From Edgewater People (Harper and Brothers; New York: 1918)
Probably many human beings are, whether conscious of it or not, possessed of a lively sense of duty, and especially human beings whose forefathers planted stubborn feet of purpose upon Plymouth Rock. Sarah Edgewater was no exception. In her mother's family — her mother was a Matthews of Barr-by-the-Sea — were two unmarried sisters who had for years been the recipients of her bounty. Dora and Ann Matthews were helpless and deserving females by means of whom the more prosperous of their kin were enabled to lay up credit for themselves in a better World.
Dora and Ann, in the beginning of things, had owned sufficient property for their needs; but they had fallen, when young and unsuspecting, into the hands of a local lawyer who had supplied the criminal distinction of his native village. He had pleasantly and cleverly robbed all whom he was able to rob, and had then absconded to a flourish of local trumpets. In a curious, topsy-turvy fashion the Barrs were rather proud of this villain. Nobody in the villages had ever achieved legitimate fame, and this illegitimate notoriety seemed, on the whole, better than nothing. This lawyer had persuaded the two young Matthews girls, Dora and Ann, after their father died, to entrust their entire estate, with the exception of their home, to his care. He had promised a wonderful increase of income.
After the crash, Dora and Ann had no money, nothing in the world except the house, an old square building with a cupola and a garden sloping down to the water. The lawyer had his eye on that, but sufficient time to include it in his loot had been lacking.
The sisters had been well educated for the times. They immediately opened a private school for children, whose parents paid fifty cents per week for their gentle and lady-like initiation into the learning of the world. It had been considered in the Barrs quite the genteel thing to send children to the Misses Matthews' private school. In those days of cheap living the sisters had been supposed to be laying up money, but they had not. Nobody knew of a debt which their father had contracted and which, though outlawed, the sisters considered their own. Every penny above their small expenses was swallowed up by that debt. When it was cleared, the school had begun to lag. The great south parlor, which (furnished with small chairs and desks) had been used as a school-room, was scantily filled.
When East Barr became Barr-by-the-Sea, the prosperity of others became the disaster of the Matthews sisters — nobody would send children to this gentle, old-fashioned school where none of the new methods was known. People naturally did not wish their children to be taught geography by means of out-of-date text-books, which the sisters regarded with unswerving faith in spite of changes of dynasties and frontiers.
Suddenly Dora and Ann Matthews found themselves hopelessly stranded in a backwater of the intensely genteel and decorous past. Finally there was not one little pupil left, not one fifty cents per week came into the exchequer.
It was then that Sarah Edgewater, several years before the Ellertons came to live with her, drove over one week and discovered the dire strait of the two sisters.
That weekly drive over to Barr-by-the-Sea to call upon Dora and Ann had been an established custom in the Edgewater family ever since Sarah could remember. She had always heard of her mother's cousins as making a brave struggle, although always under a covert cloud of family disapproval on account of their foolish long-ago faith in the Town-Villain. Sarah observed conscientiously the habit of that weekly call. She sometimes carried a basket of delicacies which it was evident the sisters could not afford. She always entered by the kitchen door, removed the packages from the basket, deposited it empty in her buggy and never mentioned her gift, which was held as a sacred, unmentionably delicate secret between the Matthewses and her. Later on, when it came to financial aid, this was managed in much the same way. Sarah watched chances, and during the weekly visit deposited on a table an envelope containing the regular stipend.
The sisters took turns in opening the envelope. They never mentioned it to each other. After that terrible day when Sarah, coming over, had found them with no fire, although a high wind from the sea was raging round the house, when she had broken the barriers of reserve and questioned and demanded replies, the weekly stipend had arrived, and been used; but neither sister spoke of it to the other.
At that time Ann's health had failed, or Dora, the younger, might have found employment. She would at all events have persisted in her efforts to make herself and her sister independent. But when Ann caught the severe cold which settled for the rest of her life upon her chest, and was obliged to remain housed during most of the year, Dora was handicapped.
