by Dorothy Canfield
It was a place to which, as a dreamy, fanciful child escaping from
nursemaid and governess, Virginia had liked to climb on hot summer
afternoons. She had spent many hours, lying on the grass in the shade
of the dismantled house, looking through the gaunt, uncovered rafters
of the barn at the white clouds, like stepping-stones in the broad blue
river of sky flowing between the mountain walls.
Older people of the summer colony called it forlorn and
desolate—the deserted farm, lying high on the slope of Hemlock
Mountain—but to the child there was a charm about the unbroken silence
which brooded over the little clearing. The sun shone down warmly on
the house's battered shell and through the stark skeleton of the barn.
The white birches, strange sylvan denizens of door and barnyard, stood
shaking their delicate leaves as if announcing sweetly that the kind
forest would cover all the wounds of human neglect, and soon everything
would be as though man had not lived. And everywhere grew the thick,
strong, glistening grass, covering even the threshold with a cushion on
which the child's foot fell as noiselessly as a shadow. It used to seem
to her that nothing could ever have happened in this breathless spot.
Now she was a grown woman, she told herself, twenty-three years old
and had had, she often thought, as full a life as any one of her age
could have. Her college course had been varied with vacations in
Europe; she had had one season in society; she was just back from a
trip around the world. Her busy, absorbing life had given her no time
to revisit the narrow green Valley where she had spent so many of her
childhood's holidays But now a whim for self-analysis, a desire to
learn if the old glamour about the lovely enchanted region still
existed for her weary, sophisticated maturity, had made her break
exacting social engagements and sent her back alone, from the city, to
see how the old valley looked in the spring.
Her disappointment was acute. The first impression and the one which
remained with her, coloring painfully all the vistas of dim woodland
aisles and sunlit brooks, was of the meagerness and meanness of the
desolate lives lived in this paradise. This was a fact she had not
noticed as a child, accepting the country people as she did all other
incomprehensible elders. They had not seemed to her to differ
noticeably from her delicate, esthetic mother, lying in lavender silk
negligees on wicker couches, reading the latest book of Mallarme, or
from her competent, rustling aunt, guiding the course of the summer
colony's social life with firm hands. There was as yet no summer
colony, this week in May. Even the big hotel was not open. Virginia was
lodged in the house of one of the farmers. There was no element to
distract her mind from the narrow, unlovely lives of the owners of that
valley of beauty.
They were grinding away at their stupefying monotonous tasks as
though the miracle of spring were not taking place before their eyes.
They were absorbed in their barnyards and kitchen sinks and bad cooking
and worse dressmaking. The very children, grimy little utilitarians
like their parents, only went abroad in the flood of golden sunshine,
in order to rifle the hill pastures of their wild strawberries.
Virginia was no longer a child to ignore all this. It was an
embittering, imprisoning thought from which she could not escape even
in the most radiant vision of May woods. She was a woman now, with a
trained mind which took in the saddening significance of these lives,
not so much melancholy or tragic as utterly neutral, featureless,
dun-colored. They weighed on her heart as she walked and drove about
the lovely country they spoiled for her.
What a heavenly country it was! She compared it to similar valleys
in Switzerland, in Norway, in Japan, and her own shone out pre-eminent
with a thousand beauties of bold skyline, of harmoniously “composed"
distances, of exquisitely fairy-like detail of foreground. But oh! the
wooden packing-boxes of houses and the dreary lives they sheltered!
The Pritchard family, her temporary hosts, summed up for her the
human life of the valley. There were two children, inarticulate,
vacant-faced country children of eight and ten, out from morning till
night in the sunny, upland pastures, but who could think of nothing but
how many quarts of berries they had picked and what price could be
exacted for them. There was Gran'ther Pritchard, a doddering, toothless
man of seventy-odd, and his wife, a tall, lean, lame old woman with a
crutch who sat all through the mealtimes speechlessly staring at the
stranger, with faded gray eyes. There was Mr. Pritchard and his son
Joel, gaunt Yankees, toiling with fierce concentration to “get the
crops in” after a late spring. Finally there was Mrs. Pritchard, worn
and pale, passing those rose-colored spring days grubbing in her
vegetable garden. And all of them silent, silent as the cattle they
resembled. There had been during the first few days of her week's stay
some vague attempts at conversation, but Virginia was soon aware that
they had not the slightest rudiments of a common speech.
