Mate of the Daylight Contents
Atlantic Monthly Text
A LANDLESS FARMER.
Sarah Orne Jewett
IT was late in a lovely day of early spring, the first warm Sunday of the year, when people who had been housed all winter came out to church, looking pale, and as if they had been hidden or lost for months. It seemed as if winter, the stern old king, had suddenly died, and as if the successor to the throne were a tender-hearted young princess, and everybody felt a cheerful sense of comparative liberty and freedom. The frogs were lifting up their voices in all the swamps, having discovered all at once that they were thawed out, and that it was time to assert themselves. A faint tinge of greenness suddenly appeared on the much-abused and weather-beaten grass by the roadsides, and the willows were covered with a mist of greenish gold. The air was fragrant, and so warm that it was almost summer-like; but the elderly people shook their heads, as they greeted each other gravely in the meeting-house yard, and said it was fine weather overhead, or perhaps spoke of the day reproachfully as a weather-breeder. There seemed to be a general dislike to giving unqualified praise to this Sunday weather, which was sure to be like one of the sweet spring flowers that surprise us because they bloom so early, and grieve us because they are so quick to fade.
After church was over in the afternoon, two or three men were spending an idle hour on a little bridge where the main highway of Wyland crossed Cranberry Brook; a small stream enough in summer, when it could only provide water sufficient for the refreshment of an occasional horse or dog belonging to some stray traveler. It was apt to dry up altogether just when it was needed most; but now the swamp which it drained was running over with water, and sent down a miniature flood, that bit at the banks and clutched at the roots and tufts of rushes as if it wished to hold itself back. It had piled already a barricade of leaves and sticks and yellow foam against the feeble fence that crossed it at the roadside, and the posts, which were almost rotted away, were leaning over and working to and fro, as if they had hard work to stand the strain, and might fall with a great splash and go down stream with the mossy rails and the sticks and yellow foam any minute.
The water had risen to within a short distance of the floor of the bridge, and the three men stood watching it with great interest. Two of them, who had come from church, had found the other standing there. He owned the pasture through which the brook ran on its way to the river; but on that side of the road the ground fell off, so there was a small cascade; and his own stone walls, which stopped at the edge of this, were in no danger. He wore his every-day clothes, but the other men were in their Sunday best.
"Warm for the time o' year, ain't it?" asked one of these, taking off his hat, and giving his forehead a rub with his coat sleeve. "I wore my overcoat that I have been wearing this winter to meeting this morning, and the heft of it was more than a load of hay. I come off without it this afternoon. The folks said I should get my death o' cold, and I do' know but they was right, but I wa'n't going to swelter as I did in the forenoon for nobody."
"'T is warm," said Ezra Allen, who was without his own waistcoat, and who whittled a deliciously smooth and soft bit of pine with a keen-edged knife, in ideal Yankee fashion. "I've been looking to see that old fence of Uncle Jenkins's topple over; the stream's most as high as I ever see it. I shouldn't wonder if it come over the bridge, if this weather holds."
"Crambry Brook's b'en over this bridge more times 'n' you've got fingers and toes, Ezra," said the third man, scornfully. "Guess you've forgot. When I was a boy, 't was customary for it to go over the bridge every spring, and I do' know but I've seen it in the fall rains as well. Parker Jenkins come near getting drowned here once, you know."
"You're thinking of the little old bridge that used to be over it when we was boys; 't was two or three foot lower than this. The road used to be all under water in them days; I know that well as anybody. I wasn't referring to the bridge. I said the brook was high as I ever see it. Ef you had that little bridge that was here before they h'isted up the road, I guess you'd find it well wet down."
"Don't seem to me as if the brooks run so high as they used," suggested Henry Wallis, mildly. "They say it's because the country's been stripped of its growth so. Cutting the pines all off lets the sun get to the springs, and the ground dries right up. I can't say I understand it myself, but they've got an argument for everything nowadays."
"There ain't so much snow as there used to be when we was boys," said Ezra Allen. "I never see no such drifts anywhere about as used to be round the old school-house; we used to make caves in 'em that you could stand right up in, and have lots o' clear room overhead, too."
"You're considerable taller than you was in them days, Ezry," said Asa Parsons. "That makes some difference;" and the three neighbors laughed together, as if it were a great joke.
All through the parish were little groups of people like this, gossiping together on their unfrequented front steps, or before the barn doors, where happy fowls fluffed their feathers and scratched the wet ground, or quawked and strutted to and fro. There was a good deal of social visiting going on, and as the three men stood together on the bridge, which was a favorite abiding place in summer, being not far from several farmhouses, they spoke to one neighbor after another, as he or she went along in the muddiest possible wagons. As for the horses, they were steaming as if they had come from the races, and looked as if they wished, like their masters, to be relieved of their winter coats.
"Seems to me everybody was out to-day," said Ezra Allen, who was a rosy-faced, pleasant-looking man of about forty. "I do' know when I've missed a Sunday before;" and he went on clipping little white chips from his stick, which was dwindling away slowly.
The other men waited for a few moments, until they became certain that he would say no more of his own accord; and then Asa Parsons boldly inquired what had kept him at home from meeting, and was told that he had watched the night before with old Mr. Jerry Jenkins.
"I want to know if you did," said Wallis, with much concern. "I'd no idea that he was so bad off as to have watchers. And I should think his own folks might take care of him amongst themselves. He ain't been sick enough to tucker them out, seems to me."
"I guess I'm as near to being his own folks as anybody, if setting by him counts for anything," said Ezra, with a good deal of feeling. "I always thought everything of Uncle Jerry. He's done me more kind turns than anybody else ever did, and he's a good-hearted man, if ever there was one. He's none of your sharpers, but he's got the good will of everybody that knows him, 'less it's his own children."
The three friends were leaning against the rail of the bridge, all in a row. Ezra whittled fiercely for a minute; the hands of his companions were plunged deep into their already sagging pockets. They looked at him eagerly, for they knew instinctively that he was going to say something more. He shut his jack-knife with a loud snap, and turned and threw the bit of white pine into the noisy, rushing brook. It was only a second before it had gone under the bridge, to show itself white and light on the brown water, and lift itself as if for a leap on the rounded edge of the little fall, and disappear. Ezra's forced discretion seemed to have been thrown away with it.
"Sereny Nudd found out, somehow or 'nother, before I come away this morning, that I mistrusted about things, and she come meachin' round, wanting me not to tell; but all I told her was that I wouldn't have done it, if I was her, if I was going to be ashamed of it. I don't know when anything has riled me up so. Says I, right to her face and eyes, I'm mortified to death to think I am any relation to such folks as you be, and she shut the door right in my face, and I cleared out. I've been sorry all day I said it; not on account of her, but now she's mad she won't let me go near the old gentleman, if she can help it, and I might have looked after him a good deal."
"What's to pay?" asked Wallis and Parsons, eagerly; it was some time since anything had happened to them which promised to be of so much interest as this. Ezra Allen was not easily excited, and was an uncommonly peaceable man under ordinary circumstances.
"Well, if I must say it, they've prevailed upon that poor old man to sign away his property, and I call it a burning shame."
"How long ago?" and the hearers looked at Ezra with startled countenances. Yet there could be seen a flicker of satisfaction at this beginning of his story.
