Tales of New England
AN ONLY SON.
Sarah Orne Jewett
It was growing more and more uncomfortable in the room where Deacon Price had spent the greater part of a hot July morning. The sun did not shine in, for it was now directly overhead, but the glare of its reflection from the dusty village street and the white house opposite was blinding to the eyes. At least one of the three selectmen of Dalton, who were assembled in solemn conclave, looked up several times at the tops of the windows, and thought they had better see about getting some curtains.
There was more business than usual, but most of it belonged to the familiar detail of the office; there were bills to pay for the support of the town's poor and the district schools, and, afterward, some discussion arose about a new piece of road which had been projected by a few citizens, who were as violently opposed by others. The selectmen were agreed upon this question, but they proposed to speak in private with the county commissioners, who were expected to view the region of the new highway the next week. This, however, had been well canvassed at their last meeting, and they had reached no new conclusions since; so presently the conversation flagged a little, and Deacon Price drummed upon the ink-spattered table with his long, brown fingers, and John Kendall, the grist-miller, rose impatiently and went to the small window, where he stood with blinking eyes looking down into the street. His well-rounded figure made a pleasant shadow in that part of the room, but it seemed to grow hotter every moment. Captain Abel Stone left his chair impatiently, and taking his hat went down the short flight of stairs that led to the street, knocking his thick, shuffling boots clumsily by the way. He reached the sidewalk and looked up and down the street, but nobody was coming; so he turned to Asa Ball, the shoemaker, who was standing in his shop-door.
"Business ain't brisk, I take it?" inquired the captain; and Mr. Ball replied that he didn't do much more than tend shop, nowadays. Folks would keep on buying cheap shoes, and thinking they saved more money on two pair a year for five dollars than when he used to make 'em one pair for four. "But I make better pay than I used to working at my trade, and so I ain't going to fret," said Asa shrewdly, with a significant glance at a modest pile of empty cloth-boot boxes; and the captain laughed a little, and took a nibble at a piece of tobacco which he had found with much difficulty in one of his deep coat pockets. He had followed the sea in his early life, but had returned to the small, stony farm which had been the home of his childhood, perhaps fifteen years before this story begins. He had taken as kindly to inland life as if he had never once been spattered with sea water, and had been instantly given the position in town affairs which his wealth and character merited. He still retained a good deal of his nautical way of looking at things. One would say that to judge by his appearance he had been well rubbed with tar and salt, and it was supposed by his neighbors that his old sea-chests were guardians of much money; he was overrated by some of them as being worth fifteen thousand dollars with the farm thrown in. The captain was considered very peculiar, because he liked to live in the somewhat dilapidated little farmhouse, and some of his attempts at cultivating the sterile soil were the occasion of much amusement. He had made a large scrapbook, during his long sea-voyages, of all sorts of hints and suggestions for the tillage of the ground, gleaned from books and newspapers and almanacs, and nobody knows where else. He had pasted these in, or copied them in his stiff, careful handwriting, and pleased himself by watching his collection grow while he was looking forward through the long, storm-tossed years to his quiet anchorage among the Dalton hills. He was a single man, and though a braver never trod the quarter-deck, from motives of wisest policy he seldom opposed his will to that of Widow Martha Hawkes, who had consented to do him the great favor of keeping his house.
"Havin' a long session to-day, seems to me," observed the shoemaker, with little appearance of the curiosity which he really felt.
"There was a good many p'ints to be looked over," answered Captain Stone, becoming aware that he had secrets to guard, and looking impenetrable and unconcerned. "It's worked into a long drought, just as I said -- I never took note of a drier sky; don't seem now as if we ever should get a sprinkle out of it, but I suppose we shall;" and he turned with a sigh to the door, and disappeared again up the narrow stairway. The three horses which were tied to adjacent posts in the full blaze of the sun all hung their ancient heads wearily, and solaced their disappointment as best they might. They had felt certain, when the captain appeared, that the selectmen's meeting was over. If they had been better acquainted with politics they might have wished that there could be a rising of the opposition, so that their masters would go out of office for as many years as they had come in.
The captain's companions looked up at him eagerly, as if they were sure that he was the herald of the expected tax-collector, who was to pay a large sum of money to them, of which the town treasury was in need. It was close upon twelve o'clock, and only a very great emergency would detain them beyond that time. They were growing very hungry, and when the captain, after a grave shake of his head, had settled into his chair again, they all felt more or less revengeful, though Deacon Price showed it by looking sad. One would have thought that he was waiting with reluctance to see some punishment descend upon the head of the delaying official.
"Well, Mis' Hawkes will be waiting dinner for me, and she never likes that," said Captain Stone at last; and just at that minute was heard the sound of wheels.
"Perhaps it's my mare stepping about, -- she's dreadful restive in fly-time," suggested Mr. Kendall, and at once put his head out of the window; but when he took it in again, it was to tell his fellow-officers that Jackson was coming, and then they all sat solemnly in their chairs, with as much dignity as the situation of things allowed. Their judicial and governmental authority was plainly depicted in their expression. On ordinary occasions they were not remarkable, except as excellent old-fashioned countrymen; but when they represented to the world the personality and character of the town of Dalton, they would not have looked out of place seated in that stately company which Carpaccio has painted in the Reception of the English Embassadors. It was Dalton that gave audience that summer day, in the dusty, bare room, as Venice listens soberly in the picture.
They heard a man speak to his horse and leap to the ground heavily, and then listened eagerly to the clicks and fumblings which represented the tying of the halter, and then there were sounds of steps upon the stairway. The voice of Mr. Ball was heard, but it did not seem to have attracted much attention, and presently the long-waited-for messenger was in the room. He was dusty and sunburnt, and looked good-naturedly at his hosts. They greeted him amiably enough, and after he put his worn red handkerchief away he took a leather wallet from his pocket, and looking at a little roll of bills almost reluctantly turned them over with lingering fingers and passed them to Mr. Kendall, who sat nearest him, saying that he believed it was just right.
There was little else said, and after the money had again been counted the meeting was over. There was indeed a hurried arrangement as to who should guard the treasury, but when Deacon Price acknowledged that he meant to go to South Dalton next morning, he was at once deputed to carry the remittance to the bank there, where the town's funds and many of its papers already reposed. The deacon said slowly that he didn't know as he cared about keeping so much money in the house, but he was not relieved by either of his colleagues, and so these honest men separated and returned to private life again. Their homes were at some distance from each other; but for a half mile or so Deacon Price followed Captain Stone, and a cloud of dust followed them both. Then the captain turned to the left, up toward the hills; but Deacon Price kept on for some distance through the level lands, and at last went down a long lane, unshaded except here and there where some ambitious fence stakes had succeeded in changing themselves into slender willow-trees. In the spring the sides of the lane had been wet, and were full of green things, growing as fast as they could; but now these had been for some time dried up. The lane was bordered with dusty mayweed, and three deep furrows were worn through the turf, where the wagon wheels and the horse's patient feet had traveled back and forward so many years. The house stood at the end, looking toward the main road as if it wished it were there; it was a low-storied white house, with faded green blinds.
