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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Miss Tempy’s Watchers

By Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909)

From ‘The King of Folly Island, and Other People’

THE TIME of year was April; the place was a small farming town in New Hampshire, remote from any railroad. One by one the lights had been blown out in the scattered houses near Miss Tempy Dent’s; but as her neighbors took a last look out of doors, their eyes turned with instinctive curiosity toward the old house, where a lamp burned steadily. They gave a little sigh. “Poor Miss Tempy!” said more than one bereft acquaintance; for the good woman lay dead in her north chamber, and the light was a watchers’ light. The funeral was set for the next day at one o’clock.

The watchers were two of the oldest friends, Mrs. Crowe and Sarah Ann Binson. They were sitting in the kitchen, because it seemed less awesome than the unused best room; and they beguiled the long hours by steady conversation. One would think that neither topics nor opinions would hold out, at that rate, all through the long spring night; but there was a certain degree of excitement just then, and the two women had risen to an unusual level of expressiveness and confidence. Each had already told the other more than one fact that she had determined to keep secret; they were again and again tempted into statements that either would have found impossible by daylight. Mrs. Crowe was knitting a blue yarn stocking for her husband; the foot was already so long that it seemed as if she must have forgotten to narrow it at the proper time. Mrs. Crowe knew exactly what she was about, however; she was of a much cooler disposition than Sister Binson, who made futile attempts at some sewing, only to drop her work into her lap whenever the talk was most engaging.

Their faces were interesting,—of the dry, shrewd, quick-witted New England type, with thin hair twisted neatly back out of the way. Mrs. Crowe could look vague and benignant, and Miss Binson was, to quote her neighbors, a little too sharp-set; but the world knew that she had need to be, with the load she must carry of supporting an inefficient widowed sister and six unpromising and unwilling nieces and nephews. The eldest boy was at last placed with a good man to learn the mason’s trade. Sarah Ann Binson, for all her sharp, anxious aspect, never defended herself when her sister whined and fretted. She was told every week of her life that the poor children never would have had to lift a finger if their father had lived; and yet she had kept her steadfast way with the little farm, and patiently taught the young people many useful things, for which, as everybody said, they would live to thank her. However pleasureless her life appeared to outward view, it was brimful of pleasure to herself.

Mrs. Crowe, on the contrary, was well-to-do; her husband being a rich farmer and an easy-going man. She was a stingy woman, but for all that she looked kindly; and when she gave away anything, or lifted a finger to help anybody, it was thought a great piece of beneficence, and a compliment indeed, which the recipient accepted with twice as much gratitude as double the gift that came from a poorer and more generous acquaintance. Everybody liked to be on good terms with Mrs. Crowe. Socially she stood much higher than Sarah Ann Binson. They were both old schoolmates and friends of Temperance Dent, who had asked them one day, not long before she died, if they would not come together and look after the house, and manage everything when she was gone. She may have had some hope that they might become closer friends in this period of intimate partnership, and that the richer woman might better understand the burdens of the poorer. They had not kept the house the night before; they were too weary with the care of their old friend, whom they had not left until all was over.

There was a brook which ran down the hillside very near the house, and the sound of it was much louder than usual. When there was silence in the kitchen, the busy stream had a strange insistence in its wild voice, as if it tried to make the watchers understand something that related to the past.

“I declare, I can’t begin to sorrow for Tempy yet. I am so glad to have her at rest,” whispered Mrs. Crowe. “It is strange to set here without her, but I can’t make it clear that she has gone. I feel as if she had got easy and dropped off to sleep, and I’m more scared about waking her up than knowing any other feeling.”

“Yes,” said Sarah Ann, “it’s just like that, ain’t it? But I tell you we are goin’ to miss her worse than we expect. She’s helped me through with many a trial, has Temperance. I ain’t the only one who says the same neither.”

These words were spoken as if there were a third person listening; somebody beside Mrs. Crowe. The watchers could not rid their minds of the feeling that they were being watched themselves. The spring wind whistled in the window crack now and then, and buffeted the little house in a gusty way that had a sort of companionable effect. Yet on the whole it was a very still night, and the watchers spoke in a half-whisper.

