When little Helen was not far from nine years old, her mother, (as she had learned to call Mrs. Bugbee,) whose health for a long time had been failing, fell sick and took to her bed. Sometimes, for a brief space, she would seem to mend a little; and a council of doctors, convened to consider her case, — though each member differed from all the others touching the nature of her malady, — unanimously declared she would ultimately recover. But her disease, whatever it was, proved to be her mortal illness; for the very next night she came suddenly to her end. Her loss was a heavy one, especially to her own household. She had always been a quiet person, of rather pensive humor, whose native diffidence caused her to shrink from observation; and after Amelia’s death she was rarely seen abroad, except at meeting, on Sundays, or when she went to visit the poor, the sick, or the grief-stricken. It was at home that her worth was most apparent; for plain domestic virtues, such as hers, seldom gain wide distinction. Her children’s sorrow was deep and lasting, and the badge of mourning which her husband wore for many months after her death was a truthful symbol of unaffected grief. From the beginning, he was warmly attached to his wife, whose affection for him was very great indeed. It would have been strange if he had been unhappy, when she, who made his tastes her study, also made it the business of her life to please him. Besides, his cheerful temper enabled him to make light of more grievous misfortunes than the getting of a loving wife and thrifty helpmeet ten years older than himself.
When a widower, like the Doctor, is but fifty, with the look of a much younger man, people are apt to talk about the chances of his marrying again. Before Mrs. Bugbee had been dead a twelve-month, rumors were as plenty as blackberries that the Doctor had been seen, late on Sunday evenings, leaving this house, or that house, the dwelling-place of some marriageable lady; and if he had finally espoused all whom the gossips reported he was going to marry, he would have had as many wives as any Turkish pasha or Mormon elder. It was doubtless true that he called at certain places more frequently than had been his custom in Mrs. Bugbee’s lifetime. This, he assured Cornelia, to whom the reports I have mentioned occasioned some uneasiness, was because he was more often summoned to attend, in a professional way, at these places, than he had ever been of old; which was true enough, I dare say, for more spinsters and widows were taken ailing about this time than had ever been ill at once before. Be that as it may, certain arrangements which the Doctor presently made in his domestic affairs did not seem to fore- token an immediate change of condition.
Miss Statira Blake, whom the Doctor engaged as housekeeper, was the youngest daughter of an honest shoemaker, who formerly flourished at Belfield Green, where he was noted for industry, a fondness for reading, a tenacious memory, a ready wit, and a fluent tongue. In politics he was a radical, and in religion a schismatic. The little knot of Presbyterian Federalist magnates, who used to assemble at the tavern to discuss affairs of church and state over mugs of flip and tumblers of sling, regarded him with feelings of terror and aversion. The doughty little cobbler made nothing of attacking them single-handed, and putting them utterly to rout; for he was a dabster at debate, and entertained as strong a liking for polemics as for hooks. Nay, he was a thorn in the side of the parson himself, for whom he used to lie in wait with knotty questions, — snares set to entrap the worthy divine, in the hope of beguiling him into a controversy respecting some abstruse point of doctrine, in which the cobbler, who had every verse of the Bible at his tongue’s end, was not apt to come off second best.
