Editor’s Note: This is part of a short story ‘the Snow Cradle’ by Mather. Note that readers of a nervous disposition might want to know that the story finishes well. The little boy is found.
Everybody in Rehoboth knew little Billy o’ Oliver’s o’ Deaf Martha’s. He was a smart lad of eight years, with a vivid imagination and an active brain. His childish idealism, however, found little food in the squalid cottage in which he dragged out his semi-civilized existence; but among the hills he was at home, and there he roamed, to find in their fastnesses a region of romance, and in their gullies and cloughs the grottoes and falls that to him were a veritable fairy realm. Child as he was, in the summer months he roamed the shady plantations, and sailed his chip and paper boats down their brawling streams, feeding on the nuts and berries, and lying for hours asleep beneath the shadows of their branching trees. He was one of the few children into whose mind Amos failed to find an inlet for the catechism; and once, during the past summer, he had blown his wickin-whistle in Sunday-school class, and been reprimanded by the superintendent because he gathered blackberries during the sacred hours.
A few days previous to his disappearance in the snow he had heard the legend of Jenny Greenteeth, the haunting fairy of the Green Fold Clough, and how that she, who in the summer-time made the flowers grow and the birds sing, hid herself in winter on a shelf of rock above the Gin Spa Well, a lone streamlet that gurgled from out the rocky sides of the gorge. The story laid hold of his young mind, and under the glow of his imagination assumed the proportions of an Arabian Nights’ wonder. He dreamed of it by night, and during the day received thrashings not a few from his zealous schoolmaster, because his thoughts were away from his lessons with Jenny Greenteeth in her Green Fold Clough retreat. On this, the afternoon of the first snowfall of the autumn, there being a half-holiday, the boy determined once more to explore the haunts of the fairy; and just as Mr. Penrose turned out of his lodgings to kill the prose of his life, which he felt to be killing him, Oliver o’ Deaf Martha’s little boy turned out of his father’s hovel to feed the poetry that was stirring in his youthful soul. The north wind blew through the rents and seams of his threadbare clothing; but its chill was not felt, so warm with excitement beat his little heart. And when the first flakes fell, he clapped his hands in wild delight, and sang of the plucking of geese by hardy Scotchmen, and the sending of their feathers across the intervening leagues.
Poor little fellow! His was a hard lot when looked at from where Plenty spread her table and friends were manifold. But he was not without his compensations. His home was the moors, and his parent was Nature. He knew how to leap a brook, and snare a bird, and climb a tree, and shape a boat, and cut a wickin-whistle, and many a time and oft, when bread was scarce, he fed on the berries that only asked to be plucked, and grew so plentifully along the sides of the great hills.
The dusk was falling, and the snow beginning to lie thick, as he entered the dark gorge of the Clough; but to him darkness and light were alike, and as for the snow, it was more than a transformation-scene is to the petted child of a jaded civilization. He watched the flakes as they came down in their wild race from the sky, and saw them disappear on touching the stream that ran through the heart of the Clough. He gathered masses of the flaky substance in his hand, and, squeezing them into balls, threw them at distant objects, and then filled his mouth with the icy particles, and revelled in the shock and chill of the melting substance between his teeth as no connoisseur of wine ever revelled in the juices of the choice vintages of Spain and France. Then he would shake and clap his hands because of what he called the ‘hot ache’ that seized them, only to scamper off again after some new object around which to weave another dream of wonder.
The dusk gave place to gloom, and still faster fell the snow, white and feathery, silent and sublime. The child felt the charm, and began to lose himself in the impalpable something that, like a curtain of spirit, gathered around. He, too, was now as white as the shrubs through which he wended his way, and every now and then he doffed his cap, and, with a wild laugh of delight, flung its covering of snow upon the ground. Then, out of sheer fulness of life and rapport with the scene, he would rush for a yard or two up the steep sides of the Clough and roll downwards in the soft substance which lay deeply around.
The gloom thickened and nightfall came, but the snow lighted up the dark gorge, and threw out the branching trees, the tall trunks of which rose columnar-like as the pillars of some cathedral nave. Did the boy think of home – of fire – of bed? Not he! He thought only of Jenny Greenteeth, the sprite of the Clough, and of the Gin Spa Well, above which she was said to sleep; and on he roamed.
And now the path became narrower and more tortuous, while on the steep sides the snow was gathering in ominous drifts. Undaunted he struggled on, knee-deep, often stumbling, yet always rising to dive afresh into the yielding element that lay between himself and the enchanted ground beyond. In a little time he came to a great bulging bend, around the foot of which the waters flowed in sullen sweeps. Here, careful as he was, he slipped, and lay for a moment stunned and chilled with his sudden immersion. Struggling to the bank, he regained his foothold, and, rounding the promontory of cliff which had almost defeated his search, he turned the angle that hid the grotto, and found himself at the Gin Spa Well.
He heard the ‘drip, drip’ of falling waters as they oozed from out their rocky bed, and fell into one of those tiny hollows of nature which, overflowing, sent its burden towards the stream below. He looked above, and saw the fabled ledge – its mossy bank all snow-covered – with the entrance to Jenny Greenteeth’s chambers dark against the white that lay around. Tired with the search, yet glad at heart with the find, he climbed and entered, the somnolence wrought by the snow soon closing his eyes, and its subtle opiate working on his now wearily excited brain. There he slept – and dreamed (Mather 1898).