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Harriet Beecher Stowe - Oldtown Folks (1869)

This novel has been described as a series of pictures of life as seen from the kitchen, best room, barnyard, meadow, and wood-lot of a Massachusetts parsonage of pre-locomotive days. In a preface the supposed teller of the story, Horace Holyoke, declares it his object to interpret to the world the New England life and character in its seminal period, desiring the reader to see the characteristic persons of those times and hear them talk, while he himself maintains the part of a sympathetic spectator.

THERE is a class of men who go through life under a cloud, for no other reason than that, being born with the nature of gentlemen, they are nevertheless poor. Such a man was my father, the son of a poor widow, who, with the organization and tastes of a scholar and a gentleman, had to fight his way up with his little-boy hands toward what to him was light and life—an education. He gained enough of standing to teach in the academy at Oldtown; but there he fell in love with my mother, and in marrying her gave up the aim of his life—a course in Harvard College. Their household was clouded by suppressed regrets, as it was harassed by real wants. From the prettiest and most attractive of his pupils my mother became a quiet, faded, mournful woman; and my father, tasking and straining his brain to complete his education, and neglecting his health, sank under consumption, and died when I was ten, my brother Bill a year or two older.

We were taken to the house of my grandfather, one of the chief magnates of the village, who carried on a large farm and mills. He was a serene, moderate, quiet, optimistic man, with an affable word and a smile for everybody. My grandmother, on the contrary, was one of those wide-awake, earnest, active natures, whose days were seldom long enough for all that she felt needed her attention. She was with all her soul, a very large one, a Puritan Calvinist ; and as her husband was an Arminim, many were the controversies I heard between them. They had two unmarried daughters, Keziah and Lois.

In the evening we were accustomed to sit in the kitchen, which was a roomy apartment, with a great fireplace across one side. There the neighbors were wont to drop in; the men to discuss politics; the women, often, to discuss the former court at the Government House in Boston, and the many old stories connected with those days. In fact, during an evening in my grandmother's kitchen, religion, theology, politics, the gossip of the day and the legends of the supernatural were wont to be woven into a fabric of thought quaint and varied. There was one peculiarity of my childhood which powerfully influenced and determined my life. Dreamy and imaginative, I was filled with vague yearnings, and my childish steps were surrounded by a species of vision or apparition so clear and distinct that I often found great difficulty in discriminating between the forms of real life and these shifting shapes. At night the whole atmosphere seemed a palpitating crowd of faces and forms in dim and gliding quietude. The most constant of the companions of my solitude was a young boy of about my own age, who seemed to look lovingly on me, and with whom I used to have a sort of social communion through thought.

Perhaps resulting from these exceptional experiences was a vivid perception of something of the sphere or emanation surrounding everyone I met. For some I had so violent and instinctive an aversion that their presence in the room seemed almost physical pain to me; the presence of others filled me with agreeable sensations.

My silent boy friend ceased to appear from the time that my acquaintance with Harry Percival began. When Harry first came to our house we knew little of him; but I shall set down here the outline of what we afterward learned. His father, of the same name, was a younger son of a family belonging to the English gentry. When he came to America, near the close of the Revolutionary War, as a commissioned officer, he brought with him the beautiful daughter of a country curate, whom he had persuaded to an elopement and a private marriage. He proved worthless and dissipated, and his wife endured humiliations and reverses until finally he sailed for England, leaving her a sum of money and a letter denying the validity of their marriage. He had taken her marriage certificate. She tried to walk to Boston with her two children in order to learn his ad-dress and make an appeal to him, and died on the way at Need-more, a few miles from Oldtown. Harry, then nine years old, was kept at the house where his mother had died, by Caleb Smith, who, because of his sour, cross, gnarly nature was called " Old Crab Smith." Tina, his sister, was taken by Crab's sister, Asphyxia, whose ideas of the purpose and aim of human existence were comprised in one word work. The children were treated with such harshness and cruelty that they ran away and, coming to Oldtown, took up their abode in a great closed house known as the Dench house. The story of their disappearance and the sight of smoke coming from a chimney of the Dench place led to their discovery and their being brought to our house.

Harry had been the confidant of his desolate mother, his tiny faculties had been widened to make room for her sorrows, and his childish strength increased by supporting her. To him I felt an attraction that I never had felt before; he was in a wonderful degree gifted with faculties that made him a universal favorite. His quiet serviceableness and manual dexterity endeared him to Aunt Lois and reconciled her to his remaining in our family, especially after Parson Lothrop's rich wife, whom we called Lady Lothrop, agreed to provide a yearly sum for his clothing and education. She belonged to an old family of Boston and, though the wife of a Congregational minister, was an adorer of the Church and King of England.

