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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward (1844–1911)

An Old Maid’s Paradise

From “Old Maids and Burglars in Paradise”

In Prospect

“I WANT—” said Corona.

Tom and Susy looked up. Corona did not often say she wanted anything. Susy thought this natural. Was it not enough to live in the house with Tom? But Tom had never thought anything about it.

“I want—” began Corona again; and then she stopped. What did she want? Her thoughts were vagabonds. They roamed a great way from Tom and Susy at that moment. They were a lawless, disorganized, hungry horde.

“Nothing for tramps!” said Corona severely. But she did not say it aloud. She took up the grape-scissors thoughtfully; she showed a slight contraction between a pair of well-controlled, charitable gray eyes, and snipped the Malagas leisurely upon her plate, before she said:

“I want a home.”

Tom laid down his nut-pick and Susy the baby. It took quite a shock to make Susy put down the baby. Corona colored. Tom was her own brother; but Susy was the mother of her niece.

“Give her to me!” cried Corona hurriedly. “She’s putting up her lip. You’ve hurt her feelings. And oh! Susy, don’t mind me a bit, and Tom, you’ve always done everything; but, Susy, the baby won’t cry for me more than a day or two, and, Tom, you must see that to have a place of your own——”

“Get married,” said Tom.

“I can’t afford to support a husband till the panic is over.”

“Write a book,” said Susy. “It will divert your mind. You’re morbid. The baby has kept you awake too much this winter. I’ll take her to-night.”

“Experience with three poems, two Sunday-school books, one obituary, and one letter to The Transcript,” said Corona calmly, measuring off these articles in shag-barks on the tablecloth, “has not encouraged me to pursue a literary life. If there had not happened to be such a press of matter every time it might have been different. The editors regretted it exceedingly, Susy; and the manuscripts are in the hair trunk in the inner attic.”

“I think if I did not let you draw baby about so much,” observed Susy, with a judicial expression; “and she is growing so cunning! And we meant to put something Eastlake into your room this spring.—Didn’t we, Tom?—But we were going to wait for a surprise, till you got home from Aunt Anna Maria’s. Besides, Coro, if you are not contented in your present way of life, you could make yourself very useful by showing a little more interest in the Widow’s Mite, or the Reform Club, and the sewing-circle, you know——”

When matters got around to the sewing-circle, argument ceased to be a sane method of conducting conversation. Susy’s mind was so constructed. Corona sighed. But Tom interrupted:

“There are depths of human nature, Sue, which even the sewing-circle will not fill. Let Coro alone. If she wants to go, go she shall. Why shouldn’t she? We went ourselves. You didn’t stay because your mother wanted help in scouring the preserves.”

“Scouring preserves?” began Susy, but Tom laughed and left.

From beyond the front door he heard Susy talking; but it was a mild, safe chatter—something about marmalade. It was clear that her mind was temporarily diverted in a sweet direction.

Tom had that amount of profound respect for his wife which is involved in a well-assured and well-controlled conjugal affection of several years’ hard use. Still, the sight of Susy giving advice to Corona was something which he never found himself able to witness with that gravity which his ideal of his wife demanded.

Coro slid after him. She wore slippers without heels. It was one of her “ways.” Her footfall dropped at his side without noise, and he started when she touched him on the elbow.

“Co, what do you look like that for? I understand.”

“You don’t mind, Tom, dear, a bit?”

“Not a mind,” said Tom. “Where will you build it, Coro? On Fifth Avenue, Pike’s Peak, or out in my garden? I’ll lease you a lot. Come!”

“If you do understand,” said Corona hastily, “then there is no difficulty in the way. Nothing is hard in the world but hurting people’s feelings.”

“Perhaps not,” said Tom, “unless you count in starving, or death at the stake, or a codfish breakfast, or a few such things. But don’t you bother, Co. Go ahead. I’ll stand by you.”

“Tom,” replied Corona, “I’d like to kiss you.”

She did not often. At least, she did not often say so. Tom and Corona had never been of “the kissing kind.” He took off his hat—he was in a hurry, too—and they kissed one another so gravely that Tom was quite embarrassed. But that was not till afterward, when he thought of it.

In Plan

Corona had five hundred dollars and some pluck for her enterprise. She had also at her command a trifle for furnishing. But that seemed very small capital. Her friends at large discouraged her generously. Even Tom said he didn’t know about that, and offered her three hundred more.

This manly offer she declined in a womanly manner.

“It is to be my house, thank you, Tom, dear. I can live in yours at home.”

