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CHAPTER VI GREAT-AUNT ELIZA'S VISIT
It was a diamond winter day in February - clear, cold, hard, brilliant. The sharp blue sky shone, the white fields and hills glittered, the fringe of icicles around the eaves of Uncle Alec's house sparkled. Keen was the frost and crisp the snow over our world; and we young fry of the King households were all agog to enjoy life - for was it not Saturday, and were we not left all alone to keep house?
Aunt Janet and Aunt Olivia had had their last big "kill" of market poultry the day before; and early in the morning all our grown-ups set forth to Charlottetown, to be gone the whole day. They left us many charges as usual, some of which we remembered and some of which we forgot; but with Felicity in command none of us dared stray far out of line. The Story Girl and Peter came over, of course, and we all agreed that we would haste and get the work done in the forenoon, that we might have an afternoon of uninterrupted enjoyment. A taffy-pull after dinner and then a jolly hour of coasting on the hill field before supper were on our programme. But disappointment was our portion. We did manage to get the taffy made but before we could sample the result satisfactorily, and just as the girls were finishing with the washing of the dishes, Felicity glanced out of the window and exclaimed in tones of dismay,
"Oh, dear me, here's Great-aunt Eliza coming up the lane! Now, isn't that too mean?"
We all looked out to see a tall, gray-haired lady approaching the house, looking about her with the slightly puzzled air of a stranger. We had been expecting Great-aunt Eliza's advent for some weeks, for she was visiting relatives in Markdale. We knew she was liable to pounce down on us any time, being one of those delightful folk who like to "surprise" people, but we had never thought of her coming that particular day. It must be confessed that we did not look forward to her visit with any pleasure. None of us had ever seen her, but we knew she was very deaf, and had very decided opinions as to the way in which children should behave.
"Whew!" whistled Dan. "We're in for a jolly afternoon. She's deaf as a post and we'll have to split our throats to make her hear at all. I've a notion to skin out."
"Oh, don't talk like that, Dan," said Cecily reproachfully. "She's old and lonely and has had a great deal of trouble. She has buried three husbands. We must be kind to her and do the best we can to make her visit pleasant."
"She's coming to the back door," said Felicity, with an agitated glance around the kitchen. "I told you, Dan, that you should have shovelled the snow away from the front door this morning. Cecily, set those pots in the pantry quick - hide those boots, Felix - shut the cupboard door, Peter - Sara, straighten up the lounge. She's awfully particular and ma says her house is always as neat as wax."
To do Felicity justice, while she issued orders to the rest of us, she was flying busily about herself, and it was amazing how much was accomplished in the way of putting the kitchen in perfect order during the two minutes in which Great-aunt Eliza was crossing the yard.
"Fortunately the sitting-room is tidy and there's plenty in the pantry," said Felicity, who could face anything undauntedly with a well-stocked larder behind her.
Further conversation was cut short by a decided rap at the door. Felicity opened it.
"Why, how do you do, Aunt Eliza?" she said loudly.
A slightly bewildered look appeared on Aunt Eliza's face. Felicity perceived she had not spoken loudly enough.
"How do you do, Aunt Eliza," she repeated at the top of her voice. "Come in - we are glad to see you. We've been looking for you for ever so long."
"Are your father and mother at home?" asked Aunt Eliza, slowly.
"No, they went to town today. But they'll be home this evening."
"I'm sorry they're away," said Aunt Eliza, coming in, "because I can stay only a few hours."
"Oh, that's too bad," shouted poor Felicity, darting an angry glance at the rest of us, as if to demand why we didn't help her out. "Why, we've been thinking you'd stay a week with us anyway. You MUST stay over Sunday."
"I really can't. I have to go to Charlottetown tonight," returned Aunt Eliza.
"Well, you'll take off your things and stay to tea, at least," urged Felicity, as hospitably as her strained vocal chords would admit.
