by Sarah Orne Jewett
A WEEK before the 30th of May, three friends — John Stover and
Henry Merrill and Asa Brown — happened to meet on Saturday evening at
Barton's store at the Plains. They were enjoying this idle hour after a
busy week. After long easterly rains, the sun had at last come out
bright and clear, and all the Barlow farmers had been planting. There
was even a good deal of ploughing left to be done, the season was so
The three middle-aged men were old friends. They had been
school-fellows, and when they were hardly out of their boyhood the war
came on, and they enlisted in the same company, on the same day, and
happened to march away elbow to elbow. Then came the great experience
of a great war, and the years that followed their return from the South
had come to each almost alike. They might have been members of the same
rustic household, they knew each other's history so well.
They were sitting on a low wooden bench at the left of the store
door as you went in. People were coming and going on their Saturday
night errands — the post-office was in Barton's store — but the
friends talked on eagerly, without interrupting themselves, except by
an occasional nod of recognition. They appeared to take no notice at
all of the neighbors whom they saw oftenest. It was a most beautiful
evening; the two great elms were almost half in leaf over the
blacksmith shop which stood across the wide road. Farther along were
two small old-fashioned houses and the old white church, with its
pretty belfry of four arched sides and a tiny dome at the top. The
large cockerel on the vane was pointing a little south of west, and
there was still light enough to make it shine bravely against the deep
blue eastern sky. On the western side of the road, near the store, were
the parsonage and the storekeeper's modern house, which had a French
roof and some attempt at decoration, which the long-established Barlow
people called gingerbread-work, and regarded with mingled pride and
disdain. These buildings made the tiny village called Barlow Plains.
They stood in the middle of a long narrow strip of level ground. They
were islanded by green fields and pastures. There were hills beyond;
the mountains themselves seemed very near. Scattered about on the hill
slopes were farm-houses, which stood so far apart, with their clusters
of out-buildings, that each looked lonely, and the pine woods above
seemed to besiege them all. It was lighter on the uplands than it was
in the valley where the three men sat on their bench, with their backs
to the store and the western sky.
"Well, here we be 'most into June, an' I ain't got a bush bean
aboveground," lamented Henry Merrill.
"Your land's always late, ain't it? But you always catch up with
the rest on us," Asa Brown consoled him. "I've often observed that your
land, though early planted, is late to sprout. I view it there's a good
week's difference betwixt me an' Stover an' your folks, but come 1st o'
July we all even up."
"'Tis just so," said John Stover, taking his pipe out of his mouth,
as if he had a good deal more to say, and then replacing it, as if he
had changed his mind.
"Made it extry hard having that long wet spell. Can't none on us
take no day off this season," said Asa Brown; but nobody thought it
worth his while to respond to such evident truth.
"Next Saturday'll be the 30th o' May — that's Decoration day,
ain't it? — come round again. Lord! how the years slip by after you
git to be forty-five an' along there!" said Asa again. "I s'pose some
o' our folks'll go over to Alton to see the procession, same's usual.
I've got to git one o' them small flags to stick on our Joel's grave,
an' Mis' Dexter always counts on havin' some for Harrison's lot. I
calculate to get 'em somehow. I must make time to ride over, but I
don't know where the time's comin' from out o' next week. I wish the
women folks would tend to them things. There's the spot where Eb Munson
an' John Tighe lays in the poor-farm lot, an' I did mean certain to buy
flags for 'em last year an' year before, but I went an' forgot it. I'd
like to have folks that rode by notice 'em for once, if they was town
paupers. Eb Munson was as darin' a man as ever stepped out to tuck o'
"So he was," said John Stover, taking out his pipe with decision
and knocking out the ashes. "Drink was his ruin; but I wa'n't one that
could be harsh with Eb, no matter what he done. He worked hard long's
he could, too; but he wa'n't a like a sound man, an' I think he took
somethin' first not so much 'cause he loved it, but to kind of keep his
strength up so's he could work, an' then, all of a sudden, rum clinched
with him an' threw him. Eb was talkin' 'long o' me one day when he was
about half full, an' says he, right out, 'I wouldn't have fell to this
state,' says he, 'if I'd had me a home an' a little fam'ly; but it
don't make no difference to nobody, and it's the best comfort I seem to
have, an' I ain't goin' to do without it. I'm ailin' all the time,'
says he, 'an' if I keep middlin' full, I make out to hold my own an' to
keep along o' my work.' I pitied Eb. I says to him, 'You ain't goin' to
bring no shame on us old army boys, be you, Eb? An' he says no, he
wa'n't. I think if he'd lived to get one o' them big fat pensions, he'd
had it easier. Eight dollars a month paid his board, while he'd pick up
what cheap work he could, an' then he got so that decent folks didn't
seem to want the bother of him, an' so he come on the town."
