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Contents: A White Heron
An illustrated text.
Harper's Magazine version
Sarah Orne Jewett
It was as bleak and sad a day as one could well imagine. The time of year was early in December, and the daylight was already fading, though it was only a little past the middle of the afternoon. John Finch was driving toward his farm, which he had left early in the morning to go to town; but to judge from his face one might have been sure that his business had not been successful. He looked pinched and discouraged with something besides the cold, and he hardly noticed the faithful red horse which carefully made its way over the frozen ruts of the familiar road.
There had lately been a few days of mild weather, when the ground had had time to thaw, but with a sudden blast of cold this deep mud had become like iron, rough and ragged, and jarring the people and horses cruelly who tried to travel over it. The road lay through the bleak country side of the salt-marshes which stretched themselves away toward the sea, dotted here and there with hay-cocks, and crossed in wavering lines by the inlets and ditches, filled now with grayish ice, that was sinking and cracking as the tide ran out. The marsh-grass was wind-swept and beaten until it looked as soft and brown as fur; the wind had free course over it, and it looked like a deserted bit of the world; the battered and dingy flat-bottomed boats were fastened securely in their tiny harbors, or pulled far ashore as if their usefulness was over, not only for that season but for all time. In some late autumn weather one feels as if summer were over with forever, and as if no resurrection could follow such unmistakable and hopeless death.
Where the land was higher it looked rocky and rough, and behind the marshes there were some low hills looking as if they were solid stone to their cores, and sparingly overgrown with black and rigid cedars. These stood erect from the least to the greatest, a most unbending and heartless family, which meant to give neither shade in summer nor shelter in winter. No wind could overturn them, for their roots went down like wires into the ledges, and no drought could dry away the inmost channels of vigorous though scanty sap that ran soberly through their tough, unfruitful branches.
In one place the hills formed an amphitheatre open on the side toward the sea, and here on this bleak day it seemed as if some dismal ceremony were going forward. As one caught sight of the solemn audience of black and gloomy cedars that seemed to have come together to stand on the curving hillsides, one instinctively looked down at the level arena of marsh-land below, half fearing to see some awful sacrificial rite or silent combat. It might be an angry company of hamadryads who had taken the shape of cedar-trees on this day of revenge and terror. It was difficult to believe that one would ever see them again, and that the summer and winter days alike would find them looking down at the grave business which was invisible to the rest of the world. The little trees stood beside their elders in families, solemn and stern, and some miserable men may have heard the secret as they stumbled through the snow praying for shelter, lost and frozen on a winter night.
If you lie down along the rough grass in the slender shadow of a cedar and look off to sea, in a summer afternoon, you only hear a whisper like "Hush! hush!" as the wind comes through the stiff branches. The boughs reach straight upward; you cannot lie underneath and look through them at the sky; the tree all reaches away from the ground as if it had a horror of it, and shrank from even the breeze and the sunshine.
On this December day, as the blasts of wind struck them, they gave one stiff, unwilling bend, and then stood erect again. The road wound along between the sea-meadows and the hills, and poor John Finch seemed to be the only traveler. He was lost in thought, and the horse still went plodding on. The worn buffalo-robe was dragging from one side of the wagon, and had slipped down off the driver's knees. He hardly knew that he held the reins. He was in no hurry to get home, cold as it was, for he had only bad news to tell.
Polly Finch, his only daughter, was coming toward home from the opposite direction, and with her also things had gone wrong. She was a bright, good-natured girl of about twenty, but she looked old and care-worn that day. She was dressed in her best clothes, as if she had been away on some important affair, perhaps to a funeral, and she was shivering and wholly chilled in spite of the shawl which her mother had insisted upon her carrying. It had been a not uncomfortable morning for that time of year, and she had flouted the extra wrap at first, but now she hugged it close, and half buried her face in its folds. The sky was gray and heavy, except in the west, where it was a clear, cold shade of yellow. All the leafless bushes and fluffy brown tops of the dead asters and golden-rods stood out in exquisitely delicate silhouettes against the sky on the high road-sides, while some tattered bits of blackberry vine held still a dull glow of color. As Polly passed a barberry bush that grew above her she was forced to stop, for, gray and winterish as it had been on her approach, when she looked at it from the other side it seemed to be glowing with rubies. The sun was shining out pleasantly now that it had sunk below the clouds, and in these late golden rays the barberry bush had taken on a great splendor. It gave Polly a start, and it cheered her not a little, this sudden transformation, and she even went back along the road a little way to see it again as she had at first in its look of misery. The berries that still clung to its thorny branches looked dry and spoiled, but a few steps forward again made them shine out, and take on a beauty that neither summer nor autumn had given them, and Polly gave her head a little shake. "There are two ways of looking at more things than barberry bushes," she said, aloud, and went off with brisker steps down the road.
At home in the farm-house Mrs. Finch had been waiting for her husband and daughter to come, until she had grown tired and hungry and almost frightened. Perhaps the day had been longer and harder to her than to any one else. She had thought of so many cautions and suggestions that she might have given them both, and though the father's errand was a much more important one, still she had built much hope on the possibility of Polly's encounter with the school committee proving successful. Things had been growing very dark in Mr. Finch's business affairs, and they had all looked with great eagerness toward her securing a situation as teacher of one of the town schools. It was at no great distance, so that Polly could easily board at home, and many things seemed to depend upon it, even if the bank business turned out better than was feared. Our heroine had in her childhood been much praised for her good scholarship, and stood at the head of the district school, and it had been urged upon her father and mother by her teachers, and by other friends more or less wise, that she should have what they called an education. It had been a hard thing both for her father to find the money, and for her mother to get on without her help in the house-work, but they had both managed to get along, and Polly had acquitted herself nobly in the ranks of a neighboring academy, and for the last year had been a pupil in the normal school. She had been very happy in her school life, and very popular both with scholars and teachers. She was friendly and social by nature, and it had been very pleasant to her to be among so many young people. The routine and petty ceremony of her years of study did not fret her, for she was too strong and good-natured even to be worn upon or much tired with the unwholesome life she lived. It was easy enough for her to get her lessons, and so she went through with flying colors, and cried a little when the last day arrived; but she felt less regret than most of the girls who were turned out then upon the world, some of them claiming truthfully that they had finished their education, since they had not wit enough to learn anything more, either with school-books in their hands or without them.
