The Lombardy Poplar

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

From Six Trees (Harper & Brothers; New York: 1903)

There had been five in the family of the Lombardy poplar. Formerly he had stood before the Dunn house in a lusty row of three brothers and a mighty father, from whose strong roots, extending far under the soil, they had all sprung.

Now they were all gone, except this one, the last of the sons of the tree. He alone remained, faithful as a sentinel before the onslaught of winter storms and summer suns; he yielded to neither. He was head and shoulders above the other trees — the cherry and horse-chestnuts in the square front yard behind him. Higher than the house, piercing the blue with his broad truncate of green, he stood silent, stiff, and immovable. He seldom made any sound with his closely massed foliage, and it required a mighty and concentrated gust of wind to sway him ever so little from his straight perpendicular.

As the tree was the last of his immediate family, so the woman who lived in the house was the last of hers. Sarah Dunn was the only survivor of a large family. No fewer than nine children had been born to her parents; now father, mother, and eight children were all dead, and this elderly woman was left alone in the old house. Consumption had been in the Dunn family. The last who had succumbed to it was Sarah's twin-sister Marah, and she had lived until both had gray hair.

After that last funeral, where she was the solitary real mourner, there being only distant relatives of the Dunn name, Sarah closed all the house except a few rooms, and resigned herself to living out her colorless life alone. She seldom went into any other house; she had few visitors, with the exception of one woman. She was a second cousin, of the same name, being also Sarah Dunn. She came regularly on Thursday afternoons, stayed to tea, and went to the evening prayer-meeting. Besides the sameness of name, there was a remarkable resemblance in personal appearance between the two women. They were of about the same age; they both had gray-blond hair, which was very thin, and strained painfully back from their ears and necks into tiny rosettes at the backs of their heads, below little, black lace caps trimmed with bows of purple ribbon. The cousin Sarah had not worn the black lace cap until the other Sarah's twin-sister Marah had died. Then all the dead woman's wardrobe had been given to her, since she was needy. Sarah and her twin had always dressed alike, and there were many in the village who never until the day of her death had been able to distinguish Marah from Sarah. They were alike not only in appearance, but in character. The resemblance was so absolute as to produce a feeling of something at fault in the beholder. It was difficult, when looking from one to the other, to believe that the second was a vital fact; it was like seeing double. After Marah was dead it was the same with the cousin, Sarah Dunn. The clothes of the deceased twin completed all that had been necessary to make the resemblance perfect. There was in the whole Dunn family a curious endurance of characteristics. It was said in the village that you could tell a Dunn if you met him at the ends of the earth. They were all described as little, and sloping-shouldered, and peak-chinned, and sharp-nosed, and light-livered. Sarah and Cousin Sarah were all these. The family tricks of color and form and feature were represented to their fullest extent in both. People said that they were Dunns from the soles of their feet to the crowns of their heads. They did not even use plurals in dealing with them. When they set out together for evening meeting in the summer twilight, both moving with the same gentle, mincing step, the same slight sway of shoulders, draped precisely alike with little, knitted, white wool shawls, the same deprecating cant of heads, identically bonneted, as if they were perpetually avoiding some low-hanging bough of life in their way of progress, the neighbors said, “There's Sarah Dunn goin' to meetin'.”

When the twin was alive it was, “There's Sarah and Marah goin' to meetin'.” Even the very similar names had served as a slight distinction, as formerly the different dress of the cousins had made it easier to distinguish between them. Now there was no difference between the outward characteristics of the two Sarah Dunns, even to a close observer. Name, appearance, dress, all were identical. And the minds of the two seemed to partake of this similarity. Their conversation consisted mainly of a peaceful monotony of agreement. “For the Lord's sake, Sarah Dunn, 'ain't you got any mind of your own?” cried a neighbor of an energetic and independent turn, once when she had run in of a Thursday afternoon when the cousin was there. Sarah looked at the cousin before replying, and the two minds seemed to cogitate the problem through the medium of mild, pale eyes, set alike under faint levels of eyebrow. “For the Lord's sake, if you ain't lookin' at each other to find out!” cried the neighbor, with a high sniff, while the two other women stared at each other in a vain effort to understand.

