“ EMMA, go to the bureau in my bedroom, and in the second drawer, in the right-hand corner, you’ll see the pile of aprons; the third one from the top is your blue-and-brown gingham. Put it on, and I will button it up for you.”
“ I hate that old apron ! ” said Emma, undutifully. “ I don’t want to wear it! ”
“ Emma, do as I bid you this instant,” said Mrs. Gourlay, with authority. “ Hate the clothes that mother makes for you! what a wicked girl ! ”
“ It’s faded, and there ’s a great patch where I burnt it, and Kitty will laugh at me. Aunty never makes her wear such old things.”
“Kitty will most likely see the day when she will be glad of a much worse one, and have to go without. Your aunt brings up her children to all sorts of extravagant notions, but I ’m thankful that I know my duty better.”
Spite of her frowning remonstrances, the unwilling Emma was duly invested with the despised garment, and despatched to school, where the spectacle of her cousin in a prettily shaped white apron, made with pockets, and fastened by rows of dear little pearl buttons, served greatly to intensify her wrath and disgust.
Meanwhile Mrs. Gourlay seated herself before her work-basket. Before it, — for it was no trumpery affair, decked with ribbons, and holding a gold thimble and frill, or perchance a bit of tatting. It was a large, substantial willow structure, piled with all sorts of heavy, ugly garments in the cut-out state. This basket was poor Emma’s abhorrence. She had her daily part to do toward reducing its contents ; and her little hands grew weary and her little heart yet wearier over long fells and clumsy seams of Canton flannel. Mrs. Gourlay had no sympathy with such weariness. Canton flannel was an ordering of Providence; and if any one found sewing on it to be tedious, it was clearly due to her own rebellious and impatient spirit.
I wish you could have seen the room in which this good lady presently composed herself to sewing ; though indeed “composed” is hardly the word for that swift and energetic plying of the needle which straightway began. It was not a large apartment, nor a lofty,— I believe that Mrs. Gourlay, having never chanced to inhabit such rooms herself, had a notion that some sort of moral obliquity attached to their possession, — nor could it boast the ornament of rare or costly furniture ; but how beautifully clean, how exactly ordered, was every portion of it ! The window-panes glittered like mirrors ; the Holland shades hung “plumb” from their rollers ; the carpet — ingrain of the best quality and ugliest imaginable pattern — was free from shred or speck; the maple chairs, with their cane scats, shone as if just home from the cabinet-maker’s ; well-starched tidies protected the green moreen of the rocking-chairs from profaning contact. Every inch of paint, every bit of brass or steel, was fresh and shining as hands could make it. Even the pendulum of the clock on the high mantel looked bigger and brighter than that of other clocks, as it glanced momently through its little window. Yet, as there was a serpent in Eden, so there was one element of disorder even in this otherwise perfect room. The cover of the lounge, put on to preserve undimmed its greenand-crimson glories, had a trick of getting awry when Mr. Gourlay or the children sat or moved heedlessly upon it. This was one of Mrs. Gourlay’s trials,—a cross borne daily with more or less of meekness, as might happen. She was not partial to the lounge herself, preferring seats of more upright and rigid tendency; but once a day or so she sat down upon it in an illustrative manner, merely to prove how entirely unnecessary were the twitching and rumpling of its cover which ensued upon the presence of anybody else. But the lessons were unfruitful : the chintz still twisted, and the children still caught admiring glimpses of the splendors beneath.
This morning there was great peace in the room and in Mrs. Gourlay’s mind. The children were at school, and her husband at his office. Undisturbed quiet reigned, and would reign till the noon-hour brought the return of the beloved ones and the infraction of order. For the time being she was almost as happily situated as a maiden lady or a childless widow. She set a huge patch in John’s trousers with the finish and exactness of mosaic-work, turned thence to Mr. Gourlay’s hose, and meditated meanwhile on the extravagance and general delinquencies of Jane Maria.
Jane Maria was her sister-in-law, the wife of Mr. Gourlay’s younger brother : and between the two ladies existed all that fond affection which the relationship commonly engenders. It so happened that Jane Maria’s husband was the more prosperous of the two, — a state of things not acceptable to Mrs. Gourlay, and a great pity, every way, she considered. For only see to how much more account a good property could be turned in a small family like her own than in her brother’s great household ! The number of Jane Maria’s children seemed to her a part of the general want of management and thrift displayed in that establishment. Four boys and two girls, and all allowed pieces between meals ! No wonder there was a grease-spot as large as a sixpence on the dining-room carpet the last time she was there, and that Jane Maria put up jam enough every fall to supply a regiment.
And now Emma was getting older, and noticed things, she supposed there would be an endless trouble about her clothes. Well, no matter. If Jane Maria chose to waste her husband’s money in dressing up her children every day as if they were going to a party, it was not her affair ; she should not be led away by any such extravagance. Emma must learn to wear what was given her without gainsaying.
So pleasantly and profitably did time pass in these reveries, that the hand of the clock pointed to eleven ere she was aware. With rapid fingers she folded up her sewing, picked a stray thread from the carpet, and proceeding to the kitchen, superintended Melinda, the help, in the preparation of an excellent meal, — thinking, meanwhile, of that other kitchen where almost everything was left to “girls.” and choice cookery was unknown.