"Some time in the winter," answered Ezra. "The poor creatur' has been laid up, you know, a good deal of the time, and there come a day when he was summoned to probate court, on account of that trust money he's got for the Foxwell child'n. You know he's guardeen for 'em, and it's been a sight o' trouble to him. He might have sent word to the judge that he wa'n't able to come and see to it, and 't would ha' done just as well three months hence, being a form of law he had to go through; but what does them plants o' grace do but work him all up, and tell him a lot o' stuff an' nonsense, until he was ready to do whatever they said. He put the power into Aaron Nudd's hands to go over and tend to the Foxwell matter; and then they went at him again (he told me all about it in the night, though I have had an inkling of it for some time past), and they told him 't wa'n't likely he'd ever get about again, and he was too old to look after business, and go hither and yon about the country. All he wanted was his livin', they told him, and he'd better give them the care of things and save himself all he could, and make himself comfortable the rest of his days. Sereny Nudd is dreadful fair-spoken when she gives her mind to it, and uncle, he's somehow or 'nother always had a great respect for her judgment, and been kind of 'fraid of her into the bargain; and he was sick and weak, and they bothered him about to death, till he signed off at last, just to get a little peace. Mary Lyddy Bryan was there at the time, a mournin' and complainin', same as she always is. Sereny won't have her about, generally, but she got her to help then, and between 'em they won him over. Mary Lyddy is always a dwellin' on being left a widow with no means, and a little family to fetch up, and her father's always had to help her. Both of her boys is big enough to be doing for themselves, and ought to be put on to farms, or to some trades; but they'll never do a stroke of work if they can help it."
"Did they draw up the papers just as they wanted 'em, and make the old sir sign 'em?" asked Parsons. "I shouldn't ha' thought he'd been fool enough."
"Nor I, neither," replied Ezra, who was in the flood tide of successful narration; "but we know, all of us, that their father ain't what he used to be, and he was a sick man at the time. They put it to him this way: that he would have everything he wanted, same 's if 't was his own, and that he should have his say about everything just the same, -- 't was only to save him trouble of the care of things, -- and the way Sereny fixed it was abominable. She got him, first of all, to give Mary Lyddy her place to Harlow's Mills, where she lives, out and out, 'because,' says she, 'it may smarten up the boys, and give them some ambition, if they feel it's their own.' Mary Lyddy always was kind of wanting, and she never see through it that Sereny was getting double what she was, she was so pleased about getting her place in her own right. Uncle, he told me he didn't want to do anything about the bank stock, and, to tell the truth, he always meant the farm for Parker; but the girls set to so about him that there wa'n't no use. Sereny said if ever her father wanted to change his mind he could do it, and make out new papers."
"After he'd gone and give it to her, it wa'n't his to give," growled Asa Parsons. "Didn't he know that?"
"Well, I can tell you he's been sick ever since he realized what he'd done," said Ezra. "He said last night that it had been gnawing at his conscience that it wa'n't fair to Parker or to Mary Lyddy, neither. I stuck up for Parker, but I told him Mary Lyddy wouldn't be any better off if she had a million; and Sereny wa'n't far from the truth when she said he'd always been doing for her. But as for Parker, he'd done well enough if he hadn't been nagged to death. I know he drank more 'n was good for him, and hated farm work; but there was sights o' good things about him, and he wa'n't no common fool. They've dinned it into the old man's ears that he must be dead, they ain't heard from him for so long; but Sereny never would write to him, and the old man's eyesight's failed him of late. He cried like a child as he lay there in bed, last night. He got hold of my hand and gripped it, and said he didn't know, till he got Mary Lyddy to read him the paper all through, once when Sereny was out to a neighbor's, that they'd worded it so 's to leave Parker out. It gives Mary Lyddy her place, and a piece of woodland beside, that comes from her mother's folks; and everything else -- this farm, and the bank stock and everything -- to Sereny. She's got as much as three thousand dollars more than her half, -- grasping creatur's both on 'em, she and Aaron Nudd is, and they've got a young one that's going to be worse 'n either of 'em. I thought last night that the sooner poor old uncle was laid away, down in the burying-ground, the better 't would be for him. Like 's not they'll never trouble themselves to set up a stone for him; but I'll see to it myself, sure as the world, if they don't show him respect, -- taking away his rights, kind as he's always been, and a good neighbor. His only fault has been that he was too lavish. There ain't much the matter with him that I can see, except he's distressed, and seemed to feel he was broke in his mind, and there was nothing to look forward to. They've moved him out of the room where he always slept into a back bed-room, where there ain't room to swing a cat, and no chance for a fire. I like to have froze to death. I set up in my overcoat all night, for 't was chillier than you'd suppose before such a mild day. He wa'n't warm enough along towards morning, and I scouted round till I got some blankets, -- for there wasn't nothing over him but old quilted spreads. Sereny come in in the morning, mad as fire any way, because it seems she heard us talking in the night; but when she see them blankets, she like to have died, and asked why I didn't come to her if I wanted more bedclothes, -- 't was too bad to spill medicines all over the best she had. 'There ain't a spot on 'em, nor a brack in 'em,' said I, real pleasant, though I could ha' bit her head off. 'I remember I was with your mother when she bought 'em; 't was one of the last times she was ever over to the mills. I happened to be into Harlow's shop when she was selecting them, -- she got them very cheap. I told our folks what a bargain they was for the quality; not that I pretend to be a judge of such things, but the women thought they didn't need them.' I just spoke of it to Sereny, so she'd see I knew they were none of her buying; and I said, right before her, 'The best ain't too good for you, uncle.'"
"Well," said Henry Wallis, prudently, "I never thought I should like to take up with Sereny Nudd, for better for worse; but she may do well by her father, after all. Old folks has been known to be difficult, but she ain't done right so far as we can see."
"Done right!" exclaimed Asa Parsons. "It's a burning shame, and I hope she'll be met with. That's what was going on one day last winter, when I saw that sneaking Josh Hayden riding home with Aaron Nudd. He's a lawyer, -- what there is of him, -- and I suppose they got him over to do the business. I heard he'd deeded Mary Lyddy her place."
"I don't want to think of it," said Ezra, disgustedly, "but it follows me about the whole time. I suppose I could have got out to meeting to-day, but it would have been more than I could stand to see Nudd and Sereny parade up the broad aisle. I wa'n't so beat out that I couldn't have gone; one night's watching won't use me up!"
The friends now separated, for the air was growing cold and damp. Asa Parsons mentioned that his overcoat wouldn't do him any harm if he had it then, and he and Wallis went away together, while Ezra turned toward the other direction.
"Suppose you'll be out to town-meeting," Wallis called after him. It was fairly amazing that nobody should have spoken about the great day, anticipations of which were in every man's mind, to a greater or less degree. Ezra Allen had not been without his hopes of running for selectman, -- to tell the truth, he had looked forward all the week before to furthering his cause among his neighbors by a friendly word in season on Sunday; but his uncle's wrongs had driven his own political interests quite out of his head. He walked slowly home in the fast-gathering spring chilliness, the noise of the brook growing fainter and fainter. He suffered a slight reaction from his enthusiasm, and wished he had not spoken so warmly against his cousins. "Mary Lyddy's a poor dragging creatur'," he said to himself; "and as for Sereny, she's near, and set in her own way, but she may treat the old gentleman well, for shame's sake. I don't know but I was hasty, but I don't care if I was; it wa'n't the right thing for her to do; and then, there's Parker." By way of balancing any harm he might have done, he held his peace in his own household, and refrained from beguiling the tediousness of a Sunday evening by introducing this most interesting subject of conversation. He had a way of keeping things to himself at times, which his wife found most provoking; but he was possessed of that uncharacteristic trait of many reticent people, of telling his secrets generously and even recklessly, if he once was forced to break through the first barrier of reserve.
The next morning was clear and not cold, but the warmth and revivifying influence of the day before was not to be felt. It was commonplace New England spring weather, and had a relationship to the melting of snow and the lingering of winter which was most unconsoling. A large number of persons had taken violent colds, and the frogs preserved a discreet silence. Asa Parsons wore not only his overcoat to town-meeting, but a woolen comforter round his throat as well; and he sneezed from time to time, angrily, as if it were a note of disapproval and contempt. There was a grand quarrel over the laying out of a new piece of road, and it was at first found very difficult to choose the town officers. There was a monotonous repetition of polling the house, and when Ezra Allen lost, at last, the coveted position of selectman, he had become so angry with some of his opponents, and so tired with the noisy war, that the glory of the occasion was very much tarnished. It was over at four o'clock, and nobody had had any dinner, except a slight refreshment of wilted russet apples and very watery and sour cider, which could be bought at abominable prices over the tailboard of one of the wagons which were fastened in long rows to the fences near the old meeting-house, which had been given over to governmental purposes.
