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Uncollected Stories

DAN'S WIFE.

Sarah Orne Jewett

I.

     Dan Parish had gone to his wedding. His mother was waiting for him to come home with his wife to the old farm-house on Prospect Hill, that high ridge of good farming land which on their side sloped westward. As Ann Parish stood in her kitchen doorway to look out, the low sun blinded her eyes; the fertile fields spread out before her like a dazzling green carpet. She watched the road for a minute and could see no one coming, then she went back to her rocking-chair. It creaked in a querulous way as she moved, as if it tried to express her own discontent. "I don't know 's [know's] I care if their supper is spoiled," said the impatient woman aloud. "Madam'll take her own time. I don't know as there's like to be such a meal spread in this house again very soon. She'll have to see to all those things for herself, and then there'll be no fault-findin' with my old-fashioned ways." And the rocking-chair creaked more angrily.

     The supper table stood in the floor laden with the best that Ann Parish could provide. She had made the sponge-cake by a famous ten-egg receipt of her grandmother's, and the short-biscuit were also of that noted house-keeper's fashion. There were some rich peach preserves, the last jar of the last fruit which the old blood peach-tree bore before it fell: in fact, this wedding supper was like a commemorative feast, in memory of past joys, and was offered more for ostentation's sake than for love's sake. Mrs. Parish's family, the Kenways, were renowned house-keepers, and the deposed mistress of the Parish farm had fairly tired herself out, in this great effort to keep up her family's reputation. She had not been very well in the last year or two, partly from mistaken ambitions and over-work in her youth. The farm had been weighted with a mortgage when she came to it, and, later, her only daughter, a quick scholar, must be kept at school and generously provided with what she needed, until too much study, and too little wholesome work and exercise and out-door air, fostered a consumptive tendency, and brought her home to a long lingering illness and early death. Dan Parish had been eager to marry, for his mother's sake as well as his own; he had worked early and late, and paid off the last of the mortgage after his father's early death, and now his life looked bright and full of hope. He could make plenty of money off the farm; the rapid growth of a manufacturing village only three miles away promised a good market, his mother would have a kind daughter to help her, and he himself would have the dear, sensible, loving companion, for whom he had worked and waited patiently, and had loved with all his heart since they were at school together.

While his mother was waiting and fretting, the young couple were driving slowly home in the late afternoon. They had followed the simple country fashion of going to the minister's house to be married. Their wedding was quickly over, and Hannah Parish still held in one hand a shining new copy of the Scriptures, which had been the minister's gift. Early that morning Dan had brought her trunk and a box or two and a few pieces of furniture from her sister's house to the new home. Hannah had lived with this elder sister of late years, and helped to bring up the large family. She thought of them now sitting down to supper without her for the first time, but she was too happy to sigh even for their sakes. She and Dan had been looking forward to this day and this very drive for a long time. No wonder that the horse was lingering as he pleased. At last the thought of feed-time quickened the good creature's steps.

     Dan and Hannah were having a good plain talk. Now that she was truly his wife, he talked with perfect freedom about his mother, as he never had dared to talk or even think before.

     "You'll have to work hard sometimes to keep pleasant, pleasant as you be, darlin'," said Dan. "I'm taxed myself some days, I tell you, but I strive to rec'lect all poor mother has gone through: how hard she had to work long o' the first of it, and father wa'n't one that took right hold as her folks always done; and then she set all her hopes onto poor Eliza, an' with workin' early an' late for her expense at the seminary, and then paying the doctors, and waitin' on her all through the consumption, well, you see, it broke mother, an' she ain't what she would been. She feels mortified to give up doin' 's [doin's] she always has done, an' some days when the Furbish girl was there this spring, she couldn't suit her no way. As I've told ye, mother don't want to give up to another, and yet she can't bear things being expected of her."

