The Quilting Party

Excerpt from “Queechy” 1852

By Susan Warner

     Miss Anastastia was a little surprised and a good deal gratified, Fleda saw, by her coming, and played the hostess with great benignity. The quilting-frame was stretched in an upper room, not in the long kitchen, to Fleda’s joy, most of the company were already seated at it, and she had to go through a long string of introduction before she was permitted to take her place. First of all Earl Douglass’s wife, who rose up and taking both Fleda’s hands squeezed and shook them heartily, giving her with eye and lip a most genial welcome. This lady had every look of being a very clever woman, a “manager” she was said to be, and indeed her very nose had a little pinch which prepared one for nothing superfluous about her. Even her dress could not have wanted another breath from the skirt and had no fullness to spare about the body. Neat as a pin though, and a well-to-do look through it all. Miss Quackenboss Fleda recognized as an old friend, gilt beads and all. Catherine Douglass had grown up to a pretty girl during the five years since Fleda left Queechy, and gave her a greeting half smiling, half shy. There was a little more affluence about the flow of her drapery, and the pink ribbon round her neck was confined by a little dainty Jew’s harp of a brooch, she had her mother’s pinch of the nose, too. Then there were two other young ladies, -- Miss Letitia Ann Thornton, a tall grown girl in pantalettes, evidently a would-be aristocrat from the air of her head and lip, with a well-looking face and looking well knowing of the same, and sporting neat little white cuffs at her wrists, the only one who bore such a distinction. The third of these damsels, June Healy, impressed Fleda with having been brought up upon coarse meat and having grown heavy in consequence, the other two were extremely fair and delicate, both in complexion and feature. Her aunt Syra Fleda recognized without particular pleasure and managed to seat herself at the quilt with the sewing-women and Miss Hannah-between them. Miss Lucy Finn she found seated at her right hand, but after all the civilities she had just gone through Fleda had not the courage just then to dash into business with her, and Miss Lucy herself stitched away and was dumb.

     So were the rest of the party rather. The presence of the newcomer seemed to have the effect of a spell. Fleda could not think they had been as silent before her joining them as they were for some time afterwards. The young ladies were absolutely mute, and conversation seemed to flag even among the elder ones, and if Fleda raised her eyes from the quilt to look at somebody she was sure to see somebody’s eyes looking at her, with a curiosity well enough defined and mixed with a more or less amount of benevolence and pleasure. Fleda was growing very industrious and feeling her cheeks grow warm, when the checked stream of conversation began to take revenge by turning its tide upon her.

     “Are you glad to be back to Queechy, Fleda?” Said Mrs. Douglass from the opposite far end of the table.

     “Yes, ma’am,” said Fleda, smiling back her answer, -- “on some accounts.”

     “Ain’t she growed like her father, Mis’ Douglass?” said the sewing-women. “Do you recollect Walter Ringgan -- what a handsome feller he was?”

     The two opposite girls immediately found something to say to each other.

     “She ain’t a bit more like him than she is like her mother,” said Mrs. Douglass, bitting off the end of her thread energetically. “Amy Ringgan was a sweet good woman as ever was in this town.”

     Again her daughter’s glance and smile went over to the speaker.

     “You stay in Queechy and live like Queechy folks do,” Mrs. Douglass added, nodding encouragingly, ”and you’ll beat both on ‘em.”

     But this speech jarred, and Fleda wished it had not been spoken.

     “How does your uncle like farming?” said Aunt Syra.

     A home-thrust, which Fleda parried by saying he had hardly got accustomed to it yet.

     “What’s been his business? What has he been doing all his life till now?” said the sewing-women.

     Fleda replied that he had had no business, and after the minds of the company had had time to entertain this statement she was startled by Miss Lucy’s voice at her elbow.

     “It seems kind o’ curious, don’t it, that a man should live to be forty or fifty years old and not know anything of the earth he gets his bread from?”

     “What makes you think he don’t?” said Miss Thornton rather tartly.

     “She wa’n’t speaking o’ nobody,” said Aunt Syra.

     “I was -- I was speaking of man -- I was speaking abstractly,” said Fleda’s right hand neighbor.

     “What’s abstractly?” said Miss Anastastia scornfully.

     “Where do you get hold of such hard words, Lucy?” said Mrs. Douglass.

     “I don’t know, Mis’ Douglass, -- they come to me, -- it’s practice, I suppose. I had no intention of being obscure.”

     “One kind o’ word’s as easy as-another I suppose, when you’re used to it, ain’t it?" said the sewing-woman.

     “That’s abstractly?” said the mistress of the house again.

     “Look in the dictionary, if you want to know,” said her sister.

