MRS. COOPER had made a grand discovery. Somebody finds it out everyday for themselves, and imagines it to be a perfectly original theory. It is this, that we enjoy doubly what we strive for, and that the pleasure the rich find in the gratification of every fancy is made up to those in moderate circumstances by the attainment of some single, long-desired object. ‘Don't you think so, too, Murray?’ she said, when she had stated her proposition as clearly as the jar of the train and the hiss of the locomotive would allow. She was going to town for the first time since her little daughter's birth; and it was quite an event to her--going on a very pleasant errand, too--the fitting of the silk she had shown Mrs. Henderson; and, though every woman exclaims against the annoyance of being fitted, every soul of them enjoys the near prospect of wearing a new and becoming dress. Besides which, she was to choose her birthday present from her husband, according to his promise on the day of their dinner-party. After much grave deliberation, it was to be something for the house. She had decided on a set of candelabras. She found, after being accustomed to gas and a chandelier, that it was almost impossible to light their parlor for anything like an evening gathering with a solar lamp.
‘Of dear, no! They've been out of fashion these ages. I could have had a set of those, for that matter. Aunt Agnes has a pair set away in her store-closet, no use to any one; but they are so antediluvian. I want a pair of pretty bronze figures. Gilt always seems tawdry to me; besides, it wears off; so bronze is really much cheaper.’
‘Beautiful consistency! I always did admire it. Didn't I hear somebody defending mock diamonds with that very argument, and you say that your own self-respect wouldn't allow it? Self-respect less stringent in bronze than diamonds!’ And he teazingly drew out his pocket diary, as if to make a memorandum of it, but, in reality, to set down his wife's fare to the city.
‘And you a very convenient one. No shams! Come, now!’
‘But you just said you couldn't afford the real; you know you did.’
‘I suppose I ought to say, then, go without until we can. But I don't intend to. You've made yourself sick trying to save for me; and I've denied myself everything, this year; and it's a great pity if I can't indulge such a good little woman once in a while. So she should have her candelabras; there!’
‘Don't be nonsensical, Murray. But hav'n't we done wonders, this year? Our expenses have been fully a hundred less than last, and with the moving and two children, too. I think we deserve a lot of credit.’
‘We must do a great deal better, though, next year. What's a hundred dollars?’
‘Nothing to spend, that is true, but a great deal when it was spared from twenty things that had always been held as absolute necessities.’ Mrs. Cooper experienced that cheerful glow of satisfaction which arises from the consciousness of moral exertion successfully put forth, and felt equal to writing an appendix to Miss Beecher's "Domestic Economy." Indulging in this mental self-glorification, she submitted to the silence always imposed on the female part of the community from the moment the newsboy makes his appearance in the cars with the morning papers, and was handed out at Chambers Street, with the settled opinion that very few women were more thoroughly devoted to their husbands' interest than herself.
‘We will take the candelabras first,’ said Mr. Cooper, as they walked up Chambers Street; ‘for I must be at the store by half past ten. Where shall you go? I believe there's an establishment near the Park.’
‘Hadn't we better go to Haughawout's, where we had our china and things?’
‘That's so far up town. Here, this place is as good as any other, I suppose. Yes; there are candelabras. Now, don't be all day choosing, but suit yourself.’
Mrs. Cooper had been perfectly innocent in her decision--innocent of any extravagant intentions, that is. She though a pair of low, plain candelabras, in imitation bronze, could be had for about twelve dollars, and asked to have some shown here; but there were none at that prices; some below it, dwarfed and inelegant in shape; others ranging higher, but with a mixture of gilt, or painted porcelain, which did not please her at all. ‘There, something like those,’ she said, pointing to a pair of single figures on marble pedestals, upholding a branch. They came very near to her ideal--simple, chaste, and elegant.
‘Those are the real thing,’ said the shopman. ‘You can't find anything like those in imitation.’
‘That's what we want,’ said Mr. Cooper, speaking for the first time. ‘Let us see some more.’
Oh!’ And the man's manner instantly showed an increase of animation, as if it were considerably better worth his while to attend to them. ‘Much cheaper in the end, sir. These twist and droop with a very little wear. Those are always the same, firm as iron, you see--heavier. Just try to lift it, ma'am.’
