"Cousin Jane's Mistake" (1897)
05-14-2012 12:01 PM
This story has the flavor of Louisa May Alcott—it reminds one of Little Women
and An Old-Fashioned Girl
Click here for a printable version.
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"Cousin Jane's Mistake" by Mary E. Bradley
From St. Nicholas magazine, December 1897
Cousin Jane was an elderly lady who had never married, and who had outlived all her near relatives. A few cousins, some young and some old, some poor and some well-to-do, were all her kinsfolk; and having more money than she chose to spend for herself, she was generous to these cousins on birthdays and holidays.
One Christmas-time she was putting up a number of parcels to be sent by express to a number of people. Through an interruption, which caused some confusion in her arrangements and some hurry in their completion, two of the packages were misdirected; the one intended for a certain Miss Martha Redfield being carefully addressed to Miss Mary Rutherford, while May's parcel was as plainly marked with Martha's name. In her haste, and in the darkness of the waning afternoon, cousin Jane had also, quite unconsciously, exchanged her presentation cards, so that the message meant for Martha went into the box meant for Mary; and vice versa.
In due time each parcel was delivered according to its direction, if not according to intention; and when Martha Redfield, a bright-eyed girl of fifteen, opened hers, she beheld a charming box decorated with painted flowers and bows of satin ribbon.
"A box of candy!" she exclaimed in a tone of surprise.
"Is that all?" asked her mother, in a tone of disappointment. "Well, dear," she added more cheerfully, "you don't often have a present of candy. It will be a treat for you."
"Of course it will," said Martha.
Still, in each face was a wondering and unsatisfied expression.
"I don't know what I expected," Martha remarked presently, with a half-laugh. "And Cousin Jane is so good to us that I ought to be pleased with anything she sends. But—somehow—"
"It seems as if, when she was spending so much as this thing must have cost," added Mrs. Redfield, "she might better have sent you something useful."
"Well, I don't know."
Martha turned about, with a sudden change of tone:
"I'm not sure but I like this better, after all. Cousin Jane always has sent useful things, because she knew we needed them. But just for once to be treated as if she didn't know we needed them!—as if we had as good a right to eat real good candy as her rich cousins—eh, mother?"
"If you look at it that way—! But a beaver muff would keep your hands warmer."
"Never mind! We've got the candy, and I'm going to sample it right away. Which will you have—buttercups or violets? Here's all kinds," cried Martha, defying her plurals recklessly. "Nut-caramels—heavenly! And nougats, and fig-paste—real lumps of delight! Help yourself, mother! It's no use denying that a box of candy is exciting," she rattled on. "Did I ever have one before? Oh, what is this, I wonder?" as she spied a tiny box wedged between two candied apricots. "What do you think it is, mother? 'Something nice for Betsy Price'? But somehow,"—her eyes shining with a new excitement,—"it doesn't look—exactly—like a sugar-plum."
"It looks much more like a ring," said Mrs. Redfield.
"And so it is. Why, mother!"
Martha's eyes grew round as moons, for the lid of the little satin-lined case had sprung open and a lovely single pearl, set on a slim gold hoop, revealed itself.
"A pearl ring!" exclaimed Mrs. Redfield, equally excited. "Well, that is a surprise!"
Martha clasped her hands and rolled up her eyes like a tragedy queen. "The desire of my heart, the dream of my life!" she cried. "But it can't be true. I'm asleep in the middle of a fairy-tale. I shall wake up in the moonlight with a cold in my head, and the pearl will be a popcorn; I'm sure of it."
"Don't be silly," said her mother. "If it's a fairy-tale, Cousin Jane is the fairy—as usual. Here's her card."
