Posts Tagged ‘American short stories’

Sherwood Anderson (September 13, 1876 – March 8, 1941)








For a year now I have been thinking of writing a certain book. “Well, tomorrow I’ll get at it,” I’ve been saying to myself. Every night whenUnder the elevated railway, Chicago,Il I get into bed I think about the book. The people that are to be put between its covers dance before my eyes. I live in the city of Chicago and at night motor trucks go rumbling along the roadway outside my house. Not so very far away there is an elevated railroad and after twelve o’clock at night trains pass at pretty long intervals. Before it began I went to sleep during one of the quieter intervals but now that the idea of writing this book has got into me I lie awake and think.
For one thing it is hard to get the whole idea of the book fixed in the setting of the city I live in now. I wonder if you, who do not try to write books, perhaps will understand what I mean. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. It is a little hard to explain. You see, it’s something like this.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           SA190

You as a reader will, some evening or some afternoon, be reading in my book and then you will grow tired of reading and put it down. You will go out of your house and into the street. The sun is shining and you meet people you know. There are certain facts of your life just the same as of mine. If you are a man, you go from your house to an office and sit at a desk where you pick up a telephone and begin to talk about some matter of business with a client or a customer of your house. If you are an honest housewife, the ice man has come or there drifts into your mind the thought that yesterday you forgot to remember some detail concerned with running your house. Little outside thoughts come and go in your mind, and it is so with me too. For example when I have written the above sentence, I wonder why I have written the words “honest housewife.” A housewife I suppose can be as dishonest as I can. What I am trying to make clear is that, as a writer, I am up against the same things that confront you, as a reader.
What I want to do is to express in my book a sense of the strangeness that has gradually, since I was a boy, been creeping more and more into my feeling about everyday life. It would all be very simple if I could write of life in an interior city of China or in an African forest. A man I know has recently told me of another man who, wanting to write a book about Parisian life and having no money to go to Paris to study the life there, went instead to the city of New Orleans. He had heard that many people livedSA237 in New Orleans whose ancestors were French. “They will have retained enough of the flavor of Parisian life for me to get the feeling,” he said to himself. The man told me that the book turned out to be very successful and that the city of Paris read with delight a translation of his work as a study of French life, and I am only sorry I can’t find as simple a way out of my own job. The whole point with me is that my wish to write this book springs from a somewhat different notion. “If I can write everything out plainly, perhaps I will myself understand better what has happened,” I say to myself and smile. During these days I spend a good deal of time smiling at nothing. It bothers people. “What are you smiling about now?” they ask, and I am up against as hard a job trying to answer as I am trying to get underway with my book.
Sometimes in the morning I sit down at my desk and begin writing, taking as my subject a scene from my own boyhood.
Very well, I am coming home from school. The town in which I was born and raised was a dreary, lonely little place in the far western section of the state of Nebraska, and I imagine myself walking along one of its streets. Sitting upon a curbing before a store is a sheep herder who has left his flock many miles away in the foothills at the base of the western mountains and has come into our town, for what purpose he himself does not seem to know. He is a bearded man without a hat and sits with his mouth slightly open, staring up and down the street. There is a half-wild uncertain look in his eyes SA181and his eyes have awakened a creepy feeling in me. I hurry away with a kind of dread of some unknown thing eating at my vital organs.  Old men are great talkers. It may be that only kids know the real terror of loneliness.
I have tried, you see, to start my book at that particular point in my own life. “If I can catch exactly the feeling of that afternoon of my boyhood, I can give the reader the key to my character,” I tell myself.
The plan won’t work. When I have written five, ten, fifteen hundred words, I stop writing and look out at my window. A man is driving a team of horses hitched to a wagon-load of coal along my street and is swearing at another man who drives a Ford. They have both stopped and are cursing each other.
The coal wagon driver’s face is black with coal dust but anger has reddened his cheeks and the red and black have produced
a dusky brown like the skin of a Negro. I have got up from my typewriter and walk up and down in my room smoking cigarettes. My fingers pick up little things on my desk and then put them down.
I am nervous like the race horses I used to be with at one period of my boyhood. Before a race and when they had been brought out onSA228 the tracks before all the people and before the race started, their legs quivered. Sometimes there was a horse got into such a state that when the race started he would do nothing. “Look at him. He can’t untrack himself,” we said.
Right now I am in that state about my book. I run to the typewriter, write for a time, and then walk nervously about. I smoke a whole package of cigarettes during the morning.
And then suddenly I have again torn up all I have written. “It won’t do,” I have told myself. In this book I am not intending to try to give you the story of my life. “What of life, any man’s life?—forked radishes running about, writing declarations of independence, telling themselves little lies, having dreams, getting puffed up now and then with what is called greatness. Life begins, runs its course and ends,” a man I once knew told me one evening, and it is true. Even as I write these words a hearse is going through my street. Two young girls, who are going off with two young men to walk I suppose in the fields where the city ends, stop laughing for a moment and look up at the hearse. It will be a moment before they forget the passing hearse and begin laughing again.
“A life is like that, it passes like that,” I say to myself as I tear up my sheets and begin again walking and smoking the cigarettes. If you think I am sad, having these thoughts about the brevity and insignificance of a life, you are mistaken. In the state I am in such things do not matter. “Certain things last,” I say to myself. “One might make things a little clear. One might even imagine a man, say a Negro, going along a SA143city street and humming a song. It catches the ear of another man who repeats it on the next day. A thin strand of song, like a tiny stream far up in some hill, begins to flow down into the wide plains. It waters the fields. It freshens the air above a hot stuffy city.”
Now I have got myself worked up into a state. I am always doing that these days. I write again and again tear up my words.
I go out of my room and walk about.
I have been with a woman I have found and who loves me. It has happened that I am a man who has not been loved by women and have all my life been awkward and a little mixed up when in their presence. Perhaps I have had too much respect for them, have wanted them too much. That may be. Anyway I am not so rattled in her presence.
She, I think, has a certain control over herself and that is helpful to me. When I am with her I keep smiling to myself and thinking, “It would be rather a joke all around if she found me out.”
When she is looking in another direction I study her a little. That she should seem to like me so much surprises me and I am sore at my own surprise. I grow humble and do not like my humbleness either. “What is she up to? She is very lovely. Why is she wasting her time with me?”
I shall remember always certain hours when I have been with her. Late on a certain Sunday afternoon I remember I sat in a chair in aSA188 room in her apartment. I sat with my hand against my cheek, leaning a little forward. I had dressed myself carefully because I was going to see her, had put on my best suit of clothes. My hair was carefully combed and my glasses carefully balanced on my rather large nose. And there I was, in her apartment in a certain city, in a chair in a rather dark corner, with my hand against my cheek, looking as solemn as an old owl. We had been walking about and had come into the house and she had gone away leaving me sitting there, as I have said. The apartment was in a part of the city where many foreign people live and from my chair I could, by turning my head a little, look down into a street filled with Italians.
It was growing dark outside and I could just see the people in the street. If I cannot remember facts about my own and other people’s lives, I can always remember every feeling that has gone through me, or that I have thought went through anyone about me. The men going along the street below the window all had dark swarthy faces and nearly all of them wore, somewhere about them, a spot of color. The younger men, who walked with a certain swagger, all had on flaming red ties. The street was dark but far down the street there was a spot where a streak of sunlight still managed to find its way in between two tall buildings and fell sharp against the face of a smaller red-brick building. It pleased my fancy to imagine the street had also put on a red necktie, perhaps because there would be lovemaking along the street before Monday morning.
SA219Anyway I sat there looking and thinking such thoughts as came to me. The women who went along the street nearly all had dark colored shawls drawn up about their faces. The road-way was filled with children whose voices made a sharp tinkling sound.
My fancy went out of my body in a way of speaking, I suppose, and I began thinking of myself as being at that moment in a city in Italy. Americans like myself who have not traveled are always doing that. I suppose the people of another nation would not understand how doing it is almost necessity in our lives, but any American will understand. The American, particularly a middle-American, sits as I was doing at that moment, dreaming you understand, and suddenly he is in Italy or in a Spanish town where a dark-looking man is riding a bony horse along a street, or he is being driven over the Russian steppes in a sled by a man whose face is all covered with whiskers. It is an idea of the Russians got from looking at cartoons in newspapers but it answers the purpose. In the distance a pack ofSA241 wolves are following the sled.A fellow I once knew told me that Americans are always up to such tricks because all of our old stories and dreams have come to us from over the sea and because we have no old stories and dreams of our own. Of that I can’t say. I am not putting myself forward as a thinker on the subject of the causes of the characteristics of the American people or any other monstrous or important matter of that kind. But anyway, there I was, sitting, as I have told you, in the Italian section of an American city and dreaming of myself being in Italy.
To be sure I wasn’t alone. Such a fellow as myself never is alone in his dreams. And as I sat having my dream, the woman with whom I had been spending the afternoon, and with whom I am no doubt what is called “in love,” passed between me and the window through which I had been looking. She had on a dress of some soft clinging stuff and her slender figure made a very lovely line across the light. Well, she was like a young tree you might see on a hill, in a windstorm perhaps.
What I did, as you may have supposed, was to take her with me into Italy.
The woman became at once, and in my dream, a very beautiful princess in a strange land I have never visited. It may be that when I was a boy in my western town some traveler came SA140there to lecture on life in Italian cities before a club that met at the Presbyterian church and to which my mother belonged, or perhaps later I read some novel the name of which I can’t remember. And so my princess had come down to me along a path out of a green wooded hill where her castle was located. She had walked under blossoming trees in the uncertain evening light and some blossoms had fallen on her black hair. The perfume of Italian nights was in her hair. That notion came into my head. That’s what I mean.
What really happened was that she saw me sitting there lost in my dream and, coming to me, rumpled my hair and upset the glasses perched on my big nose and, having done that, went laughing out of the room.
I speak of all this because later, on that same evening, I lost all notion of the book I am now writing and sat until three in the morning writing on another book, making the woman the central figure. “It will be a story of old times, filled with moons and stars and the fragrance of half-decayed trees in an oldSA131 land,” I told myself, but when I had written many pages I tore them up too.
“Something has happened to me or I should not be filled with the idea of writing this book at all,” I told myself going to my window to look out at the night. “At a certain hour of a certain day and in a certain place, something happened that has changed the whole current of my life. “The thing to be done,” I then told myself, “is to begin writing my book by telling as clearly as I can the adventures of that certain moment.”








SA243A task one hopes to complete and yet defers because it cannot be begun is perfectly expressed by the the word the Romans thought they heard in the cry of the raven – “cras, cras,” meaning “tomorrow, tomorrow” – and which symbolises  hope as well as procrastination. This seems to aptly echo the predicament adumbrated by Sherwood Anderson in this essay “Certain Things Last”, which he wrote sometime in the twenties, and which was found among his papers and published only in 1992.

We do not know if it was ever intended for publication; indeed, we cannot even know for certain if he completed the piece. All writers feel this way at times about the things they write, because they know what a devilishly difficult job the task of writing can present. Noah’s raven, and the first to be released from the ark, (unlike his second envoy the docile dove) never returned. We may wonder what happened to it, and how it was reunited with its mate who presumably was released after the flood subsided. But reunited they must have been, on some hopeful ‘tomorrow,’ for the world veritably teems with ravens and their ilk.

Anderson’s ‘tomorrow,’ after a difficult boyhood and adolescence in the small and typically claustrophobic town of Clyde, Ohio, led to the occupation of writer. By his own account, his best known work, a compilation of 22 stories published under the title of Winesburg, Ohio, came to him all in a rush.SA142  

“…it was a late fall night and raining…I was there naked in the bed and I sprang up. I went to my typewriter and began to write. It was there, under those circumstances, myself sitting near an open window, the rain occasionally blowing in and wetting my bare back, that I did my first writing…I wrote it, as I wrote them all, complete in the one sitting…The rest of the stories in the book came out of me on succeeding evenings, and sometimes during the day while I worked in the advertising office…”

But “Some Things Last” seems to tell a different story. As the cry of the raven suggests, the exercise of writing requires the disordering of time. Anderson’s writing career commenced after a mental breakdown, shortly after which he abandoned his family. Four days after he ‘disappeared’, he was found  thirty miles away in Cleveland, having walked that distance. He never went back home.

In order to make its way into writing, the past must be recollected, relived and recreated. It must sometimes be artificially rearranged and reordered before it can be placed in front of a reader, and if that weren’t enough cause for dismay, past and present, these two parallel and simultaneously unfolding tracks must be made to seem to come seamlessly together.

SA128The task set for himself here by Anderson, that of trying to grasp at the flickering pattern cast by scattered thoughts and  then to collect them for an arrangement to set on the page, is the perennial bane and delight of the writer. I don’t know if this is a task which may be better accomplished by a woman writer; certainly women like Virginia Woolf excelled at it, but Anderson shows us how a virtue may be made of stumbling. He conveys the slipperiness of the the whole process  so vividly that even to  someone who doesn’t think much about writing, the feeling of helplessness and unease comes wholly through. The hopeless feeling of being unable to ferry a thought from the having to the expressing of it is particularly acute when the ability to do it remains lost somewhere that is not amenable to recall.  It is like floating in dark water and trying to remember how to move one’s arms and legs. I think this is in part because the language of recall is not strictly speaking ‘language’ but a kind of code conveyed in images.

“Some Things Last” is writing thrice removed: it is writing that shows how a writer writes about writing. There is self-revelation in it, but only so much. Anderson is willing to reveal that he smokes somewhat to excess, but not that he drinks, though drink he did. His death in 1941 at the age of 64 – while  he and his fourth wife Eleanor Copenhaver were on a cruise to South America – was caused by peritonitis following the accidental ingestion of a toothpick from either a martini or an hors d’ oeuvre, though I rather think it was the former  than the latter.

Whether lubricated by alcohol or  driven by digressiveness or restlessness, Anderson’s mind, resorts to narratives of flowing images,SA216 even as he anxiously attempts to impose order and structure on his wayward thoughts in order to secure an outcome. He in turn surrenders and attempts to control in order to impose a shape or a structure or even an account of something written. Indeed one cannot be certain if this piece of writing was guided to its intended conclusion, or if it simply petered out at an impasse or a cul de sac with nowhere else to go and no way to turn back. “What is the point?” we wonder. Is it only to show that the writing of a book is a difficult enterprise, and that someone  who sets him- or herself to the task must contend with endless distractions, diversions and detours on the way to getting the job done? Or is it to reveal the unruly nature of the process, how the very thoughts that must make up the content turn out to be perturbations, which as they move away from their point of origin, take one further and further away from the goal? Writers  must learn to negotiate these obstacles, for they can never quite be overcome.

It would seem that a solution to the writer’s dilemma must be found in a skillful compromise. The kind of aimless undirected dreamy musings, the fragile repositories of vivid and detailed imagery, must be permitted to go on unimpeded SA132even as some agent of the thinking self stands by to take notes. And it seems that Anderson possessed a good note-taker, since it was he who wrote “She had on a dress of some clinging stuff and her slender figure made a very lovely line across the light” and  “she was like a young tree you might see on a hill  in a windstorm perhaps…..”    

One of the chief difficulties of writing is that what is written about, the sights, smells and sensations of it, come almost always from a different time and place from when the writing takes place. They are imported from another world, which has to be recalled and recreated in the mind at the moment of writing. The writer has to recall them from when, like a traveller, he or she  had to keep track of that place in the country, that path,  and the details  observed while on it, and the objects which were chosen to bring back from the journey.  Then, as now, there were problems to be solved – what could properly  be packed – what carried – and how these things would look when placed in the writer’s parlour or on the mantel. Would they bring back the sights and smells they seemed to be imbued  with  at the first encounter? Or would they become lifeless and incongruous when removed from their proper context, when forced to inhabit an unnatural place? Should the suggestion of the princess who lives in the castle at the end of the path along the green, wooded hill, be permitted to intrude? Yes, perhaps because it seems to echo the diffident insecurity this writer felt about his woman friend. And the blossoming trees, the evening light and the flowers in her dark hair must come along too. Then of course, blackSA151 hair and Italian nights, which are shadowy counterparts of each other, must gain admittance as well. If in the next moments one ‘goes to his window to look out at the night,’ one might see, instead of the spark-sprinkled darkness of a sleeping city, “the moon and stars, and half-decayed trees in an old land.’

The thoughts and images we carry away from our inward travels seem to undergo a change when made to enter the outside world. They are like poems which resist being translated into a different language. The greatest care must be taken so that they do not become mere representations of what they truly are in their own voice and  tongue. The difference between the inner and outer life is not always bridgeable, something most writers simultaneously accept and struggle mightily against.

The task of moving words from mind to paper, of trapping moments vivid with life and fixing them on the page, can seem daunting at times. The troublesomeness and difficulty of committing to memory the elusive phenomena of fleeting suggestions of thoughts and brief flares of barely glimpsed images as they pass through the mind SA244seem at times quite hopeless, and recollecting them seems like gathering leaves blown by the wind. Time too is not durable. It warps and bends in the attempt to draw it through the lens of memory.  Are these what Anderson refers to as ‘the adventures of that certain moment?’ Are they fit to be the chosen subject of a piece of writing?  Or should they be consigned to some vague designation of questionable value, to occupy the limbo between something which used to be either sustaining or memorable but is no longer, but is now discarded and stale as an old torn photograph or a half-eaten meal left neglected to grow cold on the kitchen table? Are these some things that last? Are they?

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Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (September 24, 1896 – December 21, 1940)



















Happy Birthday Mr. Fitzgerald! It has always pleased me that we share this date in common!


As long ago as 1860 it was the proper thing to be born at home. At present, so I am told, the high gods of medicine have decreed that the first cries of the young shall be uttered upon the anæsthetic air of a hospital, preferably a fashionable one. So young Mr. and Mrs. Roger Button were fifty years ahead of style when they decided, one day in the summer of 1860, that their first baby should be born in a hospital. Whether this anachronism had any bearing upon them astonishing history I am about to set down will never be known.
I shall tell you what occurred, and let you judge for yourself.
The Roger Buttons held an enviable position, both social and financial, in Antebellum Baltimore. They were related to the This Family and the That Family, which, as every Southerner knew, entitled them to membership in that enormous peerage which largely populated the Confederacy. This was their first experience with the charming old custom of having babies–Mr. Button was naturally nervous. He hoped it would be a boy so that he could be sent to Yale College in Connecticut, at which institution Mr. Button himself had been known for four years by the somewhat obvious nickname of “Cuff.”
On the September morning consecrated to the enormous event he arose nervously at six o’clock dressed himself, adjusted an impeccable stock, and hurried forth through the streets of Baltimore to the hospital, to determine whether the darkness of the night had borne in new life upon its bosom.
When he was approximately a hundred yards from the Maryland Private Hospital for Ladies and Gentlemen he saw Doctor Keene, the family physician, descending the front steps, rubbing his hands together with a washing movement–as all doctors are required to do by the unwritten ethics of their profession.
Mr. Roger Button, the president of Roger Button & Co., Wholesale Hardware, began to run toward Doctor Keene with much less dignity than was expected from a Southern gentleman of that picturesque period.
“Doctor Keene!” he called. “Oh, Doctor Keene!”
The doctor heard him, faced around, and stood waiting, a curious expression settling on his harsh, medicinal face as Mr. Button drew near.
“What happened?” demanded Mr. Button, as he came up in a gasping rush.
“What was it? How is she? A boy? Who is it? What – ”
“Talk sense!” said Doctor Keene sharply, He appeared somewhat irritated.
“Is the child born?” begged Mr. Button.
Doctor Keene frowned. “Why, yes, I suppose so – after a fashion.” Again he threw a curious glance at Mr. Button.
“Is my wife all right?”
“Is it a boy or a girl?”
“Here now!” cried Doctor Keene in a perfect passion of irritation,”
I’ll ask you to go and see for yourself. Outrageous!” He snapped the last word out in almost one syllable, then he turned away muttering:
“Do you imagine a case like this will help my professional reputation? One more would ruin me–ruin anybody.”
“What’s the matter?” demanded Mr. Button appalled. “Triplets?”
“No, not triplets!” answered the doctor cuttingly. “What’s more, you can go and see for yourself. And get another doctor. I brought you into the world, young man, and I’ve been physician to your family for forty years, but I’m through with you! I don’t want to see you or any of your relatives ever again! Good-bye!”
Then he turned sharply, and without another word climbed into his phaeton, which was waiting at the curbstone, and drove severely away.
Mr. Button stood there upon the sidewalk, stupefied and trembling from head to foot. What horrible mishap had occurred? He had suddenly lost all desire to go into the Maryland Private Hospital for Ladies and Gentlemen – it was with the greatest difficulty that, a moment later, he forced himself to mount the  steps and enter the front door.
A nurse was sitting behind a desk in the opaque gloom of the hall. Swallowing his shame, Mr. Button approached her.
“Good-morning,” she remarked, looking up at him pleasantly.
“Good-morning. I – I am Mr. Button.”
At this a look of utter terror spread itself over girl’s face. She rose to her feet and seemed about to fly from the hall, restraining herself only with the most apparent difficulty.
“I want to see my child,” said Mr. Button.
The nurse gave a little scream. “Oh – of course!” she cried hysterically. “Upstairs. Right upstairs. Go – up!”
She pointed the direction, and Mr. Button, bathed in cool perspiration, turned falteringly, and began to mount to the second floor. In the upper hall he addressed another nurse who approached him, basin in hand.   “I’m Mr. Button,” he managed to articulate.  “I want to see my – ”
Clank! The basin clattered to the floor and rolled in the direction of the stairs. Clank! Clank! I began a methodical decent as if sharing in the general terror which this gentleman provoked.
“I want to see my child!” Mr. Button almost shrieked. He was on the verge of collapse.
Clank! The basin reached the first floor. The nurse regained control of herself, and threw Mr. Button a look of hearty contempt.
“All right, Mr. Button,” she agreed in a hushed voice. “Very well! But if you knew what a state it’s put us all in this morning! It’s perfectly outrageous! The hospital will never have a ghost of a reputation after – ”
“Hurry!” he cried hoarsely. “I can’t stand this!”
“Come this way, then, Mr. Button.”
He dragged himself after her. At the end of a long hall they reached a room from which proceeded a variety of howls – indeed, a room which, in later parlance, would have been known as the “crying-room.” They entered.
“Well,” gasped Mr. Button, “which is mine?”
“There!” said the nurse.
Mr. Button’s eyes followed her pointing finger, and this is what he saw. Wrapped in a voluminous white blanket, and partly crammed into one of the cribs, there sat an old man apparently about seventy years of age. His sparse hair was almost white, and from his chin dripped a long smoke-colored beard, which waved absurdly back and forth, fanned by the breeze coming in at the window. He looked up at Mr. Button with dim, faded eyes in which lurked a puzzled question.
“Am I mad?” thundered Mr. Button, his terror resolving into rage. “Is this some ghastly hospital joke?
“It doesn’t seem like a joke to us,” replied the nurse severely. “And I don’t know whether you’re mad or not – but that is most certainly your child.”
The cool perspiration redoubled on Mr. Button’s forehead. He closed his eyes, and then, opening them, looked again. There was no mistake – he was gazing at a man of threescore and ten – a baby of threescore and ten, a baby whose feet hung over the sides of the crib in which it was reposing.
The old man looked placidly from one to the other for a moment, and then suddenly spoke in a cracked and ancient voice. “Are you my father?” he demanded.
Mr. Button and the nurse started violently.
“Because if you are,” went on the old man querulously, “I wish you’d get me out of this place – or, at least, get them to put a comfortable rocker in here,”
“Where in God’s name did you come from? Who are you?” burst out Mr. Button frantically.
“I can’t tell you exactly who I am,” replied the querulous whine, “because I’ve only been born a few hours – but my last name is certainly Button.”
“You lie! You’re an impostor!”
The old man turned wearily to the nurse. “Nice way to welcome a new-born child,” he complained in a weak voice. “Tell him he’s wrong, why don’t you?”
“You’re wrong. Mr. Button,” said the nurse severely. “This is your child, and you’ll have to make the best of it. We’re going to ask you to take him home with you as soon as possible – some time to-day.”
“Home?” repeated Mr. Button incredulously.
“Yes, we can’t have him here. We really can’t, you know?”
“I’m right glad of it,” whined the old man. “This is a fine place to keep a youngster of quiet tastes. With all this yelling and howling, I haven’t been able to get a wink of sleep. I asked for something to eat” – here his voice rose to a shrill note of protest – “and they brought me a bottle of milk!”
Mr. Button, sank down upon a chair near his son and concealed his face in his hands. “My heavens!” he murmured, in an ecstasy of horror.
“What will people say? What must I do?”
“You’ll have to take him home,” insisted the nurse – “immediately!”
A grotesque picture formed itself with dreadful clarity before the eyes of the tortured man–a picture of himself walking through the crowded streets of the city with this appalling apparition stalking by his side.
“I can’t. I can’t,” he moaned.
People would stop to speak to him, and what was he going to say? He would have to introduce this–this septuagenarian: “This is my son, born early this morning.” And then the old man would gather his blanket around him and they would plod on, past the bustling stores, the slave market–for a dark instant Mr. Button wished passionately that his son was black – past the luxurious houses of the residential district, past the home for the aged….
“Come! Pull yourself together,” commanded the nurse.
“See here,” the old man announced suddenly, “if you think I’m going to walk home in this blanket, you’re entirely mistaken.”
“Babies always have blankets.”
With a malicious crackle the old man held up a small white swaddling garment. “Look!” he quavered. “This is what they had ready for me.”
“Babies always wear those,” said the nurse primly.
“Well,” said the old man, “this baby’s not going to wear anything in about two minutes. This blanket itches. They might at least have given me a sheet.”
“Keep it on! Keep it on!” said Mr. Button hurriedly. He turned to the nurse. “What’ll I do?”
“Go down town and buy your son some clothes.”
Mr. Button’s son’s voice followed him down into the: hall: “And a cane, father. I want to have a cane.”
Mr. Button banged the outer door savagely….

