Note: I usually skip the fiction in The American Magazine. But I read the first paragraph of this and was sucked right in. It’s a delightful story with a wonderful economy of words. It’s also available as an ePub eBook at Google Docs — with original page images intact — for those who want to read it offline.
From a 1922 issue of The American Magazine:
Nell Cutter’s White Elephants
A story by Bess Streeter Aldrich
Mrs. Archibald Ramsey was a reformer — a reformer being a person who tries to get people out of their old grooves, no matter how comfortable those grooves may be. Mrs. Ramsey firmly believed that she was the lever that could, should, and would pry the Meadows inhabitants out of their old tracks.
Meadows quite woke up when the Ramseys came to town. Mr. Ramsey bought the largest dry-goods store and added sundry metropolitan touches to it. His wife was even more purposeful and efficient than he was.
To Mrs. Ramsey, life was real and life was earnest. But, like many another reformer, she lacked a sense of humor; that third eye which sees whimsy behind the reality, and fun along with the earnestness.
Mrs. Ramsey had no children; and she had reduced housework to an almost negligible quantity. Therefore she had ample time and strength left for reforming other women’s methods. Her approach gave you the sensation of seeing a funnel-shaped cloud coming your way. You knew there would be violent motion rotating about a center of pressure.
“The amount of things she accomplishes is marvelous,” Nell Cutter confided to Ed. “She makes me ashamed.”
“She makes me tired,” was Ed’s masculine answer. “She ought to have been foreman of a boiler factory or Secretary of the Treasury. She’d be about as restful to come home to as a whirling dervish.”
Mrs. Ramsey had not been in town four weeks before she was elected president of the Woman’s Club. What is more, she virtually asked for the job. It had been the custom to sit modestly back when nominated and if elected decline to serve until coaxed into submission. But Mrs. Ramsey was frankness itself.
“I’d like to have you consider me a candidate for the presidency,” she stated quite definitely. “I know the things that would be most helpful to the club.” She was unanimously elected.
It was soon after this that Nell Cutter called upon the lady, but she was not at home. Then, as the hospitable custom is in small towns, she further welcomed the Ramseys to Meadows by inviting them to dinner. All day long she cooked and baked, while Opal Peterson, her neighborly help, cleaned and dusted. At six o’clock — the dinner hour having been changed from high noon out of deference to the newcomers — the family and their guests sat down to what the Meadows “Mirror” would call “a bounteous repast.”
Two weeks later the Ramseys entertained Ed and Nell Cutter. On the day of the dinner Josephine remarked anxiously to her mother, “Are you sure you’ve got the day right, Mama? Mrs. Ramsey don’t act like she was having company. She was working in her flower garden this morning.”
Craig and Nick gave forth the added information in the afternoon that they “seen her all dolled up, calling on folks.” Nell Cutter held her thoughts to herself. She felt she was about to prove that Mrs. Ramsey was a very poor housekeeper.
She was mistaken. The house was immaculate and in good taste. The living-room contained some choice books behind glass doors, a piano, a davenport, two small Oriental rugs, an almost bare library table, and four “rockers.” There was one picture — a good one — on the wall. There were no cushions, no bric-à-brac, no accumulation of magazines, no photographs of friends. And the other rooms rivaled this one in plainness and cleanliness.
The dinner was served without linen. The napkins were soft paper. Besides bread and butter there were two vegetables, a cheese dish, the plainest of salads and fruit. It was enough to sustain life — but the Meadows “Mirror” in its wildest prevarication could not have called it “a bounteous repast.”
Mrs. Ramsey made no apology for the simple meal. On the contrary, she called attention to the fact that they were partaking of balanced rations … so many proteids … so many carbohydrates! . . . It was a perfect meal. The hostess herself said so.
After dinner, at Mrs. Ramsey’s own pleasant suggestion, each one carried his things to the kitchen. Nell smiled to herself to see Ed ambling out obediently. Mrs. Ramsey put the few dishes in an immaculate sink and covered them with water.
“I’ll wash them in the morning,” she explained.
While the men smoked the two women talked.
“You make your work so easy,” Nell Cutter said to her hostess with an envious sigh.
“That’s the trouble with you women here.” Mrs. Ramsey was kind but firm.
“You cook too big a variety. If you balanced your rations properly, you could get along with half the amount. And you have too many things in your homes. You make false gods of things, just because you have had them a long time. You should eliminate everything that is unessential to actual living. In this new age of progress there is no time to indulge in sentiment about the past.”