The twin had been dead five years, and the cousin had come every Thursday afternoon to see Sarah before any point of difference in their mental attitudes was evident. They regarded the weather with identical emotions, they relished the same food, they felt the same degree of heat or cold, they had the same likes and dislikes for other people, but at last there came a disagreement. It was on a Thursday in summer, when the heat was intense. The cousin had come along the dusty road between the white-powdered weeds and flowers, holding above her head an umbrella small and ancient, covered with faded green silk, which had belonged to Marah, wearing an old purple muslin of the dead woman's, and her black lace mitts. Sarah was at home, rocking in the south parlor window, dressed in the mate to the purple muslin, fanning herself with a small black fan edged with feathers which gave out a curious odor of mouldy roses.

When the cousin entered, she laid aside her bonnet and mitts, and seated herself opposite Sarah, and fanned herself with the mate to the fan.

“It is dreadful warm,” said the cousin.

“Dreadful!” said Sarah.

“Seems to me it 'ain't been so warm since that hot Sabbath the summer after Marah died,” said the cousin, with gentle reminiscence.

“Just what I was thinking,” said Sarah.

“An' it's dusty, too, just as it was then.”

“Yes, it was dreadful dusty then. I got my black silk so full of dust it was just about ruined, goin' to meetin' that Sabbath,” said Sarah.

“An' I was dreadful afraid I had sp'ilt Marah's, an' she always kept it so nice.”

“Yes, she had always kept it dreadful nice,” assented Sarah.

“Yes, she had. I 'most wished, when I got home that afternoon, and saw how dusty it was, that she'd kept it and been laid away in it, instead of my havin' it, but I knew she'd said to wear it, and get the good of it, and never mind.”

“Yes, she would.”

“And I got the dust all off it with a piece of her old black velvet bunnit,” said the cousin, with mild deprecation.

“That's the way I got the dust off mine, with a piece of my old black velvet bunnit,” said Sarah.

“It's better than anything else to take the dust off black silk.”

“Yes, 'tis.”

“I saw Mis' Andrew Dunn as I was comin' past,” said the cousin.

“I saw her this mornin' down to the store,” said Sarah.

“I thought she looked kind of pindlin', and she coughed some.”

“She did when I saw her. I thought she looked real miserable. Shouldn't wonder if she was goin' in the same way as the others.”

“Just what I think.”

“It was funny we didn't get the consumption, ain't it, when all our folks died with it?”

“Yes, it is funny.”

“I s'pose we wa'n't the kind to.”

“Yes, I s'pose so.”

Then the two women swayed peacefully back and forth in their rocking-chairs, and fluttered their fans gently before their calm faces.

“It is too hot to sew to-day,” remarked Sarah Dunn.

“Yes, it is,” assented her cousin.

“I thought I wouldn't bake biscuit for supper, long as it was so dreadful hot.”

“I was hopin' you wouldn't. It's too hot for hot biscuit. They kind of go against you.”

“That's what I said. Says I, now I ain't goin' to heat up the house bakin' hot bread to-night. I know she won't want me to.”

“No, you was just right. I don't.”

“Says I, I've got some good cold bread and butter, and blackberries that I bought of the little Whitcomb boy this mornin', and a nice custard-pie, and two kinds of cake besides cookies, and I guess that 'll do.”

“That's just what I should have picked out for supper.”

“And I thought we'd have it early, so as to get it cleared away, and take our time walkin' to meetin', it's so dreadful hot.”

“Yes, it's a good idea.”

“I s'pose there won't be so many to meetin', it's so hot,” said Sarah.

“Yes, I s'pose so.”

“It's queer folks can stay away from meetin' on account of the weather.”

