Our New Neighbors At Ponkapog
by Thomas Bailey Aldrich
OUR NEW NEIGHBORS AT PONKAPOG
By Thomas Bailey Aldrich
Boston And New York Houghton Mifflin Company
Copyright, 1873, 1885, and 1901
When I saw the little house building, an eighth of a mile beyond my
own, on the Old Bay Road, I wondered who were to be the tenants. The
modest structure was set well back from the road, among the trees, as
if the inmates were to care nothing whatever for a view of the stylish
equipages which sweep by during the summer season. For my part, I like
to see the passing, in town or country; but each has his own
unaccountable taste. The proprietor, who seemed to be also the
architect of the new house, superintended the various details of the
work with an assiduity that gave me a high opinion of his intelligence
and executive ability, and I congratulated myself on the prospect of
having some very agreeable neighbors.
It was quite early in the spring, if I remember, when they moved
into the cottagea newly married couple, evidently: the wife very
young, pretty, and with the air of a lady; the husband somewhat older,
but still in the first flush of manhood. It was understood in the
village that they came from Baltimore; but no one knew them personally,
and they brought no letters of introduction. (For obvious reasons I
refrain from mentioning names.) It was clear that, for the present at
least, their own company was entirely sufficient for them. They made no
advances toward the acquaintance of any of the families in the
neighborhood, and consequently were left to themselves. That,
apparently, was what they desired, and why they came to Ponkapog. For
after its black bass and wild duck and teal, solitude is the chief
staple of Ponkapog. Perhaps its perfect rural loveliness should be
included. Lying high up under the wing of the Blue Hills, and in the
odorous breath of pines and cedars, it chances to be the most
enchanting bit of unlaced dishevelled country within fifty miles of
Boston, which, moreover, can be reached in half an hour's ride by
railway. But the nearest railway station (Heaven be praised!) is two
miles distant, and the seclusion is without a flaw. Ponkapog has one
mail a day; two mails a day would render the place uninhabitable.
The villageit looks like a compact village at a distance, but
unravels and disappears the moment you drive into ithas quite a large
floating population. I do not allude to the perch and pickerel in
Ponk-apog Pond. Along the Old Bay Road, a highway even in the colonial
days, there are a number of attractive villas and cottages straggling
off towards Milton, which are occupied for the summer by people from
the city. These birds of passage are a distinct class from the
permanent inhabitants, and the two seldom closely assimilate unless
there has been some previous connection. It seemed to me that our new
neighbors were to come under the head of permanent inhabitants; they
had built their own house, and had the air of intending to live in it
all the year round.
Are you not going to call on them? I asked my wife one morning.
When they call on us, she replied lightly.
But it is our place to call first, they being strangers.
This was said as seriously as the circumstance demanded; but my wife
turned it off with a laugh, and I said no more, always trusting to her
intuitions in these matters.
She was right. She would not have been received, and a cool Not at
home would have been a bitter social pill to us if we had gone out of
our way to be courteous.
I saw a great deal of our neighbors, nevertheless. Their cottage lay
between us and the post-officewhere he was never to be met
with by any chanceand I caught frequent glimpses of the two working
in the garden, floriculture did not appear so much an object as
exercise. Possibly it was neither; may be they were engaged in digging
for specimens of those arrowheads and flint hatchets which are
continually coming to the surface hereabouts. There is scarcely an acre
in which the ploughshare has not turned up some primitive stone weapon
or domestic utensil, disdainfully left to us by the red men who once
held this domainan ancient tribe called the Punkypoags, a forlorn
descendant of which, one Polly Crowd, figures in the annual Blue Book,
down to the close of the Southern war, as a state pensioner. At that
period she appears to have struck a trail to the Happy Hunting Grounds.
I quote from the local historiographer.
Whether they were developing a kitchen garden, or emulating
Professor Schliemann at Mycenæ, the new-comers were evidently persons
of refined musical taste: the lady had a contralto voice of remarkable
sweetness, although of no great compass, and I used often to linger of
a morning by the high gate and listen to her executing an arietta,
conjecturally at some window upstairs, for the house was not visible
from the turnpike. The husband, somewhere about the grounds, would
occasionally respond with two or three bars. It was all quite an ideal,
Arcadian business. They seemed very happy together, these two persons,
who asked no odds whatever of the community in which they had settled
There was a queerness, a sort of mystery, about this couple which I
admit piqued my curiosity, though as a rule I have no morbid interest
in the affairs of my neighbors. They behaved like a pair of lovers who
had run off and got married clandestinely. I willingly acquitted them,
however, of having done anything unlawful; for, to change a word in the
lines of the poet,
It is a joy to think the best
We may of human kind.
