Mary E. Wilkins

From Understudies (Harper & Brothers; New York: 1901)

In whatever month Arethusa, the nymph of Elis, fled from her lover Alpheus, the river god, her namesake the flower, pursued and overtaken by her destiny of life, arrived in May. She paused on the border of the marsh, tremulous in the soft spring wind, clad in her single leaf-gown of green, drooping delicately her lovely head, exhaling her sweet breath deeply, like one who pants after running, until it might well have betrayed her presence. But it is seldom that any man sees the flower arethusa, for she comes rarely to secluded places, and blooms to herself. Of all the spring flowers, arethusa is one of the rarest and the most beautiful of the great wild orchid family to which she belongs; she is the maiden. In that great orchid family are many flowers in semblances of strange and uncanny things, of fiends, and elves, and dragons, and unclassed beings, but arethusa comes in the likeness of a fair and delicate nymph. There is about her no horror of the grotesque and unnatural, only tender, timid bloom, and maybe a gentle dread of love and a repellent curve of her rosy lip.

Every spring when arethusa appeared there came another maiden to visit her in her shy fastness. She belonged to a family living on the country road, a mile across the fields. It was a rough way to travel, but the girl trod it with the zeal of one friend hastening to see another for the first time after a long absence. She was small and spare, with a thin, rosy-cheeked face, and a close-braided cap of silky dark hair. Everything about the girl except her hair seemed fluttering and blowing. She wore ruffled garments of thin fabrics, and she walked swiftly with a curious movement of her delicate shoulder-blades, almost as if they were propelling her like wings. Her eyes had an intent expression of joyful anticipation and unrestrained impulse of motion. She wore gay-colored gowns — blues, and pinks, and greens — and she was exquisitely dainty. She was an only daughter, and her mother's chief delight was to adorn her with fine needle-work. This needle-work seemed the only fully opened gate between the mother and the daughter, for their two natures were so widely at variance that even love could only cramp them painfully together. The mother was a farmer's widow, carrying on a great farm with a staff of hired men and a farmer. She was shrewd and emulative, with a steady eye and ready elbow for her place in the ranks. The only fineness of detail about her was her love for dainty needle-work and her delight in applying it to the decoration of love. Through the long summer afternoons the mother used to sit beside her window, plying her needle on fine cambrics, and linens, and muslins, and felt vaguely that by so doing she kept herself more nearly abreast with the object of her love and adoration. Sometimes she used to sigh in a bewildered fashion when she saw the girl, whose name was Lucy, fluttering away across the field, for she was to her incomprehensibly fond of long solitary walks; then she would turn for a solace to the fine hem of her frock, and so seem to follow at a little distance. As for the girl, when she danced away across the fields, a curious sense of flight from she knew not what was always over her. Her heart beat fast. She half amused, half terrified herself with the sound of imaginary footsteps behind her. When she reached the green marsh, she felt safe, both from real and imaginary pursuers.

Arethusa stood on the border of the marsh, else the girl could not have penetrated to her hiding-place. Once there, she stooped and looked at her. She bent over her and inhaled her fragrant breath, which seemed to her like a kiss of welcome. She never picked the flower. She never quite knew why she did not.

“There is such a beautiful flower in the swamp now,” she told her mother.

“Where is it?” asked her mother.

“Oh, in the swamp.”

“Didn't you pick it?”

“Oh no.”

“Why didn't you?”

“I don't know.”

“Well, Edson will go after supper and get it for you; maybe there are more,” said her mother.

“Oh no, no!” the girl cried out, in terror, “I wouldn't have it picked for anything, mother. It would die then, and it is such a beautiful flower!”

“You are a queer child,” her mother said, adoringly but wonderingly.

“Let me try on your new dress now; I can't sew the sleeves in till I do.”

When Lucy slipped her thin girlish arms into the ruffled muslin, she cried out with delight. “Why, that is just the color of the flower!” she said.

“You ought to have it to wear with it to the party to-morrow night, then,” said her mother.

