The Beacon Tree
"I F you will but help me, Hannah, as a little girl of ten should, with the candle dipping you will forget to fret all the day long about the home coming of father and Nathaniel," Mistress Wadsworth said, laying a kind hand on the bent head of the little daughter.
All through the long, gray afternoon Hannah had looked out of the diamond-shaped panes of the window, past the fields of dried cornstalks that looked as if they were peopled with ghosts in their garments of snow, and toward the forest of pointed green firs beyond. She turned from the window now, as her mother spoke to her, and looked up bravely, trying to smile.
"You are quite as anxious about dear brother Nathaniel and father as I am," she said. "It is now two weeks since they started away with the sledge to bring us back the wood for the winter. Father said that it would take him no longer than ten days at the utmost. Brother Nathaniel is only twelve, and young for so hard a journey. There have been storms, and there are Indians—" a sob caught the little girl's voice.
It was Mistress Wadsworth's turn to look out now with saddened eyes through the window and into the falling twilight of the New England winter.
"Your father said that he would be home for Christmas
Day," she said, "and he will keep his word unless some
ill befalls them. In the meantime, we will make the
candles. Then the house will be brighter to welcome
them than when we burn only pine knots.
As the two, both mother and little daughter dressed in the long, straight frocks of dark homespun and the white caps that were worn in those long-ago days, bent over the pine table after supper, they looked very much alike. The fire in the great brick fireplace had a sticky, pitchy lump of firewood upon the top. It was a pine knot, and the only light in the room. It flickered upon the bright rag rugs of the floor and the painted chairs with their scoured rush seats and on the green settle, making a pleasant, cheerful glow. They tried not to hear the wind that howled down the chimney, or think of the beloved father and little brother who were so far away in a bleak lumber clearing.
Measuring the wicks for the tallow candles was so painstaking a task that Mistress Wadsworth did it herself; Hannah, standing beside her, only watched. She stuck an old iron fork straight up in the soft wood of the table some eight inches from the edge. Around it she threw half a dozen loops of the soft candle wicking. She cut these loops off evenly at the edge of the table. Then she measured and cut more until she had made several dozen, all exactly the same length. As she worked, they talked together of what Hannah most loved to hear about, Christmas in her dear mother's girlhood home, merry England.
"They had polished brass sconces fastened everywhere to the walls," Mistress Wadsworth said. She could almost see the bright scene in the dim shadows cast by the pine knots. "In every sconce there would be tall white candles. We burned more candles in a night then than we can afford to burn in a month now," she sighed.
"And there was a fir tree from the forest brought into the hall for the children," Hannah continued, for she knew the story well. "There were candles on the tree, lighted and shining. Oh, it must have been a pretty sight to see the children dance about the Christmas tree and sing their carols! We never have Christmas trees with candles in this new land, do we mother? Why?" she asked.
"The Governor decrees that we shall not continue the customs of the land that have left so far behind," Mistress Wadsworth replied, but with another sigh. "And now to bed, little daughter, for we shall be busy indeed on the morrow."
When morning came, Hannah found that her mother had worked after she had gone to bed, twisting and doubling each candle wick and slipping through the loop a candle rod. This rod was a stick like a lead pencil but over three times as long. Six wicks hung from each rod. They looked, Hannah thought, as if they were so many little clothes lines. Then the big iron kettle filled with clean white tallow was swung on a heavy iron hook in the fireplace. As the tallow melted, Mistress Wadsworth directed Hannah as she tipped down two straight backed chairs and placed two long poles across them like the sides of a ladder with no rungs. Across these were laid the candle rods with their hanging wicks. Then the kettle was taken from the fire and set on the wide hearth, and the pleasant task of the candle dipping was begun.
One at a time, Hannah took the candle rods carefully by their ends and dipped the wicks for a second in the melted tallow. Then she put it back between the chairs to dry and took up another rod, dipping the wicks in the same way. When the last wicks had been dipped, the first ones were dry enough to dip again. With each dipping, the candles grew plump and straight and white. One candle rod, though, Hannah dipped only once in every three times. When her mother noticed this she said, "Little daughter, you are neglecting six of the candles. See how small they are!"
Hannah ran over, threw her arms about her mother's neck and whispered something in her ear. Mistress Wadsworth shook her head at first; then she smiled.
"It can do no harm that I see," she said. "It will be only a child's play before Christmas and no cause for the Governor's displeasure. Yes, little daughter, if you wish. If it brings joy to your sorrowful heart, I shall be glad."
When the candle dipping was over and the precious candles were laid away to be burned only if the father and little Nathaniel came home, Hannah slipped six, as small as Christmas tree candles, from one rod and wrapped them carefully in a bit of fair white linen. They were her little candles, to be used as she wished.
The days, white with snow and very cold, wore on until it was only a week before the blessed Christmas day. There were slight preparations for it in the little New England settlement where Hannah lived for it was not thought fitting to be merry and gay at Christmas time these centuries ago. But at the small white meeting-house Hannah and the other little colonist children practised a carol to be sung on Christmas Day.