A blight was on even those faint manifestations of the esthetic
spirit which they had not killed out of their bare natures. The
pictures in the house were bad beyond belief, and the only flowers were
some petunias, growing in a pot, carefully tended by Grandma Pritchard.
They bore a mass of blossoms of a terrible magenta, like a blow in the
face to anyone sensitive to color. It usually stood on the
dining-table, which was covered with a red cloth. “Crimson! Magenta! It
is no wonder they are lost souls!” cried the girl to herself.
On the last day of her week, even as she was trying to force down
some food at the table thus decorated, she bethought herself of her old
haunt of desolate peace on the mountainside. She pushed away from the
table with an eager, murmured excuse, and fairly ran out into the gold
and green of the forest, a paradise lying hard by the pitiable little
purgatory of the farmhouse. As she fled along through the clean-growing
maple-groves, through stretches of sunlit pastures, azure with bluets,
through dark pines, red-carpeted by last year's needles, through the
flickering, shadowy-patterned birches, she cried out to all this beauty
to set her right with the world of her fellows, to ease her heart of
its burden of disdainful pity.
But there was no answer.
She reached the deserted clearing breathless, and paused to savor
its slow, penetrating peace. The white birches now almost shut the
house from view; the barn had wholly disappeared. From the finely
proportioned old doorway of the house protruded a long, grayed,
weather-beaten tuft of hay. The last utilitarian dishonor had befallen
it. It had not even its old dignity of vacant desolation. She went
closer and peered inside. Yes, hay, the scant cutting from the adjacent
old meadows, had been piled high in the room which had been the
gathering-place of the forgotten family life. She stepped in and sank
down on it, struck by the far-reaching view from the window. As she lay
looking out, the silence was as insistent as a heavy odor in the air.
The big white clouds lay like stepping-stones in the sky's blue
river, just as when she was a child. Their silver-gleaming brightness
blinded her ... “Ueber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh ... warte nur ... balde
... ruhest ... du ...” she began to murmur, and stopped, awed by the
immensity of the hush about her. She closed her eyes, pillowed her head
on her upthrown arms, and sank into a wide, bright reverie, which grew
dimmer and vaguer as the slow changeless hours filed by.
She did not know if it were from a doze, or but from this dreamy
haze that she was wakened by the sound of voices outside the house,
under the window by which she lay. There were the tones of a stranger
and those of old Mrs. Pritchard, but now flowing on briskly with a
volubility unrecognizable. Virginia sat up, hesitating Were they only
passing by, or stopping? Should She show herself or let them go on? In
an instant the question was settled for her. It was too late. She would
only shame them if they knew her there. She had caught her own name.
They were talking of her.
“Well, you needn't,” said the voice of Mrs. Pritchard “You can just
save your breath to cool your porridge You can't get nothin' out'n
“But she's traveled 'round so much, seems's though ...” began the
other woman's voice.
“Don't it?” struck in old Mrs. Pritchard assentingly, “But
The other was at a loss. “Do you mean she's stuck-up and won't
answer you?” Mrs. Pritchard burst into a laugh, the great, resonant
good-nature of which amazed Virginia. She had not dreamed that one of
these sour, silent people could laugh like that. “No, land no,
Abby! She's as soft-spoken as anybody could be, poor thing! She ain't
got nothin' to say. That's all. Why, I can git more out'n any
pack-peddler that's only been from here to Rutland and back than out'n
her ... and she's traveled all summer long for five years, she was
tellin' us, and last year went around the world.”
“Good land! Think of it!” cried the other, awestruck. “China! An'
Afriky! An' London!”
“That's the way we felt! That's the reason we let her come. There
ain't no profit in one boarder, and we never take boarders, anyhow. But
I thought 'twould be a chance for the young ones to learn something
about how foreign folks lived.” She broke again into her epic laugh.
