Upland Pastures


DORSET VILLAGE has always maintained a certain integral pride in itself. It is recorded by Miss Elvina Osgood, the village Holinshed, that in pre-Revolutionary days its voters, by a concerted effort, cleared a fellow citizen of debt, so that Dorset neither at that time nor in the future should bear the disgrace of his imprisonment. Such a spirit was manifested in times most recent when the newly organized Village Improvement Society planned the scope and character of its service to the community. Though for obvious reasons it was not publicly announced that the society purposed the reinstatement of Ursula Trundy to former respectability, such an aim had been seriously agreed upon at an early meeting of the Executive Committee.

Other and more immediate matters, however, demanded the society’s first attention. A new flagstaff, already in process of construction, must be erected by Memorial Day upon the village green; rows of geraniums, which had been carefully ‘slipped’ and guarded during the winter by various ladies, must be set out along the walks leading to the Town Hall; it was imperative that some means be devised by which the Pendleton hens should cease their maraudings without a simultaneous cessation of Miss Aphiah Pendleton’s interest in the new society; and, most important of all innovations, the new street-sprinkler must be in readiness to take up its urban progress through the main streets upon the arrival of the first summer sojourner.

Meanwhile Ursula Trundy remained ‘on the town’ — that ugly phrase, so uncompromisingly literal and yet so vividly suggestive of all human misery, which characterizes at least one unfortunate in every New England village.

In Dorset parlance, Ursula Trundy was ‘not all there.’ To be sure, she did not exhibit infallible evidences of mental deficiency, as did Seth Thomas, whose incessant gigglings, vacant stares, and insatiable desire to play with little children were in strange contrast with his forty years. Nor did she have ‘spells,’ like Abigail Bowden, the ‘grievously vexed’ of Petersport. She was simply a placid woman in the late thirties, whose apparent inability to learn in school and whose later inaptitude and unfitness for any sort of employment marked her as one of those upon whom Providence had frowned. She had about her the inanimate quaintness of an old portrait, and a certain inexplicable dignity before which one felt a foolish, unaccountable sense of embarrassment, as if one had chanced, all unaware, upon the presence of greatness. It was doubtless this latter attribute which had prompted the Village Improvement Society in its somewhat deferred but wholly commendable decision.

‘I declare for it,’ said Alonzo Small, first Selectman of Dorset and, by virtue of his position, chairman of the newly appointed Executive Committee, ‘ there are times when Ursula looks at me that I don’t know which is the foolish one.’

Ursula had been the unwelcome result of a reckless marriage between Samuel Trundy of Dorset and one Sally Carter from Simpson Cove over against Sunset. Sam was pursuing his vocation in the early eighties as deckhand on a coastwise schooner, when he met Sally during a ‘lay-off’ and married her. Ursula was the early pledge, if not of mutual affection, at least of mutual obligations. Twelve years later, while she was still unavailingly attending the primary school, her father, shipwrecked in an equinoctial storm, descended into a watery grave, doubtless far less ingloriously than he might have descended into an earthy one. Sally Carter Trundy was not made of the stuff that long endures poverty, loneliness, self-support, and ill-concealed social ostracism. With the nonresistance characteristic of the Simpson Cove Carters, she died when Ursula was eighteen, and by a warrant from the Dorset Selectmen was buried in the potters’ field.

From that time until reawakened Dorset pride had resolved upon her reinstatement — a matter of some twenty years — Ursula had been fed, clothed, and housed by town warrants. Dorset prided itself upon having no poorhouse. It boarded Ursula with Miss Emmeline Eustis, of whose own economic condition rumors were rife. Indeed, it was surmised at more than one Dorset supper-table that, by boarding Ursula with Miss Emmeline, the town obviated a double issue of warrants.

To the outward eye at least the life of Ursula and Miss Emmeline in the old Eustis place on Douglass Hill was hardly less colorful than that lived by most of Dorset. There was no particular pathos about it other than that which always attends the negative patience of daily life. Except for the Wednesday evening prayer-meeting and the Ladies’ Circle which met every other Thursday, their days did not vary. They washed on Monday, ironed on Tuesday, baked on Wednesday, mended on Thursday, ‘caught up’ on Friday, and on Saturday made ready for Sunday. To be strictly accurate, Miss Emmeline did all these things. Ursula, it must be admitted, afforded little help except in going on an occasional errand which she often forgot, and in spreading the freshly washed clothes in summer on the field grass.

