A GRANDMOTHER'S RECOLLECTIONS.
BY ELLA RODMAN.
A GRANDMOTHER'S RECOLLECTIONS.
The best bed-chamber, with its hangings of crimson moreen, was opened and aired—a performance which always caused my eight little brothers and sisters to place themselves in convenient positions for being stumbled over, to the great annoyance of industrious damsels, who, armed with broom and duster, endeavored to render their reign as arbitrary as it was short. For some time past, the nursery-maids had invariably silenced refractory children with "Fie, Miss Matilda! Your grandmother will make you behave yourself—she won't allow such doings, I'll be bound!" or "Aren't you ashamed of yourself, Master Clarence? What will your grandmother say to that!" The nursery was in a state of uproar on the day of my venerable relative's arrival; for the children almost expected to see, in their grandmother, an ogress, both in features and disposition.
My mother was the eldest of two children, and my grandmother, from the period of my infancy, had resided in England with her youngest daughter; and we were now all employed in wondering what sort of a person our relative might be. Mamma informed us that the old lady was extremely dignified, and exacted respect and attention from all around; she also hinted, at the same time, that it would be well for me to lay aside a little of my self-sufficiency, and accommodate myself to the humors of my grandmother. This to me!—to me, whose temper was so inflammable that the least inadvertent touch was sufficient to set it in a blaze—it was too much! So, like a well-disposed young lady, I very properly resolved that mine should not be the arm to support the venerable Mrs. Arlington in her daily walks; that should the children playfully ornament the cushion of her easy-chair with pins, I would not turn informant; and should a conspiracy be on foot to burn the old lady's best wig, I entertained serious thoughts of helping along myself.
In the meantime, like all selfish persons, I considered what demeanor I should assume, in order to impress my grandmother with a conviction of my own consequence. Of course, dignified and unbending I would be; but what if she chose to consider me a child, and treat me accordingly? The idea was agonizing to my feelings; but then I proudly surveyed my five feet two inches of height, and wondered how I could have thought of such a thing! Still I had sense enough to know that such a supposition would never have entered my head, had there not been sufficient grounds for it; and, with no small trepidation, I prepared for my first appearance.
It went off as first appearances generally do. I was to have been seated in an attitude of great elegance, with my eyes fixed on the pages of some wonderfully wise book, but my thoughts anywhere but in company with my eyes; while, to give more dignity to a girlish figure, my hair was to be turned up on the very top of my head with a huge shell comb, borrowed for the occasion from mamma's drawer. Upon my grandmother's entrance, I intended to rise and make her a very stiff courtesy, and then deliver a series of womanish remarks. This, I say, was to have been my first appearance—but alas! fate ordered otherwise. I was caught by my dignified relative indulging in a game of romps upon the balcony with two or three little sisters in pinafores and pantalettes—myself as much a child as any of them. My grandmother came rather suddenly upon me as, with my long hair floating in wild confusion, I stooped to pick up my comb; and while in this ungraceful position, one of the little urchins playfully climbed upon my back, while the others held me down. My three little sisters had never appeared to such disadvantage in my eyes, as they did at the present moment; in vain I tried to shake them off—they only clung the closer, from fright, on being told of their grandmother's arrival.
At length, with crimsoned cheeks, and the hot tears starting to my eyes, I rose and received, rather than returned the offered embrace, and found myself in the capacious arms of one whom I should have taken for an old dowager duchess. On glancing at my grandmother's portly figure and consequential air, I experienced the uncomfortable sensation of utter insignificance—I encountered the gaze of those full, piercing eyes, and felt that I was conquered. Still I resolved to make some struggles for my dignity yet, and not submit until defeat was no longer doubtful. People in talking of "unrequited affection," speak of "the knell of departed hopes," but no knell could sound more dreadful to the ears of a girl in her teens—trembling for her scarcely-fledged young-lady-hood—than did the voice of my grandmother, (and it was by no means low), as she remarked:
"So this is Ella. Why, how the child has altered! I remember her only as a little, screaming baby, that was forever holding its breath with passion till it became black in the face. Many a thumping have I given you, child, to make you come to, and sometimes I doubted if your face ever would be straight again. Even now it can hardly be said to belong to the meek and amiable order."
Here my grandmother drew forth her gold spectacles from a richly-ornamented case, and deliberately scanned my indignant features, while she observed: "Not much of the Bredforth style—quite an Arlington." I drew myself up with all the offended dignity of sixteen, but it was of no use; my grandmother turned me round, in much the same manner that the giant might have been supposed to handle Tom Thumb, and surveyed me from top to toe.
I was unable to discover the effect of her investigation, but I immediately became convinced that my grandmother's opinion was one of the greatest importance. She possessed that indescribable kind of manner which places you under the conviction that you are continually doing, saying, or thinking something wrong; and which makes you humbly obliged to such a person for coinciding in any of your opinions. Instead of the dignified part I had expected to play, I looked very like a naughty child that has just been taken out of its corner. The impression left upon my mind by my grandmother's appearance will never be effaced; her whole tout ensemble was peculiarly striking, with full dark eyes, high Roman nose, mouth of great beauty and firmness of expression, and teeth whose splendor I have never seen equalled—although she was then past her fiftieth year. Add to this a tall, well-proportioned figure, and a certain air of authority, and my grandmother stands before you.
As time somewhat diminished our awe, we gained the entree of my grandmother's apartment, and even ventured to express our curiosity respecting the contents of various trunks, parcels, and curious-looking boxes. To children, there is no greater pleasure than being permitted to look over and arrange the articles contained in certain carefully-locked up drawers, unopened boxes, and old-fashioned chests; stray jewels from broken rings—two or three beads of a necklace—a sleeve or breadth of somebody's wedding dress—locks of hair—gifts of schoolgirl friendships—and all those little mementoes of the past, that lie neglected and forgotten till a search after some mislaid article brings them again to our view, and excites a burst of feeling that causes us to look sadly back upon the long vista of departed years, with their withered hopes, never-realized expectations, and fresh, joyous tone, seared by disappointment and worldly wisdom. The reward of patient toil and deep-laid schemes yields not half the pleasure that did the little Indian cabinet, (which always stood so provokingly locked, and just within reach), when during a period of convalescence, we were permitted to examine its recesses—when floods of sunlight danced upon the wall of the darkened room towards the close of day, and every one seemed so kind!
My grandmother indulged our curiosity to the utmost; now a pair of diamond ear-pendants would appear among the soft folds of perfumed cotton, and flash and glow with all the brilliancy of former days—now a rich brocaded petticoat called up phantoms of the past, when ladies wore high-heeled shoes, and waists of no size at all—and gentlemen felt magnificently attired in powdered curls and cues, and as many ruffles as would fill a modern dressing gown. There were also fairy slippers, curiously embroidered, with neatly covered heels; and anxious to adorn myself with these relics of the olden time I attempted to draw one on. But like the renowned glass-slipper, it would fit none but the owner, and I found myself in the same predicament as Cinderella's sisters. In vain I tugged and pulled; the more I tried, the more it wouldn't go on—and my grandmother remarked with a sigh, that "people's feet were not as small as they were in old times." I panted with vexation; for I had always been proud of my foot, and now put it forward that my grandmother might see how small it was. But no well-timed compliment soothed my irritated feelings; and more dissatisfied with myself than ever, I pursued my investigations.
My grandmother, as if talking to herself, murmured: "How little do we know, when we set out in life, of the many disappointments before us! How little can we deem that the heart which then is ours will change with the fleeting sunshine! It is fearful to have the love of a life-time thrown back as a worthless thing!"
"Fearful!" I chimed in. "Death were preferable!"
"You little goose!" exclaimed my grandmother, as she looked me full in the face, "What can you possibly know about the matter?"
I had nothing to do but bury my head down low in the trunk I was exploring; it was my last attempt at sentiment. My grandmother took occasion to give me some very good advice with respect to the behavior of hardly-grown girls; she remarked that they should be careful not to engross the conversation, and also, that quiet people were always more interesting than loud talkers. I resolved to try my utmost to be quiet and interesting, though at the same time it did occur to me as a little strange that, being so great an admirer of the species, she was not quiet and interesting herself. But being quiet was not my grandmother's forte; and it is generally understood that people always admire what they are not, or have not themselves.
The old lady also possessed rather strict ideas of the respect and deference due to parents and elders; and poor mamma, whose authority did not stand very high, felt considerable relief in consequence of our, (or, as I am tempted to say, the children's) improved behavior. I remember being rather startled myself one day, when one of the before-mentioned little sisters commenced a system of teazing for some forbidden article.
"Mother, mother,—can't I have that set of cards? We want it in our play-room—Phemie and me are going to build a house."
"I do not like to give you permission," replied mamma, looking considerably worried, "for George does not wish you to have them."
"Oh, but George is out, mother—out for all day," rejoined the precocious canvasser, "and will never know anything about it."
"But perhaps he might come home before you had done with them, and George is so terribly passionate, and hates to have his things touched, that he will raise the whole house."
