The Scent Of The Roses

Mary E. Wilkins

From A New England Nun and Other Stories (Harper & Brothers Publishers; New York: 1891)

Clarissa May's kitchen table was heaped with rose leaves. She was filling a large brown jar with layers of rose leaves and salt. She sprinkled in various spices too, then sniffed at the mixture daintily.

“Needs a little more cinnamon,” she murmured.

“I wish you'd let the cinnamon alone,” said a quick, sweet voice — “the cinnamon, and the rose leaves, and the salt, and the whole of it. I'd like to fling it into the fire.”

“Don't talk so, Anne.”

Anne stood in the door. She had just come down from her chamber. She was all ready to go to the picnic. She wore a broad-brimmed white straw hat, trimmed with fine pink flowers. Her ruffled, pink-flowered muslin gown fluttered crisply. She had pinned some pink rose-buds at her throat.

Anne and Clarissa were wonderfully alike, but the comparison would have been less derogatory for Clarissa had they been different. The resemblance brought the regret and humiliation of loss to her. Anne showed what Clarissa had been. She was the rose of this spring, her sister was one of last. If both of them had not been roses, the last year's flower would not have seemed so forlorn.

Clarissa's dull blond hair was brushed smoothly around her ears; Anne's was crinkled, and there were gold lights in it. Clarissa's skin was tintless and faintly lined; her sister's was warm and rosy and smooth. Clarissa's lips were thin; Anne's, full and red. One's figure showed angles; the other's, curves.

Clarissa, replying with her mild, deprecating voice, gazed admiringly at her sister. “You look real nice,” she added.

“Sometimes I don't care whether I look nice or not. You do make me so out of patience!”

“Why, Anne, how you talk!”

“I don't care — you do. The idea of you shutting yourself up here, packing a mess of rose leaves into a jar! There isn't any sense in it.”

“You know I'd rather stay at home.”

“I don't care if you had. It's real nice for me going alone!”

“Ellen Pierson's going, isn't she?”

“I don't care if she is. Sometimes anybody'd like their own sister.”

“I feel as if I was so much older.”

“Older! You're not any older than dozens of girls that go all the time. You're not any older than Addie Leach or Abby Dutton; and I guess they'd be mad enough if anybody was to tell them they were too old to go.”

“There's a lock of hair loose. Come round here and let me fix it.”

“I don't care if it is,” said Anne. But she stepped over to her sister, nevertheless, and Clarissa tucked up the golden lock carefully.

“P'rhaps I'll go next time,” said she, appeasingly. “All is, I don't feel much like it, you know. People don't, I suppose, as they grow older.”

“If they get up a party to go on West Mountain next week, will you go?”

“I'll see about it.”

“I'll crimp your hair, and we'll fix over your blue dress.”

“You'll be late, if you don't run along.”

“Do I look all right?”

“Yes. I guess your hair'll stay up now.”

After Anne had danced out with a crisp swish of muslin skirts, Clarissa went on with her work. She gathered up the soft rose leaves with her little thin veiny hands, and laid them in the jar with the greatest care.

She was soon interrupted again, however. “Oh, here you are!” said another voice. There was a contemptuous inflection in it. A tall, pale woman stood in the door. She held out a package of letters and a little white box stiffly in one hand.

“Oh, is it you, Aunt Joanna?”

“Yes, it's me. Why ain't you gone to the picnic?”

“I didn't feel like it.”

“Didn't feel like it! I s'pose you felt more like putterin' over rose leaves. Clarissa May, I b'lieve you're jest about a fool.”

“I don't know what you mean.” Clarissa glanced at the letters, and her hands trembled.

“Yes, you do know what I mean. I came in the front way, an' went up-stairs. I wanted a piece of brown cambric to line my sleeves, an' I thought I'd see if you hadn't got any. An' I found these things in your bottom bureau drawer, tucked away in the corner out of sight. I'd like to know why you've kept these old letters of Gilman Lane's so dreadful choice for all this time. They were wrote much as ten year ago, some of 'em.”

