The White Birch

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

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

At one time the birch-tree had sisters, and they stood close together in sun and wind and rain, in winter and summer. Their pretty, graceful limbs were intertwined; their rustling leaves were so intermingled that one could not tell to which they belonged; the same rain fell on all alike; the same snows bent them to the ground in long garlands of grace; the same misty winds lashed them about; the same sunlight awoke their green leaves like green butterflies in the spring. But all her sisters were gone; one or two had died of themselves, the others had been lopped down by the woodsman, and there was only the one white birch left. She stood with the same inclination of her graceful trunk and limbs which she had had on account of her sisters, and which she never would have had except for them. She was a tree alone, but with the habit of one growing in the midst of a family. All her lines and motions were leanings towards an old love. The white birch felt always, as a man will feel a missing limb, the old spread of the others' branches, the wind and rain and the sun in them. She never fairly knew that she was alone, that her sisters were not there. When the snows of winter fell, she felt them, soft and cool and sheltering, weighing down her sisters' limbs as well as her own; when the spring rain came, there was not a young leaf of the trees which were gone but was evident to her consciousness; and when the birds returned and sang and nested, she was never sure that they were not in her sisters' green-draped arms instead of her own. But there were times when she had a bewildered feeling that something was wrong, that something was gone. She lived in a grove where there were many other birch-trees, most of them growing in clumps; and sometimes, looking at them, she had a sense of loss.

Not very far from the tree was Joseph Lynn's house, the old Lynn homestead where he had been born and had lived for fifty years. The house, from some idiosyncrasy of his ancestors, had been set back from the highway in the fields, close to the birch grove. The descendants had often wondered and rebelled at the will of the dead man who had built the house. They wondered if he had wished to turn the highway from its course, if he had had some old feud with a neighbor. There had been talk of moving the house, though it would have been a severe undertaking to move the square old structure, built of massive timbers around an enormous central chimney. But Joseph, who was the last of his race, never had contemplated the moving until recently. Perhaps there was in him something of the spirit of the ancestor who had set the homestead in its isolated place. He loved to be away from the windows of neighbors, and the rattle of wheels along the dusty road; he loved the silent companionship of trees and fields, and had no wish for anything else until he fell in love with Sarah Benton. He would call her Sarah, even to his own thoughts, although she was Sadie to everybody else. There was in him, in spite of apparent pliability and gentleness, a vein of obstinacy, and he loved the old above the new. His own mother's name had been Sarah; he rejected the modern paraphrase of it. The girl herself was cheaply and inanely pretty; by some method known to love, and love alone, he was blind to that element of commonness and unworthiness, and saw only in her the woman of his dreams. He refined her to such an extent with the fires of his love that, had she seen herself as she existed in his mind, she would never have known herself. She had spent many hours before her looking-glass in her short life, but she had never possessed a looking-glass like that.

People in the village said that Joseph Lynn was a fool to marry such a pretty, silly young thing at his age, and in the same breath said that she was a girl who knew how to feather her nest, and yet condemned her for being willing to give herself to a man old enough to be her father. Nobody dreamed that she loved him. The girl was poor. She went about dress-making from house to house to support herself; and Joseph had his comfortable home, and income enough to almost keep her in luxury, or what meant luxury to a girl of her standing in life. People looked at her with a mixture of approval of her shrewdness and contempt. One young girl mate of hers attacked her openly. She boarded with this girl's mother, and one night after Joseph Lynn had been courting, she spoke out. She went into the parlor and stood before Sarah, fairly trembling with indignation and maidenly shame. The girl was very plain, with a face so severe in its maidenliness that it seemed like a sharp wedge of accusation. She had never had a lover in all her life; she never would have. She had never even dreamed of love. She lived her life and did her duty without passion; that which had brought her into being seemed not to exist in her. Her drab-colored hair was combed straight back from her uncompromising outlook of face; her skin was dull, and the blushes struggled through it. She held her two hands clinched at her sides; her figure, wide and flat-bosomed, looked as rigid as iron.

“I want to know,” said she, “if you are really going to marry him.”

“Yes, I am,” replied the other girl. Her pretty face blazed, she shrugged her shoulders, and looked down at the ruffle of her gown.

“Going to marry that man?” repeated the other girl.

“I'd like to know why I shouldn't. What is there the matter with him?” asked Sarah, defiantly.

“Marrying a man old enough to be your father for a home,” said the girl.

“Lots of girls do.”

“I don't see why that makes it any better for you. You can't care anything about him.”

“I'd like to know what's the matter with him. He's a good, kind man.”

