The Blue Dress
I SHOULD never have dreamed of putting this in our Posterity Collection except for Ben. She says that stories about lovers—especially unhappy ones—last longer than any other kind and interest people the most. And after we have been to all the trouble, to say nothing of the cost of the paper, of writing down the really great events that took place in the Elmbank School and burying them in a sealed box far in the depths of the earth for people to dig up and read many, many years after we are dead and gone, I suppose we ought to try to interest them. Ben says that Laura and Petrarch, Launcelot and Guinevere, Romeo and Juliet will never die. (This is the first sentence of a composition she wrote and The Pie was very angry and wouldn't hand it back to her, even. The subject was The Love of Nature, and Ben said that human nature was the most important kind of nature, and so she looked up those people I mentioned and wrote about them. But she didn't care, because Miss Naldreth said it was a remarkable composition, and she needn't do another in its place, as The Pie said she must.)
I think myself that Eleanor Northrop was a silly thing about her blue dress, and I can't see why so many of the girls should have admired her so much while she was keeping her old vow, although I must admit that she was really quite noble once or twice about not giving way. But Ben says that nothing is silly when you are in love, and as she had to look up a great deal about it for her composition, I suppose she knows.
The way we happened to know Eleanor so well, for of course she wouldn't naturally go with girls of thirteen, was because of the Society for the Pretender which her aunt believed in. You have probably heard that some people don't believe in Queen Victoria—as a queen, I mean—but in Prince Charlie. Well, that was the kind Eleanor's aunt was. And Ben got up that society in the school, and of course Eleanor belonged to it. So even after the society broke up—you may have read how it happened to—we still knew her, though she went with her own set, and was always trying to get in with the quite old girls. But I believe she really enjoyed going with us, after all, for just about half the time she wouldn't be speaking with her own crowd, and of course you couldn't expect that a girl like Pinky West, who goes out to parties in the town, and has evening dresses cut out low, and gets telegrams about the ball games, is going to be really intimate with a girl not quite sixteen.
It was from her that Eleanor heard about the O. L. L., and in an evil hour, as the song says, she came and bragged about it to us. Of course that got Ben interested and she went to work to get it out of her. If you knew Ben, you would know that she would succeed in this. I don't believe that there is a person living, young or old, that Ben couldn't get any thing out of she wanted to know. And the funny thing about it is she doesn't ask them a thing! She just acts proud and as if she didn't care much, but all the time she knew all about it, and by and by they get so mad they tell.
She told me how she did it once, when I brought her up her hot lemonade the time she had a bad cold, and stayed in to read to her. She couldn't use her eyes and that nearly drove her wild. She said that if you acted as if you knew and just wanted to see if they did, they would get talking and finally they'd tell you all about it. She has found out a number of very interesting things in this way from older people.
So before long she found out that the O. L. L. was the One Love of a Life Club, and that it was six of the senior girls. You made a vow that you would love one and one only (the very words of the oath), and you wrote his full name on a paper and sealed it up, and the president of the society kept it. Then you put away all your other photographs—except your family, of course—and you only talked about that one, no matter how many the other girls talked about. That was all. Every bit of it. It seems to me about the silliest club that I ever heard of, myself. Ben could make up a better club than that with one hand behind her back. And one of the parts of it was too silly to speak about, even, for as I said as soon as I heard about it, if they kept his picture out, what was the good of sealing up his name so secretly? They hadn't thought of that, would you believe it?
Ben smiled that disgusting way she does sometimes, when I was making fun of the club, and said that the girls weren't really deadly earnest about it. She said they did it partly for fun. And maybe they did, but Eleanor didn't. As you will presently see, if you read on.
She thought it was perfectly grand, and she cleared all her photographs of boys away and began to make up her mind who the One would be, in hopes to be taken in. She probably never would have been, though, if it hadn't been for an accident. She and Ben and I were down in the town together with Mademoiselle, and Mademoiselle took us up to the photographer's to see about some pictures of hers. She has them done there and not by the New York man that comes once a year for the graduating class, because they're cheaper. Well, while we were waiting around Eleanor looked in a waste-basket to get a piece of paper to wipe some mud off her shoe, and there she found a photograph of a man. It was perfectly good enough except for a big blot of ink on the lowest right-hand corner, and that was prob'ly why it was thrown away. Eleanor thought she'd take it just for fun, and so she slipped it into a book she had and carried it home.
