Aunt Philippa and the Men
by Lucy Maud Montgomery
I knew quite well why Father sent me to Prince Edward Island to visit Aunt Philippa that summer. He told me he was sending me there “to learn some sense”; and my stepmother, of whom I was very fond, told me she was sure the sea air would do me a world of good. I did not want to learn sense or be done a world of good; I wanted to stay in Montreal and go on being foolish—and make up my quarrel with Mark Fenwick. Father and Mother did not know anything about this quarrel; they thought I was still on good terms with him—and that is why they sent me to Prince Edward Island.
I was very miserable. I did not want to go to Aunt Philippa’s. It was not because I feared it would be dull—for without Mark, Montreal was just as much of a howling wilderness as any other place. But it was so horribly far away. When the time came for Mark to want to make up—as come I knew it would—how could he do it if I were seven hundred miles away?
Nevertheless, I went to Prince Edward Island. In all my eighteen years I had never once disobeyed Father. He is a very hard man to disobey. I knew I should have to make a beginning some time if I wanted to marry Mark, so I saved all my little courage up for that and didn’t waste any of it opposing the visit to Aunt Philippa.
I couldn’t understand Father’s point of view. Of course, he hated old John Fenwick, who had once sued him for libel and won the case. Father had written an indiscreet editorial in the excitement of a red-hot political contest—and was made to understand that there are some things you can’t say of another man even at election time. But then, he need not have hated Mark because of that; Mark was not even born when it happened.
Old John Fenwick was not much better pleased about Mark and me than Father was, though he didn’t go to the length of forbidding it; he just acted grumpily and disagreeably. Things were unpleasant enough all round without a quarrel between Mark and me; yet quarrel we did—and over next to nothing, too, you understand. And now I had to set out for Prince Edward Island without even seeing him, for he was away in Toronto on business.
When my train reached Copely the next afternoon, Aunt Philippa was waiting for me. There was nobody else in sight, but I would have known her had there been a thousand. Nobody but Aunt Philippa could have that determined mouth, those piercing grey eyes, and that pronounced, unmistakable Goodwin nose. And certainly nobody but Aunt Philippa would have come to meet me arrayed in a wrapper of chocolate print with huge yellow roses scattered over it, and a striped blue-and-white apron!
She welcomed me kindly but absent-mindedly, her thoughts evidently being concentrated on the problem of getting my trunk home. I had only the one, and in Montreal it had seemed to be of moderate size; but on the platform of Copely station, sized up by Aunt Philippa’s merciless eye, it certainly looked huge.
“I thought we could a-took it along tied on the back of the buggy,” she said disapprovingly, “but I guess we’ll have to leave it, and I’ll send the hired boy over for it tonight. You can get along without it till then, I s’pose?”
There was a fine irony in her tone. I hastened to assure her meekly that I could, and that it did not matter if my trunk could not be taken up till next day.
“Oh, Jerry can come for it tonight as well as not,” said Aunt Philippa, as we climbed into her buggy. “I’d a good notion to send him to meet you, for he isn’t doing much today, and I wanted to go to Mrs. Roderick MacAllister’s funeral. But my head was aching me so bad I thought I wouldn’t enjoy the funeral if I did go. My head is better now, so I kind of wish I had gone. She was a hundred and four years old and I’d always promised myself that I’d go to her funeral.”
Aunt Philippa’s tone was melancholy. She did not recover her good spirits until we were out on the pretty, grassy, elm-shaded country road, garlanded with its ribbon of buttercups. Then she suddenly turned around and looked me over scrutinizingly.
“You’re not as good-looking as I expected from your picture, but them photographs always flatter. That’s the reason I never had any took. You’re rather thin and brown. But you’ve good eyes and you look clever. Your father writ me you hadn’t much sense, though. He wants me to teach you some, but it’s a thankless business. People would rather be fools.”
Aunt Philippa struck her steed smartly with the whip and controlled his resultant friskiness with admirable skill.
“Well, you know it’s pleasanter,” I said, wickedly. “Just think what a doleful world it would be if everybody were sensible.”
Aunt Philippa looked at me out of the corner of her eye and disdained any skirmish of flippant epigram.
“So you want to get married?” she said. “You’d better wait till you’re grown up.”
“How old must a person be before she is grown up?” I asked gravely.
