An Old Valentine

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

From The American Woman Vol. XXVI No. 9 (February, 1917)

“I say! ain't had no valentines, neither on ye? Ain't you had none, Car'line?”

“No, ma'am,” said Caroline.

The two young girls stood before their grandmother. Caroline was the elder, and taller, and prettier. Both of them hung their brown heads and smiled bashfully. They lived in a western town, and had come on a visit to their grandmother; her feeble, imperious pipe, and her old black eyes full of unexpected gleams, impressed them. They stood there side by side, in their neat blue dresses, with nice white frills around their necks, and their brown hair in smooth braids, and answered their grandmother's questions with shy, sweet deference. The old woman, small and frail as a dried grass-blade, and waving like one; with her false black front awry, and her black-lace cap slipping; so thin in her black dress that she seemed to be shrinking from sight behind its loose folds, sat there, in her calico-covered rocking-chair, with the air of a queen. Now that her beauty and strength and youth were gone, she had acquired a certain watchful and childish dignity which she held before her like a shield.

She had asked her granddaughters how their mother was, and their father, if they went to school, and who were their teachers; then suddenly came the query as to the valentines. The day before had been Saint Valentine's Day. When the young girls shook their heads bashfully in response, the old woman seemed suddenly to fill out her gown better. When Caroline, her pretty face crowning her slender height like a pink flower, said “No, ma'am,” to the repeated question, the old woman gave a thud on the floor with her cane.

“Ain't never heerd nothin' like it!” said she; “why ain't you had no valentines? You ain't very homely; you ain't so good-lookin' as I was at your age, but you look well enough; Car'line does, anyway. Ain't there no fellers in Ashfield? Why ain't you had no valentines, eh?”

The girls looked at each other; they blushed and hesitated.

“Why ain't you?” repeated their grandmother.

Caroline looked at her sister.

“I guess they don't send valentines quite as much as they used to,” she said, timidly.

“I guess they're a little out of fashion,” chimed in her sister.

“Out of fashion! No, they ain't out of fashion, neither! They've allers sent valentines as long as I can remember. I guess I've hed valentines 'nough in my day to know a leetle somethin' about it. Never heerd of sech a thing where I was brought up as Valentine's Day agoin' by and a girl's not havin' some valentines if she was thought anything of. Hand me that psalm-book off the stand there.”

It was the younger sister who brought the flat black psalm-book to her grandmother. The old woman fumbled long over the book, she pulled out many papers, and unfolded them with her trembling fingers.

“I hope there ain't been nobody a-meddlin' with this book,” said she. Finally she spread out a paper triumphantly, and the girls pressed close to see. “There, look at that, there's a valentine!” said their grandmother.

The young girls eyed the decorated sheet, with its white doves, and pair of lovers in a bower of roses. The margin was a little yellow with age, but it was in very good preservation.

“See the verse under the picter?” said the old woman. “I'll say it to ye if ye will wait a minute. I used to know it by heart.”

She ruminated; then she repeated the verse in a singsong quaver:

  “I love thee, fairest maid, so well,
    I can keep silence never.
  But always would thy praises swell.
  And yet, 'tis passing strange to tell,
    I'd Silence keep forever.
  The oak supports the tender vine;
  Come, love, and be my valentine.”

“He writ it himself,” said the old woman. “He made it up, he could make real pretty varses. His name was Amos Dawson; he was old Abner Dawson's son; his mother came from York State. Ye don't remember nothin' about it, I s'pose. That valentine must be nigh seventy years old; why, I guess it's older'n that. Sakes alive, it must nigher be a hundred, for I wa'n't more'n thirteen, when she got it, and that was twenty year arter it was sent. 'Twas sent to Silence Temple, and that is what 't means 'bout keepin' Silence. I don't see how he ever thought on't, fur my part. Amos Dawson was a pretty smart feller. He was old 'nough to be my father, and he's been dead a good many year, but I can remember just as well how he looked as if 'twas yesterday. He was tall, and thin, and light complected, and had a kind of sober look round his mouth. He kept the store, and I know when mother sent me there on an arrant, I used to try to get waited on by some of the others. I was kind of afeared of him, he was so dreadful solemn and precise, and he'd measure off a yard of caliker for an apron as though 'twas widder's weeds, and hand out a stick of candy as though 'twas a stalk of wormwood. I never see such a sober man, but I suppose he'd had things go again' him, 'though I didn't know nothin' about it then. He was real sharp at a bargain, sober as he was, and he got real fore-handed, but it didn't seem as if 'twas much account to him. He didn't care a mite 'bout fixin' of himself up, used to go round lookin' like Hudy, and he didn't have a coat of paint put on his house for twenty year. He had a good barn too — it was tore down three year ago — but he didn't take a mite of care on't. His folks was all dead, and I s'pose he didn't have nobody to put him up to it.

