MISS LULU BETT
By ZONA GALE
The Deacons were at supper. In the middle of the table was a small, appealing tulip plant, looking as anything would look whose sun was a gas jet. This gas jet was high above the table and flared, with a sound.
"Better turn down the gas jest a little," Mr. Deacon said, and stretched up to do so. He made this joke almost every night. He seldom spoke as a man speaks who has something to say, but as a man who makes something to say.
"Well, what have we on the festive board to-night?" he questioned, eyeing it. "Festive" was his favourite adjective. "Beautiful," too. In October he might be heard asking: "Where's my beautiful fall coat?"
"We have creamed salmon," replied Mrs. Deacon gently. "On toast," she added, with a scrupulous regard for the whole truth. Why she should say this so gently no one can tell. She says everything gently. Her "Could you leave me another bottle of milk this morning?" would wring a milkman's heart.
"Well, now, let us see," said Mr. Deacon, and attacked the principal dish benignly. "Let us see," he added, as he served.
"I don't want any," said Monona.
The child Monona was seated upon a book and a cushion, so that her little triangle of nose rose adultly above her plate. Her remark produced precisely the effect for which she had passionately hoped.
"What's this?" cried Mr. Deacon. "No salmon?"
"No," said Monona, inflected up, chin pertly pointed. She felt her power, discarded her "sir."
"Oh now, Pet!" from Mrs. Deacon, on three notes. "You liked it before."
"I don't want any," said Monona, in precisely her original tone.
"Just a little? A very little?" Mr. Deacon persuaded, spoon dripping;
The child Monona made her lips thin and straight and shook her head until her straight hair flapped in her eyes on either side. Mr. Deacon's eyes anxiously consulted his wife's eyes. What is this? Their progeny will not eat? What can be supplied?
"Some bread and milk!" cried Mrs. Deacon brightly, exploding on "bread." One wondered how she thought of it.
"No," said Monona, inflection up, chin the same. She was affecting indifference to, this scene, in which her soul delighted. She twisted her head, bit her lips unconcernedly, and turned her eyes to the remote.
There emerged from the fringe of things, where she perpetually hovered, Mrs. Deacon's older sister, Lulu Bett, who was "making her home with us." And that was precisely the case. They were not making her a home, goodness knows. Lulu was the family beast of burden.
"Can't I make her a little milk toast?" she asked Mrs. Deacon.
Mrs. Deacon hesitated, not with compunction at accepting Lulu's offer, not diplomatically to lure Monona. But she hesitated habitually, by nature, as another is by nature vivacious or brunette.
"Yes!" shouted the child Monona.
The tension relaxed. Mrs. Deacon assented. Lulu went to the kitchen. Mr. Deacon served on. Something of this scene was enacted every day. For Monona the drama never lost its zest. It never occurred to the others to let her sit without eating, once, as a cure-all. The Deacons were devoted parents and the child Monona was delicate. She had a white, grave face, white hair, white eyebrows, white lashes. She was sullen, anaemic. They let her wear rings. She "toed in." The poor child was the late birth of a late marriage and the principal joy which she had provided them thus far was the pleased reflection that they had produced her at all.
"Where's your mother, Ina?" Mr. Deacon inquired. "Isn't she coming to her supper?"
"Tantrim," said Mrs. Deacon, softly.
"Oh, ho," said he, and said no more.
The temper of Mrs. Bett, who also lived with them, had days of high vibration when she absented herself from the table as a kind of self-indulgence, and no one could persuade her to food. "Tantrims," they called these occasions.
"Baked potatoes," said Mr. Deacon. "That's good—that's good. The baked potato contains more nourishment than potatoes prepared in any other way. The nourishment is next to the skin. Roasting retains it."
"That's what I always think," said his wife pleasantly.
For fifteen years they had agreed about this.
They ate, in the indecent silence of first savouring food. A delicate crunching of crust, an odour of baked-potato shells, the slip and touch of the silver.
"Num, num, nummy-num!" sang the child Monona loudly, and was hushed by both parents in simultaneous exclamation which rivalled this lyric outburst. They were alone at table. Di, daughter of a wife early lost to Mr. Deacon, was not there. Di was hardly ever there. She was at that age. That age, in Warbleton.
A clock struck the half hour.
"It's curious," Mr. Deacon observed, "how that clock loses. It must be fully quarter to." He consulted his watch. "It is quarter to!" he exclaimed with satisfaction. "I'm pretty good at guessing time."
"I've noticed that!" cried his Ina.
"Last night, it was only twenty-three to, when the half hour struck," he reminded her.
"Twenty-one, I thought." She was tentative, regarded him with arched eyebrows, mastication suspended.
This point was never to be settled. The colloquy was interrupted by the child Monona, whining for her toast. And the doorbell rang.
"Dear me!" said Mr. Deacon. "What can anybody be thinking of to call just at meal-time?"
He trod the hall, flung open the street door. Mrs. Deacon listened. Lulu, coming in with the toast, was warned to silence by an uplifted finger. She deposited the toast, tiptoed to her chair. A withered baked potato and cold creamed salmon were on her plate. The child Monona ate with shocking appreciation. Nothing could be made of the voices in the hall. But Mrs. Bett's door was heard softly to unlatch. She, too, was listening.
A ripple of excitement was caused in the dining-room when Mr. Deacon was divined to usher some one to the parlour. Mr. Deacon would speak with this visitor in a few moments, and now returned to his table. It was notable how slight a thing would give him a sense of self-importance. Now he felt himself a man of affairs, could not even have a quiet supper with his family without the outside world demanding him. He waved his hand to indicate it was nothing which they would know anything about, resumed his seat, served himself to a second spoon of salmon and remarked, "More roast duck, anybody?" in a loud voice and with a slow wink at his wife. That lady at first looked blank, as she always did in the presence of any humour couched with the least indirection, and then drew back her chin and caught her lower lip in her gold-filled teeth. This was her conjugal rebuking.
Swedenborg always uses "conjugial." And really this sounds more married. It should be used with reference to the Deacons. No one was ever more married than they—at least than Mr. Deacon. He made little conjugal jokes in the presence of Lulu who, now completely unnerved by the habit, suspected them where they did not exist, feared lurking entendre in the most innocent comments, and became more tense every hour of her life.
And now the eye of the master of the house fell for the first time upon the yellow tulip in the centre of his table.
"Well, well!" he said. "What's this?"
Ina Deacon produced, fleetly, an unlooked-for dimple.
"Have you been buying flowers?" the master inquired.
"Ask Lulu," said Mrs. Deacon.
He turned his attention full upon Lulu.
"Suitors?" he inquired, and his lips left their places to form a sort of ruff about the word.
Lulu flushed, and her eyes and their very brows appealed.
"It was a quarter," she said. "There'll be five flowers."
"You bought it?"
"Yes. There'll be five—that's a nickel apiece."
His tone was as methodical as if he had been talking about the bread.
"Yet we give you a home on the supposition that you have no money to spend, even for the necessities."
His voice, without resonance, cleft air, thought, spirit, and even flesh.
Mrs. Deacon, indeterminately feeling her guilt in having let loose the dogs of her husband upon Lulu, interposed: "Well, but, Herbert—Lulu isn't strong enough to work. What's the use...."
She dwindled. For years the fiction had been sustained that Lulu, the family beast of burden, was not strong enough to work anywhere else.
"The justice business—" said Dwight Herbert Deacon—he was a justice of the peace—"and the dental profession—" he was also a dentist—"do not warrant the purchase of spring flowers in my home."
"Well, but, Herbert—" It was his wife again.
"No more," he cried briefly, with a slight bend of his head. "Lulu meant no harm," he added, and smiled at Lulu.
There was a moment's silence into which Monona injected a loud "Num, num, num-my-num," as if she were the burden of an Elizabethan lyric. She seemed to close the incident. But the burden was cut off untimely. There was, her father reminded her portentously, company in the parlour.
"When the bell rang, I was so afraid something had happened to Di," said Ina sighing.
"Let's see," said Di's father. "Where is little daughter to-night?"
He must have known that she was at Jenny Plow's at a tea party, for at noon they had talked of nothing else; but this was his way. And Ina played his game, always. She informed him, dutifully.
"Oh, ho," said he, absently. How could he be expected to keep his mind on these domestic trifles.
"We told you that this noon," said Lulu.
He frowned, disregarded her. Lulu had no delicacy.
"How much is salmon the can now?" he inquired abruptly—this was one of his forms of speech, the can, the pound, the cord.
His partner supplied this information with admirable promptness. Large size, small size, present price, former price—she had them all.
"Dear me," said Mr. Deacon. "That is very nearly salmoney, isn't it?"
"Herbert!" his Ina admonished, in gentle, gentle reproach. Mr. Deacon punned, organically. In talk he often fell silent and then asked some question, schemed to permit his vice to flourish. Mrs. Deacon's return was always automatic: "Herbert!"
"Whose Bert?" he said to this. "I thought I was your Bert."
She shook her little head. "You are a case," she told him. He beamed upon her. It was his intention to be a case.
Lulu ventured in upon this pleasantry, and cleared her throat. She was not hoarse, but she was always clearing her throat.
"The butter is about all gone," she observed. "Shall I wait for the butter-woman or get some creamery?"
Mr. Deacon now felt his little jocularities lost before a wall of the matter of fact. He was not pleased. He saw himself as the light of his home, bringer of brightness, lightener of dull hours. It was a pretty role. He insisted upon it. To maintain it intact, it was necessary to turn upon their sister with concentrated irritation.
"Kindly settle these matters without bringing them to my attention at meal-time," he said icily.
Lulu flushed and was silent. She was an olive woman, once handsome, now with flat, bluish shadows under her wistful eyes. And if only she would look at her brother Herbert and say something. But she looked in her plate.
"I want some honey," shouted the child, Monona.
