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The Confession of a House-Breaker.

Sarah Orne Jewett

This confession differs from that of most criminals who are classed under the same head; for whereas house-breakers usually break into houses, I broke out. It was not a difficult exit, for there was no glass to be broken, nor any occasion for a burglar's tool-box. The truth is that one night, lately, I could not sleep, and when the eastern sky began to show a tinge of light I seated myself by the window; and by the time the clocks and bells of the neighborhood struck three, I became possessed by a desire to go out-of-doors to watch the coming of the June morning, and to see the world before the sun himself did, and to hear the matins of the birds from beginning to end, because I had been at best an unpunctual worshiper at this service. An occasional early waking or late falling asleep had given me a fragment of the music; but it was much like the way a foreign tourist saunters idly in at the door of a cathedral while mass is being performed.

     So after I had leaned out of my eastern window for a few minutes longer, and had heard one sleepy note from the top of an elm not far away, I dressed myself hurriedly, and took my boots in my hand, and prepared to escape. It was no easy matter, for I belong to a household of light sleepers, who are quick to hear an untimely footfall. I stole carefully by the open doors and down the stairs, remembering fearfully that one was apt to creak, and I hardly took a long breath until I found myself out in the garden.

     It was startlingly dark under the trees, and the alarmed shadows appeared to be hovering there as if to discuss the next move, and to find shelter meanwhile. A bat went by me suddenly, and at that I stood still. I had not thought of bats, and of all creatures they seem most frightful and unearthly, - like the flutter of a ghost's mantle, or even the wave and touch of its hand. A bat by daylight is a harmless, crumpled bit of stupidity; but by night it becomes a creature of mystery and horror, an attendant of the powers of darkness. The white light in the sky grew whiter still, and under the thin foliage of a great willow it seemed less solemn. A bright little waning moon looked down through the slender twigs and fine leaves, - it might have been a new moon watching me through an olive-tree; but I caught the fragrance of the flowers, and hurried toward them. I went back and forth along the garden walks, and I can never tell any one how beautiful it was. The roses were all in bloom, and presently I could detect the different colors. They were wet with dew, and hung heavy with their weight of perfume; they appeared to be sound asleep yet, and turned their faces away after I had touched them.

Some of the flowers were wide awake, however. One never knows the grace and beauty of white petunias until they have been seen at night, or, like this, early in the morning. It is when the dew has fallen that this delicate flower and mignonette also give out their best fragrance; and if one is lucky enough to be able to add the old-fashioned honey-suckle his garden is odorous indeed. Roses need the sunshine to bring out their full beauties, though when I held my face close to the great wet clusters it seemed to me that I had taken all their store of perfume for the coming day in one long, delicious breath. The white flowers looked whiter still in the pale light, and the taller bushes were like draped figures; and suddenly I was reminded, nobody knows why, of a long walk with some friends through the damp avenues of Versailles, when the leaves were beginning to fall, and the garden of the Little Trianon was gay with blossoms. I remembered most vividly how warm the sunshine was upon the terraces; how empty and silent the pathetic holiday rooms; how we strained our eyes to catch sight of the ghosts who must be flitting before us, and trying to keep out of sight, lest one of us might be a seer of spirits, and might intrude upon their peaceful existence. If there were a little noise in the court-yard, I thought it was the merry servants of a hundred years ago, busy with their every-day duties. The scent of the petunias and geraniums and mignonette was filling all the air. We were only stealing in while the tenants of the house were sleeping, or were away in Paris; we had not even a fear or suspicion of their sorry end. It was a strange jumble of reminiscences, personal and historical, that flitted through my mind, as I went walking slowly up and down my own New England garden, among the roses, in the middle of the night.

     I could not say it was the middle of the night, or still less the dead of night, and have any respect for myself as a truth-teller. It had suddenly become morning. I sat down on one of the garden benches, and watched and listened. A pewee began a prelude somewhat despairingly and without enthusiasm, and the song-sparrows tried to cheer him, or at least to make him hurry a little. The bobolinks tuned up, and the golden robins; and presently the solos were over, and the grand chorus began. One joyful robin, who had posted himself on the corner of a roof where I could see him, seemed to have constituted himself leader of the choir, and sang and sang, until I feared for his dear life; one would have thought he had reached bird-heaven before his time. It must have been the dawn of a long-looked-for day with him, at any rate, he was so glad to have it come at last. I remembered the young English soldier whom Howells saw at daybreak in Venice, and I hoped that I should know in another world how my robin liked the day's pleasure, after all.

