The Happy Day

Mary E. Wilkins

From McClure's Magazine Vol. XXI No. 1 (May, 1903)

On Ascension Day, Eli, his wife Josephine, their two children, the boy and girl, and Josephine's mother, made a little excursion to Paris. They were dressed in their holiday clothes, shabby enough to all except the wearers. For them those old, time-worn, weather-beaten garments had a glamour of past as well as present festivity, which caused them to glimmer here and there, as with threads of gold and silver, under the lights of happy memory. A fruit stain on Josephine's frock was associated with a rollicking day in the Bois de Boulogne and a luncheon of new milk and cherries, a paint spot on Eli's coat brought reminiscences of ecstacies of observation in the Jardin des Plantes, and both were to be regarded as decorations of the creation-old order of childish joy of life rather than blemishes.

The humble family had that same simple loyalty toward their poor little possessions which they had toward one another. Josephine smoothed Eli's old coat, and said, lovingly, how fine it looked, as good as new after all these years, and Eli eyed with a sort of veneration the perennial flower in Josephine's hat, while both parents and the grandmother glanced constantly with rapture at the little ones, who were decked out wonderfully in some precious odds and ends. The grandmother, small and old, but alert, like an aged sparrow whose coat might rust, while its wing-power had not begun to run down, looked at everybody and everything; herself, her children, and the day, as with a quick jerk of assenting approbation.

All the country was dim beneath shifting folds of mist when they started that morning on the little river steamer for Paris, but they did not object to that. They seated themselves on the deck aft, in a radiant semicircle of content. Their mouths described upward bows of delight, their eyes were boldly confidential with joy. Their rustic faces, except the grandmother's, which was like an ivory hieroglyphic of past happiness, deepening, as one watched, by that of the present, gleamed as with a pale freshness of flowers, through the mist. They looked at the strangers around them with a sort of challenge, which was at once charming and pathetic. “Look at us!” they seemed to cry, “Look, how happy! Pit your happiness against ours, if you dare!”

Josephine laughed with the abandon of a child when some raindrops blew in her face.

“So much better than the hot sunshine!” said she.

The grandmother also laughed, though there was a chill in her old bones; she was not able to comprehend it at the same time with her happiness. She extended her black skirt over the blue holiday frock of the little girl, and did not feel the damp wind in her thin knees.

Eli carried a large lunch basket. They were to stay the whole of that blessed Ascension Day, and they were to do a wonderful and unprecedented thing. They would do no less: Eli, Josephine, the grandmother, and the little ones, than to go to the great, the superb Exposition of all the Nations, with the glories of which Paris and all the world rang. They would go as well as the rest. Eli had been saving the money for a long time.

When the little party reached the Porte Monumentale, they all bent their necks backward like geese and stared up at the gaudy blue arch topped with that artless Frivolity of Paris, and they drew long breaths. The grandmother laid a hand on each of the children's heads, and held them forcibly with their round-eyed, innocent faces upturned in the true slant of observation.

“Look, Louis; look, Marie! See what thine eyes have never seen before and will never see again, and remember until the day of thy death, 'tis the Porte Monumentale, 'tis the great entrance to the great Exposition of Paris. Look, look!”

“Yes, look, both of you, and remember,” acquiesced Josephine, and Eli turned his eyes from the gate to the upturned faces of his children, and nodded admonishingly and smiled, for he seemed to see in their round eyes the image of the whole reflected to greater glory.

Then Eli approached the office to purchase the admission tickets, with his family pressing close to his heels lest they be separated. How dreadful it would be should that happen, and some other woman pass in on Eli's ticket! Josephine cast a sidewise eye of suspicion at a stout woman in a jetted cape, who was pushing up ponderously in the rear, with a blank face, as averted from any alertness of purpose as a cow's. Then Josephine contracted her brows fiercely, set her mouth, drove her sharp elbow relentlessly into the soft bulk of the woman, and wedged herself in front of her. The woman expressed her mind with husky volubility. Josephine leaned back imperceptibly against her, and did not turn, but smiled triumphantly against the shoulders of Eli's holiday coat.

When the tickets were bought, Eli strutted into the grounds, Josephine keeping resolutely at his side, with the girl holding to a fold of her skirt, while the grandmother, with the boy in hand, brought up the rear.

Then the glory of the occasion began to wax toward its full. They trudged about from one wonder to another. They halted suddenly, as if at a word of command, before a statue in the avenue; they ranged themselves in an awestruck tableau before a new palace. They entered a grand portal hesitatingly, and passed between the glittering spectacles, huddled together, half with fear, half with ecstacy. They eyed the uniformed attendants with apologetic deference. They were not quite convinced that their admission fees entitled them to so much. They would have melted meekly away at a wave of a hand in a gold-laced cuff.

When they reached the Venetian glass exhibit, the grandmother caught her breath and turned quite pale. This poor old daughter of a humble line, confronted by this array of costly and fragile splendor, could at first comprehend only that inseparable minor note of all human achievements: destruction. She had possessed so little that the possibility of loss pushed always between the object and the full grasp of her soul.

