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FROM A MOURNFUL VILLAGER.
Sarah Orne Jewett
[Except that the paragraphs have been numbered, this is the text of "From a Mournful Villager" that appeared in Atlantic Monthly (48:664-672) November 1881.]
1. LATELY I have been thinking, with much sorrow, of the approaching extinction of front yards, and of the type of New England village character and civilization with which they are associated. Formerly, because I lived in an old-fashioned New England village, it would have been hard for me to imagine that there were parts of the country where the front yard, as I knew it, was not in fashion, and that grounds (however small) had taken its place. No matter how large a piece of land lay in front of a house in old times, it was still a front yard, in spite of noble dimension and the skill of practiced gardeners.
2. There are still a good many examples of the old manner of out-of-door life and customs, as well as a good deal of the old-fashioned provincial society, left in the eastern parts of the New England States; but if put side by side with the society that is American rather than provincial, one discovers it to be in a small minority. The representative United States citizen will be, or already is, a Westerner, and his instincts and ways of looking at things have certain characteristics of their own which are steadily growing more noticeable.
3. For many years New England was simply a bit of Old England transplanted. We all can remember elderly people whose ideas were wholly under the influence of their English ancestry. It is hardly more than a hundred years since we were English colonies, and not independent United States, and the customs and ideas of the mother country were followed from force of habit. Now one begins to see a difference; the old traditions have had time to disappear almost entirely even in the most conservative and least changed towns, and a new element has come in. The true characteristics of American society, as I have said, are showing themselves more and more distinctly to the westward of New England, and come back to it in a tide that steadily sweeps away the old traditions. It rises over the heads of the prim and stately idols before which our grandfathers and grandmothers bowed down and worshiped, and which we ourselves were at least taught to walk softly by as they toppled on their thrones.
4. One cannot help wondering what a lady of the old school will be like a hundred years from now! But, at any rate, she will not be in heart and thought and fashion of good breeding as truly an Englishwoman as if she had never stepped out of Great Britain. If one of our own elderly ladies were suddenly dropped into the midst of provincial English society, she would be quite at home; but west of her own Hudson River she is lucky if she does not find herself behind the times, and almost a stranger and a foreigner.
5. And yet from the first there was a little difference, and the colonies were New England and not Old. In some ways more radical, yet in some ways more conservative, than the people across the water, they showed a new sort of flower when they came into bloom in this new climate and soil. In the old days there had not been time for the family ties to be broken and forgotten. Instead of the unknown English men and women who are our sixth and seventh cousins now, they had first and second cousins then; but there was little communication between one country and the other, and the mutual interest in every-day affairs necessarily faded out quickly. A traveler was a curiosity, and here, even between the villages themselves, there was far less intercourse than we can believe possible. People stayed on their own ground; their horizons were of small circumference, and their whole interest and thought were spent upon their own land, their own neighbors, their own affairs, while they were not only contented with this state of things, but encouraged it. One has only to look at the high-walled pews of the old churches, at the high fences of the town gardens, and at even the strong fortifications around some family lots in the burying-grounds, to be sure of this. The interviewer was not besought and encouraged in those days; he was defied. In that quarter at least they had the advantage of us. Their interest was as real and heart-felt in each other's affairs as ours, let us hope; but they never allowed idle curiosity to show itself in the world's market-place, shameless and unblushing.
6. There is so much to be said in favor of our own day, and the men and women of our own time, that a plea for a recognition of the quaintness and pleasantness of village life in the old days cannot seem unwelcome, or without deference to all that has come with the later years of ease and comfort, or of discovery in the realms of mind or matter. We are beginning to cling to the elderly people who are so different from ourselves, and for this reason: we are paying them instinctively the honor that is due from us to our elders and betters; they have that grand prestige and dignity that belongs to age; they are like old wines, - perhaps no better than many others when they were young, but now, after many years, they have come to be worth nobody knows how many dollars a dozen, and the connoisseurs make treasures of the few bottles of that vintage which are left.
7. It was a restricted and narrowly limited life in the old days. Religion, or rather sectarianism, was apt to be simply a matter of inheritance, and there was far more bigotry in every cause and question, - a fiercer partisanship; and because there were fewer channels of activity, and those undivided into specialties, there was a whole-souled concentration of energy that was as efficient as it was sometimes narrow and short-sighted. People were more contented in the sphere of life to which it had pleased God to call them, and they do not seem to have been so often sorely tempted by the devil with a sight of the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them. We are more likely to busy ourselves with finding things to do than in doing with our might the work that is in our hands already. The disappearance of many of the village front yards may come to be typical of the altered position of woman, and mark a stronghold on her way from the much-talked-of slavery and subjection to a coveted equality. She used to be shut off from the wide acres of the farm, and had no voice in the world's politics; she must stay in the house, and could only hold sway out-of-doors in this prim corner of land where she was queen. No wonder that women clung to their rights in their flower-gardens then, and no wonder that they have grown a little careless of them now, and that lawn mowers find so ready a sale! The whole world is their front yard nowadays!
