From The Uncollected Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman (University Press of Mississippi: 1992)
Originally published in Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly 50 (Aug. 1900)
The great double doors of H. F. Crosby's Dry Goods Emporium faced south, and the wind was that way. The ribbon counter, where Charlotte May stood, was directly in front of the door, and all the gay ribbons hanging overhead from a wire and those suspended from their rolls on the edge of the case swung and waved, and wove together in the gusts of the wind. Those overhead were mostly in shades of orange, those on the case in blues. Between those dancing streamers of colour Charlotte's face — triangularly shaped, almost like a cat's, with a mild fulness about the temples and innocently speculative blue eyes — appeared. Her hair was very fair, almost white, and she wore it in a quaint extreme of fashion which often caused people to turn and look after her. Her blue gingham short waist fitted her nicely, and her blue ribbon tie was wound tightly around her throat, and fastened with a cheap brooch with a stone of turquoise blue china. Charlotte's friend, Maud Lockwood, who stood beside her at the ribbon counter, had told her many a time that no one could tell it from the real thing, and Maud Lockwood was regarded as an authority and was much admired.
It is quite true that there are spheres which would make us all stars could we but find them for our revolutions, and Maud Lockwood had found hers. She was a handsome girl, with such a subtle consciousness of her fine trimly girded figure that she seemed to fairly thrust it upon one's attention. It was also well known that she was not obliged to work in a store, being led to such a step only by the desire of certain extras in the way of dress somewhat beyond the reach of her father's purse. It is only choice, not necessity, which dignifies labour in the estimation of many who have always laboured from necessity, and their fathers before them. A girl like Charlotte May, who had to work or starve, looked with envious respect at a girl like Maud Lockwood, who had to work or give up her frills. Maud wore a real turquoise brooch, and the girl beside her often looked at it with a sentiment of complacency and no envy. She could not see that it was any prettier than her own, and she was not one to be disturbed by any pretence, if it were clever.
The third girl, or rather woman, at the ribbon counter looked with gravity and ill-concealed contempt upon both of them — the wearer of the real turquoise and the wearer of the sham. She would have worn neither. Neither the real nor the false ornamental superfluities of life had any place in her conception of its structure. She would have dispensed with all perianths and gargoyles in her architecture, and left but the pillars and brackets of support. In her opinion only use redeemed the existence of ornament. If she wore a brooch it was to fasten something, otherwise she left it in its little box in her bureau drawer. She had a plain gold one which had belonged to her mother.
This woman, Eliza Green, had been employed in Crosby's for years, and was trusted. She went now and then to New York to purchase ribbons, and her judgment as to quality and value was good, although her own taste was scarcely showy enough to suit the folk of this cheap, provincial, manufacturing city. She bought ribbons, as she looked upon the jewellery of her mates at the counter, with keen recognition of the taste of others, and contempt for it. She would under no circumstances have worn any of the ribbons which she purchased.
Eliza Green was supposed to be quite well to do, having doubtless saved from her salary, which had been increased from time to time, and having her own house free from encumbrance. Eliza had inherited a comfortable square house, half of which she rented out and lived herself in the other half. The house was some three miles from the city, in a farming district. Next door lived John Woodsum, who presently came into Crosby's, after hitching his horse before the store.
It was hot that afternoon. The concrete sidewalks yielded and sprang underfoot like sponge. The drug-store clerks wore white linen coats, and the waiting lines at the soda fountains were long.
John Woodsum had no work that day. The factory in which he was employed was running low, the midsummer heat seeming to affect the current of trade like that of a brook. He was going to marry Charlotte May, though few knew it. He had himself requested Charlotte not to speak of it.
“Not that I'm doing anything I'm ashamed of, nor you either,” he said, “but I don't want folks talking about my affairs more than I can help. There's three times a man has to be talked about, whether or no — when he's born, when he's married, and when he dies. I mean to get rid of all the others that I am able.”