She had found a slip of pasteboard with Cousin Jane's name on one side, and on the other, in her prim, old-fashioned writing:
Merry Christmas to my dear Cousin, with the hope that this little gift will prove useful and ornamental.The package addressed to Miss Mary Rutherford was left at a very different-looking place from the plain little home of the Redfield. It was a delightful old red-brick house set in the midst of vines and shrubbery, and its big, sunny parlor, full of books and pictures and flowers and singing-birds and easy-chairs, was equally unlike the Redfield sitting-room, with its faded carpet and well-worn furniture. The mother and daughter were different also. Mary Rutherford was only a year older than Martha, but she was taller and prettier and better dressed, and looked like a young lady, while Martha looked like a school-girl. She had soft, white hands that had never been roughened by work, and sweet, graceful manners that made you certain she had always been shielded from disagreeable things. In fact, she looked like one of the lilies that toil not, neither do they spin. And her mother had the same air of gentle refinement.
"What has Cousin Jane sent you, my dear?" as the parcel was opened. "Something pretty, of course."
"Ye-s," was the daughter's rather hesitating answer. "Pretty enough, I suppose. It seems to be a sort of work-bag."
Mrs. Rutherford raised her eyebrows.
"A work-bag? How curious! Let me see it."
Mary handed it to her mother, and they inspected it together. It was quite large, and made of plum-colored silk with a sky-blue lining and satin drawing-strings. A circle of little pockets were each ornamented with a motto embroidered in blue floss, and inside were a number of working-implements,—scissors, thimble-case, emery-cushion, and darner,—all handsomely mounted in silver. The pockets were filled with papers of needles and spools of silk and thread. It was a completely furnished work-bag, in short, and thoroughly satisfactory—as a work-bag. But as a present it seemed to be a failure.
Mrs. Rutherford looked curiously at the mottoes on the pockets.
"They seem to be very nicely worked," she said. "But I can't quite make them out. Can you?"
"Oh, yes, mama. One of them is, 'Never too late to mend.'"
"Very appropriate, I'm sure."
"But rather pointed, don't you think, mama? Another is, 'A stitch in time saves nine.' Does Cousin Jane think that I go in rags and tags, do you suppose?"
"Oh, it is only a decoration," said her mother. "It is the fashion nowadays to revive old-fashioned things."
"Here is one from the Bible," continued Mary. "'Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.' And here is another, from Proverbs, isn't it? 'She worketh willingly with her hands.' It is a bagful of good advice. I dare say I needed it."
"Did Cousin Jane's card come with it?" asked Mrs. Rutherford. "Perhaps she did not send it, after all. It would be much more like Grandmother Darrow."
"Oh, no! Dear old Grandmother Darrow sent me a bead reticule—don't you remember? And here's the card, besides: 'Kindest love to my dear Cousin, and wishing she may always possess the pearl of great price.' What has the pearl of great price got to do with a silk work-bag, mama?"
"I'm sure I don't know! Unless she thinks that King Lemuel's is the only pattern for a perfect woman."
"It is not quite clear, even so," returned Mary. "But it is a handsome bag, at all events."
She took it quietly to her room, and no more was said about it. But in her heart she was mortified and disappointed. Cousin Jane's gifts to her, hitherto, had always seemed to confer, and imply, a sort of distinction. Her choicest books, the Parian statuettes on her mantel, the fine engravings that decorated her own room, the Florentine mosaics that were her prettiest ornaments,—all these were tokens of Cousin Jane's good taste, and tributes to her appreciation of it. She had never sent her anything commonplace before; and far from expecting it on this occasion, Mary had dreamed of something still more individual and significant. It was only a word of Cousin Jane's, a smiling allusion to her pretty hands, that gave her the idea. "But I thought," said Mary, as her pretty hands hung up the bag—"I did think she meant to send me a pearl ring!"
