Three Old Sisters and the Old Beau

Mary E. Wilkins

From Harper's New Monthly Magazine Vol. XCII No. DLII (May, 1896)

The three old sisters, Rachel and Nancy and Camilla, lived in the house in which they had been born. They were very old in years — the youngest was nearly seventy — but they were, after all, the most youthful maidens in the village. Not a child dragging her doll-carriage past their windows, not a young girl strolling by in the twilight on her lover's arm, was as young as they, for the youth in them had actually triumphed over age, and gained, as it were, a species of immortality in this world.

Did not Camilla and Nancy, the two younger, really play at grace-hoops sometimes of an evening? The fantastic old shadows, with stiff rheumatic gestures, apeing the free motions of youth, and the flying hoops, had been plainly seen on the window curtains after the candles were lighted. The hoops themselves, wound with faded ribbons, the relics of a graceful sport of their graceful girlhood, hung conspicuously over the mahogany table in their front hall.

In this same front hall, large and square, hung with old greenish landscape paper, with a spiral stair winding slowly upward from its midst, the three old sisters were wont to sit in the cool of summer afternoons. At five o'clock the front door, topped with bull's-eyes of dull green glass, was thrown open, and the three appeared, sitting in state with their embroidery-work. They still embroidered, bending their spectacled eyes painfully over scallops and sprigs and eyelet-holes. They had never outgrown the occupations of their youth, as they had scarcely outgrown its amusements. It did not seem impossible that Camilla, the youngest, sometimes nursed her ancient doll in her withered bosom.

However, the strongest evidence of the youth which still survived in their hearts, and answered to their conceptions of themselves and one another, was in their costumes. The three old sisters, Rachel, Nancy, and Camilla, sat in their front hall arrayed in bygone silks and muslins, made after the fashions of their girlhood days, with no alterations.

Scanty ruffled skirts clinging to their wasted limbs the three wore, and low bodices and elbow sleeves, displaying pitilessly their withered necks and arms, from which all the sweet curves of youth had departed.

Their gray and scanty locks were arranged in ringlets, and garnished with shell combs, and sometimes a wreath of faded artificial flowers.

It was inconceivable how one, surveying the others, as they sat there in their gay array, could not have seen in their faces, if not in her looking-glass, the loss of her youth; but if she did, she made no sign. Not one of them seemed to have a suspicion that these old costumes did not become them as fairly as ever, and nobody knew if their illusions ever failed them at the sight of one another's parchment skins, and the hollows between their poor old bones.

Always on a pleasant summer afternoon, as they sat there in their front hall, the old Beau came stepping across the way from his old house, half hidden behind a little grove of pine-trees. He was as old as the eldest sister, but not at all feeble. He carried his handsome white head proudly above his old-fashioned high stock, and had a military set-back to his shoulders.

The old Beau, while looking, in his morning attire, not so very different from the modern man, clung always to his old costumes of state. When he crossed the road to the sisters of an afternoon he wore always his silk bell hat and blue swallow-tail coat, with bright brass buttons, and swung, with a fine courtly flourish of the past, an ancient ivory-headed cane. No one knew which of the sisters possessed the warmest affection of his faithful old heart. He had stepped across the road to visit them ever since people could remember. He had never had any other sweetheart, and they had never had any other beau.

One and then another of the sisters had been supposed to devote her virgin heart to him, and been pining over his long courtship. Nancy, the middle sister, was the one popularly considered to have especially favored him. There were vague whispers of more particular attentions paid her in years gone by. Moreover, she had been the beauty of the family. Tall and willowy in figure, with long brown curls drooping over rose-leaf cheeks, with gentle blue eyes, had Nancy been in her youth.

It seemed probable that she had crept the closest to the heart of the old Beau, but no one really knew. He was a close man, and quite a student; he lived in his old library, walled in with musty books, and wrote with his quill pen pages of fine crabbed letters, which no one ever read, nor knew what their subject was. His one outside diversion was his afternoon call upon the three sisters.

Then, seated, in summer-time, in a carved arm-chair in their front hall, and in the winter in their parlor, with a damask napkin over his thin knees, he partook of tea in a blue china cup, and pound-cake in a blue china plate. The sisters' maidservant always passed around a tea-tray in the afternoon — an old and genteel custom which prevailed nowhere else in the village.

Nancy, the middle sister, died first — of old age, the town record said, although that seemed impossible, and the other sisters insisted that it was of a cold upon the lungs. “Consumption is in our mother's family, and Nancy was always delicate. I never expected she would live to be old,” Rachel told the minister when he called.

After Nancy's death the old Beau drank tea with the other sisters for another summer, then Rachel died, and there was only Camilla left. He did not make his call every afternoon after that. It was understood that she had doubts about the strict propriety of such solitary visits, and had prohibited them.

Then it was that the old Beau manifested symptoms of uneasiness. At the hour when he had been accustomed to call upon his friends he strolled aimlessly about the roads, switching the way-side weeds with his cane. People thought that he was ageing fast.

About three months after Rachel's death, one midsummer Sunday, the old Beau and Camilla walked down the road together to meeting, and it was said that they had gone to the minister's that morning and been married.

The Bridegroom wore his old dress costume of bell hat and blue swallow-tail coat, and held up his handsome white head like a prince in his high stock, and the Bride minced gently at his side in an ample bridal array of a long-past fashion and cut. A white bride-bonnet, white-veiled and crowned with white plumes, adorned the old Bride, and she wore a lustrous white satin gown with a low bodice, a white Canton crape shawl, and white satin shoes. That bridal costume had, beyond doubt, been prepared years and years gone by for one of the sisters, in anticipation of youthful love and wedded bliss; but for which? No one ever knew. Some, indeed, fancied that the white satin breadths were over-long for Camilla, and would better have suited Nancy, who had been taller, but who could say with certainty, since Camilla stooped with age, and must have lost somewhat of her youthful stature?

The old Bride passed up the aisle with her old Bridegroom, and a smile of youth that triumphed over age and memory shone on her old face through her white veil, and no one ever knew whether she wore her own or her sister's wedding-gown, or had wedded her own or her sister's old Beau.