V. Araminta
 

"Araminta," said Miss Mehitable, "go and get your sewing and do your stent."

"Yes, Aunt Hitty," answered the girl, obediently.

Each year, Araminta made a new patchwork quilt. Seven were neatly folded and put away in an old trunk in the attic. The eighth was progressing well, but the young seamstress was becoming sated with quilts. She had never been to school, but Miss Mehitable had taught her all she knew. Unkind critics might have intimated that Araminta had not been taught much, but she could sew nicely, keep house neatly, and write a stilted letter in a queer, old-fashioned hand almost exactly like Miss Mehitable's.

That valiant dame saw no practical use in further knowledge. She was concerned with no books except the Bible and the ancient ledger in which, with painstaking exactness, she kept her household accounts. She deemed it wise, moreover, that Araminta should not know too much.

From a drawer in the high, black-walnut bureau in the upper hall, Araminta drew forth an assortment of red, white, and blue cotton squares and diamonds. This was to be a "patriotic" quilt, made after a famous old pattern which Miss Hitty had selfishly refused to give to any one else, though she had often been asked for it by contemporary ladies of similar interests.

The younger generation was inclined to scout at quilt-making, and needlework heresy was rampant in the neighbourhood. Tatting, crocheting, and knitting were on the wane. An "advanced" woman who had once spent a Summer in the village had spread abroad the delights of Battenberg and raised embroidery. At all of these, Miss Hitty sniffed contemptuously.

"Quilt makin' was good enough for their mas and their grandmas," she said scornfully, "and I reckon it's good enough for anybody else. I've no patience with such things."

Araminta knew that. She had never forgotten the vial of wrath which broke upon her luckless head the day she had timorously suggested making lace as a pleasing change from unending quilts.

She sat now, in a low rocker by the window, with one foot upon a wobbly stool. A marvellous cover, of Aunt Hitty's making, which dated back to her frivolous and girlish days, was underneath. Nobody ever saw it, however, and the gaudy woollen roses blushed unseen. A white linen cover, severely plain, was put upon the footstool every Wednesday and every Saturday, year in and year out.

Unlike most good housewives, Miss Mehitable used her parlour every day in the week. She was obliged to, in fact, for it was the only room in her house, except Mr. Thorpe's, which commanded an unobstructed view of the crossroads. A cover of brown denim protected the carpet, and the chairs were shrouded in shapeless habiliments of cambric and calico. For the rest, however, the room was mildly cheerful, and had a habitable look which was distinctly uncommon in village parlours.

There was a fireplace, which was dusted and scrubbed at intervals, but never, under any circumstances, profaned by a fire. It was curtained by a gay remnant of figured plush, however, so nobody missed the fire. White and gold china vases stood on the mantel, and a little china dog, who would never have dared to bark had he been alive, so chaste and humble of countenance was he, sat forever between the two vases, keeping faithful guard over Miss Mehitable's treasures.

The silver coffin plates of the Smiths, matted with black, and deeply framed, occupied the place of honour over the mantel. On the marble-topped table in the exact centre of the room was a basket of wax flowers and fruit, covered by a bell-shaped glass shade. Miss Hitty's album and her Bible were placed near it with mathematical precision. On the opposite wall was a hair wreath, made from the shorn locks of departed Smiths by Miss Hitty's mother. The proud possessor felt a covert reproach in the fact that she herself was unable to make hair wreaths. It was a talent for which she had great admiration.

Araminta rocked back and forth in her low chair by the window. She hummed a bit of "Sweet Bye and Bye" to herself, for hymns were the only songs she knew. She could play some of them, with one hand, on the melodeon in the corner, but she dared not touch the yellow keys of the venerated instrument except when Miss Hitty was out.

The sunlight shone lovingly on Araminta's brown hair, tightly combed back, braided, and pinned up, but rippling riotously, none the less. Her deep, thoughtful eyes were grey and her nose turned up coquettishly. To a guardian of greater penetration, Araminta's mouth would have given deep concern. It was a demure, rosy mouth, warning and tantalising by turns. Mischievous little dimples lurked in the corners of it, and even Aunt Hitty was not proof against the magic of Araminta's smile. The girl's face had the creamy softness of a white rose petal, but her cheeks bloomed with the flush of health and she had a most disconcerting trick of blushing. With Spartan thoroughness, Miss Mehitable constantly strove to cure Araminta of this distressing fault, but as yet she had not succeeded.