“Aunt Joanna, give me those letters, please.”

Clarissa trembled so she could scarcely speak. She felt as if all the light in the world was shining on her heart and showing it forth pitilessly, dispelling all its innocent shadows, which had seemed like guilty ones to her.

“I never see such a mess of nonsense in my life: all ‘darling’ an' ‘dear.’ It's enough to make anybody sick.”

“Aunt Joanna, you haven't read them?”

“I guess I have read 'em, every line. I rather think I had a right to, as long as you're my sister's daughter. I s'pose he give you this breast-pin too, eh?”

“Aunt Joanna!”

“You needn't look so toppin'. When you've been doin' the way you have late years, never stirrin' out of the house except to meetin', an' actin' as if you'd give up the world, it's about time you was looked out after. Now I jest want to know if Gilman Lane give you the mitten, an' if that's what ails you?”

“Aunt Joanna, if you'll give me those letters —”

“If he has, he's a mean scamp, an' you're an awful fool, that's all I've got to say. Before I'd spend my whole life frettin' over one feller!”

“Aunt Joanna, you haven't any right to come here talking to me so.”

“I guess I've got as good a right as anybody. I guess you won't find anybody that thinks much more of you, or is more interested in you, than me. Clarissa May, what I want to know is this — was you engaged to Gilman Lane?”

“No,” said Clarissa, shortly. Then she turned her face obstinately away, and went to work on her rose leaves again, and would not speak another word. Her aunt questioned and reproved a while longer; then finding that she could get no further response, threw the letters and box down on the table, and left.

“If I had such soft letters lying around I'd burn 'em. I wouldn't leave 'em where folks could get 'em,” said she. She turned around as she went out of the door. “I took that piece of brown cambric you had in your blue box, but I don' know as it's enough.”

Clarissa had been intending to use the cambric herself, but she said not a word. After her aunt had gone she carried the letters up-stairs, and put them in their old place; then returned to her work.

She filled the jar quite full, then tidied up her kitchen. When the noon bells were ringing, her Aunt Joanna appeared again. She had a covered plate in her hand. She had brought over some warm dinner. Clarissa thanked her, and took it. Neither of the women alluded to the letters. But the niece looked after her aunt as she went out of the yard, and if she could have smitten her with a total loss of memory, she would have done it in her shame and distress.

Clarissa May knew every line of those old letters by heart. She knew whereabouts the lines stood on the pages, and the words in the lines. The few fond adjectives shone out like jewels among them. Now she thought them all over, she recounted one after another, and she said to herself, “Aunt Joanna has seen this, and this.”

She set away the dinner untasted, put on her afternoon dress, and sat down with her sewing at the sitting-room window.

Anne found her there when she returned from the picnic. Anne had lost a little of her crisp daintiness of the morning. Her yellow hair was tumbled, her cheeks were hot, and her muslin dress was crumpled.

She sat down in the first chair with a sigh. “Oh,” said she, “I'm glad to get in where it's cool! It's terrible out in the sun.”

She looked around the room and at her sister approvingly. There were a certain patience and tranquillity about Clarissa, as she sat there sewing, which were cool and refreshing of themselves.

“You look real cool and comfortable,” said Anne.

Clarissa had on an old-fashioned cotton gown of a mixed green-and-white pattern, which suited her soft faded face. This cool old summer-gown had served her mother before her. The daughter wore it with very little alteration in the straight full skirt and long prim body. It came out of its winter seclusion every June and seemed as if it would never be worn out. Clarissa regarded it with gratitude and thankfulness. She wanted Anne to have all the new summer dresses.

