Alida's Homeliness

by Annie Fellows Johnston

With a sigh of relief Alida Gooding saw the dentist put away his instruments. Her nerves seemed all aquiver as she slowly rose and went into the little dressing-room to put on her hat and coat, and to wait for the family carriage which was to call for her at this hour.

She was a plain-looking girl of eighteen, with homely, irregular features, a sallow complexion, and a reserved, haughty manner that tended to repel all friendly advances. All that clothes could do to improve a girl's appearance had certainly been done for her. Every part of her costume, from her fashionable gown to her stylish hat, indicated wealth and good taste; but the face that looked wistfully back at her from the little dressing-room mirror was not pretty.

The door into the adjoining parlour was slightly ajar, and she could hear some one pacing restlessly about, awaiting his turn. "I'll be ready for you in about three minutes, Charley!" called the dentist from the inner room; and Alida heard the reply, "No hurry. I want to speak to one of the boys I see coming down the street."

The voice was a familiar one. She recognised it as belonging to Charley Jarvis, a friend of her sister. The next instant she heard a window thrown up, and a shrill whistle sounded out on the snowy air. Peering cautiously out of the window where she stood watching for the carriage, she saw another acquaintance, Phil Bently, look up and wave his hand in response to the whistle. A moment later he came bounding up the stairs, three steps at a time, and into the adjoining parlour.

"What's up, old fellow?" he asked. "What's wanted now?"

"I've been trying to see you for three days," answered Charley, "but they told me that you were out of town when I inquired at the office. Mrs. Lancaster has a pretty little girl visiting her from Alabama, and she intends to give an old-fashioned valentine party for her entertainment next week. I am helping with the invitations. Here's the list of the boys she wants, and each one is to bring one of the girls of our set as his valentine, in fancy costume, you know. I've seen all the boys but you and Ben Fuller, and they've chosen the girls they want to invite."

"Who's left for us?" queried Phil. "Let me see the list a minute. Nannie Mason," he read, slowly. "No wonder she was left to the last; she's such a silly little thing and does nothing but giggle. Alida Gooding! Jarvis, you haven't left me much choice. Alida's the homeliest girl in town. It is a pity that she is so ugly when her sister May is such a beauty. Now if it were only May who was one of the left-overs, I'd jump at the chance. Any fellow would be proud to take her."

"But you see," interrupted Charley, with a tantalising drawl, "May is my valentine. Come on, now, which do you choose—Nannie or Alida? Ben is good-natured; he'll take whoever is left."

"Well, then—Nannie," said Phil, in a martyrlike tone. "Ben can escort the comic valentine."

"Oh, I say, Bently," exclaimed his friend, "you needn't talk about the girl that way! She can't help being so plain!"

"That's so. It's brutal of me, and I'm sorry I said that. But she might at least be jolly," answered Phil. "You wouldn't want to take a girl that wasn't even—"

Alida did not hear the rest of the sentence. The moment that she realised they were talking about her, she had begun to struggle into her coat in order to leave. Without looking into the mirror,—her eyes were too full of tears to see, even if she had done so,—she pinned on her hat and hurried out into the hall. The coupé had just drawn up at the curbstone, and with a curt order to the coachman to drive home as rapidly as possible, she sank down on the cushions, shrinking back from the carriage windows.

Mortified by the cruelly careless speech that she had overheard, she gave herself up to an uncontrollable fit of crying. "I know that I've always been uh-uh-ugly," she sobbed, "but I never knew before that people felt and talked that way about me! I'll never show my face outside of the house again, and Ben Fuller shall certainly be spared the mortification of escorting a 'comic valentine' to Mrs. Lancaster's party. Oh, I would rather be dead than so homely and unattractive!"

She was still sobbing when she reached the house, and stood shivering on the steps in the chill February wind while she waited for the front door to open. A cheerful wood fire blazed in the fireplace in the wide reception hall. A bowl of hothouse violets greeted her with their fragrant springlike odour; but heedless of the luxurious warmth and cheer that pervaded the house, she hurried up-stairs, with the gloom of the cloudy winter day in her tear-stained face.

"Lunch is served, Miss Alida," said the maid, meeting her in the upper hall.

"Tell mamma that I don't want any," she answered, passing into her own room. "I'm going to lie down. My head aches, and I do not wish to be disturbed by any one."

