There was a rosebush on the little Stirling lawn, growing beside the gate. It was called “Doss’s rosebush.” Cousin Georgiana had given it to Valancy five years ago and Valancy had planted it joyfully. She loved roses. But – of course – the rosebush never bloomed. That was her luck. Valancy did everything she could think of and took the advice of everybody in the clan, but still the rosebush would not bloom. It throve and grew luxuriantly, with great leafy branches untouched of rust or spider; but not even a bud had ever appeared on it. Valancy, looking at it two days after her birthday, was filled with a sudden, overwhelming hatred for it. The thing wouldn’t bloom: very well, then, she would cut it down. She marched to the tool-room in the barn for her garden knife and she went at the rosebush viciously. A few minutes later horrified Mrs. Frederick came out to the verandah and beheld her daughter slashing insanely among the rosebush boughs. Half of them were already strewn on the walk. The bush looked sadly dismantled.
“Doss, what on earth are you doing? Have you gone crazy?”
“No,” said Valancy. She meant to say it defiantly, but habit was too strong for her. She said it deprecatingly. “I - I just made up my mind to cut this bush down. It is no good. It never blooms – never will bloom.”
“That is no reason for destroying it,” said Mrs. Frederick sternly. “It was a beautiful bush and quite ornamental. You have made a sorry-looking thing of it.”
“Rose trees should BLOOM,” said Valancy a little obstinately.
“Don’t argue with ME, Doss. Clear up that mess and leave the bush alone. I don’t know what Georgiana will say when she sees how you have hacked it to pieces. Really, I’m surprised at you. And to do it without consulting ME!”
“The bush is mine,” muttered Valancy.
“What’s that? What did you say, Doss?”
“I only said the bush was mine,” repeated Valancy humbly.
Mrs. Frederick turned without a word and marched back into the house. The mischief was done now. Valancy knew she had offended her mother deeply and would not be spoken to or noticed in any way for two or three days. Cousin Stickles would see to Valancy’s bringing-up but Mrs. Frederick would preserve the stony silence of outraged majesty.
Valancy sighed and put away her garden knife, hanging it precisely on its precise nail in the tool-shop. She cleared away the several branches and swept up the leaves. Her lips twitched as she looked at the straggling bush. It had an odd resemblance to its shaken, scrawny donor, little Cousin Georgiana herself.
“I certainly have made an awful-looking thing of it,” thought Valancy.
But she did not feel repentant – only sorry she had offended her mother. Things would be so uncomfortable until she was forgiven. Mrs. Frederick was one of those women who can make their anger felt all over a house. Walls and doors are no protection from it.
“You’d better go uptown and git the mail,” said Cousin Stickles, when Valancy went in. “I can’t go – I feel all sorter peaky and piny this spring. I want you to stop at the drugstore and git me a bottle of Redfern’s Blood Bitters. There’s nothing like Redfern’s Bitters for building a body up. Cousin James says the Purple Pills are the best, but I know better. My poor dear husband took Redfern’s Bitters right up to the day he died. Don’t let them charge you more’n ninety cents. I kin git it for that at the Port. And what HAVE you been saying to your poor mother? Do you ever stop to think, Doss, that you kin only have one mother?”
“One is enough for me,” thought Valancy undutifully, as she went uptown.
She got Cousin Stickles’ bottle of bitters and then she went to the post-office and asked for her mail at the General Delivery. Her mother did not have a box. They got too little mail to bother with it. Valancy did not expect any mail, except the Christian Times, which was the only paper they took. They hardly ever got any letters. But Valancy rather liked to stand in the office and watch Mr. Carewe, the grey-bearded, Santa-Clausy old clerk, handing out letters to the lucky people who did get them. He did it with such a detached, impersonal, Jove-like air, as if it did not matter in the least to him what supernal joys or shattering horrors might be in those letters for the people to whom they were addressed. Letters had a fascination for Valancy, perhaps because she so seldom got any. In her Blue Castle exciting epistles, bound with silk and sealed with crimson, were always being brought to her by pages in livery of gold and blue, but in real life her only letters were occasional perfunctory notes from relatives or an advertising circular.
