Our house isn’t so very nice. We own it, of course, and that is a great deal, as mother has often reminded us when we grumbled. But we girls always thought there were some drawbacks even to that, because we couldn’t ask a landlord for new paper or fresh paint, and as for us—we never had money to spare for such superfluities.
There are only four of us,—mother and Jack, Rose and me. We children have been busy all our lives trying to get educated, so we could keep mother in luxury after a while. In the meantime, she had done with bare necessities, for the life-insurance father left wasn’t large enough to take any liberty with. Mother has things spick and span. No palace could be more beautifully kept than our home, but the furnishing is nothing whatever to boast of.
Our room was almost the worst of all, with its odds and ends of things. “Other girls have silver-backed hair-brushes!” wailed Rose one night, regarding her old one with a scornful glance.
“Yes, and chairs that don’t tip one over,” I added, as I managed to save myself from a fall.
“Isn’t it horrid to be poor, Meta?” said Rose.
“It’s no joke.” I was very grim because I had bruised my hand on the rickety chair, and tomorrow was music-lesson day, as I remembered.
It was then and there we rebelled. Not so mother could hear us—we weren’t mean enough for that! She’d have been only too glad to help matters if she could. So we had our indignation meeting by our two selves. We said we’d had enough of old furniture and cheap sash curtains, and we decided it was time to act.
Having reached this decision, we proceeded to carry it out, and we surprised ourselves with the speed of our achievements. My hope lay in music, Rose’s in arithmetic. I trailed around the neighborhood, next day, looking for scholars, and Rose betook herself straight down to the Cowans, who had been hunting for a “coach” for their twins. We had discussed the Cowan possibility some time before, but Rose declared then that she couldn’t spare a minute from the demands of her studies, while I knew it would keep me busy to be graduated on schedule time without doing anything outside.
It makes a difference when you get interested in something for yourself. As soon as ever we girls viewed these occupations in the light of furnishings for our room, we felt sure we could squeeze them in—and we did. I got six beginners, and Rose captured the Cowans, root and branch—four instead of two; for it seemed they were not proficient in mathematical pursuits, and their mother was delighted to get them off her distracted hands. All our friends know that Rose adores sums and problems, and she didn’t need any other recommendation.
Well, we did it! It wasn’t easy, either. If my half-dozen aspirants for fame escaped shaking till their teeth chattered, it wasn’t because I didn’t ache to administer it. And Rose feared her hair would be white before the end of the term. You see, when there’s a certain amount of housework you feel obliged to do, and when your studies fairly clamor for attention the rest of the time, it sets your nerves all awry to keep the tempo for clumsy fingers that go just half as fast as they should; or to teach over and over again that four times five are always twenty.
But I suppose all these trials helped us to appreciate our possessions when we did get them. They were just as sweet and dainty as we had hoped. We got two single beds—white enamel with brass trimmings—and a pretty mirror in a neat frame. Our old dressing-table looked like new with fresh drapery, and there were full-length curtains to match. Two cunning white rockers, two other chairs, and a little round stand made us feel simply blissful. We painted our book-shelves with white enamel paint, and did our woodwork ourselves. Jack painted the floor a soft gray that would blend with anything, and after it was dry we laid on it one of our chief treasures. It was a grass rug, in two shades of green, with a stenciled border and a general air of elegance that almost overpowered us. It was large enough almost to cover the floor, and we stenciled green borders on our curtains and drapery in the same Grecian pattern.
It seemed too good to be true as we stood in the door and viewed the landscape o’er after we had it done. “It isn’t often that our dreams come true!” sighed Rose.
“But this one has,” I assured her.
She nodded happily. “Yes, and it’s just as nice as we thought it would be!”
“Won’t it do our hearts good to ‘give notice,’ as the cooks say?”
“I can hardly wait to tell those awful Cowans that they may get along as best they can. I’m so tired of them, Meta!”
“I know you are. I wouldn’t mind the music so much if I had time. But it’s dreadful when your own studies drag like millstones about your neck. I’m not clever at learning as you are, Rose. I have to work for what I get. So I shall tell them, next Tuesday, that I’ve decided not to teach any more till school’s out.”
Jack stopped on his way down the hall to look over our shoulders. “Huh!” he said, if you know what that means.
