An Easter-Card

Mary E. Wilkins

From Everybody's Magazine Vol. IV No. 20 (April, 1901)

On the morning of the Saturday before Easter Lawrence Brooks put on his shabby overcoat, his shabby hat, also his shabby gloves — for, poor as he was, the instincts of a gentleman as to gloves survived within him — and set out for the post-office. The morning mail was due at nine o'clock. The air in the little country post-office was fetid with the throng of loungers in their old rain-soaked garments — there was a heavy rain falling — dripping umbrellas stood here and there in pools of wet. The back of Lawrence Brooks's green-black overcoat was dank with rain; he owned no umbrella. He had a careless shamble of gait, and a careless shamble of pose when he stood still; but no one for an instant would have mistaken him for anything but a gentleman. Intimate acquaintance with his own thoughts and the thoughts of others was written in every line of his face. People did not crowd him too closely as he stood before the letter-boxes, but left him, as it were, intact in a little circle of his own individuality. After all — though he was poor, though he was known to be idle, and a failure in life — he was Lawrence Brooks, the descendant of one of the best families in the village. His father had been a judge, and a member of Congress, and his mother a gentlewoman such as seldom lived in New England. Lawrence had stories of wisdom in that unkempt head of his, and a kindly smile as from an unlevelled height of superiority upon all who crossed his path. He was both sneered at and respected by others; as for his attitude toward himself, it was both condemnatory and indulgent. He watched his own shiftless shamble along his life-path with unconcern and a certain sadness. Sometimes it occurred to him that the principal trouble with him was a lack of interest in himself. It always occurred to him more forcibly on Easter morning, because he had then a temporary revival of interest, for it was then that the Card came. For a great many years there had been without fail an Easter-card in the post-office for Lawrence Brooks, and he had never the least idea who sent it. The Card had come first the Easter after that great disappointment of his life, which had, perhaps, been the cause of his more or less complete wreck on the rocks of destiny. The girl whom he had expected to marry had forsaken him for another man. It seemed that when the girl's interest in him waned the man's did also. He seemed to lie inert where the little thing, whose worst fault, after all, had been a gentle indecision and docility under the leadings of other wills, had thrown him. He had been put aside, and he remained there. He gave up his law-office after sitting idly in it for a few years; then he lived on his principal. The income of the old Brooks estate was not sufficient for his needs, which were frugal, as regarded his personal expenses, in everything except books. He would have books. Sometimes in these latter years he used to look with a sort of agony of anticipatory renunciation at his shelves of books. He knew that in time they must go to satisfy his creditors, for he was an honorable man. He often wished that he might not live to see the day when he must be separated from them. He also sometimes was distinctly conscious of a wish not to live to see an Easter Day when his Card should not come. This Card had come to mean an inconceivable amount to a man who was no longer a child. It represented for him all the outside interest in the world of his kind. Whoever sent it was a friend, and had him in mind; there could be no doubt as to that. Every Easter morning he stood, as now, before the tiers of letter-boxes, and watched the swiftly flying fingers of the postmaster and his assistant, with a tremendous sense of suspense. The pulses beat hard in his neck under his shaggy fall of gray-blond beard; his eyes were riveted upon his own box, 267. The mail was nearly distributed, and he was feeling cold and despairing, for he was not a man to have much faith in a last chance, when there was a dart of a swift, slim white hand and a sharp slant of envelope triangled the box. It had come. Lawrence pressed closely to the window, and, when it was slid open, said his box-number to the clerk, and got his Card. He put the dainty white envelope into his pocket to protect it from the rain, and set out for home. There was jubilation in his heart.

The infinite preciousness of being unforgotten filled him with radiance, and that happened which never failed to happen at these times — his interest in himself awoke, stimulated by this interest of another. He stopped at the market on his way home, and purchased a tender steak for his dinner; it was long since he had eaten a steak. He told the salesman, with a confident air, to put it on his bill, although he knew that the bill must be met by a sale of some of his beloved books. He also purchased some potatoes, and a pound of choice tobacco. Then he went home and cooked his dinner; he lived quite alone.

