Jewels to Wear by John Strange Winter
"Torches are made to burn;
jewels to wear."--Shakespeare
"I can't think, Nancy, why you cannot get
something useful to occupy yourself with.
It seems to me that I have slaved and sacrificed
myself all my life, in every possible direction, simply
that you may waste your whole time spoiling good
paper, scribbling, scribbling, scribbling, from morning
till night, with your fingers inky, and your thoughts
in the clouds, and your attention on nothing that I
want you to attend to. I don't call it a good reward
to make to me. You will never do any good with
that ridiculous scribbling--never! When I think
of what you might save me, of how you might spare
me in my anxious and busy life, it makes me
positively ill to think I am your mother. Here have I
been thinking of you, Nancy, and working for you,
and struggling, and fighting, and slaving for you for
twenty years, and now that the time has come when
you might do something for me, you have only one
idea in your head, and that is writing rubbishy stories
that nobody will ever want to buy!"
"You have only one idea in your head, and that is writing rubbishy stories that nobody will ever want to buy!"
The girl thus addressed turned and looked at her mother.
"Mother, dear," she said depreciatingly, "I am
sorry that I am not more useful. I can't help it.
I do think of you, I try to do everything I can to
relieve you, and help you; but these stories will
come into my head. They won't be put out of it.
What am I to do?"
"What are you to do?" echoed the mother.
"Why, look at that basket of stockings to darn!"
"I am quite willing to darn them," said Nancy meekly.
"Yes, you are quite willing, I daresay. You are
quite willing when I tell you. But you don't seem to
see what a burden it is to me to have to tell you
everything as if you were a baby. There are the
stockings, and there are you; at your age, you don't
surely need me to tell you that the stockings need
"I will do them at once," said Nancy. "I will
do them this minute."
"Yes, with your thoughts in the clouds, and your
mind fixed on scribbling. What, may I ask you,
Nancy, do you think you will ever do with it?"
"I don't know," said Nancy desperately. "Perhaps
I may make some money some day."
"Never, never! Waste it, you mean. Waste it
over pens, ink, paper and tablecloths. There is the
tablecloth in your bedroom spotted with ink from
end to end. It is heart-breaking."
"Well, Mother, what do you wish me to do?" the
girl asked in desperation.
"Your plain and simple duty. I would like you
to give up all idea of wasting your time in that
way from now on," said the mother deliberately.
"Won't you even let me write a little to amuse
myself in my spare time?" asked the girl piteously.
"Your spare time!" echoed the mother
impatiently. "What spare time have poor people
such as we are? What spare time have I? Here
are we with this great boarding-house on our hands,
twenty-three boarders to be made comfortable, kept
in good temper, fed, housed, boarded--everything to
be done for them, and I have to do it. Why, in the
time that you waste over those stories, you might
make yourself a brilliant pianist, and play in the
evening to them. Then you would be of some use."
"I don't think," said Nancy, "that anything will
ever make me a brilliant pianist, Mother. There's
no music in me--not of that kind, and I don't think
that the boarders would like me half as well if I
went and strummed on the drawing-room piano
every evening for an hour or two, I really don't, Mother."
"No, you know better than I do, of course. That
is the way with the young people of the present day.
You are all alike. Ah, it was different when I was
a girl. I would no more have dreamed of defying
my mother as you defy me----"
"Mother, I don't defy you," Nancy broke in indignantly.
"I never defied you in my life. I never
thought of such a thing."
"Don't you write stories in defiance of my
wishes?" Mrs. Macdonald asked, dropping the
tragedy air, and putting the question in a plain,
every-day, businesslike tone.
At this, Nancy Macdonald flushed a deep full red,
a blush of shame it was, or what felt like shame,
and as it slowly faded away until her face was a dull
greyish white, all hope for that gift which was as the
very mainspring of her life, seemed to shrink and
die within her.
"Mother," she said at last, in a firm tone, "I will
do what you wish. I will give up writing, I promise
you, from this time forward, and I will not write
at all while I have any duty left in the day. You
will not mind my doing a little when I have seen the
after dinner coffee served, will you?"
"That means, I suppose," said Mrs. Macdonald
rather tartly, "that you will sit up half the night
ruining your health, spoiling your eyesight, wasting
my gas, and making it perfectly impossible that you
should get up in good time in the morning."
"Mother," said the girl, in a most piteous tone,
"when I am once late in the morning, I will promise
you to give it up altogether, and for ever; more than
that I cannot say. As you said just now, it is a hard
life here, and we have not very much leisure time;
but, I implore you, do not take my one delight and
pleasure from me altogether!"
