Barbara Lovell: A True Story
THIS is a true story set down plainly as I have heard it told by those who knew Barbara Lovell’s history. Names I have changed, but not essentials. The bare facts are worth recording for those who would understand the deeper traits of New England character. One deep regret pervades me as I write. Barbara’s story, coming too late to be told by Hawthorne, has missed its interpreter. His penetrative imagination, so sympathetic to the rigid tragedies of the New England temperament, might shadow forth for us, in that dark way of his, the still emotions of those locked hearts; that inexorable mother’s unmaternal hardness; that wife’s desperate decision; the silence of those sons. Only Hawthorne would know what Weatherby said to Barbara on those brief daily visits of his; only Hawthorne would know Barbara’s thoughts through all those long secluded years, — and he would only tell the half. Failing him, we have lost the key.
I WAS spending a week at a small village on the Maine coast, with my dog and gun, and, as usual, it was Aunt Deborah Smith who made me welcome in the little white house standing snugly alongside the friendly village street. The second day of my visit was clear and cold. The wind had drawn freshly in from the harbor all through the autumn afternoon, and it was with a comfortable sense of a day well spent that, with my gun under my arm and my dog at heel, I turned homeward at sun-down. Thirty years before, there had lived in the village a girl of nineteen, blessed with a beauty so rare that it still remains a tradition throughout the district. ‘Beautiful as Barbara Lovell’ is to this day an expression of admiration. She was the daughter of a seacaptain who had died at sea almost within sight of home, when his vessel was wrecked on one of the treacherous reefs of that coast. She lived with a half-witted sister, and with her mother, who was still in early middle life. Barbara had had a better education than most of her village companions. She had attended an excellent Quaker school at Providence, and she had traveled to Boston, New York, and even to Philadelphia, — a range of experience beyond the reach of her contemporaries among the girls of the village. And yet, in spite of her advantages, and although every young man in Wellsport was head over heels in love with her, the women of the village had nothing but good to say of Barbara.
Several miles lay between me and the village by the route that I had taken in the morning, but a trail which skirted a long arm of the sea promised a shorter road home. This I followed for half a mile, until a little stream barred my progress, and would have forced me to turn back, had not an obliging oysterman answered my hail, and presently ferried my dog and me safely across. The path to the right, he said, passed a small farmhouse in a near-by pasture and would lead me straight to my destination.
I thanked him and was just starting on my way, when, in front of the house which the man had mentioned, I noticed an old stone well. Perched upon its curb was a wooden bucket which reminded me how long it was since I had had a drink. Now, as every one knows, the only pleasure in drinking from a bucket comes from the flavor of the moss upon its rim. But this was a new bucket, so I decided to go to the house and ask for a tumbler.
It was past six, and, thinking that the family would be at supper, I knocked at the back door. There was a step within; I heard the rustle of a woman’s dress as she came, I supposed, to open the door. Then the sound grew fainter, and in a moment it ceased altogether. I knocked again. There was no response. I tried to lift the latch, but the door was locked. In some surprise I stepped back, and for the first time looked carefully at the house. Every window, every shutter was closed, and the curtains were all drawn. The house looked dead, and the unnatural silence gave me a disagreeable feeling.
My desire for a drink vanished, and I was glad to have my trusty pointer at my heels as I trudged on to Aunt Deborah’s. Before her cosy fire, the uncanny impression of the lonely house melted speedily away, and in the week that followed, the little incident never crossed my mind.
It was a year later that I thought of it again. Once more I was at Aunt Deborah’s. Seated in my little room under the eaves, I was busily swabbing out my gun when, through the window, I caught sight of Miss Jane Ridgway, who lived over the way, scurrying across the road. She knocked hurriedly, and then I heard her high voice saying eagerly to Aunt Deborah, who was rocking in the south window of the parlor, ‘Well, I wonder what Steve will do about Barbara now.'
The last stains were off my barrels, and as I was not averse to hearing a village yarn, I descended the stairs and asked Miss Jane what she meant.
‘You don’t mean to say you don’t know about Steve and Barbara!’ exclaimed Miss Jane; and, on my reminding her that it was but once a year I came to Aunt Deborah, she told me the story which I here set down.
