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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Silk Stockings
By Ouida (Marie Louise de la Ramée) (1839–1908)
 
From ‘Bébée, or Two Little Wooden Shoes’

“IF I could save a centime a day, I could buy a pair of stockings this time next year,” thought Bébée, locking her shoes with her other treasures in her drawer the next morning, and taking her broom and pail to wash down her little palace.  1
  But a centime a day is a great deal in Brabant, when one has not always enough for bare bread, and when, in the long chill winter, one must weave thread lace all through the short daylight for next to nothing at all: for there are so many women in Brabant, and every one of them, young or old, can make lace, and if one do not like the pitiful wage, one may leave it and go and die for what the master lace-makers care or know; there will always be enough, many more than enough, to twist the thread round the bobbins, and weave the bridal veils and the trains for the courts.  2
  “And besides, if I can save a centime, the Varnhart children ought to have it,” thought Bébée, as she swept the dust together. It was so selfish of her to be dreaming about a pair of stockings, when those little things often went for days on a stew of nettles.  3
  So she looked at her own pretty feet,—pretty and slender and arched, rosy and fair and uncramped by the pressure of leather,—and resigned her day-dream with a brave heart, as she put up her broom and went out to weed and hoe and trim and prune the garden that had been for once neglected the night before.  4
  “One could not move half so easily in stockings,” she thought with true philosophy, as she worked among the black fresh sweet-smelling mold, and kissed a rose now and then as she passed one.  5
  When she got into the city that day, her rush-bottomed chair, which was always left upside down in case rain should fall in the night, was set ready for her; and on its seat was a gay, gilded box, such as rich people give away full of bonbons.  6
  Bébée stood and looked from the box to the Broodhuis, from the Broodhuis to the box; she glanced around, but no one had come there so early as she, except the tinker, who was busy quarreling with his wife, and letting his smelting-fire burn a hole in his breeches.  7
  “The box was certainly for her, since it was set upon her chair.”—Bébée pondered a moment; then little by little opened the lid.  8
  Within, on a nest of rose-satin, were two pair of silk stockings!—real silk!—with the prettiest clocks worked up their sides in color!  9
  Bébée gave a little scream, and stood still, the blood hot in her cheeks. No one heard her: the tinker’s wife, who alone was near, having just wished Heaven to send a judgment on her husband, was busy putting out his smoking small-clothes. It is a way that women and wives have, and they never see the bathos of it.  10
  The Place filled gradually.  11
  The customary crowds gathered. The business of the day began underneath the multitudinous tones of the chiming bells. Bébée’s business began too; she put the box behind her with a beating heart, and tied up her flowers.  12
  It was fairies, of course! but they had never set a rush-bottomed chair on its legs before, and this action of theirs frightened her.  13
  It was rather an empty morning. She sold little, and there was the more time to think.  14
  About an hour after noon, a voice addressed her,—  15
  “Have you more moss-roses for me?”  16
  Bébée looked up with a smile, and found some. It was her companion of the cathedral. She had thought much of the red shoes and the silver clasps, but she had thought nothing at all of him.  17
  “You are not too proud to be paid to-day?” he said, giving her a silver franc—he would not alarm her with any more gold; she thanked him, and slipped it in her little leathern pouch, and went on sorting some clove-pinks.  18
  “You do not seem to remember me?” he said with a little sadness.  19
  “Oh, I remember you,” said Bébée, lifting her frank eyes. “But you know I speak to so many people, and they are all nothing to me.”  20
  “Who is anything to you?” It was softly and insidiously spoken, but it awoke no echo.  21
  “Vanhart’s children,” she answered him instantly. “And old Annémie by the wharfside—and Tambour—and Antoine’s grave—and the starling—and of course, above all, the flowers.”  22
  “And the fairies, I suppose? though they do nothing for you.”  23
  She looked at him eagerly:—  24
  “They have done something to-day. I have found a box, and some stockings—such beautiful stockings! Silk ones! Is it not very odd?”  25
  “It is more odd they should have forgotten you so long. May I see them?”  26
