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Contents: A White Heron


Sarah Orne Jewett

     The two sisters -- the old Miss Deans, as people had begun to call them -- had always lived together, and what had happened to one happened to the other. They often said that what one knew the other knew; and since they had spent their years very quietly, the things that each sister thought best worth saying had been said many times over. For all this, they were as different as they could be. Mary was Mary-like -- a little too easy and loving-hearted; and Martha was Martha-like -- a little too impatient with foolish folks, and forgetting to be affectionate while she tried to be what she called just. Sometimes she thought her younger sister visionary and sentimental; for Martha was, before all things, practical and straightforward, and there lurked a little pride in her heart because she did not see how Mary could get on without her own forethought and provision for their needs.

     The two sisters were very much respected in the village where they lived. They sewed for their living; they were tailoresses by trade, and though they did not make so many suits of clothes since their neighbors found the ready-made clothing shops so cheap and convenient, they made little boys' first suits and stray jackets and trousers whenever they could. They mended them, too, for one or two busy neighbors who could afford to pay them. You might hear it said twenty times a year, "How should we ever get along without Mary and Martha Dean!" And more than once it had been questioned who could take their places if anything happened to the good women. Martha was usually strong and vigorous, short and thick-set in appearance, and a little given to bustling if anything particular were going on. She was an excellent hand to make over a carpet; she was an extremely judicious and sensible person. It was Martha who had been called upon to go and keep house for her townspeople when they went away. But more than one neighbor had dearly liked to have Mary Dean in the sick-room, she was so gentle and quiet, and did not insist upon doing something when there was nothing to do, as her good, anxious, willing sister did once in a while. Yet everybody called Martha a splendid nurse; she was so capable, they said; and most people liked to hear her talk to the sick, and tell them they were nervous and notional, and there wasn't anything great the matter with them, and she had seen folks twice as bad off. There was no gainsaying the fact that this treatment occasionally did good; for one thing, many friends had as much confidence in Martha Dean as in the doctor, and it was good for them that she rallied their hopes; "where there's a will there's a way" being as often true about getting well as it is about getting rich. But when tall, thin Mary, with her pleased, absentminded look, stole into a bedroom on a dreary day and said nothing but "How do you do?" or "I thought perhaps you'd like to have company," and laid on the counterpane a very small tea-rose which was known to have bloomed on a little bush that had been tended like a baby, and brought through the winter only by the greatest care -- when Mary Dean did this, it might be thought that she was too wistful and unreviving for a sick-room. Yet many a patient wished more than ever to get well again, if only to do something for this kind nurse in return. They were both useful in their way. It must be confessed that Martha made a great deal the best gruel; but sometimes you wanted one and sometimes the other, and meant no disrespect to the slighted sister.

     They lived together on a hilltop just outside the village. The faded yellow story-and-a-half house looked as if it had strayed away a little to be by itself. Perhaps somebody was influenced to build it there so that it would be all ready for Mary Dean, who loved quiet more and more as she grew older. Martha often fretted, and wished that she were in the village. She thought the half a mile a longish walk in bad weather, and was sure they would get more to do if they were right among folks. You would do twenty-five cents' worth yourself many a time rather than rig all up in a rainstorm to lug it up a long hill! If there had been more land with the little house, Martha was sure they could sell it to advantage; but whenever she talked about that, as she would sometimes, in a most fierce way, her sister provoked her a little by not consenting to see the advantage. Mary would only say, "Perhaps you know best," or, "Do you think we could find just the right house?" but she always looked utterly miserable, and brightened up when, after a season of gloomy silence, her more energetic sister would speak about something else. Mary loved every blade of grass on their fifth part of an acre; she loved even the great ledge that took up part of their small domain, and made the rest scorched and dry in midsummer. It seemed to her, if she had to leave the house, that she must give up, not only seeing the sunsets, but the memory of all the sunsets she could remember. The good women were growing old. Martha was rheumatic in cold weather, and it was Martha who went oftenest to the village and upon whom most of the inconvenience came. "I expect to live and die here," she said, one day, to a new customer, who asked them if they had always lived in the old house; "that is, provided I don't die on the road goin' and comin'."

