The Home-Coming of Jessica

Mary E. Wilkins

From Woman's Home Companion Vol. XXVIII No. 11 (November, 1901)

It is difficult to tell what led Jessica to forsake the old farm and her parents in the first place. She must have had a smoldering ambition, or perhaps not so much ambition as restlessness, although she looked staid, even stolid. Jessica was a pretty girl, with a placid style of prettiness, an overlaying of smooth pink and white curves, and waves of fair hair on a quiver of nerves, as is the case with many daughters of New England. All her life long she had lived in that farm-house, a century old, yet kept up to the level of the present by the effort of the living; she had looked out on the same prospect, fair enough — an undulating sweep of hills, beyond a silver ribbon of river, with green meadows in the foreground. She had seen the same flowering bushes in the front yard put forth every spring, the same trees leaf and blossom; she had seen the same faces in church every Sunday, the same people pass the house — men with the peaceful slouch of unquestioning toil, women moving with that awkward hitch of advance which comes to a woman from entire acquiescence with hard circumstance, and she had become wearied to the pitch of savage irritation. She had even wearied of her own father and mother. Of her father, who had never taken a day's vacation, and looked upon one as a transgression of the commandment of the gods; of her mother, who would not yield to advancing age and weakness, but who persisted in her old ways with a sort of fierce obstinacy. “There's no use in my trying to help mother, she won't be helped,” Jessica often said to herself. Then she would go up-stairs to her own room, sit down by the window, and gaze out at that same old prospect which came gradually to fill her with utter loathing, a sort of spiritual nausea which she could not understand. If she only could have seen one different curve of the hills; if the silver river would have taken another bend; if some morning she could have discovered a maple instead of that old cherry-tree in the front yard. She arrived at that point where the wonted rasped her; she had the antithesis of homesickness. She looked around her room, and fairly hated everything which she saw. There was the old pineapple bedstead in which she had slept ever since she could remember; there was the old mahogany bureau, those old china vases which had belonged to her grandmother on the mantel-shelf, the old sweeps of tasseled dimity at the windows, the braided rugs which would outlast her. Neither her father nor her mother had any conception of her state of mind; the horror of sameness which overcame her like the sting from a burn every time she entered a room or looked out of a window was beyond their comprehension. There had been for them during their whole lives no taking of their knotted hands from the plow, and yet they were not unintelligent people. They were simply unquestioning, with no spirit of rebellion. They could not imagine it in their daughter. When she revolted at last they were aghast, as much at a loss as if they had suddenly discovered a changeling in their home cradle.

One evening when spring was upon them, and the restless ferment of it stirring Jessica's blood to its utmost action, she spoke. It was a very warm evening in early May. The father and mother were seated after tea in the great living-room, one preparing potatoes for planting, the other mending; neither ever thought of sitting out of doors on the porch in the delicious cool. They had not been used to that. It would have seemed to them like working with their feet out of the ruts of labor. Her father's clumsy clothes hung loosely over his old sinews and muscles; so did her mother's. The faces of both had a wintry glow of health, like winter apples. They were of long-lived sturdy races, both of them. There was not a gray hair in her mother's abundant locks, which she twisted uncompromisingly every morning; her father was bald, with a stout white stubble of beard under a straight firm line of a mouth. Jessica stood before them, and spoke. “Look at here, father and mother,” she said — her speech was provincial, although she had been through the high school — “I don't know what you are going to say, but —” She hesitated a second, and both stared at her. “Look at here,” she said again. Then she reddened, and trembled. Little pulses beat evidently in her firm white throat and her clear forehead.

“Haven't you fed the hens and the turkeys?” asked the mother.

That was Jessica's work. She liked that, if she liked anything. There was something about the ever-present greed of the scurrying feathered things which gave her a sense of a break in the monotony which so irritated her; she could not have told why. Possibly it was because they had no sense of monotony, and the desire for food and its gratification was as new as the first time they had ever gobbled a kernel of corn.

“It ain't that,” she replied. Then she plunged at once into her subject. “I've been talkin' with Addie Rose,” she said, “and she's goin' to the Oaks at Silver Beach next week for table-girl, and I've got a chance to go with her, and — I'm goin'.”

It was characteristic of Jessica's mother that she did not use the one argument in opposition which would seemingly have occurred to her at once. She said not a word about her need of her daughter's assistance on the farm, although summer was at hand and she had no woman help, and presently there would be two hired men to cook for instead of one. It was also characteristic of Jessica that she did not give her true reason for going.

“I'm goin' to get four dollars a week besides my board,” she said, simply, as if that was all she had thought of.

Her father looked at her, and his face was more nervous than his wife's; it betrayed a character more like that of the girl's. “There ain't no need of your goin' so far as the money is concerned,” he said, with a brief grunt.