The children came flying in at the back door a little after twelve. Their father was allowed to use the front entrance on condition of assuming his slippers the moment that the portal closed after him. This was one of the by-laws of the house of Gourlay. The large, cheery man submitted to it as to other domestic edicts. If ever he wounded his wife’s feelings in any of those sacred household tenets wherein they were most tender, it was unwittingly, Prime among his articles of faith was that which held Martha his wife to be the very crown and exemplar of woman’s excellence. In return she strove to bear with resignation his many breaches of propriety ; only said, “O Mr. Gourlay !” in a despairing tone when he threw a wet overcoat down on the hall table, and shook her head with languid disdain when he proposed to summon all the flies in the neighborhood by lighting a fire on a cool summer day.
“ Is n’t it a great while since we had William’s people here to tea ? ” observed Mr. Gourlay as he discussed appreciatively his chicken-pie. “Suppose you ask ’em over,”
Mrs. Gourlay’s first impulse was to negative this proposition. Visits were not often exchanged between the two families, which enjoyed a sufficiency of each other’s society in informal calls and running in and out. Two or three times a year, however, there were invitations to a regular tea-drinking, and a slight effort of memory showed her that the period for her own share in these hospitalities had nearly come round ; besides which she had one or two chefs-d'œuvre in the sweetmeat line which she by no means objected to exhibit to Jane Maria. She acquiesced amiably, therefore, in her husband’s suggestion.
“ Emma, you may go to your aunt William’s after school, and say we shall be happy to see her and uncle and all the children to tea to-morrow afternoon.”
“Bless me ! is it going to be a party ?” said Mr. Gourlay. “How long notice do you need to give ? Why not have them to-day ? You 're always prepared enough. Give ’em whatever you happen to have.”
“That’s Jane Maria’s way, I know,” replied Mrs, Gourlay, with stately disapproval. “But I understand a little better, I hope, what is clue to guests than to set them down to stale bread and last week’s cake.”
“ Just as you like; only don’t make the children sick with goodies.”
“ It is n’t my fault, Mr. Gourlay, if they find things so much nicer than they are used to that they are tempted to overeat. Besides, their mother will be here ; can’t she restrain them ? ”
“Fault ? No, of course not. Who ever heard of its being a fault to set the best table in town ? Only it spoils a man for taking a meal out of his own house,” said Mr. Gourlay, roused to new consciousness of the treasure he possessed.
His wife smiled; she saw through the kind hypocrisy of this remark. Long but vainly had she tried to educate him up to her own high standard ; it remained a mournful fact that he could make as good a dinner from the homeliest fare as from her most carefully studied dainties. Yet he made an effort in the right direction ; he appreciated her superiority en masse, if not in detail, and this observation showed it.
Emma delivered her message according to instructions. “ Tell your mamma we shall be happy to come,” responded her aunt, graciously.
“Going to Aunt Martha’s!” cried George when he heard the news, “ O, bully! ”
“ For shame ! ” said his sister Cecilia, a voting prude of eleven or so. "One would think you never had anything to eat at home.”
“Who talked about eating?” demanded George, with injured innocence. “ I did n’t. Guess you must have been thinking about it yourself.”
“It’s the only treat you could look forward to there,” said their mother, when she and Cecilia were alone. “ I ’m sure ! I ’m always in a fever, from the time we enter the house, lest something should be injured. Not that there’s anything so very choice, but your aunt is so particular.”
“ Yes,” acquiesced Cecilia, quite old enough to understand the family hostilities. “ Aunt Martha thinks her kitchen chairs are better than other people’s parlor ones.”
This remark was considered by Mrs. William to be a triumph of shrewdness, and repeated as such to her husband in the evening.
At the other house great preparations were going on. The sponge was set for those miraculous biscuit in which Mrs. Gourlay gloried, cake was concocted, sliver rubbed up, and many a secret nook invaded in the hope, still futile, of discovering some dust therein.
“Shall we have the cover off the lounge, ma ? ” asked Emma.
“I don’t know,” said Mrs. Gourlay, doubtfully. Those vandals of children would he sprawling all over it, and digging their heels and elbows into it; so much was certain. On the other hand, she should like to show Jane Maria the advantage there was in taking a little care of your things ; her lounge was never covered, and faded and shabby enough it looked already, though not a year old yet. This desire conquered, and the valued article shone forth unobscured. Emma was allowed to come home early from school, and to view her mother as she cut the cake, and shaved down the smoked beef with a nicety unattainable by any other hand. She was further privileged to appropriate such precious crumbs and scraps as resulted from the work.
“Careful, child ! I ’m afraid you ’ll have your fingers off!” exclaimed Mrs. Gourlay, as the little hand dived almost under her keen knife in pursuit of a partieularlv choice bit of beef.
“ How thin you cut it! ” said Emma, admiringly. “Aunty has hers different, It ’s in quite thick pieces.”
“ I know it. Emma,” returned her mother. No further comment than her tone was needful.
Between four and five the door-yard gate opened, and the expected party appeared, — Cecilia, very smart in a new muslin, leading the youngest trot, decked out in infant finery; Kitty walking with her mother, and wearing sash and shoes that smote poor Emma’s heart. She looked down at her own thick boots, and sighed.
“ The boys will be here presently,” said Mrs. William, as she greeted her hostess. “ They were not quite ready, and I thought we would n’t wait for them.”
“There they are now,” announced Emma, a few minutes later, as the little group was about seating itself in the parlor. “ O my ! how they are running right through that mud in the middle of the road ! ”
“ Don't give yourself any trouble about them,” said their mother, as Mrs. Gourlay hurried to the door. “ They 'll hunt up John somewhere about the premises, I dare say.”
