Strangers & Wayfarers
Widow Mercy Bascom came back alone into the empty kitchen and seated herself in her favorite splint-bottomed chair by the window, with a dreary look on her face.
Sarah Orne Jewett
"I s'pose I be an old woman, an' past goin' to cattle shows an' junketings, but folks needn't take it so for granted. I'm sure I don't want to be on my feet all day, trapesin' fair grounds an' swallowin' everybody's dust; not but what I'm as able as most, though I be seventy-three year old."
She folded her hands in her lap and looked out across the deserted yard. There was not even a hen in sight; she was left alone for the day. "Tobias's folks," as she called the son's family with whom she made her home -- Tobias's folks had just started for a day's pleasuring at the county fair, ten miles distant. She had not thought of going with them, nor expected any invitation; she had even helped them off with her famous energy; but there was an unexpected reluctance at being left behind, a sad little feeling that would rise suddenly in her throat as she stood in the door and saw them drive away in the shiny, two-seated wagon. Johnny, the youngest and favorite of her grandchildren, had shouted back in his piping voice, "I wish you was goin', Grandma."
"The only one on 'em that thought of me," said Mercy Bascom to herself, and then not being a meditative person by nature, she went to work industriously and proceeded to the repairing of Tobias's work-day coat. It was sharp weather now in the early morning, and he would soon need the warmth of it. Tobias's placid wife never anticipated and always lived in a state of trying to catch up with her work. It never had been the elder woman's way, and Mercy reviewed her own active career with no mean pride. She had been left a widow at twenty-eight, with four children and a stony New Hampshire farm, but had bravely won her way, paid her debts, and provided the three girls and their brother Tobias with the best available schooling.
For a woman of such good judgment and high purpose in life, Mrs. Bascom had made a very unwise choice in marrying Tobias Bascom the elder. He was not even the owner of a good name, and led her a terrible life with his drunken shiftlessness, and hindrance of all her own better aims. Even while the children were babies, however, and life was at its busiest and most demanding stages, the determined soul would not be baffled by such damaging partnership. She showed the plainer of what stuff she was made, and simply worked the harder and went her ways more fiercely. If it were sometimes whispered that she was unamiable, her wiser neighbors understood the power of will that was needed to cope with circumstances that would have crushed a weaker woman. As for her children, they were very fond of her in the undemonstrative New England fashion. Only the two eldest could remember their father at all, and after he was removed from this world Tobias Bascom left but slight proofs of having ever existed at all, except in the stern lines and premature aging of his wife's face.
The years that followed were years of hard work on the little farm, but diligence and perseverance had their reward. When the three daughters came to womanhood they were already skilled farmhouse keepers, and were dispatched for their own homes well equipped with feather-beds and homespun linen and woolen. Mercy Bascom was glad to have them well settled, if the truth were known. She did not like to have her own will and law questioned or opposed, and when she sat down to supper alone with her son Tobias, after the last daughter's wedding, she had a glorious feeling of peace and satisfaction.
"There's a sight o' work left yet in the old ma'am," she said to Tobias, in an unwontedly affectionate tone. "I guess we shall keep house together as comfortable as most folks." But Tobias grew very red in the face and bent over his plate.
"I don' know 's I want the girls to get ahead of me," he said sheepishly. "I ain't meanin' to put you out with another wedding right away, but I've been a-lookin' round, an' I guess I've found somebody to suit me."
Mercy Bascom turned cold with misery and disappointment. "Why T'bias," she said, anxiously, "folks always said that you was cut out for an old bachelor till I come to believe it, an' I've been lottin' on"--
"Course nobody's goin' to wrench me an' you apart," said Tobias gallantly. "I made up my mind long ago you an' me was yokemates, mother. An' I had it in my mind to fetch you somebody that would ease you o' quite so much work now 'Liza's gone off."
"I don't want nobody," said the grieved woman, and she could eat no more supper; that festive supper for which she had cooked her very best. Tobias was sorry for her, but he had his rights, and now simply felt light-hearted because he had freed his mind of this unwelcome declaration. Tobias was slow and stolid to behold, but he was a man of sound ideas and great talent for farming. He had found it difficult to choose between his favorites among the marriageable girls, a bright young creature who was really too good for him, but penniless, and a weaker damsel who was heiress to the best farm in town. The farm won the day at last; and Mrs. Bascom felt a thrill of pride at her son's worldly success; then she asked to know her son's plans, and was wholly disappointed. Tobias meant to sell the old place; he had no idea of leaving her alone as she wistfully complained; he meant to have her make a new home at the Bassett place with him and his bride.