     "Don't you go an' worry, Dan," said his companion, placidly. "I expect women understands each other easier than men reads 'em. You forgit I have been living with sister Lyddy, and her being older than I be, more like an aunt; and when she's wore out she always gets jealous fits about the way I do things, and as for me, I hate to be stood over; but we think a sight of each other underneath, and I always tell her afterward, a good thunder-shower clears the air. I've always took to your mother; she's got pretty ways above most of the folks about here; perhaps it's because she was your mother that I feel to like her. I'll study to please her the best I can, an' if I can't, I'll stand by my duty; and now I've got you to go to, and you've got me, so 'twon't go hard."

     Thin, sharp-faced, anxious Ann Parish sat at home in the creaking rocking-chair, growing more miserable every minute, and more suspicious of the attacks that would inevitably be made on her rights and comforts. "I expect she'll be dreadful sweet 'long at the first on't," grumbled the poor tired soul. "Oh dear, this day'll never end. I was up before four," and she sighed and rocked while the sun went down. The house seemed empty and sad; this hour was a fated crisis. She began to think that something had happened to the young people, and went again to the door.

     They were just driving into the yard. "Here we be," said Dan, cheerfully. "I s'pose you'll say we've kept supper a-waitin'." He helped his wife down from the wagon, and they went together to where the sad-faced woman waited on the step.

     "I give you welcome," Ann Parish managed to say. "I hope you're goin' to be happier 'n I've been, Hannah. I've had the best of sons - " But here she broke down, and went into the house with Hannah's strong young arm about her bent shoulders, while Dan hurried off to the barn with his horse. He could not help feeling that the home-coming was better than he feared. His mother had a silent, disapproving manner sometimes that was very hard to bear. To himself he spoke of it as the grumps; but Dan was so filled with happiness that June evening that he feared nothing. Now that his mother was going to live with Hannah and know how good she was, she could no longer keep her strange suspicious fancies and jealous ways of speaking. The horses had a double supper, the cattle had been milked earlier by the hired man, and turned out again to pasture, Jakey had taken himself off to leave the little household to itself for the great occasion.

     When Dan came in from the barn the evening meal was ready, and they all sat down. Ann Parish had with ostentatious meekness given up her own place, but the daughter-in-law had affectionately reinstated her at the head of the table. Hannah praised the short-biscuit, the preserved peaches, the cup of tea, and paid everything highest tribute of eager appetite. They were almost merry together, and the mother delighted her son by joining in the cheerfulness of the feast. Traces of the lost beauty of her girlhood came out in her face, and the son was touched to see how carefully she had dressed herself in her best, and made his wedding supper ready. Afterward he took his mother in his arms and held her, and kissed her over and over again, as if it had been Hannah herself. He had not kissed her before since he was a boy - they were of stern New England stuff. "You've been the best mother a man ever had," he said, brokenly. "I've got you a good daughter to help you now, and you'll have it easier;" but the poor little woman only burst into tears. Hannah had put on a clean calico apron over her turned-up wedding dress, and was beginning to clear away the supper.

     "We haven't left a great sight of anything," she said. "I never shall forget how good the peach was. You must be tired out, mother, so you set right there and rest, and if I don't do things right, you can show me to-morrow."

     But at the word mother fresh tears began to flow.

     "Poor Eliza! if she had only lived - all the girl I had," said the despondent woman.

For one moment all the joy of Hannah Parish's wedding day faded out of her heart, and a weight of apprehension took its place. Dan's mother might have remembered him and his happiness. Then the sound of Dan's joyful whistle came to her ears, as he went about his evening work out-of-doors. "I'll hurry with these dishes, and get time to have a little walk with him up top of the hill," thought Hannah. "There, there's a crook in every lot, and I expect poor mother Parish's got to be mine.
 
 

II.

     It is impossible to tell just what the common words of our every-day speech mean to other people. They have but a relative meaning; association and experience, and especially the depth and clearness of our thought, determine the significance of words and phrases. The elder Mrs. Parish had been a teacher for a year or two before her marriage; this had a great effect upon her whole career, and gave her a spirit of conviction rather than suggestion toward other people, and at times a vast responsibility for their conversation. She had occasion to correct her son often, and now it was evident that his wife had a very slipshod way of expressing her thoughts. Those mistakes, of which Mrs. Parish was conscious, gave her great annoyance, and one day she was so far disturbed as to compare such delinquencies, with the beautiful way in which Eliza had always spoken. It was one of the trying things of every day, that the elder woman took pains to pronounce again, in a different, snappish way, certain words with which her son's wife had been careless. But she was limited in her own knowledge of polite speech; and once Hannah gently reminded her that the minister pronounced the adjective in question after her own fashion. He had used it several times in the long prayer that morning.

