Pod of Nine Peas

[ object sketch ]


The secret of a wretched life.


Twenty-first evening.

The sky was overcast with the floating clouds of a June day rain in New England. The soft, muddy road of a suburban village of Boston was desolate, save now and then a straggling boy wending his way from school. One delinquent halted to spat the mud with his bare feet and try his willow stick on the brindle cow that had jumped the pasture wall, tempted by the sweeter clover of the highway. [*1] He heard the slow and measured tread of horses’ feet, hastened not by the sudden dash of rain from the floating cloud, and saw the village hearse coming towards him. With boyish timidity he hid behind the wall until, feeling that he was unobserved, he raised his head and counted one — two — all had passed.

[ p 193 ]

Then with reasserted bravery he stood erect and meditated, half aloud: “Whose funeral is that? Them is the overseers of the poor in the first wagon, and that is John Spinal in the poor farm carriage. He keeps that place. ‘Tis a pauper that’s being buried —

‘Rattle his bones over the stones!
He’s only a pauper, whom nobody owns!’

That’s what grandma used to sing.” [*2]

With these lines running in his mind and thoughtlessly muttered aloud, the boy went about his part of the chores at the farm, and when putting the last armful of wood in the kitchen wood-box, he met his grandmother, with anxious brow peering from the broad ruffle of lace that protected the scanty gray locks of her honored head, who exclaimed:

“What are you saying those lines for, my boy?”

“Why, grandma! I heard you sing them with Aunt Urana, when I was a little chap, and was n’t that a pauper’s funeral that I saw this afternoon when I was getting home from school?”

“One of the old people at the poor farm was buried to-day, but you should not speak of her in that way,” said grandma, reprovingly. [*3]

“Well, them two carriages had nobody in them but the folks that take care of the poor, and I never saw a funeral with only two carriages,” continued the barefoot lad, now growing somewhat thoughtful. ”Ah,” said grandma, “you have yet to learn that the worth of a person is not measured by the number of carriages that follow the body to the grave, although wealth is too often indicated in that way.”

The curiosity of the boy was now fully aroused, and he continued his argument, all the time whittling the

[ p 194 ]

knotty end of a pine stick on which his eyes were fixed.

“Did that woman ever have friends, and did she ever live anywhere else?”

“Yes, my child, and when you want a good, long story, some stormy evening, I will tell you all about her, and try to convince you that to be poor is not to be despised, and that to be wealthy is not to be respected always; but grandma is busy now and must go about her work.” So, with a loving pat on the head, she dismissed her favorite, feeling confident that the lesson would not be soon forgotten. [*4]

The evening soon came when the boy sat on the stool at his grandmother’s feet, with his elbows on his knees, hands clasping his chin, and face upturned to her, who, with the heel of her stocking well set, started on with the foot and the story.

“Near by the house where I was born, in an old, red mansion facing the south, approached from the highway by a winding lane, lived a family highly respected by all the folks.

“They had a good farm and knew how to carry it on, too. The best of butter and cheese was made by Aunt Nancy, that is what all the folks called the good woman, and Uncle John, her husband, always had the best cows and fattest pigs in the neighborhood. There were three children, two daughters and a son. I used to go to school with them all. “They were fine looking, but one of the girls had rosy cheeks and a complexion envied by us all. She was one of the best scholars and always stood well in her classes, and when we had a good, old-time spelling school in the evening, she was sure to stand up till the last or

[ p 195 ]

near it. [*5] She was the youngest of the three, and the pet of the household and neighborhood as well. [*6]

“She was never taught to control the bad temper that she had by nature, and it often got the control of her in company as well as at home. You think it is hard when you can’t have your own way, and your little will has to yield; but had she been obliged to give up her stubborn will to those who were older and better fitted to say what was for her good, she might have had a smoother life. “The few years of her school life soon passed, as they did with many of us, for we did not have the advantages for getting an education that you have nowadays. When we got through the district school we could n’t go off to an academy; our parents could n’t afford that, so we got what we could at the old red schoolhouse, and then took our place at the spinning-wheel and churn and helped our mothers, who had much more to do in order to keep the family properly clothed and fed than mothers do in these days.

“But Miranda was an exception; she was not required to do anything; her hands were so soft and her skin so pretty that her mother and older sister did the work, and Little Miranda, as her mother called her, had her own way, — just as you often wish you could do; but it was bad for her, as it is for most children, for when they get older and meet with many people out in the world, they can’t always have things their way, and it comes very hard to them to be opposed and be obliged to yield to others.

“One day Aunt Nancy was shelling peas, while sitting on the broad stone step at the door near her bed of camomile and tansy, when, to coax Miranda to assist her, she said: ‘Now come and help mother get

[ p 196 ]

the peas ready for dinner, and perhaps you will find a pod with nine in it, and then you can put it over the door, and the first boy who comes in under it will be your husband.’

