Sarah Orne Jewett.

A Country Doctor and Selected Stories and Sketches online

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by Sarah Orne Jewett

Published 1884

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It had been one of the warm and almost sultry days which sometimes
come in November; a maligned month, which is really an epitome of the
other eleven, or a sort of index to the whole year's changes of storm
and sunshine. The afternoon was like spring, the air was soft and
damp, and the buds of the willows had been beguiled into swelling a
little, so that there was a bloom over them, and the grass looked as
if it had been growing green of late instead of fading steadily. It
seemed like a reprieve from the doom of winter, or from even November

The dense and early darkness which usually follows such unseasonable
mildness had already begun to cut short the pleasures of this
spring-like day, when a young woman, who carried a child in her arms,
turned from a main road of Oldfields into a foot-path which led
southward across the fields and pastures. She seemed sure of her way,
and kept the path without difficulty, though a stranger might easily
have lost it here and there, where it led among the patches of
sweet-fern or bayberry bushes, or through shadowy tracts of small
white-pines. She stopped sometimes to rest, and walked more and more
wearily, with increasing effort; but she kept on her way desperately,
as if it would not do to arrive much later at the place which she was
seeking. The child seemed to be asleep; it looked too heavy for so
slight a woman to carry.

The path led after a while to a more open country, there was a low
hill to be climbed, and at its top the slender figure stopped and
seemed to be panting for breath. A follower might have noticed that it
bent its head over the child's for a moment as it stood, dark against
the darkening sky. There had formerly been a defense against the
Indians on this hill, which in the daytime commanded a fine view of
the surrounding country, and the low earthworks or foundations of the
garrison were still plainly to be seen. The woman seated herself on
the sunken wall in spite of the dampness and increasing chill, still
holding the child, and rocking to and fro like one in despair. The
child waked and began to whine and cry a little in that strange,
lonely place, and after a few minutes, perhaps to quiet it, they went
on their way. Near the foot of the hill was a brook, swollen by the
autumn rains; it made a loud noise in the quiet pasture, as if it were
crying out against a wrong or some sad memory. The woman went toward
it at first, following a slight ridge which was all that remained of a
covered path which had led down from the garrison to the spring below
at the brookside. If she had meant to quench her thirst here, she
changed her mind, and suddenly turned to the right, following the
brook a short distance, and then going straight toward the river
itself and the high uplands, which by daylight were smooth pastures
with here and there a tangled apple-tree or the grassy cellar of a
long vanished farm-house.

It was night now; it was too late in the year for the chirp of any
insects; the moving air, which could hardly be called wind, swept over
in slow waves, and a few dry leaves rustled on an old hawthorn tree
which grew beside the hollow where a house had been, and a low sound
came from the river. The whole country side seemed asleep in the
darkness, but the lonely woman felt no lack of companionship; it was
well suited to her own mood that the world slept and said nothing to
her, - it seemed as if she were the only creature alive.

A little this side of the river shore there was an old burial place, a
primitive spot enough, where the graves were only marked by rough
stones, and the short, sheep-cropped grass was spread over departed
generations of the farmers and their wives and children. By day it was
in sight of the pine woods and the moving water, and nothing hid it
from the great sky overhead, but now it was like a prison walled about
by the barriers of night. However eagerly the woman had hurried to
this place, and with what purpose she may have sought the river bank,
when she recognized her surroundings she stopped for a moment, swaying
and irresolute. "No, no!" sighed the child plaintively, and she
shuddered, and started forward; then, as her feet stumbled among the
graves, she turned and fled. It no longer seemed solitary, but as if a
legion of ghosts which had been wandering under cover of the dark had
discovered this intruder, and were chasing her and flocking around her
and oppressing her from every side. And as she caught sight of a light
in a far-away farmhouse window, a light which had been shining after
her all the way down to the river, she tried to hurry toward it. The
unnatural strength of terror urged her on; she retraced her steps like
some pursued animal; she remembered, one after another, the fearful
stories she had known of that ancient neighborhood; the child cried,
but she could not answer it. She fell again and again, and at last all
her strength seemed to fail her, her feet refused to carry her farther
and she crept painfully, a few yards at a time, slowly along the
ground. The fear of her superhuman enemies had forsaken her, and her
only desire was to reach the light that shone from the looming shadow
of the house.

