| Boys and Girls of Colonial Days|
|by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey|
|An engaging collection of stories for the younger child, introducing him to activities and occupations of boys and girls in the colonial era. Focuses on children who responded with courage and resourcefulness when faced with unexpected circumstances and whose efforts played a key role in the safeguarding of their families and their communities. Famous personages of the time, including Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, figure in several of the stories. Dozens of detailed black and white illustrations complement the text. Ages 7-9 |
THE BEACON TREE
F you will but help me, Hannah, as a little girl of ten
should, with the candle dipping you will forget to fret
all the day long about the home coming of father and
Nathaniel," Mistress Wadsworth said, laying a kind hand
on the bent head of the little daughter.
All through the long, gray afternoon Hannah had looked
out of the diamond-shaped panes of the window, past the
fields of dried cornstalks that looked as if they were
peopled with ghosts in their garments of snow, and
toward the forest of pointed green firs beyond. She
turned from the window now, as her mother spoke to her,
and looked up bravely, trying to smile.
"You are quite as anxious about dear brother Nathaniel
and father as I am," she said. "It is now two weeks
since they started away with the sledge to bring us
back the wood for the winter. Father said that it would
take him no longer than ten days at the utmost. Brother
Nathaniel is only twelve, and young for so hard a
journey. There have been storms, and there are
Indians—" a sob caught the little girl's voice.
 It was Mistress Wadsworth's turn to look out now with
saddened eyes through the window and into the falling
twilight of the New England winter.
"Your father said that he would be home for Christmas
Day," she said, "and he will keep his word unless some
ill befalls them. In the meantime, we will make the
candles. Then the house will be brighter to welcome
them than when we burn only pine knots. To-night,
Hannah, we will measure the candle wicking for we shall
be busy the greater part of to-morrow with the
As the two, both mother and little daughter dressed in
the long, straight frocks of dark homespun and the
white caps that were worn in those long-ago days, bent
over the pine table after supper, they looked very much
alike. The fire in the great brick fireplace had a
sticky, pitchy lump of firewood upon the top. It was a
pine knot, and the only light in the room. It flickered
upon the bright rag rugs of the floor and the painted
chairs with their scoured rush seats and on the green
settle, making a pleasant, cheerful glow. They tried
not to hear the wind that howled down the chimney, or
think of the beloved father and little brother who were
so far away in a bleak lumber clearing.
Measuring the wicks for the tallow candles was so
painstaking a task that Mistress Wadsworth did it
herself; Hannah, standing beside her, only
 watched. She stuck an old iron fork straight up in the
soft wood of the table some eight inches from the edge.
Around it she threw half a dozen loops of the soft
candle wicking. She cut these loops off evenly at the
edge of the table. Then she measured and cut more until
she had made several dozen, all exactly the same
length. As she worked, they talked together of what
Hannah most loved to hear about, Christmas in her dear
mother's girlhood home, merry England.
"They had polished brass sconces fastened everywhere to
the walls," Mistress Wadsworth said. She could almost
see the bright scene in the dim shadows cast by the
pine knots. In every sconce there would be tall white
candles. We burned more candles in a night that we can
afford to burn in a month now," she sighed.
"And there was a fir tree from the forest brought into
the hall for the children," Hannah continued, for she
knew the story well. "There were candles on the tree,
lighted and shining. Oh, it must have been a pretty
sight to see the children dance about the Christmas
tree and sing their carols! We never have Christmas
trees with candles in this new land, do we mother?
Why?" she asked.
"The Governor decrees that we shall not continue the
customs of the land that have left so far behind,"
Mistress Wadsworth replied, but with
 another sigh. "And now to bed, little daughter, for we
shall be busy indeed on the morrow."
When morning came, Hannah found that her mother had
worked after she had gone to bed, twisting and doubling
each candle wick and slipping through the loop a candle
rod. This rod was a stick like a lead pencil but over
three times as long. Six wicks hung from each rod. They
looked, Hannah thought, as if they were so many little
clothes lines. Then the big iron kettle filled with
clean white tallow was swung on a heavy iron hook in
the fireplace. As the tallow melted, Mistress Wadsworth
directed Hannah as she tipped down two straight backed
chairs and placed two long poles across them like the
sides of a ladder with no rungs. Across these were laid
the candle rods with their hanging wicks. Then the
kettle was taken from the fire and set on the wide
hearth, and the pleasant task of the candle dipping was
One at a time, Hannah took the candle rods carefully by
their ends and dipped the wicks for a second in the
melted tallow. Then she put it back between the chairs
to dry and took up another rod, dipping the wicks in
the same way. When the last wicks had been dipped, the
first ones were dry enough to dip again. With each
dipping, the candles grew plump and straight and white.
One candle rod, though, Hannah dipped only once in
 times. When her mother noticed this she said, "Little
daughter, you are neglecting six of the candles. See
how small they are!"
Hannah ran over, threw her arms about her mother's neck
and whispered something in her ear. Mistress Wadsworth
shook her head at first; then she smiled.
"It can do no harm that I see," she said. "It will be
only a child's play before Christmas and no cause for
the Governor's displeasure. Yes, little daughter, if
you wish. If it brings joy to your sorrowful heart, I
shall be glad."
When the candle dipping was over and the precious
candles were laid away to be burned only if the father
and little Nathaniel came home, Hannah slipped six, as
small as Christmas tree candles, from one rod and
wrapped them carefully in a bit of fair white linen.
They were her little candles, to be used as she wished.
The days, white with snow and very cold, wore on until
it was only a week before the blessed Christmas day.