The deacon had tried to hurry his slow horse still more after he caught sight of another horse and wagon standing in the wide dooryard. He had entirely forgotten, until that moment, that his niece and housekeeper, Eliza Storrow, had made a final announcement in the morning that she was going to start early that afternoon for the next town to help celebrate a golden wedding. Poor Eliza had been somewhat irate because even this uncommon season of high festival failed to excite her uncle's love for society. She made him run the gauntlet, as usual on such occasions, by telling him successively that he took no interest in nobody and nothing, and that she was sure she shouldn't know what to say when people asked where he was; that it looked real unfeeling and cold-hearted, and he couldn't expect folks to show any interest in him. These arguments, with many others, had been brought forward on previous occasions until the deacon knew them all by heart, and he listened to them impassively that morning, only observing cautiously to his son that Eliza must go through with just so much. But he promised to come back early from the village, since Eliza and the cousin who was to call for her meant to start soon after twelve. It was a long drive, and they wished to be in good season for the gathering of the clans.
He left the horse standing in the yard and went into the house, feeling carefully at his inner coat pocket as he did so. Eliza had been watching for him, but the minute he came in sight she had left the window and begun to scurry about in the pantry. The deacon did not stop to speak to her, but went directly to his bedroom, and after a moment's thought placed the precious wallet deep under the pillows. This act was followed by another moment's reflection, and as the old man turned, his son stood before him in the doorway. Neither spoke; there was a feeling of embarrassment which was not uncommon between them; but presently the young man said, "Eliza's been waiting for you to have your dinner; she's in a great hurry to get off. I'll be in just as quick as I take care of the horse."
"You let her be; I'll put her up myself," said the deacon a little ungraciously. "I guess Eliza 'll get there soon enough. I shouldn't think she'd want to start to ride way over there right in the middle of the day." At another time he would have been pleased with Warren's offer of aid, for that young man's bent was not in what we are pleased to call a practical direction. As he left the kitchen he noticed for the first time Mrs. Starbird, who sat by the farther window dressed in her best, and evidently brimming over with reproachful impatience. Deacon Price was a hospitable man, and stopped to shake hands with her kindly, and to explain that he had been delayed by some business that had come before the selectmen. He was politely assured that the delay was not of the least consequence, for Mrs. Starbird was going to drive the colt, and could make up the lost time on the road. As they stood talking, Eliza's footsteps were heard behind them, and, without turning or deigning to enter into any conversation with his niece, the deacon went out into the bright sunlight again.
Warren had preceded him after all, and was unfastening one of the traces, and his father unbuckled the other without a word. "You go in and have your dinner, -- why won't you, father?" the young man said, looking up appealingly. "You needn't be afraid but I'll do this all right."
"I declare, I was grieved when I saw, as I come up the lane, that you hadn't mended up the fence there where I told you this forenoon. I had to be off, and there's the two calves right into the garden piece, and I don't know what works they've been and done. It does seem too bad, Warren."
The son had worn a pleased and almost triumphant look, as if he had good news to tell, but now his face fell, and he turned crimson with shame and anger. "I wouldn't have forgot that for anything!" he stammered. "I've been hurrying as fast as I could with something I've been doing. I'm going off"-- but his father had already stepped inside the barn door with the hungry horse, and it was no use to say any more. Presently the deacon went into the house and ate his dinner, and after the few dishes had been washed, and Eliza had told him about the bread, and a piece of cold boiled beef, and a row of blueberry pies, and the sheet of gingerbread, which she had provided for the family's sustenance in her absence, she added that she might not be back until early Wednesday morning, and then she drove away in triumph with cousin Starbird. It was the first holiday the good woman had had for more than a year, except for church-going, and the deacon wished her good-day with real affection and sympathy, having already asked if she had everything she wanted to carry over, and finally desiring his respects to be given to the folks. He stood at the corner of the house and watched her all the way down the lane until she turned into the main road, and Eliza herself was much pleased as she caught sight of him. She waved her hand gallantly, to which he responded by an almost imperceptible inclination of the head and at once turned away.
"There ain't a better man alive," said cousin Starbird, whipping the elderly colt; "he's as set as anybody I ever see, in his own ways, but he's real good-hearted. I don't know anybody I'd look to quicker than him if I got into misfortune. He's aged a good deal this last year, don't you think he has, 'Liza? Sometimes I feel sure that Warren's odd notions wears on him more than we think."
"Course they do," said Eliza, throwing back the shawl which she had felt obliged to put on at first, out of respect to the occasion. "His father's mindful of Warren every hour in the day. He is getting more and more helpless and forgetful, and uncle's growing feeble, and he ain't able either to hire help or to do the farm work himself. Sometimes Warren takes holt real good, but it ain't often: and there he sets, up in that room he's fixed over the wood-house, and tinkers all day long. Last winter he used to be there till late at night; he took out one o' the window panes and set a funnel out through and used to keep a fire going and a bright light up there till one or two o'clock in the morning. His father never slept a wink, I don't believe. He looks like a man that's hard on to eighty, and he wa'n't but sixty-seven his last birthday. I guess Warren's teased him out of about all the bank money he had put away. There! I used to get interested myself in Warren's notions about his machines, but now I can't bear to hear him begin, and I go right into the pantry and rattle round as if I was drove to pieces."
"I suppose his father has indulged him more, seeing that he was so much younger than all the rest of his children, and they being dead anyway. I declare, I never see such a beautiful creatur' as Warren's mother was. I always thought she was kind of homesick here; 't was a lonesome place to me, always, and I never counted on its being healthy. The deacon's begun to look kind o' mossy, and I don't think it's all worry o' mind. It's kind of low land, and has always been called fevery." Cousin Starbird was apt to look on the dark side of things. "You can't always see the marks o' trouble," she went on. "There was old John Stacy, that lost three children in one day with scarlet fever the fall after his wife died; then his house got afire, and the bank failed where his property was. Job himself couldn't be no worse off; and he took on dreadful, as one thing after another came upon him, but there wa'n't a younger appearing man of his age anywhere at the time he died. He seemed to spring right up again, like a bent withe. I always thought it was a kind of a pity that the deacon didn't push Warren right off while he was young. He kept him to home trying to make a farm-boy of him till he was a grown man."
