Frank Stockton.

The Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine



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After a time Ruth followed their example, and, though I was very anxiously watching out of the window for an approaching light, and listening for the sound of wheels, I, too, fell into a doze. It must have been ten or eleven o'clock when I was awakened by some delicate but cold touches on my face, the nature of which, when I first opened my eyes, I could not comprehend. But I soon understood what these cold touches meant. The window in the door of the coach on my side had been slightly lowered from the top to give us air, and through the narrow aperture the cold particles had come floating in. I looked through the window. The night was not very dark, for, although the sky was overcast, the moon was in its second quarter, and I could plainly see that it was snowing, and that the ground was already white.

This discovery sent a chill into my soul, for I was not unfamiliar with snows in mountain regions, and knew well what this might mean to us. But there was nothing that we could now do, and it would be useless and foolish to awaken my companions and distress them with this new disaster. Besides, I thought our situation might not be so very bad, after all. It was not yet winter, and the snowfall might prove to be but a light one. I gently closed the window, and made my body comfortable in its corner; but my mind continued very uncomfortable for I do not know how long.

When I awoke I found that there had been a heavy fall of snow in the night, and that the flakes were still coming down thick and fast. When Ruth first looked out upon the scene she was startled and dismayed. She was not accustomed to storms of this kind, and the snow frightened her. Upon Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine the sight of the storm produced an entirely different effect. Here was a difficulty, a discomfort, a hardship; but it came in a natural way, and not by the hand of a dastardly coward of a man. With natural-happening difficulties they were accustomed to combat without fear or repining. They knew all about snow, and were not frightened by this storm. The difficulties which it presented to their minds actually raised their spirits, and from the grim and quiet beings of the last evening they became the same cheerful, dauntless, ready women that I had known before.

"Upon my word," exclaimed Mrs. Aleshine, as she clapped her face to a window of the coach, "if this isn't a reg'lar old-fashioned snow-storm! I've shoveled my own way through many a one like it to git to the barn to do my milkin' afore the men-folks had begun makin' paths, and I feel jus' like as though I could do it ag'in."

"Now, Barb'ry Aleshine," said Mrs. Lecks, "if you're thinkin' of shovelin' your way from this place to where your cows is, you'd better step right out and get at it, and I really do think that if you felt they were sufferin' for want of milkin' you'd make a start."

"I don't say," answered Mrs. Aleshine, with an illuminating grin, "that if the case was that way I mightn't have the hankerin', though not the capableness; but I don't know that there's any place to shovel our way to, jus' now."

Mrs.

Lecks and I thought differently. Across the road, under the great trees, the ground was comparatively free from snow, and in some places, owing to the heavy evergreen foliage, it was entirely bare. It was very desirable that we should get to one of these spots and build a fire, for, though we had been well wrapped up, we all felt numbed and cold. In the boot at the back of the coach I knew that there was an ax, and I thought I might possibly find there a shovel. I opened the coach door, and saw that the snow was already above the lower step. By standing on the spokes of the back wheel I could easily get at the boot, and I soon pulled out the ax, but found no shovel. But this did not deter me. I made my way to the front wheel, and climbed up to the driver's box, where I knocked off one of the thin planks of the foot-board, and this, with the ax, I shaped into a rude shovel, with a handle rather too wide, but serviceable. With this I went vigorously to work, and soon had made a pathway across the road. Here I chopped off some low dead branches, picked up others, and soon had a crackling fire, around which my three companions gathered with delight.

A strong wind was now blowing, and the snow began to form into heavy drifts. The fire was very cheery and pleasant, but the wind was cutting, and we soon returned to the shelter of the coach, where we had our breakfast. This was not altogether a cold meal, for Mrs. Aleshine had provided a little tea-kettle, and, with some snow-water which I brought in boiling from the fire in the woods, we had all the hot and comforting tea we wanted.

We passed the morning waiting and looking out, and wondering what sort of conveyance would be sent for us. It was generally agreed that nothing on wheels could now be got over the road, and that we must be taken away in a sleigh.

"I like sleigh-ridin'," said Mrs. Aleshine, "if you're well wrapped up, with good hosses, and a hot brick for your feet; but I must say I don't know but what I'm goin' to be a little skeery goin' down these long hills. If we git fairly slidin', hosses, sleigh, and all together, there's no knowin' where we'll fetch up."