     I became very neighborly with a sober-minded toad, that gave an eager scramble from among the flower-de-luces, and then sat still on the gravel walk, blinking and looking at me, as if he had made plans for sitting on the garden bench, and I was giving him great inconvenience. He was a philosopher, that fellow; he sat and thought about it, and made his theories about me and about the uncertainty of temporal things. I dare say he comes out every morning, and looks up at the bench, and considers his ambitions and the adverse powers that thwart them, in common with many of his fellow-creatures.

     The colors of the world grew brighter and brighter. The outline of the trees, and of some distant fields even, became distinct; yet it was a strange, almost uncanny light, - it was more like looking through clear water, - and I still expected something out of the ordinary course to happen. I was not continuing my thoughts and plans of the day before, though suddenly I became conscious that one of my friends was awake, and an understanding between us sprang up quickly, like a flame on the altar to Friendship, in my heart. It was pleasant, after all, to have human companionship, and it was difficult to persuade myself that the mysterious telegraph between my friend and me measured so many miles. I thought of one and another remote acquaintance after this, but only the first was awake and watching at that strange hour; the rest slept soundly, and with something approaching clairvoyance I fancied that I could see their sleeping faces and their unconsciousness, as I looked into one shaded room after another. How wonderful the courage is which lets us lie down to sleep unquestioningly, night after night, and even wait and wish for it! We have a horror of the drugs that simulate its effect; we think we are violating and tampering with the laws of nature, and make the false sleep a last resource in illness or a sinful self-indulgence. But in the real sleep, what comes to us? What change and restoration and growth to the mind and soul matches the physical rest which does us good and makes us strong? He giveth to his beloved while sleeping, is the true rendering from the Psalms.

     No wonder that in the early days a thousand follies and fables and legends were based on the dreams and mysteries of sleep. No wonder that we gain confidence to approach the last sleep of all, since we find ourselves alive again morning by morning. And as for the bewildered state into which some of us fall in our later years, is not that like a long darkness and drowsiness, from which the enfeebled mind and body cannot rouse themselves until the brightest of all mornings dawns?

     The ranks of flowers in my garden took on a great splendor of bloom, as the light grew clearer. After having watched them fade in the grayness of many an evening twilight, it was most lovely to see how the veil was lifted again at daybreak. It seemed as if the quiet June morning ushered in some grand festival day, there were such preparations being made. After the roses, the London pride was most gorgeous to behold, with its brilliant red and its tall, straight stalks. It had a soldierly appearance, as if the flower were out early to keep guard. Twice as many birds as one ever sees in the day-time were scurrying fearlessly through the air, as though they were late to breakfast, at any rate, and had a crowd of duties to attend to afterward. The grand chorus was over with, though a number of songsters of various kinds kept on with their parts, as if they stayed to practice a while after service, though the rest of the choristers had thrown off their surplices and hurried away.

     I had a desire to go out farther into the world, and I went some distance up the street, past my neighbors' house; feeling a sense of guilt and secrecy that could hardly be matched. It had been one thing to walk about my own garden, and even to cross the field at the foot of it to say good-morning to a row of elm-trees and the robins in their tops, of which incident I forgot to speak in its proper place. But if any one had suddenly hailed me from a window I should have been inclined to run home as fast as my feet could carry me. In such fashion are we bound to the conventionalities of existence!

     But it seemed most wonderful to be awake while everybody slept, and to have the machinery of life apparently set in motion for my benefit alone. The toad had been a comfort, and the thought of my friend even more, if one will believe it; and besides these, I had become very intimate with a poppy, which had made every arrangement to bloom as soon as the sun rose. As I walked farther and farther from home I felt more and more astray, and as if I were taking an unfair advantage of the rest of humanity. In one house I saw a lamp burning, the light of it paling gradually, and my glimpse of the room gave me a feeling of sadness. It was piteous that no one should know that the night was over, and it was day again. It was like the flicker of the lamp at a shrine, - an undying flame that can lighten the darkness neither of death nor of life; a feeble protest against the inevitable night, and the shadows that no man can sweep away.