At last she was close to it; at last she gave one great sigh, and the
child fell from her grasp; at last she clutched the edge of the worn
doorstep with both hands, and lay still.



Indoors there was a cheerful company; the mildness of the evening had
enticed two neighbors of Mrs. Thacher, the mistress of the house, into
taking their walks abroad, and so, with their heads well protected by
large gingham handkerchiefs, they had stepped along the road and up
the lane to spend a social hour or two. John Thacher, their old
neighbor's son, was known to be away serving on a jury in the county
town, and they thought it likely that his mother would enjoy company.
Their own houses stood side by side. Mrs. Jacob Dyer and Mrs. Martin
Dyer were their names, and excellent women they were. Their husbands
were twin-brothers, curiously alike and amazingly fond of each other,
though either would have scorned to make any special outward
demonstration of it. They were spending the evening together in
brother Martin's house, and were talking over the purchase of a bit
of woodland, and the profit of clearing it, when their wives had left
them without any apology to visit Mrs. Thacher, as we have already

This was the nearest house and only a quarter of a mile away, and when
they opened the door they had found Mrs. Thacher spinning.

"I must own up, I am glad to see you more'n common," she said. "I
don't feel scary at being left sole alone; it ain't that, but I have
been getting through with a lonesome spell of another kind. John, he
does as well as a man can, but here I be, - here I be," - and the good
woman could say no more, while her guests understood readily enough
the sorrow that had found no words.

"I suppose you haven't got no news from Ad'line?" asked Mrs. Martin
bluntly. "We was speaking of her as we come along, and saying it
seemed to be a pity she should'nt feel it was best to come back this
winter and help you through; only one daughter, and left alone as you
be, with the bad spells you are liable to in winter time - but there,
it ain't her way - her ambitions ain't what they should be, that's all
I can say."

"If she'd got a gift for anything special, now," continued Mrs. Jake,
"we should feel it was different and want her to have a chance, but
she's just like other folks for all she felt so much above farming. I
don't see as she can do better than come back to the old place, or
leastways to the village, and fetch up the little gal to be some use.
She might dressmake or do millinery work; she always had a pretty
taste, and 't would be better than roving. I 'spose 't would hurt her
pride," - but Mrs. Thacher flushed at this, and Mrs. Martin came to the

"You'll think we're reg'lar Job's comforters," cried the good soul
hastily, "but there, Mis' Thacher, you know we feel as if she was our
own. There ain't nothing I wouldn't do for Ad'line, sick or well, and
I declare I believe she'll pull through yet and make a piece of luck
that'll set us all to work praising of her. She's like to marry again
for all I can see, with her good looks. Folks always has their joys
and calamities as they go through the world."

Mrs. Thacher shook her head two or three times with a dismal
expression, and made no answer. She had pushed back the droning
wool-wheel which she had been using, and had taken her knitting from
the shelf by the clock and seated herself contentedly, while Mrs. Jake
and Mrs. Martin had each produced a blue yarn stocking from a
capacious pocket, and the shining steel needles were presently all
clicking together. One knitter after another would sheathe the spare
needle under her apron strings, while they asked each other's advice
from time to time about the propriety of "narrerin'" or whether it
were not best to "widden" according to the progress their respective
stockings had made. Mrs. Thacher had lighted an extra candle, and
replenished the fire, for the air was chillier since the sun went
down. They were all sure of a coming change of weather, and counted
various signs, Mrs. Thacher's lowness of spirits among the number,
while all three described various minor maladies from which they had
suffered during the day, and of which the unseasonable weather was

"I can't get over the feeling that we are watchin' with somebody,"
said Mrs. Martin after a while, moved by some strange impulse and
looking over her shoulder, at which remark Mrs. Thacher glanced up
anxiously. "Something has been hanging over me all day," said she
simply, and at this the needles clicked faster than ever.

