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Title: Miss Mehetabel's Son
Author: Aldrich, Thomas Bailey
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.

*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "Miss Mehetabel's Son" ***


By Thomas Bailey Aldrich

Boston And New York Houghton Mifflin Company

Copyright, 1873, 1885, and 1901


You will not find Greenton, or Bayley’s Four-Corners, as it is more
usually designated, on any map of New England that I know of. It is
not a town; it is not even a village; it is merely an absurd hotel. The
almost indescribable place called Greenton is at the intersection of
four roads, in the heart of New Hampshire, twenty miles from the nearest
settlement of note, and ten miles from any railway station. A good
location for a hotel, you will say. Precisely; but there has always
been a hotel there, and for the last dozen years it has been pretty well
patronized--by one boarder. Not to trifle with an intelligent public, I
will state at once that, in the early part of this century, Greenton was
a point at which the mail-coach on the Great Northern Route stopped to
change horses and allow the passengers to dine. People in the county,
wishing to take the early mail Portsmouth-ward, put up overnight at the
old tavern, famous for its irreproachable larder and soft feather-beds.
The tavern at that time was kept by Jonathan Bayley, who rivalled his
wallet in growing corpulent, and in due time passed away. At his death
the establishment, which included a farm, fell into the hands of a
son-in-law. Now, though Bayley left his son-in-law a hotel--which sounds
handsome--he left him no guests; for at about the period of the old
man’s death the old stage-coach died also. Apoplexy carried off one, and
steam the other. Thus, by a sudden swerve in the tide of progress,
the tavern at the Corners found itself high and dry, like a wreck on a
sand-bank. Shortly after this event, or maybe contemporaneously, there
was some attempt to build a town at Green-ton; but it apparently failed,
if eleven cellars choked up with _débris_ and overgrown with burdocks
are any indication of failure. The farm, however, was a good farm, as
things go in New Hampshire, and Tobias Sewell, the son-in-law, could
afford to snap his fingers at the travelling public if they came near
enough--which they never did.

The hotel remains to-day pretty much the same as when Jonathan Bayley
handed in his accounts in 1840, except that Sewell hasfrom time to time
sold the furniture of some of the upper chambers to bridal couples
in the neighborhood. The bar is still open, and the parlor door says
Parlour in tall black letters. Now and then a passing drover looks in at
that lonely bar-room, where a high-shouldered bottle of Santa Cruz rum
ogles with a peculiarly knowing air a shrivelled lemon on a shelf; now
and then a farmer rides across country to talk crops and stock and take
a friendly glass with Tobias; and now and then a circus caravan with
speckled ponies, or a menagerie with a soggy elephant, halts under the
swinging sign, on which there is a dim mail-coach with four phantomish
horses driven by a portly gentleman whose head has been washed off
by the rain. Other customers there are none, except that one regular
boarder whom have mentioned.

If misery makes a man acquainted with strange bed-fellows, it is equally
certain that the profession of surveyor and civil engineer often takes
one into undreamed-of localities. I had never heard of Greenton until
my duties sent me there, and kept me there two weeks in the dreariest
season of the year. I do not think I would, of my own volition, have
selected Greenton for a fortnight’s sojourn at any time; but now the
business is over, I shall never regret the circumstances that made me
the guest of Tobias Sewell, and brought me into intimate relations with
Miss Mehetabel’s Son.

It was a black October night in the year of grace 1872, that discovered
me standing in front of the old tavern at the Corners.

Though the ten miles’ ride from K------ had been depressing, especially
the last five miles, on account of the cold autumnal rain that had set
in, I felt a pang of regret on hearing the rickety open wagon turn round
in the road and roll off in the darkness. There were no lights visible
anywhere, and only for the big, shapeless mass of something in front of
me, which the driver had said was the hotel, I should have fancied that
I had been set down by the roadside. I was wet to the skin and in no
amiable humor; and not being able to find bell-pull or knocker, or even
a door, I belabored the side of the house with my heavy walking-stick.
In a minute or two I saw a light flickering somewhere aloft, then I
heard the sound of a window opening, followed by an exclamation of
disgust as a blast of wind extinguished the candle which had given me
an instantaneous picture _en silhouette_ of a man leaning out of a

“I say, what do you want, down there?” inquired an unprepossessing

“I want to come in; I want a supper, and a bed, and numberless things.”

“This is n’t no time of night to go rousing honest folks out of their
sleep. Who are you, anyway?”

The question, superficially considered, was a very simple one, and I, of
all people in the world, ought to have been able to answer it off-hand;
but it staggered me. Strangely enough, there came drifting across my
memory the lettering on the back of a metaphysical work which I had
seen years before on a shelf in the Astor Library. Owing to an
unpremeditatedly funny collocation of title and author, the lettering
read as follows: “Who am I? Jones.” Evidently it had puzzled Jones to
know who he was, or he would n’t have written a book about it, and come
to so lame and impotent a conclusion. It certainly puzzled me at that
instant to define my identity. “Thirty years ago,” I reflected, “I was
nothing; fifty years hence I shall be nothing again, humanly speaking.
In the mean time, who am I, sure-enough?” It had never before occurred
to me what an indefinite article I was. I wish it had not occurred to
me then. Standing there in the rain and darkness, I wrestled vainly with
the problem, and was constrained to fall back upon a Yankee expedient.

