The Dresden Vase

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

From The American Woman Vol. XXXI No. 9 (February, 1922)

Mrs. Godfrey always alluded to it as “The Dresden Vase,” but had an uncomfortable sense of possible deceit. She had never been sure that it was Dresden. She had bought it years ago, when she had been a young matron, and Lily, her only child, toddled about in her soft run-over baby shoes, with her golden tongue of childhood forever on the wag, chirping and singing like a bird's, with her head of feathery yellow curls dancing like a dandelion's in a wind. Lily had been making lovely green ringlets of dandelion-stems, and they were dangling over her rose-leaves of ears, as she had stared around a fold of her mother's blue skirt at Little Moses and the vase. Little Moses was a semiannual excitement of the village, going autumn and spring from house to house, with his great pack hung over his slender, bent shoulders, which seemed to have been made for a pack, and laden, as to his hands and arms, with fragile treasures of Art. That morning, the small, gentle Jew had hugged under one arm a plaster cast of Clytie and, under the other, one of Diana; one hand had clutched desperately a statuette of Cupid, the other the great basket containing the bulk of his wares. From that, protruded smiling china shepherdesses, gilded mugs, vases and more plaster casts of Greek divinities. The Jew was bent forward with his pack, sidewise with his basket, laboring uncomplainingly under a double burden. His face, which seemed from his pose to look from the right side of his chest, was rather magnificent, long-bearded, with a beard like a fleece of snow; high-templed, and with sweet, piercing eyes, and a smile of ingratiating dignity.

Little Moses wished to sell his wares; it was a great wish of his soul; but he bent only his back, never his soul in order to accomplish his purpose. That morning, there was a new element in his smile of gratitude and pleasure. Ellen Godfrey had greeted him kindly many times before. She forced him to deposit his heavy pack on the yellow kitchen-floor and to sit in a chair and rest, while she investigated his basket. Ellen, careful, dainty young woman, was privileged. He sipped the glass of milk which she had given him, and ate a thick slice of sponge cake, while she — with little Lily, standing trembling with desire to touch for herself — lifted out one article after another, until she came to the vase. Then Lily, drawing a fold of her mother's blue skirt over her little wishful hands, came near.

“This is very pretty,” said Ellen Godfrey.

It was very pretty: A tall, slender, graceful thing of fine china, with deeply serrated leaflike top and leaflike wings at the sides; and the seleaf-shades were heavily gilded. It was further decorated by a Dresden design, a long sheaf of flowers extending through its center. Ellen Godfrey looked at it, then at a pile of clothing, masculine clothing, beside the Jew.

“Now, Little Moses,” said she, in a sweet voice, “don't you think that coat and vest ought to pay for the vase?”

Little Moses looked deprecatingly at her. In reality, he wanted to oblige this dear woman; but he was not his own master.

“The vest is worn,” he said, “and there are thin places in the coat-sleeve.”

“I know,” replied Ellen. She eyed the vase, and reflected. Her husband had another suit, a complete one; but dared she? She was not quite sure that he had definitely given that up. He might think it could be more worn — on rainy days, perhaps. She hesitated, her smooth, fair head bent, regarding the vase; then the little clothes, then Little Moses.

Moses insinuated that she might have more old clothes, which she could produce in exchange for the beautiful vase.

“My husband has some clothes,” admitted Ellen “which he has not worn for at least a year; but I am not sure that he has quite given them up.”

The Jew was silent. He wished to sell; but he had his racial belief concerning the duty of wives toward husbands, even involving the question of raiment. Not even to serve a hard master would he implore this young woman to dispose of her husband's clothes, against his possible wishes. Of course, if she should decide upon such a measure, it was not for him to gainsay her, and she did decide. In fifteen minutes more, Little Moses was toiling away, bent over and sidewise; and in his pack was Caleb Joyce Godfrey's entire suit; also, the worn coat and vest. In Ellen's possession were the vase and a little china shepherdess carrying a basket of flowers and a crook; also, a tiny Parian basket filled with tiny flowers. All these she had for the spoils of her husband's wardrobe; all these, and a timorous heart. She had a really Scriptural awe of her husband, who was many years older than she, and considered a learned man in his profession. He was the village lawyer, and had his office in a building farther down the street. Soon, he would be home to the noon dinner; and his wife trembled. She put the little pure-white Parian basket on the parlor whatnot; also, the shepherdess. The vase she carried upstairs and put in the spare room. It belonged on the parlor shelf; but she thought it was better not to put it there.

It was not long before Caleb Joyce Godfrey came home to dinner. Ellen had a very good dinner ready for him, set daintily in the east room, furnished with old Chippendale things which had come to her husband from his maternal grandfather Caleb Joyce. Caleb Joyce had been the rich man of the village. Now, the riches, reckoned in cash, had dwindled; but material evidences of its past still lingered in the grandson's home. There was much valuable old furniture, to say nothing of cut glass, china and silver. It was rather singular that Ellen, possessed of so much, should have felt any longing for the wares of the Jew pedler; but she belonged to a somewhat cheap and commonplace present, which underrated solid past magnificence and disposed of old mahoganies for painted pine, of India china for gaudily decorated stone ware, of lovely faded old chintzes for Nottingham lace.

