The Stockwells' Apple-Paring Bee

Mary E. Wilkins

From Some of Our Neighbours (J. M. Dent & Co: 1898)

During “apple years” there are always many paring bees in our village. During other years there are, of course, not so many, and people, consequently, are more eager to attend them. When Mr Nehemiah Stockwell gave his great bee it was the only one that autumn, and, therefore, an occasion to be remembered on that account, had not so many remarkable things happened during the evening. It seemed singular, when all the other orchards yielded so little fruit, for it was an unusually “off year,” that Nehemiah Stockwell's trees should have been bent to the ground and even had some of their branches broken beneath the great weight of apples, but thus matters often are with him.

The neighbours regard Nehemiah Stockwell with admiration, somewhat tinctured with a curious jealousy as of his favouritism with Providence. They cannot understand why, when every other garden in the village shows blasted melon-vines, his are rampant with golden globes; when the cut-worms eat everybody else's cabbages his are left undisturbed.

To use the language of one of the bitterest dissenters against Mr Stockwell's good fortune. “It does seem as if everybody else's ‘off year’ was his ‘on year,’” and “he always gets double what anything is worth, because nobody else has got it.”

Still, when people were invited to the paring bee they went, though many felt aggrieved and puzzled at such an unequal distribution of the fruits of the earth. Lurinda Snell said she was going anyhow, for she hadn't “eat” a good apple that year, and probably many shared her politic disposition not to slight the good things of others, because of rancour at having none of their own.

The bee was held in the barn instead of the kitchen, since it would accommodate a greater number of people. The Stockwell barn is a very large one on the opposite side of the road from the house. It was as clean as a parlour, and well lighted with rows of lanterns hung from the beams and scaffolds. Mrs Stockwell used all her own, and borrowed many of the neighbours', kitchen chairs, and there were a number of tables set out with pans and knives, and needles and strings. Bushel-baskets of apples stood around the tables, and the whole place was full of their goodly smell. There was also a woody fragrance of evergreen and pine, for Lottie Green and Zepheretta Stockwell and some other girls had been at work all day trimming the barn. It was a pretty sight, and, moreover, quite a novel one. The stanchions of the cow-stalls, the straight ladders to the scaffolds, and the posts supporting them were all wound with evergreen, and great branches of red and yellow maple, and sumach, were stuck in the shaggy fleeces of hay in the mows. Then Lottie Green, who has quite a daring invention of her own, had gone a step beyond — each mild-faced Jersey cow in the stalled row had her horns decorated with evergreens and yellow leaves, and looked out of her stanchions at the company like some queer beast of fable, and, it must be confessed, with somewhat uneasy tossing of her crowned head.

Lurinda Snell whispered to somebody that Lottie Green had called in Mr Lucius Downey, who happened to be passing by, to tie the greens on the cows' horns when they came home from pasture, and she thought it was pretty silly work.

However, everybody agreed that the barn was a charming sight, and it became still more so when the company was seated around paring apples and stringing them.

Old and young had come to the bee, and the lantern light shone on silvery glancing heads and dark and golden ones. It was a very warm night for October, so warm that the great barn doors were slid apart for air. People could see through the opening a young maple tree full of yellow leaves, which gleamed like a torch in the light from the barn.

The girls often motioned the young men to look at it. “See how handsome that tree looks,” they cried.

One young man, Jim Paine, whispered to the girl beside him, so loud that Lurinda Snell heard, that he did not need to look outside the barn to see something handsome, but all the others looked at the beautiful tree and assented. Jim Paine is, perhaps, the most gallant young man in the village, but he has had the advantage of living in Boston. He was in business there for two years, and, though he has now come home to live, and settled down with his father, he does not lose his city polish, and he makes the other young men appear provincial. He is handsome, too, and considered a great catch by the village girls and their mothers.

People were not surprised at Jim Paine's remark; they admitted that it sounded just like him, but they wondered that it should have been addressed to such a girl. Zepheretta Stockwell is a good girl, no one denies that. She is faithful and industrious, but she is not only very plain-featured, but quite lame, and none of the young men have fancied her.