"If you put it in that way," said Mrs. Macdonald
rather grudgingly, "of course, we can but try the
experiment; but what good, I ask you, Nancy, do
you think will ever come of it!"
"I don't know," said Nancy; "I can't say. Other
people have made fortunes; other people have done
well by writing; why should not I?"
"As if you would ever make a fortune!" said
Mrs. Macdonald, with the contemptuousness of a woman
to whom the struggle of life had been hard and to
whom pounds, shillings and pence in the very hand
were the only proofs of reason for what she called
"wasting time" over story-writing.
"Well, if not a fortune, at least a comfortable
income," said Nancy eagerly; "and if I did, Mother,
I should give it all to you!"
"Thank you for nothing, my dear," was the
To this Nancy made no answer. She carried the
big basket of stockings to the window, and sat down
in the cold winter light to do such repairs as were
necessary. Poor child! It was a hard fate for her.
She was the eldest of a family of five, all dependent
on the exertions of her widowed mother in keeping
afloat the big boarding-house by which they lived.
For a boarding-house, be it ever so liberally managed,
be the receipts ever so generous, is but a sordid
abode, especially to those who have the trouble and
care of managing it; and to an eldest daughter,
and one who stands between the anxious mother
and the younger children, who mostly resemble
young rooks with mouths chronically open, such a
life appears perhaps more sordid than it does to
any one else.
To Nancy Macdonald, with her mind full of
visionary beauty, and living daily in a world of
her own--not a world of boarding-houses--the life
they lived seemed even more sordid, more trivial,
more petty, than it was in reality. Her wants were
not many; she was never inclined to rail at fate
because she had not been born with a silver spoon
in her mouth, not at all. But if only she could have
a quiet home, with an assured income, just sufficient
to cover their modest wants, to provide good
wholesome food, to buy boots and shoes for the little ones,
to pay the wages of a good servant, to take those lines
of anxious care from her mother's forehead, so that
she could employ her leisure in cultivating her
Art--she always called it her Art, poor child!--she
would have been perfectly happy, or she thought
she would have been perfectly happy, which, in the
main, amounted to the same thing. As she sat
in the cold light of that winter's afternoon, darning,
as if for dear life, the great pile of stockings which
were her portion, she soon drifted away from the
tall Bloomsbury dwelling into a bright, brilliant land
of romance, where there were no troubles, no cares,
where nothing was sordid, and everything was
bright and rosy, and even troubles and worries might
have been adequately described as "double water gilt."
Young writers do indulge in these blessed dreams
of fancy, and Nancy, remember, was only twenty.
Her heroines were always lovely, always
extravagantly rich or picturesquely poor; her heroes were
all lithe and long, and most of them had tawny
moustaches, and violet eyes like a girl's. They were
all guardsmen or noblemen. They knew not the want
of money; if they were called poor, they went
everywhere in hansoms, and had valets and gambling
debts. It was an ideal world, and Nancy Macdonald
was very happy in it.
From that time forward a new life began for the
girl. The household certainly went more smoothly,
because of that promise to her mother; and
Mrs. Macdonald's sharp tongue whetted itself on other
grievances more frequently than on that old one
about Nancy's scribbling propensities. It was
irritating to Nancy, of course, to hear her mother
continually nagging about something or other; but
then, as she reminded herself very often during the
day, her mother had great anxieties and grievous
worries. She was a sort of double-distilled Martha,
"careful and troubled," not about many things, but
about everything--everything that did happen, or
might happen, even what could happen under
given circumstances which might and probably never
would occur. Still, it was not so trying to bear when
the shafts of sarcasm and complaining were aimed at
others instead of herself, and to do Nancy strict
justice, she did try honestly to do the work which
lay to her hand.
In the midst of the multitudinous cares of the
large household it must be owned that the girl's
writing suffered. It is all very well for a girl in
fiction to do scullery work all day long, and write the
brilliant novel of a season in odd moments, in a cold
and cheerless bedroom, but in real life it is very
different. Nancy Macdonald gave her attention to
stockings and table-linen, and shopping and ordering
and dusting; to keeping boarders in good temper,
and making herself generally useful; to superintending
the education and manners of the little ones, to
smoothing down the rough edges of her mother's
chronic asperity--in short, to being a real help; but
her much loved work practically went to the wall.
