When cousin Stickles knocked at her door, Valancy knew it was half- past seven and she must get up. As long as she could remember, Cousin Stickles had knocked at her door at half-past seven. Cousin Stickles and Mrs. Frederick Stirling had been up since seven, but Valancy was allowed to lie abed half an hour longer because of a family tradition that she was delicate. Valancy got up, though she hated getting up more this morning than ever she had before. What was there to get up for? Another dreary day like all the days that had preceded it, full of meaningless little tasks, joyless and unimportant, that benefited nobody. But if she did not get up at once she would not be ready for breakfast at eight o’clock. Hard and fast times for meals were the rule in Mrs. Stirling’s household. Breakfast at eight, dinner at one, supper at six, year in and year out. No excuses for being late were ever tolerated. So up Valancy got, shivering.
The room was bitterly cold with the raw, penetrating chill of a wet May morning. The house would be cold all day. It was one of Mrs. Frederick’s rules that no fires were necessary after the twenty-fourth of May. Meals were cooked on the little oil-stove in the back porch. And though May might be icy and October frost-bitten, no fires were lighted until the twenty-first of October by the calendar. On the twenty-first of October Mrs. Frederick began cooking over the kitchen range and lighted a fire in the sitting-room stove in the evenings. It was whispered about in the connection that the late Frederick Stirling had caught the cold which resulted in his death during Valancy’s first year of life because Mrs. Frederick would not have a fire on the twentieth of October. She lighted it the next day – but that was a day too late for Frederick Stirling.
Valancy took off and hung up in the closet her nightdress of coarse, unbleached cotton, with high neck and long, tight sleeves. She put on undergarments of a similar nature, a dress of brown gingham, thick, black stockings and rubber-heeled boots. Of late years she had fallen into the habit of doing her hair with the shade of the window by the looking-glass pulled down. The lines on her face did not show so plainly then. But this morning she jerked the shade to the very top and looked at herself in the leprous mirror with a passionate determination to see herself as the world saw her.
The result was rather dreadful. Even a beauty would have found that harsh, unsoftened side-light trying. Valancy saw straight black hair, short and thin, always lusterless despite the fact that she gave it one hundred strokes of the brush, neither more nor less, every night of her life and faithfully rubbed Redfern’s Hair Vigor into the roots, more lustreless than ever in its morning roughness; fine, straight, black brows; a nose she had always felt was much too small even for her small, three-cornered, white face; a small, pale mouth that always fell open a trifle over little, pointed white teeth; a figure thin and flat-breasted, rather below the average height. She had somehow escaped the family high cheek-bones, and her dark-brown eyes, too soft and shadowy to be black, had a slant that was almost Oriental. Apart from her eyes she was neither pretty nor ugly – just insignificant-looking, she concluded bitterly. How plain the lines around her eyes and mouth were in that merciless light! And never had her narrow, white face looked so narrow and so white.
She did her hair in a pompadour. Pompadours had long gone out of fashion, but they had been in when Valancy first put her hair up and Aunt Wellington had decided that she must always wear her hair so.
“It is the ONLY way that becomes you. Your face is so small that you MUST add height to it by a pompadour effect,” said Aunt Wellington, who always enunciated commonplaces as if uttering profound and important truths.
Valancy had hankered to do her hair pulled low on her forehead, with puffs above the ears, as Olive was wearing hers. But Aunt Wellington’s dictum had such an effect on her that she never dared change her style of hairdressing again. But then, there were so many things Valancy never dared do.
All her life she had been afraid of something, she thought bitterly. From the very dawn of recollection, when she had been so horribly afraid of the big black bear that lived, so Cousin Stickles told her, in the closet under the stairs.
“And I always will be – I know it – I can’t help it. I don’t know what it would be like not to be afraid of something.”
