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   Chapter 3 AUNT PRISCILLA

A Little Girl in Old Boston By Amanda M. Douglas Characters: 21463

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


There was quite a discussion about a school.

Uncle Win had an idea Doris ought to begin high up in the scale. For really she was very well born on both sides. Her father had left considerable money, and in a few years second-cousin Charles' bequest might be quite valuable, if Aunt Priscilla did sniff over it. There was Mrs. Rawson's.

"But that is mostly for young ladies, a kind of finishing school. And in some things Doris is quite behind, while in others far advanced. There will be time enough for accomplishments. And Mrs. Webb's is near by, which will be an object this cold winter."

"I shouldn't like her to forget her French. And perhaps it would be as well to go on with Latin," Cousin Adams said.

Mrs. Leverett was a very sensible woman, but she really did not see the need of Latin for a girl. There was a kind of sentiment about French; it had been her mother's native tongue, and one did now and then go to France.

There had been a good deal of objection to even the medium education of women among certain classes. The three "R's" had been considered all that was necessary. And when the system of public education had been first inaugurated it was thought quite sufficient for girls to go from April to October. Good wives and good mothers was the ideal held up to girls. But people were beginning to understand that ignorance was not always goodness. Mrs. Rawson had done a great deal toward the enlightenment of this subject. The pioneer days were past, unless one was seized with a mania for the new countries.

Mrs. Leverett was secretly proud of her two married daughters. Mrs. King's husband had gone to the State legislature, and was considered quite a rising politician. Mrs. Manning was a farmer's wife and held in high esteem for the management of her family. Betty was being inducted now into all household accomplishments with the hope that she would marry quite as well as her sisters. She was a good reader and speller; she had a really fine manuscript arithmetic, in which she had written the rules and copied the sums herself. She had a book of "elegant extracts"; she also wrote down the text of the Sunday morning sermon and what she could remember of it. She knew the difference between the Puritans and the Pilgrims; she also knew how the thirteen States were settled and by whom; she could answer almost any question about the French, the Indian, and the Revolutionary wars. She could do fine needlework and the fancy stitches of the day. She was extremely "handy" with her needle. Mrs. Leverett called her a very well-educated girl, and the Leveretts considered themselves some of the best old stock in Boston, if they were not much given to show.

It might be different with Doris. But a good husband was the best thing a girl could have, in Mrs. Leverett's estimation, and knowing how to make a good home her greatest accomplishment.

They looked over Doris' chest and found some simple gowns, mostly summer ones, pairs of fine stockings that had been cut down and made over by Miss Arabella's dainty fingers, and underclothes of a delicate quality. There were the miniatures of her parents-that of her mother very girlish indeed-and a few trinkets and books.

"She must have two good woolen frocks for winter, and a coat," said Mrs. Leverett. "Cousin Winthrop said I should buy whatever was suitable."

"And a little Puritan cap trimmed about with fur. I am sure I can make that. And a strip of fur on her coat. She would blow away in that big hat if a high wind took her," declared Betty.

"And all the little girls wear them in winter. Still, I suppose Old Boston must have been cold and bleak in winter."

"It was not so nearly an island."

There was a good deal of work to do on Friday, so shopping was put off to the first of the week. Doris proved eagerly helpful and dusted very well. In the afternoon Aunt Priscilla came over for her cup of tea.

"Dear me," she began with a great sigh, "I wish I had some nice young girl that I could train, and who would take an interest in things. Polly is too old. And I don't like to send her away, for she was good enough when she had any sense. There's no place for her but the poorhouse, and I can't find it in my conscience to send her there. But I'm monstrous tired of her, and I do think I'd feel better with a cheerful young person around. You're just fortunate, 'Lizabeth, that you and Betty can do for yourselves."

"It answers, now that the family is small. But last year I found it quite trying. And Betty must have her two or three years' training at housekeeping."

"Oh, of course. I'm glad you're so sensible, 'Lizabeth. Girls are very flighty, nowadays, and are in the street half the time, and dancing and frolicking round at night. I really don't know what the young generation will be good for!"

Mrs. Leverett smiled. She remembered she had heard some such comments when she was young, though the lines were more strictly drawn then.

"Has Winthrop been over to see his charge? How does he feel about it? Now, if she had been a boy--"

"He was up to tea last night, and he and Foster have been arranging the business this morning. Foster is to be joint trustee, but Winthrop will be her guardian."

"What will he do with a girl! Why, she'll set Recompense crazy."

