[Mrs. Spofford who has written many interesting storeis, occasionally indulges in humor. That she has the faculty well developed is evident from the following amusing contribution to Harper’s Magazine. The author is a native of Calais, Maine, where she was born in 1835. In addition to her imaginative and humorous tales, she has written some excellent poetry.]
POOR Aunt Pen! I am sorry to say it, but for a person alive and well — tolerably well and very much alive, that is — she did use to make the greatest business of dying! Alive! why, when she was stretched out on the sofa, after an agony of asthma, or indigestion, or whatever, and had called us all about her with faltering and tears, and was apparently at her last gasp, she would suddenly rise, like her own ghost, at the sound of a second ringing of the 39 door-bell, which our little renegade Israel had failed to answer, and declare if she could only once lay hands on Israel she would box his ears till they heard!
For the door-bell was, perhaps, among many, one of Aunt Pen’s weakest points. She knew everybody in town, as you might say. She was exceedingly entertaining to everybody outside the family. She was a great favorite with everybody. Countless gossips came to see her, tinkling at the door-bell, and hated individually by Israel, brought her all the news, heard all the previous ones had brought, admired her, praised her, pitied her, listened to her, and went away leaving her in such satisfied mood that she did not die any more that day. And as they went away they always paused at the door to say to some one of us what a cheerful invalid Aunt Pen had made herself, and what a nest of sunbeams her room always was, and what a lesson her patience and endurance ought to be. But, oh, dear me, how very little they knew about it all!
We all lived together, as it happened; for when we children were left alone with but a small income, Aunt Pen — who was also alone, and only five years my senior — wrote word that we might as well come to her house in the city, for it wouldn’t make expenses more, and might make them less if we divided them; and then, too, she said, she would always be sure of one out of three bright and reasonable nurses. Poor Aunt Pen! perhaps she didn’t find us either so bright or so reasonable as she had expected, for we used to think that in her less degree she went on the same principle with the crazy man who declared all the rest of the world except himself insane.
In honest truth, as doctor after doctor was turned away by the impatient and distempered woman up-stairs, each one took occasion to say to us down-stairs that our aunt’s 40 illness was of that nature that all the physic it required was to have her fancies humored, and that we never need give ourselves any uneasiness, for she would doubtless live to a good old age, unless some acute disease should intervene, as there was nothing at all the matter with her except a slight nervous sensitiveness, that never destroyed anybody. I suppose we were a set of young heathen, for really there were times, if you will believe it, when that was not the most reassuring statement in the world.
However, sometimes Aunt Pen found a doctor, or a medicine, or a course of diet, or something, that gave her great sensations of relief, and then she would come down, and go about the house, and praise our administration, and say everything went twice as far as it used to go before we came, and tell us delightful stories of our mother’s housewifely skill, and be quite herself again; and she would make the table ring with laughing, and give charming little tea-parties; and then we all did wish that Aunt Pen would live forever, — and be down-stairs. But probably the next day, after one of the tea-parties, oysters, or claret punch, or hot cakes, or all together, had wrought their diablerie, and the doctor was sent for, and the warming pan was brought out, and there was another six weeks’ siege, in which, obeyed by every one, and physicked by herself, and sympathized with to her heart’s content by callers, and shut up in a hot room with the windows full of flowering plants, and somebody reading endless novels to her with the lights burning all night long, — if she wasn’t ill she had every inducement to be, and nothing but an indomitable constitution hindered it. It was perfectly idle for us to tell her she was hurting herself; it only made her very indignant with us, and more determined than ever to persist in doing so. . . .
When at last Aunt Pen had had an alarm from nearly 41 every illness for which the pharmacopœia prescribes, and she knew that neither we nor the doctors would listen to the probability of their recurrence, she had an attack of “sinking.” No, there was no particular disease, she used to say, — only sinking; she had been pulled down to an extent from which she had no strength to recuperate; she was only sinking, a little weaker to-day then she was yesterday; only sinking. But Aunt Pen ate a very good breakfast of broiled birds and toast and coffee, a very good lunch of cold meats and dainties and a great goblet ot thick cream, a very good dinner of soup and roast and vegetables and dessert, and perhaps a chicken-bone at eleven o’clock in the evening. And when the saucy little Israel, who carried up her tray, heard her say she was sinking, he remarked that it was because of the load on her stomach.
One day, I remember, Aunt Pen was very much worse than usual. We were all in her room, a sunshiny place which she had connected with the adjoining one by sliding-doors, so that it might be big enough for us all to bring our work on occasion and make it lively for her. She had on a white-cashmere dressing-gown trimmed with swan’s-down, and she lay among the luxurious cushions of a blue lounge, with a paler blue blanket, which she had had one of us tricot for her, lying over her feet, and altogether she looked very ideal and ethereal; for Aunt Pen always did have such an eye to picturesque effect that I don’t know how she could ever consent to the idea of mouldering away into dust like common clay.