In winter (there was no denying it) the days were long and slow in succeeding one another. Miss Emmeline, knitting by her window in the kitchen, scanned the snow-blocked road and wished that someone would break through and call. Ursula from hers, which faced the sink and looked out beyond a stone wall upon pastures mounting to pine-clad hills, watched the march of shadows across the snow. In the morning they came striding over the uplands, gigantic, relentless things; at noon, grown more friendly, they rested, gladly catching the sun; in the early evening some unseen, lavish hand tinged them with violet until they quite enveloped the hills and nearer pastures.

Ursula watched them all winter. She did not knit or sew. Miss Emmeline, whose fingers were rarely idle, never ceased to wonder that such inactivity did not trouble her. This lack of annoyance was not due to any pity which she felt for her boarder. Twenty years will dull the edges of most emotions, and Ursula, never really pitiable because of her apparent indifference, had become a matter of course. Not infrequently a strange consciousness swept over Miss Emmeline, which, though she resolutely put it out of her head as ‘mere notion,’ nevertheless clung to her. She felt as if Ursula, at the window by the sink, her hands listlessly folded in her lap, were more occupied than she herself with her clicking needles; and intuitively she knew that this strange, groundless perception forbade the annoyance which she would otherwise have felt at such obvious idleness. But, ashamed of so whimsical a fancy, she offered no such suggestion to her neighbors, who condoled with her over Ursula’s evident aversion to even the negligible tasks of which she was capable.

‘Sometimes I wonder why she don’t get on my nerves more,’ she confided to the minister’s wife at a meeting of the Ladies’ Circle in the parsonage. Ursula, oblivious to all about her, sat meanwhile in a corner of the room, her hands folded in the lap of her best dress, her gaze upon a blossoming fuchsia in a tin can on the window sill. ‘Most folks that just hold their hands drive me plumb crazy. When Mis’ Ezra Grindle takes it ’pon herself to come to spend the day and just sets, I get skittish as an eel. But I don’t mind Ursula somehow. Come spring and summer, she won’t be settin’ still any longer; and when the berries get here, there’ll be no holdin’ her. She’s quite a help then, though she’s no great shakes at pickin’.’

The experience of twenty years had lent surety to Miss Emmeline’s prophecy. She knew that, before the snow had left the hollows, Ursula would be on the hills. There never was such a person for ranging the pastures. Strangely enough, she felt an aversion to the deeper woods, and never vied with the Dorset children in their search for rare pink lady’s-slippers, which grew only in the damp, woodsy thickets of the Dodge lower pasture. But she was always the first to crawl between the gray bars of Deacon Reuben Osgood’s fence and scale the hill leading to the wind-swept uplands. No one else saw the alders redden with the spring sap, or the slow ascent of catkins to the thinnest tips of willow trees, or the gleam of a scarlet partridge-berry on the edge of a last snow-bank. No one else felt the sudden thrill of seeing on some April morning the dark shadow of a ship spring, light-touched, from the fog into the blue freedom of open sea, like a wide-winged butterfly emerging from a gray cocoon.

Ursula herself was like that ship, springing from the dreary sameness of winter days into the wind-swept freedom of hill and pasture. Emptyfreighted though she came, there was cargo to be gathered, enough and to spare. She found it in unfolding fernfronds, in the vagaries of the spring wind, in the poignant fragrance of hidden arbutus. On July and August days, when the hot dry air of the pastures was heavy with pennyroyal, sweet fern, and bayberry, she gathered lavish armfuls of it as she picked blueberries slowly, with many journeys from one patch to another and with many pauses to look seaward. When autumn covered the pastures with a purple haze that throbbed with a hidden insect chorus, she completed her winter’s cargo through her search for a secret as elusive as that guarded by the first maple that reddens before its neighbors.


Spring came early in that year when the Village Improvement Society drew up its platform. Surely some compensation was due after the most severe winter in twenty years. Ursula heard the first song sparrow on a morning in early March, while she fed the hens from Miss Emmeline’s back porch. As his first full notes trembled in the keen, fresh air, she felt herself in a sudden glow of light, as radiant and allenveloping as that surrounding any mediæval saint at his orisons. It was as if her life, hungry in late February days and vaguely felt to be an empty circumstance, had been touched, like those at Jerusalem, with tongues of sacred flame. She stood dumb with gratitude, staring at the familiar things on the porch, — some ears of dried corn, a discarded broom, a frozen dishcloth,— as if they, too, must soon be bathed in light. Nor did the glow vanish when Miss Emmeline, impatient at her idle lingering, called her to come in.

