Miss Debby’s Neighbors by Sarah Orne Jewett

Story type: Literature

There is a class of elderly New England women which is fast dying out:–those good souls who have sprung from a soil full of the true New England instincts; who were used to the old-fashioned ways, and whose minds were stored with quaint country lore and tradition. The fashions of the newer generations do not reach them; they are quite unconscious of the western spirit and enterprise, and belong to the old days, and to a fast-disappearing order of things.

But a shrewder person does not exist than the spokeswoman of the following reminiscences, whose simple history can be quickly told, since she spent her early life on a lonely farm, leaving it only once for any length of time,–one winter when she learned her trade of tailoress. She afterward sewed for her neighbors, and enjoyed a famous reputation for her skill; but year by year, as she grew older, there was less to do, and at last, to use her own expression, “Everybody got into the way of buying cheap, ready-made-up clothes, just to save ’em a little trouble,” and she found herself out of business, or nearly so. After her mother’s death, and that of her favorite younger brother Jonas, she left the farm and came to a little house in the village, where she lived most comfortably the rest of her life, having a small property which she used most sensibly. She was always ready to render any special service with her needle, and was a most welcome guest in any household, and a most efficient helper. To be in the same room with her for a while was sure to be profitable, and as she grew older she was delighted to recall the people and events of her earlier life, always filling her descriptions with wise reflections and much quaint humor. She always insisted, not without truth, that the railroads were making everybody look and act of a piece, and that the young folks were more alike than people of her own day. It is impossible to give the delightfulness of her talk in any written words, as well as many of its peculiarities, for her way of going round Robin Hood’s barn between the beginning of her story and its end can hardly be followed at all, and certainly not in her own dear loitering footsteps.

On an idle day her most devoted listener thought there was nothing better worth doing than to watch this good soul at work. A book was held open for the looks of the thing, but presently it was allowed to flutter its leaves and close, for Miss Debby began without any apparent provocation:–

“They may say whatever they have a mind to, but they can’t persuade me that there’s no such thing as special providences,” and she twitched her strong linen thread so angrily through the carpet she was sewing, that it snapped and the big needle flew into the air. It had to be found before any further remarks could be made, and the listener also knelt down to search for it. After a while it was discovered clinging to Miss Debby’s own dress, and after reharnessing it she went to work again at her long seam. It was always significant of a succession of Miss Debby’s opinions when she quoted and berated certain imaginary persons whom she designated as “They,” who stood for the opposite side of the question, and who merited usually her deepest scorn and fullest antagonism. Her remarks to these offending parties were always prefaced with “I tell ’em,” and to the listener’s mind “they” always stood rebuked, but not convinced, in spiritual form it may be, but most intense reality; a little group as solemn as Miss Debby herself. Once the listener ventured to ask who “they” were, in her early childhood, but she was only answered by a frown. Miss Debby knew as well as any one the difference between figurative language and a lie. Sometimes they said what was right and proper, and were treated accordingly; but very seldom, and on this occasion it seemed that they had ventured to trifle with sacred things.

“I suppose you’re too young to remember John Ashby’s grandmother? A good woman she was, and she had a dreadful time with her family. They never could keep the peace, and there was always as many as two of them who didn’t speak with each other. It seems to come down from generation to generation like a–curse!” And Miss Debby spoke the last word as if she had meant it partly for her thread, which had again knotted and caught, and she snatched the offered scissors without a word, but said peaceably, after a minute or two, that the thread wasn’t what it used to be. The next needleful proved more successful, and the listener asked if the Ashbys were getting on comfortably at present.

