The Bedquilt


by Dorothy Canfield

	Of all the Elwell family Aunt Mehetabel was certainly the 
most unim.portant member. It was in the old.time New England days, when an unmarried woman was an old maid at twenty, at forty was everyone's servant, and at sixty had gone through so much discipline that she could need no more in the next world. Aunt Mehetabel was sixty.eight.


She had never for a moment known the pleasure of being important to anyone. Not that she was useless in her brother's family; she was expected, as a matter of course, to take upon herself the most tedious and uninteresting part of the household labors. On Mondays she ac.cepted as her share the washing of the men's shirts, heavy with sweat and stiff with dirt from the fields and from their own hard.working bodies. Tuesdays she never dreamed of being allowed to iron anything pretty or even interesting, like the baby's white dresses or the fancy aprons of her young lady nieces. She stood all day pressing out a monotonous succes.sion of dish.cloths and towels and sheets.


In preserving.time she was allowed to have none of the pleasant responsibility of deciding when the fruit had cooked long enough, nor did she share in the little excitement of pouring the sweet.smelling stuff into the stone jars. She sat in a corner with the children and stoned cherries incessantly, or hulled strawberries until her fingers were dyed red.


The Elwells were not consciously unkind to their aunt, they were even in a vague way fond of her; but she was so insignificant a figure in their lives that she was almost invisible to them. Aunt Mehetabel did not resent this treatment; she took it quite as unconsciously as they gave it. It was to be expected when one was an old.maid dependent in a busy family. She gathered what crumbs of comfort she could from their occa.sional careless kindnesses and tried to hide the hurt which even yet pierced her at her brother's rough joking. In the winter when they all sat before the big hearth, roasted apples, drank mulled cider, and teased the girls about their beaux and the boys about their sweethearts, she shrank into a dusky comer with her knitting, happy if the evening passed with' out her brother saying, with a crude sarcasm, "Ask your Aunt Mehetabel about the beaux that used to come a.sparkin' her!" or, "Mehetabel, how was's when you was in love with Abel Cummings?" As a matter of fact, she had been the same at twenty as at sixty, a mouselike little creature, too shy for anyone to notice, or to raise her eyes for a moment and wish for a life of her own.


Her sister.in.law, a big hearty housewife, who ruled indoors with as autocratic a sway as did her husband on the farm, was rather kind in an absent, offhand way to the shrunken little old woman, and it was through her that Mehetabel was able to enjoy the one pleasure of her life. Even as a girl she had been clever with her needle in the way of patching bedquilts. More than that she could never learn to do. The garments which she made for herself were lamentable affairs, and she was humbly grateful for any help in the bewildering business of putting them together. But in patchwork she enjoyed a tepid importance. She could really do that as well as anyone else. During years of devotion to this one art she had accumulated a considerable store of quilting patterns. Sometimes the neighbors would send over and ask "Miss Mehetabel" for the loan of her sheaf.of.wheat design, or the double.star pattern. It was with an agreeable flutter at being able to help someone that she went to the dresser, in her bare little room under the eaves, and drew out from her crowded portfolio the pattem desired.


She never knew how her great idea came to her. Sometimes she thought she must have dreamed it, sometimes she even wondered rever' entry, in the phraseology of the weekly prayer.meeting, if it had not been "sent" to her. She never admitted to herself that she could have thought of it without other help. It was too great, too ambitious, too lofty a project for her humble mind to have conceived. Even when she finished drawing the design with her own fingers, she gazed at it incredu' lously, not daring to believe that it could indeed be her handiwork. At first it seemed to her only like a lovely but unreal dream. For a long time she did not once think of putting an actual quilt together following that pattern, even though she herself had invented it. It was not that she feared the prodigious effort that would be needed to get those tiny, oddly shaped pieces of bright~colored material sewed together with the petfec.tion of fine workmanship needed. No, she thought zestfully and eagerly of such endless effort, her heart uplifted by her vision of the mosaic.beauty of the whole creation as she saw it, when she shut her eyes to dream of itthat complicated, splendidly difficult pattemgood enough for the angels in heaven to quilt.