‘I should think they would break more easily, then,’ said Mrs. Cooper, studying the figures, and admiring them more every moment.
‘Copies from celebrated antiques. There, sir! observe the poise of that figure. Break, ma'am? Oh, it's possible! but bronze itself can be easily mended. The imitation is quite useless, after a hard knock; that's the great advantage.’
‘What's the price?’ said Mr. Cooper, shortly.
The man spoke low. Mrs. Cooper, at a little distance, understood him to say twenty-five dollars. They were quite out of her reach; but she liked them more than ever. Even her unpractised eye could see their purity and grace beside the best of the imitations.
Mr. Cooper took out his watch. Time was precious to Mrs. Cooper as well as himself. She could not leave her baby longer that the mid-day train. ‘Have you any others, a little less, something this style?’
No. Unfortunately, that was the only pair they had then at a medium price. All the rest were larger, and still more expensive. This pair was unusually low; but they had marked everything down; it was so near the holiday season; and they wanted to make way for a new lot of goods they were just getting through the custom-house.
‘No, sir. Those are a tremendous bargain. They could not be imported for that price.’
Mrs. Cooper knew enough for such wares to be sure that this was true. Twenty-five dollars was little enough for anything so handsome. ‘They are certainly very low, Murray. I wish we could afford it,’ she said, in a rapid aside; while the clerk, accustomed to such little colloquies between customers, politely turned a deaf ear to the whisper, and appeared to be about replacing the coveted articles on the upper shelf from which he had produced them. ‘They suit me so exactly; everything else will seem so shabby. I'm almost sorry we looked at them.’
‘Do they suit you? are you sure?’ said Mr. Cooper, hastily. ‘You are giving yourself very little time for the dress-maker. The cars leave exactly at half past twelve, recollect. Are they just what you wanted?’
‘Oh, handsome! There isn't a single pair here I would have but those; and of course--’
But her criticism was cut short By Mr. Cooper's abrupt call to the shopman: ‘You may pack those. Have them at the depot in time for the four o'clock train.’
‘But, Murray!’ His wife looked aghast at the order; but it was too late for expostulation. The shopman was busy writing down the address; and she could not expostulate before him. It was so very extravagant; but they were so very handsome. They ought not to afford it; but it was just Murray's old self when they were first married. He never could bear to deny her anything she had set her heart on. Perhaps they would be the cheapest in the end, as the man said; and she would not allow him to make her any Christmas of New-Year's gift. ‘I'm so sorry,’ she began, the moment they set foot on the pavement again.
‘Sorry for what? Didn't you say you liked them?’
‘Yes, indeed; but you know as well as I do that--’
‘Oh, don't let's talk any more about it! I know all you intend to preach; and I've been a devout hearer for so long, I had to break out to be sure of my own identity. I set out to make you a present for the first time in a year; and I wanted you to be suited; if you are, it's all right. I wouldn't give any of those other things house room.’
They separated at the corner; and Mrs. Cooper went her way, half pleased, half sorry, but thinking, after all, that it was not such a very enormous "lapsus" into past offences, as it might have been, and committed solely to give her pleasure; while some men would have wasted twice as much on selfish gratification. She had her own little secret, that morning--a plan to surprise Murray with a Christmas gift, simple and inexpensive. Yes, indeed, she must be more prudent than ever, now--but something that he had once expressed a wish for.
Long ago, in the days of their courtship, they had read an Italian story together, of some husband lost in a shipwreck, and washed ashore clinging to driftwood, with a band of hair, braided and clasped with gold, about the rigid arm. His wife's hair it proved to be when identified by the clasp; and it had never left his arm since the day she fastened it there. It was decidedly sentimental; but Mr. Cooper had an unsuspected vein of romance hidden under his careless manner, and he liked the fancy very much, and had spoken of it several times since. ‘Only I should want you to braid it yourself,’ he said, in one of these lover-like outbreaks. ‘It would destroy all the poetry to have it go through the gum and bobbins of those hair-workers.’
Mrs. Cooper was rather touched by this manifestation, and secretly resolved to get up a bracelet, according to desire, and manage to place it on his arm Christmas morning. She had the braid with her, having shorn an ample tress of her wavy black hair; and a clasp would cost but little, as inexpensive as her most rigid resolutions required.
