Susan: Her Neighbor's Story

Mary E. Wilkins

From Harper's Bazar Vol. XXXII No. 38 (September 23, 1899)

I am going to tell you about Susan, because I know more about her than anybody else does. Others have tried to tell something about her, but they never half did her justice, and now it is my turn. I ought to know all about her, because I lived next door to her thirty years — ever since she was married to Willy Loomis and came to Susanville to live. The place wasn't called Susanville then. It was only the Corner — though we had a little store, where you could buy everything you wanted, if you were not too particular, and there were twenty-five houses, counting one that was too tumble-down to live in, and the old saw-mill. The Corner was almost worse than no name at all, because anybody hearing it for the first time always asked what it was corner of; and Barre, of which it was really a part, is one of the smallest villages in the State, too small to be on the map. When anybody lives in a corner of a village too small to be on the map, it seems like pretty small potatoes. But that was all changed after Susan came and had lived in the Corner some years.

When we heard that Willy Loomis was going to be married, we wondered what kind of a woman he had got to marry him. We all liked Willy, but we sort of looked down on him, the way we looked down on a child or a pet dog. Willy had always been a mother's boy. His father had died when he was a baby, and after that he had filled up his mother's whole outlook. Inez Jackson, who is always saying things that sound queer, but which seem to have meanings that you can't get to the bottom of when you think of them afterward, said once in the sewing meeting that she didn't believe that Louisa Loomis could see the sun or the moon or the stars, or the heavens above, or the earth below, outside of her Willy; and she didn't believe that she could see God Himself, or her Christian duty, except as she saw them shining through him. Well, if Louisa did see such matters in that way, she saw them pretty clear, for she was a good woman.

As I said before, we all wondered what kind of a woman Willy Loomis had got to marry him. She was from out-of-town, from Fairville — a large village about six miles from Barre. We went to Fairville when we had any extra shopping to do, and the doctor lived there. There wasn't a good doctor in Barre; there was only Doctor Spicer, who had so much money he didn't need to doctor, and was mostly out gunning when he was sent for.

We heard afterward that Susan saw Willy for the first time when he went to call the doctor for his mother in her last sickness.

It was one morning in December, and Mrs. Loomis had been taken very bad in the night. Willy had opened a window and rung the bell, and waked me up, and I had gone over as quick as I could get dressed. When I saw Mrs. Loomis, I did not think she would live the night out. I was all alone with her while Willy went for the doctor the first time. He went on horseback, nine miles, and it was a bitter night, and the road through the woods.

When Willy got back, and said the doctor wasn't at home, but he had left word, I supposed he would be along early in the morning, but at eight o'clock he hadn't come.

Then Willy started out again; though Jane Evans, who had come in to help me, and I tried to make him wait. We felt as if poor Louisa was going to die anyway, and Willy wasn't strong, and it was so bitter cold.

But he started; he would not hear a word against it. He was as pale as a sheet when he rode out of the yard, and didn't look as if he could sit up straight in the saddle. “He ain't goin' to outlive his mother long, or I'll miss my guess,” said Jane Evans; and I must say I thought so too.

As I heard afterward, Willy went to Fairville; but just before he reached the village his horse went lame, so he had to get off and leave him at a farmer's. The horse wasn't a very good one anyway, and he had been ridden too far.

So poor Willy went on foot the rest of the way, and when he knocked at the doctor's door he found that he had just started for the Corner by the other road, so he had missed him.

Then Willy started for home again, on foot, trudging along that bitter cold morning. He had come out without his woollen tippet, too, that his mother was always so careful to have him wear.

Susan lived all alone, in a nice house about half a mile out of the village, and she had just gone to the window to shake her table-cloth, when she saw him coming. Willy was a little light-complexioned, blue-eyed fellow, who never looked half grown up, and when he got opposite Susan's gate he had his face hidden in his hands, and he was crying like a baby, out loud, I was told.

Susan tossed her table-cloth onto a chair in the entry, and just ran down the front walk and took hold of his arm. “What is the matter, little boy?” said she.

I don't know just how it came out that he wasn't a little boy, and what the matter was, but the upshot of it all was, Susan made him come into the house and drink a cup of hot coffee, and they said she talked to him like a minister, and said the most beautiful comforting things. I know she could, for I heard her myself afterward when people were in trouble. There was never anybody like Susan to comfort folks. She had the true balm of healing, and she found just the place that was hurt the cruelest to apply it to, as Inez Jackson used to say.

Susan didn't keep him long, but she had the boy who did her chores harness her horse into the sleigh, and she drove Willy home. She tied a tippet round his neck, too, just the way his mother would have done.

