The Rose (Spofford)
- For works with similar titles, see The Rose.
BY HARRIET PRESCOTT SPOFFORD
OF course some strain of insanity was in her veins, but it had not appeared till her sixteenth year. Yes, the mother died, if not mad, yet certainly possessed of an insane idea—she a child of the South, passionately devoted to her husband; and one day her great black eyes saw his languid smile kindle at sight of a fair-faced, blue-eyed stranger from the North, and her heart burned within her.
Presently Jacques was speaking with the stranger. And presently again they walked together, and on parting he offered her a rose, and she pinned it on her bosom. How offended, how insulted, how hurt was the wife! It was not the chance giving of a flower, she felt; it was the evidence of a new love. She saw herself neglected, forgotten, cast off; and the rose became the symbol of all the old love and joy, and as she longed for that love and joy again she longed for that rose.
It was all in a moment. Her eyes flashed; she took a step forward and would have torn it off had not her husband put out an intervening arm.
"What would you?" he said. "A mere courtesy."
But it did not avail. The rose—that rose—she must have it.
"Give me that rose!" she said to the frightened girl. "It is mine!"
Her husband took her by the hand and led her away. "Are you mad?" he said, as she hung back with averted head.
"The rose! The rose!" she said. And it was all she ever said till, some little time later, her child was born. Just before she died she looked up at her husband bending over her and murmured: "The rose! It grew. Its great leaves blotted out heaven and you. Yes, I have been mad. But now I know. The rose is dust, but love is immortal."
The father became a conscript, and he fell on the field of battle. The child was left to unkind fate. She grew up by one hand and another of indifferent and grudging relatives, who worked hard for their daily bread, a lovely creature, violet-eyed and sunny-haired, without education, but with the sweet manners of gentle instinct, and with facile fingers for all delicate intricacy of work, loving her needle, and on everything she wrought embroidering roses. She was named Aimée, but she was usually called the girl, or that bird there, the papillon. Various youths would have paid court to her, but she seemed to look through them as if they did not exist. Yet she loved to deck herself out in her rose-embroidered gown, coarse cotton though it was, and hang long garlands of rose-boughs over her shoulders to her knees. She was most gentle in her ways and words; every one loved her; but the older people began to say that she was.
There was one of the youths who loved better than the others did. He was called François, having no other name—a dark young fellow with a beaming eye. He had a little shop where he sold ribbons. They often walked together in the twilight, work being over. Sometimes he brought her roses, since she loved them so; she took them with a rapture that could have been mistaken for delight in himself if he had not understood her. Soon she was never without roses, in her hair, on her breast, wreathing her arms. She never had a sou in her life—how did she come by these flowers?
She was not quite seventeen when they heard her telling strange tales of her roses. "They are mine," she said. "All the roses on the earth." They accused her of rifling gardens. "The roses love me," she said. "They wish to be about me, and they break their steins to come to me. You may see them, the single blossoms, gliding through the air to me. I have but to think of a rose and it is here. They have a spirit—oh, undoubtedly. 'You are a rose yourself,' they say. They tell me to look at the sunrise when I go to the silk-mill, at the sunset on the river—all the world a rose. The floor of heaven is paved with roses. I keep the leaves, that I may make from them an attar for the priest in the last sacrament. There is one climbing over the wall of the queen's garden to see the world go by; it begs me to come for it, in a whisper as soft—oh, as soft as its breath. It is a rose of perfection. Some day I shall go for it." She went; and the gardeners found her in the queen's garden, with her lifted skirt full of the great heavy-headed damask blooms.
It was in vain that grandam and Suzanne and Justine pursued the officers with outcry and vociferation concerning the irresponsibility of the poor papillon; that François followed with comforting words for her till the prison gates were closed upon him. She was tried, and found guilty of her offense. It was plain theft; she was seen; the flowers were found in her possession; it was fortunate that she was not held for lèse majeste. The queen's garden, indeed!
She was sentenced to the prison for women of all sorts. Yet the worst of them felt themselves trembling a moment before the fair, wondering creature with the great tears dropping from her lashes as she thought of the roses she had lost. "I shall come back, François," she said, "and we shall have our roses together." And François felt the blue sky pitiless, the soft wind a mockery.
They were hard and bad women in the prison, sent there for dreadful crimes, for all manner of infamies. What was there about this young girl coming among them that suddenly made their hearts quiver? Possibly it was thought of their own girlhood before sin overtook them; she was so slim, so fair, so like a flower, so innocent! Perhaps, in spite of everything, it was the mother in them all.
