In the final episode of Reading Between The Lines season 3, we have “St. Valentine’s Violets” by Ida May, first published in February 15, 1930. Listen along to the episode as you read and let us know what you think!
A quick turn of the key in the lock, a light step in the hall, and Nell Gilbert burst impetuously into the sitting-room, hurrying to the cheery fire burning in the old-fashioned grate.
“Sorry to be late, dear,” she said, dropping a kiss on her mother’s smooth cheek, “but I met Ruth coming home, and, of course, we stayed talking.”
Mrs Gilbert looked at her daughter with a faint smile. “Which way did you come home?” she asked.
“By the upper road. Why?”
“Because Bruce went to meet you by the lower one,” Mrs Gilbert explained.
“I’m sorry,” Nell said carelessly, “but, of course, as I didn’t know, I can’t be blamed.”
Mrs Gilbert rolled up the stocking she was darning and considered her daughter attentively. Nell had pulled off her small, close-fitting hat, revealing the chestnut locks that, now being allowed to grow after their recent cropping, twined in loose curls all over her small, shapely head. Her hazel eyes were bright, the exercise in the keen air had whipped her soft colour to a rosier glow, her fresh young mouth was parted in a half smile. Mrs Gilbert stifled a sigh. Poor Bruce! But aloud she said briskly:
“No, of course you were not to be blamed; Bruce will understand. You know, Nell, I shall be sorry when he goes home next week; it has been so nice having a young man in the house. If I had had a son I should have liked him to be like Bruce. I did hope—”
Nell whisked round and, seizing her mother’s plump shoulders, shook her gently. “Ah, now we’re coming to it! Artful old match-maker, aren’t you? Bruce isn’t your son, but you’d like him for a son-in-law.”
“And why not?” murmured Mrs Gilbert.
“Mother, there’s nothing doing. I like Bruce very much; we are excellent friends, just that and nothing more. As I’ve told you a dozen times, I don’t intend to marry.”
“Ah!” murmured her mother. “Do you know, my dear, I can distinctly hear myself saying the same thing at your age.”
Nell snorted. “No doubt; but I mean it. Things are different now.”
“Very different,” Mrs Gilbert agreed fervently.
“Different and—and better,” went on Nell loftily, ignoring her mother’s accent. “You had nothing to do but marry, but now there are a hundred careers open to girls; more exciting things for them to do than just get married; more interesting, more important, more—”
“Your father!” Mrs Gilbert interrupted happily, and getting up, went swiftly into the hall.
Nell looked after her with disapproving eyes. Really, mother was too old-fashioned! Just as her daughter had been about to deliver a really improving lecture on—well, all kinds of things, she must rush off like that just because she thought she heard her husband’s step, and with that look on her face, too, and her silver wedding day well past! Nell thumped a book down on the table just to emphasise her opinion.
But it was not her father, it was Bruce Holland, and he followed Mrs Gilbert into the room smiling serenely at the angry Nell.
“I am sorry I missed you, Nell,” he said. “You see, I took it for granted that you would take the lower road.”
At the sound of his voice Nell’s irritation vanished. That was the best of Bruce, he always seemed to smooth you down. He was a dear boy; she had never denied it, and she did value his friendship—she had told him so when he had asked her to marry him; but liking was one thing and loving another, as she had informed her mother lots of times.
“I’m sorry, too, Bruce,” she answered. “Still, it doesn’t matter. It was only ten minutes’ walk.”
Bruce nodded, his plain, pleasant face with the steady eyes and humorous mouth still turned towards her. “It’s a lovely evening,” he said, “really wonderful for the time of year.”
“Yes, isn’t it?” Mrs Gilbert struck in. “Why,” she added, her eyes on the calendar, “the day after tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day.”
Nell sniffed. The memory of that interrupted speech still rankled. “No one takes any notice of that old stuff nowadays,” she announced. “It’s all nonsense.”
Mrs Gilbert smiled placidly. “Maybe, my dear,” she answered. “I still have the valentines your father sent me.”
“You would have,” Nell said coldly. “Bruce, shall we try over those new records you bought yesterday?”
Bruce sprang to his feet. “Rather!” he agreed. “You might give me another lesson in that new step, Nell, that is if Mrs Gilbert isn’t afraid of her carpet?”
Mrs Gilbert shook her head. “Dance away,” she said. “Young folk danced, even when I was a girl.”
Nell, feeling Bruce’s arm around her, decided that he really was a first-rate dancing partner. It was nice to have someone to take you to dances when you were so fond of it. It was fortunate Bruce did not live so far away—not too far away to come once a week, anyhow, and take her to a dance or the cinema.
Yes, she really did like Bruce very much; it was a pity he wasn’t content to let it stay at that. She supposed her mother had known he meant to propose when she had asked him here for the fortnight he had always off in the spring. Well, now she knew her daughter’s mind—Nell had given her large pieces of it on various occasions—perhaps she’d stop being so foolish and old-fashioned, and realise that Nell did not mean to marry.