“Good-morning,” Mr. Button said nervously, to the clerk in the Chesapeake Dry Goods Company. “I want to buy some clothes for my child.”
“How old is your child, sir?”
“About six hours,” answered Mr. Button, without due consideration.
“Babies’ supply department in the rear.”
“Why, I don’t think – I’m not sure that’s what I want. It’s – he’s an unusually large-size child. Exceptionally – ah large.”
“They have the largest child’s sizes.”
“Where is the boys’ department?” inquired Mr. Button, shifting his ground desperately. He felt that the clerk must surely scent his shameful secret.
“Right here.”
“Well –– ” He hesitated. The notion of dressing his son in men’s clothes was repugnant to him. If, say, he could only find a very large boy’s suit, he might cut off that long and awful beard, dye the white hair brown, and thus manage to conceal the worst, and to retain something of his own self-respect–not to mention his position in Baltimore society.
But a frantic inspection of the boys’ department revealed no suits to fit the new-born Button. He blamed the store, of course – in such cases it is the thing to blame the store.
“How old did you say that boy of yours was?” demanded the clerk curiously.
“He’s – sixteen.”
“Oh, I beg your pardon. I thought you said six hours. You’ll find the youths’ department in the next aisle.”
Mr. Button turned miserably away. Then he stopped, brightened, and pointed his finger toward a dressed dummy in the window display. “There!” he exclaimed. “I’ll take that suit, out there on the dummy.”
The clerk stared. “Why,” he protested, “that’s not a child’s suit. At least it is, but it’s for fancy dress. You could wear it yourself!”
“Wrap it up,” insisted his customer nervously. “That’s what I want.”
The astonished clerk obeyed.
Back at the hospital Mr. Button entered the nursery and almost threw the package at his son. “Here’s your clothes,” he snapped out.
The old man untied the package and viewed the contents with a quizzical eye.
“They look sort of funny to me,” he complained, “I don’t want to be made a monkey of – ”
“You’ve made a monkey of me!” retorted Mr. Button fiercely. “Never you mind how funny you look. Put them on – or I’ll – or I’ll spank you.” He swallowed uneasily at the penultimate word, feeling nevertheless that it was the proper thing to say.
“All right, father” – this with a grotesque simulation of filial respect – “you’ve lived longer; you know best. Just as you say.”
As before, the sound of the word “father” caused Mr. Button to start violently.
“And hurry.”
“I’m hurrying, father.”
When his son was dressed Mr. Button regarded him with depression. The costume consisted of dotted socks, pink pants, and a belted blouse with a wide white collar. Over the latter waved the long whitish beard, drooping almost to the waist. The effect was not good.
Mr. Button seized a hospital shears and with three quick snips amputated a large section of the beard. But even with this improvement the ensemble fell far short of perfection. The remaining brush of scraggly hair, the watery eyes, the ancient teeth, seemed oddly out of tone with the gaiety of the costume. Mr. Button, however, was obdurate – he held out his hand. “Come along!” he said sternly.
His son took the hand trustingly. “What are you going to call me, dad?” he quavered as they walked from the nursery–”just ‘baby’ for a while? till you think of a  better name?”
Mr. Button grunted. “I don’t know,” he answered harshly. “I think we’ll call you Methuselah.”

Even after the new addition to the Button family had had his hair cut short and then dyed to a sparse unnatural black, had had his face shaved so close that it glistened, and had been attired in small-boy clothes made to order by a flabbergasted tailor, it was impossible for Button to ignore the fact that his son was an excuse for a first family baby. Despite his aged stoop, Benjamin Button – for it was by this name they called him instead of by the appropriate but invidious Methuselah – was five feet eight inches tall. His clothes did not conceal this, nor did the clipping and dyeing of his eyebrows disguise the fact that the eyes under were faded and watery and tired. In fact, the baby-nurse who had been engaged in advance left the house after one look, in a state of considerable indignation.
But Mr. Button persisted in his unwavering purpose. Benjamin was a baby, and a baby he should remain. At first he declared that if Benjamin didn’t like warm milk he could go without food altogether, but he was finally prevailed upon to allow his son bread and butter, and even oatmeal by way of a compromise. One day he brought home a rattle and, giving it to Benjamin, insisted in no uncertain terms that he should “play with it,” whereupon the old man took it with a weary expression and could be heard jingling it obediently at intervals throughout the day.
There can be no doubt, though, that the rattle bored him, and that he found other and more soothing amusements when he was left alone. For instance, Mr. Button discovered one day that during the preceding week be had smoked more cigars than ever before – a phenomenon, which was explained a few days later when, entering the nursery unexpectedly, he found the room full of faint blue haze and Benjamin, with a guilty expression on his face, trying to conceal the butt of a dark Havana. This, of course, called for a severe spanking, but Mr. Button found that he could not bring himself to administer it. He merely warned his son that he would “stunt his growth.”
Nevertheless he persisted in his attitude. He brought home lead soldiers, he brought toy trains, he brought large pleasant animals made of cotton, and, to perfect the illusion which he was creating–for himself at least–he passionately demanded of the clerk in the toy-store whether “the paint would come off the pink duck if the baby put it in his mouth.” But, despite all his father’s efforts, Benjamin refused to be interested. He would steal down the back stairs and return to the nursery with a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica, over which he would pore through an afternoon, while his cotton cows and his Noah’s ark were left neglected on the floor. Against such a stubbornness Mr. Button’s efforts were of little avail.
The sensation created in Baltimore was, at first, prodigious. What the mishap would have cost the Buttons and their kinsfolk socially cannot be determined, for the outbreak of the Civil War drew the city’s attention to other things. A few people who were unfailingly polite wracked  their brains for compliments to give to the parents – and finally hit upon the ingenious device of declaring that the baby resembled his grandfather, a fact which, due to the standard state of decay common to all men of seventy, could not be denied. Mr. and Mrs. Roger Button were not pleased, and Benjamin’s grandfather was furiously insulted.
Benjamin, once he left the hospital, took life as he found it. Several small boys were brought to see him, and he spent a stiff-jointed afternoon trying to work up an interest in tops and marbles – he even managed, quite accidentally, to break a kitchen window with a stone from a sling shot, a feat which secretly delighted his father.
Thereafter Benjamin contrived to break something every day, but he did these things only because they were expected of him, and because he was by nature obliging.
When his grandfather’s initial antagonism wore off, Benjamin and that gentleman took enormous pleasure in one another’s company. They would sit for hours, these two, so far apart in age and experience, and, like old cronies, discuss with tireless monotony the slow events of the day. Benjamin felt more at ease in his grandfather’s presence than in his parents’–they seemed always somewhat in awe of him and, despite the dictatorial authority they exercised over him, frequently addressed him as “Mr.”
He was as puzzled as any one else at the apparently advanced age of his mind and body at birth. He read up on it in the medical journal, but found that no such case had been previously recorded. At his father’s urging he made an honest attempt to play with other boys, and frequently he joined in the milder games–football shook him up too much, and he feared that in case of a fracture his ancient bones would refuse to knit.
When he was five he was sent to kindergarten, where he initiated into the art of pasting green paper on orange paper, of weaving colored mats and manufacturing eternal cardboard necklaces. He was inclined to drowse off to sleep in the middle of these tasks, a habit which both irritated and frightened his young teacher. To his relief she complained to his parents, and he was removed from the school. The Roger Buttons told their friends that they felt he was too young.
By the time he was twelve years old his parents had grown used to him. Indeed, so strong is the force of custom that they no longer felt that he was different from any other child–except when some curious anomaly reminded them of the fact. But one day a few weeks after his twelfth birthday, while looking in the mirror, Benjamin made, or thought he made, an astonishing discovery. Did his eyes deceive him, or had his hair turned in the dozen years of his life from white to iron-gray under its concealing dye? Was the network of wrinkles on his face becoming less pronounced? Was his skin healthier and firmer, with even a touch of ruddy winter color? He could not tell. He knew that he no longer stooped, and that his physical condition had improved since the early days of his life.
“Can it be––?” he thought to himself, or, rather, scarcely dared to think.
He went to his father. “I am grown,” he announced determinedly. “I want to put on long trousers.”
His father hesitated. “Well,” he said finally, “I don’t know. Fourteen is the age for putting on long trousers–and you are only twelve.”
“But you’ll have to admit,” protested Benjamin, “that I’m big for my age.”
His father looked at him with illusory speculation. “Oh, I’m not so sure of that,” he said. “I was as big as you when I was twelve.”
This was not true-it was all part of Roger Button’s silent agreement with himself to believe in his son’s normality.
Finally a compromise was reached. Benjamin was to continue to dye his hair. He was to make a better attempt to play with boys of his own age. He was not to wear his spectacles or carry a cane in the street. In return for these concessions he was allowed his first suit of long trousers….

Of the life of Benjamin Button between his twelfth and twenty-first year I intend to say little. Suffice to record that they were years of normal ungrowth. When Benjamin was eighteen he was erect as a man of fifty; he had more hair and it was of a dark gray; his step was firm, his voice had lost its cracked quaver and descended to a healthy baritone. So his father sent him up to Connecticut to take examinations for entrance to Yale College. Benjamin passed his examination and became a member of the freshman class.
On the third day following his matriculation he received a notification from Mr. Hart, the college registrar, to call at his office and arrange his schedule. Benjamin, glancing in the mirror, decided that his hair needed a new application of its brown dye, but an anxious inspection of his bureau drawer disclosed that the dye bottle was not there. Then he remembered – he had emptied it the day before and thrown it away.
He was in a dilemma. He was due at the registrar’s in five minutes. There seemed to be no help for it– he must go as he was. He did.
“Good-morning,” said the registrar politely. “You’ve come to inquire about your son.”
“Why, as a matter of fact, my name’s Button –” began Benjamin, but Mr. Hart cut him off.
“I’m very glad to meet you, Mr. Button. I’m expecting your son here any minute.”
“That’s me!” burst out Benjamin. “I’m a freshman.”
“I’m a freshman.”
“Surely you’re joking.”
“Not at all.”
The registrar frowned and glanced at a card before him. “Why, I have Mr. Benjamin Button’s age down here as eighteen.”
“That’s my age,” asserted Benjamin, flushing slightly.
The registrar eyed him wearily. “Now surely, Mr. Button, you don’t expect me to believe that.”
Benjamin smiled wearily. “I am eighteen,” he repeated.
The registrar pointed sternly to the door. “Get out,” he said. “Get out of college and get out of town. You are a dangerous lunatic.”
“I am eighteen.”
Mr. Hart opened the door. “The idea!” he shouted. “A man of your age trying to enter here as a freshman. Eighteen years old, are you? Well, I’ll give you eighteen minutes to get out of town.”
Benjamin Button walked with dignity from the room, and half a dozen undergraduates, who were waiting in the hall, followed him curiously with their eyes. When he had gone a little way he turned around, faced the infuriated registrar, who was still standing in the door-way, and repeated in a firm voice: “I am eighteen years old.”
To a chorus of titters which went up from the group of undergraduates, Benjamin walked away.
But he was not fated to escape so easily. On his melancholy walk to the railroad station he found that he was being followed by a group, then by a swarm, and finally by a dense mass of undergraduates. The word had gone around that a lunatic had passed the entrance examinations for Yale and attempted to palm himself off as a youth of eighteen. A fever of excitement permeated the college. Men ran hatless out of classes, the football team abandoned its practice and joined the mob, professors’ wives with bonnets awry and bustles out of position, ran shouting after the procession, from which proceeded a continual succession of remarks aimed at the tender sensibilities of Benjamin Button.
“He must be the wandering Jew!”
“He ought to go to prep school at his age!”
“Look at the infant prodigy!”
“He thought this was the old men’s home.”
“Go up to Harvard!”
Benjamin increased his gait, and soon he was running. He would show them! He would go to Harvard, and then they would regret these ill-considered taunts!
Safely on board the train for Baltimore, he put his head from the window. “You’ll regret this!” he shouted.
“Ha-ha!” the undergraduates laughed. “Ha-ha-ha!” It was the biggest mistake that Yale College had ever made….

In 1880 Benjamin Button was twenty years old, and he signalized his birthday by going to work for his father in Roger Button & Co., Wholesale Hardware. It was in that same year that he began “going out socially”–that is, his father insisted on taking him to several fashionable dances. Roger Button was now fifty, and he and his son were more and more companionable – in fact, since Benjamin had ceased to dye his hair (which was still grayish) they appeared about the same age, and could have passed for brothers.
One night in August they got into the phaeton attired in their full-dress suits and drove out to a dance at the Shevlins’ country house, situated just outside of Baltimore. It was a gorgeous evening. A full moon drenched the road to the lusterless color of platinum, and late-blooming harvest flowers breathed into the motionless air aromas that were like low, half-heard laughter. The open country, carpeted for rods around with bright wheat, was translucent as in the day. It was almost impossible not to be affected by the sheer beauty of the sky – almost.
“There’s a great future in the dry-goods business,” Roger Button was saying. He was not a spiritual man – his aesthetic sense was rudimentary.
“Old fellows like me can’t learn new tricks,” he observed profoundly. “It’s you youngsters with energy and vitality that have the great future before you.”
Far up the road the lights of the Shevlins’ country house drifted into view, and presently there was a sighing sound that crept persistently toward them – it might have been the fine plaint of violins or the rustle of the silver wheat under the moon.
They pulled up behind a handsome brougham whose passengers were disembarking at the door. A lady got out, then an elderly gentleman, then another young lady, beautiful as sin. Benjamin started; an almost chemical change seemed to dissolve and recompose the very elements of his body. A rigor passed over him, blood rose into his cheeks, his forehead, and there was a steady thumping in his ears. It was first love.
The girl was slender and frail, with hair that was ashen under the moon and honey-colored under the sputtering gas-lamps of the porch. Over her shoulders was thrown a Spanish mantilla of softest yellow, butterflied in black; her feet were glittering buttons at the hem of her bustled dress.
Roger Button leaned over to his son. “That,” he said, “is young Hildegarde Moncrief, the daughter of General Moncrief.”
Benjamin nodded coldly. “Pretty little thing,” he said indifferently. But when the Negro boy had led the buggy away, he added: “Dad, you might introduce me to her.”
They approached a group, of which Miss Moncrief was the center. Reared in the old tradition, she curtsied low before Benjamin. Yes, he might have a dance. He thanked her and walked away – staggered away.
The interval until the time for his turn should arrive dragged itself out interminably. He stood close to the wall, silent, inscrutable, watching with murderous eyes the young bloods of Baltimore as they eddied around Hildegarde Moncrief, passionate admiration in their faces. How obnoxious they seemed to Benjamin; how intolerably rosy! Their curling brown whiskers aroused in him a feeling equivalent to indigestion.
But when his own time came, and he drifted with her out upon the changing floor to the music of the latest waltz from Paris, his jealousies and anxieties melted from him like a mantle of snow. Blind with enchantment, he felt that life was just beginning.
“You and your brother got here just as we did, didn’t you?” asked Hildegarde, looking up at him with eyes that were like bright blue enamel.
Benjamin hesitated. If she took him for his father’s brother, would it be best to enlighten her? He remembered his experience at Yale, so he decided against it. It would be rude to contradict a lady; it would be criminal to mar this exquisite occasion with the grotesque story of his origin. Later, perhaps. So he nodded, smiled, listened, was happy.
“I like men of your age,” Hildegarde told him. “Young boys are so idiotic. They tell me how much champagne they drink at college, and how much money they lose playing cards. Men of your age know how to appreciate women.”
Benjamin felt himself on the verge of a proposal–with an effort he choked back the impulse. “You’re just the romantic age,” she continued – “fifty. Twenty-five is too wordly-wise; thirty is apt to be pale from overwork; forty is the age of long stories that take a whole cigar to tell; sixty is – oh, sixty is too near seventy; but fifty is the mellow age. I love fifty.”
Fifty seemed to Benjamin a glorious age. He longed passionately to be fifty.
“I’ve always said,” went on Hildegarde, “that I’d rather marry a man of fifty and be taken care of than marry a man of thirty and take care of him.”
For Benjamin the rest of the evening was bathed in a honey-colored mist. Hildegarde gave him two more dances, and they discovered that they were marvelously in accord on all the questions of the day. She was to go driving with him on the following Sunday, and then they would discuss all these questions further.
Going home in the phaeton just before the crack of dawn, when the first bees were humming and the fading moon glimmered in the cool dew, Benjamin knew vaguely that his father was discussing wholesale hardware.
“…. And what do you think should merit our biggest attention after hammers and nails?” the elder Button was saying.
“Love,” replied Benjamin absent-mindedly.
“Lugs?” exclaimed Roger Button, “Why, I’ve just covered the question of lugs.”
Benjamin regarded him with dazed eyes just as the eastern sky was suddenly cracked with light, and an oriole yawned piercingly in the quickening trees…

When, six months later, the engagement of Miss Hildegarde Moncrief to Mr. Benjamin Button was made known (I say “made known,” for General Moncrief declared he would rather fall upon his sword than announce it), the excitement in Baltimore society reached a feverish pitch. The almost forgotten story of Benjamin’s birth was remembered and sent out upon the winds of scandal in picaresque and incredible forms. It was said that Benjamin was really the father of Roger Button, that he was his brother who had been in prison for forty years, that he was John Wilkes Booth in disguise – and, finally, that he had two small conical horns sprouting from his head.
The Sunday supplements of the New York papers played up the case with fascinating sketches which showed the head of Benjamin Button attached to a fish, to  a snake, and, finally, to a body of solid brass. He became known, journalistically, as the Mystery Man of Maryland. But the true story, as is usually the case, had a very small circulation.
However, every one agreed with General Moncrief that it was “criminal” for a lovely girl who could have married any beau in Baltimore to throw herself into the arms of a man who was assuredly fifty. In vain Mr. Roger Button published his son’s birth certificate in large type in the Baltimore Blaze. No one believed it. You had only to look at Benjamin and see.
On the part of the two people most concerned there was no wavering. So many of the stories about her fiance were false that Hildegarde refused stubbornly to believe even the true one. In vain General Moncrief pointed out to her the high mortality among men of fifty – or, at least, among men who looked fifty; in vain he told her of the instability of the wholesale hardware business. Hildegarde had chosen to marry for mellowness, and marry she did….

In one particular, at least, the friends of Hildegarde Moncrief were mistaken. The wholesale hardware business prospered amazingly. In the fifteen years between Benjamin Button’s marriage in 1880 and his father’s retirement in 1895, the family fortune was doubled – and this was due largely to the younger member of the firm.
Needless to say, Baltimore eventually received the couple to its bosom. Even old General Moncrief became reconciled to his son-in-law when Benjamin gave him the money to bring out his History of the Civil War in twenty volumes, which had been refused by nine prominent publishers.
In Benjamin himself fifteen years had wrought many changes. It seemed to him that the blood flowed with new vigor through his veins. It began to be a pleasure to rise in the morning, to walk with an active step along the busy, sunny street, to work untiringly with his shipments of hammers and his cargoes of nails. It was in 1890 that he executed his famous business coup: he brought up the suggestion that all nails used in nailing up the boxes in which nails are shipped are the property of the shippee, a proposal which became a statute, was approved by Chief Justice Fossile, and saved Roger Button and Company, Wholesale Hardware, more than six hundred nails every year.
In addition, Benjamin discovered that he was becoming more and more attracted by the gay side of life. It was typical of his growing enthusiasm for pleasure that he was the first man in the city of Baltimore to own and run an automobile. Meeting him on the street, his contemporaries would stare enviously at the picture he made of health and vitality.
“He seems to grow younger every year,” they would remark. And if old Roger Button, now sixty-five years old, had failed at first to give a proper welcome to his son he atoned at last by bestowing on him what amounted to adulation.
And here we come to an unpleasant subject which it will be well to pass over as quickly as possible. There was only one thing that worried Benjamin Button; his wife had ceased to attract him.
At that time Hildegarde was a woman of thirty-five, with a son, Roscoe, fourteen years old. In the early days of their marriage Benjamin had worshipped her. But, as the years passed, her honey-colored hair became an unexciting brown, the blue enamel of her eyes assumed the aspect of cheap crockery – moreover, and, most of all, she had become too settled in her ways, too placid, too content, too anaemic in her excitements, and too sober in her taste. As a bride it been she who had “dragged” Benjamin to dances and dinners – now conditions were reversed. She went out socially with him, but without enthusiasm, devoured already by that eternal inertia which comes to live with each of us one day and stays with us to the end.
Benjamin’s discontent waxed stronger. At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898 his home had for him so little charm that he decided to join the army. With his business influence he obtained a commission as captain, and proved so adaptable to the work that he was made a major, and finally a lieutenant-colonel just in time to participate in the celebrated charge up San Juan Hill. He was slightly wounded, and received a medal.
Benjamin had become so attached to the activity and excitement of army life that he regretted to give it up, but his business required attention, so he resigned his commission and came home. He was met at the station by a brass band and escorted to his house.

Hildegarde, waving a large silk flag, greeted him on the porch, and even as he kissed her he felt with a sinking of the heart that these three years had taken their toll. She was a woman of forty now, with a faint skirmish line of gray hairs in her head. The sight depressed him.
Up in his room he saw his reflection in the familiar mirror – he went closer and examined his own face with anxiety, comparing it after a moment with a photograph of himself in uniform taken just before the war.
“Good Lord!” he said aloud. The process was continuing. There was no doubt of it – he looked now like a man of thirty. Instead of being delighted, he was uneasy – he was growing younger. He had hitherto hoped that once he reached a bodily age equivalent to his age in years, the grotesque phenomenon which had marked his birth would cease to function. He shuddered. His destiny seemed to him awful, incredible.
When he came downstairs Hildegarde was waiting for him. She appeared annoyed, and he wondered if she had at last discovered that there was something amiss. It was with an effort to relieve the tension between them that he broached the matter at dinner in what he considered a delicate way.
“Well,” he remarked lightly, “everybody says I look younger than ever.”
Hildegarde regarded him with scorn. She sniffed. “Do you think it’s anything to boast about?”
“I’m not boasting,” he asserted uncomfortably. She sniffed again. “The idea,” she said, and after a moment: “I should think you’d have enough pride to stop it.”
“How can I?” he demanded.
“I’m not going to argue with you,” she retorted. “But there’s a right way of doing things and a wrong way. If you’ve made up your mind to be different from everybody else, I don’t suppose I can stop you, but I really don’t think it’s very considerate.”
“But, Hildegarde, I can’t help it.”
“You can too. You’re simply stubborn. You think you don’t want to be like any one else. You always have been that way, and you always will be. But just think how it would be if every one else looked at things as you do – what would the world be like?”
As this was an inane and unanswerable argument Benjamin made no reply, and from that time on a chasm began to widen between them. He wondered what possible fascination she had ever exercised over him.
To add to the breach, he found, as the new century gathered headway, that his thirst for gaiety grew stronger. Never a party of any kind in the city of Baltimore but he was there, dancing with the prettiest of the young married women, chatting with the most popular of the debutantes, and finding their company charming, while his wife, a dowager of evil omen, sat among the chaperons, now in haughty disapproval, and now following him with solemn, puzzled, and reproachful eyes.
“Look!” people would remark. “What a pity! A young fellow that age tied to a woman of forty-five. He must be twenty years younger than his wife.” They had forgotten–as people inevitably forget–that back in 1880 their mammas and papas had also remarked about this same ill-matched pair.
Benjamin’s growing unhappiness at home was compensated for by his many new interests. He took up golf and made a great success of it. He went in for dancing: in 1906 he was an expert at “The Boston,” and in 1908 he was considered proficient at the “Maxine,” while in 1909 his “Castle Walk” was the envy of every young man in town.
His social activities, of course, interfered to some extent with his business, but then he had worked hard at wholesale hardware for twenty-five years and felt that he could soon hand it on to his son, Roscoe, who had recently graduated from Harvard.
He and his son were, in fact, often mistaken for each other. This pleased Benjamin–he soon forgot the insidious fear which had come over him on his return from the Spanish-American War, and grew to take a naive pleasure in his appearance. There was only one fly in the delicious ointment – he hated to appear in public with his wife. Hildegarde was almost fifty, and the sight of her made him feel absurd….