“I used to hear my mother talk a sight about the way Amos Dawson was lettin' things run to rack and ruin, but I never heerd Silence open her mouth about it. I used to be over there a good deal, too. She was the handsomest cretur, Silence Temple was! She was gettin' considerable along in years, too, but, sakes alive! she was one of them folks that you never thought of bein' old or young. Seemed as if years didn't make no difference to her one way or t'other. She was as old as mother, but I'd 'nough sight ruther go over to see her than any of the little girls that was my age. Land sakes! how I used to pester mother to let me go over to Silence's with my knittin'-work in the arternoon! She'd be afeared Silence wouldn't want to have me round so much, but she never showed it, if she didn't. Silence would tell me to draw up the leetle rockin'-cheer to the fire, and there I'd set side of her and knit, and she'd generally ask me to stay to tea, and we allers had sweetcake, and sass. Silence lived real nice; her father was old Squire Temple, and he left her consider'ble property. She lived all alone in that big house; you know where 'tis, on the hill opposite the meetin'-house. I dunno who does live there now; your Aunt Jane will tell you. She used to have an old woman, that had allers worked in the family, live with her, but she died a year or two arter her father did, and then she wouldn't have nobody else. She was a fust-rate house-keeper, I can tell ye! There ain't many like her nowadays. I tell Jane sometimes, she'd orter seen how Silence Temple kept house, and I guess she'd do some things a leetle different. There wouldn't be a speck of dust in one of them big rooms, and they was full of the most elegant carved furniture too, that the squire had had brought him from over seas. It wa'n't no easy job to keep the dust out of them carved cheers, I can tell ye; but I don't b'lieve anybody could have found a speck there, if they'd hunted with a candle and spectacles.

“Silence had a chany-closet full of chany that was her mother's, and I don't b'lieve anybody could ever have left a finger-print in one of them cups or plates, not if they was settin' on the topmost shelf. Sometimes Silence she used to take down them cups and saucers, and wash 'em when I was in there, and then I'd pester her to let me wipe 'em. You never see such chany; might have had it set in the winders for glass, it was so thin. I wonder I wasn't afeared of breakin' it, but there never was but one cup broke that I knowed of, and then I s'pose Silence broke it herself; she said she did.

“It was one arternoon, when we had the chany out in the kitchen a-washin' on't, and Silence she had just washed one of them blue-chany cups and I was a-takin' it to wipe, when I looked out of the winder, and see Amos Dawson a-goin' by. The linin' of his coat was tore, and there was a great long streamer of yaller cloth a-blowin' out behind when he walked. I giggled right out, and sez I: ‘Sakes alive! jest look at Mr. Dawson's coat!’

“And all of a sudden, down dropped that blue-chany cup, and broke all to smash! I was so scairt that I hollered right out, but Silence she just stooped down and begun pickin' up the pieces of chany.

“‘I'm dreadful sorry,’ sez I, for I s'posed I'd broke it, but Silence she just sez, sez she:

“‘I broke it myself; don't mind nothin' about it, Cynthy Ann,’ and she went on a-pickin' up the pieces.

“When she got up, she looked as if she had been cryin', and I thought it was because the cup was broke. I told her I was dreadful sorry 'bout it, but she stood up straight — I never see her stoop a mite; she was as straight as an Injun — and sez she:

“‘It don't make no odds about the cup. I've got all the cups I want,’ but her voice sounded jest as if she was as full of tears as she could hold, and I didn't know what to make on't.