But one day, Tommy Blake, being at a raising where plenty of liquor was furnished, (as the fashion used to be,) slipped and fell from a high beam, and was carried home groaning with a skinful of broken bones. He died the next day, poor man, and his bedridden widow survived the shock of witnessing his dreadful agonies and death but a very little while. Her daughters, two young girls, were left destitute and friendless. But Major Bugbee, to whom the cobbler’s wife had been remotely akin, and who was at that time first selectman of the town, took the orphans with him to his house, where they tarried till he found good places for them. Roxana, the elder girl, went to live with a reputable farmer’s wife, whose only son she afterwards married. Statira remained under the shelter of the good Major’s hospitable roof much longer than her sister did, and would have been welcome to stay, but she was not one of those who like to eat the bread of dependence. With the approval of the selectmen, she bound herself an indentured apprentice to Billy Tuthill, the little lame tailor, for whom she worked faithfully four years, until she had served out her time and was mistress of her trade, even to the recondite mystery of cutting a double-breasted swallow-tail coat by rule and measure. Then, at eighteen, she set up business for herself, going from house to house as her customers required, working by the day. Her services were speedily in great demand, and she was never out of employment. Many a worthy citizen of Belfield well remembers his first jacket-and-trowsers, the handiwork of Tira Blake. The Sunday breeches of half the farmers who came to meeting used to be the product of her skilful labor. Thus for many years (refusing meanwhile several good offers of marriage) she continued to ply her needle and shears, working steadily and cheerfully in her vocation, earning good wages and spending but little, until the thrifty sempstress was counted well to do, and held in esteem accordingly. Sometimes, when she got weary, and thought a change of labor would do her good, she would engage with some lucky dame to help do housework for a month or two. She was a famous hand at pickling, preserving, and making all manner of toothsome knick-knacks and dainties. Nor was she deficient in the pleasure walks of the culinary art. Betsey Pratt, the tavernkeeper’s wife, a special crony of Statira’s, used always to send for her whenever she was in straits, or when, on some grand occasion, a dinner or supper was to be prepared and served up in more than ordinary style. So learned was she in all the devices of the pantry and kitchen, that many a young woman in the parish would have given half her setting-out, and her whole store of printed cookery-books, to know by heart Tira Blake’s unwritten lore of rules and recipes. So, wherever she went, she was welcome, albeit not a few stood in fear of her; for though, when well treated, she was as good-humored as a kitten, when provoked, especially by a slight or affront, her wrath was dangerous. Her tongue was sharper than her needle, and her pickles were not more piquant than her sarcastic wit. Tira, the older people used to remark, was Tommy Blake’s own daughter; and truly, she did inherit many of her father’s qualities, both good and bad, and not a few of his crotchets and opinions. In fine, she was a shrewd, sensible, Yankee old maid, who, as she herself was wont to say, was as well able to take care of ‘number one’ as e’er a man in town.
Statira never forgot Major Bugbee’s kindness to her in her lonely orphanhood. She preserved for him and for every member of his family a grateful affection; but her special favorite was James, the Doctor’s brother, who was a little younger than she, and who repaid this partiality with hearty good-will and esteem. When he grew up and married, his house became one of Statira’s homes; the other being at her sister’s house, which was too remote from Belfield Green to be at all times convenient. So she had rooms, which she called alike her own, at both these places, in each of which she kept a part of her wardrobe and a portion of her other goods and chattels. The children of both families called her Aunt Statira, but, if the truth were known, she loved little Frank Bugbee, James’s only son, better than she did the whole brood of her sister Roxy’s flaxen-pated offspring. Nay, she loved him better than all the world besides. Statira used to call James her right-hand man, asking for his advice in every matter of importance, and usually acting in accordance with it. So, when Doctor Bugbee invited her to take charge of his household affairs, Cornelia joining in the request with earnest importunity, she did not at once return a favorable reply, though strongly inclined thereto, but waited until she had consulted James and his wife, who advised her to accept the proffered trust, giving many sound and excellent reasons why she ought to do so.
Accordingly, a few months after Mrs. Bugbee’s death, Statira began to sway the sceptre where she had once found refuge from the poor-house; for though Cornelia remained the titular mistress of the mansion, Statira was the actual ruler, invested with all the real power. Cornelia gladly resigned into her more experienced hands the reins of government, and betook herself to occupations more congenial to her tastes than house-keeping. Whenever, afterwards, she made a languid offer to perform some light domestic duty, Statira was accustomed to reply in such wise that the most perfect concord was maintained between them. “No, my dear,” the latter would say, “do you just leave these things to me. If there a’n’t help enough in the house to do the work, your pa’ll get ‘em; and as for overseein’, one’s better than two.” But sometimes, when little Helen proffered her assistance, Tira let the child try her hand, taking great pains to instruct her in housewifery, warmly praising her successful essays, and finding excuses for every failure. It was not long before a cordial friendship subsisted between the teacher and her pupil.
