THE HONEY TREE
Sarah Orne Jewett
There was a great piece of news in Hillborough Friday night, which was told at a friendly meeting in Joel Simmons's store. It was the first autumn evening when the air felt frosty enough for a fire; the outside benches along the store front were wholly deserted for the first time that season. The newspapers reached Hillborough in the morning, so that those few citizens who took the Tribune or the Herald had time enough to digest any information received before the evening gathering, and to impart their refreshed ideas to those persons who came down from the upper hill country after supper.
The Reverend Mr. Dennett was the last to arrive and to ask for his belated morning mail; he had been away all day at the funeral of a former parishioner, and some of the men who sat in the store inquired about the day's events, and possessed themselves of whatever interesting facts might be available. The minister was always pleasantly communicative.
"What has been going on here to-day?" He turned back to put the question just as he reached the door; there was some influence or sudden instinct of sympathy which impelled him; perhaps he noticed an unusual eagerness in his parishioners' faces.
"Not much o' anything 'bout here," answered old Captain Foss before anybody else could speak. "No, sir, I don't know o' anything special this part o' the parish, but somewheres up there by Sunday Mountain there's b'en a bee tree discovered; one o' old Mis' Prime's gran'children, the Hopper boy, found it, and they say there's like to be fifty or sixty pound o' this year's new honey. Asy Hopper himself informed Martin Wells as he was ridin' by, this evenin'. I've got the facts right, [']ain't I, Martin?" inquired the old man, politely giving up the floor now that he had possessed himself of the glory of telling the news to the minister.
"Why, that is news!" exclaimed Mr. Dennett. "Fifty pounds of honey is indeed a valuable acquisition. I suppose that Mr. Hopper intends to market some of it. I shall be glad to patronize him myself; honey is very soothing to the preacher's throat. Yes, I should feel personally grateful of the opportunity."
This ecclesiastical tribute to the efforts of the hive seemed to put the occasion on a still higher and more interesting level. One man after another said that he would be willing to put his name down for five or six pounds, but an eager young voice interrupted these calm appropriations.
"His father says Johnny Hopper's goin' to have all the honey hisself to do what he's a mind to with. 'Twas Johnny found the tree," piped the boy, with such a displeasing importance in his way of giving information that even the minister's face fell a little.
"Sho! sho!"said the Captain, ready with instant rebuke. "His father said Johnny should have all the honey that was good for him, I guess. 'Tis too large a quantity to eat all up at home, and they ain't very well off neither."
"I ain't goin' to take none if a pack o' boys has been pawin' into it!" proclaimed the storekeeper, excitedly. "I ain't goin' to have what I expect to dispose of fetched back here to the store 'count o' bein' full o' dry bark an' pine spills, dead bees, an' all them sorts o' trollick. I guess Asy Hopper'll know enough to smoke out them bees, and wedge the tree right open, and get that honey out proper, 's he knows we should want it. I guess he won't use Johnny no way but right neither," he added, being a kind-hearted man, and seeing the look of dismay on the young speaker's face.
"No, 'twas Johnny found the tree," repeated the school-teacher, a long-faced man, "but he will want to do just what his father considers best, like a real good son." Mr. Dunn sighed heavily as he finished this charge to the elect, and rose from an uneasy crate where he had been sitting, and took his dignified evening way toward the door. Bill Phillips, the inelegant boy toward whom his utterance was directed, put out his tongue as far as it would go, and was red in the face from the protracted effort before the door was shut behind his natural enemy. The minister looked grave and disapproving, but some of the other men laughed.
"You don't want to be sassy like that!" said the old Captain to Bill. "You'd get hove right overboard if they see you do that on a marchant vessel, sir, now I tell you! You was talking to me about follerin' the sea t'other day," he ended, severely, but with such kindness and sincere interest that the lad looked abashed, and presently sidled off among the barrels and gained his unnoticed liberty.
"Some folks is said to be deadly p'isoned if they trifle with honey," announced old Mr. Jenkins, warningly, from one of the arm-chairs. "I don't know 's it's very common to hear o' such cases but my mother had an aunt by marr'ge that was throwed into complete fits. They thought 'twas her own notion an' she'd heared o' somebody else that was affected so, or suthin', but they tried her four or five times puttin' honey onbeknownst into sweet-cake or the like o' that, and she'd be right into them fits without fail, sir! After the last time she come out on 'em feelin' kind o' slim for a good while, and so they didn't tax her no more. They thought if they could once get a good portion consumed, and she was none the wuss, they'd laugh her out of it. She was al'ays a notional person."