The sisters had their small income of one hundred and fifty dollars besides their house. This one hundred and fifty, eked out with a little sewing which Clarissa did, bought their food and clothes. Clarissa was a good manager, she made a little go so far, and she was very careful. There was a good deal of fine darning on the sitting-room carpet, but it took close scrutiny to see it among those faded, whitish-drab scrolls. The room was sweet with roses — living ones, which grew close to the open windows, and dead ones, which lay conserved with salt and spices in Clarissa's jars. She had converted every unused dish in the house into a receptacle for her rose leaves. Old china teapots stood about, and sugar bowls, and earthen jars, all exhaling spicy sweetness. They were in every room in the house. The amusements which life held for Clarissa seemed to be concentrated into this one gentle, erratic one of conserving rose leaves. And the amusement was of such long standing that it was almost like a duty to her. It is doubtful if she did not unconsciously think it wrong to let a rose leaf entirely perish, with all its sweetness, while she could save it.

Years ago Gilman Lane had taught her how to make her first pot-pourri. “You ought to save all those roses,” he had said one far-off summer day. “My Aunt Celia packs 'em in a jar with salt. I'll show you how.”

The two had packed a little blue ginger jar with those old rose leaves. It stood on the shelf in the best parlor now, with the same ones in it.

Something stronger than any rose fragrance floated from it to Clarissa every time she entered the room. It was the fragrance of the old memory, which was better conserved than the rose leaves, and formed the lasting element of that first pot-pourri.

“I should think you'd fill up that jar new,” Anne said often. She had no sense for that wonderful sweetness which her elder sister got from it.

Anne sat still for quite a while to-day. She did not talk as she usually did on a return from a merrymaking. She leaned her head back in her chair and stared at the opposite wall. There was a thoughtful look in her eyes, but her mouth was half smiling.

“Did you have a good time?” Clarissa asked, finally.

“Real good,” Anne said. Then she hesitated. Her conscious smile grew more distinct; the red on her cheeks deepened. “You used to know Gilman Lane, didn't you, Clarissa?” she went on. “Why, what is the matter?”


“Yes there is, too; you're awful white. Oh, Clarissa, don't you feel well?”

“Just as well as I ever did. Go on. What were you saying? Oh, about Gilman Lane.”

“He was there, you know. He's got back from California, where he's been ten years. I didn't remember him. I was nothing but a little girl when he went away, anyhow. You used to know him, didn't you?”

“Yes, some.”

“He's real handsome. Ellen introduced him to me; he's a sort of a cousin of hers, you know. She says he's splendid. He's older than I am. Why, didn't he go to school with you, Clarissa?”

“Yes, I believe he did.”

“Why, it seems to me I remember his coming here sometimes, now I think of it. Didn't he used to?”

“Yes, he used to run in once in a while, I guess.”

“I declare, I do remember it; but I never would have known him. He's splendid-looking.”

Anne rose and took off her bonnet slowly. “How soon are you going to have tea, Clarissa?”

“We'll have it now, if you want it.”

“Well, I don't know but we'd better, and get it out of the way.” Anne stood laughing and fingering her bonnet strings. “To tell you the truth, I shouldn't wonder a bit if he was up here to-night. What is the matter? I know you're sick, Clarissa.”

“No, I ain't. I guess I'd better go and get tea right away, then.”

“It was a great joke on the other girls, you know. They were all teasing Ellen to introduce them, but he never looked at one of them. P'rhaps he won't come; but I shouldn't be a bit surprised.”

Gilman Lane did come. His tall, muscular figure passed at dusk that night between the descendants of those old roses, up to the front-door porch, which was overgrown with them.

Anne answered his knock. She was aglow with modest delight. She looked up in his face with innocent admiration, which he was foolish not to see. No wonder that this man outshone the gentle village boys in her eyes! Gilman Lane had always been handsome. He was roughened and browned now by his California life, but that only accentuated his beauty to a country girl like Anne, who thought naturally of men as antipodes of flowers and women.

“Good-evening, Mr. Lane,” said she, primly, her cheeks pink, her eyes shyly radiant. “Won't you walk in?”

