IT was about eleven o’clock on Thanksgiving morning. Alice MacDonald stood in what she and Norah called “Sister Anne’s Tower,” surveying with satisfaction the drawing-room of their pretty little flat. It was this tower, which formed a round bay-window to each of the rooms on the corner of the Popover apartment-house which had attracted Mr. MacDonald and his daughters to that place of residence when they came to Baltimore in the autumn.
With one month’s experience and much trepidation, Alice was now preparing to give her first dinner-party.
It was to be a family affair—Mrs. Lawrence, their cousin, her two children, Mr. Lawrence and his brother George were the only guests. Not a formidable company, and yet for an eighteen-year-old housekeeper, fresh from the school-room, it had its terrors. Norah was two years older than Alice, but Norah was an artist, and Alice kept the house.
Their apartment was now in festal array. The table was set, and Norah had just been down to give final instructions to Mrs. Van, the janitor’s wife, who had been engaged to wait on the table. Every possible mischance had been provided against.
“Did you tell her not to open the door of the coal-closet when she clears the table?” Alice asked anxiously of Norah, who stood in the doorway, panting a little from the exertion of climbing four flights of stairs. “You can see right into it from where that dreadful George Lawrence is going to sit.”
“Yes,” said Norah; “but she is sure to forget it. She is unusually uplifted to-day. I know she is going to talk.”
“If she does,” answered Alice, “I shall die!”
“Nonsense!” said Norah. “What does it matter before a few relations?”
“Do you call George Lawrence a relation? And to think he has lived years and years in Paris! Such men always measure your mind on the scale of your dinner.”
“Well, dear,” called Norah, who was putting on her bonnet for an errand to the florist’s, “what better criterion could he have? You have devoted every faculty of both mind and body to this dinner for the last three weeks!”
“Go, Norah,” cried Alice, “go and get the flowers—you are perfectly unendurable to-day!”
Norah came leisurely along the passage, and stood in the doorway putting on her gloves.
“What a pity they only gave me four dollars for my menu cards at the Decorative Art! We might have had a rug for the front of that divan.”
“Well, perhaps you might get something with it as it is,” said Alice.
The florist’s was seven or eight blocks from the Popover. Her errand accomplished, Norah turned homeward by way of Howard Street, walking briskly to keep out the chill of the gray November morning. Thanksgiving was not very popular in that part of Baltimore, and most of the shops were open.
Suddenly she came to a standstill. Hanging on the railing above the basement room where old Madame Neski sold curiosities was a handsome gray fur rug, marked “400.”
“Is it four, forty, or four hundred?” questioned Norah, doubtfully. If it had been at a better shop, she would not have regarded forty dollars as a large price for so attractive a skin. A sense of duty impelled her to inquire.
The fat, elderly, foreign woman at the foot of the stone steps told her that the rug was “vort forty,” but she would take four dollars for it.
“Can you send it home?” asked Norah, eagerly.
Madame Neski could not send it, and what was worse, she had no paper to wrap it in but the “Sun paper” of the day before. Norah had a moment’s struggle, but a vision of the bare spot in front of the divan conquered. She decided to carry the beautiful rug home.
It was by no means a small parcel. It quickly began to grow in weight. The strings, clumsily tied, all slipped into one row, and locks of gray hair burst through the holes in the newspaper. People from church were beginning to fill the sidewalks on their way home to their Thanksgiving dinners.
“They will think I have been scalping my grandfather!” murmured poor Norah, flushed in the struggle with her unwieldy burden. “And oh, it is raining! How glad I am that we are from the North, and nobody knows us!”
Though she scarcely looked to right or left, Norah saw a tall, blonde-bearded man make an impulsive step forward, as if to offer his umbrella; but she shot past him, and was lost in the crowd.
Tired and flushed, but proud of her purchase, she came at last in sight of Sister Anne’s Tower, whence she knew that Alice was watching her, and presently she toiled up the stairs.
“What awful thing have you there?” said Alice.
“Wait, and you will see!”
With great dignity Norah led the way to the drawing-room; tearing off the “Sun paper,” now little more than a pulp, she spread the beautiful gray skin in front of the divan.
“Oh!” cried Alice, clasping her hands. “The rug of my dreams! But what extravagance!”
