My Cousin Fanny
by Thomas Nelson Page
We do not keep Christmas now as we used to do in old Hanover. We have not time for it, and it does not seem like the same thing. Christmas, however, always brings up to me my cousin Fanny; I suppose because she always was so foolish about Christmas.
My cousin Fanny was an old maid; indeed, to follow St. Paul’s turn of phrase, she was an old maid of the old maids. No one who saw her a moment could have doubted it. Old maids have from most people a feeling rather akin to pity — a hard heritage. They very often have this feeling from the young. This must be the hardest part of all — to see around them friends, each “a happy mother of children,” little ones responding to affection with the sweet caresses of childhood, whilst any advances that they, their aunts or cousins, may make are met with indifference or condescension. My cousin Fanny was no exception. She was as proud as Lucifer; yet she went through life — the part that I knew of — bearing the pity of the great majority of the people who knew her.
She lived at an old place called “Woodside”, which had been in the family for a great many years; indeed, ever since before the Revolution. The neighborhood dated back to the time of the colony, and Woodside was one of the old places. My cousin Fanny’s grandmother had stood in the door of her chamber with her large scissors in her hand, and defied Tarleton’s red-coated troopers to touch the basket of old communion-plate which she had hung on her arm.
The house was a large brick edifice, with a pyramidal roof, covered with moss, small windows, porticos with pillars somewhat out of repair, a big, high hall, and a staircase wide enough to drive a gig up it if it could have turned the corners. A grove of great forest oaks and poplars densely shaded it, and made it look rather gloomy; and the garden, with the old graveyard covered with periwinkle at one end, was almost in front, while the side of the wood — a primeval forest, from which the place took its name — came up so close as to form a strong, dark background. During the war the place, like most others in that neighborhood, suffered greatly, and only a sudden exhibition of spirit on Cousin Fanny’s part saved it from a worse fate. After the war it went down; the fields were poor, and grew up in briers and sassafras, and the house was too large and out of repair to keep from decay, the ownership of it being divided between Cousin Fanny and other members of the family. Cousin Fanny had no means whatever, so that it soon was in a bad condition. The rest of the family, as they grew up, went off, compelled by necessity to seek some means of livelihood, and would have taken Cousin Fanny too if she would have gone; but she would not go. They did all they could for her, but she preferred to hang around the old place, and to do what she could with her “mammy”, and “old Stephen”, her mammy’s husband, who alone remained in the quarters. She lived in a part of the house, locking up the rest, and from time to time visited among her friends and relatives, who always received her hospitably. She had an old piece of a mare (which I think she had bought from Stephen), with one eye, three legs, and no mane or tail to speak of, and on which she lavished, without the least perceptible result, care enough to have kept a stable in condition. In a freak of humor she named this animal “Fashion”, after a noted racer of the old times, which had been raised in the county, and had beaten the famous Boston in a great race. She always spoke of “Fash” with a tone of real tenderness in her voice, and looked after her, and discussed her ailments, which were always numerous, as if she had been a delicate child. Mounted on this beast, with her bags and bundles, and shawls and umbrella, and a long stick or pole, she used occasionally to make the tour of the neighborhood, and was always really welcomed; because, notwithstanding the trouble she gave, she always stirred things up. As was said once, you could no more have remained dull where she was than you could have dozed with a chinkapin-burr down your back. Her retort was that a chinkapin-burr might be used to rouse people from a lethargy (she had an old maid’s tongue). By the younger members of the family she was always welcomed, because she furnished so much fun. She nearly always fetched some little thing to her host — not her hostess — a fowl, or a pat of butter from her one old cow, or something of the kind, because, she said, “Abigail had established the precedent, and she was `a woman of good understanding’ — she understood that feeding and flattery were the way to win men.” She would sometimes have a chicken in a basket hung on the off pummel of her old saddle, because at times she fancied she could not eat anything but chicken soup, and she did “not wish to give trouble.” She used to give trouble enough; for it generally turned out that she had heard some one was sick in the neighborhood, and she wanted the soup carried to her. I remember how mad Joe got because she made him go with her to carry a bucket of soup to old Mrs. Ronquist.
Cousin Fanny had the marks of an old maid. She was thin (“scrawny” we used to call her, though I remember now she was quite erect until she grew feeble); her features were fine; her nose was very straight; her hair was brown; and her eyes, which were dark, were weak, so that she had often to wear a green shade. She used to say herself that they were “bad eyes”. They had been so ever since the time when she was a young girl, and there had been a very bad attack of scarlet fever at her home, and she had caught it. I think she caught a bad cold with it — sitting up nursing some of the younger children, perhaps — and it had settled in her eyes. She was always very liable to cold.
