A Study In China

Mary E. Wilkins

From Harper's Bazar Vol. XX No. 45 (November 5, 1887)

The air was very soft and sweet. The cherry-trees in the yards were in blossom, and also the little plum-trees, but the apple-trees lagged behind.

There were very few houses for a mile or two; most of the way were apple orchards, and smooth meadows bordered by stone walls. The grass in these meadows was a glittering young green, and there were groups of golden dandelions in it.

A slender young woman came slowly down the road. Her poor cotton gown, of a faded pink color, was bedraggled with dust and dew; her green plaid shawl, hanging half off her shoulders, was ragged. She carried in one hand a great basket bristling with vases, colored glass bottles, and little plaster images, in the other a large bundle tied up in an old snuff-colored cloth. Out of this last, tucked carefully between the folds, peeped a little bunch of spring flowers, anemones and violets. The girl could hardly carry her burdens; she could scarcely put one foot before the other and drag herself along. Every now and then she stopped to rest, setting her basket on the wall, and leaning herself against it.

A young man in a light express wagon drove slowly along behind her, walking his horse, and watching her curiously. He was a handsome fellow, dressed in coarse gray. There were grain bags heaped up in the back of his wagon. Just before he reached the woman she sank quite down in a little heap by the wall.

“Drunk!” ejaculated the man. Then he chirruped to his horse and cried “Whoa!” almost with the same breath. He threw the lines over the horse's back and sprang out, then bent closely over the prostrate figure by the wall and looked in her face. “Good Lord!” said he. “She ain't drunk — she's in a dead faint!”

There lay the poor young creature on the green grass, among her little plaster images and her rags. Her face was white as death.

“Poor thing!” muttered the young man, and began rubbing her hands. “I wish I had some water,” said he.

Presently she began to gasp and try to rise.

“There, there,” said he, soothingly, holding her down; “lie still a minute. If you get right up now, you'll faint away again. Feel sick, don't you?”

“Oh dear!” groaned the girl.

“You'll feel better in a minute; just lies still.” He continued rubbing her hands; she fixed her great eyes on him dazedly. “Where were you going?” asked he, presently.


“Well, I'm going two miles that way, and I'll take you along as far as I go. Were you going to stop along to sell these things?”

“No; I've got to go right home. I'm sick.”

“Well, I'd go right home if I were you. Suppose you can get into the wagon if I help you, now?”

“I'd jist as soon walk. I don't want to make no trouble.”

“Trouble? I guess it won't be much trouble. There, I'll stow away the basket and the bundle in behind here. Now!” He almost lifted her into the seat, then sprang up beside her and took the lines. She reeled when the horse started, and he caught hold of her. “I guess I shall have to hold you in till you get a little steadier,” said he, laughing. “Your feet don't touch the floor, anyway, do they?”


“Any one could get shook out mighty easy going over the rough places if they didn't sit pretty firm. Been away from home long?”

“A week.”

“Pretty hard work travelling round this way, ain't it?”

“Awful hard,” said the girl. Then she suddenly began sobbing and crying. “Oh dear! oh dear!” said she.

“Don't cry. I wouldn't.”

“I can't help it; I'm tired to death; an' it ain't often anybody treats me the way you do. Folks don't waste much pity on me generally.”

“Well, they ought to. It's more than I'd want to do myself — tramping round from morning till night lugging those things. I shouldn't think you'd have strength enough.”

“My arms ache dreadfully sometimes.”

“I should think they would.” The young man said this in an absent way, looking ahead uneasily. They were coming to a house on the left side of the road. There was a blue glimmer out in the yard as they drove along; they could see through the trees that it was the blue dress of a girl who was moving about there.

The one in the wagon straightened herself up, and brushed her shawl across her wet eyes. “Don't you want me to git out now?” asked she.

“Get out?” said the young man. “Why, we haven't gone half a mile yet.” Still he looked embarrassed and doubtful.

“I didn't know but you'd want me to. We're coming to a house.”

“What if we are? The house won't mind, I guess.”

