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Uncle and Aunt by Susan Coolidge

 

Uncle and Aunt were a very dear and rather queer old couple, who lived in one of the small villages which dot the long indented coast of Long Island Sound. It was four miles to the railway, so the village had not waked up from its colonial sleep on the building of the line, as had other villages nearer to its course, but remained the same shady, quiet place, with never a steam-whistle nor a manufactory bell to break its repose.

Sparlings-Neck was the name of the place. No hotel had ever been built there, so no summer visitors came to give it a fictitious air of life for a few weeks of the year. The century-old elms waved above the gambrel roofs of the white, green-blinded houses, and saw the same names on doorplates and knockers that had been there when the century began: “Benjamin,” “Wilson,” “Kirkland,” “Benson,” “Reinike,”—there they all were, with here and there the prefix of a distinguishing initial, as “J. L. Benson,” “Eleazar Wilson,” or “Paul Reinike.” Paul Reinike, fourth of the name who had dwelt in that house, was the “Uncle” of this story.

Uncle was tall and gaunt and gray, of the traditional New England type. He had a shrewd, dry face, with wise little wrinkles about the corners of the eyes, and just a twinkle of fun and a quiet kindliness in the lines of the mouth. People said the squire was a master-hand at a bargain. And so he was; but if he got the uttermost penny out of all legitimate business transactions, he was always ready to give that penny, and many more, whenever deserving want knocked at his door, or a good work to be done showed itself distinctly as needing help.

Aunt, too, was a New Englander, but of a slightly different type. She was the squire's cousin before she became his wife; and she had the family traits, but with a difference. She was spare, but she was also very small, and had a distinct air of authority which made her like a fairy godmother. She was very quiet and comfortable in her ways, but she was full of “faculty,”—that invaluable endowment which covers such a multitude of capacities. Nobody's bread or pies were equal to Aunt's. Her preserves never fermented; her cranberry always jellied; her sponge-cake rose to heights unattained by her neighbors', and stayed there, instead of ignominiously “flopping” when removed from the oven, like the sponge-cake of inferior housekeepers. Everything in the old home moved like clock-work. Meals were ready to a minute; the mahogany furniture glittered like dark-red glass; the tall clock in the entry was never a tick out of the way; and yet Aunt never appeared to be particularly busy. To one not conversant with her methods, she gave the impression of being generally at leisure, sitting in her rocking-chair in the “keeping-room,” hemming cap-strings, and reading Emerson, for Aunt liked to keep up with the thought of the day.

Hesse declared that either she sat up and did things after the rest of the family had gone to bed, or else that she kept a Brownie to work for her; but Hesse was a saucy child, and Aunt only smiled indulgently at these sarcasms.

Hesse was the only young thing in the shabby old home; for, though it held many handsome things, it was shabby. Even the cat was a sober matron. The old white mare had seen almost half as many years as her master. The very rats and mice looked gray and bearded when you caught a glimpse of them. But Hesse was youth incarnate, and as refreshing in the midst of the elderly stillness which surrounded her as a frolicsome puff of wind, or a dancing ray of sunshine. She had come to live with Uncle and Aunt when she was ten years old; she was now nearly eighteen, and she loved the quaint house and its quainter occupants with her whole heart.

Hesse's odd name, which had been her mother's, her grandmother's, and her great-grandmother's before her, was originally borrowed from that of the old German town whence the first Reinike had emigrated to America. She had not spent quite all of the time at Sparlings-Neck since her mother died. There had been two years at boarding-school, broken by long vacations, and once she had made a visit in New York to her mother's cousin, Mrs. De Lancey, who considered herself a sort of joint guardian over Hesse, and was apt to send a frock or a hat, now and then, as the fashions changed; that “the child might not look exactly like Noah, and Mrs. Noah, and the rest of the people in the ark,” she told her daughter. This visit to New York had taken place when Hesse was about fifteen; now she was to make another. And, just as this story opens, she and Aunt were talking over her wardrobe for the occasion.

“I shall give you this China-crape shawl,” said Aunt, decisively.

Hesse looked admiringly, but a little doubtfully, at the soft, clinging fabric, rich with masses of yellow-white embroidery.

“I am afraid girls don't wear shawls now,” she ventured to say.

