The Story of Little Mary Whitlow

Mary E. Wilkins

From Lippincott's Magazine Vol. V (May, 1883)

The kitchen of Mrs. Captain Abijah Penniman had a dark, fresh look about it, like sea-weed, and the smell of the salt sea was always mingled in it with that of the cooking. The few pieces of furniture — the wooden chairs and tables — had a waxy brown gloss on them, and the stove was polished after the “similitude of a precious stone.” It was one of those delicate and exclusive kitchens which it is as much of a privilege and a profanation to enter as a royal palace.

Mrs. Penniman, with the salt wind ruffling her gray hair, was standing at the table between the windows, putting the bread to rise, and Captain Penniman and the city boarder were sitting on the piazza on the sea side of the old, low house, which, somehow, seemed to have a dark, waxy gloss to it, like the kitchen furniture.

The daylight had gone, but it was not yet dark enough for stars. The water looked like rippling steel, and the wind blew freshly over it.

Captain Penniman sat tipped back in an old waxy arm-chair, his gray head leaned at a contemplative angle against the brown clapboard, and his blue-stockinged feet, in their wide carpet slippers, dangling out of the baggy gray trousers. There was a fringe of beard like silver wool extending from ear to ear around the full, old face, in which a look of gentle meditation that would have done credit to a mediæval monk struggled to reconcile itself with the hard seams and wrinkles and the weather-beaten texture that age and the buffeting salt winds had brought there. His brown, knotted old hands, calloused with the fierce strain of many a stanch cable in a heavy sea, were folded peacefully upon his breast. Indeed, a gentle peace and contentment was visible in the whole appearance of Captain Abijah Penniman, and probably lay still deeper in his heart, as he sat there in his own home porch, with the last ship that he would ever sail long ago safe in her port, and let that salt wind that had had the power to move him so blow futilely over him.

The city boarder sat a little way from him, in a little wooden rocker. There was none of the peace of the old man's face in hers: her hands were on the ropes yet, evidently, and her ship all at sea. She had a thin, pale, alert face, and her black hair was put plainly back in a way that signified that the care of her personal appearance was rather a necessity than an anxiety. There was a deep wrinkle between her eyes that showed distinctly in the half light. She looked like a person with a history, as people say; very likely she had one: most of us have. She was all in white, and had a white fluffy shawl closely gathered around her throat; she did not rock, but sat almost rigidly still; the tension of her nerves seemed too strong for her to relax them in that little womanly way. Her thin hands, a little blue from the cool sea-wind, lay, in that stillness which is not repose, in her lap.

The city boarder, whose name was a keen, concentrated one like herself (Kent), was a curious contrast to Captain Penniman, who sat so peacefully by her side. There was in reality a distance between them vastly wider than the extent of that shimmering sheet of steel; no ship that the old captain had ever sailed could have surmounted it.

Miss Kent had been staring fixedly out to sea; now she turned her gaze indifferently up the long stretch of sandy road on the right. A few rods away, on a line with the captain's home, and also fronting the sea, was one of those conventional New-England sea-captains' mansions, — white, and square, and massive, two stories and a half high, with fluted posts at the four corners, and a balustrade extending around the roof, where the captain's wife could stand safely with her spy-glass when her husband's ship was due in port.

“Who lives in the next house, Captain Penniman?” asked Miss Kent.

It was one of those utterly indifferent questions that every one asks at times. She did not care in the least who lived in the house; it was extremely improbable that she ever should care; but she had the uncomfortable feeling that a long silence between new acquaintances gives one, and felt it incumbent upon her to say something.

She had been here only a few days; she was all alone, and not very strong; and she had a pitiful longing to have these people like her and be friendly. So she softened down her clear, eager voice and keen face as best she might, and asked the question, with a quick, nervous smile on her thin lips, of Captain Abijah.

He looked contemplatively at her for a moment, then at the house in question: the lights had just glimmered out from two windows on the side toward them. “Cap'n Knel Whitlow lives thar,” he said at length, with a thoughtful drawl, still keeping his eyes fixed on the house. “The cap'n quit followin' the sea 'bout the same time I did, and settled down.” He brought his arm-chair down on all four of its legs, laid a hand on each knee, bent slightly forward, and eyed Miss Kent with a look of meditative doubt. He was a little afraid of her, to tell the truth; women of her stamp he had not fallen in with much; he would have been surer of his ground with a strange sea-monster, — though poor Miss Kent was not in the least a monster. “I don't suppose,” he said at length, cautiously feeling his way with his words, “that you ever heard o' little Mary Whitlow?”