“With all Aunt Nancy’s good sense, she had a few foolish notions, and this was not the least. Little Miranda was easily persuaded to aid her mother by that talk.

“She counted and counted, and did find the charmed number. It was put over the door, and the petted and indulged Miranda was continually reminded of the foolish whim until her restless mind was fully persuaded that the first young man who should enter that door was to be her husband. [*7]

“In those days it was the prevailing custom for the minister and doctor of the town to go about making calls without any particular invitation, and to stop to tea was in the regular order of custom. [*8] So one pleasant afternoon, while the peas were still hanging, good Dr. Prentiss drove up the lane, having come from the village with the express purpose of drinking tea with Uncle John and Aunt Nancy. “As his good wife was obliged to attend to other duties that appeared just as the horse and chaise came around to the door, he took his only son. While Paul, Miranda’s brother, put the doctor’s white horse in the empty stall, he and his son walked right into the living-room, in the place of going to the front door. [*9] Thus Samuel Prentiss was the first young man who passed under the peas.

“Little Miranda’s eyes sparked, for that, she thought, was fine, [*10] and Aunt Nancy was rather pleased, and did not a little to impress the giddy girl with the idea that Samuel was to be her husband, [*11] and in fact

[ p 197 ]

went so far as to playfully call her Mrs. Prentiss, [^1] and occasionally add, ‘One of the best families in all the town, and well off, too, and Samuel is the only son.’ Aunt Nancy succeeded in convincing Uncle John that the plan was a good one, and that the fates had decided it, while he declared that she was a ‘notional woman,’ [*12] but fell in with the notion. [*13] “A singing-school during the following winter was looked upon as the opportunity for carrying out the plan. Miranda attended the school, and was entertained by the doctor’s good wife when the weather was not suitable for her to go the long distance home. The result of it all was that Samuel and Miranda were married when in their ‘teens,’ knowing but little of the world.

“The parents were pleased on both sides, and others thought it was a fine thing to have two of the first families of the town united by the marriage of their children. Few girls had a better setting out than Miranda, — a good stock of furniture and fine clothes; besides, Uncle John gave her a cow and two sheep, and, as he said, gave them a good start in life. But neither of them knew what it was to get a living, and Samuel had been the favorite with his parents and indulged in every whim as much as Miranda had been by her parents.

“It was not long before unpleasantness arose between them, which was followed by open contention and disagreement.

“Samuel found other places more attractive than his home, and but few years passed before Miranda went home to her parents and Samuel was left on the road to ruin. They had one child, a source of much contention.

“Miranda now, more often than before, gave way

[ p 198 ]

to her unfortunate disposition, but, being the only child at home, succeeded in passing the time in aiding her parents, who were fast growing old, and did not oppose her. Soon Uncle John died. Miranda had her portion of the property, which was not a trifle, and stayed with her mother until, with the advice of ever-ready Mrs. Meddlesome, Aunt Nancy thought she could get along alone, and Miranda made a home for herself in another town.

“Aunt Nancy died at a good old age. Another division of property gave Miranda another start. So, in living about, visiting cousins, who were too often more pleased to see her go than come, and often times doing good, she passed some years in the neighboring town of B——, [*14] until a complaint from the authorities of that place was entered in this her native town, and she was brought to the poorhouse, a physical wreck and penniless, where, after twenty years of unhappy life, she died at the age of eighty years, with but few relatives or friends, and none who could follow her to her grave. “Had she died before the pod of nine peas was put over that door, this whole town would have been as one mourner, but, as you saw the other day, two carriages held the company, and there was not one person to shed a tear of regret. I will not presume to say who was responsible in the sight of God for the wreck of what early promised to be a happy life, but trust that this story, never before told, will be of profit to you and others who may follow you.”



  1. Prentiss, ∨ Prestiss,


  1. “spat”: stamp
  2. cf. Thomas Noel’s “The pauper’s drive” (1841)
    in his Rymes and roundelayes (pp 200-201)
  3. “reprovingly”: reproachfully
  4. “her favorite”: her favorite grandchild
  5. Presumably, informal spelling bees involved all students standing and taking turns spelling words. Those who spelled words incorrectly would sit down.
  6. “pet”: favorite
  7. “petted”: favored
  8. “to stop to tea”: to stop to have tea
  9. “in the place of”: instead of
  10. “sparked”: sparkled
  11. “did not a little”: did much
  12. “notional”: [ euphemistic ]: plotting
  13. “fell in with the notion”: agreed to the plot
  14. “the neighboring town of B——”: [ presumably ] Billerica
    (The only other potential candidate would be Burlington.)
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