The Maunderings of Old Mrs. Ochiltree

When Mrs. Carteret had fully recovered from the shock attendant upon the accident at the window, where little Dodie had so narrowly escaped death or serious injury, she ordered her carriage one afternoon and directed the coachman to drive her to Mrs. Ochiltree’s.

Mrs. Carteret had discharged her young nurse only the day before, and had sent for Mammy Jane, who was now recovered from her rheumatism, to stay until she could find another girl. The nurse had been ordered not to take the child to negroes’ houses. Yesterday, in driving past the old homestead of her husband’s family, now occupied by Dr. Miller and his family, Mrs. Carteret had seen her own baby’s carriage standing in the yard.

When the nurse returned home, she was immediately discharged. She offered some sort of explanation, to the effect that her sister worked for Mrs. Miller, and that some family matter had rendered it necessary for her to see her sister. The explanation only aggravated the offense: if Mrs. Carteret could have overlooked the disobedience, she would by no means have retained in her employment a servant whose sister worked for the Miller woman.

Old Mrs. Ochiltree had within a few months begun to show signs of breaking up. She was over seventy years old, and had been of late, by various afflictions, confined to the house much of the time. More than once within the year, Mrs. Carteret had asked her aunt to come and live with her; but Mrs. Ochiltree, who would have regarded such a step as an acknowledgment of weakness, preferred her lonely independence. She resided in a small, old-fashioned house, standing back in the middle of a garden on a quiet street. Two old servants made up her modest household.

This refusal to live with her niece had been lightly borne, for Mrs. Ochiltree was a woman of strong individuality, whose comments upon her acquaintance, present or absent, were marked by a frankness at times no less than startling. This characteristic caused her to be more or less avoided. Mrs. Ochiltree was aware of this sentiment on the part of her acquaintance, and rather exulted in it. She hated fools. Only fools ran away from her, and that because they were afraid she would expose their folly. If most people were fools, it was no fault of hers, and she was not obliged to indulge them by pretending to believe that they knew anything. She had once owned considerable property, but was reticent about her affairs, and told no one how much she was worth, though it was supposed that she had considerable ready money, besides her house and some other real estate. Mrs. Carteret was her nearest living relative, though her grandnephew Tom Delamere had been a great favorite with her. If she did not spare him her tongue-lashings, it was nevertheless expected in the family that she would leave him something handsome in her will.

Mrs. Ochiltree had shared in the general rejoicing upon the advent of the Carteret baby. She had been one of his godmothers, and had hinted at certain intentions held by her concerning him. During Mammy Jane’s administration she had tried the old nurse’s patience more or less by her dictatorial interference. Since her partial confinement to the house, she had gone, when her health and the weather would permit, to see the child, and at other times had insisted that it be sent to her in charge of the nurse at least every other day.

Mrs. Ochiltree’s faculties had shared insensibly in the decline of her health. This weakness manifested itself by fits of absentmindedness, in which she would seemingly lose connection with the present, and live over again, in imagination, the earlier years of her life. She had buried two husbands, had tried in vain to secure a third, and had never borne any children. Long ago she had petrified into a character which nothing under heaven could change, and which, if death is to take us as it finds us, and the future life to keep us as it takes us, promised anything but eternal felicity to those with whom she might associate after this life. Tom Delamere had been heard to say, profanely, that if his Aunt Polly went to heaven, he would let his mansion in the skies on a long lease, at a low figure.

When the carriage drove up with Mrs. Carteret, her aunt was seated on the little front piazza, with her wrinkled hands folded in her lap, dozing the afternoon away in fitful slumber.

“Tie the horse, William,” said Mrs. Carteret, “and then go in and wake Aunt Polly, and tell her I want her to come and drive with me.”

Mrs. Ochiltree had not observed her niece’s approach, nor did she look up when William drew near. Her eyes were closed, and she would let her head sink slowly forward, recovering it now and then with a spasmodic jerk.

“Colonel Ochiltree,” she muttered, “was shot at the battle of Culpepper Court House, and left me a widow for the second time. But I would not have married any man on earth after him.”

“Mis’ Ochiltree!” cried William, raising his voice, “oh, Mis’ Ochiltree!”