“They always behave as if they thought they needed nothing,” was the response. “Not that I mean that they are any ways contented, but they never will give in that other folks holds a candle to ’em. There’s one kind of pride that I do hate,–when folks is satisfied with their selves and don’t see no need of improvement. I believe in self-respect, but I believe in respecting other folks’s rights as much as your own; but it takes an Ashby to ride right over you. I tell ’em it’s the spirit of the tyrants of old, and it’s the kind of pride that goes before a fall. John Ashby’s grandmother was a clever little woman as ever stepped. She came from over Hardwick way, and I think she kep’ ’em kind of decent-behaved as long as she was round; but she got wore out a doin’ of it, an’ went down to her grave in a quick consumption. My mother set up with her the night she died. It was in May, towards the latter part, and an awful rainy night. It was the storm that always comes in apple-blossom time. I remember well that mother come crying home in the morning and told us Mis’ Ashby was dead. She brought Marilly with her, that was about my own age, and was taken away within six months afterwards. She pined herself to death for her mother, and when she caught the scarlet fever she went as quick as cherry-bloom when it’s just ready to fall and a wind strikes it. She wa’n’t like the rest of ’em. She took after her mother’s folks altogether.

“You know our farm was right next to theirs,–the one Asa Hopper owns now, but he’s let it all run out,–and so, as we lived some ways from the stores, we had to be neighborly, for we depended on each other for a good many things. Families in lonesome places get out of one supply and another, and have to borrow until they get a chance to send to the village; or sometimes in a busy season some of the folks would have to leave work and be gone half a day. Land, you don’t know nothing about old times, and the life that used to go on about here. You can’t step into a house anywheres now that there ain’t the county map and they don’t fetch out the photograph book; and in every district you’ll find all the folks has got the same chromo picture hung up, and all sorts of luxuries and makeshifts o’ splendor that would have made the folks I was fetched up by stare their eyes out o’ their heads. It was all we could do to keep along then; and if anybody was called rich, it was only because he had a great sight of land,–and then it was drudge, drudge the harder to pay the taxes. There was hardly any ready money; and I recollect well that old Tommy Simms was reputed wealthy, and it was told over fifty times a year that he’d got a solid four thousand dollars in the bank. He strutted round like a turkey-cock, and thought he ought to have his first say about everything that was going.

“I was talking about the Ashbys, wasn’t I? I do’ know’s I ever told you about the fight they had after their father died about the old house. Joseph was married to a girl he met in camp-meeting time, who had a little property–two or three hundred dollars–from an old great uncle that she’d been keeping house for; and I don’t know what other plans she may have had for spending of her means, but she laid most of it out in a husband; for Joseph never cared any great about her that I could see, though he always treated her well enough. She was a poor ignorant sort of thing, seven years older than he was; but she had a pleasant kind of a face, and seemed like an overgrown girl of six or eight years old. I remember just after they was married Joseph was taken down with a quinsy sore throat,–being always subject to them,–and mother was over in the forenoon, and she was one that was always giving right hand and left, and she told Susan Ellen–that was his wife–to step over in the afternoon and she would give her some blackberry preserve for him; she had some that was nice and it was very healing. So along about half-past one o’clock, just as we had got the kitchen cleared, and mother and I had got out the big wheels to spin a few rolls,–we always liked to spin together, and mother was always good company;–my brother Jonas–that was the youngest of us–looked out of the window, and says he: ‘Here comes Joe Ashby’s wife with a six-quart pail.’

“Mother she began to shake all over with a laugh she tried to swallow down, but I didn’t know what it was all about, and in come poor Susan Ellen and lit on the edge of the first chair and set the pail down beside of her. We tried to make her feel welcome, and spoke about everything we could contrive, seein’ as it was the first time she’d been over; and she seemed grateful and did the best she could, and lost her strangeness with mother right away, for mother was the best hand to make folks feel to home with her that I ever come across. There ain’t many like her now, nor never was, I tell ’em. But there wa’n’t nothing said about the six-quart pail, and there it set on the floor, until Susan Ellen said she must be going and mentioned that there was something said about a remedy for Joseph’s throat. ‘Oh, yes,’ says mother, and she brought out the little stone jar she kept the preserve in, and there wa’n’t more than the half of it full. Susan Ellen took up the cover off the pail, and I walked off into the bedroom, for I thought I should laugh, certain. Mother put in a big spoonful, and another, and I heard ’em drop, and she went on with one or two more, and then she give up. ‘I’d give you the jar and welcome,’ she says, ‘but I ain’t very well off for preserves, and I was kind of counting on this for tea in case my brother’s folks are over.’ Susan Ellen thanked her, and said Joseph would be obliged, and back she went acrost the pasture. I can see that big tin pail now a-shining in the sun.

