Valentine by Ruth McEnery Stuart
TWO crimson spots appeared upon Miss Jemima's pale face when she
heard the gate-latch click. She knew that her brother was bringing in
the mail, and, as he entered the room, she bent lower over her work,
her crochet-needle flew faster, and she coughed a slight, nervous
cough. But she did not look up.
She saw without looking that her brother held a pile of valentines
in his hand, and she knew that when presently he should have finished
distributing them to his eager sons and daughters, her nephews and
nieces, he would come and bring one to her—or else? he would not do
this last. It was this uncertainty that deepened the crimson spots upon
If there was one for her he would presently come, and, leaning over
her shoulder, he would say, as he dropped upon her lap the largest,
handsomest of them all, “ This looks mighty suspicious, Sis' 'Mimie,”
or, “We'll have to find out about this,” or maybe, as he presented it,
he would covertly shield her by addressing himself to the younger crowd
after this fashion:
“Ef I was a lot o' boys an' girls, an' couldn't git a bigger
valentine from all my sweethearts an' beaux than my ol' auntie can set
still at home an' git, why, I'd quit tryin'—that's what I would.”
There was always a tenderness in the brother's manner when he handed
his sister her valentine. He had brought her one each year for seven
years now, and after the first time, when he had seen the look of pain
and confusion that had followed his playful teasing, he had never more
than relieved the moment by a passing jest.
The regular coming of “Aunt Jemima's valentine” was a mystery in the
It had been thirteen years since she had quarrelled with Eli Taylor,
her lover, and they had parted in anger, never to meet again. Since
then she had stayed at home and quietly grown old.
Fourteen years ago she had been in the flush of this her only
romance, and St. Valentine's Day had brought a great, thick envelope,
in which lay, fragrant with perfume, a gorgeous valentine. Upon this
was painted, after an old Dresden-china pattern, a beautiful lady with
slender waist and corkscrew curls, standing beside a tall cavalier, who
doffed his hat to her as he presented the envelope that bore her name,
so finely and beautifully written that only very young eyes could read
By carefully opening this tiny envelope one might read the printed
rhyme within—the rhyme so tender and loving that it needed only the
inscription of a name on the flap above it to make it all-sufficient in
personal application to even the most fastidious.
This gorgeous valentine was so artfully constructed that, by drawing
its pictured front forward, it could be made to stand alone, when there
appeared a fountain in the background and a brilliant peacock with
argus-eyed tail, a great rose on a tiny bush, and a crescent moon. The
older children had been very small when this resplendent confection had
come into their home. Some of them were not born, but they had all
grown up in the knowledge of it.
There had been times in the tender memories of all of them when
“Aunt 'Mimie” had taken them into her room, locked the door, and,
because they had been very good, let them take a peep at her beautiful
valentine, which she kept carefully hidden away in her locked bureau
They had even on occasions been allowed to wash their hands and hold
it—just a minute.
It had always been a thing to wonder over, and once—but this was
the year it came, when her sky seemed as rosy as the ribbon she wore
about her waist—Miss Jemima had stood it up on the whatnot in the
parlor when the church sociable met at her brother's house, and
everybody in town had seen it, while for her it made the whole room
But the quarrel had soon followed—Eli had gone away in anger—and
that had been the end.
Disputes over trifles are the hardest to mend, each party finding it
hard to forgive the other for being angry for so slight a cause.
And so the years had passed.
For six long years the beautiful valentine had lain carefully put
away. For five years Jemima had looked at it with tearless eyes and a
hardened heart. And then came the memorable first anniversary when the
children of the household began to celebrate the day, and tiny,
comic-pictured pages began flitting in from their school sweethearts.
The realization of the new era was a shock to Miss Jemima. In the
youthful merriment of those budding romances she seemed to see a sort
of reflection of her own long-ago joy, and in the faint glow of it she
felt impelled to go to her own room and to lock the door and look at
the old valentine.
With a new, strange tremor about her heart and an unsteady hand she
took it out, and when in the light of awakened emotion she saw once
more its time-stained face and caught its musty odor, she seemed to
realize again the very body of her lost love, and for the first time in
all the years the fountains of her sorrow were broken up, and she
sobbed her tired heart out over the old valentine.
