Who ever wore such a queer-looking thing? I wore it myself, dear, once upon a time; yes, I did! Perhaps you would like to hear about it, while you mend that tear in your muslin. Sit down, then, and let us be cosy.
I was making a visit in Hillton once, when I was seventeen years old, just your age; staying with dear old Miss Persis Elderby, who is now dead. I have told you about her, and it is strange that I have never told you the story of the green satin gown; but, indeed, it is years since I looked at it. We were great friends, Miss Persis and I; and we never thought much about the difference in our ages, for she was young for her years, and I was old for mine. In our daily walk through the pretty, sleepy Hillton street--we always went for the mail, together, for though Miss Persis seldom received letters, she always liked to see mine, and it was quite the event of the day--my good friend seldom failed to point out to me a stately mansion that stood by itself on a little height, and to say in a tone of pride, "The Le Baron place, my dear; the finest place in the county. Madam Le Baron, who lives there alone now, is as great a lady as any in Europe, though she wears no coronet to her name."
I never knew exactly what Miss Persis meant by this last remark, but it sounded magnificent, and I always gazed respectfully at the gray stone house which sheltered so grand a personage. Madam Le Baron, it appeared, never left the house in winter, and this was January. Her friends called on her at stated intervals, and, to judge from Miss Persis, never failed to come away in a state of reverential enthusiasm. I could not help picturing to myself the great lady as about six feet tall, clad in purple velvet, and waving a peacock-feather fan; but I never confided my imaginings even to the sympathetic Miss Persis.
One day my friend returned from a visit to the stone house, quite breathless, her pretty old face pink with excitement. She sat down on the chair nearest the door, and gazed at me with, speechless emotion.
"Dear Miss Persis!" I cried. "What has happened? Have you had bad news?"
Miss Persis shook her head. "Bad news? I should think not, indeed! Child, Madam Le Baron wishes to see you. More I cannot say at present. Not a word! Put on your best hat, and come with me. Madam Le Baron waits for us!"
It was as if she had said, "The Sultan is on the front door-step." I flew up-stairs, and made myself as smart as I could in such a hurry. My cheeks were as pink as Miss Persis's own, and though I had not the faintest idea what was the matter, I felt that it must be something of vital import. On the way, I begged my companion to explain matters to me, but she only shook her head and trotted on the faster. "No time!" she panted. "Speech delays me, my dear! All will be explained; only make haste."
We made such haste, that by the time we rang at the door of the stone house neither of us could speak, and Miss Persis could only make a mute gesture to the dignified maid who opened the door, and who looked amazed, as well she might, at our burning cheeks and disordered appearance. Fortunately, she knew Miss Persis well, and lost no time in ushering us into a cool, dimly lighted parlor, hung with family portraits. Here we sat, and fanned ourselves with our pocket-handkerchiefs, while I tried to find breath for a question; but there was not time! A door opened at the further end of the room; there was a soft rustle, a smell of sandal-wood in the air. The next moment Madam Le Baron stood before us. A slender figure, about my own height, in a quaint, old-fashioned dress; snowy hair, arranged in puff on puff, with exquisite nicety; the darkest, softest eyes I ever saw, and a general air of having left her crown in the next room; this was the great lady.
We rose, and I made my best courtesy,--we courtesied then, my dear, instead of bowing like pump-handles,--and she spoke to us in a soft old voice, that rustled like the silk she wore, though it had a clear sound, too. "So this is the child!" she said. "I trust you are very well, my dear! And has Miss Elderby told you of the small particular in which you can oblige me?"
Miss Persis hastened to say that she wasted no time on explanations, but had brought me as quickly as might be, thinking that the main thing. Madam Le Baron nodded, and smiled a little; then she turned to me; a few quiet words, and I knew all about it. She had received that morning a note from her grandniece, "a young and giddy person," who lived in B----, some twenty miles away, announcing that she and a party of friends were about to drive over to Hillton to see the old house. She felt sure that her dear aunt would be enchanted to see them, as it must be "quite too forlorn for her, all alone in that great barn;" so she might expect them the next evening (that is, the evening of this very day), in time for supper, and no doubt as hungry as hunters. There would be about a dozen of them, probably, but she knew there was plenty of room at Birchwood, and it would be a good thing to fill up the empty rooms for once in a way; so, looking forward to a pleasant meeting, the writer remained her dearest aunt's "affectionate niece, Effie Gay."
