Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe by Nathaniel Hawthorne

A young fellow, a tobacco-pedler by trade, was on his way from Morristown, where he had dealt largely with the deacon of the Shaker settlement, to the village of Parker’s Falls, on Salmon River. He had a neat little cart painted green, with a box of cigars depicted on each side-panel, and an Indian chief holding a pipe and a golden tobacco-stalk on the rear. The pedler drove a smart little mare and was a young man of excellent character, keen at a bargain, but none the worse liked by the Yankees, who, as I have heard them say, would rather be shaved with a sharp razor than a dull one. Especially was he beloved by the pretty girls along the Connecticut, whose favor he used to court by presents of the best smoking-tobacco in his stock, knowing well that the country-lasses of New England are generally great performers on pipes. Moreover, as will be seen in the course of my story, the pedler was inquisitive and something of a tattler, always itching to hear the news and anxious to tell it again.

After an early breakfast at Morristown the tobacco-pedler—whose name was Dominicus Pike—had travelled seven miles through a solitary piece of woods without speaking a word to anybody but himself and his little gray mare. It being nearly seven o’clock, he was as eager to hold a morning gossip as a city shopkeeper to read the morning paper. An opportunity seemed at hand when, after lighting a cigar with a sun-glass, he looked up and perceived a man coming over the brow of the hill at the foot of which the pedler had stopped his green cart. Dominicus watched him as he descended, and noticed that he carried a bundle over his shoulder on the end of a stick and travelled with a weary yet determined pace. He did not look as if he had started in the freshness of the morning, but had footed it all night, and meant to do the same all day.

“Good-morning, mister,” said Dominicus, when within speaking-distance. “You go a pretty good jog. What’s the latest news at Parker’s Falls?”

The man pulled the broad brim of a gray hat over his eyes, and answered, rather sullenly, that he did not come from Parker’s Falls, which, as being the limit of his own day’s journey, the pedler had naturally mentioned in his inquiry.

“Well, then,” rejoined Dominicus Pike, “let’s have the latest news where you did come from. I’m not particular about Parker’s Falls. Any place will answer.”

Being thus importuned, the traveller—who was as ill-looking a fellow as one would desire to meet in a solitary piece of woods—appeared to hesitate a little, as if he was either searching his memory for news or weighing the expediency of telling it. At last, mounting on the step of the cart, he whispered in the ear of Dominicus, though he might have shouted aloud and no other mortal would have heard him.

“I do remember one little trifle of news,” said he. “Old Mr. Higginbotham of Kimballton was murdered in his orchard at eight o’clock last night by an Irishman and a nigger. They strung him up to the branch of a St. Michael’s pear tree where nobody would find him till the morning.”

As soon as this horrible intelligence was communicated the stranger betook himself to his journey again with more speed than ever, not even turning his head when Dominicus invited him to smoke a Spanish cigar and relate all the particulars. The pedler whistled to his mare and went up the hill, pondering on the doleful fate of Mr. Higginbotham, whom he had known in the way of trade, having sold him many a bunch of long nines and a great deal of pig-tail, lady’s twist and fig tobacco. He was rather astonished at the rapidity with which the news had spread. Kimballton was nearly sixty miles distant in a straight line; the murder had been perpetrated only at eight o’clock the preceding night, yet Dominicus had heard of it at seven in the morning, when, in all probability, poor Mr. Higginbotham’s own family had but just discovered his corpse hanging on the St. Michael’s pear tree. The stranger on foot must have worn seven-league boots, to travel at such a rate.

“Ill-news flies fast, they say,” thought Dominicus Pike, “but this beats railroads. The fellow ought to be hired to go express with the President’s message.”

The difficulty was solved by supposing that the narrator had made a mistake of one day in the date of the occurrence; so that our friend did not hesitate to introduce the story at every tavern and country-store along the road, expending a whole bunch of Spanish wrappers among at least twenty horrified audiences. He found himself invariably the first bearer of the intelligence, and was so pestered with questions that he could not avoid filling up the outline till it became quite a respectable narrative. He met with one piece of corroborative evidence. Mr. Higginbotham was a trader, and a former clerk of his to whom Dominicus related the facts testified that the old gentleman was accustomed to return home through the orchard about nightfall with the money and valuable papers of the store in his pocket. The clerk manifested but little grief at Mr. Higginbotham’s catastrophe, hinting—what the pedler had discovered in his own dealings with him—that he was a crusty old fellow as close as a vise. His property would descend to a pretty niece who was now keeping school in Kimballton.

