In Her Dotage

NEAR a group of tall modern buildings that stole each other’s light and air, and covered every inch of ground allotted to them, stood in the midst of a garden a dignified old house of years ago. A high stone wall surrounded it, to insure that privacy which once upon a time was the most refined distinction of the well-born. Spring waved her first banner in that garden, and all the town knew she had arrived when the magnolia dutifully opened its white blossoms to herald the season, and later, to confirm it, the lilacs hung their flowering branches over the wall, whilst the twisted boughs of the decrepit Judas tree turned the deep pink of blood.

On these warm days the mistress of the house trotted up and down, with a quick, shaky step, the well-raked gravel walk. She was a little old lady of eighty-five, whose wrinkled face still preserved something of the pink-andwhite coloring of her younger days. The blue eyes had grown dim, and the faded eyebrows gave the delicate face an expression of weakness, though weak she had never really been ; indeed, in the trifling romance of her life firmness had played an important part.

She had plenty of leisure now to think over the past, and look back on the episode of sentiment that had become the rudder of her subsequent life. Nothing nowadays seemed half as real and bright as the mere memory of those joys and that one regret. When she was tired walking she dozed on a bench, with a shawl thrown over her knees and a cushion beneath her feet. After she was well rested, she sat placidly, with her hands folded in her lap, and dreamed wide-awake dreams. She dreamt that she wore again a white muslin gown and danced at a ball. It was unlike all other balls, and ranked now as a ceremony, taking its place in the line of baptism, confirmation, and marriage ; for it was there she had met him the first time.

He was almost a stranger in his home, having just returned after many years of absence and travel. His life of adventure and movement had trained him to quick decision and a rapid, clear insight into character : so he had made up his mind promptly that the demure girl with the sweet, frank face was the best thing his eyes had ever rested on, and he danced with her so often that her mother anxiously sought out their hostess, and, with the old-fashioned care of a daughter, inquired much about this new partner. When he begged Mrs. Armstrong’s permission to show her daughter a flower in the conservatory, she gave her consent, but returned immediately to her hostess’s side with more eager questions. In the conservatory, after the acquaintance of a few hours, he asked Miss Armstrong to be his wife. She could still feel how she had drawn herself up haughtily, resenting with girlish pride the thought that she should be so easily won. Yet he was very handsome and agreeable ; she liked him better than any one she had ever met before : so there had been a flutter and strange uneasiness in her heart as she answered : “ It is impossible, Mr. Ashley. It is even absurd.” She would not give him the slightest hope, for this delightful stranger, with his startling, unpremeditated proposal, filled her with distrust; and when, a short time later, she sailed for Europe, it was quite lightheartedly, with no more than a tepid thought, half tender, half scornful, for the too hasty admirer whom she left behind, and it was not until three long years after that she met him again. He had been very reserved then; she smiled to herself as she remembered the diplomacy with which he held aloof and the fright it caused her, until she detected the cautious advance of a suit that in another six months he brought to a successful issue when she became Mrs. Ashley.

Never had there been a moment when either regretted the step they had taken. In the damaged sheepfold of a gay social life, no outsider’s name ever came between them. Interests and pleasures were shared in common until age quietly removed the more energetic occupations from their path ; then they took short walks in the sunshine together, and longer drives when the roads were good and the winds soft. They scarcely realized they had grown old. Why should they ? For love is youth, and kind hearts have Indian summers in their old age. Then the day came when he died, and to her surprise she lived on. Sorrows seem deadly as poison at first; perhaps it requires all the trifling ones in a life to make the overdose of grief harmless when it comes at last. She thought often of that first lonely day when she put on her years with her mourning, and remembered that she was seventy and childless.