One September day in 1910 – a few years after Roger Button & Co., Wholesale Hardware, had been handed over to young Roscoe Button – a man, apparently about twenty years old, entered himself as a freshman at Harvard University in Cambridge. He did not make the mistake of announcing that he would never see fifty again, nor did he mention the fact that his son had been graduated from the same institution ten years before.
He was admitted, and almost immediately attained a prominent position in the class, partly because he seemed a little older than the other freshmen, whose average age was about eighteen.
But his success was largely due to the fact that in the football game with Yale he played so brilliantly, with so much dash and with such a cold, remorseless anger  that he scored seven touchdowns and fourteen field goals for Harvard, and caused one entire eleven of Yale men to be carried singly from the field, unconscious. He was the most celebrated man in college.
Strange to say, in his third or junior year he was scarcely able to “make” the team. The coaches said that he had lost weight, and it seemed to the more observant among them that he was not quite as tall as before. He made no touchdowns – indeed, he was retained on the team chiefly in hope that his enormous reputation would bring terror and disorganization to the Yale team.
In his senior year he did not make the team at all. He had grown so slight and frail that one day he was taken by some sophomores for a freshman, an incident which humiliated him terribly. He became known as something of a prodigy – a senior who was surely no more than sixteen – and he was often shocked at the worldliness of some of his classmates. His studies seemed harder to him–he felt that they were too advanced. He had heard his classmates speak of St. Midas’s, the famous preparatory school, at which so many of them had prepared for college, and he determined after his graduation to enter himself at St. Midas’s, where the sheltered life among boys his own size would be more congenial to him.
Upon his graduation in 1914 he went home to Baltimore with his Harvard diploma in his pocket. Hildegarde was now residing in Italy, so Benjamin went to live with his son, Roscoe. But though he was welcomed in a general way there was obviously no heartiness in Roscoe’s feeling toward him–there was even perceptible a tendency on his son’s part to think that Benjamin, as he moped about the house in adolescent moodiness, was somewhat in the way. Roscoe was married now and prominent in Baltimore life, and he wanted no scandal to creep out in connection with his family.
Benjamin, no longer persona grata with the debutantes and younger college set, found himself left much alone, except for the companionship of three or four fifteen-year-old boys in the neighborhood. His idea of going to St. Midas’s school recurred to him.
“Say,” he said to Roscoe one day, “I’ve told you over and over that I want to go to prep, school.”
“Well, go, then,” replied Roscoe shortly. The matter was distasteful to him, and he wished to avoid a discussion.
“I can’t go alone,” said Benjamin helplessly. “You’ll have to enter me and take me up there.”
“I haven’t got time,” declared Roscoe abruptly. His eyes narrowed and he looked uneasily at his father. “As a matter of fact,” he added, “you’d better not go on with this business much longer. You better pull up short. You better – you better” – he paused and his face crimsoned as he sought for words–”you better turn right around and start back the other way. This has gone too far to be a joke. It isn’t funny any longer. You– you behave yourself!”
Benjamin looked at him, on the verge of tears.
“And another thing,” continued Roscoe, “when visitors are in the house I want you to call me ‘Uncle’ – not ‘Roscoe,’ but ‘Uncle,’ do you understand? It looks absurd for a boy of fifteen to call me by my first name. Perhaps you’d better call me ‘Uncle’ all the time, so you’ll get used to it.”
With a harsh look at his father, Roscoe turned away….

At the termination of this interview, Benjamin wandered dismally upstairs and stared at himself in the mirror. He had not shaved for three months, but he could find nothing on his face but a faint white down with which it seemed unnecessary to meddle. When he had first come home from Harvard, Roscoe had approached him with the proposition that he should wear eye-glasses and imitation whiskers glued to his cheeks, and it had seemed for a moment that the farce of his early years was to be repeated. But whiskers had itched and made him ashamed. He wept and Roscoe had reluctantly relented.
Benjamin opened a book of boys’ stories, The Boy Scouts in Bimini Bay, and began to read. But he found himself thinking persistently about the war. America had joined the Allied cause during the preceding month, and Benjamin wanted to enlist, but, alas, sixteen was the minimum age, and he did not look that old. His true age, which was fifty-seven, would have disqualified him, anyway.
There was a knock at his door, and the butler appeared with a letter bearing a large official legend in the corner and addressed to Mr. Benjamin Button. Benjamin tore it open eagerly, and read the enclosure with delight. It informed him that many reserve officers who had served in the Spanish-American War were being called back into service with a higher rank, and it enclosed his commission as brigadier-general in the United States army with orders to report immediately.
Benjamin jumped to his feet fairly quivering with enthusiasm. This was what he had wanted. He seized his cap, and ten minutes later he had entered a large tailoring establishment on Charles Street, and asked in his uncertain treble to be measured for a uniform.
“Want to play soldier, sonny?” demanded a clerk casually.
Benjamin flushed. “Say! Never mind what I want!” he retorted angrily. “My name’s Button and I live on Mt. Vernon Place, so you know I’m good for it.”
“Well,” admitted the clerk hesitantly, “if you’re not, I guess your daddy is, all right.”
Benjamin was measured, and a week later his uniform was completed. He had difficulty in obtaining the proper general’s insignia because the dealer kept insisting to Benjamin that a nice V.W.C.A. badge would look just as well and be much more fun to play with.
Saying nothing to Roscoe, he left the house one night and proceeded by train to Camp Mosby, in South Carolina, where he was to command an infantry brigade. On a sultry April day he approached the entrance to the camp, paid off the taxicab which had brought him from the station, and turned to the sentry on guard.
“Get some one to handle my luggage!” he said briskly.
The sentry eyed him reproachfully. “Say,” he remarked, “where you goin’ with the general’s duds, sonny?”
Benjamin, veteran of the Spanish-American War, whirled upon him with fire in his eye, but with, alas, a changing treble voice.
“Come to attention!” he tried to thunder; he paused for breath – then suddenly he saw the sentry snap his heels together and bring his rifle to the present. Benjamin concealed a smile of gratification, but when he glanced around his smile faded. It was not he who had inspired obedience, but an imposing artillery colonel who was approaching on horseback.
“Colonel!” called Benjamin shrilly.
The colonel came up, drew rein, and looked coolly down at him with a twinkle in his eyes. “Whose little boy are you?” he demanded kindly.
“I’ll soon darn well show you whose little boy I am!” retorted Benjamin in a ferocious voice. “Get down off that horse!”
The colonel roared with laughter.
“You want him, eh, general?”
“Here!” cried Benjamin desperately. “Read this.” And he thrust his commission toward the colonel. The colonel read it, his eyes popping from their sockets. “Where’d you get this?” he demanded, slipping the document into his own pocket. “I got it from the Government, as you’ll soon find out!” “You come along with me,” said the colonel with a peculiar look. “We’ll go up to headquarters and talk this over. Come along.” The colonel turned and began walking his horse in the direction of headquarters. There was nothing for Benjamin to do but follow with as much dignity as possible – meanwhile promising himself a stern revenge. But this revenge did not materialize. Two days later, however, his son Roscoe materialized from Baltimore, hot and cross from a hasty trip, and escorted the weeping general, sans uniform, back to his home.

In 1920 Roscoe Button’s first child was born. During the attendant festivities, however, no one thought it “the thing” to mention, that the little grubby boy, apparently about ten years of age who played around the house with lead soldiers and a miniature circus, was the new baby’s own grandfather.
No one disliked the little boy whose fresh, cheerful face was crossed with just a hint of sadness, but to Roscoe Button his presence was a source of torment. In the idiom of his generation Roscoe did not consider the matter “efficient.” It seemed to him that his father, in refusing to look sixty, had not behaved like a “red-blooded he-man” – this was Roscoe’s favorite expression – but in a curious and perverse manner. Indeed, to think about the matter for as much as a half an hour drove him to the edge of insanity. Roscoe believed that “live wires” should keep young, but carrying it out on such a scale was – was – was inefficient. And there Roscoe rested.
Five years later Roscoe’s little boy had grown old enough to play childish games with little Benjamin under the supervision of the same nurse. Roscoe took them both to kindergarten on the same day, and Benjamin found that playing with little strips of colored paper, making mats and chains and curious and beautiful designs, was the most fascinating game in the world. Once he was bad and had to stand in the corner – then he cried – but for the most part there were gay hours in the cheerful room, with the sunlight coming in the windows and Miss Bailey’s kind hand resting for a moment now and then in his tousled hair.
Roscoe’s son moved up into the first grade after a year, but Benjamin stayed on in the kindergarten. He was very happy. Sometimes when other tots talked about what they would do when they grew up a shadow would cross his little face as if in a dim, childish way he realized that those were things in which he was never to share.
The days flowed on in monotonous content. He went back a third year to the kindergarten, but he was too little now to understand what the bright shining strips of paper were for. He cried because the other boys were bigger than he, and he was afraid of them. The teacher talked to him, but though he tried to understand he could not understand at all.
He was taken from the kindergarten. His nurse, Nana, in her starched gingham dress, became the center of his tiny world. On bright days they walked in the park; Nana would point at a great gray monster and say “elephant,” and Benjamin would say it after her, and when he was being undressed for bed that night he would say it over and over aloud to her: “Elyphant, elyphant, elyphant.” Sometimes Nana let him jump on the bed, which was fun, because if you sat down exactly right it would bounce you up on your feet again, and if you said “Ah” for a long time while you jumped you got a very pleasing broken vocal effect.
He loved to take a big cane from the hat-rack and go around hitting chairs and tables with it and saying: “Fight, fight, fight.” When there were people there the old ladies would cluck at him, which interested him, and the young ladies would try to kiss him, which he submitted to with mild boredom. And when the long day was done at five o’clock he would go upstairs with Nana and be fed on oatmeal and nice soft mushy foods with a spoon.
There were no troublesome memories in his childish sleep; no token came to him of his brave days at college, of the glittering years when he flustered the hearts of many girls. There were only the white, safe walls of his crib and Nana and a man who came to see him sometimes, and a great big orange ball that Nana pointed at just before his twilight bed hour and called “sun.” When the sun went his eyes were sleepy – there were no dreams, no dreams to haunt him.
The past – the wild charge at the head of his men up San Juan Hill; the first years of his marriage when he worked late into the summer dusk down in the busy city for young Hildegarde whom he loved; the days before that when he sat smoking far into the night in the gloomy old Button house on Monroe Street with his grandfather – all these had faded like unsubstantial dreams from his mind as though they had never been. He did not remember.
He did not remember clearly whether the milk was warm or cool at his last feeding or how the days passed – there was only his crib and Nana’s familiar presence. And then he remembered nothing. When he was hungry he cried – that was all. Through the noons and nights he breathed and over him there were soft mumblings and murmurings that he scarcely heard, and faintly differentiated smells, and light and darkness.
Then it was all dark, and his white crib and the dim faces that moved above him, and the warm sweet aroma of the milk, faded out altogether from his mind.

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Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (born June 24, 1842; died sometime after December 26, 1913)




















Many years ago, on my way from Hongkong to New York, I passed a week in San Francisco. A long time had gone by since I had been in that city, during which my ventures in the Orient had prospered beyond my hope; I was rich and could afford to revisit my own country to renew my friendship with such of the companions of my youth as still lived and remembered me with the old affection. Chief of these, I hoped, was Mohun Dampier, an old schoolmate with whom I had held a desultory correspondence which had long ceased, as is the way of correspondence between men. You may have observed that the indisposition to write a merely social letter is in the ratio of the square of the distance between you and your correspondent. It is a law.

I remembered Dampier as a handsome, strong young fellow of scholarly tastes, with an aversion to work and a marked indifference to many of the things that the world cares for, including wealth, of which, however, he had inherited enough to put him beyond the reach of want. In his family, one of the oldest and most aristocratic in the country, it was, I think, a matter of pride that no member of it had ever been in trade nor politics, nor suffered any kind of distinction. Mohun was a trifle sentimental, and had in him a singular element of superstition, which led him to the study of all manner of occult subjects, although his sane mental health safeguarded him against fantastic and perilous faiths. He made daring incursions into the realm of the unreal without renouncing his residence in the partly surveyed and charted region of what we are pleased to call certitude.

The night of my visit to him was stormy. The Californian winter was on, and the incessant rain plashed in the deserted streets, or, lifted by irregular gusts of wind, was hurled against the houses with incredible fury. With no small difficulty my cabman found the right place, away out toward the ocean beach, in a sparsely populated suburb. The dwelling, a rather ugly one, apparently, stood in the center of its grounds, which as nearly as I could make out in the gloom were destitute of either flowers or grass. Three or four trees, writhing and moaning in the torment of the tempest, appeared to be trying to escape from their dismal environment and take the chance of finding a better one out at sea. The house was a two-story brick structure with a tower, a story higher, at one corner. In a window of that was the only visible light. Something in the appearance of the place made me shudder, a performance that may have been assisted by a rill of rain-water down my back as I scuttled to cover in the doorway.

In answer to my note apprising him of my wish to call, Dampier had written, “Don’t ring–open the door and come up.” I did so. The staircase was dimly lighted by a single gas-jet at the top of the second flight. I managed to reach the landing without disaster and entered by an open door into the lighted square room of the tower. Dampier came forward in gown and slippers to receive me, giving me the greeting that I wished, and if I had held a thought that it might more fitly have been accorded me at the front door the first look at him dispelled any sense of his inhospitality.

He was not the same. Hardly past middle age, he had gone gray and had acquired a pronounced stoop. His figure was thin and angular, his face deeply lined, his complexion dead-white, without a touch of color. His eyes, unnaturally large, glowed with a fire that was almost uncanny.

He seated me, proffered a cigar, and with grave and obvious sincerity assured me of the pleasure that it gave him to meet me. Some unimportant conversation followed, but all the while I was dominated by a melancholy sense of the great change in him. This he must have perceived, for he suddenly said with a bright enough smile, “You are disappointed in me–non sum qualis eram.”

I hardly knew what to reply, but managed to say: “Why, really, I don’t know: your Latin is about the same.”

He brightened again. “No,” he said, “being a dead language, it grows in appropriateness. But please have the patience to wait: where I am going there is perhaps a better tongue. Will you care to have a message in it?”

The smile faded as he spoke, and as he concluded he was looking into my eyes with a gravity that distressed me. Yet I would not surrender myself to his mood, nor permit him to see how deeply his prescience of death affected me.

“I fancy that it will be long,” I said, “before human speech will cease to serve our need; and then the need, with its possibilities of service, will have passed.”

He made no reply, and I too was silent, for the talk had taken a dispiriting turn, yet I knew not how to give it a more agreeable character. Suddenly, in a pause of the storm, when the dead silence was almost startling by contrast with the previous uproar, I heard a gentle tapping, which appeared to come from the wall behind my chair. The sound was such as might have been made by a human hand, not as upon a door by one asking admittance, but rather, I thought, as an agreed signal, an assurance of someone’s presence in an adjoining room; most of us, I fancy, have had more experience of such communications than we should care to relate. I glanced at Dampier. If possibly there was something of amusement in the look he did not observe it. He appeared to have forgotten my presence, and was staring at the wall behind me with an expression in his eyes that I am unable to name, although my memory of it is as vivid to-day as was my sense of it then. The situation was embarrassing; I rose to take my leave. At this he seemed to recover himself.

“Please be seated,” he said; “it is nothing–no one is there.”

But the tapping was repeated, and with the same gentle, slow insistence as before.

“Pardon me,” I said, “it is late. May I call to-morrow?”

He smiled–a little mechanically, I thought. “It is very delicate of you,” said he, “but quite needless. Really, this is the only room in the tower, and no one is there. At least–” He left the sentence incomplete, rose, and threw up a window, the only opening in the wall from which the sound seemed to come. “See.”

Not clearly knowing what else to do I followed him to the window and looked out. A street-lamp some little distance away gave enough light through the murk of the rain that was again falling in torrents to make it entirely plain that “no one was there.” In truth there was nothing but the sheer blank wall of the tower.

Dampier closed the window and signing me to my seat resumed his own.

The incident was not in itself particularly mysterious; any one of a dozen explanations was possible (though none has occurred to me), yet it impressed me strangely, the more, perhaps, from my friend’s effort to reassure me, which seemed to dignify it with a certain significance and importance. He had proved that no one was there, but in that fact lay all the interest; and he proffered no explanation. His silence was irritating and made me resentful.

“My good friend,” I said, somewhat ironically, I fear, “I am not disposed to question your right to harbor as many spooks as you find agreeable to your taste and consistent with your notions of companionship; that is no business of mine. But being just a plain man of affairs, mostly of this world, I find spooks needless to my peace and comfort. I am going to my hotel, where my fellow-guests are still in the flesh.”

It was not a very civil speech, but he manifested no feeling about it. “Kindly remain,” he said. “I am grateful for your presence here. What you have heard to-night I believe myself to have heard twice before. Now I KNOW it was no illusion. That is much to me– more than you know. Have a fresh cigar and a good stock of patience while I tell you the story.”

The rain was now falling more steadily, with a low, monotonous susurration, interrupted at long intervals by the sudden slashing of the boughs of the trees as the wind rose and failed. The night was well advanced, but both sympathy and curiosity held me a willing listener to my friend’s monologue, which I did not interrupt by a single word from beginning to end.

“Ten years ago,” he said, “I occupied a ground-floor apartment in one of a row of houses, all alike, away at the other end of the town, on what we call Rincon Hill. This had been the best quarter of San Francisco, but had fallen into neglect and decay, partly because the primitive character of its domestic architecture no longer suited the maturing tastes of our wealthy citizens, partly because certain public improvements had made a wreck of it. The row of dwellings in one of which I lived stood a little way back from the street, each having a miniature garden, separated from its neighbors by low iron fences and bisected with mathematical precision by a box-bordered gravel walk from gate to door.

“One morning as I was leaving my lodging I observed a young girl entering the adjoining garden on the left. It was a warm day in June, and she was lightly gowned in white. From her shoulders hung a broad straw hat profusely decorated with flowers and wonderfully beribboned in the fashion of the time. My attention was not long held by the exquisite simplicity of her costume, for no one could look at her face and think of anything earthly. Do not fear; I shall not profane it by description; it was beautiful exceedingly. All that I had ever seen or dreamed of loveliness was in that matchless living picture by the hand of the Divine Artist. So deeply did it move me that, without a thought of the impropriety of the act, I unconsciously bared my head, as a devout Catholic or well-bred Protestant uncovers before an image of the Blessed Virgin. The maiden showed no displeasure; she merely turned her glorious dark eyes upon me with a look that made me catch my breath, and without other recognition of my act passed into the house. For a moment I stood motionless, hat in hand, painfully conscious of my rudeness, yet so dominated by the emotion inspired by that vision of incomparable beauty that my penitence was less poignant than it should have been. Then I went my way, leaving my heart behind. In the natural course of things I should probably have remained away until nightfall, but by the middle of the afternoon I was back in the little garden, affecting an interest in the few foolish flowers that I had never before observed. My hope was vain; she did not appear.

“To a night of unrest succeeded a day of expectation and disappointment, but on the day after, as I wandered aimlessly about the neighborhood, I met her. Of course I did not repeat my folly of uncovering, nor venture by even so much as too long a look to manifest an interest in her; yet my heart was beating audibly. I trembled and consciously colored as she turned her big black eyes upon me with a look of obvious recognition entirely devoid of boldness or coquetry.

“I will not weary you with particulars; many times afterward I met the maiden, yet never either addressed her or sought to fix her attention. Nor did I take any action toward making her acquaintance. Perhaps my forbearance, requiring so supreme an effort of self- denial, will not be entirely clear to you. That I was heels over head in love is true, but who can overcome his habit of thought, or reconstruct his character?

“I was what some foolish persons are pleased to call, and others, more foolish, are pleased to be called–an aristocrat; and despite her beauty, her charms and graces, the girl was not of my class. I had learned her name–which it is needless to speak–and something of her family. She was an orphan, a dependent niece of the impossible elderly fat woman in whose lodging-house she lived. My income was small and I lacked the talent for marrying; it is perhaps a gift. An alliance with that family would condemn me to its manner of life, part me from my books and studies, and in a social sense reduce me to the ranks. It is easy to deprecate such considerations as these and I have not retained myself for the defense. Let judgment be entered against me, but in strict justice all my ancestors for generations should be made co-defendants and I be permitted to plead in mitigation of punishment the imperious mandate of heredity. To a mesalliance of that kind every globule of my ancestral blood spoke in opposition. In brief, my tastes, habits, instinct, with whatever of reason my love had left me–all fought against it. Moreover, I was an irreclaimable sentimentalist, and found a subtle charm in an impersonal and spiritual relation which acquaintance might vulgarize and marriage would certainly dispel. No woman, I argued, is what this lovely creature seems. Love is a delicious dream; why should I bring about my own awakening?

“The course dictated by all this sense and sentiment was obvious. Honor, pride, prudence, preservation of my ideals–all commanded me to go away, but for that I was too weak. The utmost that I could do by a mighty effort of will was to cease meeting the girl, and that I did. I even avoided the chance encounters of the garden, leaving my lodging only when I knew that she had gone to her music lessons, and returning after nightfall. Yet all the while I was as one in a trance, indulging the most fascinating fancies and ordering my entire intellectual life in accordance with my dream. Ah, my friend, as one whose actions have a traceable relation to reason, you cannot know the fool’s paradise in which I lived.

“One evening the devil put it into my head to be an unspeakable idiot. By apparently careless and purposeless questioning I learned from my gossipy landlady that the young woman’s bedroom adjoined my own, a party-wall between. Yielding to a sudden and coarse impulse I gently rapped on the wall. There was no response, naturally, but I was in no mood to accept a rebuke. A madness was upon me and I repeated the folly, the offense, but again ineffectually, and I had the decency to desist.

“An hour later, while absorbed in some of my infernal studies, I heard, or thought I heard, my signal answered. Flinging down my books I sprang to the wall and as steadily as my beating heart would permit gave three slow taps upon it. This time the response was distinct, unmistakable: one, two, three–an exact repetition of my signal. That was all I could elicit, but it was enough–too much.

“The next evening, and for many evenings afterward, that folly went on, I always having ‘the last word.’ During the whole period I was deliriously happy, but with the perversity of my nature I persevered in my resolution not to see her. Then, as I should have expected, I got no further answers. ‘She is disgusted,’ I said to myself, ‘with what she thinks my timidity in making no more definite advances’; and I resolved to seek her and make her acquaintance and–what? I did not know, nor do I now know, what might have come of it. I know only that I passed days and days trying to meet her, and all in vain; she was invisible as well as inaudible. I haunted the streets where we had met, but she did not come. From my window I watched the garden in front of her house, but she passed neither in nor out. I fell into the deepest dejection, believing that she had gone away, yet took no steps to resolve my doubt by inquiry of my landlady, to whom, indeed, I had taken an unconquerable aversion from her having once spoken of the girl with less of reverence than I thought befitting.

“There came a fateful night. Worn out with emotion, irresolution and despondency, I had retired early and fallen into such sleep as was still possible to me. In the middle of the night something–some malign power bent upon the wrecking of my peace forever–caused me to open my eyes and sit up, wide awake and listening intently for I knew not what. Then I thought I heard a faint tapping on the wall–the mere ghost of the familiar signal. In a few moments it was repeated: one, two, three–no louder than before, but addressing a sense alert and strained to receive it. I was about to reply when the Adversary of Peace again intervened in my affairs with a rascally suggestion of retaliation. She had long and cruelly ignored me; now I would ignore her. Incredible fatuity–may God forgive it! All the rest of the night I lay awake, fortifying my obstinacy with shameless justifications and–listening.

