From The Delineator Vol. LXXV No. 2 (February, 1910)
There was, of course, from the name, Scotch blood in the family, although the first McLean had settled in Durham over a hundred years before. During all that time the family strife had continued, and gradually the title “the fighting McLeans” became fastened to the members. It is doubtful if one of the McLeans ever knew of it, for Durham people were a pacific sort. It was well recognized that the McLean temper might be turned easily from themselves to outsiders. Therefore Durhamites often said of the McLeans, “Let them fight it out,” and maintained a strictly neutral attitude with regard to them.
Now the McLean family had dwindled with the passage of years until there were left of them all only five, four of whom lived in Durham in the old McLean homestead. Of these four, two were sisters; one a widow, Caroline, the other a spinster, Harriet. There were also Leonidas McLean, their father, who had been bed-ridden for years with paralysis, and Caroline's son, Elmer, a boy of eighteen. The third sister was unmarried and lived in a Western city, where she taught a girls' school. She had returned at very infrequent intervals to her childhood's home, since she had left it, and not at all of late years. People said that she — her name was Elma McLean — never wrote to her sisters, not even to her old father.
Elmer was a family name, and in the case of this daughter it had been feminized to Elma; but the son of the widowed sister, Mrs. McLean, who had married her third cousin, thereby retaining the McLean name, was Elmer. It was an odd coincidence that two of the fighting McLeans had so far overcome the family feud that they were capable of falling in love and wedding. However, they had been third cousins only, and there had been some sturdy outside blood intermixed with the McLean strain. Caroline McLean had truly loved her husband when she married him, but they had not lived together in concord as the years went on. Poor young Elmer McLean could remember nothing except incessant civil war in his family. Sometimes it seemed to him as if he must have been soothed to sleep by wrangling tongues instead of lullabies. Elmer himself was the exception which proves the rule. He loved peace, and he had not a ready tongue in retort, even when gratuitously assailed, as he often was.
He was a handsome boy, smooth-faced and wistful-eyed. One moonlight night, he stood in Rose Everly's garden talking to her. He and Rose were about the same age. Rose's father's garden backed against the McLean garden. There was no gate between, but Elmer almost nightly vaulted the fence, and Rose stole secretly down to meet him, between the rows of hollyhocks and tiger-lilies. There were strained relations between the elder McLeans and the Everlys, because of the necessity which had arisen for building that fence between the gardens. The Everly chickens had been wont to scratch in the McLean garden, and the Everlys, although they had promptly erected the fence at their own expense, had come under the ban.
It so happened that poor young Elmer was not at liberty openly to “keep company” with poor young Rose, hence their stolen meetings in the latter's garden. In the midst of the garden was an arbor, and a bench ran around it, and upon this bench Elmer and Rose used to sit on pleasant Summer evenings, when Elmer's mother and aunts supposed him to be in his bed, and Rose's parents supposed her to be in hers. It was often quite late before they could meet. They frequently remained hours together, but over their meetings were the holy glamour and mystery of young love and romance, and not an Everly or a McLean, had they been gifted with eyes to see beneath the conventionalities, could have objected. Elmer sat beside Rose, and his arm was around her waist and her head was on his shoulder. They conversed in a low murmur. Now and then they kissed each other.
“You are so sweet, Rose,” Elmer said.
“There is nobody in the world like you, Elmer,” said Rose.
The two statements were the call and countercall of love.
Generally their meetings maintained perfect harmony; but to-night Elmer was disturbed.
“Rose,” he said tentatively, after they had been sitting in the arbor for half an hour.
“What is it, Elmer?”
“Rose, if I ask you a funny question will you promise me not to be angry?”
“Of course I could never be angry with you, Elmer.”
“Then,” said Elmer, “what I want to ask you, Rose, is this: Do you ever lose your temper?”
Rose reflected. “Once,” she said, “I think I did get very angry at Minnie Norton because she said my mother did not have good taste.”
Elmer made an impatient movement. “I don't mean things like that,” he said. “When one loses one's temper with people outside it does not count, because you can simply keep out of their way.”
“Oh, Minnie and I made up. We are very good friends now.”
“I don't mean that, anyway. I mean, do you ever get angry with your own people, at home?”
“With my own father and mother? Well, I rather think I don't.”
“You never speak cross to them, no matter how aggravating they may be?”
“They never are aggravating. Of course I know mother would not like it, and I am afraid father wouldn't, if they knew I was sitting up with you here, and I shouldn't blame them one bit. I don't think I ought, but I don't see what else we can do.”