Aaron Nudd was by no means a favorite among his townsfolk. He was very stingy, and had saved considerable money, for which it was supposed Serena Jenkins had married him. He was of the opposite party in politics to Ezra Allen, and he had been the opposing and successful candidate for the office which Ezra had lost. Aaron's wagon was next but one, and the two men unfastened their horses sulkily, without looking at each other. Ezra went home prepared to believe any report of cruelty or injustice on the part of his uncle's children, and full of the intention to tell the story of their trickery in his own household. But he was not even to have this pleasure on that unlucky day. His wife asked him reproachfully, as he entered, why he had said nothing of what everybody had been talking about who went by the house, and which would have been no story at all without his own report (already much magnified) of the meanness and knavery of Serena Nudd.
The next morning Ezra resumed his business of wheelwright, from which he had taken a two days' vacation; but the excitement had been a good deal of a strain upon him, and he worked without much enthusiasm for a few hours, and about eleven o'clock laid down his tools altogether. The spoke-shave was so dull that it need grinding, and there was nobody to turn the grindstone, and his head ached a little. He did not feel inclined to start out upon a new piece of work, and, taking a disgusted look around the shop at the disjointed limbs of various old and new vehicles, he threw off his apron, and went to the house, which was only a few rods distant along the road. Outside the shop door were stacked some dozens of wheels in various stages of decay and decrepitude, and two or three old wagon-bodies and chaise-tops were resting on the ground in most forlorn condition, as if they had been relentlessly exposed to all the winter weather. The wood-work of one new farm cart was set up on trestles, and had received its first coat of paint; but that was the only sign of any progress of the art that was carried on within. One would think, from the outward appearance of a wheelwright's shop, that it was also a repository of worn-out carriages of every description. The trade is apparently never carried on without much useless rubbish, unless one may venture the suggestion that it is necessary to have a collection of specimens showing the advances and effects of various diseases of wheels, as surgeons are furnished forth with anatomical cabinets. On the seat of an old wagon there was perched a large rag doll, and when Ezra saw it he smiled, for the first time that morning. He was very fond of his little girl, to whom the doll belonged.
He pushed open the kitchen door with some faint thrills of pleasure, for a great whiff of a well-known odor blew out through the half-opened window which he had just passed. His wife was frying doughnuts, and he did not notice at first, for the smoke and steam obscured the atmosphere, that some one was sitting at the other side of the room.
"Just in time, ain't I?" said Ezra, cheerfully; then, to his great disgust and confusion, he saw that the guest was his cousin. "Is that you, Sereny?" he asked, in quite another tone.
"Yes, it is," said Mrs. Nudd, snappishly, "and I should think you'd be ashamed to look me in the face, Ezra Allen. You've been and done the best you could to take away my good name, and I don't see what harm I ever done you nor yours;" and she began to cry in a most obnoxious fashion.
Ezra gave himself an angry twitch and went over to the window, where he stood with his back to the company, and looked longingly at the safe harbor of the shop which he had just left. His wife, who was a fearful soul and who hated a quarrel, escaped with her colander full of doughnuts to the recesses of the pantry, from whence she stole a glance now and then at the others, like a distressed mouse which had doubts about venturing out of its hole. Mrs. Nudd sniffed and sobbed, and wiped her not very wet eyes with her handkerchief again and again; but still Ezra did not speak, and nothing could be more aggravating.
"Enoch Foster said, this morning," she remarked, in a broken voice, "that he supposed you was put out about the election, and Aaron's getting in ahead of you. But I wa'n't going to hear my own first cousin spoken of no such way, and I said that you hadn't nothing to do with it; you was too straightfor'ard a man. I knew you was hasty to speak, but there never was nothing mean about you, with all your faults; and I explained it as best I could, for I'm sure I don't know no other reason. Poor old father's mind is broke more than folks think who comes in and sees him for a visit; and he's got set upon our having got away his property from him. 'T was all his own set-out to deed it to us now in his life-time. He got kind of worried and confused a spell ago, and seemed to want to be rid of the care of it; and we made the change to gratify him. Aaron said he wouldn't have no such goings-on, and that he didn't want the farm nohow. He's been desiring for a long spell to move to Harlow's Mills and go into the shoe factory; he could have had a first-rate chance any time in the boxing room, but we seemed to be pinned right down right where we was, on father's account."
"You needn't have drove off Parker, then," grumbled Ezra; but though Mrs. Allen heard him in the pantry, and shook for fear, Mrs. Nudd went on complacently: --
"I'm sure we've always done the best we could by our folks, and by the neighbors. We ain't had the means to be free-handed, for we never knew what was our own and what wasn't. One day father'd be real arbitrary, and gather up whatever there was, even the butter money, that anybody'd think I might have a right to; and next thing, he wouldn't want to be consulted about anything. Aaron went to him one day about a bunch o' laths, when he was going to alter the hen-coop, and father give it to him right an' left, because he bothered him about it. He refused him the money, and said Aaron had made enough off from the place, and he should think he might attend to a job of that size himself."
Ezra gave a sympathetic chuckle, and his cousin wished she had left out this illustration. "I only spoke of it because some days father would have grieved hisself to death if he hadn't been told something that was half the importance," she explained, in a higher key than ever. "If you had to summer and winter him I guess you'd find out. He ain't so easy-going and pleasant as folks seem to think. I know it ain't right to talk so about my own father, that's failed from what he used to be, but I've got to stand up for myself, if my own relations won't stand up for me;" and at this point she cried again, more sorrowfully than before, "I do have a hard time," she said, in conclusion: "father to please; and Mary Lyddy a-dwellin' on her trials, and tellin' her complaints, and wantin' to borrow everything I've got; and Aaron a-fussin' and discontented, and talking about going West; and Parker, he spent about all the ready money he could tease out of father. I wonder the place ain't all mortgaged, and I dare say we shall find it is. Some days, I wish I was laid in my grave, for I sha'n't get no rest this side of it."
Ezra's wife, in the pantry, was ready to cry, also, by the time she heard the end of this touching appeal, and she did not see how her husband could be so stony-hearted. She wished he would say something, and knocked two pans together for a signal, and then was dreadfully shocked by what she had done. She was not very fond of Serena Nudd, and could talk angrily about her, behind her back, at any time; but being a weak little soul, and anxious to avoid contention, when there was any danger of getting a blow herself, she was ready, being also a woman, to take her complaining visitor's part.
But Ezra shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and fumbled a button which was at the back of his collar, and which, at that opportune moment, came off and dropped on the floor. "I guess you'll have to set a stitch in this, if you will, Susan," he said, with well-feigned indifference; and Susan came obediently out from among the pots and pans, very shamefaced and meek. The button had rolled almost to Mrs. Nudd's feet, and when Ezra looked for it unsuccessfully, she stooped and picked it up, and handed it to his wife with a heavy sigh, and then rose to take leave.
"I shall be ready any time to watch with the old gentleman, if he needs it, or even thinks he does," remarked Ezra, as if he had heard nothing of what his cousin Serena had said; and she did not know how to answer him, though usually she was equal to the occasion. She went away in doubt whether she had won a great victory, or had been defeated; and she took the plate of doughnuts which Susan humbly offered in the old gentleman's behalf, hardly knowing what it was, she felt so unlike herself, all of a sudden. But she "came to" before she was out of sight of the house, and though she hated Ezra worse than ever, she ate one of the doughnuts with uncommon relish, and put another in her pocket.