Sarah Edgewater, that day years ago when she had made her discovery, had seemed almost angry. She was not angry, but she was an intense woman and often her emotion gave the effect of indignation.
“This shall not go on another week. It is terrible,” she had said. She had driven down the road, her old horse breaking into a gallop, and there had been a ten-dollar bill left on the table. The sisters had looked at each other, and the bitterness of death was in their two aging faces. Then Dora had risen, passed the table, swept the ten-dollar bill with her like an angry breeze, put on her old cloak and bonnet and gone out. An hour later the room was warm and an odor of broiling meat and tea came from the kitchen. The sisters were warmed and fed. They were comfortable as to their bodies; but their hearts had lost the sense of independence and ached with emptiness.
Sarah had come when affairs were desperate. Dora had resolved to raise money on the home the next day, despite her memory of her father's saying: “Whatever you do, keep the old home and never mortgage it. A mortgage is a disgrace.”
After the weekly stipend had commenced Dora and Ann had made their wills, and left the old Matthews place to Sarah Edgewater and her heirs after her. For a time, then, they had felt reinstated in their self-esteem; but when years had passed, and they reckoned that the aggregate sum bestowed upon them, and the interest of it, far exceeded the value of the old place in an undesirable situation in the summer resort, the old humiliation was over them again. Nobody knew, Sarah Edgewater least of all, how they dreaded her weekly visits. She called with the money, often at great inconvenience, rather than send a check and betray the fact of the gift. It would have been inconceivable to her had she dreamed of the rancor with which the sisters regarded her as she drove up to their gate. Each was abashed before it. Each realized the call for gratitude, each realized the enormity of her failure to respond.
Often after Sarah had gone, and Dora had prepared supper, neither sister could eat. They sat regarding each other angrily.
“Why don't you eat?” Dora would ask Ann. “This is a good bit of steak. I took extra pains about cooking it. Why don't you eat?”
“Why don't you?” Ann would retort. They often went to bed supperless and ate the warmed-over meat the next day after Sarah's visit.
Dora often spoke of a means by which she might have earned her livelihood and her sister's, and evaded such straits.
“If I had had common-sense, and put the silly family pride behind me, I would have learned the milliners' trade, and earned enough to support us, instead of keeping school and being paid so little,” she would say. She would nod her head forcibly as she spoke. Dora still had beautiful dark hair, although her face was heavily lined. Ann, lying back in her rocking-chair, was a delicate shadow of a woman, gray-haired, her long countenance pearly gray between the folds of a white lace scarf which she always wore draped over her head. Her hands, clasped in her lap, looked like veined ivory.
“Yes,” she said, “you might have, but —”
“I know what you mean,” returned Dora. “Never one woman of our family has been in trade, never one man, for that matter; but I could have made beautiful hats and bonnets if I had learned the trade, and that would have lasted longer than the school. I could have kept up with the fashion in hats and bonnets.”
“I noticed that Cousin Sarah wore a hat instead of a bonnet when she came over last week,” said Ann.
“I noticed it, too, and I must say that I wonder a little at Sarah's leaving off bonnets and putting on a hat, as old as she is, even if the hat is trimmed with pansies.”
“I think she felt rather uneasy about it herself,” said Ann.
“When you were out of the room she laughed and said she never thought she would come to wearing a hat, but the milliner in Barr Center simply would not make bonnets. I think she felt that the hat might seem to us unbecoming.”
“It was,” said Dora decidedly. “Why didn't she try a milliner here?”
“I asked her, and she said she couldn't do any better. She said the milliners didn't seem to know how to make bonnets. She said one on Beach Street here showed her one, and it was a sight.”
“I do believe I could make a bonnet for her,” said Dora.
“I don't know but you could.”
“Of course, I haven't had a really new bonnet for years, but I have made mine over.”
“And they are as pretty as bonnets need to be,” said Ann warmly. She regarded her sister lovingly. Ann was very proud of Dora. However, she gasped slightly at Dora's next remark. It savored of the extreme daring of genius; it might have been made by the founder of a new school of art.
