The Gift of Love

Mary E. Wilkins

From Woman's Home Companion Vol. XXXIII No. 12 (December, 1906)

“I sort of hate to leave you alone, Caroline,” said Julia.

Caroline, fair and delicate, with a middle-aged fairness and delicacy as fine in their way as those of youth, looked up at her sister with her faint, gentle smile. She never smiled broadly, and almost never laughed. She was one of those women in whom extreme tenderness and sentiment exclude the sense of the ridiculous. There is always in humor at least a faint suggestion of cruelty, and a laugh and a jeer are nearly related. Caroline Willis had never in her whole life seen anything ridiculous in other people, she was so tenderly inclined toward all. She had always, for instance, been disposed to weep rather than laugh when she had seen anyone fall down.

“I don't mind in the least being left alone,” she said to her sister.

“You don't seem to mind much of anything,” returned Julia, and her tone was inexplicably cross.

“I haven't much to complain of with all you do for me,” replied Caroline, “I should be very wicked to complain.”

“I don't see as you have either,” said Julia, and again her tone was cross. “Here you have a good home and everything you need, and if I do say it as shouldn't, I have always looked out for you more as if I had been your mother than your sister.”

“Yes, you always have,” said Caroline lovingly. She was sitting in a soft-cushioned rocking-chair beside a window, on the sill of which stood a row of blooming plants, mostly geraniums. The earthen pots which held the plants were carefully covered with green crêpe paper. Caroline had some embroidery work in her hands. She was embroidering a wreath of violets on a centerpiece of white linen for a Christmas present.

“Still,” said Julia, “I sort of hate to leave you alone when you have such a cold.”

“I think my cold is much better,” said Caroline, “and it isn't as if you were going far, or were to be away long.”

“I know it,” assented Julia, “and I don't honestly see how I can get out of it, that's a fact.”

“Of course you can't.”

“Here I've been one of the head ones about getting up the tree, and this afternoon, when there is so much to be done, to back out wouldn't seem just right.”

“Of course you must go,” said Caroline, “and I don't mind a bit. I shall sit here and work on my centerpiece until you get back.”

“Mind, you don't stir out of this warm room.”

“No, I won't, Julia.”

“Don't you dare step foot out in the kitchen to get supper. I shall be back by half-past five at the very latest, and there isn't much to do to get supper to-night anyway. I thought we would have some cream toast. I can toast the bread in here.”

“Yes, you can.”

“Mind, you don't stir.”

“No, I won't; honest, Julia.”

Julia was a short, stout woman with a firm, florid face. She had been called pretty in her youth, and was considered good-looking now, although by some the character showing in her face was esteemed too imperative. She tied on her bonnet before the old-fashioned looking-glass which hung between the sitting-room windows, repeated yet again her instructions to her sister, and went out. Caroline watched her trudging down the snowy road, then she took another stitch on her embroidery with a gentle sigh, not so much of sadness as of acquiescence.

When Julia entered the church vestry redolent with the spicy fragrance of evergreens and fir balsam, one girl whispered to another, “Oh, dear! here comes Miss Julia Willis, and now the bossing begins.”

“She can't boss me very much,” returned the other girl, who had a face of Julia's own type; “I don't have much to say to her, nor she to me. She knows I don't like her. I have never forgiven her for what she did about my brother, though it all happened when I was nothing but a child, and I can hardly remember it.”

“I suppose she did break off the match between your brother John and her sister Caroline,” said the other girl.

“Break it off! I should say she did, and poor John went away to California, and father died without seeing him again, and poor mother has never got over it. Sometimes I think it will shorten her life. I know it shortened father's.”

“Does your brother write home?”

“Oh, yes, he writes every week as regular as clockwork. He has done splendidly out there, and he does everything for mother and me. He sends us lots of money and other things, but that doesn't make up to poor mother for losing her only son. I know she dwells on it, and thinks she will die without seeing him, the way father did.” The girl took up a sprig of evergreen and tied it to another with a vicious jerk. Her brown eyes cast a sidelong glance of dislike at Julia Willis. “Just hear the way she bosses!” she said. “She thinks she owns this whole church; she always did. There's no sense in putting up that evergreen the way she is telling them to. It looked twice as pretty the way it was before, and she has made them pull it all down.”