“Isn’t this a hotel?” I asked finally,

“Well, it is a sort of hotel,” said the voice, doubtfully. My hesitation
and prevarication had apparently not inspired my interlocutor with
confidence in me.

“Then let me in. I have just driven over from K------ in this infernal
rain. I am wet through and through.”

“But what do you want here, at the Corners? What’s your business? People
don’t come here, leastways in the middle of the night.”

“It is n’t in the middle of the night,” I returned, incensed. “I come
on business connected with the new road. I ‘m the superintendent of the


“And if you don’t open the door at once, I’ll raise the whole
neighborhood--and then go to the other hotel.”

When I said that, I supposed Greenton was a village with a population of
at least three or four thousand and was wondering vaguely at the absence
of lights and other signs of human habitation. Surely, I thought, all
the people cannot be abed and asleep at half past ten o’clock: perhaps I
am in the business section of the town, among the shops.

“You jest wait,” said the voice above.

This request was not devoid of a certain accent of menace, and I braced
myself for a sortie on the part of the besieged, if he had any such
hostile intent. Presently a door opened at the very place where I least
expected a door, at the farther end of the building, in fact, and a man
in his shirtsleeves, shielding a candle with his left hand, appeared on
the threshold. I passed quickly into the house, with Mr. Tobias Sewell
(for this was Mr. Sewell) at my heels, and found myself in a long,
low-studded bar-room.

There were two chairs drawn up before the hearth, on which a huge
hemlock backlog was still smouldering, and on the un-painted deal
counter contiguous stood two cloudy glasses with bits of lemon-peel in
the bottom, hinting at recent libations. Against the discolored wall
over the bar hung a yellowed handbill, in a warped frame, announcing
that “the Next Annual N. H. Agricultural Fair” would take place on the
10th of September, 1841. There was no other furniture or decoration in
this dismal apartment, except the cobwebs which festooned the ceiling,
hanging down here and there like stalactites.

Mr. Sewell set the candlestick on the mantel-shelf, and threw some
pine-knots on the fire, which immediately broke into a blaze, and
showed him to be a lank, narrow-chested man, past sixty, with sparse,
steel-gray hair, and small, deep-set eyes, perfectly round, like a
fish’s, and of no particular color. His chief personal characteristics
seemed to be too much feet and not enough teeth. His sharply cut,
but rather simple face, as he turned it towards me, wore a look
of interrogation. I replied to his mute inquiry by taking out my
pocket-book and handing him my business-card, which he held up to the
candle and perused with great deliberation.

“You ‘re a civil engineer, are you?” he said, displaying his gums, which
gave his countenance an expression of almost infantile innocence.
He made no further audible remark, but mumbled between his thin lips
something which an imaginative person might have construed into “If you
‘re at civil engineer, I ‘ll be blessed if I would n’t like to see an
uncivil one!”

Mr. Sewell’s growl, however, was worse than his bite--owing to his
lack of teeth probably--for he very good-naturedly set himself to work
preparing supper for me. After a slice of cold ham, and a warm punch,
to which my chilled condition gave a grateful flavor, I went to bed in a
distant chamber in a most amiable mood, feeling satisfied that Jones was
a donkey to bother himself about his identity.

When I awoke, the sun was several hours high. My bed faced a window, and
by raising myself on one elbow I could look out on what I expected would
be the main street. To my astonishment I beheld a lonely country
road winding up a sterile hill and disappearing over the ridge. In
a cornfield at the right of the road was a small private graveyard,
enclosed by a crumbling stonewall with a red gate. The only thing
suggestive of life was this little corner lot occupied by death. I got
out of bed and went to the other window. There I had an uninterrupted
view of twelve miles of open landscape, with Mount Agamenticus in the
purple distance. Not a house or a spire in sight. “Well,” I exclaimed,
“Greenton does n’t appear to be a very closely packed metropolis!” That
rival hotel with which I had threatened Mr. Sewell overnight was not a
deadly weapon, looking at it by daylight. “By Jove!” I reflected, “maybe
I ‘m in the wrong place.” But there, tacked against a panel of the
bedroom door, was a faded time-table dated Greenton, August 1, 1839.

I smiled all the time I was dressing, and went smiling down stairs,
where I found Mr. Sewell, assisted by one of the fair sex in the
first bloom of her eightieth year, serving breakfast for me on a small
table--in the bar-room!

“I overslept myself this morning,” I remarked apologetically, “and I see
that I am putting you to some trouble. In future, if you will have me
called, I will take my meals at the usual _table de hôte_.”

