From the Relief Society Magazine, December 1955–
The Scarlet Cloak of Love
By Lane Stanaway Christian
Cora May Ainslee stood at the ironing board in the cluttered dining room, a tall, slender figure in a blue housecoat. A curtain of gleaming wheat-colored hair fell across her narrow pixie face as she inclined her head intently toward her work, and, with each stamp of the iron, she impressed her intense dislike of winter on the damp cloth that covered her old navy gabardine skirt.
Her mind had swung round and round in circles that morning examining every possibility for a winter coat of some kind. The coats that had come in clothing boxes from more affluent relatives had long since been fashioned in to warm outer garments for the smaller children. Some girls could borrow their mothers’ coats, she thought, but I can’t remember when Mom last had a new coat. If only I hadn’t grown so this last year!
True, the rip in her old coat where she’d caught it on the fence near the barn was mended so neatly that it scarcely showed at all, but the coat was unfashionably short, and the sleeves left her slim wrists bare inches above the delicate knuckle bones.
Yes, winter was a disappointment. Last summer when she’d begun to go around with Paul Woodland she’d been able to get by, and even until now she’d worn the old coat regally slung over her shoulders, and just let it drop onto the car seat before they went into the movie, dance, or church meeting; hugging herself and laughing as though it were all a mad adventure. But today was different!
Today she would go with Paul to his home for dinner, and, because the shabby, nondescript coat was uppermost in her mind, she was quite sure that Paul’s folks would not think it any mad adventure, if she suddenly appeared coatless and shivering. It was more likely they would think her quite mad, period! Even label her a careless girl quite unsuited for their Paul.
“I’m not really afraid of Paul’s folks,” Cora May reminded herself sternly. “They’ve been wonderful to me!”
It buoyed her spirits to recall the holiday dinner that Paul’s folks had shared with hers. Mr. Woodland had seemed to enjoy himself! He’d gone out of his way to play with the smaller children. Mrs. Woodland had seemed to enjoy herself, too, helping Cora May and Mom in the kitchen, stirring gravy, mashing potatoes, cutting vegetables for the salad. Their tongues had flown as fast as their fingers after dinner to make short work of the stacks of dishes. And, later, when Mom showed Mrs. Woodland how to make a crochet edging like the one on the bathroom towels, she’d seemed genuinely thrilled.
Yet when Cora May went to the Woodland home, it all seemed different somehow. There wasn’t the noisy confusion and laughter for one thing. The older Woodland boys were married, Paul was the youngest, and he was away at school during the fall and winter months. There was an atmosphere, almost austere, about the Woodlands’ home; the thick, soft carpeting in the living room, mahogany furniture that always gleamed with a high polish; all were formidably immaculate, and Cora May stepped carefully for fear she might disarrange something.
She kept telling herself that it was foolish of her, and yet she always managed to feel a little bit frowsy and unkempt in front of the Woodlands, and today she knew that the old coat was not going to add any to her assurance.
She bit her lip gently, to keep back the quick rush of tears. She did so want everything to be perfect today, because Paul had hinted very broadly in his last weekly letter from school that he had a surprise for her, and Cora May was quite sure that it was … the ring!
“Look, Cory,” Brandy interrupted her thoughts, holding up a pair of loafers so black and shining that their vamps gleamed like mirrors. “Mutton tallow’s best for shining. Didn’t I polish them well this time?”
Cora May grinned at her brother as she set the iron down long enough to slip her narrow bare feet into the shoes.
“You’re my darling!” she exclaimed.”I’ll bet Santa will treat you well this year!”
She ran her fingers lovingly through his tumbled hair and was rewarded with a grin that wriggled his mustache of breakfast cocoa rakishly.
“Tell me again what we’re going to do today, Cory,” Brandy asked for the tenth time, eyes alight with anticipation.
“Who’s a pest?” Cora May teased, testing the iron against her finger.
“Please, Cory.” The pleading in his small voice was irresistible.
“Well, after lunch Paul is coming for us,” she began.
“In his jalopy?” Brandy put in.