“It don't mean much to them that do,” said the cousin, with pious rancor.

“That's so,” said Sarah. “I guess it don't. I guess it ain't the comfort to them that it is to me. I guess if some of them had lost as many folks as I have they'd go whether 'twas hot or cold.”

“I guess they would. They don't know much about it.”

Sarah gazed sadly and reflectively out of the window at the deep yard, with its front gravel walk bordered with wilting pinks and sprawling peonies, its horse-chestnut and cherry trees, and its solitary Lombardy poplar set in advance, straight and stiff as a sentinel of summer. “Speakin' of losin' folks,” she said, “you 'ain't any idea what a blessin' that popple-tree out there has been to me, especially since Marah died.”

Then, for the first time, the cousin stopped waving her fan in unison, and the shadow of a different opinion darkened her face. “That popple-tree?” she said, with harsh inquiry.

“Yes, that popple-tree.” Sarah continued gazing at the tree, standing in majestic isolation, with its long streak of shadow athwart the grass.

The cousin looked, too; then she turned towards Sarah with a frown of puzzled dissent verging on irritability and scorn. “That popple-tree! Land! how you do talk!” said she. “What sort of a blessin' can an old tree be when your folks are gone, Sarah Dunn?”

Sarah faced her with stout affirmation: “I've seen that popple there ever since I can remember, and it's all I've got left that's anyways alive, and it seems like my own folks, and I can't help it.”

The cousin sniffed audibly. She resumed fanning herself, with violent jerks. “Well,” said she, “if you can feel as if an old popple-tree made up to you, in any fashion, for the loss of your own folks, and if you can feel as if it was them, all I've got to say is, I can't.”

“I'm thankful I can,” said Sarah Dunn.

“Well, I can't. It seems to me as if it was almost sacrilegious.”

“I can't help how it seems to you.” There was a flush of nervous indignation on Sarah Dunn's pale, flaccid cheeks; her voice rang sharp. The resemblance between the two faces, which had in reality been more marked in expression, as evincing a perfect accord of mental action, than in feature even, had almost disappeared.

“An old popple-tree!” said the cousin, with a fury of sarcasm. “If it had been any other tree than a popple, it wouldn't strike anybody as quite so bad. I've always thought a popple was about the homeliest tree that grows. Much as ever as it does grow. It just stays, stiff and pointed, as if it was goin' to make a hole in the sky; don't give no shade worth anything; don't seem to have much to do with the earth and folks, anyhow. I was thankful when I got mine cut down. Them three that was in front of our house were always an eyesore to me, and I talked till I got father to cut them down. I always wondered why you hung on to this one so.”

“I wouldn't have that popple-tree cut down for a hundred dollars,” declared Sarah Dunn. She had closed her fan, and she held it up straight like a weapon.

“My land! Well, if I was goin' to make such a fuss over a tree I'd have taken something different from a popple. I'd have taken a pretty elm or a maple. They look something like trees. This don't look like anything on earth besides itself. It ain't a tree. It's a stick tryin' to look like one.”

“That's why I like it,” replied Sarah Dunn, with a high lift of her head. She gave a look of sharp resentment at her cousin. Then she gazed at the tree again, and her whole face changed indescribably. She seemed like another person. The tree seemed to cast a shadow of likeness over her. She appeared straighter, taller; all her lines of meek yielding, or scarcely even anything so strong as yielding, of utter passiveness, vanished. She looked stiff and uncompromising. Her mouth was firm, her chin high, her eyes steady, and, more than all, there was over her an expression of individuality which had not been there before. “That's why I like the popple,” said she, in an incisive voice. “That's just why. I'm sick of things and folks that are just like everything and everybody else. I'm sick of trees that are just trees. I like one that ain't.”

“My land!” ejaculated the cousin, in a tone of contempt not unmixed with timidity. She stared at the other woman with shrinking and aversion in her pale-blue eyes. “What has come over you, Sarah Dunn?” said she, at last, with a feeble attempt to assert herself.