“I am almost sure I could make beautiful flowers and leaves and feathers,” said Dora.
“Out of what?”
“I have,” said Dora, “an idea.”
Ann looked at her questioningly.
“Wait until I see what I can do,” returned Dora with proud secrecy.
The very next day Sarah Edgewater made her weekly visit to leave that envelope covertly tucked under a book on the table. Sarah wore still another hat, and this time it was trimmed quite brazenly with dark red roses. Sarah felt uncomfortable before the gentle wonder in the sisters' eyes.
“I know you think I am wearing a hat entirely too young for me,” said she; “but the fact is, Margy bought this hat and insisted on my wearing it, and I could not refuse the child. I think myself that red roses for a woman of my age are not suitable, but Margy thinks I can wear anything, and now when she is going to leave me so soon I believe I would wear a basket of turnips on my head to please her.”
Margy was Margy Ellerton, Sarah's niece, and she was soon to be married to Jack Widner and go away to live in Boston.
“The roses are not very bright,” Ann said, mildly.
“That is what Margy said,” replied Sarah. “She said they were very subdued.” Sarah's handsome face was flushed; she knew perfectly well that she was shocking her cousins, and she had a horror of seeming to strive after her vanished youth, whose departure did not in reality disturb her at all.
Sarah had driven over to Barr-by-the-Sea conscious of her rose-wreathed hat. She would have been glad to have gone with her nephew, Doctor Tom Ellerton, in his automobile, which would have rendered in Margy's opinion some other headgear suitable; but Tom had gone to Boston and Margy was on the watch, and Sarah had to drive over arrayed in her gay hat. Margy and Jack Widner were both delighted when she came down-stairs, rustling in her long black silk coat, crowned with the hat.
“Just look, Jack dear,” said Margy. “Isn't Aunt Sarah lovely in that hat? I gave it to her. She has worn those hideous old-lady bonnets long enough, and even the last hat she bought was entirely too old. It was trimmed with pansies. Aunt Sarah is not old, anyway, and doesn't look old.”
“Indeed she does not!” agreed the devoted Jack.
“And if she were,” said Margy, conclusively, “what of that? The earth is never too old for roses, and no mortal woman is as old as the earth.”
The two young creatures laughed delightedly. Both thought that speech very clever; but Sarah Edgewater, forced by love back into the attire of girlhood which she had discarded, drove away at the same time pleased and ill at ease. She dreaded the expressions upon her cousins' faces when they should see those juvenile roses. The expressions came exactly as she had surmised. She was more abashed about wearing her pretty rose-decked hat than if she had been guilty of some real misdemeanor. After she had left the Matthews house, she stopped at a store and purchased a gray veil, which she tied over the hat. She explained to Margy, when she reached home, that the road had been very dusty.
Margy was lovely. She and her two younger sisters, Violetta and Imogen, were all on the shady porch sewing on wedding finery. Jack had just gone. All three girls were pretty, but Margy, just then, was by far the prettiest, because her face was radiant with the wonder and delight of love. She was to be married in just one month from that day. Her sisters were to be bridesmaids, but it was to be a very quiet wedding. Margy had always declared that she would be married in her traveling costume, and she persisted in spite of her sisters' remonstrances.
“The very best we can do,” said Violetta, “is to wear pale-blue silk suits, and I had set my heart on a regular bridesmaid costume.
“And blue is not becoming to me — at least not very,” said Violetta.
“As becoming as it is to me,” returned Imogen, “and both of us have to wear light blue silk suits, because only blue looks well with that fawn shade of Margy's dress. And poor Aunt Sarah, she could have such a stunning silver-gray satin trimmed with white lace.”
Sarah came to the rescue of her dear Margy. “You forget that I have my handsome new black lace to wear,” said she, “and you forget that Margy has a right to dress as she pleases now, if never before, and never after, in her life.”
