About Hannah Stone

Mary E. Wilkins

From Everybody's Magazine Vol. IV No. 17 (January, 1901)

It happened ten years ago, the first Christmas we ever had a tree in our Sunday-school. It isn't so very much to tell, only it is curious how a man or woman may live almost a whole lifetime in one place, and people think they know them root and branch, then all of a sudden something happens that sort of tops off and rounds up the whole, as it were, and people find out that they are beyond and above what they'd always thought.

Folks had always thought they knew Hannah Stone pretty well. I'm sure I thought I did, and so did sister Caroline. Caroline and I often used to talk about Hannah, and it wasn't any too complimentary what we said. Caroline and I, through our never being married and always living together, had come to say exactly what was in our minds to each other. It didn't amount to much more than thinking with us, but everybody else talked just as we did, right out. Everybody said that Hannah Stone was a strange woman. In the first place she lived all alone on the finest farm in the county, in a dreadful lonesome spot, too, almost on the top of Crook Neck Mountain. It is called Crook Neck because it has a queer long slope to the southward, then a great bulge, for all the world like a crook-neck squash. Hannah lived well up the long southern slope, all alone, except for the dummy man that her father had taken, when he was a boy, from the almshouse. The dummy, according to all accounts, wasn't much more than a machine; but he was a good machine.

They do say that dummy can turn off more work than three men that can talk and hear. Maybe it is because he doesn't have his mind taken from his work so much. Sister Caroline often says that if we had all the time we waste in talking, and hearing other people, we could do a good deal more work in the world. But when it comes to that, Hannah Stone doesn't talk much more than the dummy man, and she works. I suppose there isn't a man in the village can begin to do a bigger day's work than Hannah. She goes right out in the field and works, ploughing and planting, wood-chopping, too. Many's the time I've seen Hannah Stone driving her ox-sled through the village with a load of wood, and she'd pitch it off just like a man, too. One winter she brought a load to Caroline and me, and I felt dreadful queer to see another woman pitching off wood at our back door, and so did Caroline.

I said to Caroline that it didn't seem right and according to the fitness of things, and she said she felt so too. It was a bitter cold day, and the wind was coming in blasts enough to take your head off round the corner of our house. Hannah had on mittens and a Bay State shawl, with the ends crossed in front and tied behind, and a worsted hood, but her face was blue. Finally I couldn't stand it another minute. I wrapped up real warm, and I went out. Caroline had a cold, and couldn't, anyhow. I went round to the tail of that ox-sled, and I began dragging off the wood. It was all I could do — I never was a strong build. Then Hannah stopped and came round to me. “What be you doin', Kate?” said she. Hannah and I used to go to school together, and had always been Hannah and Kate to each other.

I spoke up real sharp. “If a woman as well off as you are, with a man to help her, is going to haul wood such a day as this, I ain't going to sit in a warm room and look out of the window and see it,” said I. Then I dragged off another great stick. Hannah she didn't say anything, but she just took hold of my arm, and walked me up to the house, and I hadn't any more strength against her than a baby. “Now you go right in,” said she, then, and her lips were so stiff with the cold that she could hardly speak. I had to go, but I was angry enough, and I just called back at her that she ought to be ashamed of herself; that it was a disgrace to the whole town to have a woman working like that such a day; and that she needn't ever bring any more wood to Caroline and me, anyhow.

Hannah didn't say a word back; she just kept on unloading her team, with Caroline and me looking on, and scolding her out the window. Then she drove her oxen out of the yard. She looked as shapeless as a Hindoo idol standing up in front of the sled. The fringe of her Bay State shawl blew in the wind, but Hannah Stone didn't look as if any mortal wind could move her if she didn't want to go.

Caroline and I heard afterward that the dummy man was down with rheumatism, and we had written to Hannah that we were dreadful hard off for wood, and we felt kind of conscience-stricken.

Hannah had the name of being very well off. People said that she had a great deal in the savings-bank, besides her farm, and she was called very hard at a bargain. Nobody could overreach her, and, maybe in consequence, it was said that she overreached other people. Caroline and I never really believed that, but she was so exactly just that it did use to seem rather mean to us. For instance, Caroline and I were out driving one day and stopped at Hannah's to buy some peas, and she had to measure them out in a pail, because the dummy man was out peddling with the peck measure, and she came way down from her farm that night because she had given us about a gill too many. I can see her now as she stood at our door with her arm crooked around her peck measure. “I found out I give you a gill extra, and as long as I knew you wasn't going to boil them till to-morrow, I came for them,” said she, and she didn't act as if she was doing a thing out of the way. Caroline and I looked at each other, then I went and measured out those peas, and gave them to Hannah.

