F rom his trade, Henry Dulcester III had learned two things: first, that perfection was a myth. This had become obvious to him the moment he looked at a flawless diamond through a jeweler’s loupe and saw the natural inclusions that are part of every stone. Second, what mattered most was the cut, the swift blow that cleaved the angles to shape a gem and give it depth. Over time, while working at the jeweler’s bench—learning gem cutting and goldsmithing from his father, who had learned these trades from his father before him—Henry realized these same truths applied to humans.
Perfection, of course, was impossible for any mortal. Later, he came to understand how humans, too, were shaped and faceted. He’d experienced the first deep cut himself as a soldier during the war—an eighteen-year-old fighting for a nameless island in the middle of the Pacific. Never had he known such loneliness and fear. To escape the mud and mosquitos, and the nagging anxiety of whether any of them would return home again, Henry designed a ring for his girlfriend, Daisy. He sketched and sketched, changing the smallest details, until he was shipped home at 22, ready to start casting the setting for the half-carat diamond surrounded by petals of marquis-cut stones. Perhaps she hadn’t thought they were serious, or maybe he was too serious for her, but Daisy hadn’t waited for him.
After that, Henry had wanted to hate her, despise the man she chose instead of him, but found he could do neither. That Daisy was happy seemed most important. Peace, for him, came from knowing his character had been shaped and given greater depth.
Now it was 1956, and Henry had settled into life as a confirmed bachelor of thirty-four, having found neither love nor companionship among the few women he dated. He saw God’s irony in the fact that he, a homely man—too tall and too thin, with a forehead too high and a chin too short—devoted his life to making beautiful things for other men’s wives and sweethearts.
She was very pretty, which made it seem unlikely that she was unmarried, but she wore no rings.
Then, on this day, the twelfth of December, at about noontime, Henry was alone in the store while Madelyn Abernathy, who had worked for Dulchester’s since his father owned the place, was at lunch. A blonde woman in a brown wool coat entered the store so quietly Henry hadn’t heard the bell that jangled when someone gave the door a good tug. Only when he looked up from behind the counter, where he was changing a watchband, did he notice a customer. With his shirt sleeves rolled up and without his jacket on, Henry rushed to the other side of the counter, apologizing for not having noticed her sooner.
“Just window-shopping,” the woman said, then caught herself with a giggle. “Except I’m not looking in the window. I guess it’s counter-shopping.”
“Look all you want,” Henry replied. “Is this a gift for someone?”
She studied a tray of pins: birds and butterflies, music clefs and initials—all set with semi-precious stones. “Well, yes, but I’m the someone. Actually, I’m trying to drop a hint.”
“Ah, I see.” Henry laughed. “You’re not the only wife who comes in to pick out what her husband should surprise her with.”
The woman dropped her eyes back to the display.
Every day after that, she came in the store on her lunchbreak to browse. She introduced herself as Lillian Wolcott, and explained that she was a secretary at a law firm in town. He guessed Lillian to be about thirty. She was very pretty, which made it seem unlikely that she was unmarried, but she wore no rings. That there was a man in the picture was unquestionable; she never mentioned him by name, except once to jokingly call him “Mr. Santa Claus.”
When there were other customers in the store, Henry would nod and smile and say he’d be happy to answer her questions. When they were alone, they’d talk a little bit. Her taste was modest, but at Henry’s urging she tried on more expensive pieces just for fun—a pair of sapphire drop earrings, a double strand of matching pearls. Once he brought out an engagement ring he was designing and asked her to slip it on. She had lovely hands.
Lillian asked good questions: what made the fiery sparks inside opals, why were emeralds more valuable than diamonds, what was the difference between precious and semi-precious stones? On the nineteenth of December, after a week of such conversations, Henry invited her into the workroom to watch him grind out a setting for a ruby ring that a man had ordered as a surprise gift for his wife.
“How lovely,” Lillian said. “I can’t imagine such thoughtfulness.”
A dozen replies caught in Henry’s throat; that Lillian deserved a hundred such kindnesses and not just because she was beautiful, but because she was good and smart; that if the man in her life could not see such qualities in her, he was blind to the obvious. But Henry said none of those things. Instead, he showed her how the ruby had to sit at the proper depth in the ring setting.
On Friday, the twenty-first of December, Lillian didn’t come at lunch time. Henry watched the door so much Madelyn took to teasing him about it. Then the door opened just before closing, and Lillian bustled in explaining that the law office had hosted a client luncheon that day. She brought a tin of cookies for Henry. He bit into one and got crumbs down his tie; Lillian reached over and brushed them away.
Madelyn reached for a cookie and hovered near the two of them.
“I’ve made my decision—the topaz.” Lillian pointed to a modest square-cut gemstone on a chain. “It’s classic and simple—rather like me, I suppose.”
Classic, yes, Henry thought to himself, but there was nothing simple about Lillian.
“So if someone comes in and mentions you by name—” Henry prompted.
“Don’t worry. I’ll drop the hint.” Lillian smiled at him. “You’ve been awfully kind to let me take up so much of your time.”
“No trouble at all,” Henry said. “I hope you get what you want for Christmas.”