When the steak and potatoes were eaten, and he had settled down with his pipe over a hearth-fire, for the weather was cold though it was Easter, he opened the envelope which contained his precious Card. It was a very pretty card, delicately designed and executed: a cross with lilies and the usual “He is risen” in Old English text. The man, huge, unkempt, settling into his old chair with a heavy lounge of comfort, like some irresponsible animal, looked at it over his cloud of tobacco smoke with a curious delight, and then, as always, his dream began. A species of hypnosis induced by the suggestion of the Easter-card settled over him, and he lived therein to his complete self-delusion for the time. The room in which he sat had been a stately apartment in its day, but it was now hideous in spite of the valuable books with which it was lined. The books themselves were dust-laden, and seemed desecrated; the tops of their cases were covered with a medley of nameless rubbish; everything about the room was loose-hung and indescribably shabby and squalid; disorder had arrived at such a pitch that ease and comfort alike were sacrificed. Lawrence even shifted uneasily in his old chair on account of the broken springs; the ragged edge of his collar rasped his neck, the ceiling over his head hung perilously, threatening a fall. He stared fretfully at an old engraving, discolored and hanging awry, when the dream suggested by the Card came into full force.

Suddenly the picture was straight, the hearth swept, the brasses were bright, the precious books dusted, the tops of their cases ornamented with photographs and casts; there was even a vase of fresh flowers, roses — he could smell them. Instead of those torn traps for stumbling feet, in the old carpet, were rich rugs, his chair was a hollow of luxury, and as for himself, he had found his level. He no longer regarded himself with that strange mixture of indulgence and sadness, but with entire respect and approval. He lived up to his Easter-card. This little lever of human interest did a mighty work within him: he was not yet a dead-weight, he had the power of response to love and faith.

Sitting there holding the Card, he resolved, as always, to engage his old law-office the next Monday, to reassert himself among his kind, to go to work, to let them see that he was not quite crushed. He had always resolved this, but had never done it. He had a whole drawer of his desk full of these Easter-cards, and upon every one he had reared an airy edifice; but the foundation was too fragile, and it had collapsed. He had settled back into his old ways. But the resolve always came, and always for the time it caused his elevation to his own true level. He insensibly straightened himself as he sat there, the loose lines in his face grew tense, his very hands, clutching his old pipe and his Easter-card, took on a different character. They looked as if they could not only grasp, but retain.

Then the door opened suddenly, and his one surviving relative, a second-cousin, entered without ceremony. She was much older than he, harsh-faced, strung up to the painful concert-pitch of order and thrift of New England. She had married a prosperous man. Her carriage was waiting at the gate, but he had been so absorbed that he had not noticed the noise of the wheels. She held on to her silken skirts with a firm hand, lest they come in contact with the dusty floor. As she tossed the plumes on her little jet bonnet, she surveyed the man before her and the squalid room with disgust, indignation, and something like triumph.

“Well, Lawrence Brooks, I've found out after all these years,” said she, in a voice lower and sweeter than one could have expected from her face, but clear and pitiless.

“Found out what, Candace?” asked Lawrence, in a bewildered way, rising. “Sit down, will you not?” he went on.

The cousin looked with disgust, that almost amounted to nausea, at the chair.

“No, thank you,” she said; “I didn't come to stop. I came to tell you; to expose her. I thought it was time. Of all the shameless —”

Lawrence colored. “You forget that I don't know what you mean, Candace,” he said gently, yet with a certain dignity.

“What I mean is, I've found out the one who has been sending you Easter-cards all these years, ever since —”

The man before her actually quailed. “I never —” he began, but the cousin interrupted him.

“No, I know you didn't,” said she; “but Emily Dickson's husband has been postmaster all the time, except during one administration, and I made up my mind I'd find out who did such a thing as to send Easter-cards year after year to an unmarried man. And now I have found out; Emily saw her put it in the box, and she made Jonathan tell. Emily came right over and told me, and I went over and told her to her face what I thought of it, and told her I was going to expose her.”

“I don't want to hear any more, Candace,” said Lawrence, brokenly. He was very pale; he felt as if some inner sacredness of his nature had been laid bare to pitiless scrutiny.

“Well, I'm going to tell you,” said the cousin firmly; “it was —”

Then the door opened again and another woman came in swiftly. She was a slender woman, with red spots of excitement blazing in her thin cheeks. She was not pretty, she had never been that; but she was elegant, and unmistakably a lady. She threw back a long cloak which had protected her from the rain, and stood there an almost inconceivable figure in such a place, on such an errand. She was of such delicacy and dignified modesty that she seemed almost ascetic. Her soft gray hair was laid around her temples with the precision of a statue. Folds of white lace swathed her throat. She held out one little gloved hand with an imperative gesture toward the other woman.

“Stop,” said she, “stop, Candace Mears; I will tell him myself. I am not in the least ashamed. I did it. I sent those Easter-cards every year, after Amy — after my cousin treated him so badly. I was the one; I sent them. You have worked all this time to find out, and now you have, and I hope you are satisfied. It seems to me that you might have found nobler employment for your time, but you succeeded; however, I will be the one to tell him.”