There were slight preparations for it in the little New
England settlement where Hannah lived for it was not
thought fitting to be merry and gay at Christmas time
these centuries ago. But at the small white
meeting-house Hannah and the other little colonist
children practiced a carol to be sung on Christmas Day.
"Shout to Jehovah, all the earth,
Serve ye Jehovah, with gladness;
Before him bow, singing with mirth."
The children sang it as it was pitched by the elder's
tuning fork, and the tune was slow and dirge like. The
tears came again to Hannah's eyes as she tried to sing,
for no word had come as yet of father and Nathaniel. A
runner to the village brought word a few days before of
attacks by the Indians on near-by parties of wood
cutters. Could they have encountered the party with
whom were father and Nathaniel, she thought?
But Hannah's secret kept her happy! A few days before
Christmas she went to a near-by bit of woodland. She
carried the old hatchet that Nathaniel had left at
home, and she looked over the young fir trees until she
found one that was well shaped, tiny, and as green as
green could be. She chopped and hacked at the roots
until she cut down the little tree. Then she tugged it
home. As she held its prickly needles close to her warm
 cloak she whispered, "You are not to bear gifts little
Christmas tree, because that would not be right; only
candles to light the way home for dear father and
At last it was three days before Christmas and evening
in the little New England village. The town crier had
taken his way through the narrow main street early in
the afternoon,—a dismal enough looking figure in
his long, black cloak and tall, black hat, and ringing
"Lost, in all probability, lost," he called. "This
Christmas time," and then he gave the toll of names of
the men and boys who had started out so many weeks
before on the ill-fated lumber trip and from whom no
word had come. As he reached the names, "Goodman,
Wadsworth, little Nathaniel Wadsworth," Mistress
Wadsworth cowered in front of the fire, her bowed head
in her hands. But Hannah kissed her gently for comfort,
and took out the little tallow candles that she had
dipped. Then she set up the tiny fir tree, with the
lighted Christmas candles, in front of the window that
looked out upon the main street.
Now the village was black with the night. The fires
were low, and the barred doors and windows shut in
Hannah's and her mother's sadness. The long street was
white with snow. A few glimmering stars shed a fitful
path of light down it, but the
 houses were like so many tightly-closed eyes. They
could hardly be seen at all.
It was almost ten o'clock when an Indian boy, little
Fleet-as-an-Arrow, like a flash of color in the dark of
night, darted down the street. He was wrapped from head
to foot in his scarlet blanket. He was panting. His
bare limbs were cold. He had come a long, long way
without food since morning, but he did not stop running
now that he was nearing his goal. The dim little town
frightened him, though. He had never been in so strange
a place before. The home that little Fleet-as-an-Arrow
knew was a wide plain with a background of forests; his
 was a painted wigwam; and his light was a camp fire.
But he pressed against his heart a bit of white birch
bark upon which a little white boy of his own age,
brought to the camp a captive with a band of prisoners,
had printed strange characters. It was not like the
picture writing of the tribe, but it must be important
for all that, Fleet-as-an-Arrow knew. The little white
boy, whom this little Indian boy had grown to love like
his own brother, had begged him to carry the writing to
"Go the North," he had said. So Fleet-as-an-Arrow had
watched the moss on the trees and followed the north
star. Here he was but how could he tell in which of all
these strange wigwams the mother of his little white
Suddenly Fleet-as-an-Arrow's dark eyes flashed into a
smile. At the end of the street a bright light
attracted him. He ran on, bravely following it. Of all
the windows in the whole village this was the only one
that was unbarred, and where the curtains were parted.
As he came nearer the light, Fleet-as-an-Arrow's heart
almost stopped beating for admiration and wonder. Never
in all his twelve years had the little Indian boy seen
a sight like this. It was an evergreen tree such as he
knew and loved in his own home forest, but it was
covered with glimmering, sparkling, starry lights.
There it stood, Hannah's Christmas tree, the little
 drawing Fleet-as-an-Arrow with Nathaniel's message like
He stopped at the door and beat the heavy oak panels
with his half-frozen, brown little hands. When Mistress
Wadsworth, followed closely by Hannah, opened it,
frightened and dazed at the strange visit in the night,
Fleet-as-an-Arrow looked at them a minute on the
threshold. In the light of the little Christmas tree he
could see Hannah's pink cheeks and wide-open, blue eyes
and the pale
 gold braids of her hair. Why, she looked like the boy
that he had left in the Indian's camp,
Fleet-as-an-Arrow saw. He knew now that he had found
the right place. He went inside and pulled the message,
written with a bit of charcoal in scrawling letters on
the square of birch bark, from beneath his blanket.
Then he thrust it into Mistress Wadsworth's hands. She
read it in the glow of the fire.
"We are safe, but the Indians will not let us go
without gifts of beads and corn. Send some men to fetch
With a glad cry, Mistress Wadsworth put her arms about
the little Indian boy. Then, while she put on her
bonnet and cloak and lighted the big, brass lantern,
Hannah drew Fleet-as-an-Arrow up to the fire and
brought him food. Running with her lantern from one
sleeping house to another, Mistress Wadsworth soon
roused the men of the village who organized themselves
into a rescuing party.
When the first pale pink of the morning sun tinged the
sky, the party, with the gifts which the Indians
demanded as a ransom for their captives, was on its
way. They carried Little Fleet-as-an-Arrow in front as
Such a Christmas Eve as it was. Father and Nathaniel,
ragged and hungry, but safe, were home
 in time! Two of the large tallow candles in the
polished brass candlesticks shone on the mantelpiece
over the fireplace, and Hannah lighted the little
Christmas tree again. She and brother Nathaniel, hands
clasped happily together, sat in its light, so glad to
be together again that they needed neither gifts nor
sweets to make their Christmas joy.
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