Story type: Literature
I had started early in the afternoon for a long walk; it was just the weather for walking, and I went across the fields with a delighted heart. The wind came straight in from the sea, and the sky was bright blue; there was a little tinge of red still lingering on the maples, and my dress brushed over the late golden-rods, while my old dog, who seemed to have taken a new lease of youth, jumped about wildly and raced after the little birds that flew up out of the long brown grass–the constant little chickadees, that would soon sing before the coming of snow. But this day brought no thought of winter; it was one of the October days when to breathe the air is like drinking wine, and every touch of the wind against one’s face is a caress: like a quick, sweet kiss, that wind is. You have a sense of companionship; it is a day that loves you.
I went strolling along, with this dear idle day for company; it was a pleasure to be alive, and to go through the dry grass, and to spring over the stone walls and the shaky pasture fences. I stopped by each of the stray apple-trees that came in my way, to make friends with it, or to ask after its health, if it were an old friend. These old apple-trees make very charming bits of the world in October; the leaves cling to them later than to the other trees, and the turf keeps short and green underneath; and in this grass, which was frosty in the morning, and has not quite dried yet, you can find some cold little cider apples, with one side knurly, and one shiny bright red or yellow cheek. They are wet with dew, these little apples, and a black ant runs anxiously over them when you turn them round and round to see where the best place is to bite. There will almost always be a bird’s nest in the tree, and it is most likely to be a robin’s nest. The prehistoric robins must have been cave dwellers, for they still make their nests as much like cellars as they can, though they follow the new fashion and build them aloft. One always has a thought of spring at the sight of a robin’s nest. It is so little while ago that it was spring, and we were so glad to have the birds come back, and the life of the new year was just showing itself; we were looking forward to so much growth and to the realization and perfection of so many things. I think the sadness of autumn, or the pathos of it, is like that of elderly people. We have seen how the flowers looked when they bloomed and have eaten the fruit when it was ripe; the questions have had their answer, the days we waited for have come and gone. Everything has stopped growing. And so the children have grown to be men and women, their lives have been lived, the autumn has come. We have seen what our lives would be like when we were older; success or disappointment, it is all over at any rate. Yet it only makes one sad to think it is autumn with the flowers or with one’s own life, when one forgets that always and always there will be the spring again.
I am very fond of walking between the roads. One grows so familiar with the highways themselves. But once leap the fence and there are a hundred roads that you can take, each with its own scenery and entertainment. Every walk of this kind proves itself a tour of exploration and discovery, and the fields of my own town, which I think I know so well, are always new fields. I find new ways to go, new sights to see, new friends among the things that grow, and new treasures and pleasures every summer; and later, when the frosts have come and the swamps have frozen, I can go everywhere I like all over my world.
That afternoon I found something I had never seen before–a little grave alone in a wide pasture which had once been a field. The nearest house was at least two miles away, but by hunting for it I found a very old cellar, where the child’s home used to be, not very far off, along the slope. It must have been a great many years ago that the house had stood there; and the small slate head-stone was worn away by the rain and wind, so there was nothing to be read, if indeed there had ever been any letters on it. It had looked many a storm in the face, and many a red sunset. I suppose the woods near by had grown and been cut, and grown again, since it was put there. There was an old sweet-brier bush growing on the short little grave, and in the grass underneath I found a ground-sparrow’s nest. It was like a little neighborhood, and I have felt ever since as if I belonged to it; and I wondered then if one of the young ground-sparrows was not always sent to take the nest when the old ones were done with it, so they came back in the spring year after year to live there, and there were always the stone and the sweet-brier bush and the birds to remember the child. It was such a lonely place in that wide field under the great sky, and yet it was so comfortable too; but the sight of the little grave at first touched me strangely, and I tried to picture to myself the procession that came out from the house the day of the funeral, and I thought of the mother in the evening after all the people had gone home, and how she missed the baby, and kept seeing the new grave out here in the twilight as she went about her work. I suppose the family moved away, and so all the rest were buried elsewhere.
