Rosemary Marsh

Mary E. Wilkins

From Harper's Bazar Vol. XXX No. 50 (December 11, 1897)

Every life has its rôles which seem to rhyme with its circumstances. Eleazer Marsh, the father of Rosemary, found one of his in the curious suitableness of his surname to his dwelling-place.

“Here am I, first see the light of day on this here salt-marsh, and been livin' here ever since, and my name's Marsh,” he was wont to remark, with a certain humorous delight and triumph at his own humble exemplification of the eternal fitness of things.

He was hardly imaginative enough to realize the fact that his Christian name also suited gracefully his surroundings, the Eleazer being not unlike in sound to the liquid slipping and sliding hiss of the salt surges through the mat of the marsh-grass when the tide comes in.

However, when his only child, a daughter, was born, he insisted upon giving her a name which would be directly apposite to her birthplace.

“Marsh-rosemary was thick when she was born,” he was fond of relating, “and I told mother there was the baby's name all spelled out on the marsh as far as she could see, and she just turned her head a little and looked out of the window and laughed. ‘Well, 'Leazer,’ says she, ‘you always did have your own way, but I dun'no' what the neighbors will say.’ ‘There ain't no neighbors but the Brewsters,’ says I. So that settled it, and the child's been Rosemary Marsh ever since.”

Rosemary Marsh's mildly acquiescent mother died when she was a mere child; her father lived until she was over thirty. Then one boisterous September day his boat capsized in a sudden gust, and his long brown body came ashore as inert and helpless as one of the last season's marsh-weeds before the wash of the sea. Next day the boat was brought safely to land, towed inshore by a friendly fisherman from the Point. That was a ray of comfort to Rosemary marsh even in the midst of her affliction, for the boat was all she owned in the world besides her little dwelling on the marsh and a few hundred dollars in the savings-bank.

She was a skilful hand with a boat and a line. She always blamed herself that her father, and not she, had gone out for blue-fish the day he met his death.

“Father was getting too old a man to go out in a rough sea,” she said, and always stung herself with the reflection.

Rosemary Marsh lived alone, and supported herself with the proceeds of her lobster-pots and her catches of fish. She also sold kelp in the village. She needed little money; drift-wood supplied her with fuel, she ate principally the food of the sea, and as for clothes, she wore her father's oil-skins on her fishing expeditions, and her own woman's raiment lasted her well, while the style was beyond criticism on the marsh. She kept one decent black dress, bought for her father's funeral, to wear to meeting on Sundays; otherwise she went clad in weedy brown calico, flapping about her slender limbs in the salt wind, scarcely distinguishing her from the rank vegetation on the marsh.

Rosemary had a long brown visage like her father's, but her hair was red, of a shade which seemed impossible to nature, the original tint having been rusted and changed by the sun and the salt winds. Rosemary could be seen as far as a strange red flower over the marshes.

Rosemary, after she was thirty-five, had absolutely no companions. Before that time there had been Flora Brewster, living about a mile away toward the village. Flora was much younger than Rosemary, who had, indeed, rocked her in her cradle, and guided her baby feet back and forth in safety to and from the sea. Flora Brewster had been a rare product on the marsh, a beauty pink as a shell, gracefully moving, and sweet-voiced. Rosemary adored her, tended and followed her like a faithful dog, when she was a child, and, when lovers found her out in her girlhood, listened to her confidences with utter self-disregard and admiring wonder.

When Flora married a young man from the city and went away, Rosemary's heart was almost broken, but there was no bitterness in the breaking. Flora's father had died before her marriage; her mother went to live with her in the city; their house was shut up, and Rosemary never saw any of them again. She used to go and sit, with a sort of meek and unquestioning melancholy, on the door-step of their deserted house, holding their forsaken cat in her lap. She had taken charge of the little animal when the Brewsters went away, and it always followed her on her visits to its old home, and was coaxed back with difficulty. Rosemary had no neighbor nearer than the village, two miles away, and she grew old living alone.

Rosemary had considered herself too old to be a companion for Flora Brewster when it came to a question of parties and entertainments, and she had been so considered by Flora and her admiring swains. She had never participated in any of the village amusements. Sometimes, when she was a child, she had wondered patiently what they were like, especially on Christmas, and had builded air-castles of them for herself. Once her father had promised to take her to a Christmas tree in the Sunday-school, but he came down with rheumatism the day before, and she never went.

Rosemary Marsh never had a Christmas present until she was over sixty years old. Then one day a kind soul in the village thought pitifully of the lonely woman on the marsh, and prepared a gift and sent it over on Christmas eve. The kind soul was a young girl, and had a girlish merriment, and also a girlish shamefacedness in her charity. She therefore folded her gift in many wrappers of white paper, and tied it with a blue ribbon in a dainty bow-knot, and fastened to it a card with this inscription: “For Miss Rosemary Marsh, with a merry Christmas, from a friend of hers, and a friend of Santa Claus.” Then the package was hung on Rosemary's door, that she might find it when she came out.

When Rosemary awoke on Christmas morning and opened her door, and found her Christmas present tied to the latch, she turned pale, and her heart beat hard.

She took the package into the house and studied the inscription on the card. Then she put it away in the top drawer of the mahogany bureau, where she kept the locks of her father's and mother's hair, and Flora Brewster's little gold brooch, which had been her parting gift. Later in the morning, when her work was done, she took out her Christmas present again, and sat with it in her lap. She touched the pretty blue ribbon bow, but she did not untie it. All day long, when she was not at work, she sat holding the package, gazing at it with the fresh delight of a child, but she did not open it.

Rosemary never opened it. It was the chief comfort of her solitary life. She would sit for hours holding it, then fold it carefully in her one fine linen handkerchief, and lay it in her bureau drawer; but she never opened it, never knew what it contained, and died not knowing.

And the kind young soul who had given it to her found it in its fine linen wrapper in the bureau, and wondered, half laughing in the midst of her ministrations to the sad needs of death.

“Why, the poor old thing!” she said. “She never opened the box of candy I sent her on Christmas.” She did not understand, as she looked at the white package with its unviolated blue ribbon, that it was a precious casket full of little saved-up Christmas joy of a human life. Rosemary had found the true essence of Christmas in the gift she never saw.