So John Woodsum had taken the girl to drive, and escorted her home from meeting, and, as she had many other admirers, nobody was sure. Indeed, the general opinion was that she would not marry John Woodsum. Eliza Green dismissed the matter with a single reflection when Maud Lockwood told her that John Woodsum had taken Charlotte to drive the Saturday before.
“She has not enough sense,” she thought.
Then she matched some ribbon for a customer, and thought no more about it. But when the young man stood in the store door that afternoon she felt a little surprise. She glanced quickly at Charlotte and saw that her delicate face was a deep pink. John himself advanced upon the counter with no embarrassment or change of colour, presenting that singular anomaly of utter rusticity with neither confusion nor shame-facedness. He wore his best clothes, but rose superior to even their clumsy stiffness. His face, large and somewhat heavy, had a certain dignity of expression which made up for the want of alertness. People were wont to say that John Woodsum wasn't so quick as some, but it would take a mighty smart man to get round him. Even his new hat, much too large for him, which he did not remove when he approached the counter, did not detract from his air of self-establishment.
Eliza Green, who was rolling up some yards of blue ribbon, said, “How do you do, John?” and went on with her work. Maud Lockwood said, “Good afternoon, Mr. Woodsum,” in her sweet, artificially modulated voice, with a nod and smile which she saw as plainly as in a looking-glass.
Charlotte said nothing. She turned red, then pale, and half shrank away as John approached.
“Are you ready?” John inquired, in a deep voice, with no hesitation whatever; and Charlotte gazed at him hesitatingly for a second, her lips trembling, and her cheeks quite pale between her loops of flaxen hair.
“Are you ready?” the young man asked again, this time with a note of surprise. Then Charlotte replied, “Yes,” hurriedly, and took her hat — a white, broad-brimmed one with perky bows of pale blue, turned up at the back with a profusion of cheap pink flowers — from under the counter, put it on with trembling hands, and slipped past her mates.
“What's Mr. Crosby going to say, dear, if you run away half an hour before it's time to close?” inquired Maud Lockwood. “I saw him just now looking over here; and he didn't look any too sweet: I can tell you that.”
“Mr. Crosby knows, and he'll say nothing,” John Woodsum returned shortly. Then he and Charlotte went out, she walking rather weakly and carrying her head bent, with never a backward glance, and he assisted her into his open buggy before the store.
Maud Lockwood turned to Eliza Green, with a brilliant flash of eyes and teeth.
“Know what that means?” said she.
Eliza Green shook her head.
“They're going to be married.”
Eliza Green did not change colour, but there was a swift contraction of the muscles around her mouth, and her eyes narrowed as before too much light.
“What makes you think so?” she asked, in her quiet, sustained voice. She rolled up some orange ribbon as she spoke, and not getting it quite straight unwound it, and re-rolled it carefully.
“Didn't you see she had on her new white dress and her best hat?”
Eliza nodded. She had noticed the flying white frills, and the pink flowers, as Charlotte went out of the store.
“Well, John Woodsum had on his Sunday clothes, and they had arranged it with Crosby, and two and two make four. They've gone to get married. It's just the way a stick like John Woodsum would set about getting married — no wedding and no anything. Charlotte has never had an engagement ring. I shouldn't wonder if he didn't give her a wedding one. Settling down with a man like that, to cook and to mend — a pretty girl like her!”
“Maybe she hasn't.”
“Oh, yes, she has. Didn't you see her face when he came in? A girl don't look like that unless she's going to get married, or buried, or do something out of the common. Here's Crosby. Ask him.”
Mr. H. F. Crosby, who just then came sauntering up, passing some customers with a suave hitch of his shoulders and an impatient wrinkle of his forehead, was unmarried, and people credited him with an admiration for Maud Lockwood. She put her hand to her hair and pulled her shirt waist straight as he drew near.
“Mr. Crosby,” she called, with confidential softness. Eliza Green went on rolling ribbons.
“Well?” returned Crosby, and the frown deepened. His hair was of a deep shade of red, and his eyes were like blue sparks. He was considered handsome, except for his hair.
“You needn't look so cross,” said Maud Lockwood, with a pout, carefully lowering her voice, that its familiarity should not be noticed. “What has Charlotte May gone off half an hour before shutting up for? If you are getting partial I want to give notice.”