“No!” Cora May’s eyes twinkled, and her face wore its story-telling look. “He’s coming in a pumpkin with six white rats and a liveried footman.”
“Aw! You’re spoofing!”
She could tell that Brandy was enjoying it, but truth was more fascinating to him right now than stories.
“Well, maybe he’s coming in his jalopy this time, and we’re going to town. We’ll drive right up to the park where all the children are waiting …”
“An’ then we hear the bells and Sandy Claws comes and says hello and all the kids get a present!”Brandy finished triumphantly.
Cory hugged him tight to her for a moment before she hung her skirt away carefully, and put the ironing board back into the big linen press.
“Want your Christmas present a little early?” Mrs. Ainslee asked, coming into the room with a coat hanger wrapped and swaddled in newspapers.
For a moment hope leaped in Cora May’s heart, but no! The wrappings were too short to cover a coat, and besides, who knew better than she that there hadn’t been money from milk check, pigs, or eggs for a long time.
Cora had earned the money herself last fall for a winter coat and had even picked it out. It seemed as though she’d crawled a million miles on her knees dragging a harness, picking up potatoes to earn the money. And then, right after that, while she still had the money tucked away in the bottom of an old chocolate box in her bureau drawer, Brandy had another of his throat infections. The worst he’d ever had this time. The doctor had said that he must have his tonsils out. The doctor would wait for his money, but the hospital wouldn’t wait. So there went Cora May’s coat! Strange, though, she hadn’t felt one bit of regret at the time, and, even now, the thoughts of the change in Brandy could warm her heart more than any coat. Why, he hadn’t had a sick day this winter!
The family gathered around to watch Cora May unwrap her Christmas present. Even father had been summoned from the barn. He came in stamping the snow from his feet in the back entry, swinging his long muscular arms to bring a glow back into his chilled body. Cora May noticed the way his eyes swung quickly to her mother. Ern and Bill crowded in after her father, trying to see over his tall stooped shoulders, then giving up to duck under his arms.
They all made way for Pete and his crutches. With the dexterity of twelve years of practice, Pete swung his twisted lower limbs into a chair, and Phyllis, his able-bodied twin, slid the crutches quickly out of sight under the dining table.
“It’s blue! It’s blue!” Colleen shouted, shoving her jacks and ball into the pocket of her jeans.
Bill’s hand covered Colleen’s mouth quickly. “Don’t you dare tell!” He spoke in a voice that just recently had begun to slide up and down the scale without warning.
Mom gave the already clean table one more wipe with the dish towel, and Cora May started to remove the sewing pins with eager fingers. She pulled the wrappings away carefully, and then, when the last covering was lifted, there was a moment of utter silence in the room, followed by a medley of indrawn gasps.
It was blue! The sapphire blue of Cora May’s enchanted, starry eyes – the most breathtakingly beautiful blouse she had ever seen.
“Real silk!” She breathed, “and the ruffles …! I … I … I’m nearly speechless!”
Tears stood in her eyes, and she straightened so they wouldn’t fall on the blouse. One slim, trembling forefinger touched a ruffle, and a puzzled look crossed her face. There was something about the wonderful fabric … something …
“Mom!” She sought her mother’s eyes, caught the second’s trembling of the older woman’s mouth. “It’s the wedding robe. The one Grandmother gave you, that she wore, and you wore …Oh! Mom!”
“I don’t care.” Mom looked back defiantly. “It wasn’t doing anyone any good in that trunk. Just a nuisance to shake out and air and rewrap every year. I was going to give it to you, anyway, when you and Paul…” She turned away, her hands lingering fora moment on a fold of the material. “But you’re so tall, like your father. Gram and I were short. You couldn’t have worn it like it was. You can wear it with a suit on your wedding trip.”
Gradually the excitement that had built up in the room died away, leaving a quiet happiness in its place. Colleen went back to her jacks and ball, and Pete and Phyllis took up their task of sewing rags for a rug they were braiding for Pete’s room. Dad, Bill, and Ern went back to the chores.
