How They Cured Him

by Mary Tappan Wright

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     THE low, brown fields went flying past the car-windows, and Kate, leaning back in her chair, watched them dreamily. Her mind, like a shuttle-cock, tossed between her expected meeting with her cousins, and keen observation of a girl of about seventeen, who looked at her from the surface of the window glass. Occasionally she addressed an inaudible remark to this young person.
     “Yes, Theodore and Katharine will meet me. How handsome they both are! You, I suppose,” she contemptuously remarked, “You think you look a little like Katharine, but you do not. Your hair is pale brown, your eyes are nothing remarkable. To be sure, your nose is straight, and your teeth are good, very good—but you needn’t smile. You are going to have a cold-sore.
     “Your hands and feet are pretty, and your figure—well, better than the average, and, in a simple Dulwich way, you are not badly dressed. I can concede all this without vanity, because your complexion is detestable! It cancels all your good qualities.
     “There, I have looked at myself in that mirror long enough.”
     Wheeling her chair about, she encountered the train-boy.
     “Papers, miss? Magazines?”* he said.
     “No;” but in the act of returning him a magazine that he had left in her chair, Kate’s eye was caught by the heading,—


     “How startlingly opportune!” she breathed.* “Yes, I will take this,” she said aloud. “And now,” whirling herself back again, and addressing her former friend, “we’ll see what we can do for ourselves.”
     At the end of twenty minutes she had culled much useful, but alas! not novel information.
     “More exercise. Little candy. Less pastry. No pickles.”
     She put the pamphlet aside. She would hear all that again to-morrow, as she had heard it hundreds of times before from old Dr. Junkins, when he called on her invalid aunt. Still, having bought the magazine, she might as well read it to the end. Here, at the close, was at last something promising:
     “Procure one ounce of fine tar and a small vial of almond oil. Both may be found at any reliable druggist’s. Upon retiring, thoroughly oil the skin, and then apply a smooth coating of tar. In the morning the roughest skin will be found as smooth and soft as any baby’s. This is a famous receipt of Ninon’s.”*
     Kate was thoroughly conscious of the defects,* slight as they really were, of her complexion. What if here should be the long-sought-for panacea! It was unique, certainly. She carefully folded the pamphlet away.
     Soon the horse-cars and the street-lamps, dim in the evening mists, heralded the approaching city. After a time the train stopped, and Kate was soon hurried off to the carriage by her tall cousins, who had been waiting for her on the platform.

     *“Kate, how well you are!”
     “Katharine, how pretty you look!” The two girls were driving homewards.
     “Nonsense!” said Katharine. “Mama says that I am ‘gone off;’ my complexion is ruined. There will be little enough of that now!” she added, ruefully. “O Kate, I have such bad news for you!”
     “You don’t mean that Aunt Marion is worse?”
     “No, she is the same as ever, poor dear!—always funny and cheerful, when she cannot stir from her lounge. It is papa that is the bad news.”
     “Is he ill again? Mamma would never have let me come if she had known. You wrote that he was quite well, and staying in the house only as a precautionary measure.”
     “Yes,” said Katharine, drily; “you will find him rather more of a precautionary measure than is pleasant.”
     “Katharine! Your own father!”
     “You know nothing about it, Kate. He has been unendurable for weeks. As long as he was ill, we were of course very sorry for him. But now he’s well. Dr. Junkins told mamma so. Of course I love my father, but what temper can you expect of a man who, for six weeks, sits in the house in one spot, never allowing a smile to creep over his face!”
     Kate opened her mouth as if to remonstrate, but her cousin continued: “Wait till you hear what happened last night. Theo and I were planning a little party for you, of not more than twenty people, when papa, who always has encouraged us in such things, said, in a gloomy tone, that we seemed to forget it was Lent.* We were too old, of course, to be compelled to observe this holy season, he added, but in his house, at least, we should not indulge in dissipations so unfitting and unseemly.”
     “I thought it was lumbago,” said Kate, in distressed tones, “or something of the kind. I never knew that lumbago was—mental.”
     “It seems to me that this is spiritual,” said Katharine, crossly. “But here we are. Run right upstairs to mamma.”