Nell Cutter was nothing if not fair. “You’re right . . . absolutely. When I think of the things I have to dust!”
She went home enthusiastic. “Ed, just think of the tablecloths I iron every week, and the napkins, and the stuff I cook, and the things I hoard that we don’t really need! We can’t fix over the whole house, but I’m going to have the dining-room just like hers. Nothing in it but polished table and chairs!”
“Her table and chairs were all right,” Ed admitted; “but she wouldn’t have made me sore if she’d sped up a little on the eats.”
In the week that followed, Nell Cutter rode on a wave of reform. She went on a perfect rampage of getting unessentials out of her home. Over and over, to bolster up her courage, she repeated her new creed that in this age of progress there was no room for sentiment over the past. It was as though she broke the very vase in which the waters of tender emotion were contained and drained it dry.
Ruthlessly she burned Ed’s wedding vest. Grimly she put ribbon-bound letters on the funeral pyre. Though it was like taking raw quinine, she added the baby’s discarded rattle, Josephine’s first little bootees, a yellowed bonnet of Craig’s, and the little cat without a tail that Nicky had carried under his arm in his toddling days.
“Old truck like that just clutters up a house,” she explained to Ed.
She made over the dining-room. When she had finished, it was a brave imitation of Mrs. Ramsey’s, bare and clean. She cut down on food.
“Will you have a slice of proteids? Or a spoonful of carbohydrates?” became Ed’s idea of a huge joke.
But Nell was in earnest. She found that although she was preparing far less for her family to eat, she was working just as hard as she had before.
“It takes so long to look it all up,” she told them. “But I’m perfectly willing to balance it properly for the sake of the children’s health.”
“Health! Huh!” Craig was scorn personified. “I weigh seventeen pounds more than your old chart says a nine year-old needs to.”
“I’m bigger’n Chick Burrows right now, and he’s two years older’n me,” boasted Nick.
“Maybe you’re –” their mother searched for the word –“maybe you’re too flabby.”
They almost screeched at her in their disgust.
“Well, I guess not! You ought to see me take down Henny Myers!”
“Ya! I got muscles, I have. … I got better muscles. …” They sputtered incoherently in their superlative contempt.
In the midst of this orgy of house and health reform, Mrs. Ramsey called a special meeting of the Woman’s Club to discuss plans which she wished to lay before them; and she herself stopped for Nell Cutter on the way to the meeting.
Nell was in her bedroom, putting the finishing touches to her toilet, when Mrs. Ramsey came into the room and sat down in the rocker. It was an unusual thing to do, but there were no longer any sacred places in Meadows; no private back yards, or personal closets — with or without skeletons — safe from Mrs. Ramsey. Her efficient, practical, sanitary nose poked into them all.
On this occasion, however, Nell felt immune to criticism; for had she not reduced the contents of her bedroom to bare essentials? Proudly she called Mrs. Ramsey’s attention to this achievement. There were the big bed and the baby’s crib, one rocker, a dresser containing her own things, and a high bureau for Ed’s.
“It’s very good,” the visitor acknowledged; “but” — her eagle eye lighted on three pictures on the wall and she smiled indulgently — “you could dispense with those. How many times do you dust behind them?”
“Ever so many,” Nell admitted. One picture was of Nell’s old home; another was of Josephine as a baby; and the other was a print of Stevenson s “Morning Prayer” in water-colors.
“How people will hang on to their old things!” Mrs. Ramsey sighed half tolerantly. “Now, take that picture of Josephine. You certainly don’t need any baby picture of her when you have the real girl to look at every day.”
Swiftly the thought passed through Nell’s mind that if Mrs. Ramsey had children of her own she would understand that the little dimpled baby on the wall was no more the tall, lanky Josephine of the present than as if she had been another child.
“And your old home,” the questioner continued; “can you close your eyes and see it?”
Nell’s face lighted with memory. “Oh, as if I were really standing on the terrace! The elms in the yard… the rose bush climbing over the door . . . Mother on the steps smiling down at me …”
“Then you can dispense with the picture,” was Mrs. Ramsey’s crisp comment. “And that prayer of Stevenson’s. I’ll wager you have unconsciously committed it to memory.”
“I could say it backward,” Nell admitted.