“My dear,” said Aunt, “a handsome thing is always handsome; never mind if it is not the last novelty, put it on, all the same. The Reinikes can wear what they like, I hope! They certainly know better what is proper than these oil-and-shoddy people in New York that we read about in the newspapers. Now, here is my India shawl,”—unpinning a towel, and shaking out a quantity of dried rose-leaves. “I lend you this; not give it, you understand.”

[Illustration: “I shall give you this China-crape shawl,” said aunt, decisively.—PAGE 88.]

“Thank you, Aunt, dear.” Hesse was secretly wondering what Cousin Julia and the girls would say to the India shawl.

“You must have a pelisse, of some sort,” continued her aunt; “but perhaps your Cousin De Lancey can see to that. Though I might have Miss Lewis for a day, and cut over that handsome camlet of mine. It's been lying there in camphor for fifteen years, of no use to anybody.”

“Oh, but that would be a pity!” cried Hesse, with innocent wiliness. “The girls are all wearing little short jackets now, trimmed with fur, or something like that; it would be a pity to cut up that great cloak to make a little bit of a wrap for me.”

“Fur?” said her aunt, catching at the word; “the very thing! How will this do?” dragging out of the camphor-chest an enormous cape, which seemed made of tortoise-shell cats, so yellow and brown and mottled was it. “Won't this do for a trimming, or would you rather have it as it is?”

“I shall have to ask Cousin Julia,” replied Hesse. “Oh, Aunt, dear, don't give me any more! You really mustn't! You are robbing yourself of everything!” For Aunt was pulling out yards of yellow lace, lengths of sash ribbon of faded colors and wonderful thickness, strange, old-fashioned trinkets.

“And here's your grandmother's wedding-gown—and mine!” she said; “you had better take them both. I have little occasion for dress here, and I like you to have them, Hesse. Say no more about it, my dear.”

There was never any gainsaying Aunt, so Hesse departed for New York with her trunk full of antiquated finery, sage-green and “pale-colored” silks that would almost stand alone; Mechlin lace, the color of a spring buttercup; hair rings set with pearls, and brooches such as no one sees, nowadays, outside of a curiosity shop. Great was the amusement which the unpacking caused in Madison Avenue.

“Yet the things are really handsome,” said Mrs. De Lancey, surveying the fur cape critically. “This fur is queer and old-timey, but it will make quite an effective trimming. As for this crape shawl, I have an idea: you shall have an overdress made of it, Hesse. It will be lovely with a silk slip. You may laugh, Pauline, but you will wish you had one like it when you see Hesse in hers. It only needs a little taste in adapting, and fortunately these quaint old things are just coming into fashion.”

Pauline, a pretty girl,—modern to her fingertips—held up a square brooch, on which, under pink glass, shone a complication of initials in gold, the whole set in a narrow twisted rim of pearls and garnets, and asked:

“How do you propose to 'adapt' this, Mamma?”

“Oh,” cried Hesse, “I wouldn't have that 'adapted' for the world! It must stay just as it is. It belonged to my grandmother, and it has a love-story connected with it.”

“A love-story! Oh, tell it to us!” said Grace, the second of the De Lancey girls.

“Why,” explained Hesse; “you see, my grandmother was once engaged to a man named John Sherwood. He was a 'beautiful young man,' Aunt says; but very soon after they were engaged, he fell ill with consumption, and had to go to Madeira. He gave Grandmamma that pin before he sailed. See, there are his initials, 'J. S.,' and hers, 'H. L. R.,' for Hesse Lee Reinike, you know. He gave her a copy of 'Thomas à Kempis' besides, with 'The Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me,' written on the title-page. I have the book, too; Uncle gave it to me for my own.”

“And did he ever come back?” asked Pauline.

“No,” answered Hesse. “He died in Madeira, and was buried there; and quite a long time afterward, Grandmamma married my grandfather. I'm so fond of that queer old brooch, I like to wear it sometimes.”

“How does it look?” demanded Pauline.

“You shall see for yourself, for I'll wear it to-night,” said Hesse.

And when Hesse came down to dinner with the quaint ornament shining against her white neck on a bit of black velvet ribbon, even Pauline owned that the effect was not bad,—queer, of course, and unlike other people's things, but certainly not bad.

