I lived a beautiful life free of worry or sorrow until the age of fourteen, when both my mother and father died. Then, I had nowhere to go except my Aunt Helga’s. Her name explains her perfectly. Aunty was strict and old-fashioned. She was an old maid and her rigid lifestyle made me a prisoner to her. I am not a weak character, but there are some people whom you cannot contradict, no matter who you are.
That was the way it was with Aunt Helga. She was not unkind to me; she was just very stern.
I lived with my aunt for four years. In all of those years nothing marked one day from another: Saturday housework, Sunday church, and the few weekly engagements and visits. Otherwise I was at home with Aunt.
In those years, I could see no way to escape from where I was. I probably would have lived with my Aunt Helga forever, sheltered and ignorant of the world, my aunt constantly nagging me.
“Clara child, why put your hair like that? How I do hate these new fashions! And, for heaven’s sake, do not sign your name Aster.”
“Clara! Never let me catch you wearing red again!”
“Clara. When you dust the dining room, make quite sure you remove the runner before you dust the table. And do put on an apron.”
And it went on and on. Indeed nothing would have changed had it not been for Martha Hayward and her brother, Thomas.
Martha and I were naturally drawn to each other even though we were completely different. Martha was not particularly beautiful. Her blond hair clashed with her deep brown eyes, just as my bright blue shadowy eyes and dark hair made my face look pale and thin. Martha was large. I was small. She was buoyant and happy. I was rather mysterious. Perhaps that was what was so appealing to Martha, but also to Tom, her brother.
I liked Tom as much as Martha. Luckily I could see both of them often. Aunt Helga, upon their arrival, found gossipy, fretful Mrs. Hayward almost as interesting as I found Tom and Martha.
Their visits improved my spirits a good deal. It was evident to me that Aunt liked all of them, for at breakfast one morning she said to me, “Do you like the Haywards, Clara?”
“Why, yes, I do. I like them very much,” I said. “Do you?”
“Yes, I have to say I do. Even though they are only Haywards. One must give allowances for name, Clara. Go change the flowers in the tea room. Then go to the post office for me, and on the way back pick up half a yard of blue silk and one foot of green ribbon. I cannot bear to think Mrs. Hayward has the new ribbon and I do not!”
Of course this was not very much praise for the Haywards. But that my Aunt would think of anybody but herself was remarkable for her, or that anybody other than herself was worth talking about.
* * *
One blustery fall morning found me sitting in front of the parlor window, absently watching the asters swaying in their bed. Asters are my favorite flowers, and I often wear them in my hair. Also, when my father was alive and we lived in the country, he used to call me Aster when I wore purple. So I love them dearly.
The parlor door opened behind me. I took no notice of this. Probably it was Aunt Helga. A hand gently touched my shoulder. I looked up. It was Tom.
“Clara,” he said, “I have brought you some flowers,” revealing a purple cluster.
“Oh! Tom, how did you know I love asters so much? I never told you. Did you know I was thinking about them?”
“I have ways of finding out,” said he, loftily looking at the ceiling.
“Don’t joke, Tom. How did you know?”
“Are they your favorite?” he asked, looking well pleased. “I really didn’t know that; I just thought you would like them.”
“I do, very much,” I said.
“Well, hope you think the same about their giver.”
He was not teasing, I saw. And he added, “You will think so by and by, won’t you, Clara?” And perhaps I will.