“At the what?” said Mr. Sewell.

“I mean with the other boarders.”

Mr. Sewell paused in the act of lifting a chop from the fire, and,
resting the point of his fork against the woodwork of the mantelpiece,
grinned from ear to ear.

“Bless you! there is n’t any other boarders. There has n’t been anybody
put up here sence--let me see--sence father-in-law died, and that was in
the fall of ‘40. To be sure, there ‘s Silas; _he_‘s a regular boarder;
but I don’t count him.”

Mr. Sewell then explained how the tavern had lost its custom when the
old stage line was broken up by the railroad. The introduction of steam
was, in Mr. Sewell’s estimation, a fatal error. “Jest killed local
business. Carried it off, I ‘m darned if I know where. The whole country
has been sort o’ retrograding ever sence steam was invented.”

“You spoke of having one boarder,” I said.

“Silas? Yes; he come here the summer ‘Tilda died--she that was ‘Tilda
Bayley--and he ‘s here yet, going on thirteen year. He could n’t live
any longer with the old man. Between you and I, old Clem Jaffrey,
Silas’s father, was a hard nut. Yes,” said Mr. Sewell, crooking his
elbow in inimitable pantomime, “altogether too often. Found dead in the
road hugging a three-gallon demijohn. _Habeas corpus_ in the barn,”
 added Mr. Sewell, intending, I presume, to intimate that a _post-mortem_
examination had been deemed necessary. “Silas,” he resumed, in that
respectful tone which one should always adopt when speaking of capital,
“is a man of considerable property; lives on his interest, and keeps a
hoss and shay. He ‘s a great scholar, too, Silas; takes all the
pe-ri-odicals and the Police Gazette regular.”

Mr. Sewell was turning over a third chop, when the door opened and a
stoutish, middle-aged little gentleman, clad in deep black, stepped into
the room.

“Silas Jaffrey,” said Mr. Sewell, with a comprehensive sweep of his
arm, picking up me and the new-comer on one fork, so to speak. “Be

Mr. Jaffrey advanced briskly, and gave me his hand with unlooked-for
cordiality. He was a dapper little man, with a head as round and nearly
as bald as an orange, and not unlike an orange in complexion, either;
he had twinkling gray eyes and a pronounced Roman nose, the numerous
freckles upon which were deepened by his funereal dress-coat and
trousers. He reminded me of Alfred de Musset’s blackbird, which, with
its yellow beak and sombre plumage, looked like an undertaker eating an

“Silas will take care of you,” said Mr. Sewell, taking down his hat from
a peg behind the door. “I ‘ve got the cattle to look after. Tell him, if
you want anything.”

While I ate my breakfast, Mr. Jaffrey hopped up and down the narrow
bar-room and chirped away as blithely as a bird on a cherry-bough,
occasionally ruffling with his fingers a slight fringe of auburn hair
which stood up pertly round his head and seemed to possess a luminous
quality of its own.

“Don’t I find it a little slow up here at the Corners? Not at all, my
dear sir. I am in the thick of life up here. So many interesting things
going on all over the world--inventions, discoveries, spirits, railroad
disasters, mysterious homicides. Poets, murderers, musicians, statesmen,
distinguished travellers, prodigies of all kinds turning up everywhere.
Very few events or persons escape me. I take six daily city papers,
thirteen weekly journals, all the monthly magazines, and two
quarterlies. I could not get along with less. I could n’t if you asked
me. I never feel lonely. How can I, being on intimate terms, as it were,
with thousands and thousands of people? There’s that young woman out
West. What an entertaining creature _she_ is!--now in Missouri, now
in Indiana, and now in Minnesota, always on the go, and all the time
shedding needles from various parts of her body as if she really enjoyed
it! Then there ‘s that versatile patriarch who walks hundreds of miles
and saws thousands of feet of wood, before breakfast, and shows no signs
of giving out. Then there’s that remarkable, one may say that historical
colored woman who knew Benjamin Franklin, and fought at the battle of
Bunk--no, it is the old negro man who fought at Bunker Hill, a mere
infant, of course, at that period. Really, now, it is quite curious
to observe how that venerable female slave--formerly an African
princess--is repeatedly dying in her hundred and eleventh year, and
coming to life again punctually every six months in the small-type
paragraphs. Are you aware, sir, that within the last twelve years no
fewer than two hundred and eighty-seven of General Washington’s colored
coachmen have died?”