“ He’s walking up and down the back stoop, whistling, with his hands in his pockets,” said Emma.
Cecilia turned, while a very prim expression compressed her small mouth. “ I think,” she said, “that John might have come and spoken to his aunt and cousins.”
“ Perhaps he did not know we were here, my dear,” observed her mother. Cecilia looked gimlet-wise at little Emma, who colored guiltily, and vouchsafed no further information. She knew very well that John had said, “I ain’t going in ! I shall see aunty at tea, and you don’t catch me near Cecilia Gourlay if I can help it. I ain’t going to have her telling me what’s proper ! ”
The lady of the house returned from overseeing the proper use of scraper and mat on the part of her nephews, who sought the recreant John in his “position in the rear,” and the visit began. She observed with secret reprobation, though without surprise, that Jane Maria had no work, and bore her testimony against such lack of thrift by unusual energy in knitting.
“ What are you doing ? ” asked Mrs. William. “Cotton stockings? Don’t you find them very tedious ? ”
“ Not as tedious as to mend the holes in woven ones.”
“Yes, they are sometimes fearful,” said Jane Maria, smiling. “ I often wonder what my boys’ feet are made of, they go through their stockings so fast.”
“ We always think knitted stockings are the best economy,” said Mrs. Gourlay.
Now if there was a word in the world that Mrs. William hated, it was that “we.” It referred to Mrs. Gourlay’s mother and sisters, and thence back to her grandmother and great-aunts, each in her day a burning and shining light, and a terror to all less accomplished housekeepers. When Mrs. Gourlay said “we,” it suggested, not only her own perfections, but those of her whole race; it was a sort of royal “we,” and implied a superiority hopeless of attainment by any lowlier lineage.
“ Sometimes I think so, — and again not,” said Mrs. William. “It makes them very dear if you hire them done, and of course I can’t keep such a tribe supplied myself. So I buy sometimes, and again have some one knit for us.”
Of course. Just what might be expected. Never able to make up her mind to one thing or the other. But then it would not do to say a word. These reflections imparted a severity to Mrs. Gourlay’s countenance, observed by Cecilia, and considered by her to add a quite superfluous depth to her aunt’s ugliness. But Cecilia had mistaken views of personal appearance. Mrs. Gourlay was really a well-looking woman, or would have been had she brought a little taste and care to the aid of her native attractions. But her hair was always brushed straight back from her forehead and twisted in the tightest of knots ; her gowns were often old-fashioned, and apt to be short and scanty in the skirt. Thought for dress, except in the matter of being clean and whole, she regarded as a weakness criminally unworthy a woman who had the solemn trust of a house committed to her charge. Not, indeed, that she was so insensible to her own claims as to possess no good or valuable clothing. There were times and seasons — Sundays. Thanksgivings, and formal visits — when certain garments, now hanging darkly in the closet of the spare bedroom, were brought forth to light and wear. On such occasions little Emma viewed her mother’s unwonted magnificence with awful veneration, and never dreamed that the fineness of the merinoes, or the weight and lustre of the silks, could be matched in any other wardrobe.
Jane Maria, on the contrary, was not above such moderate personal adornment as the mother of six children might reasonably indulge in. Her hair, which was dark and abundant, was arranged with reference, if not in absolute conformity, to the reigning mode ; when her apparel became old-fashioned, she had it made up anew. To-day, her large but well-moulded form was arrayed in some sort of gray material, light of texture, as became the season, and relieved by blue trimmings. The skirt was full, and flowed away in soft, silky-looking amplitude; the azure ribbons suited their wearer’s fair and placid style ; the chestnut locks were rolled back from the white temples, and brushed to lustrous smoothness. Altogether, Mrs. William was what you would call a fine, stylish-looking woman of middle age, — one whom you would have felt disposed to commend, in that the care of so numerous a family had not caused her to neglect what was due to her own appearance. Not so did her sister-in-law regard this pleasing personnel. To her eyes, vanity and failure of duty were written all over the ample skirt and blue ribbons.
Conversation languished a little after the interchange of opinion upon cotton hose ; but this was nothing alarming. The family visits were not occasions of uproarious hilarity, and no one expected this to be an exception to the general rule. Mrs. Gourlay knitted vigorously ; Cecilia looked over the fashion-plates in an old volume of the Lady’s Book ; and Mrs. William kept a strict eye on little Harry, to see that no mischief was done to that high sanctuary in which they sat. She never brought any work upon her visits hither, dreading that her attention might be absorbed at a critical moment, and direful harm ensue. To the superficial observer there, was no great likelihood of this. There were no knick-knacks about, no bits of glass or china ; the sombre hair-cloth sofa and chairs looked capable of maintaining themselves against any infant sallies. But Mrs. William felt that danger was in ambush everywhere. She was never free from dread that Harry might, in some luckless moment, become surreptitiously possessed of a pin, and take to engraving some of the varnished surfaces around, or overturn the little stand with the big Bible on it, or crack the looking-glass or the shade of the solar lamp. Failing these, he was always likely to tumble the muslin curtains by an ill-advised rush to the window. So his mother watched him, keeping foot and hand in readiness to restrain any unwarranted movement; and, having meanwhile to carry on her share of conversation, found herself sufficiently employed. There was talk about the minister and the weather, the scarcitv of fruit, and consequent appalling dearth of sweetmeats ; while hope was expressed that the autumnal yield might compensate this lack.