“We finished washin' the chany, and then we sot down with our knittin'-work, and I stayed to tea, and we had plum cake, and hot biscuits, but Silence she was dreadful sober. She wasn't no great talker anyhow, but she looked so bright at you, you didn't seem to realize that she wa'n't talkin'; I've seen her a sittin' in a roomful, and not speakin' a word, and I don't believe but everybody thought she was dreadful sociable. She looked like a pictur anyhow, and there didn't seem to be no need of her talkin'.

“When I got home that night arter the chany cup was broke, I told mother how Amos Dawson had gone with the rags hangin' from his coat, and she laughed, and sez she:

“‘ I dunno as you'd better say much about Amos Dawson to Silence, for I s'pose it's her fault that the rags are hangin'.’

“‘Why?’ sez I. I didn't know what she meant.

“‘Silence gave Amos the mitten once,’ sez mother; ‘leastways they say she did, and he's been terrible cut up about it, and that's what makes him so slack about himself. I guess there wouldn't have been many rags a-hangin' if Silence had had him.’

“‘Why wouldn't she have him?’ sez I.

“‘I guess she felt above him,’ sez mother. ‘She was Squire Temple's daughter, and he was jest a-tendin' in the store then. I guess she thought he wa'n't quite good enough for her,’ sez mother, ‘but she didn't get nobody any better. It don't do for girls to be too partickler.’

“Well, arter mother told me that, I never see Amos Dawson, but I thought on't, and wanted to say somethin' about it to Silence, but I didn't darse to. Silence was one you couldn't take no liberties with, arter all; if you tried it, you'd find all of a sudden that you'd walked up again a stone wall, when you thought you was going to trample down posies. Mother used to say that there was somethin' of old Squire Temple in her. So I never dare say anythin' about Amos Dawson to Silence, but the time come when she said somethin' herself.

“One arternoon I was over to Silence's, and she had to go up to the south chamber arter somethin', and I followed on. The south chamber was a great square room, and it used to be the squire's; he slept there as long as he lived, and I s'pose he died there. He wasn't sick long.

“Silence was a-huntin' in a chist for somethin', and I was lookin' round the room. I can remember jest as well how that room looked as if I was in it. There was a great high-posted bedstead, with curtains to it, and valences, and they were blue caliker with green and yaller roses on it. There were two chists of drawers, and a great cheer covered with caliker like the bed-curtains, and some flag-bottomed cheers, and the fire on the hearth was laid all ready to light, as if the old squire was jest goin' to walk in. His camlet cloak and his bell hat was hangin' up on a hook, side of the chimbly.

“The minute I see that camlet cloak and that hat, I had a kind of a turn, for I could remember jest how the old squire used to look a-walkin' out in 'em, though I wa'n't much more'n a baby when he died. I looked around at the other things in the room, but I allers kept a-comin' back to that cloak and hat, and I'd stand there on the hearth a-lookin' at 'em. I dunno what made me so crazy over 'em. Sometimes I've thought 'twas Providence. It made considerable difference in some folks' lives anyhow.

“I stood there a-starin' at that cloak and hat, and Silence she went on a-huntin' in the chist; she couldn't find what she wanted to, very easy, and I dunno whatever put it into my head, but I took a notion to peek into the pockets of that cloak. I dunno how I darse to; I knowed well enough I hadn't no business to be meddlin' with the old squire's cloak, but I give one look at Silence to be sure she wa'n't lookin', and I put my hand into a pocket. There wa'n't nothin' in it, but I fumbled round till I found another, and then I pulled out somethin' that looked like a letter, and jest then Silence she turned round —

“‘What's that you've got there, Cinthy Ann?’ sez she, and I was so scairt and ashamed I couldn't say nothin'; I jest handed her the letter. She took it and opened it, and I peeked round her shoulder, an' what do you s'pose 'twas? It was this valentine!

“I jest caught a glimpse of the picter, but I tell ye I didn't stop to read no varse then, for the fust thing I knew, Silence she jest dropped right down in a faint. I didn't have no idee what to do, for I'd never seen nobody in a faint afore. I thought fust I'd run an' get mother, then I didn't darse to leave Silence, an' I jest stood lookin' at her an' shakin', I was so scairt.

“Pretty soon she begun to come to a leetle, and she groaned, and I got down and took hold of her hand.

“‘Ain't there somethin' I can do?’ sez I. ‘You ain't dead, air ye, Silence?’