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In due time Cousin Jane, who had never suspected her mistake, received two letters of acknowledgment. The first, from Martha, was overflowing with gratitude:
How can I think you enough, you dear, dear Cousin Jane, for your beautiful gift? Ornamental? I never had anything so ornamental before! And useful, too, in a way that I feel better than I can express. How came you to guess at the wish of my heart? It's like a lovely dream come true. Thank you a thousand times, dear Cousin Jane, for your constant kindness toThe one from Mary Rutherford was cooler in its tone:
Your grateful, affectionate
Dear Cousin Jane: Thank you very much for your kind gift. I hope it will help me to find "pearls of great price"—more than one of them, perhaps. I am ashamed to own that I have not been a diligent seeker after such treasure. But "it is never to late to mend," and some day I hope you will see that your suggestions have taken effect. With best love from mama and my brothers,These letters were rather puzzling to Cousin Jane. She read Mary's twice over, and laid it down with a sigh.
Your always affectionate cousin,
"I must say it is hardly what I expected from her," she soliloquized. "But poor little Martha is pleased, at any rate. She seems more delighted with her work-bag than Mary with her pearl ring. I took pains with that ring, too. It's a very fine pearl, whether she knows it or not. She never even mentions the candy, either, though I thought most girls were pleased with good candy in fancy boxes. Hopes I will see that my suggestions have taken effect—what does she mean by that, I wonder? I think I'll have to write and ask her."
But Cousin Jane was not given to letter-writing, except on business. She had considerable correspondence of that sort, and many other ways of using her time; so she never wrote to Mary, after all. Some months later, however, she had occasion to visit the distant city where the Rutherfords lived; and after settling her business affairs, she went to spend the night with her cousins.
It was always pleasant to visit them; for she liked the atmosphere of the house. Mrs. Rutherford was a very gracious lady, gentle and kindly; her sons were well-bred, intelligent young men; and Mary, who had been a lovely child always, seemed to her now quite the ideal young girl, pure and fair as a lily, without and within. Secretly, Cousin Jane had always been a little sentimental about Mary Rutherford. She never said so to any one; but in her heart she loved her best of all the cousins.
That evening, as she sat alone with Mary in her own room, she thought the young girl looked more like a lily than ever. Mary had asked her to come in for a bedtime talk after she had said good-night to the rest of the family; and Mary began the talk with a sweet seriousness that her cousin found charming.
"I've been wishing for a long time to see you all by myself," she said. "There were too many things to write, and I never can write a letter that satisfies me, either. But I did want you to know how much a certain present of yours had done for me."
"Really? I wonder you don't wear it, then?" for Cousin Jane had noticed with surprise that the pearl ring was not on her finger.
"I can't exactly wear it," Mary answered, surprised in her turn; "but it has been about with me a great deal, I assure you. And without vanity, I think I can tell you that it has done a good work for an idle, self-indulgent girl."
"If you are the girl, I never heard you described by those adjectives," said Cousin Jane, warmly.
"Because every one has spoiled me. You were the first one to suggest to me that it was never too late to mend."
"That's news too," returned her cousin. "I never thought, myself, that you needed mending. What do you mean, child?"
"Why, the work-bag, you know. Don't you remember that beautiful silk bag, with the proverbs on the pockets, and the silver things inside? The card, too, with such a dear wish on it? Here it is, Cousin Jane, card and all. It has been my best friend ever since you sent it; though I am ashamed to confess that it was a disappointment—just at first."
She took the work-bag from its hook, as she spoke, and held it up before her cousin, who could hardly believe the evidence of her own eyes.
"What are you doing with Martha's bag?" was her astonished outcry. "I never sent that thing to you. I sent it to Martha Redfield."
"To Martha Redfield?" Mary repeated, dropping the bag in her bewilderment. "What do you mean, Cousin Jane? Who is Martha Redfield?"
"One of my cousins. At least her father was. He is dead now, and she and her mother have none too much to live upon. Martha is in the High School, and means to teach as soon as she can."
"And you sent the work-bag to her? You meant the mottoes for her? And the card too?"
"I never noticed that there were any mottoes," said Cousin Jane. "I bought the bag at the woman's Exchange. It looked strong and serviceable, and I knew Martha would have plenty of use for such a thing. I put the silver scissors, and so forth, inside, to make it a little more festive. As for the card,"—holding it up to the light, and studying it through her spectacles,—"that has no business to be here. It should have gone with the pearl ring, of course."