Consequently she was immensely surprised when Mr. Carewe, looking even more Jovian than usual, poked a letter out to her. Yes, it was addressed to her plainly, in a fierce, black hand: “Miss Valancy Stirling, Elm Street, Deerwood” – and the postmark was Montreal. Valancy picked it up with a little quickening of her breath. Montreal! It must be from Doctor Trent. He had remembered her, after all.
Valancy met Uncle Benjamin coming in as she was going out and was glad the letter was safely in her bag.
“What,” said Uncle Benjamin, “is the difference between a donkey and a postage-stamp?”
“I don’t know. What?” answered Valancy dutifully.
“One you lick with a stick and the other you stick with a lick. Ha, ha!”
Uncle Benjamin passed in, tremendously pleased with himself.
Cousin Stickles pounced on the Times when Valancy got home, but it did not occur to her to ask if there were any letters. Mrs. Frederick would have asked it, but Mrs. Frederick’s lips at present were sealed. Valancy was glad of this. If her mother had asked if there were any letters Valancy would have had to admit there was. Then she would have had to let her mother and Cousin Stickles read the letter and all would be discovered.
Her heart acted strangely on the way upstairs, and she sat down by her window for a few minutes before opening her letter. She felt very guilty and deceitful. She had never before kept a letter secret from her mother. Every letter she had ever written or received had been read by Mrs. Frederick. That had never mattered. Valancy had never had anything to hide. But this DID matter. She could not have any one see this letter. But her fingers trembled with a consciousness of wickedness and unfilial conduct as she opened it – trembled a little, too, perhaps, with apprehension. She felt quite sure there was nothing seriously wrong with her heart but – one never knew.
Dr. Trent’s letter was like himself – blunt, abrupt, concise, wasting no words. Dr. Trent never beat about the bush. “Dear Miss Sterling” – and then a page of black, positive writing. Valancy seemed to read it at a glance; she dropped it on her lap, her face ghost-white.
Dr. Trent told her that she had a very dangerous and fatal form of heart disease – angina pectoris – evidently complicated with an aneurism – whatever that was – and in the last stages. He said, without mincing matters, that nothing could be done for her. If she took great care of herself she might live a year – but she might also die at any moment – Dr. Trent never troubled himself about euphemisms. She must be careful to avoid all excitement and all severe muscular efforts. She must eat and drink moderately, she must never run, she must go upstairs and uphill with great care. Any sudden jolt or shock might be fatal. She was to get the prescription he enclosed filled and carry it with her always, taking a dose whenever her attacks came on. And he was hers truly, H. B. Trent.
Valancy sat for a long while by her window. Outside was a world drowned in the light of a spring afternoon – skies entrancingly blue, winds perfumed and free, lovely, soft, blue hazes at the end of every street. Over at the railway station a group of young girls was waiting for a train; she heard their gay laughter as they chattered and joked. The train roared in and roared out again. But none of these things had any reality. Nothing had any reality except the fact that she had only another year to live.
When she was tired of sitting at the window she went over and lay down on her bed, staring at the cracked, discoloured ceiling. The curious numbness that follows on a staggering blow possessed her. She did not feel anything except a boundless surprise and incredulity – behind which was the conviction that Dr. Trent knew his business and that she, Valancy Stirling, who had never lived, was about to die.
When the gong rang for supper Valancy got up and went downstairs mechanically, from force of habit. She wondered that she had been let alone so long. But of course her mother would not pay any attention to her just now. Valancy was thankful for this. She thought the quarrel over the rose-bush had been really, as Mrs. Frederick herself might have said, Providential. She could not eat anything, but both Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles thought this was because she was deservedly unhappy over her mother’s attitude, and her lack of appetite was not commented on. Valancy forced herself to swallow a cup of tea and then sat and watched the others eat, with an odd feeling that years had passed since she had sat with them at the dinner-table. She found herself smiling inwardly to think what a commotion she could make if she chose. Let her merely tell them what was in Dr. Trent’s letter and there would be as much fuss made as if – Valancy thought bitterly – they really cared two straws about her.
