A Dunnet Shepherdess
by Sarah Orne Jewett
EARLY one morning at Dunnet Landing, as if it were still night, I
waked, suddenly startled by a spirited conversation beneath my window.
It was not one of Mrs. Todd's morning soliloquies; she was not
addressing her plants and flowers in words of either praise or blame.
Her voice was declamatory though perfectly good-humored, while the
second voice, a man's, was of lower pitch and somewhat deprecating.
The sun was just above the sea, and struck straight across my room
through a crack in the blind. It was a strange hour for the arrival of
a guest, and still too soon for the general run of business, even in
that tiny Eastern haven where daybreak fisheries and early tides must
often rule the day.
The man's voice suddenly declared itself to my sleepy ears. It was
Mr. William Blackett's.
"Why, sister Almiry," he protested gently, "I don't need none o'
"Pick me a small han'ful," she commanded, "no, no, a small
han'ful, I said, o' them large pennyr'yal sprigs! I go to all the
trouble an' cossetin' of 'em just so as to have you ready to meet such
occasions, an' last year, you may remember, you never stopped here at
all, the day you went up country. An' the frost come at last an'
blacked it. I never saw any herb that so objected to gardin ground;
might as well try to flourish mayflowers in a common front yard. There,
you can come in now, an' set an' eat what breakfast you've got patience
for. I've found everything I want, an' I'll mash 'em up an' be all
ready to put 'em on."
I heard such a pleading note of appeal as the speakers went round
the corner of the house, and my curiosity was so demanding, that I
dressed in haste, and joined my friends a little later, with two
unnoticed excuses, of the beauty of the morning and the early mail
boat. William's breakfast had been slighted; he had taken his cup of
tea, and merely pushed back the rest on the kitchen table. He was now
sitting in a helpless condition by the side window, with one of his
sister's purple calico aprons pinned closely about his neck. Poor
William was meekly submitting to being smeared, as to his countenance,
with a most pungent and unattractive lotion of pennyroyal and other
green herbs which had been hastily pounded and mixed with cream in the
little white stone mortar.
I had to cast two or three looks at William to reassure myself that
he really looked happy and expectant in spite of his melancholy
circumstances, and was not being overtaken by retribution. The brother
and sister seemed to be on delightful terms with each other for once,
and there was something of cheerful anticipation in their morning talk.
I was reminded of Medea's anointing Jason before the great episode of
the iron bulls; but to-day William really could not be going up country
to see a railroad for the first time. I knew this to be one of his
great schemes; but he was not fitted to appear in public, or to front
an observing world of strangers. As I came in he essayed to rise, but
Mrs. Todd pushed him back into the chair.
"Set where you be till it dries on," she insisted. "Land sakes,
you'd think he'd get over bein' a boy some time or 'nother, gettin'
along in years as he is. An' you'd think he'd seen full enough o' fish;
but once a year he has to break loose like this, an' travel off 'way up
back o' the Bowden place far out o' my beat, 'tis an go a
Her tone of amused scorn was so full of challenge that William
changed color even under the green streaks.
"I want some change," he said, looking at me, and not at her. "'Tis
the prettiest little shady brook you ever saw."
"If he ever fetched home more'n a couple o' minnies, 'twould seem
worth while," Mrs. Todd concluded, putting a last dab of the mysterious
compound so perilously near her brother's mouth that William flushed
again and was silent.
A little later I witnessed his escape, when Mrs. Todd had taken the
foolish risk of going down cellar. There was a horse and wagon outside
the garden fence, and presently we stood where we could see him driving
up the hill with thoughtless speed. Mrs. Todd said nothing, but watched
him affectionately out of sight.
"It serves to keep the mosquitoes off," she said, and a moment
later it occurred to my slow mind that she spoke of the pennyroyal
lotion. "I don't know sometimes but William's kind of poetical," she
continued, in her gentlest voice. "You'd think, if anything could cure
him of it, 'twould be the fish business."
