The Old-Maid Aunt was retrieved from the anthology, The Whole Family, A Novel by Twelve Authors.
I am relegated here in Eastridge to the position in which I suppose I properly belong, and I dare say it is for my best spiritual and temporal good. Here I am the old-maid aunt. Not a day, not an hour, not a minute, when I am with other people, passes that I do not see myself in their estimation playing that role as plainly as if I saw myself in a looking-glass. It is a moral lesson which I presume I need. I have just returned from my visit at the Pollards’ country-house in Lancaster, where I most assuredly did not have it. I do not think I deceive myself. I know it is the popular opinion that old maids are exceedingly prone to deceive themselves concerning the endurance of their youth and charms, and the views of other people with regard to them. But I am willing, even anxious, to be quite frank with myself. Since—well, never mind since what time—I have not cared an iota whether I was considered an old maid or not. The situation has seemed to me rather amusing, inasmuch as it has involved a secret willingness to be what everybody has considered me as very unwilling to be. I have regarded it as a sort of joke upon other people.
But I think I am honest—I really mean to be, and I think I am—when I say that outside Eastridge the role of an old-maid aunt is the very last one which I can take to any advantage. Here I am estimated according to what people think I am, rather than what I actually am. In the first place, I am only fifteen years older than Peggy, who has just become engaged, but those fifteen years seem countless aeons to the child herself and the other members of the family. I am ten years younger than my brother’s wife, but she and my brother regard me as old enough to be her mother. As for Grandmother Evarts, she fairly looks up to me as her superior in age, although she DOES patronize me. She would patronize the prophets of old. I don’t believe she ever says her prayers without infusing a little patronage into her petitions. The other day Grandmother Evarts actually inquired of me, of ME! concerning a knitting-stitch. I had half a mind to retort, “Would you like a lesson in bridge, dear old soul?” She never heard of bridge, and I suppose she would have thought I meant bridge-building. I sometimes wonder why it is that all my brother’s family are so singularly unsophisticated, even Cyrus himself, able as he is and dear as he is.
Sometimes I speculate as to whether it can be due to the mansard-roof of their house. I have always had a theory that inanimate things exerted more of an influence over people than they dreamed, and a mansard-roof, to my mind, belongs to a period which was most unsophisticated and fatuous, not merely concerning aesthetics, but simple comfort. Those bedrooms under the mansard-roof are miracles not only of ugliness, but discomfort, and there is no attic. I think that a house without a good roomy attic is like a man without brains. Possibly living in a brainless house has affected the mental outlook of my relatives, although their brains are well enough. Peggy is not exactly remarkable for hers, but she is charmingly pretty, and has a wonderful knack at putting on her clothes, which might be esteemed a purely feminine brain, in her fingers. Charles Edward really has brains, although he is a round peg in a square hole, and as for Alice, her brains are above the normal, although she unfortunately knows it, and Billy, if he ever gets away from Alice, will show what he is made of. Maria’s intellect is all right, although cast in a petty mould. She repeats Grandmother Evarts, which is a pity, because there are types not worth repeating. Maria if she had not her husband Tom to manage, would simply fall on her face. It goes hard with a purely patronizing soul when there is nobody to manage; there is apt to be an explosion. However, Maria HAS Tom. But none of my brother’s family, not even my dear sister-in-law, Cyrus’s wife, have the right point of view with regard to the present, possibly on account of the mansard-roof which has overshadowed them. They do not know that today an old-maid aunt is as much of an anomaly as a spinning-wheel, that she has ceased to exist, that she is prehistoric, that even grandmothers have almost disappeared from off the face of the earth. In short, they do not know that I am not an old-maid aunt except under this blessed mansard-roof, and some other roofs of Eastridge, many of which are also mansard, where the influence of their fixed belief prevails. For instance, they told the people next door, who have moved here recently, that the old-maid aunt was coming, and so, when I went to call with my sister-in-law, Mrs. Temple saw her quite distinctly. To think of Ned Temple being married to a woman like that, who takes things on trust and does not use her own eyes! Her two little girls are exactly like her. I wonder what Ned himself will think. I wonder if he will see that my hair is as red-gold as Peggy’s, that I am quite as slim, that there is not a line on my face, that I still keep my girl color with no aid, that I wear frills of the latest fashion, and look no older than when he first saw me. I really do not know myself how I have managed to remain so intact; possibly because I have always grasped all the minor sweets of life, even if I could not have the really big worth-while ones. I honestly do not think that I have had the latter. But I have not taken the position of some people, that if I cannot have what I want most I will have nothing. I have taken whatever Providence chose to give me in the way of small sweets, and made the most of them. Then I have had much womanly pride, and that is a powerful tonic.
