The Mistress of Sydenham Plantation

The famous novelist’s tale of an elderly Southerner, oblivious to what the war had cost her.

A home in Charleston, shortly after the city fell. During the war, hundreds of plantations across the South were completely destroyed, and thousands more were damaged. (Library of Congress)

Best known as a quintessential Maine writer and the author of The Country of the Pointed Firs (a novel first serialized in The Atlantic), Sarah Orne Jewett published her first short story in The Atlantic at age 19. Her correspondence with the magazine’s editor, James T. Fields, and his assistant, William Dean Howells, soon grew into friendship.

In the 1870s, she became friendly with Fields’s wife, Annie, and after his death in 1881, the two became inseparable.

In early 1888, when Annie Fields contracted pneumonia and was instructed by a doctor to convalesce in the South, she and Jewett set out for Florida, stopping en route on the island of St. Helena, off the coast of South Carolina, to stay with a friend who was running a school for former slaves. (See page 80 for Charlotte Forten’s account of teaching there during the war.) Jewett’s “The Mistress of Sydenham Plantation,” published later that year, told the tale of an elderly St. Helena woman who, years after the war, carries on with her aristocratic Southern rituals, oblivious that her family is gone and her plantation lies in ruins.

—Sage Stossel

A high wind was blowing from the water into the Beaufort streets,—a wind of as reckless hilarity as March could give to her breezes, but soft and spring-like, almost early-summer-like, in its warmth.

In the gardens of the old Southern houses that stood along the bay, roses and petisporum-trees were blooming, with their delicious fragrance. It was the time of wistarias and wild white lilies, of the last yellow jasmines and the first Cherokee roses. It was the Saturday before Easter Sunday …

From one of the high houses which stand fronting the sea, with their airy balconies and colonnades, had come a small, slender figure that afternoon, like some shy, dark thing of twilight out into the bright sunshine. The street was empty, for the most part; before one or two of the cheap German shops a group of men watched the little old lady step proudly by. She was a very stately little old lady, for one so small and thin; she was feeble, too, and bending a little with the weight of years, but there was true elegance and dignity in the way she moved, and those who saw her, who shuffled when they walked, and who boasted loudly of the fallen pride of the South, were struck with sudden deference and admiration. Behind this lady walked a gray-headed negro, a man who was troubled in spirit, who sometimes gained a step or two, and offered an anxious but quite unheeded remonstrance. He was a poor, tottering old fellow; he wore a threadbare evening coat that might have belonged to his late master thirty years before.

The pair went slowly along the bay street to the end of the row of new shops, and the lady turned decidedly toward the water, and approached the ferry-steps … Before the boat was out of hail, long before it had passed the first bank of raccoon oysters, the tide being at the ebb, it was known by fifty people that for the first time in more than twenty years the mistress of the old Sydenham plantation on St. Helena’s Island had taken it into her poor daft head to go look after her estates, her crops, and her people. Everybody knew that her estates had been confiscated during the war; that her people owned it themselves now, in three and five and even twenty acre lots; that her crops of rice and Sea Island cotton were theirs, planted and hoed and harvested on their own account. All these years she had forgotten Sydenham, and the live-oak avenue, and the outlook across the water to the Hunting Islands, where the deer ran wild; she had forgotten the war; she had forgotten her children and her husband, except that they had gone away,—the graves to which she carried Easter flowers were her mother’s and her father’s graves,—and her life was a strange dream …

The old lady was looking back over the water to the row of fine houses, the once luxurious summer homes of Rhetts and Barnwells, of many a famous household now scattered and impoverished. The ferryman had heard of more than one bereft lady or gentleman who lived in seclusion in the old houses …

The mistress of Sydenham plantation had a way of speaking but seldom, of rarely listening to what anybody was pleased to say in return. Out of the mistiness of her clouded brain a thought had come with unwonted clearness. She must go to the island: her husband and sons were detained at a distance; it was the time of year to look after corn and cotton; she must attend to her house and her slaves. The remembrance of that news of battle and of the three deaths that had left her widowed and childless had faded away in the illness it had brought. She had never comprehended her loss; she was like one bewitched into indifference; she remembered something of her youth, and kept a simple routine of daily life, and that was all …

In the old times she would have found four oarsmen waiting with a cushioned boat at the ferry; she would have found a saddle-horse or a carriage ready for her on Ladies’ Island for the five miles’ journey, but the carriage had not come. The poor gray-headed old man recognized her displeasure. He was the only slave left, if she did but know it.

“Fo’ Gord’s sake, git me some kin’ of a cart. Ole mis’, she done wake up and mean to go out to Syd’n’am dis day,” urged Peter. “Who dis hoss an’ kyart in de shed? Who make dese track wid huffs jus’ now, like dey done ride by? Yo’ go git somebody fo’ me, or she be right mad, shore.”

The elderly guardian of the shed, who was also of the old régime, hobbled away quickly, and backed out a steer, that was broken to harness, and a rickety two-wheeled cart … They lifted her light figure to the chair in the cart’s end, while Peter mounted before her with all a coachman’s dignity,—he once had his ambitions of being her coachman,—and they moved slowly away through the deep sand …

The slow-footed beast of burden was carrying them toward Sydenham step by step, and [Peter] dreaded the moment of arrival …

They passed the turn of the avenue; they came out to the lawn, and the steer stopped and began to browse. Peter shook from head to foot. He climbed down by the wheel, and turned his face slowly. “Ole mis’!” he said feebly. “Ole mis’!

She was looking off into space. The crumbling, fallen chimneys of the house were there among the weeds, and that was all. The cart jerked as it moved after the feeding steer. The mistress of Sydenham plantation had sought her home in vain.

On Christmas Day and Easter Day, many an old man and woman come into St. Helena’s Church who are not seen there the rest of the year … This Easter morning dawned clear and bright … One figure came to sit alone in one of the pews, to bend its head in prayer after the ancient habit. Peter led her, as usual, to the broad-aisle doorway, and helped her, stumbling himself, up the steps, and many eyes filled with tears as his mistress went to her place. Even the tragic moment of yesterday was lost already in the acquiescence of her mind, as the calm sea shines back to the morning sun when another wreck has gone down.

Read the full text of this story here.