From The Uncollected Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman (University Press of Mississippi: 1992)
Originally published in Good Housekeeping Vol. 57 (Dec. 1913)
Friend of my heart, tho' many years
We journey thro' this vale of tears;
Tho' eyes grow dim, and white thy hair,
Forever to me young and fair:
To thee this little book I give,
And if you love me, pray receive,
And let the giver be to thee
What thou hast always been to me:
Friend of my heart, for weal or woe,
For time and for eternity.
With a fine pen and in her very best hand, Catherine Dexter had copied the verse of faulty rhythm and rhyme from a yellow old manuscript, which had belonged to her Aunt Catherine, long since dead, considered by her intimates a poetess. Then Catherine, her face still grave and her kind eyes still intent, had sent the verse in an album to Elvira Meredith for a Christmas present, for she considered that Elvira was indeed the friend of her heart. And Elvira had sent in return a sweet little note of thanks, written on gilt-edged paper, and a beautifully embroidered black silk apron.
That afternoon the two ladies had thanked each other in person, and now Elvira was at Catherine's house, and they were making little lace candy-bags for the Sunday-school Christmas-tree the next day. It was the time before the Civil War, when Sunday-school Christmas-trees were at their prime. Both Elvira and Catherine had Sunday-school classes.
“We might just as well admit that we are not girls any longer,” Elvira declared, as she reached for another piece of lace.
“Women cannot remain girls forever,” replied Catherine, who had a goodly supply of philosophy, and a disposition to accept the inevitable gracefully.
But Elvira was different. She had been a great beauty. She had smiled at and scorned many lovers. She had played the harp and sung. She had possessed all the accomplishments of her day. Now they seemed to pale. She was in a way still a beauty, but a beauty whose charms had been in the world so long that they had become as an unconsidered rose. Elvira herself no longer took pleasure in regarding her face in her looking-glass. She was dainty about her dress from force of habit; but in her heart of hearts it did not seem to her to matter. Nothing of that sort had mattered very much since Lucius Converse had gone away after her last rejection of his suit.
Elvira had not intended the rejection to be final. In those days of her youth, she had been unable to consider any adverse decision with regard to love of herself final. Then it had seemed to her that, once love, it must be always love. Then she had believed in the enduring power of that face in the looking-glass. How many times her thoughts had run in this groove! Until they had worn it so deep they could no longer climb over the sides of it, she now realized. And they would soon give up trying to climb over, she told herself, as she sewed bag after bag. It was because she was growing old. She shook her head hopelessly. There were young girls out in the kitchen, making molasses candy and stringing popcorn for the Christmas-tree, and their happy laughter and chatter made Elvira sadder still.
“I, for one, shall be glad when Christmas is over,” she said to Catherine. “I feel too old for Christmas. I feel left out. Hear those young things in the kitchen, talking and laughing! Addie Emerson is telling Faith Wheeler how Tommy Keene took her sleigh-riding. You and I never go sleigh-riding nowadays, Catherine.”
“Jonas can take us, any time you wish,” said Catherine.
“Thank you,” replied Elvira. “Going sleigh-riding behind your hired man, driving your fat old black horse, is not the kind of sleigh-riding I mean. I mean flying over the hard, white snow on a moonlight night, with the horse shying at the shadows and the bells ringing like mad and — a young man driving — with one hand.” Elvira laughed a little in spite of herself.
Catherine colored. Then she also laughed. “Elvira Meredith, I am ashamed of you!”
“Well, I am not quite old enough or sour enough not to laugh and be ashamed of myself when I say a foolish thing,” said Elvira, “but I do feel sad this Christmas. I realize that I have lost, and by my own fault, so many of the great gifts of life. I wonder whether by another Christmas my hair will not be gray, and I obliged to wear a cap and front-piece?”
Catherine laughed again. “Elvira,” said she, “I cannot see a single gray hair.”
“There are a few, and I shall look a fright in a cap. I tried on mother's the other day. However, that will not matter.” Elvira meant that Lucius Converse would not see her in a cap, and that was a comfort.