"There was somethin' else to it," said Henry Merrill, soberly.
"Drink come natural to him, 'twas born in him, I expect, an' there
wa'n't nobody that could turn the divil out same's they did in
Scriptur'. His father an' his gran'father was drinkin' men; but they
was kind-hearted an' good neighbors, an' never set out to wrong nobody.
'Twas the custom to drink in their day; folks was colder an' lived
poorer in early times, an' that's how most of 'em kept a-goin'. But
what stove Eb all up was his disapp'intment with Marthy Peck — her
forsakin' of him an' marryin' old John Down whilst Eb was off to war.
I've always laid it up ag'inst her."
"So've I," said Asa Brown. "She didn't use the poor fellow right. I
guess she was full as well off, but it's one thing to show judgment,
an' another thing to have heart."
There was a long pause; the subject was too familiar to need
"There ain't no public sperit here in Barlow," announced Asa Brown,
with decision. "I don't s'pose we could ever get up anything for
Decoration day. I've felt kind of 'shamed, but it always comes in a
busy time; 'twa'n't no time to have it, anyway, right in late
"'Tain't no use to look for public sperit 'less you've got some
yourself," observed John Stover, soberly; but something had pleased him
in the discouraged suggestion. "Perhaps we could mark the day this
year. It comes on a Saturday; that ain't nigh so bad as bein' in the
middle of the week."
Nobody made any answer, and presently he went on:
"There was a time along back when folks was too near the war-time
to give much thought to the bigness of it. The best fellows was them
that had staid to home an' worked their trades an' laid up money; but I
don't know 's it's so now."
"Yes, the fellows that staid at home got all the fat places, an'
when we come back we felt dreadful behind the times," grumbled Asa
Brown. "I remember how 'twas."
"They begun to call us hero an' old stick-in-the-mud just about the
same time," resumed Stover, with a chuckle. "We wa'n't no hand for
strippin' woodland nor tradin' hosses them first few years. I don' know
why 'twas we were so beat out. The best most on us could do was to sag
right on to the old folks. Father he never wanted me to go to the war
— 'twas partly his Quaker breed — an' he used to be dreadful
mortified with the way I hung round down here to the store an' loafed
round a-talkin' about when I was out South, an' arguin' with folks that
didn't know nothin' about what the generals done. There! I see me now
just as he see me then; but after I had my boy strut out, I took holt
o' the old farm 'long o' father, an' I've made it bounce. Look at them
old meadows an' see the herds' grass that come off of 'em last year! I
ain't ashamed o' my place, if I did go to the war."
"It all looks a sight bigger to me now than it did then," said
Henry Merrill. "Our goin' to the war I refer to. We didn't sense it no
more than other folks did. I used to be sick o' hearin' their stuff
about patriotism an' lovin' your country, an' them pieces o' poetry
women-folks wrote for the papers on the old flag, an' our fallen
heroes, an' them things; they didn't seem to strike me in the right
place; but I tell ye it kind o' starts me now every time I come on the
flag sudden — it does so. A spell ago — 'long in the fall, I guess it
was — I was over to Alton tradin', an' there was a fire company
paradin'. They'd got a prize at a fair, an' had just come home on the
cars, an' I heard the band; so I stepped to the front o' the store
where me an' my woman was, an' the company felt well, an' was comin'
along the street 'most as good as troops. I see the old flag a-comin',
kind of blowin' back, an' it went all over me. Somethin' worked round
in my throat; I vow I come near cryin'. I was glad nobody see me."
