In Old Plantation Days

The Brief Cure of Aunt Fanny

Some people grow old gracefully, charmingly. Others, with a bitter reluctance so evident that it detracts from whatever dignity might attach to their advanced period of life. Of this latter class was Aunt Fanny. She had cooked in the Mordaunt kitchen for more years than those hands who even claimed middle-age cared to remember. But any reference to the length of time she had passed there was keenly resented by the old woman. She had been good-looking in her younger days, sprightly, and a wonderful worker, and she held to the belief in her capabilities long after the powers of her youth and middle-age were gone. She was still young when her comrades, Parker, Tempe, Doshy and Mam Henry had duly renounced their sins, got religion and confessed themselves old. She had danced beyond the time when all her comrades had grown to the stage of settled and unfrivolous Christianity. Indeed, she had kept up her gayety until she could find no men old enough to be her partners, and the young men began to ignore her; then she went into the Church. But with the cooking, it was different. Even to herself, after years had come and brought their infirmities, she would not admit her feebleness, and she felt that she had never undergone a greater trial or endured a more flagrant insult than when Maria was put into the kitchen to help her with her work. Help her with her work, indeed! Who could help her? In truth, what need had she of assistance? Was she not altogether the most famous cook in the whole county? Was she not able by herself to cope with all the duties that could possibly devolve upon her? Resentment renewed her energy, and she did her work with an angry sprightliness that belied her years. She browbeat Maria and made her duties a sinecure by doing everything just as she had done before her rival’s appearance.

It was pretty hard for the younger woman, who also was active and ambitious, and there were frequent clashes between the two, but Aunt Fanny from being an autocrat had gained a consciousness of power, and was almost always victorious in these bouts. “Uh huh!” she said to Tempe, discussing the matter. “They ain’t gwine to put no upstart black ‘ooman oveh me, aftah all de yeahs I’s been in dat kitchen. I knows evah brick an’ slat in it. It uz built fu’ me, an’ I ain’t gwine let nobody tek it f om me. No, suh, not ontwcll de preacheah done tho’wed de ashes on dis haid.”

“We’s all gittin’ ol’ dough,” said Tempe thoughtfully, “an’ de young ones got to tek ouah place.”

“Gittin’ olM gittin’ ol’!” Aunt Fanny would exclaim indignantly; “I ain’t gittin’ ol’!. I des’ ez spry ez I was w’en I was a gal.” And by her work she made an attempt to bear out her statement.

It would not do, though; for Time has no illusions. Neither is he discreet, and he was telling on Aunt Fanny.

The big house, too, had felt for a long time that she was failing, but the old master had hesitated to speak to her, but now he felt that she was going from bad to worse, and that something must be done. It was hard speaking to her, but when morning after morning the breakfast was unpardonably late, the beaten biscuits were burned and the cakes tough, it appeared that the crisis had come. Just at this time, too, Maria made it plain that she was not being given her proper share of responsibility, and Stuart Mordaunt, the old master, went down to remonstrate with Aunt Fanny.

“Now, Fanny,” he said, “you know we have never complained of your cooking, and you have been serving right here in this kitchen for forty years, haven’t you?”

“Yes, I has, Mas’ Stua’t,” said Aunt Fanny, “an’ I wish I could go right on fu’ fo’ty yeahs mo’.”

“I wish so, too, but age is telling on you just as it is on me;” he put his hand to his white head. “It is no use your working so hard any more.”

“I want to work hard,” said Aunt Fanny tremulously; “hit’s my life.”

“But you are not able to do it,” said Mordaunt forcibly; “you are too old, Fanny.”

She turned on him a look eager, keen and argumentative.

“I’s moughty sho’ you older’n me, Mas’ Stua’t,” she said.

“I know it,” he said hastily. “Didn’t I just say that age was telling on us both?”

“You ain’t quit runnin’ de plantation yit,” was the calm reply.

The master was staggered for a moment, but he hurriedly rallied: “No, I haven’t, but I am a good deal less active than I was twenty, ten, even five years ago. I don’t work much, I only direct others—and that’s just what I want you to do. Be around, direct others, and teach Maria what you know.”

“It ain’t in huh,” sententiously.

“Put it in her; some one had to teach you.”

“No, suh, I was a born cook. Nemmine, I see you want to git rid o’ me; nemmine, M’ria kin have de kitchen.” The old woman’s voice was trembling and tears stood in her eyes, big and glistening. Mordaunt always gentle-hearted, gave in. “Well, confound it, Fanny,” he broke in, “do as you please; I’ve nothing more to say. I suppose we’ll have to go on eating your burned biscuits and tough batter-cakes as long as you please. That’s all I have to say.”

