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Sarah Orne Jewett
Soon after we went to Deephaven we took a long drive one day with Mr. Dockum, the kindest and silentest of men. He had the care of the Brandon property, and had some business at that time connected with a large tract of pasture-land perhaps ten miles from town. We had heard of the coast-road which led to it, how rocky and how rough and wild it was, and when Kate heard by chance that Mr. Dockum meant to go that way, she asked if we might go with him. He said he would much rather take us that "go sole alone," but he should be away until late and we must take our dinner, which we did not mind doing at all.
After we were three or four miles from Deephaven the country looked very different. The shore was so rocky that there were almost no places where a boat could put in, so there were no fishermen in the region, and the farms were scattered wide apart; the land was so poor that even the trees looked hungry. At the end of our drive we left the horse at a lonely little farm-house close by the sea. Mr. Dockum was to walk a long way inland through the woods with a man whom he had come to meet, and he told us if we followed the shore westward a mile or two we should find some very high rocks, for which he knew we had a great liking. It was a delightful day to spend out of doors; there was an occasional whiff of east-wind. Seeing us seemed to be a perfect godsend to the people whose nearest neighbors lived far out of sight. We had a long talk with them before we went for our walk. The house was close by the water by a narrow cove, around which the rocks were low, but farther down the shore the land rose more and more, and at last we stood at the edge of the highest rocks of all and looked far down at the sea, dashing its white spray high over the ledges that quiet day. What could it be in winter when there was a storm and the great waves came thundering in?
After we had explored the shore to our hearts' content and were tired, we rested for a while in the shadow of some gnarled pitch-pines which stood close together, as near the sea as they dared. They looked like a band of outlaws; they were such wild-looking trees. They seemed very old, and as if their savage fights with the winter winds had made them hard-hearted. And yet the little wild-flowers and the thin green grass-blades were growing fearlessly close around their feet; and there were some comfortable birds'-nests in safe corners of their rough branches.
When we went back to the house at the cove we had to wait some time for Mr. Dockum. We succeeded in making friends with the children, and gave them some candy and the rest of our lunch, which luckily had been even more abundant than usual. They looked thin and pitiful, but even in that lonely place, where they so seldom saw a stranger or even a neighbor, they showed that there was an evident effort to make them look like other children, and they were neatly dressed, though there could be no mistake about their being very poor. One forlorn little soul, with honest gray eyes and a sweet, shy smile, showed us a string of beads which she wore round her neck; there were perhaps two dozen of them, blue and white, on a bit of twine, and they were the dearest things in all her world. When we came away we were so glad that we could give the man more than he asked us for taking care of the horse, and his thanks touched us.
"I hope ye may never know what it is to earn every dollar as hard as I have. I never earned any money as easy as this before. I don't feel as if I ought to take it. I've done the best I could," said the man, with the tears coming into his eyes, and a huskiness in his voice. "I 've done the best I could, and I'm willin' and my woman is, but everything seems to have been ag'in' us, we never seem to get forehanded. It looks sometimes as if the Lord had forgot us, but my woman she never wants me to say that; she says He ain't, and that we might be worse off, - but I don' know. I haven't had my health; that's hendered me most. I'm a boat-builder by trade, but the business's all run down; folks buys 'em second-hand nowadays, and you can't make nothing. I can't stand it to foller deep-sea fishing, and - well, you see what my land's wuth. But my oldest boy, he's getting ahead. He pushed off this spring, and he works in a box-shop to Boston; a cousin o' his mother's got him the chance. He sent me ten dollars a spell ago and his mother a shawl. I don't see how he done it, but he's smart!"
This seemed to be the only bright spot in their lives, and we admired the shawl and sat down in the house awhile with the mother, who seemed kind and patient and tired, and to have great delight in talking about what one should wear. Kate and I thought and spoke often of these people afterward, and when one day we met the man in Deephaven we sent some things to the children and his wife, and begged him to come to the house whenever he came to town; but we never saw him again, and though we made many plans for going again to the cove, we never did. At one time the road was reported impassable, and we put off our second excursion for this reason and others until just before we left Deephaven, late in October.
