Skip to main content


We have an Astonishing Woman in this community. She acts in a way that no one expects, and while we are intensely interested in everything she does, and desire to know about it to the uttermost detail, we are inclined to speak of her in bated breath.

Some Woman to Talk About in a country neighbourhood is a kind of public necessity. She fills one of the stated functions like the town assessor, or the president of the Dorcas Society; and if ever the office falls vacant we have immediate resort to one of those silent elections at which we choose our town celebrities. There are usually several candidates, and the campaign is accompanied by much heated argument and exemplification. We have our staunch party men and our irresponsible independents on whom you can never put your finger; and if we are sometimes a little vague in our discussion of principles and issues we share with our national political leaders an intense interest in personalities. Prominent citizens “come out” for this candidate or that, we “spring surprises,” and launch new booms, and often, at the last moment, we are taken off our feet by the circulation of comebacks. I take a pardonable pride, however, in saying, to the credit of our democratic institutions that most of the candidates elected are chosen strictly upon merit.

I shall never forget the afternoon, now more than a year ago, that Harriet came up the road bearing the news which, beyond a doubt, placed the present incumbent in office; and has served to keep her there, despite the efforts in certain quarters, which shall be nameless, to use that pernicious instrument of radicalism, the recall.

I can always tell when Harriet brings important news. She has a slightly quicker step, carries her head a little more firmly, and when she speaks impresses her message upon me with a lowered voice. When Harriet looks at me severely and drops down an octave I prepare for the worst.

“David,” she said, “Mary Starkweather has gone to live in the barn!”

“In the barn!”

“In the barn.”

I don’t know quite why it is, but I dislike being surprised, and do my best to cover it up, and, besides, I have always liked Mary Starkweather. So I remarked, as casually as I could:

“Why not? It’s a perfectly good barn.”

“David Grayson!”

“Well, it is. It’s a better building to-day than many of the people of this town live in. Why shouldn’t Mary Starkweather live in the barn if she wants to? It’s her barn.”

“But, David—there are her children—and her husband!”

“There always are, when anybody wants to live in a barn.”

“I shall not talk with you any more,” said Harriet, “until you can be serious.”

I had my punishment, as I richly deserved to have, in the gnawing of unsatisfied curiosity, which is almost as distressing as a troubled conscience.

Within the next few days, I remember, I heard the great news buzzing everywhere I went. We had conjectured that the barn was being refitted for the family of a caretaker, and it was Mary Starkweather herself, our sole dependable representative of the Rich, who was moving in! Mary Starkweather, who had her house in town, and her home in the country, and her automobiles, and her servants, and her pictures, and her books, to say nothing of her husband and her children and her children’s maid going to live in her barn! I leave it to you if there was not a valid reason for our commotion.

It must have been two weeks later that I went to town by the upper hill road in order to pass the Starkweather place. It is a fine old estate, the buildings, except the barn, set well back from the road with a spacious garden near them, and pleasant fields stretching away on every hand. As I skirted the shoulder of the hill I looked eagerly for the first glimpse of the barn. I confess that I had woven a thousand stories to explain the mystery, and had reached the point where I could no longer resist seeing if I could solve it.

Well, the barn was transformed. Two or three new windows, a door with a little porch, a lattice or so for vines, a gable upon the roof lifting an inquiring eyebrow—and what was once a barn had become a charming cottage. It seemed curiously to have come alive, to have acquired a personality of its own. A corner of the great garden had been cut off and included in the miniature grounds of the cottage; and a simple arbour had been built against a background of wonderful beech trees. You felt at once a kind of fondness for it.

I saw Mary Starkweather in her garden, in a large straw hat, with a trowel in her hand.

“How are you, David Grayson?” she called out when I stopped.

“I have been planning for several days,” I said, “to happen casually by your new house.”

“Have you?”

“You don’t know how you have stirred our curiosity. We haven’t had a good night’s rest since you moved in.”

“I’ve no doubt of it,” she laughed. “Won’t you come in? I’d like to tell you all about it.”

“I also prepared to make excuses for not stopping,” I said, “and thought up various kinds of urgent business, such as buying a new snow shovel to use next winter, but after making these excuses I intended to stop—if I were sufficiently urged.”

“You are more than urged: you are commanded.”

As I followed her up the walk she said earnestly:

“Will you do me a favour? When you come in will you tell me the first impression my living-room gives you? No second thoughts. Tell me instantly.”

“I’ll do it.” I said, my mind leaping eagerly to all manner of mysterious surprises.

