The Second Chance by Nellie L. McClung
Chapter XIV. "In Case----"
Ah! well for us all some deep hope lies Deeply buried from mortal eyes.
Pearl went around the settlement the next week, to tell the people that there would be church in the schoolhouse the next Sunday afternoon.
On Monday evening, coming home from school, she went into the Perkins home. She had not seen Martha since she had lived at the Motherwells' the year before. It was a large frame house, with a well-kept garden in front and a hedge of purple and white lilacs in full bloom. Pearl was standing looking at the hedge in mute enjoyment, when Martha came out to get green onions and lettuce for tea.
"Take some lilacs, Pearl," she said, pointing to them. "They are pretty, aren't they?"
"Oh, Martha!" Pearl cried, "you must be happy living with these things. Don't you just wish you could gather up all the poor little children? Mr. Donald was reading to us out of a magazine to-day, and showing us the pictures of how they are crowded together in the cities, and never see any grass, just all side walks and black dirt. Wouldn't you love to let them all have a look and a smell and armful and be happy for once?"
"I guess it doesn't do much good to be once if it doesn't last."
"Well, I don't know," Pearl said, after some deliberation. "I believe it does. I've often heard Ma tell about the day she and Pa were married, how the sun just danced on the flowers and the grass, and she carried a big sheaf of lilacs, and when she came to this country, and it was all so new and bare, and no flowers only the wild ones, and she hadn't got used to them, she often thought of them lilacs and pretty near smelled them again, and cried over them, and got real happy just thinkin' of them. You know there's a lot in lilacs, more than their beauty. Some flowers have a lot in them, just like people. Now, there's the wild sunflower, it's a pretty flower, with real rich colours, yellow and brown; but nobody ever cries over it, or has a good time over it in any way, because it doesn't make you think of anything."
"It's just a weed," Martha said with conviction.
"Well, now," Pearl went on, "even some weeds have something in them. There's the blue cockle and the ball mustard. They're bad weeds, but they're pretty. They've got a sort of a bold-as-brass look about them, and they have to be pulled, but they're pretty."
"Yes; they're pretty," Martha agreed. She had often thought about the cockle as she pulled it out of the garden. The flaming purple of it, so strong and bold and defiant, seemed to mock her and sneer at her sallow face and streaky, hay-coloured hair. In her best moments she had often wondered how it could be so bad when it was so beautiful, but there were times, too, when she had almost envied the bold and evil cockle, and thought bitterly that somehow it had the best of it.
"But what's the use of its lovely flashing purple?" Pearl said, as if in answer to her thoughts. "Nobody likes it, and it just gets rooted up and flung in heaps. It only takes up room and spoils crops and makes people mad. Look at the mignonette--it isn't pretty, but everybody loves it and plants it, and don't think a garden's a garden without it. Oh, I tell ye, Martha, beauty ain't everything, unless, ye can back it up with something better. Lots of the finest people on earth ain't much to look at, but nobody thinks of that."
Pearl was pinning a spray of lilac on her print dress as she talked. Then she made known her errand.
"Yes, I'll go," Martha said, readily. "And so will Bud. He likes Mr. Burrell. Pa and Ma will go, too, I guess. I'll be glad to have somewhere to go on Sunday afternoons--it's lonesome since Edith went to Winnipeg. Come in, Pearl. You've never been in our house yet, have you?"
Pearl followed her into the big kitchen, spotlessly clean and comfortable. Three windows let in the afternoon sunlight, windows that sparkled from a recent washing; a trailing fuchsia in full bloom, in an old wash-basin painted green, was suspended from the ceiling in front of the east window. There were flowers in every window, abundant in bloom, showing that a loving hand was caring for them. On the wall was a paper-holder made of cretonne with beads outlining the flowers.
"Did Mrs. Cavers make that?" Pearl asked quickly. "Yes," Martha said. "Mrs. Cavers gave it to mother years ago."
