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Produced by David Edwards, Mary Meehan and the Online
HETTY’S STRANGE HISTORY.
BY HELEN JACKSON (H.H.)
AUTHOR OF “RAMONA,” “A CENTURY OF DISHONOR,” “VERSES,” “SONNETS AND LYRICS,” “GLIMPSES OF THREE COASTS,” “BITS OF TRAVEL,” “BITS OF TRAVEL AT HOME,” “ZEPH,” “MERCY PHILBRICK’S CHOICE,” “BETWEEN WHILES,” “BITS OF TALK ABOUT HOME MATTERS,” “BITS OF TALK FOR YOUNG FOLKS,” “NELLY’S SILVER MINE,” “CAT STORIES.”
By Roberts Brothers.
John Wilson and Son, Cambridge.
The one whose words are swiftest, love to state?
The one who measures out his love by weight
In costly gifts which all men see and know?
Nay! words are cheap and easy: they may go
For what men think them worth: or soon or late,
They are but air. And gifts? Still cheaper rate
Are they at which men barter to and fro
Where love is not!
One thing remains. Oh, Love,
Thou hast so seldom seen it on the earth,
No name for it has ever sprung to birth;
To give one’s own life up one’s love to prove.
Not in the martyr’s death, but in the dearth
Of daily life’s most wearing daily groove.
What does Great Love return? No speedy joy!
That swift delight which beareth large alloy
Is guerdon Love bestowed on him who won
A lesser trust: the happiness begun
In happiness, of happiness may cloy,
And, its own subtle foe, itself destroy.
But steadfast, tireless, quenchless as the sun
Doth grow that gladness which hath root in pain.
Earth’s common griefs assail this soul in vain.
Great Love himself, too poor to pay such debt,
Doth borrow God’s great peace which passeth yet
All understanding. Full tenfold again
Is found the life, laid down without regret!
When Squire Gunn and his wife died, within three months of each other, and Hetty their only child was left alone in the big farmhouse, everybody said, “Well, now Hetty Gunn’ll have to make up her mind to marry somebody.” And it certainly looked as if she must. What could be lonelier than the position of a woman thirty-five years of age sole possessor of a great stone house, half a dozen barns and out-buildings, herds of cattle, and a farm of five hundred acres? The place was known as “Gunn’s,” far and wide. It had been a rich and prosperous farm ever since the days of the first Squire Gunn, Hetty’s grandfather. He was one of Massachusetts’ earliest militia-men, and had a leg shot off at Lexington. To the old man’s dying day he used to grow red in the face whenever he told the story, and bring his fist down hard on the table, with “Damn the leg, sir! ‘Twasn’t the leg I cared for: ’twas the not having another chance at those damned British rascals;” and the wooden leg itself would twitch and rap on the floor in his impatient indignation. One of Hetty’s earliest recollections was of being led about the farm by this warm-hearted, irascible, old grandfather, whose wooden leg was a perpetual and unfathomable mystery to her. Where the flesh leg left off and the wooden leg began, and if, when the wooden leg stumped so loud and hard on the floor, it did not hurt the flesh leg at the other end, puzzled little Hetty’s head for many a long hour. Her grandfather’s frequent and comic references to the honest old wooden pin did not diminish her perplexities. He was something of a wag, the old Squire; and nothing came handier to him, in the way of a joke, than a joke at his own expense. When he was eighty years old, he had a stroke of paralysis: he lived six years after that; but he could not walk about the farm any longer. He used to sit in a big cane-bottomed chair close to the fireplace, in winter, and under a big lilac-bush, at the north-east corner of the house, in summer. He kept a stout iron-tipped cane by his side: in the winter, he used it to poke the fire with; in the summer, to rap the hens and chickens which he used to lure round his chair by handfuls of corn and oats. Sometimes he would tap the end of the wooden leg with this cane, and say, laughingly, “Ha! ha! think of a leg like that’s being paralyzed, if you please. Isn’t that a joke? It’s just as paralyzed as the other: damn those British rascals.” And only a few hours before he died, he said to his son: “Look here, Abe, you put on my grave-stone,—’Here lies Abraham Gunn, all but one leg.’ What do you suppose one-legged men’re going to do in the resurrection, hey, Abe? I’ll ask the parson if he comes in this afternoon,” he added. But, when the parson came, the brave, merry eyes were shut for ever, and the old hero had gone to a new world, on which he no doubt entered as resolutely and cheerily as he had gone through nearly a century of this. These glimpses of the old Squire’s characteristics are not out of place here, although he himself has no place in our story, having been dead and buried for more than twenty years before the story begins. But he lived again in his granddaughter Hetty. How much of her offhand, comic, sturdy, resolute, disinterested nature came to her by direct inheritance from his blood, and how much was absorbed as she might have absorbed it from any one she loved and associated with, it is impossible to tell. But by one process or the other, or by both, Hetty Gunn was, as all the country people round about said, “Just the old Squire over again,” and if they sometimes added, as it must be owned they did, “It’s a thousand pities she wasn’t a boy,” there was, in this reflection on the Creator, no reflection on Hetty’s womanliness: it was rather on the accepted theory and sphere of woman’s activities and manifestations. Nobody in this world could have a tenderer heart than Hetty: this also she had inherited or learned from her grandfather. Many a day the two had spent together in nursing a sick or maimed chicken, or a half-frozen lamb, even a woodchuck that had got its leg broken in a trap was not an outcast to them; and as for beggars and tramps, not one passed “Gunn’s,” from June till October, that was not hailed by the old squire from under his lilac-bush, and fed by Hetty. Plenty of sarcastic and wholesome advice the old gentleman gave them, while they sat on the ground eating; and every word of it sank into Hetty’s wide-open ears and sensible soul, developing in her a very rare sort of thing which, for want of a better name, we might call common-sense sympathy. To this sturdy common-sense barrier against the sentimental side of sympathy with other people’s sufferings, Hetty added an equally sturdy, and she would have said common-sense, fortitude in bearing her own. This invaluable trait she owed largely to her grandfather’s wooden leg. Before she could speak plain, she had already made his cheerful way of bearing the discomfort and annoyance of that queer leg her own standard of patience and equanimity. Nothing that ever happened to her, no pain, no deprivation, seemed half so dreadful as a wooden leg. She used to stretch out her own fat, chubby, little legs, and look from them to her grandfather’s. Then she would timidly touch the wooden tip which rested on the floor, and look up in her grandfather’s face, and say, “Poor Grandpa!”
“Pshaw! pshaw! child,” he would reply, “that’s nothing. It does almost as well to walk on, and that’s all legs are for. I’d have had forty legs shot off rather than not have helped drive out those damned British rascals.”
Not even for sake of Hetty’s young ears could the old Squire mention the British rascals without his favorite expletive. Here, also, came in another lesson which sank deep into Hetty’s heart. It was for his country that her grandfather had lost that leg, and would have gladly lost forty, if he had had so many to lose, not for himself; for something which he loved better than himself: this was distinct in Hetty Gunn’s comprehension before she was twelve years old, and it was a most important force in the growth of her nature. No one can estimate the results on a character of these slow absorptions, these unconscious biases, from daily contact. All precepts, all religions, are insignificant agencies by their side. They are like sun and soil to a plant: they make a moral climate in which certain things are sure to grow, and certain other things are sure to die; as sure as it is that orchids and pineapples thrive in the tropics, and would die in New England.
When old Squire Gunn was buried, all the villages within twenty miles turned out to his funeral. He was the last revolutionary hero of the county. An oration was delivered in the meeting-house; and the brass band of Welbury played “My country, ’tis of thee,” all the way from the meeting-house to the graveyard gate. After the grave was filled up, guns were fired above it, and the Welbury village choir sang an anthem. The crowd, the music, the firing of guns, produced an ineffaceable impression upon Hetty’s mind. While her grandfather’s body lay in the house, she had wept inconsolably. But as soon as the funeral services began, her tears stopped; her eyes grew large and bright with excitement; she held her head erect; a noble exaltation and pride shone on her features; she gazed upon the faces of the people with a composure and dignity which were unchildlike. No emperor’s daughter in Rome could have borne herself, at the burial of her most illustrious ancestor, more grandly and yet more modestly than did little Hetty Gunn, aged twelve, at the burial of this unfamed Massachusetts revolutionary soldier: and well she might; for a greater than royal inheritance had come to her from him. The echoes of the farewell shots which were fired over the old man’s grave were never to die out of Hetty’s ears. Child, girl, woman, she was to hear them always: signal guns of her life, they meant courage, cheerfulness, self-sacrifice.
