A DARK CARPET
by Sarah Orne Jewett
The time had been when the Westons were richer than in the days when my story begins; there had always seemed to be money enough when the children were young. Mr. Weston was alive then, and his profession had brought him a good income. Besides this, Mrs. Weston had some property of her own, though it seemed very little to her because it was the last remnant of the great fortune which had once belonged to her grandfather. It made her very sorry that her children did not have the luxuries to which she had been used in her early life, but after all they were happy enough, and so was she, for that matter, though she could not always see that her sons and daughters were winning much better fortune for themselves than any that could have come to them by inheritance. They contrived to keep out of debt, and they made good their lack of money by their thoughtfulness for each other and their growing self-reliance, and wealth of resource.
To tell the truth, they would not have amounted to half so much if they had had plenty of money -- their natural dispositions were not such as would be benefitted [benefited] by the possession of the advantage over other people that money can give. It had brought out the better traits of their characters to be in these very moderate circumstances; for their inborn pride would not let them go without certain outward marks of respectability, and made them desire the best society that was in their reach. It was out of the question that they could buy popularity with anything that was in their purses, and their instinct taught them instead to deserve it in better ways, by giving themselves in all helpful friendliness and good companionship.
The eldest son might have been very self-indulgent if he had had money enough. There was often to be noticed a little flicker of the wrong sort of pride and of self-conceit, but he was outgrowing it steadily and instead of idling about as he would have done in other circumstances, he was working hard in a business house, earning very little money as yet, but comforting himself with the thought that he was on the high-road to fortune. The two girls and the younger boy were very fond and very proud of Tom; somehow they looked forward to his future wealth as eagerly as he. He already seemed a grown man, and an established business man into the bargain. He sometimes put on a few airs, but they were seldom resented, and he was a really good fellow. It had made him feel a great many years older when his father died, and though he was only fifteen then, he had taken Mr. Weston's place in every way that he could, and had begun from that sad day to be a help and reliance for his mother, instead of one of the children who were to be taken care of and protected. But Tom had high notions. It was only the fear of getting in debt, which luckily was most sincere and powerful in his mind, that kept him from doing a good many extravagant things. I am afraid that he wished to grow rich more for the sake of his own good and glory than for the power of helping and pleasing others. The possession of wealth is as likely to make a man poor as it is rich. It all depends upon what use he puts his money to, and how much return of real good and true happiness it brings him in.
It was known among their friends that the Westons were not nearly so well off as they used to be, but they were not given to talking over their private affairs, and it was not suspected that they had to be self-denying in order to be generous. In fact it was generally supposed that they were much better off than was really the case. They always paid their bills promptly, for they usually took care not to run up any that would be hard to meet, and they never were stingy in aiding the enterprises that were going forward among their friends. For all this, they were often troubled and anxious -- all except young Jack, on whom the cares of life weighed lightly as yet -- and any unusual expense was a serious thing to them. Their property brought a lower rate of interest than it used, and it had become necessary -- until Tom's salary should be raised, as he said grandly -- that they should live much more economically than ever before. The girls were very swift with their needles, and it was hard to see how they could save expense in the matter of dress any more than they had already. As for the household expenses, they must reach a certain limit, for it was impossible to get on without eating a proper amount of good food; and as for the charities and contributions, they had been cut down to a point that was next to denying them altogether in Mrs. Weston's generous heart.