“And he's got money,” said the other girl, in a tone of ineffable contempt and shame, as if she were ashamed of herself as well as her friend. As she spoke she looked as if she saw Joseph Lynn standing before her, and Sarah Benton looked at the same place, as if she also saw him. Indeed, both girls saw him with their minds' eyes, standing before them as visibly as if he had been there in the flesh. They saw a very tall, stiffly carriaged man, with a disproportionately long neck, and a cloud of curly blond beard like moss, which reached well over his breast. He was not a man to appeal to the fancy of any young girl, but rather to repel her, and awaken her ridicule through a certain unnamable something which seemed to mark him as unmated with youth and youthful fancies.

“You ain't going to marry him?” said again the other girl, whose name was Maria. All the shame of maidenly imagination was in her voice and her look, and Sarah quailed before it.

“I'd like to know why not?” she demanded, but her voice faltered.

“Marry him?” repeated the girl. The two words meant everything. Sarah blushed hotly.

“He's a good, kind man,” she half whimpered out — “a good, kind man, and I'm alone in the world, and he'll take care of me; and I've always worked hard, and —” Sarah began to sob convulsively.

“How about Harry Wyman?”

Sarah Benton only sobbed more unrestrainedly.

“Harry Wyman has only got his day's wages, and he lost his job, anyhow, last month; but you couldn't wait,” said Maria. “And you know you like him best, and you know how he feels about you, and now you'll marry this other man; you'll sell yourself.”

“Stop talking to me so!” cried Sarah, with a flash of resentment.

“I won't; it's the truth,” said Maria, mercilessly. “You do mean to sell yourself.” She drew herself up and looked at Sarah with an unspeakable scorn and contempt. “You mean to marry him,” she repeated, and again there was all the meaning which the imagination of a maiden could put into her voice and words. Then she turned and went out. She heard Sarah's convulsive sobs as she went, but she felt pitiless. The sitting-room door was open and her mother was sewing by the lamp, with its flowered shade. Maria cast a glance at her, and knew that she would be questioned curiously, and opened the front door and went down the walk between the rows of flowering bushes — pinks and peonies and yellow lilies. The katydids were singing very loud and shrill across the way. Somehow she felt a sort of futile anger at the sound. The ceaseless reverberations of nature which pertained to its perpetuation irritated her. It was the voice of a law under which she would never come, which she did not in her heart recognize, which, when she saw it applied to others, filled her with impatience and repulsion.

When she reached the gate, she stood still, leaning against it, and a man's figure loomed up before her. She did not start; she was not a nervous girl; she looked intently and recognized him in a moment.

“Is it you, Harry?” she said, in a low voice.

The man came closer. “Yes,” he said, with a sort of gasp. Then he leaned heavily against the gate, and put his head down upon it with a sort of despairing gesture like a child.

Maria stood watching him, not so much pityingly as angrily. She thought to herself how could any man make such a fool of himself over a girl like that in there.

But she waited, and presently spoke in a low, soft voice, that her mother might not hear. “What's the matter? Are you sick?”

“Tell me, Maria, is she going to marry Joseph Lynn?” gasped the young fellow, with an agonized roll of black eyes at her.

“So she says.”

“I wish I was dead.”

“It ain't right to talk so.”

“You don't know how I feel,” groaned the young man, and that was perfectly true. “I've just got a job, too,” said he, “and I came down here, and I saw him going away, and I wish I was dead.”

The gate opened inward. Maria began pulling at it. “Here, come in,” said she.

“What use is there, when —”

“Come in,” said Maria, imperatively, pulling at the gate.

The young man yielded. He followed Maria into the house. Sarah was still sobbing. They could hear her the moment they entered the front entry. Maria's mother had not noticed, because she was slightly deaf.

Maria took the young man by the arm, and almost forced him into the parlor. “Here he is,” said she, in a curious voice, almost as if she were a being of another race, and spoke from the outside of things. “Here is Harry Wyman, and he's got another job, and if you've got a mite of shame you'll marry him instead of Joseph Lynn, Sadie Benton.”

Then she shut the parlor door and went into the sitting-room.

Her mother looked up with a start; she had shut the parlor door with a bang.

“Who's in there now?” she whispered.

“Harry Wyman.”

“For the land's sake! Which is she goin' to marry?”

“I don't know. I don't see what any woman who is earning her own livin' wants to get married for, anyhow,” said Maria. “You go to bed, mother, if you want to.”

“Do you know how long he's goin' to stay?”

“No, but I'll sit up and lock the door.”

“She'll never think of it, she's so heedless.”

