The King of Folly Island
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MISS PECK'S PROMOTION.
Sarah Orne Jewett
Miss Peck had spent a lonely day in her old farm-house, high on a long Vermont hillside that sloped toward the west. She was able for an hour at noon to overlook the fog in the valley below, and pitied the people in the village whose location she could distinguish only by means of the church steeple which pricked through the gray mist, like a buoy set over a dangerous reef. During this brief time, when the sun was apparently shining for her benefit alone, she reflected proudly upon the advantage of living on high land, but in the early afternoon, when the fog began to rise slowly, and at last shut her in, as well as the rest of the world, she was conscious of uncommon depression of spirits.
"I might as well face it now as any time," she said aloud, as she lighted her clean kerosene lamp and put it on the table. "Eliza Peck! just set down and make it blazing clear how things stand with you, and what you're going to do in regard to 'em! 'Tain't no use matching your feelin's to the weather, without you've got reason for it." And she twitched the short curtains across the windows so that their brass rings squeaked on the wires, opened the door for the impatient cat that was mewing outside, and then seated herself in the old rocking-chair at the table end.
It is quite a mistake to believe that people who live by themselves find every day a lonely one. Miss Peck and many other solitary persons could assure us that it is very seldom that they feel their lack of companionship. As the habit of living alone grows more fixed, it becomes confusing to have other people about, and seems more or less bewildering to be interfered with by other people's plans and suggestions. Only once in a while does the feeling of solitariness become burdensome, or a creeping dread and sense of defenselessness assail one's comfort. But when Miss Peck was aware of the approach of such a mood she feared it, and was prepared to fight it with her best weapon of common-sense.
She was much given to talking aloud, as many solitary persons are; not merely talking to herself in the usual half-conscious way, but making her weaker self listen to severe comment and pointed instruction. Miss Peck the less was frequently brought to trial in this way by Miss Peck the greater, and when it was once announced that justice must be done, no amount of quailing or excuse averted the process of definite conviction.
This evening she turned the light up to its full brightness, reached for her knitting-work, lifted it high above her lap for a moment, as her favorite cat jumped up to its evening quarters; then she began to rock to and fro with regularity and decision. "`Tis all nonsense," she said, as if she were addressing some one greatly her inferior - "'Tis all nonsense for you to go on this way, Elizy Peck! you're better off than you've been this six year, if you only had sense to feel so."
There was no audible reply, and the speaker evidently mistook the silence for unconvinced stubbornness.
"If ever there was a woman who was determined to live by other folks' wits, and to eat other folks' dinners, 'twas and is your lamented brother's widder, Harri't Peck - Harri't White that was. She's claimed the town's compassion till it's good as run dry, and she's thought that you, Elizy Peck, a hard-workin' and self-supportin' woman, was made for nothin' but her use and comfort. Ever since your father died and you've been left alone you've had her for a clog to your upward way. Six years you've been at her beck an' call, and now that a respectable man, able an' willing to do for her, has been an' fell in love with her, and shouldered her and all her whims, and promised to do for the children as if they was his own, you've been grumpin' all day, an' I'd like to know what there is to grump about!"
There was a lack of response even to this appeal to reason, and the knitting-needles clicked in dangerous nearness to the old cat's ears, so that they twitched now and then, and one soft paw unexpectedly revealed its white curving claws.
"Yes," said Miss Peck, presently, in a more lenient tone, "I s'pose 'tis the children you're thinking of most. I declare I should like to see that Tom's little red head, and feel it warm with my two hands this minute! There's always somethin' hopeful in havin' to do with children, 'less they come of too bad a stock. Grown folks - well, you can make out to grin an' bear 'em if you must; but like 's not young ones'll turn out to be somebody, and what you do for 'em may count towards it. There's that Tom, he looks just as his father used to, and there ain't a day he won't say somethin' real pleasant, and never sees the difference betwixt you an' somebody handsome. I expect they'll spile him - you don't know what kind o' young ones they'll let him play with, nor how they'll let him murder the king's English, and never think o' boxin' his ears. Them big factory towns is all for eatin' and clothes. I'm glad you was raised in a good old academy town, if 'twas the Lord's will to plant you in the far outskirts. Land, how Harri't did smirk at that man! I will say she looked pretty - 'tis hard work and worry makes folks plain like me - I believe she's fared better to be left a widder with three child'n, and everybody saying how hard it was, an' takin' holt, than she would if brother had lived and she'd had to stir herself to keep house and do for him. You've been the real widder that Tom left - you've mourned him, and had your way to go alone - not she! The colonel's lady," repeated Miss Peck, scornfully - "that's what sp'ilt her. She never could come down to common things, Mis' Colonel Peck! Well, she may have noble means now, but she's got to be spoke of as Mis' Noah Pigley all the rest of her days. Not that I'm goin' to fling at any man's accident of name," said the just Eliza, in an apologetic tone. "I did want to adopt little Tom, but 'twas to be expected he'd object - a boy's goin' to be useful in his business, and poor Tommy's the likeliest. I would have 'dopted him out an' out, and he shall have the old farm anyway. But oh dear me, he's all spoilt for farming now, is little Tom, unless I can make sure of him now and then for a good long visit in summer time.