The pretty child had grown into an exquisitely lovely woman, to her stern guardian's secret uneasiness. "It's goin' to be harder to keep Minty right than 't would be if she was plain," mused Miss Hitty, "but t guess I'll be given strength to do it. I've done well by her so far."

"In the Sweet Bye and Bye," sang Araminta, in a piping, girlish soprano, "we shall meet on that beautiful shore."

"Maybe we shall and maybe we sha'n't," said Miss Hitty, grimly. "Some folks 'll never see the beautiful shore. They'll go to the bad place."

Araminta lifted her great, grey, questioning eyes. "Why?" she asked, simply.

"Because they've been bad," answered Miss Hitty, defiantly.

"But if they didn't know any better?" queried Araminta, threading her needle. "Would they go to the bad place just because they didn't know?"

Miss Mehitable squirmed in her chair, for never before had Araminta spoken thus. "There's no excuse for their not knowin'," she said, sharply.

"Perhaps not," sighed Araminta, "but it seems dreadful to think of people being burned up just for ignorance. Do you think I'll be burned up, Aunt Hitty?" she continued, anxiously. "There's so many things I don't know!"

Miss Mehitable set herself firmly to her task. "Araminta Lee," she said, harshly, "don't get to bothering about what you don't know. That's the sure way to perdition. I've told you time and time again what's right for you to believe and what's right for you to do. You walk in that path and turn neither to the right nor the left, and you won't have no trouble--here or anywheres else."

"Yes, Aunt Hitty," said the girl, dutifully. "It must be awful to be burned."

Miss Mehitable looked about her furtively, then drew her chair closer to Araminta's. "That brings to my mind something I wanted to speak to you about, and I don't know but what this is as good a chance as any. You know where I told you to go the other day with the tray, and to set it down at the back door, and rap, and run?"

"Yes." Araminta's eyes were wide open now. She had wondered much at her mysterious errand, but had not dared to ask questions.

"Well," continued Aunt Hitty, after an aggravating pause, "the woman that lives in that house has been burnt."

Araminta gasped. "Oh, Aunt Hitty, was she bad? What did she do and how did she get burned before she was dead?"

Miss Mehitable brushed aside the question as though it were an annoying fly. "I don't want it talked of," she said, severely. "Evelina Grey was a friend of mine, and she is yet. If there's anything on earth I despise, it's a gossip. People who haven't anything better to do than to go around prying into other folks's affairs are better off dead, I take it. My mother never permitted me to gossip, and I've held true to her teachin'." Aunt Hitty smoothed her skirts with superior virtue and tied a knot in her thread.

"How did she get burned?" asked Araminta, eagerly.

"Gossip," said Miss Mehitable, sententiously, "does a lot of harm and makes a lot of folks miserable. It's a good thing to keep away from, and if I ever hear of your gossiping about anybody, I'll shut you up in your room for two weeks and keep you on bread and water."

Araminta trembled. "What is gossiping, Aunt Hitty?" she asked in a timid, awe-struck tone.

"Talking about folks," explained Miss Hitty. "Tellin' things about 'em they wouldn't tell themselves."

It occurred to Araminta that much of the conversation at the crossroads might appropriately be classed under that head, but, of course, Aunt Hitty knew what she was talking about. She remembered the last quilting Aunt Hitty had given, when the Ladies' Aid Society had been invited, en masse, to finish off the quilt Araminta's rebellious fingers had just completed. One of the ladies had been obliged to leave earlier than the rest, and----

"I don't believe," thought Araminta, "that Mrs. Gardner would have told how her son ran away from home, nor that she didn't dust her bed slats except at house-cleaning time, nor that they ate things other people would give to the pigs."

"I expect there'll be a lot of questions asked about Evelina," observed Miss Mehitable, breaking in rudely upon Araminta's train of thought, "as soon 's folks finds out she's come back to live here, and that she has to wear a veil all the time, even when she doesn't wear her hat. What I'm telling you for is to show you what happens to women that haven't sense enough to keep away from men. If Evelina 'd kept away from Doctor Dexter, she wouldn't have got burnt."