"I'd go to war again in a minute," declared Stover, after an
expressive pause; "but I expect we should know better what we was
about. I don' know but we've got too many rooted opinions now to make
us the best o' soldiers."
"Martin Tighe an' John Tighe was considerable older than the rest,
and they done well," answered Henry Merrill, quickly. "We three was the
youngest of any, but we did think at the time we knew the most."
"Well, whatever you may say, that war give the country a great
start," said Asa Brown. "I tell ye we just begin to see the scope on't.
There was my cousin, you know, Dan'l Evans, that stopped with us last
winter; he was tellin' me that one o' his coastin' trips he was into
the port o' Beaufort lo'din' with yaller-pine lumber, an' he was into
an old buryin'-ground there is there, an' he see a stone that had on it
some young Southern fellow's name that was killed in the war, an' under
it, 'He died for his country.' Dan'l knowed how I used to feel about
them South Car'lina goings on, an' I did feel kind o' red an' ugly for
a minute, an' then somethin' come over me, an' I says, 'Well, I don't
know but what the poor chap did, Dan Evans, when you come to view it
The other men made no answer.
"Le's see what we can do this year. I don't care if we be a poor
han'ful," urged Henry Merrill. "The young folks ought to have the good
of it; I'd like to have my boys see somethin' different. Le's get
together what men there is. How many's left, anyhow? I know there was
thirty-seven went from old Barlow, three-month men an' all."
"There can't be over eight, countin' out Martin Tighe; he can't
march," said Stover. "No, 'tain't worth while." But the others did not
notice his disapproval.
"There's nine in all," announced Asa Brown, after pondering and
counting two or three times on his fingers. "I can't make us no more. I
never could carry figgers in my head."
"I make nine," said Merrill. "We'll have Martin ride, an' Jesse
Dean too, if he will. He's awful lively on them canes o' his. An'
there's Jo Wade — with his crutch; he's amazin' spry for a short
distance. But we can't let 'em go afoot; they're decripped men. We'll
make 'em all put on what they've got left o' their uniforms, an' we'll
scratch round an' have us a fife an' drum, an' make the best show we
"Why, Martin Tighe's boy, the next to the oldest, is an excellent
hand to play the fife!" said John Stover, suddenly growing
enthusiastic. "If you two are set on it, let's have a word with the
minister to-morrow, an' see what he says. Perhaps he'll give out some
kind of a notice. You have to have a good many bunches o' flowers. I
guess we'd better call a meetin', some few on us, an' talk it over
first o' the week. 'Twouldn't be no great of a range for us to take to
march from the old buryin'-ground at the meetin'-house here up to the
poor-farm an' round by Deacon Elwell's lane, so's to notice them two
stones he set up for his boys that was sunk on the man-o'-war. I expect
they notice stones same's if the folks laid there, don't they?"
He spoke wistfully. The others knew that Stover was thinking of the
stone he had set up to the memory of his only brother, whose nameless
grave had been made somewhere in the Wilderness.
"I don't know but what they'll be mad if we don't go by every house
in town," he added, anxiously, as they rose to go home. "'Tis a
terrible scattered population in Barlow to favor with a procession."
It was a mild starlit night. The three friends took their separate
ways presently, leaving the Plains road and crossing the fields by
foot-paths toward their farms.
The week went by, and the next Saturday morning brought fair
weather. It was a busy morning on the farms — like any other; but long
before noon the teams of horses and oxen were seen going home from work
in the fields, and everybody got ready in haste for the great event of
the afternoon. It was so seldom that any occasion roused public
interest in Barlow that there was an unexpected response, and the green
before the old white meeting-house was covered with country wagons and
groups of people, whole families together, who had come on foot. The
old soldiers were to meet in the church; at half past one the
procession was to start, and on its return the minister was to make an
address in the old burying-ground. John Stover had been a lieutenant in
the army, so he was made captain of the day. A man from the next town
had offered to drum for them, and Martin Tighe's proud boy was present
with his fife. He had a great longing — strange enough in that
peaceful sheep-raising neighborhood — to go into the army; but he and
his elder brother were the mainstay of their crippled father, and he
could not be spared from the large household until a younger brother
could take his place; so that all his fire and military zeal went for
the present into martial tunes, and the fife was the safety-valve for
The army men were used to seeing each other; everybody knew
everybody in the little country town of Barlow; but when one comrade
after another appeared in what remained of his accoutrements, they felt
the day to be greater than they had planned, and the simple ceremony
proved more solemn than any one expected. They could make no use of
their everyday jokes and friendly greetings. Their old blue coats and
tarnished army caps looked faded and antiquated enough. One of the men
had nothing left but his rusty canteen and rifle; but these he carried
like sacred emblems. He had worn out all his army clothes long ago,
because when he was discharged he was too poor to buy any others.
