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A GARDEN STORY
Sarah Orne Jewett
The story began on a piece of ground, or perhaps I ought to say in it, where there had been a flower garden for years and years, of the most old-fashioned sort. It always seemed in the spring as if nobody need touch it, as if all the flowers had come up and bloomed so many times that they might be left alone to look after themselves. Still, there was an unaccountable persistency on the part of some weeds. They thought it worth while every spring to make an effort to capture the garden by surprise. Miss Ann Dunning had no idea of any such mischance. One year she sprained her ankle and had to sit in the house on two chairs until it got well; but she routed the weeds gallantly as soon as she could hobble out, with her sharp hoe and shining trowel and dangerous little short-toothed rake. [,] She would not have a man about that part of her small domain -- not she! Old Mike O'Brien had been a gardener to a lord in his native country, and might be trusted to take the whole care of her six short rows of beans and forty hills of potatoes; but she never could let him loose among the flower beds -- only once, when she had to spend a great deal of time with a sick sister, and gave him patterns of three kinds of weeds which he might pull; even then, scornful as he was of her directions, she found the top of one of her best lilies and nearly all the sprouts of her favorite mist-plant lying with the pig-weed and rag-weed on the garden walk. Sometimes she got very tired; but after all it was very good for her to spend so much time out of doors, and she had the prettiest sweet peas and poppies and marigolds in town. It was her one great luxury and pleasure, and one friend after another found a chance to give her a rare bulb or a slip from a new geranium or some rare flower seeds as the years went by. The minister's wife had a very rich cousin near Boston, who lived in a fine place and was mistress of a hot-house. Miss Dunning had once succeeded in making something bloom that the cousin's garden had failed to persuade into flowering, and there had been more than one message and tribute pass to and fro. It was a great triumph, and Miss Dunning was asked to write her course of treatment for the gardener's benefit.
But great occasions like this, when the little garden proved itself worthy of public interest, were very rare; and many patient hours were spent in the hot sunshine that nobody took note of but the flowers themselves. When frost came it brought a terrible sorrow every year. Miss Dunning carried out all her old aprons, and saved every newspaper she could get hold of after the last of August, and all worn material that would cover plants was also laid aside for putting off the evil day of blight. She usually took a bad cold staying out in the chilly dampness evening after evening to cover up her treasures and make them last a few days longer; in fact, she felt by the time the dreaded blow really came as if she had been frostbitten, too, and damaged irreparably with the poppies and zinnias. The only pain she had all summer in regard to the little garden was her fear lest she should be indulging herself selfishly. She really did spend too much according to her slender means in this gratification. She knew that there were other ways in which the money might do more good, and if a contribution box passed her by in church after she had been buying a new rose or a named geranium of high degree, she felt as guilty as if she had directly robbed it, and had been caught by the deacons. But, dear soul, she tried in many ways to give as many people as possible a share in her joy, and the whole country village was the better for her beloved flower garden. Sick people and little children were sure to have enough of her posies; the pulpit in the old meeting-house was adorned Sunday after Sunday. There was never a bride or a funeral in Littletown that did not depend more or less, summer or winter, upon Miss Dunning's store of blossoms.
This year she had added to her benefactions. She had sent her name to Boston as one kind soul who would give a little city child her blessed country week. "No boys," Miss Ann had written in her plainest hand, with two or three underlinings, and if she had picked Boston all over she could not have found a little maid more to her mind than the one who fell to her share.
She had said that she would be ready any time after the first of June; and she was a little dismayed to be taken at her word. She wished that she could at least have got her weeding done; but the spring had been very late. On the first of June itself she had gone to the depot to meet the unknown visitor, and the little white house was put in as careful order for the reception of small Peggy McAllister as if she had been Queen Victoria herself.
Three ladies had read Miss Dunning's letter together in Boston, and had smiled at it a little. The "No Boys" had diverted one of them particularly, and she instantly began to make a little picture for herself of the dear old-fashioned countrywoman who had written the prim note.
"I can see just how neat and nice the little house is, and I know what grows in her garden. We must keep that place for a very deserving little person. I really should love to spend a week with Miss Ann Dunning myself!"