“ Don’t you think Mr. Holly is falling off a great deal in his sermons ? ” asked Mrs. Gourlay,
“ Why, no, I can’t say I have observed it,” replied Jane Maria. “To be sure, I am not always as much interested as I could wish, but I think that may be owing to myself, in great part. The cares of the week do pursue us over into Sunday, though I know it ought not to be so. Sometimes in the midst of a sermon I will find my mind on some matter about the house or children. Of course I check myself as soon as I observe it, but one cannot expect to listen very profitably with divided attention.”
Such cause for her own lack of enjoyment in the services had never entered Mrs. Gourlay’s mind, and she was not likely to harbor it now. She was about to speak more freely of the minister’s deterioration, and her views with reference to it, when she caught the eye of her niece fixed attentively upon her. It would never do to speak before that girl; she was a great deal too sharp for her age.
“We have quite overlooked Cecilia,” she said, benignly; “it must be very dull for her, shut up here with us. Run out, my dear, and see if you can find Kitty and Emma ; I presume they are in the orchard under the early appletree. The apples are ripening fast, and they are very nice.”
Cecilia found this unwonted graciousness perfectly transparent. “ Thank you, aunt,” she answered, “but I will stay here, if you please. I don’t care to be with the children, and I can amuse myself very well while you and mamma are talking.” The flow of Mrs. Gourlay’s confidences was thus checked, and Cecilia very properly rewarded for her indocility : she was fond of apples, though she liked news better, and, in this instance, she had neither. Her aunt contented herself with remarking : “ One thing is certain ; Mr. Holly does n’t visit enough.”
“ Perhaps not,” said Jane Maria; “ but then he has his sermons, you know, and the weekly meetings, and people coming to him for advice, and a hundred other calls upon his time.”
“But he ought to visit more,” reiterated Mrs. Gourlay. “We’ve a right to expect it from our minister.”
“ I’ve a good deal of sympathy,” said jane Maria, smiling, “for people who don’t do all that is expected of them. But I think you are right in wishing to see Mr. Holly oftener ; he is so pleasant when he does come, that I feel sorry he cannot afford time to be more sociable. It’s Wesley, is n’t it, that says the smallest part of a pastor’s duty is in the pulpit?”
“Wesley may have said so,” returned Mrs. Gourlay, “ though I don’t see any call to go out of our own denomination for our opinions. I could have said as much as that myself, and so, I dare say, could plenty of our ministers.”
A sound of the trampling of many feet was presently heard, and it became evident that the boys had wearied of out-door amusement, and sought the sitting-room. Both mothers grew uneasy, — Mrs. Gourlay in the dread of injuries inflicted, Mrs. William in the fear that her tribe was inflicting them.
“ Cecy, dear,” she said, “go into the other room, and try to keep some sort of order among those boys.”
The young damsel departed on her mission, nothing loath ; clad in delegated authority, she felt herself an important character. John’s countenance fell as he saw the smart muslin and the neat gaiters in the door-way.
“ Can’t we have less noise here, children?” asked Cecilia. “Mamma and aunt can hardly hear themselves speak. George! let go that book. You must not snatch, sir ! Now what is all this dispute about ? ”
“It’s John’s fault,” said George, in loud complaint. “ He won't let me look. He said he ’d show me the pictures, and now he holds the book so high I can’t see.”
“John,” spake the austere Cecilia, “ you don’t understand very well how you ought to treat your company. I wonder you are n’t ashamed to tease a boy so much smaller than yourself.”
John succumbed. He might defy Cecilia from the back stoop, but in her presence he was vanquished. They had always been opposing forces. When they were smaller, her arm had often been black and blue from his vengeful pinches, and his locks had suffered from her angry clutch. This was all past long ago ; such personal encounters were ages removed from the present dignity of the individuals. But they were still at swords’ points in a more quiet way, and there was a chill of conscious virtue in the younger and weaker of the two that overawed her opponent. He sulkily surrendered the book to George; and the other boys, taking their stand on their sacred character of guests, lorded it over him without mercy.
Tea caused an agreeable diversion. Mr. Gourlay and his brother had come in, Mrs. Gourlay had paid her superintending visits to kitchen and table, Kitty and Emma had returned from the orchard with arms sentimentally intwined about each other’s waists, and six o’clock had arrived. Punctually as the last stroke died on the air, the hostess marshalled her clan, and led the way. There was a little bustle and delay in seating so large a party, and a casting down of eyes while grace was said ; then the whole wonderful coup d'œil burst upon them, — the firm, fine cloth with its satin gloss and even folds; the glitter of china and silver; the ruby and amber translucencies of sweetmeats ; the biscuits, each a snowy puff surmounted by its delicate crust of brown ; the contrasts of plum and lady cake, melting white and luscious darkness, piled together in the basket. From these goodly cates what fine aromas rose ! what a sense had every guest of the polish, the perfection, to which the arrangements had been brought! Mrs. William was vexed with herself that even she could not escape it. The china was no better than her own, the spoons not half as handsome. She had a silver-plated tea-tray and service, of neat and tasteful pattern, for her own great occasions ; yet somehow the britannia-metal teapot and the japanned salver impressed her with a feeling of their excellence, of the splendid festivity of any occasion which they graced, beyond what her own were ever able to convey. It must have been because they were so highly prized, so sedulously guarded. No hands but Mrs. Gourlay’s own would be permitted to wash the precious china; every piece must be rinsed in the fairest of water, wiped on the softest of towels. The waiter demanded not less care : hot water must not come near it, for fear of cracking the japan ; nor soap, lest the brightness of the coloring should be impaired. Tender wiping with a damp cloth, soft polishing with a dry one, then a little sweet oil, and a retirement to the loftiest shelf of the pantry,—this was the ceremony which it underwent after every occasion of use and exposure. Similar cares awaited the britanniametal teapot. People take you very much at your own valuation, it is said ; and there is no doubt that Mrs. Gourlay considered these articles, dating back to that era in the world’s history when she began to “ keep house,” as immeasurably superior to her sister-inlaw’s possessions.
