Sarah Orne Jewett, 1849-1909
Simply superb, an almost essay-like consideration of near-utopian pleasures of friendship, work, and self-forgetting.
My favorite chapters detail the trip made by the narrator and her host Almira Todd to Green Island, just off the Maine Coast from Dunnet Landing. There they visit Mrs. Blackett, Almira's mother, and Almira's brother William.
At the end of a perfect daylong visit:
11. The Old Singers
WILLIAM WAS sitting on the side door step, and the old mother was busy making her tea; she gave into my hand an old flowered-glass tea-caddy.
“William thought you’d like to see this, when he was settin’ the table. My father brought it to my mother from the island of Tobago; an’ here’s a pair of beautiful mugs that came with it.” She opened the glass door of a little cupboard beside the chimney. “These I call my best things, dear,” she said. “You’d laugh to see how we enjoy ’em Sunday nights in winter: we have a real company tea ‘stead o’ livin’ right along just the same, an’ I make somethin’ good for a s’prise an’ put on some o’ my preserves, an’ we get a’talkin’ together an’ have real pleasant times.”
Mrs. Todd laughed indulgently, and looked to see what I thought of such childishness.
“I wish I could be here some Sunday evening,” said I.
“William an’ me’ll be talkin’ about you an’ thinkin’ o’ this nice day,” said Mrs. Blackett affectionately, and she glanced at William, and he looked up bravely and nodded. I began to discover that he and his sister could not speak their deeper feelings before each other.
“Now I want you an’ mother to sing,” said Mrs. Todd abruptly, with an air of command, and I gave William much sympathy in his evident distress.
“After I’ve had my cup o’ tea, dear,” answered the old hostess cheerfully; and so we sat down and took our cups and made merry while they lasted. It was impossible not to wish to stay on forever at Green Island, and I could not help saying so.
“I’m very happy here, both winter an’ summer,” said old Mrs. Blackett. “William an’ I never wish for any other home, do we, William? I’m glad you find it pleasant; I wish you’d come an’ stay, dear, whenever you feel inclined. But here’s Almiry; I always think Providence was kind to plot an’ have her husband leave her a good house where she really belonged. She’d been very restless if she’d had to continue here on Green Island. You wanted more scope, didn’t you, Almiry, an’ to live in a large place where more things grew? Sometimes folks wonders that we don’t live together; perhaps we shall some time,” and a shadow of sadness and apprehension flitted across her face. “The time o’ sickness an’ failin’ has got to come to all. But Almiry’s got an herb that’s good for everything.” She smiled as she spoke, and looked bright again.
“There’s some herb that’s good for everybody, except for them that thinks they’re sick when they ain’t,” announced Mrs. Todd, with a truly professional air of finality. “Come, William, let’s have Sweet Home, an’ then mother’ll sing Cupid an’ the Bee for us.”
Then followed a most charming surprise. William mastered his timidity and began to sing. His voice was a little faint and frail, like the family daguerreotypes, but it was a tenor voice, and perfectly true and sweet. I have never heard Home, Sweet Home sung as touchingly and seriously as he sang it; he seemed to make it quite new; and when he paused for a moment at the end of the first line and began the next, the old mother joined him and they sang together, she missing only the higher notes, where he seemed to lend his voice to hers for the moment and carry on her very note and air. It was the silent man’s real and only means of expression, and one could have listened forever, and have asked for more and more songs of old Scotch and English inheritance and the best that have lived from the ballad music of the war. Mrs. Todd kept time visibly, and sometimes audibly, with her ample foot. I saw the tears in her eyes sometimes, when I could see beyond the tears in mine. But at last the songs ended and the time came to say good-by; it was the end of a great pleasure.
Mrs. Blackett, the dear old lady, opened the door of her bedroom while Mrs. Todd was tying up the herb bag, and William had gone down to get the boat ready and to blow the horn for Johnny Bowden, who had joined a roving boat party who were off the shore lobstering.
I went to the door of the bedroom, and thought how pleasant it looked, with its pink-and-white patchwork quilt and the brown unpainted paneling of its woodwork.
“Come right in, dear,” she said. “I want you to set down in my old quilted rockin’-chair there by the window; you’ll say it’s the prettiest view in the house. I set there a good deal to rest me and when I want to read.”
There was a worn red Bible on the lightstand, and Mrs. Blackett’s heavy silver-bowed glasses; her thimble was on the narrow window-ledge, and folded carefully on the table was a thick striped-cotton shirt that she was making for her son. Those dear old fingers and their loving stitches, that heart which had made the most of everything that needed love! Here was the real home, the heart of the old house on Green Island! I sat in the rocking-chair, and felt that it was a place of peace, the little brown bedroom, and the quiet outlook upon field and sea and sky.
I looked up, and we understood each other without speaking. “I shall like to think o’ your settin’ here today,” said Mrs. Blackett. “I want you to come again. It has been so pleasant for William.”
The wind served us all the way home, and did not fall or let the sail slacken until we were close to the shore. We had a generous freight of lobsters in the boat, and new potatoes which William had put aboard, and what Mrs. Todd proudly called a full “kag” of prime number one salted mackerel; and when we landed we had to make business arrangements to have these conveyed to her house in a wheelbarrow.
I never shall forget the day at Green Island. The town of Dunnet Landing seemed large and noisy and oppressive as we came ashore. Such is the power of contrast; for the village was so still that I could hear the shy whippoorwills singing that night as I lay awake in my downstairs bedroom, and the scent of Mrs. Todd’s herb garden under the window blew in again and again with every gentle rising of the seabreeze.