Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
The Trail of the Maine Pioneer
A Mystery of the Bagaduce
By MARY DUNBAR DEVEREUX
UPON the hill just above the little settlement of Majabaguaduce, in the District of Maine, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, stood Master Pelatiah Beach, overlooking the town and the Bagaduce River whose mouth formed the harbor of that quaint old port — old over a century ago. He looked out over the slope at his feet, the river and the hills beyond, now covered with the first snows of the season, then he turned toward the yoke of oxen, driven by the serving man plodding at their heads and bound for the home above the "Narrows," where his tidy, cleared farm and pasture land, with its rude but roomy log house and barns, betokened the energy and thrift of the young man.
Off to his left rose the walls of Fort George, on this last evening of November, 1783, yet occupied by the Redcoats who, four years previously, had defeated the Patriot army and fleet collected to oppose Gen. McLean's occupation.
The approach of an officer with three men did not at all disconcert Beach as the garrison had been friendly toward the inhabitants, excepting in a few instances, and from them, sturdy, plodding, but shrewd Pelatiah Beach had gotten no little revenue by the sale of produce. His servant had just discharged the last of many loads of provisions given in exchange for English coin. He responded in neighborly fashion to the greeting of the officer and, after some minutes of conversation concerning the prospect for to-morrow, the coming cold season, and the harbor and Bay of Penobscot so well known to him, Beach was turning to follow his ox team, when suddenly he felt the officer's hand laid in authority and command upon his arm
"We are leaving for Halifax on the morrow, Master Beach, and have need of a pilot down your Bay of Penobscot," said the officer. "In the king's name follow me into the presence of our general!"
In vain Beach protested. Not even allowed to recall his man, now out of sight over the hill leading from the Peninsula of Pentagoet, or to communicate in any way with his family, he was hurried over to the barracks whence, at dawn, the British embarked in His Majesty's ships for Halifax, and not for more than two years was Pelatiah Beach seen again in his native District of Maine.
Meanwhile, his mother and young wife, with her little ones, were rudely startled from their busy life of quiet security, first, by the failure of the son and husband to return with the shadows of evening and by the servant's report that his master was last seen in Converse with British officers. Later, their alarm and distress were increased by news from the port that watching townsfolk had seen Pelatiah Beach marched under guard to the landing, at daybreak, and embarked upon H. M. Ship "Greyhound" with the last company of Redcoats.
Was he to be punished, perhaps shot, for some fancied wrong? Was he a hostage, or held for ransom in spite of the recent treaty of peace? Or had he merely been taken as a pilot down the Bay on account of his well-known knowledge of its waters? In this last case he might be landed and return home within a few days, and for this his family hoped until, learning that the "Greyhound" had been grounded for some hours in the Reach below, but had later proceeded, the chance that he might be accused of wilfully endangering the fleet seemed to destroy their last hopes.
Days, weeks, months passed, and he returned not; neither was any word of his fate received, and friends and neighbors became convinced that Mistress Beach was a widow and her babes fatherless. But if they anticipated helpless need on the part of the family, they were happily disappointed. The young wife, of slight, girlish figure, with softly rounded cheek in which the rose of youth strove with creamy pallor, her dark hair wavy and lustrous above the broad, low brow and brilliant dark eyes, a girl in appearance, proved herself a strong and brave woman in adversity.
She had been reared more softly and with more culture than her neighbors for at New Falmouth (Portland), even in those early days girls met less of the rough life of pioneer folk, more of the refinements of the town. Mistress Mary — or "Polly" as the Marys of those days were usually called, having already learned from Mother Beach all the skill of the country housewife, now proved that she could direct the farm work as well. The preparation for the long, cold winter was completed, the stock housed, cellars and barns banked with fir boughs against mid-winter frosts; and when spring came at last tardily out of the South, the little heroine planned, directed and assisted in all the planting, cultivating and harvesting of her crops, not one of her neighbors having sleeker cattle or better produce for table or market than she.
Thus a year passed and another, and still no word of Master Pelatiah Beach! Yet another winter was passing from the Penobscot. Majabaguaduce was busy and stirring. Fishing had proved lucrative, and the lumbering pursuits offered in the region were drawing new settlers and calling home those who had fled during the British occupation. The renewal of land grants gave added impetus to immigration.
* * *
On a late March day of 1786, when spring promised in the warmth of the sun's rays and in the melting snows and bare brown hillsides and the faint breeze just rippled the waters and haltingly filled the sails of the ships in the harbor of Majabaguaduce, a newly arrived trader dropped her anchor in front of the Town Landing at the foot of the main street. Presently a boat put out from the ship's side; the occupants landed, drew their boat upon the beach and walked up into the little settlement.
