The Life of Nancy
An Illustrated Text
A NEIGHBOR'S LANDMARK
Sarah Orne Jewett
The timber-contractor took a long time to fasten his horse to the ring in the corner of the shed; but at last he looked up as if it were a matter of no importance to him that John Packer was coming across the yard. "Good-day," said be; "good-day, John." And John responded by an inexpressive nod.
"I was goin' right by, an' I thought I'd stop an' see if you want to do anything about them old pines o' yourn."
"I don't know 's I do, Mr. Ferris," said John stiffly.
"Well, that business is easy finished," said the contractor, with a careless air and a slight look of disappointment. "Just as you say, sir. You was full of it a spell ago, and I kind o' kep' the matter in mind. It ain't no plot o' mine, 'cept to oblige you. I don't want to move my riggin' nowhere for the sake o' two trees - one tree, you might say; there ain't much o' anything but fire-wood in the sprangly one. I shall end up over on the Foss lot next week, an' then I'm goin' right up country quick 's I can, before the snow begins to melt."
John Packer's hands were both plunged deep into his side pockets, and the contractor did not fail to see that he was moving his fingers nervously.
"You don't want 'em blowin' down, breakin' all to pieces right on to your grass-land. They'd spile pretty near an acre fallin' in some o' them spring gales. Them old trees is awful brittle. If you're ever calc'latin' to sell 'em, now's your time; the sprangly one's goin' back a'ready. They take the goodness all out o' that part o' your field, anyway," said Ferris, casting a sly glance as he spoke.
"I don't know 's I care; I can maintain them two trees," answered Packer, with spirit; but he turned and looked away, not at the contractor.
"Come, I mean business. I'll tell you what I'll do: if you want to trade, I'll give you seventy-five dollars for them two trees, and it's an awful price. Buyin' known trees like them's like tradin' for a tame calf; you'd let your forty-acre piece go without no fuss. Don't mind what folks say. They're yourn, John; or ain't they?"
"I'd just as soon be rid on 'em; they've got to come down some time," said Packer, stung by this bold taunt. "I ain't goin' to give you a present o' half their value, for all o' that."
"You can't handle 'em yourself, nor nobody else about here; there ain't nobody got proper riggin' to handle them butts but me. I've got to take 'em down for ye fur 's I can see," said Ferris, looking sly, and proceeding swiftly from persuasion to final arrangements. "It's some like gittin' a tooth hauled; you kind o' dread it, but when 't is done you feel like a man. I ain't said nothin' to nobody, but I hoped you'd do what you was a-mind to with your own property. You can't afford to let all that money rot away; folks won't thank ye."
"What you goin' to give for 'em?" asked John Packer impatiently. "Come, I can't talk all day."
"I'm a-goin' to give you seventy-five dollars in bank-bills," said the other man, with an air of great spirit.
"I ain't a-goin' to take it, if you be," said John, turning round, and taking a hasty step or two toward the house. As he turned he saw the anxious faces of two women at one of the kitchen windows, and the blood flew to his pinched face.
"Here, come back here and talk man-fashion!" shouted the timber-dealer. "You couldn't make no more fuss if I come to seize your farm. I'll make it eighty, an' I'll tell you jest one thing more: if you're holdin' out, thinkin' I'll give you more, you can hold out till doomsday."
"When'll you be over?" said the farmer abruptly; his hands were clenched now in his pockets. The two men stood a little way apart, facing eastward, and away from the house. The long, wintry fields before them sloped down to a wide stretch of marshes covered with ice, and dotted here and there with an abandoned haycock. Beyond was the gray sea less than a mile away; the far horizon was like an edge of steel. There was a small fishing-boat standing in toward the shore, and far off were two or three coasters.
"Looks cold, don't it?" said the contractor. "I'll be over middle o' the week sometime, Mr. Packer." He unfastened his horse, while John Packer went to the unsheltered wood-pile and began to chop hard at some sour, heavy-looking pieces of red-oak wood. He stole a look at the window, but the two troubled faces had disappeared.
