Something on Her Mind

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

From Harper's Bazar Vol. XLVI No. 12 (December, 1912)

The girl might have been posing for a picture of gentle, youthful melancholy. She did not look actively, but passively, unhappy, with possibly a suggestion of inverted enjoyment evident in her expression.

However, it was undeniable that young Emily Howard, the darling of her mother, the darling of her two aunts, Julia and Amelia Spencer, looked more than delicate — really ill. She sat on the broad south doorstep, and the sun shone full upon her charming head, making her rather thin but exquisitely fine hair look like filaments of gold. Her narrow face in that strong light took on the appearance of transparent alabaster, her sweet mouth showed little color, her eyelids drooped, and the long lashes were pale gold in violet hollows. Her little hands were clasped listlessly in her lap. She seemed to wilt in every joint and muscle like a flower in hot noon. In her little pink muslin gown she looked not unlike some flower of slender growth which found existence almost too much for its delicate beauty.

Her mother, her aunt Julia, and her aunt Amelia watched her furtively from the sitting-room windows. They whispered concerning her, but they might almost have shouted, so wearily indifferent was the girl.

“I am worried almost to death,” whispered Emily's mother, Mrs. Sophia Howard.

“She looks to me as if she were fading away,” whispered Aunt Amelia, who was distinctly, almost offensively, pessimistic.

Amelia Spencer had been in her youth handsome, with a strong, dark face, determined mouth, and large, unswerving brown eyes. She was in a way handsome now, although her thick hair was iron gray and all the bloom had gone from her cheeks. She had kept her figure and a real majesty of presence. Her pessimism was so grim that it carried weight.

“Oh, Amelia, do you think it is as bad as that?” whispered Sophia, her big blue eyes brimming with tears. Sophia had always been the undisputed beauty of the family.

“If,” stated Amelia, “that child does not improve soon she will not be here when the leaves fall.”

Sophia shuddered and paled. Then Julia spoke. Julia was a dried grass-blade of a woman, moving, and remaining still, always with perfect grace. Grace had been and was her one charm. Her figure was so sparse as to repel, her face so elongated by the inward vision of herself that one wanted to shake her and make her laugh once.

“Sister Amelia is right,” said Julia, and she sighed with the effect of a small breeze blowing through dry grass-lands.

“Dr. Emerson has been to see her,” said Sophia, feebly, “and he says there is nothing organic. He sounded her lungs and her heart, and he says everything is all right.”

Julia sighed again. “There are depths no doctor on earth can sound,” declared she with a certain relish. Then one saw that her elongated face was not in reality one of settled misery. There was, in fact, a queer lurking happiness and peace in it. It was so with Amelia, who looked, except for her anxiety about her niece, which was real enough, perfectly satisfied. Sophia, except for that common anxiety, had a fairly radiant expression. All three sisters had led a happy life together for years in the old Spencer homestead, with an abundant income and plenty of the luxuries of life. Now, however, had interposed this worry about the child on the doorstep.

“What do you two think is the matter?” asked Sophia of her sisters, who looked at each other.

Amelia spoke first. “She has something on her mind,” said she, positively. “She is keeping it to herself, but it is wearing her out. Her heart is eating her body.”

Julia nodded. “That is what I think,” said she.

Sophia looked from one to the other helplessly. “What can that dear child have on her mind?” said she. “She has been sheltered all her life. She has had every wish gratified.”

Amelia looked curiously at her sister, Emily's mother. “Who,” asked she, “can tell all the wishes of another human soul? You cannot, and you are her mother.”

Julia nodded.

Sophia paled a little. “I don't understand what wish —” she began.

Amelia interrupted her. “The fact is,” said she, “Emily is fretting her life away over something, and Dr. Emerson isn't going to cure her with all the nostrums in creation.”

“Perhaps a specialist —” began Sophia.

Julia sighed scornfully.

