Mary E. Wilkins Freeman was born in 1852 in Randolph, Massachusetts. After high school, Freeman attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary and later completed her studies at West Brattleboro Seminary while she pursued writing as a career. By her mid-thirties, Freeman’s parents had died, and she was alone with only a small inheritance. She lived with family friends and continued her writing, eventually supporting herself by publishing important works recognized and praised by William Dean Howells, Henry James, and other major writers of the day. While she wrote a number of novels, she is best known for her short stories, especially those that focused on the New England region. How-ever, Freeman expanded her scope and produced a variety of fictional genres, including mysteries and ghost stories. A New England Nun and Other Stories (1891) stands as her most critically acclaimed achievement, a collection of regional stories focusing primarily on women and New England life. At forty-nine, Freeman married a physician, Dr. Charles Freeman from New Jersey. However, the marriage was marred by her husband’s alcoholism, and she eventually separated from him. He was ultimately committed to the New Jersey State Hospital for the mentally ill. She died in 1930 at the age of seventy-eight after suffering a heart attack.
While Freeman was a prolific writer, she is best remembered for two important collections of short stories, A Humble Romance and Other Stories (1887) and A New England Nun and Other Stories (1891). The stories in these collections concern rural New England life and focus, in particular, on the domestic concerns of women. Like Sarah Orne Jewett, Freeman has been labeled a local colorist. However, the fiction of Jewett and Freeman generally is considered more representative of American Literary Regionalism, especially since both authors develop in their work dimensional characters whose internal conflicts are explored. Freeman’s focus in “A New England Nun” and “The Revolt of Mother” is on women’s redefining their place in the domestic sphere. In “A New England Nun,” Louisa rejects having her domestic world invaded or controlled by a male presence. She preserves dominion over her small home, gently suggesting to her betrothed Joe Daggett that they may not be a good match after all. Her choice is courageous she forgoes the role of wife and mother that her culture pressures her to accept and the peace, solitude, and self-determination that she claims in return are worth the price of her rebellion against cultural norms. In “The Revolt of Mother,” Sarah Penn is a New England woman who has accepted the traditional role of wife and mother for herself; nevertheless, like Louisa, she revolts against established cultural expectations for women. Sarah refuses to accept her husband’s dismissive attitude when she argues that the farming family needs a new house. Instead, she enacts a revolt where she, through action likened to a military general storming a fortress, makes the statement that her work on the family farm within the domestic sphere is just as important as her husband’s work as a farmer. Freeman’s fiction, as does Jewett’s, often moves beyond simply regional concerns to explore wider issues of women’s roles in late nineteenth-century America, thus approaching an early feminist realism.
2.9.1 “A New England Nun”
It was late in the afternoon, and the light was waning. There was a difference in the look of the tree shadows out in the yard. Somewhere in the distance cows were lowing, and a little bell was tinkling; now and then a farm-wagon tilted by, and the dust flew; some blue-shirted laborers with shovels over their shoulders plodded past; little swarms of flies were dancing up and down before the peoples’ faces in the soft air. There seemed to be a gentle stir arising over everything, for the mere sake of subsidences very premonition of rest and hush and night.
This soft diurnal commotion was over Louisa Ellis also. She had been peacefully sewing at her sitting-room window all the afternoon. Now she quilted her needle carefully into her work, which she folded precisely, and laid in a basket with her thimble and thread and scissors. Louisa Ellis could not remember that ever in her life she had mislaid one of these little feminine appurtenances, which had become, from long use and constant association, a very part of her personality.
Louisa tied a green apron round her waist, and got out a flat straw hat with a green ribbon. Then she went into the garden with a little blue crockery bowl, to pick some currants for her tea. After the currants were picked she sat on the back door-step and stemmed them, collecting the stems carefully in her apron, and afterwards throwing them into the hen-coop. She looked sharply at the grass beside the step to see if any bad fallen there.
Louisa was slow and still in her movements; it took her a long time to prepare her tea; but when ready it was set forth with as much grace as if she bad been a veritable guest to her own self. The little square table stood exactly in the centre of the kitchen, and was covered with a starched linen cloth whose border pattern of flowers glistened. Louisa had a damask napkin on her tea-tray, where were arranged a cut lass tumbler full of teaspoons, a silver cream-pitcher, a china sugar-bowl, and one pink china cup and saucer. Louisa used china every day-something which none of her neighbors did. They whispered about it among themselves. Their daily tables were laid with common crockery, their sets of best china stayed in the parlor closet, and Louisa Ellis was no richer nor better bred than they. Still she would use the china. She had for her supper a glass dish full of sugared currants, a plate of little cakes, and one of little white biscuits. Also a leaf or two of lettuce, which she cut up daintily. Louisa was very fond of lettuce, which she raised to perfection in her little garden. She ate quite heartily, though, in a delicate, pecking, way; it seemed almost surprising that any considerable bulk of the food should vanish.
After tea she filled a plate with nicely baked thin corncakes, and carried them out into the back-yard.
“Caesar!” she called. “Caesar! Caesar!”
There was a little rush, and the clank of a chain, and a large yellow and white dog appeared at the door of his tiny hut, which was half hidden among the tall grasses and flowers. Louisa patted him and gave him the corn-cakes. Then shereturned to the house and washed the tea-things, polishing the china carefully. The twilight had deepened; the chorus of the frogs floated in at the open window wonderfully loud and shrill, and once in a while a long sharp drone from a treetoad pierced it. Louisa took off her green gingham apron, disclosing a shorter one of pink and white print. She lighted her lamp, and sat down again with her sewing.
In about half an hour Joe Dagget came. She heard his heavy step on the walk, and rose and took off her pink and white apron. Under that was still another white linen with a little cambric edging on the bottom; that was Louisa’s company apron. She never wore it without her calico sewing apron over it unless she had a guest. She had barely folded the pink and white one with methodical haste and laid it in a table-drawer when the door opened and Joe Dagget entered.
He seemed to fill up the whole room. A little yellow canary that had been asleep in his green cage at the south window woke up and fluttered wildly, beating his little yellow wings against the wires. He always did so when Joe Dagget came into the room.
“Good-evening,” said Louisa. She extended her hand with a kind of solemn cordiality.
“Good-evening, Louisa,” returned the man, in a loud voice.
She placed a chair for him, and they sat facing each other, with the table between them. He sat bolt upright, toeing out his heavy feet squarely, glancing with a good humored uneasiness around the room. She sat gently erect, folding her slender hands in her white linen lap.
“Been a pleasant day,” remarked Dagget.
“Real pleasant,” Louisa assented, softly.
“Have you been haying?” she asked, after a little while.
“Yes, I’ve been baying all day, down in the ten-acre lot. Pretty hot work.”
“It must be.”
“Yes, it’s pretty hot work in the sun.”
“Is your mother well to-day?”
“Yes, mother’s pretty well.”
“I suppose Lily Dyer’s with her now?”
Dagget colored. “Yes, she’s with her,” he answered, slowly.
