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A Blessing in Disguise by Susan Coolidge

 

It was a dark day for Patty Flint when her father, with that curt severity of manner which men are apt to assume to mask an inward awkwardness, announced to her his intention of marrying for the second time.

“Tell the others after I am gone out,” he concluded.

“But, Papa, do explain a little more to me before you go,” protested Patty. “Who is this Miss Maskelyne? What kind of a person is she? Must we call her mother?”

“Well—we'll leave that to be settled later on. Miss Maskelyne is a—a—well, a very nice person indeed, Patty. She'll make us all very comfortable.”

“We always have been comfortable, I'm sure,” said Patty, in an injured tone.

Dr. Flint instinctively cast a look around the room. It was comfortable, certainly, so far as neatness and sufficient furniture and a hot fire in an air-tight stove can make a room comfortable. There was a distinct lack of anything to complain of, yet something seemed to him lacking. What was it? His thoughts involuntarily flew to a room which he had quitted only the day before, no larger, no sunnier, not so well furnished, and which yet, to his mind, seemed full of a refinement and homelikeness which he missed in his own, though, man-like, he could have in no wise explained what went to produce it.

His rather stern face relaxed with a half-smile; his eyes seemed to seek out a picture far away. But Patty was watching him,—an observant, decidedly aggrieved Patty, who had done her best for him since her mother died, and a good best too, her age considered, and who was not inexcusable in disliking to be supplanted by a stranger. Poor Patty! But even for Patty's sake it was better so, the father reflected, looking at the prim, opinionated little figure before him, and noting how all the childishness and girlishness seemed to have faded out of it during three years of responsibility. She certainly had managed wonderfully for a child of fifteen, and his voice was very kind as he said, “Yes, my dear, so we have. You've been a good girl, Patty, and done your best for us all; but you're young to have so much care, and when the new mother comes, she will relieve you of it, and leave you free to occupy and amuse yourself as other girls of your age do.”

He kissed Patty as he finished speaking. Kisses were not such every-day matters in the Flint family as to be unimportant, and Patty, with all her vexation, could not but be gratified. Then he hurried away, and, after watching till his gig turned the corner, she went slowly upstairs to the room where the children were learning their Sunday-school lessons.

There were three besides herself,—Susy and Agnes, aged respectively twelve and ten; and Hal, the only boy, who was not quite seven. This hour of study in the middle of Saturday morning was deeply resented by them all; but Patty's rules were like the laws of the Medes and Persians, which alter not, and they dared not resist. They had solaced the tedium of the occasion by a contraband game of checkers during her absence, but had pushed the board under the flounce of the sofa when they heard her steps, and flown back to their tasks. Over-discipline often leads to little shuffles and deceptions like this, and Patty, who loved authority for authority's sake, was not always wise in enforcing it.

“When you have got through with your lessons, I have something to tell you,” was her beginning.

It was an indiscreet one; for of course the children at once protested that they were through! How could they be expected to interest themselves in the “whole duty of man,” with a secret obviously in the air.

“Very well, then,” said Patty, indulgently,—for she was dying to tell her news,—“Papa has just asked me to say to you that he is—is—going to be married to a lady in New Bedford.”

“Married!” cried Agnes, with wide-open eyes. “How funny! I thought only people who are young got married. Can we go to the wedding, do you suppose, Patty?”

“Oh, perhaps we shall be bridesmaids! I'd like that,” added Susy.

“And have black cake in little white boxes, just as many as we want. Goody!” put in Hal.

“Oh, children, how can you talk so?” cried Patty, all her half-formed resolutions of keeping silence and not letting the others know how she felt about it flying to the winds. “Do you really want a stepmother to come in and scold and interfere and spoil all our comfort? Do you want some one else to tell you what to do, and make you mind, instead of me? You're too little to know about such things, but I know what stepmothers are. I read about them in a book once, and they're dreadful creatures, and always hate the children, and try to make their Papas hate them too. It will be awful to have one, I think.”

Patty was absolutely crying as she finished this outburst; and, emotion being contagious, the little ones began to cry also.