     One day, about the middle of November, the sisters were both at home, and sat each by her chosen window, stitching busily. Sometimes Mary would stop for a minute or two, and look out across the country, as if she really took pleasure in seeing the leafless trees against the gray sky, and the band of pale yellow in the southwest, the soft pale brown of the fields and pastures, and a bronzed oak here and there against the blackish-green pine woods. Martha thought it a very bleak, miserable sort of day; her window overlooked the road to the village, and hardly anybody had gone by all the afternoon.

     "I believe the only thing that would make it worth while to live 'way out here," she said, energetically, "would be a sewing-machine. I could take regular work then from Torby's shop, as some of the folks are goin' to do, and then we could have something to depend upon. You ain't able to go out all weathers, and never was, and 't was all I could do to get through last winter. One time -- don't you rec'lect? -- we was shut up here four days, and couldn't have got to the village, to save us, in that big storm. It makes a great difference about the passing since they cut that new cross-road. And I should like to live where I could be reasonably certain of meetin' privileges; it did seem good to go to Friday evenin' meetin' last week when I was to the Ellis's. I can't feel right to go away and leave you alone, and folks ain't likely to want us both to once, as they used to a good deal."

     Mary sighed a little. She knew all these arguments well; she knew that what they wanted was steady work at home in winter. They had only a little money in the bank, for, thrifty as they were, they were unfortunate too, and had lost by a railroad failure a few years ago almost all their lifetime's savings. They could not go out to work much longer, Mary knew that well. Martha need not say it over so many times; and she looked up at Martha, and was surprised, as if it were the first time she had ever noticed it, to see that she was almost an old woman. Never quite that! The brisk, red-cheeked girl who had been her childish pride and admiration could never be anything else, in spite of the disguises and changes with which time had masked her faded countenance. Martha had a lover, too, in the days of the red cheeks; sometimes Mary wondered at her bravery in being so cheerful and happy; for the elder sister had taken her life as it came, with such resignation and uncomplainingness. Perhaps Mary felt the loss of the lover more than Martha herself, who had suffered at first, but the grief had grown vague years ago. They had not been engaged very long, and she had hardly grown used to her new relationship before his sudden death came. She had often told herself that it was all for the best, and in spite of that liked to have people know that she was not exactly like other unmarried women who never had been urged to change their situation. But when Martha had been sitting in silence, lost in thought, and Mary's tender sympathies had woven many happy dreams for her, she was apt to shatter the dreams at last by some very unsentimental remark about the jacket they were making, or the price of tea. No doubt she often had her own sad thoughts, for all that.

     There was just such a silence in this November afternoon, and Mary, as usual, humbly wondered if her sister were lonely and troubled, and if she herself were half so good and tender as she ought to be to one so dear and kind. At last Martha said, in a business-like way: "Next week we shall be getting ready for Thanksgiving. I don't expect we shall do so much as usual: I don't see where the money's comin' from. We had better get along without a chicken, anyways; they're goin' to bring a high price, and ours must pay for the wood as far as they'll go."

     "I'm thankful as I can be every day," said Mary, softly. "I don't know what I should do without you, sister. I hope the Lord won't part us;" and her lip quivered as she spoke. "You thought we never should pull through this year," she resumed, in a more commonplace tone; "but here we are, after all, and we've done well, and been fed, and kept warm."

     "The next year we ought to shingle the house and set the fences into some kind of shape. I wish we could sew up things outdoors well 's we can in;" and Martha smiled grimly.

     "We do, don't we?" and the younger sister laughed outright. "I wish we did have a sewing-machine. I dare say by and by they'll get cheaper. I declare it doesn't seem five years since the war was over."

     "There's John Whitefield," said Martha, angrily; and Mary looked frightened. She was always so sorry when this topic was started. "He never gives a thought to what our folks did for him. I shouldn't know him if I was to see him, and we are all the own cousins he's got on his father's side. It does seem as if he might take some interest in us now we're all growing old together. He must have read our names in the list of those that lost in the railroad, and have read our names in the list of those that lost in the railroad, and have known't was all we'd got."

