A Corner in Lilies

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

From Buffalo Courier September 17, 1911

Amaryllis Bean — as to her body, dried and active as a grasshopper; as to her face, incongruously rosy and young, although with keen and at times shrewdly malicious old eyes — was seventy-six years old, and she was on a stepladder out in the yard washing the sitting room windows when she heard the conversation. Her younger sister Amelia and her daughter were talking. The daughter Louisa was sewing. She was a schoolteacher, and she was hurrying to finish her dress for the graduating exercises. It was a made-over dress.

Nearly all the garments worn in the family were made-overs. Even John Mearson, Amelia's husband and Louisa's father, was wearing, and would wear as long as he needed garments of the flesh at all, clothes that had belonged to old David Bean. The clothes were much too large for him, and Amelia made efforts, wifely but futile, to take them in for John. She, as a rule, took them in too much in some places and not enough in others. John's trousers' knees always bagged, for instance; but he sat down with difficulty, and when seated his deceased brother in law's blue yarn socks showed. However, John had a beautiful disposition. He had never complained in his life. He did not know what it meant to “kick against the pricks.” He regarded all the pricks of life with an equanimity that almost went to prove him a graduate in moral precepts.

But his wife Amelia and his daughter Louisa were openly rebellious. Amelia scowled when the motorcars roared past their old house, which was on a main highway. “Racing past every other second, and raising such a dust! There come two now, racing! I call it wicked!” Amelia scowled malevolently out of her window at two cars rushing neck and neck in a smother of dust.

Amaryllis turned around and grimaced at the cars like an old monkey. “Drat them things!” she muttered.

“It must,” remarked Louisa, “be nice to be rich; but I think I might be better employed wishing for a new dress. This dress does look rather shabby.”

“Should think it might begin to,” assented Amelia sourly. “This is the fourth time it has been made over.”

Tears welled up in Louisa's pretty eyes. “You know I do the best I can, Mother,” she said reproachfully. “You know I want a new dress as much as you can possibly want me to have one.”

Her mother then turned upon her. “I suppose you want a new dress so as to outshine Maud Riding, so Frank Veasy will look at you instead of her,” said she with a snap.

Louisa's face paled, then flushed. “Mother, you have no right to speak to me so!” said she hotly.

“Ain't I your ma?”

“That does not give you the right to fairly insult me. I am a woman grown.”

“So you be — twenty-eight years old. I was married when I was eighteen.”

Louisa, with chin up, faced her mother. “It was not my fault that I was not married ten years ago.”

“Oh, yes, I dare say you'd like to throw it up against your own flesh and blood that you ain't married, because your pa lost what little he had in that bank failure, and then got discharged from the postoffice because they got a new President of the United States, and you have to keep on schoolteaching, or else let your own folks starve and lose their home. You'd better blame it on the country, that don't know enough to keep a decent President when they've got one, till he gets too old to work, instead of setting him loose, and raising such a rumpus, and spending so much money for a new one that ain't a mite better looking, and making a lot of honest men like your pa lose their places. Go right on blaming me because you ain't married, and because your old beau is casting sheep's eyes at Maud Riding that's younger than you, and pretty near as good looking, and spends every penny she earns, teaching, on her back! I miss my guess if she don't live to see the time when she'll wish she hadn't!”

“I am not blaming you, Mother,” said Louisa quite calmly, although her face was still red with anger, “and you have no right to say that I want a new dress on account of Frank.”

“You do!” declared her mother, drawing her thread with a jerk.

“Have it so,” said Louisa: “I don't know that it matters.” She spoke wearily, rather than angrily, then. She understood her mother very well. She knew that she was full of bitter pain because her daughter had to go shabby, and that blaming the daughter unjustly was her peculiar way of showing her intense affection.

Louisa sewed on. Her mother continued to talk; but she paid no attention. A breeze came in at the open window, ruffling her pretty hair, a breeze sweet with an unusual flower scent. The house was ancient and shabby; yet, despite that and the two sad figures sewing at the windows, despite the wrathful old woman on the stepladder washing glass and grimacing at fate, in the yard at the south were a few square feet of Paradise. There lived, and grew, and bloomed, Amaryllis Bean's wonderful white lilies.