Afraid of her mother’s sulky fits – afraid of offending Uncle Benjamin – afraid of becoming a target for Aunt Wellington’s contempt – afraid of Aunt Isabel’s biting comments – afraid of Uncle James’ disapproval – afraid of offending the whole clan’s opinions and prejudices – afraid of not keeping up appearances – afraid to say what she really thought of anything – afraid of poverty in her old age. Fear – fear – fear – she could never escape from it. It bound her and enmeshed her like a spider’s web of steel. Only in her Blue Castle could she find temporary release. And this morning Valancy could not believe she had a Blue Castle. She would never be able to find it again. Twenty-nine, unmarried, undesired—what had she to do with the fairy-like chatelaine of the Blue Castle? She would cut such childish nonsense out of her life forever and face reality unflinchingly.
She turned from her unfriendly mirror and looked out. The ugliness of the view always struck her like a blow; the ragged fence, the tumble-down old carriage-shop in the next lot, plastered with crude, violently coloured advertisements; the grimy railway station beyond, with the awful derelicts that were always hanging around it even at this early hour. In the pouring rain everything looked worse than usual, especially the beastly advertisement, “Keep that schoolgirl complexion.” Valancy HAD kept her schoolgirl complexion. That was just the trouble. There was not a gleam of beauty anywhere – “exactly like my life,” thought Valancy drearily. Her brief bitterness had passed. She accepted facts as resignedly as she had always accepted them. She was one of the people whom life always passes by. There was no altering that fact.
In this mood Valancy went down to breakfast.
Breakfast was always the same. Oatmeal porridge, which Valancy loathed, toast and tea, and one teaspoonful of marmalade. Mrs. Frederick thought two teaspoonfuls extravagant – but that did not matter to Valancy, who hated marmalade, too. The chilly, gloomy little dining-room was chillier and gloomier than usual; the rain streamed down outside the window; departed Stirlings, in atrocious, gilt frames, wider than the pictures, glowered down from the walls. And yet Cousin Stickles wished Valancy many happy returns of the day!
“Sit up straight, Doss,” was all her mother said.
Valancy sat up straight. She talked to her mother and Cousin Stickles of the things they always talked of. She never wondered what would happen if she tried to talk of something else. She knew. Therefore she never did it.
Mrs. Frederick was offended with Providence for sending a rainy day when she wanted to go to a picnic, so she ate her breakfast in a sulky silence for which Valancy was rather grateful. But Christine Stickles whined endlessly on as usual, complaining about everything – the weather, the leak in the pantry, the price of oatmeal and butter – Valancy felt at once she had buttered her toast too lavishly – the epidemic of mumps in Deerwood.
“Doss will be sure to ketch them,” she foreboded.
“Doss must not go where she is likely to catch mumps,” said Mrs. Frederick shortly.
Valancy had never had mumps – or whooping cough – or chicken-pox—or measles – or anything she should have had – nothing but horrible colds every winter. Doss’ winter colds were a sort of tradition in the family. Nothing, it seemed, could prevent her from catching them. Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles did their heroic best. One winter they kept Valancy housed up from November to May, in the warm sitting-room. She was not even allowed to go to church. And Valancy took cold after cold and ended up with bronchitis in June.
“None of MY family were ever like that,” said Mrs. Frederick, implying that it must be a Stirling tendency.
“The Stirling’s seldom take cold,” said Cousin Stickles resentfully. SHE had been a Stirling.
“I think,” said Mrs. Frederick, “that if a person makes up her mind NOT to have colds she will not HAVE colds.”
So that was the trouble. It was all Valancy’s own fault.
But on this particular morning Valancy’s unbearable grievance was that she was called Doss. She had endured it for twenty-nine years, and all at once she felt she could not endure it any longer. Her full name was Valancy Jane. Valancy Jane was rather terrible, but she liked Valancy, with its odd, out-land tang. It was always a wonder to Valancy that the Stirlings had allowed her to be so christened. She had been told that her maternal grandfather, old Amos Wansbarra, had chosen the name for her. Her father had tacked on the Jane by way of civilising it, and the whole connection got out of the difficulty by nicknaming her Doss. She never got Valancy from any one but outsiders.
