From The Uncollected Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman (University Press of Mississippi: 1992)
Originally published in Harper's Monthly 110 (Jan 1905)
Against the south wall of the shoe-factory stood a tall spruce-tree. One branch of it crossed like an arm Amanda Dearborn's window, in front of which she stood at work on her machine. At first, when she was learning her monotonous task, she scarcely noticed the branch of the tree; now that she had worked a year, she sometimes glanced up at no risk, and her glance of bitter patience fell upon the everlasting greenness of it. She got, in spite of herself and her attitude of spiritual revulsion against comfort, a slight amelioration in the hot midsummer days in the suggestion which the tree gave her of coolness and darkness and winter. In the winter itself the arm draped with changeless green did not suggest so much; still, she sometimes noticed it, and it was a relief to her weary eyes.
Nobody knew how the girl hated her work in the great factory, or how she hated life, yet endured it with a sort of contemptuous grimness. She had a highly strung nervous organization; everything in her surroundings jarred upon her, — the noise, the odors, the companionship. She was herself superior to those about her — that is, to the most of them, although she never realized it. All that she did realize was that she stood day after day at work, at a task which stretched her nerves and muscles to breaking-point, to maintain a life in a world which honestly appeared entirely unattractive to her. She was neither hysterical nor sentimental, but she was naturally pessimistic, and she naturally reasoned from analogy. She was, besides, clear-visioned, and her outlook on the future was not apt to be dazzled by hope. She saw herself exactly as she was, as she had been, and in all probability as she would be. She had not yet reached middle age, but she was no longer exactly young; in fact, she had never been exactly young as some of the girls around her were. She listened to their chatter as she might have listened to a language of youth which she herself had never spoken. She did not understand, and she had a sort of unconscious contempt for it, as she had for most of the girls themselves. She saw their innocent attempts to be beautiful — to be like those who had not to toil like themselves, to the quick wasting of youth and beauty, — and she in a way despised them for it.
Nothing would have induced her to arrange her abundant brown hair in a fluffy crest, as the girl who stood next her arranged hers. She wore her own hair brushed straight back, exposing her temples, which showed faint lines of care and weariness, but which had nevertheless something noble about them. Nothing would have induced her to muffle her throat in stocks; she had a plain turn-over collar, of the same material as her waist. She indulged in no eccentricities of belts and buttons. She was saving all that she was able from her hard earnings against an old age of inability to work, and want. And yet she might have been distinctly pretty had she cared to make herself so. As she was, she was homely with a hard, stern homeliness. She was stiff and straight and flat-chested; her long arms were becoming every day more and more bony from the strain upon them, but her rigid back of burden was never yielding.
Perhaps she came the nearest to happiness when she went to the savings-bank to make a tiny deposit. The ignoble greed of the miser had an attraction to a nature like hers, non-acquiescent with its conditions, yet with a contemptuous sense of its own helplessness, rather than with any leaning to rebellion. When a strike was talked about she held a position aloof, although her sympathies were entirely with the party who wished to strike. It was only that she realized the futility of fighting with weapons of straw. Had they been weapons of steel, she might have been the most dangerous of them all; but she saw too clearly the ultimate outcome of it all, just as she saw her own face in the looking-glass of her little room in the boarding-house. However, in that she did not see quite as clearly, since she saw only facts, and not possibilities. She saw only a dark, harsh, sternly set face, not one which was susceptible of other things, as in fact it was.
She had never thought much about her personal appearance, except with regard to its subservience to cleanliness and order and goodness. Her training was partly responsible for that. Her mother had been a very plain-visaged woman, and quite destitute of sentiment or romance. Marriage itself had been in her case a queer coincidence. She had married a widower older than herself, who had died when Amanda was a child; she could scarcely remember him. In his younger days he had held a petty rank in the civil war, and her mother, as long as she lived, had a small pension. It was that pension which had enabled Amanda and her mother to have a home. The house was heavily encumbered; Amanda's father, who had worked like herself in the factory for a living, had been obliged to lay off much on account of an old wound. He had not been able to leave even the house clear to his family. The pension money had paid the interest on the mortgage, the taxes, the repairs; and Amanda's mother took boarders — shopgirls — to eke out the remainder of their living.