"Better leave good honest honey for such as desires it," growled Martin Wells. "Asy told me hisself they should have a plenty to winter 'em, and like 's not some to spare. He promised me what I could use, anyway."
Every eye in the company glistened at this information, and there was a silence, as if to resolve upon a course that could be properly maintained. It was a great many years since honey had been plentiful in Hillborough, and neither Bill Phillips nor Johnny Hopper felt a deeper interest in the simple luxury than these elderly men.
"Goes good on a slice o' rye bread and butter," said Captain Foss, smacking his lips. "Wife 'n' me used to carry a little crock along in our seafarin' days; honey or stewed cranberries was our gre't treat for Sunday night supper aboard; an', Lord! how we used to mourn 'em when they was all gone, an' we'd got three months afore us sometimes ere we'd make our port! Dried apples, even them'd get mouldy, and down we'd come at last to plain hardtack an' beef out o' the old harness-cask."
The storekeeper gave a reassuring glance at his shelves, which were bending with canned goods and vegetables and bright California fruits. "I could fit you and Mis' Foss out very handsome now to go right round the world," he announced. But the Captain sniffed, and worked the ferrule of his cane back and forth angrily in a familiar crack of the floor.
"Them things!" he exclaimed. "I'd starve fust, and so would Mis' Foss. They taste all of 'em alike; they'd give some folks onnecessary fits wors 'n them we've heared described. Them cans would all bulge their tops and go off like guns agin the upper deck, take 'em into some o' the latitudes o' heat where I've been." And the storekeeper was humbled to the earth.
"You had some o' my peaches for supper last night, anyways," he ventured. "Mis' Foss sent over in a hurry for 'em, sayin' she'd got onexpected comp'ny come."
"I observed her preserves was dreadful poor for once," glared the Captain. "Oh, well, sir, I ain't disputin' nor cryin' down your business. They seem shiftless to me, these new-fangled notions o' eatin', but then I be an old sailor," and he laughed a little. "Daresay I should be glad enough on 'em, come to go to sea agin an' be short o' stores!" It was an irresistible chuckle, was the Captain's; and cheerfulness was at once restored.
The minister, who had been patiently waiting for a pound of tea to be weighed and put up, now said good-night and went away.
"Poor creatur'! I guess he knows whether canned goods is nourishing or not," said Martin Wells, impulsively. "They've got a story up our way that poor Mis' Dennett ain't no gre't of a house-keeper; my woman is dreadful 'tached to the minister since he was so feelin' for her the time we lost our little girl, an' she can't let me ride down here to the Plains 'thout a loaf o' her good bread, or a pie, or somethin' for 'em."
"I expect she's had it hard, his wife has, with their large family. Their minds is turned other ways, ministers' folks is," commented the storekeeper, compassionately. "I'll bate you some o' that honey'll get to the pa'sonage, and if Mis' Wells's extra bread puts into port same day, they'll have a treat, sure 's can be!"
Martin Wells blushed with inward delight at this tribute.
There was a man, John Timms by name, who had not spoken. He was very deaf, and had waited till the talk was done before he put a modest question.
"What'd you say when you fust come in? I didn't catch the drift on't," he asked, as the old Captain rose to go home, and the others knew by this signal that the evening was over.
"I said that Hopper's folks had found a bee tree up side o' Sunday Mountain," said Martin, bawling into his ear.
"Much honey in it?" asked Timms in a stifled voice.
"Fifty or sixty pound; this year's make!"
"Guess they'll be havin' plenty o' company up to Hopper's if this good weather holds," prophesied the latest receiver of the happy news.
"Mother, you ain't thinkin' o' goin' 'way up there side o' the mountain!" exclaimed Mrs. Hopper, Johnny's mother, next morning. She was busy getting out all the large dishes from her cupboard, and had already brought some large clean basswood chopping-trays and bowls from the outer store-room. Grandma Prime made her appearance dressed for the outer air, and had her big umbrella in hand as if she would need a staff. "They said 'twas nigh a mile off where they found the tree," protested the younger woman, anxiously. "'Tis rough under foot; there, you might catch your foot in a root, and get a fall you wouldn't be better of all winter long!"
