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Five

Rosalie was more tired than she knew, and she did not wake until eight o’clock when the sun was quite high in the sky. As soon as she glanced at her watch, she sprang out of bed, kicked off her pyjamas, and dressed as quickly as she could. “Goodness, what will she ever think of me,” said Rosalie to herself. “She’ll think perhaps she’s housing a lazy-bones, a slug-a-bed.” She hurried down to the kitchen but the little old lady was not in sight. She washed her face and hands at the sink and ran her comb quickly through her hair thinking, “perhaps she has disappeared, perhaps she was only a fairy and this is a fairy’s house.” She noticed that her breakfast things were neatly set out on the checkered cloth, that the coffee pot was steaming on the back of the stove, and that the oat-meal porridge was erupting in tiny volcanoes in the double boiler. Just as she was drying her face and hands on the spotless roller towel that hung on the door leading to the cold pantry, in came the little old lady in the flesh, no fairy at all, with a pail of milk that brimmed in yellow bubbles.

“Good morning, my dear, I hope you slept well.”

“Like a rock, like a log,” said Rosalie. “I don’t believe I turned over once. I never had a hot-water bottle before. But you mustn’t think I’m lazy, this loafing in bed won’t happen again. To­morrow I’ll milk the cow.”

“I’ve a good Jersey cow but you have to strip her well. See what yellow creamy milk she gives. Her tongue’s as black as printers’ ink and her scutcheon yellow as a sovereign.”

“I’ll do the rest of the chores,” said Rosalie.

“The chores are all done, my dear, stable cleaned, hay and water

in the manger, hens and pigs fed, and the turnips ground up and sprinkled with short feed. You have to feed cows turnips just at the right time of day, just after the morning milking, then the milk never tastes of turnips.”

“I’ll have a lot to learn,” said Rosalie, “but you’ll find me a good worker. I’m strong and not lazy, I’ll always be up bright and early. I missed this morning because I didn’t get much sleep the first night in the lumber camp.”

“You’re too pretty to shovel manure,” said the little old lady. “You can help me with everything but that. Manure should be shovelled by a wrinkled old woman. I’ve one very important question to ask you now.”

Rosalie opened her eyes wide, perhaps she would have to tell all about her trouble after all.

“Yes?” said Rosalie with just a hint of defence in her voice. “What do you want to know, little old lady?”

“What kind of pudding do you like best in all the world? Because when you tell me you’re going to have that kind for dinner tonight.”

“Oh!” said Rosalie with a sigh of relief. “I was afraid you were going to quiz me about why I ran away. I really didn’t steal anything or kill anybody.”

“What do I care about that,” said the little old lady. “Now what kind of pudding do you like the best of all?”

“Oh, my!” said Rosalie, “I have such a grand appetite. I like steamed apple dumplings with cream poured over them—I had that at my uncle’s—but best of all I like steamed apple-duff with hot yellow sauce.”

“Better than hot mince pie? I’ve got two fat jars of my own mince-meat well primed with brandy.”

“That’s a hard choice,” said Rosalie. “I do like mince pie, I like almost everything, but perhaps steamed apple-duff best of all.”

“Then we’ll have it, and now to set your mind at rest, that’s the only question you’ll be asked this day. Now sit down and eat your breakfast, first oatmeal, and then bacon and coffee and strawberry jam. That’ll put some fat on your bones and the men will come sniffing after you like a pack of hounds.”

“I don’t want to get fat,” said Rosalie, “and I’m through with men for a long time.”

“A woman’s never through with them till she gets very old, they’re a blessing and a perpetual nuisance that has to be endured. It’s a pity they haven’t a rutting season in October like the moose, and get through with it and settle down like other decent animals.”

Rosalie laughed and crunched her bacon, and drank with pleasure her coffee that had thick cream in it. The little old lady slyly brought out a package of cigarettes.

“Try one.”

“I never smoke much,” said Rosalie.

“Try one. These are Melachrinos, they’re good after breakfast

with coffee.”

