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A GUEST AT HOME
Sarah Orne Jewett
Late in the afternoon of a June day, a tired-looking, middle-aged woman stood in the low doorway of an old farm-house, shading her eyes with her hands and watching the lane anxiously, as if she were in a great hurry to see some one coming. Once or twice she went into the house to look at the fire and to make sure that everything was in order for supper. The table was already set and there were signs that it was more than an ordinary occasion in the household.
"I don't suppose she'll come anyway," called a despairing voice from an inner room, and Mrs. Hollis looked discouraged for a minute, and then went to the door of the bedroom and looked in.
"Oh, yes, Annie will be here, Aunt Harriet; she wouldn't disappoint us. I think likely that the cars are late. The boys are way down to the end of the lane; I told them to be there so as to open and shut the gate. It seems as if they couldn't wait to see Annie. Poor child! I do hope she's going to be contented. I expect it'll be a great change for her."
"I never did think it was any kindness, for my part," grumbled Aunt Harriet. "I don't care if Henry was your brother, if he had given her a couple of quarters' schooling to some of the academies near by, she'd a got just as much good exactly, and 'twouldn't have put none o' these high notions into her head. She'd have settled down and kept school somewhere near here, but now she'll always be wanting to get back among city folks, and all that painting of hers is all nonsense. I'd like to know what good it's going to do her, after all's said and done. I expect she'll come home and be so high and mighty there won't be no living with her," and the poor old soul, who was half paralyzed, and who had also a temper that was much warped and twisted, gave her head an angry twitch and fairly pushed a pillow off the bed to the floor.
"This hot weather's real trying for you, Aunt Harriet?" said Mrs. Hollis, good-naturedly, as she crossed the room to pick it up. "I should think all those blankets would be too heavy. Don't let's worry about Annie until we find there's something to make us. I'm sure she will do the best she can and she don't seem to have lost her interest in home, if we can tell anything by her letters."
"I'm all of a shiver," said the old lady, complainingly. "I don't see how you can talk about its being hot. You needn't stop with me," and Mrs. Hollis waited for no second dismissal, but hurried back to the door again to watch for the wagon. The boys were shouting and chasing each other up the lane, and in the distance she could see the old red horse trotting slowly along the crooked by-way, and her heart began to beat very fast; she did not know whether to hurry forward to meet her daughter, who seemed almost like a stranger, and a guest, in her own home. She had been away almost three years, living with an uncle, and since he had sent her to a city boarding-school she had spent the vacations in traveling, or at his house in New York.
As they drove nearer, Mrs. Hollis looked anxiously at her husband's face to see if he were pleased with his daughter, and his expression was most satisfactory. He looked almost as if he had a pleasant surprise for his wife, and as if he were not at all embarrassed or dismayed. The girl who sat beside him looked happy and expectant and as if she were not a bit sorry to come home again, and Mrs. Hollis said, eagerly, "There, I am so glad to have you back Annie," and her daughter sprang quickly down and hurried to meet her, while the two boys, who had been most enthusiastic and daring a few minutes before, went rapidly towards the barn together, being much dismayed at the sight of such a well dressed and elegant sister.
"Look here, Jack and Lonny," she said, after she had kissed her mother half a dozen times, "aren't you coming to speak to me? I can't believe its you - you have grown so," and being thus summoned they came awkwardly back -- two freckled, clumsy, great fellows of twelve and fourteen. "They're a little shy tonight," said their mother (to make up for the coldness of their welcome), "but they haven't been able to put their minds to anything for a day or two, they were so pleased about your coming."
"I'll make friends with them fast enough," said Annie. "Oh, mother, there are so many things I want to tell you that I don't know where to begin!"
"You had better go in and see your Aunt Harriet, I guess," said Mrs. Hollis, "she's been looking forward to your coming. I expect she'll be aggravating; sometimes she is to all of us," she added, in an uneasy whisper. "You can sit with her a few minutes and I'll put tea on the table; it's all ready," and they went into the house together.
For all her pleasure in getting back to her own family, our heroine felt a little distressed and homesick, as she entered the low doorway. She had been living in a handsome city house for a good many months, and somehow the ceremony and luxury of city life had seemed always familiar to her, and she had adapted herself to it without the slightest trouble. She had always been a little impatient from her childhood of the bare walls, and the plain, hard life of the farm. She was by nature refined, and she had been delicate so that her father and mother had taken great care of her, and had made life as easy for her as they could. The minister's wife had taken a great interest in her, and she had made some visits in New York, and her uncle's family had tried to make her promise to live with them altogether. People had said that it was a pity so bright a girl, with such appreciation of the things that can be found in better houses and in the more artistic and cultivated society of a city, should be forced to live in a dull farming town, where there would be so little companionship and sympathy.
