Sarah Orne Jewett.

The Country of the Pointed Firs online

. (page 1 of 10)
Online LibrarySarah Orne JewettThe Country of the Pointed Firs → online text (page 1 of 10)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by Judith Boss


By Sarah Orne Jewett


SARAH ORNE JEWETT (1849-1909) was born and died in South Berwick, Maine.
Her father was the region's most distinguished doctor and, as a child,
Jewett often accompanied him on his round of patient visits. She began
writing poetry at an early age and when she was only 19 her short story
"Mr. Bruce" was accepted by the Atlantic Monthly. Her association with
that magazine continued, and William Dean Howells, who was editor at
that time, encouraged her to publish her first book, Deephaven (1877),
a collection of sketches published earlier in the Atlantic Monthly.
Through her friendship with Howells, Jewett became acquainted with
Boston's literary elite, including Annie Fields, with whom she developed
one of the most intimate and lasting relationships of her life.

The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) is considered Jewett's finest
work, described by Henry James as her "beautiful little quantum of
achievement." Despite James's diminutives, the novel remains a classic.
Because it is loosely structured, many critics view the book not as
a novel, but a series of sketches; however, its structure is unified
through both setting and theme. Jewett herself felt that her strengths
as a writer lay not in plot development or dramatic tension, but in
character development. Indeed, she determined early in her career to
preserve a disappearing way of life, and her novel can be read as a
study of the effects of isolation and hardship on the inhabitants who
lived in the decaying fishing villages along the Maine coast.

Jewett died in 1909, eight years after an accident that effectively
ended her writing career. Her reputation had grown during her lifetime,
extending far beyond the bounds of the New England she loved.


I The Return
II Mrs. Todd
III The Schoolhouse
IV At the Schoolhouse Window
V Captain Littlepage
VI The Waiting Place
VII The Outer Island
VIII Green Island
IX William
X Where Pennyroyal Grew
XI The Old Singers
XII A Strange Sail
XIII Poor Joanna
XIV The Hermitage
XV On Shell-heap Island
XVI The Great Expedition
XVII A Country Road
XVIII The Bowden Reunion
XIX The Feast's End
XX Along Shore
XXI The Backward View

I. The Return

THERE WAS SOMETHING about the coast town of Dunnet which made it seem
more attractive than other maritime villages of eastern Maine. Perhaps
it was the simple fact of acquaintance with that neighborhood which
made it so attaching, and gave such interest to the rocky shore and
dark woods, and the few houses which seemed to be securely wedged and
tree-nailed in among the ledges by the Landing. These houses made
the most of their seaward view, and there was a gayety and determined
floweriness in their bits of garden ground; the small-paned high windows
in the peaks of their steep gables were like knowing eyes that watched
the harbor and the far sea-line beyond, or looked northward all along
the shore and its background of spruces and balsam firs. When one really
knows a village like this and its surroundings, it is like becoming
acquainted with a single person. The process of falling in love at first
sight is as final as it is swift in such a case, but the growth of true
friendship may be a lifelong affair.

After a first brief visit made two or three summers before in the course
of a yachting cruise, a lover of Dunnet Landing returned to find the
unchanged shores of the pointed firs, the same quaintness of the village
with its elaborate conventionalities; all that mixture of remoteness,
and childish certainty of being the centre of civilization of which her
affectionate dreams had told. One evening in June, a single passenger
landed upon the steamboat wharf. The tide was high, there was a fine
crowd of spectators, and the younger portion of the company followed
her with subdued excitement up the narrow street of the salt-aired,
white-clapboarded little town.