Cora May examined the blouse carefully, held it up to her for her mother’s approval, laid it down again, slipping the muslin padded hanger carefully into the shoulders, while Mom explained, as women do, the details of design. There were four rows of dainty narrow ruffles on the tiny cap sleeves, and four more in a half circle on the bodice.
“I never thought I’d ever own anything so beautiful in my life,” Cora May exclaimed for the third time. “I can hardly wait for Paul to see it.”
She pressed her glowing face for a moment against her mother’s cheek, love swelling her heart almost painfully, clogging her throat with a lump of grateful tears.
“How can I ever thank you?”
She watched as Mom turned away, blew her nose vigorously, and smoothed the apron across her thickened waist.
“I think the water in the tank is hot enough for your bath. Best you get to it before someone else beats you to the bathroom,” Mom tried to speak matter-of-factly.
Paul arrived early, flatteringly early, as usual. Cora May was watching Mom shape the big pan of bread dough into loaves.
“I feel lazy and useless, letting you do my job,” she said, jumping off the stool. “Let me grease the pans.”
“Don’t even come near in all your best clothes.” Mom’s hands made quick work of the pans, and then she slapped a bubbly chunk of dough on to the board, twisted it expertly and slapped it into place. “Cora May, you do look pretty!”
“He’s here! He’s here!” Brandy shouted, catapulting himself into the kitchen.
Cora May laughed. The freckled tip of Brandy’s nose was white where he’d kept it pressed against the parlor window watching for Paul.
She could see Paul through the window over the sink, making giant strides through the deep snow of the lane, his boot buckles flapping at every step, his unzipped jacket floating out behind him.
“Why didn’t you come right in? You don’t have to knock!” Cora May scolded, answering his summons at the back door. Her glance clung hungrily to his face, memorizing again after six weeks the way his auburn hair turned in smooth waves back from his widow brow, the deep brown eyes, the lean planes of his cheeks, wide tender mouth, and deeply cleft chin.
Paul’s look was equally hungry. He made a brief pantomime of staggering back at sight of her, wiping his eyes with the back of his hands, while Mom laughed heartily at his antics.
“How do you do it?” he asked in mock disbelief. “Honest, Mom Ainslee, isn’t she prettier every time I come?”
Brandy was struggling valiantly with the pants to his snow suit. Mom finished the shaping of the last loaf of bread, and hurried to help him. Cora May tied a snowy white scarf over her head, pulled on the long white rubber boots she’d scrubbed so carefully this morning, and threw the detested gray coat over her shoulders. She hated to cover the lovely blue blouse with the ugly coat. Then, reluctantly, she shoved her arms into the too-short sleeves. She couldn’t be able to leave the coat in the car today. It was too bitterly cold.
The clock stood at one as they drove into the little park across from the railroad station. Snow glistened like diamonds under a pale sun.
“Look,” Cora May said, “it’s only one o’clock. Santa doesn’t make his appearance until two thirty.”
“How long is that, Cory? How long is that? Is it long?” Brandy’s face was a study in disappointment.
“It’s pretty long yet, partner. What do you say if we go out and see my Mom for a while?” Paul’s arm around Brandy’s shoulders was affectionately sympathetic. “Mom’s doing something you’ll be interested in.”
Cora May’s heart sank, and then, as quickly she chided herself. If she was going to marry Paul, it was time she got over this reluctance to visit his folks. She’d make herself get over it.
Paul parked the car in the driveway by the kitchen door. Cora May sat for a moment looking at the Woodlands’ house, a neat, imposing edifice of rose-colored brick, cream siding, and wide picture windows. She huddled into the shabby coat, and the back door was not closed behind them before she had shrugged out of it and hung it quickly over the back of one of the breakfast room chairs.
The usually spotless kitchen was a confusion of pots and pans and fragrant baking. The breakfast nook table was covered with row upon row of cookies. There were bells, Santa Clauses, stars, and Christmas trees. Plain cookies and cookies iced with sugar frosting and colored sprinkles.
Brandy circled the table delightedly.
