This month’s free read is “Through the Woods,” a short story that first appeared in The Pansy magazine in 1889.
When Helen and Winnie set out for an overnight visit with a beloved aunt, they anticipate a fun time and a safe journey. But it only takes one wrong turn to change their fun to fright, and one act of kindness to teach them a valuable lesson.
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IT was the gray pony that Helen wanted to take. He was such a wise horse that there was no need in thinking about the trains all the time. Besides, he could follow those bewildering windings through the woods as well as though he had laid out the roads himself, if indeed they had been laid out at all. But just as she was thinking of asking Phillip to harness for her she heard Mary’s voice saying in a tone of authority, “Stand over!” and looking from the window saw she was harnessing the gray pony to the high carriage.
“Where are you going?” she called, and Mary answered promptly that she was going to Lake Minnow to call on the Allen girls.
“Oh, dear!” said Helen, “I promised mamma to take those rose-cuttings to Aunt Hattie this afternoon, and I wanted Gray myself.”
“Why can’t you take Brownie?” said Mary. “There’s Phillip driving into the yard with him now; he will be ready to go as soon as he has had his dinner.”
“Well,” said Helen after a minute, “I s’pose I’ll have to do that. I hate to drive Brownie because he doesn’t know the roads; and he thinks he does and keeps turning where he ought not. You have to watch him every minute.”
Mary laughed, and said that was good discipline for Helen; that she was too much inclined to dream in the daytime. And then she climbed into her carriage and drove away.
Half an hour afterward Helen drove out in the phaeton. She was going to call for her dear friend Winnie Chester who was boarding at the hotel. Under the seat was her little hand bag with all needed articles for the night, because she often stayed at Aunt Hattie’s all night, and Winnie had promised the very next time she went with her to stay and enjoy the new milk from Aunt Hattie’s cow and the cream muffins she was sure to make.
It was a lovely afternoon. The ride was thoroughly enjoyed by both girls. Brownie trotted along briskly, although the roads were sandy, and made just the right turnings, as if he had heard and resented Helen’s complaint about him.
Aunt Hattie’s was reached in good time and in safety, but alas! for the plans about new milk and cream muffins. Aunt Hattie and Uncle Henry were both away from home. They had gone to town for the day. The rose-cuttings had to be consigned to Jake, and the two girls stayed only long enough for Brownie to get a drink of water; for the roads were heavy, and twilight fell early in this part of the country. They rode along in a leisurely manner, chatting pleasantly, stopping every little while for ferns and mosses. Suddenly Helen said:
“It is growing dark. The sun has set; did you know it? I never thought of such a thing, and we are not near home; where are we, anyway? I don’t remember this pond, do you?”
“I don’t remember any of them,” said Winnie. “The roads look alike to me in this country. Doesn’t Brownie know the way home?”
“Brownie is not to be depended upon,” said Helen gravely. “He thinks he knows everything, but he makes dreadful mistakes. That is the reason I wanted to take Gray. I do get so mixed up on these roads. This doesn’t look natural to me, but we will drive on a little farther and see what we come to.”
What they came to was a rough narrow path which Helen felt certain she had never seen before. She drove slowly, with a troubled face, uncertain whether it was best to go on or to turn around and try to find the way back. To add to their perplexity the short twilight had disappeared and it was unmistakably dark. No moon, and the trees so thick that the stars gave very little light. They had almost entirely ceased talking and were occupied, the one in trying to drive, the other in the vain hope of seeing something familiar.
“I can’t see at all.” she said at last. “What shall we do? I don’t know the way home.”
“Won’t your people come to find you when they see how dark it is?” asked Winnie.
“They think we are going to stay at Aunt Hattie’s,” said Helen, trying to speak bravely, but feeling her heart beat so hard that it seemed to her Winnie must hear it. Silence again for a few minutes, then Winnie exclaimed:
“There’s a dog barking. Somebody must be coming. Helen, aren’t you afraid?”
“I see a light,” said Helen, in a cheerful voice. “We are coming to a house. I am so glad.”
Was she? In a few minutes more she knew that she was sorry. A little old log cabin set down in the woods, no sign of civilization anywhere, unless that tumbled-down cabin stood for it, and half a dozen growling dogs. In the doorway stood the worst-looking woman the girls had ever seen, or rather had ever been able to imagine. Tall, gaunt, with a long thin chin, peaked nose, and strong red arms bare to the elbows. She was speaking to an uncouth man or boy around whom the dogs frolicked as though they knew him. The only relief to the picture was the sight of a very little girl who seemed not at all afraid of the dogs, and who welcomed the ragged, silly-looking man with a gurgle of laughter. At sight of the carriage the whole company, dogs included, turned and gave undivided attention.
