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Old Mahogany by Eliza Calvert Hall


“Come in, Maria Marvin, come in. No, it ain't too early for visitors. I've jest finished sweepin' and dustin', and that's exactly the time I want to see company; and when company comes at exactly the right time, they get a double welcome from me. Have this chair, and I'll lay your bonnet right here on the table.

“Yes, I've been refurnishin' some. Got rid o' all the old plunder that 'd been accumulatin' under this roof ever since Noah built his ark, and bought a spick and span new outfit, golden oak every bit of it, and right up to day before yesterday, and to-day, and day after to-morrow, when it comes to style. I reckon Mother and grandmother and great-grandmother have turned over in their graves, but I can't help it. That old mahogany furniture has been my cross, and I've borne it faithfully from a child up, and when I saw a chance o' layin' it down, I didn't stop to think what my ancestors would say about it; I jest dropped the cross and drew one good, long breath.

“You'd think I'd hate to part with the family belongin's? Well, you wouldn't think so if you knew how much trouble these same belongin's have been to me all my born days. You know everybody has idols. Some women make idols of their children, and now and then you'll find a woman bowin' down and worshippin' her husband, but Mother's idols were chairs and tables and bedsteads. You've noticed, haven't you, that there's always one child in a family that'll get nearly everything belongin' to the family? They'll claim this and that and the other, and the rest o' the children will give in to 'em jest to keep from havin' a quarrel. Well, Mother was the claimin' one in our family, and whatever she claimed she got, and whatever she got she held on to it. If Mother'd been content with the things that her mother handed down to her, it wouldn't 'a' been so bad, but there never was a member o' the family died that Mother didn't manage to get hold o' some of the belongin's. If there was a sale, she was the first one there, and she'd take her seat right under the auctioneer's hammer, and if she made up her mind to have an old chair or an old table, why, nobody ever could outbid her; and in the course o' time the house got to be more like an old junk shop than a home. I used to tell Mother she got everything belongin' to her dead kinfolks except their tombstones, and I wouldn't 'a' been surprised any day to come home and find one or two nice old gravestones settin' up on the mantel-piece for ornaments, or propped up handy in a corner.

“And every piece of that old mahogany, Maria, was polished till you could see your face in it. The first thing after breakfast, Mother'd get a piece o' chamois skin or an old piece o' flannel, and she'd go around rubbin' up her chairs and tables and lookin' for scratches on 'em; and as soon as I was old enough to hold a rag, I had to do a certain amount o' polishin' every day, and when Mother's rheumatism settled in her arms, all the polishin' fell to me. It looked like the furniture was on Mother's mind night and day, and it was: 'Samantha, have you polished your grandfather's secretary?' 'Samantha, don't forget to rub off the parlor center-table.' No matter what I wanted to do, I couldn't do it till that old furniture was attended to. When I look back, Maria, it seems to me I've been livin' all my life in the valley of the shadow of old mahogany. You know how it is when the sun comes out after a long spell of cloudy weather. Well, that's jest the way it was the day that old mahogany furniture went out o' the house, and this pretty yellow furniture came in. I really believe that was the happiest day of my life.

“Yes, there's a heap of associations connected with old furniture, and Mother's old furniture had more associations than most anybody's. I believe there was enough associations to 'a' filled every one o' the bureau drawers, and if you'd put the associations on the tables or on the beds, there wouldn't 'a' been room there for anything else. And that's exactly why I wanted to get rid o' that mahogany furniture. I believe I could 'a' stood the furniture, if it hadn't been for the associations. What good did it do me to look at that old four-poster that used to stand in the front room up-stairs and think o' the time I laid on that bed six mortal weeks, when I had typhoid fever? What pleasure could I get out o' that old secretary that used to stand yonder, when every time I looked at it I could see Grandfather Stearns sittin' there writin' a mile-long sermon on election and predestination, and me—a little child then—knowin' I'd have to sit up in church the next Sunday and listen to that sermon, when I wanted to be out-doors playin'?

“And besides my own associations, there was Mother's. She'd point out that old armchair that used to stand by the west window and tell how Uncle Abner Stearns set in that chair for six years after he was paralyzed; and that old haircloth sofa,—you remember that, don't you?—she'd tell how Grandmother Stearns was sittin' on that when she had her stroke o' apoplexy; and betwixt the furniture and the associations, it was jest like livin' in a cemetery. I told Mother one day that I was tired o' sittin' in my great-grandfather's chairs, and sleepin' on my great-grandfather's bed, and eatin' out o' my great-grandmother's china and silver, and Mother says: 'Samantha, you never did have proper respect for your family.' But, Maria Marvin, I tell you as I told Mother, I'm somethin' more than a Member of the Family: I'm Myself, and I want to live my own life, and I've found out that if people live their own lives, they've got to get from under the shadow of their ancestors' tombstones.