The principal of the large Broadway establishment which she turned to happened to wait on her himself. He required a little explanation. The bracelet would be so very large; she must have mistaken the size. No; she was positive; and, to convince him, she produced the tape-measure she had cleverly contrived to slip around Murray's arm without his detecting her. ‘It was to be worn very high up, quite out of sight,’ she explained--‘a gentleman's arm.’ She felt her face flush.
‘Ah, I understand!--a gage d'amour,’ said the jeweller, with a smile she did not like. ‘Madame wishes a very handsome clasp, with an inscription.’
‘A single word and initials; that is all.’
‘What kind of braid?’ And he produced several specimens of fanciful hair-work from a drawer close by.
‘Ah, this! exactly as it is. I wish you to be very sure it is not touched.’
‘It will wear very easily in this style’--and the jeweller turned the braid over and over--‘fray and fret out. Perhaps madam has plenty to replace it.’
Mrs. Cooper had not thought of this contingency. No, indeed; she could not make up her mind to spare any more with the present style of broad braids. She knew the man was right, too. Even the closely woven bracelet she wore showed symptoms of the fraying he spoke of. ‘Is there no way to prevent it?’ she said, glancing at the large clock over the show-cases, which ticked warningly. Her morning was already half gone.
The obliging jeweller suggested several expedients, if she was entirely determined not to have a fancy braid. She had seen rings with the hair set in the centre of a gold band, perhaps?
That would be too heavy and inflexible, she thought.
How would some little links, lightly chased, which would make it more ornamental, do?‘He had an idea.’ And the dark eyes studied the tress awhile, with his forefinger laid meditatively on the side of a fine, prominent Roman nose. ‘Perhaps he should not be able to make it very clear to her. Suppose she left it to his taste and judgment?’
It was all she could do, for her time was almost up; and she could not stop for a lengthy explanation. She gave particular instructions as to the time it must be done, the initials, etc., and turned to leave the counter. But what would the expense of this arrangement be? She ought to ask; but she hesitated, and went towards the door. Perhaps he would think her very fussy and particular. She wished one of the clerks had waited on her. She would not have minded them so much. But she summoned courage to turn back and make the inquiry, faltering a little, possibly, as she saw the expression in those penetrating eyes, which seemed to read her economical motives through and through, though she had endeavored to put on a careless manner, as if it were not of the least consequence.
‘Really, it would be impossible to determine before the work is done. We have never manufactured anything of the kind. As reasonable as possible; madam may depend upon that.’
A dismal foreboding flitted across Mrs. Cooper's mind. ‘Perhaps you had better leave out the chasing,’ she said, with a great effort.
‘Oh, if madam wished it! but it would quite destroy the effect we should desire to produce. Certainly.’
Mrs. Cooper, over sensitive, imagined that she detected the faintest perceptible sneer in tone and manner.‘Just as you please, then,’ she said, quickly, ‘so it does not make it too expensive.’
‘Oh, no, she could depend on that!’ And, wishing she could, she left the store with an undefined apprehension of loss or disappointment. It went with her as she kept her engagement at the dress-maker's. It followed her home, where she arrived weary and jaded with the effort she had made to keep up to the time of the train. Even in its bare November aspect, the quiet of the village was a relief after the hurry and jostle of the city. All the gay elasticity with which she had left home that morning had vanished. ‘I don't care if it's the last time I shall see New York this winter,’ she said to herself, as the garden-gate swung to behind her. She felt as if her holiday had been filled with vanity and vexation of spirit. It was the best thing that could have happened to restore the tone of her mind, the sight that greeted her as she went up stairs, and opened the nursery-door softly, lest she should disturb either of the children in a nap. Johnny was still tucked under his crib blanket, tired with his long morning's play; but the baby was up, and as quiet as a kitten, looking up, with round, astonished eyes, into the face of her new nurse, as if she had the sense to comprehend and be astonished at the fact that Lizzie grant was, of her own free will, actually holding a baby. ‘Horrid little wretch! There! take it!’ she called out, her face flushing at the discovery. ‘Of course, I could not let it scream itself into convulsions while Katy went to the kitchen for some milk and water, to make up for the detention of its unnatural mother. Pretty story for Mrs. Henderson to hear, so soon after her departure, too, that I came out to console you, and found you dancing off to the city after Murray, and leaving the baby to its fate!’
