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“Why,” said I, beginning to feel a little dubious, “I fancied that it was a trial of strength in lifting trunks."
“And imagined yourself staggering off under the weight of that edifice, I presume?” continued my medical adviser. “I will show you the trunk-exercise, Miss Bolton.” And starting up impulsively, the active little personage perpetrated a series of the most remarkable antics I had ever witnessed. "To my inexperienced eyes these contortions seemed nothing less than an attempt to get her body out of joint in all directions at once; and when she bent herself back as though trying to make her extremities meet, I begged her in genuine terror to desist.
She laughed until she could scarcely stand; and stopping on her way to the door, she said: “I ought to be whipped for staying here so long ; but, Miss Bolton, I must tell you the story of the woman and the lard. The poor thing was a great invalid, and had suffered many things in her desire to get well nauseous doses of all kinds being her daily food. She was sitting one evening in a melancholy way by a large open fire, when some one placed a dish of lard in the fireplace to melt. Well,' soliloquised the sick woman, as she eyed the liquefying grease, without a doubt that it was intended for her benefit, 'I b'lieve I've tried to swaller most everything, but it reelly don't seem as though I could take that lard !' Now, my dear child's added the little woman, with an affectionate kiss, “don't you appropriate all the dishes of lard you may see about the premises. Good night, and pleasant dreams."
Next morning, while my room was being put in order by the woman of serious countenance, I took refuge on the veranda; and there, in the farthest corner, like an episode in a fairy-tale, sat the neatest little old lady I had ever seen. She was just an old-fashioned picture that had stepped out of its frame. Her dress, of some large-flowered material, was short and scant, and her head was surmounted by a queer structure, half cap and half net, with a spreading butterfly bow on top. Her own gray hair was arranged in fat rings around her face with an infinity of side-combs, and a very delicate complexion and regular features hinted at more than an ordinary share of beauty when she and the century were in their teens together. A chain of large gold beads that fell as low as her belt, and held a watch or locket, formed a conspicuous ornament, and sitting in a sort of heap, her proportions appeared childlike.
A small table was before her, containing a very frugal breakfast, a plainly-bound Bible, and an aged copy of Boswell's Fohnson - the latter guilty of the venerable abominations of yellow paper and long S's. I have always sympathised with the child thus led astray, who thought that Job made a great fuss over four boils.
This quaint little personage glanced at me with a half-frightened look as I emerged from the doorway, but I only smiled a “Good morning,” and established myself at a respectful distance.
“ Bless my soul!" she exclaimed in a nervous flutter; “ what does it mean?”
I turned and apologised, hoping that I did not intrude upon her privacy; but instead of replying, she snatched up a speaking-trumpet,
and thrust it in her ear with such a comical, knowing expression, that I could scarcely preserve a decent gravity. I respectfully declined this challenge, and with a benevolent smile she lowered the instrument and devoted herself to her breakfast.
Presently, Miss Wood appeared upon the scene, and taking my hand, she led me up to the old lady, and announced me through the trumpet as her new patient, Miss Bolton.
“Bolted !” exclaimed my new acquaintance, with a start. “Not from home, I hope?”
She eyed me disapprovingly; but the idea of bolting to a watercure from anywhere but a lunatic-asylum struck me in a very comical point of view. Miss Wood laughed heartily, and the old lady laughed too, as though she quite appreciated the joke.
Speaking very slowly, and without any undue raising of the voice, Miss Wood soon made her quaint little patient understand why I was there ; adding that she feared she had been startled by seeing me so unexpectedly.
“She came upon me like the dew, my dear,” replied the quaint old lady, who had been introduced to me as Miss Littleday.
I had scarcely been compared to anything so poetical before, but any attempt at a suitable reply was nipped in the bud by that appalling trumpet. There was no telling in what twisted shape a few words of graceful acknowledgment might reach the ear for which they were intended.
"Do you think," I said, confidentially to Miss Wood, "that it will be possible to make her understand me? I like her looks very much, but I have a nervous horror of these speaking-trumpets.”
“Talk in short sentences, pronouncing each word with the utmost distinctness, and there is no reason why you should not succeed,” was the encouraging reply. “She is a dear old lady, and you will find her'so intelligent and entertaining that you will be abundantly paid for your trouble. She enjoys society; and the endeavor to lighten her burden of isolation will prove a charity that blesses both giver and receiver. But the Philistines are upon me. Yes, I am coming."