“The old man was alive then, and he took a great spite against poor Susan Ellen, though he never would if he hadn’t been set on by John; and whether he was mad because Joseph had stepped in to so much good money or what, I don’t know,–but he twitted him about her, and at last he and the old man between ’em was too much to bear, and Joe fitted up a couple o’ rooms for himself in a building he’d put up for a kind of work-shop. He used to carpenter by spells, and he clapboarded it and made it as comfortable as he could, and he ordered John out of it for good and all; but he and Susan Ellen both treated the old sir the best they knew how, and Joseph kept right on with his farm work same as ever, and meant to lay up a little more money to join with his wife’s, and push off as soon as he could for the sake of peace, though if there was anybody set by the farm it was Joseph. He was to blame for some things,–I never saw an Ashby that wasn’t,–and I dare say he was aggravating. They were clearing a piece of woodland that winter, and the old man was laid up in the house with the rheumatism, off and on, and that made him fractious, and he and John connived together, till one day Joseph and Susan Ellen had taken the sleigh and gone to Freeport Four Corners to get some flour and one thing and another, and to have the horse shod beside, so they was likely to be gone two or three hours. John Jacobs was going by with his oxen, and John Ashby and the old man hailed him, and said they’d give him a dollar if he’d help ’em, and they hitched the two yoke, his and their’n, to Joseph’s house. There wa’n’t any foundation to speak of, the sills set right on the ground, and he’d banked it up with a few old boards and some pine spills and sand and stuff, just to keep the cold out. There wa’n’t but a little snow, and the roads was smooth and icy, and they slipped it along as if it had been a hand-sled, and got it down the road a half a mile or so to the fork of the roads, and left it settin’ there right on the heater-piece. Jacobs told afterward that he kind of disliked to do it, but he thought as long as their minds were set, he might as well have the dollar as anybody. He said when the house give a slew on a sideling piece in the road, he heard some of the crockery-ware smash down, and a branch of an oak they passed by caught hold of the stove-pipe that come out through one of the walls, and give that a wrench, but he guessed there wa’n’t no great damage. Joseph may have given ’em some provocation before he went away in the morning,–I don’t know but he did, and I don’t know as he did,–but at any rate when he was coming home late in the afternoon he caught sight of his house (some of our folks was right behind, and they saw him), and he stood right up in the sleigh and shook his fist, he was so mad; but afterwards he bu’st out laughin’. It did look kind of curi’s; it wa’n’t bigger than a front entry, and it set up so pert right there on the heater-piece, as if he was calc’latin’ to farm it. The folks said Susan Ellen covered up her face in her shawl and began to cry. I s’pose the pore thing was discouraged. Joseph was awful mad,–he was kind of laughing and cryin’ together. Our folks stopped and asked him if there was anything they could do, and he said no; but Susan Ellen went in to view how things were, and they made up a fire, and then Joe took the horse home, and I guess they had it hot and heavy. Nobody supposed they’d ever make up ‘less there was a funeral in the family to bring ’em together, the fight had gone so far,–but ‘long in the winter old Mr. Ashby, the boys’ father, was taken down with a spell o’ sickness, and there wa’n’t anybody they could get to come and look after the house. The doctor hunted, and they all hunted, but there didn’t seem to be anybody–‘twa’n’t so thick settled as now, and there was no spare help–so John had to eat humble pie, and go and ask Susan Ellen if she wouldn’t come back and let by-gones be by-gones. She was as good-natured a creatur’ as ever stepped, and did the best she knew, and she spoke up as pleasant as could be, and said she’d go right off that afternoon and help ’em through.

“The old Ashby had been a hard drinker in his day and he was all broke down. Nobody ever saw him that he couldn’t walk straight, but he got a crooked disposition out of it, if nothing else. I s’pose there never was a man loved sperit better. They said one year he was over to Cyrus Barker’s to help with the haying, and there was a jug o’ New England rum over by the spring with some gingerbread and cheese and stuff; and he went over about every half an hour to take something, and along about half-past ten he got the jug middling low, so he went to fill it up with a little water, and lost holt of it and it sunk, and they said he drunk the spring dry three times!