It came to Polly's mind as she stood in a row with the rest of the girls, while the old minister who was chief of the trustees gave them their diplomas, and some very good advice besides: "I wonder why we all made up our minds to be teachers? I wonder if we are going to be good ones, and if I shouldn't have liked something else a great deal better?"
Certainly she had met with a disappointment at the beginning of her own career, for she had seen that it was necessary for her to be within reach of home, and it seemed as if every school of the better class had been provided with a teacher. She had been so confident of her powers and mindful of her high standing at the normal school that it seemed at first that a fine position ought to be hers for the asking. But one after another her plans had fallen to the ground, until this last one, which had just been decided against her also. It had never occurred to her at first as a possible thing that she should apply for the small town school in her own district; to tell the truth, it was a great downfall of pride to the family, but they had said to each other that it would be well for Polly to have the winter at home, and in spring she could suit herself exactly. But everybody had felt the impossibility of her remaining idle, and no wonder her heart sank as she went toward home, knowing that she must tell them that another had been chosen to fill the place.
Mrs. Finch looked at the fire, and looked out of the window down the road, and took up the stocking she was knitting and tried to work at it; but every half-hour that went by doubled her uneasiness, and she looked out of the window altogether at last, until the fire was almost burned out, and the knitting lay untouched in her lap. She was a tall, fine-looking woman, with a worn, well-featured face, and thinnish hair that had once been light brown, but was much faded and not a little gray in these later years. It had been thought a pity that she married John Finch, who had not half so much force as she, and with all her wisdom and affection and economy, every year had seemed to take away something from them, leaving few gifts and gains in exchange. At first her pride and ambition, which were reasonable enough, always clung to her husband's plans and purposes; but as she saw year after year that he stayed exactly in the same place, making little headway either in farming or anything else, she began to live more and more in her daughter's life, and looked eagerly to see her win her way and gain an honorable place, first in her school life, and afterward as a teacher. She had never dreamed beforehand of the difficulties that had assailed Polly since she came home the head of her class in June. She had supposed that it would be an easy thing for her now to find a good situation in a high or private school, with a capital salary. She hated to think there was nothing for her but to hold sway over the few scholars in the little unpainted school-house half a mile down the road, even though the girl, who was the very delight of her heart, should be with her so much more than they had expected at first. She was a kind, simple-hearted, good woman, this elder Mary Finch, and she had borne her failing fortunes with perfect bravery; she had been the sunshine and inspiration of the somewhat melancholy house for many years.
At last she saw her husband coming along the road, and even that far-away first glimpse of him told her that she would hear no good news. He pulled up the fallen buffalo-robe over his lap, and sat erect, and tried to look unconcerned as he drove into the yard, but it was some time before he came into the house. He unharnessed the horse with stiff and shaking hands, and gave him his supper, and turned the old wagon and backed it into its place before he came in. Polly had come home also by that time, and was sitting by the window, and did not turn to speak to him. His wife looked old, and her face was grayish, and the lines of it were hard and drawn in strange angles.
"You had better sit right down by the fire, John," she told him, "and I'll get you and Polly a good hot supper right away. I think, like 's not, you didn't get a mouthful of dinner."
"I've no need to tell you I've got bad news," he said. "The bank's failed, and they won't pay more 'n ten cents on a dollar, if they make out to do that. It's worse than we ever thought it could be. The cashier got speculating, and he's made 'way with about everything."
It seemed to him as if he had known this for years, it was such an old, sad story already, and he almost wondered at the surprise and anger that his wife and Polly showed at once. It made him a little impatient that they would ask him so many eager questions. This was the worst piece of misfortune that had ever come to him. Although they had heard the day before that the bank would pass its dividend, and had been much concerned and troubled, and had listened incredulously to worse stories of the condition of the bank's finances, they had looked for nothing like this.
There was little to be said, but everything to be thought and feared. They had put entire confidence in this bank's security, and the money which had belonged to John Finch's father had always been left there to draw a good yearly interest. The farm was not very productive, and they had depended upon this dividend for a large part of their ready money. Much of their other property had dwindled away. If ever there had been a prospect of making much off the farm, something had interfered. One year a piece of woodland had been cleared at considerable expense, and on the day before its unlucky owner was to begin to haul the great stacks of fire-wood down to the little wharf in the marshes, from whence they could be carried away to market by schooners, the fire got in, and the flames of the fallen pines made a torch that lighted all that part of the country for more nights than one. There was no insurance and no remedy, and, as an old neighbor told the unhappy owner, "the woods would not grow again in his time." John Finch was a cheerful man naturally, and very sure of the success of his plans; it was rare to see him so entirely down-hearted and discouraged, but lately he had seemed to his wife somebody to be protected and looked after even more than Polly. She sometimes felt the weight of the years she had lived, and as if she must be already very old, but he was the same boyish person to her as when she had married him; it often seemed possible that he should have his life still before him. She could not believe until very lately that it was too late for him to start out on any enterprise. Time had, indeed, touched him more lightly than it had herself, though he had the face and something of the manner and faults of an elderly and unsuccessful man.
They sat together in the kitchen, which had suddenly grown dark. Mary Finch was as cold as either of her companions, and was angry with herself for her shivering and want of courage. She was almost afraid to speak at last for fear of crying; she felt strangely unstrung and weak. The two women had told John of Polly's disappointment, that the agent for the district had given the school to his own niece, a young girl from Salem, who was to board at his house, and help his wife as much as she could with the house-work out of school-hours. "It's all of a piece to-day," groaned the farmer. "I'm sorry for ye, Polly."
