Back to the Index Page

 
 
 

Miss Jemima's 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 her cheeks.

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 household.

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 it unaided.

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 drawer.

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 beautiful.

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 know.

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 'Mimie?”

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 know.

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 objective point.

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 trembling knee.

“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 shook it.

And now—?

One of God's best traits is that He doesn't tell all He knows—and sees.

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 outsiders.

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 with it.”

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.

And then—

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 earth.”

“Why, Eli! You don't mean—”

“Yas, I do, too. I knowed that flag-topped J of yores, jest ez soon ez—”

“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.

 
 
 

Back to the Index Page