For the soul of me I could not tell whether this quaint little gentleman
was chaffing me or not. I laid down my knife and fork, and stared at

“Then there are the mathematicians!” he cried vivaciously, without
waiting for a reply. “I take great interest in them. Hear this!” and Mr.
Jaffrey drew a newspaper from a pocket in the tail of his coat, and read
as follows: “_It has been estimated that if all the candles manufactured
by this eminent firm (Stearine & Co.) were placed end to end, they
would reach 2 and 7/8 times around the globe_. Of course,” continued Mr.
Jaffrey, folding up the journal reflectively, “abstruse calculations of
this kind are not, perhaps, of vital importance, but they indicate the
intellectual activity of the age. Seriously, now,” he said, halting in
front of the table, “what with books and papers and drives about the
country, I do not find the days too long, though I seldom see any one,
except when I go over to K------ for my mail. Existence may be very full
to a man who stands a little aside from the tumult and watches it with
philosophic eye. Possibly he may see more of the battle than those who
are in the midst of the action. Once I was struggling with the crowd, as
eager and undaunted as the best; perhaps I should have been struggling
still. Indeed, I know my life would have been very different now if I
had married Mehetabel--if I had married Mehetabel.”

His vivacity was gone, a sudden cloud had come over his bright face, his
figure seemed to have collapsed, the light seemed to have faded out
of his hair. With a shuffling step, the very antithesis of his brisk,
elastic tread, he turned to the door and passed into the road.

“Well,” I said to myself, “if Greenton had forty thousand inhabitants,
it could n’t turn out a more astonishing old party than that!”


A man with a passion for _bric-à-brac_ is always stumbling over antique
bronzes, intaglios, mosaics, and daggers of the time of Benvenuto
Cellini; the bibliophile finds creamy vellum folios and rare Alduses and
Elzevirs waiting for him at unsuspected bookstalls; the numismatist has
but to stretch forth his palm to have priceless coins drop into it. My
own weakness is odd people, and I am constantly encountering them.
It was plain that I had unearthed a couple of very queer specimens at
Bayley’s Four-Corners. I saw that a fortnight afforded me too brief an
opportunity to develop the richness of both, and I resolved to devote
my spare time to Mr. Jaffrey alone, instinctively recognizing in him
an unfamiliar species. My professional work in the vicinity of Greenton
left my evenings and occasionally an afternoon unoccupied; these
intervals I purposed to employ in studying and classifying my
fellow-boarder. It was necessary, as a preliminary step, to learn
something of his previous history, and to this end I addressed myself to
Mr. Sewell that same night.

“I do not want to seem inquisitive,” I said to the landlord, as he was
fastening up the bar, which, by the way, was the _salle à manger_ and
general sitting-room--“I do not want to seem inquisitive, but
your friend Mr. Jaffrey dropped a remark this morning at breakfast
which--which was not altogether clear to me.”

“About Mehetabel?” asked Mr. Sewell, uneasily.


“Well, I wish he would n’t!”

“He was friendly enough in the course of conversation to hint to me that
he had not married the young woman, and seemed to regret it.”

“No, he did n’t marry Mehetabel.”

“May I inquire _why_ he did n’t marry Mehetabel?”

“Never asked her. Might have married the girl forty times. Old Elkins’s
daughter, over at K------. She ‘d have had him quick enough. Seven
years, off and on, he kept company with Mehetabel, and then she died.”

“And he never asked her?”

“He shilly-shallied. Perhaps he did n’t think of it. When she was dead
and gone, then Silas was struck all of a heap--and that’s all about it.”

Obviously Mr. Sewell did not intend to tell me anything more, and
obviously there was more to tell. The topic was plainly disagreeable to
him for some reason or other, and that unknown reason of course piqued
my curiosity.

As I was absent from dinner and supper that day, I did not meet Mr.
Jaffrey again until the following morning at breakfast. He had recovered
his bird-like manner, and was full of a mysterious assassination that
had just taken place in New York, all the thrilling details of which
were at his fingers’ ends. It was at once comical and sad to see this
harmless old gentleman with his naïve, benevolent countenance, and his
thin hair flaming up in a semicircle, like the footlights at a theatre,
revelling in the intricacies of the unmentionable deed.

“You come up to my room to-night,” he cried, with horrid glee, “and I
‘ll give you my theory of the murder. I ‘ll make it as clear as day to
you that it was the detective himself who fired the three pistol-shots.”

It was not so much the desire to have this point elucidated as to make
a closer study of Mr. Jaffrey that led me to accept his invitation.
Mr. Jaffrey’s bedroom was in an L of the building, and was in no way
noticeable except for the numerous files of newspapers neatly arranged
against the blank spaces of the walls, and a huge pile of old magazines
which stood in one corner, reaching nearly up to the ceiling, and
threatening to topple over each instant, like the Leaning Tower at Pisa.
There were green paper shades at the windows, some faded chintz valances
about the bed, and two or three easy-chairs covered with chintz. On
a black-walnut shelf between the windows lay a choice collection of
meerschaum and brier-wood pipes.

Filling one of the chocolate-colored bowls for me and another for
himself, Mr. Jaffrey began prattling; but not about the murder, which
appeared to have flown out of his mind. In fact, I do not remember that
the topic was even touched upon, either then or afterwards.