Is there a dead-hearted woman in all God's beautiful world, I
wonder, who would not weep again, if she could, over life's yellowing
symbols—symbols of love gone by, of passion cooled—who would not
feel almost as if in the recovery of her tears she had found joy again?
If Miss Jemima had not found joy, she had at least found her heart
once more—and sorrow. Her life had been for so long a dreary,
treeless plain that, in the dark depth of the valley of sorrowing, she
realized, as sometimes only from sorrow's deeps poor mortals may know
it, the possible height of bliss.
For the first time since the separation, she clasped the valentine
to her bosom and called her lover's name over and over again, sobbing
it, without hope, as one in the death-agony. But such emotion is not of
death. Is it not, rather, a rebirth—a rebirth of feeling? So it was
with Miss Jemima, and the heart-stillness that had been her safety
during all these years would not return to her again. There would never
more be a time when her precious possession would not have a sweet and
vital meaning to her—when it would not be a tangible embodiment of
the holiest thing her life had known.
From this time forward, stirred by the budding romances about her,
Miss Jemima would repair for refuge and a meagre comfort to that which,
while in its discolored and fading face it denied none of life's
younger romance, still gave her back her own.
The woman of forty may never realize her years in the presence of
her contemporaries. Forty women of forty might easily feel young enough
to scoff at the bald head, and deserve to be eaten by bears—but
thirty-nine with a budding-maid-for-fortieth scoffer? Never!
Miss Jemima, in her suddenly realized young-love setting, had
become, to her own consciousness, old and of a date gone by. “Aunt
Jemima” was naturally regarded by her blooming nephews and nieces, as
well as by their intimates, who wore their incipient mustaches still
within their conscious top lips, or dimples dancing in their ruddy
cheeks, quite in the same category as Mrs. Gibbs who was sixty, or any
of their aunts and grandmothers who sat serenely in daguerreotype along
the parlor mantel.
But there is apt to come a time in the life of the live single woman
of forty—if she be alive enough—when, in the face of even negative
and affectionate disparagement, she is moved to declare herself.
Perhaps there may be some who would say that this declaration savors
of earth. Even so, the earth is the Lord's. It is one thing to be a
flower pasted in a book and quite another to be the bud a maiden wears
—one thing to be To-day, and another to be Yesterday.
One thing, indeed, it was to own a yellow, time-stained valentine,
and quite a different one to be of the dimpled throng who crowded the
Simpkinsville post-office on Valentine's Day.
“I reckon them young ones would think it was perfec'ly re-dic'lous
ef I was to git a valentine at my time o' life,” Miss Jemima said,
aloud, to her looking-glass one morning. It was the day before St.
Valentine's, of the year following that which held her day of tears.
“But I'll show 'em,” she added, with some resolution, as she
turned to her bureau drawer.
And she did show them. On the next day a great envelope addressed to
Miss Jemima Martha Sprague came in with the package of lesser favors,
and Miss Jemima suddenly found herself the absorbing centre of a new
interest—an interest that, after having revolved about her a while,
flew off in suspicion towards every superannuated bachelor or widower
within a radius of thirty miles of Simpkinsville.
It had been a great moment for Miss Jemima when the valentine came
in, and a trying one when, with genuine old-time blushes, she had been
constrained to refuse to open it for the crowd.
How she felt an hour later when, in the secrecy of her own chamber,
she took from its new envelope her own old self-sent valentine, only He
who has tender knowledge of maidenly reserves and sorrows will ever
There was something in her face when she reappeared in the family
circle that forbade a cruel pursuit of the theme, and so, after a
little playful bantering, the subject was dropped.
But the incident had lifted her from one condition into quite
another in the family regard, and Miss Jemima found herself
unconsciously living up to younger standards.
But this was seven years ago, and the mysterious valentine had
become a yearly fact.
There had never been any explanations. When pressed to the wall Miss
Jemima had, indeed, been constrained to confess that “cert'n'y—why of
co'se every valentine she had ever got had been sent her by a man.”
(How sweet and sad this truth!)
“And are all the new ones as pretty as your lovely old one, Aunt
To this last query she had carefully replied:
“I 'ain't never got none thet ain't every bit an' grain ez perty ez
that one—not a one.”
“An' why don't you show 'em to us, then?”
Such obduracy was indeed hard to comprehend.