One man, taller and broader than any one of the others and the last to land, followed his companions briskly for a few rods, then paused to look about, to turn again to the harbor, to gaze off across the water toward the opposite shore, either as if recalling scenes once familiar or, it might be, fixing in mind a picture never beheld before. Meeting a group of citizens, talking animatedly of the recent expulsion of some who had been inimical to the Patriots' cause during the Revolution and of the new grants of land to incoming settlers, the newcomer again paused, then moved forward as if he would have passed the group in silence.
But Capt. Jeremiah Bardwell stepped forward with amazement and welcome in his bluff countenance.
"Why, Pel Beach! Are ye risen from the dead'?" he shouted.
"As sure as I am Jeremiah Bardwell and these men, Dave Willson and Gabril Jahonnot, here is Pel Beach come back to life! Welcome home, old neighbor! — Won't this give Mistress Polly a start! And Bill Hutchins saying no longer ago than last Sabbath that a pity it was such a fine young woman had not yet taken a second husband to help her manage the farm and the children, with Pel dead and gone these two years and more! Welcome home!"
Handshakings followed, and Capt. Perkins with Mr. Aaron Banks also came forward to meet the long absent citizen.
Soon it was noised up and down the street that Pelatiah Beach of the farm up the Bagaduce had come back from prison in Halifax or England — or was it Ireland? — and from voyaging to the West Indies and had just arrived on the Brig Polly from Boston. Several others hastened at the news to greet the traveler; and so in homely converse passed an hour or two, the wanderer joining only occasionally with remark or question, but listening to and watching intently all that went on about him.
Capt. Bardwell took him hospitably into his company and presently led their steps from the town up over the hill whence, two years before, Pelatiah Beach had been taken by the British officer. At the cove back of the peninsula they embarked in the Captain's skiff and rowed stoutly up the river, Capt. Jeremiah, whose home lay far up the Bagaduce, talking volubly of the changes in family or fortune in each homestead which they passed. He landed the traveler at "The Eddy" just below the famous Bagaduce Narrows, promising to call soon to see his old neighbor, and then rowed swiftly up stream with the current.
Left to himself, the wanderer stood, almost hesitating to take the road dimly marked before him and bounded here and there by humble homesteads. He had passed on for a thoughtful ten minutes when he paused again in the light of the setting sun, doubtful, undecided. Did he even turn back to gaze down the river as if he would retrace his route to the Port and leave the Bagaduce region forever? Had the absence and the cold of winter and loneliness entered his soul and frozen even the love of home and kindred?
The smell of the bare brown sods at his feet came up with the promise of spring and of hope and courage. The sunset threw a warm radiance on the whole countryside. The bleating of new-born lambs and their dams at a nearby barn was heard. Ah! such homely sights and sounds of coming life and joy! And, in the slender little birches by the roadside, suddenly a little black-capped chickadee started his spring song — the bird's brave little note of courage and promise! It seemed like a welcome home.
The man passed on, by the low farmhouses of several old neighbors, pausing at each to look, to murmur a word or two under his breath as if conning an oft-repeated lesson, and so on to the homestead of the Beaches. Again he paused ere he walked up the path from the high-road and, as he reached his own door, it opened to allow the passage of the same serving man who had accompanied Master Beach on that momentous trip to the port, two years before. The fellow stared a moment at the strange figure, peered doubtfully again, then, dropping the milking pails which he held in either hand, he turned back shouting, "The Lord be praised, Pel Beach has come home!"
The ruddy glow from the fire of logs on the hearth within shone upon Pelatiah Beach, standing upon his own threshhold, and lit up the scene within — the children in a curious and interested group, Mother Beach in her wide arm-chair, her whitened hair smooth over the wrinkled brow, her hands now raised in amazed welcome of the long lost son, — and Mistress Polly, as if stunned with the suddenness of the shock, as if petrified by the apparition of the husband so long mourned and in whose loss she had steadily refused quite to believe. She stood white-faced, wide-eyed, with her beautiful dark hair framing that center of life in the fire-lighted room for a full minute, and then sank unconscious upon the hearth-rug.
Joy and anxiety were mingled in the hours, days and weeks following, when the wife tossed in delirium and neighbors and family vied with each other in efforts to restore her and to coax back the dauntless spirit whom all loved so well. Through all these weeks, at first timidly and remorsefully, had Pelatiah Beach added his services in caring for the stricken woman, gradually assuming the direction and the children shall be as proud of their home as of their beautiful mother. All the roots and shrubs of your garden shall be transplanted by the new house and, please God, we shall live there long together."