He was not very young, but there was a boyish look about his large face. Louisa was not quite as old as he, her face was fairer and smoother, but she gave people the impression of being older.
“I suppose she’s a good deal of help to your mother,” she said, further.
“I guess she is; I don’t know how mother’d get along without her,” said Dagget, with a sort of embarrassed warmth.
“She looks like a real capable girl. She’s pretty-looking too,” remarked Louisa. “Yes, she is pretty fair looking.”
Presently Dagget began fingering the books on the table. There was a square red autograph album, and a Young Lady’s Gift Book which had belonged to Louisa’s mother. He took them up one after the other and opened them then laid them down again, the album on the Gift Book.
Louisa kepteying them with mild uneasiness. Finally she rose and changed the position of the books, putting the album underneath. That was the way they had been arranged in the first place.
Dagget gave an awkward little laugh. “ Now what difference did it make which book was on top?” said he.
Louisa looked at him with a deprecating smile. “ I always keep them that way,” murmured she.
“You do beat everything,” said Dagget, trying to laugh again. His large face was flushed.
He remained about an hour longer, then rose to take leave. Going out, he stumbled over a rug, and trying to recover himself, hit Louisa’s work-basket on the table, and knocked it on the floor.
He looked at Louisa, then at the rolling spools; he ducked himself awkwardly toward them, but she stopped him. “ Never mind,” said she I’ll pick them up after you’re gone.”
She spoke with a mild stiffness. Either she was a little disturbed, or his nervousness affected her, and made her seem constrained in her effort to reassure him.
When Joe Dagget was outside he drew in the sweet evening air with a sigh, and felt much as an innocent and perfectly well-intentioned bear might after his exit from a china shop.
Louisa, on her part, felt much as the kind-hearted, long suffering owner of the china shop might have done after the exit of the bear.
She tied on the pink, then the green apron, picked up all the scattered treasures and replaced them in her workbasket, and straightened the rug. Then she set the lamp on the floor, and began sharply examining the carpet. She even rubbed her fingers over it, and looked at them.
“He’s tracked in a good deal of dust,” she murmured. “I thought he must have.” Louisa got a dust-pan and brush, and swept Joe Dagget’s track carefully.
If he could have known it, it would have increased his perplexity and Uneasiness, although it would not have disturbed his loyalty in the least. He came twice a week to see Louisa Ellis, and every time, sitting there in her delicately sweet room, he felt as if surrounded by a hedge of lace. He was afraid to stir lest he should put a clumsy foot or hand through the fairy web, and he had always the consciousness that Louisa was watching fearfully lest he should.
Still the lace and Louisa commanded perforce his perfect respect and patience and loyalty. They were to be married in a month, after a singular courtship which had lasted for a matter of fifteen years. For fourteen out of the fifteen years the two had not once seen each other, and they bad seldom exchanged letters. Joe had been all those years in Australia, where he had gone to make his fortune, and where be had stayed until be made it. He would have stayed fifty years if it had taken so long, and come home feeble and tottering, or never come home at all, to marry Louisa.
But the fortune had been made in the fourteen years, and he had come home now to marry the woman who had been patiently and unquestioningly waiting for him all that time.
Shortly after they were engaged he had announced to Louisa his determination to strike out into new fields, and secure a competency before they should be married. She had listened and assented with the sweet serenity which never failed her, not even when her lover set forth on that long and uncertain journey. Joe, buoyed up as he was by his sturdy determination, broke down a little at the last, but Louisa kissed him with a mild blush, and said good-by.
“It won’t be for long,” poor Joe had said, huskily; but it was for fourteen years.
In that length of time much had happened. Louisa’s mother and brother had died, and she was all alone in the world. But greatest happening of all a subtle happening which both were too simple to understand Louisa’s feet had turned into a path, smooth maybe under a calm, serene sky, but so straight and unswerving that it could only meet a check at her grave, and so narrow that there was no room for any one at her side.
Louisa’s first emotion when Joe Dagget came home (he had not apprised her of his coming) was consternation, although she would not admit it to herself, and he never dreamed of it. Fifteen years ago she had been in love with him at least she considered herself to be. Just at that time, gently acquiescing with and falling into the natural drift of girlhood, she had seen marriage ahead as a reasonable feature and a probable desirability of life. She had listened with came docility to her mother’s views upon the subject. Her mother was remarkable for her cool sense and sweet, even temperament. She talked wisely to her daughter when Joe Dagget presented himself, and Louisa accepted him with no hesitation. He was the first lover she had ever had.
She had been faithful to him all these years. She had never dreamed of the possibility of marrying any one else. Her life, especially for the last seven years, had been full of a pleasant peace, she had never felt discontented nor impatient over her lover’s absence; still she had always looked forward to his return and their marriage as the inevitable conclusion of things. However she had fallen into a way of placing it so far in the future that it was almost equal to placing it over the boundaries of another life.
When Joe came she had been expecting him, and expecting to be married for fourteen years, but she was as much surprised and taken aback as if she had never thought of it.
Joe’s consternation came later. He eyed Louisa with an instant confirmation of his old admiration. She had changed but little. She still kept her pretty manner and soft grace, and was, he considered, every whit as attractive as ever. As for himself, his stent was done; he had turned his face away from fortune seeking, and the old winds of romance whistled as loud and sweet as ever through his ears. All the song which he had been wont to hear in them was Louisa; he had for a long time a loyal belief that he heard it still, but finally it seemed to him that although the winds sang always that one song, it had another name. But for Louisa the wind had never more than murmured; now it hid gone down, and everything was still. She listened for a little while with half-wistful attention then she turned quietly away and went to work on her wedding clothes.
Joe had made some extensive and quite magnificent alterations in his house. It was the old homestead; the newly married couple would live there, for Joe could not desert his mother, who refused to leave her old home. So Louisa must leave hers. Every morning rising and going about among her neat maidenly possessions, she felt as one looking her last upon the faces of dear friends. It was true that in a measure she could take them with her, but, robbed of their old environments, they would appear in such new guises that they would almost cease to be themselves. Then there were some peculiar features of her happy solitary life which she would probably be obliged to relinquish altogether. Sterner tasks than these graceful but half needless ones would probably devolve upon her. There would be a large house to care for; there would be company to entertain; there would be Joe’s rigorous and feeble old mother to wait upon; and it would be contrary to all thrifty village traditions for her to keep more than one servant. Louisa had a little still, and she used to occupy herself pleasantly in summer weather with distilling the sweet and aromatic essences from roses and peppermint and spear mint. By and by her still must be laid away. Her store of essences was already considerable, and there would be no time for her to distil for the mere pleasure of it. Then Joe’s mother would think it foolishness; she had already hinted her opinion in the matter. Louisa dearly loved to sew a linen scam, not always for use, but for the simple, mild pleasure which she took in it. She would have been loath to confess how more than once she had ripped a seam for the mere delight of sewing it together again. Sitting at her window during long sweet afternoons, drawing her needle gently through the dainty fabric, she was peace itself. But there was small chance of such foolish comfort in the future. Joe’s mother, domineering, shrewd old matron that she was even in her old age, and very likely even Joe himself, with his honest masculine rudeness, would laugh and frown down all these pretty but senseless old maiden ways.