I believe she had a lover then or about that time; but her mother had died not long before, and she had some notion of duty to the children, and so discarded him. Of course, as every one said, she’d much better have married him. I do not suppose he ever could have addressed her. She never would admit that he did, which did not look much like it. She was once spoken of in my presence as “a sore-eyed old maid” — I have forgotten who said it. Yet I can now recall occasions when her eyes, being “better”, appeared unusually soft, and, had she not been an old maid, would sometimes have been beautiful — as, for instance, occasionally, when she was playing at the piano in the evenings before the candles were lighted. I recollect particularly once when she was singing an old French love-song. Another time was when on a certain occasion some one was talking about marriages and the reasons which led to or prevented them. She sat quite still and silent, looking out of the window, with her thin hands resting in her lap. Her head was turned away from most of the people, but I was sitting where I could see her, and the light of the evening sky was on her face. It made her look very soft. She lifted up her eyes, and looked far off toward the horizon. I remember it recalled to me, young as I was, the speech I had heard some one once make when I was a little boy, and which I had thought so ridiculous, that “when she was young, before she caught that cold, she was almost beautiful.” There was an expression on her face that made me think she ought always to sit looking out of the window at the evening sky. I believe she had brought me some apples that day when she came, and that made me feel kindly toward her. The light on her hair gave it a reddish look, quite auburn. Presently, she withdrew her eyes from the sky, and let them fall into her lap with a sort of long, sighing breath, and slowly interlaced her fingers. The next second some one jocularly fired this question at her: “Well, Cousin Fanny, give us your views,” and her expression changed back to that which she ordinarily wore.
“Oh, my views, like other people’s, vary from my practice,” she said. “It is not views, but experiences, which are valuable in life. When I shall have been married twice I will tell you.”
“While there’s life there’s hope, eh?” hazarded some one; for teasing an old maid, in any way, was held perfectly legitimate.
“Yes, indeed,” and she left the room, smiling, and went up-stairs.
This was one of the occasions when her eyes looked well. There were others that I remember, as sometimes when she was in church; sometimes when she was playing with little children; and now and then when, as on that evening, she was sitting still, gazing out of the window. But usually her eyes were weak, and she wore the green shade, which gave her face a peculiar pallor, making her look old, and giving her a pained, invalid expression.
Her dress was one of her peculiarities. Perhaps it was because she made her clothes herself, without being able to see very well. I suppose she did not have much to dress on. I know she used to turn her dresses, and change them around several times. When she had any money she used to squander it, buying dresses for Scroggs’s girls or for some one else. She was always scrupulously neat, being quite old-maidish. She said that cleanliness was next to godliness in a man, and in a woman it was on a par with it. I remember once seeing a picture of her as a young girl, as young as Kitty, dressed in a soft white dress, with her hair down over her ears, and some flowers in her dress — that is, it was said to be she; but I did not believe it. To be sure, the flowers looked like it. She always would stick flowers or leaves in her dress, which was thought quite ridiculous. The idea of associating flowers with an old maid! It was as hard as believing she ever was the young girl. It was not, however, her dress, old and often queer and ill-made as it used to be, that was the chief grievance against her. There was a much stronger ground of complaint; she had NERVES! The word used to be strung out in pronouncing it, with a curve of the lips, as “ner-erves”. I don’t remember that she herself ever mentioned them; that was the exasperating part of it. She would never say a word; she would just close her thin lips tight, and wear a sort of ill look, as if she were in actual pain. She used to go up-stairs, and shut the door and windows tight, and go to bed, and have mustard-plasters on her temples and the back of her neck; and when she came down, after a day or two, she would have bright red spots burnt on her temples and neck, and would look ill. Of course it was very hard not to be exasperated at this. Then she would creep about as if merely stepping jarred her; would put on a heavy blue veil, and wrap her head up in a shawl, and feel along by the chairs till she got to a seat, and drop back in it, gasping. Why, I have even seen her sit in the room, all swathed up, and with an old parasol over her head to keep out the light, or some such nonsense, as we used to think. It was too ridiculous to us, and we boys used to walk heavily and stumble over chairs — “accidentally”, of course — just to make her jump. Sometimes she would even start up and cry out. We had the incontestable proof that it was all “put on”; for if you began to talk to her, and got her interested, she would forget all about her ailments, and would run on and talk and laugh for an hour, until she suddenly remembered, and sank back again in her shawls and pains.