Ellen was only a simple village woman, instinct with her day and generation, incapable of ascending heights of the past or future. She was inwardly ashamed of all her household belongings; of the old Joyce house, with its beautiful Colonial door and its dormers. She wanted a mansard roofed house and a nice front piazza, and two bay windows. She wanted to sell or give away all the ancient mahogany pieces, and to purchase, fresh from factory and shop, nice, shiny, modern things. She had a miserable feeling sometimes that she had married all the old Joyce belongings with Caleb, and she was depressed by it. She had never told her husband. She knew how utterly he would fail to understand.

She knew, also, that he regarded every old bit of furniture as a priceless treasure. Therefore, aside from the doubt as to the wisdom of her disposing of her husband's clothes, she had a feeling that he might look at her acquisition with contempt. She, down in the depths of her little feminine soul, considered that she had better taste than her husband about household-adornments. “Caleb is rather oldfashioned,” she thought. She never dreamed of showing him her little treasures obtained from the Jew. As she sat opposite him at the dinner-table, there was a secret look in her young, smooth face, with its clear soft coloring; but Caleb Joyce Godfrey did not notice it. He ate his dinner abstractedly. He had a difficult case on his mind, something which involved a title to valuable land.

It was not until he rose from the table that Ellen saw, and gave an exclamation of dismay. Then Caleb Joyce turned his handsome, rather severe face in her direction.

“What is the matter?” he inquired.

“O Caleb! what have you got on your coat, and trousers too?” Ellen pointed. Her husband strained his eyes to look over his shoulder. “See!” said Ellen. “Oh, you can't see; but the back of your coat is all black, and there are great black streaks running down your trousers-legs. You can see them.” Caleb did. He frowned, but understandingly. “What is it?” asked Ellen. “Your nice gray suit is all covered with something black.”

“Ink,” replied Caleb, tersely.

“How ever?”

“Never mind. It is ink.”

Then Caleb went out of the room, and Ellen heard him going upstairs. She turned ghastly-white. She had a sudden knowledge of what would happen, or of part of it.

Then she heard him call her, and followed him up to their room; but her knees shook.

Caleb was standing before the closet-door, in his ink-streaked trousers. He had taken off his coat, and his shirt was stained with ink also. “Where,” said he, “is my pepper-and-salt suit?”

Ellen gave a little gasp.

“Why don't you answer?”

“Can't you wear the one you wore last week?”

“It is too heavy. Where is my pepper-and-salt suit?”

“Can't you wear your black?”

“My best suit? No. Where is the pepper-and-salt suit?”

Ellen knew not how she told. It seemed to her that she spoke in a strange language. Her husband questioned her lawyer-wise: otherwise, he might not have obtained very clear information. Ellen was so wild with terror. After he knew, he said nothing at all. He did not reply when Ellen sobbed out her sorrow and regret. He merely pointed to the door, and Ellen went downstairs, sat in the dining-room, and gathered Lily up in her arms and wept on the little yellow head, while the child went to sleep. She heard her husband moving about upstairs. A vague horror was over her. In the Joyce family was a strange, merciless, fairly uncanny strain, and sometimes, as now, she dimly sensed its survival in her husband. Finally, she heard her husband coming down the stairs. Gathering up the sleeping child, she opened the door leading into the front hall. Then, she shrieked with terror. She let Lily roll like a ball on the floor, and tried to restrain Caleb from going out. She held him with all her strength.

“Don't, don't, don't!” she shrilled, hysterically.

But Caleb shook her off, and went out of the house.

Ellen stood in the doorway looking after him, shuddering and crying. Lily had wakened, and was wailing loudly; but Ellen did not heed her. She saw only her husband, her husband, the pride of her life — to her mind, the one notable man of the village and the world — striding down the street under the budding elms, a spectacle for gods and men. For Caleb Joyce Godfrey, in his anger, possibly anger with a taint of insanity, the half sleeping taint of his race, waking to temporary life under the sudden stress, had done an inconceivable, a horrible thing. Down the street went Caleb Joyce Godfrey; arrayed in his wife's best blue silk. She was a large young woman, and he had succeeded in almost fastening it — her blue-silk dress, whirling widely over a hooped skirt. He wore a black-lace shawl over his shoulders. He wore her best bonnet, with green and white strings, and a wreath of rosebuds. Caleb Joyce Godfrey tramped on. He wore his own boots, and at every step the hooped skirt tilted and showed them. He held his head high, as if he led a procession, and not one who saw him felt the slightest desire to laugh; for Caleb was doing a master-feat, rising above ridicule, while being ridiculous. There was something very far from mirth-provoking about that man-face, white and stern with set jaws, and eyes of still, black rage, under the crown of rosebuds. He was terrible. Women ran to the nearest house; children fled screaming. None but Caleb Joyce Godfrey could have done such a thing, without awakening mirth rising to hysteria; but such was the tremendous personality of the man, perhaps accentuated by that strange strain of blood, that he was dominant over the ridiculous, even the grotesque, even the orderly. None stopped him, and he strode on.