The Doctor, of course, experienced great contentment at beholding his children made happy, his house well kept and ordered, his table spread with plentiful supplies of savory victuals, and all his domestic concerns managed with sagacity and prudence, by one upon whose good-will and ability to promote his welfare he could rely with implicit confidence. Even the servants shared in the general satisfaction; for though, under Tira’s vigorous rule, no task or duty could be safely shunned or slighted, she proved a kind and even an indulgent mistress to those who showed themselves worthy of her favor. Old Violet, the mother of Dinah, the little black girl elsewhere mentioned, yielded at once to Tira Blake the same respectful obedience that she and her ancestors, for more than a century in due succession, had been wont to render only to dames of the ancient Bugbee line. Dinah herself now a well-grown damsel, black, but comely, who, during Cornelia’s maladministration, had been suffered to follow too much the devices and desires of her own heart, setting at naught alike the entreaties and reproofs of her mistress and her mother’s angry scoldings, — even Dinah submitted without a murmur to Tira’s wholesome authority, and abandoned all her evil courses. Bildad Royce, a crotchety hired-man, whom the Doctor kept to do the chores and till the garden, albeit at first inclined to be captious, accorded to the new housekeeper the meed of his approbation.
“I like her well enough to hope she’ll stay, mum,” quoth he, in reply to an inquisitive neighbor. “And for my part, Miss Prouty,” he added, nodding and winking at his questioner, “I’d like to see it fixed so she’d alwus stay; and if the Doctor doos think he can’t do no better’n to have her bimeby, when the time comes, who’s a right to say a word agin it?”
“Goodness me!” exclaimed the unwary Mrs. Prouty, — “do you mean to say you think he’s got any idea of such a thing, Bildad?”
“Yes, I don’t mean to say I think he’s got any idee of sich a thing, Bildad,” replied Bildad himself, who took great delight in mystifying people, and who sometimes, in order to express the most unqualified negation, was accustomed to employ this apparently ambiguous form of speech. “I said for my part, Miss Prouty, — for my part. As for the Doctor, he’ll prob’bly have his own notions, and foller ’em.”
Besides these already mentioned, there was another person, who sat so often at the Doctor’s board and spent so many hours beneath his roof, that, for the nonce, I shall reckon her among his family. Indeed, Laura Stebbins was almost as much at home in the Bugbee mansion as at the parsonage, and she used to regard the Doctor and his wife with an affection quite filial in kind and very ardent in degree. For this she had abundant reason, the good couple always treating her with the utmost kindness, frequently making her presents of clothes and things which she needed, besides gifts of less use and value. These tokens of her friends’ good-will she used to receive with many sprightly demonstrations of thankfulness; sometimes, in her transports of gratitude, distributing between the Doctor and his wife a number of delicious kisses, and telling the latter that her husband was the best and most generous of men. After Mrs. Bugbee’s death, the Doctor’s manner, as was to be expected, became more grave and sober, and he very wisely thought proper to treat Laura with a kindness less familiar than before, which perceiving with the quickness of her sex, she also practised a like reserve. But notwithstanding this prudent change in his demeanor, his good-will for Laura was in no wise abated. At all events, the friendship between Cornelia and Laura suffered no decay or diminution. Indeed, it increased in fervency and strength. For Laura, having finished her course of study at the Belfield Academy, had now more time to devote to Cornelia than when she had had lessons to get and recitations to attend. The parsonage stood next to the Bugbee mansion, and in the paling between the two gardens there was a wicket, through which Cornelia, Laura, and Helen used to run to and fro a dozen times a day. The females of the Doctors family made nothing of scudding, bareheaded, across to the parsonage by this convenient back-way, and bolting into the kitchen without so much as knocking at the door; and Laura’s habits at the Bugbee mansion were still more familiar. Mrs. Jaynes, though not the most affable of womankind, gave this close intimacy much favor and encouragement; for she bore in mind that Cornelia’s father was the richest and most influential member of her husband’s church and parish.
At first, Laura was a little shy of the plain-spoken old maid, for whose person, manners, and opinions she had often heard Mrs. Jaynes express, in private, a most bitter dislike. But Statira had been regnant in the Bugbee mansion less than a week, when Laura began to make timid advances towards a mutual good understanding, of which for a while Statira affected to take no heed for having formed a resolution to maintain a strict reserve towards every inmate of the parsonage she was not disposed to break it so soon, even in favor of Laura, whose winsome overtures she found it difficult to resist.
“If it w’a’nt for her bein’ Miss Jaynes’s sister,” said she, one day, to Cornelia, who had been praising her friend, — “if it want for that one thing, I should like her remarkable well, — a good deal more’n common.”
