From the Relief Society Magazine, December 1937 –
Three Wise Girls
by Lillian McQuarrie
Willie sang from the bathroom, “I don’t want to make hist-o-ry,” and Esther, in the dining room, tittered. The bathroom door slammed suddenly with such violence the three little girls jumped.
“What did he do that for?” Ruth, the youngest, wanted to know, her blond curls bobbing.
Mother rushed in from the back porch where she was sweeping snow. It was a week before Christmas and the snow was deep.
“What was that?” Her brown eyes were startled.
“Willie’s mad at something!” Janette’s thin, dark little face clouded. “We don’t know what.”
A young man appeared in the suddenly opened doorway. One-half of his face was covered with lather. Willie was twenty-one, and Mother’s youngest brother.
“Your innocent children,” he announced with fine sarcasm, “are up to their tricks – watching me and snickering.”
Esther’s eyebrows shot up. Esther was the oldest – almost thirteen. “Mother,” she said, “we weren’t even looking at Willie. We were clearing the dishes.”
“I wish you weren’t so sensitive lately, Will,” Mother said. “I’m sure the girls would leave you alone if you didn’t get so upset every time they make a move.”
Mother went outside again, and Willie closed the bathroom door.
“What’s the matter with him?” Ruth asked in a loud whisper.
“Sh!” Janette said. “He’s in love.” She looked up at her older sister for confirmation. “Isn’t he, Esther?”
The tawny-haired Esther nodded. Little ten-year-old Ruth spread her hands and hunched her shoulders with delight. But she knew better than to make a sound. Willie was always having outbursts lately. She couldn’t understand why he had stopped playing with them, or picking them up and roughing them when they ran to meet him after work. But she had a feeling it was connected with Fay Hughes, nineteen, who lived next door.
Summer before last Fay had moved in and Willie used to slip over and talk to her on her front porch in the evening. Soon they were going driving in his old car. But now, somehow, Willie wasn’t a bit himself.
After Willie left for the office, Mother said, “Girls, I want you to be careful of Willie’s feelings.” There was sympathy in her kind, brown eyes, but a twinkle, too. “Unhappy people are likely to be cross. Or maybe we should say ‘people who are cross are unhappy.’”
Esther said, “What’s Willie unhappy about, Mother? Honestly, we didn’t do a thing to him. he was singing that old song about ‘I don’t want to make history, I just want to make love,’ and I laughed. That’s all.”
“That’s enough,” Mother said, rather crisply. The girls had an uncomfortable feeling, as Mother went upstairs, that they were guilty of something. But they did not know what it was.
“I think I know why Willie’s unhappy,” dark little Janette said, brightening. “Did you hear him talking to Daddy this morning? He didn’t know whether to buy Fay a diamond for Christmas, or himself a new car. What does he want to give Fay a diamond for, Esther?”
“So they can get engaged,” Esther said. “When you want to marry someone you give them a diamond ring and then you’re engaged.”
The blond youngest child listened, wide-eyed, but made no comment.
Two days later Willie drove home in a shiny new car. The girls heard him say to Daddy at dinner, “Well, Larry, I guess the diamond’s out.”
“Too bad, old man,” Daddy said. “But you’re young, and there are dozens of Fays in the world.”
Willie laughed, but the girls listening knew that it wasn’t a happy laugh.
When Esther came up to bed she was quiet for a long time. At last she said, “Willie had a quarrel with Fay yesterday.”
“A quarrel!” Janette sat up straight in bed.
“Like we used to have when we were young?” Ruth asked, incredulous.
“Yes,” Esther said, “and I have a grand idea. Let’s put our money together and buy a gift for Fay – from Willie!”
“But we won’t have any left over for Moth–” Janette began.
Esther interrupted. “I saw just the thing downtown yesterday. A real honest-to-goodness Mexican diamond for only four dollars and fifty cents.”
“My goodness!” Janette said. “Four dollars and fifty cents!”
Ruth’s eyes were as big as saucers. “A real Mexican diamond?”
Janette said, “And will we have to tell Mother and Daddy we haven’t bought anything for them?”
“Well,” Esther said, “Willie is closer to Mother than we are because he’s her brother. So if we make Willie happy Mother will be happy, and if she is, Daddy will be. See? So it’s a sort of present for everybody.”