It is a village story to this day, how Caleb Joyce Godfrey, arrayed in feminine gear, conducted his law business all that afternoon and of the many men who entered his office not one dared to laugh. When toward sunset he stalked home, his blue skirts swishing, his lace mantilla afloat to the breeze, women drew their children away from windows; men accosted him, as if nothing were unusual; but their faces were pale.

As for poor Ellen Godfrey, she had passed the black afternoon of her whole life. She was nearly dead with fear of she knew not what. But when Caleb came home, straight upstairs he went, and shortly afterward he came down in his best black suit, and treated her kindly, even tenderly. Neither of them ever alluded to the matter again, and nobody ever spoke of it to them, not even Ellen's own parents to her. Caleb Joyce Godfrey, by his uncanny deed, had awakened in some paradoxical fashion more awe and respect for himself than had ever existed before. He even attained to more local fame, because of it. He achieved great things before he died, at a little more than middle age. Ellen loved him more and more. People said that it was almost idolatry, and looked to see her fall when her idol passed. But she had some strength in her, the simple village woman, and she lived on, until she was nearly as old as her husband had been when he died, and Lily was a young woman with a lover. Then, Lily was taken ill, and the doctor said it was a decline, and Ellen gave her up; and then came the revolt against the Dresden Vase. Living with Caleb may have made the naturally simple woman imbibe some of the man's strangeness, under certain stresses of life.

At any rate, after the doctor had told her; and Lily, after the doctor had gone, had told her that her lover, Harry Anston, the young lawyer who had taken her father's place, was courting another girl, and she did not wish to live, Ellen went upstairs and entered the spare chamber where the vase stood on the Colonial mantelshelf. Even after her husband's death, she had not admitted it to the state of the parlor, although she admired it faithfully. Now, she looked at it, and an unreasoning hatred, not only against the vase, but against all inanimate things which survive, or seem to survive their owners and creators, was over her. Here she was, bereft, except for one, and soon to be entirely alone. Since she had bought that vase, had happened the monstrous happening which had always clouded her life, although her husband had ever after lived devoted to her; her husband had gone, her parents, a brother, woman after woman who had been friends of her youth, man after man. Even the gentle Jew came no longer; and he had laid down his pack for ever. She, Ellen, had seen so much that was live and vital pass, and now Lily was to go, to go in grief; and there stood the vase, slender and graceful, with its leaflike top and sides as richly gilt as ever, with its sheaf of flowers unfaded. That had survived all, and was filled with a shocking memory, instead of blossoms. Wrath, outrageous and almost inhuman, blazed up in the widow of the man who had raged likewise. She opened the window. She snatched the vase from the shelf. She flung it with all her strength out upon the brick-paved walk below. She heard it crash. She saw the glittering fragments on the sunken bricks. Then she sat down beside the window and wept. It was May, and warm; and a breeze, sweet with lilacs which grew near the window, filled the room and hovered about the sad woman like an angel of spring. But she wept on, softly and hopelessly.

Then she heard, below the window, a little silvery fluttering of wrangling birds; then, their wings in flight passed her, and instead came the no less silvery and flute-like, but articulate voices of children. Ellen looked out with her tear-filmed eyes, and saw two delicious little girls with topknots of blue ribbon, radiant over the fragments of the vase, making pouches of their short embroidered skirts, in order to carry away make-believe dishes for make-believe housekeeping. A wild bitterness was upon Ellen, that the vase even yet survived for happiness, when her own was past. Then, her mother-heart leaped, and she called down:

“Be careful, children; don't cut your hands!”

After the children had gone, the despair was over her again, and she wept as before until she again heard voices. She heard a man's voice say:

“Lily, darling, it was all hearsay. I had to go to Miss Slosson's about your father's lawsuit. I care about nobody but you in the whole world. Does your foot pain you, sweetheart?”

The girl-voice came in reply, as inarticulate, but unmistakable in meaning as a bird's love-call. Ellen looked down, and all that the doctor said about a decline went to naught. A girl with a face like that, wild with the joy of life, demanding her sweets of the future, to be laid away in her grave-robe, under the flowers? No; it was the bridal garment, the feasting and festivities, for a girl with a face like that. Lily, who had crept out forlornly into the sweet air, had met her lover coming, and had taken a winged step from illness to health and life. But she had stepped on a bit of the shattered vase, and her slipper was thin, and her foot was slightly cut; for Harry Anston's handkerchief was reddened, and he was kneeling and nursing it tenderly. Lily was smiling down at him, and in a second all her mother's fears were gone, and she laughed as softly as she had wept. Knowledge, like a great chord of music, filled the soul of the simple woman; the knowledge that nothing quick, or made by the quick, ever passes entirely from this earth, which endures as to its times and seasons, by a Great Promise; the knowledge that love had not passed was in the soul of the woman, as the fragrance of the unforgetting and unforgotten lilies was in the room.