The other girls were almost too scornful to be jealous, and tittered when Lurinda Snell repeated Jim's speech. As for poor Zepheretta, who had never, during her whole life, had anything like that said to her, she turned white as a sheet at first, and then looked at Jim in a sad, sharp way that she has; then she blushed so that her cheeks were as red as the apple she was paring, and she looked almost pretty. Zepheretta's hair is a common, lustreless brown, but she brushes it until it is very smooth; she never crimps it. There is a sort of patient hopelessness of attraction about Zepheretta. She does not even have her dresses trimmed much. That night she wore a plain brown cashmere with a little white ruffle in the neck, and a very fine white cambric apron beautifully hem-stitched. People thought that Zepheretta was rather extravagant to wear such an apron to a paring bee, though her father was well-to-do. All the women wore aprons, but most of them were made of gingham or calico.

The men pared the apples, and some of the women pared and some strung. The stringing was regarded as rather the nicer work, and the prettiest girls, as a rule, did it. After a while Jim Paine took away Zepheretta's pan of apples and knife, and got a dish of nicely-cut quarters, and a needle and string for her. Then some of the pretty girls began to look spiteful and sober. Presently one of them, Maria Rice, cut her finger, for she was paring, and said she would not work at all; she would go home if she could not string. Then Zepheretta at once gave up her stringing to Maria and fell to paring again, while Jim Paine looked bewildered and vexed. After a little he edged over beside Maria, and pared and cut for her to string, and she was radiant. As for Zepheretta she pared away as patient as ever. She is always giving up to other people, still she looked rather sober.

All the young people were twirling apple-parings three times around their heads and letting them fall over their left shoulders to determine the initials of their future husbands or wives. They also named apples and counted the seeds, all excepting Zepheretta. They would have been inclined to laugh if she had followed their example, for nobody thought Zepheretta would ever marry.

Finally, Jim Paine, in spite of Maria Rice's efforts to keep him, rose and sauntered over to where Zepheretta sat patiently paring. Her face lit up so when he sat down beside her that she looked almost pretty. Maria Rice looked nonplussed, but only for a moment. She had enough strategic instinct for a general. She also rose promptly, followed Jim, and sat down, not beside him, as a less clever girl would have done, but on the other side, next Zepheretta. She began to admire, with great effusion, the knitted lace on Zepheretta's apron, and begged for the pattern. She took up Zepheretta's attention so completely that Jim Paine, on the other side, was quite ignored, and pared apples in silence.

Probably not many people in the barn saw through Maria's manœuvre. Our village does not rear many diplomats. Few would have even noticed it had it not been for the accident which resulted and came near changing our festivity to tragedy. Maria, in order to sit beside Zepheretta, had forced herself into a corner where no one was expected to sit, and which was occupied by a low-hung lantern. Her head came very near it when she first sat down, and some one called to her to take care. She jerked aside with a coquettish giggle, but it was not long before she forgot and brought her head up severely against the lantern. There was a crash, a scream, then a wild flash of fire, and Zepheretta Stockwell was flying into the nearest horse-stall and dragging off the bay mare's blanket before anybody could think. Maria's apron was blazing, and if it had not been for Zepheretta she would certainly have been dangerously, if not fatally, burned. Zepheretta flung the horse blanket over Maria, and threw her down to the floor under it before any one else stirred. Then Jim Paine sprung, but Zepheretta cried to him fiercely to keep off, and crouched so closely over Maria that he could not come near. However, there was enough to do, for a fringe of hay from the scaffold had caught fire, and if it had not been for quick work the barn would have gone. It was a narrow escape as it was, for hay burns like powder. The men tore off their coats to smother the flames; they formed a line to the well and passed buckets of water. In fifteen minutes the fire was completely under control, but that was an end of the apple paring for that night. The barn was drenched with water, the apples were swollen and dripping, and everybody was too nervous to settle down to work again under any circumstances.

Maria Rice was not burned at all. When Zepheretta released her from the blanket she got up, looking pale and disheveled, with her apron a blackened rag, but she was quite uninjured. But poor Zepheretta's hands were burned to a blister, though she said nothing, and nobody would have known it had she not almost fainted away after the scare was over.

Mr Nehemiah Stockwell stood up in the middle of the barn and said he guessed we had better call the paring over, and all come into the house and have supper. His voice trembled, and we could see that he was still fairly quaking with the fright.

It would have been a great loss to Nehemiah Stockwell had his barn been destroyed, for he carried only a very small insurance on it.