We knew the coast-road would be bad after the fall rains, and we found that Leander, the eldest of the Dockum boys, had some errand that way, so he went with us. We enjoyed the drive that morning in spite of the rough road. The air was warm, and sweet with the smell of bayberry-bushes and pitch-pines and the delicious saltness of the sea, which was not far from us all the way. It was a perfect autumn day. Sometimes we crossed pebble beaches, and then went farther inland, through woods and up and down steep little hills; over shaky bridges which crossed narrow salt creeks in the marsh-lands. There was a little excitement about the drive, and an exhilaration in the air, and we laughed at jokes forgotten the next minute, and sang, and were jolly enough. Leander, who had never happened to see us in exactly this hilarious state of mind before, seemed surprised and interested, and became unusually talkative, telling us a great many edifying particulars about the people whose houses we passed, and who owned every wood-lot along the road. "Do you see that house over on the pi'nt?" he asked. "An old fellow lives there that's part lost his mind. He had a son who was drowned off Cod Rock fishing, much as twenty-five years ago, and he's worn a deep path out to the end of the pi'nt where he goes out every hand's turn o' the day to see if he can't see the boat coming in." And Leander looked round to see if we were not amused, and seemed puzzled because we didn't laugh. Happily, his next story was funny.
We saw a sleepy little owl on the dead branch of a pine-tree; we saw a rabbit cross the road and disappear in a clump of juniper, and squirrels run up and down trees and along the stone-walls with acorns in their mouths. We passed straggling thickets of the upland sumach, leafless, and holding high their ungainly spikes of red berries; there were sturdy barberry-bushes along the lonely wayside, their unpicked fruit hanging in brilliant clusters. The blueberry-bushes made patches of dull red along the hillsides. The ferns were whitish-gray and brown at the edges of the woods, and the asters and goldenrods which had lately looked so gay in the open fields stood now in faded, frost-bitten companies. There were busy flocks of birds flitting from field to field, ready to start on their journey southward.
When we reached the house, to our surprise there was no one in sight and the place looked deserted. We left the wagon, and while Leander went toward the barn, which stood at a little distance, Kate and I went to the house and knocked. I opened the door a little way and said "Hallo!" but nobody answered. The people could not have moved away, for there were some chairs standing outside the door, and as I looked in I saw the bunches of herbs hanging up, and a trace of corn, and the furniture was all there. It was a great disappointment, for we had counted upon seeing the children again. Leander said there was nobody at the barn, and that they must have gone to a funeral; he couldn't think of anything else.
Just now we saw some people coming up the road, and we thought at first that they were the man and his wife coming back; but they proved to be strangers, and we eagerly asked what had become of the family.
"They're dead, both on 'em. His wife she died about nine weeks ago last Sunday, and he died day before yesterday. Funeral's going to be this afternoon. Thought ye were some of her folks from up country, when we were coming along," said the man.
"Guess they won't come nigh," said the woman, scornfully; "'fraid they'd have to help provide for the children. I was half-sister to him, and I've got to take the two least ones."
"Did you say he was going to be buried this afternoon?" asked Kate slowly. We were both more startled than I can tell.
"Yes," said the man, who seemed much better-natured than his wife. She appeared like a person whose only aim in life was to have things over with. "Yes, we're going to bury at two o'clock. They had a master sight of trouble, first and last."
Leander had said nothing all this time. He had known the man, and had expected to spend the day with him and to get him to go on two miles farther to help bargain for a dory. He asked, in a disappointed way, what had carried him off so sudden.
"Drink," said the woman, relentlessly. "He ain't been good for nothing sence his wife died: she was took with a fever along in the first of August. I'd ha' got up from it!"
"Now don't be hard on the dead, Marthy," said her husband. "I guess they done the best they could. They weren't shif'less, you know; they never had no health; 'twas against wind and tide with 'em all the time." And Kate asked, "Did you say he was your brother?"
"Yes. I was half-sister to him," said the woman, promptly, with perfect unconsciousness of Kate's meaning.
"And what will become of those poor children?"