As to the dainties themselves, there could be no question of their unapproachable excellence. To do Jane Maria justice, she was willing enough to acknowledge Mrs. Gourlay’s claims, and would have been content on most occasions to defer to her authority. But when this homage was exacted, and her own deficiencies were treated as a matter of course, her spirit rose in rebellion. Housekeeping was a department wherein Mrs. Gourlay considered that the merely “tolerable” was “not to be endured,” and her demeanor accorded with this conviction.
She sat now behind her teapot dispensing the richest cream and the most fragrant Hyson ; eating little herself, that the more watchful care might be given to her guests. She was a bountiful “ provider ” ; if her beef were shadowy-thin the plates were heaped, nor could she he content till every niece and nephew was liberally supplied with all the niceties before them. Only one thing on the table did she begrudge them, — the cloth. She had been sorely tempted to use some of the every-day damask on this occasion, but the high sense of duty prevailed. The best things belonged, of right, to “ company ”; and they must go on, though, of course, they could only serve for the one time. Her brightest hope was that no holes would be cut by careless knifeblades, and no permanent stains result from the visit.
Jane Maria bad not intended to gratify her hostess by any comment on the character of the entertainment, but the exquisiteness of the sweetmeats was too much for her resolution. It was before the days of canning, and the point of honor among housewives was to have preserves of a light color, Mrs. Gourlay’s were hardly darker than the uncooked fruit, the flavor was delicious, the syrup rich and crystal-clear.
“I never saw anything like it,” exclaimed Jane Maria, impulsively. “ How do you manage to have them so nice ?”
Mrs. Gourlay smiled her calm, superior smile, hopeless of imparting her method to such an aspirant. Jane Maria’s plums always broke, she knew; and, if she did her peaches whole, they were sure to dry on the pit.
“ I don’t know that there is anything I could tell you about it.” she said. “ They are done just as we always do our sweetmeats.”
“ Pound for pound ? ” suggested the querist.
“Of course,— the best white sugar. I don’t believe in having to heat them up every month or two.”
“ Strange !” said Mrs. William. “I always make them just that way, but mine never look like these.”
“ We always clean a brass kettle every time we use it,” said Mrs. Gourlay.
Jane Maria flushed at this implication. “ I don’t think the habit is peculiar to you,” she answered. “ I never knew any one that didn’t.”
“‘Cleanliness is the virtue next to godliness,”’ quoted her husband, not that it was particularly apposite, but just by way of saying something.
“Next in advance of it, Martha thinks,” observed Mr. Gourlay, jocosely.
“It is not my habit to jest about serious things,” said that lady, with severe visage.
“Well, Martha,” persisted her husband, with ill-timed levity, “ I knew you thought a great deal of your brass kettle, but I did n’t suppose you regarded it in that light.”
Everybody smiled but Mrs. Gourlay, whose features preserved the sternest gravity. “Will you have another cup of tea?” she said to Mrs. William. “James, your brother is out of butter.”
Her tone recalled people to their senses. The husband hastened to expiate his offence by pressing every one to take a little more of everything, while Jane Maria endeavored to remove the cloud by amiable chattiness. On the other hand, Cecilia, jealous of the family honor, left her sweetmeats untouched for the remainder of the meal, — a circumstance which she was assured would not escape the keen vision of her aunt, — and partook but lightly of the other dainties.
“ Have some plum-cake, child ? ” said Mrs. Gourlay, as the young heroine broke off the merest fragment from a white slice.
“Thank you, aunt,” she responded coolly, “I don’t care for any.”
“ Not care for plum-cake ! What ails you ? Don’t you feel well ? ”
“ O yes, I’m perfectly well,” said the resolute young voice; “but I don’t wish for any, thank you.” And she persisted, though the appealing richness of the seductive compound almost brought tears to her eyes. Mrs. Gourlay wondered and pondered within her own breast. Could that girl be so dead to merit as not to like her cake, her sweetmeats? — which was just the effect “ that girl ” intended to produce.
“ Cecy is getting on finely with her music, I hear,” said her uncle, presently.
“ Yes,” replied the pleased mother. “ Her teacher says she is making good progress.”
“ Does her voice get any stronger, do you think ? ” asked Mrs. Gourlay.
“ Stronger ?” said Jane Maria, doubtfully. “I don’t know — perhaps so— I haven't observed.” Mr. Gourlay, having often been made the confidant of his wife’s views as to the folly ol “ your brother’s people” in wasting their money on Cecilia, who had no more voice than a wren, understood the question better. He hastened to prevent any awkwardness by saying, —
“ I must come over and hear her myself, and then I can judge. You ’ll play for me some day, — won't you, Cecy ? ”
“Yes, uncle, any time you like,” replied the young lady, with the gracious air of one conferring an undoubted favor.
