A Village Stradivarius by Kate Douglas Wiggin
"Therein I hear the Parcae reel
Old Mrs. Butterfield had had her third stroke of paralysis, and died of a Sunday night. She was all alone in her little cottage on the river bank, with no neighbour nearer than Croft's, and nobody there but a blind man and a small boy. Everybody had told her it was foolish for a frail old woman of seventy to live alone in a house on the river road, and everybody was pleased, in a discreet and chastened fashion of course, that it had turned out exactly as they had predicted.
Aunt Mehitable Tarbox was walking up to Milliken's Mills, with her little black reticule hanging over her arm, and noticing that there was no smoke coming out of the Butterfield chimney, and that the hens were gathered about the kitchen door clamouring for their breakfast, she thought it best to stop and knock. No response followed the repeated blows from her hard knuckles. She then tapped smartly on Mrs. Butterfield's bedroom window with her thimble finger. This proving of no avail, she was obliged to pry open the kitchen shutter, split open the screen of mosquito netting with her shears, and crawl into the house over the sink. This was a considerable feat for a somewhat rheumatic elderly lady, but this one never grudged trouble when she wanted to find out anything.
When she discovered that her premonitions were correct, and old Mrs. Butterfield was indeed dead, her grief at losing a pleasant acquaintance was largely mitigated by her sense of importance at being first on the spot, and chosen by Providence to take command of the situation. There were no relations in the village; there was no woman neighbour within a mile: it was therefore her obvious Christian duty not only to take charge of the "remains," but to conduct such a funeral as the remains would have wished for herself.
The fortunate Vice-President suddenly called upon by destiny to guide the ship of state, the soldier who sees a possible Victoria Cross in a hazardous engagement, can have a faint conception of Aunt Hitty's feeling on this momentous occasion. Funerals were the very breath of her life. There was no ceremony, either of public or private import, that, to her mind, approached a funeral in real satisfying interest. Yet, with distinct talent in this direction, she had always been "cabined, cribbed, confined" within hopeless limitations. She had assisted in a secondary capacity at funerals in the families of other people, but she would have revelled in personally conducted ones. The members of her own family stubbornly refused to die, however, even the distant connections living on and on to a ridiculous old age; and if they ever did die, by reason of a falling roof, shipwreck, or conflagration, they generally died in Texas or Iowa, or some remote State where Aunt Hitty could not follow the hearse in the first carriage. This blighted ambition was a heart-sorrow of so deep and sacred a character that she did not even confess it to "Si," as her appendage of a husband was called.
Now at last her chance for planning a funeral had come. Mrs. Butterfield had no kith or kin save her niece, Lyddy Ann, who lived in Andover, or Lawrence, or Haverhill, Massachusetts--Aunt Hitty couldn't remember which, and hoped nobody else could. The niece would be sent for when they found out where she lived; meanwhile the funeral could not be put off.
She glanced round the house preparatory to locking it up and starting to notify Anthony Croft. She would just run over and talk to him about ordering the coffin; then she could attend to all other necessary preliminaries herself. The remains had been well-to-do, and there was no occasion for sordid economy, so Aunt Hitty determined in her own mind to have the latest fashion in everything, including a silver coffin-plate. The Butterfield coffin-plates were a thing to be proud of. They had been sacredly preserved for years and years, and the entire collection--numbering nineteen in all--had been framed, and adorned the walls of the deceased lady's best room. They were not of solid silver, it is true, but even so it was a matter of distinction to have belonged to a family that could afford to have nineteen coffin-plates of any sort.
Aunt Hitty planned certain dramatic details as she walked down the road to Croft's. It came to her in a burst of inspiration that she would have two ministers: one for the long prayer, and one for the short prayer and the remarks. She hoped that Elder Weeks would be adequate in the latter direction. She knew she couldn't for the life of her think of anything interesting to say about Mrs. Butterfield, save that she possessed nineteen coffin-plates, and brought her hens to Edgewood every summer for their health; but she had heard Elder Weeks make a moving discourse out of less than that. To be sure, he needed priming, but she would be equal to the occasion. There was Ivory Brown's funeral: how would that have gone on if it hadn't been for her? Wasn't the elder ten minutes late, and what would his remarks have amounted to without her suggestions? You might almost say she was the author of the discourse, for she gave the elder all the appropriate ideas. As she had helped him out of the waggon she had said: "Are you prepared? I thought not; but there's no time to lose. Remember there are aged parents; two brothers living--one railroading in Spokane Falls, the other clerking in Washington, D.C. Don't mention the Universalists--there's be'n two in the fam'ly; nor insanity--there's be'n one o' them. The girl in the corner is the one that the remains has be'n keeping comp'ny with. If you can make some genteel allusions to her, it'll be much appreciated by his folks."
As to the long prayer, she knew that the Rev. Mr. Ford could be relied on to pray until Aunt Becky Burnham should twitch him by the coat-tails. She had done it more than once. She had also, on one occasion, got up and straightened his ministerial neckerchief, which he had gradually "prayed" around his saintly neck until it had lodged behind the right ear.
These plans proved so fascinating to Aunt Hitty that she walked quite half a mile beyond Croft's, and was obliged to retrace her steps. Meantime, she conceived bands of black alpaca for the sleeves and hats of the pall-bearers, and a festoon of the same over the front gate, if there should be any left over. She planned the singing by the choir. There had been no real choir-singing at any funeral in Edgewood since the Rev. Joshua Beckwith had died. She would ask them to open with -
Rebel mourner, cease your weepin'.