Louisa had almost the enthusiasm of an artist over the mere order and cleanliness of her solitary home. She had throbs of genuine triumph at the sight of the windowpanes which she had polished until they shone like jewels. She gloated gently over her orderly bureau drawers, with their exquisitely folded contents redolent with lavender and sweet clover and very purity. Could she be sure of the endurance of even this? She had visions, so startling that she half repudiated them as indelicate, of coarse masculine belongings strewn about in endless litter; of dust and disorder arising necessarily from a coarse masculine presence in the midst of all this delicate harmony. Among her forebodings of disturbance, not the least was with regard to Caesar. Caesar was a veritable hermit of a dog. For the greater part of his life he had dwelt in his secluded hut, shut out from the society of his kind and all innocent canine joys. Never had Caesar since his early youth watched at a woodchuck’s hole; never had he known the delights of a stray bone at a neighbor’s kitchen door. And it was all on account of a sin committed when hardly out of his puppy hood. No one knew the possible depth of remorse of which this mild visaged, altogether innocent-looking old dog might be capable but whether or not he had encountered remorse, he had encountered a full measure of righteous retribution. Old Caesar seldom lifted up his voice in a growl or a bark; he was fat and sleepy; there were yellow rings which looked like spectacles around his dim old eyes; but there was a neighbor who bore on his hand the imprint of several of Caesar’s sharp white youthful teeth, and for that be had lived at the end of a chain, all alone in a little but, for fourteen years. The neighbor, who was choleric and smarting with the pain of his wound, had demanded either Caesar’s death or complete ostracism. So Louisa’s brother, to whom the dog had belonged, had built him his little kennel and tied him up. It was now fourteen years since, in a flood of youthful spirits, he had inflicted that memorable bite, and with the exception of short excursions, always at the end of the chain, under the strict guardianship of his master or Louisa, the old dog had remained a close prisoner. It is doubtful if, with his limited ambition, he took much pride in the fact, but it is certain that lie was possessed of considerable cheap fame, He was regarded by all the children in the village and by many adults as a very monster of ferocity. St. George’s dragon could hardly have surpassed in evil repute Louisa Ellis’s old yellow dog. Mothers cleared their children with solemn emphasis not to go too near to him, and the children listened and believed greedily, with a fascinated appetite for terror, and ran by Louisa’s house stealthily, with many sidelong and backward glances at the terrible dog. If perchance he sounded a hoarse bark, there was a panic. Wayfarers chancing into Louisa’s yard eyed him with respect, and inquired if the chain were stout. Caesar at large might have seemed a very ordinary dog, and excited no comment whatever chained, his reputation overshadowed him, so that he lost his own proper outlines and looked darkly vague and enormous. Joe Dagget, however, with his good humored sense and shrewdness, saw him as he was. He strode valiantly up to him and patted him on the bead, in spite of Louisa’s soft clamor of warning, and even attempted to set him loose. Louisa grew so alarmed that he desisted, but kept announcing his opinion in the matter quite forcibly at intervals. “There ain’t a better-natured dog in town,” be would say, “ and it’s down-right cruel to keep him tied up there. Some day I’m going to take him out.”
Louisa had very little hope that be would not, one of these days, when their interests and possessions should be more completely fused in one. She pictured to herself Caesar on the rampage through the quiet and unguarded village. She saw innocent children bleeding in his path. She was herself very fond of the old dog, because he had belonged to her dead brother, and he was always very gentle with her; still she had great faith in his ferocity. She always warned people not to go too near him. She fed him on ascetic fare of corn-mush and cakes, and never fired his dangerous temper with heating and sanguinary diet of flesh and bones. Louisa looked at the old dog munching his simple fare, and thought of her approaching marriage and trembled. Still no anticipation of disorder and confusion in lieu of sweet peace and harmony, no forebodings of Caesar on the rampage, no wild fluttering of her little yellow canary, were sufficient to turn her a hairsbreadth. Joe Dagget had been fond of her and working for her all these years. It was not for her, whatever came to pass, to prove untrue and break his heart. She put the exquisite little studies into her wedding garments, and the time went on until it was only a week before her wedding day. It was a Tuesday evening, and the wedding was to be a week from Wednesday.
There was a full moon that night. About nine o’clock Louisa strolled down the road a little way. There were harvest fields on either hand, bordered by low stone walls. Luxuriant clumps of bushes grew beside the wall, and trees wild cherry and old apple-trees-at intervals. Presently Louisa sat down on the wall and looked about her with mildly sorrowful reflectiveness. Tall shrubs of blueberry and mead ow sweet, all woven together and tangled with blackberry vines and horsebriers, shut her in on either side. She had a little clear space between them. Opposite her, on the other side of the road, was a spreading tree; the moon shone between its boughs, and the leaves twinkled like silver. The road was be spread with a beautiful shifting dapple of silver and shadow; the air was full of a mysterious sweetness. “I wonder if it’s wild grapes?” murmured Louisa. She sat there some time. She was just thinking of rising, when she beard footsteps and low voices, and remained quiet. It was a lonely place, and she felt a little timid. She thought she would keep still in the shadow and let the persons, whoever they might be, pass her.
But just before they reached her the voices ceased, and the footsteps. She understood that. their owners had also found seats upon the stone wall. She was wondering if she could not steal away unobserved, when the voice broke the stillness. It was Joe Dagget’s. She sat still and listened.
The voice was announced by a loud sigh, which was as familiar as itself. “Well,” said Dagget, “you’ve made up your mind, then, I suppose ?”
“Yes,” returned another voice; “I’m going, day after tomorrow.”
“That’s Lily Dyer,” thought Louisa to herself. The voice embodied itself in her mind. She saw a girl tall and full-figured, with a firm, fair face, looking fairer and firmer in the moonlight, her strong yellow hair braided in a close knot. A girl full of a calm rustic strength and bloom, with a masterful way which might have be seemed a princess. Lily Dyer was a favorite with the village folk; she had just the qualities to arouse the admiration. She was good and handsome and smart. Louisa had often heard her praises sounded.
“Well,” said Joe Dagget, “I ain’t got a word to say.”
“I don’t know what you could say,” returned Lily Dver.
“Not a word to say,” repeated Joe, drawing out the words heavily. Then there was a silence. “ I ain’t sorry,” he began at last, “that that happened yesterday that we kind of let on how we felt to each other. I guess it’s just as well we knew. Of course I can’t do anything any different. I’m going right on an’ get married next week. I ain’t going back on a woman that’s waited for me fourteen years, an’ break her heart.”
“If you should jilt her to-morrow, I wouldn’t have you,” spoke up the girl, with sudden vehemence.
“Well, I ain’t going to give you the chance,” said he; “but I don’t believe you would, either.”
