Poor Aunt Pen! I am sorry to say it, but for a person alive and well—tolerably well and very much alive, that is—she did use to make the greatest business of dying! Alive! why, when she was stretched out on the sofa, after an agony of asthma, or indigestion, or whatever, and had called us all about her with faltering and tears, and was apparently at her last gasp, she would suddenly rise, like her own ghost, at the sound of a second ringing of the door-bell, which our little renegade Israel had failed to answer, and declare if she could only once lay hands on Israel she would box his ears till they heard!
For the door-bell was, perhaps, among many, one of Aunt Pen’s weakest points. She knew everybody in town, as you might say. She was exceedingly entertaining to everybody outside the family. She was a great favorite with everybody. Countless gossips came to see her, tinkling at the door-bell, and hated individually by Israel, brought her all the news, heard all the previous ones had brought, admired her, praised her, pitied her, listened to her, and went away leaving her in such satisfied mood that she did not die any more that day. And as they went away they always paused at the door to say to some one of us what a cheerful invalid Aunt Pen had made herself, and what a nest of sunbeams her room always was, and what a lesson her patience and endurance ought to be. But, oh dear me, how very little they knew about it all!
We all lived together, as it happened; for when we children were left alone with but a small income, Aunt Pen—who was also alone, and only five years my senior—wrote word that we might as well come to her house in the city, for it wouldn’t make expenses more, and might make them less if we divided them; and then, too, she said she would always be sure of one out of three bright and reasonable nurses. Poor Aunt Pen! perhaps she didn’t find us either so bright or so reasonable as she had expected; for we used to think that in her less degree she went on the same principle with the crazy man who declared all the rest of the world except himself insane.
In honest truth, as doctor after doctor was turned away by the impatient and distempered woman up-stairs, each one took occasion to say to us down-stairs that our aunt’s illness was of that nature that all the physic it required was to have her fancies humored, and that we never need give ourselves any uneasiness, for she would doubtless live to a good old age, unless some acute disease should intervene, as there was nothing at all the matter with her except a slight nervous sensitiveness, that never destroyed anybody. I suppose we were a set of young heathen, for really there were times, if you will believe it, when that was not the most reassuring statement in the world.
However. Sometimes Aunt Pen found a doctor, or a medicine, or a course of diet, or something, that gave her great sensations of relief, and then she would come down, and go about the house, and praise our administration, and say every thing went twice as far as it used to go before we came, and tell us delightful stories, of our mother’s housewifely skill, and be quite herself again; and she would make the table ring with laughing, and give charming little tea-parties; and then we all did wish that Aunt Pen would live forever—and be down-stairs. But probably the next day, after one of the tea-parties, oysters, or claret punch, or hot cakes, or all together, had wrought their diablerie, and the doctor was sent for, and the warming-pan was brought out, and there was another six weeks’ siege, in which, obeyed by every one, and physicked by herself, and sympathized with to her heart’s content by callers, and shut up in a hot room with the windows full of flowering plants, and somebody reading endless novels to her with the lights burning all night long—if she wasn’t ill she had every inducement to be, and nothing but an indomitable constitution hindered it. It was perfectly idle for us to tell her she was hurting herself; it only made her very indignant with us, and more determined than ever to persist in doing so.
Of course, then, the longer Aunt Pen staid in her own room the worse she really did get, and her nerves, with confinement and worry and relaxation, would by-and-by be in a condition for any sort of an outburst if we attempted the least reasoning with her. She would become, for one thing, as sleepless as an owl; then she was thoroughly sure she was going to be insane, and down would go the hydrate of chloral till the doctor forbade it on pain of death. After the chloral, too, such horrid eyes as she had! the eyes, you know, that chloral always leaves—inflamed, purple, swollen, heavy, crying, and good for any thing but seeing. Immediately then Aunt Pen went into a new tantrum; she was going to be stone-blind, and dependent on three heartless hussies for all her mercies in this life; but no, thank goodness! she had friends that would see she did not go absolutely to the wall, and would never suffer her to be imposed on by a parcel of girls who didn’t care whether she lived or died—who perhaps would rather she did die—who stood open-handed for her bequests; she would leave her money to the almshouse, and if we wanted it we could go and get it there! And after that, to be sure, Aunt Pen would have a fit of remorse for her words, and confess her sin chokingly, and have us all come separately and forgive her, and would say she was the wretchedest woman on the face of the earth, that she should live undesired until her friends were all tired, and then die unlamented; and would burst into tears and cry herself into a tearing headache, and have ice on her head and a blister on the back of her neck, and be quite confident that now she was really going off with congestion of the brain.
