IN A LITTLE TOWN
IN A LITTLE TOWN Illustrated. Post 8vo
THE THIRTEENTH COMMANDMENT Illustrated. Post 8vo
CLIPPED WINGS. Frontispiece. Post 8vo
WHAT WILL PEOPLE SAY? Illustrated. Post 8vo
THE LAST ROSE OF SUMMER. Frontispiece. 16mo
EMPTY POCKETS. Illustrated. Post 8vo
* * * * *
HARPER & BROTHERS, NEW YORK
In a Little Town
HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS
NEW YORK AND LONDON
IN A LITTLE TOWN
Copyright, 1917, by Harper & Brothers
Printed in the United States of America
Published March, 1917
TO FREDERICK ATHERTON DUNEKA AS AN I-O-U OF HEARTFELT ESTEEM
DON'T YOU CARE! 1
BABY TALK 73
THE MOUTH OF THE GIFT HORSE 106
THE OLD FOLKS AT HOME 141
AND THIS IS MARRIAGE 173
THE MAN THAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN 191
THE HAPPIEST MAN IN IOWAY 222
THE BEAUTY AND THE FOOL 262
THE GHOSTLY COUNSELORS 267
DAUGHTERS OF SHILOH 285
"A" AS IN "FATHER" 356
There are two immortal imbecilities that I have no patience for.
The other one is the treatment of little towns as if they were essentially different from big towns. Cities are not "Ninevehs" and "Babylons" any more than little towns are Arcadias or Utopias. In fact we are now unearthing plentiful evidence of what might have been safely assumed, that Babylon never was a "Babylon" nor Nineveh a "Nineveh" in the sense employed by poets and praters without number. Those old cities were made up of assorted souls as good and as bad and as mixed as now.
They do small towns a grievous injustice who deny them restlessness, vice, ostentation, cruelty; as they do cities a grievous injustice who deny them simplicity, homeliness, friendship, and contentment. It is one of those undeniable facts (which everybody denies) that a city is only a lot of small towns put together. Its population is largely made up of people who came from small towns and of people who go back to small towns every evening.
A village is simply a quiet street in the big city of the world. Quaint, sweet happenings take place in the avenues most thronged, and desperate events come about in sleepy lanes. People are people, chance is chance.
My novels have mainly concerned themselves with New York, and I have tried therein to publish bits of its life as they appear to such eyes and such mind as I have. Though several of my short stories have been published in single volumes, this is the first group to be issued. They are all devoted to small-town people. In them I have sought the same end as in the city novels: to be true to truth, to observe with sympathy and explain with fidelity, to find the epic of a stranger's existence and shape it for the eyes of strangers—to pass the throb of another heart through my heart to your heart.
The scene of these stories lies pretty close to the core of these United States, in the Middle West, in the valley of the Mississippi River. I was born near that river and spent a good deal of my boyhood in it.
Though it would be unfair, false, and unkind to fasten these stories on any definite originals, they are centered in the region about the small city of Keokuk, Iowa, from which one can also see into Illinois, and into Missouri, where I was born. Comic poets have found something comic in the name of Keokuk, as in other town names in which the letter "K" is prominent. Why "K" should be so humorous, I can't imagine. The name of Keokuk, however, belonged to a splendid Indian chief who was friendly to the early settlers and saved them from massacre. The monument over his bones in the park, on the high bluff there, now commands one of the noblest views in the world, a great lake formed in the Mississippi River by a dam which is as beautiful as if the Greeks had built it. It was, in fact, built by a thousand Greeks who camped there for years. As an engineering achievement it rivals the Assouan dam and as a manufacturer of electricity it is a second to Niagara Falls. But it has not yet materially disturbed the rural quality of the country.
The scenery thereabout is very beautiful, but I guarantee you against landscape in these stories. I cannot, however, guarantee that the stories are even based on fact. Yet I hope that they are truth.
The characters are limited to a small neighborhood, but if they are not also faithful to humanity in general, then, as we would say out there, "I miss my guess."
IN A LITTLE TOWN
DON'T YOU CARE!
When she was told it was a girl, Mrs. Govers sighed. "Well, I never did have any luck, anyway; so I d' know's I'm supprised."
Later she wept feebly:
"Girls are easier to raise, I suppose; but I kind of had my heart set on namin' him Launcelot." After another interval she rallied to a smile: "I was prepared for the worst, though; so I picked out Ellaphine for a name in case he was a her. It's an awful pirty name, Ellaphine is. Don't you think so?"
"Yes, yes," said the nurse, who would have agreed to anything then.
After a time Mrs. Govers resumed: "She'll be an awful pirty girl, I hope. Is that her makin' all that noise? Give me a glimpse of her, will you? I got a right, I guess, to see my own baby. Oh, Goshen! Is that how she looks?" A kind of swoon; then more meditation, followed by a courageous philosophy: "Children always look funny at first. She'll outgrow it, I expect. Ellaphine is such an elegant name. It ought to be a kind of inducement to grow up to. Don't you think so?"
The nurse, who was juggling the baby as if it were red-hot, mumbled through a mustache of safety-pins that she thought so. Mrs. Govers echoed, "I thought so, too." After that she went to sleep.
Ellaphine, however, did not grow up elegant, to fit the name. The name grew inelegant to fit her. During her earliest years the witty little children called her Elephant until they tired of the ingenuity and allowed her to lapse indolently from Ellar to El.
Mrs. Govers for some years cherished a dream that her ugly duckling would develop into a swan and fly away with a fabulously wealthy prince. Later she dwindled to a prayer that she might capture a man who was "tol'able well-to-do."
The majority of ugly ducklings, however, grow up into uglier ducks, and Mrs. Govers resigned herself to the melancholy prospect of the widowed mother of an old maid perennial.
To the confusion of prophecy, among all the batch of girls who descended on Carthage about the time of Ellaphine's birth—"out of the nowhere into the here"—Ellaphine was the first to be married! And she cut out the prettiest girl in the township—it was not such a small township, either.
Those homely ones seem to make straight for a home the first thing. Ellaphine carried off Eddie Pouch—the very Eddie of whom his mother used to say, "He's little, but oh, my!" The rest of the people said, "Oh, my, but he's little!"
Eddie's given name was Egbert. Edward was his taken name. He took it after his mother died and he went to live at his uncle Loren's. Eddie was sorry to change his name, but he said his mother was not responsible at the time she pasted the label Egbert on him, and his shy soul could not endure to be called Egg by his best friends—least of all by his best girl.
His best girl was the township champion looker, Luella Thickins. From the time his heart was big enough for Cupid to stick a child's-size arrow in, Eddie idolized Luella. So did the other boys; and as Eddie was the smallest of the lot, he was lost in the crowd. Even when Luella noticed him it was with the atrocious contempt of little girls for little boys they do not like.
Eddie could not give her sticks of candy or jawbreakers, for his uncle Loren did not believe in spending money. And Eddie had no mother to go to when the boys mistreated him and the girls ignored him. A dismal life he led until he grew up as far as he ever grew up.
Eddie reached his twenty-second birthday and was working in Uncle Loren's factory—one of the largest feather-duster factories in the whole State—when he observed a sudden change in Luella's manner.
She had scared him away from paying court to her, save from a distance. Now she took after him, with her aggressive beauty for a club and her engaging smiles for a net. She asked him to take her to the Sunday-school picnic, and asked him what he liked best for her to put in for him. She informed him that she was going to cook it for herself and everybody said she could fry chicken something grand. So he chose fried chicken.
He was so overjoyed that it was hard for him to be as solemn about the house as he ought to have been, in view of the fact that Uncle Loren had been taken suddenly and violently ill. Eddie was the natural heir to the old man's fortune.
Uncle Loren was considered close in a town where extravagance was almost impossible, but where rigid economy was supposed to pile up tremendous wealth. Hitherto it had pained Uncle Loren to devote a penny to anything but the sweet uses of investment. Now it suddenly occurred to the old miser that he had invested nothing in the securities of New Jerusalem, Limited. He was frightened immeasurably.
In his youth he had joined the Campbellite church and had been baptized in the town pond when there was a crust of ice over it which the pastor had to break with a stick before he immersed Loren. Everybody said the crust of ice had stuck to his heart ever since.
In the panic that came on him now he craftily decided to transfer all his savings to the other shore. The factory, of course, he must leave behind; but he drafted a hasty will presenting all his money to the Campbellite church under conditions that he counted on to gain him a high commercial rating in heaven.
Over his shoulder, as he wrote, a shadow waited, grinning; and the old man had hardly folded his last testament and stuffed it into his pillow-slip when the grisly hand was laid on his shoulders and Uncle Loren was no longer there.
His uncle's demise cut Eddie out of the picnic with Luella; but she was present at the funeral and gave him a wonderful smile. Uncle Loren's final will was not discovered until the pillow-slip was sent to the wash; and at the funeral Eddie was still the object of more or less disguised congratulations as an important heir.