“Doesn’t it look lovely?” asked Rose, her face all full of dimples. Rose is as pretty as a picture, anyway, and when she smiles, you can’t help smiling back. Jack patted her cheek, and said, “It certainly does,” and then he passed on abruptly.
“Something doesn’t suit him!” I declared as he shut his room door behind him. “I can’t imagine what it is, and it’s of no earthly use to ask him.” It wouldn’t have been. You can’t worm a thing out of that boy till he gets ready to tell.
Mother came up the stairs just then waving a note in her hand. “It’s from Helen Hunt!” she announced joyfully. “She is going to spend a day and a night with us next week on her way to Grovesport. I shall be so glad to see her.” Mrs. Hunt and mother have been friends more years than Rose and I have lived, and they very seldom meet any more. So we girls were almost as glad as mother was, because that dear woman doesn’t have as many pleasures, as she deserves.
After we went to bed that night, we planned the surprise. The visitor should have our lovely new nest, and we’d go and camp in the shabby old guest-room. We knew it would please mother, for she hadn’t had so pretty a place to entertain Mrs. Hunt in for many years. It did please her, too, so much that she almost cried, and she hugged us and thanked us till we felt very happy and self-satisfied. Jack was standing by, and he said “Huh!” again, in that same queer tone. Then mother turned and hugged him, and Rose and I said to each other how strange it was that Jack should be jealous of his own sisters.
It shone the day she came—the room, I mean, though the sun was on duty. too. Mother went to the station to meet her, and, as she started out, she called back, “Children, if any of you have occasion to go into my room while I’m gone, be sure to shut the door when you come out!”
We answered “All right!” all three at once, and then Rose said, “How funny! What do you suppose made her tell us to do that?”
“I can’t imagine,” I replied, and then Jack smiled. If it had been anybody but our jolly old Jack, I’d have said his smile was sarcastic; but no one ever accused that boy of anything so ill-natured. Then he said in a quiet, even voice: “It doesn’t take a Solon to see through that. She wants to make sure that Mrs. Hunt doesn’t see the contrast between her room and the one across the hall. She might not understand—or approve.”
And with that he took his cap and went out.
Stunned? I guess we were! Rose and I stared at each other as if we’d seen a ghost. Then we put our arms around each other and went up-stairs without a word. It was mother’s door we opened, and we stood there and gazed as if we’d never seen that room before. She had been darning her carpet again. We could see the careful stitches and the frayed edges her art couldn’t quite conceal. “She has polished her furniture, too! See how it shines, Meta. She tried to make it look its best.” Rose’s voice was mournful, so I tried to speak up cheerfully.
“To be sure she did, and succeeded!” Then we turned, and both of us choked back a sob at what we saw. She had taken our discarded dressing-table drapery, cut out the best portions, ruffled it daintily, pressed it neatly, and put it on her own bureau. Our worn-out sash curtains, nicely laundered, veiled her book-rack.
“Meta, our mother—our precious jewel of a mother! We’ve taken everything for ourselves and left her the rags!”
Rose had her head on my shoulder, and by that time I was crying as hard as she was.
“No wonder Jack was dissatisfied!” I sobbed. “Rose, why didn’t he tell us?”
“O Meta, why did we need telling? That’s what breaks my heart. Even our rickety chair fixed up and set back in the shadow! O, I can’t stand it!”
“We’ve got to!” I stiffened up grimly. “We’ve got to stand it, and it serves us right. But we’ll make it up to her as soon as Mrs. Hunt is gone!”
“Yes, if we can live till then!”
“I think we’ll manage to. Mortification won’t kill us in twenty-four hours. We’ll make her sleep in there tonight, and they can have one cozy visit in suitable quarters. Monsters!”
Rose didn’t resent the epithet. She knew it was appropriate.
We did some thinking that night. I never felt so utterly insignificant in my life. We realized at last that there are other ways to show love than letting its object do all the sacrificing, all the giving and enduring, while the one who bestows it revels in selfishness. We didn’t say anything then, but mother wasn’t allowed to touch that supper, only the portion of it that filled her own plate, and she didn’t wash a dish after it, either! If Rose and I sat over our books an hour after our usual bedtime, in consequence, it hurt no one but ourselves, and we deserved it.
They had a lovely time together. We could hear their soft voices rise and fall, with once in a while a ripple of laughter, till we dropped off to sleep. The next night, mother went back to her own room. We didn’t say a word to prevent it, though it hurt us to think of our old duds in there for mother to use.