“Silence she could jest grunt out somethin' about the camphire-bottle on the table in the west chamber, and I tell ye, I run fer it, and I poured the camphire on her — used up 'most a hull bottle. I could smell camphire every time I come into the house fer a week arterward.

“It wa'n't long before Silence come to, and she got up with me helpin' her, and crawled downstairs; I wanted her to lay down on the sofy, but she wouldn't; she sot down in the rockin'-cheer, and went to knittin'; white as a ghost she was, too, and when she tumbled down, she had hit her forehead on the bedpost, and it was swellin' up as big as a hen's egg. She'd put the valentine in her pocket; I see her slip it in, when she come to.

“Silence sot knittin', but she seemed dreadful sober, and I went home pretty soon. I wanted to make some tea for her, but she wouldn't let me, and she wouldn't let me get mother over, so I went home. I had a kind of an idee that she'd jest as soon I would. Before I went, when I was standin' with my shawl on, she looked up quiet, and sez she:

“‘Mind you don't tell nobody I fainted away, Cynthy Ann; don't you tell your mother, ner nobody!’

“And I promised I wouldn't, and I didn't nuther. I went home, and I didn't tell mother a word on't.

“Next day mother sent me down to the store on an arrant, and on the way I jest slipped in to Silence's to see how she was. She was real white-livered, and there was a great black-and blue place on her forehead, though the swellin' had gone down considerable. She acted sober too; she asked me if I was goin' down to the store, and then she looked so kind of wishful at me that I asked if she wanted me to get her anything at the store, but she said no, and I went along.

“Silence didn't seem like herself arter that for a long while; I'd go in there, an' she'd act as if she was tryin' to be jest the same, but she couldn't. She began to look real miser'ble too. She got thin as a rail, and she lost her color. Silence used to have real red cheeks. It allers seemed to me it had somethin' to do with that valentine, but I never said nothin' about it nor she nuther.

“I guess it was nigh six months arter I found that valentine, and she fainted away, that she looked kind of queer at me one day when I was in there, and sez she:

“‘Cynthy Ann, I want you to come over here, and stay all night with me to-night, if your mother's willin'.’

“I was so tickled I didn't know what to do; I run home and asked mother, and she said I might stay if Silence wanted me to, and then I come back, and we had supper. Silence had it all ready. It was fall of the year, and it was dark early. Arter supper, Silence and I washed up the tea things, and then we sat down, front of the hearth-fire, and she knit, and I read some in a story-book she had. It was a leetle arter nine o'clock, when she looked up, and sez she:

“‘Cynthy Ann, are you afraid to go out a leetle ways with me?’

“‘No, ma'am,’ sez I.

“She kept lookin' at me kind of doubtful, as if she didn't know jest what to do.

“‘I dunno but I'm doin' wrong,’ sez she, kind of pitiful, ‘because I want you to go with me unbeknownst to your mother, and I don't want you to tell anybody, but there ain't nobody else I can call on, and it seems to me I can't go alone nohow. It's so different from anythin' I've ever done.’

“Silence she had on a black-silk gown with satin dots on it, and she looked kind of prim, but real handsome. She had slim white hands, and she kept foldin' and unfoldin' 'em. She acted kind of nervous. I s'pose it did seem a good deal to her, what she was goin' to do, for she'd allers walked with one-size steps, so to speak.

“Well, we put our shawls on, and we went out; I didn't have no idee where we was goin' to. We kept on goin' and we passed the store; it was shut up, and we went up the hill till we come to Amos Dawson's house. There was a light in the settin'-room winder, and the curtains was up.

“Silence and me jest went up the path to the front door, and then we stopped. I thought she was goin' to knock, or open the door, but she didn't. She jest stood there, and I could hear her kind of pantin' for breath. It was ruther late for 'em, but the katy-dids was tunin' up in a patch of weeds opposite, and there we stood, with it jest as still as death, savin' Silence breathin', and them katy-dids.

“All of a sudden Silence she moved to one side, and got nearer the settin'-room winder, and I followed arter her. And what did we see but Amos Dawson, a-sittin' there, tryin' to mend his coat. His face looked terrible pale, and long, and sober, a-bendin' over the old coat, and he was a jerkin' his elbow way out when he sewed, and he hadn't no thimble, and the room looked like Hudy.