It was only twenty minutes past six on a summer morning, but we
both sat down to rest as if the activities of the day were over. Mrs.
Todd rocked gently for a time, and seemed to be lost, though not
poorly, like Macbeth, in her thoughts. At last she resumed relations
with her actual surroundings. "I shall now put my lobsters on. They'll
make us a good supper," she announced. "Then I can let the fire out for
all day; give it a holiday, same's William. You can have a little one
now, nice an' hot, if you ain't got all the breakfast you want. Yes,
I'll put the lobsters on. William was very thoughtful to bring 'em
over. William is thoughtful; if he only had a spark o' ambition, there
be few could match him."
This unusual concession was afforded a sympathetic listener from
the depths of the kitchen closet. Mrs. Todd was getting out her old
iron lobster pot, and began to speak of prosaic affairs. I hoped that I
should hear something more about her brother and their island life, and
sat idly by the kitchen window looking at the morning-glories that
shaded it, believing that some flaw of wind might set Mrs. Todd's mind
on its former course. Then it occurred to me that she had spoken about
our supper rather than our dinner, and I guessed that she might have
some great scheme before her for the day.
When I had loitered for some time, and there was no further word
about William, and at last I was conscious of receiving no attention
whatever, I went away. It was something of a disappointment to find
that she put no hindrance in the way of my usual morning affairs, of
going up to the empty little white schoolhouse on the hill where I did
my task of writing. I had been almost sure of a holiday when I
discovered that Mrs. Todd was likely to take one herself, we had not
been far afield to gather herbs and pleasures for many days now; but a
little later she had silently vanished. I found my luncheon ready on
the table in the little entry, wrapped in its shining old homespun
napkin; and as if by way of special consolation, there was a stone
bottle of Mrs. Todd's best spruce beer, with a long piece of cod-line
wound round it, by which it could be lowered, for coolness, into the
deep schoolhouse well.
I walked away with a dull supply of writing paper and these
provisions, feeling like a reluctant child who hopes to be called back
at every step. There was no relenting voice to be heard, and when I
reached the schoolhouse I found that I had left an open window and a
swinging shutter the day before, and the sea wind that blew at evening
had fluttered my poor sheaf of papers all about the room.
So the day did not begin very well, and I began to recognize that
it was one of the days when nothing could be done without company. The
truth was that my heart had gone trouting with William, but it would
have been too selfish to say a word even to one's self about spoiling
his day. If there is one way above another of getting so close to
nature that one simply is a piece of nature, following a primeval
instinct with perfect self-forgetfulness, and forgetting everything
except the dreamy consciousness of pleasant freedom, it is to take the
course of a shady trout brook. The dark pools and the sunny shallows
beckon one on; the wedge of sky between the trees on either bank, the
speaking, companioning noise of the water, the amazing importance of
what one is doing, and the constant sense of life and beauty make a
strange transformation of the quick hours. I had a sudden memory of all
this, and another, and another. I could not get myself free from
"fishing and wishing."
At that moment I heard the unusual sound of wheels, and I looked
past the high-growing thicket of wild roses and straggling sumac to see
the white nose and meagre shape of the Caplin horse; then I saw William
sitting in the open wagon, with a small expectant smile upon his face.
"I've got two lines," he said. "I was quite a piece up the road. I
thought perhaps 'twas so you'd feel like going."
There was enough excitement for most occasions in hearing William
speak three sentences at once. Words seemed but vain to me at that
bright moment. I stepped back from the schoolhouse window with a
beating heart. The spruce-beer bottle was not yet in the well, and with
that and my luncheon, and Pleasure at the helm, I went out into the
happy world. The land breeze was blowing, and, as we turned away, I saw
a flutter of white go past the window as I left the schoolhouse and my
morning's work to their neglected fate.
