www.canadianstories.net

Volume 20, Number 115,
June/July 2017


The Diamond - 1968
by Ruth Latta

“I love the old-time basin and pitcher,” I told Arlene, the principal’s wife.

For the sake of my bridegroom, Gavin, I wanted to make a good impression on Arlene and her husband. The china pitcher, holding dried grasses, sat in its matching bowl on the table under the window.

“They came from Simcoe’s Antiques, which you passed on your way into town,” she told me. “I saw it in the window when we first moved here, and fell in love with it. Since then, I’ve seen similar sets at estate sales at much lower prices. Cy Simcoe really ripped me off.”

“He’s a sharp dealer,” the principal added. “Be warned.”

I nodded solemnly, as if Gavin and I were in the market for antiques on our budget.

A week later, Gavin was busy in his classroom, and I’d put our tiny home to rights. The books and materials for my correspondence course weren’t in yet. At loose ends, I went for a walk on Main Street, passed Simcoe’s Antiques and caught my breath.

Such beauty in the village of Worthy! Sparkling candlesticks, iridescent carnival glass, and luminous old medicine bottles in blue, brown and green dazzled me. I loved the paper-thin china cups, gold rimmed and painted delicately with roses. I wanted the fragile-looking Blue Willow service for eight.

As I pushed open the door, a bell tinkled overhead, and the fragrance of cinnamon greeted me. I stepped inside and found myself in an Edwardian parlour. A sparkling chandelier hung overhead. I stroked a velvet settee decorated with lacecovered cushions. Nearby was a low rocking chair. A brass bird cage in the corner had its door open: the bird had escaped from its gilded cage. I went over to the Victrola, touched its morning glory horn, and looked at the 78 rpm record on the turntable. On a tea table were kid gloves, a fan, and another bone china cup and saucer. The display was marred only by a fine film of dust.

Continuing through the long narrow store. I passed through a bedroom with a four-poster bed covered with a crocheted lace counterpane. On it lay a doll of yesteryear, with Mary Pickford curls on its china head, and little hands and feet of kid leather attached to its cloth, sawdust-stuffed body. Two patchwork quilts hung like tapestries where the walls would have been. A gleaming armoire completed the furnishings.

Next came a wall of mirrors in ornate frames, and two étagères with mirrored backs, the better to reflect the sparkling crystal and silver displayed on them.

“I’ll be with you in a moment,” rasped a man’s voice from somewhere in the back.

“Just browsing,” I called.

At the rear of the store, in front of the counter, was a steamer trunk of the sort used in yesteryear for trans-Atlantic voyages. A small elderly man in a plaid shirt, green work pants and red suspenders rose up from behind the open lid to greet me. He had an Albert Einstein look, with
wild grey hair and chocolate eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses.

“Hello. Sorry to keep you waiting, but I imagine you’ve enjoyed looking around.”

“Yes. Your store is wonderful!”

“My late wife said I should have called it The Old Curiosity Shop, with me the oldest curiosity of all. Esther created the sample rooms.”

“She certainly had a flair for staging. What’s in the trunk?”

“Come and look. It came from Montreal today. One of my contacts was clearing out an old house and discovered it in the attic.”

I looked inside at neatly folded white clothing, slightly yellowed with age.

“A bride’s trousseau from around 1910.” He picked up a blouse of thin cotton and a ruffled lace insert, and held it out to me.

“Esther called this a ‘Bertha’ neckline.”

I knew it would fit me, but where would I ever wear it? I picked up another garment, sleeveless and of fine thin cotton, with lace inserts and crocheted drawstrings at the neck and waistband.

“I’d wear this as a summer blouse,” I remarked, “but I think it’s an undergarment.”

“A camisole.” Reaching into the trunk, he pulled out a long ruffled nightgown.

“It’s like an angel costume. Such a lot of beautiful clothing!” I exclaimed.

“It was the rule that a bride’s parents should outfit her in enough new clothing that her bridegroom wouldn’t have to give her a clothing allowance for their first year of marriage,” the old man informed me.

I laughed. “I hope I can get through a year without asking Gavin for money for clothes.”

“So you’re a newlywed. Best wishes! Do you live here in Worthy?”

Introducing myself, I explained that Gavin taught history at the high school.

“Delighted to meet you.” He offered me his hand. “Call me Cy. I hope you and your husband will be very happy. Is it your day off work Mrs. Jameson?”

“Call me Wendy. I’m a teacher, too, just graduated, but there are no positions available at the elementary school.”

“Well, Wendy, feel free to try on these items. There’s a washroom in the back.”

I hesitated. “To be honest, this trousseau troubles me. So many brand new clothes, never worn. I think the bride must have died in childbirth.”

Mr. Simcoe looked shocked.

“There’s no reason to assume that. Possibly the engagement was broken and the wedding cancelled.”

“But wouldn’t she still wear her new clothes?”

He shrugged. “Perhaps she couldn’t bear to, so her parents bought her all new things and sent her on a tour of Europe to heal her broken heart. Most likely she had a child and the clothes didn’t fit any more.”