“Nothin' has come over me. I always felt that way about that popple.”

“Marah wa'n't such a fool about that old popple.”

“No, she wa'n't, but maybe she would have been if I had been taken first instead of her. Everybody has got to have something to lean on.”

“Well, I 'ain't got anything any more than you have, but I can stand up straight without an old popple.”

“You 'ain't no call to talk that way,” said Sarah.

“I hate to hear folks that I've always thought had common-sense talk like fools,” said the cousin, with growing courage.

“If you don't like to hear me talk, it's always easy enough to get out of hearin' distance.”

“I'd like to know what you mean by that, Sarah Dunn.”

“I mean it just as you want to take it.”

“Maybe you mean that my room is better than my company.”

“Just as you are a mind to take it.”

The cousin sat indeterminately for a few minutes. She thought of the bread and the blackberries, the pie and the two kinds of cake.

“What on earth do you mean goin' on so queer?” said she, in a hesitating and somewhat conciliatory voice.

“I mean just what I said. That tree is a blessin' to me, it's company, and I think it's the handsomest tree anywheres around. That's what I meant, and if you want to take me up for it, you can.”

The cousin hesitated. She further reflected that she had in her solitary house no bread at all; she had not baked for two days. She would have to make a fire and bake biscuits in all that burning heat, and she had no cake nor berries. In fact, there was nothing whatever in her larder, except two cold potatoes, and a summer-squash pie, which she suspected was sour. She wanted to bury the hatchet, she wanted to stay, but her slow blood was up. All her strength of character lay in inertia. One inertia of acquiescence was over, the other of dissent was triumphant. She could scarcely yield for all the bread and blackberries and cake. She shut up her fan with a clap.

“That fan was Marah's,” said Sarah, meaningly, with a glance of reproach and indignation.

“I know it was Marah's,” returned the cousin, rising with a jerk. “I know it was Marah's. 'Most everything I've got was hers, and I know that too. I ought to know it; I've been twitted about it times enough. If you think I ain't careful enough with her things, you can take them back again. If presents ain't mine after they've been give me, I don't want 'em.”

The cousin went out of the room with a flounce of her purple muslin skirts. She passed into Sarah's little room where her cape and bonnet lay carefully placed on the snowy hill of the feather bed. She put them on, snatched up her green silk parasol, and passed through the sitting-room to the front entry.

“If you are a mind to go off mad, for such a thing as that, you can,” said Sarah, rocking violently.

“You can feel just the way you want to,” returned the cousin, with a sniff, “but you can't expect anybody with a mite of common-sense to fall in with such crazy ideas.” She was out of the room and the house then with a switch, and speeding down the road with the green parasol bobbing overhead.

Sarah gave a sigh; she stared after her cousin's retreating form, then at the poplar-tree, and nodded as in confirmation of some resolution within her own mind. Presently she got up, looked on the table, then on the bed and bureau in the bedroom. The cousin had taken the fan.

Sarah returned to her chair, and sat fanning herself absent-mindedly. She gazed out at the yard and the poplar-tree. She had not resumed her wonted expression; the shadow of the stately, concentrated tree seemed still over her. She held her faded blond head stiff and high, her pale-blue eyes were steady, her chin firm above the lace ruffle at her throat. But there was sorrow in her heart. She was a creature of as strong race-ties as the tree. All her kin were dear to her, and the cousin had been the dearest after the death of her sister. She felt as if part of herself had been cut away, leaving a bitter ache of vacancy, and yet a proud self-sufficiency was over her. She could exist and hold her head high in the world without her kindred, as well as the poplar. When it was tea-time she did not stir. She forgot. She did not rouse herself until the meeting-bell began to ring. Then she rose hurriedly, put on her bonnet and cape, and hastened down the road. When she came in sight of the church, with its open vestry windows, whence floated already singing voices, for she was somewhat late, she saw the cousin coming from the opposite direction. The two met at the vestry door, but neither spoke. They entered side by side; Sarah seated herself, and the cousin passed to the seat in front of her. The congregation, who were singing “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” stared. There was quite a general turning of heads. Everybody seemed to notice that Sarah Dunn and her cousin Sarah Dunn were sitting in separate settees. Sarah opened her hymn-book and held it before her face. The cousin sang in a shrill tremolo. Sarah hesitated a moment, then she struck in and sang louder. Her voice was truer and better. Both had sung in the choir when young.