That she would never do: the old place which had given them a living never should be left or sold to strangers. Tobias was not prepared for her fierce outburst of reproach at the mere suggestion. She would live alone and pay her way as she always had done, and so it was, for a few years of difficulties. Tobias was never ready to plough or plant when she needed him; his own great farm was more than he could serve properly. It grew more and more difficult to hire workmen, and they were seldom worth their wages. At last Tobias's wife, who was a kindly soul, persuaded her reluctant mother-in-law to come and spend a winter; the old woman was tired and for once disheartened; she found herself deeply in love with her grandchildren, and so next spring she let the little hill farm on the halves to an impecunious but hard-working young couple.
To everybody's surprise the two women lived together harmoniously. Tobias's wife did everything to please her mother-in-law except to be other than a Bassett. And Mercy, for the most part, ignored this misfortune, and rarely was provoked into calling it a fault. Now that the necessity for hard work and anxiety was past, she appeared to have come to an Indian summer shining-out of her natural amiability and tolerance. She was sometimes indirectly reproachful of her daughter's easy-going ways, and set an indignant example now and then by a famous onslaught of unnecessary work, and always dressed and behaved herself in plainest farm fashion, while Mrs. Tobias was given to undue worldliness and style. But they worked well together in the main, for, to use Mercy's own words, she "had seen enough of life not to want to go into other folks' houses and make trouble."
As people grow older their interests are apt to become fewer, and one of the thoughts that came oftenest to Mercy Bascom in her old age was a time-honored quarrel with one of her husband's sisters, who had been her neighbor many years before, and then moved to greater prosperity at the other side of the county. It is not worth while to tell the long story of accusations and misunderstandings, but while the two women did not meet for almost half a lifetime the grievance was as fresh as if it were yesterday's. Wrongs of defrauded sums of money and contested rights in unproductive acres of land, wrongs of slighting remarks and contempt of equal claims; the remembrance of all these was treasured as a miser fingers his gold. Mercy Bascom freed herself from the wearisome detail of every-day life whenever she could find a patient listener to whom to tell the long story. She found it as interesting as a story of the Arabian Nights, or an exciting play at the theatre. She would have you believe that she was faultless in the matter, and would not acknowledge that her sister-in-law Ruth Bascom, now Mrs. Parlet, was also a hard-working woman with dependent little children at the time of the great fray.
Of late years her son had suspected that his mother regretted the alienation, but he knew better than to suggest a peace-making. "Let them work -- let them work!" he told his wife when she proposed one night to bring the warring sisters-in-law unexpectedly together. It may have been that old Mercy began to feel a little lonely and would be glad to have somebody of her own age with whom to talk over old times. She never had known the people much in this Bassett region, and there were few but young folks left at any rate.
As the pleasure-makers hastened toward the fair that bright October morning Mercy sat by the table sewing at a sufficient patch in the old coat. There was little else to do all day but to get herself a luncheon at noon and have supper ready when the family came home cold and tired at night. The two cats came purring about her chair; one persuaded her to open the cellar door, and the other leaped to the top of the kitchen table unrebuked, and blinked herself to sleep there in the sun. This was a favored kitten brought from the old home, and seemed like a link between the old days and these. Her mistress noticed with surprise that pussy was beginning to look old, and she could not resist a little sigh. "Land! the next world may seem dreadful new too, and I've got to get used to that," she thought with a grim smile of foreboding. "How do folks live that wants always to be on the go? There was Ruth Parlet, that must be always a visitin' and goin' -- well I won't say that there wasn't a time when I wished for the chance." Justice always won the day in such minor questions as this.
Ruth Parlet's name started the usual thoughts, but somehow or other Mercy could not find it in her heart to be as harsh as usual. She remembered one thing after another about their girlhood together. They had been great friends then, and the animosity may have had its root in the fact that Ruth helped forward her brother's marriage. But there were years before that of friendly foregathering and girlish alliances and rivalries; spinning and herb gathering and quilting. It seemed, as Mercy thought about it, that Ruth was good company after all. But what did make her act so, and turn right round later on?