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But as she dreamed, her nimble old fingers reached out longingly to tum her dream into reality. She began to think adventurously of trying it outit would perhaps not be too selfish to make one squarejust one unit of her design to see how it would look. She dared do nothing in the household where she was a dependent, without asking petmission. With a heart full of hope and fear thumping furiously against her old ribs, she approached the mistress of the house on chuming.day, knowing with the innocent guile of a child that the countty woman was apt to be in a good temper while working over the flagrant butter in the cool cellar.


Sophia listened absently to her sister.in.law's halting petition. "Why, yes, Mehetabel," she said, leaning far down into the huge chum for the last golden morsels"why, yes, start another quilt if you want to. I've got a lot of pieces from the spring sewing that will work in real good." Mehetabel tried honestly to make her see that this would be no common quilt, but her limited vocabulary and her emotion stood between her and expression. At last Sophia said, with a kindly impatience: "Oh, there! Don't bother me. I never could keep track of your quiltin' pattems, any.how. I don't care what pattem you go by."


Mehetabel rushed back up the steep attic stairs to her room, and in a joyful agitation began preparations for the work of her life. Her very first stitches showed her that it was even better than she hoped. By some heaven.sent inspiration she had invented a pattem beyond which no patchwork quilt could go.


She had but little time during the daylight hours filled with the incessant household drudgery. After dark she did not dare to sit up late at night lest she bum too much candle. It was weeks before the little square began to show the pattem. Then Mehetabel was in a fever to finish it. She was too conscientious to shirk even the smallest part of her share of the housework, but she rushed through it now so fast that she was panting as she climbed the stairs to her little room. Every time she opened the door, no matter what weather hung out. side the one small window, she always saw the little room flooded with sunshine. She smiled to herself as she bent over the innumerable scraps of cotton cloth on her work table. Alreadyto herthey were ranged in orderly, complex, mosaic.beauty.


Finally she could wait no longer, and one evening ventured to bring her work down beside the fire where the family sat, hoping that good fortune would give her a place near the tallow candles on the man.telpiece. She had reached the last corner of that first square and her needle flew in and out, in and out, with nervous speed. To her relief no one noticed her. By bedtime she had only a few more stitches to add.


As she stood up with the others, the square fell from her trembling old hands and fluttered to the table. Sophia glanced at it carelessly. "Is that the new quilt you said you wanted to start?" she asked, yawning "Looks like a real pretty pattern. Let's see it."


Up to that moment Mehetabel had labored in the purest spirit of selfless adoration of an ideal. The emotional shock given her by Sophia's cry of admiration as she held the work towards the candle to examine it, was as much astonishment as joy to Mehetabel.


"Land's sakes!" cried her sister.in.law. "Why, Mehetabel Elwell, where did you git that pattern?"


"I made it up," said Mehetabel. She spoke quietly but she was trembling.


"No!" exclaimed Sophia. "Did you! Why, I never seen such a pat tern in my life. Girls, come here and see what your Aunt Mehetabel is doing."


The three tall daughters turned back reluctantly from the stairs. "I never could seem to take much interest in patchwork quilts," said one. Already the old.time skill born of early pioneer privation and the crav.ing for beauty, had gone out of style.


"No, nor I neither!" answered Sophia. "But a stone image would take an interest in this pattern. Honest, Mehetabel, did you really think of it yourself?" She held it up closer to her eyes and went on, "And how under the sun and stars did you ever git your courage up to start in a.making it? Land! Look at all those tiny squinchy little seams! Why, the wrong side ain't a thing but seams! Yet the good side's just like a picture, so smooth you'd think 'twas woven that way. Only nobody could."


The girls looked at it right side, wrong side, and echoed their moth.er's exclamations. Mr. Elwell himself came over to see what they were discussing. "Well, I declare!" he said, looking at his sister with eyes more approving than she could ever remember. "I don't know a thing about patchwork quilts, but to my eye that beats old Mis' Andrew's quilt that got the blue ribbon so many times at the County Fair."


As she lay that night in her narrow hard bed, too proud, too excited to sleep, Mehetabel's heart swelled and tears of joy ran down from her old eyes.


The next day her sister.in.law astonished her by taking the huge pan of potatoes out of her lap and setting one of the younger children to peeling them. "Don't you want to go on with that quiltin' pattern?" she said. "I'd kind o' like to see how you're goin' to make the grapevine design come out on the corner."