Later that afternoon John Packer came in from the barn; he had lingered out of doors in the cold as long as there was any excuse for so doing, and had fed the cattle early, and cleared up and laid into a neat pile some fencing materials and pieces of old boards that had been lying in the shed in great confusion since before the coming of snow. It was a dusty, splintery heap, half worthless, and he had thrown some of the broken fence-boards out to the wood-pile, and then had stopped to break them up for kindlings and to bring them into the back kitchen of the house, hoping, yet fearing at every turn, to hear the sound of his wife's voice. Sometimes the women had to bring in fire-wood themselves, but to-night he filled the great wood-box just outside the kitchen door, piling it high with green beech and maple, with plenty of dry birch and pine, taking pains to select the best and straightest sticks, even if he burrowed deep into the wood-pile. He brought the bushel basketful of kindlings last, and set it down with a cheerful grunt, having worked himself into good humor again; and as he opened the kitchen door, and went to hang his great blue mittens behind the stove, he wore a self-satisfied and pacificatory smile.
"There, I don't want to hear no more about the wood-box bein' empty. We're goin' to have a cold night; the air's full of snow, but 't won't fall, not till it moderates."
The women glanced at him with a sense of relief. They had looked forward to his entrance in a not unfamiliar mood of surly silence. Every time he had thumped down a great armful of wood, it had startled them afresh, and their timid protest and sense of apprehension had increased until they were pale and miserable; the younger woman had been crying.
"Come, mother, what you goin' to get me for supper?" said the master of the house. "I'm goin' over to the Centre to the selec'men's office to-night. They're goin' to have a hearin' about that new piece o' road over in the Dexter neighborhood."
The mother and daughter looked at each other with relief and shame; perhaps they had mistaken the timber-contractor's errand, after all, though their imagination had followed truthfully every step of a bitter bargain, from the windows.
"Poor father!" said his wife, half unconsciously. "Yes; I'll get you your supper quick 's I can. I forgot about to-night. You'll want somethin' warm before you ride 'way over to the Centre, certain;" and she began to bustle about, and to bring things out of the pantry. She and John Packer had really loved each other when they were young, and although he had done everything he could since then that might have made her forget, she always remembered instead; she was always ready to blame herself, and to find excuse for him. "Do put on your big fur coat, won't you, John?" she begged eagerly.
"I ain't gone yet," said John, looking again at his daughter, who did not look at him. It was not quite dark, and she was bending over her sewing, close to the window. The momentary gleam of hope had faded in her heart; her father was too pleasant: she hated him for the petty deceit.
"What are you about there, Lizzie?" he asked gayly. "Why don't you wait till you have a light? Get one for your mother: she can't see over there by the table."
Lizzie Packer's ready ears caught a provoking tone in her father's voice, but she dropped her sewing, and went to get the hand-lamp from the high mantelpiece. "Have you got a match in your pocket? You know we're all out; I found the last this mornin' in the best room." She stood close beside him while he took a match from his waistcoat pocket and gave it to her.
"I won't have you leavin' matches layin' all about the house," he commanded; "mice'll get at 'em, and set us afire. You can make up some lamplighters out of old letters and things; there's a lot o' stuff that might be used up. Seems to me lamplighters is gone out o' fashion; they come in very handy."
Lizzie did not answer, which was a disappointment.
"Here, you take these I've got in my pocket, and that'll remind me to buy some at the store," he ended. But Lizzie did not come to take them, and when she had waited a moment, and turned up the lamp carefully, she put it on the table by her mother, and went out of the room. The father and mother heard her going upstairs.
"I do hope she won't stay up there in the cold," said Mrs. Packer in an outburst of anxiety.
"What's she sulkin' about now?" demanded the father, tipping his chair down emphatically on all four legs. The timid woman mustered all her bravery.