She stuck it on the bureau, and that evening Pinky West came in to borrow something and so she saw it.
"Who's your friend? " she said, and Eleanor wanted Pinky to respect her as much as possible, so she said she'd prefer not to say. Then Pinky teased her, but still she wouldn't tell. Which she couldn't very well, as she didn't know, and she wouldn't lie. Finally Pinky told her if she could keep a secret as well as that she was almost good enough for the O. L. L.
Then Eleanor framed the picture in her best birch-bark frame and all the girls saw it. They came in on purpose. He was much too old for Eleanor, with quite a large mustache, but nobody thought of that. We all thought he was quite handsome, but Ben said he looked like the pictures in the backs of magazines of men that had never known a well day till they took a bottle of Dr. Somebody's something or other. Still she admitted he was handsome in a way. He had big eyes and curly hair and a kind of split in his chin.
At first Eleanor just called him "him," but one day two girls of the O. L. L. told her she was on probation, and so she got very excited, and when they told her that she must be willing to write his name, she said:
"Why shouldn't I write his name? I will write it now!" and she wrote it on a paper and gave it to them. She wrote Edward Delanccy St. John.
Well, then she had to go on, and in a little while she really almost believed in him. She would talk by the hour about him, and then Ben would ask her questions that if she answered they made long stories.
At first I thought it was fun, but by and by I got tired of it, and it wasn't true, anyway. But Ben never got tired of it. She and Eleanor would sit in the window-seat and talk and talk all the recesses. One day I really heard Ben ask her if Edward's sister was still as disagreeable, and she said:
"Heavens, yes! She will break my heart if she keeps on. A few days ago she wrote me that Edward was very much interested in a girl next door!" These were her very words!
"Well," said Ben, "you have his mother on your side."
"But you know she is only his half-mother," said Eleanor. I suppose she meant stepmother. But you can see how crazy they were. Ben just loves anything like that.
Well, finally all the girls knew about Edward, and they would write notes in class about him, and the O. L. L. talked to her and invited her into their rooms. As the history says, she was at the zenith of her fame. Once I went by her room and I looked in, and she was standing in front of the bureau with her elbows on it, just staring at Edward s picture. It really made me feel queer. I went in and said to her:
"Eleanor, you know there isn't any Edward. How can you look at him so?"
"There isn't?" she said to me, "isn't there? Who is this the photograph of, then?"
"But you don't know him," I said.
"I adore him!" she said, "I simply adore him. He is the one man in the world for me." That, of course, she got out of a book. They often say it.
"But who is he?" I asked her.
"He is Edward Delancey St. John," she said, looking right straight at me, "and that is enough for me."
Those were her very words.
You really had to believe in him.
But now comes the climax of this story. The climax should come last, it says in the English book, but this climax didn't. I suppose what is true for compositions isn't always true in real life. Which is the way with a lot of the things you say in a composition, when you come to think of it.
One Sunday which ne'er forgot will be, like Annie Laurie, Mademoiselle told Eleanor and Ben and me to come up into the front pew with her instead of way in the back with old Weeksey. Ben was mad, because right in front of our usual seat there is the funniest old lady that bows over and crosses herself just like a Catholic, and shouts out the hymns till we used to nearly die. And Ben didn't think we should be apt to find anyone so interesting up in the front. Little did we dream what we were to find, as the novels say.
So up we went and everything was all right till the choir came in. They came marching along, first the soprano boys and then the altos and then the men, and of course we looked at them all. Just after the altos came a man with a very loud voice, and the man next him looked like somebody I knew, only I couldn't think who. And all of a sudden Ben pinched me so I made a noise and whispered,
Eleanor made a kind of choking noise and tumbled right down into the seat, so we knew she saw. And it really was. It was Edward Delancey St. John.
Mademoiselle glared at Eleanor and got over between us, and Eleanor got up finally, but she kept wiggling all the time, and of course all we did was to stare at him. He was beautiful, though Ben does not like a man with red cheeks.
Well, it mixed us all up, if you see what I mean. I had never believed much in Edward, and there he was. How did he get there?