Luella solaced him with rare tact and tenderness, and spoke much of his loneliness and his need of a helpmate. Eddie resolved to ask her to marry him as soon as he could compose the speech.
Some days later Uncle Loren's farewell will turned up, and Eddie fell from grace with a thump. The town laughed at him, as people always laugh when a person—particularly so plump a person as Eddie was—falls hard on the slippery sidewalk of this icy world.
In his dismay he hastened to Luella for sympathy, but she turned up missing. She jilted him with a jolt that knocked his heart out of his mouth. He stood, as it were, gaping stupidly, in the middle of the highway.
Then Ellaphine Govers came along, picked his heart out of the road, dusted it, and offered it back. He was so grateful that he asked her to keep it for him. He was so pitiable an object that he felt honored even by the support of Ellar Govers.
He went with Ellar quite a lot. He found her very comfortable company. She seemed flattered by his attention. Other people acted as if they were doing him a favor by letting him stand around.
He had lost Uncle Loren's money, but he still had a small job at the factory. Partly to please Ellar and partly to show certain folks that he was not yet dead, he took her out for a drive behind a livery-stable horse. It was a beautiful drive, and the horse was so tame that it showed no desire to run away. It was perfectly willing to stand still where the view was good.
He let Ellar drive awhile, and that was the only time the horse misbehaved. It saw a stack of hay, nearly went mad, and tried to climb a rail fence; but Ellar yelled at it and slapped the lines at it and got it past the danger zone, and it relapsed into its usual mood of despair.
Eddie told Ellar the horse was "attackted with haydrophobia." And she nearly laughed herself to death and said:
"You do say the funniest things!"
She was a girl who could appreciate a fellow's jokes, and he saw that they could have awful good times together. He told her so without difficulty and she agreed that they could, and they were as good as engaged before they got back as far as the fair-grounds. As they came into the familiar streets Eddie observed a remarkable change in the manner of the people they passed. People made an effort to attract his eye. They wafted him salutes from a distance. He encountered such a lifting of hats, elaborateness of smiles and flourish of hands, that he said to Ellaphine:
"Say, Pheeny, I wonder what the joke is!"
"Me, I guess," sighed Ellaphine. "They're makin' fun of you for takin' me out buggy-ridin'."
"Ah, go on!" said Eddie. "They've found out something about me and they're pokin' fun."
He was overcome with shame and drove to Ellaphine's house by a side street and escorted the horse to the livery-stable by a back alley. On his way home he tried in vain to dodge Luella Thickins, but she headed him off with one of her Sunday-best smiles. She bowled him over by an effusive manner.
"Why, Eddie, you haven't been round to see me for the longest time! Can't you come on over 'safternoon? I'd just love to see you!"
He wondered whether she had forgotten how she had ground his meek heart under her heel the last time he called.
She was so nice to him that she frightened him. He mumbled that he would certainly call that afternoon, and got away, wondering what the trick was. Her smile seemed less pretty than it used to be.
A block farther on Eddie met a man who explained the news, which had run across the town like oil on water. Tim Holdredge, an idle lawyer who had nothing else to do, looked into the matter of Uncle Loren's will and found that the old man, in his innocence of charity and his passion for economy, had left his money to the church on conditions that were not according to the law. The money reverted to the estate. Eddie was the estate.
When Tim Holdredge slapped Eddie on the shoulder and explained the result of what he called "the little joker" in Uncle Loren's will, Eddie did not rejoice, as Tim had a right to expect.
Eddie was poisoned by a horrible suspicion. The logic of events ran through his head like a hateful tune which he could not shake off:
"When Luella thought I was coming into a pile of money she was nice to me. When she heard I wasn't she was mean to me. Now that my money's coming to me, after all, she's nice again. Therefore—" But he was ashamed to give that ungallant ergo brain room.
Still more bewildering was the behavior of Ellaphine. As soon as he heard of his good fortune he hurried to tell her about it. Her mother answered the door-bell and congratulated him on his good luck. When he asked for Ellar, her mother said, "She was feelin' right poorly, so she's layin' down." He was so alarmed that he forgot about Luella, who waited the whole afternoon all dressed up.
After supper that night he patrolled before Ellaphine's home and tried to pluck up courage enough to twist that old door-bell again. Suddenly she ran into him. She was sneaking through the front gate. He tried to talk to her, but she said:
"I'm in a tur'ble hurry. I got to go to the drug-store and get some chloroform liniment. Mamma's lumbago's awful bad."
He walked along with her, though she tried to escape him. The first drowsy lamp-post showed him that Ellaphine had been crying. It was the least becoming thing she could have done. Eddie asked whether her mother was so sick as all that. She said "No"—then changed to "Yes"—and then stopped short and began to blubber uncouthly, dabbing her eyes alternately with the backs of her wrists.
Eddie stared awhile, then yielded to an imperious urge to clasp her to his heart and comfort her. She twisted out of his arms, and snapped, "Don't you touch me, Eddie Pouch!"
Eddie mumbled, inanely, "You didn't mind it this mornin', buggy-ridin'."
Her answer completely flabbergasted him:
"No; because you didn't have all that money then."
"Gee whiz, Pheeny!" he gasped. "What you got against Uncle Loren's money? It ain't a disease, is it? It's not ketchin', is it?"
"No," she sobbed; "but we—Well, when you were so poor and all, I thought you might—you might really like me because I could be of some—of some use to you; but now you—you needn't think I'm goin' to hold you to any—anything against your will."
Eddie realized that across the street somebody had stopped to listen. Eddie wanted to throw a rock at whoever it was, but Ellaphine absorbed him as she wailed:
"It 'd be just like you to be just's nice to me as ever; but I'm not goin' to tie you down to any homely old crow like me when you got money enough to marry anybody. You can get Luella Thickins back now. You could marry the Queen of England if you'd a mind to."
Eddie could find nothing better to say than, "Well, I'll be dog-on'd!"
While he gaped she got away.
Luella Thickins cast her spells over Eddie with all her might, but he understood them now and escaped through their coarse meshes. She was so resolute, however, that he did not dare trust himself alone in the same town with her unless he had a chaperon.
He sent a note to Ellaphine, saying he was in dire trouble and needed her help. This brought him the entree to her parlor. He told her the exact situation and begged her to rescue him from Luella.
Ellaphine's craggy features grew as radiant as a mountain peak in the sunrise. The light made beautiful what it illumined. She consented at last to believe in Eddie's devotion, or at least in his need of her; and the homely thing enjoyed the privilege of being pleaded for and of yielding to the prayers of an ardent lover.
She assumed that the marriage could not take place for several years, if ever. She wanted to give Eddie time to be sure of his heart; but Eddie was stubborn and said:
"Seein' as we're agreed on gettin' married, let's have the wedding right away and get it over with."
When Ellaphine's mother learned that Ellaphine had a chance to marry an heir and was asking for time, Mrs. Govers delivered an oration that would have sent Ellaphine to the altar with almost anybody, let alone her idolized Eddie.
The wedding was a quiet affair. Everybody in Carthage was invited. Few came. People feared that if they went they would have to send wedding-presents, and Eddie and Ellar were too unimportant to the social life of Carthage to make their approval valuable.
Eddie wore new shoes, which creaked and pinched. He looked twice as uncomfortable and twice as sad as he had looked at his uncle Loren's obsequies; and he suffered that supreme disenchantment of a too-large collar with a necktie rampant.
In spite of the ancient and impregnable theory that all brides are beautiful, was there ever a woman who looked her best in the uniform of approaching servitude? In any case, Ellaphine's best was not good, and she was at her worst in her ill-fitting white gown, with the veil askew. Her graceless carriage was not improved by the difficulty of keeping step with her escort and the added task of keeping step with the music.
The organist, Mr. Norman Maugans, always grew temperamental when he played Mendelssohn's "Wedding March," and always relieved its monotonous cadence with passionate accelerations and abrupt retardations. That made walking difficult.
When the minister had finished with the couple and they moved down the aisle to what the paper called the "Bridle March, by Lohengrin," Mr. Maugans always craned his neck to see and usually put his foot on the wrong pedal, with the startling effect of firing a cannon at the departing guests.
He did not crane his neck, however, to see Mr. and Mrs. Pouch depart. They were too commonplace entirely. He played the march with such doleful indifference that Eddie found the aisle as long as the distance from Marathon to Athens. Also he was trying to walk so that his pinching shoes would not squeak.
At the end of the last pew Eddie and Ellaphine encountered Luella Thickins leaning out into the aisle and triumphantly beautiful in her finest raiment. Her charms were militant and vindictive, and her smile plainly said: "Uh-huh! Don't you wish you'd taken me instead of that thing you've hitched up with for life?"
