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CHAPTER VIII WE VISIT PEG BOWEN
We left Cousin Mattie's early, for it still looked like a storm, though no more so than it had in the morning. We intended to go home by a different path - one leading through cleared land overgrown with scrub maple, which had the advantage of being farther away from Peg Bowen's house. We hoped to be home before it began to storm, but we had hardly reached the hill above the village when a fine, driving snow began to fall. It would have been wiser to have turned back even then; but we had already come a mile and we thought we would have ample time to reach home before it became really bad. We were sadly mistaken; by the time we had gone another half-mile we were in the thick of a bewildering, blinding snowstorm. But it was by now just as far back to Cousin Mattie's as it was to Uncle Alec's, so we struggled on, growing more frightened at every step. We could hardly face the stinging snow, and we could not see ten feet ahead of us. It had turned bitterly cold and the tempest howled all around us in white desolation under the fast-darkening night. The narrow path we were trying to follow soon became entirely obliterated and we stumbled blindly on, holding to each other, and trying to peer through the furious whirl that filled the air. Our plight had come upon us so suddenly that we could not realize it. Presently Peter, who was leading the van because he was supposed to know the path best, stopped.
"I can't see the road any longer," he shouted. "I don't know where we are."
We all stopped and huddled together in a miserable group. Fear filled our hearts. It seemed ages ago that we had been snug and safe and warm at Cousin Mattie's. Cecily began to cry with cold. Dan, in spite of her protests, dragged off his overcoat and made her put it on.
"We can't stay here," he said. "We'll all freeze to death if we do. Come on - we've got to keep moving. The snow ain't so deep yet. Take hold of my hand, Cecily. We must all hold together. Come, now."
"It won't be nice to be frozen to death, but if we get through alive think what a story we'll have to tell," said the Story Girl between her chattering teeth.
In my heart I did not believe we would ever get through alive. It was almost pitch dark now, and the snow grew deeper every moment. We were chilled to the heart. I thought how nice it would be to lie down and rest; but I remembered hearing that that was fatal, and I endeavoured to stumble on with the others. It was wonderful how the girls kept up, even Cecily. It occurred to me to be thankful that Sara Ray was not with us.
But we were wholly lost now. All around us was a horror of great darkness. Suddenly Felicity fell. We dragged her up, but she declared she could not go on - she was done out.
"Have you any idea where we are?" shouted Dan to Peter.
"No," Peter shouted back, "the wind is blowing every which way. I haven't any idea where home is."
Home! Would we ever see it again? We tried to urge Felicity on, but she only repeated drowsily that she must lie down and rest. Cecily, too, was reeling against me. The Story Girl still stood up staunchly and counselled struggling on, but she was numb with cold and her words were hardly distinguishable. Some wild idea was in my mind that we must dig a hole in the snow and all creep into it. I had read somewhere that people had thus saved their lives in snowstorms. Suddenly Felix gave a shout.
"I see a light," he cried.
"Where? Where?" We all looked but could see nothing.
"I don't see it now but I saw it a moment ago," shouted Felix. "I'm sure I did. Come on - over in this direction."
Inspired with fresh hope we hurried after him. Soon we all saw the light - and never shone a fairer beacon. A few more steps and, coming into the shelter of the woodland on the further side, we realized where we were.
"That's Peg Bowen's house," exclaimed Peter, stopping short in dismay.
"I don't care whose house it is," declared Dan. "We've got to go to it."
"I s'pose so," acquiesced Peter ruefully. "We can't freeze to death even if she is a witch."
"For goodness' sake don't say anything about witches so close to her house," gasped Felicity. "I'll be thankful to get in anywhere."
We reached the house, climbed the flight of steps that led to that mysterious second story door, and Dan rapped. The door opened promptly and Peg Bowen stood before us, in what seemed exactly the same costume she had worn on the memorable day when we had come, bearing gifts, to propitiate her in the matter of Paddy.
"Behind her was a dim room scantly illumined by the one small candle that had guided us through the storm; but the old Waterloo stove was colouring the gloom with tremulous, rose-red whorls of light, and warm and cosy indeed seemed Peg's retreat to us snowcovered, frost-chilled, benighted wanderers.
"Gracious goodness, where did yez all come from?" exclaimed Peg. "Did they turn yez out?"
"We've been over to Baywater, and we got lost in the storm coming back," explained Dan. "We didn't know where we were till we saw your light. I guess we'll have to stay here till the storm is over - if you don't mind."