“If I had found a man⁠—a real man⁠—I might have married again. I did not care for weaklings. I could have married John Delamere if I had wanted him. But pshaw! I could have wound him round”⁠—

“Go round to the kitchen, William,” interrupted Mrs. Carteret impatiently, “and tell Aunt Dinah to come and wake her up.”

William returned in a few moments with a fat, comfortable looking black woman, who curtsied to Mrs. Carteret at the gate, and then going up to her mistress seized her by the shoulder and shook her vigorously.

“Wake up dere, Mis’ Polly,” she screamed, as harshly as her mellow voice would permit. “Mis’ ’Livy wants you ter go drivin’ wid ’er!”

“Dinah,” exclaimed the old lady, sitting suddenly upright with a defiant assumption of wakefulness, “why do you take so long to come when I call? Bring me my bonnet and shawl. Don’t you see my niece waiting for me at the gate?”

“Hyuh dey is, hyuh dey is!” returned Dinah, producing the bonnet and shawl, and assisting Mrs. Ochiltree to put them on.

Leaning on William’s arm, the old lady went slowly down the walk, and was handed to the rear seat with Mrs. Carteret.

“How’s the baby today, Olivia, and why didn’t you bring him?”

“He has a cold today, and is a little hoarse,” replied Mrs. Carteret, “so I thought it best not to bring him out. Drive out the Weldon road, William, and back by Pine Street.”

The drive led past an eminence crowned by a handsome brick building of modern construction, evidently an institution of some kind, surrounded on three sides by a grove of venerable oaks.

“Hugh Poindexter,” Mrs. Ochiltree exclaimed explosively, after a considerable silence, “has been building a new house, in place of the old family mansion burned during the war.”

“It isn’t Mr. Poindexter’s house, Aunt Polly. That is the new colored hospital built by the colored doctor.”

“The new colored hospital, indeed, and the colored doctor! Before the war the negroes were all healthy, and when they got sick we took care of them ourselves! Hugh Poindexter has sold the graves of his ancestors to a negro⁠—I should have starved first!”

“He had his grandfather’s grave opened, and there was nothing to remove, except a few bits of heart-pine from the coffin. All the rest had crumbled into dust.”

“And he sold the dust to a negro! The world is upside down.”

“He had the tombstone transferred to the white cemetery, Aunt Polly, and he has moved away.”

“Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. When I die, if you outlive me, Olivia, which is not likely, I shall leave my house and land to this child! He is a Carteret⁠—he would never sell them to a negro. I can’t trust Tom Delamere, I’m afraid.”

The carriage had skirted the hill, passing to the rear of the new building.

“Turn to the right, William,” ordered Mrs. Carteret, addressing the coachman, “and come back past the other side of the hospital.”

A turn to the right into another road soon brought them to the front of the building, which stood slightly back from the street, with no intervening fence or enclosure. A sorrel pony in a light buggy was fastened to a hitching-post near the entrance. As they drove past, a lady came out of the front door and descended the steps, holding by the hand a very pretty child about six years old.

“Who is that woman, Olivia?” asked Mrs. Ochiltree abruptly, with signs of agitation.

The lady coming down the steps darted at the approaching carriage a look which lingered involuntarily.

Mrs. Carteret, perceiving this glance, turned away coldly.

With a sudden hardening of her own features the other woman lifted the little boy into the buggy and drove sharply away in the direction opposite to that taken by Mrs. Carteret’s carriage.

“Who is that woman, Olivia?” repeated Mrs. Ochiltree, with marked emotion.

“I have not the honor of her acquaintance,” returned Mrs. Carteret sharply. “Drive faster, William.”

“I want to know who that woman is,” persisted Mrs. Ochiltree querulously. “William,” she cried shrilly, poking the coachman in the back with the end of her cane, “who is that woman?”

“Dat’s Mis’ Miller, ma’am,” returned the coachman, touching his hat; “Doctuh Miller’s wife.”

“What was her mother’s name?”

“Her mother’s name wuz Julia Brown. She’s be’n dead dese twenty years er mo’. Why, you knowed Julia, Mis’ Polly!⁠—she used ter b’long ter yo’ own father befo’ de wah; an’ after de wah she kep’ house fer”⁠—

“Look to your horses, William!” exclaimed Mrs. Carteret sharply.