She knew a great deal. In fact, I recall now that she seemed to know more than any woman I have ever been thrown with, and if she had not been an old maid, I am bound to admit that her conversation would have been the most entertaining I ever knew. She lived in a sort of atmosphere of romance and literature; the old writers and their characters were as real to her as we were, and she used to talk about them to us whenever we would let her. Of course, when it came from an old maid, it made a difference. She was not only easily the best French scholar in our region, where the ladies all knew more or less of French, but she was an excellent Latin scholar, which was much less common. I have often lain down before the fire when I was learning my Latin lesson, and read to her, line by line, Caesar or Ovid or Cicero, as the book might be, and had her render it into English almost as fast as I read. Indeed, I have even seen Horace read to her as she sat in the old rocking-chair after one of her headaches, with her eyes bandaged, and her head swathed in veils and shawls, and she would turn it into not only proper English, but English with a glow and color and rhythm that gave the very life of the odes. This was an exercise we boys all liked and often engaged in — Frank, and Joe, and Doug, and I, and even old Blinky — for, as she used to admit herself, she was always worrying us to read to her (I believe I read all of Scott’s novels to her). Of course this translation helped us as well as gratified her. I do not remember that she was ever too unwell to help us in this way except when she was actually in bed. She was very fond of us boys, and was always ready to take our side and to further our plans in any way whatever. We would get her to steal off with us, and translate our Latin for us by the fire. This, of course, made us rather fond of her. She was so much inclined to take our part and to help us that I remember it used to be said of her as a sort of reproach, “Cousin Fanny always sides with the boys.” She used to say it was because she knew how worthless women were. She would say this sort of thing herself, but she was very touchy about women, and never would allow any one else to say anything about them. She had an old maid’s temper. I remember that she took Doug up short once for talking about “old maids”. She said that for her part she did not mind it the least bit; but she would not allow him to speak so of a large class of her sex which contained some of the best women in the world; that many of them performed work and made sacrifices that the rest of the world knew nothing about. She said the true word for them was the old Saxon term “spinster”; that it proved that they performed the work of the house, and that it was a term of honor of which she was proud. She said that Christ had humbled himself to be born of a Virgin, and that every woman had this honor to sustain. Of course such lectures as that made us call her an old maid all the more. Still, I don’t think that being mischievous or teasing her made any difference with her. Frank used to worry her more than any one else, even than Joe, and I am sure she liked him best of all. That may perhaps have been because he was the best-looking of us. She said once that he reminded her of some one she used to know a long time before, when she was young. That must have been a long time before, indeed. He used to tease the life out of her.
She was extraordinarily credulous — would believe anything on earth anyone told her, because, although she had plenty of humor, she herself never would deviate from the absolute truth a moment, even in jest. I do not think she would have told an untruth to save her life. Well, of course we used to play on her to tease her. Frank would tell her the most unbelievable and impossible lies: such as that he thought he saw a mouse yesterday on the back of the sofa she was lying on (this would make her bounce up like a ball), or that he believed he heard — he was not sure — that Mr. Scroggs (the man who had rented her old home) had cut down all the old trees in the yard, and pulled down the house because he wanted the bricks to make brick ovens. This would worry her excessively (she loved every brick in the old house, and often said she would rather live in the kitchen there than in a palace anywhere else), and she would get into such a state of depression that Frank would finally have to tell her that he was just “fooling her”.
She used to make him do a good deal of waiting on her in return, and he was the one she used to get to dress old Fashion’s back when it was raw, and to put drops in her eyes. He got quite expert at it. She said it was a penalty for his worrying her so.