“There you are! Don’t you see? It’s been transferred to your mind. You don’t need it up there, gathering dust and taking time from the more important things of life.”
As an admission that she was worsted, Nell half-laughingly took the miscreants from their hooks and laid them in her dresser drawer.
“You’re coming on,” Mrs. Ramsey commended her. “How you old-fashioned housekeepers do dig your graves with your pie tins and your dust cloths!”
Together they went to the meeting, the efficient one and her disciple. With all her characteristic energy, as though the thermometer outside the little hall were not registering ninety-eight degrees, Mrs. Ramsey presented to the ladies a plan for raising money. They were to give a bazar — a community affair in the little park. There were to be booths, and a ball game, and sports. She had the details all arranged. The people were to eat their noon meal right there. Then there would be a band-concert; a grab-bag; hot wieners; sandwiches; aprons; watermelons; fancy work; a movie show!
Mrs. Ramsey’s eyes glowed with the high motive of her mission. She was like an engine getting up steam. Almost they could hear the “choo-choo-choo” of the exhaust.
The cap sheaf of the plan was to be a white-elephant sale. All the things for which they had no immediate use were to be brought to the park and sold: Dishes, furniture, clothes — anything that was not necessary to actual living.
Nell Cutter timidly ventured a question: “But why palm off on someone else all these non-essentials and thereby clutter up other homes?”
Mrs. Ramsey was ready: “What is superfluous in your home might be an essential for someone else.”
The money was all to go toward a rest-room for the women of the community. Mrs. Ramsey stated it as definitely as though it had been voted upon. Nell Cutter, tired and hot, found herself wondering just who among them would ever rest in it.
Mrs. Ramsey appointed committees. On one she placed Mrs. Tompkins and Mrs. Frazier, who had not spoken to each other since the latter’s chickens had been found with their wings clipped. She ignored Rose Quigley, who had been in charge of the community music for years, and made Mrs. Charlotte Gray-Cooper chairman. She asked a retired capitalist to be responsible for the building of the booths and the town carpenter to make a short speech.
The lever prying them out of the ruts, you see! Everything was topsy-turvy. Alice had gone to Blunderland. But the result was that the bazar was a startling financial success. When fools rush in they either spill the beans or accomplish more than the angels who fear to tread.
In the days preceding the bazar Nell Cutter went over the house carefully, to prune off a few more non-essentials. She found that she could put Ed’s things in part of her own dresser drawers and sell the old bureau. She asked Gramma’s permission first, for the bureau had been hers in the past. Then she took from the drawer the ‘Morning Prayer” and added it to the donations. Some wooden soldiers, that tumbled on her head every time she opened a closet door, went next. There were other old toys, some seldom-used dishes, a worn rug, Ed’s old steamer trunk — shabby and too disgraceful-looking for any potential trip — and an old Panama hat of his. As she sent the things down to the park in a dray she looked about the house with satisfaction. The whole place was as clean as a hound’s tooth; absolutely free from souvenirs of the past.
The morning of the bazar the Cutter household was early astir. Craig and Nick washed themselves almost thoroughly after an unusually brief battle. Their mother won, by the scurvy trick of threatening to withhold the fifty cents each of them was to have for spending money. It was ever thus: the man with the money holding the destinies of the poor in the hollow of his hand.
Gramma and Opal Peterson took care of the baby, so that Nell could work all day in her booth, which was dedicated to pies. Gramma went down early and came back before dinner, so that Opal could go.
In the late afternoon, while the ball game was in progress and all the masculine contingent — which means all the members of the Ancient Order of Pie Eaters — had gone to it, Nell left her booth in charge of an assistant and walked around to the white-elephant department where lay the flotsam and jetsam from a hundred homes.
Hanging on the back of the booth was her own print of Stevenson’s “Prayer.” It gave her a queer feeling to see it here. Aunt Isabelle had colored it for her long ago. And Aunt Isabelle was dead. It seemed a horrible thing to give it away. Her eyes had always fallen upon it the first thing in the morning. It had seemed to greet her with cheer and philosophy:
The day returns and brings us the petty round of irritating concerns and duties. . . . Help us to play the man. . . .
Again, just before noon, when she always slipped into her room to brush her hair and put on a clean apron, it had smiled encouragingly at her:
.. . Help us to perform them with laughter and kind faces; . . .
Arising from a hastily-snatched five minutes of rest in the early afternoon it had inspired her with:
. . . Give us to go blithely on our business all this day. . . .