"There's one comfort, Barb'ry," remarked Mrs. Lecks, "and that is that when we do fetch up it'll be at the bottom of the hills, and not at the top; and as the bottom is what we want to get to, we oughtn't to complain."

"That depends a good deal whether we come down hind part foremost, or fore part front. But nobody's complainin' so fur, 'specially as the sleigh isn't here."

I joined in the outlooking and the conjectures, but I could not keep up the cheerful courage which animated my companions; for not only were the two elder women bright and cheery, but Ruth seemed to be animated and encouraged by their example, and showed herself as brave and contented as either of them. She was convinced that her father must have reached the railroad-station before it began to snow, and therefore she was troubled by no fears for his safety. But my mind was filled with many fears.

The snow was still coming down thick and fast, and the wind was piling it into great drifts, one of which was forming between the coach and a low embankment on that side of the road near which it stood.

About every half-hour I took my shovel and cleared out the path across the road from the other side of the coach to the woods. Several times after doing this I made my way among the trees, where the snow did not impede my progress, to points from which I had a view some distance down the mountain; and I could plainly see that there were several places where the road was blocked up by huge snow-drifts. It would be a slow, laborious, and difficult undertaking for any relief-party to come to us from the station; and who was there at that place to come? This was the question which most troubled me. The settlement at the station was probably a very small one, and that there should be found at that place a sleigh or a sled with enough men to form a party sufficiently strong to open a road up the mountain-side was scarcely to be expected. Men and vehicles might be obtained at some point farther along the railroad, but action of this kind would require time, and it was not unlikely that the railroad itself was blocked up with snow. I could form no idea satisfactory to myself of any plan by which relief could come to us that day. Even the advent of a messenger on horseback was not to be expected. Such an adventurer would be lost in the storm and among the drifts. On the morrow relief might come, but I did not like to think too much about the morrow; and of any of my thoughts and fears I said nothing to my companions.

At intervals, after I had freshly cleared out the pathway, the three women, well bundled up, ran across the road to the fire under the trees. This was the only way in which they could keep themselves warm, for the coach, although it protected us from the storm, was a very cold place to sit in. But the wind and the snow which frequently drove in under the trees made it impossible to stay very long by the fire, and the frequent passages to and from the coach were attended with much exposure and wetting of feet. I therefore determined that some better way must be devised for keeping ourselves warm; and, shortly after our noonday meal, I thought of a plan, and immediately set to work to carry it out.

The drift between the coach and the embankment had now risen higher than the top of the vehicle, against one side of which it was tightly packed. I dug a path around the back of the coach, and then began to tunnel into the huge bank of snow. In about an hour I had made an excavation nearly high enough for me to stand in, and close to the stage door on that side; and I cleared away the snow so that this door could open into the cavern I had formed. At the end opposite the entrance of my cave, I worked a hole upward until I reached the outer air. This hole was, about a foot in diameter, and for some time the light, unpacked snow from above kept falling and filling it up; but I managed, by packing and beating the sides with my shovel, to get the whole into a condition in which it would retain the form of a rude chimney.

Now I hurried to bring wood and twigs, and having made a hearth of green sticks, which I cut with my ax, I built a fire in this snowy fireplace. Mrs. Lecks, Mrs. Aleshine, and Ruth had been watching my proceedings with great interest; and when the fire began to burn, and the smoke to go out of my chimney, the coach door was opened, and the genial heat gradually pervaded the vehicle.

"Upon my word," exclaimed Mrs. Aleshine, "if that isn't one of the brightest ideas I ever heard of! A fire in the middle of a snowbank, with a man there attendin' to it, an' a chimney! 'T isn't every day that you can see a thing like that!"

"I should hope not," remarked Mrs. Lecks, "for if the snow drifted this way every day, I'd be ready to give up the seein' business out and out! But I think, Mr. Craig, you ought to pass that shovel in to us so that we can dig you out when the fire begins to melt your little house and it all caves in on you."

"You can have the shovel," said I, "but I don't believe this snowbank will cave in on me. Of course the heat will melt the snow, but I think it will dissolve gradually, so that the caving in, if there is any, won't be of much account, and then we shall have a big open space here in which we can keep up our fire."

"Oh, dear!" exclaimed Ruth, "you talk as if you expected to stay here ever so long, and we certainly can't do that. We should starve to death, for one thing."

