by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Perdita and Other Stories. By Ella Wheeler Wilcox.
It was the night before Thanksgiving. Aunt
Tabitha sat knitting a blue woollen sock. Uncle Joel was poring over
the column of patent-medicine advertisements, which he found a never-failing
source of entertainment and delight. Janet, their spinster daughter,
was washing the supper-dishes, and the rattling of teacups and saucers,
spoons and forks mingled with the sort of domestic melody, which was presently
interrupted by a long-drawn sigh and an ejaculation from the lips of Miss
Janet of ---
Now, as no one had spoken for full five minutes, such
an exclamation seemed somewhat irrelevant and one necessitating an explanation.
But neither Uncle Joel nor Aunt Tabitha expressed any surprise, or indeed
seemed to notice Janet's ejaculation. The truth was, this was but
one of the many idiosyncrasies of this most peculiar family.
Aunt Tabitha Smith was designed by heaven for the sphere
of an old maid. Her prim ideas of propriety, her severe criticisms,
her aggressive cleanliness and order, and her limited idea of human nature
and needs, all fitted her for the calling of a spinster of the most approved
In some moment of weakness, never accounted for, and through
some impulse inexplicable to himself and to all who knew them, Uncle Joel
Smith had persuaded her to forsake her predestined vocation and assume
the duties of a wife and mother.
But, as is frequently the case with a career cut short
or turned aside from its natural course, or with talents hindered and restrained
in one generation, they culminate and flower in the next.
Aunt Tabitha had not been allowed to fulfil her destiny;
but her daughter Janet was completing it for her in the most approved manner.
A more perfect specimen of the spinster it would be difficult to conceive.
To be sure, she was only twenty-five--an age which in
these days is considered the very morning of youth; an age far more attractive
to the average man of the period than sixteen or eighteen--just as the
ripe peach is more appetizing than its fair blossom.
But Janet had been a spinster at fifteen; at twenty she
was a confirmed old maid. She cared nothing for the pleasures of
youth, preferring her round of domestic duties to any festivity; and by
her primness, her reserve, and her odd little whims, keeping all possible
suitors at a safe distance; and when I say safe, I mean it in the full
sense of the term. For it would have been a rash and reckless youth
who had ventured into the presence of "Aunt Tabitha," as Mrs. Smith was
generally known, to woo her daughter.
Despite the evident fact that she herself had been wooed
and won, Aunt Tabitha denounced all lovers as "miserable fools," and she
received the reports of neighborhood marriages with the same denunciatory
phrases which she bestowed upon other crimes. For Aunt Tabitha seemed
to have little pity in her composition for the world of misdoers.
She was of the severest type of grim old Puritan stock. She planned
and executed her life on the most austere principles, and felt no sympathy
for those who deviated in the least from her ideas of propriety.
Endearing words and caresses between friends or members
of a family she considered weak, if not vulgar; and Janet would as soon
have thought of striking her mother as kissing her. Uncle Joel, who
had once been a man of warm affections, had learned years ago to repress
any impulse of demonstration toward wife or children.
After a child could walk and talk, Aunt Tabitha considered
it too old to kiss or fondle; and rather than listen to her caustic criticisms
and sarcastic rebukes, he concealed his natural feelings of affections,
even toward his own children, and turned his thoughts--like many a woman--for
lack of something else to occupy his mind, to his physical ailments.
He was a man of delicate physique, and his aches and pains
became his pets, which he could coddle to his heart's content in spite
of Aunt Tabitha.
Janet, who had cut her life by the pattern of her mother's
ideas, was, according to Aunt Tabitha's thinking, a model personage, sensible,
and free from all nonsense.
If Janet ever had longings or aspirations beyond her narrow
and colorless life, no one knew it.
And her frequent and audible ejaculation of "Oh, yes,"
seemed an utterance of approval and satisfaction at her own discreet and
As she wiped the last dish out of scalding water, Uncle
"'Over ten thousand testimonials have been received from
sufferers who have been
cured by the Gallopin' Pain Pacifier.' Over ten thousand! That
is a great many people to be cured by one remedy. There must be something
in it if it cures ten thousand suffering people."
