Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
THE WEEKLY ROUTINE.
THEY lived at my grandfather's just as most of the well-to-do New England farmers lived forty years ago. On Monday morning, long before sunrise, my grandmother and Hannah would be busy before two steaming tubs in the long porch. By this early start they got the freshness of the morning. The sun came up from behind the distant hills, lifted shadows from the woodland, mist from the valley, and cast a shimmer upon the dew-covered fields. It streamed through the porch-door, across the floor, past the washers, and exalted what was a little while before only the dull aspect of labor to a share of the brightness of the morning. There is a transient time between the uprising of the sun from the horizon and its full possession of the landscape, in which there is a sort of pictorial aspect of the meeting of day with night, which is exquisitely beautiful. Only the country-liver can fully feel it — this dying of night with the birth of day — this supreme moment when the mists and dimness and low voices of the one exhale into the melody and brightness of the other. It is a daily miracle — this sudden transition from gray to rosy light — this unrolling of the dew-covered landscape — this assumption, in delicious crescendo, of sound — this quickening of the day's life over the sleep of night — this flying of darkness, as of a ghost pursued, before the flooding of light — this oldest of all stories again told. Awake, for the day has dawned!
In those days women washed who went to church in brocades and satins. They used no machinery, there was no bleaching-powder nor blueing in their tubs, and yet their linen came out, as Hannah used to say to my grandmother, "as white as the driven snow." These two women kept time at their scrubbing, and in the early morning, when they were fresh, hummed psalm tunes together. They were not belittled by this labor, but by their efficiency and content they gave dignity to it. It may have broadened their hands, — I am sure it did their chests, — but they accepted, with the utmost willingness, these clumsy and necessary toils of their living. How I longed to plunge my arms into the foaming, sparkling, rainbow-tinted suds, in spite of Hannah's bleached, parboiled fingers! When Jonathan had carried the tubs to the well for the final rinsing of the linen, it was my care afterwards to keep Betsy, the old horse, from walking under it, flapping snow-white upon the line. Those washing-days were some of the best play-days and dream-days of my childhood. Who can number the bubbles of both suds and brain which have sparkled and floated away in the atmosphere of their quaint surroundings?
The east-porch door was, my grandmother said, "a sightly place." Far away on the horizon, between two hills, nestled a small hamlet. The deep valley below was dense with an old forest, from which a belt of green fields arose and fell again to make a bed for the mill-stream, down to which stretched my grandfather's broad acres. The mill and the roof of the miller's red cottage were just in sight, and the clatter of wheels, and the babbling of waters were pleasant to hear. Around the corner one caught a glimpse of the brook where Molly, the miller's daughter, bleached her linen, and Jonathan loitered with her when his day's work was done. Farther on was Benny's little grave.
In that porch-door I used to sit and dream away the day, listening to the harmless talk of the washers, who never let a traveller go unheeded on the highway. What innocent gossip it was, as I hear it now, whispering through the years! "Where is the parson going this early?" "Who can be sick now? the doctor is riding like the wind." "I shouldn't think Mrs. Brown could spare Sally for school today." Thus one by one the wayfarers went by, and the washers watched and babbled until they grew tired with their work, and so unobservant and silent.
Twice a week, with much method and little bustle, quantities of butter and cheese were made ready for the market. The unctuous odor of those tasks comes back to me, and I still taste the all-pervading flavor of the cheese-room. I see the clumsy press, trickling with sour juices, the polished wooden bowls, the rows of shining pans set out to scald in the sunshine, mistress and maid, in checked homespun aprons, shaping the golden butter or cutting the tender curd. Dear, simple-hearted women! your work was the common task of a farmer's household, but you made it seem like a pastime by the skill you brought to bear upon it. It might have been drudgery in other hands, but in yours it only showed how little the dignity of labor depends upon what one does, and how much upon the way in which tasks are taken up. Untoward accidents sometimes happened. The cream would not give up its butter, or the cheese cracked in turning, mishaps dreaded by skilful dairywomen. Old Nance, who lived in the edge of the wood, beyond the miller's cottage, was supposed to bewitch farmer's cows to the spoiling of their products, without mercy, and many a farmhouse door had nailed upon its lintel a horseshoe as a charm against her plot-tinge. If there was any virtue in them the old woman lay down often at night with uneasy bones. Old Nance was a forlorn, crazed creature, whose early history had been dropped out of speech, and who throve best in her half-savage woodland life. The farmers added to the pittance which the selectmen grudgingly gave her, so that she never suffered for food or clothing. Every ambition had died out of her. She seemed to have but one vestige of humanity left, and that was her affection for the living things in the woods about her. Birds were always hovering over her hut, and in winter the snow around it was thick with footprints of untamed creatures which had come to pick up the crumbs she had pinched for them from her poverty. Nothing could be more repulsive than this haggard old woman, crouching over her embers in her one-roomed hut, or groping with a faded shawl over her head for fagots amongst the white snow of the forest. She was a blot upon the landscape, this waif of humanity stranded alongside the purity of domestic life.