If, as the years passed, her brother began to suspect, he made no
sign of it, save in an added tenderness. And, of course, he could not
On the anniversary upon which this little record of her life has
opened, the situation was somewhat exceptional.
The valentine had hitherto always been mailed in Simpkinsville—her
own town. This post-mark had been noted and commented upon, and yet it
had seemed impossible to have it otherwise. But this year, in spite of
many complications and difficulties, she had resolved that the envelope
should tell a new story.
The farthest point from which, within her possible acquaintance, it
would naturally hail was the railroad town of—let us call it Hope.
The extreme difficulty in the case lay in the fact that the
post-office here was kept by her old lover, Eli Taylor.
Here for ten years he had lived his reticent bachelor days, selling
ploughs and garden seed and cotton prints and patent medicines, and
keeping post-office in a small corner of his store.
Everybody knows how a spot gazed at intently for a long time changes
color—from green to red and then to white.
As Miss Jemima pondered upon the thought of sending herself a
valentine through her old lover's hands, the color of the scheme began
to change from impossible green to rosy red.
The point of objection became, in the mysterious evolution, its
Instead of dreading, she began ardently to desire this thing.
By the only possible plan through which she could manage secretly to
have the valentine mailed in Hope—a plan over which she had lost
sleep, and in which she had been finally aided by an illiterate colored
servant—it must reach her on the day before Valentine's. This day had
come and gone, and her treasure had not returned to her. Had the negro
failed to mail it? Had it remained all night in the post-office—in
possession of her lover? Would she ever see it again?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Would her brother ever, ever, EVER get through his trifling
with the children and finish distributing their valentines?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
It was not very long to wait—a minute, perhaps half a minute—and
yet it seemed an age before the distribution was over, and she felt
rather than saw her brother moving in her direction.
“Bigger an' purtier one 'n ever for Aunt 'Mimie this time—looks to
me like,” he said, as at last he laid the great envelope upon her
“Don't reckon it's anything extry—in partic'lar,” she answered,
not at all knowing what she said, as she continued her work, leaving
the valentine where he had dropped it; not touching it, indeed, until
she presently wound up her yarn in answer to the supper-bell. Then she
took it, with her work-basket, into her own room, and, dropping it into
her upper bureau drawer, turned the key.
The moment when she broke the seal each year—late at night, alone
in her locked chamber—had always been a sad one to Miss Jemima, and
to-night it was even sadder than ever. She had never before known how
she cared for this old love-token.
As she sat to-night looking at the outside of the envelope, turning
it over and over in her thin hands, great hot tears fell upon it and
ran down upon her fingers; but she did not heed them. It was, indeed, a
meagre little embodiment of the romance of a life; but, such as it was,
she would not part with it. She would never send it out from her again
—never, never, never.
It was even dearer now than ever before, after this recent passage
through her lover's hands. She raised it lovingly and laid it against
her cheek. Could he have handled it and passed it on without a thought
of her? Impossible. And since he had thought of her, what must have
been the nature of his thoughts? Was he jealous—jealous because
somebody was sending his old sweetheart a valentine?
This year's envelope, selected with great pains and trouble from a
sample catalogue and ordered from a distant city, was a fine affair,
profusely decorated with love symbols.
For a long time Miss Jemima sat enjoying a strange sense of nearness
to her lover, before she felt inclined to confront the far-away romance
typified by the yellowed sheet within. And yet she wanted to see even
this again—to realize it.
And so, with thoughts both eager and fearful, she finally inserted a
hair-pin carefully in the envelope, ripping it open delicately on two
sides, so that the valentine might come out without injury to its
frail, perforated edges. Then, carefully holding its sides apart, she
One of God's best traits is that He doesn't tell all He knows—and
How Miss Jemima felt or acted—whether she screamed or fainted—no
one will ever know, when, instead of the familiar pictured thing, there
fell into her lap a beautiful brand-new valentine.
It was certainly a long time before she recovered herself enough to
take the strange thing into her hands, and when she did so it was with
fingers that trembled so violently that a bit of paper that came within
it fluttered and fell beyond her reach. There it lay for fully several
minutes before she had strength to move from her seat to recover it.
There was writing on the flattering fragment, but what it was, and
why Miss Jemima wept over it and read it again and again, are other
trifling things that perhaps God does well not to tell.
