From Provincial Types In American Fiction (The Chautauqua Press, New York: 1903)
When the New England short story is mentioned the mind naturally turns to Miss Wilkins (now Mary Wilkins Freeman), because of her certain touch in portraying the various provincial types in that special form of literary art. But in her more sustained effort of “Pembroke” one gets more fully the interaction of many village types and a deeper impression of the prevailing grimness and rigidity of much of New England's remote community life, — a life that has, too, its pleasing contrasts, its often unconscious humor, and its strength of loyal love and self-sacrifice; yet as painted by Miss Wilkins it is gaunt and “set,” intensely and formally religious, and lacking much in the spirit of mirth and the love of beauty. As has elsewhere been said, conscience and will dominate these lives like passions, — they are driven before them like ships with bare masts before the storm. Life often ceases to be joy and becomes only duty, — duty of the most exacting and unrelenting kind; or else some cruel stubbornness or inactivity of will works itself out almost unconsciously into a lifelong tragedy of suffering and misery.
Miss Wilkins's opening picture in “Pembroke” is that of the Thayer family sitting in semicircle about the kitchen fire, the great leather-bound Bible resting on the knees of Caleb Thayer, the father, who is reading from it in solemn voice; while his wife, Deborah, “her large face tilted with a judicial and argumentative air,” sits straight in her chair and enjoys with much relish one of the imprecatory psalms her husband is reading. Her eyes were gleaming with warlike energy, — she was confusing “King David's enemies with those people who crossed her own will.” As her eldest son, Barney, came into the kitchen on his way to make a Sunday-night call on his sweetheart, Ephraim, the younger son, stared at his brother's smooth, scented hair, the black satin vest with a pattern of blue flowers on it, the blue coat with brass buttons, and the shining boots, and softly whistled under his breath.
Mrs. Thayer enjoined her son not to stay later than nine o'clock, and to emphasize her injunction “she jerked her chin down heavily as if it were made of iron.” But Barnabas, a chip of the maternal block, slammed the door as he went out, and the mother remarked that if he were a few years younger, she would make him shut that door “over again.” “Barney” was to be married to Charlotte Barnard in June; and as he passed under the apple blossoms and looked up, he thought of his share of the income from apples, and how Charlotte after their marriage should have one new silk dress every year and two new bonnets, — for his mother had often noted with scorn that Charlotte wore her summer bonnet with another ribbon on it in winter. In his loving pride he had once bought Charlotte a little blue-figured shawl, which her father in the answering pride of poverty had bidden her return. “I ain't goin' to have any young sparks buyin' your clothes while you are under my roof.”
On his way to Charlotte Barnard's he stopped at the little story-and-a-half cottage house which he had been building in anticipation of his marriage. His father, in his inherited terror of wind, had urged the safety of a one-story house, but Barney scornfully insisted on a story and a half. Through the kitchen window he could see a straight, dark column of smoke rising from Charlotte's home. He imagined how pleased she would be with the sunniness of the windows in this cozy room, and said to himself, “Her rocking-chair can set there.” In the fullness of his emotion at the thought of their happiness the tears came to his eyes, and, laying his cheek against a partition wall of his new house, he suddenly kissed it. As he went out of the house, he thought of their long future together and the solemn end, — “I shall lie in my coffin in the north room, and it will be all over,” — but his heart was leaping with joy and he felt the proud strength of a soldier.
In the Barnard kitchen, after a somewhat nervous welcome to the lover on the part of Charlotte's mother and Aunt Sylvia, the sudden and gruff voice of Cephas Barnard, the father, bade his daughter light the candle, although it was hardly late enough to justify such a proceeding. But the grim, black-eyed Cephas suspected that the young lover would be likely to hold his daughter's hand in the dusk, and he was going to prevent it.