  “I cannot show them to you now. Those ladies are going to buy. But you can see them later—if you wait.”  27
  “I will wait and paint the Broodhuis.”  28
  “So many people do that: you are a painter then?”  29
  “Yes—in a way.”  30
  He sat down on an edge of the stall, and spread his things there, and sketched, whilst the traffic went on around them. He was very many years older than she; handsome, with a dark and changeful and listless face; he wore brown velvet, and had a red ribbon at his throat; he looked a little as Egmont might have done when wooing Claire.  31
  Bébée, as she sold the flowers and took the change fifty times in the hour, glanced at him now and then, and watched the movements of his hands—she could not have told why.  32
  Always among men and women, always in the crowds of the streets, people were nothing to her; she went through them as through a field of standing corn,—only in the field she would have tarried for poppies, and in the town she tarried for no one.  33
  She dealt with men as with women: simply, truthfully, frankly, with the innocent fearlessness of a child. When they told her she was pretty, she smiled; it was just as they said that her flowers were sweet.  34
  But this man’s hands moved so swiftly; and as she saw her Broodhuis growing into color and form beneath them, she could not choose but look now and then, and twice she gave her change wrong.  35
  He spoke to her rarely, and sketched on and on in rapid bold strokes the quaint graces and massive richness of the Maison du Roi.  36
  There is no crowd so busy in Brabant that it will not find leisure to stare. The Fleming or the Walloon has nothing of the Frenchman’s courtesy: he is rough and rude; he remains a peasant even when town-bred, and the surly insolence of the “Gueux” is in him still. He is kindly to his fellows, though not to beasts; he is shrewd, patient, thrifty, industrious, and good in very many ways, but civil never.  37
  A good score of them left off their occupations and clustered round the painter, staring, chattering, pushing, pointing, as though a brush had never been seen in all the land of Rubens.  38
  Bébée, ashamed of her people, got up from her chair and rebuked them.  39
  “O men of Brussels, fie then, for shame!” she called to them as clearly as a robin sings. “Did never you see a drawing before? and are there not saints and martyrs enough to look at in the galleries? and have you never some better thing to do than to gape wide-mouthed at a stranger? What laziness—ah! just worthy of a people who sleep and smoke while their dogs work for them! Go away, all of you; look, there comes the gendarme,—it will be the worse for you.—Sir, sit under my stall; they will not dare trouble you then.”  40
  He moved under the awning, thanking her with a smile; and the people, laughing, shuffled unwillingly aside and let him paint on in peace. It was only little Bébée; but they had spoilt the child from her infancy, and were used to obey her.  41
  The painter took a long time. He set about it with the bold ease of one used to all the intricacies of form and color, and he had the skill of a master. But he spent more than half the time looking idly at the humors of the populace, or watching how the treasures of Bébée’s garden went away one by one in the hands of strangers.  42
  Meanwhile, ever and again, sitting on the edge of her stall, with his colors and brushes tossed out on the board, he talked to her; and with the soft imperceptible skill of long practice in those arts, he drew out the details of her little simple life.  43
  There were not always people to buy; and whilst she rested and sheltered the flowers from the sun, she answered him willingly,—and in one of her longer rests showed him the wonderful stockings.  44
  “Do you think it could be the fairies?” she asked him a little doubtfully.  45
  It was easy to make her believe any fantastical nonsense; but her fairies were ethereal divinities. She could scarcely believe that they had laid that box on her chair.  46
  “Impossible to doubt it!” he replied unhesitatingly. “Given a belief in fairies at all, why should there be any limit to what they can do? It is the same with the saints, is it not?”  47
  “Yes,” said Bébée thoughtfully.  48
  The saints were mixed up in her imagination with the fairies in an intricacy that would have defied the best reasonings of Father Francis.  49
  “Well, then, you will wear the stockings, will you not? Only, believe me, your feet are far prettier without them.”  50
  Bébée laughed happily, and took another peep in the cozy rose-satin nest. But her little face had a certain perplexity. Suddenly she turned on him.  51