Mrs. De Lancey had a quick eye for character, and she noted with satisfaction that her young cousin was neither vexed at, nor affected by, her cousins' criticisms on her outfit. Hesse saw for herself that her things were unusual, and not in the prevailing style, but she knew them to be handsome of their kind, and she loved them as a part of her old home. There was, too, in her blood a little of the family pride which had made Aunt say, “The Reinikes know what is proper, I hope.” So she wore her odd fur and made-over silks and the old laces with no sense of being ill-dressed, and that very fact “carried it off,” and made her seem well dressed. Cousin Julia saw that her wardrobe was sufficiently modernized not to look absurd, or attract too much attention, and there was something in Hesse's face and figure which suited the character of her clothes. People took notice of this or that, now and again,—said it was pretty, and where could they get such a thing?—and, flattery of flatteries, some of the girls copied her effects!

“Estelle Morgan says, if you don't mind, she means to have a ball-dress exactly like that blue one of yours,” Pauline told her one day.

“Oh, how funny! Aunt's wedding-gown made up with surah!” cried Hesse. “Do you remember how you laughed at the idea, Polly, and said it would be horrid?”

“Yes, and I did think so,” said Polly; “but somehow it looks very nice on you. When it is hanging up in the closet, I don't care much for it.”

“Well, luckily, no one need look at it when it is hanging up in the closet,” retorted Hesse, laughing.

Her freshness, her sweet temper, and bright capacity for enjoyment had speedily made Hesse a success among the young people of her cousins' set. Girls liked her, and ran after her as a social favorite; and she had flowers and german favors and flatteries enough to spoil her, had she been spoilable. But she kept a steady head through all these distractions, and never forgot, however busy she might be, to send off the long journal-letter, which was the chief weekly event to Uncle and Aunt.

Three months had been the time fixed for Hesse's stay in New York, but, without her knowledge, Mrs. De Lancey had written to beg for a little extension. Gayeties thickened as Lent drew near, and there was one special fancy dress ball, at Mrs. Shuttleworth's, about which Hesse had heard a great deal, and which she had secretly regretted to lose. She was, therefore, greatly delighted at a letter from Aunt, giving her leave to stay a fortnight longer.

“Uncle will come for you on Shrove-Tuesday,” wrote her Aunt. “He has some business to attend to, so he will stay over till Thursday, and you can take your pleasure till the last possible moment.”

“How lovely!” cried Hesse. “How good of you to write, Cousin Julia, and I am so pleased to go to Mrs. Shuttleworth's ball!”

“What will you wear?” asked Pauline.

“Oh, I haven't thought of that, yet. I must invent something, for I don't wish to buy another dress, I have had so many things already.”

“Now, Hesse, you can't invent anything. It's impossible to make a fancy dress out of the ragbag,” said Pauline, whose ideas were all of an expensive kind.

“We shall see,” said Hesse. “I think I shall keep my costume as a surprise,—except from you, Cousin Julia. I shall want you to help me, but none of the others shall know anything about it till I come down-stairs.”

This was a politic move on the part of Hesse. She was resolved to spend no money, for she knew that her winter had cost more than Uncle had expected, and more than it might be convenient for him to spare; yet she wished to avert discussion and remonstrance, and at the same time to prevent Mrs. De Lancey from giving her a new dress, which was very often that lady's easy way of helping Hesse out of her toilet difficulties. So a little seamstress was procured, and Cousin Julia taken into counsel. Hesse kept her door carefully locked for a day or two; and when, on the evening of the party, she came down attired as “My great-grandmother,” in a short-waisted, straight-skirted white satin; with a big ante-revolutionary hat tied under her dimpled chin; a fichu of mull, embroidered in colored silks, knotted across her breast; long white silk mittens, and a reticule of pearl beads hanging from her girdle,—even Pauline could find no fault. The costume was as becoming as it was queer; and all the girls told Hesse that she had never looked so well in her life.

Eight or ten particular friends of Pauline and Grace had arranged to meet at the De Lanceys', and all start together for the ball. The room was quite full of gay figures as “My great-grandmother” came down; it was one of those little moments of triumph which girls prize. The door-bell rang as she slowly turned before the throng, to exhibit the back of the wonderful gored and plaited skirt. There was a little colloquy in the hall, the butler opened the door, and in walked a figure which looked singularly out of place among the pretty, fantastic, girlish forms,—a tall, spare, elderly figure, in a coat of old-fashioned cut. A carpet-bag was in his hand. He was no other than Uncle, come a day before he was expected.