"Did Doctor Dexter burn her?" asked Araminta, breathlessly. "I thought it was God."

At the psychological moment, Doctor Dexter drove by, bowing to Miss Mehitable as he passed. Araminta had observed that this particular event always flustered her aunt.

"Maybe, it was God and maybe it was Doctor Dexter," answered Miss Mehitable, quickly. "That's something there don't nobody know except Evelina and Doctor Dexter, and it's not for me to ask either one of 'em, though I don't doubt some of the sewin' society 'll make an errand to Evelina's to find out. I've got to keep 'em off 'n her, if I can, and that's a big job for one woman to tackle.

"Anyhow, she got burnt and got burnt awful, and it was at his house that it happened. It was shameless, the way Evelina carried on. Why, if you'll believe me, she'd actually go to his house when there wa'n't no need of it--nobody sick, nor no medicine to be bought, nor anything. Some said they was goin' to be married."

The scorn which Miss Mehitable managed to throw into the word "married" indicated that the state was the crowning ignominy of the race. The girl's cheek flamed into crimson, for her own mother had been married, and everybody knew it. Sometimes the deep disgrace seemed almost too much for Araminta to endure.

"That's what comes of it," explained Miss Hitty, patiently, as a teacher might point to a demonstration clearly made out on a blackboard for an eager class. "If she'd stayed at home as a girl should stay, and hadn't gone to Doctor Dexter's, she wouldn't have got burnt. Anybody can see that.

"There was so much goin' on at the time that I sorter lost track of everything, otherwise I'd have known more about it, but I guess I know as much as anybody ever knew. Evelina was to Doctor Dexter's--shameless hussy that she was--and she got burnt. She was there all the afternoon and they took her to the hospital in the city on the night train and she stayed there until she was well, but she never came back here until just now. Her mother went with her to take care of her and before Evelina came out of the hospital, her mother keeled over and died. Sarah Grey always had a weak heart and a weak head to match it. If she hadn't have had, she'd have brought up Evelina different,

"Neither of 'em was ever in the house again. Neither one ever came back, even for their clothes. They had plenty of money, then, and they just bought new ones. When the word come that Evelina was burnt, Sarah Grey just put on her hat and locked her doors and run up to Doctor Dexter's. Nobody ever heard from them again until Jim Gardner's second cousin on his father's side sent a paper with Sarah Grey's obituary in it. And now, after twenty-five years, Evelina's come back.

"The poor soul's just sittin' there, in all the dust and cobwebs. When I get time, I aim to go over there and clean up the house for her--'t ain't decent for a body to live like that. I'll take you with me, to help scrub, and what I'm telling you all this for is so 's you won't ask any questions, nor act as if you thought it was queer for a woman to wear a white veil all the time. You'll have to act as if nothing was out of the way at all, and not look at her any more than you can help. Just pretend it's the style to wear a veil pinned to your hair all the time, and you've been wearin' one right along and have forgot and left it to home. Do you understand me?"

"Yes, Aunt Hitty."

"And when people come here to find out about it, you're not to say anything. Leave it all to me. 'T ain't necessary for you to lie, but you can keep your mouth shut. And I hope you see now what it means to a woman to walk straight on her own path that the Lord has laid out for her, and to let men alone. They're pizen, every one of 'em."

Nun-like, Araminta sat in her chair and sewed steadily at her dainty seam, but, none the less, she was deeply stirred with pity for women who so forgot themselves--who had not Aunt Hitty's superior wisdom. At the end of the prayer which Miss Mehitable had taught the child, and which the woman still repeated in her nightly devotions, was this eloquent passage:

"And, Oh Lord, keep me from the contamination of marriage. For Thy sake. Amen."

"Araminta," said Aunt Hitty, severely, "cover up your foot!" Modestly, Araminta drew down her skirt. One foot was on the immaculate footstool and her ankle was exposed to view--a lovely ankle, in spite of the broad-soled, common-sense shoes which she always wore.

"How often have I told you to keep your ankles covered ?" demanded Miss Mehitable. "Suppose the minister had come in suddenly! Suppose--upon my word! Speakin' of angels--if there ain't the minister now!"

