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HETTY'S STRANGE HISTORY


By Anonymous

THE AUTHOR OF "MERCY PHILBRICK'S CHOICE."


"IS THE GENTLEMAN ANONYMOUS? IS HE A GREAT UNKNOWN?"

Daniel Deronda.



1877.


_I._


_What lover best his love doth prove and show?
The one whose words are swiftest, love to state?
The one who measures out his love by weight
In costly gifts which all men see and know?
Nay! words are cheap and easy: they may go
For what men think them worth: or soon or late,
They are but air. And gifts? Still cheaper rate
Are they at which men barter to and fro
Where love is not!_

_One thing remains. Oh, Love,
Thou hast so seldom seen it on the earth,
No name for it has ever sprung to birth;
To give one's own life up one's love to prove,
Not in the martyr's death, but in the dearth
Of daily life's most wearing daily groove_.


_II_.

_And unto him who this great thing hath done,
What does Great Love return? No speedy joy!
That swift delight which beareth large alloy
Is guerdon Love bestowed on him who won
A lesser trust: the happiness begun
In happiness, of happiness may cloy,
And, its own subtle foe, itself destroy.
But steadfast, tireless, quenchless as the sun
Doth grow that gladness which hath root in pain.
Earth's common griefs assail this soul in vain.
Great Love himself, too poor to pay such debt,
Doth borrow God's great peace which passeth yet
All understanding. Full tenfold again
Is found the life, laid down without regret!_




HETTY'S STRANGE HISTORY




I.

When Squire Gunn and his wife died, within three months of each other,
and Hetty their only child was left alone in the big farm-house,
everybody said, "Well, now Hetty Gunn'll have to make up her mind to
marry somebody." And it certainly looked as if she must. What could
be lonelier than the position of a woman thirty-five years of age sole
possessor of a great stone house, half a dozen barns and out-buildings,
herds of cattle, and a farm of five hundred acres? The place was known
as "Gunn's," far and wide. It had been a rich and prosperous farm ever
since the days of the first Squire Gunn, Hetty's grandfather. He was
one of Massachusetts' earliest militia-men, and had a leg shot off at
Lexington. To the old man's dying day he used to grow red in the face
whenever he told the story, and bring his fist down hard on the table,
with "damn the leg, sir! 'Twasn't the leg I cared for: 'twas the not
having another chance at those damned British rascals;" and the
wooden leg itself would twitch and rap on the floor in his impatient
indignation. One of Hetty's earliest recollections was of being led
about the farm by this warm-hearted, irascible, old grandfather, whose
wooden leg was a perpetual and unfathomable mystery to her. Where the
flesh leg left off and the wooden leg began, and if, when the wooden leg
stumped so loud and hard on the floor, it did not hurt the flesh leg
at the other end, puzzled little Hetty's head for many a long hour. Her
grandfather's frequent and comic references to the honest old wooden pin
did not diminish her perplexities. He was something of a wag, the old
Squire; and nothing came handier to him, in the way of a joke, than a
joke at his own expense. When he was eighty years old, he had a stroke
of paralysis: he lived six years after that; but he could not walk about
the farm any longer. He used to sit in a big cane-bottomed chair
close to the fireplace, in winter, and under a big lilac-bush, at the
north-east corner of the house, in summer. He kept a stout iron-tipped
cane by his side: in the winter, he used it to poke the fire with; in
the summer, to rap the hens and chickens which he used to lure round his
chair by handfuls of corn and oats. Sometimes he would tap the end of
the wooden leg with this cane, and say, laughingly, "Ha! ha! think of a
leg like that's being paralyzed, if you please. Isn't that a joke? It 's
just as paralyzed as the other: damn those British rascals." And only a
few hours before he died, he said to his son: "Look here, Abe, you put
on my grave-stone, - 'Here lies Abraham Gunn, all but one leg.' What do
you suppose one-legged men're going to do in the resurrection, hey, Abe?
I'll ask the parson if he comes in this afternoon," he added. But, when
the parson came, the brave, merry eyes were shut for ever, and the old
hero had gone to a new world, on which he no doubt entered as resolutely
and cheerily as he had gone through nearly a century of this. These
glimpses of the old Squire's characteristics are not out of place here,
although he himself has no place in our story, having been dead and
buried for more than twenty years before the story begins. But he lived
again in his granddaughter Hetty. How much of her off-hand, comic,
sturdy, resolute, disinterested nature came to her by direct inheritance
from his blood, and how much was absorbed as she might have absorbed it
from any one she loved and associated with, it is impossible to tell.
But by one process or the other, or by both, Hetty Gunn was, as all the
country people round about said, "Just the old Squire over again," and
if they sometimes added, as it must be owned they did, "It's a thousand
pities she wasn't a boy," there was, in this reflection on the Creator,
no reflection on Hetty's womanliness: it was rather on the accepted
theory and sphere of woman's activities and manifestations. Nobody in
this world could have a tenderer heart than Hetty: this also she had
inherited or learned from her grandfather. Many a day the two had spent
together in nursing a sick or maimed chicken, or a half-frozen lamb,
even a woodchuck that had got its leg broken in a trap was not an
outcast to them; and as for beggars and tramps, not one passed "Gunn's,"
from June till October, that was not hailed by the old squire from under
his lilac-bush, and fed by Hetty. Plenty of sarcastic and wholesome
advice the old gentleman gave them, while they sat on the ground eating;
and every word of it sank into Hetty's wide-open ears and sensible soul,
developing in her a very rare sort of thing which, for want of a better
name, we might call common-sense sympathy. To this sturdy common-sense
barrier against the sentimental side of sympathy with other people's
sufferings, Hetty added an equally sturdy, and she would have said
common-sense, fortitude in bearing her own. This invaluable trait she
owed largely to her grandfather's wooden leg. Before she could speak
plain, she had already made his cheerful way of bearing the discomfort
and annoyance of that queer leg her own standard of patience and
equanimity. Nothing that ever happened to her, no pain, no deprivation,
seemed half so dreadful as a wooden leg. She used to stretch out her own
fat, chubby, little legs, and look from them to her grandfather's. Then
she would timidly touch the wooden tip which rested on the floor, and
look up in her grandfather's face, and say, "Poor Grandpa!"