II. Mrs. Todd

LATER, THERE WAS only one fault to find with this choice of a summer
lodging-place, and that was its complete lack of seclusion. At first the
tiny house of Mrs. Almira Todd, which stood with its end to the street,
appeared to be retired and sheltered enough from the busy world, behind
its bushy bit of a green garden, in which all the blooming things, two
or three gay hollyhocks and some London-pride, were pushed back against
the gray-shingled wall. It was a queer little garden and puzzling to
a stranger, the few flowers being put at a disadvantage by so much
greenery; but the discovery was soon made that Mrs. Todd was an ardent
lover of herbs, both wild and tame, and the sea-breezes blew into
the low end-window of the house laden with not only sweet-brier
and sweet-mary, but balm and sage and borage and mint, wormwood and
southernwood. If Mrs. Todd had occasion to step into the far corner
of her herb plot, she trod heavily upon thyme, and made its fragrant
presence known with all the rest. Being a very large person, her full
skirts brushed and bent almost every slender stalk that her feet missed.
You could always tell when she was stepping about there, even when you
were half awake in the morning, and learned to know, in the course of a
few weeks' experience, in exactly which corner of the garden she might

At one side of this herb plot were other growths of a rustic
pharmacopoeia, great treasures and rarities among the commoner herbs.
There were some strange and pungent odors that roused a dim sense and
remembrance of something in the forgotten past. Some of these might
once have belonged to sacred and mystic rites, and have had some occult
knowledge handed with them down the centuries; but now they pertained
only to humble compounds brewed at intervals with molasses or vinegar
or spirits in a small caldron on Mrs. Todd's kitchen stove. They were
dispensed to suffering neighbors, who usually came at night as if by
stealth, bringing their own ancient-looking vials to be filled. One
nostrum was called the Indian remedy, and its price was but fifteen
cents; the whispered directions could be heard as customers passed
the windows. With most remedies the purchaser was allowed to depart
unadmonished from the kitchen, Mrs. Todd being a wise saver of steps;
but with certain vials she gave cautions, standing in the doorway, and
there were other doses which had to be accompanied on their healing way
as far as the gate, while she muttered long chapters of directions, and
kept up an air of secrecy and importance to the last. It may not have
been only the common aids of humanity with which she tried to cope; it
seemed sometimes as if love and hate and jealousy and adverse winds at
sea might also find their proper remedies among the curious wild-looking
plants in Mrs. Todd's garden.

The village doctor and this learned herbalist were upon the best of
terms. The good man may have counted upon the unfavorable effect of
certain potions which he should find his opportunity in counteracting;
at any rate, he now and then stopped and exchanged greetings with Mrs.
Todd over the picket fence. The conversation became at once professional
after the briefest preliminaries, and he would stand twirling a
sweet-scented sprig in his fingers, and make suggestive jokes, perhaps
about her faith in a too persistent course of thoroughwort elixir, in
which my landlady professed such firm belief as sometimes to endanger
the life and usefulness of worthy neighbors.

To arrive at this quietest of seaside villages late in June, when the
busy herb-gathering season was just beginning, was also to arrive in
the early prime of Mrs. Todd's activity in the brewing of old-fashioned
spruce beer. This cooling and refreshing drink had been brought to
wonderful perfection through a long series of experiments; it had won
immense local fame, and the supplies for its manufacture were always
giving out and having to be replenished. For various reasons, the
seclusion and uninterrupted days which had been looked forward to proved
to be very rare in this otherwise delightful corner of the world. My
hostess and I had made our shrewd business agreement on the basis of a
simple cold luncheon at noon, and liberal restitution in the matter of
hot suppers, to provide for which the lodger might sometimes be seen
hurrying down the road, late in the day, with cunner line in hand.
It was soon found that this arrangement made large allowance for Mrs.
Todd's slow herb-gathering progresses through woods and pastures. The
spruce-beer customers were pretty steady in hot weather, and there were
many demands for different soothing syrups and elixirs with which the
unwise curiosity of my early residence had made me acquainted. Knowing
Mrs. Todd to be a widow, who had little beside this slender business and
the income from one hungry lodger to maintain her, one's energies and
even interest were quickly bestowed, until it became a matter of course
that she should go afield every pleasant day, and that the lodger should
answer all peremptory knocks at the side door.