Corona’s architectural library was small. She found on the top shelf one book on the construction of chicken-roosts, a pamphlet in explanation of the kindergarten system, a cook-book that had belonged to her grandmother, and a treatise on crochet. There her domestic literature came to an end. She accordingly bought a book entitled “North American Homes”; then, having, in addition, begged or borrowed everything within two covers relating to architecture that was to be found in her immediate circle of acquaintance, she plunged into that unfamiliar science with hopeful zeal.

The result of her studies was a mixed one. It was necessary, it seemed, to construct the North American home in so many contradictory methods, or else fail forever of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that Corona felt herself to be laboring under a chronic aberration of mind…. Then the plans. Well, the plans, it must be confessed, Corona did find it difficult to understand. She always had found it difficult to understand such things; but then she had hoped several weeks of close architectural study would shed light upon the density of the subject. She grew quite morbid about it. She counted the steps when she went up-stairs to bed at night. She estimated the bedroom post when she waked in the cold gray dawn….

But the most perplexing thing about the plans was how one story ever got upon another. Corona’s imagination never fully grappled with this fact, although her intellect accepted it. She took her books down-stairs one night, and Susy came and looked them over.

“Why, these houses are all one-story,” said Susy. “Besides, they’re nothing but lines, anyway. I shouldn’t draw a house so.”

Corona laughed with some embarrassment and no effort at enlightenment. She was not used to finding herself and Susy so nearly on the same intellectual level as in this instance. She merely asked: “How should you draw it?”

“Why, so,” said Susy, after some severe thought. So she took her little blunt lead-pencil, that the baby had chewed, and drew her plan as follows:

  • Roof
  • Guest RoomCloset for BeddingOur Room
  • ParlorFront DoorDining RoomKitchen Ell
  • Nursery and your room behind.
  • Susy’s Plan
  • Corona made no comment upon this plan, except to ask Susy if that were the way to spell L; and then to look in the dictionary, and find that it was not spelled at all. Tom came in, and asked to see what they were doing.

    “I’m helping Corona,” said Susy, with much complacency. “These architects’ things don’t look any more like houses than they do like the first proposition in Euclid; and the poor girl is puzzled.”

    “I’ll help you to-morrow, Co,” said Tom, who was in too much of a hurry to glance at his wife’s plan. But to-morrow Tom went into town by the early train, and when Corona emerged from her “North American Homes,” with wild eye and knotted brow, at 5 o’clock P.M., she found Susy crying over a telegram, which ran:

  • Called to California immediately. Those lost cargoes A No. 1 hides turned up. Can’t get home to say good-by. Send overcoat and flannels by Simpson on midnight express. Gone four weeks. Love to all.
  • TOM.
  • This unexpected event threw Corona entirely upon her own resources; and, after a few days more of patient research, she put on her hat and stole away at dusk to a builder she knew of down-town—a nice, fatherly man who had once built a piazza for Tom and had just been elected superintendent of the Sunday-school. These combined facts gave Corona confidence to trust her case to his hands. She carried a neat little plan of her own with her, the result of several days’ hard labor. Susy’s plan she had taken the precaution to cut into paper dolls for the baby. Corona found the good man at home, and in her most business-like manner presented her points.

    “Got any plan in yer own head?” asked the builder, hearing her in silence. In silence Corona laid before him the paper which had cost her so much toil.

    It was headed in her clear black hand:

  • PLAN
  • HOME
  • [Plans]
  • This was Corona’s Plan
  • “Well,” said the builder, after a silence, “well, I’ve seen worse.”

    “Thank you,” said Corona faintly.

    “How does she set?” asked the builder.

    “Who set?” said Corona a little wildly. She could think of nothing that set but hens.

    “Why, the house. Where’s the points o’ compass?”

    “I hadn’t thought of those,” said Corona.

    “And the chimney,” suggested the builder. “Where’s your chimneys?”

    “I didn’t put in any chimneys,” said Corona.

    “Where did you count on your stairs?” pursued the builder.

    “Stairs? I—forgot the stairs.”

    “That’s natural,” said Mr. Timbers. “Had a plan brought me once without an entry or a window to it. It wasn’t a woman did it, neither. It was a widower, in the noospaper line. What’s your scale?”

    “Scale?” asked Corona without animation.

    “Scale of feet. Proportions.”

    “Oh! I didn’t have any scales, but I thought about forty feet front would do. I have but five hundred dollars. A small house must answer.”

    The builder smiled. He said he would show her some plans. He took a book from his table and opened at a plate representing a small, snug cottage, not uncomely. It stood in a flourishing apple-orchard, and a much larger house appeared dimly in the distance, upon a hill. The cottage is what is called a “story-and-half” and contained six rooms. The plan was drawn with the beauty of science.