     They were washing the supper dishes together most amicably, but at this difference of opinion and fall of pride, Dan's mother gave Hannah a reproachful look, turned away, took a faltering step or two toward the cupboard, then went to her own room and prepared to pass the night in tears.

     "There, don't mind her one grain," said Dan, who was sitting on the door-step. "She will have these spells, and the more you mind 'em, the longer they last. She got sort of excited and wore out getting the house ready, and now the excitement's gone, she feels unstrung. She said this mornin' you was a good girl, and she didn't know as I could done better. 'Twas a good deal for her to proffer, I tell you;" and he looked up affectionately at his young wife. "She's always crosswise Sunday evenings after she gets tired goin' to meetin'. I expect I shall miss footin' it over to see you and keep company," he added, and they both laughed.

     "Poor thing! Sunday night's a lonesome time to set all alone," said kind-hearted Hannah. "I'm glad we're here, Dan. I don't mind her much, and it's the best way to stand our ground so far 's [far's] we can. She needs us to be with her. There's lots of good things about your mother. I was thinkin' this morning about something grandsir used to say: she's like a cow that'll give a good pail o' milk, an' then kick it over. It makes me feel bad when I see how she must have worked before we was married. I never saw a house so spick an' span from garret to cellar."

     Dan had a sad consciousness that this was partly done out of his mother's pride in her reputation as a house-keeper, but he had wisdom enough to keep things of that sort to himself. He was joyfully happy and delighted in Hannah's affection for him, after having been disapproved so long by his mother. "She'd go through fire and water any time, but she trips up on nothin', and then blames other folks for the fall," he said to himself. "Come, Hannah, let's go down the orchard lane," he added; and away they went, and lingered about the old place until after moonrise, making plans for their work and their life together. It was pitiful to think how much pleasanter it was to be out-of-doors than in, but they could be happy anywhere. The Sunday before had been rainy, and that morning they had, in the country parlance, "appeared out." Hannah had worn her simple wedding finery, and they had walked up the aisle to their pew arm in arm. The heads of the congregation had turned as if a wind had tossed them like heads of clover, and after the service there was great hand-shaking and congratulation. It took socially the place of the formal wedding with invited guests, but if it had been the Sunday after their funeral, Dan's mother could not have cried harder through the hymns and prayers, or held her handkerchief to her face more constantly during the long sermon.

     "S'pose she has seen trouble," said one indignant neighbor, as they walked home together along the country road. "So've all the rest of us that's come to her age. She's got a habit o' pityin' herself, and wants everybody else to jine in. She pressed my hand comin' out o' meetin', as if she was too full for words; but I says, 'There, Ann Parish; whatever the years has brought ye, ye've got the smartest girl in town, an' the best-hearted, for a darter-in-law.' She made out to wag her head an' say yes. But, there, 'tis one of her down times, an' nobody can rise her out on 'em till the 'pinted time, not if ye blow her up with powder."

     "Dan's always jest so pleasant," said another woman. "I've seen the boy look at her kind o' sidewise when he come in to supper, and he'd know right off, when he was a little feller, whether 'twould do to say a word or not. She's denied herself everything just because she was pleased to, when Dan would ha' been only too satisfied to have her spend what she wanted. One time she even pinched herself o' eatin' butter, so 's [so's] they'd have a mite more to sell."

     "She never pinches herself o' strong tea, I've observed," responded the other. "Tea's as bad a cuss to that make o' woman, as drink is to a drinkin' man. She keeps that old black teapot on the back o' the stove day in an' day out, an' says there's nothing but tea sustains her. I told her one day 'twas the cause o' her poor feelin's, an' she'd better sign the pledge, an' she never hardly spoke to me the rest o' the day, though I'd gone over neighborin' to help her quilt. She never asked me to stay to supper, nor said good-arternoon as I come away."