In taking an occasional wisdom-giving stroll in Mrs. Todd's company, and
in acting as business partner during her frequent absences, I found the
July days fly fast, and it was not until I felt myself confronted with
too great pride and pleasure in the display, one night, of two dollars
and twenty-seven cents which I had taken in during the day, that I
remembered a long piece of writing, sadly belated now, which I was bound
to do. To have been patted kindly on the shoulder and called "darlin',"
to have been offered a surprise of early mushrooms for supper, to have
had all the glory of making two dollars and twenty-seven cents in a
single day, and then to renounce it all and withdraw from these pleasant
successes, needed much resolution. Literary employments are so vexed
with uncertainties at best, and it was not until the voice of conscience
sounded louder in my ears than the sea on the nearest pebble beach that
I said unkind words of withdrawal to Mrs. Todd. She only became more
wistfully affectionate than ever in her expressions, and looked as
disappointed as I expected when I frankly told her that I could no
longer enjoy the pleasure of what we called "seein' folks." I felt that
I was cruel to a whole neighborhood in curtailing her liberty in this
most important season for harvesting the different wild herbs that were
so much counted upon to ease their winter ails.

"Well, dear," she said sorrowfully, "I've took great advantage o' your
bein' here. I ain't had such a season for years, but I have never had
nobody I could so trust. All you lack is a few qualities, but with time
you'd gain judgment an' experience, an' be very able in the business.
I'd stand right here an' say it to anybody."

Mrs. Todd and I were not separated or estranged by the change in our
business relations; on the contrary, a deeper intimacy seemed to begin.
I do not know what herb of the night it was that used sometimes to send
out a penetrating odor late in the evening, after the dew had fallen,
and the moon was high, and the cool air came up from the sea. Then Mrs.
Todd would feel that she must talk to somebody, and I was only too glad
to listen. We both fell under the spell, and she either stood outside
the window, or made an errand to my sitting-room, and told, it might
be very commonplace news of the day, or, as happened one misty summer
night, all that lay deepest in her heart. It was in this way that I came
to know that she had loved one who was far above her.

"No, dear, him I speak of could never think of me," she said. "When
we was young together his mother didn't favor the match, an' done
everything she could to part us; and folks thought we both married well,
but't wa'n't what either one of us wanted most; an' now we're left alone
again, an' might have had each other all the time. He was above bein' a
seafarin' man, an' prospered more than most; he come of a high family,
an' my lot was plain an' hard-workin'. I ain't seen him for some years;
he's forgot our youthful feelin's, I expect, but a woman's heart is
different; them feelin's comes back when you think you've done with
'em, as sure as spring comes with the year. An' I've always had ways of
hearin' about him."

She stood in the centre of a braided rug, and its rings of black and
gray seemed to circle about her feet in the dim light. Her height and
massiveness in the low room gave her the look of a huge sibyl, while the
strange fragrance of the mysterious herb blew in from the little garden.

III. The Schoolhouse

FOR SOME DAYS after this, Mrs. Todd's customers came and went past my
windows, and, haying-time being nearly over, strangers began to arrive
from the inland country, such was her widespread reputation. Sometimes
I saw a pale young creature like a white windflower left over into
midsummer, upon whose face consumption had set its bright and wistful
mark; but oftener two stout, hard-worked women from the farms came
together, and detailed their symptoms to Mrs. Todd in loud and cheerful
voices, combining the satisfactions of a friendly gossip with the
medical opportunity. They seemed to give much from their own store of
therapeutic learning. I became aware of the school in which my landlady
had strengthened her natural gift; but hers was always the governing
mind, and the final command, "Take of hy'sop one handful" (or whatever
herb it was), was received in respectful silence. One afternoon, when
I had listened, - it was impossible not to listen, with cottonless
ears, - and then laughed and listened again, with an idle pen in my hand,
during a particularly spirited and personal conversation, I reached for
my hat, and, taking blotting-book and all under my arm, I resolutely
fled further temptation, and walked out past the fragrant green garden
and up the dusty road. The way went straight uphill, and presently I
stopped and turned to look back.

The tide was in, the wide harbor was surrounded by its dark woods, and
the small wooden houses stood as near as they could get to the landing.
Mrs. Todd's was the last house on the way inland. The gray ledges of the
rocky shore were well covered with sod in most places, and the pasture
bayberry and wild roses grew thick among them. I could see the higher
inland country and the scattered farms. On the brink of the hill stood a
little white schoolhouse, much wind-blown and weather-beaten, which was
a landmark to seagoing folk; from its door there was a most beautiful
view of sea and shore. The summer vacation now prevailed, and after
finding the door unfastened, and taking a long look through one of the
seaward windows, and reflecting afterward for some time in a shady place
near by among the bayberry bushes, I returned to the chief place of
business in the village, and, to the amusement of two of the selectmen,
brothers and autocrats of Dunnet Landing, I hired the schoolhouse for
the rest of the vacation for fifty cents a week.