"Poor boy!" observed my grandmother dryly, "What a misfortune to be so passionate! A deep-seated, and, I fear, incurable one, Amy; for of course you have used your utmost endeavors, both by precept and example, to render him otherwise."
I almost pitied my mother's feelings; for well did I remember the cried-for toy placed within his hands, to stop the constant succession of screams sent forth by a pair of lungs whose strength seemed inexhaustible—the comfort and convenience of the whole family disregarded, not because he was the best, but the worst child—and often the destruction of some highly-prized trinket or gem of art, because he was "passionate;" the result of which was, that my poor brother George became one of the most selfish, exacting, intolerable boys that ever lived.
There was no reply, save a troubled look; and the little tormentor continued in a fretful tone; "We'll put 'em all away before he gets in, and never tell him a word of it—can't we have them, mother?"
My mother glanced towards her mentor, but the look which she met impelled her to pursue a course so different from her usual one, that I listened in surprise: "No, Caroline, you can not have them—now leave the room, and let me hear no more about it."
"I want them," said the child in a sullen tone, while she turned to that invariable resource of refactory children who happen to be near a door; namely, turning the knob, and clicking the lock back and forth, and swinging on it at intervals.
This performance is extremely trying to a person of restless, nervous temperament, and my grandmother, setting up her spectacles, exclaimed commandingly: "Caroline, how dare you stand pouting there? Did you not hear your mother, naughty girl? Leave the room—this instant?"
The child stood a moment almost transfixed with surprise; but as she saw my grandmother preparing to advance upon her—her ample skirts and portly person somewhat resembling a ship under full sail—she made rather an abrupt retreat; discomposing the nerves of a small nursery-maid, whom she encountered in the passage, to such a degree that, as the girl expressed it, "she was took all of a sudden."
I had given a quick, convulsive start as the first tones fell upon my ear, and now sat bending over my sewing like a chidden child, almost afraid to look up. I was one of those unlucky mortals who bear the blame of everything wrong they witness; and having, in tender infancy, been suddenly seized upon in Sunday school by the superintendent, and placed in a conspicuous situation of disgrace for looking at a companion who was performing some strange antic, but who possessed one of those india-rubber faces that, after twisting themselves into all possible, or rather impossible shapes, immediately become straight the moment any one observes them—having, I say, met with this mortifying exposure, it gave me a shock which I have not to this day recovered; and I cannot now see any one start up hastily in pursuit of another without fancying myself the culprit, and trembling accordingly. This sudden movement, therefore, of my grandmother's threw me into an alarming state of terror, and, quite still and subdued, I sat industriously stitching, all the morning after.
"Dear me!" said my mother with a sigh, "how much better you make them mind than I can."
"I see, Amy," said my grandmother kindly, "that your influence is very weak—the care of of so large a family has prevented you from attending to each one properly. You perceive the effect of a little well-timed authority, and I do not despair of you yet. You are naturally," she continued, "amiable and indolent, and though gentleness is certainly agreeable and interesting, yet a constant succession of sweets cannot fail to cloy, and engender a taste for something sharper and more wholesome."
Delicacy prevented me from remaining to hear my mother advised and lectured, and the rest of my grandmother's discourse was therefore lost to me; but whatever it was, I soon perceived its beneficial results—the children were no longer permitted to roam indiscriminately through all parts of the house—certain rooms were proof againt their invasions—they became less troublesome and exacting, and far more companionable. The worried look gradually cleared from my mother's brow, and as my grandmother was extremely fond of sight-seeing, visiting, tea-drinkings, and everything in the shape of company, she persevered in dragging her daughter out day after day, until she made her enjoy it almost as much as herself. Old acquaintances were hunted up and brought to light, and new ones made through the exertions of my grandmother, who, in consequence of such a sociable disposition, soon became very popular. The young ones were banished to the nursery; and, as they were no longer allowed to spend their days in eating, there was far less sickness among them, and our family doctor's bill decreased amazingly.
Our grandmother, having spent many years in the "mother-country," was extremely English in her feelings and opinions, and highly advocated the frugal diet on which the children of the higher classes are always kept. Lord and Lady Grantham, the son-in-law and daughter at whose residence she passed the time of her sojourn in England, were infallible models of excellence and prudence; and the children were again and again informed that their little English cousins were never allowed meat until the age of seven, and considered it a great treat to get beef broth twice a week. Butter was also a prohibited article of luxury—their usual breakfast consisting of mashed potatoes, or bread and milk; and my grandmother used to relate how one morning a little curly-headed thing approached her with an air of great mystery, and whispered: "What do you think we had for breakfast?" "Something very good, I suspect—what can it be?" "Guess." "O, I cannot; you must tell me." "Buttered bread!" Our laughter increased as she gave an amusing account of the blue eyes stretched to their utmost extent, as these wonderful words were pronounced hesitatingly, as though doubtful of the effect; and in consequence of various anecdotes of the same nature, the children's impressions of England were by no means agreeable. Our little cousins must certainly have been the most wonderful children ever heard of, for by my grandmother's account, they could dance, sing, and speak French almost as soon as they could walk. She also informed us, as a positive fact, that on saying: "Baisez, Cora—baisez la dame," the very baby in arms put up its rosebud lips to kiss the stranger mentioned. It would have been stranger still for the younger children to speak English, as they were always in the company of French nurses.
Although my grandmother could so easily assume a stern and commanding air, it was by no means habitual to her; and the children, though they feared and never dared to dispute her authority, soon loved her with all the pure, unselfish love of childhood, which cannot be bought. "Things were not so and so when I was young," was a favorite remark of hers; and as I one day remarked that "those must have been wonderful times when old people were young," she smiled and said that "though not wonderful, they were times when parents and teachers were much more strict with children than they are now." I immediately experienced a strong desire to be made acquainted with the circumstances of my grandmother's childhood, and began hinting to that effect.
"Were they very strict with you, grandmother?" asked we mischievously.
She looked rather disconcerted for a moment, and then replied with a smile: "Not very—I saw very little of my parents, being mostly left to nurses and servants; but you all seem eager for information on that point, and although there is absolutely nothing worth relating, you may all come to my room this evening, and we will begin on the subject of my younger days."
We swallowed tea rather hastily, and danced off in high glee to my grandmother's apartment, ready for the unfolding of unheard-of occurrences and mysteries.
We were all happily seated around the fire; the grate was piled up high with coal, and threw a bright reflection upon the polished marble—everything was ready to begin, when a most unfortunate question of my sister Emma's interfered with our progress. She had settled herself on a low stool at my grandmother's feet, and while we all sat in silent expectation of the "once upon a time," or "when I was young," which is generally the prelude to similar narratives, Emma suddenly started up, and fixing an incredulous gaze upon our dignified relative, exclaimed: "But were you ever young, grandmother? I mean," she continued, a little frightened at her own temerity, "were you ever as little as I am now?"
Some of us began to cough, others used their pocket-handkerchiefs, and one and all waited in some anxiety for the effect. Emma, poor child! seemed almost ready to sink through the floor under the many astonished and reproving glances which she encountered; and my grandmother's countenance at first betokened a gathering storm.
But in a few moments this cleared up; and ashamed of her momentary anger at this childish question, she placed her hand kindly on Emma's head as she replied: "Yes, Emma, quite as little as you are—and it is of those very times that I am going to tell you. I shall not begin at the beginning, but speak of whatever happens to enter my mind, and a complete history of my childhood will probably furnish employment for a great many evenings. But I am very much averse to interruptions, and if you have any particular questions to ask, all inquiries must be made before I commence."
"Were you born and did you live in America?" said I.
"Yes," replied my grandmother, "I was born and lived in America, in the State of New York. So much for the locality—now, what next?"
"Did you ever see Washington?" inquired Bob, "And were you ever taken prisoner and had your house burned by the British?"
Bob was a great patriot, and on Saturdays practised shooting in the attic with a bow and arrow, to perfect himself against the time of his attaining to man's estate, when he fully intended to collect an army and make an invasion on England. As an earnest of his hostile intentions, he had already broken all the windows on that floor, and nearly extinguished the eye of Betty, the chambermaid. To both of these questions my grandmother replied in the negative, for she happened to come into the world just after the Revolution; but in answer to Bob's look of disappointment, she promised to tell him something about it in the course of her narrative.
"My two most prominent faults," said she, "were vanity and curiosity, and these both led me into a great many scrapes, which I shall endeavor to relate for your edification. I shall represent them just as they really were, and if I do not make especial comments on each separate piece of misconduct, it is because I leave you to judge for yourselves, by placing them in their true light. I shall not tell you the year I was born in," she continued, "for then there would be a counting on certain little fingers to see how old grandmamma is now. When I was a child—a very young one—I used to say that I remembered very well the day on which I was born, for mother was down stairs frying dough-nuts. This nondescript kind of cake was then much more fashionable for the tea-table than it is at the present day. My mother was quite famous for her skill in manufacturing them, and my great delight was to superintend her operations, and be rewarded for good behavior with a limited quantity of dough, which I manufactured into certain uncouth images, called 'dough-nut babies.' Sometimes these beloved creations of genius performed rather curious gymnastics on being placed in the boiling grease—such as twisting on one side, throwing a limb entirely over their heads, &c.; while not unfrequently a leg or an arm was found missing when boiled to the requisite degree of hardness. But sometimes, oh, sad to relate! my fingers committed such unheard-of depredations in the large bowl or tray appropriated by my mother, that I was sentenced to be tied in a high chair drawn close to her side, whence I could quietly watch her proceedings without being able to assist her.
