Aunt Mary's Preserving Kettle

Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851


"I declare, if these preserves haven't been fermenting!" exclaimed Aunt Mary, as she opened a jar of choice quinces, and perceived that, since they were sealed up and carefully stored for the winter, fermentation had taken place.

"And the peaches, too, as I live!" she added on examining another jar. "Run, Hannah, and bring me my preserving kettle. I shall have to do them all over."

"Mrs. Tompkins borrowed it, you know, yesterday," Hannah replied.

"So she did, I declare! Well, you must run over to Mrs. Tompkins, Hannah, and tell her that I need my preserving kettle."

Hannah departed, and Aunt Mary proceeded to examine jar after jar of her rich store of preserves, and, much to her disappointment, found that all of her quinces and peaches, comprising some eight or ten jars, had commenced fermenting. These she took from their dark corners in the closet, and, placing them on the large table in the kitchen, awaited patiently Hannah's return. In about fifteen minutes her help entered.

"But where is the kettle?" inquired Aunt Mary, eagerly.

"Why, ma'am, Mrs. Tompkins says as how she aren't quite done with it yet; she's finished her pears; but then she has her mamlet to do."

Aunt Mary Pierce was a good woman, and her heart was full of kind feelings towards others. But she had her foibles as well as her neighbors, and among these was an almost passionate admiration of her beautiful bell-metal preserving kettle, which was always kept as bright as a gold eagle. Nothing tried Aunt Mary more than to have to lend her preserving kettle. But as in reading her Bible she found it written Of him that would borrow of you turn you not away she dared not refuse any of the applications that were made for it, and in preserving time these were enough to try the patience of even a better woman than Aunt Mary. The fact was, that Aunt Mary's preserving kettle was the best in the village, and there were at least a dozen or two of her neighbors, who did not think their sweetmeats good for anything if not prepared in this favorite kettle.

"Isn't it too bad!" ejaculated Aunt Mary, lifting her hands and then letting them fall quickly. "Isn't it too bad! But it is always so! Just when I want my own things, somebody's got them. Go right back, Hannah, and tell Mrs. Tompkins that my preserves are all a fermenting, and that I must have my kettle at once, or they will be ruined."

Hannah started off again, and Aunt Mary stood, far less patiently than before, beside the table on which she had placed her jars, and awaited her return.

"Well," she asked eagerly, as Hannah entered after the lapse of some ten minutes, "where is the kettle?"

"Mrs. Tompkins says, ma'am, that she is very sorry that your preserves have commenced fermenting, but that it won't hurt them if they are left alone for three or four days. She says that her mamlet is all ready to put on, and as soon as that is done you shall have the kettle in welcome."

Poor Aunt Mary was, for a few minutes, mute with astonishment. On recovering herself, she did not storm and fret. Indeed, she was never guilty of these little housewife effervescences, usually taking every trouble with a degree of Christian meekness that it would have been well for many in the village, even the minister's wife, to have imitated.

"Well, Hannah," she said, heaving a sigh, "we shall have to wait, I suppose, until Mrs. Tompkins has finished her marmalade. But I am afraid all these preserves will be spoiled. Unless done over immediately on their beginning to ferment, they get a flavor that is not pleasant. But we must wait patiently."

"It's a downright shame, ma'am, so it is!" said Hannah, "and I wonder you take it so quietly. If it was my kettle, and I wanted it, I reckon I'd have it too quick. Only just say the word, ma'am, and I will get it for you if I have to take it off of the fire."

"Oh no, no, no, not for the world, Hannah!" replied Aunt Mary, to her indignant servant. "We will try and wait for her, though it is a little hard to have one's things always a-going, and never to be able to put your hands on them when you want them."

All the next day Aunt Mary allowed the jars of fermenting preserves to remain on the kitchen table. Every time her eye rested upon them, unkind thoughts would arise in her mind against her neighbor, Mrs. Tompkins, but she used her best efforts to suppress them. About the middle of the next day, as the preserving kettle did not make its appearance, Hannah was again despatched, with directions to urge upon Mrs. Tompkins the pressing necessity there was for its being returned. In due time Hannah made her appearance, but without the kettle.

