Her Shadow Family

Mary E. Wilkins

From The Geneva Gazette November 6, 1885

Everybody in Wrexham was getting tea — that is, everybody except Mrs. Silas Markham the lawyer's wife. She was genteel, consequently she was getting dinner instead of tea. But everybody else in Wrexham was not genteel and had breakfast at five o'clock summers, and six o'clock winters, and dinner at twelve precisely, all the year round, and tea was always on the table at six.

It was nearly six o'clock of a winter's evening, and, as before stated, everybody in Wrexham was getting tea with the exception of Mrs. Silas Markham, who was genteel. She has nothing whatever to do with this story, being only mentioned for the sake of strict veracity.

People in Wrexham, generally speaking, did their own work and lived in just about the same way. You could scarcely have found one house in a hundred in which, on entering, you would not have encountered the house-wife, with smoothly brushed hair, in her afternoon calico, starting a fire in the kitchen stove, putting the tea to steep, and setting slices of bread and butter, a squash or apple pie, a plate of cheese or a dish of baked sweet apples on the table. All this, of course, had you entered at half past five or so. But if you had gone into Miss Susan Wren's house you would have found the one house in a hundred. It is perfectly safe to say that no one else in Wrexham was getting tea after such an extraordinary fashion.

Miss Wren was a little spinster of forty or so, not to be particular about odd years, and she kept a little thread and needle shop. The shop-room was such a bit of a place that facetious people had been heard to remark that Miss Wren was obliged to be very particular about standing the needles and spools on their heads and not laying them sidewise, in order to secure sufficient room for her stock in trade. Back of the shop room was another room, a shade smaller, which served Miss Wren as parlor and kitchen, and opening from that, was another, smaller still, which served Miss Wren as a bedroom. The whole was an admirable practical illustration of the comparison of adjectives — small, smaller, smallest. It was in the room corresponding to the comparative degree that Miss Wren was getting supper.

Miss Wren of an afternoon differed considerably, as to her personal appearance, from other Wrexham ladies of her age. She was more coquettishly and daintily dressed than most of them, but this, perhaps, was owing to the unmarried state of Miss Wren. Ladies with family cares have no time for extra adornment, and, of course, it is foolish to expend as much pains to make one's self as attractive to a bird in the hand as to a bird in the bush, and Miss Wren's bird had been in the bush so many years that it began to seem very doubtful as to whether he would ever come out.

Be that as it may, Miss Wren wore on this particular evening a pretty soft blue delaine dress, a dainty white collar and coral pin and the neatest little, white ruffled apron that you can imagine.

Miss Wren was a very sweet looking little woman; she had been pretty once. She was not pretty any longer, but she was sweet. When prettiness fades into sweetness it is like the angel of itself, or rather the saint of itself. Miss Wren's hair, which had been golden but was now something between a gold and a drab, was carefully crimped and parted and twisted into a shapely knot, and she wore the daintiest of little blue silk bows over her left ear.

Miss Wren's parlor kitchen differed also from other kitchen's in Wrexham. Miss Wren had a taste for high art, had it only been recognized as such. As it was, the neighbors dubbed Miss Wren's household adornments “queer fixin's.” Her kitchen floor was stained to a dark brown, in imitation of black walnut. In the centre was a tiny square of red drugget. There were full, red curtains, hung with rings on brass wires, at the two little windows. There was a red curtain similarly hung across the bedroom door, and also one which could be drawn before the cooking stove, thereby enabling Miss Wren to have on state occasions as real a parlor as one could wish. There were four wooden chairs and a rocker, all painted yellow and all furnished with bright, chintz cushions with ruffles round them, two little yellow footstools cushioned and ruffled, and a cushioned and ruffled lounge. The whole room had such a bright and beruffled appearance that it reminded one of a bright, little school girl in a clear, ruffled frock of a Monday morning.

About Miss Wren's sleeping apartment there was a mystery. None of the Wrexham neighbors had ever stepped into it. Miss Wren guarded that little room jealously: but now, she being alone, the curtain was a little apart, and you could see a little strip of red drugget before a little white bed.

But the most extraordinary thing that you would have noticed about Miss Wren's tea getting was her conversation. You would have thought at first that she was talking to herself, as she was apparently alone, but you would soon have discovered that she was not.