And at night, tired to the depths, it had dropped its blessing:
. . . bring us to our resting beds weary and content and undishonored. …
At supper time, Nell Cutter collected the many packages of eatables which she had purchased from the various booths and started home. The park had a moist, sticky, perspiring look, like a dirty tramp with a smeared face, unwashed and unshaven. She looked about for Ed. He was somewhere with the car. But she did not see him, so she trudged wearily home. A block from the house Josephine came running to meet her, smiling and beginning to talk while yet afar off.
“Look, Mama, it’s Peggy . . . my old Peggy dressed up so cute you’d never know her . . . and only fifty cents! Mrs. Homer dressed her. Look! A scarlet cape and tarn to match!” Josephine was sparkling, radiant.
“Why, Josephine, did you spend all your money for it. . . your own old doll?”
“Well … I’d already bought an ice-cream cone . . . and then I saw Peggy. And Mrs. Horner said I could have her for forty-five cents if that was all I had left. She said she guessed I was intitled to her after I’d donated her.”
Josephine turned and ran her arm through her mother’s, chattering as they walked on.
“And Craig, he got a dandy bargain, too, an engine, his own old engine and train — it was broke, you know; but Mr. Horner had fixed it fine and it’s as good as new and Craig’s got it on the back porch now all set up, and you’d never know it had been busted.”
“Of all things! Your own old toys!” The mother was half amused and half exasperated.
At home, Nell cuddled the baby a few minutes and then went into the bedroom to change her dress. From the west window she could see the dray stopping, backing up. She called to Gramma, “Go to the door, will you, Gramma? It’s the drayman. Tell him he’s made a mistake.”
Gramma came to the bedroom and stood in the doorway. There were two pink spots on her cheeks and she appeared nervous.
“Nellie, I hope you won’t feel cross with me. It’s the bureau . . . my old walnut bureau. I bought it myself. I can have it in my bedroom. There’s room if I push the bed a little to the north. I won’t ask you to put it back in yours. You know I never let on when you told me . . . but I knew all the time, that I was going down there early and buy it myself. I couldn’t hardly bear to think of anybody else having it. I remember the spring I got it. I was so proud of it. We’d had such a hard winter and I raised some pigs — four little pigs that lost their mother. I had to get up in the night and feed them warm milk, like babies. I couldn’t go to town. It was the spring before Davey was born and Father took the pigs in to sell. I thought he was going to pay a lumber bill with them, but when he came back he had the bureau in the wagon. I can see him yet, driving up to the door, with the kind of quiet smile he had when he knew he was surprising me; and he said, joking-like, ‘Mother, they give you a drawer for every pig.'”
Gramma looked up at her daughter-in-law beseechingly. “I hope you don’t mind, Nellie?”
“Oh, that’s all right, Gramma. My sakes! You ought to have told me how you felt about it.”
Her dress changed, Nell went to the kitchen to get the supper. It was a hodge-podge affair, cooked and baked by as many different women as there were dishes. She and Josephine chattered about it as they put it on: “Mrs. Horner does have the best luck with her Lady Baltimore cake,” or, “I’d know Mrs. Brisbane’s salad if I saw it in China . . . the way she always fixes the pimientos over the top.”
Supper was ready but neither Ed nor Nick was there. The others waited until it was getting almost dusk. It was then that Ed drove up to the garage. Nell, standing by the kitchen window, saw him getting out slowly, as though he had been cramped. He lifted something from the car, carefully, and cautiously. He walked from the garage to the cob-house lightly, warily. One would have said he was trying to make the trip without being heard.
Like a beagle hound, like a William Burns’s assistant, Mrs. Edward Everett Cutter stepped out of the back door. Straight to the cob-house she tiptoed. At the door she met her husband coming out, empty-handed.
“Ed Cutter, what are you putting in there?”
“My trunk!” He glared at her. “My old trunk, that I bought when I was a green kid just off the farm and took to college with me. The fellows used to sit on it in my room — Fielding and Joe Miller and old Jim Robertson. Billie Fielding’s initials are cut in it. The same old trunk I had in the canteen . . . wrote letters home on it . . . lived in it. It was the only home I had. Gosh! When I saw the old thing standing down there, with all that second-hand stuff, I felt like I’d been kicking an old friend out. I’m not sentimental about keepsakes, but I’ll be darned if I’ll let that old Hohenzollern of a Ramsey woman dictate to me what I’ll keep and what I can’t.”