Maud laughed and her employer seemed to quail before her. There was a steady impetus about this girl which intimidated his nervous, irascible temperament, whose irascibility had no firm roots. Sometimes H. F. Crosby felt that Maud Lockwood could marry him if she chose, and he felt afraid of her. He tried to laugh, but with poor success, and his lips were pale.
“They've gone to call on the minister, I guess,” said he.
Maud laughed triumphantly.
“There, you can't cheat me,” she cried to Eliza, who was interweaving the ribbons hanging from the line overhead as imperturbably as a fate. “How long have you known it?” she asked Crosby.
“Last night,” he replied shortly, and turned away as some one spoke to him. “First aisle to the left, madam,” he said to the inquiring woman, and was gone.
Maud laughed again with shrewd malice. “He's hit. I suspected it,” she said.
Eliza looked at her with the faintest shade of inquiring interest.
“Oh, you never see things. He's hung around this counter to see Charlotte, day in and out. Folks thought it was me, but it wasn't. However, I didn't want it to be me. I wouldn't marry a man like Crosby and put up with his tantrums. He'd have to get over 'em grand lively. But, on the whole, I'd just as soon take somebody that didn't need to be made over. Made-over things never fit so well,” said she, with an approving laugh at her own wit.
Not another customer approached the ribbon counter that afternoon. When it was time to close Eliza Green went home with her little lunch bag. She always carried her lunch, for motives of economy. She walked, although the electric cars ran near her house, for the same reason.
When she came within sight of John Woodsum's house, which was just before her own, she saw a white flutter at the door, and knew that the bridal couple had got home. Eliza heard Charlotte's little soft giggle, as she turned in at her own gate. She had no sooner entered her own room than the woman who lived in the other side entered hastily, the scent of tea and baking biscuit following her, and a child calling her back shrilly.
“Do you know what has happened?” she whispered, as slyly as if John and his bride were within earshot.
“Yes,” replied Eliza, taking off her hat carefully and folding her veil.
“Got married, without no weddin' nor a word to nobody! Drove over to the minister's in his own team, and brought her trunk under the seat. Land! I never had much to do with, but I got married in better shape than that. Had she said anything about it to you?”
“No, not a word,” replied Eliza.
The woman looked at her sharply.
“I didn't know but she had, as long as she worked at the same counter.”
“She didn't,” Eliza said. “If you can let me have a little hot water I guess I won't make up a fire to-night, it's so warm.”
“You can have it jest as well as not. I see she's got a handsome white dress on, and a hat with pink flowers. Had she worn 'em before?”
“Yes, I guess she had.”
“I wonder if she's got a new silk dress.”
“I don't know,” replied Eliza, getting a pitcher out of her pantry.
“I don't believe she had,” said the woman. “It would be just like John Woodsum not to want her to, even if she bought it with her own money. He's awful tight-fisted.”
“She didn't have much to spend on silk dresses,” said Eliza; “not much beside her board and washing.”
There was a scream from the woman's child on the other side, and she ran, Eliza following with her pitcher.
Every night when Eliza came home from the store the woman gave her a bulletin of the happenings next door. She had seen the bride at work in an old calico which had belonged to John's mother, much too large for her, folded over, and pinned up. She knew John would not let her wear her store dresses at work. The bride had done the washing, and there were disgusted pointings at the drabbled garments hanging on the line. Eliza thought with incapable reachings of imagination of Charlotte at the wash-tub, rubbing away at her husband's heavy under-garments with those slender little hands of hers. Charlotte's hands were the tiniest things: long-fingered and blue-veined.
“John Woodsum ought to hire a washerwoman,” said the other, and Eliza acquiesced, though calmly. She did not call on the bride, but when she caught a glimpse of her in the yard she saw that she was greatly changed. Once, too, she came into the store to buy some needles and thread and gingham, and Maud Lockwood remarked upon it.
“Such a pretty girl as she was,” she said after she was gone. “It seems to me sometimes as if matrimony was nothing but a tomb for good looks. Sometimes I think I'll never get married.”