"Why, when we saw Mr. Ferris out there talkin' with you, we were frightened for fear he was tryin' to persuade you about the big pines. Poor Lizzie got all worked up; she took on and cried like a baby when we saw him go off chucklin' and you stayed out so long. She can't bear the thought o' touchin' 'em. And then when you come in and spoke about the selec'men, we guessed we was all wrong. Perhaps Lizzie feels bad about that now. I own I had hard feelin's toward you myself, John." She came toward him with her mixing-spoon in her hand; her face was lovely and hopeful. "You see, they've been such landmarks, John," she said, "and our Lizzie's got more feelin' about 'em than anybody. She was always playin' around 'em when she was little; and now there's so much talk about the fishin' folks countin' on 'em to get in by the short channel in bad weather, and she don't want you blamed."
"You'd ought to set her to work, and learnt her head to save her heels," said John Packer, grumbling; and the pale little woman gave a heavy sigh, and went back to her work again. "That's why she ain't no good now - playin' out all the time when other girls was made to work. Broke you all down, savin' her," he ended in an aggrieved tone.
"John, t' ain't true, is it?" She faced him again in a way that made him quail; his wife was never disrespectful, but she sometimes faced every danger to save him from his own foolishness. "Don't you go and do a thing to make everybody hate you. You know what it says in the Bible about movin' a landmark. You'll get your rights; 't is just as much your right to let the trees stand, and please folks."
"Come, come, Mary Hannah!" said John, a little moved in spite of himself. "Don't work yourself up so. I ain't told you I was goin' to cut 'em, have I? But if I ever do, 't is because I've been twitted into it, an' told they were everybody's trees but mine."
He pleased himself at the moment by thinking that he could take back his promise to Ferris, even if it cost five dollars to do it. Why couldn't people leave a man alone? It was the women's faces at the window that had decided his angry mind, but now they thought it all his fault. Ferris would say, "So your women folks persuaded you out of it." It would be no harm to give Ferris a lesson: he had used a man's being excited and worked upon by interfering neighbors to drive a smart bargain. The trees were worth fifty dollars apiece, if they were worth a cent. John Packer transferred his aggrieved thoughts from his family to Ferris himself. Ferris had driven a great many sharp bargains; he had plenty of capital behind him, and had taken advantage of the hard times, and of more than one man's distress, to buy woodland at far less than its value. More than that, he always stripped land to the bare skin; if the very huckleberry bushes and ferns had been worth anything to him, he would have taken those, insisting upon all or nothing, and, regardless of the rights of forestry, he left nothing to grow; no sapling-oak or pine stood where his hand had been. The pieces of young growing woodland that might have made their owners rich at some later day were sacrificed to his greed of gain. You had to give him half your trees to make him give half price for the rest. Some men yielded to him out of ignorance, or avarice for immediate gains, and others out of bitter necessity. Once or twice he had even brought men to their knees and gained his point by involving them in money difficulties, through buying up their mortgages and notes. He could sell all the wood and timber he could buy, and buy so cheap, to larger dealers; and a certain builder having given him an order for some unusually wide and clear pine at a large price, his withering eye had been directed toward the landmark trees on John Packer's farm.
On the road home from the Packer farm that winter afternoon Mr. Ferris's sleigh-bells sounded lonely, and nobody was met or overtaken to whom he could brag of his success. Now and then he looked back with joy to the hill behind the Packer house, where the assailed pine-trees still stood together, superb survivors of an earlier growth. The snow was white about them now, but in summer they stood near the road at the top of a broad field which had been won from wild land by generation after generation of the Packers. Whatever man's hands have handled, and his thoughts have centered in, gives something back to man, and becomes charged with his transferred life, and brought into relationship. The great pines could remember all the Packers, if they could remember anything; they were like some huge archaic creatures whose thoughts were slow and dim. So many anxious eyes had sought these trees from the sea, so many wanderers by land had gladly welcomed the far sight of them in coming back to the old town, it must have been that the great live things felt their responsibility as landmarks and sentinels. How could any fisherman find the deep-sea fishing-grounds for cod and haddock without bringing them into range with a certain blue hill far inland, or with the steeple of the old church on the Wilton road? How could a hurrying boat find the short way into harbor before a gale without sighting the big trees from point to point among the rocky shallows? It was a dangerous bit of coast in every way, and every fisherman and pleasure-boatman knew the pines on Packer's Hill. As for the Packers themselves, the first great adventure for a child was to climb alone to the great pines, and to see an astonishing world from beneath their shadow; and as the men and women of the family grew old, they sometimes made an effort to climb the hill once more in summer weather, to sit in the shelter of the trees, where the breeze was cool, and to think of what had passed, and to touch the rough bark with affectionate hands. The boys went there when they came home from voyages at sea; the girls went there with their lovers. The trees were like friends, and whether you looked seaward, being in an inland country, or whether you looked shoreward, being on the sea, there they stood and grew in their places, while a worldful of people lived and died, and again and again new worldfuls were born and passed away, and still these landmark pines lived their long lives, and were green and vigorous yet.