After Amanda was old enough, and had graduated from the high school, in a cheap white dress, coming forward in her turn and reading gravely — for she had even as a young girl much self-poise — her stupid little essay, heavy with platitudes, she assisted her mother with the housework. It was necessary, for her mother was growing old; she was not very young when she married. However, she remained still of so much assistance that when she died Amanda realized the impossibility of going on with her work of keeping a boarding-house. They had barely made both ends meet as it had been. When the pension stopped, and the interest, taxes, and repairs were to be paid for out of the small sums received from the boarders, and she would also be obliged to hire help, she saw nothing ahead except bankruptcy. Therefore she sold at auction, with a resolute stifling of her heartache, most of the old household goods with which she had been familiar since her infancy, keeping only enough to furnish one room, and her mother's bed and table-linen and wedding-china, which she had obtained permission to store in the garret of the house after it had ceased to belong to her. After the mortgage was paid there was a small sum remaining, which she placed in the savings-bank. She took a certain comfort in thinking of that as a last resource in case of illness and inability to work. Her mother had been in the habit of saying often, “Everybody ought to have a little laid by in case they are took sick.” Amanda had the same pessimistic habit of thought, though not of speech — for she had no intimate friend.
She boarded in a house where there were several other girls and one married couple who worked in the factory, but she had nothing to do with them. They resented it, and said that Amanda Dearborn was “stuck up,” while she had no good reason for being so.
“What if her mother did take boarders, and kept her out of the shop as long as she lived?” said they; “she's there now, and she ain't no call to turn up her nose at them as is as good as she is.”
However, they were wrong; Amanda did not feel above them; she simply realized nothing in common with them; and when she came home from work she preferred remaining alone in her own room, sewing or reading. She was fond of books of a certain kind, — simple tales which did not involve much psychological analysis. Overwork in a shoe-factory does not fit the mind for strenuous efforts, except in its own behalf. Amanda used all her reasoning powers upon her own situation in the world and life. Sometimes while she sat sewing of an evening her thoughts were anarchistic, almost blasphemous; then, as always, came the contemptuous realization of their futility. Sometimes, as she sat there, she realized with a subtle defiance and rebellion that she was not in a spiritual sense a good woman. She realized that she was a woman without patience, destined to a hard monotony of life, and non-acquiescent with it. And yet in reality her demands from life, could she have made them, were small enough. She did not ask so very much, only a house no better than she had been accustomed to have, away from the buzz of the machines and the pressure upon her sensitive soul of the most heterogeneous elements of humanity. She was entirely willing to work beyond her strength, but she wanted herself to herself, and she wanted her home.
Often she took a pencil and paper and calculated at what age, if she had in the mean time no illness or disaster to infringe upon her small resources, she might possibly be able to buy a little house and set up her home again. At such times the impulse of saving grew fairly fierce within her. She went without everything that she possibly could; she patched and darned, although she always looked neat. She had learned that of her mother as she might have learned a tenet of faith. There was never a spot on the black gown she wore in the shop. It smelled of leather, but it was tidy. She was a good worker. One day not long before Christmas the foreman came to her and told her that her wages were to be raised at the beginning of the year. She had been, in fact, considered hitherto as only learning the art of stitching shoes, and her wages had been only nominal. Amanda looked at the foreman as he gave her the information, and there was a curious expression in her serious eyes. In fact, she was not only considering the raise in her wages, but she was considering him, as a brown sparrow, a dusty plebeian among birds, might consider a bird of paradise. She looked upon him as a male of her species, of course, but with a certain wonder, and even intimidation, because of his superior brilliance.
Frank Ayres, the foreman, was in fact an unusually handsome young man. He came of a good family. He was distantly related to the senior member of the firm, and might even in time belong to it. In the mean time he had his own personal advantages, which were enormous. He was only a year younger than Amanda, but he looked almost young enough to be her son. Hair as soft and golden and curly as a child's tossed above his white forehead, which had a childlike roundness. His cheeks were rosy, his lips always smiling, and with it all he was not effeminate. There was rather about him the triumph of youth and joyousness, which seemed never-ending. He, although only a foreman in a shoe-factory, carried himself like a young prince. The girls all adored him, some covertly, some boldly. He appealed to them all in a double sense, as a lover and as a child, — and the man who appeals to women after that fashion is irresistible. However, he did not take advantage of his power. He smiled at all the girls, but particularized none.