“Then you wouldn't be angry if your father and mother were to scold you?”
“No, of course I wouldn't. I should cry, I suppose, but I should not be angry.”
“And do you never have any words at all in your own home, and does nobody look at anybody else as if he hated the others, and does nobody ever say awful things?”
“Why, no, Elmer.” Rose lifted her head from his shoulder and looked in the boy's wistful face. She knew about the fighting McLeans. “Poor Elmer!” she whispered.
He laid his head against her silky hair. “Oh, Rose, it is awful!” he whispered back.
“Elmer, is it all the time?”
“All the time. I don't know what ails us all. Even poor grandfather lies there on his bed and jaws — yes, Rose, he jaws, there is no other word for it — until you would think he would die, he is so feeble. But sometimes I think his temper sort of braces him up.”
“Elmer, do they say hard words to you?”
“Hard words! I cut my teeth on hard words. There is never anything except hard words, and the queer thing about it all is —” Elmer hesitated.
“What?” asked Rose.
“I do believe they think the world of me, after all.”
“What do you do when they talk so?” asked Rose.
“Walk away,” replied the boy shortly. “I have always walked away.”
“Don't you ever talk back?”
“No; I don't see what would be the use. I could never get the last word, anyway. No, I walk away. You need not be afraid, Rose, dear. I may be a McLean, but my temper is not bad. You will never have any trouble with me, although I don't see when we can ever be married. I can't take you home, that is sure.”
“I don't care anything about getting married,” said Rose. “I think we are very happy as it is.”
“Yes, I think so too. All the same, this can't go on forever.”
“I don't see why!”
“Well, I do. It can not. A man sees farther than a girl. And I don't know how in the world we are ever to manage about being married.”
“Why can't you come and live in my father's house?” asked Rose.
“Live on your father and mother? Well, I rather think not!”
Rose lifted her head again and looked at him. Her face was adorable in the soft moonlight, which entered the front of the arbor as light might enter the front of a hood.
“Elmer,” she said, “you will not be angry with me if I ask you something, will you?”
“No, of course not.”
“And you will not walk away?”
Elmer laughed. “I am not very likely to walk away from you, darling,” he replied.
“Well, Elmer, it is this: Why don't you do something to earn a living?”
The boy looked into her face, and then the words came in a torrent. The McLean temper he truly had not, but he had the nervous impulsiveness which originated it.
“Oh!” cried he, “work and earn my living! Oh, Rose, Rose! don't I want to work and earn my living? But oh, dear! there has been more trouble over that than almost anything else except grandmother's wedding-dress.”
“Your grandmother's wedding-dress!”
“Yes; when mother and Aunt Harriet and grandfather can't find anything else to quarrel over, they get my grandmother's wedding-dress out of the trunk, and then they fight over that.”
“Mother wants it when grandfather dies, and Aunt Harriet wants it, and they can't agree.”
“What is the dress made of?” asked Rose, wonderingly.
“Oh, the dress is all right. It is ivory-white real lace; and say, Rose, but it makes you think of fairies, and it makes you think of fairy dances in the moonlight, with rose-leaves, and wings and butterflies, and lovely movements like music. It is wonderful, and Grandmother McLean wore it when she was married. Grandfather McLean bought it in Brussels for her.”
“But I don't understand,” said Rose. “What do your mother and Aunt Harriet want such a dress for? They can't wear it.”
Elmer laughed merrily. “Wear it! Of course they can't,” he replied. “You see, mother wanted it to wear when she was married, but Aunt Harriet made such a fuss she didn't get it, and now of course neither mother nor Aunt Harriet can wear anything like that. Fancy either of them walking down the street dressed in white lace!”
The two laughed with the merciless innocence of youth over the conception of the folly of age.
“It would be lovely for a wedding-dress for you,” whispered Elmer, tenderly; but Rose shivered.
“I don't believe I would like to be married in a dress there had been so much quarreling over,” she said.
“Well, I don't believe mother or Aunt Harriet will ever give it up, anyway,” said Elmer.
“But why do they want it?” To this young slip of a girl Elmer's mother and aunt seemed very old indeed, although as a matter of fact they were not much more than middle-aged.