     *The first greetings over, Kate had settled down into a comfortable chair near her aunt’s couch, when a hollow groan reverberated through the house.
     “Oh, what is that?” she cried, startled.
     “You must go down and see your uncle,” answered her aunt, looking amused at her terror.
     “Now?” asked Kate, in consternation.
     Another dreadful groan rang up from below. Kate stood in an agony of indecision.
     “Fee, fi, fo, fum!” laughed Katharine.
     “Serve her with a mayonnaise,” said her aunt. “She is still crisp, and fresh from the country this afternoon.”
     “Why don’t some one go to help him?” cried Kate.
     “Indeed, dear, he is not ill,” said her aunt. “Any little thing may dissipate this gloomy mood. Go down and be as cheerful as you can. A good hearty laugh, Dr. Junkins says, would cure him.”
     Kate reluctantly entered the little library, where her uncle was sitting in a deep easy-chair. He looked ill and hollow-eyed.
     “So the dissipations of the city have attracted another little moth?” was his greeting. “You are just like the rest of them, I suppose.”
     Poor Kate tried in vain to think of something cheerful, and after a call as short as she could politely make it, she fled.

     *The next morning, as she sat reading over the register* in the large sunny upper hall, where her aunt’s lounge stood, she heard some one admitted down stairs.
     “It must be Dr. Junkins,” remarked her aunt. But Kate did not move. She and the doctor were old enemies.
     “Helloa!”* he brusquely cried, as he appeared, puffing and wheezing, above the landing. “You needn’t turn around, Kate. Nobody in this family would be doubled up over the register with a book on such a morning as this.”
     “I’m cold,” said Kate.
     “Run about, then. Run about. Take exercise. Get into a glow. Expand your lungs”—
     “I will let you do that, doctor,” remarked Kate, with a saucy smile.
     “Impudence is not argument,” retorted the doctor. “You will never be strong in mind or body until you follow my advice. You will not be brilliant; you will not be healthy; you will not be pretty—and you care more for that than all the rest put together—until you stir yourself up, and get some oxygen into your blood. Look at Katharine here. She’s the picture of health,” and coming closer to Katharine, in a loud and mysterious whisper, he asked, “Has he laughed yet?”
     “No,” answered Katharine.
     “Make him laugh!” said the doctor, briefly. “It is his only chance. He won’t be himself until he forgets himself. That’s a paradox. Here, Kate, they say you are the family genius. Do you know a paradox when you hear it?”
     “I thought I did—until just now.”
     “Come, doctor, let Kate alone!” said her aunt.
     “You need not interfere, madam,” and the doctor stumped up to the edge of the lounge. “Kate’s own conceit affords her ample protection.”
     “That’s not fair!” cried Katharine.
     “No,” said Aunt Marion, kindly. “Kate has too much real knowledge to be conceited.”
     “Knowledge!”* grunted the doctor, contemptuously. “Your studious country girls are lazy. You haven’t enough to amuse you, and your industrious vanity blinds you to the truth. You are inert, the whole pack of you. She’d be a very pretty girl,” he added, turning to her aunt, and taking no pains to modulate his voice, “if she had a good complexion.”

     *That afternoon, when luncheon was over, Katharine found Kate absorbed in the study of the magazine that she had bought upon the cars.
     “What are you reading?” she whispered. They were standing in the lower hall, outside the door of her uncle’s library.
     “This. I bought it coming down.”
     “What made you buy The Fiddler’s Emporium?* We always take it.”
     “Did you read this?” and Kate doubled down the passage beginning, “Procure* one ounce of fine tar.”
     Katharine read it aloud. “‘As smooth and soft as any baby’s,’” she repeated, dubiously. “That may be, but it doesn’t say anything as to the color. I shouldn’t like to wake the color that sister Jennie’s little Paul was when he was about two weeks old. Do you remember him?”
     Kate shuddered.
     “But look at little Elizabeth. Think of waking up to-morrow with a skin like hers! Come, darling!” she called to the child, who was standing on the stairs. “Now, Katharine, if by any short cut I could arrive at such a complexion as this, I would exercise in a way that would make old Junk leap for joy.”
     “Girls!” came forth from the library, in a tone of unqualified disgust.
     “We have roused him again!” whispered Kate.
     “Yes, father!” called Katharine, meekly.
     “Go upstairs to your own rooms. If you are unable to rise above this intolerable silliness and frivolity, if you are determined to remain a pair of shallow-pated butterflies for the rest of your lives, you can at least alleviate the sufferings of those unfortunately related to you by taking yourselves out of hearing.”
     Katharine took up her little sister into her arms, and Kate followed her upstairs, where the two girls entered their own room, and Kate turned again to the magazine. After reading a few minutes, “Katharine,” she said, looking up, “am I so very homely?”
     “You?” returned Katharine, absently, not turning her eyes from the fire into which she was staring. “No-no,* not so very!”
     Kate was startled. She rose, and going to the long mirror, gazed into it intently.
     “I am not homely!” she cried, suddenly and hotly, after a prolonged silence.
     “Who said you were?” Katharine stared at her.
     “You did.”
     “I? Nonsense! I never did. When you are thirty,* and I am thirty-three, you will be the better-looking of the two.”
     “I don’t want to wait until I am thirty to be pretty, nor until I am twenty, nor until I am nineteen; I want to be pretty now—to-morrow.”
     “Then,” said Katharine, with resignation, “your only hope, so far as I can see, lies in sending Annie around the corner for a vial of almond-oil and a box of tar.”
     “I will do it—this very evening.”

