The Tory Lover -- Contents
 
 

The Tory Lover by Sarah Orne Jewett
.Chapter XXVIII
NEWS AT THE LANDING

   "What, have the heralds come,
To tell this quiet shore of victories? -
. . . . . . . . . .
There is a mother weeping for her son!
Like some lean tree whose fruit has dropt, she gives
Her all, to wither in autumnal woe."
 

     There were several low buildings to the east of Colonel Hamilton's house, where various domestic affairs were established; the last of these had the large spinning room in the second story, and stood four-square to the breezes. Here were the wool and flax wheels and the loom, with all their implements; and here Peggy reigned over her handmaidens one warm spring afternoon, with something less than her accustomed severity. She had just been declaring, in a general way, that the idle clack of foolish tongues distressed her ears more than the noise of the loom and wheels together.

     There was an outside stairway, and the coveted seat of the young maids who were sewing was on the broad doorstep at the stairhead. You could look up the wide fields to the long row of elms by General Goodwin's, and see what might pass by on the Portsmouth road; you could also command the long green lane that led downhill toward the great house; also the shipyard, and, beyond that, a long stretch of the river itself. A young man must be wary in his approach who was not descried afar by the sentinels of this pretty garrison. On a perfectly silent afternoon in May, the whole world, clouds and all, appeared to be fast asleep; but something might happen at any moment, and it behooved Hannah Neal and Phebe Hodgdon to be on the watch.

     They sat side by side on the doorstep, each reluctantly top-sewing a new linen sheet; two other girls were spinning flax within the room, and old Peggy herself was at the loom, weaving with steady diligence. As she sat there, treading and reaching at her work, with quick click-clacks of the shuttle and a fine persistence of awkward energy, she could look across the river to Madam Wallingford's house, with its high elms and rows of shuttered windows. Between her heart and old Susan's there was a bond of lifelong friendship; they seldom met, owing to their respective responsibilities; they even went to different places of worship on Sunday; but they always took a vast and silent comfort in watching for each other's light at night.

     It was Peggy's habit to sing softly at her work; once in a while, in her gentlest mood, she chanted aloud a snatch of some old song. There was never but one song for a day, to be repeated over and over; and the better she was pleased with her conditions, the sadder was her strain. Now and then her old voice, weak and uncertain, but still unexpectedly beautiful, came back again so clear and true that the chattering girls themselves were hushed into listening. To-day the peace in her heart was such that she had been singing over and over, with plaintive cadences, a most mournful quatrain of ancient lines set to a still more ancient tune. It must have touched the chords of some inherited memory.
 

"O Death, rock me asleep"
 

sang Peggy dolefully; -
 

"O Death, rock me asleep,
   Bring me to quiet rest;
Let pass my weary, guiltless ghost
   Out of my care-full breast!"
 

     The girls had seldom heard their old tyrant forget herself and them so completely in her singing; they gave each other a sympathetic glance as she continued; the noisy shuttle subdued itself to the time and tune, and made a rude accompaniment. One might have the same feeling in listening to a thrush at nightfall as to such a natural song as this. At last the poignancy of feeling grew too great for even the singer herself, and she drew away from the spell of the music, as if she approached too near the sad reality of its first occasion.

     "My grandmother was said to have the best voice in these Piscataqua plantations, when she was young," announced Peggy with the tone of a friend. "My mother had a pretty voice, too, but 't was a small voice, like mine. I'm good as dumb beside either of them, but there isn't no tune I ever heard that I can't follow in my own head as true as a bird. This one was a verse my grandmother knew, - some days I think she sings right on inside me, - but I forget the story of the song: she knew the old story of everything." Peggy was modest, but she had held her audience for once, and knew it.

     She stopped to tie a careful weaver's knot in the warp, and adjust some difficulty of her pattern. Hitty Warren, who was spinning by the door, trilled out a gay strain, as if by way of relief to the gloom of a song which, however moving and beautiful, could not fail to make the heart grow sad.
 

"I have a house and lands in Kent,"
 

protested Hitty's light young caroling voice, -
 

   "And if you'll love me, love me now,
Two pence ha'penny is my rent,
   And I cannot come every day to woo!"
 

Whereupon Hannah Neal and Phebe, who sang a capital clear second, joined in with approval and alacrity to sing the chorus: -
 

"Two pence ha'penny is his rent,
   And he cannot come every day to woo!"
 

