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HOME > Short Stories > Half-A-Dozen Housekeepers > CHAPTER V—OLD MAIDS AND YOUNG
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MONDAY morning broke. Such a cold, dismal, drizzly morning! The wind whistled and blew about the cottage, until Lilia suggested tying the clothes-line round the chimneys and fastening it to the strong pine-trees in front, for greater safety. It snowed at six o’clock, it hailed at seven, rained at eight, stopped at nine, and presently began to go through the same varied programme. After breakfast, Bell went to the window and stood dreamily flattening her nose against the pane, while the others busied themselves about their several tasks.

“Well, girls,” said she at length, “we’ve had four different kinds of weather this morning, so it may clear off after all, though I confess it doesn’t look like it. It’s too stormy to go anywhere, or for anybody to come to us, so we shall have to try violently in every possible way to amuse ourselves. I must run over to Miss Miranda’s for the milk before it rains harder. Perhaps I shall stumble into some excitement on the way; who knows!”

So saying, she ran out, and in a few minutes appeared in the yard wrapped in a bright red water-proof, the hood pulled over her head, and framing her roguish, rosy face. In ten minutes she returned breathless from a race across the garden, and a vain attempt to keep her umbrella right side out. She entered the room in her usual breezy way, leaving the doors all open, and sank into a chair, with an expression of mysterious mirth in her eyes.

“Guess what’s happened!” she asked, with sparkling eyes. “I have the most enormous, improbable, unguessable surprise for you; you never will think, and anyway I can’t wait to tell, so here it is: We are all invited to tea this afternoon with Miss Miranda and Miss Jane! Isn’t that ‘ridikilis’?”

“Do tell, Isabel,” squeaked Jo, with a comically irreverent imitation of Miss Sawyer, “air you a-going to accept?”

“Oh, yes, Bell, we’d better go,” said Edith Lambert. “I should like to see the inside of that old house. I dare say we shall enjoy it, and it saves cooking.”

“We are remarkably favored,” laughed Bell. “I don’t believe that anybody has been invited there since the Sewing Circle met with them three years ago. They live such a quiet, strange, lonely life! Their mother and father died when they were very young, more than thirty years ago. They were quite rich for the times, and left their daughters this big house all furnished and quantities of lovely old-fashioned dishes and pictures. All the rooms are locked, but I’ll try and melt Miss Miranda’s heart, and get her to show us some of her relics. Scarcely anything has been changed in all these years, except that they have bought a cooking-stove. Miss Jane hates new-fangled things, and is really ashamed of the stove, I think; as to having a sewing-machine, or an egg-beater, or a carpet-sweeper,—why, she would as soon think of changing the fashion of her bonnet! I believe there isn’t such a curious house, nor another pair of such dried-up, half-nice, half-disagreeable people in the country. There’s Emma Jane with the butter! I’ll meet her at the back door, get her to peel some potatoes and apples, make her sew a white ruffle in her neck, and make some original remark.”

Bell’s criticism of the Misses Sawyer and their home was quite just. The old brick house stood in a garden which, in the spring-time, was filled with odorous lilacs, blossoming apple-trees, and long rows of currant and gooseberry bushes. In the summer, too, there were actual groves of asparagus, gaudy sunflowers, bright hollyhocks, gay marigolds, royal flower-de-luce,—all respectable, old-fashioned posies, into whose hearts the humming-birds loved to thrust their dainty beaks and steal their sweetness. Then there were beds paved round with white clam-shells, where were growing trembling little bride’s-tears, bachelor’s-buttons, larkspur, and china pinks. No modern blossoms would Miss Miranda allow within these sacred ancient places, no begonias, gladioli, and “sech,” with their new-fangled, heathenish, unpronounceable names. The old flowers were good enough for her; and, certainly, they made a blooming spot about the dark house.

Now, indeed, there was neither a leaf nor a bud to be seen; snow-birds perched and twittered on the naked apple-boughs, and rifts of snow lay over the sleeping seed-souls of the hollyhocks and marigolds, keeping them just alive and no more, in a freezing, cold-blooded sort of way common to snow.

But if the garden outside looked like a relic of the olden time, the rooms inside seemed even more so. The “keeping-room” had been refurnished fifteen or twenty years before, but so well had it been kept, that there still hovered about it a painful air of newness. Over the stiff black hair-cloth sofa hung a funeral wreath in a shell frame, surrounded by the Sawyer family photographs—husbands and wives always taken in affectionate attitudes, that their relations might never be misunderstood. In a corner stood the mahogany “what-not” with its bead watch-cases, shells, and glass globes covering worsted-work flowers, together with more family pictures, daguerreotypes in black cases on the top shelf, and a marvelous blue china vase holding peacock feathers. Then there was a gorgeous “drawn in” rug before the fireplace, with impossible purple roses and pink leaves on its surface, and a marble-topped table holding a magnificent lamp with a glass fringe around it, and a large piece of red flannel floating in the kerosene.

