The Spinning Wheel Secret: First Chapter
Dan Tower and his brother Sam were cold. For hours they had been playing in the snow on the bank of the river.
Mother had stayed in bed that morning. Father had given the boys their breakfast and then had saddled Whitey and trotted down the road. When he came back Goody Peasley was riding on the pillion behind him, her basket of roots and herbs clutched close in her arms.
“Outside, my lads,” she had ordered as she set a great kettle of water on the crane. “I want no young ones underfoot.”
“Yes, boys,” added Father. “Bundle up well and build a strong snow fort in the yard to protect us from the Indians.”
There was need for protection from the Indians in the little pioneer village of Hatfield in the Bay Colony of Massachusetts. The boys had always lived just inside the strong stockade that surrounded the cluster of homes on the bank of the river and they had heard more than one sad tale of Indian attacks on other villages all up and down the Connecticut Valley.
Sam and Dan spent the morning building a big fort. They made a good supply of snowballs, too, but a snow fight with only two boys isn’t much fun. Soon it was almost dinnertime and the boys were cold and hungry. Even their dog, Ebenezer, who had enjoyed the morning hours in the winter sunshine, was looking longingly toward the house and whining softly. Dan knelt in the snow and tried to wrap the pet in his jacket.
“Poor Ebenezer,” he said. “You’re cold and hungry, just like us.”
At last Father called to the boys to come in. Hurrying across the kitchen, they knelt on the hearth and held their cold hands close to the fire. Old Goody Peasley sat on the settle humming softly and rocking gently from side to side.
“Well, my lads,” she cackled, “your noses will be out of joint now. Wait till you young ones see what old Goody has brought ye.”
The boys pressed close against the settle and looked at the blanket-wrapped bundle on the old woman’s lap.
“Is it a puppy?” asked Sam.
“A puppy! A puppy the lad says! Stupid! ’Tis as sweet a little girl babe as ever I see.”
“A babe!” cried Dan.
“A girl!” Sam’s eyes grew big with wonder. “A baby! And it’s a girl?”
Dan flung himself on a stool by the fire. “Aw! Who wants a girl?”
“Little girls are wondrous sweet,” said Goody Peasley. “Aren’t you a poppet, my precious?”
“A girl!” sneered Sam.
“There, Samuel, my lad. Don’t you like your baby sister?” asked the old woman.
“No, I don’t!” Sam said.
“Samuel!” Father scolded him. “Mind your manners, sir. Now take off your wet things, both of you, and come to your dinner. And no more impudence.”
After dinner Father sent the boys to bring in wood. In a quiet spot behind the shed the boys talked over the coming of their baby sister.
“Who wants a baby girl?” said Dan.
“Yeah. She’ll be just like Aunt Rebecca’s baby Ruth. Remember when they came up from Northampton for a visit last summer?”
“Remember? How could I forget? Why, the little idiot didn’t even have any teeth.”
“She didn’t need any teeth for the slops she ate.” Sam laughed. “Just cornmeal mush fed to her on a spoon.”
“Yeah! And sucking on a bit of maple sugar tied up in a rag! Ugh!”
“Why didn’t she eat beans and meat like the rest of us?”
“I’m telling you, she didn’t have any teeth.”
“I don’t suppose this baby we’ve got has any, either,” Sam added. “And Mother will be everlastingly rocking her and calling her ‘Mother’s pet! Mother’s poppet!’—just like Aunt Rebecca and her horrid little Ruth!”
“Aw!” Dan kicked a pile of chips and then picked up a log and threw it at the shed door. “Babies!” he snorted. “Girls!”
“Boys!” called Father from the house. “Where’s that wood I sent you to fetch?”
* * *
On the very next Sabbath day the little household was early astir to prepare for the baby’s christening. Goody Peasley sat on the settle, dressing the baby in her long white christening gown. The boys sat on stools near the fire, glowering at their little sister as they ate their cold cornmeal mush. The mush was lumpy as well as cold for, of course, no cooking could be done on the Sabbath. While the boys were still eating, Father’s cousin Phoebe came from her home down the lane to carry the baby to the meetinghouse.
“What a precious lass!” she whispered as she stood warming herself by the fire.