“Mother,” she said timidly, “would you mind calling me Valancy after this? Doss seems so – so – I don’t like it.”
Mrs. Frederick looked at her daughter in astonishment. She wore glasses with enormously strong lenses that gave her eyes a peculiarly disagreeable appearance.
“What is the matter with Doss?”
“It – seems so childish,” faltered Valancy.
“Oh!” Mrs. Frederick had been a Wansbarra and the Wansbarra smile was not an asset. “I see. Well, it should suit YOU then. You are childish enough in all conscience, my dear child.”
“I am twenty-nine,” said the dear child desperately.
“I wouldn’t proclaim it from the house-tops if I were you, dear,” said Mrs. Frederick. “Twenty-nine! I had been married nine years when I was twenty-nine.”
“I was married at seventeen,” said Cousin Stickles proudly.
Valancy looked at them furtively. Mrs. Frederick, except for those terrible glasses and the hooked nose that made her look, more like a parrot than a parrot itself could look, was not ill-looking. At twenty she might have been quite pretty. But Cousin Stickles! And yet Christine Stickles had once been desirable in some man’s eyes. Valancy felt that Cousin Stickles, with her broad, flat, wrinkled face, a mole right on the end of her dumpy nose, bristling hairs on her chin, wrinkled yellow neck, pale, protruding eyes, and thin, puckered mouth, had yet this advantage over her – this right to look down on her. And even yet Cousin Stickles was necessary to Mrs. Frederick. Valancy wondered pitifully what it would be like to be wanted by some one – needed by some one. No one in the whole world needed her, or would miss anything from life if she dropped suddenly out of it. She was a disappointment to her mother. No one loved her. She had never so much as had a girl friend.
“I haven’t even a gift for friendship,” she had once admitted to herself pitifully.
“Doss, you haven’t eaten your crusts,” said Mrs. Frederick rebukingly.
It rained all the forenoon without cessation. Valancy pieced a quilt. Valancy hated piecing quilts. And there was no need of it. The house was full of quilts. There were three big chests, packed with quilts, in the attic. Mrs. Frederick had begun storing away quilts when Valancy was seventeen and she kept on storing them, though it did not seem likely that Valancy would ever need them. But Valancy must be at work and fancy work materials were too expensive. Idleness was a cardinal sin in the Stirling household. When Valancy had been a child she had been made to write down every night, in a small, hated, black notebook, all the minutes she had spent in idleness that day. On Sundays her mother made her tot them up and pray over them.
On this particular forenoon of this day of destiny Valancy spent only ten minutes in idleness. At least, Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles would have called it idleness. She went to her room to get a better thimble and she opened Thistle Harvest guiltily at random.
“The woods are so human,” wrote John Foster, “that to know them one must live with them. An occasional saunter through them, keeping to the well-trodden paths, will never admit us to their intimacy. If we wish to be friends we must seek them out and win them by frequent, reverent visits at all hours; by morning, by noon, and by night; and at all seasons, in spring, in summer, in autumn, in winter. Otherwise we can never really know them and any pretence we may make to the contrary will never impose on them. They have their own effective way of keeping aliens at a distance and shutting their hearts to mere casual sightseers. It is of no use to seek the woods from any motive except sheer love of them; they will find us out at once and hide all their sweet, old-world secrets from us. But if they know we come to them because we love them they will be very kind to us and give us such treasures of beauty and delight as are not bought or sold in any market-place. For the woods, when they give at all, give unstintedly and hold nothing back from their true worshippers. We must go to them lovingly, humbly, patiently, watchfully, and we shall learn what poignant loveliness lurks in the wild places and silent intervales, lying under starshine and sunset, what cadences of unearthly music are harped on aged pine boughs or crooned in copses of fir, what delicate savours exhale from mosses and ferns in sunny corners or on damp brooklands, what dreams and myths and legends of an older time haunt them. Then the immortal heart of the woods will beat against ours and its subtle life will steal into our veins and make us its own forever, so that no matter where we go or how widely we wander we shall yet be drawn back to the forest to find our most enduring kinship.”