The spring days lengthened and grew into summer, and the excitement which attended the knowledge of the transfer of old Mr. Jenkins's property died slowly away. He looked so wilted and changed by his illness of the winter that it was by no means difficult for the town's-people to believe that his mind had become as much enfeebled as his body. As for his nearest neighbors, they saw him rarely, for he was too lame to make the short journey to their houses; and in the early summer business of the farms nobody found much time to go visiting Serena Nudd or her most unpopular husband. He was a sly-looking, faded-out little man, of no attractions, and a sneaking manner which disgusted the persons he sought most eagerly to please. It had been thought that he would favor some projects about the new road, which he frowned upon directly he was in office; and that angered the parties who were most concerned, and there grew steadily a feeling of shame and regret that he should have won so easily his prominent position in town affairs. He paid the taxes on the farm with unusual promptness, and the treasurer took notice that he had crossed out Mr. Jenkins's name from the tax-bill and inserted his own in its place. There was a good deal of sympathy felt for the old man, because he had not deserved such a miserable son-in-law. People hoped that he was treated well, but it was taken for granted, in those few weeks, that the poor old farmer was fast breaking up, and under the circumstances, nobody could wish him to live long, since it would only involve the greater discomforts of old age, and a continued suffering of one sort and another. As for his daughter Serena, she was making great bids for friendship, and was showing herself both generous and neighborly, in a way that much surprised her acquaintances. She spoke with great concern of her father's failing health, and some persons began to say she was good-hearted, and what a pity it was that she should have thrown herself away on such a man as Aaron Nudd. She drove old Mr. Jenkins to church one hot Sunday, when Aaron was reported to be kept at home by the expected swarming from a hive of bees; and it was certainly very kind, the way in which she helped him down out of the high wagon, and along the broad aisle to his pew. He looked round the church as pleased a child, and seemed to enjoy the unusual opportunity of being among his friends and neighbors. The older people watched him affectionately, -- he was younger than several who were there, -- and many of the younger members of the congregation expected him to betray in some way his shattered wits. But he seemed to be in full possession of his faculties as far as any one could decide at that time; and when Serena ostentatiously found his place in a hymn-book, and offered it to him, he shook his head at her in great perplexity, and proceeded to search for the right page in his own copy of Watts' and Select Hymns, which was of large type, and for years had been ready to his hand in the corner of the pew. "I'm all right, if it wasn't for my lameness," he told a half dozen of the friends who crowded about him. "I can get about a good deal better than the folks think I can, too; but Sereny keeps right after me," he added, in a lower voice to Ezra Allen, who had been more pleased than anybody to see his uncle in his accustomed seat, and who indulged a hope that now he was about again he would take things into his own hands. But the poor man stumbled on the meeting-house steps that very Sunday, and gave himself a bad strain, and passed many a long and lonely day afterward in his dark, close bedroom, in that summer weather. Out-of-doors the birds sang, and the grass grew and grew, until it waved in the wind and was furrowed like the sea. The old farmer worried and fretted about the crops, and could not imagine how the fields got on without his oversight and care. He was always calling Aaron, or the man who had been engaged to help him, and demanding strict account of the potatoes and corn and beans. He had worked day in and day out on his land, until that summer, and he was sure everything must be going to wreck and ruin without him. Aaron evaded some of his questions, he thought, and treated him like a child. If it had not been for his lameness, he would have risen in wrath from his bed, and have dispersed the whole family like marauding chickens. Even Ezra Allen was not attentive, and this was hard to understand, though the frequent breaking of farm tools and the wear and tear of the vehicles of the town gave him more than enough to do, while he had his own farming to look after beside.
Serena grew less and less amiable, but she was what she and her neighbors called a regular driver, and she had a hard fight to get through with her everyday work. If her father demanded a long explanation of the reasons that had led to the selling of a cow, she was by no means ready to satisfy him, and to stop in the midst of everything to answer his restless, eager questions by quieting accounts of the circumstances; and as for the man who had come several times to make the bargain, he was kept out of the old farmer's hearing altogether. At last, in a desperate moment, Mr. Jenkins, like a distressed New England Lear, said that as soon as he was well enough he should go to stay for a while with his other daughter; for Mary Lyddy was always civil spoken to him, and was always pleased to see him, if other people were not. "It will be a first-rate thing to get rid of him through haying," Serena told her lord and master that night. "I'm thankful it was his own proposal;" and then they talked over the question of her father's prompt removal to another scene of uselessness.
The next morning but one, Serena put her head inside the old man's door, and said she guessed he had better get out into the fresh air that day. Aaron was coming right in to help him. This was good news, for Mr. Jenkins had urged his daughter to believe that there was no need of his lying in bed any longer, while she had insisted that she was following the doctor's orders, and that if he stirred before the proper time he would only bring fresh disasters upon himself and his family. He found himself weak and stiff when he tried to move about, but such was his delight at being again his own master that he soon felt uncommonly strong and energetic, and sat down at the breakfast-table in the kitchen with a look of proud satisfaction.
"I'm going to be in first-rate trim for haying," he announced gravely. Aaron had swallowed his breakfast as nearly whole as possible, and had departed; and Serena was already clattering at the dishes.
"This is prime corn-cake," said the farmer. "I declare, Sereny, it tastes like it used to, -- just like what your mother used to make."
"It always tastes alike to me," responded Mrs. Nudd, in a not unkindly tone. "You're getting to be notional." Serena was not celebrated for her skill in cookery, and this compliment had touched her tenderly.
"Ain't it a good while since we have had a nice cabbage?" asked Mr. Jenkins, presently. "I suppose, though, they're about gone. I declare, how the weeks fly by! It don't seem but a fortnight since we were getting 'em in, in the fall of the year."
"For mercy sake!" said Serena. "I believe you are losing your faculties! The idea of cabbages keeping through haying! You might as well wish for some of the Thanksgiving pies. There! I do the best I can to suit you, but it's hard for one pair o' hands to do everything. I did expect to have help in haying time, but Aaron says he can't afford it, now he's got the whole farm to lug."
"He's got the whole farm to help him, at any rate," said Mr. Jenkins, blazing up into something like his youthful spirit. "He was always crying poor, and wheedling round, and you was, too, till you got the farm, and now you're worse off than you was before. I've always made an honest living, and stood well in the town, and I've brought up my children, and kept my fences and buildings in good order. I won't have such talk from you nor Aaron Nudd neither." But Serena had flown, and the old man might have relieved his mind by more just accusations without causing trouble, for there was nobody within hearing. The kitchen was hot, and the late June light was flaring in at the windows and door; it promised to be a very hot day. Mr. Jenkins felt a little tired and weak; he wished he had not said so much, and told himself again the familiar and unwelcome truth that he had had his day. He looked about the room, which did not seem natural, for some reason or other. "Sereny!" he suddenly shouted. "What's become of my chist o' drawers, -- my desk? My papers is all in it. I hope you haven't got them into a mess;" and he looked around him again, puzzled and miserable. There was a noise of the pounding and creaking caused by a rolling-pin in the great pantry, and presently Serena said that he used it very little, and it was considerably in the way, and an old furniture dealer had come along and offered a good price for it, and she had sold it. She needed a new sewing-machine, and she didn't suppose he would care. She always wanted that place for her sewing-machine, right between the windows, where there was a good light.
"I am going to learn you that I won't be pulled about by the nose in this way another day;" and Mr. Jenkins's daughter did not remember that she had ever seen her father in such a rage before. "You can tell Aaron to hunt up that man, and get my piece o' furniture back; 't was my father's before me, and it has stood in this kitchen a hundred years. I don't care what you want, nor what you don't want, nor nothing about your sewing-machine. You just go and get that secretary back, or it'll be the worse for you. I don't see as you've any call to act as if I was dead, right before my face. It's a hard thing for a man o' my years to see another master over his own house, and live to see himself forgotten;" and the poor old creature, whose pleasure at being about the house again was so cruelly spoiled, shook with anger, and meant to walk out-of-door indignantly; but his strength suddenly failed, and he leaned back in his chair again. Serena had nothing further to say, and the knocking and rolling still continued. She was making a tough company of dried-apple pies for the family sustenance in the haying season. The kitchen looked strangely empty without its one handsome and heavy piece of furniture, whose dark wood and great dull brass handles had somehow given a nobler character to the room, which was the usual gathering place of the family. In Serena's mother's day the bat-handles had always been well polished, and had many an evening reflected the brightness of the roaring great chimney-place fire. A little later in the morning, the farmer asked his daughter to fetch him the papers which had been kept carefully in the quaint corners and pigeon-holes. She feared to disobey, and for hours the old man set drearily unfolding and poring over the small basketful of worn papers which held his history and his few business records. There was a curl which his wife had cut from the head of their little child who had died, and there was a piece of the Charter Oak at Hartford, and a bit of California gold that his brother had sent home in the early days of the gold-diggings stored away with the rest, -- the old man's few treasures and playthings. They were huddled together in miserable confusion, though he had always known where to put his hand on each when they were in their places.