“Well, I want to see the Mexican diamond first, before we buy it,” Janette said, cautiously.
But her caution was swept away and she and Ruth fell in love with the diamond instantly when they saw it glittering in its velvet nest in the showcase. Ruth clapped her hands in ecstasy.
Esther said, “See? Wouldn’t Fay be beautiful in that? With her blue eyes looking at it, and the diamond sparkling on her white hand?”
“Oh, it’s – grand-elegant!” Ruth cried. “Maybe she’ll let us try it on.”
But Janette did not want to be rushed into anything. “That’s a lot of money for a diamond, after the way we’ve borrowed ahead on our ’lowances, and we still lack a quarter. Now a box of candy, maybe. let’s just buy Fay a box of candy and get engaged that way.”
“Sh–” Esther said, nudging Janette. “You have to have a ring. And anyway, it’s for Willie, silly.”
By Christmas Eve the three girls had almost despaired. They had borrowed to the limit of their allowances, and had even touched Willie for fifty cents, which he let them have, absently. They succeeded in getting the final quarter form Father which he let them have only by signing a receipt for it. he looked at them thoughtfully. “However,” he said, “it’s in stamps.” They did not hear him chuckling over it with Mother, later, nor explaining that he believed in creating little special problems.
Esther was disappointed. “I wonder if the man will take stamps.”
“It’s too late to wonder?” Janette cried. “Get your coats. Mother promised we could go downtown alone.”
“And it’s nearly dark!” Ruth added, her eyes round.
At the jewelry store the man smiled. “Yes, it’s still here. Do you want it wrapped as a gift?”
“Yes,” Esther said. “And could you engrave a name on it?”
“What name do you want?” the man asked.
“To Fay from Willie,” Esther said, thoughtfully.
They waited, looking at each other breathlessly, saying nothing. Soon the man came back. As he wrapped the box he said, “There will be an extra charge of ten cents for the engraving.”
Esther slumped dramatically. “We haven’t got that much,” she said.”Only four dollars and fifty cents. And twenty-five cents is in stamps.”
There was a long pause, as the man put seals on the little box. ‘Oh,” he said, at last, “that’ll be all right. Here’s a card to write the name on.” He handed them the box. ‘merry Christmas to you,” he smiled.
They sighed with relief when they got outside, and began to run. They ran almost all the way home. But even before they opened the door they heard sounds of trouble. Willie was turning the radio on so loud it was deafening. And then he was turning it off again. it had to be Willie. it couldn’t be Mother or Father.
The three girls took off their wraps, and Ruth danced up and down.
“Here, Daddy,” Esther said. “Put this gift on the tip-top of the tree.”
“Who’s it for?”
Esther took up a pen from the desk and wrote “Fay” on the card. But Father looked at the package and then at Willie. he shook his head.
“Too bad,” he said. “Wild horses couldn’t drag Fay into this house.”
Ruth said, “Daddy, Willie will bring her. Won’t you, Willie?”
“Say –” Willie began with scorn. And then, “Willie! Willie, Willie, Willie is all I hear! Why can’t you call me Bill or something? Will-ee!”
He ran up the stairs, turning at the landing. “You kids make me tired!” They heard his door slam behind him.
Three little faces looked blank, and then horrified. Janette dropped into a chair and Esther slumped to the Chesterfield. Ruth just stood, looking at the empty tree Mother and Daddy would trim after they were in bed.
Mother said, “What’s up? It can’t be that bad, surely?”
And Daddy laughed. “You little women have been so wrapped up in giving that you haven’t given a thought to what you’re going to get!” He sounded mysterious, but it didn’t help any.
Ruth climbed up on his lap and began sobbing, too disappointed to say anything.
“Hop into bed,” Daddy said, after a while. “Bedtime comes early on Christmas Eve.”
But sleep would not come. They could hear faintly the voices of Mother and Daddy, and the crackle of paper.
They heard Mother say, after a while, “Here, Larry. Christmas Eve is the time to open packages. Merry Christmas, dear.”
Esther leaped out of bed. “I know what we’ll do. We’ll take that present over to Fay right now!” She ran to the head of the stairs. “Mother!” she called. “Mother, please, would you mind handing me that present? The one for Fay?”