"Summer an' winter; I s'pose you're likely to live a great many years, Elizy," sighed the good woman. "All sole alone, too! There, I've landed right at the startin' point," - and the kitchen was very still while some dropped stitches in a belated stocking for the favorite nephew were obscured by a mist of tears like the fog outside. There was no more talking aloud, for Miss Peck fell into a revery about old days and the only brother who had left his little household in her care and marched to the war whence for him there was to be no return. She had remembered very often, with a great sense of comfort, a message in one of his very last letters. "Tell Eliza that she's more likely to be promoted than I am," he said (when he had just got his step of Major); "she's my superior officer, however high I get, and now I've heard what luck she's had with the haying, I appoint her Brigadier-General for gallantry in the field." How poor Tom's jokes had kept their courage up even when they were most anxious! Yes, she had made many sacrifices of personal gain, as every good soldier must. She had meant to be a school-teacher. She had the gift for it, and had studied hard in her girlhood. One thing after another had kept her at home, and now she must stay here - her ambitions were at an end. She would do what good she could among her neighbors, and stand in her lot and place. It was the first time she had found to think soberly about her life, for her sister-in-law and the children had gone to their new home within a few days, and since then she had stifled all power of proper reflection by hard work at setting the house in order and getting in her winter supplies. "Thank Heaven the house and place belong to me," she said in a decisive tone. "'Twas wise o' father to leave it so - and let her have the money. She'd left me no peace till I moved off if I'd only been half-owner; she's always meant to get to a larger place - but what I want is real promotion."
The Peck farm-house was not only on a by-road that wandered among the slopes of the hills, but it was at the end of a long lane of its own. There was rarely any sound at night except from the winds of heaven or the soughing of the neighboring pine-trees. By day, there was a beautiful inspiriting outlook over the wide country from the farm-house windows, but on such a night as this the darkness made an impenetrable wall. Miss Peck was not afraid of it; on the contrary, she had a sense of security in being shut safe into the very heart of the night. By day she might be vexed by intruders, by night they could scarcely find her - her bright light could not be seen from the road. If she were to wither away in the old gray house like an unplanted kernel in its shell, she would at least wither undisturbed. Her sorrow of loneliness was not the fear of molestation. She was fearless enough at the thought of physical dangers.
The evening did not seem so long as she expected - a glance at her reliable time-keeper told her at last that it was already past eight o'clock, and her eyes began to feel heavy. The fire was low, the fog was making its presence felt even in the house, for the autumn night was chilly, and Miss Peck decided that when she came to the end of the stitches on a certain needle she would go to bed. To-morrow, she meant to cut her apples for drying, a duty too long delayed. She had sent away some of her best fruit that day to make the annual barrel of cider with which she provided herself, more from habit than from real need of either the wholesome beverage or its resultant vinegar. "If this fog lasts, I've got to dry my apples by the stove," she thought, doubtfully, and was conscious of a desire to survey the weather from the outer doorway before she slept. How she missed Harriet and the children! - though they had been living with her only for a short time before the wedding, and since the half-house they had occupied in the village had been let. The thought of bright-eyed, red-headed little Tom still brought the warm tears very near to falling. He had cried bitterly when he went away. So had his mother - at least, she held up her pocket-handkerchief. Miss Peck never had believed in Harriet's tears.
Out of the silence of the great hillslope came the dull sound of a voice, and as Miss Peck sprang from her chair to the window, dropping the sleeping cat in a solid mass on the floor, she recognized the noise of a carriage. Her heart was beating provokingly; she was tired by the excitement of the last few days. She did not remember this, but was conscious of being startled in an unusual way. It must be some strange crisis in her life; she turned and looked about the familiar kitchen as if it were going to be altogether swept away. "Now, you needn't be afraid that Pigley's comin' to bring her back, Elizy Peck!" she assured herself with grim humor in that minute's apprehension of disaster.
A man outside spoke sternly to his horse. Eliza stepped quickly to the door and opened it wide. She was not afraid of the messenger, only of the message.
"Hold the light so 's I can see to tie this colt," said a familiar voice; "it's as dark as a pocket, 'Liza. I'll be right in. You must put on a good warm shawl; 'tis as bad as rain, this fog is. The minister wants you to come down to his house; he's at his wits' end, and there was nobody we could think of that's free an' able except you. His wife's gone, died at quarter to six, and left a mis'able baby; but the doctor expects 't will live. The nurse they bargained with 's failed 'em, and 'tis an awful state o' things as you ever see. Half the women in town are there, and the minister's overcome; he is sort of fainted away two or three times, and they don't know who else to get, till the doctor said your name, and he groaned right out you was the one. 'Tain't right to refuse, as I view it. Mis' Spence and Mis' Corbell is going to watch with the dead, but there needs a head."
Eliza Peck felt for once as if she lacked that useful possession herself, and sat down, with amazing appearance of calmness, in one of her splint-bottomed chairs to collect her thoughts. The messenger was a good deal excited; so was she; but in a few moments she rose, cutting short his inconsequent description of affairs at the parsonage.
