From Ailenroc’s Book, by Cornelia Alexander
“Are you going to get me that new dress, mother?”
The young girl spoke timidly, and the wistful, pleading look in her eyes would have touched any heart not preoccupied with other things.
Her mother turned to her sharply. “For mercy’s sake! Martha, what are you talking about? A new dress—what dress, child?”
Martha bent lower over her ironing table to hide the tears in her dusky eyes, but her voice trembled a little as she answered: “For the picnic next Saturday, mother. The girls are all getting dresses of that grass goods at Johnson’s, and I did want one so bad.”
“I didn’t know you were going to the picnic, Martha. I thought a child of mine, fourteen years old, could employ herself better than roaming over the woods with a parcel of fools, spoiling her clothes and idling her time. I am surprised at you, Martha!”
Mrs. White spoke with severity. Those newfangled customs were her especial dread. She worked herself, and had brought up her children the same way; but of late she had noticed a change in Martha, who was getting of the age when girls begin to care for their looks.
Several times she had caught the child before the looking-glass arranging her hair or pinning a flower at her throat, and she feared that, in spite of all her teaching, Martha was getting vain. And now this picnic was a sorer trial. The whole school was going—teachers and all—for a day of pleasure in the woods. “A grand botanizing expedition,” Jimmie, younger than Martha, called it. Fred. was older—a good, steady boy, so everybody said, and all agreed that Mrs. White was blessed in her children.
But Mrs. White saw trouble ahead, and, indeed, for that matter, she saw trouble behind. She had been left a widow with three small children dependent upon her, and nothing for her to depend on but her two strong and willing hands. True, her husband left her a farm, but he left, also, a mortgage hanging over it. For years it hung over them, but little by little Mrs. White paid it off. She was called a “capable woman,” and she was most truly a business woman. She sold every stick of waste timber and all superfluous stock; she managed to get good renters, and lived without using the rents. How did she live? She saved; she made every edge cut; she raised vegetables and found ready sale in the neighboring town, and found time to take in quantities of plain sewing. By the time the mortgage was paid off, which took place when Martha was twelve years old, Mrs. White had got so used to hard work and saving that it seemed to her almost a sin and shame to make use of her growing income.
The children all went to school. Hard working and saving as she was, she could not bear for them to grow up ignorant, and their honorable standing in their classes gave her much pleasure. They had a hard time. Breakfast by candle light was the widow’s rule, and there was always plenty of work for the three till the first bell rang. After school it was the same—work, work, work, till dark. Saturdays they all did a big day’s work, and now on the next Saturday that crazy crowd was going to put off, pellmell, to the woods. All the buggies and wagons around had been spoken for, and Martha and Jimmie had been offered a seat in a big carryall. Fred. decided not to go; he didn’t care about it, he said.
Mrs. White thought it all over as she darned away on a basketful of stockings. Glancing up at her daughter, she saw a big tear fall with a splash on the hot iron. It annoyed her strangely.
“I declare, Martha, I do believe you are crying! Be ashamed of yourself, to cry like a baby for a new dress and a rip with a parcel of tomboys in the woods!”
“O, mother, our teacher is going, too, and his wife! I do not think there will be any ripping where Mrs. Long is, she is so dignified; and—O, mother!—Mamie Butler lives close to the woods, and she says it’s the loveliest place! There is a brook there, and a waterfall, and lots of mosses, and I do want to go just once in my life.”
“It would do you so much good,” said Mrs. White, with fine irony; “you could bring so much of it back with you.”
Practical mother! She did not think of the happy heart her child would bring back with her, or “the pictures which hang on memory’s wall.”
“If I could get to go,” said Martha, “I would wear an old dress. I won’t ask you for a new dress, if you will let me go.”
“I could get the dress as easy as I could spare you. It’s too ridiculous—a whole day fooled away in the woods when there is so much to do! I am really surprised at you, Martha! After I’ve worked as hard as I have to raise you, now you are not willing to work for me.”
Martha’s sensitive heart was wounded. “I am willing,” she said, “to work for you, but we have no need to work so hard; we have plenty, and why not use it?”
“There is no use in wasting words about it,” her mother replied. “I am going down in the garden to finish that hoeing, and, when you get the ironing done, you may get a hoe and come, too.”
Martha sighed as she moved the heavy iron back and forth. This afternoon was but a sample of her Saturday afternoons, and of the next Saturday she could not think without tears.
“Good evening, Roxie!”
Mrs. White looked up and saw, just over the paling, the pleasant, smiling face of a middle-aged lady. The grim look on her face cleared away partially, and she responded: “Good evening, Mary Ann.”
