The Feather Bed
CASUAL persons who saw our widowed great-aunt Sylvia Barter during the last eight years of her long life — years which she spent in our household, waiting in meek patience to die — were always moved to ask the same question about her. Furthermore, all of them asked it with the same irritating air of knowing the answer in advance. We learned to anticipate the question by a certain peculiar look which preceded it — a look which proclaimed: ‘ I only ask this for form’s sake, because my intuitions in these matters are invariably to be trusted. One just has a fancy for verifying one’s observations, you know.’
Experience finally taught us complete familiarity with both the premonitory look and the question. One of us who heard at dinner that So-andso had been in the house that afternoon would ask: ‘Did he’ — or ‘she’ — ‘see Aunt Sylvia?’ If the answer were ‘Yes,’ the next remark was likelier than not to be: ‘And did she’ — or ‘he’ — ‘ask the usual question?’ The very monotony of this recurrence made it, in time, one of the family’s stock pleasantries.
The usual question was simply whether Aunt Sylvia had ever been married.
And, mind you, no one ever asked it except to substantiate a vivid impression of his own that she could never have participated in this fairly widespread human experience. The omission stuck out all over her; that was the effect conveyed.
The answer was, as it happened, that for sixty-two years less eighteen days my great-aunt Sylvia had been wife to Nahum Barter. Practically every night for all that time she had slept with deceptive meekness beside him in a huge double bed — the same bed (and what a bed!) from first to last. She had borne him five children and buried one of them. When he died there were the other four, not to mention a baker’s dozen of married grandchildren, to provide among them a home suitable to her widowhood. But rather than go away from Chiswick she chose to live with the large family of a more than willing nephew — my father. It was in and near Chiswick, you see, that she had spent the sixty-two years (less the eighteen days) of her wifehood — the wifehood with which most persons found it so utterly impossible to connect her, though she had experienced about as much of its characteristic rewards and penalties as any woman I ever knew.
The reason why most persons received their baseless impression was obvious enough to us. It was certainly not that Aunt Sylvia betrayed the usual stigmata of spinsterhood, or even of the prim New England type known as the married old maid. No: it was rather that in both appearance and personality she had kept an odd, a really startling, suggestion of girlishness. She radiated the innocence, not of a woman who has missed the salient experiences or refused them, but of a winsome child who cannot possibly be even aware of them yet.
Aunt Sylvia in her eighties affected all comers with the sense of a premarital, an actually virginal charm. Some very old ladies, after long years of widowhood, are observed to regain a hint of this long-lost girlish freshness. With them it seems to flower out of a process of forgetting all manner of things, and it is perhaps to be construed as a false dawn of second childhood. But with Aunt Sylvia it was not in the least a relapse or even a renewal, as all of us Barters very well knew. For this precise quality had always been hers. From her bridal year to her great-grandmotherhood it had impressed everyone as her most obvious aspect. Long before any of my generation arrived on the scene Aunt Sylvia’s perpetual girlishness had become a family tradition and byword.
By the time we children got along to high-school age we were somehow thinking of her as the youngest of the Barters, if not the youngest person we had ever known. The crudest blunderer of us all was filled with vague, inarticulate impulses to shield and spare her, walk delicately in her presence, and let no rude or raucous thing call her attention to its existence. We treated her pretty much as if she had been something fragile and rare, to be carried about in a plush-lined case, exhibited with tender awe on very special occasions, and never, never jarred or jostled.
As a matter of fact, this attitude was largely adolescent sentimentalism and priggishness on our part. Also, it was an entirely gratuitous response to her most palpable quality, which was that demure girlishness of hers. The actuality — only we younger ones never got at it — was a shrewd, tough-fibred, slightly impish old woman who asked no favors and could hold up her end with anybody. (Had she not held it up for sixty-odd years with Great-uncle Nahum Barter, to the infinite discipline of her fortitude?) There was any amount more iron in her than we had begun to appreciate.