“Pray, what have you got such a spite against the Jayneses for?” asked Cornelia.
“What do you mean by askin’ such a question as that, Cornele?” said Tira, in a tone of stern reproof. “Who’s got a spite against ’em? Not I, by a good deal! As for the parson himself, he’s a well-meanin’ man, and does as near right as he knows how. If you could say as much as that for everybody, there wouldn’t be any need of parsons any more.”
“But you don’t like Mrs. Jaynes,” persisted Cornelia.
“I ha’n’t got a spite against her, Cornele, — though, I confess, I don’t love the woman,” replied Statira. “But I always treat her well; though, to be sure, I don’t curchy so low and keep smilin’ so much as most folks do, when they meet a ministers wife and have talk with her. Even when she comes here a-borrowin’ things she knows will be giv’ to her when she asks for ’em, which makes it so near to beggin’ that she ought to be ashamed on’t, which I only give to her because it’s your father’s wish for me to do so, and the things are his’n; but I always treat her well, Cornele.”
“But why don’t you like her, Tira?” asked Helen.
“My dear, I’ll tell you, said Statira; for I don’t want you to think I’m set against any person unreasonable and without cause. You see Miss Jaynes is a nateral-born beggar. I don’t say it with any ill-will, but it’s a fact. She takes to beggin’ as naterally as a goslin’ takes to a puddle; and when she first come to town she commenced a-beggin’, and has kep’ it up ever since. She used to tackle me the same as she does everybody else, askin’ me to give somethin’ to this, and to that, and to t’other pet humbug of her’n, but I never would do it and when she found she couldn’t worry me into it, like the rest of ’em, it set her very bitter against me; and I heard of her tellin’ I’d treated her with rudeness, which I’d always treated her civilly, only when I said ‘No,’ she found coaxin’ and palaverin’ wouldn’t stir me. So it went on for a year or two, till, one fall, I was stayin’ here to your ma’s, — Cornele, I guess you remember the time, — helpin’ of her make up her quinces and apples. We was jest in the midst of bilin’ cider, with one biler on the stove and the biggest brass kittle full in the fireplace, when in comes boltin’ Miss Jaynes, dressed up as fine as a fiddle. She set right down in the kitchen, and your ma rolled her sleeves down and took off her apurn, lookin’ kind o’ het and worried. After a few words, Miss Jaynes took a paper out of her pocket, and says she to your ma, ‘Miss Bugbee,’ says she, ‘I’m a just startin’ forth on the Lord’s business, and I come to you as the helpmate and pardner of one of his richest stewards in this vineyard.’ — ‘What is it now?’ says your ma, lookin’ out of one eye at the brass kittle, and speakin’ more impatient than I ever heard her speak to a minister’s wife before. Well, I can’t spend time to tell all that Miss Jaynes said in answer, but it seemed some of the big folks in New York had started a new society, and its object was to provide, as near as ever I could find out, such kind of necessary notions for indigent young men studyin’ to be ministers as they couldn’t well afford to buy for themselves, — such as steel-bowed specs for the near-sighted ones, and white cravats, black silk gloves, and linen-cambric handkerchiefs for ’em all, — in order, as Miss Jaynes said, these young fellers might keep up a respectable appearance, and not give a chance for the worlds people to get a contemptible idee of the ministry, on account of the shabby looks of the young men that had laid out to foller that holy callin’. She said it was a cause that ought to lay near the heart of every evangelical Christian man, and especially the women. ‘We mothers in Israel,’ says Miss Jaynes, ‘ought to feel for these young Davids that have gone forth to give battle to the Goliaths of sin that are a-stalkin’ and struttin’ round all over the land.’ She said the society was goin’ to be a great institution, with an office to New York, with an executive committee and three secretaries in attendance there, and was a-goin’ to employ a great number of clergymen, out of a parish, to travel as agents collectin’ funds; ‘but,’ says she, ‘I’ve a better tack for collectin’ than most people, and I’ve concluded to canvass this town myself for donations to this noble and worthy cause; and I’ve come to you, Miss Bugbee,’ says she, ‘to lead off with your accustomed liberality.’ — Well, what does your ma do, but go into her room, to her draw, I suppose, and fetch out a five-dollar bill, and give it to Miss Jaynes, which I’d a had to work a week, stitchin’ from mornin’ to night, to have earnt that five-dollar bill; though, of course, your ma had a right to burn it up, if she’d a been a mind to; only it made me ache to see it go so, when there was thousands of poor starvin’ ragged orphans needin’ it so bad. All to once Miss Jaynes wheeled and spoke to me: ‘Well, Miss Tira,’ says she, ‘can I have a dollar from you?’ — ‘No, ma’am,’ says I. — ‘I supposed not,’ says she; which would have been sassy in anybody but the parson’s wife. But I held my tongue, and out she went, takin’ no more notice of me than she did of Vi’let, nor half so much, — for I see her kind o’ look towards the old woman, as if she was half a mind to ask her for a fourpence-ha’penny. Well, that was the last on’t for a spell, until after New Year’s. I was stayin’ then at your Uncle James’s, and one afternoon your ma sent for your Aunt Eunice and me to come over and take tea. So we went over, and there was several of the neighbors invited in, — Squire Bramhall’s wife, and them your ma used to go with most, and amongst the rest, of course, Miss Jaynes. There had just before that been a donation party, New Year’s night, to the parson’s, and the Dorcas Society bad bought Miss Jaynes a nice new Brussels carpet for her parlor, all cut and fitted and made up. In the course of the afternoon Miss Bramhall spoke and asked if the new carpet was put down, and if it fitted well. ‘Oh, beautiful!’ says she, ‘it fits the room like a glove; somebody must have had pretty good eyes to took the measure so correct, and I not know anything what was a-comin’; and I hope,’ says she, ‘ladies, you’ll take an early opportunity to drop in and see it; for there a’n’t one of you but what I’m under obligation to for this touchin’ token of your love,’ (that’s what she called it,) — ‘except,’ says she, of a sudden, ‘except Miss Blake, whom, really, I hadn’t noticed before!’ — I tell ye, Cornele, my ebenezer was up at this; for you can’t tell how mean and spiteful she spoke and looked, pretendin’ as if I was so insignificant a critter she hadn’t taken notice of my bein’ there before, which, to be sure, she hadn’t even bid me good afternoon; and for my part, I hadn’t put myself forward among such women as was there, though I didn’t feel beneath ’em, nor they didn’t think so, except Miss Jaynes. — Then she went on. ‘Miss Blake,’ says she, ‘I believe didn’t mean no slight for not helpin’ towards the carpet; for she never gives to anything, as I know of,’ says she. ‘I’ve often asked her for various objects, and have been as often refused. The last time,’ says she, ‘I did expect to get somethin’; for I asked only for a dollar to that noble society for providin’ young men, a-strugglin’ to prepare themselves for usefulness in the ministry, with some of the common necessaries of life, but she refused me. I expect,’ says she, a-sneerin’ in such a way that I couldn’t stand it any longer, ‘I expect Miss Blake is a-savin’ all her money to buy her settin’-out and furniture with; for I suppose,’ says she, lookin’ more spiteful than ever, ‘I suppose Miss Blake thinks that as long as there’s life there’s hope for a husband.’ — I happen to know what all the ladies thought of this speech, for every one of ’em afterwards told me; but, if you’ll believe me, one or two of the youngest of ’em kind of pretended to smile at the joke on’t, when Miss Jaynes looked round as if she expected ’em to laugh; for she thought, I suppose, I was really and truly no account, bin’ a cobblers daughter and a tailoress, — and that when the ministers wife insulted me, I dars’n’t reply, and all hands would stand by and applaud. But she found out her mistake, and she begun to think so, when she see how grave your ma and all the rest of the older ladies looked, for they knew what was comin’. I’d bit my lips up till now, and held in out of respect to the place and the company, but I thought it was due to myself to speak at last. Says I, ‘Miss Jaynes, I’ve always treated you with civility and the respect due to your place; though I own I ha’n’t felt free to give my hard-earned wages away to objects I didn’t know much about, when, with my limited means, I could find places to bestow what little I could spare without huntin’ ’em up. I don’t mean to boast,’ says I, ‘of my benevolence, and I don’t have gilt-framed diplomas hung up in my room to certify to it, to be seen and read of all men, as the manner of some is, — but,’ says I, ‘I will say that I’ve given this year twenty-five dollars to the Orphan Asylum, to Hartford, and I’ve a five-dollar gold-piece in my puss,’ says I, ‘that I can spare, and will give that more to the same charity, for the privilege of tellin’ before these ladies, that heard me accused of being stingy, why I don’t give to you when you ask me to, and especially why I didn’t give the last time you asked me. I would like to tell why I didn’t help sew in the Dorcas Society, to buy the new carpet,’ says I, ‘but I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelin’s that ha’n’t hurt mine, and I’ll forbear.’ — By this time Miss Jaynes was pale as a sheet. ‘I’m sure,’ says she, ‘I don’t care why you don’t choose to give, and I don’t suppose any one else does. It’s your own affair,’ says she, ‘and you a’n’t compelled to give unless you’re a mind to.’ — ‘You should have thought of that before you twitted me,’ says I, ‘before all this company.’ — ‘Oh, Tira, never mind,’ says Miss Bramhall, ‘let it all go!’ But up spoke your Aunt Eunice, and says she, ‘It’s no more than fair to hear Tira’s reasons, after what’s been said.’”