"They ought to be ashamed of themselves," proclaimed Aunt
Tabitha, who had no patience with Uncle Joel's patent-medicine mania.
There was a quick step on the walk, a mellow whistle in
the hallway, and the door burst open as if a strong wind had blown it.
A handsome, stalwart young man of twenty, with curling, chestnut hair,
and warm, brown eyes, strode across the room, after banging the door behind
him, and throwing his cap into the corner, and clasping Janet about the
neck, placed a sounding kiss upon either cheek.
Janet gave a little feminine shriek, and struggled to
"For shame, John!" cried Aunt Tabitha, "what coarse manners
you have fallen into lately! You should treat your sister with more
John's boyish face clouded, and a suspicious mist came
into his brown eyes. He threw himself face downward on a lounge which
stood at one end of the room.
"A nice greeting for a fellow who has been gone two weeks
from home," he said. "A sweet scolding to give him because he kisses
his own sister."
"You are too old to conduct yourself like children," Aunt
Tabitha answered sternly. "I think kissing and hugging altogether
out of place among grown people, and very coarse and underbred. You
could shake hand with Janet, and show your pleasure at seeing her quite
John lay in a moody silence, his handsome mouth quivering.
"Who is coming here to-morrow?" he asked; presently.
"Oh, Aunt Mary, Uncle John, Cousin Sarah and her children--that's
all, I believe."
"Why don't you invite Gerty Denvers?" John ventured, in
a low voice. "She has no home, and no relatives, and it will be a
dull day for her."
"Well, then it better be," spoke Aunt Tabitha, making
a great clatter with her knitting-needles. "What is she to us,
I'd like to know? I think you have made the family conspicuous enough
by racing around with that dressmaker's apprentice during the last two
months, without our inviting her here to Thanksgiving."
John rose to a sitting posture, the mist in his eyes dried
by their flashing fire.
"She is a sweet, beautiful girl, and she is a dressmaker's
apprentice," he said, "and I love her with all my heart."
"'Should try Gallopin' Pain Pacifier,'" read Uncle Joel
aloud to himself. He was so accustomed to these tilts and controversies
between John and his mother, that he paid little attention to them.
For John was wholly unlike Janet, and the trial of Tabitha's
life. He was full of warm, young blood, and craving for affection,
demonstrative and irrepressible. The strict home rules oppressed
him and depressed him. He wanted more sunlight, more mirth, more
gayety, and more love in the household. But his mother rebuked him,
and Janet shrieked if he offered her a brotherly caress. Never since
he was four years old, and donned his first pair of trousers, had his mother
ever kissed him, voluntarily.
She cooked, baked, washed, and ironed for him, she took
care of his body and his brain, but she let his heart starve within him,
and was angry that it cried aloud for food, and because it was not given
at home he sought for it abroad.
At first he fed the fire of his boyish heart with lovers
of his own sex. Tom and Bill and Charley all reigned their season
as his dearest friends and comrades, who shared his full heart's lavish
wealth of affection. Why he should so idealize and idolize these
common boys, and seek their society and sing their praises, Aunt Tabitha
could not understand. She did not realize that his heart craved more
than was given by that cold, Puritan household, and that he must seek it
But by and by, when he transferred his worship to idols
of the opposite sex, and sang their praises, and became their adject slave,
Aunt Tabitha's indignation knew no bounds.
"That a son of mine should be such a spooney," she would
cry. "Runnin' after girls at his age, sittin' with 'em evenin's when
he ought to be abed and asleep--it's a shame an' a disgrace."
But the more Aunt Tabitha scolded and railed at John and
his inamoratas, the less he remained at home. He worked diligently
in the field by day, ate his meals in silence, and was off to the village
in the evening. And all Tabitha's sarcasms were of no avail.
As for Uncle Joel, his sympathies were with John; he had once been young
himself, and he had been fond of youthful sports, and a great gallant among
the girls. Yet he had too great a fear of Tabitha's tongue to venture
a voice in the matter. He did not like to take any responsibility
upon his shoulders which he could avoid. And so he kept discreetly
silent, and let the war wage as it would, while he found refuge behind
the column of newspaper advertisements.