His entrance made a little pause.

“What an extraordinary-looking person!” whispered Maud Ashurst to Pauline, who colored, hesitated, and did not, for a moment, know what to do. Hesse, standing with her back to the door, had seen nothing; but, struck by the silence, she turned. A meaner nature than hers might have shared Pauline's momentary embarrassment, but there was not a mean fibre in the whole of Hesse's frank, generous being.

“Uncle! dear Uncle!” she cried; and, running forward, she threw her arms around the lean old neck, and gave him half a dozen of her warmest kisses.

“It is my uncle,” she explained to the others. “We didn't expect him till to-morrow; and isn't it too delightful that he should come in time to see us all in our dresses!”

Then she drew him this way and that, introducing him to all her particular friends, chattering, dimpling, laughing with such evident enjoyment, such an assured sense that it was the pleasantest thing possible to have her uncle there, that every one else began to share it. The other girls, who, with a little encouragement, a little reserve and annoyed embarrassment on the part of Hesse, would have voted Uncle “a countrified old quiz,” and, while keeping up the outward forms of civility, would have despised him in their hearts, infected by Hesse's sweet happiness, began to talk to him with the wish to please, and presently to discover how pleasant his face was, and how shrewd and droll his ideas and comments; and it ended by all pronouncing him an “old dear,”—so true it is that genuine and unaffected love and respect carry weight with them for all the rest of the world.

Uncle was immensely amused by the costumes. He recalled the fancy balls of his youth, and gave the party some ideas on dress which had never occurred to any of them before. He could not at all understand the principle of selection on which the different girls had chosen their various characters.

“That gypsy queen looked as if she ought to be teaching a Sunday-school,” he told Hesse afterward. “Little Red Riding Hood was too big for her wolf; and as for that scampish little nun of yours, I don't believe the stoutest convent ever built could hold her in for half a day.”

“Come with us to Mrs. Shuttleworth's. It will be a pretty scene, and something for you to tell Cousin Marianne about when you go back,” urged Mrs. De Lancey.

“Oh, do, do!” chimed in Hesse. “It will be twice as much fun if you are there, Uncle!”

But Uncle was tired by his journey, and would not consent; and I am afraid that Pauline and Grace were a little relieved by his decision. False shame and the fear of “people” are powerful influences.

Three days later, Hesse's long, delightful visit ended, and she was speeding home under Uncle's care.

“You must write and invite some of those fine young folk to come up to see you in June,” he told her.

“That will be delightful,” said Hesse. But when she came to think about it later, she was not so sure about its being delightful.

There is nothing like a long absence from home to open one's eyes to the real aspect of familiar things. The Sparlings-Neck house looked wofully plain and old-fashioned, even to Hesse, when contrasted with the elegance of Madison Avenue; how much more so, she reflected, would it look to the girls!

She thought of Uncle's after-dinner pipe; of the queer little chamber, opening from the dining-room, where he and Aunt chose to sleep; of the green-painted woodwork of the spare bedrooms, and the blue paper-shades, tied up with a cord, which Aunt clung to because they were in fashion when she was a girl; and for a few foolish moments she felt that she would rather not have her friends come at all, than have them come to see all this, and perhaps make fun of it. Only for a few moments; then her more generous nature asserted itself with a bound.

“How mean of me to even think of such a thing!” she told herself, indignantly,—“to feel ashamed to have people know what my own home is like, and Uncle and Aunt, who are so good to me! Hesse Reinike, I should like to hire some one to give you a good whipping! The girls shall come, and I'll make the old house look just as sweet as I can, and they shall like it, and have a beautiful time from the moment they come till they go away, if I can possibly give it to them.”