For instance, years ago, when my best lamp of life went out, so to speak, I lit all my candles and kept my path. I took just as much pains with my hair and my dress, and if I was unhappy I kept it out of evidence on my face. I let my heart ache and bleed, but I would have died before I wrinkled my forehead and dimmed my eyes with tears and let everybody else know. That was about the time when I met Ned Temple, and he fell so madly in love with me, and threatened to shoot himself if I would not marry him. He did not. Most men do not. I wonder if he placed me when he heard of my anticipated coming. Probably he did not. They have probably alluded to me as dear old Aunt Elizabeth, and when he met me (I was staying at Harriet Munroe’s before she was married) nobody called me Elizabeth, but Lily. Miss Elizabeth Talbert, instead of Lily Talbert, might naturally set him wrong. Everybody here calls me Elizabeth. Outside Eastridge I am Lily. I dare say Ned Temple has not dreamed who I am. I hear that he is quite brilliant, although the poor fellow must be limited as to his income. However, in some respects it must be just as well. It would be a great trial to a man with a large income to have a wife like Mrs. Temple, who could make no good use of it. You might load that poor soul with crown jewels and she would make them look as if she had bought them at a department store for ninety-eight cents. And the way she keeps her house must be maddening, I should think, to a brilliant man. Fancy the books on the table being all arranged with the large ones under the small ones in perfectly even piles! I am sure that he has his meals on time, and I am equally sure that the principal dishes are preserves and hot biscuits and cake. That sort of diet simply shows forth in Mrs. Temple and her children. I am sure that his socks are always mended, but I know that he always wipes his feet before he enters the house, that it has become a matter of conscience with him; and those exactions are to me pathetic. These reflections are uncommonly like the popular conception as to how an old-maid aunt should reflect, had she not ceased to exist. Sometimes I wish she were still existing and that I carried out her character to the full. I am not at all sure but she, as she once was, coming here, would not have brought more happiness than I have. I must say I thought so when I saw poor Harry Goward turn so pale when he first saw me after my arrival. Why, in the name of common-sense, Ada, my sister-in-law, when she wrote to me at the Pollards’, announcing Peggy’s engagement, could not have mentioned who the man was, I cannot see.
Sometimes it seems to me that only the girl and the engagement figure at all in such matters. I suppose Peggy always alluded to me as “dear Aunt Elizabeth,” when that poor young fellow knew me at the Abercrombies’, where we were staying a year ago, as Miss Lily Talbert. The situation with regard to him and Peggy fairly puzzles me. I simply do not know what to do. Goodness knows I never lifted my finger to attract him. Flirtations between older women and boys always have seemed to me contemptible. I never particularly noticed him, although he is a charming young fellow, and there is not as much difference in our ages as in those of Harriet Munroe and her husband, and if I am not mistaken there is more difference between the ages of Ned Temple and his wife. Poor soul! she looks old enough to be his mother, as I remember him, but that may be partly due to the way she arranges her hair. However, Ned himself may have changed; there must be considerable wear and tear about matrimony, taken in connection with editing a country newspaper. If I had married Ned I might have looked as old as Mrs. Temple does. I wonder what Ned will do when he sees me. I know he will not turn white, as poor Harry Goward did. That really worries me. I am fond of little Peggy, and the situation is really rather awful. She is engaged to a man who is fond of her aunt and cannot conceal it. Still, the affection of most male things is curable. If Peggy has sense enough to retain her love for frills and bows, and puts on her clothes as well, and arranges her hair as prettily, after she has been married a year—no, ten years (it will take at least ten years to make a proper old-maid aunt of me)—she may have the innings. But Peggy has no brains, and it really takes a woman with brains to keep her looks after matrimony.
