by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
MARGARET LEE encountered in her late middle age the rather singular strait
of being entirely alone in the world. She was unmarried, and as far as
relatives were concerned, she had none except those connected with her by
ties not of blood, but by marriage.
Margaret had not married when her flesh had been comparative; later, when
it had become superlative, she had no opportunities to marry. Life would
have been hard enough for Margaret under any circumstances, but it was
especially hard, living, as she did, with her father's stepdaughter and
that daughter's husband.
Margaret's stepmother had been a child in spite of her two marriages, and
a very silly, although pretty child. The daughter, Camille, was like her,
although not so pretty, and the man whom Camille had married was what
Margaret had been taught to regard as "common." His business pursuits were
irregular and partook of mystery. He always smoked cigarettes and chewed
gum. He wore loud shirts and a diamond scarf-pin which had upon him the
appearance of stolen goods. The gem had belonged to Margaret's own mother,
but when Camille expressed a desire to present it to Jack Desmond,
Margaret had yielded with no outward hesitation, but afterward she wept
miserably over its loss when alone in her room. The spirit had gone out of
Margaret, the little which she had possessed. She had always been a
gentle, sensitive creature, and was almost helpless before the wishes of
After all, it had been a long time since Margaret had been able to force
the ring even upon her little finger, but she had derived a small pleasure
from the reflection that she owned it in its faded velvet box, hidden
under laces in her top bureau drawer. She did not like to see it blazing
forth from the tie of this very ordinary young man who had married
Camille. Margaret had a gentle, high-bred contempt for Jack Desmond, but
at the same time a vague fear of him. Jack had a measure of unscrupulous
business shrewdness, which spared nothing and nobody, and that in spite of
the fact that he had not succeeded.
Margaret owned the old Lee place, which had been magnificent, but of late
years the expenditures had been reduced and it had deteriorated. The
conservatories had been closed. There was only one horse in the stable.
Jack had bought him. He was a wornout trotter with legs carefully
bandaged. Jack drove him at reckless speed, not considering those slender,
braceleted legs. Jack had a racing-gig, and when in it, with striped coat,
cap on one side, cigarette in mouth, lines held taut, skimming along the
roads in clouds of dust, he thought himself the man and true sportsman
which he was not. Some of the old Lee silver had paid for that waning
Camille adored Jack, and cared for no associations, no society, for which
he was not suited. Before the trotter was bought she told Margaret that
the kind of dinners which she was able to give in Fairhill were awfully
slow. "If we could afford to have some men out from the city, some nice
fellers that Jack knows, it would be worth while," said she, "but we have
grown so hard up we can't do a thing to make it worth their while. Those
men haven't got any use for a back-number old place like this. We can't
take them round in autos, nor give them a chance at cards, for Jack
couldn't pay if he lost, and Jack is awful honorable. We can't have the
right kind of folks here for any fun. I don't propose to ask the rector
and his wife, and old Mr. Harvey, or people like the Leaches."
"The Leaches are a very good old family," said Margaret, feebly.
"I don't care for good old families when they are so slow," retorted
Camille. "The fellers we could have here, if we were rich enough, come
from fine families, but they are up-to-date. It's no use hanging on to old
silver dishes we never use and that I don't intend to spoil my hands
shining. Poor Jack don't have much fun, anyway. If he wants that trotter—he
says it's going dirt cheap—I think it's mean he can't have it,
instead of your hanging on to a lot of out-of-style old silver; so there."
Two generations ago there had been French blood in Camille's family. She
put on her clothes beautifully; she had a dark, rather fine-featured,
alert little face, which gave a wrong impression, for she was essentially
vulgar. Sometimes poor Margaret Lee wished that Camille had been
definitely vicious, if only she might be possessed of more of the
characteristics of breeding. Camille so irritated Margaret in those
somewhat abstruse traits called sensibilities that she felt as if she were
living with a sort of spiritual nutmeg-grater. Seldom did Camille speak
that she did not jar Margaret, although unconsciously. Camille meant to be
kind to the stout woman, whom she pitied as far as she was capable of
pitying without understanding. She realized that it must be horrible to be
no longer young, and so stout that one was fairly monstrous, but how
horrible she could not with her mentality conceive. Jack also meant to be
kind. He was not of the brutal—that is, intentionally brutal—type,
but he had a shrewd eye to the betterment of himself, and no realization
of the torture he inflicted upon those who opposed that betterment.
