From Some of Our Neighbours (J. M. Dent & Co: 1898)
Amanda Todd's orbit of existence is restricted of a necessity, since she was born, brought up and will die in this village; but there is no doubt that it is eccentric. She moves apart on her own little course quite separate from the rest of us. Had Amanda's lines of life been cast elsewhere, had circumstances pushed her, instead of hemming her in, she might have become the feminine apostle of a new creed, have founded a sect, or instituted a new system of female dress. As it is, she does not go to meeting, she never wears a bonnet, and she keeps cats.
Amanda Todd is rising sixty, and she never was married. Had she been, the close friction with another nature might have worn away some of the peculiarities of hers. She might have gone to meeting, she might have worn a bonnet, she might even have eschewed cats, but it is not probable. When peculiarities are in the grain of a person's nature, as they probably are in hers, such friction only brings them out more plainly and it is the other person who suffers.
The village men are not, as a rule, very subtle, but they have seemed to feel this instinctively. Amanda was, they say, a very pretty girl in her youth, but no young man ever dared make love to her and marry her. She had always the reputation of being “an odd stick,” even in the district school. She always kept by herself at recess, she never seemed to have anything in common with the other girls, and she always went home alone from singing school. Probably never in her whole life has Amanda Todd known what it is to be protected by some devoted person of the other sex through the nightly perils of our village street.
There is a tradition in the village that once in her life, when she was about twenty-five years old, Amanda Todd had a beautiful bonnet and went to meeting.
Old Mrs Nathan Morse vouches for the reliability of it, and, moreover, she hints at a reason. “When Mandy, she was 'bout twenty-five years old,” she says, “George Henry French, he come to town, and taught the district school, and he see Mandy, an' told Almira Benton that he thought she was about the prettiest girl he ever laid eyes on, and Almiry she told Mandy. That was all there ever was to it, he never waited on her, never spoke to her, fur's I know, but right after that, Mandy, she had a bunnet, and she went reg'lar to meetin'. 'Fore that her mother could scarcely get her to keep a thing on her head out-of-doors — allers carried her sun-bunnit a-danglin' by the strings, wonder she wa'n't sunstruck a million times — and as for goin' to meetin', her mother, she talked and talked, but it didn't do a mite of good. I s'pose her father kind of upheld her in it. He was 'most as odd as Mandy. He wouldn't go to meetin' unless he was driv, and he wa'n't a member. 'Nough sight ruther go out prowlin' round in the woods like a wild animal, Sabbath days, than go to meetin'. Once he ketched a wildcat, an' tried to tame it, but he couldn't. It bit and clawed so he had to let it go. I guess Mandy gets her likin' for cats from him fast enough. Well, Mandy, she had that handsome bunnet, an' she went to meetin' reg'lar 'most a year, and she looked as pretty as a picture sittin' in the pew. The bunnit was trimmed with green gauze ribbon and had a wreath of fine pink flowers inside. Her mother was real tickled, thought Mandy had met with a change. But land, it didn't last no time. George Henry French, he quit town the next year and went to Somerset to teach, and pretty soon we heard he hed married a girl over there. Then Mandy, she didn't come to meetin' any more. I dunno what she did with the bunnit — stamped on it, most likely, she always had consider'ble temper — anyway I never see her wear it arterwards.”
Thus old Mrs Nathan Morse tells the story, and somehow to a reflective mind the picture of Amanda Todd in her youth decked in her pink-wreathed bonnet, selfishly but innocently attending in the sanctuary of Divine Love in order to lay hands on her own little share of earthly affection, is inseparable from her, as she goes now, old and bare-headed, defiantly past the meeting-house, when the Sabbath bells are ringing.
However, if Amanda Todd had elected to go bareheaded through the village street from feminine vanity, rather than eccentricity, it would have been no wonder. Not a young girl in the village has such a head of hair as Amanda. It is of a beautiful chestnut colour, and there is not a gray thread in it. It is full of wonderful natural ripples, too — not one of the village girls can equal them with her papers and crimping-pins — and Amanda arranges it in two superb braids wound twice around her head. Seen from behind, Amanda's head is that of a young beauty; when she turns a little, and her harsh old profile becomes visible, there is a shock to a stranger.
Amanda's father had a great shock of chestnut hair which was seldom cut, and she inherits this adornment from him. He lived to be an old man, but that ruddy crown of his never turned gray.
Amanda's mother died long ago; then her father. Ever since she has lived alone in her shingled cottage with her cats. There were not so many cats at first; they say she started with one fine tabby which became the mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother to armies of kittens.