But with Maria there was no such easy yielding; for she knew that she had the power of the big house behind her, and in the next bout with Aunt Fanny she held her own and triumphed for the first time. The older woman’s anger knew no bounds. She went sullenly to her cabin that night, and she did not rise the next morning when the horn blew. She told those who inquired that she was sick, and “I ‘low,” she invariably added, “dat I’s either got the rheumatiz or dat black wench has conju’ed me so’s to git my kitchen, ‘case she knowed dat was de only way to git it.”

Now Aunt Fanny well knew that to accuse one of her fellow-servants of calling in the aid of the black art was to bring about the damnation of that other servant if the story gained credence, but even she doubted that the plantation could believe anything so horrible of one so generally popular, who, besides, had her own particular following. Among the latter Mam Henry was not wont to be numbered, but she was a woman who loved to see fair play, and after having visited Aunt Fanny in her cabin, she said in secret to Aunt Tempe:

“Fanny she don’t look lak no conju’ed ooman to me, an’ I’s gwine fin’ out whether dey’s any thing de matter wid huh a-tall, ‘case I don’ b’lieve dey is. I b’lieve she’s des’ in one o’ huh tantrums, ‘case M’ria stood huh down ’bout de kitchen.”

Aunt Tempe had answered: “Dey ain’t no ‘sputin’ dat Fanny is gittin’ ol’ an’ doty.”

The sick woman or malingerer, whichever she was, did not see the subtle motive which prompted Mam Henry’s offer to nurse and doctor her. She looked upon it as an evidence of pure friendship and a tribute to her own worth on the plantation. She saw in Mam Henry, a woman older even than herself, a trusted ally in revolt against the advances of youth, and she anticipated a sympathetic listener into whose ears she might pour her confidences. As to her powers as a curer and a nurse, while Mam Henry was not actually “long-headed,” she was known to be both “gifted” and “wise,” and was close in the confidence of Dr. Bass, the conjure man, himself.

Although Maria went her way about the kitchen, and made the most of her new-found freedom, she heard with grief and consternation, not unmingled with a wholesome fear, the accusations which her old enemy was making against her. She trembled for what the plantation would say and do, and for what her master would think. Some of her misgivings she communicated to Aunt Tempe, who reassured her with the remark, “Nevah you min’, chile, you des go ‘long an’ do yo’ wo’k, dey’s things woTdn’ fu’ you in de da’k.”

Meanwhile, Mam Henry had duly installed herself in her patient’s cabin and entered upon her ministrations. The afflicted arm and leg were covered with greased jimson weed and swathed in bandages.

“‘Tain’t no use doin’ dis, Mam Henry,” Aunt Fanny protested, “’tain’t a bit o’ use. I’s hyeah to tell you dat dis mis’ry I’s sufferin’ wid ain’t no rheumatiz, hit’s des plain conju’, an’ dey ain’t nuffin’ gwine to do no good but to meet trick wid trick.”

“You lay low, chile,” answered Mam Henry impressively. “I got my own idees. I’s gwine to use all de rheumatiz cuohs, an’ den ef you ain’t no bettah, de sign will be sho’ ez de wo’d dat you’s been tricked. Den we gwine to use othah things.”

Aunt Fanny closed her eyes and resigned herself. She could afford to wait, for she had a pretty definite idea herself what the outcome would be.

In the long hours that the old women were together it was quite natural that they should fall into confidences, and it was equally natural that Aunt Fanny should be especially interested in the doings of the kitchen and the big house. Her mistress had brought her some flannels, and good things to eat, and, while she had sympathized with her, she felt that nothing could have been more opportune than this illness that settled the question of the cooking once and forever. In one of their talks, Aunt Fanny asked her nurse what “Ol’ Miss ‘Liza say ’bout me bein’ sick.”

“She say she moughty so’y fu’ you, but dat ’tain’t no mo’ den she ‘spected anyhow, case de kitchen kin’ o’ open an’ you gittin’ too ol’ to be ‘roun’, ‘sposin’ yo’se’f to all kin’ o’ draughts.”

“Humph!” sniffed Aunt Fanny from the bed, and she flirted the rheumatic arm around in a way that should have caused her unspeakable pain. She never flinched, however.

“She don’t b’lieve you conju’ed,” Mam Henry went on. “She say dat’s all foo’ishness; she say you des’ got de rheumatiz, dat w’en you git up you gotter stay closah to yo’ cabin, an’ not be flyin’ ‘roun’ whaih you tek mo’ col’.”

This time the rheumatic leg performed some gyrations unheard of from such a diseased member.

“Mam Henry,” said Aunt Fanny solemnly, “ain’t it cu’ious how little w’ite folks know ’bout natur?”