“Joe and Susan Ellen stayed there at the old place well into the summer, and then after planting they moved down to the Four Corners where they had bought a nice little place. Joe did well there,–he carried on the carpenter trade, and got smoothed down considerable, being amongst folks. John he married a Pecker girl, and got his match too; she was the only living soul he ever was afraid of. They lived on there a spell and–why, they must have lived there all of fifteen or twenty years, now I come to think of it, for the time they moved was after the railroad was built. ‘Twas along in the winter and his wife she got a notion to buy a place down to the Falls below the Corners after the mills got started and have John work in the spinning-room while she took boarders. She said ‘twa’n’t no use staying on the farm, they couldn’t make a living off from it now they’d cut the growth. Joe’s folks and she never could get along, and they said she was dreadfully riled up hearing how much Joe was getting in the machine shop.

“They needn’t tell me about special providences being all moonshine,” said Miss Debby for the second time, “if here wa’n’t a plain one, I’ll never say one word more about it. You see, that very time Joe Ashby got a splinter in his eye and they were afraid he was going to lose his sight, and he got a notion that he wanted to go back to farming. He always set everything by the old place, and he had a boy growing up that neither took to his book nor to mill work, and he wanted to farm it too. So Joe got hold of John one day when he come in with some wood, and asked him why he wouldn’t take his place for a year or two, if he wanted to get to the village, and let him go out to the old place. My brother Jonas was standin’ right by and heard ’em and said he never heard nobody speak civiller. But John swore and said he wa’n’t going to be caught in no such a trap as that. His father left him the place and he was going to do as he’d a mind to. There’d be’n trouble about the property, for old Mr. Ashby had given Joe some money he had in the bank. Joe had got to be well off, he could have bought most any farm about here, but he wanted the old place ‘count of his attachment. He set everything by his mother, spite of her being dead so long. John hadn’t done very well spite of his being so sharp, but he let out the best of the farm on shares, and bought a mis’able sham-built little house down close by the mills,–and then some idea or other got into his head to fit that up to let and move it to one side of the lot, and haul down the old house from the farm to live in themselves. There wa’n’t no time to lose, else the snow would be gone; so he got a gang o’ men up there and put shoes underneath the sills, and then they assembled all the oxen they could call in, and started. Mother was living then, though she’d got to be very feeble, and when they come for our yoke she wouldn’t have Jonas let ’em go. She said the old house ought to stay in its place. Everybody had been telling John Ashby that the road was too hilly, and besides the house was too old to move, they’d rack it all to pieces dragging it so fur; but he wouldn’t listen to no reason.

“I never saw mother so stirred up as she was that day, and when she see the old thing a moving she burst right out crying. We could see one end of it looking over the slope of the hill in the pasture between it and our house. There was two windows that looked our way, and I know Mis’ Ashby used to hang a piece o’ something white out o’ one of ’em when she wanted mother to step over for anything. They set a good deal by each other, and Mis’ Ashby was a lame woman. I shouldn’t ha’ thought John would had ’em haul the house right over the little gardin she thought so much of, and broke down the laylocks and flowering currant she set everything by. I remember when she died I wasn’t more’n seven or eight year old, it was all in full bloom and mother she broke off a branch and laid into the coffin. I do’ know as I’ve ever seen any since or set in a room and had the sweetness of it blow in at the windows without remembering that day,–’twas the first funeral I ever went to, and that may be some reason. Well, the old house started off and mother watched it as long as she could see it. She was sort o’ feeble herself then, as I said, and we went on with the work,–’twas a Saturday, and we was baking and churning and getting things to rights generally. Jonas had been over in the swamp getting out some wood he’d cut earlier in the winter–and along in the afternoon he come in and said he s’posed I wouldn’t want to ride down to the Corners so late, and I said I did feel just like it, so we started off. We went the Birch Ridge road, because he wanted to see somebody over that way,–and when we was going home by the straight road, Jonas laughed and said we hadn’t seen anything of John Ashby’s moving, and he guessed he’d got stuck somewhere. He was glad he hadn’t nothing to do with it. We drove along pretty quick, for we were some belated, and we didn’t like to leave mother all alone after it come dark. All of a sudden Jonas stood up in the sleigh, and says he, ‘I don’t believe but the cars is off the track;’ and I looked and there did seem to be something the matter with ’em. They hadn’t been running more than a couple o’ years then, and we was prepared for anything.