Eddie gave her one glance and found her hideous. Ellaphine lowered her eyelids in defeat and slunk from the church, thinking:
"Now he's already sorry that he married me. What can he see in me to love? Nothing! Nothing!"
When they clambered into the carriage Eddie said, "Well, Mrs. Pouch, give your old husband a kiss!"
Ellaphine shrank away from him, however, crying again. He was hurt and puzzled until he remembered that it is the business of brides to cry. He held her hand and tried to console her for being his victim, and imagined almost every reason for her tears but the true one.
The guests at the church straggled to Mrs. Govers's home, drawn by the call of refreshments. Luella was the gayest of them all. People wondered why Eddie had not married her instead of Ellaphine. Luella heard some one say, "What on earth can he see in her?"
Luella answered, "What on earth can she see in him?" It was hardly playing fair, but Luella was a poor loser. She even added, to clinch it, "What on earth can they see in each other?"
That became the town comment on the couple when there was any comment at all. Mainly they were ignored completely.
Eddie and Ellar were not even honored with the usual outburst of the ignoblest of all sports—bride-baiting. Nobody tied a white ribbon to the wheel of the hack that took them to the depot. Old shoes had not been provided and rice had been forgotten. They were not pelted or subjected to immemorial jokes. They were not chased to the train, and their elaborate schemes for deceiving the neighbors as to the place of their honeymoon were wasted. Nobody cared where they went or how long they stayed.
They returned sheepishly, expecting to run a gantlet of humor; but people seemed unaware that they had been away. They settled down into the quiet pool of Carthage without a splash, like a pair of mud-turtles slipping off a log into the water. Even the interest in Eddie's inheritance did not last long, for Uncle Loren's fortune did not last long—not that they were spendthrift, for they spent next to nothing; but money must be fed or it starves to death. Money must grow or wither.
Eddie found that his uncle's reputation for hard dealing had been a condition of his success. He soon learned that the feather-duster factory could be run at a profit only by the most microscopic care. Wages must be kept down; hours kept up; the workers driven every minute, fined if they were late, nagged if they dawdled. Profit could be wrung from the trade only by ugly battles with dealers and purchasers. Raw material had to be fought down, finished product fought up; bills due fought off, accounts fought in; the smallest percentage of a percentage wrestled for.
Eddie was incapable of such vigilant hostility toward everybody. The factory almost immediately ceased to pay expenses. Eddie was prompt to meet debts, but lenient as a collector. The rest of his inheritance fared no better. Eddie was an ideal mortgagee. The first widow wept him out of his interest in five tears. Having obliged her, he could hardly deny the next person, who had money but wanted more, "to carry out a big deal."
Eddie first gained a reputation for being a kind-hearted gentleman and a Christian, and later a notoriety for being an easy mark. Eddie overheard such comment eventually, and it wounded him as deeply as it bewildered him. Bitterer than the contempt for a hard man is the contempt for a soft man who is betrayed by a vice of mercy. Eddie was hopelessly addicted to decency.
Uncle Loren had been a miser and so close that his nickname had implied the ability to skin a flint. People hated him and raged against him; but it suddenly became evident that they had worked hard to meet their bills payable to him. They had sat up nights devising schemes to gain cash for him. He was a cause of industry and thrift and self-denial. He paid poor wages, but he kept the factory going. He squeezed a penny until the eagle screamed, but he made dusters out of the tail feathers, and he was planning to branch out into whisk brooms and pillows when, in the words of the pastor, he was "called home." The pastor liked the phrase, as it did not commit him to any definite habitat.
Eddie, however, though he worked hard and used thrift, and, with Ellaphine's help, practised self-denial, found that he was not so big a man as the small man he succeeded. He increased the wages and cut down the hours, and found that he had diminished the output of everything except complaints. The men loafed shamelessly, cheated him of the energy and the material that belonged to him, and whined all the time. His debtors grew shiftless and contemptuous.
It is the irony, the meanness, of the trade of life that virtue may prove vicious in effect; and viciousness may produce good fruit. Figs do grow from thistles.
For a time the Pouch couple attracted a great deal of attention from the people of Carthage—the sort of attention that people on shore devote to a pair of capsized canoeists for whom nobody cares to risk his life.
Luella Thickins had forced the note of gaiety at the wedding, but she soon grew genuinely glad that Eddie had got away. She began to believe that she had jilted him.
People who wondered what Mr. and Mrs. Pouch saw in each other could not realize that he saw in her a fellow-sufferer who upheld him with her love in all his terrors. She was everything that his office was not—peace without demand for money; glowing admiration and raptures of passion.
What she saw in him was what a mother sees in a crippled child that runs home to her when the play of the other boys is too swift or too rough. She saw a good man, who could not fight because he could not slash and trample and loot. She saw what the Belgian peasant women saw—a little cottage holder staring in dismay at the hostile armies crashing about his homestead.
The only comfort Eddie found in the situation was the growing realization that it was hopeless. The drowsy opiate of surrender began to spread its peace through his soul. His torment was the remorse of proving a traitor to his dead uncle's glory. The feather-dustery that had been a monument was about to topple into the weeds. Eddie writhed at that and at his feeling of disloyalty to the employees, who would be turned out wageless in a small town that was staggering under the burden of hard times.
He made a frantic effort to keep going on these accounts, but the battle was too much for him. He could not imagine ways and means—he knew nothing of the ropes of finance. He was like a farmer with a scythe against sharpshooters. Ellaphine began to fear that the struggle would break him down. One night she persuaded him to give up.
She watched him anxiously the next morning as his fat little body, bulging with regrets, went meekly down the porch steps and along the walk. The squeal of the gate as he shoved through sounded like a groan from his own heart. He closed the gate after him with the gentle care he gave all things. Then he leaned across it to wave to his Pheeny. It was like the good-by salute of a man going to jail.
Ellaphine moped about the kitchen, preparing him the best dinner she could to cheer him when he came home at noon. To add a touch of grace she decided to set a bowl of petunias in front of him. He loved the homely little flowers in their calico finery, like farmers' daughters at a picnic. Their cheap and almost palpable fragrancy delighted him when it powdered the air. She hoped that they would bring a smile to him at noon, for he could still afford petunias.
She was squatting by the colony aligned along the walk, and her big sunbonnet hid her unbeautiful face from the passers-by and theirs from her, when she caught a glimpse of Luella Thickins coming along, giggling with the banker's son. Luella put on a little extra steam for the benefit of Ellaphine, who was glad of her sunbonnet and did not look up.
Later there came a quick step, thumping the boardwalk in a rhythm she would have recognized but for its allegrity. The gate was opened with a sweep that brought a shriek from its old rheumatic hinge, and was permitted to swing shut with an unheeded smack. Ellaphine feared it was somebody coming with the haste that bad news inspires. Something awful had happened to Eddie! Her knees could not lift her to face the evil tidings. She dared not turn her head.
Then she heard Eddie's own voice: "Pheeny! Pheeny, honey! Everything's all right!"
Pheeny spilled the petunias and sat down on them. Eddie lifted her up and pushed his glowing face deep into her sunbonnet, and kissed her.
Luella Thickins was coming back and her giggling stopped. She and the banker's son, who were just sauntering about, exchanged glances of disgust at the indecorous proceeding. Later Luella resumed her giggle and enjoyed hugely her comment:
"Ellar looks fine in a sunbonnet! The bigger it is, the better she looks."
Meantime Eddie was supporting his Pheeny into the house. His path was strewn with petunias and she supposed he had some great victory to announce. He had; but he was the victim.
The conqueror was the superintendent of the factory, Jabez Pittinger, who had survived a cycle of Uncle Loren's martinetism with less resentment than a year of Eddie's lenience. But Eddie is telling Ellaphine of his glorious achievement:
"You see, I went to the fact'ry feeling like I was goin' to my grave."
"I know," she said; "but what happened?"
"I just thought I'd rather die than tack up the notice that we were going to shut down and turn off those poor folks and all."
"I know," said Ellaphine; "but tell me."
"Well, finally," Eddie plodded along, "I tried to draw up the 'nouncement with the markin'-brush; but I just couldn't make the letters. So I called in Jabe Pittinger and told him how it was; and I says to him: 'Jabe, I jest naturally can't do it m'self. I wisht you'd send the word round that the factory's goin' to stop next Sat'd'y.' I thought he'd show some surprise; but he didn't. He just shot a splash of tobacco-juice through that missin' tooth of his and says, 'I wouldn't if I's you.' And I says, 'Goodness knows I hate to; but there's no way out of it.' And he wopsed his cud round and said, 'Mebbe there is.' 'What do you mean?' I says. And he says, 'Fact is, Eddie'—he always called me Mr. Pouch or Boss before, but I couldn't say anything to him, seeing—"
"I know!" Ellaphine almost screamed. "But what'd he say? What's the upshot?"