“I don't think things of that sort really do matter,” said Catherine in her philosophical way, “and I do not think you need to worry about the cap for a good many years, anyway.”
“Of course that is unworthy,” admitted Elvira, “but you must know, Catherine, that my life is — well — not exactly what I expected, not quite calculated to make me very happy.”
Catherine glanced about, and in her face was a covert sense of satisfaction, and of self-accusation before the satisfaction. Catherine had the best house in the village. The room in which she was seated was handsomely furnished. There was a Brussels carpet, there were a haircloth sofa and chairs, and the south windows were filled with blooming oleander-trees. Beyond was a glimpse on one side of a fairly glorious “best” parlor, with red silk-damask sweeps of curtains; on the other, of a dining-room with a Chippendale sideboard, laden with glass and old silver. The house was warm from a hot-air furnace, the only one in the village. “I realize that I have more to make me satisfied with my lot than you have, dear,” said Catherine, and her eyes were apologetic.
“Oh, I am glad you have such nice things,” said Elvira. “I don't mind that. Of course it is hard, having so very little — we have to manage so carefully. But poor mother is so trying nowadays that I can hardly bear it, although I do try. Henrietta does not seem to mind. She has a better disposition than I have, I suppose.” Henrietta was Elvira's older sister.
“Henrietta has never expected so much of life, therefore she is naturally not so disappointed at not having it,” remarked Catherine.
“I fear that does not excuse me,” said Elvira, “but I will own that this is the saddest Christmas I ever knew — and these foolish little lace candy-bags are driving me crazy!”
Catherine laughed. They were sewing the bags with colored wool, and Elvira's had knotted under her nervous taper fingers. “Here, don't break that wool,” cried Catherine. “Give it to me; I will get the knot out!”
Elvira thanked her when she took it back. “What have you for your Sunday-school class?” said she.
Catherine hesitated. “Little coral pins.”
“Oh,” exclaimed Elvira, “the girls will be delighted. I have nothing for mine except some little books — not very interesting, I fear.”
“Girls always like books.”
“I don't know. When I was a girl, I would have much preferred a coral pin. I do hope my Sunday-school class and my friends will not give me any more worsted things this year. I had so many last year that I can never use them up if I live to be a hundred; and they are dreadful things for moths. I am not able to give much, but I have tried to give what people would not be miserable over. Oh, the girls are coming! It is time to go home. The days are short now. Well, the candy-bags are done: this is the last.”
The young girls flocked in and took formal leave of Elvira and Catherine, whom they considered very old. Elvira, watching them scurry down the path between the box-borders, sighed. She was pinning her shawl. Catherine was also pinning hers. It was after sunset, and Catherine always walked home with Elvira if she remained late. Elvira was a timid soul, and Catherine had never known what fear was.
Elvira lived in the next house, but the road was lonely, skirting a wide field. Elvira's house, the old Meredith homestead, showed in the moonlight a curious vagueness of outline, like a sketch done with a soft pencil. It was out of repair. Its shingles flapped like the very rags of a home. Its sills were rotten; the doors and windows sagged. The interior showed a stately shabbiness.
When Elvira entered, she realized the contrast between her home and her friend's. It was chilly. There was also a not altogether disagreeable, but musty odor, like the breath of the old house. That night when Elvira went up-stairs to her own room the cold was so intense that a rigid chill held her like the arms of a skeleton. There was no heat in the room. Elvira seldom afforded a fire on the hearth. She hurried to bed, and lay there long awake and shivering, with the moonlight lying in a broad blue shaft across the floor.
She could see from the bed a light in Catherine's dining-room; and she wondered why she was up so late, for it was after ten, which was considered very late in Abbotsville.
