A Story of an Old Maid in a Time Long Past
Of all the Elwell family Aunt Mehetabel was certainly the most unimportant member. It was in the New England days, when an unmarried woman was an old maid at twenty, at forty was everyone’s servant, and at sixty had gone through so much discipline that she could need no more in the next world. Aunt Mehetabel was sixty-eight.
She had never for a moment known the pleasure of being important to anyone. Not that she was useless in her brother’s family; she was expected, as a matter of course, to take upon herself the most tedious and uninteresting part of the household labors. On Mondays she accepted as her share the washing of the men’s shirts, heavy with sweat and stiff with dirt from the fields and from their own hard-working bodies. Tuesdays she never dreamed of being allowed to iron anything pretty or even interesting, like the baby’s white dresses or the fancy aprons of her young lady nieces. She stood all day pressing out a tiresome monotonous succession of dish-cloths and towels and sheets.
In preserving-time she was allowed to have none of the pleasant responsibility of deciding when the fruit had cooked long enough, nor did she share in the little excitement of pouring the sweet-smelling stuff into the stone jars. She sat in a corner with the children and stoned cherries incessantly, or hulled strawberries until her fingers were dyed red to the bone.
The Elwells were not consciously unkind to their aunt, they were even in a vague way fond of her; but she was so utterly insignificant a figure in their lives that they bestowed no thought whatever on her. Aunt Mehetabel did not resent this treatment; she took it quite as unconsciously as they gave it. It was to be expected when one was an old-maid dependent in a busy family. She gathered what crumbs of comfort she could from their occasional careless kindnesses and tried to hide the hurt which even yet pierced her at her brother’s rough joking. In the winter when they all sat before the big hearth, roasted apples, drank mulled cider, and teased the girls about their beaux and the boys about their sweethearts, she shrank into a dusky corner with her knitting, happy if the evening passed without her brother saying, with a crude sarcasm, “Ask your Aunt Mehetabel about the beaux that used to come a-sparkin’ her!” or, “Mehetabel, how was’t when you was in love with Abel Cummings.” As a matter of fact, she had been the same at twenty as at sixty, a quiet, mouse-like little creature, too timid and shy for anyone to notice, or to raise her eyes for a moment and wish for a life of her own.
Her sister-in-law, a big hearty housewife, who ruled indoors with as autocratic a sway as did her husband on the farm, was rather kind in an absent, offhand way to the shrunken little old woman, and it was through her that Mehetabel was able to enjoy the one pleasure of her life. Even as a girl she had been clever with her needle in the way of patching bedquilts. More than that she could never learn to do. The garments which she made for herself were the most lamentable affairs, and she was humbly grateful for any help in the bewildering business of putting them together. But in patchwork she enjoyed a tepid importance. She could really do that as well as anyone else. During years of devotion to this one art she had accumulated a considerable store of quilting patterns. Sometimes the neighbors would send over and ask “Miss Mehetabel” for such and such a design. It was with an agreeable flutter at being able to help someone that she went to the dresser, in her bare little room under the eaves, and extracted from her crowded portfolio the pattern desired.
She never knew how her great idea came to her. Sometimes she thought she must have dreamed it, sometimes she even wondered reverently, in the phraseology of the weekly prayer-meeting, if it had not been “sent” to her. She never admitted to herself that she could have thought of it without other help; it was too great, too ambitious, too lofty a project for her humble mind to have conceived. Even when she finished drawing the design with her own fingers, she gazed at it incredulously, not daring to believe that it could indeed be her handiwork. At first it seemed to her only like a lovely but quite unreal dream. She did not think of putting it into execution—so elaborate, so complicated, so beautifully difficult a pattern could be only for the angels in heaven to quilt. But so curiously does familiarity accustom us even to very wonderful things, that as she lived with this astonishing creation of her mind, the longing grew stronger and stronger to give it material life with her nimble old fingers.
