Mrs. Farrell

by William Dean Howells

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Chapter I

WEST PEKIN is one of those country places which have yielded to changing conditions and have ceased to be the simple farming towns of a past generation. The people are still farmers, but most of them are no longer farmers only. In the summer they give up the habitable rooms of their old square wooden houses to boarders from the cities, and lurk about in the nooks and crannies of their L’s and lean-to’s; and, whatever their guests may have to complain of, have hardly the best of the bargains they drive with them. But in this way they eke out the living grudged them by their neglected acres, and keep their houses in a repair that contrasts with the decay of their farming. Each place has its grove of maples, fantastically gnarled and misshapen from the wounds of many sugar seasons; and an apple orchard, commonly almost past bearing with age, stretches its knotted boughs over a slope near the house. Every year the men-folk plow up an area of garden ground, and plant it with those vegetables which, to the boarders still feeding in mid-July on{2} last year’s potatoes and tough, new-butchered beef, seem so reluctant in ripening; but a furrow is hardly turned elsewhere on the farm. It yields a crop of hay about the end of June, in which the boarders’ children tumble, and a favorable season may coax from it a few tons of rowen grass. The old stone walls straggle and fall down even along the roadside; in the privacy of the wood lots and berry pastures they abandon themselves to reckless dilapidation.

Many houses in the region stand empty, absently glaring on the passer with their cold windows, as if striving in vain to recall the households, long since gone West, to whom they were once homes. By and by they will drop to ruin; or some shrewd Irishman, who has made four or five hundred dollars in a Massachusetts suburb, will buy one of them, and, stocking the farm with his stout boys and girls, will have the best-looking place about. He thrives where the son of the soil starved; and if the bitter truth must be owned, he seems to deserve his better fortune. He has enterprise and energy and industry, and to the summer boarder, used to the drive and strain of the city, the Yankee farmer often seems to have none of these qualities. It may be that the summer boarder judges him rashly; I dare say he would not be willing himself to take his landlord’s farm as a gift, if he must live on those stony hillsides the year round, and find himself at each year’s end a year older but not a day nearer the competence to which all men look forward as the just reward of long toil. I always fancied a{3} dull discouragement in the native farming race; an effect of the terrible winter that drowns a good half of the months in drifts of snow, and of the dreary solitude of the country life. Great men have come from the rural stock in our nation before now; and perhaps the people of West Pekin have earned the right to lie fallow; but whether this is so or not, it is certain that they often evince an aptness to open the mouth and stand agape at unusual encounters, which one cannot well dissociate from ideas of a complete mental repose. If they have no thoughts, they have not the irrelevance and superfluity of words. They are a signally silent race. I have seen two of them, old neighbors, meet after an absence, and when they had hornily rattled their callous palms together, stand staring at each other, their dry, serrated lips falling apart, their jaws mutely working up and down, their pale-blue eyes vacantly winking, and their weather-beaten faces as wholly discharged of expression as the gable ends of two barns confronting each other from opposite sides of the road; no figure can portray the grotesqueness of their persons, with their feet thrust into their heavy boots, and their clothes—originally misshapen in a slop-shop after some bygone fashion, and now curiously warped, outgrown, outworn—climbing up their legs and mounting upon their stooping shoulders. But if they are silent they are not surly; give them time and they are amiable enough, and they are first and last honest. They do not ask too much for board, and they show some slow willingness to{4} act upon a boarder’s suggestions for his greater comfort. But otherwise they remain unaffected by the contact. They learn no greater glibness of tongue, or liveliness of mind, or grace of manner; if their city guests bring with them the vices of wine or beer at dinner and tobacco after it, the farmers keep themselves uncontaminate. The only pipe you smell is that of the neighboring Irishman as he passes with his ox-team; the gypsying French Canadians, as they wander southward, tipsy by whole families, in their rickety open buggies, lend the sole bacchanal charm to the prospect that it knows. These are of a race whose indomitable light-heartedness no rigor of climate has appalled, whereas our Anglo-Saxon stock in many country neighborhoods of New England seems weather-beaten in mind as in face; and this may account for the greater quick-wittedness of the women, whose indoor life is more protected from the inclemency of our skies. It is certain that they are far readier than the men, more intelligent, gracious, and graceful, and with their able connivance the farmer stays the adversity creeping upon his class, if he does not retrieve its old prosperity. In the winter his daughters teach school, and in the summer they help their mother through her enterprise of taking boarders. The farm feeds them all, but from the women’s labor comes thrice the ready money that the land ever yields, and it is they who keep alive the sense of all higher and finer things, Heaven knows with what heroic patience and devoted endeavor. The house shines, through{5} them, with fresh paper and paint; year by year they add to those comforts and meek aspirations toward luxury which the summer guest accepts so lightly when he comes, smiling askance at the parlor organ in the corner, and the black-walnut-framed chromo-lithographs on the walls.

