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Weird Tales

SEPTEMBER, 1938

As 'Twas Told to Me

By SEABURY QUINN

A fascinating tale of romance and witchcraft in Puritan New England,
and the fate of a lovely red-haired girl in
that superstitious age
 

"I know not how the truth may be:
I tell the tale as 'twas told to me."
—Bret Harte.

Proem

TWENTY miles from Boston, only nine or ten from Salem as the highway runs, you'll find the place. Burned in the white pine plank that hangs beside the gateway is the legend: "Ye Wishing Welle," and from this purposefully quaint orthography you may be led to think it just another roadside "Tea Shoppe"—until you see the garden. There, behind a hedge of knotty-fingered pear trees, are the beds of phlox and marigold and zinnias, the sweet alyssum, columbine and love-lies-bleeding. In the rustic arbor purple Concords ripen in the sun, and where the climbing roses mask the barkless trunk of a dead tree the stone-curbed well that gives the place its name is ringed around with circle after circle of wild pansy-violets called heartsease.

The house bears out the promise of the garden. As you eat clam chowder made with milk, bacon cooked with country cream and scrod so fresh that you can almost taste the salt of sea spray on it, you look around the big low-ceilinged room and read the history of New England culture. There is a spinning-wheel, of course, and several pieces of mahogany which would be worth a fortune at the antique dealers' in New York, some Persian rugs, a Chinese lacquer highboy, blue china old and fragile as a dream, a Java print blocked in the years when Washington and Jefferson were lads. A flintlock musket hangs against the wall above the fireplace and over it a broadsword from the days of Cromwell's Ironsides. Everywhere are souvenirs of times when Yankee clippers made the Stars and Stripes an emblem known in every bay and estuary of the seven seas, when iron men in wooden ships set out on year-long voyages to bring back tea and pepper, silk, sinament and cloves; sometimes to carry powder, shot and muskets to the Arabs of the slave coast and fetch back cargoes of black ivory for the southern cotton and tobacco fields.

If you have eaten at Ye Wishing Welle enough times to acquire the status of a steady patron, and if you go out there to lunch some afternoon when tourist traffic isn't heavy, Miss Norton the proprietress may find time to exchange a little gossip with you. If she does, you'll have your education broadened. Every stick and bit of furniture and decoration in the house is tied up with the history of the Norton family, and of Massachusetts. The flintlock on the wall was carried by her father's great-grandfather when the Minute Men turned back the Redcoats at Breed's Hill; the broadsword flashed at Naseby when Ironton's regiment broke Prince Rupert's charge; that bit of Java print was brought home by her great-aunt's husband, Joseph Eaton, whose whaling-vessel had been blown out of its course—perhaps, even, she'll tell you of the days when the old wishing-well was newly dug, of Mary Popham and her phantom lover, and the shadow which eclipsed the Colony of Massachusetts Bay when the Powers of Darkness spread their spike-set wings across the sun.

"Mary Popham," says Miss Norton, "was a very pretty girl, and"—her little, thin-lipped mouth will prim down at the corners as she hesitates, for this is an accolade not lightly to be laid on any woman's shoulder by one whose family tree's roots strike deeply in New England's soil—"and, I think, a very good one...

1

THE April sun was up four hours as Mary Popham walked along the Salem Road toward Goody Upsall's cottage. Spring had come early to the colony, and along the creekside willow branches were already showing little tips of green, while in the roadside woods, still bare, but making promise of an early leafage, a robin and his wife were flying all a-twitter as they searched for straws and twigs to build their nest. Judged by any standards Mary Popham was a very pretty girl. She was of medium height with fair, smooth skin, red hair that seemed to have been spun from gold alloyed with copper, gray eyes that in some lights looked green, and small, clear features. Even in her homespun gown of slate-gray linsey-woolsey and her loose leaf-brown cloak of woolen stuff the beauty of her figure was apparent, and the linen cap that hugged her head as tightly as the cupule of an acorn clasps the nut, could not obscure the fact that her bright hair was crinkled into little glistening curls which needed only momentary freedom to run rippling down her back and shoulders in a flashing knee-length cataract. On Sabbath Day when she sat in the meeting-house to hear the Reverend Butler thunder forth the warning of Jehovah's awful wrath or read homilies to heaven disguised (but not too heavily) as prayers, it was to the small Titian curls that clustered at her neck and ears that the young men's eyes went straying, and more times than one the tithingman's stout stick had come down on the luckless yokels' polls to bring their wandering attention back to the pleasant prospect of assured damnation and the dreadful pains of everlasting torment rather than the contemplation of Mistress Mary's aureate ringlets. She had a way of walking with her small chin tilted up which more than once had brought her admonition from the elders of the congregation, and when she stepped it was with swinging, lovely grace.

A hanaper of plaited willow filled with new-baked bread wrapped in a linen napkin swung in her left hand; in the crook of her right arm she bore a crock of milk chilled in the well since yestereve, for Goody Upsall was afflicted with the rheumatism, infirm, half blind and nearly toothless, and the meager living she eked out by gathering simples and compounding nostrums was scarce enough to keep her crumbling roof above her head. The leavened bread and rich, sweet milk would be as great a boon to her as quail and manna had been to the wandering Hebrew children in the wilderness.