Clarissa, up in her room, heard the knock, the opening door in response, and the firm, manly tread across the entry floor. Then she heard the murmur of voices in the best parlor. She sat on the edge of her little bed, listening. She was rigid; her hands were cold as ice.

In a half-hour or so she heard Anne's step on the stairs, and rose hurriedly. She was lighting a candle when her sister entered.

“Come down-stairs,” Anne whispered, “he wants to see you.”

“I can't. I was just going over to Aunt Joanna's.”

“Come along.”

“He doesn't want to see me.”

“Yes, he does. He asked if you were at home. He said he used to know you, and he would like to see you. Come along down. If you don't, he'll think you don't want him to come here, or something.”

Clarissa, following her imperious young sister down-stairs, went weakly, like an old woman; but Anne, in her joyful inpetuosity, never noticed it.

Lane rose as the two entered the parlor, and came across the room. He stumbled over a mat in his progress, and colored. He always managed his great frame a little clumsily.

“Well, how do you do, Clarissa?” said he. His voice was loud and hearty, with a little hesitation in it.

“How do you do, Gilman?” It was that freedom of old days lapsed into formality which is the most chilling of all.

They shook hands; then seated themselves. Clarissa was mute. She felt herself trembling, and wondered if he saw it. He did not; he was thinking to himself how very cool and stiff she was.

He tried to make some conversation. “You're changed some, Clarissa, like all the rest of us,” he said, laughing awkwardly. There was a real flush on his brown face.

“I suppose I have,” said Clarissa, delicate and pale and outwardly composed. She smiled faintly in his direction.

“I guess you're a little thinner than you used to be, and you haven't got quite so much color. You're well, aren't you?”

There was an odd tone in his voice then that made Anne stare wonderingly at him.

“Very well, thank you,” Clarissa said.

“It was a good deal of a joke on me, but I declare when I first saw your sister to-day I thought it was you. She looks just the way you used to, doesn't she?”

“Everybody says she does.”

“She does, sure enough. Why didn't you go to the picnic to-day, Clarissa?”

“I don't go out a great deal.”

“She'd rather stay in the house and fill old sugar bowls and jars with rose leaves,” Anne interrupted, with laughing pettishness. “I've been telling him about it.”

“I noticed it the minute I came into the house,” said Lane. “I wondered what it was that smelt so sweet.”

“Good reason why,” laughed Anne; “there are four things full of rose leaves in here, besides that blue ginger-jar on the shelf. They're old in that, and don't smell much. Why don't you fill that one new, Clarissa?”

Lane looked at it gravely. “You ought to,” said he; “that's a real pretty jar.”

He had forgotten all about it. Whatever consciousness his heart held of those old days did not include that. His man's memory could not keep such small precious things.

“I thought I had about enough,” said Clarissa, trying to speak easily. She looked over at the jar. For a moment it seemed more valuable to her than the man who had forgotten it and its storied sweetness. “It's all I've got left of anything,” flashed through her mind. She wanted to seize it and cry over it. The forgetting and slighting this poor little jar made it harder for her to control herself. She could scarcely keep the tears back. But no one would have guessed it as she sat there pale and slender and prim.

She excused herself before long. She had to go over to her aunt Joanna's, she said, and pleaded some housewifely errand.

Joanna Emmons was a widow. She kept house with her daughter, also a widow, and two unmarried sons.

The family were all in bed, but the doors were never locked. Clarissa went straight in, and groped her way across the dusky kitchen to her aunt's bedroom door.

“Aunt Joanna!” she called, softly.

“Who is it?” said her aunt, sitting up in bed suddenly. She had not yet fallen asleep.

“It's Clarissa. Say, Aunt Joanna —”

“What are you over here for this time of night? Anne ain't sick, is she?”

“No. I wanted to see you a minute. Aunt Joanna, I wanted to tell you something, and I mean it. It's — about — those letters. If you ever tell Anne or anybody else anything about them, I'll go away somewhere where you'll never see me again, nor any one else either.”