“I didn't know as you'd want to be seen riding with anybody like me.”

“I don't care who I'm seen riding with, as long as they behave themselves; and you are doing that, so far as I see.”

“There ain't no need of your holding me in, anyhow; I ain't faint none now.”

The young man relaxed his grasp of her arm very gladly as they passed the house. The girl in the yard bowed and half smiled, with a wondering stare. “Whom has he got?” she seemed to say. He returned her bow, raising his hat with independent stiffness. His face was very red as he did so.

The china peddler looked half deprecatingly, half curiously, at the girl in the yard, then at her companion. “Is that your girl?” she asked, after they had passed. She did not ask it boldly at all — rather sympathizingly.

He blushed redder, looked at her half angrily, then he laughed. “She doesn't mean any harm,” he thought. “No,” said he; “I haven't got any girl; don't want any. Girls don't amount to much. All they care about is new bonnets and dresses.”

“Is it?”

“Don't you?” he said. Then he stopped suddenly. For a second he had thought of her and spoken to her as a girl among other girls. But was she, this poor pale little creature with her basket and bundle? She was nothing like the girl whom they had left behind in the green yard. She had a pretty face, though; he admitted that, looking at her now more critically than he had done. It was small and sharp, but gracefully outlined. She had a pretty way of turning her head when she spoke, too.

“Me?” said she.

“Yes, you.” He wished he had said nothing. It seemed cruel.

“I never had no new dresses nor bonnets to know.”

Before long they reached the large white farm-house where the young man lived. He drove straight up into the yard, disregarding the girl's query as to whether she was not to be left in the road. A stout, good-faced woman opened the door as he drove in.

“Who have you got there, Wells Jefferson?” she thought so vigorously that her son seemed fairly to hear it, though she only stood looking, and her tongue was still.

“Hulloa, mother,” said he, with a nod and a look which implied, “Wait; I'll tell you in a minute.”

Then he got out of the wagon, and reached up to help the girl down. “You go right into the house and sit down,” said he.

“Oh, no; I ain't goin' in.”

“Yes, you are; you mind what I say. You go in and rest a while; then I'll carry you a ways further. I've got some work to do first.”

“I can walk just as well; I feel better now.”

“Nonsense! you ain't fit to walk. Go in!”

She obeyed at last, and went in, her head hanging meekly. Wells placed a kitchen chair for her, while his mother stood staring. “Sit down here,” said he. Then he beckoned to his mother slyly, and she followed him into the next room.

“What hev you brought that woman here for, Wells? I don't want to buy anything of her.”

“I come across her in a dead faint two mile below here, and I took her in. It's my opinion she's about half starved; she looks like it. I want you to give her some breakfast, and by-and-by I'm going to take her on again. She's on the way to Boston, and I've got to go as far as Ashland, and she might as well ride.”

Mrs. Jefferson's eyes as she fixed them on her son were fairly severe with benevolent intent and calculation.

“I could warm up the coffee, and cook her a piece of beefsteak.”

“I would.”

Mrs. Jefferson was a kindly, dogmatic woman. She delighted in being charitable, but she wished the recipients of her charity to dispose of it as she dictated. “You'd better eat the rest of that bread and butter with your meat,” she told the little vase-woman; and she ate it. Mrs. Jefferson questioned her closely; then she went out and imparted the result to her son. “She says her name is Louise Durfee,” she told him. “I noticed that little bunch of flowers she had in her bundle; and she said she liked flowers — she used to live in the country. Her folks lived down Norfolk way when she was little. I reckon they was always low and shiftless, from what she said. Her mother died, and her father married again, and they moved into Boston. Then her step-mother went round peddling china, and when this girl was big enough, she went too. I guess her father drinks, from what she said.”

“Poor little thing!”

“She's young; she ain't but eighteen. I should think she might find something else to do. She don't seem like a bad kind of a girl. I can't think she is, though I 'ain't got any stock in that kind of people.”

When she returned she expressed her opinion about employment to the girl. “I should think you'd rather do something else,” said she. “I should rather hire out and do house-work in the country, now.”

