The Life of Nancy
LITTLE FRENCH MARY.
Sarah Orne Jewett
The town of Dulham was as not used to seeing foreigners of any sort, or to hearing their voices in its streets, so that it was in some sense a matter of public interest when a Canadian family was reported to have come to the white house by the bridge. This house, small and low-storied, with bushy little garden ins front, had been standing empty for several months. Usually when a house was left tenantless in Dulham it remained so and fell into decay, and, after some years, the cinnamon rose bushes straggled into the cellar, and the dutiful grass grew over the mound that covered the chimney bricks. Dulham was a quiet place, where the population dwindled steadily, though such citizens as remained had reason to think it as pleasant as any country town in the world.
Some of the old men who met every day to talk over the town affairs were much interested in the newcomers They approved the course of the strong-looking young Canadian laborer who had been quick to seize upon his opportunity; one or two of them had already engaged him to make their gardens, and to do odd jobs, and were pleased with his quickness and willingness. He had come afoot one day from a neighboring town, where he and his wife had been made ill by bad drainage and factory work, and saw the little house, and asked the postmaster if there were any work to be had out of doors that spring in Dulham. Being assured of his prospects, he reappeared with his pale, bright-eyed wife and little daughter the very next day but one. This startling promptness had given time for but few persons to hear the news of a new neighbor, and as one after another came over the bridge and along the road there were many questions asked. The house seemed to have new life looking out of its small-paned windows; there were clean white curtains, and china dogs on the window-sills, and a blue smoke in the chimney -- the spring sun was shining in at the wide-open door.
There was a chilly east wind on an April day, and the elderly men were gathered inside the post-office, which was also the chief grocery and dry-goods store. Each was in his favorite armchair, and there was the excuse of a morning fire in the box stove to make them form again into the close group that was usually broken up at the approach of summer weather. Old Captain Weathers was talking about Alexis, the newcomer (they did not try to pronounce his last name), and was saying for the third or fourth time that the more work you set for the Frenchman the better pleased he seemed to be. "Helped 'em to lay a carpet yesterday at our house, neat as wax," said the Captain, with approval. "Made the garden in the front yard so it hasn't looked so well for years. We're all goin' to find him very handy; he'll have plenty to do among us all summer. Seems to know what you want the minute you p'int, for he can't make out very well with his English. I used to be able to talk considerable French in my early days when I sailed from southern ports to Havre and Bordeaux, but I don't seem to recall it now very well. He'd have made a smart sailor, Alexis would; quick an' willing."
"They say Canada French ain't spoken the same, anyway" -- began the Captain's
devoted friend, Mr. Ezra Spooner, by way of assurance, when the store door opened and a bright little figure stood looking in. All the gray-headed men turned that way, and every one of them smiled.
"Come right in, dear," said the kindhearted old Captain.
They saw a charming little creature about six years old, who smiled back again from under her neat bit of a hat; she wore a pink frock that made her look still more like a flower, and she said "Bonjour" prettily to the gentlemen as she passed. Henry Staples, the storekeeper and postmaster, rose behind the counter to serve this customer as if she had been a queen, and took from her hand the letter she brought, with the amount of its postage folded up in a warm bit of newspaper.
The Captain and his friends looked on with admiration.
"Give her a piece of candy -- no, give it to me an' I'll give it to her," said the Captain eagerly, reaching for his cane and leaving his chair with more than usual agility; and everybody looked on with intent while he took a striped stick of peppermint from the storekeeper and offered it gallantly. There was something in the way this favor was accepted that savored of the French court and made every man in the store a lover.
The child made a quaint bow before she reached out her hand with childish eagerness for the unexpected delight; then she stepped forward and kissed the Captain.
There was a murmur of delight at this charming courtesy; there was not a man who would not have liked to find some excuse for walking away with her, and there was a general sigh as she shut the door behind her and looked back through the glass with a parting smile.
"That's little French Mary, Alexis's little girl," said the storekeeper, eager to proclaim his advantage of previous acquaintance. "She came here yesterday and did an errand for her mother as nice as a grown person could."
"I never saw a little creatur' with prettier ways," said the Captain, blushing and tapping his cane on the floor.