"I've got the two youngest over to my place to take care on, and the two next them has been put out to some folks over to the cove. I dare say like 's not they'll be sent back."
"They're clever child'n, I guess," said the man, who spoke as if this were the first time he had dared take their part. "Don't be ha'sh, Marthy! Who knows but they may do for us when we get to be old?" And then she turned and looked at him with utter contempt. "I can't stand it to hear men-folks talking on what they don't nothing about," said she. "The ways of Providence is dreadful myster'ous," she went on with a whine, instead of the sharp tone of voice which we had heard before. "We've had a hard row, and we've just got our own children off our hands and able to do for themselves, and now here are these to be fetched up."
"But perhaps they'll be a help to you; they seem to be good little things," said Kate. "I saw them in the summer, and they seemed to be pleasant children, and it is dreadfully hard for them to be left alone. It's not their fault, you know. We brought over something for them; will you be kind enough to take the basket when you go home?"
"Thank ye, I'm sure," said the aunt, relenting slightly. "You can speak to my man about it, and he'll give it to somebody that's going by. I've got to walk in the procession. They'll be obliged, I'm sure. I s'pose you're the young ladies that come here right after the Fourth o' July, ain't you? I should be pleased to have you call and see the child'n if you're over this way again. I heard 'em talk about you last time I was over. Won't ye step into the house and see him? He looks real natural," she added. But we said, "No, thank you."
Leander told us he believed he wouldn't bother about the dory that day, and he should be there at the house whenever we were ready. He evidently considered it a piece of good luck that he had happened to arrive in time for the funeral. We spoke to the man about the things we had brought for the children, which seemed to delight him, poor soul, and we felt sure he would be kind to them. His wife shouted to him from a window of the house that he'd better not loiter round, or they wouldn't be half ready when the folks began to come, and we said good by to him and went away.
It was a beautiful morning, and we walked slowly along the shore to the high rocks and the pitch-pine trees which we had seen before; the air was deliciously fresh, and one could take long deep breaths of it. The tide was coming in, and the spray dashed higher and higher. We climbed about the rocks and went down in some of the deep cold clefts into which the sun could seldom shine. We gathered some wild-flowers; bits of pimpernel and one or two sprigs of fringed gentian which had bloomed late in a sheltered place, and a pale little bouquet of asters. We sat for a long time looking off to sea, and we could talk or think of almost nothing beside what we had seen and heard at the farm-house. We said how much we should like to go to that funeral, and we even made up our minds to go back in season, but we gave up the idea: we had no right there, and it would seem as if we were merely curious, and we were afraid our presence would make the people ill at ease, the minister especially. I would be an intrusion.
We spoke of the children, and tried to think what could be done for them: we were afraid they would be told so many times that it was lucky they did not have to go to the poorhouse, and yet we could not help pitying the hard-worked, discouraged woman whom we had seen, in spite of her bitterness. Poor soul! she looked like a person to whom nobody had ever been very kind, and for whom life had no pleasures: its sunshine had never been warm enough to thaw the ice at her heart.
We remembered how we knocked at the door and called loudly, but there had been no answer, and we wondered how we should have felt if we had gone farther into the room and had found the dead man in his coffin, all alone in the house. We thought of our first visit, and what he had said to us, and we wished we had come again sooner, for we might have helped them so much more if we had only known.
"What a pitiful ending it is," said Kate. "Do you realize that the family is broken up, and the children are to be half strangers to each other? Did you not notice that they seemed very fond of each other when we saw them in the summer? There was not half the roughness and apparent carelessness of one another which one so often sees in the country. Theirs was such a little world ; one can understand how, when the man's wife died, he was bewildered and discouraged, utterly at a loss. The thoughts of winter, and of the little children, and of the struggles he had already come through against poverty and disappointment were terrible thoughts; and like a boat adrift at sea, the waves of his misery brought him in against the rocks, and his simple life was wrecked."
"I suppose his grandest hopes and wishes would have been realized in a good farm and a thousand or two dollars in safe keeping," said I. "Do you remember the merry little song in 'As You Like It'?
