Web Text-ures Logo
Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
1999-2010


(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
New England Bygones
Content Page

 Return to the Previous Chapter
Kellscraft Studio Logo
(HOME)

CHAPTER VIII.
HANNAH AND JONATHAN.

THERE were "hired men" and "hired women," but no servants, in my grandfather's day. These "hired" men and women were the sons and daughters of respectable farmers, who had simply transferred themselves into more prosperous homes than their own. There was no degradation in the change. Hard labor was the birthright of the average farmer's boy, and he cared little whether he drudged upon his father's farm or upon that of a neighbor. The girl who was neat and thrifty at home made a neat and thrifty "help," and as such she had her reward in a good name and kindly treatment. Her pay was very small as wages are now reckoned, but ample for the needs of her time. Her dress was suited to her calling. In winter it was of homespun woollen; in summer it was of strong gingham, also home-made, but far prettier than the winter garment. The threads of the latter, spun in long winter evenings and dyed in the chimney-corner, made sombre, unbecoming stuffs. The ginghams, fancifully checked with blue or yellow, were the product of the flax-field. The rustic weaver, sitting in the sunshine on summer days, skilfully plied her shuttle, and from the seeming entanglement of white threads with blue and yellow and brown, rolled off from the beam of her loom an admirable web. It was clean-looking and strong, and into the making of it had gone some of the farm's most precious products. Underlying its texture were the dainty blue blossoms of the flax-bed, and skill and judgment had been brought to bear upon each of the many processes of its handling.

The garments made from it would now seem as quaint as the web itself. Hannah always wore when working about the house a long, broad apron, with gathered bib, tied at the neck and waist with strings. In winter this was of blue mixed cotton and wool cloth, and in summer of the checked blue or yellow and white gingham. It was an inseparable part of her working attire, a true servant's costume, as peculiar and becoming to her vocation as the peasant dress of any other country.

This Hannah, the "hired girl" of my grandfather, was a representative one. Her behavior was as befitting her station as her dress. Despite the seeming equality of her position in the household, she was utterly honest, patient, faithful, and respectful. She never changed her place, and she spun and wove and knit and stitched her strength into the fabrics of the house until her hair grew gray and her eyes dim in its service. Long rule made my grandmother somewhat hard, and she was liable to exact from Hannah, as a right, that labor which she had first bought as a privilege. The lifelong serving-woman, by running in her narrow groove year after year, had become a sort of machine, and her mistress had learned to expect the unfailing working of it. The relation was not a tender one, but it was honest and respectable. In the soil of that New England life the pan lay close to the surface.

Such servants as Hannah were often sought in marriage by hard-working young farmers. They made faithful, thrifty wives, and their houses were scrupulously neat. They only shifted one drudgery for another, but in their own humble homes pride was added to the patience which they wove into the webs of their employers.

The neighbors talked of Hannah as having been a good-looking lass, but when Benny and I first knew her she was much the worse for wear. Still her faded gray eyes looked kindly upon us and we loved her. Nobody seemed to think that Hannah had grown old. Her name and her virtues were a perennial possession of the house and the neighborhood. She was always called "Hannah." Her dress and her ways never changed. What went to make up "Hannah" was the same through all years. By this the people knew her. The more unkindly time treated her body the more valued "Hannah" became. The serving-woman grew lean and wrinkled and ugly, but "Hannah" grew venerable and beloved. There was about her a certain magnetism which ignored station. This humble serving-woman, this "Hannah" in her homespun tyre, filled with wild herbs and roots, carried healing with her to sick neighbors. She was so gentle that she was more welcome than her mistress. In that household into which death had come Hannah was sure to be. The softness of her voice and touch and step brought consolation with them. There was something in her life that preached, that great faith which she had borne with her from childhood, and which she plainly shaped into simple words, that utter self-sacrifice which clothed her like a garment, and put out of sight all that was homely about her. The sympathy she offered fell like balm where wiser speech failed.

Hannah had queer ways. She was given to interior adornments, and the fruits of her needlework were thick in the house. These were not fine, but considering the material from which she wrought them, and the time and patience which she gave to them, they were worthy of praise. She pinned black broadcloth cats to the wall, brought out in silhouette upon red flannel. As portraits they were failures, and little Benny was always saying to her that he was sure he had never seen any cats like them. She hung novel comb-cases under all the bedroom looking-glasses. These were of varied shapes and materials, some of broadcloth, some of straw, and less pretentious ones of covered pasteboard, all much stitched with colored silks. The patchwork about the house was endless. Hannah hoarded scraps of silk and cambric, and pieced them together into pin-balls, chair-cushions, and coverlets. She glued painted pictures to the inside of wide-mouthed glass jars, which she filled with flour and planted with asparagus, thus simulating quaint vases. She embossed blown egg-shells with the pith of bulrushes, coiled round bits of bright silk, and hung them upon pine boughs in the fireplaces of the front rooms. Homely handiwork, but well seasoned with the true flavor of rustic life.