She gathered her cloak and her skirts tightly around her with one hand, she held the boy in a firm clutch with the other.

“Do not touch, Louis,” she hissed in his ear. “See you not what it says? Do not touch.”

Josephine also drew her garments about her, and said to the little girl that she must be careful.

As for Eli, he passed with stiffened body, but his very soul bent low before this dazzle of unwonted preciousness.

While they were before the Venetian glass, an American purchased a superb piece, and the card marked “Vendu” was hung upon it. All the members of the little family turned their open faces like a clump of homely flowers toward the American.

The vase had cost one thousand francs. Who must he be who could pay one thousand francs for a single little vase? Generations of Eli's simple race had never at one time owned as much money as that, and to see it paid for a vase which one could dash to worthless fragments with a blow! They were dazzled, they experienced an exhilaration of spirit as if they had tasted strong wine. Come, this was tasting life to see a man purchase a thousand-franc vase! They looked at one another, they nodded, and laughed. Their eyes flashed. They were happier than the man who had bought the vase, they had more for nothing. They had driven the one successful bargain of the poor with the rich in all life.

When the clock struck noon, and it was time for luncheon, the rain was falling in a solid slant.

“It will lay the dust,” Josephine said, smiling. “It might have been dusty otherwise.”

The grandmother nodded. She held a corner of her cloak over the boy's cap. Josephine drew a corner of hers over the girl, who had in her hat an end of blue ribbon forked like a bird's wing, which might spot.

Eli found a beautiful dry place in a corner of an arcade of an unfinished building. No workmen were about on Ascension Day, and they were not disturbed.

Once an attendant passing by looked at them doubtfully, then went on with a friendly nod. He had figured in similar parties himself, and knew the disadvantages of rain.

Josephine and the grandmother spread out the luncheon, which was sumptuous; a bottle of red and one of white wine, a long twist of bread, slices of cold ragout of mutton, salad, and cheese. They ate as if that new savor of the beautiful which they that day apprehended extended to their food. The children especially never believed that the bread was like that which they usually ate, and the thin wine might have been bottled in Paradise. They discovered in it long after-tastes of wonderful flavors.

Their spirits were not in the least affected because they could not lunch under the trees as they had planned. They thought this much pleasanter. They chattered like blackbirds as they ate, filling the air with a silvery splutter of merriment. They were so unreservedly gay that one might have questioned if they had ever known sorrow, yet their ancestors had starved on the starved land before the Revolution, and there had been nothing except poverty and privation in their own lot. But they had kept untarnished and unscathed through it all, as if it had been a precious family jewel, their power to make merry and keep holidays in the midst of their ceaseless pilgrimage through the valley of shadows.

It rained hard the rest of the day; at five o'clock they took the steamer for home. When they went on board there was no room under the awning on the forward deck, but they only laughed.

“If the sun shone it would put our eyes out,” said Josephine.

A man on the deck aft, where they settled themselves, had a brown dog in a leash, and he had crawled under the bench, which put an idea into the grandmother's head:

“Creep under the bench, both of you,” she said to the children.

“Yes, creep under the bench, 'twill keep you dry,” said Josephine.

She caught Marie's blue skirt by the hem and turned it up over her head, and the child looked like an inverted bluebell. Then the boy and girl crept under the bench with the brown dog, who was friendly, and all the family laughed at the exquisite joke of it.

The banks of the old river, rosy and green and purple with new bloom, showed faintly through the heavy slant of the rain. The decks were glossy with wet. The fog and smoke waved overhead like shifting wings, everything was dull and dark, and it was cold, too, for the season. But Eli and his family in their poor, dripping holiday garments beamed, entrenched in their own indomitable sunshine of temperament.

And each of them carried home an especial treasure, fitting his or her especial needs, from the great Exposition.

Eli had to keep for the glorification of his whole future life the gaudy image of the Porte Monumentale, with the Frivolity of Paris at the summit. He was one whom a first impression stamped too deeply for erasure by others, and that was what he carried away with him.

Josephine gloated over a splendid court dress, foaming with lace, and glittering with silver over long lights of satin, in which her spirit would go clad, until earthly imaginations became a blank to her. The boy led home in triumph a toy-bear which walked and grunted, and the girl hugged close a flaxen-haired doll, who was a princess living in the French Palace of Diverse Industries. But it was the old grandmother who bore homeward the strangest treasure of all. She had paused, gaping and speechless, before a wonderful piece of embroidery by a patient artist of Japan. There she saw pictured gray, plumed geese, with long, curving necks, a-swim in a pool of satin needlework, and her imagination leapt to true life for the first time. The old woman had tended geese in her childhood, she fed and plucked them now, that being a labor suited to her later as well as her earlier years. Geese had always been for her the symbol of toil. Now she was able through that marvel of Japanese art to idealize her poor, common daily life. She sat on the deck of the river steamer, old and poor, dripping with rain which gleamed on her thin face like tears, but she looked out at the radiance which she had that day discovered over her life, and she laughed and chattered like a young girl out of the pure exuberance of her joy. And the others laughed and chattered with her, for the great inertia of happiness possessed them all.