None but a sailor race, I think, could yield such a history; none but a race which, with courage to fight but without the faith of hope, had struggled for centuries against unconquerable conditions, expecting nothing, enduring all things.
At this time there was living in the village a man named Stephen Weatherby, whose name was beginning to reach the larger towns of the coast on account of the speed and sea-worthy qualities of the boats which he designed and built. Of the young men of Wellsport he was by far the most notable figure. He still lived there, and I had often sailed with him, and had been much impressed by his appearance and personality. Weatherby was built on a big scale, with a great head and bold features. When first I met him, his thick hair and beard were nearly white, but in those days he was in the middle thirties and his hair was of that pale yellow which we associate with the Norse Vikings. I can well recall his eyes. They had in them that direct and level look characteristic of a man born to command, and if I were aboard his boat, I should never think of a contingency with which he could not cope.
In a worldly way, Captain Weatherby had prospered. His orders for boats grew with his reputation, and his bank account grew with both. Surplus funds of his had found an outlet in the purchase of several cottages intended for sale at a large profit to the strangers who were beginning to flock annually to the seashore. In one of these investments Weatherby placed especial confidence: a five-acre lot with a farmhouse on it and the well where I had stopped to get a drink.
In other ways, however, things had not gone well with Stephen Weatherby. Some fourteen years before our story opens, he had married, and his sons were now eleven and thirteen years old. But with his wife Weatherby lived as a stranger. She cooked his meals and made his house tidy, but in the evening, when she sat knitting and rocking interminably, her husband would read his paper and smoke his pipe, and no needless word would pass between them. There is nothing in the evidence to show that Weatherby was either an irascible or a capricious man, but as every man and woman in the village knew, he had never been able to forgive a deception practiced upon him by the woman he had made his wife, and by her parents: for Julia Weatherby was blind.
In the days of her marriage blindness was inevitable. She knew it and her parents knew it, and together they conspired to withhold the knowledge from Stephen Weatherby until those two were married and a life’s provision had been made for Julia. A year or two after that life’s provision had been made, Captain Weatherby found that he had been given a burden, and not a helpmate. From the hour of that discovery, though the husband and wife dwelt in one house, they were as far apart as though they lived in different countries. Each tolerated the other’s presence; that was all.
Under these circumstances, it was not unnatural that Weatherby should not spend all his evenings in the silent parlor of his own house. People knew that he was a frequent visitor at Mrs. Lovell’s, but apparently it occurred to none of the village gossips that his calls there were on account of Mrs. Lovell’s daughter. Barbara herself, who was entirely indifferent to the attentions of her numerous suitors, found in Stephen Weatherby a man wholly unlike his mates. He alone seemed to influence her, and to his words alone she listened intently. It seems, however, that the widowed mother was aware of the danger of such a relationship, and occasionally in her talks with Barbara she is said to have made veiled references to the subject. But this part of the story is obscure and rests on uncertain testimony. What is certain is that whatever passed between the two led to no change in Barbara’s attitude. She saw continually more of Stephen, and took increasing pleasure in his society.
This was the state of things when the time for picking cranberries came round again. The harvesting of the cranberry crop is an event in that part of the country, and the pickers celebrate it by an ‘Entertainment,’ where all the young people assemble in the Town Hall to dance and play at forfeits and kissing games and to eat a superabundance of ice-cream and cake. This year the whole village turned out in honor of the event, and even Captain Weatherby, whose temperament did not lend itself to promiscuous sociability, joined the throng and all the evening through stood in a corner of the hall chatting with one and another of his neighbors.
As for Barbara, she was the spirit of the dance. Wherever she was, there the young men pressed thickest. No one in the hall laughed more light-heartedly than she. For months afterward people searched their minds to recall the smallest incidents of that evening, but no one could remember a single glance of hers cast toward Stephen Weatherby. Certainly the two exchanged no words until the clock over the door struck eleven. Barbara was exacting forfeits from half a dozen youths, and one tall young man, in an agony of shyness, was attempting to redeem a red silk handkerchief by obeying her commands, when Weatherby walked across the hall and joined the group, saying, ‘Shall I see you home, Barbara?’