‘If only you knew how interesting you looked! Oh, if Murray was here! How did you come? How long have you been here?’
‘Take this monkey first. There! she's going to cry, of course. I never touched a child in my life that didn't scream immediately. Go to your mother, you ungrateful little thing!’
‘But when did you come?’ asked Mrs. Cooper, as Katy appeared to the rescue, while she laid aside her things.
‘Since you left, of course. As a special act of charity, to find you comforting yourself otherwheres; next time I shall keep my condolence to myself.’ And, though greatly wondering what was the real motive for this unpremeditated but most acceptable visit, Mrs. Cooper failed to discover it in the chat which ensued. Lizzie persisted that she had come to comfort her after Mrs. Henderson's departure, and listened with great friendliness to Mrs. Cooper's eulogism, considering how little she fancied good people, and that the son of this "best of women" was her especial aversion. She managed to inform herself of the whole domestic history of the family, however, of Mrs. Henderson's widowhood, her struggles to bring up her children, the names and ages of the girls, and the story of Stephen's self-denial for their sakes. Mrs. Cooper talked away on this favorite theme very willingly, with a few leading questions, and thought Lizzie extremely amiable to listen.
The afternoon passed rapidly; and Mrs. Cooper, rested and diverted from her morning's adventures, was quite herself again by the time her husband came.
‘So Matty imported you for the purpose of admiring her birthday present, did she?’ was Mr. Cooper's salutation. ‘Did you run into each other at Stewart's or Thompson's? Here they are, Matty. The individual positively kept his word for once in his life. I hope they are all right. There! that will do, my man. Put it down in the hall.’
‘What a large box!’ said Mrs. Cooper, walking around it, a little uneasily.
‘Presents. Oh, I'm always ready to inspect and admire! Let's unpack. Where's a hammer or something, Tiny. 'Collameres!' Oh, a French china tea-set!’
‘I might have had one for the same money,’ said Mrs. Cooper, a little regretfully. Still, there was zest in the unpacking, which all three assisted in, making a great litter of tissue-paper and straw for Tiny to clear away at her leisure. Mrs. Cooper dusted, and her husband set up the very handsome addition to their little parlor.
‘You extravagant people!’ said Miss grant, dispatching Tiny for the candle-box to see how they would light up. ‘But bronzes are not quite so costly as they were. I chose a set for Jane Lawton, when she went to house-keeping, you see, and happen to know.’
‘Oh, these were a tremendous bargain!’--Mrs. Cooper was very willing to believe it, as she looked around the room, and thought how much more she could have done with the same amount to add to its decoration and comfort--‘only twenty-five dollars.’
‘You couldn't get them for that, I know,’ said Mrs. Grant, essaying vainly to lift one.
‘But we did.’ And Mrs. Cooper appealed to her husband, who had gone for the candles himself, delighted at this confirmation to the shopman's assertions. ‘Lizzie won't believe that we only paid twenty-five dollars for them.’
‘ Forty-five! ’ said Mr. Cooper, with emphasis.
‘No, Lizzie; he's only teazing you. It was twenty, not forty. That's bad enough. We have not quite lost our sense.’
‘But it was forty-five,’ said Mr. Cooper, seriously. ‘I thought you understood it. There's the bill, any way; and that's what I paid him.’
A faint, sick feeling made Mrs. Cooper sit down in the nearest chair, as she came to understand that her incautious admiration had really cost them so much.
The room was a blaze of light, a moment after; and Lizzie was calling her to admire the effect. She could scarcely force a smile in reply, or wait until her friend had gone up stairs to renew her toilet for dinner, to say: ‘Oh, Murray, how could you! Oh, I never shall want to see them or hear of them again!’
Mr. Cooper had meditated the gift so long, and had even involved his own conscience to gratify his wife entirely, that he felt aggrieved, naturally enough, at this reception of it. When Miss Grant came down again, she rallied them both on their long faces, and secretly wondered whether it was flour or soap out this time--coal, possibly, by their extreme gravity and mutual politeness.
If the purpose of a gift is to make both parties happier, neither the one received nor premeditated had its due effect on Mrs. Cooper. She avoided the parlor as much as possible, for she was continually computing what might have been done for it by the forty-five dollars stiffly transfixed on the corners of the mantelpiece; and, as she had said to Murray, no one thought of looking for the real thing, so they should never have the credit of possession.