This was a favourite funeral hymn. The only difficulty would be in keeping Aunt Becky Burnham from pitching it in a key where nobody but a soprano skylark, accustomed to warble at a great height, could possibly sing it. It was generally given at the grave, when Elder Weeks officiated; but it never satisfied Aunt Hitty, because the good elder always looked so unpicturesque when he threw a red bandanna handkerchief over his head before beginning the twenty-seven verses. After the long prayer, she would have Almira Berry give for a solo -
This gro-o-oanin' world's too dark and
This hymn, if it did not wholly reconcile one to death, enabled one to look upon life with sufficient solemnity. It was a thousand pities, she thought, that the old hearse was so shabby and rickety, and that Gooly Eldridge, who drove it, would insist on wearing a faded peach-blow overcoat. It was exasperating to think of the public spirit at Egypt, and contrast it with the state of things at Pleasant River. In Egypt, they had sold the old hearse-house for a sausage-shop, and now they were having "hearse sociables" every month to raise money for a new one.
All these details flew through Aunt Hitty's mind in fascinating procession. There shouldn't be "a hitch" anywhere. There had been a hitch at her last funeral, but she had been only an assistant there. Matt Henderson had been struck by lightning at the foot of Squire Bean's old nooning tree, and certain circumstances combined to make the funeral one of unusual interest, so much so much so that fat old Mrs. Potter from Deerwander created a sensation at the cemetery. She was so anxious to get where she could see everything to the best advantage that she crowded too near the bier, stepped on the sliding earth, and pitched into the grave. As she weighed over two hundred pounds, and was in a position of some disadvantage, it took five men to extricate her from the dilemma, and the operation made a long and somewhat awkward break in the religious services. Aunt Hitty always said of this catastrophe, "If I'd 'a' be'n Mis' Potter, I'd 'a' be'n so mortified I believe I'd 'a' said, 'I wa'n't plannin' to be buried, but now I'm in here I declare I'll stop.'
Old Mrs. Butterfield's funeral was not only voted an entire success by the villagers, but the seal of professional approval was set upon it by an undertaker from Saco, who declared that Mrs. Tarbox could make a handsome living in the funeral line anywhere. Providence, who always assists those who assist themselves, decreed that the niece Lyddy Ann should not arrive until the aunt was safely buried; so, there being none to resist her right or grudge her the privilege, Aunt Hitty, for the first time in her life, rode in the next buggy to the hearse. Si, in his best suit, a broad weed and weepers, drove Cyse Higgins' black colt, and Aunt Hitty was dressed in deep mourning, with the Widow Buzzell's crape veil over her face, and in her hand a palm-leaf fan tied with a black ribbon. Her comment to Si, as she went to her virtuous couch that night, was: "It was an awful dry funeral, but that was the only flaw in it. It would 'a' be'n perfect if there'd be'n anybody to shed tears. I come pretty nigh it myself, though I ain't no relation, when Elder Weeks said, 'You'll go round the house, my sisters, and Mis' Butterfield won't be there; you'll go int' the orchard, and Mis' Butterfield won't be there; you'll go int' the barn, and Mis' Butterfield won't be there; you'll go int' the shed, and Mis' Butterfield wont be there; you'll go int' the hencoop, and Mis' Butterfield won't be there!' That would 'a' draw'd tears from a stone, 'most, 'specially sence Mis' Butterfield set such store by her hens."
And this is the way that Lyddy Butterfield came into her kingdom, a little lone brown house on the river's brim. She had seen it only once before when she had drives, out from Portland, years ago, with her aunt. Mrs. Butterfield lived in Portland, but spent her summers in Edgewood on account of her chickens. She always explained that the country was dreadful dull for her, but good for the hens; they always laid so much better in the winter time.
Lyddy liked the place all the better for its loneliness. She had never had enough of solitude, and this quiet home, with the song of the river for company, if one needed more company than chickens and a cat, satisfied all her desires, particularly as it was accompanied by a snug little income of two hundred dollars a year, a meagre sum that seemed to open up mysterious avenues of joy to her starved, impatient heart.
When she was a mere infant, her brother was holding her on his knee before the great old-fashioned fireplace heaped with burning logs. A sudden noise startled him, and the crowing, restless baby gave an unexpected lurch, and slipped, face downward, into the glowing embers. It was a full minute before the horror-stricken boy could extricate the little creature from the cruel flame that had already done its fatal work. The baby escaped with her life, but was disfigured for ever. As she grew older, the gentle hand of time could not entirely efface the terrible scars. One cheek was wrinkled and crimson, while one eye and the mouth were drawn down pathetically. The accident might have changed the disposition of any child, but Lyddy chanced to be a sensitive, introspective bit of feminine humanity, in whose memory the burning flame was never quenched. Her mother, partly to conceal her own wounded vanity, and partly to shield the timid, morbid child, kept her out of sight as much as possible; so that at sixteen, when she was left an orphan, she had lived almost entirely in solitude.
She became, in course of time, a kind of general nursery governess in a large family of motherless children. The father was almost always away from home; his sister kept the house, and Lyddy stayed in the nursery, bathing the babies and putting them to bed, dressing them in the morning, and playing with them in the safe privacy of the garden or the open attic.
They loved her, disfigured as she was--for the child despises mere externals, and explores the heart of things to see whether it be good or evil--but they could never induce her to see strangers, nor to join any gathering of people.
The children were grown and married now, and Lyddy was nearly forty when she came into possession of house and lands and fortune; forty, with twenty years of unexpended feeling pent within her. Forty--that is rather old to be interesting, but age is a relative matter. Haven't you seen girls of four-and-twenty who have nibbled and been nibbled at ever since they were sixteen, but who have neither caught anything nor been caught? They are old, if you like, but Lyddy was forty and still young, with her susceptibilities cherished, not dulled, and with all the "language of passion fresh and rooted as the lovely leafage about a spring."