“No,” replied Miss Kent, drawing her fluffy shawl a little closer, and facing more toward him. “What of her, Captain Penniman?”

“I don't b'lieve you'd care to hear about it,” he said deprecatingly. “It's a queer story.”

“Indeed I should; I like very much to hear queer stories,” she said, laughing with a nervous effort to be cordial and sprightly.

“Wall, I don't know as I mind tellin' it, if you'd like to hear, though it's a queer story, — a queer story, — and I don't s'pose you kin b'lieve it if you try. I don't really know, sometimes, whether I b'lieve it myself; kinder doubt the evidence of my own eyes, 'cause it don't seem rational to do anythin' else. And if I find it hard to put any stock in it, when I see what I did, I don't know what you kin do, when you never knew anythin' about it, and live inland, too. It makes a deal of difference, livin' and bein' on the sea, and near the sea, about b'lievin' such things; thar's a kind o' wideness and reachin' out about it that makes it seem likely that it may hold things that folks don't credit bein' at all, generally speakin'. Thar's plenty of room in the wideness for Flyin' Dutchmen and any kind of ghosts to have been wanderin' round for thousands of years before they brought up at this port at all, and thar don't seem to be so much surprisin' about it.”

Miss Kent looked at him curiously with her dark bright eyes. “Here is an unworked vein of poetry,” she thought. “But it may be just as well: the working might have ruined the worker,” she added to herself a little bitterly.

“Wall, Flyin' Dutchmen ain't anythin' to do with Little Mary Whitlow,” the old man went on, “and she didn't have anythin' to do with the sea, only my bein' near it made it easier for me to b'lieve some queer things that happened about her. Little Mary was the only child Cap'n Knel Whitlow and his wife ever had, and she was the prettiest little girl you ever saw.

“She was only six years old when the cap'n quit the sea, and small, at that, for her age. Her hair was yellow and curly, and hung down to her waist. Her eyes were big, and dark blue, and thar was a kind of an askin' look in them always, as if she was lookin' at the sea (it's very apt to give that kind of look to folks' eyes, if you notice it), and I never saw anythin' like her skin! I'd a'most have thought she'd been livin' in one of them big pink shells I've seen layin' along the shores where I've been; thar was just that kind of a pearly look about her face, as if the color of the shell had been kind o' reflected on it, and stayed on.

“Wall, the cap'n and Mis' Whitlow set their eyes by the child, of course; she was the only one they had, and wasn't born till they'd been married a good many years, let alone her bein' so takin'. She was just as good as a kitten, — never seemed to be naughty like other children; she never used to be round with other children much; she'd always been kinder delicate, and her mother had kept her at home with her, and never sent her to school.

“I've seen her settin' down 'side of her mother sewin' patchwork like a little woman, when I've been thar. Sometimes I used to think she'd been better out, runnin'; but her mother couldn't bear her out of her sight, or her father either, when he came home. I never see anybody seem to think so much of a child as he did of her; I've seen her settin' on his knee many a time, and he a-lookin' at her as I never see a man look at anythin' on this earth 'cept gold; and she was gold and honey and pearls, if ever a child was. My children was all grown up, and married, and off, and I used to go in thar a good deal to see the cap'n, and I got to thinkin' a good deal of her myself. Fact was, all the folk round here did; thar wasn't one of them but petted her every chance they could get: Mrs. Penniman thought as much of her as I did.

“Wall, the child, on account of bein' alone with older folks so much, and not playin' any more with other children, I s'pose, had got some kind of queer notions into her head. We used to laugh at them, and think it was cunnin', but sometimes I used to feel kinder cur'us about it, for it didn't seem as if it was nateral in a child to have such ideas; and, as a general plan, things an' folks that are out of the nateral don't last long, if you ever noticed it.

“One queer notion she had (and thar was a good many just as queer that I can't remember) was about the stars comin' out of an evenin' over the sea: she named the brightest and biggest ones after the prophets. You see, she'd had the Bible read to her a good deal, and she could rattle off every one of them like a little parrot.

