Punctually at six o'clock Hiel's two-horses, with all their bells jingling, stood at the door of the parsonage, whence Tom and Bill, who had been waiting with caps and mittens on for the last half hour, burst forth with irrepressible shouts of welcome.

"Take care now, boys; don't haul them buffalo skins out on t' the snow," said Hiel. "Don't get things in a muss gen'ally; wait for your ma and the Doctor. Got to stow the grown folks in fust; boys kin hang on anywhere."

And so first came Mrs. Cushing and the Doctor, and were installed on the back seat, with Dolly in between. Then hot bricks were handed in to keep feet warm, and the buffalo robe was tucked down securely. Then Nabby took her seat by Hiel in front, and the sleigh drove round for old Mrs. Jones. The Doctor insisted on giving up his place to her and tucking her warmly under the buffalo robe, while he took the middle seat and acted as moderator between the boys, who were in a wild state of hilarity. Spring, with explosive barks, raced first on this and then on that side of the sleigh as it flew swiftly over the smooth frozen road.

The stars blinked white and clear out of a deep blue sky, and the path wound up-hill among cedars and junipers and clumps of mountain laurel, on whose broad green leaves the tufts of snow lay like clusters of white roses. The keen clear air was full of stimulus and vigor; and so Hiel's proposition to take the longest way met with enthusiastic welcome from all the party. Next to being a bird, and having wings, is the sensation of being borne over the snow by a pair of spirited horses who enjoy the race, apparently, as much as those they carry. Though Hiel contrived to make the ride about eight miles, it yet seemed but a short time before the party drove up to the great red farm-house, whose lighted windows sent streams of radiant welcome far out into the night.

The fire that illuminated the great kitchen of the farm-house was a splendid sight to behold. It is, alas, with us only a vision and memory of the past; for who in our days can afford to keep up the great fire-place, where the back-logs were cut from the giants of the forest and the fore-stick was as much as a modern man could lift? And then the glowing fire-place built thereon! That architectural pile of split and seasoned wood, over which the flames leaped and danced and crackled like rejoicing genii—what a glory it was! The hearty, bright, warm hearth in those days stood instead of fine furniture and handsome pictures. The plainest room becomes beautiful and attractive by fire-light, and when men think of a country and home to be fought for and defended they think of the fireside.

Mr. Timothy Hawkins was a thrifty farmer and prided himself on always having the best, and the fire that was crackling and roaring up the chimney that night was, to use a hackneyed modern expression, a "work of art." The great oak back-log had required the strength of four men to heave it into its place; and above that lay another log scarcely less in size; while the fore-stick was no mean bough of the same tree. A bed of bright solid coals lay stretched beneath, and the lighter blaze of the wood above was constantly sending down contributions to this glowing reservoir.

Of course, on an occasion like this, the "best room" of the house was open, with a bright fire lighting up the tall brass andirons, and revealing the neatly-fitted striped carpet of domestic manufacture, and the braided rugs, immortal monuments of the never-tiring industry of the housewife. Here first the minister and his wife and Dolly were inducted with some ceremony, but all declared their immediate preference of the big kitchen, where the tubs of rosy apples and golden quinces were standing round, and young men, maids, and matrons were taking their places to assist in the apple-bee.

If the Doctor was a welcome guest in the stately circles of Poganuc Center, he was far more at home in these hearty rural gatherings. There was never the smallest room for jealousy, on the part of his plainer people, that he cared more for certain conventional classes of society than for them, because all instinctively felt that in heart he was one of themselves. Like many of the educated men of New England, he had been a farmer's boy in early days, and all his pleasantest early recollections were connected with that simple, wholesome, healthful, rural life. Like many of the New England clergy, too, he was still to some extent a practical farmer, finding respite from brain labor in wholesome out-door work. His best sermons were often thought out at the plow or in the corn-field, and his illustrations and enforcements of truth were those of a man acquainted with real life and able to interpret the significance of common things. His people felt a property in him as their ideal man—the man who every Sunday expressed for them, better than they could, the thoughts and inquiries and aspirations which rose dimly in their own minds.

"I could ha' said all that myself ef I'd only hed the eddication; he puts it so one can see it can't be no other way," was the comment once made on a sermon of the Doctor's by a rough but thoughtful listener; and the Doctor felt more pleased with such applause than even the more cultured approval of Judge Belcher.

In the wide, busy kitchen there was room enough for all sorts of goings on. The Doctor was soon comfortably seated, knee to knee, in a corner with two or three controversial-looking old farmers, who were attacking some of the conclusions of his last Sunday's sermon. Of the two results, the Doctor always preferred a somewhat combative resistance to a sleepy assent to his preaching, and nothing delighted him more than a fair and square argumentative tilt, showing that the points he made had been taken.

But while the Doctor in his corner discussed theology, the young people around the tubs of apples were having the very best of times.

The apple, from the days of Mother Eve and the times of Paris and Helen, has been a fruit full of suggestion and omen in the meetings of young men and maidens; and it was not less fruitful this evening. Our friend Hiel came to the gathering with a full consciousness of a difficult and delicate part to be sustained. It is easy to carry on four or five distinct flirtations when one is a handsome young stage-driver and the fair objects of attention live at convenient distances along the route. But when Almiry Ann, and Lucindy Jane, and Lucretia, and Nabby are all to be encountered at one time, what is a discreet young man to do?

