THE SPUR OF THE MOMENT
Sarah Orne Jewett
Mrs. Dartmouth sat at a front window looking out upon very bad weather and a most uninteresting street. She had turned her back to the large room, as if all the books and pictures, which were badly enough lighted that day, only filled her with impatience. At the end of the room there was a cheerful fire. It looked as if the lady had just been sitting in a low chair beside it; there was a book dropped face downward on the rug.
"I never was so tired of myself in all my life!" grumbled the watcher at the window, and then smiled, as if she must recognize those who would be sure to protest at such a speech if they were only present.
The public square outside looked country-like that winter day, with fresh snow outlining the trees, and the broad walks quite empty of those figures which usually came and went and gave an air of hurry which belongs to the center of a great city. The sloping ground, snow-covered and deserted, might have been a part of some large rural estate; there were no foot-tracks, and you could not see, for the misty weather, the buildings that stood beyond. The lady at the window was not fond of the country for its own sake, and liked to see plenty of figures in all her landscapes; it was very seldom that she was left to pass a dull winter afternoon alone.
Now and then a carriage plodded by; the snow-storm was fast turning to rain, and the clogged wheels left black tracks in the thin snow and spattered mud into the white gutters. Across the street stood a poor-looking cab with a dreary white horse that kept nodding his heavy head down to comfortless sleep and being detected by his driver, who sat miserably on the box and jerked the reins as if he had nothing to do but to keep the poor creature broad awake. There was a roof of snow on the cab and on the driver's hat; once, happily, he fell into a doze himself and swayed about dangerously, until he waked with a start and pulled at the reins again and looked anxiously at the opposite houses.
The lady flushed with displeasure as she watched, and then suddenly availed herself with satisfaction of even so poor and unrewarding an occasion of interest.
"Horrid, hard-hearted man!" she said aloud. "Why can't he let that poor horse sleep?" Then she rose and went a step or two closer to the window to see if there were any prospect of a customer for the waiting cab; she wished that the poor appealing establishment would take itself off. Sometimes people came hurrying across the square and chartered this cab to carry them the rest of the way to a railway station back of the hill; but it now occurred to Mrs. Dartmouth that such patronage was never frequent in either the best or worst of weather; the cab seemed to be on its stand much oftener than it was absent on its brief errands.
"Nobody would want such a poor-looking thing for visits," she thought; she had never really given two thoughts to the matter before. "That has been a good horse once." Her vague grievances and sense of dullness were fast giving way to this new interest.
"Why doesn't the foolish fellow get a better turnout? Why doesn't he try what a little varnish might do? A trig little brougham would tempt dozens of persons that pass him by. I'm sure that I never should get into such a thing unless I were in some strait or other - caught in a shower perhaps. I dare say he's poor enough, but he must be a slack cabby, too. A little varnish certainly wouldn't ruin him - (Oh, don't jerk that poor horse so; you hurt his mouth!)" She fairly stamped her foot with impatience, but she could not stop looking. "I wonder where he lives. Why doesn't he go home out of the rain? They'll both be stiff with cold; there's not a creature in sight. Oh, dear, this is worse than thinking about nothing!"
The white horse drooped his patient head again. The cabman was either asleep himself or in a despondent brown study; at any moment he might twitch the reins.
"I cannot bear this another moment," exclaimed the watcher, who rapped such impatient, determined blows with her paper-cutter on the window that the driver heard them only too easily, looked up, touched his dripping snow-topped hat with a smart air, seized his whip and turned across the street toward the high, handsome house to take a most welcome order.
"Oh, what shall I do with him? Dear me!" cried the lady now, and at that very moment a man-servant came in to mend the fire.
"No, don't move my chair, Jenks," she said. "Please light the gas; it was really growing too dark to read there." She crossed the room to the writing-table and opened a drawer. "Will you take this money; there is a cabman at the door, ask him to go - to go to Miss Peet's, 18 Blight Street, and see if she has any errands for an hour or two."
"Miss Peet's, 18 Blight Street," repeated Jenks who promptly disappeared. The mistress of the house gave a sigh of relief and seated herself by the fire. "Dear me!" she exclaimed again with a sigh of relief, "if that wasn't the spur of the moment! But what an afternoon!"
Miss Peet was sitting by the window all this time in quite another part of the city. Everybody had called her old Miss Peet for at least twenty years, and she was hardly seventy yet. Some persons always look out of place in spring and summer; they seem to belong only to winter, as if they were the dried stalks of what had once been growing, but one might feel a reasonable doubt as to whether poor Miss Peet had ever really been in bloom. She had an unhappy way of telling you more things to other people's disadvantage than to their credit, and when she had told you, and you saw fit to join in with blame, she looked satisfied at first and then grew severe and prim and reminded you that one must endeavor to be charitable. But somehow she never liked to hear others praised; she would say, "Oh, but she has so much money!" or, "Oh, it's very easy to make use of such opportunities as hers," or, "I have heard it said that he is very close about little things and does something large now and then because he likes to have it known!" Nearly all the really generous and kind actions of her old friend Mrs. Dartmouth had been at one time or another arranged under one of these three heads. In short, Miss Peet was one of those sad, unhappy souls who cannot help looking upon the prosperity of others except as some injustice to themselves.
