Mary E. Wilkins

From Understudies (Harper & Brothers; New York: 1901)

Gayly above the tangled spangle of the old-fashioned garden waved the prince's-feather. It waved with a curious lack of yielding and pliability to the soft insinuations of the breeze, and seemed to remain long in its rigid incline, almost as if the flower had been carven in rosy stone blown before some wind of the imagination. The prince's-feather belonged to the order of amaranthine flowers which resist complete decay, being armed against it like porcupines with stiff panoplies of spikes.

One coming down the street, peering over the garden-hedge of the Holding place, saw always first the prince's-feather. There were fairer and sweeter flowers, but that came first in evidence, thrusting itself like a trumpet call of color above the mignonette, the sweet alyssum, the pinks, and the rest. Even the tall hollyhocks, being retired against the house wall, were eclipsed. The prince's-feather seemed to overcap and lead the floral riot of midsummer with a harmless and worthless, but unrivalled show and daring.

The garden was in a hollow at the right of the Holding house, which was very old, but had lately been improved and rejuvenated until it seemed disrespectful, to either its age or its youth, to remember its old corner-stones and sills, the drunken leanings and waverings of its doors and windows, the undulations of its floors, and the settling and shortening of its central chimney like some aged man whose stature has decreased by years. Eugene Holding had suddenly become rich, and had restored the old place, throwing out, like ostentatious excrescences of a new growth, porticos, bay-windows, and even a tower crowned with a cupola on the corner towards the village square.

Eugene was very young when he came home from the city where he had been employed, working his way up — for the fortunes of the family were at the lowest ebb — in a great machine factory owned by a distant kinsman of his mother. Immediately after he had arrived, the news spread that he had come into such a fortune that the working up was unnecessary, since the height was gained.

One evening in May, at sundown, young Eugene came riding into town on the driver's seat of the stage-coach which plied between the village and the nearest railroad centre. Instead of the little hair-cloth trunk, like some small animal of an extinct species, with which he had gone away, two modern affairs of smooth leather were strapped on behind. As for Eugene himself, he was radiant, fairly resplendent. He sat beside the driver, and, although the other man was over the average size, he seemed to be head and shoulders above him. He looked abroad with a gay confidence in admiration which compelled it. His handsome face was delicately pink and white, with a daintily curving golden mustache. His close crop of curly golden hair was exposed, for he was constantly waving his hat to people on the road. They returned his salutations with the surly abashedness of the rustic, then stood back and stared and stared again. “Who was that?” one said to another. “It wasn't Eugene Holding. Why, he's workin' in Philadelphia. He can't be home this time of year, and all dressed up that way.” The hue of Eugene's coat had struck awe and disapproval to the hearts of the men. There was no other coat of that color in the village.

Before sundown the next day Eugene's mother had told the news to Mrs. William Holmes and to Mrs. Catherine Woods, and they did the rest. The whole village knew, as by a flash of simultaneous intelligence, that Eugene Holding had made money and had come home rich. “He will not need to do anything more as long as he lives,” said Eugene's mother. She had a face harsh in color and outline, yet, curiously enough, exceedingly gentle in expression; she was slender and tall, with a settled stoop which was not ungraceful, being lateral. One meeting Mrs. Holding thought involuntarily of a strong starboard wind, and realized dimly an incongruity between her attitude of body and her motionless skirts. Mrs. Holding was unusually precise as to her choice of language, being punctilious as to her will nots and shall nots, and disdaining contractions. People in consequence called her affected. They were inwardly resentful and skeptical when they saw her triumph over her son. “How did he make his money?” asked Mrs. William Holmes, with a cold stare, though she widened her mouth in a smile of congratulation.

“My son has been exceedingly fortunate in a business venture, and he will not need to lift his finger again unless he wants to,” said Mrs. Holding, adjusting a lacy crocheted hood which she wore over her head.

“How did you say he made it?” repeated the other woman.

“By a fortunate business measure,” replied Mrs. Holding.

