Sarah Orne Jewett
The Deephaven people used to say sometimes complacently, that certain things or certain people were "as dull as East Parish." Kate and I grew curious to see that part of the world which was considered duller than Deephaven itself; and as upon inquiry we found that it was not out of reach, one day we went there.
It was like Deephaven, only on a smaller scale. The village - though it is a question whether that is not an exaggerated term to apply - had evidently seen better days. It was on the bank of a river, and perhaps half a mile from the sea. There were a few old buildings there, some with mossy roofs and a great deal of yellow lichen on the sides of the walls next the sea; a few newer houses, belonging to fishermen; some dilapidated fish-houses; and a row of fish-flakes. Every house seemed to have a lane of its own, and all faced different ways except two fish-houses, which stood amiably side by side. There was a church, which we had been told was the oldest in the region. Through the windows we saw the high pulpit and sounding-board, and finally found the keys at a house near by; so we went in and looked around at our leisure. A rusty foot-stove stood in one of the old square pews, and in the gallery there was a majestic bass-viol with all its strings snapped but the largest, which gave out a doleful sound when we touched it.
After we left the church we walked along the road a little way, and came in sight of a fine old house which had apparently fallen into ruin years before. The front entrance was a fine specimen of old-fashioned workmanship, with its columns and carvings, and the fence had been a grand affair in its day, though now it could scarcely stand alone. The long range of out-buildings were falling piece by piece; one shed had been blown down entirely by a late high wind. The large windows had many panes of glass, and the great chimneys were built of the bright red bricks which used to be brought from over-seas in the days of the colonies. We noticed the gnarled lilacs in the yard, the wrinkled cinnamon-roses, and a flourishing company of French pinks, or "bouncing Bets," as Kate called them.
"Suppose we go in," said I; "the door is open a little way. There surely must be some stories about its being haunted. We will ask Miss Honora." And we climbed over the boards which were put up like pasture-bars across the wide front gateway.
"We shall certainly meet a ghost," said Kate.
Just as we stood on the steps the door was pulled wide open; we started back, and, well-grown young women as we are, we have confessed since that our first impulse was to run away. On the threshold there stood a stately old woman who looked surprised at first sight of us, then quickly recovered herself and stood waiting for us to speak. She was dressed in a rusty black satin gown, with scant, short skirt and huge sleeves; on her head was a great black bonnet with a high crown and a close brim, which came far out over her face. "What is your pleasure?" said she; and we felt like two awkward children. Kate partially recovered her wits, and asked which was the nearer way to Deephaven.
"There is but one road, past the church and over the hill. It cannot be missed." And she bowed gravely, when we thanked her and begged her pardon, we hardly knew why, and came away.
We looked back to see her still standing in the doorway. "Who in the world can she be?" said Kate. And we wondered and puzzled and talked over "the ghost" until we saw Miss Honora Carew, who told us that it was Miss Sally Chauncey.
"Indeed, I know her, poor old soul!" said Miss Honora; "she has such a sad history. She is the last survivor of one of the most aristocratic old colonial families. The Chaunceys were of great renown until early in the present century, and then their fortunes changed. They had always been rich and well-educated, and I suppose nobody ever had a gayer, happier time than Miss Sally did in her girlhood, for they entertained a great deal of company and lived in fine style; but her father was unfortunate in business, and at last was utterly ruined at the time of the embargo; then he became partially insane, and died after many years of poverty. I have often heard a tradition that a sailor to whom he had broken a promise had cursed him, and that none of the family had died in their beds or had any good luck since. The East Parish people seem to believe in it, and it is certainly strange what terrible sorrow has come to the Chaunceys. One of Miss Sally's brothers, a fine young officer in the navy, who was at home on leave, asked her one day if she could get on without him, and she said yes, thinking he meant to go back to sea; but in a few minutes she heard the noise of a pistol in his room, and hurried in to find him lying dead on the floor. Then there was another brother who was insane, and who became so violent that he was chained for years in one of the upper chambers, a dangerous prisoner. I have heard his horrid cries myself, when I was a young girl," said Miss Honora, with a shiver.