Tina Percival was a wonderful picture of delicate beauty; she was affectionate, gay, pleasure-loving, self-willed, imperious, intensely fond of approbation, with great stores of fancy, imagination, and an under-heat of undeveloped passion.

Outside of our own family no one ever received a warmer welcome than Miss Mehitable Rossiter, a daughter of the former minister in Oldtown. She was the only child of his first wife; his second left one son, Jonathan, who at this time was a schoolmaster, having refused, to his sister's intense disappointment, to follow their father in the ministry; and his third had two children Theodore, who died early of dissipation, and Emily, adopted, after her mother's death, by an aunt, Mrs. Farnsworth. She developed a beauty so remarkable that it drew on her constant attention. Mr. Farnsworth's nature was of a bold and granite formation; her aunt's gaiety of spirit, under her husband's dominion, had given placé to a modified reproduction of his traits. They attended, with the fullest sympathy, on the severest preaching of Dr. Stern.

Before Emily was fourteen she had passed through two or three of those seasons of convulsed and agonized feeling which are caused by the revolt of a strong sense of justice and humanity against teachings that seem to accuse the Heavenly Father of the most frightful cruelty and injustice. Finally her health suffered from the struggle at taking deliberate and final leave of the faith of her fathers, and she was sent to Boston, where she made the acquaintance of an interesting French family of high rank, who introduced her to the French language and literature. A period of peace and quiet followed her return; then she suddenly disappeared, writing to her sister that she had chosen her lot for herself and desired that no search nor inquiry be made. At the same time the Marquis de Conte and his lady sailed for France. This mysterious sorrow had embittered Miss Mehitable's life.

The first evening that Harry and Tina spent at our house Miss Rossiter came to offer to adopt Tina, who, as did all children, loved her at once. Thenceforth our lives—Harry's, Tina's, and mine—were inextricably intertwisted. It was early in the autumn when Harry came to us, and through the winter we attended the common school, sharing certain "chores." Tina was supreme mistress over both of us, and I was her too happy slave, with whom she assumed the negligent airs of a little empress. Harry was the most doting of brothers, holding that Tina must be saved from every care and exertion, and I never dreamed of disputing her supremacy.

Shortly before Easter Lady Lathrop invited us three to go with her in her carriage to Boston, whither she always went to hear the Easter services in King's Chapel. Though my grand-mother opposed our going to stay with Tories and Episcopalians, Aunt Lois carried the day.

lady, who greeted us with a great outgush of motherly kindness. Her daughter, Miss Deborah, had a somewhat martial and disciplinary air. While we were at tea a cousin of Miss Deborah's came in, Ellery Davenport. He was a tall, graceful. young man, carrying his head with a jaunty, slightly haughty air. He entered the room with the gay good humor of one sure of pleasing, bringing with him an inspiring, illuminating cheerfulness. He had been a colonel in the Continental army and had married an heiress, who had developed insanity and was then secluded. Though descended from a line of Puritan ministers, he was an infidel, a follower of the French ideas of the time. Yet he was regarded by women with that general interest which often prevails for some bright, fascinating, wicked prodigal son.

With that susceptibility of constitution which made me peculiarly impressible by the moral sphere of others, I felt in the presence of this man a singular and painful contest of attraction and. repulsion. His grace and beauty awoke in me an undefined antagonism akin to antipathy; and when he put his hand on my head I shuddered and shook it off with a pain and dislike amounting to hatred. When he attempted to kiss Tina she repelled him with the dignity of a little princess, at the same time sending a long, mischievous flash from tinder her downcast eyelashes.

On Sunday morning Madam Kittery summoned Ellery and had him read to her the following text:

"And thou, Solomon, my son, know thou the God of thy fathers, and serve him with a perfect heart and a willing mind. If thou seek him, he will be found of thee; but if thou forsake him, he will cast thee off forever."

" Oh, Ellery," she said with trembling earnestness, "remem ber that!"

"Aunty," he said, as he kissed her hand, tears standing in his eyes, "you must pray for me; I may be a good boy one of these days; who knows?"

On Monday I went, according to my grandmother's instructions, to Copps Hill to see the graves of the saints and read the inscriptions. I had a curious passion for this kind of mortuary literature, and accomplished this wish con amore. When I returned I found Madam Kittery alone; she had me read to her and questioned me; and I told her all my story; how my poor father had longed to go to college, and how I too longed for it when there was no way for me. She consoled me with over-flowing sympathy, and forthwith entered into a league of friend-ship with me.

That evening the elders were discussing Ellery, and Miss Deborah dropped some words of which I thought little at the time, but there came a day when they recurred to me charged with meaning:

"Ellery Davenport can lie so innocently and sweetly and prettily, that if a woman doesn't wish to believe in him she just mustn't listen to him, that's all."