“Clarissa May, what do you mean?”

“What I say. You've got to promise me you won't.”

“'Tain't very likely I'm goin' all round town tellin' what a fool my sister's daughter made of herself.”

“Aunt Joanna, you've got to promise me.”

“Clarissa May, let go of my hands! You're crazy. You scare me 'most to death!”


“Well, I'll promise. I won't speak of 'em to a soul. There!”

“Then I'll go home. Don't you forget.”

“Clarissa, come back here!” her aunt called after her, as she sped across the kitchen; but she was gone.

Anne was in the sitting-room when she reached home. “He went right after you did,” said she, smiling consciously. “I don't think you treated him very well, Clarissa.”

“I don't see why,” said Clarissa, in a timid way.

“You acted as stiff as a poker. He thought it was awful funny that you didn't go out any more. You've got to go up West Mountain next week, anyhow.”

Poor Clarissa went. She dragged herself wearily up those steep inclines, trying all the time to smile with the rest of the merry party. When they reached the summit her face was damp and pale with the heat; her lustreless hair clung close to her forehead. Anne was all rosy and glowing. Gilman Lane was at her side all day. Several times he tried to talk with Clarissa, but she avoided him, keeping close to some of the older young women, her mates.

“Gilman Lane is dead in love with Anne May,” she overheard one say, with a furtive glance at her. Some of them remembered that years ago there had been a similar report in connection with the older sister.

“He's perfectly splendid,” Anne said that night. “Why don't you say more to him, Clarissa? I'm afraid he'll think you don't want him to come.”

So the next time that Gilman called, Clarissa made an effort to be cordial and talkative. She also remained in the room a little longer.

The summer passed, the autumn, and the winter; then the spring came again. Gilman Lane still called nearly every week at the May's.

People said, “Gilman Lane is going with Anne.” Still he hardly fulfilled, in their opinions, all the conditions of courtship. He did not come regularly on Sunday evenings, neither did he remain late. Clarissa always saw him during a few minutes of every call. Anne insisted upon it.

“He acts just as if he thought you didn't want him to come and see me, if you don't,” said she. “He said once he guessed my sister didn't like to have him calling so often.”

Clarissa did not have a doubt as to how it would all end. She was certain that Gilman was fond of Anne. She thought also that her sister liked him, although she had her pretty, smart way about it, as she did about everything else, and laughed rather than sighed.

So Clarissa in her patient certainty overlooked it all. There was one thing which she dreaded: that was any allusion to the past. She had a constant fear lest she should chance to see Gilman when her sister was not there. Several times she did not answer his knock when Anne was away.

Finally the roses were in blossom again. Clarissa's bushes were wonderful this year. The front yard was full of them. The vegetable garden behind the house had a broad walk edged with them, too.

Clarissa went at her old work again. She moved among the rose-trees, a prim, delicate figure, in her old green-and-white gown, and cut every loose rose carefully. She was bent, in her graceful parsimoniousness, on saving all that she could of the sweetness of the world; no matter how poorly she might live herself, her delight in this would not forsake her. She had lost love and youth and beauty, but she still got a little comfort out of her unselfishness and her roses. One is not entirely desolate while one can follow his instincts.

Anne laughed at her. “She's gone to filling jars for the neighbors this year,” said Anne. “She filled one for Mrs. Lamson yesterday.” She and Gilman were in the parlor that afternoon. Gilman laughed. Then he looked out of the window soberly. Clarissa was in the front yard tending her roses.

“It's real good of her,” said he.

“Of course it is. Clarissa never does anything that isn't good, but she is so funny.”

The next day Gilman came over with a great bunch of roses from his brother's garden. They were a different variety from any of Clarissa's, and very sweet.

The two sisters were in the garden behind the house. He hunted about until he found them. He held out the roses awkwardly to Clarissa.