Next day the early morning post brought a note from Mrs. Hall, an old neighbor, urging mother to meet her down-town at ten o’clock. There was some important shopping on hand, and mother’s advice was indispensable. The dear thing didn’t suspect that her daughters had frantically besought Mrs. Hall the day before to concoct some scheme that would clear the coast at home. “All day, Mrs. Hall!” we pleaded. “We’ve planned a surprise for her, and it will take a good while to arrange it.”
Mother didn’t see how she could be spared to go, but we assured her that since we’d be at home, she wasn’t needed at all. If this struck her as a most unusual state of affairs, she was too polite to say so, and, true to her habit of helpfulness, she dressed and went to Mrs. Hall’s rescue.
We didn’t waste any time, I assure you. We couldn’t paint her floor then, but Jack stained it around the edges where it wouldn’t have to be walked on, and the grass rug covered the rest. We burned the made-over rags. It did our hearts good to see them crisp and turn to ashes.
Into the attic went the ugly old things, and across the hall came the pretty new ones,—curtains, dressing-table, chairs, every single dainty belonging, even the drapery from our book-shelves. Teddy Ward came in and helped carry things, and Jack worked like a beaver. He didn’t need any urging, either. If ever a boy’s face shone like a full moon, Jack’s did that happy day, though he stopped at least a dozen times to hug his sisters. “What a beast I was to think you could be as selfish as all that!” he exclaimed once, “I ought to have known better!”
“But we were just that selfish, Jacky,” we told him. We didn’t mean to sail under false colors. “We’d never have thought, if it hadn’t been for you.”
“Yes, you would. The first jolt would have waked you up. Lend a hand here, Meta!”
It was done at last, all cozy and fresh. Rose stopped in the door. “It looks like mother,” she said, and her voice was husky. “It’s pure and sweet like her!”
“The other one looks pretty forlorn, girls. What are you going to do about it?” Jack had a hand on our shoulders as he spoke, and we felt his sympathy.
“Do?” we chirped up as brisk as millionaires. “Why, furnish it, of course.”
“We have one bed to start on,” Rose reminded him. “That’s a big help, and the floor and woodwork are still painted. How are we to do it? Lessons, to be sure. Cowans and scales!”
“Thought you wanted to quit.” Our brother looked troubled, for all his satisfaction.
“My son, we have changed our minds. Our most ardent desire now is to keep on,” I told him. Rose smiled drolly. “I am seriously considering refurnishing the entire domicile,” she remarked. “The Cowans are good for the next twenty years, judging from their present attainments, and it’s fine practise for me!”
We didn’t give mother a hint till after supper. It was hard to wait, but we made ourselves do it so everything would come about quite naturally. She took her bonnet and wrap up to put them away, and we three tagged, as softly as if we had pads on our feet, like cats. She opened her door and gave one bewildered glance, then she turned and saw us. “It’s yours, Lovey, every bit!” we told her.
“Darlings, I couldn’t!” she said. “Your hard work—your dear new treasures! I couldn’t permit such a sacrifice, my darlings!” We just would not cry, though the lumps in our throats made our voices sound as if they belonged to some other family.
“They aren’t our new treasures, they’re yours.”
“Who has been making sacrifices all our lives?”
“We love you so—you couldn’t hurt us by refusing, Lovey!”
“There is no question of refusing.” Rose spoke with great emphasis. “This room is hers, once for all, and there is no more to be said about it.”
We tucked her into her pretty white bed that night, and we kissed the dear face on the ruffled pillow. Jack came in for his good night, too, and we all stood looking down at her, so happy we couldn’t talk. She lifted her arms—those arms that had worked so hard for us—and gathered the three of us to her at once. “My darlings!” was all she said, and we crept out softly, knowing we had received her benediction.
Yes, we are getting our second collection of furniture into shape slowly but surely. But we have learned that there are more precious things to be had in homes than beds and chairs, or even green grass rugs. We have them—the precious things—so, now that mother’s room is accomplished, we can wait very happily for the beds and chairs—Rose, and Jack, and I.
—Elisabeth Price, in St. Nicholas, copyrighted by the Century Company, 1913.
* * * * *
“The tender words unspoken,
The letters never sent,
The long-forgotten messages,
The wealth of love unspent,—
For these some hearts are breaking,
For these some loved ones wait;
Show them that you care for them
Before it is too late.”