I seldom gave way to a cruel impulse to look at an ancient seafaring
William, but I felt as if he were a growing boy; I only hope that he
felt much the same about me. He did not wear the fishing clothes that
belonged to his sea-going life, but a strangely shaped old suit of
tea-colored linen garments that might have been brought home years ago
from Canton or Bombay. William had a peculiar way of giving silent
assent when you spoke, but of answering your unspoken thoughts as if
they reached him better than words. "I find them very easy," he said,
frankly referring to the clothes. "Father had them in his old sea
The antique fashion, a quaint touch of foreign grace and even
imagination about the cut, were very pleasing; if ever Mr. William
Blackett had faintly resembled an old beau, it was upon that day. He
now appeared to feel as if everything had been explained between us, as
if everything were quite understood; and we drove for some distance
without finding it necessary to speak again about anything. At last,
when it must have been a little past nine o'clock, he stopped the horse
beside a small farmhouse, and nodded when I asked if I should get down
from the wagon. "You can steer about northeast right across the
pasture," he said, looking from under the eaves of his hat with an
expectant smile. "I always leave the team here."
I helped to unfasten the harness, and William led the horse away to
the barn. It was a poor-looking little place, and a forlorn woman
looked at us through the window before she appeared at the door. I told
her that Mr. Blackett and I came up from the Landing to go fishing. "He
keeps a-comin', don't he?" she answered, with a funny little laugh, to
which I was at a loss to find answer. When he joined us, I could not
see that he took notice of her presence in any way except to take an
armful of dried salt fish from a corded stack in the back of the wagon
which had been carefully covered with a piece of old sail. We had left
a wake of their pungent flavor behind us all the way. I wondered what
was going to become of the rest of them, and some fresh lobsters which
were also disclosed to view; but he laid the present gift on the
door-step without a word, and a few minutes later, when I looked back
as we crossed the pasture, the fish were being carried into the house.
I could not see any signs of a trout brook until I came close upon
it in the bushy pasture, and presently we struck into the low woods of
straggling spruce and fir mixed into a tangle of swamp maples and
alders which stretched away on either hand up and down stream. We found
an open place in the pasture where some taller trees seemed to have
been overlooked rather than spared. The sun was bright and hot by this
time, and I sat down in the shade, while William produced his lines and
cut and trimmed us each a slender rod. I wondered where Mrs. Todd was
spending the morning, and if later she would think that pirates had
landed and captured me from the schoolhouse.
The brook was giving that live, persistent call to a listener that
trout brooks always make; it ran with a free, swift current even here
where it crossed an apparently level piece of land. I saw two
unpromising, quick barbel chase each other upstream from bank to bank,
as we solemnly arranged our hooks and sinkers. I noticed that William's
glances changed from anxiety to relief when he found that I was used to
such gear; perhaps he felt that we must stay together if I could not
bait my own hook; but we parted happily, full of a pleasing sense of
William had pointed me up the brook, but I chose to go down, which
was only fair because it was his day, though one likes as well to
follow and see where a brook goes as to find one's way to the places it
comes from, and its tiny springs and head waters, and in this case
trout were not to be considered. William's only real anxiety was lest I
might suffer from mosquitoes. His own complexion was still strangely
impaired by its defenses; but I kept forgetting it, and looking to see
if we were treading fresh pennyroyal underfoot, so efficient was Mrs.
Todd's remedy. I was conscious, after we parted, and I turned to see if
he were already fishing, and saw him wave his hand gallantly as he went
away, that our friendship had made a great gain.
The moment that I began to fish the brook I had a sense of its
emptiness; when my bait first touched the water and went lightly down
the quick stream, I knew that there was nothing to lie in wait for it.
It is the same certainty that comes when one knocks at the door of an
empty house, a lack of answering consciousness and of possible
response; it is quite different if there is any life within. But it was
a lovely brook, and I went a long way through woods and breezy open
pastures, and found a forsaken house and overgrown farm, and laid up
many pleasures for future joy and remembrance. At the end of the
morning I came back to our meeting place, hungry and without any fish.