8. There might be written a history of front yards in New England which would be very interesting to read. It would end in a treatise upon landscape gardening and its possibilities, and wild flights of imagination about the culture of plants under glass, the application of artificial heat in forcing, and the curious mingling and development of plant life; but it would begin in the simple time of the early colonists. It must have been hard when, after being familiar with the gardens and parks of England and Holland, they found themselves restricted to front yards by way of pleasure-grounds. Perhaps they thought such things were wrong, and that having a pleasant place to walk about in out-of-doors would encourage idle and lawless ways in the young; at any rate, for several years it was more necessary to raise corn and potatoes to keep themselves from starving than to lay out alleys and plant flowers and box borders among the rocks and stumps. There is a great pathos in the fact that in so stern and hard a life there was time or place for any gardens at all. I can picture to myself the little slips and cuttings that had been brought over in the ship, and more carefully guarded than any of the household goods. I can see the women look at them tearfully when they came into bloom, because nothing else could be a better reminder of their old home. What fears there must have been lest the first winter's cold might kill them, and with what love and care they must have been tended! I know a rose-bush, and a little while ago I knew an apple-tree, that were brought over by the first settlers; the rose still blooms, and until it was cut down the old tree bore apples. It is strange to think that civilized New England is no older than the little red roses that bloom in June on that slope above the river in Kittery. Those earliest gardens were very pathetic in the contrast of their extent and their power of suggestion and association. Every seed that came up was thanked for its kindness, and every flower that bloomed was the child of a beloved ancestry.
9. It would be interesting to watch the growth of the gardens as life became easier and more comfortable in the colonies. As the settlements grew into villages and towns, and the Indians were less dreadful, and the houses were better and more home-like, the busy people began to find a little time, now and then, when they could enjoy themselves soberly. Beside the fruits of the earth they could have some flowers, and a sprig of sage and southernwood and tansy, or lavender that had come from Surrey, and could be dried to be put among the linen, as it used to be strewn through the chests and cupboards in the old country.
10. I like to think of the changes as they came slowly: that after a while tender plants could be kept through the winter, because the houses were better built and warmer, and were no longer rough shelters which were only meant to serve until there could be something better. Perhaps the parlor, or best room, and a special separate garden for the flowers were two luxuries of the same date, and they made a noticeable change in the manner of living, - the best room being a formal recognition of the claims of society, and the front yard an appeal for the existence of something that gave pleasure, beside the merely useful and wholly necessary things of life. When it was thought worth while to put a fence around the flower-garden the respectability of art itself was established and made secure. Whether the house was a fine one, and its inclosure spacious, or whether it was a small house with only a narrow bit of ground in front, this yard was kept with care, and it was different from the rest of the land altogether. The children were not often allowed to play there, and the family did not use the front door except upon occasions of more or less ceremony. I think that many of the old front yards could tell stories of the lovers who found it hard to part under the stars, and lingered over the gate; and who does not remember the solemn group of men who gather there at funerals, and stand with their heads uncovered as the mourners go out and come in, two by two! I have always felt rich in the possession of an ancient York tradition of an old fellow who demanded, as he lay dying, that the grass in his front yard should be cut at once; it was no use to have it trodden down and spoilt by the folks at the funeral. I always hoped it was good hay weather; but he must have been certain of that when he spoke. Let us hope he did not confuse this world with the next, being so close upon the borders of it! It was not man-like to think of the front yard, since it was the special domain of the women. The men of the family respected but ignored it; they had to be teased in the spring to dig the flower-beds; but it was the busiest time of the year, -- one should remember that.