Amaryllis watched always, with unworthy triumph in the possession of something that others had not, the craning of necks backward toward her patch of lilies. Sometimes people stopped and asked for some, and then Amaryllis exulted. She held her aged head high, and refused like a queen. She never, she said, cut one of her lilies. She would not cut one for the President, not if he were to die and didn't have a flower sent in, which wouldn't be likely. She told how she had obtained the bulbs from a second cousin out West, whose sister in law had married a rich man who went to South America on business and brought home the bulbs; how the cousin, being aware of Amaryllis's fondness for flowers, had sent her some bulbs; how she had planted and tended them, and — lo! the result!

She however had given away some bulbs. Now and then she glanced sidewise at her lilies, and into the repining old soul came a gleam of something rarer than happiness, — the pure delight in beauty. The lilies were beautiful. Close together they stood, in graceful, swaying ranks and files, great sheaves of glorious bloom, and seemed to give out a white light of their own, as well as a solid breath of fragrance like a song. They looked things holy, unapproachable, altogether surprising to come upon in the dusty highway, — a company of saints or angels symbolized by flowers.

Amaryllis, washing windows, heard the talk about the dress, and Louisa's marriage, and Frank Veasy, with pain. She was mortified because her beautiful niece must appear next Monday in a made-over dress, seated on the high school platform beside Maud Riding in a fine new one; but she saw no way out of that difficulty.

Then she heard the winding scream of a siren whistle down the road, and the usual chug and roar, and scowled. “Another of them devilish things!” she muttered. But as she turned about, and started, she heard a hail from the road, and saw a young man with cap in hand approaching her.

Amaryllis of course, knew immediately what he had come for.

“Good morning,” observed the young man.

Amaryllis twisted upon her stepladder, clinging to it with one skinny hand, her washrag in the other, and nodded with a certain show of dignity. The importance of her lilies was upon her. Here was a man with youth, and riches, and a wonderful car; but, she, poor old woman, had something that he had not, — that splendor of white bloom, like a grand chorus of spring.

The young man, smiling not only pleasantly but with a sort of reverence and tenderness for age that was good to see, looked at the lilies. “What beautiful lilies you have, Madam!” said he.

Amaryllis preened at the “Madam.” She nodded, her stiff lips moving toward a crooked smile. “I ruther guess you ain't got any lilies like them, though,” said she.

“Indeed, Madam, I have not.”

“I got the bulbs from a cousin of mine who lives out West. Her husband's sister married rich, and he went to South America, and brought home a lot of bulbs, and my cousin she sent me some, and they've done real well.”

“I should say they had!” assented the young man. Then he ejaculated, “Great Cæsar! they beat anything I have ever seen in the shape of lilies.”

“That sounds a little profane, and, anyway, it ain't speaking good grammer,” said Amaryllis.

“I beg your pardon, Madam,” hastened to say the young man.

Amaryllis, mollified, smiled her stiffly crooked smile at him. “I never cut them lilies,” she said.

“Oh,” said the young man, “I had hoped that I might be able to purchase some of them; all of them, for that matter.”

“All my lilies!” cried Amaryllis, horrified.

“I realize, of course,” said the young man, “that such lilies are really beyond price.”

“Yes, they be, not many like them in the country,” stated Amaryllis. She had started to say any, but had bethought herself of Eliza Green, Mrs. Sydney Appleton, and Miss Jane Smead, to whom she had given bulbs, who also owned lilies in blossom, and corrected herself.

“But,” said the young man. He was a most sophisticated young man; but he flushed a bit on his smoothly shaven cheeks, “you see, Madam,” he said confidentially, in a low voice, standing close to the stepladder, “I am going to be married.”

Amaryllis did not look impressed. “Be you?” said she.

The young man flushed a deeper red and cast an involuntary glance at the motor. From the blue cushioned tonneau three women were gazing interestedly. One of them was stout and middle aged; the others were young.