Barbara looked up, smiled in assent, ran into the dressing-room, and presently appeared with a ‘nubia ’ wrapped about her lovely head. ‘Good-night!’ she cried, smiling and waving her hand as she passed through the chattering crowd. At the door, she turned for an instant, a picture of happy loveliness which no one who saw it forgot. Barbara was not seen again for thirty years.
It was the second day after the ‘Entertainment’ that Jane Ridgway, who was in those days a close friend of Barbara, went to Mrs. Lovell’s house to ask for help in matching some silks which she wanted for a bit of needlework. She knocked at the door and Mrs. Lovell opened it with a face so grave that the visitor caught her breath involuntarily.
‘Jane,’ said Mrs. Lovell, speaking evenly and slowly, ‘Barbara has gone away and she will not come back again. Tell this to everybody who asks about her. And, Jane, if you want to save me great distress and trouble, you will say, too, that never as long as I live shall I say another word about this.’
Mrs. Lovell closed the door abruptly and Jane, in bewilderment and sorrow, sat down on the steps and sobbed as if her heart were breaking. It was half an hour before she could gather herself together to repeat to the neighbors the news which swept like wild-fire through the village.
That very evening Stephen Weatherby came home from his shop as usual, and after washing for supper took up a copy of the local Eagle, and drawing his chair to the window, sat down to read. His wife moved to and fro about the stove, with her blank eyes fixed on the sizzling bacon. Presently she turned toward the window.
‘Well, I wonder what folks ’ll be a-sayin’ next,’ said she in her flat voice.
‘What are they saying now?’ asked Weatherby, still looking at his paper.
‘Well, they’re a-sayin’ as how you got Barbara Lovell shut up in the fiveacre-lot house.’
Stephen Weatherby laid his paper on the table. When he spoke, there was no touch of anger or acrimony in his voice, though his words came with slow emphasis.
‘ For once there is something right in what they say. Barbara is in the fiveacre-lot house. But when they say she is shut up there, they lie. There is nothing to hinder her from walking out if she wants to. She is there, though, right enough.’
Julia Weatherby stood rigid, staring as though she could see the deepdrawn lines on her husband’s face. After a moment, Stephen went on: —
‘Julia, there’ll only be one talk between us two about this matter, and that is here and now. There are just two things you can do. Either you will go to law and will take what the law gives you and no more, and I will take what is left and go over there to live with Barbara in the five-acre-lot house; or else you will hold your peace about, it and we will stay as we are. Don’t speak now. Think it over and let me know in the morning what you decide.
I am going back to the shop to finish up a piece of work. We’ll put supper off for an hour.’
Then he got up and went out.
All that night Julia lay with her blind eyes wide open. In the morning her decision was made. She would remain with Weatherby. How could she do otherwise? Her parents were dead. She had no friends. How could she learn to feel her way about another kitchen or sit in some unaccustomed corner which she could never picture to herself. So she went on living in the house where she had lived before. Not a quarter of a mile away stood that other house, long tenantless; but now, if her pale eyes could have seen it, a thread of smoke rose daily from the chimney.
The routine of life began again. Every morning, as usual, Stephen Weatherby went to his shop, and all day long his wife could hear his hammer and saw as he worked with his men, fashioning the tidiest boats to be found on the New England coast. But no day passed that Weatherby did not go to the house in the five-acre lot. Daily he drew the water from the well; daily he cut the wood and brought in a basket of provisions. Sometimes, after a trip to Portland, he would bring back with him a few yards of cloth, needles, thread, or articles of women’s dress. These, too, he would leave at the small white house. But regular as his visits were, they were always short. It was rarely more than a few minutes after the old green door had shut behind him that it opened again to let him out.
Of the solitary tenant of the house no one saw anything. Occasionally a passer-by would hear the sound of a chair as it scraped along the floor, or the stove-lid as it was dropped back into place. Some said they heard, as I did, the rustle of a woman’s skirt. Sometimes a curious neighbor would catch sight of a shadow falling athwart a drawn shade. A thousand signs bore testimony to a human presence, but of the woman herself there was known or seen absolutely nothing.
In the week following Barbara’s disappearance, the first shock of village bewilderment was followed by boisterous indignation. Men sat round the village store and talked of tar and feathers and of running the kidnapper out of town. I have heard, too, that a deputation of villagers actually waited on Weatherby; but to that story there is no sequel, for, if the interview ever took place, it was short and useless. Captain Weatherby was no man to take liberties with.