I often think of this place, and I link it in my thoughts with something I saw once in the water when I was out at sea: a little boat that some child had lost, that had drifted down the river and out to sea; too long a voyage, for it was a sad little wreck, with even its white sail of a hand-breadth half under water, and its twine rigging trailing astern. It was a silly little boat, and no loss, except to its owner, to whom it had seemed as brave and proud a thing as any ship of the line to you and me. It was a shipwreck of his small hopes, I suppose, and I can see it now, the toy of the great winds and waves, as it floated on its way, while I sailed on mine, out of sight of land.
The little grave is forgotten by everybody but me, I think: the mother must have found the child again in heaven a very long time ago: but in the winter I shall wonder if the snow has covered it well, and next year I shall go to see the sweet-brier bush when it is in bloom. God knows what use that life was, the grave is such a short one, and nobody knows whose little child it was; but perhaps a thousand people in the world to-day are better because it brought a little love into the world that was not there before.
I sat so long here in the sun that the dog, after running after all the birds, and even chasing crickets, and going through a great piece of affectation in barking before an empty woodchuck’s hole to kill time, came to sit patiently in front of me, as if he wished to ask when I would go on. I had never been in this part of the pasture before. It was at one side of the way I usually took, so presently I went on to find a favorite track of mine, half a mile to the right, along the bank of a brook. There had been heavy rains the week before, and I found more water than usual running, and the brook was apparently in a great hurry. It was very quiet along the shore of it; the frogs had long ago gone into winter-quarters, and there was not one to splash into the water when he saw me coming. I did not see a musk-rat either, though I knew where their holes were by the piles of fresh-water mussel shells that they had untidily thrown out at their front door. I thought it might be well to hunt for mussels myself, and crack them in search of pearls, but it was too serene and beautiful a day. I was not willing to disturb the comfort of even a shell-fish. It was one of the days when one does not think of being tired: the scent of the dry everlasting flowers, and the freshness of the wind, and the cawing of the crows, all come to me as I think of it, and I remember that I went a long way before I began to think of going home again. I knew I could not be far from a cross-road, and when I climbed a low hill I saw a house which I was glad to make the end of my walk–for a time, at any rate. It was some time since I had seen the old woman who lived there, and I liked her dearly, and was sure of a welcome. I went down through the pasture lane, and just then I saw my father drive away up the road, just too far for me to make him hear when I called. That seemed too bad at first, until I remembered that he would come back again over the same road after a while, and in the mean time I could make my call. The house was low and long and unpainted, with a great many frost-bitten flowers about it. Some hollyhocks were bowed down despairingly, and the morning-glory vines were more miserable still. Some of the smaller plants had been covered to keep them from freezing, and were braving out a few more days, but no shelter would avail them much longer. And already nobody minded whether the gate was shut or not, and part of the great flock of hens were marching proudly about among the wilted posies, which they had stretched their necks wistfully through the fence for all summer. I heard the noise of spinning in the house, and my dog scurried off after the cat as I went in the door. I saw Miss Polly Marsh and her sister, Mrs. Snow, stepping back and forward together spinning yarn at a pair of big wheels. The wheels made such a noise with their whir and creak, and my friends were talking so fast as they twisted and turned the yarn, that they did not hear my footstep, and I stood in the doorway watching them, it was such a quaint and pretty sight. They went together like a pair of horses, and kept step with each other to and fro. They were about the same size, and were cheerful old bodies, looking a good deal alike, with their checked handkerchiefs over their smooth gray hair, their dark gowns made short in the skirts, and their broad little feet in gray stockings and low leather shoes without heels. They stood straight, and though they were quick at their work they moved stiffly; they were talking busily about some one.
“I could tell by the way the doctor looked that he didn’t think there was much of anything the matter with her,” said Miss Polly Marsh. “‘You needn’t tell me,’ says I, the other day, when I see him at Miss Martin’s. ‘She’d be up and about this minute if she only had a mite o’ resolution;’ and says he, ‘Aunt Polly, you’re as near right as usual;’” and the old lady stopped to laugh a little. “I told him that wa’n’t saying much,” said she, with an evident consciousness of the underlying compliment and the doctor’s good opinion. “I never knew one of that tribe that hadn’t a queer streak and wasn’t shif’less; but they’re tougher than ellum roots;” and she gave the wheel an emphatic turn, while Mrs. Snow reached for more rolls of wool, and happened to see me.