“Cosey nest this,” said Mr. Jaffrey, glancing complacently over the
apartment. “What is more cheerful, now, in the fall of the year, than an
open wood-fire? Do you hear those little chirps and twitters coming
out of that piece of apple-wood? Those are the ghosts of the robins and
bluebirds that sang upon the bough when it was in blossom last spring.
In summer whole flocks of them come fluttering about the fruit-trees
under the window: so I have singing birds all the year round. I take
it very easy here, I can tell you, summer and winter. Not much society.
Tobias is not, perhaps, what one would term a great intellectual force,
but he means well. He ‘s a realist--believes in coming down to what he
calls ‘the hard pan;’ but his heart is in the right place, and he ‘s
very kind to me. The wisest thing I ever did in my life was to sell out
my grain business over at K------, thirteen years ago, and settle down
at the Corners. When a man has made a competency, what does he want
more? Besides, at that time an event occurred which destroyed any
ambition I may have had. Mehetabel died.” “The lady you were engaged
to?” “N-o, not precisely engaged. I think it was quite understood
between us, though nothing had been said on the subject. Typhoid,” added
Mr. Jaffrey, in a low voice.

For several minutes he smoked in silence, a vague, troubled look playing
over his countenance. Presently this passed away, and he fixed his gray
eyes speculatively upon my face.

“If I had married Mehetabel,” said Mr. Jaffrey, slowly, and then he
hesitated. I blew a ring of smoke into the air, and, resting my pipe
on my knee, dropped into an attitude of attention. “If I had married
Mehetabel, you know, we should have had--ahem!--a family.”

“Very likely,” I assented, vastly amused at this unexpected turn.

“A Boy!” exclaimed Mr. Jaffrey, explosively.

“By all means, certainly, a son.”

“Great trouble about naming the boy. Mehetabel’s family want him named
Elkanah Elkins, after her grandfather; I want him named Andrew Jackson.
We compromise by christening him Elkanah Elkins Andrew Jackson Jaffrey.
Rather a long name for such a short little fellow,” said Mr. Jaffrey,

“Andy is n’t a bad nickname,” I suggested.

“Not at all. We call him Andy, in the family. Somewhat fractious at
first--colic and things. I suppose it is right, or it would n’t be so;
but the usefulness of measles, mumps, croup, whooping-cough, scarlatina,
and fits is not clear to the parental eye. I wish Andy would be a model
infant, and dodge the whole lot.”

This supposititious child, born within the last few minutes, was plainly
assuming the proportions of a reality to Mr. Jaffrey. I began to feel a
little uncomfortable. I am, as I have said, a civil engineer, and it is
not strictly in my line to assist at the births of infants, imaginary or
otherwise. I pulled away vigorously at the pipe, and said nothing.

“What large blue eyes he has,” resumed Mr. Jaffrey, after a pause;
“just like Hetty’s; and the fair hair, too, like hers. How oddly certain
distinctive features are handed down in families! Sometimes a mouth,
sometimes a turn of the eyebrow. Wicked little boys over at K------ have
now and then derisively advised me to follow my nose. It would be an
interesting thing to do. I should find my nose flying about the world,
turning up unexpectedly here and there, dodging this branch of the
family and re-appearing in that, now jumping over one greatgrandchild to
fasten itself upon another, and never losing its individuality. Look
at Andy. There ‘s Elkanah Elkins’s chin to the life. Andy’s chin is
probably older than the Pyramids. Poor little thing,” he cried, with
sudden indescribable tenderness, “to lose his mother so early!” And Mr.
Jaf-frey’s head sunk upon his breast, and his shoulders slanted forward,
as if he were actually bending over the cradle of the child. The whole
gesture and attitude was so natural that it startled me. The pipe
slipped from my fingers and fell to the floor.

“Hush!” whispered Mr. Jaffrey, with a deprecating motion of his hand.
“Andy’s asleep!”

He rose softly from the chair and, walking across the room on tiptoe,
drew down the shade at the window through which the moonlight was
streaming. Then he returned to his seat, and remained gazing with
half-closed eyes into the dropping embers.

I refilled my pipe and smoked in profound silence, wondering what would
come next.

But nothing came next. Mr. Jaffrey had fallen into so brown a study
that, a quarter of an hour afterwards, when I wished him good-night and
withdrew, I do not think he noticed my departure.

I am not what is called a man of imagination; it is my habit to exclude
most things not capable of mathematical demonstration; but I am not
without a certain psychological insight, and I think I understood Mr.
Jaffrey’s case. I could easily understand how a man with an unhealthy,
sensitive nature, overwhelmed by sudden calamity, might take refuge in
some forlorn place like this old tavern, and dream his life away. To
such a man--brooding forever on what might have been and dwelling wholly
in the realm of his fancies--the actual world might indeed become as a
dream, and nothing seem real but his illusions. I dare say that thirteen
years of Bayley’s Four-Corners would have its effect upon me; though
instead of conjuring up golden-haired children of the Madonna, I should
probably see gnomes and kobolds, and goblins engaged in hoisting false
signals and misplacing switches for midnight express trains.