“I ain't never earned a cent in my whole life,” returned Jessica.

“Your father and me have got enough for one girl, I guess,” said her mother, bridling. A color stole over her thin, rigorous face. “You have all you need.”

“If you want a new dress —” said her father.

“She don't want a new dress,” said her mother. “She has all she needs.”

“I want to go and earn some money,” said Jessica. “Addie's goin'.”

Her father scowled over his potatoes. “I don't know about that big hotel,” he said.

“Four dollars a week is a good deal of money,” said Jessica. She knew her ground. Money was the golden apple of existence to these thrifty parents of hers.

“I'd like to know what you'd do with it,” her mother said.

“Oh, I don't know; I could put most of it in the savings-bank,” replied Jessica, carelessly.

“You needn't think you're goin' away and earn money and waste it on gimcracks like Addie Rose,” said her mother, severely.

“No,” said her father; “your mother and me can buy you all you need yet awhile.”

“I don't want to waste it on gimcracks,” declared Jessica, “and I'll do just what you tell me to with the money.”

“I don't know anything better than the Milltown savings-bank,” said her father, thoughtfully. “They're real honest there, and it's four-per-cent interest.”

“I'd just as soon put it in there,” said Jessica.

“How long will you be gone?” asked her father.

“Twelve weeks.”

“Forty-eight dollars,” said her father, and the girl knew it was settled.

When she went up to her own room that night she was a different person and she looked out on a different landscape. It was colored with her own hopes and anticipations. The boughs of the old cherry-tree tossed in a radiance of the soul; the river ran a race of the spirit; the hills beyond towered into imagination.

As she looked out of her window before going to bed a dark figure came down the road, hesitated a second at the gate, then passed on. She knew who it was, and laughed, and the laugh was no less gay because it was in a measure cruel to herself. She knew that the young man was David Lapham, that he had come to see her, and that he had retreated on seeing the light in her room, concluding that she had gone to bed. She felt his disappointment more keenly than he felt it himself; she wanted to see him, yet in her morbid state of mind he represented the worst monotony of it all. He aroused her at times to a more savage revolt than anything else. She seemed, without being fully conscious of it, to recognize in him and her feeling for him the eternal repetition and monotony of love and passion and life itself, and she became almost blasphemous. She watched him going back with a triumph of emancipation which yet stung. She had known him ever since they were both children; she had never had a minute's doubt of his love for her, that he wanted more than anything else to make her his wife. He owned the next farm, his parents being dead. He rented the house, and boarded with his tenants, who assisted with the farm-work. If she married him he would come to live with her, and her old life would go on and on and on, only magnified and doubled and trebled, as by a system of mirrors. There were times when she fairly hated David Lapham, and yet there was something about the cant of his head when he repassed the house which gave her pain. She knew well enough that he had heard of her intended flitting, that he would come the next evening to see her. She resolved to evade him, and did so. She went over to Addie Rose's. The next day was Sunday, and she did not go to evening service, thereby not giving him a chance to accompany her home, and she went early to bed that night, after having again seen him pass her window.

She went away with Addie Rose the next week to the great sea-shore resort, not having seen him at all. The day after reaching her destination came a letter, which she did not answer. She wrote to her mother on her arrival, but to no one else. Her work was distasteful and arduous, and she realized for the first time how much her obstinate old mother had taken from her girlish shoulders; her quarters were uncomfortable, but she had no thought of giving in. She had not even on the border of the great ocean, and in such entirely new surroundings, the freedom and change which she had anticipated. The girls who worked with her were largely of her own class; she still remained in her own element, on the boundaries of another forbidden one. After her work was done at night she used to linger around the windows of the great ball-room and wonder if in there, in an entirely different existence governed by entirely different conditions, was the break in the monotony which she so loathed. Passing the dishes over dainty silken and muslin shoulders at meal-time, she had a realization of a gulf across which her very soul yearned. “I can't see as it is so very different here from what it is at home,” she said to Addie Rose; but the other girl colored sweetly and half laughed. She had fallen in love with the head waiter, who was a college student working during his vacation. Jessica had little sympathy with her. The head waiter was the son of a farmer; he had ambition, but it looked as if there was little chance for him. Once she said so to Addie. “If the old folks die, and Albert hasn't got anything but the farm, you'll have to go there to live. I can't see that you'll be any differently situated; it will be the same old thing over again.”

“It's the old that's the new,” replied the other girl, with a wisdom of poetry that Jessica did not grasp.

“Oh, well, he's a good fellow, and I'm glad if you're happy,” she said.

“Don't you ever miss somebody?” asked Addie, meaningly.

Jessica colored angrily. “I don't believe in missing folks!” she retorted.