What helped fool us as much as anything, no doubt, was her lack of pounds and inches. All that presented itself to the eye was the merest wisp of aged frailty; and I once discovered, on picking her up to set her across a running gutter, that most of that wisp was clothes. She weighed, I am told, a hundred and four pounds when she was married, and ninety-six just before her last illness. Her black hair — it never turned gray— had got extremely thin, but what there was of it was still notably long; the scalp showed through where it was drawn severely back from a middle parting, but the two flat rosettes into which she packed the rest of it, one behind each ear, looked as if they had been turned by a fussy workman out of solid and lustrous ebony of the finest grain. Her cheeks had kept a delicate rose pink, over and above which she blushed more easily than a shy girl, and laughed at herself for blushing, and blushed the more.
Because she had grown more than a little deaf we spared her all possible introductions to strangers. She would often sit in her corner of our living room in a rocking-chair which she fancied, crocheting her remarkably fine lace while others were deep in serious conversation or mere light chatter. She liked to be, in this passive way, where others were — where life was going on. And the way was, after all, not so passive as it looked. Even while her eyes were downcast upon her work an odd little expression of drollery would dimple the corners of her mouth, and every now and then she would look up to flash one or another of us a quick smile of private understanding. Whoever made or attempted a joke almost unconsciously looked in her direction, and her delightful smile was always ready to acknowledge the joke, quite as if she had heard it and found it good. (I dare say she was laughing at a better one of her own.) In these ways she made herself felt. She was alive — as alive as anyone in the room or out of it. She was, among other things, an incarnation of the something mysteriously aloof, yet always eager to participate, in childhood itself.
It is a pity that, rocking thus in her corner, she could not have been transferred bodily into an old-fashioned school primer. She would have made the perfect illustration of the saying, ‘Children should be seen and not heard.’
These circumstances made comparative strangers look upon her somewhat as one does upon a demure, poised, original, slightly precocious, but very reticent little girl — the sort of little girl who is always being sent to bed when she wants nothing so much as to sit up for another hour and play at being a grown-up among grown-ups. And that, if the comparative stranger had but known it, is very near to what she was — a little girl who had been sent to bed early all her life when she longed to stay up.
First, her parents brought her up with all the repressive conservatism of their period and their genteel class. Then at eighteen, exactly where their jurisdiction left off, she was taken in charge by the overpowering man who was her husband for over six decades. It is small wonder if part of her remained the same arrested little girl to the end of her days. Year after year from eighteen to eighty, night after night after night for twenty-two thousand nights on end, she was literally put to bed without being allowed to have a word to say about either the time or, alas, the bed.
That bed! She could scarcely have detested it more cordially if it had been the more celebrated, but hardly more ingenious, apparatus of Procrustes.
Great-uncle Nahum Barter at twenty-four was a serious though anything but a solemn young man, and he took his marriage with a seriousness worthy of so momentous an institution and even of himself. One of his principal acts of preparation for it was to make a special trip out to Block Island and a painstaking tour of its farms. He came home on the mail tug with a hundred and twenty pounds of goose feathers — ‘ the finest goose feathers ever sewed into a tick,’ he proclaimed in his booming voice to anyone who would listen. In that day of feather beds the household which wanted to do things exactly right got its feathers from Block Island; for this source was the cachet of a merit, an exclusiveness, above that of such other island products as linen from Ireland, cutlery from Sheffield, and mahogany from Santo Domingo.
And Nahum Barter was a young man who wanted to do things exactly right. He wanted that with a desire exceeded only by his absolute trust in his ability to do them so. The right way to do a thing was, almost by definition, the way he had carefully worked out. If another were so lamentably ignorant and benighted as to prefer some different method, why, Uncle Nahum was going to outshout and finally override the objector for his own good, in perfect assurance that once he had tried Uncle Nahum’s better way he would instantly be bowled over by its perfection and evince a proper gratitude for the rest of his life.