"Pshaw! pshaw! child," he would reply, "that's nothing. It does almost
as well to walk on, and that's all legs are for. I'd have had forty
legs shot off rather than not have helped drive out those damned British
rascals."

Not even for sake of Hetty's young ears could the old Squire mention
the British rascals without his favorite expletive. Here, also, came
in another lesson which sank deep into Hetty's heart. It was for his
country that her grandfather had lost that leg, and would have gladly
lost forty, if he had had so many to lose, not for himself; for
something which he loved better than himself: this was distinct in Hetty
Gunn's comprehension before she was twelve years old, and it was a most
important force in the growth of her nature. No one can estimate the
results on a character of these slow absorptions, these unconscious
biases, from daily contact. All precepts, all religions, are
insignificant agencies by their side. They are like sun and soil to a
plant: they make a moral climate in which certain things are sure to
grow, and certain other things are sure to die; as sure as it is that
orchids and pineapples thrive in the tropics, and would die in New
England.

When old Squire Gunn was buried, all the villages within twenty miles
turned out to his funeral. He was the last revolutionary hero of the
county. An oration was delivered in the meeting-house; and the brass
band of Welbury played "My country, 'tis of thee," all the way from the
meeting-house to the graveyard gate. After the grave was filled up, guns
were fired above it, and the Welbury village choir sang an anthem.
The crowd, the music, the firing of guns, produced an ineffaceable
impression upon Hetty's mind. While her grandfather's body lay in the
house, she had wept inconsolably. But as soon as the funeral services
began, her tears stopped; her eyes grew large and bright with
excitement; she held her head erect; a noble exaltation and pride shone
on her features; she gazed upon the faces of the people with a composure
and dignity which were unchildlike. No emperor's daughter in Rome could
have borne herself, at the burial of her most illustrious ancestor, more
grandly and yet more modestly than did little Hetty Gunn, aged twelve,
at the burial of this unfamed Massachusetts revolutionary soldier: and
well she might; for a greater than royal inheritance had come to her
from him. The echoes of the farewell shots which were fired over the old
man's grave were never to die out of Hetty's ears. Child, girl, woman,
she was to hear them always: signal guns of her life, they meant
courage, cheerfulness, self-sacrifice.