She was now grumbling at the weather, and with some reason, for it was certainly bad weather, and was also preventing her from going to a funeral. It might be expected that such occasions possessed great attraction for so gloomy a disposition, though Miss Peet was by no means one of those who can only look on at the distress of their fellows as if it were a scene in a play. The poor lady's lack of sympathy so often prevented her being asked by younger people to join in any friendly occasions that she made the most of those public or semi-public social functions that fell in her way. This was the funeral of a friend who through all his lifetime had been indulgent to Miss Peet, and often affectionate; he had once been the younger business partner of her father. After going down with the rest of the company in the sad crash of 1857, he alone had regained his footing and been able to climb again to the top of the hill of fortune. He had been most kind in his remembrance of this poor, sharp-tempered lady's sorrows and needs, and his Christmas cheque had long been her main dependence. Perhaps she mourned the loss of this as much as the loss of the giver. She could not bear to think that the weather was going to make her miss going to such a funeral, but she sighed to think that none of his children would remember to send a carriage for her, as he had touchingly remembered to do years before when his wife died. This had seemed to Miss Peet only a proper tribute to the daughter of his former friend and associate.
Miss Peet had put on her best clothes and was ready and waiting. There was something most appealing in her appearance; you felt anew that she was one of those unhappy persons from whom every year has taken something away; whether it was her own fault or other people's, the fact remained that nearly everything pleasant had gone. She sat by the window watching the rain and sleet come down into the empty street. There were some bright little children bobbing and smiling and beckoning from a window opposite, but she did not see them.
"It's too late now; I shouldn't see the people come in, anyway," Miss Peet said, ruefully. "I believe I'll take off my things. I should think somebody might have remembered to call for me; I can't walk and run the risk of getting cold again, but nobody thinks of me now," and she leaned forward to give a last look up the street.
There was an old white horse just turning the corner, and her heart really beat a little faster with sudden hope; then she drew back. "It may be somebody coming to see me," she thought, "but I'm sure they'd take poor me to the funeral if I told the circumstances."
Hardly five minutes afterward Miss Peet was safe in the cab and only disturbed because the man did not drive faster. The pavements were growing icy now and the horse slipped, while the driver did not seem to know how to help him to keep his feet. Luckily, they had not far to go. "What made Mary Dartmouth send such a miserable old horse and cab as this!" grumbled our friend as she settled the limp bows of her bonnet. "Providence does sometimes provide for us," she handsomely acknowledged a moment later, when she was well on her way and had time to remember how great her disappointment would have been but for this accident of a friend's thought.
The line of waiting carriages seemed to darken all the gloomy street. Miss Peet was helped out of the cab and well sheltered under a large umbrella on her way up the steps, and the cabman drove away to take his humble place behind the more comfortable turnouts. Everything was cold and forlorn, dripping and icy and cheerless. The coachmen were well wrapped; their backs looked round enough under their mackintoshes, but nobody liked the weather, and the poor horses were badly off. Two or three men at a time left the line and drove discreetly to the corner and back. They spoke to one another from box to box, and appeared to be on friendly and even intimate terms. The cabman who came last was a stranger among them, and belonged, at any rate, to a far lower grade of the business than the private coachmen who were his neighbors.
Half an hour went by, and the conversation became more and more frank, and so distinctly audible that the undertaker's man on the hearse waved a rebuking hand.
"Nobody can't hear us in the house with this storm a-pelting down," said one of the most comfortable-looking and loudest-complaining men. "They'll not be out for another hour, I dessay, and keep us freezing. I don't want to be up all night over my team.'' (The delays of those who ride in carriages often seem foolishly unnecessary and thoughtless to those who drive them.)
"He was an awful kind-hearted, nice old gentleman, anyway," said the next coachman, a very large old man. "I knew him 'most forty years ago, when I first went to be helper to Mr. Duncan next door - long before I was ever on a carriage box. I used to bring round his ridin' horse an' Mr. Duncan's together; our stable was next door to each other on Chestnut Street. Many's the quarter he's give me, and quarters was quarters then. I come near going to him for helper when Mr. Duncan died, but one o' the sons kept me on, and give me the place as coachman after a year or two. I was there twenty-two years, and I'm with Wallis's goin' on twelve."
"Must be stupid," said the next man. "For me, I like a change. Hosses an' you gettin' old and fat together an' doin' the same bloomin' things over an' over - oh, land! I go off in summer, anyway, and I make a winter shift to New York every two-three year."