"And if it won't inconvenience you," said Cecily timidly.
"Oh, it's no inconvenience to speak of. Come in. Well, yez HAVE got some snow on yez. Let me get a broom. You boys stomp your feet well and shake your coats. You girls give me your things and I'll hang them up. Guess yez are most froze. Well, sit up to the stove and git het up."
Peg bustled away to gather up a dubious assortment of chairs, with backs and rungs missing, and in a few minutes we were in a circle around her roaring stove, getting dried and thawed out. In our wildest flights of fancy we had never pictured ourselves as guests at the witch's hearth-stone. Yet here we were; and the witch herself was actually brewing a jorum of ginger tea for Cecily, who continued to shiver long after the rest of us were roasted to the marrow. Poor Sis drank that scalding draught, being in too great awe of Peg to do aught else.
"That'll soon fix your shivers," said our hostess kindly. "And now I'll get yez all some tea."
"Oh, please don't trouble," said the Story Girl hastily.
"'Tain't any trouble," said Peg briskly; then, with one of the sudden changes to fierceness which made her such a terrifying personage, "Do yez think my vittels ain't clean?"
"Oh, no, no," cried Felicity quickly, before the Story Girl could speak, "none of us would ever think THAT. Sara only meant she didn't want you to go to any bother on our account."
"It ain't any bother," said Peg, mollified. "I'm spry as a cricket this winter, though I have the realagy sometimes. Many a good bite I've had in your ma's kitchen. I owe yez a meal."
No more protests were made. We sat in awed silence, gazing with timid curiosity about the room, the stained, plastered walls of which were well-nigh covered with a motley assortment of pictures, chromos, and advertisements, pasted on without much regard for order or character.
We had heard much of Peg's pets and now we saw them. Six cats occupied various cosy corners; one of them, the black goblin which had so terrified us in the summer, blinked satirically at us from the centre of Peg's bed. Another, a dilapidated, striped beastie, with both ears and one eye gone, glared at us from the sofa in the corner. A dog, with only three legs, lay behind the stove; a crow sat on a roost above our heads, in company with a matronly old hen; and on the clock shelf were a stuffed monkey and a grinning skull. We had heard that a sailor had given Peg the monkey. But where had she got the skull? And whose was it? I could not help puzzling over these gruesome questions.
Presently tea was ready and we gathered around the festal board - a board literally as well as figuratively, for Peg's table was the work of her own unskilled hands. The less said about the viands of that meal, and the dishes they were served in, the better. But we ate them - bless you, yes! - as we would have eaten any witch's banquet set before us. Peg might or might not be a witch - common sense said not; but we knew she was quite capable of turning every one of us out of doors in one of her sudden fierce fits if we offended her; and we had no mind to trust ourselves again to that wild forest where we had fought a losing fight with the demon forces of night and storm.
But it was not an agreeable meal in more ways than one. Peg was not at all careful of anybody's feelings. She hurt Felix's cruelly as she passed him his cup of tea.
"You've gone too much to flesh, boy. So the magic seed didn't work, hey?"
How in the world had Peg found out about that magic seed? Felix looked uncommonly foolish.
"If you'd come to me in the first place I'd soon have told you how to get thin," said Peg, nodding wisely.
"Won't you tell me now?" asked Felix eagerly, his desire to melt his too solid flesh overcoming his dread and shame.
"No, I don't like being second fiddle," answered Peg with a crafty smile. "Sara, you're too scrawny and pale - not much like your ma. I knew her well. She was counted a beauty, but she made no great things of a match. Your father had some money but he was a tramp like meself. Where is he now?"
"In Rome," said the Story Girl rather shortly.
"People thought your ma was crazy when she took him. But she'd a right to please herself. Folks is too ready to call other folks crazy. There's people who say I'M not in my right mind. Did yez ever" - Peg fixed Felicity with a piercing glance - "hear anything so ridiculous?"
"Never," said Felicity, white to the lips.
"I wish everybody was as sane as I am," said Peg scornfully. Then she looked poor Felicity over critically. "You're good-looking but proud. And your complexion won't wear. It'll be like your ma's yet - too much red in it."
"Well, that's better than being the colour of mud," muttered Peter, who wasn't going to hear his lady traduced, even by a witch. All the thanks he got was a furious look from Felicity, but Peg had not heard him and now she turned her attention to Cecily.