After that, for a day or two, she would be in a heavenly frame of mind with the blister and cabbage leaves and simple cerate, and a couple of mirrors by which to examine the rise and fall of the blister; and, having had a hint of real illness, she would consent quite smilingly to the act of convalescence, and a descent to the healthy region of the parlors once more.
But no sooner were we all gay and happy in the house again, running out as we pleased, beginning to think of parties and drives and theatres and all enjoyment—and rather unobservant, as young folks are apt to be unobservant of Aunt Pen’s slight habitual pensiveness in the absence of guests or excitement, and of her ways generally—than Aunt Pen would challenge some lobster-salad to mortal combat, and, of course, come out floored by the colic. A little whiskey then; and as a little gave so much ease, she would try a great deal. The result always was a precipitate retreat up-stairs, a howling hysteric, bilious cramps, the doctor, a subcutaneous injection of morphine in her arm; then chattering like a magpie, relapsed into awful silence, and, convinced that the morphine had been carried straight to her heart, a composing of her hands and feet, an injured dismissal of every soul from the room, with the assurance that we should find her straight and stiff and stone-dead in the morning.
We never did. For, as we seldom had opportunity of an undisturbed night’s rest, we usually took her at her word if any access of ill temper, or despair, or drowsiness occasioned banishment from the presence. Not that we had always been so calm about it; there was a time when we were excited with every alarm, thrown into flurries and panics quite to Aunt Pen’s mind, running after the doctor at two o’clock of the morning, building a fire in the range ourselves at midnight to make gruel for her, rubbing her till we rubbed the skin off our hands, combing her hair till we went to sleep standing; but Aunt Pen had cried wolf so long, and the doctors had all declared so stoutly that there was no wolf, that our once soft hearts had become quite hard and concrete.
When at last Aunt Pen had had an alarm from nearly every illness for which the pharmacopœia prescribes, and she knew that neither we nor the doctors would listen to the probability of their recurrence; she had an attack of “sinking.” No, there was no particular disease, she used to say, only sinking; she had been pulled down to an extent from which she had no strength to recuperate; she was only sinking, a little weaker to-day than she was yesterday—only sinking. But Aunt Pen ate a very good breakfast of broiled birds and toast and coffee; a very good lunch of cold meats and dainties, and a great goblet of thick cream; a very good dinner of soup and roast and vegetables and dessert, and perhaps a chicken bone at eleven o’clock in the evening. And when the saucy little Israel, who carried up her tray, heard her say she was sinking, he remarked that it was because of the load on her stomach.
One day, I remember, Aunt Pen was very much worse than usual. We were all in her room, a sunshiny place which she had connected with the adjoining one by sliding-doors, so that it might be big enough for us all to bring our work on occasion, and make it lively for her. She had on a white-cashmere dressing-gown trimmed with swan’s-down, and she lay among the luxurious cushions of a blue lounge, with a paler blue blanket, which she had had one of us tricot for her, lying over her feet, and altogether she looked very ideal and ethereal; for Aunt Pen always did have such an eye to picturesque effect that I don’t know how she could ever consent to the idea of mouldering away into dust like common clay.
She had sent Maria down for Mel and me to come up-stairs with whatever occupied us, for she was convinced that she was failing fast, and knew we should regret it if we did not have the last of her. As we had received the same message nearly every other day during the last three or four weeks, we did not feel extraordinarily alarmed, but composedly took our baskets and scissors, and trudged along after Maria.
“I am sure I ought to be glad that I’ve succeeded in training my nieces into such industrious habits,” said Aunt Pen, after a little while, looking at Mel; “but I should think that when a near relative approached the point of death, the fact might throw needle and thread into the background for a time.” Then she paused for Maria to fan a little more breath into her. “It’s different with Helen,” soon she said; “the white silk shawl she is netting for me may be needed at any moment to lay me out in.”