“Why, Abby, 'twould ha' made you die to see us the first few days she
was there, tryin' to get somethin' out'n her. Italy, now ... had she
been there? 'Oh, yes, she adored Italy!'“ Virginia flushed at
the echo of her own exaggerated accent. “Well, we'd like to know
somethin' about Italy. What did they raise there? Honest, Abby, you'd
ha' thought we'd hit her side th' head. She thought and she thought, and all she could say was 'olives,' Nothing else? 'Well, she'd never
noticed anything else ... oh, yes, lemons.' Well, that seemed kind o'
queer vittles, but you can't never tell how foreigners git along, so we
thought maybe they just lived off'n olives and lemons; and Joel he
asked her how they raised 'em, and if they manured heavy or trusted to
phosphate, and how long the trees took before they began to bear, and
if they pruned much, and if they had the same trouble we do, come
harvest time, to hire hands enough to git in th' crop.”
She paused. The other woman asked, “Well, what did she say?”
The echoes rang again to the old woman's great laugh. “We might as
well ha' asked her 'bout the back side of th' moon! So we gave up on
olives and lemons! Then Eben he asked her 'bout taxes there. Were they
on land mostly and were they high and who 'sessed 'em and how 'bout
school tax. Did the state pay part o' that? You see town meetin' being
so all tore up every year 'bout taxes, Eben he thought 'twould be a
chance to hear how other folks did, and maybe learn somethin'. Good
land, Abby, I've set there and 'most died, trying to keep from yellin'
right out with laugh to see our folks tryin' to learn somethin' 'bout
foreign parts from that woman that's traveled in 'em steady for five
years. I bet she was blind-folded and gagged and had cotton in her ears
the hull time she was there!”
“Didn't she tell you anythin' 'bout taxes?”
“Taxes? You'd ha' thought 'twas bumble-bees' hind legs we was askin'
'bout! She ackshilly seemed s'prised to be asked. Land! What had she
ever thought 'bout such triflin' things as taxes. She didn't know how
they was taxed in Italy, or if they was ... nor anywhere else.
That what it come down to, every time. She didn't know! She didn't know
what kind of schools they had, nor what the roads was made of, nor who
made 'em. She couldn't tell you what hired men got, nor any
wages, nor what girls that didn't get married did for a living, nor
what rent they paid, nor how they 'mused themselves, nor how much land
was worth, nor if they had factories, nor if there was any lumberin'
done, nor how they managed to keep milk in such awful hot weather
without ice. Honest, Abby, she couldn't even say if the houses had
cellars or not. Why, it come out she never was in a real house
that anybody lived in ... only hotels. She hadn't got to know a single
real person that b'longed there. Of course she never found out anything
'bout how they lived. Her mother was there, she said, and her aunt, and
that Bilson family that comes to th' village summers, an' the
Goodriches an' the Phippses an' the ... oh, sakes alive, you know that
same old crowd that rides 'roun' here summers and thinks to be sociable
by sayin' how nice an' yellow your oats is blossomin'! You could go ten
times 'roun' the world with them and know less 'bout what folks is like
than when you started. When I heard 'bout them being there, I called
Eben and Joel and Em'ly off and I says, 'Now, don't pester that poor
do-less critter with questions any more. How much do the summer folks
down to th' village know 'bout the way we live?' Well, they burst out
laughin', of course. Well, then,' I says, ''tis plain to be seen that
all they do in winter is to go off to some foreign part and do the same
as here,' so I says to them, same's I said to you, Abby, a while back,
that they'd better save their breath to cool their porridge. But it's
awful solemn eatin' now, without a word spoke.”
The other woman laughed. “Why, you don't have to talk 'bout foreign
parts or else keep still, do ye?”
“Oh, it's just so 'bout everythin'. We heard she'd been in
Washington last winter, so Eben he brisked up and tried her on
politics. Well, she'd never heard of direct primaries, they're raisin'
such a holler 'bout in York State; she didn't know what th' 'nsurgent
senators are up to near as much as we did, and to judge by the way she
looked, she'd only just barely heard of th' tariff.” The word was
pronounced with true New England reverence. “Then we tried bringin' up
children, and lumberin' an' roads, an' cookin', an' crops, an' stock,
an' wages, an' schools, an' gardenin', but we couldn't touch bottom
nowhere. Never a word to be had out'n her. So we give up and now we
just sit like stotin' bottles, an' eat—an' do our visitin' with each
other odd minutes afterward.”
