It was certainly rather unfortunate, as far as the social standing of the Jamesons among us was concerned, that they brought Grandma Cobb with them.
Everybody spoke of her as Grandma Cobb before she had been a week in the village. Mrs. H. Boardman Jameson always called her Madam Cobb, but that made no difference. People in our village had not been accustomed to address old ladies as madam, and they did not take kindly to it. Grandma Cobb was of a very sociable disposition, and she soon developed the habit of dropping into the village houses at all hours of the day and evening. She was an early riser, and all the rest of her family slept late, and she probably found it lonesome. She often made a call as early as eight o'clock in the morning, and she came as late as ten o'clock in the evening. When she came in the morning she talked, and when she came in the evening she sat in her chair and nodded. She often kept the whole family up, and it was less exasperating when she came in the morning, though it was unfortunate for the Jamesons.
If a bulletin devoted to the biography of the Jameson family had been posted every week on the wall of the town house it could have been no more explicit than was Grandma Cobb. Whether we would or not we soon knew all about them; the knowledge was fairly forced upon us. We knew that Mr. H. Boardman Jameson had been very wealthy, but had lost most of his money the year before through the failure of a bank. We knew that his wealth had all been inherited, and that he would never have been, in Grandma Cobb's opinion, capable of earning it himself. We knew that he had obtained, through the influence of friends, a position in the custom-house, and we knew the precise amount of his salary. We knew that the Jamesons had been obliged to give up their palatial apartments in New York and take a humble flat in a less fashionable part of the city. We knew that they had always spent their summers at their own place at the seashore, and that this was the first season of their sojourn in a little country village in a plain house. We knew how hard a struggle it had been for them to come here; we knew just how much they paid for their board, how Mrs. Jameson never wanted anything for breakfast but an egg and a hygienic biscuit, and had health food in the middle of the forenoon and afternoon.
We also knew just how old they all were, and how the H. in Mr. Jameson's name stood for Hiram. We knew that Mrs. Jameson had never liked the name—might, in fact, have refused to marry on that score had not Grandma Cobb reasoned with her and told her that he was a worthy man with money, and she not as young as she had been; and how she compromised by always using the abbreviation, both in writing and speaking. “She always calls him H,” said Grandma Cobb, “and I tell her sometimes it doesn't look quite respectful to speak to her husband as if he were part of the alphabet.” Grandma Cobb, if the truth had been told, was always in a state of covert rebellion against her daughter.
Grandma Cobb was always dressed in a black silk gown which seemed sumptuous to the women of our village. They could scarcely reconcile it with the statement that the Jamesons had lost their money. Black silk of a morning was stupendous to them, when they reflected how they had, at the utmost, but one black silk, and that guarded as if it were cloth of gold, worn only upon the grandest occasions, and designed, as they knew in their secret hearts, though they did not proclaim it, for their last garment of earth. Grandma Cobb always wore a fine lace cap also, which should, according to the opinions of the other old ladies of the village, have been kept sacred for other women's weddings or her own funeral. She used her best gold-bowed spectacles every day, and was always leaving them behind her in the village houses, and little Tommy or Annie had to run after her with a charge not to lose them, for nobody knew how much they cost.
Grandma Cobb always carried about with her a paper-covered novel and a box of cream peppermints. She ate the peppermints and freely bestowed them upon others; the novel she never read. She said quite openly that she only carried it about to please her daughter, who had literary tastes. “She belongs to a Shakespeare Club, and a Browning Club, and a Current Literature Club,” said Grandma Cobb.
We concluded that she had, feeling altogether incapable of even carrying about Shakespeare and Browning, compromised with peppermints and current literature.
“That book must be current literature,” said Mrs. Ketchum one day, “but I looked into it when she was at our house, and I should not want Adeline to read it.”
After a while people looked upon Grandma Cobb's book with suspicion; but since she always carried it, thereby keeping it from her grandchildren, and never read it, we agreed that it could not do much harm.
The very first time that I saw Grandma Cobb, at Caroline Liscom's, she had that book. I knew it by the red cover and a baking-powder advertisement on the back; and the next time also—that was at the seventeenth-of-June picnic.
The whole Jameson family went to the picnic, rather to our surprise. I think people had a fancy that Mrs. H. Boardman Jameson would be above our little rural picnic. We had yet to understand Mrs. Jameson, and learn that, however much she really held herself above and aloof, she had not the slightest intention of letting us alone, perhaps because she thoroughly believed in her own nonmixable quality. Of course it would always be quite safe for oil to go to a picnic with water, no matter how exclusive it might be.