It was in the autumn, and the winter's prospects did not look very encouraging; and every day it became more evident to the minds of the family that it was impossible to get on any longer without a new carpet in the parlor. Everybody (but Jack) had tried to think of some way by which they could evade this serious outlay. They proposed bringing a carpet from some other room to take the place of this that was so hopelessly worn out that it was fit for nothing but to cover the floor of Jack's little bachelor bedroom. Here was one piece which had spent most of its time under the piano, and which would serve very well for what old Sally called the spare floor of Jack's quarters, but the rest of the carpet was fairly in rags. The girls were eager to have the floor painted and to put the old Indian rug before the fire; and for a time this seemed to bring relief to all their minds. But the rug, though very precious both as a family heirloom and for its own worth, was unmistakably small, and Sally, the faithful friend and servant, laughed at the notion of Mrs. Weston's living on bare boards all winter, with her delicate health and succession of neuralgic pains. Besides this, she reported that the floor was not fit to be painted, being warped and splintered and shrunk and cracked. As for the carpets in the other rooms, the best summer parlor floor was covered with a delicate straw matting that was of great age and frailest texture, and the dining-room was almost as shabby as the sitting-room itself. As for the bedroom carpets, they were quite out of the question for they had already been promoted or degraded, whichever we choose to call it, from the lower rooms of the house.
It was hoped that careful economy all the rest of the winter would make up for this large expenditure, but Mary Weston, the eldest daughter (who kept the housekeeping accounts), laughed a little when her mother said, warningly, that they could not think of any extras. "I have found out that the extras average as much as the coal and the groceries," said she, "but we will be as good as we can."
It happened that Tom and the younger sister Nelly were the committee on whom the serious duty of choosing the new carpet devolved. Mary meant to go, but she waked on that eventful morning with a bad headache and knew that it would be no use to think of undertaking such confusing and difficult shopping. Mrs. Weston rarely went out on such errands, and she and Mary passed an anxious day. Nelly had other things to do in Boston in the afternoon and would not be home until five o'clock. The woman who had always done the carpet making and mending had given notice that she must be had that next day or two, or not at all for a month, as she was going away; and so it was impossible to postpone the business. Tom promised to meet his sister at twelve, and warned her that they must decide within an hour. Mrs. Weston referred them to the proprietor of one of the well-known city firms -- of whom her family had been important customers in days gone by -- and Nelly went into town in the eleven o'clock train, charged with no end of advice and directions, and as certain as a girl could be that she was to get a carpet between dark and light, without much plain color that would show the dust; of hues that would not fade, and of some rather elderly fashion that would look better with the rest of the furnishings and probably be sold cheaper than the newer wares.
An older person would have felt far less courage than this young friend of ours. She little knew the perplexity and doubt that surround an [and] errand like hers. For buying a carpet or a wall-paper is almost as great a responsibility as getting married. You are making yourself comfortable or uncomfortable for many years to come, and furnishing future generations, it may be, with a witness to your good or bad taste in house decoration.
Tom came breathless and eager to the appointed place of meeting and the two young people started out together, like young bears, with all their troubles before them. The first obstacle in their path to success was the astonishment of a young clerk when Tom asked bravely for the former head of the house, who was proved beyond doubt to have died twelve years before. But the young clerk seemed to enter at once into great sympathy with their plans and wishes, and began to roll out bales of carpeting exactly opposite the descriptions they carefully gave him.
They grew more and more despairing. Nelly wished that her wise elder sister had come, and as they sadly, or angrily, shook their heads at one roll after another, Tom proposed that they should go to another shop, but to their dismay they found that there would not be time. "Mary will have to come tomorrow," said Nelly, "all the ones we like cost too much, and the others are too ugly to be seen." Just then the young man, who had become fretful with his difficult customers, seemed to take a new lease of interest and enthusiasm, and brought down a bale from an upper shelf with a most triumphant bang.
"Here's just what you want," said he, assuringly. "A splendid pattern from an old Turkish rug; as rich a thing as we have in the store, but its one of our last year's patterns, and has been marked down. It will make an elegant background for whatever you put on it, and show off your rugs beautifully."
"It's dark enough, if that's all," said Tom; but Nelly was pleased with the reference to rugs, and remembered for the twentieth time her disdain of light carpets, which were to her mind unworthy of any attention. This really came within their means, and it had a certain richness and quaintness of design that were very pleasant to her eye, and she admired it until she and Tom were persuaded that they could not do better. The bright noonday sunshine was making an excellent light through the ground-glass skylight overhead, and the dull tints were made to look their best. "We put it into three rooms of one of the best houses on the Back Bay," said the clerk, amiably, and as if that must settle the question finally; and, while Nelly stopped to give the direction and to extort a promise that the new possession should go out by the afternoon express, Tom fled away to his business, his time being more than spent.