This first appearance of the little foreigner on an April day was like the coming of a young queen to her kingdom. She reigned all summer over every heart in Dulham -- there was not a face but wore its smiles when French Mary came down the street, not a mother who did not say to her children that she wished they had such pretty manners and kept their frocks as neat. The child danced and sang like fairy, and condescended to all childish games, and yet, best of all for her friends, she seemed to see no difference between young and old. She sometimes followed Captain Weathers home, and discreetly dined or took tea with him and his housekeeper, an honored guest; on rainy days she might be found in the shoemaker's shop or the blacksmith as still as a mouse, and with eyes as bright and quick, watching them at their work; smiling much but speaking little, and teaching as much French as she learned English. To this day, in Dulham, people laugh and repeat her strange foreign words and phrases. Alexis, the father, was steady at his work of gardening and haying; Marie, the elder, his wife, washed and ironed and sewed and swept, and was a helper in many households; now and then on Sunday they set off early in the morning and walked to the manufacturing town whence they had come, to go to mass; at the end of the summer, when they felt prosperous, they sometimes hired a horse and wagon, and drove there with the child between them. Dulham village was the brighter and better for their presence, and the few old-fashioned houses that knew them treasured them, and French Mary reigned over her kingdom with no revolt or disaffection to the summer's end. She seemed to fulfill all the duties of her childish life by some exquisite instinct and infallible sense of fitness and propriety.
One September morning, after the first frost, the Captain and his friends were sitting in the store with the door shut. The Captain was the last comer.
"I've got bad news," he said, and they all turned toward him, apprehensive and forewarned.
"Alexis says he's going right away" (regret was mingled with the joy of having a piece of news to tell). "Yes, Alexis is going away; he's packing up now, and has spoke for Foster's hay-cart to move his stuff to the railroad."
"What makes him so foolish?" said Mr. Spooner.
"He says his folks expect him in Canada; he's got an aunt livin' there that owns good house and farm, and she's gettin' old and wants to have him settled at home to take care of her."
"I've heard these French folks only desire to get forehanded a little, and then they go right back where they come from," said some one, with an air of disapproval.
"He says he'll send another man here; he knows somebody that will be glad of the chance, but I don't seem to like the idea so well," said Captain Weathers doubtfully. "We've all got so used to Alexis and his wife; they know now where we keep everything and have got to be so handy. Strange they don't know when they're well off. I suppose it's natural they should want to be with their own folks. Then there's the little girl."
At this moment the store door was opened and French Mary came in. She was dressed in her best and her eyes were shining.
"I go to Canada in ze cars!" she announced joyfully, and came dancing down between the two long counters toward her regretful friends; they had never seen her so charming.
Argument and regret were impossible -- the forebodings of elderly men and their experience of life were of no use at that moment, a gleam of youth and hope was theirs by sympathy instead. A child's pleasure in a journey moves the dullest heart; the captain was the first to find some means of expression.
"Give me some o' that best candy for her," he commanded the storekeeper. "No, take a bigger piece of paper, and tie it up well."
"Ain't she dressed a little thin for travelin'?" asked gruff Mr. Spooner anxiously, and for his part he pointed the storekeeper to a small bright plaid shawl that hung overhead, and stooped to wrap it himself about the little shoulders.
"I must get the little girl something, too," said the minister, who was a grandfather, and had just come in for his mail. "What do you like best, my dear?" and French Mary pointed shyly, but with instant decision, at a blue silk parasol, with a white handle, which was somewhat the worse for having been openly displayed all summer. The minister bought it with pleasure, like a country boy at a fair, and put [it] into her hand.
French Mary kissed the minister with rapture, and gave him her hand to shake, then she put down the parasol and ran and climbed into the old captain's lap and hugged him with both arms tight round his neck. She considered for a moment whether she should kiss Mr. Ezra Spooner or not, but happily did not decide against it, and said an affectionate good-by to him and all the rest. Mr. Staples himself came out from behind the counter to say farewell and bestow a square package of raisins. They all followed her to the door, and stood watching while she tucked her bundles under her arm and raised the new parasol, and walked away down the street in the chilly autumn morning. She had taken all her French gayety and charm, all her childish sweetness and dignity away with her. Little French Mary had gone. Fate had plucked her like a flower out of their lives.
She did not turn back, but when she was half-way home she began to run, and the new shawl was given gayly to the breeze. The captain sighed.
"I wish the little girl well," he said, and turned away. "We shall miss her, but she doesn't know what parting is. I hope she'll please 'em just as well in Canada."
"Little French Mary" was first published in The Pocket Magazine (1: 113-125) November 1895. This text is from the 1969 Books for Libraries Press reprinting of The Life of Nancy. If you find errors or items needing annotation, please communicate with the site manager.
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cinnamon rose bushes: 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.
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Havre and Bordeaux: Le Havre is the second largest French seaport, located on the English Channel at the mouth of the Seine. Bordeaux is a port in southwestern France.
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forehanded: habitually prepared in advance for economic troubles.
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cars: railroad passenger cars.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College
The Life of Nancy