Strangers & Wayfarers
THE QUEST OF MR. TEABY.
Sarah Orne Jewett
The trees were bare on meadow and hill, and all about the country one saw the warm brown of lately fallen leaves. There was still a cheerful bravery of green in sheltered places, -- a fine, live green that flattered the eye with its look of permanence; the first three quarters of the year seemed to have worked out their slow processes to make this perfect late-autumn day. In such weather I found even the East Wilby railroad station attractive, and waiting three hours for a slow train became a pleasure; the delight of idleness and even booklessness cannot be properly described.
The interior of the station was bleak and gravelly, but it would have been possible to find fault with any interior on such an out-of-doors day; and after the station-master had locked his ticket-office door and tried the handle twice, with a comprehensive look at me, he went slowly away up the road to spend some leisure time with his family[.] He had ceased to take any interest in the traveling public, and answered my questions as briefly as possible. After he had gone some distance he turned to look back, but finding that I still sat on the baggage truck in the sunshine, just where he left me, he smothered his natural apprehensions, and went on.
One might spend a good half hour in watching crows as they go southward resolutely through the clear sky, and then waver and come straggling back as if they had forgotten something; one might think over all one's immediate affairs, and learn to know the outward aspect of such a place as East Wilby as if born and brought up there. But after a while I lost interest in both past and future; there was too much landscape before me at the moment, and a lack of figures. The weather was not to be enjoyed merely as an end, yet there was no temptation to explore the up-hill road on the left, or the level fields on the right; I sat still on my baggage truck and waited for something to happen. Sometimes one is so happy that there is nothing left to wish for but to be happier, and just as the remembrance of this truth illuminated my mind, I saw two persons approaching from opposite directions. The first to arrive was a pleasant-looking elderly countrywoman, well wrapped in a worn winter cloak with a thick plaid shawl over it, and a white worsted cloud tied over her bonnet. She carried a well-preserved bandbox, -- the outlines were perfect under its checked gingham cover, -- and had a large bundle beside, securely rolled in a newspaper. From her dress I felt sure that she had made a mistake in dates, and expected winter to set in at once. Her face was crimson with undue warmth, and what appeared in the end to have been unnecessary haste. She did not take any notice of the elderly man who reached the platform a minute later, until they were near enough to take each other by the hand and exchange most cordial greetings.
"Well, this is a treat!" said the man, who was a small and shivery-looking person. He carried a great umbrella and a thin, enameled-cloth valise, and wore an ancient little silk hat and a nearly new greenish linen duster, as if it were yet summer. "I was full o' thinkin' o' you day before yisterday; strange, wa'n't it?" he announced impressively, in a plaintive voice. "I was sayin' to myself, if there was one livin' bein' I coveted to encounter over East Wilby way, 't was you, Sister Pinkham."
"Warm to-day, ain't it?" responded Sister Pinkham. "How's your health, Mr. Teaby? I guess I'd better set right down here on the aidge of the platform; sha'n't we git more air than if we went inside the depot? It's necessary to git my breath before I rise the hill."
"You can't seem to account for them foresights," continued Mr. Teaby, putting down his tall, thin valise and letting the empty top of it fold over. Then he stood his umbrella against the end of my baggage truck, without a glance at me. I was glad that they were not finding me in their way. "Well, if this ain't very sing'lar, I never saw nothin' that was," repeated the little man. "Nobody can set forth to explain why the thought of you should have been so borne in upon me day before yisterday, your livin' countenance an' all, an' here we be to-day settin' side o' one another. I've come to rely on them foresights; they've been of consider'ble use in my business, too."
"Trade good as common this fall?" inquired Sister Pinkham languidly. "You don't carry such a thing as a good palm-leaf fan amon'st your stuff, I expect? It does appear to me as if I hadn't been more het up any day this year."
"I should ha' had the observation to offer it before," said Mr. Teaby, with pride. "Yes, Sister Pinkham, I've got an excellent fan right here, an' you shall have it."
He reached for his bag; I heard a clink, as if there were bottles within. Presently his companion began to fan herself with that steady sway and lop of the palm-leaf which one sees only in country churches in mid-summer weather. Mr. Teaby edged away a little, as if he feared such a steady tradewind.
