“It can’t be done! So I may as well give it up and get a new pair. I long for them, but I’m afraid my nice little plan for Laura will be spoilt,” said Jessie Delano to herself, as she shook her head over a pair of small, dilapidated slippers almost past mending. While she vainly pricked her fingers over them for the last time, her mind was full of girlish hopes and fears, as well as of anxieties far too serious for a light-hearted creature of sixteen.
A year ago the sisters had been the petted daughters of a rich man; but death and misfortune came suddenly, and now they were left to face poverty alone. They had few relations, and had offended the rich uncle who offered Jessie a home, because she refused to be separated from her sister. Poor Laura was an invalid, and no one wanted her; but Jessie would not leave her, so they clung together and lived on in the humble rooms where their father died, trying to earn their bread by the only accomplishments they possessed. Laura painted well, and after many disappointments was beginning to find a sale for her dainty designs and delicate flowers. Jessie had a natural gift for dancing; and her former teacher, a kind-hearted Frenchwoman, offered her favorite pupil the post of assistant teacher in her classes for children.
It cost the girl a struggle to accept a place of this sort and be a humble teacher, patiently twirling stupid little boys and girls round and round over the smooth floor where she used to dance so happily when she was the pride of the class and the queen of the closing balls. But for Laura’s sake she gratefully accepted the offer, glad to add her mite to their small store, and to feel that she could help keep the wolf from the door. They had seemed to hear the howl of this dreaded phantom more than once during that year, and looked forward to the long hard winter with an anxiety which neither would confess to the other. Laura feared to fall ill if she worked too hard, and then what would become of this pretty young sister who loved her so tenderly and would not be tempted to leave her? And Jessie could do very little except rebel against their hard fate and make impracticable plans. But each worked bravely, talked cheerfully, and waited hopefully for some good fortune to befall them, while doubt and pain and poverty and care made the young hearts so heavy that the poor girls often fell asleep on pillows wet with secret tears.
The smaller trials of life beset Jessie at this particular moment, and her bright wits were trying to solve the problem how to spend her treasured five dollars on slippers for herself and paints for Laura. Both were much needed, and she had gone in shabby shoes to save up money for the little surprise on which she had set her heart; but now dismay fell upon her when the holes refused to be cobbled, and the largest of bows would not hide the worn-out toes in spite of ink and blacking lavishly applied.
“These are the last of my dear French slippers, and I can’t afford any more. I hate cheap things! But I shall have to get them; for my boots are shabby, and everyone has to look at my feet when I lead. Oh dear, what a horrid thing it is to be poor!” and Jessie surveyed the shabby little shoes affectionately, as her eyes filled with tears; for the road looked very rough and steep now, when she remembered how she used to dance through life as happy as a butterfly in a garden full of sunshine and flowers.
“Now, Jess, no nonsense, no red eyes to tell tales! Go and do your errands, and come in as gay as a lark, or Laura will be worried.” And springing up, the girl began to sing instead of sob, as she stirred about her dismal little room, cleaning her old gloves, mending her one white dress, and wishing with a sigh of intense longing that she could afford some flowers to wear, every ornament having been sold long ago. Then, with a kiss and a smile to her patient sister, she hurried away to get the necessary slippers and the much-desired paints, which Laura would not ask for, though her work waited for want of them.
Having been reared in luxury, poor little Jessie’s tastes were all of the daintiest sort; and her hardest trial, after Laura’s feeble health, was the daily sacrifice of the many comforts and elegances to which she had been accustomed. Faded gowns, cleaned gloves, and mended boots cost her many a pang, and the constant temptation of seeing pretty, useful, and unattainable things was a very hard one. Laura rarely went out, and so was spared this cross; then she was three years older, had always been delicate, and lived much in a happy world of her own. So Jessie bore her trials silently, but sometimes felt very covetous and resentful to see so much pleasure, money, and beauty in the world, and yet have so little of it fall to her lot.
“I feel as if I could pick a pocket to-day and not mind a bit, if it were a rich person’s. It’s a shame, when papa was always so generous, that no one remembers us. If ever I’m rich again, I’ll just hunt up all the poor girls I can find, and give them nice shoes, if nothing else,” she thought, as she went along the crowded streets, pausing involuntarily at the shop windows to look with longing eyes at the treasures within.
Resisting the allurements of French slippers with bows and buckles, she wisely bought a plain, serviceable pair, and trudged away, finding balm for her wounds in the fact that they were very cheap. More balm came when she met a young friend, who joined her as she stood wistfully eying the piles of grapes in a window and longing to buy some for Laura.
This warm-hearted schoolmate read the wish before Jessie saw her, and gratified it so adroitly that the girl could accept the pretty basketful sent to her sister without feeling like a spendthrift or a beggar. It comforted her very much, and the world began to look brighter after that little touch of kindness, as it always does when genuine sympathy makes sunshine in shady places.
At the art store she was told that more of Laura’s autumn-flowers were in demand; and her face was so full of innocent delight and gratitude it quite touched the old man who sold her the paints, and gave her more than her money’s worth, remembering his own hard times and pitying the pretty young girl whose father he had known.