The morning grew warm, and at last Mrs. Bascom had to open the window to let out the buzzing flies and an imprisoned wild bee. The patch was finished and the elbow would serve Tobias as good as new. She laid the coat over a chair and put her bent brass thimble into the paper-collar box that served as work-basket. She used to have a queer splint basket at the old place, but it had been broken under something heavier when her household goods were moved. Some of the family had long been tired of hearing that basket regretted, and another had never been found worthy to take its place. The thimble, the smooth mill bobbin on which was wound black linen thread, the dingy lump of beeswax, and a smart leather needle-book, which Johnny had given her the Christmas before, all looked ready for use, but Mrs. Bascom pushed them farther back on the table and quickly rose to her feet. "'T ain't nine o'clock yet," she said, exultantly. "I'll just take a couple o' crackers in my pocket and step over to the old place. I'll take my time and be back soon enough to make 'em that pan o' my hot gingerbread they'll be counting on for supper."
Half an hour later one might have seen a bent figure lock the side door of the large farmhouse carefully, trying the latch again and again to see if it were fast, putting the key into a safe hiding-place by the door, and then stepping away up the road with eager determination. "I ain't felt so like a jaunt this five year," said Mercy to herself, "an' if Tobias was here an' Ann, they'd take all the fun out fussin' and talkin', an' bein' afeard I'd tire myself, or wantin' me to ride over. I do like to be my own master once in a while."
The autumn day was glorious, with a fine flavor of fruit and ripeness in the air. The sun was warm, there was a cool breeze from the great hills, and far off across the wide valley the old woman could see her little gray house on its pleasant eastern slope; she could even trace the outline of the two small fields and large pasture. "I done well with it, if I wasn't nothin' but a woman with four dependin' on me an' no means," said Mercy proudly as she came in full sight of the old place. It was a long drive from one farm to the other by roundabout highways, but there was a footpath known to the wayfarer which took a good piece off the distance. "Now, ain't this a sight better than them hustlin' fairs?" Mercy asked gleefully as she felt herself free and alone in the wide meadow-land. She had long been promising little Johnny to take him over to Gran'ma's house, as she loved to call it still. She could not help thinking longingly how much he would enjoy this escapade. "Why, I'm running away just like a young-one, that's what I be," she exclaimed, and then laughed aloud for very pleasure.
The weather-beaten farmhouse was deserted that day, as its former owner suspected. She boldly gathered some of her valued spice-apples, with an assuring sense of proprietorship as she crossed the last narrow field. The Browns, man and wife and little boy and baby, had hied them early to the fair with nearly the whole population of the countryside. The house and yard and out-buildings never had worn such an aspect of appealing pleasantness as when Mercy Bascom came near. She felt as if she were going to cry for a minute, and then hurried to get inside the gate. She saw the outgoing track of horses' feet with delight, but went discreetly to the door and knocked to make herself perfectly sure that there was no one left at home. Out of breath and tired as she was, she turned to look off at the view. Yes, there was Tobias's place, prosperous and white-painted; she could just get a glimpse of the upper roofs and gables. It was always a sorrow and complaint that a low hill kept her from looking up at this farm from any of the windows, but now that she was at the farm itself she found herself regarding Tobias's home with a good deal of affection. She looked sharply with an apprehension of fire, but there was no whiff of alarming smoke against the clear sky.
"Now I must git me a drink o' that water first of anything," and she hastened to the creaking, well-sweep and lowered the bucket. There was the same rusty, handleless tin dipper that she had left years before, standing on the shelf inside the well-curb. She was proud to find that the bucket was no heavier than ever, and was heartily thankful for the clear water. There never was such a well as that, and it seemed as if she had not been away a day. "What an old gal I be," said Mercy, with plaintive merriment. "Well, they ain't made no great changes since I was here last spring," and then she went over and held her face close against one of the kitchen windows, and took a hungry look at the familiar room. The bedroom door was open and a new sense of attachment to the place filled her heart. "It seems as if I was locked out o' my own home," she whispered as she looked in.
There were the same old spruce and pine boards that she had scrubbed so many times and trodden thin as she hurried to and fro about her work. It was very strange to see an unfamiliar chair or two, but the furnishings of a farm kitchen were much the same, and there was no great change. Even the cradle was like that cradle in which her own children had been rocked. She gazed and gazed, poor old Mother Bascom, and forgot the present as her early life came back in vivid memories. At last she turned away from the window with a sigh.
