The Balsam Fir

Mary E. Wilkins (Freeman)

From Six Trees (Harper & Brothers; New York: 1903)

Martha Elder had lived alone for years on Amesboro road, a mile from the nearest neighbor, three miles from the village. She lived in the low cottage which her grandfather had built. It was painted white, and there was a green trellis over the front door shaded by a beautiful rose-vine. Martha had very little money, but somehow she always managed to keep her house in good order, though she had never had any blinds. It had always been the dream of Martha's life to have blinds; her mild blue eyes were very sensitive to the glare of strong sunlight, and the house faced west. Sometimes of a summer afternoon Martha waxed fairly rebellious because of her lack of green blinds to soften the ardent glare. She had green curtains, but they flapped in the wind and made her nervous, and she could not have them drawn.

Blinds were not the only things which aroused in Martha Elder a no less strong, though unexpressed, spirit of rebellion against the smallness of her dole of the good things of life. Nobody had ever heard this tall, fair, gentle woman utter one word of complaint. She spoke and moved with mild grace. The sweetest acquiescence seemed evident in her every attitude of body and tone of voice. People said that Martha Elder was an old maid, that she was all alone in the world, that she had a hard time to get along and keep out of the poor-house, but that she was perfectly contented and happy. But people did not know; she had her closets of passionate solitude to which they did not penetrate. When her sister Adeline, ten years after her father's death, had married the man who everybody had thought would marry Martha, she had made a pretty wedding for her, and people had said Martha did not care, after all; that she was cut out for an old maid; that she did not want to marry. Nobody knew, not her sister, not even the man himself, who had really given her reason to blame him, how she felt. She was encased in an armor of womanly pride as impenetrable as a coat of mail; it was proof against everything except the arrows of agony of her own secret longings.

Martha had been a very pretty girl, much prettier than her younger sister Adeline; it was strange that she had not been preferred; it was strange that she had not had suitors in plenty; but there may have been something about the very fineness of her femininity and its perfection which made it repellent. Adeline, with her coarse bloom and loud laugh and ready stare, had always had admirers by the score, while Martha, who was really exquisite, used to go to bed and lie awake listening to the murmur of voices under the green trellis of the front door, until the man who married her sister came. Then for a brief space his affections did verge towards Martha; he said various things to her in a voice whose cadences ever after made her music of life; he looked at her with an expression which became photographed, as by some law of love instead of light, on her heart. Then Adeline, exuberant with passion, incredulous that he could turn to her sister instead of herself, won him away by her strong pull upon the earthy part of him. Martha had not dreamed of contesting the matter, of making a fight for the man whom she loved. She yielded at once with her pride so exquisite that it seemed like meekness.

When Adeline went away, she settled down at once into her solitary old-maiden estate, although she was still comparatively young. She had her little ancestral house, her small vegetable garden, a tiny wood-lot from which she hired enough wood cut to supply her needs, and a very small sum of money in the bank, enough to pay her taxes and insurance, and not much besides. She had a few hens, and lived mostly on eggs and vegetables; as for her clothes, she never wore them out; she moved about softly and carefully, and never frayed the hems of her gowns, nor rubbed her elbows; and as for soil, no mortal had ever seen a speck of grime upon Martha Elder or her raiment. She seemed to pick her spotless way through life like a white dove. There was a story that Martha once wore a white dress all one summer, keeping it immaculate without washing, and it seemed quite possible. When she walked abroad she held her dress skirt at an unvarying height of modest neatness revealing snowy starched petticoats and delicate ankles in white stockings. She might have been painted as a type of elderly maiden peace and pure serenity by an artist who could see only externals. But it was very different with her from what people thought. Nobody dreamed of the fierce tension of her nerves as she sat at her window sewing through the long summer afternoons, drawing her monotonous thread in and out of dainty seams; nobody dreamed what revolt that little cottage roof, when it was covered with wintry snows, sometimes sheltered. When Martha's sister came home with her husband and beautiful first baby to visit her, her smiling calm of welcome was inimitable.

“Martha never did say much,” Adeline told her husband, when they were in their room at night. “She didn't exclaim even over the baby.” As she spoke she looked gloatingly at his rosy curves as he lay asleep. “Martha's an old maid if there ever was one,” she added.

“It's queer, for she's pretty,” said her husband.

“I don't call her pretty,” said Adeline; “not a mite of color.” She glanced at her high bloom and tossing black mane of hair in the mirror.

“Yes, that's so,” agreed Adeline's husband. Still, sometimes he used to look at Martha with the old expression, unconsciously, even before his wife, but Martha never recognized it for the same. When he had married her sister he had established between himself and her such a veil of principle that her eyes never after could catch the true meaning of him. Yet nobody knew how glad she was when this little family outside her pale of life had gone, and she could settle back unmolested into her own tracks, which were apparently those of peace, but in reality those of a caged panther. There was a strip of carpet worn threadbare in the sitting-room by Martha's pacing up and down. At last she had to take out that breadth and place it next the wall, and replace it.