“Oh, mother, I wouldn't have it picked for anything!” cried Lucy. Lucy did not want to go to the party, though she would not tell her mother so. She was gently acquiescent towards all wishes of others. Indeed, the girl herself seemed but a mild acquiescence towards existence and the general scheme thereof. She had no more vital interest in the ordering of daily village and domestic life than the flower arethusa over in the swamp. With her feet of a necessity in the mould, her head seemed thrust well outside the garden-pale of common life.

She had no real mates among girls of her age. Her mother was anxious that she should have, and had made little parties for her, but from the first, even when she was a child, Lucy had never come out of her corner of gentle aloofness.

When it came to lovers, the girl's beauty and sweetness and prospective property had lured many, but one after another withdrew, strangely discomfited. They might as well have sat on a meadow-stone and wooed a violet as this girl. She was unfailingly sweet, but utterly unresponsive. The village young men began to say that Lucy Greenleaf wasn't as smart as some. They could explain in no other way her lack of comprehension of that untaught but self-evident language of love and passion in which they had addressed her.

However, when Edson Abbot came, he was persistent, both because he was incredulous as to any girl being unlike other girls, and because he always seized with a grip, which made his own fate, upon anything which seemed about to elude him.

“I wish she would fancy you, Edson, but I'm afraid it isn't any use,” Mrs. Greenleaf told him.

“A girl's fancy depends mostly upon a man's,” he replied, “and I can hold my fancy to the wheel longer than some men. I shouldn't have given up like Willy Slosum.”

“It isn't so much because she won't as because she neither won't nor will,” said her mother, with a sigh of bewilderment. This woman, who had been insensibly trained by all her circumstances of life to regard a husband like rain in its season, or war, or a full harvest, or an epidemic, something to be accepted without question if offered, whether good or bad, as sent by the will of the Lord, and who had herself promptly accepted a man with whom she was not in love, without the least hesitation, and lived as happily as it was in her nature to live ever after, could not possibly comprehend the nature of her own daughter.

She was, moreover, with that passionate protectiveness which was the strongest feature of her mother-love, anxious to see this little ewe lamb of hers well settled in life with some one to shield her from its storms before she herself was taken from her. Edson Abbot, the young man who took charge of the farm and lived with them, entirely filled her ideal of what Lucy's husband should be. He was handsome, with a strong masculine description of good looks which appealed to her powerfully. He came of a fine family, but treated the tillage of the earth from a scientific stand-point. He had books and papers about, which were as Greek to Mrs. Greenleaf, but which impressed her still more with his unusual ability to take care of her darling.

“I don't want to hurry you, Lucy,” she said to her daughter one day. “I know you ain't very strong, but Edson is one man in a thousand, and it doesn't seem right for you to let him slip through your fingers, just for want of a kind word. You don't pay any more attention to him than you do to that strange bush at the gate.”

Lucy looked at her mother, then at the syringa-bush standing, all clothed in white like a bride, at the gate.

“What do you want me to do, mother?” she asked.

“Do, child? Why, treat Edson Abbot the way any other girl in this town would treat him, and give all her old shoes for the chance.”

The soft red mounted slowly over the girl's face, as she still looked at her mother.

“Do you mean for me to kiss him?” whispered she. “I don't feel as if I could.”

A swift blush came over the older woman's face. She laughed, half in embarrassment, half in dismay. “I never saw such a baby in my life as you be,” said she; “will you never be anything but a baby, Lucy? It scares me to think of leavin' you some day, if you ain't different. You ain't fit to take care of yourself, and Edson is a good man, and he thinks a heap of you, and mother wants to make sure you're taken care of — that's all. Don't you feel as if you might be willing to marry Edson some time if he asked you, Lucy?”

The girl shook and trembled, and eyed her mother with a strange intentness as of fascinated fear. “Oh, mother, I don't want to,” she said. “I don't want to marry anybody. I don't like men. I am afraid of them. I want to stay with you.”

“You can stay with me. You can go right on living with me, dear child. You shall never leave mother as long as she lives, and she will never leave you.”

“I want to just live with you,” said Lucy; “I don't like men.”

“Girls are apt to feel that way,” said her mother, “but you'd come to feel different after a while. It's the way people were meant to do; to be married and given in marriage. You know what it says in the Bible. And then you would be sure to have somebody to take care of you as long as you live.”