We returned to Oldtown, crowned with victory, as it were; for we had been put forward and patronized in undeniably good society. After we had been cross-examined as to our experiences, I propounded to my grandmother a query; and I remember the expression of shrewd amusement on my grandfather's face as I put it:

"Grandmother, what is the True Church?"

She had her answer at the tip of her tongue: "The whole number of the elect, my son."

In a few days it was announced to us, after a call from Lady Lothrop, that means were to be provided for Harry and me to finish our education in college; and I learned later that I was indebted to Madam Kittery for my opportunity.

At Thanksgiving time Miss Deborah and Ellery Davenport, both staying with Lady Lothrop, came to our house in the evening, when we had an informal dance. Ellery gained a wide-spread popularity in Oldtown; for he perfectly understood him-self and the world he moved in, and never lost sight of the effect he was producing. He was at war with himself and the traditions of his ancestry, and had the feeling that he was regarded in the Puritan community as an apostate; but he took a per-verse pleasure in making his position good by a brilliance of wit and grace of manner which few could withstand. Miss Mehitable was irresistibly drawn to make a confidant of him, and he promised that when he returned to his diplomatic post in France he would look for traces of her lost sister.

Our childhood was reasonably enjoyable, spent under influences all homely, innocent, and pure. When Harry and I were eighteen, and Tina verging toward maturity, everything indicated that she was to be one of that all-controlling class of women whose power is in their feminine charm. At this time she announced that she would not go to school any more, be-cause of the silly behavior of the master; so Miss Mehitable en-gaged her cousin, who had recently been appointed colleague of Dr. Lothrop, to carry on her education. But the same thing happened with Mr. Mordecai Rossiter that had happened with the schoolmaster; he, too, fell in love with his pupil, and Miss Mehitable was in despair. It was finally decided that we should all go to Cloudland, where Mr. Jonathan Rossiter conducted the academy. Tina was to board at the minister's, whose daughter Esther was about her age, and we boys were to live with Mr. Rossiter.

Esther Avery, the minister's daughter, who since her mother's death had conducted his household, was a beautiful, statuesque girl, whose misfortune it was to have all the strong logical faculties and intellectual methods supposed to be characteristic of men, combined with exquisite moral perceptions, and a host of tremulous, half-spiritual, half-sensuous intuitions, resulting in the constant strife of a divided nature. Upon her the warm, sunny, showery, rainbow nature of Tina acted as a constant counterpoise.

At first Mr. Rossiter evidently regarded Tina as a spoiled child. But Tina, with her passion for pleasing, determined to conquer his liking and went at study as if life depended on it; no one learned more easily. Together we four studied, and everything was joyful as it must be when learned by two young men in company with two young women with whom they are secretly in love. For months Harry and Esther moved side by side, drawn daily to each other, yet unconscious whither they were tending. But in that hour when Esther knew she was beloved by a soul of that rare order to whom the love of woman is a religion, her life, hitherto so chill and colorless, awoke with a sudden thrill of consciousness to new and passionate energy. Harry was by nature and habit exactly the reverse of Esther. His conclusions were all intuitions. His religion was an emana tion from the heart. His simple faith in God's love was an antidote to her despondent fears.

Many of the boys fell in love with Tina. Every incident of the kind struck her as a catastrophe, and we were always warping her against her illusive friendships. I was her confidant, her father confessor, and to keep this position I judiciously sup-pressed all personal hopes or claims.

We four united with Mr. Avery's church after a great revival, and Harry determined to study with Mr. Avery to be a clergy-man when his college course should be finished. Mr. Avery tried to induce me to choose the same profession; but I doubted my ability to be the moral guide of others, and I could not accept the New England theology with undoubting enthusiasm; also T felt that I wanted something a little more of this world to lay at Tina's feet.

Occasionally a letter came to her from Ellery Davenport, whose tone of patronizing freedom made me ineffably angry, while she seemed to take a perverse pleasure in them. And when he drove up the street, and Tina, as she saw him coming in, ran laughing into the house and up-stairs, I felt a vindictive hatred that alarmed me. I wondered then, and I wonder now, what impulse for good or ill made her turn and run when she saw Ellery Davenport, what made her behave as she did, long refusing to come down and see him. She was not a coquette, yet she acted like one. Ellery was evidently secretly vexed, which pleased me, fool as I was; for it would have been a thousand times better for my hopes had she walked straight out to meet him. Was she in that stage of attraction which begins with repulsion, or did she feel stirring that intense antagonism which a woman sometimes feels toward the man who may, she divines, one day call on her to surrender?

