The Color That Was Not Akin
—My tea-gown was made of gray cashmere, and it was trimmed with yards and yards of “old rose ” ribbon; my cousin Pamela had been a serious, literal person, with pale brown hair combed smoothly back of her ears. The tea-gown was pronounced in effect; my cousin Pamela was neutral, and yet the gown forever reminded me of her. Whatever it is, said I to myself, it is not the colors. They are not suggestive of a character neutral and unaggressive! It was not the cut of the gown, because cousin Pamela’s waists were rigid, the skirts voluminous. I puzzled over the matter, and then I discovered that, after all, the suggestion was in the colors, — in the psychological effect of one on the other, the pink on the gray. As contraries carry suggestions, what the pink was to the gray, that had life not been to cousin Pamela. My cousin Pamela was not consciously evasive, but I see now how subject she was to conditions, and she did evade herself and the world. Never was there a more simple-minded, sincere woman, but she was not well placed. She was not the shade of gray she appeared to be, and so did not harmonize. I think that in spite of her quiet character every one felt there was a discordant element around her, and I remember the family used to explain and account for her. Yet I am sure there was nothing to explain or account for in her character, certainly not in her life. It was the blue with which her life was surrounded that brought out false effects. It made her character barren and cold where it should have been gently joyous. “When she died, people thought of her as they might of a nun, and the clergyman said at her funeral that she had led a life of self-abnegation. I do not think so. She missed much, but she surrendered very little. She was one of the women who cannot make lives for themselves, but who take the bread offered to them. If I do not thrive on bran bread, it becomes me to get wheat; but if, like a young bird, I sit still and open my mouth for whatever comes, I must thrive as I can. There was no question of cousin Pamela’s industry or devotion, and she took a great interest in people and in details. Thus she lived in the life of others. She was like the traveler who stays at home and reads stories of foreign lands. After a time he knows more of Africa than the African does, but no ship ever sets sail with him as passenger for the African shores. So cousin Pamela had opinions upon all she heard about, but there was little that her own experience ever touched. She was always interested in our affairs, living with us as she did. And it was easy to be interested in us, we were so merry, so much alive. My father and mother were exactly the same age, and had married young; and when I came to be old enough to share their busy social life, I took my place, and nothing was different between us, except that they had their friends and I had lovers. The play went on around cousin Pamela, but she never dreamed of going on the stage, nor indeed of sitting in the audience. She busied herself about the wings, and saw the wrong side of the scenery. She fancied she knew how everything looked ; but how could she, when the actors turned their backs on her, and the property-man was ever in her mind? Yet by her orderly supervision of affairs she helped keep the centre of gravity in its place; and I know of no greater cause of disturbance than the allowing of the centre of gravity to shift about. Everything pulls wrong, and readjustments are difficult.
She was a pink gray, and was trimmed with blue. That made all the difference in the world to her. There are colors that stand up for themselves, as, for instance, yellow ; and there are colors which depend on others, as there is a shade that is olive-green if brown is used with it, or brown if you put it against green. Then there are other colors which depend on the kind of lighting they get, so that stores must have dark, windowless rooms in which evening goods can be shown by gaslight. There are also the daylight colors: blue or pink in the sunshine ; green, yellow at night ; and as the twilight grows, what becomes more black than does red ? It is easy to see how colors vary, and how they depend on conditions. There is a philosophy which discourses upon all this, but with that we just now have nothing to do. Here it is that colors differ from tones. A tone is an honest, uncompromising creation. Given so many vibrations, and you will get the tone you want, be it day or night, light or dark, noisy or still. If the medium be but true, and “ untempered ” by the hand of the tuner, A is A, and not G, and A sharp is not B flat. Colors are evasive, and have to be held to their promises, but tones travel in paths of truth.
Cousin Pamela knew that our view of life differed from her own; of course she made her own the standard of comparison, and was often sorry for us, but we took her for granted. We thought her old in years, and she was also an invalid ; and these two facts accounted for a great deal, and stood for themselves. You had to surrender a good many things, but you did not care, because you did not want to do them. Being sick governed the whole case. As for age, she really was not much older than my parents, but she counted her years, and not her strength. In the circle to which she belonged, people “ settled ” early. From fifteen to twenty they went up-hill, from fifty to death they went down; and so there was a long level of thirty years, when unmarried women or women without children were middle-aged. And I am not sure that this is not a most comfortable division of life. You leave the fever and fret of youth, and have not come to the indifference of age. On such a plateau we should be serene, and there should be little force lost in friction. Perhaps cousin Pamela settled herself early because she had no thought of marrying. She had had her little dream, having, as might have been expected, fallen in love with her minister. She viewed him as a saint in the pulpit, and a suffering widower at home. What the odor is to the rose, so, to her, were his sermons to his character, and she spent long hours, when she was busy with her needle, dreaming of all she could do to make him happy. After a while she came to know him personally, and love died from starvation. The seed was sown on a rock, and there was no nourishment for it. He was commonplace, selfish, and uninteresting, and the glamour faded before such facts. After this, she had no thought of love ; she was too busy thinking of all she had to do.
People take it for granted that old maids must have histories, that every human being must go through a given experience; but hearts often sleep from birth to death. It is as foolish a mistake as to suppose that all married people who are content are so because they love. Real love is a key-tone struck in heaven, and very few of us can sing in the pitch it gives. Cousin Pamela sighed sometimes, remembering, but she had lost nothing; she had had nothing.
One of the shaping tenets of her life was her resolution in holding on to the position of a lady. She drew the line between the lady and the working-woman on the question of payment. A lady could do anything that was necessary, because work degraded no one, but a lady was never paid. It was payment that degraded. What my mother gave her in clothing cousin Pamela accepted as her due, but not as wages. She gave her services for protection, and because it became her, as a member of the family, to be useful.
This was cousin Pamela as we knew her, but she was in truth something different, because she was forever being explained. Why should so simple a character need explanation? I believe that if her soul was in death sown by us as wheat, in its new birth it came up a rose-bush, or a portulaca, or perhaps even a palm-tree, and so in the other life we shall never recognize her! That is why she was so curious in many ways, and what we thought eccentricities in her were the hints given by an undeveloped, suppressed creature. If she had had a fond mother, who would have placed her in a hot-house atmosphere, and then expected things of her, who can tell what she might have been !
I come back to it, — her life should have been trimmed with old rose, and not with blue. My parents and I found blue most satisfactory and becoming, but it made our poor cousin lead-colored. It killed the sensitive gray of her character, and I am sure we never saw her as she was. I fear she never knew herself, — not in this life.