She was the great musician of the connection. This is in itself no mean praise; for it was the fashion for every musical gift among the girls to be cultivated, and every girl played or sang more or less, some of them very well. But Cousin Fanny was not only this. She had a way of playing that used to make the old piano sound different from itself; and her voice was almost the sweetest I ever heard except one or two on the stage. It was particularly sweet in the evenings, when she sat down at the piano and played. She would not always do it; she either felt “not in the mood”, or “not sympathetic”, or some such thing. None of the others were that way; the rest could play just as well in the glare of day as in the twilight, and before one person as another; it was, we all knew, just one of Cousin Fanny’s old-maid crotchets. When she sat down at the piano and played, her fussiness was all forgotten; her first notes used to be recognized through the house, and people used to stop what they were doing, and come in. Even the children would leave off playing, and come straggling in, tiptoeing as they crossed the floor. Some of the other performers used to play a great deal louder, but we never tiptoed when they played. Cousin Fanny would sit at the piano looking either up or right straight ahead of her, or often with her eyes closed (she never looked at the keys), and the sound used to rise from under her long, thin fingers, sometimes rushing and pouring forth like a deep roar, sometimes ringing out clear like a band of bugles, making the hair move on the head and giving strange tinglings down the back. Then we boys wanted to go forth in the world on fiery, black chargers, like the olden knights, and fight giants and rescue beautiful ladies and poor women. Then again, with her eyes shut, the sound would almost die away, and her fingers would move softly and lingeringly as if they loved the touch of the keys, and hated to leave them; and the sound would come from away far off, and everything would grow quiet and subdued, and the perfume of the roses out of doors would steal in on the air, and the soft breezes would stir the trees, and we were all in love, and wanted to see somebody that we didn’t see. And Cousin Fanny was not herself any longer, but we imagined some one else was there. Sometimes she suddenly began to sing (she sang old songs, English or French); her voice might be weak (it all depended on her whims; SHE said, on her health), in that case she always stopped and left the piano; or it might be “in condition”. When it was, it was as velvety and mellow as a bell far off, and the old ballads and chansons used to fill the twilight. We used even to forget then that she was an old maid. Now and then she sang songs that no one else had ever heard. They were her own; she had composed both the words and the air. At other times she sang the songs of others to her own airs. I remember the first time I ever heard of Tennyson was when, one evening in the twilight, she sang his echo song from “The Princess”. The air was her own, and in the refrain you heard perfectly the notes of the bugle, and the echoes answering, “Dying, dying, dying.” Boy as I was, I was entranced, and she answered my enthusiasm by turning and repeating the poem. I have often thought since how musical her voice was as she repeated
Our echoes roll from soul to soul, And grow forever and forever.
She had a peculiarly sentimental temperament. As I look back at it all now, she was much given to dwelling upon old-time poems and romances, which we thought very ridiculous in any one, especially in a spinster of forty odd. She would stop and talk about the branch of a tree with the leaves all turning red or yellow or purple in the common way in which, as everyone knows, leaves always turn in the fall; or even about a tangle of briers, scarlet with frost, in a corner of an old worm-fence, keeping us waiting while she fooled around a brier patch with old Blinky, who would just as lief have been in one place as another, so it was out of doors; and even when she reached the house she would still carry on about it, worrying us by telling over again just how the boughs and leaves looked massed against the old gray fence, which she could do till you could see them precisely as they were. She was very aggravating in this way. Sometimes she would even take a pencil or pen and a sheet of paper for old Blinky, and reproduce it. She could not draw, of course, for she was not a painter; all she could do was to make anything look almost just like it was.
There was one thing about her which excited much talk; I suppose it was only a piece of old-maidism. Of course she was religious. She was really very good. She was considered very high church. I do not think, from my recollection of her, that she really was, or, indeed, that she could have been; but she used to talk that way, and it was said that she was. In fact, it used to be whispered that she was in danger of becoming a Catholic. I believe she had an aunt that was one, and she had visited several times in Norfolk and Baltimore, where it was said there were a good many. I remember she used to defend them, and say she knew a great many very devout ones. And she admitted that she sometimes went to the Catholic church, and found it devotional; the choral service, she said, satisfied something in her soul. It happened to be in the evening that she was talking about this. She sat down at the piano, and played some of the Gregorian chants she had heard, and it had a soothing influence on everyone. Even Joe, the fidgetiest of all, sat quite still through it. She said that some one had said it was the music that the angels sing in heaven around the great white throne, and there was no other sacred music like it. But she played another thing that evening which she said was worthy to be played with it. It had some chords in it that I remembered long afterward. Years afterward I heard it played the same way in the twilight by one who is a blessed saint in heaven, and may be playing it there now. It was from Chopin. She even said that evening, under the impulse of her enthusiasm, that she did not see, except that it might be abused, why the crucifix should not be retained by all Christian churches, as it enabled some persons not gifted with strong imaginations to have a more vivid realization of the crucified Saviour. This, of course, was going too far, and it created considerable excitement in the family, and led to some very serious talk being given her, in which the second commandment figured largely. It was considered as carrying old-maidism to an extreme length. For some time afterward she was rather discountenanced. In reality, I think what some said was true: it was simply that she was emotional, as old maids are apt to be. She once said that many women have the nun’s instinct largely developed, and sigh for the peace of the cloister.