Decidedly, Uncle Nahum was not one of those cold and niggardly souls who, when they hit upon a formula that exactly suits, like to keep it to themselves or share it in strict confidence with a favored kindred spirit or two. He was generous, Uncle Nahum was, and utterly devoid of some kinds of reticence. When he got hold of a good thing everyone within range was going to have that thing, too, or he was going to know the reason why. And his way of coercing others, vi et armis, into conformity with his own peculiarities was so blulf, so hearty, above all so devoid of self-consciousness and so charged with real solicitude for their welfare, that it was a sheer impossibility to cherish a resentment against him for more than a few minutes at a time. He made friends of all and sundry by domineering over them, outraging their sensibilities, deriding and insulting all their preconceived ideas. It was a gift, as mysterious as that of some men for winning their fellows by nimble flattery or by oracular silences.
Now, Aunt Sylvia’s fixed idea of something to sleep on had always been the hardest, tightest hair mattress possible to obtain. As a young girl spending the summers with her cousins in South Chiswick, where Nahum and his father ran the considerable business of purveying coal, wood, grain, hay, and general merchandise, she frankly abominated even the very conservative feather beds used during the warm months in the house of her hosts, the Olivers. Nahum, who understood all this perfectly well by hearsay, put down some of her prejudice to the pitiful ignorance of her parents, who were mere townfolk, hidebound Providence gentlefolk. The rest of it he charged to the wrong-headedness of the Olivers, who, though an honest country family, were so deluded as to give Sylvia the mere shadow of a feather mattress for her summer use, when (according to him) even their winter sort had n’t enough substance to provide a decent night’s rest for a chickadee. He, Uncle Nahum, was going to furnish his bride with a bed that was a bed. He would give her a bed such that one blissful hour in it must convict her of never in her life having imagined what a night’s sleep could be.
His mother and his married sister, during the last month of his engagement, sewed and stuffed the immense tick to his careful and thorough specifications. The mountain of Block Island goose feathers — it had come home sewed up in part of a schooner’s retired mainsail—shrank to a molehill as the seven-foot tick grew and grew. Nahum, every time he inspected its progress, boomed, ‘More! More!’ His exuberance swelled with the tick. His sister began to wail protests. ‘Nahum, it is n’t humanly possible to sleep on any such a bed, I tell you. Why, you’ll roll right off it, just like sliding off a roof.’ But Nahum, irrepressible and exultant, only shouted: ‘ You ’re doing fine — fine. Keep right on. More!’
Eventually they got seventy-eight pounds of feathers sewed into that tick, as Nahum found by weighing the residue on the barn steelyards. (His computation disregarded the bits of goose down which were to be seen for days floating in the sunshine, clinging to coats and dresses, caught in his mother’s hair, scorching on the range, being scrambled for by chimney swifts in the dooryard.) His masterpiece weighed, as he noised abroad with self-congratulation, exactly three quarters as much as his bride-to-be. And there were over forty pounds of feathers left to replenish the monstrosity from time to time if, as he fantastically remarked, it ever seemed to need it.
It was installed in the gigantic low-poster which he had had turned out of native birch to receive it. Nahum married his Sylvia and bore her off to Ausable Chasm for the honeymoon. (His sister declared it a marvel that he did not take her to Block Island and give her a lecture tour of the farms where he had got the feathers.) And presently they were back in the small South Chiswick house they were to occupy pending the completion of their new large one.
Aunt Sylvia had seen the bed before, but with beglamoured eyes which failed quite to take in its enormity. Confronting it on this first night in her new home, she found herself stricken with a dismay verging on dumb terror. The contraption seemed to tower inaccessibly up and up before her like an immense arrested wave perpetually unable to break and subside. She could not conceive how even Nahum, who was six feet three and an Ajax of muscular prowess, was ever going to scale that height without a stepladder. And, once in that unmanageable immensity, what ever was going to become of a little thing such as herself? She felt herself shrinking back as from the entrance to a mammoth black cave in which a person, once lost, could remain lost forever.
Uncle Nahum went blandly about applying the technique of going to bed which he had previously evolved in his magnificent, his appallingly deliberate and systematic mind. For no man of his name had ever before coped with such a bed. He had had to invent the whole process de novo, even as he had created the bed itself. He had done both with thoroughness, leaving naught to chance.