Rosalie and the little old lady both lit up. The old lady had another cup of coffee and they sat and smiled at one another.

“Why are you so good to me—I don’t know what to call you—you see I’ve thought of you from the first as the little old lady.

“I’m lonely, I’ve been lonely for years and years, and I need some gay company, for once I was gay myself. But my name won’t        do for you at all. My mother had me christened Keziah, and at home they always called me Kitty. Kitty, Kitty, did you ever hear of such a silly name, as if I were a little kitten? A bad name can put a curse on you and a good name can be a blessing. I should have a simple name, like Mary or Margaret, or a high-sounding name like Brunhilda or Clytemnestra.”

“But you must have a married name. Couldn’t I call you Mrs-what- ever it is?”

“No, I shouldn’t like that, that’s too distant, and I never really liked any of my married names. Why not call me by the name you thought of first, ‘Little Old Lady’ , or just ‘Old Lady’.”

“Would you like that?” said Rosalie.

“Indeed I would, and you shall be Rosalie while you’re here and Stella Star when you go away.”

“I don’t like Stella Star very much, but I suppose I’ll have to stick to it because I promised Johnny Allen.”

“Star is too short and blunt,” said the old lady, “it sounds to me like a female with a large bosom. Why not try ‘Starry’ or ‘Star­light’?”

“That would be much worse,” laughed Rosalie. “They’re sentimental and I’m not a bit sentimental, I want to learn what the world is really like.”

“Well,” said the old lady, “you know you can’t just change your name overnight all by yourself. You have to go before a lawyer, and perhaps it has to go for permission to parliament. You might inherit something, you know, and you’d have to have a true name.”

“Oh dear,” said Rosalie, “what a bother! But there’s nobody to leave anything to me.”

“I might,” said the little old lady. “I’m quite rich you know, and I’ve neither chick nor child, and all the people of my generation are dead, and really I don’t know what to do with my money.”

“Oh, old lady, you mustn’t do that,” cried Rosalie, “you’ve only known me overnight.”

“I might you know. Anyway, we’ve settled one thing, you’ll be Rosalie as long as you’re here, and I’ll be the ‘Little Old Lady’. Come now, let’s wash up and go bury the skunk.”

The little old lady stuck the tynes of a dung-fork in him, and carried him gingerly as far from her person as possible. He still smelt to heaven.

“We’ll bury him under the Gravenstein tree. It’s said that skunks are good for apple trees.”

Rosalie lifted out some sods with a round-pointed shovel, and heaped up a little mound of brown earth. “Deeper, deeper, Rosalie, he’ll still stink at that depth, and we’ll smell him when the wind is south, he’s very penetrating.” Rosalie dug deeper, and at last, the skunk was laid to rest, to sleep—unless ploughed out—until the last day.

“I think smells must be like people’s souls if they have any. They float about and you can’t see them or touch them but you’re very conscious of them. Skunks have one smell, dogs, pigs, hens, cows and horses have others, coffee, bacon and pinks have pleasant smells. Why every man and woman has a different smell, no matter how much they wash. That’s the way dogs pick them out, not by eyesight.”

“You’re a philosopher,” laughed Rosalie.

“I’ve been around a lot. Wait till I tell you my sea adventures! Yes, souls must be smells, for a good smell makes you happy and a bad smell sick at your stomach. Good smells go to Heaven, if there is a heaven, and bad smells go to Hell. Skunks, bats, weasels and badgers all go to Hell. Do you know that a pig will keep himself sweet and clean if you give him a chance with plenty of straw in a clean sty?”

Rosalie laughed, “You must know that animals have no souls.”

“Hm, I think a Jersey cow has a better chance of Heaven than some of the women I’ve seen in foreign ports. You can’t tell how far souls go down, everything wants to live forever. Sometimes I think I hear a carrot sigh when I pull him out of the ground.”

“Coffee and bacon have a good chance of seeing God then.”