"She may hear of something yet," said Mrs. Finch, making a great effort to speak cheerfully. "You know they have her name at the normal school; people are always sending there for teachers, and oftentimes one fails at the last minute through sickness, and I shouldn't wonder if Polly found a good place yet in that way."
"I declare I don't know how we shall get along," moaned Polly's father, to whom his daughter's trouble seemed only a small part of the general misfortunes. "Here's winter coming, and I'm likely to be laid up any day with my rheumatics, and I don't see how we can afford even to take a boy to work for his board and clothes. I've got a few trees I can cut, and one cow I can sell; but there are the taxes to pay, and the minister, and money to lay out on fences, come spring. The farm ran behind last year, too."
Polly rose impatiently and took down a lamp from the high chimney-shelf, knocking down the match-box as she did so, which was, after all, a good deal of relief. She put the light on the floor while she picked up the scattered matches, and her mother took a good look at her, and was somehow made to feel stronger at the sight of Polly's face.
"I guess we'd all better have some supper," said the girl. "I never should feel so discouraged if I wasn't hungry. And now I'm going to tell you what I mean to do. I'm going to put right to and go to work out-doors and in, and I'm going to help father same as if I were a boy. I believe I should like farming now twice as well as teaching, and make a good deal more money at it. I haven't a gift for teaching, and I know it, but I don't mean that what I learned shall be thrown away. Now we've got hay for the stock, plenty of it, and we've got potatoes and apples and turnips and cider in the cellar, and a good pig to kill, and so there's no danger that we shall starve. I'm just as strong as I can be, and I am going right to work, at any rate until I get a school with a first-rate salary that'll be worth more than my help will here."
"I'm sure I don't want you to throw away such a good education as you've had, for us," said Mrs. Finch, sorrowfully. "I want you to be somebody, Polly, and take your right place in the world."
But Polly answered stoutly that she wasn't sure it was a good education until she saw whether it was any use to her. There were too many second-rate teachers already, and she hadn't any reason to suppose she would be a first-rate one. She believed that people had better learn to do the things they were sure to have to do. She would rather be a boy, and farm it, than teach any school she ever saw, and for this year, at any rate, she was going to see whether her book-learning wasn't going to be some help at home. "I did the best I could at school," she said, "and it was easy enough to get my lessons, but now I've come against a dead-wall. I don't see but you both need me, and I'm well and strong as anybody alive. I'd a good deal rather work at home a while than be penned up with a lot of children, and none of us more than half know what we're about. I want to think a good deal more about teaching school before I begin to try in earnest."
"I shall be glad to have you help your mother," said John Finch, disconsolately, "and we'll manage to get along somehow."
"Don't be afraid, father," responded Polly, in really cheerful tones, as if she assumed her new situation formally at that moment. She went slowly down cellar with the lamp, leaving her parents in darkness; but by this time the tea-kettle had begun to sing, and a great glow of coals showed through the front slide of the stove.
Mr. Finch lifted himself out of his chair, and stumbled about to get the lantern and light it, and then went out to feed the cattle. He still looked chilled, and as if all happiness had forsaken him. It was some little time before he returned, and the table was already set, and supper was nearly cooked and ready to be eaten. Polly had made a pot of coffee, and drank her first cup with great satisfaction, and almost without taking breath; but her father tasted his and did not seem to care for it, eating only a little food with evident effort.
"Now I thought you would relish a good cup of coffee," said his wife, with much concern; but the man answered sadly that he couldn't eat; he felt all broken down.
"It was a perishing day for you to take that long ride. It's the bleakest road round here, that marsh road is, and you hardly ate a mouthful of breakfast. I wish you had got something to warm you up before you started to come back," said his wife, looking at him anxiously. "I believe I'll get you something now," and she went to find a treasured bottle, long stored away to be used in case of chill or illness, for John Finch was a temperate man.
"I declare I forgot to milk," he said, hopelessly. "I don't know 's such a thing ever happened to me before. I thought there was something else when I was out to the barn, and I sat down on the grin'-stone frame and tried to think what it was, but I couldn't."
"I'll milk," said Polly; and she whisked up-stairs and replaced her best dress, which had been already turned up and well aproned, by a worn old frock which she had used on days of cleaning, or washing, or other rough work, when she had lent a hand to help her mother. It was nothing new for her, a farmer's daughter born and bred, to undertake this work, but she made a distinct change of direction that night, and as she sat milking in the cold barn by the dull light of the lantern a certain pleasure stole over her. She was not without her ambitions, but they had never flown with free wings up an imaginary career of school-teaching. "I do believe mother and I can earn money enough to take care of us," she said to herself, "and next spring I'm going to set out as much land as father will let me have with strawberries." Her thoughts never were busier than that night. The two cows looked round at her with surprise, and seemed to value her good-natured words and hurried pats as she left them. She disturbed a sleepy row of hens perched on the rail of the hay cart, and thought it was a pity there was not a better place for them, and that they should be straying about. "I'm going to read up some of the oldnumbers of the Agriculturist," she said, "and see what I can do about having eggs to sell." It more was evident that Polly was fired with a great enthusiasm, but she remembered suddenly another new great interest which was a secret as yet even from her mother. This remembrance gave her a little uneasiness.
It was still early when the supper table had been cleared away, and the milk strained and set aside in the pantry. John Finch had drawn his chair close to the stove, and when his wife and daughter sat down also, ready to begin the evening which showed so little promise of hilarity, they saw that he was crying.
"Why, father!" Polly exclaimed, half frightened, for this was something she did not remember ever seeing since she was a child. And his wife said nothing, but came and stood beside him and watched him as if the vague sense of coming trouble which had haunted her all day was going to explain itself by some terrible crisis.