Aunt Tabitha's face flushed angrily as John made the bold
assertion of his love for Gerty Denvers.
"You'd better make yourself still more ridiculous," she
said, "and announce your passion to the girl. She may be fool enough
to marry you, and then you will reach the end of your folly, and come to
your senses, perhaps. I'm sick of having you running after her."
"If I got any love at home, may be I would not have to
seek abroad for it," John said, as he seized his hat and left the house.
They did not see him again until the next morning--Thanksgiving
morning. Then he stood before them, tall, handsome, pale, determined.
"I am going to take your advice, mother," he said, "and
marry Gerty Denvers. The minister is waiting to perform the ceremony
now. She has no home and no friends, and we love each other.
Do you want me to bring my wife home to Thanksgiving dinner? She
doesn't expect to live here; she is going to stay in the shop and keep
Aunt Tabitha grew pale with anger.
"I want you to take your simpleton of a wife and go where
I will never see you again," she said. "If you choose to disgrace
us, I don't want to have the evidence before my eyes daily."
"Very well, I will go," he said. He turned and left
the house. Twenty-four hours later he and his young bride had left
Janet broke into tears when the report was brought to
"John did nothing so very wrong, mother," she sobbed,
"that he should have been turned out of doors."
"Wrong?" Aunt Tabitha responded sternly. "He has
disgraced himself and us by marrying at his age. Why could he not
behave himself as well as you have done? Why did he need love that
he could not get here, any more than you need it? Were you
not children of the same parents? He was always defying me, always
neglecting his home for other people, always going against my rules.
He was never a proper child like you. Let him make a home for himself,
and don't let me see you shedding tears over him again."
So Janet said no more about him, only sighed, "Oh, yes,"
more frequently over her dishes and mending; for now she knew that, despite
her disapproval of his demonstrative manner, John had been necessary to
her happiness, and she was lonely without him.
Uncle Joel grew more and more in the habit of petting
his ailments, and talking of his complaints, and studying the advertisements
for remedies. And he aged rapidly after John went away.
The old farm ran down, and the place grew sadly out of
Uncle Joel had never been a very energetic man, and he
seemed to have lost all ambition when John left him alone. Aunt Tabitha
urged him to repair the fence, and repaint the house, and stay the little
leaks which were reducing them from independence to poverty- But
Uncle Joel said, "Wait till next year, Tabby." And to Janet and some
of his confidential neighbors he added, "John will be coming home pretty
soon, and he'll fix things up."
But John did not come.
So the years went by until nearly fifteen had gone since
that Thanksgiving morning so long ago. And they never heard from
John in all those years.
It was October. There was a shadow of gloom over
the Smith household. Uncle Joel had become thoroughly shiftless and
inefficient, thinking only of his aches and pains.
Aunt Tabitha's heretofore vigorous constitution seemed
breaking down, and all the work and care of farm and household rested upon
She stood washing up the supper dishes again, while her
mother lay half asleep in her easy-chair, and Uncle Joel was whispering
behind his newspaper.
Janet had changed the least of the three during this decade
and a half of years. She was the same prim, precise little old maid
that she had been during her whole life. Perhaps there was a line
or two more about the mouth and eyes, but never having had any youth or
freshness, she had none to lose.
"We need somebody to husk the corn and dig the potatoes,
father," she said presently. "It is getting late in the year.
I wish we could have help for a few weeks. I can't do everything."
"Tabby, didn't I hear your complainin' of feeling a pain
in your back and limbs this morning?" asked Uncle Joel from behind his
"Yes. I don't understand it," Aunt Tabitha responded
from the depths of her great chair. "I feel so dull and lifeless,
"Well, I've just found a new and infallible remedy for
those symptoms--'The Electric Eradicator. Only one dollar per bottle;
for sale by all druggists.' You might send down and see if Johnson
keeps it at the village. I know he used to keep a supply of the Gallopin'
Pain Pacifier; but The Electric Eradicator is said to be much better.