“What did I do with the old mahogany? Sold it. That's what I did. And if you've got any old stuff up in the garret or down in the cellar or out in the woodshed, get it out right away, for no matter how old and battered and broken up it is, you can sell it for a good price. They tell me, Maria, that new-fashioned things is all out o' fashion, and old-fashioned things is in the fashion. Curious, ain't it? All my life I been findin' fault with Mother because she was always hoardin' up old family relics, and now all the rich folks are huntin' around in every crack and corner for old mahogany and old cherry and old walnut,—anything, jest so it's old.

“You've heard about that rich lady that's bought the old Schuyler place? Here's her card with her name on it:

    Mrs. Edith A. Van Arnheim.

“Well, last Monday mornin' about this time, jest as I was finishin' up my mornin' work, I heard a knockin' at the front door, and when I opened it there stood a strange lady all dressed in silks and satins and a young girl with her. I said 'Good mornin',' and she said: 'Does Miss Samantha Mayfield live here?' And I says: 'It's Samantha Mayfield you're talkin' to.' And she says: 'I'm Mrs. Van Arnheim. I beg your pardon for calling so early, but—have you any old furniture?' And I says; 'Old furniture? Why, I haven't got anything but old furniture.' And they both smiled real pleasant, and the young girl said: 'Oh, please let us look at it! I do love old furniture.' And I says: 'Walk right in, and look all you please. Furniture never was hurt by bein' looked at.'

“Well, they both walked in and looked around, and for a minute neither one of 'em spoke; and then the young girl drew a long breath, and says she: 'Did you ever see anything so perfectly gorgeous?'

“And she rushed up to Great-grandfather Stearns's secretary like she was goin' to hug it, and says she: 'Heppelwhite! Genuine Heppelwhite! Look at those lovely panes of glass!' And then she flew over to that old bow-legged chair that stood yonder, and says she: 'Chippendale! Upon my word! Was there ever anything as exquisite as those legs!'

“And she peeped into the dining-room and give a little scream, and called her mother to come and see that old battered-up thing that great-aunt Matildy used to keep her china and glass in, and she called it 'a real Sheraton cabinet', and she went on over 'the grain of the wood' and the 'color of the wood' till you'd 'a' thought that old press was somethin' that'd come straight down from heaven. The lady didn't say much, but she looked mighty pleased, and she went around touchin' things with the tips of her fingers and examinin' the legs and arms and backs of things to see if they were in good repair. Pretty soon she turned around to me and says sort o' wishful and hesitatin': 'I suppose there's no use asking you if you'd sell any of this furniture, Miss Mayfield.' And I says: 'What makes you suppose that?' And she says: 'Because people are always very much attached to their old family furniture, and even if they don't care for it and are not using it, I find they don't care to let any one else have it.' And I says: 'Well, there's nothin' of the dog in the manger about me, ma'am, and I'm not attached to my old furniture; it's been attached to me, and I'd be thankful to anybody that would help me get loose from it.'

“She laughed real hearty, and the young girl says: 'How perfectly lovely!' And then we went through the parlor and the hall and the dining-room, they pickin' out the furniture they wanted, while I set the prices on it. And when we got through the young girl says: 'Would you let us go up-stairs?'

“So up-stairs we went, and there wasn't a four-poster bed or a rickety table or a broken-legged chair that she didn't say was 'darling' or 'dear' or 'gorgeous' or 'heavenly'; and they wanted pretty near everything that was up-stairs. When we got through pricin' these, the lady says: 'Is this all the old mahogany you have, Miss Mayfield?' and then I happened to think o' the garret. I hadn't set foot up there for ten years or more, but I remembered there was a lot o' old truck that Mother didn't have room for down-stairs, and it'd been stored away there ever since goodness knows when. So up to the garret we went, they holdin' up their silk skirts, and me apologizin' for the dirt. They peered around, and didn't seem to mind a bit when they got their kid gloves all soiled handlin' the old junk that was settin' around in every hole and corner. And the young girl, she'd give a little scream every time she dragged out a table or a chair, and says she: 'Miss Mayfield, this is the most interesting place I ever was in.' And I says: 'If you're interested in dirt and rubbish, I reckon this is an interestin' place.'