"Good morrow! 'Morrow, pretty maid!" Goody Upsall bobbed a creaking curtsy as Mary thrust the gate back with her foot and crossed the little patch of herb-garden that stretched before the door. "There's a good Christian maid, come to bring a poor old woman food. Ay, ay, my pretty one, heaven will requite ye for your charity, never fear. Sit down, dearie"—she motioned to the bench beside the door—"sit down and visit with old Mother Upsall. It's famished that I am for human company these days, for everyone has turned against me, and the ones who used to come to me for herbs and simples come no more; the goodwife walks across the way from me; the boys fling stones whenever I come into view." Her wrinkle-withered lips began to twitch and her bristle-studded chin to tremble as she wiped her rheumy eyes upon her cuff. "Alas, alack, woe me!" she sniveled.

MARY put the bread and milk down on the doorside bancal and looked at the old woman with compassion. The slow, scant tears of age seemed somehow much more pitiful than the easy freshets of young grief. "Why do they treat you thus despitefully?" she asked.

The beldame sniffed and drew her sleeve across her face again. "They say I get my cunning from the Evil One, and it's a wicked lie! When Goodman Kempthorn lay sick o' the quaking fever, who was it cured him when the doctors and the leeches—ay, and Deacon Prowder and the Reverend Butler with their prayin', too!—had failed and gave him up for lost? 'Twas I, old Goody Upsall, did it with my cinquefoil, my saxifrage and pennyroyal. And did they pay me for't? Nay, not they! ''Tis Satan's handiwork, not simple herbs, that done it,' quoth the leeches, and, 'Like as not she laid the sickness on him by her wicked arts, then did but seem to cure with herbs when she took off the spell!' the deacon said, and so they bade me go my ways without a penny's pay or even a civil word o' thanks, and count myself as lucky that they did not speak against me for a witch."

"But that was wicked!" Mary flushed with indignation. "Even if you did use Satan's help—and that I don't believe—the work you did was good. You cured him of his ailment, and they'd promised you a guerdon. 'Twas dishonest to entreat you so!"

The old crone's head wagged back and forth as if it had been set upon a rocker. "Ay, ay, dearie, you say truth," she answered in a piping treble, "but there's none as will take up for poor old Mother Upsall nowadays. Deacon Prowder do be wanting I should sell him my poor house and garden plot for forty shillings, and——"

"Sell your home for forty shillings? But that would scarce buy bread a twelvemonth, and where would you be sheltered with no roof above your head?"

"Why, in the poorhouse, dearie."

"But we have no poorhouse in the parish——"

"Ay, but we have. God's resting-place for all His weary creatures. Have ye not seen it in the shadow o' the meetinghouse?"

Mary's gray-green eyes seemed almost emerald as they opened wide in sudden horror. "That shall not be! 'Twould be a scandal and disgrace to all the neighborhood—ah, the pretty things!" Her indignation broke upon an exclamation of delight as Bessie, Goody Upsall's brindle tabby, stalked soft-footed from the house followed by four wobbly-legged progeny. She scooped the foremost kitten up and held it in her hands, where, after giving her a moment's wide-eyed stare of feline appraisal, it curled itself into a furry ball, dropped lids across its almost sky-blue eyes, and straightway purred itself to sleep. Meanwhile Bessie circled Mary's ankles, rubbed ears and whiskers on the rough wool of her stockings, and having decided she was one who could be trusted, dropped down on the border of her russet woolen cape, turned on her side and proceeded to give nourishment to the three remaining kittens.

A look that was almost akin to tenderness came upon old Goody Upsall's age and trouble-hardened features as she gazed upon the young girl with the kitten in her lap. Wouldst like to have it for thine own?" she asked. "It is a pretty thing, and seems to love the touch of your soft hands."

Mary raised the small gray furry ball and held it to her face, where it rested quietly a moment, then with a plaintive little mew thrust out a quarter-inch of coral tongue and licked her lightly on the tiny nevus-mole that rested like a natural beauty patch just where the line of her small pointed chin sloped from her cheek. "Oh, I should love to have him—see, he seems to love me better than his mother, already——"

A cough, half forced, half reflex, interrupted her as the lengthened shadow of a man fell on the doorstep. "Good morrow, Mistress Popham, morrow, Goodwife Upsall," greeted Deacon Simon Prowder.

Mary neither moved nor spoke, but her eyes appeared more green than ever as she surveyed the deacon and his hired man, John Wharton, with the sort of look she might have bestowed on a pair of slugs found lurking in her currant bushes.

Goody Upsall was upon her splay-boned feet, bowing and bobbing with obsequious hospitality. "Good morrow, Deacon, good morrow, Goodman Wharton, prithee come and set here i' the sun," she brushed the doorside settle with the hem of her dress. "'Tis over-warm for such an early day in April, is it not? I do not think that ever I have seen the sun so bright and warm."

With a motion of his brogan Deacon Prowder swept the nursing cat and kittens from his way and dropped down on the bancal beside Mary.

"Have you thought well on that of which I spake to you last Sabbath, Mistress Popham?" he demanded softly. "'Twould be an enviable thing for you, for even if I be not young I am a man of substance, having lands and goods, and right much worship in the congregation—nay, put the little cat-thing by and hear me——" he stretched a hand...

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