“We who love her are the only specialists who can cure her,” said Amelia. “We must talk to her, and we must talk to her each by herself. We must tell her, if necessary, things about our own lives which we have survived. We must show her that sorrows pass, that she will get over it, whatever it is.”

Suddenly Julia's narrow face flushed a dark brick-red. It was unbecoming, but her mouth took on at the same time a half-foolish, half-tender curve of reminiscence which was charming.

“If you think it will do her good, I have lived through troubles like most people, and I can tell her about them, although I have never spoken of them to any living soul and never expected to,” said she. She spoke with an air of delicate importance.

Amelia eyed her sharply. “I would like to know, Julia Spencer, what dreadful troubles you have lived through that we don't know about,” said she, “when you've been right here with us in this house all your life and had everything you wanted.”

Julia straightened herself. “Have you had everything you wanted, Amelia?” said she.

Amelia, did not flush, but she tossed her head. “I didn't say that I had,” she replied, “but that isn't saying I pretend to have had anything very terrible to live through.”

“We all live through terrible things,” said Julia, firmly, “and there is no use pretending we do or don't. It is so.”

“That is very true,” agreed Sophia.

Her sisters regarded her curiously. In their hearts they considered that Sophia had had the cream of life compared with themselves. Moreover, Emily was her daughter. Sophia saw the look.

“It is true,” said she, and her softly pretty face looked almost hard. “No human being really knows about another unless told, and then not fairly.”

“Well,” said Amelia Spencer, “I see no use in our arguing about such things. We must try and talk to Emily and see if we can't bring her to reason and stop fretting. If we don't she will keep on going down-hill in spite of us.”

Julia looked at the others and her thin mouth was set. “Well, I want to come first and have it over with,” said she.

“Sophia, suppose you tell Emily that her aunt Julia wants to see her in the sitting-room,” said Amelia.

“Don't scare the child,” said Julia, “and don't act solemn. Just tell her I want to see her about something a minute. That poor child is too nervous to be scared out of her wits.”

“Very well,” replied Sophia, rising.

Amelia also arose and left the room. “I will talk with her to-morrow,” she said as she went out. “I think one a day will be enough.”

“I think so, too,” said Sophia with a quick, dimpling smile of relief. She flounced softly out of the room. Her lavender muslin was sprayed over with dim roses and lilacs, a lavender ribbon floated back as she went, and a delicate end of old lace floated from her throat. Julia waited. Her face was still flushed, but her set mouth had relaxed into the old tender, foolish smile of reminiscence.

Presently young Emily entered, languidly, her pink skirts hanging limply around her slender limbs, her little white hands hanging inertly in the folds, her soft fair hair drooping softly over her faintly tinted cheeks. She smiled faintly at Julia and sank, almost feebly, into a corner of the old mahogany sofa. The delicate pink of her gown was the only color in the room. The wall-paper was faded to the extent of neutrality, its ancient scroll-work barely visible in the strongest lights. The old Turkey carpet was a blur; the damask of the curtains and upholstery gave no evidence of their original tints, being of a delightful softness of tone, like the gentlest nocturne; the pictures were old steel engravings, most of them covered in places with a mossy film; the frames of old gilt gave out no reflection. In fact, the whole room was more like a nocturne than anything else, full of a quiet evening peace so profound that it approached delight. In the midst of it Emily's youth was the one strong note.

“Mother said you wanted to see me, Aunt Julia,” she remarked in her sweet, weary little voice.

Julia sat on the sofa beside her and approached her subject with the infinite grace which characterized everything which she did. She said something about the weather, she said something about a new library book, then she told her little story.