“That's so,” said the other girl.

Julia's rather low, but hard voice of command seemed to fill the whole vestry. Two boys on a step-ladder were anxiously altering the arrangement of some garlands over the arch which surmounted the platform on which the Christmas-tree was to stand. Julia was in her element. There was about her something fairly splendid and dominant, on a small scale. The little tuft of velvet roses and the loop of velvet ribbon on her bonnet were as erect as a bird's crest. “People have to be right on the spot to be sure things are done the way they ought to be,” she remarked in a triumphant voice to a woman beside her. The woman was a sort of disciple of hers. Julia had a following of weaker feminine souls in the village, who seemed to base their very ideas upon hers.

“I never saw anything like the way they were putting it up,” said Julia. “I guess it's lucky I came. But I really didn't know how I was going to. I didn't like to leave Caroline.”

“How is Caroline?” asked the other woman, who was tall and slender, and had a way of inclining toward the person whom she was addressing.

“I think she is a little better, but she has a pretty hard cold, and I am always afraid of pneumonia. I don't think Caroline's lungs are any too strong,” replied Julia.

“Have you had a doctor?”

“Doctor? no! I always use a medicine which mother used to make out of herbs and rum and molasses. Then I put lard and ginger on her chest at night. I don't think much of doctors!” Julia sniffed in a way she had when she said “doctors.” It expressed infinite contempt. The other woman sniffed also, although more mildly. “I guess you are about right,” said she.

The two young girls, who were covertly watching them, noticed the sniffs. “See them turn up their noses!” said one. “Mrs. Watson is just about as bad as Miss Willis.”

“Yes, she is. But I do think Miss Caroline Willis is lovely. I don't wonder your brother fell in love with her.”

“He set his life by her.”

“Well, I don't wonder.”

“She's just as sweet as she can be; and her whole life and my brother's have been ruined just by that woman's selfishness. I declare! sometimes when I look at Miss Julia Willis and think what she has done I feel fairly wicked. The idea of spoiling two lives, to say nothing of poor mother's and father's, for the sake of one!”

“Miss Julia wasn't in love with your brother?”

“In love with him? No! She was never in love with anyone but herself. She just didn't want Caroline to get married and go off and leave her. I guess it wouldn't have hurt her to live alone. I guess nobody would have molested her.” The girl gave a fairly malevolent glance at Julia.

“Your brother must have fairly worshiped her sister,” the other girl observed with a sentimental sigh.

In the meantime while Julia was superintending — “bossing,” as the irreverent young girls called it — the Christmas decorations in the church vestry, Caroline continued to sit by herself at the window embroidering. She was in a faintly pretty room. There were pieces of fine old mahogany, but the paper and carpet were faded, and so were the handworked roses on the chairs and footstools. On the table between the windows stood a lamp hung about with prisms which caught the afternoon sunlight and sent rainbows wavering over the dull elegance of the room. Beside the lamp books were carefully arranged — old autograph albums and volumes of poetry. Just before Caroline was one book bound in red and gold upon which she occasionally cast a glance. The “brother John,” of whom the young girls had talked had given it to her. It was the one gift that she had kept. There had been others — a pearl spray, a rosewood work-box, a shell comb and various other pretty things, but she had returned all these gifts when she was bidden to do so by Julia. But somehow Julia had overlooked the book; Julia did not read much. Caroline was quite aware, when she dusted that red and gold book every day, that Julia had forgotten whence it came. She felt guilty, but she could not give it up. Besides, now, it was too late. It would be ridiculous to send that book of a by-gone age of sentiment, entitled “The Gift of Love” and filled with a compilation of sentimental tales and poems, with some fine steel engravings, to its donor in California. Very probably he too had forgotten all about the poor little book. That reflection used always to sting Caroline, but she bore the sting gently as she bore everything.

Caroline was still very pretty.