“Wherever did you come from?” said they, in great surprise. “Why, you wasn’t anywhere in sight when I was out speaking to the doctor,” said Mrs. Snow. “Oh, come over horseback, I suppose. Well, now, we’re pleased to see ye.”
“No,” said I, “I walked across the fields. It was too pleasant to stay in the house, and I haven’t had a long walk for some time before.” I begged them not to stop spinning, but they insisted that they should not have turned the wheels a half-dozen times more, even if I had not come, and they pushed them back to the wall before they came to sit down to talk with me over their knitting–for neither of them were ever known to be idle. Mrs. Snow was only there for a visit; she was a widow, and lived during most of the year with her son; and Aunt Polly was at home but seldom herself, as she was a famous nurse, and was often in demand all through that part of the country. I had known her all my days. Everybody was fond of the good soul, and she had been one of the most useful women in the world. One of my pleasantest memories is of a long but not very painful illness one winter, when she came to take care of me. There was no end either to her stories or her kindness. I was delighted to find her at home that afternoon, and Mrs. Snow also.
Aunt Polly brought me some of her gingerbread, which she knew I liked, and a stout little pitcher of milk, and we sat there together for a while, gossiping and enjoying ourselves. I told all the village news that I could think of, and I was just tired enough to know it, and to be contented to sit still for a while in the comfortable three-cornered chair by the little front window. The October sunshine lay along the clean kitchen floor, and Aunt Polly darted from her chair occasionally to catch stray little wisps of wool which the breeze through the door blew along from the wheels. There was a gay string of red peppers hanging over the very high mantel-shelf, and the wood-work in the room had never been painted, and had grown dark brown with age and smoke and scouring. The clock ticked solemnly, as if it were a judge giving the laws of time, and felt itself to be the only thing that did not waste it. There was a bouquet of asparagus and some late sprigs of larkspur and white petunias on the table underneath, and a Leavitt’s Almanac lay on the county paper, which was itself lying on the big Bible, of which Aunt Polly made a point of reading two chapters every day in course. I remember her saying, despairingly, one night, half to herself, “I don’ know but I may skip the Chronicles next time,” but I have never to this day believed that she did. They asked me at once to come into the best room, but I liked the old kitchen best. “Who was it that you were talking about as I came in?” said I. “You said you didn’t believe there was much the matter with her.” And Aunt Polly clicked her knitting-needles faster, and told me that it was Mary Susan Ash, over by Little Creek.
“They’re dreadful nervous, all them Ashes,” said Mrs. Snow. “You know young Joe Adams’s wife, over our way, is a sister to her, and she’s forever a-doctorin’. Poor fellow! he’s got a drag. I’m real sorry for Joe; but, land sakes alive! he might ‘a known better. They said she had an old green bandbox with a gingham cover, that was stowed full o’ vials, that she moved with the rest of her things when she was married, besides some she car’d in her hands. I guess she ain’t in no more hurry to go than any of the rest of us. I’ve lost every mite of patience with her. I was over there last week one day, and she’d had a call from the new supply–you know Adams’s folks is Methodists–and he was took in by her. She made out she’d got the consumption, and she told how many complaints she had, and what a sight o’ medicine she took, and she groaned and sighed, and her voice was so weak you couldn’t more than just hear it. I stepped right into the bedroom after he’d been prayin’ with her, and was taking leave. You’d thought, by what he said, she was going right off then. She was coughing dreadful hard, and I knew she hadn’t no more cough than I had. So says I, ‘What’s the matter, Adaline? I’ll get ye a drink of water. Something in your throat, I s’pose. I hope you won’t go and get cold, and have a cough.’ She looked as if she could ‘a bit me, but I was just as pleasant ‘s could be. Land! to see her laying there, I suppose the poor young fellow thought she was all gone. He meant well. I wish he had seen her eating apple-dumplings for dinner. She felt better ‘long in the first o’ the afternoon before he come. I says to her, right before him, that I guessed them dumplings did her good, but she never made no answer. She will have these dyin’ spells. I don’t know’s she can help it, but she needn’t act as if it was a credit to anybody to be sick and laid up. Poor Joe, he come over for me last week another day, and said she’d been havin’ spasms, and asked me if there wa’n’t something I could think of. ‘Yes,’ says I; ‘you just take a pail o’ stone-cold water, and throw it square into her face; that’ll bring her out of it;’ and he looked at me a minute, and then he burst out a-laughing–he couldn’t help it. He’s too good to her; that’s the trouble.”