"The child has no mother," said Madam Le Baron to Miss Persis; then turning to me, she said: "I am alone, save for my two maids, who are of middle age, and not accustomed to youthful visitors. Learning from my good friend, Miss Elderby, that a young gentlewoman was staying at her house, I conceived the idea of asking you to spend the night with me, and such portion of the next day as my guests may remain. If you are willing to do me this service, my dear, you may put off your bonnet, and I will send for your evening dress and your toilet necessaries."
I had been listening in a dream, hearing what was said, but thinking it all like a fairy story, chiefly impressed by the fact that the speaker was the most beautiful person I had ever seen in my life. The last sentence, however, brought me to my senses with a vengeance. With scarlet cheeks I explained that I had brought no evening dress with me; that I lived a very quiet life at home, and had expected nothing different here; that, to be quite frank, I had not such a thing as an evening dress in the world. Miss Persis turned pale with distress and mortification; but Madam Le Baron looked at me quietly, with her lovely smile.
"I will provide you with a suitable dress, my child," she said. "I have something that will do very well for you. If you like to go to your room now, my maid will attend you, and bring what is necessary. We expect our guests in time for supper, at eight o'clock."
Decidedly, I had walked into a fairy tale, or else I was dreaming! Here I sat in a room hung with flowered damask, in a wonderful chair, by a wonderful fire; and a fairy, little and withered and brown, dressed in what I knew must be black bombazine, though I knew it only from descriptions, was bringing me tea, and plum-cake, on a silver tray. She looked at me with kind, twinkling eyes, and said she would bring the dress at once; then left me to my own wondering fancies. I hardly knew what to be thinking of, so much was happening: more, it seemed, in these few hours, than in all my life before. I tried to fix my mind on the gay party that would soon fill the silent house with life and tumult; I tried to fancy how Miss Effie Gay would look, and what she would say to me; but my mind kept coming back to the dress, the evening dress, that I was to be privileged to wear. What would it be like? Would silk or muslin be prettier? If only it were not pink! A red-haired girl in pink was a sad sight!
Looking up, I saw a portrait on the wall, of a beautiful girl, in a curious, old-time costume. The soft dark eyes and regal turn of the head told me that it was my hostess in her youth; and even as I looked, I heard the rustle again, and smelt the faint odor of sandalwood; and Madam Le Baron came softly in, followed by the fairy maid, bearing a long parcel.
"Your gown, my dear," she said, "I thought you would like to be preparing for the evening. Undo it, Jessop!"
Jessop lifted fold on fold of tissue-paper. I looked, expecting I know not what fairy thing of lace and muslin: I saw--the green satin gown!
We were wearing large sleeves then, something like yours at the present day, and high collars; the fashion was at its height. This gown had long, tight, wrinkled sleeves, coming down over the hand, and finished with a ruffle of yellow lace; the neck, rounded and half-low, had a similar ruffle almost deep enough to be called a ruff; the waist, if it could be called a waist, was up under the arms: briefly, a costume of my grandmother's time. Little green satin slippers lay beside it, and a huge feather-fan hung by a green ribbon. Was this a jest? was it--I looked up, with burning cheeks and eyes suffused; I met a glance so kind, so beaming with good-will, that my eyes fell, and I could only hope that my anguish had not been visible.
"Shall Jessop help you, my dear?" said Madam Le Baron. "You can do it by yourself? Well, I like to see the young independent. I think the gown will become you; it has been considered handsome." She glanced fondly at the shining fabric, and left the room; the maid, after one sharp glance at me, in which I thought I read an amused compassion, followed; and I was left alone with the green satin gown.
Cry? No, I did not cry: I had been brought up not to cry; but I suffered, my dear, as one does suffer at seventeen. I thought of jumping out of the window and running away, back to Miss Persis; I thought of going to bed, and saying I was ill. It was true, I said to myself, with feverish violence: I was ill, sick with shame and mortification and disappointment. Appear before this gay party, dressed like my own great-grandmother? I would rather die! A person might easily die of such distress as this--and so on, and so on!
Suddenly, like a cool touch on my brow, came a thought, a word of my Uncle John's, that had helped me many a time before.
"Endeavor, my dear, to maintain a sense of proportion!"