“Dr. Trent’s housekeeper got word from him today,” said Cousin Stickles, so suddenly that Valancy jumped guiltily. Was there anything in thought waves? “Mrs. Judd was talking to her uptown. They think his son will recover, but Dr. Trent wrote that if he did he was going to take him abroad as soon as he was able to travel and wouldn’t be back here for a year at least.”
“That will not matter much to US,” said Mrs. Frederick majestically. “He is not OUR doctor. I would not” – here she looked or seemed to look accusingly right through Valancy – “have HIM to doctor a sick cat.”
“May I go upstairs and lie down?” said Valancy faintly. “I - I have a headache.”
“What has given you a headache?” asked Cousin Stickles, since Mrs. Frederick would not. The question has to be asked. Valancy could not be allowed to have headaches without interference.
“You ain’t in the habit of having headaches. I hope you’re not taking the mumps. Here, try a spoonful of vinegar.”
“Piffle!” said Valancy rudely, getting up from the table. She did not care just then if she were rude. She had had to be so polite all her life.
If it had been possible for Cousin Stickles to turn pale she would have. As it was not, she turned yellower.
“Are you sure you ain’t feverish, Doss? You sound like it. You go and get right into bed,” said Cousin Stickles, thoroughly alarmed, “and I’ll come up and rub your forehead and the back of your neck with Redfern’s Liniment.”
Valancy had reached the door, but she turned. “I won’t be rubbed with Redfern’s Liniment!” she said.
Cousin Stickles stared and gasped. “What – what do you mean?”
“I said I wouldn’t be rubbed with Redfern’s Liniment,” repeated Valancy. “Horrid, sticky stuff! And it has the vilest smell of any liniment I ever saw. It’s no good. I want to be left alone, that’s all.”
Valancy went out, leaving Cousin Stickles aghast.
“She’s feverish – she MUST be feverish,” ejaculated Cousin Stickles.
Mrs. Frederick went on eating her supper. It did not matter whether Valancy was or was not feverish. Valancy had been guilty of impertinence to HER.
Valancy did not sleep that night. She lay awake all through the long dark, hours – thinking – thinking. She made a discovery that surprised her: she, who had been afraid of almost everything in life, was not afraid of death. It did not seem in the least terrible to her. And she need not now be afraid of anything else. Why had she been afraid of things? Because of life. Afraid of Uncle Benjamin because of the menace of poverty in old age. But now she would never be old – neglected – tolerated. Afraid of being an old maid all her life. But now she would not be an old maid very long. Afraid of offending her mother and her clan because she had to live with and among them and couldn’t live peaceably if she didn’t give in to them. But now she hadn’t. Valancy felt a curious freedom.
But she was still horribly afraid of one thing – the fuss the whole jamfry of them would make when she told them. Valancy shuddered at the thought of it. She couldn’t endure it. Oh, she knew so well how it would be. First there would be indignation – yes, indignation on the part of Uncle James because she had gone to a doctor – any doctor – without consulting HIM. Indignation on the part of her mother for being so sly and deceitful – “to your own mother, Doss.” Indignation on the part of the whole clan because she had not gone to Dr. Marsh.
Then would come the solicitude. She would be taken to Dr. Marsh, and when Dr. Marsh confirmed Dr. Trent’s diagnosis she would be taken to specialists in Toronto and Montreal. Uncle Benjamin would foot the bill with a splendid gesture of munificence in thus assisting the widow and orphan, and talk forever after of the shocking fees specialists charged for looking wise and saying they couldn’t do anything. And when the specialists could do nothing for her Uncle James would insist on her taking Purple Pills – “I’ve known them to effect a cure when ALL the doctors had given up”—and her mother would insist on Redfern’s Blood Bitters, and Cousin Stickles would insist on rubbing her over the heart every night with Redfern’s Liniment on the grounds that it MIGHT do good and COULDN’T do harm; and everybody else would have some pet dope for her to take. Dr. Stalling would come to her and say solemnly, “You are very ill. Are you prepared for what may be before you?” – almost as if he were going to shake his forefinger at her, the forefinger that had not grown any shorter or less knobbly with age. And she would be watched and checked like a baby and never let do anything or go anywhere alone. Perhaps she would not even be allowed to sleep alone lest she die in her sleep. Cousin Stickles or her mother would insist on sharing her room and bed. Yes, undoubtedly they would.