Eddie went on at his ox-like gait. "'Well,' he says, 'fact is, Eddie,' he says, 'I been expectin' this, and I been figgerin' if they wasn't a way somewhere to keep a-runnin',' says he; 'and I been talkin' to certain parties that believes as I do, that the fault ain't with the feather-duster business, but with the way it's run,' he says. 'People gotter have feather dusters,' he says; 'but they gotter be gave to 'em right.' O' course I knew he was gettin' at me, but I was in no p'sition to talk back."
"Oh, please, Eddie!" Ellaphine moaned. "Please tell me! I'm goin' crazy to know the upshot of it, and I smell the pie burnin'—it's rhubob, too."
"You got rhubob pie for dinner to-day?" Eddie chortled. "Oh, crickety, that's fine!"
He followed her into the kitchen and helped her carry the things to the dining-room, where they waited on each other in alternate dashes and clashes of "Lemme get it!" and "You set right still!"
Eventually he reached the upshot, which was that Mr. Pittinger thought he might raise money to run the factory if Eddie would give him the control and drop out. Eddie concluded, with a burst of rapture: "I'm so tickled I wisht I could telegraft poor Uncle Loren that everything's all right!"
It was an outrageous piece of petty finance on high models, and it euchred Eddie out of everything he had in the world except his illusion that Jabez was working for the good of the factory.
Eddie always said "The Fact'ry" in the tone that city people use when they say "The Cathedral."
Ellaphine saw through the wiles of Jabez and the measly capitalists he had bound together, and she was ablaze with rage at them and with pity for her tender-hearted child-husband; but she did not reveal these emotions to Eddie.
She encouraged him to feast on the one sweetmeat of the situation: that the hands would not be turned off and the factory would keep open doors. In fact, when doubt began to creep into his own idle soul and a feeling of shame depressed him, as the butt of the jokes and the pity that the neighbors flung at him, Ellaphine pretended to be overjoyed at the triumph he had wrested from defeat.
And when he began to chafe at his lack of occupation, and to fret about their future, she went to the factory and invaded the office where the usurper, Jabez Pittinger, sat enthroned at the hallowed desk, tossing copious libations of tobacco-juice toward a huge new cuspidor. She demanded a job for Eddie and bullied Jabez into making him a bookkeeper, at a salary of forty-five dollars a month.
Thus, at last, Eddie Pouch found his place in the world. There are soldiers who make ideal first sergeants and are ruined and ruinous as second lieutenants; and there are soldiers who are worthless as first sergeants, but irresistible as major-generals. Eddie was a born first sergeant, a routine man, a congenital employee—doomed, like fire, to be a splendid servant and a disastrous master.
Working for himself, he neglected every opportunity. Working for another, he neglected nothing. Meeting emergencies, tricking creditors and debtors, and massacring competitors were not in his line; but when it came to adding up columns of figures all day, making out bills, drawing checks for somebody else to sign, and the Santa Claus function of stuffing the pay-roll into the little envelopes—Eddie was there. Shrewd old Jabez recognized this. He tried him on a difficult collection once—sent him forth to pry an ancient debt of eighteen dollars and thirty-four cents out of the meanest man in town, vice Uncle Loren. Eddie came back with a look of contentment.
"Did you git it?" said Jabez.
"Well, you see, it was like this: the poor feller—"
"Poor heller! Did you git it?"
"No; he was so hard up I lent him four dollars."
"Out of my own pocket, o' course."
Jabez remarked that he'd be hornswoggled; but he valued the incident and added it to the anecdotes he used when he felt that he had need to justify himself for playing Huerta with his dreamy Madero.
After that the most Jabez asked of Eddie was to write "Please remit" or "Past due" on the mossier bills. Eddie preferred an exquisite poem he had copied from a city creditor: "This account has no doubt escaped your notice. As we have several large obligations to meet, we should greatly appreciate a check by return mail."
Eddie loved that. There was a fine chivalry and democracy about it, as one should say: "We're all debtors and creditors in this world, and we big fellows and you little fellows must all work together."
Life had a regularity now that would have maddened a man more ambitious than Eddie or a woman more restless than Ellaphine. Their world was like the petunia-garden—the flowers were not orchids or telegraph-pole-stemmed roses; but the flower faces were joyous, their frocks neat, and their perfume savory.
Eddie knew just how much money was coming in and there was no temptation to hope for an increase. They knew just how much time they had, and one day was like another except that along about the first of every month Eddie went to the office a little earlier and went back at night to get out the bills and adjust his balances.
On these evenings Ellaphine was apt to go along and sit with him, knitting thick woolen socks for the winter, making him shirts or nightgowns, or fashioning something for herself or the house. Her loftiest reach of splendor was a crazy quilt; and her rag carpets were highly esteemed.
On Sundays they went to church in the morning and again in the evening. Prayer-meeting night saw them always on their way to the place where the church bell called: "Come! Come!"
Sometimes irregular people, who forgot it was prayer-meeting night, would be reminded of it by seeing Eddie and Ellar go by. They went so early that there was time for the careless to make haste with their bonnets and arrive in time.
It was a saying that housewives set their kitchen clocks by Eddie's transits to and from the factory. At any rate, there was no end to the occasions when shiftless gossips, dawdling on their porches, were surprised to see Eddie toddle homeward, and scurried away, cackling:
"My gracious! There goes Eddie Pouch, and my biscuits not cut out!"
The whole year was tranquil now for the Pouches, and the halcyon brooded unalarmed in the waveless cove of their life. There were no debtors to be harassed, no creditors to harass them. They paid cash for everything—at least, Ellaphine did; for Eddie turned his entire forty-five dollars over to her. She was his banker and his steward.
She could not persuade him to smoke, or to buy new clothes before the old ones grew too shabby for so nice a man as a bookkeeper is apt to be. He did not drink or play cards or billiards; he did not belong to any lodge or political organization.
The outgo of money was as regular as the income—so much for the contribution-basket on Sundays; so much for the butcher; so much for the grocer; so much for the coal-oil lamps. The baker got none of their money and the druggist little.
A few dollars went now and then to the dry-goods store for dress goods, which Pheeny made up; and Eddie left an occasional sum at the Pantatorium for a fresh alpaca coat, or for a new pair of trousers when the seat of the old ones grew too refulgent or perilously extenuate. As Eddie stood up at his tall desk most of the time, however, it was rather his shoes than his pantaloons that felt the wear and tear of attrition.
And yet, in spite of all the tender miserhood of Ellaphine and the asceticism of Eddie, few of the forty-five dollars survived the thirty days' demands. Still, there was always something for the savings-bank, and the blessing on its increment was that it grew by exactions from themselves—not from their neighbors.
The inspiration of the fund was the children that were to be. The fund had ample time for accretion, since the children were as late as Never is.
Such things are not discussed, of course, in Carthage. And nobody knew how fiercely they yearned. Nobody knew of the high hopes that flared and faded.
After the first few months of marriage Eddie had begun to call Pheeny "Mother"—just for fun, you know. And it teased her so that he kept it up, for he liked a joke as well as the next fellow. Before people, of course, she was "Pheeny," and, on very grand occasions, "the wife." "Mrs. Pouch" was beyond him. But once, at a sociable, he called across the room, "Say, mother!"
He was going to ask her whether she wanted him to bring her a piece of the "chalklut" cake or a hunk of the "cokernut," but he got no farther. Nobody noticed it; but Eddie and Pheeny were consumed with shame and slunk home scarlet. Nobody noticed that they had gone.
Time went on and on, and the fund grew and grew—a little coral reef of pennies and nickels and dimes. The amusements of the couple were petty—an occasional church sociable was society; a revival period was drama. They never went to the shows that came to the Carthage Opera House. They did not miss much.
Eddie wasted no time on reading any fiction except that in the news columns of the evening paper, which a boy threw on the porch in a twisted boomerang every afternoon, and which Eddie untwisted and read after he had wiped the dishes that Pheeny washed.
Ellaphine spent no money on such vanities as novels or short stories, but she read the edifying romances in the Sunday-school paper and an occasional book from the Sunday-school library, mainly about children whose angelic qualities gave her a picture of child life that would have contrasted strongly with what their children would have been if they had had any.
Their great source of literature, however, was the Bible. Soon after their factory passed out of their control and their evenings ceased to be devoted to riddles in finance, they had resolved to read the Bible through, "from kiver to kiver." And Eddie and Ellaphine found that a chapter read aloud before going to bed was an excellent sedative.
They had not invaded Genesis quite three weeks before the evening when it came Eddie's turn to read aloud the astonishing romance of Abram, who became Abraham, and of Sarai, who became Sarah. It was very exciting when the child was promised to Sarah, though she was "well stricken in age." Eddie smiled as he read, "Sarah laughed within herself." But Pheeny blushed.