That afternoon as she sat embroidering she wore a violet-colored gown of soft wool, and her blue eyes took on the color of the gown. Her blonde hair was very thick and glossy. She had always taken great care of her hair. Julia did not know why she brushed it so faithfully every night and morning, but it was because John Leavitt, the old lover of her youth, had admired it. She could hear his young ardent voice after all these years — “There isn't a girl in the whole village with such beautiful hair as yours, Caroline.” She still arranged it in the way which he had liked, although it was long out of fashion. However, it suited her thin, delicate face; the loose, soft knot of hair at the back, and the two soft curls on each side shading her faintly pink cheeks. Julia wore her own hair in a hard aggressive pompadour. Although not in the least vain, she had a keen eye to the race, and was not to be left behind in any respect if she knew it. “I should think you would do up your hair like other folks, Caroline,” she told her sister sometimes. “You would look ten years younger.”

“I like it better this way,” Caroline would reply, meekly.

“Well, have your own way, you always were set,” Julia would answer; “but it does seem to me that with such hair as yours anybody would rather keep up to the times. Your hair is a good deal nicer than mine, but the way you do it up nobody would think so.” Julia's hair was an iron gray, and so thin that she was obliged to wear a rat under her firm pompadour.

Caroline had a little girlish trick of putting up one slender white hand to see if her knot of hair was secure and her curls were properly adjusted. She had just done so, although she was alone, and had resumed her needle when somebody passed the window. She looked and saw a man, a stranger. Her heart gave a little leap. She thought of a tramp, but to her swift glimpse the man did not look like a tramp. Then there came a ring at the door. Caroline was all alone in the house. There was no maid. Caroline was very timid. It occurred to her to hide, not to answer the ring at all. Then she reflected that the man had probably seen her, and visions of doors or windows being forced flashed across her mind. She had a fertile imagination for ill.

The bell rang a second time, and Caroline laid her work on the table, rose, shook out her violet skirts carefully and went to the door. She had to traverse the length of an icy entry, and her sister's parting injunction came to her mind. “But I didn't have time to get a shawl,” she said to herself. She further reflected that the man was probably a book-agent, and Julia need never know anything about it. Caroline, through concealing her sorrows, had acquired the habit of harmless concealments in other directions. She was moreover afraid of Julia, and the mere anticipation of a chiding from her was enough to make her ill. She unlocked the front door, feeling as she did so that she ran a frightful risk, but when it was open, so firmly had the conviction of the book-agent seized upon her, that she said directly, “We don't care to buy any books to-day, thank you.”

But the man laughed. “Books?” said he, “I haven't any books. Don't you remember me, Caroline?” Then Caroline looked up in the man's face, and her own grew white. It was an awful experience that had come to her. Her old lover had in reality returned, and she had not known his face at once. It looked strange to her. The boy who took his mad flight westward because of his rejected love, had a smooth pink and white face like a girl, he was slim. This man was portly and wore a thick, gray beard. His face above his beard was as pale as Caroline's.

“You don't mean to say that you have forgotten me, Caroline?” he asked.

Caroline continued to stare at him, and suddenly a wonderful inner light seemed to possess her. She saw what had been through what was. She saw the boy in the man. She had the vision of an angel for that which was beneath all externals. She saw John Leavitt in the spirit, as he really was; the true man in him, who had held her in his heart all his life. Her face flushed pink, then paled again, and John caught her in his arms. “For the Lord's sake, let us go in the house, or we'll have all the neighbors at the windows,” he said with that laugh of his which she remembered so well, and which was still the laugh of a boy, and they passed through the long lane of freezing entry to the warm sitting-room. “I knew I would find you alone, dear,” he said as they went. “I knew she” (he placed an emphasis both of humor and indignation on the she) “had gone to the vestry.”

He sat down and gathered Caroline in his arms, and she hid her face on his shoulder. He stroked her hair fondly. “Just the same beautiful hair,” said he, “and only think how gray I have grown.”

Caroline said nothing. She was faint and dizzy with it all.