"We've been taking rather a low range," suggested Mrs. Jake. "We
shall get to telling over ghost stories if we don't look out, and I
for one shall be sca't to go home. By the way, I suppose you have
heard about old Billy Dow's experience night afore last, Mis'

"John being away, I ain't had nobody to fetch me the news these few
days past," said the hostess. "Why what's happened to Billy now?"

The two women looked at each other: "He was getting himself home as
best he could, - he owned up to having made a lively evenin' of
it, - and I expect he was wandering all over the road and didn't know
nothin' except that he was p'inted towards home, an' he stepped off
from the high bank this side o' Dunnell's, and rolled down, over and
over; and when he come to there was a great white creatur' a-standin'
over him, and he thought 't was a ghost. 'T was higher up on the bank
than him, and it kind of moved along down's if 't was coming right on
to him, and he got on to his knees and begun to say his Ten
Commandments fast's he could rattle 'em out. He got 'em mixed up, and
when the boys heard his teeth a-chattering, they began to laugh and he
up an' cleared. Dunnell's boys had been down the road a piece and was
just coming home, an' 't was their old white hoss that had got out of
the barn, it bein' such a mild night, an' was wandering off. They said
to Billy that't wa'n't everybody could lay a ghost so quick as he
could, and they didn't 'spose he had the means so handy."

The three friends laughed, but Mrs. Thacher's face quickly lost its
smile and took back its worried look. She evidently was in no mood for
joking. "Poor Billy!" said she, "he was called the smartest boy in
school; I rec'lect that one of the teachers urged his folks to let him
go to college; but 't wa'n't no use; they hadn't the money and
couldn't get it, and 't wa'n't in him to work his way as some do. He's
got a master head for figur's. Folks used to get him to post books
you know, - but he's past that now. Good-natured creatur' as ever
stept; but he always was afeard of the dark, - 'seems 's if I could see
him there a-repentin' and the old white hoss shakin' his head," - and
she laughed again, but quickly stopped herself and looked over her
shoulder at the window.

"Would ye like the curtain drawed?" asked Mrs. Jake. But Mrs. Thacher
shook her head silently, while the gray cat climbed up into her lap
and laid down in a round ball to sleep.

"She's a proper cosset, ain't she?" inquired Mrs. Martin approvingly,
while Mrs. Jake asked about the candles, which gave a clear light. "Be
they the last you run?" she inquired, but was answered to the
contrary, and a brisk conversation followed upon the proper
proportions of tallow and bayberry wax, and the dangers of the
new-fangled oils which the village shop-keepers were attempting to
introduce. Sperm oil was growing more and more dear in price and
worthless in quality, and the old-fashioned lamps were reported to be
past their usefulness.

"I must own I set most by good candle light," said Mrs. Martin. "'T is
no expense to speak of where you raise the taller, and it's cheerful
and bright in winter time. In old times when the houses were draftier
they was troublesome about flickering, candles was; but land! think
how comfortable we live now to what we used to! Stoves is such a
convenience; the fire's so much handier. Housekeepin' don't begin to
be the trial it was once."

"I must say I like old-fashioned cookin' better than oven cookin',"
observed Mrs. Jake. "Seems to me's if the taste of things was all
drawed up chimbly. Be you going to do much for Thanksgivin', Mis'
Thacher? I 'spose not;" and moved by a sudden kind impulse, she added,
"Why can't you and John jine with our folks? 't wouldn't put us out,
and 'twill be lonesome for ye."

"'T won't be no lonesomer than last year was, nor the year before,"
and Mrs. Thacher's face quivered a little as she rose and took one of
the candles, and opened the trap door that covered the cellar stairs.
"Now don't ye go to makin' yourself work," cried the guests. "No,
don't! we ain't needin' nothin'; we was late about supper." But their
hostess stepped carefully down and disappeared for a few minutes,
while the cat hovered anxiously at the edge of the black pit.