     *It was a little after eight o’clock when, as the girls were sitting in their wrappers, a knock at the door of their room was followed by the introduction, through the narrow crack, of a small* round box and a two-ounce vial, both wrapped in white paper and tied with a pink string.
     “Ugh—this horrible stuff!” exclaimed Katharine, opening the box. “It will ruin our clothes. I must go to the rag-bag and find something that we cannot damage.”
     “Don’t disturb uncle,” said Kate, as her cousin opened the door.
     Annie was still outside. “Miss Katharine, what would ye be afther wid that dirty stuff?” she asked.
     “Never mind, Annie.”
     “O Annie, go away!” whispered Kate, frantically. “Uncle will be up if he hears the least noise.”
     “Miss Katharine, don’t ye let Miss Kate lead ye into mischief that ye’ll repint for many a day. Ye’re too old for capers, the pair of ye, and ought to be ashamed of yerselves.”
     “We shall not do any harm, Annie,” said Katharine, descending the stairs and beckoning the servant to follow her.
     In her cousin’s absence Kate made an inspection of the box of tar. After a little reflection, she opened the door of a small bath-room adjoining, lighted the gas and turned on the hot water. Selecting the strongest soap, she scrubbed her face energetically.
     “I shall give it every chance,” she muttered, as she returned to the mirror, her fine, delicate skin scarlet from this vigorous treatment.
     Pouring a little of the oil into a saucer, with her forefinger she carefully anointed her nose, her upper lip and her chin. She then took the box of tar in her hand and looked at it dubiously.
     “Nothing venture!” she exclaimed, after a second’s hesitation, and then plunging her finger into the sticky mass, she recklessly painted herself a fine brown moustache, imperial, and—nose.*
     “Katharine, how you startled me!” And, turning, she revealed to her astonished cousin the full glories of her ebony countenance.
     “Kate!” shrieked Katharine.
     “Oh hush! Oh do hush!” whispered Kate, running to shut the door and standing with her back against it. “Katharine,* I implore you to stop laughing. If uncle comes up,*—it isn’t funny, I tell you, Katharine, it is serious. Katharine, I beg you not to laugh; think of something solemn.”
     But it was no use. Katharine had subsided on to the bed in speechless, helpless laughter. All at once Kate’s expression underwent a frightful change, and her face—or what was left of it that could—grew ashy pale.
     “I am ruined!” she cried. “It burns fearfully! My nose will come off!” running into the bath-room. “Any kind of a nose is better than none.”
     Unable to control her laughter, and yet more frightened than she appeared, Katharine endeavored to render all possible assistance.
     “Of course you will give it up now,” she said, when some of the smarting pain had been alleviated.
     “I shall do nothing of the kind,” said Kate, obstinately. “By this time all the impurities of my skin are burned away. All that is left now is to go on in the path of beauty.”
     “Indeed, Kate, I am afraid we may ruin our complexions.”
     “We couldn’t ruin them with tar,” answered Kate, as she prepared to renew the anointing. “You may do as you please,”*—putting a rich coating on her chin,*—”I mean to go on.”
     “Very well; I’m not afraid.” And Katharine followed her cousin’s example. After covering the pillows with pieces of old linen, they laid themselves down, and in spite of smarting pains fell asleep.