“Poor little girl,” John said, leaning his head down close to hers. “I suppose I was a brute to come in so suddenly and surprise you so, but mother said she was gone, and I couldn't resist the temptation. Oh, Caroline! God alone knows how afraid I was I should come back and find you married to some other man! I don't dare think of what I might have done.”

A quiver of delight came over Caroline. Just as she had recognized the true spiritual self in John Leavitt in spite of the external changes the years had brought about, he recognized the true spiritual self which endured despite her faded cheeks. She was in fact just the same young girl whom John Leavitt had held in his arms so many years before. Each saw the other, as it were, in a looking-glass of true love. “I was afraid you were married,” she whispered after a while.

“Did you think I ever could marry anybody except you?” he asked in return, “did you?”

“I didn't know.”

“Yes, you did know. You knew I never could even think of any other woman as my wife except you.”

And it directly seemed to Caroline that he was right. That she did know that he never could. An ineffable bliss took possession of her. The weight of years had rolled from her heart, and the rebound made it lighter than it had ever been in her distant youth. She had never been so happy. She was on a very pinnacle of happiness.

“When did you come?” she whispered.

“I got home about half an hour ago. Then I came right over here.” Then after a pause, “Caroline —”

“What, John?”

“This time, I am not going to take no for an answer. This time, sister or no sister, you must listen to me.”

“It would kill Julia,” said Caroline, and she seemed to slip from her height of happiness. “It would kill her, John.”

“Let it kill her then,” said John, with his mouth set. “I have had just about all of this I propose to stand.”

“She is my sister,” said Caroline.

“I don't care if she is,” said John. “This time you must listen to me instead of her. We will live right here in the village. I have sold out where I was. You can see her often, but I rather think it wouldn't do for us all to try to live together.”

“I can't leave Julia all alone after all these years,” sobbed Caroline.

“Now, don't cry, dear. I didn't think Julia was afraid of anything, but if she is, I will hire a girl to stay here with her. I have come home with a lot of money, Caroline, though God knows the money is nothing compared with the hope of having you with me at last. I am going to build a new house, just the way you like it. But I will hire a good girl to stay with Julia if she is timid.”

“Oh, it isn't that,” sobbed Caroline. “I don't know as she is so very timid, but —”

“But what, my own dear?”

“Oh, John, how can I leave my only sister, the only sister I've got, all alone?”

“She won't be alone if she has a girl, dear.”

“Yes, she will in one way. She will be all alone as far as her very own are concerned. Oh, John, I don't believe Julia would ever get married and go off and leave me.”

“Did she ever have a chance, tell me that?” asked John brutally.

“Of course she has had chances, every woman has,” replied Caroline, fibbing for the sake of her sister.

“He must have been a pretty brave man, then,” returned John simply, “braver than I am. I confess it would take more courage than I've got to marry Julia, and I haven't been called behindhand in bravery where I've been either.”

“I can't go and leave her alone after all these years, when she's been so good to me. You don't know how good she has been to me, John, and I haven't been very well, and a deal of care.”

“Poor dear,” said John. “Well, I am going to take care of you now. You'll be well enough when you are happy. Confess, you haven't been any too happy, Caroline.”

“I couldn't help thinking of what might have been,” admitted Caroline, and she hid her flushed face against John's rough coat.

“Couldn't help it? Good Lord, I should think not!” said John. “Hasn't that been at the bottom of my heart through thick and thin? No matter what I have been doing — and I have hustled, I tell you that, dear — that thought has never for one minute left me. I have never had you one minute out of mind, and here you are after all these years, just the same little girl.”

“Oh, no, John.”

“Yes, you are I tell you. Don't you suppose I've got eyes and can see?” John held off Caroline's blushing face, and looked at it with the most loyal devotion in the world; that devotion of him who loves through years of change and absence, and it was actually for him as if he saw the same little girl-face which he had left. “I didn't expect to find you looking this way,” he said. “I had made up my mind to find you changed, and to love you just the same, but you are not changed at all.”

“Oh, yes, John.”

