartment. Then, with a smothered cry, she let fall the milk-can, and a dozen white rivulets, in strange contrast to that one dark red line which first startled her, went meandering over the kitchen floor. With her eyes riveted upon some object in the next room, the girl retreated backward slowly and heavily dragging one foot after the other, until she reached the gallery door; then she turned swiftly, and plunged into the street.
Twenty minutes later, every man, woman, and child in Stillwater knew that old Mr. Shackford had been murdered.
Mary Hennessey had to tell her story a hundred times during the morning, for each minute brought to Michael's tenement a fresh listener hungry for the details at first hand.
"How was it, Molly? Tell a body, dear!"
"Don't be asking me!" cried Molly, pressing her palms to her eyes as if to shut out the sight, but taking all the while a secret creepy satisfaction in living the scene over again. "It was kinder dark in the other room, and there he was, laying in his night-gownd, with his face turned towards me, so, looking mighty severe-like, jest as if he was a-going to say, 'It's late with the milk ye are, ye hussy!'–a way he had of spaking."
"But he didn't spake, Molly darlin'?"
"Niver a word. He was stone dead, don't you see. It was that still you could hear me heart beat, saving there wasn't a drop of beat in it. I let go the can, sure, and then I backed out, with me eye on 'im all the while, afeard to death that he would up and spake them words."
"The pore child! for the likes of her to be wakin' up a murthered man in the mornin'!"
There was little or no work done that day in Stillwater outside the mills, and they were not running full handed. A number of men from the Miantowona Iron Works and Slocum's Yard–Slocum employed some seventy or eighty hands–lounged about the streets in their blouses, or stood in knots in front of the tavern, smoking short clay pipes. Not an urchin put in an appearance at the small red brick building on the turnpike. Mr. Pinkham, the school-master, waited an hour for the recusants, then turned the key in the lock and went home.
Dragged-looking women, with dishcloth or dustpan in hand, stood in door-ways or leaned from windows, talking in subdued voices with neighbors on the curb-stone. In a hundred far-away cities the news of the suburban tragedy had already been read and forgotten; but here the horror stayed.
There was a constantly changing crowd gathered in front of the house in Welch's Court. An inquest was being held in the room adjoining the kitchen. The court, which ended at the gate of the cottage, was fringed for several yards on each side by rows of squalid, wondering children, who understood it that Coroner Whidden was literally to sit on the dead body,–Mr. Whidden, a limp, inoffensive