“Late the next morning, as I was leaving the house, I met my landlady, entering.

“‘Good morning, Mr. Dampier,’ she said. ‘Have you heard the news?’

“I replied in words that I had heard no news; in manner, that I did not care to hear any. The manner escaped her observation.

“‘About the sick young lady next door,’ she babbled on. ‘What! you did not know? Why, she has been ill for weeks. And now–‘

“I almost sprang upon her. ‘And now,’ I cried, ‘now what?”

“She is dead.”

“That is not the whole story. In the middle of the night, as I learned later, the patient, awakening from a long stupor after a week of delirium, had asked–it was her last utterance–that her bed be moved to the opposite side of the room. Those in attendance had thought the request a vagary of her delirium, but had complied. And there the poor passing soul had exerted its failing will to restore a broken connection–a golden thread of sentiment between its innocence and a monstrous baseness owning a blind, brutal allegiance to the Law of Self.

“What reparation could I make? Are there masses that can be said for the repose of souls that are abroad such nights as this–spirits ‘blown about by the viewless winds’–coming in the storm and darkness with signs and portents, hints of memory and presages of doom?

“This is the third visitation. On the first occasion I was too skeptical to do more than verify by natural methods the character of the incident; on the second, I responded to the signal after it had been several times repeated, but without result. To-night’s recurrence completes the ‘fatal triad’ expounded by Parapelius Necromantius. There is no more to tell.”

When Dampier had finished his story I could think of nothing relevant that I cared to say, and to question him would have been a hideous impertinence. I rose and bade him good night in a way to convey to him a sense of my sympathy, which he silently acknowledged by a pressure of the hand. That night, alone with his sorrow and remorse, he passed into the Unknown.






The subjects of tragic love and the supernatural are skillfully intertwined in this curious story by Ambrose Bierce. Mohun Dampier is not an obviously sympathetic character, tightly bound as he is to the relics of his social inheritance – and yet, he is a man of deep sensitivity and the unshakable  sense of formal propriety bequeathed to him by his family and class. These things run parallel to the equally entrenched streak of immaturity and cussedness in him, which in the end bring about his downfall.

That despite his falling helplessly in love, Mohun Dampier found  the prospect of marrying below his class to be an almost unthinkable,  is an idea we might have some difficulty in grasping today. To be fair to Dampier, he lived at a time when class, and not merely money, made for the more significant division between one social group and another. A hundred and fifty years ago, a difference in class signified a difference not just in social and domestic habits, but in values, education and culture as well. Getting married meant that one entered into a durable commitment, and discrepancies in class could very well have lead to significant difficulties for the spouses involved.

Aside from these considerations, which one might suppose to be manageable given his intense and compelling love, it is difficult to understand Dampier’s misgivings. True he believed that marriage led inevitably to the loss of certain cherished illusions, but again, this fails to satisfactorily explain his hesitation. He does not appear to have been a wealthy man – nor does he appear to have had much of a social life, and no relatives, either close or distant are mentioned. There is no evidence in the story of anyone whose disapprobation he might have incurred by ‘marrying beneath’ him, which makes his decision to not approach the ‘girl in white’ more inexplicable still.

However, when taken together, the combined impact of both these assumptions –  the loss of ideals and his need to retain the social approval of outsiders, might together have provided a significant inducement to foregoing the promise of love.

But as time went on, it would seem that despite his initial reservations,  in this regard, his rigidity began to melt. Perhaps he may have rationalised that the rewards of social acceptance might be incommensurate to the price the securing of such a choice might exact in self-denial. Perhaps he was no longer able to resist his heart’s desire. For a modern reader, the reasons for his actions seem difficult to discern, unless a comparison were to be made between Dampier’s reluctance to be ‘reduced to the ranks’ and  the reluctance we see in some homosexuals, to abandon a heterosexual façade.

But Dampier was no hypocrite. He came by his station honestly, and he was not pretending to be something he was not. His tendency to cavil about marriage seems to have been the result of a blend of cynicism and ambivalence, and his attitudes were fraught with confusion and conflict. He may have sought to avoid change by simply staying in place, but change finally overtook him notwithstanding.

When he finally came to a clarity of realisation about his feelings it was too late. Indulgence of the fit of peevishness which prompted him to not respond to the girl’s signals  cost him dearly. The love of his life  being dead, he was condemned to living a lonely life, filled with regret and self-recrimination. His only consolation came from his  belief in the occult  – or perhaps religion –  that the soul is not extinguished by death.  All he could do in the end was to  simply wait for death himself, and one cannot escape the feeling that he waited with anxious expectation for the final summons.









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Edgar Allan Poe (January 19, 1809 – October 7,1849)

In the consideration of the faculties and impulses — of the prima mobilia of the human soul, the phrenologists have failed to make room for a propensity which, although obviously existing as a radical, primitive, irreducible sentiment, has been equally overlooked by all the moralists who have preceded them. In the pure arrogance of the reason, we have all overlooked it. We have suffered its existence to escape our senses solely through want of belief — of faith; — whether it be faith in Revelation, or faith in the Kabbala. The idea of it has never occurred to us, simply because of its supererogation. We saw no need of impulse — for the propensity. We could not perceive its necessity. We could not understand, that is to say, we could not have understood, had the notion of this primum mobile ever obtruded itself; — we could not have understood in what manner it might be made to further the objects of humanity, either temporal or eternal. It cannot be denied that phrenology and, in great measure, all metaphysicianism have been concocted a priori. The intellectual or logical man, rather than the understanding or observant man, set himself to imagine designs — to dictate purposes to God. Having thus fathomed, to his satisfaction, the intentions of Jehovah, out of these intentions he built his innumerable systems of mind. In the matter of phrenology, for example, we first determined, naturally enough, that it was the design of the Deity that man should eat. We then assigned to man an organ of alimentiveness, and this organ is the scourge with which the Deity compels man, will-I nill-I, into eating. Secondly, having settled it to be God’s will that man should continue his species, we discovered an organ of amativeness, forthwith. And so with combativeness, with ideality, with causality, with constructiveness, — so, in short, with every organ, whether representing a propensity, a moral sentiment, or a faculty of the pure intellect. And in these arrangements of the principia of human action, the Spurzheimites, whether right or wrong, in part, or upon the whole, have but followed, in principle, the footsteps of their predecessors; deducing and establishing everything from the preconceived destiny of man, and upon the ground of the objects of this Creator.It would have been wiser, it would have been safer, to classify (if classify we must) upon the basis of what man usually or occasionally did, and was always occasionally doing, rather than upon the basis of what he took it for granted the Deity intended him to do. If we cannot comprehend God in his visible works, how then in his inconceivable thoughts, that call the works into being? If we cannot understand him in his objective creatures, how then in his substantive moods and phases of creation?Induction, a posteriori, would have brought phrenology to admit, as an innate and primitive principle of human action, a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness, for want of a more characteristic term. In the sense I intend, it is, in fact, a mobile without motive, a motive not motivirt. Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say, that through its promptings we act, for the reason that we should not. In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable; but, in fact, there is none more strong. With certain minds, under certain conditions it becomes absolutely irresistible. I am not more certain that I breathe, than that the assurance of the wrong or error of any action is often the one unconquerable force which impels us, and alone impels us to its prosecution. Nor will this overwhelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong’s sake, admit of analysis, or resolution into ulterior elements. It is radical, a primitive impulse — elementary. It will be said, I am aware, that when we persist in acts because we feel we should not persist in them, our conduct is but a modification of that which ordinarily springs from the combativeness of phrenology. But a glance will show the fallacy of this idea. The phrenological combativeness has, for its essence, the necessity of self-defence. It is our safeguard against injury. Its principle regards our well-being; and thus the desire to be well is excited simultaneously with its development. It follows, that the desire to be well must be excited simultaneously with any principle which shall be merely a modification of combativeness, but in the case of that something which I term perverseness, the desire to be well is not only aroused, but a strongly antagonistical sentiment exists.

An appeal to one’s own heart is, after all, the best reply to the sophistry just noticed. No one who trustingly consults and thoroughly questions his own soul, will be disposed to deny the entire radicalness of the propensity in question. It is not more incomprehensible than distinctive. There lives no man who at some period has not been tormented, for example, by an earnest desire to tantalize a listener by circumlocution. The speaker is aware that he displeases, he has every intention to please; he is usually curt, precise, and clear; the most laconic and luminous language is struggling for utterance upon his tongue; it is only with difficulty that he restrains himself from giving it flow; he dreads and deprecates the anger of him whom he addresses; yet, the thought strikes him, that by certain involutions and parentheses this anger may be engendered. That single thought is enough. The impulse increases to a wish, the wish to a desire, the desire to an uncontrollable longing, and the longing (to the deep regret and mortification of the speaker, and in defiance of all consequences) is indulged.

We have a task before us which must be speedily performed. We know that it will be ruinous to make delay. The most important crisis of our life calls, trumpet-tongued, for immediate energy and action. We glow, we are consumed with eagerness to commence the work, with the anticipation of whose glorious result our whole souls are on fire. It must, it shall be undertaken to-day, and yet we put it off until to-morrow; and why? There is no answer, except that we feel perverse, using the word with no comprehension of the principle. To-morrow arrives, and with it a more impatient anxiety to do our duty, but with this very increase of anxiety arrives, also, a nameless, a positively fearful, because unfathomable, craving for delay. This craving gathers strength as the moments fly. The last hour for action is at hand. We tremble with the violence of the conflict within us, — of the definite with the indefinite — of the substance with the shadow. But, if the contest has proceeded thus far, it is the shadow which prevails — we struggle in vain. The clock strikes, and is the knell of our welfare. At the same time, it is the chanticleer-note to the ghost that has so long overawed us. It flies — it disappears — we are free. The old energy returns. We will labour now. Alas, it is too late!

We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss — we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain. By slow degrees our sickness and dizziness and horror become merged in a cloud of unnamable feeling. By gradations, still more imperceptible, this cloud assumes shape, as did the vapour from the bottle out of which arose the genius in the Arabian Nights. But out of this our cloud upon the precipice’s edge, there grows into palpability, a shape, far more terrible than any genius or any demon of a tale, and yet it is but a thought, although a fearful one, and one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height. And this fall — this rushing annihilation — for the very reason that it involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of all the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination — for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it. And because our reason violently deters us from the brink, therefore do we the most impetuously approach it. There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient as that of him who, shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a plunge. To indulge, for a moment, in any attempt at thought, is to be inevitably lost; for reflection but urges us to forbear, and therefore it is, I say, that we cannot. If there be no friendly arm to check us, or if we fail in a sudden effort to prostrate ourselves backward from the abyss, we plunge, and are destroyed.

Examine these and similar actions as we will, we shall find them resulting solely from the spirit of the Perverse. We perpetrate them merely because we feel that we should not Beyond or behind this there is no intelligible principle; and we might, indeed, deem this perverseness a direct instigation of the arch-fiend, were it not occasionally known to operate in furtherance of good.

I have said thus much, that in some measure I may answer your question — that I may explain to you why I am here — that I may assign to you something that shall have at least the faint aspect of a cause for my wearing these fetters, and for my tenanting this cell of the condemned. Had I not been thus prolix, you might either have misunderstood me altogether, or, with the rabble, have fancied me mad. As it is, you will easily perceive that I am one of the many uncounted victims of the Imp of the Perverse.

It is impossible that any deed could have been wrought with a more thorough deliberation. For weeks, for months, I pondered upon the means of the murder. I rejected a thousand schemes, because their accomplishment involved a chance of detection. At length, in reading some French memoirs, I found an account of a nearly fatal illness that occurred to Madame Pilau, through the agency of a candle accidentally poisoned. The idea struck my fancy at once. I knew my victim’s habit of reading in bed. I knew, too, that his apartment was narrow and ill-ventilated. But I need not vex you with impertinent details. I need not describe the easy artifices by which I substituted, in his bed-room candle stand, a wax-light of my own making for the one which I there found. The next morning he was discovered dead in his bed, and the coroner’s verdict was — ‘Death by the visitation of God.’

Having inherited his estate, all went well with me for years. The idea of detection never once entered my brain. Of the remains of the fatal taper I had myself carefully disposed. I had left no shadow of a clue by which it would be possible to convict, or even suspect, me of the crime. It is inconceivable how rich a sentiment of satisfaction arose in my bosom as I reflected upon my absolute security. For a very long period of time I was accustomed to revel in this sentiment. It afforded me more real delight than all the mere worldly advantages accruing from my sin. But there arrived at length an epoch, from which the pleasurable feeling grew, by scarcely perceptible gradations, into a haunting and harassing thought. It harassed me because it haunted. I could scarcely get rid of it for an instant. It is quite a common thing to be thus annoyed with the ringing in our ears, or rather in our memories, of the burthen of some ordinary song, or some unimpressive snatches from an opera. Nor will we be the less tormented if the song in itself be good, or the opera air meritorious. In this manner, at last, I would perpetually catch myself pondering upon my security, and repeating, in a low under-tone, the phrase, ‘I am safe.’

One day, whilst sauntering along the streets, I arrested myself in the act of murmuring, half aloud, these customary syllables. In a fit of petulance I re-modelled them thus: ‘I am safe — I am safe — yes — if I be not fool enough to make open confession.’

No sooner had I spoken these words, than I felt an icy chill creep to my heart. I had had some experience in these fits of perversity (whose nature I have been at some trouble to explain), and I remembered well that in no instance I had successfully resisted their attacks. And now my own casual self-suggestion, that I might possibly be fool enough to confess the murder of which I had been guilty, confronted me, as if the very ghost of him whom I had murdered — and beckoned me on to death.

At first, I made an effort to shake off this nightmare of the soul. I walked vigorously — faster — still faster — at length I ran. I felt a maddening desire to shriek aloud. Every succeeding wave of thought overwhelmed me with new terror, for, alas! I well, too well, understood that to think, in my situation, was to be lost. I still quickened my pace. I bounded like a madman through the crowded thoroughfares. At length, the populace took the alarm and pursued me. I felt then the consummation of my fate. Could I have torn out my tongue, I would have done it — but a rough voice resounded in my ears — a rougher grasp seized me by the shoulder. I turned — I gasped for breath. For a moment I experienced all the pangs of suffocation; I became blind, and deaf, and giddy; and then some invisible fiend, I thought, struck me with his broad palm upon the back. The long-imprisoned secret burst forth from my soul.

They say that I spoke with a distinct enunciation, but with marked emphasis and passionate hurry, as if in dread of interruption before concluding the brief but pregnant sentences that consigned me to the hangman and to hell.

Having related all that was necessary for the fullest judicial conviction, I fell prostrate in a swoon.

But why shall I say more? To-day I wear these chains, and am here! To-morrow I shall be fetterless! — but where?













Here is Vincent Price’s bravura performance of Poe’s best known works. His fiendish delight his malicious cackle, his overwrought enthusiasm, all make for a brilliantly manic display, which were he to have heard it, would be guaranteed to have made Poe proud.





Consistent in Poe’s writing, is a sense of chafing and straining against the restrictions of language in an effort to carry the mind into the unimpeded realm of the imagination. This is a mind which expresses itself in the images found beyond words, which is to say, the subconscious. His cataracts of vocables and torrents of words stress the supremacy of sound, through which an altered and modified sense is permitted. They compel hearing rather than sight to become the dominant faculty of the reading experience. His excesses serve an emphatically reiterative purpose, to subdue, on the one hand, the censorship of the conscious mind, and to liberate its counterpart, and leave it free to experience the chaotic fears and fantasies it usually indulges in during the hours of sleep.

When I read Poe last night, I was repeatedly reminded of Chopin: not his nocturnes, as I might have expected, but his etudes, with their persistently dark one-handed counterpoint to the progress of the melodic line. Poe’s dark romanticism seem to me to form a literary parallel to Chopin’s music – though in Poe’s hands the overtones and harmonics horrify even as they delight – if indeed one can be said to feel delight at something incontrovertibly ghastly.

Poe was undoubtedly a morbid fantasist, making excellent use of his familiarity with what we today call the subconscious. He dredged his own imagination for all the fears and horrors which he correctly surmised beset his reading public, and which fill us with dread even today – premature burial, immuration, sensory deprivation, claustrophobia, torture and imprisonment, and the ghoulishly supernatural.

Poe’s writing has never been considered to be in good taste, though to be fair to him, good taste might not at all have been high on his list of concerns. That epicene arbiter of literary epicureanism, Henry James, is quoted as saying “An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.” To give James his due, he has a point, but of course not the one he intended to make. The primitivism James so snootily and invidiously deplores, is the very thing that provides the occasional sign of life in his own ponderous novels – the hidden and ungovernable impulses which lie below the social sheen of finely parsed proprieties.  James, with his effete ways and his  heavy burden of upper-class pretensions, could not but be appalled by Poe’s brash sensationalism.  To my mind however, Poe is by far the greater genius, the more original thinker, and the superior innovator. If James was the staid anglophile, Poe was the typical American, full of new ideas, novel insights, and original perspectives.

Poe was an innovator. He invented the detective story and the science fiction story, and was the first to come up with the idea of ‘the big bang.’ He was a scathing literary critic himself, pronouncing Washington Irving as overrated and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow a plagiarist (he aimed his accusations of plagiarism at Henry Wadsworth Longfellow because of what he perceived as Longfellow’s servile aping of European poetical conventions.) Not satisfied with this, he also announced that the best thing about James Fenimore Cooper’s book was the bad paper on which it was printed.

Poe’s verbal exuberance prompted him to come up with words such as aeronaut, bewinged, bugaboo, cryptograph (Poe was a talented cryptographer) didacticisms, elocutionary, finicky, grotesquerie, hysteria, odorless, pants, and unclassifiable. Writers such as Sheridan le Fanu and Bram Stoker are his spiritual heirs, as are in a sense Baudelaire,  Duchamp, Dali, and  of course, Alfred Hitchcock.

It is natural to speculate about what could have given rise to such a fertile mind as Poe possessed, a mind, if one is to judge by his writing, fizzing and bubbling with fantastic speculations. The idea that Poe suffered from manic depression has been advanced by Kay Redfield Jamison. Many creative people suffer from this disorder, and such a condition might explain the headlong rush of Poe’s writing style. I tend to think that Poe was what Susan Sontag referred to as ‘a heroic depressive,’ which is someone who manages his or her depression by engaging in tasks which demand a high degree of attention and organisation.

Even had it not been clinical, Poe had serious and legitimate reasons for his depression. When his mother, a stage actress died, he was left orphaned at the age of three, separated from his siblings, and sent to live with a wealthy tobacco merchant, with whom he was never on the easiest of terms. His young wife (and cousin) Virginia Clemm, whom he married when he was aged 27 and she 13, died in 1847, aged 24. Though we might recoil at the thought of a 13 year- old marrying an adult man, it might be helpful to consider that Virginia was Poe’s cousin and she knew him well. Nor was she was forced to marry him. She never had to leave her mother Maria Clemm in order to live with Poe, and the three of them remained a close-knit and mutually supportive family for the rest of Virginia’s life. Poe loved Maria Clemm as a mother, and addressed her affectionately as “Muddy.”  Most importantly, Virginia  was not compelled to bear and raise children, and Poe provided as best he could for her, always seeing to it she had a piano or a harp in the home so she was never deprived of the pleasant and necessary to her pass-time of playing music.When she died, Poe was stricken, and he only survived her by two grief- filled and miserable years, during which time he would sometimes leave the house on sleepless nights in order to lie beside her grave.

Dogged by bad luck and poverty during most of his life – Poe was often too impoverished to procure the most basic necessities such as the money for heating his home or even to put food on the table. Nonetheless he struggled on, trying to make a living solely by the sale of his work. He received no royalties from the sale of his first book Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, and the rights to his most famous work “The Raven” were sold for $15.00.  His story “The Tell-Tale Heart” was initially turned down for publication. However, Poe’s unique writing style as a morbid fantasist caught the imagination of his reading public, which must have cast an inexplicable spell of fascination upon their minds. Here was Poe spinning compelling tales which appealed to the part of the mind which we call the subconscious – something which would not be conceived of as a mental or psychological construct for another three quarters of a century.

The foundation of the gothic novel had been laid by Ann Radcliffe, (The Mysteries of Udolpho published in 1794) and  much later Mary Shelly (Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus published in 1823) but it was Poe who crisply and effectively adapted the characteristic elements of  baroque horror and morbid fantasy to the form of the short story. The themes which tend to fascinate and horrify us to this day, those of sensory deprivation, claustrophobia, premature burial, were Poe’s stock in trade. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s cruel ridicule of Poe in referring to him as “the jingle man” for his over-use of rhyme in poetry, and apparent lack of rigour: hepointed to Poe’s  seeming inability to hold back the glut of words –  but this was the very  device which drove Poe’s stories. His intentional use of the sound of words to speed up and slow down thought suggests to me that the rate at which the reader’s eyes perceive the words and the brain assimilates their meaning are meant to be kept in synch; the images that follow are calibrated with careful instinct to achieve the maximum effect. We seem to hear his words as the approach of heavy footsteps in the tenebrous gloom of a house we had hitherto thought to be unoccupied, and suddenly in the middle of a Poe story, we find ourselves transported from our world of reassuring daylight, right into the depths of ‘the dark side.’

In “The Imp of the Perverse”, a purely psychological rather than supernatural tale, we hear an echo of the fable of Midas and the secret he tried so hard to keep – that he had asses’ ears. In this story, the imp seems to play the part of conscience – the compulsion of the protagonist to confess to having committed an act of murder for pecuniary gain.

Though the whole preamble that introduces this very brief short story might sound suspiciously like mumbo-jumbo, note Poe’s explanation – in which he has very neatly defined our subconscious urgings:

“a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness, for want of a more characteristic term. In the sense I intend, it is, in fact, a mobile without motive, a motive not motivirt. Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say, that through its promptings we act, for the reason that we should not. In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable; but, in fact, there is none more strong.”

These implacable promptings, whether they are of our best or worst instincts, defy our attempts to repress them. Whether these impulses compel self-revelation in the form of creativity or confession, they cannot in the end be denied. In fact, what “The Imp of the Perverse” seems to be saying is “truth will out.” The man in this story has contrived to secure his financial well-being by means of murder. He has cannily accomplished this with malice aforethought, and fabricated a wax taper imbued with poison. He has removed and disposed of the evidence of his crime, and ensured his safety from possible discovery. He savours his exemption from punishment by whispering to himself the reassuring phrase of “I am safe, I am safe.” Unlike King Midas, he entrusts nothing or no one with his secret. But he has not counted on what Shelly might have referred to as the “Epipsychidion” – the little psychic self – which in this case propels him helplessly towards self-incrimination. He is the creature of his irresistible impulse  – though he is not at all aware of what he is saying, nor does he retain any memory of what he has said. A part of his mind has gone AWOL, and he cannot compel it back.

The force of ‘will beyond will’ which functions  in a manner that is punitive and inimical to his self-interest puts an end to the internal civil war between the ‘conniver self’ and the ‘social and moral justice seeking self.’ It has been lying dormant like a serpent ready to strike, until the moment of perfect susceptibility presented itself. The moment of madness held at bay, but barely, and only with the greatest effort, is a thing which in a moment shatters the claustrophobic bonds of its own repression.   The dungeons, prisons, walled-in graves, coffins etc of Poe’s other stories are all symbolic of a species of psychic repression from which we seek to escape. But the escapee is not always something – or someone –  familiar to us.

For most of his life, Poe was himself was himself a crumbling ruin, doomed from his earliest childhood. Abandoned by his father as an infant, orphaned at age three, he suffered many subsequent bereavements before the last and most devastating – the death of his young wife. Following this shattering loss, Poe desperately sought to remarry, courting Sarah Elmirah Royster who was then a widow. He proposed to Sarah in a cemetery, begging her to save him from himself. When his suit did not meet with success, the next year Poe managed to get himself engaged to Sarah Helen Whitman. The engagement only lasted a month, since it had been made on a condition stipulated by Whitman that Poe abstain from drinking. His predictable lapse and its unavoidable outcome was followed by a suicide attempt, when Poe took 60 times the ‘normal’ dose of laudanum. Poe survived the ordeal.  He then renewed his friendship with Royster, and was on his way to marry her when he took an unexpected ( and some say mistaken) detour to Baltimore where he died a few days later on October, 1849, aged 40 years.