Of Hetty's father, the "young Squire," as to the day of his death he was
called by the older people in Welbury, and of Hetty's mother, his
wife, it is not needful to say much here. The young Squire was a lazy,
affectionate man to whom the good things of life had come without his
taking any trouble for them: even his wife had been more than half wooed
for him by his doting father; and there were those who said that pretty
Mrs. Gunn had been quite as much in love with the old Squire, old as he
was, as with the young one; but that was only an idle village sneer.
The young Squire and his wife loved each other devotedly, and their only
child, Hetty, with an unreasoning and unreasonable affection which would
have been the ruin of her, if she had been any thing else but what she
was, "the old Squire over again." As it was, the only effect of this
overweening affection, on their part, was to produce a slow reversal of
some of the ordinary relations between parents and children. As
Hetty grew into womanhood, she grew more and more to have a sense of
responsibility for her father's and mother's happiness. She was the most
filially docile of creatures, and obeyed like a baby, grown woman as she
was. It was strange to hear and to see.

"Hetty, bring me my overcoat," her father would say to her in her
thirty-fifth year, exactly as he would have said it in her twelfth; and
she would spring with the same alacrity and the same look of pleasure at
being of use. But there was a filial service which she rendered to her
parents much deeper than these surface obediences and attentions. They
were but dimly conscious of it; and yet, had it been taken away from
them, they had found their lives blighted indeed. She was the link
between them and the outside world. She brought merriment, cheer, hearty
friendliness into the house. She was the good comrade of every young
woman and every young man in Welbury; and she compelled them all to
bring a certain half-filial affection and attention to her father and
mother. The best tribute to what she had accomplished in this direction
was in the fact, that you always heard the young people mention Squire
Gunn and his wife as "Hetty Gunn's father" or "Hetty Gunn's mother;" and
the two old people were seen at many a gathering where there was not a
single old face but theirs.

"Hetty won't go without her father and mother," or "Hetty'll be so
pleased if we ask her father and mother," was frequently heard. From
this free and unembarrassed association of the old and the young, grew
many excellent things. In this wholesome atmosphere honesty and good
behavior thrived; but there was little chance for the development of
those secret sentimental preferences and susceptibilities out of which
spring love-making and thoughts of marriage.

There probably was not a marriageable young man in Welbury who had not
at one time or another thought to himself, what a good thing it would be
to marry Hetty Gunn. Hetty was pretty, sensible, affectionate, and rich.
Such girls as that were not to be found every day. A man might look
far and long before he could find such a wife as Hetty would make. But
nothing seemed to be farther from Hetty's thoughts than making a wife
of herself for anybody. And the world may say what it pleases about its
being the exclusive province of men to woo: very few men do woo a woman
who does not show herself ready to be wooed. It is a rare beauty or
a rare spell of some sort which can draw a man past the barrier of
a woman's honest, unaffected, and persistent unconsciousness of any
thoughts of love or matrimony. So between Hetty's unconsciousness and
her perpetual comradeship with her father and mother, the years went on,
and on, and no man asked Hetty to marry him. The odd thing about it was
that every man felt sure that he was the only man who had not asked her;
and a general impression had grown up in the town that Hetty Gunn had
refused nearly everybody. She was so evidently a favorite; "Gunn's" was
so much the headquarters for all the young people; it was so open to
everybody's observation how much all men admired and liked Hetty, - she
was never seen anywhere without one or two or three at her service: it
was the most natural thing in the world for people to think as they did.
Yet not a human being ever accused Hetty of flirting; her manner was
always as open, friendly, and cordial as an honest boy's, and with no
more trace of self-seeking or self-consciousness about it. She was as
full of fun and mischief, too, as any boy could be. She had slid down
hill with the wildest of them, till even her father said sternly, -

"Hetty, - you're too big. It's a shameful sight to see a girl of your
size, out on a sled with boys." And Hetty hung her head, and said
pathetically, -

"I wish I hadn't grown. I'd rather be a dwarf, than not slide down
hill."