Nell Cutter stood there on the back walk, saying nothing, while Ed walked back to the car, to put it in the garage. Before he got in he made a quick movement to tuck something out of sight. Surreptitiously, dexterously, he did it. But wives have eyes in the back of their heads.
“And what’s that?” his own asked with infinite sarcasm.
“That?” Ed’s fine air of bravado had vanished. “That?” he repeated, apparently sparring for time. He was only a sheepish little boy now, facing an irate mother. “Oh, that!” he spoke jauntily, as though surprised at seeing the package. “That’s my old Panama. I just happened to buy it back . . . thought I could wear it in the garden . . . thought I might want it to go fishing … it always felt good on my head … I thought …”
She turned and left him mumbling apologetic reasons.
In the dining-room, Nell gathered her flock up to supper.
“Where’s Nicky?” she was asking, when, like the cue at a play, the front door burst open and Nicky blew in. He began yelling before he had reached the rest of the family:
“Who give ’em my old box o’ soldiers, I’d like to know? I never told nobody they could give my soldiers away. They had ’em marked twenty-five cents, ‘n’ I only had nineteen left, but they let me bring ’em. Somebody’s got to give me the rest. I said I’d come right back … It’s six cents. I figgered it out. I gotta have six cents from somebody — gimme six cents!”
“Oh, for goodness’ sakes, you folks make me sick!” Nell exploded. “No wonder we’ve got a house full of stuff! No wonder I dig and dig all day long! You’re the most sentimental creatures I ever heard of — sloppy and sentimental over a lot of old junk!
Ed was slipping six cents to his belligerent son. “Aw, let the kid have his old soldiers!”
Nell was tired and she showed it: “Children, you’re the noisiest, on this bare table. Believe me, I’m going back to tablecloths. It sounds like a telegraph office in here.” And then, as she began passing the picnic-supper dishes, she added, “Good land! I forgot all about balancing these rations.”
“Don’t mind me!” Ed remarked, elaborately cheerful. “I’d rather have this kind of a meal any day than a broiled vitamine.”
When the family had settled down for the night, Nell busied herself until she saw that they were all asleep. She even tested Ed’s quiescent condition by calling his name softly. When he did not answer she tiptoed to the bed, reached under it and drew forth a package. Cautiously, she undid it, took out a flat object and hung it on the wall. Like the face of an old and loved friend it smiled back at her:
The day returns. . . .
Like the touch of a vanished hand it soothed her as she began undressing:
… let cheerfulness abound with industry. . . .
With a sense of peace surrounding her like an aura, she slipped into bed. How good it was that the family was all together … all under the home roof . . . all well … all weary and content and undishonored.
She felt herself slipping into a cloud-bed that would soon turn to dreams. The low night light shone with a faint ray on the familiar blue and gold of the prayer. It came back like the benediction of the dying day:
… and grant us in the end the gift of sleep.
“You can’t tell me!” she thought drowsily, “There are other things in the world besides pep and sanitation and balanced rations and efficiency.”
All the next morning Nell Cutter stood at the telephone and talked with town and country women. Her revolt was complete. In the afternoon when the Woman’s Club met to report, she had her mind made up. Mrs. Ramsey called the meeting to order, and reported five hundred and thirty-nine dollars and sixteen cents cleared from the bazar.
Then she proceeded, energetically, efficiently, to make arrangements for the rest-room. Nell’s throat was dry and she was inwardly shaking at her temerity. The time had come.
“Madam President!” Nell plunged in boldly. “I’ve talked with all the members of the club, and with many others, and I find that they really do not care for the rest-room. Many said that they felt we could easily continue using the alcove in Nelson’s store. Some of those out in the country told me that they had no time to rest when they did come to town. I move, therefore, as a result of this investigation, that the sum of money be turned over to the library for new books and magazines, from which the entire community will receive benefit.”
It was seconded, remarked upon, and carried. Nell Cutter glanced from the corner of her eye at Mrs. Ramsey. That lady would be vexed, of course, so much so that they might even lose her efficient leadership. But Nell Cutter did not yet know her Mrs. Ramsey.
“Now,” said that lady briskly, cheerfully, firmly, “I will be very glad to make out the list of new books and magazines. I know the very ones that you ought to have.”
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Original page images (final is a composite of two partial pages), click to enlarge: