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By Sarah Orne Jewett
The Peltons were new comers to that part of the country, who had bought a large farm and good farm house, and had paid for them when the deeds were passed. This was not without an effect, for they were received into the best rural society with every possible honor. They made improvements in their house, and were also generous in church matters, and willing at once to take part in town affairs. Everybody thought it was a great satisfaction to have so considerable an addition to the neighborhood. There was no mystery about these pleasant, well-to-do people. John Pelton had been raised on a good farm, and always meant to have one of his own before he died. He had been in the lumber business in Foxbridge, the nearest large town, and had done well, though he was not so rich as if he had kept to his business longer. One of the daughters complained that the farm was dull, but her brother and sister entered most heartily into their farmer's life.
When they first came to the farm, bag and baggage, Miss Tamsen Spencer was on the spot to welcome them, and to lend a helping hand about unpacking the bedding and getting supper. She had brought a basket of doughnuts and an apple pie, and before they knew it the tea pot was on the stove, and a generous supper table spread by her quick hand. The Peltons had been delayed in leaving Foxbridge, and were fretted and uneasy, but the neighborly act of Miss Tamsen Spencer restored their serenity. It was very late in October when they came to the farm, and by Thanksgiving Tamsen had become so intimate and indispensable a friend that she was bidden to dine with the Pelton Household. She had sighed over her brother's absence and her own lonely feelings when the time for family reunions came around, and her new friends were glad to show their friendliness. The invitation was eagerly expected, and was accepted after proper consideration.
As time went on, Miss Tamsen's information, not to say gossip, about their townsfolk, was much relied upon. There seemed to be nobody whose inmost secrets were not known to her, and she reposed the greatest confidence in the Peltons, by apparently telling them everything she had stored away in her busy brain.
John Pelton, who was a shrewd man, did not altogether uphold his womenfolk in such extensive intimacy, but after Tamsen applied herself devotedly to curing him of a bad attack of rheumatism, he began to think that she was garrulous but harmless, and ceased to warn his wife of trusting over much to such hungry ears and a glib tongue. The amiable Tamsen rarely did great mischief; she only had a story teller's art of romancing a little and setting forth the barest facts in an interesting way. If she had indeed been malicious, she might have prejudiced the simple-hearted new comers against half the town.
But the long Vermont winter wore away, and by spring the Peltons had other friends, thanks to their attendance upon a cheerful succession of parish gatherings. Tamsen Spencer was no longer their only guide, philosopher and friend, and was a little jealous because others were taking her place. The young people made friends easily, and Tamsen began to watch them and to grow curious about them. She was almost as well contented with her secrets and mysteries, and intense delight in finding out all sorts of things without asking questions as she had been in the days when she had closer alliance with the household.
In her own home, her only companion was an industrious deaf and dumb brother a little older than herself, who managed their five or six acres of land alone in summer, and worked at shoemaking in the winter. He was a most unsatisfactory companion for such a sister. She was too impatient by nature to spend much time in conversing with him, by means of the little slate which he carried in his pocket, and poor Jotham was a solitary soul. His sole recreation was in tramping off by himself once or twice a year, nobody, not even Tamsen, knew exactly where; but from time to time he visited a cousin who lived about fifteen miles away, and once after he had been gone a longer time than usual, he proudly reported that he had been as far as Boston. When his sister read the startling word Boston on his smooth bit of slate, she hastened indignantly to ask why he had not given her a chance to share the great delight. Jotham shook his head, knowingly, as if to go alone were best.
There was something pathetic in the way that Tamsen loved society, and in her misused but really delightful gift of story-telling. To be sure she often talked too long about little things and was wearisome, but that was only a misuse of what might have been a charming gift with a little more tact that came from cultivation and larger mindedness. With all her faults, she had made far more of her opportunities than most of the Delford people. Of all women in Delford, she would have most quickly made herself harmonious with strangers or with cosmopolitan society, and while it was often said that she talked too much, almost everybody was glad to see the cheerful, entertaining creature coming. She even had the tact to conceal her curiosity, and it never would occur to you while she told you a delicious tale of your neighbor's affairs, that her innocent-looking quick grey eyes were seeing everything within the four walls of your own kitchen.
Forgive this lingering description of Miss Tamsen Spencer's characteristics, for the story of one of her adventures would count for nothing without it. You must understand how solemn she could be at a funeral and how gay at a wedding: that nobody could talk so ably with the minister upon almost any subject, or understood the practice of medicine from either the old or the young doctor's point of view so well as this same Tamsen. She was intimate with half a dozen families, and had a morbid fear, though she had so much to say about other people, that other people should find out anything about her own affairs. She was secretive and accumulative as an old crow. She could not bear to be questioned; indeed, she rarely gave anybody a chance.