"We might ha' picked out a shadier spot, on your account," he suggested. "Can't you unpin your shawl?"
"Not while I'm so het," answered Sister Pinkham coldly. "Is there anything new recommended for rheumatic complaints?"
"They're gittin' up new compounds right straight along, and sends sights o' printed bills urgin' of me to buy 'em. I don't beseech none o' my customers to take them strange nostrums that I ain't able to recommend."
"Some is new cotches made o' the good old stand-bys, I expect," said Sister Pinkham, and there was a comfortable silence of some minutes.
"I'm kind of surprised to meet with you to-day, when all's said an' done; it kind of started me when I see 't was you, after dwellin' on you so day before yisterday," insisted Mr. Teaby; and this time Sister Pinkham took heed of the interesting coincidence.
"Thinkin' o' me, was you?" and she stopped the fan a moment, and turned to look at him with interest.
"I was so. Well, I never see nobody that kep' her looks as you do, and be'n a sufferer too, as one may express it."
Sister Pinkham sighed heavily, and began to ply the fan again. "You was sayin' just now that you found them foresight notions work into your business."
"Yes 'm; I saved a valu'ble life this last spring. I was puttin' up my vials to start out over Briggsville way, an' 't was impressed upon me that I'd better carry a portion o' opodildack. I was loaded up heavy, had all I could lug of spring goods; salts an' seny, and them big-bottle spring bitters o' mine that folks counts on regular. I couldn't git the opodildack out o' my mind noway, and I didn't want it for nothin' nor nobody, but I had to remove a needed vial o' some kind of essence to give it place. When I was goin' down the lane t'wards Abel Dean's house, his women folks come flyin' out. 'Child's a-dyin' in here,' says they; 'tumbled down the sullar stairs.' They was like crazy creatur's; I give 'em the vial right there in the lane, an' they run in an' I followed 'em. Last time I was there the child was a-playin' out; looked rugged and hearty. They've never forgot it an' never will," said Mr. Teaby impressively, with a pensive look toward the horizon. "Want me to stop over night with 'em any time, or come an' take the hoss, or anything. Mis' Dean, she buys four times the essences an' stuff she wants; kind o' gratified, you see, an' didn't want to lose the child, I expect, though she's got a number o' others. If it hadn't be'n for its bein' so impressed on my mind, I should have omitted that opodildack. I deem it a winter remedy, chiefly."
"Perhaps the young one would ha' come to without none; they do survive right through everything, an' then again they seem to be taken away right in their tracks." Sister Pinkham grew more talkative as she cooled. "Heard any news as you come along?"
"Some," vaguely responded Mr. Teaby. "Folks ginerally relates anythin' that's occurred since they see me before. I ain't no great hand for news, an' never was."
"Pity 'bout you, Uncle Teaby! There, anybody don't like to have deaths occur an' them things and be unawares of 'em, an' the last to know when folks calls in." Sister Pinkham laughed at first, but said her say with spirit.
"Certain, certain, we ought all of us to show an interest. I did hear it reported that Elder Fry calculates to give up preachin' an' go into the creamery business another spring. You know he's had means left him, and his throat's kind o' give out; trouble with the pipes. I called it brown caters, an' explained nigh as I could without hurtin' of his pride that he'd bawled more 'n any pipes could stand. I git so wore out settin' under him that I feel to go an' lay right out in the woods arterwards, where it's still. 'T won't never do for him to deal so with callin' of his cows; they'd be so aggravated 't would be more 'n any butter business could bear."
"You hadn't ought to speak so light now; he's a very feelin' man towards any one in trouble," Sister Pinkham rebuked the speaker. "I set consider'ble by Elder Fry. You sort o' divert yourself dallying round the country with your essences and remedies, an' you ain't never sagged down with no settled grievance, as most do. Think o' what the Elder's be'n through, a-losin' o' three good wives. I'm one o' them that ain't found life come none too easy, an' Elder Fry's preachin' stayed my mind consider'ble."
"I s'pose you're right, if you think you be," acknowledged the little man humbly. "I can't say as I esteem myself so fortunate as most. I'm a lonesome creatur', an' always was; you know I be. I did expect somebody'd engage my affections before this."
"There, plenty'd be glad to have ye."
