However sensible it may have been considered by other people, it certainly was a disagreeable piece of news to Miss Sydney, that the city authorities had decided to open a new street from St. Mary Street to Jefferson. It seemed a most unwarrantable thing to her that they had a right to buy her property against her will. It was so provoking, that, after so much annoyance from the noise of St. Mary Street during the last dozen years, she must submit to having another public thoroughfare at the side of her house also. If it had only been at the other side, she would not have minded it particularly; for she rarely sat in her drawing-room, which was at the left of the hall. On the right was the library, stately, dismal, and apt to be musty in damp weather; and it would take many bright people, and a blazing wood-fire, and a great deal of sunshine, to make it pleasant. Behind this was the dining-room, which was really bright and sunny, and which opened by wide glass doors into a conservatory. The rattle and clatter of St. Mary Street was not at all troublesome here; and by little and little Miss Sydney had gathered her favorite possessions from other parts of the house, and taken one end of it for her sitting-room. The most comfortable chairs had found their way here, and a luxurious great sofa which had once been in the library, as well as the bookcase which held her favorite books.
The house had been built by Miss Sydney’s grandfather, and in his day it had seemed nearly out of the city: now there was only one other house left near it; for one by one the quiet, aristocratic old street had seen its residences give place to shops and warehouses, and Miss Sydney herself had scornfully refused many offers of many thousand dollars for her home. It was so changed! It made her so sad to think of the dear old times, and to see the houses torn down, or the small-paned windows and old-fashioned front-doors replaced with French plate-glass to display better the wares which were to take the places of the quaint furniture and well-known faces of her friends! But Miss Sydney was an old woman, and her friends had diminished sadly. “It seems to me that my invitations are all for funerals in these days,” said she to her venerable maid Hannah, who had helped her dress for her parties fifty years before. She had given up society little by little. Her friends had died, or she had allowed herself to drift away from them, while the acquaintances from whom she might have filled their places were only acquaintances still. She was the last of her own family, and, for years before her father died, he had lived mainly in his library, avoiding society and caring for nothing but books; and this, of course, was a check upon his daughter’s enjoyment of visitors. Being left to herself, she finally became content with her own society, and since his death, which followed a long illness, she had refused all invitations; and with the exception of the interchange of occasional ceremonious calls with perhaps a dozen families, and her pretty constant attendance at church, you rarely were reminded of her existence. And I must tell the truth: it was not easy to be intimate with her. She was a good woman in a negative kind of way. One never heard of any thing wrong she had done; and if she chose to live alone, and have nothing to do with people, why, it was her own affair. You never seemed to know her any better after a long talk. She had a very fine, courteous way of receiving her guests, — a way of making you feel at your ease more than you imagined you should when with her, — and a stately kind of tact that avoided skilfully much mention of personalities on either side. But mere hospitality is not attractive, for it may be given grudgingly, or, as in her case, from mere habit; for Miss Sydney would never consciously be rude to any one in her own house — or out of it, for that matter. She very rarely came in contact with children; she was not a person likely to be chosen for a confidante by a young girl; she was so cold and reserved, the elder ladies said. She never asked a question about the winter fashions, except of her dressmaker, and she never met with reverses in housekeeping affairs, and these two facts rendered her unsympathetic to many. She was fond of reading, and enjoyed heartily the pleasant people she met in books. She appreciated their good qualities, their thoughtfulness, kindness, wit, or sentiment; but the thought never suggested itself to her mind that there were living people not far away, who could give her all this, and more.
If calling were not a regulation of society, if one only went to see the persons one really cared for, I am afraid Miss Sydney would soon have been quite forgotten. Her character would puzzle many people. She put no visible hindrance in your way; for I do not think she was consciously reserved and cold. She was thoroughly well-bred, rich, and in her way charitable; that is, she gave liberally to public subscriptions which came under her notice, and to church contributions. But she got on, somehow, without having friends; and, though the loss of one had always been a real grief, she learned without much trouble the way of living the lonely, comfortable, but very selfish life, and the way of being the woman I have tried to describe. There were occasional days when she was tired of herself, and life seemed an empty, formal, heartless discipline. Her wisest acquaintances pitied her loneliness; and busy, unselfish people wondered how she could be deaf to the teachings of her good clergyman, and blind to all the chances of usefulness and happiness which the world afforded her; and others still envied her, and wondered to whom she meant to leave all her money.