“I have always thought I would tell you, dear,” she said, “because I have always had a feeling that it was your due. You are young, and when I was your age I suffered so, and the worst of the suffering lay in thinking it would never pass, and it did pass, and so I want to tell you. I was never pretty like you, my dear, but I had a good figure, although I was so slight, and people called me graceful. Rose Everleigh, who died when you were a child, had a birthday, and she had a fancy to have a dance in the moonlight on her father's lawn. I — well, I suppose I was a good dancer. I was told so. I went. It was full moonlight, and the roses were in bloom, and the air was sweet, and the lights and shadows on the lawn were lovely, and the music played. There were two violins and a violoncello. I danced with a young man who was a stranger in the village. He had never seen me before; he did not really see me then. I was dressed all in white, and I had a floating lace scarf. I wore my hair in long curls and they blew over my face. We danced and danced, and the music was so sweet, and the roses were so sweet, and the moon made everything seem possible that was beautiful and happy. He danced with me all the evening, and I — well, I thought I was in love at first sight, too. All my heart seemed to go out to him. Of course it was most improper, but I had never known anything like it before. No young man had ever paid me any attention, I was so plain. I was young, and I was dazzled.”

Julia stopped. Emily regarded her with a faint curiosity.

“What then, Aunt Julia?” she murmured.

“Nothing more, my dear. He made Rose call with him the next day. I curled my hair and wore my best dress and my corals, but it was all over. That was all.”

“Did he never come again?”

“No, dear, not after he had seen me in broad daylight, when I wasn't dancing. One cannot be always dancing in the moonlight, you know. He knew that, and I knew that. He was sorry, too. I could see that he was. He was a very good young man. That was the end. Only, my dear, I thought the world was over, and it was not. I thought my sorrow would never pass, but it did. It is only to me now like some wonderful old springtime of my youth. I am only glad that it came to me. I have been much happier. I have been and am very happy. I have found out the most consoling truth in the whole world — sorrows pass.”

Julia bent over the girl beside her as gracefully as flower-raceme, but Emily's little face only expressed mild love and a negative sympathy.

“I am so glad you have not been unhappy all your life because of it, Aunt Julia,” she said in her flute-like voice.

Julia realized that her confession had been in vain. Emily was to make none in return. In fact, it was quite evident that she wondered why her aunt had told her the story.

Julia left her curled up on the sofa and joined her sisters.

“Did she tell you what the trouble was?” Sophia asked, eagerly.

“No; you two can try. I did nothing. She is lying on the sofa. I put my white shawl over her.”

The next day came Amelia's turn. She was quite white and her face looked rigid when, alone with her niece, she began her story. It was not in the least like her sister's. No moonlight romance had there been in Amelia Spencer's life, but something hard and sordid and fairly tragic.

“I am going to tell you something which nobody but myself and a woman who died long ago has ever known,” Amelia said, abruptly. “I think you had better not repeat it. Even at this late date it might trouble your mother and Aunt Julia. When I was a young girl I did not have some things for which I longed. Father was a rich man, but he did not believe in gewgaws. A girl friend of mine had beautiful jewels, although they were not cut like those nowadays. But they were beautiful. She had inherited them from a French grandmother, and some of them they said had belonged to the royal family. She had a great many, and there was one opal.” Amelia glanced at her finger, whence shot prismatic fires from an opal in a silver setting.

“That?” asked Emily.

“Yes, this is the opal. The girl was superstitious. She would not wear it. I was very intimate with her. One day I had a chance. I — stole it.”

Emily recoiled.

“It is quite true,” Amelia said, calmly. “There is no use in mincing matters. I stole it. It was not missed for a long time. I was careful about wearing it, but one evening I did not expect she would be at a party, and she was. She knew. She was heavenly. She gave it to me. She had a right to dispose of her jewels as she chose. She was an orphan. She did not live long. She died young. I have always worn the opal. I felt at first as if I were wearing sin and shame for everybody to see. It was a horror. But it passed. I loved the ring at last. I loved to wear it. It made me happy because I grew to understand that by being happy I was being forgiven for a dreadful deed, something which none of our family had ever been guilty of. You are the first I have told. Your mother and your aunt to-day would not understand. They would only be unhappy. Only the young can understand how I came to do it.”

Emily's face was more moved than it had been when her Aunt Julia had told her of her moonlight romance. “It must have been dreadful,” said she.