“Dear me, Aunt Pen!” cried Mel; “what a picture you’d be, laid out in a white net shawl!” For the doctor had told us to laugh at these whims all we might.
“Oh, you heartless girl!” said Aunt Pen. “To think of pictures at such a time!” And she closed her eyes as if weary of the world.
“I never saw anybody who liked to revel in the ghastly the way you do, Aunt Pen.”
“Mel!” said Aunt Pen, with quite a show of color in her cheek; “I shall send you down stairs.”
“Do,” said Mel; “where I can cut out my gown in peace.”
“Cutting a gown at the bedside of the dying! Are you cold-blooded, or are you insensible?”
“Aunt Pen,” said Mel, leaning on the point of her scissors, “you know very well that I have to make my own dresses or go without them. And you have kept me running your idle errands, up and down two flights of stairs, to the doctor’s and the druggist’s, and goodness knows where and all, till I haven’t a thread of any thing that is fit to be seen. You’ve been posturing this grand finale of yours, too, all the last three weeks, and it’s time you had it perfect now; and you must let me alone till I get my gown done.”
“It will do to wear at my funeral,” said Aunt Pen bitterly, as she concluded.
“No, it won’t,” said Mel, doggedly; “it’s red.”
“Red!” cried Aunt Pen, suddenly opening her eyes, and half raising on one hand. “What in wonder have you bought a red dress for? You are quite aware that I can’t bear the least intimation of the color. My nerves are in such a state that a shred of red makes me—”
“You won’t see it, you know,” said Mel in what did seem to me an unfeeling manner.
“No,” said Aunt Pen. “Very true. I sha’n’t see it. But what,” added she presently snapping open her eyes, “considered as a mere piece of economy, you bought a red dress for when you are immediately going into black, passes common-sense to conjecture! You had better send it down and have it dyed at once before you cut it, for the shrinkage will spoil it forever if you don’t.”
“Much black I shall go into,” said Mel.
Maria laughed. Aunt Pen cried.
“Aunt Pen,” said the cruel Mel, “if you were going to die you wouldn’t be crying. Dying people have no tears to shed, the doctors say.”
“Somebody ought to cry,” said poor Aunt Pen, witheringly. “Don’t talk to me about doctors,” she continued, after a silence interrupted only by the snipping of the scissors. “They are a set of quacks. They know nothing. I will have all the doctors in town at my funeral for pall-bearers. It will be a satire too delicate for them to appreciate, though. Speaking of that occasion, Helen,” she went on, turning to me as a possible ally, “I have so many friends that I suppose the house will be full.”
“Wouldn’t you enjoy it more from church, auntie?” said I.
“Oh, you hard and wicked girls!” she cried. “You’re all alike. Listen to me! If you won’t hear my wishes, you must take my commands. Now, in the first place, I want the parlors to be overflowing with flowers, literally lined with flowers. I don’t care how much money it takes; there’ll be enough left for you—more than you deserve. And I want you to be very sure that I’m not to be exposed unless I look exactly as I’d like to look. You’re to put on my white silk that I was to have been married in, and my veil, and the false orange blossoms. They’re all in the third drawer of the press, and the key’s on my chatelaine. And if—if—well,” said Aunt Pen, more to herself than us, “if he comes, he’ll understand. The Bride of Death.”
After that she did not say any more for some minutes, and we were all silent and sorry, and Mel was fidgeting in a riot of repentance; we had never, either of us, heard a word of any romance of Aunt Pen’s before. We began to imagine that there might be some excuse for the overthrow of Aunt Pen’s nervous system, some reality in the overthrow. “You will leave this ring on my finger;” said she; by-and-by. “If Chauncey Read comes, and wants it, he will take it off. It will fit his finger as well now, I suppose, as it did when he wore it before he gave it to me.” Then Aunt Pen bit her lip and shut her eyes, and seemed to be slipping off into a gentle sleep.
“By-the-way!” said she, suddenly, sitting upright on the lounge, “I won’t have the horses from Brown’s livery—
“The what, auntie?”