So Jessie did not have to pretend very hard at being “as gay as a lark” when she got home and showed her treasures. Laura was so happy over the unexpected gifts that the dinner of bread and milk and grapes was quite a picnic; and Jessie found a smile on her face when she went to dress for her party.
It was only a child’s party at the house of one of Mademoiselle’s pupils, and Jessie was merely invited to help the little people through their dancing. She did not like to go in this way, as she was sure to meet familiar faces there, full of the pity, curiosity, or indifference so hard for a girl to bear. But Mademoiselle asked it as a favor, and Jessie was grateful; so she went, expecting no pleasure and certain of much weariness, if not annoyance.
When she was ready, — and it did not take long to slip on the white woollen dress, brush out the curly dark hair, and fold up slippers and gloves, — she stood before her glass looking at herself, quite conscious that she was very pretty, with her large eyes, blooming cheeks, and the lofty little air which nothing could change. She was also painfully conscious that her dress was neither fresh nor becoming without a bit of ribbon or a knot of flowers to give it the touch of color it needed. She had an artistic eye, and used to delight in ordering charming costumes for herself in the happy days when all her wishes were granted as if fairies still lived. She tossed over her very small store of ribbons in vain; everything had been worn till neither beauty nor freshness remained.
“Oh dear! where can I find something to make me look less like a nun, — and a very shabby one, too?” she said, longing for the pink corals she sold to pay Laura’s doctor’s bill.
The sound of a soft tap, tap, tap, startled her, and she ran to open the door. No one was there but Laura, fast asleep on the sofa. Tap, tap, tap! went the invisible hand; and as the sound seemed to come from the window, Jessie glanced that way, thinking her tame dove had come to be fed. Neither hungry dove nor bold sparrow appeared, — only a spray of Japanese ivy waving in the wind. A very pretty spray it was, covered with tiny crimson leaves; and it tapped impatiently, as if it answered her question by saying, “Here is a garland for you; come and take it.”
Jessie’s quick eye was caught at once by the fine color, and running to the window she looked out as eagerly as if a new idea had come into her head. It was a dull November day, and the prospect of sheds, ash-barrels, and old brooms was a gloomy one; but the whole back of the house glowed with the red tendrils of the hardy vine that clung to and covered the dingy bricks with a royal mantle, as if eager to cheer the eyes and hearts of all who looked. It preached a little sermon of courage, aspiration, and content to those who had the skill to read it, and bade them see how, springing from the scanty soil of that back yard full of the commonest objects, the humblest work, it set its little creepers in the crannies of the stone, and struggled up to find the sun and air, till it grew strong and beautiful, — making the blank wall green in summer, glorious in autumn, and a refuge in winter, when it welcomed the sparrows to the shelter of its branches where the sun lay warmest.
Jessie loved this beautiful neighbor, and had enjoyed it all that summer, — the first she ever spent in the hot city. She felt the grace its greenness gave to all it touched, and half unconsciously imitated it in trying to be brave and bright, as she also climbed up from the dismal place where she seemed shut away from everything lovely, till she was beginning to discover that the blue sky was over all, the sun still shone for her, and heaven’s fresh air kissed her cheeks as kindly as ever. Many a night she had leaned from the high window when Laura was asleep, dreaming innocent dreams, living over her short past, or trying to look into the future bravely and trustfully. The little vine had felt warmer drops than rain or dew fall on it when things went badly, had heard whispered prayers when the lonely child asked the Father of the fatherless for help and comfort, had peeped in to see her sleeping peacefully when the hard hour was over, and been the first to greet her with a tap on the window-pane as she woke full of new hope in the morning. It seemed to know all her moods and troubles, to be her friend and confidante, and now came with help like a fairy godmother when our Cinderella wanted to be fine for the little ball.
“Just the thing! Why didn’t I think of it? So bright and delicate and becoming? It will last better than flowers; and no one can think I’m extravagant, since it costs nothing.”
As she spoke, Jessie was gathering long sprays of the rosy vine, with its glossy leaves so beautifully shaded that it was evident Jack Frost had done his best for it. Going to her glass, she fastened a wreath of the smallest leaves about her head, set a cluster of larger ones in her bosom, and then surveyed herself with girlish pleasure, as well she might; for the effect of the simple decoration was charming. Quite satisfied now, she tied on her cloud and slipped away without waking Laura, little dreaming what good fortune the ivy spray was to bring them both.
She found the children prancing with impatience to begin their ballet, much excited by the music, gaslight, and gay dresses, which made it seem like “a truly ball.” All welcomed Jessie, and she soon forgot the cheap slippers, mended gloves, and old dress, as she gayly led her troop through the pretty dance with so much grace and skill that the admiring mammas who lined the walls declared it was the sweetest thing they ever saw.
“Who is that little person?” asked one of the few gentlemen who hovered about the doorways.
His hostess told Jessie’s story in a few words, and was surprised to hear him say in a satisfied tone, —
“I’m glad she is poor. I want her head, and now there is some chance of getting it.”
“My dear Mr. Vane, what do you mean?” asked the lady, laughing.
“I came to study young faces; I want one for a picture, and that little girl with the red leaves is charming. Please present me.”