There was a fishing-boat coming into the neighboring cove, as has already been said, while Ferris and John Packer stood together talking in the yard. In this fishing-boat were two other men, younger and lighter-hearted, if it were only for the reason that neither of them had such a store of petty ill deeds and unkindnesses to remember in dark moments. They were in an old dory, and there was much ice clinging to her, inside and out, as if the fishers had been out for many hours. There were only a few cod lying around in the bottom, already stiffened in the icy air. The wind was light, and one of the men was rowing with short, jerky strokes, to help the sail, while the other held the sheet and steered with a spare oar that had lost most of its blade. The wind came in flaws, chilling, and mischievous in its freaks. "I ain't goin' out any more this year," said the younger man, who rowed, giving a great shudder. "I ain't goin' to perish myself for a pinch o' fish like this" - pushing them with his heavy boot. "Generally it's some warmer than we are gittin' it now, 'way into January. I've got a good chance to go into Otis's shoeshop; Bill Otis was tellin' me he didn't know but he should go out West to see his uncle's folks, - he done well this last season, lobsterin', - an' I can have his bench if I want it. I do' know but I may make up some lobster-pots myself, evenin's an' odd times, and take to lobsterin' another season. I know a few good places that Bill Otis ain't struck; and then the scarcer lobsters get to be, the more you git for 'em, so now a poor ketch's 'most better 'n a good one."
"Le' me take the oars," said Joe Banks, without attempting a reply to such deep economical wisdom.
"You hold that sheet light," grumbled the other man, "or these gusts'll have us over. An' don't let that old oar o' yourn range about so. I can't git no hold o' the water." The boat lifted suddenly on a wave and sank again in the trough, the sail flapped, and a great cold splash of salt water came aboard, floating the fish to the stern, against Banks's feet. Chauncey, grumbling heartily, began to bail with a square-built wooden scoop for which he reached far behind him in the bow.
"They say the sea holds its heat longer than the land, but I guess summer's about over out here." He shivered again as he spoke. "Come, le' 's say this is the last trip, Joe."
Joe looked up at the sky, quite unconcerned. "We may have it warmer after we git more snow," he said. "I'd like to keep on myself until after the first o' the year, same 's usual. I've got my reasons," he added. "But don't you go out no more, Chauncey."
"What you goin' to do about them trees o' Packer's" asked Chauncey suddenly, and not without effort. The question had been on his mind all the afternoon. "Old Ferris has laid a bet that he'll git 'em anyway. I signed the paper they've got down to Fox'l Berry's store to the Cove. A number has signed it, but I shouldn't want to be the one to carry it up to Packer. They all want your name, but they've got some feelin' about how you're situated. Some o' the boys made me promise to speak to you, bein' 's we're keepin' together."
"You can tell 'em I'll sign it," said Joe Banks, flushing a warm, bright color under his sea-chilled skin. 'I don't know what set him out to be so poor-behaved. He's a quick-tempered man, Packer is, but quick over. I never knew him to keep no such a black temper as this."