“No, you are not, I tell you.” He fondled with reverent, tender fingers one of the soft curls that shaded her face. “I didn't know but you would have one of those great bumps on top of your head that girls wear nowadays,” said he, “but it is all just the same. You have had sense enough to stick to a pretty way of doing up your hair, no matter how other girls did theirs.”

“I remembered you liked it this way,” said Caroline.

“Of course you did. Caroline, I have a beautiful ring for you at home. I didn't bring it. I didn't quite dare to. I said to myself, maybe when she sees me she won't think so much of me as she used to. I know I have grown stout and gray.”

“You are a great deal better looking than when you were a boy,” said Caroline; then she added inconsistently, “you look just the same to me as you always did,” for at that moment, the gray hairs on her faithful lover's head actually appeared gilded, and his stoutness became the graceful litheness of youth.

“Nonsense!” said John Leavitt, “I have changed, but if I don't seem changed to you, your eyes are the only looking-glass I care about in the world. I wonder what kind of a house you would like.”

Then Caroline again remembered Julia. “Oh, John, I can't leave my sister,” she sobbed faintly.

“Nonsense, you've got to. We have had our lives spoiled long enough.”

“I can't.”

“You must!”

Suddenly Caroline slipped from John's knees in an absolute frenzy of terror. Her face was pale. If there had been a wild lion on her track, she could not have looked more frightened. “Oh,” she whispered, “she's coming, now.”

“Nonsense, she can't be through her work of bossing the Christmas-tree.”

“Yes, she said she shouldn't stay late, because she didn't want to leave me alone, and it's after five. That's Julia crossing the street!”

John Leavitt folded his arms across his broad chest coolly. “Let her come,” said he.

“Oh, John, I can't, I can't!”

“You can't what, dear?”

“She is crossing the street. I can't have her come in and find you sitting here. I can't!”

“It might as well come first as last, dear.”

“It can never come. I can't leave her, and — and — I can't have her come in and find you sitting here. I — I haven't strength enough to stand it, John.”

It was quite true that Caroline did not look as if she had much strength. She was white and stood trembling before John, a piteous little figure under the tyranny and terror of a lifetime. John looked at her half amusedly, half pityingly. “Well, what do you want me to do, dear?” he asked. “I can't get out now without Julia's spotting me, that is out of the question. Come Caroline, you are not afraid of Julia with me here to take care of you? What on earth can she do to you?”

“I am — afraid.”

“Well, what shall I do?”

Caroline looked around her wildly. By some freak of village architecture, the long, icy cold pantry opened, as in many other houses, out of the sitting-room instead of the kitchen. Caroline looked at the pantry door. “Oh John, go into the pantry,” she begged, “go, go!”

John rose, laughing, and made one stride across the room into the pantry. He was just in time, for at that moment Julia entered, muffled in her warm winter coat and fur cape. “It feels like snow out,” she said. That was what she said first. Then she sniffed. “Seems to me I smell something dreadful queer,” she said.

“Maybe it's the geraniums,” faltered Caroline.

“Geraniums! Those geraniums don't have any smell at all. Caroline Willis! what is the matter with you? Don't you feel so well?”

“I feel a good deal better; I do, honest, Julia.”

“You look just as white as a sheet. You don't look nearly as well as when I went away. Are you sure you haven't got a pain in your lungs?”

“I can breathe real deep down. I do feel better, Julia.”

“Well, you don't look nearly so well.” Julia began removing her outer wraps, still with anxious eyes on her sister, and she sniffed again. “Queer, what is it I smell?” said she.

“Maybe it's something from outside.”

“Outside with the windows shut down tight? I should think you were crazy!”

Caroline, who was not as a rule at all subtle, was seized with an inspiration. “I can smell the fir balsam on your clothes,” said she, “real strong.”

That diverted Julia for the time from the odor of tobacco from the clothes of John Leavitt that had permeated the room. “Well, I suppose you do,” said she; “you notice it almost before you open the vestry door. It seems as if it was stronger than usual this year.”

“Maybe the fir balsam is sweeter some years than others,” remarked Caroline, following up her advantage.