Poor little woman! Hungry-looking patients, with a morbid appetite for medicine and “fresh tickets," waylaid her constantly in watchful groups on the stairs, in the hall, or wherever a glimpse of her was likely to be had; and it seemed to me that if I were in liss Wood's place, I would devote all my energies to killing or curing the greater portion of them as speedily as possible. Had she gone on a mission for that especial purpose, she could not have made a collection of more utterly uninteresting invalids.
Miss Littleday made room for me beside her, and I entered upon my mission at once. This became quite easy, as I discovered that it was not necessary for me to do much talking; she preferred a listener.
“Now, my dear," she began, in a quick, decided manner, “I am not going to ask you what is the matter with you. I don't want to know; but almost every one else you see here will want to know. Judging from your appearance, you can't be much out of order; and if you have come in quest of hard work, this is the very place for you.”
But I had not come in quest of hard work, and I replied, in instalments, that I did not mean to do any.
“Then pack up your duds and depart,” said the old lady. “ If you stay in Arragon, you must do as the Arragonese do; they bathe and walk and bathe again, and throw their legs and arms about in the gymnasium - I don't say 'limbs,' my dear; I say legs, and I am not ashamed of it. But just fancy me at those antics, with my side-combs all flying! I got a special dispensation from our little doctress to omit them ; but you can't, honey, for you haven't a superabundance of years and side-combs. 'It's toil, toil, toil,' from morning, noon, and night - isn't that what the woman says in the 'Song of the Shirt'? I often think of her now, although I am not exactly “in hunger, poverty, and dirt’; and I certainly don't sit‘in unwomanly rags.' I take my meals out here," she continued, as though I had requested her to give an account of herself in this matter — " because I like fresh air and good company," pointing to her Bible and Life of Johnson —"and in bad weather, I take them in my room, because — well, my dear, I'm a fidgety old woman, and it rather takes away my appetite to go to the table.”
I did not think this was to be wondered at.
“But enough of this,” said my companion, suddenly. “I only wanted you to understand why you found an old woman, who had invited herself to a breakfast of one on the veranda. I am very glad, lady-bird, that you did find me ; your voice is so pleasant in talking [she had not heard it much], and I don't like to be bellowed at. Let me tell you a secret, my dear: deaf people are not partial to great talkers. They like short sentences and few of them ; you and I will get on admirably. Now, do you know Dr. Johnson? But so intelligent a young lady could scarcely fail to do that."
I was obliged to confess that my acquaintance with that great man was very slight.
“Then," exclaimed Miss Littleday, enthusiastically, “you have a treat before you! I would give almost anything I possess, little one [I enjoyed this, being half a head taller than herself], for the pleasure of reading Dr. Johnson again for the first time. This volume," turning over the leaves affectionately, “accompanies me wherever I go; this and Rasselas. You shall borrow them, my dear, as often as you choose.”
I was overwhelmed, and scarcely knew what reply to make ; if this was to be added to my other tasks, I saw very little rest in prospect. Well, well,” said my new friend, after a pause,
“I suppose we all look very much alike under the same levelling circumstances, and people talk of bringing down the pride of human nature: it is smashed quite flat at a water-cure, honey — smashed flat.”
This referred to a melancholy procession just then descending the stairs: thin, sallow, shadowy-looking women, hoop-less and stay-less, enveloped in blankets and quilts, on their way to the mysteries of the bath-room; and each one grasped an empty pitcher, while the other hand held together the wrappers that seemed to have been thrown upon them as upon a clothes-horse. They were not exactly suggestive of Rebecca at the Well; but the empty pitchers were a puzzle, until Miss Littleday explained to me that water was taken inwardly, as well as outwardly, at an alarming rate, and it was a rule of the establishment to fill the pitchers afresh at every bath.
“But I am not guilty of such intemperance, my dear,” she added impressively; "I'd rather leave it to the fishes; and I really believe that a goblet of water “stiff,' as the topers say, would give me a severe cold. So, being an unmanageable old woman, I am allowed tea. It is made, however, with such a tender regard for my nerves that I am not always sure it is tea. And now, my pet,” as a damsel appeared and began to remove her table, “this very pleasant meeting must be dissolved for the present, as I shall have to ‘kilt my gown of green satin', (which happens to be flowered chally) and prepare for my daily soaking. Since I am here, I wish to do full justice to the treatment; and if it isn't Dr. Johnson who says 'business before pleasure', it is a remark worthy of the great Samuel. When on dry land and within doors, I am usually to be found in here; should you want me or the books, don't hesitate to open the door and walk in, for knocks, my dear, are no more to me than the tapping of a woodpecker on a tree.”