"There isn't any, Pet," said Lulu.
"I want some," said Monona, eyeing her stonily. But she found that her hair-ribbon could be pulled forward to meet her lips, and she embarked on the biting of an end. Lulu departed for some sauce and cake. It was apple sauce. Mr. Deacon remarked that the apples were almost as good as if he had stolen them. He was giving the impression that he was an irrepressible fellow. He was eating very slowly. It added pleasantly to his sense of importance to feel that some one, there in the parlour, was waiting his motion.
At length they rose. Monona flung herself upon her father. He put her aside firmly, every inch the father. No, no. Father was occupied now. Mrs. Deacon coaxed her away. Monona encircled her mother's waist, lifted her own feet from the floor and hung upon her. "She's such an active child," Lulu ventured brightly.
"Not unduly active, I think," her brother-in-law observed.
He turned upon Lulu his bright smile, lifted his eyebrows, dropped his lids, stood for a moment contemplating the yellow tulip, and so left the room.
Lulu cleared the table. Mrs. Deacon essayed to wind the clock. Well now. Did Herbert say it was twenty-three to-night when it struck the half hour and twenty-one last night, or twenty-one to-night and last night twenty-three? She talked of it as they cleared the table, but Lulu did not talk.
"Can't you remember?" Mrs. Deacon said at last. "I should think you might be useful."
Lulu was lifting the yellow tulip to set it on the sill. She changed her mind. She took the plant to the wood-shed and tumbled it with force upon the chip-pile.
The dining-room table was laid for breakfast. The two women brought their work and sat there. The child Monona hung miserably about, watching the clock. Right or wrong, she was put to bed by it. She had eight minutes more—seven—six—five—
Lulu laid down her sewing and left the room. She went to the wood-shed, groped about in the dark, found the stalk of the one tulip flower in its heap on the chip-pile. The tulip she fastened in her gown on her flat chest.
Outside were to be seen the early stars. It is said that if our sun were as near to Arcturus as we are near to our sun, the great Arcturus would burn our sun to nothingness.
* * * * *
In the Deacons' parlour sat Bobby Larkin, eighteen. He was in pain all over. He was come on an errand which civilisation has contrived to make an ordeal.
Before him on the table stood a photograph of Diana Deacon, also eighteen. He hated her with passion. At school she mocked him, aped him, whispered about him, tortured him. For two years he had hated her. Nights he fell asleep planning to build a great house and engage her as its servant.
Yet, as he waited, he could not keep his eyes from this photograph. It was Di at her curliest, at her fluffiest, Di conscious of her bracelet, Di smiling. Bobby gazed, his basic aversion to her hard-pressed by a most reluctant pleasure. He hoped that he would not see her, and he listened for her voice.
Mr. Deacon descended upon him with an air carried from his supper hour, bland, dispensing. Well! Let us have it. "What did you wish to see me about?"—with a use of the past tense as connoting something of indirection and hence of delicacy—a nicety customary, yet unconscious. Bobby had arrived in his best clothes and with an air of such formality that Mr. Deacon had instinctively suspected him of wanting to join the church, and, to treat the time with due solemnity, had put him in the parlour until he could attend at leisure.
Confronted thus by Di's father, the speech which Bobby had planned deserted him.
"I thought if you would give me a job," he said defencelessly.
"So that's it!" Mr. Deacon, who always awaited but a touch to be either irritable or facetious, inclined now to be facetious. "Filling teeth?" he would know. "Marrying folks, then?" Assistant justice or assistant dentist—which?
Bobby blushed. No, no, but in that big building of Mr. Deacon's where his office was, wasn't there something ... It faded from him, sounded ridiculous. Of course there was nothing. He saw it now.
There was nothing. Mr. Deacon confirmed him. But Mr. Deacon had an idea. Hold on, he said—hold on. The grass. Would Bobby consider taking charge of the grass? Though Mr. Deacon was of the type which cuts its own grass and glories in its vigour and its energy, yet in the time after that which he called "dental hours" Mr. Deacon wished to work in his garden. His grass, growing in late April rains, would need attention early next month ... he owned two lots—"of course property is a burden." If Bobby would care to keep the grass down and raked ... Bobby would care, accepted this business opportunity, figures and all, thanked Mr. Deacon with earnestness. Bobby's aversion to Di, it seemed, should not stand in the way of his advancement.
"Then that is checked off," said Mr. Deacon heartily.
Bobby wavered toward the door, emerged on the porch, and ran almost upon Di returning from her tea-party at Jenny Plow's.
"Oh, Bobby! You came to see me?"
She was as fluffy, as curly, as smiling as her picture. She was carrying pink, gauzy favours and a spear of flowers. Undeniably in her voice there was pleasure. Her glance was startled but already complacent. She paused on the steps, a lovely figure.
But one would say that nothing but the truth dwelt in Bobby.
"Oh, hullo," said he. "No. I came to see your father."
He marched by her. His hair stuck up at the back. His coat was hunched about his shoulders. His insufficient nose, abundant, loose-lipped mouth and brown eyes were completely expressionless. He marched by her without a glance.
She flushed with vexation. Mr. Deacon, as one would expect, laughed loudly, took the situation in his elephantine grasp and pawed at it.
"Mamma! Mamma! What do you s'pose? Di thought she had a beau——"
"Oh, papa!" said Di. "Why, I just hate Bobby Larkin and the whole school knows it."
Mr. Deacon returned to the dining-room, humming in his throat. He entered upon a pretty scene.
His Ina was darning. Four minutes of grace remaining to the child Monona, she was spinning on one toe with some Bacchanalian idea of making the most of the present. Di dominated, her ruffles, her blue hose, her bracelet, her ring.
"Oh, and mamma," she said, "the sweetest party and the dearest supper and the darlingest decorations and the gorgeousest——"
"Grammar, grammar," spoke Dwight Herbert Deacon. He was not sure what he meant, but the good fellow felt some violence done somewhere or other.
"Well," said Di positively, "they were. Papa, see my favour."
She showed him a sugar dove, and he clucked at it.
Ina glanced at them fondly, her face assuming its loveliest light. She was often ridiculous, but always she was the happy wife and mother, and her role reduced her individual absurdities at least to its own.
The door to the bedroom now opened and Mrs. Bett appeared.
"Well, mother!" cried Herbert, the "well" curving like an arm, the "mother" descending like a brisk slap. "Hungry now?"
Mrs. Bett was hungry now. She had emerged intending to pass through the room without speaking and find food in the pantry. By obscure processes her son-in-law's tone inhibited all this.
"No," she said. "I'm not hungry."
Now that she was there, she seemed uncertain what to do. She looked from one to another a bit hopelessly, somehow foiled in her dignity. She brushed at her skirt, the veins of her long, wrinkled hands catching an intenser blue from the dark cloth. She put her hair behind her ears.
"We put a potato in the oven for you," said Ina. She had never learned quite how to treat these periodic refusals of her mother to eat, but she never had ceased to resent them.
"No, thank you," said Mrs. Bett. Evidently she rather enjoyed the situation, creating for herself a spot-light much in the manner of Monona.
"Mother," said Lulu, "let me make you some toast and tea."
Mrs. Bett turned her gentle, bloodless face toward her daughter, and her eyes warmed.
"After a little, maybe," she said. "I think I'll run over to see Grandma Gates now," she added, and went toward the door.
"Tell her," cried Dwight, "tell her she's my best girl."
Grandma Gates was a rheumatic cripple who lived next door, and whenever the Deacons or Mrs. Bett were angry or hurt or wished to escape the house for some reason, they stalked over to Grandma Gates—in lieu of, say, slamming a door. These visits radiated an almost daily friendliness which lifted and tempered the old invalid's lot and life.
Di flashed out at the door again, on some trivial permission.
"A good many of mamma's stitches in that dress to keep clean," Ina called after.
"Early, darling, early!" her father reminded her. A faint regurgitation of his was somehow invested with the paternal.
"What's this?" cried Dwight Herbert Deacon abruptly.
On the clock shelf lay a letter.
"Oh, Dwight!" Ina was all compunction. "It came this morning. I forgot."
"I forgot it too! And I laid it up there." Lulu was eager for her share of the blame.
"Isn't it understood that my mail can't wait like this?"
Dwight's sense of importance was now being fed in gulps.
"I know. I'm awfully sorry," Lulu said, "but you hardly ever get a letter——"
This might have made things worse, but it provided Dwight with a greater importance.
"Of course, pressing matter goes to my office," he admitted it. "Still, my mail should have more careful——"
He read, frowning. He replaced the letter, and they hung upon his motions as he tapped the envelope and regarded them.
"Now!" said he. "What do you think I have to tell you?"
"Something nice," Ina was sure.
"Something surprising," Dwight said portentously.
"But, Dwight—is it nice?" from his Ina.
"That depends. I like it. So'll Lulu." He leered at her. "It's company."
"Oh, Dwight," said Ina. "Who?"
"From Oregon," he said, toying with his suspense.
"Your brother!" cried Ina. "Is he coming?"
"Yes. Ninian's coming, so he says."
"Ninian!" cried Ina again. She was excited, round-eyed, her moist lips parted. Dwight's brother Ninian. How long was it? Nineteen years. South America, Central America, Mexico, Panama "and all." When was he coming and what was he coming for?
"To see me," said Dwight. "To meet you. Some day next week. He don't know what a charmer Lulu is, or he'd come quicker."
Lulu flushed terribly. Not from the implication. But from the knowledge that she was not a charmer.
The clock struck. The child Monona uttered a cutting shriek. Herbert's eyes flew not only to the child but to his wife. What was this, was their progeny hurt?
"Bedtime," his wife elucidated, and added: "Lulu, will you take her to bed? I'm pretty tired."
Lulu rose and took Monona by the hand, the child hanging back and shaking her straight hair in an unconvincing negative.