It has cured thousands who suffer as you do."
"They were great fools to be cured by the stuff," was
Aunt Tabitha's reply. "All I need is a little mint-tea."
A timid knock sounded at the door. Janet wiped her
hands on her apron, and opened the door cautiously a little way.
Janet always responded to a knock, night or day, in this
extremely cautious fashion, as if she feared being seized bodily and carried
away, after the manner of the Sabine women, by the person without.
But it was a very small and weary-looking Roman whom she
espied through the crack of the door to-night. A moment's conversation
ensued; then Janet closed the door and spoke to her mother.
"A little boy wants lodging and supper," she said.
"He has walked a long distance to-day, and is looking for work."
"Some young tramp, I suppose, who will murder us all in
our beds," responded Aunt Tabitha. "He ought to be in better business
than wandering about the country."
"He is trying to get into better business," said
Janet, whose heart was more easily touched than her mother's. "He
looks as if he needed rest and food."
"'Can be restored by the Electric Eradicator,'" continued
Uncle Joel, unmindful of the parley at the door, so occupied was he with
the testimonials of sufferers.
"Guess he'd better come in," said Janet; "he may be willing
to husk our corn;" and she opened the door just wide enough to admit an
undersized boy of twelve or fourteen years, and then quickly closed it
lest a regiment of ferocious Romans should follow.
"Take a chair, little boy, and I will give you a bite
"There's the mouldy cheese I said was spoiling to-day--put
that on," said Aunt Tabitha, whose economy had grown into parsimony with
adversity. And then, as if ashamed of herself, and moved by some
sudden impulse of pity toward the tired stranger, she arose, and with her
own hands prepared him a generous repast.
"What might your name be, and where have you travelled
from?" asked Uncle Joel, laying aside his interesting testimonials to question
"My name's John Smith, sir, and I came from town this
"John Smith, hey? Well, that's a good enough name,"
laughed Uncle Joel. "Though I should hate to advertise ye, hoping
to find ye by that name alone, ef I lost ye. A good many men hev
had that name. An orphan?"
"My mother is alive; she's sewing in town. I couldn't
get work there, and mother thought the winter was coming on, and I'd better
try and get a place on a farm to work for my board, maybe, till spring.
It's awful expensive living in town."
"Father dead, I suppose."
"We fear so, sir. It's nine years since mother saw
him. He went to California to seek his fortune. He sent mother
money, off and on, till two years ago. Since then she's never heard
from him. We think he must be dead. Mother gets along with
her sewing, but she is not very well now, and she's always worryin' about
me. She's afraid she'll die and leave me alone in the city; so she
told me to go out in the country and learn to farm."
"Better keep him to do chores this winter, father," whispered
Janet. "We need help, and we can't afford to hire."
"Well, just as you and mother say," responded Uncle Joel,
returning to his newspaper, glad to avoid this responsibility, as he had
all others possible through life.
"Poor shiftless creeters! his parents, not to have anything
saved up," muttered Tabitha. "But you'd better keep him. He'll
be handy, and it'll save paying anything out; and a growin' boy 'll eat
So John stayed, and wonderfully handy he did prove, outdoor
and in, until each of the trio wondered how they had lived without him.
And John grew fat and rosy in spite of Aunt Tabitha's
Janet rejected a sun-browned potato one day which she
had taken on her plate.
"If you can't eat it, save it for John," said Tabitha.
Yet when John came in, tired and hungry, she again prepared him a generous
"Somehow, John's face reminds me of some one," mused Uncle
Joel, one evening. "Doesn't it you, Tabby?"
But Tabitha only answered abruptly:
"Don't be a fool, Joel!" and knit with more than usual
vigor; while Janet heaved a sigh over her basket of mending, and said:
But Tabitha was more than usually kind, almost tender,
in her manner to John that night.
The day before Thanksgiving found Aunt Tabitha in a high
fever. She grew delirious, and wanted John constantly in her sight,
and she talked wildly.
"I am glad you came back," she said, over and over.
It has been a long, long time since you went away, and I have missed you
so, all these years. You must promise me never to go again, John--never!"