These two had been girls together, and, although away down the hill of life, it was still “Roxie” and “Mary Ann.”
“At work, as usual,” said the newcomer, “while I—poor lazy thing!—am out walking about. Put down that hoe and go with me.”
Mrs. White took up her cotton apron and wiped the perspiration from her face. “I wish I could,” she said, “but I haven’t time. It does seem to me that the older I get, the harder I have to work.”
“Pshaw! That is all folly—all folly! Take time, Roxie; take it—make it.”
“There is no use in trying to take it, for I cannot. Of all the days in the week, Saturday is the busiest.”
“Speaking of Saturday reminds me,” said Mrs. Wilson. “Your children are going to the picnic, I suppose.”
“I don’t know about it. Fred. doesn’t care to go, and I don’t see any sense in a lot of youngsters capering over the hills. If Martha goes, she will have to have a new dress, I suppose, and I’ve no time to attend to it. Jim might go, anyway, if he will be right spry.”
“But Martha will cry her eyes out if she does not get to go.”
“I guess she will find bigger things to cry about, if she lives to be as old as her mother,” said Mrs. White.
“And for that very reason you should give her all the white days, all the glad days, all the holidays, that you can,” said Mrs. Wilson.
“I’m willing for her to enjoy herself—anything in reason—but I see no sense in that picnic.”
Mrs. Wilson leaned her elbows on the railing and settled herself most comfortably.
“Let me tell you, Roxie, what I heard a lady say the other day. She said she had no childhood to look back to.”
“But that’s impossible, Mary Ann. Everybody has been a child once; people don’t grow right up in a day.”
“But she said she had none of the pleasures of childhood to look back to—no happy memories, no tender, childish joys to keep her heart young in her old age. She always felt that there was a void, a want, in her life. She was made to work so hard when she was a child that life grew hard and unlovely.”
“Well, I am thankful,” said Mrs. White, “that I’ve been a child. Sometimes I dream of the old home, the grassy orchard, and the swing under the apple boughs, and I tell you I can almost smell the apple blooms and hear the birds singing in the leaves.”
“And it’s better than a picture,” her friend remarked. “I remember that swing; I shall never forget it. I remember the martin gourds that swung there on a pole, and how you and I used to watch the black martins whip away the hungry hawks.”
Mrs. White was smiling and her eyes were shining. Her surroundings faded away, and for a brief time she stood in the old orchard and heard the tinkle of bells in the meadow close by, and the musical murmur of the “pearly brook.”
“But the brightest day of my life, I think,” said Mrs. Wilson, “was the day we all went to Silver Creek on a big fishing frolic. O the fun we had that day!”
“I’ve thought of that day a thousand times, I expect,” said Mrs. White. “You know we went in a big wagon, and we sung songs till we couldn’t sing. What a good dinner our mothers had provided for us! The boys made swings out of grapevines, and we found so many flowers to take home; but—heigho!—there is no use in thinking about old times; we can’t live them over.”
“Yes we can, Roxie; we can go back to them in memory till we die. Do you remember, little Sammy Young wanted a new suit to wear that day, and, to please him, his mother made them soldier fashion?”
“I remember. The pants had blue stripes down the legs.”
“Yes, they did. And you know he died just a week after, and his mother was glad she had pleased him.”
Holding her head down thoughtfully, Mrs. White’s mouth twitched; and when Mrs. Wilson saw it, she put her hand over the fence, took “Roxie’s” hand in hers, and said: “Now you will let Martha go. I know you won’t cut off her white days—will you? Remember, the dark ones come soon enough.”
“If I knew we could get her dress made, I would say, ‘Go;’ but it isn’t even bought.”
“I am going to the store. Just let Martha go with me and pick her own dress.”
“I have a good mind to,” said Mrs. White.
“Never spoil a good mind, then. Yonder she is, on the porch. Now call her and tell her to get her bonnet.”
It is useless to attempt a description of Martha’s joy. She kissed her mother, and Mrs. Wilson, too, in her delight; and as she passed out the gate, she said, “How many yards, mother?” and was surprised at the answer: “Just as many as the dressmaker wants.”
Martha gave a little scream of delight.
“Am I to have it made on the machine, mother?”
“Yes, on the machine.”
“And shall I get blue to trim it?”
The answer came, with a laugh: “Yes, get blue to trim it.”
“Mrs. Wilson, you have certainly bewitched mother this afternoon,” Martha said, as they went down the street.
But Mrs. Wilson laughed and said: “We have been glancing backward this afternoon.”