The Black Silk Gowns
 

The Heath twins, Miss Priscilla and Miss Amelia, rose early that morning, and the world looked very beautiful to them--one does not buy a black silk gown every day; at least, Miss Priscilla and Miss Amelia did not. They had waited, indeed, quite forty years to buy this one.

The women of the Heath family had always possessed a black silk gown. It was a sort of outward symbol of inward respectability--an unfailing indicator of their proud position as members of one of the old families. It might be donned at any time after one's twenty-first birthday, and it should be donned always for funerals, church, and calls after one had turned thirty. Such had been the code of the Heath family for generations, as Miss Priscilla and Miss Amelia well knew; and it was this that had made all the harder their own fate--that their twenty- first birthday was now forty years behind them, and not yet had either of them attained this cachet of respectability.

To-day, however, there was to come a change. No longer need the carefully sponged and darned black alpaca gowns flaunt their wearers' poverty to the world, and no longer would they force these same wearers to seek dark corners and sunless rooms, lest the full extent of that poverty become known. It had taken forty years of the most rigid economy to save the necessary money; but it was saved now, and the dresses were to be bought. Long ago there had been enough for one, but neither of the women had so much as thought of the possibility of buying one silk gown. It was sometimes said in the town that if one of the Heath twins strained her eyes, the other one was obliged at once to put on glasses; and it is not to be supposed that two sisters whose sympathies were so delicately attuned would consent to appear clad one in new silk and the other in old alpaca.

In spite of their early rising that morning, it was quite ten o'clock before Miss Priscilla and Miss Amelia had brought the house into the state of speckless nicety that would not shame the lustrous things that were so soon to be sheltered beneath its roof. Not that either of the ladies expressed this sentiment in words, or even in their thoughts; they merely went about their work that morning with the reverent joy that a devoted priestess might feel in making ready a shrine for its idol. They had to hurry a little to get themselves ready for the eleven o'clock stage that passed their door; and they were still a little breathless when they boarded the train at the home station for the city twenty miles away--the city where were countless yards of shimmering silk waiting to be bought.

In the city that night at least six clerks went home with an unusual weariness in their arms, which came from lifting down and displaying almost their entire stock of black silk. But with all the weariness, there was no irritation; there was only in their nostrils a curious perfume as of lavender and old lace, and in their hearts a strange exaltation as if they had that day been allowed a glad part in a sacred rite. As for Miss Priscilla and Miss Amelia, they went home awed, yet triumphant: when one has waited forty years to make a purchase one does not make that purchase lightly.

"To-morrow we will go over to Mis' Snow's and see about having them made up," said Miss Priscilla with a sigh of content, as the stage lumbered through the dusty home streets.

"Yes; we want them rich, but plain," supplemented Miss Amelia, rapturously. "Dear me, Priscilla, but I am tired!"

In spite of their weariness the sisters did not get to bed very early that night. They could not decide whether the top drawer of the spare- room bureau or the long box in the parlor closet would be the safer refuge for their treasure. And when the matter was decided, and the sisters had gone to bed, Miss Priscilla, after a prolonged discussion, got up and moved the silk to the other place, only to slip out of bed later, after a much longer discussion, and put it back. Even then they did not sleep well: for the first time in their lives they knew the responsibility that comes with possessions; they feared--burglars.

With the morning sun, however, came peace and joy. No moth nor rust nor thief had appeared, and the lustrous lengths of shimmering silk defied the sun itself to find spot or blemish.

"It looks even nicer than it did in the store, don't it?" murmured Miss Priscilla, ecstatically, as she hovered over the glistening folds that she had draped in riotous luxury across the chair-back.

"Yes,--oh, yes!" breathed Miss Amelia. "Now let's hurry with the work so we can go right down to Mis' Snow's."

"Black silk-black silk!" ticked the clock to Miss Priscilla washing dishes at the kitchen sink.

"You've got a black silk! You've got a black silk!" chirped the robins to Miss Amelia looking for weeds in the garden.

At ten o'clock the sisters left the house, each with a long brown parcel carefully borne in her arms. At noon--at noon the sisters were back again, still carrying the parcels. Their faces wore a look of mingled triumph and defeat.