"You just put out the fire as best you can," she said. "We'll talk as we go along. There's plenty o' ashes there, I'm sure; I let the stove cool off considerable, for I was meanin' to go to bed in another five minutes. The cat'll do well enough. I'll leave her plenty for to-morrow, and she's got a place where she can creep [crep] in an' out of the wood-shed. I'll just slip on another dress and put the nails over the windows, an' we'll be right off." She was quite herself again now; and, true to her promise, it was not many minutes before the door was locked, the house left in darkness, and Ezra Weston and Miss Peck were driving comfortably down the lane. The fog had all blown away, suddenly the stars were out, and the air was sweet with the smell of the wet bark of black birches and cherry and apple-trees that grew by the fences. The leaves had fallen fast through the day, weighted by the dampness until their feeble stems could keep them in place no longer; for the bright colors of the foliage there had come at night sweet odors and a richness of fragrance in the soft air.
"'Tis an unwholesome streak o' weather now, ain't it?" asked Ezra Weston. "Feels like a dog-day evenin', don't it? Come this time o' year we want bracin' up."
Miss Peck did not respond; her sympathetic heart was dwelling on the thought that she was going, not only to a house of mourning, but to a bereft parsonage. She would not have felt so unequal to soothing the sorrows of her every-day acquaintances, but she could hardly face the duty of consoling the new minister. But she never once wished that she had not consented so easily to respond to his piteous summons.
There was a strangely festive look in the village, for the exciting news of Mrs. Elbury's death had flown from house to house - lights were bright everywhere, and in the parsonage brightest of all. It looked as if the hostess were receiving her friends, and helping them to make merry, instead of being white and still, and done with this world, while the busy women of the parish were pulling open her closets and bureau drawers in search of household possessions. Nobody stopped to sentimentalize over the poor soul's delicate orderliness, or the simple, loving preparations she had made for the coming of the baby which fretfully wailed in the next room.
"Here's a nice black silk that never was touched with the scissors!" said one good dame, as if a kind Providence ought to have arranged for the use of such a treasure in setting the bounds of the dead woman's life.
"Does seem too bad, don't it? I always heard her folks was well off," replied somebody in a loud whisper; "she had everything to live for." There was great eagerness to be of service to the stricken pastor, and the kind neighbors did their best to prove the extent of their sympathy. One after another went to the room where he was, armed with various excuses, and the story of his sad looks and distress was repeated again and again to a grieved audience.
When Miss Peck came in she had to listen to a full description of the day's events, and was decorously slow in assuming her authority; but at last the house was nearly empty again, and only the watchers and one patient little mother of many children, who held this motherless child in loving arms, were left with Miss Peck in the parsonage. It seemed a year since she had sat in her quiet kitchen, a solitary woman whose occupations seemed too few and too trivial for her eager capacities and ambitions.
The autumn days went by, winter set in early, and Miss Peck was still mistress of the parsonage housekeeping. Her own cider was brought to the parsonage, and so were the potatoes and the apples; even the cat was transferred to a dull village existence, far removed in every way from her happy hunting-grounds among the snow-birds and plump squirrels. The minister's pale little baby loved Miss Peck and submitted to her rule already. She clung fast to the good woman with her little arms, and Miss Peck, who had always imagined that she did not care for infants, found herself watching the growth of this spark of human intelligence and affection with intense interest. After all, it was good to be spared the long winter at the farm; it had never occurred to her to dread it, but she saw now that it was a season to be dreaded, and one by one forgot the duties which at first beckoned her homeward and seemed so unavoidable. The farm-house seemed cold and empty when she paid it an occasional visit. She would not have believed that she could content herself so well away from the dear old home. If she could have had her favorite little Tom within reach, life would have been perfectly happy.
The minister proved at first very disappointing to her imaginary estimate and knowledge of him. If it had not been for her sturdy loyalty to him as pastor and employer, she could sometimes have joined more or less heartily in the expressions of the disaffected faction which forms a difficult element in every parish. Her sense of humor was deeply gratified when the leader of the opposition remarked that the minister was beginning to take notice a little, and was wearing his best hat every day, like every other widower since the world was made. Miss Peck's shrewd mind had already made sure that Mr. Elbury's loss was not so great as she had at first sympathetically believed; she knew that his romantic, ease-loving, self-absorbed, and self-admiring nature had been curbed and held in check by the literal, prosaic, faithful-in-little-things disposition of his dead wife. She was self-denying, he was self-indulgent; she was dutiful, while he was given to indolence - and the unfounded plea of ill-health made his only excuse. Miss Peck soon fell into the way of putting her shoulder to the wheel, and unobtrusively, even secretly, led the affairs of the parish. She never was deaf to the explanation of the wearing effect of brain-work, but accepted the weakness as well as the power of the ministerial character; and nobody listened more respectfully to his somewhat flowery and inconsequent discourses on Sunday than Miss Peck. The first Sunday they went to church together Eliza slipped into her own pew, half-way up the side aisle, and thought well of herself for her prompt decision afterward, though she regretted the act for a moment as she saw the minister stop to let her into the empty pew of the parsonage. He had been sure she was just behind him, and gained much sympathy from the congregation as he sighed and went his lonely way up the pulpit-stairs. Even Mrs. Corbell, who had been averse to settling the Rev. Mr. Elbury was moved by this incident, but directly afterward whispered to her next neighbor that Lizy Peck would be sitting there before the year was out if she had the business-head they had all given her credit for.
