Mary Webb


'In affection and esteem'

1842 words

Miss Myrtle Brown had never, since she unwillingly began her earthly course, received the gift of a box or a bouquet of flowers. She used to think, as she trudged away to the underground station every day, to go and stitch buttonholes in a big London shop, that it would have been nice if on one of her late returns, she had found a bunch of roses--red, with thick, lustrous petals, deeply sweet, or white, with their rare fragrance--awaiting her on her table. It was, of course, an impossible dream. She ought to be glad enough to have a table at all, and a loaf to put on it. She ought to be grateful to those above for letting her have a roof over her head.

'You might,' she apostrophized herself; as she lit her gas-ring and put on the kettle, 'not have a penny for this slot. You might, Myrtle Brown, not have a spoonful of tea to put in this pot. Be thankful!'

And she was thankful to Providence, to her landlady, to her employer, who sweated his workers, to the baker for bringing her loaf, to the milkman for leaving her half a pint of milk on Sundays, to the landlady's cat for refraining from drinking it.

To all these, in her anxious and sincere heart, she gave thanks. She had enough to keep body and soul together. How dared she, then, desire anything so inordinate as a bouquet?

'You might,' she remarked, holding up the teapot to get the last drop, 'be sleeping on the Embankment. Others as good as you, as industrious as you, sleep there every night, poor souls.'

Yet she could not help thinking, when she put out her light and lay down, of the wonderful moment if she ever did receive a bouquet.

Think of unpacking the box! Think of seeing on the outside, 'Cut Flowers Immediate,' undoing the string, taking off the paper, lifting the lid!

What then? Ah, violets, perhaps, or roses; lilies of the valley, whiter than belief in their startling bright leaves; lilac or pale pink peonies or mimosa with its benignant warm sweetness.

The little room would be like a greenhouse--like one of the beautiful greenhouses at Kew--with the passionate purity of tall lilies; with pansies, softly creased; with cowslips in tight bunches, and primroses edged with dark leaves, and daffodils with immense frail cups. She would borrow jam-pots from the landlady, and it would take all evening to arrange them. And the room would be wonderful--like heaven. The flowers would pour out incense, defeating the mustiness of the house and the permanent faint scent of cabbage.

To wake, slowly and luxuriously, on a Sunday morning, into that company--what bliss!

Red roses at the bed's head, white roses at the foot. On the table, pinks. Not a few flowers; not just a small box. Many, many flowers--all the sweetness the world owed her.

She dimly felt that it owed her something. All those buttonholes! Yes. There was a debt of beauty. She was the world's creditor for so much of colour and perfume, golden petals, veined mauve chalices, velvet purples, passion flower, flower of the orange. She was its creditor for small daisies and immense sunflowers; for pink water-lilies acquainted with liquid deeps; for nameless blooms, rich, streaked with strange fantastic hues, plucked in Efland; for starred branches dripping with the honeys of Paradise.

'Dr. to Myrtle Brown, the World. Item, love and beauty. Item, leisure. Item, sunlight, laughter and the heart's desire.'

She might, of course, out of her weekly wage, buy a bunch of flowers. She did occasionally. But that was not quite the perfect thing, not quite what she desired. The centre of all the wonder was to be the little bit of pasteboard with her name on it, and the sender's name, and perhaps a few words of greeting. She had heard that this was the custom in sending a bouquet to anyone--a great actress or prima donna. And on birthdays it was customary, and at funerals.

Birthdays! Suppose, now, she received such a parcel on her birthday. She had had so many birthdays, and they had all been so very much alike. A tomato with her tea, perhaps, and a cinema afterwards. Once it had been a pantomime, the landlady having been given a ticket, and having passed it on in consideration of some help with needlework.

Miss Brown liked the Transformation Scene. She liked the easy way in which the ladies who had been reclining on sharp, green peaks of ice in a snowbound country were suddenly, at the ringing of a bell, changed into languid, rosy summer nymphs with as many blossoms about them as even she could desire. She supposed they were only paper flowers and trees of cardboard, but still it would be pleasant to recline in a warm rosy light and see rows and rows of pleased faces. Yes. If she had been younger, she might have become a transformation fairy. She mentioned this when thanking the landlady for a pleasant evening.

'What? Go as one of those brazen girls? Dear me, Miss Brown, what next?'

'They only just lie there in a nice dress to be looked at,' said Miss Brown, with spirit.

'There's some,' replied the landlady darkly, 'as do more harm, just lying still to be looked at, than respectable people would do in a thousand miles.'

'I'm not young enough, anyway.'

'No. You don't get any younger. Time soon passes.'