“It cost just four dollars!”
“Four dollars! Are you sure there is nothing wrong with it?”
“How exactly like you!” exclaimed Norah, impatiently. “Does it look as if anything were wrong with it?”
The two fell into silent contemplation.
“Don’t you think, Alice,” resumed Norah, in the subdued tones we use for foreign cathedrals, “that the effect would be better if we took the long Daghestan from the divan and put the new rug in its place?”
Alice nodded silently, and the change was effected.
“It is a picture!” said Norah. “It only needs your dull blue gown against the dark terra-cotta cushions.”
Alice sailed across the room and threw herself gracefully down, spreading out her long draperies and displaying one small, high-heeled, bronze-slippered foot. She leaned her pretty dark head on her hand, and rested her elbow deep in the thick gray fur. “Is that it?”
“Ye-es,” answered Norah, critically. “The pose is perhaps a little conscious, and—Oh. what is the matter?”
Alice had sprung up, ghastly pale, one hand held across her month and nose, the other extended, stiff and horror-stricken, at her side; all her blue gown was in a swirl about her feet, and there was absolutely no consciousness in the pose.
“Norah, don’t you see? It—it—smells! It’s a goatskin!”
“Nonsense!” said Norah. “It is only a little wet. Let us put it on the radiator and go and get some luncheon.”
Luncheon over, the two returned hopefully to the drawing-room.
“Good gracious!” cried Alice, “this is unspeakable!”
“Put it out of the window while we dress,” said Norah, hoping against hope. ‘‘Perhaps it only needs airing.” So out of the window it was hung, the sash being left raised to purify the atmosphere.
The girls were very deliberate over their toilets, and unusually silent.
“You go in first,” said Norah, as they stood doubtfully outside the drawing-room door.
“Go in yourself,” said Alice. “Did I buy a goatskin?”
Norah closed her eyes and drew aside the heavy portière. What a sight for Alice’s indignant eyes! The damp wind had blown the crisp, white curtains into limp rags. Pamphlets from the tables and sketches from the walls littered the floors; and over all, pervading all, reigned the odor of the goatskin.
“Shut the window!” cried Alice, clutching frantically at a table-cover which was preparing to fly off, “and take that thing away!”
Norah seized the skin and thrust it into the coal closet.
“If we could only put it all in!” she said, coming back to Alice, who was vainly trying to restore the room to its first dainty freshness; “but the strongest part of it remains behind.”
“What shall we do?” asked Alice, despairingly; but Norah only shook her head. “Couldn’t we fumigate?”
“What with?” asked Norah, dejectedly.
“With coffee, or burned sugar, or—O Norah, I have it! Let us burn some of that delightful incense Jack Lamb brought from Egypt!”
After a little search the incense was found, and a quantity of it, done up in paper, was placed upon the brass shovel. Norah set fire to the paper, and standing on an ottoman, began to wave it solemnly up and down.
“Wave harder, Norah!” cried Alice. “It only smolders; let me pour some more on.” She administered a strong dose as she spoke, while Norah waved with all the vigor she dared.
No one ever knew what was in that incense; for with a sudden, ominous crackle a bright flame shot up nearly to the ceiling, and the room filled rapidly with a thick, black smoke. Alice opened the window, and it poured out; but the fresh air fanned the blaze dangerously, and she closed the sash in terror. The room seemed full of fire.
All at once, tang, tang, tang! in the distance sounded the bell of a fire-engine.
“They have seen the smoke! Pull down the blinds!” cried Norah, in a dreadful fright. “They are coming nearer! Oh, that abominable goatskin! It is bewitched!”
“They can’t be coming here,” said Alice, irritably, doing as she was bid, however. “How that does blaze!”
Tang, tang, tang! came the fire-engine, nearer and nearer.
“They are coming here!” cried Norah. “Oh, what shall we do?”
Tang, tang, tang! rang the bell in their very ears. The two stood on either side of the flaming shovel, their eyes wide open with suspense.
“It is going by,” sighed Norah, with relief.
“No; it has stopped!” answered Alice, hysterically.
Tang, tang, tang! The engine rolled off around the corner, while the noise of the shouting rabble who followed it died in the distance.