“Well, if you'll believe me, Maria Marvin, they wanted everything in that garret, even down to the old pewter warmin'-pan that used to belong to Mother's sister Amanda, and that she got from her husband's family, the Hicks. And the young girl looked out o' the gable window at the south end, and says she: 'Oh! what a lovely old gyarden!' And the lady dropped the old candlestick she was lookin' at, and come and looked over the young girl's shoulder. The gyarden did look mighty pretty with the roses and honeysuckles and pinks all in bloom, and the lady said: 'Oh! how beautiful! How beautiful!' and all the rest of the time we were up in the garret, she stood there at the window and leaned out and looked at the gyarden, and after that she didn't seem to care much about the furniture. She jest let the young girl do the buyin' and the talkin', and once I heard her sigh a long, deep sigh, jest as if she was thinkin' about somethin' that happened a long time ago. And when we went down-stairs, she asked me to give her some roses and honeysuckles; and while I was gatherin' a big bunch of Mother's damask roses for her, she was walkin' up and down the paths, gatherin' a flower here and a leaf there, but to look at her face, Maria, you'd 'a' thought that she was walkin' in a graveyard and every flower-bed was a grave; and once, when she stooped down and broke off a piece of ambrosia and smelt it, I could see there was tears in her eyes. Well, Maria, they were jest as crazy about old-fashioned flowers as they were about old-fashioned furniture. I pulled a big bunch o' damask roses for both of 'em, and they said they wanted roots of all the old flowers,—Mother's hundred-leaf rose and the Maiden's Blush and the cinnamon rose, and all the spring flowers and even the tansy and sage. The lady said they could buy all these things, but that she believed the flowers you got out of old-fashioned gyardens like mine smelled sweeter and bloomed better than anything you'd buy. And she's goin' to give me a lot of new-fashioned flowers to freshen up my old gyarden, and with new furniture in my house and new flowers in my gyarden, why, I feel like I'm takin' a new start in life. Why, actually, Maria, I've been jest as tired of the old flowers as I've been of the old beds and tables,—the same old crocuses and buttercups and hyacinths and chrysanthemums comin' up every spring in the same old place, in the same old beds, and the same old weeds to be pulled up every year.

“Maybe you think it's wicked in me, Maria, to feel the way I do about old things. Mother always thought so, and I remember once hearin' her tell the minister that Samantha was jest like the Athenians in the Bible, always runnin' after some new thing; and she was always sighin' and sayin': 'Samantha, you have no reverence in your nature.' And finally, one day, I said to her: 'Mother, I've got jest as much reverence as you have. The difference between us is that you reverence old things, and I reverence new ones.'

“But I mustn't forget to tell you about the old cradle, Maria. That cradle was Mother's special idol. It was a little, heavy, wooden thing, so black with age that you couldn't tell what kind o' wood it was made out of, and Mother said the first Stearnses that ever come to this country brought that cradle with 'em in the ship they sailed in. Well, that little old cradle was sittin' way back in the garret on top o' the old oak bed-clothes chest that Grandmother Stearns packed her quilts in, when she moved from Connecticut and come to Ohio. And the young girl spied that cradle, and says she: 'Oh! What a darling cradle!' And then she stopped and blushed as red as a rose, and the lady jest smiled and says: 'Would you sell me the little cradle, Miss Mayfield?' And I says: 'You may have it and welcome. If there is anything an old maid hasn't any use for, it's a cradle.'

“They say the young girl is goin' to be married soon, and I reckon some day that pretty young thing's children'll be lyin' in the old Stearns cradle; and a lot o' that old mahogany, they tell me, goes to the furnishin' of her room. Maybe she'll be writin' her letters at Grandfather's secretary, and sleepin' on Grandmother's old canopy bed. It don't seem right, Maria, for a pretty young bride to be beginnin' life with a lot o' dead folks' furniture; but then, she won't have the associations, and it's the associations that make old furniture so unhealthy to have around the house.