Barnabas listened for the welcome crackle of the fire in the parlor where he hoped to sit alone with Charlotte, but this particular Sunday night he failed to hear it. With aggressive opposition Charlotte's father had sometimes proclaimed, “If Barnabas Thayer can't set here with the rest of us, he can go home.” His hard and at times almost savage manner was loyally interpreted by Mrs. Barnard to her daughter as “your father's way.” As Miss Wilkins remarks, “Miss Barnard herself had spelt out her husband like a hard and seemingly cruel text in the Bible. She marveled at its darkness in her light, but she believed in it reverently, and even pugnaciously.” But her elder sister Hannah stood in no particular awe of her brother-in-law, and his autocratic whims she was quick to characterize in a somewhat pungent style: “His way! Keepin' you all on rye meal one spell, an' not lettin' you eat a mite of Injun, an' then keepin' you on Injun without a mite of rye! Makin' you eat nothin' but greens an' garden stuff, an' jest turnin' you out to graze an' chew your cuds like horned animals one spell, an' then makin' you live on meat!”
Tragically enough, on this eventful night Cephas Barnard and his prospective son-in-law, — the one a Whig and the other a Democrat, — fell into an ugly political discussion, which waxed uglier, until in his sudden rage the father ordered Barnabas from the house. “Get out of this house, an' don't you ever darse darken these doors again while the Lord Almighty reigns!” Whereupon, in an awful voice, Barnabas rejoined, “I never will, by the Lord Almighty!” and slammed the door behind him. That quarrel and that vow, in the grimly ordered village tragedy of Miss Wilkins, affected the life of a whole community. Given the “set” New England character and the idolatry of self-will, and some very tragic consequences may result from seemingly trivial causes.
Against her father's will and even forcibly, Charlotte pushed out into the night calling after her lover to come back, but with characteristic stubbornness he never turned his head; and there she stood alone, finally shouting to him imperiously, “If you're ever coming back, you come now!” Locked out from her home by her angry father, Charlotte sat motionless on the door-stone till her Aunt Sylvia's appearance suggested that she spend the night with her. And as they went by, all unknown to them, Barnabas Thayer, the maddened lover, watched them from the window of his new house, and bewailed the hardness of his fate, which he inevitably connected with the will of God. “‘What have I done to be treated in this way?’ he demanded, setting his face ahead in the darkness; and he did not see Cephas Barnard's threatening countenance, but another, gigantic with its vague outlines, which his fancy could not limit, confronting him with terrible negative power like a stone image. He struck out against it, and the blows fell back on his own heart.”
Involved in the misery of Charlotte and Barnabas, is the sweet and lifelike “old maid,” Aunt Sylvia Crane, who, detained by the quarrel of Cephas and Barnabas, had missed at her own home the regular Sunday-night call of Richard Alger, her quasi-lover for the past eighteen years. The previous Sunday night he had come so perilously near to “popping the question” that he had managed to move over from his chair to the haircloth sofa on which she expectantly sat; he had actually begun a sort of declaration of love when the clock struck ten and startled him into a sense of the lateness of the hour, putting a sudden end to his long-delayed and long-hoped-for proposal. And so through the following week Sylvia Crane had trembled and sighed and yearned for the next Sunday night, when, perhaps, Richard would end his long wooing and add the crown of happiness to her patient life. But alas! when he did actually come he found the stone which the Crane family from time immemorial had rolled before the front door in their absence blocking the way, and he abruptly returned to his home. That night, while her niece, Charlotte Barnard, lay sobbing upstairs and muttering to herself, “Poor Barney! Poor Barney!” her Aunt Sylvia, below, kept repeating piteously: “Poor Richard! Poor Richard!” And the next morning, after a long night of restless grief, the old maid felt that the disappointment of her niece was as nothing in comparison with the sorrow of her own maturity. “ I guess she ain't had any such night as I have. Girls don't know much about it.” The hopelessness of her sorrow took the surprising form of petulance and hostile criticism, and the naturally sweet-tempered woman even dared to strike at the willful eccentricities of her brother-in-law. She maintained with remarkable audacity that Barney was no more “set” than Cephas; and when her sister defended her husband, with the remark, “Cephas ain't set. It's jest his way,” Sylvia grew strangely ironical: “Folks had better been created without ways, then. … They'd been enough sight happier an' better off, and so would other folks that they have to do with, than to have so many ways, an' not sense enough to manage them.” Sylvia even went so far in her sudden reaction against fate as to inveigh against the doctrine of free will, which naturally had a horrifying effect on her other sister, the strong-willed, churchly, and dominating Hannah Berry. “Sylvy Crane, you ain't goin' to deny one of the doctrines of the Church, at your time of life?” And being bravely answered by Sylvia in the affirmative, Mrs. Berry exclaimed: “Then all I've got to say is you'd ought to be ashamed of yourself. Why, I should think you was crazy, Sylvy Crane, settin' up yourself agin' the doctrines of the Word.”