It was this last thought that really decided Valancy. She could not put up with it and she wouldn’t. As the clock in the hall below struck twelve Valancy suddenly and definitely made up her mind that she would not tell anybody. She had always been told, ever since she could remember, that she must hide her feelings. “It is not ladylike to have feelings,” Cousin Stickles had once told her disapprovingly. Well, she would hide them with a vengeance.
But though she was not afraid of death she was not indifferent to it. She found that she RESENTED it; it was not fair that she should have to die when she had never lived. Rebellion flamed up in her soul as the dark hours passed by – not because she had no future but because she had no past.
“I’m poor – I’m ugly – I’m a failure – and I’m near death,” she thought. She could see her own obituary notice in the Deerwood Weekly Times, copied into the Port Lawrence Journal. “A deep gloom was cast over Deerwood, etc., etc.” – “leaves a large circle of friends to mourn, etc., etc., etc.” – lies, all lies. Gloom, forsooth! Nobody would miss her. Her death would not matter a straw to anybody. Not even her mother loved her – her mother who had been so disappointed that she was not a boy – or at least, a pretty girl.
Valancy reviewed her whole life between midnight and the early spring dawn. It was a very drab existence, but here and there an incident loomed out with a significance out of all proportion to its real importance. These incidents were all unpleasant in one way or another. Nothing really pleasant had every happened to Valancy.
“I’ve never had one wholly happy hour in my life – not one,” she thought. “I’ve just been a colourless nonentity. I remember reading somewhere once that there is an hour in which a woman might be happy all her life if she could but find it. I’ve never found my hour – never, never. And I never will now. If I could only have had that hour I’d be willing to die.”
Those significant incidents kept bobbing up in her mind like unbidden ghosts, without any sequence of time or place. For instance, that time when, at sixteen, she had blued a tubful of clothes too deeply. And the time when, at eight, she had “stolen” some raspberry jam from Aunt Wellington’s pantry. Valancy never heard the last of those two misdemeanours. At almost every clan gathering they were raked up against her as jokes. Uncle Benjamin hardly ever missed re-telling the raspberry jam incident – he had been the one to catch her, her face all stained and streaked.
“I have really done so few bad things that they have to keep harping on the old ones,” thought Valancy. “Why, I’ve never even had a quarrel with any one. I haven’t an enemy. What a spineless thing I must be not to have even one enemy!”
There was that incident of the dust-pile at school when she was seven. Valancy always recalled it when Dr. Stalling referred to the text, “To him that hath shall be given and from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.” Other people might puzzle over that text but it never puzzled Valancy. The whole relationship between herself and Olive, dating from the day of the dust-pile, was a commentary on it.
She had been going to school a year, but Olive, who was a year younger, had just begun and had about her all the glamour of “a new girl” and an exceedingly pretty girl at that. It was at recess and all the girls, big and little, were out on the road in front of the school making dust-piles. The aim of each girl was to have the biggest pile. Valancy was good at making dust-piles – there was an art in it – and she had secret hopes of leading. But Olive, working off by herself, was suddenly discovered to have a larger dust-pile than anybody. Valancy felt no jealousy. Her dust-pile was quite big enough to please her. Then one of the older girls had an inspiration.
“Let’s put all our dust on Olive’s pile and make a tremendous one,” she exclaimed.
A frenzy seemed to seize the girls. They swooped down on the dust- piles with pails and shovels and in a few seconds Olive’s pile was a veritable pyramid. In vain Valancy, with scrawny, outstretched little arms, tried to protect hers. She was ruthlessly swept aside, her dust-pile scooped up and poured on Olive’s. Valancy turned away resolutely and began building another dust-pile. Again a bigger girl pounced on it. Valancy stood before it, flushed, indignant, arms outspread.
“Don’t take it,” she pleaded. “Please don’t take it.”
“But WHY?” demanded the older girl. “Why won’t you help to build Olives bigger?”
“I want my own little dust-pile,” said Valancy piteously.