The picnic was in Leonard's grove, and young and old were asked. The seventeenth-of-June picnic is a regular institution in our village. I went with Louisa, and little Alice in her new white muslin dress; the child had been counting on it for weeks. We were nearly all assembled when the Jamesons arrived. Half a dozen of us had begun to lay the table for luncheon, though we were not to have it for an hour or two. We always thought it a good plan to make all our preparations in season. We were collecting the baskets and boxes, and it did look as if we were to have an unusual feast that year. Those which we peeped into appeared especially tempting. Mrs. Nathan Butters had brought a great loaf of her rich fruit cake, a kind for which she is famous in the village, and Mrs. Sim White had brought two of her whipped-cream pies. Mrs. Ketchum had brought six mince pies, which were a real rarity in June, and Flora Clark had brought a six-quart pail full of those jumbles she makes, so rich that if you drop one it crumbles to pieces. Then there were two great pinky hams and a number of chickens. Louisa and I had brought a chicken; we had one of ours killed, and I had roasted it the day before.
I remarked to Mrs. Ketchum that we should have an unusually nice dinner; and so we should have had if it had not been for Mrs. H. Boardman Jameson.
The Jamesons came driving into the grove in the Liscom carryall and their buggy. Mr. Jacob Liscom was in charge of the carryall, and the Jameson boy was on the front seat with him; on the back seat were Grandma, or Madam Cobb, and the younger daughter. Harry Liscom drove the bay horse in the buggy, and Mrs. Jameson and Harriet were with him, he sitting between them, very uncomfortably, as it appeared—his knees were touching the dasher, as he is a tall young man.
Caroline Liscom did not come, and I did not wonder at it for one. She must have thought it a good chance to rest one day from taking boarders. We were surprised that Mrs. Jameson, since she is such a stout woman, did not go in the carryall, and let either her younger daughter or the boy go with Harry and Harriet in the buggy. We heard afterward that she thought it necessary that she should go with them as a chaperon. That seemed a little strange to us, since our village girls were all so well conducted that we thought nothing of their going buggy-riding with a good young man like Harry Liscom; he is a church member and prominent in the Sunday-school, and this was in broad daylight and the road full of other carriages. So people stared and smiled a little to see Harry driving in with his knees braced against the dasher, and the buggy canting to one side with the weight of Mrs. H. Boardman Jameson. He looked rather shamefaced, I thought, though he is a handsome, brave young fellow, and commonly carries himself boldly enough. Harriet Jameson looked very pretty, though her costume was not, to my way of thinking, quite appropriate. However, I suppose that she was not to blame, poor child, and it may easily be more embarrassing to have old fine clothes than old poor ones. Really, Harriet Jameson would have looked better dressed that day in an old calico gown than the old silk one which she wore. Her waist was blue silk with some limp chiffon at the neck and sleeves, and her skirt was old brown silk all frayed at the bottom and very shiny. There were a good many spots on it, too, and some mud stains, though it had not rained for two weeks.
However, the girl looked pretty, and her hair was done with a stylish air, and she wore her old Leghorn hat, with its wreath of faded French flowers, in a way which was really beyond our girls.
And as for Harry Liscom, it was plain enough to be seen that, aside from his discomfiture at the close attendance of Mrs. H. Boardman Jameson, he was blissfully satisfied and admiring. I was rather sorry to see it on his account, though I had nothing against the girl. I think, on general principles, that it is better usually for a young man of our village to marry one of his own sort; that he has a better chance of contentment and happiness. However, in this case it seemed quite likely that there would be no chance of married happiness at all. It did not look probable that Mrs. H. Boardman Jameson would smile upon her eldest daughter's marriage with the son of “a good woman,” and I was not quite sure as to what Caroline Liscom would say.
Mr. Jacob Liscom is a pleasant-faced, mild-eyed man, very tall and slender. He lifted out the Jameson boy, who did not jump out over the wheel, as boys generally do when arriving at a picnic, and then he tipped over the front seat and helped out Madam Cobb, and the younger daughter, whose name was Sarah. We had not thought much of such old-fashioned names as Harriet and Sarah for some years past in our village, and it seemed rather odd taste in these city people. We considered Hattie and Sadie much prettier. Generally the Harriets and Sarahs endured only in the seclusion of the family Bible and the baptismal records. Quite a number of the ladies had met Mrs. Jameson, having either called at Mrs. Liscom's and seen her there, or having spoken to her at church; and as for Grandma Cobb, she had had time to visit nearly every house in the village, as I knew, though she had not been to mine. Grandma Cobb got out, all smiling, and Jacob Liscom handed her the box of peppermints and the paper-covered novel, and then Harry Liscom helped out Harriet and her mother.