"I expect they would, but I don't seem to be drawed to none on 'em," replied Mr. Teaby, with a mournful shake of his head. "I've spoke pretty decided to quite a number in my time, take 'em all together, but it always appeared best not to follow it up; an' so when I'd come their way again I'd laugh it off or somethin', in case 't was referred to. I see one now an' then that I kind o' fancy, but 't ain't the real thing."
"You mustn't expect to pick out a handsome gal, at your age," insisted Sister Pinkham, in a business-like way. "Time's past for all that, an' you've got the name of a rover. I've heard some say that you was rich, but that ain't everythin'. You must take who you can git, and look you up a good home; I would. If you was to be taken down with any settled complaint, you'd be distressed to be without a place o' your own, an' I'm glad to have this chance to tell ye so. Plenty o' folks is glad to take you in for a short spell, an' you've had an excellent chance to look the ground over well. I tell you you're beginnin' to git along in years."
"I know I be," said Mr. Teaby. "I can't travel now as I used to. I have to favor my left leg. I do' know but I be spoilt for settlin' down. This business I never meant to follow stiddy, in the fust place; 't was a means to an end, as one may say."
"Folks would miss ye, but you could take a good long trip, say spring an' fall, an' live quiet the rest of the year. What if they do git out o' essence o' lemon an' pep'mint! There's sufficient to the stores; 't ain't as 't used to be when you begun."
"There's Ann Maria Hart, my oldest sister's daughter. I kind of call it home with her by spells and when the travelin''s bad."
"Good King Agrippy! if that's the best you can do, I feel for you," exclaimed the energetic adviser. "She's a harmless creatur' and seems to keep ploddin', but slack ain't no description an' runs on talkin' about nothin' till it strikes right in an' numbs ye. She's pressed for house room, too. Hart ought to put on an addition long ago, but he's too stingy to live. Folks was tellin' me that somebody observed to him how he'd got a real good, stiddy man to work with him this summer. 'He's called a very pious man, too, great hand in meetin's, Mr. Hart,' says they; an' says he, 'I'd have you rec'lect he's a-prayin' out o' my time!' Said it hasty, too, as if he meant it."
"Well, I can put up with Hart; he's near, but he uses me well, an' I try to do the same by him. I don't bange on 'em; I pay my way, an' I feel as if everything was temp'rary. I did plan to go way over North Dexter way, where I've never be'n, an' see if there wa'n't somebody, but the weather ain't be'n settled as I could wish. I'm always expectin' to find her, I be so," -- at which I observed Sister Pinkham's frame shake.
I felt a slight reproach of conscience at listening so intently to these entirely private affairs, and at this point reluctantly left my place and walked along the platform, to remind Sister Pinkham and confiding Mr. Teaby of my neighborhood. They gave no sign that there was any objection to the presence of a stranger, and so I came back gladly to the baggage truck, and we all kept silence for a little while. A fine flavor of extracts was wafted from the valise to where I sat. I pictured to myself the solitary and hopeful wanderings of Mr. Teaby. There was an air about him of some distinction; he might have been a decayed member of the medical profession. I observed that his hands were unhardened by any sort of rural work, and he sat there a meek and appealing figure, with his antique hat and linen duster, beside the well-wadded round shoulders of friendly Sister Pinkham. The expression of their backs was most interesting.
"You might express it that I've got quite a number o' good homes; I've got me sorted out a few regular places where I mostly stop," Mr. Teaby explained presently. "I like to visit with the old folks an' speak o' the past together; an' the boys an' gals, they always have some kind o' fun goin' on when I git along. They always have to git me out to the barn an' tell me, if they're a-courtin', and I fetch an' carry for 'em in that case, an' help out all I can. I've made peace when they got into some o' their misunderstandin's, an' them times they set a good deal by Uncle Teaby; but they ain't all got along as well as they expected, and that's be'n one thing that's made me desirous not to git fooled myself. But I do' know as folks would be reconciled to my settlin' down in one place. I've gathered a good many extry receipts for things, an' folks all calls me somethin' of a doctor; you know my grand'ther was one, on my mother's side."
"Well, you've had my counsel for what 't is wuth," said the woman, not unkindly. "Trouble is, you want better bread than's made o' wheat."
"I'm 'most ashamed to ask ye again if 't would be any use to lay the matter before Hannah Jane Pinkham?" This was spoken lower, but I could hear the gentle suggestion.