“The horses for the cortége. You know Brown puts that magnificent span of his in the hearse on account of their handsome action. I’m sure Mrs. Gaylard would have been frightened to death if she could only have seen the way they pranced at her funeral last fall. I was determined then that they should never draw me;” and Aunt Pen shivered for herself beforehand. “And I can’t have them from Timlin’s, for the same reason,” said she. “All his animals are skittish; and you remember when a pair of them took fright and dashed away from the procession and ran straight to the river, and there’d have been four other funerals if the schooner at the wharf hadn’t stopped the runaways. And Timlins has a way, too, of letting white horses follow the hearse with the first mourning-coach, and it’s very bad luck, very—an ill omen; a prophecy of Death and the Pale Horse again, you know. And I won’t have them from Shust’s, either,” said Aunt Pen, “for he is simply the greatest extortioner since old Isaac the Jew.”
“Well, auntie,” said Mel, forgetful of her late repentance, “I don’t see but you’ll have to go with Shank’s mare.”
Even Aunt Pen laughed then. “Don’t you really think you are going to lose me, girls?” asked she.
“No, auntie,” replied Maria. “We all think you are a hypo.”
“Not a hypocrite,” said Mel, “but a hypochondriac.”
“I wish I were,” sighed Aunt Pen; “I wish I were. I should have some hope of myself then,” said the poor inconsistent innocent. “Oh no, no; I feel it only too well; I am going fast. You will all regret your disbelief when I am gone;” and she lay back among her pillows. “That reminds me,” she murmured, presently. “About my monument.”
“Oh, Aunt Pen, do be still,” said Mel.
“No,” said Aunt Pen, firmly; “it may be a disagreeable duty, but that is all the better reason for me to bring my mind to it. And if I don’t attend to it now, it never will be attended to. I know what relatives are. They put down a slab of slate with a skull and cross-bones scratched on it, and think they’ve done their duty. Not that I mean any reflections on you; you’re all well-meaning, but you’re giddy. I shall haunt you if you do any thing of the kind! No; you may send Mr. Mason up here this afternoon, and I will go over his designs with him. I am going to have carved Carrara marble, set in a base of polished Scotch granite, and the inscription is—Girls!” cried Aunt Pen, rising and clasping her knees with unexpected energy, “I expressly forbid my age being printed in the paper, or on the lid, or on the stone! I won’t gratify every gossip in town, that I won’t! I shall take real pleasure in baffling their curiosity. And another thing, while I am about it, don’t you ask Tom Maltby to my funeral, or let him come in, if he comes himself, on any account whatever. I should rise in my shroud if he approached me. Yes, I should! Tom Maltby may be all very well; I dare say he is; and I hope I die at peace with him and all mankind, as a good Christian should. I forgive him; yes, certainly, I forgive him; but it doesn’t follow that I need forget him; and, so long as I remember him, the way he conducted in buying the pew over my head I can’t get over, dead or alive. And if I only do get well we shall have a reckoning that will make his hair stand on end—that he may rely on!” And here Aunt Pen took the fan from Maria, and moved it actively, till she remembered herself, when she resigned it. “One thing more,” she said. “Whatever happens, Helen, don’t let me be kept over Sunday. There’ll certainly be another death in the family within the year if you do. If I die on Saturday, there’s no help for it. Common decency won’t let you shove me into the ground at once, and so you will have to make up your minds for a second summons.” And Aunt Pen, contemplating the suttee of some one of us with great philosophy, lay down and closed her eyes again. “You might have it by torchlight on Sunday night, though,” said she, half opening them. “That would be very pretty.” And then she dropped off to sleep with such a satisfied expression of countenance that we judged her to be welcoming in imagination the guests at her last rites herself.
Whatever the dream was, she was rudely roused from it by the wreched little Israel, who came bounding up the stairs, and, without word or warning, burst into the room, almost white with horror. Why Israel was afraid I can’t conjecture, but, at any rate, a permanent fright would have been of great personal advantage to him. “Oh, ma’am! oh, miss! dere’s a pusson down stairs, a cullud woman, wid der small-pox!” he almost whistled in his alarm.