I did not see her myself that time, for I was too busy over poor Louisa to look out of the window, and Susan turned right around and went home. …

I saw Susan for the first time one morning in June, after Louisa Loomis had been dead and buried almost six months. That morning Willy came driving over from Fairville to the Corner with her in her own chaise. I was just going home from the store when they passed me. I looked around when I heard the wheels, and there they were. It fairly took my breath away to see Susan sitting there beside Willy. I had never dreamed that he would bring home a wife like that. In the first place, she looked so much older; but, as I learned afterward, there was not so many years difference in their ages. It was only her calm, dignified way of carrying herself, and her size — she was a large woman — which made her seem so. And then she was so handsome; though, as I afterward discovered, she was not exactly handsome — it was rather that there was something about her which made her seem, as Inez Jackson said, something between a queen and an angel.

She sat up straight and tall in the chaise. I can see her now. She was dressed in a greenish, mottled delaine, with a muslin spencer crossed over her bosom, and she wore a bonnet with a flaring rim, and a little green wreath inside around her face. Her hair was brown, and as smooth as satin, and folded over her ears, and her forehead was high and white, and her eyes were beautiful. When she looked at you she made you see yourself in a better light. Inez Jackson used to say that Susan never saw anything in anybody that didn't call for love and pity; she never saw anything to blame, without any excuse for it.

Well, I turned round and stared — I couldn't help it — as they came up behind me, and Willy bowed and colored up, and looked as happy as a child, and Susan bowed and smiled too, and the chaise passed by.

Then the first thing I knew I heard Willy whoa to the horse, and the chaise stopped and waited until I came up; and the bride — that is to say, Susan — leaned out and said, “Get in and ride with us.” I was so overcome I could scarcely speak, but I managed to thank her, and stammer out that I would just as soon walk.

But Susan would not hear to that. “You have all those bundles,” said she, “and Willy tells me that you have a half-mile further to walk, and you look tired, and there is plenty of room.”

Well, I got in finally. Willy urged me; and as for Susan, she always made people do what she told them — told them, for she never asked. She told them in a way that she and no other had. I felt so surprised and queer that I did not know what to do, riding home with all my bundles of salt pork, meal, cheese, and half a codfish, sitting between a bridal couple. We met Jane Evans just before we reached my house, and I think I should have laughed when I saw her face, as she looked at us, if I had not been so astonished myself, and if Susan beside me had not checked anything like that. I cannot remember that I ever saw Susan really laugh. Inez said once that people, in order to laugh at anything in the face of the misery upon this earth, had to have a streak of bitterness and rebellion in them, and Susan had not a mite. I don't know whether Inez was right about that, but I do know that I never saw Susan laugh; though I saw her smile often enough, and nobody ever smiled like her.

Well, Susan and Willy set up housekeeping next door to me, and there we lived side by side for thirty years, and that is how I know all about her. I begun the morning she took me into the chaise, and it was not long before we all begun, to see what kind of a woman Susan was. I say begun, because, after all, nobody could fairly understand such a woman as Susan was, if one lived a hundred years. As something new is always happening to everybody, so Susan was always new to fit our new happenings, whether they were happy or otherwise. Sometimes it did seem as if Susan was made up of everybody else's joys and sorrows and hopes and fears, more than she was of her own, and that kind of a woman is not easy to understand.

There never was such a change in any man as there was in Willy Loomis after Susan married him. Not that he was any bigger, nor any less gentle and childlike, but, as Inez said, he walked as if he knew that he would get where he was headed for, and he never had before. He shovelled his own snow paths, too, and he had not always done that. Sometimes his mother had dug them, to the scandal of us all. And he chopped all his kindling-wood; I saw him myself standing faithfully at the chopping-block in the south yard hour after hour; I had sometimes seen Louisa Loomis standing in the same place. In the fall Willy actually shingled the roof of his house himself. Louisa had been obliged to keep a tin pan in one place in her spare chamber for years, because the roof leaked so. Then Susan bought the old saw-mill with her own money, and set up Willy in business. Willy and his mother had earned a small living by selling the proceeds in fruit and wood and hay of their little farm, and sometimes Willy had worked for Hiram Jacobs when his health was good and the weather favorable and his mother thought he was able. He had never worked out-of-doors when it stormed, or even if it was damp or lowering. Poor Louisa had always been watching for him to die of consumption.