Her best taste she gave to her flowers. She had never read a book on flower-culture; her lessons had come from woodland, pasture, and field. From her earliest childhood she had been used to blossoms, bright and sweet and growing just where they ought to grow. Her scarlet poppies set off the Southern-wood bed, hop-vines hid the ragged garden-wall, and lilies and rose-bushes ran riot in corners. She had her bachelor's buttons and marigolds and pinks, and a host of other common flowers, crowded against beets and carrots and parsnips, wherever she could get a chance for them. They ran parallel on both sides with the broad, middle garden-walk, flanked the edges of side-beds, and faced their outermost paths with a fringe of sweetness. Coming up two-leaved and tiny, they had a hard fight against my grandfather's and Jonathan's hoes; but they throve nevertheless, and ripened into the bloom and fragrance of the garden.

Lilac-bushes straggled about unpruned, and were troublesomely prolific. Forty years ago they stood compactly by the doorsteps and under the windows of most well-to-do farmers' houses, from their toughness and brightness fit country shrubs. The grateful, abundant thing took kindly to any earth, to any location, climbing out of shade into sunshine, spreading rapidly in bright places, a good worker, and long suffering of ill usage. I remember one, shut into the angle of a tall fence, which, although most dense of foliage, was the grief of my early childhood, because of its barrenness; but which, the very first spring it reached the topmost board, was purple with blossoms.

Hannah's rose-bushes never had any pruning, save what nature gave them. Old stocks died down, and new ones came in their stead. They seemed always to be dying and coming to life again. They were unmercifully knocked about and trampled upon by spring workers; hens burrowed through their roots; and yet they always came out every spring as good as new, and bore the largest and sweetest of roses. I do not see such roses now, so full of scent, so deep-dyed, as the double damask and white ones which blossomed in my grandfather's garden. It seems as if they must have gotten their strength from the rugged soil. The damask ones were like peonies for size, and their bushes, thick with full-blown flowers and buds, in every stage of opening, were only surpassed for beauty by those of the creamy-white rose, which were as soft-tinted as the first blush of dawn, and daintily-scented as the quickening breath of spring.

Hannah's flowers were all sweet-smelling, gracious, hardy, grateful things. Her pinks were marvels for color and scent. Her bachelor's buttons, blue and purple and white, perfumed the morning. Her columbines, wild denizens of the garden, kept always a woodland flavor. They got mixed and unsettled as to color, but held fast their untamed nature.

The pride of the garden were the two peony roots, just inside the gate on either side. They were amongst the earliest corners in spring, peeping up out of the brown mould with their great crimson leaf-buds, which speedily thrust up into strong stocks, to be the bearers of as many blossoms. How those peonies grew! New stocks came up every year, and each new stock seemed to bring with it a peony heavier and deeper-dyed than before. Jonathan tied them up every season; but still they waxed bigger and bigger, until a barrel hoop would not hold them. They were the envy of all the children, and the admiration of farmers' wives.

Poor unlettered Hannah, so patient in her round of homely toil, so fond of flowers, had an untaught delight in beautiful things. Treading with weary feet her toilsome way, she transmuted the joys and sorrows and stinted incidents of her homely life into pure gold; and making the most of her meagre chances, has compelled me to remember her not so much by what she was as by what she might have been. We can never rate a person justly until we have disentangled the story of his or her life from the impetus or hindrance given to it by fortune. What Hannah was I know; what she might have been is suggested by her largeness of heart and sweetness of instinct. With proper scope here this serving-woman might have been a lady. Who shall say now that she was not a lady; and that what she was equal to, and got not in this life, she is in eternity finding in full measure?

But Jonathan. Ah, Jonathan! what shall I say of thee? The first sight I had of thee, thou wast sitting in the old market-wagon, smoking and cross-legged. When I last saw thee, thou wast sitting in the miller's door, still smoking and cross-legged. Unshaven, unshorn, with nose, chin, and cheeks all awry, his nether garments shrinking from his blue hosen, his bristly hair standing out from his weather-worn hat, Jonathan lounged on the low stoop, puffing away at his pipe, joking with "Molly" and the miller, and interlarding his slow talk with many a "yaw" and "wall."

Yet, with all his uncouthness of person, dress, and dialect, he was a true Jonathan, honest, self-reliant, hard-working, kind even to gentleness. He was tender of children, and merciful to all dumb creatures. When a young lamb chanced to stray from the fold, it was Jonathan who stayed out two-thirds of the chilly autumn night until he had found it, and then nursed it until it was strong again. "Good Jonathan," said little Benny, in the wanderings of his sickness. "Good Jonathan," echoes my heart after many years.


Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.