Time went on. Weatherby kept at his work and prospered. His wife cooked his meals, darned his stockings, and rocked herself to sleep when her work was done. The children grew up in their father’s work-shop and learned from him to know the ‘feel’ of a good model and to keep alive the tradition of his boats. The story of Barbara Lovell was no longer discussed. Like the other facts of Wellsport existence, it was taken for granted — a part of the setting of their narrow stage. So passed twenty-five years.
Such was the story Miss Jane Ridgway told me that afternoon in Aunt Deborah’s parlor. The exclamation which had first caught my attention, ‘I wonder what Weatherby will do about Barbara now,’ opened a new chapter in the tragedy. That very morning, scarcely an hour before, Julia Weatherby had been moving about her kitchen, cooking as usual the mid-day meal. Just how it happened no one ever knew; but in some way, probably as she bent forward fumbling for the ‘lifter’ to replace a stove-lid, her dress caught fire. In an agony of fright, the unhappy woman rushed to the door, meaning to reach the water only a few rods distant. But her terror robbed her of that sense of direction which was her feeble substitute for sight. She turned to the right as she passed the threshold, and as though the obsession of twenty-five years had mastered her very instinct, she ran straight toward the house in the five-acre lot. When within a few yards of it she dropped, and where she fell she perished, before her husband and sons, working in their shop close by, could reach her.
This was the news which sent Miss Jane running to Aunt Deborah’s. The rest of the story, which came to me bit by bit in the course of years, I have pieced together and tell as best I can.
It was a month after that tragic day when a fisherman, walking early past the white house in the five-acre lot, stopped in amazement. The doors and windows were wide open. He approached and looked in. The house was absolutely bare. Not a pot or pan or stick of furniture remained.
Shortly afterward Mrs. Simpson, a neighbor and friend of the Weatherbys, who since Julia’s death had agreed to go daily to Weatherby’s house and set things to rights, found the door which led from the kitchen to a rear ell locked. She tried vainly to open it, and then, going out of doors, made an attempt to enter by a back window. This, too, was locked and the curtain within drawn tightly. Surprised and uneasy, she went to the window on the other side. There also the curtain was shut blankly down. Then Mrs. Simpson understood, and, returning to the kitchen, got dinner as usual. At noon, Weatherby and his two sons, now in the middle thirties, returned from their work and sat down as they were accustomed to do. Of the locked ell no question was asked or answered.
Again things went their accustomed course. Each morning Mrs. Simpson came, made the beds and cooked the noonday meal, and as she went quietly about her work she could hear each day from beyond the thin pine door the steps of another woman as she too made her house tidy and cooked her solitary meal. In the old days, Mrs. Simpson — Joanna Nicholson she was then — had been a bosom friend of Barbara. She had never forgotten her old affection, and a flood of it welled up in her freshly. But the wall of silence was between them now, and it is not the birthright of a New Englander to break the laws of habit.
Without question, without thought, it seemed to the neighbors, the sons accepted the new order of the house. While this strange household endured, they heard each day the quiet sounds in the back room, and when every afternoon their father opened and closed behind him the door leading to the ell, they could hear the low voices of a man and woman talking together. But that was all.
Three years and more went by. Then one evening Stephen Weatherby came in wet and cold. A chill struck him, and before many hours a violent fever supervened. It was evident that he was very ill. Then the locked door was opened and a frail, white-haired woman, whose pale face was still beautiful, with lines in it scarcely deeper than those of a child who has never seen the world, came forth. Three days and nights she and Mrs. Simpson sat on either side of the sick-bed. On the fourth day Captain Weatherby died.
It was evident that, however Weatherby’s thoughts were engaged, he had had no idea of death. His will, dated nearly thirty years before, made mention of no one but his sons. The only money available for Barbara’s support was fifty dollars he had given her a few weeks before. Her world had been Stephen alone and the desire that none but Stephen should look upon her face. Of money she knew nothing. She handed her fifty dollars to Mrs. Simpson and sat down to wait.