I know that our home was situated in a pleasant village which has long since disappeared in the flourishing city; the house was of white brick, three stories high, with rooms on each side of the front entrance. A large and beautiful flower-garden was visible from the back windows; and beyond this was a still larger fruit-garden, the gate of which was generally locked, while a formidable row of nails with the points up, repelled all attempts at climbing over the fence. The peaches, and plums, apricots, nectarines, grapes, cherries, and apples were such as I have seldom, if ever, seen since. My lather was wealthy, and my earliest recollections are connected with large, handsomely-furnished rooms, numerous servants, massive plate, and a constant succession of dinner-parties and visitors. How often have I watched the servants as they filled the decanters, rubbed the silver, and made other preparations for company, while I drew comparisons between the lot of the favored beings for whom these preparations were made, and my own, on being condemned to the unvarying routine of the nursery. Childhood then appeared to me a kind of penance which we were doomed to undergo—a sort of imprisonment or chrysalis, which, like the butterfly, left us in a fairy-like and beautiful existence. Little did I then dream of the cares, and toils, and troubles from which that happy season is exempt. My father realized in his own person, to the fullest extent, all the traditionary legends of old English hospitality; he hated everything like parsimony—delighted to see his table surrounded with visitors—and in this was indulged to the extent of his wishes; for day after day seemed to pass in our being put out of sight, where we could witness the preparations going on for other people's entertainment.
The presiding goddess in our region of the house was a faithful and attached old nurse, whom we all called 'Mammy.' Although sometimes a little sharp, as was necessary to keep such wild spirits in order, the old nurse was invariably kind, and even indulgent. It was well indeed for us that she was so, for we were left almost entirely to her direction, and saw very little of any one else. Mammy's everyday attire consisted of a calico short-gown, with large figures, and a stuff petticoat, with a cap whose huge ruffles stood up in all directions; made after a pattern which I have never since beheld, and in which the crown formed the principal feature. But this economical dress was not for want of means; for Mammy's wardrobe boasted several silk gowns, and visitors seldom stayed at the house without making her a present. On great occasions, she approached our beau-ideal of an empress, by appearing in a black silk dress lace collar, and gold repeater at her side. This particular dress Mammy valued more highly than any of the others, for my father had brought it to her, as a present, from Italy, and the pleasant consciousness of being recollected in this manner by her master was highly gratifying to the old nurse.
I was an only daughter, with several wild brothers, and I often thought that Mammy displayed most unjust partiality. For instance, there was Fred who never did anything right—upset his breakfast, dinner, and tea—several times set the clothes-horse, containing the nursery wardrobe, in a blaze—was forever getting lost, and, when sought for, often found dangling from a three-story window, hanging on by two fingers, and even one—who would scarcely have weighed a person's life in the scale with a successful joke—and always had a finger, foot, or eye bound up as the result of his hair-brained adventures. I really believe that Mammy bestowed all a mother's affection on this wild, reckless boy; he seldom missed an opportunity of being impertinent, and yet Mammy invariably said that 'Fred had a saucy tongue, but a good heart.' This good-heartedness probably consisted in drowning kittens, worrying dogs, and throwing stones at every bird he saw. Fred always had the warmest seat, the most thickly-buttered bread and the largest piece of pie. I remember one day on watching Mammy cut the pie, I observed, as usual, that she reserved the largest piece.
"Who is that for?" I enquired, although perfectly aware of its intended destination.
"O, no one in particular," replied Mammy.
"Well then" said I, "I believe I'll take it."
"There! there!" exclaimed Mammy, pointing her finger at me, "See the greedy girl! Now you shall not have it, just for asking for it." The disputed piece was immediately deposited on Fred's plate; and from that day forth I gave up all hopes of the largest piece of pie.
O, that Fred was an imp! There was nothing in the shape of mischief, which he would not do. If left to amuse the baby, he often amused himself by tying a string to its toe, and every now and then giving it a sudden pull. The child would cry, of course, and, on the approach of any one, Master Fred sat looking as demure as possible, while trying to keep his little brother quiet. The string would then be twitched again for his own private edification; and it was sometime before the trick was discovered. My brother Henry had at one time several little chickens, of which he became very fond. Day after day he fed, admired, and caressed them; and Fred, who never could bear to see others happy long, began to revolve in his own mind certain plans respecting the chickens. One by one they disappeared, until the number decreased alarmingly; but no traces of them could be found. We were questioned, but, as all denied the charge, the culprit remained undiscovered, although strong suspicions rested on Fred. At last the indignant owner came upon him one day, as he stood quietly watching the struggles of two little chickens in a tub of water. Henry bitterly exclaimed against this cruelty, but Fred innocently replied that "he had no hand in the matter; he had thought, for some time, how much prettier they would look swimming like ducks, and therefore tried to teach them—but the foolish things persisted in walking along with their eyes shut, and so got drowned."
But one of Fred's grand coup-d'oeils was the affair of the cherry-pie. In those days ladies attended more to their household affairs than they do at present; and my mother, an excellent housekeeper, was celebrated for her pastry—cherry-pies in particular. It was the Fourth of July; the boys were released from school, and roaming about in quest of mischief as boys always are—and, as a rare thing, we had no company that day, except my aunt, who had come from a distance on a visit to my mother, while my father had gone to return one of the numerous visits paid him. Cherry-pie was a standing dish at our house with which to celebrate the Declaration of Independence. The servants had all gone out for a holiday, no dinner was cooked, and the sole dependence was on the cherry-pie.
They sat down to dinner, and I heard my mother say: "Now, sister Berthy, I really hope you will enjoy this pie, for I bestowed extra pains upon it, and placed it up in the bed-room pantry out of the boys' reach, who are very apt to nibble off the edge of the crust. This time, I see, they have not meddled with it."
The pie was cut; but alas! for the hollowness of human triumphs; the knife met a wilderness of crust and vacancy, but no cherries. The bed-room pantry had a window opening on a shed, and into that window Fred, the scape-grace, had adroitly climbed, carefully lifted the upper crust from the cherished pie, and abstracted all the cherries. My mother locked him up, for punishment, but having unfortunately selected a sort of store-room pantry, he made himself sick with sweetmeats, broke all the jars he could lay hands on, and, finally, discovering a pair of scissors, he worked at the lock, spoiled it, and let himself out.
At one time, being rather short of cash, he helped himself to a five-dollar bill from my mother's drawer; but even his conscience scarcely resting under so heavy an embezzlement, he got it changed, took half a dollar, and then put the rest back in the drawer. This considerateness led to a discovery; they all knew that no one but Fred would have been guilty of so foolish, and at the same time so dishonest a thing.
My favorite brother was Henry; just three years older than myself, manly, amiable, and intellectual in his tastes, he appeared to me infinitely superior to any one I had ever seen; and we two were almost inseparable. In winter he always carried me to school on his sled, saw that Fred did not rob me of my dinner, and was always ready to explain a difficult lesson. He was an extremely enterprising boy, with an inexhaustible fund of ingenuity and invention; but, like most geniuses, received more blame than praise. When quite small he constructed a sort of gun made of wood, which would discharge a small ball of paper, pebble, &c. This became a very popular plaything in the nursery, and for once the inventor received due praise, on account of its keeping the children so quiet. But one day Fred undertook to teach the year old baby the art of shooting with it; and with a small corn for a bullet, he placed the toy in the child's hands, turning the mouth the wrong way. The young soldier pulled the trigger in delight, and by some strange mischance, the corn flew up his nose. The doctor was hastily brought, the child relieved with a great deal of difficulty, the dangerous plaything burned, and poor Henry sent to coventry for an unlimited time.
We had a girl named Jane Davis whom my mother had brought up from childhood. At the period to which I refer, she could not have been more than fourteen, and as she was always good-humored and willing to oblige, she became a general favorite. Often, in the early winter evenings, with the nursery as tidy as hands could make it, (for Mammy, although not an old maid, was a mortal enemy to dirt and slovenliness) we all gathered round the fire, while the old nurse and Jane spun out long stories, sometimes of things which had happened to them, sometimes of things which had happened to others, and often of things that never did or could happen to anybody. But I must do them the justice to say, that although they sometimes related almost impossible occurrencies, they never, on any one occasion, took advantage of their influence over us to enforce our obedience by frighful tales of old men with bags, who seem to have an especial fancy for naughty children. The nearest approach that Mammy ever made to anything of this kind was to tell us, when we began to look sleepy, that the sandman had been along and filled our eyes. On receiving this information, we generally retired peaceably to bed, without being haunted by any fears of ghost or goblin.