“What a child that is!” thought Mrs. Gourlay, with inward sarcasm. “ I should like to have the training of her awhile.” And indeed she would have done credit to such training. She was much more like her aunt than little Emma would ever be. Her decision, sharpness, and esprit da carps were quite foreign to the generous and easy temperament of her mother. Had she been condemned to calico pantalets and patched aprons, she would have looked with virtuous disdain on any other style of garment, and felt sure that there was exalted merit in the wearing of her own; whereas poor Emma was always oppressed by a sense of their ugliness and inferiority.
After tea there was an adjournment to the parlor, but only a brief tarry there. Mrs. William wished to be at home by the younger children’s bedtime ; she knew, besides, that her sister-in-law must be getting anxious to begin her labors upon the china and silver. There were the usual excuses for leaving, the usual civil pressing to stay longer, and then the little procession set out through the twilight. It was a rather quiet walk, and once or twice Mrs. William sighed.
“What’s the matter, Jenny?” said her husband.
“ Nothing that I know of,” she answered, brightening; “only a visit at Martha’s always makes me discouraged, somehow. Ordinarily I feel as if I did pretty well, considering the children and all my cares.”
“And so you do,” said her husband, heartily, — “so you do. I should like to see the woman that would manage better.”
“ But when I go there,” she continued, “ everything looks so fresh and now, there is such order and neatness everywhere, that, I feel as if my housekeeping was a miserable failure. It seems as if I ought to do better, and as if I must, and yet I don’t know where to begin.” And she sighed again.
“ I don’t see any occasion,” said her husband, “ I don’t know why you have n’t things every whit as nice,”
“O William! Why, did you observe that lounge ? She had it ages before we bought ours, and yet how bright it looks, while ours is quite shabby already.”
“ Reason enough. She has n’t five children and a baby to tumble on it.”
“ And then her table, —everything the very best of its kind. However, it is n’t that I mean; it is n’t any one matter particularly. But you feel that in that house all is as it should be. — no disorder, no confusion, the right time and the right place always remembered. And, if you did n’t feel it, Martha would be sure to remind you.”
“ That she would ! And as for yourself, Jenny, don’t worry a bit. Your housekeeping is all right. I’m always sure of every comfort I care for in my own home, and of being allowed to enjoy it in peace. I believe houses were made for people, and not people for houses, for my part.”
“Thank you, William,” said Jane Maria, gratefully.
Mrs. Gourlay meanwhile cleared away with busy hands the remnants of the feast. “ This cut cake, Emma,” she said, “ I shall leave out for you and John. The smoked beef you may have, too, — what’s left of it. One, two, three, four spots on the table-cloth ; Melinda must put it in sweet milk to-night; it has got off pretty well. Do you think I can trust you to carry those saucers to the pantry ? ” So the work went on ; in a brief space the table was cleared, and the crumb-cloth shaken ; then the lounge-cover was put on, and everything stood restored to pristine neatness.
“ There ’s one good job accomplished,” thought Mrs. Gourlay. “It is a weight off my mind when these visits are over.”
Eight years passed more or less pleasantly away. Little Harry, the “baby” of the visit, was now a stout and noisy lad of ten ; Kitty and Emma were crowned with the roses of sixteen : the “ boys ” had shot up into tall youths who came in to dinner with a great shuffling of feet in the entry, who laughed loudly and delighted in practical jokes. Mrs. Gourlay declared that it would drive her crazy to live in the same house with them, and she wondered jane Maria could survive it. But Jane Maria happily had good health ; she was equally a stranger to the fiend Neuralgia and the archfiend Dyspepsia ; her nerves were firm, and she looked indulgently on the stir and mirthfulness of the young life about her.
John Gourlay, having stored his brain at the Academy with such erudition as was considered needful for him, was now “ clerking it ” in a neighboring city, with great credit to himself and satisfaction to his employers. It was the opinion of both father and uncle that John would make a first-rate man of business, and achieve a fortune at an early age.
Our friend Cecilia had become a tall girl of nineteen ; pretty, though in a light and slender way that might degenerate into angularity as she grew older. She, too, had been endowed with all the graces and accomplishments that the Academy could bestow, with an additional year at a well-reputed seminary. She was considered by all the village circle a very highly educated young lady and an authority in music. Those were the dark ages of harmony among country amateurs ; and her facile rendering of Quicksteps and Polkas, her singing at sight all the ballads and “set pieces” that came in her way, were quite sufficient to establish her superiority among her young compeers.
Cecilia’s education, technically so called, was, however, the smallest part of her merits. On her had been bestowed, and in no stinted measure, that higher gift than genius, — “ faculty.” No household mystery so deep, no achievement so lofty, that she would not dare it : and her efforts were always rewarded with success. In her own home such a daughter was an invaluable boon ; she took up the dropped stitches of life, repaired its waste places. Aunt Gourlay might slight her niece’s music, but she could not scorn her cake and pastry; she was candid, though prejudiced, and admitted the girl’s skill, only qualifying the admission with a wonder as to where on earth she could have picked it up. Increased respect did not increase her affection for the youthful rival; she felt that her sceptre was in some sort departing from her. Jane Maria’s husband continued prosperous, and every year adorned their dwelling with new and handsome articles, beyond her own means of purchasing, while Cecilia’s energy left her no pretext for the fulness of her old contempt. Lack of self-appreciation was not among the niece’s faults ; she never deferred, as her mother had been wont to do, to Mrs. Gourlay’s wisdom, but maintained her own entire ability to accomplish anything she undertook. Mrs. Gourlay stared a little when she first began to say “ we,” and to explain that such and such was “ our way ” ; but Cecilia did not mind the stare, and even went on to offer her aunt two or three of her receipts.