“It was a horror. I felt like a leper going about with all his sores exposed, for I had promised to wear the ring, and I knew I must not shirk that or I would be worse still. I tell you because I want you to know that even sorrows like that pass, and there is no sorrow worse than the sorrow for one's own wrong-doing.”

“Did the girl never tell?” asked Emily. Her small show of excitement had faded away. She was now quite listless. She was calm before this revelation of crime in the proud old family of which she came.

Amelia looked at her in a puzzled fashion. It had cost her much to tell that story. She frowned impatiently. “What has come over you, child?” she burst out. “I do believe if I had told you I had committed a murder you would act as if you had not energy enough to fret over it.”

“I could not help it,” replied Emily. “But you did not, did you, Aunt Amelia?”

Amelia laughed harshly. “No, my dear,” said she, “I never did.”

Amelia told Sophia and Julia, that evening after Emily had gone to bed, that she did not believe it was the slightest use talking with the child. “I think now it may be the wisest proceeding to send for a good specialist,” said she.

But now Sophia was obdurate. “Emily is my own daughter,” she said. “Something is troubling her. I cannot be mistaken. She is worried about something.”

“What on earth can it be?” demanded Amelia.

“I do not know. Somebody may have hurt her feelings.”

“Sophia Howard, who can have hurt her feelings? Why, that child's feelings have been wrapped in cotton wool in a glass case ever since she was born!”

“You can't wrap feelings in that way. There is not enough wool and glass in the world to make them quite safe,” declared Sophia.

Her sisters stared at her. “To hear you talk one would think you had been badly treated yourself,” said Amelia.

Sophia, who was rather pale, laughed pleasantly. “I have no complaint to make,” said she, “but this I do know, that hurt feelings hurt the soul more than any bodily injury and they do work bodily harm, and I do know that no human being can be sure of saying truthfully of another that her feelings have not been hurt. The whole world fairly bristles with weapons for feelings.”

“Well, maybe Emily's feelings have been hurt,” said Julia with a sigh, “and if they have she must be made to realize that that also will pass.”

Sophia had in reality the hardest task of all. Her story could not be fully told because it involved Emily's father, dead when she was a baby. Sophia had suffered injury to her feelings, and acute ones she had, pretty, petted darling of her whole family. Her husband had put her to the torture by word and look. He had treated her with a cruelty so subtle that it would have been difficult to prove, had she tried to do so. He was one of the men who torment by instinct, possibly without fully realizing it. Sophia had never betrayed him. She was not going to betray him now to his own daughter. She only told Emily that she had, unknown to her family, suffered much cruelty, that she had been wounded with the cruelest wounds of earth, those given in the house of a friend, but that, nevertheless, she was and had been happy.

“The one who hurt me is dead,” she said, “and I realize that my happiness and forgetfulness, that is, forgetfulness as far as my own misery is concerned, is the one way in which I can fully forgive. No sorrow lasts, dear, not even sorrow which comes undeservedly through those whom we love.”

Sophia told her sisters that night that perhaps they had better send for a specialist. “I told her of something which I had lived through happily,” said she, “and Emily acts to me as if she wonders whether or not we have all gone crazy to tell her such things. Perhaps she is not fretting, but still I cannot get over the conviction that she is unhappy over something.”

They agreed to wait three days and then if Emily did not improve to send for the specialist, but in two days came the improvement. Young Robert Bruce came to visit his aunt, Miss Elizabeth Bruce, who lived next door, and the two young people were immediately drawn together by some strange force. Emily began to brighten like a flower in a vase of water. The change in her was so sudden and radical that her elders wondered if they had been mistaken, if they had worried over nothing.

Emily sat on shady porches with Robert. She went with her aunts and mother to take tea with his aunt, and the two young creatures strolled home by some roundabout road of love. Little parties were given by village friends and Emily went, a slender vision of young beauty in India muslins and her aunts' and mother's pearls and corals. The color was back in lips and cheek, the light in eyes, the quick readiness of movement in limbs.