But after the sliding was forbidden, there remained the chestnuttings
in the autumn, and the trout fishings in the summer, and the Mayflower
parties in the spring, and colts and horses and dogs. Until Hetty was
twenty-two years old, you might have been quite sure that, whenever
you found her in any out-door party, the masculine element was largely
predominant in that party. After this time, however, life gradually
sobered for Hetty: one by one her friends married; the maidens became
matrons, the young men became heads of houses. In wedding after wedding,
Hetty Gunn was the prettiest of the bridesmaids, and people whispered as
they watched her merry, kindly face, -

"Ain't it the queerest thing in life, Hetty Gunn won't marry. There
isn't a fellow in town she mightn't have."

If anybody had said this to Hetty herself, she would probably have
laughed, and said with entire frankness, -

"You're quite mistaken. They don't want me," which would only have
strengthened her hearers' previous impressions that they did.

In process of time, after the weddings came the christenings, and at
these also Hetty Gunn was still the favorite friend, the desired guest.
Presently, there came to be so many little Hetty Gunns in the village,
that no young mother had courage to use the name more, however much she
loved Hetty. Hetty used to say laughingly that it was well she was an
only child, for she had now more nieces and nephews than she knew what
to do with. Very dearly she loved them all; and the little things all
loved her, the instant she put her arms round them: and more than one
young husband, without meaning to be in the least disloyal to his wife,
thought to himself, when he saw his baby's face nestling down to Hetty
Gunn's brown curls, -

"I wonder if she'd have had me, if I'd asked her. But I don't believe
Hetty'll ever marry, - a girl that's had the offers she has."

And so it had come to pass that, at the time our story begins, Hetty was
thirty-five years old, and singularly alone in the world. The death of
her mother, which had occurred first, was a great shock to her, for it
had been a sudden and a painful death. But the loss of her mother was to
Hetty a trivial one, in comparison with the loss of her father. On the
day of her grandfather's death, she had seemed, child as she was, to
have received her father into her hands, as a sacred legacy of trust;
and he, on his part, seemed fully to reciprocate and accept without
comprehending the new relation. He unconsciously leaned upon Hetty more
and more from that hour until the hour when he died, bolstered up in
bed with his head on her shoulder, and gasping out, between difficult
breaths, his words of farewell, - strange farewell to be spoken to a
middle-aged woman, whose hair was already streaked with gray, -

"Poor little girl! I've got to leave you. You've been a good little
girl, Hetty, a good little girl."

Neighbors and friends crowded around Hetty, in the first moments of
her grief. But they all, even those nearest and most intimate, found
themselves bewildered and baffled, nay almost repelled, by Hetty's
manner. Her noble face was so grief-stricken that she looked years older
in a single day. But her voice and her smile were unaltered; and
she would not listen to any words of sympathy. She wished to hear no
allusions to her trouble, except such as were needfully made in the
arranging of practical points. Her eyes filled with tears frequently,
but no one saw a tear fall. At the funeral, her face wore much the
same look it had worn, twenty-three years before, at her grandfather's
funeral. There were some present who remembered that day well, and
remembered the look, and they said musingly, -

"There 's something very queer about Hetty Gunn, after all. Don't you
remember how she acted, when she was a little thing, the day old Squire
Gunn was buried? Anybody'd have thought then a funeral was Fourth of
July, and she looks much the same way now."

Then they fell to discussing the probabilities of her future course. It
was not easy to predict.

"The Squire's left every thing to her, just as if she was a man. She can
sell the property right off, if she wants to, and go and live where she
likes," they said.

"Well, you may set your minds to rest on that," said old Deacon Little,
who had been the young squire's most intimate friend, and who knew Hetty
as well as if she were his own child, and loved her better; for his own
children, poor man, had nearly brought his gray hairs down to the grave
with distress and shame.

"Hetty Gunn'll never sell that farm, not a stick nor a stone on't, any
more than the old Squire himself would. You'll see, she'll keep it a
goin', jest the same's ever. It's a thousand pities, she warn't born a
boy."




II.