‘Better hunt up the shop ticket, with the price in full, and hang on one of the branches,’ said Murray, tired of the bewailing that would break forth, now and then, to him. A less amiable man, under the circumstances, would have retorted with the threat of this being the last time he should ever try to gratify her, or that she had no one to blame but herself.
Then there was the uncertainty about the bracelet--whether it would be done in time--whether Lizzie Grant, to whom the commission had been intrusted, would remember to call for it--and, above all, what would be the amount of the bill. Five dollars was the uttermost limit she had first intended; but gradually she tried to accustom her mind to the idea of ten, though it might involve her in some difficulty, and perhaps an appeal to Murray's purse, very annoying, considering the circumstances.
Christmas week came, and no package from Miss grant. She did not like to write to her, for fear Murray might chance to receive and open the reply, so spoiling the surprise; and a message, if ever so carefully worded, might lead to the same result. Going in herself was out of the question, in a week so busy to all housekeepers, and with no ostensible excuse. But her suspense was ended at last.
‘There's a package somebody left at the office for you,’ said Murray, one evening. There were only three days to Christmas; and Mrs. Cooper had been resolving to go in at all hazards, if she did not hear that night. ‘It's Lizzie Grant's direction--a Christmas box for you of the children, I suppose; so I thought I would give you the pleasure of opening it.’
Mrs. Cooper caught at the neat little parcel. It was evidently the bracelet; and a note was slipped into the cord which secured the wrapper.
‘Read it first,’ suggested Mr. Cooper. ‘That will tell the whole story.’
‘MY DEAR MATTY: I despair of getting this to you by any one but Murray. Your friend, Mrs. Phillips, had left before I received it. So we must trust to fortune and the Evening Post as to the chance of a premature disclosure. I send the bill, which I paid at once, as I suppose you wished me to.’
‘My devoted love to the nursery department.’ ‘In haste,’ ‘LIZZIE.’
The bill, indeed. Mrs. Cooper opened it desperately, quite oblivious, in her agitation, of her husband's movements. Unsuspicious that he was, in any degree, verging on forbidden ground, Mr. Cooper occupied himself in unloosing the parcel on the other side of the lamp.
Mrs. Cooper gave a little sigh of relief as she saw the sum total--three dollars and seventy-five cents. She might have spared herself all that worry for such a pitiful sum, far less than she expected at first. But no! as she looked again, to be sure it was all right. The figures danced before her eyes, while the blood rushed to her face with fright and mortification. "$37 75" were the correct figures. There was no gainsaying it; and the only hope now was that the book-keeper of Tait and Co. might have made an error. But this dismal train of reflections, rapid as they were, had a sudden interruption.
‘Hallo, Matty! what's this? a dog-collar?’
A dog-collar, indeed! The article which Mr. Cooper had just freed from its bedding of pink and white cotton, and now held up with wondering scrutiny, was, in size and shape, to be compared to no other known invention. Massive and richly wrought, nearly an inch in width, and at least nine in circumference, it seemed to her first amazed, disappointed, incredulous gaze. ‘It must be a mistake, Oh, I'm so glad! yes, I guess it is a collar for a pet greyhound, or something of that sort; and they've sent it to me by accident. Let me see.’ And she reached out her hand with a little nervous laugh of relief.
‘Wait a minute. Here are the owners' initials, then: 'Mrs. S. C. to Mr. C.' Why, what an odd coincidence! And here's this dark line I thought was enamel. Why it's hair, a braid of hair! Did you ever see anything so mysterious?’
Mrs. Cooper had it in her own hands at last. There was a mistake, true enough, plenty of mistakes, but not the one she had comforted herself with. The tape measure she had left had been used in its full length, not to the knot expressly pointed out to Mr. Tait. The bracelet was a heavy hoop of gold, something like those so much the fashion for ladies' wear, only twice the width, the outer surface relieved by a wreath of delicately wrought leaves, under which the braid was to be discovered, having precisely the effect of black enamel. The design was well enough in its way, the workmanship exquisite, but the misconception of her purpose and her order absolute. It would have encircled the brawny arm of "the village blacksmith;" and, as for all sentimental association, the "dog-collar" had nipped that in the bud.