"Miss Sally is insane, and has been for many years, and this seems to me the saddest part of the story. When she first lost her reason she was sent to a hospital, for there was no one who could take care of her. The mania was so acute that no one had the slightest thought that she would recover or even live long. Her guardian sold the furniture and pictures and china, almost everything but clothing, to pay the bills at the hospital, until the house was fairly empty; and then one spring day, I remember it well, she came home in her right mind, and, without a thought of what was awaiting her, ran eagerly into her home. It was a terrible shock, and she never has recovered from it, though after a long illness her insanity took a mild form, and she has always been perfectly harmless. She has been alone many years, and no one can persuade her to leave the old house, where she seems to be contented, and does not realize her troubles; though she lives mostly in the past, and has little idea of the present, except in her house affairs, which seem pitiful to me, for I remember the housekeeping of the Chaunceys when I was a child. I have always been to see her, and she usually knows me, though I have been but seldom of late years. She is several years older than I. The town makes her an allowance every year, and she has some friends who take care that she does not suffer, though her wants are few. She is an elegant woman still, and some day, if you like, I will give you something to carry to her, and a message, if I can think of one, and you must go to make her a call. I hope she will happen to be talkative, for I am sure you would enjoy her. For many years she did not like to see strangers, but some one has told me lately that she seems to be pleased if people go to see her."
You may be sure it was not many days before Kate and I claimed the basket and the message, and went again to East Parish. We boldly lifted the great brass knocker, and were dismayed because nobody answered. While we waited, a girl came up the walk and said that Miss Sally lived upstairs, and she would speak to her if we liked. "Sometimes she don't have sense enough to know what the knocker means," we were told. There was evidently no romance about Miss Sally to our new acquaintance.
"Do you think," said I, "that we might go in and look around the lower rooms? Perhaps she will refuse to see us."
"Yes, indeed," said the girl; "only run the minute I speak; you'll have time enough, for she walks slow and is a little deaf."
So we went into the great hall with its wide staircase and handsome cornices and panelling, and then into the large parlor on the right, and through it to a smaller room looking out on the garden, which sloped down to the river. Both rooms had fine carved mantels, with Dutch-tiled fireplaces, and in the cornices we saw the fastenings where pictures had hung, - old portraits, perhaps. And what had become of them? The girl did not know: the house had been the same ever since she could remember, only it would all fall through into the cellar soon. But the old lady was proud as Lucifer, and wouldn't hear of moving out.
The floor in the room toward the river was so broken that it was not safe, and we came back through the hall and opened the door at the foot of the stairs. "Guess you won't want to stop long there," said the girl. Three old hens and a rooster marched toward us with great solemnity when we looked in. The cobwebs hung in the room, as they often do in old barns, in long, gray festoons; the lilacs outside grew close against the two windows where the shutters were not drawn, and the light in the room was greenish and dim.
Then we took our places on the threshold, and the girl went up stairs and announced us to Miss Sally, and in a few minutes we heard her come along the hall.
"Sophia," said she, "where are the gentry waiting?" And just then she came in sight round the turn of the staircase. She wore the same great black bonnet and satin gown, and looked more old-fashioned and ghostly than before. She was not tall, but very erect, in spite of her great age, and her eyes seemed to "look through you" in an uncanny way. She slowly descended the stairs and came toward us with a courteous greeting, and when we had introduced ourselves as Miss Carew's friends she gave us each her hand in a most cordial way and said she was pleased to see us. She bowed us into the parlor and brought us two rickety, straight-backed chairs, which, with an old table, were all the furniture there was in the room. "Sit ye down," said she, herself taking a place in the window-seat. I have seen few more elegant women than Miss Chauncey . Thoroughly at her ease, she had the manner of a lady of the olden times, using the quaint fashion of speech which she had been taught in her girlhood. The long words and ceremonious phrases suited her extremely well. Her hands were delicately shaped, and she folded them in her lap, as no doubt she had learned to do at boarding-school so many years before. She asked Kate and me if we knew any young ladies at that school in Boston, saying that most of her intimate friends had left when she did, but some of the younger ones were there still.
She asked for the Carews and Mr. Lorimer, and when Kate told her that she was Miss Brandon's niece, and asked if she had not known her, she said, "Certainly, my dear; we were intimate friends at one time, but I have seen her little of late."
"Do you not know that she is dead?" asked Kate.