Amanda must destroy some when she can find no homes for them, otherwise she herself would be driven afield, but still the impression is of a legion.
A cat is so covert, it slinks so secretly from one abiding place to another, and seems to duplicate itself with its sudden appearances, that it may account in a measure for this impression. Still there are a great many. Nobody knows just the number — the estimate runs anywhere from fifteen to fifty. Counting, or trying to count, Amanda Todd's cats is a favourite amusement of the village children. “Here's another,” they shout, when a pair of green eyes gleams at them from a post. But is it another or only the same cat who has moved? Cats sit in Amanda's windows; they stare out wisely at the passers-by from behind the panes, or they fold their paws on the ledge outside in the sunshine. Cats walk Amanda's ridge-pole and her fence, they perch on her posts and fly to her cherry trees with bristling fur at the sight of a dog. Amanda has as deadly a hatred of dogs as have her cats. Every one which comes within stone throw of her she sends off yelping, for she is a good shot. Kittens tumble about Amanda's yard, and crawl out between her fence-pickets under people's feet. Amanda will never give away a kitten except to a responsible person, and is as particular as if the kitten were a human orphan and she the manager of an asylum.
She will never, for any consideration, bestow one of her kittens upon a family which keeps a dog or where there are many small children. Once she made a condition that the dog should be killed, and she may be at times inwardly disposed to banish the children.
Amanda Todd is extremely persistent when she has selected a home which is perfectly satisfactory to her for a kitten. Once one was found tied into a little basket like a baby on the doorstep of a childless and humane couple who kept no dog, and there is a story that Deacon Nehemiah Stockwell found one in his overcoat pocket and never knew how it came there. It is probable that Amanda resorts to these extreme measures to save herself from either destroying her kittens or being driven out of house and home by them.
However, once, when the case was reversed, Amanda herself was found wanting. When she began to grow old, and the care of her pets told upon her, it occurred to her that she might adopt a little girl. Amanda has a comfortable income, and would have been able to provide a good living for a child as far as that goes.
But the managers of the institution to which Amanda applied made inquiries, and the result did not satisfy them. Amanda stated frankly her reason for wishing to take the child and her intentions with regard to her. She wished the little girl to tend her cats and assist her in caring for them. She was willing that she should attend school four hours per day, going after the cats had their breakfast, and returning an hour earlier to give them their supper. She was willing that she should go to meeting in the afternoon only, and she could have no other children come to visit her for fear they should maltreat the kittens. She furthermore announced her intention to make her will, giving to the girl whom she should adopt her entire property in trust for the cats, to include her own maintenance on condition that she devote her life to them as she had done.
The trustees declared that they could not conscientiously commit a child to her keeping for such purposes, and the poor little girl orphan who had the chance of devoting her life to the care of pussy cats and kittens to the exclusion of all childish followers, remained in her asylum.
So Amanda to this day lives alone, and manages as best she can. Nobody in the village can be induced to live with her; one forlorn old soul preferred the almshouse.
“I'd 'nough sight ruther go on the town than live with all them cats,” she said.
It is rather unfortunate that Amanda's shingled cottage is next the meeting-house, for that, somehow, seems to render her non-church-going more glaringly conspicuous, and then, too, there is a liability of indecorous proceedings on the part of the cats.
They evidently do not share their mistress' dislike of the sanctuary, and find its soft pew cushions very inviting. They watch their chances to slink in when the sexton opens the meeting-house; he is an old man and dim-eyed, and they are often successful. It is wise for anybody before taking a seat in a pew to make sure that one of Amanda's cats has not forestalled him; and often a cat flees down one flight of the pulpit stairs as the minister ascends the other.
We all wonder what will become of Amanda's cats when she dies. There is a report that she has made her will and left her property in trust for the cats to somebody; but to whom? Nobody in this village is anxious for such a bequest, and whoever it may be will probably strive to repudiate it. Some day the cats will undoubtedly go by the board; young Henry Wilson, who has a gun, will shoot some, the rest will become aliens and wanderers, but we all hope Amanda Todd will never know it.
In the meantime she is undoubtedly carrying on among us an eccentric, but none the less genuine mission. A home missionary is Amanda Todd, and we should recognize her as such in spite of her non-church-going proclivities. Weak in faith though she may be, she is, perchance, as strong in love as the best of us. At least I do not doubt that her poor little four-footed dependents would so give evidence if they could speak.