William was already waiting, and we did not mention the matter of
trout. We ate our luncheons with good appetites, and William brought
our two stone bottles of spruce beer from the deep place in the brook
where he had left them to cool. Then we sat awhile longer in peace and
quietness on the green bank.
As for William, he looked more boyish than ever, and kept a more
remote and juvenile sort of silence. Once I wondered how he had come to
be so curiously wrinkled, forgetting, absentmindedly, to recognize
the effects of time. He did not expect any one else to keep up a vain
show of conversation, and so I was silent as well as he. I glanced at
him now and then, but I watched the leaves tossing against the sky and
the red cattle moving in the pasture. "I don't know's we need head for
home. It's early yet," he said at last, and I was as startled as if one
of the gray firs had spoken.
"I guess I'll go up-along and ask after Thankful Hight's folks," he
continued. "Mother'd like to get word." And I nodded a pleased assent.
William led the way across the pasture, and I followed with a deep
sense of pleased anticipation. I do not believe that my companion had
expected me to make any objection, but I knew that he was gratified by
the easy way that his plans for the day were being seconded. He gave a
look at the sky to see if there were any portents; but the sky was
frankly blue; even the doubtful morning haze had disappeared.
We went northward along a rough, clayey road, across a
bare-looking, sun-burnt country full of tiresome long slopes where the
sun was hot and bright, and I could not help observing the forlorn look
of the farms. There was a great deal of pasture, but it looked
deserted; and I wondered afresh why the people did not raise more
sheep, when that seemed the only possible use to make of their land. I
said so to Mr. Blackett, who gave me a look of pleased surprise.
"That's what She always maintains," he said eagerly. "She's right
about it, too. Well, you'll see!"
I was glad to find myself approved, but I had not the least idea
whom he meant, and waited until he felt like speaking again.
A few minutes later we drove down a steep hill and entered a large
tract of dark spruce woods. It was delightful to be sheltered from the
afternoon sun, and when we had gone some distance in the shade, to my
great pleasure William turned the horse's head toward some bars, which
he let down, and I drove through into one of those narrow, still,
sweet-scented byways which seem to be paths rather than roads. Often we
had to put aside the heavy drooping branches which barred the way, and
once, when a sharp twig struck William in the face, he announced with
such spirit that somebody ought to go through there with an axe that I
felt unexpectedly guilty. So far as I now remember, this was William's
only remark all the way through the woods to Thankful Hight's folks,
but from time to time he pointed or nodded at something which I might
have missed, a sleepy little owl snuggled into the bend of a branch,
or a tall stalk of cardinal flowers where the sunlight came down at the
edge of a small, bright piece of marsh. Many times, being used to the
company of Mrs. Todd and other friends who were in the habit of
talking, I came near making an idle remark to William, but I was for
the most part happily preserved; to be with him only for a short time
was to live on a different level, where thoughts served best because
they were thoughts in common, the primary effect upon our minds of the
simple things and beauties that we saw. Once when I caught sight of a
lovely gay pigeon woodpecker eyeing us curiously from a dead branch,
and instinctively turned toward William, he gave an indulgent,
comprehending nod which silenced me all the rest of the way. The wood
road was not a place for common noisy conversation; one would interrupt
the birds and all the still little beasts that belonged there. But it
was mortifying to find how strong the habit of idle speech may become
in one's self. One need not always be saying something in this noisy
world. I grew conscious of the difference between William's usual
fashion of life and mine; for him there were long days of silence in a
sea-going boat, and I could believe that he and his mother usually
spoke very little because they so perfectly understood each other.
There was something peculiarly unresponding about their quiet island in
the sea, solidly fixed into the still foundations of the world, against
whose rocky shores the sea beats and calls, and is unanswered.
We were quite half an hour going through the woods; the horse's
feet made no sound on the brown, soft track under the dark evergreens.