Now Willy trudged off to the mill in all weathers, tramping through snow-drifts even, and carrying his dinner in a pail — for the mill was a mile from home. We all wondered what Louisa would have said had she known that her boy had to eat cold dinners. But he seemed to thrive on them, and he did step out as if he knew he was in his own track, and meant to stay there.

Soon after Willy was set up in business he begun to speak in the neighborhood meetings, which met first in one house, then in another — for we had no church when Susan first came to our town — and he spoke better than any young man I ever heard. Then Susan started a debating society, and Willy spoke in that. Susan had a good many books, and Willy had evidently been reading, and we were all astonished to hear him. Now it is a good many years afterwards, Willy is select-man and deacon, and we are very proud of him. His saw-mill has brought him a competence, too — his wife taught him never to make foolish ventures, and never to trust untrustworthy people, or promise what he couldn't perform. Inez says Willy has his greatest strength in obedience, and he has had sense enough to obey. Well, I will not dwell upon Willy any longer, except to say that even after Susan was gone Willy's sense of reliance upon her did not seem to fail him, and he did not fall back upon his old ways, as some of us thought he might do.

During the thirty years that Susan lived in our village she did much besides making a smart man of her own husband. After she begun at home, she went abroad. She went about with a subscription paper in Barre and Fairville, and she built a church and hired a minister. We have had church and Sunday-school ever since.

She was instrumental in having a little hall built, and we had lyceum lectures, and concerts of local talent. I cannot begin to tell what Susan did for us and our village — for it is really a village now, with the church and the hall, and a stage-coach which runs over from Barre once a day. There is talk of an electric railroad, and if we have that it will be owing to Susan, though she has been gone a number of years now, for they would never have thought of such a thing if so many people had not moved here, and nobody would have moved here if it had not been for her.

Why, Susan got to be really celebrated through all the towns about on account of the efforts she was making to improve the Corner. I suppose I must acknowledge that it had not had the best reputation for industry and general smartness. A good many of our boys and young men did not like to work, and spent too much time lounging around the store. It was soon very different after Susan came. I have seen, myself, the row of loafers in front of the store start up and walk off as if they had most important business to attend to when they saw Susan coming. I never saw her speak to them, either, and I never could understand the secret of her influence over them. Two of the young men who had small farms went to working them, and Willy gave some of them employment in the saw-mill.

I don't know just when the Corner began to be Susanville, but Susanville it is, and Susanville it will be on the map if it ever gets big enough for that distinction. The street on which most of our dwellings stand, and which is really a part of the old Barre turnpike, began to be known as Susan Street, too, and Susan Street it will remain for many a day.

Susan started a library in Susanville, and it has had a bequest and is in a very flourishing condition, and we have a mission society which does a world of good for such a small and poor village, and Susan started that.

But it was not only improvements in the village as a whole in which Susan was interested; she was active in our homes whenever we needed her assistance, in joy or sorrow. She decked the village brides, and she watched with the sick and the dead. Jonas Benson, who had been a confirmed drunkard for years, quit drinking and went to work at his trade, and Henry Briggs's wife, who had given up for ten years and wouldn't do anything because she was so discouraged on account of losing her children, and some money on a Western mortgage, got up and put her house in order, and invited her brother's family to spend Thanksgiving, and Susan was the means of that. I can't begin to tell all Susan did for us all. When the Petersons had the small pox, Susan went over and took care of them, though she had never had it herself.

We used to put provisions at the head of the lane, and Susan would come out and get them at night. The Petersons all got well, but they would not have, had it not been for Susan's nursing. She did not take the disease herself, but she went and staid all alone in the old May house until she was sure she was past all danger and no one would take it from her.

Susan saved little Eddie Briggs from being killed by a cross dog, too; she drove him off with her parasol when two men had been afraid to touch him. Susan was afraid of nothing, and she proved that in the very last good deed of her life.

Susan had lived among us thirty years come June, and it was December, and a bitter cold snowy night, when the store burned down.

I was awakened by the shouting and the ringing of the bell about one o'clock in the morning, and when I got up and looked out of the window I saw the sky to the northward was red with fire. It shone even through the frost and snow on the window, and the whole room was rosy with it. I wakened my sister's son, George, who lived with me, and was asleep in the chamber across the entry. “George, George, get up!” I cried out; “there's a dreadful fire!”

It was not long before George was up and out, pulling on his fireman's jacket as he ran — for he belonged to the fire company. As soon as I could get dressed I started out. I could not bear to stay in the house, not knowing what was happening, though it was such a dreadful night, and I not as young as I had been.

So I pulled some woollen stockings on over my shoes, put on my knitted hood and my Bay State shawl, and started. Just as I got out my gate, plodding through the snow, I met Susan and Willy. They were going too.