    “There,” said Mr. Timbers, “I know a lady built one of those upon her brother-in-law’s land. He gave her the land, and she just put up the cottage, and they was all as pleasant as pease about it. That’s about what I’d recommend to you, if you don’t object to the name of it.”

    “What is the matter with the name?” asked Corona.

    “Why,” said the builder, hesitating, “it is called the Old Maid’s House—in the book.”

    “Mr. Timbers,” said Corona with decision, “why should we seek farther than the truth? I will have that house. Pray draw me the plan at once.”


    … Fairharbor is in Massachusetts. Corona had spent several seasons there, in the uncertain capacity of “summer folks” and “perm’nent boarder.” Her experience with landladies had been large, varied, and pathetic, and just as she had found one to whom she thought she could be happy to return year by year, the excellent woman—like other people who have reached an unusual pitch of sanctification—died.

    Yet what were summer without the sea—its purpose, its passion, its rapture?

    “I will build my house,” said Corona, “in Fairharbor.”

    And so it was settled. To be sure, Susy said she did not see how Corona could decide anything so important while Tom was away. But, nevertheless, it was settled.

    Corona went on to Fairharbor with the builder, to select and lease her land. When I say that it was March, I need add nothing about the weather. Corona felt very independent and very cold. She and the builder stood together on the cliff-side which she had chosen, and yelled at one another through the thunder of the wind and surf.

    When they had wandered about in the wind and discussed the matter till Corona was quite hoarse, when she had pointed out to the builder all the locations which she liked, and when the builder had raised insuperable objections to every one, Corona suggested that if he could find a place not too windy nor too sunny, too hard, too soft, too wet, too dry, too anything, he should select the spot himself and put the house on it at once.

    “All I ask is permission to live in it,” said Corona meekly. “Do as you like. I shall perish if I stay here another minute, and I’ve no heir to leave the place to but my sister-in-law, who has neuralgia, at the sea-side.”

    “No offense, I hope?” asked Mr. Timbers anxiously; “but, you see, women-folks don’t know so much as they might. I’ll blast out this ridge for ye, if ye say so—the house is yours; but it would cost you a hundred more, besides the damp.”

    “Blast the ridge!” replied Corona. But she saved her good name by an interrogation point. “Blast the ridge? No, we will let the ridge go. Build in the harbor, if you want to; only build, and let me go and get warm.”

    Soon after her first trip to Fairharbor, Corona went a little way into the country to visit an old schoolmate with a new baby. One day the baby fell into the fire, and Corona sprang to pick it out, and sprained her ankle. This gallant deed and its untoward consequence confined her for some weeks to the house.

    Meanwhile the carpenters were at work. Corona had contracted with Mr. Timbers that the cottage should be finished by the middle of May. She had made this provision with a keen sense of the accepted helplessness of her sex in such matters, and a keener desire to be on her guard against the traditional imposition of the builders. She would have expected Mr. Timbers to cheat her, had he not been superintendent of the Sunday-school. And now here she was, wearing upon the delicate health of her hostess; dependent upon the surgery of a more than rural doctor, who said he had dog-nosed the case; and reduced entirely to her imagination and the daily mail (it seemed to make everything worse that it was brought five miles by a stage-coach) for any knowledge of her now sacred and absorbing interests at Fairharbor.

    The builder wrote often. One day he asked, Would she have cedar post?

    And Corona, whose architectural education was already rusting out, wrote back: “What do I need a cedar post for?”

    Another time he said that the A No. 1 shingles he ordered had not come, but, by mistake, only the best pine shingles. He thought he might use those, seeing they were on hand, and he would make it square on the estimate. Corona, in some indignation, telegraphed that, of course, she wanted the best pine shingles under any circumstances.

    Mr. Timbers leisurely replied that best shingles did not mean best shingles, and that nothing was best but A No. 1. This was honest but perplexing, and in either light it was lost time.

    The next day he sent word that he thought the kitchen closet had better be built in the parlor, and that, if ’twas his, he’d turn the piazza the lee side of the house; that one of his men had hammered a finger off, and one was drunk, and another had a baby to bury, which delayed the work; that he thought he should leave the kitchen unfinished till she got there, on account of the sink and a few such; and that the weather was against them, for it had rained ever since he began.

    Then followed a peculiarly harrowing correspondence about details, which at this helpless distance assumed enormous and morbid importance in Corona’s mind, and the discussion of which Mr. Timbers always closed with the remark that the weather was against them and it had rained ever since they began. It was invariably bright sunlight when Corona received these letters.

    For the first time she began to wish that Tom were at home to help her; but the Corliss engine could not have wrung from her the acknowledgment of this not unworthy sentiment.