First I thought how funny it was that Eleanor never told us he was in the choir, and then I remembered that of course she didn't know he was in the choir, because she didn't know him, and yet it seemed as if she must know him. I looked at Ben every once in a while, and her cheeks were as red as could be, and she was whispering to herself that way she does when she's planning out some really big thing. Eleanor just wiggled around, as I said.
At the offertory the whole choir stayed up, and we thought they'd all sing, but would you believe it, the only one that sang was Edward! He sang,
Ye people rend your hearts, rend your hearts and not your garments, and he looked right at us. Eleanor's heart beat so hard I could see her waist stick out. Of course she was dreadfully proud that Edward sang so finely, and who could blame her? It was the most exciting church I have ever been to.
I don't know whether he had always been in the choir—Eleanor says not, for she would have known his voice among a thousand. I said how could she, because she'd never heard it; but Ben sat on me dreadfully, and said I didn't know much about love. Perhaps I don't, but all the same, she never had heard his voice. You see the church is so dark and we sit so far back, usually, that we can't tell one face from another in the choir.
Well, after we got back we had a terribly exciting time.
"He has followed you," said Ben, before Eleanor got a chance, "and he will compel you to be his! That is the way of it."
Eleanor said she's posed he had.
"Where has he followed you from?" I asked her, but they wouldn't pay any attention to me, but went right on.
"His sister has driven him to take this step," said Ben, "and prob'ly they have tried to force him to get engaged to the girl next door."
So Eleanor said yes, indeed, and I asked her if she was engaged to Edward, but they wouldn't pay any attention to anything I said.
"Well," said Ben, "if they don't take you into the O. L. L. now, I miss my guess!"
And then Eleanor made her vow.
"Girls," she said, "do you see this dress I have on?"
And we said yes, what of it? It was her blue henrietta cloth trimmed with black velvet baby-ribbon and a lace yoke. It was quite long for Eleanor; really about as long as a grown person's short skirt, and Eleanor used to pretend that she was wearing it for a short skirt.
"Well," she said, and she stared in front of her without looking at anything, that way you do when you re trying to add something up in your head, "I shall never wear this dress unless I am going to see him. Never. I had it on when I saw him first, and I shall never wear it again any place where he is not going to be. I will do that much at least for him." These were her very words.
"Oh," said I, "then you never did see him before!"
"You can get out right away, Miss," Ben said, "we've had enough of you."
"Thank you very much," I said, "I'm going. You can make up your lies by yourself after this—you and your old Edward."
Ben will turn round that way with her oldest friends. She doesn't seem to care for you at all, if you make her mad. You always feel the worst yourself.
But for once in her life Eleanor Northrop stopped a scrap.
"Oh, girls," she said, "don't quarrel the day I made my vow! I want everybody to be friends. Besides I want you for witnesses." She looked so solemn and of course I saw how she felt. So we made it up.
Only we didn't see how she could help wearing her dress except Sundays. There was Thursdays, when we go in to make a call on dear Miss Naldreth, and Saturday afternoon, when if there is a good matinée in the town the girls can go if their parents say so, and if it's rainy Sundays you put on your good dress just the same. But she made the vow, and wrote it down. It began, "I, Eleanor Fessenden Northrop, promise solemnly never to wear my blue henrietta cloth dress unless Edward Delancey St. John is to be there," etc.
The very next day she was put to the test, like Edna in "St. Elmo." It was dreadfully exciting.
Miss Demarest, that's the house-mother, came and told Eleanor that her aunt from Buffalo had come to see her, and for her to change her dress and go down.
"What are you going to do?" I said, because she just had her dancing-school dress and the blue one; her heavy street suit was having a braid put on.
"You'll see what I'll do," she said, and she went down just as she was. Miss Demarest didn't happen to see her till her aunt had gone, and then she went for her.
"Did you not hear me tell you to change your dress, Eleanor?" she said, that soft, pussy way she does when she's mad.
"Yes, Miss Demarest, but I was so anxious to see Aunt Mary," said Eleanor, and so Miss Demarest let up on her. Really Eleanor hardly knows her Aunt Mary: I asked her if she didn't mind lying, and she said not when it was for Edward. And Ben said that was all right—it was always just that way.
Well, all went well till Thursday, and then we went in to see Miss Naldreth. From four till five the first fifteen, and from five till six the second. Eleanor is under sixteen, so she goes in with the second set, though next year she will be with the junior girls.