“I told you I would, mother.”

Joseph Lynn had made all his preparations to move his house to the edge of the highway. Sarah had complained that it was too far from the road, that she wanted to see the passing. The very next morning men assembled with jacks and timbers loaded on a wagon, and the heavy old horse which had drawn them was taken out and tied to a tree which he tried to nibble, and the men were about beginning their task when Harry Wyman came. He looked pale, both shamed and triumphant. He went up to Joseph, who surveyed him with a kindly air. He had known the young fellow ever since he was a baby. He had never been jealous of him, although he had heard his name coupled with his sweetheart's. He was not a jealous man, and believed in a promise as he believed in the return of the spring.

“Hello, Harry!” he said. “Want a job?”

“No, thank you; I've got one.”

“Oh. I heard you were out of work, and thought mebbe I could give you a lift.”

The young man stood before the elder one, still with that mixture of triumph and shame. He could not speak out his errand at once. He hedged. “Goin' to move the old house?” he said, huskily.

“Yes; then I'm goin' to have her painted up and shingled, and a bay-winder put on, and get some new furniture. Suppose you've heard I'm goin' to be married?”

“Yes, I've heard,” said the young man. He turned perceptibly paler.

Joseph stared at him with sudden concern. “What in creation ails you?” he said. “Be you sick? Want anything to take?”

“No. Look here —”

Harry drew him aside and told him. “She's liked me best all the time,” he said. “You won't be hard on her, Mr. Lynn?”

Joseph's face was ghastly, but he lost not one atom of his stiffness of bearing. He was like a tree that even the winds of heaven could not bend. “If she likes you best, that's all there is to be said about it,” he replied, and his voice, although it was quite steady, seemed to come from far away.

“I hope you won't lay it up against her. She's a little, delicate thing, and I'd lost my job, and —”

“If she likes you better, that's all there is to say about it,” repeated Joseph, in a tone so hardly conclusive that the young fellow jumped.

He went away with a leaping motion of joy, in spite of himself.

Then Joseph went up to the men who were dragging the heavy timbers towards the old house. “I'll give you what your time and labor of bringin' 'em here is worth,” he said. As he spoke he drew out his old pocket-book. The men all stared at him. He became the target of gaping faces, but he did not quail.

“'Ain't you goin' to have the house moved, after all?” asked one man, with a bewildered air.

“No; changed my mind. Goin' to let her set where she is. I'll pay you whatever your time and labor's worth.”

After Joseph had paid the men, and had seen the heavy old horse lumber across the field with his burden, he entered his house. There had been a little digging under one of the walls; otherwise it had been untouched. He noticed that, and reflected that he would make it right before sundown. A clump of pinks had been uprooted. He carried them into the house, and put them in a pitcher of water, and they filled the room with their spicy fragrance. Joseph lived entirely alone, yet the house was very orderly. He had planned to do most of the housework himself after he was married, and save Sarah.

Joseph sat down awhile in the old rocking-chair beside the sitting-room window, and his heart ached as if it were breaking. He could scarcely believe in the reality of that which had befallen him; there was in his soul an awful pain of readjustment to its old ways. But, after all, he had passed his youth and his time of acutest rebellion. After a while he heard a fluting note of a bird close to the house, and it sounded in his ears like a primal comfort-note of nature. All at once he was distinctly conscious of a feeling of gladness that the poor old house was not to be torn up by its roots like the clump of pinks, and set in alien soil. He had lived in the house so long that at times it seemed fairly alive to him, and something which could be hurt. He looked at the walls lovingly. “Might have weakened 'em,” he said, “and I always liked this old satin paper.”

He looked out of the window, and the silvery shimmer of the birches and their white gleam of limb caught his eye. He got up heavily, put on his old straw hat, went out of the house, and the solitary birch which had been bereft of her sisters was very near. He flung himself down beside her, and leaned against her frail, swaying body, and felt her silvery skin against his cheek, and all at once the dearness of that which is always left in the treasure-house of nature for those who are robbed came over him and satisfied him. He loved the girl as he had never loved her before, and his love was so great and unselfish and innocent that it overweighed his loss, and it was to him as if he had not lost her at all. With no pain he began to think of her as the bride of the other man.

“He was always a good fellow,” he said, “and she ought to marry a man nearer her own age.”

He sat a long time leaning against the white birch-tree through whose boughs a soft wind came at intervals, and made a gentle, musical rustle of twinkling leaves, and the tree did not fairly know that the wind was not stirring the leaves of her lost sisters, and the man's love and sense of primeval comfort were so great that he was still filled with the peace of possession.