“Poor John,” said Miss Wren, in a tender, cooing little voice that it would have comforted one to hear, “Poor John, I know you are tired. It is hard work looking after a farm, milking cows and all that, when you have been on board ship all your life. Such work is new for you and comes hard; I know it does dear. You had better lie right down on the lounge and I'll put my blanket shawl over you. Then you'll be resting, while I get supper. I've got the nicest bit of beefsteak you ever tasted, John; I know you like something a little hearty for tea on such a cold night. Just hear the wind blow! How thankful we ought to be that you are safe here in our snug little home with beefsteak for supper, and not tossing about on that awful ocean, which I shudder to think of, with nothing but — but hardtack and salt fish,” said Miss Wren, a little at a loss for suitable articles of diet for a sailor.

Then she hustled into the bedroom for the blanket-shawl. Had you been there, you would have looked inquiringly around for this John who was receiving such tender attentions, but you would not have seen him, for the very best of reasons; he was not there.

Then you would have been very much astonished at Miss Wren's proceedings, for emerging from the bedroom with the shawl, she carefully covered up the invisible John, on the lounge, then leaned over and stroked his unseen forehead, and finally, dropped a soft little kiss on the air where his lips would have been had he been there.

Leaving John, Miss Wren opened her outer door which led directly from the kitchen into a tiny piazza, and stood there for a minute or so, in a listening attitude.

“The children are coming,” said she at length. “I hear them laughing and talking. Poor things, I guess they're cold!”

Then, while you would have been listening intently for the merry sound of children's voices and the stamping of little feet, Miss Wren cried out in her sweet little voice: — “Edward and Mary, my dears, aren't you cold? Give me a kiss each of you! How late school kept to-night! Did you have your lessons perfect? Let me untie your comforter, Edward,” and Miss Wren proceeded to untwist an imaginary scarf from the neck of an imaginary boy. “I'll take off your hood Mary. How red your cheeks are child.”

At that you would have looked very hard indeed to see the rosy cheeks of a little school girl shape themselves from out the thin air and would have almost thought yourself blind because you could not see them, it seemed so evident that Miss Wren did.

“Now, dears,” went on the little woman, “come right up to the fire and get warm, while mother gets supper and mind you don't talk and disturb your father, for he's resting, poor man! Sit right here in these two chairs,” bringing forward a couple of the ruffled yellow ones to a cosey corner by the stove; “sit right down, children. Poor little things, how your legs do dangle from those high chairs. Have the footstools?” placing one before each of the chairs for the benefit of the little invisible feet. “I would go out and buy two little cunning chairs for you this minute, dears, if it wasn't for the neighbors seeing them and talking. There are a great many things that a person would do if it were not for the neighbors not being able to understand and being astonished, which embarrasses a person. As you grow older you will realize that, children. Now I must cook the beefsteak, for I guess you are hungry. Tea would have been ready before if it hadn't been for old Mrs. Higgins coming into the shop for a spool of cotton at five o'clock and I having to wait half an hour for her to remember the number she wanted; but supper'll be ready in a jiffy now.”

So saying, the little woman bustled around and broiled the “nicest bit of beefsteak in the world” over a little bed of bright coals in the cook stove which it is quite safe to aver hadn't its superior in the whole world for blackness and shininess. Then she poured boiling water into the teapot from the tin teakettle, which sang like the prima donna of all teakettles and was so bright that John and the children, had they been there at all, might have seen their faces in it, and then put a squash pie into the oven to warm. Then she sliced the bread and set the little square yellow table in the middle of the little square of red drugget and she set it for four. There were four plates, one on each side; two cups and saucers and two pretty china mugs with pink and blue roses and gilt bands, which she filled with milk and water.

“I will make it real sweet to-night, dears,” said she, looking affectionately at the corner where the children were supposed to be sitting; “now,” — so cheerily that it was enough to give even shadows an appetite to hear her — “draw right up, John, dear; come, Edward and Mary.”

Miss Wren placed the four yellow chairs exactly before the four plates sat down herself and poured out tea. John had his cup and the children their mugs of milk and water, and beefsteak and bread and butter was placed on all four plates.

Miss Wren ate her supper merrily, carrying on the while, her pleasant chatter with the family, none of whom answered her back a word. It almost seemed as if they must answer in some way, Miss Wren looked so happy and satisfied.

Tea over, she cleared away the table just as merrily as she had set it, only when she first looked at the food which remained on the plates of the shadowy husband and children a little sober look came over the happy face for a minute. Then she laughed again. “Don't you stop to look at those bits in the plates. If you do, you'll stop making believe, and that will be perfectly awful, Susan Wren. I don't know what you would do. No John, nor Edward and Mary. Clear off the plates quick, Susan Wren, and don't think any more about them.”

She took her own advice, for she cleared away the table and washed the dishes, keeping up her gay, gentle, little chatter with her unresponsive family all the while.

