*FEATURED IN The Sisterhood
© 2011 RC deWinter ~ All Rights Reserved
There stands in the old town of Suffield, Connecticut, hard by the border of neighboring Massachusetts, the charred remains of a gray and weathered clapboard house. Buried in a wood on an old and rarely-travelled road, it is a sad reminder of what has become to be known as “a tragedy in Suffield”.
Founded in the late 18th century, Suffield was originally known as Southfield and was considered part of Massachusetts. By 1674 Southfield had been corrupted to Suffield, but not until 1749 was the border dispute between the colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut resolved, at which time Suffield became part of the latter.
In the early 19th century, when men – by dint of hard work, sharp dealing and their wits – made their fortunes, there lived in Suffield one Isaac Allonby. He was the rich and proud owner of a tobacco farm and cigar manufactory, although his forbears had been simple farmers, wresting a living from the land not far from the mighty Connecticut River that flowed (and still does) along the eastern border of the town. By the time he was 22 he had bought the land of his nearest neighbors with money he’d been saving since he’d begun his daily labors a decade earlier, working from sunup to sundown as a blacksmith’s apprentice and then as a dockhand in the boating industry that plied the river. At twenty-five he’d had the wherewithal and the nerve to marry the beautiful Alice Alcorn, a daughter of one of the town’s most prominent families.
Time passed, tobacco was king in the fertile fields of Isaac Allonby, and though Isaac wished for nothing more dearly than a son to inherit his name and business interests, only a daughter was born to the otherwise contented couple. Named Mary for Isaac’s mother, she was a winning child who grew to become a charming, accomplished young lady. Isaac had his plans for Mary, the first of which was marriage to a likely son of the town who would continue the tobacco empire he continued to expand.
Alackaday, the best laid plans, as the poet’s saying goes, often go awry, and Isaac’s map for his family’s future was no exception. Candidate after suitable candidate was paraded before Mary, at teas and receptions and balls, but the beautiful heiress would have none of them. Unbeknownst to Isaac and Alice, her heart had already been promised to one Henry Wood, a foreman in her father’s fields. Although handsome, hard-working and true, Henry had no chance of Isaac’s approval, and Mary knew it.
As these things sometimes go, Mary became pregnant with Henry’s child. He was all for their confronting Isaac and Alice with the news, confident that his openness, good character and years of service in the family business would convince the Allonbys of his worthiness and suitability as a husband for Mary.
But Mary refused – she had been surrounded by the most conservative society of the day all her life; Isaac was no man to be swayed by love when the interests of his good name and the financial survival of the Allonby holdings were at stake.
Mary begged Henry to leave Suffield, promising she would somehow contrive to reunite with him somewhere far removed from the suffocating society that was her birthright. After days of argument and pleading, Henry acquiesced, although in his heart he did not believe that Mary’s way was the right thing to do. They planned to meet again and marry in distant Craftsbury, Vermont, where Henry’s uncle farmed a sizeable acreage. Henry was sure his uncle would accept him and his new wife as a welcome addition to his roster of farm laborers; although Mary had been raised as a lady, she was a woman of varied accomplishments both decorative and useful and had no objection to tackling domestic work in the farmhouse or butter barns.
One fine June morning, Henry walked out of the fields to Isaac’s office and told that gentleman that his uncle needed help with his farm in the far-off Northeast Kingdom. Isaac was sorry to see such a willing worker go but gave the young man his blessing and his packet of wages earned thus far that month. Henry then slipped off the wave a discreet farewell to Mary, who had promised to be waiting by her bedroom window to see him off. They had arranged that she would slip out a month or so hence and travel north for their reunion and future life together.
Alas for Mary, she began to gain weight much more rapidly than she had realized could happen, an after a few weeks it was evident that her expensively-tailored outfits no longer fit properly. Alice, though a mild and indulgent mother, nevertheless had sharp eyes, especially for her daughter’s appearance. One early July afternoon as she and Mary sat embroidering in a sunny sitting room, she noticed how her daughter’s clumsy posture and unaccustomed bulging about the waist. Sliding her needle into the fabric and laying aside her hoop, she walked across the room and said, “Tell me, Mary, why it is you sit so inelegantly and why your frock is bunched so tightly round your middle.”
Mary burst into tears but refused to speak. No appeal to her upbringing could make her confess, and she finally ran off to her room to escape her mother’s inquisition.
Alice paced the room, knowing the truth and also aware that Isaac would have to be told and plans would have to be made. Not bothering to summon Mary for dinner, she confronted Isaac with the bare, bald facts, explaining that Mary would not speak but something had to be arranged. Isaac, not a man given to tempestuous display, made a swift and sure judgment. The news would be given out that Mary was desperately ill with a wasting fever; she would be sequestered from the servants and visitors. Alice alone would deliver Mary’s meals to her room, from which Mary would not emerge until after her confinement; the child would be placed far off with a farming family, to be handsomely remunerated for their silence and for accepting another family member who would grow to be a useful addition to a hardworking household.
And so it was done. A stout and sturdy lock was installed outside the door to Mary’s chamber. Alice held the only key, safely tucked beneath her skirts on a silver chain. Fortunately for all concerned, Mary’s health continued well, and no outside medical attention was required. For his part, Henry, safe in Vermont, grieved over Mary’s non-appearance until late September, when he told his uncle that he must make the long journey back to Suffield to find his intended.