After the conflagration was extinguished the windows were again opened to allow egress to the rolling, heavily-scented smoke, and the two girls flattered themselves that nothing that could be smelled remained in their apartment, unless it were too much of the odor of Egyptian sanctity. When Mr. MacDonald came in from down-town he said nothing about any odor, though he seemed to wear a somewhat perplexed look.
The dinner hour came, and the Lawrences. They were all seated at the table. Mrs. Van, the janitor’s wife, stood smiling behind Alice’s chair; the youngest Lawrence, a four-year-old boy, somewhat hard to manage, had been placed next to Norah, who was supposed to have an influence over him, and they ate oysters on the half-shell, unconscious of impending disaster.
Mrs. Van removed the plates. Just within the coal closet was a convenient shelf whereon, in spite of all injunctions, she chose to put the oyster dishes, in order not to encumber the already over-crowded kitchen. Norah, with a sinking heart, heard her open the door.
The soup came on; Alice’s perfect soup! They had had it eight times within two weeks. But with it came a whiff of—something else.
The youngest Lawrence began to show decided evidences of emotion. He sniffed, held his nose and was fiercely nodded at by his mother. Then he let go his nose, sniffed, and once more put his fingers to his face, only to be slyly shaken by his father, at which he broke into a cry.
“Oh,” he wailed, “I wish I didn’t have any nose.”
It was Mrs. Van’s opportunity to “talk.”
“I knew it would be so,” she said, in hushed but perfectly audible tones, addressing Norah from the other side of the table, “when I see you bringin’ it in. Where is it?”
Speechless, Norah nodded toward the coal closet.
“You needn’t feel bad about it,” said Mrs. Van, as she prepared to leave the room; “there ain’t a family in the Popover that hasn’t had it; until last week Van just said that nothin’ short of a twenty-dollar gold-piece would hire him to take that goatskin back to Ma’am Neski again!”
Silence fell upon the table, during which John Lawrence looked fixedly and significantly at his wife.
“Do not look at me that way,” she said, with a guilty little laugh. “I am not going to deny anything.”
“It is confession we want,” said her brother.
“Well, Norah,” said her cousin, “if it will be of any comfort to you, I don’t mind owning that we had that goatskin the day before yesterday!”
“I tried to warn you this morning,” said George Lawrence to Norah, “when I saw you hurrying along the street with it, but you shot by me so fast that I couldn’t get in a word.”
“She was not responsible,” said his sister; “that goatskin is bewitched.”
“What if it is!” said Mrs. Van, coming in cheerfully. “It’s down-cellar now, and nobody need worry about it any more!”
Alice survived the dinner, though she would not have deemed it possible if she could have foreseen its incidents. The next morning, with indignation still fresh, Norah resolved that Madame Neski should be brought to book. The goatskin was going back to her, and its equivalent in either goods or money was to be given for it. She had the skin brought up-stairs, well tied up, this time in something stronger than the Sun paper; and closely veiled, she sallied forth in the rain, holding her umbrella far down over her face.
At the corner another umbrella came gently in contact with her own.
“Let me carry him back for you,” said George Lawrence; and while she hesitated he took the bundle and walked on with her to Madame Neski’s.
There Norah effected what the old woman called an “exchange.” It was not an easy matter, and in spite of delicate reticence, George Lawrence’s presence enhanced the difficulty. The article fixed on was a round, fat, bluish-green jar. It was extremely awkward and difficult to carry when done up in paper, and with much inward trepidation on Norah’s part they turned their faces homeward.
“I know that Alice is watching from ‘Sister Anne’s tower!’” she exclaimed, as they came in sight of the Popover. “She will have made up her mind not to like it before I have come to the head of the stairs.”
“Are you sure you like it yourself?”
“Of course I am not! but then I can’t tell why, and Alice will know exactly why.”
Alice was standing at the door of the apartment. “Good morning,” she said, a little frigidly, to George Lawrence, plainly regarding his presence as an intrusion at a solemn moment.
“There, Alice,” said Norah, “you undo it. I haven’t the courage.”
Alice took the package and slowly unwound it, while George Lawrence wandered toward the window.
“Norah!” exclaimed Alice.
“Is it so bad?” queried Norah, meekly.