She seemed to be very fond of artists. She had the queerest tastes, and had, or had had when she was young, one or two friends who, I believe, claimed to be something of that kind; she used to talk about them to old Blinky. But it seemed to us from what she said that artists never did any work; just spent their time lounging around, doing nothing, and daubing paint on their canvas with brushes like a painter, or chiselling and chopping rocks like a mason. One of these friends of hers was a young man from Norfolk who had made a good many things. He was killed or died in the war; so he had not been quite ruined; was worth something anyhow as a soldier. One of his things was a Psyche, and Cousin Fanny used to talk a good deal about it; she said it was fine, was a work of genius. She had even written some verses about it. She repeated them to me once, and I wrote them down. Here they are:
To Galt’s Psyche.
Well art thou called the soul; For as I gaze on thee, My spirit, past control, Springs up in ecstasy.
Thou canst not be dead stone; For o’er thy lovely face, Softer than music’s tone, I see the spirit’s grace.
The wild aeolian lyre Is but a silken string, Till summer winds inspire, And softest music bring.
Psyche, thou wast but stone Till his inspiring came: The sculptor’s hand alone Made not that soul-touched frame.
They have lain by me for years, and are pretty good for one who didn’t write. I think, however, she was young when she addressed them to the “soul-touched” work of the young sculptor, who laid his genius and everything at Virginia’s feet. They were friends, I believe, when she was a girl, before she caught that cold, and her eyes got bad.
Among her eccentricities was her absurd cowardice. She was afraid of cows, afraid of horses, afraid even of sheep. And bugs, and anything that crawled, used to give her a fit. If we drove her anywhere, and the horses cut up the least bit, she would jump out and walk, even in the mud; and I remember once seeing her cross the yard, where a young cow that had a calf asleep in the weeds, over in a corner beyond her, started toward it at a little trot with a whimper of motherly solicitude. Cousin Fanny took it into her head that the cow was coming at her, and just screamed, and sat down flat on the ground, carrying on as if she were a baby. Of course, we boys used to tease her, and tell her the cows were coming after her. You could not help teasing anybody like that.
I do not see how she managed to do what she did when the enemy got to Woodside in the war. That was quite remarkable, considering what a coward she was. During 1864 the Yankees on a raid got to her house one evening in the summer. As it happened, a young soldier, one of her cousins (she had no end of cousins), had got a leave of absence, and had come there sick with fever just the day before (the house was always a sort of hospital). He was in the boys’ room in bed when the Yankees arrived, and they were all around the house before she knew it. She went downstairs to meet them. They had been informed by one of the negroes that Cousin Charlie was there, and they told her that they wanted him. She told them they could not get him. They asked her, “Why? Is he not there?” (I heard her tell of it once.) She said:
“You know, I thought when I told them they could not get him that they would go away, but when they asked me if he was not there, of course I could not tell them a story; so I said I declined to answer impertinent questions. You know poor Charlie was at that moment lying curled up under the bed in the boys’ room with a roll of carpet a foot thick around him, and it was as hot as an oven. Well, they insisted on going through the house, and I let them go all through the lower stories; but when they started up the staircase I was ready for them. I had always kept, you know, one of papa’s old horse-pistols as a protection. Of course, it was not loaded. I would not have had it loaded for anything in the world. I always kept it safely locked up, and I was dreadfully afraid of it even then. But you have no idea what a moral support it gave me, and I used to unlock the drawer every afternoon to see if it was still there all right, and then lock it again, and put the key away carefully. Well, as it happened, I had just been looking at it — which I called `inspecting my garrison’. I used to feel just like Lady Margaret in Tillietudlam Castle. Well, I had just been looking at it that afternoon when I heard the Yankees were coming, and by a sudden inspiration — I cannot tell for my life how I did it — I seized the pistol, and hid it under my apron. I held on to it with both hands, I was so afraid of it, and all the time those wretches were going through the rooms down-stairs I was quaking with terror. But when they started up the stairs I had a new feeling. I knew they were bound to get poor Charlie if he had not melted and run away, — no, he would never have run away; I mean evaporated, — and I suddenly ran up the stairway a few steps before them, and, hauling out my big pistol, pointed it at them, and told them that if they came one step higher I would certainly pull the trigger. I could not say I would shoot, for it was not loaded. Well, do you know, they stopped! They stopped dead still. I declare I was so afraid the old pistol would go off, though, of course, I knew it was not loaded, that I was just quaking. But as soon as they stopped, I began to attack. I remembered my old grandmother and her scissors, and, like General Jackson, I followed up my advantage. I descended the steps, brandishing my pistol with both hands, and abusing them with all my might. I was so afraid they might ask if it was loaded. But they really thought I would shoot them (you know men have