"Warren used to beseech him dreadfully to let him go off, when I first come over to live," said Eliza Storrow. "He had a great notion of working in some kind of a machine shop, and they said that there wa'n't so smart a workman there as he was; but he got a notion that he could improve on one of the machines, and lost all his interest in workin' his trade, and the end of it was that he spent a sight o' money to get a patent, and found somebody had stepped in with another just the week before. It was an awful mean thing, too, for some thought it was his notion that had been stole from him. There was a fellow that boarded where he did, to Lowell, that left all of a sudden, and they thought he took the plan, -- Warren being always free and pleasant with him, -- and then let somebody else have part of it to get the patent through; anyway it wasn't called for in any name they knew. Warren was dreadful discouraged about it, and was set against folks knowing, so don't you never say nothing that I said about it. I think he's kind of crazed about machinery, and I don't believe he knows what he's about more than half the time. He never give me a misbeholden word, I'll say that for him, but it's getting to be a melancholy habitation if ever I see one," said Eliza mournfully; and after this the conversation turned to more hopeful themes relating to the golden wedding.
The deacon had sighed as he turned away. He wondered if they would make the twelve-mile journey in safety, and smiled in spite of himself as he remembered an old story. He wished he had reminded them of those two old women who were traveling from Dalton to Somerset, and forgot where they came from, and what their names were, and where they were going. After this hidden spring of humor had bubbled to the surface, a little too late for anybody's enjoyment but his own, he relapsed into his usual plaintive gravity, and, bringing a hammer and nails and some stakes from the wood-house, he went out to mend the broken fence. It had been so often patched and propped that it now seemed hardly to be repaired again. The boards and posts had rotted away, and the gamesome calves had forced a wide breach in so weak a wall. It was a half afternoon's work, and the day was hot, but the tired old man set about it unflinchingly, and took no rest until he had given the topmost rail a shake and assured himself that it would last through his day. He had brought more tools and pieces of board, and he put these together to be replaced. Just as he began his work he caught sight of his son walking quickly away, far beyond the house, across the pastures. The deacon gave a heavy sigh, and as he hammered and sawed and built his fence again, there had been more than one sigh to follow it, for was not this only son more strange and helpless and useless than ever? There seemed little to look forward to in life.
The garden was being sadly treated and hindered by the drought; the beets and onions were only half grown, and the reliable old herb-bed seemed to have given up the fight altogether. In one place there had once been a flower-bed which belonged to Warren's mother, but it was almost wholly covered with grass. Eliza had no fondness for flowers, and the two men usually were unconscious that there were such things in the world. But this afternoon the deacon was glad to see a solitary sprig of London Pride, which stood out in bold relief against the gray post by the little garden gate. It sent a bright ray of encouragement into the shadow of his thoughts, and he went on his way cheerfully. He told himself that next he would attend to the wagon wheels, because he should need to start early in the morning, in order to get home before the heat of the day; it was a hot piece of road from here to the south village. He wondered idly where Warren had gone; he was glad he had not asked for money that day, but he had done questioning his son about his plans, or even the reason of his occasional absences.
The side door, which led into the kitchen, was shaded now, and a westerly breeze was coming across the level fields, so the deacon sat down on the doorstep to rest. The old cat came out as if she wished for company, and rubbed against his arm and mewed without making any noticeable sound. She put her fore-feet on the old man's knee and looked eagerly in his face and mewed again inaudibly, and her master laughed and wondered what she wanted. "I suppose the cellar door is locked and bolted, and you want to go down," said the deacon, "that's it, ain't it? I should ha' thought 'Liza would have rec'lected about them kittens, shouldn't you?" and pleasing himself with the creature's companionship, he rose and entered the house. The cat trotted alongside and disappeared quickly down the stairway, and, moved by some strange impulse, Deacon Price went into his bedroom to make sure that the wallet was safe under the pillow. He did not reach it at first, and he groped again, thinking that he had forgotten he pushed it so far under. But although he eagerly threw off the clothes and the pillows, and shook them twice over, and got down on his hands and knees and crept under the bed, and felt an odd singing noise grow louder and louder in his head, and at last became dizzy and dropped into the nearest chair, there was no wallet to be found.
Then he crept out into the empty kitchen, where the only sound was made by a fly that buzzed dismally in a spider's web. The air was close and hot in the house, and as the old man stood in the doorway it seemed as if there had some change come over his whole familiar world. He felt puzzled and weak, and at first started to go out to the wagon with the vain hope of finding the lost purse; it might be that he -- But there was no use in imagining that he had done anything but put it carefully under the pillow, that his son had stood in the doorway as he lifted his head, and that the money was gone. It was no use to deceive himself, or to hunt through the house; he had always before his eyes the picture of the pasture slope with the well-known figure of his son following the path that led across it to the nearest railroad station, a mile or two away.
The daylight waned slowly, and the heat of the sun lingered late into the night. Poor John Price went through with his usual duties mechanically, but with perfect care, and made the doing of his work last as long as he could. The pig and the chickens and the horse were fed; then there were the cows to bring in from pasture and to be milked; and at last the poor man even remembered the cat, and gave her a saucer of milk for her supper; but still it would not grow dark, and still the shame and sorrow weighed him down. In his restlessness he went through the lower rooms of the house, and opened the front door and shut it again, and looked into the stiff little best room, and felt as if he were following the country custom so familiar to him, of watching with the dead.
He did not get much sleep that night, in the uncomfortable bed which he tried to put into some sort of order before he lay down. Once he prayed aloud that the Lord would vouchsafe him a miracle, and that he might find his trust again, and what was still more precious, his confidence in his only son. For some reason he could not bear the sound of his own voice; and the thought of his time-honored office in the church pained him, for was it not disgraced and made a reproach?
Little by little the first sharpness of the shock wore away, while he tried to think what was to be done. The thought seized him that his son might have left some explanation of his going away, and he rose and took a candle and went to the little work-shop. There was less than the usual litter of cog-wheels and springs and screws, but somehow in the hot little room a feeling of reassurance and almost of hope took possession of him. It might be that Warren's hopes would not be disappointed, that he might be able to repay the stolen sum, that he had only secreted it, and would return later and give it back; for the poor deacon assured himself over and over that he would talk about the boy's affairs with him, and try again to aid him and to put him into a likely way at last, even if he had to mortgage the farm.
But in the morning, if there were still no signs of the lad, what could be done? The money which Jerry Jackson had owed the town as tax-collector, and paid at last that very day, -- that seven hundred dollars; the five hundred dollar bill, and the two that stood for a hundred each, and some smaller bills which were to pay the interest, -- how should they be replaced? He had no ready money of any amount, nor would have until the pay came for some hay, or unless he could persuade a neighbor, whose payments were honest but slow, to take up a note given for a piece of outlying woodland sold the winter before.
