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IV. The August Chapter
One day the minister's wife rushed in where Spencervale people had feared to tread, went boldly to Old Lady Lloyd, and asked her if she wouldn't come to their Sewing Circle, which met fortnightly on Saturday afternoons.
"We are filling a box to send to our Trinidad missionary," said the minister's wife, "and we should be so pleased to have you come, Miss Lloyd."
The Old Lady was on the point of refusing rather haughtily. Not that she was opposed to missions - or sewing circles either - quite the contrary, but she knew that each member of the Circle was expected to pay ten cents a week for the purpose of procuring sewing materials; and the poor Old Lady really did not see how she could afford it. But a sudden thought checked her refusal before it reached her lips.
"I suppose some of the young girls go to the Circle?" she said craftily.
"Oh, they all go," said the minister's wife. "Janet Moore and Miss Gray are our most enthusiastic members. It is very lovely of Miss Gray to give her Saturday afternoons-the only ones she has free from pupils - to our work. But she really has the sweetest disposition."
"I'll join your Circle," said the Old Lady promptly. She was determined she would do it, if she had to live on two meals a day to save the necessary fee.
She went to the Sewing Circle at James Martin's the next Saturday, and did the most beautiful hand sewing for them. She was so expert at it that she didn't need to think about it at all, which was rather fortunate, for all her thoughts were taken up with Sylvia, who sat in the opposite corner with Janet Moore, her graceful hands busy with a little boy's coarse gingham shirt. Nobody thought of introducing Sylvia to Old Lady Lloyd, and the Old Lady was glad of it. She sewed finely away, and listened with all her ears to the girlish chatter which went on in the opposite corner. One thing she found out - Sylvia's birthday was the twentieth of August. And the Old Lady was straightway fired with a consuming wish to give Sylvia a birthday present. She lay awake most of the night wondering if she could do it, and most sorrowfully concluded that it was utterly out of the question, no matter how she might pinch and contrive. Old Lady Lloyd worried quite absurdly over this, and it haunted her like a spectre until the next Sewing Circle day.
It met at Mrs. Moore's and Mrs. Moore was especially gracious to Old Lady Lloyd, and insisted on her taking the wicker rocker in the parlour. The Old Lady would rather have been in the sitting-room with the young girls, but she submitted for courtesy's sake-and she had her reward. Her chair was just behind the parlour door, and presently Janet Moore and Sylvia Gray came and sat on the stairs in the hall outside, where a cool breeze blew in through the maples before the front door.
They were talking of their favourite poets. Janet, it appeared, adored Byron and Scott. Sylvia leaned to Tennyson and Browning.
"Do you know," said Sylvia softly, "my father was a poet? He published a little volume of verse once; and, Janet, I've never seen a copy of it, and oh, how I would love to! It was published when he was at college - just a small, private edition to give his friends. He never published any more - poor father! I think life disappointed him. But I have such a longing to see that little book of his verse. I haven't a scrap of his writings. If I had it would seem as if I possessed something of him - of his heart, his soul, his inner life. He would be something more than a mere name to me."
"Didn't he have a copy of his own - didn't your mother have one?" asked Janet.
"Mother hadn't. She died when I was born, you know, but Aunty says there was no copy of father's poems among mother's books. Mother didn't care for poetry, Aunty says - Aunty doesn't either. Father went to Europe after mother died, and he died there the next year. Nothing that he had with him was ever sent home to us. He had sold most of his books before he went, but he gave a few of his favourite ones to Aunty to keep for me. HIS book wasn't among them. I don't suppose I shall ever find a copy, but I should be so delighted if I only could."
When the Old Lady got home she took from her top bureau drawer an inlaid box of sandalwood. It held a little, slim, limp volume, wrapped in tissue paper - the Old Lady's most treasured possession. On the fly-leaf was written, "To Margaret, with the author's love."