“Oh, they just want to own it, that is all,” said Elmer; “or else mother doesn't want Aunt Harriet to have it, and Aunt Harriet doesn't want mother to have it. Neither has ever wanted the other to have anything. It is an awful thing to say of my own mother, but I do believe that for her to see Aunt Harriet have anything is worse than being held up, and it is just the same with Aunt Harriet.”
“Has your grandfather put the dress in his will?”
“I don't believe grandfather has made a will. Grandfather has never liked to think about dying.”
“I don't see how the poor old man can think about anything else.”
“That is so.”
“It must be dreadful to be old, and live so many years, half dead, as he has,” said Rose.
“O Rose, I am so glad we are young, aren't you?” said Elmer.
“Yes, indeed I am,” said the girl, happily. “It will be ever so many years before you and I will be old, Elmer.”
As the girl spoke, those future years which would pass like a swift cloud over the sky, like the bending creep of the field-grass before a strong wind, looked to both like an endless road stretching far past their eyes of youth, a happy highway bordered with never-fading bloom. Neither had reached that eminence of life and experience whence one can even conceive of the end; and for both, as yet, time was a happy eternity.
When Elmer left Rose that night and went stealthily home through the McLean garden, he heard, at quite a distance from the house, the sound of wrangling voices. He sighed and shrugged his shoulders. He had heard that sound all his life. It filled him with a very nausea of boredom rather than anger. He was very sweet-tempered, and, besides, he accepted the facts of life with no struggle. His mother and aunt had always quarreled, also his grandfather. He had heard the high voices of contention in his cradle, and he had no power to put an end to it. But Rose's question as to why he did not go forth and earn his living had aroused him. The reason was very simple: his grandfather had much wealth, and had threatened that in case the boy struck out for himself, all his money would be left to his daughter Elma, and after her to a Western college. Elmer's mother had favored the boy's wish to study law, but the grandfather had refused to supply the money, and had made the threat of disinheritance.
“I might be left a pauper in my old age,” Elmer's mother had told him. “Elma would never give a dollar to me if I were starving.”
“I could work and support you, mother,” Elmer had pleaded; but his mother had laughed scornfully.
“You!” she said. “You are a child. It would take years, and besides, where is the money to come from? Your grandfather holds the purse-strings as tightly as when I was a child.”
Old Mr. McLean had always held his purse-strings with a tight clutch. It seemed almost inconceivable that even death itself would be able to loosen his hold. Paralysis certainly had had no effect. After the very first of the seizures he had had no physician. In the beginning, when he lay mumbling and half rigid on his bed, the physician, who was almost as old as McLean himself, had been called in. After that he had come no more. Mr. McLean could now speak quite plainly, and he proclaimed daily with many oaths that no doctor should come nigh him. He had a strange ingenuity in oaths, some, indeed, being so utterly original that only the invective tone of the utterer proclaimed their nature.
Leonidas McLean's attack of paralysis had occurred about ten years before, and had been preceded — many thought occasioned — by a wrangle of unusual violence among the fighting McLeans. Caroline McLean had taken it into her head to have the breakfast a half-hour earlier than usual. There was no earthly reason for such a change, but the McLeans, when hard pressed for a cause of strife, often resorted to such methods. They made arbitrary changes in the household régime; or, rather, one in whom the fighting blood raged hottest made the change; then came the warfare. Grandfather McLean had declared that he would not breakfast a half-hour earlier; so also had declared Harriet McLean; but Caroline was firm, and the cook was completely under her sway. The result was that for two successive mornings Caroline and Elmer had breakfasted alone, and the table had been cleared and the coffee cold when the old man and Harriet had appeared. Upon the third morning Mr. McLean had had his paralysis.
During the two days after the early breakfast the conflict had so raged that Elmer — only a child then — had run away out into the barn, and crept into the stall where the old gray horse stood. Elmer loved horses. When the old gray nosed him he wept like a baby, and got a grain of comfort.
“O Becky,” he whimpered, “I wish folks couldn't talk, like you. I wish all they could do when they get mad was to run and kick. It is awful to talk.”
Poor little Elmer recognized the terrible might of the human tongue thus early. He was a courageous boy, but of that one thing he was honestly and desperately afraid, with a strange, subtle fear. He never forgot that horrible time of his grandfather's seizure; of the unending war of tongues over nothing at all during the two days; then of that morning when Harriet had come down scolding like a fury at eight o'clock, and his grandfather had not come at all. After ten and eleven o'clock had passed, his mother and her sister had crept softly up to their father's room, with poor little Elmer cowering at their heels because he was afraid to be left downstairs, and there he lay. But “lay” was not the word; there is no word in English for that rigid position of paralysis, and when the door was opened and his daughters' frightened faces peered in, he had assailed them with that awful volley of words in a strange tongue.