A slight expression of annoyance crossed Mrs. Gooding's handsome face. She and May were alone at lunch, and when the servant had left the room she said impatiently to May: "I particularly wanted Alida to go out with us this afternoon to call on Mrs. Lancaster's guest. She takes so little interest in people outside the family, and it really mortifies me to see how silent and stiff she is in company. She always has some excuse to stay at home. She can never overcome her reticence unless she goes out more. Oh, May, I wish she were more like you!"

As Alida lay up-stairs, battling with her tears and a throbbing headache, a note was brought to her. It was from Ben Fuller, asking her to be his valentine at Mrs. Lancaster's party. By this time she had worked herself up to such a state of morbid sensitiveness that she could not even write a gracious refusal. It was so curt and cool that Ben gave a low whistle of surprise when he received it.

"I shall never ask her to go anywhere again!" was his mental comment, as he tossed the note into the fire.

All the rest of the week Alida stayed in her room as much as possible. Phil Bently's speech so rankled in her mind that she could take no pleasure in anything, not even in the making of May's costume, in which all the family were interested. It was an odd affair—a white silk gown dotted with red hearts and bordered with dozens of old-fashioned lace-paper valentines, with their bright array of cupids and doves and flowers; and to May it was most becoming.

"Where did you ever get all the things to put on it?" asked her father as she slowly revolved before him the night of the party.

"Oh, I saved them as an Indian brave does his scalp-locks," she answered. "They were sent to me ages ago, before I left the nursery. I had them all packed away, and had forgotten them until I began planning this costume. I wonder if Charley Jarvis will recognise that row, or Phil Bently remember when he sent this. They were barely out of the kindergarten then."

The judge looked at the trophies with an amused smile. "I remember sending valentines to your mother once upon a time. It is too bad the custom is dying out. Young people seem to be discarding their patron saint."

"Oh, no, indeed, father," answered May. "We have got beyond hearts and darts and lace-paper affairs; but cast your judicial eye over that table at all I have received to-day: books and music and boxes of candy and no end of flowers."

"Where is your share, Alida?" asked the judge, kindly, peering over his eye-glasses at his youngest daughter. "What did St. Valentine bring you?"

"Nothing," answered Alida, rising suddenly to leave the room, lest he should notice the tears she could not force back. "He's like everybody else," she added, bitterly, as she reached the door. "He doesn't care for homely people."

The judge looked annoyed. "I wish she were not so self-conscious and sensitive!" he exclaimed.

"She hasn't seemed well for some time," said her mother, apologetically. "It might be a wise thing to have the doctor see her soon. The next time Agnes drops in I shall speak to her."

"If the child is ailing, have her come at once," said the judge, decidedly, and a few minutes later he was at the telephone, sending a message for Doctor Agnes Mayne to call that evening, if possible.

Instead of going to her own room, Alida opened the door of the old nursery, turned on the gas, and began searching through closets and drawers. At last she found the object of her search, a little portfolio in which she had laid away some of her childish treasures, as her older sister had done. Kneeling on the floor beside it, she took out the valentines it contained and counted them. There were only six—all that she had ever received; and now she noticed that each little lace envelope was addressed in her father's familiar handwriting. She had failed to see that in those earlier years.

"So, really, St. Valentine has never brought me anything," she thought, bitterly, "and he never will! I wonder how it feels to be loved and admired by everybody, as May is!"

Going into her own room, she sat down before her little mahogany dressing-table, and tilting back the oval mirror, studied the reflection in it. As she looked, the tears began to roll down her cheeks, and finally she crossed her arms on the table and laid her head on them with a choking sob. There was a knock at the door presently, but she paid no attention. It was repeated, and then some one came in softly, pausing as she saw the girl's dejected attitude.

Alida looked up, "Oh, Doctor Agnes!" she exclaimed; then, despite a strong effort to control her nervous tears, down went her head on the table, and she sobbed harder than before.

Doctor Agnes Mayne was the warm friend of all the family, and on the most familiar footing with them. As she was a woman of strong personal magnetism, and knew just how to win Alida's confidence, it was not long before her judicious questions had drawn out the reason of the girl's grief. After Alida had finished her recital of the conversation at the dentist's, there was a long silence.

"Well, Alida," said Doctor Agnes at last, "what you need is a dose of definitions, and I am going to give them to you at once. I wish you would go to your dictionary and look for the word 'homely.' That seems to be such a bugbear to you."