What with telling the news for the public good and driving bargains for his own, Dominicus was so much delayed on the road that he chose to put up at a tavern about five miles short of Parker’s Falls. After supper, lighting one of his prime cigars, he seated himself in the bar-room and went through the story of the murder, which had grown so fast that it took him half an hour to tell. There were as many as twenty people in the room, nineteen of whom received it all for gospel. But the twentieth was an elderly farmer who had arrived on horseback a short time before and was now seated in a corner, smoking his pipe. When the story was concluded, he rose up very deliberately, brought his chair right in front of Dominicus and stared him full in the face, puffing out the vilest tobacco-smoke the pedler had ever smelt.

“Will you make affidavit,” demanded he, in the tone of a country-justice taking an examination, “that old Squire Higginbotham of Kimballton was murdered in his orchard the night before last and found hanging on his great pear tree yesterday morning?”

“I tell the story as I heard it, mister,” answered Dominicus, dropping his half-burnt cigar. “I don’t say that I saw the thing done, so I can’t take my oath that he was murdered exactly in that way.”

“But I can take mine,” said the farmer, “that if Squire Higginbotham was murdered night before last I drank a glass of bitters with his ghost this morning. Being a neighbor of mine, he called me into his store as I was riding by, and treated me, and then asked me to do a little business for him on the road. He didn’t seem to know any more about his own murder than I did.”

“Why, then it can’t be a fact!” exclaimed Dominicus Pike.

“I guess he’d have mentioned, if it was,” said the old farmer; and he removed his chair back to the corner, leaving Dominicus quite down in the mouth.

Here was a sad resurrection of old Mr. Higginbotham! The pedler had no heart to mingle in the conversation any more, but comforted himself with a glass of gin and water and went to bed, where all night long he dreamed of hanging on the St. Michael’s pear tree.

To avoid the old farmer (whom he so detested that his suspension would have pleased him better than Mr. Higginbotham’s), Dominicus rose in the gray of the morning, put the little mare into the green cart and trotted swiftly away toward Parker’s Falls. The fresh breeze, the dewy road and the pleasant summer dawn revived his spirits, and might have encouraged him to repeat the old story had there been anybody awake to bear it, but he met neither ox-team, light wagon, chaise, horseman nor foot-traveller till, just as he crossed Salmon River, a man came trudging down to the bridge with a bundle over his shoulder, on the end of a stick.

“Good-morning, mister,” said the pedler, reining in his mare. “If you come from Kimballton or that neighborhood, maybe you can tell me the real fact about this affair of old Mr. Higginbotham. Was the old fellow actually murdered two or three nights ago by an Irishman and a nigger?”

Dominicus had spoken in too great a hurry to observe at first that the stranger himself had a deep tinge of negro blood. On hearing this sudden question the Ethiopian appeared to change his skin, its yellow hue becoming a ghastly white, while, shaking and stammering, he thus replied:

“No, no! There was no colored man. It was an Irishman that hanged him last night at eight o’clock; I came away at seven. His folks can’t have looked for him in the orchard yet.”

Scarcely had the yellow man spoken, when he interrupted himself and, though he seemed weary enough before, continued his journey at a pace which would have kept the pedler’s mare on a smart trot. Dominicus stared after him in great perplexity. If the murder had not been committed till Tuesday night, who was the prophet that had foretold it in all its circumstances on Tuesday morning? If Mr. Higginbotham’s corpse were not yet discovered by his own family, how came the mulatto, at above thirty miles’ distance, to know that he was hanging in the orchard, especially as he had left Kimballton before the unfortunate man was hanged at all? These ambiguous circumstances, with the stranger’s surprise and terror, made Dominicus think of raising a hue-and-cry after him as an accomplice in the murder, since a murder, it seemed, had really been perpetrated.

“But let the poor devil go,” thought the pedler. “I don’t want his black blood on my head, and hanging the nigger wouldn’t unhang Mr. Higginbotham. Unhang the old gentleman? It’s a sin, I know, but I should hate to have him come to life a second time and give me the lie.”

With these meditations Dominicus Pike drove into the street of Parker’s Falls, which, as everybody knows, is as thriving a village as three cotton-factories and a slitting-mill can make it. The machinery was not in motion and but a few of the shop doors unbarred when he alighted in the stable-yard of the tavern and made it his first business to order the mare four quarts of oats. His second duty, of course, was to impart Mr. Higginbotham’s catastrophe to the hostler. He deemed it advisable, however, not to be too positive as to the date of the direful fact, and also to be uncertain whether it were perpetrated by an Irishman and a mulatto or by the son of Erin alone. Neither did he profess to relate it on his own authority or that of any one person, but mentioned it as a report generally diffused.