     “I don’t want to know -- I only want you to tell.”

     “When do you get time for it, Lucy? Ha’n’t you nothing else to practice?” persued Mrs. Douglass.

     “Yes, Mis’ Douglass, but then there are times for exertion, and other times less disposable, and when I feel thoughtful, or low, I commonly retire to my room and contemplate the stars or write a composition.”

     The sewing-women greeted this speech with an unqualified ha! ha! and Fleda involuntarily raised her head to look at the last speaker, but there was nothing to be noticed about her, except that she was in rather more order than the rest of the Finn family.

     “Did you get home safe-last night?” inquired Miss Quackenboss, bending forward over the quilt to look down to Fleda.

     Fleda thanked her, and replied that they had been overturned and had several ribs broken.

     “And where have you been, Fleda, all this while?” said Mrs. Douglass.

     Fleda told, upon which all the quilting party raised their heads simultaneously to take another review of her.

     “Your uncle’s wife ain’t a Frenchwoman, be she?” asked the sewing-woman.

     Fleda said “Oh no”-- and Miss Quackenboss remarked that “she thought she wa’n’t,“ whereby Fleda perceived that it had been a subject of discussion.

     “She lives like one, don’t she?” asked Aunt Syra.

     Which imputation Fleda also refuted to the best of her power.

     “Well, don’t she have dinner in the middle of the afternoon?” pursued Aunt Syra.

     Fleda was obliged to admit that.

     “And she can’t eat without she has a fresh piece of roast meat on the table every day, can she?”

     “It is not always roast.” said Fleda, half vexed and half laughing.

     “I’d rather have a good dish o’ bread and ‘lasses than the hull on’t.” observed old Mrs. Finn, from the corner where she sat manifestly turning up her nose at the far-off joints on Mrs. Rossitur’s dinner-table.

     The girls on the other side of the quilt again held counsel together, deep and low.

     “Well didn’t she pick up all them notions in that place yonder? -- Where you say she has been?” Aunt Syra went on.

     “No,” said Fleda “everybody does so in New York.”

     “I want to know what kind of a place New York is, now,” said old Mrs. Finn drawlingly. "I s’pose it’s pretty big, ain’t it?”

     Fleda replied that it was.

     “I shouldn’t wonder if it was a’most as far as from here to Queechy Run, now, ain’t it?”

     The distance mentioned being somewhere about one-eighth of New York’s longest diameter, Fleda answered that it was quite as far.

     “I s’pose there’s plenty o’ mighty rich folks there, ain’t there?”

     “Plenty, I believe.” said Fleda.

     “I should hate to live in awfully!” was the old woman’s conclusion.

     “I should admire to travel in many countries,” said Miss Lucy, for the first time seeming to intend her words particularly for Fleda’s ear. “I think nothing makes people more genteel. I have observed it frequently.”

     Fleda said it was very pleasant, but though encouraged by this opening could not muster enough courage to ask if Miss Lucy had a “notion” to come and prove their gentility. Her next question was startling, -- if Fleda had ever studied mathematics.

     “No,” said Fleda “have you?”

     “0 my, yes! There was a lot of us concluded we would learn it, and we commenced to study it a long time ago. I think it’s a most elevating --.”

     The discussion was suddenly broken off, for the sewing-woman exclaimed as the other sister came in and took her seat,

     “Why Hannah! You ha’n’t been makin’ bread with that crock on your hands!”

     “Well Mis. Barnes!” said the girl, -- “I’ve washed ‘em, and I’ve made ‘bread with ‘em, and even that didn’t toke it off.”

     “Do you look at the stars, too, Hannah?” said Mrs. Douglass.

     Amidst a small hubbub of laugh and talk which now became general, poor Fleda fell back upon one single thought -- one wish, that Hugh would come to fetch her home before tea-time. But it was a vain hope. Hugh was not to be there till sundown, and supper was announced long before that. They all filed down, and Fleda with them, to the great kitchen below stair and she found herself placed in the seat of honour indeed, but an honour she would gladly have escaped, at Miss Anastasia’s right hand, a temporary locked-jaw would have been felt a blessing. Fleda dared hardly even look about her, but under the eye of her hostess the instinct of good breeding was found sufficient to swallow everything, literally and figuratively. There was a good deal to swallow. The usual variety of cakes, sweetmeats, beef, cheese, biscuits, and pies, was set out with some peculiarity of arrangement which Fleda had never seen before, and which left that of Miss Quackenboss elegant by comparison. Down each side of the table ran an advanced guard of little sauces, in Indian file, but in companies of three, the file leader of each being a saucer of custard the follower a ditto of preserves, and the third keeping o sharp lookout in the shape of pickles, and to Fleda’s unspeakable horror she discovered that the guests were expected to help themselves at will from these several stores with their own spoons, transferring what they took either to their own plates or at once to its final destination, which last mode several of the company preferred, The advantage of this plan was the necessary display of the new silver teaspoons which Mrs. Douglass slyly hinted to Aunt Syra were the moving cause of the tee-party. But Aunt Syra swallowed sweetmeats and would not give heed.

