Hetty’s Strange History

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HETTY’S STRANGE HISTORY.

By Anonymous

(THE AUTHOR OF “MERCY PHILBRICK’S CHOICE.”)

“IS THE GENTLEMAN ANONYMOUS? IS HE A GREAT UNKNOWN?”

                          Daniel Deronda.

1877.


I.

  What lover best his love doth prove and show?
  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
.

II.

  And unto him who this great thing hath done,
  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!



HETTY’S STRANGE HISTORY

I.

When Squire Gunn and his wife died, within three months of each other, and Hetty their only child was left alone in the big farm-house, 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 off-hand, 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.

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