"Well?" inquired Aunt Mary, in a tone of disappointment.

"Mrs. Tompkins says, ma'am," replied Hannah, "that you needn't be in such a fever about your old preserving kettle, and that it is not at all neighborly to be sending for a thing before it is done with. She says she won't be through with her mamlet before day after tomorrow, and that you can't have the kettle before then."

"Well, it is a downright shame!" said Aunt Mary, with a warmth of manner unusual to her.

"And so I told her," responded Hannah.

"You did! And what did Mrs. Tompkins say?"

"Oh, she fired right up, and said she didn't want any of my impudence."

"But you oughtn't to have said so, Hannah."

"How could I help it, ma'am, when my blood was boiling over? It is a shame; that's the truth."

Aunt Mary did not reply, but she thought all that Hannah had said to Mrs. Tompkins, and a good deal more. Indeed, her forbearance was sorely tried. Never since she could recollect, had she felt so unkindly towards any one as she now did towards her neighbor and fellow church member. Often did she try to put away these unkind and troublesome thoughts; but the effort was vain. Mrs. Tompkins had trespassed so far upon her rights, and then put such a face upon it, that she could not help feeling incensed at her conduct.

After a while "day after tomorrow" came, which was on Saturday.

"I must have that kettle today, Hannah," said she, and Hannah started off to Mrs. Tompkins.

"You needn't come after that kettle today," spoke up Mrs. Tompkins, as Hannah entered, "my marmalade is not all done yet."

"But we must have it today, Mrs. Tompkins. Mrs. Pierce says as how I mustn't come home without it. The preserves are nearly ruined now, and all because you didn't send home the kettle when we first needed it."

"I want none of your impudence," said Mrs. Tompkins, going off at once into a passion, for she was rather a high-tempered woman, "and so just shut up at once. If Mrs. Pierce is so fussy about her old worn-out kettle, she can have it and make the most out of it. A pretty neighbor, indeed! Here, Sally," calling to her help, "empty that kettle and give it to Hannah."

"Where shall I empty it?" asked Sally.

"Empty it into the slop barrel, for what I care; the whole kettle of marmalade will be spoiled anyhow. A pretty neighbor, indeed!"

Sally, who understood her mistress's mood, knew very well that her orders were not to be literally obeyed. So she took the preserving kettle from the fire, and poured its contents into a large pan, instead of the slop barrel.

"Here's the kettle," said she, bringing it in and handing it to Hannah. It was black and dirty on the outside, and within all besmeared with the marmalade, for Sally cared not to take the trouble of cleaning it.

"There, take the kettle!" said Mrs. Tompkins in an excited tone, "and tell Mrs. Pierce that it is the last time I'll borrow anything from her!"

Hannah took the kettle, and started for home at full speed.

"So you've got it at last," Said Aunt Mary, when Hannah entered; "and a pretty looking thing it is! Really it is too bad to have a thing sent home in that predicament."

"But she is mad though!" remarked Hannah, with something of exultation in her tones.

"What in the world can she be mad about?" asked Aunt Mary in surprise.

"Mad because I would have the kettle. Why, there she had her mamlet on the fire, boiling away, and said you couldn't have the kettle. But I told her you must have it; that your preserves were nearly all spoiled, just because you couldn't get your own kettle. Oh, but didn't she bile over then! And so she told Sally to pour the mamlet into the slop barrel, as it would all be spoiled any how, by your unneighborly treatment to her."

Poor Aunt Mary was dreadfully grieved at this. She loved the good opinion of her neighbors, and it always gave her pleasure to oblige them; but, in this case, she had been tried beyond endurance. She had little heart now to touch her preserves, and so went off to her chamber and sat down, overcome by painful feelings.

In the mean time, Hannah went to work, and, by dint of half an hour's hard scouring, got the kettle to look something like itself. She then went up and told Aunt Mary that everything was now ready for doing the preserves over again.

"I reckon we'll not boil them over today, Hannah," she replied. "It's Saturday, and you've got a good deal of cleaning to do, and I don't feel much like touching them. The preserves won't get much worse by Monday."