How things had changed since then ! The winters had grown longer and colder ; even spring, seen through her eyeglasses, had turned dreary, though no other shadows fell around Mrs. Ashley, as she sat in her peaceful garden, than those cast by the blossoming trees and the tall iris in the flower beds. Of an afternoon the garden was stirred by a wilder current of spring than that of the roses and the lilacs. The old lady’s nieces and nephews, with their children, invaded the quiet precincts ; the dogs that had lain asleep all morning roused themselves to rush madly after each other and the flying legs of little girls ; the old carriage horse in the grass-grown stableyard hung his toothless head over the railing and tried to neigh. The breeze, as it scattered the petals of the peach blossom and blew into clinging folds the soft drapery of gowns, lifted, as it passed, the gray curls around Mrs. Ashley’s face, till a smile broke over it, and she too was young again, and wore a white muslin, as those others were doing now, and stood in a conservatory before a flower.

Thinking of those days, she became lost to her surroundings, and tears trickled down her cheeks. At first the young people had moved reverently away.

“Auntie is crying,” they said ; “we had better leave her alone.”

She cried oftener as years went on, muttering as she cried. In time her relatives’ discretion wore out, and they carried on unchecked their animated conversations around her; merely remarking, with a smile and a shrug of the shoulders, “ She is crying about it again.”

Age is too weak to guard secrets, and Mrs. Ashley’s nieces had discovered the regret, source of their aunt’s tears, that they designated as it.

“ She is crying about it,” they said, and chatted gayly on.

As she grew older she focused her thoughts more intently on the past, until it appeared quite near, almost amongst the yesterdays. These enlarged yesterdays belong to the second childhood as the magnified to-morrows belong to the first, and they often perplexed her companions very much.

“ I must give my ball,” she said one day, quite casually.

“ What do you mean, aunt ? ” asked her niece Amelia.

“ The ball I usually give in the spring, my dear.”

“ You have n’t had one for years and years ! ” exclaimed Amelia.

Mrs. Ashley paused, confused.

“ It is true I have let it slip of late, but that is no reason for not giving it now. Would not the girls like to have a dance ? ”

The girls were in doubt as they recalled their aunt’s visiting list, but her next words relieved their fears.

“ You can have all your own friends ; we can have both yours and mine,” she said cheerfully. Yet this was only a mirage of the mind, as was clearly proved when the invitations had been written and answered, and she inquired who all these people were, and what had become of their parents.

When the evening of the entertainment arrived, it did not seem at all like her “ usual ball.” The solemnity of the old house was startlingly broken in upon. New lights pierced its dim recesses ; stacks of hired chairs filled the hall; music crept through the passages where no sound but the noiseless footfall of the mistress or the shuffling gait of a servant had been heard for years ; palms and ferns formed cosy nooks where old respectability was wont to sit on stiff armchairs, in dignified state.

In the big gilt drawing-room Mrs. Ashley stood to receive. A brocade gown weighed heavily on her frail form, a string of pearls hung down to her waist, and over her gray hair an arrangement of lace was fastened by diamond pins. She carried her jewels with the air of one long accustomed to wear them, and her faded face turned with the true hostess’s smile toward her arriving guests. They crowded in, shook hands with her, and passed on, exclaiming to each other : “ What a wonderful old lady ! What a lovely room ! ” Her nieces, who stood on either side of her, felt proud of this specimen of their past generations. Yet she was eighty-five, and the nieces were a little anxious ; they fluttered their fans about her, and inquired constantly if she were tired, or hot, or thirsty.

“ It would have been better if she had not thought of receiving. When she gets tired she makes mistakes,” said one, in a slightly lowered voice.

舠 Well, it could not be helped. She was quite indignant when I suggested her going to bed.”

“ If the evening only passes without her crying about it, I shall be thankful,” answered Amelia. Then she bent down to whisper some names in her aunt’s ear, and there was a little discussion as to whether she knew them or not. She wanted to chat with the people as they came in, and inquire after their relatives whom she had known in the past; but the guests passed rapidly by, and as the noise and lights confused her she asked questions over again, until poor Amelia grew quite nervous, and during the course of one mistake interrupted her: “No, aunt, no; that was somebody else. Don’t talk to them; just shake hands, and let them go on.”