“With the small-pox!” cried Aunt Pen, springing into the middle of the floor, regardless of her late repose in articulo mortis. “Go away, Israel! Have you been near her? Put her out immediately! How on earth did she get there?”
“You allus telled me to let everybody in,” chattered Israel.
“Put her out! put her out!” cried Aunt Pen, half dancing with impatience.
“We can’t get her out. She’s right acrost der door-step. We’s feared ter tech her.”
But Aunt Pen’s head was out of the window, and she was shouting: “Police! fire! murder! thieves!” possibly in the order of importance of the four calamities, but quite as if she had a plenty of breath left; and, for a wonder, the police came to the rescue, and directly afterward an ambulance took the poor victim of the frightful epidemic to the hospital. I believe it turned out to be only measles after all, though.
“Run, Israel!” screamed Aunt Pen then; “run instantly and bring home a couple of pounds of roll-brimstone, and tell the maids to riddle the furnace fire and make it as bright and hot as possible, and to light fires in the parlor grates, and in the old Latrobe, and in every room in the house, without losing a minute. We’ll make this house too warm for it!”
And, to our amazement, as soon as Israel came darting back with the impish material, Aunt Pen took a piece in each hand, directed us to do the same, and wrapping the blue afghan round her shoulders, descended to the lower rooms three steps at a time, sent for the doctor to come and vaccinate us, and having set a chair precisely over the register where a red-hot stream of air was pouring up, she placed herself upon it and issued her orders.
Every window was closed, every grate from basement to attic had a fire lighted in it, and little pans of brimstone were burning in every room and hall in the house, while we, astonished, indignant, frightened, and amused, sat enduring the torments of vapor and sulphur baths to the point of suffocation.
“I can’t bear this another moment,” wheezed Mel.
“It’s the only way,” replied Aunt Pen, serenely, with a rivulet trickling down her nose. “You kill the germs by heat, and since we can’t bake ourselves quite to death, we make sure of the work by the fumes.”
And as she sat there, her face rubicund, her swan’s-down straight, drops on her cheeks, her chin, her forehead, and wherever drops could cling, her eyes watering, her curls limp, and an atmosphere of unbearable odor enveloping her in its cloud, the front door opened, and a footstep rung on the tiles.
“Jess you keep out o’ yer!” yelled Israel to the intruder, seeing it wasn’t the doctor. “We’s got der small-pox, and am a-killing de gemmens—”
“Pen!” cried a man’s voice through the smoke—a deep, melodious voice.
“What!” exclaimed Aunt Pen, starting up, and then pausing as if she fancied the horrid fumes might have befogged her brain.
“Pen!” the voice cried again.
“Chauncey! Chauncey Read!” she shrieked. “Where do you come from? Am I dreaming?”
“From the North Pacific,” answered the voice; and we dimly discerned its owner groping his way forward. “From the five years’ whaling voyage into which I was gagged and dragged—shanghaied, they call it. O, Pen, I didn’t dare to hope I should find—”
“Oh, Chauncey, is it you?” she cried, and fell fainting at his feet.
The draught from the open door after him was blowing away the smoke, and we saw what a great, sunburned, handsome fellow it was that had caught her in his arms, and was bearing her out to the back balcony and the fresh air there, used in the course of his whaling voyage, perhaps, to odors no more belonging to Araby the Blest than those of burning brimstone do; and, seeing the movement, we divined that he knew as much about the resources of the house as we did, and so we discreetly withdrew, Israel’s head being twisted behind him as he went to such extent that you might have supposed he had had his neck wrung.
Well, we put the white silk and the tulle on Aunt Pen after all; yellow as it was, she would have no other—only fresh, natural orange blossoms in place of the false wreath. And if we had not so often had her word for it in past times, we never should have taken her for any thing but the gayest bride, the most alive and happy woman in the world. They returned to the old house from their wedding journey, and we all live together in great peace and pleasantness. But though three years are passed and gone since Chauncey Read came home and brought a new atmosphere with him into our lives, Aunt Pen has never had a sick day yet; and we find that any allusion to her funeral gives her such a superstitious trembling that we are pleased to believe it indefinitely postponed, and by tacit and mutual consent we never say any thing about it.