“Seems to me Eugene is pretty young to make such fortunate business ventures,” said Mrs. Holmes. “How did you say he made his money?”

“By a fortunate business venture,” said Mrs. Holding.

That was all she ever would say, and Eugene, in spite of his aggressiveness of frankness, was no more communicative as to the source of his wealth, about which there seemed to be no doubt. He commenced immediately to improve his house, and he purchased a fine horse and carriage. It was an imposing spectacle when Eugene drove forth in the cool of a summer evening, at first with his mother resplendent in a new silk, a beflowered bonnet, and a jetted mantle, by his side, and, later on, Camilla Rose.

Camilla Rose's father had been the richest man in the village; she had money in her own right, and had “enjoyed advantages,” as the neighbors put it. “Good reason why Camilla Rose can look so nice and appear so pretty,” said they. “She ought to; she's been to boarding-school, and she's travelled in Europe.” They were enviously acquiescent when she and Eugene began to be seen in each other's company. “Birds of a feather flock together,” said they. “Of course, now Eugene has got money, Camilla will think he's beautiful. The Roses always had an eye for money. Besides, his family counts for something. The Holdings and the Roses always held their heads above common folks.” This Camilla Rose was a tall, brown-eyed girl, with a pouting redness of lips, and a reluctant smile, which gathered charm from its reluctance. Whoever made Camilla smile at him was conscious of a distinct victory. Camilla smiled upon Eugene rarely, yet often enough to keep alive in him a supporting sense of encouragement.

However, it would not have been easy for her to have discouraged Eugene Holding. Anything like the joyful sanguinity of this young fellow was seldom seen. He seemed furnished by nature with some armor of the spirit which rendered him impervious to slight and repulse. His mother was proud of this peculiarity in her son. “If anybody has ever said no to Eugene, he has gone right ahead and acted as if he had said yes,” said she. “Then there is another thing about Eugene — if ever he has been so situated that he could not have something that he set his heart upon, another would do just as well, and he never seemed to know that he had not got what he wanted. I remember once when he had been longing for a new jack-knife, somebody gave him a top instead, and he went right to spinning it, and never seemed to know he was not whittling. I never heard him mention the knife again. Eugene always gets ahead of his happenings, and he always will. Nothing that can ever happen on this earth is going to conquer him. He is bound to be in the lead of his fate.” Mrs. Holding was something of a philosopher, and talked sometimes beyond her neighbors. That and her precise English caused them to regard her half with admiration, half with the defensive ridicule of inferiority. They regarded Eugene in something of the same fashion. “He ain't so smart, for all he cuts such a dash,” said they. “His mother needn't think he is; he ain't.” They looked at him as he drove by, or walked with a gentle swagger, and a jaunty swing of a slender cane, and frequent flourishes of his silk hat, yet, after all, they felt a certain admiration and liking for him. It was impossible not to like Eugene Holding. His utter confidence of approval commanded it. One would have been a churl not to smile back at this forever-smiling young man, not to return with some cordiality his imperious, but wholly charming, even affectionate, salutation. “Eugene Holding acts as if he was the lord of all creation,” said they, yet with a certain self-gratulation at having been so genially accosted by one of such high pretensions.

Eugene and Camilla were such a handsome couple that they were a delight to the eye when they were seen driving together. Eugene was taller than the girl; his golden curly head gleamed beside her brown one. Camilla's beautiful face was shaded by a great cloud of brown curls, and a blue feather floated from her Leghorn hat. She was as pleasantly conscious of the people whom they met, and their admiration, as she was of the young man at her side.

Eugene thought Camilla perfection. He adored her beauty, yet the memory of it never dimmed for a moment the image of his own face in the mirror. He always saw her pretty gowns and hats, and the sight sent his consideration with the swift recoil of vanity to his own apparel.

Eugene hurried forward the improvements on his house; they were completed in July, and he and Camilla were to be married the first of August. The villagers passing the renovated house used to turn back and stare, and that made Eugene and his mother, sitting on their new porch, proudly conscious.

