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Grace Livingston Hill
Aunt Crete’s Emancipation
First published in 1911
Copyright © 2018 Classica Libris
“Who’s at the front door?” asked Luella’s mother, coming in from the kitchen with a dish-towel in her hand. “I thought I heard the door-bell.”
“Luella’s gone to the door,” said her sister from her vantage-point at the crack of the sitting-room door. “It looks to me like a telegraph boy.”
“It couldn’t be, Crete,” said Luella’s mother impatiently, coming to see for herself. “Who would telegraph now that Hannah’s dead?”
Lucretia was short and dumpy, with the comfortable, patient look of the maiden aunt that knows she is indispensable because she will meekly take all the burdens that no one else wants to bear. Her sister could easily look over her head into the hall, and her gaze was penetrative and alert.
“I’m sure I don’t know, Carrie,” said Lucretia apprehensively, “but I’m all of a tremble. Telegrams are dreadful things.”
“Nonsense, Crete, you always act like such a baby. Hurry up, Luella. Don’t stop to read it. Your aunt Crete will have a fit. Wasn’t there anything to pay? Who is it for?”
Luella, a rather stout young woman in stylish attire, with her mother’s keen features unsoftened by sentiment, advanced, irreverently tearing open her mother’s telegram and reading it as she came. It was one of the family grievances that Luella was stout like her aunt instead of tall and slender like her mother. The aunt always felt secretly that they somehow blamed her for being of that type. “It makes one so hard to fit,” Luella’s mother remarked frequently, and adding with a disparaging glance at her sister’s dumpy form, “So impossible!”
At such times the aunt always wrinkled up her pleasant little forehead into a V upside down, and trotted off to her kitchen, or her buttonholes, or whatever was the present task, sighing helplessly. She tried to be the best that she could always; but one couldn’t help one’s figure, especially when one was partly dependent on one’s family for support, and dressmakers and tailors took so much money. It was bad enough to have one stout figure to fit in the family without two; and the aunt always felt called upon to have as little dressmaking done as possible, in order that Luella’s figure might be improved from the slender treasury. “Clothes do make a big difference,” she reflected. And sometimes when she was all alone in the twilight, and there was really nothing that her alert conscience could possibly put her hand to doing for the moment, she amused herself by thinking what kind of dress she would buy, and who should make it, if she should suddenly attain a fortune. But this was a harmless amusement, inasmuch as she never let it make her discontented with her lot, or ruffle her placid brow for an instant.
But just now she was “all of a tremble,” and the V in her forehead was rapidly becoming a double V. She watched Luella’s dismayed face with growing alarm.
“For goodness’ sake alive!” said Luella, flinging herself into the most comfortable rocker, and throwing her mother’s telegram on the table. “That’s not to be tolerated! Something’ll have to be done. We’ll have to go to the shore at once, mother. I should die of mortification to have a country cousin come around just now. What would the Grandons think if they saw him? I can’t afford to ruin all my chances for a cousin I’ve never seen. Mother, you simply must do something. I won’t stand it!”
“What in the world are you talking about, Luella?” said her mother impatiently. “Why didn’t you read the telegram aloud, or why didn’t you give it to me at once? Where are my glasses?”
The aunt waited meekly while her sister found her glasses, and read the telegram.
“Well, I declare! That is provoking to have him turn up just now of all times. Something must be done, of course. We can’t have a gawky Westerner around in the way. And, as you say, we’ve never seen him. It can’t make much difference to him whether he sees us or not. We can hurry off, and be conveniently out of the way. It’s probably only a ‘duty visit’ he’s paying, anyway. Hannah’s been dead ten years, and I always heard the child was more like his father than his mother. Besides, Hannah married and went away to live when I was only a little girl. I really don’t think Donald has much claim on us. What a long telegram! It must have cost a lot. Was it paid for? It shows he knows nothing of the world, or he would have put it in a few words. Well, we’ll have to get away at once.”
She crumpled the telegram into a ball, and flung it to the table again; but it fell wide of its mark, and dropped to the floor instead. The aunt patiently stooped and picked it up, smoothing out the crushed yellow paper.
“Hannah’s boy!” she said gently, and she touched the yellow paper as if it had been something sacred.
“Am taking a trip East, and shall make you a little visit if convenient. Will be with you sometime on Thursday.
She sat down suddenly in the nearest chair. Somehow the relief from anxiety had made her knees weak. “Hannah’s boy!” she murmured again, and laid her hand caressingly over the telegram, smoothing down a torn place in the edge of the paper.