I thought that we should come out at last into more pastures, but there
was no half-wooded strip of land at the end; the high woods grew
squarely against an old stone wall and a sunshiny open field, and we
came out suddenly into broad daylight that startled us, and even
startled the horse, who might have been napping as he walked, like an
old soldier. The field sloped up to a low, unpainted house that faced
the east. Behind it were long, frost-whitened ledges that made the
hill, with strips of green turf and bushes between. It was the wildest,
most Titanic sort of pasture country up there; there was a sort of
daring in putting a frail wooden house before it, though it might have
the homely field and honest woods to front against. You thought of the
elements and even of possible volcanoes as you looked up the stony
heights. Suddenly I saw that a region of what I had imagined gray
stones was slowly moving, as if the sun was making my eyesight
"There's the sheep!" exclaimed William, pointing eagerly. "You see
the sheep?" And sure enough, it was a great company of woolly backs,
which seemed to have taken a mysterious protective resemblance to the
ledges themselves. I could discover but little chance for pasturage on
that high, sunburnt ridge, but the sheep were moving steadily in a
satisfied way, as they fed along the slopes and hollows.
"I never have seen half so many sheep as these, all summer long!" I
cried, with admiration.
"There ain't so many," answered William soberly. "It's a great
sight. They do so well because they're shepherded; but you can't beat
sense into some folks."
"You mean that somebody stays and watches them?" I asked.
She observed years ago in her reading that they don't turn out
their flocks without protection anywhere but in the state o' Maine,"
returned William. "First thing that put it into her mind was a little
old book mother's got; she read it one time when she come out to the
Island. They call it the Shepherd o' Salisbury Plain. 'Twasn't the
purpose o' the book to most, but when she read it, 'There, Mis'
Blackett!' she said, 'that's where we've all lacked sense; our Bibles
ought to have taught us that what sheep need is a shepherd.' You see
most folks about here gave up sheep-raisin' years ago 'count o' the
dogs. So she gave up school-teachin' and went out to tend her flock,
and has shepherded ever since, an' done well."
For William this approached an oration. He spoke with enthusiasm,
and I shared the triumph of the moment. "There she is now!" he
exclaimed, in a different tone, as the tall figure of a woman came
following the flock and stood still on the ridge, looking toward us as
if her eyes had been quick to see a strange object in the familiar
emptiness of the field. William stood up in the wagon, and I thought he
was going to call or wave his hand to her; but he sat down again more
clumsily than if the wagon had made the familiar motion of a boat, and
we drove on toward the house.
It was a most solitary place to live in, a place where one might
think that a life could hide itself. The thick woods were between the
farm and the main road, and as one looked up and down the country there
was no other house in sight.
"Potatoes look well," announced William. "The old folks used to say
that there wa'n't no better land outdoors than the Hight field."
I found myself possessed of a surprising interest in the
shepherdess, who stood far away in the hill pasture with her great
flock, like a figure of Millet's, high against the sky.
Everything about the old farmhouse was clean and orderly, as if the
green dooryard were not only swept, but dusted. I saw a flock of
turkeys stepping off carefully at a distance, but there was not the
usual untidy flock of hens about the place to make everything look in
disarray. William helped me out of the wagon as carefully as if I had
been his mother, and nodded toward the open door with a reassuring look
at me; but I waited until he had tied the horse and could lead the way
himself. He took off his hat just as we were going in, and stopped for
a moment to smooth his thin gray hair with his hand, by which I saw
that we had an affair of some ceremony. We entered an old-fashioned
country kitchen, the floor scrubbed into unevenness, and the doors well
polished by the touch of hands. In a large chair facing the window
there sat a masterful-looking old woman, with the features of a warlike
Roman emperor, emphasized by a bonnet-like black cap with a band of
green ribbon. Her sceptre was a palm-leaf fan.
William crossed the room toward her, and bent his head close to her
"Feelin' pretty well to-day, Mis' Hight?" he asked, with all the
voice his narrow chest could muster.
"No, I ain't, William. Here I have to set," she answered coldly,
but she gave an inquiring glance over his shoulder at me.
