The Lady of the Aroostook – William Dean Howells
At the time when Mr. Howells’s novel, “The Lady of the Aroostook”, was published, it was regarded as an antidote to some recent poisons. It is its patriotic and chivalrous purpose to rescue the American woman from the aspersions from which she had suffered in one or two quarters before, and to show of what fine stuff she is really made. Very original materials have been chosen with which to work out this idea, and the result is a fresh, vivacious, elevated story, in which real novelty of conception is combined with all the other fine qualities which have given Mr. Howells his easy distinction among writers of fiction. But the “Aroostook” is a ship, and not the remote county of Maine of that name; and the events of the story take place upon her deck and in her cabin during a voyage from Boston to the Mediterranean. We will not spoil the book for the reader by describing its plan in detail. We will only add here that in it Mr. Howells seems to have written with a pen of broader moral nib, so to speak, than usual; a high and generous purpose taking the lead of a mere technical skill. The character of the story’s obvious motive, and the strong and steady hand with which it is carried out, give “The Lady of the Aroostook” a foremost place among the works of this author.
The Lady of the Aroostook.
Excerpt from the text:
In the best room of a farm-house on the skirts of a village in the hills of Northern Massachusetts, there sat one morning in August three people who were not strangers to the house, but who had apparently assembled in the parlor as the place most in accord with an unaccustomed finery in their dress. One was an elderly woman with a plain, honest face, as kindly in expression as she could be perfectly sure she felt, and no more; she rocked herself softly in the haircloth arm-chair, and addressed as father the old man who sat at one end of the table between the windows, and drubbed noiselessly upon it with his stubbed fingers, while his lips, puckered to a whistle, emitted no sound. His face had that distinctly fresh-shaven effect which once a week is the advantage of shaving no oftener: here and there, in the deeper wrinkles, a frosty stubble had escaped the razor. He wore an old-fashioned, low black satin stock, over the top of which the linen of his unstarched collar contrived with difficulty to make itself seen; his high-crowned, lead-colored straw hat lay on the table before him. At the other end of the table sat a young girl, who leaned upon it with one arm, propping her averted face on her hand. The window was open beside her, and she was staring out upon the door-yard, where the hens were burrowing for coolness in the soft earth under the lilac bushes; from time to time she put her handkerchief to her eyes.
“I don’t like this part of it, father,” said the elderly woman,—“Lyddy’s seeming to feel about it the way she does right at the last moment, as you may say.” The old man made a noise in his throat as if he might speak; but he only unpuckered his mouth, and stayed his fingers, while the other continued: “I don’t want her to go now, no more than ever I did. I ain’t one to think that eatin’ up everything on your plate keeps it from wastin’, and I never was; and I say that even if you couldn’t get the money back, it would cost no more to have her stay than to have her go.”
“I don’t suppose,” said the old man, in a high, husky treble, “but what I could get some of it back from the captain; may be all. He didn’t seem any ways graspin’. I don’t want Lyddy should feel, any more than you do, Maria, that we’re glad to have her go. But what I look at is this: as long as she has this idea—Well, it’s like this—I d’know as I can express it, either.” He relapsed into the comfort people find in giving up a difficult thing.
“Oh, I know!” returned the woman. “I understand it’s an opportunity; you might call it a leadin’, almost, that it would be flyin’ in the face of Providence to refuse. I presume her gifts were given her for improvement, and it would be the same as buryin’ them in the ground for her to stay up here. But I do say that I want Lyddy should feel just so about goin’, or not go at all. It ain’t like goin’ among strangers, though, if it is in a strange land. They’re her father’s own kin, and if they’re any ways like him they’re warm-hearted enough, if that’s all you want. I guess they’ll do what’s right by Lyddy when she gets there. And I try to look at it this way: that long before that maple by the gate is red she’ll be with her father’s own sister; and I for one don’t mean to let it worry me.” She made search for her handkerchief, and wiped away the tears that fell down her cheeks.