First he picked up his slender bride, lifted her up and up, and laid her gently on her back on her appointed side — the left side, it was — of that vast billow. She gave a slight squeal as, with his arms withdrawn from under her, she felt herself sinking down, down, and still down. The displaced feathers were forced up all around her like canyon walls — walls made, however, of something hardly more palpable than cloud. She started to flounder and thrash around in order to get a purchase on something — a vain attempt, for there was nothing present to get a purchase on. She was checked by her husband’s voice explaining with rapt unction, as he drew up the covers for and over her, that the whole secret was to lie still, my precious, just to lie as still as possible and let yourself float. Otherwise you would have the bed all at sixes and sevens in no time.
She found herself lying as still as possible.
Then Nahum addressed himself to the joyous task of disposing his great frame at his right side of the bed. The trick was — as he would and did explain in great detail to any who cared to listen — to let your whole length down on to the feathers all at once, and in the position which you meant to keep. To climb in, stretch out gradually, and twist and turn like a caught eel would be ruinous; first to sit on the edge of the bed and then lie down and swing your legs up was absolutely fatal. Uncle Nahum had a strong kitchen chair by the bedside. With the flat of his right hand on this and the toes of his right foot caught on the side rail he levered himself slowly aloft in precarious horizontal balance to the full length of his arm, then slowly inward inch by inch over the mattress, and then as slowly down. Every inch of him, from the back of his head to his left heel, touched the feathers at the same instant; at least, so he perpetually boasted, and his wife corroborated the boast. Having achieved this acrobatic feat, — I dare say he had practised it in secret, — he disengaged his right foot and brought it in beside the left with the caution of one inching along a tightrope for the first time. With the same deliberate care he reached out his right arm, grasped a conveniently placed palm leaf on the lamp stand, and with one skillful, not violent swish of the fan puffed out the hand lamp.
Barring illness, which was nearly unheard-of except for Aunt Sylvia’s five confinements, and barring the overnight absence of one or the other, which probably did not affect thirty days of their six decades together, that was how Uncle Nahum Barter put Aunt Sylvia and himself to bed every night for sixty-two years, up to his own brief last illness. There came a time when the lamp and the fan were replaced by a handy electric-light switch; but there was no other change.
On that first occasion Uncle Nahum, with all his care and foresight, made one slight error of omission. He should have seen to the making of that bed himself, instead of trusting it to his mother. When he lowered himself into it, with the sigh of difficult endeavor worthily accomplished, he was amazed and confounded to see his little bride instantly pop up like a Jack-in-the-box to a level well above his own, as if a mighty spring or catapult had been released under her. There above him she hovered, giggling and helplessly kicking. Nothing abashed, he clambered out, ran around to her side in his ballooning knee-length nightgown, and lifted her tenderly down. He explained with care and precision that there was only a hundred pounds of her, whereas there was a good two hundred of him, and a proper bed, such as this one, had naturally to be made up to allow for the difference.
Sylvia remarked tartly between her giggles that she should think he would prefer a bed that did not require the daily services of a mathematician or an engineer to make it up. But they dealt with the engineering problem together then and there, pulling, punching, pressing, and stroking seventy-eight pounds of Block Island goose feathers into a sort of vast slope or wedge, comparatively thin at her side and enormously thick at his. Then the whole affair of getting themselves on to it had to be gone through with da capo. The result this time was arithmetical perfection. The sum came out even, with no annoying remainder. Under their unequal displacements the two unequal sides achieved equality, like water seeking its level; the two lay now on one plane.
Uncle Nahum made gleeful recital of the occurrence far and wide the next day, and Aunt Sylvia had in self-defense to correct the most outrageous of his exaggerations and embellishments — which was the very process whereby, from year to year, a good deal became known of their marriage which ordinarily remains dark. His stentorian candor was always forcing her into little grudging surrenders of privacy. She told the sober truth of matters which she did not like to discuss, because that was her only alternative to letting folk believe as much as they chose of her husband’s remarkable free fantasias on the truth.