"Ann Sarah, I've clim' Sunday Mountain before ever you was born, an' if anybody feels to do a thing they can do it; my mind is set on gettin' up to see that bee tree Johnny found; an' I'm a-goin'. I'll take it slow. If you keep a-don'tin' me an' makin' me feel I'm past everything, my heart will break. I've al'ays been used to my liberty," and her old face quivered.
"Why, of course you can go, you dear creatur'," said Ann Sarah, hastily trying to make amends. "Take it slow, as you say, mother; we'll work along together. I don't know where that Johnny is, for my part; he said he'd go up with 's father and Bill Phillips an' the rest o' the boys an' men, and show 'em where 'twas, and then he'd come right back and help me with these bowls and buckets and things. Mis' Wells come along with Martin whilst you took your nap, an' said she was goin' up to see 'em fight the bees an' get the honey out; she never see such a sight in her life where she come from. It ain't but one o'clock now; they must ha' got their dinner out o' the way 'arlier 'n we did ours."
"I didn't stop to take no gre't of a nap, for all we had such a drivin' mornin'," said Grandma Prime, with importance. "I heared voices, and I wanted to be off, myself. Well, 'tis a lovely afternoon, an' happens just right to have it come a Saturday!"
"I declare you're pleased as a girl, mother," said Mrs. Hopper, proudly. "You look well an' young as ever you did!"
"Come, let's go right along!" urged the old adventurer; "'twill be all over before we git there! Johnny never'll think o' desertin' the rest on 'em once the real play begins."
"See here, I do' know but I can put a number o' these wooden things that's light right into the bushel basket, and car' an extra pail on my arm. I wish we had a stick to run through the basket handles and take it right between us," said Ann Sarah.
"Run this umbrella through," directed Grandma Prime. "Here, I sha'n't require it. You'll waste an hour longer huntin' for somethin' else!" And they started together up the wood-road like a careful pair of steady yokemates, with the umbrella fast held between them.
"I expect they'll have them bees all coped with, and be wonderin' what they've got to put their honey in, and be ter'ble glad to see us a-comin'," said grandma, stopping on the steep hill-side to take breath.
Before long they heard the blows of an axe and the loud sound of voices. The two women were more eager of heart than they were swift of foot; if the mother was hindered by age, the daughter was a stout person not given to mountaineering. It was a beautiful October afternoon; the dark woods still kept their frosty morning fragrance, but in the open spaces the sun felt as if it were still June. All the blue-jays were talking and scolding at each other; their voices were not unlike those of the bee-hunters themselves, who may have been disturbing them.
"Yes, I hear our folks now very plain," said Grandma Prime, whose ears were not quite so keen as her daughter's. "I hear 'em plain. Let's get along a little mite faster, if it's so you can, Ann Sarah."
The honey tree stood at the edge of an open space of smooth turf. It was an old apple-tree, and behind it was a thick growth of young pines. These were fast covering a disused pasture, which had been burnt so dry every year in midsummer, and was so poorly watered, that Asa Hopper had let the forest in at last to take full possession. The apple-tree was a poor ungrafted seedling; its fruit was eatable only by boys; and for lack of nourishment in the thin soil, its thick short trunk had long ago grown hollow. The bees had come and gone through a large knot-hole near the ground; only a few side branches looked alive; it had long been the home of squirrels before the bees took it. There were a few knurly little yellow cider-apples on the mossy twigs.
"I can remember this tree when I was a girl," said Grandma Prime, with much importance; "it had dreadful pretty pink blossoms then, but the fruit was poorer than most. So 'twas this tree! Why, I should have known well enough if you'd told me, Johnny." But Johnny took no notice of what any woman might say; he was busy with a man's work, and viewed their arrival, as he had received Mrs. Wells's earlier and somewhat forward advice, with great indifference. He and Bill Phillips had already suffered much disfigurement of countenance, for the smoking-out process had been most unsuccessful at first, while late-returning bees were still to be met and despatched with birch and hemlock boughs, and the fray was by no means over. There was a small fire burning, and twisted wisps of damp straw, and sulphur fuming on live coals that were heaped on a piece of bark, were still in requisition.
"You'd ought to have waited until dark to smoke 'em, or till some rainy day when they were all stopping to home," advised Grandma Prime, with the air of an expert, after Asa Hopper had made a blind run in among the little pines with a bee about his ears; but until that wise utterance it seemed to have occurred neither to him nor to anybody else to delay the great encounter. At last the smoking process was over, the tree was cut down, they had wedged the tough trunk, and the men and boys all insisted upon giving orders together, while the women looked on as if at a splendid sight of valor.