"They always say that you can't drive a Packer," said Chauncey, tugging against the uneven waves. "His mother came o' that old fightin' stock up to Bolton; 't was a different streak from his father's folks - they was different-hearted an' all pleasant. Ferris has done the whole mean business. John Packer'd be madder 'n he is now if he knowed how Ferris is makin' a tool of him. He got a little too much aboard long ago 's Thanksgivin' Day, and bragged to me an' another fellow when he was balmy how he'd rile up Packer into sellin' them pines, and then he'd double his money on 'em up to Boston; he said there wa'n't no such a timber pine as that big one left in the State that he knows on. Why, 't is 'most five foot through high 's I can reach."
Chauncey stopped rowing a minute, and held the oars with one hand while he looked over his shoulder. "I should miss them old trees," he said; "They always make me think of a married couple. They ain't no common growth, be they, Joe? Everybody knows 'em. I bet you if anything happened to one on 'em t' other would go an' die. They say ellums has mates, an' all them big trees."
Joe Banks had been looking at the pines all the way in; he had steered by them from point to point. Now he saw them just over Fish Rock, where the surf was whitening, and over the group of fish-houses, and began to steer straight inshore. The sea was less rough now, and after getting well into the shelter of the land he drew in his oar. Chauncey could pull the rest of the way without it. A sudden change in the wind filled the three-cornered sail, and they moved faster.
"She'll make it now, herself, if you'll just keep her straight, Chauncey: no, 't wa'n't nothin' but a flaw, was it? Guess I'd better help ye:" and he leaned on the oar once more, and took a steady sight of the familiar harbor marks.
"We're right over one o' my best lobster rocks," said Chauncey, looking warm-blooded and cheerful again. "I'm satisfied not to be no further out; it's beginning' to snow; see them big flakes a-comin'? I'll tell the boys about your signin' the paper; I do' know 's you'd better resk it, either."
"Why not?" said Joe Banks hastily. "I suppose you refer to me an' Lizzie Packer; but she wouldn't think no more o' me for leavin' my name off a proper neighborhood paper, nor her father, neither. You git them two pines let alone, and I'll take care o' Lizzie. I've got all the other boats and men to think of besides me, an' I've got some pride anyway. I ain't goin' to have Bolton folks an' all on 'em down to the Centre twittin' us, nor twittin' Packer; he'll turn sour toward everybody the minute he does it. I know Packer; he's rough and ugly, but he ain't the worst man in town by a good sight. Anybody'd be all worked up to go through so much talk, and I'm kind o' 'fraid this minute his word's passed to Ferris to have them trees down. But you show him the petition; 't will be kind of formal, and if that don't do no good, I do' know what will. There you git the sail in while I hold her stiddy, Chauncey."
After a day or two of snow that turned to rain, and was followed by warmer weather, there came one of the respites which keep up New England hearts in December. The short, dark days seemed shorter and darker than usual that year, but one morning the sky had a look of Indian summer, the wind was in the south, and the cocks and hens of the Packer farm came boldly out into the sunshine, to crow and cackle before the barn. It was Friday morning, and the next day was the day before Christmas.
John Packer was always good-tempered when the wind was in the south. The milder air, which relaxed too much the dispositions of less energetic men, and made them depressed and worthless, only softened and tempered him into reasonableness. As he and his wife and daughter sat at breakfast, after he had returned from feeding the cattle and horses, he wore a pleasant look, and finally leaned back and said the warm weather made him feel boyish, and he believed that he would take the boat and go out fishing.
"I can haul her out and fix her up for winter when I git ashore," he explained. "I've been distressed to think it wa'n't done before. I expect she's got some little ice in her now, there where she lays just under the edge of Joe Banks's fish-house. I spoke to Joe, but he said she'd do till I could git down. No; I'll turn her over, and make her snug for winter, and git a small boat o' Joe. I ain't goin' out a great ways: just so 's I can git a cod or two. I always begin to think of a piece o' new fish quick 's these mild days come; feels like the Janooary thaw."
"'T would be a good day for you to ride over to Bolton, too," said Mrs. Packer. "But I'd like to go with you when you go there, an' I've got business here to-day. I've put the kettle on some time ago to do a little colorin'. We can go to Bolton some day next week."