"I'm obleeged to you," said the lady of Mr. Teaby's choice, "but I ain't the right one. Don't you go to settin' your mind on me: 't ain't wuth while. I'm older than you be, an' apt to break down with my rheumatic complaints. You don't want nobody on your hands. I'd git a younger woman, I would so."
"I've be'n a-lookin' for the right one a sight o' years, Hannah Jane. I've had a kind o' notion I should know her right off when I fust see her, but I'm afeared it ain't goin' to be that way. I've seen a sight o' nice, smart women, but when the thought o' you was so impressed on my mind day before yisterday" --
"I'm sorry to disobleege you, but if I have anybody, I'm kind o' half promised to Elder Fry," announced Sister Pinkham bravely. "I consider it more on the off side than I did at first. If he'd continued preachin' I'd favor it more, but I dread havin' to 'tend to a growin' butter business an' to sense them new machines. 'T ain't as if he'd 'stablished it. I've just begun to have things easy; but there, I feel as if I had a lot o' work left in me, an' I don't know 's 't is right to let it go to waste. I expect the Elder would preach some, by spells, an' we could ride about an' see folks; an' he'd always be called to funerals, an' have some variety one way an' another. I urge him not to quit preachin'."
"I'd rather he ondertook 'most anythin' else," said Mr. Teaby, rising and trying to find the buttons of his linen duster.["]
I could see a bitter shade of jealousy cloud his amiable face; but Sister Pinkham looked up at him and laughed. "Set down, set down," she said. "We ain't in no great hurry;" and Uncle Teaby relented, and lingered. "I'm all out o' rose-water for the eyes," she told him, "an' if you've got a vial o' lemon left that you'll part with reasonable, I do' know but I'll take that. I'd rather have caught you when you was outward bound; your bag looks kind o' slim."
"Everythin' 's fresh-made just before I started, 'cept the ginger, an' that I buy, but it's called the best there is."
The two sat down and drove a succession of sharp bargains, but finally parted the best of friends. Mr. Teaby kindly recognized my presence from a business point of view, and offered me a choice of his wares at reasonable prices. I asked about a delightful jumping-jack which made its appearance, and wished very much to become the owner, for it was curiously whittled out and fitted together by Mr. Teaby's own hands. He exhibited the toy to Sister Pinkham and me, to our great pleasure, but scorned to sell such a trifle, it being worth nothing; and beside, he had made it for a little girl who lived two miles farther along the road he was following. I could see that she was a favorite of the old man's, and said no more about the matter, but provided myself, as recommended, with an ample package of court-plaster, "in case of accident before I got to where I was going," and a small bottle of smelling-salts, described as reviving to the faculties.
Then we watched Mr. Teaby plod away, a quaint figure, with his large valise nearly touching the ground as it hung slack from his right hand. The greenish-brown duster looked bleak and unseasonable as a cloud went over the sun; it appeared to symbolize the youthful and spring-like hopes of the wearer, decking the autumn days of life.
"Poor creatur'!" said Sister Pinkham. "There, he doos need somebody to look after him."
She turned to me frankly, and I asked how far he was going.
"Oh, he'll put up at that little gal's house an' git his dinner, and give her the jumpin'-jack an' trade a little; an' then he'll work along the road, callin' from place to place. He's got a good deal o' system, an' was a smart boy, so that folks expected he was goin' to make a doctor, but he kind o' petered out. He's long-winded an' harpin', an' some folks prays him by if they can; but there, most likes him, an' there's nobody would be more missed. He don't make no trouble for 'em; he'll take right holt an' help, and there ain't nobody more gentle with the sick. Always has some o' his nonsense over to me."
This was added with sudden consciousness that I must have heard the recent conversation, but we only smiled at each other, and good Sister Pinkham did not seem displeased. We both turned to look again at the small figure of Mr. Teaby, as he went away, with his queer, tripping gait, along the level road.
"Pretty day, if 't wa'n't quite so warm," said Sister Pinkham, as she rose and reached for her bandbox and bundle, to resume her own journey. "There, if here ain't Uncle Teaby's umbrilla! He forgits everything that belongs to him but that old valise. Folks wouldn't know him if he left that. You may as well just hand it to Asa Briggs, the depot-master, when he gits back. Like 's not the old gentleman'll think to call for it as he comes back along. Here's his fan, too, but he won't be likely to want that this winter."