Henry arrived in Suffield, weary of the road and looking none too imposing from his journey. The first night back, he kept to himself, away from town, until nightfall, when he once again stealthily made his way up to the Allonby house, his eye trained on Mary’s chamber window. Apart from a dim light burning, he could see nothing; there was no sign of life apart from the flickering lamplight. He made his way to the stables, where he knew old John, the hostler, would be sleeping in the loft.
Thirty minutes later, Henry had the lay of the land. All the servants knew, John said, that something was far amiss with Mary, but she’d not been seen for months and for all the talk of illness, no doctor had been seen to visit the house. Henry then guessed that the secret was no secret any longer; the Allonbys were concealing their shame by concealing Mary. He persuaded John to take a note, to be slipped under Mary’s door, inside some day when Alice and Isaac were away from home, promising him payment for the deed when he’d had time to put something by. Digging into his pack, Henry found a scrap of a farm bill. John produced a pen and a pot of cheap ink from the loft, and Henry scrawled his promise to Mary: when the child had been born, which he reckoned would be around Yuletide, he would return for them.
The months passed. Isaac and Alice occasionally gave word of Mary, assuring people that although she had lost most of her hair and was very infirm, they were sure she was on the mend and after a period of convalescence would be able to resume her usual activities.
The fifteenth of December dawned gray and windy. Although there was no snow, it was a raw, cutting wind that blew through Suffield. When Alice entered Mary’s room, she heard a soft moan and saw that her daughter was moving restlessly. “Time for Hannah,” thought Alice.
She set down the breakfast tray and sat by Mary, feeling her stomach. Hugging her gently, she promised to return shortly and assured Mary that all would be well. Returning downstairs, Alice gave the cook a list made up weeks before along with instructions to go to town and buy the necessities for the annual Christmas feast for Isaac’s associates. Summoning the maid, she gave her a liberty day so that the girl could visit her family off in nearby Enfield. After they were safely off, Alice went to stables and asked John, over his protests about the weather, to ready the small open carriage that she could drive by herself.
Once done, Alice drove toward the outskirts of town to where a trusted midwife lived. She had already paid Hannah handsomely for her silence, and once the woman was ready, swiftly returned to the house. Dropping Hannah by the door, she returned the carriage to the John and walked back, opening the house and hurrying Hannah upstairs.
Seven hours later, the house still empty but for the three women, Mary’s daughter was born. She was a fine child and Mary, though exhausted, showed no signs of the unusual bleeding or other distress so common to the age. Alice gave Hannah a small purse full of gold coins and sent her away, having slipped in enough extra to compensate the midwife for her long, cold walk home.
Nothing in the tenor of the house changed much, although Alice cautioned Mary to be sure that the baby’s cries were muffled so no wailing would be heard downstairs or up. Mary knew that her precious child was to be taken from her soon, but she also knew that Henry would be returning for them both. She spent the evening hours in front of her window, holding her baby close and looking down the lane for her beloved.
On the night of the 23rd of December, Henry had still not arrived. Isaac and Alice were off to a holiday gathering of the town’s prominent businessmen and their wives, and all seemed safe and quiet. But that night the cook, who had a weakness for drink and glad not to have to prepare an evening meal, had begun her secret tippling earlier than usual and fell asleep in her chair in the kitchen by the hearth, where small chunks of sturdy oak and embers still burned.
No one was able to discover exactly what happened after; it was presumed that the cook’s greasy apron caught fire from a stray spark. All that is certain is that the grand residence of the Allonbys burned long and hot. The cook died, too befuddled to haul herself away from the kitchen once the flames enwrapped her; the housemaid, awakened by smoke, knew that Mary was unable to escape because her room was locked, but she bravely ran to the doorway and tried vainly to batter it in with an andiron, but the fire spread with the speed of the wind and although she could hear Mary screaming, the poor girl had to flee, the door proving too well-made to be moved by a slender piece of iron.
The maid forever after vowed she’d heard another sound as she stood, beating in vain against the framework and the door – that of a baby crying.
People told the girl her head had been turned by the extremity of the situation, but nothing said ever changed her story.
Isaac, though devastated by grief, wasted no time in clearing out the house personally, waiting only until the ashes had cooled enough for him to enter. He paid particular attention to what was left of Mary’s room, where he discovered her body – along with another – lying on the floor where she’d fallen after the smoke overcame her. The good people of Suffield wondered why Mary hadn’t broken her window and jumped out. Yes, it would have been a mighty fall, but better than suffocating or burning to death. It was a question forever unanswered.
Today, no one goes inside what’s left of this sad wreck. It’s too dangerous to explore inside. Sometimes, however, the curious walk or drive the old road down to where once stood a house so grand it was the envy of five towns. Some swear that on moonlit nights they’ve seen a beautiful young woman, holding what appears to be a swaddling child in her arms, watching them intently as they draw near.
© 2011 RC deWinter
Digital oils; the house is adapted from an original photograph shot in September 2003.*
Tech specs: Photoshop, Filter Forge, Filters Unlimited, Xero, DAP