Violetta had a strain of malice. “I suppose you will be perfectly contented to go up the church aisle wearing a hat trimmed with forget-me-nots to go with Imogen's gown and mine,” said she.
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Violetta Ellerton,” cried Margy, indignantly.
“I would just like to know what pale-blue flowers, except forget-me-nots, Aunt Sarah can wear?” persisted Violetta.
“That is true,” said Imogen, although she looked a little scared.
“Don't talk such nonsense, children,” said Sarah, entering the house to remove her wraps. She had dropped into a chair on the porch for a few minutes after her return from her drive.
Sarah spoke with composure and dignity, but in reality she felt somewhat uneasy. The question of her headgear at Margy's wedding had not occurred to her. Would Margy insist upon a hat? She probably would — but with blue flowers? Sarah quailed before forget-me-nots, and she could think of no pretty blue flowers except forget-me-nots, and she knew that an entirely black hat would not be suitable for the occasion. How could she — a large, stately, elderly woman, appear at her niece's wedding in a hat trimmed with forget-me-nots, like a little child's?
Sarah Edgewater lay awake that night endeavoring to plan a hat which would please her beloved Margy and at the same time not render herself ridiculous. She came to the conclusion before she fell asleep that there were singularly few blue flowers in all creation which had been reproduced for milliners' use. She thought vaguely of bachelor's buttons, but they seemed on the whole to her more idiotic than forget-me-nots. The very next morning she drove over again to Barr-by-the-Sea and consulted the most fashionable milliner there, and directly everything was solved to her entire satisfaction. There were to be no flowers at all on her hat with the exception of a wonderful long-stemmed white rose. The hat itself was to be a creation of pale blue veiled with silver, with judicious touches of jet. Sarah felt contented. On her way home she stopped for a few minutes at the Matthews house. She felt that it was a gracious thing to call when she had not the purpose of bestowing alms. She told Dora and Ann about the hat.
“I was certainly puzzled,” said she. “Margy did not want me to wear an entirely black costume, and her sisters are to wear blue, which harmonizes with her fawn-colored traveling suit; and I did not wish to disturb the color scheme, and for the life of me, I could not think of any artificial flowers in blue except forget-me-nots and bachelor's buttons, and they did seem ridiculous for a woman of my age; but now this milliner is to make a lovely, perfectly suitable hat of pale dull blue and black and silver, with just one rose, a white rose. She is a perfect artist, that milliner; but of course that follows necessarily on account of the class of people she has to cater to in the summer.”
Dora and Ann looked at each other. “Is it to be a hat, and not a bonnet?” said Dora.
“Oh yes. Why, the milliner simply laughed at me when I proposed a bonnet! She says she will not make bonnets at any price for anybody.”
“It seems to me there ought to be a milliner who will make bonnets,” remarked Ann, meekly.
Sarah laughed. “It seemed so to me,” she replied, “but it looks as if bonnets belonged to history. You will have to come to hats yourself, Dora.” A sudden thought struck Sarah. “Dora,” she exclaimed, “do, just to please me, go to that milliner and have a hat made to wear to Margy's wedding, and have it put on my bill.” Sarah did not notice Dora's pursed lips of obstinacy.
“Thank you, Sarah,” said Dora.
“I will stop and speak to her about it on my way home,” said Sarah. “She will get up something lovely for you. With that dark hair of yours, she will insist on a pale pink probably.”
Dora looked at Sarah and her face was set. “I,” said she, “shall wear a bonnet.”
“But she will not make a bonnet.”
“I shall wear a bonnet, or not go at all.”
“Oh, Dora dear, you must go, or Margy will be heartbroken!”
“Then I shall wear a bonnet.”
“But that milliner —”
“Thank you very much, Sarah,” said Dora with intense dignity, “but I think I would rather not go to your milliner. I know of a milliner who makes very pretty bonnets indeed, very suitable and very pretty.”
“Then —” began Sarah, but Dora anticipated her.
“Thanks to your generosity, I am abundantly able to purchase the bonnet myself,” said she.