“Is that her out there?” inquired Amaryllis.

“One of them.”

“Which one?”

“The one with the blue veil.”

“She ain't as handsome as the other one, near as I can see.”

“The other is my sister,” stated the young man in a slightly disgusted tone.

Amaryllis looked at him critically. “She's better looking than you be,” said she; “but nuther of them girls are half as good looking as my niece Louisa, if they be all togged out.”

The young man laughed. “Wish I knew Louisa,” said he.

“It wouldn't do a mite of good, even if you didn't have another girl. Louisa she's been going with Frank Veasy as much as ten years.”

“That is a long engagement.”

“She ain't been able to get married, because she's had her folks to do for. She teaches school. But I guess she might get married now, because Frank is doing real well, and Louisa's father, my sister Amelia's husband, expects to come into some money in less than a year from some life insurance, if they don't cheat him out of it.”

“What is the trouble, then?”

“Oh, young men are all alike. There's another girl that teaches in the same school, and she puts all she earns on her back, and Louisa can't have much, and Frank he's sort of looking at the other one.”

“If all he thinks of is a girl's dress, then your niece will certainly not lose much. About those lilies, Madam?”

“Maybe he ain't,” said Amaryllis. “Maybe Louisa just imagines it; but it is sort of hard lines for her to have to set on the platform Wednesday at the school exhibition in her fadged up dress, when the other one will have on a brand new one, and Frank Veasy will be setting looking at them both.”

“It is too bad,” agreed the young man. “About the lilies?”

“I told you,” began Amaryllis. Then she stopped short. A thought had come to her. She regarded the young man with old eyes become suddenly alert and shrewd. “I should admire,” said she, “to give you them lilies for a wedding present.” Then she pursed her lips.

“Oh,” cried the young man, “I could not think of that: but if you would allow me to buy them.”

Amaryllis began to descend her stepladder, holding her cotton skirts tightly around her, revealing white stockings and black shoes with elastic sides. The young man respectfully assisted her. When Amaryllis reached the ground she faced him.

“What can you afford to pay for them lilies?” she inquired.

“I prefer that you should set a price, Madam.”

Amaryllis paused. She looked at the lilies, then at the young man, then at the sumptuous motorcar. Those people with their car spelled wealth, in the sense of this world. Her lilies spelled wealth in the spiritual sense. Amaryllis became all of this world. The blood of an ancestor, a Yankee ancestor, who had attended meeting three times every Sabbath of his life, and charged fifteen per cent. interest on mortgage notes, boiled high in her veins. “I don't feel that it is right,” said Amaryllis Bean, in a voice that might have belonged to that ancestor who had held usury as a virtue, “to let lilies like them to go under five dollars apiece.”

The young man started a little. “You mean five dollars for every lily?”

“Land, no!” said Amaryllis testily, “I ain't grasping — never was. I mean five dollars for every stalk, and them stalks is all loaded with blooms.”

“Have you any idea how many stalks there are?”

“There's just one hundred and six; but I'll call it a hundred. I'm willing to throw in them six lilies, seeing you're going to get married.”

The young man had much dignity of character. His face was quite unmoved, although there was a sharp cry of remonstrance from his sweetheart in the car. “Harry!” said she.

Harry nodded to her, smiling; then did some rapid thinking. To the mind of Amaryllis Bean, he and his sweetheart's father represented the fabulously rich; but in reality they were only the comparatively rich, which means, allowing for increasing of expenditure, exactly the same thing as the comparatively poor. The resources of all were strained for this wedding to be. Flowers in profusion were already provided. The young man had simply fancied, with a romantic fancy, these wonderful lilies, and had leaped to the conclusion that this simple old woman would name at the most five dollars as a magnificent price for them, in which case he had intended to make it ten. Now he was confronted, unexpectedly, by a Shylock. The old woman looked hard as she eyed him, and waited.

“Harry, come here, Dear,” called the girl's voice, and again Harry nodded smilingly to her; but there was in him a setness of purpose aroused by opposition. He now wanted those lilies, really wanted them. Then the chauffeur sprang from his seat and ran to him. He whispered; but Amaryllis heard every word, with her ears sharpened by avarice.