“I can see her now, just as she used to look, standin' thar at the front window of that room where you see the light, lookin' out over the sea, when the sun had gone down, watchin' for the stars. Her yellow curls would be flyin', and her eyes shinin' just like stars themselves; and thar we would sit a-watchin' her, and a-smilin' to each other. Then how she would shout when she saw one! And laugh! — it sounded like a lot of silver bells! The first one was Elijah, if I remember rightly. ‘Thar's 'Lijah!’ she'd holler, and turn round and laugh at us.

“Then thar was Nehemiah and Zachariah and all the rest; she didn't say them more than half right, with her little sweet bit of a voice (she hadn't had any schoolin', on account of her bein' delicate, and I suppose she was a little behind most girls of her age), and how we would laugh!

“But thar was one cur'us thing about it: thar was one star she never would tell us the name of; it was the biggest and brightest of the whole lot.

“I really believe thar it is now!” cried the captain, putting his hand to his eyes, and gazing intently. “Yes, that's the very one! I s'pose you know what the right name is?”

“Venus,” said Miss Kent.

“I s'pose so. Wall, I don't know what ever that child had named it, but we couldn't make her tell us, anyhow. I'd try to hire her with pepp'mints, and she'd look at them so wishful that it was enough to make anybody cry, but she wouldn't budge an inch; and her father would talk to her, and tell her she didn't love him, because she wouldn't tell, till she would cry as if her little heart would break, but she never would tell the name she'd given to that star. But sometimes I'd see her stand and look, and look, and look at it, with her great blue solemn eyes, till I was all of a shiver, without knowin' why. It almost seemed as if she saw somethin' about it that we didn't.

“Wall, thar was a good many queer ideas that she'd got, as I said, but I believe the queerest of them all was the one about Portland. You know all the folks round here, when thar's any extra tradin' to do, always go thar. Of course her father and mother had been a good many times, and I suppose she'd heard a good deal about it, off and on; and the little thing, ever since she had been big enough to talk, or know anything, had been crazy to go to Portland. I don't know, and never did, exactly, how it happened, that they never took her, when she teased so hard to go; they generally was 'most ready to cut their fingers off to please her. I s'pose it must have been along of her bein' so delicate always, and it's bein' a pretty long, hard ride to Portland: I dare say they was so tender of her that they was afraid to risk it. Anyhow, the pretty little bird was always talkin' about goin' to Portland, and always wantin' to be told somethin' about it.

“‘When did you go to Portland, Uncle 'Bijah?’ (she always called me Uncle 'Bijah), she would ask. She would climb up on my knee and put her little bit of a slim arm round my neck. Oh, Lord! I remember just how she used to do it.”

Miss Kent sat rigidly quiet, listening, her bright, keen eyes fixed on his face.

“‘Tell me what you saw in Portland, Uncle 'Bijah,’ she would say,” the captain went on in an unsteady voice; “and — I don't know exactly how it happened, but I did it, and they all did it — we took to tellin' her pretty steep yarns about what we'd seen thar.

“You see, she was such a sober, in-earnest little thing, and would look at you so with those great, longin' eyes and drink in every word, that, through our very lovin' her so much, we took to humbuggin' her a little.

“So, when she'd ask me what I'd seen in Portland, I'd spin a yarn about a garden where the dolls hung in rows on the branches of the trees and sugar-plums grew on the bushes; and her father, maybe, would tell her about little pink ponies, with white silk manes and tails, harnessed in big pink shells for carriages; and somebody else would tell her some story that was bigger still.

“You see, we kinder made a fairy-land out of Portland, and told stories about it to please her; thar wasn't really any harm in it, — only the little thing believed every single word we told her. Her mother always said 'twas too bad, she'd be so disappointed when she went thar: she never would tell her stories about it herself.

“Thar was one story told her about Portland which made the greatest impression on her of all: she never forgot it. It was too bad to tell it, but the girl herself didn't think how it sounded, and the rest of us didn't, till all of a sudden it struck us.

“You see, Hannah Simmons, their next neighbor's daughter on the other side, had just been to Portland; she was a girl about seventeen or eighteen then, and a master hand to carry on. She thought the world of little Mary Whitlow, like all the rest of us.