It gives rise to melancholy reflections when one sees how quickly those who have suffered most cruel and disturbing bereavements learn to go their way alone. The great plan of our lives is never really broken nor suffers accidents. However stunning the shock, one can almost always understand gratefully that it was best for the vanished friend to vanish just when he did; that this world held no more duties or satisfactions for him; that his earthly life was in fact done and ended. Our relations with him must be lifted to a new plane. Miss Peck thought often of the minister's loss, and always with tender sympathy, yet she could not help seeing that he was far from being unresigned or miserable in his grief. She was ready to overlook the fact that he depended upon his calling rather than upon his own character and efforts. The only way in which she made herself uncongenial to the minister was by persistent suggestions that he should take more exercise and "stir about outdoors a little." Once, when she had gone so far as to briskly inform him that he was getting logy, Mr. Elbury showed entire displeasure; and a little later, in the privacy of the kitchen, she voiced the opinion that Elizy Peck knew very well that she never did think ministers were angels - only human beings, like herself, in great danger of being made fools of. But the two good friends made up their little quarrel at supper-time.
"I have been looking up the derivation of that severe word you applied to me this noon," said the Reverend Mr. Elbury, pleasantly. "It is a localism; but it comes from the Dutch word log, which means heavy or unwieldy."
These words were pronounced plaintively, with evident consciousness that they hardly applied to his somewhat lank figure; and Miss Peck felt confused and rebuked, and went on pouring tea until both cup and saucer were full, and she scalded the end of her thumb. She was very weak in the hands of such a scholar as this, but later she had a reassuring sense of not having applied the epithet unjustly. With a feminine reverence for his profession, and for his attainments, she had a keen sense of his human fallibility; and neither his grief, nor his ecclesiastical halo, nor his considerate idea of his own value, could blind her sharp eyes to certain shortcomings. She forgave them readily, but she knew them all by sight and name.
If there were any gift of Mr. Elbury's which could be sincerely called perfectly delightful by many people, it was his voice. When he was in a hurry, and gave hasty directions to his housekeeper about some mislaid possession, or called her down-stairs to stop the baby's vexatious crying, the tones were entirely different from those best known to the parish. Nature had gifted him with a power of carrying his voice into the depths of his sympathetic being and recovering it again gallantly. He had been considered the superior, in some respects, of that teacher of elocution who led the students of the theological seminary toward the glorious paths of oratory. There was a mellow middle-tone, most suggestive of tender feeling; but though it sounded sweet to other feminine ears, Miss Peck was always annoyed by it and impatient of a certain artificial quality in its cadences. To hear Mr. Elbury talk to his child in this tone, and address her as my motherless babe, however affecting to other ears, was always unpleasant to Miss Peck. But she thought very well of his preaching; and the more he let all the decisions and responsibilities of every-day life fall to her share, the more she enjoyed life and told her friends that Mr. Elbury was a most amiable man to live with. And when spring was come the hillside farm was let on shares to one of Miss Peck's neighbors whom she could entirely trust. It was not the best of bargains for its owner, who had the reputation of being an excellent farmer, and the agreement cost her many sighs and not a little wakefulness. She felt too much shut in by this village life; but the minister pleaded his hapless lot, the little child was even more appealing in her babyhood, and so the long visit from little Tom and his sisters, the familiar garden, the three beehives, and the glory of the sunsets in the great, unbroken, western sky were all given up together for that year.
It was not so hard as it might have been. There was one most rewarding condition of life - the feast of books, which was new and bewilderingly delightful to the minister's housekeeper. She had made the most of the few well-chosen volumes of the farm-house, but she never had known the joy of having more books than she could read, or their exquisite power of temptation, the delight of their friendly company. She was oftenest the student, the brain-wearied member, of the parsonage-family, but she never made it an excuse, or really recognized the new stimulus either. Life had never seemed so full to her; she was working with both hands earnestly, and no half-heartedness. She was filled with reverence in the presence of the minister's books; to her his calling, his character, and his influence were all made positive and respectable by this foundation of learning on his library-shelves. He was to her a man of letters, a critic, and a philosopher, besides being an experienced theologian from the very nature of his profession. Indeed, he had an honest liking for books, and was fond of reading aloud or being read to; and many an evening went joyfully by in the presence of the great English writers, whose best thoughts were rolled out in Mr. Elbury's best tones, and Miss Peck listened with delight, and cast many an affectionate glance at the sleeping child in the cradle at her feet, filled with gratitude as she was for all her privileges.