Poe died a broken man, friendless and impoverished. He had endured grievous misfortune, several bereavements, poverty and loss. He had lived through two cholera epidemics. He suffered from a devastating degree of alcohol intolerance (a single glass of wine was said to inebriate him.) He obviously suffered from depression, and  admitted to at least one suicide attempt.  He said of himself in a letter “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness, I drank – God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to drink, rather than the drink to insanity.”  The horror and damnation of a tormented psyche was a familiar thing to Poe as was “the keen collective calmness of despair” (“The Pit and the Pendulum.”)

There were only four mourners at Poe’s funeral. His memory was besmirched by the man (here to be nameless, since to mention his name alongside Poe’s would be to confer on it a dignity it does not deserve) who filled Poe’s obituary with scurrilous lies, and on account of these falsehoods, Poe is still thought of  by some as a souse and a dope fiend. He was in fact neither. Poe’s unforgettable poem “Annabelle Lee”, (which I learned in First form Elocution) was written in memory of his wife Virginia and was published posthumously ten days after his death.

Poe was interred on the grounds of Westminster Hall and Burying Ground, now part of the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore. In 1875, about 25 years later, his remains were exhumed and moved to their present location near an imposing monument.   As for Virginia’s remains, when the cemetery where she was buried was destroyed, Poe’s biographer William Fearing Gill retrieved her remains and for several years stored them in a box beneath his bed. Nearly 40 years after her death, Virginia’s remains, along with those of her mother Maria Clemm were re-buried on either side of Poe in 1885, and the little family of nephew and aunt, husband and wife, mother and daughter, were at last reunited to rest in peace together.

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Sarah Orne Jewett (September 3 1849 – June 24 1909)


















For a great many years it had been understood in Longfield that Miss Horatia Dane once had a lover,and that he had been lost at sea. By little and little, in one way and another, her acquaintances found out or made up the whole story; and Miss Dane stood in the position, not of an unmarried woman exactly, but rather of having spent most of her life in a long and lonely widowhood. She looked like a person with a history, strangers often said (as if we each did not have a history); and her own unbroken reserve about this romance of hers gave everybody the more respect for it.

The Longfield people paid willing deference to Miss Dane: her family had always been one that could be liked and respected and she was the last that was left in the old home of which she was so fond. This was a high, square house, with a row of pointed windows in its roof, a peaked porch in front, with some lilac-bushes near it; and down by the road was a long, orderly procession of poplars, like a row of sentinels standing guard. She had lived here alone since her father’s death, twenty years before. She was a kind, just woman whose pleasures were of a stately and sober sort; and she seemed not unhappy in her loneliness, though she sometimes said gravely that she was the last of her family, as if the fact had a great sadness for her.

She had some middle-aged and elderly cousins who lived at a distance, and they came occasionally to see her; but there had      been no young people staying in her house for many years until this summer, when the daughter of her youngest cousin had written to ask if she might come to make a visit. She was a motherless girl of twenty, both older and younger than her years. Her father and brother, who were civil engineers, had taken some work upon the line of a railway in the far Western country. Nelly had made many long journeys with them before and since she had left school, and she had meant to follow them now, after spending a fortnight with the old cousin whom she had not seen since her childhood. Her father had laughed at this visit as a freak, and warned her of the dullness and primness of Longfield; but the result was that the girl found herself very happy in the comfortable home. She was still her own free, unfettered, lucky, and sunshiny self; and the old house was so much pleasanter for the girlish face and life, that Miss Horatia had, at first timidly and then most heartily, begged her to stay for the whole summer, or even the autumn, until her father was ready to come East. The name of Dane was very dear to Miss Horatia, and she grew fonder of her guest. When the village people saw her glance at the girl affectionately, as they sat together in the family pew of a Sunday, or saw them walking together after tea, they said it was a good thing for Miss Horatia; how bright she looked! and no doubt she would leave all her money to Nelly Dane, if she played her cards well.

But we will do Nelly justice, and say that she was not mercenary; she would have scorned such a thought. She had grown to have a great love for her cousin Horatia, and really liked to please her. She idealized her, I have no doubt; and her repression, her grave courtesy and rare words of approval, had a great fascination for a girl who had just been used to people who chattered, and were upon most intimate terms with you directly, and could forget you with equal ease. And Nelly liked having so admiring and easily pleased an audience as Miss Dane and her old servant Melissa. She liked to be queen of her company: she had so many gay, bright stories of what had happened to herself and her friends. Beside, she was clever with her needle, and had all those practical gifts which elderly women approve so heartily in girls. They liked her pretty clothes; she was sensible, and economical, and busy; they praised her to each other and to the world, and even stubborn old Andrew, the man servant to whom Miss Horatia herself spoke with deference, would do anything she asked. Nelly would by no means choose so dull a life as this for the rest of her days; but she enjoyed it immensely for the time being. She instinctively avoided all that would shock the grave dignity and old-school ideas of Miss Dane; and somehow she never had felt happier or better satisfied with life. Perhaps it was because she was her best and most lady-like self. It was not long before she knew the village people almost as well as Miss Dane did, and she became a very great favorite, as a girl so easily can who is good-natured and pretty, and well versed in city fashions; who has that tact and cleverness that come to such a nature from going about the world and knowing many people.

She had not been in Longfield many weeks before she heard something of Miss Dane’s love-story; for one of her new friends asked, in a confidential moment, “Does your cousin ever speak to you about the young man to whom she was engaged to be married?” and Nelly answered, “No,” with great wonder, and not without regret at her own ignorance. After this she kept eyes and ears open for whatever news of this lover’s existence might be found.

At last it happened one morning that she had a good chance for a friendly talk with Melissa; for who should know the family affairs better than she? Miss Horatia had taken her second-best parasol, with a deep fringe, and had gone majestically down the street to do some household errands which she could trust to no one. Melissa was shelling peas at the shady kitchen doorstep, and Nelly came strolling round from the garden, along the clean-swept flag-stones, and sat down to help her. Melissa moved along, with a grim smile, to make room for her. “You needn’t bother yourself,” said she, “I’ve nothing else to do. You’ll green your fingers all over.” But she was evidently pleased to have company.

“My fingers will wash,” said Nelly, “and I’ve nothing else to do either. Please push the basket this way a little, or I shall scatter the pods, and then you will scold.” She went to work busily, while she tried to think of the best way to find out the story she wished to hear.

“There!” said Melissa, “I never told Miss H’ratia to get some citron, and I settled yesterday to make some pound-cake this forenoon after I got dinner along a piece. She’s most out o’ mustard too; she’s set about having mustard to eat with her beef, just as the old colonel was before her. I never saw any other folks eat mustard with their roast beef; but every family has their own tricks. I tied a thread round my left-hand little finger purpose to remember that citron before she came down this morning. I hope I ain’t losing my fac’lties.” It was seldom that Melissa was so talkative as this at first. She was clearly in a talkative mood.

“Melissa,” asked Nelly, with great bravery, after a minute or two of silence, “who was it that my cousin Horatia was going to marry? It’s odd that I shouldn’t know; but I don’t remember father’s ever speaking of it, and I shouldn’t think of asking her.”

“I s’pose it’ll seem strange to you,” said Melissa, beginning to shell the peas a great deal faster, “but as many years as I have lived in this house with her, – her mother, the old lady, fetched me up, – I never knew Miss H’ratia to say a word about him. But there! she knows I know, and we’ve got an understanding on many things we never talk over as some folks would. I’ve heard about it from other folks. She was visiting her great-aunt in Salem when she met with him. His name was Carrick, and it was presumed they was going to be married when he came home from the voyage he was lost on. He had the promise of going out master of a new ship. They didn’t keep company long; it was made up of a sudden, and folks here didn’t get hold of the story till some time after. I’ve heard some that ought to know say it was only talk, and they never was engaged to be married no more than I am.”

“You say he was lost at sea?” asked Nelly.

“The ship never was heard from. They supposed she was run down in the night out in the South Seas somewhere. It was a good while before they gave up expecting news; but none ever come. I think she set everything by him, and took it very hard losing of him. But there! she’d never say a word. You’re the freest-spoken Dane I ever saw; but you may take it from your mother’s folks. I expect he gave her that whale’s tooth with the ship drawn on it that’s on the mantelpiece in her room. She may have a sight of other keepsakes, for all I know; but it ain’t likely.” And here there was a pause, in which Nelly grew sorrowful as she thought of the long waiting for tidings of the missing ship, and of her cousin’s solitary life. It was very odd to think of prim Miss Horatia’s being in love with a sailor. There was a young lieutenant in the navy whom Nelly herself liked dearly, and he had gone away on a long voyage. “Perhaps she’s been just as well off,” said Melissa. “She’s dreadful set, y’r cousin H’ratia is, and sailors is high-tempered men. I’ve heard it hinted that he was a fast fellow; and if a woman’s got a good home like this, and’s able to do for herself, she’d better stay there. I ain’t going to give up a certainty for an uncertainty, – that’s what I always tell ’em,” added Melissa, with great decision, as if she were besieged by lovers; but Nelly smiled inwardly as she thought of the courage it would take to support any one who wished to offer her companion his heart and hand. It would need desperate energy to scale the walls of that garrison.

The green peas were all shelled presently, and Melissa said gravely that she should have to be lazy now until it was time to put in the meat. She wasn’t used to being helped, unless there was extra work, and she calculated to have one piece of work join on to another. However, it was no account, and she was obliged for the company; and Nelly laughed merrily as she stood washing her hands in the shining old copper basin at the sink. The sun would not be round that side of the house for a long time yet, and the pink and blue morning-glories were still in their full bloom and freshness. They grew over the window, twined on strings exactly the same distance apart. There was a box crowded full of green houseleeks down at the side of the door; they were straying over the edge, and Melissa stooped stiffly down with an air of disapproval at their untidiness. “They straggle all over everything,” said she, “and they’re no kind of use, only Miss’s mother, she set everything by ’em. She fetched ’em from home with her when she was married, her mother kep’ a box, and they came from England. Folks used to say they was good for bee stings.” Then she went into the inner kitchen, and Nelly went slowly away along the flag-stones to the garden from whence she had come. The garden-gate opened with a tired creak, and shut with a clack; and she noticed how smooth and shiny the wood was where the touch of so many hands had worn it. There was a great pleasure to this girl in finding herself among such old and well-worn things. She had been for a long time in cities or at the West; and among the old fashions and ancient possessions of Longfield it seemed to her that everything had its story, and she liked the quietness and unchangeableness with which life seemed to go on from year to year. She had seen many a dainty or gorgeous garden, but never one that she had liked so well as this, with its herb-bed and its broken rows of currant-bushes, its tall stalks of white lilies, and its wandering rose-bushes and honeysuckles, that had bloomed beside the straight paths for so many more summers than she herself had lived. She picked a little bouquet of late red roses, and carried it into the house to put on the parlor table. The wide hall-door was standing open, with its green outer blinds closed, and the old hall was dim and cool. Miss Horatia did not like a glare of sunlight, and she abhorred flies with her whole heart. Nelly could hardly see her way through the rooms, it had been so bright out of doors; but she brought the tall champagne-glass of water from the dining-room and put the flowers in their place. Then she looked at two silhouettes which stood on the mantel in carved ebony frames. They were portraits of an uncle of Miss Dane and his wife. Miss Dane had thought Nelly looked like this uncle the evening before. She could not see the likeness herself; but the pictures suggested something else, and she turned suddenly, and went hurrying up the stairs to Miss Horatia’s own room, where she remembered to have seen a group of silhouettes fastened to the wall. There were seven or eight, and she looked at the young men among them most carefully; but they were all marked with the name of Dane: they were Miss Horatia’s uncles and brothers, and our friend hung them on their little brass hooks again with a feeling of disappointment. Perhaps her cousin had a quaint miniature of the lover, painted on ivory, and shut in a worn red morocco case; she hoped she should get a sight of it some day. This story of the lost sailor had a wonderful charm for the girl. Miss Horatia had never been so interesting to her before. How she must have mourned for the lover, and missed him, and hoped there would yet be news from the ship! Nelly thought she would tell her own little love-story some day, though there was not much to tell yet, in spite of there being so much to think about. She built a little castle in Spain as she sat in the front window-seat of the upper hall, and dreamed pleasant stories for herself until the sharp noise of the front gate-latch waked her; and she looked out through the blind to see her cousin coming up the walk.

Miss Horatia looked hot and tired, and her thoughts were not of any fashion of romance. “It is going to be very warm,” said she. “I have been worrying ever since I have been gone, because I forgot to ask Andrew to pick those white currants for the minister’s wife. I promised that she should have them early this morning. Would you go out to the kitchen and ask Melissa to step in for a moment, my dear?”

Melissa was picking over red currants to make a pie, and rose from her chair with a little unwillingness. “I guess they could wait until afternoon,” said she, as she came back. “Miss H’ratia’s in a fret because she forgot about sending some white currants to the minister’s. I told her that Andrew had gone to have the horses shod, and wouldn’t be back till near noon. I don’t see why part of the folks in the world should kill themselves trying to suit the rest. As long as I haven’t got any citron for the cake, I suppose I might go out and pick ’em,” added Melissa ungraciously. “I’ll get some to set away for tea anyhow.”

Miss Dane had a letter to write after she had rested from her walk; and Nelly soon left her in the dark parlor, and went back to the sunshiny garden to help Melissa, who seemed to be taking life with more than her usual disapproval. She was sheltered by an enormous gingham sunbonnet.

“I set out to free my mind to your cousin H’ratia this morning,” said she, as Nelly crouched down at the opposite side of the bush where she was picking; “but we can’t agree on that p’int, and it’s no use. I don’t say nothing. You might ‘s well ask the moon to face about and travel the other way as to try to change Miss H’ratia’s mind. I ain’t going to argue it with her, it ain’t my place; I know that as well as anybody. She’d run her feet off for the minister’s folks any day; and though I do say he’s a fair preacher, they haven’t got a speck o’ consideration nor fac’lty; they think the world was made for them, but I think likely they’ll find out it wasn’t; most folks do. When he first was settled here, I had a fit o’ sickness, and he come to see me when I was getting over the worst of it. He did the best he could, I always took it very kind of him; but he made a prayer and he kep’ sayin’ `this aged handmaid,’ I should think a dozen times. Aged handmaid!” said Melissa scornfully; “I don’t call myself aged yet, and that was more than ten years ago. I never made pretensions to being            younger than I am; but you’d ‘a’ thought I was a topplin’ old creatur’ going on a hundred.”

Nelly laughed. Melissa looked cross, and moved on to the next currant-bush. “So that’s why you don’t like the minister?” But the question did not seem to please.

“I hope I never should be set against a preacher by such as that.” And Nelly hastened to change the subject; but there was to be a last word: “I like to see a minister that’s solid minister right straight through, not one of these veneered folks. But old Parson Croden spoilt me for setting under any other preaching.”

“I wonder,” said Nelly after a little, “If Cousin Horatia has any picture of that Captain Carrick.”

“He wasn’t captain,” said Melissa. “I never heard that it was any more than they talked of giving him a ship next voyage.”

“And you never saw him? He never came here to see her?”

“Bless you, no! She met with him at Salem, where she was spending the winter, and he went right away to sea. I’ve heard a good deal more about it of late years than I ever did at the time. I suppose the Salem folks talked about it enough. All I know is, there was other good matches that offered to her since, and couldn’t get her; and I suppose it was on account of her heart’s being buried in the deep with him.” And this unexpected bit of sentiment, spoken in Melissa’s grum tone, seemed so funny to her young companion, that she bent very low to pick from a currant-twig close to the ground, and could not ask any more questions for some time.

“I have seen her a sight o’ times when I knew she was thinking about him,” Melissa went on presently, this time with a tenderness in her voice that touched Nelly’s heart. “She’s been dreadful lonesome. She and the old colonel, her father, wasn’t much company to each other, and she always kep’ everything to herself. The only time she ever said a word to me was one night six or seven years ago this Christmas. They got up a Christmas-tree in the vestry, and she went, and I did too; I guess everybody in the whole church and parish that could crawl turned out to go. The children they made a dreadful racket. I’d ha’ got my ears took off if I had been so forth-putting when I was little. I was looking round for Miss H’ratia ‘long at the last of the evening, and somebody said they’d seen her go home. I hurried, and I couldn’t see any light in the house, and I was afraid she was sick or something. She come and let me in, and I see she had been a-cryin’. I says, `Have you heard any bad news?’ But she says, `No,’ and began to cry again, real pitiful. `I never felt so lonesome in my life,’ says she, `as I did down there. It’s a dreadful thing to be left all alone in the world.’ I did feel for her; but I couldn’t seem to say a word. I put some pine chips I had handy for morning on the kitchen fire, and I made her up a cup o’ good hot tea quick ‘s I could, and took it to her; and I guess she felt better. She never went to bed till three o’clock that night. I couldn’t shut my eyes till I heard her come upstairs. There! I set everything by Miss H’ratia. I haven’t got no folks either. I was left an orphan over to Deerfield, where Miss’s mother come from, and she took me out o’ the town-farm to bring up. I remember when I come here, I was so small I had a box to stand up on when I helped wash the dishes. There’s nothing I ain’t had to make me comfortable, and I do just as I’m a mind to, and call in extra help every day of the week if I give the word; but I’ve had my lonesome times, and I guess Miss H’ratia knew.”

Nelly was very much touched by this bit of a story, it was a new idea to her that Melissa should have so much affection and be so sympathetic. People never will get over being surprised that chestnut-burrs are not as rough inside as they are outside, and the girl’s heart warmed toward the old woman who had spoken with such unlooked-for sentiment and pathos. Melissa went to the house with her basket, and Nelly also went in, but only to put on another hat, and see if it were straight in a minute spent before the old mirror, before she hurried down the long elm-shaded street to buy a pound of citron for the cake. She left it on the kitchen table when she came back, and nobody ever said anything about it; only there were two delicious pound-cakes –  a heart and a round – on a little blue china plate beside Nelly’s plate at tea.

After tea, Nelly and Miss Dane sat in the front doorway, – the elder woman in a high-backed chair, and the younger on the door-step. The tree-toads and crickets were tuning up heartily, the stars showed a little through the trees, and the elms looked heavy and black against the sky. The fragrance of the white lilies in the garden blew through the hall. Miss Horatia was tapping the ends of her fingers together. Probably she was not thinking of anything in particular. She had had a very peaceful day, with the exception of the currants; and they had, after all, gone to the parsonage some time before noon. Beside this, the minister had sent word that the delay        made no distress; for his wife had unexpectedly gone to Downton to pass the day and night. Miss Horatia had received the business letter for which she had been looking for several days; so there was nothing to regret deeply for that day, and there seemed to be nothing for one to dread on the morrow.

“Cousin Horatia,” asked Nelly, “are you sure you like having me here? Are you sure I don’t trouble you?”

“Of course not,” said Miss Dane, without a bit of sentiment in her tone; “I find it very pleasant having young company, though I am used to being alone; and I don’t mind it as I suppose you would.”

“I should mind it very much,” said the girl softly.

“You would get used to it, as I have,” said Miss Dane. “Yes, dear, I like having you here better and better. I hate to think of your going away.” And she smoothed Nelly’s hair as if she thought she might have spoken coldly at first, and wished to make up for it. This rare caress was not without its effect.

“I don’t miss father and Dick so very much,” owned Nelly frankly, “because I have grown used to their coming and going; but sometimes I miss people – Cousin Horatia, did I ever say anything to you about George Forest?”

“I think I remember the name,” answered Miss Dane.

“He is in the navy, and he has gone a long voyage, and – I think everything of him. I missed him awfully; but it is almost time to get a letter.”

“Does your father approve of him?” asked Miss Dane, with great propriety. “You are very young yet, and you must not think of such a thing carelessly. I should be so much grieved if you threw away your happiness.”

“Oh! we are not really engaged,” said Nelly, who felt a little chilled. “I suppose we are, too; only nobody knows yet. Yes, father knows him as well as I do, and he is very fond of him. Of course I should not keep it from father; but he guessed it himself. Only it’s such a long cruise, Cousin Horatia, – three years, I suppose, – away off in China and Japan.”

“I have known longer voyages than that,” said Miss Dane, with a quiver in her voice; and she rose suddenly, and walked away, this grave, reserved woman, who seemed so contented and so comfortable. But when she came back, she asked Nelly a great deal about her lover, and learned more of the girl’s life than she ever had before. And they talked together in the pleasantest way about this pleasant subject, which was so close to Nelly’s heart, until Melissa brought the candles at ten o’clock, that being the hour of Miss Dane’s bedtime.

But that night Miss Dane did not go to bed at ten; she sat by the window in her room, thinking. The moon rose late; and after a little while she blew out her candles, which were burning low. I suppose that the years which had come and gone since the young sailor went away on that last voyage of his had each added to her affection for him. She was a person who clung the more fondly to youth as she left it the farther behind.

This is such a natural thing; the great sorrows of our youth sometimes become the amusements of our later years; we can only remember them with a smile. We find that our lives look fairer to us, and we forget what used to trouble us so much, when we look back. Miss Dane certainly had come nearer to truly loving the sailor than she had any one else; and the more she thought of it, the more it became the romance of her life. She no longer asked herself, as she often had done in middle life, whether, if he had lived and had come home, she would have loved and married him. She had minded less and less, year by year, knowing that her friends and neighbors thought her faithful to the love of her youth. Poor, gay, handsome Joe Carrick! how fond he had been of her, and how he had looked at her that day he sailed away out of Salem Harbor on the brig Chevalier! If she had only known that she never should see him again, poor fellow!

But, as usual, her thoughts changed their current a little at the end of her reverie. Perhaps, after all, loneliness was not so hard to bear as other sorrows. She had had a pleasant life, God had been very good to her, and had spared her many trials, and granted her many blessings. “I am an old woman now,” she said to herself. “Things are better as they are; I can get on by myself better than most women can, and I never should have liked to be interfered with.”

Then she shut out the moonlight, and lighted her candles again, with an almost guilty feeling. What should I say if Nelly sat up till nearly midnight looking out at the moon?” she thought. “It is very silly; but this is such a beautiful night. I should like to have her see the moon shining through the tops of the trees.” But Nelly was sleeping the sleep of the just and sensible in her own room.

Next morning at breakfast, Nelly was a little conscious of there having been uncommon confidences the night before; but Miss Dane was her usual calm and somewhat formal self, and proposed their making a few calls after dinner, if the weather were not too hot. Nelly at once wondered what she had better wear. There was a certain black grenadine which Miss Horatia had noticed with approval, and she remembered that the lower ruffle needed hemming, and made up her mind that she would devote most of the time before dinner to that and to some other repairs. So, after breakfast was over, she brought the dress downstairs, with her work-box, and settled herself in the dining-room. Miss Dane usually sat there in the morning; it was a pleasant room, and she could keep an unsuspected watch over the kitchen and Melissa, who did not need watching in the least. I dare say it was for the sake of being within the sound of a voice.

Miss Dane marched in and out that morning; she went upstairs, and came down again, and was mysteriously busy for a while in the parlor. Nelly was sewing steadily by a window, where one of the blinds was a little way open, and tethered in its place by a string. She hummed a tune to herself over and over:-

“What will you do, love, when I am going,
With white sails flowing, the seas beyond ?”

And old Melissa, going to and fro at her work in the kitchen, grumbled out bits of an ancient psalm-tune at intervals. There seemed to be some connection between these fragments in her mind; it was like a ledge of rock in a pasture, that sometimes runs under the ground, and then crops out again. Perhaps it was the tune of  Windham.

Nelly found that there was a good deal to be done to the grenadine dress when she looked it over critically, and became very diligent. It was quiet in and about the house for a long time, until suddenly she heard the sound of heavy footsteps coming in from the road. The side-door was in a little entry between the room where Nelly sat and the kitchen, and the new-comer knocked loudly. “A tramp,” said Nelly to herself; while Melissa came to open the door, wiping her hands hurriedly on her apron.

“I wonder if you couldn’t give me something to eat,” said the man.

“I suppose I could,” answered Melissa. “Will you step in?” Beggars were very few in Longfield, and Miss Dane never wished anybody to go away hungry from her house. It was off the grand highway of tramps; but they were by no means unknown.

Melissa searched among her stores, and Nelly heard her putting one plate after another on the kitchen table, and thought that the breakfast promised to be a good one, if it were late.

“Don’t put yourself out,” said the man, as he moved his chair nearer. “I lodged in an old barn three or four miles above here last night, and there didn’t seem to be very good board there.”

“Going far?” inquired Melissa concisely.