"Yes, I think I'll do that. I want to get acquainted with my - my nephews and nieces," said Aunt Eliza, with a rather pleasant glance around our group. If I could have associated the thought of such a thing with my preconception of Great-aunt Eliza I could have sworn there was a twinkle in her eye. But of course it was impossible. "Won't you introduce yourselves, please?"
Felicity shouted our names and Great-aunt Eliza shook hands all round. She performed the duty grimly and I concluded I must have been mistaken about the twinkle. She was certainly very tall and dignified and imposing - altogether a great-aunt to be respected.
Felicity and Cecily took her to the spare room and then left her in the sitting-room while they returned to the kitchen, to discuss the matter in family conclave.
"Well, and what do you think of dear Aunt Eliza?" asked Dan.
"S-s-s-sh," warned Cecily, with a glance at the half-open hall door.
"Pshaw," scoffed Dan, "she can't hear us. There ought to be a law against anyone being as deaf as that."
"She's not so old-looking as I expected," said Felix. "If her hair wasn't so white she wouldn't look much older than your mother."
"You don't have to be very old to be a great-aunt," said Cecily. "Kitty Marr has a great-aunt who is just the same age as her mother. I expect it was burying so many husbands turned her hair white. But Aunt Eliza doesn't look just as I expected she would either."
"She's dressed more stylishly than I expected," said Felicity. "I thought she'd be real old-fashioned, but her clothes aren't too bad at all."
"She wouldn't be bad-looking if 'tweren't for her nose," said Peter. "It's too long, and crooked besides."
"You needn't criticize our relations like that," said Felicity tartly.
"Well, aren't you doing it yourselves?" expostulated Peter.
"That's different," retorted Felicity. "Never you mind Great-aunt Eliza's nose."
"Well, don't expect me to talk to her," said Dan, "'cause I won't."
"I'm going to be very polite to her," said Felicity. "She's rich. But how are we to entertain her, that's the question."
"What does the Family Guide say about entertaining your rich, deaf old aunt?" queried Dan ironically.
"The Family Guide says we should be polite to EVERYBODY," said Cecily, with a reproachful look at Dan.
"The worst of it is," said Felicity, looking worried, "that there isn't a bit of old bread in the house and she can't eat new, I've heard father say. It gives her indigestion. What will we do?"
"Make a pan of rusks and apologize for having no old bread," suggested the Story Girl, probably by way of teasing Felicity. The latter, however, took it in all good faith.
"The Family Guide says we should never apologize for things we can't help. It says it's adding insult to injury to do it. But you run over home for a loaf of stale bread, Sara, and it's a good idea about the rusks. I'll make a panful."
"Let me make them," said the Story Girl, eagerly. "I can make real good rusks now."
"No, it wouldn't do to trust you," said Felicity mercilessly. "You might make some queer mistake and Aunt Eliza would tell it all over the country. She's a fearful old gossip. I'll make the rusks myself. She hates cats, so we mustn't let Paddy be seen. And she's a Methodist, so mind nobody says anything against Methodists to her."
"Who's going to say anything, anyhow?" asked Peter belligerently.
"I wonder if I might ask her for her name for my quilt square?" speculated Cecily. "I believe I will. She looks so much friendlier than I expected. Of course she'll choose the five-cent section. She's an estimable old lady, but very economical."
"Why don't you say she's so mean she'd skin a flea for its hide and tallow?" said Dan. "That's the plain truth."
"Well, I'm going to see about getting tea," said Felicity, "so the rest of you will have to entertain her. You better go in and show her the photographs in the album. Dan, you do it."
"Thank you, that's a girl's job," said Dan. "I'd look nice sitting up to Aunt Eliza and yelling out that this was Uncle Jim and 'tother Cousin Sarah's twins, wouldn't I? Cecily or the Story Girl can do it."
"I don't know all the pictures in your album," said the Story Girl hastily.
"I s'pose I'll have to do it, though I don't like to," sighed Cecily. "But we ought to go in. We've left her alone too long now. She'll think we have no manners."