In the course of years, through their habit of correcting and editing each other’s remarks, Sylvia and Nahum disclosed so much about themselves that a careless outsider might easily have beguiled himself into the assumption of knowing all. No assumption could have been more fatuous. There were, after all, extensive and important domains of privacy which those two kept to the end impenetrated, inviolate. It was possible to know them well for decades, taking it for granted that one understood the very pitch and tempo of their personalities, only to be floored in the end by the sudden discovery that one was not even aware in what basic key their marriage was written. How they really felt together, what were the undertones and overtones of their intimate communion, what they meant to each other at the times when they were unconscious of everybody and everything else — these matters were profound mysteries; and mysteries they remained to the end.
Yet it could never have occurred to any judicious person to doubt that there were such moments, or that they distilled in its purest essence something which overran into all other moments. For both Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Nahum conveyed, with the much else that they conveyed, an effect of possessing some deep and sustaining secret which no one could ever know. Some very taciturn persons seem to store little more than they tell in their few words; some completely garrulous persons seem likewise to talk in order to keep themselves emptied by their much speaking. But this wedded pair gave the impression of talking so far within their private reserves that his many words, pronounced with colossal gusto, came to the same thing, really, as her few words dragged out of her under protest. They told more than most, but the sum of it was so trifling a part of what they seemed to have that it was virtually nothing. They were multimillionaires being spendthrift with small change.
The whole of Chiswick County could make free of the bridal antechamber. To that extent the pair became as public an institution as royalty. But at that point Chiswick County was stopped by a sound-proof, light-proof door; and curiosity found it to be a door without a keyhole.
Oddly or not, the one who first made most persons conscious of this sealed door was Nahum the irrepressible, Nahum the untrammeled, Nahum the wrecker of privacy. It is a revealing testimony to the man’s fundamental character — including also his talent for making it felt — that from first to last the local wits and wags were afraid to accost his marriage with the kind of sallies in which they specialized and from which they spared no other husbands except the clergy. (South Chiswick was probably neither better nor worse off than most country communities in its virtuosos of sly impudicity, both verbal and practical.) On the few early occasions when, very tentatively, one of them skirted the edge of such a sally, Uncle Nahum Barter would stare straight at the speaker with entire impassiveness; his gray-blue eyes would narrow, but with a curious effect of widening; and it was as if he had asked blandly: ‘Did you say something?’ The experimenter somehow never cared to face that look twice.
Upon most of us Barters it dawned sooner or later that Uncle Nahum’s celebrated outspokenness was not quite the naïve trait it appeared. It was, in part at least, the peculiar technique of his reticence.
In any event — to return to the province not covered by the reticence of either — Aunt Sylvia as a young child had looked forward with envious longing to the time when she could stay up as late as she liked, with no questions asked, or get up and read or rock or simply prowl for an hour if she were sleepless, and be generally exempt from dictation about the hours of rest. Adults, she presumed, regularly enjoyed these privileges and immunities. She married Nahum Barter while still under this presumption — only to find that, so far from having gained any such release as she anticipated, she was even more ruthlessly curtailed than she had been at the age of ten. For then she had at least the range of her own room, and in her own bed there was no limit to the tossing and turning which were open to her as a naturally light sleeper. Married, she possessed these smaller advantages no more than the greater ones to which she had looked forward as a matter of course. The greatest of them and the most trifling were alike cut off from her, and by the same lunatic consideration: —
They would not be fair to the bed.
It would be a gross inaccuracy to say that the fantastic bed and its sacred equilibrium became a bone of contention between Aunt Sylvia and her Nahum. One did not have bones of contention with that locally celebrated character. If you started to air a grievance, he soothed and reassured you and made you feel like a captious child. If you protested hotly about something, he just laughed with indulgent good humor. If you persisted beyond a certain point, he began to laugh with genuine and immoderate mirth, as if you were putting on an irresistible show for his express diversion. And if you were little and feminine and adorable, as Aunt Sylvia was, and lapsed into tears, as she at very rare intervals did, then he would fondle you tenderly and boom his extravagant caresses, and the next time he entered the house he would bring something that had been your heart’s desire of late, and you would hardly realize — then — that you had not swerved him by the width of a frog’s eyelash from the straight, uncompromising line of his own way.
