But Once a Year

By R. O'Grady

A shabby little woman detached herself from the steadily marching throng on the avenue and paused before a shop window, from which solid rows of electric bulbs flashed brilliantly into the December twilight. The ever-increasing current of Christmas shoppers flowed on. Now and then it rolled up, like the waters of the Jordan, while a lady with rich warm furs about her shoulders made safe passage from her car to the tropic atmosphere of the great department store.

Warmth, and the savory smells from a bakery kitchen wafted up through the grating of a near-by pavement, modifying the nipping air. The shabby little woman, only half conscious of such gratuitous comfort, adjusted her blinking gaze to the brightness and looked hungrily at the costumes shimmering under the lights. Wax figures draped with rainbow-tinted, filmy evening gowns caught her passing admiration, but she lingered over the street costumes, the silk-lined coats and soft, warm furs. Elbowed by others who like herself were eager to look, even though they could not buy, she held her ground until she had made her choice.

With her wistful gaze still fixed upon her favorite, she had begun to edge her way through the crowd at the window, when she felt, rather than saw, someone different from the rest, close at her side. At the same instant, she caught the scent of fresh-cut flowers and looked up into the eyes of a tall young girl in a white-plumed velvet hat, with a bunch of English violets in her brown mink fur.

As their glances met, the shabby little woman checked a start, and half-defensively dropped her lids. The smile that shone evanescently from the girl's cordial eyes had aroused in her a feeling of something unwonted, and strangely intimate. There had flashed over the mobile face beneath the velvet hat a look of personal interest—an unmistakable impulse to speak.

The thrill of response that set the woman's pulses throbbing died suddenly. The red that mottled her grayish cheeks was the red of shame. Through the window, in a mirrored panel cruelly ablaze with light, she saw herself: her made-over turban, her short, pigeon-tailed jacket of a style long past, and her old otter cape with its queer caudal decorations and its yellowed cracks grinning through the plucked and ragged fur.

One glance at her own image was enough. The little woman pushed determinedly into the slow-moving crush, and headed toward the nearest elevated station, to be carried on irresistibly by the army of pedestrians.

She caught a last glimpse of the tall young girl, coming in her direction, still watching her with that same eager look. But what of that? She knew why women stared curiously at her. By the time her station was reached, the occurrence had assumed in her mind a painful significance which emphasized the sordidness of her evening's routine. She made her way along a narrow, dimly lighted street, walking with the aimless gait of one who neither expects nor is expected.

But, loiter as she might, she soon reached a neighborhood where rows of narrow brick tenements brooded over dingy, cluttered basement shops. Here she found it necessary to accelerate her pace to make way for romping children and bareheaded women hurrying from the shops with their suppers in paper bags.

In spite of the wintry chill, the section had an air of activity all its own. Neither did it lack occasional evidences of Christmas cheer. In the window of a little news and fruit shop, against the smeared and partly frosted glass, a holly wreath was hanging, and within stood a rack of gaudy, tinseled Christmas cards. The woman hesitated, as if about to enter the shop, then abruptly passed on. She ascended one of the stoops that were all alike. Standing in a blur of reddish light that filtered through the broken glass above the door, she looked back the way she had come.

For an instant her pulses quickened again as they had done on the avenue down-town. At the corner, a tall girl with a white-plumed velvet hat was smilingly picking her way through the swarming element so foreign, apparently, to one of her class. As the white plume came nearer and nearer, the tremulous little woman regained her self-control. It was but one of the coincidences of the city, she told herself, turning resolutely away. The door slammed shut behind her.

Odd, she thought, as she groped her way through the dimly lighted lower hall, and the complete darkness of the upper, that such a girl should be living in such a neighborhood. Then, with an effort, she dismissed the matter from her mind.