With an old-fashioned curtsey, the speaker disappeared through a door that opened on the veranda at the end opposite to mine, and left me pondering over the curious phases of water-cure life with which I had already become acquainted.
At the dinner-table Uncle Jared, whose proper appellation it seems is Mr. Wardleham, informed me that “he heerd I had come round.”
While revolving in my mind what exploit of mine could have given rise to this form of speech, he graciously explained himself :
“Been over the crik, haven't you, that some old feller set such store by? Ruby somethin'- I disremember t'other end of it."
Light began to dawn upon me, "Do you mean ‘crossing the Rubicon '?." I asked.
“That's the very thing!” bringing down his well-laden hands with emphasis. “I b'lieve the feller had a tough job to bring himself to go at it; but after the first plunge, he went on swimmingly. I expect now that, after you got in, you took to the water like a duck ; but if you want to know what reel gen-u-ine enjoyment is, you must ask Semanthy to let you hev an air-bath — makes you feel like another person.”
There were several persons whom I did not at all desire to feel like — himself among the number ; but I was really curious to know
“air-bath” could be. I did not care, however, to discuss the subject with Mr. Wardleham; but as, according to his own expression,
“ he had taken a sort of shine to me,” it was not easy to shake off his persevering attempts at conversation.
“Semantha” was Miss Wood's Christian cognomen, but her more common appellation among the patients was She.”
I had “come round,” so far as bathing was concerned, and began to feel quite like the rest of them. After the new experiment of a
as I walked out on the veranda to decide in what direction to turn my steps for the inevitable “constitutional,” a cheerful voice called my name ; and by special invitation, I walked into Miss Little
day's room. She was arranging her front hair, after a bath, and showed a very tender regard for her side-combs.
“Not what they used to be, child," said she, shaking her head over them in a melancholy way. “I always had them of the finest tortoiseshell, and not very high at that ; but now these things are eighteen cents apiece. They break, too, like pie-crust.”
Seizing the ear-trumpet, I suggested that water-cure pie crust was not very breakable — I would engage to dance the Highland fling on one of the pies without materially injuring it.
The old lady gazed at me in blank dismay. “I wouldn't, my dear, get up anything like a dance here ; Miss Wood doesn't approve of it, except in the gymnastics; and as to flinging the pies anywhere, I dare say you feel like it - I often do myself, but I am afraid it might hurt her feelings. You know the little woman thinks that plain pies are more healthful ; although I must confess that I prefer a good pie once a month to a poor one twice a week, which would probably amount to the same thing."
Miss Littleday held her trumpet firmly, so that I could not correct her mistake brandishing it at me occasionally in quite a threatening manner, and accomplishing quite a homily before she concluded.
“ There !” said she, suddenly hitching the tube in her ear, "the old woman has had her say, and made herself very disagreeable ; but I wish you to adopt me as your grandmother, my dear, and I am trying to qualify myself for the office. Now don't say any more naughty things, if the pies are plain."
I tried to compose myself to deny the charge; and after screaming out again part of what I did say, my eccentric companion snatched away the trumpet with the remark: “What have the Highlands got to do with it? I thought you were talking of pie-crust. Have you read Dr. Johnson's tour to the Hebrides? Here it is," placing it in my hands; “don't drop my mark out— I read it through once a year. How he hated Scotland! But Washington Irving went rather beyond him, for he said that the Scotch hills were so painfully bare, a good sized fly walking on the edge of one could be distinctly seen. Now that, my dear, is what I call an exaggerated expression ; I don't like exaggerated expressions, nor exaggerated people."
“ How do you get along then," said I rather saucily, “ with Dr. Johnson's ponderous sentences ? They often seem very much like bringing out a cannon to kill a fly.”
“ Now that is an entire falsehood !” exclaimed the old lady indignantly, “ manufactured by some of his enemies, of course. I never heard of his killing flies in my life, and I don't believe he would do such a thing. And now, dearie, by way of changing the subject, have you read the Excursion ?”
“Is it like “Mary had a Little Lamb'?”. I asked, in what I considered a very distinct voice.
“ • Lamb!”” repeated Miss Littleday in amazement; “why, bless me, child ! Lamb never wrote the Excursion! A very good man, my dear, but nothing of a poet. Here, you must get acquainted with Wordsworth.” And she reached down a ponderous volume from an upper shelf in her closet, that looked bulky enough to contain everything the seer of Rydal Mount had ever written.