     The listener chuckled with satisfaction. "I al'ays thought I'd find out what 'twas come atween you two that time. So 'twas on account o' the tea, was it?" And they parted, one to go up her own shady farm lane, and the other to follow the main road a short distance. Just then Dan and Hannah and old Mrs. Parish drove by in their new two-seated wagon. They had received a hearty greeting from their friends. The women sat together on the back seat, and Hannah had put her own new summer shawl over Mother Parish's shoulders, for the wind had gone into the east, and the air was growing cool.
 
 

III.

     With all her kind determination and knowledge beforehand of the inevitable difficulties, Dan's wife found her heart fail her more and more as the summer days went by. She did not mind the hard work of the farm; she had always been used to hard work, and she grew fonder and fonder of her own home and of Dan. She had her faults, and hated them more than ever, now that they were met by that chilling fog of rebuke and disapproval. Sometimes the fog would lift, and the elder woman would become cheerful and companionable for a few days, and then it was really a happy time as they sat together at their sewing, or went about the household work. Ann Parish would talk of the past and of Dan's childhood, and give some hint of her true affection for him which burned warmly under the cover of selfishness and jealousy and criticism, which time had slowly woven. Sometimes the poor woman would become almost gay, and look young, even pretty, in the exquisite neatness of her black print gown and smooth hair. "You'd know Mother Parish was different from common folks," Hannah proudly whispered to Dan once, but next morning the chilly fog was there again, and seemed to fill the kitchen. Nothing suited; Ann Parish worked harder than ever since her daughter-in-law had come. She would not admit that her labors were lessened, and was heard to say that Hannah was willing, but she had come of slipshod folks, and took hold of everything in what she deemed the wrong way.

     To the outer world their relations looked fair enough, and Dan's work was away from the house. So, since his wife was not a complainer, he did not know the worst of affairs. It really seemed to poor Hannah sometimes that Dan's mother was going crazy. She used to be melancholy and disapproving, but never spiteful and contradictory as now. Hannah patiently reminded herself that it was hard for an older woman to give up the head of affairs, and sometimes it was still harder to keep the lead with failing strength. But as the early autumn came, they were falling into a way of being silent, and Hannah began to feel low-spirited, while Dan, who had been hindered about his crops and disappointed, spoke sharply, and for the first time openly took his mother's side, when his ignorance of the matters in question made him unjust.

     Hannah's pretty girlish freshness seemed to be fading. Ann Parish herself grew thinner and quicker and more convicting in manner; there was little laughter or cheerfulness in the comfortable farm-house, and so the rainy September weather came on.

     Dan's mother felt herself increasingly to be pitied. Dan's wife lost heart and gained hopelessness. If she only knew what to do! But she was sure that her mother-in-law disliked her thoroughly, and that it was no use to try any longer to change a settled feeling. She was still affectionately disposed, and was able to look at her house-mate's sullen disposition as a malady and misfortune, rather than a fault, especially in the rare days when Ann Parish was more tolerant and kindly. Somehow she did not feel well and strong, as she did when she first came to the farm. She was full of shivering weakness; and while she tried to throw it off by extra exertion, she grew the more incapable of steady hard work. Dan said one day that she must not work so hard. He was very good to her and tender, and yet she felt a new dislike to him, or rather to his heavy boots and loud voice. Her head was heavy, and she could not bear noises; and she was half afraid of Dan's mother, and startled when the quick, severe little woman stepped forward suddenly from a doorway or a closet. For many days this grew worse and worse; she believed that she had caught a heavy cold; she was flushed and hot, and longed to creep away somewhere into the dark. One morning after breakfast she tried to make her bed and could not, and lay down for a minute to gather strength. One verse of an old hymn drifted through her mind, poor child; she had often heard it sung at evening meetings:

          "Jesus, the sinner's Friend, to Thee,
          Lost and undone, for aid I flee:
          Weary of earth, myself, and sin,
          Open Thine arms and take me in."