     *In the morning Kate awoke first. Raising herself on her pillow, she studies her cousin’s dusky features.
     The great grey eyes slowly unclosed.
     “You roll your eyes like a negro minstrel.”*
     Care* pricked poor Katharine to instant wakefulness.
     “O Kate, I dreamed it would not come off!”
     “Nonsense! it will. Wait until I come out of the bath-room,” cried Kate, struggling into her wrapper. “I shall return a vision of beauty.”
     She shut the door, and Katharine waited—waited. At last she became impatient.
     “Do hurry, Kate; I shall be late to breakfast,” she called, knocking softly.
     Kate opened the door wide. Her hair was wet; wet towels were scattered everywhere; the room reeked with steam and soap. There was a tragic silence.
     “Katharine,” at last she said, “the black will not wash off!”
     “Oh, it will! it must!” cried Katharine, hysterically. “Indeed, you cannot have half-washed. Even now it is lighter than it was. Let me help;” and she began to work vigorously on Kate’s already smarting skin.
     “Wash your own face!” cried Kate, at last wrenching herself free. “I’d father be jet-black for life than stand this another minute!”
     “You are not black,” insisted Katharine, whose only hope lay in whitening Kate. “You are dark red; you are—O Kate!”—with a little hysterical titter—”you are the exact color of sister Jennie’s baby Paul!”
     “That wretched, horrible magazine!” and Kate began to cry. “I will make everybody stop taking it!”
     “There is no use crying,” said Katharine, in desperation. “You only make your face worse. Oh, what shall I do with mine? Go, go, only go—and give me a chance! It must, it shall come off!”
     But poor Katharine came out no better than her cousin.
     “Let us send for Annie.”
     “I rang half an hour ago,” answered Katharine, flying again to the bell. A slow step was heard leisurely ascending the stairs.
     “Annie, hurry!” called Kate.
     “Annie, what will take tar off?” demanded Katharine.
     “May the Lord presarve us!” ejaculated Annie, piously. “What have ye been doing to yerselves?”
     “Never mind. Help us get it off.”
     “Sorra a bit’ll come off ’til it wears off!” said Annie; and here the sight was too much for her gravity.
     “Annie, stop laughing!” cried Kate, furiously.
     “Miss Kate, I would stop if I could,” she gasped. “But I couldn’t; no, not if I died for it.”
     The bell rang. It rang again. Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed away, when two remarkable figures entered the breakfast-room. Kate made an effort to escape observation by sitting with her back to the windows. Her uncle, deep in his paper, vouchsafed them a gloomy “Good-morning,”* without looking up. But little Elizabeth and the three boy-cousins stared with round eyes of horror and amazement.
     “Kate, what have you been doing to your hands?”* gasped Theo.
     “KATHARINE!” gasped little Elizabeth.
     At this her father raised his eyes. He fixed them incredulously and then steadily first upon one and then upon the other of the two unfortunates.
     “Is it possible,” he began, sternly, “that you actually did try that”—
     “How they smell of tar!” interrupted one of the smaller boys, applying his nose to Katharine’s hand, for which he received a smart backward slap.
     Annie suddenly exploded, put down the waiter, and left the room.
     “Katharine,” began her father, and then stopped. He seemed to be struggling with some emotion. He pulled out his handkerchief, passed it once or twice across his mouth, looked at them in turn, and then burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter.
     “What have you been doing?” asked one boy.
     “They’ve got the jaundice!” exclaimed another.
     “It’s tar!” insisted the youngest, this time taking care to smell of Kate’s hands.
     Their father continued laughing. One by one the others joined him until the mirth became uproarious. The martyrs to the beautiful remained unmoved.

     *“O Aunt Marion, what shall we do?”* groaned Kate, when they had told her the whole story after breakfast.
     “There’s papa laughing again!” exclaimed Katharine. “He did it even in prayers when he read about the ark being ‘pitched without and within.’”
     Some one came tramping up the stairs.
     “Dr. Junkins!” cried Kate, in dismay.
     “Oh, where shall I hide?” said Katherine.
     “Sit still,” said her mother. “He is your only hope.”
     “In the name of goodness, Katharine!” exclaimed the doctor, “you can’t be going to have—but here is Kate! In the name of all that’s powerful, what have you been doing to yourselves?”
     “O doctor, it’s tar! How can we get it off?” cried Katharine. “It was this magazine. We were sure it wouldn’t hurt us, and to have a skin like a baby’s”—
     “’Tis like some babies’, I admit,” grimly said the doctor.
     “But what can we do for it?”
     “Do for it? It is done for. That won’t come off short of six weeks. What possessed you? Let me tell you there’s no royal road to complexions. You might as well pack up your things and go back into the country, Kate, and take Katharine with you. Female Othellos* are not fashionable this season.”
     Sorrowfully they took the doctor’s advice. That forenoon, as Katharine’s father went cheerfully and in a state of constant amusement to his place of business, he bought their railway tickets. The next morning saw two veiled figures swiftly whirled toward Dulwich, where in quiet and seclusion they passed the season of Lent.

“How They Cured Him” by Mary Tappan Wright was originally published in The Youth’s Companion v. 60, no. 12, March 24, 1887; reprinted in Parry’s Monthly Magazine v. 3, no. 10, July 1887.

The work of Mary Tappan Wright here reproduced is in the public domain. All other material in this edition is ©2008 by Brian Kunde.

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1st web edition posted 9/15/2008
This page last updated 10/15/2008.

Published by Fleabonnet Press.