An Unexpected Letter
Clearly engraved on the walls of my memory there still remains a picture of the great, gray house where I spent my childhood. It was originally used for more than a hundred years as the convent of the “White Ladies,” with its four long galleries, one above the other, looking proudly down upon the humbler dwellings of the village. On the side of the house, where ran the broad road from Rouen to Darnetal, a high, rugged wall surrounded a wide yard, guarded at the entrance by two massive doors, studded with enormous spikes. The naked barrenness of this yard was, to say the least, forbidding in the extreme; but the fertile fields on the other side of the house spread themselves like a vast and beautiful green carpet, dotted here and there with little villages, crowned with church spires and their corresponding belfries, from which on a Sunday morning pealed out the cheerful call to prayer and worship. The ancient convent long before our story begins had been transformed into a lovely dwelling with an immense garden on one side, edged by a dozen little brick houses that seemed so small that they made us children think of certain doll-houses that we used to see in the Paris magazines. They were known locally as the “Red Cottages.” A long avenue of ancient elms separated us from these houses of our neighbors, and in front of the cottages stretched a line of stone benches, where, in the shade of the great trees, the old men of the village used to sit and recount to us tales of the days when the Convent flourished. Some of these stories made us shiver. (Indeed, they had a habit of straying into our dreams at night.)
The rest of the land around the Convent had, with the passing of the years, fallen into the hands of the villagers themselves. Each one had a small space for flowers in front and a vegetable garden behind.
Of course, our own garden, covering the whole space in front of the Red Cottages, was a much more pretentious affair with its deep well, its many-colored kiosks, and its noisy bee-hives. In fact, it was, in our eyes, the most enchanting corner of the earth.
I don’t remember all the details about the special thing that happened one day, but I know that I shall never forget it to the end of my life.
We were at tea in the garden. Teresa, our old servant, was walking up and down in her kitchen. She never seemed to have time to sit down to eat. Dear old Teresa! She always seemed like a mother to me, for we had lost our own dear mother when I was still in the cradle.
My brother and I had quarrelled over a mere nothing, when we were called in to tea by our father. Of course, we did not dare continue our dispute openly in front of him, but we continued our war-like activities by kicking each other under the table.
Louis was ten years old and I was nine. As he was older and a boy, he, of course, considered that he had the right to the last word. Now kicks had replaced words; but as we were seated at quite a distance from one another, we did not succeed in causing very great damage to each other’s shins. Notwithstanding this, I began to lose patience, and in order to end the matter, knowing that Louis was not very courageous, I leaned my chair as far inside as I could and let him have one terrific kick. At this, his face changed color and my father, now disturbed by the extra noise of my kick, finally began to realize what was happening. I do not know how matters would have ended, if Teresa had not at this moment come into the garden with a black-bordered letter in her hand which she delivered to our father. He took it silently and opened it as Teresa carried away the tea-pot.
I saw immediately by my father’s expression that the letter carried serious news, and I am sure Louis noticed it also for he completely forgot to return my kick.
“Teresa!” called my father.
“All right, I’m coming,” said that good lady.
“Read this, and tell me what you think of it,” and my father handed the letter to the old servant.
Teresa seated herself at the end of the table between Louis and me, and with her head in her hand commenced to read—Teresa was not very well-educated and she read the letter very slowly and half-aloud. “Who wrote this?” was her first question.
“The pastor of the village,” replied my father.
“A minister!” exclaimed Teresa. “He’s a mighty poor writer for a minister, and no doubt his mother paid mighty well for his ‘education.’ ”
My father smiled a bit sadly.
“You don’t understand it, Teresa?”
“Yes, yes; I understand half of it, and I think I can guess at the other half.”
“Do you want me to help you?” offered Louis.
Teresa looked scornfully at Louis. “You! I should say not! You don’t care to help me in the kitchen or run errands for me, and the only thing the matter with you now is curiosity!”
That settled Louis, and Teresa went on with her reading. Bending her great, fat form more and more closely over the letter, she became more serious as she neared the bottom of the fourth page where the writing became so close and so fine that it was hardly possible to decipher it. When, at last, she lifted her head, her eyes were full of tears. “Poor, poor little thing!” she repeated softly.
“Well, what do you think?” said my father.
“What do I think? Why, we must send at once and have her come here as soon as possible, because—”
“Who?” my father interrupted her without ceremony.
“Yes, who? who?” questioned Louis.
“Tell us, Father, please,” added my sister Rosa, a tall, serious girl of fifteen.
And as he did not answer us quickly our questions multiplied.
“Patience! Patience!” cried my father; “your turn will come.”
“Teresa, you are getting old, and another girl in the house simply means more work for you and a lot more problems for me. If ‘she’—” (my father had never been able to reconcile himself to pronounce the name of my mother since her untimely death) “—if ‘she’ were here I would not hesitate, but to bring another orphan into a family already half-orphaned doesn’t seem right to me.”
“Don’t worry, sir, a little more work doesn’t worry Teresa Rouland. She will have to get up a little earlier and go to bed a little later, and that will be all.”
“Well, Teresa, I’ll think about it, and it needs to be ‘thought about’ a good deal.”
“And why do you say that, sir? One doesn’t have to reflect long about doing good.”
“Well, I’ll tell you why I hesitate. I’m sure that someone else could much better replace the parents of this orphaned girl. I must confess that for my part I don’t feel equal to the task.”
“Sir, would you like to know what I think? You have said to yourself, ‘From the time that my wife died life has become a burden, and if it wasn’t for the children I would have died of grief, but for love of them I must work and live. Therefore, with my heart torn and desolated as it is, I don’t feel called upon to take any responsibility upon myself other than that of my own children!’ ”
“There is a good deal of truth in what you say, Teresa.”
“Yes, sir, but it is very bad, very bad, if you will let me say so! I know I ought not to talk so, as I’m only a poor old servant; but remember, I was the one that brought up the lovely woman that we all mourn for, and I knew her before you did, sir, and I loved her as if she were my own child. When I put her in the coffin it was as if they had taken out a piece of my own heart. She was so young to die, so sweet, so good, and besides, so marvelously beautiful! But I dried my tears as best I could, for I knew there was much to be done; and I said to myself that I would honor the memory of my mistress by doing always that which I knew she would have approved of. And now, sir, take this little orphan as you know your good wife would have done, as the daughter of her beloved sister….” She stopped suddenly, slightly abashed, as she realized that perhaps she had said a little too much for one in her station in life.
But more than her mere words, her voice vibrant with emotion had moved us all to the depths of our souls.
“You are a valiant woman with a great heart,” my father said, as he took her hand. “I will write this very night and ask them to send the girl to us as soon as possible.”
Then turning to us he added, “You no doubt know by this time of whom we have been speaking. Your cousin Paula has just lost her father. You will remember, her mother died some years ago, and we are her nearest relatives. Your uncle’s friends have written me as to whether I will consent to receive Paula in our home, and in a few days, more or less, she will be among us.”
We opened our mouths to ask a thousand questions, but father stopped us. “No, no! That is enough for now! Later I will tell you the details; besides, I must go out immediately. Go now to your various tasks and don’t be thinking too much about this coming of your cousin.”