That year there was no keeping Ursula within doors. Long before the snow had left the pastures, and while only an occasional bare spot scarred the hills, she was in and upon them. It was in vain that Miss Emmeline, observing with critical, disapproving eyes her bedraggled skirts, torn rubbers, and wet shoes, remarked upon the aversion which the selectmen would undoubtedly feel toward issuing an extra warrant in these days of high prices. Ursula’s eyes as they looked at Miss Emmeline might never have seen a warrant. Rather might they have belonged to that apostle who declared unto King Agrippa that he ‘was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision.’

The sympathy of Miss Emmeline’s friends, which returned perennially with Ursula’s spring-time vagaries, redoubled itself upon the apparent increase of her eccentricities. Mrs. Ezra Grindle, who, the roads being now passable, came to spend an April day, vouchsafed the utmost concern for her hostess’s stock of patience.

‘You must be most wore out, Em’line,’ she said from Ursula’s chair by the sink. Her disapproving gaze traveled meanwhile from Ursula’s red calico, drying over a chair before the oven, to a distant, blue-clad figure moving slowly across the ridge of the Osgood pasture. ‘Seems to me you get more ’n your share. But then, as I say to Ezra, the just don’t have no copyright on the rain, an’ what you deserve in this world an’ what you get are two mighty different things. If you have a lot, you ’re bound to get more, troubles same as joys. It ’s true in life as’t is in the Bible. But Ursula’s one thing the Lord ain’t seen fit to put on me, an’ as I was sayin’ to the minister’s wife, — I spent the day with her just before Thanksgivin’, — I can’t be too thankful He ain’t. With my nerves as edgy as they are, I could n’t stand her starin’ all winter and gallivantin’ spring an’ summer. No, it’s lucky she ain’t my lot in life. But there, poor soul! She ain’t to blame for not bein’ folks!'

Miss Emmeline bit her lips as she listened. All day she had envied Ursula her freedom. She would gladly have refuted the final observation of her guest, had she not felt it poor policy to open any argument which might prolong an always unwelcome visit. Doubtless, too, she felt it worse than useless to attempt to explain a matter of intricate psychology, hardly clear to herself, to one whose sense of economic honesty and social fitness did not prevent her from spending the day at least twice a year with every family in Dorset.

Meanwhile Ursula followed a song sparrow in his desultory flight from bush to rock across the pasture-ridge. On that day and on many days thereafter she felt as if she could both see and hear the growth of grass and leaves and fir-tips. Had she known of Heimdall, the old Norse god, she would have felt a kinship with him.

When arbutus gave place to bluets and white violets, and wild pear and cherry trees dropped their petals, and pale-belled blueberry blossoms began to crown the pasture-hummocks, she drained her cup of joy daily, assured that the next morning would fill it again with generous, overflowing hands. The Dorset children, seeking for sparrows’ and brown thrashers’ nests in hospitable bayberry bushes and blackberry thickets, always found Ursula before them. She was like some ancient divinity, forever haunting Ægean rocks and pastures; and, like the presence of divinity everywhere, she was shunned by those who, forewarned, saw possible evil in her strange ways.

In blueberry time she somewhat redeemed herself in the eyes of the townspeople by picking; though, as Miss Emmeline had said, she was ‘no great shakes’ at it. She liked rather to seat herself in a patch of ripe, down-covered berries, some few of which she occasionally picked, and gaze out over the roofs of Dorset and beyond the land-locked harbor to the open sea. She was worried by the industry of Mrs. Alonzo Small, who not infrequently utilized by berrying that sometimes unoccupied hour between baking and dinner — an hour which no New England housewife feels free to waste. Mrs. Small, in her turn, as she diligently stripped the vines of their berries and tossed handfuls of them into her rapidly filling pail, felt an increasing disgust for Ursula’s uselessness, and an increasing skepticism as to the plan of the Village Improvement Society. On such days she unburdened herself to Alonzo at dinner.

’Seems to me that society’s plain throwin’ away hard-earned money if it settles any sum on Ursula Trundy for board an keep,’she told her husband in no uncertain tones as he refilled her plate with boiled dinner. ’And as for Dorset’s respectability, what’s worse,

I’d like to know — to keep one undeservin’ pauper clean and decent, or to pauperize a lot of deservin’ folks? I declare, if they go to pushin’ that idea,

I believe I’ll get a piece off my mind.

I wish that Executive Committee and you three Selectmen could have been in Reuben Osgood’s pasture this mornin’ along with me. Then you ’d have seen what your money’s goin’ for!’

In the face of this onslaught Alonzo squirmed in his chair, intrenching himself none too successfully behind the remark that the matter could n’t be settled anyhow before haying was over.