Robert's aunt was pleased, for she also adored Robert. “Your daughter will be a lucky girl, if I do say so,” she told Sophia.

“He seems a very fine young man,” returned Sophia, with a slight stiffening of her neck, “but if my daughter marries him he will have a good wife, if her own mother does say so.”

“My dear Sophia, of course,” returned Elizabeth Bruce, who was a masterly old woman, with a ready tongue of decision. “But I know she will have a good husband.” Elizabeth Bruce spoke as if her nephew had been a prince who had proffered a scepter to a daughter of the people, and the Spencers were an older family in the place than the Bruces. However, Sophia felt her slight resentment melt away when she had reached home and found Emily and her lover sitting openly, hand in hand, on the front doorstep in the moonlight. The girl looked up at her mother and smiled a heavenly smile of utter bliss and innocence and pride. The young fellow, who was very manly, laughed out bravely and still held the little hand. “It is for life, Emily's mother and mine, you know,” said he. Then he rose, still holding fast to the girl, and he kissed Sophia, and then Emily kissed her.

When Sophia entered the room where her sisters were she was weeping gently. She was glad that the lamps were not lighted. However, in a second her voice, as she answered a question, betrayed her.

“What is the matter?” Amelia asked.

“Emily and Robert Bruce are betrothed,” said Sophia, and she sobbed pleasurably.

Julia also sobbed. Amelia did not.

“It is a pretty good thing, I think,” she said. “Robert is a handsome young man with good habits, and he has money in his own right and is doing well in his profession.”

“He will open an office here,” said Sophia, “and Emily can live with us. He says so.”

“They can have the west wing of the house, and their own establishment,” said Amelia. “That will be the best plan. Robert will be happier, and so will Emily. We are all three unexceptionable, of course, but it is always a question of mixing psychological ingredients when married people try to live with others.”

“Yes, the west wing will be the best plan,” said Sophia. She sobbed again. Julia echoed her.

“What are you crying about?” asked Amelia. “Emily had to get married sometime. It seems to me nothing could be better than this.”

“I am crying because I am happy,” Sophia answered, stoutly. “It is such a relief to me to know that no man will take Emily away from me.”

“I feel so, too,” said Julia, with a little sniff. She thought, in the same way that one sniffs at a jar of old potpourri, of that moonlight evening when she had danced to the violins and the 'cello, and loved and been loved. She wore that memory like a crown.

The three sat still, and the young voices floated in to them. The lovers sat quite away from the windows, and they only caught an occasional word, and were not uncomfortable because of listening. But suddenly a strong wind from the south, sweet with roses, blew into the room, and the old damask curtains waved, and on the wings of that wind came an entire little speech of Emily's.

“Mother and Aunt Amelia and Aunt Julia have been telling me of troubles which they had when they were young, and how they all passed away and left them happier, and I had never had any sorrow and I did not know what they meant, but now I know. I have no sorrow now, of course, but having happiness makes it possible. I am happy enough now to have sorrow, and the sorrow will pass. It is very true.”

The wind died, the curtain hung limply. The three sisters sat in silence. They had revealed to that beloved girl secrets which they had held sacred unto their own souls. They had revealed their own souls, of romance, of wrongful deeds, of repentance, of injury, of forgiveness, of sorrow and its ultimatum, of happiness. They had rehearsed to her all their little holy dramas of life for her healing, and had it all been unnecessary?

Amelia spoke first. “Do you think she had nothing on her mind, after all?” said she.

“I rather think that she did,” said the child's mother, who was more subtle. “I think she was sorrowing because she had never had the imagination of what sorrow really meant.”

“I think that you are right, sister,” said Julia out of her heart of old romance.

The south wind came again. The room was full of the fragrance of roses. The damask curtains billowed. Sophia's embroidery-work flew like a white dove across the room out of her basket. Then they heard the voices again — a charming duet of love and happiness and prophecy of sorrow to end in happiness.

“Yes, sorrows pass,” came fugue-wise, like a song of the night wind.