not liked to be slain by a woman since the time of Abimelech), and they actually ran down the steps, with me after them, and I got them all out of the house. Then I locked the door and barred it, and ran up-stairs and had such a cry over Charlie. [That was like an old maid.] Afterwards they were going to burn the house, but I got hold of their colonel, who was not there at first, and made him really ashamed of himself; for I told him we were nothing but a lot of poor defenceless women and a sick boy. He said he thought I was right well defended, as I had held a company at bay. He finally promised that if I would give him some music he would not go up-stairs. So I paid that for my ransom, and a bitter ransom it was too, I can tell you, singing for a Yankee! But I gave him a dose of Confederate songs, I promise you. He asked me to sing the `Star Spangled Banner’; but I told him I would not do it if he burnt the house down with me in it — though it was inspired by my cousin, Armistead. Then he asked me to sing `Home, Sweet Home’, and I did that, and he actually had tears in his eyes — the hypocrite! He had very fine eyes, too. I think I did sing it well, though. I cried a little myself, thinking of the old house being so nearly burnt. There was a young doctor there, a surgeon, a really nice-looking fellow for a Yankee; I made him feel ashamed of himself, I tell you. I told him I had no doubt he had a good mother and sister up at home, and to think of his coming and warring on poor women. And they really placed a guard over the house for me while they were there.”
This she actually did. With her old empty horse-pistol she cleared the house of the mob, and then vowed that if they burned the house she would burn up in it, and finally saved it by singing “Home, Sweet Home”, for the colonel. She could not have done much better even if she had not been an old maid.
I did not see much of her after I grew up. I moved away from the old county. Most others did the same. It had been desolated by the war, and got poorer and poorer. With an old maid’s usual crankiness and inability to adapt herself to the order of things, Cousin Fanny remained behind. She refused to come away; said, I believe, she had to look after the old place, mammy, and Fash, or some such nonsense. I think she had some idea that the church would go down, or that the poor people around would miss her, or something equally unpractical. Anyhow, she stayed behind, and lived for quite awhile the last of her connection in the county. Of course all did the best they could for her, and had she gone to live around with her relatives, as they wished her to do, they would have borne with her and supported her. But she said no; that a single woman ought never to live in any house but her father’s or her own; and we could not do anything with her. She was so proud she would not take money as a gift from anyone, not even from her nearest relatives.
Her health got rather poor — not unnaturally, considering the way she divided her time between doctoring herself and fussing after sick people in all sorts of weather. With the fancifulness of her kind, she finally took it into her head that she must consult a doctor in New York. Of course, no one but an old maid would have done this; the home doctors were good enough for everyone else. Nothing would do, however, but she must go to New York; so, against the advice of everyone, she wrote to a cousin who was living there to meet her, and with her old wraps, and cap, and bags, and bundles, and stick, and umbrella, she started. The lady met her; that is, went to meet her, but failed to find her at the station, and supposing that she had not come, or had taken some other railroad, which she was likely to do, returned home, to find her in bed, with her “things” piled up on the floor. Some gentleman had come across her in Washington, holding the right train while she insisted on taking the wrong route, and had taken compassion on her, and not only escorted her to New York, but had taken her and all her parcels and brought her to her destination, where she had at once retired.
“He was a most charming man, my dear,” she said to her cousin, who told me of it afterward in narrating her eccentricities; “and to think of it, I don’t believe I had looked in a glass all day, and when I got here, my cap had somehow got twisted around and was perched right over my left ear, making me look a perfect fright. He told me his name, but I have forgotten it, of course. But he was such a gentleman, and to think of his being a Yankee! I told him I hated all Yankees, and he just laughed, and did not mind my stick, nor old umbrella, nor bundles a bit. You’d have thought my old cap was a Parisian bonnet. I will not believe he was a Yankee.”
Well, she went to see the doctor, the most celebrated in New York — at the infirmary, of course, for she was too poor to go to his office; one consultation would have taken every cent she had — her cousin went with her, and told me of it. She said that when she came downstairs to go she never saw such a sight. On her head she had her blue cap, and her green shade and her veil, and her shawl; and she had the old umbrella and long stick, which she had brought from the country, and a large pillow under her arm, because she “knew she was going to faint.” So they started out, but it was a slow procession. The noise and bustle of the street dazed her, her cousin fancied, and every now and then she would clutch her companion and declare she must go back or she should faint. At every street-crossing she insisted upon having a policeman to help her over, or, in default of that, she would stop some man and ask him to escort her across, which, of course, he would do, thinking her crazy.