For the first time in her life the dependent old maid contradicted her powerful sister.in.law. Quickly and jealously she said, "It's not a grape.vine. It's a sort of curlicue I made up."


"Well, it's nice looking anyhow," said Sophia pacifyingly. "I never could have made it up."


By the end of the summer the family interest had risen so high that Mehetabel was given for herself a little round table in the sitting room, for her, where she could keep her pieces and use odd minutes for her work. She almost wept over such kindness and resolved firmly not to take advantage of it. She went on faithfully with her monotonous house.work, not neglecting a corner. But the atmosphere of her world was changed. Now things had a meaning. Through the longest task of wash.ing milk.pans, there rose a rainbow of promise. She took her place by the little table and put the thimble on her knotted, hard finger with the solemnity of a priestess performing a rite.


She was even able to bear with some degree of dignity the honor of having the minister and the minister's wife comment admiringly on her great project. The family felt quite proud of Aunt Mehetabel as Minister Bowman had said it was work as fine as any he had ever seen, "and he didn't know but finer!" The remark was repeated verbatim to the neigh.bors in the following weeks when they dropped in and examined in a perverse Vermontish silence some astonishingly difficult tour de force which Mehetabel had just finished.


The Elwells especially plumed themselves on the slow progress of the quilt. "Mehetabel has been to work on that corner for six weeks, come Tuesday, and she ain't half done yet," they explained to visitors. They fell out of the way of always expecting her to be the one to run on errands, even for the children. "Don't bother your Aunt Mehetabel," Sophia would call. "Can't you see she's got to a ticklish place on the quilt?" The old woman sat straighter in her chair, held up her head. She was a part of the world at last. She joined in the conversation and her remarks were listened to. The children were even told to mind her when she asked them to do some service for her, although this she ventured to do but seldom.


One day some people from the next town, total strangers, drove up to the Elwell house and asked if they could inspect the wonderful quilt which they had heard about even down in their end of the valley. After that, Mehetabel's quilt came little by little to be one of the local sights. No visitor in town, whether he knew the Elwells or not, went away without having been to look at it. To make her presentable to strangers, the Elwells saw to it that their aunt was better dressed than she had ever been before. One of the girls made her a pretty little cap to wear on her thin white hair.


A year went by and a quarter of the quilt was finished. A second year passed and half was done. The third year Mehetabel had pneumonia and lay ill for weeks and weeks, horrified by the idea that she might die before her work was completed. A fourth year and one could really see the grandeur of the whole design. In September of the fifth year, the entire family gathered around her to watch eagerly, as Mehetabel quilted the last stitches. The girls held it up by the four comers and they all looked at it in hushed silence.


Then Mr. Elwell cried as one speaking with authority, "By ginger! That's goin' to the County Fair!"


Mehetabel blushed a deep red. She had thought of this herself, but never would have spoken aloud of it.


"Yes indeed!" cried the family. One of the boys was dispatched to the house of a neighbor who was Chairman of the Fair Committee for their village. He came back beaming, "Of course he'll take it. Like's not it may git a prize, he says. But he's got to have it right off because all the things from our town are going tomorrow moming."


Even in her pride Mehetabel felt a pang as the bulky package was carried out of the house. As the days went on she felt lost. For years it had been her one thought. The little round stand had been heaped with litter of bright.colored scraps. Now it was desolately bare. One of the neighbors who took the long journey to the Fair reported when he came back that the quilt was hung in a good place in a glass case in "Agri.cultural Hall." But that meant little to Mehetabel's ignorance of every.thing outside her brother's home. She drooped. The family noticed it. One day Sophia said kindly, "You feel sort o' lost without the quilt, don't you, Mehetabel?"


"They took it away so quick!" she said wistfully. "I hadn't hardly had one good look at it myself."


The Fair was to last a fortnight. At the beginning of the second week Mr. Elwell asked his sister how early she could get up in the morning.


"I dunno. Why?" she asked.


"Well, Thomas Ralston has got to drive to West Oldton to see a lawyer. That's four miles beyond the Fair. He says if you can git up so's to leave here at four in the morning he'll drive you to the Fair, leave you there for the day, and bring you back again at night." Mehetabel's face turned very white. Her eyes filled with tears. It was as though someone had offered her a ride in a golden chariot up to the gates of heaven. "Why, you can't mean it!" she cried wildly. Her brother laughed. He could not meet her eyes. Even to his easy~going unimaginative indif~ ference to his sister this was a revelation of the narrowness of her life in his home. "Oh, 'tain't so muchjust to go to the Fair," he told her in some confusion, and then "Yes, sure I mean it. Go git your things ready, for it's tomorrow morning he wants to start."