"I'm all broken down," the poor man sobbed. "I used to think I was going to be somebody, and get ahead, and nothing has gone as I wanted it to. I'm in debt more than you think, and I don't know which way to look. The farm don't yield me as it used to, and I don't grudge what we've done for the girl, but it's been all we could carry, and here she's failed of getting a place to teach. Everything seems to go against us."
This was really most sad and death-like; it truly seemed as if the wheels of existence had stopped; there seemed to be nothing to follow this unhappy day but disgrace and despair. But Polly was the first to speak, and her cheeks grew very red: "Father, I don't think you have any right to speak so. If we can't make our living one way, we will another. Losing that money in the bank isn't the worst thing that could have happened to us, and now I am going to take hold with you right here at home, as I said before supper. You think there isn't much that a woman can do, but we'll see. How much do you owe?"
But John Finch shook his head sadly, and at first refused to tell. "It would have been nothing if I had had my bonds to help me out," he finally confessed, "but now I don't see how I ever can pay three hundred dollars."
In a little while he rose wearily, though it was only a little past six, and said that he must go to bed, and his wife followed him to his room as if he were a child. This breaking down was truly a most painful and frightful thing, and Polly was not surprised to be wakened from her uneasy sleep a few hours later, for she had worried and lain awake in a way that rarely happened, fearing that her father would be ill, and wondering what plans it would be best to make for his assistance in the coming year. She believed that they could do much better with the farm, and she made up her mind to be son and daughter both.
Later Mrs. Finch called her, hurriedly coming half-way up the staircase with a light. "Your father is sick," she said, anxiously. "I don't know whether it is more than a chill, but he's in great pain, and I wish we could get the doctor. Can't you wrap up warm and go over to Minton's and see if they can't send somebody?"
"There's nobody there," said Polly; "the boys are both away. I'll go myself, and get back before you begin to miss me;" and she was already dressing as fast as she could. In that quiet neighborhood she had no thought of fear; it was not like Polly to be afraid, at any rate; and after a few words to her father, and making a bright fire in the little fire-place of the bed-room, she put on her warm old hood and mittens, and her mother's great plaid shawl, and scurried away up the road. It was a mile and a half to the doctor's house, and with every step she grew more eager to reach it. The clouds had broken away somewhat, and the stars' bright rays came darting like glistening needles at one's eyes, so keen and piercing they were. The wind had gone down, and a heavy coldness had fallen upon the earth, as if the air, like water, had frozen and become denser. It seemed another world altogether, and the old dog, that had left his snug corner behind the kitchen stove to follow Polly, kept close at her side, as if he lacked his usual courage. On the ridges the cedar-trees stood up thinner and blacker than ever; the northern lights were making the sky white and strange with their mysterious light. Polly ran and walked by turns, feeling warmed and quickened by the exercise. She was not averse to the long walk at that time of night; she had a comfortable sense of the strong young life that was hers to use and command.
Suddenly she heard the sound of other footsteps besides her own on the frozen ground, and stopped, feeling for the first time anything like fear. Her first impulse was to hide, but the road was wide and unsheltered, and there was nothing to do but to go on. She thought next that it might be somebody whom she could send the rest of the way, and in another minute she heard a familiar whistle, and called out, not without relief, "Is that you, Jerry?"
The figure stopped, and answered nothing, and Polly hurried nearer, and spoke again.
"For Heaven's sake, what sends you out this time o' night?" asked the young man, almost impatiently; and Polly in her turn became a little angry with him, she could not have told why.
"I'm not out for pleasure," she answered, with some spirit. "Father is taken very sick; we are afraid it is pneumonia; and I'm going for the doctor. There was nobody to send."
"I was coming up from Portsmouth to-day," said the young man, "and I lost the last train, so I came on a freight train with some fellows I know, and I thought I'd foot it over from the depot. We were delayed a good while or it wouldn't have been so late. There was a car off the track at Beverly."
He had turned, and was walking beside Polly, who wondered that he had not sense enough to offer to call the doctor for her. She did not like his gallantry, and was in no mood for friendliness. She noticed that he had been drinking, but he seemed perfectly sober; it was between Jerry Minton and herself that something almost like love-making had showed itself not long before, but somehow any tenderness she had suspected herself of cherishing for him had suddenly vanished from her heart and mind.
"I was all knocked of a heap in Salem this morning to hear that the bank had failed. Our folks will lose something, but I suppose it'll about ruin your father. Seems to affect him a good deal, don't it?"
"It hasn't quite ruined us," said Polly, angrily, and walked faster and faster.
"I've been turning it over in my mind to-day a good deal," said Jerry. "I hope you will call on me for anything I can do, 'specially now your father's going to be laid up."
"Thank you," said Polly, stiffly; and presently she stopped in the road, and turned and looked at him in a sharp and not very admiring way.
"You might as well go home," she told him, not unkindly. "I've got to the village now, and I shall ride home with the doctor; there's no need for you to come back out of your way." And Jerry, after a feeble remonstrance, obeyed.
The doctor was used to being summoned at such hours, and when he found it was Polly Finch he dressed hurriedly, and came down, brimful of kindness and sympathy, to let her in.
He listened almost in silence to what Polly had to say of the case, and then, taking a bottle here and there from his stores in the little room that served him as his office, he fastened his great-coat, and pulled down the fur cap that had been a valiant helmet against the blows of many winter storms, and they went out together to the stable. The doctor was an elderly man and lame, and he was delighted with the brisk way in which his young companion stepped forward and helped him. The lantern that hung in the warm little stable was not very bright, but she quickly found her way about, and the horse was soon harnessed. She found that the harness needed tightening, the doctor having used it that day for another carriage, and as he saw her try it and rebuckle it, he felt a warm glow of admiration, and said to himself that not one woman in a hundred would have done such a thing. They wrapped themselves in the heavy blankets and buffalo-skins, and set forth, the doctor saying that they could not go much faster than a walk.