“You never said that to her about the dumplings?” said Aunt Polly, admiringly. “Well, I shouldn’t ha’ dared;” and she rocked and knitted away faster than ever, while we all laughed. “Now with Mary Susan it’s different. I suppose she does have the neurology, and she’s a poor broken-down creature. I do feel for her more than I do for Adaline. She was always a willing girl, and she worked herself to death, and she can’t help these notions, nor being an Ash neither.”
“I’m the last one to be hard on anybody that’s sick, and in trouble,” said Mrs. Snow.
“Bless you, she set up with Ad’line herself three nights in one week, to my knowledge. It’s more’n I would do,” said Aunt Polly, as if there were danger that I should think Mrs. Snow’s kind heart to be made of flint.
“It ain’t what I call watching,” said she, apologetically. “We both doze off, and then when the folks come in in the morning she’ll tell what a sufferin’ night she’s had. She likes to have it said she has to have watchers.”
“It’s strange what a queer streak there is running through the whole of ’em,” said Aunt Polly, presently. “It always was so, far back’s you can follow ’em. Did you ever hear about that great-uncle of theirs that lived over to the other side o’ Denby, over to what they call the Denby Meadows? We had a cousin o’ my father’s that kept house for him (he was a single man), and I spent most of a summer and fall with her once when I was growing up. She seemed to want company: it was a lonesome sort of a place.”
“There! I don’t know when I have thought to’ that,” said Mrs. Snow, looking much amused. “What stories you did use to tell, after you come home, about the way he used to act! Dear sakes! she used to keep us laughing till we was tired. Do tell her about him, Polly; she’ll like to hear.”
“Well, I’ve forgot a good deal about it: you see it was much as fifty years ago. I wasn’t more than seventeen or eighteen years old. He was a very respectable man, old Mr. Dan’el Gunn was, and a cap’n in the militia in his day. Cap’n Gunn, they always called him. He was well off, but he got sun-struck, and never was just right in his mind afterward. When he was getting over his sickness after the stroke he was very wandering, and at last he seemed to get it into his head that he was his own sister Patience that died some five or six years before: she was single too, and she always lived with him. They said when he got so’s to sit up in his arm-chair of an afternoon, when he was getting better, he fought ’em dreadfully because they fetched him his own clothes to put on; he said they was brother Dan’el’s clothes. So, sure enough, they got out an old double gown, and let him put it on, and he was as peaceable as could be. The doctor told ’em to humor him, but they thought it was a fancy he took, and he would forget it; but the next day he made ’em get the double gown again, and a cap too, and there he used to set up alongside of his bed as prim as a dish. When he got round again so he could set up all day, they thought he wanted the dress; but no; he seemed to be himself, and had on his own clothes just as usual in the morning; but when he took his nap after dinner and waked up again, he was in a dreadful frame o’ mind, and had the trousers and coat off in no time, and said he was Patience. He used to fuss with some knitting-work he got hold of somehow; he was good-natured as could be, and sometimes he would make ’em fetch him the cat, because Patience used to have a cat that set in her lap while she knit. I wasn’t there then, you know, but they used to tell me about it. Folks used to call him Miss Dan’el Gunn.
“He’d been that way some time when I went over. I’d heard about his notions, and I was scared of him at first, but I found out there wasn’t no need. Don’t you know I was sort o’ ‘fraid to go, ‘Lizabeth, when Cousin Statiry sent for me after she went home from that visit she made here? She’d told us about him, but sometimes, ‘long at the first of it, he used to be cross. He never was after I went there. He was a clever, kind-hearted man, if ever there was one,” said Aunt Polly, with decision. “He used to go down to the corner to the store sometimes in the morning, and he would see to business. And before he got feeble sometimes he would work out on the farm all the morning, stiddy as any of the men; but after he come in to dinner he would take off his coat, if he had it on, and fall asleep in his arm-chair, or on a l’unge there was in his bedroom, and when he waked up he would be sort of bewildered for a while, and then he’d step round quick’s he could, and get his dress out o’ the clothes-press, and the cap, and put ’em on right over the rest of his clothes. He was always small-featured and smooth-shaved, and I don’ know as, to come in sudden, you would have thought he was a man, except his hair stood up short and straight all on the top of his head, as men-folks had a fashion o’ combing their hair then, and I must say he did make a dreadful ordinary-looking woman. The neighbors got used to his ways, and, land! I never thought nothing of it after the first week or two.