Mrs. Gourlay was obliged to take her stand on the superior order, the undisturbed quiet and precision, of her own abode, hopeless of attainment in a family as large as her sister-in-law’s. She comforted herself, too. with sarcasms on the arrangement of the new furniture, set untidily across the corners, or out on the floor, instead of straight against the wall in the good old manner. She despised the litter of bright trifles which sprinkled the tables ; and thought the bedroom was the place for cologne-bottles, Bohemian glass or not. All this consoled, but did not compensate. It did not prevent Cecilia’s attainments, for instance, in the fancy line of cookery, — the ice-creams, the Charlottes, the blanc-mangcs, — while her own skill lay mainly in the plain and solid branches. Worst of all, it did not remedy Emma’s shortcomings. Poor Emma was as inefficient a scion as Jane Maria herself could ever have produced. She was docile, but she loved books and hated work. It was trying to Mrs. Gourlay to go over of a morning to the other house,—to see Cecilia cheerfully busy in rubbing up the silver, or polishing the windowpanes, or, perchance, in the kitchen concocting marvels with sugar and spice. — and then, returning home, to see that Emma had sewed to just the exact stitch indicated as her task, that she had forgotten to dust the table-legs, and was now off with a book and an apple to some favorite haunt, utterly oblivious of domestic cares. How she groaned over a “ shiftlessness ” so foreign to her nature, her precept, and her practice ! how she was even tempted, sometimes, to go the fearful length of holding up Jane Maria’s daughter as an example to her own !
While affairs stood thus, John came home for his summer vacation. Here was a child in whom her heart could delight itself. He understood his work, and gave himself up to it; more than that, he was succeeding finely. He brought the pleasant news that another thousand had just been added to his salary, and that he had high hopes of “an interest in the business” another year. With what admiring eyes did Mrs. Gourlay gaze on his well-grown, manly figure ! with what comfort listen to the evening talk with his father on prices and profits, and his clever business anecdotes!
It so happened that John and Cecilia had not seen each other for a year or two, — her absences at school, or visits to friends, having prevented their meeting. There had been time for changes on both sides,
“What a pretty, stylish girl Cecilia has grown into!” remarked John, on his return from the first call upon his relations.
It never occurred to the unheeding mother that this remark imported anything to her, more than if he had observed. of some Chinese lady, that her finger-nails were dyed a charming shade.
“ I was glad that all went off so peaceably,” said Emma, laughing, — “that you did not pinch, nor she pull hair, at the first visit.”
John smiled at the allusion to old times. “I was a rough fellow in those days,”he said.
“ I don’t know about that.”upspake the mother, jealous of her son’s repute. “ You were never rough with your sister.”
“ Emma was such a gentle little kitten, he said, looking at her affectionately.
“And Cecilia was such a vixen,”added Mrs. Gourlay.
“ O well,” said her husband, “ we must n’t bring that up against her now. She has outgrown it all. and is a credit to the family.”
“ I ’m not so sure,” persisted Mrs. Gourlay. “It’s easy talking, but people don't outgrow a temper like that.”
“ She keeps it under good control, then. I ’ve heard you say yourself that she had a great deal of patience with the children.”
“ Of course. I never said she did n’t have it under control, — did I ? but it’s there all the same, you may depend.”
“ Testimony on the whole favorable to the accused,” summed up John.
“Yes,” said his mother, thoughtfully. “Cecilia is conceited; because she knows a good deal, she thinks no one can teach her anything; but she is a very capable girl. She has a wonderful notion of housekeeping for her age and opportunities. Where she ever learned it passes me. I wish I could see some that are nearer to me half as useful.” — with a glance of mingled sorrow and reproof toward her daughter.
“ Never mind Emmy.” said her father, indulgently; “she’s got time enough yet.”
“Yes, Mr. Gourlay, that’s just a man’s idea. Not but there might be time enough if she had any disposition. I wish I could hope that, three years from now, she would be anything like her cousin.”
Poor Mrs. Gourlay, how little she understood what she was doing! She lay awake a long time that night, thinking over John’s merits, and laying plans for his future. He was to be a merchant prince, to wed a beauty and a fortune, to exalt the family name, and rejoice the family pride. Nothing was too good or too brilliant for him. She tried to see with her mind’s eye that superlative maiden who should be the presiding genius of his luxurious home, but could form only the vaguest outlines. No one she knew served her in any sort as a model ; of course nobody here was at all like what John would want!
And the son in his own room was thinking how pleasantly Cecilia welcomed him, what bright eyes she had, what a neat little hand, what a graceful movement. He dwelt, too, on his mother’s praises. He was no stranger to the family spirit, and felt sure that, if she could admit so much, any unprejudiced person would say a great deal more.
So it went on. John’s destiny developed itself. For a time no one observed it. It was natural that all the young people should be together often at one house or the other, — natural that John should sing with his cousin, or turn the music when she played. An unusually pleasant state of feeling sprung up between the two families. Mrs. Gourlay thought of giving a party in John’s honor, and Cecilia was charmed with the idea.
“Yes, aunt, do have it,” she said. “ I ’ll help you all I can.”
Mrs. Gourlay’s impulse was to decline with coolness the proffered aid ; but, seeing how comfortable all the young folks seemed together, she softened a little.
“ Well,” she answered, quite graciously, “if I need assistance, I’ll remember you.”