There was a bookshelf made by stringing together empty spools, with two boards covered with flowered cretonne for the shelves, but the only books on it were a cook-book, covered with oil-cloth, and Kendall's Horse Book. A framed picture of "Dan Patch" was on the wall.
"That belongs to Bud," she said smiling. "He's the greatest boy for horses--he's always training the colts, down in the pasture. He has one now that is a pacer. He's always wanting to run his colts in the races, but father won't let him. I've never been a race in my life, have you?"
"Oh, yes," Pearl said. "I've been at every race that I ever was near enough to go to, or lacrosse match or baseball match, or anything. You sure must come to the Pioneers' Picnic this year, Martha; we will have a splendid time."
"I've never had time to go," Martha said slowly. "I've always had to stay home and look after things, and besides, I don't know many people and I don't like going among strangers. I often get lonesome now since Mrs. Cavers has gone to live on the other farm, and I am real glad you came over, Pearl. I hope you and I will be good friends."
Pearl looked at her with quick sympathy.
"You bet we will, Martha," she said heartily.
Martha's pale face flushed with pleasure. Pearl was quick to notice what a fine forehead and what steady, calm eyes she had, and that she would be a good-looking girl if her hair were combed becomingly. Poor Martha, who stayed so much at home, knew but one way of hair-dressing, which was to part it in the middle and comb it straight back--the way hair was done when her mother was young. She was dressed in a clean, starched dress of gray print, plain as a nun's. Pearl noticed that her teeth were clean and even, and her active brain was doing a rapid summing-up of Martha's chances for beauty.
"Look at how pretty her teeth are," she was thinking to herself; "she may not know how to do her hair, but you bet she takes care of them. Whether or not yer hair's combed right is a matter of style, but clean or dirty teeth is a matter of the heart. Martha's heart's all right, you bet; and say, wouldn't she look fine in a wine, coloured dress, made long, with lots of fluffy things to make her look rounder and fatter, and her hair like Miss Morrison's, all kinkly and puffed, with a smashin' big combs with diamonds--no, I wouldn't just like a big comb either, it wouldn't suit her face. I just wish Camilla could live in the house with her for a while. She'd make Martha look a different girl. She's got hair, too," Pearl was thinking, "but she rolls it into such a hard little nub you'd never know. It needs to be all fluffed out. That nub of hair is just like Martha herself. It's all there, good stuff in it, but it needs to be fluffed out."
"Stay for tea, Pearl," Martha was saying. "Father and Mother are away, and there's only Bud and me at home."
Pearl readily agreed. She had told her mother that she probably would not be home for tea. Pearl's social instincts were strong.
Martha took her into the parlour, a close, stuffy little room, and showed some of her treasured possessions. There were the hair-wreath, the seed-wreath, and the wax flowers, which, to Pearl, were triumphs of art. There were three huckaback cushions standing stiff and grand on the high back of the lounge, and another one made of little buns of silk beside them, all far beyond the reach of mortal head.
"Do you never use them, Martha?" Pearl asked, touching them gently. "Do you know, I like cushions that are not half as pretty, but look more friendly like and welcome. But these are just lovely," she added quickly.
An enlarged picture of Mr. Perkins was on one wall, while on the opposite side of the room hung one of Mrs. Perkins.
Pearl told the other children about them when she went home. "There they are," she said, "just glarin' straight at each other, day and night, winter or summer, just the same, neither one of them givin' in an inch. 'I can stare as long as you,' you'd think they was saying, the way they've got their eyes glued on one another; and it ain't cheerful."
A hanging lamp, with its fringe of glittering pendants, hung over a table made of spools like the bookshelves, and covered with a drape of tissue paper table-napkins, cut into a deep fringe around the edge.
The table that held the family Bible had a cover made of rope, hanging in huge tassels down at each corner. Under the carpet had been placed newspapers, to make it wear better, and it crackled noisily as they walked over it. On the window curtains were pinned little calendars and Christmas cards, stuck on ribbons.
