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TOLD IN THE TAVERN
Sarah Orne Jewett
THERE was no one in the long village street of Byfleet to observe a stranger who had come to town by the last train. He was looking to right and to left, but not with the air of a man who expected to meet some acquaintance; he went his way as if through a land of ruins. In front of a low, vine-covered house that stood behind a narrow garden he stopped long, leaning upon the fence to look the little house full in the face, as if to trace some probable change and to read its friendly or forgetful demeanor. The windows were all dark and silent, no light shone yet from within, no busy shadow crossed the curtain. He went a few steps forward, and, returning, gazed again, and stood before the house for a long, sad minute, and then again passed on.
It was like a deserted village. The fine rain fell in cold and wintry gusts upon the dead shapes of the houses. There was still light enough left in the sky to make it only the end of a dark spring day in Byfleet rather than the beginning of night.
The stranger went his way under the bare-boughed trees, now hastening, now pausing near some scene once familiar. Then he left the village behind him, and entered the open gate of the burying-ground, which lay beyond, there the road came to the open country. There was still enough light for him to read the names on the gravestones, and he stopped to read one and another as he crossed the lonely plot of ground. In the corner which he sought were some graves which had been made a careful garden spot. There were two old stones by themselves, and two or three others in a separate group, while a little way apart from these, with a vacant space beside it, was a grave where one might see withered stalks of the last year's flowers and sturdy, snow-bleached roots from which lilies would bloom again. The stranger stopped, as if half in fear to read the name on the white stone. The name carved there was his own!
Byfleet was such an old-fashioned village that its one house of entertainment still kept the name of tavern, and the tavern afforded most comfortable hospitalities to a number of unprofitable patrons. A small number of elderly men, relics of a more convivial time, still gathered on the narrow front piazza in summer, and about the great Franklin stove in the barroom in winter. This small club never had any but transient recruits to replace its many losses; now and then a stray bit of unexpected gossip refreshed the members or some merchant prince of a travelling salesman lingered at the tavern over night and joined their circle. However great the experience and opportunities of such a person, he could rarely tell this group of sages anything new or startle them with his darkest tales of anarchy or business depression. The size of their incomes, which ranged from nothing whatever to the neighborhood of $1,000. could never be belittled by any accounts of daring city speculations, although valued by millions. They represented to themselves and to each other the sober certainties and opinions of their native town.
On this rainy night, in early spring, the little company assembled in good season after supper. There was Capt. Asa Fitch, the honored leader, and his neighbor and friend, old John Dimmock; Timothy Hall, the tavern keeper, a silent man at times, but a jester, and John Bean, the town clerk, who was a cynic and born opposer. They always took pains to account for their presence; Capt. Fitch looked at the barometer, as his own was out of order, and Mr. Dimmock compared his watch with the tall clock in the corner.
There was one stranger present, a cattle drover, whom they all greeted with surprise. He was out of season now, as one might say, though his coming might be looked for every other week from September until Thanksgiving time. Presently the door opened, and a well-dressed man came in whom nobody knew except the drover, who gave him a careless nod, as if they had parted not long before. Evidently they were returning together from an up-country excursion in order to make their collections or to settle up their last season's accounts. Capt. Fitch, who was possessed of something like second sight in his knowledge of character, might have said that the other drover was a man who bore fewer marks of rough, out-of-door life than his fellow. Perhaps he was the overseer of the stockyards. As he took the last empty roundbacked chair he wore the air of an elderly travelling salesman who had reached a final stage of unexpectant taciturnity. He had left the persuasive loquacity of youth far behind, and wore a talked-out look, and sat among the other men as if there were no subject upon which he wished to convince any human creature -- as if he were now content to follow any quiet company of men or beasts without reproach or remark. He answered his companions' questions briefly, and soon took on a sleepy look in the heat and comfort of the room.
"Any news from up-country?" asked Timothy Hall, with an air of amusement.
"Snow's about all gone," said Jackson, after some deliberation. "Seemed kind o' quiet all up along. There was a woman's head to every pane o' glass 'n some o' them houses. I come in a sleigh far 's Crooked Falls, where I took the cart; I guess I was stopped many 's six times to the mile to know what news there was. There was a good many folks I had to stop and deal with; Lord, I was raised up to Winfield, but I couldn't pass one o' them old-fashioned winters an' come out in the spring half so lively as some o' them poor fly creatures that was so ardent to pass the time o' day."