Mrs. Woodland’s usually serene face was flushed. There was a streak of flour on one side of her chin, and a wisp of damp hair hung in a curl in the middle of her forehead. She shoved a pan of cookies quickly into the oven and started the hot water into the dishpan.
“You two are the answer to a mother’s prayer!” she exclaimed, measuring soap into the dish water. “I need more hands today. Dad set up the crib in the spare room, and brought the high chair up from the basement. He even helped frost the cookies, but he’s given up. I’ve a meeting at two, and I must get this mess cleaned up.”
“Let me wash!” Cora May said eagerly, reaching for the dish cloth.
“No, indeed.” Mrs. Woodland eyed Cora May. “That’s the most adorable blouse I ever saw, and, if you splash it, you’ll ruin it.” She bustled out of the room and came back with an apron for Cora May. “I’ll wash, and you and Paul dry, and maybe I will get done today.”
Between the three of them, they made quick work of the dishes. Brandy was content at the breakfast room window with two cookies of his own choosing, and a delightful view of the cedar waxwings that cavorted with crumbs and suet around the bird table in the back garden.
Cora May spread long strips of wax paper and a thin white cloth over the cookies on the table while Paul swept the floor.
Funny, she thought, I don’t feel so awkward here today. It’s more like home.
“Go in and talk to Dad for a few minutes,” Mrs. Woodland suggested. “I’ll hurry and I can ride over to the chapel with you.”
Cora May reached around to untie the sashes of the apron. She felt a warm hand close over hers, and then Paul’s arms were around her, his lips tender against her temple.
“Now I’ve got you!” He chuckled as he tied a series of knots in her apron strings. “All tied up in my kitchen where you belong!”
Cora May raised her face to Paul, her eyes star-bright with happiness. And then – the kiss, different somehow from the good night kisses they had known before. A kiss that asked a question.
“Hey,” Paul said, his mouth curved in a smile, and his eyes tender with love, “I got the cart before the horse. That was supposed to be our first engagement kiss.”
She saw the first exquisite flash of the small diamond as he opened a small box. Dreamily she watched as he fitted it on her engagement finger, and his lips sealed the vow.
“How about the second engagement kiss?”
Mutely, she offered her mouth again, her hands clinging against his wide shoulders.
“Well!” Brandy’s voice broke the spell. “You ought to be in the movies. That was just like …”
“Not quite.” Paul’s arms let her go unwillingly. “If this were the movies I’d be on my knees and Cora May would say ‘this is so sudden.’”
Their laughter pealed through the kitchen.
“What are you up to?” Mr. Woodland called from the living room.
Cora May removed the apron after a brief tussle with the knots. Half shyly she went with Paul to his father.
“Just getting engaged, is all,” Paul answered his father’s question. He pulled Cora May into the living room, holding her left hand out for his father to see.
“Well! It’s about time!” Cora May watched, startled, as Mr. Woodland jumped to his feet. “I’m sure, Cora May, that Paul inherits his good taste from me.”
A flush crept over Cora May’s neck and face as Mr. Woodland gave her a kiss on the cheek. Mrs. Woodland came in to hear the news and add her congratulations. Cora May was almost breathless with excitement.
“Now that you’re practically in the family I can impose on you, Cora May,” Mrs. Woodland said, laughing. “I still have to finish packing this one box to give to a family in need. Will you help me, dear?”
“Can Paul and I help?” Mr. Woodland called as they left the room.
“You can help best by staying there,” his wife teased. “Anyway, this is woman’s work!”
Cora May sat on a low slipper chair in the bedroom while Mrs. Woodland rummaged through drawers and closets.
At last the box was almost full. Mrs. Woodland spread a piece of newspaper across the top to protect the clothing underneath, and packed several pairs of shoes atop the paper. She stood a minute with the last pair cupped in her hand. There was a soft, tremulous look about her mouth as Cora May watched.