When the door of the church opened, the veterans were not abashed
by the size and silence of the crowd. They came walking two by two down
the steps, and took their places in line as if there were nobody
looking on. Their brief evolutions were like a mystic rite. The two
lame men refused to do anything but march, as best they could; but poor
Martin Tighe, more disabled than they, was brought out and lifted into
Henry Merrill's best wagon, where he sat up, straight and soldierly,
with his boy for driver. There was a little flag in the whip socket
before him, which flapped gayly in the breeze. It was such a long time
since he had been seen out-of-doors that everybody found him a great
object of interest, and paid him much attention. Even those who were
tired of being asked to contribute to his support, who resented the
fact of his having a helpless wife and great family; who always
insisted that with his little pension and hopeless lameness, his
fingerless left hand and failing sight, he could support himself and
his household if he chose — even those persons came forward now to
greet him handsomely and with large approval. To be sure, he enjoyed
the conversation of idlers, and his wife had a complaining way that was
the same as begging, especially since her boys began to grow up and be
of some use; and there were one or two near neighbors who never let
them really want; so other people, who had cares enough of their own,
could excuse themselves for forgetting him the year round, and even
call him shiftless. But there were none to look askance at Martin Tighe
on Decoration day, as he sat in the wagon, with his bleached face like
a captive's, and his thin, afflicted body. He stretched out his whole
hand impartially to those who had remembered him and those who had
forgotten both his courage at Fredericksburg and his sorry need in
Henry Merrill had secured the engine company's large flag in Alton,
and now carried it proudly. There were eight men in line, two by two,
and marching a good bit apart, to make their line the longer. The fife
and drum struck up gallantly together, and the little procession moved
away slowly along the country road. It gave an unwonted touch of color
to the landscape — the scarlet, the blue, between the new-ploughed
fields and budding road-side thickets, between the wide dim ranges of
the mountains, under the great white clouds of the spring sky. Such
processions grow more pathetic year by year; it will not be so long now
before wondering children will have seen the last. The aging faces of
the men, the renewed comradeship, the quick beat of the hearts that
remember, the tenderness of those who think upon old sorrows — all
these make the day a lovelier and a sadder festival. So men's hearts
were stirred, they knew not why, when they heard the shrill fife and
the incessant drum along the quiet Barlow road, and saw the handful of
old soldiers marching by. Nobody thought of them as familiar men and
neighbors alone — they were a part of that army which saved its
country. They had taken their lives in their hands and gone out to
fight — plain John Stover and Jesse Dean and the rest. No matter if
every other day in the year they counted for little or much, whether
they were lame-footed and despised, whether their farms were of poor
soil or rich.
The little troop went in slender line along the road; the crowded
country wagons and all the people who went afoot followed Martin
Tighe's wagon as if it were a great gathering at a country funeral. The
route was short, and the long straggling line marched slowly; it could
go no faster than the lame men could walk.
In one of the houses by the road-side an old woman sat by a window,
in an old-fashioned black gown, and clean white cap with a prim border
which bound her thin sharp features closely. She had been for a long
time looking out eagerly over the snowberry and cinnamon-rose bushes;
her face was pressed close to the pane, and presently she caught sight
of the great flag.
