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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Cousin Susan’s Cupboard

By Harriet Leonora Vose Bates (1856–1886)

[From Old Salem. By Eleanor Putnam.—Edited by Arlo Bates. 1886.]

FOREMOST in the memory of delightful Salem cupboards stands the dining-room closet of a second-cousin of ours, whom we called Cousin Susan. She was a widow of some fifty odd years, and kept house for a bachelor brother, who was a retired sea-captain. She was a round, trim, black-eyed woman, greatly afflicted with rheumatism, for which reason she always walked with a cane. The cane was of some dark, foreign wood, highly polished, and the top was carved to resemble a falcon’s head, with shining eyes of yellow glass.

Cousin Susan was a kindly soul, who would, I think, have even been merry, had not the austerity of her youthful training warped her natural instincts and given her a certain rigidly virtuous air. She believed very sincerely in the old-time maxim that “children should be seen, and not heard,” and she had rather an alarming way at times of saying “Tut, tut!” But she was really fond of young people, and whenever we went to see her she would say seductively:

“I wonder, now, if we could find anything nice in Cousin Susan’s dining-room cupboard.”

And truly that person who failed to do so must have been hard to please; for, in our eyes at least, that cupboard held a little of everything that was rare and delightful.

A most delicious odor came forth when the door was opened—a hint of the spiciness of rich cake, a tingling sense of preserved ginger, and a certain ineffable sweetness which no other closet ever possessed, and which I know not how to describe. It might well have proceeded from the walls and shelves of the cupboard itself, for they were indeed emblems of purity. The paint was varnished to a high degree of glossiness, and was so exquisitely kept as to look like white porcelain.

The china here, as in all genuine Salem cupboards, was chiefly of the honest old blue Canton ware. There were shining piles of these plates which, while they are rather heavy to handle, always surprise one by being so thin at the edges. There were generous teacups like small bowls, squat pitchers with big noses, and a tureen whose cover had the head of a boar for a handle. And in all this the blue was dull and deep in tint, with a certain ill-defined, vaporous quality at the edges of the lines, and the white of the cool greenish tinge of a duck’s egg. You can buy blue Canton to-day, but it is not old blue Canton. Such china is matchless now, but in this cupboard there were shelves of it.

Cousin Susan possessed also another set of china, which she valued far above her blue. It was always singularly attractive to us as children, though I have come to believe that it is far less beautiful than the Canton. It was a pure, thin, white ware, delicately fluted at the edges and decorated with little raised lilac sprigs. It was used only upon occasions of solemn company tea-drinkings, and Cousin Susan always washed it herself in her little cedar dish-tub. We children considered this china so choice and desirable that a bit of a broken saucer, which included one of the pale, tiny sprays, was cherished far above our real dolls’ dishes. We lent it from one to another, each of us keeping it for one day; but it was always one of those unsatisfactory treasures of childhood for which we could never find any adequate use. We could think of nothing to do with this bit of china which seemed at all worthy of so lovely an object.

At the left hand of Cousin Susan’s shelves of china was a little cupboard with a diamond-paned glass door. This was the sanctum sanctorum—a cupboard within a cupboard; and here, as one might have expected, were stored the choicest treasures of all. It was not the domestic preserve-closet. Cousin Susan was thrifty, and had good store of home-made dainties, but they were kept in the cool seclusion of a dark cellar store-room. This little glass cupboard held the stock of foreign sweetmeats: the round-shouldered blue jars, inclosed in a network of split bamboo, which contained the fiery, amber ginger; the flat boxes of guava jelly, hot curry powders, chilli sauce, and choleric Bengal chutney. Here were two miniature casks of tamarinds, jolly and black, Cousin Susan’s favorites. She had a certain air of disapproval toward most of these strange conserves. “They are not good for little people,” she averred; and indeed she always maintained that these ardent sweetmeats were fitter for the delectation of rude men than for the delicate palates of gentlewomen. Of tamarinds, however, Cousin Susan did approve. Properly diluted with cool water, they made what she called a “very pretty drink.” She was fond of sending a glass to any neighbor who was ill and feverish, and she was always following our cousin the sea-captain about with a blue china bowl of the mixture, begging him to partake of it.

“Susan, I hate tamarind-water,” our cousin would protest.

“It will cool your blood, William,” his sister would urge.

“But I don’t want my blood cool. I want it warm,” the captain would reply.

As a general thing, however, Cousin Susan came off triumphant. The captain grumblingly partook of his dose, and was always most generous in sharing it with us children. The beautiful little brown stones also fell to our lot, and we hoarded the useless things with great care, although it always seemed to us a great oversight on the part of nature that tamarind seeds did not have holes through them, that one might string them as beads.

Cousin Susan’s cupboard also contained stronger waters than tamarind, for side by side sat two corpulent cut-glass decanters, of which one was half filled with Madeira wine and the other with honest rum. A variety of sweetcakes was near by, to be served with the wine to any chance visitor. There were black fruit-cake in a japanned box; “hearts and rounds” of rich yellow pound-cake; and certain delicate but inane little sponge biscuit, of which our cousin spoke by the older-fashioned name of diet—or, as she chose to pronounce it. “dier”—bread. She always called the sponge cakes “little dier breads.” Pound- and fruit-cakes were forbidden to our youth, but we might have our ladylike fill of “dier breads,” and also of delightful seed-cakes, which were cut in the shape of an oak-leaf, and were marvels of sugary thinness.

These seed-cakes, by the bye, were kept in a jar which deserves at least a passing mention. It was, I suppose, some two or three feet high, though it looked to me then much higher. It was of blue-and-white china, and was fitted with a cover of dull silver. Tradition stated that some seafaring ancestor had brought it home from Calcutta, filled with rock-candy. What was done with so large a supply of this confection I never knew. In those days choice sugar-plums were not as plenty as they have since become; possibly at the time “Black-jacks” and “Gibraltars” were unknown, and this was Salem’s only candy. At all events, it is somewhere recorded that the ship Belisarius brought from Calcutta “ten thousand seven hundred and sixty-seven pounds” of this same rocky and crystalline dainty. The fact of such a quantity of candy had for us children a superb and opulent significance. What an idea, to have a choice confection, not by the stick or beggarly ounce, but by the jarful! To think of going and casually helping one’s self at will! To imagine lifting that silver lid, and gazing unreproved into the sugary depths! Perhaps nice, white-haired spinsters used it in glittering lumps to sweeten their tea, or even served it at table by the plateful, as one might serve cake. Fancy exhausted itself in all sorts of delightful speculations. The whole legend had a profuse and mythical sound. It was like a fairy tale, a scene from Arabian Nights. It threw about the jar and the cupboard a mystic charm which time fails to efface. Even now a stick of sparkling rock-candy has power to call up Cousin Susan’s dining-room cupboard, its sweet, curious perfume, the quaint old silver and blue china, and the huge turkey-feather fan, with its carved ivory handle and wreath of brilliant painted flowers, which hung on the inside of the door.