“Margaret Abbot!” gasped the other woman. “Of all the —”

“Yes, I know, Candace,” said the newcomer, “of all the shameless women to come and tell him! Well, perhaps I am shameless. I don't know. I feel no shame. All I wanted was — to do him a little good; that is all I want now. I have been seeing for some time that the cards weren't enough, that I ought to tell him.”

The cousin stared at her with a vacant look. Lawrence held to the back of his old chair. He was actually trembling like a girl, between these two feminine counter-currents. He was quite dazed with bewilderment over it all.

His cousin drew her silk skirt higher with a sudden twitch of decision.

“Well,” said she, “it's time for me to be going. I'll wait till you haven't any other lady callers, Lawrence.”

She placed a vicious emphasis upon the lady, then she was gone with a sharp rustle of silk. The door shut, and the carriage-wheels rolled out of sound. Lawrence still stood staring helplessly at Margaret Abbot.

He had known her ever since they were children; they had gone to school together. She was Amy's cousin, had lived in the same house; she had always left the room when he called on Amy. He had never thought anything about her, never anything at all; she had scarcely been more to him than a piece of furniture. But now a mighty change like that from the union of elemental affinities seemed to be taking place within him. A wonderful strangeness of preciousness was all at once in the appearance of this slight, plain woman. There is always a point of view wherefrom the jewel-lights of another individuality are evident, and Lawrence Brooks had gained one in the case of Margaret Abbot.

Margaret, standing before him, began to talk quite unshrinkingly.

“Candace is cruel; she always was,” she said impartially. “She has been ferreting this out for years, but that has nothing to do with it. It was time I told you anyway. I have been thinking for some time that I ought; that I ought not to regard my own pride or even my womanly modesty, if I could do you any good. I have always loved you, Lawrence. I used to love you when you came to see Amy; I used to think there was nobody like you, and I think so now.” She said it with the unswerving truth of a child.

“Oh, Margaret!” gasped Lawrence.

“Yes, it is true,” said she. “I always did. I had no right, you never cared anything for me, you hardly knew I lived; all you thought of was Amy. If you married her you would never have known how I felt, you would not have needed me. But when she treated you so, it almost killed me. I cared enough about you to want you to be happy, so it almost killed me. I have never forgiven Amy.”

“I did, long ago,” said Lawrence.

“She did not deserve it,” said Margaret. “I will never forgive her one minute of suffering she caused you. I loved you so that it seemed to me I must do something; and it was Easter right afterward, you know, and so I sent a card, and I have ever since. I thought you might feel that somebody thought of you, that it might keep up your courage. I knew what kind of man you were, but I see now that has not been enough.”

She looked him straight in the face with blue eyes like a child's. A wonderful possibility of beauty seemed to awake in her face, and the man gazed at her eagerly. “You must not live this way any longer,” said Margaret. She indicated the wretched room with a comprehensive wave of her little gloved hand. “You must rent an office, and practise law. You must be different; you must be what you started to be. You have not enough interest in yourself to do it, maybe. You do not care enough about yourself; you have not since Amy” — Margaret said “Amy” with undying rancor — “but you can do it for the sake of some one else if not for yourself. You don't love me, you never did, you never will; but I love you with all my soul, and shall as long as I live, and love is worth something even if you don't love back. You must be different for the sake of the love, Lawrence Brooks.”

She continued to look at him. No woman of her race had ever made such an unsolicited avowal before, but it seemed to exalt her instead of shaming her.

Lawrence crossed the room, opened his desk-drawer, and returned with his hands full of neatly tied packets of Easter-cards.

“You sent all these?” he said in a husky, tender voice.

“Yes, I did,” said Margaret, “because I loved you, and wanted you to be the man you were meant to be; and now I have had to tell you. You've got to, Lawrence.”

Lawrence looked at the woman's face, then at the topmost of a package of cards, whereon was pictured an angel with a bunch of lilies. It crossed his mind that she looked like the angel.

“I'll do my best, Margaret,” he said.

Margaret drew her cloak around her, and turned to go. Lawrence stood staring stupidly after her, with the Cards still in his hands. When the door closed he went to the window and watched her going down the street. All at once a resolution mightier than any which he had ever known awoke within him; he seemed to see his own better-self at Margaret's side, keeping pace with her love for him, and to see also in her strangely new yet familiar guise the ideal of his life.