“Doss,” called her mother from the hall below, “what are you doing all by yourself in that room?”
Valancy dropped Thistle Harvest like a hot coal and fled downstairs to her patches; but she felt the strange exhilaration of spirit that always came momentarily to her when she dipped into one of John Foster’s books. Valancy did not know much about woods—except the haunted groves of oak and pine around her Blue Castle. But she had always secretly hankered after them and a Foster book about woods was the next best thing to the woods themselves.
At noon it stopped raining, but the sun did not come out until three. Then Valancy timidly said she thought she would go uptown.
“What do you want to go uptown for?” demanded her mother.
“I want to get a book from the library.”
“You got a book from the library only last week.”
“No, it was four weeks.”
“Four weeks. Nonsense!”
“Really it was, Mother.”
“You are mistaken. It cannot possibly have been more than two weeks. I dislike contradiction. And I do not see what you want to get a book for, anyhow. You waste too much time reading.”
“Of what value is my time?” asked Valancy bitterly.
“Doss! Don’t speak in that tone to ME.”
“We need some tea,” said Cousin Stickles. “She might go and get that if she wants a walk – though this damp weather is bad for colds.”
They argued the matter for ten minutes longer and finally Mrs. Frederick agreed rather grudgingly that Valancy might go.
“Got your rubbers on?” called Cousin Stickles, as Valancy left the house.
Christine Stickles had never once forgotten to ask that question when Valancy went out on a damp day.
“Have you got your flannel petticoat on?” asked Mrs. Frederick.
“Doss, I really do not understand you. Do you want to catch your death of cold AGAIN?” Her voice implied that Valancy had died of a cold several times already. “Go upstairs this minute and put it on!”
“Mother, I don’t NEED a flannel petticoat. My sateen one is warm enough.”
“Doss, remember you had bronchitis two years ago. Go and do as you are told!”
Valancy went, though nobody will ever know just how near she came to hurling the rubber-plant into the street before she went. She hated that grey flannel petticoat more than any other garment she owned. Olive never had to wear flannel petticoats. Olive wore ruffled silk and sheer lawn and filmy laced flounces. But Olive’s father had “married money” and Olive never had bronchitis. So there you were.
“Are you sure you didn’t leave the soap in the water?” demanded Mrs. Frederick. But Valancy was gone. She turned at the corner and looked back down the ugly, prim, respectable street where she lived. The Stirling house was the ugliest on it – more like a red brick box than anything else. Too high for its breadth, and made still higher by a bulbous glass cupola on top. About it was the desolate, barren peace of an old house whose life is lived.
There was a very pretty house, with leaded casements and dubbed gables, just around the corner – a new house, one of those houses you love the minute you see them. Clayton Markley had built it for his bride. He was to be married to Jennie Lloyd in June. The little house, it was said, was furnished from attic to cellar, in complete readiness for its mistress.
“I don’t envy Jennie the man,” thought Valancy sincerely—Clayton Markley was not one of her many ideals – “but I DO envy her the house. It’s such a nice young house. Oh, if I could only have a house of my own – ever so poor, so tiny – but my own! But then,” she added bitterly, “there is no use in yowling for the moon when you can’t even get a tallow candle.”
In dreamland nothing would do Valancy but a castle of pale sapphire. In real life she would have been fully satisfied with a little house of her own. She envied Jennie Lloyd more fiercely than ever today. Jennie was not so much better looking than she was, and not so very much younger. Yet she was to have this delightful house. And the nicest little Wedgwood teacups—Valancy had seen them; an open fireplace, and monogrammed linen; hemstitched tablecloths, and china-closets. Why did EVERYTHING come to some girls and NOTHING to others? It wasn’t fair.