“She was the freest-handed woman that ever I knew,” said Mrs. Crowe decidedly. “According to her means, she gave away more than anybody. I used to tell her ’twa’n’t right. I used really to be afraid that she went without too much,—for we have a duty to ourselves.”

Sister Binson looked up in a half-amused, unconscious way, and then recollected herself.

Mrs. Crowe met her look with a serious face. “It ain’t so easy for me to give as it is for some,” she said simply, but with an effort which was made possible only by the occasion. “I should like to say, while Tempy is laying here yet in her own house, that she has been a constant lesson to me. Folks are too kind, and shame me with thanks for what I do. I ain’t such a generous woman as poor Tempy was, for all she had nothin’ to do with, as one may say.”

Sarah Binson was much moved at this confession, and was even pained and touched by the unexpected humility. “You have a good many calls on you,” she began, and then left her kind little compliment half finished.

“Yes, yes; but I’ve got means enough. My disposition’s more of a cross to me as I grow older, and I made up my mind this morning that Tempy’s example should be my pattern henceforth.” She began to knit faster than ever.

“’Tain’t no use to get morbid; that’s what Tempy used to say herself,” said Sarah Ann, after a minute’s silence. “Ain’t it strange to say ‘used to say’?” and her voice choked a little. “She never did like to hear folks git goin’ about themselves.”

“’Twas only because they’re apt to do it so as other folks will say ’twasn’t so, an’ praise ’em up,” humbly replied Mrs. Crowe, “and that ain’t my object. There wa’n’t a child but what Tempy set herself to work to see what she could do to please it. One time my brother’s folks had been stopping here in the summer, from Massachusetts. The children was all little, and they broke up a sight of toys, and left ’em when they were going away. Tempy come right up after they rode by, to see if she couldn’t help me set the house to rights, and she caught me just as I was going to fling some of the clutter into the stove. I was kind of tired out, starting ’em off in season. ‘Oh, give me them!’ says she, real pleading; and she wropped ’em up and took ’em home with her when she went, and she mended ’em up and stuck ’em together, and made some young one or other happy with every blessed one. You’d thought I’d done her the biggest favor. ‘No thanks to me. I should ha’ burnt ’em, Tempy,’ says I.”

“Some of ’em came to our house, I know,” said Miss Binson. “She’d take a lot o’ trouble to please a child, ’stead o’ shoving of it out o’ the way, like the rest of us when we’re drove.”

“I can tell you the biggest thing she ever gave, and I don’t know’s there’s anybody left but me to tell it. I don’t want it forgot,” Sarah Binson went on, looking up at the clock to see how the night was going. “It was that pretty-looking Trevor girl, who taught the Corners school, and married so well afterwards, out in New York State. You remember her, I daresay?”

“Certain,” said Mrs. Crowe, with an air of interest.

“She was a splendid scholar, folks said, and give the school a great start; but she’d overdone herself getting her education, and working to pay for it, and she all broke down one spring, and Tempy made her come and stop with her awhile,—you remember that? Well, she had an uncle, her mother’s brother out in Chicago, who was well off and friendly, and used to write to Lizzie Trevor, and I daresay make her some presents; but he was a lively, driving man, and didn’t take time to stop and think about his folks. He hadn’t seen her since she was a little girl. Poor Lizzie was so pale and weakly that she just got through the term o’ school. She looked as if she was just going straight off in a decline. Tempy she cosseted her up awhile, and then, next thing folks knew, she was tellin’ round how Miss Trevor had gone to see her uncle, and meant to visit Niagary Falls on the way and stop over night. Now I happened to know, in ways I won’t dwell on to explain, that the poor girl was in debt for her schoolin’ when she come here, and her last quarter’s pay had just squared it off at last, and left her without a cent ahead hardly: but it had fretted her thinking of it, so she paid it all; they might have dunned her that she owed it to. An’ I taxed Tempy about the girl’s goin’ off on such a journey, till she owned up, rather’n have Lizzie blamed, that she’d given her sixty dollars, same’s if she was rolling in riches, and sent her off to have a good rest and vacation.”