Amanda had watched with furtive disdain the other girls pushing up the fluffs of their pompadours as he drew near, and seeing to it that their shirt-waists were fastened securely in the back, straightening themselves with that indescribable movement of the female of the day, which involves at once a throwing back of the shoulders, a lengthening of the waist, a hollowing of the chest, and a slight bend of the back. She had always continued at her dogged work, and paid no attention to him. However, to-day, when he approached her (it was the hour of closing, and the girls in the vicinity had quitted their machines), she was conscious of a different sentiment. Almost the same expression entered her grave brown eyes that might have entered those of the other girls as she looked up in the joyous, triumphant face of the man. All at once a feeling of tenderness seemed to contract her heart, but it was the feeling that she had sometimes experienced at seeing a beautiful child. It was compounded of admiration and an almost painful protectiveness. In reality the maternal instinct came first in her, and the young man consequently reached it first. She gazed at him with eyes in which was no coquetry, but a gentle tenderness which transformed her whole face. The young man himself started and gazed at her as if he had seen her for the first time. She appealed to a need in his nature, and that is the strongest appeal in the world. That night he remarked to his younger brother, who was a foreman in the packing-room, that the prettiest girl in the factory was Amanda Dearborn. The brother stared. The two were smoking in Frank's room in their boarding-house.
“What! that Dearborn girl?” he said. “You are crazy.”
“She is the best-looking girl in the factory, and I am not sure that she is not the best-looking girl in town,” repeated Frank, stanchly.
“Why, good Lord!” cried his brother, staring at him, “she is the homeliest of the lot. Hair strained tight back from her forehead, and she dresses like her own grandmother.”
“I like it a good deal better than so many frills,” replied Frank, “and I am dead tired of those topknots the girls wear nowadays, and I am dead tired of the way they look at a fellow.”
“Nothing conceited about you,” remarked his brother, dryly. Although younger than Frank, he looked older, and was of a heavy build. He had not much attention from the other sex — that is, not much gratuitous attention.
“It is just because I am not conceited that I am tired of it,” said Frank. “I would rather a girl would look at me as if she would nurse me through a fever than as if I was a handsome man, and that is the way that Dearborn girl looked at me to-night when I told her her wages were raised. It is high time they were, too. She has been working under rate too long as it is.”
As the two young men talked, the snow, or rather sleet, drove on the windows. It was a bitter night — so bitter that neither thought of going out. Amanda Dearborn also remained at home. There was a sociable in the church vestry, and she had thought a little of going, although it was not her usual custom. But when it began to storm she decided to remain where she was. Her room was cold. It was a northeast room, and when the wind was that way little heat came from the register. She sat in the dark beside her window, wrapped in an old shawl which had belonged to her mother, and which always seemed to her to partake of the old atmosphere of home, and she gazed out at the white slant of the frozen storm. The sleet seemed to drive past the windows like arrows. There was an electric light a little farther down the street, and that seemed a nucleus for the swarming crystals. Amanda sat there huddled in her shawl and thought.
All thoughts are produced primarily by suggestion, and so were hers. A little package which had been found on her bureau on her return from the shop produced hers. She knew what was in it before she opened it. It required little acuteness to know, because a week before Christmas she and her mother for years had received a similar package from a distant cousin in Maine, and it contained invariably the same thing. Amanda opened the package, and found, as always, an ironing-holder. This year it was made of pink calico bound with green, and the year before, if she remembered rightly, it had been made of green calico bound with pink. Back of that she could not remember. An enormous package of these holders was stored away up in the garret of her old home. Amanda, although she was pessimistic, had a sense of humor. When she regarded this last holder she laughed, albeit a little bitterly.
“What on earth does Cousin Jane Dearborn think I want of an ironing-holder now?” she said, quite aloud. Then she considered that soon, by the last mail that night or the first in the morning, would come another package, from Cousin Maria Edgerly, and that that package would contain as usual a knitted washcloth. She then reflected upon the speedy arrival of another package from still another cousin in the second degree, containing a hemstitched duster of cheesecloth. She and her mother in the old days had often smiled over these yearly tokens, and said to each other that if they ironed every week-day, and bathed every hour, and dusted betweenwhiles, they would have enough of these things to last for a lifetime. But her mother's smile had always ended with an expression of sympathetic understanding.