Ellaphine was far from the ninety years of Sarah, but she felt that the promise of a son was no laughing matter. These poignant hopes and awful denials and perilous adventures are not permitted to be written about or printed for respectable eyes. If they are discussed it must be with laughing ribaldry.
Even in their solitude Eddie and Pheeny used modest paraphrases and breathed hard and looked askance, and made sure that no one overheard. They whispered as parents do when their children are abed up-stairs.
The neighbors gave them hardly thought enough to imagine the lofty trepidation of these thrilling hours. The neighbors never knew of the merciless joke Fate played on them when, in their ignorance, they believed the Lord had sent them a sign. They dwelt in a fools' paradise for a long time, hoarding their glorious expectations.
At length Pheeny grew brazen enough to consult the old and peevish Doctor Noxon; and he laughed her hopes away and informed her that she need never trouble herself to hope again.
That was a smashing blow; and they cowered together under the shadow of this great denial, each telling the other that it did not matter, since children were a nuisance and a danger anyway.
They pretended to take solace in two current village tragedies—the death of the mayor's wife in childbed and the death of the minister's son in disgrace; but, though they lied to each other lovingly, they were neither convincing nor convinced.
Year followed year as season trudged at the heel of season. The only difference it made to them was that now Ellaphine evicted weeds from the petunia-beds, and now swept snow from the porch and beat the broom out on the steps; now Eddie carried his umbrella up against the sun or rain and mopped his bald spot, and now he wore his galoshes through the slush and was afraid he had caught a cold.
The fund in the bank went on growing like a neglected garden, but it was growing for nothing. Eddie walked more slowly to and from the office, and Pheeny took a longer time to set the table. She had to sit down a good deal between trips and suffered a lot of pain. She said nothing about it to Eddie of evenings, but it grew harder to conceal her weakness from him when he helped her with the Sunday dinner.
Finally she could not walk to church one day and had to stay at home. He stayed with her, and their empty pew made a sensation. Eddie fought at Pheeny until she consented to see the doctor again—on Monday.
The doctor censured her for being foolish enough to try to die on her feet, and demanded of Eddie why they did not keep a hired girl. Eddie had never thought of it. He was horrified to realize how heartless and negligent he had been. He promised to get one in at once.
Pheeny stormed and wept against the very idea; but her protests ended on the morning when she could not get up to cook Eddie's breakfast for him. He had to get his own and hers, and he was late at the office for the first time in years. Two householders, seeing him going by, looked at their clocks and set them back half an hour.
Jabez spoke harshly to Eddie about his tardiness. It would never do to ignore an imperfection in the perfect. Eddie was Pheeny's nurse that night and overslept in the morning. It would have made him late again if he had stopped to fry an egg or boil a cup of coffee. He ran breakfastless to his desk.
After that Pheeny consented to the engagement of a cook. They tried five or six before they found one who combined the traits of being both enduring and endurable.
Eddie was afraid of her to a pitiful degree. She put too much coffee in his coffee and she made lighter bread than Pheeny did.
"There's no substance to her biscuits!" Eddie wailed, hoping to comfort Pheeny, who had leisure enough now to develop at that late date her first acquaintance with jealousy.
The cook was young and vigorous, and a hired man on a farm might have called her good-looking; but her charms did not interest Eddie. His soul was replete with the companionship of his other self—Pheeny; and if Delia had been as sumptuous a beauty as Cleopatra he would have been still more afraid of her. He had no more desire to possess her than to own the Kohinoor.
And Delia, in her turn, was far more interested in the winks and flatteries of the grocer's boy and the milkman than in any conquest of the fussy little fat man, who ate whatever she slammed before him and never raised his eyes.
Pheeny, however, could not imagine this. She could not know how secure she was in Eddie's heart, or how she had grown in and about his soul until she fairly permeated his being.
So Pheeny lay up in the prison of her bed and imagined vain things, interpreting the goings-on down-stairs with a fantastic cynicism that would have startled Boccaccio. She did not openly charge Eddie with these fancied treacheries. She found him guilty silently and silently acquitted him of fault, abjectly asking herself what right she had to deny him all acquaintance with beauty, hilarity, and health.
She remembered her mother's eternal moan, "All men are alike." She dramatized her poor mouse of a husband as a devastating Don Juan; and then forgave him, as most of the victims of Don Juan's ruthless piracies forgave him.
She suffered hideously, however. Eddie, seeing the deep, sad look of her eyes as they studied him, wondered and wondered, and often asked her what the matter was; but she always smiled as a mother smiles at a child that is too sweet to punish for any mischief, and she always answered: "Nothing! Nothing!" But then she would sigh to the caverns of her soul. And sometimes tears would drip from her brimming lids to her pillow. Still, she would tell him nothing but "Nothing!"
Finally the long repose repaired her worn-out sinews and she grew well enough to move about the house. She prospered on the medicine of a new hope that she should soon be well enough to expel the third person who made a crowd of their little home.
And then Luella Thickins came back to town. Luella had married long before and moved away; but now she came back a widow, handsome instead of pretty, billowy instead of willowy, seductive instead of spoony, and with that fearsome menace a widow carries like a cloud about her.
Eddie spoke of meeting her "down-town," and in his fatuous innocence announced that she was "as pirty as ever." If he had hit Pheeny with a hatchet he would have inflicted a less painful wound.
Luella's presence cast Pheeny into a profounder dismay than she had ever felt about the cook. After all, Delia was only a hired girl, while Luella was an old sweetheart. Delia had put wicked ideas into Eddie's head and now Luella would finish him. As Ellaphine's mother had always said, "Men have to have novelty."
The Lord Himself had never seen old Mr. Govers stray an inch aside from the straight path of fidelity; but his wife had enhanced him with a lifelong suspicion that eventually established itself as historical fact.
Pheeny could find some excuse for Eddie's Don Juanity with the common clay of Delia, especially as she never quite believed her own beliefs in that affair; but Luella was different. Luella had been a rival. The merest courtesy to Luella was an unpardonable affront to every sacred right of successful rivalry.
The submerged bitternesses that had gathered in her soul like bubbles at the bottom of a hot kettle came showering upward now, and her heart simmered and thrummed, ready to boil over if the heat were not removed.
One day, soon, Luella fastened on Eddie as he left the factory to go home to dinner. She had loitered about, hoping to engage the eye of Jabez, who was now the most important widower in town. Luella had elected him for her next; but he was away, and she whetted her wits on Eddie. She walked at his side, excruciating him with her glib memories of old times and the mad devotion he had cherished for her then.
He felt that it was unfaithful of him even to listen to her, but he could not spur up courage enough to bolt and run. He welcomed the sight of his own gate as an asylum of refuge. To his horror, Luella stopped and continued her chatter, draping herself in emotional attitudes and italicizing her coquetries. Her eyes seemed to drawl languorous words that her lips dared not voice; and she committed the heinous offense of plucking at Eddie's coat-sleeve and clinging to his hand. Then she walked on like an erect cobra.
Eddie's very back had felt that Pheeny was watching him from one of the windows or from all the windows; for when, at last, he achieved the rude victory of breaking away from Luella and turned toward the porch, every window was a somber eye of reproach.
He would not have looked so guilty if he had been guilty. He shuffled into the house like a boy who comes home late from swimming; and when he called aloud "Pheeny! Oh, Pheeny!" his voice cracked and his throat was uncertain with phlegm.
He found Pheeny up-stairs in their room, with the door closed. He closed it after him when he went in. He feigned a care-free joy at the sight of her, and stumbled over his own foot as he crossed the room and put his arms about her, where she sat in the big rocking-chair; but she brushed his arms aside and bent her cheek away from his pursed lips. This startled him, and he gasped:
"Why, what's the matter, honey? Why don't you kiss me?"
"You don't want to kiss me," she muttered.
"Why don't I?" he exclaimed.
"Because I'm not pirty. I'm not young. I'm not round or tall. I haven't got nice clothes or those terrible manners that men like in women. You're tired of me. I don't blame you; but you don't have to kiss me, and you don't want to."
It was a silly sort of contest for so old a couple; but their souls felt as young as childhood, or younger, and this debate was all-important. He caught at her again and tried to drag her head to his lips, pleading inanely:
"Of course I want to kiss you, honey! Of course I do! Please—please don't be this way!"
But she evaded him still, and glared at him as from a great distance, sneering rather at herself than him and using that old byword of Luella's:
"What can you see in me?" Suddenly she challenged him: "Who do you kiss when you kiss me?"
He stared at her for a while as if he were not sure who she was. Then he sat down on the broad arm of her chair and took one of her hands in his—the hand with the wedding-ring on it—and seemed to talk to the hand more than to her, lifting the fingers one after another and studying each digit as though it had a separate personality—as perhaps it had.
"Who do I kiss when I kiss you? That's a funny question!"
He laughed solemnly. Then he made a very long speech, for him; and she listened to it with the attention due to that most fascinating of themes, the discussion of oneself by another.