     They kept it going over and over, like blackbirds, and Peggy clacked her shuttle in time to this measure, but she did not offer to join them; perhaps she had felt some dim foreboding that her own song comforted. The air had suddenly grown full of spring-time calls and cries, as if there were some subtle disturbance; the birds were in busy flight; and one could hear faint shouts from the old Vineyard and the neighboring falls, where men and boys were at the salmon fishing.

     At last the girls were done singing; they had called no audience out of the empty green fields. They began to lag in their work, and sat whispering and chuckling a little about their own affairs. Peggy stopped the loom and regarded them angrily, but they took no notice. All four had their heads close together now over a piece of gossip; she turned on her narrow perch and faced them. Their young hands were idle in their laps.

     "Go to your wheel, Hitty Warren, and to your work, the pack of you! I begretch the time you waste, and the meals you eat in laziness, you foolish hussies!" cried Peggy, with distinctness. "Look at the house so short of both sheeting and table gear since the colonel took his great boatload of what we had in use to send to the army! If it wa'n't for me having forethought to hide a couple o' heaping armfuls of our best Russian for the canopy beds, we'd been bare enough, and had to content the gentlefolk with unbleached webs. And all our grand holland sheets, only in wear four years, and just coming to their softness, all gone now to be torn in strips for them that's wounded; all spoilt like common workhouse stuff for those that never slept out o' their own clothes. 'T was a sad waste, but we must work hard now to plenish us," she gravely reproached them.

     "Miss Mary is as bad as the Colonel," insisted Hannah Neal, the more demure of the seamstresses, who had promptly fallen to work again. The handsome master of the house could do no wrong in the eyes of his admiring maids. They missed his kind and serious face, even if sometimes he did not speak or look when he passed them at their sewing or churning.

     "A man knows nowt o' linen: he might think a gre't sheet like this sewed its whole long self together," said Phebe Hodgdon ruefully, as she pushed a slow needle through the hard selvages.

     "To work with ye!" commanded Peggy more firmly. "My eye's upon ye!" And Hitty sighed loud and drearily; the afternoon sun was hot in the spinning room, and the loom began its incessant noise again.

     At that moment the girls on the doorstep cheerfully took notice of two manly figures that were coming quickly along the footpath of the spring pasture next above the Hamilton lands on the riverside. They stooped to drink at the spring in the pasture corner, and came on together, until one of them stood still and gave a loud cry. The two sewing girls beckoned their friends of the spinning to behold this pleasing sight. Perhaps some of the lads they knew were on their way from the Upper Landing to Pound Hill farms; these river footpaths had already won some of the rights of immemorial usage, and many foot travelers passed by Hamilton's to the lower part of the town. A man could go on foot to Rice's Ferry through such byways across field and pasture as fast as a fleet horse could travel by the winding old Portsmouth road.

     The two hurrying figures were strangers, and they came to the knoll above the shipyard. They were both waving their hats now, and shouting to the few old men at work below on the river bank.

     Peggy was only aware of a daring persistence in idleness, and again began to chide, just as the eager girls dropped their work and clattered down the outer stair, and left her bereft of any audience at all. She hurried to the door in time to see their petticoats flutter away, and then herself caught sight of the excited messengers. There was a noise of voices in the distance, and workmen from the wharves and warehouses were running up the green slopes.

     "There's news come!" exclaimed Peggy, forgetting her own weaving as she stumbled over the pile of new linen on the stair landing, and hurried after the girls. News was apt to come up the river rather than down, but there was no time to consider. Some ill might have befallen Colonel Hamilton himself, - he had been long enough away; and the day before there had been rumors of great battles to the southward, in New Jersey.

     The messengers stood side by side with an air of importance.

     "Our side have beat the British, but there's a mort o' men killed and taken. John Ricker's dead, and John Marr and Billy Lord's among the missing, and young Hodgdon's dead, the widow's son; and there's word come to Dover that the Ranger has made awful havoc along the British coast, and sent a fortin' o' prizes back to France. There's trouble 'mongst her crew, and young Mr. Wallingford's deserted after he done his best to betray the ship."

     The heralds recited their tale as they had told it over and over at every stopping-place for miles back, prompting each other at every sentence. From unseen sources a surprising crowd of men and women had suddenly gathered about them. Some of these wept aloud now, and others shouted their eager questions louder and louder. It was like a tiny babel that had been brought together by a whirlwind out of the quiet air.