“Good!” said little Helen; “hurrah for Aunt Eunice!”
“And your ma,” resumed Statira, “I knew by her looks she was on my side, though, it bein’ her own house, she felt less free to say as much as your Aunt Eunice did. — ‘In the first place,’ says I, ‘if I did want to keep my money to buy furniture with, in case I should get a husband, I expect I’ve a right to, for ’ta’n’t likely, says I, I shall be lucky enough to have my carpets giv’ to me. But that w’an’t the reason I didn’t put my name down for a dollar on that subscription. One reason was, I knew the upshot on’t would be that somebody would be put up to suggestin’ that the money should go for a life-membership in the society for Miss Jaynes, says I; and I don’t like to encourage anybody in goin’ round beggin’ for money to buy her own promotion to a high seat in the synagogue.’ — ‘You ought to seen Miss Jaynes’s face then! It was redder’n any beet, for I’d hit the nail square on the head, as it happened, and the ladies could scurcely keep from smilin’. — ‘Then,’ says I, ‘I shouldn’t be my father’s daughter, if I’d give a cent for a preacher that isn’t smart enough to get his own livin’ and pay for his own clothes and eddication. To ask poor women to pay for an able-bodied man’s expenses,’ says I, ‘seems to me like turnin’ the thing wrong end foremost. A young feller that a’n’t smart enough to find himself in victuals and clothes won’t be of much help in the Lord’s vineyard,’ says I.”
“And what did Mrs. Jaynes say?” asked little Helen, when Tira finally came to a pause.
“Well, really, my dear,” replied Miss Blake, “the woman had nothin’ to say, and so she said it. When I got through my speech I handed the five-dollar goldpiece to your Aunt Eunice, to send to the Asylum, and that ended it; for just then Dinah come in and said tea was ready, and we all went out. It was rather stiff for a while, and after tea we all went home; and for three long years Miss Jaynes never opened her face to me, until I came here to live, this time. Now she finds its for her interest to make up, and so she tries to be as good as pie. But though I mean to be civil, I’m no hypocrite, and I can’t be all honey and cream to them I don’t like; and besides, it a’n’t right to be.”
“But you ought not to blame Laura because her sister affronted you,” said Helen.
“I know that, my dear,” replied Miss Blake; “and if I’ve hurt the girl’s feelin’s, I’m sorry for’t. She’s tried hard to be friends with me, but I’ve pushed her off; for, not bein’ much acquainted, I was jealous, at first, that Miss Jaynes had put her up to it, to try to get round me in some way.”
“Never!” cried Cornelia, — “my Laura is incapable of such baseness!”
“Well,” said Statira, smiling, “come to know her, I guess you can’t find much guile in her, that’s a fact. If I did her wrong by mistrustin’ her without cause, I’ll try to make amends. It a’n’t in me to speak hash even to a dog, if the critter looks up into my face and wags his tail in honest good-nater. And I’ll say this for Laura Stebbins, anyhow, if she is Miss Jaynes’s sister, — she’s got the most takin’ ways of most any grown-up person I ever see.”