“It sho is. Ol’ Mas’ he say he gwine ‘tiah mos’ of de ol’ servants, an’ let ’em res’ fu’ de balance o’ dey days, case dey been faifful, an’ he think dey ‘serve it. I think so, too. We been wo’kin’ all ouah days, an’ I know ol’ Time done laid his han’ heavy on my back. Ain’t I right?”

“Humph!” from the bed. “Some people ages quicker’n othahs.”

“Dat’s de Gospel. Now wid you an’ me an’ Tempe an’ Pahkah an’ Doshy, dey ain’t been nuffin’ quick bout hit, case I tell you, Fanny, chile, we’s been hyeah lo dese many days.”

“How M’ria git erlong?” Aunt Fanny asked uneasily.

“Oh, M’ria she des’ tickled to deaf. She flyin’ ‘roun’ same ez a chicken wid his haid wrung off. She so proud o’ huhse’f dat she des cain’t res’, she cain’t do enough. She scourin’ an’ she cleanin’ an’ she cookin’ all de time, an’ w’en she ain’t cookin’ she plannin’ what she gwine to cook. I hyeah ol’ mas’ say dat she sholy was moughty peart, an’ I ‘low huh battah-cakes was somep’n scrumptious. Mas’ Stua’t et a mess; he ‘low dat ef M’ria keep on mektn’ such cakes as she mek in dc mornin’, de m’lasses bar’l ain’t gwine hoi’ out no time.

Aunt Fanny looked nervously toward her brogans in the corner. The camel’s back was being pretty heavily laden, and a faint smile flickered over Mam Henry’s shrewd face.

“You des’ ought to see de aihs M’ria teks on huhse’f. She allus struttin’ erroun’ wid a w’ite ap’on on soon’s huh wo’k’s done, an’ she calls huhse’f de big house cook.”

This was the last straw. The camel’s back went with a figurative crash. The covers were thrown back, and Aunt Fanny sprang up and seated herself on the side of the bed.

“Han’ me my shoes,” she said.

“W’y, Fanny, fo’ de Lawd!” cried Mam Henry in well-feigned surprise. “What you gwine do?”

“I’s gwine git up f’om hyeah, dat’s what I’s gwine do. Han’ me my shoes.”

“But yo’ rheumatiz, yo’ rheumatiz?”

“I ain’t got no rheumatiz. You done cuohed me,” she said, slipping into her dress as she spoke.

“But you ain’t gin me de chanst to try all de cuohs yit; s’posen you tu’ns out to be conju’ed aftah all.”

“Ain’t ol’ miss done say hit all foolishness?”

“But you done say de w’ite folks don’t know nuffin ’bout natur.”

“I ain’t got no time to bantah wo’ds wid you, Mam Henry, I got to go to my wo’k. I ain’t gwine let my kitchen be all messed up an’ my w’ite folks’ appetites plum spiled by dat know-nuffin wench.” And Aunt Fanny walking with an ease that bore out her statement that she was cured swept out of the house with scant courtesy to her nurse, who remained behind, shaking with laughter.

“I said so, I said so,” she said to herself. “I knowed dey wa’nt nuffin’ de mattah wid Fanny but de tantrums.”

Maria was a good deal surprised and not at all pleased when, a little later, her old rival appeared upon the scene and began to take charge of things in the old way.

“W’y, Aunt Fanny,” she said, “I t’ought you was sick?”

“You don’t s’pose I’s gwine to stay sick all de time, do you?” was the short response. “I wants you to know I’s cuohed.”

Then Maria bridled. Her unlimited authority in the last few days had put added spirit into her.

“Look a-hyeah, Aunt Fanny,” she said, “I sees thoo you now. You des been sick ‘case you couldn’t have yo’ own way, an’ you wanted to mek b’lieve I conju’ed you so de folks would drive me out, didn’t you? But sick er no sick, conju’ er no conju’, cuohed er no cuohed, dis is my kitchen, an I ain’t gwine gin it up to no ‘ooman.”

Later on the services of the master had to be called in again, and he also began to understand.

“Well, it’s this way, Fanny,” he said; “you might be cured now, but if you stay around here you are likely to be taken down again. You are apt to become subject to these attacks, so you had better go back to your cabin and stay around there. Maria is going to take charge of the kitchen now, and when we need you, you can come up and cook something special for your old Miss and me.”

The old woman would have protested, but there was a firm ring in her master’s voice which was not to be mistaken, and she went tearfully back to her cabin, where, though so suddenly “cuohed,” she was immediately taken ill again, more seriously, if possible, than before.


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This work (In Old Plantation Days by Paul Laurence Dunbar) is free of known copyright restrictions.