All through that long summer night he worried and waited for the morning, and sometimes told himself that his only son had robbed him, and sometimes said that Warren would never serve him like that, and when he came home it would be all made right. The whippoorwills were singing about the house, and one even came to perch on the kitchen doorstep and repeat its accusing cry. The waning moon rose late, and made a solemn red light in the east, and shone straight in at the little bedroom window as if it were a distant bale-fire on the hills. A little dog kept up a fierce barking by the next farmhouse, far away across the fields, and at last the tired man was ready to think his miserable wakefulness was the fault of the cur. . . . Yes, he had given Warren all the money he could, he had meant well by the boy, and surely now, unless the poor fellow had gone mad, there would be some way out of all this trouble; at any rate, he would not let other people have a chance to call his son a thief until there was no help for it.
The next morning, after a short, uneasy sleep, from which the deacon had a sad awaking, he hungrily ate some breakfast at the pantry shelves, and harnessed the old horse, and set out on a day's journey of which he hardly knew the end. He shut the door of the house and locked it, and gave a look of lingering affection at the old place, even stopping the horse for a minute in the lane that he might turn to survey it again most carefully. He felt as if he were going to do it wrong, and as if it were a conscious thing, the old weather-beaten dwelling that had sheltered him all his life, and those who had been dearest to him. It had no great attractions for a stranger. It was a representative house for that somewhat primitive farming region, though it had fallen out of repair, and wore a damaged and resourceless aspect. The appearance of a man's home is exactly characteristic of himself. Human nature is more powerful than its surroundings, and shapes them inevitably to itself.
It was still very early in the morning, and few persons were stirring. In fact, Deacon Price met nobody on the road except a sleepy boy following his cows to pasture, and he did not feel like looking him in the face, but gave a pull at the reins to hurry the horse and pass by without question. He took a cross road that was cool and shady at that hour, and while he journeyed slowly up the rough by-way he let the horse choose its own course without guidance. Some birds were crying and calling in the woods close by, as if it were altogether a day of ill omen and disaster. John Price felt more and more as if his world was coming to an end, and everything was going to pieces. He never had understood his son very well; there are some people who are like the moon, with one side always hidden and turned away, and Warren was only half familiar to his father. The old man had been at first inclined to treat his bright boy with a sort of respect and reverence, but in later years this had changed little by little to impatience and suspicion. It had been a great mortification that he had been obliged to maintain him, and once when somebody, perhaps Eliza Storrow, had been commenting upon a certain crop of wild oats which a neighboring lad had arranged for his harvesting, the deacon was heard to mutter, "Better them than no crop at all!" Yet he had never suffered his acquaintances to comment upon his son's behavior; his own treatment of him in public had insisted upon the rendering of respect from other people, but he had not acknowledged to himself, until this last sad night, that there was no practical result to be hoped for from Warren's gifts and graces. This might have been borne, and they might have struggled on together, somehow or other, but for this terrible blow of the theft of the town's money, which now left a debt and sorrow on the old man's shoulders almost too heavy to be borne.
In a short time the woods were passed, and the road led out to a pleasant country of quite different character from the lowland neighborhood left behind. There were gently sloping hills and long lines of elms, and the farms looked more prosperous. One farm only on this road was unproductive, and this was partly the fault of art, and partly of nature, for it was the homestead of Captain Stone, a better sailor than farmer. Its pastures were gathering-places for the ledges, and the fields were all made swampy by many springs. It seemed to be the waste corner of that region for all unused and undeveloped materials of farming land; but while there was every requisite, there was a chaotic and primitive arrangement of clay, rock, and sand. Yet the captain had settled down here in blissful content as a tiller of the soil; and while he might have bought the best farm in the county, he congratulated himself upon his rare privileges here, and would have found more level and kindly acres as uninteresting as being becalmed in tropic seas. He worked his farm as he had sailed his ships, by using tact and discretion, and with true seaman's philosophy he never fretted. He waited for the wind to change, or the tide of spring to flow, or of winter to ebb, for he had long ago learned there was no hurrying nature; and to hear him talk of one of his small plots of thin hay, or slow-growing potatoes, you would have thought it an intelligent creature which existed mainly on his benevolent encouragement and tolerance. By some persons the captain was laughed at, and by others he was condemned. The trouble was that he had a shrewd insight into human nature, and was so impossible to deceive or to persuade against his will that he had made many enemies, who had hoped to grow rich by emptying the good old man's pockets.
It was to this lifelong friend that Deacon Price had turned in his extremity; but as he drew nearer that morning to the red house on the hilltop, his heart began to fail him, for what if he should be refused! There seemed no other resource, in such a case, but to make the sad occurrence known, or to go away in search of Warren himself. He could put the deeds of his farm, those worn deeds that had come down from father to son, generation after generation, into the hands of the other selectmen, who would be sure to stand his friends and keep the secret for a time. Warren had looked discouraged, and pale, and desperate in the last month, and his father suddenly remembered this, and groaned aloud as he wished that the boy had come to him, and that he had made it possible, instead of coldly ignoring and disapproving him day after day; such a mixture of wrath and shame and compassion has seldom been in a father's heart.
The captain was abroad early, and the deacon saw him first, sauntering about at the foot of the slope on which his house and buildings stood. He seemed to be examining the soil, and greeted his guest with a hearty satisfaction. The deacon slowly alighted, and leaving his trusty steed to gnaw the fence or browse among the bushes as she chose, went into the field. He walked feebly, and when he met the captain he could hardly find words to tell his errand. Men of his kind are apt to be made silent by any great occurrence; they have rarely anything but a limited power of expression, and their language only serves them for common use. Those who have lived close to nature understand each other without speech, as dogs or horses do, and the elder generations of New Englanders knew less of society and human companionship and association than we can comprehend.
The captain watched his visitor as he came toward him, and when they met he gave one quick, final look, and then proceeded to make use of his usual forms of greeting, as if he had no idea that anything was the matter.
"I've taken a notion to set out some cramb'ries hereabouts another year," he announced. "I never made a voyage to sea without cramb'ries aboard, if I could help myself. They last well, and taste sprightly when other things is begun to lose savor. I don't cut any hay to speak of, in this piece. I've been meaning to tackle it somehow -- See here," -- pushing it with his great foot, -- "it's all coming up brakes and sedge. I do' know's you want to be standing about -- It is master spongy for good grass land, and 't would be a great expense to drain it off. I s'pose I'm gettin' too old to try any of these new notions, but they sort of divert me. We're having a bad spell o' drought, ain't we? 'T is all tops of rocks about here, and we're singed pretty brown." The captain chattered more briskly than was his wont; it was impossible to mistake the fact of his being a sailor, for indeed that business stamps its followers with an unmistakable brand.
They ventured upon a wetter spot than usual, and when the deacon pulled up his foot from the mire underneath with a resounding plop, his host proposed that they should seek the higher ground.