“Wouldn't I have God?” asked Lucy, with an indescribably innocent rounding of her soft eyes at her mother.

“God sends people to take care of folks,” replied her mother, judicially. “He can't come down to earth and see to it that your fires are kindled, and your paths shovelled out, and your wood chopped, and all the heavy things of life lifted off your shoulders. Think of the way Susan Dagget lives.”

Lucy was unconvinced and unmoved by all this reasoning. She was much more convinced by the steady broadside of a strong masculine will brought skilfully to bear upon her at all times and seasons. Edson Abbot was a most able young man, of great strength of character, and even some talent. He was something of a diplomat in his wooing. He never frightened this fine, timid creature, who never looked at him without the impulse of flight in her eyes, like a rabbit or a bird. He was exceedingly gentle, but she was made to feel always his firm, unrelaxing will towards her, and his demand for her obedience. Whenever he saw that his presence was awakening beyond control the wild impulses which always underlie timidity, he pressed her no further; he withdrew, but when she needed him he was always there.

Insensibly, she began to depend upon him for services which had always come from her mother. Then he had a ready skill to invent some of his own. It was Edson who conceived the idea of a wild garden for her in a corner of the field, who had a miniature pond of lilies made for her for a birthday surprise. Lucy acquired the habit of looking at him as she had always looked at her mother for confirmation and encouragement. He humored her in all her little idiosyncrasies. When her mother feared to have her take a long, solitary ramble, since a tramp had been seen in the neighborhood, he took her part and bade her go, and himself followed, unseen, at a distance to protect her. She came gradually to think of him as always on her side, even against her own mother. When one day he again asked her to marry him, though she still looked at him with flight in her eyes, she listened. He pleaded well, for, although he wondered at himself, he loved this slight, frail girl, who, in comparison with others of her age and time, seemed either to have scarcely arrived upon the same level or to have passed it.

Edson got no answer to his suit that night, but the next, coming home from the village, he saw a white flutter at the gate, and Lucy came slowly down the road to meet him. It was the first time such a thing had happened. It was full moonlight, and he could see her face quite plainly when she reached him and paused. It expressed the utmost gentleness and docile assent; only her body, which still shrank away from him, and her little hands, which she kept behind her like a child who will not yield up some sweet, betrayed anything of her old alarm. “I will,” she said, tremulously; “I will, Edson. Mother says I ought to, and I will.”

It was not a very flattering acceptance of a lover's suit, but if the grasp of possession be strong enough it precludes the realization of any lack of pressure on the other hand. Edson found no fault with it. His heart seemed fairly to leap forward and encompass the girl, but he no more dared touch her than he would have touched a butterfly which had settled upon his hand. He could always keep a straight course on the road to his own desires. “You shall never regret it, darling,” he said, and so controlled his voice, even then, that only a look of startled wonder came into the girl's eyes. Then she walked home with him contentedly enough, fluttering along at his side. There was undoubtedly something about the love and tenderness of this handsome, strong fellow which pleased her after a fashion. She had something in common with others of her sex. She might be cold, if such a negative state could be called cold, but she loved, or she had not dwelt on the earth at all. It was only when he pursued her too ardently that she rebelled.

Edson and Lucy went in to the girl's mother, who began to cry when she saw them coming. “Oh, you dear child; mother is so glad,” she said, and held Lucy closely and kissed her.

After Mrs. Greenleaf had gone to bed, the young man and the girl sat side by side on the door-step in the moonlight. Her little hands were folded in her lap. He looked longingly at them.

Suddenly Lucy spoke, fixing her childlike eyes fully upon his face.

“I found that beautiful flower, for the first time this year, to-day in the swamp,” said she.

“What flower, sweet?” Edson asked, and took advantage of the unwariness of her thoughts to lay his hand over hers, which fluttered a little.

“Ought I to let you hold my hand because you are going to marry me?” said she.

“Of course. Go on. What was the flower, darling?”

“That beautiful flower that comes every spring, you know.”

“Did you bring it home?”

“Bring it home! No, I wouldn't pick it for anything in the world.”

“I'll get you some to-morrow; I guess I know the flower you mean. The swamp is too wet for you to go far. I will find a whole bouquet of those flowers for you.”