The singing ceased. The minister, who was old, offered prayer, and then requested a brother to make remarks, then another to offer prayer. Prayer and remarks alike were made in a low, inarticulate drone. Above it sounded the rustle of the trees outside in a rising wind, and the shrill reiteration of the locusts invisible in their tumult of sound. Sarah Dunn, sitting fanning, listening, yet scarcely comprehending the human speech any more than she comprehended the voices of the summer night outside, kept her eyes fastened on the straining surface of gray hair surmounted by the tiny black triangle of her cousin's bonnet. Now and then she gazed instead at the narrow black shoulders beneath. There was something rather pitiful as well as uncompromising about those narrow shoulders, suggesting as they did the narrowness of the life-path through which they moved, and also the stiff-neckedness in petty ends, if any, of their owner; but Sarah did not comprehend that. They were for her simply her cousin's shoulders, the cousin who had taken exception to her small assertion of her own individuality, and they bore for her an expression of arbitrary criticism as marked as if they had been the cousin's face. She felt an animosity distinctly vindictive towards the shoulders; she had an impulse to push and crowd in her own. The cousin sat fanning herself quite violently. Presently a short lock of hair on Sarah's forehead became disengaged from the rest, and blew wildly in the wind from the fan. Sarah put it back with an impatient motion, but it flew out again. Then Sarah shut up her own fan, and sat in stern resignation, holding to the recreant lock of hair to keep it in place, while the wind from the cousin's fan continued to smite her in the face. Sarah did not fan herself until the cousin laid down her fan for a moment, then she resumed hers with an angry sigh. When the cousin opened her fan again, Sarah dropped hers in her lap, and sat with one hand pressed against her hair, with an expression of bitter long-suffering drawing down the corners of her mouth.

After the service was over Sarah rose promptly and went out, almost crowding before the others in her effort to gain the door before her cousin. The cousin did the same; thus each defeated her own ends, and the two passed through the door shoulder to shoulder. Once out in the night air, they separated speedily, and each went her way to her solitary home.

Sarah, when she reached her house, stopped beside the poplar-tree and stood gazing up at its shaft of solitary vernal majesty. Its outlines were softened in the dim light. Sarah thought of the “pillar of cloud” in the Old Testament. As she gazed the feeling of righteous and justified indignation against the other Sarah Dunn grew and strengthened. She looked at the Lombardy poplar, one of a large race of trees, all with similar characteristics which determined kinship, yet here was this tree as separate and marked among its kind as if of another name and family. She could see from where she stood the pale tremulousness of a silver poplar in the corner of the next yard. “Them trees is both poplars,” she reflected, “but each of 'em is its own tree.” Then she reasoned by analogy. “There ain't any reason why if Sarah Dunn and I are both Dunns, and look alike, we should be just alike.” She shook her head fiercely. “I ain't goin' to be Sarah Dunn, and she needn't try to make me,” said she, quite aloud. Then she went into the house, and left the Lombardy poplar alone in the dark summer night.