Mrs. Jameson walked straight up to us who were laying the table, and Harry followed her with a curiously abashed expression, carrying a great tin cracker-box in one hand and a large basket in the other. We said good-morning as politely as we knew how to Mrs. Jameson, and she returned it with a brisk air which rather took our breaths away, it was so indicative of urgent and very pressing business. Then, to our utter astonishment, up she marched to the nearest basket on the table and deliberately took off the cover and began taking out the contents. It happened to be Mrs. Nathan Butters' basket. Mrs. Jameson lifted out the great loaf of fruit cake and set it on the table with a contemptuous thud, as it seemed to us; then she took out a cranberry pie and a frosted apple pie, and set them beside it. She opened Mrs. Peter Jones' basket next, and Mrs. Jones stood there all full of nervous twitches and saw her take out a pile of ham sandwiches and a loaf of chocolate cake and a bottle of pickles. She went on opening the baskets and boxes one after another, and we stood watching her. Finally she came to the pail full of jumbles, and her hand slipped and the most of them fell to the ground and were a mass of crumbles.
Then Mrs. Jameson spoke; she had not before said a word. “These are enough to poison the whole village,” said she, and she sniffed with a proud uplifting of her nose.
I am sure that a little sound, something between a groan and a gasp, came from us, but no one spoke. I felt that it was fortunate, and yet I was almost sorry that Flora Clark, who made those jumbles, was not there; she had gone to pick wild flowers with her Sunday-school class. Flora is very high-spirited and very proud of her jumbles, and I knew that she would not have stood it for a minute to hear them called poison. There would certainly have been words then and there, for Flora is afraid of nobody. She is a smart, handsome woman, and would have been married long ago if it had not been for her temper.
Mrs. Jameson did not attempt to gather up the jumbles; she just went on after that remark of hers, opening the rest of the things; there were only one or two more. Then she took the cracker-box which Harry had brought; he had stolen away to put up his horse, and it looked to me very much as if Harriet had stolen away with him, for I could not see her anywhere.
Mrs. Jameson lifted this cracker-box on to the table and opened it. It was quite full of thick, hard-looking biscuits, or crackers. She laid them in a pile beside the other things; then she took up the basket and opened that. There was another kind of a cracker in that, and two large papers of something. When everything was taken out she pointed at the piles of eatables on the table, and addressed us: “Ladies, attention!” rapping slightly with a spoon at the same time. Her voice was very sweet, with a curious kind of forced sweetness: “Ladies, attention! I wish you to carefully observe the food upon the table before us. I wish you to consider it from the standpoint of wives and mothers of families. There is the food which you have brought, unwholesome, indigestible; there is mine, approved of by the foremost physicians and men of science of the day. For ten years I have had serious trouble with the alimentary canal, and this food has kept me in strength and vigor. Had I attempted to live upon your fresh biscuits, your frosted cakes, your rich pastry, I should be in my grave. One of those biscuits which you see there before you is equal in nourishment to six of your indigestible pies, or every cake upon the table. The great cause of the insanity and dyspepsia so prevalent among the rural classes is rich pie and cake. I feel it my duty to warn you. I hope, ladies, that you will consider carefully what I have said.”
With that, Mrs. Jameson withdrew herself a little way and sat down under a tree on a cushion which had been brought in the carryall. We looked at one another, but we did not say anything for a few minutes.
Finally, Mrs. White, who is very good-natured, remarked that she supposed that she meant well, and she had better put her pies back in the basket or they would dry up. We all began putting back the things which Mrs. Jameson had taken out, except the broken jumbles, and were very quiet. However, we could not help feeling astonished and aggrieved at what Mrs. Jameson had said about the insanity and dyspepsia in our village, since we could scarcely remember one case of insanity, and very few of us had to be in the least careful as to what we ate. Mrs. Peter Jones did say in a whisper that if Mrs. Jameson had had dyspepsia ten years on those hard biscuits it was more than any of us had had on our cake and pie. We left the biscuits, and the two paper packages which Mrs. Jameson had brought, in a heap on the table just where she had put them.
After we had replaced the baskets we all scattered about, trying to enjoy ourselves in the sweet pine woods, but it was hard work, we were so much disturbed by what had happened. We wondered uneasily, too, what Flora Clark would say about her jumbles. We were all quiet, peaceful people who dreaded altercation; it made our hearts beat too fast. Taking it altogether, we felt very much as if some great, overgrown bird of another species had gotten into our village nest, and we were in the midst of an awful commotion of strange wings and beak. Still we agreed that Mrs. Jameson had probably meant well.
Grandma Cobb seemed to be enjoying herself. She was moving about, her novel under her arm and her peppermint box in her hand, holding up her gown daintily in front. She spoke to everybody affably, and told a number confidentially that her daughter was very delicate about her eating, but she herself believed in eating what you liked. Harriet and Harry Liscom were still missing, and so were the younger daughter, Sarah, and the boy. The boy's name, by the way, was Cobb, his mother's maiden name. That seemed strange to us, but it possibly would not have seemed so had it been a prettier name.