Finally they reached the infirmary, where there were already a large number of patients, and many more came in afterwards. Here she shortly established an acquaintance with several strangers. She had to wait an hour or more for her turn, and then insisted that several who had come in after her should go in before her, because she said the poor things looked so tired. This would have gone on indefinitely, her cousin said, if she had not finally dragged her into the doctor’s room. There the first thing that she did was to insist that she must lie down, she was so faint, and her pillow was brought into requisition. The doctor humored her, and waited on her. Her friend started to tell him about her, but the doctor said, “I prefer to have her tell me herself.” She presently began to tell, the doctor sitting quietly by listening and seeming to be much interested. He gave her some prescription, and told her to come again next day, and when she went he sent for her ahead of her turn, and after that made her come to his office at his private house, instead of to the infirmary, as at first. He turned out to be the surgeon who had been at her house with the Yankees during the war. He was very kind to her. I suppose he had never seen anyone like her. She used to go every day, and soon dispensed with her friend’s escort, finding no difficulty in getting about. Indeed, she came to be known on the streets she passed through, and on the cars she travelled by, and people guided her. Several times as she was taking the wrong car men stopped her, and said to her, “Madam, yours is the red car.” She said, sure enough it was, but she never could divine how they knew. She addressed the conductors as, “My dear sir”, and made them help her not only off, but quite to the sidewalk, when she thanked them, and said “Good-by”, as if she had been at home. She said she did this on principle, for it was such a good thing to teach them to help a feeble woman. Next time they would expect to do it, and after a while it would become a habit. She said no one knew what terror women had of being run over and trampled on.
She was, as I have said, an awful coward. She used to stand still on the edge of the street and look up and down both ways ever so long, then go out in the street and stand still, look both ways and then run back; or as like as not start on and turn and run back after she was more than half way across, and so get into real danger. One day, as she was passing along, a driver had in his cart an old bag-of-bones of a horse, which he was beating to make him pull up the hill, and Cousin Fanny, with an old maid’s meddlesomeness, pushed out into the street and caught hold of him and made him stop, which of course collected a crowd, and just as she was coming back a little cart came rattling along, and though she was in no earthly danger, she ran so to get out of the way of the horse that she tripped and fell down in the street and hurt herself. So much for cowardice.
The doctor finally told her that she had nothing the matter with her, except something with her nerves and, I believe, her spine, and that she wanted company (you see she was a good deal alone). He said it was the first law of health ever laid down, that it was not good for man to be alone; that loneliness is a specific disease. He said she wanted occupation, some sort of work to interest her, and make her forget her aches and ailments. He suggested missionary work of some kind. This was one of the worst things he could have told her, for there was no missionary work to be had where she lived. Besides, she could not have done missionary work; she had never done anything in her life; she was always wasting her time pottering about the country on her old horse, seeing sick old darkies or poor people in the pines. No matter how bad the weather was, nor how deep the roads, she would go prowling around to see some old “aunty” or “uncle”, in their out-of-the-way cabins, or somebody’s sick child. I have met her on old Fashion in the rain, toiling along in roads that were knee-deep, to get the doctor to come to see some sick person, or to get a dose of physic from the depot. How could she have done any missionary work?
I believe she repaid the doctor for his care of her by sending him a charity patient to look after — Scroggs’s eldest girl, who was bedridden or something. Cousin Fanny had a fancy that she was musical. I never knew how it was arranged. I think the doctor sent the money down to have the child brought on to New York for him to see. I suppose Cousin Fanny turned beggar, and asked him. I know she told him the child was the daughter of “a friend” of hers (a curious sort of friend Scroggs was, a drunken creature, who had done everything he could to pain her), and she took a great deal of trouble to get her to the train, lending old Fashion to haul her, which was a great deal more than lending herself; and the doctor treated her in New York for three months without any charge, till, I believe, the child got better. Old maids do not mind giving people trouble.
She hung on at the old place as long as she could, but it had to be sold, and finally she had to leave it; though, I believe, even after it was sold she tried boarding for a while with Scroggs, the former tenant, who had bought it. He treated her so badly that finally she had to leave, and boarded around. I believe the real cause was she caught him ploughing with old Fashion.