She gasped at her daring when this idea first swept over her and put it away as one does a sinfully selfish notion, but she kept coming back to it again and again. Finally she said compromisingly to herself that she would make one “square,” just one part of her design, to see how it would look. Accustomed to the most complete dependence on her brother and his wife, she dared not do even this without asking Sophia’s permission. With a heart full of hope and fear thumping furiously against her old ribs, she approached the mistress of the house on churning-day, knowing with the innocent guile of a child that the country woman was apt to be in a good temper while working over the fragrant butter in the cool cellar.
Sophia listened absently to her sister-in-law’s halting, hesitating petition. “Why, yes, Mehetabel,” she said, leaning far down into the huge churn for the last golden morsels—”why, yes, start another quilt if you want to. I’ve got a lot of pieces from the spring sewing that will work in real good.” Mehetabel tried honestly to make her see that this would be no common quilt, but her limited vocabulary and her emotion stood between her and expression. At last Sophia said, with a kindly impatience: “Oh, there! Don’t bother me. I never could keep track of your quiltin’ patterns, anyhow. I don’t care what pattern you go by.”
With this overwhelmingly, although unconsciously, generous permission Mehetabel rushed back up the steep attic stairs to her room, and in a joyful agitation began preparations for the work of her life. It was even better than she hoped. By some heaven-sent inspiration she had invented a pattern beyond which no patchwork quilt could go.
She had but little time from her incessant round of household drudgery for this new and absorbing occupation, and she did not dare sit up late at night lest she burn too much candle. It was weeks before the little Square began to take on a finished look, to show the pattern. Then Mehetabel was in a fever of impatience to bring it to completion. She was too conscientious to shirk even the smallest part of her share of the work of the house, but she rushed through it with a speed which left her panting as she climbed to the little room. This seemed like a radiant spot to her as she bent over the innumerable scraps of cloth which already in her imagination ranged themselves in the infinitely diverse pattern of her masterpiece. Finally she could wait no longer, and one evening ventured to bring her work down beside the fire where the family sat, hoping that some good fortune would give her a place near the tallow candles on the mantelpiece. She was on the last corner of the square, and her needle flew in and out with inconceivable rapidity. No one noticed her, a fact which filled her with relief, and by bedtime she had but a few more stitches to add.
As she stood up with the others, the square fluttered out of her trembling old hands and fell on the table. Sophia glanced at it carelessly. “Is that the new quilt you’re beginning on?” she asked with a yawn. “It looks like a real pretty pattern. Let’s see it.” Up to that moment Mehetabel had labored in the purest spirit of disinterested devotion to an ideal, but as Sophia held her work toward the candle to examine it, and exclaimed in amazement and admiration, she felt an astonished joy to know that her creation would stand the test of publicity.
“Land sakes!” ejaculated her sister-in-law, looking at the many-colored square. “Why, Mehetabel Elwell, where’d you git that pattern?”
“I made it up,” said Mehetabel quietly, but with unutterable pride.
“No!” exclaimed Sophia incredulously. “Did you! Why, I never see such a pattern in my life. Girls, come here and see what your Aunt Mehetabel is doing.”
The three tall daughters turned back reluctantly from the stairs. “I don’t seem to take much interest in patchwork,” said one listlessly.
“No, nor I neither!” answered Sophia; “but a stone image would take an interest in this pattern. Honest, Mehetabel, did you think of it yourself? And how under the sun and stars did you ever git your courage up to start in a-making it? Land! Look at all those tiny squinchy little seams! Why the wrong side ain’t a thing but seams!”
The girls echoed their mother’s exclamations, and Mr. Elwell himself came over to see what they were discussing. “Well, I declare!” he said, looking at his sister with eyes more approving than she could ever remember. “That beats old Mis’ Wightman’s quilt that got the blue ribbon so many times at the county fair.”
Mehetabel’s heart swelled within her, and tears of joy moistened her old eyes as she lay that night in her narrow, hard bed, too proud and excited to sleep. The next day her sister-in-law amazed her by taking the huge pan of potatoes out of her lap and setting one of the younger children to peeling them. “Don’t you want to go on with that quiltin’ pattern?” she said; “I’d kind o’ like to see how you’re goin’ to make the grape-vine design come out on the corner.”