“No doubt,” I said to myself that night, as I lay in bed, thinking over
the matter, “this once possible but now impossible child is a great
comfort to the old gentleman--a greater comfort, perhaps, than a real
son would be. Maybe Andy will vanish with the shades and mists of night,
he’s such an unsubstantial infant; but if he does n’t, and Mr. Jaffrey
finds pleasure in talking to me about his son, I shall humor the old
fellow. It would n’t be a Christian act to knock over his harmless

I was very impatient to see if Mr. Jaffrey’s illusion would stand the
test of daylight. It did. Elkanah Elkins Andrew Jackson Jaffrey was, so
to speak, alive and kicking the next morning. On taking his seat at
the breakfast-table, Mr. Jaffrey whispered to me that Andy had had a
comfortable night.

“Silas!” said Mr. Sewell, sharply, “what are you whispering about?”

Mr. Sewell was in an ill-humor; perhaps he was jealous because I had
passed the evening in Mr. Jaffrey’s room; but surely Mr. Sewell could
not expect his boarders to go to bed at eight o’clock every night, as he
did. From time to time during the meal Mr. Sewell regarded me unkindly
out of the corner of his eye, and in helping me to the parsnips he
poniarded them with quite a suggestive air. All this, however, did not
prevent me from repairing to the door of Mr. Jaffrey’s snuggery when
night came.

“Well, Mr. Jaffrey, how ‘s Andy this evening?”

“Got a tooth!” cried Mr. Jaffrey, vivaciously.


“Yes, he has! Just through. Gave the nurse a silver dollar. Standing
reward for first tooth.”

It was on the tip of my tongue to express surprise that an infant a day
old should cut a tooth, when I suddenly recollected that Richard III.
was born with teeth. Feeling myself to be on unfamiliar ground, I
suppressed my criticism. It was well I did so, for in the next breath I
was advised that half a year had elapsed since the previous evening.

“Andy ‘s had a hard six months of it,” said Mr. Jaffrey, with the
well-known narrative air of fathers. “We ‘ve brought him up by hand. His
grandfather, by the way, was brought up by the bottle”--and brought down
by it, too, I added mentally, recalling Mr. Sewell’s account of the old
gentleman’s tragic end.

Mr. Jaffrey then went on to give me a history of Andy’s first six
months, omitting no detail however insignificant or irrelevant. This
history I would in turn inflict upon the reader, if I were only certain
that he is one of those dreadful parents who, under the aegis of
friendship, bore you at a streets corner with that remarkable thing
which Freddy said the other day, and insist on singing to you, at an
evening parly, the Iliad of Tommy’s woes.

But to inflict this _enfantillage_ upon the unmarried reader would be
an act of wanton cruelty. So I pass over that part of Andy’s biography,
and, for the same reason, make no record of the next four or five
interviews I had with Mr. Jaffrey. It will be sufficient to state
that Andy glided from extreme infancy to early youth with astonishing
celerity--at the rate of one year per night, if I remember correctly;
and--must I confess it?--before the week came to an end, this invisible
hobgoblin of a boy was only little less of a reality to me than to Mr.

At first I had lent myself to the old dreamer’s whim with a keen
perception of the humor of the thing; but by and by I found that I
was talking and thinking of Miss Mehetabel’s son as though he were a
veritable personage. Mr. Jafifrey spoke of the child with such an air of
conviction!--as if Andy were playing among his toys in the next room, or
making mud-pies down in the yard. In these conversations, it should be
observed, the child was never supposed to be present, except on that
single occasion when Mr. Jafifrey leaned over the cradle. After one of
our _séances_ I would lie awake until the small hours, thinking of the
boy, and then fall asleep only to have indigestible dreams about him.
Through the day, and sometimes in the midst of complicated calculations,
I would catch myself wondering what Andy was up to now! There was no
shaking him off; he became an inseparable nightmare to me; and I felt
that if I remained much longer at Bayley’s Four-Corners I should
turn into just such another bald-headed, mild-eyed visionary as Silas

Then the tavern was a grewsome old shell any way, full of unaccountable
noises after dark--rustlings of garments along unfrequented passages,
and stealthy footfalls in unoccupied chambers overhead. I never knew of
an old house without these mysterious noises. Next to my bedroom was a
musty, dismantled apartment, in one corner of which, leaning against the
wainscot, was a crippled mangle, with its iron crank tilted in the air
like the elbow of the late Mr. Clem Jaffrey. Sometimes,

     “In the dead vast and middle of the night,”

I used to hear sounds as if some one were turning that rusty crank on
the sly. This occurred only on particularly cold nights, and I conceived
the uncomfortable idea that it was the thin family ghosts, from the
neglected graveyard in the cornfield, keeping themselves warm by running
each other through the mangle. There was a haunted air about the whole
place that made it easy for me to believe in the existence of a phantasm
like Miss Mehetabel’s son, who, after all, was less unearthly than Mr.
Jaffrey himself, and seemed more properly an inhabitant of this globe
than the toothless ogre who kept the inn, not to mention the silent
Witch of Endor that cooked our meals for us over the bar-room fire.