     "Perhaps he thinks we don't take any interest in him," ventured Mary, timidly. "I have sometimes thought about him, and wondered if he supposed we were set against him. There was so much hard feelin' between the families when we were all young, and we wouldn't speak to him when we were girls. A young man would be cut by that as much as anything" --

     "I wouldn't speak to him now, either," and Martha's voice and her linen thread snapped together. "Everybody said they treated our folks outrageously. You needn't expect me to go meechin' after such thankless and unprincipled creaturs."

     Mary hardly knew what gave her such courage. "I don't want to vex you, I'm sure," she said, simply. "If he didn't answer or didn't treat us well any way, I should think as you do; but I should like to ask him to come and spend Thanksgiving Day with us, and show him a forgivin' spirit. He ain't so well off that he need think we've got low motives; and" -- taking courage -- "you know this'll be the first Thanksgiving since his wife died -- if 't was his wife we saw mentioned in the paper."

     "I must say you are consistent with our havin' nothin' for dinner," smiled Miss Martha, grimly, clicketing together her big needle and her steel thimble without any top. "I won't lend myself to any such notions, and there's an end to it."

     She rose and disappeared angrily into the pantry, and began to assail the pots and pans as if she had to begin the preparations for Thanksgiving at that very moment. But Miss Mary Dean, whom everybody thought a little flighty and unpractical, went on sewing as long as the pale daylight lasted. She did not know why she was so disappointed about not inviting their unknown cousin. She had not thought of him very often; but she had always been a little ashamed and sorry about the family quarrel that had made everybody so bitter and unforgiving when she was a girl. Her father thought that this cousin's father cheated him of his rights in the old home farm.

     At least three days afterward Sister Martha was discovered to be very silent and unreasonable; and, in spite of previous experiences, Miss Mary was entirely surprised to be told late in the evening, just as they were going to bed, that a letter had been sent that day to Cousin John asking him to come to spend Thanksgiving with them on the hilltop. "You'd never have been satisfied without it, I suppose," the good woman said, grudgingly, as she went hurrying about the room; and gentle Mary was filled with fear. She knew that it would be a trouble to her sister, and an unwelcome one; but at last she felt very glad, and was aggravatingly grateful as she thanked the head of the family for this generous deed. "I don't know why my heart was so set on it," she announced later, with great humility, and Martha sniffed unmistakably from under the patchwork counterpane. "I hope he won't stop long," she observed, quite cheerfully. And so peace was restored, and Miss Martha Dean thought about the dinner and talked over her frugal plans, while Mary listened with pleased content, and looked out through the little bedroom window from her pillow to see the white, twinkling, winter-like stars.

     "Goodness me!" exclaimed Martha on Thanksgiving morning; "there he comes, and he looks as old as Methusaleh!" The sisters stood together and watched their guest climbing the long hill, and made characteristic comments. "He does look real lonesome," said Mary, but Martha bustled off to look at the chicken which had just been put into the oven. "He looks as if he were hungry," she growled on the way, and took a complacent look into the kettles after she had seen that the oven continued to be in a proper state of warmth. There was enough for her to do to look after the dinner. Mary could attend to the company: but, after all, it was good to have company, especially some one who seemed to be glad to be with them. He had grown to look like her own dear, honest-hearted father in these latter years; he could not be a bad man, and it seemed a great while since they had seen one of their own folks at the table.

     So Martha put her whole heart into making her little dinner just as good as it could be. She sat down in the front room once or twice and tried to talk over old times, but she was not very successful; they were constantly running against unpleasant subjects; it seemed as if the mistaken household that had been divided against itself had no traditions of anything but warfare.