St. Valentine’s Day dawned bright and cheery with a fresh spring wind to send white clouds scudding across a clear sky. Even the postman looked cheerful under his load as Nell answered his knock. There was a letter for her father, one for her from the cousin in Canada, and a parcel for Bruce.
Nell found herself staring down at the parcel with wondering eyes, for it bore a florist’s label, and from it came the sweet, alluring perfume of violets. Flowers for Bruce! How odd it seemed. Then her face cleared. Dear old Bruce. Of course they were really for her, only he hadn’t had them sent direct because he wanted to give them to her himself. He was always doing things like that; he really was a dear.
Gaily she entered the sitting-room, where her mother was just taking her place at the breakfast table.
“A parcel for you, Bruce,” she announced, setting the box before his plate.
Mrs Gilbert smiled. “Well, I’m glad someone has a valentine,” she remarked.
“Because it’s February fourteenth, it doesn’t mean that letters and—and parcels have anything to do with it,” Nell remarked loftily.
Her father chuckled. “We thought differently, didn’t we, mother? Do you remember—”
But Nell wasn’t listening, she was watching Bruce untie his parcel, wondering a little at his puzzled expression. Of course, he must know what it was, so why look like that?
Slowly Bruce lifted the lid from the box and sat looking down at its fragrant contents. Violets—the loveliest, and certainly the most costly violets Nell had ever seen—great masses of them, so large, so fresh, and so carefully packed, that they must have cost quite a lot of money. Bruce suddenly buried his nose in the blossoms.
“By Jove! Aren’t they wonderful!” he exclaimed. “Who on earth could have sent them?”
Sent them! Sent them! Nell’s eyes widened. So Bruce hadn’t ordered them, and they weren’t for her at all!
“My dear boy, what wonderful violets!” It was Mrs Gilbert speaking. “Shall I get a bowl?”
Bruce sprang to his feet. “No, sit still, I’ll get one; but these flowers must go on the table at once.”
He dashed into the kitchen and returned with a shallow bowl of water in his hands. Very gently he began to lift out the violets, and as he did so, a card that had lain amongst them, slipped out and fluttered at Nell’s feet. She picked it up and handed it back, but as she did so, she could not help seeing the words written on it, words in a graceful, feminine hand: “To my Valentine.”
Bruce took the card, read it, frowned, and thrust it into his pocket.
“Lovely flowers, my boy,” remarked Mr Gilbert. “They are my favourite flowers, and I think I’ve heard you say they are yours, too?”
Bruce nodded, his eyes still on the violets. Nell opened her lips for a teasing remark, then shut them firmly again. Of course, if Bruce didn’t want to tell her—well, he didn’t, and there was an end of it, but, considering that they were such great friends, he certainly might have done so.
For the rest of the meal she was unusually silent. Bruce, noticing nothing, was his usual cheery self, but of the violets, he said never a word.
Breakfast over, Bruce went out with Mr Gilbert, saying he would walk with him as far as the office, and Nell was left alone with her mother. It was Mrs Gilbert who lifted the bowl from the table and set it carefully on the sideboard.
“They really are wonderful,” she said, bending to sniff the violets once again.
“I wonder who sent them,” Nell said abruptly. She hadn’t meant to say it—it had just slipped out.
Her mother smiled, “Well, Bruce is a very attractive young man,” she murmured.
Nell glared. “Did you see what was written on the card that came with them?”
“No, my dear, did you?”
“I—I couldn’t help it,” Nell said. “It was: To my Valentine.”
“Was it really?” Mrs Gilbert said placidly. “Well, well, let’s hope she’s a nice girl. I should like to see Bruce happy.”
“Nice! Nice! Surely no nice girl would send flowers to a young man whom she didn’t know really well?”
“She wouldn’t have in my young days, my dear, but things are different now, you know; you are always telling me so.”
Nell opened her lips, then shut them again tight.
“And, you know, Nell,” went on her mother, “she may know Bruce very well.”
“She can’t do. He has never mentioned her to me,” Nell said sharply.
“Maybe he hasn’t, but perhaps it is her photograph he carries in his pocket-book?”
“Photograph? Pocket-book?” echoed Nell.
Mrs Gilbert nodded. “I’ve seen him look at it. Oh, of course, he didn’t think I saw him; young folk always seem to think their elders are blind and deaf, as well as—” the kind eyes twinkled— “slightly imbecile; and, anyway, you mustn’t be a dog in the manger, Nell.”
“Me a dog in the manger—me?” Nell’s grammar failed before her wrath, then she went out and shut the door softly, marvelling at her own self-control.
Besides being St. Valentine’s Day, February fourteenth chanced to be the birthday of an old friend, and after dinner Nell set out to visit her. Of course, she decided, Bruce would meet her coming home, there was only one way she could return this time. But she came home and Bruce did not meet her. Entering the house, she found he was out.
“I haven’t missed him, have I?” she asked, a little furrow appearing in her smooth forehead.
