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Tom's first winter
is an icy paradise

Click to SEE the Ice Storm of 1886

Bad Boy illustration "I guess we're going to have a regular old-fashioned snowstorm," said Captain Nutter, one bleak December morning, casting a peculiarly nautical glance skyward.

The Captain was always hazarding prophecies about the weather, which somehow never turned out according to his prediction. The vanes on the church-steeples seemed to take fiendish pleasure in humiliating the dear old gentleman. If he said it was going to be a clear day, a dense sea-fog was pretty certain to set in before noon. Once he caused a protracted drought by assuring us every morning, for six consecutive weeks, that it would rain in a few hours. But, sure enough, that afternoon it began snowing.

Now I had not seen a snow-storm since I was eighteen months old, and of course remembered nothing about it. A boy familiar from his infancy with the rigors of our New England winters can form no idea of the impression made on me by this natural phenomenon. My delight and surprise were as boundless as if the heavy gray sky had let down a shower of pond lilies and white roses, instead of snow-flakes. It happened to be a half-holiday, so I had nothing to do but watch the feathery crystals whirling hither and thither through the air. I stood by the sitting-room window gazing at the wonder until twilight shut out the novel scene.

We had had several slight flurries of hail and snow before, but this was a regular nor'easter.

Several inches of snow had already fallen. The rose-bushes at the door drooped with the weight of their magical blossoms, and the two posts that held the garden gate were transformed into stately Turks, with white turbans, guarding the entrance to the Nutter House.

The storm increased at sundown, and continued with unabated violence through the night. The next morning, when I jumped out of bed, the sun was shining brightly, the cloudless heavens wore the tender azure of June, and the whole earth lay muffled up to the eyes, as it were, in a thick mantle of milk-white down.

It was a very deep snow. The Oldest Inhabitant (what would become of a New England town or village without its oldest Inhabitant?) overhauled his almanacs, and pronounced it the deepest snow we had bad for twenty years. It couldn't have been much deeper without smothering us all. Our street was a sight to be seen, or, rather, it was a sight not to be seen; for very little street was visible. One huge drift completely banked up our front door and half covered my bedroom window.

Portsmouth Winter Scene There was no school that day, for all the thoroughfares were impassable. By twelve o'clock, however, the great snowploughs, each drawn by four yokes of oxen, broke a wagon-path through the principal streets; but the foot-passengers had a hard time of it floundering in the arctic drifts.

The Captain and I cut a tunnel, three feet wide and six feet high, from our front door to the sidewalk opposite. It was a beautiful cavern, with its walls and roof inlaid with mother-of-pearl and diamonds. I am sure the ice palace of the Russian Empress, in Cowper's poem, was not a more superb piece of architecture.

The thermometer began falling shortly before sunset and we had the bitterest cold night I ever experienced. This brought out the Oldest Inhabitant again the next day-and what a gay old boy he was for deciding everything! Our tunnel was turned into solid ice. A crust thick enough to bear men and horses had formed over the snow everywhere, and the air was alive with merry sleigh-bells. Icy stalactites, a yard long, bung from the eaves of the house, and the Turkish sentinels at the gate looked as if they had given up all hopes of ever being relieved from duty.

So the winter set in cold and glittering. Everything out-of-doors was sheathed in silver mail. To quote from Charley Marden, it was "cold enough to freeze the tail off a brass monkey,"-an observation which seemed to me extremely happy, though I knew little or nothing concerning the endurance of brass monkeys, having never seen one.

I had looked forward to the advent of the season with grave apprehensions, nerving myself to meet dreary nights and monotonous days; but summer itself was not more jolly than winter at Rivermouth. Snow-balling at school, skating on the Mill Pond, coasting by moonlight, long rides behind Gypsy in a brand-new little sleigh built expressly for her, were sports no less exhilarating than those which belonged to the sunny months. And then Thanksgiving! The nose of Memory -- why shouldn't Memory have a nose? -- dilates with pleasure over the rich perfume of Miss Abigail's forty mince-pies, each one more delightful than the other, like the Sultan's forty wives. Christmas was another red-letter day, though it was not so generally observed in New England as it is now.

The great wood-fire in the tiled chimney-place made our sitting-room very cheerful of winter nights. When the north-wind howled about the eaves, and the sharp fingers of the sleet tapped against the window-panes, it was nice to be so warmly sheltered from the storm. A dish of apples and a pitcher of chilly cider were always served during the evening. The Captain had a funny way of leaning back in the chair, and eating his apple with his eyes closed. Sometimes I played dominos with him, and sometimes Miss Abigail read aloud to us, pronouncing "to" toe, and sounding all the eds.

In a former chapter I alluded to Miss Abigail's managing propensities. She had affected many changes in the Nutter House before I came there to live; but there was one thing against which she bad long contended without being able to overcome. This was the Captain's pipe. On first taking command of the household, she prohibited smoking in the sitting-room, where it had been the old gentleman's custom to take a whiff or two of the fragrant weed after meals. The edict went forth -- and so did the pipe. An excellent move, no doubt; but then the house was his, and if he saw fit to keep a tub of tobacco burning in the middle of the parlor floor, he had a perfect right to do so. However, be humored her in this as in other matters, and smoked by stealth, like a guilty creature, in the barn, or about the gardens. That was practicable in summer, but in winter the Captain was hard put to it. When he couldn't stand it longer, he retreated to his bedroom and barricaded the door. Such was the position of affairs at the time of which I write.

One morning, a few days after the great snow, as Miss Abigail was dusting the chronometer in the ball, she beheld Captain Nutter slowly descending the staircase, with a long clay pipe in his mouth. Miss Abigail could hardly credit her own eyes.

"Dan'el!" she gasped, retiring heavily on the hat-rack.

The tone of reproach with which this word was uttered failed to produce the slightest effect on the Captain, who merely removed the pipe from his lips for an instant, and blew a cloud into the chilly air. The thermometer stood at two degrees below zero in our hall.

"Dan'el!" cried Miss Abigail, hysterically-"Dan'el, don't come near me!" Whereupon she fainted away; for the smell of tobacco-smoke always made her deadly sick.

Kitty Collins rushed from the kitchen with a basin of water, and set to work bathing Miss Abigail's temples and chafing her hands. I thought my grandfather rather cruel, as be stood there with a half-smile on his countenance, complacently watching Miss Abigail's sufferings. When she was "brought to," the Captain sat down beside her, and, with a lovely twinkle in his eye, said softly:

"Abigail, my dear, there wasn't any tobacco in that Pipe! It was a new pipe. I fetched it down for Tom to blow soap-bubbles with."

At these words Kitty Collins hurried away, her features working strangely. Several minutes later I came upon her in the scullery with the greater portion of a crash towel stuffed into her mouth. "Miss Abygil smelt the terbacca with her oi!" cried Kitty, partially removing the cloth, and then immediately stopping herself up again. Bad Boy illustration
The Captain's joke furnished us-that is, Kitty and me -- with mirth for many a day; as to Miss Abigail, I think she never wholly pardoned him. After this, Captain Nutter gradually gave up smoking, which is an untidy, injurious, disgraceful, and highly pleasant habit.

A boy's life in a secluded New England town in winter does not afford many points for illustration. Of course he gets his ears or toes frost-bitten; of course he smashes his sled against another boy's; of course he bangs his head on the ice; and he's a lad of no enterprise whatever, if he doesn't manage to skate into an eel-hole, and be brought home half drowned. All these things happened to me; but, as they lack novelty, I pass them over, to tell you about the famous snow-fort which we built on Slatter's Hill.



CONTINUE TO NEXT CHAPTER / ALDRICH HOME PAGE

Text from "Story of a Bad Boy" by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, 1869. Drawings from the early Riverside edition and other early editions.

Reprinted online courtesy of SeacoastNH.com
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