The garrulous and outspoken Hannah was not lacking either in criticism of her brother-in-law; but his wife Sarah came to his defense, recalling his morning's talk on food. “He said this mornin' that he didn't know but we were eatin' the wrong kind of food. Lately he's had an idea that mebbe we'd ought to eat more meat; he's thought it was more strengthenin', an' we'd ought to eat things as near like what we wanted to strengthen as could be. I've made a good deal of bone soup. But now he says he thinks mebbe he's been mistaken, an' animal food kind of quickens the animal nature in us, an' that we'd better eat green things an' garden sass.” To which the sarcastic Hannah, with a sniff, retorted: “I guess garden sass will strengthen the other kind of sass that Cephas Barnard has got in him, full as much as bone soup has.” When later Cephas came over and marched back, with his wife and daughter following close behind, Hannah Berry's parting comment was: “Well, all I've got to say is I'm thankful I ain't got a man like that, an' you ought to be mighty thankful you ain't got any man at all, Sylvy Crane.” But poor Sylvia could hardly agree.
When, at home, Charlotte had put off her purple gown, which was to have been a part of the wedding wardrobe, and clad in a common dress, descended to the kitchen, she found her mother facing her father with unwonted spirit. She was remonstrating with him for his latest whim, — he had turned vegetarian with such a vengeance that he was insisting on sorrel pies, and he wanted them made without lard. His wife argued the impossibility of such cookery, although she made the confession that “Mebbe the sorrel, if it had some molasses on it for juice, wouldn't taste very bad.” When both wife and daughter leagued against him in the matter of such pastry, Cephas came out of the pantry carrying the mixing-board and rolling-pin “like a shield and a club,” and set to work himself with characteristic stubbornness. His wife softly intimated that she had some pumpkin that would make good pies, but the perverse vegetarian said he knew that pumpkin pies had milk in them, “An' I tell you I ain't goin' to have anything of an animal nature in 'em.” To his wife's observation that she had seen horses “terribly ugly, an' they don't eat a mite of meat,” Cephas crushingly replied: “Ain't I told ye once horses were the exceptions. There has to be exceptions. If there wa'n't any exceptions there couldn't be any rule, an' there bein' exceptions shows there is a rule. Women can't ever get hold of things straight. Their minds slant off sideways, the way their arms do when they fling a stone.”
In the midst of his pie-making that she-Puritan, Deborah Thayer, abruptly entered. “She moved, a stately, high-hipped figure, her severe face almost concealed in a scooping, green, barege hood, to the center of the floor, and stood there with a pose that might have answered for a statue of Judgment.” She came to see what her son Barnabas, the night before, had done that Cephas Barnard should order him from the house forever. “If it's anything wrong, I shall be jest as hard on him as the Lord for it.” Charlotte's exclamation that Barney had done nothing wrong was simply ignored by his mother, who fiercely assailed Cephas for the reason. Cephas, grimly silent, at last opened his mouth as if perforce, declaring that they “got to talkin' about the 'lection,” and that, according to his own reasoning, what they ate had a good deal to do with it. “I think if you'd kept your family on less meat, and given 'em more garden-stuff to eat, Barney wouldn't have been so up an' comin'. It's what he's eat that's made him what he is.” This was too much for the logical theories of Deborah Thayer, and she gazed at Cephas in stern amazement. “You're tryin' to make out, as near as I can tell, that whatever my son has done wrong is due to what he's eat, and not to original sin. I knew you had queer ideas, Cephas Barnard, but I didn't know you wa'n't sound in your faith.”