“Sometimes you do what you don't believe in doing,” said Addie.

Jessica, who roomed with her, turned over and said no more, pretending to be asleep; but she could not put away her memories; the full moonlight lay in the stuffy little room, and the thought of her honest, simple lover seemed to be a part of it.

The great summer hotel closed the first of October. Jessica had her precious forty-eight dollars, and was to go home, but a girl from Boston, Maud Simmons, invited her to spend a week with her. “I'm going to try for a chance in Boston, and maybe you can get one, too,” she said. Jessica hesitated a little. There was no harm in the girl, but she was not of her sort. The simple, reserved country girls of her own home were a notch above Maud, and Jessica realized the fact, although dimly. But the longing for freedom and the dislike to return to her old surroundings overcame her. She wrote home about the invitation, and obtained consent to go with her new friend to Boston, although it was three days before the letter came.

When the hotel closed, and Jessica went to Boston, for the first time she felt her own swimming stroke. The life into which she plunged was different. It was respectable enough, there was no doubt of that, but devoid of dignity. Maud's mother had been in the Salvation Army before her marriage, and her father was a janitor. On entering their home she entered the utterly crude. She was jarred without knowing why or how. Maud spend her summer's earnings at once in cheap finery, and Jessica fell a victim to the force of example. She despised the hat she bought one day, and despised herself for her recognition that she looked well in it.

“It's awful becomin',” said Maud; “and Jack Bascom thinks so, too.”

Jessica colored hotly. Jack Bascom had some obscure connection with a variety theater, a handsome young fellow who looked like an actor. Presently he came to see Jessica every night; that was after she obtained employment in the restaurant with Maud. Jessica hesitated about accepting, as the local newspaper put it, the position. Going to work in a city restaurant was a vastly different thing from waiting on table in a summer hotel. There one was almost sure of companionship of one's superiors as well as of one's equals, but this was different. But she yielded; every time she thought of returning to the old life a sickness of revolt came upon her, and she had begun to be fascinated by Jack Bascom. She thought very little of David Lapham in those days.

She boarded with Maud Simmons, and was in the cheapest froth of city life. Jack Bascom got them frequent passes for the theater. She bought herself a gay silk blouse, and arranged her hair in the extreme of the style. She learned various things which her old life in the country would never have taught; and yet the effect of these things was superficial, the foundations were too solid to be shaken. The monotony of simplicity and dignity had struck too deep roots in a character which had also the great benefit of heredity.

All at once, two days before Thanksgiving, she learned something; she had a sudden glimpse of depths below the froth of things. She learned that Jack Bascom was married. Maud laughed at her for the way she took it. “Good gracious, what if he is,” she said. “His wife's a bad lot, and he can get divorced and marry you if you want him to.”

“A married man!” gasped Jessica.

“What of it?” demanded the other girl. “I knew you could take care of yourself or I would have told you before. Jack can get a divorce.”

“I'm goin' home,” said Jessica, suddenly.

Maud stared at her. “On account of that?”

“On account of everything. I want to see my father and mother, and it's Thanksgiving time, and —” Jessica's lip quivered.

Maud continued to stare at her. “I know who will step into your shoes if you walk out,” said she.

Jessica made no reply.

“You don't mean you are goin' to leave the restaurant?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Well, Nell Jones will be in there next week, and if you leave Boston she'll get Jack.”

“A married man,” said Jessica.

“Oh, Lord; didn't I tell you he can get divorced! He told me so. Nell will get him if you don't.”

“Let her,” replied Jessica, shortly.

The two girls were in their room. She looked at a theater poster which Bascom had given her and which was tacked on the wall. It gave her a feeling of nausea, and in contrast to its gaudy shabbiness and what it stood for came the thought of her old home as she knew it in the autumn, with its quiet fields and its air of peace. She did not see Bascom again. That night when he called she refused to go down, and she heard Maud and her mother laughing loudly down-stairs after he had gone. He had not gone with that cant of the head with which poor David Lapham had gone away that last night at home.

The day before Thanksgiving Jessica started for home. Her native village was about a hundred miles from Boston. She had not written to tell her parents of her coming. In fact, they had not approved of her going to work in the restaurant, although they had not positively forbidden it, and she had felt some resentment in consequence, and had written less frequently. Although she returned as innocent as when she left, she had a sensation of guilt. Knowledge had been forced upon her, and she was trying to turn her back upon it, but it seemed to have eyes for her every thought. She wondered how her parents would welcome her, and her wonder deepened to fear.