There was a wealthy and fashionable family who lived just opposite, consisting of a widower, his sister, and two children—a son and daughter. They lived in most extravagant style, and Jane positively assured us that the housekeeper had told her with her own lips that there was no end to Mr. Okeman's wealth, and that he even made his daughter eat bank-bills on her bread and butter! Whether the son was exempted from this disagreeable performance we never thought of inquiring; but our awe rose ten percent, for a girl who was so rich as absolutely to devour money. On being divulged, this grand secret amused the inmates of the drawing-room very much, and our parents could scarcely command their countenances to undeceive us.
Jane Davis remained with us as nursery-maid until she was eighteen, when my mother, who was always extremely kind to servants and dependants, placed her at a trade, and supported her comfortably until she learned enough to support herself. She afterwards married a carpenter, who always performed for my father those odd jobs that are constantly required in a house, and they came to live in a kind of cottage at the end of the garden. They there commenced farming on a small scale, and often supplied us with milk, eggs, poultry, &c.
Mammy was a firm believer in signs of good and evil import; thus, if, in dropping the scissors, they stood up erect on the point, she always said that visitors were coming—a sign that rarely failed, as we were seldom a day without them. Once I had wished very much for a large wax-doll. My dreams were beautified with waxen images of immense size, whose china blue eyes, long flaxen curls, and rosy cheeks, presented a combination of charms that took my heart by storm. I sat one night, as usual, by the nursery fire; my thoughts fixed on this all-engrossing subject, when I ventured to communicate them to Mammy, and ask her if she thought I ever would become the enviable possessor of such a doll.
"I don't know," replied Mammy at first, "I think it's very doubtful. But come here," she added, "and let me see your hand."
After an examination, Mammy pronounced with an air of great mystery that circumstances were propitious, and she was almost convinced beyond a doubt that ere long the doll would be mine. She then pointed out to me a small white spot on my left thumb nail, which she said always denoted a present. I was rather incredulous at first, not conceiving that so brilliant a dream could be realized; but after a while the doll actually made its appearance, and I began to regard Mammy as something little short of a witch, and became far more tractable in consequence of my increased awe.
Jane's stories, as well as Mammy's always began with "Once upon a time there were two sisters;" one was represented as plain-looking, but amiable—the other beautiful, but a very Zantippe in temper. By some wonderful combination of circumstances, the elder lost her beauty and ugliness at the same time—when some good fairy always came along, who, by a magic touch of her wand, made both the sisters far more lovely than the elder had been. Beauty was always the burden of the tale; people who were not beautiful met with no adventures, and seemed to lead a hum-drum sort of life; therefore, I insensibly learned to regard this wonderful possession as something very much to be desired. I believe I was quite a pretty child, with dark bright eyes, red lips, and a pair of very rosy cheeks. I spent considerable time before the glass, and both Mammy and Jane began to fear the effects of vanity. Often and often would the old nurse say: "You needn't stand before the glass, Miss Amy—there is nothing to look at," or when in a bad humor, "Don't make such faces, child—you have no beauty to spare," and I can very well remember how both would endeavor to persuade me that I was the most veritable little fright that ever existed, and quite a bugbear to my relations.
"What a pity," Jane would commence, as she saw me surveying myself with an air of infinite satisfaction, "what a pity it is that Miss Amy has such a dark, ugly skin—almost like an Indian, isn't it, nurse?"
I had eyes to judge for myself, and knew that I was much fairer than either Mammy or Jane; and somebody had remarked in my presence: "What a lovely neck and shoulders!" therefore I generally remained perfectly quiet while listening to these inuendoes.
"Yes," Mammy would reply, "a very great pity—but an amiable temper, Miss Amy, is more than looks; you must try and cultivate that, to make up for your want of beauty."
"And then," continued Jane, "only see how perfectly straight her hair is! not a sign of curl, nor even a twist!—and black eyes have such a wicked kind of a look; they always remind me of cannibals."
Jane's eyes were as blue and bright as glass beads, while Mammy's, I thought, approached a green, but with my own I felt perfectly satisfied; for a lady had remarked in my presence what beautiful eyes I had—adding that "dark eyes were so much more expressive than blue; blue ones were so very insipid looking." The observation about my hair, though, was only too correct, and touched me most sensibly. While most of the other children possessed those soft, flowing curls, so beautiful in childhood, mine obstinately refused to wave; and was, to use Jane's expression, "as straight and as stiff as a poker." I had endeavored to remedy this as far as lay in my power, and one day set my hair in a blaze, while curling it with a very hot pipe-stem. I was, in consequence, deemed one of the most abandoned of the nursery inmates; and found myself minus at least one half of the hair I had hitherto possessed.
I really believe that both Jane and Mammy sincerely hoped to eradicate my besetting sin, by such blunt remarks as the former; but no course could have been less wise than the one which they took. I knew very well that I was neither a fright, an Indian, nor a cannibal; and the pains which they took to convince me to the contrary led me to give myself credit for much more beauty than I really possessed. I also regarded amiability as a virtue of very small account; and supposed that those who practised it, only did so because they possessed neither beauty, grace, nor anything else to recommend them.
A great source of annoyance to me was my dress. As I was an only daughter, some mothers, with the same means, would have enhanced my attractions with all the aid of ornament, and established me as a permanent divinity of the drawing-room, whom all must bow to and flatter as they entered its precincts. But, although fond of display, and surrounded with all the appliances of wealth, the taste of my parents never did run much on dress; and I often felt mortified at my inferiority to others in this respect. Such articles were then much dearer, and more in vogue than at the present day, and a blue Circassian formed my entire stock of gala dresses, and went the rounds of all the children's parties I attended; my mother seemed to think, (with respect to me, at least,) that as long as a dress was clean and in good repair, there was no need of a change—she left nothing to the pleasure of variety. There appeared to be an inexhaustible store of the same material in a certain capacious drawer; did an elbow give out, a new sleeve instantly supplied its place—did I happen to realize the ancient saying: "There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip," and make my lap the recipient of some of the goodies provided for us at our entertainments, the soiled front breadth disappeared, and was replaced by another, fresh and new—did the waist grow short, it was made over again—there verily seemed to be no end to the dress; I came to the conclusion that blue Circassian was the most ugly material ever invented, and often found myself calculating how many yards there might be left.
My school hats always looked the worse for wear, and my Sunday ones were not much better; but once my mother took me to the city, and bought me, for school, a far handsomer hat than I had hitherto worn for best, and a still better one for great occasions. Here I, who scarcely ever looked decent about the upper story, actually had two new hats at once! The best one, I remember, was a round gipsy flat, then altogether the fashion; and the first Sunday I put it on I made a perfect fool of myself by twisting my hair in strings, intended to pass for natural ringlets, and allowing said strings to hang all around beneath the brim of my hat. Mamma was sick and confined to her room, and I managed to appear at church with this ridiculous head-gear. People certainly stared a little, but this my vanity easily converted into looks of admiration directed towards my new hat, and perhaps also my improved beauty—and came home more full of self-complacency than ever.
I have before mentioned that beyond the house there was a large fruit-garden, respecting which, my father's orders were especially strict. He expressly forbade our touching any of the fruit unless he gave us permission; and nothing made him more angry than to have any gathered before it was quite ripe. It certainly requires a child whose principle of honesty is a very strong one, to pass every day in full view of an endless bed of ripening strawberries, whose uncommon size and luscious hue offered so many temptations. But bad as I was, I think I was generally pretty honest, and resisted the temptation to the best of my ability.
I think I was about five years old, when one bright May morning my brother Henry received especial instructions to be careful of me, and see that I fell into no mischief on the occasion of my first day at school. The luncheon-basket was packed with twice the usual quantity of sandwiches, into which Mammy slyly tucked a small paper of sweet things as a sort of comforter, with repeated injunctions to Henry not to make a mistake and confiscate them for his own private use. A superfluous caution—for Henry was the most generous little fellow that ever lived; and was far more likely to fall short himself than that others should suffer through him. Both Jane and Mammy kissed me repeatedly. I had on a new dress of light, spotted calico, and a straw hat, with a green ribbon, and a deep green silk cape—underneath the binding of my apron a small handkerchief had been carefully pinned—a small blue-covered book, and a slate with a long, sharp-pointed pencil tied on with a red cord, were placed in my hands; and from these ominous preparations, and the uncommon kindness of every one around, I concluded that I was at last to meet with some adventure—perhaps to suffer martyrdom of some kind or other.
Poor Jane! My great passion was for beads, and when she perceived, from various indications, that I was not exactly pleased with the change, she ran up stairs, hastily loosened a whole string from a cherished necklace, and returning quickly, slipped them into my hand. My mother also came into the nursery to see that I was perfectly neat, kissed me affectionately as she whispered to me to be a good girl and learn to read, and with a strange, undefined sensation at my heart, I found myself in the street with my hand fast locked in that of Henry. It was that lovely season of the year when the fruit-trees are all in bloom; and the sweet, flower-laden breeze, the busy hum of human life that rose around, and the bounding, restless spirit of childhood, made me shrink from the bondage I was about to enter.