Catherine, when she had returned, had been accosted by her old servant-woman. “I found some jars of that peach preserve beginning to spoil,” said she, “and I didn't dare to leave it, for all it's so cold. So I have been scalding it up. I didn't find it out till I went to the store-room to get the jelly for supper; then I noticed the peach looked sort of queer.” Maria wished Catherine to taste of the preserve to make sure that it was right; and Catherine, who was fond of sweets, sat down at the dining-table with a saucer of peaches before her, and began to eat. “It is very nice,” said she.
Maria, who was privileged, sat in a chair in the corner, beaming. “I'm glad,” she replied proudly. “I know you set store by peach. I'm glad I happened to notice it.” Maria was a tall woman, with a thin skin roughened by frequent scrubbing with soap and water, with gray-blonde hair, and a sharp nose terminating unexpectedly in a knob, upward turned. “Mr. Lucius Converse is in town,” she added.
Catherine started and paled slightly. “Who told you, Maria?”
“Nobody told me. I saw him go by when I was in the butcher's shop,” she replied, with pleased importance.
Catherine took another spoonful of peach preserve. Her hand was quite steady, but she could hear her heart beat.
“He hasn't changed one mite, except he's raised a beard, and mebbe he's a little bit heftier,” said Maria.
“He was dressed real handsome, too. He wore a greatcoat and a silk hat, and he carried a cane.”
Catherine took another spoonful of peach preserve.
“The butcher said he was stopping at the tavern,” continued Maria; “said he'd spoke to him — just as pleasant as he used to be. Mr. Lucius Converse always was real pleasant spoken.”
“Yes, he was,” assented Catherine. She took another spoonful of peach preserve, and the sweet, smiling face of a young man of long ago seemed just before her. How Lucius had smiled, had smiled at everybody, at her, Catherine, as well as at Elvira! Perhaps Lucius Converse had smiled too often and too impartially, had said pleasant things too often and impartially. It was quite probable, indeed, that Lucius had smiled as pleasantly at the butcher as he had smiled at Catherine. But in her heart the smile had remained, like a rose pressed in a book of memory. Catherine could look at it, but she seldom did. She was entirely too sensible; moreover, she had not known that Lucius had not married. She did not know, that evening, until Maria spoke again.
“The butcher says he ain't never married,” said Maria presently.
“No, he ain't. Mebbe he's come back to get Miss Elvira.”
“Perhaps he has,” assented Catherine. However, she remembered one evening when she was a girl, when Lucius had escorted her home from evening meeting. It was true that Elvira was visiting in Boston at the time; but on that evening, walking along the sidewalk upon which the hard-packed snow glistened under the moonlight, making it like a track of blue and crystal, Lucius had, if ever a woman could tell when she was made love to, made love to her, to Catherine.
Even now Catherine, bringing her hard common sense to bear upon the sweet old memory, told herself that it was entirely true: Lucius had made love to her. He had said things which could have only one meaning. He had looked at her with eyes which expressed devotion. He had not asked her to marry him, but Catherine, when she entered her house door, was convinced that he loved her, and not Elvira, as she had thought. She dreamed of wedding Lucius.
Then Elvira had returned, and appeared at meeting in a green-shot silk and a hat trimmed with roses, tied under her chin with white lutestring ribbons. And Lucius had never taken his eyes from that face of delicate, drooping loveliness. That evening he had walked home with Catherine and Elvira, had dismissed Catherine not ungently with a good night at her own gate, and had walked on with Elvira.
Catherine had sat on her front porch that evening and watched Elvira's house. It had remained dark nearly an hour. Then a window had gleamed out with light, and soon she heard a quick step. She had hurried into her own house and closed the door; but through a side light of the door she had seen Lucius falter and hesitate, as if he had a half-mind to enter. Then he had gone on, and the next day Elvira had come over and told her of his going West, and her rejection of his offer of marriage.
Now, after all these years, hearing that Lucius Converse had returned to Abbotsville and was still unmarried, Catherine wondered why he had come back. He had a married sister living in Boston; but there was nobody, apparently, to bring him back to the little village. Catherine was a shrewd woman, and she had come to estimate Lucius rather shrewdly, to understand him. He was a successful lawyer, and had made a considerable fortune. He had flitted from pillar to post in his wooing of women; but when the time arrived for him to settle for life, he would inevitably choose an harbor which he considered safe.