"I've got to be here next week," said Packer ostentatiously; but at this moment his heart for the first time completely failed him about the agreement with Ferris. The south wind had blown round the vane of his determination. He forgot his wife and daughter, laid down his knife and fork, and quite unknown to himself began to hang his head. The great trees were not so far from the house that he had not noticed the sound of the southerly breeze in their branches as he came across the yard. He knew it as well as he knew the rote of the beaches and ledges on that stretch of shore. He was meaning, at any rate, to think it over while he was out fishing, where nobody could bother him. He wasn't going to be hindered by a pack of folks from doing what he liked with his own; but neither was old Ferris going to say what he had better do with his own trees.
"You put me up a bite o' somethin' hearty, mother," he made haste to say. "I sha'n't git in till along in the afternoon."
"Ain't you feelin' all right, father/" asked Lizzie, looking at him curiously.
"I be," said John Packer, growing stern again for the moment. "I feel like a day out fishin'. I hope Joe won't git the start o' me. You seen his small boat go out?" He looked up at his daughter, and smiled in a friendly way, and went on with his breakfast. It was evidently one of his pleasant days; he never had made such a frank acknowledgment of the lovers' rights, but he had always liked Joe Banks. Lizzie's cheeks glowed; she gave her mother a happy glance of satisfaction, and looked as bright as a rose. The hard-worked little woman smiled back in sympathy. There was a piece of her best loaf cake in the round wooden luncheon-box that day, and everything else that she thought her man would like and that his box would hold, but it seemed meagre to her generous heart even then. The two women affectionately watched him away down the field-path that led to the cove where the fish-houses were.
All the Wilton farmers near the sea took a turn now and then at fishing. They owned boats together sometimes, but John Packer had always kept a good boat of his own. To-day he had no real desire to find a companion or to call for help to launch his craft, but finding that Joe Banks was busy in his fish-house, he went in to borrow the light dory and a pair of oars. Joe seemed singularly unfriendly in his manner, a little cold and strange, and went on with his work without looking up. Mr. Packer made a great effort to be pleasant; the south wind gave him even a sense of guilt.
"Don't you want to come, Joe?" he said, according to 'longshore etiquette; but Joe shook his head, and showed no interest whatever. It seemed then as if it would be such a good chance to talk over the tree business with Joe, and to make him understand there had been some reason in it; but John Packer could mind his own business as well as any man, and so he picked his way over the slippery stones, pushed off the dory, stepped in, and was presently well outside on his way to Fish Rock. He had forgotten to look for any bait until Joe had pushed a measure of clams along the bench; he remembered it now as he baited his cod-lines, sitting in the swaying and lifting boat, a mile or two out from shore. He had but poor luck; the cold had driven the fish into deeper water, and presently he took the oars to go farther out, and looking at the land for the first time with a consciousness of seeing it, he sighted his range, and turned the boat's head. He was still so near land that beyond the marshes, which looked narrow from the sea, he could see his own farm and his neighbors' farms on the hill that sloped gently down; the northern point of higher land that sheltered the cove and the fish-houses also kept the fury of the sea winds from these farms, which faced the east and south. The main road came along the high ridge at their upper edge, and a lane turned off down to the cove; you could see this road for three or four miles when you were as far out at sea. The whole piece of country most familiar to John Packer lay there spread out before him in the morning sunshine. The house and barn and corn-house looked like children's playthings; he made a vow that he would get out the lumber that winter for a wood-shed; he needed another building, and his wood-pile ought to be under cover. His wife had always begged him to build a shed; it was hard for a woman to manage with wet wood in stormy weather; often he was away, and they never kept a boy or man to help with farm-work except in summer. "Joe Banks was terribly surly about something," said Mr. Packer to himself. But Joe wanted Lizzie. When they were married he meant to put an addition to the farther side of the house, and to give Joe a chance to come right there. Lizzie's mother was liable to be ailing, and needed her at hand. That eighty dollars would come in handy these hard times.