The details of other people's romances are not always interesting to
However, for a better understanding of this particular case it may
be well to know that the servant who took charge of the old lover's
room in Hope, and who had an investigating way with her, produced seven
or eight torn scraps of paper collected at this period from his
scrap-basket, on which were written bits of broken sentences like the
following: ”—sending you this new valentine just as hearty as I sent
the old one fourteen years—”
“You sha'n't never want for a fresh one again every year long as I
live, unless you take—”
“—if you want the old one back again, unless you take me along
It is generally conceded that one of the lowest things that even a
very depraved and unprincipled person ever does is to intercept and
read other people's letters. To print them or otherwise make them
public is a thing really too contemptible to contemplate in ordinary
circumstances. But this case, if intelligently considered, seems
somewhat exceptional, for, be it borne in mind, all these writings,
without exception, and a few others too sacred to produce even here,
are the things that Eli Taylor, postmaster, did not send to his
old sweetheart, Jemima Martha Sprague.
Miss Jemima always burned her scraps, and so, even had it seemed
well to condescend to seek similar negative testimony concerning her
laboriously written reply, it would have been quite impossible to find
any. Certain it is, however, that she posted a note on the following
day, and that a good many interesting things happened in quick
succession after this.
There was a little, quiet, middle-aged wedding in the church on
Easter Sunday. It was the old lover's idea to have it then, as he said
their happiness was a resurrection from the dead, and it was befitting
to celebrate it at the blessed Easter season.
Miss Jemima showed her new valentine to the family before the
wedding came off, but, in spite of all their coaxing and begging, she
observed a rigid reticence in regard to all those that had come between
that and the old one. And so, seeing the last one actually in evidence,
and rejoicing in her happiness, they only smiled and whispered that
they supposed he and she had been “quar'lin' it out on them valentines,
year by year, and on'y now got to the place where they could make up.”
The old man, Eli, in spite of his indomitable pride, had come out of
his long silence with all due modesty, blaming himself for many things.
“I ain't fitten for you, Jemimy, honey, no mo'n I was fo'teen year
ago,” he said, while his arm timidly sought her shoulder the night
before the wedding, “but ef you keered enough about me to warm over the
one little valentine I sent you nigh on to fifteen year ago, and to
make out to live on it, I reckon I can keep you supplied with jest ez
good diet ez that—fresh every day an' hour. But befo' I take you into
church I want to call yo' attention to the fac' thet I'm a criminal
befo' the law, li'ble to the state's-prison for openin' yo' mail—an'
ef you say so, why, I'll haf to go.”
“Well, Eli,” Miss Jemima answered, quite seriously, “ef you're
li'ble to state's-prison for what you done, I don't know but I'm worthy
to go to a hotter place—for the deceit I've practised. Ef actions
speak louder than words, I've cert'n'y been guilty of an annual lie
which I've in a manner swo'e to every day I've lived up to it. Still, I
observed all the honesty I could. Nights the old valentine would be
out, I never could sleep good, an' they was times when I was tempted to
put blank sheets in the envelope, an' ef I had 'a' done it I don't know
whether the truth would 'a' prevailed under the children's quizzin' or
not. Children are mighty gifted in puttin' leadin' questions. We are
weak creatures, Eli, an' prone to sin. Yas, takin' it all 'round, I
reckon I'm a worse criminal 'n you—an' ef I got my dues, I'd be—”
“Well,” said Eli, “I reckon, ef the truth was told, the place where
we jest nachelly both b'long is the insane asylum—for the ejiots
we've acted. When I reflect thet I might 'a' been ez happy ez I am now
fo'teen year ago, an' think about all the time we've lost—Of co'se,
honey, I know I had no earthly right to open yo' valentine, an' yet—”
“Where'd we be now, ef you hadn't 've opened it, Eli?”
“—or ef you hadn't 've sent it to me, honey, directed to
yo' dear self, with a J for Jemimy different from anybody else's J's on
“Why, Eli! You don't mean—”
“Yas, I do, too. I knowed that flag-topped J of yores, jest ez soon
“But, Eli, I feel awful!”
“You needn't, dearie. I don't.”
And he kissed her—square on the lips.
“An' I don't now, neither.”
And he did it again.