“Yes,” returned the old man; “and before the leaves are on the ground we shall more’n have got our first letter from her. I declare for’t,” he added, after a tremulous pause, “I was goin’ to say how Lyddy would enjoy readin’ it to us! I don’t seem to get it rightly into my head that she’s goin’ away.”
“It ain’t as if Lyddy was leavin’ any life behind her that’s over and above pleasant,” resumed the woman. “She’s a good girl, and I never want to see a more uncomplainin’; but I know it’s duller and duller here all the while for her, with us two old folks, and no young company; and I d’know as it’s been any better the two winters she’s taught in the Mill Village. That’s what reconciles me, on Lyddy’s account, as much as anything. I ain’t one to set much store on worldly ambition, and I never was; and I d’know as I care for Lyddy’s advancement, as you may call it. I believe that as far forth as true happiness goes she’d be as well off here as there. But I don’t say but what she would be more satisfied in the end, and as long as you can’t have happiness, in this world, I say you’d better have satisfaction. Is that Josiah Whitman’s hearse goin’ past?” she asked, rising from her chair, and craning forward to bring her eyes on a level with the window, while she suspended the agitation of the palm-leaf fan which she had not ceased to ply during her talk; she remained a moment with the quiescent fan pressed against her bosom, and then she stepped out of the door, and down the walk to the gate. “Josiah!” she called, while the old man looked and listened at the window. “Who you be’n buryin’?”
The man halted his hearse, and answered briefly, “Mirandy Holcomb.”
“Why, I thought the funeral wa’n’t to be till tomorrow! Well, I declare,” said the woman, as she reëntered the room and sat down again in her rocking-chair, “I didn’t ask him whether it was Mr. Goodlow or Mr. Baldwin preached the sermon. I was so put out hearin’ it was Mirandy, you might say I forgot to ask him anything. Mirandy was always a well woman till they moved down to the Mill Village and began takin’ the hands to board,—so many of ’em. When I think of Lyddy’s teachin’ there another winter,—well, I could almost rejoice that she was goin’ away. She ain’t a mite too strong as it is.”
Here the woman paused, and the old man struck in with his quaint treble while she fanned herself in silence: “I do suppose the voyage is goin’ to be everything for her health. She’ll be from a month to six weeks gettin’ to Try-East, and that’ll be a complete change of air, Mr. Goodlow says. And she won’t have a care on her mind the whole way out. It’ll be a season of rest and quiet. I did wish, just for the joke of the thing, as you may say, that the ship had be’n goin’ straight to Venus, and Lyddy could ‘a’ walked right in on ’em at breakfast, some morning. I should liked it to be’n a surprise. But there wa’n’t any ship at Boston loadin’ for Venus, and they didn’t much believe I’d find one at New York. So I just took up with the captain of the Aroostook’s offer. He says she can telegraph to her folks at Venus as soon as she gets to Try-East, and she’s welcome to stay on the ship till they come for her. I didn’t think of their havin’ our mod’n improvements out there; but he says they have telegraphs and railroads everywheres, the same as we do; and they’re real kind and polite when you get used to ’em. The captain, he’s as nice a man as I ever see. His wife’s be’n two or three voyages with him in the Aroostook, and he’ll know just how to have Lyddy’s comfort looked after. He showed me the state-room she’s goin’ to have. Well, it ain’t over and above large, but it’s pretty as a pink: all clean white paint, with a solid mahogany edge to the berth, and a mahogany-framed lookin’-glass on one side, and little winders at the top, and white lace curtains to the bed. He says he had it fixed up for his wife, and he lets Lyddy have it all for her own. She can set there and do her mendin’ when she don’t feel like comin’ into the cabin. The cabin—well, I wish you could see that cabin, Maria! The first mate is a fine-appearing man, too. Some of the sailors looked pretty rough; but I guess it was as much their clothes as anything; and I d’know as Lyddy’d have a great deal to do with them, any way.” The old man’s treble ceased, and at the same moment the shrilling of a locust in one of the door-yard maples died away; both voices, arid, nasal, and high, lapsed as one into a common silence.