11. I think many people are sorry, without knowing why, to see the fences pulled down; and the disappearance of plain white palings causes almost as deep regret as that of the handsome ornamental fences and their high posts with urns or great white balls on top. A stone coping does not make up for the loss of them; it makes a little yard look a good deal like a lot in a cemetery, for one thing; and then in a small town the grass is not smooth, and looks uneven where the flower-beds have not been properly smoothed down. The stray cows trample about where they never went before; the bushes and little trees that were once protected grow ragged and scraggly and out at elbows, and a few forlorn flowers come up of themselves, and try hard to grow and to bloom. The ungainly red tubs that are perched on little posts have plants in them, but the poor posies look as if they would rather be in the ground, and as if they are held too near the fire of the sun. If everything must be neglected and forlorn, so much the more reason there should be a fence, if but to hide it. Americans are too fond of being stared at; they apparently feel as if it were one's duty to one's neighbor. Even if there is nothing really worth looking at about a house, it is still exposed to the gaze of the passers-by. Foreigners are far more sensible than we, and the out-of-door home life among them is something we might well try to copy; they often have their meals served out-of-doors, and one can enjoy an afternoon nap in a hammock, or can take one's work out into the shady garden with great satisfaction, unwatched; and even a little piece of ground can be made, if shut in and kept for the use and pleasure of the family alone, a most charming unroofed and trellised summer ante-room to the house. In a large, crowded town it would be selfish to conceal the rare bits of garden, where the sight of anything green is a godsend; but where there is the whole wide country of fields and woods within easy reach, I think there should be high walls around our gardens, and that we lose a great deal in not making them entirely separate from the highway, -- as much as we should lose in making the walls of our parlors and dining-rooms of glass, and building the house as close to the street as possible.
12. But to go back to the little front yards: we are sorry to miss them, and their tangle or orderliness of roses and larkspur and honeysuckle, Canterbury bells and London pride, lilacs and peonies. These may all bloom better than ever in the new beds that are cut in the turf; but with the side fences that used to come from the corners of the house to the front fence, other barriers, as I have said here over and over, have been taken away, and the old-fashioned village life is already out of date. People do not know what they lose when they make way with the reserve, the separateness, the sanctity, of the front yard of their grandmothers. It is like writing down the family secrets for any one to read; it is like having everybody call you by your first name, and sitting in any pew in church, and like having your house in the middle of a road, to take away the fence which, slight as it may be, is a fortification round your home. More things than one may come in without being asked. We Americans had better build more fences than take any away from our lives. There should be gates for charity to go out and in, and kindness and sympathy, too; but his life and his house are together each man's stronghold and castle, to be kept and defended.
13. I was much amused, once, at thinking that the fine old solid paneled doors were being unhinged faster than ever nowadays, since so many front gates have disappeared, and the click of the latch can no longer give notice of the approach of a guest. Now the knocker sounds or the bell rings without note or warning, and the village housekeeper cannot see who is coming in until they have already reached the door. Once the guests could be seen on their way up the walk. It must be a satisfaction to look through the clear spots of the figured ground-glass in the new doors, and I believe, if there is a covering inside, few doors will be found unprovided with a peep-hole. It was better to hear the gate open and shut; and if it caught and dragged, as front gates are very apt to do, you could have time always for a good look out of the window at the approaching friend.
14. There are few of us who cannot remember a front-yard garden, which seemed to us a very paradise in childhood. It was like a miracle when the yellow and white daffies came into bloom in the spring; and there was a time when the tiger-lilies and the taller rose-bushes were taller than we were, and we could not look over their heads as we do now. There were always a good many lady's-delights that grew under the bushes, and came up anywhere in the chinks of the walk or the door-step; and there was a little green sprig called ambrosia that was a famous stray-away. Outside the fence one was not unlikely to see a company of French pinks, which were forbidden standing-room inside, as if they were tiresome poor relations of the other flowers. I always felt a sympathy for French pinks; they have a fresh, sweet look, as if they resigned themselves to their lot in life and made the best of it, and remembered that they had the sunshine and rain, and could see what was going on in the world, if they were outlaws.
15. I like to remember being sent on errands, and being asked to wait while the mistress of the house picked some flowers to send back to my mother. They were almost always prim, flat bouquets in those days; the larger flowers were picked first, and stood at the back and looked over the heads of those that were shorter of stem and stature, and the givers always sent a message that they had not stopped to arrange them. I remember that I had even then a great dislike to lemon verbena, and that I would have waited patiently outside a gate all the afternoon if I knew that some one would kindly give me a sprig of lavender in the evening. And lilies did not seem to me overdressed, but it was easy for me to believe that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like a great yellow marigold, or even the dear little single ones that were yellow and brown, and bloomed until the snow came.