Nehemiah Woodward left West Pekin in his youth, after his preparation in the academy, which still rests its classic pediment upon a pair of fluted pine pillars above the village green, and went to Andover, where he studied divinity and married his landlady’s daughter. She was a still, somewhat austere girl, and she had spread no lures for the affections of her lover, who was of tenderer years than herself; he was not her first love; perhaps he was at last rather her duty, or her importuning fate. In any case she did not deny him in the end; they were married after his ordination and went away to the parish in New York State over which he was settled, and she left behind her the grave in which the hopes of her youth were buried. The young minister knew about it; she told him everything when he first spoke to her of marriage; they went together to bid farewell to the last resting place of the dead rival whom he had never seen; and his sublime generosity touched her heart with a lifelong gratitude.

It was his only inspiration, poor soul! he was a dreadfully dull man—too dull even for the inarticulate suffering of country congregations. Parish after parish shifted him from its aching shoulders;{6} they loved him for his goodness, but they could not endure him, they hardly knew why; it was really because his sermons were of lead, and finally none the lighter that they were beaten out so thin. He had thus worn westward, leaving a deeply striated human surface behind him, in the line of the New England emigration, as far as to the farther border of Iowa, and he was an elderly man with a half-grown family, when his father died and left the ancestral farm at West Pekin, to which none of the other sons would return from their prosperity in the neighboring towns or the new countries where they had settled. But it was not a fortune that Nehemiah could refuse; possibly he had always had his own secret yearnings for those barren pastures of his boyhood; at any rate, he gladly parted from his last willing parish and went back to the farm. Once returned, he seemed never to have been away; he looked as much a fixture of the landscape as any outbuilding of the place. He quickly shed whatever clerical dignity had belonged to his outward man, and slouched into the rusty boots and scarecrow coats and hats that costume our farmers at their work, as easily as if he had only laid them off overnight. The physical shape of the farm was favorable to his luckless gift of going downhill, but the energy of his wife now stayed his further descent as effectually as if he had been a log propped on the edge of a slope by some jutting point of granite. She had indeed always done more than her half toward keeping her family’s souls and bodies together; now, with a lasting basis to work upon,{7} she took the share on which Nehemiah’s lax hold had faltered. The house was built with the substantial handsomeness which a farmer could afford who two generations ago sent his boys to the academy. It was large and square, with ample halls crossing each other from side to side, and dividing it into four spacious rooms below and answering chambers overhead, some of which, after a season or two of summer boarders, Mrs. Woodward was able to cut in two and still leave large enough for single beds. In time a series of very habitable chambers grew out over the one-story wing; a broad new piazza invited the breeze and shade around two sides of the house, from whose hilltop perch you could look out over a sea of rolling fields and woods, steeply shored on the south by the long flank of Scatticong Mountain. The air was a luxury, the water was delicious; the walks and drives through the white-birch groves were lovely beyond compare; and long before the summer of which I write, the fame of Mrs. Woodward’s abundant table and educated kitchen had made it a privilege to be her boarders for which people endeavored by engaging her rooms a year beforehand. Whoever abode there reported it a house flowing with unstinted cream and eggs; peas, beans, squash, and sweet corn in their season, of a flavor that the green grocery never knew; blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, after their kind; and bread with whose just praise one must hesitate to tax the credulity of one’s hearer.

Mrs. Woodward not only knew how to serve her{8} guests well, but how to profit by serving them well. She made it her business, and mixed no sentiment of any sort with it. She abolished herself socially and none of her boarders offered her slight at the point to which she retreated from association with them. She left them perfect freedom in the house, but she kept them rigidly distinct from her own family, whom she devoted each in his or her way to the enterprise she had undertaken. The family ate at their own table, and never appeared in the guests’ quarter except upon some affair connected with their comfort; but they were all willing in serving. Even Nehemiah himself, under the discipline centering in his wife, showed a sort of stiff-jointed readiness in hitching up the horse for the ladies when the boys happened to be out of the way; and he had thus late in life discovered a genius for gardening. It was to his skill and industry that the table owed its luxury of vegetables; and he was wont to walk out at twilight, and stand, bent-kneed and motionless, among the potatoes, and look steadfastly upon the peas, in serene emulation of the simulacrum posted in a like attitude in another part of the patch. He was the most approachable member of the family, and would willingly have talked with one, no doubt, if he could have found anything in the world to say. The others were civil, but invisibly held aloof by the mother’s theory of business, or secret pride, which, whatever it was, interfered with no one’s rights or pleasures, and so was generally accepted by amiable newcomers after a few good-natured attempts to overcome it. There{9} was only one of them who had succeeded in breaking the circle of this reserve, and her intimacy with the Woodwards seemed rather another of her oddities than anything characteristic of them.