She looked at the large umbrella; there was a great deal of good material in it, but it was considerably out of repair.
"I don't know but I'll stop an' mend it up for him, poor old creatur'," she said slowly, with an apologetic look at me. Then she sat down again, pulled a large rolled-up needlebook from her deep and accessible pocket, and sewed busily for some time with strong stitches.
I sat by and watched her, and was glad to be of use in chasing her large spool of linen thread, which repeatedly rolled away along the platform. Sister Pinkham's affectionate thoughts were evidently following her old friend.
"I've a great mind to walk back with the umbrilla; he may need it, an' 't ain't a great ways," she said to me, and then looked up quickly, blushing like a girl. I wished she would, for my part, but it did not seem best for a stranger to give advice in such serious business. "I'll tell you what I will do," she told me innocently, a moment afterwards. "I'll take the umbrilla along with me, and leave word with Asa Briggs I've got it. I go right by his house, so you needn't charge your mind nothin' about it."
By the time she had taken off her gold-bowed spectacles and put them carefully away and was ready to make another start, she had learned where I came from and where I was going and what my name was, all this being but poor return for what I had gleaned of the history of herself and Mr. Teaby. I watched Sister Pinkham until she disappeared, umbrella in hand, over the crest of a hill far along the road to the eastward.
Jewett comments on "The Quest of Mr. Teaby"
Jewett says in a letter to Annie Fields that "The Quest of Mr. Teaby" arose from seeing a "funny old man in a linen duster" at Chapel Station: "His name proves to be Mr. Teaby, and he is one of those persons who peddle essences and perfumery and a household remedy or two, and foot it about the country with limp enameled cloth bags. What do you think of Mr. Teaby now? Teaby is the name, and he talks with sister Pinkham about personal and civic matters on a depot platform in the rural districts. Don't you think an editor would feel encouraged?" (Fields, Letters, 57). It is also interesting that in 1900, the Saturday Club of Brunswick, Maine presented dramatizations of two of Jewett's stories, "The Quest of Mr. Teaby" and "The Guests of Mrs. Timms" (Cary, Sarah Orne Jewett Letters, 133, 134).
"The Quest of Mr. Teaby" first appeared in Atlantic Monthly (65:83-89) in January 1890 and was collected in Strangers and Wayfarers; this text is from the Garrett Press 1969 reprinting of the original edition. Errors have been corrected and indicated with brackets. If you find errors in this text or items you believe should be annotated, please contact the site manager.
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worsted cloud: A large, loosely-knitted scarf, worn by women about the head. (Source: ARTFL Project: Webster Dictionary, 1913; research, Barbara Martens)
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bandbox: a light paper box used for carrying light items of clothing.
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enameled-cloth valise: enameled cloth probably would be coated with a lacquer or varnish so that designs could be painted on it.
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rheumatic complaints: pain and stiffness in muscles and joints.
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cotches: this word in the sense used here may not appear in standard dictionaries. Perhaps it suggests something designed to entrap or catch the attention, an old remedy in an attractive new package.
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opodildack: opodeldoc, a soap lineament that might also include a variety of other ingredients. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the following as typical ingredients in the middle and late nineteenth-century: opium, alcohol, camphor, oil of marjoram, oil of rosemary, ammonia. The usual effect is to warm the area to which it is applied, though other effects might also be intended, depending upon the ingredients.
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seny: The Oxford English Dictionary suggests this may be mustard seed, a local variation of the word, senye.
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spring bitters: The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that these bitters would be "spirits with rice, wormwood, or other vegetable infusion. "
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brown caters: probably catarrh, inflammation of the mucus membranes associated with colds, flu, and other respiratory diseases; characterized by flow of mucus in the sinuses, nose and throat.
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Good King Agrippy: This oath probably refers ironically to Herod Agrippa II (born AD 27), last of the unpopular dynasty of Herods, who were agents of the Roman Empire in the ancient Middle East. See, for example, The Acts of the Apostles, Chapters 23, 27-8.
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bange: to idle or loaf. This word is also used to mean taking advantage of someone's hospitality.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.
Strangers & Wayfarers