The school-house was a very pretty cottage with a trellised front of bean-vines and honeysuckle; and when I entered I found, to my great surprise, that Miss Sewell, the teacher, looked very much like other people. There were two moderate-sized rooms, opening into each other, in one of which Mr. Sewell superintended several desks of unruly boys—in the other, his daughter directed the studies of about twenty little girls. There were some large girls seated at the desks, who appeared to me so very antiquated that I was almost afraid to hazard an idea respecting their ages; and had I been asked how old they were, should probably have replied 'at least fifty;' although I do not now suppose the eldest was more than fourteen.
Rather stunned by the buzz and noise of the classes reciting, and very much puzzled as to my own probable destiny, I began to climb the hill of knowledge. I said my letters; and Miss Sewell, having found that I knew them pretty well, (thanks to Mammy's patient teaching), allowed me to spell in a-b, ab, and b-a, ba, and set me some straight marks on my slate. I met with nothing remarkable during my first day at school; and on my return informed Mammy, as the result of my studies, that two and one make four. Nor could I be persuaded to the contrary; for, although I had been taught by the old nurse to count as far as ten, on being examined by Miss Sewell, either bashfulness or obstinacy prevented me from displaying the extent of my knowledge—and, while endeavoring to explain to me how many one and one make, she had said: "There is one, to begin with; well now, one more makes two," therefore as one made two in this case, I supposed it did in every other.
I learned to love the mild countenance of Miss Sewell, with her plain dark hair and soft eyes, and was never happier then when she was invited to tea; for then I was emancipated from the nursery and placed beside her at table. I dearly loved to take her fruit and flowers; and white lilies, roses, honey-suckles, and the most admired productions of our garden were daily laid on Miss Sewell's table. For rewards we had a great many wide, bright-colored ribbons, which were tied upon our arms, that every one might see them as we went home; and she who could boast a variety of ribbons was known to have been perfect in all her lessons. Those who had fallen into disgrace were distinguished by a broad band passed around the head, on the front of which was written in large characters the name of the misdemeanor.
One morning I had been rather negligent, and, having my suspicions as to the consequence, told Mammy of my fears, and my dread of the disgrace. The old nurse's anger even exceeded mine; she declared that her child should not be treated so, and advised me to snatch it off and tear it to pieces. I went to school, not having exactly made up my mind whether to follow this advice or not; but my afternoon lessons fully made up for the deficiency of the morning, and I escaped the dreaded punishment. I had gone with several companions to the closet in which we deposited our hats and shawls, and while engaged in the process of robing, I heard a very loud voice talking in great excitement, and one which I immediately recognised. I overheard Mammy exclaiming: "Where is my child? Has she got that horrid thing on her head? I want to take it off before she goes home."
Blushing with mortification, as I noticed the tittering of the school-girls, called forth by the loud tone and strange figure of the old nurse, who had rushed into the room in her usual attire of short-gown and petticoat, I came hastily forward, and was immediately seized by Mammy, who exclaimed in surprise: "Why, I though you said you were going to have that thing on your head! I was determined that no child of mine should wear it, so I came after you to take it off."
Mammy was one of the most independent persons I ever saw; she cared for no one's frown, and poured forth the whole love of her warm Irish heart upon us—tormenting and troublesome as we were. Sometimes she sung to us of "Acushla machree" and "Mavourneen," and Mammy's Irish songs were especial favorites with the young fry of the nursery. When we were particularly obstreperous, she threatened to go away and leave us, and never come back again; a threat which always produced copious showers of tears, and promises of better behavior. Often have I watched her in dismay as she dressed herself to go out—fearful that she would really put her threat in execution, especially as conscience whispered that I deserved it. At such times, nothing pacified me except the deposit of her spectacles; when once the case was lodged in my possession, I felt sure of Mammy—knowing that she could not stay long without them. Sometimes she would tell us of her life in Ireland; but no act did she more bitterly deplore than her marriage; complaining that the object of her choice was far from what he appeared to be when she married him—and further observing that as he turned out a very bad speculation, and never gave her anything but a thimble, she wisely left him to his own society, and emigrated to America.
Mammy very often kept the key of the fruit-garden; and as she never yielded it to our entreaties, the ever-ready Fred formed a conspiracy one Sunday afternoon, in which, I am sorry to say, I took a very conspicuous part—the object of which was to purloin the key, and enjoy at last this long-coveted, forbidden pleasure. Fred actually succeeded in abstracting it from Mammy's capacious pocket, and in high glee we proceeded to the garden. It was in the time of peaches; there hung the lucious fruit in such profusion, that the trees were almost borne down by its weight. We ate till we could eat no longer; and then, happening to see two or three men passing along, we threw some over the fence to them. They, in return, threw us some pennies; and, delighted with the success of our frolic, we continued to throw and receive, until startled by a most unwelcome apparition. There, at the foot of the tree, stood Mammy—her face expressing the utmost astonishment and indignation, and her hands extended to seize us. She had watched our manoeuvres from one of the windows, and astonishment at our boldness and ingenuity kept her for sometime a silent spectator. But Mammy was not apt to be silent long while witnessing our misdeeds; and in an incredible short space of time she gained the use of both her feet and her tongue. Our companions caught a glimpse of flying drapery rapidly advancing, and rather suddenly made their retreat; while we, now trembling, detected culprits, took up a line of march for the house.
Not so, Fred; defying Mammy to capture him, and laughing at her dismay, he started off on a run, and she after him in full pursuit. We watched the chase from the nursery-window; and as Fred was none of the thinnest, and Mammy somewhat resembled a meal-bag with a string tied round the middle, it proved to be quite exciting. But it was brought to an untimely end by the apparition of a pair of spectacles over the fence; said spectacles being the undisputed property of a middle-aged gentleman—a bachelor, who, we suspected, always stayed home from church on Sunday afternoons to keep the neighbors in order. With horror-stricken eyes he had beheld only the latter part of the scene, and conceiving the old nurse to be as bad as her rebellious charge, he called out from his garden, which communicated with ours:
"My good woman, do you know that this is Sunday?—Depend upon it, a person of your years would feel much better to be quietly reading in your own apartment, than racing about the garden in this unseemly manner."
Poor Mammy! she was well aware of this before; flushed, heated, and almost overcome with fatigue, she looked the very picture of uncomfortableness; and this last aggravation increased the feeling to a tenfold degree. At that moment, Fred, unconsciously, stumbled into her very arms; she looked up—the spectacles had disappeared—and convinced of this fact, she bore him in triumph to the nursery.
We had all expected personal chastisement, at the very least, but we were thrown into a greater degree of horror and dismay than could well be conceived; Mammy placed her spectacles in her pocket, collected her valuables, and put on her hat and things, to take passage for Ireland. We hung about her in every attitude of entreaty—acknowledged our misdemeanors, promised amendment, and an entire confession of all the sins we had ever perpetrated. I do think we must have remained upon our knees at least half an hour; never had Mammy seemed so hard-hearted before, and we began to think that she might be in earnest after all. We begged her to whip us—lock us up—anything but leave us; and at last she relented. She told us that she considered us the most abandoned children that ever were born; and wished that she had two additional eyes at the back of her head to watch our movements. We promised to spend the afternoon in learning hymns and verses; and Mammy, having taken her position in the large easy-chair, with a footstool at her feet, tied Fred to one of the legs, as he sat on a low bench at her side, and made us all study. We succeeded pretty well; although considerably terrified at the sharp looks which Mammy from time to time bestowed upon us.
In the evening came the promised confession; and both Mammy and Jane were rendered almost dumb by these dreadful instances of depravity. Such secret and unsuspected visits to the store-room pantry—such conspiracies against locks and bolts—such scaling of walls, and climbing in at windows, were never heard of before. I rather suspected Fred to have drawn upon his imagination for instances of the marvellous, for such adventures as he related never could have been met with; but Mammy and Jane believed it all. At the conclusion, the old nurse seemed very much disposed to punish us at once for all these united misdemeanors—and was only prevented by our remonstrating upon the plea of a voluntary confession.
That night I lay awake, pretending to sleep, and heard Mammy and her satellite discussing our conduct in all its enormity. Considerably influenced by their unaffected horror and astonishment, the thought for the first time rushed upon my mind, that perhaps I might be much worse than other people. It troubled me considerably; I found it impossible to sleep, and following a good impulse, I crept softly out of bed, and falling on my knees before Mammy, whispered to her to pray for me. There must have been a very different expression on my countenance from its usual one; for I afterwards heard the old nurse tell Jane that I reminded her of an angel. I felt utterly miserable; and sobbing convulsively, I begged Mammy to pray, not that I might have a new heart, but that I might live a great while. I had begun to fear speedy punishment for my misdemeanors. The old nurse, (although a really pious woman), seemed quite at a loss how to proceed; and Jane, coming forward, took me kindly by the hand, and reasoned with me on my conduct with all the wisdom of riper years and a higher education. After convincing me that I should ask, not for an increased number of years, but for a new heart and temper, she knelt down with me and repeated the Lord's prayer.