As they crossed the room, Dwight Herbert Deacon, strolling about and snapping his fingers, halted and cried out sharply:
"Lulu. One moment!"
He approached her. A finger was extended, his lips were parted, on his forehead was a frown.
"You picked the flower on the plant?" he asked incredulously.
Lulu made no reply. But the child Monona felt herself lifted and borne to the stairway and the door was shut with violence. On the dark stairway Lulu's arms closed about her in an embrace which left her breathless and squeaking. And yet Lulu was not really fond of the child Monona, either. This was a discharge of emotion akin, say, to slamming the door.
Lulu was dusting the parlour. The parlour was rarely used, but every morning it was dusted. By Lulu.
She dusted the black walnut centre table which was of Ina's choosing, and looked like Ina, shining, complacent, abundantly curved. The leather rocker, too, looked like Ina, brown, plumply upholstered, tipping back a bit. Really, the davenport looked like Ina, for its chintz pattern seemed to bear a design of lifted eyebrows and arch, reproachful eyes.
Lulu dusted the upright piano, and that was like Dwight—in a perpetual attitude of rearing back, with paws out, playful, but capable, too, of roaring a ready bass.
And the black fireplace—there was Mrs. Bett to the life. Colourless, fireless, and with a dust of ashes.
In the midst of all was Lulu herself reflected in the narrow pier glass, bodiless-looking in her blue gingham gown, but somehow alive. Natural.
This pier glass Lulu approached with expectation, not because of herself but because of the photograph on its low marble shelf. A large photograph on a little shelf-easel. A photograph of a man with evident eyes, evident lips, evident cheeks—and each of the six were rounded and convex. You could construct the rest of him. Down there under the glass you could imagine him extending, rounded and convex, with plump hands and curly thumbs and snug clothes. It was Ninian Deacon, Dwight's brother.
Every day since his coming had been announced Lulu, dusting the parlour, had seen the photograph looking at her with its eyes somehow new. Or were her own eyes new? She dusted this photograph with a difference, lifted, dusted, set it back, less as a process than as an experience. As she dusted the mirror and saw his trim semblance over against her own bodiless reflection, she hurried away. But the eyes of the picture followed her, and she liked it.
She dusted the south window-sill and saw Bobby Larkin come round the house and go to the wood-shed for the lawn mower. She heard the smooth blur of the cutter. Not six times had Bobby traversed the lawn when Lulu saw Di emerge from the house. Di had been caring for her canary and she carried her bird-bath and went to the well, and Lulu divined that Di had deliberately disregarded the handy kitchen taps. Lulu dusted the south window and watched, and in her watching was no quality of spying or of criticism. Nor did she watch wistfully. Rather, she looked out on something in which she had never shared, could not by any chance imagine herself sharing.
The south windows were open. Airs of May bore the soft talking.
"Oh, Bobby, will you pump while I hold this?" And again: "Now wait till I rinse." And again: "You needn't be so glum"—the village salutation signifying kindly attention.
Bobby now first spoke: "Who's glum?" he countered gloomily.
The iron of those days when she had laughed at him was deep within him, and this she now divined, and said absently:
"I used to think you were pretty nice. But I don't like you any more."
"Yes, you used to!" Bobby repeated derisively. "Is that why you made fun of me all the time?"
At this Di coloured and tapped her foot on the well-curb. He seemed to have her now, and enjoyed his triumph. But Di looked up at him shyly and looked down. "I had to," she admitted. "They were all teasing me about you."
"They were?" This was a new thought to him. Teasing her about him, were they? He straightened. "Huh!" he said, in magnificent evasion.
"I had to make them stop, so I teased you. I—I never wanted to." Again the upward look.
"Well!" Bobby stared at her. "I never thought it was anything like that."
"Of course you didn't." She tossed back her bright hair, met his eyes full. "And you never came where I could tell you. I wanted to tell you."
She ran into the house.
Lulu lowered her eyes. It was as if she had witnessed the exercise of some secret gift, had seen a cocoon open or an egg hatch. She was thinking:
"How easy she done it. Got him right over. But how did she do that?"
Dusting the Dwight-like piano, Lulu looked over-shoulder, with a manner of speculation, at the photograph of Ninian.
Bobby mowed and pondered. The magnificent conceit of the male in his understanding of the female character was sufficiently developed to cause him to welcome the improvisation which he had just heard. Perhaps that was the way it had been. Of course that was the way it had been. What a fool he had been not to understand. He cast his eyes repeatedly toward the house. He managed to make the job last over so that he could return in the afternoon. He was not conscious of planning this, but it was in some manner contrived for him by forces of his own with which he seemed to be cooeperating without his conscious will. Continually he glanced toward the house.
These glances Lulu saw. She was a woman of thirty-four and Di and Bobby were eighteen, but Lulu felt for them no adult indulgence. She felt that sweetness of attention which we bestow upon May robins. She felt more.
She cut a fresh cake, filled a plate, called to Di, saying: "Take some out to that Bobby Larkin, why don't you?"
It was Lulu's way of participating. It was her vicarious thrill.
After supper Dwight and Ina took their books and departed to the Chautauqua Circle. To these meetings Lulu never went. The reason seemed to be that she never went anywhere.
When they were gone Lulu felt an instant liberation. She turned aimlessly to the garden and dug round things with her finger. And she thought about the brightness of that Chautauqua scene to which Ina and Dwight had gone. Lulu thought about such gatherings in somewhat the way that a futurist receives the subjects of his art—forms not vague, but heightened to intolerable definiteness, acute colour, and always motion—motion as an integral part of the desirable. But a factor of all was that Lulu herself was the participant, not the onlooker. The perfection of her dream was not impaired by any longing. She had her dream as a saint her sense of heaven.
"Lulie!" her mother called. "You come out of that damp."
She obeyed, as she had obeyed that voice all her life. But she took one last look down the dim street. She had not known it, but superimposed on her Chautauqua thoughts had been her faint hope that it would be to-night, while she was in the garden alone, that Ninian Deacon would arrive. And she had on her wool chally, her coral beads, her cameo pin....
She went into the lighted dining-room. Monona was in bed. Di was not there. Mrs. Bett was in Dwight Herbert's leather chair and she lolled at her ease. It was strange to see this woman, usually so erect and tense, now actually lolling, as if lolling were the positive, the vital, and her ordinary rigidity a negation of her. In some corresponding orgy of leisure and liberation, Lulu sat down with no needle.
"Inie ought to make over her delaine," Mrs. Bett comfortably began. They talked of this, devised a mode, recalled other delaines. "Dear, dear," said Mrs. Bett, "I had on a delaine when I met your father." She described it. Both women talked freely, with animation. They were individuals and alive. To the two pallid beings accessory to the Deacons' presence, Mrs. Bett and her daughter Lulu now bore no relationship. They emerged, had opinions, contradicted, their eyes were bright.
Toward nine o'clock Mrs. Bett announced that she thought she should have a lunch. This was debauchery. She brought in bread-and-butter, and a dish of cold canned peas. She was committing all the excesses that she knew—offering opinions, laughing, eating. It was to be seen that this woman had an immense store of vitality, perpetually submerged.
When she had eaten she grew sleepy—rather cross at the last and inclined to hold up her sister's excellencies to Lulu; and, at Lulu's defence, lifted an ancient weapon.
"What's the use of finding fault with Inie? Where'd you been if she hadn't married?"
Lulu said nothing.
"What say?" Mrs. Bett demanded shrilly. She was enjoying it.
Lulu said no more. After a long time:
"You always was jealous of Inie," said Mrs. Bett, and went to her bed.
As soon as her mother's door had closed, Lulu took the lamp from its bracket, stretching up her long body and her long arms until her skirt lifted to show her really slim and pretty feet. Lulu's feet gave news of some other Lulu, but slightly incarnate. Perhaps, so far, incarnate only in her feet and her long hair.
She took the lamp to the parlour and stood before the photograph of Ninian Deacon, and looked her fill. She did not admire the photograph, but she wanted to look at it. The house was still, there was no possibility of interruption. The occasion became sensation, which she made no effort to quench. She held a rendezvous with she knew not what.
In the early hours of the next afternoon with the sun shining across the threshold, Lulu was paring something at the kitchen table. Mrs. Bett was asleep. ("I don't blame you a bit, mother," Lulu had said, as her mother named the intention.) Ina was asleep. (But Ina always took off the curse by calling it her "si-esta," long i.) Monona was playing with a neighbour's child—you heard their shrill yet lovely laughter as they obeyed the adult law that motion is pleasure. Di was not there.
A man came round the house and stood tying a puppy to the porch post. A long shadow fell through the west doorway, the puppy whined.
"Oh," said this man. "I didn't mean to arrive at the back door, but since I'm here—"
He lifted a suitcase to the porch, entered, and filled the kitchen.
"It's Ina, isn't it?" he said.
"I'm her sister," said Lulu, and understood that he was here at last.
"Well, I'm Bert's brother," said Ninian. "So I can come in, can't I?"
He did so, turned round like a dog before his chair and sat down heavily, forcing his fingers through heavy, upspringing brown hair.
"Oh, yes," said Lulu. "I'll call Ina. She's asleep."
"Don't call her, then," said Ninian. "Let's you and I get acquainted."
He said it absently, hardly looking at her.
"I'll get the pup a drink if you can spare me a basin," he added.
Lulu brought the basin, and while he went to the dog she ran tiptoeing to the dining-room china closet and brought a cut-glass tumbler, as heavy, as ungainly as a stone crock. This she filled with milk.
"I thought maybe ..." said she, and offered it.
"Thank you!" said Ninian, and drained it. "Making pies, as I live," he observed, and brought his chair nearer to the table. "I didn't know Ina had a sister," he went on. "I remember now Bert said he had two of her relatives——"
Lulu flushed and glanced at him pitifully.