Mrs. Ashley flushed, and, drawing herself up very erect, answered : “ I am quite capable of entertaining my guests, Amelia. I only need your help to receive your daughters’ friends, whom I cannot be expected to know.”

She trembled with indignation. To think of it, — she, the celebrated hostess of forty years ago, receiving instruction from a woman so much younger than herself ! She tugged at her fan : it was stiff, but she would not allow Amelia to open it for her ; Amelia seemed to think her very old. After a little while she forgot her indignation, for she had grown weary and wanted to escape.

“ I will go and sit in the green room,” she said. “ The ball is well started, and I am really not needed any more.”

She passed through the crowd that made way for her, and entered the morning room : there, in her every-day surroundings, she was more self-possessed. It was the world of the young that moved outside, and she belonged to the world of the past. She could not take a step into the present, for she had reached that moment when the present is nothing more than the moving hands of the clock, and all that is life lies forever unattainably behind. In the last thirty years the room had seen no renovation: the furniture and hangings were somewhat worn, as beautiful things fade and wear, preserving the loveliness of the thought that shaped them, as the body preserves the soul to the last; over their dim colors the heavily shaded lamps threw a subdued pink glow.

Mrs. Ashley sat down by the fireplace that was filled with flowers, — an idea of Amelia’s ; she wished there had been a few burning logs instead, for, though the evening was warm, she felt cold, and rubbed her blue-veined, transparent hands together, absent-mindedly holding them out toward the red lilies that stood between the andirons. When she leaned back in the chair, the cushions folded around her dwindled figure, she looked but a heap of silk, laces, and jewels, with two blue eyes that gazed into the fireplace and wondered whether that flower in the conservatory years ago was perhaps not a red lily.

Off in the ballroom a laughing couple stopped in front of one of their hostesses, and the woman, a married one recently divorced, laid her hand on the girl’s arm.

“ Mabel, I want to see your great-aunt; they tell me she is quite wonderful. Can’t you take me to where she is ? Come along,” she said, addressing her partner. “ You who are an artist ought to wish to see a splendid old beauty like Mrs. Ashley.”

Mabel led the way, and her sister Jennie joined them on the road. They found Mrs. Ashley leaning forward, her face buried in her hands. When Mabel roused her, she looked up with tears streaming down her face, and shook her head sadly. The girls glanced at each other, aghast.

“ Do come away,” Mabel said to her married friend. “ Auntie is worried about something ; we had better leave her alone.”

“ But should you not find out the cause of it, Mabel ? We can’t leave her like that.”

“ I know the trouble ; it is of no consequence,” Mabel answered, with embarrassment.

“ You might as well tell,” giggled Jennie. “ It is so funny.”

“ Don’t laugh,” remonstrated her sister.

“ But you must tell me,” insisted the divorcée. “ It sounds so mysterious and interesting. Why is she crying ? ”

Mabel moved toward the door, when Mrs. Ashley suddenly raised her head and repeated mournfully: “ Three years ! three years! ”

“ What on earth does she mean ? ” whispered the friend.

“ I ’ll tell you,” said Jennie, with a shrug of her shoulders in the direction of her sister, who was making a faint protest. “ She is crying because she kept her husband waiting three years before she accepted him.”

舠 How awfully funny ! ” exclaimed the divorced woman, laughing, and as she took her partner’s arm she murmured : “ Poor old thing! poor old thing! She is in her dotage, is n’t she ? ”

舠 The sweetest dotage I have ever seen,” he answered.

Jennie and Mabel darted off in search of their mother.

“ Auntie is crying about it again, mamma,” they said.

舠 Dear me, then it is time for her to go to bed. Call her maid, Mabel, and I will have her taken upstairs at once.”

Susan Lawrance.