She Who Adorns Her Sister Adorns Herself

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

From Harper's Bazar Vol. XXXVIII No. 5 (May, 1904)

She sat in her chintz-covered rocking-chair beside the window, while the others talked. They did not dream that she heard or was interested, she was so very old, but she heard every word with the keenest interest. Her life on earth was almost over, but her feminine vanity had not had its full lease of life, and was much younger than she, and the conversation excited it.

The talkers were women, two middle-aged, and two young. The two middle-aged women were Ma'am Estabrook's nieces, with whom she lived. She had never been married, and was properly Miss, but she had come to be called Ma'am to distinguish her from the nieces, who were also Estabrooks. They were school-teachers, and spinsters. One of the young women was their niece, consequently the old woman's grandniece; the other lived in the next house.

“Miss Stokes is fixing over my bonnet I had last year, and it is going to be very handsome. I shall not be at all ashamed to appear out in it Easter Sunday,” said Jane, the elder of the middle-aged women.

“I had to get a new one,” said Louisa, the younger sister, apologetically.

“Of course you did,” agreed Jane, to whom Louisa was a beauty and always young. “It is different for you,” she said, eying her sister's up-to-date Pompadour, and seeing mentally her own smooth folds of gray hair.

“Well, she is putting on the same flowers I had last spring, so it is not going to cost very much,” said Louisa, still apologetically.

“It is a real bargain,” said Jane.

Amy, the niece, said nothing, but she thought rapturously of her own new hat trimmed with cream lace, a white plume, and a wreath of crushed roses under the brim. However, her aunt Jane, who had also a vision of the pretty young face under the hat, spoke.

“But you ought to see Amy's hat,” she said, lovingly. “There won't be another in church like it.” She was very amiable, and she liked the visiting young girl, but she could not avoid a little triumph in her tone. The girl was not nearly as pretty as Amy, and she had, moreover, no taste whatever about her dress. She was not able to make the most of what she had. She taught school, in the same building with the two older women, in a lower grade. She had to support herself and her whole family with her earnings — her widowed mother, her aunt, and an invalid older sister. They did not even own the house in which they lived. Old Ma'am Estabrook owned her house, which was very comfortable. She even had enough in bank to pay the taxes. She was very old, and when she died the money would go to her nieces, who had still many years of work before them; then the grandniece was so pretty, she would marry well. They were very prosperous.

Jane Estabrook looked with covert triumph at the other girl, Hannah Anderson, as she spoke, but Hannah seemed quite unmoved. She smiled with a sort of meek dignity. “I should think it would be very pretty,” she said.

“It is lovely,” said Jane. Then she turned cruel. “What are you going to wear to church Easter, Hannah?” she asked. She tried to make her voice unconscious, for she was ashamed of herself, but she could not. It was full of petty meanness.

“I think my last year's hat will answer very well,” said Hannah, but she flushed a little.

“Oh, the one with the white wing?” said Jane, and her voice was still meaner. Even her sister, who had herself been smiling with triumph, and Amy grew ashamed.

“It looks like rain,” Louisa said, hastily, “and if it rains, nobody will wear their new hats.”

“Yes, it does look like rain,” said Amy, eagerly, her pretty face smiling with furtive apology at her friend. She felt apologetic toward her because she herself was prettier, because she had a beautiful new hat, and because she was proud of it. Still, she was very glad that she was herself and not the other girl.

Hannah Anderson arose to go, and Amy viewed her awkward motions and her thick waist and rounded shoulders. “I would at least stand up straight, if I could do nothing else,” she said, after Hannah had gone.

“Yes, that is so,” agreed her aunt Jane. “She cannot help having a homely face, but she could at least stand straight.”

“Somebody ought to tell her,” said Louisa. “That old hat she wore last year must be all out of style.”

“Well, she has a great many ways for her money,” said Amy, “but she could at least stand straight.” As she spoke she threw back her own pretty shoulders, in her silk blouse, until her back was like a board.

Then she put on her hat and coat and started for the milliner's. Jane went into the kitchen to get supper, Louisa went up-stairs to her own room to correct some essays, and the old woman was left alone. She was long past eighty, but she was very young in her mind as she sat there, younger than the youngest of them, for an unsatisfied vanity had been aroused, and it filled her with a strange vitality. She sat there and talked to herself, as is the way often with the very old, in a sort of mumble. Jane out in the kitchen heard it, but could distinguish nothing, and did not trouble herself to do so. She thought, “Aunt Sylvia is talking to herself,” and went on with her preparations for supper with the mumble in her ears.