“I don’t think so,” her mother told her cheerfully. “You see, my dear, he went out soon after you and didn’t say where he was going, so, of course, I didn’t ask him.”
“Of course not,” Nell echoed. “I expect he has gone to see his old chum, Tom Bristow.”
“Perhaps,” Mrs Gilbert said slowly. “To tell you the truth, my dear, I wondered if it was anything to do with those violets, and that’s why I didn’t ask. I know young men are sometimes shy about talking of that kind of thing, so I thought it best to say nothing.”
Nell forced a smile. “Very wise of you,” she said.
Soon after that Bruce himself came in, very brisk and gay, but singularly silent as to his afternoon’s doings.
“I say, Nell,” he said as he devoured crumpets with relish, “there’s a good picture on at the Royal; suppose we go tonight; better make the most of the time, eh?”
Nell meant to refuse—she was sure she meant to refuse—but instead she heard her own voice saying quite meekly—for Nell:
“I’d like to, Bruce.”
“Good,” said Bruce, taking another crumpet. “I’ve heard it’s a fine film.”
It was a fine film, only, somehow, Nell didn’t enjoy it as much as she had anticipated. She did wish Bruce had told her about those violets. It was silly of him, considering what good friends they were; she would have liked to have heard of anything that concerned him; surely such old friends as they were could sympathise with each other in all their joys and sorrows.
“Fine scene, that.” Bruce’s voice brought her back to her surroundings.
“Very fine; I like it,” she said, but, try as she would, she could not fix her attention upon the film.
There was that photo, too, the photo her mother had seen Bruce take from his pocket-book. Why on earth hadn’t Bruce shown it to her? She remembered he had asked for one of hers some time ago, but she had refused. Still, she would have liked to have seen the face of the girl who had sent those violets; she did think it was odd of Bruce not to have shown it to her.
Bruce was quite unconscious of anything amiss; indeed, Nell thought him in extra good spirits, yet, somehow, he seemed different. She couldn’t have explained in what way, but surely he was different? He didn’t seem to pay so much attention to what she said; he didn’t notice every trifle as he had been wont to do. The difference lasted for the rest of his stay with them, but Nell was the only one who seemed to notice it.
They went out for walks together and they went to a dance in the Town Hall. Nell danced nearly all the time with Bruce, yet he didn’t seem so interested in the dances as he had been, and certainly wasn’t anxious to learn that new step Nell was teaching him. Only a week ago he had seemed so keen; ah, but in the interval had come the violets—the violets from his valentine, the violets he had never mentioned since their arrival.
Well, she supposed their friendship would be over now, but he might have been frank about it. The last day of Bruce’s visit arrived and still he had not been frank about it. That night he would be going. Thinking of their goodbye, Nell felt an odd little pang shoot through her heart. She’d miss him, of course; it was only natural, for they had been such good friends. She did hope the valentine girl was nice though, she couldn’t help thinking her a minx!
She and Bruce were alone for tea. Mrs Gilbert had gone to town on a special shopping expedition and had forbidden them to wait, thus it came about that Nell toasted the crumpets while Bruce waited to butter them. They had grown very silent. Nell, kneeling on the hearthrug, was intent upon her toasting, and it seemed that Bruce, leaning back in the shadows, was intent upon Nell. He watched her, his dark eyes brooding, his firm lips set; watched the flames light up her ruddy curls, shine on her serious face with the red lips slightly parted, and suddenly, without warning, he spoke.
Nell’s start was so violent that the crumpet narrowly missed cremation.
“Nell!” He leaned forward, speaking quickly. “Nell, I can’t help it, I must try again. I asked you the first day I was here, and I must ask you the last. Darling, I do love you so much. Won’t you marry me?”
“Yes,” said Nell, and was straightway gathered into the arms of a proud, happy, but a trifle surprised young man.
It was some time later, when the congratulations were over and Bruce found himself alone with Mrs Gilbert, that he voiced his surprise.
“You know, Mrs Gilbert, I was afraid Nell really meant it when she said ‘No’ the first time,” he said happily. “She sounded very determined.”
“Girls do sometimes change their minds,” Mrs Gilbert reminded him.
Bruce grinned. “Jolly lucky for me they do, isn’t it?” he said. “And, do you know, I have a sort of an idea that it had something to do with those violets I got on St Valentine’s Day.”
“Have you, really?” murmured Mrs Gilbert.
He nodded. “I believe they brought me luck. And the queer thing about it is that I haven’t the faintest idea who sent them, except that, of course, it couldn’t have been a girl.”
“No,” said Mrs Gilbert, “it wasn’t a girl.”
“It wasn’t? But how do you know?”
“Because I sent them to you myself,” his future mother-in-law explained calmly.
“You! But—I don’t understand.”
Mrs Gilbert chuckled. “It’s a wise mother who knows her own daughter,” she said.
For a moment Bruce stared, then: “You—you genius!” he cried, and hugged her.
Read and listen to our previous Reading Between The Lines stories.