"He has," she said. "It's my mother and me. But we do quite a good deal of the work."
"I'll bet you do," said Ninian, and did not perceive that anything had been violated. "What's your name?" he bethought.
She was in an immense and obscure excitement. Her manner was serene, her hands as they went on with the peeling did not tremble; her replies were given with sufficient quiet. But she told him her name as one tells something of another and more remote creature. She felt as one may feel in catastrophe—no sharp understanding but merely the sense that the thing cannot possibly be happening.
"You folks expect me?" he went on.
"Oh, yes," she cried, almost with vehemence. "Why, we've looked for you every day."
"'See," he said, "how long have they been married?"
Lulu flushed as she answered: "Fifteen years."
"And a year before that the first one died—and two years they were married," he computed. "I never met that one. Then it's close to twenty years since Bert and I have seen each other."
"How awful," Lulu said, and flushed again.
"To be that long away from your folks."
Suddenly she found herself facing this honestly, as if the immensity of her present experience were clarifying her understanding: Would it be so awful to be away from Bert and Monona and Di—yes, and Ina, for twenty years?
"You think that?" he laughed. "A man don't know what he's like till he's roamed around on his own." He liked the sound of it. "Roamed around on his own," he repeated, and laughed again. "Course a woman don't know that."
"Why don't she?" asked Lulu. She balanced a pie on her hand and carved the crust. She was stupefied to hear her own question. "Why don't she?"
"Maybe she does. Do you?"
"Yes," said Lulu.
"Good enough!" He applauded noiselessly, with fat hands. His diamond ring sparkled, his even white teeth flashed. "I've had twenty years of galloping about," he informed her, unable, after all, to transfer his interests from himself to her.
"Where?" she asked, although she knew.
"South America. Central America. Mexico. Panama." He searched his memory. "Colombo," he superadded.
"My!" said Lulu. She had probably never in her life had the least desire to see any of these places. She did not want to see them now. But she wanted passionately to meet her companion's mind.
"It's the life," he informed her.
"Must be," Lulu breathed. "I——" she tried, and gave it up.
"Where you been mostly?" he asked at last.
By this unprecedented interest in her doings she was thrown into a passion of excitement.
"Here," she said. "I've always been here. Fifteen years with Ina. Before that we lived in the country."
He listened sympathetically now, his head well on one side. He watched her veined hands pinch at the pies. "Poor old girl," he was thinking.
"Is it Miss Lulu Bett?" he abruptly inquired. "Or Mrs.?"
Lulu flushed in anguish.
"Miss," she said low, as one who confesses the extremity of failure. Then from unplumbed depths another Lulu abruptly spoke up. "From choice," she said.
He shouted with laughter.
"You bet! Oh, you bet!" he cried. "Never doubted it." He made his palms taut and drummed on the table. "Say!" he said.
Lulu glowed, quickened, smiled. Her face was another face.
"Which kind of a Mr. are you?" she heard herself ask, and his shoutings redoubled. Well! Who would have thought it of her?
"Never give myself away," he assured her. "Say, by George, I never thought of that before! There's no telling whether a man's married or not, by his name!"
"It don't matter," said Lulu.
"Not so many people want to know."
Again he laughed. This laughter was intoxicating to Lulu. No one ever laughed at what she said save Herbert, who laughed at her. "Go it, old girl!" Ninian was thinking, but this did not appear.
The child Monona now arrived, banging the front gate and hurling herself round the house on the board walk, catching the toe of one foot in the heel of the other and blundering forward, head down, her short, straight hair flapping over her face. She landed flat-footed on the porch. She began to speak, using a ridiculous perversion of words, scarcely articulate, then in vogue in her group. And,
"Whose dog?" she shrieked.
Ninian looked over his shoulder, held out his hand, finished something that he was saying to Lulu. Monona came to him readily enough, staring, loose-lipped.
"I'll bet I'm your uncle," said Ninian.
Relationship being her highest known form of romance, Monona was thrilled by this intelligence.
"Give us a kiss," said Ninian, finding in the plural some vague mitigation for some vague offence.
Monona, looking silly, complied. And her uncle said my stars, such a great big tall girl—they would have to put a board on her head.
"What's that?" inquired Monona. She had spied his great diamond ring.
"This," said her uncle, "was brought to me by Santa Claus, who keeps a jewellery shop in heaven."
The precision and speed of his improvisation revealed him. He had twenty other diamonds like this one. He kept them for those Sundays when the sun comes up in the west. Of course—often! Some day he was going to melt a diamond and eat it. Then you sparkled all over in the dark, ever after. Another diamond he was going to plant. They say——He did it all gravely, absorbedly. About it he was as conscienceless as a savage. This was no fancy spun to pleasure a child. This was like lying, for its own sake.
He went on talking with Lulu, and now again he was the tease, the braggart, the unbridled, unmodified male.
Monona stood in the circle of his arm. The little being was attentive, softened, subdued. Some pretty, faint light visited her. In her listening look, she showed herself a charming child.
"It strikes me," said Ninian to Lulu, "that you're going to do something mighty interesting before you die."
It was the clear conversational impulse, born of the need to keep something going, but Lulu was all faith.
She closed the oven door on her pies and stood brushing flour from her fingers. He was looking away from her, and she looked at him. He was completely like his picture. She felt as if she were looking at his picture and she was abashed and turned away.
"Well, I hope so," she said, which had certainly never been true, for her old formless dreams were no intention—nothing but a mush of discontent. "I hope I can do something that's nice before I quit," she said. Nor was this hope now independently true, but only this surprising longing to appear interesting in his eyes. To dance before him. "What would the folks think of me, going on so?" she suddenly said. Her mild sense of disloyalty was delicious. So was his understanding glance.
"You're the stuff," he remarked absently.
She laughed happily.
The door opened. Ina appeared.
"Well!" said Ina. It was her remotest tone. She took this man to be a pedlar, beheld her child in his clasp, made a quick, forward step, chin lifted. She had time for a very javelin of a look at Lulu.
"Hello!" said Ninian. He had the one formula. "I believe I'm your husband's brother. Ain't this Ina?"
It had not crossed the mind of Lulu to present him.
Beautiful it was to see Ina relax, soften, warm, transform, humanise. It gave one hope for the whole species.
"Ninian!" she cried. She lent a faint impression of the double e to the initial vowel. She slurred the rest, until the y sound squinted in. Not Neenyun, but nearly Neenyun.
He kissed her.
"Since Dwight isn't here!" she cried, and shook her finger at him. Ina's conception of hostess-ship was definite: A volley of questions—was his train on time? He had found the house all right? Of course! Any one could direct him, she should hope. And he hadn't seen Dwight? She must telephone him. But then she arrested herself with a sharp, curved fling of her starched skirts. No! They would surprise him at tea—she stood taut, lips compressed. Oh, the Plows were coming to tea. How unfortunate, she thought. How fortunate, she said.
The child Monona made her knees and elbows stiff and danced up and down. She must, she must participate.
"Aunt Lulu made three pies!" she screamed, and shook her straight hair.
"Gracious sakes," said Ninian. "I brought her a pup, and if I didn't forget to give it to her."
They adjourned to the porch—Ninian, Ina, Monona. The puppy was presented, and yawned. The party kept on about "the place." Ina delightedly exhibited the tomatoes, the two apple trees, the new shed, the bird bath. Ninian said the un-spellable "m—m," rising inflection, and the "I see," prolonging the verb as was expected of him. Ina said that they meant to build a summer-house, only, dear me, when you have a family—but there, he didn't know anything about that. Ina was using her eyes, she was arch, she was coquettish, she was flirtatious, and she believed herself to be merely matronly, sisterly, womanly ...
She screamed. Dwight was at the gate. Now the meeting, exclamation, banality, guffaw ... good will.
And Lulu, peeping through the blind.
When "tea" had been experienced that evening, it was found that a light rain was falling and the Deacons and their guests, the Plows, were constrained to remain in the parlour. The Plows were gentle, faintly lustrous folk, sketched into life rather lightly, as if they were, say, looking in from some other level.
"The only thing," said Dwight Herbert, "that reconciles me to rain is that I'm let off croquet." He rolled his r's, a favourite device of his to induce humour. He called it "croquette." He had never been more irrepressible. The advent of his brother was partly accountable, the need to show himself a fine family man and host in a prosperous little home—simple and pathetic desire.
"Tell you what we'll do!" said Dwight. "Nin and I'll reminisce a little."
"Do!" cried Mr. Plow. This gentle fellow was always excited by life, so faintly excited by him, and enjoyed its presentation in any real form.
Ninian had unerringly selected a dwarf rocker, and he was overflowing it and rocking.
"Take this chair, do!" Ina begged. "A big chair for a big man." She spoke as if he were about the age of Monona.
Ninian refused, insisted on his refusal. A few years more, and human relationships would have spread sanity even to Ina's estate and she would have told him why he should exchange chairs. As it was she forbore, and kept glancing anxiously at the over-burdened little beast beneath him.
The child Monona entered the room. She had been driven down by Di and Jenny Plow, who had vanished upstairs and, through the ventilator, might be heard in a lift and fall of giggling. Monona had also been driven from the kitchen where Lulu was, for some reason, hurrying through the dishes. Monona now ran to Mrs. Bett, stood beside her and stared about resentfully. Mrs. Bett was in best black and ruches, and she seized upon Monona and patted her, as her own form of social expression; and Monona wriggled like a puppy, as hers.
"Quiet, pettie," said Ina, eyebrows up. She caught her lower lip in her teeth.
"Well, sir," said Dwight, "you wouldn't think it to look at us, but mother had her hands pretty full, bringing us up."
Into Dwight's face came another look. It was always so, when he spoke of this foster-mother who had taken these two boys and seen them through the graded schools. This woman Dwight adored, and when he spoke of her he became his inner self.