"I forgot to ask ye if ye'd have some cider?" a sepulchral voice asked
presently; "but I don't know now's I can get at it. I told John I
shouldn't want any whilst he was away, and so he ain't got the spiggit
in yet," to which Mrs. Jake and Mrs. Martin both replied that they
were no hands for that drink, unless 't was a drop right from the
press, or a taste o' good hard cider towards the spring of the year;
and Mrs. Thacher soon returned with some slices of cake in a plate and
some apples held in her apron. One of her neighbors took the candle as
she reached up to put it on the floor, and when the trap door was
closed again all three drew up to the table and had a little feast.
The cake was of a kind peculiar to its maker, who prided herself upon
never being without it; and there was some trick of her hand or a
secret ingredient which was withheld when she responded with apparent
cheerfulness to requests for its recipe. As for the apples, they were
grown upon an old tree, one of whose limbs had been grafted with some
unknown variety of fruit so long ago that the history was forgotten;
only that an English gardener, many years before, had brought some
cuttings from the old country, and one of them had somehow come into
the possession of John Thacher's grandfather when grafted fruit was a
thing to be treasured and jealously guarded. It had been told that
when the elder Thacher had given away cuttings he had always stolen to
the orchards in the night afterward and ruined them. However, when the
family had grown more generous in later years it had seemed to be
without avail, for, on their neighbors' trees or their own, the
English apples had proved worthless. Whether it were some favoring
quality in that spot of soil or in the sturdy old native tree itself,
the rich golden apples had grown there, year after year, in
perfection, but nowhere else.

"There ain't no such apples as these, to my mind," said Mrs. Martin,
as she polished a large one with her apron and held it up to the
light, and Mrs. Jake murmured assent, having already taken a
sufficient first bite.

"There's only one little bough that bears any great," said Mrs.
Thacher, "but it's come to that once before, and another branch has
shot up and been likely as if it was a young tree."

The good souls sat comfortably in their splint-bottomed,
straight-backed chairs, and enjoyed this mild attempt at a festival.
Mrs. Thacher even grew cheerful and responsive, for her guests seemed
so light-hearted and free from care that the sunshine of their
presence warmed her own chilled and fearful heart. They embarked upon
a wide sea of neighborhood gossip and parish opinions, and at last
some one happened to speak again of Thanksgiving, which at once turned
the tide of conversation, and it seemed to ebb suddenly, while the
gray, dreary look once more overspread Mrs. Thacher's face.

"I don't see why you won't keep with our folks this year; you and
John," once more suggested Mrs. Martin. "'T ain't wuth while to be
making yourselves dismal here to home; the day'll be lonesome for you
at best, and you shall have whatever we've got and welcome."

"'T won't be lonesomer this year than it was last, nor the year
before that, and we've stood it somehow or 'nother," answered Mrs.
Thacher for the second time, while she rose to put more wood in the
stove. "Seems to me 't is growing cold; I felt a draught acrost my
shoulders. These nights is dreadful chill; you feel the damp right
through your bones. I never saw it darker than 't was last evenin'. I
thought it seemed kind o' stived up here in the kitchen, and I opened
the door and looked out, and I declare I couldn't see my hand before

"It always kind of scares me these black nights," said Mrs. Jake Dyer.
"I expect something to clutch at me every minute, and I feel as if
some sort of a creatur' was travelin' right behind me when I am out
door in the dark. It makes it bad havin' a wanin' moon just now when
the fogs hangs so low. It al'ays seems to me as if 't was darker when
she rises late towards mornin' than when she's gone altogether. I do'
know why't is."