Luella and her mother were discussing plans. They had decided that they must leave on the early train the next morning, before there was any chance of the Western visitor’s arriving.
“Goodness! Look at Aunt Crete,” said Luella, laughing. “She looks as if she had seen a ghost. Her lips are all white.”
“Crete, you oughtn’t to be such a fool. As if a telegram would hurt you! There’s nobody left to be worried about like that. Why don’t you use your reason a little?”
“Hannah’s boy is really coming!” beamed Aunt Crete, ignoring their scorn of herself.
“Upon my word! Aunt Crete, you look as if it were something to be glad about, instead of a downright calamity.”
“Glad; of course I’m glad, Luella. Wouldn’t you be glad to see your oldest sister’s child? Hannah was always very dear to me. I can see her now the way she looked when she went away, so tall and slim and pretty——”
“Not if she’d been dead for a century or so, and I’d never seen the child, and he was a gawky, embarrassing creature who would spoil the prospects of the people I was supposed to love,” retorted Luella. “Aunt Crete, don’t you care the least bit for my happiness? Do you want it all spoiled?”
“Why, of course not, dearie,” beamed Aunt Crete, “but I don’t see how it will spoil your happiness. I should think you’d want to see him yourself.”
“Aunt Crete! The idea! He’s nothing to me. You know he’s lived away out in the wild West all his life. He probably never had much schooling, and doesn’t know how to dress or behave in polite society. I heard he went away off up in the Klondike somewhere, and worked in a mine. You can imagine just what a wild, ignorant creature he will be. If Clarence Grandon should see him, he might imagine my family were all like that; and then where would I be?”
“Yes, Crete, I’m surprised at you. You’ve been so anxious all along for Luella to shine in society, and now you talk just as if you didn’t care in the least what happened,” put in Luella’s mother.
“But what can you do?” asked Aunt Crete. “You can’t tell him not to come—your own sister’s child!”
“O, how silly you are, Crete!” said her sister. “No, of course we can’t very well tell him not to come, as he hasn’t given us a chance; for this telegram is evidently sent on the way. It is dated ‘Chicago,’ and he hasn’t given us a trace of an address. He doesn’t live in Chicago. He’s very likely almost here, and may arrive any time to-morrow. Now you know we’ve simply got to go to the shore next week, for the rooms are all engaged at the hotel, and paid for; and we might as well hurry up and get off to-night or early in the morning, and escape him. Luella would die of mortification if she had to cousin that fellow and give up her trip to the shore. As you weren’t going anyway, you can receive him. It will keep him quietly at home, for he won’t expect an old woman to go out with him, and show him the sights; so nobody will notice him much, and there won’t be a lot of talk. If he looks very ridiculous, and that prying Mrs. Brown next door speaks of it, you might explain he’s the son of an old school friend who went out West to live years ago——”
“O Carrie!” exclaimed Aunt Crete, “that wouldn’t be true; and, besides, he can’t be so very bad as that. And even if he is, I shall love him—for he’s Hannah’s boy.”
“Love him all you want to,” sniffed her sister, “but for pity’s sake don’t let the neighbors know what relation he is.”
“That’s just like you, Aunt Crete,” said Luella in a hurt tone. “You’ve known me and pretended to love me all your life. I’m almost like your own child, and yet you take up with this unknown nephew, and say you’ll love him in spite of all the trouble he’s making me.”
Aunt Crete doubled the V in her forehead, and wiped away the beads of perspiration. Somehow it always seemed that she was in the wrong. Would she be understood in heaven? she wondered.
Luella and her mother went on planning. They told off what Aunt Crete was to do after they left.
“There’s the raspberries and blackberries not done up yet, Crete, but I guess you can manage alone. You always do the biggest part of the canning, anyway. I’m awfully sorry about your sewing, Crete. I meant to fit your two thin dresses before we went away, but the dressmaker made Luella’s things so much more elaborate than I expected that we really haven’t had a minute’s time, what with all the lace insertion she left for us to sew on. Perhaps you better run down to Miss Mason, and see if she has time to fit them, if you think you can’t wait till we get back. You’ll hardly be going out much while we’re gone, you know.”
“O, I’ll be all right,” said Aunt Crete happily. “I guess I can fix up my gray lawn for while Donald’s here.”
“Donald! Nonsense! It won’t matter what you wear while he’s here. He’ll never know a calico from a silk. Now look here, Crete, you’ve got to be awfully careful, or you’ll let out when we went off. There’s no use in his finding out we didn’t want to see him. You wouldn’t want to hurt his feelings, you know. Your own sister’s child!”