To find a match and light the sputtering gas required but very few steps in her tiny box of a room. When that was accomplished, she could think of nothing more to do. Her little taste of excitement had spoiled her zest for any of the homy rites which at other times formed the biggest events of her day. As she sank down upon the cot without removing her wraps, she was greeted by the usual creaking of rusty springs; her table with its meager array of dishes, its coffee pot and little alcohol burner, sat as ever in its corner, inviting the preparation of her evening meal. But to-night she did not want to eat. She had not visited the bake-shop on her way home. She had not even bought her daily paper at the corner stand where the postcards were—those gay Christmas cards that bring you greetings from friends.

As she slowly removed her turban, her jacket and fur cape and, without getting up, tossed them across a chair against the opposite wall, the dull ache of dissatisfaction in her heart grew slowly to a sharp pain of desire. She wanted to do something, to have something happen that might break the sordid routine of her existence.

Still, habit and environment would continue to force at least a part of this routine upon her. She glanced at her fingers, stained to an oily, bluish grime by the cheap dye of the garments that furnished her daily work. Mechanically she rose to wash.

While her hands were immersed in the lather of rankly perfumed toilet soap, there came a gentle knock at the door.

"Come in," invited the woman, expecting some famine-pressed neighbor for a spoonful of coffee or a drawing of tea.

The door opened slowly, a tentative aperture.

"May I come in?" asked a voice that was sweeter than the breath of violets that preceded the caller into the room.

With the towel clutched in her dripping hands, the woman flung wide open the door, then hastened to unload the chair which held her wraps—her only chair.

"Thank you; don't bother," urged the visitor. "I shall like sitting on the couch."

There was a melody of enthusiasm in this remark, which the complaining of the cot, as the girl dropped easily upon it, could not wholly drown.

The woman, having absently hung her towel on the doorknob, stared dazedly at the visitant. She could hardly credit her eyes. It was—it was indeed the girl with the white ostrich plume and the bouquet of violets in her brown mink fur.

"I feel like an intruder," began the girl, "and, do you know—" her appraising glance directed to the old fur collar on the chair, was guiltily withdrawn as she spoke—"do you know, I've such a silly excuse for coming." She laughed, and the laugh brought added music to her voice.

The woman, now at last recalled from her abstraction, smiled, and the weariness passed from her face. She seated herself at the extreme end of the humpy, complaining cot.

"I'm sure you'll understand," resumed the girl. "At least, I hope you'll not be offended…. I heard … that is, I noticed you had a rare fur-piece—" her vivid glance returned to the pile of wraps on the chair—"and I want to ask a very great favor of you. I—now please don't be shocked—I've been ransacking the city for something like it, and—" with a determined air of taking the plunge—"I should like to buy it of you!"

"Buy it!" scorned the woman, with a sudden dull red staining her sallow cheeks. "I can't see why anyone would want to pay money for such a thing as that."

"It—it's a rare pattern, you know," groped the girl, her sweet tones assuming an eloquent, persuasive quiver, "and—and you don't know how glad I'd be to have it."

The indignant color faded out of the woman's face. "If you really want the thing—" abruptly she put her bizarre possession into her strange visitor's lap—"If you really want it—but I don't see—" yearning crept into her work-dimmed eyes, a yearning that seemed to struggle with disillusionment. "Tell me," she broke off, "is that all you came here for?"

Apparently oblivious to the question, the young woman rose to her feet. "You'll sell it to me then!" she triumphed, opening her gold-bound purse.

"But, see here," demurred the woman, "I can't—it ain't worth——"

The girl's gloved hands went fumbling into her purse, while the old fur cape hung limply across one velvet arm.

"You leave it to me," she commanded, and smiled, a radiant, winning smile.

Impulsively the woman drew close to her guest. "Excuse me," she faltered, "but, do you know—you look ever-so-much like a little niece of mine back—home?"

"Do I? That's nice." The visitor looked at her watch. A note of abstraction had crept into her beautiful voice, but it still held the caress that invited the woman's confidence.

"Yes, my little niece—excuse me—I haven't seen her for twelve years—most fifteen years, I guess. She'd be growed up, but I thought—when I saw you down-town——"

"Oh, you remember me, then! Forgive me for following—" The girl seized the woman's soap-reddened hands in a sudden fervent clasp. "I understand," she breathed. "You must be lonely…. I'll try to see you again—I surely will…. Good-bye…."