She had sent Maria down for Mel and me to come up-stairs with whatever occupied us, for she was convinced that she was failing fast, and knew we should regret it if we did not have the last of her. As we had received the same message nearly every other day during the last three 42 or four weeks, we did not feel extraordinarily alarmed, but composedly took our baskets and scissors and trudged along after Maria.
[Of the conversation we omit the opening portions, and pass on to its close, in which Aunt Pen givers her funeral directions.]
“By the way,” said she, suddenly, sitting upright on the lounge, “I won’t have the horses from Brown’s livery ——”
“The what, auntie?”
“The horses for the cortége. You know Brown puts that magnificent span of his in the hearse on account of their handsome action. I’m sure Mrs. Gaylard would have been frightened to death if she could only have seen the way they pranced at her funeral last fall. I was determined then that they should never draw me.” And Aunt Pen shivered for herself beforehand. “And I can’t have them from Timlins’s, for the same reason,” said she. “All his animals are skittish; and you remember when a pair of them took fright and dashed away from the procession and ran straight to the river, and there’d have been four other funerals if the schooner at the wharf hadn’t stopped the runaways. And Timilins has a way, too, of letting white horses follow the hearse with the first mourning-coach, and it’s very bad luck, very, — an ill omen, a prophecy of Death and the Pale Horse again, you know. And I won’t have them from Shust’s, either,” said Aunt Pen, “for he is simply the greatest extortioner since old Isaac the Jew.”
“Well, auntie,” said Mel, forgetful of her late repentance, “I don’t see but you’ll have to go with Shank’s mare.”
Even Aunt Pen laughed them. “Don’t you really think you are going to lose me, girls?” asked she.43
“No, auntie,” replied Maria. “We all think you are a hypo.”
“Not a hypocrite,” said Mel, “but a hypochondriac.”
“I wish I were!” sighed Aunt Pen; “I wish I were! I should have some hope of myself then,” said the poor inconsistent innocent. “Oh, no, no; I feel it only too well; I am going fast. You will all regret your disbelief when I am gone.” And she lay back among her pillows. “That reminds me,” she murmured, presently. “About my monument.”
“Oh, Aunt Pen, do be still!” said Mel.
“No,” said Aunt Pen, firmly. “it may be a disagreeable duty, but that is all the better reason to bring my mind to it. And if I don’t attend to it now, it never will be attended to. I know what relatives are. They put down a slab of slate with a skull and cross-bones scratched on it, and think they’ve done their duty. Not that I mean any reflections on you: you’re all well-meaning, but you’re giddy. I shall haunt you if you do anything of the kind! No; you may send Mr. Mason up here this afternoon, and I will go over his designs with him. I am going to have carved Carrara marble, set in a base of polished Scotch granite, and the inscription is —— Girls,” cried Aunt Pen, rising and clasping her knees with unexpected energy, “I expressly forbid my age being printed in the paper, or on the lid, or on the stone! I won’t gratify every gossip in town, that I won’t! I shall take real pleasure in baffling their curiosity. And another thing, while I am about it: don’t you ask Tom Maltby to my funeral, or let him come in, if he comes himself, on any account whatever. I should rise in my shroud if he approached me. Yes, I should! Tom Maltby may be all very well; I dare say he is; and I hope I die at peace 44 with him, and all mankind, as a good Christian should. I forgive him; yes, certainly, I forgive him; but it doesn’t follow that I need forget him; and, so long as I remember him, the way he conducted in buying the pew over my head I can’t get over, dead or alive. And if I only do get well we shall have a reckoning that will make his hair stand on end, — that he may rely on!” And here Aunt Pen took the fan from Maria, and moved it actively, till she remembered herself, when she resigned it. “One thing more,” she said. “Whatever happens, Helen, don’t let me be kept over Sunday. There’ll certainly be another death in the family within the year if you do. If I die on Saturday, there’s no help for it. Common decency won’t let you shove me into the ground at once, and so you will have to make up your minds for a second summons.” And Aunt Pen, contemplating the suttee of some one of us with great philosophy, lay down and closed her eyes again. “You might have it by torchlight on Sunday night, though,” said she, half opening them. “That would be very pretty.” And then she dropped off to sleep with such a satisfied expression of countenance that we judged her to be welcoming in imagination the guests at her last rites herself.