In spite of the scowls and winks bestowed upon me by Mr. Sewell, who let
slip no opportunity to testify his disapprobation of the intimacy,
Mr. Jaffrey and I spent all our evenings together--those long autumnal
evenings, through the length of which he talked about the boy, laying
out his path in life and hedging the path with roses. He should be sent
to the High School at Portsmouth, and then to college; he should be
educated like a gentleman, Andy.

“When the old man dies,” remarked Mr. Jaffrey one night, rubbing his
hands gleefully, as if it were a great joke, “Andy will find that the
old man has left him a pretty plum.”

“What do you think of having Andy enter West Point, when he ‘s old
enough?” said Mr. Jaffrey on another occasion. “He need n’t necessarily
go into the army when he graduates; he can become a civil engineer.”

This was a stroke of flattery so delicate and indirect that I could
accept it without immodesty.

There had lately sprung up on the corner of Mr. Jaffrey’s bureau a small
tin house, Gothic in architecture and pink in color, with a slit in the
roof, and the word _Bank_ painted on one façade. Several times in the
course of an evening Mr. Jaffrey would rise from his chair without
interrupting the conversation, and gravely drop a nickel into the
scuttle of the bank. It was pleasant to observe the solemnity of his
countenance as he approached the edifice, and the air of triumph with
which he resumed his seat by the fireplace. One night I missed the tin
bank. It had disappeared, deposits and all, like a real bank. Evidently
there had been a defalcation on rather a large scale. I strongly
suspected that Mr. Sewell was at the bottom of it, but my suspicion
was not shared by Mr. Jaffrey, who, remarking my glance at the bureau,
became suddenly depressed. “I ‘m afraid,” he said, “that I have failed
to instil into Andrew those principles of integrity which--which”--and
the old gentleman quite broke down.

Andy was now eight or nine years old, and for some time past, if the
truth must be told, had given Mr. Jaffrey no inconsiderable trouble;
what with his impishness and his illnesses, the boy led the pair of us
a lively dance. I shall not soon forget the anxiety of Mr. Jaffrey the
night Andy had the scarlet-fever--an anxiety which so infected me that
I actually returned to the tavern the following afternoon earlier than
usual, dreading to hear that the little spectre was dead, and greatly
relieved on meeting Mr. Jaffrey at the door-step with his face wreathed
in smiles. When I spoke to him of Andy, I was made aware that I was
inquiring into a case of scarlet-fever that had occurred the year

It was at this time, towards the end of my second week at Greenton,
that I noticed what was probably not a new trait--Mr. Jaffrey’s curious
sensitiveness to atmospherical changes. He was as sensitive as a
barometer. The approach of a storm sent his mercury down instantly. When
the weather was fair he was hopeful and sunny, and Andy’s prospects
were brilliant. When the weather was overcast and threatening he grew
restless and despondent, and was afraid that the boy was not going to
turn out well.

On the Saturday previous to my departure, which had been fixed for
Monday, it rained heavily all the afternoon, and that night Mr. Jaffrey
was in an unusually excitable and unhappy frame of mind. His mercury was
very low indeed.

“That boy is going to the dogs just as fast as he can go,” said Mr.
Jaffrey, with a woful face. “I can’t do anything with him.”

“He’ll come out all right, Mr. Jaffrey. Boys will be boys. I would not
give a snap for a lad without animal spirits.”

“But animal spirits,” said Mr. Jaffrey sententiously, “should n’t saw
off the legs of the piano in Tobias’s best parlor. I don’t know what
Tobias will say when he finds it out.”

“What! has Andy sawed off the legs of the old spinet?” I returned,
laughing. “Worse than that.” “Played upon it, then!” “No, sir. He has
lied to me!” “I can’t believe that of Andy.” “Lied to me, sir,” repeated
Mr. Jaffrey, severely. “He pledged me his word of honor that he would
give over his climbing. The way that boy climbs sends a chill down my
spine. This morning, notwithstanding his solemn promise, he shinned
up the lightning-rod attached to the extension, and sat astride the
ridge-pole. I saw him, and he denied it! When a boy you have caressed
and indulged and lavished pocket-money on lies to you and _will_ climb,
then there’s nothing more to be said. He’s a lost child.” “You take too
dark a view of it, Mr. Jaffrey. Training and education are bound to tell
in the end, and he has been well brought up.”

“But I did n’t bring him up on a lightning-rod, did I? If he is ever
going to know how to behave, he ought to know now. To-morrow he will be
eleven years old.”

The reflection came to me that if Andy had not been brought up by the
rod, he had certainly been brought up by the lightning. He was eleven
years old in two weeks!

I essayed, with that perspicacious wisdom which seems to be the peculiar
property of bachelors and elderly maiden ladies, to tranquillize Mr.
Jaffrey’s mind, and to give him some practical hints on the management
of youth.