John Packer liked to be cross and autocratic, and to oppose people; but there was hidden somewhere in his heart a warm spot of affectionateness and desire for approval. When he had quarreled for a certain time, he turned square about on this instinct as on a pivot. The self-love that made him wish to rule ended in making him wish to please; he could not very well bear being disliked. The bully is always a coward, but there was a good sound spot of rightmindedness, after all, in John Packer's gnarly disposition.
As the thought of the price of his trees flitted through John Packer's mind, it made him ashamed instead of pleasing him. He rowed harder for some distance, and then stopped to loosen the comforter about his neck. He looked back at the two pines where they stood black and solemn on the distant ridge against the sky. From this point of view they seemed to have taken a step nearer each other, as if each held the other fast with its branches in a desperate alliance. The bare, strong stem of one, the drooping boughs of the other, were indistinguishable, but the trees had a look as if they were in trouble. Something made John Packer feel sick and dizzy, and blurred his eyes so that he could not see them plain; the wind had weakened his eyes, and he rubbed them with his rough sleeve. A horror crept over him before he understood the reason, but in another moment his brain knew what his eyes had read. Along the ridge road came something that trailed long and black like a funeral, and he sprang to his feet in the dory, and lost his footing, then caught at the gunwale, and sat down again in despair. It was like the panic of a madman, and he cursed and swore at old Ferris for his sins, with nothing to hear him but the busy waves that glistened between him and the shore. Ferris had stolen his chance; he was coming along with his rigging as fast as he could, with his quick French wood-choppers, and their sharp saws and stubborn wedges to cant the trunks; already he was not far from the farm. Old Ferris was going to set up his yellow sawdust-mill there - that was the plan; the great trunks were too heavy to handle or haul any distance with any trucks or sleds that were used nowadays. It would be all over before anybody could get ashore to stop them; he would risk old Ferris for that.
Packer began to row with all his might; he had left the sail ashore. The oars grew hot at the wooden thole-pins, and he pulled and pulled. There would be three quarters of a mile to run up-hill to the house, and another bit to the trees themselves, after he got in. By that time the two-man saw, and the wedges, and the Frenchmen's shining axes, might have spoiled the landmark pines. "Lizzie's there - she'll hold 'em back till I come," he gasped, as he passed Fish Rock. "Oh, Lord! what a fool! I ain't goin' to have them trees murdered;" and he set his teeth hard, and rowed with all his might.
Joe Banks looked out of the little four-paned fish-house window, and saw the dory coming, and hurried to the door. "What's he puttin' in so for?" said he to himself, and looked up the coast to see if anything had happened; the house might be on fire. But all the quiet farms looked untroubled. "He's pullin' at them oars as if the devil was after him," said Joe to himself. "He couldn't ha' heard o' that petition they're gettin' up from none of the fish he's hauled in; 't will 'bout set him crazy, but I was bound I'd sign it with the rest. The old dory's jumpin' right out of water every stroke he pulls."
The next night the Packer farmhouse stood in the winter landscape under the full moon, just as it had stood always, with a light in the kitchen window, and a plume of smoke above the great, square chimney. It was about half past seven o'clock. A group of men were lurking at the back of the barn, like robbers, and speaking in low tones. Now and then the horse stamped in the barn, or a cow lowed; a dog was barking, away over on the next farm, with an anxious tone, as if something were happening that he could not understand. The sea boomed along the shore beyond the marshes; the men could hear the rote of a piece of pebble beach a mile or two to the southward; now and then there was a faint tinkle of sleigh-bells. The fields looked wide and empty; the unusual warmth of the day before had been followed by clear cold. Suddenly a straggling company of women were seen coming from the next house. The men at the barn flapped their arms, and one of them, the youngest, danced a little to keep himself warm.
"Here they all come," said somebody, and at that instant the sound of many sleigh-bells grew loud and incessant, and far-away shouts and laughter came along the wind, fainter in the hollows and loud on the hills of the uneven road. "Here they come! I guess you'd better go in, Joe; they'll want to have lights ready."
"She'll have a fire all laid for him in the fore room," said the young man; "that's all we want. She'll be expectin' you, Joe; go in now, and they'll think nothin' of it, bein' Saturday night. Just you hurry, so they'll have time to light up." And Joe went.