He was still a little sleepy, and Polly did not have much to say at first, except in answer to one or two questions which he asked about her father's condition; but at last she told him of her own accord of the troubles that had fallen upon them that day. It already seemed a week to her since the morning; she felt as if she had grown years older instead of hours.
"Your father has a bad trouble about the heart," said the doctor, hesitatingly. "I think it is just as well you should know it, and if this is pneumonia, it may go very hard with him. And if he pulls through, as I hope he will if we catch him in time, you must see to it that he is very careful all the rest of the winter, and doesn't expose himself in bad weather. He mustn't go into the woods chopping, or anything of that sort."
"I'm much obliged to you for telling me," said Polly, bravely. "I have made up my mind to stay right at home. I was in hopes to get a school, but I couldn't do it, and now I can see it was meant that I shouldn't, for mother couldn't get along without me if father's going to be sick. I keep wishing I had been a boy," - and she gave a shaky little laugh that had a very sad tone in it, - "for it seems as if father needed my help on the farm more than mother does in the house, and I don't see why he shouldn't have it," she confessed, filled with the courage of her new opinion. "I believe that it is the only thing for me to do. I always had a great knack at making things grow, and I never should be so happy anywhere as working out-doors and handling a piece of land. I'd rather work with a hoe than a ferule any day," and she gave the queer little laugh again. Nobody would have suspected she found it so hard to bear the doctor's bad news.
"But what is it you mean to do?" asked the doctor, in a most respectful tone, though he was inwardly much amused.
Polly hesitated. "I have been thinking that we might raise a good many more early vegetables, and ever so much more poultry. Some of our land is so sheltered that it is very early, you know, and it's first-rate light loam. We always get peas and potatoes and beans long before the Mintons and the rest of the people down our way, and there's no trouble about a market."
"But you'll have to hire help," the doctor suggested.
And Polly answered that she had thought of that, but she knew she could manage somehow. "It's a new thing, you see, doctor," she said, much encouraged by his evident interest, "but I mean to work my way through it. Father has sold wood and sold hay, and if we had too much butter or too many eggs, and more early potatoes than we wanted, he would sell those; but it seemed as if the farm was there only to feed us, and now I believe I can make it feed a good many other people besides; and we must get money somehow. People let girls younger than I get married, and nobody thinks it is any risk to let them try housekeeping. I'm going to try farmkeeping."
The old doctor laughed. "You've got a wise head for such a young one," he said, "and now I'll help you every way I can. I'm not a rich man, but I'm comfortably off for a country doctor, and I've got more money put away than I am likely to use; so, if you fall short at any time, you just come and tell me, and nobody shall know anything about it, and you can take your own time to pay it back. I know more about doctoring than I do about farming, or I'd give you plenty of advice. But you go ahead, Polly."
Polly nestled down into the buffaloes, feeling already that she had become a business woman. The old wagon bumped and shook as they went along, and in the dim light Polly caught sight of the barberry bush - only a darker shadow on the high bank at the side of the road - and she thought of it affectionately as if it were a friend. Young Minton, whom they overtook at last, called out loudly some good wish that they might find Mr. Finch better, and the doctor asked sharply who he was, as they drove by. Polly told him, not without a feeling of embarrassment, which was very provoking to her.
"I must say I never liked that tribe," said the doctor, hastily. "I always hate to have them send for me."
When they reached the farm, Polly urged the doctor to go into the house at once. There was a bright light in the kitchen and in the bedroom that opened out of it, and the girl was almost afraid to go in after she had led the horse into the barn and covered him with the blanket. The old sorrel was within easy reach of the overhanging edge of the haymow, and she left him munching comfortably. As she opened the inner door of the kitchen she heard her father's voice, weak and sharp, and the doctor speaking in assuring tones with hearty strength, but the contrast of the two voices sounded very sad to Polly. It seemed to her as if she had been gone a great while, and she feared to look at her father lest he might have changed sadly. As she came to the bedroom door, the sight of her rosy-cheeked and eager, sorry face seemed to please him, and his own face brightened.
"You're a good girl, Polly," said he. "I'm sorry you had such a bad time." He looked very ill already, and Polly could not say anything in answer. She rebuilt the fire, and then went to stand by the table, as she used when she was a little child, to see the doctor take out his doses of medicine.
Very early in the morning Jerry Minton's mother came knocking at the door, which Polly had locked after the doctor had gone away in the night. She had pushed the bolt with unwonted care, as if she wished to bar the entrance to any further trouble that might be lying in wait for them outside. Mrs. Minton was ready with her expressions of sympathy, but somehow Polly wished she would go away. She took a look at the sick man, who was sleeping after the suffering and wakefulness of the night, and shook her head ominously, for which Polly could have struck her. She was an unpleasant, croaking sort of woman, and carried in her whole manner a consciousness of the altered fortunes of the Finches; and she even condoled with Polly on her disappointment about the school.
"Jerry spoke about meeting you going for the doctor," she said in conclusion. "I told him I didn't know what you would think about catching him out so late at night; but he was to Portsmouth, and mistook the time of the train. I've been joking him for some time past. I've about made up my mind there's some attraction to Portsmouth. He was terrible took with that Miss Hallett who was stopping to the minister's in the summer."
This was more than Polly could bear, for it was only a short time since Mrs. Minton had been paying her great attention, and wishing that she and Jerry would make a match of it, as the farms joined, and the farm-work was growing too heavy for her as she became older.
"If you mean Mary Hallett, she was married in September to a young man in Boston, partner in a commission firm," said Polly; and Mrs. Minton, for that time at any rate, was routed horse and foot.
"I hate that woman!" she said, angrily, as she shut the door, not very gently, after her.