The flowers that she had planted herself long ago had bloomed all summer in the garden; there were still some ragged sailors and the snowberries and phlox and her favorite white mallows, of which she picked herself a posy. "I'm glad the old place is so well took care of," she thought, gratefully. "An' they've new-silled the old barn I do declare, and battened the cracks to keep the dumb creatures warm. 'T was a sham-built barn anyways, but 't was the best I could do when the child'n needed something every handturn o' the day. It put me to some expense every year, tinkering of it up where the poor lumber warped and split. There, I enjoyed try'n to cope with things and gettin' the better of my disadvantages! The ground's too rich for me over there to Tobias's; I don't want things too easy, for my part. I feel most as young as ever I did, and I ain't agoin' to play helpless, not for nobody.
"I declare for 't, I mean to come up here by an' by a spell an' stop with the young folks, an' give 'em a good lift with their work. I ain't needed all the time to Tobias's now, and they can hire help, while these can't. I've been favoring myself till I'm as soft as an old hoss that's right out of pasture an' can't pull two wheels without wheezin'."
There was a sense of companionship in the very weather. The bees were abroad as if it were summer, and a flock of little birds came fluttering down close to Mrs. Bascom as she sat on the doorstep. She remembered the biscuits in her pocket and ate them with a hunger she had seldom known of late, but she threw the crumbs generously to her feathered neighbors. The soft air, the brilliant or fading colors of the wide landscape, the comfortable feeling of relationship to her surroundings all served to put good old Mercy into a most peaceful state. There was only one thought that would not let her be quite happy. She could not get her sister-in-law Ruth Parlet out of her mind. And strangely enough the old grudge did not present itself with the usual power of aggravation; it was of their early friendship and Ruth's good fellowship that memories would come.
"I declare for it, I wouldn't own up to the folks, but I should like to have a good visit with Ruth if so be that we could set aside the past," she said, resolutely at last. "I never thought I should come to it, but if she offered to make peace I wouldn't do nothin' to hinder it. Not to say but what I should have to free my mind on one or two points before we could start fair. I've waited forty year to make one remark to Ruthy Parlet. But there! we're gettin' to be old folks." Mercy rebuked herself gravely. "I don't want to go off with hard feelins' to nobody." Whether this was the culmination of a long, slow process of reconciliation, or whether Mrs. Bascom's placid satisfaction helped to hasten it by many stages, nobody could say. As she sat there she thought of many things; her life spread itself out like a picture; perhaps never before had she been able to detach herself from her immediate occupation in this way. She never had been aware of her own character and exploits to such a degree, and the minutes sped by as she thought with deep interest along the course of her own history. There was nothing she was ashamed of to an uncomfortable degree but the long animosity between herself and the children's aunt. How harsh she had been sometimes; she had even tried to prejudice everybody who listened to these tales of an offender. "I wa'n't more 'n half right, now I come to look myself full in the face," said Mercy Bascom, "and I never owned it till this day."
The sun was already past noon, and the good woman dutifully rose and with instant consciousness of resource glanced in at the kitchen window to tell the time by a familiar mark on the floor. "I needn't start just yet," she muttered. "Oh my! how I do wish I could git in and poke round into every corner! 'T would make this day just perfect."
"There now!" she continued, "p'raps they leave the key just where our folks used to." And in another minute the key lay in Mercy's worn old hand. She gave a shrewd look along the road, opened the door, which creaked what may have been a hearty welcome, and stood inside the dear old kitchen. She had not been in the house alone since she left it, but now she was nobody's guest. It was like some shell-fish finding its own old shell again and settling comfortably into the convolutions. Even we must not follow Mother Bascom about from the dark cellar to the hot little attic. She was not curious about the Browns' worldly goods; indeed, she was nearly unconscious of anything but the comfort of going up and down the short flight of stairs and looking out of her own windows with nobody to watch.
"There's the place where Tobias scratched the cupboard door with a nail. Didn't I thrash him for it good?" she said once with a proud remembrance of the time when she was a lawgiver and proprietor and he dependent.
At length a creeping fear stole over her lest the family might return. She stopped one moment to look back into the little bedroom. "How good I did use to sleep here," she said. "I worked as stout as I could the day through, and there wa'n't no wakin' up by two o'clock in the morning, and smellin' for fire and harkin' for thieves like I have to nowadays."