Suddenly Charlotte leaped up in fierce resentment against the injustice of her father, and in loyal defense of her lover, laying the blame for the quarrel largely on the former. And as Deborah Thayer retired, after discovering the sorrel pies, she remarked, with fierce conscientiousness: “I'm goin' to try to make my son do his duty. I don't expect he will, but I shall do all I can, tempers or no tempers, and sorrel pies or no sorrel pies.”
Mrs. Thayer's daughter Rebecca, in company with Rose Berry, her cousin, — after the latter's somewhat self-interested effort to reconcile Barney and Charlotte, — makes a charming picture in Silas Berry's great country store, as she stands waiting to sell her basket of eggs, her face blooming “deeply pink in the green tunnel of her sunbonnet,” her black eyes as “soft and wary as a baby's,” her full red lips wearing a grave, innocent expression. She is standing before her lover, Silas Berry's son William, who is ardently eager to give her a generous allowance of sugar for her eggs, if only he can escape the watchful supervision of his penurious father in the rear of the store. The old man's hard voice sounds out, “You ain't offerin' of her two pound of sugar for two dozen eggs?” And when the son replies that it was two and a half pounds, Silas excitedly cries out, “ Be you gone crazy?” Despite his daughter's petition and his son's resolute determination to give the modest Rebecca a full exchange, old Silas pulled himself up “a joint at a time,” came forward at a stiff halt, and said: “Sugar is fourteen cents a pound, an' eggs is fetchin' ten cents a dozen; you can have a pound and a half of sugar for them eggs if you can give me a cent to boot.” Poor Rebecca colored, and replied that she hadn't brought her purse, whereupon the old man enjoined her to tell her mother about it and come back with the cent by and by. But this mean bargaining was too much for the young lover, William, who shouldered his father to one side with sudden energy, sternly whispering to him to “leave it alone.” However, the old man's chronic “closeness” reasserted itself in the expostulating remark: “I ain't goin' to stan' by an' see you givin' twice as much for eggs as they're worth, 'cause it's a gal you're tradin' with. That wa'n't never my way of doin' business, an' I ain't goin' to have it done in my store.” William, with steady resolution, recklessly heaped the sugar on some paper, and laid it on the steelyards; the old man pushed forward and bent over the steelyards, wrathfully exclaiming, “You've weighed out nigh three.” Suddenly something in the son's face made the old man stop, — the combination of mental and superior physical force in the son dominated the father. “His son towered over him in what seemed the might of his own lost strength and youth, brandishing his own old weapons.” Yet nature reasserted itself, for when William had put the sugar in Rebecca's basket, the old man began counting the eggs, only to find that “there ain't but twenty-three eggs here.” Under the fierce whisperings of William, however, Silas finally subsided into sullen mutterings.
Rebecca's arrival at home found her mother, Deborah Thayer, vigorously making cake, looking as “full of stern desperation as a soldier on the battlefield.” Deborah never yielded to any of the vicissitudes of life; she met them in fair fight like enemies, and vanquished them, not with trumpet and spear, but with daily duties. It was a village story how Deborah Thayer “cleaned all the windows in the house one afternoon when her first child had died in the morning.” She was now making cake in the midst of her bitter misery over her son's quarrel with Cephas Barnard and his sweetheart Charlotte. She insisted on Rebecca's staying in the kitchen to cream the butter and sugar, and she already had her younger and somewhat invalid son, Ephraim, stoning raisins. Though forbidden to eat any, Ephraim would fill his mouth when his mother turned away to watch Barney, the older son, at work in the field. Ephraim's mouth was “demure with mischief,” and his “gawky figure perpetually uneasy and twisting, as if to find entrance into small forbidden places.” When his mother looked suddenly at him there was a curious expression in his face that continually led his mother to infer that he had been transgressing, and she would cry out sharply, “What have you been doin', Ephraim?” but she was always routed by Ephraim's “innocent, wondering grin in response.” At the end of his raisin-stoning he plaintively asked, “Can't I have just one raisin, mother?” “Yes, you may, if you ain't eat any while you was pickin' of 'em over.” Whereupon little innocent Ephraim selected a large fat “plum,” and ate it with “ostentatious relish.”