The household of the boarders displayed that disparity between the sexes which is one of the sad problems of the New England civilization, and perhaps enforced it a little more poignantly than was just. They were not all single ladies; a good third of the fifteen were married; of the rest, some were yet too young to think or to despair of marrying, and it could not be confidently said of others that they wished to change their state. Nevertheless, one’s first sense of their condition was vaguely compassionate. It seemed a pity that for six days in the week they should have to talk to one another and dress only for their own sex. Not that their toilettes were elaborate; they all said that they liked to come to the Woodwards’ because you did not have to dress there, but could go about just as you pleased; yet, having the taste of all American women in dress, they could not forbear making themselves look charming, and were always appearing in some surprising freshness and fragrance of linen, or some gayety of flannel walking costume. The same number of men would have lapsed into unshaven chins and unblacked boots in a single week; but these devoted women had their pretty looks on their consciences, and never failed to honor them. Some of them even wore flowers in their hair at dinner— Heaven knows why; and the young girls were always coming home from the woods{10} with nodding plumes of bracken in their hats, and walking out in the dusk with coquettish headgear on, to be seen by no one more important than some barefooted, half-grown, bashful farm boy driving home his cows. The mothers started their children out every morning in clean, whole clothes, and patiently put aside at night the grass-stained, battered, dusty, dishonored fragments. Even one or two old ladies who were there for the country air were zealous to be neatly capped. The common sentiment seemed to be that as you never knew what might happen, you ought to be prepared for it. What actually happened was the occasional arrival of the stage with an express package for one of the boarders, and a passenger for some farmhouse beyond, who at very rare and exciting intervals was a man. Once a day the young ladies went down to the village after the mail, and indulged themselves with the spectacle of gentlemen dismounting from the stage at the hotel, which at such moments poured forth on piazza and gallery a disheartening force of lady boarders. Regularly, also, at ten o’clock on Saturday night, when everybody had gone to bed, this conveyance drove up to the door of the farmhouse, and set down the five husbands of five of the married ladies, for whom it called again on Monday morning, before anybody was up. These husbands were almost as unfailing as the fish-balls at the Sunday breakfast; and when any one of them was kept in Boston it made a great talk; his wife had got word from him why he could not come; or she had not got word: it was just as ex{11}citing in either case. The ladies all made some attractive difference in their dress, which the wives when they went to their rooms asked the husbands if they had noticed, and which the husbands had not noticed, to a man. After breakfast, each husband took by the hand the child or two which his wife had scantly provided him (a family of four children was thought pitiably large, and a marvel of responsibility to the mother), and went off to the woods, whence he returned an hour before dinner, and read the evening papers which he had brought up in his pocket. In the afternoon he was reported asleep, being fatigued by the ride from town the day before, or he sat and smoked, or sometimes went driving with his family. His voice as the household heard it next morning at dawn had a gayer note than at any other time in the last thirty-eight hours, and his wife, coming down to breakfast, met the regulation jest about her renewed widowhood with a cheerfulness that was apparently sincere.

It may not have been so dull a life for the ladies as men would flatter themselves; they all seemed to like it, and not a woman among them was eager to get back to her own house and its cares. Perhaps the remembrance of these cares was the secret of her present content; perhaps women, when remanded to a comparatively natural state, are more easily satisfied then men. It is certain that they are always enduring extremes of ennui that appear intolerable to the other sex. Here at Woodward farm they had their own little world, which I dare say was all the better and kindlier for being their own.{12} They were very kind to one another, but preferences and friendships necessarily formed themselves. Certain ladies were habitually visiting, as they called it, in one another’s rooms, and one lady on the ground floor was of a hospitable genius that invited the other boarders to make her room the common lounging and gossiping place. Whoever went in or out stopped there; and the mail, when it was brought from the post-office, was distributed and mostly read and talked over, there.