The reflection is painful to a generous mind, that, by harboring unjust suspicions of another, one has been led to repel friendly advances with indifference or disdain. In order to assuage some remorseful pangs, Miss Blake began from this tune to treat Laura with distinguished favor. On the other hand, Laura, delighted at this pleasant change in Miss Blake’s demeanor, sought frequent opportunities of testifying her joy and gratitude. In this manner an intimacy began, which ripened at length into a firm and enduring friendship. Laura soon commenced the practice of applying to her more experienced friend for advice and direction in almost every matter, great or small, and of confiding to her trust divers secrets and confessions which she would never have ventured to repose even in Cornelia’s faithful bosom. This prudent habit Tira encouraged.
“I know, my dear,” said she, one day, “I know what it is to be almost alone in the world, and what a comfort it is to have somebody you can rely on to tell your griefs and troubles to, and, as it were, get ’em to help you bear ’em. So, my dear child, whenever you want to get my notions on any point, just come right straight to me, if you feel like it. I may not be able to give you the best advice, for I a’n’t so wise as you seem to think I be; however I ha’n’t lived nigh fifty years in the world for naught, I trust, and without havin’ learnt some things worth knowin’; and though my counsel mayn’t be worth much, still you shall have the best I can give.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you!” cried Laura, with such a burst of passionate emotion that Miss Blake’s eyes watered at the sight of it. “My dear, dear, dear good friend! you don’t know how glad I shall be, if you will let me do as you say, and tell me what to do, and scold me, and admonish and warn me! Oh, it will be such happiness to have somebody to tell all my real secrets and troubles to! I do so need such a friend sometimes!”
“Don’t I know it, you poor dear?” said Miss Blake, wiping her eyes. “Ha’n’t I been through the same straits myself? None but them that’s been a young gal themselves, an orphan without a mother to confide in and to warn and guide ’em, knows what it is. But I do, my dear and though I shall be a pretty poor substitute for an own mother, I’ll do the best I can.”
“Tira,” said Laura, with a tearful and blushing cheek held up to the good spinster’s, “kiss me, won’t you? — you never have.”
“My dear,” said Miss Blake, preparing to comply with this request by wiping her lips with her apron, “you see I a’n’t one of the kissin’ sort, and I scurcely ever kiss a grown-up person; but here’s my hand, and here’s a kiss,” — with an old-fashioned smack that might have been heard in the next room, for a token that you may always come to me as freely as if I was your mother, relyin’ upon my givin’ you my honest advice and opinion concernin’ any affair that you may ask for counsel upon. And furthermore, as girls naterally have a wish that the very things they need some one to direct ’em the most in sha’n’t be known except by them they tell the secret to, I promise you, my dear, that I’ll be as close as a freemason concernin’ any privacy that you may trust me with, about any offer or courtin’ matter of any kind.”
“Oh, I shall never have any such secrets,” said Laura, blushing; “my sister never lets the beaux come to see me, you know. I’m going to be an old maid.”
“Well, perhaps you will be,” said Miss Blake; “only they gen’ally don’t make old maids of such lookin’ girls as you be.”
But though Miss Blake took Laura into favor, she was by no means inclined to do the same by Mrs. Jaynes, who, having found to her cost that the ill-will of the humble sempstress was not to be lightly contemned, was now plainly anxious to conciliate her. But Statira was proof against all the wheedling and flattery of the parsons wife, behaving towards her always with the same cool civility, and with great self-control, — using none of the frequent opportunities afforded her to make some taunt, or fling, or reproachful allusion to Mrs. Jaynes’s former conduct. Once, to be sure, when urged by the parson’s wife and a committee of the Dorcas Society to invite that respectable body to convene at the Bugbee mansion for labor and refreshment, Statira returned a reply so plainly spoken that it was deemed rude and ungracious.