After that the years had passed, and old Mr. McLean had entirely recovered his powers of speech, but he had never taken a step, as far as his daughters knew, since. He was cared for faithfully, although always with vituperations, which he repaid in kind. Sometimes it seemed to Elmer as if his grandfather fairly enjoyed his life in bed, with the power to wag his tongue at will. He often wore a smile of strange, sardonic satisfaction and triumph. The cook's husband, an old colored man by the name of Peter, was engaged to wait upon him, and he did not in the least mind the hard words and oaths of his employer. Indeed, he had a way of often throwing back his head and bursting into a cackle of laughter after a fierce tirade, which exasperated the old man at first.
“What the devil are you laughing at, you black nigger?” queried Leonidas.
“At you, Marse McLean; you do seem to enjoy yo'self,” replied Peter, and laughed again.
Leonidas's lips curved in a queer smile. He often regarded Peter with satisfaction after that when he met his abuse with laughter. For the first time in his life he was realizing the delight of a man who can arouse mirth. That he could bring it forth by recrimination instead of by a witty story, made it all the more remarkable. Old Leonidas grew very fond of Peter, and kept him in his room much of the time. Peter could read, and he read the newspaper through, even to the advertisements, in his soft Southern voice.
It may have been because his daughters suspected that their father, although helpless upon his bed, got a queer enjoyment out of life, that at times they seemed to form a combine to disturb his angry peace. Whenever they did so, old Mr. McLean seemed worse, although he never had consented to have the doctor called until to-night.
Elmer, upon entering the sitting-room, saw the doctor's horse and buggy drawn up before the gate.
“It is the doctor, and grandfather is worse,” he thought.
From the parlor across the hall came the wrangling voices. Elmer looked in at the parlor door. Upon a table lay a mass of ivory-white lace, and his mother and his Aunt Harriet were at war over it. It was as hot a combat as that of two nations warring over a piece of disputed territory.
“You would not let me have my mother's lace dress to be married in!” shrieked Caroline.
“She was my mother as much as yours!” proclaimed Harriet.
“You wouldn't let me have it because you were jealous. You thought I didn't know, but I did,” said Caroline, with a snarl of hateful sarcasm.
“I wouldn't have given my old shoe-strings for Walter McLean!” cried Harriet.
“Good reason why — he didn't want them!” responded Caroline.
“That dress belongs to me!” vociferated Harriet.
“What do you want it for? You'd be a pretty sight with your yellow old face, going abroad in a lace dress!”
“I wouldn't look much worse than you. Your own face isn't exactly like a girl's, even if there is five years between us.”
“Ten,” said Caroline.
“Five,” said Harriet.
“If you don't think it is wicked to lie, I do, with the bringing up our poor dear mother gave us,” said Caroline. “You know you are ten years older than I am, Harriet McLean. You know the boy that died came between us.”
Then Harriet broke down and wept with hysterical rage. It was true that she was ten years older than Caroline. Her superior age had been the bane of her life. It had convicted her of inferiority to her sister, which she could not question unless she tore the register of births from the family Bible, and lied. She did not object to a lie when her temper was up, but she was afraid to tamper with the family Bible. So now when Caroline, as she always did under such circumstances, opened the Holy Book at the birth entry and thrust it under her nose, she lifted up her voice and wept.
Elmer listened with disgust, even with terror. To his quiet masculine mind, feminine hysterics were both disgusting and terrifying.
“All — I — want is that — that lace dress, that was my dear mother's wedding garment,” sobbed Harriet, on the heights of hysteria. “All — all I — want it for is — is to wear it when I — when I am laid away.”
“Fiddlesticks! You'll outlive me, old as you are,” responded Caroline. “You are as tough as an old pine knot — always have been; and you know I have always been delicate, Harriet McLean. I am much more likely to need that lace than you, and you know it. You begrudged it to me when I was married, and now you begrudge it to me for a shroud.”
“You delicate!” sneered Harriet, descending from her hysteria; “you delicate! You ate, this very night, a whole cucumber, and two soda biscuits, and two slices of cake, and all I could swallow, with poor father so sick, was a crust of bread. You delicate!”