The funeral took place late in the afternoon of a warm April day. The
roads were very muddy, and the long procession wound back to the village
about as slowly as it had gone out. One by one, wagon after wagon fell
out of the line, and turned off to the right or left, until there were
left only the Gunns' big carryall, in which sat Hetty, with her two
house-servants, - an old black man and his wife, who had been in her
father's house so long, that their original patronymic had fallen
entirely out of use, and they were known as "C├Žsar Gunn" and "Nan Gunn"
the town over. Behind this followed their farm wagon, in which sat the
farmer and his wife with their babies, and the two farm laborers, - all
Irish, and all crying audibly after the fashion of their race. As they
turned into the long avenue of pines which led up to the house, their
grief broke out louder and louder; and, when the wagon stopped in front
of the western piazza, their sobs and cries became howls and shrieks.
Hetty, who was just entering the front-door, turned suddenly, and
walking swiftly toward them, said, in a clear firm tone, -

"Look here! Mike, Dan, Norah, I'm ashamed of you. Don't you see you're
frightening the poor little children? Be quiet. The one who loved my
father most will be the first one to go about his work as if nothing had
happened. Mike, saddle the pony for me at six. I am going to ride over
to Deacon Little's."

The men were too astonished to reply, but gazed at her dumbly. Mike
muttered sullenly, as he drove on, -

"An' it's a quare way to be showin' our love, I'm thinkin'."

"An' it's Miss Hetty's own way thin, by Jasus!" answered Dan; "an' I'd
jist loike to see the man 'ud say, she didn't fairly worship the very
futsteps of 'im."

When Deacon Little heard Hetty Gunn's voice at his door that night, the
old man sprang to his feet as he had not sprung for twenty years.

"Bless my soul!" he exclaimed, "what can have brought Hetty Gunn here
to-night?" and he met her in the hall with outstretched hands.

"Hetty, my dear, what is it?" he exclaimed, in a tone of anxiety. "Oh!"
said Hetty, earnestly. "I have frightened you, haven't I? was it wrong
for me to come to-night? There are so many things I want to talk
over with you. I want to get settled; and all the work on the farm is
belated: and I can't have the place run behindhand; that would worry
father so."

The tears stood in her eyes, but she spoke in as matter-of-course a tone
as if she had simply come as her father's messenger to ask advice. The
old deacon pushed his spectacles high upon his forehead, and, throwing
his head back, looked at Hetty a moment, scrutinizingly, in silence.
Then, he said, half to himself, half to her, -

"You're your grandfather all over, Hetty. Now let me know what I can
help you about. You can always come to me, as long as I 'm alive, Hetty.
You know that."

"Yes," said Hetty, walking back and forth in the little room, rapidly.
"You are the only person I shall ever ask any thing of in that way."

"Sit down, Hetty, sit down," said the old man. "You must be all worn
out."

"Oh, no! I 'm not tired: I was never tired in my life," replied Hetty.
"Let me walk: it does me good to walk; I walked nearly all last night;
it seems to be something to do. You see, Mr. Little," she said, - pausing
suddenly, and folding her arms on her breast, as she looked at him, - "I
don't quite see my way clear yet; and one must see one's way clear
before one can be quiet. It's horrible to grope."

"Yes, yes, child," said the deacon, hesitatingly. He did not understand
metaphor. "You are not thinking of going away, are you, Hetty?"

"Going away!" exclaimed Hetty. "Why, what do you mean? How could I go
away? Besides, I wouldn't go for any thing in the world. What should I
go away for?"

"Well, I'm real glad to hear you say so, Hetty," replied the deacon
warmly; "some folks have said, you'd most likely sell the farm, and go
away."

"What fools! I'd as soon sell myself," said Hetty, curtly. "But I can't
live there all alone. And one thing I wanted to ask you about tonight
was, whether you thought it would do for your James and his wife to
come and live there with me: I would give him a good salary as a sort of
overseer. Of course, I should expect to control every thing; and that's
not much more than I have done for three or four years: but the men will
do better with a man to give them their orders, than they will with me
alone. I could do this better with Jim than I could with a stranger.
I've always liked Jim."

Deacon Little did not reply. His eyes were fixed on the ground, and his
face flushed with agitation. At last he said huskily, -

"Would you really take Jim and Sally home to your house, to live with
you, Hetty?"

"Why, certainly," replied Hetty, in an impatient tone, "that's what I
said: didn't I make it plain?" and she walked faster and faster back and
forth.

"Hetty, you're an angel," exclaimed the old man, solemnly. "If there's
any thing that could make him hold up his head again, it would be just
that thing. But - " he hesitated, "you know Sally?"

"Yes, yes, I know her. I know all about her. She's a poor, weak thing,"
said Hetty, with no shade of tenderness in her voice; "but Jim was the
most to blame, and it's abominable the way people have treated her. I


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