  “Did not you put them there?”  52
  “I? never!”  53
  “Are you quite sure?”  54
  “Quite; but why ask?”  55
  “Because,” said Bébée, shutting the box resolutely and pushing it a little away, “because I would not take it if you did. You are a stranger, and a present is a debt, so Antoine always said.”  56
  “Why take a present, then, from the Varnhart children, or your old friend who gave you the clasps?”  57
  “Ah, that is very different. When people are poor, very, very poor, equally poor, the one with the other, little presents that they save for and make with such a difficulty are just things that are a pleasure; sacrifices: like your sitting up with a sick person at night, and then she sits up with you another year when you want it. Do you not know?”  58
  “I know you talk very prettily. But why should you not take any one else’s present, though he may not be poor?”  59
  “Because I could not return it.”  60
  “Could you not?”  61
  The smile in his eyes dazzled her a little; it was so strange, and yet had so much light in it: but she did not understand him one whit.  62
  “No; how could I?” she said earnestly. “If I were to save for two years, I could not get francs enough to buy anything worth giving back; and I should be so unhappy, thinking of the debt of it always. Do tell me if you put those stockings there?”  63
  “No,” he looked at her, and the trivial lie faltered and died away; the eyes, clear as crystal, questioned him so innocently.  64
  “Well, if I did?” he said frankly, “you wished for them: what harm was there? Will you be so cruel as to refuse them from me?”  65
  The tears sprang into Bébée’s eyes. She was sorry to lose the beautiful box, but more sorry he had lied to her.  66
  “It was very kind and good,” she said regretfully. “But I cannot think why you should have done it, as you had never known me at all. And indeed, I could not take them, because Antoine would not let me if he were alive; and if I gave you a flower every day all the year round I should not pay you the worth of them—it would be quite impossible; and why should you tell me falsehoods about such a thing? a falsehood is never a thing for a man.”  67
  She shut the box and pushed it towards him, and turned to the selling of her bouquets. Her voice shook a little as she tied up a bunch of mignonette and told the price of it.  68
  Those beautiful stockings! why had she ever seen them, and why had he told her a lie?  69
  It made her heart heavy. For the first time in her brief life the Broodhuis seemed to frown between her and the sun.  70
  Undisturbed, he painted on and did not look at her.  71
  The day was nearly done. The people began to scatter. The shadows grew very long. He painted, not glancing once elsewhere than at his study. Bébée’s baskets were quite empty.  72
  She rose, and lingered, and regarded him wistfully: he was angered; perhaps she had been rude? Her little heart failed her.  73
  If he would only look up!  74
  But he did not look up; he kept his handsome dark face studiously over the canvas of the Broodhuis. She would have seen a smile in his eyes if he had lifted them; but he never raised his lids.  75
  Bébée hesitated: take the stockings she would not; but perhaps she had refused them too roughly. She wished so that he would look up and save her speaking first; but he knew what he was about too warily and well to help her thus.  76
  She waited awhile, then took one little red moss-rosebud that she had saved all day in a corner of her basket, and held it out to him frankly, shyly, as a peace-offering.  77
  “Was I rude? I did not mean to be. But I cannot take the stockings; and why did you tell me that falsehood?”  78
  He took the rosebud and rose too, and smiled; but he did not meet her eyes.  79
  “Let us forget the whole matter: it is not worth a sou. If you do not take the box, leave it: it is of no use to me.”  80
  “I cannot take it.”  81
  She knew she was doing right. How was it that he could make her feel as though she were acting wrongly?  82
  “Leave it then, I say. You are not the first woman, my dear, who has quarreled with a wish fulfilled, It is a way your sex has of rewarding gods and men. Here, you old witch—here is a treasure-trove for you. You can sell it for ten francs in the town anywhere.”  83
  As he spoke he tossed the casket and the stockings in it to an old decrepit woman, who was passing by with a baker’s cart drawn by a dog; and not staying to heed her astonishment, gathered his colors and easel together.  84
  The tears swam in Bébée’s eyes as she saw the box whirled through the air.  85
  She had done right—she was sure she had done right.  86
 
 
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