It was a long, hard illness that followed, and the younger and the elder Mary Finch were both tired and worn out before it ended in a slow convalescence that in its dangers and troubles was almost as bad as the illness itself. The doctor was most kind and helpful in other ways than with his medicines. It was a most cheerful and kindly presence, and more than once Polly drove back to the village with him, or went with her own horse to bring him to the farm, and they became fast friends. The girl knew without being told that it would be a long time before her father would grow strong again, if that time ever came at all. They had got on very well without help, she and her mother. Some of the neighbors had offered their services in-doors and out, but these latter offers were only occasionally accepted.
The oxen had been hired by a man who was hauling salt hay to town, and Polly had taken care of the horse and the two cows. She had split the firewood and brought it in, and had done what little rough work had to be attended to in these weeks in spite of her mother's unwillingness. To tell the truth, she enjoyed it after the heat and stillness of the house, and when she could take the time to run out for a little while, it was always to take a look at some part of the farm, and though many of her projects proved to be castles in the air, she found almost her only pleasure in these sad winter days in building them and thinking them over.
Before her father's illness she would have turned most naturally to Jerry Minton for help and sympathy, for he had made himself very kind and pleasant to her then. Polly had been thought a good match, since she was an only child, and it was everywhere known that John Finch and his wife had both inherited money. Besides, it gave the more dignity to her position that she had been so long away at school, and such good accounts of her standing there had reached her native place; and Polly was uncommonly good-looking, if the truth must be told, which Jerry Minton's eyes had been quick to notice. Though it was known at once through the town what a plight the Finches' affairs were in, Jerry had come at first, apparently unconscious of his mother's withdrawal of his attentions, with great show of sympathy and friendliness, to offer to watch with the sick man by night, or to be of any use by day, and he had been much mortified and surprised at Polly's unmistakable repulse. Her quick instinct had detected an assumption of condescension and patronage on his part as well as his mother's, and the growing fondness which she had felt earlier in that season turned to a dislike that grew much faster in the winter days. Her mother noticed the change in her manner, and one night as they sat together in the kitchen Mrs. Finch whispered a gentle warning to her daughter. "I thought one time that there might be something between you and Jerry," she said. "I hope you won't let your duty to your father and me stand in the way of your settling yourself comfortably. I shouldn't like to think we were going to leave you alone. A woman's better to have a home of her own."
Polly turned so red that her mother could see the color even in the dim light by which they watched.
"Don't you worry about me," said the girl, "This is my home, and I wouldn't marry Jerry Minton if he were the President."
That was a black and snowless winter until late in January. There, near the sea, such seasons are not so uncommon as they are farther inland; but the desolation of the landscape struck Polly Finch all the more forcibly since it was answered to by the anxiety and trouble that had fallen into her life. She had not been at home in midwinter for several years before, and in those earlier days she had never noticed the outward world as she had learned to do as she grew older. The farm was a pleasant group of fields in summer, lying among the low hills that kept away both the winds from the sea and the still keener and bitterer northwest wind. Yet the plain, warm, story-and-a-half house, with its square front yard, with lilac and rose bushes, and the open side yard with its close green turf, and the barns and outbuildings beyond, was only a little way from the marshes. From Polly's own upper window there was an outlook that way over a low slope of one of the pasture hills, and sometimes when she felt tired and dreary, and looked out there, it seemed to her as if the half-dozen black cedars were standing there watching the house, and waiting for a still greater sorrow and evil fortune to go in at the door. Our heroine's life was not a little lonely, and it would have been much worse if she had not been so busy and so full of care. She missed the girls who had been her companions at school, and from having her duties marked out for her by her teachers, and nothing to do but to follow set tasks, and do certain things at certain hours, it was a great change to being her own mistress, charged with not only her own but other people's welfare.
The women from the few neighboring houses who came in to pay friendly visits, or to help with the housework, said very good things about Polly afterward. It had been expected that she would put on at least a few fine airs, but she was so dutiful, and worked so hard and so sensibly, and with such manifest willingness and interest, that no one could help praising her. A very old neighbor, who was still mindful of the proprieties of life, though she had become too feeble to be of much practical use in the event of a friend's illness, came one afternoon to pay a visit. She was terribly fatigued after the walk which had been so long for her, and Polly waited upon her kindly, and brought her some refreshments, all in the middle of one of her busiest afternoons. Poor old Mrs. Wall! she made her little call upon the sick man, who was almost too weak to even show his gratitude that she had made so great an effort to keep up the friendly custom, and after saying sadly that she used to be a great hand to tend the sick, but her day was over, she returned to the kitchen, when Polly drew the big rocking-chair to the warmest corner, and entertained her to the best of her power. The old woman's eye fell upon a great pile of newspapers.
"I suppose you are a great hand to read, after all your schooling?" and Polly answered that she did like to read very much, and added: "Those are old numbers of the Agriculturist. Father has taken it a good many years, and I've taken to studying farming."
Mrs. Wall noticed the little blush that followed this announcement, and did not question its seriousness and truthfulness.
"I'm going to help father carry on the farm," said Polly, suddenly, fearing that her guest might think she meant to marry, and only take the in-door part of the farm's business.
"Well, two heads are better than one," said the old lady, after a minute's reflection; "only an old horse and a young one don't always pull well together. But I can see, if my eyes aren't what they used to be, that you are a good smart girl, with some snap to ye. I guess you've got power enough to turn 'most any kind of a mill. There was my own first cousin Serena Allen, her husband was killed in the last war, and she was left with two children when she wasn't a great deal older than you be, and she run the farm, and lived well, and laid up a handsome property. She was some years older than I, but she hasn't been dead a great many years. She'd plow a piece of ground as well as a man. They used to call her Farmer Allen. She was as nice a woman as I ever knew."