As his mother turned to go out, Ephraim whiningly asked if he couldn't go too. “There were times when the spirit of rebellion in him made illness and even his final demise flash before his eyes like sweet overhanging fruit, since they were so strenuously forbidden.” Meeting her son Barnabas, who was plowing in the field, Deborah issued her ultimatum, and their first silent glances were as if “two wills clashed swords in advance.” “I ain't never goin' to say anything more to you about it,” referring to the proposed apology to Cephas Barnard, “but there's one thing — you needn't come home to dinner. You sha'n't ever sit down to a meal in your father's and mother's house whilst this thing goes on.” And the only response that came from the “set” Barnabas was “G'lang!” Caleb, the father, also pleaded with the son, but without the least effect; and as he sat sobbing under the wild cherry tree — his face in his old red handkerchief, — Rebecca, coming out to feed the hens, attempted to console him with the remark, “Barney'll get over it.” To which Caleb despairingly responded: “No, he won't; no, he won't. He's jest like your mother.”
One of the delightful and relieving pictures in “Pembroke” is that of the cherry party in Silas Berry's orchard — where the young people of the village were in the habit of picnicking, until old Silas's greed overreached itself and some college friends of 'Squire Payne's son, refusing to pay the exorbitant price, went by singing “Who lives here?” with the mocking response, “Old Silas Berry, who charges sixpence for a cherry.” The comment of his wife on the impolicy of his greed, — “You're jest a-puttin' your own eyes out, Silas Berry,” — proved too true a prophecy, for his orchard was regularly boycotted by the young people and purchasers generally. This season, however, the old man seemed afflicted with spasmodic generosity, — he had even offered Rose, his daughter, the privilege of a cherry party without pay; whereat Rose fairly gasped. “The vague horror of the unusual stole over her. A new phase of her father's character stood between her and all her old memories like a supernatural presence.” As she said to her mother, she was dreadfully afraid he was going to have another “shock.”
In making the plans for the party Rose and her mother decided to include all the available young people, — “The Lord only knows when your father'll have another freak like this. I guess it's like an eclipse of the sun, and won't come again very soon.” And there was Charlotte Barnard, her “smooth hair gleaming in the sun, her neck showing pink through her embroidered lace kerchief,” apparently not seeing her old lover, Barnabas, but knowing full well when he came; and Barney, in his best suit, slender and handsome, with a stern and almost martial air, standing apart, and feeling a fierce sense of ownership in Charlotte, whose basket the 'Squire's son Thomas was filling with the ripest cherries from the top of the tree. But Barney yielded to the charm of Rose Berry's frank and winning ways, — of Rose, who, in the heart of her New England, and bred after the precepts of orthodoxy, was yet a pagan, and “worshiped Love himself.” “Barney was simply the statue that represented the divinity; another might have done as well had the sculpture been as fine.”
“Copenhagen” was the favorite game that afternoon under the cherry trees; and as the young people clung to the swaying rope, looping this way and that as the pursuers neared them, their radiant faces “had the likeness of one family of flowers, through their one expression.” The tossing cherry boughs above their heads, the old red tavern wall with a great mass of blooming phlox against it, “vague with distance like a purple smoke,” the glistening fence rails, a singing bluebird, — these were all unthought of by the merrymakers, and only one note, the note of joyous love, they listened to; even Charlotte and Barney felt the old touch of love's exhilaration, except that it was Rose and not Charlotte that Barney kissed so fiercely, for at that very moment the handsome face of Thomas Payne, his rival, was meeting Charlotte's. “The girls' cheeks flushed deeper, their smooth locks became roughened. The laughter waxed louder and longer; the matrons looking on doubled their broad backs with responsive merriment. It became like a little bacchanalian rout in a New England field on a summer afternoon, but they did not know it in their simple hearts.”