     "They say Wallingford's tried to give the Ranger into the enemy's hands, and got captured for his pains. Some thinks they've hung him for a spy. He's been watching his chance all along to play the traitor," said one news-bringer triumphantly, as if he had kept the best news till the last.

     "'T is false!" cried a clear young voice behind them.

     They turned to front the unexpected presence of Miss Hamilton.

     "Who dared to say this?" She stood a little beyond the crowd, and looked with blazing eyes straight at the two flushed faces of the rustic heralds.

     "Go tell your sad news, if you must," she said sternly, "but do not repeat that Roger Wallingford is a traitor to his oath. We must all know him better who have known him at all. He may have met misfortune at the hand of God, but the crime of treachery has not been his, and you should know it, - you who speak, and every man here who listens!"

     There fell a silence upon the company; but when the young mistress turned away, there rose a half-unwilling murmur of applause. Old Peggy hastened to her side; but Miss Hamilton waved her back, and, with drooping head and a white face, went on slowly and passed alone into the great house.
 

     The messengers were impatient to go their ways among the Old Fields farms, and went hurrying down toward the brook and round the head of the cove, and up the hill again through the oak pasture toward the houses at Pound Hill. They were followed along the footpath by men and boys, and women too, who were eager to see how the people there, old Widow Ricker especially, would take the news of a son's captivity or death. The very torch of war seemed to flame along the footpath, on that spring afternoon.

     The makers of the linen sheets might have been the sewers of a shroud, as they came ruefully back to their places by the spinning-room door, and let the salt tears down fall upon their unwilling seams. Poor Billy Lord and Humphrey Hodgdon were old friends, and Corporal Ricker was a handsome man, and the gallant leader of many a corn-husking. The clack of Peggy's shuttle sounded like the ticking clock of Fate.

     "My God! my God!" said the old woman who had driven the weeping maids so heartlessly to their work again. The slow tears of age were blinding her own eyes; she could not see to weave, and must fain yield herself to idleness. Those poor boys gone, and Madam's son a prisoner, or worse, in England! She looked at the house on the other side of the river, dark and sombre against the bright sky. "I'll go and send Miss Mary over; she should be there now. I'll go myself over to Susan."

     "Fold up your stents; for me, I can weave no more," she said sorrowfully. "'T is like the day of a funeral." And the maids, still weeping, put their linen by, and stood the two flax wheels in their places, back against the wall.


Notes

    "What, have the heralds come,
To tell this quiet shore of victories? -
. . . . . . . . . .
There is a mother weeping for her son!
Like some lean tree whose fruit has dropt, she gives
Her all, to wither in autumnal woe.": This quotation has not been identified. Assistance is welcome.
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different places of worship: Though Peggy and Susan are old friends of similar social class and interests, and actually near neighbors, they attend different churches. This probably is because the Salmon Falls River, like most rivers of any size in the 18th century separates parishes, not necessarily because the women have different religious opinions. Peggy almost certainly attended the Congregational church with the Hamilton family at Oldfields, ME, while Susan probably attended the Congregational church with the Wallingfords at Somersworth, NH (now Rollinsford). (Research: Wendy Pirsig)
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"O Death, rock me asleep.": An anonymous 16th-century lyric. (Research: Gabe Heller)
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"I have a house and lands in Kent": This is a variation on "Wooing song of a Yeoman of Kent's Sonne" or "Kentish wooing song," a popular Scots song of the period. (Research: Gabe Heller)
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our best Russian ... unbleached webs ... Holland: cloth for household linen. Russian usually refers to Russian duck, a heavy linen typically used for sails, and perhaps appropriate for canopies of beds. An unbleached web is freshly woven fabric. Holland is a closely woven white linen used especially for shirts and bed linen. (Source: The Beekman Mercantile Paper 1746 - 1799 - 18th Century Trade Terms).
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rumors of great battles to the southward, in New Jersey: In the spring of 1778, General Washington's forces pursued General Sir Henry Clinton from Philadelphia across New Jersey, until Clinton was able to get his forces to New York. There were numerous battles and skirmishes during this period, with major ones taking place in June. See Benson Lossing, Vol. 2, ch. 31.
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mort o' men killed: The battles in June between Washington and Clinton's forces in New Jersey produced heavy casualties, from disease and excessive heat as well as wounds. See Benson Lossing, Vol. 2, ch. 31.
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stents: The word is of Scots origin; a stent is a portion of work, or a stint of whatever the women are currently working on. (Research: Gabe Heller)
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The Tory Lover -- Contents