Catherine said to herself: “Lucius has come back here for a wife. He wants a wife and a home. He knows that neither Elvira nor I have married. Which of us does he wish to marry?” She considered Elvira's beautiful face. She considered her own — not unattractive — and her disposition, which was of a steadier, serener type than Elvira's and might appeal to an older man wishing for a peaceful and well-ordered household. She did not consider her superior financial state as an asset. Lucius had money enough of his own, and he had never been a fortune-hunter. Catherine, finishing her peach preserve, decided that she did not know which of them he wanted, Elvira or herself.
The next day was Christmas. Catherine heard early in the morning that Lucius had gone to Boston to spend the day with his sister. She said nothing about him to Elvira. She thought that Elvira also might have heard; but she decided that she had not, when they were working together in the church vestry over the tree. Elvira would have betrayed it, had she known. The nervous, high-strung creature could not hold a secret; it rasped her soul until she had rid herself of it. A woman of no mystery, except the inevitable mystery of every individual; one always knew, however one might disapprove, that there was nothing hidden in her for further disapprobation.
That day Elvira displayed all her weaknesses. It was Christmas. She was sad, almost pettish, because she missed for herself what would have made the day really Christmas. The lines between her blue eyes were strongly marked; her sweet mouth drooped at the corners. In the evening, when they were all assembled for the Christmas-tree, she did not look as pretty as usual.
Catherine regarded her uneasily. She had not told her about Lucius, because she feared to make her more nervous. Now she had a guilty feeling that if he should come to the tree he would not see Elvira at her best. Her hair was drawn back too tightly, her smile was forced. Her dress, even, was not as tasteful as usual. Elvira, although she had little money, managed her dress very well; but that evening her old black silk was shiny across the back, and gave her a bent appearance. Moreover, black never suited her. When her name was called, she went to the tree to receive her gifts, and returned with the same set smile.
The low-ceilinged vestry was aromatic with the odor of evergreen. The tree twinkled with lights, and its boughs were bravely festooned with strung popcorn. From all the settees looked eager faces, of youth, middle-age, and even age. There was an effect, to the imaginative, as of hands outstretched for the bounty of love itself. The children, although hampered by the uncouth fashions of their day — the girls with hoops, and starched pantalettes showing under crude-colored woolen gowns, with their childish locks pulled back from their candid brows; the boys in absurd jackets and trousers made by unskilled hands — were still beautiful with the unrivaled beauty and radiance of youth, which, having as yet had nothing, expects the whole earth.
Poor Elvira was as an introverted high-light of melancholy upon the festive picture. When people talked to her, she replied politely. Elvira was a lady, born and bred, but her face never once changed. She opened none of her packages while she was in the vestry.
Catherine walked home with her, along that track of snow gleaming with blue and crystal under the moon, waved over with lovely shadows from the trees bowing gracefully before the north wind. At first they were of a numerous company, which gradually dispersed, some entering home-doors, some turning into by-streets; and when they reached Catherine's gate, the two were quite alone. Then Elvira spoke, and her speech was at once tragic, absurd, pitiful. She railed, she raged, she gestured. Always she was graceful; never once did she lose the sweet undertone from her voice. Poor Elvira had an essentially sweet nature, but her highly-strung nerves quivered into discords under the strain of her life. Suddenly she tore the wrapping from a package. “An old blue head-tie!” said she, and gave the thing a fling.
Catherine stared, aghast. “Elvira, are you crazy?”
“No,” said Elvira, in her strained, sweet voice, “I am not crazy. I am keeping from being crazy.” She tugged at the cord of another package. “Another blue head-tie!” said she, and flung it.
“Don't mind me, Catherine. I must do it.” Elvira opened the next package. “A great green and white pin-cushion,” said she. She gave that a toss, and it rolled like a ball.