“It’s that hussy’s child,” said Mrs. Ochiltree, turning to her niece with great excitement. “When your father died, I turned the mother and the child out into the street. The mother died and went to⁠—the place provided for such as she. If I hadn’t been just in time, Olivia, they would have turned you out. I saved the property for you and your son! You can thank me for it all!”

“Hush, Aunt Polly, for goodness’ sake! William will hear you. Tell me about it when you get home.”

Mrs. Ochiltree was silent, except for a few incoherent mumblings. What she might say, what distressing family secret she might repeat in William’s hearing, should she take another talkative turn, was beyond conjecture.

Olivia looked anxiously around for something to distract her aunt’s attention, and caught sight of a colored man, dressed in sober gray, who was coming toward the carriage.

“There’s Mr. Delamere’s Sandy!” exclaimed Mrs. Carteret, touching her aunt on the arm. “I wonder how his master is? Sandy, oh, Sandy!”

Sandy approached the carriage, lifting his hat with a slight exaggeration of Chesterfieldian elegance. Sandy, no less than his master, was a survival of an interesting type. He had inherited the feudal deference for his superiors in position, joined to a certain self-respect which saved him from sycophancy. His manners had been formed upon those of old Mr. Delamere, and were not a bad imitation; for in the man, as in the master, they were the harmonious reflection of a mental state.

“How is Mr. Delamere, Sandy?” asked Mrs. Carteret, acknowledging Sandy’s salutation with a nod and a smile.

“He ain’t ez peart ez he has be’n, ma’am,” replied Sandy, “but he’s doin’ tol’able well. De doctuh say he’s good fer a dozen years yit, ef he’ll jes’ take good keer of hisse’f an’ keep f’m gittin’ excited; fer sence dat secon’ stroke, excitement is dange’ous fer ’im.”

“I’m sure you take the best care of him,” returned Mrs. Carteret kindly.

“You can’t do anything for him, Sandy,” interposed old Mrs. Ochiltree, shaking her head slowly to emphasize her dissent. “All the doctors in creation couldn’t keep him alive another year. I shall outlive him by twenty years, though we are not far from the same age.”

“Lawd, ma’am!” exclaimed Sandy, lifting his hands in affected amazement⁠—his study of gentle manners had been more than superficial⁠—“whoever would ’a’ s’picion’ dat you an’ Mars John wuz nigh de same age? I’d ’a’ ’lowed you wuz ten years younger ’n him, easy, ef you wuz a day!”

“Give my compliments to the poor old gentleman,” returned Mrs. Ochiltree, with a simper of senile vanity, though her back was weakening under the strain of the effort to sit erect that she might maintain this illusion of comparative youthfulness. “Bring him to see me some day when he is able to walk.”

“Yas’m, I will,” rejoined Sandy. “He’s gwine out ter Belleview nex’ week, fer ter stay a mont’ er so, but I’ll fetch him ’roun’ w’en he comes back. I’ll tell ’im dat you ladies ’quired fer ’im.”

Sandy made another deep bow, and held his hat in his hand until the carriage had moved away. He had not condescended to notice the coachman at all, who was one of the young negroes of the new generation; while Sandy regarded himself as belonging to the quality, and seldom stooped to notice those beneath him. It would not have been becoming in him, either, while conversing with white ladies, to have noticed a colored servant. Moreover, the coachman was a Baptist, while Sandy was a Methodist, though under a cloud, and considered a Methodist in poor standing as better than a Baptist of any degree of sanctity.

“Lawd, Lawd!” chuckled Sandy, after the carriage had departed, “I never seed nothin’ lack de way dat ole lady do keep up her temper! Wid one foot in de grave, an’ de other hov’rin’ on de edge, she talks ’bout my ole marster lack he wuz in his secon’ chil’hood. But I’m jes’ willin’ ter bet dat he’ll outlas’ her! She ain’t half de woman she wuz dat night I waited on de table at de christenin’ pa’ty, w’en she ’lowed she wuzn’ feared er no man livin’.”