“I am delicate,” insisted Caroline, “but I have sense enough to know that I can't keep up to take care of poor father if I don't eat. You don't suppose I wanted to eat anything, do you, Harriet McLean?”
Then Harriet was again astride hysteria. “I know you never did do anything for any human being, not even for your son and your own sister, and — your own father, unless you wanted to,” she screamed. “And I know you wanted that cake and biscuits and cucumber, or you wouldn't have touched them, not even to save poor father's life.” Then Harriet was on another tack. “Oh, poor father,” she shrilled. “There he lies upstairs, dying, for all you know, and the doctor there, and you not willing to say that I can be laid out in my own precious mother's wedding-dress!”
“She was my precious mother as much as yours,” said Caroline, unmoved, “and as for that, I don't worry so much about father. I don't believe he's so much worse. He just took a notion to have the doctor.”
“He hasn't been willing to have him for ten years. I know he is worse. O father, father! O my poor father!”
The boy standing in the door reflected how unseemly it appeared for two sisters to be quarreling over a dress while their father lay dying, if that were indeed so. He sat in judgment upon his mother and aunt, but he sat silently. He said not a word, but presently stole upstairs, and Peter was at the door of his master's room, and Peter, gaunt, grizzled old colored man, was grinning cheerfully.
“Oh, oh, Peter,” whispered Elmer, “is grandfather so very sick?”
“Don't yo' worry, sah,” Peter whispered back. “ It has been mighty quiet lately, and marster he wanted something to liven him up a bit, an' he knowed if he sent for the doctor man, an' his darters, dey tink he have no will, muss needs go to fightin' agin over dat yere lace dress. So dey be. He's havin' a fine time listenin'! He's larfin' to hisself fit to kill!”
“And the doctor?”
“Oh, de doctor man he knows all about it, an' he jes' larfs too. He done gone down the back stairs, an' 'roun' the house. Dere's his buggy wheels now; but lan'! dey don't hear nothin' 'cept dare own tongues. Ole marster like to listen to 'em. It done get mighty dull for him sometimes, an' he can't always tink o' anything hisself to quar'l 'bout, so he jes' say he set 'em goin'.”
Elmer, peering in his grandfather's door, saw the old man lying listening with an expression of malicious delight, and retreated to his own room, which faced the garden. He did not go to bed at once, but sat down by the window, and gazed out upon the lovely silver lights and the velvet shadows, and thought.
“What a dreadful family we are!” he told himself. He thought of Rose, and felt guilty. He wondered if he ever ought to entertain the thought of bringing that sweet, loving creature into such a family. He knew himself of a different sort; but he must consider the others.
He was still gazing out of the window when old Peter knocked on his door, and entered precipitately. “Marse Elmer, come quick!” cried the old man. “Yo' Aunt Haryet is tuk awful bad. Dey's done been scoldin', till all of a sudden yo' ma she give a screech an' we heerd somethin' fall, an' marster he done sent me down, an' Miss Haryet she lay on de flo', an' yo' ma, she's tryin' to bring her to herself; but I reckon it's no use, an' I reckon you better get the doctor man back quick. Old marster he done get scared, an' he ain't larfin' no mo'. De tears is runnin' over his cheeks, an' yo' ma she talk all de time, but yo' Aunt Haryet she done stop talkin', an' hearin'. Reckon you'd —”
Elmer dashed past Peter, down the stairs whence he heard his mother's sobs, and incoherent words, over the prostrate form, and soon he was back with the doctor. It was, however, of no use. Harriet McLean's weak heart had been unduly strained by her tongue and her temper. It was all over. Elmer sent a telegram to his Aunt Elma, who was not West, but sojourning in the mountains for her Summer vacation, and within summoning distance.
For the next few days there was an unwonted silence in the house of the fighting McLeans. During the first day Caroline said often to Elmer, with bitter tears, that it was all her fault.
“O Elmer, Elmer, I ought to have said, ‘Take the dress, Harriet,’” she would sob; and Elmer would respond, gravely, “Yes, I think you ought, mother.”
“And now it is too late, too late,” moaned Caroline McLean. “She is gone — poor Harriet is gone, and she can never know how willing I really was that she should have that lace.”
When Elma McLean came, she at once proposed that poor Harriet should be dressed in the lace when she was laid away for her last long sleep.
“It is nothing more than fair,” she said in her thin, sweet voice. “You know you were always quarreling with her over that lace, Caroline.”
Caroline's hot temper was on the alert.