"It is for stealing a rose—a rose!—she is here," exclaimed Adriane. "While I have fingers, she shall have her rose!" And where she got a bit of pink tissue-paper only Heaven knew, and how she pinched it into petals and found some yellow threads for stamens only a French-woman could tell you. It was a rude and ragged thing, but it bore the semblance of a rose; and when it was thrust through the grate of her cell and fell upon the stone floor, the girl, waking from her day-dream, caught it up, if not with so much joy as when François had brought her roses fresh with dew, yet as one embraces a long-lost friend.
There was hardly a woman in the prison who by the next nightfall had not heard of Adriane's success, had not, through the subtle channels they knew how to command, obtained scraps of pink silk, of crimson silk, of yellow and cream and white, and was not busy with them.
"Madame sees the little one, the poor child, la tête légère," said Adriane to the directress, who had come to her cell at Adriane's demand, trembling herself now—she, the defiant Adriane, who had made nothing but trouble in the place with her outbreaks and rebellions since coming there for her interminable period. "Doubtless hers is a sin—but so trifling! The child pines. She will fade away. She will die!"
"It is not to be helped, Twenty-three. She is here for her punishment, Ciel! not for her amusement."
"Pardon," said Adriane. "Madame knows there are new views of incarceration. It is for the protection of society, not the punishment of the offender. That, the punishment, is in the hands of the good God."
Madame was at once enraged and amused. But much in Adriane was overlooked.
"Peste!" said Adriane. "I myself—I—one calls me meutrière. But should this little one here die in her cell, she will have been murdered!—It is to madame!" and Adriane made a mocking obeisance with outstretched hands, while madame received her insolence for what it was worth.
So it came about that the women were allowed to send their floral failures and successes into the cell of the new-comer. The directress, a wise woman in her way, and with ideas as to prison reform, having lately been almost at her wits' end, and moved herself by the young girl's circumstance, saw in a flash certain great possibilities. But she could do nothing rashly. Those who were allowed neither scissors nor needles, nor any sharp instrument, were not to be trusted all at once. There had been a wild revolt in the prison but recently. The women had broken everything about them that was breakable, they had torn their clothes to tatters, and the air had rung with their ribald cries and oaths. It was usually a long while before the waters of the mighty trouble subsided. But to-day a sweet calm pervaded the place, broken only by now and then a glad cry over some approach to floral beauty in the work. They pinched and pulled and puffed their poor material into shape; sometimes they tore the stuff with their teeth, sometimes they used a surreptitious pin. And, all done, each waited for the cry of delight from the cell of Aimée, and heard her singing her sweet song as she bound the flowers about her, with a rapture of their own such as perhaps they had never felt before in their poor lives.
Thus it happened that when François, having timidly begged admittance, was allowed a moment at the cell's grille with the one fresh rose he had brought her, he saw her cell as if the walls had bloomed in roses of all colors, a wilderness of roses, and herself radiant. He kissed the little fingers she slid through the bars, and left in them the rose just plucked.
François went at once, with Aimée's glad cry ringing in his ears, to a man who worked for a milliner, and he came back next day rich with tiny remnants of silk and satin and velvet of all deep or delicate tints in which a rose and her green leaves are ever born, with long strips of his own ribbons, with wax and wire and gum, with crystal beads, and even with scissors. It was against the rules. But what are rules for except to break?
François sought the directress, and told her the simple story. "There is no wrong in the child," he said. "She is innocent as the cherubs who have only heads and wings in the great altar-piece. She is but light in the head, the poor papillon. She has coveted roses—all her life, roses. Now, now, if she has of them—madame can see—it may be—a surfeit of the things. Is it possible madame never heard of a cure?"
Madame never had heard of a cure after this fashion. But what import? One does not know all things. One will not reject the new, the untried. She would consider. By and by she herself took the gift of François to Aimée, and summoned Adriane there. If she had not been a woman of courage she would not have been in her position. She was not afraid of Adriane with the scissors, "Make a rose," she commanded. And Adriane with great insouciance began to form the flower, leaf by leaf, finishing in a frenzy of delight.
"It is not perfect," said the directress. "Had a rose ever such a heart as that 'twould cease to be a rose. And behold the petals there! Have they of the roundness, the clear cut? Fi donc! Make another, Twenty-three, more arresting, with the precision. And thou, Ninety-nine, try thine own hand now." And all at once Aimée, struck with the new idea, laid hold of the pink atom of silk, and the deeper pink, and cut and snipped, and held to the light, and measured with the eye, and clustered together, and dropped the gum on the green and the brown tissue, and secured her wire, and rolled the stems—and, behold, a rose! She shrieked with joy, and she turned and pinned the rose on the bosom of the directress. Even Adriane, the bold, trembled at the liberty the girl had taken.