"Stop and have some talk with father," whispered Lizzie affectionately to her lover, as she came to meet him. "He's all worked up, thinking nobody'll respect him, an' all that. Tell him you're glad he beat." And they opened the kitchen door.
"What's all that noise?' said John Packer, dropping his weekly newspaper, and springing out of his chair. He looked paler and thinner than he had looked the day before. "What's all that noise, Joe?"
There was a loud sound of bells now, and of people cheering. Joe's throat had a lump in it; he knew well enough what it was, and could not find his voice to tell. Everybody in the neighborhood was coming, and they were all cheering as they passed the landmark pines.
"I guess the neighbors mean to give you a little party to-night, sir," said Joe. "I see six or eight sleighs comin' along the road. They've all heard about it; some o' the boys that was here with the riggin' went down to the store last night, and they was all tellin' how you stood right up to Ferris like a king, an' drove him. You see, they're all gratified on account of having you put a stop to Ferris's tricks about them pines," he repeated. Joe did not dare to look at Lizzie or her mother, and in two minutes more the room began to fill with people, and John Packer, who usually hated company, was shaking hands hospitably with everybody that came.
Half an hour afterward, Mr. Packer and Joe Banks and Joe's friend Chauncey were down cellar together, filling some pitchers from the best barrel of cider. The guests were tramping to and fro overhead in the best room; there was a great noise of buzzing talk and laughter.
"Come, sir, give us a taste before we go up; it's master hot up there," said Chauncey, who was nothing if not convivial; and the three men drank solemnly in turn from the smallest of the four pitchers; then Mr. Packer stooped again to replenish it.
"Whatever become o' that petition?" whispered Chauncey; but Joe Banks gave him a warning push with his elbow. "Wish ye merry Christmas!" said Chauncey unexpectedly to some one who called him from the stairhead.
"Hold that light nearer," said Mr. Packer. "Come, Joe, I ain't goin' to hear no more o' that nonsense about me beatin' off old Ferris." He had been king of his Christmas company upstairs, but down here he was a little ashamed.
"Land! there's the fiddle," said Chauncey. "Le' 's hurry up;" and the three cupbearers hastened back up the cellar-stairs to the scene of festivity.
The two Christmas trees, the landmark pines, stood tall and strong on the hill looking down at the shining windows of the house. There was a sound like a summer wind in their tops; the bright moon and the stars were lighting them, and all the land and sea, that Christmas night.
"A Neighbor's Landmark" was first published in Century (49: 235-242) December 1894, where its Christmas theme was emphasized. Collected in The Life of Nancy (1895), this text is from the 1969 Books for Libraries Press reprinting.
Click here to see associated illustrations.
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ring in the corner of the shed: Iron rings might be attached to various objects to provide a secure hitching place for livestock. Below are four photographs by Wendy Pirsig, showing rings at at the Jewett-Eastman House, which stands next to the Jewett House (an SPNEA museum) in South Berwick, ME.
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Above - Ring in the shed at the Jewett-Eastman House, with Jewett House barn in the background.
Below - Shed and landmark pine at the back of the Jewett-Eastman House; Jewett house is on the right.
Above - Ring in the shed at the Jewett-Eastman House, with the Jewett House in the background.
Below - Ring in a stone, Jewett House in the background.
sprangly: probably from `sprang,' a weaving technique in which the threads are twisted over each other to form an open mesh. This would refer then to the pine with the drooping boughs as described later in the story.
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selec'men's office: the selectmen are a board of officials elected to handle town business in most New England states.
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what it says in the Bible about movin' a landmark: There are several passages in the Bible that forbid the moving of landmarks. See: Deuteronomy 19:14; 27:17; Proverbs 22:28; 23:10.
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Indian summer: warm period after first hard frosts during autumn in North America.
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rote: the sound of surf on the shore.
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master hot: extremely or superlatively hot.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College
The Life of Nancy
If you find errors or items needing annotation in this text, please contact the side manager.