At the centre of the room she turned toward me and with a sweeping backward motion of the arms, made me a bow—a strong figure instinct with confident grace: a touch of gray in the hair, a fleeting look of old sadness about the eyes.

“Now, David Grayson,” she said, “quick!”

It was not that the room itself was so remarkable as that it struck me as being confusingly different from the heavily comfortable rooms of the old Starkweather house with their crowded furnishings, their overloaded mantels, their plethoric bookcases.

“I cannot think of you yet,” I stumbled, “as being here.”

“Isn’t it like me?”

“It is a beautiful room—” I groped lamely.

“I was afraid you would say that.”

“But it is. It really is.”

“Then I’ve failed, after all.”

She said it lightly enough, but there was an undertone of real disappointment in her voice.

“I’m in rather the predicament,” I said, “of old Abner Coates. You probably don’t know Abner. He sells nursery stock, and each spring when he comes around and I tell him that the peach trees or the raspberry bushes I bought of him the year before have not done well, he says, with the greatest astonishment, ‘Wal, now, ye ain’t said what I hoped ye would.’ I see that I haven’t said what you hoped I would.”

It was too serious a matter, however, for Mary Starkweather to joke about.

“But, David Grayson,” she said, “isn’t it simple?”

I glanced around me with swift new comprehension.

“Why, yes, it is simple.”

I saw that my friend was undergoing some deep inner change of which this room, this renovated barn, were mere symbols.

“Tell me,” I said, “how you came to such a right-about-face.”

“It’s just that!” she returned earnestly, “It is a right-about-face. I think I am really in earnest for the first time in my life.”

I had a moment of flashing wonder if her marriage had not been in earnest, a flashing picture of Richard Starkweather with his rather tired, good-humoured face, and I wondered if her children were not earnest realities to her, if her busy social life had meant nothing. Then I reflected that we all have such moments, when the richest experiences of the past seem as nothing in comparison with the fervour of this glowing moment.

“Everything in my life in the past,” she was saying, “seems to have happened to me. Life has done things for me; I have had so few chances of doing anything for myself.”

“And now you are expressing yourself.”

“Almost for the first time in my life!”

She paused. “All my life, it seems to me, I have been smothered with things. Just things! Too much of everything. All my time has been taken up in caring for things and none in enjoying them.”

“I understand!” I said with a warm sense of corroboration and sympathy.

“I had so many pictures on my walls that I never saw, really saw, any of them. I saw the dust on them, I saw the cracks in the frames, that needed repairing, I even saw better ways of arranging them, but I very rarely saw, with the inner eye, what the artists were trying to tell me. And how much time I have wasted on mere food and clothing—it is appalling! I had become nothing short of a slave to my house and my things.”

“I see now,” I said, “why you have just one rose on your table.”

“Yes”—she returned eagerly—”isn’t it a beauty! I spent half an hour this morning looking for the best and most perfect rose in the garden, and there it is!”

She was now all alight with her idea, and I saw her, as we sometimes see our oldest friends, as though I had not seen her before. She was that phenomenon of the modern world—the free woman of forty-five.

When a woman reaches the old age of youth, the years between forty and forty-five, she either surrenders or revolts. In the older days in America it was nearly always surrender. Those women of a past generation bore many children: how many graves there are in our hill cemeteries of women of forty to fifty who died leading families of five or eight or ten children! How many second and third wives there were, often with second and third families. Or if they did not die, how terribly they toiled, keeping the house, clothing the children, cooking the food. Or if they bore no children, yet they were bound down by a thousand chains of convention and formality.

But in these days we have a woman of forty-five who has not surrendered. She is a vigorous, experienced, active-minded human being, just beginning to look restlessly around her and take a new interest in the world. Such a woman was Mary Starkweather; and this was her first revolt.

“You cannot imagine,” she was saying, “what a joy it has been to unaccumulate! To get rid of things! To select.”

“To become an artist in life!”

“Yes! At last! What a lot of perfectly worthless trash accumulates around us. Not beautiful, not even useful! And it is not only the lives of the well-to-do that are choked and cluttered with things. I wish you could see the house of our Polish farmer. He’s been saving money, and filling up his house with perfectly worthless ornaments—ornate clocks, gorgeous plush furniture, impossible rugs—and yet he is only doing what we are all doing on a more elaborate scale.”

I laughed.