For a long time matters had been worse than usual financially in the Lee
house. The sisters had been left in charge of the sadly dwindled estate,
and had depended upon the judgment, or lack of judgment, of Jack. He
approved of taking your chances and striking for larger income. The few
good old grandfather securities had been sold, and wild ones from the very
jungle of commerce had been substituted. Jack, like most of his type,
while shrewd, was as credulous as a child. He lied himself, and expected
all men to tell him the truth. Camille at his bidding mortgaged the old
place, and Margaret dared not oppose. Taxes were not paid; interest was
not paid; credit was exhausted. Then the house was put up at public
auction, and brought little more than sufficient to pay the creditors.
Jack took the balance and staked it in a few games of chance, and of
course lost. The weary trotter stumbled one day and had to be shot. Jack
became desperate. He frightened Camille. He was suddenly morose. He bade
Camille pack, and Margaret also, and they obeyed. Camille stowed away her
crumpled finery in the bulging old trunks, and Margaret folded daintily
her few remnants of past treasures. She had an old silk gown or two, which
resisted with their rich honesty the inroads of time, and a few pieces of
old lace, which Camille understood no better than she understood their
Then Margaret and the Desmonds went to the city and lived in a horrible,
tawdry little flat in a tawdry locality. Jack roared with bitter mirth
when he saw poor Margaret forced to enter her tiny room sidewise; Camille
laughed also, although she chided Jack gently. "Mean of you to make fun of
poor Margaret, Jacky dear," she said.
For a few weeks Margaret's life in that flat was horrible; then it became
still worse. Margaret nearly filled with her weary, ridiculous bulk her
little room, and she remained there most of the time, although it was
sunny and noisy, its one window giving on a courtyard strung with
clothes-lines and teeming with boisterous life. Camille and Jack went
trolley-riding, and made shift to entertain a little, merry but
questionable people, who gave them passes to vaudeville and entertained in
their turn until the small hours. Unquestionably these people suggested to
Jack Desmond the scheme which spelled tragedy to Margaret.
She always remembered one little dark man with keen eyes who had seen her
disappearing through her door of a Sunday night when all these gay,
bedraggled birds were at liberty and the fun ran high. "Great Scott!" the
man had said, and Margaret had heard him demand of Jack that she be
recalled. She obeyed, and the man was introduced, also the other members
of the party. Margaret Lee stood in the midst of this throng and heard
their repressed titters of mirth at her appearance. Everybody there was in
good humor with the exception of Jack, who was still nursing his bad luck,
and the little dark man, whom Jack owed. The eyes of Jack and the little
dark man made Margaret cold with a terror of something, she knew not what.
Before that terror the shame and mortification of her exhibition to that
merry company was of no import.
She stood among them, silent, immense, clad in her dark purple silk gown
spread over a great hoopskirt. A real lace collar lay softly over her
enormous, billowing shoulders; real lace ruffles lay over her great,
shapeless hands. Her face, the delicacy of whose features was veiled with
flesh, flushed and paled. Not even flesh could subdue the sad brilliancy
of her dark-blue eyes, fixed inward upon her own sad state, unregardful of
the company. She made an indefinite murmur of response to the salutations
given her, and then retreated. She heard the roar of laughter after she
had squeezed through the door of her room. Then she heard eager
conversation, of which she did not catch the real import, but which
terrified her with chance expressions. She was quite sure that she was the
subject of that eager discussion. She was quite sure that it boded her no
In a few days she knew the worst; and the worst was beyond her utmost
imaginings. This was before the days of moving-picture shows; it was the
day of humiliating spectacles of deformities, when inventions of
amusements for the people had not progressed. It was the day of
exhibitions of sad freaks of nature, calculated to provoke tears rather
than laughter in the healthy-minded, and poor Margaret Lee was a chosen
victim. Camille informed her in a few words of her fate. Camille was sorry
for her, although not in the least understanding why she was sorry. She
realized dimly that Margaret would be distressed, but she was unable from
her narrow point of view to comprehend fully the whole tragedy.
