IV — Phebe Ann Little: The Neat Woman

Mary E. Wilkins

From The Ladies' Home Journal Vol. XIII No. 4 (March 1896)

Let anybody mention Phebe Ann Little in the neighborhood, and some one is sure to immediately remark, “She's terrible neat.”

It is impossible to think even of Phebe Ann, to have her image come for an instant before one's mind, without reference to this especial characteristic of hers. She cannot be separated by any mental process from her “terrible neatness.” It is interesting to speculate what can become of Phebe Ann in the hereafter, where, as we are taught to believe, the contest against moth and rust and the general untidiness of this earth is to cease. Can Phebe Ann exist at all in a state where neatness will be merely a negative quality with no possibility of active exposition? Will not there have to be cobwebs for Phebe Ann to sweep from the sky, if she is to inhabit it in any conscious state?

Except in meeting, Phebe Ann is scarcely ever seen by a neighbor without broom and dusting-cloth in hand.

With the first flicker of dawn light and the first cock crow, comes the flirt of Phebe Ann's duster from her window, the flourish of her broom on her front door step, and often far into the evening Phebe Ann's scrubbing and dusting shadow is seen upon the window curtains. People say that Phebe Ann's husband often has to hold the lamp for her while she cleans and dusts until near midnight. A neighbor passing the open kitchen window late one summer night, reported that he heard Phebe Ann appeal to her husband in something after this fashion: “George Henry, can you remember whether I have washed this side of the table or the other?” There are even stories current that her husband has often to rise during the small hours of a winter night, light a lamp, get the broom and sweep down the cellar stairs, or the back door step, because Phebe has awakened with a species of nightmare of unperformed duty tormenting her. She cannot remember, in her bewildered state, whether she has neglected the stairs and the door step or not, and if she has, none can say what evil seems impending over her and her house.

Once her husband, George Henry, who at times is afflicted with that species of rheumatism known as a crick in the back, is reported to have rebelled at this midnight call to the cellar stairs and the broom, and Phebe to have retorted with tragic emphasis: “Suppose I was to die before morning, George Henry Little, and those cellar stairs not swept.” And that argument is said to have been too weighty for George Henry's scruples.

Phebe Ann is also said to send George Henry searching with a midnight taper for cobwebs on the ceiling, which she remembers to have seen and cannot remember having brushed away. There is a popular picture in the village imagination of George Henry Little, in the silent watches of the night, standing on a chair, a feather duster in one hand and a lamp in the other, anxiously scanning the ceiling for cobwebs.

George Henry Little, it goes without saying, is a meek and long-suffering man. If ever he had spirit and the capability of sustained rebellion, Phebe Ann must long since have scoured it away with some kind of spiritual soap and sand. Indeed, George Henry's relatives openly say that he never was the same man after he married Phebe Ann Fitch, which was his wife's maiden name. And yet Phebe Ann is such a mild-looking, little, sandy-haired woman, with strained, anxious blue eyes, and small, knotty hands with rasped knuckles, and George Henry is black-whiskered and rather fierce-visaged in comparison. Phebe Ann taught school before she was married, too, and George Henry's relatives feared that she would not make a good housekeeper, but their fears upon that head were soon allayed.

When George Henry's sister, Mrs. Ezra Wheeler, went to call at his house for the first time after he and Phebe Ann were married, she came home, surprised and a little alarmed.

“It was four o'clock in the afternoon when I got there,” she tells the story, “and there was Phebe Ann in a calico dress and gingham apron (likely to have wedding callers all the time, too), scrubbing the tops of the doors. They hadn't been living in that brand-new house a week either. I don't see what she found to scrub. But there she was hard at work with soap and sand. I said then I guessed we needn't worry about George Henry's not having a good housekeeper; I guessed he'd have all the housekeeping he wanted, and more, too.”

It is fortunate for George Henry that he has a reasonably neat and tidy occupation — he is Mr. Harrison White's confidential clerk and chief assistant in the store and post-office. If he had been employed in the grist mill, or if he had been a farmer, Phebe Ann might have resorted to such extreme measures as lodging him in the woodshed or on the door step in mild weather. As it is he seems to work hard to gain an entrance to his own house. George Henry always goes around to the back door — it is improbable that he has ever crossed the threshold of his front door since his wedding-day — and when there he opens it a crack, slips his hand around the corner and takes a pair of slippers from a peg just inside. Then he removes his boots, puts on the slippers and enters. The neighbors are positive that this is his daily custom when he returns from the store. But should the day be snowy or dusty or muddy, then, indeed, George Henry Little has to painfully work his passage into his own house. Phebe Ann comes forth — indeed she often lays in wait — with the broom, and sometimes, it is asserted, with the duster, and poor George Henry is made to undergo a purification as rigid as if he were about to enter a heathen temple.

It must be a sore trial to Phebe Ann to admit any one without the performance of these cleansing rites; but she has to submit in other cases. She cannot make the minister take off his boots and put on slippers before entering, neither can she make such conditions with the neighbors. She has always a little corn-husk mat on the door step, and there we stand and carefully scrape and scrape, while she watches with ill-concealed anxiety, and then we walk in, although we feel guilty. In very muddy weather we always, of course, remove our rubbers and all our outer garments which have become damp; but otherwise our shoes, which have been contaminated by the dust of the street, come boldly in contact with Phebe Ann's immaculate carpets.

But she has her revenge.

Not a neighbor goes in to spend a friendly hour with Phebe Ann, who does not see, after her return, if she lives within seeing distance — and if she does not it is faithfully reported to her — her late hostess fling windows and doors wide open, and ply frantically broom and duster, and she wonders uneasily how much dirt and dust she could possibly have tracked into Phebe Ann's.

But the neighbors have double cause for solicitude so far as an imputation upon their own neatness is concerned, for Phebe Ann never herself returns from a neighborly call, that she does not, it is vouched for by competent witnesses, hang all the garments which accompanied her upon the clothes-line to air. Miss Lurinda Snell declares that she turns even the sleeves wrong side out and brushes them vigorously — that she has seen her.

We all admit, with perhaps some prickings of conscience in our own cases, that Phebe Ann Little is a notable housekeeper. Her window-panes flash like diamonds in the setting sun. There is no dust on her window-blinds; one could sit in one's best silk dress on her door step; one could, if there were any occasion for so doing, eat one's meals off her shed floor or her cellar stairs. There is no speck of dirt, no thread of disorder in all Phebe Ann's house, nor upon her person, nor upon anything which belongs to her. She is certainly a housekeeper whose equal is not among us, and we all give her due admiration and respect.

She is a credit to our village, and yet it is possible that one such credit is sufficient. If there were another like her the village might become so clean that we should all have to take to the fields and survey its beautiful tidiness over pasture-bars.