Out of her own scanty resources Mrs. Simpson, who was as charitable a soul as ever breathed, sought to provide for Barbara. She soon made an arrangement with an old and childless couple named Tarbell, who lived in the outskirts of the village, to take her in and give her board on reasonable terms; but, however reasonable, they were not a burden to be shouldered long by a woman who found it hard enough to earn her daily bread, and Mrs. Simpson obliged to find help, sought counsel with Mrs. Thayer, a lady who for many years had spent her summers on the Wellsport shore. This Mrs. Thayer happened to be an old friend of mine, and it was through her that I was privileged to contribute from time to time to the bare necessities of Barbara Lovell’s support and to shelter her from the old alms-house at Portland.
So for a season Barbara lived on, protected from the sight of the little world at Wellsport, sitting from morning until night in her half-darkened room, unless she was helping Mrs. Tarbell with her simple housework. And then it happened that I went abroad, and an unlucky coincidence, unknown to me, took Mrs. Thayer across the water in the same year. In our absence, the bottom of Mrs. Simpson’s shallow purse was soon reached. Very reluctantly, the good creature communicated with one of the selectmen, James Wilson by name, a distant relative of Barbara. To her anxious questioning, there was but one answer. Barbara Lovell must join the town’s poor.
The rest of my story can best be told, perhaps, if I here set down two letters which Mrs. Thayer soon after received from Mrs. Simpson.
DEAR MRS. THAYER (ran the first letter), — Barbara has gone. No one knows where. All sorts of rumors are afloat, some saving that it is a case of suicide and others that a bottle of poison has been found. But nothing certain is known. Yesterday James Wilson had notified her that he must take her to Portland. He is a kind man, and knowing how strong her wish was that no one should see her face, he had arranged to have her go in a covered team. They agreed upon the hour, and she allowed that there was no other way for her.
That night Mr. and Mrs. Tarbell heard her wind her clock upstairs and then come down and walk to and fro in front of the house as she was accustomed to do. Then they fell asleep.
The next morning Mrs. Tarbell saw by the pantry that Barbara had not eaten any breakfast. So she fixed one up for her and took it up to her on a tray. Getting no answer to her knock on the door, she opened it and found that the bed had not been slept in and that Barbara was gone. She at once notified the selectman, Mr. Wil son, and he came and told me about it afterward. She went out without her warm shawl I had knit for her, and that was unusual, for she was easily chilled and always threw it over her. Mr. Wilson did not want to make any regular search that day, thinking that as the weather was warm she might hide in the woods somewhere during the daytime and come back or go to Stephen’s empty house after dark.
Last night some of the villagers started to look for her. They were going to and fro over the fields, thus effectually destroying any foot-prints by which she might have been traced. One fired a pistol to fool the others. The men and boys were shouting to each other. Some of the girls who knew of her story were crying. I could think of nothing but a fox hunt. By and by they left off and went home. I could not sleep at all, and was walking to and fro in my room much disturbed, for I knew how much she had dreaded having to go to the poor-house, and that she had said she had rather die than do so. There was a full moon and everything was as clear as day. Some sailors were on board of a coal schooner that was anchored, but they heard and saw nothing of her.
To-morrow Mr. Wilson is going to make a regular search. I don’t feel like writing any more now, but will let you know if there is any more news.
Two days later came another letter which read as follows: —
DEAR MRS. THAYER, — Barbara’s body was found this morning in the south bay. Stephen’s oldest son, Jake, was wading out to his skiff early this morning when he trod on her body where it lay in shallow water directly in front of the door of his dead father’s house, having been caught in the eelgrass there and held. She had entered the water nearly half a mile farther up the shore. She had tied a white cloth about her face. An empty chloroform bottle has been found where she waded in. It is supposed she walked into the water, then inhaled the chloroform till unconscious, sank, and was drowned. She hoped, doubtless, that the current would carry her body out to the sea and that no one would ever find it, but when it came to Weatherby’s empty house the eel-grass caught it, and it lay there for Jake to find. He had refused to join in the search, and coming on the body as he did, it used him up badly. He could n’t breathe rightly for two hours afterward.
There is a great deal of curiosity among the people here to see her. I am glad she cannot know it. I long to hide her and shall feel better when she is buried. Please tell this to Mr. Curtis. I don’t feel as though I could write about it again just now and he will want to know.