Sarah laughed pleasantly. “You are entirely too proud, dear,” she said.
After Sarah had gone Dora looked at Ann and Ann looked at Dora. Their faces were as eloquent as speech. “Think of Sarah's wearing a hat, a hat made of blue and silver, with a rose!” said Dora's face.
“Only think of it!” said Ann's face.
“I am sorry for her,” Dora said, suddenly, with strong emphasis. Tears were actually in her eyes. Sarah's utter kindness and ignorance of the true state of affairs, as the sisters understood it, had touched Dora. She realized gratitude with no tang of bitterness. “I am going to make a bonnet for poor Sarah myself,” said she.
Ann looked at her with admiration. “I know you can make a beauty,” said she.
“I will make one. Sarah Edgewater, good as she has been to us, shall not make a spectacle of herself at that wedding.”
Ann nodded, but strangely enough, that mild invalid face of hers did not relax with loving-kindness and forgiveness for benefits received as entirely as her sister's. “And for once, just once, Sarah Edgewater will have to take, and we can give,” said she. Her eyes gleamed under her lace scarf.
Dora's face suddenly reflected her sister's. “Yes,” she returned, “for once Sarah Edgewater can find out what it means to take. It will do her good.”
Ann raised herself on her couch with unusual strength. “I am so glad you are going to do this,” she said, with emphasis. “I have not spoken; but as the years have gone, the bread of charity has seemed more and more bitter to me. If I had not been so helpless!”
“You will make yourself sick. You are not to blame,” said Dora.
“I know it, but it has been bitter, bitter. Now we can give, you and I.”
“Yes, for the first time, we can.”
Ann looked at her sister, and her wan face gathered intensity. Her cheeks bloomed; her eyes brightened. “And,” said she, very slowly, with almost terrible emphasis, “if Sarah Edgewater does not take that bonnet and wear it to the wedding —”
“Yes,” repeated Dora; “if Sarah Edgewater does not take that bonnet and wear it to the wedding —”
“We will never again touch a penny of her money,” said Ann, completing the sentence. Her face looked pitiless toward herself and her sister.
“You would starve to death,” said Dora.
“So would you, but — we would.”
“And then they would — find out,” said Dora, with a strange exultation.
Ann nodded. Both meant that before Sarah had commenced her weekly gratuities, every piece of furniture, every article of value, not in immediate use by the sisters, had been sold. The old Matthews house was stripped except for three rooms. The others were kept locked, with shades drawn. Their emptiness was a secret to be guarded against an army of curiosity.
“I wonder if Sarah has ever thought we might sell some old furniture instead of taking so much money?” said Ann.
“She does not know,” replied Dora, “and in any case Sarah would not think of our selling.”
“Have you thought,” asked Ann, “that we ought to make Margy Ellerton a wedding present?”
Dora looked at Ann indignantly. “You go too far, Ann,” she replied. “You know we cannot make Margy a wedding present unless we use her aunt's money to buy it, and that would be ridiculous.”
“Go into the bedroom and open my drawer in the bureau, my top drawer, and bring out something wrapped in tissue-paper in the left back corner,” said Ann.
Dora obeyed. When she returned, she bore a bumpy parcel wrapped in tissue-paper. “What is it, Ann?” she asked.
There was revealed a glass shade containing a stiff group of wax flowers — tuberoses and lilies-of-the-valley.
“I kept that hidden away, and it wasn't sold that time when the man from New York was here asking if we had any old shades of wax flowers or funeral wreaths to sell,” said Ann, triumphantly. “I hid that. You made it, you know. It was the first wax thing you ever made. We sold the others, and you wondered where this was.”
“Yes, I remember,” said Dora.
“This was out in the woodshed under a wash-tub,” said Ann. “I made up my mind we would keep a few things. The man wasn't going to pay much for this, anyway, and I did admire it. I always thought the tuberoses were prettier than the natural ones, and they haven't any scent, either, and you know I never liked the scent of tuberoses. Every single petal on these tuberoses is as even as a die.” Ann regarded the thing lovingly.