“You’d see I wouldn’t. Honor’s honor, an’ right’s right. An’ I’d never think anything of any man that went against ‘em for me or any other girl you’d find that out, Joe Dagget.”
“Well, you’ll find out fast enough that I ain’t going against ‘em for you or any other girl,” returned he. Their voices sounded almost as if they were angry with each other. Louisa was listening eagerly.
“I’m sorry you feel as if you must go away,” said Joe, “but I don’t know but it’s best.”
“Of course it’s best. I hope you and I have got common-sense.”
“Well, I suppose you’re right.” Suddenly Joe’s voice got an undertone of tenderness. “Say, Lily,” said he, “I’ll get along well enough myself, but I can’t bear to think You don’t suppose you’re going to fret much over it?”
“I guess you’ll find out I sha’n’t fret much over a married man.”
“Well, I hope you won’t-I hope you won’t, Lily. God knows I do. And I hope one of these days you’ll -come across somebody else ”
“I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t.” Suddenly her tone changed. She spoke in a sweet, clear voice, so loud that she could have been heard across the street. “No, Joe Dagget,” said she, “I’ll never marry any other man as long as I live. I’ve got good sense, an’ I ain’t going to break my heart nor make a fool of myself; but I’m never going to be married, you can be sure of that. I ain’t that sort of a girl to feel this way twice.”
Louisa heard an exclamation and a soft commotion behind the bushes; then Lily spoke again-the voice sounded as if she had risen. “This must be put a stop to,” said she. “We’ve stayed here long enough. I’m going home.”
Louisa sat there in a daze, listening to their retreating steps. After a while she got up and slunk softly home herself. The next day she did her housework methodically; that was as much a matter of course as breathing; but she did not sew on her wedding-clothes. She sat at her window and meditated. In the evening Joe came. Louisa Ellis had never known that she had any diplomacy in her, but when she came to look for it that night she found it, although meek of its kind, among her little feminine weapons. Even now she could hardly believe that she had heard aright, and that she would not do Joe a terrible injury should she break her troth plight. She wanted to sound him without betraying too soon her own inclinations in the matter. She did it successfully, and they finally came to an understanding but it was a difficult thing, for he was as afraid of betraying himself as she.
She never mentioned Lily Dyer. She simply said that while she had no cause of complaint against him, she had lived so long in one way that she shrank from making a change.
“Well, I never shrank, Louisa,” said Dagget. “I’m going to be honest enough to say that I think maybe it’s better this way; but if you’d wanted to keep on, I’d have stuck to you till my dying day. I hope you know that.”
“Yes, I do,” said she.
That night she and Joe parted more tenderly than they had done for a long time. Standing in the door, holding each other’s hands, a last great wave of regretful memory swept over them.
“Well, this ain’t the way we’ve thought it was all going to end, is it, Louisa?” said Joe.
She shook her head. There was a little quiver on her placid face.
“You let me know if there’s ever anything I can do for you,” said he. “I ain’t ever going to forget you, Louisa.” Then he kissed her, and went down the path.
Louisa, all alone by herself that night, wept a little, she hardly knew why, but the next morning, on waking, she felt like a queen who, after fearing lest her domain be wrested away from her, sees it firmly insured in her possession. Now the tall weeds and grasses might cluster around Caesar’s little hermit hut, the snow might fall on its roof year in and year out, but he never would go on a rampage through the unguarded village. Now the little canary might turn itself into a peaceful yellow ball night after night, and have no need to wake and flutter with wild terror against its bars. Louisa could sew linen seams, and distil roses, and dust and polish and fold away in lavender, as long as she listed. That afternoon she sat with her needle-work at the window, and felt fairly steeped in peace. Lily Dyer, tall and erect and blooming, went past; but she felt no qualm. If Louisa Ellis had sold her birthright she did not know it, the taste of the pottage was so delicious, and had been her sole satisfaction for so long. Serenity and placid narrowness had become to her as the birthright itself. She gazed ahead through a long reach of future days strung together like pearls in a rosary, every one like the others, and all smooth and flawless and innocent, and her heart went up in thankfulness. Outside was the fervid sunnier afternoon; the air was filled with the sounds of the busy harvest of men and birds and bees; there were halloos, metallic clattering, sweet calls, and long hummings. Louisa sat, prayerfully numbering her days, like an uncloistered nun.
2.9.2 “The Revolt of ‘Mother’”
“What is it?”
“What are them men diggin’ over there in the field for?”
There was a sudden dropping and enlarging of the lower part of the old man’s face, as if some heavy weight had settled therein; he shut his mouth tight, and went on harnessing the great bay mare. He hustled the collar on to her neck with a jerk.
The old man slapped the saddle upon the mare’s back.
“Look here, father, I want to know what them men are diggin’ over in the field for, an’ I’m goin’ to know.”
“I wish you’d go into the house, mother, an’ ‘tend to your own affairs,” the old man said then. He ran his words together, and his speech was almost as inarticulate as a growl.
But the woman understood; it was her most native tongue. “I ain’t goin’ into the house till you tell me what them men are doin’ over there in the field,” said she. Then she stood waiting. She was a small woman, short and straight-waisted like a child in her brown cotton gown. Her forehead was mild and benevolent between the smooth curves of gray hair; there were meek downward lines about her nose and mouth; but her eyes, fixed upon the old man, looked as if the meekness had been the result of her own will, never of the will of another.
They were in the barn, standing before the wide open doors. The spring air, full of the smell of growing grass and unseen blossoms, came in their faces. The deep yard in front was littered with farm wagons and piles of wood; on the edges, close to the fence and the house, the grass was a vivid green, and there were some dandelions. The old man glanced doggedly at his wife as he tightened the last buckles on the harness. She looked as immovable to him as one of the rocks in his pasture-land, bound to the earth with generations of blackberry vines. He slapped the reins over the horse, and started forth from the barn.
“Father!” said she.
The old man pulled up. “What is it?”
“I want to know what them men are diggin’ over there in that field for.” “They’re diggin’ a cellar, I s’pose, if you’ve got to know.”
“A cellar for what?”
“A barn? You ain’t goin’ to build a barn over there where we was goin’ to have a house, father?”
The old man said not another word. He hurried the horse into the farm wagon, and clattered out of the yard, jouncing as sturdily on his seat as a boy.
The woman stood a moment looking after him, then she went out of the barn across a corner of the yard to the house. The house, standing at right angles with the great barn and a long reach of sheds and out-buildings, was infinitesimal compared with them. It was scarcely as commodious for people as the little boxes under the barn eaves were for doves.
A pretty girl’s face, pink and delicate as a flower, was looking out of one of the house windows. She was watching three men who were digging over in the field which bounded the yard near the road line. She turned quietly when the woman entered.
“What are they diggin’ for, mother?” said she. “Did he tell you?” “They’re diggin’ for a cellar for a new barn.”
“Oh, mother, he ain’t goin’ to build another barn?”
“That’s what he says.”