However, Charlotte had not lost her prettiness; it was simply veiled and hidden beneath unwontedness and awkward plainness of attire. Her face was too delicately sharp and her forehead too high for her to wear her hair strained tightly back into a hard knot, yet that was the way she had arranged it since her marriage.
“I don't like your hair falling over your ears in that way,” John had said; “put it straight back and show your forehead.” And she had obeyed.
Charlotte also, when she was bidden, discarded all her little tricks of style and fashion, which, regarded from her husband's practical point of view, were void of sense. There were no more wide collars of crumpled ribbons; no jaunty puffings of blouses, no garniture of cheap flowers, and, above all, no cheap jewellery — no jewellery of any kind except her wedding ring. John had given her a wedding ring, though it was not the ostentatiously heavy article which her crude fancy had pictured. Charlotte had her girlhood fripperies packed away in her bureau drawers, and sometimes she looked at them, not so much with regret as with anxious bewilderment. She was not unhappy, being as fond of her husband as a spaniel, but was more or less anxious and bewildered, having developed within herself since marriage a painful willingness of obedience without entire capacity. Charlotte, having lost her parents when young, had never been under the active necessity of obedience to anything, except Providence, and it is very easy to confuse Providence with one's own wishes, especially in trivialities. It was easy enough for her to strain her hair back from her blue-veined temples; she could leave off her ribbons and brooches, but in house-wifely matters lack of training made her wilful against her will.
It was a woefully kept house unless John Woodsum rose at dawn, and toiled until midnight after his daily work was done. And the waste, to one of his frugal turn, amounted to actual crime. Charlotte seemed absolutely incapable of learning the lesson of household thrift. She was devoid of domestic instincts. There was no guile in her and a great tenacity of affection; but she was simply organised, and her feet went swiftly only in the ways in which they had been set. Her duties had been, as it were, single-threaded. The measuring and selling of ribbon, and furbishing up of her own pretty person, had no relation to the financial diplomacy required in the simplest housekeeping to advantage. Her pleasures had been firemen's balls, and park entertainments, and electric car excursions, with vacations at a cheap shore resort. All these she had forfeited by her marriage. There were for her no more dances, nor summer vacations, nor, as a rule, electric rides. John regarded those as a waste of money. He still kept the horse which his father had used on the farm. Charlotte was never impatient, but sometimes, jogging to town behind the heavy, slow-plodding animal, meekly sitting at her husband's broad left shoulder, she looked with wistful eyes at the crowds whizzing past on the electrics. Her mind was forced back upon itself, and thought was to her hard exercise, and she liked crowds and rapid motion to take its place. She was like a butterfly deprived of its wings, yet with all its instincts of tremulous motion left, as she sat beside her husband, behind the solemnly advancing horse, but she looked often at him with perfect belief and devotion. By some idiosyncrasy John's old horse now and then shied violently at the electric cars, though at nothing else — even steam rollers had failed to move him. Charlotte's eyes would flash with sudden life when the old horse jumped. She was afraid, but she liked to be afraid, since the fear gave her a sensation of life and individuality. Though Charlotte did not enjoy driving in such wise, it was to her a respite from her household tasks, which daily filled her with more consternation and despair. John never lost his temper, never scolded her, but his steady disapproval was as the face of a rock before her eyes. He was fond of the toothsome, though perchance unwholesome, village fare which his mother had set before him from boyhood. He wanted light biscuits, and cake, and pie, though all must be concocted with a careful calculation as to the best possible results from the fewest and cheapest ingredients.
When Charlotte made a cake or a pie it was not only poor in quality, but she wasted her husband's substance unmercifully. When he pointed out to her the flour left on the board, the sugar in the bowl, her very soul was bowed in pitiful humiliation, and the depressing certainty that it would be no better next time.
When Charlotte had been married three years she had become that sad anomaly — a creature at cross purposes with itself. She was completely under the sway of her husband's will as regarded her own, yet she was unable to accomplish perfect obedience to its mandate.