There was not a woman in Delford with such proper pride or almost improper self-respect.
"I've got plans that have waited these forty years for the right time to be suitably carried out," announced our heroine one day to Mrs. Pelton. "I do maintain that if you keep a-wishing, you wish things round as you want 'em."
"I'd like to think so," answered good Mrs. Pelton, doubtfully. She was beating eggs for her famous sponge cake, and Tamsen sat by the window in the sun.
"'Tis so," said Tamsen decidedly. "Now there was a curious instance last week. I saw a pattern of pretty light calico twenty-seven year ago this spring, and set my heart on some of it for a dress; a pink sprig it had and a polka spot. I sent for ten yards of it, and 'twas all gone, and I couldn't find nothin' to suit me for a long spell. An' last week I found out by watchin' of him that brother Jotham calculated to go over to old Tanner Brigham's, to get a side o' lighter calf skin than he had on hand, and I says on the slate, 'Get me a dress-length o' some good old calico, just to work about in, if you can strike a bargain.' You don't know about Tanner Brigham's store? Well, it's worth a day's journey. There ain't scarcely any trade over that way, and he's had most of his stuff since the year one. When he gets anything new it has to be old-fashioned, so 's not to take the shine off the rest o' his goods. He actually asked me if I didn't want to buy a couple o' foot stoves last time I was over -- said he'd got some on hand he'd let me have reasonable. He ain't very cheap generally, gets so attached to his goods he hates to let 'em go; but he tans by spells, and likes to have a place to stay in winter time and bad weather. There was a talk o' the stage tavern's being built over there once, and several folks moved in, and a blacksmith, when Brigham set up. But 'twan't so, and the stage come over Pine Hill instead, as you know, and there he's stuck as if he expected 'twas goin' to grow to be a city. What do you suppose Jotham came luggin' home under one arm and huggin' his calfskin with the other? That very same pattern o' calico with the pink sprig 'long of a polka spot! There was a faded streak 'way into two or three folds, but I'm goin' to get me a dress out of it some ways or other. "Twas just as pretty as ever, an' I tell you I was pleased as a child. I give Jotham a regular good thump on his back, an' I made him some toppin' rye drop-cakes for his supper."
Mrs. Pelton had beaten the eggs into a fine froth, and went into the pantry for fresh supplies.
"It sounds like a calico I used to have," she said, with great interest. "It was a beautiful thing to wear, and I laid it by once when I was called into black, and I've always intended to make me a pretty comforter of it. You couldn't tell it from one o' them handsome old French calicoes."
"Nor this," responds Tamsen eagerly, and then it being a busy day, she took leave. She had not spoken of it, but Brother Jotham had been tempted by the lovely spring weather to go on a pilgrimage before plowing time. Tamsen was alone, and from past experience did not expect him for several days.
That evening she spread out the calico on the kitchen floor, and held the lamp close to it, and put her patterns on, and measured off the skirt breadths, and was greatly perplexed because there were more faded streaks than she had feared at first. She spent painstaking hours over it, and turned and twisted it about; but there was no hope of making both skirt and waist, of even the simplest sort, without nearly another yard. The old remnant was very provoking, and Tamsen could not give it up. She even dreamed of it half the night, and waked up with a brain fevered by dancing visions of polka spots and sprigs of pink. "There!" she exclaimed, "if ever Miss Pelton gets out her materials for comforters, you may have a chance to do a little tradin'. That's all the outlook there is."
Just as she sat at her solitary breakfast table the Peltons drove by with their best wagon and both horses, going to Mrs. Pelton's sister's, in Foxbridge, where there was a family party, Mrs. Pelton's mother being still alive. Two brothers had come on from the West, and there was to be a famous dinner. Tamsen had heard all about it, and she rushed to the door now and waved a sympathetic farewell. One of the Pelton girls was already in Foxbridge, the father and mother and son and younger daughter were in the wagon. They would not be home until evening.
"I am thankful they have got such a good day," said lonely Tamsen, as she went back into the house. She always wished that she belonged to a large family.
The dress was looked over again by daylight, and sadly folded up and put away.
"I never did have a gown o' two kinds o' calico, and I won't now," said Miss Spencer, proudly. "There, I should just like to know if Mis' Pelton's is the same exactly. Like as not it isn't."
She looked out of the window two or three times toward the Pelton house.
"There, now, you mustn't do any such thing!" she rebuked herself once; but a few minutes later the temptation became too great. "I promised 'em I would keep an eye on the house," she said to herself, "an' Mrs. Pelton wouldn't mind a bit. I mean to go over an' just see if 'tis the same pattern, and then I'll edge Miss Pelton on to gettin' it down some day herself, and I'll give her some new for it, rather'n be disappointed so after all these years. I know where she keeps her old pieces and such things, up in one o' them attic closets."