But on this free-hearted merriment scowled the avaricious face of the owner of the cherry trees, Silas Berry, whose predominant trait seemed to “mold his face to itself unchangeably, as the face of a hunting dog is molded to his speed and watchfulness.” As the happy party were passing homeward they had confirmed with a chorus of assents the remark of Thomas Payne that he guessed the old man wasn't so bad after all, when suddenly Silas himself advanced toward them, drew out a roll of paper, and handed it to Thomas Payne. At Thomas's inquiry as to what it was, the old man's face lighted up with the ingenuous smile of a child, and he replied in a wheedling whisper, “It's nothin' but the bill … for the cherries you eat. I've always been in the habit of chargin' more, but I've took off a leetle this time.” Thomas in disgusted surprise crammed the amount of the bill into the eagerly outstretched hand of the old man, but before the party had reached the foot of the hill the running feet of William Berry, the old man's son, were heard, and a hoarse voice called out to Thomas Payne to stop. William sternly demanded the amount the latter had paid his father for the cherries, and paid it back with trembling fingers, remarking as he did so, “Take it, for God's sake!”
Despite their efforts to ease his chagrin over his father's unparalleled meanness, William Berry broke from them and “pelted up the hill with his heart so bitterly sore that it seemed as if he trod on it at every step.” But a voice kept crying after him, there was “a soft flutter of girlish skirts,” and presently the hand of Rebecca Thayer touched his arm. It was the touch of love and sympathy, and William blushed. “Don't you feel bad; don't you feel bad. You aren't to blame.” — “Isn't he my father?” — “You aren't to blame for that.” — “Disgrace comes without blame,” said William bitterly as he moved on. But protesting her desire to be with him and to sympathize with him, Rebecca raised both her arms and put them about his neck. “ He leaned his cheek down against her soft hair. ‘Poor William,’ she whispered, as if he had been her child instead of her lover.” Yet such spontaneous and heroic love in the presence of disgrace and public ridicule was destined to melt the conventional bonds of virtue and bring upon itself the nemesis of social and family ostracism.
Rebecca's mother, Deborah, on her daughter's return home, cross-examined her as to her lateness, and discovering something of the real situation with reference to William Berry, pitilessly ordered Rebecca to give up all thought of marriage with him, threatening, in fact, to disown her if she married against her parents' wishes: “I shan't have any child but Ephraim left, that's all!”
Ephraim, the professional boy invalid, whiningly pleaded with his mother to know what Rebecca had done, but he was suddenly sent to the pump to wash his face and hands; and as soon as he had filled himself with milk toast and been denied a piece of pie, he was sent from the table to begin his nightly study of the catechism. Muttering angrily under his breath, Ephraim got the catechism out of the top drawer of his father's desk and began “droning out in his weak, sulky voice the first question therein, ‘What is the chief end of man?’” He had been nightly drilled for the last five years on the “Assembly's Catechism,” when his general health admitted — “and sometimes, it seemed to Ephraim, when it had not admitted.” In fact, his mother, fearing a sudden death for her youngest son, was striving to fit him for a higher state to which he might soon be called. And so, before the “Catechism,” Ephraim had been driven laboriously through the whole Bible, chapter by chapter. His mother was pitiless in this regard, and with stern pathos she would say to his protesting and sympathetic father: “If he can't learn nothin' about books, he's got to learn about his own soul. He's got to, whether it hurts him or not.”