“Silence she jest stood there, and looked a minute; then she give my arm a grip.

“‘Come,’ sez she, ‘come home.’ And she jest took a bee-line for home, and me arter her; I didn't know what to make on't.

“Arter that things went on just the same. She looked wuss, and wuss, and folks began to say she was in a decline. Sometimes I used to go home and cry arter I'd been there, Silence looked so bad. I guess it was a month or six weeks arter she and me went up to Amos Dawson's that I was goin' to stay all night with her again. She used to keep me quite often along there, and she sent me down to the store with the valentine. I never was so wonderstruck in my life, as I was when she took that valentine out of her pocket.

“Sez she: ‘Cynthy Ann, do you want to do somethin' for me?’ Her voice sounded dreadful sad, and she looked at me with her big, black eyes as if she was kind of afeard of me.

“‘Yes, I do,’ sez I. ‘I do, Silence!’ Lor' sakes! I'd done anything fur her.

“‘Well,’ sez she, ‘I want you to carry this down to the store and when Mr. Dawson ain't busy, and there ain't nobody near enough to hear what you say, I want you to hand it to him and I want you to say this to him: “Silence wanted me to give this to you, and say she'd just got it, jest a little while ago. That she didn't ever know you'd sent it to her before.”’

“She kind of stopped, and I waited.

“‘What else?’ sez she. ‘I guess that'll do. I never thought I'd do so much as that.’

“‘What will he do when I've given it to him?’ sez I. ‘Will he tell me somethin' to tell you?’

“She blushed up all over her white cheeks. ‘Mebbe he'll send it back,’ sez she.

“Well, I did jest as she told me to. I went down to the store, I was kind of afeard out alone in the dark too, and I hung around till Amos Dawson wa'n't waitin' on nobody, and then I went up to him and I handed him the valentine, and I said just what Silence had told me to.

“Sakes alive! you'd orter seen that man's face. His jaw kinder dropped, and he turned so white that I thought for a minute he was goin' to die. But he never said a word, he just gave his head a kind of a stiff nod at me, and he clapped that valentine into his pocket. It was jest about as much as men know.

“Well, I waited round a little. I thought mebbe he'd say somethin', but he didn't, and finally I went back to Silence's, and told her about it. She didn't say nothin' neither, but she kinder started back as if she'd been struck. We went to bed pretty soon arterward, and I know she didn't sleep a wink. I didn't know what to make of the hull on't, but I never said a word to mother or nobody about it.

“I guess it was a week arter I went up to the store with the valentine, and Silence and me was settin' alone one evenin', when all of a sudden she spoke up, and sez she:

“‘Cynthy Ann, how did Mr. Dawson act when you give him the valentine?’

“I'd told her afore, but I said it over agin. ‘He acted as if he was goin' to drop right down,’ sez I.

“‘Did he look pale?’ sez she.

“‘Look pale!’ sez I; ‘he allers looks pale, but I never see no live man look so pale as he did then.’

“‘Then you think he felt sad?’ sez she, dreadful wishful.

“‘He looked as if he felt so bad he didn't know what to do,’ sez I.

“Then all of a sudden, without no warnin', Silence she jest threw up her hands, and bust out cryin'. ‘Oh,’ sez she, ‘poor Amos, I've got to go. I can't hold back no longer! I can't help if it ain't becomin' and seemly. I've got to go! I dunno as he cares anythin' about me, but I've got to go!’

“I was so scairt, I didn't know what to do. I jest burst out cryin' too, and sez I — ‘I'll go with you, Silence, I'll go with you.’

“Silence she jest kept right on cryin' and talkin'. She acted as if all the gates was down, sure.

“‘O Cynthy Ann!’ sez she; ‘you don't know nothin' about it! Poor Amos, he used to go with me, a little, and all of a sudden he stopped, and I never knew why, and that valentine was the reason. He sent it, and he thought I got it, and was too proud to say anythin' about it. He was terrible bashful and sensitive. Poor Amos! Oh, I've got to go, Cynthy Ann, I've got to go!’

“‘I'll go with you, Silence,’ sez I.