“His sister’s clothes that he wore first was too small for him, and so my cousin Statiry, that kep’ his house, she made him a linsey-woolsey dress with a considerable short skirt, and he was dreadful pleased with it, she said, because the other one never would button over good, and showed his wais’coat, and she and I used to make him caps; he used to wear the kind all the old women did then, with a big crown, and close round the face. I’ve got some laid away up-stairs now that was my mother’s–she wore caps very young, mother did. His nephew that lived with him carried on the farm, and managed the business, but he always treated the cap’n as if he was head of everything there. Everybody pitied the cap’n; folks respected him; but you couldn’t help laughing, to save ye. We used to try to keep him in, afternoons, but we couldn’t always.”
“Tell her about that day he went to meeting,” said Mrs. Snow.
“Why, one of us always used to stay to home with him; we took turns; and somehow or ‘nother he never offered to go, though by spells he would be constant to meeting in the morning. Why, bless you, you never’d think anything ailed him a good deal of the time, if you saw him before noon, though sometimes he would be freaky, and hide himself in the barn, or go over in the woods, but we always kept an eye on him. But this Sunday there was going to be a great occasion. Old Parson Croden was going to preach; he was thought more of than anybody in this region: you’ve heard tell of him a good many times, I s’pose. He was getting to be old, and didn’t preach much. He had a colleague, they set so much by him in his parish, and I didn’t know’s I’d ever get another chance to hear him, so I didn’t want to stay to home, and neither did Cousin Statiry; and Jacob Gunn, old Mr. Gunn’s nephew, he said it might be the last time ever he’d hear Parson Croden, and he set in the seats anyway; so we talked it all over, and we got a young boy to come and set ‘long of the cap’n till we got back. He hadn’t offered to go anywhere of an afternoon for a long time. I s’pose he thought women ought to be stayers at home according to Scripture.
“Parson Ridley–his wife was a niece to old Dr. Croden–and the old doctor they was up in the pulpit, and the choir was singing the first hymn–it was a fuguing tune, and they was doing their best: seems to me it was ‘Canterbury New.’ Yes, it was; I remember I thought how splendid it sounded, and Jacob Gunn he was a-leading off; and I happened to look down the aisle, and who should I see but the poor old cap’n in his cap and gown parading right into meeting before all the folks! There! I wanted to go through the floor. Everybody ‘most had seen him at home, but, my goodness! to have him come into meeting!”
“What did you do?” said I.
“Why, nothing,” said Miss Polly; “there was nothing to do. I thought I should faint away; but I called Cousin Statiry’s ‘tention, and she looked dreadful put to it for a minute; and then says she, ‘Open the door for him; I guess he won’t make no trouble,’ and, poor soul, he didn’t. But to see him come up the aisle! He’d fixed himself nice as he could, poor creatur; he’d raked out Miss Patience’s old Navarino bonnet with green ribbons and a willow feather, and set it on right over his cap, and he had her bead bag on his arm, and her turkey-tail fan that he’d got out of the best room; and he come with little short steps up to the pew: and I s’posed he’d set by the door; but no, he made to go by us, up into the corner where she used to set, and took her place, and spread his dress out nice, and got his handkerchief out o’ his bag, just’s he’d seen her do. He took off his bonnet all of a sudden, as if he’d forgot it, and put it under the seat, like he did his hat–that was the only thing he did that any woman wouldn’t have done–and the crown of his cap was bent some. I thought die I should. The pew was one of them up aside the pulpit, a square one, you know, right at the end of the right-hand aisle, so I could see the length of it and out of the door, and there stood that poor boy we’d left to keep the cap’n company, looking as pale as ashes. We found he’d tried every way to keep the old gentleman at home, but he said he got f’erce as could be, so he didn’t dare to say no more, and Cap’n Gunn drove him back twice to the house, and that’s why he got in so late. I didn’t know but it was the boy that had set him on to go to meeting when I see him walk in, and I could ‘a wrung his neck; but I guess I misjudged him; he was called a stiddy boy. He married a daughter of Ichabod Pinkham’s over to Oak Plains, and I saw a son of his when I was taking care of Miss West last spring through that lung fever–looked like his father. I wish I’d thought to tell him about that Sunday. I heard he was waiting on that pretty Becket girl, the orphan one that lives with Nathan Becket. Her father and mother was both lost at sea, but she’s got property.”