Mr. Elbury was most generous in his appreciation of Miss Peck's devotion, and never hesitated to give expression to sincere praise of her uncommon power of mind. He was led into paths of literature, otherwise untrod, by her delight; and sometimes, to rest his brain and make him ready for a good night's sleep, he asked his companion to read him a clever story. It was all a new world to the good woman whose schooling and reading had been sound, but restricted; and if ever a mind waked up with joy to its possession of the world of books, it was hers. She became ambitious for the increase of her own little library; and it was in reply to her outspoken plan for larger crops and more money from the farm another year, for the sake of bookbuying, that Mr. Elbury once said, earnestly, that his books were hers now. This careless expression was the spark which lit a new light for Miss Peck's imagination. For the first time a thrill of personal interest in the man made itself felt, through her devoted capacity for service and appreciation. He had ceased to be simply himself; he stood now for a widened life, a suggestion of added good and growth, a larger circle of human interests; in fact, his existence had made all the difference between her limited rural home and that connection with the great world which even the most contracted parsonage is sure to hold.
And that very night, while Mr. Elbury had gone, somewhat ruefully and ill-prepared, to his Bible class, Miss Peck's conscience set her womanly weakness before it for a famous arraigning. It was so far successful that words failed the defendant completely, and the session was dissolved in tears. For some days Miss Peck was not only stern with herself, but even with the minister, and was entirely devoted to her domestic affairs.
The very next Sunday it happened that Mr. Elbury exchanged pulpits with a brother-clergyman in the next large town, a thriving manufacturing centre, and he came home afterward in the best of spirits. He never had seemed so appreciative of his comfortable [house] [home], or Miss Peck's motherly desire to shield his weak nature from [those] [these] practical cares of life to which he was entirely inadequate. He was unusually gay and amusing, and described, not with the best taste, the efforts of two of his unmarried lady-parishioners to make themselves agreeable. He had met them on the short journey, and did not hesitate to speak of himself lightly as a widower; in fact, he recognized his own popularity and attractions in a way that was not pleasing to Miss Peck, yet she was used to his way of speaking and unaffectedly glad to have him at home again. She had been much disturbed and grieved by her own thoughts in his absence. She could not be sure whether she was wise in drifting toward a nearer relation to the minister. She was not exactly shocked at finding herself interested in him, but, with her usual sense of propriety and justice, she insisted upon taking everybody's view of the question before the weaker Miss Peck was accorded a hearing. She was enraged with herself for feeling abashed and liking to avoid the direct scrutiny of her fellow-parishioners. Mrs. Corbell and she had always been the best of friends, but for the first time Miss Peck was annoyed by such freedom of comment and opinion. And Sister Corbell had never been so forward about spending the afternoon at the parsonage, or running in for half-hours of gossip in the morning, as in these latter days. At last she began to ask the coy Eliza about her plans for the wedding, in a half-joking, half-serious tone which was hard to bear.
"You're a sight too good for him," was the usual conclusion, "and so I tell everybody. The whole parish has got it settled for you; and there's as many as six think hard of you, because you've given 'em no chance, bein' right here on the spot."
It seemed as if a resistless torrent of fate were sweeping our independent friend toward the brink of a great change. She insisted to the quailing side of her nature that she did not care for the minister himself, that she was likely to age much sooner than he, with his round, boyish face and plump cheeks. "They'll be takin' you for his mother, Lizy, when you go amongst strangers, little and dried up as you're gettin' to be a'ready; you're three years older anyway, and look as if 'twas nine." Yet the capable, clear-headed woman was greatly enticed by the high position and requirements of mistress of the parsonage. She liked the new excitement and authority, and grew more and more happy in the exercise of powers which a solitary life at the farm would hardly arouse or engage. There was a vigorous growth of independence and determination in Miss Peck's character, and she had not lived alone so many years for nothing. But there was no outward sign yet of capitulation. She was firmly convinced that the minister could not get on without her, and that she would rather not get on without him and the pleasure of her new activities. If possible, she grew a little more self-contained and reserved in manner and speech, while carefully anticipating his wants and putting better and better dinners on the parochial table.
As for Mr. Elbury himself, he became more cheerful every day, and was almost demonstrative in his affectionate gratitude. He spoke always as if they were one in their desire to interest and benefit the parish; he had fallen into a pleasant, home-like habit of saying "we" whenever household or parish affairs were under discussion. Once, when somebody had been remarking the too-evident efforts of one of her sister-parishioners to gain Mr. Elbury's affection, he had laughed leniently; but when this gossiping caller had gone away the minister said, gently, "We know better, don't we Miss Peck?" and Eliza could not help feeling that his tone meant a great deal. Yet she took no special notice of him, and grew much more taciturn than was natural. Her heart beat warmly under her prim alpacca-dress; she already looked younger and a great deal happier than when she first came to live at the parsonage. Her executive ability was made glad by the many duties that fell upon her, and those who knew her and Mr. Elbury best thought nothing could be wiser than their impending marriage. Did not the little child need Miss Peck's motherly care? did not the helpless minister need the assistance of a clear-sighted business-woman and good housekeeper? did not Eliza herself need and deserve a husband? But even with increasing certainty she still gave no outward sign of their secret understanding. It was likely that Mr. Elbury thought best to wait a year after his wife's death, and when he spoke right out was the time to show what her answer would be. But somehow the thought of the dear old threadbare farm in the autumn weather was always a sorrowful thought; and on the days when Mr. Elbury hired a horse and wagon, and invited her and the baby to accompany him on a series of parochial visitations, she could not bear to look at the home-fields and the pasture-slopes. She was thankful that the house itself was not in sight from the main road. The crops that summer had been unusually good; something called her thoughts back continually to the old home, and accused her of disloyalty. Yet she consoled herself by thinking it was very natural to have such regrets, and to consider the importance of such a step at her sensible time of life. So it drew near winter again, and she grew more and more unrelenting and scornful whenever her acquaintances suggested the idea that her wedding ought to be drawing near.