Charlotte acquired a piteous little wrinkle between her eyes. She lost all her soft, childlike confidence of manner. She looked at her husband before she spoke, and yet never spoke wholly to please him, as she never did anything wholly to please him. She knew that John was not saving as much as he had expected to. He had wished to purchase a piece of land adjoining his own, but another purchaser had anticipated him while he was hoarding his money. John had a fierce ambition to acquire a competency, and Charlotte knew she was constantly balking it, although he never accused her of it and never reproached her. The waste in the little household was considerable, though they lived poorly, by reason of her bad cookery. Charlotte seldom dared essay a cake or a pie, since her efforts had been so disastrous in that direction that John had prohibited them. He had even placed her upon an allowance of flour, butter, sugar, and such things.
“You must use no more than this for a month,” he told Charlotte with that intense soberness of his which amounted in its effect to sternness. “If you do we must go without the rest of the time.”
Ever since Charlotte had studied the resources of the supply bags in her pantry as anxiously as a shipwrecked mariner. However when the first of a month came, with its replenishment of supplies, she sometimes felt a little more confidence, and used them a little more recklessly. She was still so childish that she had visions as of eternity and inexhaustibility at the beginning of things.
When John's birthday fell upon the same day that the flour and sugar bags were renewed a reckless spirit took possession of her. She would make him a birthday cake. She waited until John had gone to the factory for the day, carrying his poor luncheon; then she got out her mixing bowl and set to work. She studied laboriously a recipe in the cook book which John had bought for her, and strove to follow it as if it had been a commandment, but somehow she failed. When she took the cake from the oven it was a soggy, heavy mass.
Charlotte sat down and wept. And then the woman who lived in Eliza Green's house came in, with a child tugging at her skirt.
“Why, what's the matter?” said she sympathetically. She was a curious woman, but not kindly.
“I — I made a cake for John's birthday, and — and it's fell,” sobbed Charlotte.
“Why, make another; what do you sit down and cry for?” said the woman easily. She had a fair, pretty face, and her stout figure was draped in a baggy, pink calico wrapper. “I've got a rule I never knew to fail,” said she. “I'll send it over by Stevy.”
“Oh, I can't, I can't!” cried Charlotte in horror. “I can't do that, and waste all this! I don't know what my husband would say.”
“Well, why don't you make it over, then?”
“Make it over?” repeated Charlotte, vaguely.
“It's as easy as can be. You just put in an egg and a little molasses, and a little milk, and a little baking powder, and a little more flour, and stir it together, and bake it over again. I've done it dozens of times.”
“What's your rule?”
“Oh, I haven't got any rule. Just put in a little more of everything. You can't fail. I never did. Use your judgment. Will you lend me your glass pitcher? My cousin and her husband are coming on the noon train, and mine got broken the other day, and the common one doesn't look hardly fit to set on the table for company. You can't fail on that cake. I wouldn't cry any more. It ain't worth it.”
Then the woman hurried away with the glass pitcher, while the child was tugging backward at her pink skirts, and Charlotte, with hope springing anew in her young heart, set to work to make over the cake.
She added a little of everything, as the woman had directed, but there was a result of which she had not been advised. The mixture filled two cake-tins instead of one, and the two went into the oven, and the two fell lamentably and utterly, as the first had done.
When Charlotte took them out and surveyed them she did not cry any more. A curious change had come over her. All her individuality, which had been overawed, but not obliterated, by those years of wedlock with a stronger nature, erected itself in full vigour, freed from all restraint by the courage of utter despair.
Charlotte's mouth was set hard; her eyes were like blue stars; there were red spots on her cheeks. She was utterly desperate and reckless. She made over the two cakes, and they were four, and she put them in the oven and they fell.
Then she went on and on, and always the cakes increased by that terrific rule of progression which has the awe of infinity in it, and the cakes always fell. She used all her baking tins. She put the mixture in china bowls which she feared would crack in the heat, but she was too desperate to heed that. At the last she even used her best china teacups.