Jackson took on the air of a city man as he spoke, in spite of his rustic flavor of horned cattle and the country haybarns. The next moment, however, he remembered that he was still in provincial surroundings, and made haste to give the conversation another turn. "You wouldn't believe what a sight o' difference there is between your place here and even ten miles back."
"I see one of our ladies out a rakin' up her front yard before yisterday. She showed me some o' her tulips that was way above ground," answered Capt. Fitch, with proper pride.
"There was considerable snow laying in the north side o' woods and stretched out back o' the fences up in the Winfield neighborhood as we came along," said the strange drover, handsomely.
"Up Canada way 't's all snow. No, you don't know nothin' about long winters here to Byfleet," said Mr. Jackson, and at this moment the company felt both warmhearted and sociable, and one or two men pushed back their chairs from the fire, but the moment did not appear to have arrived in which to speak of the usual closing subject of politics.
"I guess the flower gardens is all delayed somewhat by such a spell o' weather as this," grumbled John Bean, but his next chair neighbor turned a beaming red face to say that "nobody could delay Abby Sands's gardening when once she began it, an' the tulips were well up."
"That's so, Mr. Dimmock," agreed Capt. Fitch. "She manages to get some kind o' blooms even after the snow comes and before it's gone. Abby does. All the year round, you may say, with her livin' room full an' the suller full of deputations to fetch up and start for spring. I never see a woman slave so; what's the use when you can pick 'em wild all summer to keep up such a drudgin' over a garden piece. I don't know 's I should be distressed if I never see a flower, but I tell ye the green grass looks good and smells good, too, when you're comin' in from sea. I could always smell it myself a good many miles out."
The captain's marine reminiscences were apt to be long, and this group of friends knew each other's stories by heart. "Poor Abby Sands, she does the most to her buryin'-ground lot of any body here in taown; she makes a second garden o' that," said somebody hastily.
"All the near folks she's got lays right there together," said Capt. Fitch.
The strange drover seemed restless; presently he got up and walked to the window and then came back to his arm-chair again. "Does this lady live all by herself?" he asked, unexpectedly.
"Yes, sir; she lives alone, Miss Abby Sands does," continued the captain, pleased by such a show of interest. "She's a well off woman, an' a nice woman as there is in town, but I don't expect she'll change her situation now; she ain't one that wants the whole world and a piece o' the moon either. She didn't pick up no great shakes of a man when she did make a choice, but she's worthy o' the best; no one's more ready to catch holt and help when any one's in trouble."
"That's so," said old Mr. Dimmock, with decision. "You can't speak too high of her, cap'n," and he drummed softly on the arm of his chair. The first blaze of the fire was over, but the great accumulations of winter ashes underneath had turned into a glowing heap of coals. The stranger moved his chair further back from the scorching heat.
"You see," said the captain, finding that no one else seemed inclined to speak; "you see," clearing his throat and addressing the drovers, "this lady was very pretty as a girl, and was the heir to property -- not large, but ample -- an' folks expected her to make a proper match. Love goes where it's sent, as old folks is in the habit of sayin', an' we was all distressed to have her take up with about as poor a kind of young fellow as there was. It takes everybody to know everything, but I tell ye he was so plumb full o' conceit an' ambition that poor Byfleet didn't give him no room to spread; he had to start for the great West, an' he engaged Abby Sands's affections previous to departin'. 'Twas right at the close o' war time but he was so nigh-sighted, an' occupied, anyway, that he couldn't 'list with the rest o' our young men."
"War done a good thing killin' off some o' that variety that looked better 'n they really was in soldier clothes," said cross-grained John Bean. "The Parkins boy'd offered to be a gineral if they'd took him at all."
"He struck for Arizona first," said the captain, who had been waiting to begin again. "An' [an'] Abby had some interestin' letters 'long at the first an' showed them 'round and read 'em to the folks an' thought there never was no travels like 'em, but all of a sudden they stopped. Abby got thin and peaked-lookin', and seen trouble from that time. Her father was a shipmaster, and died at sea early, before ever her beau come about, then her mother was taken away, an' you never see nobody take on as she did. Pore girl, spent a sight o' time an' money writin' letters and sending despatches to find where Parkins was, and at last after some time she give up that the young man must be dead. Nobody never knowed nothin' more about him" --
"I've heard it hinted round that Mis' Sands felt so about him that she took good care of some o' them letters that never come," said John Dimmock, mysteriously.