A boy stood before the kitchen glass combing his hair. He combed slowly and painstakingly, arranging his brown hair in a smooth hillock over his forehead. He did not seem to pay any attention to the conversation.
“Sammy, did you know father was goin’ to build a new barn?” asked the girl. The boy combed assiduously.
He turned, and showed a face like his father’s under his smooth crest of hair.
“Yes, I s’pose I did,” he said, reluctantly.
“How long have you known it?” asked his mother.
“‘Bout three months, I guess.”
“Why didn’t you tell of it?”
“Didn’t think ‘twould do no good.”
“I don’t see what father wants another barn for,” said the girl, in her sweet, slow voice. She turned again to the window, and stared out at the digging men in the field. Her tender, sweet face was full of a gentle distress. Her forehead was as bald and innocent as a baby’s, with the light hair strained back from it in a row of curl-papers. She was quite large, but her soft curves did not look as if they covered muscles.
Her mother looked sternly at the boy. “Is he goin’ to buy more cows?” said she. The boy did not reply; he was tying his shoes.
“Sammy, I want you to tell me if he’s goin’ to buy more cows.”
“I s’pose he is.”
“Four, I guess.”
His mother said nothing more. She went into the pantry, and there was a clatter of dishes. The boy got his cap from a nail behind the door, took an old arithmetic from the shelf, and started for school. He was lightly built, but clumsy. He went out of the yard with a curious spring in the hips, that made his loose home-made jacket tilt up in the rear.
The girl went to the sink, and began to wash the dishes that were piled up there. Her mother came promptly out of the pantry, and shoved her aside. “You wipe ‘em,” said she; “I’ll wash. There’s a good many this mornin’.”
The mother plunged her hands vigorously into the water, the girl wiped the plates slowly and dreamily. “Mother,” said she, “don’t you think it’s too bad father’s goin’ to build that new barn, much as we need a decent house to live in?”
Her mother scrubbed a dish fiercely. “You ain’t found out yet we’re women-folks, Nanny Penn,” said she. “You ain’t seen enough of men-folks yet to. One of these days you’ll find it out, an’ then you’ll know that we know only what men-folks think we do, so far as any use of it goes, an’ how we’d ought to reckon men-folks in with Providence, an’ not complain of what they do any more than we do of the weather.”
“I don’t care; I don’t believe George is anything like that, anyhow,” said Nanny. Her delicate face flushed pink, her lips pouted softly, as if she were going to cry.
“You wait an’ see. I guess George Eastman ain’t no better than other men. You hadn’t ought to judge father, though. He can’t help it, ‘cause he don’t look at things jest the way we do. An’ we’ve been pretty comfortable here, after all. The roof don’t leak ain’t never but once that’s one thing. Father’s kept it shingled right up.”
“I do wish we had a parlor.”
“I guess it won’t hurt George Eastman any to come to see you in a nice clean kitchen. I guess a good many girls don’t have as good a place as this. Nobody’s ever heard me complain.”
“I ain’t complained either, mother.”
“Well, I don’t think you’d better, a good father an’ a good home as you’ve got. S’pose your father made you go out an’ work for your livin’? Lots of girls have to that ain’t no stronger an’ better able to than you be.”
Sarah Penn washed the frying-pan with a conclusive air. She scrubbed the outside of it as faithfully as the inside. She was a masterly keeper of her box of a house. Her one livingroom never seemed to have in it any of the dust which the friction of life with inanimate matter produces. She swept, and there seemed to be no dirt to go before the broom; she cleaned, and one could see no difference. She was like an artist so perfect that he has apparently no art. To day she got out a mixing bowl and a board, and rolled some pies, and there was no more flour upon her than upon her daughter who was doing finer work. Nanny was to be married in the fall, and she was sewing on some white cambric and embroidery. She sewed industriously while her mother cooked, her soft milk white hands and wrists showed whiter than her delicate work.
“We must have the stove moved out in the shed before long,” said Mrs. Penn.
“Talk about not havin’ things, it’s been a real blessin’ to be able to put a stove up in that shed in hot weather. Father did one good thing when he fixed that stove-pipe out there.”
Sarah Penn’s face as she rolled her pies had that expression of meek vigor which might have characterized one of the New Testament saints. She was making mince-pies. Her husband, Adoniram Penn, liked them better than any other kind. She baked twice a week. Adoniram often liked a piece of pie between meals. She hurried this morning. It had been later than usual when she began, and she wanted to have a pie baked for dinner. However deep a resentment she might be forced to hold against her husband, she would never fail in sedulous attention to his wants.
Nobility of character manifests itself at loop-holes when it is not provided with large doors. Sarah Penn’s showed itself to-day in flaky dishes of pastry. So she made the pies faithfully, while across the table she could see, when she glanced up from her work, the sight that rankled in her patient and steadfast soul the digging of the cellar of the new barn in the place where Adoniram forty years ago had promised her their new house should stand.
The pies were done for dinner. Adoniram and Sammy were home a few minutes after twelve o’clock. The dinner was eaten with serious haste. There was never much conversation at the table in the Penn family. Adoniram asked a blessing, and they ate promptly, then rose up and went about their work.
Sammy went back to school, taking soft sly lopes out of the yard like a rabbit. He wanted a game of marbles before school, and feared his father would give him some chores to do. Adoniram hastened to the door and called after him, but he was out of sight.
“I don’t see what you let him go for, mother,” said he. “I wanted him to help me unload that wood.”
Adoniram went to work out in the yard unloading wood from the wagon. Sarah put away the dinner dishes, while Nanny took down her curl-papers and changed her dress. She was going down to the store to buy some more embroidery and thread.
When Nanny was gone, Mrs. Penn went to the door. “Father!” she called. “Well, what is it!”
“I want to see you jest a minute, father.”
“I can’t leave this wood nohow. I’ve got to git it unloaded an’ go for a load of gravel afore two o’clock. Sammy had ought to helped me. You hadn’t ought to let him go to school so early.”
“I want to see you jest a minute.”
“I tell ye I can’t, nohow, mother.”
“Father, you come here.” Sarah Penn stood in the door like a queen; she held her head as if it bore a crown; there was that patience which makes authority royal in her voice. Adoniram went.
Mrs. Penn led the way into the kitchen, and pointed to a chair. “Sit down, father,” said she; “I’ve got somethin’ I want to say to you.”
He sat down heavily; his face was quite stolid, but he looked at her with restive eyes. “Well, what is it, mother?”
“I want to know what you’re buildin’ that new barn for, father?”
“I ain’t got nothin’ to say about it.”
“It can’t be you think you need another barn?”
“I tell ye I ain’t got nothin’ to say about it, mother; an’ I ain’t goin’ to say nothin’.” “Be you goin’ to buy more cows?”
Adoniram did not reply; he shut his mouth tight.