"What are you going to wear?" I asked her.
And again she replied, "You'll see."
We went in first, but as we came out we saw Eleanor in her dancing-school dress. It is pale-blue China silk with elbow sleeves and it looked very funny. I never believed she'd do it.
"What will Miss Naldreth say?" I said to Ben.
"She won't say anything, you silly," she said, "because she never criticises anything Thursdays. We are just her guests, she says, like any other ladies, and you wouldn't be apt to ask a lady that was calling why she had on her dancing-school dress, would you?"
Which was true, of course, and Ben was right. Really I suppose Miss Naldreth ought to have put on her ball-dress, like the king that drank out of the finger-bowl, you know.
But Miss Demarest is another person, and she grabbed Eleanor before dinner and said, "Eleanor, why are you dressed in this manner? Explain immediately."
"Oh, I just thought I'd put it on, Miss Demarest," said Eleanor, as cool as a cucumber.
"Where is your blue dress?"
"I like this better," said Eleanor.
We girls were just hopping with excitement. "Go and change it immediately," said Demmy.
"Oh, Miss Demarest, there isn't time before dinner," said PUeanor, "please let me keep it on!"
"I don't understand this at all, Eleanor," says Demmy, "but for this once I will not insist. Don't let it happen again, however."
So all through dinner we all looked at her and the girls wondered how it happened, and Eleanor was as big as you please.
On Sunday we looked at Edward all the morning and he smiled at Eleanor and she blushed. It was the first time she ever blushed in church and she wrote it in her date-book, she told Ben. Ben said it would prob'ly not be the last.
In the afternoon Pinky West asked me if it was true that somebody had come to Elm City to see Eleanor and gone into the choir because it was her church. Pinky and the other O. L. L. girls are all Congregationalists. I didn't want to tell her a lie, because I admire her more than any girl in the school, but knowing Eleanor's oath and all, I thought I ought to stick up for her, and she certainly was in love with Edward. So I said,
"I don't feel at liberty to discuss it, Miss West. But she certainly has gone through a good deal for him."
"Heavens!" she said, "that mere child! Is it true that his parents are opposed on account of her youth?"
"I believe it's his sister principally," said I. I felt so excited to have Pinky talking to me, just as if I was as old as she is, that I forgot all about that Edward hadn't any sister. You see, you had to believe in him when you saw him every Sunday. Well, so it went on. The next Thursday Eleanor said she had a headache and couldn't she be excused from Miss Naldreth's afternoon.
"Very well, Eleanor," says Demmy, "if you are not feeling well, you will not care to come down to dinner, of course. I will send you up some toast and hot milk."
"Yes, thank you," said Eleanor, and that's every bit the poor child got, and it was Thursday, mind you, when we have chicken and jelly with whipped cream for dessert! I must say I admired Eleanor for that.
I took her up a cake after the reading that evening, and she had Edward's picture stuck on the foot-board, and I think she had been crying. I told her if it was the jelly she minded not to care, for the cream was a little sour, anyway, but she only scowled at me and pushed the cake away, which broke the frosting. It fell on the floor and she pretended not to notice it, but I heard the bed creak when I went out, and I am quite sure she got it.
But the worst was to come. On Saturday there was a play at the Opera House and Mademoiselle was going to take us, and the Creepy-cat (that is Miss Katrina Kripsen) the older girls. Eleanor put on her street suit and went with us, as Mademoiselle wouldn't notice and the Cat would.
But at the door, who should pop up but Demmy.
"Eleanor," she said, "may I ask why you have put on your heaviest dress to sit in that hot opera-house?"
"I just thought I would," Eleanor said.
"Where is your blue dress?" says Demmy, looking at her hard.
"I—I can't wear it," said Eleanor.
"It has a spot on it," said poor Eleanor, and everybody could see that she felt dreadfully.
"What kind of a spot," said Demmy.
Eleanor looked all around and bit her lip, and finally she said, very softly, so she wouldn't have to lie out loud, at least,
"Eleanor," Demmy began in that nasty, calm way, "it is plain to me that you have, for reasons best known to yourself, decided not to wear your blue dress. The first time you wear a dress not good enough to receive a guest, and especially a favorite aunt, in; the second time you wear one far too elaborate; the third time you make an excuse to avoid the occasion of putting it on. Now you appear in a thoroughly unsuitable costume for a matinée. Go up and bring me the dress. I wish to see it. This behavior of yours, added to your stupidity this morning, may deprive you of an afternoon of pleasure."