“Now you are going down town, I suppose, dear,” said she, when the last plate was put away in the cupboard. Then she helped her invisible John on with his overcoat, equally invisible, and placed a lamp in the window, which he sadly needed to see himself by, to guide his progress down the streets.

“Now, Edward and Mary, my dears,” said Miss Wren, “it is time you were in bed.” Then Miss Wren went with her lamp into the mysterious little bedroom, and the mystery was revealed. Yes, there actually was — a crib, with a little red and white patchwork quilt beside Miss Wren's bed, and it was quite natural that she did not wish the neighbors to enter.

Miss Wren put her two little shadow children tenderly to bed in the crib; then she sat down in the ruffled rocking-chair beside her kitchen stove and the cloud came over her face again.

“O, Susan Wren,” said she, while the bright tears stood in the gentle blue eyes, “you are going to stop making believe! I do think you are. And what will you do then? It is all account of the wind blowing. Days when the wind blows it is always so. That is the reason why you had to make believe so much to-day in order to keep yourself in any spirits at all. That is why you had to set the table for four to-night to keep yourself chipper; and 'twas on a windy day, too, that you brought that crib (that I do hope to goodness none of the neighbors will ever spy out) down from the garret, so as to have a kind of foundation, as it were, to rest the make believe on. Yes, it is all on account of the wind's blowing. When there comes such a heavy gust as is coming now, oh dear! then the walls and the windows and red curtains and all melt right away; and I can see the sea tossing, and its terrible waves rolling in farther and farther and farther — oh, my dear John, my dear, dear John! you are lying beneath them, dumb and silent and cold, and why should I mind the waves, when they don't trouble you my dear? But oh, they break my heart!”

Then the tears quite overflowed the gentle blue eyes; and the poor little Miss Wren cried silently for a little time, while the wind blew harder than ever.

But finally, she straightened herself up, and wiped her eyes energetically.

“Susan Wren, I am surprised at you!” cried she; “all this fuss about a little wind! Now I'll have to argue with you. Just think what beautiful things you have to make believe now, and what things you might have to make believe. If Edward and Mary were really here for instance, and you had to make believe that they had plenty to eat when they didn't, and stockings and shoes to wear, when they were barefoot. Suppose that John was really here, and you had to make believe that he came home early nights and did not stop at the tavern, when he did, and saved his money and drank nothing stronger than tea, when he didn't. Just think of that Susan Wren! Not that my John ever could have done such things,” she added. “If there ever was a kind brave man, he was one, and you ought to be very thankful that you have such a man to make believe about, and you ought to be very thankful that you are able to make believe, Susan Wren. I suppose that is the way the Lord makes up to people for their not having real, true joys. What in the world do you suppose people do whose joys are all shadows like yours, and who don't know how to make believe, and keep house with them? Now, Susan, you had better say your prayers and go to bed, and to-morrow, I don't doubt, there will be a calm.”

But there was not. The wind shrieked and bellowed and howled worse than ever, and, moreover, it snowed, and the snow was drifted around the little thread and needle shop in a way which made it very improbable that Miss Wren would be very much troubled with customers that day.

“It's no use,” said she, when she had eaten her solitary breakfast. This time the shadows were not at the table, and the meal was a silent and melancholy affair, strange though it may seem that shadows should contribute so much to cheerfulness. “It's no use,” said Miss Wren; “I made believe all yesterday, and I never can make believe another windy day right along in a string. If I stay here alone all day, I'll fly in the face of Providence. I am going over to John's mother's.”

Was John's mother as unsubstantial as John? You shall see.

Miss Wren put on rubbers and stockings legs, the big blanket shawl, which had done duty over John the night before, and a warm blue hood. Then she waded through the drifts, out of her little yard and a short distance down the street, finally stopping before a long, low cottage with green blinds.

Miss Wren nodded and laughed, for she saw John's mother at the window, and so would you, had you been there.

“How do you dew?” chirped the old lady when Miss Wren entered. She was very old, was John's mother, and very little and very spry, with very bright black eyes, and she always sat at the window and knit and thought about her children. She had ten; and they were all in the graveyard, except one son, with whom she lived, and whose wife was not to her mind.

John's mother, though always thinking of her ten children, was constantly bringing to her mind some new and pleasing reminiscence of their lives, with which she was wont to entertain her friends. Her son's wife was driven nearly out of her mind thereby, but Miss Wren enjoyed it, though that might have been due partly to John's being a shadow.