“That reminds me of a family of squirrels that lives in an oak tree on my hill,” I said. “I am never tired of watching them. In the fall they work desperately, stealing all the hickory nuts and chestnuts on my neighbour Horace’s back pastures, five times as many as they need, and then they forget, half the time, where they’ve hidden them. We’re all more or less in the squirrel stage of civilization.”

“Yes,” she responded. “There are my books! I gathered up books for years, just squirrel fashion, until I forgot what I had or where I put them. You cannot know what joy I’m going to have in selecting just the essential books, the ones I want by me for daily companions. All the others, I see now, are temporary rubbish.”

“And you’ve made your selections?”

“No, but I’m making them. You’ll laugh when you come next time and I show them to you. Oh, I am going to be stern with myself. I’m not going to put a single book in that case for show, nor a single one to give the impression that I’m profoundly interested in Egypt or Maeterlinck or woman suffrage, when I’m positively not.”

“It’s terribly risky,” I said.

“And I’m terribly reckless,” she responded.

As I went onward toward the town I looked back from the hilltop beyond the big house for a last glimpse of the reconstructed barn, and with a curious warm sense of having been admitted to a new adventure. Here was life changing under my eyes! Here was a human being struggling with one of the deep common problems that come to all of us. The revolt from things! The struggle with superfluities!

And yet as I walked along the cool aisles of the woods with the quiet fields opening here and there to the low hill ridges, and saw the cattle feeding, and heard a thrush singing in a thicket, I found myself letting go—how can I explain it?—relaxing! I had been keyed up to a high pitch there in that extraordinary room, Yes, it was beautiful—and yet as I thought of the sharp little green gate, the new gable, the hard, clean mantel with the cloisonne vase, it wanted something....

As I was gathering the rowen crop of after-enjoyment which rewards us when we reflect freshly upon our adventures, whom should I meet but Richard Starkweather himself in his battered machine. The two boys, one of whom was driving, and the little girl, were with him.

“How are you, David?” he called out. “Whoa, there! Draw up, Jamie.”

We looked at each other for a moment with that quizzical, half-humorous look that so often conveys, better than any spoken words, the sympathetic greeting of friends. I like Richard Starkweather.

He had come up from the city looking rather worn, for the weather had been trying. He has blue, honest, direct-gazing eyes with small humour wrinkles at the corners. I never knew a man with fewer theories, or with a simpler devotion to the thing at hand, whatever it may be. At everything else he smiles, not cynically, for he is too modest in his regard for his own knowledge; he smiles at everything else because it doesn’t seem quite real to him.

“Been up to see Mary’s new house?” he asked.

“Yes,” And for the life of me I couldn’t help smiling in response.

“It’s a wonder isn’t it?”

He thought his wife a very extraordinary woman. I remember his saying to me once, “David, she’s got the soul of a poet and the brain of a general.”

“It is a wonder,” I responded.

“I can’t decide yet what chair to sit in, nor just what she wants the kids to do.”

I still smiled.

“I expect she hasn’t determined yet,” he went drawling on, “in what chair I will look most decorative.”

He ruminated.

“You know, she’s got the idea that there’s too much of everything. I guess there is, too— and that she ought to select only those things that an essential. I’ve been wondering, if she had more than one husband whether or not she’d select me——”

The restless young Jamie was now starting the machine, and Richard Starkweather leaned out and said to me in parting: “isn’t she a wonder! Did all the planning herself—wouldn’t have an architect—wouldn’t have a decorator—all I could do—”

As he turned around I saw him throw one arm carelessly about the shoulders of the sturdy younger boy who sat next him.

When I got home I told Harriet all about what I had seen and heard. I think I must feel when I am retailing such fascinating neighbourhood events to Harriet—how she does enjoy them!—I must feel very much as she does when she is urging me to have just a little more of the new gingerbread.

In the next few months I watched with indescribable interest the unfolding of the drama of Mary Starkweather. I saw her from time to time that summer and she seemed, and I think she was, happier than ever she had been before in her whole life. Making over her garden, selecting the “essential books,” choosing the best pictures for her rooms, even reforming the clothing of the boys, all with an emphasis upon perfect simplicity—her mind was completely absorbed. Occasionally Richard appeared upon the stage, a kind of absurd Greek chorus of one, who remarked what a wonderful woman this was and poked fun at himself and at the new house, and asserted that Mary could be as simple as ever she liked, he insisted on thick soup for dinner and would not sacrifice his beloved old smoking jacket upon the altar of any new idea.

“She’s a wonder, David,” he’d wind up: “but this simple life is getting more complicated every day.”