“I know you be, as well as I want to. Now, father, look here” Sarah Penn had not sat down; she stood before her husband in the humble fashion of a Scripture woman “I’m goin’ to talk real plain to you; I never have sence I married you, but I’m goin’ to now. I ain’t never complained, an’ I ain’t goin’ to complain now, but I’m goin’ to talk plain. You see this room here, father; you look at it well. You see there ain’t no carpet on the floor, an’ you see the paper is all dirty, an’ droppin’ off the walls. We ain’t had no new paper on it for ten year, an’ then I put it on myself, an’ it didn’t cost but ninepence a roll. You see this room, father; it’s all the one I’ve had to work in an’ eat in an’ sit in sence we was married. There ain’t another woman in the whole town whose husband ain’t got half the means you have but what’s got better. It’s all the room Nanny’s got to have her company in; an’ there ain’t one of her mates but what’s got better, an’ their fathers not so able as hers is. It’s all the room she’ll have to be married in. What would you have thought, father, if we had had our weddin’ in a room no better than this? I was married in my mother’s parlor, with a carpet on the floor, an’ stuffed furniture, an’ a mahogany card-table. An’ this is all the room my daughter will have to be married in. Look here, father!”
Sarah Penn went across the room as though it were a tragic stage. She flung open a door and disclosed a tiny bedroom, only large enough for a bed and bureau, with a path between. “There, father,” said she “there’s all the room I’ve had to sleep in forty year. All my children were born there the two that died, an’ the two that’s livin’. I was sick with a fever there.”
She stepped to another door and opened it. It led into the small, ill-lighted pantry. “Here,” said she, “is all the buttery I’ve got every place I’ve got for my dishes, to set away my victuals in, an’ to keep my milk pans in. Father, I’ve been takin’ care of the milk of six cows in this place, an’ now you’re goin’ to build a new barn, an’ keep more cows, an’ give me more to do in it.”
She threw open another door. A narrow crooked flight of stairs wound upward from it. “There, father,” said she, “I want you to look at the stairs that go up to them two unfinished chambers that are all the places our son an’ daughter have had to sleep in all their lives. There ain’t a prettier girl in town nor a more ladylike one than Nanny, an’ that’s the place she has to sleep in. It ain’t so good as your horse’s stall; it ain’t so warm an’ tight.”
Sarah Penn went back and stood before her husband. “Now, father,” said she, “I want to know if you think you’re doin’ right an’ accordin’ to what you profess. Here, when we was married, forty year ago, you promised me faithful that we should have a new house built in that lot over in the field before the year was out. You said you had money enough, an’ you wouldn’t ask me to live in no such place as this. It is forty year now, an’ you’ve been makin’ more money, an’ I’ve been savin’ of it for you ever since, an’ you ain’t built no house yet. You’ve built sheds an’ cow-houses an’ one new barn, an’ now you’re goin’ to build another. Father, I want to know if you think it’s right. You’re lodgin’ your dumb beasts better than you are your own flesh an’ blood. I want to know if you think it’s right.”
“I ain’t got nothin’ to say.”
“You can’t say nothin’ without ownin’ it ain’t right, father. An’ there’s another thing I ain’t complained; I’ve got along forty year, an’ I s’pose I should forty more, if it wa’n’t for that if we don’t have another house. Nanny she can’t live with us after she’s married. She’ll have to go somewheres else to live away from us, an’ it don’t seem as if I could have it so, noways, father. She wa’n’t ever strong. She’s got considerable color, but there wa’n’t never any backbone to her. I’ve always took the heft of everything off her, an’ she ain’t fit to keep house an’ do everything herself. She’ll be all worn out inside of a year. Think of her doin’ all the washin’ an’ ironin’ an’ bakin’ with them soft white hands an’ arms, an’ sweepin’! I can’t have it so, noways, father.”
Mrs. Penn’s face was burning; her mild eyes gleamed. She had pleaded her little cause like a Webster; she had ranged from severity to pathos; but her opponent employed that obstinate silence which makes eloquence futile with mocking echoes. Adoniram arose clumsily.
“Father, ain’t you got nothin’ to say?” said Mrs. Penn.
“I’ve got to go off after that load of gravel. I can’t stan’ here talkin’ all day.” “Father, won’t you think it over, an’ have a house built there instead of a barn?” “I ain’t got nothin’ to say.”
Adoniram shuffled out. Mrs. Penn went into her bedroom. When she came out, her eyes were red. She had a roll of unbleached cotton cloth. She spread it out on the kitchen table, and began cutting out some shirts for her husband. The men over in the field had a team to help them this afternoon; she could hear their halloos. She had a scanty pattern for the shirts; she had to plan and piece the sleeves.
Nanny came home with her embroidery, and sat down with her needlework. She had taken down her curl-papers, and there was a soft roll of fair hair like an aureole over her forehead; her face was as delicately fine and clear as porcelain. Suddenly she looked up, and the tender red flamed all over her face and neck. “Mother,” said she.
“I’ve been thinking I don’t see how we’re goin’ to have any wedding in this room. I’d be ashamed to have his folks come if we didn’t have anybody else.”
“Mebbe we can have some new paper before then; I can put it on. I guess you won’t have no call to be ashamed of your belongin’s.”
“We might have the wedding in the new barn,” said Nanny, with gentle pettishness. “Why, mother, what makes you look so?”
Mrs. Penn had started, and was staring at her with a curious expression. She turned again to her work, and spread out a pattern carefully on the cloth. “Nothin’,” said she.
Presently Adoniram clattered out of the yard in his two-wheeled dump cart, standing as proudly upright as a Roman charioteer. Mrs. Penn opened the door and stood there a minute looking out; the halloos of the men sounded louder.
It seemed to her all through the spring months that she heard nothing but the halloos and the noises of saws and hammers. The new barn grew fast. It was a fine edifice for this little village. Men came on pleasant Sundays, in their meeting suits and clean shirt bosoms, and stood around it admiringly. Mrs. Penn did not speak of it, and Adoniram did not mention it to her, although sometimes, upon a return from inspecting it, he bore himself with injured dignity.
“It’s a strange thing how your mother feels about the new barn,” he said, confidentially, to Sammy one day.
Sammy only grunted after an odd fashion for a boy; he had learned it from his father.
The barn was all completed ready for use by the third week in July. Adoniram had planned to move his stock in on Wednesday; on Tuesday he received a letter which changed his plans. He came in with it early in the morning. “Sammy’s been to the post-office,” said he, “an’ I’ve got a letter from Hiram.” Hiram was Mrs. Penn’s brother, who lived in Vermont.
“Well,” said Mrs. Penn, “what does he say about the folks?”
“I guess they’re all right. He says he thinks if I come up country right off there’s a chance to buy jest the kind of a horse I want.” He stared reflectively out of the window at the new barn.
Mrs. Penn was making pies. She went on clapping the rolling-pin into the crust, although she was very pale, and her heart beat loudly.
“I dun’ know but what I’d better go,” said Adoniram. “I hate to go off jest now, right in the midst of hayin’, but the ten-acre lot’s cut, an’ I guess Rufus an’ the others can git along without me three or four days. I can’t get a horse round here to suit me, nohow, an’ I’ve got to have another for all that wood-haulin’ in the fall. I told Hiram to watch out, an’ if he got wind of a good horse to let me know. I guess I’d better go.”