“Liddy” — piped up the old lady when Miss Wren's wraps were off and she was seated, warming herself by the fire — “Liddy had a green berage bunnit with rattans run into it, and green ribbin strings. I bought the berage at John's store; paid a shilling a yard for it; the ribbin was nine pence, if I remember right. It was nigh forty years ago. Liddy looked real handsome in it. She was the harnsumest of all my darters. She favored my side the most. The Steadmans ain't as good looking as the Barrenses; never was. Liddy had a new green berage bunnit; and she went to a pic nic with Jefferson Wetherel, and there come up an awful thunder shower, and when Liddy come home you'd oughter seen that new bunnit! 'Twas jest spiled. But that want anything to Liddy's face. My sakes! you'd oughter seen that! The color had run out of that ere bunnit, and Liddy's face was all spotted and striped with green. And that want all nuther. Jefferson Wetherel's face was green, too. Well, they was married next year, so we couldn't say nothing.”

The old lady so delighted at having found a listener that she talked very fast, and scarcely paused a minute between the words for fear of an interruption.

“John,” said she, leaving Liddy abruptly. “John had a new silk hat. He paid — well I don't know how much he did pay, but I guess he paid considerable; and he went over to see you, Susan. Twenty years ago, that was, the first time he came home from sea. He knocked the hat agin the ceiling a comin' out the door — your house is so low between jints, you know — and hurt it some considerable; I remember trying to bend it back again. Says I to him, ‘John, you'll hev to git a gal that lives in a bigger house.’ ‘Mother,’ sez John, ‘If Susan lived in a clamshell I'd be prouder to marry her than the queen.’ Them was his very words.”

Miss Wren felt considerably lighter of heart that night, after her visit. The supper table was much more cheerful than the breakfast table had been. One of the old lady's reminiscences had cheered up the lonely little woman.

But after tea the wind rose higher and shrieked more disconsolately than ever, and Miss Wren's mental mercury fell again.

“I feel so uncommonly low-spirited lately,” said she, “that I should almost think something good was going to happen. They say that's a sign. I haven't been so blue and down to the heel for years and years as I have, generally speaking, lately. I really will have to go to the door and make believe John is coming home from the store, in order to get a minute's sleep.”

Miss Wren did go to the door and stood there, looking wistfully out on the blackness and driving storm. A pretty, comfortable little picture she made, too, well worth any man's while to come from the store to see. The fair sweet face and the round little figure in the blue delaine and ruffled white apron; with the warm, bright room for background.

Miss Wren actually called “John” out loud. She did that once in a while, when she needed more vivid make believe than usual. But her voice was so very low and sweet and timid that there was not much danger of anything but a shadow's hearing it.

“John,” said she, “John, dear John, are you there?”

“Yes, dear,” came a cheery, ringing voice out of the blackness, “here I am, but I thought, for a good many years, I never would be.”

Then a man in a rough coat, with merry black eyes, which twinkled through the powder of snow that literally sprinkled their owner, sprang on to the little piazza and caught Miss Wren in his arms and kissed her.

She did not faint or scream, but the sweet patient little face was very white and the blue eyes looked very big and frightened.

“John,” she said, “is it you?”

“Yes, dear, and you are not married, and you were true to me?”

“Why, of course,” she said, “but you are sure it is you?”

“Sure, indeed I am, what are you thinking of, sweetheart?”

“Nothing,” said she meekly, “only I have made believe so much, you know.”

“But, after all,” remarked Miss Wren, in a troubled way, after she and John had been sitting in the bright little kitchen for many an hour, and the old story of ship-wreck and wild adventures had been told, “Do you think you would marry me, John? I am not young any longer, nor pretty.”

“Well, I am not what you might call a beauty,” said John, “and I wouldn't have any right to make a fuss if you wasn't, but I'll tell you what it is, little woman, it is my solemn belief that you are the prettiest girl in creation.”

“Now you are making believe, John,” said she, “but I guess if you can make believe we will be just as happy.”

John did not quite understand the drift of some of the little woman's remarks, but he thought them greater wisdom for that so he just gave her a kiss and said, “I guess we will be happy, sweetheart; we would be fools to stop for a few grey hairs and wrinkles.”

The two were married quietly one day, not long after this, and Miss Wren was so happy that she did not feel low spirited, although it was the windiest day of the season.

“But there was one thing, John,” said she confidently to her husband, some time after the wedding, “I had made believe so long, you know, that you were there when you wasn't that it was real hard for me to know if you was there really, and I wasn't making believe again, but one thing settled it.”

“What was that, my dear?” said John.

“Well, dear, time and time again: when I had been making believe that you were there, some of the neighbors would come in and walk right through you, which was such a shock to me. So when the neighbors came in and did not walk through you, but stopped and shook hands, then I was sure I was not making believe. Don't you see, John?”