“Boston,” said the man. “I’m a little too old to travel afoot. Now if I could go by water, it would seem nearer. I’m more used to the water. This is a royal good piece o’ beef. I suppose you couldn’t put your hand on a mug of cider?” This was said humbly; but the tone failed to touch Melissa’s heart.

“No, I couldn’t,” said she decisively; so there was an end of that, and the conversation flagged for a time.

Presently Melissa came to speak to Miss Dane, who had just come downstairs. “Could you stay in the kitchen a few minutes?” she whispered. “There’s an old creatur’ there that looks foreign. He came to the door for something to eat, and I gave it to him; but he’s miser’ble looking, and I don’t like to leave him alone. I’m just in the midst o’ dressing the chickens. He’ll be through pretty quick, according to the way he’s eating now.”

Miss Dane followed her without a word; and the man half rose, and said, “Good-morning, madam!” with unusual courtesy. And, when Melissa was out of hearing, he spoke again: “I suppose you haven’t any cider?” to which his hostess answered, “I couldn’t give you any this morning,” in a tone that left no room for argument. He looked as if he had had a great deal too much to drink already.

“How far do you call it from here to Boston?” he asked, and was told that it was eighty miles.

“I’m a slow traveler,” said he; “sailors don’t take much to walking.” Miss Dane asked him if he had been a sailor. “Nothing else,” replied the man, who seemed much inclined to talk. He had been eating like a hungry dog, as if he were half-starved, – a slouching, red-faced, untidy-looking old man, with some traces of former good looks still to be discovered in his face. “Nothing else. I ran away to sea when I was a boy, and I followed it until I got so old they wouldn’t ship me even for cook.” There was something in his feeling, for once, so comfortable, – perhaps it was being with a lady like Miss Dane, who pitied him, – that lifted his thoughts a little from their usual low level. “It’s drink that’s been the ruin of me,” said he. “I ought to have been somebody. I was nobody’s fool when I was young. I got to be mate of a firstrate ship, and there was some talk o’ my being captain before long. She was lost that voyage, and three of us were all that was saved; we got picked up by a Chinese junk. She had the plague aboard of her, and my mates died of it, and I was down myself. It was a hell of a place to be in. When I got ashore I shipped on an old bark that pretended to be coming round the Cape, and she turned out to be a pirate. I just went to the dogs, and I’ve gone from bad to worse ever since.”

“It’s never too late to mend,” said Melissa, who came into the kitchen just then for a string to tie the chickens.

“Lord help us, yes, it is!” said the sailor. “It’s easy for you to say that. I’m too old. I ain’t been master of this craft for a good while.” And he laughed at his melancholy joke.

“Don’t say that,” said Miss Dane.

“Well, now, what could an old wrack like me do to earn a living? and who ‘d want me if I could? You wouldn’t. I don’t know when I’ve been treated so decent as this before. I’m all broke down.” But his tone was no longer sincere; he had fallen back on his profession of beggar.

“Couldn’t you get into some asylum or – there’s the Sailors’ Snug Harbor, isn’t that for men like you? It seems such a pity for a man of your years to be homeless and a wanderer. Haven’t you any friends at all?” And here, suddenly, Miss Dane’s face altered, and she grew very white; something startled her. She looked as one might who saw a fearful ghost.

“No,” said the man; “but my folks used to be some of the best in Salem. I haven’t shown my head there this good while. I was an orphan. My grandmother brought me up. You see, I didn’t come back to the States for thirty or forty years. Along at the first of it I used to see men in port that I used to know; but I always dodged ’em, and I was way off in outlandish places. I’ve got an awful sight to answer for. I used to have a good wife when I was in Australia. I don’t know where I haven’t been, first and last. I was always a gay fellow. I’ve spent as much as a couple o’ fortunes, and here I am a-begging. Devil take it!”

Nelly was still sewing in the dining-room; but, soon after Miss Dane had gone out to the kitchen, one of the doors between had slowly closed itself with a plaintive whine. The round stone which Melissa used to keep it open had been pushed away. Nelly was a little annoyed; she liked to hear what was going on; but she was just then holding her work with great care in a place that was hard to sew, so she did not move. She heard the murmur of voices, and thought, after a while, that the old vagabond ought to go away by this time. What could be making her cousin Horatia talk so long with him? It was not like her at all. He would beg for money, of course, and she hoped Miss Horatia would not give him a single cent.

It was some time before the kitchen-door opened, and the man came out with clumsy, stumbling steps. “I’m much obliged to you,” he said, “and I don’t know but it is the last time I’ll get treated as if I was a gentleman. Is there anything I could do for you round the place?” he asked hesitatingly and as if he hoped that his offer would not be accepted.

“No,” answered Miss Dane. “No, thank you. Good-by!” and he went away.

The old beggar had been lifted a little above his low life; he fell back again directly before he was out of the gate. “I’m blessed if she didn’t give me a ten-dollar bill!” said he. “She must have thought it was one. I’ll get out o’ call as quick as I can; hope she won’t find it out, and send anybody after me.” Visions of unlimited drinks, and other things in which it was possible to find pleasure, flitted through his stupid mind. “How the old lady stared at me once!” he thought. “Wonder if she was anybody I used to know? `Downton?’ I don’t know as I ever heard of the place.” And he scuffed along the dusty road; and that night he was very drunk, and the next day he went wandering on, God only knows where.

But Nelly and Melissa both heard a strange noise in the kitchen, as if some one had fallen, and they found that Miss Horatia had fainted dead away. It was partly the heat, she said, when she saw their anxious faces as she came to herself; she had had a little headache all the morning; it was very hot and close in the kitchen, and the faintness had come upon her suddenly. They helped her to walk into the cool parlor presently, and Melissa brought her a glass of wine, and Nelly sat beside her on a footstool as she lay on the sofa, and fanned her. Once she held her cheek against Miss Horatia’s hand for a minute, and she will never know as long as she lives, what a comfort she was that day.

Every one but Miss Dane forgot the old sailor tramp in this excitement that followed his visit. Do you guess already who he was? But the certainty could not come to you with the chill and horror it did to Miss Dane. There had been something familiar in his look and voice from the first, and then she had suddenly known him, her lost lover. It was an awful change that the years had made in him. He had truly called himself a wreck; he was like some dreary wreck in its decay and utter ruin, its miserable ugliness and worthlessness, falling to pieces in the slow tides of a lifeless southern sea.

And he had once been her lover, Miss Dane thought bitterly, many times in the days that followed. Not that there was ever anything asked or promised between them, but they had liked each other dearly, and had parted with deep sorrow. She had thought of him all these years so tenderly; she had believed always that his love had been even greater than her own, and never once had doubted that the missing brig Chevalier had carried with it down into the sea a heart that was true to her.

By little and little this all grew familiar, and she accustomed herself to the knowledge of her new secret. She shuddered at the thought of the misery of a life with him, and she thanked God for sparing her such shame and despair. The distance between them seemed immense. She had always been a person of so much consequence among her friends, and so dutiful and irreproachable a woman. She had not begun to understand what dishonor is in the world; her life had been shut in by safe and orderly surroundings. It was a strange chance that had brought this wanderer to her door. She remembered his wretched untidiness. She had not liked even to stand near him. She had never imagined him grown old: he had always been young to her. It was a great mercy he had not known her; it would have been a most miserable position for them both; and yet she thought, with sad surprise, that she had not known she had changed so entirely. She thought of the different ways their roads in life had gone; she pitied him; she cried about him more than once; and she wished that she could know he was dead. He might have been such a brave, good man with his strong will and resolute        courage. God forgive him for the wickedness which his strength had been made to serve! “God forgive him!” said Miss Horatia to herself sadly over and over again. She wondered if she ought to have let him go away, and so have lost sight of him; but she could not do anything else. She suffered terribly on his account; she had a pity, such as God’s pity must be, for even his willful sins.

So her romance was all over with; yet the townspeople still whispered it to strangers, and even Melissa and Nelly never knew how she had really lost her lover in so strange and sad a way in her latest years. Nobody noticed much change; but Melissa saw that the whale’s tooth disappeared from its place in Miss Horatia’s room, and her old friends said to each other that she began to show her age a great deal. She seemed really like an old woman now; she was not the woman she had been a year ago.

This is all of the story; but we so often wish, when a story comes to an end, that we knew what became of the people afterward. Shall we believe that Miss Horatia clings more and more fondly to her young cousin Nelly; and that Nelly will stay with her a great deal before she marries, and sometimes afterward, when the lieutenant goes away to sea? Shall we say that Miss Dane seems as well satisfied and comfortable as ever, though she acknowledges she is not so young as she used to be, and secretly misses something out of her life? It is the contentment of winter rather than that of summer: the flowers are out of bloom for her now, and under the snow. And Melissa, will not she always be the same, with a quaintness and freshness and toughness like a cedar-tree, to the end of her days? Let us hope they will live on together and be untroubled this long time yet, the two good women; and let us wish Nelly much pleasure, and a sweet soberness and fearlessness as she grows older and finds life a harder thing to understand, and a graver thing to know.







“The Lost Lover,” this lovely story by Sarah Orne Jewett, placed as it is in the tranquil setting of  the New England of a century and a half ago, might just as well be called “The Narrow Escape.”

The love of Aunt Horatia’s life, formerly a dashing sailor, but now at the end of his own life of high adventure and down on his luck, comes begging for food – and a mug of cider (unequivocally denied) at her kitchen door. He is now a scruffy indigent at the bottom of the social scale, the worse for drink, and humiliatingly divested of the species of morality which would persuade one not similarly afflicted to inform the giver of a $10.00 bill that she may have mistaken it for a dollar. “She must have thought it was one. I’ll get out o’ call as quick as I can; hope she won’t find it out, and send anybody after me.” The sailor is now a beggar and a tramp, a decrepit old souse with no good prospects, except what he might find, if he was lucky, at the end of his 80 mile trek to Boston, if indeed he makes it to his intended destination.

Aunt Horatia, on the other hand, has lived a proper and upright – if lonely –  life. She is a woman of means, and of good standing in her community, and if love and marriage have passed her by, she has had the consolation of a faded romance which might still on occasion be summoned to recall, with all its attendant rosy glow of the ‘might have been.’ She had set her heart on one man, and spurned all other more promising marital prospects, and when the inevitability of a spinster’s life assumed its immovable position in place of more tender hopes, she resigned herself to her fate with the courage and fortitude typical of New England women of her class and station. She had thought her lover (and here we must divest this word of its contemporary connotation of carnality) to have loved her nobly, and she trusted the misfortune of his loss to have been occasioned by nothing short of death. That he had gone down with his ship with his love for her still burning in his heart and perhaps with her name on his lips, might have been a small recompense for the chaste life she was compelled to live in default one better preferred.
Melissa, and Horatia Dane have lived together all their lives. They provide each other with security and stability, and their well-ordered domestic life, if not exactly happy, cannot be said to be unhappy either. When young Nelly comes to join them, she fits neatly into place, and interjects a note of harmony into the settled quotidianity of plain New England tune. Until Nelly’s arrival at Longfield, Horatia had supposed herself to be the last in her line, and therefore the last inhabitant of her family home. But Nelly, who takes great pleasure in finding herself among such “old and well-worn things” as the garden gate, has all the sovereign hallmarks of a future New England spinster herself. She takes a quiet but decided pleasure that

“… everything had its story, and she liked the quietness and unchangeableness with which life seemed to go on from year to year. She had seen many a dainty or gorgeous garden, but never one that she had liked so well as this, with its herb-bed and its broken rows of currant-bushes, its tall stalks of white lilies, and its wandering rose-bushes and honeysuckles, that had bloomed beside the straight paths for so many more summers than she herself had lived.”

As for Horatia, who begins to decline in spirits after the unfortunate visit of  the benighted Joe Carrick, she mourns the loss of her dream. She was better off supposing her ‘lost lover’ dead than knowing the sordid reality of his life. Could Melissa  have mentioned even in passing, the wife abandoned in Australia?  because if she had, this would have been an additional affront to her sense of rigid propriety, that all the while she had supposed herself to be Carrick’s ‘one true love’, as he had been hers, that she had been supplanted, and that now both she and the woman who had assumed her vaunted position were the casualties of a decrepit sot and his crumbling recollections of the faded past.

The term “Boston marriage” has its origin in Henry James’s novel The Bostonians, and refers to the relationship between Verena Tennant and     Olive Chancellor. James denies the women a happy ending when Verena leaves Olive for Basil Ransom, a young lawyer, but he ends his story with dark hints of a tearful future for Verena.  It has been suggested that James based his model for the Olive/Verena relationship on that of Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Fields – one that did not end in loss and desertion. In 1881,  and at age 31, Jewett began living with Fields after the death of Field’s husband  James Thomas Fields, the publisher of the ‘Atlantic Monthly’. Jewett and Fields remained together until Jewett’s death 28 years later in 1909 . There was a fifteen year difference in their ages (Fields was the older), as there might have been between Horatia and Nelly.  One is reminded here of another lesbian aunt and niece literary pairing (and one which endured for 40 years) between Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper, who wrote and published jointly under the pseudonym ‘Michael Field.’

In “The Lost Lover” Jewett has firmly established Horatia’s heterosexual credentials, and perhaps Nelly’s as well, but Jewett herself wrote to Fields “I shall be with you tomorrow, your dear birthday. . . .I am tired of writing things. I want now to paint things, and drive things, and kiss things.”  That Henry James was himself subject to ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ as was his sister Alice James, did not prevent him taking a jaundiced view of lesbians and feminists such as Jewett and Fields. The feminist  philosophy of Olive Chancellor James so snidely scoffs at in The Bostonians, today is taken quite seriously and firmly established in contemporary society and Western values, and it is James’s unfortunate prejudices and sexist views which have fallen into obsolescence and disrepute.

Here I am reminded of my first encounter in Ceylon with what was probably (but I could never be certain) a home-grown version of a ‘Boston marriage.’ My maternal grandmother’s unmarried siblings lived together in the house called Sunnyside Gardens, built many decades ago by their father Edward Jansz who was the postmaster general of Kandy, the city in which the family lived. My grand-aunt Nellie occupied the front room next to that of her friend, (known to us all as Aunty Illo) Wallbeoff. Nellie and Illo (both Eleanors) had met as schoolteachers, and occupied adjoining rooms for the rest of their lives. My memory has them sitting on the front verandah; I am watching Aunt Nellie peeling an apple while I sat on the front step, crushing a fragrant juniper sprig from the nearby bush. I remember the scents of apple and juniper combined, and eating the apple peels while listening to their conversation.

When I consider Jewett’s sympathetic summing up of Horatia Dane’s state of mind after her unfortunate discovery, I find it quite probable that she urged Nelly against the entertainment of any ill-advised illusions about George Forest, since

“By little and little this all grew familiar, and she accustomed herself to the knowledge of her new secret. She shuddered at the thought of the misery of a life with him, and she thanked God for sparing her such shame and despair. The distance between them seemed immense. She had always been a person of so much consequence among her friends, and so dutiful and irreproachable a woman. She had not begun to understand what dishonor is in the world; her life had been shut in by safe and orderly surroundings. It was a strange chance that had brought this wanderer to her door. She remembered his wretched untidiness. She had not liked even to stand near him. She had never imagined him grown old: he had always been young to her. It was a great mercy he had not known her; it would have been a most miserable position for them both; and yet she thought, with sad surprise, that she had not known she had changed so entirely. She thought of the different ways their roads in life had gone; she pitied him; she cried about him more than once; and she wished that she could know he was dead. He might have been such a brave, good man with his strong will and resolute courage. God forgive him for the wickedness which his strength had been made to serve! “God forgive him!” said Miss Horatia to herself sadly over and over again. She wondered if she ought to have let him go away, and so have lost sight of him; but she    could not do anything else. She suffered terribly on his account; she had a pity, such as God’s pity must be, for even his willful sins.”

We must hope such counsel, duly spoken by the voice of experience, was well-received. Perhaps the unnamed minister – the one who prayed so unctuously over Melissa in her “fit o’sickness” –  was possessed of a suitably prepossessing daughter. Perhaps  Nelly was introduced to her – perhaps we might call her Charlotte after my Grandmother, great-grand mother, and great -great-great grandmother. Perhaps in the uncommon felicity of Charlotte’s company Nelly will gradually dismiss the now ephemeral memory of the George Forest, and avert the whopping disgrace that might accrue to him were he likely to have followed in the unsteady footsteps of Joe Carrick. Charlotte and Nelly can  take their sweet and unruffled place in that sober New England community, and the question implicit in the poignant song,

“What will you do, love, When I am going,

With white sails flowing, in the seas beyond?”

will be joyfully, satisfactorily and conclusively settled.




A Quote from Wikipedia

Jewett never married; but she established a close friendship with writer Annie fields  1834–1915) and her husband, publisher  James Thomas Fields , editor of the Atlantic Monthly . After the sudden death of James Fields in 1881, Jewett and Annie Fields lived together for the rest of Jewett’s life in what was then termed a ” Boston Marriage.” Some modern scholars have speculated that the two were lovers. In any case, “the two women found friendship, humor, and literary encouragement” in one another’s company, traveling to Europe together and hosting “American and European literati.”






And another from the following GLBTQ  site                                                                                                                                                                           


Annie Adams Fields was a primary feature in Jewett’s personal experience of that world since the two women maintained a “Boston marriage” from early in the 1880s until Jewett’s death. The widow of Boston publisher James T. Fields, the gracious, vivacious Annie provided Jewett with companionship and emotional support and introduced her to a galaxy of literary and cultural stars that included Alfred Lord Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, and Christina Rossetti.

An indefatigable traveler and dazzling hostess, Annie was also fifteen years older than Jewett and likely served as the model for the older women who so frequently guide younger women in Jewett’s fiction.

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Susan Glaspell (July 1 1876 – July 27 1948)


















When Martha Hale opened the storm-door and got a cut of the north wind, she ran back for her big woolen scarf. As she hurriedly wound that round her head her eye made a scandalized sweep of her kitchen. It was no ordinary thing that called her away–it was probably further from ordinary than anything that had ever happened in Dickson County. But what her eye took in was that her kitchen was in no shape for leaving: her bread all ready for mixing, half the flour sifted and half unsifted.
She hated to see things half done; but she had been at that when the team from town stopped to get Mr. Hale, and then the sheriff came running in to say his wife wished Mrs. Hale would come too–adding, with a grin, that he guessed she was getting scary and wanted another woman along. So she had dropped everything right where it was.

“Martha!” now came her husband’s impatient voice. “Don’t keep folks waiting out here in the cold.”

She again opened the storm-door, and this time joined the three men and the one woman waiting for her in the big two-seated buggy.

After she had the robes tucked around her she took another look at the woman who sat beside her on the back seat. She had met Mrs. Peters the year before at the county fair, and the thing she remembered about her was that she didn’t seem like a sheriff’s wife. She was small and thin and didn’t have a strong voice. Mrs. Gorman, sheriff’s wife before Gorman went out and Peters came in, had a voice that somehow seemed to be backing up the law with every word. But if Mrs. Peters didn’t look like a sheriff’s wife, Peters made it up in looking like a sheriff. He was to a dot the kind of man who could get himself elected sheriff–a heavy man with a big voice, who was particularly genial with the law-abiding, as if to make it plain that he knew the difference between criminals and non-criminals. And right there it came into Mrs. Hale’s mind, with a stab, that this man who was so pleasant and lively with all of them was going to the Wrights’ now as a sheriff.

“The country’s not very pleasant this time of year,” Mrs. Peters at last ventured, as if she felt they ought to be talking as well as the men.

Mrs. Hale scarcely finished her reply, for they had gone up a little hill and could see the Wright place now, and seeing it did not make her feel like talking. It looked very lonesome this cold March morning. It had always been a lonesome-looking place. It was down in a hollow, and the poplar trees around it were lonesome-looking trees. The men were looking at it and talking about what had happened. The county attorney was bending to one side of the buggy, and kept looking steadily at the place as they drew up to it.

“I’m glad you came with me,” Mrs. Peters said nervously, as the two women were about to follow the men in through the kitchen door.                 

Even after she had her foot on the door-step, her hand on the knob, Martha Hale had a moment of feeling she could not cross that threshold. And the reason it seemed she couldn’t cross it now was simply because she hadn’t crossed it before. Time and time again it had been in her mind, “I ought to go over and see Minnie Foster”–she still thought of her as Minnie Foster, though for twenty years she had been Mrs. Wright. And then there was always something to do and Minnie Foster would go from her mind. But now she could come.

The men went over to the stove. The women stood close together by the door. Young Henderson, the county attorney, turned around and said, “Come up to the fire, ladies.”

Mrs. Peters took a step forward, then stopped. “I’m not–cold,” she said.

And so the two women stood by the door, at first not even so much as looking around the kitchen.

The men talked for a minute about what a good thing it was the sheriff had sent his deputy out that morning to make a fire for them, and then Sheriff Peters stepped back from the stove, unbuttoned his outer coat, and leaned his hands on the kitchen table in a way that seemed to mark the beginning of official business. “Now, Mr. Hale,” he said in a sort of semi-official voice, “before we move things about, you tell Mr. Henderson just what it was you saw when you came here yesterday morning.”

The county attorney was looking around the kitchen.

“By the way,” he said, “has anything been moved?” He turned to the sheriff. “Are things just as you left them yesterday?”

Peters looked from cupboard to sink; from that to a small worn rocker a little to one side of the kitchen table.

“It’s just the same.”

“Somebody should have been left here yesterday,” said the county attorney.

“Oh–yesterday,” returned the sheriff, with a little gesture as of yesterday having been more than he could bear to think of. “When I had to send Frank to Morris Center for that man who went crazy–let me tell you. I had my hands full yesterday. I knew you could get back from Omaha by today, George, and as long as I went over everything here myself–”

“Well, Mr. Hale,” said the county attorney, in a way of letting what was past and gone go, “tell just what happened when you came here yesterday morning.”

Mrs. Hale, still leaning against the door, had that sinking feeling of the mother whose child is about to speak a piece. Lewis often wandered along and got things mixed up in a story. She hoped he would tell this straight and plain, and not say unnecessary things that would just make things harder for Minnie Foster. He didn’t begin at once, and she noticed that he looked queer–as if standing in that kitchen and having to tell what he had seen there yesterday morning made him almost sick.

“Yes, Mr. Hale?” the county attorney reminded.

“Harry and I had started to town with a load of potatoes,” Mrs. Hale’s husband began.

Harry was Mrs. Hale’s oldest boy. He wasn’t with them now, for the very good reason that those potatoes never got to town yesterday and he was taking them this morning, so he hadn’t been home when the sheriff stopped to say he wanted Mr. Hale to come over to the Wright place and tell the county attorney his story there, where he could point it all out. With all Mrs. Hale’s other emotions came the fear now that maybe Harry wasn’t dressed warm enough–they hadn’t any of them realized how that north wind did bite.

“We come along this road,” Hale was going on, with a motion of his hand to the road over which they had just come, “and as we got in sight of the house I says to Harry, ‘I’m goin’ to see if I can’t get John Wright to take a telephone.’ You see,” he explained to Henderson, “unless I can get somebody to go in with me they won’t come out this branch road except for a price I can’t pay. I’d spoke to Wright about it once before; but he put me off, saying folks talked too much anyway, and all he asked was peace and quiet–guess you know about how much he talked himself. But I thought maybe if I went to the house and talked about it before his wife, and said all the women-folks liked the telephones, and that in this lonesome stretch of road it would be a good thing–well, I said to Harry that that was what I was going to say–though I said at the same time that I didn’t know as what his wife wanted made much difference to John–”

Now there he was!–saying things he didn’t need to say. Mrs. Hale tried to catch her husband’s eye, but fortunately the county attorney interrupted with:

“Let’s talk about that a little later, Mr. Hale. I do want to talk about that but, I’m anxious now to get along to just what happened when you got here.”

When he began this time, it was very deliberately and carefully:

“I didn’t see or hear anything. I knocked at the door. And still it was all quiet inside. I knew they must be up–it was past eight o’clock. So I knocked again, louder, and I thought I heard somebody say, ‘Come in.’ I wasn’t sure–I’m not sure yet. But I opened the door–this door,” jerking a hand toward the door by which the two women stood. “and there, in that rocker”–pointing to it–“sat Mrs. Wright.”

Everyone in the kitchen looked at the rocker. It came into Mrs. Hale’s mind that that rocker didn’t look in the least like Minnie Foster–the Minnie Foster of twenty years before. It was a dingy red, with wooden rungs up the back, and the middle rung was gone, and the chair sagged to one side.

“How did she–look?” the county attorney was inquiring.