Much surprised, Alida crossed the room and opened the ponderous volume on her writing-table. While she ran her finger slowly down the page, the doctor continued: "It has several definitions, but the original meaning was homelike, and it is only in that archaic sense that I want you to take it. Now, what is given as the definition of homelike?"

"Comfortable; cheerful; cozy; friendly," read Alida.

"Now look for comfortable," directed the doctor. "Not any modern meaning. I want the good old ones that have become obsolete."

"Strong; vigorous; serviceable; helpful," read Alida again.

"Now just one word more," said the doctor. "Find cozy, the meaning that the English give it."

Alida searched the columns a moment and then read: "Chatty; talkative; sociable."

"There!" exclaimed the doctor, taking the girl's feverish wrist in her firm, cool hand. "That is my prescription for you. Take those definitions faithfully to heart for a year, and you will become so homely, in the good old sense of the word, that by another St. Valentine's day you will find yourself admired by everybody."

Alida shrugged her shoulders so incredulously that the doctor took out her watch and showed her a picture inside the case. "There is my proof," she said. It was the picture of a sweet, kindly old face, plain in features, but with a beauty of expression that made Alida's eyes soften as she looked at it.

"My mother," said Doctor Agnes, gently. "She might be called a homely woman in both senses of the word. Every one feels the cheer of her presence as of a warm, comfortable fire-side. Nobody can come into contact with her without being helped by her sunny, friendly interest. People feel at home—at their easiest and best—with her, and she is the 'cozy corner' they naturally turn to, old and young alike."

"Then she must have been born with such a nature," interrupted Alida.

"No, she was as reserved and timid as you are—always worrying about her appearance and thinking that people were criticising her, until she went to visit an eccentric old aunt, who spent her time in finding employment for friendless young girls.

"Aunt Winifred soon found that mother was in as great need of employment as the poorest little seamstress on her list. So she interested her in her charities, drawing her by degrees into the active work of them until her unhappy little niece had learned the beautiful gospel of self-forgetfulness. Afterward, when mother was married and had the happiness of her five daughters at heart, she induced each one of us to take up something of absorbing interest, in order that there might be no empty, idle days when discontent could creep in. That is how I came to study medicine, and that is how I learned to love the word 'homely' in its first and best sense. She taught me the definitions which I have just given you."

Half an hour later Judge Gooding was surprised to see Alida and Agnes Mayne coming gaily into the room with their arms around each other. There was more animation in Alida's face than it had shown for days.

"Papa, I am going to study medicine," she announced. "Doctor Agnes has told me so many interesting things about her profession, and the cases she has in the children's hospital, that I can hardly wait to begin. She has promised to take me round with her and lend me all her books. I think I shall begin to-morrow morning."

The judge smiled indulgently. "I have no fears of your going into the practice of medicine seriously," he said. "I should not like a daughter of mine to do that; but if you think you would enjoy the study as a pastime and Doctor Mayne recommends it, I shall not object if your mother is willing."

The family thought that "Alida's fad," as they called it, would not last long; but under Agnes Mayne's wise supervision it became an unfailing source of pleasure to the girl. Winter slipped into spring, and the crocuses gave way to the summer roses, and still her interest grew daily. She even begged not to be taken to the seashore, where the family always spent their summers.

"Mrs. Mayne has asked me to stay with her," she said, "and she has such a dear little house, and I am sure that the children at the hospital would miss me now if I were to go away. There is so much that I can do to make the poor little things happier."

Alida had her own way finally. She studied on through the summer, learning much about anatomy and physiology from the doctor's big books in the office, but unconsciously learning the higher wisdom of a spiritual hygiene from her sweet-souled old hostess, the doctor's mother. It cleared her mental vision. It made her quick to understand other people, warm in her sympathies, and forgetful of self in her intercourse with them.

"She do be such a comfortable sort of body, that young doctor," said a poor washerwoman, suffering from a scalded arm, as Doctor Mayne made her rounds alone one morning. "She is that chatty and sociable that I forget the pain while she is about, and it would do your heart good to see how she do cozy up the place before she leaves it."

Doctor Mayne repeated this to Alida. "You are getting on bravely with your definitions," she said, with an approving pat on her shoulder.

"What do you think of 'Alida's fad' now?" she asked Mrs. Gooding, several months later. It was a dull December day, and she had called for a hasty visit.