Eugene took an especial delight in the little cupola which crowned the tower. The cupola was purely ornamental, and the roof was painted a bright crimson color, not unlike that of the prince's-feather in the garden. Indeed, it might have been unconsciously suggested by it. Eugene used to stand out in the front yard and stare happily at this brilliant cupola.

“Your new cupola looks very gay,” said Camilla's mother to Mrs. Holding one afternoon as the two ladies sat on the porch. She did not speak critically; that was not her way. She simply mentioned facts, and left her hearers to deduce disparagement or flattery as they chose. Mrs. Holding, like her son, generally deduced flattery. “Yes, it is a beautiful color,” said she. “Eugene has always been so fond of bright colors.”

As she spoke Eugene and Camilla came across the yard on their way from the garden, and Eugene had a sprig of prince's-feather waving against the lapel of his coat. He had also stuck a great spike of it like a plume in Camilla's curls.

As the two neared the porch Camilla reached up her hand and pulled out the prince's-feather and flung it away. “I never liked that flower,” she remarked.

“It is the prettiest flower in the garden,” declared Eugene, but he only laughed at her scorn of it, and flung an arm around the girl's waist, and they came thus towards the two mothers. There was a strong south wind blowing, and the two tall figures stiffened themselves against it. Camilla seemed in a whirlwind of white flounces and ribbons, out of which her beautiful face looked with unsmiling complacency, which was, in effect, a smile at herself. Eugene had just given her some diamond ear-drops, which glittered through her curls; she had everything which she wanted; a measureless satisfaction with herself, the whole world, and the Providence which had created her was over the girl, and no less over the young man. Both of them looked invincible by any fate. They had the mien of conquerors as they came across the yard, with the two elders watching them, the one with perfect accord, the other with pride and delight, yet with bewilderment. Camilla's mother was sometimes bewildered almost to the point of fear by her daughter. She herself had never been capable of such a haughty confidence in the good-will of Providence, but was rather prepared for a sanctified and gentle acquiescence towards hard usage on its part. Mrs. Holding realized dimly that Camilla had an almost contemptuous, and her lover a joyfully imperious, incredulity that the tree of life could grow anything but plums for them, and she herself was conscious of a guilty wonder if it would not be unworthy so to do, in the face of such superb confidence.

Mrs. Holding, while she had the greatest pride in Camilla, yet felt herself more in sympathy with her younger daughter Jane, although she had a peevish temper, and was semi-crippled. One of Jane's limbs was shorter than the other, and she limped about with a painful absurdity of gait, which tortured her soul even more than her body. Jane would never walk beside Camilla. She used to watch her sister set out to drive with her handsome lover, as some utterly irredeemable Cinderella might have done. It did not seem as if existence could ever hold glass slippers and a gold coach for her, least of all a prince; but such things are always unexpected, and her day came, though in what might have seemed a half-hearted and second-rate sort of fashion. The week before Eugene and Camilla were to be married, the young man came to visit his sweetheart one evening, and he was gayer and more unconcerned than ever. They went to drive, and it was like a triumphal progress. Eugene bowed to every one with that charming, almost royal, assurance of conferring a favor and a grace. Camilla sat beside him like a queen. It was not until they reached her gate on their return that he told her the news, laughing as he did so, as if it were the pleasantest thing in the world. “The mine has gone to pieces,” said he, easily.

“What mine?” asked Camilla, in bewilderment. “What do you mean?”

“The mine has gone to pieces, or, rather, there isn't any mine. There never was. Isn't it a joke, eh?”

“What mine?”

“The one I put the little money we had left in,” said Eugene, smiling. “That was how I got my money, you know, or, rather, my prospects. I never got much money, but nobody ever had such prospects. Why, Camilla, we might have had the earth. Never was such a mine as they made that out to be.”

Camilla had turned very pale. “What do you mean?” she said, slowly. “Haven't you got any money, Eugene?”