"I believe I know just the right child now," said one of the other ladies. "I was at the Blank Street hospital yesterday, and one of the sisters spoke to me about a child for whom she evidently had a great affection; a little Scottish girl; at least her father and mother were from Scotland, origina1ly. They had both died, and an aunt took Peggy. The sisters sent for her so that I could see her. The aunt and the child were brought to the hospital sick early this spring, and the poor woman died, but Peggy remains behind. Sister Helen asked me if I couldn't find somebody who would like to adopt her. She said she had been so dear and useful they should not know how to do without her; but there is really no room for her at the hospital. I thought she had a sweet, wise little face; but she needs sun and air now. I never thought of the country week! Do let us send her. Something may come of it."
"This seems to be the very place," said the first speaker, smiling. They were used to Mrs. West's enthusiastic descriptions of people and to the sensible promptings of her warm heart.
"I am going through Blank Street on my way home," said one of Peggy's would-be benefactors, "and I will see Sister Helen about it. If your Peggy comes back we will try to find her a better friend."
Poor, lonely little Peggy! She had begun to wonder what was going to become of her, and whether there was really any place for her in such a big, busy world. She had been grieved enough when her aunt's housekeeping was broken up, and when they went to the hospital everything had seemed strange and sad. Now, just as she had learned to feel at home there, and to really love Sister Helen and two or three of the other kind faced ladies who nursed the sick people -- yes, and two or three of the sick people themselves -- she had found that she must go away, though nobody knew exactly where. She had tried so hard to run errands quickly and to wait upon every one since she had felt better and had begun to miss her aunt a little less and not to cry about her quite so much. She was a silent, grave little child, and old for her years. She hoped if she were very good and gave no trouble that Sister Helen would let her stay. It was, indeed, a great sorrow when she was told about the country week visit. They said it would be only a week, and yet Peggy cried herself to sleep that night. She was to go on Saturday, and Sister Helen was going to take her to the train; but Peggy could not bear to see children go by in the street when she looked out of the hospital window. They were all going home; they had brothers and sisters, she was sure. Nobody guessed in those days how sad this little heart was growing. It would have made the tears come quick to all our eyes if we had known her, and had seen the poor child sitting all alone on a wide red seat in the cars, bound on her solitary journey. We are so glad that we know already something about Miss Ann Dunning.
Only two business men and Peggy herself were landed by the train at the Littletown station; but all the idlers in the village were there to look at them. The brakeman, to whom Sister Helen had spoken about Peggy, helped her down the car steps very kindly into the middle of the awesome crowd. Then Miss Dunning, who was waiting, too, pushed her way eagerly forward, to say: "This must be the little girl that has come to make me a visit," and tired, bewildered Peggy looked up with brimming eyes into the homely, pleasant face and said: "Yes, please," without a doubt or fear.
"I liked her the minute I saw her," Miss Dunning whispered to everybody the next day, going and coming from church with Peggy fast held by the hand. "She's so handy and sensible I don't know 's I ever shall send her back. She's got no folks. Come here from the hospital."
And again: "You'd never take her to be nine year old. She's forever a-watchin' me to try and get what I want and save steps. She set the table as handy as could be last night, two hours after she come -- when I was busy cuttin' and bastin' for Miss Farley. You know she was called away to stay with her mother, and has ended up her school?"
After such a promising beginning we need not be surprised that arrangements were made for Peggy's further continuance. And here again were the solitary set in families -- Miss Dunning, the busy village dressmaker; Peggy, the lonely child who clung to the new friend with double affection, because the little house was in a way so much like the two rooms in which she and her elderly aunt had lived together. What could have been more fitting than their being house-mates? Miss Dunning did not prosper the less, though money was not too plenty in a village where there was a younger and more fashionable person busy at her trade, and almost every one of her customers had very few dresses, and made them herself after good Miss Dunning had cut and basted them. But she had some good, generous friends, and at any rate never once thought about Peggy, as she did sometimes about the garden-seeds, that she was ashamed to look the contribution box in the face. This brings me back again to the garden.
There was one pleasant June evening just after Peggy came -- I know that it had not yet been decided that the visit was to last any more than a week -- when the new friends were busy together among the flower-beds. Miss Dunning was right in saying cheerfully that this was a good growing year; flowers and weeds alike were springing up as close together as they could, and just before it was dark the good woman told her little guest that she might take the old hoe and wage war against a velvety growth of seedlings that spread from one side of the path nearly to the other. Nobody had taken time to attend to the disorderly narrow path, there had been so much to do with transplanting and more important things. Peggy's eyes had shone at her first glimpse of the garden on Sunday morning, and she was proving herself a most apt scholar under Miss Dunning's instructions. She had seen the somewhat neglected hospital garden a few times before she left town, and already knew the names of many plants.
