Main Contents
A Native of Winby

MISS ESTHER'S GUEST.

Sarah Orne Jewett

I.

     Old Miss Porley put on her silk shawl, and arranged it carefully over her thin shoulders, and pinned it with a hand that shook a little as if she were much excited. She bent forward to examine the shawl in the mahogany-framed mirror, for there was a frayed and tender spot in the silk where she had pinned it so many years. The shawl was very old; it had been her mother's, and she disliked to wear it too often, but she never could make up her mind to go out into the street in summer, as some of her neighbors did, with nothing over her shoulders at all. Next she put on her bonnet and tried to set it straight, allowing for a wave in the looking-glass that made one side of her face appear much longer than the other; then she drew on a pair of well-darned silk gloves; one had a wide crack all the way up the back of the hand, but they were still neat and decent for every-day wear, if she were careful to keep her left hand under the edge of the shawl. She had discussed the propriety of drawing the raveled silk together, but a thick seam would look very ugly, and there was something accidental about the crack.

     Then, after hesitating a few moments, she took a small piece of folded white letter-paper from the table and went out of the house, locking the door and trying it, and stepped away bravely down the village street. Everybody said, "How do you do, Miss Porley?" or "Good-mornin', Esther." Every one in Daleham knew the good woman; she was one of the unchanging persons, always to be found in her place, and always pleased and friendly and ready to take an interest in old and young. She and her mother, who had early been left a widow, had been for many years the village tailoresses and makers of little boys' clothes. Mrs. Porley had been dead three years, however, and her daughter "Easter," as old friends called our heroine, had lived quite alone. She was made very sorrowful by her loneliness, but she never could be persuaded to take anybody to board: she could not bear to think of any one's taking her mother's place.

     It was a warm summer morning, and Miss Porley had not very far to walk, but she was still more shaky and excited by the time she reached the First Church parsonage. She stood at the gate undecidedly, and, after she pushed it open a little way, she drew back again, and felt a curious beating at her heart and a general reluctance of mind and body. At that moment the minister's wife, a pleasant young woman with a smiling, eager face, looked out of the window and asked the tremulous visitor to come in. Miss Esther straightened herself and went briskly up the walk; she was very fond of the minister's wife, who had only been in Daleham a few months.

     "Won't you take off your shawl?" asked Mrs. Wayton affectionately; "I have just been making gingerbread, and you shall have a piece as soon as it cools."

     "I don't know 's I ought to stop," answered Miss Esther, flushing quickly. "I came on business; I won't keep you long."

     "Oh, please stay a little while," urged the hostess. "I'll take my sewing, if you don't mind; there are two or three things that I want to ask you about."

     "I've thought and flustered a sight over taking this step," said good old Esther abruptly. "I had to conquer a sight o' reluctance, I must say. I've got so used to livin' by myself that I sha'n't know how to consider another. But I see I ain't got common feelin' for others unless I can set my own comfort aside once in a while. I've brought you my name as one of those that will take one o' them city folks that needs a spell o' change. It come straight home to me how I should be feeling it by this time, if my lot had been cast in one o' them city garrets that the minister described so affecting. If 't hadn't been for kind consideration somewheres, mother an' me might have sewed all them pleasant years away in the city that we enjoyed so in our own home, and our garding to step right out into when our sides set in to ache. And I ain't rich, but we was able to save a little something, and now I'm eatin' of it all up alone. It come to me I should like to have somebody take a taste out o' mother's part. Now, don't you let 'em send me no rampin' boys like them Barnard's folks had come last year, that vexed dumb creatur's so; and I don't know how to cope with no kind o' men-folks or strange girls, but I should know how to do for a woman that's getting well along in years, an' has come to feel kind o' spent. P'raps we ain't no right to pick an' choose, but I should know best how to make that sort comfortable on 'count of doin' for mother and studying what she preferred."

     Miss Esther rose with quaint formality and put the folded paper, on which she had neatly written her name and address, into Mrs. Wayton's hand. Mrs. Wayton rose soberly to receive it, and then they both sat down again.

     "I'm sure that you will feel more than repaid for your kindness, dear Miss Esther," said the minister's wife. "I know one of the ladies who have charge of the arrangements for the Country Week, and I will explain as well as I can the kind of guest you have in mind. I quite envy her; I have often thought, when I was busy and tired, how much I should like to run along the street and make you a visit in your dear old-fashioned little house."