“Oh, where is it? Do you know?” I called out, and Susan said, in her calm way, that she thought it must be the store. “I hope they have got the children out,” said she. William Martin, who kept the store, had three little children, and lived in the tenement overhead.

“A fire would spread so rapidly in such a place,” Susan said, reflectively, as we hurried along. She took hold of my arm to help me.

The sky grew brighter and brighter as we went on.

“They are not getting the better of it,” Willy said.

“I hope they have the children out,” Susan said again.

“Of course they would see to that the first thing,” said I. But they had not. When we got to the building they had just found it out, and a great groan was going up.

Nobody ever knew just how it happened. Some blamed Mr. Martin and some blamed his wife, and a few blamed nobody at all, and probably the last were right. Somehow there had been a mistake. Mr. Martin thought his wife had the children all safe, and she, who was overcome by the smoke as she came out of the burning building, and was dragged into the street and resuscitated, thought he had them. She gasped out that he had when questioned. Then all at once the little curly heads appeared at a window over the store.

Luckily Mrs. Martin by that time was in a neighbor's house and did not see them, but Mr. Martin did, and would have rushed into the burning building had not some men held him. It seemed like certain death to attempt to rescue those children. The store under the chamber where they were was a roaring furnace. The way was cut off through there, of course. There was another flight of stairs besides the one in the store, which communicated with the tenement, but that did not seem more accessible. It was at the side of the store, and an outer door opened upon it. Mrs. Martin had come down that way, and it was belching smoke like a chimney. It did not seem as if anybody could live to climb those stairs.

I confess my first thought was of George, and I had a cowardly dread lest he might rush upon his death, though I could not have held him back. I looked about to see if he were starting, and saw him with others running with a ladder, and I thought that no ladder could stand a second slanted over the fire under that window. Then — it all happened so quick that I did not seem to fairly know it until I thought it over afterward — I saw Susan pull Willy toward her and kiss him, and heard her tell him to run quick and get Mr. Briggs's clothes-line. And Willy, with that unquestioning obedience which he always showed to Susan, started.

Then Susan, while the men were struggling with the ladder, said to me, in such a quick and solemn voice as I never heard: “Good-by, dear friend. Tell them to go to the north window and hold the blankets.”

Then, with one dash, Susan was through that awful doorway, through that belch of smoke, and the door was slammed to and the bolt shot. How she ever did that I cannot tell. Nobody but Susan could have done it. One of the firemen saw her go, and shouted, and leaped to the door and put his shoulder against it; but it was stout and held, and Susan saved another life, as she meant to do.

I caught hold of the man; I never knew who he was. “Go to the north window — the north window!” I gasped out. “She said to. She will try to take them there!”

Then the man shouted, and there was a wild dash with ropes and ladders and horse-blankets. The fire was not quite so fierce under the north window, for the wind drove the flames in the opposite direction.

I did not see it; I could not look. But George told me about it. Susan came to the window and tossed out the children, one after another, into the blankets, and not one was hurt by the fall, though the oldest was somewhat burned. Then Susan jumped herself. They could not put up the ladder, for suddenly the flames were bursting out from the window below with great fury.

The blanket and the new snow broke Susan's fall, and she did not seem to be hurt at all. She stood comforting the crying children when the people crowded around her. “Oh, Susan! Oh, Susan!” I sobbed out when I got to her, for I had not thought to see her alive. But she only smiled at me, and I can see that fire-lit smile now. “I am not hurt at all,” said she. “I am so thankful the children are safe.”

She walked home with Willy and me after the fire was over, Willy with a jealous arm around her half the way, and she soothing his excitement and anxiety, for he was quite overcome by it all.

She bade me good-night cheerily at her gate and went in, and that was the last time she ever spoke to me. We got home from the fire about four o'clock, and at five Willy rang the bell out of his window for me. Susan was unconscious when I got over there, and she never came to her senses again. It seemed that she had a weakness of the heart, and the shock of it all had killed her, though she was not hurt by her leap from the window and was not burned. Susan's funeral was held in the church which she had built, and half Barre and Fairville came.

Some people in Fairville sent hot-house flowers — crosses and wreaths of roses and carnations; but we in Susanville cut off all the blossoms on our house plants — geraniums and calla-lilies and oleanders; there was not a flower to be seen in a window in Susanville. Histories are written about great queens when they are dead, but no one will ever write a history about Susan of Susanville, so I am writing this, because I lived next door to her for thirty years, and I know it is all true.