Mr. Elbury seemed to have taken a new lease of youthful hope and ardor. He was busy in the parish and very popular, particularly among his women-parishioners. Miss Peck urged him on with his good works, and it seemed as if they expressed their interest in each other by their friendliness to the parish in general. Mr. Elbury had joined a ministers' club in the large town already spoken of, and spent a day there now and then, besides his regular Monday-night attendance on the club-meeting. He was preparing a series of sermons on the history of the Jews, and was glad to avail himself of a good free-library, the lack of which he frequently lamented in his own village. Once he said, eagerly, that he had no idea of ending his days here, and this gave Miss Peck a sharp pang. She could not bear to think of leaving her old home, and the tears filled her eyes. When she had reached the shelter of the kitchen, she retorted to the too-easily ruffled element of her character that there was no need of crossing that bridge till she came to it; and, after an appealing glance at the academy-steeple above the maple-trees, she returned to the study to finish dusting. She saw, without apprehension, that the minister quickly pushed something under the leaves of his blotting-paper and frowned a little. It was not his usual time for writing - she had a new proof of her admiring certainty that Mr. Elbury wrote for the papers at times under an assumed name.
One Monday evening he had not returned from the ministers' meeting until later than usual, and she began to be slightly anxious. The baby had not been very well all day, and she particularly wished to have an errand done before night, but did not dare to leave the child alone, while, for a wonder, nobody had been in. Mr. Elbury had shown a great deal of feeling before he went away in the morning, and as she was admiringly looking at his well-fitting clothes and neat clerical attire, a thrill of pride and affection had made her eyes shine unwontedly. She was really beginning to like him very much. For the first and last time in his life the minister stepped quickly forward and kissed her on the forehead. "My good, kind friend!" he exclaimed, in that deep tone which the whole parish loved; then he hurried away. Miss Peck felt a strange dismay, and stood by the breakfast-table like a statue. She even touched her forehead with trembling fingers. Somehow she inwardly rebelled, but kissing meant more to her than to some people. She never had been used to it, except with little Tom - though the last brotherly kiss his father gave her before he went to the war had been one of the treasures of her memory. All that day she was often reminded of the responsible and darker side, the inspected and criticized side, of the high position of minister's wife. It was clearly time for proper rebuke when evening came; and as she sat by the light, mending Mr. Elbury's stockings, she said over and over again that she had walked into this with her eyes wide open, and if the experience of forty years hadn't put any sense into her it was too late to help it now.
Suddenly she heard the noise of wheels in the side yard. Could anything have happened to Mr. Elbury? were they bringing him home hurt, or dead even? He never drove up from the station unless it were bad weather. She rushed to the door with a flaring light, and was bewildered at the sight of trunks and, most of all, at the approach of Mr. Elbury, for he wore a most sentimental expression, and led a young person by the hand.
"Dear friend," he said, in that mellow tone of his, "I hope you, too, will love my little wife."
Almost any other woman would have dropped the kerosene lamp on the doorstep, but not Miss Eliza Peck. Luckily a gust of autumn wind blew it out, and the bride had to fumble her way into her new home. Miss Peck quickly procured one of her own crinkly lamplighters, and bent toward the open fire to kindle a new light.
"You've taken me by surprise," she managed to say, in her usual tone of voice, though she felt herself shaking with excitement.
At that moment the ailing step-daughter gave a forlorn little wail from the wide sofa, where she had been put to sleep with difficulty. Miss Peck's kind heart felt the pathos of the situation; she lifted the little child and stilled it, then she held out a kindly hand to the minister's new wife, while Mr. Elbury stood beaming by.
"I wish you may be very happy here, as I have been," said the good woman, earnestly. "But Mr. Elbury, you ought to have let me know. I could have kept a secret." - and satisfaction filled Eliza Peck's heart that she never, to use her own expression, had made a fool of herself before the First Parish. She had kept her own secret, and in this earthquake of a moment was clearly conscious that she was hero enough to behave as if there had never been any secret to keep. And indignation with the Reverend Mr. Elbury, who had so imprudently kept his own counsel, threw down the sham temple of Cupid which a faithless god called Propinquity had succeeded in rearing.