"You look delicate. I daresay you'll never live to grow up."
Cecily's lip trembled and Dan's face turned crimson.
"Shut up," he said to Peg. "You've no business to say such things to people."
I think my jaw dropped. I know Peter's and Felix's did. Felicity broke in wildly.
"Oh, don't mind him, Miss Bowen. He's got SUCH a temper - that's just the way he talks to us all at home. PLEASE excuse him."
"Bless you, I don't mind him," said Peg, from whom the unexpected seemed to be the thing to expect. "I like a lad of spurrit. And so your father run away, did he, Peter? He used to be a beau of mine - he seen me home three times from singing school when we was young. Some folks said he did it for a dare. There's such a lot of jealousy in the world, ain't there? Do you know where he is now?"
"No," said Peter.
"Well, he's coming home before long," said Peg mysteriously.
"Who told you that?" cried Peter in amazement.
"Better not ask," responded Peg, looking up at the skull.
If she meant to make the flesh creep on our bones she succeeded. But now, much to our relief, the meal was over and Peg invited us to draw our chairs up to the stove again.
"Make yourselves at home," she said, producing her pipe from her pocket. "I ain't one of the kind who thinks their houses too good to live in. Guess I won't bother washing the dishes. They'll do yez for breakfast if yez don't forget your places. I s'pose none of yez smokes."
"No," said Felicity, rather primly.
"Then yez don't know what's good for yez," retorted Peg, rather grumpily. But a few whiffs of her pipe placated her and, observing Cecily sigh, she asked her kindly what was the matter.
"I'm thinking how worried they'll be at home about us," explained Cecily.
"Bless you, dearie, don't be worrying over that. I'll send them word that yez are all snug and safe here."
"But how can you?" cried amazed Cecily.
"Better not ask," said Peg again, with another glance at the skull.
An uncomfortable silence followed, finally broken by Peg, who introduced her pets to us and told how she had come by them. The black cat was her favourite.
"That cat knows more than I do, if yez'll believe it," she said proudly. "I've got a rat too, but he's a bit shy when strangers is round. Your cat got all right again that time, didn't he?"
"Yes," said the Story Girl.
"Thought he would," said Peg, nodding sagely. "I seen to that. Now, don't yez all be staring at the hole in my dress."
"We weren't," was our chorus of protest.
"Looked as if yez were. I tore that yesterday but I didn't mend it. I was brought up to believe that a hole was an accident but a patch was a disgrace. And so your Aunt Olivia is going to be married after all?"
This was news to us. We felt and looked dazed.
"I never heard anything of it," said the Story Girl.
"Oh, it's true enough. She's a great fool. I've no faith in husbands. But one good thing is she ain't going to marry that Henry Jacobs of Markdale. He wants her bad enough. Just like his presumption, - thinking himself good enough for a King. His father is the worst man alive. He chased me off his place with his dog once. But I'll get even with him yet."
Peg looked very savage, and visions of burned barns floated through our minds.
"He'll be punished in hell, you know," said Peter timidly.
"But I won't be there to see that," rejoined Peg. "Some folks say I'll go there because I don't go to church oftener. But I don't believe it."
"Why don't you go?" asked Peter, with a temerity that bordered on rashness.
"Well, I've got so sunburned I'm afraid folks might take me for an Injun," explained Peg, quite seriously. "Besides, your minister makes such awful long prayers. Why does he do it?"
"I suppose he finds it easier to talk to God than to people," suggested Peter reflectively.
"Well, anyway, I belong to the round church," said Peg comfortably, "and so the devil can't catch ME at the corners. I haven't been to Carlisle church for over three years. I thought I'd a-died laughing the last time I was there. Old Elder Marr took up the collection that day. He'd on a pair of new boots and they squeaked all the way up and down the aisles. And every time the boots squeaked the elder made a face, like he had toothache. It was awful funny. How's your missionary quilt coming on, Cecily?"
Was there anything Peg didn't know?
"Very well," said Cecily.
"You can put my name on it, if you want to."
"Oh, thank you. Which section - the five-cent one or the ten-cent one?" asked Cecily timidly.
"The ten-cent one, of course. The best is none too good for me. I'll give you the ten cents another time. I'm short of change just now - not being as rich as Queen Victory. There's her picture up there - the one with the blue sash and diamint crown and the lace curting on her head. Can any of yez tell me this - is Queen Victory a married woman?"