“I reckon I must be some kin to the tribe o' Indians I was readin' about in my missionary paper last Sunday. Every time anybody dies, they burn everything that belonged to the dead person, and then they burn down the place he died in and build a new one. That seems right wasteful, don't it, Maria? But it's a good deal wholesomer to do that way, than to clutter up your house with dead folks' belongin's like we do. And that's why I'm gettin' so much pleasure out o' this new oak furniture. It's mine, jest mine, and nobody else's. It didn't come down to me from my great-grandmother; I went to the store and picked it out myself. No dead person's hands ever touched it, and there's not a single association hangin' anywheres around it.

“Yes, Maria, I got a good price for everything I sold. Because I didn't want it, that's no reason why I should give it away. I could see the lady wanted it mighty bad, so I valued it accordin' to what I thought it'd be worth to her, and when I saw how willin' she was to pay my price, I was right sorry I hadn't asked more.

“She was one o' the high-steppers, that lady was, but as sweet-talkin' and nice-mannered as you please, and when she wrote out the check and handed it to me, she says: 'When can I get the furniture?' 'Right now,' says I, 'if you want it right now.' 'But,' says she, 'what will you do without furniture? Hadn't you better get in your new beds and chairs and tables before I take the old ones away?' And I says: 'Don't you worry about me, ma'am; it's only four miles from here to town, and by the time you get this old mahogany rubbish out, I'll have my new golden oak things in; so don't you hold back on my account.'

“And she looked at me in a curious sort o' way, and says she: 'Don't you mind givin' up this old mahogany? Would you just as soon have new golden oak furniture?' And I says: 'No, I wouldn't jest as soon; I'd a good deal rather have it.'

“And she laughed real pleasant, and says she: 'I'm so glad you feel that way about it. I always feel guilty when I buy old furniture that the owner is unwilling to part with, no matter how good a price I pay for it.' And I says: 'Well, you can have a clear conscience in the matter of buyin' my old furniture. This check and the golden oak I'm goin' to buy with it is perfectly satisfactory to me.'

“And what do you reckon I'm goin' to do with that money, Maria? I reckon people think that because I've lived here all my life I've enjoyed doin' so. But I haven't. I've been jest as tired of Goshen neighborhood as I ever was of my old mahogany,—the old roads and the old fences and the old farms,—yes, and the old people, too. Maria, I get tired of everything, even myself, and now I'm goin' to travel and see the world, that's what I'm goin' to do. What's the use in livin' sixty or seventy years in a world like this and never seein' it. Why, you might as well be a worm in a hickory nut. And, Maria, I take out my old geography sometimes, when I'm sittin' here alone in the evenin', and I look at the map of North America, and there's the big Atlantic ocean on one side and the big Pacific ocean on the other; and all the big rivers and lakes in between flowin' down to the big Gulf of Mexico; and here I am stuck fast in this little old place, and the most water I've ever seen is Drake's Creek and Little Barren River! And I look on the map at the mountains runnin' up and down this country, the Rocky Mountains and the Alleghanies and all the rest of 'em, and the highest ground I've ever seen is Pilot Knob! I'm not afraid to die, Maria, but when I think of all the things that's to be seen in this world, and how I'm not seein' 'em, I just pray: 'Lord, don't let me go to the next world till I've seen somethin' of this one.' And now my prayer's answered. I don't know whether I'll go east or west or north or south; but I'm goin' to see the ocean, and I'm goin' to see the mountains before I die, all on account o' that mahogany furniture; I never supposed the day would come when I'd be thankful for that old plunder; but sometimes, Maria, the things we don't want turn out to be our greatest blessin's.

“I reckon it's mighty poor taste on my part to want new furniture in place o' that old mahogany. All the time I was showin' 'em around, the lady and her daughter kept sayin': 'How artistic!' 'What classic lines!' and I reckon the reason they looked at me so curious when I said I'd rather have this golden oak, was that they was pityin' me for not knowin' what's 'artistic.' Now, I may not be artistic, Maria, but I've got a taste of my own, and what's the use in havin' a taste of your own unless you use it? I might jest as well try to use somebody else's eyes as to use somebody else's taste. That old mahogany pleased my grandmother's taste and my mother's taste, but it don't please mine; and I'm no more bound to use my grandmother's old furniture than I am to wear my grandmother's old clothes.