“There are lots of those lilies on the back road,” whispered the chauffeur, and Amaryllis knew that he had seen the lilies given by her to Eliza Green, Mrs. Sydney Appleton, and Jane Smead.

The young man bowed low to Amaryllis Bean. “Thank you very much, Madam,” said he politely. “I am sorry to have disturbed you. I think I shall not take the lilies today.”

Amaryllis wavered perceptibly. “Do you think I ask too much?” said she.

“Oh, no, Madam, I do not intimate that. I understand that the lilies are very rare and beautiful, and I — am no judge whatever of lilies.”

Amaryllis opened her mouth to speak; then closed it. She too had a setness of purpose. She was well aware that she had defeated her own ends. She would have been only too glad to have taken less for the lilies; but she found it impossible to retract at once, and, while she hesitated, the young man was back in the car, and she heard the girl in the blue veil chiding him for his folly, the chauffeur was cranking, the car buzzed and chortled, then roared away, and Amaryllis was telling herself grimly that she was a fool, when she heard a report like a pistol in the road, — a tire had blown out on that car. The chauffeur got out; then the young man and the young women got out and seated themselves on a stone wall. Evidently they expected a long wait. There was no extra demountable rim, and the chauffeur would be obliged to inflate another tire.

Amaryllis made up her mind. In a second she, poor old village woman, became a financier worthy a goodly station on Wall Street. Into the house she scuttled, into her bedroom, and plunged a hand under her featherbed. She drew out a rusty old pocketbook, and she counted out exactly four dollars and nine cents; so well she knew the drift of her market, she calculated to a penny. Then out of the back door she went.

She raced through the garden, and John Mearson, pottering around there over an onion bed, saw her, gaped at her a moment, then went again to his task, John Mearson had not an inquisitive order of mind. He did not even speculate as to the reason for his sister in law's wild scamper to the back road. She, still at top speed, entered scuttering through an open field gate. Amaryllis went first to Mrs. Sydney Appleton's.

Mrs. Appleton, very stout and happy faced, sat on her front porch, paring some early apples for pies. In a large armchair tipped back against the porch railing sat Mr. Sydney Appleton, also very stout. He was whistling and whittling. There was such utter serenity in his broad face that it was almost expressionless, seeming simply to reflect endless vistas of content and monotony, like some mirror of the spirit. Sydney looked up and smiled when Amaryllis drew near, — Amaryllis all a quiver with tense nerves, her thin lips twitching, her sharp eyes snapping, one hand pressed hard on her left side.

“Good mornin' Miss Bean,” said Mrs. Sydney Appleton comfortably. “What be you running so for? There ain't anybody fell down at your house, is there?”

Amaryllis shook her head.

“I hope nothing ain't on fire?”

Amaryllis shook her head again. Sydney whistled in a lower key and continued whittling.

In a moment Amaryllis recovered her breath and made her deal. She bought out Mrs. Appleton's patch of lilies for twenty-five cents. There was only a small patch behind the house, but visible from the road. Mrs. Appleton had left it almost entirely to the lilies themselves whether they concluded to flourish and bloom or not. She considered that strictly their own affair, after she had tucked the bulbs in the ground. They had not triumphed over an alien soil and climate, as had the lilies of Amaryllis. Mrs. Appleton wished to give away the lilies. “Land! take them if you want them,” said she.

“I don't give presents and take them back. That was never my way,” returned Amaryllis with dignity. “I'll give you a quarter of a dollar for them, if you want to sell.”

“That is too much.”

“Well, I know you wasn't any money out on them,” said Amaryllis; “but, if you are contented, I be.”

Amaryllis left the cut lilies at Mrs. Appleton's gate, while she went on to Eliza Green's house. “Now, I wonder,” said Mrs. Appleton to Sydney, “what she wants all them lilies for? I don't believe it's a funeral. I ain't heard of anybody's dying.”

Sydney whistled louder and whittled.

“Of course, you don't know,” said his wife, as if he had spoken.