“Ah, yes, ’tis a sweet babe,” said Goody Peasley as she tied the baby’s tiny embroidered cap. “And what is her name to be, Mistress Tower?”
“We are naming her Joan for my sister down in Windsor,” said Mother, who was sitting bolstered up in the bed in one corner of the big keeping room.
“A fine old name,” said Goody Peasley.
“We used to say in old England that a child named Joan was a gift from God,” Cousin Phoebe added as she fastened her long red cloak.
“We don’t want any girl for a gift,” muttered Sam.
“That will do!” Father admonished him. “Enough of your impertinence, my lad! Eat up your porridge, now, so we can hurry to the meetinghouse. I hear the first roll of the drum.”
Goody Peasley brought warm shawls and blankets to wrap about the baby and Father knelt at the fireplace to shovel hot coals into the footstove for Cousin Phoebe. Soon the little procession started: Father carrying his gun, Cousin Phoebe carrying the baby, Dan carrying the footstove, and Sam bringing up the rear with a piggin of hot water for the baptismal basin.
“Careful, son,” Father warned him. “Don’t spill the water for your sister’s christening.”
“I would I could spill it before ever the baby is given a girl’s name,” Sam whispered to his brother.
“Listen, Sam,” said Dan. “I have a plan. Let them christen her Joan if they will, but—”
“Come, lads!” called Father. “No idle chatter on the Lord’s day.”
The boys floundered on through the drifts and reached the meetinghouse just as Goodman Waite gave one last long warning roll on the drum. Father seated Cousin Phoebe among the women and then took his place on the other side of the meetinghouse among the men. Dan put the footstove under Cousin Phoebe’s feet. Sam carried the warm water to the front of the meetinghouse and then he and Dan sat on the pulpit steps with the other boys. Just before the parson entered, Dan leaned over and placed his lips close to Sam’s ear.
“Let them christen her Joan if they will,” he whispered, “but we’ll call her Jo. That way, she’ll be a boy.”
“Good,” said Sam. “We’ll always call her Jo and—”
Sam looked around and saw the tithing man glowering at him. Both boys became as still as small boys ever can be.
All the people in the little meetinghouse rose to their feet when Parson Hope entered in his long black gown and white bands.
“My friends,” he said, when he had climbed to the platform at the front of the meetinghouse, “we have an infant to be baptized this morning and, as it is so bitterly cold, I think we shall proceed with the christening before our regular worship service.”
Father joined Cousin Phoebe as she walked down the aisle with the baby securely wrapped in blankets. Parson Hope took the warm bundle into his arms and, turning back a shawl to show the baby’s tiny pink face, he sprinkled her forehead with water, saying, “I baptize thee Joan.”
“Jo!” whispered Dan.
“Jo!” Sam echoed him, and was promptly thwacked on the head by the tithing man.
* * *
So the little Tower girl was christened Joan but to her brothers she would always be known as Jo. They never called her Joan and they never admitted that she was a girl. She was just another member of the family for Dan and Sam, and as soon as she was able to toddle across the dooryard she followed in her brothers’ footsteps. When she was two she climbed up into their playhouse in the old hemlock tree behind the house. When she was three she learned to slide down the haystacks in the summer and down the snowy hills in the winter. When she was four she began to bait fish hooks and to fish with the boys on the bank of the river. By the time she was six she was helping in the garden and hayfield and carrying wood from the shed to the house with the boys. It was in the summer following her eighth birthday that Jo fell out of a dugout and was almost drowned in the swift waters of the Connecticut.
“That settles it!” said Father as he carried Jo to the house and helped Mother wrap her in warm blankets. “That settles it! Jo must never go in the dugout again until she has learned to swim.”
“Oh, but Jude,” Mother objected, “girls don’t swim. What will the neighbor women think?”
“No worse than they think of our daughter already, my dear,” said Father. “Cousin Phoebe has plenty to say about the child’s wild ways. I heard her telling Goodwife Kellogg that Joan could neither knit nor spin. ’Tis good we live on the edge of the village or all the gossips would be clacking about the Tower girl’s ignorance of housewifery.”
“Never fret,” said Mother. “The lass will have enough of housework before she’s my age, I’ve no doubt. Aye, and enough of sewing and knitting and spinning, too.”