And little John would promise, wondering.
The village physician shook his head and looked puzzled
when questioned by Uncle Joel.
"She seems to be breaking down," he said, "as if under
a long mental strain."
"Nerves, I suppose," Uncle Joel said; "women are made
of nerves. And this new discovery, this Electric Eradicator, is just
the thing for nervous complaints. Thousands give their testimonials.
But Tabitha is dreadfully set against patent medicines."
"She's sensible there," responded the physician.
"Poisonous drugs kill more people every year than--than--"
"Than the doctors?" queried Uncle Joel, with a chuckle.
"Very good, very good, Uncle Joel," laughed the doctor.
"You are not so slow after all. But about your good wife, her case
puzzles me. I really am alarmed about her. Medicine doesn't
seem to reach her disease. That boy seems to remind her of something
or of somebody. Let him stay by her. Sometimes the mind is
so centred upon some object of the affections that nothing else can fill
"Oh, yes," sighed Janet, coming up from the cellar with
a pan of potatoes, and thinking what a dreary, dreary Thanksgiving day
it was to be.
Somebody rapped. The doctor, standing near the door,
opened it. A big man rushed in, and clasped Janet in his arms, kissing
her most vigorously.
Janet screamed and struggled feebly. The thought
dashed through her mind that her hour had come. In allowing the doctor
to go to the door caution had been forfeited, and the Sabine maiden, so
long protected by Providence and her own prudence, was captured at last.
But she remembered how useless it was to resist, so she only screamed,
and after one faint struggle resigned herself to her fate. All this
flashed through Miss Janet's mind in a second's time, of course, as dying
people recall the events of a lifetime.
In another second Janet found herself free, and gazing
into the face of--John Smith, her brother!
It was not a Roman soldier, after all.
"Here's something better than The Electric Eradicator,
Tabitha," said Uncle Joel, as he led John to her bedside.
"There, I never believed father would own anything
was better than his last new patent medicine," half sobbed Janet.
"You are wonderfully complimented, John."
And Aunt Tabitha actually clung about John's neck and
kissed him--an act which caused Uncle Joel to stare in amazement.
"If you'd only done that years ago he'd never have gone
away," he muttered sotto voce as he turned away. "Affection
and kisses are as necessary to some natures--as--as--"
"As sunlight to plants," suggested the doctor, helping
him out with a simile, and looking at Janet.
"Oh, yes," sighed Janet.
And just then little John Smith, who had been sent out
on an errand, returned, and big John Smith caught him in his arms, crying
out, "My boy, my darling boy!"
And then everybody began to ask questions, and pretty
soon they all were made to understand that little John Smith was big John
Smith's son! and that little John Smith had been sent out into the country
by his mother, hoping he would find a place in the hearts of his grandparents
before she died and left him an orphan; and that big John Smith had miraculously
returned with pockets full of gold after his long exile from his home,
to find his wife grieving for him as for one dead, and she had sent him
to bring back her boy; but instead she was brought back to the old
homestead; and such a happy, happy Thanksgiving day as it proved to them
And Aunt Tabitha recovered, and kissed big John and little
John every day of her life afterward. For she and Uncle Joel went
to live with them--John and his wife would have it so.
And Janet? Why the good old doctor who was a lonely
widower, admiring Janet's thrift and energy, proposed to her that very
Thanksgiving day to come and cheer his declining years; and Janet, in spite
of her hereditary aptitude for the sphere of a spinster, sighed, "Oh, yes,"
and the doctor accepted it as an answer to his proposal, whether Janet
had meant it so or not.
When she was married, and about to leave her old home
and go with her husband, Uncle Joel took her aside.
"Here is a bottle of the Electric Eradicator," he said,
in a confidential tone. "Your man, bein' a doctor, is dreadfully
sot againt such things, and likely as not you might be pizened with a lot
of his long-named drugs, when a leetle dose of this would be all you needed.
So I thought I'd give you a bottle to keep. Needn't say anything
to the doctor about it, you know."
New York : J.S. Ogilvie and Co., 1886.