As she went on in the rattling train she became gradually conscious that a change was over her, that she was not the girl who had left nearly six months before. Absence and abstinence had awakened those old loves and longings which overindulgence had turned to disgust. She began watching eagerly for familiar objects. The sight of the stations as she neared home made her heart leap; patches of woodland which had been growing ever since she could remember rushed past her like old friends. She felt like one drowning, filled to ecstasy with visions of the past. It seemed to her that she could not wait, that she must go faster, faster, that she must leap from the train. She longed so for her father and mother and David and every little detail of her home that it was like an agony of hunger and thirst.

When she got off at the familiar station she reeled. She thought at first that she could not walk. They had set her trunk on the platform, the station-master was at supper, and there was no team there. She thought with a sob in her throat of her father's old white horse and covered wagon, and then set out almost at a run. Her way lay between woods. It was late afternoon, with the western sky cold with violet and gold. The branches of the trees were rattling in a northwest wind. As she hurried on an awful feeling of doubt and homelessness came upon her. How angry were they? How deep a gage had the love of her parents? What might they not suspect? She thought of Jack Bascom, and rage shot through her like a lance — rage and shame. She felt a great contempt for herself and her weakness. What would David say? He might have taken up with some other girl. Well, let him, so long as she had her father and mother and her home.

The hunger and thirst for her home and the old familiar things deepened until she was in an agony. She ran faster.

She began to reflect how it was the day before Thanksgiving, how she had written only two weeks before that she could not be home for it. It surprised her now that she could ever have been so heartless as to have felt that she did not care to see her parents. She thought of the days of preparation, of her mother busy with pies and preserves and sweetmeats. She thought of the great turkey-gobbler that was to have been sacrificed for the occasion; how her father had talked about him for months.

Then she came in sight of the red roofs of the old place, and from the open field near by she heard a throaty note of rage; turning she discovered the gobbler, and in another instant he was charging toward her. Jessica wore a red dress — a cheaply stylish suit purchased at a bargain-sale in the city — and it aroused the great bird's ire. He advanced upon her, ruffling with fury. At first she did not think of fear, she, a country girl, who had been used to feathered enemies all her life, but finally she became alarmed. She fled from side to side; but her adversary had the advantage of wings as well as feet, and Jessica's feet trembled. She cried out to him with no effect; that flutter of red before his eyes seemed to make a maniac of him. There was not a soul in sight. She kept her hands up ready to defend her face and eyes. Her heart began to fail her. An uncanny feeling came over her. It was as if this great bird represented the spirit of the dear old home which she had despised and forsaken. He was the sentinel to ward her off from her paradise which she had scorned, and loved too late. The turkey-gobbler came faster and faster, with sidewise rushes, and his wings fanned her. It was then that she thought she heard the sound of wheels. Somebody was coming. In her desperation she called out just as David Lapham came into sight around the turn of the road with his ox-team. He took in the situation at a glance, for he leaped down from his high perch on the load of wood, whip in hand, and that was the end of the comic tragedy of Jessica's home-coming.

When David Lapham, leaving his oxen standing in the road, escorted Jessica safely to her door, he was laughing, although his face was white. “The big gobbler scared her,” he said, in explanation of her trembling.

Jessica's mother, who was rolling pies at the kitchen table, was startled at the sight of her daughter, and came forward with the tears rolling down her cheeks. She looked at her as if she could devour her, but she did not embrace her. “So you thought you'd come, after all,” she said.

“Yes,” replied Jessica, still feeling uncertain as to how she was to be received.

Jessica's father came in from the barn, and the girl hardly knew him for the light in his face. He even laughed when David repeated the tale of the turkey-gobbler. “Thought we wouldn't kill him as long as she wasn't comin',” he said; “didn't need such a big one just for two people. But now — And mebbe you, David —”

“I won't have him killed!” cried Jessica. “He — he treated me as I deserved for staying away so long. I deserved just such a welcome. I won't have him killed!”

Jessica broke down and began to cry. She had cried very seldom in her whole life.

Her father hesitated. He was not a demonstrative man and did not quite know how to meet tears from a woman. Then he came close to her and pulled off her cheap hat and smoothed her hair. “Don't you fret; he sha'n't be killed,” he said. “There's another one most as big, and every bit as ugly, confound his picture!”

Jessica's mother said nothing, but she went into the pantry to get some little turnovers that Jessica used to be fond of, and wiped the tears away angrily with her apron.

“Be you goin' back, Jessica?” asked David Lapham, who was standing by the kitchen stove whip in hand, and whose face now and then broke into a smile, though it was still white and perplexed.

“No, never, never!” cried Jessica.

That night she and David sat up late. A great turkey was in the pantry all trussed and stuffed ready for roasting the next day, the house was full of the fragrance of spice and raisins and sweets, and in the girl's soul was the peace of satisfaction and thankfulness that she had come again to her own. For added to her joy in her home-coming was a new joy that she and David had found together.