"This is the young lady who is stopping with Almiry this summer,"
he explained, and I approached as if to give the countersign. She
offered her left hand with considerable dignity, but her expression
never seemed to change for the better. A moment later she said that she
was pleased to meet me, and I felt as if the worst were over. William
must have felt some apprehension, while I was only ignorant, as we had
come across the field. Our hostess was more than disapproving, she
was forbidding; but I was not long in suspecting that she felt the
natural resentment of a strong energy that has been defeated by illness
and made the spoil of captivity.
"Mother well as usual since you was up last year?" And William
replied by a series of cheerful nods. The mention of dear Mrs. Blackett
was a help to any conversation.
"Been fishin' ashore," he explained, in a somewhat conciliatory
voice. "Thought you'd like a few for winter," which at once accounted
for the generous freight we had brought in the back of the wagon. I
could see that the offering was no surprise, and that Mrs. Hight was
"Well, I expect they're good as the last," she said, but did not
even approach a smile. She kept a straight, discerning eye upon me.
"Give the lady a cheer," she admonished William, who hastened to
place close by her side one of the straight-backed chairs that stood
against the kitchen wall. Then he lingered for a moment, like a timid
boy. I could see that he wore a look of resolve, but he did not ask the
permission for which he evidently waited.
"You can go search for Esther," she said, at the end of a long
pause that became anxious for both her guests. "Esther'd like to see
her." And William in his pale nankeens disappeared with one light step
and was off.
"Don't speak too loud; it jars a person's head," directed Mrs. Hight
plainly. "Clear an' distinct is what reaches me best. Any news to the
I was happily furnished with the particulars of a sudden death, and
an engagement of marriage between a Caplin, a seafaring widower home
from his voyage, and one of the younger Harrises; and now Mrs. Hight
really smiled and settled herself in her chair. We exhausted one
subject completely before we turned to the other. One of the returning
turkeys took an unwarrantable liberty, and, mounting the doorstep, came
in and walked about the kitchen without being observed by its strict
owner; and the tin dipper slipped off its nail behind us and made an
astonishing noise, and jar enough to reach Mrs. Hight's inner ear and
make her turn her head to look at it; but we talked straight on. We
came at last to understand each other upon such terms of friendship
that she unbent her majestic port and complained to me as any poor old
woman might of the hardships of her illness. She had already fixed
various dates upon the sad certainty of the year when she had the
shock, which had left her perfectly helpless except for a clumsy left
hand which fanned and gestured, and settled and resettled the folds of
her dress, but could do no comfortable time-shortening work.
"Yes'm, you can feel sure I use it what I can," she said severely.
"'Twas a long spell before I could let Esther go forth in the mornin'
till she'd got me up an' dressed me; but now she leaves things ready
overnight, and I get 'em as I want 'em with my light pair o' tongs, and
I feel very able about helpin' myself to what I once did. Then when
Esther returns, all she has to do is to push me out here into the
kitchen. Some parts o' the year Esther stays out all night, them
moonlight nights when the dogs are apt to be after the sheep, but
she don't use herself as hard as she once had to. She's well able to
hire somebody, Esther is; but there, you can't find no hired man that
wants to git up before five o'clock nowadays; 'tain't as 'twas in my
time. They're liable to fall asleep, too; and them moonlight nights
she's so anxious she can't sleep, and out she goes. There's a kind of a
fold, she calls it, up there in a sheltered spot, and she sleeps up in
a little shed she's got, built it herself for lambin' time, and when
the poor foolish creatur's gets hurt or anything. I've never seen it,
but she says it's in a lovely spot, and always pleasant in any weather.
You see off, other side of the ridge, to the south'ard, where there's
houses. I used to think some time I'd get up to see it again, and all
them spots she lives in, but I shan't now. I'm beginnin' to go back;
an' 'tain't surprisin'. I've kind of got used to disappointments," and
the poor soul drew a deep sigh.
It was long before we noticed the lapse of time. I not only told every
circumstance known to me of recent events among the households of Mrs.