“Why, she don't look to be half-witted,” said the other.
“She ain't!” cried Mrs. Pritchard with emphasis. “She's got as good
a headpiece, natchilly, as anybody. I remember her when she was a young
one. It's the fool way they're brung up! Everythin' that's any fun or
intrust, they hire somebody else to do it for 'em. Here she is a great
strappin' woman of twenty-two or three, with nothing in the world to do
but to traipse off 'cross the fields from mornin' to night—an' nobody
to need her there nor here, nor anywhere. No wonder she looks peaked.
Sometimes when I see her set and stare off, so sort o' dull and
hopeless, I'm so sorry for her I could cry! Good land! I'd as lief hire
somebody to chew my vittles for me and give me the dry cud to live off
of, as do the way those kind of folks do.”
The distant call of a steam-whistle, silvered by the great distance
into a flute-like note, interrupted her. “That's the milk-train,
whistling for the Millbrook cross in',” she said. “We must be thinkin'
of goin' home before long. Where be those young ones?” She raised her
voice in a call as unexpectedly strong and vibrant as her laugh. “
Susie! Eddie! Did they answer? I'm gittin' that hard o' hearin' 'tis
hard for me to make out.”
“Yes, they hollered back,” said the other. “An' I see 'em comin'
through the pasture yonder. I guess they got their pails full by the
way they carry 'em.”
“That's good,” said Mrs. Pritchard with satisfaction. “They can get
twenty-five cents a quart hulled, off'n summer folks. They're savin' up
to help Joel go to Middletown College in the fall.”
“They think a lot o' Joel, don't they?” commented the other.
“Oh, the Pritchards has always been a family that knew how to set
store by their own folks,” said the old woman proudly, “and Joel he'll
pay 'em back as soon as he gets ahead a little.”
The children had evidently now come up, for Virginia heard
congratulations over the berries and exclamations over their
sun-flushed cheeks. “Why, Susie, you look like a pickled beet in your
face. Set down, child, an' cool off. Grandma called you an' Eddie down
to tell you an old-timey story.”
There was an outbreak of delighted cries from the children and Mrs.
Pritchard said deprecatingly, “You know, Abby, there never was children
yet that wasn't crazy 'bout old-timey stories. I remember how I used to
hang onto Aunt Debby's skirts and beg her to tell me some more.
“The story I'm goin' to tell you is about this Great-aunt Debby,”
she announced formally to her auditors, “when she was 'bout fourteen
years old and lived up here in this very house, pretty soon after th'
Rev'lution. There was only just a field or two cleared off 'round it
then, and all over th' mounting the woods were as black as any cellar
with pines and spruce. Great-aunt Debby was the oldest one of five
children and my grandfather—your great-great-grandfather—was the
youngest. In them days there wa'n't but a few families in the valley
and they lived far apart, so when Great-aunt Debby's father got awful
sick a few days after he'd been away to get some grist ground, Aunt
Debby's mother had to send her 'bout six miles through th' woods to the
nearest house—it stood where the old Perkins barn is now. The man come
back with Debby, but as soon as he saw great-grandfather he give one
yell—'smallpox!'—and lit out for home. Folks was tur'ble afraid of it
then an' he had seven children of his own an' nobody for 'em to look to
if he died, so you couldn't blame him none. They was all like that
then, every fam'ly just barely holdin' on, an' scratchin' for dear
“Well, he spread the news, and the next day, while Debby was helpin'
her mother nurse her father the best she could, somebody called her
over toward th' woods. They made her stand still 'bout three rods from
'em and shouted to her that the best they could do was to see that the
fam'ly had vittles enough. The neighbors would cook up a lot and leave
it every day in the fence corner and Debbie could come and git it.
“That was the way they fixed it. Aunt Debby said they was awful
faithful and good 'bout it and never failed, rain or shine, to leave a
lot of the best stuff they could git in them days. But before long she
left some of it there, to show they didn't need so much, because they
wasn't so many to eat.