Hannah, who understood her mistress's feelings, and sympathized with her, because she loved her, did not urge the matter, but at once withdrew and left Aunt Mary to her own unpleasant reflections. It so happened that the next day was the Communion Sabbath; and this fact had at once occurred to Aunt Mary when Hannah repeated the words of Mrs. Tompkins, and stated that she was very angry. Mrs. Tompkins was a member and communicant of the same church with her. After sitting thoughtfully in her chamber for some time, Aunt Mary took up the communion service and commenced reading it. When she came to the words, "You who do truly and earnestly repent of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors," etc. etc., she paused and sat thoughtful and troubled for some time.

"Am I in love and charity with my neighbors?" she at length asked herself, aloud, drawing a heavy sigh.

"No, I am not," was the mental response. "Mrs. Tompkins is angry with me, and I am sure I do not feel right towards her."

During all that afternoon, Aunt Mary remained in her chamber, in deep communion with herself. For the last twenty years she had never, on a single occasion, stayed away from the Lord's table; but now she felt that she dared not go forward, for she was not in love and charity with her neighbors, and the injunction was explicit. Night came, and at the usual hour she retired, but not to sleep the sweet refreshing sleep that usually locked up her senses. Her thoughts were so active and troubled, that she could not sink away into a quiet slumber until long after midnight. In the morning she felt no better, and, as church time approached, her heart beat more heavily in her bosom. Finally, the nine o'clock bell rang, and every stroke seemed like a knell. At last the hour for assembling came, and Aunt Mary, cast down in heart, repaired to the meeting-house. The pew of Mrs. Tompkins was just in front of Aunt Mary's, but that lady did not turn around and smile and give her hand as usual when she entered. All this Aunt Mary felt.

In due time the services commenced, and regularly progressed to their conclusion, the minister preaching a very searching sermon. The solemn and impressive communion service followed, and then the members went up to partake of the sacred emblems. But Aunt Mary did not go up as usual. She could not, for she was not in love and charity with her neighbors. This was noticed by many, and particularly by the minister, who lingered after all had successively approached the table and retired, repeating his invitation, while his eye was fixed upon Aunt Mary.

"What can be the matter?" asked Mrs. Peabody of Mrs. Beebe, the moment she got outside of the church door. "Aunt Mary didn't go up."

"Indeed! It can't be possible?"

"Yes, but it is. For I sat just behind her all the time. She seemed very uneasy, and I thought troubled. She hardly looked up during the sermon, and hurried away, without speaking to anyone, as soon as the congregation was dismissed at the close of the communion service. What can be the matter?"

"It is strange, indeed!" responded Mrs. Green, who came up while Mrs. Peabody was speaking.

"I took notice myself that she did not go up."

"I wonder if she has done anything wrong?"

"Oh, no!"

"Then what can be the matter?"

"I would give anything to know!"

"Something is wrong, that is certain," remarked one of the little crowd, for the group of two or three had swelled to as many dozens.

Many were the suggestions made in reference to Aunt Mary's conduct; and, before Sabbath evening, there was not one of the members who did not know and wonder at her strange omission.

After Aunt Mary returned from church, she felt even worse than before. A sacred privilege had been deliberately omitted, and all because she had let unkindness spring up between herself and her neighbor.

"And yet how could I help it?" she argued with herself. "I was tired out of all patience. I only sent for my own, and because I did so, Mrs. Tompkins became offended. I am sure I was not to blame."

"But then," said another voice within her, "you could have gone over on Saturday and made up the matter with her, and then there would have been nothing in the way. One duty neglected, only opened the way for another."

There was something in this that could not be gainsaid, and poor Aunt Mary felt as deeply troubled as ever. She did not, as usual, go to the afternoon meeting, for she had no heart to do so. And then, as the shades of evening fell dimly around, she reproached herself for this omission. Poor soul! how sadly did she vex her spirit by self-condemnation.

That evening several of the society called in at the minister's house, and soon Aunt Mary's singular conduct became the subject of conversation.

"Isn't it strange?" said one. "Such a thing has not occurred for these ten years, to my certain knowledge."

"No, nor for twenty," remarked the minister.

"She seemed very uneasy during the sermon," said another.