She meant the Church History Class. Eleanor was planning how she would get out of wearing the blue dress, and when Dr. Belcher asked her to define Unitarianism, she said it came from the Latin word unus, meaning one, and referred to the celibacy of the clergy, and he burst out laughing, and then all the girls laughed, and they couldn't stop, and Miss Naldreth had to send down. I don't think that is so dreadfully funny myself, but all the teachers seemed to.
Well, we waited in fear and trembling, as Dr. Belcher says, and in a few minutes Eleanor came back with the dress on her arm. She had two round red places just under her eyes, and she looked awfully queer. And, would you believe it, right near the back pleats was an ink-spot! Miss Demarest looked at it and felt of it.
"Eleanor Northrop," she said, "this spot is wet. You have just made it!"
And she had.
Ben said she didn't believe she had it in her. She had to decide all in a minute, and especially about the size of it, so that it wouldn't be too big for Edward, and yet big enough for a reason, you see. It was one big blot from a pen. She told us that her hand quivered like an aspen (from a book, again) but that Edward seemed to smile at her from the photograph and she knew she had done right.
"Eleanor," said Demmy, "I do not pretend to understand this, nor will I seek to now. The dress is a perfectly good one, thoroughly appropriate and sufficiently becoming. You have never found fault with it before. In fact, I remember that you particularly admired it when it was sent to you." Her very words. "Am I not right?"
"Yes, Miss Demarest," said Eleanor.
"You may go to your room, and I will see you there," says Demmy, and Eleanor just gave us one terrible look and marched upstairs. I really felt proud to know her. She looked like a queen. And she felt like one, too, for she told us so afterward. And yet she said that she would gladly sacrifice even more, if it was possible, for him! Ben said that it was the real thing, and no mistake. She said it was as good as a book, and that is very high praise from Ben.
But Miss Demarest never came near her, after all. Miss Naldreth came in and talked to her and Eleanor wouldn't eat any dinner, and Miss Naldreth asked her if she'd like to go and stay all night with Mrs. Newcomb—that's a friend of her mother's, and they always have rusk for breakfast. And Eleanor's head really ached and she said yes, and she said she cried, too. But Miss Naldreth never asked her a thing. And Eleanor is sure she noticed Edward's picture, too. But that's the way she is.
So Mademoiselle took her over there before we got back.
And the next morning all was over, as it says, when someone dies. Ben says she never shall get over being sorry she couldn't have been there and seen it. It was this way.
Mrs. Newcomb's bath-tub burst in the night, and right after breakfast they found the water dripping into the library, and Mrs. Newcomb asked Eleanor to run quick for the plumber, and they would mop till he came. And Eleanor ran like a deer to where Mrs. Newcomb described the shop and burst into it and called out to a man in dirty overalls that was mixing a heap of putty in the corner,
"Are you a plumber?" she said, "then hurry up to Mrs, Newcomb's—the bathtub has burst. Can you go this minute?"
And he said, "Yes, ma'am," and turned around—and it was Edward Delancey St. John!
Eleanor says that she nearly fainted. She is sure she turned deathly pale, but of course there was no looking-glass. She says the stoves seemed to reel around her (of course you have read that before), but she kept up.
His nails were black as ink and he had a great big horse-shoe for a pin in his tie. Eleanor turned around and ran out. He didn't seem to know her. But he called out,
"I'll have to get my tools—I ain't got none here in the shop."
To think of Edward saying "ain't got none"! Of course all was over as I said, because though he wasn't dead, he might as well have been. You cannot love anyone that mends the bath-tub like that, very well. And think of the putty.
Eleanor was going to give up her church, and go with Mrs. Newcomb after that to the Presbyterian, for she said she could never enter St. Mark's again. But afterward she told us that she couldn't bear a black gown without any surplice, so she had to get used to going with us. But she asked if she couldn't sit in the back, and her mother let her give the blue dress away. So she couldn't belong to the O. L. L., and anyway they got tired of her, I know, for, after all, she was only sixteen!