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  • 15. A House in the Country

    By Thornton Wilder

    In celebration of Thornton Wilder’s birthday anniversary this week—April 17, to be exact—his family has been generous enough to share this never-before-published story found among his papers. Given its length and shape, today we might call this flash fiction; in a letter Wilder called it “a rather sad satire on dreaming,” fearing that it might not find a home but hoping that it would bring “pleasure to the little republic of Wilders.”

    Throughout the twenty years that he had served at the Warehouse, Old Malcolm had rarely missed a day’s work. He wrote a fair hand, knew all the variations in a bill of lading, and was generally called upon to teach newcomers their routine. But Old Malcolm had never been a satisfactory clerk. His thoughts had always tended to roar, and with the passing of years so great an absent-mindedness had grown upon him that only the extreme simplicity of his duties prevented him from involving his house in grave commercial errors. In the boarding-house where he lived another monotony encouraged his habits of abstraction. The elderly women who succeeded one another in its direction resented the presence of the unsociable dreamer. There were days when he was hazily conscious both of sharp reprimands at the Warehouse and of shrill abuse at home. Fortunately he had found a way of shutting out all that.

    It is hard to live twenty years without having been admired by someone, and Old Malcolm had been forced to construct for himself a world wherein he played a more influential and more sympathetic part. His thoughts kept returning to a dream he had cherished from his youth, that [at] intervals children were sent off to their beds in bathtubs, hammocks and trunks. Towards twelve and one the conversation grew intermittent and they fell to thinking of the trials that had attained this consummation; for it was generally understood that everyone was there to stay, that there illness, poverty, or hate could never reach them more. Even death did not approach the house in the country.

    This was the scene that Old Malcolm kept evoking to himself as he went about his duties. It was the business of peopling it, rather than the verification of inventories, that brought to his face its sweet abstract smile. As the pleasure of ruminating about his hospitality grew on him, he set aside certain hours, above all the evening, to which he tried to restrict his imaginings, but the dream becoming stronger than the dreamer, he would sit for hours at his desk, with uplifted pen, watching unfold some new diversion of the country party. When in the order of business he was interrupted, he experienced the sensation of one who emerges from a spell of unconsciousness; there seemed an enclosed portion of his mind, like a brilliant room, lighted and warm and full of happy indistinguishable things, against which an outer world had warred and had prevailed.

    The person to whom everyone turned in the mansion was, of course, Old Malcolm. The boys who were meditating the choice of a profession or of a college took heartening confidential walks with him, and settled things; the girls who were bewildered and puzzled by life had long tranquilizing conversations with him, where many noble things were said, and where the vague hot tears of adolescence were dried. The pretty young widows were lent money; the older ones were advised as to their investments. Young men who had made foolish or dishonorable mistakes over money or women opened to him the floodgates of their first confession. There happened to be no men of his own age or experience in the company, but had there been, no doubt, they too would have received the benefits of his wisdom.

    This inner life so engrossed Old Malcolm that he talked audibly to himself on the street, and even during work hours he would repeat aloud the happy phrases that had occurred to him the evening before, the words that especially interpreted his magnanimity and prudence.

    There was always music in the house. The rugs had been taken up for an improvised dance in the long living-room and had never been relaid. One morning a fish-pond appeared in the front yard, stocked with the most fascinating fish. Old Malcolm spent hours (in the office) gazing into the fish-pond, and matching the schools of minnows rise to the surface and drift away, the circling turtles, and the ancient carp with blue mould on their backs. On clear evenings a group would ascend to the cupola, where a mounted telescope had been placed, to gaze at the stars, taking turns graciously at the instrument, in love preferring one another. For them the North Star and the Southern Cross appeared in the same hemisphere; nothing uninteresting was ever reflected upon that lens; but the rings of Saturn, and pale blue Aldebaron, yellow Vega, and the baked and chalky craters of the moon.

    One morning when he waked up the dream seemed more vivid than ever before. He dressed himself slowly and remained in his room talking to his relatives. He did not go to the office that day, nor did he ever go again. People came to the boarding-house to argue with him, but their clamour did not penetrate the walls of his peace. He answered them politely and offered them fishing-rods, pointing to some propitious clouds. Or if there were a full moon that night, they were to take their mandolines to the summer-house; all were welcome.

    So finally Old Malcolm inherited his house in the country. There were lawns and a pond, but they did not take the place of the weed-grown yard and fish-pond of his imagination. He made no new friends, and the Warden looking up at night heard Old Malcolm going about the same duty, closing the shutters and lowering the lights of his house in the country, admonishing his servants to be up early in the morning, for the weather would be fine, and all those treasured souls, now sleeping, would want a great breakfast before the manifold activities of happiness.


    “A House in the Country” by Thornton Wilder, used by permission of the Estate of Thornton Wilder. All rights reserved.

    For insights into Wilder’s life and writing, check out The Selected Letters of Thornton Wilder. . . .

    And read Wilder’s three Pulitzer Prize-winning works, Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey:

    Join the Thornton Wilder Society today!

    3 Trackbacks

    1. […] Fifty-Two Stories celebrate Thornton Wilder’s birthday – It’s no real news on a Monday now, that Fifty-Two Stories have served another short story for public consumption. However this week they’re recognising the anniversary of the birth of American novelist Thornton Wilder, by offering, with the kind permission of Wilder’s family, a short that’s never been published before called A House in the Country. Now if that isn’t real news then I don’t know what is! […]

    2. […] A House in the Country by Thornton Wilder Date Read: 18 April 2009 Available Online?: YES (as one of the stories posted by Harper Perennial on their website Fifty-Two Stories, which […]

    3. […] Telegraph Dog. Wow! That’s two unpublished classics in a row (last week we had Thorton Wilder’s A House in the Country if you remember. I read it a couple of days ago and enjoyed it)! Is Harper spoiling us? I should […]

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