    She found a certain relief in occupying herself with preparations for the internal arrangements of her home. Susy had promised (if there were a closet for it) to provide the bedding; and the mother of the baby that fell into the fire kindly agreed to mark the pillow-cases in tambour cotton. Corona felt grateful for the removal of these important burdens. But enough remained. As she lay upon her lounge, in her friend’s “spare room,” they gathered awful proportions. Things to be done dawned upon her, one at a time, in a diseased, sporadic way. Now it was the fixture of a bedroom curtain; now a poker for the parlor grate. Then she remembered she hadn’t any grate to poke. Then, by some incredible psychological caprice, her attention would concentrate itself upon the clothes-horse. Did clothes-horses grow in Fairharbor? How should she get one from Boston, if they didn’t? Suddenly she would be overcome by a fierce anxiety about the nature of waffle-irons, and then she would remember that she must have a broom. In the depths of the night there would mysteriously darken down upon her the consciousness that she could never keep house without salt-cellars. In the sparkle of the dawn she would jerk herself feverishly upright in bed, to wonder if dish-towels came fringed. At moments her whole soul reeled beneath the prospect of getting her sheets marked; and at others the realization of the fact that she must have soft soap for Mondays seemed a burden greater than she could bear. Two things in particular assumed curious and portentous shapes in her imagination: one was the clothes-post, and another was the hogshead for rain-water. How should she get the hogshead? How should she get any rain, if she had a hogshead? How could she keep house till she had a clothes-post? And how could she get a clothes-post till she had begun to keep house? Night after night she dreamed of hogsheads and clothes-posts. She waked cold with her efforts to plant the clothes-post in the parlor carpet, and weak with the attempt to set a lunch-table for sixteen upon the slippery surface of the hogshead. Her mind became a frightful chaos of household detail.

    Corona was not of precisely what we call a domestic temperament, and this experience had some distressing effects. There, for instance, were the pincushions. One noon it occurred to her that she could not have a house without pincushions, and from that unhappy hour her tortured fancy had no rest. She had never made a pincushion in her life. It seemed to her that it would be easier to make a man-of-war. Corona was determined to keep the balance of power economical and artistic in her modest home. She would not fill even a cushion with a “dear” stuffing in a cheap house. She would not have emery and silk with matched boards and bare floors. She agitated herself over these appalling questions.

    That came, perhaps, of being a woman, she thought. Did men think about pincushions when they built houses? Six rooms—six pincushions. Six colors for six pincushions in six rooms. She tormented herself with calculations. One day she said to her friend:

    “I’ll tear my heart out and put it into the spare room before I will think about this any longer. The only trouble is, they might find it a little hard.”

    “It could be used for hairpins,” said her friend absently. “I should flute it, too, and put a mock Valenciennes cover on.”

    “Buy your furniture at a factory in the white,” telegraphed Tom, one day, from California, in the perfectly disconnected but useful manner characteristic of Tom when he gave advice. He had not written to Corona since he went away. A serial story could not have so convinced her that his busy heart remembered her. And in the moment, the worry and wear of her somewhat solitary plans dissolved like the fogs within the sunrise on her own golden harbor shore. She had almost cried, the day before, when she went out alone (her first walk since her accident) to buy her own silver. It had seemed to her a very pathetic thing to do. Now it seemed rather amusing than otherwise. How Tom would laugh! And Tom remembered her; always had. She put the foolish, extravagant telegram to her lips. She said “Dear Tom,” sitting alone. Her heart lifted. She was sure she should be happy in her house.

    Besides, the silver was plated. It wasn’t worth a sentiment, however cheap.

    “Let me catch you at it again!” said Corona, apostrophizing her wet lashes in the glass. “I’ll feed you off of pewter, if I do!”

    Corona was interrupted by the stage rumbling by with the afternoon mail. She dried her eyes and went over to the office, where she found two letters. One was from Susy, and ran:

  • DEAR CO: I hope you’re coming home soon. Baby has the mumps. There are a great many express packages for you that keep coming. It will remind you how many friends you have. I have taken the liberty—I knew you wouldn’t care—I opened them all. Sixteen of them are pincushions and fourteen are tidies. One is a patent nutmeg-grater.
  • Yours aff.,
  • SUE.
  • P. S.—The tidies are all green, and fifteen of the cushions are red.
  • The other letter was from the builder, and read as follows:

  • DEAR MADAM: I should like to have you send your furniture on at once. We find it won’t go up the stairs. We must build it into the house.
  • The weather has been very poor, and it has rained almost ever since we began to work.
  • Yours, with respect,
  • G. W. TIMBERS.