The oven would not accommodate them all, and the pans stood about on the table, chairs, and floor, awaiting their turn. She mixed and baked until she had used all her month's supplies, and the cupboard was as bare as Mother Hubbard's. She exhausted the pile of wood which John had split that morning, and split more herself with her weak, girlish arms, and at last, in the middle of the afternoon, the pantry shelves, the kitchen floor, the table, the chairs, were laden with that nightmare of utterly fallen and uneatable cake.
Charlotte took out the last loaves and looked at them. She burned her fingers, but did not seem to feel it. Her eyes were still dry. Then without a moment's hesitation she went into her bedroom, took her muslin dress, in which she had been married, out of her closet, put it on, and her old hat, with the cheap pink flowers. Then she packed a change of linen and some little things in a bag. She took nothing which her husband had bought for her. Charlotte pinned the neck of her muslin gown with the sham turquoise brooch which she had not worn since her marriage, because John disliked it, and tied on a dotted veil, which he had also prohibited, over her face.
Then she went out of the house, locked the front door, put the key under the blind, and took the next car to town. She had not a cent with her, not enough to pay her fare. She knew the conductor, and asked him, with a revival of her old childishly familiar manner, to trust her till the next time, which he was glad enough to do, paying her fare out of his own pocket.
“You're a great stranger,” he said, with a smile, as he slipped back along the foot rail. He was quite a young man.
“Yes, I am,” assented Charlotte; “but I guess I sha'n't be so now.”
The conductor gave her a half admiring, half curious look. Her eyes showed that she had been weeping, but there was an expression of gaiety that was almost abandon on her face. Her cheeks reddened in the fresh wind, her flaxen hair tossed about her temples. People turned to look at her.
Charlotte stopped the car at Crosby's store.
That night, when John Woodsum came home and found his house redolent with sweets and spices, and the shelves laden with poor Charlotte's multiplicity of cakes, and she gone, he was overwhelmed by misery, and the more so by the very absurdity and grotesqueness of the guise in which it came. He looked at the cakes, and laughed while he groaned. It was like a strong man being drowned in sugar and water. He had not a doubt of it at all. These miserable, soggy attempts at cake, filling all his dishes, had their unequivocal significance in his eyes. Under a quiet and taciturn exterior he was abnormally sensitive and suspicious. He judged this to be a manifesto of all renunciation of wifely obedience, and a mockery. Still he made up his mind that she would return, and he would be very mild with her.
“After all she is childish, and I ought to have seen it when I married her,” he argued, without so much regret at a false step for himself as pity for her. “She might have done better with a rich man like Crosby, who could have kept a hired girl,” he thought.
He did not disturb the cakes, but kindled the kitchen fire anew, and sat down to wait for his wife; but she did not come. The fire went out. At nine o'clock he began to believe that she had rebelled utterly — made a mock at him and his frugality, and set in open defiance of him this enormous waste upon his very heart.
Then he went out to the barn, put the old horse in the buggy, and drove to town. It was a very hot night. As he passed an ice-cream saloon he looked in the windows, glittering with electricity and astir with electric fans. At a table full in sight sat Crosby, Maud Lockwood, and his wife. Charlotte had both round elbows on the table, and as he passed she looked up with that sweet, soft giggle of hers — more like an ebullition of general enjoyment than actual mirth — and it seemed as if she saw him, but she did not.
John tied his horse and entered. He stood beside the table before they saw him. Then Charlotte looked up, and her jaw dropped and her blue eyes stared. But Maud Lockwood sprang to her feet, glowing with anger.
“You have come to look for your wife, have you, Mr. Woodsum?” said she. “Well, she is making me a visit, and she is going to stay some time; and I am going to see that she has enough to eat, so she will look a little more as she used to before you married her. She is having some ice-cream now. I doubt if she has had any since she was married. You can go home and let her alone; she is staying with me.”
John gave one glance at Charlotte, and opened his mouth to speak; but she looked at him as a bird might have, with a round-eyed fascination of terror. That stung him into a coldness and stiffness of pride which seemed like death. John went out, saying not a word, turned his old horse about, and went home.