“Lost your way, eh?” said the woman. “That’s bad such a dark night as this. I reckon the old man himself couldn’t find the road to Pine Loch tonight, and he knows most roads in this country. You’ll just have to stay all night. I reckon we can put you somewhere; you need daylight for getting home, that’s certain. You’re much as three mile out o’ your way.”
In a silence that was very near despair, the two girls stepped down from the phaeton, shrinking from the dogs in a tremble of terror, despite the woman’s loud assurance that they wouldn’t “hurt a hair of their heads.” No sooner were they inside the cabin than, but for the dogs, they would have rushed out again. Never had they dreamed of such a place for human beings to live; rough logs for walls, rough boards for floors; an open fireplace for a stove, over which a pot hung at this minute filled with a mixture so vile-smelling that the two frightened girls had almost to hold their breaths to keep from fainting. At least, that was the way it appeared to them; though really it was nothing worse than the smell of lard that was scorching. Utterly refusing to eat a mouthful of the black-looking bread that was urged upon them, and too frightened to do much besides looking at one another, they were thankful when the woman told them they looked “tuckered out” and she “reckoned they had better turn in for the night.” To this end she lighted what was really a pine torch, though the girls did not know it, and prepared to climb the staircase which was nothing but a ladder.
Meantime, the one she called her “old man” had come in and the situation had been explained to him, he nodding wisely at intervals and saying, “Just so, just so.”
Poor Helen thought he looked worse than his wife, and she followed the woman up the ladder stairs in haste to get away from the shaggy man. Oh, what would their mothers have thought if they had seen the room into which their cherished daughters were shown for the night! The bedstead was made of two boxes with slats across, and a tick filled with dried moss and leaves. There was a broken chair, and a box that served for a table. These were the only attempts at furniture. The one little window had no sash, nothing but a window shutter through whose half-open mouth the baying of those awful dogs could be distinctly heard.
“I reckon you dunno’ how to manage a torch,” said the woman, “so I won’t leave it for you, but the light will come up through the chinks in the logs enough for you to get into bed by. I reckon there’s covers enough. The nights are mighty cold nowadays.”
Not a word had the frightened girls to answer, but the moment the woman and her torch had disappeared down the ladder they flew into each other’s arms and sobbed as though their hearts would break.
“I’m afraid to go to bed,” murmured Winnie, “and I’m afraid to sit up. We can’t stay here, Helen. Let’s slip out and run away.”
“We can’t,” whispered Helen. “Those awful dogs—just hear them!” and she shook like a leaf. “Only think, Winnie, mamma supposes we are safe in bed in Aunt Hattie’s pretty room.”
“We will never be there again,” said Winnie, “nor at home either. These are robbers. I know they are by their looks. They have got us in here to steal our clothes, and my chain and your pin with a real diamond in it. They will take all we have and then they will kill us and our people will never know what became of us.”
“Oh, don’t!” said Helen in a whisper so loud that it was almost a shriek. “You are horrid and dreadful, Winnie Chester, to say such things.”
“Oh, dear! How cold I am. Let us lie down. We can’t be any worse off than we are now. We will keep all our clothes on and just lie down in each other’s arms, and we won’t sleep a wink, only just watch, and if we hear them coming we will jump up and yell with all our might; maybe somebody will hear us and come.”
The first part of this plan was at once carried into effect. Shuddering so that they could hardly stand they yet contrived to stumble over to the bed. Crawling between the covers that the woman had turned down and covering their heads, they gave themselves up to the most hearty crying they had done for years. Hark! There were sounds of persons moving about in the room below. The two girls hushed their sobs the better to hear and be ready for the screams they were resolved to give. It was not reasonable to suppose that anyone could hear them away out in the woods save the family of whom they stood in fear, still they meant to try it.
“Hush!” said Helen, in a warning whisper, though Winnie was as still as possible. The moving about had ceased and all was still for a moment. Then the gruff voice of the dreadful-looking old man could be distinctly heard through the wide cracks in the log house. This was what he said:
“Oh, Lord, here we are again at the end of another day, asking for the same things. Thou knowest we are in trouble, and that we have tried hard and made a failure of it. What we need now is help to be willing to fail. We’ve done our level best and we want to be willing to have Thee do just what ought to be done even if it does seem hard to us. Take care of us tonight and the young ones who lost their way, and give us strength to get through tomorrow, for Christ’s sake. Amen.”