Grave misgivings filled Nelly's mind all the rest of the time before she reached home. She had failed to carry out a single one of the directions which had been given her, and though she was somewhat wise in her choice of colors [colers] and knew that a dark carpet furnishes a room better than a light one, she remembered with miserable thrills of remorse how cheerful and bright the parlor had been with even the faded tints of the old days. She seemed to have forgotten how little sunshine fell on the floor in the winter weather, and she waited until a later train than she had meant to take, fearing to meet the disapproval [of] which would greet her at home. Poor child! Other things went wrong that day, for she had left a little store of painted cards to be sold at one of the stationers' shops, and she had hoped to carry home, as usual, a roll of money. But none had been disposed of, and finding them pushed out of sight, and carelessly treated, she had gathered them up and come indignantly away.
Tom came home that evening hungry as a hunter, and tumbled over the great roll that lay in the front hall. "Have you looked at it yet, or did you wait for me to open it?" he asked fearlessly. "Didn't Nelly tell you what a capital bargain we got? I thought it was pretty dark myself, but she said it was just the thing. They're all the fashion now; there weren't any like the old one, or half so handsome, I thought, but then I don't know about such things."
Mary Weston was going about dismally; the headache was not yet over with, and Mrs. Weston also looked discouraged. It was evident that the purchase had not been a success. "It's perfectly black, Tom! How could you and Nelly get such a thing for that dark room?" said the elder sister, angrily. "It will show every bit of dust. We might as well have inked the old one and put some spatters of red and brown on it half a yard apart. The room used to look so pretty and cheerful."
"Never mind, Polly," said Tom, graciously. "It won't look so dark when you get it under a good light; and, you know, I shall be getting ahead after a year or two, and you shall have the best carpet in Boston," to which generous offer there was no response or show of gratitude.
There was nothing to do about it. The old sewing woman came, with her great thimble and equipment of linen thread and bees-wax, and added another achievement in carpet-stitch to her list. She found great fault with the gloomy colors, and roused many a sad reminiscence of the comfortable dwellings of ancient times, of the bunches of roses and green leaves and the lively reds and blues and cheerful Dutch patterns of her youth. She made the whole family angry with her criticisms; they might find fault with it themselves, but it was not polite of other people.
It must be confessed that the Weston's parlor looked very gloomy. A man came to put the carpet down, the first stretching being an important affair, and Tom found himself unable to take a holiday. The first evening was quite dismal; the family were subdued and disappointed; Tom alone was somewhat serene, but the blame of the sorrow rested upon Nelly. The old East Indian rug looked faded and plaintive, and showed its age and feebleness as it never had before.
Nelly took heart at last and begged to be forgiven all over again, half laughingly, and said she had been wondering how they could make the best of it. "I have been so sorry too," she confessed, "for I hoped to have ten or fifteen dollars to help pay the bill; but the last dinner cards I painted haven't sold at all. There are hosts of such things in all the shops nowadays. It made me all the sorrier when I found I had made you all miserable."
"Poor Nelly," said Mrs. Weston, compassionately, and then added, anything but consolingly, "I shouldn't feel so badly about it, but it takes so much more light in the evening. We really need double the light we used to have."
"Don't think of anything more," said Nelly, with a groan. "We ought to be glad if it isn't any worse in the daytime. We might have to light the room then, you know! I propose that we make some bright footstools and some cushions for the sofa, Mary. You know we never have gone into fancy work much. I mean to hunt through mother's possessions and see what I can find. I think we might put some good bright colors into the room, and make it look better."
"The sofa looks like an old hearse," said Jack, who was delving over his arithmetic lesson and apparently taking no interest in anything else.