“First, Aunt Debby's father died. Her mother an she dug the grave in
th' corner of th' clearin', down there where I'm pointin'. Aunt Debby
said she couldn't never forget how her mother looked as she said a
prayer before they shoveled the dirt back in. Then the two of 'em took
care of the cow and tried to get in a few garden seeds while they
nursed one of the children—the boy that was next to Debby. That turned
out to be smallpox, of course, and he died and they buried him
alongside his father. Then the two youngest girls, twins they was, took
sick, and before they died Aunt Debby's mother fell over in a faint
while she was tryin' to spade up the garden. Aunt Debby got her into
the house and put her to bed. She never said another thing, but just
died without so much as knowin' Debby. She and the twins went the same
day, and Debby buried 'em in one grave.
“It took her all day to dig it, she said. They was afraid of wolves
in them days and had to have their graves deep. The baby, the one that
was to be my grandfather, played 'round while she was diggin', and she
had to stop to milk the cow and git his meals for him. She got the
bodies over to the grave, one at a time, draggin' 'em on the wood-sled.
When she was ready to shovel the dirt back in, 'twas gettin' to be
twilight, and she said the thrushes were beginnin' to sing—she made
the baby kneel down and she got on her knees beside him and took hold
of his hand to say a prayer. She was just about wore out, as you can
think, and scared to death, and she'd never known any prayer, anyhow.
All she could think to say was 'Lord—Lord—Lord!' And she made the
baby say it, over and over. I guess 'twas a good enough prayer too.
When I married and come up here to live, seems as though I never heard
the thrushes begin to sing in the evening without I looked down there
and could almost see them two on their knees.
“Well, there she was, fourteen years old, with a two-year-old baby
to look out for, and all the rest of the family gone as though she'd
dreamed 'em. She was sure she and little Eddie—you're named for him,
Eddie, and don't you never forget it—would die, of course, like the
others, but she wa'n't any hand to give up till she had to, and she
wanted to die last, so to look out for the baby. So when she took sick
she fought the smallpox just like a wolf, she used to tell us. She had
to live, to take care of Eddie. She gritted her teeth and wouldn't
die, though, as she always said, 'twould ha' been enough sight more
comfortable than to live through what she did.
“Some folks nowadays say it couldn't ha' been smallpox she had, or
she couldn't ha' managed. I don't know 'bout that. I guess 'twas plenty
bad enough, anyhow. She was out of her head a good share of th' time,
but she never forgot to milk the cow and give Eddie his meals. She used
to fight up on her knees (there was a week when she couldn't stand
without fallin' over in faint) and then crawl out to the cow-shed and
sit down flat on the ground and reach up to milk. One day the fever was
so bad she was clear crazy and she thought angels in silver shoes come
right out there, in the manure an' all, and milked for her and held the
cup to Eddie's mouth.
“An' one night she thought somebody, with a big black cape on, come
and stood over her with a knife. She riz up in bed and told him to '
git out! She'd have to stay to take care of the baby!' And
she hit at the knife so fierce she knocked it right out'n his hand.
Then she fainted away agin. She didn't come to till mornin', and when
she woke up she knew she was goin' to live. She always said her hand
was all bloody that morning from a big cut in it, and she used to show
us the scar—a big one 'twas, too. But I guess most likely that come
from something else. Folks was awful superstitious in them days, and
Aunt Debby was always kind o' queer.
“Well, an' so she did live and got well, though she never grew a
mite from that time. A little wizened-up thing she was, always; but I
tell you folks 'round here thought a nawful lot of Aunt Debby! And
Eddie, if you'll believe it, never took the sickness at all. They say,
sometimes, babies don't.
“They got a fam'ly to come and work the farm for 'em, and Debby she
took care of her little brother, same as she always had. And he grew up
and got married and come to live in this house and Aunt Debby lived
with him. They did set great store by each other! Grandmother used to
laugh and say grandfather and Aunt Debby didn't need no words to talk
together. I was eight, goin' on nine—why, Susie, just your age—when
Aunt Debby died. I remember as well the last thing she said. Somebody
asked her if she was afraid. She looked down over the covers—I can see
her now, like a old baby she looked, so little and so light on the big
feather-bed, and she said, 'Is a grain o' wheat scared when you drop it
in the ground?' I always thought that wa'n't such a bad thing for a
child to hear said.
“She'd wanted to be buried there beside the others and grandfather
did it so. While he was alive he took care of the graves and kept 'em
in good order; and after I married and come here to live I did. But I'm
gettin' on now, and I want you young folks should know 'bout it and do
it after I'm gone.