"Have to take a trick o' livery work in between; up all night with them big parties worst season o' the year," observed a neighbor, scornfully. He had been so indiscreet as to wear a bearskin cap, and it looked like a thatched roof fringed with icicles, which now and then broke off and slipped inside his collar.
"Know that missionary on the cab, back there?" inquired a coachman who was stirring his horses again.
"He ain't no edicated cabman; he come a few days ago to that stand o' old Dumphy's - Dumphy's laid up with a lung fever," said the big man, who seemed to be in receipt of every particular. "He looks natural to me; he used to live somewheres out in Broadwood, I think, but I can't place him."
"Looks as if he were down on his luck; handles his reins as if he was fast to a fish," said the other. "That's been a plaguy good horse he's tryin' to drive; die game he will, too; drop down dead in 's harness. Messenger colt, old Mr. Haines on Hill Street gave an awful price for when he was young; no style, but passed everything on the road and kep' it up all day. Lord! if I was rich I'd build a nice 'ospit'l for them game old horses, right out in the country in a snug place where they'd have good feed all summer and be out o' the wind come winter. I'd pay a lot o' old chaps like us, that's gettin' old for regular work and knowed how to use 'em well; top wages they should have to tend 'em up like cossets!
There was a sound of approval from all the carriages within hearing.
"I know that fellow!" exclaimed the big coachman a moment afterward. "He's a man I want to see, too. I've got to start my team; I'll go and speak to him," and he drove slowly to the end of the procession and halted next the poor white horse.
"Your name Fallon?"
"Yes, it is," said the cabby, half rising on his box. He was soaked through, and his face was all lilac and yellow with cold. The rain-water dripped from his clothes; he had put both the poor blankets over the horse.
"Keep your sitting!" said the pompous private coachman, with a mock insolence that betokened warm good fellowship. "You used to live out at old Mrs. Douglas's place at Broadwood; you used to be a gardener out there, didn't you? an' went out West after a solid-gold job?"
"All so," acknowledged the cabby; "worst thing ever I done, too."
"Sportin' any?" asked the elder man, frankly.
"No, sir!" was the sorrowful answer. "Hard luck done it. I broke my arm all to pieces, an' then got burnt out just as we started in to keep house, folks got sick, an' everything. I guess I been one o' them that draws misfortune; 'twa'n't no gardenin' neighborhood, anyway, and I was too poor to leave."
"Don't say!" exclaimed the listener.
"Got back this fall; wife's stopping with some o' her folks - been sick all winter. I ain't used to drivin', but Dumphy's their neighbor and he's down sick and I'm spelling him two-three weeks or so. I went right out to Douglas's an' asked if they'd take me on. 'Not till spring' - that's what everybody says. So I'm driving this chari't o' victory. To-day's last day."
"You go right out to Douglas's again!" exclaimed the harbinger of good fortune. "The old lady heard you'd been there, and she remembered you and said you was lucky with some of her old-fashioned things in the greenhouse. She's been passin' the word to have us all look out for you. I didn't know you when I first see you, either. I guess you'll find you've got it all safe in your hand this time."
"I was goin' to start to-morrow an' tramp it back to New York," said the poor fellow, and then he could not speak. The warm color rushed into his cold, despairing face. "I know them things she means, sir," he added almost gayly to his benefactor; "them old daphnes and lemon-trees; she used to say they belonged to her mother before her. I kind o' favored 'em along, and nussed 'em into bloomin' well. Well, I've thought all day long I see my finish."
The door of the house opened, the big coachman made a lordly gesture as he went on duty again, and moved away to his place. The funeral pomps went on in solemn orderliness and the street was empty after the procession passed.
Poor little Miss Peet had been the last of the funeral guests to slip into the house, and she felt an odd sinking of the heart in the warm, rich-colored, familiar old rooms whence her best friend had departed. She even began to accuse herself for once, instead of other people, and wished that she had done more for Mr. Walton; he had been an invalid for some time, and she was one of the few persons who could talk with him about old times and early interests. She now felt a curious nearness to him and his affectionate kindness, and remembered with an unaccustomed pang how anxiously she had thought of what she might get for herself, instead of thinking of what could be done for him. But the old sense of his affectionate kindness, all lost forever, came over her as she stood in the doorway.
"He knew my lot was hard," she lamented, "but his lot was hard, too. I believe I've been sort of ungrateful and selfish!"said Miss Peet. Some persons learn a great many lessons in their lives, and others are all their lifetime learning only one.