“ I can make the ice-creams just as well as not,” continued Cecilia; “you can have that off your mind entirely,— and the macaroons; they are rather fussy little things. And I will do anything else that you will let me do.”
In fine, Mrs. Gourlay found her plan so warmly seconded, that the party, which kad existed in her own mind only as a vague possibility, soon assumed a definite shape, and was fixed for a certain date. Cecilia tied a large white apron over her morning-dress, and, faithful to her promise, came over to help. Mrs. Gourlay watched her narrowly, nowise unwilling to discover faults, if faults there were ; but she was vanquished by the neat-handed, dexterous ways.
“Well, Cecilia,” she said, with enthusiasm, as her niece removed from the oven an immense card of macaroons in the last perfection of crispness and brownness, “you ’ll be a treasure to somebody, some day. ”
Cecilia colored, and John, who had been lingering about under pretence of getting more exact directions as to the quantity of ice, felt a mingled thrill of pleasure and embarrassment. What if he should prove to be the very “ somebody ” ?
The fair baker was the first to recover composure. “Will you have a macaroon, John ? ” she asked, selecting two or three of the least comely specimens, and presenting them on a little plate. That ’s my plan with the children at home: I bribe them with cakes to keep out of the way.”
She looked at him half saucily, half shyly ; and the youth, before obeying her hint, managed to possess himself of the unoccupied hand, and give it a pressure very different from what he was wont to bestow ten years before.
“ How heated you look, child! ” said Mrs. Gourlay, a moment after. " No wonder. The kitchen is like a furnace this warm morning.’
The party came off in due season, and with great éclat. Cecilia had made the frosting after a receipt of her own, viewed with much suspicion by her aunt, but justifying itself in the result; she cut the cake, adorned the table with flowers, brought over bouquets and vases from home, — was, in short, the soul of the occasion. And, having done all this, she was as ready for enjoyment as any one when the festivities began.
Mrs. Gourlay hardly knew her own house that night. It was the first large party she had ever given, and she had a novel sense of excitement and importance. The state apartments and the staircase, usually so dark and silent, were bright as day, and fair forms were continually passing to and fro; there was the hum of voices, the swell of music, a charming confusion of glitter and flowers and harmony. Emma, as pretty as she was indolent, floated about in her white muslin, looking like a picture ; John, manly and handsome, filled the mother’s heart with pride. For the first time in her life, Cecilia came in for a share of friendly admiration ; Mrs. Gourlay thought that not one of the young ladies had so tasteful a dress or so good a manner.
Supper, in regard to which some anxious forebodings had arisen, passed off happily. Every one was well served ; all the edibles and fluids were in the highest style of art. And by and by the last adieus were made, and the last carriage rolled away.
“ A party is a great undertaking,” remarked Mrs. Gourlay to her husband, as she reviewed in her own room the eventful occasion, “but Cecilia relieved me of half the responsibility. No wonder Jane Maria calls her her right hand. She ought to be thankful for such a daughter.”
“I presume she is,” said Mr. Gourlay. “Well, Martha, my dear, there are others besides you that appreciat her.”
“ You mean Henry Barnes, I suppose. I’ve heard of that before, but I ’m much mistaken if Cecilia will have a word to say to him.”
“ Henry Barnes, indeed ! You 'll have to try again, old lady. A great deal nearer home than that.”
“ Why, Mr. Gourlay! ” cried the mother, in breathless excitement, as a strange light broke upon her, “you don’t — you can't — mean John ! ”
But he did. And, what was more, John meant it; nor was Cecilia an unkind recipient of his views. It was a blow to Mrs. Gourlay. She had relented toward her niece in these latter days, it is true, but it did not follow that she was ready to endow her with her own choicest treasure. What a downfall of those lofty castles she had budded ! what a prosaic awakening from her brilliant visions ! There were remonstrances, entreaties, against the contemplated sacrifice, but John stood firm, Cecilia, whom his boyhood had defied, was now sought as the choicest blessing of his matures years; she, in whose society he refused to spend a single afternoon, would alone suffice as the partner of his life. The mother was obliged to yield a sorrowful consent.
The affair once settled, compensations arose. John would have a careful and energetic wife, at any rate; no mere doll of fashion, who would waste his substance and neglect his comfort. Cecilia, with the unconscious hypocrisy of her position, was prettily deferential to the mother of her beloved ; the twain took sweet counsel together in comparisons of experience, or interchange of receipts. The girl’s superiority had once been a thorn in Mrs. Gourlay’s pillow, a painful reminder of Emma’s deficiencies ; but Cecilia now belonged to her, in part; she herself could glory in every fresh achievement. So far did her complaisance at last extend, that she at times requested her niece to sing for her.
“Cecilia has n’t a powerful voice, I know,” she would observe to her husband ; “ but she uses what she has with excellent judgment.”
How long this pleasant state of things between the two would have endured, - whether it would have stood the test of a lifelong residence in the same town, - I cannot say. In a few months the wedding ensued, and the young pair removed to their own home in the distant city. By the withdrawal of her daughter’s powerful aid, jane Maria was reduced to something like her old place in the Valley of Humility, —a circumstance not unwelcome to Mrs. Gourlay. John prospered in all to which he set his hand, and his dwelling was furnished in a style that far outshone anything his mother-in-law could boast. As these splendors were due to her own side ot the house, Mrs. Gourlay could admire them without bitterness or disparagement. And such changes did the years work, that she gradually came to quote the opinions of “John’s wife,” and the way in which “John’s people” managed things, as the admitted standard of propriety and elegance.