"There she goes!" shouted Johnny at last, as the wedges and a crowbar finally prevailed, and the old tree was cleft with a loud tearing sound, and lay in two hollow halves apart, solid with honeycomb through the best part of its length. A few despoiled bees crept about bewildered in the bright slow drops that glistened where the wax had crushed or parted. Johnny and Bill Phillips, and the men too, gave a shout of triumph. There were no fifty pounds in view, but there was really more honey than they could possibly eat.
"There, come here and look, grandma!" called Johnny, returning to his old allegiance, and forgetting his manly scorn of the incompetent sex. "Look there, grandma. What do you call that?" cried Johnny again, and stood to receive her admiration like a hero before the Athenian populace. Then he clutched at a large piece of honeycomb and took his due reward; the poor bees who had gathered it were trampled and destroyed as if they had lived but to minister to the glory and delight of others, like the vanquished army on the shore of Marathon.
It was about four o'clock or a little earlier when the hunters started to go back to the house. The bowls and trays in the basket with which Grandma Prime and Mrs. Hopper had toiled up the mountain slope were not all needed, but most of them were well filled with honey, and everybody took one to carry, even the eldest of the party, who steadied herself well enough with the umbrella. Some of the old brown comb was left behind for another day, and a good deal of new honey had leaked into the grass, but a thin, wandering bear snuffed these treasures on the light October breeze, and came that night to feast upon the honeyed ground, so that nothing was wasted.
As the rich and happy company came down the wood-path and drew near the house, they saw a horse and wagon hitched to the fence, and a top-buggy beyond that, and there were several persons standing in the road by twos and threes all looking off at the view.
"Why, what's the matter?" exclaimed Mrs. Hopper. "We oughtn't to have left the house all this time, all of us to once. I never thought to lock none o' the doors. You don't expect we've been afire? Why, see all these folks!"
"I guess they're just out strollin', 'tis such a pleasant Saturday afternoon, Ann Sarah," answered the old lady. "Some of 'em's like to come in an' call. I wish we was dressed up better."
"That's Joel Simmons's hoss," said Martin Wells, innocently. "I guess be wants to speak about engaging your fowls for Thanksgivin'."
"I declare I do believe there's Cap'n Foss rode up to see us," announced Grandma Prime. "And - yes, there's Mis' Foss too, that I haven't seen up here for so long I can't remember when! I didn't know 's she'd ever get up the mountain again;" and the good soul, forgetting her own weariness, hurried along to welcome a chosen friend.
The people who were walking up the road looked somewhat abashed as they hung about the door, and each of them began to make excuse. They all declared that the beautiful afternoon had tempted them out for a walk. There were seven or eight of these guests together, and they had to be coaxed before they consented to come in. Mrs. Hopper looked at Martin Wells's wife with a funny little smile when she had at last prevailed over such reluctance, and Mrs. Wells smiled back with comprehension and amusement.
"We've all been up on the mountain; our Johnny found a honey tree yesterday," said Ann Sarah Hopper after she had followed them in. "I want, now you're here, that you should all stop and have some," she told the silent roomful as if she expected them to be surprised, and there was a feeble murmur of approval from one or two. Mrs. Foss and Grandma Prime were sitting together, holding each other's hand. Grandma Prime looked happy but a little pale, and she still kept hold of her small wooden bowl full of honey.
"We passed the teacher a little ways back. He's out botanizing," said one of the young women, impulsively, now that the first stiffness was over. "He said he was looking for some scarce bush that has a yellow bloom this time o' year. We asked him to come along with us, but he said he might join us a little later on; he was going a piece further up the road," she added. "We told him if 'twas witch-hazel he was looking for, he wouldn't find any quite so late."
"Ain't it a kind of a honey-colored flower?" inquired Johnny Hopper, smartly, with a queer brightness coming into his eyes. He had just deposited the chopping-tray on the table with lofty triumph, and then, as he viewed the company that already filled every chair in the large kitchen, he cast a wistful glance at his treasure, as if he wished it were in a safer place.
"Johnny dear," said his mother, coming from the cupboard with her hands full of saucers - "Johnny, they say Mr. Dunn, your school-teacher, 's down the road; you go ask him to come right up an' have some of your nice honey, won't you?"