“Somehow I always hate to part with a pair of shoes,” she said softly, and then she giggled like a young girl. “It reminds me of something that happened when Dad and I were courting. We went to a dance one night. My sister and a boy named Delbert Brown were with us. When we danced, Sis and Del sat in the car. When Sis and Del danced, we sat in the car. It was all part of a plan that Sis and I had worked out very carefully. And everything went fine until intermission when the boys wanted to go in for punch and cookies. Then we had to tell them that we were taking turns with one pair of shoes. I thought I’d die of shame, but Dad told me later that it was the first time he realized how much he loved me.”
She wrinkled her nose, and she and Cora May laughed. Then she whirled to the closet for one last look.
“I wonder,” the older woman said with a thoughtful look on her face, “would I ever dare to wear this coat? I feel guilty every time I look at it. I couldn’t resist it at the January coat sales last winter. Even though I knew that it was far too youthful for me, that tag marked down half price was too much temptation.”
Cora May looked at the coat, and her hand went out of its own volition to stroke the soft, silky nap of the wool. It was a lovely garment, bright scarlet with deep cuffs and a luxurious stand-up collar. It was almost more than Cora May could bear to think of it going into the box when she needed a coat so badly.
With a wrench, Cora May tore her eyes away from the beautiful wrap. She mustn’t just sit here looking so hungrily atit.To cover her longing and confusion she turned back and began to fold paper across the top of the box. Someone else would wear the coat. Someone who needed it as badly as she.
“‘Cora May!” Mrs. Woodland sounded excited, and when Cora May looked up she saw the older woman measuring her with her eyes. “Stand up, dear, maybe you could wear the coat!”
In a moment Cora May was enfolded in luxurious soft warmth.
“It was made for you!” Mrs. Woodland exclaimed. “You must have it. Even if you don’t need it. Then I won’t feel so guilty about making such an unwise purchase.”
Remembering the story Mrs. Woodland had told her about the shoes, Cora May suddenly knew that she needn’t ever pretend in front of her again.
“Don’t feel that I’m doing you a favor,” she said with tears of gratitude in her eyes. “I’ve been just desperate for a coat.”
Mrs. Woodland laughed softly, “We’ve done each other a favor!”
She called Paul to take the box out to the car, and when Paul looked at Cora May in the new coat, he whistled loud and long.
“Sure glad I’ve got strings on you,” he said, “or someone might steal you away.”
“You go along, now,” his mother said, “and get the car warmed up. I just have to change my shoes and get my wraps. Oh, yes, and comb my hair a little.”
Brandy bounced on the front seat between Paul and Cora May, eager to see Santa. Paul looked over at Cora May with such an adoring expression on his face that she lowered her eyes in confusion. It was then that she noticed her feet. her boots!
“Forgot my boots. I’ll be right back,” She slipped out of the car and ran across the driveway. She let herself in quietly, picked up the boots, and leaned against the wall tugged them on. The soles of her loafers were slightly damp, and the heels caught stubbornly against the lining of the boots.
Suddenly, poised like a stork on one leg, her busy hands halted in midair, Cora May found herself eavesdropping without meaning to.
“I’m so happy for Paul. But I’m just as happy for me, too,” Mrs. Woodland was saying. “Now I know why I bought that coat! I never had a daughter of my own to buy for. I knew that coat was too young and frivolous for me when I saw it, but I couldn’t resist it. I must have bought it for my daughter, and now my daughter has it! Isn’t she a darling?”
She hurried into the kitchen, saw Cora May, and her face went pink. Cora May could feel the heat in her own face.
“Now see what I’ve done!” Mrs. Woodland cried. “You’ve already caught me talking about you, but I don’t care. It’s no secret that I love you very much.”
They ran out to the car, laughing merrily, and as Paul backed out of the driveway Cora May heard Brandy say in a plaintive voice, “When are we going to see Sandy Clause?”
Cora May patted his cheek and dropped a kiss on the tip of his freckled nose. She ran her slender fingers under the collar of the new coat and pressed it lovingly against her flushed cheeks.
“We’ll take you to see Santa right now, darling!” she exclaimed, as she and Mrs. Woodland exchanged significant winks. “I think I’ve already seen him.”