Annie Hollis knew that these things were said by her friends, and at first she pitied herself very much and she dreaded more and more going home to live. She wished that every month of her school life might be a year. But one night when she could not go to sleep, she thought it all over, and somehow she began to see it in a different light. She saw that there would not be very much for her to take, but there might be a great deal that she could give. She remembered that her father had looked old and tired when she saw him last, and that he had been a bright boy with an ambition to have a college education, but his father had died suddenly, and he had been obliged to leave school at once, and to give up this dream of his. She remembered, too, that he liked reading, and that he was very fond of history, and how many a winter evening she had seen him sit by the fire holding one of his few books in one hand and a candle in the other. She thought of the wider world of literature and art of which she had already been made a citizen, and she wondered if she could not bring many pleasures and treasures into his life. Her father had always been a poor man. He had had to pay a note which he had foolishly indorsed for a neighbor, and to do this the farm had been mortgaged, and it was only within two years that he had paid the last dollar, and had called himself free again. She had taken some of the first money she could spare to subscribe to some newspapers and a magazine, and his thanks which had been written in one of his infrequent letters had touched her heart at the time she read them first, and were still dearer now as she recalled them. Her mother, too, Annie remembered that she had never complained of doing so much hard work, and of so dull and tiresome a life. Old Aunt Harriet was the bugbear of the family, and dreadfully hard to live with, but Annie could not remember that her mother had ever been cross or unkind. Then there were the boys, and she meant to be a kind sister to them. It was plain enough that she was needed at home, and she thought of many ways in which she meant to carry some new brightness and happiness into these lives that were, after all, nearest hers.
Her mother had urged her to go with her uncle's family to Europe, if she liked -- for a letter had been sent to her just before school closed, begging for Annie's company -- but our friend had at once refused. Mrs. Hollis had said that she was afraid it was going to be a great change for her to come back, and that they did not feel that they ought to take her from such pleasant associations, and make her give up so much for their sakes; but the answer that came back decided the question for once and all. "I feel sure that you have given up a great deal for my sake, mother," said Annie, "you and father both; and I have made up my mind that I would rather be at home with you than to do anything else. If I am used better things than I shall find in Brookfield, I shall try to make you share all my pleasures, and to give you half of everything I have gained. It has been of no use to me if I can't be of any use to you." And when they read this letter, one spring evening, Mr. Hollis said, brushing a tear away, "Annie's a good girl."
But still they were uneasy about her coming home, and as her father took the big trunk and the little one out of the wagon and left them on the grass, and led the old horse away to unharness him -- the boys having at last remembered the cows that were raising loud wails at the pasture bars -- he thought how different she was from all the girls in the region, and he suddenly felt unlike her, and as if he were rough and countrified. "I wish I had had a chance when I was a boy to go off and see something -- I shouldn't have been like this." It seemed to him, for a minute, that all his own possible success and refinement had been really given him, after all, in the pretty, well-bred daughter who had come home to him. It was a cruel thought that she might be ashamed of him, and that, at any rate, her home life and her city life must always be kept apart. "I'm afraid she'll be lonesome when it comes to be winter," he said to himself, sorrowfully, as he took off his best coat and carefully laid it over the low branch of an apple-tree before he went in at the barn door.
In the meanwhile, Annie had gone in to see Aunt Harriet, whom she had always hated when she was a child. Nothing could be seen of the old lady but her nose and the frill of a very prim cap, but, in answer to the girl's greeting, she said, in a faint tone, that she was much as usual; nobody knew what she suffered, and she seemed to be left in the world to be a burden to herself and everybody else.
"Oh, no, Aunt Harriet," said Annie, cheerfully, "don't say that! I've got a great deal to tell you -- they all wished to be remembered to you at Uncle Henry's. Aunt Fanny sent you a very handsome cap, with her love. I'll get it out of my trunk after supper."
"I expect she thought it would do to lay me out in," said Aunt Harriet, indignantly, and forgetting to keep to her whining tone. "What good did she think a handsome cap would do me, bedridden as I be? I should much rather ha' had something to tempt my appetite" --
"Here's a good supper for you as I could get," said Mrs. Hollis, who just then came in with a tray, and she and Annie caught each other's eyes and found it hard to keep from laughing.
If anything had been needed to make our friend sure of the welcome that was given her, the sight of the tea-table [teatable] would have been enough, for it was evident that her mother had done the best she could to make it pleasant. She even had put a little bouquet in front of Annie's plate. "I know you spoke once about there being flowers on the table where you were," she told her daughter, "I never had seen any myself, but I thought perhaps you would like it. You always did like sweet-briar; it's late this year."
Annie knew at a glance that her mother had put on the very best table cloth, and somehow she could hardly keep from crying. The boys had seized a lunch in the pantry, and had gone away again to milk, so that there were only three of them at the table. "It does seem good to have you home again," her father said, looking away from her and flushing a little, "and it seems as if you liked to be here after all. Mother and I are sort of afraid that you won't like our ways."
And Annie told them, laughingly, that, perhaps, they wouldn't be pleased with hers, but she did not see why they should not get on well together, if they all tried hard. She gave a funny glance at Aunt Harriet's bedroom door and her father shook his head, solemnly, as if that gesture conveyed more than any words could of the difficulties of the old lady's disposition. "I do not see how you have got along without anybody to help you, mother," said Annie.