Miss Peck made a feast, and for the last time played the part of hostess at the minister's table. She had remorselessly inspected the conspicuous bad taste of the new Mrs. Elbury's dress, the waving, cheap-looking feather of her hat, the make-believe richness of her clothes, and saw, with dire compassion, how unused she was to young children. The brave Eliza tried to make the best of things - but one moment she found herself thinking how uncomfortable Mr. Elbury's home would be henceforth with this poor reed to lean upon, a townish, empty-faced, tiresomely pretty girl; the next moment she pitied the girl herself, who would have the hard task before her of being the wife of an indolent preacher in a country town. Miss Peck had generously allowed her farm to supplement the limited salary of the First Parish; in fact, she had been a silent partner in the parsonage establishment rather than a dependent. Would the First Parish laugh at her now? It was a stinging thought; but she honestly believed that the minister himself would be most commiserated when the parish opinion had found time to simmer down.
The next day our heroine, whose face was singularly free from disappointment, told the minister that she would like to leave at once, for she was belated about many things, not having had notice in season of his change of plan.
"I've been telling your wife all about the house and parish interests the best I can, and it's likely she wants to take everything into her own hands right away," added the uncommon housekeeper, with a spice of malice; but Mr. Elbury flushed, and looked down at the short, capable Eliza appealingly. He knew her virtues so well that this announcement gave him a crushing blow.
"Why, I thought of course you would continue here as usual," he said, in a strange, harsh voice that would have been perfectly surprising in the pulpit. "Mrs. Elbury has never known any care. We count upon your remaining."
Whereupon Miss Peck looked him disdainfully in the face, and, for a moment, mistook him for that self so often reproved and now sunk into depths of ignominy.
"If you thought that, you ought to have known better," she said. "You can't expect a woman who has property and relations of her own to give up her interests for yours altogether. I got a letter this morning from my brother's boy, little Tom, and he's got leave from his mother and her husband to come and stop with me a good while - he says all winter. He's been sick, and they've had to take him out o' school. I never supposed that such stived-up air would agree with him," concluded Miss Peck, triumphantly. She was full of joy and hope at this new turn of affairs, and the minister was correspondingly hopeless. "I'll take the baby home for a while, if 't would be a convenience for you," she added, more leniently. "That is, after I get my house well warmed, and there's something in it to eat. I wish you could have spoken to me a fortnight ago; but I saw Joe Farley to-day - that boy that lived with me quite a while - he's glad to come back. He only engaged to stop till after cider time where he's been this summer, and he's promised to look about for a good cow for me. I always thought well of Joe."
The minister turned away ruefully, and Miss Peck went about her work. She meant to leave the house in the best of order; but the whole congregation came trooping in that day and the next, and she hardly had time to build a fire in her own kitchen before Joe Farley followed her from the station with the beloved little Tom. He looked tall and thin and pale, and largely freckled under his topknot of red hair. Bless his heart! how his lonely aunt hugged him and kissed him, and how thankful he was to get back to her, though she never would have suspected it if she had not known him so well. A shy boy-fashion of reserve and stolidity had replaced his early demonstrations, but he promptly went to the shelf of books to find the familiar old "Robinson Crusoe." Miss Peck's heart leaped for joy as she remembered how much more she could teach the child about books. She felt a great wave of gratitude fill her cheerful soul as she remembered the pleasure and gain of those evenings when she and Mr. Elbury had read together.
There was a great deal of eager discussion in the village; and much amused scrutiny of Eliza's countenance, as she walked up the side aisle that first Sunday after the minister was married. She led little Tom by the hand, but he opened the pew-door and ushered her in handsomely, and she looked smilingly at her neighbors and nodded her head sideways at the boy in a way that made them suspect that she was much more in love with him, freckles and all, than she had ever been with Mr. Elbury. A few minutes later she frowned at Tom sternly for greeting his old acquaintances over the pew-rail in a way that did not fit the day or place. There was no chance to laugh at her disappointment; for nobody could help understanding that her experience at the parsonage had been merely incidental in her life, and that she had returned willingly to her old associations. The dream of being a minister's wife had been only a dream, and she was surprised to find herself waking from it with such resignation to her lot.
"I'd just like to know what sort of a breakfast they had," she said to herself, as the bride's topknot went waving and bobbing up to the parsonage pew. "If ever there was a man who was fussy about his cup o' coffee, 'tis Reverend Wilbur Elbury! There now, Elizy Peck, don't you wish 'twas you a-setting there up front and feeling the eyes of the whole parish sticking in your back? You could have had him, you know, if you'd set right about it. I never did think you had proper ideas of what gettin' promoted is; but if you ain't discovered a new world for yourself like C'lumbus, I miss my guess. If you'd stayed on the farm all alone last year you'd had no thoughts but hens and rutabagys, and as 'tis you've been livin' amon'st books. There's nothin' to regret if you did just miss makin' a fool o' yourself."
At this moment Mr. Elbury's voice gently sounded from the pulpit, and Miss Peck sprang to her feet with the agility of a jack-in-the-box - she had forgotten her surroundings in the vividness of her revery. She hardly knew what the minister said in that first prayer; for many reasons this was an exciting day.
A little later our heroine accepted the invitation of her second cousin, Mrs. Corbell, to spend the hour or two between morning and afternoon services. They had agreed that it seemed like old times, and took pleasure in renewing this custom of the Sunday visit. Little Tom was commented upon as to health and growth and freckles and family resemblance; and when he strayed out-of-doors, after such an early dinner as only a growing boy can make vanish with the enchanter's wand of his appetite, the two women indulged in a good talk.