Miss Peet was standing in the light just at the doorway of the room where the mourners sat, and before any one had time to bring her a chair and she sat down and was lost in the indistinguishable group, some one had time to notice her pale face and look of sincere feeling. It was the old friend's daughter, who lived at a great distance and who had not seen Miss Peet for many years; who might never have thought of her again. This was something that brought the tears afresh into one's eyes. Mrs. Ashton remembered all her father's patience and loyal interest and kindness; she also felt a curious thrill of nearness to his heart, and a new sense of loss; she said to herself that she would find out what he had done for this old acquaintance, and continue it for his dear and generous sake. Miss Peet had provoked her many a time in earlier years, but how old she looked now, and how lonely! She must try to see her, and do all that could be done. And Miss Peet little knew that, while she let go one friendly hand, another was being held out to her that would never let her fall unbefriended in her stony and narrow little path of life.
Oddly enough, Mrs. Dartmouth could never understand why her old friend Mrs. Douglas sent her such exquisite offerings of flowers from time to time after this. She had often sent some fine roses or a bunch of violets, but she no longer chose them herself, and one can hardly expect one's gardeners to put much sentiment into the choice of flowers for unknown persons. Yet now, when Mrs. Douglas's flowers were announced, they were always a wonder and delight, and Fallon always brought them himself so that they would not get shaken, and left them with Mrs. Douglas's compliments at the door. We all have our little superstitions; and poor Fallon could never forget the handsome lady who sat at the window and watched him that hopeless afternoon, and gave him the order for an hour's work that turned his luck.
Oddly enough, too, Miss Peet happened to be calling upon Mrs. Dartmouth one day when the flowers came. Her face lightened at the sight of them, and she went away with a lovely bunch in her hand. Mrs. Dartmouth could not help noticing that she seemed better pleased with life, and more cheerful than she used to be, and said much less about her own troubles.
There is always the hope that "our unconscious benefactions may outweigh our unconscious cruelties," but the world moves on, and we seldom really know how much we have to do with other people's lives.
"The Spur of the Moment" first appeared in The Outlook (70:59-63), January 4, 1902. Richard Cary. This is the Outlook text. If you discover corrections or items needing annotation, please contact the site manager.
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turnout: referring to the entire ensemble of a carriage or coach, with horses, harness, and attendants.
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brown study: a state of serious absorption or abstraction.
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the sad crash of 1857: There was a major financial crash in the United States in 1857, resulting in part from the flooding of the gold market as a result of the California gold strike of 1849. (Research: Gabe Heller).
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lung fever: pneumonia.
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Messenger colt: During the first half of the 19th century, most of the fast American horses were descendants of Messenger, an English thoroughbred brought to the United States in 1788. (Source: Encarta Encyclopedia).
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cossets: pet lambs.
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old daphnes and lemon-trees: Daphne is "a genus of shrubs native to Europe and Asia but frequently grown in gardens in the United States. Mezereon is a small, deciduous shrub that bears clusters of fragrant purple flowers along its bare, woody stems in very early spring. Soon, foliage appears and hides the scarlet berries that develop from the flowers." (Source: Encarta Encyclopedia). It is unlikely that the lemon trees to which she refers are the citrus fruit trees that grow in tropical climates, since they would not survive in New York. Assistance is welcome.
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our unconscious benefactions may out-weigh our unconscious cruelties: Patricia Rattray notes that this reference connects with the Diary of Alice James, recorded from 1889 until her death in 1892.
It appears that Jewett and James may both be quoting from another source. More information is welcome.
Alice James' entry for January 23rd, 1891 reads,
"Let us pray that our unconscious benefactions outweigh our unconscious cruelties!"
(A Woman in Conversation with Herself: Reading the Diary of Alice James, http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/alicejames )
Although James' diary was not published until 1934, as Alice was the sister of Henry James, he may have shared the writing with Jewett after his sister's death. James' herself seems to be adding to an original articulation of Henry Drummond's, a popular theological writer and lecturer of the time, who expounded on the ideas of natural science.
“Remove the vegetable kingdom, or interrupt the flow of its unconscious benefactions, and the whole higher life of the world ends."
Lowell Lectures on The Ascent of Man, Henry Drummond, Chapter VII, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/drummond/ascent.xi.html
Drummond lectured on the interrelation of science and religion, reflecting the ideas originally taught by Emanuel Swedenborg, that the material world was symbolic of the spiritual world and, therefore, reflected its lessons. Drummond brought attention to the continually supportive natural environment that, "we fail to praise …because its kindness is unobtrusive."
Drummond thought that the spiritual counterpart to the beneficence of nature is love, and as nature provides continual "unconscious benefactions," so do acts of love.
"In those days men were working the passage to Heaven by keeping the Ten Commandments, and the hundred and ten other commandments which they had manufactured out of them. Christ came and said, 'I will show you a more simple way. If you do one thing, you will do these hundred and ten things, without ever thinking about them. If you LOVE, you will unconsciously fulfill the whole law.'"
Addresses by Henry Drummond, http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/2498/pg2498.html
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.
If you find errors or items needing annotation, please contact the site manager.