Accordingly we all filed in rather reluctantly. Great-aunt Eliza was toasting her toes - clad, as we noted, in very smart and shapely shoes - at the stove and looking quite at her ease. Cecily, determined to do her duty even in the face of such fearful odds as Great-aunt Eliza's deafness, dragged a ponderous, plushcovered album from its corner and proceeded to display and explain the family photographs. She did her brave best but she could not shout like Felicity, and half the time, as she confided to me later on, she felt that Great-aunt Eliza did not hear one word she said, because she didn't seem to take in who the people were, though, just like all deaf folks, she wouldn't let on. Great-aunt Eliza certainly didn't talk much; she looked at the photographs in silence, but she smiled now and then. That smile bothered me. It was so twinkly and so very un-great-aunt-Elizaish. But I felt indignant with her. I thought she might have shown a little more appreciation of Cecily's gallant efforts to entertain.
It was very dull for the rest of us. The Story Girl sat rather sulkily in her corner; she was angry because Felicity would not let her make the rusks, and also, perhaps, a little vexed because she could not charm Great-aunt Eliza with her golden voice and story-telling gift. Felix and I looked at each other and wished ourselves out in the hill field, careering gloriously adown its gleaming crust.
But presently a little amusement came our way. Dan, who was sitting behind Great-aunt Eliza, and consequently out of her view, began making comments on Cecily's explanation of this one and that one among the photographs. In vain Cecily implored him to stop. It was too good fun to give up. For the next half-hour the dialogue ran after this fashion, while Peter and Felix and I, and even the Story Girl, suffered agonies trying to smother our bursts of laughter - for Great-aunt Eliza could see if she couldn't hear:
CECILY, SHOUTING: - "That is Mr. Joseph Elliott of Markdale, a second cousin of mother's."
DAN: - "Don't brag of it, Sis. He's the man who was asked if somebody else said something in sincerity and old Joe said 'No, he said it in my cellar.'"
CECILY: - "This isn't anybody in our family. It's little Xavy Gautier who used to be hired with Uncle Roger."
DAN: - "Uncle Roger sent him to fix a gate one day and scolded him because he didn't do it right, and Xavy was mad as hops and said 'How you 'spect me to fix dat gate? I never learned jogerfy.'"
CECILY, WITH AN ANGUISHED GLANCE AT DAN: - "This is Great-uncle Robert King."
DAN: - "He's been married four times. Don't you think that's often enough, dear great-aunty?"
CECILY: - "(Dan!!) This is a nephew of Mr. Ambrose Marr's. He lives out west and teaches school."
DAN: - "Yes, and Uncle Roger says he doesn't know enough not to sleep in a field with the gate open."
CECILY: - "This is Miss Julia Stanley, who used to teach in Carlisle a few years ago."
DAN: - "When she resigned the trustees had a meeting to see if they'd ask her to stay and raise her supplement. Old Highland Sandy was alive then and he got up and said, 'If she for go let her for went. Perhaps she for marry.'"
CECILY, WITH THE AIR OF A MARTYR: - "This is Mr. Layton, who used to travel around selling Bibles and hymn books and Talmage's sermons."
DAN: - "He was so thin Uncle Roger used to say he always mistook him for a crack in the atmosphere. One time he stayed here all night and went to prayer meeting and Mr. Marwood asked him to lead in prayer. It had been raining 'most every day for three weeks, and it was just in haymaking time, and everybody thought the hay was going to be ruined, and old Layton got up and prayed that God would send gentle showers on the growing crops, and I heard Uncle Roger whisper to a fellow behind me, 'If somebody don't choke him off we won't get the hay made this summer.'"
CECILY, IN EXASPERATION: - "(Dan, shame on you for telling such irreverent stories.) This is Mrs. Alexander Scott of Markdale. She has been very sick for a long time."
DAN: - "Uncle Roger says all that keeps her alive is that she's scared her husband will marry again."
CECILY: - "This is old Mr. James MacPherson who used to live behind the graveyard."
DAN: - "He's the man who told mother once that he always made his own iodine out of strong tea and baking soda."
CECILY: - "This is Cousin Ebenezer MacPherson on the Markdale road."
