Sarah Orne Jewett
I was helping one of my friends who had one of the smaller tables at a fair in her own city. Sometimes it was all fun and hurry and sometimes the hours dragged and we thought we were having a stupid time of it. I was almost a stranger and so I did not associate many of our wares with their makers as Kate did, but one cannot help taking more interest in some things than in the rest, and there are always some contributions that are known to be unmanageable at the first glance one gives them -- you are so sure nobody will buy them -- and people smile when they look at them, and you sigh with tender pity over the poor soul who has spent her time and her money and who did her very best to make something pretty -- and yet failed. It was our luck to have a good many such things as this and we had succeeded in one way and another in getting them off our hands, but one day when I came in from lunch a little later than my friend, she pointed to a great nosegay of paper flowers which had been put at one end of our table.
"What can we do with them?" said she, "did you ever see anything more pitiful or half so funny? -- they look as if they came out of the ark!" Some girls came by just then who belonged to another table and we all grew merry enough over the prim, stiff, staring things, so unlike any roses that ever bloomed, with their stems of wire neatly wound with green and brown worsted and tied with the oldest fashioned blue gauze ribbon I ever saw. The roses were made of tissue paper, white and pink and yellow.
"We must put them somewhere in plain sight," said Kate, "I am always afraid the people who send such things will come to look for them." And she perched them against a carved letter-rack and almost everybody who stopped laughed at them and asked where in the world they came from; which question we could not answer. We soon lost sight of the pathos of the thing in some nonsense that we planned in an hour of idleness. Nobody would ever buy the flowers; that was certain, and we would raffle them at ten cents a share and the girl who won them must ask the rest to lunch at the café of the fair. This enterprise was an exclusive thing, it was only to a select circle of Kate's cronies that these valuable shares were offered, and we kept a book for the numbers and put our names down again and again in mock rivalry. It was just as well to spend our money in that way as any other and the greater spendthrift one is at a fair, the better, you know!
It happened that one day a great many people came in to the fair from the country towns near by, for the sake of the charity for which it was held. Some of the people who went by our table looked as if they could have little to spend beside the entrance fee, and sometimes we had an impulse to give them the things that they looked at with such pleased surprise, and sadly put down again when they found them so far out of the reach of their thin purses. At last there stopped to talk with us such a pleasant looking little old woman, with everything about her so quaint and out of date except her kind face, and sweet, bright smile. She carried a great carpet bag, and she looked as if she would buy everything if she could. "I'm afraid all your pretty things cost too much for me, dear," said she, as I showed her some trifle. "I do want to buy something before I go home though. Dear me!" and she brightened up suddenly, "if there isn't some paper flowers! I declare I haven't seen any for years. How they do carry me back. I always thought they were real handsome." She grew confidential at once, as if we were her own grandchildren, and not two strange city girls, as we had probably seemed to her the minute before. "Why I used to have some patterns for 'em put away somewhere -- they were thought a sight of one time. It's a good deal of work now, I tell you. My oldest sister Phebe, used to make 'em and 'range 'em with dried grasses dipped in alum-water so they looked just like frost work and crystal, and then the colors of the flowers -- they did look beautiful. You say you didn't make 'em yourself? Well I should like to have 'em just for the sake of old times."
We had already gathered a good harvest in anticipation of the raffle and Kate whispered to me: "The girls will not care -- let her have them." I nodded and she turned to our eager customer: "I can sell then for fifteen cents, or is that too much?"
"Bless you! no," said the old lady, "why, they're sights o' work to make. I'll put 'em right into my carpett bag if you will roll 'em up small 's you can," and though it was such a big awkward bundle she crushed it in and looked as proud as a queen. "I've got a vase at home in my best room," said she, "that my brother the cap'n fetched home from sea. It always seemed to want something in it," and she said good day to us and went on to look at the other tables.
"I hope she hasn't a heartless young niece at home," said I, "who will scold her for buying such old trumpery and wish for some equally useless thing of a newer fashion."
We both liked the kind old soul and there was something pathetic in her delight over the flowers which had seemed to us so ungainly and forlorn. It was so plain that they had reminded her of her girlhood and its pleasures, and that the sight of them had carried her back to those days before she found herself growing old, or that life was bringing her a great deal of hard work and many losses. It is always so pleasant to see a woman like this whose childlikeness and youthfulness have been kept in spite of all the graver life and prosaic thought of later years. There is something beautiful about that phrase "children of God." And sometimes with such a person as this it is like finding a little flower that blooms in some warm day that comes in late autumn, after one thinks that the frosts must long ago have killed everything in the garden. I thought that I knew all about this woman -- that she was always sent for in her neighborhood when there was sickness and trouble -- that her friends could not do without her in times of pleasure, and her readiness to help and the love and tenderness of her faithful heart were always a comfort. There was something about her that did us good, Kate and me, and we had a very tender feeling in our hearts as we wished to be useful and good like her, but we laughed merrily and were triumphant because we had sold the paper flowers.