I began by telling you of the new street. It was suggested that it should bear the name of Sydney; but the authorities decided finally to compliment the country’s chief magistrate, and call it Grant Place. Miss Sydney did not like the sound of it. Her family had always been indifferent to politics, and indeed the kite of the Sydneys had flown for many years high above the winds that affect commonplace people. The new way from Jefferson Street to St. Mary was a great convenience, and it seemed to our friend that all the noisiest vehicles in the city had a preference for going back and forth under her windows. You see she did not suspect, what afterward became so evident, that there was to be a way opened into her own heart also, and that she should confess one day, long after, that she might have died a selfish old woman, and not have left one sorry face behind her, if it had not been for the cutting of Grant Place.
The side of her conservatory was now close upon the sidewalk, and this certainly was not agreeable. She could not think of putting on her big gardening-apron, and going in to work among her dear plants any more, with all the world staring in at her as it went by. John the coachman, who had charge of the greenhouse, was at first very indignant; but, after he found that his flowers were noticed and admired, his anger was turned into an ardent desire to merit admiration, and he kept his finest plants next the street. It was a good thing for the greenhouse, because it had never been so carefully tended; and plant after plant was forced into luxuriant foliage and blossom. He and Miss Sydney had planned at first to have close wire screens made to match those in the dining-room; but now, when she spoke of his hurrying the workmen, whom she supposed had long since been ordered to make them, John said, “Indeed, mum, it would be the ruin of the plants shutting out the light; and they would all be rusted with the showerings I gives them every day.” And Miss Sydney smiled, and said no more.
The street was opened late in October, and, soon after, cold weather began in real earnest. Down in that business part of the city it was the strangest, sweetest surprise to come suddenly upon the long line of blooming plants and tall green lily-leaves under a roof festooned with roses and trailing vines. For the first two or three weeks, almost everybody stopped, if only for a moment. Few of Miss Sydney’s own friends even had ever seen her greenhouse; for they were almost invariably received in the drawing-room. Gentlemen stopped the thought of business affairs, and went on down the street with a fresher, happier feeling. And the tired shop-girls lingered longest. Many a man and woman thought of some sick person to whom a little handful of the green leaves and bright blossoms, with their coolness and freshness, would bring so much happiness. And it was found, long months afterward, that a young man had been turned back from a plan of wicked mischief by the sight of a tall, green geranium, like one that bloomed in his mother’s sitting-room way up in the country. He had not thought, for a long time before, of the dear old woman who supposed her son was turning his wits to good account in the city. But Miss Sydney did not know how much he wished for a bit to put in his buttonhole when she indignantly went back to the dining-room to wait until that impertinent fellow stopped staring in.
It was just about this time that Mrs. Marley made a change in her place of business. She had sold candy round the corner in Jefferson Street for a great many years; but she had suffered terribly from rheumatism all the winter before. She was nicely sheltered from too much sun in the summer; but the north winds of winter blew straight toward her; and after much deliberation, and many fears and questionings as to the propriety of such an act, she had decided to find another stand. You or I would think at first that it could make no possible difference where she sat in the street with her goods; but in fact one had regular customers in that business, as well as in the largest wholesale enterprise. There was some uncertainty whether these friends would follow her if she went away. Mrs. Marley’s specialty was molasses-candy; and I am sure, if you ever chanced to eat any of it, you would look out for the old lady next time you went along the street. Times seemed very hard this winter. Not that trade had seriously diminished; but still the out-look was very dark. Mrs. Marley was old, and had been so for some years, so she was used to that; but somehow this fall she seemed to be growing very much older all of a sudden. She found herself very tired at night, and she was apt to lose her breath if she moved quickly; besides this, the rheumatism tortured her. She had saved only a few dollars, though she and her sister had had a comfortable living, — what they had considered comfortable, at least, though they sometimes had been hungry, and very often cold. They would surely go to the almshouse sooner or later, — she and her lame old sister Polly.