The Old Lady turned the yellow leaves with trembling fingers and, through eyes brimming with tears, read the verses, although she had known them all by heart for years. She meant to give the book to Sylvia for a birthday present-one of the most precious gifts ever given, if the value of gifts is gauged by the measure of self-sacrifice involved. In that little book was immortal love - old laughter-old tears - old beauty which had bloomed like a rose years ago, holding still its sweetness like old rose leaves. She removed the telltale fly-leaf; and late on the night before Sylvia's birthday, the Old Lady crept, under cover of the darkness, through byways and across fields, as if bent on some nefarious expedition, to the little Spencervale store where the post-office was kept. She slipped the thin parcel through the slit in the door, and then stole home again, feeling a strange sense of loss and loneliness. It was as if she had given away the last link between herself and her youth. But she did not regret it. It would give Sylvia pleasure, and that had come to be the overmastering passion of the Old Lady's heart.
The next night the light in Sylvia's room burned very late, and the Old Lady watched it triumphantly, knowing the meaning of it. Sylvia was reading her father's poems, and the Old Lady in her darkness read them too, murmuring the lines over and over to herself. After all, giving away the book had not mattered so very much. She had the soul of it still - and the fly-leaf with the name, in Leslie's writing, by which nobody ever called her now.
The Old Lady was sitting on the Marshall sofa the next Sewing Circle afternoon when Sylvia Gray came and sat down beside her. The Old Lady's hands trembled a little, and one side of a handkerchief, which was afterwards given as a Christmas present to a little olive-skinned coolie in Trinidad, was not quite so exquisitely done as the other three sides.
Sylvia at first talked of the Circle, and Mrs. Marshall's dahlias, and the Old Lady was in the seventh heaven of delight, though she took care not to show it, and was even a little more stately and finely mannered than usual. When she asked Sylvia how she liked living in Spencervale, Sylvia said,
"Very much. Everybody is so kind to me. Besides" - Sylvia lowered her voice so that nobody but the Old Lady could hear it - "I have a fairy godmother here who does the most beautiful and wonderful things for me."
Sylvia, being a girl of fine instincts, did not look at Old Lady Lloyd as she said this. But she would not have seen anything if she had looked. The Old Lady was not a Lloyd for nothing.
"How very interesting," she said, indifferently.
"Isn't it? I am so grateful to her and I have wished so much she might know how much pleasure she has given me. I have found lovely flowers and delicious berries on my path all summer; I feel sure she sent me my party dress. But the dearest gift came last week on my birthday - a little volume of my father's poems. I can't express what I felt on receiving them. But I longed to meet my fairy godmother and thank her."
"Quite a fascinating mystery, isn't it? Have you really no idea who she is?"
The Old Lady asked this dangerous question with marked success. She would not have been so successful if she had not been so sure that Sylvia had no idea of the old romance between her and Leslie Gray. As it was, she had a comfortable conviction that she herself was the very last person Sylvia would be likely to suspect.
Sylvia hesitated for an almost unnoticeable moment. Then she said, "I haven't tried to find out, because I don't think she wants me to know. At first, of course, in the matter of the flowers and dress, I did try to solve the mystery; but, since I received the book, I became convinced that it was my fairy godmother who was doing it all, and I have respected her wish for concealment and always shall. Perhaps some day she will reveal herself to me. I hope so, at least."
"I wouldn't hope it," said the Old Lady discouragingly. "Fairy godmothers - at least, in all the fairy tales I ever read-are somewhat apt to be queer, crochety people, much more agreeable when wrapped up in mystery than when met face to face."
"I'm convinced that mine is the very opposite, and that the better I became acquainted with her, the more charming a personage I should find her," said Sylvia gaily.
Mrs. Marshall came up at this juncture and entreated Miss Gray to sing for them. Miss Gray consenting sweetly, the Old Lady was left alone and was rather glad of it. She enjoyed her conversation with Sylvia much more in thinking it over after she got home than while it was taking place. When an Old Lady has a guilty conscience, it is apt to make her nervous and distract her thoughts from immediate pleasure. She wondered a little uneasily if Sylvia really did suspect her. Then she concluded that it was out of the question. Who would suspect a mean, unsociable Old Lady, who had no friends, and who gave only five cents to the Sewing Circle when everyone else gave ten or fifteen, to be a fairy godmother, the donor of beautiful party dresses, and the recipient of gifts from romantic, aspiring young poets?
Turn to the next chapter: V. The September Chapter