Texts Related to the Works of Sarah Orne Jewett
A Woman's Message.
Rebecca Harding Davis
"It does me good to talk over those old school-days. Now" -- Miss Jane Way stopped, interrupting herself. She had been writing as she talked, and she stuck her pen in her back hair as she put her pages in a big yellow envelope, weighed and stamped it. It was an article on the Position at Geok Tepe for a daily paper. She had come down for a couple days to the seashore and had brought her pen and ink with her. Already she had sent off a Letter from the Coast, descriptive of the scenery and touching lightly on the application of Tidal force as a motor; she had finished her daily four pages of the comedy she was writing, and was just beginning an article on Cremation, the encyclopedia open at Cre. before her.
"Yes," running her finger down the page, "I like to hear about those old schoolmates of ours; how they have developed and what work they have done in the world. So many wither away fruitless, die with all their music in them, never, never, bring their lives to bear, you see."
Miss Jane's figures of speech were running wild among cremating furnaces. She shut the book, wrote her title, Burning or Burial? and paused, pen in hand, shaking her prettily coiffured head. "The voiceless! Ah! Holmes struck the tragedy in most women's lives there! They have a message for humanity, but never speak it; they have power to help the world, but stick close to one place or one creed all their lives, dry up and wither as useless as sponges clinging to a rock."
Miss Jane was no sponge. She had darted through Europe, up the Nile, even as far as Japan, shawl-strap and note-book in hand; she made her headquarters now in New York, but was off in an hour's notice to Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, wherever inaugurations, conventions or fashionable doings promised her material. As for the "message" given to her to speak, she was a well-meaning, unaffected person, with an intellect feeble, but nimble and imitative; she would talk ex cathedra unblushingly on every subject from Primal Forces to Geok Tepe. She had spoken the word that was in her several thousand times over every year, and she never once doubted that humanity was lifted upward by every wave of the thin wash of words which she sent out.
"Now, there was Lizzy Blake," she said, meditatively. After she had written a page, "tall, delicate, gray-eyed girl in my class; you remember? I've known all the women in America who have influenced their times, and I never knew one with the original power of that girl. Why, I used to feel cheap and sleazy beside her -- a chromo beside a cartoon of Raphael. I did, positively! But see how things have turned out. I saw her a year or two ago in a farm-wagon, peddling butter to the villagers. She hadn't budged ten miles from the old spot! She had spent her life in suckling fools and chronicling her sales of butter!"
Miss Jane went back to her funeral fires, and after a little hesitation, I determined to set down what I knew of Lizzy Blake, thinking it might be of interest to the thousands of women who grow tired of making butter or suckling possible fools, and who fancy there is a divine word in them which can only be spoken through printer's ink.
I think Miss Way was right about our old schoolmate. There was both originality and force in Lizzy Blake, yet nobody classed her among the flippant, bright talkers or writers of clever compositions of which the school boasted. Lizzy was a simple-minded, unpretentious girl who annoyed her teachers by going nearer to the bottom of every subject than they, or the text-books, required. Nothing but the naked truth would satisfy her; she would go after a fact, though it would take days to find it out, and drag it out like a sleuth-hound with his prey. Such a pupil is troublesome in the smooth, glib recitations of a young ladies' school. She was so silent and undemonstrative, too, that nobody understood the singular influence which certain phases of the outer world had upon her. She did not herself know why, when the other girls were loud in outcries of admiration for a beautiful landscape, she should shudder and grow pale with a heart-sick longing; nor why she should afterwards spend months in trying to reproduce the thing that had so moved her, in sketches which she tore angrily to pieces, and in music which was to her ears only discord. Yet, I think when she was laughed at then for her silent habits, she fancied she would some day put all the words which she never had spoken into music. Indeed, I have heard that there was a singular power and pathos in the little airs which she composed at that time; one or two of which probably still exist somewhere in manuscript.
If Lizzy Blake had belonged to a modern cultured family in New York or Boston, where every feeble hint of especial talent in a child is hailed as rapturously as indications of gold in a mine, and worked as hard, she would have been trained as a musician, and thus, according to Miss Jane's theory, have given her message to mankind. But the farmer, her father, and his wife were quite satisfied when Lizzy came home able to rattle polkas or to play accompaniments for the hymns at family worship on the creaking piano which Mr. Blake had hired. They would have been insulted at the proposal that she should learn to sing in public or write music or earn money in any way. As long as her father could plow and dig and take his crops and pigs to market, "what call was there for his women folks to turn out to earn their living? The Blakes," the old man often said, "always was a genteel family. None of their daughters ever had to go out to work for their bite and sup, and they'll not begin now. I don't hold to these new-fashioned doin's. You just stay under your father's roof, Lizzy, till you've one of your own."