Valancy was once more seething with rebellion as she walked along, a prim, dowdy little figure in her shabby raincoat and three-year-old hat, splashed occasionally by the mud of a passing motor with its insulting shrieks. Motors were still rather a novelty in Deerwood, though they were common in Port Lawrence, and most of the summer residents up at Muskoka had them. In Deerwood only some of the smart set had them; for even Deerwood was divided into sets. There was the smart set – the intellectual set – the old-family set – of which the Stirlings were members – the common run, and a few pariahs. Not one of the Stirling clan had as yet condescended to a motor, though Olive was teasing her father to have one. Valancy had never even been in a motorcar. But she did not hanker after this. In truth, she felt rather afraid of motorcars, especially at night. They seemed to be too much like big purring beasts that might turn and crush you – or make some terrible savage leap somewhere. On the steep mountain trails around her Blue Castle only gaily caparisoned steeds might proudly pace; in real life Valancy would have been quite contented to drive in a buggy behind a nice horse. She got a buggy drive only when some uncle or cousin remembered to fling her “a chance,” like a bone to a dog.
Of course she must buy the tea in Uncle Benjamin’s grocery-store. To buy it anywhere else was unthinkable. Yet Valancy hated to go to Uncle Benjamin’s store on her twenty-ninth birthday. There was no hope that he would not remember it.
“Why,” demanded Uncle Benjamin, leeringly, as he tied up her tea, “are young ladies like bad grammarians?”
Valancy, with Uncle Benjamin’s will in the background of her mind, said meekly, “I don’t know. Why?”
“Because,” chuckled Uncle Benjamin, “they can’t decline matrimony.”
The two clerks, Joe Hammond and Claude Bertram, chuckled also, and Valancy disliked them a little more than ever. On the first day Claude Bertram had seen her in the store she had heard him whisper to Joe, “Who is that?” And Joe had said, “Valancy Stirling – one of the Deerwood old maids.” “Curable or incurable?” Claude had asked with a snicker, evidently thinking the question very clever. Valancy smarted anew with the sting of that old recollection.
“Twenty-nine,” Uncle Benjamin was saying. “Dear me, Doss, you’re dangerously near the second corner and not even thinking of getting married yet. Twenty-nine. It seems impossible.”
Then Uncle Benjamin said an original thing. Uncle Benjamin said, “How time does fly!”
“I think it CRAWLS,” said Valancy passionately. Passion was so alien to Uncle Benjamin’s conception of Valancy that he didn’t know what to make of her. To cover his confusion, he asked another conundrum as he tied up her beans – Cousin Stickles had remembered at the last moment that they must have beans. Beans were cheap and filling.
“What two ages are apt to prove illusory?” asked Uncle Benjamin; and, not waiting for Valancy to “give it up,” he added, “Mir-age and marri-age.”
“M-i-r-a-g-e is pronounced MIRAZH,” said Valancy shortly, picking up her tea and her beans. For the moment she did not care whether Uncle Benjamin cut her out of his will or not. She walked out of the store while Uncle Benjamin stared after her with his mouth open. Then he shook his head.
“Poor Doss is taking it hard,” he said.
Valancy was sorry by the time she reached the next crossing. Why had she lost her patience like that? Uncle Benjamin would be annoyed and would likely tell her mother that Doss had been impertinent – “to ME!” – and her mother would lecture her for a week.
“I’ve held my tongue for twenty years,” thought Valancy. “Why couldn’t I have held it once more?”
Yes, it was just twenty, Valancy reflected, since she had first been twitted with her loverless condition. She remembered the bitter moment perfectly. She was just nine years old and she was standing alone on the school playground while the other little girls of her class were playing a game in which you must be chosen by a boy as his partner before you could play. Nobody had chosen Valancy – little, pale, black-haired Valancy, with her prim, long-sleeved apron and odd, slanted eyes.
“Oh,” said a pretty little girl to her, “I’m so sorry for you. You haven’t got a beau.”
Valancy had said defiantly, as she continued to say for twenty years, “I don’t WANT a beau.” But this afternoon Valancy once and for all stopped saying that.