“I’ll get out your clean shirt an’ collar,” said Mrs. Penn calmly.
She laid out Adoniram’s Sunday suit and his clean clothes on the bed in the little bedroom. She got his shaving-water and razor ready. At last she buttoned on his collar and fastened his black cravat.
Adoniram never wore his collar and cravat except on extra occasions. He held his head high, with a rasped dignity. When he was all ready, with his coat and hat brushed, and a lunch of pie and cheese in a paper bag, he hesitated on the threshold of the door. He looked at his wife, and his manner was defiantly apologetic. “If them cows come to-day, Sammy can drive ‘em into the new barn,” said he; “an’ when they bring the hay up, they can pitch it in there.”
“Well,” replied Mrs. Penn.
Adoniram set his shaven face ahead and started. When he had cleared the door-step, he turned and looked back with a kind of nervous solemnity. “I shall be back by Saturday if nothin’ happens,” said he.
“Do be careful, father,” returned his wife.
She stood in the door with Nanny at her elbow and watched him out of sight. Her eyes had a strange, doubtful expression in them; her peaceful forehead was contracted. She went in, and about her baking again. Nanny sat sewing. Her wedding-day was drawing nearer, and she was getting pale and thin with her steady sewing. Her mother kept glancing at her.
“Have you got that pain in your side this mornin’?” she asked.
Mrs. Penn’s face, as she worked, changed, her perplexed forehead smoothed, her eyes were steady, her lips firmly set. She formed a maxim for herself, although incoherently with her unlettered thoughts. “Unsolicited opportunities are the guide-posts of the Lord to the new roads of life,” she repeated in effect, and she made up her mind to her course of action.
“S’posin’ I had wrote to Hiram,” she muttered once, when she was in the pantry “s’posin’ I had wrote, an’ asked him if he knew of any horse? But I didn’t, an’ father’s goin’ wa’n’t none of my doin’. It looks like a providence.” Her voice rang out quite loud at the last.
“What you talkin’ about, mother?” called Nanny.
Mrs. Penn hurried her baking; at eleven o’clock it was all done. The load of hay from the west field came slowly down the cart track, and drew up at the new barn. Mrs. Penn ran out. “Stop!” she screamed “stop!”
The men stopped and looked; Sammy upreared from the top of the load, and stared at his mother.
“Stop!” she cried out again. “Don’t you put the hay in that barn; put it in the old one.”
“Why, he said to put it in here,” returned one of the haymakers, wonderingly. He was a young man, a neighbor’s son, whom Adoniram hired by the year to help on the farm.
“Don’t you put the hay in the new barn; there’s room enough in the old one, ain’t there?” said Mrs. Penn.
“Room enough,” returned the hired man, in his thick, rustic tones. “Didn’t need the new barn, nohow, far as room’s concerned. Well, I s’pose he changed his mind.” He took hold of the horses’ bridles.
Mrs. Penn went back to the house. Soon the kitchen windows were darkened, and a fragrance like warm honey came into the room.
Nanny laid down her work. “I thought father wanted them to put the hay into the new barn?” she said, wonderingly.
“It’s all right,” replied her mother.
Sammy slid down from the load of hay, and came in to see if dinner was ready. “I ain’t goin’ to get a regular dinner to-day, as long as father’s gone,” said his mother. “I’ve let the fire go out. You can have some bread an’ milk an’ pie. I thought we could get along.” She set out some bowls of milk, some bread, and a pie on the kitchen table. “You’d better eat your dinner now,” said she. “You might jest as well get through with it. I want you to help me afterward.”
Nanny and Sammy stared at each other. There was something strange in their mother’s manner. Mrs. Penn did not eat anything herself. She went into the pantry, and they heard her moving dishes while they ate. Presently she came out with a pile of plates. She got the clothes basket out of the shed, and packed them in it. Nanny and Sammy watched. She brought out cups and saucers, and put them in with the plates.
“What you goin’ to do, mother?” inquired Nanny, in a timid voice. A sense of something unusual made her tremble, as if it were a ghost. Sammy rolled his eyes over his pie.
“You’ll see what I’m goin’ to do,” replied Mrs. Penn. “If you’re through, Nanny, I want you to go up stairs an’ pack up your things; an’ I want you, Sammy, to help me take down the bed in the bedroom.”
“Oh, mother, what for?” gasped Nanny.
During the next few hours a feat was performed by this simple, pious New England mother which was equal in its way to Wolfe’s storming of the Heights of Abraham. It took no more genius and audacity of bravery for Wolfe to cheer his wondering soldiers up those steep precipices, under the sleeping eyes of the enemy, than for Sarah Penn, at the head of her children, to move all their little household goods into the new barn while her husband was away.
Nanny and Sammy followed their mother’s instructions without a murmur; indeed, they were overawed. There is a certain uncanny and superhuman quality about all such purely original undertakings as their mother’s was to them. Nanny went back and forth with her light loads, and Sammy tugged with sober energy.
At five o’clock in the afternoon the little house in which the Penns had lived for forty years had emptied itself into the new barn.
Every builder builds somewhat for unknown purposes, and is in a measure a prophet. The architect of Adoniram Penn’s barn, while he designed it for the comfort of four-footed animals, had planned better than he knew for the comfort of humans. Sarah Penn saw at a glance its possibilities. Those great box-stalls, with quilts hung before them, would make better bedrooms than the one she had occupied for forty years, and there was a tight carriage-room. The harness-room, with its chimney and shelves, would make a kitchen of her dreams. The great middle space would make a parlor, by-and-by, fit for a palace. Up stairs there was as much room as down. With partitions and windows, what a house would there be! Sarah looked at the row of stanchions before the allotted space for cows, and reflected that she would have her front entry there.
At six o’clock the stove was up in the harness-room, the kettle was boiling, and the table set for tea. It looked almost as home-like as the abandoned house across the yard had ever done. The young hired man milked, and Sarah directed him calmly to bring the milk to the new barn. He came gaping, dropping little blots of foam from the brimming pails on the grass. Before the next morning he had spread the story of Adoniram Penn’s wife moving into the new barn all over the little village. Men assembled in the store and talked it over, women with shawls over their heads scuttled into each other’s houses before their work was done. Any deviation from the ordinary course of life in this quiet town was enough to stop all progress in it. Everybody paused to look at the staid, independent figure on the side track. There was a difference of opinion with regard to her. Some held her to be insane; some, of a lawless and rebellious spirit.
Friday the minister went to see her. It was in the forenoon, and she was at the barn door shelling pease for dinner. She looked up and returned his salutation with dignity, then she went on with her work. She did not invite him in. The saintly expression of her face remained fixed, but there was an angry flush over it.
The minister stood awkwardly before her, and talked. She handled the pease as if they were bullets. At last she looked up, and her eyes showed the spirit that her meek front had covered for a lifetime.