She looked up in unmistakable dismay when Miss Dunning spoke; but she went dutifully to the side of the doorstep and brought the hoe; then she stood still and looked down at the green bit of seedling carpet.
"Hurry up Peggy!" said brisk Miss Dunning. "It's getting dark, and we aren't near through with what I set myself to do to-night."
"Do you want me to kill them all?" whispered Peggy. "Did you see that they weren't weeds? I could find nice little places over there by the fence."
"Mercy me!" exclaimed Miss Dunning, with great amazement. "We can't save every sprout in the garden. I do have a feelin' for 'em sometimes, but we might just as well let 'em grow up into a wilderness at once."
"They would all bloom and be flowers; wouldn't they?" asked Peggy, timidly. Perhaps the poor child felt as if she had been saved out of just such a crowd that nobody seemed to want. "I wish I could put them in little boxes and take them back to Boston. They would grow and be so pretty in the hospital." She spoke as if she were asking the greatest favor in the world.
"I'd give you better things than those," said Miss Dunning, with a sudden feeling of desperate jealousy at the mere mention of the hospital and Peggy's native city. "Well, you needn't murder the petunys and things tonight, anyway. My back aches and I feel a chill; so we must go in, and you can help me set my bread to rise before we go to bed. 'Tis eight o'clock now, if it's a minute!"
And Peggy carried the hoe back again, with a sigh of relief.
Little the seedling poppies and marigolds and petunias knew about their fate, when they came crowding up together through the rich, hard soil of the footpath that late spring; but this is what happened to them. Who ever thought of saving such lives but quaint little Peggy McAllister? But she dreamed that night about carrying a flower-pot full of small green plants to everybody in the sunny hospital wards, to stand on the tables beside the beds or in the windows, so that all the sick people could watch them grow. She did not know how she could really carry so many; but she was sure that Miss Dunning would let her, when she waked up in the morning and thought about the dream.
It took a good deal of courage to ask Miss Dunning at breakfast time, and the kind little dressmaker laughed until Peggy felt that she must have been very foolish.
"It's a reasonable dream enough, certain; but, there! I don't know how I'm ever going to let you go back again, you dear little thing!" she said to Peggy. "I believe I shall keep you all the time, if you like well enough to stay," and Peggy's wondering face grew rosy for a minute; then she drooped her head, and felt as if she were going to cry. "Oh! please do keep me!" she said, and that was all -- dear, anxious, homeless Peggy; and yet she gave a thought at that very moment to Sister Helen, whom she might never see again. But Miss Dunning, too, was very good to her.
A few weeks later a whole company of flower pots, that Miss Dunning gathered from her own stores and one or two neighbors', were sent to the hospital in Blank Street from Peggy. She had rooted the rescued seedlings anew, and tended them patiently until they were growing again. Perhaps some day we will follow their fortunes and see who they bloomed for, and whether they bloomed well. But the happiest day of all was when a long letter came to Peggy from Sister Helen, with many messages in it from the sick people whom she had lovingly remembered in her new country home.
"I declare!" said Miss Dunning, "my garden is worth toiling over. Think of all those folks in Boston being so pleased just to have the leavings."
"A Garden Story" first appeared in The Independent (38:932), July 22, 1886 and was collected in Richard Cary, Uncollected Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett, 1971, on which this text is based.
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From Boston Evening Transcript, Friday May 26, 1899, p. 8
mist-plant …pig-weed … rag-weed … sweet peas: Mist-plant may be mistflower (Eupatorium coelestinum), with blue to violet flower heads. Pig weed is the name given to several annual weeds. See Goosefoot and Lamb's-quarters. Ragweed is a common American composite weed (Ambrosia artemisiæfolia) with finely divided leaves; hogweed. Great ragweed is a coarse American herb (Ambrosia trifida), with rough three-lobed opposite leaves. The sweet pea is an annual plant Lathyrus odoratus, with many-colored, sweet-scented blossoms. Research assistance: Gabe Heller.
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Queen Victoria: Alexandrina Victoria was born on May 24, 1819. She was Queen of England and Ireland from 1837 until her death in 1901.
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the cars: railway cars.
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cuttin' and bastin': Cutting fabric according to a pattern for an item of clothing, such as a dress, then sewing it loosely together until it can be properly sewn later.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.
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