“I must, Catherine! Here is another pin-cushion, a red and white one.” Elvira tossed that, and kicked it with her slender, pointed foot. “Here is another, and another! Just as I thought — all my Sunday school class has given me pin-cushions. I must have ten!” One after another, the pin-cushions dropped on the hard snow and were propelled by Elvira's lady-feet.
“Catherine, they knew I did not want these things! They knew, and they did not care! We have things we do not want because nobody cares. It is awful; I am wicked, but it is awful!” Suddenly Elvira wept. She sobbed aloud like a child. The two were before Elvira's gate. “Somehow, this Christmas,” Elvira lamented, “I have lost all courage, and all these worsted things seem to just make my heart break. I seem to look ahead and see nothing but worsted things that I don't want, on all my Christmas-trees, the rest of my life.”
“You are not well, Elvira,” said Catherine. “How much have you eaten today?”
Elvira hesitated. “We had a very good roast of pork,” said she, with a show of defiance.
“You did not have chicken?”
“We none of us care so very much for chicken,” Elvira said, but Catherine knew the truth: that her friend could afford nothing except the roast of pork, and that Elvira had never liked pork.
“They talked about having an oyster-supper tonight in the vestry, and I did not know they had changed their plans,” said Catherine.
“Yes, they did talk about an oyster-supper,” returned Elvira, in a hungry voice, “and they had cake and coffee. The cake was very nice.”
Catherine knew that Elvira never ate cake. She gave her friend's arm a little pull. “Come home with me,” she whispered. “There are oysters enough for a nice stew.”
Then Elvira spoke lamentably. She never quite lost her dignity, her innate ladyhood; but she spoke as her friend had never dreamed she could speak. She revealed depths of her nature hitherto unsuspected. “It is not oyster-stews I want,” said she, “neither do I want a lot of worsted things. I want the gifts of life that matter!”
“I don't think you ought to mind not being married quite so much,” said Catherine calmly. She spoke with reason. At that time, spinsterhood was not usually voluntary.
Elvira turned upon her fiercely. “You think that is all? You know, and I know, that marriage is the crown of life for a woman, whether she owns to it or not; but women can live without crowns. It isn't alone being not married! It is everything else. I shall never, during all my life, have anything more than I have now. I have to give up my dreams, and I suppose I love my dreams more than I would the reality. I have to give up a real home. Sometimes I feel as if mother fairly hated me, because — with my face — I have this sort of life. Henrietta is more contented than I can be, although she has no more than I have. I know she is a better woman, but I am the way I was made, and I can't get outside of myself to make myself over. Of course, I know it is all my own fault that my life is not different, but that makes it harder. Catherine, I know you despise me, and I despise myself, but somehow, tonight, I have to tell what is in my heart. Somehow all those worsted things are the last straws. I can see nothing ahead of me but pin-cushions and tidies and head-ties, paving the road to my grave: all things I don't want.” Elvira flourished another small parcel. “Here is another!” she cried. She tore the package open. “Nothing was lacking except a worsted lamp-mat,” said she, “and now I have that!” She flung the fluffy thing down. Some beads on it sparkled tinily in the moonlight. She trampled on it.
Again it seemed monstrous to Catherine, who had never so lost control of herself. “Why, Elvira!” she said.
“Yes, I know how I seem. But perhaps I may be better for telling you, for speaking out just once. Ever since father died and mother got so nervous, Henrietta and I have just lived along like beads on a string, afraid to move lest we wear our string out. Henrietta has never realized that she was a bead on a string, but I have, and it is awful. Now I will go in, and mother will hear me. No matter how softly I move, she always hears me. She will scold me, and Henrietta will not say anything, and I shall go to bed and not be able to sleep, and — Christmas day will be over.” Elvira flung her beshawled arms around her friend and kissed her cool cheek with hot lips. “God bless you, Catherine,” she said; “I know I am wicked, but tonight I had to be wicked in order to be good.”