Selfish as it may appear, the retired situation seemed to possess great
advantages, and I spent many days there quite undisturbed, with the
sea-breeze blowing through the small, high windows and swaying the heavy
outside shutters to and fro. I hung my hat and luncheon-basket on an
entry nail as if I were a small scholar, but I sat at the teacher's desk
as if I were that great authority, with all the timid empty benches in
rows before me. Now and then an idle sheep came and stood for a long
time looking in at the door. At sundown I went back, feeling most
businesslike, down toward the village again, and usually met the flavor,
not of the herb garden, but of Mrs. Todd's hot supper, halfway up the
hill. On the nights when there were evening meetings or other public
exercises that demanded her presence we had tea very early, and I was
welcomed back as if from a long absence.

Once or twice I feigned excuses for staying at home, while Mrs. Todd
made distant excursions, and came home late, with both hands full and
a heavily laden apron. This was in pennyroyal time, and when the rare
lobelia was in its prime and the elecampane was coming on. One day she
appeared at the schoolhouse itself, partly out of amused curiosity
about my industries; but she explained that there was no tansy in
the neighborhood with such snap to it as some that grew about the
schoolhouse lot. Being scuffed down all the spring made it grow so much
the better, like some folks that had it hard in their youth, and were
bound to make the most of themselves before they died.

IV. At the Schoolhouse Window

ONE DAY I reached the schoolhouse very late, owing to attendance upon
the funeral of an acquaintance and neighbor, with whose sad decline in
health I had been familiar, and whose last days both the doctor and
Mrs. Todd had tried in vain to ease. The services had taken place at
one o'clock, and now, at quarter past two, I stood at the schoolhouse
window, looking down at the procession as it went along the lower road
close to the shore. It was a walking funeral, and even at that distance
I could recognize most of the mourners as they went their solemn way.
Mrs. Begg had been very much respected, and there was a large company
of friends following to her grave. She had been brought up on one of
the neighboring farms, and each of the few times that I had seen her
she professed great dissatisfaction with town life. The people lived
too close together for her liking, at the Landing, and she could not
get used to the constant sound of the sea. She had lived to lament
three seafaring husbands, and her house was decorated with West Indian
curiosities, specimens of conch shells and fine coral which they had
brought home from their voyages in lumber-laden ships. Mrs. Todd had
told me all our neighbor's history. They had been girls together, and,
to use her own phrase, had "both seen trouble till they knew the best
and worst on 't." I could see the sorrowful, large figure of Mrs. Todd
as I stood at the window. She made a break in the procession by walking
slowly and keeping the after-part of it back. She held a handkerchief
to her eyes, and I knew, with a pang of sympathy, that hers was not
affected grief.

Beside her, after much difficulty, I recognized the one strange and
unrelated person in all the company, an old man who had always been
mysterious to me. I could see his thin, bending figure. He wore a
narrow, long-tailed coat and walked with a stick, and had the same "cant
to leeward" as the wind-bent trees on the height above.

This was Captain Littlepage, whom I had seen only once or twice before,
sitting pale and old behind a closed window; never out of doors until
now. Mrs. Todd always shook her head gravely when I asked a question,
and said that he wasn't what he had been once, and seemed to class him
with her other secrets. He might have belonged with a simple which grew
in a certain slug-haunted corner of the garden, whose use she could
never be betrayed into telling me, though I saw her cutting the tops
by moonlight once, as if it were a charm, and not a medicine, like the
great fading bloodroot leaves.

I could see that she was trying to keep pace with the old captain's
lighter steps. He looked like an aged grasshopper of some strange human
variety. Behind this pair was a short, impatient, little person, who
kept the captain's house, and gave it what Mrs. Todd and others believed
to be no proper sort of care. She was usually called "that Mari' Harris"
in subdued conversation between intimates, but they treated her with
anxious civility when they met her face to face.