“Bad!” echoed Alice, “it is atrocious. I never saw anything quite so horrible in my life. And where could you put it? It is too big for a shelf, and it is certainly too little for the floor. And the color! What is there here that will harmonize with that? I was sure you had something horrid when I saw you down in the street.”
Norah was stunned, and George Lawrence had a severe attack of coughing.
“You never could manage those people, Norah! That old woman can cheat the eyes out of your head. Four dollars for that thing! You can get them for ninety cents at Posner’s.”
“I am sure, Alice, that you could not do a bit more with Madame Neski, especially when she saw how young you are.”
“Do I go about with my age pasted on my forehead?” interrupted Alice, indignantly. “I should take very good care that she did not see how young I was.”
“Come,” said George Lawrence, “come, Alice; I’ll carry the jar down for you, and you can go and settle with Madame Neski immediately.’’
Alice was very reluctant. “You may carry it to the corner,” she said at last; “but you must wait a few minutes for me to get ready. I shall dress especially for the occasion. Where is the key of the hair-trunk, Norah?”
Opening her eyes a little, Norah handed out the key. “Shall I help you?” she added.
“No, indeed,” said Alice.
In about fifteen minutes a small, prim woman entered the drawing-room. She wore a neat black-silk dress, simply made. A little mantle was stretched across her shoulders, and demurely crossed in front. Her bonnet was very plain, and her gloves short in the wrist; there were sensible shoes on her feet, and she carried a stout, well-made, black satchel in her hand. Her severe little mouth was turned rigidly down at the corners, and a pair of blue-black steel spectacles ornamented her straight little nose.
It was Alice! Approaching the mirror, she surveyed herself.
“Are we to laugh?” asked Norah, with a slight tremor in her voice.
“Just as you please,” answered Alice, haughtily. “Now, Norah, bring your monster.”
With admirable dignity she led the way down-stairs. They followed, feeling very young and small.
At the corner Alice took her bundle and went alone to Madame Neski’s shop. “I have brought back this jar,” she said, severely. “The young lady who was here this morning made a very unsuitable purchase.”
Madame Neski slowly bent her head twice, keeping her sharp black eyes fixed on the little person before her, and drawing in one corner of her mouth.
“I not vary fond of exchange,” she said, slowly; “peoples loses by it! You t’ink you daughter not like to keep it?”
Here was success with a vengeance. “My sister!” she corrected, a little hastily.
Madame Neski turned suddenly away. Alice wandered about the shop rejecting one thing after another. When she first entered the shop her eye had been caught by a small vase on a china tripod. The vase was decorated by the well-known pattern of the hundred wise men, and had a grotesque little cover. Alice flattered herself that she had displayed a remarkably diplomatic indifference in regard to it. She conscientiously priced everything around it. “How much is this?” she asked at last, elaborately careless.
“It’s pritty, isn’t it?” said Madame Neski, “I don’t care about sellin’ dat. Dey gittin’ so rare. In t’ree year it’ll be wort’ twice as muches as now; dey stop makin’ dose hundred wise men.”
“But how much is it worth now?”
“Oh, I don’t care about sellin’ it!” repeated Madame Neski, moving away. “I put it at fifteen dollar to keep peoples off. If I hold on I get fifty, one of dese days. Dey only made for de royal families.”
Alice set it down. “I should never give fifteen dollars for it,” she murmured, then picked it up again. “Madame Neski!” she called with a lively renewal of interest. “Here is a wise man without a head; you can’t mean to charge fifteen dollars for a defective piece?”
Alice secured the vase of the wise men in exchange for the other, and took it home with a great deal of satisfaction.
“De little one! She frightened me out o’ my wits for a minute,” said Madame Neski, when Mrs. Van dropped in the next day. “She look like she was her own grandmoder; but I give away ten hundred wise men rader dan miss it.”
And then she winked very slyly at Mrs. Van, who was an old acquaintance.
“The Gray Fur Rug” by Mary Tappan Wright was originally published in
The Youth’s Companion no. 3470, Nov. 23, 1893; reprinted in
Beginning Alone, and Other Stories by Mary Tappan Wright, edited by Brian Kunde, Mountain House,
Fleabonnet Press, 2008.
The work of Mary Tappan Wright here reproduced is in the public domain. All other material in this edition is
©2008-2009 by Brian Kunde.