Todd's neighborhood at the shore, but Mrs. Hight became more and more
communicative on her part, and went carefully into the genealogical
descent and personal experience of many acquaintances, until between us
we had pretty nearly circumnavigated the globe and reached Dunnet
Landing from an opposite direction to that in which we had started. It
was long before my own interest began to flag; there was a flavor of
the best sort in her definite and descriptive fashion of speech. It may
be only a fancy of my own that in the sound and value of many words,
with their lengthened vowels and doubled cadences, there is some faint
survival on the Maine coast of the sound of English speech of Chaucer's
At last Mrs. Thankful Hight gave a suspicious look through the
"Where do you suppose they be?" she asked me. "Esther must ha' been
off to the far edge o' everything. I doubt William ain't been able to
find her. Can't he hear their bells? His hearin' all right?"
William had heard some herons that morning which were beyond the
reach of my own ears, and almost beyond eye-sight in the upper skies,
and I told her so. I was luckily preserved by some unconscious instinct
from saying that we had seen the shepherdess so near, as we crossed the
field. Unless she had fled faster than Atalanta, William must have been
but a few minutes in reaching her immediate neighborhood. I now
discovered, with a quick leap of amusement and delight in my heart,
that I had fallen upon a serious chapter of romance. The old woman
looked suspiciously at me, and I made a dash to cover with a new piece
of information; but she listened with lofty indifference, and soon
interrupted my eager statements.
"Ain't William been gone some considerable time?" she demanded, and
then in a milder tone: "The time has re'lly flown; I do enjoy havin'
company. I set here alone a sight o' long days. Sheep is dreadful
fools; I expect they heard a strange step, and set right off through
bush an' brier, spite of all she could do. But William might have the
sense to return, 'stead o' searchin' about. I want to inquire of him
about his mother. What was you goin' to say? I guess you'll have time
to relate it."
My powers of entertainment were on the ebb, but I doubled my
diligence, and we went on for another half hour, at least, with banners
flying; but still William did not reappear. Mrs. Hight frankly began to
"Somethin's happened, an' he's stopped to help her!" groaned the
old lady, in the middle of what I had found to tell her about a rumor
of disaffection with the minister of a town I merely knew by name, in
the weekly newspaper to which Mrs. Todd subscribed. "You step to the
door, dear, an' look if you can't see 'em."
I promptly stepped, and once outside the house I looked anxiously
in the direction which William had taken.
To my astonishment, I saw all the sheep so near that I wonder we
had not been aware in the house of every bleat and tinkle; and there,
within a stone's throw, on the first long gray ledge that showed above
the juniper, were William and the shepherdess, engaged in pleasant
conversation. At first I was provoked, and then amused, and a thrill of
sympathy warmed my whole heart. They had seen me and risen as if by
magic; I had a sense of being the messenger of Fate. One could almost
hear their sighs of regret as I appeared; they must have passed a
lovely afternoon. I hurried into the house with the reassuring news
that they were not only in sight, but perfectly safe, with all the
Mrs. Hight, like myself, was spent with conversation, and had ceased
even the one activity of fanning herself. I brought a desired drink of
water, and happily remembered some fruit that was left from my
luncheon. She revived with splendid vigor, and told me the simple
history of her later years since she had been smitten in the prime of
her life by the stroke of paralysis, and her husband had died and left
her alone with Esther and a mortgage on their farm. There was only one
field of good land, but they owned a great region of sheep pasture and
a little woodland. Esther had always been laughed at for her belief in
sheep-raising, when one by one their neighbors were giving up their
flocks, and when everything had come to the point of despair she had
raised all the money and bought all the sheep she could; insisting that
Maine lambs were as good as any, and that there was a straight path by
sea to Boston market. And by tending her flock herself she had managed
to succeed: she had made money enough to pay off the mortgage five
years ago, and now what they did not spend was safe in the bank. "It
has been stubborn work, day and night, summer and winter, an' now she's
beginnin' to get along in years," said the old mother sadly. "She's
tended me 'long o' the sheep, an' she's been a good girl right along,
but she ought to have been a teacher;" and Mrs. Hight sighed heavily
and plied the fan again.