Polly laughed more heartily than she had for a good while, and it did her father good to hear her; but later, when the visitor had gone, in spite of Polly's offer to drive her home a little later when another neighbor returned the horse, our friend watched her go away with feeble steps, a bent, decrepit figure, almost worn out with spending so many years in a world of hard work. She might have stood for a picture of old age, and Polly felt it as she stood at the window. It had never come home to her thoroughly before, the inevitableness of growing old, and of the limitation of this present life; how soon the body loses its power, and the strength of the mind wanes with it. All that old Mrs. Wall could do in this world was done, and her account was virtually closed. "Here I am just starting out," said unlucky John Finch's only daughter. "I did think I might be going to have a great career sometimes when I was at school, and here I am settling down just like everybody else, and only one wave, after all, instead of being a whole tide. And it isn't going to be a great while before I have as hard work to get up that little hill as old Mrs. Wall. But I'm going to beat even her cousin Serena Allen. I am going to be renowned as Farmer Finch."
Polly found it very hard to wait until it should be time to make her garden and plant it, and every day made her more impatient, while she plied her father with questions, and asked his opinion so many times as to the merits of different crops, that he was tired of the subject altogether. Through many seasons he had tried these same experiments, with not very great success, and he could not imagine the keen interest and enthusiasm with which Polly's soul was fired. She had never known such a late spring, and the scurries of snow in March and early April filled her with dismay, as if each had blighted and frost-bitten her whole harvest. The day the garden was plowed was warm and spring-like, and John Finch crept out slowly, with his stick held fast in a pale and withered-looking hand, to see the work go on. He groaned when he saw what a great piece of ground was marked out by the long first furrows, and felt a new sense of his defeated and weak condition. He began to protest angrily at what he believed to be his daughter's imprudent nonsense, but the thought struck him that Polly might know what she was about better than he did, and he fell back contentedly upon his confidence in her, and leaned on the fence in the sun, feeling very grateful that somebody else had taken things in charge, he was so dull and unequal to making any effort. "Polly's got power," he told himself several times that day, with great pride and satisfaction.
As the summer went on, and early potatoes from the Finch farm were first in the market, though everybody who saw them planted had believed they would freeze and never grow, and the other crops had sometimes failed, but for the most part flourished famously, Polly began to attract a good deal of attention, for she manifested uncommon shrewdness and business talent, and her enterprise, held in check by her father's experience, wrought wonders in the garden and fields. Over and over John Finch said, admiringly, to his wife, "How Polly does take hold of things!" and while he was quick to see the objections to her plans, and had failed in his own life affairs because he was afraid to take risk, he was easily persuaded into thinking it was worth while to do the old work in new ways. It was lucky that Polly had a grand capital of strength to live upon, for she gave herself little rest all summer long; she was up early every morning and hard at work, and only wished that the days were twice as long. She minded neither heat nor rain, and having seen her way clear to employ a strong country boy whom the doctor had met in his rounds and recommended, she took care of the great garden with his help; and when she had occasion to do battle with the market-men who came foraging that way, she came off victorious in the matter of fair prices.
Now that so much has been said about the days and the thoughts that led to the carrying out of so bold a scheme, it is a pity there is not time enough to give a history of the struggles and successes of that first summer. There never was a young man just "out of his time" and rejoicing in his freedom, who went to work more diligently and eagerly than Polly Finch, and few have set their wits at work on a New England farm half so intelligently. She managed a great flock of poultry with admirable skill. Her geese walked in a stately procession all that summer to and from their pleasure-ground at the edge of the marsh, and not a hen that stole her nest but was tracked to earth like a fox and cooped triumphantly. She tinkered the rickety bee-hives that stood in a long and unremunerative row in the garden until the bees became good housekeepers and excellent providers for very shame. She gathered more than one of the swarms herself without a sting, and by infinite diligence she waged war successfully on the currant worms, with the result that she had a great crop of currants when everybody else's came to grief. She wondered why the butter that she and her mother made brought only a third-rate price, and bought a pound of the very best for a pattern, and afterward was sparing of salt, and careful to churn while the cream was sweet and fresh. She sold the oxen, and bought another horse instead for the lighter team, which would serve her purpose better, and every morning, after the crops began to yield, a wagon-load of something or other went from the farm to market.
She was as happy as a queen, and as well and strong as girls ought to be; and though some people laughed a good deal, and thought she ought to be ashamed to work on the farm like a man, they were forced to like her all the better when they saw her; and when she came into church on Sunday, nobody could have said that she had become unwomanly and rough. Her hands grew to need a larger pair of gloves than she was used to wearing, but that did not trouble her; and she liked a story-book, or a book with more lessons in it still, better than ever she had. Two girls who had been her best friends at school came in the course of the summer to visit her, and were asked out into the garden, after the early breakfast, because she must weed the beets, and after sitting still for a while on a garden bench, they began to help her, and both got headaches; but at the end of the week, having caught the spirit and something of the enjoyment of her life, they would have been glad to spend the rest of the summer with her. There is something delightful in keeping so close to growing things, and one gets a great sympathy with the life that is in nature, with the flourishing of some plants and the hindered life of others, with the fruitfulness and the ripening and the gathering-in that may be watched and tended and counted on one small piece of ground.
Everything seemed to grow that she touched, and it was as if the strength of her own nature was like a brook that made everything green where it went. She had her failures and disappointments, and she reaped little in some places where she had looked for great harvests. The hay was partly spoiled by some wet weather, but there was still enough for their own stock, and they sold the poultry for double the usual money. The old doctor was Polly's firm friend, and he grew as fond of her as if she were his own daughter, and could hardly force himself to take the money she brought back in payment of a loan she had been forced to ask of him, unknown even to her mother, once when things went hard against her enterprise late in the spring.