It was not long before people began to talk about the quarrel between the two Sarah Dunns. Sarah Dunn proper said nothing, but the cousin told her story right and left: how Sarah had talked as if she didn't have common-sense, putting an old, stiff popple-tree on a par with the folks she'd lost, and she, the cousin, had told her she didn't have common-sense, and then Sarah had ordered her out of her house, and wouldn't speak to her comin' out of meetin'. People began to look askance at Sarah Dunn, but she was quite unaware of it. She had formed her own plan of action, and was engaged in carrying it out. The day succeeding that of the dispute with the cousin was the hottest of a hot trio, memorable long after in that vicinity, but Sarah dressed herself in one of her cool old muslins, took her parasol and fan, and started to walk to Atkins, five miles distant, where all the stores were. She had to pass the cousin's house. The cousin, peering between the slats of a blind in the sitting-room, watched her pass, and wondered with angry curiosity where she could be going. She watched all the forenoon for her to return, but it was high noon before Sarah came in sight. She was walking at a good pace, her face was composed and unflushed. She held her head high, and walked past, her starched white petticoat rattling and her purple muslin held up daintily in front, but trailing in the back in a cloud of dust. Her white-stockinged ankles and black cloth shoes were quite visible as she advanced, stepping swiftly and precisely. She had a number of large parcels pressed closely to her sides under her arms and dangling by the strings from her hands. The cousin wondered unhappily what she had bought in Atkins. Sarah, passing, knew that she wondered, and was filled with childish triumph and delight. “I'd like to know what she'd say if she knew what I'd got,” she said to herself.

The next morning the neighbors saw Annie Doane, who went out dressmaking by the day, enter Sarah Dunn's yard with her bag of patterns. It was the first time for years that she had been seen to enter there, for Sarah and Marah had worn their clothes with delicate care, and they had seldom needed replenishing, since the fashions had been ignored by them.

The neighbors wondered. They lay in wait for Annie Doane on her way home that night, but she was very close. They discovered nothing, and could not even guess with the wildest imagination what Sarah Dunn was having made. But the next Sunday a shimmer of red silk and a toss of pink flowers were seen at the Dunn gate, and Sarah Dunn, clad in a gown of dark-red silk and a bonnet tufted with pink roses, holding aloft a red parasol, passed down the street to meeting. No Dunn had ever worn, within the memory of man, any colors save purple and black and faded green or drab, never any but purple or white or black flowers in her bonnet. No woman of half her years, and seldom a young girl, was ever seen in the village clad in red. Even the old minister hesitated a second in his discourse, and recovered himself with a hem of embarrassment when Sarah entered the meeting-house. She had waited until the sermon was begun before she sailed up the aisle. There were many of her name in the church. The pale, small, delicate faces in the neutral-colored bonnets stared at her as if a bird of another feather had gotten into their nest; but the cousin, who sat across the aisle from Sarah, caught her breath with an audible gasp.

After the service Sarah Dunn walked with her down the aisle, pressing close to her side. “Good-mornin',” said she, affably. The cousin in Marah's old black silk, which was matched by the one which Sarah would naturally have worn that Sunday, looked at her, and said, feebly, “Good-mornin'.” There seemed no likeness whatever between the two women as they went down the aisle. Sarah was a Dunn apart. She held up her dress as she had seen young girls, drawing it tightly over her back and hips, elevating it on one side.

When they emerged from the meeting-house, Sarah spoke. “I should be happy to have you come over and spend the day to-morrow,” said she, “and have a chicken dinner. I'm goin' to have the Plymouth Rock crower killed. I've got too many crowers. He'll weigh near five pounds, and I'm goin' to roast him.”

“I'll be happy to come,” replied the cousin, feebly. She was vanquished.

“And I'm goin' to give you my clothes like Marah's,” said Sarah, calmly. “I'm goin' to dress different.”

“Thank you,” said the cousin.

“I'll have dinner ready about twelve. I want it early, so as to get it out of the way,” said Sarah.

“I'll be there in time,” said the cousin.

Then they went their ways. Sarah, when she reached home, paused at the front gate, and stood gazing up at the poplar. Then she nodded affirmatively and entered the house, and the door closed after her in her red silk dress. And the Lombardy poplar-tree stood in its green majesty before the house, and its shadow lengthened athwart the yard to the very walls.