     "Hannah! Hannah!" called the sharp voice from the kitchen, "your bread's all scorched! I never burnt a baking of bread in all the years I kept house - " But Hannah did not hurry down to the scene of disaster. It seemed no matter about the bread; she could not lift her head from the pillow. And when she tried to answer, she found her voice fail her; she could not make Dan's mother hear.

     In a few minutes the disturbed woman came up to the bedroom. She did not suspect Hannah of indulging herself in a fit of bad temper; it was rather from her habit of curiosity and suspicion, that she looked in and saw a relaxed figure lying among the rumpled bed-clothes. Hannah faintly said that her head ached badly, and she must have taken more cold. She had not been feeling well all the morning.

     "I've worked through a good many mornings when I was ready to drop," said Ann Parish, but with less ungraciousness than usual. She hesitated a minute, and then pulled a blanket over her daughter's shoulders, and drew the window-curtain so that the sun would not flare in; then she went away. Dan had taken his dinner to a distant field where he was at work.

     Later in the afternoon he came to the house, but found nobody in the kitchen or sitting-room. His mother was not in the bedroom, and he thought that Hannah might have gone to visit some of her friends, which was a relief to his mind, since he had been worrying about her all day. He heard footsteps in the room overhead, which had been his sister's, and presently found his mother there, looking over poor Eliza's bureau, sighing over the school-books and needle-work and other relics, as was her wont on Sundays and in special times of depression.

     Dan looked very tall and large in the bedroom, with its sloping ceiling. His mother sighed, but did not speak to him.

     "Where's Hannah?" asked the young man.

     "She complained of her cold the middle of the morning, and I've just finished all the work."

     "Is she sick in bed?" demanded Dan, anxiously, and he gave his mother one dark reproachful look, and turned away.
 
 

IV.

     The two friends who had walked home from church together that Sunday morning after Hannah appeared a bride, were again in company another Sunday morning in early October, and their voices had a solemn tone.

     "Has the doctor given 'em any hope?" one asked the other.

     "He says it's a question of whether she's got stren'th to pull through," was the answer. "She's a dreadful sick woman; we both know that as well 's [well's] he does."

     "I see her this mornin' 'arly just lookin' through the door, an' she's all gone to a shadow o' what she was."

     "It's the worst run o' fever that's ben about here for years. I've helped take care of sights o' sich folks, an' I know. 'Tis a narrow chance for pore Hannah, dear, willin', pleasant creature!"

     "My time's past for watchin' with the sick," said the other woman, plaintively. "The wust sorrow my years has brought is bein' useless now where I once could do."

     "Nobody amon'st us has done her part more generous," said the younger woman. "I never see such a picture o' sorrow as Dan is. Seems if he couldn't hardly hold in from crying the day through. Him an' Hannah's set the world by each other, an' had to work an' wait a long spell afore 'twas so Dan could feel at ease to marry. I always mistrusted Ann Parish was more difficult with her own folks than none of us ever supposed. I don't believe but what she's made it harder for Hannah than she likes to think of now. She's a dreadful ornery person - the Kenways always was - and yet pretty appearing, an' smart as whips. I never liked the look in Ann Parish's eye, an' yet I can't say she ever give me a misbeholden word. Well, pore Hannah's life is in the Lord's hands!" And so the friends parted.

     The doctor's gig went up the lane day after day in early morning and at nightfall. Dan and his mother looked years older, and Hannah, burning with fever, talked to them with piteous unconsciousness of their presence. She had not known even Dan for a week. She begged over and over that somebody would tell her what she had done to make Mother Parish hate her.

     "I like Mother Parish; I wish I could make her like me," she said once, in a grieved, childish tone, looking up with her dull eyes at the anxious woman herself. There was nobody else in the room.

     "Poor darlin'! I love you now if I never did before. Oh, do get well, Hannah! I've always liked you better than I could let on!" besought Ann Parish, with an outburst of tears.