As Aunt Sylvia used often to ask with the despairing humor which became the posture of her own acceptance of life, — and a graceful enough posture it was in her, too, — what could you do with such a man?
She could not quarrel with him about the bed. It spoke for itself and required no defense from him, its supersatisfied creator. She could not prevail upon him to see that it was ridiculous. He saw that it was funny; he saw that everything was funny; but — his unparalleled bed ridiculous? What was truly ridiculous was her perverse notion of finding something displeasing about it. He would brag with undiminished zest: ‘Why, my blessed little goose, Windsor Castle itself has no such bed,’ and she could only retort inadequately: ‘Happy Windsor Castle!’ And neither could she move him to pity about the bed. He knew what was good for her, and she did not — just yet. Pity her? He would as soon have pitied a trout for being transplanted from a black lowland bog to a mountain brook. ‘But, my darling child,’ he would declaim with his very nearest approach to ordinary human testiness, ‘all I want is that you should give it a fair trial! That’s all I shall ever ask: just give it a fair trial for a little while.’ She was giving it that fair trial for a little while when she had five children growing up. As a great-grandmother she was still giving it a fair trial.
There was, she found, no way under heaven for her to convert the bed into an issue between them. It was an issue to herself alone; and she was too sensible a woman to spend a great fraction of her lifelong energy fighting herself about such an issue. Because Nahum was what he was, her helpless vindictiveness against the bed merely provided one of those inveterate sparring points which enliven some marriages, rather to the bafflement of the spectator, who is never able to be sure whether the blows are struck and parried for his entertainment or whether there is a certain amount of concealed animus behind them.
Aunt Sylvia’s shrewdest blow was struck one night in the dark, after the endless hour which she invariably spent waiting with taut nerves for her husband to turn on his right side. To the day of his death he was convinced that he slept all night on his back, in the posture in which he first descended upon the feathers. Turning over in bed was entirely outside his canon. He often caught Aunt Sylvia at it; himself, never. Just the same, the fact was that he always turned in his buoyant sea of down, though with the ponderous smoothness and stealth of the earth rotating on its axis as it swims in ether. On this night Aunt Sylvia succumbed to a long-standing wicked impulse to wake him up and make him catch himself in the very act. More for that reason than for any other she gave acid utterance to the whimsey which she had been rolling under her tongue for several minutes past: —
‘Nahum Barter, I do believe that when the time comes you will insist on having your wife dead and buried ahead of you, so that you need n’t be disturbed in your last sleep by anyone coming later on to lie down beside you.’
She did not succeed in making him catch himself on his side. By a mysterious twist which had become second nature to him he was already on his back before he had a glimmer of consciousness. But, for all that, she had reached something in him.
‘What’s this? What’s this you say? Last sleep? Whose last sleep?’ Then his wits were awake and piecing her words together. ‘ Ho, ho, ho! That’s a good one! That’s immense, that is. Fix your wife all comfortable in her grave first, tuck her in good and tight, and then no one can come rousting you out of your first sound sleep in yours. A fine idea! Best thing you ever said, my child! Why could n’t I have thought of it myself? ’
He laughed and laughed, until it probably occurred to him that he was upsetting the delicate status quo of the semifluid medium in which they floated; whereupon he chuckled himself off to sleep. But after that he never let her forget her inspired fancy, and the whole subject of the bed took on between them the form of a pretended competition in longevity. He affected to be so confident of outliving her, of lasting long enough to put her that significant last time to bed, that she was inevitably goaded into reminding him sometimes of his age, or rather that she herself was by six years the younger.