16. I wish that I had lived for a little while in those days when lilacs were a novelty, and it was a great distinction to have some growing in a front yard. It always seems as if lilacs and poplars belonged to the same generation with a certain kind of New English gentlemen and ladies, who were ascetic and severe in some of their fashions, while in others they were more given to pleasuring and mild revelry than either their ancestors or the people who have lived in their houses since. Fifty years ago there seems to have been a last tidal wave of Puritanism, which swept over the country, and drowned for a time the sober feasting and dancing which before had been considered no impropriety in the larger villages. Whist-playing was clung to only by the most worldly citizens, and as for dancing, it was made a sin in itself and a reproach, as if every step was taken willfully in seven-leagued boots toward a place which is to be the final destination of all the wicked.
17. A single poplar may have a severe and uncharitable look, but a row of them suggests the antique and pleasing pomp and ceremony of their early days, before the sideboard cupboards were used only to keep the boxes of strings, and nails, and the duster, and the best decanters were put on a high shelf, while the plain ones were used for vinegar in the kitchen closet. There is far less social visiting from house to house than there used to be. People in the smaller towns have more acquaintances who live at a distance than was the case before the days of railroads, and there are more guests who come from out of town to pay a visit, which has something to do with making tea-parties and the entertainment of one's neighbors less frequent than in former times. But most of the New England towns have changed their characters in the last twenty years, since the manufactories have come in and brought together large numbers either of foreigners or of a different class of people from those who used to make the most of the population. A certain class of families is rapidly becoming extinct. There will be found in the older villages very few persons left who belong to this class, which was once far more important and powerful. The oldest churches are apt to be most thinly attended, simply because a different sort of ideas, even of heavenly things, attract the newer residents. I suppose that elderly people have said, ever since the time of Shem, Ham, and Japhet's wives in the ark, that society is nothing to what it used to be, and we may expect to be always told what unworthy successors we are of our grandmothers. But the fact remains that a certain element of American society is fast dying out, giving place to the new; and with all our glory and pride in modern progress and success, we cling to the old associations regretfully. There is nothing to take the place of the pleasure we have in going to see our old friends in the parlors which have changed little since our childhood. No matter how advanced in years we seem to ourselves, we are children still to the gracious hostess. Thank Heaven for the friends who have always known us! They may think us unreliable and young still; they may not understand that we have become busy and more or less important people to ourselves and to the world, - we are pretty sure to be without honor in our own country; but they will never forget us, and we belong to each other, and always shall.
18. I have received many kindnesses at my friends' hands, but I do not know that I have ever felt myself to be a more fortunate or honored guest than when I sometimes went, years ago, to call upon an elderly friend of my mother, who lived in most pleasant and stately fashion. I used to put on my very best manner, and I have no doubt that my thoughts were well ordered, and my conversation as proper as I knew how to make it. I can remember that I used to sit on a tall ottoman, with nothing to lean against, and my feet were off soundings, I was so high above the floor. We used to discuss the weather, and I said that I went to school (sometimes), or that it was then vacation, as the case might be, and we tried to make ourselves agreeable to each other. Presently my lady would take her keys out of her pocket, and sometimes a maid would come to serve me, or else she herself would bring me a silver tray with some pound-cakes baked in hearts and rounds, and a small glass of wine; and I proudly felt that I was a guest, -- though I was such a little thing, an attention was being paid me, -- and a thrill of satisfaction used to go over me at the thought of my consequence and importance. A handful of sugar-plums would have seemed nothing beside this entertainment. I used to be careful not to crumble the cake, and I used to eat it with my gloves on, and a pleasant fragrance would cling for some time afterward to the ends of the short Lisle-thread fingers. I have no doubt that my manners as I took leave were almost as distinguished as those of my hostess, though I might have been wild and shy all the rest of the week. It was not many years ago that I went to my old friend's funeral, and saw them carry her down the long, wide walk, between the tall box borders which were her pride; and all the air was heavy and sweet with the perfume of the early summer blossoms; the white lilacs and the flowering currants were still in bloom, and the rows of her dear Dutch tulips stood dismayed in their flaunting colors and watched her go away.