     A little child cried drearily in a chamber where the blinds were shut, - a tired wail, as if the night had been one of illness, and the morning brought no relief. A great dog lay sleeping soundly in the yard, as if he would not waken for three hours yet. I know him well, good fellow, and I had a temptation to speak to him, to see his surprise; and yet I had not a good excuse. He would simply wonder what made the day so long afterward; and I turned towards home again, lest some other house-breaker might go in where I had come out. A belated pewee, who appeared to have overslept himself, piped up his plaintive morning song, and the pigeons, who are famous sleepy-heads, began to coo and croon, as if they were trying to get themselves to sleep again. The cocks crowed again once or twice apiece all over town, and it was time to go home. The spell of the dawn was lifted; and though I could not resist leaping the front fence instead of opening the gate for myself, I was a little dismayed afterward at such singular conduct, and took pains to look up and down the street, to make sure there were no startled passers-by.

     The house was still dark, and it seemed hot after the dew and freshness of the out-of-door air; but I locked the door carefully, and stole up-stairs. The east was gorgeous with yellow clouds; the belated pewee was trying to make up for lost time. I heard somebody in the next room give a long sigh, as if of great comfort, and I shut out the dazzling light of the sun, and went to bed again. Presently I heard the mill-bells up and down the river ring out their early call to the tired housekeepers, and I thought it was a reluctant rather than a merry peal; and then I said to myself something about to-morrow - no, it is to-day - yes - but this was daylight that was neither to-morrow's nor yesterday's. And so I fell asleep, like all the rest of the world, to wake again some hours later, as much delighted and puzzled with my morning ramble as if it had been a dream.


"The Confession of a House-Breaker" first appeared anonymously in "The Contributors' Club" column of The Atlantic Monthly (September 1883: 419-422). It was then collected in The Mate of the Daylight and Friends Ashore (1883). This text is from the collection. If you notice errors or items needing annotation, please contact the site manager.
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matins: Morning prayers, the first of the canonical hours in the Roman Catholic breviary. Though properly to be said at midnight, by tradition these often are said at daybreak.
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mignonette: (Bot.) A plant (Reseda odorata) having greenish flowers with orange-colored stamens, and exhaling a delicious fragrance. In Africa it is a low shrub, but further north it is usually an annual herb. Mignonette pepper, coarse pepper. (Source: ARTFL Project: 1913 Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary)
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honey-suckle: "Honeysuckle" is a name given to a variety of flowering bushes and vines, often with strong sweet perfumes.
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Versailles ... Little Trianon: The palace of Versailles is the former French royal residence and center of government, now a national landmark. It is located in the city of Versailles, near Paris, in northern France. Under the guidance of Louis XIV (1643-1715), it was transformed (1661-1710) into an immense and extravagant complex surrounded by stylized English and French gardens; every detail of its construction glorified the king. Other important sites are the Grand Trianon (1678-88) and the late 18th-century Petit (little) Trianon, which were built as private residences for the royal family and special guests. (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica Online).
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peewee ... song-sparrows ... bobolinks ... golden robins: The peewee is an obsolete bird name, as we now know this variety to consist of two species: the greater peewee (Contopus pertinax) and the wood (or western) peewee (Contopus sordidulus). The song sparrow is "A common North American song-bird of the genus Melospiza, esp. M. fasciata (or melodia) and cinerea." (Source: Oxford English Dictionary). The bobolink is a North American song bird nesting in grass or marsh land; its characteristic call is rendered as "bob o lincoln." The golden robin is a Baltimore oriole.
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young English soldier whom Howells saw at daybreak in Venice: In William Dean Howells's (1837-1920) travel book, Venetian Life (1866), chapter nine details a morning jaunt during which he encounters a parade of English soldiers. He soon thereafter encounters an English East-Indian, "a claret-colored young fellow, tall, and wearing folds of white muslin around his hat." It is not specified whether this young fellow is a soldier, but Jewett echoes Howells's line: "In another world I trust to know how he liked the parade that morning."
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flower-de-luces: One of the many alternative spellings for the French word for "lily flower," "fleur-de-lys."
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He giveth to his beloved while sleeping: Very likely refers to Psalms 127:2. The King James Version reads: "It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows: for so he giveth his beloved sleep."
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London pride: In New England, London Pride is Lychnis chalcedonica, known commonly today as Maltese Cross. Click here or scroll down for more information and a photograph.  (Research: Nancy Mayer Wetzel)

surplices: A white garment worn over other robes or clothing by the clergy of the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and certain other churches, during some of their duties. (Source: ARTFL Project: 1913 Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary).
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, with assistance from Chris Butler, Coe College.