"She is not going to live there. For the present she will stay here. She will go to Mrs. Webb's school this winter. He has an idea of sending her to boarding school later on."

"Is she that rich?" asked Aunt Priscilla with a little sarcasm.

"She will have a small income from what her father left. Then there is the rent of the house in School Street, and some stock. Winthrop thinks she ought to be well educated. And if she should ever have to depend on herself, teaching seems quite a good thing. Even Mrs. Webb makes a very comfortable living."

"But we're going to educate the community for nothing, and tax the people who have no children to pay for it."

"Well," said Mrs. Leverett with a smile, "that evens up matters. But the others, at least property owners, have to pay their share. I tell Foster that we ought not grudge our part, though we have no children to send."

"How did people get along before?"

"I went to school until I was fifteen."

"And when I was twelve I was doing my day's work spinning. There's talk that we shall have to come back to it. Jonas Field is in a terrible taking. According to him war's bound to come. And this embargo is just ruining everything. It is to be hoped we will have a new President before everything goes."

"Yes, it is making times hard. But we are learning to do a great deal more for ourselves."

"It behooves us not to waste our money. But Winthrop Adams hasn't much real calculation. So long as he has money to buy books, I suppose he thinks the world will go on all right. It's to be hoped Foster will look out for the girl's interest a little. But you'll be foolish to take the brunt of the thing. Now it would be just like you 'Lizabeth Leverett, to take care of this child, without a penny, just as if she was some charity object thrown on your hands."

Mrs. Leverett did give her soft laugh then.

"You have just hit it, Aunt Priscilla," she said. "Winthrop wanted to pay her board, but Foster just wouldn't hear to it, this year at least. We have all taken a great liking to her, and she is to be our visitor from now until summer, when some other plans are to be made."

"Well-if you have money to throw away--" gasped Aunt Priscilla.

"She won't eat more than a chicken, and she'll sleep in Betty's bed. It will help steady Betty and be an interest to all of us. I really couldn't think of charging. It's like having one of the grandchildren here. And she needs a mother's care. Think of the poor little girl with not a near relative! Aunt Priscilla, there's a good many things money can't buy."

Aunt Priscilla sniffed.

"Take off your bonnet and have a cup of tea," Mrs. Leverett had asked her when she first came in. "It's such a long walk back to King Street on an empty stomach. The children are making cookies, but Betty shall brew a cup of tea at once, unless you'll wait till the men folks come in."

Aunt Priscilla sat severe and undecided for a moment. The laughing voices in the other room piqued and vexed and interested her all in a breath. She had come over to hear about Doris. There was so little interest in her methodical old life. Mrs. Leverett sincerely pitied women who had no children and no grandchildren.

"They're quite as queer as old maids without the real excuse," she said to her husband. "They've missed the best things out of their lives without really knowing they were the best."

And perhaps at this era more respect was paid to age. There were certain trials and duties to life that men and women accepted and did not try to evade. A modern happy woman would have been bored at the call of a dissatisfied old woman every few days. But since the death of Mehitable Doule, Priscilla's own cousin, who had been married from her house, she had clung more to the Leveretts. Foster was too easy-going, otherwise she had not much fault to find with him. He had prospered and was forehanded, and his married son and daughters had been fairly successful.

"Well, I don't care if I do," said Aunt Priscilla, with a half-reluctance. "Though I hadn't decided to when I came away, and Polly'll make a great hole in that cold roast pork, for I never said a word as to what she should have for supper. She's come to have no more sense than a child, and some things are bad to eat at night. But if she makes herself sick she'll have to suffer."

"I'll have some tea made--"

"No, 'Lizabeth, don't fuss. I shan't be in any hurry, if I do stay, and the men will be in before long. So Winthrop wasn't real put out when he saw the girl?"

"I think he liked her. He's not much hand to make a fuss, you know. He feels she must be well brought up. Her mother, it seems, was quite quality."

"Queer the mother's folks didn't look after her."

"Her mother was an only child. Winthrop has the records back several generations. And when she died the father was alive, you know."

"Winthrop is a great stickler for such things. It's good to have folks you're not ashamed of, to be sure, but family isn't everything. Behaving counts."

Aunt Priscilla took off her bonnet and shawl, and hung them in the "best" closet, where the Sunday coats and cloaks were kept.

"You might just hand me that knitting, 'Lizabeth. I guess I knit a little tighter'n you do, on account of my hand being out. I've more than enough stockings to last my time out and some coarse ones for Polly. They spin ya

rn so much finer now. Footing many stockings this fall?"