Well, we all went across the road to the house — those who had not fled there already in the fear of being burned alive in the barn — and there was the supper-table all laid in the sitting-room.

It was just after we entered the house that Zepheretta nearly fainted from the pain of her burns, and her Aunt Hannah, Mr Stockwell's sister, who had been assisting Mrs Stockwell, went with her to her own room. That was possibly the reason why we had such a singular experience with the supper. Hannah Stockwell being very calm and clear-headed, it is not probable that she would have allowed us to sit down to the table until certain matters had been differently arranged. Poor Mrs Stockwell was almost in hysterics — tears rolling down her cheeks in spite of her frequent dabs with her apron, catching her breath, and trembling so that when she took up a cup and saucer they rattled like castanets.

We placed ourselves as best we could around the table. There were not quite chairs enough; some stood all through the meal, though Mr Stockwell and his hired man raced wildly back and forth with chairs, after the blessing had been asked.

The minister asked the blessing, and it was a very long one, including fervent thanks for deliverance from perils, from fire and flood. Then we began to eat supper, but there was very little to eat. There was really nothing but bread — and cold bread at that — and dried apple sauce, and one small pumpkin pie. There was neither tea nor coffee, though many were sure they could smell them. Everybody had expected a fine supper at the Stockwells', but there was such a poor repast as nobody in our village had ever been known to offer at a paring bee. However, we were all too polite, of course, to speak of it, and Mrs Stockwell did not appear to notice anything out of the way. Lurinda Snell whispered that she acted as if she didn't know whether she was at a wedding or a funeral. Lurinda looked out that Lucius Downey had a piece of the one pumpkin pie. We all discussed the fire and tried to eat as if we enjoyed the supper, but it was hard work. The dried apple sauce was not sweetened, and there was no butter, even, on the table.

We went home soon after supper. Usually there is an after-course of flip and roasted chestnuts on these occasions, but nothing was said about it that night. We all sat around a half hour or so and discussed the fire, and then, with one accord, rose and took leave. Zepheretta had not returned, and we understood that she had gone to bed. I heard Jim Paine inquiring of Mrs Stockwell how she was, and she replied that Hannah had put scraped potato on the burns, and they were less painful, but she guessed Zepheretta wouldn't come down again. Jim Paine had to take Maria Rice home, for she declared that she felt too weak to walk, and he was the only one who had a vacant seat in his carriage.

We were all flocking out of the front gate, looking across at the barn, and saying for the hundredth time how thankful we ought to be, when we heard Hannah Stockwell's voice, and after her Mrs Nehemiah Stockwell's, like a shrill echo.

“You haven't had a single thing that we meant to have for supper,” cried Hannah Stockwell.

“No, you ain't, oh, dear! oh, dear!” cried Mrs Stockwell after her.

“There was mince pies, and apple pies, and Indian pudding,” said Hannah.

“And plum pudding,” declared Mrs Stockwell.

“Pumpkin pie and cranberry pie, and doughnuts.”

“And cheese —”

“There was hot biscuits and corn-bread, and freshly-baked beans.”

“And pork and pickles —”

“There was a great chicken pie, and coffee.”

“And tea for them that wanted it,” said Mrs Stockwell. “I forgot everything. I was so upset. Oh, dear!”

“There was pound cake, and fruit cake, and sponge cake,” Hannah Stockwell said.

“And ginger cookies, and seed cakes — oh, dear!”

The two women went on with the catalogue of that feast which we had missed. No such supper had ever been prepared for an apple-paring bee in our village. They begged us, and Mr Stockwell begged us, to return and partake of the dainties, but it was too late, we were all more or less shaken by our exciting experience, and we all refused, though some of the men would have accepted had not their wives hindered them.

We bade the Stockwells good-night, assuring them that we had had a delightful evening, and that the supper did not signify in the least, and departed. But, as we were going down the road, we heard Hannah Stockwell's voice again:

“There were fried apple turnovers and currant jelly tarts,” and Mrs Stockwell's, feebly, but insistently, “And peach preserves and tomato ketchup.”

We went home that night feeling sure, and we have felt sure ever since, that we had never in our lives eaten, nor ever should eat, such a supper as the one we missed at the Stockwells' apple-paring bee.