I hadn’t thought of that.

“I’d love to try on the blouse and camisole.”

When I came out wearing the blouse, Mr. Simcoe looked approving. “Very becoming.”

“Is there much demand for vintage clothing around here?”

He shook his head. “No, but this trousseau was a great bargain, and my contact in the Grand Theatre costume department in Kingston will want it. Now, Wendy, would you like a cup of tea? I always take a break at this time of day.”

“Thank you. That would be very nice.”

I followed him into the back room, where he served cinnamon buns and Orange Pekoe in delicate floral mugs.

“Royal Albert bone china,” he said, reading my mind. “Esther found them at a yard sale and forbade me to put them in the shop.”

“Did Esther work in the store?”

“Sometimes, but her real job was teaching history at Worthy High School. She was department head. She died in her sleep, back in March.” His voice quavered.

“I’m so sorry.”

My heart sank as I realized that Mrs. Simcoe’s death was probably the reason Gavin had a job. The acting history department head, appointed to finish out last year, had been promoted to head, and his job had opened up for Gavin.

Mr. Simcoe was talking about his son.

“Dan wanted us to retire and move to California to live near him. I’ll go eventually, but have to wind things up at my own pace. There’s a lot to do - an inventory, a lot of correspondence, not to mention some dusting.”

“Never engage mouth before brain is in gear,” my late father used to say. Now I did just that.

“Could I be your assistant?”

Mr. Simcoe set down his mug and scrutinized me.

“I’m strong,” I continued, in a rush. “I did yard work all summer at a resort near Hope Falls. I type. Teachers’ College was good training in people skills.”

He frowned.

“My Esther enjoyed helping out here occasionally but she wanted to work in her own profession, and I’m sure you do, too. Your husband won’t want you to take a part-time job when you could be supply teaching for making decent money. I can pay only a little above minimum wage.

“I’m on the substitute list here in Worthy, but I gather that the permanent staff members never take sick days, and, without a driver’s licence, I can’t go further afield. Apart from my correspondence course I have nothing to do. I’d love to work here.”

He studied me.

“If you’re sure, I’d be glad to try you out. I can offer you three afternoons a week.” He mentioned the “little above minimum wage”, which sounded good to me.

“Thank you! When do I start?”

“I’d like to check your references, and if they pan out, I’ll call you and you can start on Monday afternoon.”

“They’ll pan out.” Seizing a pad of paper and a pencil from the table. I wrote my past employers’ names and telephone numbers. “Please set aside two blouses for me, and if you hire me, you can deduct them from my pay.”

To my disappointment, Gavin wasn’t pleased that I’d found a job. “A teacher’s wife, working in a junk shop?”

“Not junk. Gorgeous antiques. You must come and look around.”

He sighed. “I’ll take your word for it.”

Because Cy wanted me to get my licence before winter set in, he sometimes closed the shop and took me out in his car to practise my driving skills. One of his rules was to stop at all yard sales. Although supposedly down-sizing, he was always on the lookout for items to complete sets of things in the shop, like a Waterford crystal glass, or a dessert fork in a specific silverware pattern.

“We won’t find such things in a farmer’s yard,” I blurted.

He frowned. “Treasures pop up in the oddest places.”

Though I had no spare money to buy anything, I enjoyed scavenging. With fall upon us, last-ditch yard sales were plentiful. When we heard of a colossal rummage sale encompassing several streets in a well-to-do Kingston neighbourhood, we were drawn to it like flies to honey.

That Saturday morning, leaving Gavin asleep. I took off with Cy at 7:30, determined that we would be early birds. We found a vast bazaar, with goods on tables and on lawns along three suburban crescents. Because Cy walked at a snail’s pace and liked to chat with every vendor, while I liked to rush ahead, we’d agreed to separate and rendez-vous at the car in an hour. As we parted, he handed me twenty dollars.

“The costume mistress wants accessories,” he told me. “Look for long 1920s strings of beads, jewelled headbands, shoes with French heels, fans and kid gloves.”

Five minutes later I nabbed a beaded evening purse on a pile of junk, and thought I was on a roll, but a halfhour of picking through discards produced nothing more than a fan with plastic handles, not ivory or wood. I bought it anyway and wandered on. Nothing cried out my name, though a sign, propped against two playpens piled high with stuffed toy animals, made me pause: “One Free With Every Purchase”.

The principal and his wife had a little boy who could probably use a teddy bear. Some of them looked brand-new; all looked washable. The grey-haired woman at the cash box explained that her two married daughters and two other young mothers had begged her to dispose of the cuddly toys their children had accumulated and outgrown. The children’s hospital already had plenty. She glanced at my wedding ring.

“When you have a baby, my dear, don’t let the doting relatives inundate you with stuffies,” she warned. “Ask for money for the kid’s college fund instead.”