Hiel had come to the scene with an armor of proof in the shape of a new patent apple-peeler and corer, warranted to take the skin from an apple with a quickness and completeness hitherto unimaginable. This immediately gave him a central position and drew an admiring throng about him. The process of naming an apple for each girl, and giving her the long ribbon of peel to be thrown over her head and form fateful initial letters on the floor, was one that was soon in vigorous operation, with much shrieking and laughing and opposing of claims among the young men, all of whom were forward to claim their own initials when the peeling was thrown by the girl of their choice. And Hiel was loud in his professions of jealousy when by this mode of divination Almira Smith was claimed to be secretly favoring Seth Parmelee, and Nabby's apple-peeling thrown over her head formed a cabalistic character which was vigorously contended for both by Jim Sawin and Ike Peters. As the distinction between an I and a J is of a very shadowy nature, the question apparently was likely to remain an open one; and Hiel declared that it was plain that nobody cared for him, and that he was evidently destined to be an old bachelor.

It may be imagined that this sprightly circle of young folks were not the ones most particularly efficient in the supposed practical labors of the evening. They did, probably, the usual amount of work done by youths and maids together at sewing societies, church fairs and other like occasions, where by a figure of speech they are supposed to be assisting each other. The real work of the occasion was done by groups of matrons who sat with their bright tin pans in lap, soberly chatting and peeling and cutting, as they compared notes about pies and puddings and custards, and gave each other recipes for certain Eleusinian mysteries of domestic cookery.

Yet, let it not be supposed that all these women thought of nothing but cookery, for in the corner where the minister was talking were silent attentive listeners, thoughtful souls, who had pushed their chairs nearer, and who lost not a word of the discussion on higher themes. Never was there a freer rationalism than in the inquiries which the New England theology tolerated and encouraged at every fireside. The only trouble about them was that they raised awful questions to which there is no answer, and when the Doctor supposed he had left a triumphant solution of a difficulty he had often left only a rankling thorn of doubt.

A marked figure among the Doctor's circle of listeners is Nabby's mother. A slight figure in a dress of Quakerlike neatness, a thin old delicate face, with its aureole of white hair and its transparent cap-border—the expression of the face a blending of thoughtful calmness and invincible determination. Her still, patient blue eyes looked as if they habitually saw beyond things present to some far off future. She was, in fact, one of those quiet, resolute women whose power lay more in doing than in talking. She had passed, through the gate of silence and self-abnegation, into that summer-land where it is always peace, where the soul is never more alone, because God is there.

Now, as she sits quietly by, not a word escapes her of what her minister is saying; for though at her husband's command she has left her church, her heart is still immovably fixed in its old home.

Her husband had stubbornly refused to join the social circle, though cordially invited. However, he offered no word of comment or dissent when his wife departed with all her sons to the gathering. With her boys, Mary Higgins was all-powerful. They obeyed the glance of her eye; they listened to her softest word as they never heeded the stormy imperiousness of their father.

She looks over with satisfaction to where her boys are joining with full heart in the mirth of the young people, and is happy in their happiness. The Doctor comes and sits beside her, and inquires after each one; and the measure of her content is full. She does not need to explain to him why she has left her church; she sees that he understands her position and her motives; but she tells him her heart and her hopes, her ambition for her darling son, Abner, who alone of all her boys has the passion for learning and aspires toward a college education; and the Doctor bids her send her boy to him and he will see what can be done to help him on his way. More talk they have, and more earnest, on things beyond the veil of earth—on the joy that underlies all the sorrows of this life and brightens the life beyond—and the Doctor feels that in the interview he has gained more than he has given.

Long before the evening was through, the task of apple-cutting was accomplished, the tubs and pans cleared away, and the company sat about the fire discussing the nuts, apples and cider which were passed around, reinforced by doughnuts and loaf-cake. Tales of forest life, of exploits in hunting and fishing, were recounted, and the Doctor figured successfully as a raconteur, for he was an enthusiast in forest lore, and had had his share of adventure.

In those days there was still a stirring background of wilderness life, of adventures with bears, panthers, and wild Indians, and of witches and wizards and ghostly visitors and haunted houses, to make a stimulating fireside literature; and the nine o'clock bell ringing loudly was the first break in the interest of the circle. All rose at once, and while the last greetings were exchanged, Hiel and the other young men brought their horses to the door, and the whole party were, in their several sleighs, soon flying homeward.

Our little Dolly had had an evening of unmixed bliss. Everybody had petted her, and talked to her, and been delighted with her sayings and doings, and she was carrying home a paper parcel of sweet things which good Mrs. Hawkins had forced into her hand at parting.

As to Hiel and Nabby, they were about on an even footing. If he had been devoted to Lucinda Jane Parsons she had distinguished Jim Sawin by marks of evident attention, not forgetting at proper intervals to pay some regard to Ike Peters; so that, as she complacently said to herself, 'he didn't get ahead of her.'

Of course, on the way home, in the sleigh with Doctor and Mrs. Cushing, there were no advantages for a settling-up quarrel, but Nabby let fly many of those brisk little missiles of sarcasm and innuendo in which her sex have so decided a superiority over the other, and when arrived at the door of the house, announced peremptorily that she was 'going straight to bed and wasn't goin' to burn out candles for nobody that night!'

Hiel did not depart broken-hearted, however; and as he reviewed the field mentally, after his return home, congratulated himself that things were going on "'bout as well as they could be."

A misunderstanding to be made up, a quarrel to be settled, was, as he viewed it, a fair stock in trade for a month to come.

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