"No. I knit Foster new ones late in the spring. He's easy, too. Warren's the one to gnaw out heels, though young people are so much on the go."

Aunt Priscilla took up the stocking and pinned the sheath on her side. How gay the voices sounded in the kitchen! Then the door opened.

"Just look, Aunt Elizabeth! Aren't they lovely! Betty let me cut them out and put them in the pans. Oh--"

Doris stood quite abashed, with a dish of tempting brown cookies in one hand. Her cheeks were like roses now, and Betty's kitchen apron made another frock over hers of gay chintz, that had been exhumed from the chest.

"Good-afternoon," recovering herself.

"The cookies look delightful. I must taste one," Mrs. Leverett said smilingly.

She handed the plate to Aunt Priscilla.

"It'll just spoil my supper if I eat one. But you may do up some in a paper, and I'll take them home. I'm glad to see you at something useful. Did you help about the house over there in England?"

"Oh, no. We had Barby," answered the child simply.

"Well, there's a deal for you to learn. I made bread just after I had turned ten years old. Girls in old times learned to work. It wasn't all cooky-making, by a long shot!"

Doris made a little courtesy and disappeared.

"I'd do something to that tousled hair, 'Lizabeth. Have her put it up or cut it off. It's good to cut a girl's hair; makes it thick and strong. And curls do look so flighty and frivolous."

"The new fashion is a wig with all the front in little curls. It's so much less trouble if it is made of natural curly hair."

"Are you going to set up for fashion in these hard times?" asked the visitor disdainfully.

"Not quite. But Betty Pickering is to be married in great state next month, and we have been invited already. I suppose I ought to consider her in some sort a namesake."

"I'm glad I haven't any fine relatives to be married," and the sniff was made to do duty.

Mrs. Leverett put down her sewing. She had drawn the threads and basted the wristbands and gussets for Betty to stitch, as they had come to shirt-making. The new ones of thick cotton cloth would be good for winter wear. One had always to think ahead in this world if one wanted things to come out even.

Then she went out to the kitchen, and there was a gay chattering, as if a colony of chimney swallows had met on a May morning. Aunt Priscilla pushed up nearer the window. She had good eyesight still, and only wore glasses when she read or was doing some extra-fine work.

Betty came in and rolled out the table as she greeted her relative. Aunt Priscilla had a curiously lost feeling, as if somehow she had gone astray. No one ever would know about it, to be sure. There were times when it seemed as if there must be a third power, between God and the Evil One. There were things neither good nor bad. If they were good the Lord brought them to pass,-or ought to,-and if they were bad your conscience was troubled. Aunt Priscilla had been elated over her idea all day yesterday. It looked really generous to her. Of course Cousin Winthrop couldn't be bothered with this little foreign girl, and the Leveretts had a lot of grandchildren. She might take this Dorothy Adams, and bring her up in a virtuous, useful fashion. She would go to school, of course, but there would be nights and mornings and Saturdays. In two years, at the latest, she would be able to take a good deal of charge of the house. All this time her own little fortune could be augmenting, interest on interest. And if she turned out fair, she would do the handsome thing by her-leave her at least half of what she, Mrs. Perkins, possessed.

And yet it was not achieved without a sort of mental wrestle. She was not quite sure it was spiritual enough to pray over; in fact, nothing just like this had come into her life before. She was not the kind of stuff out of which missionaries were made, and this wasn't just charitable work. She would expect the girl to do something for her board, but Polly would be good for a year or two more. Time did hang heavy on her hands, and this would be interest and employment, and a good turn. When matters were settled a little she would broach the subject to Elizabeth.

If Winthrop Adams meant to make a great lady out of her-why, that was all there was to it! Times were hard and there might be war. Winthrop had a son of his own, and perhaps not so much money as people thought. And it did seem folly to waste the child's means. If she had so much-enough to go to boarding school-she oughtn't be living on the Leveretts. Foster was having pretty tight squeezing to get along.

They all wondered what made Aunt Priscilla so unaggressive at supper time. She watched Doris furtively. All the household had a smile for her. Foster Leverett patted her soft hair, and Warren pinched her cheek in play. Betty gave her half a dozen hugs between times, and Mrs. Leverett smiled when Doris glanced her way.

The quarter-moon was coming up when Priscilla Perkins opened the closet door for her things.