The Reverend Austin Thorpe came slowly up the brick-bordered path, his head bowed in thought. He was painfully near-sighted, but he refused to wear glasses. On the doorstep he paused and wiped his feet upon the corn-husk mat until even Miss Mehitable, beaming at him through the window, thought he was overdoing it. Unconsciously, she took credit to herself for the minister's neatness.

Stepping carefully, lest he profane the hall carpet by wandering off the rug, the minister entered the parlour, having first taken off his coat and hat and hung them upon their appointed hooks in the hall. It was cold, and the cheery warmth of the room beckoned him in. He did not know that he tried Miss Hitty by trespassing, so to speak, upon her preserves. She would have been better pleased if he remained in his room when he was not at the table or out, but, to do him justice, the reverend gentleman did not often offend her thus.

Araminta, blushing, took her foot from the footstool and pulled feverishly at her skirts. As Mr. Thorpe entered the room, she did not look up, but kept her eyes modestly upon her work.

"There ain't no need to tear out the gathers," Miss Hitty said, in a warning undertone, referring to Aramlnta's skirts. "Why, Mr. Thorpe! How you surprised me! Come in and set a spell," she added, grudgingly.

Steering well away from the centre-table with its highly prized ornament, Thorpe gained the chair in which, if he did not lean against the tidy, he was permitted to sit. He held himself bolt upright and warmed his hands at the stove. "It is good to be out," he said, cheerfully, "and good to come in again. A day like this makes one appreciate the blessing of a home."

Miss Hitty watched the white-haired, inoffensive old man with the keen scrutiny of an eagle guarding its nest. He did not lean upon the tidy, nor rest his elbows upon the crocheted mats which protected the arms of the chair. In short, he conducted himself as a gentleman should when in the parlour of a lady.

His blue, near-sighted eyes rested approvingly upon Araminta. "How the child grows!" he said, with a friendly smile upon his kindly old face. "Soon we shall have a young lady on our hands."

Araminta coloured and bent more closely to her sewing.

"I hope I'm not annoying you?" questioned the minister, after an interval.

"Not at all," said Miss Mehitable, politely.

"I wanted to ask about some one," pursued the Reverend Mr. Thorpe. "It seems that there is a new tenant in the old house on the hill that has been empty for so long--the one the village people say is haunted. It seems a woman is living there, quite alone; and she always wears a veil, on account of some--some disfigurement."

Miss Hitty's false teeth clicked, sharply, but there was no other sound except the clock, which, in the pause, struck four. "I thought--" continued the minister, with a rising inflection.

Hitherto, he had found his hostess of invaluable assistance in his parish work. It had been necessary to mention only the name. As upon the turning of a faucet a stream of information gushed forth from the fountain of her knowledge. Age, date and place of birth, ancestry on both sides three generations back, with complete and illuminating biographical details of ancestry and individual; education, financial standing, manner of living, illnesses in the family, including dates and durations of said illnesses, accidents, if any, medical attendance, marriages, births, deaths, opinions, reverses, present locations and various careers of descendants, list of misfortunes, festivities, entertainments, church affiliation past and present, political leanings, and a vast amount of other personal data had been immediately forthcoming. Tagged to it, like the postscript of a woman's letter, was Miss Hitty's own concise, permanent, neatly labelled opinion of the family or individual, the latter thrown in without extra charge.

"Perhaps you didn't know," remarked the minister, "that such a woman had come." His tone was inquiring. It seemed to him that something must be wrong if she did not know.

"Minty," said Miss Hitty, abruptly, "leave the room!"

Araminta rose, gathered up her patchwork, and went out, carefully closing the door. It was only in moments of great tenderness that her aunt called her "Minty."

The light footsteps died away upon the stairs. Tactlessly, the minister persisted. "Don't you know?" he asked.

Miss Mehitable turned upon him. "If I did," she replied, hotly, "I wouldn't tell any prying, gossiping man. I never knew before it was part of a minister's business to meddle in folks' private affairs. You'd better be writing your sermon and studyin' up on hell."

"I--I--" stammered the minister, taken wholly by surprise, "I only hoped to give her the consolation of the church."

"Consolation nothing!" snorted Miss Hitty. "Let her alone!" She went out of the room and slammed the door furiously, leaving the Reverend Austin Thorpe overcome with deep and lasting amazement.