DAN: - "Great temperance man! He never tasted rum in his life. He took the measles when he was forty-five and was crazy as a loon with them, and the doctor ordered them to give him a dose of brandy. When he swallowed it he looked up and says, solemn as an owl, 'Give it to me oftener and more at a time.'"
CECILY, IMPLORINGLY: - "(Dan, do stop. You make me so nervous I don't know what I'm doing.) This is Mr. Lemuel Goodridge. He is a minister."
DAN: - "You ought to see his mouth. Uncle Roger says the drawing string has fell out of it. It just hangs loose - so fashion."
Dan, whose own mouth was far from being beautiful, here gave an imitation of the Rev. Lemuel's, to the utter undoing of Peter, Felix, and myself. Our wild guffaws of laughter penetrated even Great-aunt Eliza's deafness, and she glanced up with a startled face. What we would have done I do not know had not Felicity at that moment appeared in the doorway with panic-stricken eyes and exclaimed,
"Cecily, come here for a moment."
Cecily, glad of even a temporary respite, fled to the kitchen and we heard her demanding what was the matter.
"Matter!" exclaimed Felicity, tragically. "Matter enough! Some of you left a soup plate with molasses in it on the pantry table and Pat got into it and what do you think? He went into the spare room and walked all over Aunt Eliza's things on the bed. You can see his tracks plain as plain. What in the world can we do? She'll be simply furious."
I looked apprehensively at Great-aunt Eliza; but she was gazing intently at a picture of Aunt Janet's sister's twins, a most stolid, uninteresting pair; but evidently Great-aunt Eliza found them amusing for she was smiling widely over them.
"Let us take a little clean water and a soft bit of cotton," came Cecily's clear voice from the kitchen, "and see if we can't clean the molasses off. The coat and hat are both cloth, and molasses isn't like grease."
"Well, we can try, but I wish the Story Girl would keep her cat home," grumbled Felicity.
The Story Girl here flew out to defend her pet, and we four boys sat on, miserably conscious of Great-aunt Eliza, who never said a word to us, despite her previously expressed desire to become acquainted with us. She kept on looking at the photographs and seemed quite oblivious of our presence.
Presently the girls returned, having, as transpired later, been so successful in removing the traces of Paddy's mischief that it was not deemed necessary to worry Great-aunt Eliza with any account of it. Felicity announced tea and, while Cecily conveyed Great-aunt Eliza out to the dining-room, lingered behind to consult with us for a moment.
"Ought we to ask her to say grace?" she wanted to know.
"I know a story," said the Story Girl, "about Uncle Roger when he was just a young man. He went to the house of a very deaf old lady and when they sat down to the table she asked him to say grace. Uncle Roger had never done such a thing in his life and he turned as red as a beet and looked down and muttered, 'E-r-r, please excuse me - I - I'm not accustomed to doing that.' Then he looked up and the old lady said 'Amen,' loudly and cheerfully. She thought Uncle Roger was saying grace all the time."
"I don't think it's right to tell funny stories about such things," said Felicity coldly. "And I asked for your opinion, not for a story."
"If we don't ask her, Felix must say it, for he's the only one who can, and we must have it, or she'd be shocked."
"Oh, ask her - ask her," advised Felix hastily.
She was asked accordingly and said grace without any hesitation, after which she proceeded to eat heartily of the excellent supper Felicity had provided. The rusks were especially good and Greataunt Eliza ate three of them and praised them. Apart from that she said little and during the first part of the meal we sat in embarrassed silence. Towards the last, however, our tongues were loosened, and the Story Girl told us a tragic tale of old Charlottetown and a governor's wife who had died of a broken heart in the early days of the colony.
"They say that story isn't true," said Felicity. "They say what she really died of was indigestion. The Governor's wife who lives there now is a relation of our own. She is a second cousin of father's but we've never seen her. Her name was Agnes Clark. And mind you, when father was a young man he was dead in love with her and so was she with him."
"Who ever told you that?" exclaimed Dan.