Admitting the hypothesis of elopement, there was no mystery in their
neither sending nor receiving letters. But where did they get their
groceries? I do not mean the money to pay for themthat is an enigma
apartbut the groceries themselves. No express wagon, no butcher's
cart, no vehicle of any description, was ever observed to stop at their
domicile. Yet they did not order family stores at the sole
establishment in the villagean inexhaustible little bottle of a shop
which, I advertise it gratis, can turn out anything in the way of
groceries, from a handsaw to a pocket-handkerchief. I confess that I
allowed this unimportant detail of their ménage to occupy more
of my speculation than was creditable to me.
In several respects our neighbors reminded me of those inexplicable
persons we sometimes come across in great cities, though seldom or
never in suburban places, where the field may be supposed too
restricted for their operationspersons who have no perceptible means
of subsistence, and manage to live royally on nothing a year. They hold
no government bonds, they possess no real estate (our neighbors did own
their house), they toil not, neither do they spin; yet they reap all
the numerous soft advantages that usually result from honest toil and
skilful spinning. How do they do it? But this is a digression, and I am
quite of the opinion of the old lady in David Copperfield, who says,
Let us have no meandering!
Though my wife had declined to risk a ceremonious call on our
neighbors as a family, I saw no reason why I should not speak to the
husband as an individual, when I happened to encounter him by the
wayside. I made several approaches to do so, when it occurred to my
penetration that my neighbor had the air of trying to avoid me. I
resolved to put the suspicion to the test, and one forenoon, when he
was sauntering along on the opposite side of the road, in the vicinity
of Fisher's sawmill, I deliberately crossed over to address him. The
brusque manner in which he hurried away was not to be misunderstood. Of
course I was not going to force myself upon him.
It was at this time that I began to formulate uncharitable
suppositions touching our neighbors, and would have been as well
pleased if some of my choicest fruit trees had not overhung their wall.
I determined to keep my eyes open later in the season, when the fruit
should be ripe to pluck. In some folks, a sense of the delicate shades
of difference between meum and tuum does not seem to be
very strongly developed in the Moon of Cherries, to use the old Indian
I was sufficiently magnanimous not to impart any of these sinister
impressions to the families with whom we were on visiting terms; for I
despise a gossip. I would say nothing against the persons up the road
until I had something definite to say. My interest in them waswell,
not exactly extinguished, but burning low. I met the gentleman at
intervals, and passed him without recognition; at rarer intervals I saw
After a while I not only missed my occasional glimpses of her
pretty, slim figure, always draped in some soft black stuff with a bit
of scarlet at the throat, but I inferred that she did not go about the
house singing in her light-hearted manner, as formerly. What had
happened? Had the honeymoon suffered eclipse already? Was she ill? I
fancied she was ill, and that I detected a certain anxiety in the
husband, who spent the mornings digging solitarily in the garden and
seemed to have relinquished those long jaunts to the brow of Blue Hill,
where there is a superb view of all Norfolk County combined with sundry
venerable rattlesnakes with twelve rattles.
As the days went by it became certain that the lady was confined to
the house, perhaps seriously ill, possibly a confirmed invalid. Whether
she was attended by a physician from Canton or from Milton, I was
unable to say; but neither the gig with the large white allopathic
horse, nor the gig with the homoeopathic sorrel mare, was ever seen
hitched at the gate during the day. If a physician had charge of the
case, he visited his patient only at night. All this moved my sympathy,
and I reproached myself with having had hard thoughts of our neighbors.
Trouble had come to them early. I would have liked to offer them such
small, friendly services as lay in my power; but the memory of the
repulse I had sustained still rankled in me. So I hesitated.
One morning my two boys burst into the library with their eyes
You know the old elm down the road? cried one.
The elm with the hang-bird's nest? shrieked the other.
Well, we both just climbed up, and there's three young ones in it!
Then I smiled to think that our new neighbors had got such a
promising little family.