A Rose from the May-Queen’ s Crown.
“Oh dear! oh dear! What can it be he wants? If I could only tell! For he does want it so!” Margery wrung her hands in her impotence. To think she could not help him—not help him, who had been so good, so good to her!
She fell down on her knees at the bedside.
The old face upturned on the pillows could not turn to look at her thus. The restlessness grew in the haggard eyes, that seemed the only thing alive in the poor stricken body bound fast by paralysis.
“Dear Mr. Gregory, if you could only speak one word—could only tell me what to do for you!”
“One thing you must not do, Miss Margery,” said Dick Strafford’s voice, from the other side of the bed; “you must not take your face out of his sight. I can see my uncle grows more troubled when he loses sight of you.”
As she rose to her feet at his bidding, the young man looked full at her with that in his eyes, which showed a quite sufficient appreciation of the old man’s whim.
But Margery was not heeding Dick. All her thoughts were bent on poor Mr. Gregory, lying there these three days, with that hunger in his look—motionless.
“No, not quite!” cried out Margery suddenly, replying to her own thoughts. “See, his poor fingers are moving, moving. Not his hand—only his finger-tips. Oh, do you think life is coming back into them? Oh Dick, shan’t we send and have the doctor here again at once?”
In her earnestness, she did not notice how she had called his name; but Dick glowed with what appeared to her an eager hope; and no doubt was so, though not what she thought.
“Look at him, Miss Margery. If eyes could speak, his seem to me to say he does not want the doctor; he does want you.”
“The poor hand—the dear hand, that has always been doing deeds of kindness. Always, always!”
With a little inarticulate murmur of tenderness, such as one uses to a child, she put her hand on the now useless one.
More and more his fingers strove to stir under hers. What his lips could not, his eyes tried hard to tell her. So often did they glance from Margery to the small table at the bedside, that Margery touched one by one the things that stood upon it, hoping to come at his meaning.
Not the cooling drink; not the medicine phials—the bit of paper and pencil for jotting down the directions the doctor had given her?
The paper, the pencil?
His look of relief was so instantaneous, that Margery caught at it eagerly.
“Oh, do you think he could write what he wishes, if I could guide his hand?” she asked Dick, who brought her a book to put under the bit of paper on the bed.
Dick brought the book, indeed; but he looked more than doubtful, as once more she knelt down at the bedside, and put her soft hand over the restless withered one.
Yes, she was not mistaken. Slowly, and with difficulty, under her guidance a few straggling, hardly legible words were traced upon the paper:
“Watch-chain key desk will—”
There the pencil fell from the relaxing fingers. For an instant those disconnected words seemed to stare blankly out of the paper with no meaning for the two young heads bent wistfully above them.
Dick tapped his forehead significantly, standing where the old eyes could not see him.
“He’s wandering,” the gesture said plainly enough to Margery.
But the girl shook her head.
“Do you know where his watch and chain were put?” she asked quickly.
They were found presently, in the dressing case where they were laid three days ago, when at the close of her May ball, Margery came up as May Queen in her white dress and rose crown, to say good-night to the invalid giver of the May ball, her father’s old friend, and so-called guardian of the penniless orphan girl. She came up, to find him fallen in the doorway between his two rooms, half hidden by the portière; rigid and motionless in that death-in-life paralysis.
A small gold key on the watch-chain proved the key to the mysterious writing. It unlocked the desk on the writing table in view in the outer room; and as the lid flew up, there was disclosed a half unfolded paper: “Last Will and Testament—”
“That is what he wants,” began Margery, eagerly; then stopped and drew her breath short and hard, as her eyes fell upon a line of figures in the body of the will. $100,000—
“$100,000 to my nephew Richard Stafford; the rest of my property, real and personal, to be divided equally between my nephew Oliver Dean, and Margery—”
Margery read no more. With a hot blush for her inadvertence in reading anything at all, and a dim sense of wonder at the terms of the will—(for was not Oliver Dean considered old Mr. Gregory’s favorite; and was not old Mr. Gregory’s modest fortune generally estimated at somewhere about a hundred thousand?)— the girl lifted the paper from its place.
“It must be this, that your Uncle Gregory wants—” she was beginning.
The words stopped suddenly upon her lips. The color flew into her face that the next instant was strangely pale; for as she lifted the paper, her eyes fell upon something lying under it. A dead rose from the May Queen’ s crown! The May-Queen herself, and Dick Stafford looking over her shoulder into the open desk, knew it at a glance. A whitish-brown, withered Cherokee rose with its glossy green leaves.
Dick Stafford had reason good to recognize it; since he had been at some pains to send for these same hedge row blossoms, from the girl’s old home, for that occasion of the May party.
There it lay now, under the old man’s will, in the locked desk, the key of which had never been out of the old man’s possession until this moment, when he had signified his wish to have the will brought to his bedside.
The keen eyes of the old man were watching both the young people from his pillow. They were not conscious of the scrutiny; they were only conscious each of the tense look in the other’s face.
Then slowly, still not lowering his eyes from Margery, Dick Stafford stretched out his hand for the dead rose and thrust it into his breast pocket. Margery turned cold, shivering, as he did it. How furtively he did it; how guilty he looked, she said to herself with a sinking heart.
No one but Dick and she had had Cherokee roses; and what had Dick been doing at that desk?
That desk; of which he had appeared to be so profoundly ignorant, when together they looked over poor Mr. Gregory’s scrawl.