“Sixty dollars!” exclaimed Mrs. Crowe. “Tempy only had ninety dollars a year that came in to her; rest of her livin’ she got by helpin’ about, with what she raised off this little piece o’ ground, sand one side an’ clay the other. An’ how often I’ve heard her tell, years ago, that she’d rather see Niagary than any other sight in the world!”

The women looked at each other in silence; the magnitude of the generous sacrifice was almost too great for their comprehension.

“She was just poor enough to do that!” declared Mrs. Crowe at last, in an abandonment of feeling. “Say what you may, I feel humbled to the dust;” and her companion ventured to say nothing. She never had given away sixty dollars at once, but it was simply because she never had it to give. It came to her very lips to say in explanation, “Tempy was so situated;” but she checked herself in time, for she would not break in upon her own loyal guarding of her dependent household.

“Folks say a great deal of generosity, and this one’s being public-sperited, and that one free-handed about giving,” said Mrs. Crowe, who was a little nervous in the silence. “I suppose we can’t tell the sorrow it would be to some folks not to give, same’s ’twould be to me not to save. I seem kind of made for that, as if ’twas what I’d got to do. I should feel sights better about it if I could make it evident what I was savin’ for. If I had a child, now, Sarah Ann,” and her voice was a little husky,—“if I had a child, I should think I was heapin’ of it up because he was the one trained by the Lord to scatter it again for good. But here’s Crowe and me, we can’t do anything with money, and both of us like to keep things same’s they’ve always been. Now Priscilla Dance was talking away like a mill-clapper, week before last. She’d think I would go right off and get one o’ them new-fashioned gilt-and-white papers for the best room, and some new furniture, an’ a marble-top table. And I looked at her, all struck up. ‘Why,’ says I, ‘Priscilla, that nice old velvet paper ain’t hurt a mite. I shouldn’t feel ’twas my best room without it. Dan’el says ’tis the first thing he can remember rubbin’ his little baby fingers on to it, and how splendid he thought them red roses was.’ I maintain,” continued Mrs. Crowe stoutly, “that folks wastes sights o’ good money doin’ just such foolish things. Tearin’ out the insides o’ meetin’-houses, and fixin’ the pews different; ’twas good enough as ’twas, with mendin’: then hard times come, an’ they want to put it all back same’s ’twas before.”

This touched upon an exciting subject to active members of that parish. Miss Binson and Mrs. Crowe belonged to opposite parties, and had at one time come as near hard feelings as they could and yet escape them. Each hastened to speak of other things and to show her untouched friendliness.

“I do agree with you,” said Sister Binson, “that few of us know what use to make of money beyond every-day necessities. You’ve seen more o’ the world than I have, and know what’s expected. When it comes to taste and judgment about such things, I ought to defer to others;” and with this modest avowal the critical moment passed when there might have been an improper discussion.

In the silence that followed, the fact of their presence in a house of death grew more clear than before. There was something disturbing in the noise of a mouse gnawing at the dry boards of a closet wall near by. Both the watchers looked up anxiously at the clock; it was almost the middle of the night, and the whole world seemed to have left them alone with their solemn duty. Only the brook was awake.

“Perhaps we might give a look up-stairs now,” whispered Mrs. Crowe, as if she hoped to hear some reason against their going just then to the chamber of death; but Sister Binson rose, with a serious and yet satisfied countenance, and lifted the small lamp from the table. She was much more used to watching than Mrs. Crowe, and much less affected by it. They opened the door into a small entry with a steep stairway; they climbed the creaking stairs, and entered the cold upper room on tiptoe. Mrs. Crowe’s heart began to beat very fast as the lamp was put on a high bureau, and made long fixed shadows about the walls. She went hesitatingly toward the solemn shape under its white drapery, and felt a sense of remonstrance as Sarah Ann gently, but in a business-like way, turned back the thin sheet.

“Seems to me she looks pleasanter and pleasanter,” whispered Sarah Ann Binson impulsively, as they gazed at the white face with its wonderful smile. “To-morrow ’twill all have faded out. I do believe they kind of wake up a day or two after they die, and it’s then they go.” She replaced the light covering, and they both turned quickly away; there was a chill in this upper room.