The scene is indelibly impressed upon my memory; for although I have since witnessed scenes containing more stage effect, and quite as melting, I never in my life remember to have been so affected as, with Jane's arm around me, and the light of the nursery-lamp shining upon our kneeling figures, I distinctly heard Mammy's sobs, as she repeated each word with a peculiar intonation of reverence. I felt a respect for the young girl ever afterwards; and as I clasped my arms about her neck and pressed a warm kiss on her cheek, as I bade her good-night, the tone of my voice must have been unusually tender—for I saw tears come into her eyes as she asked Mammy if she was not afraid, from my flushed cheeks, that I had some fever. Although petulant, and even violent when roused, I had a warm, loving heart, capable of the most unbounded affection; and from that time forth Jane and I never had a single dispute. She had appeared to me in a new light on that Sabbath eve; and with my hand locked in hers, I fell into a sweet, dreamy sleep.
One of my great troubles, and one too which I regarded in a pretty serious light, was the obeisance I had been taught to make on meeting "the minister's wife." I never came within view of this formidable personage that I did not hesitate and tremble; while I looked wildly around, in the vain hope of discovering a place of refuge. After performing my awkward courtesy, I usually hastened on as fast as possible, being oppressed with a most uncomfortable sensation of awe in the presence of Mrs. Eylton. This was occasioned by the quiet observance which I, like other children, took of the conduct of those around me. Everything in the house seemed to be at her command; if Mrs. Eylton sent for a thing she must have it immediately; and I drew my conclusions that "the minister's wife" was a sort of petty sovereign, placed over the town or village in which she resided, and that all we possessed was held under her.
Almost every day brought a request from Mrs. Eylton for the loan of some article in our possession; a repetition of which would naturally lead one to conclude that ministers merely procured a house, and then depended for everything else on the charity of the public. This borrowing mania appeared to gather strength from indulgence, for none of the neighbors would refuse, whatever the article might be; and our waffle-iron, toasting-fork, Dutch-oven, bake-pan, and rolling-pin were frequently from home on visits of a week's duration. On sending for our muffin-rings or cake-pans, we often received a message to be expeditious in our manufactures; that Mrs. Eylton could spare them for a day or so, "but wanted to use them again very shortly." Our parents would buy such conveniences, send them to the kitchen of Mrs. Eylton, and borrow them from time to time, if in perfect accordance with that lady's convenience. She would even borrow her neighbor's servants, and often at very inconvenient times. Jane had often been sent for to take care of the children; and the usual request came one afternoon that seemed to me stamped with most remarkable events.
We were in a kind of sitting-room on the ground-floor, and my father sat writing at a small table near the window. A servant entered with the announcement: "Mrs. Eylton, ma'am, wants to borrow Jane."
An expression of vexation crossed my mother's countenance as she remarked: "I do not know how I can possibly spare Jane this afternoon; Mammy has gone out, and I do not feel inclined to attend to the children myself."
My father looked up from his writing as he observed: "Nor do I see the necessity of your being troubled with them, Laura."
"Not see the necessity!" exclaimed my mother, "How can I refuse the wife of our minister? I would be willing to put up with some inconvenience for Mr. Eylton's sake. Poor man! he has a hard time of it, with his talents and refinement."
"No doubt he has," said my father, pityingly; then, in a more merry tone, he added: "But can you think of no other alternative, Laura, than disobliging Mrs. Eylton, if you object to this juvenile infliction for a whole long summer's afternoon?"
My father was of a bolder, more determined character than my mother, and had, withal, a spice of fun in his composition; and the expression of his eyes now rendered her apprehensive of some sudden scheme that might create a feeling of justifiable anger in Mrs. Eylton.
"Dearest Arthur!" she exclaimed beseechingly, as she placed a soft hand on his shoulder, "Do not, I beseech of you, put in execution any outlandish plan respecting Mrs. Eylton!—Do let Jane go as usual; for she is not one to understand a joke, I can assure you—she will be offended by it."
"And pray, madam," asked my father, with assumed gravity, "what has led you to suppose that I intended making Mrs. Eylton the subject of a joke? Away with you," he continued, with a mischievous look at those pleading eyes, "Away with you, and let me do as I choose."
Turning to the servant, he asked: "Mrs. Eylton has, I believe, requested the loan of other articles besides our domestics—has she ever sent to borrow any of the children?"
"Indeed, and she has not, sir," replied the girl, with difficulty repressing a laugh.
"Well then," said he, "we will now send her both the article she requested, and some articles which she did not request. Tell Jane to be ready to go to Mrs. Eylton's with the children."
"Yes sir," and the servant departed to execute her commission.
"Arthur!" remonstrated my mother.
"Not a word!" said my father gaily. "Children," he continued, "do you wish to go? What says my madcap, Amy?"
Madcap Amy, for once in her life, said nothing—being too much awed and astonished to reply. To think that I should actually enter the house, and be face to face with the formidable Mrs. Eylton? The idea was appalling; and for sometime I sat biting my nails in thoughful silence. It was so sudden, it had always appeared to me that a great deal must be gone through with—a great many different degrees of intimacy surmounted, before I should ever find myself within the house of Mrs. Eylton; but here was I, without the least warning, to be transformed from the bashful child, who made no sign of recognition save an awkward courtesy, into the regular visitor—and for a whole afternoon! No wonder I took so long to deliberate. Though not particularly remarkable for bashfulness or timidity at home, and despite a character for violence in, "fighting my own battles," to assert some infringed right, I absolutely trembled at the idea of encountering strangers; and this visit to Mrs. Eylton's appeared, to my excited mind, like thrusting myself into the enemy's quarters.
But then curiosity rose up in all its powers, to baffle my fear; I did so want to see how the house looked inside, and whether they really had anything that was not borrowed! And then who knows, thought I, but what Mrs. Eylton will show me the inside of some of her drawers? I dare say she has a great many pretty things. There was nothing which gave me greater delight than looking into other people's drawers, and turning over those remnants of various things which are stored away in most houses—in many for the mere love of hoarding. Mamma would sometimes allow me to arrange certain little drawers containing jewelry, ribbons, and odds and ends. But the charmed room in our house was one that was always kept locked, and, from the circumstance of a green ribbon being attached to the key, we called it "the green-ribbon room."
Dear me! what a collection that room contained. There were several large trunks that nearly covered the floor, besides boxes, and bags, and bundles; and these were filled with cast-off clothes, silks, ribbons, and bunches of artificial flowers and feathers. The room was not very often opened; it was at the very top of the house, and lighted by a large dormar-window; but as soon as mamma mounted the stairs, with the key in her hand, the alarm was given: "Quick! mother is going to the green-ribbon room!" and mamma's ears were immediately refreshed by the sound of numerous little feet moving up stairs at locomotive speed, with the ostensible purpose of assisting her in her researches—but in reality, to be getting in her way, and begging for everything we saw. It was, "Mamma, mayn't we have this?" or, "mayn't we have that?" or "Do say yes, just this once; and we'll never ask you for anything again as long as we live—never," a promise faithfully kept till next time.
Mamma sometimes tried to go up very softly, in order to elude our vigilance; but it wouldn't do. She often wondered how we found out that that she was there, but we seldom missed an opportunity. Now and then a dear little pitcher, or a vase of cream-colored ground with a wreath of faint pink roses traced around it, or a cluster of bright-colored flowers in the centre, arrested our attention, and called forth rhapsodies of admiration. I supposed that everybody had just such a room; and it was very probable, I thought, that Mrs. Eylton might chance to open hers during our visit. Therefore I decided that, notwithstanding my terror of the lady, a greater amount of pleasure might be obtained by going there, than by staying at home.
So Jane, with her own trim person as neat as possible, bore off her charges to the nursery, in order, as she said, "to make us fit to be seen." "Mrs. Eylton might see this," or "notice that," and I felt uncomfortably convinced that Mrs. Eylton must possess the sharpest pair of eyes it had ever been my misfortune to encounter. Finally, we set off; I remember being dressed in a white frock, with a broad sash, and experiencing a consciousness of looking remarkably well, in spite of my hair—which, having obstinately repulsed all Jane's advances with tongs and curl-papers, was suffered to remain in all its native straightness.
It was summer, and a multiflora rose-vine, which extended over the front of the parsonage, was then in full flower; while, as we mounted the steps, I distinguished through the green blind door glimpses of a pleasant-looking garden beyond. We entered the back parlor, where sat Mrs. Eylton attired for a walk, and surrounded by three children, all younger than myself. The minister's lady did not appear quite so formidable on a close survey; though the aspect of her countenance was by no means promising, as her eye fell upon us.