     There was no relief for poor Fleda. Aunt Syra was her next neighbor and opposite to her, at Miss Anastasia’s left hand, was the disagreeable countenance and peering eyes of the old crone her mother, Fleda kept her own eyes fixed upon her plate and endeavoured to see nothing but that.

     “Why here’s Fleda ain’t eating anything,” said Mrs. Douglass. “wont you have some preserves? Take some custard, do! -- Anastasy, she ha’n’t a spoon -- no wonder!”

     Fleda had secretly conveyed hers under cover.

     “There was one” said Miss Anastasia looking about where one should have been, -- “I’ll get another as soon as I give Mis. Springer her tea.”

     “Ha’n’t you got enough to go around?” said the old woman plucking at her daughter’s sleeve, “Anastasy! -- ha’n’t you got enough to go round?”

     This speech which was spoken with a most spiteful simplicity Miss Anastasia answered with super-silence, and presently produced spoons enough to satisfy herself and the company. But Fleda! No earthly persuasion could prevail upon her to touch pickles, sweetmeats, or custard that evening, and even on the bread and cakes she had a vision of hands before her that took away her appetite. She endeavoured to make a show with hung beef and cups of tea, which indeed was not Pouchong, but her supper came suddenly to an end upon a remark of her hostess, addressed to the whole table, that they needn’t be surprised if they found any bits of pudding in the gingerbread, for it was made from the molasses the children had left the other day. Who “the children” were Fleda did not know, neither was it material.

     It was sundown, but Hugh had not come when they went to the upper rooms again. Two were open now, for they were small, and the company promised not to be such. Fathers and brothers and husbands began to come, and loud talking and laughing and joking took place of the quilting chit-chat. Fleda would fain have absorbed herself in the work again, but though the frame still stood there the minds of the company were plainly turned aside from their duty, or perhaps they thought that Miss Anastasia had had admiration enough to dispense with service. Nobody shewed a thimble but one or two old ladies, and as numbers and spirits gathered strength, a kind of romping game was set on foot in which a vast deal of kissing seemed to be the grand wit of the matter. Fleda shrank away out of sight behind the open door of communication between the two rooms, pleading with great truth that she was tired and would like to keep perfectly quiet, and she had soon the satisfaction of being apparently forgotten.

     In the other room some of the older people were enjoying themselves more soberly. Fleda’s ear was too near the crack of the door not to have the benefit of more of their conversation than she cared for. It put quiet of mind out of the question.

     “He’ll twist himself up pretty short, that’s my sense of it, and he won’t take long to do it, nother.” said Earl Douglass’ voice.

     Fleda would have known it anywhere from its extreme peculiarity. It never either rose or fell much from a certain pitch, and at that level the words gurgled forth, seemingly from an ever-brimming fountain, he never wanted one, and the stream had neither let nor stay till his modicum of sense had fairly run out. People thought he had not a greater stock of that than some of his neighbours, but he issued an amount of word-currency sufficient for the use of the county.

     “He’ll run himself agin a post pretty quick.” said Uncle Joshua in a confirmatory tone of voice.

     Fleda had a confused idea that somebody was going to hang himself.

     “He ain’t workin’ things right,” said Douglass, -- “he ain’t a workin’ things right, he’s takin’ hold o’ everything by the tail end. He ain’t studied the business, he doesn’t know when things is right, and he doesn’t know when things is wrong, -- and if they’re wrong he don’t know how to set ‘em right. He’s got a feller there that ain’t no more fit to be there than I am to be Vice President of the United States, and I ain’t a-going to say what I think I am fit for, but I ha’n’t studied for that place and I shouldn’t like to stand an examination for ‘t, and a man hadn’t ought to be a farmer no more if he ha’n’t qualified himself, That’s my idea. I like to see a thing done well if it’s to be done at all, and there ain’t a stitch o’ land been laid right on the hull farm, nor a furrow driv’ as it had ought to be, since he came on to it, and I say, Squire Springer, a man ain’t going to get along in that way, and he hadn’to. I work hard myself, and I calculate to work hard, and I make a livin’ by ‘t, and I’m content to work hard. When I see a man with his hands in his pockets, I think he’ll have nothin’ else in ‘em soon. I don’t believe he’s done a hand’s turn himself on the land the hull season!”