“Here I be,” said the old woman — “here I be eighty-eight year old, an' I never had a new bunnit for Easter. Never heard anything about new bunnits for Easter.” It seemed to her that she was even more aggrieved because she had never heard of Easter bonnets than by the lack of them. She fell to thinking of herself in her youth, and how she would have looked in such a hat as her grandniece was to wear the next day. She recalled her own face very distinctly. She saw herself a charmingly pretty, slender girl. “But I never had a bunnit like that,” she said to herself. It seemed to her that the whole course of her life might have been changed if she had possessed such a bonnet. She felt that she might have married. She thought of a young man whom she used to know, and, recalling her young face under the hat like Amy's, felt sure that he would have asked for her. She felt horribly cheated. “I have never had anything I ought to have had,” she said to herself. She remembered her hard youth. She too had taught school, but for much less pay, and she had to support her old mother, and her father, who was crippled from rheumatism. It was only for the last fifteen years of her life that she had known what it was to be free from care. She had taught school until she was so old that they had turned her out, and then she had kept house for a widower cousin, who was a hard man, for her board, until he died and bequeathed the house to her. “I never had anything,” she said again, “never.” She thought again of her own young face under a hat like her grandniece's with such a pitiful yearning, that her heart ached. It seemed to her that something must be done to assuage that ache, or she should die of it. She looked out of the window, and presently she saw Hannah going to the pump in the next yard with a pitcher, to get some water for tea. “There's a girl that's having nothing, too,” she said to herself. “She ain't as pretty as I was, but she'd look pretty, mebbe, if she had a decent hat to go to meeting in.”

The old woman watched the girl pumping, working the wooden handle with nervous, slender arms; she watched her enter the house with her dun-colored hair blowing back from her good homely face, and, since she was very old, she confused herself with the girl. It actually seemed to her that she herself was Hannah carrying a pitcher of water into the house, and with only an old hat to wear to church on Easter Sunday.

The old woman was in the habit of going to bed very early. Her nieces were very good to her, and that evening especially they were solicitous, for she had a slight cold. Then, too, Amy was going out, Louisa had many essays to correct, and Jane, who had a Sunday-school class, had to go to the church and drill the scholars in an Easter exercise. So the old woman was assisted to bed directly after supper. She slept in a nice warm bedroom out of the sitting-room. When she was in bed, when Amy and Jane had gone, and Louisa was up-stairs in her own room busied with the essays, the old woman got up. She dressed herself and she put on her warm shawl and a little knitted hood. She fumbled in her bureau drawer and got her purse from under a pile of linen. In it was the money from the bank for the taxes. She counted it, then she set her old mouth hard and took out all except ten dollars, which she kept in the purse. The rest she tucked away under the linen. Then she crept out of the bedroom, unlocked the front door softly, and sped away down the street. She had not been out alone for a long time, and she had been considered quite feeble, but vanity is a tonic. She went on without the slightest difficulty. She even enjoyed it. She went fast on her slim old legs, as slim and dry as an old bird's, and she returned in a short time; and Louisa, up-stairs, had never known she was out of the house. Next day was Easter Sunday. The old woman never went to church; she was considered too feeble, and the church was apt to be draughty. She sat by the window and watched the others go. Presently as she sat there she saw the door of the Anderson house open, and Hannah came out. She had on a beautiful hat, of lace and violets, with a long floating feather. Amy, who was all dressed for church and waiting for her aunts, caught sight of her and exclaimed.

“What is it?” asked Jane, coming and looking over her shoulder as she straightened her bonnet strings. Then she exclaimed also, and Louisa also came and looked.

“That is that beautiful hat the milliner had and nobody had bought,” Amy said. “I looked at it; it is much handsomer than mine.”

“She looks well in it, too,” said Louisa.

“If she only would stand up straight,” said Jane.

The old woman said nothing. She sat in her chair and watched everybody passing by the house to church. She watched her nieces and her grandniece go out of the yard and down the street with their Easter headgear. Then the church bell stopped tolling and the clock began to tick. She had her Bible in her lap, as always on a Sunday. She felt it to be a matter of conscience, although she was not very much interested in the Bible. Now she did not look in it at all. Instead she thought of Hannah Anderson in the violet-trimmed hat, and being so old, she became again confused. It was to her as if she herself, wearing the hat, were sitting in the pew in church and her beautiful young face was looking out from under it at the minister, and the choir singing behind a row of Easter lilies in pots. And she felt the hat upon her old gray head, which had never in life known such an innocent feminine decoration, as warm and light as a halo, and a brightness seemed cast from it down into her eyes and her very soul.