Behold light-footed Miss Tamsen stepping along the road with a guilty heart, but a sense of unusual delight. She did not say frankly to herself that a good rummage would make her happy, but as she unlocked the door and locked it again behind her, she fairly reveled in her opportunity.
It was a somewhat innocent pleasure, after all. Tamsen was as honest a soul as ever breathed, but she took a long look at the picture of Mrs. Pelton's youngest child, a pretty little fellow who had died, and carefully studied Susy Pelton's last summer's wrap, of which she had never quite dared to ask a pattern. She spent an hour in her rummage, stepping softly about the rooms; counting Mrs. Pelton's best gold-and-white cups and saucers to see if any were gone; and discovering the truth which had long puzzled her, about the hiding place of the extra half-dozen of silver spoons.
It took some time to get at the calico skirt that was waiting to be made into a comforter. Bags and bundles were many in the northwestern eaves-closet, and Miss Tamsen burrowed further in, trying to keep careful arrangement of the closet's contents. She was just reflecting that Mrs. Pelton ought to have been making some rugs during the winter out of some of these things, when there was a sudden rush of the gusty spring breeze through the house, the eaves-closet door slammed and snapped its outer latch, and poor Miss Tamsen was locked in.
"Oh, let me out, let me out!" she besought, wildly stumbling on her knees among the bundles and piece-bags. It was no use to pound the door or to put her strong shoulders against it desperately. The screws were sound, and at last she sank back and felt for the first time in her life a little faint and weak.
"They'll never hear me, and I don't want they should," she sobbed; "and Jotham's being away, I ain't goin' to be missed. Oh, be I goin' to die in my shame, and starve like a mouse in a drawer?" And so she prayed and cried and prayed again, and there was only the darkness and the shut door.
"I s'pose I did need a lesson with my peekin' and harkin'," she owned aloud, "but I ain't meant no harm. I ain't meant to harm folks. If I can be got out I'll be as dumb as Jotham. It's too harsh to leave me here to suffer." And so poor Tamsen whined and lamented, from one long hour to another.
What was to be done? There was no use in pounding, for who could hear? The family would not be back until evening; there was a moon, and they did not mean to start until nightfall, or even later. Tamsen understood plainly that she had need of patience. Her only hope was that John Pelton would not leave his cattle unfed until too late. She tried to put the piece bags into their places there in the dark, poor thing! Luckily she had tied them up as she looked into each, but she had taken some of them out of their places. Orderly Mrs. Pelton knew the nail where the brown bag hung, and the little ticking bag that held yarn, but there was no telling colors apart in this darkness. After a long while a few stray gleams of light came under the door, and from a tiny nail hole in the roof, and it seemed many hours before these rays of the bright spring light began to fade, and Tamsen knew that night was coming. Her excitement had kept her from feeling hungry yet. It was dismal enough all day, but more dismal as she approached the moment of her disgrace.
"Them young Peltons will tell all of it from one end of the town to the other," she sighed, and cried again, heartily. Even her inventive mind knew how perfectly futile would be any attempt to excuse. If she could only say that a shower had come up, and she had hurried to shut the open windows in this upper story! No, she could tell nothing but the truth.
"I am going to tell the truth," she reflected at last, mechanically. "I got so beset about my dress pattern that I ran over here to see if you did have some like it. I want you to laugh and despise me all you will!" Poor Tamsen! She never could hold up her head again.
"I'm goin' to count a thousand, and then I'm goin' to begin to pound," she resolved, "unless I hear the folks sooner; but this is the other side from the yard and livin' room," The counting was slowly accomplished, and with beating heart Tamsen began to knock and call.
It seemed to grow very hot in the eaves closet for all her exertions, and there were no steps on the stairs.
Pound, pound, pound with fists on the wall and with stout boot heels on the floor. She might have been a butterfly battering there in the dark, for all the response that came. Every ten minutes seemed an hour.
"It must be toward nine o'clock," thought Tamsen, when it was hardly seven. "When they come up to bed will by my time," said the tired woman at last, and then remembered that she was over the shut up and unoccupied northwestern chamber, as far as she could be from the nearest room where any one slept.
But surely she could make herself hear[d], and at it she went again, knocking and pounding until her hands were too lame to pound any more.
"Oh, my sakes, if I only had a good cup o' tea, seems to me I should hold out better," said Tamsen sadly. The odor of camphor in the piece-bags made the air very close. She never would wish to go near camphor again, that she knew for certain; and by and by she grew heavy headed and could not keep herself awake.
"What's that funny little noise?" asked one Pelton girl of the other. "I keep hearing a kind of a-knocking somewhere about the house."
They had come home with their brother and left the father and mother behind, for the long-severed family was too delighted with its reunion to agree to separate so soon. Young John would drive over again next day and could do the farm work alone in the meantime.