Of course, the poor little soul has no danger to fear from me; it is lucky for her that her fiance fell in love with me; but it is the principle of the thing which worries me. Harry Goward must be as fickle as a honey-bee. There is no assurance whatever for Peggy that he will not fall headlong in love—and headlong is just the word for it—with any other woman after he has married her. I did not want the poor fellow to stick to me, but when I come to think of it that is the trouble. How short-sighted I am! It is his perverted fickleness rather than his actual fickleness which worries me. He has proposed to Peggy when he was in love with another woman, probably because he was in love with another woman. Now Peggy, although she is not brilliant, in spite of her co-education (perhaps because of it), is a darling, and she deserves a good husband. She loves this man with her whole heart, poor little thing! that is easy enough to be seen, and he does not care for her, at least not when I am around or when I am in his mind. The question is, is this marriage going to make the child happy? My first impulse, when I saw Harry Goward and knew that he was poor Peggy’s lover, was immediately to pack up and leave. Then I really wondered if that was the wisest thing to do. I wanted to see for myself if Harry Goward were really in earnest about poor little Peggy and had gotten over his mad infatuation for her aunt and would make her a good husband. Perhaps I ought to leave, and yet I wonder if I ought. Harry Goward may have turned pale simply from his memory of what an uncommon fool he had been, and the consideration of the embarrassing position in which his past folly has placed him, if I chose to make revelations. He might have known that I would not; still, men know so little of women. I think that possibly I am worrying myself needlessly, and that he is really in love with Peggy. She is quite a little beauty, and she does know how to put her clothes on so charmingly. The adjustments of her shirt-waists are simply perfection. I may be very foolish to go away; I may be even insufferably conceited in assuming that Harry’s change of color signified anything which could make it necessary. But, after all, he must be fickle and ready to turn from one to another, or deceitful, and I must admit that if Peggy were my daughter, and Harry had never been mad about me six weeks ago, but about some other woman, I should still feel the same way.
Sometimes I wonder if I ought to tell Ada. She is the girl’s mother. I might shift the responsibility on to her. I almost think I will. She is alone in her room now, I know. Peggy and Harry have gone for a drive, and the rest have scattered. It is a good chance. I really don’t feel as if I ought to bear the whole responsibility alone. I will go this minute and tell Ada.
Well, I have told Ada, and here I am back in my room, laughing over the result. I might as well have told the flour-barrel. Anything like Ada’s ease of character and inability to worry or even face a disturbing situation I have never seen. I laugh, although her method of receiving my tale was not, so to speak, flattering to me. Ada was in her loose white kimono, and she was sitting at her shady window darning stockings in very much the same way that a cow chews her cud; and when I told her, under promise of the strictest secrecy, she just laughed that placid little laugh of hers and said, taking another stitch, “Oh, well, boys are always falling in love with older women.” And when I asked if she thought seriously that Peggy might not be running a risk, she said: “Oh dear, no; Harry is devoted to the child. You can’t be foolish enough. Aunt Elizabeth, to think that he is in love with you NOW?”
I said, “Certainly not.” It was only the principle involved; that the young man must be very changeable, and that Peggy might run a risk in the future if Harry were thrown in much with other women.
Ada only laughed again, and kept on with her darning, and said she guessed there was no need to worry. Harry seemed to her very much like Cyrus, and she was sure that Cyrus had never thought of another woman besides herself (Ada).
I wonder if another woman would have said what I might have said, especially after that imputation of the idiocy of my thinking that a young man could possibly fancy ME. I said nothing, but I wondered what Ada would say if she knew what I knew, if she would continue to chew her cud, that Cyrus had been simply mad over another girl, and only married her because he could not get the other one, and when the other died, five years after he was married to Ada, he sent flowers, and I should not to this day venture to speak that girl’s name to the man. She was a great beauty, and she had a wonderful witchery about her. I was only a child, but I remember how she looked. Why, I fell in love with her myself! Cyrus can never forget a woman like that for a cud-chewing creature like Ada, even if she does keep his house in order and make a good mother to his children. The other would not have kept the house in order at all, but it would have been a shrine. Cyrus worshipped that girl, and love may supplant love, but not worship. Ada does not know, and she never will through me, but I declare I was almost wicked enough to tell her when I saw her placidly darning away, without the slightest conception, any more than a feather pillow would have, of what this ridiculous affair with me might mean in future consequences to poor, innocent little Peggy. But I can only hope the boy has gotten over his feeling for me, that he has been really changeable, for that would be infinitely better than the other thing.