Till a bed was put into the parlor, one of the young ladies used to play a very little on the organ after breakfast on rainy days. One of the married ladies, who had no children, painted; she painted cat-tail rushes, generally; not very like, and yet plainly recognizable. Another embroidered; she sat with her work in the wide doorway, and those passing her used to stop and take up one edge of it as it hung from her fingers, and talk very seriously about it, and tell what they had seen of the kind. Some of them were always writing letters; two or three had a special gift of sleep, both before and after dinner, which distinguished them from several nervous ladies, who never could sleep in the daytime. The young girls went up the mountain a good deal whenever they could join a party; twice when one of their brothers came from the city they camped out on the mountain; it was a great thing to see their camp fire after dusk; once they came home in a rain, and that was talk for two days, and always a joke afterward. They had a lot of novels, not very new to our generation, which they read{13} aloud to one another sometimes; they began to write a novel of their own, each contributing a chapter, but I believe they never finished it; the youngest kept a journal, but she did not write in it much. She could also drive; and her timid elders who rode out with her said they felt almost as safe with her as with a man. All the ladies said that the air was doing them a great deal of good, and, if not, that the complete rest was everything; none of them had that wornout feeling with which she had come; if any did not pick up at once, she was told that she would see the change when she got home in the fall. Two or three, in the meantime, were nearly always sick in bed, or kept from meals by headache. From time to time the well ones had themselves weighed at the village store, to know whether they had gained or lost. They all talked together a good deal about their complaints, of which, whether they were sick or well, they each had several.

These were the interests and occupations, this the life, at Woodward farm, to the entire simplicity of which I am afraid I have not done justice, when a thing happened that complicated the situation and for the moment robbed it of its characteristic repose. It appears that while Mrs. Stevenson was quietly multiplying cat-tail rushes in her cool, airy, upstairs room, one of the Woodward girls, who taught school and in vacation waited on the boarders at the table, had also been employed—somewhere in the mysterious L part, where her family bestowed itself—on a work of art, a head of the Alderney cow known to the whole household{14} as Blossom. Whether it was ever meant to be seen or not is scarcely certain; that lady who alone had the intimacy of the Woodwards came out with it from the kitchen one morning, as by violence, and showed it to the boarders after breakfast, while they still loitered at the table, none of the artist’s kindred appearing. They all recognized Blossom in a moment, but the exhibitor let them suffer and guess awhile who did it. Then she exploded the fact upon them, and the excitement began to rise. They said that it was a real Rosa Bonheur; and Mrs. Stevenson, who was indeed in another line of art and need feel no envy, set her head on one side, held the picture at arm’s length in different lights, and pronounced it perfect, simply perfect, for a charcoal sketch. They had looked at it in a group; now they looked at it singly and from a distance, cautioning one another that the least touch would ruin it. Then they began to ask the exhibitress if she had known of Miss Woodward’s gift before, the young girls listening to her replies with something of the zeal and reverence they felt for the artist. At last they said Mrs. Gilbert must see it, and followed it in procession to the room of the public-spirited lady on the first floor. She had been having her breakfast in bed, and now sat in a beruffled, sweet-scented dishabille, which became her pale, middle-aged, invalid good looks—her French-marquise effect, one young girl called it, Mrs. Gilbert’s hair being quite gray, and her thick eyebrows dark, like those of a powdered old-regime beauty. They set the drawing on her chimney{15}-piece, and she considered it a long while with her hands lying in her lap. “Yes,” she sighed at last, “it’s very fair indeed, poor thing.”

“Blossom or Rachel, Mrs. Gilbert?” promptly demanded the lady who had been chaperoning the picture, with a tremor of humorous appreciation at the corners of her mouth, and a quick glance of her very dark-brown eyes.

“Rachel,” answered Mrs. Gilbert. “Blossom is a blessed cow. But a woman of genius in a New England farmhouse where they take summer boarders—oh dear me! Yes, it’s quite as bad as that, I should say,” she added, thoughtfully, after another stare at the picture.


The company had settled and perched and poised upon the different pieces of furniture, as if they expected Mrs. Gilbert to go on talking; but she seemed to be out of the mood, and chose rather to listen to their applauses of the picture. The sum of their kindly feeling appeared to be that something must be done to encourage Miss Woodward, but they were not certain how she ought to be encouraged, and they began to stray away from the subject before anything was concluded. When the surprise had been drained to the dregs, a natural reaction began, and they left Mrs. Gilbert somewhat sooner than usual and with signs of fatigue. Presently no one remained but the lady who had exhibited the picture; her, as she made a movement to take it from the mantel, Mrs. Gilbert stopped, and began to ask about the artistic history of Miss Woodward.


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