"I thought she did not appear well, as my eye fell upon her occasionally," the minister added. "But she is one of the best of women, and I suppose she is undergoing some sore temptation, out of which she will come as gold tried in the fire."

"I don't know," broke in Mrs. Tompkins, who was among the visitors, "that she is so much better than other people. For my part, I can't say that I ever found her to be anything special."

"You do not judge of her kindly, Mrs. Tompkins," said the minister gravely. "I only wish that all my parish were as good as she is. I would feel, in that case, I am sure, far less concern for souls than I do."

Thus rebuked, Mrs. Tompkins contented herself by saying, in an undertone, to one who sat near her

"They may say what they please, but I am well enough acquainted with her to know that she is no better than other people."

Thus the conversation and the conjectures went round, while the subject of them sat in solitude and sadness in her own chamber. Finally, the minister said that he would call in and have some conversation with her on the next day, as he had no doubt that there was some trouble on her mind, and it might be in his power to relieve it.

Monday morning came at last, and Aunt Mary proceeded, though with but little interest in her occupation, to "do over" her preserves. She found them in a state that gave her little hope of being able to restore them to anything like their original flavor. But the trial must be made, and so she filled her kettle as full as requisite of a particular kind, and hung it over a slow fire. This had hardly been done, when Hannah came in and said

"As I live, Mrs. Pierce, there is the minister coming up the walk!"

And sure enough, on glancing out, she saw the minister almost at the door-step.

"Oh me!" she exclaimed, and then hurried into her little parlor, to await the knock of her unexpected visitor. At almost any other time, a call from the minister would have been delightful. But now, poor Aunt Mary felt that she would as soon have seen any one else.

The knock came in a moment, and, after a pause, the door was opened.

"How do you do, Aunt Mary? I am very glad to see you," said the minister, extending his hand.

Aunt Mary looked troubled and confused; but she received him in the best way she could. Still her manner embarrassed them both. After a few leading observations, the minister at length said

"You seem troubled, Aunt Mary. Can anything that I might say relieve the pain of mind you evidently feel?"

The tears came into Aunt Mary's eyes, but she could not venture to reply. The minister observed her emotion, and also the meek expression of her countenance.

"Do not vex yourself unnecessarily," he remarked. "If anything has gone wrong with you, deal frankly with me. You know that I am ever ready to counsel and advise."

"I know it," said Aunt Mary, and her voice trembled. "And I need much your kind direction. Yet I hardly know how to tell you my troubles. One thing, however, is certain. I have done wrong. But how to mend that wrong I know not, while there exists an unwillingness on my part to correct it."

"You must shun evil as sin," the minister remarked in a serious tone.

"I know, and it is for that reason I am troubled. I have unkind thoughts, and they are evil, and yet I cannot put these unkind thoughts away."

For a moment the minister sat silent, and then, looking up with a smile, said

"Come, Aunt Mary, be open and frank. Tell me all the particulars of your troubles, and then I am sure I can help you."

Aunt Mary, in turn, sat silent and thoughtful for a short period, and then, raising her head, she proceeded to relate her troubles. She told him how much she had been tried, year after year, during the preserving season, by the neighbors who had borrowed her preserving kettle. It was the best in the village, and she took a pride in it, but she could have no satisfaction in its possession. It was always going, and never returned in good order. She then frankly related how she had been tried by Mrs. Tompkins, and how nearly all of her preserves were spoiled, because she could not get back her kettle how the unkind feelings which had suddenly sprung up between them in consequence had troubled her, and even caused her to abstain, under conscientious scruples, from the communion.

The minister's heart felt lighter in his bosom as she concluded her simple narrative, and, smiling encouragingly, he said "Don't let it trouble you, Aunt Mary; it will all come right again. You have certainly been treated very badly, and I don't wonder at all that your feelings were tried."

"But what shall I do?" asked Aunt Mary, eagerly. "I feel very much troubled, and am very anxious to have all unkindness done away."

"Do you think you can forgive Mrs. Tompkins?"

"Oh, yes. She has not acted kindly, but I can forgive her from my heart."

"Then you might call over and see her, and explain the whole matter. I am sure all difficulties will end there."

"I will go this day," Aunt Mary said, encouragingly.