Well, I shall not need to go away. Harry Goward has himself solved that problem. He goes himself to-morrow. He has invented a telegram about a sick uncle, all according to the very best melodrama. But what I feared is true—he is still as mad as ever about me. I went down to the post-office for the evening mail, and was coming home by moonlight, unattended, as any undesirable maiden aunt may safely do, when the boy overtook me. I had heard his hurried steps behind me for some time. Up he rushed just as we reached the vacant lot before the Temple house, and caught my arm and poured forth a volume of confessions and avowals, and, in short, told me he did not love Peggy, but me, and he never would love anybody but me. I actually felt faint for a second. Then I talked. I told him what a dishonorable wretch he was, and said he might as well have plunged a knife into an innocent, confiding girl at once as to have treated Peggy so. I told him to go away and let me alone and write friendly letters to Peggy, and see if he would not recover his senses, if he had any to recover, which I thought doubtful; and then when he said he would not budge a step, that he would remain in Eastridge, if only for the sake of breathing the same air I did, that he would tell Peggy the whole truth at once, and bear all the blame which he deserved for being so dishonorable, I arose to the occasion. I said, “Very well, remain, but you may have to breathe not only the same air that I do, but also the same air that the man whom I am to marry does.” I declare that I had no man whatever in mind. I said it in sheer desperation. Then the boy burst forth with another torrent, and the secret was out.
My brother and my sister-in-law and Grandmother Evarts and the children, for all I know, have all been match-making for me. I did not suspect it of them. I supposed they esteemed my case as utterly hopeless, and then I knew that Cyrus knew about—well, never mind; I don’t often mention him to myself. I certainly thought that they all would have as soon endeavored to raise the dead as to marry me, but it seems that they have been thinking that while there is life there is hope, or rather, while there are widowers there is hope. And there is a widower in Eastridge—Dr. Denbigh. He is the candle about which the mothlike dreams of ancient maidens and widows have fluttered, to their futile singeing, for the last twenty years. I really did not dream that they would think I would flutter, even if I was an old-maid aunt. But Harry cried out that if I were going to marry Dr. Denbigh he would go away. He never would stay and be a witness to such sacrilege. “That OLD man!” he raved. And when I said I was not a young girl myself he got all the madder. Well, I allowed him to think I was going to marry Dr. Denbigh (I wonder what the doctor would say), and as a consequence Harry will flit to-morrow, and he is with poor little Peggy out in the grape-arbor, and she is crying her eyes out. If he dares tell her what a fool he is I could kill him. I am horribly afraid that he will let it out, for I never saw such an alarmingly impetuous youth. Young Lochinvar out of the west was mere cambric tea to him. I am really thankful that he has not a gallant steed, nor even an automobile, for the old-maid aunt might yet be captured as the Sabine women were.
Well, thank fortune, Harry has left, and he cannot have told, for poor little Peggy has been sitting with me for a solid hour, sniffing, and sounding his praises. Somehow the child made me think of myself at her age. I was about a year older when my tragedy came and was never righted. Hers, I think, will be, since Harry was not such an ass as to confess before he went away. But all the same, I am concerned for her happiness, for Harry is either fickle or deceitful. Sometimes I wonder what my duty is, but I can’t tell the child. It would do no more good for me to consult my brother Cyrus than it did to consult Ada. I know of no one whom I can consult. Charles Edward and his wife, who is just like Ada, pretty, but always with her shirt-waist hunching in the back, sitting wrong, and standing lopsided, and not worrying enough to give her character salt and pepper, are there. (I should think she would drive Charles Edward, who is really an artist, only out of his proper sphere, mad.) Tom and Maria are down there, too, on the piazza, and Ada at her everlasting darning, and Alice bossing Billy as usual. I can hear her voice. I think I will put on another gown and go for a walk.