19. My sketch of the already out-of-date or fast-vanishing village fashions perhaps should be ended here, but I cannot resist a wish to add another bit of autobiography, of which I have been again and again reminded in writing these pages. The front yard I knew best belonged to my grandfather's house. My grandmother was a proud and solemn woman, and she hated my mischief, and rightly thought my elder sister a much better child than I. I used to be afraid of her when I was in the house, but I shook off even her authority, and forgot I was under anybody's rule, when I was out-of-doors. I was first cousin to a caterpillar if they called me to come in, and I was own sister to a giddy-minded bobolink when I ran away across the fields, as I used to do very often. But when I was a very little child indeed my world was bounded by the fences that were around my home: there were wide green yards, and tall elm-trees to shade them; there was a long line of barns and sheds, and one of these had a large room in its upper story, with an old ship's foresail spread over the floor, and made a capital play-room in wet weather. Here fruit was spread in the fall, and there were some old chests and pieces of furniture that had been discarded; it was like the garret, only much pleasanter. The children in the village now cannot possibly be so happy as I was then. I used to mount the fence next the street and watch the people go in and out of the quaint-roofed village shops that stood in a row on the other side, and looked as if they belonged to a Dutch or old English town. They were burnt down long ago, but they were charmingly picturesque; the upper stories sometimes projected over the lower, and the chimneys were sometimes clustered together, and built of bright red bricks.
20. And I was too happy when I could smuggle myself into the front yard, with its four lilac bushes and its white fences to shut it in from the rest of the world, beside other railings that went from the porch down each side of the brick walk, which was laid in a pattern, and had H. C., 1818, cut deep into one of the bricks near the door-step. The H. C. was for Henry Currier, the mason, who had signed this choice bit of work as if it were a picture; and he had been dead so many years that I used to think of his initials as if the corner brick were a little grave-stone for him. The knocker used to be so bright that it shone at you, and caught your eye bewilderingly, as you came in from the street on a sunshiny day. There were very few flowers, for my grandmother was old and feeble when I knew her, and could not take care of them; but I remember that there were blush roses and white roses and cinnamon roses all in a tangle in one corner, and I used to pick the crumpled petals of those to make myself a delicious coddle with ground cinnamon and damp brown sugar. In the spring I always found the first green grass there, for it was warm and sunny, and I used to pick the little French pinks when they dared show their heads in the crevices of the flag-stones that were laid around the house. There were small shoots of lilac, too, and their leaves were brown and had a faint, sweet fragrance, and a little later the dandelions came into bloom; the largest ones I knew grew there, and they have always been to this day my favorite flowers.
21. I had my trials and sorrows in this paradise, however; I lost a cent there one day, which I have never found yet! And one morning there suddenly appeared in one corner a beautiful dark-blue fleur-de-lis, and I joyfully broke its neck and carried it into the house; but everybody had seen it, and wondered that I could not have left it alone. Besides this, it befell me later to sin more gravely still; my grandmother had kept some plants through the winter on a three-cornered green stand, built like a flight of steps, and when the warm spring weather came this was put out-of-doors. She had a cherished tea-rose bush, and what should I find but a bud on it! It was opened just enough to give a hint of its color. I was very pleased. I snapped it off at once, for I had heard so many times that it was hard to make roses bloom; and I ran in through the hall and up the stairs, where I met my grandmother on the square landing. She sat down in the window-seat, and I showed her proudly what was crumpled in my warm little fist. I can see it now! - it had no stem at all, and for many days afterward I was bowed down with a sense of my guilt and shame, for I was made to understand it was an awful thing to have blighted and broken a treasured flower like that.
22. It must have been the very next winter that my grandmother died. She had a long illness, which I do not remember much about; but the night she died might have been yesterday night, it is all so fresh and clear in my mind. I did not live with her in the old house then, but in a new house close by, across the yard. All the family were at the great house, and I could see that lights were carried hurriedly from one room to another. A servant came to fetch me, but I would not go with her; my grandmother was dying, whatever that might be, and she was taking leave of every one, - she was ceremonious even then. I did not dare to go with the rest; I had an intense curiosity to see what dying might be like, but I was afraid to be there with her, and I was afraid to stay at home alone. I was only five years old. It was in December, and the house seemed to grow darker and darker, until I went out at last to sit on a door-step and cry softly to myself; while I was there some one came to another door next the street, and rang the bell loudly again and again. I suppose I was afraid to answer the summons, - indeed, I do not know that I thought of it; all the world had been still before, and the bell sounded loud and awful through the empty house. It seemed as if the messenger from an unknown world had come to the wrong house to call my poor grandmother away; and that loud ringing is curiously linked in my mind with the knocking at the gate in Macbeth. I never can think of one without the other, though there was no fierce Lady Macbeth to bid me not be lost so poorly in my thoughts; for when they all came back, awed and tearful, and found me waiting in the cold, alone, and afraid more of this world than the next, they were very good to me. But as for the funeral, it gave me vast entertainment; it was the first grand public occasion in which I had taken any share.
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