Amaryllis had a harder task with Eliza Green, who had something of her own talent for high finance, although Eliza had fewer lilies than Mrs. Appleton. She parted with three dollars and forty-nine cents, and parried many curious questions, before she scored Eliza's lilies. Those lilies she carried with her, borne over her shoulder. She did not leave them at the gate, where Eliza stood, with long face of sour suspicion, watching. She suspected that Amaryllis was going to Jane Smead's; but Amaryllis doubled, went back down the road, into a field, and so to Jane Smead's back door.

Amaryllis found at Jane Smead's exactly the state of things she had anticipated. Jane was not at home. She was a single woman, with a small income at her disposal, and she loved shopping in Warfield beyond all the joys of life. Nearly every pleasant day Jane drove to Warfield and invaded the shops. She owned a horse and buggy and drove herself.

Amaryllis had calculated confidently upon Jane's absence, and when she saw the window's shining blanks, with their lowered curtains, she nodded triumphantly. She, however, for form's sake, rapped and rang. Then she took a piece of paper. She sat down on Jane Smead's doorstep, and, resting the paper on the floor beside her, wrote:

Dear Jane, I want to buy your lilies. There is something I want to use your lilies for. I have cut them and took them away, and I have left thirty-five cents. I think that is about what they are worth, and Amelia says they have some new things at the Ten-Cent Store. Maybe it will come in handy.
  Yours to command.   Mrs. Bean.

Amaryllis Bean had not written three letters in fifty years, and had a firm conviction that “Yours to command” was the only proper ending for a business letter. She folded the thirty-five cents carefully in the note, and tucked it half under the front door; then she proceeded to cut Jane's lilies.

When at last Amaryllis walked back to Mrs. Appleton's, she looked like a walking sheaf of splendid lilies, diffusing fragrance all about her. When she paused before the Appleton gate, Mrs. Appleton looked up. “Land!” said she.

“I'll take your lilies now,” said Amaryllis. Her old face looked forth from the silvery glory of flowers like a discord. There was something rather terrible about that aged face sharpened by worldly greed, set about by those great lilies, symbolic of the enduring gain beyond the world.

“You ain't going to try to carry all my lilies besides them you've got there?”

“Of course I be.”

“Sydney he ain't doing anything. He can carry them lilies for you just as well as not. Sydney, you take the wheelbarrow and put all them lilies in, and just wheel it across lots for Mis' Bean.”

“He must hurry, then,” said Amaryllis, “I ain't got any time to waste.”

When Amaryllis and Sydney Appleton, wheeling a barrow laden with lilies, were nearly arrived at the garden wherein John Mearson was working, Sydney stopped and sniffed. “Seems to me I smell an automobile,” said he.

“I don't smell nothing except lilies.”

John Mearson and Sydney exchanged gruff salutations. John stared a minute at the lilies, then wiped his forehead and hoed again, as the others passed him on their way through the garden. Steady grubber, in his appointed way of life, was John Mearson; good, but exasperating, to people who swerved and hopped from their paths, like his sister in law, Amaryllis Bean. However, she was thankful at a bit of information he vouchsafed. “Ameliar and Louisar they have gone to town,” said he. “Mis' Cyrus Hopkins come with her wagon and asked them to go.”

Amaryllis felt relief. She had not exactly understood how she was to manage her financial deal, if she had to reckon with her sister and niece. “Come round to the front of the house,” she ordered Sydney Appleton. “Jest take them lilies out of the wheelbarrow. Now you can go,” said Amaryllis, who had a strain of arrogance.

Sydney went.

Amaryllis raced out into her lily field and cut a few, back where they would not show the gap from the road. Then she returned, placed them beside the other lilies, sat down on the porch, and waited. After awhile she heard the chug of the motorcar and the long whistle of its siren. Then it came to a gasping stop before her gate, and the young man sprang out. He looked determined, and the chauffeur, who sat with his face straight ahead, looked sulky. The young man had seen no lilies on the back road, which had been rough, and the chauffeur realized that he was under opprobrium for a wild goose chase.