Lucy pulled her hand away fiercely. “If — if you do that, if you pick that flower, I — I will never marry you, Edson Abbot.”

The young man laughed, though a little uneasily. For the first time a doubt as to the actual normal mental state of the girl came into his mind, then he dismissed it. She was simply, as he had told himself a hundred times, poetical and ultra-imaginative, a fine elusive moonlight sort of nature, grafted into the shrewd, practical New England stock. She was like a maiden out of a midsummer-night dream, but she was only the more precious for that. “Darling,” he said, “I would no more pick that flower, if you did not want me to do so, than I would hurt you.”

The marriage was fixed for a year later. Mrs. Greenleaf herself pleaded for time. “She is young, and not strong, Edson,” she said. “I think she ought to have time to get used to the idea. Then, too, I want to make her outfit.”

Edson yielded easily enough. He himself had doubts as to the wisdom of swift proceeding with Lucy. Then, too, he was ambitious. He was putting in some hot-houses, and he wished to be sure of a larger income before settling himself in matrimony. He had put in some money, and was to work the farm on shares. Mrs. Greenleaf grew prouder than ever of her prospective son-in-law. She was thoroughly happy. She stitched away on Lucy's dainty garments, and every stitch seemed one towards the completion of her own wedding attire. She had never been in love herself, and now that came to her for the first time, through her loving imagination over her daughter. Edson Abbot was the sort of man whom she might herself have loved, and she, being so bound up in unselfish love for the girl, could in a measure grasp all her happiness, and so, in a sense, she grasped her lover.

As for Lucy, she did not seem unhappy. She was peaceful and docile. She sewed a little on her wedding clothes, she went walking and driving with Edson, she sat with him sometimes a little while after her mother had gone to bed; she always smiled readily at him with her sweet, evasive sort of smile. She acquiesced, with the greatest docility, in her mother's suggestion that she should learn something more of housewifery than she had hitherto known. She spent hours cooking and setting the house in order. She had not done much of that, being delicate, and always shielded by her strong mother; and that had been one of the grounds of complaint against her in the neighborhood. Now, however, she surprised everybody. “She's taken hold as well as anybody I ever see,” reported the extra help whom Mrs. Greenleaf had hired Thanksgiving week. “She's real smart. She made as good a plum-puddin' as I ever eat.”

Indeed, there seemed to come to the girl an awakening either of latent cleverness or inherited instincts. She seemed to take a certain pleasure in her new tasks, and she thrived under them. She grew stouter; her cheeks had a more fixed color. Abbot was triumphant. He realized less and less that anything was wanting to the sum of his happiness. Such was the force of his own will that, once on the turn towards possession, he comprehended no other counter-current. The wedding-day was fixed in the month of May. The ceremony was to take place at eight o'clock in the evening. When that hour came all the guests were assembled, the bridegroom, bridesmaids, and minister were waiting, but the bride had disappeared. Her wedding-gown lay on her bed with her veil; her little white shoes stood prettily toed out side by side, but the bride was gone. Her mother and Edson conferred in Lucy's chamber.

“They mustn't know it, if we can find her without it,” said Mrs. Greenleaf. Her face was white and set; she jerked her black-silk elbow towards the floor, indicating the company assembled below. Edson looked palely at her. “Where do you think she is?” he said.

“I don't know. I've looked everywhere. She ain't in the house.”

For once Edson Abbot seemed dazed. He stared at Mrs. Greenleaf.

“You don't think —” he began.

“I don't know but we've made a mistake,” said the woman, brokenly. “I don't know as Lucy ought to have had anybody but her mother.”

Then the young man made an impatient exclamation. “It is too late to talk about that now,” he said. “I'm going to find her.”

He strode out of the chamber and down the back stairs, lest the company see him. The sound of their voices floated after him as he slipped out of the house. He did not know where to begin his search, but some instinct took him into the field behind the house. He hastened across it, a handsome, stalwart figure in his wedding-suit. His face was pale, his brows bent; he felt as if he had met a wall of gossamer with a shock of alabaster. The utter docility and gentleness of the girl made this frightful. He felt no alarm for her safety. He seemed to understand that she had set herself against him in a last assertion of her maiden freedom.