Of Hetty’s father, the “young Squire,” as to the day of his death he was called by the older people in Welbury, and of Hetty’s mother, his wife, it is not needful to say much here. The young Squire was a lazy, affectionate man to whom the good things of life had come without his taking any trouble for them: even his wife had been more than half wooed for him by his doting father; and there were those who said that pretty Mrs. Gunn had been quite as much in love with the old Squire, old as he was, as with the young one; but that was only an idle village sneer. The young Squire and his wife loved each other devotedly, and their only child, Hetty, with an unreasoning and unreasonable affection which would have been the ruin of her, if she had been any thing else but what she was, “the old Squire over again.” As it was, the only effect of this overweening affection, on their part, was to produce a slow reversal of some of the ordinary relations between parents and children. As Hetty grew into womanhood, she grew more and more to have a sense of responsibility for her father’s and mother’s happiness. She was the most filially docile of creatures, and obeyed like a baby, grown woman as she was. It was strange to hear and to see.
“Hetty, bring me my overcoat,” her father would say to her in her thirty-fifth year, exactly as he would have said it in her twelfth; and she would spring with the same alacrity and the same look of pleasure at being of use. But there was a filial service which she rendered to her parents much deeper than these surface obediences and attentions. They were but dimly conscious of it; and yet, had it been taken away from them, they had found their lives blighted indeed. She was the link between them and the outside world. She brought merriment, cheer, hearty friendliness into the house. She was the good comrade of every young woman and every young man in Welbury; and she compelled them all to bring a certain half-filial affection and attention to her father and mother. The best tribute to what she had accomplished in this direction was in the fact, that you always heard the young people mention Squire Gunn and his wife as “Hetty Gunn’s father” or “Hetty Gunn’s mother;” and the two old people were seen at many a gathering where there was not a single old face but theirs.
“Hetty won’t go without her father and mother,” or “Hetty’ll be so pleased if we ask her father and mother,” was frequently heard. From this free and unembarrassed association of the old and the young, grew many excellent things. In this wholesome atmosphere honesty and good behavior thrived; but there was little chance for the development of those secret sentimental preferences and susceptibilities out of which spring love-making and thoughts of marriage.
There probably was not a marriageable young man in Welbury who had not at one time or another thought to himself, what a good thing it would be to marry Hetty Gunn. Hetty was pretty, sensible, affectionate, and rich. Such girls as that were not to be found every day. A man might look far and long before he could find such a wife as Hetty would make. But nothing seemed to be farther from Hetty’s thoughts than making a wife of herself for anybody. And the world may say what it pleases about its being the exclusive province of men to woo: very few men do woo a woman who does not show herself ready to be wooed. It is a rare beauty or a rare spell of some sort which can draw a man past the barrier of a woman’s honest, unaffected, and persistent unconsciousness of any thoughts of love or matrimony. So between Hetty’s unconsciousness and her perpetual comradeship with her father and mother, the years went on, and on, and no man asked Hetty to marry him. The odd thing about it was that every man felt sure that he was the only man who had not asked her; and a general impression had grown up in the town that Hetty Gunn had refused nearly everybody. She was so evidently a favorite; “Gunn’s” was so much the headquarters for all the young people; it was so open to everybody’s observation how much all men admired and liked Hetty,—she was never seen anywhere without one or two or three at her service: it was the most natural thing in the world for people to think as they did. Yet not a human being ever accused Hetty of flirting; her manner was always as open, friendly, and cordial as an honest boy’s, and with no more trace of self-seeking or self-consciousness about it. She was as full of fun and mischief, too, as any boy could be. She had slid down hill with the wildest of them, till even her father said sternly,—
“Hetty,—you’re too big. It’s a shameful sight to see a girl of your size, out on a sled with boys.” And Hetty hung her head, and said pathetically,—
“I wish I hadn’t grown. I’d rather be a dwarf, than not slide down hill.”
But after the sliding was forbidden, there remained the chestnuttings in the autumn, and the trout fishings in the summer, and the Mayflower parties in the spring, and colts and horses and dogs. Until Hetty was twenty-two years old, you might have been quite sure that, whenever you found her in any out-door party, the masculine element was largely predominant in that party. After this time, however, life gradually sobered for Hetty: one by one her friends married; the maidens became matrons, the young men became heads of houses. In wedding after wedding, Hetty Gunn was the prettiest of the bridesmaids, and people whispered as they watched her merry, kindly face,—
“Ain’t it the queerest thing in life, Hetty Gunn won’t marry. There isn’t a fellow in town she mightn’t have.”
If anybody had said this to Hetty herself, she would probably have laughed, and said with entire frankness,—
“You’re quite mistaken. They don’t want me,” which would only have strengthened her hearers’ previous impressions that they did.