The master's words were fulfilled and "New House" with its barns and stables soon rose, facing the river, a house large and pretentious for the place and times, with wide fireplaces in kitchen and living room, white-sanded floors, small-paned, low windows and rude furnishing, varied here and there by pieces of finer make, brought from Boston by oft-coming ships. On the narrow mantel above the fireplace of the living room stood two small pictures on glass, set off with gilt and flanked with the pink-lipped conches brought by West Indian traders, and on the nearby wall hung a mirror with cable pattern frame in the upper section of which was set the picture of a ship in full sail. A corner cupboard stood in an angle of the room, displaying a fine array of pewter with a few rarer pieces of India china brought from over-seas. A piece of framed shell work hung over the master's mahogany "secretary" and against another wall stood a tall chest of drawers, also of solid mahogany, while at one side of the fireplace a high backed settle added the last touch to this quaint interior. Over this establishment ruled Mistress Mary Beach and her husband — "The Major" as he came to be universally called, from his connection with the neighborhood militia.
* * *
Master Beach of former years had been a sturdy and reliable young farmer; but "The Major" became the leading business man and authority of the town of Penobscot, incorporated in 1787 from ancient Pentagoet, — a man looked up to, honored, but feared by some and a puzzle to many. How changed from himself of former years! His manner had become that of a man of the world, and it much perplexed his simple country neighbors. Even his speech had changed, and tones never heard before entered into it.
"Why," said Capt. Bardwell, "if I didn't know 'twas Pel Beach, I'd think another man had come back in his skin."
"His very skin is changed," declared Mistress Bardwell in response. "Who ever heard before of black hair turning red?"
Indeed, since his return, the Major's hair had always shown streaks of dark auburn and reddish glints which even his wife did not recall in his youth, that wavy and beautiful hair which remained always abundant and glossy and lent a physical charm to the Major's otherwise rugged and stern face.
The months passed and the years, but never could the Major be persuaded to reveal the particulars of his wanderings nor even in what lands he had spent the period of his absence. Any inquiry on the subject seemed to provoke his wrath and suspicion. A passionately loving and hating soul, a keen business man and honored with the highest local posts of trust and responsibility, he ever remained a mystery to those about him. Even "New House" wore an air of secrecy and his shrewd countrymen sometimes hinted that the Major came not home empty-handed, even though an English prison had bound him during his stay abroad.
Bagaduce Narrows from "The Eddys"
Warm Cove — part of the Major's Farm
Mills Point Along the Bagaduce
Of a Sabbath morning when the Major and Mistress Beach walked out to hear the Rev. Jonathan Powers preach at the church on the hill, an air of poise and distinction separated them from others of the congregation. The Major's commanding mien, his skirted coat, knee breeches, buckled shoes and powdered hair tied with black ribbon, savored more of the town than of the farm, while beside him Mistress Mary, in dove-colored crape gown, lace tucker, silk mantle and white bonnet with ostrich plumes, was acknowledged the handsomest woman along The Bagaduce.
But, as years passed, the Major's peculiarities were accentuated and the distrust which a few had expressed, even as to his identity, grew acute.
"Strange," said Capt. Whitney at the Neck, "that Major Beach knows the harbor of Martinique better than I recalled it during our recent conversation, and, too, he chanced to mention the Goodwin Sands as if he knew the navigation of the Thames equally well. He must have travelled much between his release from an English prison and his return home! Yes, passing strange!"
"The new Pelatiah Beach is ten times the man he was before he saw something of the world; but why will he never speak of his imprisonment, his escape or his many experiences?" quoth the Rev. Mr. Powers.
"He's not Pel Beach, but another man in his shoes," said Uncle Bill Hutchins.
"The Major bargained with the Devil for his freedom and sometimes the Devil gets him," declared Nat Rhoads, the innocent of the hamlet whose sayings, however, sometimes had the strange and uncanny force of truth.
Even his wife sighed often and said that the Major's hardships in prison had rendered him flighty and irascible, almost like another man at times; but she always ended by pointing to a tiny miniature of herself in her bridal dress, painted at New Falmouth by a wandering artist and declaring that the picture proved his truth and devotion, for it was carried in his pockets during his long absence and it was the only treasure that he brought home.
"He stole it from the other Pel Beach!" declared blunt Mrs. Veazie who hated the Major cordially for cursing her in cattle. This half-told, half-hinted story, never wholly died away n the years when his family grew up, married and settled about the town and the happenings of Revolutionary days became but fireside reminiscences of the older citizens.