“Don't go, Maria. Sit down a minute longer, for I haven't told you the best part of the story yet. After the lady had said good-by and was out of the door, she turned back, and says she: 'Miss Mayfield, when I get the furniture in order, I'm going to send my carriage for you, and you must come over and see if you can recognize your old friends in their new dress and their new home.' I never believed she was goin' to send her carriage for me, Maria, but she did. And she took me all over the house, and they've made it over the same as you'd make over an old dress; and it ain't a house any longer, it's a palace. Don't ask me to tell you how it looks, for I can't. I've always wondered what sort of places kings and queens lived in, and now I know. There wasn't a room that didn't have some of my old mahogany in it, but at first I couldn't believe it was the same furniture I'd sold the lady. She'd had all the varnish scraped off, and it was as soft and shiny-lookin' as satin, even that little, old black cradle, and the lady said that when the furniture man began to scrape that, he found it was solid rosewood. We went into the library, and there was Grandfather's old secretary, lookin' so fine and grand, Maria, it took my breath clean away. There wasn't a dent or a scratch on it, and it shone in the light jest like a piece of polished silver, and the prettiest curtains you ever saw fallin' on each side of it. It looked exactly like it belonged in that room. And it does belong there. Why, as I was standin' there lookin' at it, I thought if that old secretary could speak, it would say: 'I've found my place at last.' And it come over me all at once, Maria, that the doctrine of foreordination holds good with things as well as people. That old mahogany never belonged to me nor to Mother. It jest stopped over a while with us, while it was on its way to the lady, and it was hers from the very day it was made. I tell you, Maria, things belong to the folks that can appreciate 'em. That furniture was jest chairs and tables and bedsteads to Mother and me; but the lady knew all about it, when it was made and where it was made, and the name of the man that first made it. And after we'd looked at everything in the house, she took me out to see the gyarden. Such a gyarden! She said it was jest like one she'd seen over in England, and she was plantin' the same kind of flowers in it. The beds were all sorts of shapes, and there was a pool of water in the middle with water-lilies in it, and right by the pool was somethin' that tells the time of day pretty near as well as a clock, jest by the shadow on it. There was a hedge planted all around the gyarden, and the gyardner was settin' out all kinds of flowers, and there was one bed of pansies and another of geraniums in full bloom, and I said: 'I don't know why you wanted my old-fashioned flowers, when you've got such a gyarden as this.' And she smiled and looked down at the geraniums, and says she: 'These flowers don't mean anything to me. But your roses and honeysuckles and pinks mean everything; they are joy and sorrow and love and youth,—everything I have had and lost.' Hearin' her talk, Maria, was jest like readin' a book. And then, she took me around to another gyarden at the back of the house, and showed me a bed, and all the roots and slips that she'd got from me were growin' in it. The gyardner 'tends to the rest of the flowers, but he never touches this bed; the lady weeds it and waters it with her own hands. Now, I don't want anything around me that reminds me of what I've had and lost, but she's one of the kind that loves associations.

“No, I haven't re-furnished all the up-stairs rooms, Maria. What's the use o' havin' furnished rooms that you never use? Yes, it does look pretty empty, but after livin' in a jungle of old mahogany these many years, you don't know what a blessed relief it is to have a few empty spots about the house. Every house ought to have one or two empty rooms, Maria, jest for folks to rest their eyes on.

“Yes, I did keep one piece o' the family furniture, but it wasn't mahogany. It was that little plain rockin'-chair with the oak-split bottom; there it sets in the corner. Mother used to sit in that chair when she washed and dressed us children and rocked the baby to sleep. She liked it because it was low and hadn't any arms for the baby's head to get bumped on. I can look at it and see Mother holdin' the baby in her arms and rockin' and singin':

    'Hush, my babe, lie still and slumber,'

and I'd rather have that common little chair than all the old mahogany that belonged to my great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers. There ain't an unpleasant association connected with that chair, and furthermore, I don't have to polish it.

“Yes, this dress is rather gay, Maria, but don't you think it matches the golden oak furniture? I always like to have things in keepin' with each other, and as long as I had to live in the midst o' old mahogany, it seemed natural and proper to wear brown and black and gray. But now I feel like mixin' in a little blue and red and yellow with the brown and black and gray, and when your feelin's and your clothes and your furniture correspond, it certainly does make a comfortable condition for you.

“I'll be gettin' married next? Well, maybe I will, Maria Marvin, maybe I will. Gettin' rid o' that old mahogany seems to 'a' taken about fifty years off my shoulders, and if I should happen to find a man that'd match up with my new furniture and suit me as well as that golden oak dresser does, I may get married, after all.

“Do you have to go? Well, come again, Maria, and if you happen to meet any o' the neighbors, tell 'em to drop in and take a look at my golden oak furniture.”


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