It was on a Monday morning toward the end of the berry season that Ursula, staying against her will to spread out the clothes for Miss Emmeline, came later than usual to the entrance of the pasture lane. So eager was she to breast the hill where she might feel the sweep of the northwest wind, which for the first time that summer bore a hint of the fall, that she was unaware of stumbling into and almost over a group of children, assembled in anxious conversation. But when, gathering her red calico about her, she stooped to crawl between the lowest bars, the largest of the group was hastily pushed forward as a spokesman by his worried companions.

’You can’t go through any more,’ he said, edging himself between the fence and her. ’There’s a sign right there on the post that says it.’

‘She can’t read,’ whispered a little girl with a nervous giggle.

’The sign says you can’t go into Uncle Reuben’s pasture any more,’ explained the boy, his voice growing louder as if Ursula were both deaf and foolish. ‘Someone’s been leavin’ the upper bars down and lettin’ the cows out into the meadow. Uncle Reuben says the blueberries are most gone anyway, but they ain’t. In the fall he’s goin’ to burn the pastures all over, so bye-and-bye the berries ’ll be thicker, and then he ’ll put in pickers and send the berries to the cannin’ factory at Petersport.’

‘Next summer maybe you can pick for him, Ursula,’ vouchsafed another boy, emboldened by his companion.

Ursula’s face made him feel suddenly sorry for her. ‘You can earn five cents for every quart you pick.'

‘Ursula don’t pick,’ whispered the same little girl; ‘she just looks at things.’

Assured by Ursula’s attitude that she had no thought of trespass, the children moved across the road, where they were torn between deliberations on the matter of other picking-grounds and questionings as to whether the trespass would stay up all winter. It would be a pity to destroy such a coast as the pasture lane afforded.

Ursula, meanwhile, unmindful of their chatter, sat upon a rock by the pasture-bars. When their words had first intruded themselves upon her consciousness, she had been assailed by a strange confusion and clamor as discordant and overwhelming as the cries of a street-vender to one who kneels in a prayer-filled church. Then, as their meaning slowly disentangled itself in her mind, darkness descended over her chaotic spirit as night swallows up the jangling cries of a city’s confusion, quieting what it cannot still; nor was the darkness relieved or penetrated by Reason’s kindly light. Once she arose and walked to the sign on the fencepost, touching it as condemned criminals have touched a rope, and perhaps vaguely wondering with them why such material things as wood and hemp should take away a life. When she again sat down on the rock, she asked herself why she should not sit there always.

In the days following the afternoon when Miss Emmeline found her by the bars, Ursula rarely left her window by the sink. Her dull eyes gazed upon the pastures which seemed to call to her accusingly to come back and reclaim that which she had left with them. She would eat but little, and Miss Emmeline, herself wakeful, knew that she spent many nights by the open window. Only the most stringent of economic circumstances kept Miss Emmeline from begging of Deacon Reuben Osgood leave for Ursula’s harmless wanderings over his pastures. But more than one memory of his reluctant and not overgracious permission to defer the payment of mortgage interest, already overdue, prevented her.

Thin days came in late September — days mystery-woven, almost transparent, tantalizing with their authentic tidings of things invisible. Ursula left her window by the sink, and wandered aimlessly about the yard and garden. Now and then she stopped suddenly as if halted by the call of someone; and when she fruitlessly resumed her walking, she was as one baffled by the lost trail of a thought, long-forgotten but for the moment almost tangible. Miss Emmeline, humbly conscious that she lacked the understanding to fathom such darkness, tried to suggest possible remedies in the shape of substitutes.

‘’T is n’t as though there wan’t other places besides the pastures, Ursula,’she said. ‘There’s our meadow — I never saw goldenrod thicker. And there’s the Yeaton field down by the brook, and the pine grove in the Dodge lower pasture.’ Even as she named these places, she knew that she was offering stones to one who longed for bread.

Ursula’s reply was the same to every suggestion. ‘There ’s nothin’ down there,’ she said dully.


On a Wednesday in October, Deacon Osgood burned over his pastures in the interest of future blueberry seasons. All day Ursula watched the tiny flames creep along the ridge and lose themselves in clouds of smoke. Not infrequently a thicket of juniper blazed upward in a quick burst of flame; now and then a bush of scarlet sumac lost its glory. The uplands might have been an immense altar crowned with sacrificial fires.

The sight of the flames terrified Ursula. She felt as if they must consume everything in the pastures — even that living thing which she had found there. Should the day ever come when she might again roam the hills, must she return empty?