“Poor Maria,” or “Poor Jane,” or “Poor Liza,” as the case might have been, the mother always remarked, “she wants to do something, and she ain't got any means and no faculty, and it's all she can do.” Amanda's mother had had a curious tenderness for these twice and third removed cousins of hers, whom she had not seen for years, and Amanda took comfort in the reflection that she had never expressed the conviction uppermost in her mind on the receipt of these faithful tokens a week before Christmas. It had been a dozen times on her tongue's end to say, “She is just sending this so as to make sure she gets something from us,” but she had never said it. Instead she had aided her mother in preparing the best return presents they could afford — presents which meant self-denial for themselves. She recalled how the very Christmas before her mother died they had sent Cousin Jane a pair of black kid gloves, although her mother's were shabby. “Poor mother, she did not need gloves very long after that, anyway,” Amanda reflected; then she also reflected that, knowing what she was now earning, they kept up this absurd deluge of holders and wash-cloths and dusters, in the hope of a reward. They were to her understanding nothing more than so many silent requests for benefits. Suddenly she became filled with an ignoble anger because of it all.
“Why should I drudge all my life and go without, in order to send Christmas presents to these cousins of mother's whom I have not seen more than two or three times in my life, and who send me things which I don't want, like so many machines?” she asked. Suddenly she resolved that this year she would not. They should get nothing. She had planned to spend fifteen dollars — an enormous sum for her — upon these cousins. She had made up her mind, since she did not know what they needed, to send the money this year, five dollars to each cousin. Suddenly she resolved that she would not. She considered how much she herself needed a new gown — a really nice black gown, — how if she had gone to the sociable that night she had not one gown which was suitable. She reflected, not fairly realizing that she did so, that Frank Ayres might have been at the sociable, and, also without fairly knowing, she saw herself as she might have looked in her poor best dress, in those dancing blue eyes of his. She imagined also herself as she would look, in those same eyes in a dainty costume of black crêpe, similar to one which a girl had who worked in the same room with her. She imagined the fluffy sweep of the long skirt, the lace trimming.
“That fifteen dollars would just about buy the material for the dress,” she said to herself. Fifteen dollars when she had paid her board, due the first of the month, was nearly all the ready money she had. She did not dream of drawing upon her little bank-account. Her increase in wages would not begin until the following Monday. She remembered that there was to be a New-year's festival at the church the week following Christmas, and how she might have the dress made and wear it to that.
Suddenly she thought further; her feminine imagination became sharpened. She thought of a rosette of black lace in her hair. “Why should I give all that money to those far-away cousins?” she asked of herself. “While mother was alive we gave to please her, but now — Why should I in return for all these holders and wash-cloths and dusters, which are absolutely valueless to me, go without things I really need?” She thought furthermore in the depths of her heart, even veiling her thought from her own consciousness, how her youth was fast passing, and she thought again how she would look, in Frank Ayres's eyes. She had an under-realization of what that new black dress might mean to her. After all, in spite of her steadfastness and even severity of character, she was only a woman, and a woman untaught except by her own nature and that of her mother. She thought of this girl and that girl whom she had known, who had had her love affair, and had married and become possessed of a happy home, and she wondered if, after all, she was so without the pale as she had always thought. She began to have dreams as she sat there staring out into the storm, of chance meetings with Frank Ayres, of what he might say and do, of what she might say and do. A warmth stole all over her from her fast-throbbing heart in spite of the cold. She trembled, she smiled involuntarily, and all seemed to hinge upon the new black dress and the lace rosette for her hair.
Suddenly she gave her head a resolute shake. “What a fool I am!” she whispered. She was distinctly angry with herself. She got up, lit her lamp, and looked in the glass. There had been a flush on her cheeks, but that and the smile had gone. Her face looked back at her from the glass, above her flat chest, and her uncompromising collar hostile to that which was the legitimate desire and need of her kind. She glowered at herself in the looking-glass. “What a fool I am!” she said again.
She took a little stationery-box from the shelf under her table, and got her pen and ink from the shelf. Then she proceeded to cut little slips of paper, and write on them, “For Cousin Jane, with a merry Christmas from Amanda,” and so on. She did not own any visiting-cards. She proposed to put a slip with a five-dollar note in each envelope, and send to the three cousins by registered mail. But now the cold of her room struck her again. Her hands felt stiff with it.
“There isn't any hurry,” she said to herself. “Mother never sent anything until the day before Christmas. She thought they liked to get their presents on Christmas day.” Then, too, she began to wonder if, after all, it was best to send the money, — if the value of money in gifts would not please them better. She thought that she might buy a pair of blankets for Cousin Jane, who was the poorest of the lot, and a silk waist for Cousin Liza, who had not quite given up, in her remote corner of Maine, the vanities of life, and about whom there had been rumors of a matrimonial alliance with an elderly widower. She also thought that a chenille table-cloth might please Cousin Maria. She decided, on the whole, that she had better wait until the next day before she got the five-dollar notes ready to send, although she was not conscious of a faltering in her determination to send the presents. Therefore she put away her paper carefully — she was very orderly — and went to bed, and lay for a long time awake watching the storm drift and swirl past the window in the electric light.