"We must run up-state and see her while you're here, Nin," he said.
To this Ninian gave a casual assent, lacking his brother's really tender ardour.
"Little," Dwight pursued, "little did she think I'd settle down into a nice, quiet, married dentist and magistrate in my town. And Nin into—say, Nin, what are you, anyway?"
"That's the question," said Ninian.
"Maybe," Ina ventured, "maybe Ninian will tell us something about his travels. He is quite a traveller, you know," she said to the Plows. "A regular Gulliver."
They laughed respectfully.
"How we should love it, Mr. Deacon," Mrs. Plow said. "You know we've never seen very much."
Goaded on, Ninian launched upon his foreign countries as he had seen them: Population, exports, imports, soil, irrigation, business. For the populations Ninian had no respect. Crops could not touch ours. Soil mighty poor pickings. And the business—say! Those fellows don't know—and, say, the hotels! Don't say foreign hotel to Ninian.
He regarded all the alien earth as barbarian, and he stoned it. He was equipped for absolutely no intensive observation. His contacts were negligible. Mrs. Plow was more excited by the Deacons' party than Ninian had been wrought upon by all his voyaging.
"Tell you," said Dwight. "When we ran away that time and went to the state fair, little did we think—" He told about running away to the state fair. "I thought," he wound up, irrelevantly, "Ina and I might get over to the other side this year, but I guess not. I guess not."
The words give no conception of their effect, spoken thus. For there in Warbleton these words are not commonplace. In Warbleton, Europe is never so casually spoken. "Take a trip abroad" is the phrase, or "Go to Europe" at the very least, and both with empressement. Dwight had somewhere noted and deliberately picked up that "other side" effect, and his Ina knew this, and was proud. Her covert glance about pensively covered her soft triumph.
Mrs. Bett, her arm still circling the child Monona, now made her first observation.
"Pity not to have went while the going was good," she said, and said no more.
Nobody knew quite what she meant, and everybody hoped for the best. But Ina frowned. Mamma did these things occasionally when there was company, and she dared. She never sauced Dwight in private.
And it wasn't fair, it wasn't fair—
Abruptly Ninian rose and left the room.
* * * * *
The dishes were washed. Lulu had washed them at break-neck speed—she could not, or would not, have told why. But no sooner were they finished and set away than Lulu had been attacked by an unconquerable inhibition. And instead of going to the parlour, she sat down by the kitchen window. She was in her chally gown, with her cameo pin and her string of coral.
Laughter from the parlour mingled with the laughter of Di and Jenny upstairs. Lulu was now rather shy of Di. A night or two before, coming home with "extra" cream, she had gone round to the side-door and had come full upon Di and Bobby, seated on the steps. And Di was saying:
"Well, if I marry you, you've simply got to be a great man. I could never marry just anybody. I'd smother."
Lulu had heard, stricken. She passed them by, responding only faintly to their greeting. Di was far less taken aback than Lulu.
Later Di had said to Lulu: "I s'pose you heard what we were saying."
Lulu, much shaken, had withdrawn from the whole matter by a flat "no." "Because," she said to herself, "I couldn't have heard right."
But since then she had looked at Di as if Di were some one else. Had not Lulu taught her to make buttonholes and to hem—oh, no I Lulu could not have heard properly.
"Everybody's got somebody to be nice to them," she thought now, sitting by the kitchen window, adult yet Cinderella.
She thought that some one would come for her. Her mother or even Ina. Perhaps they would send Monona. She waited at first hopefully, then resentfully. The grey rain wrapped the air.
"Nobody cares what becomes of me after they're fed," she thought, and derived an obscure satisfaction from her phrasing, and thought it again.
Ninian Deacon came into the kitchen.
Her first impression was that he had come to see whether the dog had been fed.
"I fed him," she said, and wished that she had been busy when Ninian entered.
"Who, me?" he asked. "You did that all right. Say, why in time don't you come in the other room?"
"Oh, I don't know."
"Well, neither do I. I've kept thinking, 'Why don't she come along.' Then I remembered the dishes." He glanced about. "I come to help wipe dishes."
"Oh!" she laughed so delicately, so delightfully, one wondered where she got it. "They're washed——" she caught herself at "long ago."
"Well then, what are you doing here?"
"Rest in there." He bowed, crooked his arm. "Senora," he said,—his Spanish matched his other assimilations of travel—
"Senora. Allow me."
Lulu rose. On his arm she entered the parlour. Dwight was narrating and did not observe that entrance. To the Plows it was sufficiently normal. But Ina looked up and said:
"Well!"—in two notes, descending, curving.
Lulu did not look at her. Lulu sat in a low rocker. Her starched white skirt, throwing her chally in ugly lines, revealed a peeping rim of white embroidery. Her lace front wrinkled when she sat, and perpetually she adjusted it. She curled her feet sidewise beneath her chair, her long wrists and veined hands lay along her lap in no relation to her. She was tense. She rocked.
When Dwight had finished his narration, there was a pause, broken at last by Mrs. Bett:
"You tell that better than you used to when you started in telling it," she observed. "You got in some things I guess you used to clean forget about. Monona, get off my rocker."
Monona made a little whimpering sound, in pretence to tears. Ina said "Darling—quiet!"—chin a little lifted, lower lip revealing lower teeth for the word's completion; and she held it.
The Plows were asking something about Mexico. Dwight was wondering if it would let up raining at all. Di and Jenny came whispering into the room. But all these distractions Ninian Deacon swept aside.
"Miss Lulu," he said, "I wanted you to hear about my trip up the Amazon, because I knew how interested you are in travels."
He talked, according to his lights, about the Amazon. But the person who most enjoyed the recital could not afterward have told two words that he said. Lulu kept the position which she had taken at first, and she dare not change. She saw the blood in the veins of her hands and wanted to hide them. She wondered if she might fold her arms, or have one hand to support her chin, gave it all up and sat motionless, save for the rocking.
Then she forgot everything. For the first time in years some one was talking and looking not only at Ina and Dwight and their guests, but at her.
On a June morning Dwight Herbert Deacon looked at the sky, and said with his manner of originating it: "How about a picnic this afternoon?"
Ina, with her blank, upward look, exclaimed: "To-day?"
"First class day, it looks like to me."
Come to think of it, Ina didn't know that there was anything to prevent, but mercy, Herbert was so sudden. Lulu began to recite the resources of the house for a lunch. Meanwhile, since the first mention of picnic, the child Monona had been dancing stiffly about the room, knees stiff, elbows stiff, shoulders immovable, her straight hair flapping about her face. The sad dance of the child who cannot dance because she never has danced. Di gave a conservative assent—she was at that age—and then took advantage of the family softness incident to a guest and demanded that Bobby go too. Ina hesitated, partly because she always hesitated, partly because she was tribal in the extreme. "Just our little family and Uncle Ninian would have been so nice," she sighed, with her consent.
When, at six o'clock, Ina and Dwight and Ninian assembled on the porch and Lulu came out with the basket, it was seen that she was in a blue-cotton house-gown.
"Look here," said Ninian, "aren't you going?"
"Me?" said Lulu. "Oh, no."
"Oh, I haven't been to a picnic since I can remember."
"But why not?"
"Oh, I never think of such a thing."
Ninian waited for the family to speak. They did speak. Dwight said:
"Lulu's a regular home body."
And Ina advanced kindly with: "Come with us, Lulu, if you like."
"No," said Lulu, and flushed. "Thank you," she added, formally.
Mrs. Bett's voice shrilled from within the house, startlingly close—just beyond the blind, in fact:
"Go on, Lulie. It'll do you good. You mind me and go on."
"Well," said Ninian, "that's what I say. You hustle for your hat and you come along."
For the first time this course presented itself to Lulu as a possibility. She stared up at Ninian.
"You can slip on my linen duster, over," Ina said graciously.
"Your new one?" Dwight incredulously wished to know.
"Oh, no!" Ina laughed at the idea. "The old one."
They were having to wait for Di in any case—they always had to wait for Di—and at last, hardly believing in her own motions, Lulu was running to make ready. Mrs. Bett hurried to help her, but she took down the wrong things and they were both irritated. Lulu reappeared in the linen duster and a wide hat. There had been no time to "tighten up" her hair; she was flushed at the adventure; she had never looked so well.
They started. Lulu, falling in with Monona, heard for the first time in her life, the step of the pursuing male, choosing to walk beside her and the little girl. Oh, would Ina like that? And what did Lulu care what Ina liked? Monona, making a silly, semi-articulate observation, was enchanted to have Lulu burst into laughter and squeeze her hand.
Di contributed her bright presence, and Bobby Larkin appeared from nowhere, running, with a gigantic bag of fruit.
"Bullylujah!" he shouted, and Lulu could have shouted with him.
She sought for some utterance. She wanted to talk with Ninian.
"I do hope we've brought sandwiches enough," was all that she could get to say.
They chose a spot, that is to say Dwight Herbert chose a spot, across the river and up the shore where there was at that season a strip of warm beach. Dwight Herbert declared himself the builder of incomparable fires, and made a bad smudge. Ninian, who was a camper neither by birth nor by adoption, kept offering brightly to help, could think of nothing to do, and presently, bethinking himself of skipping stones, went and tried to skip them on the flowing river. Ina cut her hand opening the condensed milk and was obliged to sit under a tree and nurse the wound. Monona spilled all the salt and sought diligently to recover it. So Lulu did all the work. As for Di and Bobby, they had taken the pail and gone for water, discouraging Monona from accompanying them, discouraging her to the point of tears. But the two were gone for so long that on their return Dwight was hungry and cross and majestic.
"Those who disregard the comfort of other people," he enunciated, "can not expect consideration for themselves in the future."