“Well,” said Hale, “she looked–queer.”

“How do you mean–queer?”

As he asked it he took out a note-book and pencil. Mrs. Hale did not like the sight of that pencil. She kept her eye fixed on her husband, as if to keep him from saying unnecessary things that would go into that note-book and make trouble.

Hale did speak guardedly, as if the pencil had affected him too.

“Well, as if she didn’t know what she was going to do next. And kind of–done up.”

“How did she seem to feel about your coming?”

“Why, I don’t think she minded–one way or other. She didn’t pay much attention. I said, ‘Ho’ do, Mrs. Wright? It’s cold, ain’t it?’ And she said. ‘Is it?’–and went on pleatin’ at her apron.

“Well, I was surprised. She didn’t ask me to come up to the stove, or to sit down, but just set there, not even lookin’ at me. And so I said: ‘I want to see John.’

“And then she–laughed. I guess you would call it a laugh.

“I thought of Harry and the team outside, so I said, a little sharp, ‘Can I see John?’ ‘No,’ says she–kind of dull like. ‘Ain’t he home?’ says I. Then she looked at me. ‘Yes,’ says she, ‘he’s home.’ ‘Then why can’t I see him?’ I asked her, out of patience with her now. ‘Cause he’s dead’ says she, just as quiet and dull–and fell to pleatin’ her apron. ‘Dead?’ says, I, like you do when you can’t take in what you’ve heard.

“She just nodded her head, not getting a bit excited, but rockin’ back and forth.

“‘Why–where is he?’ says I, not knowing what to say.

“She just pointed upstairs–like this”–pointing to the room above.

“I got up, with the idea of going up there myself. By this time I–didn’t know what to do. I walked from there to here; then I says: ‘Why, what did he die of?’

“‘He died of a rope around his neck,’ says she; and just went on pleatin’ at her apron.”

Hale stopped speaking, and stood staring at the rocker, as if he were still seeing the woman who had sat there the morning before. Nobody spoke; it was as if every one were seeing the woman who had sat there the morning before.

“And what did you do then?” the county attorney at last broke the silence.

“I went out and called Harry. I thought I might–need help. I got Harry in, and we went upstairs.” His voice fell almost to a whisper. “There he was–lying over the–”

“I think I’d rather have you go into that upstairs,” the county attorney interrupted, “where you can point it all out. Just go on now with the rest of the story.”

“Well, my first thought was to get that rope off. It looked–”

He stopped, his face twitching.

“But Harry, he went up to him, and he said. ‘No, he’s dead all right, and we’d better not touch anything.’ So we went downstairs.

“She was still sitting that same way. ‘Has anybody been notified?’ I asked. ‘No, says she, unconcerned.

“‘Who did this, Mrs. Wright?’ said Harry. He said it businesslike, and she stopped pleatin’ at her apron. ‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘You don’t know?’ says Harry. ‘Weren’t you sleepin’ in the bed with him?’ ‘Yes,’ says she, ‘but I was on the inside. ‘Somebody slipped a rope round his neck and strangled him, and you didn’t wake up?’ says Harry. ‘I didn’t wake up,’ she said after him.

“We may have looked as if we didn’t see how that could be, for after a minute she said, ‘I sleep sound.’

“Harry was going to ask her more questions, but I said maybe that weren’t our business; maybe we ought to let her tell her story first to the coroner or the sheriff. So Harry went fast as he could over to High Road–the Rivers’ place, where there’s a telephone.”

“And what did she do when she knew you had gone for the coroner?” The attorney got his pencil in his hand all ready for writing.

“She moved from that chair to this one over here”–Hale pointed to a small chair in the corner–“and just sat there with her hands held together and lookin down. I got a feeling that I ought to make some conversation, so I said I had come in to see if John wanted to put in a telephone; and at that she started to laugh, and then she stopped and looked at me–scared.”

At the sound of a moving pencil the man who was telling the story looked up.

“I dunno–maybe it wasn’t scared,” he hastened: “I wouldn’t like to say it was. Soon Harry got back, and then Dr. Lloyd came, and you, Mr. Peters, and so I guess that’s all I know that you don’t.”

He said that last with relief, and moved a little, as if relaxing. Everyone moved a little. The county attorney walked toward the stair door.

“I guess we’ll go upstairs first–then out to the barn and around there.”

He paused and looked around the kitchen.

“You’re convinced there was nothing important here?” he asked the sheriff. “Nothing that would–point to any motive?”

The sheriff too looked all around, as if to re-convince himself.

“Nothing here but kitchen things,” he said, with a little laugh for the insignificance of kitchen things.

The county attorney was looking at the cupboard–a peculiar, ungainly structure, half closet and half cupboard, the upper part of it being built in the wall, and the lower part just the old-fashioned kitchen cupboard. As if its queerness attracted him, he got a chair and opened the upper part and looked in. After a moment he drew his hand away sticky.

“Here’s a nice mess,” he said resentfully.

The two women had drawn nearer, and now the sheriff’s wife spoke.

“Oh–her fruit,” she said, looking to Mrs. Hale for sympathetic understanding.

She turned back to the county attorney and explained: “She worried about that when it turned so cold last night. She said the fire would go out and her jars might burst.”

Mrs. Peters’ husband broke into a laugh.

“Well, can you beat the women! Held for murder, and worrying about her preserves!”

The young attorney set his lips.

“I guess before we’re through with her she may have something more serious than preserves to worry about.”

“Oh, well,” said Mrs. Hale’s husband, with good-natured superiority, “women are used to worrying over trifles.”

The two women moved a little closer together. Neither of them spoke. The county attorney seemed suddenly to remember his manners–and think of his future.

“And yet,” said he, with the gallantry of a young politician. “for all their worries, what would we do without the ladies?”

The women did not speak, did not unbend. He went to the sink and began washing his hands. He turned to wipe them on the roller towel–whirled it for a cleaner place.

“Dirty towelsl Not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies?”

He kicked his foot against some dirty pans under the sink.

“There’s a great deal of work to be done on a farm,” said Mrs. Hale stiffly.

“To be sure. And yet”–with a little bow to her–‘I know there are some Dickson County farm-houses that do not have such roller towels.” He gave it a pull to expose its full length again.

“Those towels get dirty awful quick. Men’s hands aren’t always as clean as they might be.

“Ah, loyal to your sex, I see,” he laughed. He stopped and gave her a keen look, “But you and Mrs. Wright were neighbors. I suppose you were friends, too.”

Martha Hale shook her head.

“I’ve seen little enough of her of late years. I’ve not been in this house–it’s more than a year.”

“And why was that? You didn’t like her?”

“I liked her well enough,” she replied with spirit. “Farmers’ wives have their hands full, Mr. Henderson. And then–” She looked around the kitchen.

“Yes?” he encouraged.

“It never seemed a very cheerful place,” said she, more to herself than to him.

“No,” he agreed; “I don’t think anyone would call it cheerful. I shouldn’t say she had the home-making instinct.”

“Well, I don’t know as Wright had, either,” she muttered.

“You mean they didn’t get on very well?” he was quick to ask.

“No; I don’t mean anything,” she answered, with decision. As she turned a lit- tle away from him, she added: “But I don’t think a place would be any the cheerfuller for John Wright’s bein’ in it.”

“I’d like to talk to you about that a little later, Mrs. Hale,” he said. “I’m anxious to get the lay of things upstairs now.”

He moved toward the stair door, followed by the two men.

“I suppose anything Mrs. Peters does’ll be all right?” the sheriff inquired. “She was to take in some clothes for her, you know–and a few little things. We left in such a hurry yesterday.”

The county attorney looked at the two women they were leaving alone there among the kitchen things.

“Yes–Mrs. Peters,” he said, his glance resting on the woman who was not Mrs. Peters, the big farmer woman who stood behind the sheriff’s wife. “Of course Mrs. Peters is one of us,” he said, in a manner of entrusting responsibility. “And keep your eye out, Mrs. Peters, for anything that might be of use. No telling; you women might come upon a clue to the motive–and that’s the thing we need.”

Mr. Hale rubbed his face after the fashion of a showman getting ready for a pleasantry.

“But would the women know a clue if they did come upon it?” he said; and, having delivered himself of this, he followed the others through the stair door.

The women stood motionless and silent, listening to the footsteps, first upon the stairs, then in the room above them.

Then, as if releasing herself from something strange. Mrs. Hale began to arrange the dirty pans under the sink, which the county attorney’s disdainful push of the foot had deranged.

“I’d hate to have men comin’ into my kitchen,” she said testily–“snoopin’ round and criticizin’.”

“Of course it’s no more than their duty,” said the sheriff’s wife, in her manner of timid acquiescence.

“Duty’s all right,” replied Mrs. Hale bluffly; “but I guess that deputy sheriff that come out to make the fire might have got a little of this on.” She gave the roller towel a pull. ‘Wish I’d thought of that sooner! Seems mean to talk about her for not having things slicked up, when she had to come away in such a hurry.”

She looked around the kitchen. Certainly it was not “slicked up.” Her eye was held by a bucket of sugar on a low shelf. The cover was off the wooden bucket, and beside it was a paper bag–half full.

Mrs. HaIe moved toward it.

“She was putting this in there,” she said to herself–slowly.

She thought of the flour in her kitchen at home–half sifted, half not sifted. She had been interrupted, and had left things half done. What had interrupted Minnie Foster? Why had that work been left half done? She made a move as if to finish it,–unfinished things always bothered her,–and then she glanced around and saw that Mrs. Peters was watching her–and she didn’t want Mrs. Peters to get that feeling she had got of work begun and then–for some reason–not finished.

“It’s a shame about her fruit,” she said, and walked toward the cupboard that the county attorney had opened, and got on the chair, murmuring: “I wonder if it’s all gone.”

It was a sorry enough looking sight, but “Here’s one that’s all right,” she said at last. She held it toward the light. “This is cherries, too.” She looked again. “I declare I believe that’s the only one.”

With a sigh, she got down from the chair, went to the sink, and wiped off the bottle.

“She’Il feel awful bad, after all her hard work in the hot weather. I remember the afternoon I put up my cherries last summer.

She set the bottle on the table, and, with another sigh, started to sit down in the rocker. But she did not sit down. Something kept her from sitting down in that chair. She straightened–stepped back, and, half turned away, stood looking at it, seeing the woman who had sat there “pleatin’ at her apron.”

The thin voice of the sheriff’s wife broke in upon her: “I must be getting those things from the front-room closet.” She opened the door into the other room, started in, stepped back. “You coming with me, Mrs. Hale?” she asked nervously. “You–you could help me get them.”

They were soon back–the stark coldness of that shut-up room was not a thing to linger in.

“My!” said Mrs. Peters, dropping the things on the table and hurrying to the stove.

Mrs. Hale stood examining the clothes the woman who was being detained in town had said she wanted.                                                                 

“Wright was close!” she exclaimed, holding up a shabby black skirt that bore the marks of much making over. “I think maybe that’s why she kept so much to herself. I s’pose she felt she couldn’t do her part; and then, you don’t enjoy things when you feel shabby. She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively–when she was Minnie Foster, one of the town girls, singing in the choir. But that–oh, that was twenty years ago.”

With a carefulness in which there was something tender, she folded the shabby clothes and piled them at one corner of the table. She looked up at Mrs. Peters, and there was something in the other woman’s look that irritated her.

“She don’t care,” she said to herself. “Much difference it makes to her whether Minnie Foster had pretty clothes when she was a girl.”

Then she looked again, and she wasn’t so sure; in fact, she hadn’t at any time been perfectly sure about Mrs. Peters. She had that shrinking manner, and yet her eyes looked as if they could see a long way into things.

“This all you was to take in?” asked Mrs. Hale.

“No,” said the sheriffs wife; “she said she wanted an apron. Funny thing to want, ” she ventured in her nervous little way, “for there’s not much to get you dirty in jail, goodness knows. But I suppose just to make her feel more natural. If you’re used to wearing an apron–. She said they were in the bottom drawer of this cupboard. Yes–here they are. And then her little shawl that always hung on the stair door.”

She took the small gray shawl from behind the door leading upstairs, and stood a minute looking at it.

Suddenly Mrs. Hale took a quick step toward the other woman, “Mrs. Peters!”

“Yes, Mrs. Hale?”

“Do you think she–did it?’

A frightened look blurred the other thing in Mrs. Peters’ eyes.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, in a voice that seemed to shink away from the subject.

“Well, I don’t think she did,” affirmed Mrs. Hale stoutly. “Asking for an apron, and her little shawl. Worryin’ about her fruit.”

“Mr. Peters says–.” Footsteps were heard in the room above; she stopped, looked up, then went on in a lowered voice: “Mr. Peters says–it looks bad for her. Mr. Henderson is awful sarcastic in a speech, and he’s going to make fun of her saying she didn’t–wake up.”

For a moment Mrs. Hale had no answer. Then, “Well, I guess John Wright didn’t wake up–when they was slippin’ that rope under his neck,” she muttered.

“No, it’s strange,” breathed Mrs. Peters. “They think it was such a–funny way to kill a man.”

She began to laugh; at sound of the laugh, abruptly stopped.

“That’s just what Mr. Hale said,” said Mrs. Hale, in a resolutely natural voice. “There was a gun in the house. He says that’s what he can’t understand.”

“Mr. Henderson said, coming out, that what was needed for the case was a motive. Something to show anger–or sudden feeling.”

‘Well, I don’t see any signs of anger around here,” said Mrs. Hale, “I don’t–” She stopped. It was as if her mind tripped on something. Her eye was caught by a dish-towel in the middle of the kitchen table. Slowly she moved toward the table. One half of it was wiped clean, the other half messy. Her eyes made a slow, almost unwilling turn to the bucket of sugar and the half empty bag beside it. Things begun–and not finished.

After a moment she stepped back, and said, in that manner of releasing herself:

“Wonder how they’re finding things upstairs? I hope she had it a little more red up up there. You know,”–she paused, and feeling gathered,–“it seems kind of sneaking: locking her up in town and coming out here to get her own house to turn against her!”

“But, Mrs. Hale,” said the sheriff’s wife, “the law is the law.”

“I s’pose ’tis,” answered Mrs. Hale shortly.

She turned to the stove, saying something about that fire not being much to brag of. She worked with it a minute, and when she straightened up she said aggressively:

“The law is the law–and a bad stove is a bad stove. How’d you like to cook on this?”–pointing with the poker to the broken lining. She opened the oven door and started to express her opinion of the oven; but she was swept into her own thoughts, thinking of what it would mean, year after year, to have that stove to wrestle with. The thought of Minnie Foster trying to bake in that oven–and the thought of her never going over to see Minnie Foster–.                                                                                                                                                

She was startled by hearing Mrs. Peters say: “A person gets discouraged–and loses heart.”

The sheriff’s wife had looked from the stove to the sink–to the pail of water which had been carried in from outside. The two women stood there silent, above them the footsteps of the men who were looking for evidence against the woman who had worked in that kitchen. That look of seeing into things, of seeing through a thing to something else, was in the eyes of the sheriff’s wife now. When Mrs. Hale next spoke to her, it was gently:

“Better loosen up your things, Mrs. Peters. We’ll not feel them when we go out.”

Mrs. Peters went to the back of the room to hang up the fur tippet she was wearing. A moment later she exclaimed, “Why, she was piecing a quilt,” and held up a large sewing basket piled high with quilt pieces.

Mrs. Hale spread some of the blocks on the table.

“It’s log-cabin pattern,” she said, putting several of them together, “Pretty, isn’t it?”

They were so engaged with the quilt that they did not hear the footsteps on the stairs. Just as the stair door opened Mrs. Hale was saying:

“Do you suppose she was going to quilt it or just knot it?”

The sheriff threw up his hands.

“They wonder whether she was going to quilt it or just knot it!”

There was a laugh for the ways of women, a warming of hands over the stove, and then the county attorney said briskly:

“Well, let’s go right out to the barn and get that cleared up.”

“I don’t see as there’s anything so strange,” Mrs. Hale said resentfully, after the outside door had closed on the three men–“our taking up our time with little things while we’re waiting for them to get the evidence. I don’t see as it’s anything to laugh about.”

“Of course they’ve got awful important things on their minds,” said the sheriff’s wife apologetically.

They returned to an inspection of the block for the quilt. Mrs. Hale was looking at the fine, even sewing, and preoccupied with thoughts of the woman who had done that sewing, when she heard the sheriff’s wife say, in a queer tone:

“Why, look at this one.”

She turned to take the block held out to her.

“The sewing,” said Mrs. Peters, in a troubled way, “All the rest of them have been so nice and even–but–this one. Why, it looks as if she didn’t know what she was about!”

Their eyes met–something flashed to life, passed between them; then, as if with an effort, they seemed to pull away from each other. A moment Mrs. Hale sat there, her hands folded over that sewing which was so unlike all the rest of the sewing. Then she had pulled a knot and drawn the threads.

“Oh, what are you doing, Mrs. Hale?” asked the sheriff’s wife, startled.

“Just pulling out a stitch or two that’s not sewed very good,” said Mrs. Hale mildly.

“I don’t think we ought to touch things,” Mrs. Peters said, a little helplessly.

“I’ll just finish up this end,” answered Mrs. Hale, still in that mild, matter-of-fact fashion.

She threaded a needle and started to replace bad sewing with good. For a little while she sewed in silence. Then, in that thin, timid voice, she heard:

“Mrs. Hale!”

“Yes, Mrs. Peters?”

‘What do you suppose she was so–nervous about?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Mrs. Hale, as if dismissing a thing not important enough to spend much time on. “I don’t know as she was–nervous. I sew awful queer sometimes when I’m just tired.”

She cut a thread, and out of the corner of her eye looked up at Mrs. Peters. The small, lean face of the sheriff’s wife seemed to have tightened up. Her eyes had that look of peering into something. But next moment she moved, and said in her thin, indecisive way:

‘Well, I must get those clothes wrapped. They may be through sooner than we think. I wonder where I could find a piece of paper–and string.”

“In that cupboard, maybe,” suggested to Mrs. Hale, after a glance around.

One piece of the crazy sewing remained unripped. Mrs. Peter’s back turned, Martha Hale now scrutinized that piece, compared it with the dainty, accurate sewing of the other blocks. The difference was startling. Holding this block made her feel queer, as if the distracted thoughts of the woman who had perhaps turned to it to try and quiet herself were communicating themselves to her.

Mrs. Peters’ voice roused her.

“Here’s a bird-cage,” she said. “Did she have a bird, Mrs. Hale?”

‘Why, I don’t know whether she did or not.” She turned to look at the cage Mrs. Peters was holding up. “I’ve not been here in so long.” She sighed. “There was a man round last year selling canaries cheap–but I don’t know as she took one. Maybe she did. She used to sing real pretty herself.”

Mrs. Peters looked around the kitchen.

“Seems kind of funny to think of a bird here.” She half laughed–an attempt to put up a barrier. “But she must have had one–or why would she have a cage? I wonder what happened to it.”

“I suppose maybe the cat got it,” suggested Mrs. Hale, resuming her sewing.

“No; she didn’t have a cat. She’s got that feeling some people have about cats–being afraid of them. When they brought her to our house yesterday, my cat got in the room, and she was real upset and asked me to take it out.”

“My sister Bessie was like that,” laughed Mrs. Hale.

The sheriff’s wife did not reply. The silence made Mrs. Hale turn round. Mrs. Peters was examining the bird-cage.

“Look at this door,” she said slowly. “It’s broke. One hinge has been pulled apart.”

Mrs. Hale came nearer.

“Looks as if someone must have been–rough with it.”

Again their eyes met–startled, questioning, apprehensive. For a moment neither spoke nor stirred. Then Mrs. Hale, turning away, said brusquely:

“If they’re going to find any evidence, I wish they’d be about it. I don’t like this place.”

“But I’m awful glad you came with me, Mrs. Hale.” Mrs. Peters put the bird-cage on the table and sat down. “It would be lonesome for me–sitting here alone.”

“Yes, it would, wouldn’t it?” agreed Mrs. Hale, a certain determined naturalness in her voice. She had picked up the sewing, but now it dropped in her lap, and she murmured in a different voice: “But I tell you what I do wish, Mrs. Peters. I wish I had come over sometimes when she was here. I wish–I had.”

“But of course you were awful busy, Mrs. Hale. Your house–and your children.”

“I could’ve come,” retorted Mrs. Hale shortly. “I stayed away because it weren’t cheerful–and that’s why I ought to have come. I”–she looked around–“I’ve never liked this place. Maybe because it’s down in a hollow and you don’t see the road. I don’t know what it is, but it’s a lonesome place, and always was. I wish I had come over to see Minnie Foster sometimes. I can see now–” She did not put it into words.

“Well, you mustn’t reproach yourself,” counseled Mrs. Peters. “Somehow, we just don’t see how it is with other folks till–something comes up.”

“Not having children makes less work,” mused Mrs. Hale, after a silence, “but it makes a quiet house–and Wright out to work all day–and no company when he did come in. Did you know John Wright, Mrs. Peters?”

“Not to know him. I’ve seen him in town. They say he was a good man.”

“Yes–good,” conceded John Wright’s neighbor grimly. “He didn’t drink, and kept his word as well as most, I guess, and paid his debts. But he was a hard man, Mrs. Peters. Just to pass the time of day with him–.” She stopped, shivered a little. “Like a raw wind that gets to the bone.” Her eye fell upon the cage on the table before her, and she added, almost bitterly: “I should think she would’ve wanted a bird!”

Suddenly she leaned forward, looking intently at the cage. “But what do you s’pose went wrong with it?”                                                              

“I don’t know,” returned Mrs. Peters; “unless it got sick and died.”

But after she said it she reached over and swung the broken door. Both women watched it as if somehow held by it.

“You didn’t know–her?” Mrs. Hale asked, a gentler note in her voice.

“Not till they brought her yesterday,” said the sheriff’s wife.

“She–come to think of it, she was kind of like a bird herself. Real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and–fluttery. How–she–did–change.”

That held her for a long time. Finally, as if struck with a happy thought and relieved to get back to everyday things, she exclaimed:

“Tell you what, Mrs. Peters, why don’t you take the quilt in with you? It might take up her mind.”

“Why, I think that’s a real nice idea, Mrs. Hale,” agreed the sheriff’s wife, as if she too were glad to come into the atmosphere of a simple kindness. “There couldn’t possibly be any objection to that, could there? Now, just what will I take? I wonder if her patches are in here–and her things?”

They turned to the sewing basket.

“Here’s some red,” said Mrs. Hale, bringing out a roll of cloth. Underneath that was a box. “Here, maybe her scissors are in here–and her things.” She held it up. “What a pretty box! I’ll warrant that was something she had a long time ago–when she was a girl.”

She held it in her hand a moment; then, with a little sigh, opened it.

Instantly her hand went to her nose.


Mrs. Peters drew nearer–then turned away.

“There’s something wrapped up in this piece of silk,” faltered Mrs. Hale.

“This isn’t her scissors,” said Mrs. Peters, in a shrinking voice.

Her hand not steady, Mrs. Hale raised the piece of silk. “Oh, Mrs. Peters!” she cried. “It’s–”

Mrs. Peters bent closer.

“It’s the bird,” she whispered.

“But, Mrs. Peters!” cried Mrs. Hale. “Look at it! Its neck–look at its neck! It’s all–other side to.”

She held the box away from her.

The sheriff’s wife again bent closer.

“Somebody wrung its neck,” said she, in a voice that was slow and deep.

And then again the eyes of the two women met–this time clung together in a look of dawning comprehension, of growing horror. Mrs. Peters looked from the dead bird to the broken door of the cage. Again their eyes met. And just then there was a sound at the outside door. Mrs. Hale slipped the box under the quilt pieces in the basket, and sank into the chair before it. Mrs. Peters stood holding to the table. The county attorney and the sheriff came in from outside.

“Well, ladies,” said the county attorney, as one turning from serious things to little pleasantries, “have you decided whether she was going to quilt it or knot it?”

“We think,” began the sheriff’s wife in a flurried voice, “that she was going to–knot it.”

He was too preoccupied to notice the change that came in her voice on that last.

“Well, that’s very interesting, I’m sure,” he said tolerantly. He caught sight of the bird-cage.

“Has the bird flown?”

“We think the cat got it,” said Mrs. Hale in a voice curiously even.

He was walking up and down, as if thinking something out.                                                                                                                                           

“Is there a cat?” he asked absently.

Mrs. Hale shot a look up at the sheriff’s wife.

“Well, not now,” said Mrs. Peters. “They’re superstitious, you know; they leave.”

She sank into her chair.