     And upon this Mr. Douglass brought up.

     “My son Lucas has been workin’ with him, off and on, pretty much the hull time since he came, and he says he ha’n’t begun to know how to spell farmer yet.”

     “Ay,ay! My wife -- she’s a little harder on folks than I be -- I think it ain’t worth while to say nothin’ of a man without I can say some good of him--that’s my idee--and it don’t do no harm, nother, -- but my wife, she says he’s got to let down his notions a peg or two afore they’ll hitch just in the right place, and I won’t say but what I think she ain’t maybe fur from the right. If a man’s above his business he stands a pretty fair chance to be below it someday. I won’t say myself, for I haven’t any acquaintance with him, and a man oughtn’t to speak out of what he is knowing to, -- but I have heard say, that he wasn’t as conversationable as it would ha’ been handsome in him to be, all things considerin’. There seems to be a good many things said of him, somehow, and I always think men don’t talk of a man if he don’t give ‘em some occasion, but anyhow I’ve been past the farm pretty often myself this summer, workin’ with Seth Plumfield, and I’ve took notice of things myself, and I know he’s been makin’ beds o’ sparrowgrass when he had owght to ha’ been makin’ fences, and he’s been helpin’ that little girl of his’n set her flowers, when he would ha’ been better sot to work lookin’ after his Irishman, but I don’t know as it made much matter nother, for if he went wrong Mp, Rossitur wouldn’t know how to set him right, and if he was a going right Mr. Rossitur would ha’ been just as likely to ha’ set him wrongs Well I’m sorry for him.“

     “Mr. Rossitar is a most gentlemanlike man.” said the voice of Dr. Quackenboss.

     “Ay -- I dare say he is,” Earl responded in precisely the same tone. “I was down to his house one day last summer to see him -- He w’n’t to hum, though.”

     “It would be strange if harm come to a man with such a guardian angel in the house as that man has in his’n.” Said Dr. Quackenboss.

     “Well she’s a pretty creetur!” said Douglass, looking up with some animation. “I wouldn’t blame any man that sot a good deal by her. I will say I think she’s as hendsome as my own darter, and a man can’t go no farder than that I suppose.”

     “She won’t help his farming much, I guess,” said Uncle Joshua, -- “nor his wife, nother.”

     Fleda heard Dr. Quackenboss coming through the doorway and started from her corner for fear he might find her out there and know she had heard.

     He very soon found her out in the new place she had chosen and came up to pay his compliments. Fleda was in the mood for anything but laughing, yet the mixture of the ludicrous which the doctor administered set her nerves a twitching. Bringing his chair down sideways at one angle and his person at another, so as to meet at the moment of the chair’s touching the floor, and with a look and smile slanting to match, the doctor said,

     “Well, Miss Ringgan, has -- a -- Mrs. Rossitur, -- does she feel herself reconciled yet?”

     “Reconciled, sir?” said Fleda.

     “Yes -- a -- to Queechy?”

     “She never quarreled with it, sir.” said Fleda, quite unable from laughing.

     “Yes, -- I mean -- a -- she feels that she can sustain her spirits in a different situation?”

     “She is very well, sir, thank you.”

     “It must have been a great change to her -- and to you all -- coming to this place.”

     “Yes, sir, the country is very different from the city.”

     “In what part of New York was Mr. Rossitur’s former residence?”

     “In State Street, sir.”

     “State Street, -- that is somewhere in the direction of the Park?”

     “No, sir, not exactly.”

     “Was Mrs. Rossitur a native-of the city?”

     “Not of New York. O Hugh, my dear Hugh,” exclaimed Fleda in another tone, -- “what have you been thinking of?”

     “Father wanted me,” said Hugh. “I could not help it, Fleda.”

     “You are not going to have the cruelty to take you -- a -- cousin away, Mr. Rossitur?” said the doctor.

     But Fleda was or once happy to be cruel, she would hear no remonstrance. Though her desire for Miss Lucy’s “help” had considerably lessened she thought she could not in politeness avoid speaking on the subject after being invited there on purpose. But Miss Lucy said she “calculated to stay at home this winter.” unless she sent to live with somebody at Kenton for the purpose of attending a course of philosophy lectures that she heard were to be given there. So that matter was settled, and clasping Hugh’s arm Fleda turned away from the house with a step and heart both lightened by being out of it.


"The Scribbling Women"
Copyright ~ Estate of Andre Norton
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 Digitized and edited by Jay Watts aka: “Lots-a-watts” ~ May 2015

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