He did not say on what ethical tenet this dictum was based, but he delivered it with extreme authority. Ina caught her lower lip with her teeth, dipped her head, and looked at Di. And Monona laughed like a little demon.
As soon as Lulu had all in readiness, and cold corned beef and salad had begun their orderly progression, Dwight became the immemorial dweller in green fastnesses. He began:
"This is ideal. I tell you, people don't half know life if they don't get out and eat in the open. It's better than any tonic at a dollar the bottle. Nature's tonic—eh? Free as the air. Look at that sky. See that water. Could anything be more pleasant?"
He smiled at his wife. This man's face was glowing with simple pleasure. He loved the out-of-doors with a love which could not explain itself. But he now lost a definite climax when his wife's comment was heard to be:
"Monona! Now it's all over both ruffles. And mamma does try so hard...."
After supper some boys arrived with a boat which they beached, and Dwight, with enthusiasm, gave the boys ten cents for a half hour's use of that boat and invited to the waters his wife, his brother and his younger daughter. Ina was timid——not because she was afraid but because she was congenitally timid—with her this was not a belief or an emotion, it was a disease.
"Dwight darling, are you sure there's no danger?"
Why, none. None in the world. Whoever heard of drowning in a river.
"But you're not so very used——"
Oh, wasn't he? Who was it that had lived in a boat throughout youth if not he?
Ninian refused out-of-hand, lighted a cigar, and sat on a log in a permanent fashion. Ina's plump figure was fitted in the stern, the child Monona affixed, and the boat put off, bow well out of water. On this pleasure ride the face of the wife was as the face of the damned. It was true that she revered her husband's opinions above those of all other men. In politics, in science, in religion, in dentistry she looked up to his dicta as to revelation. And was he not a magistrate? But let him take oars in hand, or shake lines or a whip above the back of any horse, and this woman would trust any other woman's husband by preference. It was a phenomenon.
Lulu was making the work last, so that she should be out of everybody's way. When the boat put off without Ninian, she felt a kind of terror and wished that he had gone. He had sat down near her, and she pretended not to see. At last Lulu understood that Ninian was deliberately choosing to remain with her. The languor of his bulk after the evening meal made no explanation for Lulu. She asked for no explanation. He had stayed.
And they were alone. For Di, on a pretext of examining the flocks and herds, was leading Bobby away to the pastures, a little at a time.
The sun, now fallen, had left an even, waxen sky. Leaves and ferns appeared drenched with the light just withdrawn. The hush, the warmth, the colour, were charged with some influence. The air of the time communicated itself to Lulu as intense and quiet happiness. She had not yet felt quiet with Ninian. For the first time her blind excitement in his presence ceased, and she felt curiously accustomed to him. To him the air of the time imparted itself in a deepening of his facile sympathy.
"Do you know something?" he began. "I think you have it pretty hard around here."
"I?" Lulu was genuinely astonished.
"Yes, sir. Do you have to work like this all the time? I guess you won't mind my asking."
"Well, I ought to work. I have a home with them. Mother too."
"Yes, but glory. You ought to have some kind of a life of your own. You want it, too. You told me you did—that first day."
She was silent. Again he was investing her with a longing which she had never really had, until he had planted that longing. She had wanted she knew not what. Now she accepted the dim, the romantic interest of this role.
"I guess you don't see how it seems," he said, "to me, coming along—a stranger so. I don't like it."
He frowned, regarded the river, flicked away ashes, his diamond obediently shining. Lulu's look, her head drooping, had the liquid air of the look of a young girl. For the first time in her life she was feeling her helplessness. It intoxicated her.
"They're very good to me," she said.
He turned. "Do you know why you think that? Because you've never had anybody really good to you. That's why."
"But they treat me good."
"They make a slave of you. Regular slave." He puffed, frowning. "Damned shame, I call it," he said.
Her loyalty stirred Lulu. "We have our whole living——"
"And you earn it. I been watching you since I been here. Don't you ever go anywheres?"
She said: "This is the first place in—in years."
"Lord. Don't you want to? Of course you do!"
"Not so much places like this——"
"I see. What you want is to get away—like you'd ought to." He regarded her. "You've been a blamed fine-looking woman," he said.
She did not flush, but that faint, unsuspected Lulu spoke for her:
"You must have been a good-looking man once yourself."
His laugh went ringing across the water. "You're pretty good," he said. He regarded her approvingly. "I don't see how you do it," he mused, "blamed if I do."
"How I do what?"
"Why come back, quick like that, with what you say."
Lulu's heart was beating painfully. The effort to hold her own in talk like this was terrifying. She had never talked in this fashion to any one. It was as if some matter of life or death hung on her ability to speak an alien tongue. And yet, when she was most at loss, that other Lulu, whom she had never known anything about, seemed suddenly to speak for her. As now:
"It's my grand education," she said.
She sat humped on the log, her beautiful hair shining in the light of the warm sky. She had thrown off her hat and the linen duster, and was in her blue gingham gown against the sky and leaves. But she sat stiffly, her feet carefully covered, her hands ill at ease, her eyes rather piteous in their hope somehow to hold her vague own. Yet from her came these sufficient, insouciant replies.
"Education," he said laughing heartily. "That's mine, too." He spoke a creed. "I ain't never had it and I ain't never missed it."
"Most folks are happy without an education," said Lulu.
"You're not very happy, though."
"Oh, no," she said.
"Well, sir," said Ninian, "I'll tell you what we'll do. While I'm here I'm going to take you and Ina and Dwight up to the city."
"To the city?"
"To a show. Dinner and a show. I'll give you one good time."
"Oh!" Lulu leaned forward. "Ina and Dwight go sometimes. I never been."
"Well, just you come with me. I'll look up what's good. You tell me just what you like to eat, and we'll get it——"
She said: "I haven't had anything to eat in years that I haven't cooked myself."
He planned for that time to come, and Lulu listened as one intensely experiencing every word that he uttered. Yet it was not in that future merry-making that she found her joy, but in the consciousness that he—some one—any one—was planning like this for her.
Meanwhile Di and Bobby had rounded the corner by an old hop-house and kept on down the levee. Now that the presence of the others was withdrawn, the two looked about them differently and began themselves to give off an influence instead of being pressed upon by overpowering personalities. Frogs were chorusing in the near swamp, and Bobby wanted one. He was off after it. But Di eventually drew him back, reluctant, frogless. He entered upon an exhaustive account of the use of frogs for bait, and as he talked he constantly flung stones. Di grew restless. There was, she had found, a certain amount of this to be gone through before Bobby would focus on the personal. At length she was obliged to say, "Like me to-day?" And then he entered upon personal talk with the same zest with which he had discussed bait.
"Bobby," said Di, "sometimes I think we might be married, and not wait for any old money."
They had now come that far. It was partly an authentic attraction, grown from out the old repulsion, and partly it was that they both—and especially Di—so much wanted the experiences of attraction that they assumed its ways. And then each cared enough to assume the pretty role required by the other, and by the occasion, and by the air of the time.
"Would you?" asked Bobby—but in the subjunctive.
She said: "Yes. I will."
"It would mean running away, wouldn't it?" said Bobby, still subjunctive.
"I suppose so. Mamma and papa are so unreasonable."
"Di," said Bobby, "I don't believe you could ever be happy with me."
"The idea! I can too. You're going to be a great man—you know you are."
Bobby was silent. Of course he knew it—but he passed it over.
"Wouldn't it be fun to elope and surprise the whole school?" said Di, sparkling.
Bobby grinned appreciatively. He was good to look at, with his big frame, his head of rough dark hair, the sky warm upon his clear skin and full mouth. Di suddenly announced that she would be willing to elope now.
"I've planned eloping lots of times," she said ambiguously.
It flashed across the mind of Bobby that in these plans of hers he may not always have been the principal, and he could not be sure ... But she talked in nothings, and he answered her so.
Soft cries sounded in the centre of the stream. The boat, well out of the strong current, was seen to have its oars shipped; and there sat Dwight Herbert gently rocking the boat. Dwight Herbert would.
"Bertie, Bertie—please!" you heard his Ina say.
Monona began to cry, and her father was irritated, felt that it would be ignominious to desist, and did not know that he felt this. But he knew that he was annoyed, and he took refuge in this, and picked up the oars with: "Some folks never can enjoy anything without spoiling it."
"That's what I was thinking," said Ina, with a flash of anger.
They glided toward the shore in a huff. Monona found that she enjoyed crying across the water and kept it up. It was almost as good as an echo. Ina, stepping safe to the sands, cried ungratefully that this was the last time that she would ever, ever go with her husband anywhere. Ever. Dwight Herbert, recovering, gauged the moment to require of him humour, and observed that his wedded wife was as skittish as a colt. Ina kept silence, head poised so that her full little chin showed double. Monona, who had previously hidden a cooky in her frock, now remembered it and crunched sidewise, the eyes ruminant.
Moving toward them, with Di, Bobby was suddenly overtaken by the sense of disliking them all. He never had liked Dwight Herbert, his employer. Mrs. Deacon seemed to him so overwhelmingly mature that he had no idea how to treat her. And the child Monona he would like to roll in the river. Even Di ... He fell silent, was silent on the walk home which was the signal for Di to tease him steadily. The little being was afraid of silence. It was too vast for her. She was like a butterfly in a dome.
But against that background of ruined occasion, Lulu walked homeward beside Ninian. And all that night, beside her mother who groaned in her sleep, Lulu lay tense and awake. He had walked home with her. He had told Ina and Herbert about going to the city. What did it mean? Suppose ... oh no; oh no!
"Either lay still or get up and set up," Mrs. Bett directed her at length.
When, on a warm evening a fortnight later, Lulu descended the stairs dressed for her incredible trip to the city, she wore the white waist which she had often thought they would "use" for her if she died. And really, the waist looked as if it had been planned for the purpose, and its wide, upstanding plaited lace at throat and wrist made her neck look thinner, her forearm sharp and veined. Her hair she had "crimped" and parted in the middle, puffed high—it was so that hair had been worn in Lulu's girlhood.
"Well!" said Ina, when she saw this coiffure, and frankly examined it, head well back, tongue meditatively teasing at her lower lip.
For travel Lulu was again wearing Ina's linen duster—the old one.
Ninian appeared, in a sack coat—and his diamond. His distinctly convex face, its thick, rosy flesh, thick mouth and cleft chin gave Lulu once more that bold sense of looking—not at him, for then she was shy and averted her eyes—but at his photograph at which she could gaze as much as she would. She looked up at him openly, fell in step beside him. Was he not taking her to the city? Ina and Dwight themselves were going because she, Lulu, had brought about this party.
"Act as good as you look, Lulie," Mrs. Bett called after them. She gave no instructions to Ina who was married and able to shine in her conduct, it seemed.
Dwight was cross. On the way to the station he might have been heard to take it up again, whatever it was, and his Ina unmistakably said: "Well, now don't keep it going all the way there"; and turned back to the others with some elaborate comment about the dust, thus cutting off her so-called lord from his legitimate retort. A mean advantage.
The city was two hours' distant, and they were to spend the night. On the train, in the double seat, Ninian beside her among the bags, Lulu sat in the simple consciousness that the people all knew that she too had been chosen. A man and a woman were opposite, with their little boy between them. Lulu felt this woman's superiority of experience over her own, and smiled at her from a world of fellowship. But the woman lifted her eyebrows and stared and turned away, with slow and insolent winking.
Ninian had a boyish pride in his knowledge of places to eat in many cities—as if he were leading certain of the tribe to a deer-run in a strange wood. Ninian took his party to a downtown cafe, then popular among business and newspaper men. The place was below the sidewalk, was reached by a dozen marble steps, and the odour of its griddle-cakes took the air of the street. Ninian made a great show of selecting a table, changed once, called the waiter "my man" and rubbed soft hands on "What do you say? Shall it be lobster?" He ordered the dinner, instructing the waiter with painstaking gruffness.
"Not that they can touch your cooking here, Miss Lulu," he said, settling himself to wait, and crumbling a crust.
Dwight, expanding a bit in the aura of the food, observed that Lulu was a regular chef, that was what Lulu was. He still would not look at his wife, who now remarked:
"Sheff, Dwightie. Not cheff."
This was a mean advantage, which he pretended not to hear—another mean advantage.
"Ina," said Lulu, "your hat's just a little mite—no, over the other way."
"Was there anything to prevent your speaking of that before?" Ina inquired acidly.
"I started to and then somebody always said something," said Lulu humbly.
Nothing could so much as cloud Lulu's hour. She was proof against any shadow.
"Say, but you look tremendous to-night," Dwight observed to her.
Understanding perfectly that this was said to tease his wife, Lulu yet flushed with pleasure. She saw two women watching, and she thought: "They're feeling sorry for Ina—nobody talking to her." She laughed at everything that the men said. She passionately wanted to talk herself. "How many folks keep going past," she said, many times.
At length, having noted the details of all the clothes in range, Ina's isolation palled upon her and she set herself to take Ninian's attention. She therefore talked with him about himself.
"Curious you've never married, Nin," she said.
"Don't say it like that," he begged. "I might yet."
Ina laughed enjoyably. "Yes, you might!" she met this.
"She wants everybody to get married, but she wishes I hadn't," Dwight threw in with exceeding rancour.
They developed this theme exhaustively, Dwight usually speaking in the third person and always with his shoulder turned a bit from his wife. It was inconceivable, the gusto with which they proceeded. Ina had assumed for the purpose an air distrait, casual, attentive to the scene about them. But gradually her cheeks began to burn.
"She'll cry," Lulu thought in alarm, and said at random: "Ina, that hat is so pretty—ever so much prettier than the old one." But Ina said frostily that she never saw anything the matter with the old one.
"Let us talk," said Ninian low, to Lulu. "Then they'll simmer down."
He went on, in an undertone, about nothing in particular. Lulu hardly heard what he said, it was so pleasant to have him talking to her in this confidential fashion; and she was pleasantly aware that his manner was open to misinterpretation.
In the nick of time, the lobster was served.
* * * * *
Dinner and the play—the show, as Ninian called it. This show was "Peter Pan," chosen by Ninian because the seats cost the most of those at any theatre. It was almost indecent to see how Dwight Herbert, the immortal soul, had warmed and melted at these contacts. By the time that all was over, and they were at the hotel for supper, such was his pleasurable excitation that he was once more playful, teasing, once more the irrepressible. But now his Ina was to be won back, made it evident that she was not one lightly to overlook, and a fine firmness sat upon the little doubling chin.
They discussed the play. Not one of them had understood the story. The dog-kennel part—wasn't that the queerest thing? Nothing to do with the rest of the play.
"I was for the pirates. The one with the hook—he was my style," said Dwight.
"Well, there it is again," Ina cried. "They didn't belong to the real play, either."
"Oh, well," Ninian said, "they have to put in parts, I suppose, to catch everybody. Instead of a song and dance, they do that."
"And I didn't understand," said Ina, "why they all clapped when the principal character ran down front and said something to the audience that time. But they all did."
Ninian thought this might have been out of compliment. Ina wished that Monona might have seen, confessed that the last part was so pretty that she herself would not look; and into Ina's eyes came their loveliest light.
Lulu sat there, hearing the talk about the play. "Why couldn't I have said that?" she thought as the others spoke. All that they said seemed to her apropos, but she could think of nothing to add. The evening had been to her a light from heaven—how could she find anything to say? She sat in a daze of happiness, her mind hardly operative, her look moving from one to another. At last Ninian looked at her.
"Sure you liked it, Miss Lulu?"
"Oh, yes! I think they all took their parts real well."
It was not enough. She looked at them appealingly, knowing that she had not said enough.
"You could hear everything they said," she added. "It was—" she dwindled to silence.
Dwight Herbert savoured his rarebit with a great show of long wrinkled dimples.
"Excellent sauces they make here—excellent," he said, with the frown of an epicure. "A tiny wee bit more Athabasca," he added, and they all laughed and told him that Athabasca was a lake, of course. Of course he meant tobasco, Ina said. Their entertainment and their talk was of this sort, for an hour.
"Well, now," said Dwight Herbert when it was finished, "somebody dance on the table."
"Got to amuse ourselves somehow. Come, liven up. They'll begin to read the funeral service over us."
"Why not say the wedding service?" asked Ninian.
In the mention of wedlock there was always something stimulating to Dwight, something of overwhelming humour. He shouted a derisive endorsement of this proposal.
"I shouldn't object," said Ninian. "Should you, Miss Lulu?"
Lulu now burned the slow red of her torture. They were all looking at her. She made an anguished effort to defend herself.
"I don't know it," she said, "so I can't say it."
Ninian leaned toward her.
"I, Ninian, take thee, Lulu, to be my wedded wife," he pronounced. "That's the way it goes!"
"Lulu daren't say it!" cried Dwight. He laughed so loudly that those at the near tables turned. And, from the fastness of her wifehood and motherhood, Ina laughed. Really, it was ridiculous to think of Lulu that way....
Ninian laughed too. "Course she don't dare say it," he challenged.
From within Lulu, that strange Lulu, that other Lulu who sometimes fought her battles, suddenly spoke out:
"I, Lulu, take thee, Ninian, to be my wedded husband."
"You will?" Ninian cried.
"I will," she said, laughing tremulously, to prove that she too could join in, could be as merry as the rest.
"And I will. There, by Jove, now have we entertained you, or haven't we?" Ninian laughed and pounded his soft fist on the table.
"Oh, say, honestly!" Ina was shocked. "I don't think you ought to—holy things——what's the matter, Dwightie?"
Dwight Herbert Deacon's eyes were staring and his face was scarlet.
"Say, by George," he said, "a civil wedding is binding in this state."
"A civil wedding? Oh, well—" Ninian dismissed it.
"But I," said Dwight, "happen to be a magistrate."
They looked at one another foolishly. Dwight sprang up with the indeterminate idea of inquiring something of some one, circled about and returned. Ina had taken his chair and sat clasping Lulu's hand. Ninian continued to laugh.
"I never saw one done so offhand," said Dwight. "But what you've said is all you have to say according to law. And there don't have to be witnesses ... say!" he said, and sat down again.
Above that shroud-like plaited lace, the veins of Lulu's throat showed dark as she Swallowed, cleared her throat, swallowed again.
"Don't you let Dwight scare you," she besought Ninian.
"Scare me!" cried Ninian. "Why, I think it's a good job done, if you ask me."
Lulu's eyes flew to his face. As he laughed, he was looking at her, and now he nodded and shut and opened his eyes several times very fast. Their points of light flickered. With a pang of wonder which pierced her and left her shaken, Lulu looked. His eyes continued to meet her own. It was exactly like looking at his photograph.
Dwight had recovered his authentic air.
"Oh, well," he said, "we can inquire at our leisure. If it is necessary, I should say we can have it set aside quietly up here in the city—no one'll be the wiser."
"Set aside nothing!" said Ninian. "I'd like to see it stand."
"Are you serious, Nin?"
"Sure I'm serious."
Ina jerked gently at her sister's arm.
"Lulu! You hear him? What you going to say to that?"
Lulu shook her head. "He isn't in earnest," she said.
"I am in earnest—hope to die," Ninian declared. He was on two legs of his chair and was slightly tilting, so that the effect of his earnestness was impaired. But he was obviously in earnest.
They were looking at Lulu again. And now she looked at Ninian, and there was something terrible in that look which tried to ask him, alone, about this thing.
Dwight exploded. "There was a fellow I know there in the theatre," he cried. "I'll get him on the line. He could tell me if there's any way—" and was off.
