Like last week’s piece of weird fiction I discussed, Thomas Hardy’s “The Withered Arm”, this is another story of rural women, misfortune, and a curse.
Review: “In Dark New England Days”, Sarah Orne Jewett, 1890.
We begin with the hours after a funeral. We’re in the home of the Knowles sisters, Betsey and her younger sister Hannah. After a decline of two years, their once vigorous and skinflint father, the Captain, is dead.
The only person left in the house after the funeral besides the sisters is one “officious Mrs. Peter Downs” who is nosy and hopes the sisters will reveal something now they’re finally out from under the thumb of their father. But she is thanked and sent on her way. They aren’t, they say, going to make a late night of it.
Mrs. Down isn’t happy about this as she walks the short distance to her home. She’s sure that Hannah would have told her something if Betsey weren’t around. While she thinks this ungrateful, Mrs. Downs admits to herself that the main reason for her helping the sisters in the last two days is to be “taken into the sisters’ confidence”.
On the road home, she meets her husband. He figured it was so late she was going to stay over and decided he was going to visit the sisters himself. Mrs. Downs expresses her disappointment but admits the sisters no doubt want to be alone to see what they had. He calls the sisters “hoggish” and wants to know if they said anything about their “situation”. They didn’t, his wife replies.
He then asks if a man named Enoch Holt was at the house. He was, he’s told. The sisters gave him no “encouragement” though Hannah seemed pleased to see him. Her sister, though, greeted Enoch cooly, and he left. It seems Hannah and Enoch had feelings for each other once. The Captain – rightly thinks Mrs. Downs – forbid the marriage of Hannah and a man named Jake Good’in. (I suspect this is some sarcastic slang and that’s she’s referring to Enoch, but I’m not sure. No Jake is mentioned in the rest of the story.) Hannah learned to respect her father’s insights. Mr. Downs appreciates the way his wife knocks “folks down with one hand an’ set ‘em up with t’other.”
Later, at home, Mrs. Downs watches the lights go out in the Knowles’ house.
Except they don’t. In the sisters’ conversations, we learn the Captain forbid a big fire at night in the stove. Now they realize they can take his bedroom. The women aren’t young. Both are past 60, and Hannah has private fears that her sister will replace the Captain as the new authority in the house. Hannah remarks that maybe they can have a new stove by next winter.
Betsey has been silent and sober. She locks the doors and draws the curtains across the warped rods – another thing that can be changed now. It’s time to look at the chest.
That’s the big sea chest under their dead father’s bed, the chest that was never acknowledged by the Captain though the sisters spent decades cleaning around it. They want to look inside it now, whispering during the solemn event they only want to undertake at night away from prying eyes.
Except, they are observed – by a man looking through a small knothole above the window of the bedroom.
They are disappointed at first: some financial records and bits of clothes and a small piece of silver. But then they notice a hidden compartment. It’s full of lots of gold and silver coins from various countries.
Here Jewett underlines the menace to them by saying, in the narrator’s voice, “Now, now! Look! The eye at the window!”
They were rich women that night; their faces grew young again as they sat side by side and exulted while the old kitchen grew cold. There was nothing they might not do within the range of their timid ambitions; they were women of fortune now and their own mistresses. They were beginning at last to live.
But the unknown man has seen the fortune to and retreated to the barn.
Hannah thinks they should take the money into their room. The money has always been safe in that chest, and there it will stay until they take it to the bank next week says Betsey. They go to bed, leaving the key to the chest on top of the Captain’s bed.
It will be, as we see in the next scene, a terrible mistake.
That scene is in August of the same year. The sisters were rich for one night and then suffer the “bitter pang of poverty” the next day when they find the money stolen.
After a few days, they make a criminal complaint against Enoch.
Enoch himself is gone. He went to Boston the night of the funeral to discuss the sale of a ship he had an interest in. It seems Holt and the Captain were business associates who had a falling out over the sale of some land they co-owned. The Captain was already feeble at the time and left the matter to Enoch. Enoch isn’t known as a “trusted man” in the neighborhood or a religious man.
Most of the men in that region were hard men; it was difficult to get money, and there was little real comfort in a community where the sterner, stingier, forbidding side of New England life was well exemplified.
Enoch was charged and let out on bail. Now the sisters on their way to his trial. The sisters are described as being “two of the three Fates”. Who will be the third to bring disaster.
Opinions vary as to Enoch’s guilt. He does have an alibi. Enoch’s married daughter is well-liked, and she shows up at the trial with her new baby in her arms, born while his father was at sea. She can’t shed any lights on her father’s movements that night, and a couple of witnesses saw Enoch several miles from home that night. However, few are sympathetic to him. The sisters testify Enoch knew of that knothole in the bedroom. He even remarked on it once at their house.
