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The News From Petersham

Sarah Orne Jewett


     Mrs. Peak had been to Petersham herself, to spend Thanksgiving with her niece, and brought the first account of old Mr. Johnson's illness. Mrs. Jesse Johnson, his daughter-in-law, had come in for a few minutes Thursday afternoon, and had said it was the first time since she could remember that the old gentleman had not been in his seat in church on Thanksgiving Day. And they all felt as if it were a great break.

     "He would insist upon setting at the table," said Mrs. Jesse, "but he looked too feeble to be out of his bed. These bad colds take hold of a man of his years."

     After the visitor had gone Mrs. Peak and her niece Martha talked a good deal about the changes in the family which would be sure to come when Mr. Johnson died.

     "I know that Jesse's folks are depending upon getting a lift," said Martha. "Mis' Jesse has hinted as much to me more than once, for she says Jesse's got more than he can carry in his business, and everything would be easy if he only had a little more capital. Truth is, I have an idea that he's teased a good share away from his father now, and the old gentleman isn't so ready as he used to be to further his projects. And there's William, his other son, I know it to be a fact that he is intending to go out West when his father's taken away. He has had a notion of it for a good while; his wife's sister's folks are all out there and doing well."

     "They'll be very much missed as a family," said Mrs. Peak; "how Petersham has changed from what it was when I was a girl!"

     When she went home the next day she was quite downhearted, and told Asa Fales, who happened to be at the depot when the train came in and offered to carry her home, that old Mr. Daniel Johnson was breaking up -- at least, so his family seemed to think. Asa Fales was deeply concerned; the two villages were only a few miles apart, and he had been a Petersham boy. It was old Mr. Johnson to whom he owed his rise in the world, and he remembered that he might never have owned his flourishing country store if it had not been for this kind friend's assistance. Besides, he had been confident of Mr. Johnson's support if he should make up his mind to buy a large tract of woodland which would pay well for being cleared that very next winter. He was already indebted to him, however, and it would be a very different thing if he were the debtor of the eager heirs. So with all this in his mind he questioned Mrs. Peak anxiously, and they concluded that Mr. Johnson's end was not far distant.

     "Of course he made a great effort to get to the table on account of its being Thanksgiving," said Asa, sorrowfully, "but I'm afraid he'll give right up now. I'd ride right over to see him to-morrow, but I can't get away. It's right in my busy time; I'm buying up a great deal of wood this fall, and some of 'em are bringing it in now on wheels instead of waiting for snow."

     "The snow does keep off late this year," said Mrs. Peak. "Here it's the first o' December, and there's only been one flurry that was hardly more than a hoar-frost."

     They reached the little gray house behind the lilac-bushes, where Mrs. Peak lived alone, and as she unlocked its side-door and went in, it seemed strangely cold and lonely. "I must look about for a likely kitten," she said to herself; "they're a sight of company, and what trouble it gave would be no harm. I declare it makes me feel lonesome; all the folks I have always been used to knowing are a-dying off. I always set a good deal by Daniel Johnson."

     Two neighbors looked up the road a little later than this from their kitchen windows, and seeing a light in Mrs. Peak's kitchen also, said to themselves that she might be lonely that evening without anybody to speak to, and they would step over and hear the news. They met at the door, each with a shawl over her head and her knitting-work in her hands, -- and were welcomed most heartily. Mrs. West, who was very fond of talking, began at once to describe her experiences Thanksgiving morning, when she found that the cats had stolen into the pantry during the night, and mangled the turkey so that it was only fit to be thrown away. It was too late to get another, except a rack of bones fit only for a lantern, that had been left at Fales's store.

     "I didn't know what in the world I should do. There was all the folks coming; his sister and all the child'n, and my brother and his wife, and we three at home are middlin' hearty -- but there; we made out with the chicken-pie and a spare-rib I put right in. It so happened I had one that was thawed. An' I took those cats and soused 'em well in a tub o' water, after I'd give 'em as good a beating as I knew how. And after a while they stole in half froze, and set by the stove meek as Moses with their paws tucked underneath 'em, and when I'd look at 'em they'd mew at me both together 'thout making a sound. For all I was so worked up, I had to laugh."