     But Hannah did not understand. "Mother Parish don't like me, Dan," she said, sadly.

     The house-work was doubled, and the farm-work could not be neglected even while the farm's young mistress seemed lingering on the threshold of death's-door. Dan's mother was overworked; she had no time to fret, scarcely to mourn. Ah, how she missed her daughter's quick step and willingness, and her interest in all the home affairs! Hannah used to sing a good deal about her work in the days when she was first at the farm. Little by little the old feeling faded out; all the mother's hope and prayer was for the love of her two children. It seemed to her that nothing could ever fret her or make her surly any more if Dan's wife could only get well.
 
 

V.

In one of the lovely days of the Indian-summer the two neighbors, after their old custom, waited for each other, and walked home together from church.

     "Well," said the elder, "I must say it made me happy to see Parish's folks out to meetin'. Hannah looked feeble, but she's pickin' up fast; she'll be smart before winter, and that's a blessin'."

     "I see Dan's mother stealin' glances at her in meetin-time, 'fectionate as could be; there wa'n't none of her tears to-day, same 's [same's] the Sunday after they was married. Hannah looked sweet, didn't she, with them little curly rings o' hair about her forehead? Well, sometimes folks enjoys better health after a fever."

     "It's been the greatest blessin' that ever Ann Parish had, to come so nigh losin' her. She feels it too; she knows it has broke down her own foolishness. I tell ye there ain't a gratefuler creatur' in town than she is. And she mothers her now, an' Dan too, as never she did before."

Just then the friends heard a wagon behind them, and stepped back among the late asters on the road-side. Dan and Hannah and their mother were driving home, and greeted the old neighbors affectionately. After they passed, the friends saw Ann Parish wrap a little spare shawl that she had brought about her daughter's thin shoulders. She tucked it in round her with great care, as if she felt true pleasure in doing kind service.

     "Don't you remember 'twas just the other way that first Sunday we saw 'em goin' home?" exclaimed one of the lookers-on.


Notes

"Dan's Wife" appeared in Harper's Bazar (22: 562-3, 569) for August 3, 1889, from which this text is taken. Kathrine C. Aydelott, University of Connecticut, has found another printing in the Washington Post (p. 15), August 4, 1889, under the title, "Dan Parish's Will."
    Apparent errors have been corrected and indicated with brackets. If you find errors in the text or items needing annotation, please contact the site manager.
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sponge-cake (10-egg receipt): a cake made without shortening, distinguished from a butter cake. A 10-egg recipe would be either very rich or very large.
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blood peach-tree: We have not been able to determine what variety of tree was familiarly known as a blood peach-tree. Assistance is welcome..
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Scriptures: the Christian bible in this case..
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seminary: a school, especially a private school for young women..
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consumption: now known as tuberculosis..
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crook in every lot: In the Oxford English Dictionary, a "crook in one's lot" is something untoward or distressing in one's experience: an affliction, trial (15. b)..
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spick an' span: Spick and span, quite new; that is, as new as a spike or nail just made and a chip just split; brand-new; as, a spick and span novelty. See Span-new. (now hyphenated, and more commonly meaning spotlessly clean). (ARTFL Project: 1913 Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary)..
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sign the pledge: A promise usually in writing to refrain from intoxicants or something considered harmful, e.g.. to abstain from whisky drinking. Here in reference to her drinking too much tea..
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meetings: Sunday or weekday church service among American Protestants..
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Jesus, the sinner's Friend: The full text can be found in Spiritual Folk-Songs of Early America: Two Hundred and Fifty Tunes and Texts, by George Pullen Jackson. Reprint of 1937 ed. New York: Dover, 1964..
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Indian Summer: a period of mild, warm, hazy weather following the first frost of late autumn, especially on the North American continent..
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later asters: a large genus of chiefly fall-blooming leafy stemmed herbaceous plants (family, Compositae) native of temporal regions..
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Edited and annotated by Candi Peterson, with assistance from Terry Heller and Chris Butler, Coe College.


Main Contents
Uncollected Stories