The little old lady laughed. “You’re good for me, Rosalie, you make me laugh. Yes, certainly coffee and bacon are good, and the salty smell of the sea at half-flood when it comes to wash the earth twice daily.”

Rosalie drove a little stake to mark the skunk’s grave and with string tied on a cross piece. “We got acquainted over him, and we ought to mark him. Perhaps the good God who is all kindness and love, will wash him and give him a fragrant smell and he’ll become a little skunk angel. Who knows? Anyway this’ll mark him till the trumpet sounds the crack of Doom.”

Back in the kitchen they looked at one another, and laughed again. “Your laugh, Rosalie, is like an April brook that has just got rid of the ice. You’re good for me, Rosalie. Now I’ll tell you what we’ll do if you’ll only stay awhile. I thought about it half the night. You don’t need much sleep when you’re old.”

“I like to sleep,” said Rosalie, “I like to sleep all by myself.”

“Of course, you’re young, your spirit’s growing. Well, say we allow nine hours each day for sleep, I sometimes take a cat nap in the afternoon and so can you, then we can do all the cooking and cleaning and wood and chores in four hours, two in the morning and two at night, and that will leave us eleven hours each day to have fun and be happy. I’ve got wonderful plans. Some evenings we can play rummy or checkers or cribbage for a small stake, and some evenings we can read aloud and tell stories. I’m full of wonderful stories that I’m simply bursting to tell, all about my three husbands and the ten years I spent on the sea.”

“I love to hear stories,” said Rosalie, “but I don’t seem to have any interesting ones to tell.

“You haven’t got your stories yet, you’re only beginning to make them. Someday, perhaps when you are old, you’ll have a story about me. You have to live a lot and bits have to be churned up before they turn into lumps of stories. I’m so full of stories that I’m like a can of rice that’s got wet, either the lid s going to blow off or the sides bulge out.”

Rosalie laughed again.

“As you know,” went on the little old lady, “you can’t tell stories properly without a listener. Some wise man said, ‘That a good reader made a good book,’ and certainly a good listener makes a good story.”

“I’ll listen,” said Rosalie, “I like to listen. Will they be true stories?”

“Better than true, for when you get old events are all mingled with dreams and what you thought, and with what you’ve read in books. Sometimes I say to myself, ‘Could that really have happened to me?’ My stories seem to be real and better than true. Facts, you know, by themselves are not interesting. They have to be dressed up a little and coloured by the teller’s character.”

“You are so wise, old lady,” said Rosalie. “I’m sure I’m going to learn a great deal from you.”

“And in the daytime we’ll make the most beautiful dresses for you, Rosalie. We’ll send away and get the very latest plates of fashions, and the best of cloth. I know how to cut and sew end I’ve got a sewing machine.”

“I’d always been told,” said Rosalie, “that the world was hard, cold and dangerous, and now I find it a kind warm-hearted generous place.”

“It can be dangerous, you’ll pass dangers before you’re through, but it’s largely a reflection of what you yourself are, inside.”

“But why do you offer to do all these things for me?”

“Just because you’re Rosalie. Don’t you see I’m a rich lonely old woman, with nobody worth-while to talk to and I’ve no children or grandchildren, and most of my generation is dead. Do stay for awhile, Rosalie. I can easily pay you five dollars a week. Perhaps it won’t be much of a treat for you, but it’ll be a God-send to me. I’ve been so long alone and none of the yokels can make me laugh. You’ll be hidden safe here, too, till the hue and cry is over, nobody saw you turn in here, did the they”

“1 don’t think so,” said Rosalie. “I’ll stay awhile, you’re so kind and I like you too and perhaps I can learn a good deal from you at second hand about the way of life. If you tire of me just stick up a little notice on the kitchen wall, ‘My head aches, Rosalie,’ and if I want to go, I’ll make a sign, ‘My foot itches,’ and I’ll just slip away without any fuss.”

The little old lady’s eyes shone with happiness, so the bargain was struck.

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Five by Dalhousie University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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