“Why does Papa want to marry her, if she's so horrid?” sobbed Agnes.

“I'll never love her!” declared Susy.

“And I'll set my wooden dog on her!” added Hal.

“Oh, Hal,” protested Patty, alarmed at the effect of her own injudicious explosion, “don't talk like that! We mustn't be rude to her. Papa wouldn't like it. Of course, we needn't love her, or tell her things, or call her 'mother,' but we must be polite to her.”

“I don't know what you mean exactly, but I'm not going to be it, anyway,” said Agnes.

And, indeed, Patty's notion of a politeness which was to include neither liking nor confidence nor respect was rather a difficult one to comprehend.

None of the children went to the wedding, which was a very quiet one. Patty declared that she was glad; but in her heart I think she regretted the loss of the excitement, and the opportunity for criticism. A big loaf of thickly frosted sponge cake arrived for the children, with some bon-bons, and a kind little note from the bride; and these offerings might easily have placated the younger ones, had not Patty diligently fanned the embers of discontent and kept them from dying out.

And all the time she had no idea that she was doing wrong. She felt ill-treated and injured, and her imagination played all sorts of unhappy tricks. She made pictures of the future, in which she saw herself neglected and unloved, her little sisters and brother ill-treated, her father estranged, and the household under the rule of an enemy, unscrupulous, selfish, and cruel. Over these purely imaginary pictures she shed many needless tears.

“But there's one thing,” she told herself,—“it can't last always. When girls are eighteen, they come of age, and can go away if they like; and I shall go away! And I shall take the children with me. Papa won't care for any of us by that time; so he will not object.”

So with this league, offensive and defensive, formed against her, the new Mrs. Flint came home. Mary the cook and Ann the housemaid joined in it to a degree.

“To be sure, it's provoking enough that Miss Patty can be when she's a mind,” observed Mary; “a-laying down the law, and ordering me about, when she knows no more than the babe unborn how things should be done! Still, I'd rather keep on wid her than be thrying my hand at a stranger. This'll prove a hard missis, mark my word for it, Ann! See how the children is set against her from the first! That's a sign.”

Everything was neat and in order on the afternoon when Dr. and Mrs. Flint were expected. Patty had worked hard to produce this result. “She shall see that I know how to keep house,” she said to herself. All the rooms had received thorough sweeping, all the rugs had been beaten and the curtains shaken out, the chairs had their backs exactly to the wall, and every book on the centre table lay precisely at right angles with a second book underneath it. Patty's ideas of decoration had not got beyond a stiff neatness. She had yet to learn how charming an easy disorder can be made.

The children, in immaculate white aprons, waited with her in the parlor. They did not run out into the hall when the carriage stopped. The malcontent Ann opened the door in silence.

“Where are the children?” were the first words that Patty heard her stepmother say.

The voice was sweet and bright, with a sort of assured tone in it, as of one used always to a welcome. She did not wait for the Doctor, but walked into the room by herself, a tall, slender, graceful woman, with a face full of brilliant meanings, of tenderness, sense, and fun. One look out of her brown eyes did much toward the undoing of Patty's work of prejudice with the little ones.

“Patty, dear child, where are you?” she said. And she kissed her warmly, not seeming to notice the averted eyes and the unresponding lips. Then she turned to the little ones, and somehow, by what magic they could not tell, in a very few minutes they had forgotten to be afraid of her, forgotten that she was a stranger and a stepmother, and had begun to talk to her freely and at their ease. Dr. Flint's face brightened as he saw the group.

“Getting acquainted with the new mamma?” he said. “That's right.”

But this was a mistake. It reminded the children that she was new, and they drew back again into shyness. His wife gave him a rapid, humorous look of warning.

“It always takes a little while for people to get acquainted,” she said; “but these 'people' and I do not mean to wait long.”

She smiled as she spoke, and the children felt the fascination of her manner; only Patty held aloof.