“Oh, my God!” cried Louise, “wouldn't I!”

There was a certain difference between her manner and that of a girl of a humble class in the country. She was at once more pronounced and shyer. No country girl would have cried out “My God!” as she did.

“Why don't you?” asked her hostess.

“Why don't I? Who'd want me? I don't know how to do a thing. I'd have to be learned like a baby.”

“She'd come here in a minute if I'd offer to take her,” thought Mrs. Jefferson. But she did not offer. She was always slow and prudent in her movements.

Nevertheless, in a month's time Louise was installed as Mrs. Jefferson's domestic. She had toiled back from the city on foot, without her basket and bundle, and begged to be taken in. She would try hard to learn, she said; she would do just as she was told, and she would expect no pay but her board.

“I do s'pose folks would say I was a fool to take in anybody this way,” Mrs. Jefferson told her son; “but I can't help kinder taking a fancy to the girl, and I'm sorry for her; and I've got to hev some help haying time, and I don't see why she can't learn to wash dishes and do the rough work if she's got common wit.”

As it proved, the little vase woman took very gracefully to her metamorphosis into a country domestic.

“She's going to be real good help,” her mistress told her son at the end of a week, “and I wouldn't ask for a better-behaved girl. She seems perfectly contented to sit down with me after her work's done, and don't want to be running. If it'll only last!”

It did last. Better servant than this poor little Bohemian never merited a mistress's nod. She seemed to fairly delight in obedience. Mrs. Jefferson grew really fond of her. She took her into the family, when her natural suspicions were quieted, as she always had taken her domestics. She bought her a cambric dress, helped her to make it, and took her to church with her. When the girl was arrayed in that pretty cambric, and a new hat with a little bunch of flowers in it, she eyed her with pleasure. She nodded and smiled behind her back to Wells, who was also eying her. “Don't she look pretty?” she motioned with her lips; and she had not one misgiving. Neither had she any when now and then her son took her servant-girl to meeting of a week-day night, driving a mile and a half by moonlight in his open buggy. She thought nothing of it when he did not go to see the blue-gowned girl in the farm-house down the road. “He's busy haying,” she said to herself. “Wells ain't the kind to neglect his work for any girl; and I'm glad of it.”

At last, however, her eyes were opened. Wells and Louise came home from meeting one night, and sat down on the door-step. The house was dark, and they supposed Mrs. Jefferson had gone to bed. But she had not; she was at the sitting-room window watching and listening. Something had aroused her that afternoon. One of the neighbors had been talking to her, and she had learned for the first time how injudicious she had been in admitting such a pretty, doubtful sort of a girl to her house, and bringing her in such close contact with her son. She had learned, too, that Annie Linfield, the girl in blue, was taking Wells's neglect to heart — pining over it, the neighbor said. So now she listened. She could see them quite plainly, too, as she peeped cautiously.

“Sit down here a minute,” Wells said; “it's too pleasant to go in.”

“Do you believe we'd better?” Louise's voice replied, hesitatingly.

“Of course. Why not?”

Then there was silence for a while. Mrs. Jefferson could see her son on a lower step gazing up into her girl's face with a look which dismayed her.

“It was a mighty lucky day when I happened to spy you on the road, wasn't it, Louise?” he said, presently.

“Mighty lucky for me,” she replied, gratefully.

“It was enough sight luckier for me, did you know it, Louise.”

Mrs. Jefferson saw her son grasp the girl's hands as they lay in her lap. “I wish you'd kiss me once, Louise.”

The kiss was barely given and received when the two sprang apart suddenly and rose. A heavy tread sounded in the entry behind them, and Mrs. Jefferson opened the door.

“Why, you here! When did you get home from meeting?” asked she. Her voice was harsh with agitation.

“A few minutes ago. I — thought you'd gone to bed, mother.” Wells was blushing, but he looked her in the face like a man.

“No; I thought I'd wait till you got home. I'm a-going now; I've been kinder dozy.”