“Spank him,” I suggested at last.

“I will!” said the old gentleman.

“And you ‘d better do it at once!” I added, as it flashed upon me that
in six months Andy would be a hundred and forty-three years old!--an age
at which parental discipline would have to be relaxed.

The next morning. Sunday, the rain came down as if determined to drive
the quicksilver entirely out of my poor friend. Mr. Jaffrey sat bolt
upright at the breakfast-table, looking as woe-begone as a bust of
Dante, and retired to his chamber the moment the meal was finished. As
the day advanced, the wind veered round to the northeast, and settled
itself down to work. It was not pleasant to think, and I tried not to
think, what Mr. Jaffrey’s condition would be if the weather did not mend
its manners by noon; but so far from clearing off at noon, the storm
increased in violence, and as night set in the wind whistled in a
spiteful falsetto key, and the rain lashed the old tavern as if it
were a balky horse that refused to move on. The windows rattled in the
worm-eaten frames, and the doors of remote rooms, where nobody ever
went, slammed to in the maddest way. Now and then the tornado, sweeping
down the side of Mount Agamenticus, bowled across the open country, and
struck the ancient hostelry point-blank.

Mr. Jaffrey did not appear at supper. I knew that he was expecting me to
come to his room as usual, and I turned over in my mind a dozen plans
to evade seeing him that night. The landlord sat at the opposite side
of the chimney-place, with his eye upon me. I fancy he was aware of the
effect of this storm on his other boarder, for at intervals, as the wind
hurled itself against the exposed gable, threatening to burst in the
windows, Mr. Sewell tipped me an atrocious wink, and displayed his gums
in a way he had not done since the morning after my arrival at Greenton.
I wondered if he suspected anything about Andy. There had been odd times
during the past week when I felt convinced that the existence of Miss
Mehetabel’s son was no secret to Mr. Sewell.

In deference to the gale, the landlord sat up half an hour later than
was his custom. At half-past eight he went to bed, remarking that he
thought the old pile would stand till morning.

He had been absent only a few minutes when I heard a rustling at the
door. I looked up, and beheld Mr. Jaffrey standing on the threshold,
with his dress in disorder, his scant hair flying, and the wildest
expression on his face.

“He’s gone!” cried Mr. Jaffrey.

“Who? Sewell? Yes, he just went to bed.”

“No, not Tobias--the boy!”

“What, run away?”

“No--he is dead! He has fallen from a step-ladder in the red chamber and
broken his neck!”

Mr. Jaffrey threw up his hands with a gesture of despair, and
disappeared. I followed him through the hall, saw him go into his own
apartment, and heard the bolt of the door drawn to. Then I returned to
the bar-room, and sat for an hour or two in the ruddy glow of the fire,
brooding over the strange experience of the last fortnight.

On my way to bed I paused at Mr. Jaf-frey’s door, and, in a lull of the
storm, the measured respiration within told me that the old gentleman
was sleeping peacefully.

Slumber was coy with me that night. I lay listening to the soughing of
the wind, and thinking of Mr. Jaffrey’s illusion. It had amused me at
first with its grotesqueness; but now the poor little phantom was dead,
I was conscious that there had been something pathetic in it all along.
Shortly after midnight the wind sunk down, coming and going fainter and
fainter, floating around the eaves of the tavern with an undulating,
murmurous sound, as if it were turning itself into soft wings to bear
away the spirit of a little child.

Perhaps nothing that happened during my stay at Bayley’s Four-Corners
took me so completely by surprise as Mr. Jaffrey’s radiant countenance
the next morning. The morning itself was not fresher or sunnier. His
round face literally shone with geniality and happiness. His eyes
twinkled like diamonds, and the magnetic light of his hair was turned
on full. He came into my room while I was packing my valise. He chirped,
and prattled, and carolled, and was sorry I was going away--but never a
word about Andy. However, the boy had probably been dead several years

The open wagon that was to carry me to the station stood at the door;
Mr. Sewell was placing my case of instruments under the seat, and Mr.
Jaffrey had gone up to his room to get me a certain newspaper containing
an account of a remarkable shipwreck on the Auckland Islands. I took the
opportunity to thank Mr. Sewell for his courtesies to me, and to express
my regret at leaving him and Mr. Jaffrey.

“I have become very much attached to Mr. Jaffrey,” I said; “he is a most
interesting person; but that hypothetical boy of his, that son of Miss

“Yes, I know!” interrupted Mr. Sewell, testily. “Fell off a step-ladder
and broke his dratted neck. Eleven year old, was n’t he? Always does,
jest at that point. Next week Silas will begin the whole thing over
again, if he can get anybody to listen to him.”

“I see. Our amiable friend is a little queer on that subject.”

Mr. Sewell glanced cautiously over his shoulder, and, tapping himself
significantly on the forehead, said in a low voice,

“Room To Let--Unfurnished!”

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "Miss Mehetabel's Son" ***

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