In process of time, after the weddings came the christenings, and at these also Hetty Gunn was still the favorite friend, the desired guest. Presently, there came to be so many little Hetty Gunns in the village, that no young mother had courage to use the name more, however much she loved Hetty. Hetty used to say laughingly that it was well she was an only child, for she had now more nieces and nephews than she knew what to do with. Very dearly she loved them all; and the little things all loved her, the instant she put her arms round them: and more than one young husband, without meaning to be in the least disloyal to his wife, thought to himself, when he saw his baby’s face nestling down to Hetty Gunn’s brown curls,—
“I wonder if she’d have had me, if I’d asked her. But I don’t believe Hetty’ll ever marry,—a girl that’s had the offers she has.”
And so it had come to pass that, at the time our story begins, Hetty was thirty-five years old, and singularly alone in the world. The death of her mother, which had occurred first, was a great shock to her, for it had been a sudden and a painful death. But the loss of her mother was to Hetty a trivial one, in comparison with the loss of her father. On the day of her grandfather’s death, she had seemed, child as she was, to have received her father into her hands, as a sacred legacy of trust; and he, on his part, seemed fully to reciprocate and accept without comprehending the new relation. He unconsciously leaned upon Hetty more and more from that hour until the hour when he died, bolstered up in bed with his head on her shoulder, and gasping out, between difficult breaths, his words of farewell,—strange farewell to be spoken to a middle-aged woman, whose hair was already streaked with gray,—
“Poor little girl! I’ve got to leave you. You’ve been a good little girl, Hetty, a good little girl.”
Neighbors and friends crowded around Hetty, in the first moments of her grief. But they all, even those nearest and most intimate, found themselves bewildered and baffled, nay almost repelled, by Hetty’s manner. Her noble face was so grief-stricken that she looked years older in a single day. But her voice and her smile were unaltered; and she would not listen to any words of sympathy. She wished to hear no allusions to her trouble, except such as were needfully made in the arranging of practical points. Her eyes filled with tears frequently, but no one saw a tear fall. At the funeral, her face wore much the same look it had worn, twenty-three years before, at her grandfather’s funeral. There were some present who remembered that day well, and remembered the look, and they said musingly,—
“There’s something very queer about Hetty Gunn, after all. Don’t you remember how she acted, when she was a little thing, the day old Squire Gunn was buried? Anybody’d have thought then a funeral was Fourth of July, and she looks much the same way now.”
Then they fell to discussing the probabilities of her future course. It was not easy to predict.
“The Squire’s left every thing to her, just as if she was a man. She can sell the property right off, if she wants to, and go and live where she likes,” they said.
“Well, you may set your minds to rest on that,” said old Deacon Little, who had been the young squire’s most intimate friend, and who knew Hetty as well as if she were his own child, and loved her better; for his own children, poor man, had nearly brought his gray hairs down to the grave with distress and shame.
“Hetty Gunn’ll never sell that farm, not a stick nor a stone on’t, any more than the old Squire himself would. You’ll see, she’ll keep it a goin’, jest the same’s ever. It’s a thousand pities, she warn’t born a boy.”
The funeral took place late in the afternoon of a warm April day. The roads were very muddy, and the long procession wound back to the village about as slowly as it had gone out. One by one, wagon after wagon fell out of the line, and turned off to the right or left, until there were left only the Gunns’ big carryall, in which sat Hetty, with her two house-servants,—an old black man and his wife, who had been in her father’s house so long, that their original patronymic had fallen entirely out of use, and they were known as “Cæsar Gunn” and “Nan Gunn” the town over. Behind this followed their farm wagon, in which sat the farmer and his wife with their babies, and the two farm laborers,—all Irish, and all crying audibly after the fashion of their race. As they turned into the long avenue of pines which led up to the house, their grief broke out louder and louder; and, when the wagon stopped in front of the western piazza, their sobs and cries became howls and shrieks. Hetty, who was just entering the front-door, turned suddenly, and walking swiftly toward them, said, in a clear firm tone,—
“Look here! Mike, Dan, Norah, I’m ashamed of you. Don’t you see you’re frightening the poor little children? Be quiet. The one who loved my father most will be the first one to go about his work as if nothing had happened. Mike, saddle the pony for me at six. I am going to ride over to Deacon Little’s.”
The men were too astonished to reply, but gazed at her dumbly. Mike muttered sullenly, as he drove on,—