"You go, Bill," commanded Johnny, coldly, and fled out through the shed and up to the woods to head off his father, who was laden with axe and crowbar and a heavy yellow bowl, and really needed his succor. But there was a look of ruefulness on Johnny's face. This did not look like a winter's store of honey for one's self, and still less like having enough to sell besides, so that a fellow would indeed be rich. Skates and a man's gun were rapidly disappearing down the throats of greedy idlers, and poor Johnny's heart felt as if it were like to break.
"I expected they'd gather by Sunday," said his father, laughing at his son when they met. "They be pretty prompt, but the nice weather sort o' helped 'em. Here, you take this bowl from me, and I'll step back and get my axe. I had to leave it hooked on a limb back here; it wouldn't gybe with the old crowbar no how [nowhow]."
"Father, ain't there some safe place up here where we can leave the bowl?" Johnny besought him with trembling lip. "There's a sight o' folks down to the house, an' they say there's more a-comin'."
"Why, yes," said his father, soberly. "I'm glad to have somethin' to give the folks. I made out I'd let your mother have some to give away; we're goin' to have more than enough for ourselves;" and he looked down at the boy in a kindly manner.
"I want Mis' Foss and the Cap'n to have some," said Johnny, "and I don't mind about Mr. Simmons - he's a real good man; but plague take the rest of 'em!"
"You're goin' to be just like other folks when you grow up," remarked his father, and burst into a funny little laugh. It might have been to a small boy's disadvantage, or it might not. "Here, you trot along to the house, an' I'll see to the big yellow bowl. Your mother'll be needing you, and I'm all honey up to my elbows. I've got to go an' wash me off, down to the brook."
The boy obeyed and returned just in time to see a long black coat disappear within the front door. It was the minister, and his wife was with him; they had come to make their regular parochial visitation.
The next moment Mrs. Wells overtook Johnny, all out of breath with haste. "Here, dear, you help me carry these things," she said, carefully giving him a large brown loaf of cake. "I thought your mother'd need a little shorin' up with such a party comin' in on her, and I just run home and brought my Saturday's baking right over," said the kind-hearted, generous woman. She was always called the best of neighbors. There was a look of delight and social excitement in her face, which was suddenly reflected in the anxious boy's, and Johnny frisked away as if he were the sole giver of the feast.
Later that evening the visitors had all gone, the tea was all drunk, and the cake and the bread and honey were eaten. There was no sign left of such a great festival, except some freshly gnawed pickets in the front-yard fence where the horses had stood. Most of the guests had taken home with them a goodly piece of honeycomb, and there was not a great deal of honey left, but somehow nobody felt very sorry.
"I like to have company; don't you, father?" asked the boy.
He had a first-rate four-bladed knife in his pocket that the minister had given him. Johnny Hopper, though so wise and instructed a person, had never known before that the minister was such a nice man.
Mrs. Hopper began to feel very tired. "I thought one time, 'long at the first of it, they did look a little 'shamed, all of 'em meetin' here at once so, an' come for just what they were goin' to get," she complained, fretfully.
"Land sakes, Ann Sarah, what's the use o' talkin' that foolish way?" said Grandma Prime, who was very social by nature and still abloom with happiness. "You've al'ays got to have somethin' pleasant to draw folks round ye. I guess none o' them little bees won't think their labor was in vain in the Lord. A nice afternoon like this ought to cost a little somethin', an' we've got some honey left."
"The Honey Tree" first appeared in Harper's Magazine, December 1901 (104), pp. 45-50, from which this text is taken. It was reprinted by Richard Cary Uncollected Short Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett (1971). Apparent errors have been corrected and indicated with brackets. If you notice errors or items needing annotation, please contact the site manager.
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Sho! Sho!: sure, sure.
trollick: This apparently local usage or coinage does not appear in standard dictionaries. The context makes clear that it means extraneous matter or trash. The word may be related to the Scottish use of `troll' and `trollop' to refer to unshapely and slovenly things, trailing on the ground or hanging wet.
charge to the elect: According to Calvinist doctrine, the elect are those chosen by God from the beginning of creation for final salvation in the afterlife.
know 's: In this text I have changed contractions in which "'s" replaces "as." In the original these words appear as "know's."
harness-cask: A cask or tub where salt meat is stored for daily use, (nautical terminology).
bate: Maine pronunciation for bet, probably.
Marathon: At the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., Athenians and Plataeans attacked and defeated the more numerous Persian invaders, thus avoiding Persian domination.
top-buggy: A horse-drawn carriage with a top, usually carrying two people.
gybe: Variant of jibe, to be in accord or agree.
in vain in the Lord: See 1 Corinthians 15:58.
Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.