Serena's not very tender heart was somewhat touched at last, and she noticed how worn and old her father looked, and wished she had not sold the secretary without speaking to him about it first. She thought it was no time then to say what a good price she had wrung out of the man who had made the purchase, and at any rate her father might insist upon putting the money in his own pocket. She was unusually good-natured all that day, and even went so far as to say that she was glad to see him about the house again. She was a good deal of a coward, as all tyrants and bullies are apt to be; and she began to be a little afraid, when her father's weakness and dependency seemed to have been replaced by a sullen indifference to both her words and actions when she came near, and a look of wounded disapproval when she left him to himself.
The next morning he said that he wanted some one to go over to Mary Lyddy's with him, and bring the horse home. Somehow, Serena felt a shameful sense of guilt and almost of repentance, as she stood in the kitchen door and watched her father drive away. It seemed as if he might have started of his own accord upon a journey from whence there could be no return. He did not turn his head after the horse had started; he had not even said good-by. There was a small trunk in the back of the wagon, an odd, ancient thing, studded with many nails and covered with moth-devoured leather; one might believe it had attained a great age before starting on this first journey, it looked so unused to travel and so garret-like. Into it, very early in the morning, Mr. Jenkins had packed some of his few personal possessions, and his daughter looked at it again and again with suspicious eyes. "I declare, it's a dreadful thing to get to be old and past our usefulness," she said. "Who would have thought that father would have turned against me so, just for selling an old, out-o'-fashion chist o' drawers, after the way I've tended and nursed him, and mended him up and waited upon him by inches? Well, it's the way of the world!" And after these reflections, the rattling wagon and plodding horse and the stern, upright figure of the aggrieved old man having passed out of sight over the brow of a hill which rose beyond the house, she turned back into the kitchen again. "Father used to be a dreadful easy-going man," she said to herself, later. "I wonder how long he and Mary Lyddy will hitch their horses together. But I 'most wish I hadn't let the secr'tary go without consulting him. I suppose 't was his right. I'll let him stay a spell over to the Mills, and he'll be sure to get over his huff, and be homesick and wore out with Mary Lyddy's ramshackle ways, and I'll go over, just 's if nothing had happened, and fetch him home."
Harlow's Mills was an unattractive village, which had grown up suddenly, a few years before, around some small manufactories. Mrs. Bryan's husband had been a very successful, industrious man, and it had been thought a most lucky thing for her when he had fallen in love with her pretty face, without waiting to see what sort of character lay behind it. He had done well in his business, and kept everything straight at home as long as he had lived; but when he died of fever, at the prime of his life, he had saved only a small property, and his inefficient wife was left to fight her way alone. She surrendered ignominiously, and had been tugged along the path of life by her friends and relatives, who grudged even their sympathy more and more. "When you've lugged folks one mile, you like to see 'em try to go the next themselves, -- not sit right down in the road," Serena Nudd had said more than once, and not without reason. Poor Mary Lydia had sheltered her laziness behind various chronic illnesses, which had excused her from active participation in the world's affairs; though when anything was going forward in which she cared, for any reason, to join, it had often been noticed that she would step forward with the best. A funeral had such attractions for her that nothing short of her own death-bed would divert her attention or keep her at home. She had vast reserves of strength and will, but she passed most of her time in an unstrung, complaining state. Her house was forlorn, and her boys had grown used to her feeble protests and appeals, and rarely took much notice of what she said except to escape from the whining and scolding as soon as they could. There was a good deal in her life which was pitiable, but still more for which one might blame her; and it was her comfortless house, with its dreary, shaded, unfruitful bit of land, to which the once busy old farmer had fled for refuge. The maple-trees that Henry Bryan had planted had grown too luxuriantly in that damp place, and the grass underneath was all in coarse tufts, mixed with a rank growth of plantain leaves, beside a fine nursery of young burdocks which that summer had started up unheeded in a corner.
Mr. Jenkins felt more and more saddened and disturbed all the way, and the drive to the Mills seemed very long and hot. He had little to say to his companion, though he sometimes commented upon the different fields and pastures that skirted the roads. One neighbor's potatoes and another's corn looked strong and flourishing; he took note of them with wistfulness. "I'm done, -- I'm done," he said once or twice, half to himself. He stopped, at last, at his daughter's door, and while his companion took the little trunk down from the wagon, he went in search of the mistress of the house. There was a strong odor of camphor in the darkened, close front room, and a voice asked feebly who was there.
"I've come to stop with you for a spell," answered the old man. "I have been laid up, and not good for much of anything; and Sereny, she carried too many guns for me, and I thought perhaps you might like to have comp'ny." There was a pathetic attempt at joking which would have touched the heart of a stone, and Mary Lyddy was quick to catch at this advantage over her sister, and rose slowly from her couch. The old man's eyes were blinded at coming into this darkness from the glare of sunlight without, and he could not see a yard before him. He already felt homesick, and would have given anything if he had not brought the trunk, which was just now set down on one end, heavily, in the entry just behind him.
"I'm real pleased to see you, though I wish you had come last week, when I could have enjoyed you more. I don't know when I have been so well in health as I was last week, but to-day I am so troubled with neurology in my head that I can hardly live. I do' know what there is for dinner. I told the boys they must pick up a lunch somehow or other, for I couldn't go near a stove; the heat of it would kill me. We will get along somehow, though," she added, more cheerfully, suddenly mindful of the man from the farm, and anxious that he should not carry back anything but a good report of her father's reception. "I declare, it does me good to see you;" and she came forward, and gave her guest, unwelcome as he had been the moment before, a most affectionate kiss. For all that, when Washington Tufts had driven away down the street, to do some errands at the stores for Sereny before he went home, Mr. Jenkins watched him sadly from the door, and felt as if he had burnt his ships behind him.
But his daughter was very cheerful all that day, and it seemed to him in the evening as if he had done the right thing. He would not look upon it as a permanent change, by any means; but what could be more likely than that, not being quite fit for work, he should come to pay a visit to his younger daughter? He imagined that everybody would wonder at his being there, and apologized for it elaborately to every one who came in. He received a good deal of attention for a time, being well known in his county and much respected; and he had long talks with Mrs. Bryan, who dearly liked conversation, and together they recalled people and events of years before, and the housewifely virtues of Mrs. Jenkins, who had been a busy and helpful soul, of better sense and deeper affections than either of her daughters. The farmer was fond of saying "in your mother's day," when he spoke to his children; indeed, the later years of his life had been a sad contrast to the earlier, though he had not felt the change and loss half so keenly until the last few months, when he could no longer spend an almost untired strength and energy in the ceaseless round and routine of his work. Serena Nudd was not over-fond of hearing her mother's day referred to, and resented the implied superiority to her own; but during the first of the visit Mary Lyddy and her father talked about the good woman to their hearts' content, and Mr. Jenkins said that it seemed more homelike than the old place itself ever did nowadays. Serena's child was not a pleasant boy, and he tired and fretted his grandfather in a miserable way. The young Bryans kept their wrong-doings and laziness pretty well out of the old man's sight, and their mother forbore to harangue and scold them in his hearing.