“Maybe it is,” said Julia, taking off her wraps, and going with them into the entry. “It's queer” she said, returning “but I can smell that same smell out in the entry. The baker-boy didn't come here by the front door, the way I've told him not to, did he Caroline?”


“I wouldn't have had you go out in that entry for anything, let alone his impudence in coming to the front door; it's as cold as the north pole out there.” Julia looked at the clock. “Mercy! it's half-past five,” said she, “I must get supper.”

Caroline trembled. Julia looked sharply at her. “I don't care what you say,” she declared, “you look about ready to drop.”

“I am all right,” Caroline replied faintly.

“You don't look all right. Well, maybe you'll feel better after you've had a good hot cup of tea.”

Caroline reflected quickly that the tea was out in the kitchen closet, and not in the long pantry where John Leavitt was concealed.

“I guess I'll make some cream toast, too,” said Julia, and Caroline reflected that the bread jar was in the kitchen closet.

“Yes, I guess I would relish some cream toast,” said she. But her heart sank when Julia said she would have some peach preserve with the toast, because the preserves were kept in the sitting-room pantry.

“Somehow I don't feel a mite like peach preserves,” said she faintly.

“Well, we'll have pear then,” said Julia in a magisterial voice, and Caroline's heart sank again, because the pear preserve was also in the sitting-room pantry.

“I don't care myself if we don't have any preserves,” said she in a feeble voice.

“Well, I am going to have some, whether or no,” said Julia. “I wouldn't give a cent for cream toast without preserves, and I guess you'll eat some when it's set before you. It'll be good for your cold. I am going to have some apple pie, too. I'll warm it while I'm toasting the bread. I guess I'll go out now, and see to getting the bread cut.”

The apple pie also was in the sitting-room pantry. Caroline felt as if she were going to faint, but she knew that she must not. She held on to herself with a resolute will until Julia returned from the kitchen. “I guess I may as well get that apple pie in the oven now,” said she, “it may be frozen,” and she made toward the pantry door. Then Caroline grew fairly desperate. She did something for which she never fairly forgave herself. She resorted to deception; at least it was almost deception, to say the least, and she had never in her whole life been deceptive. Just as Julia put out her hand toward the latch of the pantry door, she began to cough. It was easy enough, for she had in fact a hard cold, a bronchial cold. She had been restraining her cough all day, now she bent over and coughed, and coughed. It was almost as if she had the croup. Julia took a step away from the pantry door and stood regarding her with an odd expression; something between anxiety and severity. She was evidently worried almost to death, but there was a certain anger withal that her sister should cough so.

“There is no use talking any longer,” said she. “I've doctored you all I know how, and now I'm going to call somebody else in. If you have pneumonia, I don't mean to have myself to blame. I don't think much of Doctor Edgham; never did, but I'm going to call him in anyhow. You haven't coughed since you had your cold the way you are coughing now.”

Julia made a stride toward the entry where she had deposited her wraps. Caroline continued to cough. Indeed it was quite true that now she could not stop. Julia thrust her arms into the sleeves of her coat. “I'd cough down to the cellar while I was about it, if I were you,” said she, and again her voice was full of the utmost love and anxiety, and yet with a certain anger. She tied the strings of her bonnet with a jerk.

“I hate to have you go,” Caroline managed to wheeze out, and that was hypocritical, and later on she prayed to be forgiven. Then she continued to cough while Julia went out of the door, closing it after her with a bang. Immediately after the door closed the pantry door opened and John Leavitt appeared. He looked anxious, for he had not altogether understood Caroline's maneuvers.

Caroline could not stop coughing immediately, but she cast a reassuring glance at John. “It's — not — so bad — as it sounds,” she gasped out presently. “But if — Julia hadn't gone — she, she — would have gone into the — pantry and — found — you.” “Oh,” said John, but he still regarded Caroline with loving concern.

She managed to stop coughing. “I know I was wicked,” she said, “but I let the cough — come, when I suppose I might, if I had tried hard, have — stopped it, for I couldn't have Julia go in the pantry, and find you.”

