Chapter XV. Aunt Rachel's Mishaps.
 

The week which had been assigned by Mr. Crump slipped away, and still no tidings of Ida. The house seemed lonely without her. Not until then, did they understand how largely she had entered into their life and thoughts. But worse even, than the sense of loss, was the uncertainty as to her fate.

When seven days had passed the cooper said, "It is time that we took some steps about finding Ida. I had intended to go to Philadelphia myself, to make inquiries about her, but I am just now engaged upon a job which I cannot very well leave, and so I have concluded to send Jack."

"When shall I start?" exclaimed Jack, eagerly.

"To-morrow morning," answered his father, "and you must take clothes enough with you to last several days, in case it should be necessary."

"What good do you suppose it will do, Timothy," broke in Rachel, "to send such a mere boy as Jack?"

"A mere boy!" repeated her nephew, indignantly.

"A boy hardly sixteen years old," continued Rachel. "Why, he'll need somebody to take care of him. Most likely you'll have to go after him."

"What's the use of provoking a fellow so, Aunt Rachel?" said Jack. "You know I'm most eighteen. Hardly sixteen! Why, I might as well say you're hardly forty, when everybody knows you're most fifty."

"Most fifty!" ejaculated the scandalized spinster. "It's a base slander. I'm only forty-three."

"Maybe I'm mistaken," said Jack, carelessly. "I didn't know exactly. I only judged from your looks."

"'Judge not that ye be not judged!'" said Rachel, whom this explanation was not likely to appease. "The world is full of calumny and misrepresentation. I've no doubt you would like to shorten my days upon the earth, but I sha'n't live long to trouble any of you. I feel that, ere the summer of life is over, I shall be gathered into the garden of the Great Destroyer."

At this point, Rachel applied a segment of a pocket-handkerchief to her eyes; but unfortunately, owing to circumstances, the effect, instead of being pathetic, as she had intended, was simply ludicrous.

It so happened that a short time previous the inkstand had been partially spilled on the table, and this handkerchief had been used to sop it up. It had been placed inadvertently on the window-seat, where it had remained till Rachel, who sat beside the window, called it into requisition. The ink upon it was by no means dry. The consequence was that, when Rachel removed it from her eyes, her face was found to be covered with ink in streaks,--mingling with the tears that were falling, for Rachel always had tears at her command.

The first intimation the luckless spinster had of her misfortune, was conveyed in a stentorian laugh from Jack, whose organ of mirthfulness, marked very large by the phrenologist, could not withstand such a provocation to laughter.

He looked intently at the dark traces of sorrow upon his aunt's face, of which she was yet unconscious--and doubling up, went into a perfect paroxysm of laughter.

Aunt Rachel looked equally amazed and indignant.

"Jack!" said his mother, reprovingly, for she had not observed the cause of his amusement. "It's improper for you to laugh at your aunt in such a rude manner."

"Oh, I can't help it, mother. It's too rich! Just look at her," and Jack went off into another paroxysm.

Thus invited, Mrs. Crump did look, and the rueful expression of Rachel, set off by the inky stains, was so irresistibly comical, that, after a little struggle, she too gave way, and followed Jack's example.

Astounded and indignant at this unexpected behavior of her sister-in-law, Rachel burst into a fresh fit of weeping, and again had recourse to the handkerchief.

"I've stayed here long enough, if even my sister-in-law, as well as my own nephew, from whom I expect nothing better, makes me her laughing-stock. Brother Timothy, I can no longer remain in your dwelling to be laughed at; I will go to the poor-house, and end my life as a pauper. If I only receive Christian burial, when I leave the world, it will be all I hope or expect from my relatives, who will be glad enough to get rid of me."

The second application of the handkerchief had so increased the effect, that Jack found it impossible to check his laughter, while the cooper, whose attention was now for the first time drawn to his sister's face, burst out in a similar manner.

This more amazed Rachel than even Mrs. Crump's merriment.

"Even you, Timothy, join in ridiculing your sister!" she exclaimed, in an 'Et tu Brute,' tone.

"We don't mean to ridicule you, Rachel," gasped Mrs. Crump, with difficulty, "but we can't help laughing----"

"At the prospect of my death," uttered Rachel. "Well, I'm a poor forlorn creetur, I know; I haven't got a friend in the world. Even my nearest relations make sport of me, and when I speak of dying they shout their joy to my face."

"Yes," gasped Jack, "that's it exactly. It isn't your death we're laughing at, but your face."

"My face!" exclaimed the insulted spinster. "One would think I was a fright, by the way you laugh at it."

So you are," said Jack, in a state of semi-strangulation.

"To be called a fright to my face!" shrieked Rachel, "by my own nephew! This is too much. Timothy, I leave your house forever."

The excited maiden seized her hood, which was hanging from a nail, and hardly knowing what she did, was about to leave the house with no other protection, when she was arrested in her progress towards the door by the cooper, who stifled his laughter sufficiently to say: "Before you go, Rachel, just look in the glass."

Mechanically his sister did look, and her horrified eyes rested upon a face which streaked with inky spots and lines seaming it in every direction.

In her first confusion, Rachel did not understand the nature of her mishaps, but hastily jumped to the conclusion that she had been suddenly stricken by some terrible disease like the plague, whose ravages in London she had read of with the interest which one of her melancholy temperament might be expected to find in it.

Accordingly she began to wring her hands in an excess of terror, and exclaimed in tones of piercing anguish,--

"It is the fatal plague spot! I feel it; I know it! I am marked for the tomb. The sands of my life are fast running out!"

Jack broke into a fresh burst of merriment, so that an observer might, not without reason, have imagined him to be in imminent danger of suffocation.

"You'll kill me, Aunt Rachel; I know you will," he gasped out.

"You may order my coffin, Timothy," said Rachel, in a sepulchral tone. "I sha'n't live twenty-four hours. I've felt it coming on for a week past. I forgive you for all your ill-treatment. I should like to have some one go for the doctor, though I know I'm past help. I will go up to my chamber."

"I think," said the cooper, trying to look sober, "that you will find the cold-water treatment efficacious in removing the plague-spots, as you call them."

Rachel turned towards him with a puzzled look. Then, as her eyes rested, for the first time, upon the handkerchief which she had used, its appearance at once suggested a clew by which she was enabled to account for her own.

Somewhat ashamed of the emotion which she had betrayed, as well as the ridiculous figure which she had cut, she left the room abruptly, and did not make her appearance again till the next morning.

After this little episode, the conversation turned upon Jack's approaching journey.

"I don't know," said his mother, "but Rachel is right. Perhaps Jack isn't old enough, and hasn't had sufficient experience to undertake such a mission."

"Now, mother," expostulated Jack, "you ain't going to side against me, are you?"

"There is no better plan," said Mr. Crump, quietly, "and I have sufficient confidence in Jack's shrewdness and intelligence to believe he may be trusted in this business."

Jack looked gratified by this tribute to his powers and capacity, and determined to show that he was deserving of his father's favorable opinion.

The preliminaries were settled, and it was agreed that he should set out early the next morning. He went to bed with the brightest anticipations, and with the resolute determination to find Ida if she was anywhere in Philadelphia.