“There ain’t no use talkin’, Mr. Hersey,” said she. “I’ve thought it all over an’ over, an’ I believe I’m doin’ what’s right. I’ve made it the subject of prayer, an’ it’s betwixt me an’ the Lord an’ Adoniram. There ain’t no call for nobody else to worry about it.”
“Well, of course, if you have brought it to the Lord in prayer, and feel satisfied that you are doing right, Mrs. Penn,” said the minister, helplessly. His thin gray-bearded face was pathetic. He was a sickly man; his youthful confidence had cooled; he had to scourge himself up to some of his pastoral duties as relentlessly as a Catholic ascetic, and then he was prostrated by the smart.
“I think it’s right jest as much as I think it was right for our forefathers to come over from the old country ‘cause they didn’t have what belonged to ‘em,” said Mrs. Penn. She arose. The barn threshold might have been Plymouth Rock from her bearing. “I don’t doubt you mean well, Mr. Hersey,” said she, “but there are things people hadn’t ought to interfere with. I’ve been a member of the church for over forty year. I’ve got my own mind an’ my own feet, an’ I’m goin’ to think my own thoughts an’ go my own ways, an’ nobody but the Lord is goin’ to dictate to me unless I’ve a mind to have him. Won’t you come in an’ set down? How is Mis’ Hersey?”
“She is well, I thank you,” replied the minister. He added some more perplexed apologetic remarks; then he retreated.
He could expound the intricacies of every character study in the Scriptures, he was competent to grasp the Pilgrim Fathers and all historical innovators, but Sarah Penn was beyond him. He could deal with primal cases, but parallel ones worsted him. But, after all, although it was aside from his province, he wondered more how Adoniram Penn would deal with his wife than how the Lord would. Everybody shared the wonder. When Adoniram’s four new cows arrived, Sarah ordered three to be put in the old barn, the other in the house shed where the cooking-stove had stood. That added to the excitement. It was whispered that all four cows were domiciled in the house.
Toward sunset on Saturday, when Adoniram was expected home, there was a knot of men in the road near the new barn. The hired man had milked, but he still hung around the premises. Sarah Penn had supper all ready. There were brown bread and baked beans and a custard pie; it was the supper that Adoniram loved on a Saturday night. She had on a clean calico, and she bore herself imperturbably. Nanny and Sammy kept close at her heels. Their eyes were large, and Nanny was full of nervous tremors. Still there was to them more pleasant excitement than anything else. An inborn confidence in their mother over their father asserted itself.
Sammy looked out of the harness-room window. “There he is,” he announced, in an awed whisper. He and Nanny peeped around the casing. Mrs. Penn kept on about her work. The children watched Adoniram leave the new horse standing in the drive while he went to the house door. It was fastened. Then he went around to the shed. That door was seldom locked, even when the family was away. The thought how her father would be confronted by the cow flashed upon Nanny. There was a hysterical sob in her throat. Adoniram emerged from the shed and stood looking about in a dazed fashion. His lips moved; he was saying something, but they could not hear what it was. The hired man was peeping around a corner of the old barn, but nobody saw him.
Adoniram took the new horse by the bridle and led him across the yard to the new barn. Nanny and Sammy slunk close to their mother. The barn doors rolled back, and there stood Adoniram, with the long mild face of the great Canadian farm horse looking over his shoulder.
Nanny kept behind her mother, but Sammy stepped suddenly forward, and stood in front of her.
Adoniram stared at the group. “What on airth you all down here for?” said he. “What’s the matter over to the house?”
“We’ve come here to live, father,” said Sammy. His shrill voice quavered out bravely.
“What” Adoniram sniffed “what is it smells like cookin’?” said he. He stepped forward and looked in the open door of the harness room. Then he turned to his wife. His old bristling face was pale and frightened. “What on airth does this mean, mother?” he gasped.
“You come in here, father,” said Sarah. She led the way into the harness-room and shut the door. “Now, father,” said she, “you needn’t be scared. I ain’t crazy. There ain’t nothin’ to be upset over. But we’ve come here to live, an’ we’re goin’ to live here. We’ve got jest as good a right here as new horses an’ cows. The house wa’n’t fit for us to live in any longer, an’ I made up my mind I wa’n’t goin’ to stay there. I’ve done my duty by you forty year, an’ I’m goin’ to do it now; but I’m goin’ to live here. You’ve got to put in some windows and partitions; an’ you’ll have to buy some furniture.”
“Why, mother!” the old man gasped.
“You’d better take your coat off an’ get washed there’s the wash-basin an’ then we’ll have supper.”
Sammy went past the window, leading the new horse to the old barn. The old man saw him, and shook his head speechlessly. He tried to take off his coat, but his arms seemed to lack the power. His wife helped him. She poured some water into the tin basin, and put in a piece of soap. She got the comb and brush, and smoothed his thin gray hair after he had washed. Then she put the beans, hot bread, and tea on the table. Sammy came in, and the family drew up. Adoniram sat looking dazedly at his plate, and they waited.
“Ain’t you goin’ to ask a blessin’, father?” said Sarah.
And the old man bent his head and mumbled.
All through the meal he stopped eating at intervals, and stared furtively at his wife; but he ate well. The home food tasted good to him, and his old frame was too sturdily healthy to be affected by his mind. But after supper he went out, and sat down on the step of the smaller door at the right of the barn, through which he had meant his Jerseys to pass in stately file, but which Sarah designed for her front house door, and he leaned his head on his hands.
After the supper dishes were cleared away and the milk-pans washed, Sarah went out to him. The twilight was deepening. There was a clear green glow in the sky. Before them stretched the smooth level of field; in the distance was a cluster of hay-stacks like the huts of a village; the air was very cool and calm and sweet. The landscape might have been an ideal one of peace.
Sarah bent over and touched her husband on one of his thin, sinewy shoulders. “Father!”
The old man’s shoulders heaved: he was weeping.
“Why, don’t do so, father,” said Sarah.
“I’ll put up the partitions, an’ everything you want, mother.”
Sarah put her apron up to her face; she was overcome by her own triumph. Adoniram was like a fortress whose walls had no active resistance, and went down the instant the right besieging tools were used. “Why, mother,” he said, hoarsely, “I hadn’t no idee you was so set on’t as all this comes to.”
2.9.3 Reading and Review Questions
- In Freeman’s “A New England Nun,” analyze the confinement or restraint of the bird and the dog in the story and examine how such images contribute to the story’s theme.
- In “A New England Nun,” compare Louisa Ellis and Lily Dyer. How are they similar or different?
- Examine the concept of “order” in Freeman’s “A New England Nun.” Why is Louisa so concerned with order?
- In “A New England Nun,” why is Louisa likened to an “artist” and later a “queen” in the story?
- In Freeman’s “Revolt of Mother,” examine the term “revolt” in the title. What does it mean in terms of the story’s theme?
- Examine the central conflict in “Revolt of Mother.” Who is revolting, and what is he or she rebelling against both literally and symbolically?
- What happens to Adoniram when he changes his mind at the end of the story? What kind of conversion does he experience?