     They all laughed again at the cats, while Mrs. Peak acknowledged that she had just been thinking of getting a kitten, but such accounts as this were discouraging, -- and Mrs. West promptly offered her own virtuous pussies, which amused the little company very much.

     "You haven't told us yet whether you heard anything over at Petersham," said Mrs. Rogers, the other guest, at which Mrs. Peak's face grew long.

     "I had a beautiful visit with Martha," she answered, "but I've been feeling anxious to hear again from old Mr. Daniel Johnson. Jesse's wife came in and said he seemed very feeble. He didn't make no effort to get out to meetin' Thanksgivin' Day, and Martha said she'd noticed he looked pale and kind o' wizened up two or three weeks ago."

     "I suppose the cold weather pinched him," suggested Mrs. West. "Well, he'll be a great loss."

     "I heard from him direct this morning," continued Mrs. Peak, mournfully. "I called to Jesse's oldest boy as he went by, and he said his grand'ther wasn't any better. I asked if he was abed, and he said, 'No.' He's got a sight o' resolution; I shouldn't wonder if he didn't take his bed at all."

     "I don't see how they'll pay their minister the salary they give him now, when they lose Mr. Johnson," said Mrs. Rogers. "He's always ready to give, and he does what he can for his folks. I shouldn't wonder if he hadn't but a little property left, after all he's had to do, and being out o' business for some years now."

     "He's kept his money a-movin[']," observed Mrs. West. "There ain't no such business man about here, but there's been plenty o' hands reached out to take what they could get. Well, 'tis all over now; he won't last a great while if he's as feeble as you say. His father went just the same way, only kept the house a week, and his bed the last day."

     "I should have gone right over to see him myself yesterday," said the hostess, "but it kept raining steady all day, same as it did here, I suppose."

     "They'll be likely to have his funeral from the meeting-house, won't they?" asked Mrs. Rogers, solemnly; but nobody could answer her question.

     Next day being Sunday, and most of the congregation coming from the scattered farms, there was the usual exchange of greetings and inquiries for news. And in this way the sad story of Mr. Johnson's last illness was spread far and wide before night. And in passing from one to another, the report became every hour more serious. At last some one ventured to say that, judging from what she had just heard, the poor man could not now be living. And the listener felt justified in announcing that Mrs. Smith thought there was no doubt that he was dead.

     Late on Sunday night Mrs. West brought the news to Mrs. Peak.

     "He heard it from some one who stopped at Asa Fales's, but there wasn't no particulars;" and Mrs. Peak said nobody had any idea Mr. Johnson would go so soon. It was a great shock to her; as much as if she had not known of his illness.

     "Death is always sudden at the last," said Mrs. West. "I suppose you will go over to the funeral? -- it seems a pity you should have come home Saturday, don't it?"

     "I shall get ready to go by the first train," answered the old lady, crying a little. "I declare I wish I'd gone to the house before I come away. It ain't that I think of the expense of going to Petersham twice, for that's nothing at such a time as this, but I can't feel reconciled to not seeing him again. He was a most amiable Christian man, -- there won't be many dry eyes in Petersham the day he's buried. I've known him ever since I've known anybody."

     So by the earliest train next day Mrs. Peak went back to Petersham. Her countenance wore a solemn expression. She felt herself to be one of the chief mourners, though her place in the procession would probably be not far from the least afflicted end. As she stepped down from the car, she pulled a very long face, and was surprised to see no signs of the calamity which had befallen the village. She meditated upon the way the world moves on though its best men die, and took her way, to save time, through the back streets to her niece Martha's.

     "Well, Martha," she said, sadly, "I'm sure I didn't think I should be back again so soon when I left you. When do they bury?"