     "I should be more than pleased to have you, I'm sure," said Miss Esther, startled into a bright smile and forgetting her anxiety. "Come any day, and take me just as I am. We used to have a good deal o' company years ago, when there was a number o' mother's folks still livin' over Ashfield way. Sure as we had a pile o' work on hand and was hurrying for dear life an' limb, a wagonload would light down at the front gate to spend the day an' have an early tea. Mother never was one to get flustered same 's I do 'bout everything. She was a lovely cook, and she'd fill 'em up an' cheer 'em, and git 'em off early as she could, an' then we'd be kind o' waked up an' spirited ourselves, and would set up late sewin' and talkin' the company over, an' I'd have things saved to tell her that had been said while she was out o' the room. I make such a towse over everything myself, but mother was waked right up and felt pleased an' smart, if anything unexpected happened. I miss her more every year," and Miss Esther gave a great sigh. "I s'pose 't wa'n't reasonable to expect that I could have her to help me through with old age, but I'm a poor tool, alone."

     "Oh, no, you mustn't say that!" exclaimed the minister's wife. "Why, nobody could get along without you. I wish I had come to Daleham in time to know your mother too."

     Miss Esther shook her head sadly. "She would have set everything by you and Mr. Wayton. Now I must be getting back in case I'm wanted, but you let 'em send me somebody right away, while my bush beans is so nice. An' if any o' your little boy's clothes wants repairin', just give 'em to me; 't will be a real pleasant thing to set a few stitches. Or the minister's; ain't there something needed for him?"

     Mrs. Wayton was about to say no, when she became conscious of the pleading old face before her. "I'm sure you are most kind, dear friend," she answered, "and I do have a great deal to do. I'll bring you two or three things to-night that are beyond my art, as I go to evening meeting. Mr. Wayton frayed out his best coat sleeve yesterday, and I was disheartened, for we had counted upon his not having a new one before the fall."

     "'T would be mere play to me," said Miss Esther, and presently she went smiling down the street.

II.

     The Committee for the Country Week in a certain ward of Boston were considering the long list of children, and mothers with babies, and sewing-women, who were looking forward, some of them for the first time in many years, to a country holiday. Some were to go as guests to hospitable, generous farmhouses that opened their doors willingly now and then to tired city people; for some persons board could be paid.

     The immediate arrangements of that time were settled at last, except that Mrs. Belton, the chairman, suddenly took a letter from her pocket. "I had almost forgotten this," she said; "it is another place offered in dear quiet old Daleham. My friend, the minister's wife there, writes me a word about it: 'The applicant desires especially an old person, being used to the care of an aged parent and sure of her power of making such a one comfortable, and she would like to have her guest come as soon as possible.' My friend asks me to choose a person of some refinement, -- 'one who would appreciate the delicate simplicity and quaint ways of the hostess.'"

     Mrs. Belton glanced hurriedly down the page. "I believe that's all," she said. "How about that nice old sewing-woman, Mrs. Connolly, in Bantry Street?"

     "Oh, no!" some one entreated, looking up from her writing. "Why isn't it just the place for my old Mr. Rill, the dear old Englishman who lives alone up four flights in TownCourt and has the bullfinch. He used to engrave seals, and his eyes gave out, and he is so thrifty with his own bit of savings and an atom of a pension. Some one pays his expenses to the country, and this sounds like a place he would be sure to like. I've been watching for the right chance."

     "Take it, then," said the busy chairman, and there was a little more writing and talking, and then the committee meeting was over which settled Miss Esther Porley's fate.

III.

     The journey to Daleham was a great experience to Mr. Rill. He was a sensible old person, who knew well that he was getting stiffer and clumsier than need be in his garret, and that, as certain friends had said, a short time spent in the country would cheer and invigorate him. There had been occasional propositions that he should leave his garret altogether and go to the country to live, or at least to the suburbs of the city. He could not see things close at hand so well as he could take a wide outlook, and as his outlook from the one garret window was a still higher brick wall and many chimneys, he was losing a great deal that he might have had. But so long as he was expected to take an interest in the unseen and unknown he failed to accede to any plans about the country home, and declared that he was well enough in his high abode. He had lost a sister a few years before who had been his mainstay, but with his hands so well used to delicate work he had been less bungling in his simple household affairs than many another man might have been. But he was very lonely and was growing anxious; as he was rattled along in the train toward Daleham he held the chirping bullfinch's cage fast with both hands, and said to himself now and then, "This may lead to something; the country air smells very good to me."