I think I will put on my pink linen, and my hat lined with pink chiffon and trimmed with shaded roses. That particular shade of pink is just right for my hair. I know quite well how I look in that gown and hat, and I know, also, quite well how I shall look to the members of my family assembled below. They all unanimously consider that I should dress always in black silk, and a bonnet with a neat little tuft of middle-aged violets, and black ribbons tied under my chin. I know I am wicked to put on that pink gown and hat, but I shall do it. I wonder why it amuses me to be made fun of. Thank fortune, I have a sense of humor. If I did not have that it might have come to the black silk and the bonnet with the tuft of violets, for the Lord knows I have not, after all, so very much compared with what some women have. It troubles me to think of that young fool rushing away and poor, dear little Peggy; but what can I do? This pink gown is fetching, and how they will stare when I go down!
Well, they did stare. How pretty this street is, with the elms arching over it. I made quite a commotion, and they all saw me through their eyeglasses of prejudice, except, possibly, Tom Price, Maria’s husband. I am certain I heard him say, as I marched away, “Well, I don’t care; she does look stunning, anyhow,” but Maria hushed him up. I heard her say, “Pink at her age, and a pink hat, and a parasol lined with pink!” Ada really looked more disturbed than I have ever seen her. If I had been Godiva, going for my sacrificial ride through the town, it could not have been much worse. She made her eyes round and big, and asked, in a voice which was really agitated, “Are you going out in that dress. Aunt Elizabeth?” And Aunt Elizabeth replied that she certainly was, and she went after she had exchanged greetings with the family and kissed Peggy’s tear-stained little face. Charles Edward’s wife actually straightened her spinal column, she was so amazed at the sight of me in my rose-colored array. Charles Edward, to do him justice, stared at me with a bewildered air, as if he were trying to reconcile his senses with his traditions. He is an artist, but he will always be hampered by thinking he sees what he has been brought up to think he sees. That is the reason why he has settled down uncomplainingly in Cyrus’s “Works,” as he calls them, doing the very slight aesthetics possible in such a connection. Now Charles Edward would think that sunburned grass over in that field is green, when it is pink, because he has been taught that grass is green. If poor Charles Edward only knew that grass was green not of itself, but because of occasional conditions, and knew that his aunt looked—well, as she does look—he would flee for his life, and that which is better than his life, from the “Works,” and be an artist, but he never will know or know that he knows, which comes to the same thing.
Well, what does it matter to me? I have just met a woman who stared at me, and spoke as if she thought I were a lunatic to be afield in this array. What does anything matter? Sometimes, when I am with people who see straight, I do take a certain pleasure in looking well, because I am a woman, and nothing can quite take away that pleasure from me; but all the time I know it does not matter, that nothing has really mattered since I was about Peggy’s age and Lyman Wilde quarrelled with me over nothing and vanished into thin air, so far as I was concerned. I suppose he is comfortably settled with a wife and family somewhere. It is rather odd, though, that with all my wandering on this side of the water and the other I have never once crossed his tracks. He may be in the Far East, with a harem. I never have been in the Far East. Well, it does not matter to me where he is. That is ancient history. On the whole, though, I like the harem idea better than the single wife. I have what is left to me—the little things of life, the pretty effects which go to make me pretty (outside Eastridge); the comforts of civilization, travelling and seeing beautiful things, also seeing ugly things to enhance the beautiful. I have pleasant days in beautiful Florence. I have friends. I have everything except—well, except everything. That I must do without. But I will do without it gracefully, with never a whimper, or I don’t know myself. But now I AM worried over Peggy. I wish I could consult with somebody with sense. What a woman I am! I mean, how feminine I am! I wish I could cure myself of the habit of being feminine. It is a horrible nuisance; this wishing to consult with somebody when I am worried is so disgustingly feminine.