Mercy stepped away down the long sloping field like a young woman. It was a long walk back to Tobias's, even if one followed the pleasant footpaths across country. She was heavy-footed, but entirely light-hearted when she came safely in at the gate of the Bassett place. "I've done extra for me," she said as she put away her old shawl and bonnet; "but I'm goin' to git the best supper Tobias's folks have eat for a year," and so she did.
"I've be'n over to the old place to-day," she announced bravely to her son, who had finished his work and his supper and was now tipped back in his wooden arm-chair against the wall.
"You ain't, mother!" responded Tobias, with instant excitement. "Next fall, then, I won't take no for an answer but what you'll go to the fair and see what's goin'. You ain't footed it way over there?"
Mother Bascom nodded. "I have," she answered solemnly, a minute later, as if the nod were not enough. "T'bias, son," she added, lowering her voice, "I ain't one to give in my rights, but I was thinkin' it all over about y'r Aunt Ruth Parlet" --
"Now if that ain't curi's!" exclaimed Tobias, bringing his chair down hastily upon all four legs. "I didn't know just how you'd take it, mother, but I see Aunt Ruth to-day to the fair, and she made everything o' me and wanted to know how you was, and she got me off from the rest, an' says she: 'I declare I should like to see your marm again. I wonder if she won't agree to let bygones be bygones.'"
"My sakes!" said Mercy, who was startled by this news. "'T is the hand o' Providence! How did she look, son?"
"A sight older 'n you look, but kind of natural too. One o' her sons' wives that she's made her home with, has led her a dance, folks say."
"Poor old creatur'! we'll have her over here, if your folks don't find fault. I've had her in my mind" --
Tobias's folks, in the shape of his wife and little Johnny, appeared from the outer kitchen. "I haven't had such a supper I don't know when," repeated the younger woman for at least the fifth time. "You must have been keepin' busy all day, Mother Bascom."
But Mother Bascom and Tobias looked at each other and laughed.
"I ain't had such a good time I don't know when, but my feet are all of a fidget now, and I've got to git to bed. I've be'n runnin' away since you've be'n gone, Ann!" said the pleased old soul, and then went away, still laughing, to her own room. She was strangely excited and satisfied, as if she had at last paid a long-standing debt. She could trudge across pastures as well as anybody, and the old grudge was done with. Mercy hardly noticed how her fingers trembled as she unhooked the old gray gown. The odor of sweet fern shook out fresh and strong as she smoothed and laid it carefully over a chair. There was a little rent in the skirt, but she could mend it by daylight.
The great harvest moon was shining high in the sky, and she needed no other light in the bedroom. "I've be'n a smart woman to work in my day, and I've airnt a little pleasurin'," said Mother Bascom sleepily to herself. "Poor Ruthy! so she looks old, does she? I'm goin' to tell her right out, 't was I that spoke first to Tobias."
"Fair Day," first published in Scribner's Magazine in August 1888. This text comes from the Garrett Press 1969 reprinting of the original edition. If you see errors in this text or items you believe should be annotated, please contact the site manager.
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lottin': alotting, depending on, expecting.
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Indian summer: warm period after first hard frosts during autumn in North America.
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Arabian Nights: Arabian Nights' Entertainments or The Thousand and One Nights. This collection of stories originally written in Arabic became popular in Europe in the 17th Century. The collection is framed by the story of a king who kills each of his wives the morning after their wedding night. His latest wife, Scheherazade saves her life by telling exciting stories and stopping each night before the end, so the king must spare her until the next night to hear the end of that story and the beginning of another.
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splint basket: a basket made of thin strips of wood woven together; woven splints also could be used to make chair seats; see the first sentence of this story.
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mill bobbin ... beeswax ... leather needle-book:
mill bobbin: a mill bobbin probably is metal, suitable for supplying thread on a sewing machine.
beeswax: beeswax was used to coat thread to improve its strength and to ease drawing through multiple layers of fabric as in quilting. It also was used to stiffen thread in order to ease threading a needle.
leather needle-book: a small, folding packet for storing sewing needles.
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ragged sailors: name given to several kinds of flowers: bluebottle, bachelor's buttons, cornflower, prince's feather.
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white mallows: (also known as mallows, clustering mallows, and marshmallows). Flowering plants, parts of which are used herbally to relieve coughs and bronchitis, to soothe skin inflammations, to relieve sore throat; represent `sweet disposition' in the nineteenth-century language of flowers. (Research: Ted Eden)
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sweet fern: sweet or aromatic North American shrub.
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Strangers & Wayfarers