Then he recommenced his solitary life. He packed away all Charlotte's little foolish flipperies and trinkets which he had held in such contempt, because they did not harmonise with his conception of her. Could he have put his feeling about them into words he would have inquired the need of hanging ribbons and laces upon a flower for its further adornment. But poor Charlotte was no flower — only a girl with many follies of nature upon which the follies of life could catch and cling.
John Woodsum's nature was so essentially masculine that these little girlish possessions touched him only to that selfsame contempt as he thrust them into the trunk. Yet he loved his wife, and his heart was well-nigh breaking for the loss of her, though she had, as he believed, deserted him and mocked him with such an extravagance of absurdity that it seemed to fairly rob his grief of its own dignity. John was not jealous; no doubt as to his wife's faithfulness ever dawned upon him. That was no more in his conception of her than her helpless shallowness of nature had been.
John sent the trunk to his wife, who had left Maud Lockwood and was boarding in her old quarters and working at the ribbon counter at Crosby's. He was painfully conscious and angry at himself for it when he gave the address to the express-man who took the trunk away. He knew that he knew — that all the neighbours knew. One morning the woman who lived in Eliza Green's house sent him some muffins for breakfast, and he sent them back.
“Thank your mother, and tell her I've had my breakfast,” he said to the little round-faced boy who bore them aloft in both hands.
That night the woman told Eliza Green; and Eliza for some reason felt indignant almost to repulsion with John's wife when she stood next her at the ribbon counter the following day.
Charlotte was prettier than when she had stood there before, for the little shade of unhappiness and anxiety on her face accentuated it and gave it an interest beyond that of mere sweetness of colour and outline. She had resumed some of her coquettish tricks of dress, and the sham turquoise again gleamed in her neck ribbon; but she still wore her hair as John had directed.
“Why don't you do your hair the old way? You'd look a heap prettier,” asked Maud Lockwood; and Charlotte giggled and said she didn't know; but she never looped her flaxen locks over her ears as she had been used to do.
Charlotte did not talk as much as before her marriage. Her blue eyes had often a retrospective look. For the first time in her life she had a clearly defined object — a definite goal for progress. She was intent upon saving enough money to replace all the ingredients she had wasted in her luckless cake-making. Her weekly stipend was small; she had almost nothing left after her board was paid, but she saved every penny. She even did her washing in her own room, and dried her clothes overnight in her window. She paid not a cent for car fares, always walking unless some one invited her to ride. She bought no new trinkets; she went without new flannels when winter came, and wore her old thin ones. Still she could save only penny by penny. She reckoned the cost of the supplies which she had wasted as about fifteen dollars. Then she took cold from wearing damp clothing, only partly dried in her room, and thin flannels, and she was out of the store some weeks, with the doctor and medicine to pay for. Mr. Crosby paid her salary while she was out, and sent her fruit and flowers; and she began to realise that she had only to speak for still more.
“He's gone mad over you,” said Maud Lockwood. “Why don't you get divorced and marry him?”
Charlotte coloured all over her thin, sweet face and her neck. She had grown very thin during her illness, and strange fancies were always in her brain. She did not feel like her old self at all. Sometimes she experienced a momentary surprise at seeing her familiar face in the glass. Possibly she was not the same. Nobody can tell what changes the indulgence of a foreign trait may work in a character; and it was with Charlotte as if a butterfly had developed a deadly intensity.
It seemed to her as if she could never scrape together that fifteen dollars; but none the less she persevered. She did not definitely plan what would happen should she succeed — whether she would return to her husband or not — but the fifteen dollars she must have, for some reason. Whether it was love or revenge, or the instinct of blind obedience to a stronger nature, she did not know. She was not equal to self-analysis, but she began to think and grow cunning with that cunning which springs most readily from the greed of acquisition. The next time Mr. Crosby sent her flowers she did what she had never done before — sent him a pretty note of thanks.
Then he wrote to her, sending more flowers and fruit, and begging her not to return to the store until she was entirely restored to health.
Charlotte returned to the store the next week, though she was not able. She was very thin, and she coughed hard. She was indescribably pathetic and pretty, with her hollow blue eyes and her appealing smile, when her employer came to greet her.