“She doesn't know,” thought her son.

“You'd better come in and go to bed now, Louise,” his mother went on. “You'll want to get up early in the morning; it's baking day to-morrow. Did you hev a good meeting?”

“Yes, ma'am,” said the girl, trembling. Then she came in obediently, and went up to her room.

For the next few days there was no chance for any sweet confidences between Wells Jefferson and his mother's hired girl. He could not catch Louise alone for a second, try as he might. Finally he got provoked; he thought she avoided him on purpose; he did not see that his mother was managing it all. He thought Louise was at fault when Mrs. Jefferson went with him to the next evening meeting in her stead. His mother had made a skilful show of giving the girl her choice in the matter, and he thought she might have gone if she had cared to. He went off, his mother at his side, savage and hurt: he had a very jealous disposition.

Annie Linfield was at the meeting. She had walked all the way alone. His mother remarked on it delicately. “There's Annie,” said she; “I guess she walked down.”

“I guess I'll take her home, then, if you don't mind being crowded.”

“Of course I don't. 'Tain't fit for her to walk so fur.”

Annie Linfield's sweet round face, which had looked a little pensive as she sat in church, lighted up when Wells spoke to her. She accepted his invitation prettily; she was ready enough to overlook his defection. So she sat happily at his side, riding along, with her soft white shawl drawn closely around her dainty shoulders, while her poor little unconscious rival sat all alone in the dark at her window, crying.

“Gone to bed, Louisa?” called Mrs. Jefferson, when she entered the house.

“Yes, ma'am.”

“She's been crying,” thought her mistress, with a pain in her heart.

The next morning Wells went away on business. His mother had been urging it for some time. He would stay away two days and one night. “You've got to see your uncle about that note some time,” his mother had said, “and you might as well go to-morrow as to wait. The hay's all in.”

Wells had not demurred this time. His mother watched zealously lest he should make an effort to see Louise before he started, but he did not even try.

That afternoon she spoke to Louise about the matter. They were in the sitting-room after dinner.

“Louise,” said Mrs. Jefferson, with an odd stiffness and embarrassment in her tone, “I want to speak to you about something.”

Louise looked up from her work — she was learning to sew.

“It's — about Wells,” her mistress went on. “I don't like to speak about it, but I've got to, and you mustn't feel hurt. I never thought of such a thing till lately. I never thought that — well, I might as well tell you I never thought that you and my son would think of each other.”

Louise never took her eyes off her mistress.

She looked aside uneasily, then went on. “Of course you know such a thing would make me very unhappy. It wouldn't be for his best good. I haven't got a thing against you, you know, Louise. You've been a real good girl, and I think a great deal of you; but you know as well as I do — your common-sense must teach you — that Wells would need a different kind of a person for his wife — somebody that's been brought up more like him.”

“I know I wa'n't brought up anyhow; but — I 'ain't been — I've tried to be good, Mis' Jefferson.”

“I know you have; you've been a real good girl, Louise. But, don't you know, it's different. Now there's Annie Linfield. Wells an' she wa'n't engaged, but he used to go and see her real often. It would be a splendid thing for him. Her father's got property, and she's an only daughter, and a real smart, capable girl.”

“She'd make him a better wife than me, wouldn't she?”

Was it said in innocence or sarcasm? Mrs. Jefferson looked at her sharply.

“Why, of course she would. Louise, your common-sense must show you that.”

“I won't make him no trouble — you needn't worry.”

“Now you ain't going to feel bad about it, Louise?”

“No, I won't feel bad.”

Mrs. Jefferson looked at Louise uneasily. She would not have minded so much if she had cried. She had a strained look on her little face which troubled her. “Well, I can't help it. I know I am acting for the best,” she told herself.

That night, when the stars were all out, and everything was still, a small, trembling figure stole down-stairs. It pattered softly into Mrs. Jefferson's bedroom off the sitting-room, bent over the sleeping woman and kissed her forehead. Then it fled out of the house and down the shadowy road to Boston.