It was Polly who made the candy which Mrs. Marley sold. Their two little rooms were up three flights of stairs; and Polly, being too lame to go down herself, had not been out of doors in seven years. There was nothing but roofs and sky to be seen from the windows; and, as there was a rnanufactory near, the sky was apt to be darkened by its smoke. Some of the neighbors dried their clothes on the roofs, and Polly used to be very familiar with the apparel of the old residents, and exceedingly interested when a strange family came, and she saw something new. There was a little bright pink dress that the trig young French woman opposite used to hang out to dry; and somehow poor old Polly used always to be brightened and cheered by the sight of it. Once in a while she caught a glimpse of the child who wore it. She hardly ever thought now of the outside world when left to herself, and on the whole she was not discontented. Sister Becky used to have a great deal to tell her sometimes of an evening. When Mrs. Marley told her in the spring twilight that the grass in the square was growing green, and that she had heard a robin, it used to make Polly feel homesick; for she was apt to think much of her childhood, and she had been born in the country. She was very deaf, poor soul, and her world was a very forlorn one. It was nearly always quite silent, it was very small and smoky out of doors, and very dark and dismal within. Sometimes it was a hopeless world, because the candy burnt; and if there had not been her Bible and hymn-book, and a lame pigeon that lit on the window-sill to be fed every morning, Miss Polly would have found her time go heavily.
One night Mrs. Marley came into the room with a cheerful face, and said very loud, “Polly, I’ve got some news!” Polly knew by her speaking so loud that she was in good-humor. When any thing discouraging had happened, Becky spoke low, and then was likely to be irritated when asked to repeat her remark.
“Dear heart!” said Mrs. Marley, “now I am glad you had something hot for supper. I was turning over in my mind what we could cook up, for I feel real hollow. It’s a kind of chilly day.” And she sat down by the stove, while Polly hobbled to the table, with one hand to her ear to catch the first sound of the good news, and the other holding some baked potatoes in her apron. That hand was twisted with rheumatism, for the disease ran in the family. She was afraid every day that she should have to give up making the candy on the next; for it hurt so to use it. She was continually being harrowed by the idea of its becoming quite useless, and that the candy might not be so good; and then what would become of them? Becky Marley was often troubled by the same thought. Yet they were almost always good-natured, poor old women; and, though Polly Sharpe’s pleasures and privileges were by far the fewest of anybody’s I ever knew, I think she was as glad in those days to know the dandelions were in bloom as if she could see them; and she got more good from the fragments of the Sunday-morning sermon that sister Becky brought home than many a listener did from the whole service.
The potatoes were done to a turn, Mrs. Marley shouted; and then Polly sat down close by her to hear the news.
“You know I have been worrying about the cold weather a-coming, and my rheumatics; and I was afeared to change my stand, on account of losing custom. Well, to-day it all come over me to once that I might move down a piece on Grant Place, — that new street that’s cut through to St. Mary. I’ve noticed for some time past that almost all my reg’lar customers turns down that way, so this morning I thought I’d step down that way too, and see if there was a chance. And after I gets into the street I sees people stopping and looking at something as they went along; and so I goes down to see; and it is one of them hothouses, full of plants a-growing like it was mid-summer. It belongs to the big Sydney house on the corner. There’s a good place to sit right at the corner of it, and I’m going to move over there to-morrow. I thought as how I wouldn’t leave Jefferson Street to-day, for it was too sudden. You see folks stops and looks at the plants, and there wasn’t any wind there to-day. There! I wish you could see them flowers.”
Sister Polly was very pleased, and, after the potatoes and bread were eaten, she brought on an apple pie that had been sent up by Mrs. Welch, the washer-woman who lived on the floor next but one below. She was going away for three or four days, having been offered good pay to do some cleaning in a new house, and her board besides, near her work. So you see that evening was quite a jubilee.
The next day Mrs. Marley’s wildest expectations were realized; for she was warm as toast the whole morning, and sold all her candy, and went home by two o’clock. That had never happened but once or twice before. “Why, I shouldn’t wonder if we could lay up considerable this winter,” said she to Polly.