The listeners upstairs were very still. The nervous tremblings and sobs had ceased. Presently Winnie whispered:
“I’m not a bit afraid, are you?”
“Not a speck,” said Helen bravely “I don’t think he’s such a very bad-looking old man, do you? And this bed is real clean if it is hard. I say, Winnie, let’s go to sleep.”
And they went.
Very early in the morning the baying of the dogs and the shouting of the little girl, to say nothing of the gruff voice of the man and the shrill voice of the woman, awakened our two travelers. The first thing they did was to look at one another and laugh.
“Isn’t it funny?” said Helen. “I’m glad mamma thinks we are safe at Aunt Hattie’s. What a dreadful night they would have had if they had expected us home. Winnie, what silly creatures we were to be so scared last night. Won’t we have a story to tell when we get home?”
Elated with this, they sprang up and set about making their toilets with all speed.
“Here you be as bright as roses,” was the greeting they received from the woman downstairs. She was frying pork, and the cabin was full of a greasy, smoky smell.
“Want some breakfast, I dare say,” she added, as the girls stood in doubt as to where to go or what to do. “Well, your pony has had his and feels all ready for another tramp, an’ Dick, he’s waiting to take you to the forks of the road and put you on the right trail; I reckon you will know your way from there. Dick is my boy. He ain’t as bright as some boys. He had a fall when he was a little fellow and hurt his head. He was the cutest young one up to that time that you ever see; since that he never could learn much. But he’s good, Dick is, an’ he knows the way to the forks of the road as well as the next one, and can be depended on. Now you just set by and get your breakfast. The rest of us eat a good while ago. You were so tuckered out last night I thought I’d let you sleep. I’m sorry we ain’t no milk to offer you, but we have to sell every drop of milk we have nowdays to make out the bill we owe for doctoring. Dick was dreadful sick, you know, and ran up a large bill, and we won’t have milk to pay for it after today either.” Whereupon she drew a heavy sigh.
“Why not?” ventured Helen. “Aren’t you going to keep your cow?”
“I reckon not, Miss. Our cow’s got to go to pay another debt. That’s what the man says. You see, we had sickness for a spell and got dreadful behind. He’s waited a good spell for his money and he says it’s no kind of use waiting any longer, and he’ll have to take the cow. The critter’s worth more money than that, but then, what can poor folks do?” The sentence closed with another sigh. “It’s forty dollars we owe, and my man has scoured the woods to raise it and he can’t, so old Brindle will have to go, an’ she’s worth sixty dollars, easy.”
The girls looked at one another with almost bewildered faces and said not a word. It was the first time it had ever dawned upon their mind that forty dollars or the want of it could make so much trouble. To these children of rich fathers it seemed a very small sum indeed.
The crisp fried pork and corn bread were really not so bad eating, after all, and the girls did the meal full justice. In less than an hour afterwards they were driving briskly along the road. Brownie pricked up his ears and discovered that his driver was in haste and there was no use in trying to mope. At the forks of the road Helen dismissed her guide, assuring him that she knew every step of the way now.
What a story they had to tell. It seemed as though they would never have done describing the road and the darkness, the cabin, the dogs, the torches, the fright, and the breakfast.
“Papa,” said Winnie, “they are in such trouble just for the want of forty dollars. Only think what a little bit of money to make so much unhappiness! Papa, can’t we help them in some way? They were so good to us.”
“I should think we might,” said papa heartily. “I am sure we ought never to forget the poor man’s kindness to our little girl.”
By afternoon it was all arranged. The two fathers had met and talked and planned, and Helen and Winnie were on the road to the cabin with a carefully sealed envelope in charge. This time Job, the coachman, mounted guard and kept a careful eye to the road. There was not the slightest danger that Job would lose his way, and the girls were very willing to have his company. Kind as the people in the cabin had been they had no wish to repeat the experiment of the night before.
Great was the astonishment of the woman (and the dogs) when the little pony carriage drove into the yard, and coming out to see what was wanted she saw the faces of her two guests.
“For pity’s sake!” she said. “Ain’t you two got home yet? But that ain’t the same critter you had this morning.”
“No, ma’am,” laughed Helen; “this is Gray. Oh, yes’m, we’ve been home. We just came to bring you this from our fathers. They say it is their ‘thank you’ for being so kind to us last night.”
“This” was the envelope in which were enclosed forty dollars in shining gold.