"Oh, yes, but her husband is dead," answered the Story Girl.
"Well, I s'pose they couldn't have called her an old maid, seeing she was a queen, even if she'd never got married. Sometimes I sez to myself, 'Peg, would you like to be Queen Victory?' But I never know what to answer. In summer, when I can roam anywhere in the woods and the sunshine - I wouldn't be Queen Victory for anything. But when it's winter and cold and I can't git nowheres - I feel as if I wouldn't mind changing places with her."
Peg put her pipe back in her mouth and began to smoke fiercely. The candle wick burned long, and was topped by a little cap of fiery red that seemed to wink at us like an impish gnome. The most grotesque shadow of Peg flickered over the wall behind her. The one-eyed cat remitted his grim watch and went to sleep. Outside the wind screamed like a ravening beast at the window. Suddenly Peg removed her pipe from her mouth, bent forward, gripped my wrist with her sinewy fingers until I almost cried out with pain, and gazed straight into my face. I felt horribly frightened of her. She seemed an entirely different creature. A wild light was in her eyes, a furtive, animal-like expression was on her face. When she spoke it was in a different voice and in different language.
"Do you hear the wind?" she asked in a thrilling whisper. "What IS the wind? What IS the wind?"
"I - I - don't know," I stammered.
"No more do I," said Peg, "and nobody knows. Nobody knows what the wind is. I wish I could find out. I mightn't be so afraid of the wind if I knew what it was. I am afraid of it. When the blasts come like that I want to crouch down and hide me. But I can tell you one thing about the wind - it's the only free thing in the world - THE - ONLY - FREE - THING. Everything else is subject to some law, but the wind is FREE. It bloweth where it listeth and no man can tame it. It's free - that's why I love it, though I'm afraid of it. It's a grand thing to be free - free free - free!"
Peg's voice rose almost to a shriek. We were dreadfully frightened, for we knew there were times when she was quite crazy and we feared one of her "spells" was coming on her. But with a swift movement she turned the man's coat she wore up over her shoulders and head like a hood, completely hiding her face. Then she crouched forward, elbows on knees, and relapsed into silence. None of us dared speak or move. We sat thus for half an hour. Then Peg jumped up and said briskly in her usual tone,
"Well, I guess yez are all sleepy and ready for bed. You girls can sleep in my bed over there, and I'll take the sofy. Yez can put the cat off if yez like, though he won't hurt yez. You boys can go downstairs. There's a big pile of straw there that'll do yez for a bed, if yez put your coats on. I'll light yez down, but I ain't going to leave yez a light for fear yez'd set fire to the place."
Saying good-night to the girls, who looked as if they thought their last hour was come, we went to the lower room. It was quite empty, save for a pile of fire wood and another of clean straw. Casting a stealthy glance around, ere Peg withdrew the light, I was relieved to see that there were no skulls in sight. We four boys snuggled down in the straw. We did not expect to sleep, but we were very tired and before we knew it our eyes were shut, to open no more till morning. The poor girls were not so fortunate. They always averred they never closed an eye. Four things prevented them from sleeping. In the first place Peg snored loudly; in the second place the fitful gleams of firelight kept flickering over the skull for half the night and making gruesome effects on it; in the third place Peg's pillows and bedclothes smelled rankly of tobacco smoke; and in the fourth place they were afraid the rat Peg had spoken of might come out to make their acquaintance. Indeed, they were sure they heard him skirmishing about several times.
When we wakened in the morning the storm was over and a young morning was looking through rosy eyelids across a white world. The little clearing around Peg's cabin was heaped with dazzling drifts, and we boys fell to and shovelled out a road to her well. She gave us breakfast - stiff oatmeal porridge without milk, and a boiled egg apiece. Cecily could NOT eat her porridge; she declared she had such a bad cold that she had no appetite; a cold she certainly had; the rest of us choked our messes down and after we had done so Peg asked us if we had noticed a soapy taste.
"The soap fell into the porridge while I was making it," she said. "But," - smacking her lips, - "I'm going to make yez an Irish stew for dinner. It'll be fine."
An Irish stew concocted by Peg! No wonder Dan said hastily,
"You are very kind but we'll have to go right home."
"Yez can't walk," said Peg.
"Oh, yes, we can. The drifts are so hard they'll carry, and the snow will be pretty well blown off the middle of the fields. It's only three-quarters of a mile. We boys will go home and get a pung and come back for you girls."