Hannah was always doing things like that; the village rang with them. Sometimes, though, it worked the other way around. I know for a fact about Hannah's driving down in a blinding snow-storm because Alexander Dean had given her two cents too much for a load of wood. Alexander Dean is a church-member now, but he used to be a very profane man, and sometimes his old habit takes him unawares. They said he swore at Hannah awfully when he went to the door, and saw her pulling that two cents from her mitten. I can't repeat just what he said, but he asked what in —— made her come down in that howling storm with that —— two cents; and Hannah said that she was afraid that something might happen to her, and he would lose it. They did say that Alexander Dean was so mad that he flung the two cents into a snowbank, but I don't know about that.

There are a great many stories of unsuccessful attempts to overreach Hannah Stone. Once Deacon Alvin Gay sold her a cow, and when she sent the dummy man for her, the deacon sent the wrong cow, not worth more'n a quarter of the one Hannah had bought. Hannah had paid a good round sum for the cow, too. Alvin Gay has always had the name of doing things like that, if he is a deacon, so people were inclined to believe it, though he declared it wasn't so, and Hannah had overreached him, instead of him her. Anyway, it was late Saturday night when the dummy man took that wrong cow home. They said he made all sorts of signs that it wasn't right, but the deacon he made believe that he didn't understand. Well, bright and early the next morning, on the Sabbath Day, Hannah came, dressed in her meeting dress and bonnet, walking down from her farm, leading the cow. She led her up to the deacon's front door — the deacon lives next to the meeting-house — and she knocked, and the deacon's wife, who is a real mild-spoken woman, came to the door. She didn't know what it all meant, and she looked sort of scared-like at Hannah standing there with the cow. “Good-morning,” said she.

“I want to see the deacon,” said Hannah.

Then the deacon's wife called him, and he came with his face all red with the soap and water scrubbing he had given it, and with struggling into his Sunday collar, and trying to hide that he was in a twitter. “Why, good-mornin', Miss Stone,” said he, just as if he was going to speak in meeting, kind of pleasant, but solemn. Hannah told me all about it afterward, when I had come to know her better.

Hannah didn't waste any ceremony. She always went straight to the point. “Where is the cow I bought?” said she.

“Why, ain't that the cow you bought?” said the deacon.

“No, it ain't,” said she.

Then the deacon kind of cleared his throat. It was queer, but he hated to tell a downright lie, though he would always overreach in a bargain, if what folks say is true. “Why, you talked about buying that cow, didn't you?” said he. “You looked at that cow.”

“I looked at her, and I looked away again,” said Hannah. “I wouldn't take her as a gift. You know this ain't the cow I bought, Deacon Gay; she's something the same color, but you know she ain't the one, and you don't dare to say she is. Now I want the cow I bought.”

Then the deacon got desperate, and he did lie. “That is the cow you bought,” said he.

“It ain't,” said she.

“Yes, it is,” said he, “and what is more, it's all the cow you'll get. A bargain is a bargain.”

“Do you mean to say that you, a deacon of the church, are goin' to try to palm off this old cow on me for that fine young Jersey I bought?” said Hannah.

“This is the cow you bought,” declared the deacon. “This is the cow I understood you wanted, and the one your dummy man came for. I wouldn't have let that Jersey go, anyhow.”

Hannah didn't say any more; she had talked a good deal for her, as it was. She just gathered up her best black silk, and she sat down on the deacon's front door-step. She was still holding the rope with the cow at the other end of it.

The deacon looked at her. “I suppose you know it's the Sabbath Day?” said he finally.

“I ain't lost my reckonin',” said Hannah.

“And it don't look becomin' for a woman to be leadin' around cows when it's most time for the bell to ring for meetin',” said the deacon.

Hannah didn't say anything. The cow begun to eat the top of Mrs. Gay's peony bush, which was all in full blow.

“What be you goin' to do?” said the deacon finally, kind of feeble like.

“I'm going to set here till you give me that cow I bought,” said Hannah.

“Why, don't you know that the folks will be comin' to meetin' in a minute? And this is next door to the meetin'-house, and you settin' here with this cow,” said the deacon.

Hannah said nothing.

The deacon gave a kind of grunt and went into the house. The cow went on eating the peony.

Pretty soon a team drove up to the meeting-house, and the deacon came out again. He looked after the team kind of wild, then he looked at the cow. “I dunno but pinies are bad for cows to eat,” said he.

“Well, it is nothin' to me, it ain't my cow,” said Hannah.

“Of course it's your cow.”

“No, it ain't, it's your cow. If you don't want her to eat pinies, you can take her and put her in the barn, and give me my cow that I bought and paid for.”