Uncouth old safe, dearer to my grandmother than costly bric-a-brac to modern fine lady, nobody seems to make nowadays such cheeses as bulged out your canvas sides, prettily mottled with tansy or wholesome yarrow, and crumbling under the knife when cut. They had a toothsome way of dissolving in the mouth, and tickling the palate with a pleasant tingle. The fine grain of the products of my grandmother's dairy might have been due to the fineness of her own texture. I have more often tasted far coarser results from like material. Hers looked and tasted like the work of a lady.
The heavy labor of the day over, and the hearth swept and scrubbed, my grandmother and Hannah, who were never idle, sat down to their mending, or the one went to her distaff and the other to her weaving. My grandmother was never handsomer than she was when sitting by her little flax-wheel, with a handkerchief of white muslin about her neck, her snow-white hair drawn under her plain cap, and the rosy sunlight of the waning day falling across her faded face and still fine figure. Upon her also fell, like a benediction, that soft-tinted later beauty which is the inheritance of vigorous, ripe old age. Hannah, glorified by the same sunlight, played her plainer part, and sat by her wheel or at her loom, her attire and mien adjusted to her station with a singular fitness.
The clatter of the loom in the chamber and the whizzing of the flax-wheel below made a constant hum of industry in the old farmhouse. Much wool was also spun, and the moaning of the big wheel was the saddest sound of my childhood. It was like a low wail from out the lengthened monotony of the spinner's life. I used to stop my ears against it, and many a time have run down to the woodland to get away from its painful persistence. The same wail, taking other shapes, has followed me ever since, and after all there is to every life, even the seemingly most fortunate, a deep undertone of complaint and resistance.
My grandmother's little flax-wheel was a gossipy thing, whirring away at racy bits of news falling from the lips of demure old ladies in broad frilled caps and square neckerchiefs. How like they had all grown by walking in the same rut all their days! The only individual flavor about them seemed to lie in the diverse figures on their snuff-box covers, and the varied stitchings of their goose-quill knitting-sheaths. How they talked and knit, and knit and talked, with tireless tongues, putting in marks at their narrowings; slowly shaping their socks with oft-repeated measurings! Upon one of them, flighty Huldah, I look back with peculiar liking. She was a full-blooded little gossip, the kindest of mischief-makers. Everything about her, her dried-up, sinewy figure, snapping gray eyes and shrill voice, her yawning calash, huge reticule, and broad pocket were in keeping with her calling. Everybody was glad to see Huldah's blue cotton umbrella bobbing up and down upon the highway; and no crone was surer than she of light rolls and a strong cup of tea. She always carried an umbrella through rain or shine because, she once confidingly whispered to little Benny, she was "just the least bit flighty in the upper story." She was particular about the quality of her snuff, and most generous with it. The cow on the cover of her box was the delight of all youngsters. Flighty though she was, she had, Jonathan said, "an uncommon taking way with her." She praised the farmers' crops and the gudewives' linen. She had a gift of making you pleased with yourself. I can hear her now, "They du say, Jonathan, that Molly is just the peertest and pootiest gal in town. Lors me! Hannah, you can du more work than any other gal." She was most excellent in sickness, — endless in patience, and a sleepless watcher. There was a charm in the very click of her needles, which seemed to keep time with the blinking of her eyes. I was sure, though, that many of her stitches were false ones, and Hannah held her stockings in high contempt. Her true hold upon the patience and affections of the people lay in that very flightiness of which she was so pathetically conscious, — an infirmity which never fails to touch the sympathy of the rudest people. She professed to live with her brother, although her true abiding-place was with her townspeople at large. Her unbidden coming always brought them good. The charities of her simple heart were as broad and healing as if her brain had been stronger, and the draft she made upon their pity came back to them in kindly acts. No hearth was ever too crowded to take her into its circle; no hand ever too busy to grasp hers in welcome. So this half-crazy woman, chattering and laughing with a wild wit, with no single external grace to commend her, through the mystic way of humanity passed like a beatitude across her neighbors' thresholds. Her foibles weighed with them as gossamer; but the sweetness of her mission stayed after her. Poor Huldah! The first time I left my grandfather's home alone her cotton umbrella stood by the door. She herself patted me on the head, called me a good child, and gave me a piece of dried gingerbread out of her snuffy reticule. The gingerbread I threw into the highway, but the quaint picture of the kind-hearted, wandering old woman — many years dead, and whom I never saw again — I cannot throw away.
Saturday at my grandfather's brought baking, with its morning bustle. Such a hurrying and scurrying and sputtering and splashing as there was! For a short space misrule seemed to have invaded the household. The big oven crackled and roared, whilst Jonathan plied it with fuel. Hannah was reckless with milk and eggs. My grandmother kept up a continued rattling of spoons and pans, and I seemed always to be in the way. Gradually materials took shape. The fire died down in the oven; Jonathan cleared and swept it, and shut it up. Shortly it was opened and tried, and then packed with pots and pans and plates, close up to the brim. Doughnuts sizzled and steamed in the big pot on the crane, and the scent of food, cooked and uncooked, was far-reaching and positive, pleasant and appetizing. The household, by degrees, settled down. The doughnuts were skimmed out and the fat set by to cool. The hearth was swept; the floors and tables scrubbed; soiled garments were changed for fresh; and, with the twilight, peace seemed to come in through doors and windows, — peace to rest upon the white heads of aged man and aged woman, upon their man-servant and maid-servant, and upon the child within their gates.