To punish herself for what she considered an unworthy feeling, she resolved not to ask Aunt to let her change the blue paper-shades for white curtains, but to have everything exactly as it usually was. But Aunt had her own ideas and her pride of housekeeping to consider. As the time of the visit drew near, laundering and bleaching seemed to be constantly going on, and Jane, the old housemaid, was kept busy tacking dimity valances and fringed hangings on the substantial four-post bedsteads, and arranging fresh muslin covers over the toilet-tables. Treasures unknown to Hesse were drawn out of their receptacles,—bits of old embroidery, tamboured tablecloths and “crazy quilts,” vases and bow-pots of pretty old china for the bureaus and chimney-pieces. Hesse took a long drive to the woods, and brought back great masses of ferns, pink azalea, and wild laurel. All the neighbors' gardens were laid under contribution. When all was in order, with ginger-jars full of cool white daisies and golden buttercups standing on the shining mahogany tables, bunches of blue lupines on the mantel, the looking-glasses wreathed with traveller's joy, a great bowl full of early roses and quantities of lilies-of-the-valley, the old house looked cosey enough and smelt sweet enough to satisfy the most fastidious taste.

Hesse drove over with Uncle to the station to meet her guests. They took the big carryall, which, with squeezing, would hold seven; and a wagon followed for the luggage. There were five girls coming; for, besides Pauline and Grace, Hesse had invited Georgie Berrian, Maud Ashurst, and Ella Waring, who were the three special favorites among her New York friends.

The five flocked out of the train, looking so dainty and stylish that they made the old carryall seem shabbier than ever by contrast. Maud Ashurst cast one surprised look at it and at the old white mare,—she had never seen just such a carriage before; but the quality of the equipage was soon forgotten, as Uncle twitched the reins, and they started down the long lane-like road which led to Sparlings-Neck and was Hesse's particular delight.

The station and the dusty railroad were forgotten almost immediately,—lost in the sense of complete country freshness. On either hand rose tangled banks of laurel and barberries, sweet-ferns and budding grapevines, overarched by tall trees, and sending out delicious odors; while mingling with and blending all came, borne on a shoreward wind, the strong salt fragrance of the sea.

“What is it? What can it be? I never smelt anything like it!” cried the girls from the city.

“Now, girls,” cried Hesse, turning her bright face around from the driver's seat, “this is real, absolute country, you know,—none of the make-believes which you get at Newport or up the Hudson. Everything we have is just as queer and old-fashioned as it can be. You won't be asked to a single party while you are here, and there isn't the ghost of a young man in the neighborhood. Well, yes, there may be a ghost, but there is no young man. You must just make up your minds, all of you, to a dull time, and then you'll find that it's lovely.”

“It's sure to be lovely wherever you are, you dear thing!” declared Ella Waring, with a little rapturous squeeze.

I fancy that, just at first, the city girls did think the place very queer. None of them had ever seen just such an old house as the Reinikes' before. The white wainscots with their toothed mouldings matched by the cornices above, the droll little cupboards in the walls, the fire-boards pasted with gay pictures, the queer closets and clothes-presses occurring just where no one would naturally have looked for them, and having, each and all, an odd shut-up odor, as of by-gone days,—all seemed very strange to them. But the flowers and the green elms and Hesse's warm welcome were delightful; so were Aunt's waffles and wonderful tarts, the strawberries smothered in country cream, and the cove oysters and clams which came in, deliciously stewed, for tea; and they soon pronounced the visit “a lark,” and Sparlings-Neck a paradise.

There were long drives in the woods, picnics in the pine groves, bathing-parties on the beach, morning sittings under the trees with an interesting book; and when a northeaster came, and brought with it what seemed a brief return of winter, there was a crackling fire, a candy-pull, and a charming evening spent in sitting on the floor telling ghost-stories, with the room only lighted by the fitfully blazing wood, and with cold creeps running down their backs! Altogether, the fortnight was a complete success, and every one saw its end with reluctance.

“I wish we were going to stay all summer!” said Georgie Berrian. “Newport will seem stiff and tiresome after this.”

“I never had so good a time,—never!” declared Ella. “And, Hesse, I do think your aunt and uncle are the dearest old people I ever saw!” That pleased Hesse most of all. But what pleased her still more was when, after the guests were gone, and the house restored to its old order, and the regular home life begun again, Uncle put his arm around her, and gave her a kiss,—not a bedtime kiss, or one called for by any special occasion, but an extra kiss, all of his own accord.

“A dear child,” he said; “not a bit ashamed of the old folks, was she? I liked that, Hesse.”

“Ashamed of you and Aunt? I should think not!” answered Hesse, with a flush.

Uncle gave a dry little chuckle.

“Well, well,” he said, “some girls would have been; you weren't,—that's all the difference. You're a good child, Hesse.”