“Humph! That depends. Some are grown up when they’re born, and others ain’t grown up when they’re eighty. That same Mrs. Roderick I was speaking of never grew up. She was as foolish when she was a hundred as when she was ten.”
“Perhaps that’s why she lived so long,” I suggested. All thought of seeking sympathy in Aunt Philippa had vanished. I resolved I would not even mention Mark’s name.
“Mebbe ’twas,” admitted Aunt Philippa with a grim smile. “I’d rather live fifty sensible years than a hundred foolish ones.”
Much to my relief, she made no further reference to my affairs. As we rounded a curve in the road where two great over-arching elms met, a buggy wheeled by us, occupied by a young man in clerical costume. He had a pleasant boyish face, and he touched his hat courteously. Aunt Philippa nodded very frostily and gave her horse a quite undeserved cut.
“There’s a man you don’t want to have much to do with,” she said portentously. “He’s a Methodist minister.”
“Why, Auntie, the Methodists are a very nice denomination,” I protested. “My stepmother is a Methodist, you know.”
“No, I didn’t know, but I’d believe anything of a stepmother. I’ve no use for Methodists or their ministers. This fellow just came last spring, and it’s my opinion he smokes. And he thinks every girl who looks at him falls in love with him—as if a Methodist minister was any prize! Don’t you take much notice of him, Ursula.”
“I’ll not be likely to have the chance,” I said, with an amused smile.
“Oh, you’ll see enough of him. He boards at Mrs. John Callman’s, just across the road from us, and he’s always out sunning himself on her verandah. Never studies, of course. Last Sunday they say he preached on the iron that floated. If he’d confine himself to the Bible and leave sensational subjects alone it would be better for him and his poor congregation, and so I told Mrs. John Callman to her face. I should think she would have had enough of his sex by this time. She married John Callman against her father’s will, and he had delirious trembles for years. That’s the men for you.”
“They’re not all like that, Aunt Philippa,” I protested.
“Most of ’em are. See that house over there? Mrs. Jane Harrison lives there. Her husband took tantrums every few days or so and wouldn’t get out of bed. She had to do all the barn work till he’d got over his spell. That’s men for you. When he died, people writ her letters of condolence but I just sot down and writ her one of congratulation. There’s the Presbyterian manse in the hollow. Mr. Bentwell’s our minister. He’s a good man and he’d be a rather nice one if he didn’t think it was his duty to be a little miserable all the time. He won’t let his wife wear a fashionable hat, and his daughter can’t fix her hair the way she wants to. Even being a minister can’t prevent a man from being a crank. Here’s Ebenezer Milgrave coming. You take a good look at him. He used to be insane for years. He believed he was dead and used to rage at his wife because she wouldn’t bury him. I’d a-done it.”
Aunt Philippa looked so determinedly grim that I could almost see her with a spade in her hand. I laughed aloud at the picture summoned up.
“Yes, it’s funny, but I guess his poor wife didn’t find it very humorsome. He’s been pretty sane for some years now, but you never can tell when he’ll break out again. He’s got a brother, Albert Milgrave, who’s been married twice. They say he was courting his second wife while his first was dying. Let that be as it may, he used his first wife’s wedding ring to marry the second. That’s the men for you.”
“Don’t you know any good husbands, Aunt Philippa?” I asked desperately.
“Oh, yes, lots of ’em—over there,” said Aunt Philippa sardonically, waving her whip in the direction of a little country graveyard on a distant hill.
“Yes, but living—walking about in the flesh?”
“Precious few. Now and again you’ll come across a man whose wife won’t put up with any nonsense and he has to be respectable. But the most of ’em are poor bargains—poor bargains.”
“And are all the wives saints?” I persisted.
“Laws, no, but they’re too good for the men,” retorted Aunt Philippa, as she turned in at her own gate. Her house was close to the road and was painted such a vivid green that the landscape looked faded by contrast. Across the gable end of it was the legend, “Philippa’s Farm,” emblazoned in huge black letters two feet long. All its surroundings were very neat. On the kitchen doorstep a patchwork cat was making a grave toilet. The groundwork of the cat was white, and its spots were black, yellow, grey, and brown.
“There’s Joseph,” said Aunt Philippa. “I call him that because his coat is of many colours. But I ain’t no lover of cats. They’re too much like the men to suit me.”
“Cats have always been supposed to be peculiarly feminine,” I said, descending.