"Pretty smart at home?" asked the captain presently, to end a season of strange silence; and the deacon replied, at first somewhat sorrowfully, that they were fair to middling, but explained directly that Eliza was away for a couple of nights, and Warren too; it cost a great effort to speak the young man's name.
"Oh, yes, I rec'lect," growled the captain amiably. "You spoke about the golden weddin' yisterday; I should thought you'd ha' gone too, along with 'Liza; such junkets ain't to be had every day. I must say I wish something or other would happen to take Mis' Hawkes's attention off of me," dropping his voice cautiously, as they came nearer to the house. "She's had a dreadful grumpy time of it, this week past, and looked homely enough to stop a clock. I used to be concerned along in the first of it, when I come off the sea, but I found it didn't do no hurt, and so I let her work, and first thing you know the wind is veered round again handsome, and off you go."
The deacon tried to laugh at this; the friends seated themselves on the off side of the wood-pile, under the shade of a great choke-pear tree. They had mounted the chopping-block, which was a stout elm log, standing on six legs, so that it looked like some stupid, blunderheaded creature of not altogether harmless disposition. The two old men were quite at its mercy if it should canter away suddenly; but they talked for some minutes on ordinary subjects, and even left their position to go to inspect the pigs, and returned again, before the deacon arrived at an explanation of his errand.
It was a hard thing to do, and the captain turned and looked at him narrowly.
"I've got to use the money right away as soon as I can have it. I want to see to some business this forenoon; you know I've been calc'latin' to go to the south village to-day anyway. I didn't know for certain I should have to see about this, or I wouldn't have given you such short notice" -- and here the deacon stopped again; it had come very near an untruth, this last sentence, and he would not cheat the man of whom he was asking so great a favor.
"I didn't fetch the papers along because I didn't know how 't would be with you," he explained; "they'll make you safe. Austin's folks was talking round, this spring, to see if I wanted to part with our north field; his youngest son's a smart fellow, and wants to set up for himself and have a truck farm. But I'm only asking the loan for a time, ye know, neighbor," and the deacon looked anxiously at the old captain, and then leaned over, poking the chips about with the butt of his whip, which he had brought with him from the wagon.
"You shall have it," said the captain at last. "'T ain't everybody I'd do such a thing to obleege, and I am only going to have my say about one thing, John: I never had no family of my own, and I suppose the feelin's of a father are somethin' I don't know nothing about, for or against; but I must say I hate to see ye an old man before your time, runnin' all out and looking discouraged on account o' favorin' Warren. You'll come in astern o' the lighter, and he too; and if he's been beseechin' ye to get this money together to further his notions, I'm doing ye both a wrong to let ye have it. But I can't deny ye, and I've got more than what ye say ye want, right here in the house as it happens. I was going to buy into that new three-masted schooner the Otises have got on the stocks now; I don't know but I am getting along in years to take hold of anything new in navigation."
"I ain't intending to let Warren have none o' this," said the deacon humbly, and he longed to say more, and felt as if he never could hold up his head again among his fellows; and the time seemed very long and dreary before the captain came back from his house with the note ready to sign, and the seven hundred dollars ready to place in the deacon's gray and shaking hand. His benefactor pondered long over this strange visit, longing to know what had happened, but he assured himself over and over that he couldn't help letting him have it, and if never a cent of it came back there was nobody he was gladder to oblige. And John Price took his weary way to the south village of Dalton, and paid a sum of seven hundred and thirty-five dollars to the creditors of the town. It was not until early in the afternoon that old Abel Stone suddenly bethought himself that something might have happened about that payment of Jerry Jackson's. If he were not growing old and a fool at last! Why hadn't he asked the deacon if he had lost the money he had taken home from the selectmen's office! And when Mrs. Hawkes afterward ventured to ask him a harmless question, he had grown red in the face and poured forth a torrent of nautical language which had nearly taken her breath away, without apparent reason or excuse. The captain, it must be confessed, was an uncommon swearer; he was one of the people who seem to serve as volcanoes, or outlets for the concealed anger of poor human nature. It is difficult to explain why profanity seems so much more unlawful and shocking in some persons than in others, but there was something fairly amusing in the flurry and sputter of irreverent words which betokened excitement of any kind in the mind of Captain Stone. He even forgot himself so far as to swear a little occasionally in the course of earnest exhortations in the evening prayer-meetings. There was not a better man or a sincerer Christian in the town of Dalton, though he had become a church-member late in life; and knowing this, there was never anything but a compassionate smile when he grew red in the face with zeal, and recommended the poor damned dogs of heathen to mercy.
Nothing seemed to have changed outwardly at the south village. John Price did his errands and finished his business as quickly as possible, and avoided meeting his acquaintances, for he could not help fearing that he should be questioned about this miserable trouble. As he left the bank he could not help giving a sigh of relief, for that emergency was bridged over; and for a few minutes he kept himself by main force from looking at the future, or asking himself "What next?"
But as he turned into his dust-powdered lane again at noon, the curious little faces of the mayweed blossoms seemed to stare up at him, and there was nobody to speak to him, and the house was like a tomb where all the years of his past were lying dead, and all the pleasantness of life existed only in remembrance.
He began to wish for Warren in an unexpected way; and as he looked about the house he saw everywhere some evidence of his son's mechanical skill. Had not Eliza Storrow left home without a fear because, as she always said, Warren was as handy as a woman? The remembrance of such patient diligence at his own chosen work, his quietness under reproof, his evident discomfort at having to be dependent upon his father, linked to a perfect faith in the ultimate success of his plans, -- the thought of all these things flashed through the old man's mind. "I wish I had waited 'til he told me what he had to say, yisterday," said Deacon Price to himself. "'T was strange about that fence too. He's al'ays been willing to take holt and help whenever I spoke to him." He even came to believe that the boy had grown desperate, and in some emergency had gone in search of new materials for his machine. "He's so forgitful," said the father, "he may have forgot to speak about the money, and 't was but a small-looking roll of bills. He'll be back to-night, like 's not, as concerned as can be when he finds out what 't was he took." It was the way we remember only the good qualities of our friends who have died, and let the bad ones fade out of sight, and so know the angels that were growing in them all the while, and have thrown off the disguise and hindrance of the human shape.
Towards evening Jacob Austin, a neighbor, came into the yard on an errand, and was astonished to see how tired and old the deacon looked. He had left the oxen and their great load of coarse meadow hay standing in the road at the end of the lane, and meant at first to shoulder the borrowed pitchfork and quickly rejoin them, but it was impossible. He asked if anything were the matter, and was answered that there was something trying about such a long spell of drought, which did not in the least satisfy his curiosity.
"No," said the deacon, "I'm getting to be an old man, but I keep my health fairly. Eliza and Warren, they're both off 'tending to their own concerns, but I make sure one or both of 'm 'll be back toward sundown." And Jacob, after casting about in his mind for anything further to say, mentioned again that 't was inconvenient to break a pitchfork right in the middle of loading a rack, and went away.