The story ran through the town like fire among girdled trees, and became so much the universal talk that nobody could tell whence it had originated. Mr. Higginbotham was as well known at Parker’s Falls as any citizen of the place, being part-owner of the slitting-mill and a considerable stockholder in the cotton-factories. The inhabitants felt their own prosperity interested in his fate. Such was the excitement that the Parker’s Falls Gazette anticipated its regular day of publication, and came out with half a form of blank paper and a column of double pica emphasized with capitals and headed “HORRID MURDER OF MR. HIGGINBOTHAM!” Among other dreadful details, the printed account described the mark of the cord round the dead man’s neck and stated the number of thousand dollars of which he had been robbed; there was much pathos, also, about the affliction of his niece, who had gone from one fainting-fit to another ever since her uncle was found hanging on the St. Michael’s pear tree with his pockets inside out. The village poet likewise commemorated the young lady’s grief in seventeen stanzas of a ballad. The selectmen held a meeting, and in consideration of Mr. Higginbotham’s claims on the town determined to issue handbills offering a reward of five hundred dollars for the apprehension of his murderers and the recovery of the stolen property.

Meanwhile, the whole population of Parker’s Falls, consisting of shopkeepers, mistresses of boarding-houses, factory-girls, mill-men and schoolboys, rushed into the street and kept up such a terrible loquacity as more than compensated for the silence of the cotton-machines, which refrained from their usual din out of respect to the deceased. Had Mr. Higginbotham cared about posthumous renown, his untimely ghost would have exulted in this tumult.

Our friend Dominicus in his vanity of heart forgot his intended precautions, and, mounting on the town-pump, announced himself as the bearer of the authentic intelligence which had caused so wonderful a sensation. He immediately became the great man of the moment, and had just begun a new edition of the narrative with a voice like a field-preacher when the mail-stage drove into the village street. It had travelled all night, and must have shifted horses at Kimballton at three in the morning.

“Now we shall hear all the particulars!” shouted the crowd.

The coach rumbled up to the piazza of the tavern followed by a thousand people; for if any man had been minding his own business till then, he now left it at sixes and sevens to hear the news. The pedler, foremost in the race, discovered two passengers, both of whom had been startled from a comfortable nap to find themselves in the centre of a mob. Every man assailing them with separate questions, all propounded at once, the couple were struck speechless, though one was a lawyer and the other a young lady.

“Mr. Higginbotham! Mr. Higginbotham! Tell us the particulars about old Mr. Higginbotham!” bawled the mob. “What is the coroner’s verdict? Are the murderers apprehended? Is Mr. Higginbotham’s niece come out of her fainting-fits? Mr. Higginbotham! Mr. Higginbotham!”

The coachman said not a word except to swear awfully at the hostler for not bringing him a fresh team of horses. The lawyer inside had generally his wits about him even when asleep; the first thing he did after learning the cause of the excitement was to produce a large red pocketbook. Meantime, Dominicus Pike, being an extremely polite young man, and also suspecting that a female tongue would tell the story as glibly as a lawyer’s, had handed the lady out of the coach. She was a fine, smart girl, now wide awake and bright as a button, and had such a sweet, pretty mouth that Dominicus would almost as lief have heard a love-tale from it as a tale of murder.

“Gentlemen and ladies,” said the lawyer to the shopkeepers, the mill-men and the factory-girls, “I can assure you that some unaccountable mistake—or, more probably, a wilful falsehood maliciously contrived to injure Mr. Higginbotham’s credit—has excited this singular uproar. We passed through Kimballton at three o’clock this morning, and most certainly should have been informed of the murder had any been perpetrated. But I have proof nearly as strong as Mr. Higginbotham’s own oral testimony in the negative. Here is a note relating to a suit of his in the Connecticut courts which was delivered me from that gentleman himself. I find it dated at ten o’clock last evening.”

So saying, the lawyer, exhibited the date and signature of the note, which irrefragably proved either that this perverse Mr. Higginbotham was alive when he wrote it, or, as some deemed the more probable case of two doubtful ones, that he was so absorbed in worldly business as to continue to transact it even after his death. But unexpected evidence was forthcoming. The young lady, after listening to the pedler’s explanation, merely seized a moment to smooth her gown and put her curls in order, and then appeared at the tavern door, making a modest signal to be heard.