Of course neither of them meant, really meant, a word of it. And yet, as years and decades slipped faster and faster away and the sum of Aunt Sylvia’s exasperation with the bed mounted to a formidable total, there came moments when she almost wished that she could mean it. Certainly she did not desire to abbreviate Nahum Barter’s life by a day or a minute. Stated in any such form, her impulse would have shriveled her with pure horror. What she really wished was that her own life might have a sort of little extra private postlude, quite outside the chronology of their common life: a halcyon closing passage, however brief, of nights in which she might go luxuriously late to bed alone on a very narrow cot equipped with a hard, thin, firmly springy mattress — a mattress such as Nahum would never have tolerated under his roof, even for the use of a servant. When she imagined the fulfillment of this innocent desire she did not include any emotion of loneliness, any sorrow for a lost companion of her best years. She merely placed herself in an elysian vacuum outside regret and even memory — an impossible nocturnal heaven of being herself, without daytime relations or obligations, past or present. It was as if her overmastering husband had never existed at all.
Uncle Nahum fell far short of making good his hilarious boast that he would outlive and bury her. Shortly before his eighty-sixth birthday, when she had just passed her own eightieth, he suffered a stroke and died on the third morning, without sufficiently regaining consciousness to realize that he was breathing his stertorous last in the bed which had for so many years exacerbated his wife and gladdened himself.
But when his will was opened Aunt Sylvia discovered that he had made thoughtful provision against this very contingency. For his will specified that, in the event of his predeceasing his beloved wife Sylvia, he should be buried without ceremony or funeral service in a temporary grave; that at the time of her later death his body should be disinterred, pending a joint service for both; and that then they should be buried fittingly side by side in the Barter family plot— and Sylvia first.
Aunt Sylvia, when she learned of this companionable arrangement, experienced so many clashing emotions all at once — grief, horror, chagrin, amusement, outrage — that the net effect for the time being was a sort of equilibrium of forces: she remained outwardly stony and betrayed no feeling whatsoever. She did, though, in one odd cranny of her mind, wonder how Uncle Nahum had ever contrived to keep his little posthumous joke to himself all those years; for it was essentially a sort of thing which, the moment he thought of it, he had always bellowed and vociferated with shouts of Jovian laughter to all who got within his trajectory.
Observe, now, the effect exerted upon character by sixty-two years’ propinquity and mutuality in the remarkable institution of holy wedlock: —
The younger heirs finally decided on an auction, and the elder son dropped in at our house to consult Aunt Sylvia about various articles — among them the celebrated birch bed, with its specially made oversize accessories. For a moment she hung fire. Then she swallowed, blinked, made a little peremptory gesture of renunciation and distaste, and said: ‘Oh, put it in with the rest. Let it go. Chuck the old thing. I don’t want ever to see it again.’ Then, early on the morning of the auction, she was seen to pace our side porch for the better part of an hour with a strained, far-away look in her eyes. At last she called my mother out and said: ‘ I’m sorry, Agnes, but this is necessary. You must go down to South Chiswick right away. You must go to that auction and bid in the bed for me — yes, the feather bed.’ After a moment she smiled and murmured: ‘It’s no use: you can’t get away from it.’ By which ‘it’ my mother did not understand merely the bed.
That heroic piece, mattress and all, was duly installed in her room. She slept in it every night for the rest of her life, a lonely atom of diminishing flesh in an intractable universe of goose feathers. With no Uncle Nahum to perform his nightly office of chivalry and tyranny, she was obliged to get into it from a chair. One night when she was eighty-eight — during her sleep, we have always felt perfectly sure — she died in it.
From my mother I learned at that time one detail of Aunt Sylvia’s marital life which had hitherto escaped me. It appears that Uncle Nahum, every night when he got himself settled to his satisfaction and the light put out, extended his bent left arm as if formally proffering his escort for an evening promenade. Aunt Sylvia tucked her right hand into the crook of his elbow and, linked to him in that submissive gesture of conjugal amity, waited for him to drift off to sleep.
On the morning when my mother found her already cold in the vast bed her left arm lay straight down at her side, but the right was extended, and the fingers had kept a gentle, relaxed curve — the curve of the trusty arm they knew. Her lips were very slightly parted in a confiding smile.
She looked more like a little girl than ever.