“No use; you may ask for her hand by-and-by, if you like, but not for her head. She is very proud, and never would consent to sit as a model, I’m sure.”
“I think I can manage it, if you will kindly give me a start.”
“Very well. The children are just going down to supper, and Miss Delano will rest. You can make your bold proposal now, if you dare.”
A moment later, as she stood watching the little ones troop away, Jessie found herself bowing to the tall gentleman, who begged to know what he could bring her with as much interest as if she had been the finest lady in the room. Of course she chose ice-cream, and slipped into a corner to rest her tired feet, preferring the deserted parlor to the noisy dining-room, — not being quite sure where she belonged now.
Mr. Vane brought her a salver full of the dainties girls best love, and drawing up a table began to eat and talk in such a simple, comfortable way that Jessie could not feel shy, but was soon quite at her ease. She knew that he was a famous artist, and longed to tell him about poor Laura, who admired his pictures so much and would have enjoyed every moment of this chance interview. He was not a very young man, nor a handsome one, but he had a genial face, and the friendly manners which are so charming; and in ten minutes Jessie was chatting freely, quite unconscious that the artist was studying her in a mirror all the while. They naturally talked of the children, and after praising the pretty dance Mr. Vane quietly added, —
“I’ve been trying to find a face among them for a picture I’m doing; but the little dears are all too young, and I must look elsewhere for a model for my wood-nymph.”
“Are models hard to find?” asked Jessie, eating her ice with the relish of a girl who does not often taste it.
“What I want is very hard to find. I can get plenty of beggar-girls, but this must be a refined face, young and blooming, but with poetry in it; and that does not come without a different training from any my usual models get. It will be difficult to suit me, for I’m in a hurry and don’t know where to look,” — which last sentence was not quite true, for the long glass showed him exactly what he wanted.
“I help Mademoiselle with her classes, and she has pupils of all ages; perhaps you could find some one there.”
Jessie looked so interested that the artist felt that he had begun well, and ventured a step further as he passed the cake-basket for the third time.
“You are very kind; but the trouble there is, that I fear none of the young ladies would consent to sit to me if I dared to ask them. I will confide to you that I have seen a head which quite suits me; but I fear I cannot get it. Give me your advice, please. Should you think this pretty creature would be offended, if I made the request most respectfully?”
“No, indeed; I should think she would be proud to help with one of your pictures, sir. My sister thinks they are very lovely; and we kept one of them when we had to sell all the rest,” said Jessie, in her eager, frank way.
“That was a beautiful compliment, and I am proud of it. Please tell her so, with my thanks. Which was it?”
“The woman’s head, — the sad, sweet one people call a Madonna. We call it Mother, and love it very much, for Laura says it is like our mother. I never saw her, but my sister remembers the dear face very well.”
Jessie’s eyes dropped, as if tears were near; and Mr. Vane said, in a voice which showed he understood and shared her feeling, —
“I am very glad that anything of mine has been a comfort to you. I thought of my own mother when I painted that picture years ago; so you see you read it truly, and gave it the right name. Now, about the other head; you think I may venture to propose the idea to its owner, do you?”
“Why not, sir? She would be very silly to refuse, I think.”
“Then you wouldn’t be offended if asked to sit in this way?”
“Oh, no. I’ve sat for Laura many a time, and she says I make a very good model. But then, she only paints simple little things that I am fit for.”
“That is just what I want to do. Would you mind asking the young lady for me? She is just behind you.”
Jessie turned with a start, wondering who had come in; but all she saw was her own curious face in the mirror, and Mr. Vane’s smiling one above it.
“Do you mean me?” she cried, so surprised and pleased and half ashamed that she could only blush and laugh and look prettier than ever.
“Indeed I do. Mrs. Murray thought the request would annoy you; but I fancied you would grant it, you wore such a graceful little garland, and seemed so interested in the pictures here.”
“It is only a bit of ivy, but so pretty I wanted to wear it, as I had nothing else,” said the girl, glad that her simple ornament found favor in such eyes.
“It is most artistic, and caught my eye at once. I said to myself, ‘That is the head I want, and I must secure it if possible.’ Can I?” asked Mr. Vane, smiling persuasively as he saw what a frank and artless young person he had to deal with.
“With pleasure, if Laura doesn’t mind. I’ll ask her, and if she is willing I shall be very proud to have even my wreath in a famous picture,” answered Jessie, so full of innocent delight at being thus honored that it was a pretty sight to see.
“A thousand thanks! Now I can exult over Mrs. Murray, and get my palette ready. When can we begin? As your sister is an invalid and cannot come to my studio with you, perhaps you will allow me to make my sketch at your own house,” said Mr. Vane, as pleased with his success as only a perplexed artist could be.
“Did Mrs. Murray tell you about us?” asked Jessie quickly, as her smiles faded away and the proud look came into her face; for she was sure their misfortunes were known, since he spoke of poor Laura’s health.
“A little,” began the new friend, with a sympathetic glance.
“I know models are paid for sitting; did you wish to do it with me because I’m poor?” asked Jessie, with an irrepressible frown and a glance at the thrice-cleaned dress and the neatly mended gloves.