The woman stirred impatiently in her chair, as if both voices had been repeating something heard many times before. They seemed to renew her discontent. “Yes, I know; I know all that, father. But it ain’t the mahogany I think of. It’s the child’s gettin’ there safe and well.”
“Well,” said the old man, “I asked the captain about the seasickness, and he says she ain’t nigh so likely to be sick as she would on the steamer; the motion’s more regular, and she won’t have the smell of the machinery. That’s what he said. And he said the seasickness would do her good, any way. I’m sure I don’t want her to be sick any more than you do, Maria.” He added this like one who has been unjustly put upon his defense.
They now both remained silent, the woman rocking herself and fanning, and the old man holding his fingers suspended from their drubbing upon the table, and looking miserably from the woman in the rocking-chair to the girl at the window, as if a strict inquiry into the present situation might convict him of it in spite of his innocence. The girl still sat with her face turned from them, and still from time to time she put her handkerchief to her eyes and wiped away the tears. The locust in the maple began again, and shrilled inexorably. Suddenly the girl leaped to her feet.
“There’s the stage!” she cried, with a tumult in her voice and manner, and a kind of choking sob. She showed, now that she stood upright, the slim and elegant shape which is the divine right of American girlhood, clothed with the stylishness that instinctive taste may evoke, even in a hill town, from study of paper patterns, Harper’s Bazar, and the costume of summer boarders. Her dress was carried with spirit and effect.
“Lydia Blood!” cried the other woman, springing responsively to her feet, also, and starting toward the girl, “don’t you go a step without you feel just like it! Take off your things this minute and stay, if you wouldn’t jus’ as lives go. It’s hard enough to have you go, child, without seemin’ to force you!”
“Oh, aunt Maria,” answered the girl, piteously, “it almost kills me to go; but I’m doing it, not you. I know how you’d like to have me stay. But don’t say it again, or I couldn’t bear up; and I’m going now, if I have to be carried.”
The old man had risen with the others; he was shorter than either, and as he looked at them he seemed half awed, half bewildered, by so much drama. Yet it was comparatively very little. The girl did not offer to cast herself upon her aunt’s neck, and her aunt did not offer her an embrace, it was only their hearts that clung together as they simply shook hands and kissed each other. Lydia whirled away for her last look at herself in the glass over the table, and her aunt tremulously began to put to rights some slight disorder in the girl’s hat.
“Father,” she said sharply, “are Lyddy’s things all ready there by the door, so’s not to keep Ezra Perkins waitin’? You know he always grumbles so. And then he gets you to the cars so’t you have to wait half an hour before they start.” She continued to pin and pull at details of Lydia’s dress, to which she descended from her hat. “It sets real nice on you, Lyddy. I guess you’ll think of the time we had gettin’ it made up, when you wear it out there.” Miss Maria Latham laughed nervously.
With a harsh banging and rattling, a yellow Concord coach drew up at the gate where Miss Maria had stopped the hearse. The driver got down, and without a word put Lydia’s boxes and bags into the boot, and left two or three light parcels for her to take into the coach with her.
Miss Maria went down to the gate with her father and niece. “Take the back seat, father!” she said, as the old man offered to take the middle place. “Let them that come later have what’s left. You’ll be home to-night, father; I’ll set up for you. Good-by again, Lyddy.” She did not kiss the girl again, or touch her hand. Their decent and sparing adieux had been made in the house. As Miss Maria returned to the door, the hens, cowering conscience-stricken under the lilacs, sprang up at sight of her with a screech of guilty alarm, and flew out over the fence.
“Well, I vow,” soliloquized Miss Maria, “from where she set Lyddy must have seen them pests under the lilacs the whole time, and never said a word.” She pushed the loosened soil into place with the side of her ample slipper, and then went into the house, where she kindled a fire in the kitchen stove, and made herself a cup of Japan tea: a variety of the herb which our country people prefer, apparently because it affords the same stimulus with none of the pleasure given by the Chinese leaf.