After that I do not know exactly what she did. I heard that though the parish was vacant she had a Sunday-school at the old church, and so kept the church open; and that she used to play the wheezy old organ and teach the poor children the chants; but as they grew up they all joined another Church; they had a new organ there. I do not know just how she got on. I was surprised to hear finally that she was dead — had been dead since Christmas. It had never occurred to me that she would die. She had been dying so long that I had almost come to regard her as immortal, and as a necessary part of the old county and its associations.
I fell in some time afterwards with a young doctor from the old county, who, I found, had attended her, and I made some inquiries about her. He told me that she died Christmas night. She came to his house on her old mare, in the rain and snow the night before, to get him to go to see someone, some “friend” of hers who was sick. He said she had more sick friends than anyone he ever knew; he told her that he was sick himself and could not go; but she was so importunate that he promised to go next morning (she was always very worrying). He said she was wet and shivering then (she never had any idea about really protecting herself), and that she appeared to have a wretched cold. She had been riding all day seeing about a Christmas-tree for the poor children. He urged her to stop and spend the night, but she insisted that she must go on, though it was nearly dark and raining hard, and the roads would have mired a cat (she was always self-willed). Next day he went to see the sick woman, and when he arrived he found her in one bed and Cousin Fanny in another, in the same room. When he had examined the patient, he turned and asked Cousin Fanny what was the matter with her. “Oh, just a little cold, a little trouble in the chest, as Theodore Hook said,” she replied. “But I know how to doctor myself.” Something about her voice struck him. He went over to her and looked at her, and found her suffering from acute pneumonia. He at once set to work on her. He took the other patient up in his arms and carried her into another room, where he told her that Cousin Fanny was a desperately ill woman. “She was actually dying then, sir,” he said to me, “and she died that night. When she arrived at the place the night before, which was not until after nine o’clock, she had gone to the stable herself to put up her old mare, or rather to see that she was fed — she always did that — so when she got into the house she was wet and chilled through, and she had to go to bed. She must have had on wet clothes,” he said.
I asked him if she knew she was going to die. He said he did not think she did; that he did not tell her, and she talked about nothing except her Christmas-tree and the people she wanted to see. He heard her praying in the night, “and, by the way,” he said, “she mentioned you. She shortly became rather delirious, and wandered a good deal, talking of things that must have happened when she was young; spoke of going to see her mother somewhere. The last thing she ever said was something about fashion, which,” he said, “showed how ingrained is vanity in the female mind.” The doctor knows something of human nature. He concluded what he had to say with, “She was in some respects a very remarkable woman — if she had not been an old maid. I do not suppose that she ever drew a well breath in her life. Not that I think old maids cannot be very acceptable women,” he apologized. “They are sometimes very useful.” The doctor was a rather enlightened man.
Some of her relatives got there in time for the funeral, and a good many of the poor people came; and she was carried in a little old spring wagon, drawn by Fashion, through the snow, to the old home place, where Scroggs very kindly let them dig the grave, and was buried there in the old graveyard in the garden, in a vacant space just beside her mother, with the children around her. I really miss her a great deal. The other boys say they do the same. I suppose it is the trouble she used to give us.
The old set are all doing well. Doug is a professor. He says the word “spinster” gave him a twist to philology. Old Blinky is in Paris. He had a picture in the salon last year, an autumn landscape, called “Le Cote du Bois”. I believe the translation of that is “The Woodside”. His coloring is said to be nature itself. To think of old Blinky being a great artist! Little Kitty is now a big girl, and is doing finely at school. I have told her she must not be an old maid. Joe is a preacher with a church in the purlieus of a large city. I was there not long ago. He had a choral service. The Gregorian music carried me back to old times. He preached on the text, “I was sick, and ye visited me.” It was such a fine sermon, and he had such a large congregation, that I asked why he did not go to a finer church. He said he was “carrying soup to Mrs. Ronquist.” By the way, his organist was a splendid musician. She introduced herself to me. It was Scroggs’s daughter. She is married, and can walk as well as I can. She had a little girl with her that I think she called “Fanny”. I do not think that was Mrs. Scroggs’s name. Frank is now a doctor, or rather a surgeon, in the same city with Joe, and becoming very distinguished. The other day he performed a great operation, saving a woman’s life, which was in all the papers. He said to an interviewer that he became a surgeon from dressing a sore on an old mare’s back. I wonder what he was talking about? He is about to start a woman’s hospital for poor women. Cousin Fanny would have been glad of that; she was always proud of Frank. She would as likely as not have quoted that verse from Tennyson’s song about the echoes. She sleeps now under the myrtle at Scroggs’s. I have often thought of what that doctor said about her: that she would have been a very remarkable woman, if she had not been an old maid — I mean, a spinster.