Meanwhile, Dick was regarding her with a sort of wrathful pity in his troubled eyes. Was the child mad, that she had done this thing? Had women no sense of right and justice in their unselfishness? Those two last ciphers of the 100,000 were squeezed together, as if they had been inserted afterwards. Was the child mad—in her desire to help him, Dick Stafford, to more than a paltry $1,000 left him in the will; had she not scrupled not only to defraud herself, but also Oliver Dean, who had always been considered the old man’s favorite nephew? Had she tampered with the will, leaving her rose there unawares, a silent witness against her?
He thrust it out of sight; breathlessly, not knowing what was possible to do,— only not to betray this child, who could not have known what she was doing!
As for Margery, her brain was reeling with the wild thoughts pressing on her.
Was Dick Stafford mad, that he had done this thing? Was it because he had done this thing, that he would not understand the poor old man’s writing just now? Surely, surely, he could not have added those two cramped, wedged in ciphers, and so enriched himself! It seemed clearly impossible; and yet—and yet—
That, word took Margery’s breath away; with the swift memory of Dick’s tirades against poor young men wooing rich girls, and her secret consciousness that if he had not been poor, and she with expectations from the old man who had been as a father to her, Dick would long ago have spoken. And the dainty, glossy-leaved Cherokee rose she had fastened in his buttonhole, the night of the ball—
Margery turned sharply away, as he thrust it in his breast. With fire in her eyes, but a deathly pallor in her face, she moved back to the bed, the will in her hand. She could not deny the command, the entreaty, in the old man’s eyes. She had laid it, folded close, under his hand. But he would have it unfolded; how could she deny him that, either? She opened it, and held it out to him, slowly, reluctantly; yet she would not meet his eyes as he read it; nor herself read in them the story of Dick Stafford’s sin. She turned aside, and busied herself with arranging the phials on the stand beside the bed.
The click of the door presently startled her into glancing over her shoulder at it. It was Dick leaving the room. As she turned back, the restless fingers were still moving, moving, as though they vainly strove to reach the pencil. The restless eyes met hers again; not to be gainsaid.
Dick had gone; no harm need be done she told her quailing heart. She flung herself down on her knees at the bedside; she put the pencil once more into the helpless fingers, guiding them. Ah, how she watched for the irregular, hardly legible words they formed with so much difficulty! Her breath came fast; there was a mist before her eyes.
“Pair young fools. Will all right. Oliver’s rose.”
Margery laid her hot cheek against the weary hand, from which she drew away the paper, and hurried to the bell, pulling it vehemently again and again.
As the door was opening:
“Send Mr. Dick here—at once, at once, do you hear?” she cried to the servant she supposed answering her summons.
But this was Dick himself; who came hastily forward and took her in his arms, seeing her changing color.
She broke into a tearful laugh.
“‘Pair of young fools—'” she cried: “Pair of young fools!'”—and thrust the penciled paper on him.
“Pair of young fools!” This May day a year later, the words were spoken again; this time by old Mr. Gregory himself.
For after all, he recovered sufficiently to explain how he had had knowledge of Oliver Dean which caused him to alter his will by the addition of the two ciphers to convey the bulk of his fortune to Dick Stafford; who, he knew, would then be sure to marry Margery. It was the shock of that discovery of Oliver’s unworthiness, which was the cause of the paralytic seizure a moment after altering the will; and the old man fallen in the doorway between his two rooms—speechless—had seen Oliver enter, go to the open desk; the rose stolen from Margery, to provoke Dick’s jealous anger, dropping into the desk from his lapel as he lifted the will from its place. Then something had drawn the young man’s eyes to the prostrate figure staring at him; he had flung back the will, letting the spring lock slam to, and fled.
“The will might bide its time,” said Mr. Gregory; meanwhile, he would give his blessing to this pair of fools, upon this their wedding day.
Godey’s Lady’s Book, May 1892
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The plot might have been cribbed, Mrs Daffodil suggests, raising her eyebrows censoriously, from Mr William Shakespeare’s Othello, save for the murders and suicide in one and the happy ending in the other, of course. “Pair of young fools,” scarcely covers the idiocy of two young persons in love that they can, on such slender “evidence,” assume the worse of the Beloved.
The maddest merriest day of all the glad new year, indeed…
Mrs Daffodil is also thinking hard thoughts about the kindly Mr Gregory who easily could have left the bulk of his fortune to Margery, rather than to a jealous young man who the old gentleman assumes will marry the dear girl, worn out from watching at his bed-side. Why does no author ever write a story in which Dick inherits, then jilts the comparatively-portionless Margery for high life in London?
A similar strain of brutal realism may be found in these previous posts on Tennyson’s “The May Queen” Adapted for Inclement Weather and The Ideal May-Day; The Actual May-Day.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdote
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.
I’ve heard that the Rose Queen thing started in the late 19th Century … though might there have been earlier precursors, I wonder?
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There are very early accounts of crowns (as well as robes, sceptres, and shoes) for the statues of the Virgin Mary at English churches and shrines and May festivals are documented in the 17th century, but the May Queen festivities as understood by Tennyson and his contemporaries emerged, as you correctly observe, much later. They seem to have arisen in the same milieu as an interest in “ancient” customs including folklore, folk ballads, and (Mrs Daffodil shudders to say it) Morris dancing. It took an inaccurately nostalgic view of a mythic Green and Pleasant Land of happy villagers romping about the Maypole in picturesque costumes. Mrs Daffodil always associates it with the precious work of the aesthetic movement, Kate Greenaway, and Walter Crane.
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Just the ticket … and so swiftly put together, I’m in admiration at your historical acumen … then again, what else to expect from such a connoisseur of the past? 🙂
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Too too kind!
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