Delicate and impressible natures felt the hidden, subtle power under his suavities; and, though he was energetic, heroic, and impulsively good-natured, I felt he could be remorselessly and persistently cruel. He remained only a few hours, but he made to Harry a communication of great importance to his future. His father had become Sir Harry Percival, and Ellery had gained possession of and placed in Dr. Lothrop's hands Mrs. Percival's marriage certificate.

Finally Harry and I entered Harvard College as sophomores. Mr. Rossiter's Spartan training of Tina had ended a love for her, noble, disinterested, and true, that made it seem when she left as if all he cared for had gone.

One day Harry said to me: "I wish, Horace, that I were as sure that Tina loves you as I am that Esther loves me."

"She does love me with her heart," Ï said, "but not with her imagination. Did you ever notice what a singular effect Ellery Davenport seems to have on her?"

Harry was astonished, and pronounced my idea the madness of jealousy. The very day of this conversation we learned at the Kitterys' that the crazy Mrs. Ellery Davenport had died.

Miss Deborah remarked that Ellery never could love a woman for all her life; that he never cared for what he had; that it was always the thing he had not that he was after; that no woman would ever be more to him than a temporary diversion.

When we returned to our room we found a letter saying that Harry's father had died, and he was now Sir Harry, master of Holme House.

The spring vacation we spent in Oldtown, and there we learned, what I had been expecting, that Tina was engaged to Ellery Davenport. I was glad, at that moment, that I never had made love to Tina, so that she could not possibly know the pain she was giving me.

"Well, Harry," I said, "you see the fates have ordered it just as I feared."

"It is almost as much of a disappointment to me as it can be to you. And it is the more so as I cannot quite trust this man."

"I never trusted him. I always had an instinctive doubt of him."

"My doubts are founded on what I have heard him say. He has formed the habit of trifling with truth, and nothing is sacred in his eyes."

"And yet Tina loves him," said I. "She believes in him with all her heart; and we can only pray that he may be true to her. As for me, it only remains for me to live worthy of my love."

After the marriage Tina and Ellery came to spend a short time, preparatory to sailing for Europe, at the old Dench place, which he owned. On their arrival they found waiting at the door of the parlor a lady all in black, at sight of whom Ellery turned pale as marble.

"Emily! Great God!"

"Yes, Emily!" she said with dignity. "You did not expect to meet me here and now, Ellery Davenport."

There was an awful silence, then Emily said with the calmness that comes from the heat of passion:

"And you thought after that letter I would live on your bounty."

"Ellery!" cried Tina. "Tell me who she is. Is she—"

"Be quiet, my poor child," said the woman. "I have no claims. Such as this man is, he is your husband, not mine. I gave up all for him--country, home, friends, name, reputation —for I thought him a man that a woman might well sacrifice her whole life to. He is the father of my child."

"Emily, you might at least have spared this poor child." "The truth is the best foundation in married life; and the truth you have small faculty for speaking, Ellery."

Emily Rossiter had fled to France, years before, with Ellery Davenport, and had devoted herself to him with all the single-hearted fervor of a true wife, believing that the choice of the heart alone constitutes true marriage. On his part of course the affair was a simple gratification of passion. But in reality, in spite of what she had done, Emily was a woman standing on too high a moral plane for him to consort with her in comfort; and he grew tired of her. He never dreamed that she would endure the humiliation of a return home rather than accept a settlement from him.

Tina went to Miss Mehitable, to whom Harry, and I, and Mr. Rossiter had been summoned.

" Oh, Aunty, I know he has done dreadfully wrong. I cannot defend him, but I love him still. I am his wife; there is no going back from that. I am come to see what can be done."

But Tina found a solution which she carried through in her headlong, energetic fashion. She settled the small fortune left her by her father on Miss Mehitable, who took a house near Boston and there made a home for herself and her sister; she persuaded Emily to give her her little girl, whom she took to England. No others save my grandmother knew the facts of the case, and Emily's reappearance passed without comment.

For a year or two there seemed to be a vein of real happiness in Tina's letters. Immediately after our graduation occurred Harry's marriage; and when he and Esther had sailed for England, where Harry found that increasing claims made it his duty to remain, I felt quite alone in the world.

Miss Mehitable and I then began to find an undertone of pain in Tina's letters, until after eight years she and her husband returned to make their home in Boston. Then we saw that Tina's affection for her husband was no longer a blind, triumphant adoration for an idealized hero, nor the confiding dependence of a happy wife, but the careworn anxiety of one who seeks constantly to guide and restrain. Ellery was smitten with the curse that at times gave Tina the ghastly horror of dealing with a madman. He was absorbed, in a wild, daring, unprincipled way, in political life, and on one of his absences caused by the pursuit of his intrigues, he fell in a political duel, ten years after his marriage.

Two years later Tina and I were married, and our wedding-journey was a visit to Harry and Esther in England. Since then the years have come and gone softly.

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

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