The sun was low in an ineffable rosy sky, with dregs of violet at the horizon line. One great star was burning through the paling radiance. A fragrant, damp coolness was rising from the earth; a silvery film of dew was over all the grass. He heard in the distance the sound of a cow-bell and a boy whistling. All these familiar sights and sounds served to enrage this man whose feet were set so firmly in the regular tracks of life still further with this savor of the irregular and the unusual which had come to him. He felt for the first time a fierce impulse to bend forcibly this other will which had come into contact with his own. He thought, with a sort of fury, of all those waiting people. Then he saw coming towards him across the field, with her singular half-flying motion of the shoulders and arms, the girl whom he was seeking.

He strode forward rapidly to meet her, and grasped her roughly by her slender arm. “Lucy, what does this mean?” he asked, frowning down at her sternly.

She looked at him with such terror that it intimidated him more than any defiance could have done. He weakened, for, after all, he loved her.

“Lucy,” he said, gently, “you should not have gone off like this. Don't you know what time it is?”

“Is it eight yet?” she gasped.

“Of course it is, and after.”

“I thought I had time,” she faltered.

“Time for what?”

“To see if that flower had come. I thought if it had, it would be gone before we get back. I thought I had time, Edson.”

“You ought to have picked that flower just this once to wear to your wedding, you think so much of it,” said Mrs. Greenleaf.

“Oh, mother!” said Lucy.

“You are a queer child,” her mother said, laughing in an odd, embarrassed fashion. Along with her great tenderness towards this little ewe lamb of hers, she felt that night a singular awe and shame and wonder, almost as if she herself stood in her place.

When Lucy, in her bridal array, went down-stairs, people drew long breaths.

“She looks like an angel,” one woman whispered, so loud that many heard her. There was, in fact, that about the girl's beauty, as she floated among them in her bridal white, which made her seem more than human. She apparently did not realize that the eyes of all the company were upon her. She stood beside her bridegroom before the minister as unconscious as arethusa over yonder in the swamp. A color as purely fine as the flower's was in her cheeks; in her eyes were as mysterious depths of sweetness.

“She looked as handsome as a picture,” the neighbors said, going home when the wedding was over and the bridal pair had departed. “But she don't look quite right, somehow. Wonder what made her so late?” They further mentioned this and that girl who, in their estimation, would have made a more reliable helpmeet than Lucy Greenleaf.

However, Lucy seemed, as time went on, to prove them mistaken. She filled her place as wife and mother well to all appearances. There were two handsome children, with Edson's sturdy beauty. They bore not the slightest resemblance to their mother. “They are all Edson's,” Mrs. Greenleaf used to say. Lucy loved them, and they loved her, yet they went from the first more naturally to their father and grandmother.

“They act more like your children than your daughter's,” the neighbors said. “Lucy takes good care of them,” her mother returned, jealously. That was quite true. Lucy neglected nothing and nobody. She performed all her duties with a fine precision. She seemed happy, yet always she had that look of her youth, the look of one who, with her feet on the common earth, can see past common horizons. And every spring she went by herself, when she could, stealing away unnoticed, to see that great orchid in bloom in the swamp for the first time that year. She never allowed her children to follow her; if the little things tried to do so, she sent them back. Her husband also forbade them, indulging, as he had always done, his wife in what he considered a harmless idiosyncrasy, not dreaming that it had its root in the very depths of her nature, and that she perhaps sought this fair neutral ground of the flower kingdom as a refuge from the exigency of life. In his full tide of triumphant possession he was as far from the realization of the truth as was Alpheus, the fabled river god, after he had overtaken the nymph Arethusa, whom, changed into a fountain to elude his pursuit, he had followed under the sea, and never knew that, while forever his, even in his embrace, she was forever her own.

Every spring this woman, growing old as to her fair, faded face, went to see arethusa, coming upon her standing on the border of the marsh, clad in her green leaf, drooping delicately her beautiful purplish-pink head, with the same rapture as of old. This soul, bound fast to life with fleshly bonds, yet forever maiden, anomalous and rare among her kind, greeted the rare and anomalous flower with unending comfort and delight. It was to her as if she had come upon a fair rhyme to her little halting verse of life.