Mrs. Cooper began to explain, but thought of the bill, and her great worry and disappointment after all. She could not go on. Her husband laughed till the tears stood in his eyes, when he at last began to have some glimmering of the truth, and then checked his mirth, and tried to console her, finding how really distressed she was. ‘Can't you wind it round with something, so that I could wear it after all, Matty, or pad it? ’ And then he slipped it up over his coat-sleeve, quite to the elbow. No; that would not do. ‘Perhaps the man can take a reef in it somehow. Never mind; there, 'the will for the deed,' you know, little one.’
But, as in many another case, this was no consolation whatever; and Mrs. Cooper went to bed with a fast increasing nervous headache, leaving the "dog-collar" on the table with her untasted dinner. She passed a restless, miserable night, full of expedients to clear herself of the obligation to Miss grant, without applying to her husband, all equally useless and visionary. She slept heavily towards morning; and, when she awoke, Murray had gone to town, leaving a note on her pillow, inclosing a check for the amount.
‘Don't worry any more, Matty. Set it down opposite the candelabras, and balance the account. Next time, we will consult each other--you in word, and I in deed.’
The generous forbearance made Mrs. Cooper far happier than the costliest gift could have done. But the next train found her speeding to town, with the parcel and the check, animated by the most courageous resolution, and sustained by them when she entered Tait's, and inquired for the head of the establishment. He was sorry, very sorry, that he had not apprehended the lady's order; but he had taken great credit to himself for its execution. The mistake must assuredly lie with herself, and of course the loss. Such a trinket could never find sale, would be perfectly useless in his stock.
‘Is there any way of alteration, then?’ inquired Mrs. Cooper. ‘It might make a pair of bracelets for a lady.’ And, if the worst came to the worst, she could bestow them on Lizzie Grant, in return for some of her numerous gifts.
Mr. Tait smiled loftily. ‘Impossible to bend without injuring,’ was his imperturbable reply.
‘What can be done with it?’ said his customer, rapidly losing every particle of interest in the unfortunate gage d'amour.
The jeweller shrugged his shoulders.
‘It would be worthless to me, except its intrinsic value as old gold.’
‘How much would that be?’Happy thought! She might recover at least half her loss.
‘Was madam really in earnest?’
Yes; never more so; not only in earnest, but almost defiant. Half the amount of boldness that now came to her aid would have saved her the dilemma.
The scales were adjusted, with a manner the reverse of courteous.
‘Nine dollars and a half is all I could allow,’ said a voice so cold that it might have been that of Sir John Franklin wafted from the Arctic region on the bleak north wind, that had given Mrs. Cooper's cheeks a brilliant glow. There was a little of her old spirit, too, in the flush. The man's demeanor was rude almost to insult.
‘You charged me thirty-eight, nearly. Impossible!’ said Mrs. Cooper, at this revelation of business profits.
The jeweller held out the bracelet, pointing to the chased work.
‘I explained that it would be expensive.’
Mrs. Cooper scorned an altercation, in which there was evidently nothing to be gained.
‘You may pay me nine and a half.’
‘Just as madam pleases.’
The dark eyes glowed; and the hand that counted down the money fairly trembled with suppressed anger. Then, before she could place it in her purse, he seized a heavy pair of iron pincers, and crushed the costly bauble hopelessly between them, as if it had been paper, sweeping the fragments into an open drawer.
Whatever of fable may be inwrought with this family history, the scene thus ending is veritable, and "trade profits" still are realized over the counter which separated the negotiators in this rapid transaction.
Mrs. Cooper made her appearance at her husband's office with a lighter heart, if a lighter purse, than she had known since ordering the bracelet, and laid down the notes she had just received. ‘A trifle on account,’ she said, meeting his half questioning, half teazing look.
Johnny's angola stockings were both crammed out of shape on Christmas morning; and a Noah's Ark from Mrs. Henderson was hitched behind a toy locomotive, regardless of all precedent, and headed straight for the grate-pan, below the suspended sugar-plums and lady-apples. Even the baby's socks held a gift from Lizzie Grant, a set of corals that overflowed in a crimson rivulet on the dressing-table. But Mr. and Mrs. Cooper exchanged only a very fond kiss, and the promise that even in gift-making they would hereafter let appropriateness and thoughtful consideration stand in the place of lavish expenditure.