The minister sat a short time longer, and then went away. He had no sooner gone, than Aunt Mary put on her things and went directly over to Mrs. Tompkins.

"Good morning, Mrs. Pierce," that lady said, coolly, as her visitor entered. She had always before called Aunt Mary by the familiar name by which she was known in the village.

"Good morning, Mrs. Tompkins. I have come over to say that I am very sorry if I offended you on Saturday. I am sure I did not mean to do so. I only sent for my kettle, and would not have done that, had not some seven or eight jars of preserves been fermenting."

"Oh, it was no offence to send for your kettle," Mrs. Tompkins replied, smiling. "That was all right and proper. I was only a little vexed at your Hannah's impudence. But, Aunt Mary, let has-beens be has-beens. I am sorry that there has occurred the least bit of coolness between us."

Aunt Mary's heart bounded as lightly as if a hundred-pound weight had been taken from it; she was made happy on the instant.

"You don't know how glad I am to hear you say so, Mrs. Tompkins," she said, earnestly. "It has removed a load from my heart. Hereafter, I hope nothing will occur again to disturb our friendly feelings. You may have the kettle again, in a day or two, in welcome, and keep it as long as you please."

The breach was thus easily healed; and had Aunt Mary gone over on Saturday to see Mrs. Tompkins, she would have saved herself a world of trouble.

Still, nothing of this was known to the other members of the church, who were as full of conjecture as ever, concerning the singular conduct, as they called it, of Aunt Mary. The minister said nothing, and Mrs. Tompkins, of course, said nothing; and no one ventured to question Aunt Mary.

On the next Sabbath, Aunt Mary came to church as usual, and all eyes were instantly upon her.

Some thought she still looked troubled, and was paler than before, while others perceived that she was really more cheerful. In due time, the minister arose and announced his text:

"Give to him that asks, and of him that would borrow of you, turn not away."

"My dear friends," said he, on drawing near to the close of his subject, "the text teaches us, besides that of simple alms-giving, the duty of lending; but you will observe, it says not a word about borrowing. Under the law laid down here, we may lend as much as we please, but it gives no license to borrow. Now, as far as I have been able to learn, a number of my congregation have not been very particular on this point. They seem to think that it is helping their neighbors to keep this injunction to lend, by compelling an obedience to the precept, whether they are inclined to obey or not. Now, this is wrong. We are justified in lending to those who need such kind offices, but not to put others to the inconvenience of lending when we are fully able to supply our own needs. This is going beyond the scope of the Divine injunction, and I hold it to be morally wrong to do so. Some of you, I am credibly informed," and his voice fell to a low, distinct, and solemn tone, "are in the habit of regularly borrowing Aunt Mary's preserving kettle (here Aunt Mary looked up with a bewildered air, while her face colored deeply, and the whole congregation stared in amazement; but the minister went calmly on) and this, too, without regard to her convenience. Nor is this all the kettle is hardly ever returned in a good condition. How thoughtless! how wrong! In this, Aunt Mary alone has been faithful to the precept in my text, while you have departed widely from its true spirit. Let me hope that you will think better of this matter, and wisely resolve to let your past short-comings suffice."

And thus the sermon closed. It may well be supposed that for some days there was something of a stir in the hive. The ladies of the congregation who were among the borrowers of the preserving kettle, and they were not a few, including the minister's wife, were for a time deeply incensed at Aunt Mary, and not a few at the minister. But this temporary indignation soon wore off, for Aunt Mary was so kind and good that no one could feel offended with her for any length of time, more especially where there was really no cause of offence. One by one, they called upon her, as they were enabled to see how really they had been guilty of trespassing upon good nature, and, after apologizing, enjoyed with her a hearty laugh upon the subject. And, finally, the whole thing came to be looked upon as quite an amusing as well as an instructive affair.

After this, Aunt Mary was allowed to possess her beautiful bell-metal preserving kettle in peace, which was to her a source of no small satisfaction. And what was more, in the course of the next preserving season, a stock of twenty or thirty brass, copper, and bell-metal kettles, that had been lying for years on the shelves of a hardware-dealer's store in the village, almost uninquired for, were all sold off, and a new supply obtained from Boston to meet the increased demand.