“Good people,” said she, “I am Mr. Higginbotham’s niece.”

A wondering murmur passed through the crowd on beholding her so rosy and bright—that same unhappy niece whom they had supposed, on the authority of the Parker’s Falls Gazette, to be lying at death’s door in a fainting-fit. But some shrewd fellows had doubted all along whether a young lady would be quite so desperate at the hanging of a rich old uncle.

“You see,” continued Miss Higginbotham, with a smile, “that this strange story is quite unfounded as to myself, and I believe I may affirm it to be equally so in regard to my dear uncle Higginbotham. He has the kindness to give me a home in his house, though I contribute to my own support by teaching a school. I left Kimballton this morning to spend the vacation of commencement-week with a friend about five miles from Parker’s Falls. My generous uncle, when he heard me on the stairs, called me to his bedside and gave me two dollars and fifty cents to pay my stage-fare, and another dollar for my extra expenses. He then laid his pocketbook under his pillow, shook hands with me, and advised me to take some biscuit in my bag instead of breakfasting on the road. I feel confident, therefore, that I left my beloved relative alive, and trust that I shall find him so on my return.”

The young lady courtesied at the close of her speech, which was so sensible and well worded, and delivered with such grace and propriety, that everybody thought her fit to be preceptress of the best academy in the State. But a stranger would have supposed that Mr. Higginbotham was an object of abhorrence at Parker’s Falls and that a thanksgiving had been proclaimed for his murder, so excessive was the wrath of the inhabitants on learning their mistake. The mill-men resolved to bestow public honors on Dominicus Pike, only hesitating whether to tar and feather him, ride him on a rail or refresh him with an ablution at the town-pump, on the top of which he had declared himself the bearer of the news. The selectmen, by advice of the lawyer, spoke of prosecuting him for a misdemeanor in circulating unfounded reports, to the great disturbance of the peace of the commonwealth. Nothing saved Dominicus either from mob-law or a court of justice but an eloquent appeal made by the young lady in his behalf. Addressing a few words of heartfelt gratitude to his benefactress, he mounted the green cart and rode out of town under a discharge of artillery from the schoolboys, who found plenty of ammunition in the neighboring clay-pits and mud-holes. As he turned his head to exchange a farewell glance with Mr. Higginbotham’s niece a ball of the consistence of hasty-pudding hit him slap in the mouth, giving him a most grim aspect. His whole person was so bespattered with the like filthy missiles that he had almost a mind to ride back and supplicate for the threatened ablution at the town-pump; for, though not meant in kindness, it would now have been a deed of charity.

However, the sun shone bright on poor Dominicus, and the mud—an emblem of all stains of undeserved opprobrium—was easily brushed off when dry. Being a funny rogue, his heart soon cheered up; nor could he refrain from a hearty laugh at the uproar which his story had excited. The handbills of the selectmen would cause the commitment of all the vagabonds in the State, the paragraph in the Parker’s Falls Gazette would be reprinted from Maine to Florida, and perhaps form an item in the London newspapers, and many a miser would tremble for his moneybags and life on learning the catastrophe of Mr. Higginbotham. The pedler meditated with much fervor on the charms of the young schoolmistress, and swore that Daniel Webster never spoke nor looked so like an angel as Miss Higginbotham while defending him from the wrathful populace at Parker’s Falls.

Dominicus was now on the Kimballton turnpike, having all along determined to visit that place, though business had drawn, him out of the most direct road from Morristown. As he approached the scene of the supposed murder he continued to revolve the circumstances in his mind, and was astonished at the aspect which the whole case assumed. Had nothing occurred to corroborate the story of the first traveller, it might now have been considered as a hoax; but the yellow man was evidently acquainted either with the report or the fact, and there was a mystery in his dismayed and guilty look on being abruptly questioned. When to this singular combination of incidents it was added that the rumor tallied exactly with Mr. Higginbotham’s character and habits of life, and that he had an orchard and a St. Michael’s pear tree, near which he always passed at nightfall, the circumstantial evidence appeared so strong that Dominicus doubted whether the autograph produced by the lawyer, or even the niece’s direct testimony, ought to be equivalent. Making cautious inquiries along the road, the pedler further learned that Mr. Higginbotham had in his service an Irishman of doubtful character whom he had hired without a recommendation, on the score of economy.