Dora set it carefully on the table, but she looked a bit doubtful. “Don't you remember what that lady from Boston said about wax flowers?” she inquired.
“I don't care what she said.”
“But you must remember. She said wax flowers had been a most decadent feature of a decadent age of household decoration. She said that she classed wax flowers and worsted mottoes and gilded spades and funeral wreaths together in an appalling list. She spoke so decidedly and was so much of a lady, coming from one of the best families of Boston, that I remember, although I did not agree with her, looking at the little bright place on the wallpaper that was behind that last funeral wreath we sold, and feeling rather glad it was not there to be despised.”
“If she had had funeral wreaths associated with her loved ones who had departed, she could not have spoken so,” said Ann.
“Suppose Margy has such ideas,” said Dora, hesitatingly. For once in her life she did not agree with Ann.
Ann looked at her firmly. “If,” said she, “Margy Ellerton does not accept these wax flowers as a wedding present, and have them set out with her other presents, I will never eat another morsel of bread purchased with her aunt's money. You will give Sarah the bonnet; I will give the wax flowers. They are mine, you know. You made them, but you gave them to me. It is time you and I gave, if we continue to receive. If we do not, we shall not continue to receive.”
Dora started. “You know what that would mean?”
“Starvation,” replied Ann, calmly. “I don't know exactly how you feel, Dora. But I do know how I feel. I have been taking so long that I cannot endure it another month without losing my self-respect. I must give something, and it must be taken. You can do exactly as you choose. I shall not take or benefit by another dollar of Sarah Edgewater's money, unless she takes something from me.”
Dora looked tragically thoughtful. “I wonder if we are ungrateful and wicked, Ann,” said she.
“I suppose we are,” Ann replied, calmly; “but I can't help it if we are. My mind is made up. There is something about the way that envelope with the money is slipped into a book on the table every week, and nobody saying anything, that is making me lose my reason, if I do nothing.”
“But poor Sarah gives in that way so as to spare our feelings. She knows it would be awful if we had to cash a check or anything like that. And she does not want to hand the money right out. She does it all in the very best way she knows. I could not manage it any better; neither could you.”
“Don't you suppose I know that? Do you think I am unjust enough to blame Sarah? I am not unjust; I suppose I am wicked and ungrateful.”
“Well, I suppose I am, too,” said Dora slowly, “for I feel just as you do. If Sarah doesn't take the bonnet, I will never take another dollar of her money.”
Ann nodded. Her shadowy face sharpened suddenly with an intense thought. “Do you think it would be suicide?” she asked.
“I don't know; I do know my mind is made up.”
“So is mine,” said Ann. “There is some narrow white ribbon in the right-hand corner of that drawer. Please get it for me. I want to do up these flowers.”
“There is time enough.”
“I know, but I don't want the shade put back in the drawer. I am afraid something will happen to it; I have always been afraid it would get broken. It would just go in by laying it on its side. When Sarah comes over next time I shall give it to her. She need not open it until a week before the wedding. Then she can give it to Margy.”
“I had better wash the shade,” said Dora. “It looks a little dusty.”
Dora washed and polished the shade. When it was replaced, if one could banish one's opinion concerning false art, the whole was in reality not unpleasing. Those wax flowers had been very well and daintily made. The small symmetrical pyramid of waxen bloom beneath the crystal shade, although obsolete and probably bound to awaken merriment, was no worse in effect than many gifts spread on the display-tables on Margy Ellerton's wedding day.
Dora had sent the shade by Sarah as planned, and the week before the wedding had presented Sarah herself with the bonnet in an ancient bandbox, freshly papered with remnants of the white-and-gold parlor paper.
“Mine is a wedding present for Margy,” Ann said with a peculiar expression, almost aggressive, at least defiant.
Dora, when she presented the bandbox, had the same look on her face. “This is my present to you, Cousin Sarah,” she said. “It is for you to wear to the wedding. Ann and I feel that we have been taking so much all these years, that we must do a little in return.”