'Who doth ambition shun
And loves to live i' the sun,
Seeking the food he eats,
And pleased with what he gets';
'Here shall he see
But winter and rough weather.'
That is all he lived for, his literal daily bread. I suppose what would be prosperity to him would be miserably insufficient for some other people. I wonder how we can help being conscious, in the midst of our comforts and pleasures, of the lives which are being starved to death in more ways than one."
"I suppose one thinks more about these things as one grows older," said Kate, thoughtfully. "How seldom life in this world seems to be a success! Among rich or poor only here and there one touches satisfaction, though the one who seems to have made an utter failure may really be the greatest conqueror. And, Helen, I find that I understand better and better how unsatisfactory, how purposeless and disastrous, any life must be which is not a Christian life![?] It is like being always in the dark, and wandering one knows not where, if one is not learning more and more what it is to have a friendship with God."
By the middle of the afternoon the sky had grown cloudy, and a wind seemed to be coming in off the sea, and we unwillingly decided that we must go home. We supposed that the funeral would be all over with, but found we have been mistaken when we reached the cove. We seated ourselves on a rock near the water; just beside us was the old boat, with its killick and painter stretched ashore, where its owner had left it.
There were several men standing around the door of the house, looking solemn and important, and by and by one of them came over to us, and we found out a little more of the sad story. We liked this man, there was so much pity in his face and voice. "He was a real willin', honest man, Andrew was," said our new friend, "but he used to be sickly, and seemed to have no luck, though for a year or two he got along some better. When his wife died he was sore afflicted, and couldn't get over it, and he didn't know what to do or what was going to become of 'em with winter comin' on, and - well - I may 's well tell ye; he took to drink and it killed him right off. I come over two or three times and made some gruel and fixed him up 's well 's I could, and the little gals done the best they could, but he faded right out, and didn't know anything the last time I see him, and he died Sunday mornin', when the tide begun to ebb. I always set a good deal by Andrew; we used to play together down to the great cove; that's where he was raised, and my folks lived there too. I've got one o' the little gals. I always knowed him and his wife."
Just now we heard the people in the house singing "China," the Deephaven funeral hymn, and the tune suited well that day, with its wailing rise and fall; it was strangely plaintive. Then the funeral exercises were over, and the man with whom we had just been speaking led to the door a horse and rickety wagon, from which the seat had been taken, and when the coffin had been put in he led the horse down the road a little way, and we watched the mourners come out of the house two by two. We heard some one scold in a whisper because the wagon was twice as far off as it need have been. They evidently had a rigid funeral etiquette, and felt it important that everything should be carried our according to rule. We saw a forlorn-looking kitten, with a bit of faded braid round its neck, run across the road in terror and presently appear again on the stone-wall, where she sat looking at the people. We saw the dead man's eldest son, of whom he had told us in the summer with such pride. He had shown his respect for his father as best he could, by a black band on his hat and a pair of black cotton gloves a world too large for him. He looked so sad, and cried bitterly as he stood alone at the head of the people. His aunt was next, with a handkerchief at her eyes, fully equal to the proprieties of the occasion, though I fear her grief was not so heartfelt as her husband's, who dried his eyes on his coat-sleeve again and again. There were perhaps twenty of the mourners, and there was much whispering among those who walked last. The minister and some others fell into line, and the procession went slowly down the slope; a strange shadow had fallen over everything. It was like a November day, for the air felt cold and bleak. There were some great sea-fowl high in the air, fighting their way toward the sea against the wind, and giving now and then a wild, far-off ringing cry. We could hear the dull sound of the sea, and at a little distance from the land the waves were leaping high, and breaking in white foam over the isolated ledges.
The rest of the people began to walk or drive away, but Kate and I stood watching the funeral as it crept along the narrow, crooked road. We had never seen what the people called "walking funerals" until we came to Deephaven, and there was something piteous about this; the mourners looked so few, and we could hear the rattle of the wagon-wheels. "He's gone, ain't he?" said some one near us. That was it, - gone.