The iron insistence of Deborah Thayer that her daughter Rebecca should not marry William Berry, the young man of her choice, had resulted in the daughter's illustrating her mother's own obstinacy and in Rebecca's going secretly with William until she had come to love him not wisely but too well. The unfortunate result had become the talk of the little community, — especially of the gossipmongers, — but as yet it had not been revealed to the iron-willed mother. She had indeed noticed a peculiar change in Rebecca, — an expression in her face that was foreign to it, a growing antipathy to society, and a certain air of misery that was inexplicable even to the penetrating eyes of Deborah Thayer. She began to relent toward her daughter, to watch over her with a sort of fierce tenderness. “She brewed great bowls of domestic medicines from nuts and herbs, and made her drink whether she would or not. She sent her to bed early, and debarred her from the night air.” But not a shadow of suspicion ever crossed her mind that night after night that same daughter slipped across the north parlor and out the front door into the darkness to meet her forbidden lover. The mother, in fact, was secretly dreaming high dreams for her daughter's matrimonial future; and late at night, after Rebecca had gone to bed in her little room off the north parlor, the sternly ambitious mother knitted yard after yard of lace that should properly furnish forth her daughter as a bride. She even drove alone on a windy and snowy December day to a neighboring village to buy material for a new dress for Rebecca. It was snowing hard as she returned, and her green veil was white as she entered the kitchen. “I kept the dress under the buffalo-robe, an' that ain't hurt any,” she vigorously remarked; but when, after proudly shaking out the folds of the gleaming crimson thibet, she got no answering enthusiasm from her daughter, she cried out sharply, “ You don't deserve to have a new dress; you act like a stick of wood.”
The next morning Deborah worked assiduously at cutting and making the new dress for Rebecca, and about the middle of the forenoon she was ready to try it on. She made Rebecca stand up in the middle of the kitchen floor and began fitting the crimson gown to her; when, suddenly recognizing something significant in Rebecca's heavily drooping form, she gave a great start, pushed her daughter violently from her, and stood aloof, looking at her, while the clock ticked in the dreadful silence. “Look at me,” said Deborah. “And Rebecca looked; it was like uncovering a disfigurement or a sore.” The truth of premature passion was out, and Rebecca's eyes and soul shrank from her mother as the latter cried, “Go out of this house.” And Rebecca obeyed without a sound. Immediately after dinner Deborah plodded through the snow to her son Barney's, and in a strange voice bade him go after William Berry and make him marry Rebecca. And when the startled Barney inquired Rebecca's whereabouts, his mother harshly retorted: “I don't know where she is. I turned her out because I wouldn't have her in the house. You brought it all on us; if you hadn't acted so I shouldn't have felt as I did about her marryin'. Now you can go and find her, and get William Berry an' make him marry her. I ain't got anything more to do with it.”
When this marriage by compulsion was accomplished, and Rebecca was established in the old Bennett house as Mrs. William Berry, she lived with curtains down and doors bolted. Never a neighbor saw her face at door or window, and she would not go to the door if anybody knocked. Even to her own brother Barney she was not at home, though he begged to be admitted, and declared he didn't want to say anything hard. And William himself was scarcely noticed by his own father and mother, — such was the unforgiving hardness of their sense of disgrace and their “righteous” wrath; and as for his mother's going to see her son's wife, “Hannah Berry would have set herself up in a pillory” sooner than do that. As for Rebecca's mother, Deborah Thayer, she never spoke of her daughter; and when Rebecca's little dead child went by in the hearse, Deborah would not attend the funeral, though Rebecca's poor old father did.
Since Rebecca's forced marriage Ephraim, her sickly younger brother, had had a sterner experience than ever with his mother, Deborah, who with her strenuous Puritan soul was bent on fitting her invalid boy for heaven. Since all her vigorous training had failed in the case of his sister, the mother redoubled her spiritual discipline over her last child until his life became an almost intolerable series of restraints and duties. On account of his chronic illness he was shut up to a very scanty and simple diet, — no cake, no pie, no plum from a pie; and he now had daily a double stint in the catechism. One brilliant moonlight night, feeling a little better as he lay propped up with pillows in his bedroom, and feeling also the irrepressible boy in him, Ephraim stole out of the house, when his father and mother were safely asleep, took his brother's sled, and coasted alone till midnight, having the one playtime of his life. “He ignored his feeble and laboring breath of life. He trod upon, he outspeeded, all infirmities of the flesh in his wild triumph of the spirit.” His shouts and halloos rang out as he shot down the hill; and when he got home and was ready for bed once more this invalid boy bethought him of the forbidden mince pie in the pantry. He slid as “noiseless as a shadow in the moonlight” through the kitchen, past his parents' door, climbed a “meal-bucket,” reached his pie, broke out a “great jagged half,” and back on the edge of his bed devoured his juicy feast. He had had his first good time.