Miss Sydney did not like the idea of the old candy-woman’s being there. Children came to buy of her, and the street seemed noisier than ever at times. Perhaps she might have to leave the house, after all. But one may get used to almost any thing; and as the days went by she was surprised to find that she was not half so much annoyed as at first; and one afternoon she found herself standing at one of the dining-room windows, and watching the people go by. I do not think she had shown so much interest as this in the world at large for many years. I think it must have been from noticing the pleasure her flowers gave the people who stopped to look at them that she began to think herself selfish, and to be aware how completely indifferent she had grown to any claims the world might have upon her. And one morning, when she heard somebody say, “Why, it’s like a glimpse into the tropics! Oh! I wish I could have such a conservatory!” she thought, “Here I have kept this all to myself for all these years, when so many others might have enjoyed it too!” But then the old feeling of independence came over her. The greenhouse was out of people’s way; she surely couldn’t have let people in whom she didn’t know; however, she was glad, now that the street was cut, that some one had more pleasure, if she had not. After all, it was a satisfaction to our friend; and from this time the seeds of kindness and charity and helpfulness began to show themselves above the ground in the almost empty garden of her heart. I will tell you how they grew and blossomed; and as strangers came to see her real flowers, and to look in at the conservatory windows from the cold city street, instead of winter to see a bit of imprisoned summer, so friend after friend came to find there was another garden in her own heart, and Miss Sydney learned the blessedness there is in loving and giving and helping.
For it is sure we never shall know what it is to lack friends, if we keep our hearts ready to receive them. If we are growing good and kind and helpful, those who wish for help and kindness will surely find us out. A tree covered with good fruit is never unnoticed in the fields. If we bear thorns and briers, we can’t expect people to take very great pains to come and gather them. It is thought by many persons to be not only a bad plan, but an ill-bred thing, to give out to more than a few carefully selected friends. But it came to her more and more that there was great selfishness and short-sightedness in this. One naturally has a horror of dragging the secrets and treasures of one’s heart and thought out to the light of day. One may be willing to go without the good that may come to one’s own self through many friendships; but, after all, God does not teach us, and train our lives, only that we may come to something ourselves. He helps men most through other men’s lives; and we must take from him, and give out again, all we can, wherever we can, remembering that the great God is always trying to be the friend of the least of us. The danger is, that we oftenest give our friendship selfishly; we do not think of our friends, but of ourselves. One never can find one’s self beggared; love is a treasure that does not lessen, but grows, as we spend it.
The passers-by seemed so delighted with some new plants which she and John had arranged one day, that, as she was going out in the afternoon to drive, she stopped just as she was going to step into the carriage, and said she thought she would go round and look at the conservatory from the outside. So John turned the horses, and followed. It was a very cold day, and there were few people in the street. Every thing was so cheerless out of doors, and the flowers looked so summer-like! No wonder the people liked to stop, poor souls! For the richer, more comfortable ones lived farther up town. It was not in the shopping region; and, except the businessmen who went by morning and evening, almost every one was poor.
Miss Sydney had never known what the candy-woman sold before, for she could not see any thing but the top of her rusty black bonnet from the window. But now she saw that the candy was exactly like that she and her sister used to buy years upon years ago; and she stopped to speak to the old woman, and to buy some, to the utter amazement of her coachman. Mrs. Marley was excited by so grand a customer, and was a great while counting out the drumsticks, and wrapping them up. While Miss Sydney stood there, a thin, pitiful little girl came along, carrying a clumsy baby. They stopped, and the baby tried to reach down for a piece. The girl was quite as wistful; but she pulled him back, and walked on to the flowers. “Oh! pitty, pitty!” said the baby, while the dirty little hands patted the glass delightedly.
“Move along there,” said John gruffly; for it was his business to keep that glass clean and bright.
The girl looked round, frightened, and, seeing that the coachman was big and cross-looking, the forlorn little soul went away. “Baby want to walk? You’re so heavy!” said she in a fretful tired way. But the baby was half crying, and held her tight. He had meant to stay some time longer, and look at those pretty, bright things, since he could not have the candy.
Mrs. Marley felt as if her customer might think her stingy, and proceeded to explain that she couldn’t think of giving her candy away. “Bless you, ma’am, I wouldn’t have a stick left by nine o’clock.”
Miss Sydney “never gave money to street-beggars.” But these children had not begged, and somehow she pitied them very much, they looked so hungry. And she called them back. There was a queer tone to her voice; and she nearly cried after she had given the package of candy to them, and thrown a dollar upon the board in front of Mrs. Marley, and found herself in the carriage, driving away. Had she been very silly? and what could John have thought? But the children were so glad; and the old candy-woman had said, “God bless you, mum!”