Whatever the dream was, she was rudely roused from it by the wretched little Israel, who came bounding up the stairs, and, without word or warning, burst into the room, almost white with horror. Why Israel was afraid I can’t conjecture, but, at any rate, a permanent fright would have been of great personal advantage to him. “Oh, ma’am! oh, miss! dere’s a pusson down-stairs, a cullud woman, wid der small-pox!” he almost whistled in his alarm.
“With the small-pox!” cried Aunt Pen, springing into the middle of the floor, regardless of her late repose in 45 articulo mortis. “Go away, Israel! Have you been near her? Put her out immediately! How on earth did she get there?”
“You allus telled me to let everybody in,” chattered Israel.
“Put her out! put her out!” cried Aunt Pen, half dancing with impatience.
“We can’t get her out. She’s right acrost der door-step. We’s feard ter tech her.”
But Aunt Pen’s head was out of the window, and she was shouting, “Police! fire! murder! thieves!” possibly in the order of importance of the four calamities, but quite as if she had a plenty of breath left; and, for a wonder, the police came to the rescue, and directly afterward an ambulance took the victim of the frightful epidemic to the hospital. I believe it turned out to be only measles after all, though.
“Run, Israel,” screamed Aunt Pen then, “run instantly and bring home a couple of pounds of roll-brimstone, and tell the maids to riddle the furnace fire and make it as bright and hot as possible, and to light fires in the parlor grates, and in the old Latrobe, and in every room in the house, without losing a minute. We’ll make this house too warm for it!”
“And, to our amazement, as soon as Israel came darting back with the impish material, Aunt Pen took a piece in each hand, directed us to do the same, and, wrapping the blue afghan round her shoulders, descended to the lower rooms three steps at a time, sent for the doctor to come and vaccinate us, and, having set a chair precisely over the register, where a red-hot stream of air was pouring up, she placed herself upon it and issued her orders.
Every window was closed, every grate from basement to attic had a fire lighted in it, and little pans of brimstone 46 were burning in every room and hall in the house, while we, astonished, indignant, frightened, and amused, sat enduring the torments of vapor and sulphur baths to the point of suffocation.
“I can’t bear this another moment,” wheezed Mel.
“It’s the only way,” replied Aunt Pen, serenely, with a rivulet trickling down her nose. “You kill the germs by heat, and, since we can’t bake ourselves quite to death, we make sure of the work by the fumes.”
And as she sat there, her face rubicund, her swan’s-down straight, drops on her cheeks, her chin, her forehead, and wherever drops could cling, her eyes watering, her curls limp, and an atmosphere of unbearable odor enveloping her in this cloud, the front door opened, and a footstep rung on the tiles.
“Jess you keep out o’ yer!” yelled Israel to the intruder, seeing it wasn’t the doctor. “We’s got der small-pox, and am a-killin’ de gemmens ——”
“Pen!” cried a man’s voice through the smoke, — a deep, melodious voice.
“What!” exclaimed Aunt Pen, starting up, and then pausing as if she fancied the horrid fumes might have befogged her brain.
“Pen!” the voice cried again.
“”Chauncey! Chauncey Reed!” she shrieked. “Where do you come from? Am I dreaming?”
“From the North Pacific,” answered the voice; and we dimly discerned its owner groping his way forward. “From the five years’ whaling-voyage into which I was gagged and dragged, — shanghaied, they call it. Oh, Pen, I didn’t dare to hope I should find ——”
“Oh, Chauncey, is it you?” she cried, and fell fainting at his feet.
The draught from the open door after him was blowing 47 away the smoke, and we saw what a great, sunburned, handsome fellow it was that had caught her in his arms and was bearing her out to the back balcony and the fresh air there, used in the course of his whaling voyage, perhaps, to odors no more belonging to Araby the Blest than those of burning brimstone do; and, seeing the movement, we divined that he knew as much about the resources of the house as we did, and so we discreetly withdrew, Israel’s head being twisted behind him as he went to such extent that you might have supposed he had had his neck wrung.
Well, we put the white silk and the tulle on Aunt Pen after all; yellow as it was, she would have no other, — only fresh, natural orange-blossoms in place of the false wreath. And, if we had not so often had her word for it in past times, we never should have taken her for anything but the gayest bride, the most alive and happy woman, in the world. They returned to the old house from their wedding journey, and we all live together in great peace and pleasantness. But, though three years are passed and gone since Chauncey Read came home and brought a new atmosphere with him into our lives, Aunt Pen has never had a sick day yet; and we find that any allusion to her funeral gives her such a superstitious trembling that we are pleased to believe it indefinitely postponed, and by tacit and mutual consent we never say anything about it.