When the young man saw Amaryllis seated before the great heap of lilies, which seemed fairly to hurl their fragrance at him, he started and gazed from them to the lilies still erect on their tall stalks in the yard at the left.

Amaryllis gazed at him calmly. “Be you come back for them lilies?” she inquired. She pointed at her splendid spoils like a Queen.

“But,” gasped the young man, “there are your lilies still there.” He pointed at the silver gleaming ranks.

“I cut some at the back,” explained Amaryllis.

The young man gasped again. Impossible to suspect this old countrywoman of a financial deal, and yet —

“You can have these for three dollars apiece,” stated Amaryllis, “and I'll call it there's one hundred of them; though there's more. I've come down.”

“Harry!” called an admonishing voice from the car. But Harry took out his wallet. Then he called the chauffeur to assist, and presently the automobile glided away, loaded with lilies.

Amaryllis had three hundred dollars; and her lilies, the delight of her life and the pride of her heart, were mostly intact. Louisa would have a new dress and outshine her rival. Amaryllis replaced the money she had taken from under the featherbed, and staggered into the house with her stepladder. Then she sat down in the sitting room beside a front window and rocked violently. She held the remainder of the three hundred dollars tightly clutched in one bony hand, and she was trembling from head to foot. High finance is strenuous for an old woman making her first attempt.

Presently she heard an automobile, and the same imposing car came racing back. Nobody was in it but the chauffeur. He sprang out, leaving the great machine aquiver, and brought a large box to the door. Amaryllis met him.

“What is in that box?” she inquired, shaking terribly, and very pale.

The chauffeur, who was very young, gazed at her curiously. “Miss Rumson sent it,” he explained. “Guess you'll find a note inside.”

The chauffeur turned to go; but Amaryllis stopped him. “You wait, young man,” said she imperiously. “Mebbe I sha'n't want to keep this box.”

The chauffeur waited, standing on the stoop, while Amaryllis carried the box inside and unfastened it with her stiff fingers. There was a note; but Amaryllis drew aside the dainty tissue wrapping first, and discovered a beautiful, lace trimmed, white dress. Then she read the note. It was short and charming. It informed Mrs. Bean that the writer was very happy herself and wished to make another girl happy, and felt that such wonderful lilies should have some return other than money. And this was one of her dresses, which she had not worn; but it was rather short for her, and she had seen Mrs. Bean's lovely niece and thought it would just fit her, and would she please accept with the love and thanks of Dorothy Rumson?

Amaryllis was paler when she removed the dress. She laid it carefully on the sofa, put the remainder of the three hundred dollars in the box, and a note, which she laboriously wrote with a stubbed pencil on a piece of paper taken from Louisa's desk. The note was nothing but a statement:

Four dollars and nine cents was all them flowers was worth. Thank you for that dress.
  Yours to command.   Mrs. Bean.

Then Amaryllis tied up the box and delivered it to the chauffeur. “Here, young man,” said she. “I took out what was in that box; but I am sending it back with something else. You look out it don't tumble out of the car, and you give it to that young man who dickered with me for them lilies. Mind you don't lose it, and don't you open it!”

When the car had roared away, Amaryllis surveyed the dress. “Louisa will look like a pictur in it,” said she; “but Frank Veasy he wa'n't going to give her the mitten anyway, I guess.”

Then Amaryllis went to Louisa's desk and wrote two more notes. One was to Mrs. Sydney Appleton, and read:

Dear Friend. I take my pen in hand to inform you that I am in good health, and hope you may enjoy the same blessing. When I dig up my lilies in the fall, you may have all the bulbs you want.

Then Amaryllis wrote another note exactly like it to Jane Smead, and carried them out to John Mearson hoeing the garden. “John,” said she, “I want you to carry a letter from me to Jane Smead, and one to Mis' Appleton.”

John dropped his hoe and started, one letter in each hand. Amaryllis watched his quiescent figure plodding into the familiar distance.

“I ain't going to offer no bulbs to Lizy Green,” said she, quite aloud. “She's had all them lilies was worth.”