     The Daleham station was not very far out of the village, so that Miss Esther Porley put on her silk shawl and bonnet and everyday gloves just before four o'clock that afternoon, and went to meet her Country Week guest. Word had come the day before that the person for Miss Porley's would start two days in advance of the little company of children and helpless women, and since this message had come from the parsonage Miss Esther had worked diligently, late and early, to have her house in proper order. Whatever her mother had liked was thought of and provided. There were going to be rye short-cakes for tea, and there were some sprigs of thyme and sweet-balm in an old-fashioned wine-glass on the keeping-room table; mother always said they were so freshening. And Miss Esther had taken out a little shoulder-shawl and folded it over the arm of the rocking-chair by the window that looked out into the small garden where the London~pride was in full bloom, and the morning-glories had just begun to climb. Miss Esther was sixty-four herself, but still looked upon age as well in the distance.

     She was always a prompt person, and had some minutes to wait at the station; then the time passed and the train was late. At last she saw the smoke far in the distance, and her heart began to sink. Perhaps she would not find it easy to get on with the old lady, and -- well it was only for a week, and she had thought it right and best to take such a step, and now it would soon be over.

     The train stopped, and there was no old lady at all.

     Miss Esther had stood far back to get away from the smoke and roar, -- she was always as afraid of the cars as she could be, -- but as they moved away she took a few steps forward to scan the platform. There was no black bonnet with a worn lace veil, and no old lady with a burden of bundles; there were only the station master and two or three men, and an idle boy or two, and one clean-faced, bent old man with a bird-cage in one hand and an old carpet-bag in the other. She thought of the rye short-cakes for supper and all that she had done to make her small home pleasant, and her fire of excitement suddenly fell into ashes.

     The old man with the bird-cage suddenly turned toward her. "Can you direct me to Miss Esther Porley's?" said he.

     "I can," replied Miss Esther, looking at him with curiosity.

     "I was directed to her house," said the pleasant old fellow, "by Mrs. Belton, of the Country Week Committee. My eyesight is poor. I should be glad if anybody would help me to find the place."

     "You step this way with me, sir," said Miss Esther. She was afraid that the men on the platform heard every word they said, but nobody took particular notice, and off they walked down the road together. Miss Esther was enraged with the Country Week Committee.

     "You were sent to -- Miss Porley's?" she asked grimly, turning to look at him.

"I was, indeed," said Mr. Rill.

     "I am Miss Porley, and I expected an old lady," she managed to say, and they both stopped and looked at each other with apprehension.

     "I do declare!" faltered the old seal-cutter anxiously. "What had I better do, ma'am? They most certain give me your name. May be you could recommend me somewheres else, an' I can get home to-morrow if 't ain't convenient."

     They were standing under a willow-tree in the shade; Mr. Rill took off his heavy hat, -- it was a silk hat of by-gone shape; a golden robin began to sing, high in the willow, and the old bullfinch twittered and chirped in the cage. Miss Esther heard some footsteps coming behind them along the road. She changed color; she tried to remember that she was a woman of mature years and considerable experience.

     "'T ain't a mite o' matter, sir," she said cheerfully. "I guess you'll find everything comfortable for you;" and they turned, much relieved, and walked along together.

     "That's Lawyer Barstow's house," she said calmly, a minute afterward, "the handsomest place in town, we think 't is," and Mr. Rill answered politely that Daleham was a pretty place; he had not been out of the city for so many years that everything looked beautiful as a picture.

IV.

     Miss Porley rapidly recovered her composure, and bent her energies to the preparing of an early tea. She showed her guest to the snug bedroom under the low gambrel roof, and when she apologized for his having to go upstairs, he begged her to remember that it was nothing but a step to a man who was used to four long flights They were both excised at finding a proper nail for the bird-cage outside the window, though Miss Esther said that she should love to have the pretty bird downstairs where they could see it and hear it sing. She said to herself over and over that if she could have her long-lost brother come home from sea, she should like to have him look and behave as gentle and kind as Mr. Rill. Somehow she found herself singing a cheerful hymn as she mixed and stirred the short-cakes. She could not help wishing that her mother were there to enjoy this surprise, but it did seem very odd, after so many years, to have a man in the house. It had not happened for fifteen years, at least, when they had entertained Deacon Sparks and wife, delegates from the neighboring town of East Wilby to the County Conference.

     The neighbors did not laugh at Miss Esther openly or cause her to blush with self-consciousness, however much they may have discussed the situation and smiled behind her back. She took the presence of ha guest with delighted simplicity, and the country week was extended to a fortnight, and then to a month. At last, one day Miss Esther and Mr. Rill were seen on their way to the railroad station, with a large bundle apiece beside the carpet-bag, though some one noticed that the bullfinch was left behind. Miss Esther came back alone, looking very woebegone and lonely, and if the truth must be known, she found her house too solitary. She looked into the woodhouse where there was a great store of kindlings, neatly piled, and her water-pail was filled to the brim, her garden-paths were clean of weeds and swept, and yet everywhere she looked it seemed more lonely than ever. She pinned on her shawl again and went along the street to the parsonage.