Well, I have consulted. I am back in my own room. It is after supper. We had three kinds of cake, hot biscuits, and raspberries, and—a concession to Cyrus—a platter of cold ham and an egg salad. He will have something hearty, as he calls it (bless him! he is a good-fellow), for supper. I am glad, for I should starve on Ada’s New England menus. I feel better, now that I have consulted, although, when I really consider the matter, I can’t see that I have arrived at any very definite issue. But I have consulted, and, above all things, with Ned Temple! I was walking down the street, and I reached his newspaper building. It is a funny little affair; looks like a toy house. It is all given up to the mighty affairs of the Eastridge Banner. In front there is a piazza, and on this piazza sat Ned Temple. Changed? Well, yes, poor fellow! He is thin. I am so glad he is thin instead of fat; thinness is not nearly so disillusioning. His hair is iron-gray, but he is, after all, distinguished-looking, and his manners are entirely sophisticated. He shows at a glance, at a word, that he is a brilliant man, although he is stranded upon such a petty little editorial island. And—and he saw ME as I am. He did not change color. He is too self-poised; besides, he is too honorable. But he saw ME. He rose immediately and came to speak to me. He shook hands. He looked at my face under my pink-lined hat. He saw it as it was; but bless him! that stupid wife of his holds him fast with his own honor. Ned Temple is a good man. Sometimes I wonder if it would not have been better if he, instead of Lyman—Well, that is idiotic.
He said he had to go to the post-office, and then it was time for him to go home to supper (to the cake and sauce, I suppose), and with my permission he would walk with me. So he did. I don’t know how it happened that I consulted with him. I think he spoke of Peggy’s engagement, and that led up to it. But I could speak to him, because I knew that he, seeing me as I really am, would view the matter seriously. I told him about the miserable affair, and he said that I had done exactly right. I can’t remember that he offered any actual solution, but it was something to be told that I had done exactly right. And then he spoke of his wife, and in such a faithful fashion, and so lovingly of his two commonplace little girls. Ned Temple is as good as he is brilliant. It is really rather astonishing that such a brilliant man can be so good. He told me that I had not changed at all, but all the time that look of faithfulness for his wife never left his handsome face, bless him! I believe I am nearer loving him for his love for another woman than I ever was to loving him for himself.
And then the inconceivable happened. I did what I never thought I should be capable of doing, and did it easily, too, without, I am sure, a change of color or any perturbation. I think I could do it, because faithfulness had become so a matter of course with the man that I was not ashamed should he have any suspicion of me also. He and Lyman used to be warm friends. I asked if he knew anything about him. He met my question as if I had asked what o’clock it was, just the way I knew he would meet it. He knows no more than I do. But he said something which has comforted me, although comfort at this stage of affairs is a dangerous indulgence. He said, very much as if he had been speaking of the weather, “He worshipped you, Lily, and wherever he is, in this world or the next, he worships you now.” Then he added: “You know how I felt about you. Lily. If I had not found out about him, that he had come first, I know how it would have been with me, so I know how it is with him. We had the same views about matters of that kind. After I did find out, why, of course, I felt different—although always, as long as I live, I shall be a dear friend to you. Lily. But a man is unfaithful to himself who is faithful to a woman whom another man loves and whom she loves.”
“Yes, that is true,” I agreed, and said something about the hours for the mails in Eastridge. Lyman Wilde dropped out of Ned’s life as he dropped out of mine, it seems. I shall simply have to lean back upon the minor joys of life for mental and physical support, as I did before. Nothing is different, but I am glad that I have seen Ned Temple again, and realize what a good man he is.
Well, it seems that even minor pleasures have dangers, and that I do not always read characters rightly. The very evening after my little stroll and renewal of friendship with Ned Temple I was sitting in my room, reading a new book for which the author should have capital punishment, when I heard excited voices, or rather an excited voice, below. I did not pay much attention at first. I supposed the excited voice must belong to either Maria or Alice, for no others of my brother’s family ever seem in the least excited, not to the extent of raising their voices to a hysterical pitch. But after a few minutes Cyrus came to the foot of the stairs and called. He called Aunt Elizabeth, and Aunt Elizabeth, in her same pink frock, went down. Cyrus met me at the foot of the stairs, and he looked fairly wild. “What on earth, Aunt Elizabeth!” said he, and I stared at him in a daze.