"I'll walk over with Aunt Priscilla," said Warren. "It's my night for practice."

"Oh, yes." His father nodded. Warren had lately joined the band, but his mother thought she couldn't stand the cornet round the house.

"I aint a mite afraid in the moonlight. I come so often I ought not put anyone out."

"Now that the evenings are cool it seems lonesomer," said Mr. Leverett, settling in his armchair by the fire, really glad his son could be attentive without any special sacrifice.

Doris brought the queer little stool and sat down beside him. She looked as if she had always lived there.

"You'll all spoil that child," Aunt Priscilla said to Warren when they had stepped off the stoop.

"I don't believe there's any spoil to her," said Warren heartily. "She's the sweetest little thing I ever saw; so wise in some ways and so honestly ignorant in others. I never saw Uncle Win so taken-he never seems to quite know what to do with children. And he's asked us all over to tea some night next week. I was clear struck."

Mrs. Perkins made no reply. About once a year he invited her over to tea with some of the old cousins, and he called on her New Year's Day, which was not specially kept in any fashionable way.

Mrs. Perkins always said King Street, though in a burst of patriotism the name had been changed after the Revolution. It had dropped down very much and was being given over to business. There was a narrow hall floor set in a little distance, with a few steps, and the shop front with the plain sign of "Jonas Field, Flour, Grain, and Feed." The stairway led to an upper hall and a very comfortable suite of rooms, where Mrs. Perkins had come as a young wife, and where she meant to end her days. It was plenty good enough inside, and she "didn't live in the street."

The best room occupied the whole front and had three windows. Priscilla had been barely nineteen when she was married, and Hatfield Perkins quite a bachelor. And, as no children had come to disturb their orderly habits, they had settled more securely in them year after year.

Next to the parlor was the sleeping chamber. Now, it was the spare room, though no one came to stay all night who was fine enough to put in it. The smaller one adjoining she had used since her husband's death. There was a little tea room, and a big kitchen at the back. Downstairs the store part had been built out, and on the roof of this the clothes were dried. Polly always sat out here in pleasant weather, to prepare vegetables and do various chores. The lot was deep, and at the back were some fruit trees, and the patch of herbs every woman thought she must have, and a square of grass for bleaching.

A lighted lamp stood at the head of the stairs. Polly was dozing in the kitchen. Mrs. Perkins sent her to bed in short order. There were two rooms and a storage closet upstairs in the gables. One was Polly's. The other was the guest chamber that was good enough "for the common run of folks."

The moon was shining in the back windows. Priscilla snuffed out the candle; there was no use wasting candle light. She sat down in a low rocker, the only one she owned; and several list seats had been worn out in it besides the original one of rushes. She had never been really lonely in the sixty-five years of her life for she had kept busy, and was replete with old-fashioned methods that made work. She was very particular. Everything was scrubbed and scoured and swept and dusted and aired. The dishes were polished until they were lustrous. The knives and forks and spoons were speckless. There were napery and bedding that had been laid by for her marriage outfit, and not all worn out yet, though in the early years she had kept replenishing for possible children. There was plenty for twenty years to come, and though her people had been strong and healthy, they never went much over seventy. She was the youngest, and all the rest were gone. Her few real nieces and nephews were scattered about; she had made up her mind long ago she shouldn't ever have anyone hanging on her.

No one wanted to. No one even leaned on her. Yet somehow the life had never seemed real solitary until now. She had comforted her years with the thought that children were a great deal of trouble and did not always turn out well. She could see the picture the little foreign girl made as she folded her arms on Foster Leverett's knee. She wouldn't have that mop of frowzly hair flying about, and she would like to fat her up a little-she was rather peaked. She had imagined her going about in this old place, sewing, learning to work properly, reading and studying, and going to church every Sabbath. She had really meant to do something for a human being day after day, not in a spasmodic fashion. And this was the end of it.

She sprang up suddenly, lighted the candle again, went out to the kitchen to see that everything was right and there was no danger of fire. She opened the outside door and glanced around. There was an autumnal chill in the air, but there were no mysterious shadows creeping about in the yard below that might presage burglars. Then she bolted the door with a snap, and stood a moment in the middle of the floor.

"You are an old fool, Priscilla Perkins! The idea of all Boston being turned upside down for the sake of one little girl! People have come over from England before, big and little, and there's been a war and there may be another, and no end of things to happen. To be sure, I'd done my duty by her if I'd had her; and if the others spoil her-I aint to blame, the Lord knows!"

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