“I suppose you would have quarreled about it, too,” said she, “if you had been here, instead of by yourself, and never even writing us.”
“It is very possible that I should,” agreed Elma McLean. “I have my full share of the family temper. If I remember rightly, I did fight a little over that shawl before I went away. I wanted it to wear to a dance.”
“That dance when you thought you were going to captivate Harry Deering,” said Caroline. “Well, you didn't; and I think, for my part, it would have taken more than the lace to have done it. You had your name up for temper as long ago as that dance.”
“I remember,” said Elma, “Lucy Winter's telling me that her husband said that Walter McLean was a pretty brave man to marry you, and she said that her husband remarked that nobody except a McLean would dare marry a McLean.”
Elma was a handsome woman, and she never showed her McLean temper except when with her family. The consequence was, it had slumbered so long that it awoke with some difficulty. Acrid as her words were, her tone was not, and she smiled as she spoke. Elma was the only one of the daughters who had a sense of humor. She had always considered that remark of her friend's husband rather witty, and she agreed with him. She knew that the McLeans had horrible tempers, she herself not excepted. However, although she had written seldom to her father and sisters, long absence had subdued her attitude toward them, and she had come home softened by her sister's death. Now it seemed to her that the only way to make amends to poor Harriet would be to give her in death all that she had wanted in life, as far as they were able. She and Caroline were in the sitting-room the evening after her arrival, and the white box containing the lace dress was on the table between them.
“After all, it is rather a ghastly ending for our mother's wedding-dress,” Elma said, fingering the lace softly. “It seems as if a web like this should clothe nothing except life and joy.”
“Harriet is going to have it,” said Caroline, in an obstinate tone. She looked aggressively at her sister's handsome, richly colored elderly face with its bands of crinkly hair; she surveyed her beautiful black gown of some thin material, covered with trimming. “You can't wear it,” said Caroline, “any more than I can. You are too old.”
Elma assented quietly. “Oh, yes; I should not wear white lace now,” said she, “although many women older than I do. I only wear black lace. I have a very handsome black lace. It was not for myself I spoke. It really seemed to me that lace like this,” and she again fingered the white material, “should be associated with youth and the hope and joy of life. That is what it was made for — not for death.”
“She is going to have it,” said Caroline.
“Of course she is,” said Elma.
Before they went to bed, the two sisters carried the lace into the parlor where Harriet McLean lay in state. They agreed that they would call in the village dressmaker to arrange it over the still form before the funeral, and that in the mean time it could remain in the box in which it had always been kept. They set the box on the table and went to bed.
Elma looked in upon her father before she entered her own room. She found Peter reading “The Pilgrim's Progress” to him, and the old man listening while tears streamed down his cheeks. For some abstruse reason old Mr. McLean had taken in these last years an immense fancy to that book, and Peter had read it over and over.
“Poor father seems to feel it very much,” Elma said to Caroline, when she had joined her in the hall.
“Yes,” assented Caroline, “he does seem to.” She looked a little puzzled.
She was more puzzled the next morning to find, on going into the parlor where the box of lace had been left, that it had disappeared. She hurried to Elma, who was finishing her coffee in the dining-room. “It has gone!” declared Caroline, very pale.
“What has gone?” cried Elma, while Elmer stared with concern at his mother.
“Why, the lace!”
“Yes, the lace.”
“Why, we put it on the table in there.”
“I know it, but it is gone.”
Elma arose hurriedly, and went into the parlor to look for herself. It was true. The white-and-gold box with its precious treasure had disappeared!
Caroline began searching the house. She went first to the place in a closet of a spare-room where the lace had been usually kept. She came downstairs trembling so she could hardly keep her feet. “It is where we always kept it,” she whispered.
“In the spare-room closet?”
Caroline, whose nerves were much shaken, sat down and wept hysterically. All the McLeans were nervous.
Elma did not weep, but she looked pale and shocked. The same superstitious fancy was in the minds of both. Elmer stole out in the garden. Presently he saw Rose's bright head on the other side of the wall, and he told her the story.
Rose looked at him in a scared way.
“Isn't it the strangest thing you ever heard of?” said she.
“Yes,” said Elmer, “I can't account for it.”
That night the lace was again placed on the table in the parlor, and the next morning it had again disappeared and was found by both sisters in the spare-room closet. Then they clung to each other, weeping and trembling.
“O my God, my God!” sobbed Caroline. “She will not forgive me, even in death. I would not let her have it in life, and she will not have it now. Oh, Elma, Elma! What shall I do?”