Before the people had entered the house, there had been, I am sure, an indifferent, business-like look, but when they came out, all that was changed; their faces were awed by the presence of death, and the indifference had given place to uncertainty. Their neighbor was immeasurably their superior now. Living, he had been a failure by their own low standards; but now, if he could come back, he would know secrets, and be wise beyond anything they could imagine, and who could know the riches of which he might have come into possession?
To Kate and me there came a sudden consciousness of the mystery and inevitableness of death; it was not fear, thank God! but a thought of how certain it was that some day it would be a mystery to us no longer. And there was a thought, too, of the limitation of this present life; we were waiting there, in company with the people, the great sea, and the rocks and fields themselves, on this side the boundary. We knew just then how close to this familiar, every-day world might be the other, which at times before had seemed so far away, out of reach of even our thoughts, beyond the distant stars.
We stayed awhile longer, until the little black funeral had crawled out of sight; until we had seen the last funeral guest go away and the door had been shut and fastened with a queer old padlock and some links of rusty chain. The door fitted loosely, and the man gave it a vindictive shake, as if he thought that the poor house had somehow been to blame, and that after a long desperate struggle for life under its roof and among the stony fields the family must go away defeated. It is not likely that any one else will ever go to live there. The man to whom the farm was mortgaged will add the few forlorn acres to his pasture-land, and the thistles which the man who is dead had fought so many years will march in next summer and take unmolested possession.
I think to-day of that fireless, empty, forsaken house, where the winter sun shines in and creeps slowly along the floor; the bitter cold is in and around the house, and the snow has sifted in at every crack; outside it is untrodden by any living creature's footstep. The wind blows and rushes and shakes the loose window-sashes in their frames, while the padlock knocks - knocks against the door.
bayberry-bushes: Myrica. a short, thick wild bush that which grows along the coast in New England; the wax from its berries is used to make scented candles; represents "instruction" in nineteenth-century flower language (Research, Ted Eden).
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ways of Providence is dreadful myster'ous: This echoes a well-known poem by William Cowper (1731–1800):
God Moves in Mysterious Ways
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sovereign will.
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had a hard row: This idiom usually is completed as "a hard row to hoe," referring to weeding in a field or garden.
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Fourth o' July: United States national holiday celebrating the signing of the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776.
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pimpernel: The pimpernel is any of about 30 species of small, sprawling annual herbs of the genus Anagallis of the primrose family, Primulaceae. The best known species the scarlet, or common, pimpernel, A. arvensis has small, stalkless leaves and long stalked, five lobed, solitary flowers that are usually scarlet but may be purple, white, or blue. It is native to Europe but now naturalized throughout North America. (Source: Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia).
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As You Like It: See William Shakespeare's comedy, As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 5.
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daily bread: The phrase is from "The Lord's Prayer," Matthew 6:11.
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singing China, the Deephaven funeral hymn: Rebecca Wall believes this refers to Timothy Swan's tune in New England Harmony (1801). It is associated traditionally with the hymn by Isaac Watts, "Why Do We Mourn Departed Friends."
The following text is from the Cyberhymnal:
Why do we mourn departing friends,
Or shake at death’s alarms?
’Tis but the voice that Jesus sends
To call them to His arms.
Are we not tending upward, too,
As fast as time can move?
Nor would we wish the hours more slow
To keep us from our love.
Why should we tremble to convey
Their bodies to the tomb?
There the dear flesh of Jesus lay,
And left a long perfume.
The graves of all His saints He blessed,
And softened every bed;
Where should the dying members rest,
But with the dying Head?
Thence He arose, ascending high,
And showed our feet the way;
Up to the Lord our flesh shall fly,
At the great rising day.
Then let the last loud trumpet sound,The tune may be heard at the same web site, by clicking on MIDI next to China, Timothy Swan.
And bid our kindred rise;
Awake, ye nations under ground;
Ye saints, ascend the skies.
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how close to this familiar, every-day world might be the other: Jewett refers often to the idea of the closeness of the world of the living to another in which life continues after death. See for examples, the end of "The Foreigner" (1900) and the first of two poems addressed to her father after his death in 1878 (in Verses)
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, assisted by Tanner Brossart, Coe College.
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