The next morning Mrs. Jefferson, after calling Louise in vain, went up to her room. The bed had not been slept in, and there was a little note on the bureau. It was printed — she could not write; and no one knew how the poor child had acquired even this much knowledge.

“Deer Mis Jeffson, — I am goin awa. I am sick of hous-wurk. It is two slow. I am goin to wurk sellin vaisis agin. — Loise.”

Mrs. Jefferson's first emotions were disgust and disappointment. Then suddenly she understood. This little note had been written with the cunning born of love and unselfish devotion. It had been written for her to show Wells. It made her way all plain. It would cure him.

When she understood, she sat down and cried with pity and remorse. “I couldn't help it,” she moaned extenuatingly to herself. “I couldn't have my son marry a china woman.”

She was glad when Annie Linfield came over that afternoon. She had on a pretty muslin, and she flushed very pink when Mrs. Jefferson greeted her. “I just came on an errand for mother,” said she.

“Well, you must come in and rest a minute, now you are here,” replied the other, with an inward resolve to keep her till Wells returned.

She did so without much difficulty. When the young man returned, he found the pretty, smiling girl with his mother. He looked around for Louise, but said nothing, supposing she would appear every moment, till they took their seats at the tea-table.

“Where's Louise?” he asked then, trying to look unconcerned.

His mother made a motion for him to be still.

He looked at her wonderingly, jumping to the conclusion that Louise had gone visiting somewhere, without considering the improbability of it.

When he entered the house after escorting Annie home that evening, he looked around, certainly expecting to see her then.

“Why, where is Louise?” he asked again.

Then his mother showed the note to him. The young fellow looked pale and sick when he had glanced at it and thrown it on the table.

“All you can tell about that kind of people,” said he.

He said nothing more about it; neither did his mother. They never spoke together about the girl afterward. The mother felt too desirous of not plunging further into deceit, the son felt too sore and mortified. He did not seem like himself for a while; then he cheered up, and went to see Annie Linfield. They were married in a year. Mrs. Jefferson was delighted. The girl was dainty and pretty and sweet-tempered, and very fond of Wells. The two women could worship him together.

The young couple went on a short wedding tour. When they returned they were to live with the bridegroom's mother. While they were away Mrs. Jefferson was busy and happy with preparations for their reception.

One morning, while she was cooking in the kitchen, a shadow fell across the floor. She started, and looked. A woman with a basket full of vases and a great bundle of old clothes stood in the door.

“I don't want anything,” said Mrs. Jefferson, shortly. She was always aghast at those women now.

The woman stepped in. “Is your name Jefferson, lady?” said she.

“Yes, that's my name.”

“You had a girl named Louise Durfee livin' with you once, didn't you, lady?”

“Yes. Do — you know anything about her?”

“I'm her mother, lady.”

“I hope Louise is — getting along well.”

“She died last week.”

Mrs. Jefferson turned white, and sank into a chair.

“Dead!” said she.

“Yes, lady. She had the consumption. She went out on the road agin after she got back, and she got cold. She wa'n't very stout to carry the basket anyway.”

The woman looked at Mrs. Jefferson's shocked face curiously. There was no softness in her glittering black eyes and her brown face. She had gypsy blood in her.

“I've got something for you, lady,” said she.

She took a parcel carefully from her basket and handed it to Mrs. Jefferson. This erratic, sly-natured woman had not much regard for her word; but one is scarcely human for whom there is no truth inviolable. She had still one sanctuary left for her promise to an innocent departed soul.

“She kep' it hid in the bed till the day she died. Then she give it to me. It was all done up careful this way. She saved up and bought 'em unbeknownst to me.”

Mrs. Jefferson with trembling fingers unrolled rag after rag. At last came a clean white one. Then she saw a pair of little vases and a slip of paper. On this was written, “Fur Mis' Jeffson to set on her parler shelf.” In the same white cloth, wrapped separately in tissue-paper, was something else. Mrs. Jefferson could hardly see that for the tears. It was a delicate little Parian flower girl. On its slip of paper was written, “Fur Him.”