"Jack has gone broke," stated Camille. "He owes Bill Stark a pile, and he
can't pay a cent of it; and Jack's sense of honor about a poker debt is
about the biggest thing in his character. Jack has got to pay. And Bill
has a little circus, going to travel all summer, and he's offered big
money for you. Jack can pay Bill what he owes him, and we'll have enough
to live on, and have lots of fun going around. You hadn't ought to make a
fuss about it."
Margaret, pale as death, stared at the girl, pertly slim, and common and
pretty, who stared back laughingly, although still with the glimmer of
uncomprehending pity in her black eyes.
"What does—he—want—me—for?" gasped Margaret.
"For a show, because you are so big," replied Camille. "You will make us
all rich, Margaret. Ain't it nice?"
Then Camille screamed, the shrill raucous scream of the women of her type,
for Margaret had fallen back in a dead faint, her immense bulk inert in
her chair. Jack came running in alarm. Margaret had suddenly gained value
in his shrewd eyes. He was as pale as she.
Finally Margaret raised her head, opened her miserable eyes, and regained
her consciousness of herself and what lay before her. There was no course
open but submission. She knew that from the first. All three faced
destitution; she was the one financial asset, she and her poor flesh. She
had to face it, and with what dignity she could muster.
Margaret had great piety. She kept constantly before her mental vision the
fact in which she believed, that the world which she found so hard, and
which put her to unspeakable torture, was not all.
A week elapsed before the wretched little show of which she was to be a
member went on the road, and night after night she prayed. She besieged
her God for strength. She never prayed for respite. Her realization of the
situation and her lofty resolution prevented that. The awful, ridiculous
combat was before her; there was no evasion; she prayed only for the
strength which leads to victory.
However, when the time came, it was all worse than she had imagined. How
could a woman gently born and bred conceive of the horrible ignominy of
such a life? She was dragged hither and yon, to this and that little town.
She traveled through sweltering heat on jolting trains; she slept in
tents; she lived—she, Margaret Lee—on terms of equality with
the common and the vulgar. Daily her absurd unwieldiness was exhibited to
crowds screaming with laughter. Even her faith wavered. It seemed to her
that there was nothing for evermore beyond those staring, jeering faces of
silly mirth and delight at sight of her, seated in two chairs, clad in a
pink spangled dress, her vast shoulders bare and sparkling with a tawdry
necklace, her great, bare arms covered with brass bracelets, her hands
incased in short, white kid gloves, over the fingers of which she wore a
number of rings—stage properties.
Margaret became a horror to herself. At times it seemed to her that she
was in the way of fairly losing her own identity. It mattered little that
Camille and Jack were very kind to her, that they showed her the nice
things which her terrible earnings had enabled them to have. She sat in
her two chairs—the two chairs proved a most successful advertisement—with
her two kid-cushiony hands clenched in her pink spangled lap, and she
suffered agony of soul, which made her inner self stern and terrible,
behind that great pink mask of face. And nobody realized until one sultry
day when the show opened at a village in a pocket of green hills—indeed,
its name was Greenhill—and Sydney Lord went to see it.
Margaret, who had schooled herself to look upon her audience as if they
were not, suddenly comprehended among them another soul who understood her
own. She met the eyes of the man, and a wonderful comfort, as of a cool
breeze blowing over the face of clear water, came to her. She knew that
the man understood. She knew that she had his fullest sympathy. She saw
also a comrade in the toils of comic tragedy, for Sydney Lord was in the
same case. He was a mountain of flesh. As a matter of fact, had he not
been known in Greenhill and respected as a man of weight of character as
well as of body, and of an old family, he would have rivaled Margaret.
Beside him sat an elderly woman, sweet-faced, slightly bent as to her
slender shoulders, as if with a chronic attitude of submission. She was
Sydney's widowed sister, Ellen Waters. She lived with her brother and kept
his house, and had no will other than his.
Sydney Lord and his sister remained when the rest of the audience had
drifted out, after the privileged hand-shakes with the queen of the show.