"Pheeny, when I was about knee-high to a grasshopper I went over to play in Tim Holdredge's father's orchard; and when I started for home there was a big dawg in old Mrs. Pittinger's front yard, and it jumped round and barked at me. I guess it was just playing, because, as I remember it now, it was wagging its tail, and afterward I found out it was only a cocker spaniel; but I thought it was a wolf and was going to eat me. I begun to cry, and I was afraid to go backward or to go forward. And by and by a little girl came along and asked me what I was crying about, and I said, 'About the dawg!' And the little girl said: 'O-oh! He's big, ain't he?' And I said, 'He's goin' to eat one of us all up!' And the little girl said: 'Aw, don't you care! You take a-holt of my hand and I'll run past with you; and if he bites he'll bite me first and you can git away!' She was as scared as I was, but she grabbed my hand and we got by without being et up. Do you remember who that little girl was?"
The hand in his seemed to remember. The fingers of it closed on his a moment, then relaxed as if to listen for more. He mused on:
"I wasn't very big for my size even then, and I wasn't very brave ever. I didn't like to fight, like the other boys did, and I used to rather take a lickin' than give one. Well, one day I was playin' marbles with another boy, and he said I cheated when I won his big taw; but I didn't. He wanted to fight, though, and he hit me; and I wouldn't hit back. He was smaller than what I was, and he give me a lot of lip and dared me to fight; and I just couldn't. He said I was afraid, and so did the other boys; and I guess I was. It seemed to me I was more afraid of hurtin' somebody else than gettin' hurt myself; but I guess I was just plain afraid. The other boys began to push me round and call me a cowardy calf, and I began to cry. I wanted to run home, but I was afraid to start to run. And then a little girl came along and said: 'What's the matter, Eddie? What you cryin' for?' And I said, 'They're all pickin' on me and callin' me cowardy calf!' And she said: 'Don't you care! You come right along with me; and if one of 'em says another word to you I'll scratch their nasty eyes out!' Do you remember that, Pheeny?"
Her other hand came forward and embraced his wrist.
"And another time you found me cryin'. I was a little older, and I'd studied hard and tried to get my lessons good; but I failed in the exam'nations, and I was goin' to tie a rock round my neck and jump in the pond. But you said: 'Aw, don't you care, Eddie! I didn't pass in mine, either!'
"And when I wanted to go to college, and Uncle Loren wouldn't send me, I didn't cry outside, but I cried inside; and I told you and you said: 'Don't you care! I don't get to go to boardin'-school myself.'
"And when I was fool enough to think I liked that no-account Luella Thickins, and thought I'd go crazy because her wax-doll face wouldn't smile for me, you said: 'Don't you care, Eddie! You're much too good for her. I think you're the finest man in the country.'
"And when the baby didn't come and I acted like a baby myself, you said: 'Don't you care, Eddie! Ain't we got each other?'
"Seems like ev'ry time I been ready to lay down and die you've been there with your old 'Don't you care! It's going to be all right!'
"Just last night I had a turrible dream. I didn't tell you about it for fear it would upset you. I dreamed I got awful sick at the office. I couldn't seem to add the figures right and the old desk wabbled. Finally I had to leave off and start for home, though it was only a quarter of twelve; and I had to set down on Doc Noxon's horse-block and on Holdredge's wall to rest; and I couldn't get our gate open. And you run out and dragged me in, and got me up-stairs somehow, and sent Delia around for the doctor.
"Doc Noxon made you have a trained nurse, but I couldn't stand her; and I wouldn't take medicine from anybody but you. I don't suppose I was dreamin' more 'n a few minutes, all told; but it seemed like I laid there for weeks, till one day Doc Noxon called you out of the room. I couldn't hear what he was saying, but I heard you let out one horrible scream, and then I heard sounds like he was chokin' you, and you kept sayin': 'Oh no! No! No!'
"I tried to go and help you, but I couldn't lift my head. By and by you come back, with your eyes all red. Doc Noxon was with you and he called the nurse over to him. You come to me and tried to smile; and you said:
"'Well, honey, how are you now?'
"Then I knew what the doctor had told you and I was worse scared than when the black dawg jumped at me. I tried to be brave, but I never could seem to be. I put out my hands to you and hollered:
"'Pheeny, I'm goin' to die! I know I'm goin' to die! Don't let me go! I'm afraid to die!'"
Now the hands clenched his with a frenzy that hurt—but beautifully. And he kissed the wedding-ring as he finished:
"And you dropped down to me on the floor by the bed and took my hands—just like that. And you whispered: 'Don't you care, honey! I'll go with you. Don't you care!'
"And the fever seemed to cool out of me, and I kind of smiled and wasn't afraid any more; and I turned my face to you and kissed you—like this, Pheeny.
"Why, you've been cryin', haven't you? You mustn't cry—you mustn't! All those girls I been tellin' you about are the girl I kiss when I kiss you, Pheeny. There couldn't be anybody as beautiful as you are to me.
"I ain't 'mounted to much; but it ain't your fault. I wouldn't have 'mounted to anything at all if it hadn't been for you, Pheeny; and I been the happiest feller in all this world—or I have been up to now. I'm awful lonedsome just now. Don't you s'pose you could spare me a kiss?"
She spared him one.
Then the cook pounded on the door and called through in a voice that threatened to warp the panels: "Ain't you folks ever comin' down to dinner? I've rang the bell three times. Everything's all cold!"
But it wasn't. Everything was all warm.
They made a handsome family group, with just the one necessary element of contrast.
Father was the contrast.
They were convened within and about the big three-walled divan which, according to the fashion, was backed up against a long library-table in what they now called the living-room. It had once been the sitting-room and had contained a what-isn't-it and a sofa like an enormous bald caterpillar, crowded against the wall so that you could fall off only one side of it.
It was a family reunion and unexpected. Father was not convened with the rest, but sat off in the shadow and counted the feet sticking out from the divan and protruding from the chairs. He counted fourteen feet, including his wife's and excluding his own. All the feet were expensively shod except his own.
Three of the children had come home for a visit, and father, glad as he was to see them, had a vague feeling that they had been brought in by some other motive than their loudly proclaimed homesickness. He was willing to wait until they disclosed it, for he had an idea what it was and he was always glad to postpone a payment. It meant so much less interest to lose. Father was a business man.
Father was also dismally computing the addition to the grocery bills, the butchery bills, and livery bills, and the others. He was figuring out the added expense of the dinner, with roast beef now costing as much as peacocks' tongues. He had raised a large family and there was not a dyspeptic in the lot—not even a banter.
They had been photographed together the day before and the proof had just come home. Father was not in the picture. It was a handsome picture. They admitted it themselves. They had urged father to come along, but he had pleaded his business, as usual. As they studied the picture they would glance across at father and realize how little the picture lost by his absence. It lost nothing but the contrast.
While they were engaged each in that most fascinating of employments—studying one's own photograph—they were all waiting for the dining-room maid to appear like a black-and-white sketch and crisply announce that dinner was served. They had not arrived yet at having a man. Indeed, that room could still remember when a frowsy, blowsy hired girl was wont to stick her head in and groan, "Supper's ready!"
In fact, mother had never been able to live down a memory of the time when she used to put her own head in at a humbler dining-room door and call with all the anger that cooks up in a cook: "Come on! What we got's on the table!" But mother had entirely forgotten the first few months of her married life, when she would sing out to father: "Oh, honey, help me set the table, will you? I've a surprise for you—something you like!"
This family had evolved along the cycles so many families go through—from pin feathers to paradise plumes—only, the male bird had failed to improve his feathers or his song, though he never failed to bring up the food and keep the nest thatched.
The history of an American family can often be traced by its monuments in the names the children call the mother. Mrs. Grout had begun as—just one Ma. Eventually they doubled that and progressed from the accent on the first to the accent on the second ma. Years later one of the inarticulate brats had come home as a collegian in a funny hat, and Mama had become Mater. This had lasted until one of the brattines came home as a collegienne with a swagger and a funny sweater. And then her Latin title was Frenchified to Mere—which always gave father a shock; for father had been raised on a farm, where only horses' wives were called by that name.
Father had been dubbed Pop at an early date. Efforts to change this title had been as futile as the terrific endeavors to keep him from propping his knife against his plate. He had been browbeaten out of using the blade for transportation purposes, but at that point he had simply ceased to develop.
Names like Pappah, Pater, and Pere would not cling to him; they fell off at once. Pop he was always called to his face, whether he were referred to abroad as "the old man," "the governor," or "our dear father."
The evolution of the Grout family could be traced still more clearly in the names the parents had given the children. The eldest was a daughter, though when she grew up she dropped back in the line and became ever so much younger than her next younger brothers. She might have fallen still farther to the rear if she had not run up against another daughter who had her own age to keep down.