LONDON PRIDE by Nancy Mayer Wetzel, Landscape Gardener, Jewett House
Copyright (c) 2003 by Nancy Mayer Wetzel

The plant London Pride is mentioned frequently in Sarah Orne Jewett's writing. If Jewett may be taken at her word in "The Confession of a House-Breaker," London Pride grew in her home garden in South Berwick, Maine, as well as in her literary gardens. References to London Pride in Jewett's writing include: "From a Mournful Villager" (1881), "The Confession of a House-Breaker" (1883), "An Only Son" (1883), "Three Friends" (1886), "A Second Spring" (1893), and Chapter 2 of The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896).

Today in New England, Jewett's London Pride is known as Maltese Cross (Lychnis chalcedonica). The red London Pride in this photograph blooms in a South Berwick garden with the golden-yellow Sunflower Heliopsis (Heliopsis helianthoides 'Summer Sun'). (Photograph by Gary Wetzel, copyright 2003)

The study of plant names is a fascinating pursuit. Over the years, the common name London Pride passed out of general use and the red flower disappeared from the Jewett garden. How is it known, then, that London Pride is Maltese Cross? A great help in tracing London Pride is Jewett's description of her plant in "The Confession of a House-Breaker:"

The ranks of flowers in my garden took on a great splendor of bloom, as the light grew clearer. …It seemed as if the quiet June morning ushered in some great festival day, there were such preparations being made. After the roses, the London pride was most gorgeous to behold, with its brilliant red and its tall, straight stalks. It had a soldierly appearance, as if the flowers were out early to keep guard.
Steven M. Still in Manual of Herbaceous Ornamental Plants (1994) agrees with the term Jewett used for her plant. He says London Pride—and the commonly named Maltese Cross, Jerusalem Cross, and Scarlet Lightning—are Lychnis chalcedonica, an erect plant of two or three feet with scarlet blooms in summer. Lychnis, from a Greek word meaning lamp, is a genus of bright flowers, certainly a fitting genus for Jewett’s tall stalks of brilliant red bloom.

What Jewett called London Pride, Still identifies as Lychnis chalcedonica, but Jewett’s contemporary Gertrude Jekyll and Still's contemporary Donald Wyman say London Pride is something quite different: Saxifraga umbrosa. Wyman's Gardening Encyclopedia (1986) states the plant is a tumbling mound of six inches with small pink or white flowers in spring that is much grown in England. This information is born out by the English Jekyll in Wood and Garden (1899):

Next comes the common London Pride, which I think quite the most beautiful of the Saxifrages of this section. If it was a rare thing, what a fuss we should make about it! The place is a little dry for it, but all the same, it makes a handsome spreading tuft hanging over the face of the wall. When its pink cloud of bloom is at its best, I always think it the prettiest thing in the garden.
Lychnis chalcedonica was used in American gardens in the 1600s and has remained popular in perennial borders. New pink and carmine-red varieties have been developed. Saxifraga umbrosa was in general use in this country later, some time between 1776 and 1850, and is still suggested for rock gardens and ground covers. Rudy J. Favretti and Joy Putman Favretti documented these dates from period sources and published their findings in Landscapes and Gardens for Historic Buildings (1978).