She dreamed a good deal while she was doing other
things, but mere dreaming is not of much help
towards making name or fortune; work is the only
road which leads to either. Still, you cannot do your
duty without improving your character, and Nancy
Macdonald's character was strengthening and
softening every day. She worked a little at night, but
often she was far too tired and weary to attempt it.
Very often when she did so, she found that the words
would not run, the incidents would not connect
themselves, and frequently that her eyes would not keep
open; and then I am obliged to say that it was not
an uncommon thing for Nancy Macdonald to get
into bed and cry herself to sleep.
Still, her character was strengthening. With every
day that went by she learnt more of the power of
endurance; she became more patient, more fixed in
her ideas; the goal of her desires was set more
immediately in front of her. It was less visionary, but
it was infinitely more substantial. In a desultory
kind of a way she still worked, still wrote of lords
and ladies whom she did not know in the flesh, still
drew pictures of guardsmen with longer legs and
tawnier moustaches even than before. She spent the
whole of her pocket-money (which, by the bye,
consisted of certain perquisites in the house, the
medicine bottles and the dripping forming her chief
sources of income) on manuscript paper, and was
sometimes hard pushed to pay the postage on the
mysterious packages which she smuggled into the
post-office, and to provide the stamps for paying the
return fare of these children of her fancy. Poor
things, they always required it. No enterprising
editors wanted the long-legged guardsmen, their blue
eyes and tawny moustaches notwithstanding.
Nobody had a welcome for the lovely ladies, who were
all dressed by Worth, though they never seemed to
have heard of such a person as Felix. The disappointments
of their continued return were very bitter
to her; yet, at heart, Nancy Macdonald was a true
artist, and had all the true artist's pluck and
perseverance, so that she never thought of giving up her
work. It was only that she had not yet found her
For about six months after Nancy's promise to
her mother that she would not even try to
write during the working hours, life went fairly
prosperously with the widowed boarding-house keeper.
Then a spell of bad luck set in. Several boarders
left and were not replaced. Their best paying
permanent boarder--a rich old gentleman, the head of a
large business in the city--died suddenly, died
without a will, although he had several times spoken of
his intention of leaving Mrs. Macdonald a handsome
legacy; and his next-of-kin did not seem to think it
necessary to do more than pay the actual expenses
which their relative had incurred. Twice they had
visitors who left without paying their bills; and, as
a last crowning act of ill-luck, the youngest child fell
sick, and the doctor pronounced the illness to be
"When troubles come, they come not single spies,
But in battalions";
and that is as true to-day as when Shakespeare
penned the lines more than three hundred years ago.
Mrs. Macdonald was almost beside herself. She
ceased to gird at any member of the family or
household; she girded at Fate instead, morning, noon, and
night. She discussed the situation in a frenzied
manner, with tears in her eyes and a large amount of
gesticulation, which would have formed an excellent
object-lesson to a student for the stage; but, at the
same time, it must be owned that raving appeals to
the Almighty, passionate assertions that she was the
most unlucky woman that the light of day had ever
shone upon, bitter forebodings of what her daily life
would be like when she was safely landed in the
nearest workhouse, did not avail anything. No, the
Macdonald family was in for a spell of bad luck, and
all the asseverations in the world would not alter it
or gainsay it.
At this time Nancy was like a rock in the midst of
a stormy sea. She, after much self-communing,
threw over her promise to her mother concerning the
time of her writing. She felt, as every true artist
feels, that it was in her to do great things; and that
even a little money earned in such a crisis would be
of double value. So every moment that she could
steal from the now greatly decreased house duties she
spent in her own room, working with feverish haste
and anxiety at a new story, a story which was not
about lords and ladies, or majestic guardsmen, or
lovely heroines in costly Parisian dresses; no, she
felt, all in a moment, the utter futility of trying to
draw a phase of life with which she herself was not
familiar. It seemed to come to her like a flash of
light that her children of pen and ink were not real;
that she was fighting the air; that she was like an
artist drawing without a model. Like a living human
voice a warning came into her mind, "Write what
you know; write what you see; before all things be
an impressionist." So her new child was slowly
coming to life, a child born in poverty and reared in
a boarding-house. The form of the child was crude,
and was the work of an unpractised hand; but it
was strong. It was full of life; it was a thing alive;
and as line after line came from under her hand, as
the story assumed shape and colour from under
her nervous fingers, Nancy Macdonald felt that
she was on the right tack at last, that this time she
would not fail.