But the girls wouldn't listen to this. They must go with us, even Cecily.
"Seems to me yez weren't in such a hurry to leave last night," observed Peg sarcastically.
"Oh, it's only because they'll be so anxious about us at home, and it's Sunday and we don't want to miss Sunday School," explained Felicity.
"Well, I hope your Sunday School will do yez good," said Peg, rather grumpily. But she relented again at the last and gave Cecily a wishbone.
"Whatever you wish on that will come true," she said. "But you only have the one wish, so don't waste it."
"We're so much obliged to you for all your trouble," said the Story Girl politely.
"Never mind the trouble. The expense is the thing," retorted Peg grimly.
"Oh!" Felicity hesitated. "If you would let us pay you - give you something - "
"No, thank yez," responded Peg loftily. "There is people who take money for their hospitality, I've heerd, but I'm thankful to say I don't associate with that class. Yez are welcome to all yez have had here, if yez ARE in a big hurry to get away."
She shut the door behind us with something of a slam, and her black cat followed us so far, with stealthy, furtive footsteps, that we were frightened of it. Eventually it turned back; then, and not till then, did we feel free to discuss our adventure.
"Well, I'm thankful we're out of THAT," said Felicity, drawing a long breath. "Hasn't it just been an awful experience?"
"We might all have been found frozen stark and stiff this morning," remarked the Story Girl with apparent relish.
"I tell you, it was a lucky thing we got to Peg Bowen's," said Dan.
"Miss Marwood says there is no such thing as luck," protested Cecily. "We ought to say it was Providence instead."
"Well, Peg and Providence don't seem to go together very well, somehow," retorted Dan. "If Peg is a witch it must be the Other One she's in co. with."
"Dan, it's getting to be simply scandalous the way you talk," said Felicity. "I just wish ma could hear you."
"Is soap in porridge any worse than tooth-powder in rusks, lovely creature?" asked Dan.
"Dan, Dan," admonished Cecily, between her coughs, "remember it's Sunday."
"It seems hard to remember that," said Peter. "It doesn't seem a mite like Sunday and it seems awful long since yesterday."
"Cecily, you've got a dreadful cold," said the Story Girl anxiously.
"In spite of Peg's ginger tea," added Felix.
"Oh, that ginger tea was AWFUL," exclaimed poor Cecily. "I thought I'd never get it down - it was so hot with ginger - and there was so much of it! But I was so frightened of offending Peg I'd have tried to drink it all if there had been a bucketful. Oh, yes, it's very easy for you all to laugh! You didn't have to drink it."
"We had to eat two meals, though," said Felicity with a shiver. "And I don't know when those dishes of hers were washed. I just shut my eyes and took gulps."
"Did you notice the soapy taste in the porridge?" asked the Story Girl.
"Oh, there were so many queer tastes about it I didn't notice one more than another," answered Felicity wearily.
"What bothers me," remarked Peter absently, "is that skull. Do you suppose Peg really finds things out by it?"
"Nonsense! How could she?" scoffed Felix, bold as a lion in daylight.
"She didn't SAY she did, you know," I said cautiously.
"Well, we'll know in time if the things she said were going to happen do," mused Peter.
"Do you suppose your father is really coming home?" queried Felicity.
"I hope not," answered Peter decidedly.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself," said Felicity severely.
"No, I oughtn't. Father got drunk all the time he was home, and wouldn't work and was bad to mother," said Peter defiantly. "She had to support him as well as herself and me. I don't want to see any father coming home, and you'd better believe it. Of course, if he was the right sort of a father it'd be different."
"What I would like to know is if Aunt Olivia is going to be married," said the Story Girl absently. "I can hardly believe it. But now that I think of it - Uncle Roger has been teasing her ever since she was in Halifax last summer."
"If she does get married you'll have to come and live with us," said Cecily delightedly.
Felicity did not betray so much delight and the Story Girl remarked with a weary little sigh that she hoped Aunt Olivia wouldn't. We all felt rather weary, somehow. Peg's predictions had been unsettling, and our nerves had all been more or less strained during our sojourn under her roof. We were glad when we found ourselves at home.
The folks had not been at all troubled about us, but it was because they were sure the storm had come up before we would think of leaving Cousin Mattie's and not because they had received any mysterious message from Peg's skull. We were relieved at this, but on the whole, our adventure had not done much towards clearing up the vexed question of Peg's witchcraft.
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