"Don't be afraid of that," said Mrs. Aleshine. "There's plenty of victuals to last till the people come for us. When I pack baskets for travelin' or picnickin', I don't do no scrimpin'. An' we've got to keep up a fire, you know, for it wouldn't be pleasant for those men, when they've cut a way up the mountain to git at us, to find us all froze stiff."

Mrs. Lecks smiled. "You're awful tender of the feelin's of other people, Barb'ry," she said, "and a heart as warm as yourn ought to keep from freezin'."

"Which it has done, so far," said Mrs. Aleshine, complacently.

As I had expected, the water soon began to drip from the top and the sides of my cavern, and the chimney rapidly enlarged its dimensions. I made a passage for the melted snow to run off into a hollow, back of the coach; and as I kept up a good strong fire, the drops of water and occasional pieces of snow which fell into it were not able to extinguish it. The cavern enlarged rapidly, and in a little more than an hour the roof became so thin that while I was outside collecting wood it fell in and extinguished the fire. This accident, however, interrupted my operations but for a short time. I cleared away the snow at the bottom of the excavation, and rebuilt my fire on the bare ground. The high snow walls on three sides of it protected it from the wind, so that there was no danger of the flames being blown against the stage-coach, while the large open space above allowed a free vent for the smoke.

About the middle of the afternoon, to the great delight of us all, it stopped snowing, and when I had freshly shoveled out the path across the road, my companions gladly embraced the opportunity of walking over to the comparatively protected ground under the trees and giving themselves a little exercise. During their absence I was busily engaged in arranging the fire, when I heard a low crunching sound on one side of me, and, turning my head, I saw in the wall of my excavation opposite to the stage-coach, and at a distance of four or five feet from the ground, an irregular hole in the snow, about a foot in diameter, from which protruded the head of a man. This head was wrapped, with the exception of the face, in a brown woolen comforter. The features were those of a man of about fifty, a little sallow and thin, without beard, whiskers, or mustache, although the cheeks and chin were darkened with a recent growth.

The astounding apparition of this head projecting itself from the snow wall of my cabin utterly paralyzed me, so that I neither moved nor spoke, but remained crouching by the fire, my eyes fixed upon the head. It smiled a little, and then spoke.

"Could you lend me a small iron pot?" it said.

I rose to my feet, almost ready to run away. Was this a dream? Or was it possible that there was a race of beings who inhabited snowbanks?

The face smiled again very pleasantly. "Do not be frightened," it said. "I saw you were startled, and spoke first of a familiar pot in order to reassure you."

"Who, in the name of Heaven, are you?" I gasped.

"I am only a traveler, sir," said the head, "who has met with an accident similar, I imagine, to that which has befallen you. But I cannot further converse with you in this position. Lying thus on my breast in a tunnel of snow will injuriously chill me. Could you conveniently lend me an iron pot?"

I was now convinced that this was an ordinary human being, and my courage and senses returned to me; but my astonishment remained boundless. "Before we talk of pots," I said, "I must know who you are, and how you got into that snowbank."

"I do not believe," said my visitor, "that I can get down, head foremost, to your level. I will therefore retire to my place of refuge, and perhaps we can communicate with each other through this aperture."

"Can I get through to your place of refuge?" I asked.

"Certainly," was the answer. "You are young and active, and the descent will not be so deep on my side. But I will first retire, and will then project toward you this sheepskin rug, which, if kept under you as you move forward, will protect your breast and arms from direct contact with the snow."

It was difficult to scramble up into the hole, but I succeeded in doing it, and found awaiting me the sheepskin rug, which, by the aid of an umbrella, the man had pushed toward me for my use. I was in a horizontal tunnel barely large enough for the passage of my body, and about six feet in length. When I had worked my way through this, and had put my head out of the other end, I looked into a small wooden shed, into which light entered only through a pane of glass set in a rude door opposite to me. I immediately perceived that the whole place was filled with the odor of spirituous liquors. The man stood awaiting me, and by his assistance I descended to the floor. As I did so I heard something which sounded like a titter, and looking around I saw in a corner a bundle of clothes and traveling-rugs, near the top of which appeared a pair of eyes. Turning again, I could discern in another corner a second bundle, similar to, but somewhat larger than, the other.