“That night, after she'd got home, she was in to Cap'n Whitlow's, and had Mary in her lap, tellin' her what she'd seen in Portland. I was in the settin'-room (whar the light is), so was my wife, an' the cap'n and his wife.

“Hannah was tellin' her that the streets in Portland wasn't like what they was here, all sand.

“‘What are they?’ says Mary, lookin' at her with her big wonderin' eyes.

“‘Oh, they're paved,’ says Hannah.

“‘What with?’ says the little thing.

“‘With gold,’ says Hannah, quick as a flash; ‘with great blocks of gold.’

“Then how the little thing stared! and Hannah winked at us.

“‘The houses ain't like the houses here, wood and painted,’ Hannah went on, keepin' her face sober, while little Mary looked straight at her. ‘They're white marble, and they stay clean without any sweepin' or washin', and all the folks sit in the windows and sing all day. I had a splendid time; but I had to hurry out, for fear they'd lock the gates on me.’

“‘What's the gate made of?’ says the little thing. She always used to ask what everything was made of.

“‘Pearl,’ says Hannah, before she thought.

“Then Mis' Whitlow just screamed out, ‘Why, Hannah Simmons, you've been tellin' her about the New Jerusalem!’

“Hannah looked scared; she hadn't had any idea of it, but she seen what it had sounded like, and we all did.

“Somehow, it kinder sobered us. I don't know why, but Mis' Whitlow took Mary right off to bed, and thar wasn't anythin' more said about Portland that night to her. But she never forgot it: she'd have it over and over about the gold streets in Portland, and the marble houses, and the pearl gate, and she was crazier than ever to go. I don't know, but at the last the cap'n and his wife actually dreaded to take her and have her find out the truth about it; I don't think I should like to have seen the look in those sober eyes of hers when she seen it. Deceivin' a little, ignerant, trustin' child, even when it's done mostly because you love it and want to please it, ain't just squar', after all.

“All of a sudden the little thing was taken sick and died; she wasn't sick long, only a few days: I don't know what they called it. I think she just died of the Lord's wantin' her. She was out of her head all the time she was sick, and she didn't talk of anythin' but Portland: it seemed as if it would about kill them to hear her.

“I went in thar the day she died, in the forenoon. She died just about the time when the stars came out, and she was babblin' about the gold streets in Portland, and the folks singin' thar. Her pretty hair was all over the pillow, and her poor little cheeks were as white as snow. She didn't know me, but just kept right on about Portland.

“‘The folks all sing,’ she would say, and her eyes looked so bright and solemn. ‘Just hear them! The little pink ponies are goin' down the gold street.’ She mixed up all we had ever told her together.

“I don't suppose you will take much stock in this, Miss Kent, but I'm goin' to finish it all up and tell the whole, now I've begun. You see, all the cap'n's folks came from Portland; they've all died off now, and they're buried thar; and he and Mis' Whitlow wanted to take Mary thar when she died.

“We had the funeral here in the afternoon, and just about sunset they started, — the cap'n and his wife in a two-seated covered wagon, with Mr. Simmons and his wife, from the next house (they wanted me and my wife to go, but I couldn't bear the idea of goin' with that dear, blessed little thing to Portland that way), and the little coffin in a wagon behind, with Mr. Simmons's oldest son drivin'; they had it behind because Mis' Whitlow took on so 'bout seein' it all the way right before her eyes.

“I was settin' in the bedroom window, on that end of the house, when they came past. It was just about dark, but I seen, plain as I ever seen anythin' in this world, that blessed child settin' in her little coffin in the wagon, goin' to Portland. Thar she was, just as she always looked, — her yellow curls flyin' back, and her sweet little face lookin' up, in her little white shroud.

“I leaned my head 'way out of the window, and I could see her as long as they were in sight, — that little bit of a white form, sittin' thar, so straight and still, goin' to Portland. Thar's one thing about it, I believe the blessed little thing found Portland just as she'd thought it was; and it wouldn't make any difference to her if she had to call it by a different name.”

Captain Abijah ended with a sob.

Miss Kent was rocking gently to and fro, with tears in her bright, eager eyes, and the light from the windows of the Whitlow sitting-room shone dimly on both their faces.