* * *
No longer was it June but it was harvest time along The Bagaduce and the first frosts had glorified the maples and oaks and lined the roadsides with purple asters. The harvest moon shone full on the front of "New House" and, solemn and unrebuked, looked into the windows of the low living room upon the last of the Major's nights above the sods of his hillside farm. He lay stark and quiet in his coffin and by his side stood Mistress Beach, candle in hand, taking a quiet farewell of the husband loved and honored so well. She stood, still straight and lithe and alert, beauty hardly dimmed in her grief-blanched face, her eyes still gloriously dark and overarched by brows a painter might love to copy, her dark hair, despite her fifty-five years, wavy and beautiful. The touch of frost on the temples after all, was only a touch, glorifying the face which the harvest-moon caressed.
Great-grandmother Beach placed her palm softly upon the cold hands which never before had failed to respond to hers, and silently thanked God for her life with this strong, stern lover. In a moment she reviewed very much of all those years, but she thought especially of that long absence and of the return that at times seemed, even to her, to be the coming of a different man and the beginning of her own love-life and his. Was there still a doubt in her mind that he really was the husband of her youth, or his double come to take his place and a far greater place in her life and the world's? She stretched out her hand to push back the heavy hair, lately showing gray upon his temples and concealed in which he had in his youth laughingly shown her a dark birthmark which he said would identify him, living or dead. But great-grandmother Beach cast aside in scorn her own lingering doubt even in the act of removing it by proof. She laid her hand gently, for an instant, on those thick gray locks, then slowly turned to gaze across the moonlit fields to the open grave awaiting the master by the side of the little lad — the child of their later union — who had gleefully laughed through three years of adorable babyhood and then been laid in the family burying ground on the river bank.
* * *
The summer of her life and love was over even to the harvest and frosts of death. Though great-grandmother Beach lived on for twenty years, calmly and nobly, in the larger sense her life ended when the stern, sin-scarred and irascible soul of Pelatiah Beach went to its last accounting.
For a century Major Beach has slept his quiet sleep on the hillside overlooking the Narrows and the Upper Bagaduce. For nearly as long his wife, Mary, has slept by his side — an hundred years with their early December darkness and snows; an hundred years with their lingering winters, broken by the brave little song of the chickadee and the tardy south wind creeping over the ocean and upon the icy shores of New England; an hundred Junes with their sudden surprise of bloom and glow and gladness, the low summer moon reflecting in the quiet waters, and the cry of the nesting loons echoing afar from the reedy marsh by the river bank; an hundred Septembers with their fruitage and the sweet odors of orchard and meadow and cornfield, the early flame on the maples and the spike of ladies' tresses over the mown fields where the tang of autumn is felt even while summer lingers; an hundred years and the mystery in the lives of the tenants of those low green houses has never been solved!
Still stands, higher upon the hillside, "New House" which was their home — staunch and sturdy — still a home with the open doors of hospitality and neighborliness, still welcoming back each summer the fifth generation of the descendants of Pelatiah Beach.
On a bright, cool September morning of 1915, the Major's great-granddaughter sat before his desk of mellow old mahogany, sat in the Major's solid arm-chair, fingering the knobs and handles of that old desk, familiar to her from earliest childhood but never quite losing its awe-inspiring aspect. She glanced from the windows out over the hillside and across the river, musing of those old days when great-grandfather was young and had been carried off by the Redcoats; of when he had looked out upon this same scene or had sat on the same spot, quill in hand and intent on public or private business.
Suddenly her attention was drawn to the fact that one little drawer, just pulled out, seemed a bit more shallow than its face would indicate, and pressing the bottom of that drawer, she found that it slipped back easily, disclosing a second bottom and between them a shallow space only an eighth of an inch deep, but containing a neatly folded sheet, yellowed with age, yet otherwise as if just sealed and laid there. She took it up wonderingly and found on its outer fold, in the neat but bold hand familiar from her perusal of many of the Penobscot town records as the writing of Major Beach, these words:
"When I am dead, for the eyes of my wife, Mary Beach," and in addition, — "What I never could tell you —but I know that your love is great and that you will forgive both my sins and my silence — Pelatiah Beach."
That was all and a date just an hundred years before. Turning the folded paper, she found it still sealed with the bit of red wax as the Major had left it.
The Major's secret, the mystery of his life, lay in her hand, superscribed, "For the eyes of my wife." It was not possible that the crevice had been unknown to great-grandmother Beach. It was not probable that she had never discovered the paper and read its inscription, but she must have postponed or repudiated the act of uncovering what her husband had all his life hidden from her. Perhaps she had postponed it from time to time until death had come to tell her all — or nothing!
* * *
The wax crackled under the pressure of the fingers holding it, but it was still guarding the Major's message to his wife! "For the eyes of my wife," whispered that wife's great-granddaughter; and she dropped the paper, still unopened, into the brisk blaze on the hearth beside which the Major and Mistress Polly had spent so many evenings in the far-away past.
The tale of that man's wanderings, of his sins or perchance his crime, would never be known. It would remain forever a mystery of The Bagaduce.