“I’m going to be honest with myself anyhow,” she thought savagely. “Uncle Benjamin’s riddles hurt me because they are true. I DO want to be married. I want a house of my own – I want a husband of my own – I want sweet, little fat BABIES of my own – “ Valancy stopped suddenly aghast at her own recklessness. She felt sure that Rev. Dr. Stalling, who passed her at this moment, read her thoughts and disapproved of them thoroughly. Valancy was afraid of Dr. Stalling – had been afraid of him ever since the Sunday, twenty-three years before, when he had first come to St. Albans’. Valancy had been too late for Sunday School that day and she had gone into the church timidly and sat in their pew. No one else was in the church – nobody except the new rector, Dr. Stalling. Dr. Stalling stood up in front of the choir door, beckoned to her, and said sternly, “Little boy, come up here.”
Valancy had stared around her. There was no little boy – there was no one in all the huge church but herself. This strange man with the blue glasses couldn’t mean her. She was not a boy.
“Little boy,” repeated Dr. Stalling, more sternly still, shaking his forefinger fiercely at her, “come up here at once!”
Valancy arose as if hypnotised and walked up the aisle. She was too terrified to do anything else. What dreadful thing was going to happen to her? What HAD happened to her? Had she actually turned into a boy? She came to a stop in front of Dr. Stalling. Dr. Stalling shook his forefinger – such a long, knuckly forefinger – at her and said:
“Little boy, take off your hat.”
Valancy took off her hat. She had a scrawny little pigtail hanging down her back, but Dr. Stalling was shortsighted and did not perceive it.
“Little boy, go back to your seat and ALWAYS take off your hat in church. REMEMBER!”
Valancy went back to her seat carrying her hat like an automaton. Presently her mother came in.
“Doss,” said Mrs. Stirling, “what do you mean by taking off your hat? Put it on instantly!”
Valancy put it on instantly. She was cold with fear lest Dr. Stalling should immediately summon her up front again. She would have to go, of course – it never occurred to her that one could disobey the rector – and the church was full of people now. Oh, what would she do if that horrible, stabbing forefinger were shaken at her again before all those people? Valancy sat through the whole service in an agony of dread and was sick for a week afterwards. Nobody knew why – Mrs. Frederick again bemoaned herself of her delicate child.
Dr. Stalling found out his mistake and laughed over it to Valancy – who did not laugh. She never got over her dread of Dr. Stalling. And now to be caught by him on the street corner, thinking such things!
Valancy got her John Foster book – Magic of Wings. “His latest—all about birds,” said Miss Clarkson. She had almost decided that she would go home, instead of going to see Dr. Trent. Her courage had failed her. She was afraid of offending Uncle James – afraid of angering her mother – afraid of facing gruff, shaggy-browed old Dr. Trent, who would probably tell her, as he had told Cousin Gladys, that her trouble was entirely imaginary and that she only had it because she liked to have it. No, she would not go; she would get a bottle of Redfern’s Purple Pills instead. Redfern’s Purple Pills were the standard medicine of the Stirling clan. Had they not cured Second Cousin Geraldine when five doctors had given her up? Valancy always felt very sceptical concerning the virtues of the Purple Pills; but there MIGHT be something in them; and it was easier to take them than to face Dr. Trent alone. She would glance over the magazines in the reading-room a few minutes and then go home.
Valancy tried to read a story, but it made her furious. On every page was a picture of the heroine surrounded by adoring men. And here was she, Valancy Stirling, who could not get a solitary beau! Valancy slammed the magazine shut; she opened Magic of Wings. Her eyes fell on the paragraph that changed her life.
“Fear is the original sin,” wrote John Foster. “Almost all the evil in the world has its origin in the fact that some one is afraid of something. It is a cold, slimy serpent coiling about you. It is horrible to live with fear; and it is of all things degrading.”
Valancy shut Magic of Wings and stood up. She would go and see Dr. Trent.