“Not a dollar,” he returned, laughing; “had two big dividends, and paid for the cupola and things, and mother's clothes and mine, and your diamonds — that's all. Not a dollar left. I didn't tell you what my money was in, you know, because the prospects were so big. I wanted to surprise you. Never were such prospects. Camilla, you ought to have seen the diamond brooch I was looking at for you last week.”

“Are you going to work in your old place again?” asked Camilla, in a queer voice.

“Oh no,” Eugene replied, cheerfully. “I am going to stay on here, and raise early vegetables. I think I can make a good thing with early vegetables. I dare say you'll get that brooch before the year is out, after all, Camilla.”

“You don't expect to marry me next week?” she said.

“Why — why not?” cried Eugene, not with dismay, but a merry, childlike incredulousness that she could mean what she said.

Camilla said no more. She motioned to get out of the carriage, and Eugene sprang out to assist her. He caught her in his arms and kissed her. “Good-night,” he called after her as she went up the path. “I'll be around to-morrow night.” Then he drove away, and his merry whistle floated back above the rattle of the wheels and the tap of the horse's hoofs.

The next evening, when Eugene came to take Camilla driving, she did not meet him at the door as usual, all ready in her pretty gown and hat.

He sat waiting, several people passed, and he saluted them in his ordinary manner, and they returned it and went on whispering. They had heard the news that he had lost his money — that he had never had any money. He had been more confidential over his loss than over his acquisition. He had told everybody at length all the details of the spurious mining venture, and had not a word of reproach for those who had deceived him. On the contrary, he seemed to feel nothing but gratitude.

“They told me there was a wonderful prospect ahead, and so there was,” said he. Then he would add that if it had not been for that he might have worked in a factory all his days, and never been led to think of raising early vegetables, in which scheme he had even more confidence than he ever had in the mine. He had in his pockets some packages of seeds which he had purchased that afternoon, though he could not plant them until the next spring. He took them out and examined them delightedly as he waited. He had brought them to show to Camilla.

But Camilla did not appear. He was just about to get out and go to the door when it opened, and the younger sister Jane stood there. “Hello, Jane,” Eugene called out. “Tell Camilla to hurry. Dick doesn't like to stand. The flies plague him.”

Jane did not answer, but came painfully limping out to the carriage. Then she spoke, looking at him with terror and distress, and something else, which was adoration, but he did not know it.

“Camilla isn't going to drive with you, Eugene,” said she.

“Isn't going to drive with me? Why not? Why, what makes you look so pale, Jane? Are you sick?”

“No. Camilla isn't going to drive with you, Eugene.”

“Is she sick?”

“No, she isn't sick. She isn't going to drive with you.”

“Why not?” Eugene stared. Suddenly he fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a little pink note. “See here,” he cried, “I had this letter from Camilla, but I didn't dream she meant it. She didn't mean it, did she?”

Jane's face quivered a little, though her eyes were hard. “Yes, she did,” said she. “Camilla has always meant it, if she is my sister.”

“She meant it?” repeated Eugene, incredulously. “Why, I never dreamed it. She says,” he continued, eying the letter, “that she can't marry me on account of the change in my prospects. Why, my prospects haven't changed! She says she feels that she is not suited to be the wife of a poor man. Why, I am not a poor man, and my prospects haven't changed! Say, Jane, did she tell you about the early vegetables?”

Jane did not reply to that. She only repeated, in a sort of mechanical fashion, “Camilla isn't going to drive with you.”

“Oh, nonsense!” cried Eugene; “of course she is. Go in and tell her, that's a good girl, Jane. Tell her I want to show her the seeds I've got. I guess she won't think my prospects have changed, then. Go in and tell her, Jane, do.”

“I can't,” said Jane, half angrily, half piteously. Her little face was a study of conflicting emotions.

“Well, then,” said Eugene, good-humoredly, “I must go in and fetch her myself. Stand by the horse a minute, will you, Jane?”