“What did they say in church when the captain came in, Aunt Polly?” said I.
“Well, a good many of them laughed–they couldn’t help it, to save them; but the cap’n he was some hard o’ hearin’, so he never noticed it, and he set there in the corner and fanned him, as pleased and satisfied as could be. The singers they had the worst time, but they had just come to the end of a verse, and they played on the instruments a good while in between, but I could see ’em shake, and I s’pose the tune did stray a little, though they went through it well. And after the first fun of it was over, most of the folks felt bad. You see, the cap’n had been very much looked up to, and it was his misfortune, and he set there quiet, listening to the preaching. I see some tears in some o’ the old folks’ eyes: they hated to see him so broke in his mind, you know. There was more than usual of ’em out that day; they knew how bad he’d feel if he realized it. A good Christian man he was, and dreadful precise, I’ve heard ’em say.”
“Did he ever go again?” said I.
“I seem to forget,” said Aunt Polly. “I dare say. I wasn’t there but from the last of June into November, and when I went over again it wasn’t for three years, and the cap’n had been dead some time. His mind failed him more and more along at the last. But I’ll tell you what he did do, and it was the week after that very Sunday, too. He heard it given out from the pulpit that the Female Missionary Society would meet with Mis’ William Sands the Thursday night o’ that week–the sewing society, you know; and he looked round to us real knowing; and Cousin Statiry, says she to me, under her bonnet, ‘You don’t s’pose he’ll want to go?’ and I like to have laughed right out. But sure enough he did, and what do you suppose but he made us fix over a handsome black watered silk for him to wear, that had been his sister’s best dress. He said he’d outgrown it dreadful quick. Cousin Statiry she wished to heaven she’d thought to put it away, for Jacob had given it to her, and she was meaning to make it over for herself; but it didn’t do to cross the cap’n and Jacob Gunn gave Statiry another one–the best he could get, but it wasn’t near so good a piece, she thought. He set everything by Statiry, and so did the cap’n, and well they might.
“We hoped he’d forget all about it the next day; but he didn’t; and I always thought well of those ladies, they treated him so handsome, and tried to make him enjoy himself. He did eat a great supper; they kep’ a-piling up his plate with everything. I couldn’t help wondering if some of ’em would have put themselves out much if it had been some poor flighty old woman. The cap’n he was as polite as could be, and when Jacob come to walk home with him he kissed ’em all round and asked ’em to meet at his house. But the greatest was–land! I don’t know when I’ve thought so much about those times–one afternoon he was setting at home in the keeping-room, and Statiry was there, and Deacon Abel Pinkham stopped in to see Jacob Gunn about building some fence, and he found he’d gone to mill, so he waited a while, talking friendly, as they expected Jacob might be home; and the cap’n was as pleased as could be, and he urged the deacon to stop to tea. And when he went away, says he to Statiry, in a dreadful knowing way, ‘Which of us do you consider the deacon come to see?’ You see, the deacon was a widower. Bless you! when I first come home I used to set everybody laughing, but I forget most of the things now. There was one day, though”–
“Here comes your father,” said Mrs. Snow. “Now we mustn’t let him go by or you’ll have to walk ‘way home.” And Aunt Polly hurried out to speak to him, while I took my great bunch of golden-rod, which already drooped a little, and followed her, with Mrs. Snow, who confided to me that the captain’s nephew Jacob had offered to Polly that summer she was over there, and she never could see why she didn’t have him: only love goes where it is sent, and Polly wasn’t one to marry for what she could get if she didn’t like the man. There was plenty that would have said yes, and thank you too, sir, to Jacob Gunn.
That was a pleasant afternoon. I reached home when it was growing dark and chilly, and the early autumn sunset had almost faded in the west. It was a much longer way home around by the road than by the way I had come across the fields.