The next few weeks went unhappily enough with her. She had to see her adherents desert her, one by one; to know that Mary and Ann chanted the praises of the new housekeeper to all their friends; to watch the little girls' growing fondness for the stranger; to notice that little Hal petted and fondled her as he had never done his rather rigorous elder sister; and that her father looked younger and brighter and more content than she had ever seen him look before. She had also to witness the gradual demolishment of the stiff household arrangements which she had inherited traditionally from her mother, and sedulously observed and kept up.

The new Mrs. Flint was a born homemaker. The little instinctive touches which she administered here and there presently changed the whole aspect of things. The chairs walked away from the walls; the sofa was wheeled into the best position for the light; plants, which Patty had eschewed as making trouble and “slop,” blossomed everywhere. Books were “strewed,” as Patty in her secret thought expressed it, in all directions; fresh flowers filled the vases; the blinds were thrown back for the sunshine to stream in. The climax seemed to come when Mrs. Flint turned out the air-tight stove, opened the disused fireplace, routed a pair of andirons from the attic, and set up a wood fire.

“It will snap all over the room. The ashes will dirty everything. The children will set fire to their aprons, and burn up!” objected Patty.

“There's a big wire fireguard coming to make the children safe,” replied her stepmother, easily. “As for the snapping and the dirt, that's all fancy, Patty. I've lived with a wood fire all my life, and it's no trouble at all, if properly managed. I'm sure you'll like it, dear, when you are used to it.”

And the worst was that Patty did like it. It was so with many of the new arrangements. She opposed them violently at first in her heart, not saying much,—for Mrs. Flint, with all her brightness and affectionate sweetness, had an air of experience and authority about her which it was not easy to dispute,—and later ended by confessing to herself that they were improvements. A gradual thaw was taking place in her frozen little nature. She fought against it; but as well might a winter-sealed pond resist the sweet influences of spring.

Against her will, almost without her knowledge, she was receiving the impress of a character wider and sweeter and riper than her own. Insensibly, an admiration of her stepmother grew upon her. She saw her courted by strangers for her beauty and grace; she saw her become a sort of queen among the young people of the town; but she also saw—she could not help seeing—that no tinge of vanity ever marred her reception of this regard, and that no duty was ever left undone, no kindness ever neglected, because of the pressure of the pleasantness of life. And then—for a girl cannot but enjoy being made the most of—she gradually realized that Mrs. Flint, in spite of coldness and discouragement, cared for her rights, protected her pleasures, was ready to take pains that Patty should have her share and her chance, should be and appear at her best. It was something she had missed always,—the supervision and loving watchfulness of a mother. Now it was hers; and, though she fought against the conviction, it was sent to her.

In less than a year Patty had yielded unconditionally to the new régime. She was a generous child at heart, and, her opposition once conquered, she became fonder of her stepmother than all the rest put together. Simply and thoroughly she gave herself up to be re-moulded into a new pattern. Her standards changed; her narrow world of motives and ideas expanded and enlarged, till from its confines she saw the illimitable width of the whole universe. Sunshine lightened all her dark places, and set her dormant capacities to growing. Such is the result, at times, of one gracious, informing nature upon others.

Before her eighteenth birthday, the date which she had set in her first ignorant revolt of soul for escape from an imaginary tyranny, the stepmother she had so dreaded was become her best and most intimate friend. It was on that very day that she made for the first time a full confession of her foolishness.

“What a goose!—what a silly, bad thing I was!” she said. “I hated the idea of you, Mamma. I said I never would like you, whatever you did; and then I just went and fell in love with you!”

“You hid the hatred tolerably well, but I am happy to say that you don't hide the love,” said Mrs. Flint, with a smile.

“Hide it? I don't want to! I wonder what did make me behave so? Oh, I know,—it was that absurd book! I wish people wouldn't write such things, Mamma. When I'm quite grown up I mean to write a book myself, and just tell everybody how different it really is, and that the nicest, dearest, best things in the world, and the greatest blessings, are—stepmothers.”

“Blessings in disguise,” said Mrs. Flint. “Well, Patty, I am afraid I was pretty thoroughly disguised in the beginning; but if you consider me a blessing now, it's all right.”

“Oh, it's all just as right as it can be!” said Patty, fervently.