“May I be hanged myself,” exclaimed Dominicus Pike, aloud, on reaching the top of a lonely hill, “if I’ll believe old Higginbotham is unhanged till I see him with my own eyes and hear it from his own mouth. And, as he’s a real shaver, I’ll have the minister, or some other responsible man, for an endorser.”

It was growing dusk when he reached the toll-house on Kimballton turnpike, about a quarter of a mile from the village of this name. His little mare was fast bringing him up with a man on horseback who trotted through the gate a few rods in advance of him, nodded to the toll-gatherer and kept on towards the village. Dominicus was acquainted with the toll-man, and while making change the usual remarks on the weather passed between them.

“I suppose,” said the pedler, throwing back his whiplash to bring it down like a feather on the mare’s flank, “you have not seen anything of old Mr. Higginbotham within a day or two?”

“Yes,” answered the toll-gatherer; “he passed the gate just before you drove up, and yonder he rides now, if you can see him through the dusk. He’s been to Woodfield this afternoon, attending a sheriff’s sale there. The old man generally shakes hands and has a little chat with me, but to-night he nodded, as if to say, ‘Charge my toll,’ and jogged on; for, wherever he goes, he must always be at home by eight o’clock.”

“So they tell me,” said Dominicus.

“I never saw a man look so yellow and thin as the squire does,” continued the toll-gatherer. “Says I to myself tonight, ‘He’s more like a ghost or an old mummy than good flesh and blood.’”

The pedler strained his eyes through the twilight, and could just discern the horseman now far ahead on the village road. He seemed to recognize the rear of Mr. Higginbotham, but through the evening shadows and amid the dust from the horse’s feet the figure appeared dim and unsubstantial, as if the shape of the mysterious old man were faintly moulded of darkness and gray light.

Dominicus shivered. “Mr. Higginbotham has come back from the other world by way of the Kimballton turnpike,” thought he. He shook the reins and rode forward, keeping about the same distance in the rear of the gray old shadow till the latter was concealed by a bend of the road. On reaching this point the pedler no longer saw the man on horseback, but found himself at the head of the village street, not far from a number of stores and two taverns clustered round the meeting-house steeple. On his left was a stone wall and a gate, the boundary of a wood-lot beyond which lay an orchard, farther still a mowing-field, and last of all a house. These were the premises of Mr. Higginbotham, whose dwelling stood beside the old highway, but had been left in the background by the Kimballton turnpike.

Dominicus knew the place, and the little mare stopped short by instinct, for he was not conscious of tightening the reins. “For the soul of me, I cannot get by this gate!” said he, trembling. “I never shall be my own man again till I see whether Mr. Higginbotham is hanging on the St. Michael’s pear tree.” He leaped from the cart, gave the rein a turn round the gate-post, and ran along the green path of the wood-lot as if Old Nick were chasing behind. Just then the village clock tolled eight, and as each deep stroke fell Dominicus gave a fresh bound and flew faster than before, till, dim in the solitary centre of the orchard, he saw the fated pear tree. One great branch stretched from the old contorted trunk across the path and threw the darkest shadow on that one spot. But something seemed to struggle beneath the branch.

The pedler had never pretended to more courage than befits a man of peaceable occupation, nor could he account for his valor on this awful emergency. Certain it is, however, that he rushed forward, prostrated a sturdy Irishman with the butt-end of his whip, and found—not, indeed, hanging on the St. Michael’s pear tree, but trembling beneath it with a halter round his neck—the old identical Mr. Higginbotham.

“Mr. Higginbotham,” said Dominicus, tremulously, “you’re an honest man, and I’ll take your word for it. Have you been hanged, or not?”

If the riddle be not already guessed, a few words will explain the simple machinery by which this “coming event” was made to cast its “shadow before.” Three men had plotted the robbery and murder of Mr. Higginbotham; two of them successively lost courage and fled, each delaying the crime one night by their disappearance; the third was in the act of perpetration, when a champion, blindly obeying the call of fate, like the heroes of old romance, appeared in the person of Dominicus Pike.

It only remains to say that Mr. Higginbotham took the pedler into high favor, sanctioned his addresses to the pretty schoolmistress and settled his whole property on their children, allowing themselves the interest. In due time the old gentleman capped the climax of his favors by dying a Christian death in bed; since which melancholy event, Dominicus Pike has removed from Kimballton and established a large tobacco-manufactory in my native village.

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