But the jury declares Enoch not guilty. But Hannah, anger in her eyes, an anger which shocks her older sister, stands up and says
’You stole it, you thief! You know it in your heart!’
The startled man faltered, then he faced the women. The people who stood near seemed made of eyes as they stared to see what he would say.
‘I swear by my right hand I never touched it.’
‘Curse your right hand, then!’ cried Hannah Knowles, growing tall and thin like a white flame drawing upward.
‘Curse your right hand, yours and all your folks’ that follow you! May I live to see the day!’
The audience is so taken aback that no one congratulates Enoch or shakes his hand or follows him out of the courtroom. Betsey is alarmed by the change in her sister. She has the harder face of the two now. The reversal of hopeful expectations hits Hannah hardest. Always being more of a child at heart, Hannah felt the “unsatisfied desires of her childhood” keener.
Through the coming years, the sisters will unpack that trunk again and again hoping there is still money in it. But they never find any and never speak to anyone about their misfortune.
The story picks up about a year later. Enoch is going to sea again as he did in his younger days. The community thinks better of him these days since he doesn’t seem to have come into any sudden money. He talks a lot about the prospects of the voyage and how long it will be. Most wish him well, but some notice the “insinuating tone” in his words and suspect his trip will be “a good voyage, better than common”.
We then see Mrs. Downs talking with another woman, Mrs. Forder, who sells her knitting and recently visited the Knowles sisters. Naturally, Mrs. Downs wants all the details. We learn that Hannah had a close, unintended brush with Enoch once in church. The look she gave him made Mrs. Forder’s blood run cold.
It seems Hannah’s curse hasn’t been entirely brushed off. Phoebe Holt, Enoch’s daughter, wanted reassurances from Mrs. Forder that her child’s right arm was ok. The Knowles sisters seemed crushed by their disappointment. Though their spending money is the same as always – because the Captain never gave them money, they regard themselves as even poorer and have become even more frugal. Hannah has a cough now too.
The robbery of the Knowles has made Mrs. Downs and Mrs. Forder more apprehensive about the possibility of crime in the area. Maybe, says Mrs. Forder, it wasn’t Enoch. He hasn’t shown any new wealth, but she’s reserving judgement until he returns home. Mrs. Downs speculates the Captain’s money was ill-gotten gains, “prize-money o’ slave ships”. It seems one Pappy Flanders even told the sisters the Captain’s ghost took the money back. They discuss Flanders who seems something of a drunken layabout given to cursing a lot. And, the two women agree, nothing good comes from cursing. They also agree the matter isn’t closed.
Many years later, the same two women are walking back from attending a wedding. It seems that the Holts have suffered some misfortunes intervening years. It was Phoebe’s son that was married that day, a maimed man who went out west a few years ago and lost his right hand in a gunfight. His mother fell out of a wagon and injured her right wrist. It was never set right and now her arm is “no good to her”. Enoch did return from his voyage, a good voyage as some expected, and was building a new house. An accident on site took off his right hand. When he appeared in church holding a hymnal in his left hand, “He knowed what we was all a-thinkin’.”
Mrs. Forder says she would have rather been a Holt than one of the Knowles sisters: “they lived their lives out like wild beasts into a lair”, psychologically enfeebled. “The old Cap’n kept ‘em child’n long as he lived, an’ then they was too old to l’arn different.”
Mrs. Forder takes the story further:
I’ve heard it said, an’ it allays creeped me cold all over, that there was somethin’ come an’ lived with ’em—a kind o’ black shadder, a cobweb kind o’ a man-shape that followed ’em about the house an’ made a third to them; but they got hardened to it theirselves, only they was afraid ’t would follow if they went anywheres from home.
They end their discussion by hoping no curse will follow the couple married that day.
Yet, the story ends with another figure, perhaps tragic, perhaps justly suffering:
But the figure of a man who was crossing the meadow below looked like a malicious black insect. It was an old man, it was Enoch Holt; time had worn and bent him enough to have satisfied his bitterest foe. The women could see his empty coat-sleeve flutter as he walked slowly and unexpectantly in that glorious evening light.
I liked this grim story of New England life and its psychological realism. We never learn if Holt was the thief. It seems probable, but it’s not certain. Perhaps there was, whether it was justified or not, power in Hannah’s curse. Was it from some reservoir of power Hannah tapped, born of her profound and long disappointed yearnings?
Or maybe there really is a dark shade hanging around the sisters, the ghost of their father, a skinflint of a man trying to control his wealth from beyond the grave and maybe cursing (whether by himself or through his daughter) his enemy Enoch.
The only thing certain is that the Captain’s treasure bought no one happiness.
This sounded enjoyably creepy.
And the author definitely got the New England vibe correct 😀