“Now, here, Susie, take this pot of petunias and set it out on the
head of the grave that's got a stone over it. And if you're ever
inclined to think you have a hard time, just you remember Aunt Debby
and shut your teeth and hang on! If you tip the pot bottom-side
up, and knock on it with a stone, it'll all slip out easy. Now go along
with you. We've got to be starting for home soon.”
There was a brief pause and then the cheerful voice went on: “If
there's any flower I do despise, it's petunias! But 'twas Aunt Debby's
'special favorite, so I always start a pot real early and have it in
blossom when her birthday comes 'round.”
By the sound she was struggling heavily to her feet. “Yes, do, for
goodness' sakes, haul me up, will ye? I'm as stiff as an old horse. I
don't know what makes me so rheumaticky. My folks ain't, as a general
There was so long a silence that the girl inside the house wondered
if they were gone, when Mrs. Pritchard's voice began again: “I do like
to come up here! It 'minds me of him an' me livin' here when we was
young. We had a good time of it!”
“I never could see,” commented the other, “how you managed when he
went away t' th' war.”
“Oh, I did the way you do when you have to! I'd felt he ought
to go, you know, as much as he did, so I was willin' to put in my best
licks. An' I was young too—twenty-three—and only two of the children
born then—and I was as strong as a ox. I never minded the work any.
'Twas the days after battles, when we couldn't get no news, that was
the bad part. Why, I could go to the very spot, over there where the
butternut tree stands—'twas our garden then—where I heard he was
killed at Gettysburg.”
“What did you do?” asked the other.
“I went on hoein' my beans. There was the two children to be looked
out for, you know. But I ain't mindin' tellin' you that I can't look at
a bean-row since without gettin' sick to my stomach and feelin' the
goose-pimples start all over me.”
“How did you hear 'twan't so?”
“Why, I was gettin' in the hay—up there where the oaks stand was
our hay-field. I remember how sick the smell of the hay made me, and
when the sweat run down into my eyes I was glad to feel 'em smart and
sting—well, Abby, you just wait till you hear your Nathan'l is shot
through the head and you'll know how it was—well, all of a
sudden—somebody took the fork out'n my hand an'—an' said—'here, you
drive an' I'll pitch '—and there—'twas—'twas——”
“Why, Grandma Pritchard! You're——”
“No, I ain't, either; I ain't such a fool, I hope! Why, see me cry
like a old numskull! Ain't it ridic'lous how you can talk 'bout deaths
and buryin's all right, and can't tell of how somebody come back from
the grave without—where in th' nation is my handkerchief! Why, Abby,
things ain't never looked the same to me from that minute on. I tell
you—I tell you—I was real glad to see him!
“Good land, what time o' day do you suppose it can be? Susie! Eddie!
Come, git your berries and start home!”
The two voices began to sound more faintly as the old woman's crutch
rang on the stones. “Well, Abby, when I come up here and remember how I
farmed it alone for four years, I say to myself that 'twan't only th'
men that set the slaves free. Them that stayed to home was allowed to
have their share in the good——” The syllables blurred into an
indistinguishable hum and there fell again upon the house its old
mantle of silence.
As if aroused by this from an hypnotic spell, the girl on the hay
sat up suddenly, pressing her hands over her eyes; but she did not shut
out a thousand thronging visions. There was not a sound but the loud
throbbing of the pulses at her temples; but never again could there be
silence for her in that spot. The air was thick with murmurs which beat
against her ears. She was trembling as she slipped down from the hay
and, walking unsteadily to the door, stood looking half-wildly out into
the haunted twilight.
The faint sound of the brook rose liquid in the quiet evening air.
There, where the butternut tree stood, had been the garden!
The white birches answered with a rustling stir in all their lightly
Up there, where the oaks were, had been the hay-field!
The twilight darkened. Through the forest, black on the crest of the
overhanging mountain, shone suddenly the evening star.
There, before the door, had stood the waiting wood-sled!
The girl caught through the gathering dusk a gleam of magenta from
the corner of the clearing.
Two hermit thrushes, distant in the forest, began to send up their
poignant antiphonal evening chant.