The eldest daughter, born in the grim days of early penury, had been grimly entitled Julia. The following child, a son, was soberly called by his father's given and his mother's maiden names—John Pennock Grout, or Jno. P., as his father wrote it.
A year or two later there appeared another hostage. Labeling him was a matter of deep concern. John urged his own father's name, William; but the mother wafted this away with a gesture of airy disgust. There was a hired girl in the kitchen now and mother was reading a good many novels between stitches. She debated long and hard while the child waited anonymous. At length she ventured on Gerald. She changed that two or three times and the boy had a narrow escape from Sylvester. He came perilously near to carrying Abelard through an amused world; but she harked back to Gerald—which he spelled Jerrold at times.
Then two daughters entered the family in succession and were stamped Beatrice—pronounced Bay-ah-treat-she by those who had the time and the energy—and Consuelo, which Pop would call Counser-eller.
By this time Julia had grown up and was beginning at finishing-school. She soon saw that Julia would never do—never! She had started with a handicap, but she caught up with the rest and passed them gracefully by ingeniously altering the final a to an e, and pronouncing it Zheelee.
Her father never could get within hailing distance of the French j and u, and teetered awkwardly between Jilly and Jelly. He was apt to relax sickeningly into plain Julia—especially before folks, when he was nervous anyway. Only they did not say "before folks" now; the Grouts never said "before folks" now—they said, "In the presence of guests."
By the time the next son came the mother was shamelessly literary enough to name him Ethelwolf, which his school companions joyously abbreviated to Ethel, overlooking the wolf.
Ethelwolf was the last of the visitors. For by this time Mere had accumulated so many absolutely unforgivable grievances against her absolutely impossible husband that she felt qualified for that crown of comfortable martyrhood, that womanly ideal, "a wife in name only"—and only that "for the sake of the children."
By this time the children, too, had acquired grievances against Pop. The more refined they grew the coarser-grained he seemed. They could not pulverize him in the coffee-mill of criticism. He was as hopeless in ideas as in language. It was impossible to make him realize that the best is always the cheapest; that fine clothes make fine people; that petty economies are death to "the larger flights of the soul"; and that parents have no right to have children unless they can give them what other people's children have.
If John Grout complained that he was not a millionaire the younger Grouts retorted that this was not their fault, but their misfortune; and it was "up to Pop" to do the best he could during what Mere was now calling their "formative years." The children had liberal ideas, artistic and refined ideals; but Pop was forever talking poor, always splitting pennies, always dolefully reiterating, "I don't know where the money is coming from!"
It was so foolish of him, too—for it always came from somewhere. The children went to the best schools, traveled in Europe, wore as good clothes as anybody—though they did not admit this, of course, within father's hearing, lest it put false notions into his head; and the sons made investments that had not yet begun to turn out right.
Parents cannot fool their children long, and the Grout youngsters had learned at an early date that Pop always forked over when he was nagged into it. Any of the children in trouble could always write or telegraph home a "must have," and it was always forthcoming. There usually followed a querulous note about "Sorry you have to have so much, but I suppose it costs a lot where you are. Make it go as far as you can, for I'm a little pinched just now." But this was taken as a mere detail—an unfortunate paternal habit.
That was Pop's vice—his only one and about the least attractive of vices. It was harrowing to be the children of a miser—for he must have a lot hoarded away. His poor talk, his allusions to notes at the bank and mortgages and drafts to meet, were just bogies to frighten them with and to keep them down.
It was most humiliating for high-spirited children to be so misunderstood. Pop lacked refined tastes. It was a harsh thing to say of one's parent, but when you came right down to it Pop was a hopeless plebeian.
Pop noticed the difference himself. He would have doubted that these magnificent youngsters could be his own if that had not implied a criticism of his unimpeachable wife. So he gave her all the credit. For Mere was different. She was well read; she entertained charmingly; she loved good clothes, up-to-the-minute hats; she knew who was who and what was what. She was ambitious, progressive. She nearly took up French once.
But Pop was shabby. Pop always wore a suit until it glistened and his children ridiculed him into a new one. As for wearing evening dress, in the words of Gerald they "had to blindfold him and back him into his soup-and-fish, even on the night the Italian Opera Company came to town."
Pop never could take them anywhere. A vacation was a thing of horror to him. It was almost impossible to drag him to a lake or the sea, and it was quite impossible to keep him there more than a few days. His business always called him home.
And such a business! Dry-goods!—and in a small town.
And such a town, with such a name! To the children who knew their Paris and their London, their New York and their Washington, a visit home was like a sentence to jail. It was humiliating to make a good impression on acquaintances of importance and then have to confess to a home town named Waupoos.
People either said, "I beg your pardon!" as if they had not heard it right, or they laughed and said, "Honestly?"
The children had tried again and again to pry Pop out of Waupoos, but he clung to it like a limpet. He had had opportunities, too, to move his business to big cities, but he was afraid to venture. He was fairly sure of sustenance in Waupoos so long as he nursed every penny; but he could never find the courage to transplant himself to another place.
The worst of his cowardice was that he blamed the children—at least, he said he dared not face a year or two of possible loss lest they might need something. So he stayed in Waupoos and managed somehow to keep the family afloat and the store open.
When Mere revolted and longed for a glimpse of the outer world he always advised her to take a trip and have a good time. He always said he could afford that much, and he took an interest in seeing that she had funds to buy some city clothes with; but he never had funds enough to go along.
That was one of mother's grievances. Pop bored her to death at home and she wanted to scream every time he mentioned his business—it was so selfish of him to talk of that at night when she had so much to tell him of the misbehavior of the servants. But, greatly as he annoyed her round the house, she cherished an illusion that she would like him in a hotel.
She had tried to get him to read a certain novel—a wonderful book mercilessly exposing the curse of modern America; which is the men's habit of sticking to their business so closely that they give their poor wives no companionship. They leave their poor wives to languish at home or to go shopping or gossiping, while they indulge themselves in the luxuries of vibration between creditor and debtor.
In this novel, and in several others she could have named, the poor wife naturally fell a prey to the fascinations of a handsome devil with dark eyes, a motor or two, and no office hours.
Mere often wondered why she herself had not taken up with some handsome devil fully equipped for the entertainment of neglected wives.
If she had not been a member of that stanch American womanhood to which the glory of the country and its progress are really due, she might have startled her husband into realizing too late, as the too-late husbands in the novels realized, that a man's business is a side issue and that the perpetuation of romance is the main task. Her self-respect was all that held Mere to the home; that and—whisper!—the fact that no handsome devil with any kind of eyes ever tried to lure her away.
When she reproached Pop and threatened him he refused to be scared. He paid his wife that most odious of tributes—a monotonous trust in her loyalty and an insulting immunity to jealousy. Almost worse was his monotonous loyalty to her and his failure to give her jealousy any excuse.
They quarreled incessantly, but the wrangles were not gorgeously dramatic charges of intrigue with handsome men or painted women, followed by rapturous make-ups. They were quarrels over expenditures, extravagances, and voyages.
Mere charged Pop with parsimony and he charged her with recklessness. She accused him of trying to tie them down to a village; he accused her of trying to drive him to bankruptcy. She demanded to know whether he wanted his children to be like children of their neighbors—clerks in small stores, starveling tradespeople and wives of little merchants. He answered that she was breeding a pack of snobs that despised their father and had no mercy on him—and no use for him except as a lemon to squeeze dry. She answered with a laugh of scorn that lemon was a good word; and he threw up his hands and returned to the shop if the war broke out at noon, or slunk up to bed if it followed dinner.
This was the pattern of their daily life. Every night there was a new theme, but the duet they built on it ran along the same formulas.
The children sided with Mere, of course. In the first place, she was a poor, downtrodden woman; in the second, she was their broker. Her job was to get them things. They gave her the credit for what she got them. They gave Pop no praise for yielding—no credit for extracting somehow from the dry-soil of an arid town the money they extracted from him. They knew nothing of the myriad little agonies, the ingenuity, the tireless attention to detail, the exquisite finesse that make success possible in the melee of competition. Their souls were above trade and its petty nigglings.
Jno. P., who was now known as J. Pennock, was aiming at a million dollars in New York, and his mother was sure that he would get it next time if Pop would only raise him a little more money to meet an irritating obligation or seize a glittering opportunity. Pop always raised the money and J. Pennock always lost it. Yet Pennock was a financier and Pop was a village merchant. And now Pen had come home unexpectedly. He was showing a great interest in Pop's affairs.
Gerald was home also unexpectedly. He was an artist of the most wonderful promise. None of his promises was more wonderful than those he made his father to repay just one more loan—to tide him over until he sold his next picture; but it never sold, or it sold for a mere song. Gerald solaced himself and Mere solaced him for being ahead of his time, unappreciated, too good for the public. She thanked Heaven that Gerald was a genius, not a salesman. One salesman in the family was enough!