Tormented by this thought, she could neither eat nor sleep. Long after Miss Emmeline, tired from her walk to and from midweek prayer-meeting, slept heavily in her room, Ursula sat by the window whither she had crept in the apprehension that even the hill summits might be ablaze. But she had been spared that last anguish. The pastures now seemed quiet, as if they rested their tired bodies after the blazing sacrifice of their souls. Only the acrid smell of smoke weighted the night air.

Still almost distraught by the torture of the fear that held her in its clutches, and emboldened by the heavy breathing of Miss Emmeline, Ursula yielded to a sudden impulse. She would go into the pastures, even to the summit of the hills, and see if the fires had robbed them and her. Dorset slept. There would be no one to prevent her passing the portentous sign upon the post and crawling through the bars into the pasture lane. She followed stealthily the high wainscoting of the kitchen wall to the door, where she paused to be assured that Miss Emmeline still slept. Then, lifting the latch, she passed into the yard, shadowy in the moonlight.

She was conscious of an almost overmastering weariness when, having made a wide detour of the sign, she crawled between the bars and began to climb the hill to the still-smoking uplands; but the urgency of her errand would not let her rest. The pasture ground was hot beneath her feet, and she tried to keep nearer the fence to avoid burning them. Had it not been for the pungency of the smoke and her own bitter knowledge, she might have imagined that a summer mist, shot by an occasional firefly, was rising from the uplands, so kindly was the moon.

When weariness a second time threatened to overtake her, she was again set free, not by the urgency of her errand, but by the blessed certainty of its result; for the rising night wind, blowing upon her tired face and encircling her stumbling figure, declared itself free from destruction by fire and smoke. A familiar bayberry bush, surrounded by burned and charred grass, but itself quite untouched, welcomed her with faint fragrance. When, buoyed by sudden strength, she at last reached the highest ridge, untouched by fire, and threw herself down beneath a great pine tree, the sleepy twitter of a half-awakened bird banished the last vestige of her fear. For her there had passed away no glory from the earth.

There was healing in the night wind and peace in the silent faces of the clouds. Ursula’s spirit, about which the shades of no prison house had ever closed, drank in the tangible secrets of the night. In them and by them did she live again. Her simplicity, unimpaired by thought, offered and received undisturbed communion with them. When the winged spirits of dawn and sunrise came, they built a nest for her ready soul, as in the old Celtic legend God is said to build the nests of all birds whom He has blinded by his providence.

Miss Emmeline did not need early the next morning the breathless message of Alonzo Small’s oldest boy to know the whereabouts of Ursula. She met him as she was already skirting the burned ground of the lower pasture on her way to the uplands. Nor did she need the unasked explanations of half a dozen of her neighbors gathered about the great pine. She pushed them all aside in her eagerness to see Ursula’s face and to be assured that she had found what she sought. Half unmindful of what they said, she heard them conjecturing, sharing this opinion and that, importantly relating all they knew to those who, hurrying through the pastures, continually joined them. Someone deplored the deferred action of the Village Improvement Society, and someone else suggested that to counteract such delinquency, Ursula be buried in the cemetery proper.

A few minutes later Miss Emmeline had left this babel of confused and confusing tongues, and was hurrying homeward, down the pasture lane, through a path-cut field, along a brown road flanked by stone walls, redsplashed with the wrinkled berries of elder. Details of burial might be settled later. They were unimportant as compared to the work before her. She must make ready the house for Ursula’s reception.

Once within doors, she raised the parlor shades and threw open the front door. Then she ran upstairs to the best room. She put up the curtains and flung the windows wide. Her best black silk, which was spread upon the bed, she hung in the closet. Frora the linen-press she brought her best sheets, sweet with dried heliotrope blossoms from the garden, and made the bed fresh and clean. Just as she finished, she heard footsteps on the flagstones leading to the kitchen door, and ran to tell them to come in the front way. She was oblivious to their surprised and puzzled gaze when she told them to wait in the parlor for a moment before bringing Ursula upstairs. In that moment she ran to the garden and picked a half-blown pink rose, which all unreasoningly had opened the day before. This she placed in a glass vase on the table by the bed.

Before calling to the men below stairs, she stood in the doorway and surveyed the sunlit room, the bed fragrant and white with her best linen, the pink rose. From some forgotten source she had heard that the souls of those who die happily sometimes hover for a little while about the bodies in which they have lived. If that were true, she wanted to plead with Ursula’s soul for as long a sojourn as might be. In that sojourn, perhaps, she might learn its secret, against that day when she would watch from Ursula’s window the march of gigantic winter shadows across upland pastures.