To Pearl these decorations were full of beauty, all except the wool wreath, which hung over the lounge in a deep frame covered with glass; but its indigo and mustard coloured roses and swollen bright green leaves made her suspicious that it was not in keeping with the findings of good taste.
There was something in Pearl's sympathetic interest that encouraged Martha to show her the contents of a cupboard upstairs in her room.
There were quilts in abundance. Martha held them up lovingly in different angles to show how they "make a pattern every way you look at them." There were the "Pavements of New York" in blue and white, the "Double Irish Chain" in red and white, "Fox and Geese" in buff and white; there were daintily hemstitched sheets and pillow covers; there were hooked mats in great variety, a lovely one in autumn leaves which seemed a wonderful creation to Pearl; there were pin-cushions, all ribbon and lace, and picture-frames ready for pictures, made of pine cones that Martha had gathered on the sand-hills of the Assiniboine.
When Pearl had feasted her eyes on all these wonders and praised them abundantly, Martha opened her trunk and showed her a still more precious store of hand embroidery, such beautiful garments as Pearl had never dreamed of.
"Martha," she cried impulsively, "are you going to be married, too?"
Martha's pale face flushed painfully, and Pearl was quick to see her mistake.
"No, I am not, Pearl," she answered steadily.
"Not just now," Pearl said, trying to speak carelessly; "but, of course, you will some time. Such a clever girl as you are will be sure to get married. You're a dandy housekeeper, Martha, and when it comes to gettin' married, that's what counts."
"Oh, no, Pearl, there are other things more important than that," Martha spoke sadly and with settled conviction. She was standing at the foot of the bed, looking out between the muslin curtains at the level stretch of country, bordered by the wooded river bank. She had been looking at this same scene, varied only by the changing seasons, for many weary, wearing years, and the big elms on the river bank had looked back indifferently, although they must have known that Martha was growing old, that Martha was fading, and that the chances of the trunk and cupboardful ever being used were growing less. The long arms of the windmill on the barn caught the sunlight and threw it in a thousand dancing splinters on the floor behind her.
"Being a good housekeeper hasn't got anything to do with getting married," she said again, and her voice was tense with feeling. "I can work and keep house, and sew and bake; but no man would ever fancy me' why should he? A man wants his wife to be pretty and smart and bright, and what am I?"
The strain in her voice struck Pearl's heart with pity.
"I am old, and wrinkled, and weatherbeaten. Look at that, Pearl." She held up her hands, so cruelly lined and calloused: "That's my picture; they look like me."
"No, no, no!" Pearl cried, throwing her arms around Martha's thin shoulders, and holding her tight in her strong young arms. "You're only twenty-five, and that's not old; and your looks are all right if you would only do your hair out bigger and fluffier, and you'd get to be a better figure if you'd breathe deep, and throw back your shoulders, and sleep with your windows open. I read all about it, and I'll get it for you. It was in a paper Camilla gets--a long piece called 'How to Be Pretty, though Plain.' I am doin' the things, too, and we'll do them together, Martha. See here, Martha, here's the way to breathe, and here's the way to throw back your shoulders"--suiting the action to the word--"and a cold bath every morning will give you rosy cheeks."
She kissed Martha impulsively. "Oh, you bet you'll get married, Martha, and I'll be your bridesmaid--me and Bud will be it--and Lib Cavers will be maid of honour and carry a shock of lilacs, and I'll write a piece about it for the paper."
Martha smiled bravely, and Pearl was too polite to notice that her eyes were suspiciously dewy.
"Oh, no, Pearl," she said, as she put away all the things carefully, "I guess I'll never be married; but I love to make these things, and when I'm sewing at them I often imagine things, foolish things that'll never be; but I have them all ready, anyway"--she was closing down her trunk lid--"I have them ready, anyway--in case--well, just in case----".