By the end of the summer the family interest had risen so high that Mehetabel was given a little stand in the sitting-room where she could keep her pieces, and work in odd minutes. She almost wept over such kindness, and resolved firmly not to take advantage of it by neglecting her work, which she performed with a fierce thoroughness. But the whole atmosphere of her world was changed. Things had a meaning now. Through the longest task of washing milk-pans there rose the rainbow of promise of her variegated work. She took her place by the little table and put the thimble on her knotted, hard finger with the solemnity of a priestess performing a sacred rite.
She was even able to bear with some degree of dignity the extreme honor of having the minister and the minister’s wife comment admiringly on her great project. The family felt quite proud of Aunt Mehetabel as Minister Bowman had said it was work as fine as any he had ever seen, “and he didn’t know but finer!” The remark was repeated verbatim to the neighbors in the following weeks when they dropped in and examined in a perverse silence some astonishingly difficult tour de force which Mehetabel had just finished.
The family especially plumed themselves on the slow progress of the quilt. “Mehetabel has been to work on that corner for six weeks, come Tuesday, and she ain’t half done yet,” they explained to visitors. They fell out of the way of always expecting her to be the one to run on errands, even for the children. “Don’t bother your Aunt Mehetabel,” Sophia would call. “Can’t you see she’s got to a ticklish place on the quilt?”
The old woman sat up straighter and looked the world in the face. She was a part of it at last. She joined in the conversation and her remarks were listened to. The children were even told to mind her when she asked them to do some service for her, although this she did but seldom, the habit of self-effacement being too strong.
One day some strangers from the next town drove up and asked if they could inspect the wonderful quilt which they had heard of, even down in their end of the valley. After that such visitations were not uncommon, making the Elwells’ house a notable object. Mehetabel’s quilt came to be one of the town sights, and no one was allowed to leave the town without having paid tribute to its worth. The Elwells saw to it that their aunt was better dressed than she had ever been before, and one of the girls made her a pretty little cap to wear on her thin white hair.
A year went by and a quarter of the quilt was finished; a second year passed and half was done. The third year Mehetabel had pneumonia and lay ill for weeks and weeks, overcome with terror lest she die before her work was completed. A fourth year and one could really see the grandeur of the whole design; and in September of the fifth year, the entire family watching her with eager and admiring eyes, Mehetabel quilted the last stitches in her creation. The girls held it up by the four corners, and they all looked at it in a solemn silence. Then Mr. Elwell smote one horny hand within the other and exclaimed: “By ginger! That’s goin’ to the county fair!” Mehetabel blushed a deep red at this. It was a thought which had occurred to her in a bold moment, but she had not dared to entertain it. The family acclaimed the idea, and one of the boys was forthwith dispatched to the house of the neighbor who was chairman of the committee for their village. He returned with radiant face.
“Of course he’ll take it. Like’s not it may git a prize, so he says; but he’s got to have it right off, because all the things are goin’ to-morrow morning.”
Even in her swelling pride Mehetabel felt a pang of separation as the bulky package was carried out of the house. As the days went on she felt absolutely lost without her work. For years it had been her one preoccupation, and she could not bear even to look at the little stand, now quite bare of the litter of scraps which had lain on it so long. One of the neighbors, who took the long journey to the fair, reported that the quilt was hung in a place of honor in a glass case in “Agricultural Hall.” But that meant little to Mehetabel’s utter ignorance of all that lay outside of her brother’s home. The family noticed the old woman’s depression, and one day Sophia said kindly, “You feel sort o’ lost without the quilt, don’t you, Mehetabel?”
“They took it away so quick!” she said wistfully; “I hadn’t hardly had one real good look at it myself.”
Mr. Elwell made no comment, but a day or two later he asked his sister how early she could get up in the morning.
“I dun’no’. Why?” she asked.
“Well, Thomas Ralston has got to drive clear to West Oldton to see a lawyer there, and that is four miles beyond the fair. He says if you can git up so’s to leave here at four in the morning he’ll drive you over to the fair, leave you there for the day, and bring you back again at night.”
