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IF anything was missing at the old farmhouse — clothes-brush, soap, comb or other articles of daily use — some one almost always would exclaim, "Look' in Bethesda!" or "I left it in Bethesda!" Bethesda was one of those household words that you use without thought of its original significance or of the amused query that it raises in the minds of strangers.
Like most New England houses built seventy-five years ago, the farmhouse at the old Squire's had been planned without thought of bathing facilities. The family washtub, brought to the kitchen of a Saturday night, and filled with well water tempered slightly by a few quarts from the teakettle, served the purpose. We were not so badly off as our ancestors had been, however, for in 1865, when we young folks went home to live at the old Squire's, stoves were fully in vogue and farmhouses were comfortably warmed. Bathing on winter nights was uncomfortable enough, we thought, but it was not the desperately chilly business that it must have been when farmhouses were heated by a single fireplace.
In the sitting-room we had both a fireplace and an "air-tight" for the coldest weather. In grandmother Ruth's room there was a "fireside companion," and in the front room a "soapstone comfort," with sides and top of a certain kind of variegated limestone that held heat through the winter nights.
So much heat rose from the lower rooms that the bedrooms on the floor above, where we young folks slept, were by no means uncomfortably cold, even in zero weather. Grandmother Ruth would open the hall doors an hour before it was time for us to go to bed, to let the superfluous heat rise for our benefit.
In the matter of bathing, however, a great deal was left to be desired at the old house. There were six of us to take turns at that one tub. Grandmother Ruth took charge: she saw to it that we did not take too long, and listened to the tearful complaints about the coldness of the water. On Saturday nights her lot was not a happy one. She used to sit just outside the kitchen door and call our names when our turns came; and as each of us went by she would hand us our change of underclothing.
Although the brass kettle was kept heating on the stove all the while, we had trouble in getting enough warm water to "take the chill off." More than once — unbeknown to grandmother Ruth — I followed Addison in the tub without changing the water. He had appreciably warmed it up. One night Halstead twitted me about it at the supper table, and I recollect that the lack of proper sensibility that I had shown scandalized the entire family.
"Oh, Joseph!" grandmother often exclaimed to the old Squire. "We must have some better way for these children to bathe. They are getting older and larger, and I certainly cannot manage it much longer."
Things went on in that way for the first two years of our sojourn at the old place — until after the old Squire had installed a hydraulic ram down at the brook, which forced plenty of water up to the house and the barns. Then, in October of the third year, the old gentleman bestirred himself.
He had been as anxious as any one to improve our bathing facilities, but it is not an easy job to add a bathroom to a farmhouse. He walked about at the back of the house for hours, and made several excursions to a hollow at a distance in the rear of the place, and also climbed to the attic, all the while whistling softly:
"Roll on, Silver Moon,
Guide the traveler on his way."
That was always a sure sign that he was getting interested in some scheme.
Then things began to move in earnest. Two carpenters appeared and laid the sills for an addition to the house, twenty feet long by eighteen feet wide, just behind the kitchen, which was in the L. The room that they built had a door opening directly into the kitchen. The floor, I remember, was of maple and the walls of matched spruce.
Meanwhile the old Squire had had a sewer dug about three hundred feet long; and to hold the water supply he built a tank of about a thousand gallons' capacity, made of pine planks; the tank was in the attic directly over the kitchen stove, so that in winter heat would rise under it through a little scuttle in the floor and prevent the water from freezing.
From the tank the pipes that led to the new bathroom ran down close to the chimney and the stove pipe. Those bathroom pipes gave the old Squire much anxiety; there was not a plumber in town; the old gentleman had to do the work himself, with the help of a hardware dealer from the village, six miles away.
But if the pipe gave him anxiety, the bathtub gave him more. When he inquired at Portland about their cost, he was somewhat staggered to learn that the price of a regular tub was fifty-eight dollars.
But the old Squire had an inventive brain. He drove up to the mill, selected a large, sound pine log about four feet in diameter and set old Davy Glinds, a brother of Hughy Glinds, to excavate a tub from it with an adze. In his younger days Davy Glinds had been a ship carpenter, and was skilled in the use of the broadaxe and the adze. He fashioned a good-looking tub, five feet long by two and a half wide, smooth hewn within and without. When painted white the tub presented a very creditable appearance.
The old Squire was so pleased with it that he had Glinds make another; and then, discovering how cheaply pine bathtubs could be made, he hit upon a new notion. The more he studied on a thing like that, the more the subject unfolded in his dear old head. Why, the old Squire asked himself, need the Saturday-night bath occupy a whole evening because the eight or ten members of the family had to take turns in one tub, when we could just as well have more tubs?
Before grandmother Ruth fairly realized what he was about, the old gentleman had five of these pine tubs ranged there in the new lean-to. He had the carpenters inclose each tub within a sealed partition of spruce boards. There was thus formed a little hall five feet wide in the center of the new bathroom, from which small doors opened to each tub.
"What do you mean, Joseph, by so many tubs?" grandmother cried in astonishment, when she discovered what he was doing.
"Well, Ruth," he said, "I thought we'd have a tub for the boys, a tub for the girls, then tubs for you and me, mother, and one for our hired help."