“No, of course not,” agreed Aunt Crete, though there was a troubled look in her eyes. She never liked prevarication; and, when she was left with some polite fabrication to excuse her relatives out of something they wanted to shirk, she nearly always got it twisted so that it was either an out-and-out lie, which horrified her, or else let the whole thing “out of the bag,” as Luella said.
But there was little time for discussion; for Luella and her mother had a great deal of packing to do, and Aunt Crete had the dinner to get and the house to set in order, surreptitiously, for the expected guest.
They hurried away the next morning in a whirl of bags and suitcases and parasols and umbrellas. They had baggage enough for a year in Europe, although they expected to stay only two or three weeks at the shore at most. Aunt Crete helped them into the station-cab, ran back to the house for Luella’s new raincoat, back again for the veil and her sister’s gloves, and still a third time to bring the new book, which had been set aside for reading on the journey. Then at last they were gone, and with one brief sigh of satisfaction Aunt Crete permitted herself to reflect that she was actually left alone to receive a dear guest all her own.
Never in all her maiden existence had she had this pleasure before. She might use the best china, and have three kinds of pie at once, yes, and plum-cake if she chose. Boys like pie and cake. Donald would be a big, nice boy.
What did it matter to her if he was awkward and from the West? He was in a large sense her own. Hannah was gone, and there was no one else to take a closer place. Who but his mother’s sister should have the right to mother him for a while? He would be her own as Luella never had been, because there was always Luella’s mother to take the first place. Besides, Luella had been a disappointing baby. Even in her infancy she had developed an independence that scorned kissing and cuddling. Luella always had too many selfish interests on hand to have time for breathing out love and baby graces to admiring subjects. Her frown was always quicker than her smile. But somehow Aunt Crete felt that it would be different with this boy, and her heart swelled within her as she hurried into the house to make ready for his coming.
The front hall was littered with rose-leaves. Luella had shaken a bunch of roses to get rid of the loose leaves, and had found they were all loose leaves; therefore she flung them down upon the floor. She had meant to wear them with her new pongee travelling-suit. It looked well to wear roses on a journey, for it suggested a possible admirer. But the roses had not held out, and now Aunt Crete must sweep them up.
A glance into the parlor showed peanut-shells scattered over the floor and on the table. A few of Luella’s friends had come in for a few minutes the evening before, and they had indulged in peanuts, finishing up by throwing the shells at one another amid shouts of hilarious laughter. Aunt Crete went for the broom and dust-pan. If he came early, the hall and parlor must be in order first.
Luella and her mother had little time to waste, for the tickets were barely bought and the trunks checked before the train thundered up. It was a through vestibuled train; and, as Luella struggled up the steps of one car with her heavy suitcase, a tall young man with dark, handsome eyes and a distinguished manner swung himself down the steps of the next car.
“Hello, Luella!” called a voice from a pony-cart by the platform. “You’re not going away to-day, are you? Thought you said you weren’t going till next week.”
“Circumstances made it necessary,” called Luella from the top step of the car while the porter held up the suitcase for her to take. “I’m running away from a backwoods cousin that’s coming to visit. I’ll write and tell you all about it. Good-by. Sorry I can’t be at your house to-morrow night, but it couldn’t be helped.”
Then Luella turned another gaze upon the handsome stranger, who was standing on the platform just below her, looking about interestedly. She thought he had looked at her more than casually; and, as she settled herself in the seat, she glanced down at her pongee travelling-suit consciously, feeling that he could but have thought she looked well.
He was still standing on the platform as the train moved out, and Luella could see the girl in the pony-cart turn her attention to him. She half wished she were sitting in the pony-cart too. It would be interesting to find out who he was. Luella preened herself, and settled her large hat in front of the strip of mirror between the windows, and then looked around the car that she might see who were her fellow passengers.
“Well, I’m glad we’re off,” said her mother nervously. “I was afraid as could be your cousin might come in on that early through train before we got started. It would have been trying if he’d come just as we were getting away. I don’t know how we could have explained it.”
“Yes,” said Luella. “I’m glad we’re safely off. He’ll never suspect now.”
It was just at that moment that the grocery-boy arrived at the back door with a crate of red raspberries.
“Land alive!” said Miss Crete disappointedly. “I hoped those wouldn’t come till to-morrow.” She bustled about, taking the boxes out of the crate so that the boy might take it back; and before she was done the door-bell rang.