     "My old lady's just gone," she said to the minister's wife. "I was so lonesome I could not stay in the house."

     "You found him a very pleasant visitor, didn't you, Miss Esther?" asked Mrs. Wayton, laughing a little.

     "I did so; he wa'n't like other men, -- kind and friendly and fatherly, and never stayed round when I was occupied, but entertained himself down street considerable, an' was as industrious as a bee, always asking me if there wasn't something he could do about house. He and a sister some years older used to keep house together, and it was her long sickness used up what they'd saved, and yet he's got a little somethin', and there are friends he used to work for, jewelers, a big firm, that gives him somethin' regular. He's goin' to see," -- and Miss Esther blushed crimson, -- "he's goin' to see if they'd be willin' to pay it just the same if he come to reside in Daleham. He thinks the air agrees with him here."

     "Does he indeed?" inquired the minister's wife, with deep interest and a look of amusement.

     "Yes 'm," said Miss Esther simply; "but don't you go an' say nothin' yet. I don't want folks to make a joke of it. Seems to me if he does feel to come back, and remains of the same mind he went away, we might be judicious to take the step" --

     "Why, Miss Esther!" exclaimed the listener.

     "Not till fall, -- not till fall," said Miss Esther hastily. "I ain't going to count on it too much anyway. I expect we could get along; there's considerable goodness left in me, and you can always work better when you've got somebody beside yourself to work for. There, now I've told you I feel as if I was blown away in a gale."

     "Why, I don't know what to say at such a piece of news!" exclaimed Mrs. Wayton again.

     "I don't know 's there's anything to say," gravely answered Miss Esther. "But I did laugh just now coming in the gate to think what a twitter I got into the day I fetched you that piece of paper."

     "Why, I must go right and tell Mr. Wayton!" said the minister's wife.

     "Oh, don't you, Mis' Wayton; no, no!" begged Miss Esther, looking quite coy and girlish. "I really don't know 's it's quite settled, -- it don't seem 's if it could be. I'm going to hear from him in the course of a week. But I suppose he thinks it's settled; he's left the bird."


Comment on "Miss Esther's Guest" from
Carroll Lewis Maxcy, Representative Narratives.  Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1914, p. 104,
an introduction to the story in this anthology.

 
MISS ESTHER'S GUEST
BY SARAH ORNE JEWETT

 The author of this narrative is well known as the writer of New England stories, in which she presents a sympathetic and realistic portrayal of the "characters" peculiar to that portion of the country. This selection is illustrative of local color and atmosphere, but the main interest is, after all, in Miss Esther herself, who is in perfect harmony with her environment. Indeed, the element of environment is an essential part of the characterization. Miss Porley's little conventionalities -- pathetic in considerable degree -- were the natural results of her straitened circumstances and of her Puritan upbringing. And, on the other hand, the universal respect that she enjoyed in Daleham and the general atmosphere of her cottage with its humble but immaculate "homelikeness," were of her own creation. The portrayal presents in typical form both the active and the passive phases of characterization.


NOTES

"Miss Esther's Guest" first appeared in Far & Near 1 (November 1890): 10-12 and was collected in A Native of Winby (1893). This text is from the 1893 edition of A Native of Winby. If you find errors in this text or items you believe should be annotated, please contact the site manager.
     [ Back ]

rampin': Probably in the sense of behaving destructively and perhaps also of eating greedily and noisily.
     [ Back ]

such a towse: The English Dialect Dictionary (Oxford University Press) suggests that a towse or touse, would be a disordered jumble or a mess. As a verb, the word means to dishevel and to pull about roughly, and to bustle, fuss, or work briskly. A towser is a hard-working woman.
     [ Back ]

bullfinch: "One of a genus of birds (Pyrrhula), allied to the Grosbeaks, having handsome plumage and a short, hard, rounded beak; well known for its aptness to be trained as a singing bird." (Source: Oxford English Dictionary).
     [ Back ]

sweet-balm: any sweet-smelling herb used for medicinal purposes, such as bergamot.
     [ Back ]

gambrel roof: a curved or hipped roof in the United States; so named because of the resemblance of its curve to the angle of a horse's hind leg, from which the term is derived. (Source: Oxford English Dictionary).
     [ Back ]

Deacon Sparks ... to the County Conference: A deacon is a leading church member designated to handle various affair of the church (Research, Allison Easton). A county conference is a meeting of representatives from local churches.
     [ Back ]

Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College
 
 
 


Main Contents
A Native of Winby