Just before lunch-time Cobb and his sister Sarah appeared, and they were in great trouble. Jonas Green, who owns the farm next the grove, was with them, and actually had Cobb by the hair, holding all his gathered-up curls tight in his fist. He held Sarah by one arm, too, and she was crying. Cobb was crying, too, for that matter, and crying out loud like a baby.
Jonas Green is a very brusque man, and he did look as angry as I had ever seen any one, and when I saw what those two were carrying I did not much wonder. Their hands were full of squash blossoms and potato blossoms, and Jonas Green's garden is the pride of his life.
Jonas Green marched straight up to Mrs. Jameson under her tree, and said in a loud voice: “Ma'am, if this boy and girl are yours I think it is about time you taught them better than to tramp through folks' fields picking things that don't belong to them, and I expect what I've lost in squashes and potatoes to be made good to me.”
We all waited, breathless, and Mrs. Jameson put on her eyeglasses and looked up. Then she spoke sweetly.
“My good man,” said she, “if, when you come to dig your squashes, you find less than usual, and when you come to pick your potatoes the bushes are not in as good condition as they generally are, you may come to me and I will make it right with you.”
Mrs. Jameson spoke with the greatest dignity and sweetness, and we almost felt as if she were the injured party, in spite of all those squash and potato blossoms. As for Jonas Green, he stared at her for the space of a minute, then he gave a loud laugh, let go of the boy and girl, and strode away. We heard him laughing to himself as he went; all through his life the mention of potato bushes and digging squashes was enough to send him into fits of laughter. It was the joke of his lifetime, for Jonas Green had never been a merry man, and it was probably worth more than the vegetables which he had lost. I pitied Cobb and Sarah, they were so frightened, and got hold of them myself and comforted them. Sarah was just such another little timid, open-mouthed, wide-eyed sort of thing as her brother, and they were merely picking flowers, as they supposed.
“I never saw such beautiful yellow flowers,” Sarah said, sobbing and looking ruefully at her great bouquet of squash blossoms. This little Sarah, who was only twelve, and very small and childish for her age, said sooner and later many ignorant, and yet quaintly innocent things about our country life, which were widely repeated. It was Sarah who said, when she was offered some honey at a village tea-drinking, “Oh, will you please tell me what time you drive home your bees? and do they give honey twice a day like the cows?” It was Sarah who, when her brother was very anxious to see the pigs on Mr. White's farm, said, “Oh, be quiet, Cobb, dear; it is too late tonight; the pigs must have gone into their holes.”
I think poor Cobb and Sarah might have had a pleasant time at the picnic, after all—for my little Alice made friends with them, and Mrs. Sim White's Charlie—had it not been for their mother's obliging them to eat her hygienic biscuits for their luncheons. It was really pitiful to see them looking so wistfully at the cake and pie. I had a feeling of relief that all the rest of us were not obliged to make our repast of hygienic bread. I had a fear lest Mrs. Jameson might try to force us to do so. However, all she did was to wait until we were fairly started upon our meal, and then send around her children with her biscuits, following them herself with the most tender entreaties that we would put aside that unwholesome food and not risk our precious lives. She would not, however, allow us to drink our own coffee—about that she was firm. She insisted upon our making some hygienic coffee which she had brought from the city, and we were obliged to yield, or appear in a very stubborn and ungrateful light. The coffee was really very good, and we did not mind. The other parcel which she had brought contained a health food, to be made into a sort of porridge with hot water, and little cups of that were passed around, Mrs. Jameson's face fairly beaming with benevolence the while, and there was no doubt that she was entirely in earnest.
Still, we were all so disturbed—that is, all of us elder people—that I doubt if anybody enjoyed that luncheon unless it was Grandma Cobb. She did not eat hygienic biscuits, but did eat cake and pie in unlimited quantities. I was really afraid that she would make herself ill with Mrs. Butter's fruit cake. One thing was a great relief, to me at least: Flora Clark did not know the true story of her jumbles until some time afterward. Mrs. White told her that the pail had been upset and they were broken, and we were all so sorry; and she did not suspect. We were glad to avoid a meeting between her and Mrs. Jameson, for none of us felt as if we could endure it then.
I suppose the young folks enjoyed the picnic if we did not, and that was the principal thing to be considered, after all. I know that Harry Liscom and Harriet Jameson enjoyed it, and all the more that it was a sort of stolen pleasure. Just before we went home I was strolling off by myself near the brook, and all of a sudden saw the two young things under a willow tree. I stood back softly, and they never knew that I was there, but they were sitting side by side, and Harry's arm was around the girl's waist, and her head was on his shoulder, and they were looking at each other as if they saw angels, and I thought to myself that, whether it was due to hygienic bread or pie, they were in love—and what would Mrs. H. Boardman Jameson and Caroline Liscom say?