People wondered why, with all Martha's sweetness and serenity, she had not professed religion and united with the church. When the minister came to talk with her about it he was non-plussed. She said, with an innocent readiness which abashed him, that she believed in the Christian religion, and trusted that she loved God; then it was as if she folded wings of concealment over her maiden character, and he could see no more.

It was at last another woman to whom she unbosomed herself, and she was a safe confidante; no safer could have been chosen. She was a far-removed cousin, and stone-deaf from scarlet fever when she was a baby. She was a woman older than Martha, and had come to make her a visit. She lived with a married sister, to whom she was a burden, and who was glad to be rid of her for a few weeks. She could not hear one word that was spoken to her; she could only distinguish language uncertainly from the motion of the lips. She was absolutely penniless, except for a little which she earned by knitting cotton lace. To this woman Martha laid bare her soul the day before Christmas, as the two sat by the western windows, one knitting, the other darning a pair of white stockings.

“To-morrow's Christmas,” said the deaf woman, suddenly, in her strange, unmodulated voice. She had a flat, pale face, with smooth loops of blond hair around the temples.

Martha said, “It ain't much Christmas to me.”

“What?” returned the deaf woman.

“It ain't much Christmas to me,” repeated Martha. She did not raise her voice in the least, and she moved her lips very little. Speech never disturbed the sweet serenity of her mouth. The deaf woman did not catch a word, but she was always sensitive about asking over for the second time. She knitted and acted as if she understood.

“No, it ain't much Christmas to me, and it never has been,” said Martha. “I 'ain't never felt as if I had had any Christmas, for my part. I don't know where it has come in if I have. I never had a Christmas present in my whole life, unless I count in that purple crocheted shawl that Adeline gave me, that somebody gave her, and she couldn't wear, because it wasn't becomin'. I never thought much of it myself. Purple never suited me, either. That was the only Christmas present I ever had. That came a week after Christmas, ten year ago, and I suppose I might count that in. I kept it laid away, and the moths got into it.”

“What?” said the deaf woman.

“The moths got into it,” said Martha.

The deaf woman nodded wisely and knitted.

“Christmas!” said Martha, with a scorn at once pathetic and bitter — “talk about Christmas! What is Christmas to a woman all alone in the world as I am? If you want to see the loneliest thing in all creation, look at a woman all alone in the world. Adeline is twenty-five miles away, and she's got her family. I'm all alone. I might as well be at the north pole. What's Christmas to a woman without children, or any other women to think about, livin' with her? If I had any money to give it might be different. I might find folks to give to — other folk's children; but I 'ain't got any money. I've got nothing. I can't give any Christmas presents myself, and I can't have any. Lord! Talk about Christmas to me! I can't help if I am wicked. I'm sick and tired of livin'. I have been for some time.” Just then a farmer's team loaded with evergreens surmounted with merry boys went by, and she pointed tragically; and the deaf woman's eyes followed her pointing finger, and suddenly her great, smiling face changed. “There they go with Christmas-trees for other women,” said Martha; “for women who have got what I haven't. I never had a Christmas-tree. I never had a Christmas. The Lord never gave me one. I want one Christmas before I die. I've got a right to it. I want one Christmas-tree and one Christmas.” Her voice rose to daring impetus; the deaf woman looked at her curiously.

“What?” said she.

“I want one Christmas,” said Martha. Still the deaf woman did not hear, but suddenly the calm of her face broke up; she began to weep. It was as if she understood the other's mood by some subtler faculty than that of hearing. “Christmas is a pretty sad day to me,” said she, “ever since poor mother died. I always realize more than any other time how alone I be, and how my room would be better than my company, and I don't ever have any presents. And I can't give any. I give all my knittin' money to Jane for my board, and that ain't near enough. Oh, Lord! it's a hard world!”

“I want one Christmas, and one Christmas-tree,” said Martha, in a singular tone, almost as if she were demanding it of some unseen power.

“What?” said the deaf woman.

“I want one Christmas, and one Christmas-tree,” repeated Martha.

The deaf woman nodded and knitted, after wiping her eyes. Her face was still quivering with repressed emotion.

Martha rose. “Well, there's no use talkin',” said she, in a hard voice; “folks can take what they get in this world, not what they want, I s'pose.” Her face softened a little as she looked at the deaf woman. “I guess I'll make some toast for supper; there's enough milk,” said she.

“What?” said the deaf woman.

Martha put her lips close to her ear, and shouted, “I guess I'll make some toast for supper.” The deaf woman caught the word toast, and smiled happily, with a sniff of retreating grief; she was very fond of toast. “Jane 'most never has it,” said she. As she sat there beside the window, she presently smelled the odor of toast coming in from the kitchen; then it began to snow. The snow fell in great, damp blobs, coating all the trees thickly. When Martha entered the sitting-room to get a dish from the china-closet the deaf woman pointed, and said it was snowing.

“Yes, I see it is,” replied Martha. “Well, it can snow, for all me. I 'ain't got any Christmas-tree to go to to-night.”