"The pearl ring?" exclaimed Mary, catching her breath sharply.
"Certainly. The ring that I sent you in a box of candy."
"A box of candy, too? Cousin Jane!"
Mary sat down hastily, and stared before her with an unusual look in her face. Her hands clenched themselves in her lap; she bit her lips to crush back rising tears; and presently she laughed hysterically.
"I hope," she sobbed, unable to control her self any longer—"I hope Martha Redfield is happy with my ring! It was the thing I wanted you to give me! And one doesn't have a box of candy every day—but you like a little—to offer your girl-friends—"
She broke down with a sob; and Cousin Jane, seeing the truth at last, cried out indignantly:
"You shall have another box to-morrow! And Martha shall send back the ring. She might have known it was not meant for her! Never mind, my dear. I suppose I must have made a stupid mistake. I'm getting old, child! But it won't take long to settle this business. I'll stop and see Martha on my way home to-morrow."
"No, no, Cousin Jane! Please don't!"
Mary pulled herself together with a brave effort.
"I couldn't bear to have that done," as she dashed away her tears. "Just fancy how she would feel! Oh, I know by myself. Please don't!"
"But I meant it for you," protested Cousin Jane, clasping Mary's hand and stroking it fondly. "This is just the dear little hand to wear pearls. They suit it, and they suit you."
"How sweet to have you say so!" And Mary blushed with pleasure, but persisted still: "Martha thinks you meant it for her, all this time; and how mortifying it would be to have to give it up to another girl now! It was foolish and babyish of me to cry about it. I am ashamed of myself; and really I couldn't take it from her. I should always feel as if I had robbed her, and so would she. Besides,"—with a sunshiny smile, and a squeeze of Cousin Jane's hand,—"I should have to give up my beloved work-bag, don't you see? And I can't possibly part with that. You listen now till I tell you what a Moral Regenerator my bag has been."
There was a long talk after this—the sort of talk that girls pour out sometimes to sympathetic older people who are not their mothers or sisters. Cousin Jane discovered that, sweet and lily-like Mary always was, she had been in danger of growing up indolent, purposeless, even selfish; and that the work-bag and its pointed texts had opened her eyes to that fact. The inference that things were different nowadays followed naturally. It appeared that Mary's mother had been relieved of various household cares—"all the mending, for instance!"—and that the Moral Regenerator had been the leader in organizing a guild to work for the Children's Hospital, where just such work was needed. Mary was very simple and modest about it all, but very much in earnest, full of enthusiasm and self-forgetting interest. Listening to her, Cousin Jane thought that putting one's heart into such work might be one of the ways of seeking, and finding, "the pearl of great price."
Late in the afternoon of another day, she stopped over a train on her way home, to call upon the Redfields. She had faithfully promised not to speak of the mistake which had been made; but after this talk with Mary, she was curious to see if the ring had a story to tell as well as the work-bag.
Fortunately, Mrs. Redfield was not at home. Martha sat alone in the little parlor, studying her lessons between firelight and twilight; but she sprang up to greet her visitor with evident delight.
"Cousin Jane! You are the person I was wishing for just this minute. It's like a fairy godmother that comes when you think of her."
"Indeed? And why did you happen to think of a fairy godmother just now?" asked Cousin Jane, smiling as she took the easy-chair which Martha drew up to the grate for her.
"I don't know. I was trying to study my lessons, but the firelight kept shining on this," lifting up her ring-finger,—"and then I fell to thinking of you, and wishing I could tell you something."
"So you can, you see. I have come to listen to you."
"I see you have! And it truly is like a fairy godmother," cried Martha, her eyes dancing with happy excitement. "But it's been a sort of fairy-tale, you know, ever since I got my ring. Did you guess that it was going to make a real happy little girl, a real good little girl, out of cross-patch Martha?"