I looked for her several times after she left us, but there was a crowd and I was so busy I did not see her any more. After awhile Kate went off on an errand to one of the managers, and did not come back until I had been wondering at her absence for some time.
"I've seen our old friend again, Ellinor," said she. "I met her out in the corridor and she was looking in at the café so I asked her to lunch with me. I thought something ought to be done for her because she bought those flowers. I wished for you every minute for she is the quaintest, dearest old soul. She gave me a great many 'partic'lars' and she was so delighted with everything; the fair and the lunch and because I remembered her, -- just as if I could forget her in half an hour! I know she has hardly any money, but she said she did want to help a little toward the hospital. She seems so contented, and she said she was always having something good happen to her that she hadn't been looking for. She put some cakes into her carpet-bag for a little lame boy who isn't going to get well. She had forgotten her spectacles but I read aloud selections from the bill of fare and tried to be hungrier than she was. I told her the more we ordered the better it was for the hospital and I wish you could have heard her laugh! I don't know when I have enjoyed myself more."
"That was very good of you Kate!" said I, and we looked at each other for a moment.
"Nonsense, Elly!" said my friend, blushing a little. "I liked her, and it was great fun. But what shall we say to the other girls about the raffle!"
I had not thought of the fair for a long time or of what happened there until the other day when a letter came to me from Kate.
"Do you remember those paper roses ?" said she, "I went with Mrs. Ashurst yesterday to see some poor people in whom she is much interested and I saw the brightest little old woman, much over eighty years of age and very deaf, and she has been in bed for years because she once had a terrible fall which hurt her so that she has almost constant pain. I suppose it was some injury of the spine. When I went in, there were two little children sitting on the foot of her bed and she was cutting dolls and hens and geese out of an old newspaper for them. She said their mother had a chance to do an afternoon's work and she always told her to bring the 'little gals' right in to her. They never gave any kind of trouble and it was company for her. It was so funny to hear the little things shout at her, and she looked so funny in bed with her big, clean cap-frill and a pair of great silver-bowed spectacles. She has a cousin who takes care of her and of course they are poor, but everything was so trig and clean. The cousin herself is an old woman, but as smart as a whip and she has work from a tailor's. I wish I had known them before. I liked them very much and they are thorough country-women, -- it was so odd to find them in a narrow city court. There was such a remarkable patchwork quilt on the bed that the old woman had made when she was a girl, and she was so proud of it and said she knew now where most every piece came from and she liked to look 'em over; it was like a story book! The processions of paper dolls holding each other's hands were all arranged over it, and the children were having the best fun in the world. And on the mantel there were some huge nosegays that looked strangely familiar, so I spoke of them. 'Yes dear,' said she, 'most everybody speaks o' my flowers; I made some for the hospital fair last spring but I guess they'll be the last, my fingers are getting dreadful stiff. I used to make 'em as well as anybody. I should like to know who bought 'em, though perhaps they didn't sell,' said she humbly, but then she gave me a beaming smile; 'I guess they sold quick enough, they're scarce now to what they used to be. I wasn't quite satisfied with the materials. You see I had to let Hannah get 'em, and she picked out most too light a pink, but she did the best she could.'
"Wasn't it the greatest good luck that I could tell her they were on our table and that they brought in more than two dollars, (though I didn't explain the raffle!) and that somebody had bought them who said she used to know how to make them, and everything else I could think of. Poor old soul, it was a great deal for her to have done and given, and she had been waiting so long to know about her flowers."
I laid down Kate's letter while I thought for a minute, and I said to myself that after all those paper roses did not bloom in vain.
"Paper Roses" appeared in Sunday Afternoon (3: 147-150) in February 1879, and was reprinted in Richard Cary's Uncollected Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett. This text is from Cary's reprinting. If you find errors or items needing annotation in this text, please contact the site manager.
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Kate: This name and the publication date soon after Deephaven 1877, suggests that this is Kate Lancaster. Later in this story, the narrator is named Elly, close to the familiar Nelly by which Kate addresses Helen in Deephaven.
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out of the ark: See the story of Noah in Genesis 5 - 10.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.