Amanda probably caught cold that night, for cold air instead of heat came from her register, and the covers on her bed were not so very thick, being well-worn quilts which had belonged to her mother. She had taken a sort of comfort in using them instead of the coverings which the mistress of the boarding-house would have furnished. Sometimes at night she felt, as she nestled under the well-worn quilts, which were heavy rather than warm, as if she were still under the wing of home. Every bit of calico in these quilts had been connected in some way with her family. However, she caught cold that night, and the next day was so ill that she was obliged to stay away from the shop. She did not even feel equal to getting the presents ready for the cousins. She was, moreover, still undecided whether to buy some gifts or send the money, but she felt too ill even to put the money in the envelopes and make arrangements about registering. The next day she was no better, and it was the fourth day before she could drag herself out of bed and go to the factory. Frank Ayres came and spoke to her, after she had been at work an hour, and inquired if she had been sick, and she felt the blood rise to her steady forehead. A chuckle from the girl at her right after he had gone made her angry, not only with the girl, but with herself and the foreman. The imagination of anything particular in his attention had come to her, but not the belief in it. She simply felt that he was making her an object of ridicule by a notice which must in her case mean nothing.
When she got home that night she was so worn out that she was obliged to go directly to bed. She resolved that the next evening, since the stores were open in the evening during the holiday season, she would go out and look for gifts for her cousins. But the next evening — she had caught a little more cold during the day — she was even more unable to go out. Then she resolved that she would send the money, as she had planned to do in the first place. It was the day but one before Christmas at last, when she dragged herself home, and took out the three new five-dollar notes to put in the envelopes. She had not taken off her wraps, for she wanted to go to the post-office, which was only a block away, to post them and have them registered. Then all at once a revulsion seized her. She again thought of the new black dress which she needed. She thought of the pile of miserable holders and dusters and wash-cloths. She looked at the money.
“What a fool I am!” she said to herself, — “what a fool! Here I shall not have one Christmas present for myself, — not one real present, for these are not presents; these are only reminders to me to send the cousins something. Here I am, with no Christmas presents coming to me, going to give away money which I actually need!” Again she seemed to see the foreman's happy, handsome face before her. She remembered the display which the girls around her had made of their gifts that very day. Suddenly she made up her mind that this year she would give her Christmas present to herself. “There is nobody else in this whole world to give me a Christmas present,” she thought, “but myself. I will give myself the present.”
When she had made this resolve a singular sense of guilt, as if she had blasphemed, was over her, but with it came a certain defiance in which she took pleasure. She began planning how she would have the new black dress made. There was, moreover, all the time the oddest conviction, for which she could not account, of something unfamiliar about the room. It was as if some strange presence was there. Every now and then she looked about. She had her lamp lighted and was seated beside her table doing some mending, but she saw nothing for a long while. She told herself that the quinine which she had taken for her cold affected her nerves. Then all at once she gave a great start. She saw, what it seemed inconceivable that she had not seen before, a package on a little ancient stand, which had belonged to her maternal grandmother, and had always stood by the side of her mother's bed in her lifetime, and now stood beside her own.
She gazed a moment at the package, which was done up in glossy white paper and tied with a gold cord; then she rose, and went across the room, and took it up. She saw what it was — a two-pound box of candy. It was directed to Miss Amanda Dearborn. She carefully took off the glossy white wrapping-paper, and a beautiful box of gold paper decorated with bunches of holly and tied with green ribbon appeared. She opened it, and on the lace-paper covering the candy was a card — “Frank Ayres.” Amanda turned pale; she actually felt her limbs tremble under her; but all the while she was assuring herself that there was a mistake, that the candy did not belong to her. She reflected that there was another girl in the factory, working in another room, of the same surname, although her Christian name was different — Maud. This other girl was very pretty — a beauty some considered her. “This was meant for her,” she said to herself, and at the same moment a deep, although ungrudging, jealousy of the other girl seized her. Amanda had good reasoning powers. She admitted that it was quite right and proper that Frank Ayres should send a Christmas token to this other girl in preference to her. She admitted that it was entirely right that the girl should have it instead of her. She was a good girl, besides being pretty and having all the graces which Amanda lacked. She had not one doubt but the box was intended for this other girl, and the more so because she herself knew quite well a young woman who was employed in the store from whence the candy came. She told herself, and with much show of reason, that this young woman, in preparing the package to be sent, had, from knowing her so well, absently confused the two names.