"Aunt Olivia. And I've heard ma teasing father about it, too. Of course, it was before father got acquainted with mother."
"Why didn't your father marry her?" I asked.
"Well, she just simply wouldn't marry him in the end. She got over being in love with him. I guess she was pretty fickle. Aunt Olivia said father felt awful about it for awhile, but he got over it when he met ma. Ma was twice as good-looking as Agnes Clark. Agnes was a sight for freckles, so Aunt Olivia says. But she and father remained real good friends. Just think, if she had married him we would have been the children of the Governor's wife."
"But she wouldn't have been the Governor's wife then," said Dan.
"I guess it's just as good being father's wife," declared Cecily loyally.
"You might think so if you saw the Governor," chuckled Dan. "Uncle Roger says it would be no harm to worship him because he doesn't look like anything in the heavens above or on the earth beneath or the waters under the earth."
"Oh, Uncle Roger just says that because he's on the opposite side of politics," said Cecily. "The Governor isn't really so very ugly. I saw him at the Markdale picnic two years ago. He's very fat and bald and red-faced, but I've seen far worse looking men."
"I'm afraid your seat is too near the stove, Aunt Eliza," shouted Felicity.
Our guest, whose face was certainly very much flushed, shook her head.
"Oh, no, I'm very comfortable," she said. But her voice had the effect of making us uncomfortable. There was a queer, uncertain little sound in it. Was Great-aunt Eliza laughing at us? We looked at her sharply but her face was very solemn. Only her eyes had a suspicious appearance. Somehow, we did not talk much more the rest of the meal.
When it was over Great-aunt Eliza said she was very sorry but she must really go. Felicity politely urged her to stay, but was much relieved when Great-aunt Eliza adhered to her intention of going. When Felicity took her to the spare room Cecily slipped upstairs and presently came back with a little parcel in her hand.
"What have you got there?" demanded Felicity suspiciously.
"A - a little bag of rose-leaves," faltered Cecily. "I thought I'd give them to Aunt Eliza."
"The idea! Don't you do such a thing," said Felicity contemptuously. "She'd think you were crazy."
"She was awfully nice when I asked her for her name for the quilt," protested Cecily, "and she took a ten-cent section after all. So I'd like to give her the rose-leaves - and I'm going to, too, Miss Felicity."
Great-aunt Eliza accepted the little gift quite graciously, bade us all good-bye, said she had enjoyed herself very much, left messages for father and mother, and finally betook herself away. We watched her cross the yard, tall, stately, erect, and disappear down the lane. Then, as often aforetime, we gathered together in the cheer of the red hearth-flame, while outside the wind of a winter twilight sang through fair white valleys brimmed with a reddening sunset, and a faint, serene, silver-cold star glimmered over the willow at the gate.
"Well," said Felicity, drawing a relieved breath, "I'm glad she's gone. She certainly is queer, just as mother said."
"It's a different kind of queerness from what I expected, though," said the Story Girl meditatively. "There's something I can't quite make out about Aunt Eliza. I don't think I altogether like her."
"I'm precious sure I don't," said Dan.
"Oh, well, never mind. She's gone now and that's the last of it," said Cecily comfortingly .
But it wasn't the last of it - not by any manner of means was it! When our grown-ups returned almost the first words Aunt Janet said were,
"And so you had the Governor's wife to tea?"
We all stared at her.
"I don't know what you mean," said Felicity. "We had nobody to tea except Great-aunt Eliza. She came this afternoon and - "
"Great-aunt Eliza? Nonsense," said Aunt Janet. "Aunt Eliza was in town today. She had tea with us at Aunt Louisa's. But wasn't Mrs. Governor Lesley here? We met her on her way back to Charlottetown and she told us she was. She said she was visiting a friend in Carlisle and thought she'd call to see father for old acquaintance sake. What in the world are all you children staring like that for? Your eyes are like saucers."