After this, Miss Sydney could not keep up her old interest in her own affairs. She felt restless and dissatisfied, and wondered how she could have done the same things over and over so contentedly for so many years. You may be sure, that, if Grant Place had been unthought of, she would have lived on in the same fashion to the end of her days. But after this she used to look out of the window; and she sat a great deal in the conservatory, when it was not too warm there, behind some tall callas. The servants found her usually standing in the dining-room; for she listened for footsteps, and was half-ashamed to have them notice that she had changed in the least. We are all given to foolish behavior of this kind once in a while. We are often restrained because we feel bound to conform to people’s idea of us. We must be such persons as we imagine our friends think us to be. They believe that we have made up our minds about them, and are apt to show us only that behavior which they think we expect. They are afraid of us sometimes. They think we cannot sympathize with them. Our friend felt almost as if she were yielding to some sin in this strange interest in the passers-by. She had lived so monotonous a life, that any change could not have failed to be somewhat alarming. She told Bessie Thorne afterward, that one day she came upon that verse of Keble’s Hymn for St. Matthew’s Day. Do you remember it? —
“There are, in this loud, stunning tide
Of human care and crime,
With whom the melodies abide
Of the everlasting chime;
Who carry music in their heart
Through dusky lane and wrangling mart,
Plying their daily task with busier feet
Because their secret souls a holy strain repeat.”
It seemed as if it were a message to herself, and she could not help going to the window a few minutes afterward. The faces were mostly tired-looking and dissatisfied. Some people looked very eager and hurried, but none very contented. It was the literal daily bread they thought of; and, when two fashionably-dressed ladies chanced to go by the window, their faces were strangely like their poorer neighbors in expression. Miss Sydney wondered what the love for one’s neighbor could be; if she could ever feel it herself. She did not even like these people whom she watched, and yet every day, for years and years, she had acknowledged them her brothers and sisters when she said, “Our Father who art in heaven.”
It seemed as if Miss Sydney, of all people, might have been independent and unfettered. It is so much harder for us who belong to a family, for we are hindered by the thought of people’s noticing our attempts at reform. It is like surrendering some opinion ignominiously which we have fought for. It is a kind of “giving in.” But when she had acknowledged to herself that she had been in the wrong, that she was a selfish, thoughtless old woman, that she was alone, without friends, and it had been her own fault, she was puzzled to know how to do better. She could not begin to be very charitable all at once. The more she realized what her own character had become, the more hopeless and necessary seemed reform.
Such times as this come to many of us, both in knowing ourselves and our friends. An awakening, one might call it, — an opening of the blind eyes of our spiritual selves. And our ears are open to some of the voices which call us; while others might as well be silent, for all the heed we give them. We go on, from day to day, doing, with more or less faithfulness, that part of our work we have wit enough to comprehend; but one day suddenly we are shown a broader field, stretching out into the distance, and know that from this also we may bring in a harvest by and by, and with God’s help.
Miss Sydney meant to be better, — not alone for the sake of having friends, not alone to quiet her conscience, but because she knew she had been so far from living a Christian life, and she was bitterly ashamed. This was all she needed, — all any of us need, — to know that we must be better men and women for God’s sake; that we cannot be better without his help, and that his help may be had for the asking. But where should she begin? She had always treated her servants kindly, and they were the people she knew best. She would surely try to be more interested in the friends she met; but it was nearly Christmas time, and people rarely came to call. Every one was busy. Becky Marley’s cheery face haunted her; and one day after having looked down from the window on the top of her bonnet, she remembered that she did not get any candy, after all, and she would go round to see the old lady again, she looked poor, and she would give her some money. Miss Sydney dressed herself for the street, and closed the door behind her very carefully, as if she were a mischievous child running away. It was very cold, and there were hardly a dozen persons to be seen in the streets, and Mrs. Marley had evidently been crying.
“I should like some of your candy,” said our friend. “You know I didn’t take any, after all, the other day.” And then she felt very conscious and awkward, fearing that the candy-woman thought she wished to remind her of her generosity.
“Two of the large packages, if you please. But, dear me! aren’t you very cold, sitting here in the wind?” and Miss Sydney shivered, in spite of her warm wrappings.
It was the look of sympathy that was answered first, for it was more comforting than even the prospect of money, sorely as Mrs. Marley needed that.