“Well, go in now and be good,” returned Catherine, with a soft, soothing laugh.
Elvira fled into the house.
Catherine turned and went her way. She did not fairly understand her friend, but she had strong convictions with regard to the oyster-stew, also reluctant convictions with regard to Lucius Converse. Catherine had a suspicion that he was at the root of it all: that Elvira had never forgotten him. She was surer because Elvira never mentioned his name. If Elvira, as frank as she was, was silent, her silence shouted.
Then Catherine met Lucius Converse — a big, blond-bearded man.
“Hullo, Catherine,” he said, as if they had met but yesterday.
“Is it you, Lucius,” said Catherine, and she also spoke as if they had met but yesterday.
The man looked down at the woman, and his face was tender. “As far as I can see, and the moon makes it as bright as day, you look exactly the same,” said he.
“You look the same, only you have raised a beard.”
“Yes, I raised a beard right after I went away. I weigh more than I used to.”
“So do I.”
“Well, I can't tell about that, you are so wrapped up in that shawl thing. What are all those bundles you are carrying? Let me take some of them.”
“No, they are not heavy, and I am almost home. They are Christmas presents. I have been to the Sunday-school Christmas-tree in the vestry.”
“I meant to get home for that. I thought I would see my old friends there, but I missed my train at the Junction, and the station was closed, and I have been three solid hours on the road, and I am cold and half-starved; but I thought I would look up somebody tonight, anyhow, as long as it is Christmas. Why are you headed this way? The church isn't back there.”
“I went home with Elvira. You remember Elvira?”
“Of course I do, and you, too. I was going to make a call —” Lucius Converse hesitated. Suddenly he became not entirely sure whether he had been about to call on Catherine or Elvira. Catherine's face looked very good, even dear, to him, uplifted, with the moonlight flooding down upon it. She wore a white wool hood, and her calm face was framed softly in pale folds.
Catherine was thinking very swiftly, she who seldom thought swiftly, “If he goes to Elvira's now, he will get no supper, and the house will be cold.” It also flashed through her mind that Elvira was not looking as pretty as usual. “You had better call on me first, Lucius,” said Catherine, “and I will make you a hot oyster-stew. Then it will not be too late. You can still call on Elvira.”
“A hot oyster-stew sounds good to me,” replied Lucius happily. “Exactly what I want.”
They entered the warm house. “This is comfortable,” said the man. It seemed like home to him. Listening to Catherine stepping about in the kitchen, from which presently issued savory odors, he became almost convinced that he had intended to call at this house whose door he had passed. He was not essentially romantic, nor in the fullest sense a lover. He had returned to Abbotsville with the express purpose of seeking a helpmate. He knew that Elvira was still unmarried, and he could bring up the image of her lovely face quite distinctly to his memory. Still he knew, and also with interest, that Catherine was still unmarried. Now here was Catherine, in some respects more attractive than in her early youth; and more than herself was what she personified — the warm shelter and peace of Home.
And he leaned back in the haircloth rocker, and felt distinctly disinclined to make another call that night.
Meantime Catherine, preparing his supper, reflected and decided. She knew what she knew. She could have Lucius Converse for a husband if she chose. She knew that she was fond of him, and that he would be as fond of her, as the years passed, as of any woman. She had also a sudden illumination, this unimaginative, unromantic woman: she realized what the best of a marriage might be — the comradeship, the homemaking, possible only for the opposite sexes. She understood perfectly what she had to accept, or to resign. She loved Lucius with the best love that a good woman past her youth could give a man. She did not think of him as vacillating and swayed this way and that by the wills of women. She judged him correctly: he was of the type which, seemingly swayed by others, is swayed in reality only by themselves, never losing an osierlike foothold in their own interests. At the same time, no man would make a better and kinder husband. He was essentially a good man. This home-hunt, which the woman divined, proved it to her. It spelled more goodness than merely a wife-hunt. Catherine loved Lucius, but she loved him after the manner of a queen dignified before her own needs, and capable of foregoing them.