"Well, Jane," she commenced, in the tone of one who felt herself injured, "you have kept me waiting some time—how is this? Punctuality is a virtue very becoming in a young person."
Jane looked exceedingly disconcerted at this address; but at length she replied, that "she could not get the children ready before."
"The children!" repeated Mrs. Eylton; while, young as I was, I plainly read in her countenance, "What possessed you to bring them here?"
"Yes ma'am," replied Jane, gathering more courage as she proceeded, "Mrs. Chesbury sent them with me to spend the afternoon. She had no one to attend to them at home."
In the meantime I became aware, as I glanced around the room, that the prospect for the afternoon promised very little amusement. Mrs. Eylton soon after left us, telling Jane to be very careful that we got into no mischief; and, with, a feeling of disappointment, I saw the door close behind her. In my scenting of the apartment I became very much struck with the appearance of a curious looking little work-stand, containing three small drawers. Immediately my imagination was at work upon their contents; and I determined, if possible, to satisfy my curiosity. Mrs. Eylton had departed without making any provision for our amusement, and I saw no reason why I should not examine the drawers—especially if I handled things carefully, and put them all back again. Probably they were in disorder, and then what a pleasant surprise it would be for Mrs. Eylton to find them all neatly arranged on her return!
Jane now proposed walking in the garden; and to avoid suspicion, I joined the party for the present. There were a great many flower-beds, very prettily laid out; and at the end of a wide path stood a pleasant little summer-house, half-buried in vines. We established ourselves there, from whence we could view the whole garden; and with a pretence of looking again at the flowers, I soon made my escape, and returned to the house. A wide glass-door opened from the back room into the garden, and carefully closing this, I approached the table and attempted to open the drawers. I tried the first one,—it was locked; the second,—and met with no better success. Almost in despair, I placed my hands on the third, and that finally yielded to my efforts. I beheld heterogeneous rows of pins, papers of needles, &c., and was about to shut it in disappointment, when my glance fell on a small box. Small, mysterious-looking boxes always possessed a talismanic attraction in my eyes; and the next moment I was busily at work examining the contents. The round lid lifted, I found my gaze irresistibly fascinated by a child's face, with fair, curling hair, and azure eyes. But the great beauty lay in its expression; that was so calm, holy, and serene, that I felt insensibly better as I gazed upon it. It was a peculiar face; and I became so wrapt in its contemplation as to lose all hearing of what passed around, until a step sounded close beside me.
I looked up, and fairly trembled with terror and dismay. There stood Mr. Eylton, gazing on me in surprise, as if quite at a loss what to make of the circumstance; but as his eye fell upon the picture, I noticed that an expression of sadness crossed his countenance. Not knowing what to do with myself, and almost ready to sink through the floor with shame, I stood with bowed head and burning cheeks, the very picture of mortification. But there was no trace of anger in Mr. Eylton's tone, as, kindly taking me by the hand, he drew me towards him and asked me my name. I answered as well as I could; and still holding the picture, remained in silent consternation. Mr. Eylton took it from my hand, and sighed as he bent a deep, loving gaze upon the fair face.
Prompted by a sudden impulse, I raised my eyes to his, as I enquired: "Can you tell me where that little girl is now? I should so like to see her!"
"In heaven, I trust," replied Mr. Eylton, while his voice slightly faltered, and a tear stood in his eye. "She was my daughter, Amy—she died some years ago, when very young."
I felt almost ready to cry myself, when told that she was dead, and gazed lingeringly upon the portrait as Mr. Eylton closed the box; and placing it in the drawer, he returned to me again.
"But, my dear child," said he suddenly, "Why did you open the drawer? Do you not know that it was extremely improper?"
"I did so want to see what was in it!" was my rejoinder.
Mr. Eylton seemed puzzled at first by this reply; but probably perceiving that I had been too much left to myself, he proceeded to explain, in clear and concise words, the nature and tendency of my fault. "This curiosity, my dear child, is an improper state of feeling which should not be indulged in. Suppose," continued he, "that on looking into this drawer, you had perceived some article which you immediately felt a great desire to possess; yielding to the temptation of curiosity would thus lead to the sin of covetousness, and perhaps the crime of theft might be also added. You would reason with yourself that no one had seen you open the drawer, and forgetting the all-seeing Eye which never slumbers, you might conclude that no one would know you took the article which did not belong to you."
The prospect of becoming a thief struck me with horror; and resolving never again to meddle with other people's things, I begged Mr. Eylton to forgive me, and entreated him not to inform Mrs. Eylton of my misdemeanor. He smiled at the anxiety I displayed not to have it known; and then taking a bunch of keys from a box, he proceeded to gratify my curiosity with respect to the other drawers. These amply repaid an investigation; containing numerous toys and trinkets of foreign manufacture, among which were two or three small alabaster images. One represented a beautiful greyhound in a reclining position; there was an Italian image of the Virgin and Child; and some others which I have almost forgotten. I was allowed to examine all these things at my leisure; and when I departed, it was with a firm conviction that Mr. Eylton was far more agreeable than his wife.
Jane soon came in from the summer-house, after an unsuccessful search for me through the garden, and was not a little surprised to find me quietly established with Mr. Eylton. Towards sunset Mrs. Eylton returned; and being graciously dismissed, we went home with the impression that it had been altogether rather a curious visit. But the afternoon dwelt in my memory like a golden gleam; and often I went over, in imagination, that delightful investigation of Mrs. Eylton's drawers.
We were generally besieged with visitors of all descriptions and characters. My parents had one or two poor relations who made long stays at every visit; and being generous, even to a fault, they loaded them with presents at their departure, and invitations to come again. There was one old lady, in particular, who engaged my fancy; she came to see us quite often, and in the family went by the name of "Aunty Patton." Aunty Patton was a widow, with very slender means; and boarded with a married daughter, who had a large family of children, but very little to support them on. Poor Aunty! she fared rather poorly at home, and did so seem to enjoy everything. She was particularly fond of fruit-cake; and whenever she came, mamma took particular pains that this should be one of the appliances of the tea-table. She possessed many wealthy acquaintances and relations, and enjoyed visiting around among them very much; praising everything that was set before her, and never contradicting any one. It teemed impossible to put anything on the table which she did not like; everything was "good," and "delightful," and "just what she would have fancied." At length some cousin determined to test her patience; and on one occasion, when the old lady happened to dine there, the dishes, when uncovered, were found to contain nothing but supaun and potatoes.
"I am really sorry, Aunty Patton," began the hostess, "to be able to offer you nothing better for dinner—but sometimes you know"—
"O," said Aunty, with rather a rueful look, "it'll do."
Poor Aunty had that very day prepared herself for something uncommonly nice in the way of dinner, and felt a little disappointed; but cousin Emma soon restored her equanimity by a liberal display of fruit-cake and other nice things, which presented themselves on opening the side-board door.
Aunty Patton had mild, winning kind of manners, and became a general favorite in the nursery; probably on account of her always noticing us, and pronouncing us "lovely little creatures." She appeared to me the most heavenly-minded old lady I had ever seen; and I listened, with a species of awe, to the long stories which she loved so dearly to relate about everybody whom she visited. She was very short—not seeming to me much taller than myself—and the cumbrous dress of the period was calculated to make her appear much shorter. She would sit and relate wonderful occurrences which seemed constantly taking place in her daughter's family; one of the children would cut his foot, and for sometime there would be danger of amputation—another urchin would upset a kettle of scalding water on himself, and then he would be laid up for sometime, while mamma turned the green-ribbon room topsy-turvy in her searches after old linen—and once the daughter fell down stairs, and was taken up for dead. They seemed to be an unfortunate family—always meeting with hair-breadth escapes. Aunty Patton's reticule was always well filled with good things on every occasion of her departure; and very often a collection of money was added to the stock.
Mamma sometimes endeavored to enlist our sympathies in benevolent purposes. I remember, on one occasion, when I had been teasing sometime for a new tortoise-shell comb to keep back my hair with, it suddenly entered my head that it would be a well-disposed action to ask for some money to give Aunty Patton.
"Are you willing, Amy, to deny yourself anything," asked mamma, after I had made my request, "in order that I may give this money to Aunty Patton? It is no benevolence in you to ask me to give away money, unless you are willing to do without something in consequence. If I give Aunty Patton the five dollars that your comb will cost, are you willing to do without it?"
"Dear me," thought I, "being good is very expensive." I deliberated for sometime, but finally answered, "No." My mother pressed the subject no farther; but after a while I exclaimed with a comfortable feeling of magnanimity; "Yes, dear mamma, you may give Aunty Patton the five dollars—and I'll get papa to buy me the comb!"
Mammy was a great judge of character, and when she once made up her mind not to like a person, it was very difficult to make her change her sentiments. My father once brought in a travelling clergyman, who represented himself as very devout and unfortunate; and we all made great efforts to entertain him. He was travelling West, he said, and endeavoring to collect on the road sufficient money to pay his expenses. My father invited him to remain with us a month; and he seemed very much to enjoy the good things so liberally showered upon him—contriving at the same time to render himself so agreeable that he quite won our hearts. Mammy alone remained proof against his insinuations; he paid assiduous court to her, and did his best to remove this unfavorable impression, but the old nurse remained immovable.