She minced the meat for the first-floor dinners as if Time and Death were on the chopping-board.

Myrtle Brown was depressed at the idea of Time and Death marching upon her. She realized that there would come a time when she could not make any more buttonholes. She knew she ought to be saving every penny against the rainy day which, once it came, would go on. Even a bunch of snowdrops would not do.

'There'll come a day,' she said, as she washed her cup and saucer after a frugal tea, 'when you'll want a penny, when a penny may be life or death. Save, and be thankful!'

Yet always in her heart was the longing for some great pageant, some splendid gift of radiance. How she could enjoy it! With what zest she would tell over every smallest bit of it! Nothing that they could give her would go unnoticed. Every petal, every leaf would be told over like a rosary.

But nobody seemed anxious to inaugurate any pageant. Nobody wanted to light a candle at Miss Brown's shrine. And at last, on a bleak winter day when everything had gone wrong and she had been quite unable to be grateful to anybody, she made a reckless decision. She would provide a pageant for herself. Before she began to save up for the rainy day, she would save up for the pageant.

'After that,' she remarked, carefully putting crumbs on the window-sill for the birds, 'you'll be quiet. You'll be truly thankful, Myrtle Brown.'

She began to scrimp and save. Week by week the little hoard increased. A halfpenny here and a penny there--it was wonderful how soon she amassed a shilling. So great was her determination that, before her next birthday, she had got together two pounds.

'It's a wild and wicked thing to spend two pounds on what neither feeds nor clothes,' she said. She knew it would be impossible to tell the landlady. She would never hear the last of it. No! It must be a dead secret. Nobody must know where those flowers came from. What was the word people used when you were not to know the name?

'Anon'--something. Yes. The flowers must be 'anon.' There was a little shop at Covent Garden where they would sell retail. Tuberoses, they sometimes had. Wonderful things were heaped in hampers. She would go there on the day before her birthday.

'You ought,' she said, as she drank her cup of cocoa at five o'clock on a winter morning, 'to be downright ashamed of what you're going to do this morning. Spending forty shillings on the lust of the eye!'

But this rather enhanced the enjoyment, and she was radiant as she surveyed early London from the bus.

To-morrow morning, not much later than this, it would arrive--the alabaster box of precious nard.

She descended at Covent Garden, walking through the piled crates of greenstuff, the casks of fruit, the bursting sacks of potatoes, the large flat frails of early narcissi, exhaling fragrance. She came to her Mecca.

The shopkeeper was busy. He saw a shabby little woman with an expression of mingled rapture and anxiety.

'Well, ma'am, what is it?' he asked. 'Cabbage?'

Cabbage! And she had come for the stored wealth of a hundred flower-gardens!

'No, sir!' she replied with some asperity. 'I want some flowers. Good flowers. They are to be packed and sent to a lady I know, to-night.'

'Vi'lets?'

'Yes. Vi'lets and tuberoses and lilies and pheasant-eye, and maidenhair and mimosa and a few dozen roses, and some of those early polyanthus and gilly-flowers.'

'Wait a minute! Wait a minute! I suppose you know they'll cost a pretty penny?'

'I can pay for what I order,' said Miss Brown with hauteur. 'Write down what I say, add it up as you go on, put down box and postage, and I'll pay.'

The shopkeeper did as he was told.

Miss Brown went from flower to flower, like a sad-coloured butterfly, softly touching a petal, softly sniffing a rose. She was bliss incarnate. The shopkeeper, realizing that something unusual was afoot, gave generous measure. At last the order was complete, the address given, the money--all the two pounds--paid.

'Any card enclosed?' queried the shopman.

Triumphantly Miss Brown produced one.

'In affection and esteem.'

'A good friend, likely?' queried the shopman.

'Almost my only friend,' replied Miss Brown.

Through Covent Garden's peculiarly glutinous mud she went in a beatitude, worked in a beatitude, went home in a dream.

She slept brokenly, as children do on Christmas Eve, and woke early, listening for the postman's ring.

Hark! Yes! A ring.

But the landlady did not come up. It must have been only the milkman. Another wait. Another ring. No footsteps. The baker, she surmised.

Where was the postman? He was very late. If he only knew, how quick he would have been!

Another pause. An hour. Nothing. It was long past his time. She went down.

'Postman?' said the landlady, 'why, the postman's been gone above an hour! Parcel? No, nothing for you. There did a parcel come for Miss Brown, but it was a great expensive box with "Cut Flowers" on it, so I knew it wasn't for you and I sent it on straight to Miss Elvira Brown the actress, who was used to lodge here. She was always getting stacks of flowers, so I knew it was for her.'