Ina inexplicably began touching away tears. "Oh," she said, "what will mamma say?"
Lulu hardly heard her. Mrs. Bett was incalculably distant.
"You sure?" Lulu said low to Ninian.
For the first time, something in her exceeding isolation really touched him.
"Say," he said, "you come on with me. We'll have it done over again somewhere, if you say so."
"Oh," said Lulu, "if I thought—"
He leaned and patted her hand.
"Good girl," he said.
They sat silent, Ninian padding on the cloth with the flat of his plump hands.
Dwight returned. "It's a go all right," he said. He sat down, laughed weakly, rubbed at his face. "You two are tied as tight as the church could tie you."
"Good enough," said Ninian. "Eh, Lulu?"
"It's—it's all right, I guess," Lulu said.
"Well, I'll be dished," said Dwight.
"Sister!" said Ina.
Ninian meditated, his lips set tight and high. It is impossible to trace the processes of this man. Perhaps they were all compact of the devil-may-care attitude engendered in any persistent traveller. Perhaps the incomparable cookery of Lulu played its part.
"I was going to make a trip south this month," he said, "on my way home from here. Suppose we get married again by somebody or other, and start right off. You'd like that, wouldn't you—going South?"
"Yes," said Lulu only.
"It's July," said Ina, with her sense of fitness, but no one heard.
It was arranged that their trunks should follow them—Ina would see to that, though she was scandalised that they were not first to return to Warbleton for the blessing of Mrs. Bett.
"Mamma won't mind," said Lulu. "Mamma can't stand a fuss any more."
They left the table. The men and women still sitting at the other tables saw nothing unusual about these four, indifferently dressed, indifferently conditioned. The hotel orchestra, playing ragtime in deafening concord, made Lulu's wedding march.
* * * * *
It was still early next day—a hot Sunday—when Ina and Dwight reached home. Mrs. Bett was standing on the porch.
"Where's Lulie?" asked Mrs. Bett.
Mrs. Bett took it in, a bit at a time. Her pale eyes searched their faces, she shook her head, heard it again, grasped it. Her first question was:
"Who's going to do your work?"
Ina had thought of that, and this was manifest.
"Oh," she said, "you and I'll have to manage."
Mrs. Bett meditated, frowning.
"I left the bacon for her to cook for your breakfasts," she said. "I can't cook bacon fit to eat. Neither can you."
"We've had our breakfasts," Ina escaped from this dilemma.
"Had it up in the city, on expense?"
"Well, we didn't have much."
In Mrs. Bett's eyes tears gathered, but they were not for Lulu.
"I should think," she said, "I should think Lulie might have had a little more gratitude to her than this."
On their way to church Ina and Dwight encountered Di, who had left the house some time earlier, stepping sedately to church in company with Bobby Larkin. Di was in white, and her face was the face of an angel, so young, so questioning, so utterly devoid of her sophistication.
"That child," said Ina, "must not see so much of that Larkin boy. She's just a little, little girl."
"Of course she mustn't," said Dwight sharply, "and if I was her mother—"
"Oh stop that!" said Ina, sotto voce, at the church steps.
To every one with whom they spoke in the aisle after church, Ina announced their news: Had they heard? Lulu married Dwight's brother Ninian in the city yesterday. Oh, sudden, yes! And romantic ... spoken with that upward inflection to which Ina was a prey.
Mrs. Bett had been having a "tantrim," brought on by nothing definable. Abruptly as she and Ina were getting supper, Mrs. Bett had fallen silent, had in fact refused to reply when addressed. When all was ready and Dwight was entering, hair wetly brushed, she had withdrawn from the room and closed her bedroom door until it echoed.
"She's got one again," said Ina, grieving; "Dwight, you go."
He went, showing no sign of annoyance, and stood outside his mother-in-law's door and knocked.
"Mother, come and have some supper."
"Looks to me like your muffins was just about the best ever."
"Come on—I had something funny to tell you and Ina."
He retreated, knowing nothing of the admirable control exercised by this woman for her own passionate satisfaction in sliding him away unsatisfied. He showed nothing but anxious concern, touched with regret, at his failure. Ina, too, returned from that door discomfited. Dwight made a gallant effort to retrieve the fallen fortunes of their evening meal, and turned upon Di, who had just entered, and with exceeding facetiousness inquired how Bobby was.
Di looked hunted. She could never tell whether her parents were going to tease her about Bobby, or rebuke her for being seen with him. It depended on mood, and this mood Di had not the experience to gauge. She now groped for some neutral fact, and mentioned that he was going to take her and Jenny for ice cream that night.
Ina's irritation found just expression in office of motherhood.
"I won't have you downtown in the evening," she said.
"But you let me go last night."
"All the better reason why you should not go to-night."
"I tell you," cried Dwight. "Why not all walk down? Why not all have ice cream...." He was all gentleness and propitiation, the reconciling element in his home.
"Me too?" Monona's ardent hope, her terrible fear were in her eyebrows, her parted lips.
"You too, certainly." Dwight could not do enough for every one.
Monona clapped her hands. "Goody! goody! Last time you wouldn't let me go."
"That's why papa's going to take you this time," Ina said.
These ethical balances having been nicely struck, Ina proposed another:
"But," she said, "but, you must eat more supper or you can not go."
"I don't want any more." Monona's look was honest and piteous.
"Makes no difference. You must eat or you'll get sick."
"Very well, then. No ice cream soda for such a little girl."
Monona began to cry quietly. But she passed her plate. She ate, chewing high, and slowly.
"See? She can eat if she will eat," Ina said to Dwight. "The only trouble is, she will not take the time."
"She don't put her mind on her meals," Dwight Herbert diagnosed it. "Oh, bigger bites than that!" he encouraged his little daughter.
Di's mind had been proceeding along its own paths.
"Are you going to take Jenny and Bobby too?" she inquired.
"Certainly. The whole party."
"Bobby'll want to pay for Jenny and I."
"Me, darling," said Ina patiently, punctiliously—and less punctiliously added: "Nonsense. This is going to be papa's little party."
"But we had the engagement with Bobby. It was an engagement."
"Well," said Ina, "I think we'll just set that aside—that important engagement. I think we just will."
"Papa! Bobby'll want to be the one to pay for Jenny and I—"
"Di!" Ina's voice dominated all. "Will you be more careful of your grammar or shall I speak to you again?"
"Well, I'd rather use bad grammar than—than—than—" she looked resentfully at her mother, her father. Their moral defection was evident to her, but it was indefinable. They told her that she ought to be ashamed when papa wanted to give them all a treat. She sat silent, frowning, put-upon.
"Look, mamma!" cried Monona, swallowing a third of an egg at one impulse. Ina saw only the empty plate.
"Mamma's nice little girl!" cried she, shining upon her child.
The rules of the ordinary sports of the playground, scrupulously applied, would have clarified the ethical atmosphere of this little family. But there was no one to apply them.
* * * * *
When Di and Monona had been excused, Dwight asked:
"Nothing new from the bride and groom?"
"No. And, Dwight, it's been a week since the last."
"See—where were they then?"
He knew perfectly well that they were in Savannah, Georgia, but Ina played his game, told him, and retold bits that the letter had said.
"I don't understand," she added, "why they should go straight to Oregon without coming here first."
Dwight hazarded that Nin probably had to get back, and shone pleasantly in the reflected importance of a brother filled with affairs.
"I don't know what to make of Lulu's letters," Ina proceeded. "They're so—so—"
"You haven't had but two, have you?"
"That's all—well, of course it's only been a month. But both letters have been so—"
Ina was never really articulate. Whatever corner of her brain had the blood in it at the moment seemed to be operative, and she let the matter go at that.
"I don't think it's fair to mamma—going off that way. Leaving her own mother. Why, she may never see mamma again—" Ina's breath caught. Into her face came something of the lovely tenderness with which she sometimes looked at Monona and Di. She sprang up. She had forgotten to put some supper to warm for mamma. The lovely light was still in her face as she bustled about against the time of mamma's recovery from her tantrim. Dwight's face was like this when he spoke of his foster-mother. In both these beings there was something which functioned as pure love.
Mamma had recovered and was eating cold scrambled eggs on the corner of the kitchen table when the ice cream soda party was ready to set out. Dwight threw her a casual "Better come, too, Mother Bett," but she shook her head. She wished to go, wished it with violence, but she contrived to give to her arbitrary refusal a quality of contempt. When Jenny arrived with Bobby, she had brought a sheaf of gladioli for Mrs. Bett, and took them to her in the kitchen, and as she laid the flowers beside her, the young girl stopped and kissed her. "You little darling!" cried Mrs. Bett, and clung to her, her lifted eyes lit by something intense and living. But when the ice cream party had set off at last, Mrs. Bett left her supper, gathered up the flowers, and crossed the lawn to the old cripple, Grandma Gates.
"Inie sha'n't have 'em," the old woman thought.
And then it was quite beautiful to watch her with Grandma Gates, whom she tended and petted, to whose complainings she listened, and to whom she tried to tell the small events of her day. When her neighbour had gone, Grandma Gates said that it was as good as a dose of medicine to have her come in.
Mrs. Bett sat on the porch restored and pleasant when the family returned. Di and Bobby had walked home with Jenny.
"Look here," said Dwight Herbert, "who is it sits home and has ice cream put in her lap, like a queen?"
"Vanilly or chocolate?" Mrs. Bett demanded.
"Chocolate, mammal" Ina cried, with the breeze in her voice.
"Vanilly sets better," Mrs. Bett said.
They sat with her on the porch while she ate. Ina rocked on a creaking board. Dwight swung a leg over the railing. Monona sat pulling her skirt over her feet, and humming all on one note. There was no moon, but the warm dusk had a quality of transparency as if it were lit in all its particles.