And Gerald had beaten Pen home by one train. He had greeted Pen somewhat coldly—as if Pen were a trespasser on his side of the street. And when it was learned that Julie had telegraphed that she would arrive the next day, both the brothers had frowned.
Pop had sighed. He was glad to see his wonderful offspring, but he had already put off the grocer and the butcher—and even his life-insurance premium—because he had an opportunity by a quick use of cash to obtain the bankrupt stock of a rival dealer who had not nursed his pennies as Pop had. It was by such purchases that Pop had managed to keep his store alive and his brilliant children in funds.
He had temporarily drawn his bank account down to the irreducible minimum and borrowed on his securities up to the insurmountable maximum. It was a bad time for his children to tap him. But here they were—Jno. P., Jerry, and Julia—all very unctuous over the home-coming, and yet all of them evidently cherishing an ulterior idea.
He watched them lounging in fashionable awkwardness. They were brilliant children. And he was as proud of them as he was afraid of them—and for them.
If the children looked brilliant to Pop he did not reflect their refulgence. As they glanced from the photographer's proof to Pop they were not impressed. They were not afraid of him or for him.
His bodily arrangement was pitifully gawky; he neither sat erect nor lounged—he slumped spineless. Big spectacles were in style now, but Pop's big spectacles were just out of it. His face was like a parchment that had been left out in the rain and had dried carelessly in deep, stiff wrinkles—with the writing washed off.
Ethelwolf, the last born, had no ulterior idea. He always spent his monthly allowance by the second Tuesday after the first Monday, and sulked through a period of famine and debt until the next month. It was now the third Tuesday and he was disposed to sarcasm.
"Look at Pop!" he muttered. "He looks just like the old boy they put in the cartoons to represent The Common People."
"He's the Beau Brummel of Waupoos, all right!" said Bayahtreatshe, who was soon returning to Wellesley. And Consuelo, who was preparing for Vassar, added under her breath, "Mere, can't you steal up on him and swipe that already-tied tie?"
Had Pop overheard, he would have made no complaint. He had known the time when they had thrown things at him. The reverence of American children for their fathers is almost as famous as the meekness of American wives before their husbands. Yet it might have hurt Pop a little to see Mother shake her head and hear her sigh:
"He's hopeless, children! Do take warning from my misfortune and be careful what you marry."
Poor Mere had absolutely forgotten how proud she had been when Johnnie Grout came courting her, and how she had extracted a proposal before he knew what he was about, and had him at the altar before he was ready to support a wife in the style she had been accustomed to hope for. She remembered only the dreams he had not brought true, the harsh realities of their struggle upward. She had worked and skimped with him then. Now she was like a lolling passenger in a jinrikisha, who berates the shabby coolie because he stumbles where the roads are rough and sweats where they are steep.
Julie spoke up in answer to her mother's word of caution:
"There's one thing better than being careful what you marry—and that's not marrying at all!"
The rest of them were used to Julie's views; but Pop, who had paid little heed to them, almost collapsed from his chair. Julie went on:
"Men are all alike, Mere. They're very soft-spoken when they come to make love; but it's only a bluff to make us give up our freedom. Before we know it they drag us up before another man, a preacher, and make us swear to love, honor, and obey. They kill the love, make the honor impossible, and the obey ridiculous. Then they coop us up at home and expect us to let them run the world to suit themselves. They've been running it for thousands of years—and look at the botch they've made of it! It's time for us to take the helm."
"Go to it, sis," said Ethelwolf. "I care not who makes the laws so long as I can break them."
"Let your sister alone!" said Mere. "Go on, Julie!"
"I've put it all in the address I read before the Federation last week," said Julie. "It was reported at length in one of the papers. I've got a clipping in my handbag here somewhere."
She began to rummage through a little condensed chaos of handkerchiefs, gloves, powder-puff, powdery dollar bills, powdery coins, loose bits of paper, samples, thread, pins, buttons—everything—every-whichway.
J. Pennock laughed. "Pipe what's going to run the world! Better get a few pockets first."
"Don't be a brute, Pen!" said Mere.
At last Julie found the clipping she sought and, shaking the powder from it, handed it to her mother.
"It's on the strength of this speech that I was elected delegate to the international convention at San Francisco," she said.
"You were!" Mere gasped, and Beatrice and Consuelo exclaimed, "Ripsnorting!"
"Are you going?" said Mere when she recovered from her awe.
"Well, it's a pretty expensive trip. That's why I came home—to see if—Well, we can take that up later. Tell me how you like the speech."
Mere mumbled the report aloud to the delighted audience. Pop heard little of it. He was having a chill. It was very like plain ague, but he credited it to the terror of Julie's mission home. All she wanted him to do was to send her on a little jaunt to San Francisco! The tyrant, as usual, was expected to finance the rebellion.
When Mere had finished reading everybody applauded Julie except Pop. Mere overheard his silence and rounded on him across the aristocratic reading-glass she wielded.
"Did you hear that?"
Pop was so startled that he answered, "Uh-huh!"
"Didn't you think it was splendid?" Mere demanded.
"Uh-huh!" said Pop.
"What didn't you like about it?"
"I liked it all first-rate. Julie is a smart girl, I tell you."
Mere scented his evasion, and she would never tolerate evasions. She repeated:
"What didn't you like about it?"
"I liked all I could understand."
"Understand!" snapped Mere, who rarely wasted her culture on Pop. "What didn't you understand? Could anything be clearer than this? Listen!" She read in an oratorical voice:
"'Woman has been for ages man's mere beast of burden, his household drudge. Being a wife has meant being a slave—the only servant without wages or holiday. But the woman of to-day at last demands that the shackles be stricken off; she demands freedom to live her life her own way—to express her selfhood without the hampering restrictions imposed on her by the barbaric customs inherited from the time of the cave-man.'"
Mere folded up the clipping and glared defiance at the cave-man slumped in the uneasy chair.
"What's clearer than that?" she reiterated.
Pop was at bay. He was like a desperate rabbit. He answered:
"It's clear enough, I guess; but it's more than I can take in. Seems to me the women folks are hollering at the men folks to give 'em what the men folks have never been able to get for themselves."
It was peevish. Coming from Pop, it amounted to an outburst, a riot, a mutiny. Such a tendency was dangerous. He must be sharply repressed at once—as a new servant must be taught her place. Mere administered the necessary rebuke, aided and abetted by the daughters. The sons did not rally to their father's defense. He was soon reduced to submission, but his apology was further irritation:
"I'm kind of rattled like. I ain't feeling as chipper as usual." "Chipper" was bad enough, but "ain't" was unendurable! They rebuked him for that and he put in another irrelevant plea: "I had a kind of sick spell at the store. I had to lay down."
"Lie down!" Beatrice corrected.
"Lie down," he accepted. "But as soon as I laid down—"
"Lay down—I had chills and shootin' pains; and I—"
"It's the weather," Mere interrupted, impatiently. "I've had a headache all day—such a headache as never was known! It seemed as if hammers were beating upon my very brain. It was—"
"I'm not feeling at all well myself," said Consuelo.
There was almost a tournament of rivalry in describing sufferings.
Pop felt as if he had wakened a sleeping hospital. He sank back ashamed of his own outburst. He rarely spoke of the few ailments he could afford. When he did it was like one of his new clerks pulling a bolt of goods from the shelf and bringing down a silken avalanche.
The clinic was interrupted by the crisp voice of Nora: "Dinner is served!"
Everybody rose and moved to the door with quiet determination. Pop alone failed to rise. Mere glowered at him. He pleaded: "I don't feel very good. I guess I'd better leave my stummick rest."
The children protested politely, but he refused to be moved and Mere decided to humor him.
"Let him alone, children. It won't hurt him to skip a meal."
They said: "Too bad, Pop!"—"You'll be all right soon," and went out and forgot him.
Pop heard them chattering briskly. It was polite talk. If slang were used it was the very newest. He gleaned that Pen and Gerald were opposing Julie's mission to San Francisco on the ground of the expense. He smiled bitterly to hear that word from them. He heard Julie's retort:
"I suppose you boys want the money yourselves! Well, I've got first havers at Pop. I saw him first!"
At about this point the conversation lost its coherence in Pop's ears. It was mingled with a curious buzzing and a dizziness that made him grip his chair lest it pitch him to the floor. Chills, in which his bones were a mere rattlebox, alternated with little rushes of prairie fire across his skin. Throes of pain wrung him.
Also, he was a little afraid—he was afraid he might not be able to get to the store in the morning. And important people were coming! He had to make the first payment on the invoice of that bankrupt stock. A semiannual premium was overdue on his life insurance. The month of grace had nearly expired, and if he failed to pay the policy would lapse—now of all times! He had kept it up all these years; it must not lapse now, for he was going to be right sick. He wanted somebody to nurse him: his mother—or that long-lost girl he had married in the far past.