The novelty and mild excitement of the visit appeared to act like a tonic upon Mrs. Bryan for a time, but at length her nature began to assert itself, and her guest at the same time began to be restless and uneasy in his new quarters. He made short excursions about the town, and read the newspaper with unusual care; but he was not used to seeing a daily paper, and it was more reading than he really liked to undertake. One of the neighbors sent it to him every day, with great kindness; but though he was in many ways well treated, it seemed to him more and more that he could not bear any longer to be away from home. He could not help thinking and worrying about the farm work; he did not trust Aaron Nudd's judgment about the management of things, and he watched the street every day anxiously, in hope of seeing Serena approach in quest of him. He even lamented his impatience, and took her part against himself. But as the days went by, and she did not appear, his heart failed him; for he had not thought they would have found it so easy to get on without him. Shut up in the hot and noisy little village, and seeing every day so many people whom he did not know, he longed for the farm-house where he had spent all his life, and he was homesick for the wide outlook over the fields and woodlands, and felt strangely lost and alone and old.
Mary Lyddy became querulous and tiresome; it would have made a difference to her if she had had hopes of gain, and her father did not take long to discover that he was a burden to her as well as to Serena. Mrs. Bryan had handed him the bill for town taxes, and he had looked at her with a grieved surprise. "I haven't got the money to pay it, if that's what you mean," he said at length. "I'm kept on short commons, I tell you. Serena was dreadful put out, one day, because the dealer that takes the butter called and paid his month's account, and I wanted part of it to pay the minister; she said Aaron had seen to his and mine together, and went grumping round the kitchen the rest o' the morning. I told her 't was the first week since I was out o' my time that I had been without a dollar in my pocket. Aaron cut considerable of a piece o' pine growth this last winter, but I never could find out what become of the money. One time he hadn't got settled up, and the next time he began to squeal about its taking every cent he could rake and scrape to keep the farm above water. He flung at me about my doctor's bills once or twice; miser'ble farmer he is, any way. I have got a little money they don't know about in the North Bank, and I'll get you some of it quick 's I get a chance to send, but I've nobody but Aaron, and I never want to say nothing to him about it. I thought I might get into a straiter place than any I've been in, and I've been holding on to it. 'T ain't much, but it'll do to bury me, if they can't find the means."
"There, don't, father! You make my blood run cold," said Mary Lyddy, fretfully. "I'm sure you can't doubt but what we shall do what's proper for you, dead or alive. I felt 't was a mistake all the time that you shouldn't ha' kept things in your own hands; but Sereny talked all of us over at the time, and -- well, you should have thought more about it before you did it, that's all I've got to say. I shall have to get rid of this place, 'less the boys get to earning something pretty soon, for it's more 'n I can afford to keep. I'm worse off than before I owned it, having nobody to help along. Everything would have gone well if poor Henry had only lived;" and she began to cry as if she meant to give a good deal of time to tears, and her father took his hat and walked drearily away. It was his best hat, and he often wished for the old one, which he had left hanging on its nail at the farmhouse.
He hoped that he might see somebody from home, and looked at the wagons and teams as they passed him; until presently somebody hailed him with a cheerful "Well, uncle, you've been and given haying the slip this year." When the old man turned, he found with delight that it was Ezra Allen, and declared that he was glad to see him. It seemed as if he hadn't seen any of the folks for a month; it had been the longest week he had ever spent in his life. "Get in, won't ye?" said the nephew, affectionately. "Why can't ye ride over to Jack Townsend's with me? I want to see him about doing a lot of ironing for my running work. I've got three or four wagons where I can't go no further with them; and Estes is sick, and won't be able to work at blacksmithing for some weeks. I want to take hold of these things right away. I'm about through with what little haying I do. Been a good hay year so far, hasn't it?"
"I don't know much about it," sorrowfully confessed the old farmer, climbing slowly into the wagon.
"Seems to me you are as quick as an eel to what you was a month ago," said Ezra. "You look about as well as ever you did; good for ten years yet, uncle Jerry," and he started the horse at a good pace. There never was a more contented pair of relatives: the younger man had wished for just this chance to hear the particulars of the visit, and the elder one was only too glad to fall in with a sympathetic companion, who had always been kind to him, and who seemed now to have belonged to his better days.
"How d'ye like it over here?" inquired Ezra, turning round with a beaming smile to take a good look at his uncle.
"Well, fairly," answered Mr. Jenkins, without enthusiasm. "But old folks is better off at home, seems to me. Mary Lyddy does the best she knows how; but the girls don't neither of 'em take after their mother, somehow or 'nother; I don't know why it is. Sereny kept me feeling like a toad under a harrow, and seems as if I was in the way, and sort of under-foot to both houses. I done just as they wanted me 'long in the winter, and give the reins into their own hands; but they don't like me none the better for it, nor so well, far 's I can see, and I don't know what to do. I hadn't been accustomed to sickness, and when I was so afflicted in the cold weather, and got down so low, I thought I'd got about through with things. You know I'd been ailing and doctoring some months before I had the worst spell come on. They never treated me so clever as they did the time when I was give over, and old Dr. Banks said there wa'n't no help for me. But I've come up considerable, more 'n ever I expected, and I've had times of feeling just like myself, of late; and I see how the land lays, and between you and me, Ezry, I wish it was different. I've had my day, though, and I don't want to stand in the way of nobody else's chance."
"Where's Parker? Do you get any news from him?" asked Ezra, giving the horse a flick with his whip, putting it quickly in its socket, and taking a firm hold of the reins. He knew that his uncle was fond of a good horse, and he was very proud of this new one, and wished it to be noticed and praised.
"Don't hurry the beast," said the old man; "we've got time enough, and it kind of jars me, to what it used, to ride fast. When I'm after a likely creatur', such as this, that can show a good pace, I'm satisfied. As for Parker, I ain't heard from him for hard on to eight months. He wasn't prompt about writing, and I've been wanting the girls to set to work and find out about him. Serena goes into a dreadful frame o' mind if I much as mention his name, and Mary Lyddy's always going to do it the next day. My eyesight's failed dreadfully; it's better 'n it was, but none too good. I did scratch a few lines twice or three times, and send them to the last place I knew him to be in, and I directed once to the postmaster; but he has made no answer yet, so I keep a-hopin'. Parker had his faults, and perhaps I indulged him more than was good for him, but he was more like his mother 'n any of 'em. He and Sereny never got along. I don't s'pose she means it, but she's got a dreadful nagging way. I did let him have a good deal o' money, and I don't know but it was foolish. Parker's got a quick temper, same 's his mother had, but it ain't Sereny's kind. She gnaws and picks all day long about a thing she don't like; but Parker'll knock ye down with one hand, and pick ye right up again with the other. They're always warnin' me that he was onsteady, and a disgrace to his folks; but I have known many a man that has had his fling, and settled down and been useful afterwards. Parker's got good natural ability, and I guess he'll make his way yet if he gets the right chance."
"I never could bear Aaron Nudd, if I must say it," growled Ezra. "He was distressin' himself the other day into Henry Wallis's about being afraid all the time Parker might turn up, -- poor, wandering vagabone, he called him. I'd knocked him down, if I'd heard him. I mean to see if I can't find where Parker is. There ain't a cousin I've got that I ever set so much by, spite of his leanin' in wrong directions. We've always been chums, spite of his being so much younger, -- you know it, don't ye, uncle Jerry? And I've always stood up for him; I'm going to see if he can't have his rights if you did sign that paper."
The old man's voice faltered as he tried to speak. "I do' know where I could ask him to, if I did send for him to come home now," he said. "If I know anything about a hoss, this one is the best you ever drove, Ezry. Where did you pick her up? Not round here, I'll make a guess," and the conversation steered bravely out into this most congenial subject to both travelers.