“I thought maybe you'd like 'em,” said he. “I guess they're different from yours.”

“You haven't got any like them, have you, Clarissa?” said Anne, eagerly. “My! I never saw any so sweet.”

Clarissa thanked him. “I haven't got any like them,” said she. Her voice was a little unsteady.

Presently she carried the roses into the house. Gilman turned to Anne. “Look here,” said he, “I want to ask you something.”

Anne glanced at him. Then she turned her head so that he could barely see the pink curve of one cheek. She began pulling some roses busily. “I guess I'll pick some to put in the parlor vases,” said she. “What is it you wanted to ask?”

“I want to know — I've been coming here pretty near a whole year, and I don't seem to be a bit nearer finding out anything than I was when I started. Now I'm going to ask you point-blank.”

“Oh, Gilman!” Anne murmured. She moved a little farther from him, then she came back. She dropped some of her roses.

“I don't see as I can ask anybody but you. I can't see her alone a minute, no matter how hard I try. Oh, Anne, doesn't she ever tell you anything? Don't you know if she cares anything at all about me?”


“Why, Clarissa. Doesn't she ever tell you anything, Anne?”

Anne turned her face farther away. She was very white. Her round young limbs were trembling. “Why don't you go into the house and ask her?” she said, with sweet, shrill incisiveness. “I should say that was the quickest way.”

“She'll run if she sees me coming. She doesn't act as if she wanted me to. Oh, Anne, don't you know anything about it?”

“No, I don't know a thing.”

“You knew we used to go together some, years ago?”

“No, I didn't.”

“We weren't engaged, but it was sort of understood, I'd always thought. It was before I went to California. Father'd lost his money, and mother was sick, and I thought I'd got to stir around and do something before I said much about getting married.

“We wrote to each other quite a while. Then I got kind of discouraged. I wasn't doing very well, and I didn't see as I was ever coming home. I had to send every dollar I could save to father, and I began to think I couldn't get married till I was an old man, and I didn't know but it was sort of silly to say anything about it.

“I dare say my letters showed how I felt. Anyhow, she didn't write quite so often, and then I heard she'd got a beau. That settled me. I should have been home three years ago if I hadn't supposed she was married. I didn't have the courage to ask. I did make up my mind to write and ask mother, though, finally. I thought I could bear it, and might as well know.

“When I found out she wasn't, I came straight here. But she acted so cold and offish the first time I saw her that I thought sure she'd got over thinking anything of me. But once in a while she'd seem a little different, and I couldn't tell. Anne, didn't you ever hear her say anything about me? Sometimes I think I'm a fool to expect she'd remember anything so long ago. I wish I could see her just a minute. I'd like to tell her why I stopped writing, anyhow, though I never supposed she cared much. Her letters had begun to sound rather cool.”

“I'll go in and tell Clarissa that you want to speak to her,” said Anne. “I don't see any need of so much fuss.” Her voice sounded sweet and crisp. She swung her blue muslin skirts between the rose-bushes with an air. Her yellow head was proudly erect.

“She looks just the way Clarissa used to,” Gilman thought, as he stared after her.

Presently she reappeared at the entrance of the garden walk. “Go right in,” she called out. Then she went around to the front of the house. “They'll see I ain't shut up in my room, crying,” she thought to herself.

She sauntered about among the bushes, pulling roses here and there. She heard voices behind the parlor blinds. Her face was still pale, but her mouth began to tremble a little at the corners. Anne had a sweet nature. “It's a great joke on me,” she whispered to herself. Then she laughed, with the most unselfish amusement, in the midst of her girlish chagrin and sorrow.

There was a bush of beautiful pink roses down by the gate. Anne stood there picking them when her friend, Ellen Pierson, came down the road, and stopped, leaning her slender elbows on the gate. “What are you picking so many roses for?” asked she.

“I don't know but I shall go to filling up jars with them, like Clarissa,” said Anne.