Well, the upshot of it all was, Deacon Gay was so scared at the idea of Hannah sitting there when folks were going to meeting, and his wife came out and cried a little and whispered to him, too, that he gave in. He got fairly desperate. He promised solemn that Hannah should have the Jersey, and he promised, too, in the presence of his wife and the hired girl. Hannah had them both out for witnesses. Then the deacon led off the old cow to the barn, and Hannah rose up, and shook her black silk dress, and went to meeting. That story got all over town, and though it didn't reflect to the credit of the deacon, for some reason or other it did not seem to prepossess people in favor of Hannah. Sister Caroline and I, in talking it over one afternoon, agreed that sometimes it seemed as if people, especially men folks, liked women better that they could take in.

Hannah, besides the reputation of being very sharp at a bargain, had also the name of being very close in money matters. It was said that she never gave a cent to anybody. So when it was decided to have a Christmas tree in the Sunday-school, nobody thought that Hannah would do anything toward it. I was on the committee to solicit presents for the tree, and so was Caroline, and we both of us thought that we wouldn't ask Hannah to give anything. “It's no use going way up there,” said Caroline; “I know she won't give a cent.” I thought so, too. However, when the time came, and I was starting out one afternoon, I thought to myself, “Well, I will ask Hannah Stone, whether or no. It can't do any harm, and if she's ever called to account for not giving, she won't have for an excuse that she wasn't asked. It won't be my fault.” So I climbed up the slope of Crook Neck Mountain to Hannah's house. It was quite a climb on such a cold day, with the wind in my face all the way. When I got there I looked around, and I thought to myself that it did look prosperous, and as if Hannah could afford to give if she wanted to. Everything was spick and span; not a picket loose on the fences, nor a stone off the walls. There was a great flock of hens and another of turkeys in front of the barn, and the dummy man was feeding them. The barn-door was open, and I could see the long row of tails of Hannah's heard of Jersey cows. I went round to the side door, and knocked, and Hannah came. She had on her Bay State shawl and hood.

“Why, good-afternoon, Kate; come in,” said she.

“Are you going out?” said I; “because I won't hinder you if you are.”

“Oh, I'm only goin' to help David milk,” said she.

Then I spoke right out the way I always do when I see anybody treated unjustly, whether it's by other folks or themselves. “You don't mean to say that you are going out to milk such a cold day as this, when you've got that great strapping man to help!” said I.

“Don't you know?” asked Hannah, and I saw the tears in her eyes.

“Know what?” said I.

“I'm afraid he's got the consumption, the first stages,” said Hannah.

“How do you know?”

“He coughs,” said she; “besides the doctor as good as says so. He says his lungs are weak, and he's got to be very careful.”

“Well, of course, I didn't know that,” said I.

“He's been in the family ever since I can remember, and poor father thought a lot of him, and he's been as faithful and good as he could be, and he all the time livin', as it were, behind prison-bars, and never gettin' the comfort out of life that other folks do,” said Hannah, and she wiped her eyes with the back of her mitten.

“Why, I'm real sorry he's so poorly,” said I, and I felt sort of ashamed of myself. I asked Hannah if he had tried molasses and butter and vinegar boiled together till it was thick, and she said he had, and it hadn't done a mite of good, and now he was taking cod-liver oil. I just stepped inside, so I shouldn't cold the house, and asked Hannah if she wanted to do something for the Christmas tree, and to my surprise she jumped at it. “Of course I will,” said she. “When do you want it?”

“Why, any time before Christmas,” said I. “Would you rather give money or presents?”

“I would rather give presents,” said she. “If I have it ready the day before Christmas it will be time enough, won't it?”

“Plenty, if you have it down to the meeting-house by three o'clock,” said I.

“Well, I will,” said she, and I couldn't help staring at her. Her eyes shone, and she looked as bright and full of interest as a girl.

That night when I got home and told Caroline that Hannah Stone was going to give something to the Christmas tree, she just leaned back and laughed till she cried. “I guess she'll give some last year's potatoes,” said she.

I confess I begun to think that Hannah would not give much when that happened about young Thomas Green. Young Thomas is our minister Thomas Green's son, and we always call him young Thomas to distinguish him from his father, though he is through college long ago, and settled in a parish of his own. At that time he was just in college, and had come home for the holidays, and he went with some other boys to get the Christmas tree. Hannah had a piece of woodland covered with a fine growth of young hemlocks, and the boys went straight there and cut one. They never asked permission. I don't suppose it entered their heads that any human being would grudge one of all those hemlocks for a Christmas tree. But they didn't know Hannah Stone. They were getting down the mountain slope in great style with the tree on the ox-sled, all the boys laughing and hurrahing, when out came Hannah to her gate.