John Finch gained strength slowly all that summer, but his heart grew lighter day by day, and he and Polly made enthusiastic plans in the summer evenings for increased sheep-raising on their wide-spread pasture-land, and for a great poultry-yard, which was to bring them not a little wealth. And on Thanksgiving-day, when our farmer counted up her gains finally, she was out of debt, and more than satisfied and contented. She said over and over again that she never should be happier than she had been that summer. But more than one short-sighted towns-woman wondered that she should make nothing of herself when she had had a good education, and many spoke as if Polly would have been more admirable and respectable if she had succeeded in getting the little town school teachership. She said herself that she was thankful for everything she had learned at school that had helped her about her farming and gardening, but she was not meant for a teacher. "Unless folks take a lesson from your example," said the doctor. "I've seen a good deal of human nature in my day, and I have found that people who look at things as they are, and not as they wish them to be, are the ones who succeed. And when you see that a thing ought to be done, either do it yourself or be sure you get it done. `Here I've no school to teach, and father has lost his money and his health. We've got the farm; but I'm only a girl. The land won't support us if we let it on the halves.['] That's what you might have said, and sat down and cried. But I liked the way you undertook things. The farm was going to be worked and made to pay; you were going to do it; and you did do it. I saw you mending up a bit of fence here and there, and I saw you busy when other folks were lazy. You're a good girl, Polly Finch, and I wish there were more like you," the doctor concluded. "You take hold of life in the right way. There's plenty of luck for you in the world. And now I'm going to let you have some capital this next spring, at a fair interest, or none, and you can put yourself in a way to make something handsome."
This is only a story of a girl whom fate and fortune seemed to baffle; a glimpse of the way in which she made the best of things, and conquered circumstances, instead of being what cowards call the victim of circumstances. Whether she will live and die as Farmer Finch, nobody can say, but it is not very likely. One thing is certain: her own character had made as good a summer's growth as anything on her farm, and she was ashamed to remember that she had ever thought seriously of loving Jerry Minton. It will be a much better man than he whom she falls in love with next. And whatever may fall to her lot later, she will always be glad to think that in that sad emergency she had been able to save her father and mother from anxiety and despair, and that she had turned so eagerly and readily to the work that was useful and possible when her own plans had proved impossible, and her father's strength had failed.
All that is left to be said of this chapter of her story is that one day when she was walking to the village on one of her rare and happy holidays she discovered that, in widening a bit of the highway, her friend the little barberry bush was to be uprooted and killed. And she took a spade that was lying idle, the workmen having gone down the road a short distance, and dug carefully around the roots, and put her treasure in a safe place by the wall. When she returned, later in the day, she shouldered it, thorns and all, and carried it home, and planted it in an excellent situation by the orchard fence; and there it still grows and flourishes. I suppose she will say to herself as long as she lives, when things look ugly and troublesome, "I'll see if the other side is any better, like my barberry bush."
"Farmer Finch" first appeared in Harper's Magazine (70:198-211) in January 1885, with an illustration by Anne Whitney (1821-1915). An important 19th-century American artist, Whitney made her reputation as a sculptor, but she was also an illustrator and a poet of modest reputation. Her most famous statues include Samuel Adams in the Statuary Hall of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. and Charles Sumner in Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA.
He and Polly made enthusiastic plans in the summer evenings.
The story was collected in A White Heron, from which this text is taken. Errors that have been corrected are indicated with brackets. If you find errors in this text or items you believe should be annotated, please contact the site manager.
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salt-marshes: See Jewett's A Marsh Island (Chapter 7 for example) for a description of salt marsh life.
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hamadryads: a wood-nymph said to live and die with the tree in which she resides.
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asters and golden-rods:
asters: The flower heads are often totally composed of petal-like ray flowers; they range in color from white and pale yellow to pink, rose, red, blue, purple, and violet. (Britannica Online; research, Barbara Martens)
goldenrod: "A plant of the genus Solidago, esp. S. Virgaurea, having a rod-like stem and a spike of bright yellow flowers." (Source: Oxford English Dictionary). [ Back ]
barberry bush: "A shrub (Berberis vulgaris) found native in Europe and N. America, with spiny shoots, and pendulous racemes of small yellow flowers, succeeded by oblong, red, sharply acid berries; the bark yields a bright yellow dye." (Source: Oxford English Dictionary). Wikipedia reports that the berries are edible, sharply flavored and rich in vitamin C. The berries contain berberine, which has various medicinal uses. The images of typical flowers and berries are from Wikipedia.
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normal school: a school for the training of teachers.
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Salem: A seaport in Massachusetts, north of Boston.
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rheumatics: pain and stiffness in muscles and joints.
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temperate man: In this case, temperate refers to Mr. Finch's consumption of alcohol, that he drank none at all, except as here for medicinal purposes.
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grin'-stone frame: grind stone; a turning stone would sit in a frame, to be spun with a handle or treadle for sharpening tools such as axes.
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Agriculturist: According to Frank Luther Mott in A History of American Magazines (New York: Appleton, 1930), the American Agriculturist was probably the most important and successful nineteenth-century agriculture magazine, lasting from 1842 until 1921 (p. 728).
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Portsmouth ... Beverly: Portsmouth is a seaport in New Hampshire. Beverly, Massachusetts is just north of Salem. Jerry's route and the proximity of Salem suggest that the Finch farm is near Salem.
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commission firm ... was routed horse and foot: a commission firm transacts business for others, employing commission agents. Before mechanized warfare, an army could be routed horse and foot if both its cavalry and foot-soldiers were thoroughly defeated and forced to leave the field.
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salt hay: a main feed crop of salt-marsh farms. See Jewett's A Marsh Island.
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her husband was killed in the last war: almost certainly this was the American Civil War, 1860-1865.
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out of his time: When an apprentice (normally male) has completed his training and may freely seek employment or go into business, he is said to be "out of his time."
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great harvests: Possibly an allusion to Exodus 16:17.
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let it on the halves: to rent out land and pay half the expenses in order to receive half of the land's income.
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luck for you in the world: See Jewett's essay, "Lucky People."
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College
Harper's Magazine version
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Contents: A White Heron