The words fell with weight on my distracted mind. I sat up straight in the armchair into which I had flung myself, face downward. Was there any proportion in this horror? I shook myself, then put the two sides together, and looked at them. On one side, two lovely old ladies, one of whom I could perhaps help a little, both of whom I could gratify; on the other, my own--dear me! was it vanity? I thought of the two sweet old faces, shining with kindness; I fancied the distress, the disappointment, that might come into them, if I--
"Yes, dear uncle," I said aloud, "I have found the proportion!" I shook myself again, and began to dress. And now a happy thought struck me. Glancing at the portrait on the wall, I saw that the fair girl was dressed in green. Was it? Yes, it must be--it was--the very same dress! Quickly, and as neatly as I could, I arranged my hair in two great puffs, with a butterfly knot on the top of my head, in the style of the picture; if only I had the high comb! I slipped on the gown, which fitted me well enough. I put on the slippers, and tied the green ribbons round and round my ankles; then I lighted all the candles, and looked at myself. A perfect guy? Well, perhaps--and yet--
At this moment Jessop entered, bringing a pair of yellow gloves; she looked me over critically, saying nothing; glanced at the portrait, withdrew, and presently reappeared, with the high tortoise-shell comb in her hand. She placed it carefully in my hair, surveyed me again, and again looked at the picture. Yes, it was true, the necklace was wanting; but of course--
Really, Jessop was behaving like a jack-in-the-box! She had disappeared again, and now here she was for the third time; but this time Madam Le Baron was with her. The old lady looked at me silently, at my hair, then up at the picture. The sight of the pleasure in her lovely face trampled under foot, put out of existence, the last remnant of my foolish pride.
She turned to Jessop and nodded. "Yes, by all means!" she said. The maid put into her hand a long morocco box; Madam kissed me, and with soft, trembling fingers clasped the necklace round my neck. "It is a graceful compliment you pay me, my child," she said, glancing at the picture again, with eyes a little dimmed. "Oblige me by wearing this, to complete the vision of my past youth."
Ten stars of chrysoprase, the purest and tenderest green in the world, set in delicately wrought gold. I need not describe the necklace to you. You think it the most beautiful jewel in the world, and so do I; and I have promised that you shall wear it on your eighteenth birthday.
Madam Le Baron saw nothing singular in my appearance. She never changed the fashion of her dress, being of the opinion, as she told me afterward, that a gentlewoman's dress is her own affair, not her mantua-maker's; and her gray and silver brocade went very well with the green satin. We stood side by side for a moment, gazing into the long, dim mirror; then she patted my shoulder and gave a little sigh.
"Your auburn hair looks well with the green," she said. "My hair was dark, but otherwise--Shall we go down, my dear?"
I will not say much about the evening. It was painful, of course; but Effie Gay had no mother, and much must be pardoned in such a case. No doubt I made a quaint figure enough among the six or eight gay girls, all dressed in the latest fashion; but the first moment was the worst, and the first titter put a fire in my veins that kept me warm all the evening. An occasional glance at Madam Le Baron's placid face enabled me to preserve my sense of proportion, and I remembered that two wise men, Solomon and my Uncle John, had compared the laughter of fools to the crackling of thorns under a pot. And--and there were some who did not laugh.
Pin it up, my dear! Your father has come, and will be wanting his tea.
I can tell you the rest of the story in a few words.
A year from that time Madam Le Baron died; and a few weeks after her death, a parcel came for me from Hillton.
Opening it in great wonder, what did I find but the gown, the green satin gown, with the slippers and fan, and the tortoise-shell comb in a leather case! Lifting it reverently from the box, the dress felt singularly heavy on my arm, and a moment's search revealed a strange matter. The pocket was full of gold pieces, shining half-eagles, which fell about me in a golden shower, and made me cry out with amazement; but this was not all! The tears sprang to my eyes as I opened the morocco box and took out the chrysoprase necklace: tears partly of gratitude and pleasure, partly of sheer kindness and love and sorrow for the sweet, stately lady who had thought of me in her closing days, and had found (they told me afterward) one of her last pleasures in planning this surprise for me.
There is something more that I might say, my dear. Your dear father was one of that gay sleighing party; and he often speaks of the first time he saw me--when I was coming down the stairs in the green satin gown.