The girl was gone and all at once the room seemed colder and dingier than it ever had before. But the woman was not cold. As she sat huddled on the cot, warmth and vitality glowed within her, kindled by the memory of a recent kindly human touch.

The following evening, after working hours, the shabby woman, wearing a faded scarf about her neck to replace the old fur collar, diffidently accosted a saleslady at the Sixth Avenue department store. She wanted to buy a brown mink collar, just like one worn by a figure in green in the window.

It was unusual to sell expensive furs to such a customer. But people might send what freaks of servants they pleased to do their Christmas shopping, provided they sent the money, too. In this case, the shabby little woman was prepared. She produced three crisp ten-dollar bills—the fabulous sum which the girl had left in her hand at parting—and two dollars more from the savings in her worn little purse. Then, hugging the big flat box against the tight-fitting bosom of her jacket, she triumphantly left the store.

In a sort of tender ecstasy she dallied along until she came to a florist's window. As she paused to gaze at great bunches of carnations and roses, tied with broad and streaming ribbons, the anxious look that attends the doubtful shopper returned to her face. Would it be of any use to go in? Since she must either keep moving or be carried along by the crowd, she edged through the revolving door.

"English violets?—Fifty cents for the small bunches," clipped off the red-cheeked salesgirl, in reply to the woman's groping inquiry.

The perturbed shopper turned reluctantly away, hesitated, and then asked:

"But the roses? A single, half-blown rose—?"

"Twenty-five apiece," replied the girl in the same mechanical tones, while she busied herself in rearranging a basket of flowers.

"I—I'll take the rose."

At the express office, where scores were waiting before her, the woman had ample time to untie her box and slip the rosebud beneath the tissue paper of the inner wrapping. Then, having retied it securely and stuck a "Do-not-open-until-Christmas" tag in a conspicuous place, she took her stand in line. When it finally came her turn at the desk, a stout clerk, who worked like an automaton and breathed like an ox, tore the package from her lingering grasp and dashed across the wrapper the address she gave.

She paid the charges, wadded the receipt into her purse and turned briskly away.

Fresh crullers she took to her room from the bake-shop, having bought them from a dark, greasy woman, whom she wished a "Merry Christmas" in a voice that almost sang. At dusk she had coffee in her room. It was Christmas Eve and she must begin early to get her full share of the season's peculiar indulgences. After she had read her paper for an hour or so by the recklessly flaming gas jet, she bustled about to brew another cup of coffee, and feasted upon crullers for the second time. At last she filled a water-bottle with tepid water from a faucet in the hall, and prepared for bed.

The chill of the bedclothes, upon which the tepid water-bottle had little effect, could not touch the cozy warmth about the woman's heart. Neither were the happy memories of her strange and lovely visitor disturbed by knowledge of an incident that was taking place at that very hour. As she bounced into her cot, humming a little tune, she did not know that at a down-town theater a popular young actress was just responding to an insistent curtain call. Nor could she have recognized the graceful young girl, issuing from the wings in a new character part—an extreme type of eccentric maidenhood—except for the plucked and ragged fur-piece which formed the keynote of the performer's quaint attire.

No knowledge of this episode disturbed the half-drowsy, half-blissful state which supplanted the woman's sleep that night. The incident cast no cloud upon her eager awakening, nor retarded her active leap from bed when the voice of her landlady aroused her with a start on Christmas morning.

"Eggs-press, eggs-press … a package for Miss Law-lor-r-r!"

Full-chested and lingering, the call reverberated up three flights of naked stairs, and by the time the woman had donned her skirt and sweater and had emerged into the twilight of the upper hall, frowsy, curious heads protruded from every door.

She carried the bulky Christmas package to her own room, moving deliberately, in shy, half-guilty triumph, and placed it on the cot. Behind her closed door she untied it, removed the cover and smilingly bent down to draw an eager inhalation from the tissue paper folds. Then, with careful fingers, she parted the crisp inner wrappings and unearthed a wilting, half-blown rose from its nest in the brown mink fur.