"As if we could have that beautiful silk put into a plaited skirt!" quavered Miss Priscilla, thrusting the key into the lock with a trembling hand. "Why, Amelia, plaits always crack!"

"Of course they do!" almost sobbed Miss Amelia. "Only think of it, Priscilla, our silk--cracked!"

"We will just wait until the styles change," said Miss Priscilla, with an air of finality. "They won't always wear plaits!"

"And we know all the time that we've really got the dresses, only they aren't made up!" finished Miss Amelia, in tearful triumph.

So the silk was laid away in two big rolls, and for another year the old black alpaca gowns trailed across the town's thresholds and down the aisle of the church on Sunday. Their owners no longer sought shadowed corners and sunless rooms, however; it was not as if one were obliged to wear sponged and darned alpacas!

Plaits were "out" next year, and the Heath sisters were among the first to read it in the fashion notes. Once more on a bright spring morning Miss Priscilla and Miss Amelia left the house tenderly bearing in their arms the brown-paper parcels--and once more they returned, the brown parcels still in their arms. There was an air of indecision about them this time.

"You see, Amelia, it seemed foolish--almost wicked," Miss Priscilla was saying, "to put such a lot of that expensive silk into just sleeves."

"I know it," sighed her sister.

"Of course I want the dresses just as much as you do," went on Miss Priscilla, more confidently; "but when I thought of allowing Mis' Snow to slash into that beautiful silk and just waste it on those great balloon sleeves, I--I simply couldn't give my consent!--and 'tisn't as though we hadn't got the dresses!"

"No, indeed!" agreed Miss Amelia, lifting her chin. And so once more the rolls of black silk were laid away in the great box that had already held them a year; and for another twelve months the black alpacas, now grown shabby indeed, were worn with all the pride of one whose garments are beyond reproach.

When for the third time Miss Priscilla and Miss Amelia returned to their home with the oblong brown parcels there was no indecision about them; there was only righteous scorn.

"And do you really think that Mis' Snow expected us to allow that silk to be cut up into those skimpy little skin-tight bags she called skirts?" demanded Miss Priscilla, in a shaking voice. "Why, Amelia, we couldn't ever make them over!"

"Of course we couldn't! And when skirts got bigger, what could we do?" cried Miss Amelia. "Why, I'd rather never have a black silk dress than to have one like that--that just couldn't be changed! We'll go on wearing the gowns we have. It isn't as if everybody didn't know we had these black silk dresses!"

When the fourth spring came the rolls of silk were not even taken from their box except to be examined with tender care and replaced in the enveloping paper. Miss Priscilla was not well. For weeks she had spent most of her waking hours on the sitting-room couch, growing thiner, weaker, and more hollow-eyed.

"You see, dear, I--I am not well enough now to wear it," she said faintly to her sister one day when they had been talking about the black silk gowns; "but you--" Miss Amelia had stopped her with a shocked gesture of the hand.

"Priscilla--as if I could!" she sobbed. And there the matter had ended.

       *       *       *       *       *

The townspeople were grieved, but not surprised, when they learned that Miss Amelia was fast following her sister into a decline. It was what they had expected of the Heath twins, they said, and they reminded one another of the story of the strained eyes and the glasses. Then came the day when the little dressmaker's rooms were littered from end to end with black silk scraps.

"It's for Miss Priscilla and Miss Amelia,'" said Mrs. Snow, with tears in her eyes, in answer to the questions that were asked.

"It's their black silk gowns, you know."

"But I thought they were ill--almost dying!" gasped the questioner.

The little dressmaker nodded her head. Then she smiled, even while she brushed her eyes with her fingers.

"They are--but they're happy. They're even happy in this!" touching the dress in her lap. "They've been forty years buying it, and four making it up. Never until now could they decide to use it; never until now could they be sure they wouldn't want to--to make it--over." The little dressmaker's voice broke, then went on tremulously: "There are folks like that, you know--that never enjoy a thing for what it is, lest sometime they might want it--different. Miss Priscilla and Miss Amelia never took the good that was goin'; they've always saved it for sometime--later."