“‘Twas a man that supposed it, then,” retorted Aunt Philippa, beckoning to her hired boy. “Here, Jerry, put Prince away. Jerry’s a good sort of boy,” she confided to me as we went into the house. “I had Jim Spencer last summer and the only good thing about him was his appetite. I put up with him till harvest was in, and then one day my patience give out. He upsot a churnful of cream in the back yard—and was just as cool as a cowcumber over it—laughed and said it was good for the land. I told him I wasn’t in the habit of fertilizing my back yard with cream. But that’s the men for you. Come in. I’ll have tea ready in no time. I sot the table before I left. There’s lemon pie. Mrs. John Cantwell sent it over. I never make lemon pie myself. Ten years ago I took the prize for lemon pies at the county fair, and I’ve never made any since for fear I’d lose my reputation for them.”
The first month of my stay passed not unpleasantly. The summer weather was delightful, and the sea air was certainly splendid. Aunt Philippa’s little farm ran right down to the shore, and I spent much of my time there. There were also several families of cousins to be visited in the farmhouses that dotted the pretty, seaward-sloping valley, and they came back to see me at “Philippa’s Farm.” I picked spruce gum and berries and ferns, and Aunt Philippa taught me to make butter. It was all very idyllic—or would have been if Mark had written. But Mark did not write. I supposed he must be very angry because I had run off to Prince Edward Island without so much as a note of goodbye. But I had been so sure he would understand!
Aunt Philippa never made any further reference to the reason Father had sent me to her, but she allowed no day to pass without holding up to me some horrible example of matrimonial infelicity. The number of unhappy wives who walked or drove past “Philippa’s Farm” every afternoon, as we sat on the verandah, was truly pitiable.
We always sat on the verandah in the afternoon, when we were not visiting or being visited. I made a pretence of fancy work, and Aunt Philippa spun diligently on a little old-fashioned spinning-wheel that had been her grandmother’s. She always sat before the wood stand which held her flowers, and the gorgeous blots of geranium blossom and big green leaves furnished a pretty background. She always wore her shapeless but clean print wrappers, and her iron-grey hair was always combed neatly down over her ears. Joseph sat between us, sleeping or purring. She spun so expertly that she could keep a close watch on the road as well, and I got the biography of every individual who went by. As for the poor young Methodist minister, who liked to read or walk on the verandah of our neighbour’s house, Aunt Philippa never had a good word for him. I had met him once or twice socially and had liked him. I wanted to ask him to call but dared not—Aunt Philippa had vowed he should never enter her house.
“If I was dead and he came to my funeral I’d rise up and order him out,” she said.
“I thought he made a very nice prayer at Mrs. Seaman’s funeral the other day,” I said.
“Oh, I’ve no doubt he can pray. I never heard anyone make more beautiful prayers than old Simon Kennedy down at the harbour, who was always drunk or hoping to be—and the drunker he was the better he prayed. It ain’t no matter how well a man prays if his preaching isn’t right. That Methodist man preaches a lot of things that ain’t true, and what’s worse they ain’t sound doctrine. At least, that’s what I’ve heard. I never was in a Methodist church, thank goodness.”
“Don’t you think Methodists go to heaven as well as Presbyterians, Aunt Philippa?” I asked gravely.
“That ain’t for us to decide,” said Aunt Philippa solemnly. “It’s in higher hands than ours. But I ain’t going to associate with them on earth, whatever I may have to do in heaven. The folks round here mostly don’t make much difference and go to the Methodist church quite often. But I say if you are a Presbyterian, be a Presbyterian. Of course, if you ain’t, it don’t matter much what you do. As for that minister man, he has a grand-uncle who was sent to the penitentiary for embezzlement. I found out that much.”
And evidently Aunt Philippa had taken an unholy joy in finding it out.
“I dare say some of our own ancestors deserved to go to the penitentiary, even if they never did,” I remarked. “Who is that woman driving past, Aunt Philippa? She must have been very pretty once.”
“She was—and that was all the good it did her. ‘Favour is deceitful and beauty is vain,’ Ursula. She was Sarah Pyatt and she married Fred Proctor. He was one of your wicked, fascinating men. After she married him he give up being fascinating but he kept on being wicked. That’s the men for you. Her sister Flora weren’t much luckier. Her man was that domineering she couldn’t call her soul her own. Finally he couldn’t get his own way over something and he just suicided by jumping into the well. A good riddance—but of course the well was spoiled. Flora could never abide the thought of using it again, poor thing. That’s men for you.