“What shall we do?” echoed Elma. “For I, too, grudged her the dress.”
“I will not try it again,” moaned Caroline.
“Nor I,” said Elma. She added, in an awestricken whisper: “Caroline, I don't dare.”
So Harriet McLean was laid away without the lace, for her two sisters, although they would not fairly own it to each other, had the superstitious feeling that she herself had spurned the too-late gift.
It was a month after the funeral, when old Mr. McLean walked down-stairs. The sisters, Elma and Caroline, were in the sitting-room one pleasant afternoon when he walked in. After him came Peter carrying the white-and-gold box. Caroline and Elma turned very white. Caroline emitted a cry of surprise and alarm, but the old man spoke quite calmly.
“I never had the paralysis,” said he. “I only made believe to spite Caroline, because she made such a to-do about changing the breakfast hour. I didn't mean to keep it up so long, but I got so I rather liked it. Peter, he waited on me more than I had ever been waited on, and he read to me and some of the time I was out of the wrangling. I was getting 'most too old for the wrangling and fighting. Once in a while I did feel that I would like a row when things got too monotonous, but all the time was too much. But now I've come to the conclusion it is time to stop. One of us is gone where, if she does talk, we can't hear her. It is all over. It will be all over with the rest of us before we know it. The time has come for us to stop fighting. One of us has died of it, and it is time for the war to be over.”
The sisters stared; neither spoke.
“You thought poor Harriet got up out of her coffin, and took that lace dress away, my wife's wedding dress,” said the old man. “Well, she didn't. Poor Harriet is where she sees her mistakes and only wants the things that last. I took the lace myself both times, and put it back in its place.”
“You, father?” gasped Caroline.
“Yes; I went down-stairs like a cat. I've been kitin' round my room all these years. That lace wouldn't have come to either one of you by inheritance very soon, anyway. My kind of paralysis isn't a very fatal disease. That lace shall never go on any of my daughters to be laid away in. That isn't what it was bought for. That lace dress was bought to be married in. You, Caroline, ought to have had it to wear at your wedding, but poor Harriet didn't want you to, and she had her crosses. Now Caroline will never marry again, and you, Elma, will never marry.”
Elma shook her head forcibly.
“Then,” said old Mr. McLean, “it must go somewhere else.” He raised his voice and called Elmer, and the boy entered. Rose Everly was with him. The girl looked frightened almost to a fainting point. Her eyes were big and round. She kept clasping and unclasping her hands from nervousness, but she looked very pretty — a darling young girl in her pink-sprigged muslin with a pink ribbon round her waist.
Old Mr. McLean surveyed her with intense kindliness.
“Now, don't be alarmed,” he said. “The McLeans are, or have been, a rather alarming family, but they are not now. One has been killed, and the battle is over, and peace is declared.”
Elmer held up his head like a man before them all, although he was flushed to his temples.
“I found out about all this billing and cooing,” said old Mr. McLean, “and once I saw this little girl in the garden, I made up my mind. Elmer can study law if he wants to, though he's got money enough. Here, little one, is your wedding-dress when you marry my grandson. I bought it when I was a young man to adorn love and hope, and it did; but the love and hope didn't last. It wasn't long before the apple of discord rolled betwixt my poor wife and me, and then when the children came each sent it a-roll with a little foot, and it has rolled ever since. But now the time has come to start anew. Elmer has better blood in him than the blood of strife. He has the blood of peace. Here is your wedding-gown, child, and the fighting McLeans have laid down their arms for grief that one of the fighters so dearly loved, although fighting and fought against, is gone.”
Suddenly poor old Grandfather McLean broke down and cried like a child. His daughters hurried to him.
“Take your pretty girl and her wedding gown out into the garden,” said the old man in the midst of his strange weeping, and Elmer and Rose went out into the garden. They walked between the flowers, and crossed to her father's garden, and came to the arbor.
“Rose!” whispered Elmer.
“Yes,” said Rose. Both were so young and happy, that they had already forgotten the tears they had left.
Elmer took the lid from the box, and shook out the wonderful robe.
“Just slip it on over your dress, Rose,” he pleaded.
And Rose obeyed. She thrust her shining head into the foaming mass, and Elmer helped. Then she stood blushing, all covered over with filmy grace, as a flower with dew.
“Oh,” said Elmer, “you will look like that when we are married. Rose, Rose!”