“Yes, mum, I’ve had the rheumatics this winter awful. But the wind here! — why, it ain’t nothing to what it blows round in Jefferson Street, where I used to sit. I shouldn’t be out to-day, but I was called upon sudden to pay my molasses bill when I’d just paid my rent; and I don’t know how ever I can. There’s sister Polly — she’s dead lame and deaf. I s’pose we’ll both be in the almshouse afore spring. I’m an old woman to be earning a living out o’ doors in winter weather.”
There was no mistaking the fact that Miss Sydney was in earnest when she said, ”I’m so sorry! Can’t I help you?”
Somehow she did not feel so awkward, and she enjoyed very much hearing this bit of confidence.
“But my trade has improved wonderful since I came here. People mostly stops to see them beautiful flowers; and then they sees me, and stops and buys something. Well, there’s some days when I gets down-hearted, and I just looks up there, and sees them flowers blooming so cheerful, and I says, ‘There! this world ain’t all cold and poor and old, like I be; and the Lord he ain’t never tired of us, with our worrying about what he’s a-doing with us; and heaven’s a-coming before long anyhow!'” And the Widow Marley stopped to dry her eyes with the corner of her shawl.
Miss Sydney asked her to go round to the kitchen, and warm herself; and, on finding out more of her new acquaintance’s difficulties, she sent her home happy, with money enough to pay the dreaded bill, and a basket of good things which furnished such a supper for herself and sister Polly as they had not seen for a long time. And their fortunes were bettered from that day. “If it hadn’t been for the flowers, I should ha’ been freezing my old bones on Jefferson Street this minute, I s’pose,” said the Widow Marley.
Miss Sydney went back to the dining-room after her protégée had gone, and felt a comfortable sense of satisfaction in what she had done. It had all come about in such an easy way too! A little later she went into the conservatory, and worked among her plants. She really felt so much younger and happier; and once, as she stood still, looking at some lilies-of-the-valley that John had been forcing into bloom, she did not notice that a young lady was looking through the window at her very earnestly.
That same evening Mrs. Thorne and Bessie were sitting up late in their library. It was snowing very fast, and had been since three o’clock; and no one had called. They had begun the evening by reading and writing, and now were ending it with a talk.
“Mamma,” said Bessie, after there had been a pause, “whom do you suppose I have taken a fancy to? And do you know, I pity her so much! — Miss Sydney.”
“But I don’t know that she is so much to be pitied,” said Mrs. Thorne, smiling at the enthusiastic tone. “She must have every thing she wants. She lives all alone, and hasn’t any intimate friends, but, if a person chooses such a life, why, what can we do? What made you think of her?”
“I have been trying to think of one real friend she has. Everybody is polite enough to her, and I never heard that any one disliked her; but she must be forlorn sometimes. I came through that new street by her house to-day: that’s how I happened to think of her. Her greenhouse is perfectly beautiful, and I stopped to look in. I always supposed she was cold as ice (I’m sure she looks so); but she was standing out in one corner, looking down at some flowers with just the sweetest face. Perhaps she is shy. She used to be very good-natured to me when I was a child, and used to go there with you. I don’t think she knows me since I came home: at any rate, I mean to go to see her some day.”
“I certainly would,” said Mrs. Thorne. “She will be perfectly polite to you, at all events. And perhaps she may be lonely, though I rather doubt it; not that I wish to discourage you, my dear. I haven’t seen her in a long time, for we have missed each other’s calls. She never went into society much; but she used to be a very elegant woman, and is now, for that matter.”
“I pity her,” said Bessie persistently. “I think I should be very fond of her if she would let me. She looked so kind as she stood among the flowers to-day! I wonder what she was thinking about. Oh! do you think she would mind if I asked her to give me some flowers for the hospital?”
Bessie Thorne is a very dear girl. Miss Sydney must have been hard-hearted if she had received her coldly one afternoon a few days afterward, she seemed so refreshingly young and girlish a guest as she rose to meet the mistress of that solemn, old-fashioned drawing-room. Miss Sydney had had a reaction from the pleasure her charity had given her, and was feeling bewildered, unhappy, and old that day. “What can she wish to see me for, I wonder?” thought she, as she closed her book, and looked at Miss Thorne’s card herself, to be sure the servant had read it right. But, when she saw the girl herself, her pleasure showed itself unmistakably in her face.