We heard voices, and William and Esther entered; they did not know
that it was so late in the afternoon. William looked almost bold, and
oddly like a happy young man rather than an ancient boy. As for Esther,
she might have been Jeanne d'Arc returned to her sheep, touched with
age and gray with the ashes of a great remembrance. She wore the simple
look of sainthood and unfeigned devotion. My heart was moved by the
sight of her plain, sweet face, weatherworn and gentle in its looks,
her thin figure in its close dress, and the strong hand that clasped a
shepherd's staff; and I could only hold William in new reverence, this
silent farmer-fisherman who knew, and he alone, the noble and patient
heart that beat within her breast. I am not sure that they acknowledged
even to themselves that they had always been lovers, they could not
consent to anything so definite or pronounced; but they were happy in
being together in the world. Esther was untouched by the fret and fury
of life; she had lived in sunshine and rain among her silly sheep, and
been refined instead of coarsened, while her touching patience with a
ramping old mother, stung by the sense of defeat and mourning her lost
activities, had given back a lovely self-possession and habit of sweet
temper. I had seen enough of old Mrs. Hight to know that nothing a
sheep might do could vex a person who was used to the uncertainties and
severities of her companionship.
Mrs. Hight told her daughter at once that she had enjoyed a beautiful
call, and got a great many new things to think of. This was said so
frankly in my hearing that it gave a consciousness of high reward, and
I was indeed recompensed by the grateful look in Esther's eyes. We did
not speak much together, but we understood each other. For the poor old
woman did not read, and could not sew or knit with her helpless hand,
and they were far from any neighbors, while her spirit was as eager in
age as in youth, and expected even more from a disappointing world. She
had lived to see the mortgage paid and money in the bank, and Esther's
success acknowledged on every hand, and there were still a few
pleasures left in life. William had his mother and Esther had hers, and
they had not seen each other for a year, though Mrs. Hight had spoken
of a year's making no change in William even at his age. She must have
been in the far eighties herself, but of a noble courage and
persistence in the world she ruled from her stiff-backed rocking-chair.
William unloaded his gift of dried fish, each one chosen with
perfect care, and Esther stood by, watching him; and then she walked
across the field with us, beside the wagon. I believed that I was the
only one who knew their happy secret, and she blushed a little as we
"I hope you ain't goin' to feel too tired, mother's so deaf; no, I
hope you won't be tired," she said kindly, speaking as if she well knew
what tiredness was. We could hear the neglected sheep bleating on the
hill in the next moment's silence. Then she smiled at me, a smile of
noble patience, of uncomprehended sacrifice, which I can never forget.
There was all the remembrance of disappointed hopes, the hardships of
winter, the loneliness of single-handedness, in her look; but I
understood, and I love to remember her worn face and her young blue
"Good-by, William," she said gently; and William said good-by and
gave her a quick glance, but he did not turn to look back, though I
did, and waved my hand as she was putting up the bars behind us. Nor
did he speak again until we had passed through the dark woods and were
on our way homeward by the main road. The grave yearly visit had been
changed from a hope into a happy memory.
"You can see the sea from the top of her pasture hill," said
William at last.
"Can you?" I asked, with surprise.
"Yes, it's very high land; the ledges up there show very plain in
clear weather from the top of our island, and there's a high upstandin'
tree that makes a landmark for the fishin' grounds." And William gave a
When we had nearly reached the Landing, my companion looked over
into the back of the wagon and saw that the piece of sailcloth was safe
with which he had covered the dried fish. "I wish we had got some
trout," he said wistfully. "they always appease Almiry, and make her
feel 'twas worth while to go."
I stole a glance at William Blackett. We had not seen a solitary
mosquito, but there was a dark stripe across his mild face, which might
have been an old scar won long ago in battle.