He once asked her for the key to the fruit-garden, when my parents were both out; but Mammy stedfastly refused him. "She had orders," she said, "not to let the key go out of her possession, and she didn't intend to now." The wandering clergyman departed quite enraged; and reported proceedings as soon as my father returned. He was very much displeased at Mammy's obstinacy, and spoke quite warmly on the subject; but the old nurse replied that "she didn't know but he might make off with half the fruit in the garden—she didn't like the man's looks at any rate."
I had then in my possession a little morocco pocket-book, a treasured article, which I valued above all my other worldly goods. Sometime before Christmas, I had observed it in a a shop-window with passionate admiration; and on my return home, I threw out various hints and inuendoes—scarcely hoping that they would be attended to. They were, however; for on examining my stocking on the eventful morning, the long-coveted pocket-book was found sticking in the toe—and what was still better, well supplied with contents. I was in ecstasy for sometime after; but wishing to do something to signalize myself, I now placed it in the hands of the Rev. Mr. Motley for safe keeping.
"Mark my words," said Mammy prophetically, "you'll never see a sign of that pocket-book again."
Alas! her words were but too true; circumstances came to light not very favorable to the character of our visitor; and that very night the Rev. Mr. Motley secretly decamped—mentioning in a note left behind, that unlooked-for events had hastened his departure. My little pocket-book accompanied him, as he quite forgot to return it; and Mammy's triumph was almost as provoking as the loss. She had, however, with characteristic caution, abstracted whatever money it contained; and the reflection that the reverend gentleman had not gained much, gave her considerable pleasure. The lesson taught me not to trust strangers again too readily, and my father imbibed somewhat of a prejudice against travelling clergymen in distress. Rev. Mr. Motley was never again heard of.
We once had a visit from a Captain Vardell, an acquaintance of my father's, who had married a Spanish woman. This Captain had spent much of his time at sea; roving about from place to place, until at length he settled down for some years in Spain. He had no relations in America, and but little money, so that of course my father's house, the usual refuge of the needy and distressed, was at once his destination. He appeared to us an indolent, good-natured kind of a man, and his wife resembled him in the former quality, though quite deficient in the latter. She could not speak a word of English, and would scold and rail at her husband in Spanish for hours together. We did not understand what she said, but we knew, by the flashing of those great black eyes and her animated gestures, that her words were not words of love. She was a large woman, with straight, black hair, that seemed to be always hanging about her face, and rather handsome features. She spent most of her time in playing jackstraws with us, or else lounging on the sofa; muttering in rapid succession the words of a small prayer-book, which Captain Vardell told us she always carried about her, as it had been consecrated and given to her by a Spanish priest. She appeared to us very much like a great overgrown baby; manifesting the most childish delight on winning a game, and equally angry when defeated. Once, when in extreme good-humor, she shewed us how to make beads resembling coral, from a certain paste which she manufactured; but we never could extract from her the names of the materials, and were obliged to content ourselves with making them under her direction.
Mrs. Vardell was so extremely lazy that she would never stoop to pick up anything she had dropped. If her handkerchief or prayer-book fell to the floor, she made motions for us to bring them to her; and when we sometimes mischievously pretended not to understand these signs, she would let the article remain until some one restored it to her. She never seemed to experience the least emotion of gratitude, and received all favors as a natural right. She was an extremely troublesome, exacting visitor, and we were not at all sorry when the time of her departure arrived.
My father had exerted himself on their behalf, and at the end of their visit handed Captain Vardell a handsome sum of money, collected from among his merchant friends and acquaintances. People were much more liberal then than now, and the case of the Vardells did not fail to call forth their sympathy and generosity. The Spanish lady made her adieus, if so they could be called, with an easy indifference—apparently considering her fellow-mortals as machines invented for her sole use and benefit. Captain Vardell presented us children with a handsome collection of shells, picked up on foreign shores during his numerous voyages; and some of them were very rare and beautiful. Most of them had a delicate pink tinge, like the outer leaves of a just-blown rose; and we amused ourselves fur a long time by arranging them in a glass-case which my father gave us for the purpose.
Among our visitors was an aunt of my mother's who lived in Waterford, Connecticut; and being a widow, with quite a large farm to attend to, her visits were never of long duration. I became very much attached to her, for she often entertained us with long stories about the Revolution and the aggressions of the British soldiers—about which you shall hear when I come to tell you of the long visit I made there one summer. Aunt Henshaw was very proud of her farm and farming operations; her cattle and vegetables had several times won the prize at agricultural fairs, and she boasted that her land produced more than any of her neighbors'; who, being men, were of course expected to be more accomplished in such matters. She appeared to delight in giving away things, and seldom made us a visit without bringing something of her own raising. These little presents my father always repaid tenfold; and Aunt Henshaw departed without a new gown or hat, or something to show when she got home. I believe that we generally anticipated more pleasure from her visits than from any of the numerous friends who often favored us with their company.
But Aunt Henshaw, I must confess, won my heart less by her own individual merits than a present she once made me, which actually appeared to me like a windfall from the skies. I was always inordinately fond of reading, and my predelictions for fairy tales amounted to an actual passion. When Mammy and Jane's ingenuity had been exhausted in framing instances of the marvellous for my special gratification, I would often fold my hands before my face, to shut out all actual scenes, and thus sit and dream of wonderful adventures with fairies, witches, and enchanted princesses. I was always happier in a reverie than in the company of others—my own ideals I could make as I chose—the real I must take as I found it. Castle-building is a pleasant but dangerous occupation; had I not been so much of an enthusiast, a day-dreamer, it would have been better for my happiness.
But to return to Aunt Henshaw and her present. Some school-mate one day told me of the varied wonders contained in the "Arabian Kights." My imagination, always excitable, became worked up to a high pitch by tales of diamond caverns, flying horses, and mysterious Baloons under ground. If I went to sleep, it was to dream of gardens more beautiful than Paradise itself—of cooling fountains springing up at every step—of all sorts of impossible fruits growing just where you wanted them—and lamps and songs that gratified every wish. At length I could bear these tantalizing visions of unattainable pleasure no longer; I put on my bonnet and determined to go the whole rounds of the village until I met with some success. People wondered what ailed me that afternoon; I bolted directly into a room—asked if they had the Arabian Nights—and, on being answered in the negative, went out as expeditiously as I had gone in, and tried another acquaintance. I was not easily daunted, and took each one in succession, but all to no purpose; I returned home, fairly sick with disappointment, and hope delayed.
The very next day Aunt Henshaw came down on a visit; and placing in my hands an old-looking, leather-covered book, observed, "I happened to come across this stowed away in an old chest, Amy, and knowing your fondness for fairy tales, I have brought it for you to read."
I scarcely heard what she said; I had glanced at the book, and on seeing "Arabian Nights" traced in large gilt letters, the ground seemed swimming before me, and I could scarcely contain my senses. Seizing the beloved book, I made my escape as quickly as possible; and mounting up to the cupola, a tiny room with glass sides, that commanded a view of the country round, I effectually secured myself against interruption, and soon became fascinated out of all remembrance. The day waned into evening—the shadows deepened around—I remember fixing my eyes on a brilliant star that seemed to come closer and closer, until it assumed a strangely beautiful form, and I lost all consciousness.
In the meantime a strict search for me had been going on below. They began to be alarmed at my continued absence; and after examining every room, the garden, and every spot on the premises, they sent around the neighborhood. I was known to be extremely fond of visiting, and every acquaintance was interrogated in turn—of course, without success. No one had thought of the cupola, and mamma was getting fairly frightened; when Mammy took a light, and on ascending to my dormitory, discovered me fast asleep, with the book tightly clasped to my bosom.
It afterwards yielded the boys as much delight as it had me; Fred, in particular, had a notion of trying experiments upon the plan there laid out. He had sat one afternoon for sometime with the book in his hands—apparently resolving some problem in his own mind; Mammy was stooping over the nursery fire, when she was suddenly startled by an unexpected shower of water sprinkled over her head and neck—Fred at the same time exclaiming, in a tone that seemed to doubt not: "I command you instantly to turn into a coal black mare!"
"I don't know what would become of you, you good-for-naught, if I did!" returned Mammy.
Some years later I read "The Children of the Abbey," and this opened a new field of thought. My dreams, instead of being peopled with fairies and genii, were now filled with distressed damsels who met with all sorts of persecutions and Quixotic adventures, and finally ended where they should have commenced.
I had a boy-lover who always selected me as his partner in all our plays, and kept me in pointers with blue ribbons attached to them, to point out the towns on the large map in the school-room. Charles Tracy was about my own age, but in disposition and taste he resembled my brother Henry, and the two were quite inseparable; while his sister Ellen and I formed an acquaintance through the fence by displaying our dolls to each other—and this was the beginning of an intimacy that lasted a long time for children's friendships.