“Jonas he whipped up the horse and we got there pretty quick, and I’ll be bound if the Ashby house hadn’t got stuck fast right on the track, and stir it one way or another they couldn’t. They’d been there since quarter-past one, pulling and hauling,–and the men was all hoarse with yelling, and the cars had come from both ways and met there,–one each side of the crossing,–and the passengers was walking about, scolding and swearing,–and somebody’d gone and lit up a gre’t bonfire. You never see such a sight in all your life! I happened to look up at the old house, and there were them two top windows that used to look over to our place, and they had caught the shine of the firelight, and made the poor old thing look as if it was scared to death. The men was banging at it with axes and crowbars, and it was dreadful distressing. You pitied it as if it was a live creatur’. It come from such a quiet place, and always looked kind of comfortable, though so much war had gone on amongst the Ashbys. I tell you it was a judgment on John, for they got it shoved back after a while, and then wouldn’t touch it again,–not one of the men,–nor let their oxen. The plastering was all stove, and the outside walls all wrenched apart,–and John never did anything more about it; but let it set there all summer, till it burnt down, and there was an end, one night in September. They supposed some traveling folks slept in it and set it afire, or else some boys did it for fun. I was glad it was out of the way. One day, I know, I was coming by with mother, and she said it made her feel bad to see the little strips of leather by the fore door, where Mis’ Ashby had nailed up a rosebush once. There! there ain’t an Ashby alive now of the old stock, except young John. Joe’s son went off to sea, and I believe he was lost somewhere in the China seas, or else he died of a fever; I seem to forget. He was called a smart boy, but he never could seem to settle down to anything. Sometimes I wonder folks is as good as they be, when I consider what comes to ’em from their folks before ’em, and how they’re misshaped by nature. Them Ashbys never was like other folks, and yet some good streak or other there was in every one of ’em. You can’t expect much from such hindered creator’s,–it’s just like beratin’ a black and white cat for being a poor mouser. It ain’t her fault that the mice see her quicker than they can a gray one. If you get one of them masterful dispositions put with a good strong will towards the right, that’s what makes the best of men; but all them Ashbys cared about was to grasp and get, and be cap’ns. They liked to see other folks put down, just as if it was going to set them up. And they didn’t know nothing. They make me think of some o’ them old marauders that used to hive up into their castles, in old times, and then go out a-over-setting and plundering. And I tell you that same sperit was in ’em. They was born a couple o’ hundred years too late. Kind of left-over folks, as it were.” And Miss Debby indulged in a quiet chuckle as she bent over her work. “John he got captured by his wife,–she carried too many guns for him. I believe he died very poor and her own son wouldn’t support her, so she died over in Freeport poor-house. And Joe got along better; his wife was clever but rather slack, and it took her a good while to see through things. She married again pretty quick after he died. She had as much as seven or eight thousand dollars, and she was taken just as she stood by a roving preacher that was holding meetings here in the winter time. He sold out her place here, and they went up country somewheres that he come from. Her boy was lost before that, so there was nothing to hinder her. There, don’t you think I’m always a-fault-finding! When I get hold of the real thing in folks, I stick to ’em,–but there’s an awful sight of poor material walking about that ain’t worth the ground it steps on. But when I look back a little ways, I can’t blame some of ’em; though it does often seem as if people might do better if they only set to work and tried. I must say I always do feel pleased when I think how mad John was,–this John’s father,–when he couldn’t do just as he’d a mind to with the pore old house. I couldn’t help thinking of Joe’s mansion, that he and his father hauled down to the heater piece in the fork of the roads. Sometimes I wonder where them Ashbys all went to. They’d mistake one place for the other in the next world, for ‘twould make heaven out o’ hell, because they could be disagreeing with somebody, and–well, I don’t know,–I’m sure they kep’ a good row going while they was in this world. Only with mother;–somehow she could get along with anybody, and not always give ’em their way either.”

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