"Looked to me as if he had had a stroke," he told his family that night at supper-time; and the conduct of Warren and Eliza Storrow, in going off and leaving the old deacon to shift for himself, was most severely commented upon.
But all this time, the latter half of that Tuesday afternoon, Eliza and her cousin Starbird were jogging toward home over the Dalton and Somerset hills. The colt was in good trim, and glad to be nearing his own familiar stall again, and struck out at an uncommonly good pace, though none of the swiftest at that. It was hardly six o'clock when the two tired-out and severely sun-burnt women came into the yard. The deacon heard the high-pitched voice which he knew so well, before he heard the sound of the wheels on the soft, dry turf, and went out to greet the new-comers, half glad and half afraid. Eliza took it for granted that Warren was either in the workshop as usual, or, as she scornfully expressed it, roaming the hills, and did not ask for him. Cousin Starbird had accepted an invitation to tea, as her home was three miles farther on. They were both heavy women, and stiff from sitting still so long in the old wagon, and they grumbled a little as they walked toward the house.
"Yes, 't was a splendid occasion," Eliza answered the deacon, as he stood near, hitching the colt to a much gnawed post. "It all went off beautifully. Everybody wanted to know where you was, an' Warren. There, we talked till we was all about dead, and eat ourselves sick; you never saw a handsomer table in your life. The old folks stood it well, but I see they'd begun to kind o' give out at dinner-time to-day, -- last night was the celebration, you know, because some could come in the evenin' that was occupied by day. They wanted us to stop longer, but I see 't was best to break it up, and I'd rather go over again by an' by, and spend the day in peace an' quietness, and have a good visit. We've been saying, as we rode along, that we shouldn't be surprised if the old folks kind o' faded out after this, they've been lookin' forward to it so long. Well, it's all over, like a hoss-race;" and Eliza heaved a great sigh and went into the front room to open the blinds and make it less stuffy; then she removed her best bonnet in her own room, and presently came out to get tea, dressed in her familiar everyday calico gown.
The deacon was sitting by the open window, drumming on the sill; he had a trick of beating a slow tattoo with the ends of his queerly shaped fingers. They were long and dry, and somehow did not look as if they were useful, though John Price had been a hard-working man. Cousin Starbird had come downstairs first, and had gone out to find a piece of the golden wedding cake that had been left in the wagon. Eliza was busy in the pantry, scolding a good deal at the state she found it in.
"Whatever is this great thing in my pocket!" she exclaimed, for something had struck the table-leg as she came by it to bring the last brace of blueberry pies; then quickly fumbling in the pocket's depths she took out the deacon's great brown wallet, and presented it to its owner.
"Good King Agrippy!" said the amazed man, snatching it, and looking at Eliza angrily and then at the wallet again, and turning it over in his hand.
"I ain't give it a thought, from that minute to this," said Eliza, who was not a little frightened. "I s'pose you've been thinking you lost it. I thought you looked dreadful wamblecropped when I first saw you. Why, you see, I didn't undertake to wash yesterday mornin', because I didn't want the clothes a-layin' and mildewin', and I kind of thought perhaps I'd put it off till next week, anyway, though it ain't my principle to do fortnight's washes. An' I had so much to do, gettin' ready to start, that I'd gone in early and made up your bed and not put a clean sheet on; but you was busy takin' out the hoss after you come home at noon, and had your dinner to eat, and I had the time to spare, so I just slipped in and stripped off the bedclothes then, and this come out from under the pillow. I meant to hand it to you when you come in from the barn, but I forgot it the next minute; you know we was belated about starting, and I was scatter-witted. I hope it ain't caused you no great inconvenience; you ain't wanted it for anything very special, have you? I s'pose 't was foolish to go fussin' about the bed, but I thought if you should be sick or anything" --
"Well, I've got it now," said the deacon, drawing a long breath. "I own I felt some uneasy about it." Presently he went out to the yard, and across the garden, and beyond the garden to the family burying-lot in the field. He would have gone to his parish church to pray if he had been a devout Catholic; as it was, this was the nearest approach he could make to a solemn thanksgiving.
Some of the oldest stones lay flat on the ground, and a network of blackberry vines covered them in part. The leaves were burnt by the sun, and the crickets scrambled among them as the deacon's foot-fall startled them. His first wife and his second wife both were buried there, their resting-places marked by a slate head-stone and a marble one, and it was to this last that the old man went. His first wife had been a plain, hard-worked woman of sterling worth, and his fortunes had declined from the day she left him to guard them alone; but her successor had been a pale and delicate school-teacher, who had roused some unsuspected longing for beauty and romance in Deacon Price's otherwise prosaic nature. She had seemed like a windflower growing beside a ledge; and her husband had been forced to confess that she was not fit for a farmer's wife. If he could have had a combination of his two partners, he had once ventured to think, he would have been exactly suited. But it seemed to him, as he stood before the grave with his head bowed, the only way of making some sign of his sorrow, he had wrongfully accused an innocent man, his son and hers; and there he stayed, doing penance as best he could, until Eliza's voice called him to the house, and to some sort of comfortable existence and lack of self-reproof.
Before they had finished supper Warren came in, looking flushed and tired; but he took his seat at the table after a pleasant greeting, and the deacon passed him every plate within reach, treating him with uncommon politeness. The father could not help noticing that his son kept stealing glances at him, and that he looked pleased and satisfied. It seemed to him as if Warren must have known of his suspicions and of their happy ending, but it was discovered presently that the long-toiled-over machine had proved to be a success. Warren had taken it to his former employer at Lowell, who gladly promised, so great was his delight with it, to pay the expenses of getting a patent in exchange for a portion of the right. "He said there would be no end to the sale of it," said the young man, looking eagerly at his father's face. "I wouldn't have run off so yesterday, but I was so full of it I couldn't bear to think of losing the cars, and I didn't want to say one word about this thing till I was sure.
"I expect I have been slack," he continued with evident effort, while they leaned over the garden fence, and he looked at his father appealingly. "But the fact is, I couldn't seem to think of other things; it took all there was of me to keep right after that. But now I'm going to take right hold and be some help about the place. I don't seem to want to touch a tool again for a year." Warren looked pale and restless; the reaction from his long excitement had set in.
The deacon gave a shaky laugh, and struck his son's shoulder by way of a clumsy caress. "Don't you go to frettin' yourself now," he said. "I ain't felt so pleased as I do to-day since the day you come into the world. I sort of felt certain then that you was goin' to be somebody, I do' know why 't was," -- and he turned away suddenly toward the house. "If you are as rich as you say you be, I shouldn't wonder if between us we hadn't better get them blinds painted, and smart us up a little, another year. I declare, the old place has begun to look considerable gone to seed."