As soon as her story was done, she sent it with
breathless hope to a well-known weekly magazine
which is almost a household word, and then she sat
down to wait. Oh! but it is weary waiting under
such circumstances. After three days of sickening
suspense, Nancy decided in her own mind that if she
had to wait as many weeks she would be raving mad
at the end of them. So she locked herself in her
room and began another story, the story of a love
affair which came about in just such a house as
Meantime, it can scarcely be said that the
Macdonald fortunes improved. It is true that the
fever-stricken child recovered, and was sent away to a
superior convalescent home at the seaside. It is true
that one or two fresh boarders came, and that there
were hopes that the family would be able to weather
the storm, supposing, that is, that they were able to
tide over the next few months. Still, in London, it
is not easy to tide over a few months when your
resources have been drained, and your income has
been sorely diminished. There were bills for this
and that, claims for that and the other, and these
came in with great rapidity and with pressing
demands for payment.
Mrs. Macdonald pitied herself more than ever; her
tones, as she recalled the virtues of her past life,
were more tragic; her debit and credit account with
the Almighty she showed to be clearly falsified.
Never was so good a woman so abominably used
of Providence and humanity alike. She wept
copiously over her deservings, and railed furiously
against her fate. Poor Mrs. Macdonald! For many
a weary year she had toiled to the best of her
ability, and she had done her duty by her children
according to her lights, which were pitiably dim,
"The Lord must indeed love me," she remarked,
with bitterest irony, one day, when a mysterious
visitor had put a gruesome paper into her unwilling
"It is but the beginning of the end, Nancy," she
said resignedly, "the beginning of the end. I
haven't a sovereign in the house, and how I am
to pay nine pounds seventeen and fourpence is
beyond me altogether. It won't last long; we
shall have the roof of the workhouse over our
heads soon. We can't go on like this. Where's
the money to come from?"
And that, of course, Nancy knew no more than
"Could not we sell something?" she said, looking
round their shabby little sitting-room, where all
that was worst in the house was gathered together
because it was only used by themselves. "Couldn't
we sell something?"
"I might sell my cameo brooch," said Mrs. Macdonald,
with a huge sigh. "It was the last present
your poor father ever gave me."
"And I don't suppose it would fetch anything
like nine pounds seventeen and fourpence," said
"Your father paid a great deal for it," returned
Mrs. Macdonald, "but when one has to sell, it's
different to buying. One gives one's things away."
As a matter of fact, the late Mr. Macdonald had
given fifty shillings for the cameo brooch in
question, having bought it in a pawnshop in the Strand;
but neither Mrs. Macdonald nor Nancy were aware
of that fact.
"Dear Mother," said Nancy, "I would not worry.
You have still a fortnight before you need settle it
one way or the other. A great many things may
turn up in a fortnight."
"Not a ten pound note," said Mrs. Macdonald,
with an air of conviction.
"You don't know, Mother. Look how many
things have turned up when we least expected
them, and money has come that seemed to have
dropped from the clouds. At all events, I would
not break down over it until the very last day
comes; I would not indeed, Mother."
"Ah, perhaps you would not," said the mother,
"I should not have done so when I was your
age. When you are mine, you will understand me
"Yes, dear, perhaps I shall; but you know, even
if the worst happens--oh, but we shall manage
somehow, depend upon it, we shall manage somehow."
But Nancy's youthful philosophy did not tend
to check the flow of Mrs. Macdonald's troubled
spirit. A whole week went by, which she passed
chiefly in tears, and in drawing gloomy pictures
of the details of the life which would soon, soon
be hers. "I shall have to wear a poke bonnet and
a shawl," she remarked, in a doleful tone one day,
"and I never could bear a shawl, even when they
were in fashion--horrid cold things." At meals, of
course, poor lady, she had to keep a cheerful
countenance, so that her guests should not suspect
how badly things were going with them; but Nancy
noticed that she ate very little, and like most young
people, her chief idea for a panacea for all woes
took the form of food. In Mrs. Macdonald's case,
it took the form of fresh tea and hot buttered
toast; and, really, I would be sorry to say how
much tea was used in that household during those
few days, by way of bolstering its mistress's strength
and spirits against what might happen in the
The fortnight of grace soon passed away, and
with every day Mrs. Macdonald's spirits sank lower
and lower. She looked old and aged and worn;
and Nancy's heart ached when she realised that
there was no prospect of anything turning up, and
apparently no chance of the danger which
threatened them being averted. What money had
come in had mostly been imperatively required
to meet daily expenses. It seemed preposterous
that people with a large house as they had
should be in such straits for so small a sum;
and yet, if they began selling their belongings,
which, with the exception of the cameo brooch
and Mrs. Macdonald's keeper ring, almost entirely
consisted of furniture, she knew that it would be
impossible to replace them, or even to dispose of
them without the knowledge of their guests. She
hardly liked to suggest it to her mother, and yet
she felt that when the last day came, she would
have no other course open to her.