"Adriane," said the directress, "I know I can trust thee. But the others—"
"Madame," said Adriane, with erect dignity, as if she had not been ring-leader in countless riots, "can hold me responsible."
Madame did. And Adriane cut and shaped and delivered, and those others arranged and twisted and gummed—and all for Aimée. In two months' time that cell was lined with roses till one could not see the wall.
At his next call François brought a tiny vial of attar of roses. "It is all they waited for!" Aimée cried; and she forgot he was there while putting a tiniest drop on a bunch of the flowers. "It is able to be too much," she said. And after that she merely left the vial open among her materials, so they might say that if they were not the rose, they had been with the rose. And surely never along prison corridors before was wafted such gales of sweetness, as if whole gardens had bloomed close at hand.
It was not too often that the regulations allowed his visits. When he came again and saw through the grating the blooming bower of her cell, François felt that Aimée must be in possession of all she longed for. But she was sitting on her bench, her hands hanging before her, in a posture of deep dejection. She wore no flowers; but the window, through which one had sight of a strip of blue sky or a snowy cloud, was garlanded with them. The window was so high up that it caught a solitary sunbeam that touched the girl's fair hair to a shining aureole for the instant of its stay, and made François think of some sad saint. He twisted a gardenia in his fingers. She smiled then, looking at it. "The lovely thing," she said. "It has a soul." And straightway she began to make a gardenia. At another time he brought her sweet-peas to copy, and yet again forget-me-nots, and in their season apple-blows and buttercups. Those others copied them, too; Adriane moving among them, the dark-browed Adriane, like an angel of mercy as she brought the women the new flower.
But one time François came and found Aimée in a cell on another corridor. She had begged to be transferred, as the fragrance of the attar had become oppressive to her. But she was making a fleur-de-lis, most delicately and exquisitely, and singing softly to herself as her slender fingers twinkled in among the petals. She looked up at him brightly.
"I have been in a far country, François," she said. "But I have returned. It was a world of roses. Now a rose is to me no more than a mallow. I am cured, my François. And when am I to go away? Certainly I am not here forever. And where, where am I to go?"
"Thou wilt come with me," said François.
She shook her head gently. As the opening bud, brushed by the bee, becomes the full-blown flower, as the fruit ripens swiftly when the wasp has stung it, so the catastrophe of surfeit had made the child a woman. "Not possible," she said. "The things that might have been are always the sweetest. There is that which may come again to me. We will make an end here."
"How, make an end?" demanded François, his great eyes full of shadow.
"We will not marry. We will not give such inheritance to any," she said, her eyes searching the heart of the fleur-de-lis.
"Which," said François, "does not hinder that we shall be together."
The prison corridors were very still that day. Possibly it was the stillness that precedes the storm. Except for now and then a burst of derisive song, there was all but dead silence there. The directress, who at last had seen the end in view for which she had wrought, had informed the women that they would make no more flowers to hang round Aimée. Their flowers should be put on sale in the market, and the prison would thenceforth be self-supporting. A matter for pride and joy.
"No more roses for Aimée—for the little one? No more, then, for any one! The State had put them here; the State would have to support them!" And they sat back and folded their arms, and Adriane's arms were the most resolute of all, and her shower of nods the most emphatic, as she tossed her scissors through the grille.
François was there that day to take Aimée away, the day of liberty having come. She was allowed to pause at every grating and say good-by to the sad souls. They begged to kiss her pretty fingers.
"I am going to sell my flowers," she said to them. "François gives me a window in his shop. François is my brother."
"We will make flowers for your window," they called, almost in chorus. And peace reigned again in the poor prison and in the heart of the directress.
"Oh, how good is the air, the wind, the sky, the sun, the freedom, the rustling of the leaf!" cried Aimée, as she sat at work on her flowers in François's window. "How sad for my poor sisters of the prison! But I shall go often to bring them the breath of the outdoors."
"But, yes," said Francois. "Thou art always thinking for others."
"See! I made great to-day, not only mine, but theirs. We shall be rich, brother. We will have a little house and a garden of real flowers in the country, and appoint Suzanne to sell for us, the flowers for me, the ribbons for thee."
"That cannot be, petite, unless— Is brother the last word, Aimée?" And his voice trembled like a string that is stretched to breaking.
"The last," she said, gazing into space with eyes like violets washed with dew. "Entirely the last." And then she added in a lighter tone: "They go to pardon Adriane. She can live with us and keep the house. And since you have no other name, shall we be François Frères? Always my brother."
And to-day would you have silken flowers, with a suspicion of fragrance to them, a dash perhaps of dew, and so like the real that you expect them to wither and be tossed away, flowers of an almost ethereal beauty, you will, as the duchesses and princesses do, buy them at the window of Aimée.