Jane threw up her hand to stop him. “No,” she cried out. “No, no! It's no use! Oh, it isn't any use, Eugene!”

Eugene stared at her. “Why isn't it any use? Of course she 'll go. It'll be all right when I tell her.”

“Camilla isn't at home,” faltered Jane.

“Camilla isn't at home?”

“No, she has gone to Boston. She went over to Barnstable to get the noon train.” With that Jane began crying.

Eugene was silent for a minute. His bright face had the obscured look of a flower when the shadow of a cloud passes over it, but it soon cleared. He looked at Camilla's sister, who stood before him, balancing herself painfully on her unequal limbs, trying to control her tears, and he laughed with his unconquerable gayety and good humor.

“Oh, well,” said Eugene, “if Camilla has gone to Boston, she has lost a fine drive, and why don't you go instead, Jane?”


“Yes, why not? Run and put on your hat, for the horse doesn't like to stand. The flies plague him.”

When people saw Eugene Holding driving with Jane Rose instead of her sister, they could not credit their own eyes. Indeed, several were always incredulous, and believed it to have been Camilla, and the plain girl attired in a hat and gown like her beautiful sister's did bear at a distance a curious resemblance to her. It was the same resemblance which a misshapen flower bears to another of the same family. They skimmed along the smooth country road.

Suddenly Eugene cast a startled look at his companion. “Why, you look like Camilla, Jane!” he cried. “I declare you do. Did any one ever tell you so?”

“No,” gasped Jane.

“Well, you do,” said Eugene, “and I declare, Jane, you look more like her than you did when I spoke first. I want to show you these seeds I have got. It's odd that Camilla should have thought I have lost my prospects.”

To this poor little Jane the prospect of a crown and a throne would have been as nothing beside the fact of the prince. Eugene married Jane the 1st of September. In the mean time Camilla returned from Boston betrothed to another man. She had always more than one string to her bow. Eugene heard the news with a face which defied the scrutiny of even Jane's jealous eyes. He did not shun Camilla at all; he even jested about her engagement and his own.

“You would not have me, Camilla,” he said, “because you thought my prospects were changed. You were wrong as to that, for my prospects are not changed; they are better than ever. But that has nothing to do with it. We are both suited, after all. I hear you will have a fine husband, and as for me, I'm going to be in your family, just the same. I've got your sister, and she's a darling. I never dreamed what a darling she was, and I would never have known if it hadn't been for you. She is going to make me a wonderful wife, and she looks like you.”

Camilla stared at him, but he smiled back at her. He was speaking from the depths of his impregnable and innocently unconscious egotism, which surpassed her own, and she felt herself overmatched.

Later on Eugene's wife became an invalid. Her peevishness increased, and even love and happiness could not transform her. Eugene would have led a sorry life with her had he known it, but he never did. He firmly believed that he had the loveliest and most amiable wife in the world. His vegetable scheme failed; then he tried bees, then small fruits. Everything failed except his hope and faith in himself and his future success. That never for a moment failed him. There was something splendid about the man. He became, as it were, a very Napoleon of his own fortunes. Nothing in the hand of fate could daunt him. He was invulnerable to circumstances, half laughed at, half admired by all who knew him. His mother died, his means decreased, he often went without the necessaries of life, his house, which he had so improved, became a shabby travesty on his former fortunes, he grew old, but new mountain-tops of hope never failed to enliven his failing eyes and encourage his faltering feet.

The garden at the right of the Holding house grew old, unplanted, and untended, but the prince's-feather never failed to come to the front, proudly waving in all its first splendor above the disordered hosts of flowers and weeds. And always to the front in the unfailing spring of all his winters of defeat pressed the man, raising aloft his shining head, which never grew bald, nor gray, nor wise, as many believed, perhaps justly, having that inconsequence which is fatal to success, yet blessed with that fairy gift held by few — the power of keeping unbroken, with all its rainbow hues intact, the bubble of his own life.