“Where did you get that tree?” said she.

Billy Snow, who was driving — they were his father's oxen — shouted to them to stop, and young Thomas spoke up sort of bewildered.

“We got it in the woods just above here,” said he, pulling off his cap.

“Them is my woods,” said Hannah.

Then young Thomas and the other boys looked at one another.

“I don't let folks have my trees for nothin' unless I set out to give them,” said Hannah.

“But this is for the Christmas tree down to the church,” said young Thomas, as red as a beet.

“That don't make no difference,” said Hannah.

“How much do you want for this tree?” said young Thomas.

“Two dollars,” said Hannah.

Well, the boys clubbed together and paid it, then they started up the oxen and came home pretty mad, and in an hour the story was all over the village. After that Caroline and I didn't have as much stock in Hannah's doing for the Christmas tree, but, as I said when I begun, nobody can tell about anybody else till things get through happening to bring them out; and as they never do get through happening, it follows that nobody ever does know, though they may make a sudden jump ahead in knowledge, as we did with Hannah Stone.

Caroline and I worked very hard getting up that Christmas tree. We went to Boston once to buy things, but we bought mostly in Rye, the big town six miles from our village. Several times when we were coming home from Rye, we met Hannah all wrapped up in her sleigh, with a lot of bundles. Once she stopped and spoke to us, and asked how we were getting on with the Christmas tree, and then I spoke right out; I couldn't help it. “We are getting on very well, and no thanks to you, Hannah Stone,” said I.

“What do you mean, Kate?” said Hannah.

“I mean,” said I, “that if I had known what a mean woman you would grow up to be, a woman mean enough to grudge one tree out of a whole grove for Christmas, and make those poor boys pay for it, I would never have sat next to you when we went to school if I'd been whipped for refusing to; that's what I mean,” said I.

Hannah she never said one word back, and I slapped the reins over our horse and we went on. Caroline said she didn't know but I was most too harsh to speak so to Hannah, but I said it was no more than she deserved.

Well, the day before Christmas came, and Caroline and I had been hard at work in the meeting-house ever since eight o'clock in the morning, and had just run home at three o'clock in the afternoon to get a cup of tea and a mouthful to eat.

All of a sudden Caroline, who was facing the window, cried out: “My sakes, just look!” said she. “Just look, Kate!”

Then I looked, and Caroline and I both jumped up and ran to the window, and there she was! There was Hannah Stone standing on her ox-team, driving, and there was the dummy man, all wrapped up in a buffalo coat which Hannah had bought for him on account of his consumption, holding on to a tree all set up in a butter firkin. And the tree was a splendid hemlock, as straight and evenly pointed as if a special gardener had tended it on purpose, and it was loaded down with presents. We could see the dolls dancing, and the oranges bobbing, and bright-covered books, and paper parcels of all kinds and shapes.

Caroline looked at me, and she was as white as a sheet. “Hannah Stone has brought a whole Christmas tree,” said she, and she gasped, and I had to get her a glass of water, though I was pretty near as bad myself.

“You don't suppose she's crazy, do you?” said Caroline, sort of faint-like. “I never heard of any crazy folks among the Stones, did you?”

“No, I never did,” said I.

All of a sudden Caroline broke down and begun to cry.

“What are you crying for?” said I.

“She won't have a single present herself,” said Caroline. “Oh, dear!”

“She shall, too,” said I. Then I went upstairs and I got out a real handsome hemstitched apron that I had never worn, and Caroline she found a real pretty box and put a new handkerchief — a real fine one — in it, and then we went over to the meeting-house, and I declare if all the women weren't studying what they could give to Hannah.

When that great Christmas tree had been carried into the meeting-house, the women there most had hysterics.

That evening we found out that Hannah had given everybody in the Sunday-school and every member of the church a present, and some of them were pretty substantial.

I went up to Hannah after the presents were all distributed, with my album in my hand. Caroline was behind me with her box of paper, and she was almost crying. “I want to thank you, and I want to ask you to forgive me for speaking to you the way I did about the Christmas tree the other day,” said I.

Hannah looked at me with a curious kind of dignity, like one standing up for her principles, though she was smiling. “Givin' is givin', and sellin' is sellin',” said she.

She gazed down at her load of presents. She had, I guess, as many as a dozen white aprons, and more handkerchiefs, and a blue worsted fascinator, and a pretty tidy, and I don't know what all. “I never had a Christmas present before in my life,” said she.

Then she looked up at me and her eyes were full of tears, and I could see the little-girl look in her face, as I remembered her at school, very strong, and I begun to think that maybe we had both been learning the same lessons in life in different ways.