"Ah, they say every one is 'dead,' nowadays. I do not comprehend the silly idea!" said the old lady, impatiently. "It is an excuse, I suppose. She could come to see me if she chose, but she was always a ceremonious body, and I go abroad but seldom now; so perhaps she waits my visit. I will not speak uncourteously, and you must remember me to her kindly."
Then she asked us about other old people in Deephaven and about families in Boston whom she had known in her early days. I think every one of whom she spoke was dead, but we assured her that they were all well and prosperous, and we hoped we told the truth. She asked about the love-affairs of men and women who had died old and gray-headed within our remembrance; and finally she said we must pardon her for these tiresome questions, but it was so rarely she saw any one direct from Boston, of whom she could inquire concerning these old friends and relatives of her family.
Something happened after this which touched us both inexpressibly: she sat for some time watching Kate with a bewildered look, which at last faded away, a smile coming in its place. "I think you are like my mother," she said; "did any one ever say to you that you are like my mother? Will you let me see your forehead? Yes; and your hair is only a little darker." Kate had risen when Miss Chauncey did, and they stood side by side. There was a tone in the old lady's voice which brought the tears to my eyes. She stood there some minutes looking at Kate. I wonder what her thoughts were. There was a kinship, it seemed to me, not of blood, only that they both were of the same stamp and rank: Miss Chauncey of the old generation and Kate Lancaster of the new. Miss Chauncey turned to me, saying, "Look up at the portrait and you will see the likeness too, I think." But when she turned and saw the bare wainscoting of the room, she looked puzzled, and the bright flash which had lighted up her face was gone in an instant, and she sat down again in the window-seat; but we were glad that she had forgotten. Presently she said, "Pardon me, but I forget your question."
Miss Carew had told us to ask her about her school-days, as she nearly always spoke of that time to her; and, to our delight, Miss Sally told us a long story about her friends and about her "coming-out party," when boat-loads of gay young guests came down from Riverport, and all the gentry from Deephaven. The band from the fort played for the dancing, the garden was lighted, the card-tables were in this room, and a grand supper was served. She also remembered what some of her friends wore, and her own dress was a silver-gray brocade with rosebuds of three colors. She told us how she watched the boats go off up river in the middle of the summer night; how sweet the music sounded; how bright the moonlight was; how she wished we had been there at her party.
"I can't believe I am an old woman. It seems only yesterday," said she, thoughtfully. And then she lost the idea, and talked about Kate's great-grandmother, whom she had known, and asked us how she had been this summer.
She asked us if we would like to go up stairs where she had a fire, and we eagerly accepted, though we were not in the least cold. Ah, what a sorry place it was! She had gathered together some few pieces of her old furniture, which half filled one fine room, and here she lived. There was a tall, handsome chest of drawers, which I should have liked much to ransack. Miss Carew had told us that Miss Chauncey had large claims against the government, dating back sixty or seventy years, but nobody could ever find the papers; and I felt sure that they must be hidden away in some secret drawer. The brass handles and trimmings were blackened, and the wood looked like ebony. I wanted to climb up and look into the upper part of this antique piece of furniture, and it seemed to me I could at once put my hand on a package of "papers relating to the embargo."
On a stand near the window was an old Bible, fairly worn out with constant use. Miss Chauncey was religious; in fact, it was the only subject about which she was perfectly sane. We saw almost nothing of her insanity that day, though afterward she was different. There were days when her mind seemed clear; but sometimes she was silent, and often she would confuse Kate with Miss Brandon, and talk to her of long-forgotten plans and people. She would rarely speak of anything more than a minute or two, and then would drift into an entirely foreign subject.
She urged us that afternoon to stay to luncheon with her; she said she could not offer us dinner, but she would give us tea and biscuit, and no doubt we should find something in Miss Carew's basket, as she was always kind in remembering her fancies. Miss Honora had told us to decline, if she asked us to stay; but I should have liked to see her sit at the head of her table, and to be a guest at such a lunch-party.