“The deuce is to pay,” said he. “Aunt Elizabeth, did you ever know our next-door neighbor before his marriage?”
“Certainly,” said I; “when we were both infants. I believe they had gotten him out of petticoats and into trousers, but much as ever, and my skirts were still abbreviated. It was at Harriet Munroe’s before she was married.”
“Have you been to walk with him?” gasped poor Cyrus.
“I met him on my way to the post-office last night, and he walked along with me, and then as far as his house on the way home, if you call that walking out,” said I. “You sound like the paragraphs in a daily paper. Now, what on earth do you mean, if I may ask, Cyrus?”
“Nothing, except Mrs. Temple is in there raising a devil of a row,” said Cyrus. He gazed at me in a bewildered fashion. “If it were Peggy I could understand it,” he said, helplessly, and I knew how distinctly he saw the old-maid aunt as he gazed at me. “She’s jealous of you, Elizabeth,” he went on in the same dazed fashion. “She’s jealous of you because her husband walked home with you. She’s a dreadfully nervous woman, and, I guess, none too well. She’s fairly wild. It seems Temple let on how he used to know you before he was married, and said something in praise of your looks, and she made a regular header into conclusions. You have held your own remarkably well, Elizabeth, but I declare—” And again poor Cyrus gazed at me.
“Well, for goodness’ sake, let me go in and see what I can do,” said I, and with that I went into the parlor.
I was taken aback. Nobody, not even another woman, can tell what a woman really is. I thought I had estimated Ned Temple’s wife correctly. I had taken her for a monotonous, orderly, dull sort of creature, quite incapable of extremes; but in reality she has in her rather large, flabby body the characteristics of a kitten, with the possibilities of a tigress. The tigress was uppermost when I entered the room. The woman was as irresponsible as a savage. I was disgusted and sorry and furious at the same time. I cannot imagine myself making such a spectacle over any mortal man. She was weeping frantically into a mussy little ball of handkerchief, and when she saw me she rushed at me and gripped me by the arm like a mad thing.
“If you can’t get a husband for yourself,” said she, “you might at least let other women’s husbands alone!”
She was vulgar, but she was so wild with jealousy that I suppose vulgarity ought to be forgiven her. I hardly know myself how I managed it, but, somehow, I got the poor thing out of the room and the house and into the cool night air, and then I talked to her, and fairly made her be quiet and listen. I told her that Ned Temple had made love to me when he was just out of petticoats and I was in short dresses. I stretched or shortened the truth a little, but it was a case of necessity. Then I intimated that I never would have married Ned Temple, anyway, and THAT worked beautifully. She turned upon me in such a delightfully inconsequent fashion and demanded to know what I expected, and declared her husband was good enough for any woman. Then I said I did not doubt that, and hinted that other women might have had their romances, even if they did not marry. That immediately interested her. She stared at me, and said, with the most innocent impertinence, that my brother’s wife had intimated that I had had an unhappy love-affair when I was a girl. I did not think that Cyrus had told Ada, but I suppose a man HAS to tell his wife everything.
I hedged about the unhappy love-affair, but the first thing I knew the poor, distracted woman was sobbing on my shoulder as we stood in front of her gate, and saying that she was so sorry, but her whole life was bound up in her husband, and I was so beautiful and had so much style, and she knew what a dowdy she was, and she could not blame poor Ned if—But I hushed her.