She carefully laid back the folds of lace-paper and looked at the dainty bonbons and fruits glacés. Then she replaced the paper, and neatly folded up the box in the outer wrappings and tied it with the gilt cord, after which she laid it on another table where it would not come to harm, and stood for a moment regarding it. It was only a box of candy, a gift which a man could send to any young woman without in the least compromising himself; it was so slight a matter that taking it seriously would in any case have been absurd, but she thought how she would have felt had it been really intended for her, and if Frank Ayres had sent it. There was something about the very uselessness of the thing which gave it a charm to her. She was not even very fond of sweets, but she had never had a Christmas present except those which savored of the absolutely essential, and which somehow missed something in being so essential. Of course there had been the holders and wash-cloths and dusters, and when her mother was alive they had been accustomed to give each other things which they really needed. That had been all. Amanda, reflecting, could not remember that she had ever had in her life, not even when she was a child, such and expensive and utterly needless gift as that box of candy. “Such a large box!” she considered, looking at it, “and such a lovely box in itself, and such a waste of ribbon, and if Frank Ayres had sent it, too!”
She began to imagine so intensely what her state of mind would have been in that case that her whole face changed; the downward curves at the corners of her mouth disappeared, she actually laughed. For a second she was as happy as if the box had actually been hers. Then her face sobered, but a change of resolution had come to her with that instant's taste of happiness on her own account. The sweet had been in her heart and relieved it of selfishness because of the joy of possession. One need not covet if one has, and the imagination of having had served her as well as the actuality, accustomed as she was to having little. She wondered how she could for a second have thought of depriving those poor cousins, those women who had had so little of the joys of life, of the Christmas gifts which she and her mother had always bestowed upon them. Her mother's dear reproachful face seemed to look upon her. She imagined the three women going to the post-office — the single one had a mile to go — and finding nothing, and her own heart ached with the ache of theirs. She seemed to put herself completely in their places, to change personalities with them. She looked at her clock and found that she had time enough, and hurried on her coat and hat, took the box of candy, and set out. The candy-store, with its windows radiant with the most charming boxes of bonbons, with evergreens and holly, was first on her way. She entered, and waited patiently for a chance to speak to the young woman whom she knew and who had been an old schoolmate of hers. She had to wait a few minutes, for the shop was packed with customers. Finally she found her chance, and approached the counter with the box.
“Alice,” she said, in a low voice, almost a whisper, “here is something which has been sent to me from here by mistake.” She spoke in a low tone both because she was embarrassed and because she was afraid that she might make trouble for her friend.
But the young woman, who was fair and plump, with a slightly imperious air, although she had greeted her pleasantly, stared at her, then at the box. “Why, I did not sell this, Amanda,” she said. “I don't know anything about it.” Then she called to another girl. “Nellie,” she said, “did you sell this box of candy?”
There was a moment's lull in the rush of customers. The other young woman leaned her elbows on the counter and stared with distinct superciliousness at Amanda in her plain garb. She had an amazing bow at her throat, and her blond locks nearly reached Amanda's face with their fluffy scoop. She examined the box with an odd haughtiness which nothing could exceed. She might have been a princess of the blood examining a crown jewel. This girl who worked in a shoe-factory seemed to her immeasurably below her. She felt a contempt for the girl at her side because she treated her so pleasantly.
“Yes, I sold that box to Mr. Ayres,” said she. “Why?” She raised her eyes in interrogation rather than pronounced the why.
“It does not belong to me,” said Amanda. “It belongs to Miss Maud Dearborn instead of me.”
“I am certain Mr. Ayres said Amanda,” replied the girl, icily.
But Amanda had also a spirit of her own. She straightened herself. She pushed the box firmly toward the girl. “The box does not belong to me,” she said, sternly. “Will you be kind enough to erase the Amanda and write Maud instead and have it sent to its proper address? — Good night, Alice.” Then she walked out of the candy-store like a queen. She distinctly heard the haughty young woman say that she guessed there must have been a mistake, although she was almost sure he had said Amanda, for she could not imagine what any man in his senses would want to send a box of candy to a cross, homely old thing like that for.