"I don't hear any knocking," said the sister. "Oh, father was saying yesterday, that he believed there were rats or squirrels in the walls," and neither of them took any heed of the noise again. The young people were tired with the festival and long drive home in the cool spring evening, and though they went to bed earlier than usual, and might have heard the anxious blows, the prisoner was lying asleep just then, and dreaming dismal dreams in the close closet among the piece-bags.
Nobody will believe it is true, but everybody must listen to the tale of Tamsen's unexpected escape.
Late in the night she waked with a start, and was too miserable and hopeless when she remembered her condition. Her head ached horribly, she could not pound any more; she began to think that she would rather be found dead in the eaves-closet than have to face the laughter of the Peltons. She crept closer to the low door and pushed it gently. It was very loose in its framing, and Tamsen's housekeeping sense knew that moths could find their evil way in, and that there could be no poorer place for woolens than her close quarters. She remembered the old-fashioned spring latch outside; she knew that if she had a knife she could whittle her way out; but there was nothing in her pocket but a spool of white cotton, good for nothing, as she grimly reflected, but to double again and again and hang herself.
Stop -- the hinges! Would they possibly slip apart? And with trembling hands and last hopes Miss Tamsen lifted the eaves-closet door. It did slip, she caught it as it swayed outward, the fresh air rushed in, and Tamsen was a free woman.
"I wish I had taken a nap before, and waked up with my wits about me," thought she, with grim contempt, as she stood outside in the dark.
"Why didn't I think of that and get home by noon? 'Twas because you'd got to be made good an' ashamed o' yourself, Tamsen Spencer. I'll have proper dealin's with you when the time comes. Now you've got to get down stairs an' out o' this house without nobody hearin' you. 'Tis the dead o' night, and you look sharp!"
Who could properly describe the decent arrangement of the closet itself and the rehanging of the little door which still held by its latch?
Tamsen took off her shoes and went like an old pussy cat down the attic stairs, down the front stairs. Should she go out at the front door? No; it had a frightful creak, which Mrs. Pelton had deplored only the week before at house cleaning time. Luckily, front doors were not of great use in Delford.
Tamsen opened the best parlor door and shut it again behind her softly. She lifted a window and was quickly outside it in the scratchy cinnamon rose bushes. She shut the window and let its stick fall inside, and off she went down the lane to her own home and to bitter reflections.
* * * * *
"Somebody's been clutterin' up my piece bags!" said Mrs. Pelton, sharply, one day that very week.
"'Twa'n't me," said one daughter, and "'Twa'n't me," said the other.
"'Twas me," said Miss Tamsen Spencer, who sat by the kitchen stove. She had been sick with a cold, and all alone, poor thing, and nobody had seen her before since the morning of the Foxbridge party.
"Young folks is always in a hurry," continued Mrs. Pelton. "You needn't laugh, Susan and Lizzie. I'm real put out that you should have made me such a clutter. Tamsen, you don't have nobody to turn your house upside down the minute you've put it to rights."
"I'm the one, myself," said Tamsen, in a meek, hoarse voice. She tried to laugh, but she could not. If this had only been somebody else's mischance, how well she could have told the story, but there she sat in unexplainable depression, and almost as speechless as Jotham with his slate. To think that an innocent curiosity should have imperceptively led to such a shameful downfall of her pride! She was conscious of a desire to spend herself henceforth on better things. She was forced to leave the little circle of life in which she had been so great and so contented. But how many times she would have to be reminded of that eaves-closet before she died!
"Seems to me you're looking altogether too peaked for a common cold," said Mrs. Pelton, kindly. "'Tis so unusual for you to be shut up in the house. I wish you'd let us know. You must ha' felt like a mouse in a trap."
"I did, certain, Mrs. Pelton," responded Tamsen, with a plaintive sound in her voice.
This text of "New Neighbors" is from the Washington Post (28 October, 1888, Section 14, p. 2). This forgotten story was rediscovered by Katherine C. Aydelott and reprinted in American Literary Realism (Spring 2004, v. 36, pp. 256-268). Aydelott reports that the story also appeared in Once a Week on 20 October 1888, pp. 4-5. Once a Week became Collier's Weekly in 1895, according to Aydelott (256). This text has been edited by Terry and Linda Heller and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.
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foot stoves: a small iron box that would hold live coals for warming feet in a carriage or in church.
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drop-cakes: a small cake made by letting batter drop from spoon into hot fat or onto a greased pan to be baked in an oven.
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called into black: to go into mourning, wearing black clothing for some time in order to memorialize a deceased person.
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cinnamon rose bushes: a species of rose (R. cinnamonea). Biographer Francis Matthiessen reports that as a child, Jewett would make a coddle of cinnamon rose petals with cinnamon and brown sugar. See Chapter 1.
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