"I saw some lovely bits of embroidery in town today," said Nelly, whose mind was full of the thought of a new venture. "I don't believe it was anything I couldn't do either; it was like painting little pictures with silks instead of a brush. I mean to try to see what I can do. Where is the great roll of old fashioned stuffs that we used to be pulling over when we were children? - the Chinese silks and gauzes. I have seen hits of just such things lately, and exactly those queer old colors. I remember mother used to let us make dolls dresses out of them."
"They are in one of the drawers of the north chamber closet," said Mrs. Weston; "but I don't want you to cut up all the pieces that are there. They are some of my grandmother's dresses, and nothing carries me back to the old times like looking at them. But when I was growing up we never thought of wearing anything for best but the Chinese silks and satins. There was one mandarin silk I had made up when I was married that the sewing-woman broke - I don't know how many needles in; there's nothing like them nowadays," and Mrs. Weston sighed a little, and drifted into a reverie.
Mary Weston also seemed to be interested in what Nelly had said. "I have been meaning to make a new cover for the sofa pillow," said she. "It is really time to be thinking about some nice work for the evenings. I don't mean to make any more of that foolish twine fringe I used to toil over last year. I was thinking a day or two ago how bright and pretty the Alisons' library looked with that warm colored afghan on the sofa, and the rugs; and did you notice that little cushion with all the bright brown and yellow tassels in the great chair in the window where old Mrs. Alison always sat? Bessie told me that she matched the crewels with a bunch of nasturtiums, and it is a perfect beauty. I never saw such colors."
I'll tell you what I will do," said Tom, eagerly, as if he were very pleased with himself for thinking of it. "I've got the money put away that I meant for your Christmas presents, Polly and Nell; and, if you don't find fault, I mean to buy a new rug with it now. I believe you would get more pleasure out of it than anything, and a fellow in the office today was telling me about some rugs that could be bought very cheap. It is a little lot that was sent on commission and the man wants to close them right out. I mean to go to look at them tomorrow noon, anyway."
Tom came home the next night with a new rug which he had bought at a famous bargain, and which more than re-established his reputation for good taste. And as for Nelly, she lost no time in looking through the bundle of her mother's treasures, and beside some pieces that she could use she came delightedly in sight of some worn old embroideries which had once been chair-covers or parts of dresses, and these she studied to such good purpose that she carried some copies to Boston one day and sold them at prices which astonished her, and she came home rich with her gains and with promises of future orders. Even Jack, who had an uncommon gift for using tools, was fired with ambition and made a set of little shelves for the parlor wall that everybody thought a great ornament, and it was amazing how the once somber and prosaic room bloomed and brightened, and came to have a charming individuality and interest that had never belonged to it before.
And nobody was ever heard to say that the carpet was an ugly one. Even the Westons themselves wondered why they had not liked it at first. It did not look so dark after they had grown used to its contrast to the other, and even the old rug, which was given a new place under the piano-stool seemed very soon to fellowship with its new surroundings, while the new one caught the glow of the firelight delightfully. A great many pleasant things were thrown into relief by the dark background. Nelly's business went on thriving more and more, and somehow the home never had seemed so dear as it did while they were trying so hard to make it beautiful.
There can be no doubt that, as time goes on, our friends will be made surer and surer that a great many improvements and pleasures may come from the conditions of our lives with which we can find most fault. Our circumstances are given to us to use, as chances, and as tools; and as foundations for us to work and grow upon.
"A Dark Carpet" first appeared in The Congregationalist (35:246), July 19, 1883. Richard Cary included it in The Uncollected Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett (1971). This text is from Cary's reprinting. Errors in the text have been corrected and indicated in brackets. If you find errors or items that need annotation, please contact the site manager.
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Back Bay: In late 19th century Boston, the Back Bay was a developing residential neighborhood, where the wealthy and influential built their homes..
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thread and bees-wax: beeswax was used to coat thread to improve its strength and to ease drawing through multiple layers of fabric as in quilting or sewing carpet..
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crewels: embroidery worked with slackly twisted worsted yarn.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.