At ten o'clock that very morning Susan Allen, Ezra's wife, was bending over her ironing-board and bumping away with her flat-iron, when somebody suddenly came outside the window, and laid his arms on the sill and looked in. At first he seemed to be a stranger, and Susan was chilled from head to foot with fear; but she stared and stared again at the smiling face before she spoke, and finally she clapped her hands, and said, "I'll give up if it ain't, -- Parker Jenkins! I want to know if that's you?" and this question of his identity having been decided, the young man strolled round to the door, and came in as if he had never been away.
"How's all the folks?" he asked. "Where's Ezra? I looked in at the shop first, but there was nobody there."
"We didn't know but you was dead," said Susan, who was much excited. "Your father has been dreadful distressed about you. I do think you ought to have wrote him, Parker. But you can make up with him easy enough; he'll be glad enough to see you."
The visitor had looked very solemn as he listened to the first mention of his father's name, but his expression quickly changed to a look of wild astonishment. "Do you mean to tell me father isn't dead?" he said, rising to his feet.
"Dead, no!" answered Susan. "He had a long spell of sickness, beginning in the fall of the year, and we all supposed he was breaking up; and along in the first of the winter he had a very bad time, when we give him up for certain, and there was two days and a night when they thought he might be taken away any minute; but he pulled through"-
Parker had seated himself again, and did not seem to be listening to this account. He had put his head on his arm down upon the ironing-board, and was crying like a child. Susan felt as if this were a somewhat theatrical performance, and a little unnecessary. She was vaguely reminded of his being addicted to drink, and of the story of the Prodigal Son; and then she noticed how broad his shoulders had grown, and that his coat was made of a beautiful piece of cloth, and that he was quite citified in his appearance.
"Don't take on so," she begged him nervously, after a few minutes, for it made her very ill at ease.
And the unexpected guest lifted his head presently and wiped his eyes with a handsome, bright-colored silk handkerchief. "I never had anything come over me so in my life," he said, beginning to laugh in the midst of his tears. "I must go right up to the house and see him. Serena wrote me along in the winter that they'd give him up, and he wouldn't be alive when I got the letter. They didn't expect him to get through the afternoon. I never heard any more from her, and I've mourned him as dead. I wrote on to Ezra to tell me the particulars; for after finding Serena didn't write again, I got mad with her, and then I got mad with Ezra because he didn't write, and I thought you were all banded together to kick me over."
"He never got the letter," said Susan. "I hope to die if he ever did, Parker. The last letter that ever came inside this house from you was one Ezra got, saying you were going out into the mining country. You know you ain't much of a hand to write, nor Ezra neither; but of course he would have answered such a letter as that, and told you your father was living. I don't know but he'll see him this morning. The old gentleman went over to stop with Mary Lyddy for a while."
Parker had been standing by the door for the last few minutes, as if he were impatient to be off; but he came back wonderingly into the room again, and Susan, after prefacing her remarks with "Well, I may 's well tell you first as last," embarked upon a minute explanation of the state of affairs.
The young man seemed at last to be able to listen to no more. He threw off his coat, and sat by the window in his shirt sleeves, and when he had kept quiet as long as was possible he indulged in some very strong language, and expressed feelings toward his sister Serena and Aaron Nudd that would have startled them a good deal if they had been within hearing. He was outraged at their conniving to get all the property into their own hands in his absence, and at first he threatened them with such terrors of the law that Susan began to shake in her shoes, and became as afraid of his anger as if she had been only a mole burrowing in the mountain side, which had started an avalanche downward on its path of destruction. It was a solemn scene when Parker Jenkins met his sister, early in the afternoon; but by that time Susan had become so used to excitements of this kind -- her own explanations and the accompanying comments having been repeated after Ezra's return -- that she had a feeling of envy when she saw her husband and his cousin marching away toward the farmhouse. "I don't know now what it was fetched me here," Parker was saying. "I made up my mind forty times that I never would set foot inside town limits again; but I wanted to be sure everything was right and proper in the burying lot, and it seemed as if you would set some things straight that I couldn't understand, any way I looked at 'em, and I wanted to let folks see I hadn't quite run to seed."
Serena's face was a picture of defenseless misery when she first caught sight of her brother. She had had a long, hard morning's work already, and she felt guilty and on the losing side. Parker had passed through his unreasoning storm of rage, and had sailed into smoother but very deep waters of contempt. He said very little beyond remarking that, not having heard anything after her last letter, he had supposed that his father was dead. He announced in the course of conversation that he had done well, on the whole, and that he did not think he should return to Colorado at present.
Serena was pale and crimson by turns, and tried her best to be affectionate and conciliatory. She ventured at last to speak of her father, and to say that somebody should go over to the Mills and bring him home that very afternoon. "We'll have supper late, and he'll be here by that time. You'll find him a good deal changed, but it's nothing to what he was in the winter," she said, fearfully.
Parker fixed his eyes on her, and presently gave a contemptuous little laugh. Ezra's excitement reached its topmost pitch.
"Serena!" said the returned wanderer, "I should think you'd be ashamed to come near decent folks. I've no right to boast, and I've been a confounded fool, I'll own, but I never set to work to cheat folks, or to sneak, or to lose folks' respect, so that I could have one more dirty dollar tucked away in the bank. As far as I can find out, you have cheated me and Mary Lyddy out of our rights, and you have treated your poor old father anything but Christian. As for Aaron Nudd, I won't have anything to say to such cattle. The writings you got from father won't stand one minute in the eye of the law, but your false pretenses and your tricks, will, and if either of you make any trouble I'll just fix you so you'll wish you'd held your peace. I may have shown signs of being a scapegrace, and being gone hook and sinker; but I'm older than I was when I went off, and though I don't make no boasts, as I say, I don't mean my folks shall ever be ashamed of me. I'm going over myself to fetch father home, and afterward I'm going to stay here, and you can do as you see fit."
It was only three or four days after this that, late on a Sunday afternoon, Parker and Ezra Allen stood on the little bridge over the brook. Parker was fashionably dressed. He had attracted a good deal more attention than the minister, that day, for he had accompanied his father to church, and had received congratulations on his return from all his acquaintances. Old Mr. Jenkins was so happy that he smiled continually, and glanced round proudly at his son when he should have been listening to the sermon. It seemed to him a greater proof of the providence of God than had ever before been vouchsafed him, and he appeared to have taken, as everybody said, a new lease of life.
"Done well, out there among the mines, you said?" inquired Ezra, somewhat indifferently, though he was eager to ask a few questions before any other neighbor should join them.
"First rate," responded Parker; "though I haven't made the fortunes some do. Trouble is, you either lose all you've got, or else you have luck, and then get picked off with a bullet from behind a bush. We struck a good vein in a claim I had shares in, and some fellows were out there from New York wanting to buy a good mining property, and -- well, I'll tell you all about it some day; but the end of it was, I sold out to them for twenty-five thousand dollars. I think they chuckled over it lively, and thought they'd made an awful good thing out of me; but I said to myself that a bird in the hand's worth two in the bush. You see they hadn't been taking out much of any ore each side of us. I had some thoughts of going into business with a fellow I know in New York. We come on East together; but I don't know what I shall do. It seems pleasant at the old place, and father he holds onto me. I don't take much to farming, but I've thought a good many times what a chance there is to raise cranberries up here in the swamp. I've got forty notions. I'll wait a while before I settle down anywhere. I can afford to."
"Aaron Nudd told Asa Parsons yesterday that he guessed he should go over to Harlow's Mills quick 's the crops were in, and take a place in the boxing room at the shoe factory they've been urging him to fill," said Ezra, with a wise smile.
"I'd just as soon he would, for my part," said Parker. "They're both soft-spoken and meaching as any two you ever saw, and Sereny makes excuses about things from morning to night, worse than poor Mary Lyddy ever thought of. I don' know, but I never did seem to have a right sort o' feelin' for the girls. But it pleases me to death to see how satisfied the old gentleman is. It kind of makes me feel bad, Ezra. I guess I shall steady down for good; but I've seen something of hard times and raking round, for a fellow of my age. I ain't one to talk religious, but I'm going to look after father; he does set everything by me, don't he? And a more homesick man I never saw, than he was sitting in the front door over there to Mary Lyddy's. He's got quite a notion, since I spoke of it, of setting out a lot of cranberries. I pointed out to him how well the land lay for it, and the springs watered it just right. I've seen a good deal of 'em down towards the Cape. I was there some time, you know, when I first cleared out from home. But there, I'm a roving fellow by nature. I sha'n't make any plans yet a while."
