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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Lending a Hand

By Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836–1907)

[From The Stillwater Tragedy. 1880.]

IT was a Saturday afternoon. Margaret had come into the workshop with her sewing, as usual. The papers on the round table had been neatly cleared away, and Richard was standing by the window, indolently drumming on the glass with a palette-knife.

“Not at work this afternoon?”

“I was waiting for you.”

“That is no excuse at all,” said Margaret, sweeping across the room with a curious air of self-consciousness, and arranging her drapery with infinite pains as she seated herself.

Richard looked puzzled for a moment, and then exclaimed, “Margaret, you have got on a long dress!”

“Yes,” said Margaret, with dignity. “Do you like it,—the train?”

“That’s a train?”

“Yes,” said Margaret, standing up and glancing over her left shoulder at the soft folds of maroon-colored stuff, which, with a mysterious feminine movement of the foot, she caused to untwist itself and flow out gracefully behind her. There was really something very pretty in the hesitating lines of the tall, slender figure, as she leaned back that way. Certain unsuspected points emphasized themselves so cunningly.

“I never saw anything finer,” declared Richard. “It was worth waiting for.”

“But you shouldn’t have waited,” said Margaret, with a gratified flush, settling herself into the chair again. “It was understood that you were never to let me interfere with your work.”

“You see you have, by being twenty minutes late. I’ve finished that acorn border for Stevens’s capitals, and there’s nothing more to do for the yard. I am going to make something for myself, and I want you to lend me a hand.”

“How can I help you, Richard?” Margaret asked, promptly stopping the needle in the hem.

“I need a paper-weight to keep my sketches from being blown about, and I wish you literally to lend me a hand,—a hand to take a cast of.”


“I think that little white claw would make a very neat paper-weight,” said Richard.

Margaret gravely rolled up her sleeve to the elbow, and contemplated the hand and wrist critically.

“It is like a claw, isn’t it? I think you can find something better than that.”

“No; that is what I want, and nothing else. That, or no paper-weight for me.”

“Very well, just as you choose. It will be a fright.”

“The other hand, please.”

“I gave you the left because I’ve a ring on this one.”

“You can take off the ring, I suppose.”

“Of course I can take it off.”

“Well, then, do.”

“Richard,” said Margaret severely, “I hope you are not a fidget.”

“A what?”

“A fuss, then,—a person who always wants everything some other way, and makes just twice as much trouble as anybody else.”

“No, Margaret, I am not that. I prefer your right hand because the left is next to the heart, and the evaporation of the water in the plaster turns it as cold as snow. Your arm will be chilled to the shoulder. We don’t want to do anything to hurt the good little heart, you know.”

“Certainly not,” said Margaret. “There!” and she rested her right arm on the table, while Richard placed the hand in the desired position on a fresh napkin which he had folded for the purpose.

“Let your hand lie flexible, please. Hold it naturally. Why do you stiffen the fingers so?”

“I don’t; they stiffen themselves, Richard. They know they are going to have their photograph taken, and can’t look natural. Who ever does?”

After a minute the fingers relaxed, and settled of their own accord into an easy pose. Richard laid his hand softly on her wrist.

“Don’t move now.”

“I’ll be as quiet as a mouse,” said Margaret, giving a sudden queer little glance at his face.

Richard emptied a paper of white powder into a great yellow bowl half filled with water, and fell to stirring it vigorously, like a pastry-cook beating eggs. When the plaster was of the proper consistency he began building it up around the hand, pouring on a spoonful at a time, here and there, carefully. In a minute or two the inert white fingers were completely buried. Margaret made a comical grimace.

“Is it cold?”

“Ice,” said Margaret, shutting her eyes involuntarily.

“If it is too disagreeable we can give it up,” suggested Richard.

“No, don’t touch it!” she cried, waving him back with her free arm. “I don’t mind; but it’s as cold as so much snow. How curious! What does it?”

“I suppose a scientific fellow could explain the matter to you easily enough. When the water evaporates a kind of congealing process sets in,—a sort of atmospherical change, don’t you know? The sudden precipitation of the—the—”

“You’re as good as Tyndall on Heat,” said Margaret demurely.

“Oh, Tyndall is well enough in his way,” returned Richard, “but of course he doesn’t go into things so deeply as I do.”

“The idea of telling me that ‘a congealing process sets in,’ when I am nearly frozen to death!” cried Margaret, bowing her head over the imprisoned arm.

“Your unseemly levity, Margaret, makes it necessary for me to defer my remarks on natural phenomena until some more fitting occasion.”

“Oh, Richard, don’t let an atmospherical change come over you!”

“When you knocked at my door, months ago,” said Richard, “I didn’t dream you were such a satirical little piece, or maybe you wouldn’t have got in. You stood there as meek as Moses, with your frock reaching only to the tops of your boots. You were a deception, Margaret.”

“I was dreadfully afraid of you, Richard.”

“You are not afraid of me nowadays.”

“Not a bit.”

“You are showing your true colors. That long dress, too! I believe the train has turned your head.”

“But just now you said you admired it.”

“So I did and do. It makes you look quite like a woman, though.”

“I want to be a woman. I would like to be as old—as old as Mrs. Methuselah. Was there a Mrs. Methuselah?”

“I really forget,” replied Richard, considering. “But there must have been. The old gentleman had time enough to have several. I believe, however, that history is rather silent about his domestic affairs.”

“Well, then,” said Margaret, after thinking it over, “I would like to be as old as the youngest Mrs. Methuselah.”

“That was probably the last one,” remarked Richard with great profundity. “She was probably some giddy young thing of seventy or eighty. Those old widowers never take a wife of their own age. I shouldn’t want you to be seventy, Margaret,—or even eighty.”

“On the whole, perhaps, I shouldn’t fancy it myself. Do you approve of persons marrying twice?”

“N—o, not at the same time.”

“Of course I didn’t mean that,” said Margaret, with asperity. “How provoking you can be!”

“But they used to,—in the olden time, don’t you know?”

“No, I don’t.”

Richard burst out laughing. “Imagine him,” he cried,—“imagine Methuselah in his eight or nine hundredth year, dressed in his customary bridal suit, with a sprig of century-plant stuck in his buttonhole!”

“Richard,” said Margaret solemnly, “you shouldn’t speak jestingly of a scriptural character.”

At this Richard broke out again. “But gracious me!” he exclaimed, suddenly checking himself. “I am forgetting you all this while!”

Richard hurriedly reversed the mass of plaster on the table, and released Margaret’s half-petrified fingers. They were shrivelled and colorless with the cold.

“There isn’t any feeling in it whatever,” said Margaret, holding up her hand helplessly, like a wounded wing.

Richard took the fingers between his palms, and chafed them smartly for a moment or two to restore the suspended circulation.

“There, that will do,” said Margaret, withdrawing her hand.

“Are you all right now?”

“Yes, thanks;” and then she added, smiling, “I suppose a scientific fellow could explain why my fingers seem to be full of hot pins and needles shooting in every direction.”

“Tyndall’s your man—Tyndall on Heat,” answered Richard, with a laugh, turning to examine the result of his work. “The mould is perfect, Margaret. You were a good girl to keep so still.”

Richard then proceeded to make the cast, which was soon placed on the window-ledge to harden in the sun. When the plaster was set, he cautiously chipped off the shell with a chisel, Margaret leaning over his shoulder to watch the operation,—and there was the little white claw, which ever after took such dainty care of his papers, and ultimately became so precious to him as a part of Margaret’s very self that he would not have exchanged it for the Venus of Milo.

But as yet Richard was far enough from all that.