She thanked him, and let her hand remain in his. He chided her gently for returning to the store, and invited her to drive with him that afternoon — the air would do her good — and she consented.
Eliza Green had heard the conversation, and when Mr. Crosby had gone she turned severely to the other girl.
“Do you realise what you are doing?” she asked, with more excitement than she had ever shown. “As long as you bear a man's name you have no right to lay it in the dust.”
But Charlotte stared at her with utterly childish wonder.
“What do you mean, Eliza?” said she. Then she coughed.
“She means that you mustn't flirt with one man till you're quit of another,” said Maud Lockwood clearly, and laughed.
“I am not going to,” Charlotte replied simply between her coughs; but she blushed guiltily, for she had an under-motive which no one suspected.
Charlotte did not get over her cold as she should, perhaps from her continuing to do her washing in her room and wearing poorly aired linen, and perhaps because she did not buy the medicine ordered by her doctor.
After a while she could not be in the store at all. Mr. Crosby used to send delicacies and sometimes call on her. On pleasant days he took her to drive in an easy carriage. People did not know whether to talk pityingly or reproachfully. Maud Lockwood defended her stoutly. But neither she nor any one dreamed for a moment of her real aim and motive, which was ridiculous to grotesqueness — she wanted to get that fifteen dollars. She alone knew by what childish wiles and cunning, planned in her sleepless nights while she lay coughing, drenched with the sweat of exhaustion, she brought it about; but Crosby one day brought her something which he had been made to know would please her — a real turquoise brooch set with pearls. The girl's eyes flashed when she saw it. She fairly laughed.
“What a tonic a bit of jewellery is to a woman!” Crosby said, laughing in return.
“Thank, oh, thank you!” cried Charlotte. “Is it mine to do just what I want to with? Do you mean that?”
“Of course I do,” replied Crosby wonderingly.
That evening after dusk Charlotte stole out of the house, though she had been forbidden the night air. When she returned, stifling her cough on the stairs, lest her landlady should hear her, Crosby's turquoise brooch had been sold, and the fifteen dollars' worth of provisions ordered sent to John Woodsum's.
The next day when John Woodsum returned from work he found the parcels heaped on his porch.
He was looking at them in a bewildered way when he heard a cough, and saw Charlotte shrinking back in the corner. John had heard some of the talk about Crosby, and his heart was bitter. He was about to turn away when he caught sight of her face.
“Are you sick?” he asked, almost roughly.
“I guess so,” she returned, shrinkingly.
Then she made a weak little run to him, and he put an arm around her.
“That is every bit as much as I used, every bit as much,” she said, pointing to the parcels.
“What do you mean?”
Charlotte told him incoherently, and he listened.
“Oh, my God!” cried he. “Come into the house, poor child.”
The next day Crosby's turquoise brooch was returned to him. John carried it to his boarding-place, and the two men had a talk, at first with angry voices. At last they shook hands. The next day Crosby sent some white roses, and John himself put them in a vase beside Charlotte's bed.
“He's been real good,” said she, “and if it hadn't been for him I don't know as I ever could have come home.”
Charlotte lived only two months after her return. There was consumption in her mother's family. Then, too, her willingness to yield to forces was a fatal element in this case.
It was only the day before she died when Eliza Green came in to see her, bringing some jelly. Eliza looked unusually well; her face was clear and good; her voice was calm and pleasant. Charlotte's nurse was not very tidy.
Eliza moved softly about the room, setting things to rights. She covered up a dish, lest the flies should get into it; she put a cork in a bottle. Charlotte watched her with a wise regard in her hollow blue eyes.
That night she said to John:
“John, do you like Eliza?”
“Well enough; why?”
“Nothing,” replied Charlotte. “Only — she is a good girl, and she is very neat and orderly, and I don't believe she would ever waste anything. John —”
“Oh, hush, darling!” cried John, in an agony.
But Charlotte smiled. At the last she had learned her little lesson of obedience and thrift against all her instincts, and all her waste of life was over.