"Let me see 'em! I've got to see 'em go by!" she pleaded, trying to
rise from her chair alone when she heard the fife, and the women helped
her to the door, and held her so that she could stand and wait. She had
been an old woman when the war began; she had sent two sons and two
grandsons to the field; they were all gone now. As the men came by, she
straightened her bent figure with all the vigor of youth. The fife and
drum stopped suddenly; the colors dipped. She did not heed that, but
her old eyes flashed and then filled with tears to see the flag going
to salute the soldiers' graves. "Thank ye, boys; thank ye!" she cried,
in her quavering voice, and they all cheered her. The cheer went back
along the straggling line for old Grandmother Dexter, standing there in
her front door between the lilacs. It was one of the great moments of
The few old people at the poorhouse, too, were waiting to see the
show. The keeper's young son, knowing that it was a day of festivity,
and not understanding exactly why, had put his toy flag out of the
gable window, and there it showed against the gray clapboards like a
gay flower. It was the only bit of decoration along the veterans' way,
and they stopped and saluted it before they broke ranks and went out to
the field corner beyond the poor-farm barn to the bit of ground that
held the paupers' unmarked graves. There was a solemn silence while Asa
Brown went to the back of Tighe's wagon, where such light freight was
carried, and brought two flags, and he and John Stover planted them
straight in the green sod. They knew well enough where the right graves
were, for these had been made in a corner by themselves, with unwonted
sentiment. And so Eben Munson and John Tighe were honored like the
rest, both by their flags and by great and unexpected nosegays of
spring flowers, daffies and flowering currant and red tulips, which lay
on the graves already. John Stover and his comrade glanced at each
other curiously while they stood singing, and then laid their own
bunches of lilacs down and came away.
Then something happened that almost none of the people in the
wagons understood. Martin Tighe's boy, who played the fife, had studied
well his part, and on his poor short-winded instrument now sounded taps
as well as he could. He had heard it done once in Alton at a soldier's
funeral. The plaintive notes called sadly over the fields, and echoed
back from the hills. The few veterans could not look at each other;
their eyes brimmed up with tears; they could not have spoken. Nothing
called back old army days like that. They had a sudden vision of the
Virginian camp, the hill-side dotted white with tents, the twinkling
lights in other camps, and far away the glow of smouldering fires. They
heard the bugle call from post to post; they remembered the chilly
winter night, the wind in the pines, the laughter of the men. Lights
out! Martin Tighe's boy sounded it again sharply. It seemed as if poor
Eb Munson and John Tighe must hear it too in their narrow graves.
The procession went on, and stopped here and there at the little
graveyards on the farms, leaving their bright flags to flutter through
summer and winter rains and snows, and to bleach in the wind and
sunshine. When they returned to the church, the minister made an
address about the war, and every one listened with new ears. Most of
what he said was familiar enough to his listeners; they were used to
reading those phrases about the results of the war, the glorious future
of the South, in their weekly newspapers; but there never had been such
a spirit of patriotism and loyalty waked in Barlow as was waked that
day by the poor parade of the remnant of the Barlow soldiers. They sent
flags to all the distant graves, and proud were those households who
claimed kinship with valor, and could drive or walk away with their
flags held up so that others could see that they, too, were of the
It is well that the days are long in the last of May, but John
Stover had to hurry more than usual with his evening work, and then,
having the longest distance to walk, he was much the latest comer to
the Plains store, where his two triumphant friends were waiting for him
impatiently on the bench. They also had made excuse of going to the
post-office and doing an unnecessary errand for their wives, and were
talking together so busily that they had gathered a group about them
before the store. When they saw Stover coming, they rose hastily and
crossed the road to meet him, as if they were a committee in special
session. They leaned against the post-and-board fence, after they had
shaken hands with each other solemnly.
"Well, we've had a great day, 'ain't we, John?" asked Henry
Merrill. "You did lead off splendid. We've done a grand thing, now, I
tell you. All the folks say we've got to keep it up every year.
Everybody had to have a talk about it as I went home. They say they had
no idea we should make such a show. Lord! I wish we'd begun while there
was more of us!"
"That han'some flag was the great feature," said Asa Brown,
generously. "I want to pay my part for hirin' it. An' then folks was
glad to see poor old Martin made o' some consequence."
"There was half a dozen said to me that another year they're goin'
to have flags out, and trim up their places somehow or 'nother. Folks
has feelin' enough, but you've got to rouse it," said Merrill.
