Read an Excerpt
Writing Herself Out
Emily Byrd Starr was alone in her room, in the old new Moon farmhouse at Blair Water, one stormy night in a February of the olden years before the world turned upside down. She was at that moment as perfectly happy as any human being is ever permitted to be. Aunt Elizabeth, in consideration of the coldness of the night, had allowed her to have a fire in her little fireplace – a rare favour. It was burning brightly and showering a red-golden light over the small, immaculate room, with its old-time furniture and deep-set, wide-silled windows, to whose frosted, blue-white panes the snowflakes clung in little wreaths. It lent depth and mystery and allure to the mirror on the wall which reflected Emily as she sat coiled on the ottoman before the fire, writing, by the light of two tall, white candles – which were the only approved means of illumination at New Moon – in a brand-new, glossy, black "Jimmy-book" which Cousin Jimmy had given her that day. Emily had been very glad to get it, for she had filled the one he had given her the preceding autumn, and for over a week she had suffered acute pangs of suppression because she could not write in a non-existent "diary."
Her diary had become a dominant factor in her young, vivid life. It had taken the place of certain "letters" she had written in her childhood to her dead father, in which she had been wont to "write out" her problems and worries – for even in the magic years when one is almost fourteen one has problems and worries, especially when one is under the strict and well-meant but not over-tender governance of an AuntElizabeth Murray. Sometimes Emily felt that if it were not for her diary she would have flown into little bits by reason of consuming her own smoke. The fat, black "Jimmy-book" seemed to her like a personal friend and a safe confidant for certain matters which burned for expression and yet were too combustible to be trusted to the ears of any living being. Now blank books of any sort were not easy to come by at New Moon, and if it had not been for Cousin Jimmy, Emily might never have had one. Certainly Aunt Elizabeth would not give her one – Aunt Elizabeth thought Emily wasted far too much time "over her scribbling nonsense" as it was – and Aunt Laura did not dare to go contrary to Aunt Elizabeth in this – more by token that Laura herself really thought Emily might be better employed. Aunt Laura was a jewel of a woman, but certain things were holden from her eyes.
Now Cousin Jimmy was never in the least frightened of Aunt Elizabeth, and when the notion occurred to him that Emily probably wanted another "blank book," that blank book materialised straightway, in defiance of Aunt Elizabeth's scornful glances. He had gone to Shrewsbury that very day, in the teeth of the rising storm, for no other reason than to get it. So Emily was happy, in her subtle and friendly firelight, while the wind howled and shrieked through the great old trees to the north of New Moon, sent huge, spectral wreaths of snow whirling across Cousin Jimmy's famous garden, drifted the sundial completely over, and whistled eerily through the Three Princesses – as Emily always called the three tall Lombardies in the corner of the garden.
"I love a storm like this at night when I don't have to go out in it," wrote Emily. "Cousin Jimmy and I had a splendid evening planning out our garden and choosing our seeds and plants in the catalogue. Just where the biggest drift is making, behind the summer-house, we are going to have a bed of pink asters, and we are going to give the Golden Ones – who are dreaming under four feet of snow – a background of flowering almond. I love to plan out summer days like this, in the midst of a storm. It makes me feel as if I were winning a victory over something ever so much bigger than myself, just because I have a brain and the storm is nothing but blind, white force – terrible, but blind. I have the same feeling when I sit here cosily by my own dear fire, and hear it raging all around me, and laugh at it. And that is just because over a hundred years ago great-great-grandfather Murray built this house and built it well. I wonder if, a hundred years from now, anybody will win a victory over anything because of something I left or did. It is an inspiring thought.
"I drew that line of italics before I thought. Mr. Carpenter says I use far too many italics. He says it is an Early Victorian obsession, and I must strive to cast it off. I concluded I would when I looked in the dictionary, for it is evidently not a nice thing to be obsessed, though it doesn't seem quite so bad as to be possessed. There I go again: but I think the italics are all right this time.
"I read the dictionary for a whole hour – till Aunt Elizabeth got suspicious and suggested that it would be much better for me to be knitting my ribbed stockings. She couldn't see exactly why it was wrong for me to be poring over the dictionary but she felt sure it must be because she never wants to do it. I love reading the dictionary. (Yes, those italics are necessary, Mr. Carpenter. An ordinary 'love' wouldn't express my feeling at all!) Words are such fascinating things. (I caught myself at the first syllable that time!) The very sound of some of them – 'haunted' – 'mystic' – for example, gives me the flash. (Oh, dear! But I have to italicize the flash. It isn't ordinary – it's the most extraordinary and wonderful thing in my whole life. When it comes I feel as if a door had swung open in a wall before me and given me a glimpse of – yes, of heaven. More italics! Oh, I see why Mr. Carpenter scolds! I must break myself of the habit.)
"Big words are never beautiful – 'incriminating' – 'obstreperous' – 'international' – 'unconstitutional.' They make me think of those horrible big dahlias and chrysanthemums Cousin Jimmy took me to see at the exhibition in Charlottetown last fall. We couldn't see anything lovely in them, though some people thought them wonderful. Cousin Jimmy's little yellow 'mums, like pale, fairy-like stars shining against the fir copse in the north-west corner of the garden, were ten times more beautiful. But I am wandering from my subject – also a bad habit of mine, according to Mr. Carpenter. He says I must (the italics are his this time!) learn to concentrate – another big word and a very ugly one.
"But I had a good time over that dictionary – much better than I had over the ribbed stockings. I wish I could have a pair – just one pair – of silk stockings. Ilse has three. Her father gives her everything she wants, now that he has learned to love her. But Aunt Elizabeth says silk stockings are immoral. I wonder why – any more than silk dresses.
"Speaking of silk dresses, Aunt Janey Milburn, at Derry Pond – she isn't any relation really, but everybody calls her that – has made a vow that she will never wear a silk dress until the whole heathen world is converted to Christianity. That is very fine. I wish I could be as good as that, but I couldn't – I love silk too much. It is so rich and sheeny. I would like to dress in it all the time, and if I could afford to I would – though I suppose every time I thought of dear old Aunt Janey and the unconverted heathen I would feel conscience-stricken. However, it will be years, if ever, before I can afford to buy even one silk dress, and meanwhile I give some of my egg money every month to missions. (I have five hens of my own now, all descended from the grey pullet Perry gave me on my twelfth birthday.) If ever I can buy that one silk dress I know what it is going to be like. Not black or brown or navy blue – sensible, serviceable colors, such as New Moon Murrays always wear – oh, dear, no! It is to be of shot silk, blue in one light, silver in others, like a twilight sky, glimpsed through a frosted window pane – with a bit of lace-foam here and there, like those little feathers of snow clinging to my window-pane. Teddy says he will paint me in it and call it 'The Ice Maiden,' and Aunt Laura smiles and says, sweetly and condescendingly, in a way I hate, even in dear Aunt Laura,
"'What use would such a dress be to you, Emily?'
"It mightn't be of any use, but I would feel in it as if it were a part of me – that it grew on me and wasn't just bought and put on. I want one dress like that in my lifetime. And a silk petticoat underneath it – and silk stockings!
From the Trade Paperback edition.