     "Who?" asked Martha, much amazed. She was busy washing, and was not in the least prepared for her aunt's appearance. She was used to making careful arrangements when she expected guests -- being, as her friends said, very set in her ways -- and if there was anything she disliked it was a lack of ceremony, even from her nearest relatives.

     "I haven't heard of any death," she assured her aunt, who was apparently much perplexed.

     "Somebody told the Wests last night that Mr. Dan'el Johnson had passed away, and Mis' West came right out to tell me," Mrs. Peak explained at last.

     Martha began to laugh. "He was out to meeting last night as sure as the world," she said. "He's had a bad cold, -- you know he's always been subject to fall colds, -- but he's about again. I heard Jesse's wife fussin' at him about doin' up his throat when we were comin' out o' the meetin'-house last night."

     "She was dreadful down-hearted about him, I'm sure, when she come in Thanksgiving night," ventured Mrs. Peak in self-defense.

     "Now, Aunt Peak," said Martha, "haven't you seen enough of Lydia Johnson by this time to know that she always thinks everything and everybody is going to rack and ruin? She was cheerful about the old gentleman to what she is sometimes. To be sure we all know he's getting along in years."

     "Seems to me I do rec'lect she is apt to look on the dark side," reflected Mrs. Peak. "But now, Marthy, don't speak to any one of what my errand was in coming over. I've got a little shopping any way that I forgot last week, and folks will think we're dreadful hungry for news over our way."

     "It does look like it," chuckled Martha. "But do stop to dinner, aunt, now you're over; it's coming winter and you may not get started again. 'Tis a pity there ain't something else for you to go to. I s'pose you've heard that story about the old ladies that set out for a funeral and found they'd missed the day, and asked the folks if they didn't know of a funeral they could go to?"

     "Marthy," said her Aunt Peak, "I should think you had no feelin's. It wasn't my fault as I know of that the story got about. I did speak of it to one or two that his son's wife appeared concerned, and when word come that he was gone I only thought she had good reason to be anxious; and he was an old friend, and a leader in church interests, and I thought, natural enough, I'd come right over."

     "Don't take it hard of me, joking with you," said Martha, "but it is kind of amusing when you come to look at it and see how stories get made up and set going out of nothing. Every one of 'em thinks they tell the truth, and first thing you know there's a lie traveling about fast as lightning," and she turned to her neglected washing, as if no time must be lost.

     "I can't get back before two. I'm sorry I happened to trouble you on an inconvenient day, I'm sure," said Mrs. Peak, humbly. "I'll step down the street for a while and do a few errands, and you mustn't let me put you out. Just a cup of tea and a taste of bread and butter'll be all I ask for," and Martha nodded and told her aunt not to worry, and to have as good a time as she could.

     The old lady's pride had met with a sad downfall -- she did not know how to face the people at home. But luckily she was saved the first acknowledgment, as Asa Fales had reached Petersham before her and had found Mr. Daniel Johnson briskly at work by the garden trellis covering his grape-vines.

     He had prudently avoided any reference to the next world, and, indeed, had learned the falseness of the story from a Petersham man whom he had met on the road. So he entered at once upon the project of buying the pine woods between Gaytown and Hollis, and found to his great satisfaction that his old friend would be glad to join him if the affair could be well arranged.

     Mrs. Peak herself met Mr. Johnson, and could hardly look him in the face when she asked for his health. And when the neighbors came in one after another that evening after she was again comfortably established at home, she said, "You may laugh at me all you have a mind to, but I don't mean to need another lesson like this. I think it's a good deal better to mind what we've got to do instead of livin' on what folks have got to say; but it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks, and I suppose I shall always like to hear what news there is a-goin'."


Notes

"The News from Petersham" was originally published in The Youth's Companion, April 1884, collected in A White Heron & Other Stories (1886), from which this text is taken. Where I have noticed probable errors in a text, I have added a correction and indicated the change with brackets. If you find errors in this text or if you see items that you believe should be annotated, please communicate with the site manager.
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meek as Moses: See Numbers 12:2.
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meeting house: A Protestant church in 19th-century New England.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College


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Contents: A White Heron