"Wasn't she happy and good before?" asked Cousin Jane.
"Well—not much. Not always, anyhow."
Martha laughed, and poked the fire till the sparks flew up.
"You see, it comes easy to some girls to be angels," she continued; "but I'm not one of them."
"Comes easy?—why? Because their lives are easy?"
"Partly. It's easier to be good, of course, when you're comfortable, and you know your mother isn't worrying about the house rent, or your winter clothes, or—'any old thing'! But some girls are good in spite of all that. They have been born sweet, you see, and trials only make them sweeter. Little Martha wasn't cut by their pattern."
"What is Martha's pattern, then?" laughed Cousin Jane.
"She was cut on the bias, I'm afraid. And it made her pull the wrong way. She used to look at everything through blue glasses."
"Used to? And what does she do now?"
"She looks through a big, beautiful pearl," said Martha, gaily; "and it makes all the difference in the world."
"Suppose you tell me about it," returned Cousin Jane, very much interested. "I always liked the fairy-tale about pearls and toads."
"It isn't quite so bad as that! But still it's bad enough. May I sit on the hassock at your feet while I tell you? And do you mind not having the gas lighted?"
"Not at all. I can see your face by the firelight."
"I think I didn't want you to see my face," Martha replied, settling herself on the hassock. "But no matter. I'm going to make an honest confession."
"That's always good for the soul, my dear."
"You've been very good to mother and me, Cousin Jane. And my name is Gip," was Martha's beginning. "Only you have to spell it backward."
"Gip?" Cousin Jane looked puzzled.
"Spelled backward," repeated Martha.
"Oh!" And Cousin Jane understood.
"Yes, just so! As I remarked, you've been awfully good to us, and mother has been grateful. She has welcomed the new gowns, and the old ones to make over. She has blessed you, with tears in her eyes, for the checks that carried her through tight places. As for me, I've said in my heart every time, 'Cousin Jane treats us like paupers, and we are paupers; but I hate it—I hate it—I hate it! I wish she would ever send us something that we didn't need.'"
"Oh!" said Cousin Jane again.
And Martha said again, her cheeks red with honest blushes:
"Yes, just so! I was as mean as that, and I never, never deserved to be rewarded with this dear, lovely ring. But, all the same, it was a beautiful inspiration. What made you think of it, Cousin Jane? I wish you'd tell me!"
"Impossible, my dear," replied Cousin Jane, remembering her promise to Mary. "Perhaps it was just a beautiful inspiration, as you say."
"It has been one to me, at all events. I don't know if I can make you understand, but it uplifted me, and it cast me down. It made me proud, and it made me ashamed."
"They were natural feelings, said Cousin Jane, kindly; "and both were wholesome."
"You think so? Oh, you do understand!" Martha exclaimed fervently. "How glad I am of the chance to talk it out with you! I'm not a shining light yet—far from it. But whenever I look at this pearl, I think of what I ought to be, and it gives me some of the right kind of thoughts—it truly does."
"I'm truly glad to hear it, Martha."
"I thought you'd like to know that it puts a kind of pearliness into all my views of life. And, on the other hand,"—with a twinkle of fun in her honest eyes,—"when the girls admire it, and envy me, it's no use denying that I do feel kind of biggety."
"Biggety?" repeated Cousin Jane; and Martha laughed, and explained.
"A little toploftical, I mean. There isn't a girl in class who has anything to compare with my ring; and it does make me feel so—becoming to myself."
"You foolish child!"
But Cousin Jane liked the foolishness, and sympathized with the girlish confidences, which were different from Mary Rutherford's, but as natural and innocent in their way.
Mrs. Redfield came in by and by, and the gas was lighted, and Martha ran off to make a cup of tea for her visitor. Afterward she went down to the railroad station with her; and Cousin Jane thought, as she kissed her good-by, that her mistake had done no one any harm. On the contrary, it had shown her, as she might never have seen it otherwise, the true natures of two lovable girls.
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