The county attorney did not heed her. “No sign at all of anyone having come in from the outside,” he said to Peters, in the manner of continuing an interrupted conversation. “Their own rope. Now let’s go upstairs again and go over it, picee by piece. It would have to have been someone who knew just the–”

The stair door closed behind them and their voices were lost.

The two women sat motionless, not looking at each other, but as if peering into something and at the same time holding back. When they spoke now it was as if they were afraid of what they were saying, but as if they could not help saying it.

“She liked the bird,” said Martha Hale, low and slowly. “She was going to bury it in that pretty box.”

When I was a girl,” said Mrs. Peters, under her breath, “my kitten–there was a boy took a hatchet, and before my eyes–before I could get there–” She covered her face an instant. “If they hadn’t held me back I would have”–she caught herself, looked upstairs where footsteps were heard, and finished weakly–“hurt him.”

Then they sat without speaking or moving.

“I wonder how it would seem,” Mrs. Hale at last began, as if feeling her way over strange ground–“never to have had any children around?” Her eyes made a slow sweep of the kitchen, as if seeing what that kitchen had meant through all the years “No, Wright wouldn’t like the bird,” she said after that–“a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that too.” Her voice tightened.

Mrs. Peters moved uneasily.

“Of course we don’t know who killed the bird.”

“I knew John Wright,” was Mrs. Hale’s answer.                                                                                                                                                           

“It was an awful thing was done in this house that night, Mrs. Hale,” said the sheriff’s wife. “Killing a man while he slept–slipping a thing round his neck that choked the life out of him.”

Mrs. Hale’s hand went out to the bird cage.

“We don’t know who killed him,” whispered Mrs. Peters wildly. “We don’t know.”

Mrs. Hale had not moved. “If there had been years and years of–nothing, then a bird to sing to you, it would be awful–still–after the bird was still.”

It was as if something within her not herself had spoken, and it found in Mrs. Peters something she did not know as herself.

“I know what stillness is,” she said, in a queer, monotonous voice. “When we homesteaded in Dakota, and my first baby died–after he was two years old–and me with no other then–”

Mrs. Hale stirred.

“How soon do you suppose they’ll be through looking for the evidence?”

“I know what stillness is,” repeated Mrs. Peters, in just that same way. Then she too pulled back. “The law has got to punish crime, Mrs. Hale,” she said in her tight little way.

“I wish you’d seen Minnie Foster,” was the answer, “when she wore a white dress with blue ribbons, and stood up there in the choir and sang.”

The picture of that girl, the fact that she had lived neighbor to that girl for twenty years, and had let her die for lack of life, was suddenly more than she could bear.

“Oh, I wish I’d come over here once in a while!” she cried. “That was a crime! Who’s going to punish that?”

“We mustn’t take on,” said Mrs. Peters, with a frightened look toward the stairs.

“I might ‘a’ known she needed help! I tell you, it’s queer, Mrs. Peters. We live close together, and we live far apart. We all go through the same things–it’s all just a different kind of the same thing! If it weren’t–why do you and I understand? Why do we know–what we know this minute?”

She dashed her hand across her eyes. Then, seeing the jar of fruit on the table she reached for it and choked out:

“If I was you I wouldn’t tell her her fruit was gone! Tell her it ain’t. Tell her it’s all right–all of it. Here–take this in to prove it to her! She–she may never know whether it was broke or not.”

She turned away.

Mrs. Peters reached out for the bottle of fruit as if she were glad to take it–as if touching a familiar thing, having something to do, could keep her from something else. She got up, looked about for something to wrap the fruit in, took a petticoat from the pile of clothes she had brought from the front room, and nervously started winding that round the bottle.

“My!” she began, in a high, false voice, “it’s a good thing the men couldn’t hear us! Getting all stirred up over a little thing like a–dead canary.” She hurried over that. “As if that could have anything to do with–with–My, wouldn’t they laugh?”

Footsteps were heard on the stairs.

“Maybe they would,” muttered Mrs. Hale–“maybe they wouldn’t.”

“No, Peters,” said the county attorney incisively; “it’s all perfectly clear, except the reason for doing it. But you know juries when it comes to women. If there was some definite thing–something to show. Something to make a story about. A thing that would connect up with this clumsy way of doing it.”

In a covert way Mrs. Hale looked at Mrs. Peters. Mrs. Peters was looking at her. Quickly they looked away from each other. The outer door opened and Mr. Hale came in.

“I’ve got the team round now,” he said. “Pretty cold out there.”                                                                                                                                      

“I’m going to stay here awhile by myself,” the county attorney suddenly announced. “You can send Frank out for me, can’t you?” he asked the sheriff. “I want to go over everything. I’m not satisfied we can’t do better.”

Again, for one brief moment, the two women’s eyes found one another.

The sheriff came up to the table.

“Did you want to see what Mrs. Peters was going to take in?”

The county attorney picked up the apron. He laughed.

“Oh, I guess they’re not very dangerous things the ladies have picked out.”

Mrs. Hale’s hand was on the sewing basket in which the box was concealed. She felt that she ought to take her hand off the basket. She did not seem able to. He picked up one of the quilt blocks which she had piled on to cover the box. Her eyes felt like fire. She had a feeling that if he took up the basket she would snatch it from him.

But he did not take it up. With another little laugh, he turned away, saying:

“No; Mrs. Peters doesn’t need supervising. For that matter, a sheriff’s wife is married to the law. Ever think of it that way, Mrs. Peters?”

Mrs. Peters was standing beside the table. Mrs. Hale shot a look up at her; but she could not see her face. Mrs. Peters had turned away. When she spoke, her voice was muffled.

“Not–just that way,” she said.

“Married to the law!” chuckled Mrs. Peters’ husband. He moved toward the door into the front room, and said to the county attorney:

“I just want you to come in here a minute, George. We ought to take a look at these windows.”

“Oh–windows,” said the county attorney scoffingly.

“We’ll be right out, Mr. Hale,” said the sheriff to the farmer, who was still waiting by the door.

Hale went to look after the horses. The sheriff followed the county attorney into the other room. Again–for one final moment–the two women were alone in that kitchen.

Martha Hale sprang up, her hands tight together, looking at that other woman, with whom it rested. At first she could not see her eyes, for the         sheriff’s wife had not turned back since she turned away at that suggestion of being married to the law. But now Mrs. Hale made her turn back. Her eyes made her turn back. Slowly, unwillingly, Mrs. Peters turned her head until her eyes met the eyes of the other woman. There was a moment when they held each other in a steady, burning look in which there was no evasion or flinching. Then Martha Hale’s eyes pointed the way to the basket in which was hidden the thing that would make certain the conviction of the other woman–that woman who was not there and yet who had been there with them all through that hour.

For a moment Mrs. Peters did not move. And then she did it. With a rush forward, she threw back the quilt pieces, got the box, tried to put it in her handbag. It was too big. Desperately she opened it, started to take the bird out. But there she broke–she could not touch the bird. She stood there helpless, foolish.

There was the sound of a knob turning in the inner door. Martha Hale snatched the box from the sheriff’s wife, and got it in the pocket of her big coat just as the sheriff and the county attorney came back into the kitchen.

“Well, Henry,” said the county attorney facetiously, “at least we found out that she was not going to quilt it. She was going to–what is it you call it, ladies?”                    

Mrs. Hale’s hand was against the pocket of her coat.

“We call it–knot it, Mr. Henderson.”












Susan Glaspell, besides being a writer of fiction, was also an accomplished dramatist. She wrote her play Trifles in 1916 over a ten day period,  in what must have been a burst of creativity. She then re-wrote the play as a the short story “A Jury of Her Peers”. After several decades of neglect, her work was rediscovered in the ’80s, by feminist scholars. Glaspell was in many respects, a woman ahead of her times, and therefore out of synch with them. She married twice, for the first time 1913 when she was 37 years old, and again in 1924, two years after after  the death of her first husband. She was friends with some of the most non-conformist women of her day – Edna Ferber, Djuna Barnes and Edna St.Vincent Millay, and she belonged to a feminist group called ‘Heterodoxy’.

Around 1908 she spent a year in Paris with her friend Lucy Huffaker (her friend for the next 50 years) where the two rubbed shoulders with the cream of lesbian literary society, including women such as Natalie Clifford Barney, Gertrude Stein, and Sylvia Beach.

Though Glaspell was not a lesbian, much of her work, including “Trifles” and ” A Jury of Her Peers” is suffused with a keen sensibility of the emotional bonds that exist between women. For this, and other reasons, some feminst scholars today claim Glaspell as ‘Queer’.

Here is an excerpt from a paper by Cheryl Black. I have provided the link to it at the bottom of the post at the bottom of the post.

“Susan Glaspell was queer in her geographic and ideological departure from her middle class, Midwestern roots. She was queer in her desire for education and a career as a writer, in her artistic ambitions, in her delay of marriage, in her sexual desire for a married man and later in life, for one nearly twenty years her junior. She was queer in her childlessness, in her critique of sexism, racism, and other forms of injustice within American social institutions, in her bold expression of “unwomanly” behavior: unruly sexuality, unbridled ambition, rage, and violence. She was queer in her use of irony and parodic humor, in her jarring juxtaposition of tone and mood that keeps her readers and spectators off-balance, in her unique displacement of traditional dramatic focus from onstage to offstage.
In her most politically and artistically radical works, these ideological and formal subversions may be read as queer dramaturgy, and Susan Glaspell, in her continual identification of subversive gender and sexual identity as well as subversive aesthetic creation as “queer,” functions as a queer theorist and may be regarded as a pioneer in queering feminism. These works emerged at the advent of the invention of compulsory heterosexuality as a political and economic institution in American life, and they resonate with new vitality in our current cultural climate’s attempt to reify the “sanctity” of heterosexual unions and to constitutionally prohibit any other kind.

Strangulation is a long slow death – it requires strength and determination, and takes roughly four minutes to complete, and a man of  John Wright’s temperament would not have gone easy. To accomplish such a feat must have required a sufficiency of pent-up anger and grim determination, and that Minnie Foster possessed it in a measure commensurate to her task bespeaks a long history of degradation and abuse.

Minnie Foster’s tender girlhood has ended long ago. She is now trapped and isolated on a remote farm with a cruel and sadistic husband, John Wright. She has no future – nothing to ameliorate her condition or beguile her hours but a little singing bird – a bird whose neck John Wright–of whom it is “common knowledge that  he did not care to please his wife”– snaps in two.

It is a challenging task to attempt to imagine the full extent of  Minnie Foster’s tenebrous and despairing life. No central heat, no electricity, no telephone, no gramophone, no radio or t.v or computer – no friends, no books, no cat or dog – just a little canary to break the silence and relieve her desolation.

Add to this her taciturn and begrudging husband John Wright who keeps her shabbily dressed and ill-provided so that she has to do her cooking on a broken stove and do her sewing sitting on a broken rocker, and the dismal picture comes sharply into focus.

Glaspell’s  story is about reading the clues – the clues she lets us see through the eyes of the two women, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, but particularly Mrs. Hale, Minnie Foster’s girlhood friend.  The women alone are capable of making the kinds of observations – and inferences–which go below the surface in order to re-construct and interpret a reality which is invisible to the men. The men look in all the wrong places – and through the lens of their unexamined assumptions about the triviality of womens’ natures.  Glaspell with the steady accumulations of unremarkable-seeming  facts revealed through dialogue, makes it clear to her readers that the investigating trio of kind and straightforward Mr. Hale, with his slight tendency towards garrulosity, the bluff and unsubtle sheriff  Mr. Peters, and the odious little prig of a county attorney Mr. Henderson, would never understand that the murder of John Wright was no crime, and that justice had already been done.

What else could a real ‘jury of her peers’  do but take the law into their own capable hands and dismiss the case?

What was it I wonder that caused Martha Hale to not set foot for 20 years in the house of her girlhood friend? Why did she remember her so tenderly? And why did she cover-up for her murder? Pity and guilt for omissions of care and sympathy may present themselves as possible reasons, but I cannot help feeling that these facts hint at a different mystery from the one this story solves.













Article on Susan Glaspell


A thorough and beautiful analytical disquisition of Susan Glaspell’s life and work.


Wikipedia entry on Susan Glaspell


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Sidney William Porter: O Henry, (September 11 1862- June 5 1910)

The offering for this week from my ‘The Library of America’ subscription was The Duel  by O Henry. After I read it, I remembered  another story he had written called The Last Leaf, and decided to post it on this blog. I then went back on line to try and find a photograph of O Henry to post alongside the story, and found one in Wikipedia. There I read that today – September 11th – was O Henry’s birthday.

O Henry was the pen-name of  of William Sidney Porter  who was born this day in 1862. He died on June 5th 1910 aged forty-eight.
Happy birthday Mr. O Henry, And thank you for this beautiful and heart-pleasing short-story.



The Last Leaf.

In a little district west of Washington Square the streets have run crazy and broken themselves into small strips called “places.” These “places” make strange angles and curves. One Street crosses itself a time or two. An artist once discovered a valuable possibility in this street. Suppose a collector with a bill for paints, paper and canvas should, in traversing this route, suddenly meet himself coming back, without a cent having been paid on account!

So, to quaint old Greenwich Village the art people soon came prowling, hunting for north windows and eighteenth-century gables and Dutch attics and low rents. Then they imported some pewter mugs and a chafing dish or two from Sixth Avenue, and became a “colony.”

At the top of a squatty, three-story brick Sue and Johnsy had their studio. “Johnsy” was familiar for Joanna. One was from Maine; the other from California. They had met at the table d’hôte of an Eighth Street “Delmonico’s,” and found their tastes in art, chicory salad and bishop sleeves so congenial that the joint studio resulted.

That was in May. In November a cold, unseen stranger, whom the doctors called Pneumonia, stalked about the colony, touching one here and there with his icy fingers. Over on the east side this ravager strode boldly, smiting his victims by scores, but his feet trod slowly through the maze of the narrow and moss-grown “places.”

Mr. Pneumonia was not what you would call a chivalric old gentleman. A mite of a little woman with blood thinned by California zephyrs was hardly fair game for the red-fisted, short-breathed old duffer. But Johnsy he smote; and she lay, scarcely moving, on her painted iron bedstead, looking through the small Dutch window-panes at the blank side of the next brick house.

One morning the busy doctor invited Sue into the hallway with a shaggy, grey eyebrow.

“She has one chance in – let us say, ten,” he said, as he shook down the mercury in his clinical thermometer. ” And that chance is for her to want to live. This way people have of lining-u on the side of the undertaker makes the entire pharmacopoeia look silly. Your little lady has made up her mind that she’s not going to get well. Has she anything on her mind?”

   “She – she wanted to paint the Bay of Naples some day.” said Sue.

     “Paint? – bosh! Has she anything on her mind worth thinking twice – a man for instance?”

“A man?” said Sue, with a jew’s-harp twang in her voice. “Is a man worth – but, no, doctor; there is nothing of the kind.”

“Well, it is the weakness, then,” said the doctor. “I will do all that science, so far as it may filter through my efforts, can accomplish. But whenever my patient begins to count the carriages in her funeral procession I subtract 50 per cent from the curative power of medicines. If you will get her to ask one question about the new winter styles in cloak sleeves I will promise you a one-in-five chance for her, instead of one in ten.”

After the doctor had gone Sue went into the workroom and cried a Japanese napkin to a pulp. Then she swaggered into Johnsy’s room with her drawing board, whistling ragtime.

Johnsy lay, scarcely making a ripple under the bedclothes, with her face toward the window. Sue stopped whistling, thinking she was asleep.

She arranged her board and began a pen-and-ink drawing to illustrate a magazine story. Young artists must pave their way to Art by drawing pictures for magazine stories that young authors write to pave their way to Literature.

As Sue was sketching a pair of elegant horseshow riding trousers and a monocle of the figure of the hero, an Idaho cowboy, she heard a low sound, several times repeated. She went quickly to the bedside.

Johnsy’s eyes were open wide. She was looking out the window and counting – counting backward.

“Twelve,” she said, and little later “eleven”; and then “ten,” and “nine”; and then “eight” and “seven”, almost together.

Sue look solicitously out of the window. What was there to count? There was only a bare, dreary yard to be seen, and the blank side of the brick house twenty feet away. An old, old ivy vine, gnarled and decayed at the roots, climbed half way up the brick wall. The cold breath of autumn had stricken its leaves from the vine until its skeleton branches clung, almost bare, to the crumbling bricks.

  “What is it, dear?” asked Sue.

     “Six,” said Johnsy, in almost a whisper. “They’re falling faster now. Three days ago there were almost a hundred. It made my head ache to count them. But now it’s easy. There goes another one. There are only five left now.”

“Five what, dear? Tell your Sudie.”

“Leaves. On the ivy vine. When the last one falls I must go, too. I’ve known that for three days. Didn’t the doctor tell you?”

“Oh, I never heard of such nonsense,” complained Sue, with magnificent scorn. “What have old ivy leaves to do with your getting well? And you used to love that vine so, you naughty girl. Don’t be a goosey. Why, the doctor told me this morning that your chances for getting well real soon were – let’s see exactly what he said – he said the chances were ten to one! Why, that’s almost as good a chance as we have in New York when we ride on the street cars or walk past a new building. Try to take some broth now, and let Sudie go back to her drawing, so she can sell the editor man with it, and buy port wine for her sick child, and pork chops for her greedy self.”

“You needn’t get any more wine,” said Johnsy, keeping her eyes fixed out the window. “There goes another. No, I don’t want any broth. That leaves just four. I want to see the last one fall before it gets dark. Then I’ll go, too.”

“Johnsy, dear,” said Sue, bending over her, “will you promise me to keep your eyes closed, and not look out the window until I am done working? I must hand those drawings in by to-morrow. I need the light, or I would draw the shade down.”

“Couldn’t you draw in the other room?” asked Johnsy, coldly.

“I’d rather be here by you,” said Sue. “Beside, I don’t want you to keep looking at those silly ivy leaves.”

     “Tell me as soon as you have finished,” said Johnsy, closing her eyes, and lying white and still as fallen statue, “because I want to see the last one fall. I’m tired of waiting. I’m tired of thinking. I want to turn loose my hold on everything, and go sailing down, down, just like one of those poor, tired leaves.”

“Try to sleep,” said Sue. “I must call Behrman up to be my model for the old hermit miner. I’ll not be gone a minute. Don’t try to move ’til I come back.”

Old Behrman was a painter who lived on the ground floor beneath them. He was past sixty and had a Michael Angelo’s Moses beard curling down from the head of a satyr along with the body of an imp. Behrman was a failure in art. Forty years he had wielded the brush without getting near enough to touch the hem of his Mistress’s robe. He had been always about to paint a masterpiece, but had never yet begun it. For several years he had painted nothing except now and then a daub in the line of commerce or advertising. He earned a little by serving as a model to those young artists in the colony who could not pay the price of a professional. He drank gin to excess, and still talked of his coming masterpiece. For the rest he was a fierce little old man, who scoffed terribly at softness in any one, and who regarded himself as especial mastiff-in-waiting to protect the two young artists in the studio above.

Sue found Behrman smelling strongly of juniper berries in his dimly lighted den below. In one corner was a blank canvas on an easel that had been waiting there for twenty-five years to receive the first line of the masterpiece. She told him of Johnsy’s fancy, and how she feared she would, indeed, light and fragile as a leaf herself, float away, when her slight hold upon the world grew weaker.

Old Behrman, with his red eyes plainly streaming, shouted his contempt and derision for such idiotic imaginings

     “Vass!” he cried. “Is dere people in de world mit der foolishness to die because leafs dey drop off from a confounded vine? I haf not heard of such a thing. No, I will not bose as a model for your fool hermit-dunderhead. Vy do you allow dot silly pusiness to come in der brain of her? Ach, dot poor leetle Miss Yohnsy.”

“She is very ill and weak,” said Sue, “and the fever has left her mind morbid and full of strange fancies. Very well, Mr. Behrman, if you do not care to pose for me, you needn’t. But I think you are a horrid old – old flibbertigibbet.””You are just like a woman!” yelled Behrman. “Who said I will not bose? Go on. I come mit you. For half an hour I haf peen trying to say dot I am ready to bose. Gott! dis is not any blace in which one so goot as Miss Yohnsy shall lie sick. Some day I vill baint a masterpiece, and ve shall all go away. Gott! yes.”

Johnsy was sleeping when they went upstairs. Sue pulled the shade down to the window-sill, and motioned Behrman into the other room. In there they peered out the window fearfully at the ivy vine. Then they looked at each other for a moment without speaking. A persistent, cold rain was falling, mingled with snow. Behrman, in his old blue shirt, took his seat as the hermit miner on an upturned kettle for a rock.

When Sue awoke from an hour’s sleep the next morning she found Johnsy with dull, wide-open eyes staring at the drawn green shade.

“Pull it up; I want to see,” she ordered, in a whisper.

Wearily Sue obeyed.

But, lo! after the beating rain and fierce gusts of wind that had endured through the livelong night, there yet stood out against the brick wall one ivy leaf. It was the last one on the vine. Still dark green near its stem, with its serrated edges tinted with the yellow of dissolution and decay, it hung bravely from the branch some twenty feet above the ground.

     “It is the last one,” said Johnsy. “I thought it would surely fall during the night. I heard the wind. It will fall to-day, and I shall die at the same time.”

     “Dear, dear!” said Sue, leaning her worn face down to the pillow, “think of me, if you won’t think of yourself. What would I do?”

But Johnsy did not answer. The lonesomest thing in all the world is a soul when it is making ready to go on its mysterious, far journey. The fancy seemed to possess her more strongly as one by one the ties that bound her to friendship and to earth were loosed.

The day wore away, and even through the twilight they could see the lone ivy leaf clinging to its stem against the wall. And then, with the coming of the night the north wind was again loosed, while the rain still beat against the windows and pattered down from the low Dutch eaves.

When it was light enough Johnsy, the merciless, commanded that the shade be raised.

The ivy leaf was still there.

Johnsy lay for a long time looking at it. And then she called to Sue, who was stirring her chicken broth over the gas stove.

“I’ve been a bad girl, Sudie,” said Johnsy. “Something has made that last leaf stay there to show me how wicked I was. It is a sin to want to die. You may bring a me a little broth now, and some milk with a little port in it, and – no; bring me a hand-mirror first, and then pack some pillows about me, and I will sit up and watch you cook.”

And hour later she said:

“Sudie, some day I hope to paint the Bay of Naples.”

The doctor came in the afternoon, and Sue had an excuse to go into the hallway as he left.

“Even chances,” said the doctor, taking Sue’s thin, shaking hand in his. “With good nursing you’ll win.” And now I must see another case I have downstairs. Behrman, his name is – some kind of an artist, I believe. Pneumonia, too. He is an old, weak man, and the attack is acute. There is no hope for him; but he goes to the hospital to-day to be made more comfortable.”

The next day the doctor said to Sue: “She’s out of danger. You won. Nutrition and care now – that’s all.”

And that afternoon Sue came to the bed where Johnsy lay, contentedly knitting a very blue and very useless woollen shoulder scarf, and put one arm around her, pillows and all.

“I have something to tell you, white mouse,” she said. “Mr. Behrman died of pneumonia to-day in the hospital. He was ill only two days. The janitor found him the morning of the first day in his room downstairs helpless with pain. His shoes and clothing were wet through and icy cold. They couldn’t imagine where he had been on such a dreadful night. And then they found a lantern, still lighted, and a ladder that had been dragged from its place, and some scattered brushes, and a palette with green and yellow colours mixed on it, and – look out the window, dear, at the last ivy leaf on the wall. Didn’t you wonder why it never fluttered or moved when the wind blew? Ah, darling, it’s Behrman’s masterpiece – he painted it there the night that the last leaf fell.”








I remember reading this exquisite little gem of a story many years ago and feeling ineffably touched by it. So light was the sleight of hand with which O ‘Henry performed his little feat of literary magic, that I never noticed the obvious, except no doubt subliminally,  until I read Emma Donoghue’s, Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature.  In her introduction, Donoghue pointed out what she herself had been startled to discover – or re discover –  what O’Henry had done in plain sight, which was to have written a lesbian love story of gauze-like delicacy.

I wonder if this is one of the earliest of its type that was given a happy ending – at least for the lovers.  If so, I would like to imagine that it served as a little hidden oasis for the lesbians of three quarters of a century and more ago, who although they were stranded and isolated in their deserts of time and place, stumbled upon  this little secret – no secret to a discerning eye –  of a lesbian  couple living together in unmolested domestic harmony, and took it gratefully to heart.

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