Her plea went unheeded. While she argued with one girl another scraped up her dust-pile. Valancy turned away, her heart swelling, her eyes full of tears.
“Jealous – you’re jealous!” said the girls mockingly.
“You were very selfish,” said her mother coldly, when Valancy told her about it at night. That was the first and last time Valancy had ever taken any of her troubles to her mother.
Valancy was neither jealous nor selfish. It was only that she wanted a dust-pile of her own – small or big mattered not. A team of horses came down the street – Olive’s dust pile was scattered over the roadway – the bell rang – the girls trooped into school and had forgotten the whole affair before they reached their seats. Valancy never forgot it. To this day she resented it in her secret soul. But was it not symbolical of her life?
“I’ve never been able to have my own dust-pile,” thought Valancy.
The enormous red moon she had seen rising right at the end of the street one autumn evening of her sixth year. She had been sick and cold with the awful, uncanny horror of it. So near to her. So big. She had run in trembling to her mother and her mother had laughed at her. She had gone to bed and hidden her face under the clothes in terror lest she might look at the window and see that horrible moon glaring in at her through it.
The boy who had tried to kiss her at a party when she was fifteen. She had not let him – she had evaded him and run. He was the only boy who had ever tried to kiss her. Now, fourteen years later, Valancy found herself wishing that she had let him. The time she had been made to apologise to Olive for something she hadn’t done. Olive had said that Valancy had pushed her into the mud and spoiled her new shoes ON PURPOSE. Valancy knew she hadn’t. It had been an accident – and even that wasn’t her fault – but nobody would believe her. She had to apologise – and kiss Olive to “make up.” The injustice of it burned in her soul tonight.
That summer when Olive had the most beautiful hat, trimmed with creamy yellow net, with a wreath of red roses and little ribbon bows under the chin. Valancy had wanted a hat like that more than she had ever wanted anything. She pleaded for one and had been laughed at – all summer she had to wear a horrid little brown sailor with elastic that cut behind her ears. None of the girls would go around with her because she was so shabby – nobody but Olive. People had thought Olive so sweet and unselfish.
“I was an excellent foil for her,” thought Valancy. “Even then she knew that.”
Valancy had tried to win a prize for attendance in Sunday School once. But Olive won it. There were so many Sundays Valancy had to stay home because she had colds. She had once tried to “say a piece” in school one Friday afternoon and had broken down in it. Olive was a good reciter and never got stuck.
The night she had spent in Port Lawrence with Aunt Isabel when she was ten. Byron Stirling was there; from Montreal, twelve years old, conceited, clever. At family prayers in the morning Byron had reached across and given Valancy’s thin arm such a savage pinch that she screamed out with pain. After prayers were over she was summoned to Aunt Isabel’s bar of judgment. But when she said Byron had pinched her Byron denied it. He said she cried out because the kitten scratched her. He said she had put the kitten up on her chair and was playing with it when she should have been listening to Uncle David’s prayer. He was BELIEVED. In the Stirling clan the boys were always believed before the girls. Valancy was sent home in disgrace because of her exceeding bad behavior during family prayers and she was not asked to Aunt Isabel’s again for many moons.
The time Cousin Betty Stirling was married. Somehow Valancy got wind of the fact that Betty was going to ask her to be one of her bridesmaids. Valancy was secretly uplifted. It would be a delightful thing to be a bridesmaid. And of course she would have to have a new dress for it – a pretty new dress – a pink dress. Betty wanted her bridesmaids to dress in pink.
But Betty had never asked her, after all. Valancy couldn’t guess why, but long after her secret tears of disappointment had been dried Olive told her. Betty, after much consultation and reflection, had decided that Valancy was too insignificant—she would “spoil the effect.” That was nine years ago. But tonight Valancy caught her breath with the old pain and sting of it.
That day in her eleventh year when her mother had badgered her into confessing something she had never done. Valancy had denied it for a long time but eventually for peace’ sake she had given in and pleaded guilty. Mrs. Frederick was always making people lie by pushing them into situations where they HAD to lie. Then her mother had made her kneel down on parlour floor, between herself and Cousin Stickles, and say, “O God, please forgive me for not speaking the truth.” Valancy had said it, but as she rose from her knees she muttered, “But O God, YOU know I did speak the truth.” Valancy had not then heard of Galileo but her fate was similar to his. She was punished just as severely as if she hadn’t confessed and prayed.
