Old Esther Dudley (North American Folk Tale)

Boston had surrendered. Washington was advancing from the heights where he had trained his guns on the British works, and Sir William Howe lingered at the door of Province House,–last of the royal governors who would stand there,–and cursed and waved his hands and beat his heel on the step, as if he were crushing rebellion by that act. The sound brought an old woman to his side. “Esther Dudley!” he exclaimed. “Why are you not gone?”

“I shall never leave. As housekeeper for the governors and pensioner of the king, this has been my home; the only home I know. Go back, but send more troops. I will keep the house till you return.”

“Grant that I may return,” he cried. “Since you will stay, take this bag of guineas and keep this key until a governor shall demand it.”

Then, with fierce and moody brow, the governor went forth, and the faded eyes of Esther Dudley saw him nevermore. When the soldiers of the republic cast about for quarters in Boston town, they spared the official mansion to this old woman. Her bridling toryism and assumption of old state amused them and did no harm; indeed, her loyalty was half admired; beside, nobody took the pride in the place that she did, or would keep it in better order. That she sometimes had a half-dozen of unrepentant codgers in to dinner, and that they were suspected of drinking healths to George III. in crusted port, was a fact to blink. Rumor had it that not all her guests were flesh and blood, but that she had an antique mirror across which ancient occupants of the house would pass in shadowy procession at her command, and that she was wont to have the Shirleys, Olivers, Hutchinsons, and Dudleys out of their graves to hold receptions there; so a touch of dread may have mingled in the feeling that kept the populace aloof.

Living thus by herself, refusing to hear of rebel victories, construing the bonfires, drumming, hurrahs, and bell-ringing to signify fresh triumphs for England, she drifted farther and farther out of her time and existed in the shadows of the past. She lighted the windows for the king”s birthday, and often from the cupola watched for a British fleet, heeding not the people below, who, as they saw her withered face, repeated the prophecy, with a laugh “When the golden Indian on Province House shall shoot his arrow and the cock on South Church spire shall crow, look for a royal governor again.” So, when it was bandied about the streets that the governor was coming, she took it in no wise strange, but dressed herself in silk and hoops, with store of ancient jewels, and made ready to receive him. In truth, there was a function, for already a man of stately mien, and richly dressed, was advancing through the court, with a staff of men in wigs and laced coats behind him, and a company of troops at a little distance. Esther Dudley flung the door wide and dropping on her knees held forth the key with the cry, “Thank heaven for this hour! God save the king!”

The governor put off his hat and helped the woman to her feet. “A strange prayer,” said he; “yet we will echo it to this effect: For the good of the realm that still owns him to be its ruler, God save King George.”

Esther Dudley stared wildly. That face she remembered now,–the proscribed rebel, John Hancock; governor, not by royal grant, but by the people”s will.

“Have I welcomed a traitor? Then let me die.”

“Alas! Mistress Dudley, the world has changed for you in these later years. America has no king.” He offered her his arm, and she clung to it for a moment, then, sinking down, the great key, that she so long had treasured, clanked to the floor.

“I have been faithful unto death,” she gasped. “God save the king!”

The people uncovered, for she was dead.

“At her tomb,” said Hancock, “we will bid farewell forever to the past. A new day has come for us. In its broad light we will press onward.”

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