"My dear Agnes," said Mrs. Gooding, "we are simply delighted! It has waked her up and made a different creature of her. She is almost as easy and sociable with May's friends now as May is herself. Yesterday afternoon half a dozen of them came in with May to get warm after a long sleigh-ride. Alida prepared a delicious little chafing-dish lunch for them, and made herself so agreeable and entertaining that I was really surprised.

"I thought that she looked almost pretty, too. Her complexion is so clear now, since she has put to such good use what she has learned about hygiene. She looked so bright and animated, laughing and talking there in the firelight, that it did not seem possible she had ever been a cold, reticent girl, who always repelled people."

One morning, not long after this conversation, the family were surprised by Ben Fuller's driving up in his sleigh soon after breakfast, and asking for Alida. They were all in the library, and he announced his errand without taking a seat. "My sister Ada—Mrs. Cranford, you know—is very anxious for you to come over for a little while. She was so prostrated yesterday by the shock of what happened in her absence that she couldn't talk coherently to you then; but she feels that she must see you for a few moments, if possible, and she is unable to come out this morning. May I take you over in my sleigh?"

Alida, showing no trace of surprise at the message, rose at once to go up-stairs for her hat, but Mrs. Gooding plied him with astonished questions.

"Is it possible that she has not told you?" he exclaimed. "My sister is spending the winter here with her little daughter Doris. We all idolise the child, and she is never left alone a moment. But yesterday we were all out of town at a wedding, and Doris had to be left with only the nurse. Nobody will ever know how it happened, but she slipped away and got into the little cottage around the corner. There was a child there that she had taken a fancy to from seeing it at the window whenever she passed.

"Nobody can find out how long she was there, or what the two children did. She says that they played party and had 'good fings' to eat that they 'finded' by themselves. Miss Alida met her coming home about four o'clock, and turned to walk with her and see her safely into the house, for she suspected that Doris had run away. Doris was eating some of the pink candy that she had brought home from the cottage, although we did not know where it came from until this morning.

"She offered Miss Alida a taste out of the little pasteboard box she carried. To Miss Alida's horror, she found it was a package of roach paste, warranted to be a deadly poison to insects. Miss Alida hurried the child into the house and set to work so skilfully that by the time the doctor reached there, nothing was left for him to do. He said that Doris would have died but for Miss Alida's medical knowledge and immediate attention. If nothing had been done until he arrived, it would have been too late to save the child.

"Ada got home about the time he pronounced Doris entirely out of danger, and was so frightened when she heard what had happened that she went from one fainting spell into another. This morning we found where Doris got the poison, and learned that the little child at the cottage died in the night. Ada is so unnerved that she is nearly frantic, thinking how near she came to losing Doris. She is so grateful to Miss Alida that she would go through fire and water to serve her in any way. Well, we all would, in fact," added the young man, with a suspicion of huskiness in his voice. "You see, Doris is the only grandchild in the family, and we are almost foolishly fond of her."

Detaching a locket from his watch-chain, he handed it to the judge. "Here is a miniature of her," he said. The judge looked at the beautiful baby face framed in its golden curls, and then glanced up at Alida, who had returned, dressed for her drive.



"Thank God for such a sensible little daughter!" he said with fervour, as he rose and kissed her.

This was not the last time that Ben Fuller was sent to escort Alida to his sister. Mrs. Cranford's gratitude grew into an intense affection for the girl. All winter she sent for her on every possible occasion, to drive with her, to dine, to go to the opera, or attend some entertainment. She was constantly planning some new way to give Alida pleasure. Finding her deeply interested in the children at the hospital, she sent a beautiful tree out to them on Christmas day, in Alida's name. When February 14th came again, a great package of valentines found its way to Alida for the children—enough for every child in every ward, and the finest that could be bought in the city.

Doctor Agnes came up to Alida's room to help her sort and address them. "You certainly have your share this year," she said, laughing. "Do you remember what a slough of despond you were in a year ago?"

Alida smiled happily, and then hid her face in a great bunch of roses on her dressing-table. The little note that had come with the flowers was still in her hand, and she had just reread it.

"St. Valentine has brought me something else," she said, hesitatingly. "Doctor Agnes, I'm to be Ben's valentine at the party to-night, and he—he thinks that I am really homely in the archaic sense."