Every time a coarse, rustic hand reached familiarly after Margaret's,
He motioned his sister to remain seated when he approached the stage. Jack
Desmond, who had been exploiting Margaret, gazed at him with admiring
curiosity. Sydney waved him away with a commanding gesture. "I wish to
speak to her a moment. Pray leave the tent," he said, and Jack obeyed.
People always obeyed Sydney Lord.
Sydney stood before Margaret, and he saw the clear crystal, which was
herself, within all the flesh, clad in tawdry raiment, and she knew that
he saw it.
"Good God!" said Sydney, "you are a lady!"
He continued to gaze at her, and his eyes, large and brown, became
blurred; at the same time his mouth tightened.
"How came you to be in such a place as this?" demanded Sydney. He spoke
almost as if he were angry with her.
Margaret explained briefly.
"It is an outrage," declared Sydney. He said it, however, rather absently.
He was reflecting. "Where do you live?" he asked.
"They make up a bed for me here, after the people have gone."
"And I suppose you had—before this—a comfortable house."
"The house which my grandfather Lee owned, the old Lee mansion-house,
before we went to the city. It was a very fine old Colonial house,"
explained Margaret, in her finely modulated voice.
"And you had a good room?"
"The southeast chamber had always been mine. It was very large, and the
furniture was old Spanish mahogany."
"And now—" said Sydney.
"Yes," said Margaret. She looked at him, and her serious blue eyes seemed
to see past him. "It will not last," she said.
"What do you mean?"
"I try to learn a lesson. I am a child in the school of God. My lesson is
one that always ends in peace."
"Good God!" said Sydney.
He motioned to his sister, and Ellen approached in a frightened fashion.
Her brother could do no wrong, but this was the unusual, and alarmed her.
"This lady—" began Sydney.
"Miss Lee," said Margaret. "I was never married. I am Miss Margaret Lee."
"This," said Sydney, "is my sister Ellen, Mrs. Waters. Ellen, I wish you
to meet Miss Lee."
Ellen took into her own Margaret's hand, and said feebly that it was a
beautiful day and she hoped Miss Lee found Greenhill a pleasant place to—visit.
Sydney moved slowly out of the tent and found Jack Desmond. He was
standing near with Camille, who looked her best in a pale-blue summer silk
and a black hat trimmed with roses. Jack and Camille never really knew how
the great man had managed, but presently Margaret had gone away with him
and his sister.
Jack and Camille looked at each other.
"Oh, Jack, ought you to have let her go?" said Camille.
"What made you let her go?" asked Jack.
"I—don't know. I couldn't say anything. That man has a tremendous
way with him. Goodness!"
"He is all right here in the place, anyhow," said Jack. "They look up to
him. He is a big-bug here. Comes of a family like Margaret's, though he
hasn't got much money. Some chaps were braggin' that they had a bigger
show than her right here, and I found out."
"Suppose," said Camille, "Margaret does not come back?"
"He could not keep her without bein' arrested," declared Jack, but he
looked uneasy. He had, however, looked uneasy for some time. The fact was,
Margaret had been very gradually losing weight. Moreover, she was not
well. That very night, after the show was over, Bill Stark, the little
dark man, had a talk with the Desmonds about it.
"Truth is, before long, if you don't look out, you'll have to pad her,"
said Bill; "and giants don't amount to a row of pins after that begins."
Camille looked worried and sulky. "She ain't very well, anyhow," said she.
"I ain't going to kill Margaret."
"It's a good thing she's got a chance to have a night's rest in a house,"
said Bill Stark.
"The fat man has asked her to stay with him and his sister while the show
is here," said Jack.
"The sister invited her," said Camille, with a little stiffness. She was
common, but she had lived with Lees, and her mother had married a Lee. She
knew what was due Margaret, and also due herself.
"The truth is," said Camille, "this is an awful sort of life for a woman
like Margaret. She and her folks were never used to anything like it."
"Why didn't you make your beauty husband hustle and take care of her and
you, then?" demanded Bill, who admired Camille, and disliked her because
she had no eyes for him.