“Your husband has no more idea of caring for another woman besides you than that moon has of travelling around another world,” said I; “and you are a fool if you think so; and if you are dowdy it is your own fault. If you have such a good husband you owe it to him not to be dowdy. I know you keep his house beautifully, but any man would rather have his wife look well than his house, if he is worth anything at all.” Then she gasped out that she wished she knew how to do up her hair like mine. It was all highly ridiculous, but it actually ended in my going into the Temple house and showing Ned’s wife how to do up her hair like mine. She looked like another woman when it was puffed softly over her forehead—she has quite pretty brown hair. Then I taught her how to put on her corset and pin her shirt-waist taut in front and her skirt behind. Ned was not to be home until late, and there was plenty of time. It ended in her fairly purring around me, and saying how sorry she was, and ashamed, that she had been so foolish, and all the time casting little covert, conceited glances at herself in the looking-glass. Finally I kissed her and she kissed me, and I went home. I don’t really see what more a woman could have done for a rival who had supplanted her. But this revelation makes me more sorry than ever for poor Ned. I don’t know, though; she may be more interesting than I thought. Anything is better than the dead level of small books on large ones, and meals on time. It cannot be exactly monotonous never to know whether you will find a sleek, purry cat, or an absurd kitten, or a tigress, when you come home. Luckily, she did not tell Ned of her jealousy, and I have cautioned all in my family to hold their tongues, and I think they will. I infer that they suspect that I must have been guilty of some unbecoming elderly prank to bring about such a state of affairs, unless, possibly, Maria’s husband and Billy are exceptions. I find that Billy, when Alice lets him alone, is a boy who sees with his own eyes. He told me yesterday that I was handsomer in my pink dress than any girl in his school.
“Why, Billy Talbert!” I said, “talking that way to your old aunt!”
“I suppose you ARE awful old,” said Billy, bless him! “but you are enough-sight prettier than a girl. I hate girls. I hope I can get away from girls when I am a man.”
I wanted to tell the dear boy that was exactly the time when he would not get away from girls, but I thought I would not frighten him, but let him find it out for himself.
Well, now the deluge! It is a week since Harry Goward went away, and Peggy has not had a letter, although she has haunted the post-office, poor child! and this morning she brought home a letter for me from that crazy boy. She was white as chalk when she handed it to me.
“It’s Harry’s writing,” said she, and she could barely whisper. “I have not had a word from him since he went away, and now he has written to you instead of me. What has he written to you for, Aunt Elizabeth?”
She looked at me so piteously, poor, dear little girl! that if I could have gotten hold of Harry Goward that moment I would have shaken him. I tried to speak, soothingly. I said:
“My dear Peggy, I know no more than you do why he has written to me. Perhaps his uncle is dead and he thought I would break it to you.”
That was rank idiocy. Generally I can rise to the occasion with more success.
“What do I care about his old uncle?” cried poor Peggy. “I never even saw his uncle. I don’t care if he is dead. Something has happened to Harry. Oh, Aunt Elizabeth, what is it?”
I was never in such a strait in my life. There was that poor child staring at the letter as if she could eat it, and then at me. I dared not open the letter before her. We were out on the porch. I said:
“Now, Peggy Talbert, you keep quiet, and don’t make a little fool of yourself until you know you have some reason for it. I am going up to my own room, and you sit in that chair, and when I have read this letter I will come down and tell you about it.”
“I know he is dead!” gasped Peggy, but she sat down.
“Dead!” said I. “You just said yourself it was his handwriting. Do have a little sense, Peggy.” With that I was off with my letter, and I locked my door before I read it.
Of all the insane ravings! I put it on my hearth and struck a match, and the thing went up in flame and smoke. Then I went down to poor little Peggy and patched up a story. I have always been averse to lying, and I did not lie then, although I must admit that what I said was open to criticism when it comes to exact verity. I told Peggy that Harry thought that he had done something to make her angry (that was undeniably true) and did not dare write her. I refused utterly to tell her just what was in the letter, but I did succeed in quieting her and making her think that Harry had not broken faith with her, but was blaming himself for some unknown and imaginary wrong he had done her. Peggy rushed immediately up to her room to write reassuring pages to Harry, and her old-maid aunt had the horse put in the runabout and was driven over to Whitman, where nobody knows her—at least the telegraph operator does not. Then I sent a telegram to Mr. Harry Goward to the effect that if he did not keep his promise with regard to writing F. L. to P. her A. would never speak to him again; that A. was about to send L., but he must keep his promise with regard to P. by next M.
It looked like the most melodramatic Sunday personal ever invented. It might have meant burglary or murder or a snare for innocence, but I sent it. Now I have written. My letter went in the same mail as poor Peggy’s, but what will be the outcome of it all I cannot say. Sometimes I catch Peggy looking at me with a curious awakened expression, and then I wonder if she has begun to suspect. I cannot tell how it will end.