It was the evening before the last day of grace,
and still the needful sum had not been set aside.
Twice during the day Mrs. Macdonald had subsided
in tears and wretchedness into the old armchair by
their little sitting-room fire, while Nancy had brought
her fresh fragrant tea and a little covered plate of
hot buttered toast, and had delicately urged her to
decide between selling the precious brooch and
appealing to one or other of the boarders for an
"I will just wait till the morning," she said to
herself, as she came down from the drawing-room
after dispensing the after-dinner coffees.
"Nancy! Nancy!" cried her younger sister Edith,
at that moment. "Where are you?"
"I am here, dear," Nancy replied. "What is the
The child, for Edith was only some thirteen or
fourteen years old, came running up the stairs two
steps at a time.
"Here's a letter for you, Nancy," she said eagerly.
"A letter?" cried Nancy, her mind flying at once
to her story.
"Yes, it's got a Queen's head on it or something.
Here it is."
The two girls reached the large and dimly-lighted
entrance-hall together, one from upstairs and one
"Give it to me," said Nancy, breathlessly.
She felt that it was a letter about her story.
The very fact that it had come without an
accompanying roll of manuscript gave her hope. She
tore open the envelope with trembling fingers, and
by the light of the single flickering gas-lamp, read
"The Editor of the Family Beacon presents his compliments
to Miss Macdonald, and will be pleased to accept her story,
'Out of Gloom into the Sun,' for the sum of fifteen guineas,
for which a cheque will be sent immediately on receipt of
For a few moments the poor painted hall, with
its gaunt umbrella stand and cold black and white
marble floor, seemed to be rocking up and down,
and spinning round and round. The revulsion of
feeling was so intense that the girl staggered up
against the wall, fighting hard with her palpitating heart.
"Oh, Nancy, what is it?" cried Edith, staring in
a fright at her sister's chalk-white face. "Is it bad
"Oh, no, GOOD news; the best news. Where's
Mother? I----" she could not speak, she simply
could not finish the sentence. Her trembling lips
refused to perform their office. In her shaking
hands she still clutched the precious letter, and
gathering her wits together, she turned and literally
tore down the stairs to the basement.
"Mother! Mother! Where are you?" she cried.
"What is it?" cried Mrs. Macdonald, who, poor
soul, was ready for all and every evil that could
fall upon her.
For a moment Nancy tried to control herself
sufficiently to speak, but the revulsion of feeling
was too great. Twice she opened her mouth, but
no words would come. Then she dropped all of
a heap at her mother's feet, and hiding her head
upon her knee, she burst into a passion of tears.
Then she dropped all of a heap at her mother's feet, and hiding her head upon her knee, she burst into a passion of tears.
In spite of her acidity, and her disputes with
Providence and things in general, Mrs. Macdonald
still retained some of her mother's instinct. She
drew the girl's head to her breast, and held her
there tightly, with a tragic at-least-we-will-all-die-together
air that was utterly pathetic. She had
no words of consolation for what she believed was
some new and terrible trouble come upon them.
Then, as Nancy still sobbed on, she drew the letter
from her unresisting fingers, mastered its contents,
and sat like a woman turned to stone.
"I am afraid," she said, after a long silence, "that
I have been very cruel to you, Nancy. I have
called your scribbling, rubbish; I have scolded you;
I have been very hard on you; and instead of my
being punished for my blindness, it is your work
which has come to save me from the end which I
so dreaded. But I shall never forgive myself."
But Nancy, the storm over, brushed the tears
away from her eyes, and sat back, resting her elbow
upon her mother's knee.
"Oh, it is very silly of me to go on like this,"
half laughing, and half inclined to weep yet more.
"I have been so worried you know, Mother. It's
really stupid of me; but you mustn't blame
yourself now that good luck has come to us, must you?
You did what you thought was right, and you had
a right to speak; and, after all, I did leave
everything to you--everything, and I might have wasted
all my time. You were quite right, Mother."
"What was that line Willie was writing in his
copybook last week?" said Mrs. Macdonald, holding
the girl's hand fast, and looking, oh, so unlike
her usual self--"Torches were made to burn; jewels