John regarded her a moment, then he grinned. “Well,” he said, “I don't know what Julia would have done if she had come into the pantry and found me, that's a fact.”

“You had better go now, I guess,” Caroline said anxiously. “It isn't far to the doctor's, and she may be right back.”

“Well, I am coming again, and she has got to make up her mind to it,” said John.

Caroline began to weep again. “Oh dear,” she said, half strangled between her sobs and her cough. “I never can leave her, I never can. You don't know how good she has been to me, you don't John.”

“She hasn't been any better to you than I would have been if I had been given the chance,” said John.

“I can't leave her.”

“Do you mean to say that you really will give me up again on account of your sister?” asked John sternly.

“I've got to; I can't help it. Oh, John!”

John stood looking at Caroline for a moment. “You can't care very much for me after all, then,” he said.

“Oh, John!”

“You can't. Well, then if you won't leave her, you won't. I am not going down on my knees to any woman, especially after all these years, and, and — the lonely life I've led. Good-by Caroline.”

John Leavitt went out without another word. Caroline looked dully out of the window, and saw him going down the road. She felt benumbed. She felt too benumbed even to bemoan herself over her hard fate. It seemed, after John had gone out of sight, almost incredible that he had been there at all. After a while she saw the doctor's buggy come in sight. He was bringing Julia back with him. When he came in she answered his questions mechanically. She watched him prepare some medicines for her, still with the same numbness. When the doctor went, Julia followed him into the entry, and she heard the dull murmur of their voices without the slightest curiosity. When Julia reëntered the room she had an air of forced jocularity. She went about briskly getting supper. “The doctor says your cold is all on the bronchial tubes,” said she cheerfully. “He says you will be all right in a few days.”

Caroline was too sunken in concealed misery that John had been there and had gone away again forever to attempt any reply. She sat still, looking at the frozen landscape fast disappearing in the night. “After a while it will be over for me, just as this day will be over for the world,” thought she, “and then it will not matter whether it has been a winter or a summer day.”

Julia kept glancing at her as she set the table. Since Caroline had been ill with a cold, they had eaten in the sitting-room, because it was warmer. “What is the matter with you, you don't act half alive?” said she.

“Nothing,” replied Caroline gently.

Julia went to the secretary, and opened the top drawer. Then she came with a little box in her hand to Caroline. “Here,” said she, “I meant to have hung this on the tree for you, but now you can't go, you may as well have it now.”

“Thank you, sister,” said Caroline. She tried to look pleased as she opened the little box. It held a little pin set with pearls.

“I thought you would like it; you didn't have a real nice pin,” Julia said, and there was a wistful accent in her voice.

“I do like it, and it is lovely, Julia,” said Caroline.

Caroline remembered a brooch; one of John Leavitt's returned presents. That had been a cluster of pearl grapes with gold leaves, on onyx, and even this gift which Julia had planned for her pleasure hurt her.

After supper, Julia carried away the dishes, and put everything in order; then she brought her wraps in from the hall. Caroline looked at her with a dull surprise. “Now, Caroline,” said Julia, “I am going out again. I've got to, but I am not going far, and I shall not be long. I will lock the front door, and take the key. You won't be afraid?”

“No,” replied Caroline meekly, “I won't be afraid, Julia.”

Julia stood looking at her after she had on her wraps. Her strong face worked strangely under the crest of velvet roses. “I am going to bring your Christmas present, Caroline,” said she.

“Why you have given it to me.”

“This is another,” said Julia, and her voice had never been more imperious. Then she went out.

Caroline, left alone, continued to sit in her rocking-chair. After a while tears commenced to roll slowly down her delicate cheeks. She did not weep convulsively. She was conscious of no anger or rebellion against fate or her sister, who had been in a way her fate, but she was realizing the sharp pain in her heart; it had been benumbed at first.

Julia was not gone long. It was scarcely half an hour before Caroline heard the key turn in the lock of the front door. She wiped her eyes, and straightened herself.