But Amanda did not mind; she was quite accustomed to her own estimate of herself, which was so far from complimentary that its confirmation did not sting her as it might have otherwise done. She went on to the other stores, and bought a beautiful pair of blankets with a blue border — which she had sent by express — for Cousin Jane, a table-cloth for Cousin Maria, and a silk waist for Cousin Liza. Then she returned home and enclosed her slips of paper with her name and Christmas greetings with the waist and the table-cloth, and got them ready for the mail. She also wrote a letter to Cousin Jane, which she sent the next morning, that it might reach her at the same time the blankets arrived. Then she went to bed and thought of the delight which the other girl would feel when she received the box of candy from Mr. Frank Ayres. She seemed to enter so intensely into her state of mind that the same happiness came to her. The suggestion precipitated a dream. She dreamed, when at last she fell asleep, that she was the other Dearborn girl — the one with the pretty face — and that the candy had come to her, and she wondered how she could ever have thought she was anybody else. Then she awoke and remembered herself, and it was time to get up, although not yet light; still the unreasoning happiness had not yet gone.
She went to the shop, and saw Maud Dearborn, looking unusually pretty, standing near the office door. She was evidently waiting for Frank Ayres to come out, and, in fact, he did at that moment. “Thank you so much for the lovely box of candy,” Amanda heard Maud say, in her pretty voice; then she passed on to her own room and took her place at her machine. She wondered a little when after a while Mr. Ayres came up to her and said good morning and asked her if she was quite recovered. She answered him quietly and resumed work, and heard the girls near her chuckle as he went away; and again the feeling of anger and injury that they should make a mock of one like her came over her. She reflected how she had gone her own way, and never knowingly hurt any one, and the feeling of revolt against a hard providence was over her. She thought of Maud Dearborn, and how prettily she had thanked Mr. Ayres, and again she seemed to almost change places with her. A great gladness for the other girl who was more favored than she irradiated her very soul. Then she fell to thinking of the joy of the cousins when they would receive their gifts. Her face relaxed, the expression of severity disappeared. She fairly smiled as she bent over her arduous, purely mechanical task. For the first time she seemed to realize the soul in that, as in all work, or rather the power in all work, for spiritual results. “If I did not have this work,” she thought, “I could not have given those presents. I could not have made those poor souls happy.”
That night when she went home she reflected with delight that the next day was a holiday, and she would be free of the humming toil of her hive of work for one day at least. She went directly up-stairs to her own room to wash her face and hands and remove her wraps before supper. The minute she entered the room she had, as she had the night before, that sense of something strange, almost the sense of a presence. She looked involuntarily at the little stand beside her bed, and there was another package of candy, directed plainly to her. She opened it with trembling fingers, and there was Frank Ayres's card. Even then she did not dare to understand. The thought, foolish as it was, flashed through her mind that Mr. Ayres might be making presents to all the girls, that she was simply one of many. Even as she stood divided between joy and uncertainty she heard a quick step on the stairs, and there was a knock on the door. The maid employed by the boarding-house mistress gave her a note from the young woman whom she knew in the candy-store. It was this:
“Dear Amanda, — Do, for goodness' sake, keep this box of candy. Mr. Ayres just bought it of me, and when I said Miss Maud Dearborn, he fairly snapped me up. I guess the other was for you fast enough. Guess you've made a mash.
Even the rude slang of the note did not disturb the joy of conviction that came to the girl. She knew that the present, the sweet, useless, very likely meaningless present, was hers. She realized the absurdity of her suspicion that Mr. Ayres was presenting two-pound boxes of candy to all the girls in the factory. She laughed aloud. She opened the box, and folded back the lace-paper, and gazed admiringly at the sweets. She no more thought of eating them than if they had been pearls and diamonds. She gazed at them, and she again seemed to see the foreman's handsome, laughing face.
Suddenly she made a resolution. There was a Christmas tree in the church that evening and she would go. She had not taken off her wraps. She hurried down-stairs and into the busy, crowded street. She went to a store where a young woman whom she new worked at the lace-counter.
“See here, Laura,” she said, “I want to buy a lace collar. I want to go to the tree to-night, and my dress is too shabby to wear without something to smarten it up a bit. But I can't pay you till Saturday night.”
“Lord! that's all right,” replied the young woman. She gave a curious glance at Amanda's face, and began taking laces out of a box. She looked again. “How well you do look!” she said; “and I heard you were laid up with a cold, too.”