All these glories the girls were allowed to view as a great favor granted at Bell’s earnest request. They examined the parlor and the curiosities in the diningroom cupboard with awe-struck faces, though their sobriety was almost overcome at the sight of some of the works of art which Miss Miranda held up for their reverential admiration.

Upstairs there were rooms scarcely ever opened. The bedsteads were four-posted, and so high with many feather beds that their sleepy occupants must have ascended a step-ladder to get into them, or climbed up the posts hand over hand and dropped down into the downy depths. The counterpanes and comforters were quilted in wonderful patterns. There was the “wild-goose chase,” the “log cabin,” the “rocky mountain,” the “Irish plaid,” and a “charm quilt,” in twelve hundred pieces, no two of which were alike. The windows in the best chamber had white cotton curtains with elaborate fringes; the looking-glass was long and narrow with a yellow-painted frame, and a picture, in the upper half, of Napoleon crossing the Alps, the Alps in question being very pointed and of a sky-blue color, while Napoleon, in full-dress uniform, with never an outrider nor a guide, was galloping up and over the dizzy peaks on a skittish-looking pony.

These things nearly upset Jo’s gravity, and she quite lost Miss Sawyer’s favor by coughing down an irrepressible giggle when she was shown a painting of Burns and His Mary, done in oil by Miss Hannah, the oldest sister of the family, and long since dead. Miss Sawyer had no doubt that Hannah’s genius was of the highest order, although the specimens of her skill handed down would astonish a modern artist. Burns and His Mary were seated on a bank belonging to a landscape certainly not Scottish; His Mary, with a pink tarlatan dress on, tucked to the waist; while a brook was seemingly purling over Burns’ coat-tails spread out behind him on the bank. It was this peculiar detail which aroused Jo’s mirth, as well it might, so that she could not trust herself to examine with the others Miss Hannah’s last and finest effort—“Maidens welcoming General Washington in the streets of Alexandria.” The maidens, thirteen in number, were precisely alike in form and feature, all very smooth as to hair, long as to waist, short as to skirt, pointed as to toe, and carrying bouquets of exactly the same size and structure, tied up with green ribbon.

The tour of inspection finished, the girls sat down to chat over their tatting and crochet work, while the two ladies went out to prepare supper.

“My reputation is gone,” whispered Jo, solemnly. “To think that I should have laughed when I had been behaving so beautifully all the afternoon; but Robbie Burns was the last straw that broke the camel’s back of my politeness; I couldn’t have helped it if Miss Miranda had eaten me instead of frowning at me.”

“What do you think?” cried Lilia, jumping up impulsively and knocking down her chair in so doing, “I’m going to beard the lion in his den, and see if they won’t let me help them get supper. Don’t you want to come, Jo?”

The two girls ran across the long, cold hall, opened the kitchen door stealthily, and Jo asked in her sweetest tones, “Can’t we set the table or help in any way, Miss Miranda?”

“No, I thank you, Josephine; there is nothing to do, or leastways you wouldn’t know where things are, and wouldn’t be any good. The Porter girl may come in if she wants to, but two of you would only clutter up the kitchen.”

So Lilia went in meekly, and poor Jo flew back to the parlor, smarting under a bitter sense of disgrace. The sisters fortunately knew nothing of Lilia’s aptitude for blunders, else she never would have been suffered to touch their precious household gods. As it was, by dint of extreme care, she managed to get the plum sauce on the table, and to set the chairs around it, without any serious disaster. To be sure, in cutting the dried beef, she notched a memorandum of the pieces shaved on each of her fingers, so that when she finished they were perfect little calendars of suffering; however, this only concerned herself, and she did not murmur, as most of her mistakes implicated other people.

At half-past five they sat down to supper; and such a supper! Miss Miranda was evidently anxious to impress the young people. The best pink “chany” set had been unearthed, and there were besides other old dishes of great magnificence. Quaint British lustre pitchers held the milk and cream, a green dragon plate the cookies, and the “Sheltered Peasant” saucers came in for general admiration.

The china was not more notable than the food. There were light soda biscuits, large in size and thick, and there was cold buttermilk bread; a blue and white bowl held tomato preserves, while a glass one ............
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