"There was an awful sight of water come down out of the swamp this last spring," said Ezra, turning to look at the brook. "I've always heard cranberries was an uncertain crop, and don't you go throwing away your means till you know what you're about. But you stick to the old gentleman, Parker; if ever I pitied a man in my life, it was him, this summer."
It was soon observed how Mr. Jerry Jenkins had improved in health and spirits since his son's return. He resumed his place in society, and entered upon such duties as fell to his share with pleased alacrity. He was complimented on his recovery, and though some grumbling people, who always chose to be on the off side, spoke with pity of the Nudds, and expressed a sympathy for Aaron's having undertaken the farm only to be ousted, other people thought of them with scorn. However, worldly prosperity is one of the surest titles to respect, and after it was known that Aaron had bought an interest in one of the shoe-manufacturing companies at Harlow's Mills he was looked up to as much as he deserved, at any rate, and possibly more. Some people who knew him held him up as an example of its being worth while to save and be thrifty; but Ezra Allen and others of his way of thinking could not use hard enough language to suit themselves, whenever his name was mentioned. Serena was much more popular in the village than her sister. She dressed conspicuously, as she thought became her station, and she took an active part in church matters, being very efficient in the sewing society and the social relations of the parish. She assented emphatically to all the doctrines, and insisted upon the respectability of the Christian virtues; but it must be owned that she practiced very few of them which related to the well-being and comfort of other people. She and Aaron and their boy drove out to the farm occasionally, in a shiny top-buggy, to see her father, and such visits were outwardly successful and harmonious.
At the farm itself life went on smoothly. Mr. Jenkins had been troubled at first with many fears, when he found that Serena was really going to depart early in the fall, after her brother's return, and he could not forbear some expressions of wonder at her sudden change of feeling in regard to farming. She constantly said that she had never liked it, that it was a dog's life for any woman to do the housework on a large farm; and her father only replied that her tune had changed a good deal within a year. He took a long breath as he saw her go away in a heavily laden wagon, which preceded the team in which her household goods were being moved to the Mills. She had waited until the last minute, as if she feared that some treasures might be abstracted from the load. "She's about stripped the house," said Mr. Jenkins, with a chuckle, as he came back into the kitchen; "but we'll get along somehow, Parker. I've done the best I could by her, I know that!"
Parker chuckled in his turn. "She's an awful grabber," said he. "I'm hanged if I didn't catch her down cellar this morning fishing into the pork barrel; she didn't hear me coming, and she was started, and let a piece drop, and it sent the brine all up into her face and eyes."
"It can't be possible that new barrel is so low as that a'ready," said the old man. "I guess she had made a good haul before you come. Well, I'm glad, I'm sure. I shouldn't want any child o' mine to be without pork. And there was times Sereny was right down clever and pleasant spoken. I don't blame her for wanting to be where there is more going forrard, if she takes a notion to it."
As for Parker Jenkins, he settled down on the old farm, as many another New Englishman has done, after two or three voyages at sea, or long journeys in quest of wealth to California or Texas or the Western country. He looked upon himself as being much more a man of the world than his neighbors, and his consideration for his old father was most delightful. The housekeeping went on well enough under the auspices of a cousin, a good, sensible woman, who was set adrift just in good time for these two unprotected men by the death of her own father, who had been for some years dependent on her care. It was soon known, however, that the chief reason of young Jenkins's contentment with so quiet a life was his attraction toward a pretty daughter of his neighbor, Asa Parsons, who was only too ready to smile upon so pleasant and good-looking a person, while her father and mother were mindful of his wealth.
So we leave the old farmer, no longer feeling cast off and desolate, to live out the rest of his days. He forgot even the worst of his sorrows in that unhappy winter and summer. It seemed as if most of them had been fanciful and connected with his illness. Serena was apt to be reminded oftener and oftener, as he grew older, of how impossible he found it to get on comfortably without his old secretary, and she came to regret deeply that her love for gain had allowed her to part with it, when the craze for old furniture reached Harlow's Mills in its most unreasoning form, and a piece of furniture that could be called centennial was a credit to its owner.
The old man often said that his illness had broken him down; and that he had never been the same man since. Those of his neighbors who had known his sorrows, and the pain which had been harder to bear than the long sickness itself, were glad that this blessed Indian summer had come to him to warm him through and through, and smile upon him in the late autumn of his life's year.
Heaven only knows the story of the lives that the gray old New England farmhouses have sheltered and hidden away from curious eyes as best they might. Stranger dramas than have ever been written belong to the dull-looking, quiet homes, that have seen generation after generation live and die. On the well-worn boards of these provincial theatres the great plays of life, the comedies and tragedies, with their lovers and conspirators and clowns; their Juliets and Ophelias, Shylocks and King Lears, are acted over and over and over again.
"The Landless Farmer" first appeared in Atlantic Monthly (51:627-637, 759-769), May and June, 1883 and was collected in The Mate of the Daylight (1883), from which this text comes. If you see items needing correction or annotation, please contact the site manager.
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meachin' round: (usually "meeching"). Meek, self-effacing. According to biographer Paula Blanchard, this term had a range of negative connotations. See her Chapter 18.
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brack: a break at a weak spot, in this case, where threads are weak.
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spoke-shave: a drawing knife or small transverse plane with end handles for planing convex or concave surfaces, used for shaping the spokes of wagon wheels. (Research: Allison Anderson)
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Watts' and Select Hymns: Almost certainly this is, The Psalms, Hymns, & Spiritual Songs, of the Rev. Isaac Watts, D.d. to Which Are Added, Select Hymns from Other Authors; and Directions for Musical Expression, by Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and Samuel Worcester (1770-1821).
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New England Lear: In reference to William Shakespeare's tragedy, King Lear, that deals in part with a dispute over land between a father and his daughters.
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notional: whimsical or fanciful.
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bat-handles: Probably this refers to the shapes of the metal handles, the part that fastens to the chest being shaped like one or a pair of bat wings. Further information is welcome.
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the Charter Oak at Hartford ... a bit of California gold: The Charter Oak in Hartford, Connecticut was a large oak tree that was the traditional hiding place of the colonial charter of the New England colonies. The charter was hidden in the tree when Sir Edmund Andros, governor general of the New England colonies, came to take collect it, after King James II of England decided to withdraw it in 1687. The tree was blown down in August 1856. The California "gold rush" began with the discovery of gold in 1849. (Research: Allison Anderson)
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the way of the world: This is the title of a well-known play (1700) by the English dramatist, William Congreve (1670-1729).
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plantain ... burdocks: Though an herbalist might see value in these common plants, to a farmer they are weeds.
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neurology in my head: neuralgia is nerve pain, usually acute.
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out o' my time: having completed an apprenticeship.
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a lot of ironing for my running work: Running work probably refers to running gear, the parts of a wagon that are distinguished from the body, e.g., the frame, axles, wheels, and moving mechanical parts. Many of these parts are made of iron or require iron work.
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the Prodigal Son: See Luke 15 for the parable of the prodigal son.
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bird in the hand's worth two in the bush: The proverb is found in Cervantes's Don Quixote Part 1 (1605), Book IV, Chapter 4.
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down towards the Cape: probably Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
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Juliets ... Ophelias ... Shylocks ... King Lears: Tragic or dark character in plays by William Shakespeare. Juliet appears in Romeo and Juliet, Ophelia in Hamlet, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, and King Lear in King Lear.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College
If you find errors or items needing annotation, please contact the site manager.
Mate of the Daylight Contents
Atlantic Monthly Text