It was in December, about the middle of the month, as I remember, that I had a note one day from Mary Starkweather.

“The next time you go to town,” it ran, “stop in and see me. I’ve made a discovery.”

With such a note as that us my hand it appeared imperative that I go to town at once. I discovered, to Harriet’s astonishment, that we were running out of all sorts of necessaries.

“Now, David,” she said, “you know perfectly well that you’re just making up to call on Mary Starkweather.”

“That,” I said, “relieves my conscience of a great burden.”

As I went out of the door I heard her saying: “Why Mary Starkweather should care to live in her barn....”

It was a sparkling cold day, sun on the snow and the track crunching under one’s feet, and I walked swiftly and with a warm sense of coming adventure.

To my surprise there was no smoke in the cottage chimney, and when I reached the door I found a card pinned upon it:


Mary Starkweather herself opened the door—she had seen me coming—and took me into the big comfortable old living-room, the big, cluttered, overfurnished living-room, with the two worn upholstered chairs at the fireplace, in which a bright log fire was now burning. There was a pleasant litter of books and magazines, and a work basket on the table, and in the bay window an ugly but cheerful green rubber plant in a tub.

“Well!” I exclaimed.

“Don’t smile—not yet.”

As I looked at her I felt not at all like smiling.

“I know,” she was saying, “it does have a humorous side. I can see that. Dick has seen it all along. Do you know, although Dick pretends to pooh-pooh everything intellectual, he has a really penetrating mind.”

I had a sudden vision of Dick in his old smoking jacket, standing in the midst of the immaculate cottage that was once a barn, holding his pipe with one finger crooked around the stem just in front of his nose in the way he had, and smiling across at me.

“Have you deserted the cottage entirely?”

“Oh, we may possibly go back in the spring——-” She paused and looked into the fire, her fine, strong face a little sad in composure, full of thought.

“I am trying to be honest with myself David. Honest above everything else. That’s fundamental. It seems to me I have wanted most of all to learn how to live my life more freely and finely.... I thought I was getting myself free of things when, as a matter of fact, I was devoting more time to them than ever before-and, besides that, making life more or less uncomfortable for Dick and the children. So I’ve taken my courage squarely in my hands and come back here into this blessed old home, this blessed, ugly, stuffy old home—I’ve learned that lesson.”

At this, she glanced up at me with that rare smile which sometimes shines out of her very nature: the smile that is herself.

“I found,” she said, “that when I had finished the work of becoming simple—there was nothing else left to do.”

I laughed outright, for I couldn’t help it, and she joined me. How we do like people who can laugh at themselves.

“But,” I said, “there was sound sense in a great deal that you were trying to do.”

“The fireplace smoked; and the kitchen sink froze up; and the cook left because we couldn’t keep her room warm.”

“But you were right,” I interrupted, “and I am not going to be put off by smoking fireplaces or chilly cooks; you were right. We do have too much, we are smothered in things, we don’t enjoy what we do have—”

I paused.

“And you were making a beautiful thing, a beautiful house.”

“The trouble with making a beautiful thing,” she replied, “is that when you have got it done you must straightway make another. Now I don’t want to keep on building houses or furnishing rooms. I am not after beauty—I mean primarily—what I want is to live, live simply, live greatly.”

She was desperately in earnest.

“Perhaps,” I said, feeling as though I were treading on dangerous ground, “you were trying to be simple for the sake of being simple. I wonder if true simplicity is ever any thing but a by-product. If we aim directly for it, it eludes us: but if we are on fire with some great interest that absorbs on lives to the uttermost, we forget ourselves into simplicity, Everything falls into simple lines around us, like a worn garment.”

I had the rather uncomfortable feeling on the way home that I had been preachy; and the moment you became preachy begin to build up barriers between yourself and your friends: but that’s a defect of character I’ve never been able, quite, to overcome. I keep thinking I’ve got the better of it, but along will come a beautiful temptation and down I go—and come out as remorseful as I was that afternoon on the way home from Mary Starkweather’s.

A week or two later I happened to meet Richard Starkweather on the street in Hempfield. He was on his way home.

“Yes,” he said, “we’re in the old house again until spring, anyway. I haven’t been so comfortable in a year. And, say,” here he looked at me quizzically, “Mary has joined the new cemetery association; you know they’re trying to improve the resting places of the forefathers, and, by George, if they didn’t elect her chairman at the first meeting. She’s a wonder!”


Syndicate content