On the table in her driveway I spotted a Wedgewood bowl and mug decorated with Beatrix Potter animals, at a steal. Surely Cy would want it for the shop. If he didn’t, I’d reimburse him and give it to Arlene’s baby. As I paid, the vendor pressed two cuddly toys upon me, not just one, insisting that the mug and bowl constituted two items. Clearly she was desperate to dispose of the “stuffies”.

At the car, Cy proudly showed me a cut-glass cup to complete a punch bowl set in the store. He liked the beaded handbag and the baby dishes, told me to keep the plastic fan, and raised his eyebrows at the teddy bear and the floppy bunny. When I explained that they were for a friend’s child, he said, “Good. I thought maybe you had a little secret and that I was going to lose you.”

I shook my head. “Oh God, no. Not yet.”

The following Monday morning, doing the laundry, I remembered the stuffed toys and got them out to wash. The bunny’s abdomen seam was hand-stitched, as if it had burst open and been re-sewn. Squeezing the belly, concerned that its foam stuffing might spill out in the washer, I felt something small and hard inside. I got the scissors, spread out a towel to catch any foam particles and made a neat incision. Digging around inside, I found a ring. What a ring! The stone was big, clear and sparkling. A zirconia? A sapphire? A diamond? The setting was beautiful, the total effect breathtaking. I slipped it on above my wedding band.

Back in the spring, when Gavin had proposed, he’d given me his university ring.

“As soon as I can afford it, I’ll buy you a spectacular diamond,” he’d promised.

Now, holding this gorgeous solitaire, I wished it were mine. Did “finders keepers” apply here? I tried to remember where I’d bought the Wedgwood set and received the cuddly toys as a bonus, but I hadn’t a clue as to the street name, let alone the house number. All I knew was that it was a leafy suburban crescent with four different types of houses recurring in succession. The greyhaired woman had said that her daughters and their friends had all given her cuddly animals to dispose of. Would she even know where the bunny had come from, originally?

As I hung out the wash, the ring safely in my change purse, I wondered how it had come to be hidden in the stuffed toy. My guess was a marriage break-up involving a small child. Maybe the wife sneaked the ring out of the house in the stuffed toy because it was her husband’s family heirloom ring and they wanted it back.

But why had she left the ring in the bunny? A diamond was hard to forget. Had the baby, unbeknownst to her, thrown the rabbit out of its stroller while they were out walking, and had another child picked it up?

I thought of Jane Eyre and Mrs. Rochester in the attic. Perhaps the woman who owned the ring had been placed in a psychiatric institution, too unsound of mind, or too drugged to remember where she’d put her ring.

Such thoughts were too sad to entertain, so I quit creating scenarios. That afternoon, leaving for work, I took the ring with me to show Cy. It was rightfully his, since I’d paid the lady with the money he’d given me.

Cy was as astonished as I. Together we speculated as to how the diamond came to be in the cloth rabbit, and who owned the ring. Finally Cy said we’d close up shop on Tuesday and go into Kingston to consult his lawyer and an estate jeweller. Meanwhile, he’d lock the ring in his safe.

That night, something halted my tongue whenever I started to tell Gavin about the ring. On the following day in Kingston I went to the university library while Cy kept his appointments. When we met in a coffee shop, he was beaming. His lawyer had said that “finders keepers” applied in this case since it was impossible to locate the real owner. The estate jeweller who evaluated the ring offered a thousand dollars.

I gasped.

“Wendy, you’re a jewel. You have radar that leads you to treasures,” Cy told me.

I laughed. “Just call me your sniffer dog or truffle-hunting pig.”

As I sipped the coffee he’d ordered for me, Cy reached into his pocket and handed me a certified cheque made out in my name. In 1968, a thousand dollars was roughly one third of a beginning elementary school teacher’s annual salary. I shook my head.

“You’re too generous. I can’t accept the money.”

He held up a hand like a traffic cop.

“You found the ring. A thousand dollars will cover fees and books for more university courses.”

“I...I.” My voice faltered as tears blurred my eyes. Since my parents’ death, I’d felt starved for kindness. I sobbed into my paper napkin.

Cy reached for my hand. “Please stop crying, Wendy, because I’m not wearing my rubber boots. Drink up, and we’ll go across to the bank and open an account for you.”

I wiped my eyes. “You’re so kind. Actually, Gavin and I do our banking in Worthy. We have a joint account there.”

“A joint account?” he inquired.

“Yes, and Gavin has a separate savings account.”

His eyes met mine. “You should have your own account, too.”

I hesitated. “But Gavin and I are a team. His separate savings account dates from before we were married.”

“Separate bank accounts make for happy marriages,” he insisted. “Esther had her own account, so she didn’t have to explain every little withdrawal, say, for a birthday present for me. And having an account here in Kingston will be convenient when you’re here taking summer courses.”

At the bank, I felt a twinge of guilt for acting independently, but only the merest frisson. I’d decided not to tell Gavin about this windfall, because I knew what he’d say: “That thousand dollars sure will help with the down payment on one of the new houses going up here in Worthy next spring.”