Sarah Edgewater had great command over her features. Her face did not indicate the dismay in her heart. “You ought not to have done anything,” she said.
“We take pleasure in it,” replied Dora, firmly, “and they — the gifts — have cost us nothing. We are both sensible of the absurdity of purchasing gifts for you with your own money.”
“After it has passed into your hands it is no longer my money,” said Sarah, almost angrily. She was in reality angry. It seemed to her that she had given so freely and delicately that her anger was justified. “Of course,” she added, “I realize that I give far too little, only enough to just keep the wolf from the door.” She tossed her head slightly. She gathered up the gifts preparatory to leaving.
“Be careful of my present,” charged Ann. “It is something that can be broken easily.”
“I will hold it until you get into the buggy,” said Dora.
When Sarah was seated in the buggy, with the shade carefully disposed on the seat beside her and the bandbox on the floor at her feet, she spoke again. “Why did you take so much trouble, Dora dear?” said she. “Of course Margy will be delighted, and of course I will, but why?”
Dora's face and her reply were alike inscrutable. “It takes more than money to keep the wolf from the door, sometimes,” said she.
“I don't think I know what you mean.”
“What I say.”
Sarah, driving home, reflected deeply. As a result, when she delivered Ann's gift to Margy, she said, “Now, Margy, whatever you and Violetta and Imogen and Tom think of this, act pleased. There are times when deceit is like one of the commandments. I think this is one of those times.”
“What is it, Aunt Sarah?” demanded Violetta.
“I don't know. I suspect. Remember what I have said.”
Margy removed the paper from the shade. There was a simultaneous gasp. Mirth passed like a fleeting light-ray over all the intent faces, even Sarah's. Then intense goodness took its place, intense goodness and ready understanding. Tears stood in Margy's pretty eyes.
“Poor old souls,” she said; “they gave me all they had. They must have made these years ago and treasured them.”
They were in Margy's mother's room; Laura Ellerton, although the years had softened and improved her, was not a woman of the finest grain.
“They might have given Margy some of the beautiful old-fashioned furniture which I have seen there and which they can never use themselves,” she said, bluntly.
Sarah leaned forward and whispered.
Laura stared back at her with a shocked face. “When?” said she.
“A long time ago. Don't speak of it, Laura. They don't know that I know. I saw some of the things in Sylvesters' antique shop in Leicester.”
“I did not know it was ever so bad with them as that,” murmured Laura. She looked at the wax flowers. “I don't care what people say,” she averred, “I always thought wax flowers were pretty.”
“I think they are perfectly lovely,” said Margy. She looked at the tuberoses, and her lip trembled. She was very happy, and very tender toward all unhappiness. She thought of the two old sisters living their monotonous solitary lives, and of the wax flowers which they had caused to bloom in their long-past youth and had now given her, and the true inward sweetness of the gift reached the girl's heart. She did not say it aloud, but she said to herself that the old sisters had given her for a bridal gift something which money could not buy. They had given her a part of their own youth.
But Sarah did not display her present until the wedding-day. Then she called the family into the flower-decked parlor, where the bridal gifts were set out on long white-covered tables, and the great bandbox pasted over with white and gold wall paper was in the middle of the room. She made a little speech before she opened it. Tom Ellerton was there, and Margy and Jack Widner and Violetta and Imogen, and Jack Widner's mother and Amy Dinsmore, Margy's married sister, who lived across the street. It was near noon and luncheon-time. All had been at work during the morning decorating the house and the church where the ceremony was to be observed. “I have something to show you,” said Sarah. She began taking off the lid of the bandbox.
“Another present?” laughed Jack Widner. He was nervous that morning and laughed a good deal.
“A present; but for me,” said Sarah Edgewater. Her voice was so serious that they all stared at her.
“A present for me,” repeated Sarah Edgewater. “I am to wear it at the wedding this afternoon, and — I don't want to hear one laugh, one word against it. Dora Matthews gave it to me. She made it; I am going to wear it.”