The winter she went to dancing-school. Uncle James had decreed she should go and had paid for her lessons. How she had looked forward to it! And how she had hated it! She had never had a voluntary partner. The teacher always had to tell some boy to dance with her, and generally he had been sulky about it. Yet Valancy was a good dancer, as light on her feet as thistledown. Olive, who never lacked eager partners, was heavy.
The affair of the button-string, when she was ten. All the girls in school had button-strings. Olive had a very long one with a great many beautiful buttons. Valancy had one. Most of the buttons on it were very commonplace, but she had six beauties that had come off Grandmother Stirling’s wedding-gown – sparkling buttons of gold and glass, much more beautiful than any Olive had. Their possession conferred a certain distinction on Valancy. She knew every little girl in school envied her the exclusive possession of those beautiful buttons. When Olive saw them on the button-string she had looked at them narrowly but said nothing – then. The next day Aunt Wellington had come to Elm Street and told Mrs. Frederick that she thought Olive should have some of those buttons – Grandmother Stirling was just as much Wellington’s mother as Frederick’s. Mrs. Frederick had agreed amiably. She could not afford to fall out with Aunt Wellington. Moreover, the matter was of no importance whatever. Aunt Wellington carried off four of the buttons, generously leaving two for Valancy. Valancy had torn these from her string and flung them on the floor – she had not yet learned that it was unladylike to have feelings – and had been sent supperless to bed for the exhibition.
The night of Margaret Blunt’s party. She had made such pathetic efforts to be pretty that night. Rob Walker was to be there; and two nights before, on the moonlit verandah of Uncle Herbert’s cottage at Mistawis, Rob had really seemed attracted to her. At Margaret’s party Rob never even asked her to dance – did not notice her at all. She was a wallflower, as usual. That, of course, was years ago. People in Deerwood had long since given up inviting Valancy to dances. But to Valancy its humiliation and disappointment were of the other day. Her face burned in the darkness as she recalled herself, sitting there with her pitifully crimped, thin hair and the cheeks she had pinched for an hour before coming, in an effort to make them red. All that came of it was a wild story that Valancy Stirling was rouged at Margaret Blunt’s party. In those days in Deerwood that was enough to wreck your character forever. It did not wreck Valancy’s, or even damage it. People knew SHE couldn’t be fast if she tried. They only laughed at her.
“I’ve had nothing but a second-hand existence,” decided Valancy. “All the great emotions of life have passed me by. I’ve never even had a grief. And have I ever really loved anybody? Do I really love Mother? No, I don’t. That’s the truth, whether it is disgraceful or not. I don’t love her – I’ve never loved her. What’s worse, I don’t even like her. So I don’t know anything about any kind of love. My life has been empty – empty. Nothing is worse than emptiness. Nothing!” Valancy ejaculated the last “nothing” aloud passionately. Then she moaned and stopped thinking about anything for a while. One of her attacks of pain had come on.
When it was over something had happened to Valancy – perhaps the culmination of the process that had been going on in her mind ever since she had read Dr. Trent’s letter. It was three o’clock in the morning – the wisest and most accursed hour of the clock. But sometimes it sets us free.
“I’ve been trying to please other people all my life and failed,” she said. “After this I shall please myself. I shall never pretend anything again. I’ve breathed an atmosphere of fibs and pretences and evasions all my life. What a luxury it will be to tell the truth! I may not be able to do much that I want to do but I won’t do another thing that I don’t want to do. Mother can pout for weeks – I shan’t worry over it. ‘Despair is a free man – hope is a slave.’”
Valancy got up and dressed, with a deepening of that curious sense of freedom. When she had finished with her hair she opened the window and hurled the jar of potpourri over into the next lot. It smashed gloriously against the schoolgirl complexion on the old carriage-shop.
“I’m sick of fragrance of dead things,” said Valancy.