“’Tis a great thing for anybody to have got through, ain’t it?” said Mrs. Crowe softly, as she began to go down the stairs on tiptoe. The warm air from the kitchen beneath met them with a sense of welcome and shelter.

“I don’t know why it is, but I feel as near again to Tempy down here as I do up there,” replied Sister Binson. “I feel as if the air was full of her, kind of. I can sense things now and then that she seems to say. Now I never was one to take up with no nonsense of sperits and such, but I declare I felt as if she told me just now to put some more wood into the stove.”

Mrs. Crowe preserved a gloomy silence. She had suspected before this that her companion was of a weaker and more credulous disposition than herself. “’Tis a great thing to have got through,” she repeated, ignoring definitely all that had last been said. “I suppose you know as well as I that Tempy was one that always feared death. Well, it’s all put behind her now; she knows what ’tis.” Mrs. Crowe gave a little sigh, and Sister Binson’s quick sympathies were stirred toward this other old friend, who also dreaded the great change.

“I’d never like to forgit almost those last words Tempy spoke plain to me,” she said gently, like the comforter she truly was. “She looked up at me once or twice, that last afternoon after I come to set by her and let Mis’ Owen go home; and I says, ‘Can I do anything to ease you, Tempy?’ and the tears come into my eyes so I couldn’t see what kind of a nod she give me. ‘No, Sarah Ann, you can’t, dear,’ says she; and then she got her breath again, and says she, looking at me real meanin’, ‘I’m only a-gettin’ sleepier and sleepier; that’s all there is,’ says she, and smiled up at me kind of wishful, and shut her eyes. I knew well enough all she meant. She’d been lookin’ out for a chance to tell me, and I don’t know’s she ever said much afterwards.”

Mrs. Crowe was not knitting; she had been listening too eagerly. “Yes, ’twill be a comfort to think of that sometimes,” she said in acknowledgment.

“I know that old Dr. Prince said once in evenin’ meetin’ that he’d watched by many a dyin’ bed, as we well knew, and enough o’ his sick folks had been scared o’ dyin’ their whole lives through; but when they come to the last, he’d never seen one but was willin’, and most were glad, to go. ‘’Tis as natural as bein’ born or livin’ on,’ he said. I don’t know what had moved him to speak that night. You know he wa’n’t in the habit of it, and ’twas the monthly concert of prayer for foreign missions anyways,” said Sarah Ann; “but ’twas a great stay to the mind to listen to his words of experience.”

“There never was a better man,” responded Mrs. Crowe in a really cheerful tone. She had recovered from her feeling of nervous dread, the kitchen was so comfortable with lamplight and firelight; and just then the old clock began to tell the hour of twelve with leisurely whirring strokes.

Sister Binson laid aside her work, and rose quickly and went to the cupboard. “We’d better take a little to eat,” she explained. “The night will go fast after this. I want to know if you went and made some o’ your nice cupcake, while you was home to-day?” she asked in a pleased tone; and Mrs. Crowe acknowledged such a gratifying piece of thoughtfulness for this humble friend who denied herself all luxuries. Sarah Ann brewed a generous cup of tea, and the watchers drew their chairs up to the table presently, and quelled their hunger with good country appetites. Sister Binson put a spoon into a small old-fashioned glass of preserved quince, and passed it to her friend. She was most familiar with the house, and played the part of hostess. “Spread some o’ this on your bread and butter,” she said to Mrs. Crowe. “Tempy wanted me to use some three or four times, but I never felt to. I know she’d like to have us comfortable now, and would urge us to make a good supper, poor dear.”

“What excellent preserves she did make!” mourned Mrs. Crowe. “None of us has got her light hand at doin’ things tasty. She made the most o’ everything, too. Now, she only had that one old quince-tree down in the far corner of the piece; but she’d go out in the spring and tend to it, and look at it so pleasant, and kind of expect the old thorny thing into bloomin’.”