“And there’s that old Enoch Allan on his way to the station. He’s ninety if he’s a day. You can’t kill some folks with a meat axe. His wife died twenty years ago. He’d been married when he was twenty so they’d lived together for fifty years. She was a faithful, hard-working creature and kept him out of the poorhouse, for he was a shiftless soul, not lazy, exactly, but just too fond of sitting. But he weren’t grateful. She had a kind of bitter tongue and they did use to fight scandalous. O’ course it was all his fault. Well, she died, and old Enoch and my father drove together to the graveyard. Old Enoch was awful quiet all the way there and back, but just afore they got home, he says solemnly to Father: ‘You mayn’t believe it, Henry, but this is the happiest day of my life.’ That’s men for you. His brother, Scotty Allan, was the meanest man ever lived in these parts. When his wife died she was buried with a little gold brooch in her collar unbeknownst to him. When he found it out he went one night to the graveyard and opened up the grave and the casket to get that brooch.”
“Oh, Aunt Philippa, that is a horrible story,” I cried, recoiling with a shiver over the gruesomeness of it.
“‘Course it is, but what would you expect of a man?” retorted Aunt Philippa.
Somehow, her stories began to affect me in spite of myself. There were times when I felt very dreary. Perhaps Aunt Philippa was right. Perhaps men possessed neither truth nor constancy. Certainly Mark had forgotten me. I was ashamed of myself because this hurt me so much, but I could not help it. I grew pale and listless. Aunt Philippa sometimes peered at me sharply, but she held her peace. I was grateful for this.
But one day a letter did come from Mark. I dared not read it until I was safely in my own room. Then I opened it with trembling fingers.
The letter was a little stiff. Evidently Mark was feeling sore enough over things. He made no reference to our quarrel or to my sojourn in Prince Edward Island. He wrote that his firm was sending him to South Africa to take charge of their interests there. He would leave in three weeks’ time and could not return for five years. If I still cared anything for him, would I meet him in Halifax, marry him, and go to South Africa with him? If I would not, he would understand that I had ceased to love him and that all was over between us.
That, boiled down, was the gist of Mark’s letter. When I had read it I cast myself on the bed and wept out all the tears I had refused to let myself shed during my weeks of exile.
For I could not do what Mark asked—I could not. I couldn’t run away to be married in that desolate, unbefriended fashion. It would be a disgrace. I would feel ashamed of it all my life and be unhappy over it. I thought that Mark was rather unreasonable. He knew what my feelings about run-away marriages were. And was it absolutely necessary for him to go to South Africa? Of course his father was behind it somewhere, but surely he could have got out of it if he had really tried.
Well, if he went to South Africa he must go alone. But my heart would break.
I cried the whole afternoon, cowering among my pillows. I never wanted to go out of that room again. I never wanted to see anybody again. I hated the thought of facing Aunt Philippa with her cold eyes and her miserable stories that seemed to strip life of all beauty and love of all reality. I could hear her scornful, “That’s the men for you,” if she heard what was in Mark’s letter.
“What is the matter, Ursula?”
Aunt Philippa was standing by my bed. I was too abject to resent her coming in without knocking.
“Nothing,” I said spiritlessly.
“If you’ve been crying for three mortal hours over nothing you want a good spanking and you’ll get it,” observed Aunt Philippa placidly, sitting down on my trunk. “Get right up off that bed this minute and tell me what the trouble is. I’m bound to know, for I’m in your father’s place at present.”
“There, then!” I flung her Mark’s letter. There wasn’t anything in it that it was sacrilege to let another person see. That was one reason why I had been crying.
Aunt Philippa read it over twice. Then she folded it up deliberately and put it back in the envelope.
“What are you going to do?” she asked in a matter-of-fact tone.
“I’m not going to run away to be married,” I answered sullenly.
“Well, no, I wouldn’t advise you to,” said Aunt Philippa reflectively. “It’s a kind of low-down thing to do, though there’s been a terrible lot of romantic nonsense talked and writ about eloping. It may be a painful necessity sometimes, but it ain’t in this case. You write to your young man and tell him to come here and be married respectable under my roof, same as a Goodwin ought to.”
I sat up and stared at Aunt Philippa. I was so amazed that it is useless to try to express my amazement.