"In the beginnin' of their acquaintance she was certain opposed to Abby's marryin' o' him. She was a good woman, but always a-frettin' an' harpin'; one o' those that keeps gittin' up them nervous spells to skulk behind when they don't want to do things. She died at last, just as she was always expectin' to, but not so soon."
"Mis' Sands was a pretty girl when she was young, same as Abby," said the old captain, gallantly.
"Abby went to so far 's to set up a headstone for the young man; 'tain't customary if you've only got hearsay to rely on. She's got a headstone for him that cost her, when set, $67," said Mr. Bean. "Mis' Sands would feel pleased if she come back an' see it. Yes, I always heard it hinted she knew where them missin' letters went to. Some says that knows that she owned up to Abby she done it, before she died, an' that was why the girl strove so hard to find him."
"She always wears a lonesome look," said the captain, who had a tender heart. "Folks say he done well as long as she heard from him, he was minin' an' operatin' in wild lands."
"I've sort o' forgot about him, I'm sure," said the landlord, yawning. "Well, she has the comfort o' her gardin; that's wuth somethin' and she's got property herself, 'stead of lettin' him flutter it all away."
"Yes, she's got her flower-garding," said the captain, who was in no hurry to go home. "Her youth's gone an' all her hopes, but they do say she was reasonably certain, from a letter she had, that he was killed by the Indians; he was right out there among the wildest kinds. There was a good many things that made it hard. `There, what shall I do, what shall I do?' she kept sayin' to herself. It had been somethin' like a missing ship, you never quite give 'em up; and afterwards folks couldn't seem to say honest none of them consolin' things about him, such as she'd have like to hear. He was likely to be wuthless, and everybody know'd she was better off. Sassy-lookin' he certain was, but sometimes that means pluck an' ambition, and they turn out smart men. You can't tell about young, foolish boys, but she's been a-plantin' flowers onto his grave now for most this thirty years."
The rain was falling heavily; old John Dimmock had suddenly succumbed to sleep and even the captain himself was drowsy and looked about for his hat. One of the drovers was far gone to the land of dreams after a long day of traffic and travel, but he awoke now with a loud gasp. The other stranger, who had risen hastily, had trodden upon his outstretched foot.
"What be you a doin'?" shouted the drover. "Who be you anyway, stompin' on a person's foot like that?"
The stranger came back from the door with slow steps, and stood in the middle of the barroom, under the hanging-lamp. "Since you ask that p'inted question by accident, I don't know but some o' these other gentlemen'd like to hear it answered. My name's Parkins, and I've heard plenty of truth to-night, an' some lies, an' I'm going over now, thirty years too late, to see Miss Abby Sands. You can tell anybody that asks you, that she's lived lonely all her days, an' so have I, through the fault of other folks. I was drove to the end o' the earth by 'em, but, thank the Lord I've got back, an' I've got money enough to make her happy and give her all the gardins she wants."
He seized his hat and disappeared, and the tavern company made haste to follow him down the street. It had all along seemed like a dull evening until then. There was a bright light in Abby Sands's sitting-room, and the door was already shut upon a scene of joy that no other eyes had any right to look upon or share. Timothy Hall had come with the rest of the men, bare-headed, and they all stood before the house, speechless, in the rain.
"Mis' Fitch'll be waitin' for me, there's the 9 o'clock bell," said the old captain at last, from force of habit. "I hope there wan't no fool there with Abby, come in to pass the evening. I don't know what the rest of you may have thought, but he seemed to me like a good deal of a man."
"I never see him a'fore to-day," said the drover. "We fell into some talk in the cars, and he was inquirin' about folks in Byfleet. I never should have took him for a drover."
It was late that night when the stranger came back again down the silent street. The rain had stopped and the young moon was shining in the sky.
"Told in a Tavern" first appeared in various newspapers, including the New York World (April 15, 1894) p. 25, and the Philadelphia Press (April 15, 1894). It was collected in Richard Cary, Uncollected Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett, 1971.
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Byfleet: Jewett uses this town name in "The Flight of Bestsy Lane," in A Native of Winby (1893).
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Franklin stove: type of wood-burning stove, invented by Benjamin Franklin (c. 1740). The Franklin stove burned wood on a grate and had sliding doors that could be used to control the draft (flow of air) through it. Because the stove was relatively small, it could be installed in a large fireplace or used free-standing in the middle of a room by connecting it to a flue. Its design influenced the potbellied stove. (Source: Britannica Online; research, Barbara Martens)
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war time: The American Civil War of 1861-1865.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.
Main Contents & Search
Contents: Uncollected Stories