"I don't know how you viewed it, this morning," began Cousin Corbell; "but, to my eyes, the minister looked as if he felt cheap as a broom. There, I never was one o' his worshipers, you well know. To speak plain, Elizy, I was really concerned at one time for fear you would be over-persuaded. I never said one word to warp your judgment, but I did feel as if 'twould be a shame. I" -
But Miss Peck was not ready yet to join the opposition, and she interrupted at once in an amiable but decided tone. "We'll let by-gones be by-gones; it's just as well, and a good deal better. Mr. Elbury always treated me the best he knew how; and I knew he wa'n't perfect, but 'twas full as much his misfortune as his fault. I declare I don't know what else there was he could ha' done if he hadn't taken to preaching; and he has very kind feelings, specially if any one's in trouble. Talk of 'leading about captive silly women,' there are some cases where we've got to turn round and say it right the other way - 'tis the silly women that do the leadin' themselves. And I tell you," concluded Miss Peck, with apparent irrelevancy, "I was glad last night to have a good honest look at a yellow sunset. If ever I do go and set my mind on a minister, I'm going to hunt for one that's well settled in a hill parish. I used to feel as if I was shut right in, there at the parsonage; it's a good house enough, if it only stood where you could see anything out of the windows. I can't carry out my plans o' life in any such situation."
"I expect to hear that you've blown right off the top o' your hill some o' these windy days," said Mrs. Corbell, without resentment, though she was very dependent, herself, upon seeing the passing.
The church bell began to ring, and our friends rose to put on their bonnets and answer its summons. Miss Peck's practical mind revolved the possibility of there having been a decent noonday meal at the parsonage. "Maria Corbell!" she said, with dramatic intensity, "mark what I'm goin' to say - it ain't I that's goin' to reap the whirlwind; it's your pastor, the Reverend Mr. Elbury, of the First Parish!"
"Miss Peck's Promotion" first appeared in Scribner's Magazine (1:717-30) in June 1887, and was later collected in The King of Folly Island from which this text is taken. If you find errors in this text or items you believe should be annotated, please contact the site manager. Illustrations are by Edward Windsor Kemble (1861-1933), a self-taught illustrator, is most famous for his work in the first edition of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; he is remembered for illustrating a post-Civil War edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Considered in his own day a specialist in Black American subjects, he was the author of Kemble's Coons. (Source: Mantle Fielding's Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors, & Engravers (Optiz, ed. Poughkeepsie, New York: Apollo, 1986, p. 481.) He also illustrated Jewett's "In Dark New England Days," which first appeared in Century Magazine (40:911-920) October 1890, and then was collected in Strangers and Wayfarers.
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a good old academy town: Jewett lived in a good old academy town, South Berwick, Maine, and completed her formal education at the Berwick Academy. See "The Old Town of Berwick."
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to the war whence for him there was to be no return: almost certainly the American Civil War.
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lot and place: See Daniel 12:12-13.
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splint-bottomed chairs: the seats of such chairs are made of thin strips of wood woven together.
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dog-day: A day near the beginning of August. The Oxford English Dictionary says, "The days about the time of the heliacal rising of the Dog-star; noted from ancient times as the hottest and most unwholesome period of the year." The Dog-star usually is identified as Sirius, but Procyon may be used.
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Providence: God as active in the material world.
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faithful-in-little-things: See the parable of the talents in Matthew 25
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logy: The Oxford English Dictionary confirms Mr. Elbury's research: "[Of uncertain origin: cf. Du. log heavy, dull.] a. Dull and heavy in motion or thought. 1859 Bartlett Dict. Americanisms, Logy, heavy, slow, stupid... He's a logy man, i.e. a slow-moving, heavy man. 'He is a logy preacher', i.e. dull."
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with both hands earnestly: See Micah 7:3. And also of some interest may be Life and Light for Woman v. 15 (1885), Woman's Board for Missions, pp. 294-5.
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alpacca-dress: a dress made of alpaca wool.
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free-library: a public library, usually supported by tax funds and open to all the residents of an area; as contrasted with a private library from which books may be rented or where some user fee or membership is required.
Also of interest may be that Jewett's friend and correspondent Anna Laurens Dawes was the author of a likely source for Elbury's series of sermons, The Modern Jew, His Present and Future (New York, 1884).
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First Parish: usually this would designate the first church of a particular Protestant denomination established in a neighborhood.
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Cupid: In Roman Mythology, the god of love, son of Mercury and Venus.
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stived-up air: To stive, according to the Oxford English Dictionary is to shut up in a close hot place; to stifle, suffocate.
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Robinson Crusoe: Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) published his novel, Robinson Crusoe in 1719.
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C'lumbus: The Italian, Christopher Columbus (c. 1451-1506), rediscovered the American continents when, under a Spanish flag, he sailed into the Caribbean in 1492.
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leading about captive silly women: See II Timothy 3:6-7.
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reap the whirlwind: See Hosea 8:7.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College
The King of Folly Island
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