Mehetabel looked at him with incredulity. It was as though someone had offered her a ride in a golden chariot up to the gates of heaven. “Why, you can’t mean it!” she cried, paling with the intensity of her emotion. Her brother laughed a little uneasily. Even to his careless indifference this joy was a revelation of the narrowness of her life in his home. “Oh, ’tain’t so much to go to the fair. Yes, I mean it. Go git your things ready, for he wants to start to-morrow morning.”
All that night a trembling, excited old woman lay and stared at the rafters. She, who had never been more than six miles from home in her life, was going to drive thirty miles away—it was like going to another world. She who had never seen anything more exciting than a church supper was to see the county fair. To Mehetabel it was like making the tour of the world. She had never dreamed of doing it. She could not at all imagine what it would be like.
Nor did the exhortations of the family, as they bade good-by to her, throw any light on her confusion. They had all been at least once to the scene of gayety she was to visit, and as she tried to eat her breakfast they called out conflicting advice to her till her head whirled. Sophia told her to be sure and see the display of preserves. Her brother said not to miss inspecting the stock, her nieces said the fancywork was the only thing worth looking at, and her nephews said she must bring them home an account of the races. The buggy drove up to the door, she was helped in, and her wraps tucked about her. They all stood together and waved good-by to her as she drove out of the yard. She waved back, but she scarcely saw them. On her return home that evening she was very pale, and so tired and stiff that her brother had to lift her out bodily, but her lips were set in a blissful smile. They crowded around her with thronging questions, until Sophia pushed them all aside, telling them Aunt Mehetabel was too tired to speak until she had had, her supper. This was eaten in an enforced silence on the part of the children, and then the old woman was helped into an easy-chair before the fire. They gathered about her, eager for news of the great world, and Sophia said, “Now, come, Mehetabel, tell us all about it!”
Mehetabel drew a long breath. “It was just perfect!” she said; “finer even than I thought. They’ve got it hanging up in the very middle of a sort o’ closet made of glass, and one of the lower corners is ripped and turned back so’s to show the seams on the wrong side.”
“What?” asked Sophia, a little blankly.
“Why, the quilt!” said Mehetabel in surprise. “There are a whole lot of other ones in that room, but not one that can hold a candle to it, if I do say it who shouldn’t. I heard lots of people say the same thing. You ought to have heard what the women said about that corner, Sophia. They said—well, I’d be ashamed to tell you what they said. I declare if I wouldn’t!”
Mr. Elwell asked, “What did you think of that big ox we’ve heard so much about?”
“I didn’t look at the stock,” returned his sister indifferently. “That set of pieces you gave me, Maria, from your red waist, come out just lovely!” she assured one of her nieces. “I heard one woman say you could ‘most smell the red silk roses.”
“Did any of the horses in our town race?” asked young Thomas.
“I didn’t see the races.”
“How about the preserves?” asked Sophia.
“I didn’t see the preserves,” said Mehetabel calmly. “You see, I went right to the room where the quilt was, and then I didn’t want to leave it. It had been so long since I’d seen it. I had to look at it first real good myself, and then I looked at the others to see if there was any that could come up to it. And then the people begun comin’ in and I got so interested in hearin’ what they had to say I couldn’t think of goin’ anywheres else. I ate my lunch right there too, and I’m as glad as can be I did, too; for what do you think? “—she gazed about her with kindling eyes—” while I stood there with a sandwich in one hand didn’t the head of the hull concern come in and open the glass door and pin ‘First Prize’ right in the middle of the quilt!”
There was a stir of congratulation and proud exclamation. Then Sophia returned again to the attack. ” Didn’t you go to see anything else?” she queried.
“Why, no,” said Mehetabel. “Only the quilt. Why should I?”
She fell into a reverie where she saw again the glorious creation of her hand and brain hanging before all the world with the mark of highest approval on it. She longed to make her listeners see the splendid vision with her. She struggled for words; she reached blindly after unknown superlatives. “I tell you it looked like ——” she said, and paused, hesitating. Vague recollections of hymn-book phraseology came into her mind, the only form of literary expression she knew; but they were dismissed as being sacrilegious, and also not sufficiently forcible. Finally, “I tell you it looked real well!” she assured them, and sat staring into the fire, on her tired old face the supreme content of an artist who has realized his ideal.