“And afore I knew what had happened, we had on our shawls, and we was going up the road to Amos Dawson's. Silence she gripped my hand hard all the way. When we got there, Silence she went straight ahead to the door and knocked; she didn't hesitate none that time. We saw the light movin', and then Amos he come and opened the door. He looked somehow as if somethin' inside of him giv' a great start, but his face didn't move a muscle.

“‘Good evenin',’ sez he, and stood there with the lamp in his hand.

“He never asked us to come in, but Silence she kind o' made a motion to, and he led the way to the settin'-room. I never see such a looking place in all my born days. I never could see no reason for a man's livin' like the pigs, if he was down-hearted, but I b'lieve Silence she liked him better for't.

“When we got into the room, Amos he set the lamp on the mantel-shelf, and then we all stood there. Silence she had her head hung, as if she couldn't say her lesson, but all of a sudden she held it up, as if she was determined to, whether or no, and there wa'n't no whip in creation that could scare her, and sez she: ‘Amos, did you get that valentine?’

“‘Yes!’ sez he.

“‘Well,’ sez she, ‘it was twenty year comin' to me. I dunno where 'twas all that time. Cynthy Ann found it in father's coat-pocket. I dunno whether he forgot it, or what. What I want to know is, Amos — if — 'twas to do over, if — you'd send it again?’

“Amos he jest stood lookin' at her, then all of a sudden he went across the room to his desk, and he jerked it open, and he rummaged till he found that valentine, and he brought it over to her.

“‘Here 'tis!’ sez he; ‘will you take it?’

“And Silence took it.

“I didn't know no better than to stand right there lookin' on, and there was Amos with his arm round Silence, and she was cryin', and he was kissin' her. I didn't see how she could have him, but I didn't know so much then as I did arterward, when I larned that there ain't no reg'lar weights and measures for things of that kind, and women, however sharp-sighted they air other ways, air mostly men-blind.

“‘Why didn't you send back the valentine by Cynthy Ann?’ sez Silence.

“‘I didn't know that was what you meant,’ sez Amos, and then he give her another kiss, and me a-starin'.

“‘That silly varse!’ sez Amos. ‘I should have thought you'd have laughed at it now, Silence. I was young then. I thought you'd got it, but I met you the day arterward, and you didn't say nothin' about it, and the next time I saw you, you acted kind of stiff.’

“‘That was because you hadn't been to see me,’ sez Silence. ‘I was dreadful bashful and sensitive.’

“Then he kissed Silence again. I thought they'd never stop talking, but finally Silence she said she must go, and Amos he went with us.

“Well, of course you know what came arter that. They was married right away, and Silence she hed the handsomest pearl-colored brocade I ever see in my life, and I stood up with her. I wore a worked muslin. Amos he went to live with her in the old squire's house, and he fixed up his house and let it.

“And I never see such a change in mortal man as there was in Amos Dawson; it was most as big a change as if he'd been turned into an angel. I guess there wasn't no more rags a-hangin' from his coat. He kinder acted as if all of a sudden he'd found there was a value in him he hedn't suspected, and it was goin' to pay to take care of himself. He allers looked jest as if he had come out of the drawer, he kept his store like wax-work, and he held up his head and walked with a cane, and arter a while he was sent to the legislatur, and everybody called him squire.”

The old lady paused; her old face had the radiant enthusiasm of an improvisatore; her black eyes glittered; there were red spots upon her withered cheeks.

The two young girls, who had seated themselves upon a sofa near her, looked at her with serious, contemplative eyes.

“What became of them?” asked the younger sister.

“Why, they're dead, of course,” replied the old woman; “what else could have become of 'em, I'd like to know? they were older'n me; I had some of Silence's things when she died, and I found this valentine in a shell-box she had, and I allers kept it.”

“It's too bad they're dead,” said the younger sister.

“Too bad they're dead! No, it ain't too bad neither! I guess it would be too bad if they was alive. They'd be over a hundred, and most like stun-blind, and deaf, and cripples. What do ye expect? This is a dyin' world. They was real happy and pleasant together, and they died, when they'd lived to a good old age, within a year of each other, too, and now I s'pose they're singin' psalms together in the New Jerusalem. I don't see nothin' bad about that. I call it about as good an endin' up as there could be!”