The boys had remembered that there was a company tea in progress, and they returned presently, their appetites getting the better of their shyness. The two cows never were milked so quickly as they were that night, and the boys listened to Annie's assurance that she had brought each of them a jackknife, a white handled one and a black handled one, with great pleasure.
Annie felt tired out when she went to her own room that night, but she sat down a little while at the window, and thought about her coming home. She said to herself that she meant to be a help and a comfort and a pleasure to them all. God would not have made it her home unless she could help them more, and they could help her more, than anybody else. It would only be her own blindness and selfishness that would make her coming home a mistake.
If I were to follow out her life in the country farm-house for even a week it would make too long a story. I know myself that she made everybody happier, and that instead of thinking how forlorn the house was, she set herself to work to make it pleasanter in every way she could. She was often impatient, and she was not perfect by any means, this heroine of mine, but she tried to learn from her mistakes. She was surprised to find that after being suspicious and cross for the first few days, poor old Aunt Harriet claimed her as a friend, and one morning took the key of the bureau that held her treasures from under her pillow and showed our friend the wonders she had achieved in the way of knitted quilts, and chair covers, and curtains. They were admired as much as heart could wish, and when the old lady lamented that her day of usefulness was past since her feeble hands could no longer manage to hold the heavy pieces of work, Annie suggested that there were smaller things that might be made, and that she would teach her aunt some new stitches that she had learned the winter before. Imagine the bright yarns and worsteds that Annie bought, and the interest and pride of Aunt Harriet's heart, and the wristers and little hoods and tidies that seemed to her, and the friends who came far duty's sake to see her, to have reached the highest summit of art and beauty.
Annie had been afraid that she must give up painting, for which she had a good deal of talent, but she never had enjoyed it so heartily before, and she found enough time for it in the long summer days. The sketches and studies that she had made with her teachers brightened up the walls of the rooms which had always looked empty, and she found that her father and mother and even the boys seemed to take great delight in her work. Lonny was a shy little fellow, but she soon won his heart, and he carried her to many a delightful sketching ground in the woods and pastures; and once in a while when the horse could be spared they all went off for a long drive and a picnic, these boys and their sister. And so in time it came about that Lonny and Jack were sent to the depot to carry an express package on their way to mill; and they were as pleased as Annie herself when a note came back from a dealer in pictures in New York, enclosing a cheque in payment for two little water colors, which had been sold at once, and asking for others as fast as she could send them. It was a great deal pleasanter to carry the color-box and brushes out of doors than it ever had been to sit at an easel in the crowded studio, and instead of being too tired to handle her brushes after she had helped her mother in the morning, she was easily rested, and there was hardly a day she could not find a spare hour or two in which to do exactly as she pleased. Somehow the work did not seem all drudgery any more to her father and mother (who had begun to feel like horses in a treadmill), because she lent them a hand so kindly and tried to make the best of everything.
It was very pleasant when, one busy morning in late summer, a strong girl from a neighboring farm came in at the door, bringing a bundle of clothes, and assuring Mrs. Hollis, who could not understand her unexpected arrival, that Annie had engaged her to help with the sewing and housework for a month. And the life was by no means all drudgery, or without companionship. I leave you to imagine for yourselves, perhaps to see for yourselves, how one can make the best of life and the most of life, without much money to spend, on a lonely farm. The more we know, the better and happier we ought to make our lives, and the further we ought to be from discontent.
Early that winter, when Annie Hollis went back to the city to stay for a little while with one of her friends, she found that everybody was fonder of her than ever, and that, while the town life was in some ways pleasanter than ever before, still she missed some of the pleasures that she had at home. As for her painting-master, he told her over and over again that she had not lost ground, she had been gaining steadily, and nature was her best teacher -- he was proud to have only directed her to that great school.
And whether Annie Hollis's life is to be spent in town or country, by and by, who can tell? But one thing we can be sure of is this: that a girl who makes the best of things in one place, will do it in every place. It was easier, some people will think, for this girl to content herself in the old life, from which she had grown away, for the reason that she carried back to it the new interest and business of her painting. But how ready some other people would have been to excuse themselves from going on with that, because they missed the help and stimulus of companionship, and the rivalry and excitement of the studio life.
It is being proved over and over again that where there is a will there is a way, and there is certainly a great difference between making life and taking it.
"A Guest at Home" first appeared in The Congregationalist (34:399), November 29, 1882. Richard Cary included it in The Uncollected Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett (1971). This text is from Cary's reprinting. Errors have been corrected and indicated with brackets. If you find errors or items that need annotation, please contact: the site manager.
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wristers ... hoods ... tidies: A wrister in this case probably would be an ornamental band worn around the wrist to enclose the top of a glove for warmth. A hood would be a head covering. A tidy is a piece of fancywork used to protect the back, arms, or headrest of a chair or sofa from wear or soil.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.
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