Then Julia came in with John Leavitt. He stalked behind Julia, beaming, but his face was working with emotion, which he tried to restrain. Julia was very pale. She looked at her sister as she had never looked before.

“I heard from the doctor that he had come,” she said simply, “and I made up my mind that after supper I would go over and see him. The doctor said he wasn't married. I didn't know but he might be, and I didn't know but he might have changed his mind about you, and I didn't want to fling my sister at any man's head. But I saw the minute he looked at me that he hadn't changed. I don't see why he should have. You are just as good looking as you ever were. He has told me how he has been here, and hid in the pantry. You must have been scared to death of me, both of you, like a couple of children,” Julia laughed. “The doctor said it was more your mind than your cold that was to be worried about. I won't stand between you any longer. He's a good man, and I hope you'll be happy. He's your Christmas present I told you about.”

Caroline began to weep. She ran toward her sister, then she altered her course, and made for the secretary. “Oh, I forgot,” she sobbed out wildly, for she was fairly hysterical — “I forgot your Christmas present, Julia.” She pulled open a drawer, and produced a neat white parcel. “It's — it's a scarf I embroidered for your bureau,” she sobbed. She thrust the parcel into Julia's hand, and flung her arms around her neck. “Oh, Julia, you came first, and — I won't leave you unless you are sure you don't mind,” whispered Caroline, her cheek against Julia's.

But Julia put her away firmly. “Nobody with Christian feelings should rebel at anything that comes in the course of nature,” said she. “I did wrong, and I ain't afraid to say so. But you are young yet, and you will have a good many happy years before you. And I sha'n't live alone. I am going to send for Cousin Maria Fisher to come and live with me. She's as poor as Job's off ox, and I know as well as I want to that she doesn't have half enough to eat, and she lives alone, and she was always afraid of her own shadow. I am going to write her to come, and she'll have a good home with me as long as she lives. Don't you worry about me. I ain't a child, and when I fairly sense what is right I hope I've spunk enough to do it. Take your Christmas present!”

Caroline, being pushed by Julia toward John, stood before him. Both were smiling and flushing. John pulled a little box out of his pocket, and spoke abruptly to Julia. “Here's a little present for you,” he said in a nervous voice.

Julia took the box. “Thank you, John,” said she.

“It is a little pearl breast-pin. I meant it for Caroline, if she would take it,” said John, “but you take it now, and I'll buy her another.”

“No, let her keep this,” said Julia.

“Julia, if you don't take it, I can't bear it,” sobbed Caroline.

“Well, thank you very much, John,” said Julia. Then she gave a look at Caroline. Caroline's face had met with a wonderful change. She looked as beautiful as she had ever looked in her youth. A lovely color flamed in her cheeks, her blue eyes gleamed. Julia laughed outright as she looked at her. “Well, I must say I never saw anybody get over a cold so quick in my life,” said she.

Her voice was full of loving sarcasm. She went out of the room, and upstairs to her own. Then she sat down beside the window and thought. Her room was warmed by a register in the floor from the room below in which the lovers sat. She could hear a faint murmur of voices, but no distinct words, until she heard Caroline say quite distinctly, “That book? Yes, don't you remember the book called ‘The Gift of Love’ that you gave me? That was the only one of your presents that I kept. I don't think poor Julia ever knew. I was always afraid I was not doing right in not telling her.”

Then Julia heard no more. She recalled the red and gold book that had lain on the table so many years. “Yes, I do remember now, he gave her that book,” she mused.

She folded the shawl which she had put on more closely around her, for the room was rather chilly, and looked out at the Christmas moonlight on the Christmas snow. At first it seemed to her that she had fallen from an immense height into such loneliness and desolation as she had never known. Then suddenly an enormous delight and peace was over her. She realized that instead of falling she had climbed, had flown even. She seemed to see quite distinctly that red and gold book called “The Gift of Love,” and it became symbolic. She held in her heart what she had never held in any Christmas of her life before — the Gift of unselfish Love.

changed [ “I new she” (he placed ] to [ knew ]

changed [ temptation. “Oh, Caroline! ] to [ temptation. Oh, ]