"I rec'lect once," Mrs. Thacher resumed, "when Ad'line was a baby and
John was just turned four year old, their father had gone down river
in the packet, and I was expectin' on him home at supper time, but he
didn't come; 't was late in the fall, and a black night as I ever see.
Ad'line was taken with something like croup, and I had an end o'
candle in the candlestick that I lighted, and 't wa'n't long afore it
was burnt down, and I went down cellar to the box where I kep' 'em,
and if you will believe it, the rats had got to it, and there wasn't a
week o' one left. I was near out anyway. We didn't have this
cook-stove then, and I cal'lated I could make up a good lively blaze,
so I come up full o' scold as I could be, and then I found I'd burnt
up all my dry wood. You see, I thought certain he'd be home and I was
tendin' to the child'n, but I started to go out o' the door and found
it had come on to rain hard, and I said to myself I wouldn't go out to
the woodpile and get my clothes all damp, 'count o' Ad'line, and the
candle end would last a spell longer, and he'd be home by that time. I
hadn't a least o' suspicion but what he was dallying round up to the
Corners, 'long o' the rest o' the men, bein' 't was Saturday night,
and I was some put out about it, for he knew the baby was sick, and I
hadn't nobody with me. I set down and waited, but he never come, and
it rained hard as I ever see it, and I left his supper standin' right
in the floor, and then I begun to be distressed for fear somethin' had
happened to Dan'l, and I set to work and cried, and the candle end
give a flare and went out, and by 'n' by the fire begun to get low and
I took the child'n and went to bed to keep warm; 't was an awful cold
night, considerin' 't was such a heavy rain, and there I laid awake
and thought I heard things steppin' about the room, and it seemed to
me as if 't was a week long before mornin' come, and as if I'd got to
be an old woman. I did go through with everything that night. 'T was
that time Dan'l broke his leg, you know; they was takin' a deck load
of oak knees down by the packet, and one on 'em rolled down from the
top of the pile and struck him just below the knee. He was poling, for
there wan't a breath o' wind, and he always felt certain there was
somethin' mysterious about it. He'd had a good deal worse knocks than
that seemed to be, as only left a black and blue spot, and he said he
never see a deck load o' timber piled securer. He had some queer
notions about the doin's o' sperits, Dan'l had; his old Aunt Parser
was to blame for it. She lived with his father's folks, and used to
fill him and the rest o' the child'n with all sorts o' ghost stories
and stuff. I used to tell him she'd a' be'n hung for a witch if she'd
lived in them old Salem days. He always used to be tellin' what
everything was the sign of, when we was first married, till I laughed
him out of it. It made me kind of notional. There's too much now we
can't make sense of without addin' to it out o' our own heads."

Mrs. Jake and Mrs. Martin were quite familiar with the story of the
night when there were no candles and Mr. Thacher had broken his leg,
having been present themselves early in the morning afterward, but
they had listened with none the less interest. These country neighbors
knew their friends' affairs as well as they did their own, but such an
audience is never impatient. The repetitions of the best stories are
signal events, for ordinary circumstances do not inspire them. Affairs
must rise to a certain level before a narration of some great crisis
is suggested, and exactly as a city audience is well contented with
hearing the plays of Shakespeare over and over again, so each man and
woman of experience is permitted to deploy their well-known but always
interesting stories upon the rustic stage.

"I must say I can't a-bear to hear anything about ghosts after
sundown," observed Mrs. Jake, who was at times somewhat troubled by
what she and her friends designated as "narves." "Day-times I don't
believe in 'em 'less it's something creepy more'n common, but after
dark it scares me to pieces. I do' know but I shall be afeared to go
home," and she laughed uneasily. "There! when I get through with this
needle I believe I won't knit no more. The back o' my neck is all

"Don't talk o' goin' home yet awhile," said the hostess, looking up
quickly as if she hated the thought of being left alone again. "'T is
just on the edge of the evenin'; the nights is so long now we think
it's bedtime half an hour after we've got lit up. 'T was a good lift
havin' you step over to-night. I was really a-dreadin' to set here by
myself," and for some minutes nobody spoke and the needles clicked
faster than ever. Suddenly there was a strange sound outside the door,
and they stared at each other in terror and held their breath, but
nobody stirred. This was no familiar footstep; presently they heard a
strange little cry, and still they feared to look, or to know what was
waiting outside. Then Mrs. Thacher took a candle in her hand, and,
still hesitating, asked once, "Who is there?" and, hearing no answer,
slowly opened the door.



In the mean time, the evening had been much enjoyed by the brothers
who were spending it together in Martin Dyer's kitchen. The houses
stood side by side, but Mr. Jacob Dyer's youngest daughter, the only
one now left at home, was receiving a visit from her lover, or, as the
family expressed it, the young man who was keeping company with her,

Online LibrarySarah Orne JewettA Country Doctor and Selected Stories and Sketches → online text (page 1 of 32)