If any one is sick in the community Miss Aiken hears instantly of it by a sort of wireless telegraphy, or telepathy which would astonish a mystery-loving East Indian. She appears with her little basket, which has two brown flaps for covers opening from the middle and with a spring in them somewhere so that they fly shut with a snap. Out of this she takes a bowl of chicken broth, a jar of ambrosial jelly, a cake of delectable honey and a bottle of celestial raspberry shrub. If the patient will only eat, he will immediately rise up and walk. Or if he dies, it is a pleasant sort of death. I have myself thought on several occasions of being taken with a brief fit of sickness.
In telling all these things about Miss Aiken, which seem to describe her, I have told only the commonplace, the expected or predictable details. Often and often I pause when I see an interesting man or woman and ask myself: “How, after all, does this person live?” For we all know it is not chiefly by the clothes we wear or the house we occupy or the friends we touch. There is something deeper, more secret, which furnishes the real motive and character of our lives. What a triumph, then, is every fine old man! To have come out of a long life with a spirit still sunny, is not that an heroic accomplishment?
Of the real life of our friend I know only one thing; but that thing is precious to me, for it gives me a glimpse of the far dim Alps that rise out of the Plains of Contentment. It is nothing very definite—such things never are; and yet I like to think of it when I see her treading the useful round of her simple life. As I said, she has lived here in this neighbourhood—oh, sixty years. The country knew her father before her. Out of that past, through the dimming eyes of some of the old inhabitants, I have had glimpses of the sprightly girlhood which our friend must have enjoyed. There is even a confused story of a wooer (how people try to account for every old maid!)—a long time ago—who came and went away again. No one remembers much about him—such things are not important, of course, after so many years——
But I must get to the thing I treasure. One day Harriet called at the little house. It was in summer and the door stood open; she presumed on the privilege of friendship and walked straight in. There she saw, sitting at the table, her head on her arm in a curious girlish abandon unlike the prim Miss Aiken we knew so well, our Old Maid. When she heard Harriet’s step she started up with breath quickly indrawn. There were tears in her eyes. Something in her hand she concealed in the folds of her skirt then impulsively—unlike her, too—she threw an arm around Harriet and buried her face on Harriet’s shoulder. In response to Harriet’s question she said:
“Oh, an old, old trouble. No new trouble.”
That was all there was to it. All the new troubles were the troubles of other people. You may say this isn’t much of a clue; well it isn’t, and yet I like to have it in mind. It gives me somehow the other woman who is not expected or predictable or commonplace. I seem to understand our Old Maid the better; and when I think of her bustling, inquisitive, helpful, gentle ways and the shine of her white soul, I’m sure I don’t know what we should do without her in this community.