A trembling, excited old woman stared all that night at the rafters. She who had never been more than six miles from homeit was to her like going into another world. She who had never seen anything more exciting than a church supper was to see the County Fair. She had never dreamed of doing it. She could not at all imagine what it would be like.


The next morning all the family rose early to see her off. Perhaps her brother had not been the only one to be shocked by her happiness. As she tried to eat her breakfast they called out conflicting advice to her about what to see. Her brother said not to miss inspecting the stock, her nieces said the fancywork was the only thing worth looking at, Sophia told her to be sure to look at the display of preserves. Her nephews asked her to bring home an account of the trotting races.


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The buggy drove up to the door, and she was helped in. The family ran to and fro with blankets, woolen tippet, a hot soapstone from the kitchen range. Her wraps were tucked about her. They all stood together and waved goodby as she drove out of the yard. She waved back, but she scarcely saw them. On her return home that evening she was ashy pale, and so stiff that her brother had to lift her out bodily. But her lips were set in a blissful smile. They crowded around her with questions until Sophia pushed them all aside. She told them Aunt Mehetabel was too tired to speak until she had had her supper. The young people held their tongues while she drank her tea, and absent.mindedly ate a scrap of toast with an egg. Then the old woman was helped into an easy chair before the fire. They gathered about her, eager for news of the great world, and Sophia said, "Now, come Mehetabel, tell us all about it!"


Mehetabel drew a long breath. "It was just perfect!" she said. "Finer even than I thought. They've got it hanging up in the very middle of a sort o' closet made of glass, and one of the lower corners is ripped and turned back so's to show the seams on the wrong side."


"What?" asked Sophia, a little blankly.


"Why, the quilt!" said Mehetabel in surprise. "There are a whole lot of other ones in that room, but not one that can hold a candle to it, if I do say it who shouldn't. I heard lots of people say the same thing. You ought to have heard what the women said about that corner, Sophia. They saidwell, I'd be ashamed to tell you what they said. I declare if I wouldn't!"


Mr. Elwell asked, "What did you think of that big ox we've heard so much about?"


"I didn't look at the stock," returned his sister indifferently. She turned to one of her nieces. "That set of pieces you gave me, Maria, from your red waist, come out just lovely! I heard one woman say you could 'most smell the red roses."


"How did Jed Burgess' bay horse place in the mile trot?" asked Thomas.


"I didn't see the races."


"How about the preserves?" asked Sophia.


"I didn't see the preserves," said Mehetabel calmly.


Seeing that they were gazing at her with astonished faces she went on, to give them a reasonable explanation, "You see I went right to the room where the quilt was, and then I didn't want to leave it. It had been so long since I'd seen it. I had to look at it first real good myself, and then I looked at the others to see if there was any that could come up to it. Then the people begun comin' in and I got so interested in hearin' what they had to say I couldn't think of goin' anywheres else. I ate my lunch right there too, and I'm glad as can be I did, too; for what do you think?"she gazed about her with kindling eyes. "While I stood there with a sandwich in one hand, didn't the head of the hull concern come in and open the glass door and pin a big bow of blue ribbon right in the middle of the quilt with a label on it, 'First Prize."'


There was a stir of proud congratulation. Then Sophia returned to questioning, "Didn't you go to see anything else?"


"Why, no," said Mehetabel. "Only the quilt. Why should I?"


She fell into a reverie. As if it hung again before her eyes she saw the glory that shone around the creation of her hand and brain. She longed to make her listeners share the golden vision with her. She struggled for words. She fumbled blindly for unknown superlatives. "I tell you it looked like" she began, and paused.


Vague recollections of hymnbook phrases came into her mind. They were the only kind of poetic expression she knew. But they were dis' missed as being sacrilegious to use for something in real life. Also as not being nearly striking enough.


Finally, "I tell you it looked real good," she assured them and sat staring into the fire, on her tired old face the supreme content of an artist who has realized his ideal.


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