As she spoke, both she and the deaf woman, looking out of the window, noted the splendid fir-balsam opposite, and at the same time a man with an axe, preparing to cut it down.

“Why, that man's goin' to cut down that tree! Ain't it on your land?” cried the deaf woman.

Martha shrieked and ran out of the house, bareheaded in the dense fall of snow. She caught hold of the man's arm, and he turned and looked at her with a sort of stolid surprise fast strengthening into obstinacy. “What you cuttin' down this tree for?” asked Martha.

The man muttered that he had been sent for one for Lawyer Ede.

“Well, you can't have mine,” said Martha. “This ain't Lawyer Ede's land. His is on the other side of the fence. There are trees plenty good enough over there. You let mine be.”

The man's arm which held the axe twitched. Suddenly Martha snatched it away by such an unexpected motion that he yielded. Then she was mistress of the situation. She stood before the tree, brandishing the axe. “If you dare to come one step nearer my tree, I'll kill you,” said she. The man paled. He was a stolid farmer, unused to women like her, or, rather, unused to such developments in women like her. “Give me that axe,” he said.

“I'll give you that axe if you promise to cut down one of Lawyer Ede's trees, and let mine be!”

“All right,” assented the man, sulkily.

“You go over the wall, then, and I'll hand you the axe.”

The man, with a shuffling of reluctant yielding, approached the wall and climbed over. Then Martha yielded up the axe. Then she stationed herself in front of her tree, to make sure that it was not harmed. The snow fell thick and fast on her uncovered head, but she did not mind. She remembered how once the man who had married her sister had said something to her beside this tree, when it was young like herself. She remembered long summer afternoons of her youth looking out upon it. Her old dreams and hopes of youth seemed still abiding beneath it, greeting her like old friends. She felt that she would have been killed herself rather than have the tree harmed. The soothing fragrance of it came in her face. She felt suddenly as if the tree were alive. A great, protecting tenderness for it came over her. She began to hear axe strokes on the other side of the wall. Then the deaf woman came to the door of the house, and stood there staring at her through the damp veil of snow. “You'll get your death out there, Marthy,” she called out.

“No, I won't,” replied Martha, knowing as she spoke that she was not heard.

“What be you stayin' out there for?” called the deaf woman, in an alarmed voice. Martha made no reply.

Presently the woman came out through the snow; she paused before she reached her; it was quite evident what she feared even before she spoke. “Be you crazy?” asked she.

“I'm going to see to it that John Page don't cut down this tree,” replied Martha. “I know how set the Pages are.” The deaf woman stared helplessly at her, not hearing a word.

Then John Page came to the wall. “Look at here,” he called out. “I ain't goin' to tech your tree. I thought it was on Ede's land. I'm cuttin' down another.”

“You mind you don't,” responded Martha, and she hardly knew her voice. When John Page went home that night he told his wife that he'd “never known that Martha Elder was such an up and comin' woman. Deliver me from dealin' with old maids,” said he; “they're worse than barbed wire.”

The snow continued until midnight, then the rain set in, then it cleared and froze. When the sun rose next morning everything was coated with ice. The fir-balsam was transfigured, wonderful. Every little twig glittered as with the glitter of precious stones, the branches spread low in rainbow radiances. Martha and the deaf woman stood at the sitting-room window looking out at it. Martha's face changed as she looked. She put her face close to the other woman's ear and shouted: “Look here, Abby, you ain't any too happy with Jane; you stay here with me this winter. I'm lonesome, and we'll get along somehow.” The deaf woman heard her, and a great light came into her flat countenance.

“Stay with you?”

Martha nodded.

“I earn enough to pay for the flour and sugar,” said she, eagerly, “and you've got vegetables in the cellar, and I don't want another thing to eat, and I'll do all the work if you'll let me, Marthy.”

“I'll be glad to have you stay,” said Martha, with the eagerness of one who grasps at a treasure.

“Do you mean you want me to stay?” asked the deaf woman, wistfully, still fearing that she had not heard aright. Martha nodded.

“I'll go out in the kitchen and make some of them biscuit I used to make for breakfast,” said the deaf woman. “God bless you, Marthy!”

Martha stood staring at the glorified fir-balsam. All at once it seemed to her that she saw herself, as she was in her youth, under it. Old possessions filled her soul with rapture, and the conviction of her inalienable birthright of the happiness of life was upon her. She also seemed to see all the joys which she had possessed or longed for in the radius of its radiance; its boughs seemed overladen with fulfillment and promise, and a truth came to her for the great Christmas present of her life. She became sure that whatever happiness God gives He never retakes, and, moreover, that He holds ready the food for all longing, that one cannot exist without the other.

“Whatever I've ever had that I loved I've got,” said Martha Elder, “and whatever I've wanted I'm goin' to have.” Then she turned around and went out in the kitchen to help about breakfast, and the dazzle of the Christmas-tree was so great in her eyes that she was almost blinded to all the sordid conditions of her daily life.