"I have thought o' joinin' the Grand Army over to Alton time an'
again, but it's a good ways to go, an' then the expense has been o'
some consideration," Asa continued. "I don't know but two or three over
there. You know, most o' the Alton men nat'rally went out in the
rigiments t'other side o' the line, an' they was in other battles, an'
never camped nowheres nigh us. Seems to me we ought to have home
feelin' enough to do what we can right here."
"The minister says to me this afternoon that he was goin' to
arrange an' have some talks in the meetin'-house next winter, an' have
some of us tell where we was in the South; an' one night 'twill be
about camp life, an' one about the long marches, an' then about the
battles — that would take some time — an' tell all we could about the
boys that was killed, an' their record, so they wouldn't be forgot. He
said some of the folks must have the letters we wrote home from the
front, an' we could make out quite a history of us. I call Elder Dallas
a very smart man; he'd planned it all out a'ready, for the benefit o'
the young folks, he said," announced Henry Merrill, in a tone of
"I s'pose there ain't none of us but could add a little somethin',"
answered John Stover, modestly. "'Twould re'lly learn the young folks a
good deal. I should be scared numb to try an' speak from the pulpit.
That ain't what the elder means, is it? Now I had a good chance to see
somethin' o' Washin'ton. I shook hands with President Lincoln, an' I
always think I'm worth lookin' at for that, if I ain't for nothin'
else. 'Twas that time I was just out o' hospit'l, an' able to crawl
about some. Well, we'll see how 'tis when winter comes. I never thought
I had no gift for public speakin', 'less 'twas for drivin' cattle or
pollin' the house town-meetin' days. Here! I've got somethin' in mind.
You needn't speak about it if I tell it to ye," he added, suddenly.
"You know all them han'some flowers that was laid on to Eb Munson's
grave an' Tighe's? I mistrusted you thought the same thing I did by the
way you looked. They come from Marthy Down's front yard. My woman told
me when we got home that she knew 'em in a minute; there wa'n't nobody
in town had that kind o' red flowers but her. She must ha' kind o'
harked back to the days when she was Marthy Peck. She must have come
with 'em after dark — or else dreadful early in the mornin'."
Henry Merrill cleared his throat. "There ain't nothin' half-way
'bout Mis' Down," he said. "I wouldn't ha' spoken 'bout this 'less you
had led right on to it; but I overtook her when I was gittin' towards
home this afternoon, an' I see by her looks she was worked up a good
deal; but we talked about how well things had gone off, an' she wanted
to know what expenses we'd been put to, an' I told her; an' she said
she'd give five dollars any day I'd stop in for it. An' then she spoke
right out. 'I'm alone in the world,' says she, 'and somethin' to do
with, an' I'd like to have a plain stone put up to Eb Munson's grave,
with the number of his rigiment on it, an' I'll pay the bill. 'Tain't
out o' Mr. Down's money,' she says; ''tis mine, an' I want you to see
to it.' I said I would, but we'd made a plot to git some o' them
soldiers' head-stones that's provided by the government. 'Twas a shame
it had been overlooked so long. 'No,' says she; 'I'm goin' to pay for
Eb's myself.' An' I told her there wouldn't be no objection. Don't ary
one o' you speak about it. 'Twouldn't be fair. She was real
well-appearin'. I never felt to respect Marthy so before."
"We was kind o' hard on her sometimes, but folks couldn't help it.
I've seen her pass Eb right by in the road an' never look at him when
he first come home," said John Stover.
"If she hadn't felt bad, she wouldn't have cared one way or
t'other," insisted Henry Merrill. "'Tain't for us to judge. Sometimes
folks has to get along in years before they see things fair. Come; I
must be goin'. I'm tired as an old dog."
"It seemed kind o' natural to be steppin' out together again.
Strange we three got through with so little damage, an' so many dropped
round us," said Asa Brown. "I've never been one mite sorry I went out
in old A Company. I was thinkin' when I was marchin' to-day, though,
that we should all have to take to the wagons before long an' do our
marchin' on wheels, so many of us felt kind o' stiff. There's one thing
— folks won't never say again that we don't show no public sperit here
in old Barlow."