"There was a lady here to tea," said Felicity miserably, "but we thought it was Great-aunt Eliza - she never SAID she wasn't - I thought she acted queer - and we all yelled at her as if she was deaf - and said things to each other about her nose - and Pat running over her clothes - "
"She must have heard all you said while I was showing her the photographs, Dan," cried Cecily.
"And about the Governor at tea time," chuckled unrepentant Dan.
"I want to know what all this means," said Aunt Janet sternly.
She knew in due time, after she had pieced the story together from our disjointed accounts. She was horrified, and Uncle Alec was mildly disturbed, but Uncle Roger roared with laughter and Aunt Olivia echoed it.
"To think you should have so little sense!" said Aunt Janet in a disgusted tone.
"I think it was real mean of her to pretend she was deaf," said Felicity, almost on the verge of tears.
"That was Agnes Clark all over," chuckled Uncle Roger. "How she must have enjoyed this afternoon!"
She had enjoyed it, as we learned the next day, when a letter came from her.
"Dear Cecily and all the rest of you," wrote the Governor's wife, "I want to ask you to forgive me for pretending to be Aunt Eliza. I suspect it was a little horrid of me, but really I couldn't resist the temptation, and if you will forgive me for it I will forgive you for the things you said about the Governor, and we will all be good friends. You know the Governor is a very nice man, though he has the misfortune not to be handsome.
"I had just a splendid time at your place, and I envy your Aunt Eliza her nephews and nieces. You were all so nice to me, and I didn't dare to be a bit nice to you lest I should give myself away. But I'll make up for that when you come to see me at Government House, as you all must the very next time you come to town. I'm so sorry I didn't see Paddy, for I love pussy cats, even if they do track molasses over my clothes. And, Cecily, thank you ever so much for that little bag of pot-pourri. It smells like a hundred rose gardens, and I have put it between the sheets for my very sparest room bed, where you shall sleep when you come to see me, you dear thing. And the Governor wants you to put his name on the quilt square, too, in the ten-cent section.
"Tell Dan I enjoyed his comments on the photographs very much. They were quite a refreshing contrast to the usual explanations of 'who's who.' And Felicity, your rusks were perfection. Do send me your recipe for them, there's a darling.
"Yours most cordially,
AGNES CLARK LESLEY.
"Well, it was decent of her to apologize, anyhow," commented Dan.
"If we only hadn't said that about the Governor," moaned Felicity.
"How did you make your rusks?" asked Aunt Janet. "There was no baking-powder in the house, and I never could get them right with soda and cream of tartar."
"There was plenty of baking-powder in the pantry," said Felicity.
"No, there wasn't a particle. I used the last making those cookies Thursday morning."
"But I found another can nearly full, away back on the top shelf, ma, - the one with the yellow label. I guess you forgot it was there."
Aunt Janet stared at her pretty daughter blankly. Then amazement gave place to horror.
"Felicity King!" she exclaimed. "You don't mean to tell me that you raised those rusks with the stuff that was in that old yellow can?"
"Yes, I did," faltered Felicity, beginning to look scared. "Why, ma, what was the matter with it?"
"Matter! That stuff was TOOTH-POWDER, that's what it was. Your Cousin Myra broke the bottle her tooth-powder was in when she was here last winter and I gave her that old can to keep it in. She forgot to take it when she went away and I put it on that top shelf. I declare you must all have been bewitched yesterday."
Poor, poor Felicity! If she had not always been so horribly vain over her cooking and so scornfully contemptuous of other people's aspirations and mistakes along that line, I could have found it in my heart to pity her.
The Story Girl would have been more than human if she had not betrayed a little triumphant amusement, but Peter stood up for his lady manfully.
"The rusks were splendid, anyhow, so what difference does it make what they were raised with?"
Dan, however, began to taunt Felicity with her tooth-powder rusks, and kept it up for the rest of his natural life.
"Don't forget to send the Governor's wife the recipe for them," he said.
Felicity, with eyes tearful and cheeks crimson from mortification, rushed from the room, but never, never did the Governor's wife get the recipe for those rusks.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER VII WE VISIT COUSIN MATTIE'S