That night a great thunder-shower broke the spell of the long drought, and afterward, until morning, the rain fell fast upon the thirsty ground. It was a good night to sleep, Eliza said, as she wearily climbed the crooked backstairs at nine o'clock, for there was already a coolness in the air. Eliza never was told the whole of the story about the wallet, for when she heard part of it she only said it was just like a man, -- they were generally the most helpless creatur's alive. The deacon might have known she had put it away somewhere. Why didn't he come and ask her? He never seemed to mistrust that it was a direct p'inting out of his duty to ride over to Somerset to the gathering, and just speak to the folks.
In the early morning, while it was cool and wet, Deacon Price drove up to Captain Stone's farm, and the two selectmen perched on the chopping-log again, while the confession was made and listened to with great gravity. The captain swore roundly in his satisfaction, and said he was going to have a square talk with Warren, and advise with him a little, for fear that those landsharks down in Lowell should undertake to cheat him. He stowed away the repayment of the loan in one of his big pockets, as if it were of little consequence to him, but he announced with considerable satisfaction at the next selectmen's meeting, that he owned a few planks of that three-masted schooner which the Otises were about ready to launch. And he winked at Deacon Price in a way that their brother Kendall was not able to understand.
Jewett comments on "An Only Son"
From a letter to Annie Fields apparently from late 1889 (Fields, Letters, 51-2).
Today I am plunged into the depths of the rural districts, and this promised to be one of my dear country stories like the Only Son. Good heavens! what a wonderful kind of chemistry it is that evolves all the details of a story and writes them presently in one flash of time! For two weeks I have been noticing a certain string of things and having hints of character, etc., and day before yesterday the plan of the story comes into my mind, and in half an hour I have put all the little words and ways into their places and can read it off to myself like print. Who does it? for I grow more and more sure that I don't!
"An Only Son" was originally published in Atlantic Monthly, November 1883, collected in The Mate of the Daylight, and Friends Ashore (1884), then reprinted in Tales of New England (1890). Each text varies. According to Michael Davitt Bell in his Library of America edition of Jewett's Novels and Stories (p. 932), the Tales of New England texts are less reliable than the first collection texts. This text is from Tales of New England. For a list of differences between The Mate of the Daylight version and this version, click here. Where I have noticed probable errors in a text, I have added a correction and indicated the change with brackets. If you find errors in this text or if you see items that you believe should be annotated, please communicate with the site manager.
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Dalton: Though there are towns such as Dalton and Somerset in the areas of Maine and Massachusetts where this story is set, Jewett appears to have used mainly fictional settings, except for Lowell, an actual manufacturing center (see below). Her reference to South Dalton suggests that Jewett's models for Dalton and South Dalton were Berwick and South Berwick, her home, in Maine. Jewett usually sets her stories in fictional towns, but usually locates them in relation to actual towns.
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Carpaccio, Reception of the Embassadors: Vittore Carpaccio, ( c. 1460 - 1525/26), an early Renaissance narrative painter of the Venetian school. The Encyclopedia Britannica says "his panoramic depictions of pageants, processions, and other public gatherings are notable for their wealth of realistic detail, sunny colouring, and dramatic narrative sense." His series, "The Legend of St. Ursula" was painted for the Venetian Brotherhood of the School of St. Ursula. "The Arrival of the English Ambassadors to the Court of the King of Brittany" was the first panel in the narrative of St. Ursula's life. On a 2.75 x 5.89 meter canvas, it shows a panoramic view of English ambassadors presenting themselves with an offer of marriage between the pagan English prince, Ureus, and Ursula, a princess of Christian Brittany. It is not clear why Jewett places the events in Venice.
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mayweed: a variety of chamomile (Anthemus). The Encyclopedia Britannica says, " Mayweed (A. cotula) is a strong-smelling weed that has been used in medicines and insecticides." [ Back ]
golden wedding: celebration of a fiftieth wedding anniversary. [ Back ]
Job himself couldn't be no worse off: See Job, Chapters 2 and 3. [ Back ]
Lowell: About 48 km. northwest of Boston, Massachusetts, Lowell was a textile center in the 19th Century, hence a center of technological innovation. [ Back ]
London Pride: In New England, London Pride is Lychnis chalcedonica, known commonly today as Maltese Cross. Click here or scroll down for more information and a photograph. (Research: Nancy Mayer Wetzel)
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watching with the dead: See "Miss Tempy's Watchers" in Tales of New England for an example.
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whippoorwills: this species of nightjar has a distinctive nocturnal song (Research, Allison Easton).
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a crop of wild oats: the probable implication of this phrase is that the neighboring lad has made a woman pregnant, though it may also mean that the young man has accumulated debts or in some other way caused his father expense through "wild" behavior. [ Back ]
cramb'ries: cranberries. [ Back ]
choke-pear: The 1913 Webster's unabridged dictionary gives two meanings to choke-pear. "1. A kind of pear that has a rough, astringent taste, and is swallowed with difficulty, or which contracts the mucous membrane of the mouth. 2. A sarcasm by which one is put to silence; anything that can not be answered. [ Back ]
astern o' the lighter: the sense of this nautical metaphor is to arrive in harbor last and late, either behind or at the rear of a barge that does not travel under its own power, but is pushed or towed by another vessel. [ Back ]
on the stocks now: a ship under construction on shore would be supported by a framework (stocks) to hold it upright. [ Back ]
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. [ Back ]
wamblecropped: a localism probably meaning nauseated. "Wamble" refers to queasy motion in the stomach, and "crop" may refer to a bird's crop, part of its digestive system. [ Back ]
windflower: Anemones are known as windflowers because their fluffy seeds are wind-borne. Wood anemones and thimbleweeds are found in New England. Ted Eden says that in nineteenth-century language of flowers, anemones often represented illness. [ Back ]
the cars: train passenger cars. [ Back ]
Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.
LONDON PRIDE by Nancy Mayer Wetzel, Landscape Gardener, Jewett House
Copyright (c) 2003 by Nancy Mayer Wetzel
The plant London Pride is mentioned frequently in Sarah Orne Jewett's writing. If Jewett may be taken at her word in "The Confession of a House-Breaker," London Pride grew in her home garden in South Berwick, Maine, as well as in her literary gardens. References to London Pride in Jewett's writing include: "From a Mournful Villager" (1881), "The Confession of a House-Breaker" (1883), "An Only Son" (1883), "Three Friends" (1886), "A Second Spring" (1893), and Chapter 2 of The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896).