“She was just the same with folks,” said Sarah Ann. “And she’d never git more’n a little apernful o’ quinces, but she’d have every mite o’ goodness out o’ those, and set the glasses up onto her best-room closet shelf, so pleased. ’Twa’n’t but a week ago to-morrow mornin’ I fetched her a little taste o’ jelly in a teaspoon; and she says ‘Thank ye,’ and took it; an’ the minute she tasted it she looked up at me as worried as could be. ‘Oh, I don’t want to eat that,’ says she. ‘I always keep that in case o’ sickness.’ ‘You’re goin’ to have the good o’ one tumbler yourself,’ says I. ‘I’d just like to know who’s sick now, if you ain’t!’ An’ she couldn’t help laughin’, I spoke up so smart. Oh dear me, how I shall miss talkin’ over things with her! She always sensed things, and got just the p’int you meant.”

“She didn’t begin to age until two or three years ago, did she?” asked Mrs. Crowe. “I never saw anybody keep her looks as Tempy did. She looked young long after I begun to feel like an old woman. The doctor used to say ’twas her young heart, and I don’t know but what he was right. How she did do for other folks! There was one spell she wasn’t at home a day for a fortnight. She got most of her livin’ so, and that made her own potatoes and things last her through. None o’ the young folks could get married without her, and all the old ones was disappointed if she wa’n’t round when they was down with sickness and had to go. An’ cleanin’, or tailorin’ for boys, or rug-hookin’,—there was nothin’ but what she could do as handy as most. ‘I do love to work!’—’a’n’t you heard her say that twenty times a week?”

Sarah Ann Binson nodded, and began to clear away the empty plates. “We may want a taste o’ somethin’ more towards mornin’,” she said. “There’s plenty in the closet here; and in case some comes from a distance to the funeral, we’ll have a little table spread after we get back to the house.”

“Yes, I was busy all the mornin’. I’ve cooked up a sight o’ things to bring over,” said Mrs. Crowe. “I felt ’twas the last I could do for her.”

They drew their chairs near the stove again, and took up their work. Sister Binson’s rocking-chair creaked as she rocked; the brook sounded louder than ever. It was more lonely when nobody spoke, and presently Mrs. Crowe returned to her thoughts of growing old.

“Yes, Tempy aged all of a sudden. I remember I asked her if she felt as well as common, one day, and she laughed at me good. There: when Dan’el begun to look old, I couldn’t help feeling as if somethin’ ailed him, and like as not ’twas somethin’ he was goin’ to git right over, and I dosed him for it stiddy, half of one summer.”

“How many things we shall be wanting to ask Tempy!” exclaimed Sarah Ann Binson after a long pause. “I can’t make up my mind to doin’ without her. I wish folks could come back just once, and tell us how ’tis where they’ve gone. Seems then we could do without ’em better.”

The brook hurried on, the wind blew about the house now and then; the house itself was a silent place, and the supper, the warm fire, and an absence of any new topics for conversation made the watchers drowsy. Sister Binson closed her eyes first, to rest them for a minute; and Mrs. Crowe glanced at her compassionately, with a new sympathy for the hard-worked little woman. She made up her mind to let Sarah Ann have a good rest, while she kept watch alone; but in a few minutes her own knitting was dropped, and she too fell asleep. Overhead, the pale shape of Tempy Dent, the outworn body of that generous, loving-hearted, simple soul, slept on also in its white raiment. Perhaps Tempy herself stood near, and saw her own life and its surroundings with new understanding. Perhaps she herself was the only watcher.

Later, by some hours, Sarah Ann Binson woke with a start. There was a pale light of dawn outside the small windows. Inside the kitchen the lamp burned dim. Mrs. Crowe awoke too.

“I think Tempy’d be the first to say ’twas just as well we both had some rest,” she said, not without a guilty feeling.

Her companion went to the outer door, and opened it wide. The fresh air was none too cold, and the brook’s voice was not nearly so loud as it had been in the midnight darkness. She could see the shapes of the hills, and the great shadows that lay across the lower country. The east was fast growing bright.

“’Twill be a beautiful day for the funeral,” she said, and turned again, with a sigh, to follow Mrs. Crowe up the stairs. The world seemed more and more empty without the kind face and helpful hands of Tempy Dent.