“Cornelia is mistress of this house, Miss Jaynes,” said she, “and if she belonged to your society, and wanted to have its weekly meetin’s here in turn, I’d do my best to give ’em somethin’ good to eat and drink. But as she has left the matter to me, I say ‘No,’ without any misgivin’ or doubt; and for fear I may be called stingy or unsociable, I’ll tell the reason why I say so, — and besides, it’s due to you to tell it. There’s poor women, even in this town, put to it to get employment by which they can earn bread for themselves and their children. They can’t go out to do housework, for they’ve got young ones too little to carry with ’em, and maybe a whole family of ’em. Takin in sewin’ is their only resource. Well, ma’am, for ladies, well-to-do and rich, to get together, under pretence of good works and charity, and take away work from these poor women, by offerin’ to do it cheaper, underbiddin’ of ’em for jobs, which I’ve known the thing to be done, and then settin’ over their ill-gotten tasks, sewin’, and gabblin’ slander all the afternoon, to get money to buy velvet pulpit-cushions or gilt chandeliers with, or to help pay some missionary’s passage to the Tongoo Islands, is, in my opinion, a humbug, and, what’s worse, a downright breach of the Golden Rule. At any rate, with my notions, it would be hypocrisy in me to join in, and that’s why I don’t invite the society here. I don’t know but I have spoke too strong; if so, I’m sorry; but I’ve had to earn my own livin’, ever since I was a girl, with my needle, and I know how hard the lot of them is that have to do so too. Besides, I can’t help thinkin’, what, perhaps, you never thought of, yourselves, ladies, that every person, who, while they can just as well turn their hands to other business, yet, for their own whim, or pleasure, or convenience, or profit, chooses to do work, of which there ant enough now in the world to keep in employment them that must get such work to do, or else beg, or sin, or starve, — when I think, I say, that every such person helps some poor cretur into the grave, or the jail, or a place worse than both, I feel that strong talk isn’t out of place; and I’ve known this very Dorcas Society to send to Hartford and get shirts to make, under price, and spend their blood-money afterwards to buy a new carpet for the minister’s parlor. That was a fact, Miss Jaynes, though perhaps it wa’n’t polite in me to speak on’t; and so for fear of worse, I’ll say no more.”
When this speech of his housekeeper came to the Doctor’s ears, he expressed so warm an approval of its sentiments, that several who heard him began to be confirmed in suspicions they had previously entertained, the nature of which may be inferred from a remark which Mrs. Prouty confided to the ear of a trusty friend and crony. “Now do you mind what I say, Miss Baker,” said she, shaking her snuffy forefinger in Mrs. Baker’s face; “Doctor Bugbee’ll marry Tira Blake yet. Now do you just stick a pin there.”
But the revolving seasons twice went their annual round, the great weeping-willow-tree in the burying-ground twice put forth its tender foliage in the early spring, and twice in autumn strewed with yellow leaves the mound of Mrs. Bugbee’s grave, while the predictions of many, who, like Mrs. Prouty, had foretold the Doctor’s second wedding, still remained without fulfilment. Nay, at the end of two years after his wife’s death, Doctor Bugbee seemed to be no more disposed to matrimony than in the first days of his bereavement. There were, to be sure, floating on the current of village gossip, certain rumors that he was soon to take a second wife; but as none of these reports agreed touching the name of the lady, each contradicted all the others, and so none were of much account. Besides, there was nothing in the Doctor’s appearance or behavior that seemed to warrant any of these idle stories. It is the way with many hopeful widowers (as everybody knows) to become, after an interval of decorous sadness, more brisk and gay than even in their youthful days; bestowing unusual care upon their attire and the adornment of their persons, and endeavoring, by a courteous and gallant demeanor towards every unmarried lady, to signify the great esteem in which they hold the female sex. But these signs, and all others which betoken an ardent desire to win the favor of the fair, were wanting in the Doctor’s aspect and deportment. Though, as my reader knows, he was by nature a man of lively temper, he was now grown more sedate than he had ever been before; and instead of attiring himself more sprucely than of old, he neglected his apparel to such a degree, that, although few would have noticed the untidy change, Statira was filled with continual alarms, lest some invidious housewife should perceive it, and lay the blame at her door. Except when called abroad to perform some professional duty, he spent his time at home, although his family observed that he secluded himself in his office, among his books and gallipots, more than had been his wont, and that he sometimes indulged in moods of silent abstraction, which had never been noticed in his manner until of late. But these changes of demeanor seemed to betoken an enduring sorrow for the loss of his wife, rather than to indicate a desire or an intention to choose a successor to her. My readers, therefore, will not be surprised to learn, by a plain averment of the simple truth, that not one of all the score of ladies, whose names had been coupled with his own, would Doctor Bugbee have married, if he could, and that to none of them had he ever given any good reason for believing that she stood especially high in his esteem.