Violetta gasped. “Is it a hat?” she said. “I thought you had that beauty, Aunt Sarah.”
“It is a bonnet.”
“Hush, Violetta, not one word. Dora gave it to me. She made it. It means more to her and her sister than any of you know, perhaps more than I know myself, although I have been thinking a good deal about it.”
Sarah removed the lid of the bandbox amid a wondering silence. She withdrew the bonnet and held it up. A murmur like a breeze swept over the room. Sarah exhibited the bonnet with a challenging air. The curious thing about it was, if one could divest it of associations, it was intrinsically pretty. It was a graceful affair of flowery black and shimmering silver and long floating black ribbons. Dora Matthews must have had some talent for the making of feminine headgear.
Sarah held up the bonnet. The others stared. Tom Ellerton spoke first. He did not laugh, but his mouth twitched. “What in creation is it? A candy bonnet, Aunt Sarah?” he asked.
“Hush, Tom! It is trimmed with grasses dipped in alum-water. It makes them look like crystal. And the lace is real old thread. The shape is one Dora must have had for years. It has really come in style again. It is almost as large as a hat.”
“But they don't wear bonnets now much, anyway,” said Violetta; “and, oh, Aunt Sarah, your hat is such a beauty! This will just spoil Margy's wedding.”
“No, it will not,” said Margy. “It is lovely, Aunt Sarah. I want you to wear it.”
“It will spoil Margy's wedding,” repeated Violetta.
“It will not,” said Sarah, “and even if it did, there are things in life which it is more important not to spoil than weddings.” Sarah looked strangely wise and reflective. A knowledge had come to her that the one who gives has a duty aside from giving — a sacred duty to the receiver of the gift. She knew that the old sisters had quailed in spirit before her benefits. Now it was her turn. She owed it to them to endure the humiliation which she included — whether she would or not — in her weekly gift to the sisters. They had not given with such a thought in mind. They had had the simple wish to establish their tottering sense of independence by becoming themselves givers. They had admired the bonnet with all their hearts. But Sarah received more than they knew, a taste of the undersmart of dependence which she gave them every week of their lives, and she understood.
“I can get away from the alum, and the bonnet is beautiful; it will not spoil my wedding,” declared Margy.
“You darling,” whispered Jack Widner, in Margy's ear.
Margy was right. That strange bonnet, concocted by obsolete feminine imagination, did not spoil the wedding. People, of course, looked at it sharply as Sarah, trailing her black laces, swept up the church aisle with those alum-crystallized grasses shimmering on her erect head. They wondered; they surmised. It was rumored all through the Barrs that Sarah Edgewater's bonnet had been ordered from a celebrated milliner in Paris, and must have been beautiful and very expensive, although it did look a little odd if you had never seen one like it. In reality, Sarah's bonnet in that blossom-trimmed church in the midst of the soft pastel-tints of the wedding party, the bride's cream lace and fawn, the bridesmaid's pale blue shimmer of silk, was like a delicious note of discord which accentuated the harmony of the whole.
Dora Matthews in an ancient, blue-lavender silk, sweeping wide folds over her thin knees, with a bonnet made of the rest of the black thread lace, with only a jet tuft for ornament, sat beside Sarah and realized a happiness as great as she wished for on earth. After the reception Tom drove her home in his car, laden with wedding-cake and ices and flowers. When she entered the sitting-room Ann looked up at her. Ann's face in the midst of her lace drapery was pearl-pale, her mouth gaping like a child's, her blue eyes wide with vital questioning.
“Your wax flowers were on the middle table with the best wedding presents,” said Dora, immediately, “and I heard Violetta and Imogen pointing them out to a lot of people as being the gift which Margy valued most, because wax flowers are so very rare nowadays.”
“Did anybody laugh?”
“Not a soul.”
Then Ann looked at her sister with eager eyes, revealing the poor, proud soul of a gentlewoman tormented by receiving when she would fain be giving.
“She wore it,” said Dora.