"These ladies are traveling with me," said the man, who was now wrapping about him a large cloak, and who appeared to be of a tall though rather slender figure. His manner and voice were those of a gentleman, extremely courteous and considerate. "As I am sure you are curious – and this I regard as quite natural, sir – to know why we are here, I will at once proceed to inform you. We started yesterday in a carriage for the railway-station, which is, I believe, some miles beyond this point. There were two roads from the last place at which we stopped, and we chose the one which ran along a valley, and which we supposed would be the pleasanter of the two. We there engaged a pair of horses which did not prove very serviceable animals, and, at a point about a hundred yards from where we now are, one of them gave out entirely. The driver declared that the only thing to be done was to turn loose the disabled horse, which would be certain, in time, to find his way back to his stable, and for him to proceed on the other animal to the station to which we were going, where he would procure some fresh horses and return as speedily as possible. To this plan we were obliged to consent, as there was no alternative. He told us that if we did not care to remain in the carriage, there was a shed by the side of the road, a little farther on, which was erected for the accommodation of men who are sometimes here in charge of relays of horses. After assuring us that he would not be absent more than three hours, he rode away, and we have not seen him since.

"Soon after he left us I came to this shed, and finding it tight and comparatively comfortable, I concluded it would give us relief from our somewhat cramped position in the carriage, and so conducted the ladies here. As night drew on it became very cold, and I determined to make a fire, a proceeding which, of course, would have been impossible in a vehicle. Fortunately I had with me, at the back of the carriage, a case of California brandy. By the aid of a stone I knocked the top off this case, and brought hither several of the bottles. I found in the shed an old tin pan, which I filled with the straw coverings of the bottles, and on this I poured brandy, which, being ignited, produced a fire without smoke, but which, as we gathered around it, gave out considerable heat."

As the speaker thus referred to his fuel, I understood the reason of the strong odor of spirits which filled the shed, and I experienced a certain relief in my mind.

The gentleman continued: "At first I attributed the delay of the driver's return to those ordinary hindrances which so frequently occur in rural and out-of-the-way places; but after a time I could not imagine any reasonable cause for his delay. As it began to grow dark I brought here our provision-baskets, and we partook of a slight repast. I then made the ladies as comfortable as possible, and awaited with much anxiety the return of the driver.

"After a time it began to snow, and feeling that the storm might interrupt communication with the carriage, I brought hither, making many trips for the purpose, the rest of the brandy, our wraps and rugs, and the cushions of the carriage. I did not believe that we should be left here all night, but thought it prudent to take all precautions, and to prepare for remaining in a place where we could have a fire. The morning showed me that I had acted wisely. As you know, sir, I found the road in each direction completely blocked up by snow, and I have since been unable to visit the carriage."

"Have you not all suffered from cold?" I inquired. "Have you food enough?"

"I will not say," replied the gentleman, "that in addition to our anxiety we have not suffered somewhat from cold, but for the greater part of this day I have adopted a plan which has resulted in considerable comfort to my companions. I have wrapped them up very closely and warmly, and they hold in each hand a hard-boiled egg. I thought it better to keep these for purposes of warmth than to eat them. About every half-hour I reboil the eggs in a little traveling tea-pot which we have. They retain their warmth for a considerable period, and this warmth in a moderate degree is communicated through the hands to the entire person."

As he said this a low laugh again burst forth from the bundle in one corner of the room, and I could not help smiling at this odd way of keeping warm. I looked toward the jocose bundle, and remarked that the eggs must be pretty hard by this time.

"These ladies," said the gentleman, "are not accustomed to the cold atmosphere of this region, and I have therefore forbidden them to talk, hoping thus to prevent injury from the inhalation of frosty air. So far we have not suffered, and we still have some food left. About noon I noticed smoke floating over this shed, and I forced open the door and made my way for some little distance outside, hoping to discover whence it came. I then heard voices on the other side of the enormous snow-drift behind us; but I could see no possible way of getting over the drift. Feeling that I must, without fail, open communication with any human beings who might be near us, I attempted to shout; but the cold had so affected my voice that I could not do so. I thereupon set my wits to work. At the back of this shed is a small window closed by a wooden shutter. I opened this shutter, and found outside a wall of snow packed closely against it. The snow was not very hard, and I believed that it would not be difficult to tunnel a way through it to the place where the voices seemed to be. I immediately set to work, for I feared that if we were obliged to remain here another night without assistance we should be compelled to-morrow morning to eat those four hard-boiled eggs which the ladies are holding, and which, very shortly, I must boil again."



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