“Are you really glad to see me?” said Bessie in her frankest way, with a very gratified smile. “I was afraid you might think it was very odd in me to come. I used to like so much to call upon you with mamma when I was a little girl! And the other day I saw you in your conservatory, and I have wished to come and see you ever since.”
“I am very glad to see you, my dear,” said Miss Sydney, for the second time. “I have been quite forgotten by the young people of late years. I was sorry to miss Mrs. Thorne’s call. Is she quite well? I meant to return it one day this week, and I thought only last night I would ask about you. You have been abroad, I think?”
Was not this an auspicious beginning? I cannot tell you all that happened that afternoon, for I have told so long a story already. But you will imagine it was the beginning of an intimacy that gave great pleasure, and did great good, to both the elder woman and the younger. It is hard to tell the pleasure which the love and friendship of a fresh, bright girl like Bessie Thorne, may give an older person. There is such a satisfaction in being convinced that one is still interesting and still lovable, though the years that are gone have each kept some gift or grace, and the possibilities of life seem to have been realized and decided. There are days of our old age when there seems so little left in life, that living is a mere formality. This busy world seems done with the old, however dear their memories of it, however strong their claims upon it. They are old: their life now is only waiting and resting. It may be quite right that we sometimes speak of second childhood, because we must be children before we are grown; and the life to come must find us, will find us, ready for service. Our old people have lived in the world so long; they think they know it so well: but the young man is master of the trade of living, and the old man only his blundering apprentice.
Miss Sydney’s solemnest and most unprepared servant was startled to find Bessie Thorne and his mistress sitting cozily together before the dining-room fire. Bessie had a paper full of cut flowers to leave at the Children’s Hospital on her way home. Miss Sydney had given liberally to the contribution for that object; but she never had suspected how interesting it was until Bessie told her, and she said she should like to go some day, and see the building and its occupants for herself. And the girl told her of other interests that were near her kind young heart, — not all charitable interests, — and they parted intimate friends.
“I never felt such a charming certainty of being agreeable,” wrote Bessie that night to a friend of hers. “She seemed so interested in every thing, and, as I told you, so pleased with my coming to see her. I have promised to go there very often. She told me in the saddest way that she had been feeling so old and useless and friendless, and she was very confidential. Imagine her being confidential with me! She seemed to me just like myself as I was last year, — you remember, — just beginning to realize what life ought to be, and trying, in a frightened, blind kind of way, to be good and useful. She said she was just beginning to understand her selfishness. She told me I had done her ever so much good; and I couldn’t help the tears coming into my eyes. I wished so much you were there, or some one who could help her more; but I suppose God knew when he sent me. Doesn’t it seem strange that an old woman should talk to me in this way, and come to me for help? I am afraid people would laugh at the very idea. And only to think of her living on and on, year after year, and then being changed so! She kissed me when I came away, and I carried the flowers to the hospital. I shall always be fond of that conservatory, because, if I hadn’t stopped to look in that day, I might never have thought of her.
“There was one strange thing happened, which I must tell you about, though it is so late. She has grown very much interested in an old candy-woman, and told me about her; and do you know that this evening uncle Jack came in, and asked if we knew of anybody who would do for janitress at the Natural History rooms, I think he said. There is good pay, and she would just sell catalogues, and look after things a little. Of course the candy-woman may not be competent; but, from what Miss Sydney told me, I think she is just the person.”
The next Sunday the minister read this extract from “Queen’s Gardens” in his sermon. Two of his listeners never had half understood its meaning before as they did then. Bessie was in church, and Miss Sydney suddenly turned her head, and smiled at her young friend, to the great amazement of the people who sat in the pews near by. What could have come over Miss Sydney?
“The path of a good woman is strewn with flowers; but they rise behind her steps, not before them. ‘Her feet have touched the meadow, and left the daisies rosy.’ Flowers flourish in the garden of one who loves them. A pleasant magic it would be if you could flush flowers into brighter bloom by a kind look upon them; nay, more, if a look had the power not only to cheer but to guard them. This you would think a great thing? And do you think it not a greater thing that all this, and more than this, you can do for fairer flowers than these, — flowers that could bless you for having blessed them, and will love you for having loved them, — flowers that have eyes like yours, and thoughts like yours, and lives like yours?”
Source: Old Friends and New by Sarah Orne Jewett. reprint 1907. Public Domain