Lillian shook her head. “I don’t think anyone really gets what they want—or even knows what they want.”
When she left, Madelyn made a face at him. “If you don’t ask her out, I’m going to quit.”
“She’s spoken for,” Henry said.
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Madelyn replied. “She’s got heartbreak written all over her.”
On Saturday the 22nd, a man in a dark overcoat came into the store. Henry didn’t recognize him at first, until the man removed his hat. It was Bill Humphreys, Daisy’s husband. He couldn’t remember Bill ever coming into the store before. Dulchester’s was not the only jeweler in town.
Henry let Madelyn wait on him, but watched from the back of the store as they moved around the displays. Bill picked out a pair of gold earrings; Madelyn put them in a box and offered to gift wrap them. Then he overheard Bill ask about one more item: “Do you have a square-cut topaz necklace?”
He saw Madelyn look his way, but Henry suddenly took an interest in cleaning the glass on the rear display cases. Crouched on the floor, wiping away smudges that didn’t exist, Henry saw Bill hold the necklace by the chain and examine the gemstone.
That’s when he remembered: Bill Humphreys was a lawyer in the same firm where Lillian worked.
Henry went into the workroom and shut the door. Madelyn came in a few minutes later. “He bought the gold filigree earrings.”
Henry popped the back off a watch to repair it. “That’s nice.”
“He didn’t get the topaz—just a silver circle pin, one of the cheap ones.”
“Too bad he didn’t buy two, we could use the business.”
“Even if it’s for Lillian, she’s sure to be disappointed.”
Henry tried to pick up a tiny screwdriver, but fumbled it. “Not our concern.”
“If you ask me—”
“I didn’t,” Henry interrupted.
“I think Lillian took a shine to you. And a man with half a brain would see that Mr. Overcoat, in addition to being a married man, is never going to treat her right.”
“Are you finished?”
Madelyn leaned across the workbench. “The question is, are you?”
Henry stayed in the workroom the rest of the afternoon and into the evening. Finally, at nine o’clock, he locked up the store and left by the back door.
Driving home, Henry worked himself up into a lather. The evidence was circumstantial, but those circumstances pointed to Bill Humphreys being a two-timer and Lillian no better than a trollop for taking up with a married man. But by the time he pulled into the yard of what had been his family home when his parents were both alive, Henry acknowledged one complicating fact: Lillian hadn’t picked out the most expensive item in the store. A woman with her looks, if she were so inclined, could find some man to buy her diamonds—maybe not in this town, but somewhere. Lillian was a good person, a nice person—a bit past her prime in a small town where her prospects were slim. He wouldn’t condemn her—or anyone—for allowing their hearts to betray them. He knew what loneliness was.
Humans were flawed and morally complicated.
Henry sat in the car, the engine off and the temperature in the interior dropping swiftly, and wept.
Monday was Christmas Eve, with a flurry of activity in the morning as customers picked up orders and made the last payments on their layaways. Those who had two or three payments remaining were allowed to take their merchandise on the promise of paying off the balance in the new year.
Madelyn worked for a couple of hours in the morning, then went home to start her preparations for her family Christmas. Henry told her he’d lock up early if it stayed quiet. By one o’clock in the afternoon, no more customers came to the store. Through the front window he saw the owner of the women’s clothing store across the street lock up and pull down the grate. Henry turned the key in the front door and began emptying out the display windows—the pieces that were his best designs, even better than that long-ago “Daisy ring” he never made.
Suddenly, something occurred to him. If in one of his letters to Daisy he had told her about the ring, would she have waited for him? If he had sent her the sketches, would she have understood the depth and seriousness of his feelings? Why had he said nothing to her about the ring and instead concocted a plan to surprise her? Maybe Daisy didn’t jilt him. Maybe she never realized that he wanted to marry her. He didn’t propose before he left in case he didn’t come back from the war. Maybe Daisy wasn’t at fault all, but his own shyness about such things were to blame.
In his right hand Henry held a pair of earrings: diamonds set in delicate golden snowflakes. They were beautiful, his best work of the season. Now, he was glad no one had bought them.
Holding the earrings in his right hand, he picked up the phone with his left and asked the operator for a number. The line rang twice before Lillian answered.
“I know it’s late and you probably have plans,” Henry began, “but if you are free, perhaps you’d like to have dinner with me.”
When Lillian didn’t answer right away, Henry began to fear he’d misunderstood her personal circumstances—that she was married or engaged, or was sitting at home with a boyfriend who was or was not Bill Humphreys.
“I’m supposed to go to my sister’s, but not until later,” Lillian said. “Perhaps if we had an early dinner.”
“Is five o’clock too early? Or four-thirty?”
“I can meet you at four-thirty.”
“I have a car. I’ll pick you up—I can even drive you to your sister’s later.” Henry bit his lip, knowing he’s said too much.
Lillian gave him the address, and Henry wrote it down with a hand that shook with relief and excitement.
The earrings nestled in a velvet box, wrapped in silver paper and tied with a red ribbon. It was too extravagant a gift for a first date, but Henry didn’t care. He felt like being generous, to let Lillian know how he saw her—that she was a treasure of a person.
Videography by Pat Commins