"My husband has been unfortunate. He has done the best he could,"
responded Camille. "Come, Jack; no use talking about it any longer. Guess
Margaret will pick up. Come along. I'm tired out."
That night Margaret Lee slept in a sweet chamber with muslin curtains at
the windows, in a massive old mahogany bed, much like hers which had been
sacrificed at an auction sale. The bed-linen was linen, and smelled of
lavender. Margaret was too happy to sleep. She lay in the cool, fragrant
sheets and was happy, and convinced of the presence of the God to whom she
had prayed. All night Sydney Lord sat down-stairs in his book-walled
sanctum and studied over the situation. It was a crucial one. The great
psychological moment of Sydney Lord's life for knight-errantry had
arrived. He studied the thing from every point of view. There was no
romance about it. These were hard, sordid, tragic, ludicrous facts with
which he had to deal. He knew to a nicety the agonies which Margaret
suffered. He knew, because of his own capacity for sufferings of like
stress. "And she is a woman and a lady," he said, aloud.
If Sydney had been rich enough, the matter would have been simple. He
could have paid Jack and Camille enough to quiet them, and Margaret could
have lived with him and his sister and their two old servants. But he was
not rich; he was even poor. The price to be paid for Margaret's liberty
was a bitter one, but it was that or nothing. Sydney faced it. He looked
about the room. To him the walls lined with the dull gleams of old books
were lovely. There was an oil portrait of his mother over the
mantel-shelf. The weather was warm now, and there was no need for a hearth
fire, but how exquisitely home-like and dear that room could be when the
snow drove outside and there was the leap of flame on the hearth! Sydney
was a scholar and a gentleman. He had led a gentle and sequestered life.
Here in his native village there were none to gibe and sneer. The contrast
of the traveling show would be as great for him as it had been for
Margaret, but he was the male of the species, and she the female.
Chivalry, racial, harking back to the beginning of nobility in the human,
to its earliest dawn, fired Sydney. The pale daylight invaded the study.
Sydney, as truly as any knight of old, had girded himself, and with no
hope, no thought of reward, for the battle in the eternal service of the
strong for the weak, which makes the true worth of the strong.
There was only one way. Sydney Lord took it. His sister was spared the
knowledge of the truth for a long while. When she knew, she did not
lament; since Sydney had taken the course, it must be right. As for
Margaret, not knowing the truth, she yielded. She was really on the verge
of illness. Her spirit was of too fine a strain to enable her body to
endure long. When she was told that she was to remain with Sydney's sister
while Sydney went away on business, she made no objection. A wonderful
sense of relief, as of wings of healing being spread under her despair,
was upon her. Camille came to bid her good-by.
"I hope you have a nice visit in this lovely house," said Camille, and
kissed her. Camille was astute, and to be trusted. She did not betray
Sydney's confidence. Sydney used a disguise—a dark wig over his
partially bald head and a little make-up-and he traveled about with the
show and sat on three chairs, and shook hands with the gaping crowd, and
was curiously happy. It was discomfort; it was ignominy; it was maddening
to support by the exhibition of his physical deformity a perfectly
worthless young couple like Jack and Camille Desmond, but it was all
superbly ennobling for the man himself.
Always as he sat on his three chairs, immense, grotesque—the more
grotesque for his splendid dignity of bearing—there was in his soul
of a gallant gentleman the consciousness of that other, whom he was
shielding from a similar ordeal. Compassion and generosity, so great that
they comprehended love itself and excelled its highest type, irradiated
the whole being of the fat man exposed to the gaze of his inferiors.
Chivalry, which rendered him almost god-like, strengthened him for his
task. Sydney thought always of Margaret as distinct from her physical
self, a sort of crystalline, angelic soul, with no encumbrance of earth.
He achieved a purely spiritual conception of her. And Margaret, living
again her gentle lady life, was likewise ennobled by a gratitude which
transformed her. Always a clear and beautiful soul, she gave out new
lights of character like a jewel in the sun. And she also thought of
Sydney as distinct from his physical self. The consciousness of the two
human beings, one of the other, was a consciousness as of two wonderful
lines of good and beauty, moving for ever parallel, separate, and
inseparable in an eternal harmony of spirit.