The bay-sheltered islands and the great sea beyond stretched away to
the far horizon southward and eastward; the little procession in the
foreground looked futile and helpless on the edge of the rocky shore. It
was a glorious day early in July, with a clear, high sky; there were no
clouds, there was no noise of the sea. The song sparrows sang and sang,
as if with joyous knowledge of immortality, and contempt for those who
could so pettily concern themselves with death. I stood watching until
the funeral procession had crept round a shoulder of the slope below and
disappeared from the great landscape as if it had gone into a cave.

An hour later I was busy at my work. Now and then a bee blundered in and
took me for an enemy; but there was a useful stick upon the teacher's
desk, and I rapped to call the bees to order as if they were unruly
scholars, or waved them away from their riots over the ink, which I had
bought at the Landing store, and discovered to be scented with bergamot,
as if to refresh the labors of anxious scribes. One anxious scribe
felt very dull that day; a sheep-bell tinkled near by, and called her
wandering wits after it. The sentences failed to catch these lovely
summer cadences. For the first time I began to wish for a companion
and for news from the outer world, which had been, half unconsciously,
forgotten. Watching the funeral gave one a sort of pain. I began to
wonder if I ought not to have walked with the rest, instead of hurrying
away at the end of the services. Perhaps the Sunday gown I had put on
for the occasion was making this disastrous change of feeling, but I had
now made myself and my friends remember that I did not really belong to
Dunnet Landing.

I sighed, and turned to the half-written page again.

V. Captain Littlepage

IT WAS A long time after this; an hour was very long in that coast
town where nothing stole away the shortest minute. I had lost myself
completely in work, when I heard footsteps outside. There was a steep
footpath between the upper and the lower road, which I climbed to
shorten the way, as the children had taught me, but I believed that Mrs.
Todd would find it inaccessible, unless she had occasion to seek me in
great haste. I wrote on, feeling like a besieged miser of time, while
the footsteps came nearer, and the sheep-bell tinkled away in haste as
if someone had shaken a stick in its wearer's face. Then I looked, and
saw Captain Littlepage passing the nearest window; the next moment he
tapped politely at the door.

"Come in, sir," I said, rising to meet him; and he entered, bowing with
much courtesy. I stepped down from the desk and offered him a chair by
the window, where he seated himself at once, being sadly spent by his
climb. I returned to my fixed seat behind the teacher's desk, which gave
him the lower place of a scholar.

"You ought to have the place of honor, Captain Littlepage," I said.

"A happy, rural seat of various views,"

he quoted, as he gazed out into the sunshine and up the long wooded
shore. Then he glanced at me, and looked all about him as pleased as a

"My quotation was from Paradise Lost: the greatest of poems, I suppose
you know?" and I nodded. "There's nothing that ranks, to my mind, with
Paradise Lost; it's all lofty, all lofty," he continued. "Shakespeare
was a great poet; he copied life, but you have to put up with a great
deal of low talk."

I now remembered that Mrs. Todd had told me one day that Captain
Littlepage had overset his mind with too much reading; she had also made
dark reference to his having "spells" of some unexplainable nature. I
could not help wondering what errand had brought him out in search of
me. There was something quite charming in his appearance: it was a face
thin and delicate with refinement, but worn into appealing lines, as if
he had suffered from loneliness and misapprehension. He looked, with his
careful precision of dress, as if he were the object of cherishing care
on the part of elderly unmarried sisters, but I knew Mari' Harris to be
a very common-place, inelegant person, who would have no such standards;
it was plain that the captain was his own attentive valet. He sat
looking at me expectantly. I could not help thinking that, with his
queer head and length of thinness, he was made to hop along the road of
life rather than to walk. The captain was very grave indeed, and I bade
my inward spirit keep close to discretion.

"Poor Mrs. Begg has gone," I ventured to say. I still wore my Sunday
gown by way of showing respect.

"She has gone," said the captain, - "very easy at the last, I was
informed; she slipped away as if she were glad of the opportunity."

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Online LibrarySarah Orne JewettThe Country of the Pointed Firs → online text (page 1 of 10)