She had only one doubt: would Elvira make Lucius a good wife? Her whole faith clamored, “Yes.” Elvira would probably be better for the man than she. Elvira loved him, and her dependence would arouse his strength. “The women who need men to take care of them are the women who make men able to take care of them,” Catherine, forced into epigram by the strenuousness of the situation, told herself. Then she made her choice.
When Lucius was seated in the dining-room, with the steaming oyster-stew and the coffee, Catherine was flying across the field between her house and Elvira's. Catherine pounded on a side door, and Elvira came running.
“Hurry, and put on your blue silk,” gasped Catherine. “I will put some more wood on the fire. Hurry! Lucius Converse is coming over to see you! He is eating an oyster-stew at my house. I ran over to tell you. Hurry!”
Elvira paled. Then a wonderful flush spread over her face and neck. She smiled a heavenly smile of a soul abashed by happiness undeserved, coming in the midst of complaints and ingratitude.
Her old mother had followed her to the door, her nightcap askew, grizzled locks flying around her face of a shrew. Now she smiled, and her smile was also wonderful before unexpected blessing. She called out to her daughter Henrietta, who occupied a room on the ground floor, “Elvira's old beau is coming to see her!” And the scolding old voice gave a chord of love and repentance and amazing gratitude.
Henrietta looked out of her bedroom door at Catherine, stirring the hearth fire into a blaze, at Elvira, fumbling with her hair. Henrietta's large, patient face, surmounting the frill of her nightgown, had a charming expression. She held forth a mass of shimmering blue. “Here is your blue silk, Elvira. It was in the closet here,” she said. “Put it on out there where it is warm. If you go into a cold room to dress, you will get chilled. Here is a brush, too. Don't strain your hair too tight from your face!”
Elvira took the blue silk and ran to the old gilded pier-glass. The room, although shabby, was still stately, full of lovely effects of faded rose and lilac from ancient damask curtains and chair-coverings. The glass reflected, beside Elvira's face, the high-leaping flames of orange and violet on the cleanly-swept hearth.
Catherine hurried home.
Lucius had finished his oyster-stew. He gazed at Catherine with eyes ready to see in her face the fulfilment of his dreams and his longing.
But Catherine, seeing, would not see. She brought out pound-cake, and poured another cup of coffee. Then she said: “After you have eaten your cake and finished the coffee, you had better go, for it is really late. Elvira has not yet retired. There is a light in the parlor.”
Lucius looked at her. He obviously hesitated.
Catherine held his overcoat ready. When he had finished his coffee, she touched his shoulder. “You must go,” she said firmly, “or Elvira will retire for the night; and as for me — I must attend to making some ginger-tea for Maria. I have heard her cough since I came in.”
Lucius looked longingly at her. He stammered. Catherine did not flinch. She held his coat. He shrugged into it, and went.
After the man was seated in the old parlor of the other house, with the other woman, beautiful as he had never known her, clad in shimmering blue, with her soft curls drooping over her crimson cheeks, with a dawn-surprise of happiness in her blue eyes, with the sweetest smile, as of a soothed infant, on her lips, Catherine stood gazing out of a window across the moonlit field. She spoke aloud. A great loneliness was over her, and she wished to hear a human voice, even her own. “Elvira has got the Christmas present she wants,” said she. There was in her voice the utmost womanly sweetness, and yet a high courage, as of one who leads herself to battle. A peace and happiness so intense that it seemed fairly celestial came over her. She could not understand why she was so happy. She did not even dream of the truth: that the gift of the Lord, the true Christmas gift, is, for some of his children — the more blessed and the nearer Him — self-renunciation. She did not know that, by giving, she had received a fuller measure than she had given.
Then, smiling blissfully, all alone there in the moonlight, softly she repeated to herself the beginning of the stanza she had written in Elvira's album: “Friend of my heart —.” And that friend of her heart seemed standing before her, radiant, and blessing her.