The children sang it as it was pitched by the elder's tuning fork, and the tune was slow and dirge like. The tears came again to Hannah's eyes as she tried to sing, for no word had come as yet of father and Nathaniel. A runner to the village brought word a few days before of attacks by the Indians on near-by parties of wood cutters. Could they have encountered the party with whom were father and Nathaniel, she thought?
But Hannah's secret kept her happy! A few days before Christmas she went to a near-by bit of woodland. She carried the old hatchet that Nathaniel had left at home, and she looked over the young fir trees until she found one that was well shaped, tiny, and as green as green could be. She chopped and hacked at the roots until she cut down the little tree. Then she tugged it home. As she held its prickly needles close to her warm cloak she whispered, "You are not to bear gifts little Christmas tree, because that would not be right; only candles to light the way home for dear father and brother Nathaniel."
At last it was three days before Christmas and evening in the little New England village. The town crier had taken his way through the narrow main street early in the afternoon,—a dismal enough looking figure in his long, black cloak and tall, black hat, and ringing his bell.
"Lost, in all probability, lost," he called. "This Christmas time," and then he gave the toll of names of the men and boys who had started out so many weeks before on the ill-fated lumber trip and from whom no word had come. As he reached the names, "Goodman Wadsworth, little Nathaniel Wadsworth," Mistress Wadsworth cowered in front of the fire, her bowed head in her hands. But Hannah kissed her gently for comfort, and took out the little tallow candles that she had dipped. Then she set up the tiny fir tree, with the lighted Christmas candles, in front of the window that looked out upon the main street.
Now the village was black with the night. The fires were low, and the barred doors and windows shut in Hannah's and her mother's sadness. The long street was white with snow. A few glimmering stars shed a fitful path of light down it, but the houses were like so many tightly-closed eyes. They could hardly be seen at all.
It was almost ten o'clock when an Indian boy, little Fleet-as-an-Arrow, like a flash of color in the dark of night, darted down the street. He was wrapped from head to foot in his scarlet blanket. He was panting. His bare limbs were cold. He had come a long, long way without food since morning, but he did not stop running now that he was nearing his goal. The dim little town frightened him, though. He had never been in so strange a place before. The home that little Fleet-as-an-Arrow knew was a wide plain with a background of forests; his house was a painted wigwam; and his light was a camp fire. But he pressed against his heart a bit of white birch bark upon which a little white boy of his own age, brought to the camp a captive with a band of prisoners, had printed strange characters. It was not like the picture writing of the tribe, but it must be important for all that, Fleet-as-an-Arrow knew. The little white boy, whom this little Indian boy had grown to love like his own brother, had begged him to carry the writing to his mother.
"Go the North," he had said. So Fleet-as-an-Arrow had watched the moss on the trees and followed the north star. Here he was but how could he tell in which of all these strange wigwams the mother of his little white friend lived?
Suddenly Fleet-as-an-Arrow's dark eyes flashed into a smile. At the end of the street a bright light attracted him. He ran on, bravely following it. Of all the windows in the whole village this was the only one that was unbarred, and where the curtains were parted. As he came nearer the light, Fleet-as-an-Arrow's heart almost stopped beating for admiration and wonder. Never in all his twelve years had the little Indian boy seen a sight like this. It was an evergreen tree such as he knew and loved in his own home forest, but it was covered with glimmering, sparkling, starry lights. There it stood, Hannah's Christmas tree, the little tallow candles drawing Fleet-as-an-Arrow with Nathaniel's message like a magnet.
He stopped at the door and beat the heavy oak panels with his half-frozen, brown little hands. When Mistress Wadsworth, followed closely by Hannah, opened it, frightened and dazed at the strange visit in the night, Fleet-as-an-Arrow looked at them a minute on the threshold. In the light of the little Christmas tree he could see Hannah's pink cheeks and wide-open, blue eyes and the pale gold braids of her hair. Why, she looked like the boy that he had left in the Indian's camp, Fleet-as-an-Arrow saw. He knew now that he had found the right place. He went inside and pulled the message, written with a bit of charcoal in scrawling letters on the square of birch bark, from beneath his blanket. Then he thrust it into Mistress Wadsworth's hands. She read it in the glow of the fire.
"We are safe, but the Indians will not let us go without gifts of beads and corn. Send some men to fetch us. Your son, Nathaniel."
With a glad cry, Mistress Wadsworth put her arms about the little Indian boy. Then, while she put on her bonnet and cloak and lighted the big, brass lantern, Hannah drew Fleet-as-an-Arrow up to the fire and brought him food. Running with her lantern from one sleeping house to another, Mistress Wadsworth soon roused the men of the village who organized themselves into a rescuing party.
When the first pale pink of the morning sun tinged the sky, the party, with the gifts which the Indians demanded as a ransom for their captives, was on its way. They carried Little Fleet-as-an-Arrow in front as their guide.
Such a Christmas Eve as it was. Father and Nathaniel, ragged and hungry, but safe, were home in time! Two of the large tallow candles in the polished brass candlesticks shone on the mantelpiece over the fireplace, and Hannah lighted the little Christmas tree again. She and brother Nathaniel, hands clasped happily together, sat in its light, so glad to be together again that they needed neither gifts nor sweets to make their Christmas joy.