Mother did not ask questions. She only smiled. But Esther was trembling for fear she would say something. When she came back to the bedroom she was smiling. “Get your clothes on. We’re going over to Fay’s.”
They dressed, breathlessly, and tiptoed down the back stairs. The gate between the two houses stood ajar, and they were careful not to touch it because of the squeak in it.
Mr. Hughes answered the door.
“Well, well, well!” he cried. “Three wise men come to visit us on Christmas Eve! No, three wise women, as I live!”
“Sh!” Esther said, her finger on her lips. She glanced back toward the darkened kitchen of her own home.
‘Oh, Mr. Hughes,” Janette said, “is Fay home?”
“I should think she is,” the man boomed. “Crying her heart out on Christmas Eve!”
They followed him into the sitting room. Fay was lying on her face, one arm under her, but she sat up when they came in. The Christmas tree stood by the radiator, heavily laden, and strung with icicles.
“You have company, Fay,” Mr. Hughes said. Mrs. Hughes was wrapping packages at the table.
Fay leaped to her feet. Her eyes, the girls thought, were more blue and beautiful than ever, even though she had been crying, and they had never seen her golden hair so lovely. it was out of order and not primly tucked behind her ears in smooth waves tonight.
“Mother says,” Esther began, “that Christmas Eve is the time to open presents. So we’ve brought one over to you.”
Fay’s eyes filled with tears again. “Who’s – who’s it from?” Her voice was hushed, and she looked scared.
“Look and see!” Ruth cried.
Fay’s slender fingers trembled as she opened it, and when she saw the ring box she sat down.
At the sight of the glittering gem she cried, “Oh! Oh!” She slipped the ring on her finger.
“Look inside of it!” Ruth said.
Fay inspected the ring, reading slowly. “It’s – it’s from – Willie!”
Mrs. Hughes said, “Have some candy, youngsters. is Willie home?”
“Oh, Mother!” Fay protested.
“No, thank you, Mrs. Hughes,” Esther said. “Yes, Willie’s home!” Tears were in her voice. She clutched her sisters’ hands. “Well,” she said, “we’ve got to be going.”
They were out the front door and half-way up the front walk of their own home before Janette caught her breath. “What did you drag us away for, Esther? I wanted to see what she’d do.”
“We had to get out of there before we told her we bought it!” Esther said. “Oh, I’m all mixed up myself!”
Ruth began to cry. “This is the worst Christmas –” But Esther opened the door. Willie was sitting with Mother and Father, in his new robe. They were all eating popcorn.
“Well!” Mother exclaimed.
“We’ve been over to Fay’s,” Janette burst out. “We took her the ring ourselves!”
“What ring?” Willie sprang up, excited. “What ring? Tell me, quick!”
“An engagement ring,” Ruth said. “A real Mexican diamond!”
Willie collapsed into a chair. “Now wouldn’t you just know it!” He ran his fingers through his hair and glared at the children. He was breathing hard. “She’ll think I sent them! She’ll think I bought an old cheap ring!”
“It’s not – ch – cheap!” Janette cried, Biting her lip. But the tears came, anyway.
The phone rang. “If that’s for me,” Willie shouted to Mother as she moved toward the phone, “I’m not in. Oh, I’ll have to drown myself!” But he beat Mother to the phone and lifted the receiver. They all watched his face, and after the first “Hello” it changed unbelievably. His voice softened, and he smiled.
“Yes,” he said, at last, “I’ll be right over.” He whirled and ran up the stairs, and Esther turned to Mother.
“We had both of their names put in the ring so – so they would be engaged!”
Mother and Daddy laughed.
Willie came down the stairs three at a time. He had almost reached the hall when he stopped.
“Hey!” he called, and there was such gladness in his voice the girls ran to him. “Listen,” he said, bending down and whispering, “Don’t tell your mother and dad, but here’s a little present for the swellest nieces a guy ever had!” And when he closed the door behind him there were three one dollar bills clutched in three little hands.
“Oh!” Ruth crowed, “this is grand-elegant!”
“And he looked happy!” Janette said, giggling.
“Like he ought to – he’s engaged,” Esther said.