So Lizzy cooked and milked and washed dishes in the big Blake farm-house, until she married Stuben Garrett and carried on the same work in the smaller house and farm of the Garretts. Miss Jane, condemned to such a life-long fate, would have rebelled in poems and essays on woman's serfdom in every newspaper in the country (that would pay for them); but if Lizzy was not contented with her work nobody knew it. She had that rarest trait in woman, fine humor; she not only understood jokes but made them. It was this light-hearted joyousness that made her so near and dear to her boys. Besides, she was thoroughly in love with her husband, a well-meaning, weak-minded, vacillating man, with a peculiar ability for wasting money. He speculated a little, drank a little, ventured a little into imported stock, did everything but work. It was all done, too, "for your sake, Lizzy"; and, presently, when every foot of land was gone but the wooden home-stead and thirty acres which her father had settled on Lizzy, he looked upon himself as a heroic kind of fellow who had sacrificed himself for his family. About that time he had a stroke of paralysis and became helpless for the remainder of his life. Fortunately he could not interfere now with the thirty acres.
Lizzy, therefore, at twenty-five, found herself with the weight upon her of four unruly boys to feed, clothe and make into the gentle, God-fearing, manly men she would have them be; with this patient, too, decrepit and doting in his youth, to nurse day and night. If he had been blind Milton, she could not have accepted the trust more reverently, or served him more tenderly.
What did she do in this strait? Nothing which Miss Jane would call noble; she wrote no book to startle the reading world, opened no new career for her sex; tens of thousands of other women are unnoticed doing to-day just what she did. She waited on Stuben, she made her boy's shirts and trousers, she cooked, washed dishes, raised poultry, farmed the land. At first, not being able to hire help often, she ploughed, hoed corn, fed the stock herself; her solid, fragrant butter was as much a work of fine art as the conventional lilies on tidies in which Miss Way's aesthetic soul exults; it brought the highest price in the market, so did her pigs. It was about this time that Miss Jane, with much disgust, saw her in the village selling her produce; if she had had keener eyes she might have detected something more in the low-spoken, bright-eyed woman than a maker of butter and breeder of pigs. If she had followed her and her two boys as they drove home in the wagon in the moonlight, and listened to their talk, she would have known that there was a world of power and meaning in this mother's soul, never breathed in music or written for a book, which only her children had heard and understood. All the affections, the modesties, the honors of life, all their knowledge of God, came to them through it.
Stuben died a few years ago; one of Lizzy's boys became a physician, two are farmers, and all live near their mother; honest and affectionate, though rather stupid sons and husbands. The youngest son, David, is a clergyman, preaching in two or three poor parishes in Nevada, barely keeping himself alive on three hundred dollars a year. His mother went to visit him last summer. I am afraid David is nearer to her heart than the others, for there was always a singular likeness and kinship between her and this youngest boy. I saw him when she heard him preach for the first time. The congregation was made up of a few Indians and whites; the sermon was one of extraordinary power, so simple in wording that the most ignorant hearer could understand it, but marked by a strange insight into the highest truth, and a passionate human sympathy. The face of his mother was transfigured as she heard. Her hands were clasped, her eyes shone. She drew her breath quickly as if she herself were the speaker.
She was no longer dumb in the world.
"At last!" she seemed to say. "At last!"
This story appeared in The Congregationalist. Wednesday. March 8, 1882. First page of number, p. 79 of year's volume.
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Geok Tepe: Almost certainly Gheok Tepe, a seige in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8.
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Holmes: Probably Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894), poet and author of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858).
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chromo beside a cartoon of Raphael: A chromo or chromolithograph was a reproducible color print in magazines and posters in the late 19th century. Raphael (1483-1520) was a great painter of the Italian renaissance.
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suckle fools: See William Shakespeare's Othello, where Iago tells Desdemona that marriage for a woman means "To suckle fools and chronicle small beer." Act II, Scene i.
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Blind Milton: John Milton (1608-1674), English poet and essayist is most famous for his verse epic, Paradise Lost (1667).
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transfigured: See Matthew 17:2 and Mark 9:2.
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