     But the guest was pathetically glad to come; he could talk to his cousin Mary about the pleasure Martha's note had given him. He did not say that it was not very affectionate, but he told the truth about having often wished since he had grown older that they could talk over the old times and have a kinder feeling toward each other. "And I was so broken up this year," he added, plaintively. "I miss my wife worse and worse. She was some years younger than I, and always seemed so pleasant and sprightly -- well, if one of you girls is left without the other, you'll know something about it, that's all I can say," and a sudden pang shot through the listener's heart. And Mary Dean looked so sorry and so kind that she had to listen to a great many things about the wife who had died. Cousin John Whitefield moved her sympathy more and more, and by the time dinner was ready they were warm friends. Then there was the dinner, and the two elderly women and their guest enjoyed it very much. Miss Martha had put on the best table-cloth and the best dishes. She had done all she could to make the little festival a success, and presently even she was filled with the spirit of the day, and did not let the least shadow of disapproval show itself in her face when Mary said: "Sister, I'm sure we ought to be very thankful to-day for all these good things and for Cousin John's company. I don't feel as if we ever should make out to be enemies again;" and the cousin shook his head more than once, while something like a tear glistened in the eyes that were turned toward Mary Dean. They talked of old times; they said to each other that they would let bygones be bygones. Some of the sisters' friends had been very kind; one had given them a present of cranberries, which Martha liked very much, but had denied herself, since they were so dear that year.

     Cousin John had evidently dressed himself with great care, but he looked untended, and the sisters' shrewd eyes saw where a stitch or two was needed and a button had been lost. It seemed more friendly than ever when he stood before Martha to have his coat mended; it only took a minute. And her eyes were the best, Mary said, proudly.

     "Girls," said the old man, suddenly; "girls, I want to know if, with all your sewing trade, you haven't got any sewing-machine?" And the girls looked at each other wistfully, and answered No.

     "Now, I know what I'll do for you," and the withered face brightened. "I'm going to send you over Maria's. She set everything by it; 't was one her brother gave her -- Josiah, that's so well off in New York. She says 't was one of the best; and there it has stood. I've been thinking I should have to sell it. I'll send it over right away." And he looked from one delighted face to the other. "You won't refuse, now?" he asked; as if there had been any danger of that! And the sisters confessed how puzzled they had been about their winter's work; they had not acknowledged so fully even to each other that some of their old customers had died, that it hardly paid to do hand-sewing, and hardly anybody needed tailors' work, somehow; and they were not able to be out in all weather, or to be of as much service to their neighbors as they used. But they were sure to do well now if they had a machine. Mr. Torby, at the shop, paid excellent prices for the best work.

     Cousin John stayed until the next day, and they watched him go down the hill with many feelings of gratitude and respect. "It takes two to make a quarrel, but only one to end it," said Martha, turning suddenly to Mary. They both felt younger than they had for a great while, and they pitied their cousin's aged looks and slow steps. "'T was all owing to you," she went on, in a tone that was not usual with her. "Mary, I believe you've chosen the better part, and you've listened to the Lord's words while I've been cumbered with much serving." But Mary would have it that only Martha could have made Cousin John so comfortable, and got him the good Thanksgiving dinner.

     "The dinner's the least part of it," said Martha, this time in her every-day, short fashion of speech. "There! it's beginning to snow. I wish, if there's a good fall of it, we could just put this house on runners and slide down hill!" But she looked very good-natured, and Mary laughed softly.

     "You say that every year, don't you, Martha?" said she. "Just think how long we've been wishing for a sewing-machine, and now we're really going to have one. I suppose you'll know just how to use it before it has been here a day."


"Mary and Martha" first appeared in The Christian Union (32:12-13) on November 26, 1885, and was collected in A White Heron, from which this text comes.  Errors have been corrected and indicated with brackets.  If you find errors or items needing annotation, please contact the site manager.
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Martha-like ... Mary-like: In Luke 10 and John 11, Martha and Mary are sisters of Lazarus, the man whom Jesus raises from the dead.
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"where there's a will there's a way": This proverb is echoed in George Crabbe's The Borough (1810), Letter 3:

     In idle wishes fools supinely stay;
     Be there a will, and wisdom finds a way.

(Source: Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.)
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meetin' privileges: The advantages of attending meetings, or Protestant church services.
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the war: The American Civil War, 1861-1865.
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meechin': meek, self-effacing. According to biographer Paula Blanchard, this term had a range of negative connotations. See her Chapter 18.
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Methusaleh: According to Genesis 5:25-26, Methuselah lived more than nine hundred years.
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much serving:  See Luke 10: 41-2.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe college

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Contents: A White Heron