"Sakes alive, Joe! All those tubs to keep clean!"
"But didn't you want a large bathroom?" the old Squire rejoined, with twinkling eyes.
"Yes, yes," cried grandmother, "but I had no idea you were going to make a regular Bethesda!"
Bethesda! Sure enough, like the pool in Jerusalem, it had five porches! And that name, born of grandmother Ruth's indignant surprise, stuck to it ever afterwards.
When the old Squire began work on that bathroom he expected to have it finished in a month. But one ' difficulty after another arose: the tank leaked; the sewer clogged; nothing would work. If the hardware dealer from the village came once to help, he came fifty times! His own experience in bathrooms was limited. Then, to have hot water in abundance, it was necessary to send to Portland for a seventy-five-gallon copper heater; and six weeks passed before that order was filled.
November, December and January passed before Bethesda was ready to turn on the water; and then we found that the kitchen stove would not heat so large a heater, or at least would not do it and serve as a cook-'stove at the same time. Nor would it sufficiently warm the bathroom in very cold weather even with the kitchen door open. Then one night in February the pipes at the far end froze and burst, and the hardware man had to make us another hasty visit.
To ward off such accidents in the future the old Squire now had recourse to what is known as the Granger furnace — a convenience that was then just coming into general favor among farmers. They are cosy, heat-holding contrivances, made of brick and lined either with fire brick or iron; they have an iron top with pot holes in which you can set kettles. The old Squire connected ours with the heater, and he placed it so that half of it projected into the new bathroom, through the partition wall of the kitchen. It served its purpose effectively and on winter nights diffused a genial glow both in the kitchen and in the bathroom.
But it was the middle of April before the bathroom was completed; and the cost was actually between eight and nine hundred dollars!
"My sakes, Joseph!" grandmother exclaimed. "Another bathroom like that would put us in the poorhouse. And the neighbors all think we're crazy!"
The old Squire, however, rubbed his hands with a smile of satisfaction. "I call it rather fine. I guess we are going to like it," he said.
Like it we did, certainly. Bathing was no longer an ordeal, but a delight. There was plenty of warm water; you had only to pick your tub, enter your cubicle and shut the door. Bethesda, with its Granger furnace and big water heater, was a veritable household joy.
"Ruth," the old Squire said, "all I'm sorry for is that I didn't do this thirty years ago. When I reflect on the cold, miserable baths we have taken and the other privations you and I have endured all these years it makes me heartsick to think what I've neglected."
"But nine hundred dollars, Joseph!" grandmother interposed with a scandalized expression. "That's an awful bill!"
"Yes," the old Squire admitted, "but we shall survive it."
Grandmother was right about our neighbors. What they said among themselves would no doubt have been illuminating if we had heard it; but they maintained complete silence when we were present. But we noticed that when they called at the farmhouse they cast curious and perhaps envious glances at the new lean-to.
Then an amusing thing happened. We had been enjoying Bethesda for a few weeks, but had not yet got past our daily pride in it, when one hot evening in the latter part of June who should come driving into the yard but David Barker, "the Burns of Maine," a poet and humorist of state-wide renown.
The old Squire had met him several times; but his visit that night was accidental. He had come into our part of the state to visit a kinsman, but had got off his proper route and had called at our house to ask how far away this relative lived.
"It is nine or ten miles up there," the old Squire said when they had shaken hands. "You are off your route. Better take out your horse and spend the night with us. You can find your way better by daylight."
After some further conversation Mr. Barker decided to accept the old Squire's invitation. While grandmother and Ellen got supper for our guest, the old Squire escorted him to the hand bowl that he had put in at the end of the bathroom hall. I imagine that the old Squire was just a little proud of our recent accommodations.
"And, David, if you would like a bath before retiring to-night, just step in here and make yourself at home," he said and opened several of the doors to the little cubicles.
David looked the tubs over, first one and then another.
"Wal, Squire," he said at last, in that peculiar voice of his, "I've sometimes wondered why our Maine folks had so few bathtubs, and sometimes been a little ashamed on't. But now I see how 'tis. You've got all the bathtubs there are cornered up here at your place!"
He continued joking about our bathrooms while he was eating supper; and later, before retiring, he said, "I know you are a neat woman, Aunt Ruth, and I guess before I go to bed I'll take a turn in your bathroom."
Ellen gave him a lamp; and he went in and shut the door. Fifteen minutes — half an hour — nearly an hour — passed, and still he was in there; and we heard him turning on and letting off water, apparently barrels of it! Occasionally, too, we heard a door open and shut.
At last, when nearly an hour and a half had elapsed, the old Squire, wondering whether anything were wrong, went to the bathroom door. He knocked, and on getting a response inquired whether there was any trouble.
"Doesn't the water run, David?" he asked. "Is it too cold for you? How are you getting on in there?"
"Getting on beautifully," came the muffled voice of
the humorist above the splashing within. "Doing a great job. Only one tub more! Four off and one to come."
"But, David!" the old Squire began in considerable astonishment.
"Yes. Sure. It takes time. But I know Aunt Ruth is an awful neat woman, and I determined to do a full job!"
He had been taking a bath in each of the five tubs in succession. That was Barker humor.