Today in New England, Jewett's London Pride is known as Maltese Cross (Lychnis chalcedonica). The red London Pride in this photograph blooms in a South Berwick garden with the golden-yellow Sunflower Heliopsis (Heliopsis helianthoides 'Summer Sun'). (Photograph by Gary Wetzel, copyright 2003)
The study of plant names is a fascinating pursuit. Over the years, the common name London Pride passed out of general use and the red flower disappeared from the Jewett garden. How is it known, then, that London Pride is Maltese Cross? A great help in tracing London Pride is Jewett's description of her plant in "The Confession of a House-Breaker:"The ranks of flowers in my garden took on a great splendor of bloom, as the light grew clearer. …It seemed as if the quiet June morning ushered in some great festival day, there were such preparations being made. After the roses, the London pride was most gorgeous to behold, with its brilliant red and its tall, straight stalks. It had a soldierly appearance, as if the flowers were out early to keep guard.Steven M. Still in Manual of Herbaceous Ornamental Plants (1994) agrees with the term Jewett used for her plant. He says London Pride—and the commonly named Maltese Cross, Jerusalem Cross, and Scarlet Lightning—are Lychnis chalcedonica, an erect plant of two or three feet with scarlet blooms in summer. Lychnis, from a Greek word meaning lamp, is a genus of bright flowers, certainly a fitting genus for Jewett’s tall stalks of brilliant red bloom.
What Jewett called London Pride, Still identifies as Lychnis chalcedonica, but Jewett’s contemporary Gertrude Jekyll and Still's contemporary Donald Wyman say London Pride is something quite different: Saxifraga umbrosa. Wyman's Gardening Encyclopedia (1986) states the plant is a tumbling mound of six inches with small pink or white flowers in spring that is much grown in England. This information is born out by the English Jekyll in Wood and Garden (1899):Next comes the common London Pride, which I think quite the most beautiful of the Saxifrages of this section. If it was a rare thing, what a fuss we should make about it! The place is a little dry for it, but all the same, it makes a handsome spreading tuft hanging over the face of the wall. When its pink cloud of bloom is at its best, I always think it the prettiest thing in the garden.Lychnis chalcedonica was used in American gardens in the 1600s and has remained popular in perennial borders. New pink and carmine-red varieties have been developed. Saxifraga umbrosa was in general use in this country later, some time between 1776 and 1850, and is still suggested for rock gardens and ground covers. Rudy J. Favretti and Joy Putman Favretti documented these dates from period sources and published their findings in Landscapes and Gardens for Historic Buildings (1978).
The plants called London Pride have many other common names. While this distances one from plant identification, it does provide an inviting narrative spin for the search. On June 30, 1801, Martha Ballard, a midwife and healer from Hallowell, Maine, relieved her grandson's pain with "a decoction of ye flowers of London pride." The journal in which Ballard recorded this incident was published in 1992, The Diary of Martha Ballard, 1785-1812, edited by Robert and Cynthia McCausland. The glossary states that the flowers of London Pride are St. Patrick's cabbage. Here is yet another common name for a London Pride plant. The Color Dictionary of Flowers and Plants for Home and Garden (1969) by Roy Hay and Patrick M. Synge says St. Patrick's cabbage is Saxifraga umbrosa. However, considering the late June occurrence of this event, the possibility that Ballard used the fresh-blooming flowers of Lychnis chalcedonica should be considered.
There is also variation on the name London Pride, indicating a third genus where it crops up: Lychnis, Saxifraga, and Lobelia.A name close to London Pride has persisted in Hancock County, Maine to the present, according to Jan Morse Whalen of Steuben. Pride of London is what the recently deceased Virginia Gilson Whalen, descendant of an old Machias merchant family, called the scarlet Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Jewett admired the Cardinal Flower growing on the banks of the Salmon Falls River near her home. Although she distinguished between the red Cardinal Flower and the red London Pride, Jewett acknowledged, perhaps unwittingly, their metaphorical similarity when she wrote of the Cardinal Flower's "pride." From "River Driftwood" (1881):They (Cardinal Flowers) wear a color that is the sign of high ecclesiastical rank, and the temper of their minds would make them furies if they fought for church and state. They are no radicals; they are tories and aristocrats; they belong to the old nobility among flowers. It would be a pity if the rank marsh grass overran them, or if the pickerel weed should wade ashore to invade them and humble their pride.Alice Morse Earle's Old Time Gardens (1901), includes a section on London Pride with a regional slant. Earle valued London Pride, as did Jewett, for associations of yore and included an anecdote about its importance in one garden before 1801. A welcome black and white photograph, labeled London Pride, shows the plant presently recognized as Maltese Cross (Lychnis chalcedonica):A great favorite in the old garden was the splendid scarlet Lychnis, to which in New England is given the name of London Pride. There are two old varieties: one has four petals with squared ends, and is called, from the shape of the expanded flower, the Maltese Cross; the other, called Scarlet Lightning, is shown on a succeeding page; it has five deeply-nicked petals. It is a flower of midsummer eve and magic power, and I think it must have some connection with the Crusaders, being called Gerarde Floure of Jerusalem, and Flower of Candy. The five-petalled form is rarely seen; in one old family I know it is so cherished, and deemed so magic a homemaker, that every bride who has gone from that home for over a hundred years has borne away a plant of the London Pride; it has really become a Family Pride.There is even earlier visual documentation for London Pride: a painting of vivid color and veracity, titled in a bold hand above the flower image, "London Pride. J. Fisher, 1820." Reverend Jonathan Fisher of Blue Hill, Maine included London Pride in an untitled notebook of watercolor sketches, now in the collection at his house, the Jonathan Fisher Memorial, Inc. Alice Winchester, in Versatile Yankee, The Art of Jonathan Fisher, 1768-1847 (1973), describes the watercolors as charming depictions of the particular in nature. Fisher's five-petalled London Pride is clearly today's Maltese Cross (Lychnis chalcedonica). Commentary for the London Pride plate in the book states:Another plant that might be found in a Maine garden, realistically rendered down to the meticulous detailing of touches of blue on the stamens and the highlights on the hairy stems.Via the intriguing folkways and science of nomenclature, one arrives at the conclusion that, in New England today, London Pride is Maltese Cross. The plant commonly seen has five petals, but the name that Earle ascribed to that form, Scarlet Lightning, has been replaced by Maltese Cross. Fisher, Earle, and Jewett, all New Englanders, have shown in word, watercolor, and photograph that their London Pride is Lychnis chalcedonica, the Maltese Cross currently propagated in nurseries.
London Pride is being reintroduced to the Jewett garden, which is open to the public along with her house. Van Berkum Nursery in Deerfield, New Hampshire--less than an hour's drive from the Jewett garden--often has Maltese Cross available. Their catalog entry for Lychnis chalcedonica makes no mention of London Pride, but it does give this accurate annotation:This is an old fashioned flower that grew in most of our grandmothers' gardens. Maltese Cross is easy to grow and has bright scarlet clusters of cross-like flowers that look elegant with its dark green foliage.
Tales of New England