“My cold is all gone,” replied Amanda. She selected a lace collar which would cost a third of her week's wages.
“Well, you are going in steep,” said the young woman.
“I would rather not have any lace than cheap lace,” Amanda replied.
“Well, I guess you are right. It don't pay in the long run. That will look lovely over your black dress. I wish I could go to the tree, but I can't get out; my steady will be there, too. You are lucky to work in a shop, after all.”
“Maybe I am,” laughed Amanda, as she went away with her lace collar.
When she got home there was a loud hum of voices from the dining-room, and an odor of frying beefsteak and tea and hot biscuits. She tucked her lace collar in her coat pocket and went in and drank a cup of tea and ate a biscuit. Then she hurried up to her room and got out her best black dress and laid it on the bed. Then she smoothed her hair, and gazed at herself a moment in her glass. She loosened the soft brown locks around her face, and saw that she was transformed. There was a pink glow on her cheeks; the smiling curves of her lips were entrancing. She put on her dress and fastened the lace collar, which hung in graceful folds over the shoulders, with a little jet pin which had been her mother's. Then she looked again at herself. She looked a beauty, and she wondered if she saw aright. She looked away from the glass, then looked again, and the same beautiful face smiled triumphantly back at her. She was meeting herself for the first time, and not only admiration and joy but tenderness was in her heart. The woman who sees herself beloved for the first time sees something greater and fairer in herself than she has ever seen. Amanda glanced at the beautiful box on the stand — she had not replaced the wrapping-paper, — and the gold of the box, decorated with holly, gleamed dully. She had become quite sure that Mr. Ayres would not have sent it to her unless he had singled her out from the others; she had become sure that the first box had been meant for her. She laughed aloud when she thought of the other Dearborn girl; then she felt sorry — so careful had she always been of money — that he had been obliged to buy another box, — of the most expensive candy, too. Then she put the box in her bureau drawer and locked it. The thought had come to her that the maid might enter the room and take a piece, and that would seem like sacrilege.
Amanda put on her coat and hat and went to the Christmas tree. She was rather late, and the gifts were nearly distributed. She took a seat at the back of the vestry, which was fragrant with evergreen. She listened to the names which were called out, and saw those called go forward for their presents. Her name was not called, and she did not expect it to be. She had from a side glance a glimpse of Frank Ayres near her. After the presents were distributed, and people began moving about, she felt rather than saw him coming toward her. She was quite alone on the settee.
“Good evening, Miss Dearborn,” he said, and she turned quite sedately — she had much self-control.
“Good evening,” she replied. Then she thanked him for his present. He laughed gayly, and yet with a certain tenderness of meaning.
“I meant the box that Miss Maud Dearborn got for you,” he said, “but somehow there was a mistake in sending it.”
“It was sent to me,” replied Amanda, in a low voice, “but I thought that you could not have meant it for me.”
“Why not?” asked Frank Ayres, gazing at her with an admiration which she had never seen in his eyes before. He was in reality thinking to himself that, much as he had liked her, he had never known she was so pretty.
Amanda stole a glance at him. “Oh, because,” she said.
“Why, I thought she was a girl you or any man would be more likely to send a box of candy to,” she said, simply, and a soft blush made her face as pink as a baby's.
“Nonsense!” said Frank Ayres. “You underrate yourself.” Then he added, “But a man rather likes a girl to underrate herself.”
When Amanda went home that night, Frank Ayres went with her. When they reached the door of her boarding-house they stopped, and there was a pause.
“You must miss your home dreadfully since your mother died,” he said.
“Yes, I do,” replied Amanda.
“I have missed mine a good deal, too,” Frank Ayres said. There was another pause. “I have been thinking pretty hard about setting up another one before long,” he said, in a low, almost timid voice.
Amanda said nothing.
“I saw last week that the house you used to own was for sale,” said Frank Ayres.
“Yes, it is, I believe,” replied Amanda, faintly.
“It is a good house, just the kind I like.”
“Yes, it is a good house.”
There was another pause. Frank Ayres's face had lost its gay, laughing expression; he looked sober, afraid, yet determined. “May I come and see you sometime?” he asked.
“I shall be very glad to have you,” replied Amanda, in a whisper.
They shook hands then, and Amanda went into the house. When she was in her own room she took the pretty box out of the drawer and sat with it in her lap, thinking about Frank Ayres and her mother, and kept Christmas holy.