Poor creature! it was a blessed thing that her shattered reason made her unconscious of the change in her fortunes, and incapable of comparing the end of her life with its beginning. To herself she was still Miss Chauncey, a gentlewoman of high family, possessed of unusual worldly advantages. The remembrance of her cruel trials and sorrows had faded from her mind. She had no ides of the poverty of her surroundings when she paced back and forth, with stately steps, on the ruined terraces of her garden; the ranks of lilies and the conserve-roses were still in bloom for her, and the box-borders were as trimly kept as ever; and when she pointed out to us the distant steeples of Riverport, it was plain to see that it was still the Riverport of her girlhood. If the boat-landing at the foot of the garden had long ago dropped into the river and gone out with the tide; if the maids and men who used to do her bidding were all out of hearing; if there had been no dinner company that day and no guests were expected for the evening, - what did it matter? The twilight had closed around her gradually, and she was alone in her house, but she did not heed the ruin of it or the absence of her friends. On the morrow, life would again go on.
We always used to ask her to read the Bible to us, after Mr. Lorimer had told us how grand and beautiful it was to listen to her. I shall never hear some of the Psalms or some chapters of Isaiah again without being reminded of her; and I remember just now, as I write, one summer afternoon when Kate and I had lingered later than usual, and we sat in the upper room looking out on the river and the shore beyond, where the light had begun to grow golden as the day drew near sunset. Miss Sally had opened the great book at random and read slowly, "In my Father's house are many mansions"; and then, looking off for a moment at a leaf which had drifted into the window-recess, she repeated it: "In my Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you." Then she went on slowly to the end of the chapter, and with her hands clasped together on the Bible she fell into a reverie, and the tears came into our eyes as we watched her look of perfect content. Through all her clouded years the promises of God had been her only certainty.
Miss Chauncey died early in the winter after we left Deephaven, and one day when I was visiting Kate in Boston Mr. Lorimer came to see us, and told us about her.
It seems that after much persuasion she was induced to go to spend the winter with a neighbor, her house having become uninhabitable, and she was, beside, too feeble to live alone. But her fondness for her old home was too strong, and one day she stole away from the people who took care of her, and crept in through the cellar, where she had to wade through half-frozen water, and then went up stairs, where she seated herself at a front window and called joyfully to the people who went by, asking them to come in to see her, as she had got home again. After this she was very ill, and one day, when she was half delirious, they missed her, and found her at last sitting on her hall stairway, which she was too feeble to climb. She lived but a short time afterwards, and in her last days her mind seemed perfectly clear. She said over and over again how good God had always been to her, and she was gentle, and unwilling to be a trouble to those who had the care of her.Mr. Lorimer spoke of her simple goodness, and told us that though she had no other sense of time, and hardly knew if it were summer or winter, she was always sure when Sunday came, and always came to church when he preached at East Parish, her greatest pleasure seeming to be to give money, if there was a contribution. "She may be a lesson to us," added the old minister, reverently; "for, though bewildered in mind, bereft of riches and friends and all that makes this world dear to many of us, she was still steadfast in her simple faith, and was never heard to complain of any of the burdens which God had given her."
fish flakes: a light rack or platform such as for holding fish up to dry.
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gnarled lilacs … wrinkled cinnamon roses, … French pinks or "bouncing Bets": Lilac is a common garden bush with heart shaped leaves and strong smelling purple blossoms that blooms early in the spring. Cinnamon rose is a species of rose (R. cinnamonea). Biographer Francis Matthiessen reports that as a child, Jewett would make a coddle of cinnamon rose petals with cinnamon and brown sugar. See Chapter 1. Bouncing Bets is a popular name for the Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis), but the Oxford English Dictionary defines French pink in the United States as the cornflower, Centaurea cyanus, or a species of Armeria.
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the embargo: The Embargo Act of 1807, sometimes known as Jefferson's Embargo, devastated the smaller New England ports. Its purpose was to punish England and France for capturing neutral ships and impressing sailors for use in their fiercely contested war, but the embargo was a costly, much resented strategy.
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Lucifer: Lucifer, in Christian thought, has been identified with Satan, and so appears in Milton's Paradise Lost as the proud angel who would not serve God and who led a rebellion against his creator.
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conserve roses … box borders: Conserve roses would be preserved with sugar as confections or as medicine. Box border is a hedge of a blooming box hedge, native to the Mediterranean region. The wood is useful for carving. (Source: Britannica Online).
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many mansions: see John 14:2.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, assisted by Tanner Brossart, Coe College.