The next morning he was actually ill, but kept it from his mother. As she went out to drive to a neighboring town for sugar and tea, which she refused to buy of her son-in-law, she left word with Ephraim to tell his father to finish paring the apples so that she could make them into “sauce” on her return. He promised, but when his mother got out of sight he forgot his promise and played “holly-gull” with his father. When his mother discovered on her return that Ephraim had ignored her order she went out to the shed. Meanwhile the boy, now actually very ill, seemed to have lost all fear of her; he felt very strange and “as if he were sinking away from it all through deep abysses.” Deborah returned with a stout stick, and, against the protests of her husband, led the way to Ephraim's bedroom. The boy staggered as he went, and she saw how ill he looked; but she could not this time be daunted by that from her high spiritual purpose. “Ephraim,” said his mother, “I have spared the rod with you all my life because you were sick. Your brother and your sister have both rebelled against the Lord and against me. You are all the child I've got left. You've got to mind me and do right. I ain't goin' to spare you any longer because you ain't well. It is better you should be sick than be well and wicked and disobedient. It is better that your body should suffer than your immortal soul. Stand still.” And with that the stick descended, the boy made a strange noise, and then sank in a heap upon the floor. All of Deborah Thayer's mustard and hot water, all of her remorseful agony of prayer, had no effect to stir once more the life in poor little Ephraim's body. Indeed, she prayed all night for justification, and the watchers over Ephraim's dead body looked at each other with shocked significance. When later it became known to Deborah Thayer, through the kind offices of the doctor's wife, that her boy had indulged, the night before his death, in hours of coasting and in mince-pie eating, her agonized mind was somewhat relieved; but the recent tragedy of her life and the sudden shock of relief proved too much for this fiercely torn soul, driven by the nemesis of Puritan conscience and her own implacable will, and she sank out of life as suddenly as the son whom she had punished for his eternal good.
With patient sweetness amid a secret poverty that finally brought her “on the town,” Sylvia Crane had waited twenty years for Richard Alger, her regular Sunday-night wooer; and finally, the morning following the wedding of her niece, Rose Berry, Sylvia, with a bundle of bedding, a chest, and a rocking-chair, had started on a wood-sled for the poorhouse, But, strange to say, as they passed Richard Alger's home, he appeared as a rescuer, compelled the old man to drive back to the Crane house, and there made a contrite confession to Sylvia, who in all her own poverty and blasted hope kept a heart of sympathy and pity open for Richard. “I've been meaner than sin,” said Richard, “an' I don't know as it makes it any better because I couldn't seem to help it. I didn't forget you a single minute, Sylvia, an' I was awful sorry for you, an' there wasn't a Sabbath night that I didn't want to come more than I wanted to go to heaven. But I couldn't. I couldn't nohow. I've always had to travel in tracks, an' no man livin' knows how deep a track he's in till he gets jolted out of it an' can't get back. But I've got into a track now, an' I'll die before I get out of it.” And Sylvia's face flushed “like an old flower revived in a new spring.” He married her one Sunday morning at the minister's, and then together they went to “meetin',” — although Sylvia's sister, Hannah Berry, was for having a public wedding, caustically observing: “If I'd been goin' with a feller as long as you have with him, I wouldn't get cheated out of a weddin', anyhow. I'd have a weddin', an' I'd have cake, an' I'd ask folks, especially after what's happened. I'd let 'em see I wa'n't quite so far gone, if I had set out for the poorhouse once.”
And ten years after his quarrel with Charlotte Barnard and her father, Barney Thayer, — heroically nursed in the face of public opinion by the loyal Charlotte, — finally was able to conquer his constitutional “setness,” as Richard Alger had done; and resolutely getting up from his sick bed he marched laboriously up the hill to the Barnard house to announce to his old and never wavering sweetheart that he had at last “come back.”
By such unrelenting characterization as this has the author set forth in “Pembroke” the story of a New England community whose grim rigidity of life would be incredible were it not confirmed by the strong and subtle art of so realistic a writer as Miss Wilkins.