The plants called London Pride have many other common names. While this distances one from plant identification, it does provide an inviting narrative spin for the search. On June 30, 1801, Martha Ballard, a midwife and healer from Hallowell, Maine, relieved her grandson's pain with "a decoction of ye flowers of London pride." The journal in which Ballard recorded this incident was published in 1992, The Diary of Martha Ballard, 1785-1812, edited by Robert and Cynthia McCausland. The glossary states that the flowers of London Pride are St. Patrick's cabbage. Here is yet another common name for a London Pride plant. The Color Dictionary of Flowers and Plants for Home and Garden (1969) by Roy Hay and Patrick M. Synge says St. Patrick's cabbage is Saxifraga umbrosa. However, considering the late June occurrence of this event, the possibility that Ballard used the fresh-blooming flowers of Lychnis chalcedonica should be considered.

There is also variation on the name London Pride, indicating a third genus where it crops up: Lychnis, Saxifraga, and Lobelia.A name close to London Pride has persisted in Hancock County, Maine to the present, according to Jan Morse Whalen of Steuben. Pride of London is what the recently deceased Virginia Gilson Whalen, descendant of an old Machias merchant family, called the scarlet Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Jewett admired the Cardinal Flower growing on the banks of the Salmon Falls River near her home. Although she distinguished between the red Cardinal Flower and the red London Pride, Jewett acknowledged, perhaps unwittingly, their metaphorical similarity when she wrote of the Cardinal Flower's "pride." From "River Driftwood" (1881):

They (Cardinal Flowers) wear a color that is the sign of high ecclesiastical rank, and the temper of their minds would make them furies if they fought for church and state. They are no radicals; they are tories and aristocrats; they belong to the old nobility among flowers. It would be a pity if the rank marsh grass overran them, or if the pickerel weed should wade ashore to invade them and humble their pride.
Alice Morse Earle's Old Time Gardens (1901), includes a section on London Pride with a regional slant. Earle valued London Pride, as did Jewett, for associations of yore and included an anecdote about its importance in one garden before 1801. A welcome black and white photograph, labeled London Pride, shows the plant presently recognized as Maltese Cross (Lychnis chalcedonica):
A great favorite in the old garden was the splendid scarlet Lychnis, to which in New England is given the name of London Pride. There are two old varieties: one has four petals with squared ends, and is called, from the shape of the expanded flower, the Maltese Cross; the other, called Scarlet Lightning, is shown on a succeeding page; it has five deeply-nicked petals. It is a flower of midsummer eve and magic power, and I think it must have some connection with the Crusaders, being called Gerarde Floure of Jerusalem, and Flower of Candy. The five-petalled form is rarely seen; in one old family I know it is so cherished, and deemed so magic a homemaker, that every bride who has gone from that home for over a hundred years has borne away a plant of the London Pride; it has really become a Family Pride.
There is even earlier visual documentation for London Pride: a painting of vivid color and veracity, titled in a bold hand above the flower image, "London Pride. J. Fisher, 1820." Reverend Jonathan Fisher of Blue Hill, Maine included London Pride in an untitled notebook of watercolor sketches, now in the collection at his house, the Jonathan Fisher Memorial, Inc. Alice Winchester, in Versatile Yankee, The Art of Jonathan Fisher, 1768-1847 (1973), describes the watercolors as charming depictions of the particular in nature. Fisher's five-petalled London Pride is clearly today's Maltese Cross (Lychnis chalcedonica). Commentary for the London Pride plate in the book states:
Another plant that might be found in a Maine garden, realistically rendered down to the meticulous detailing of touches of blue on the stamens and the highlights on the hairy stems.
Via the intriguing folkways and science of nomenclature, one arrives at the conclusion that, in New England today, London Pride is Maltese Cross. The plant commonly seen has five petals, but the name that Earle ascribed to that form, Scarlet Lightning, has been replaced by Maltese Cross. Fisher, Earle, and Jewett, all New Englanders, have shown in word, watercolor, and photograph that their London Pride is Lychnis chalcedonica, the Maltese Cross currently propagated in nurseries.

London Pride is being reintroduced to the Jewett garden, which is open to the public along with her house. Van Berkum Nursery in Deerfield, New Hampshire--less than an hour's drive from the Jewett garden--often has Maltese Cross available. Their catalog entry for Lychnis chalcedonica makes no mention of London Pride, but it does give this accurate annotation:

This is an old fashioned flower that grew in most of our grandmothers' gardens. Maltese Cross is easy to grow and has bright scarlet clusters of cross-like flowers that look elegant with its dark green foliage.

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