“Aunt—Philippa,” I gasped. “I thought—I thought—”
“You thought I was a hard old customer, and so I am,” said Aunt Philippa. “But I don’t take my opinions from your father nor anybody else. It didn’t prejudice me any against your young man that your father didn’t like him. I knew your father of old. I have some other friends in Montreal and I writ to them and asked them what he was like. From what they said I judged he was decent enough as men go. You’re too young to be married, but if you let him go off to South Africa he’ll slip through your fingers for sure, and I s’pose you’re like some of the rest of us—nobody’ll do you but the one. So tell him to come here and be married.”
“I don’t see how I can,” I gasped. “I can’t get ready to be married in three weeks. I can’t—”
“I should think you have enough clothes in that trunk to do you for a spell,” said Aunt Philippa sarcastically. “You’ve more than my mother ever had in all her life. We’ll get you a wedding dress of some kind. You can get it made in Charlottetown, if country dressmakers aren’t good enough for you, and I’ll bake you a wedding cake that’ll taste as good as anything you could get in Montreal, even if it won’t look so stylish.”
“What will Father say?” I questioned.
“Lots o’ things,” conceded Aunt Philippa grimly. “But I don’t see as it matters when neither you nor me’ll be there to have our feelings hurt. I’ll write a few things to your father. He hasn’t got much sense. He ought to be thankful to get a decent young man for his son-in-law in a world where most every man is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But that’s the men for you.”
And that was Aunt Philippa for you. For the next three weeks she was a blissfully excited, busy woman. I was allowed to choose the material and fashion of my wedding suit and hat myself, but almost everything else was settled by Aunt Philippa. I didn’t mind; it was a relief to be rid of all responsibility; I did protest when she declared her intention of having a big wedding and asking all the cousins and semi-cousins on the island, but Aunt Philippa swept my objections lightly aside.
“I’m bound to have one good wedding in this house,” she said. “Not likely I’ll ever have another chance.”
She found time amid all the baking and concocting to warn me frequently not to take it too much to heart if Mark failed to come after all.
“I know a man who jilted a girl on her wedding day. That’s the men for you. It’s best to be prepared.”
But Mark did come, getting there the evening before our wedding day. And then a severe blow fell on Aunt Philippa. Word came from the manse that Mr. Bentwell had been suddenly summoned to Nova Scotia to his mother’s deathbed; he had started that night.
“That’s the men for you,” said Aunt Philippa bitterly. “Never can depend on one of them, not even on a minister. What’s to be done now?”
“Get another minister,” said Mark easily.
“Where’ll you get him?” demanded Aunt Philippa. “The minister at Cliftonville is away on his vacation, and Mercer is vacant, and that leaves none nearer than town. It won’t do to depend on a town minister being able to come. No, there’s no help for it. You’ll have to have that Methodist man.”
Aunt Philippa’s tone was tragic. Plainly she thought the ceremony would scarcely be legal if that Methodist man married us. But neither Mark nor I cared. We were too happy to be disturbed by any such trifles.
The young Methodist minister married us the next day in the presence of many beaming guests. Aunt Philippa, splendid in black silk and point-lace collar, neither of which lost a whit of dignity or lustre by being made ten years before, was composure itself while the ceremony was going on. But no sooner had the minister pronounced us man and wife than she spoke up.
“Now that’s over I want someone to go right out and put out the fire on the kitchen roof. It’s been on fire for the last ten minutes.”
Minister and bridegroom headed the emergency brigade, and Aunt Philippa pumped the water for them. In a short time the fire was out, all was safe, and we were receiving our deferred congratulations.
“Now, young man,” said Aunt Philippa solemnly as she shook hands with Mark, “don’t you ever try to get out of this, even if a Methodist minister did marry you.”
She insisted on driving us to the train and said goodbye to us as we stood on the car steps. She had caught more of the shower of rice than I had, and as the day was hot and sunny she had tied over her head, atop of that festal silk dress, a huge, home-made, untrimmed straw hat. But she did not look ridiculous. There was a certain dignity about Aunt Philippa in any costume and under any circumstance.
“Aunt Philippa,” I said, “tell me this: why have you helped me to be married?”
The train began to move.
“I refused once to run away myself, and I’ve repented it ever since.” Then, as the train gathered speed and the distance between us widened, she shouted after us, “But I s’pose if I had run away I’d have repented of that too.”