E-text prepared by Al Haines
OTHER PEOPLE'S BUSINESS
The Romantic Career of the Practical Miss Dale
HARRIET LUMMIS SMITH
Indianapolis The Bobbs-Merrill Company Publishers
Copyright 1916 The Bobbs-Merrill Company
I INTRODUCING PERSIS II THE LOVER III A FITTING IV THE WOMAN'S CLUB V DIANTHA GROWS UP VI THE NEW ARRIVAL VII A CONFIDENTIAL CHAT VIII EVE AND THE APPLE IX A DAY TO HERSELF X SHOULD AULD ACQUAINTANCE BE FORGOT XI TWIXT THE CUP AND THE LIP XII A CONFESSION TOO MANY XIII THE MAIL BAG XIV AN ACQUISITION XV A WOMAN AT LAST XVI WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD XVII ENID XVIII A STALLED ENGINE XIX A DEFERRED INTERMENT XX CHECKMATE XXI DE PROFUNDIS XXII EAVESDROPPING XXIII WEDDING BELLS XXIV FAIR PLAY
OTHER PEOPLE'S BUSINESS
The knocking at the side door and the thumping overhead blended in a travesty on the anvil chorus, the staccato tapping of somebody's knuckles rising flute-like above the hammering of Joel's cane. TO some temperaments the double summons would have proved confusing, but Persis Dale dropped her sewing and moved briskly to the door, addressing the ceiling as she went. "'Twon't hurt you to wait."
The stout woman on the steps entered heavily and fell into a chair that creaked an inarticulate protest. Persis' quick ear caught the signal of distress.
"Mis' West, you'd be more comf'table in the armchair. I fight shy of it because it's too comf'table. If I set back into the hollow, it's because my work's done for the day. And here's a palm-leaf. You look as hot as mustard-plaster."
Having thus tactfully interfered for the preservation of her property, Persis cast a swiftly appraising glance at the chair her caller had vacated. "Front rung sprung just as I expected," was her unspoken comment. "It's a wonder that Etta West don't use more discretion about furniture."
Mrs. West dabbed her moist forehead with her handkerchief, flopped the palm-leaf indeterminately and cast an alarmed glance heavenward. "Gracious, Persis, first thing you know, he'll be coming through."
"'Twon't hurt him to wait," Persis said again, as if long testing had proved the reliability of the formula. "He called me up-stairs fifteen minutes ago," she added, "to have me get down the 'cyclopedia and find out when Confucius was born."
"I want to know," murmured Mrs. West, visibly impressed. "He's certainly got an active mind."
"He has," Persis agreed dryly. "And it's the sort of mind that makes lots of activity for other folks' hands and feet. Does that noise worry you, Mis' West? For if it does, I'll run up and quiet him before we get down to business."
Mrs. West approved the suggestion. "I brought my black serge," she explained, "to have you see if it'll pay for a regular making-over—new lining and all—or whether I'd better freshen it up and get all the wear I can out of it, just as 'tis. But I declare! With all that noise over my head, I wouldn't know a Dutch neck from a placket-hole. I don't see how you stand it, Persis, day in and day out."
"There's lots in getting used to things," Persis explained, and left the room with the buoyant step of a girl. She looked every one of her six and thirty years, but her movements still retained the ardent lightness of youth. Beaten people drag through life. Only the unconquered move as Persis moved, as though shod with wings.
The anvil chorus ceased abruptly when Persis opened the door of her brother's room. She entered with caution for the darkness seemed impenetrable, after the sunny brightness of the spring afternoon. Joel Dale's latest contribution to hygienic science was the discovery that sunshine was poison to his constitution. Not only were the shutters closed, and the shades drawn, but a patch-work bed-quilt had been tacked over the window that no obtrusive ray of light should work havoc with his health. Joel's voice was hoarsely tragic as he called to his sister to shut the door.
"I'm going to as soon as I can find my way to the knob. It's so pitch-dark in here that I'm as blind as an owl till I get used to it."
"Maybe 'twould help your eye-sight if you was the one getting poisoned," Joel returned sarcastically in the querulous tones of the confirmed invalid. "I've 'suffered the pangs of three several deaths,' as Shakespeare says, because you left the door part way open the last time you went to the 'cyclopedia." For twenty years Joel had been an omnivorous reader, and his speech bristled with quotations gathered from his favorite volumes, and generally tagged with the author's name. The quotations were not always apt, but they helped to confirm the village of Clematis in the conviction that Joel Dale was an intellectual man.
By the time Persis had groped her way to the bed, she was sufficiently accustomed to the dim light to be able to distinguish her brother's restless eyes gleaming feverishly in the pallid blur of his face. "What do you want now, Joel?" she asked, with the mechanical gentleness of overtaxed patience.
"Persis, there's a text o' Scripture that's weighing on my mind. I can't exactly place it, and I've got to know the context before I can figure out its meaning. 'Be not righteous over-much, neither make thyself over-wise. Why shouldst thou destroy thyself?' That's the way it runs, as near as I can remember. Now if righteousness is a good thing and wisdom too, why on earth—"
"Goodness, Joel! I don't believe that's anywhere in the Bible. Sounds more like one of those old heathens you're so fond of reading. And anyway," continued Persis firmly, frustrating her brother's evident intention to argue the point. "I can't look it up now. Mis' West's down-stairs."
"Come to discuss the weighty question o' clothes, I s'pose. 'Bonnets and ornaments of the legs, wimples and mantles and stomachers,' as the prophet says. And that's of more importance than to satisfy the cravings of a troubled mind. If the world was given up to the tender mercies o' women, there'd be no more inventions except some new kind of crimping pin, and nothing would be written but fashion notes."
"I'll have to go now, Joel." Persis Dale, having supported her brother from the time she was a girl of seventeen, had enjoyed ample opportunity to become familiar with his opinion of her sex. As the manly qualities had declined in Joel, his masculine arrogance had waxed strong. The sex instinct had become concentrated in a sense of superiority so overwhelming that the woman was not born whom Joel would not have regarded as a creature of inferior parts, to be patronized or snubbed, as the merits of the case demanded.
"Do you want a drink of water?" Persis asked, running through the familiar formula. "Shall I get you a fan, or smooth out the sheets? Then I guess I'll go down, Joel. I wouldn't pound any more for a while, if I was you. 'Twon't do any good."
The sound of voices greeted her, as she descended the stairs, Mrs. West's asthmatic tones blending with the flutey treble of a young girl. "It's Diantha," thought Persis, her lips tightening. "I might have known that Annabel Sinclair would send for that waist two days before it was promised."
The young girl sitting opposite Mrs. West was perched lightly on the edge of her chair like a bird on the point of flight, and the skirt of her blue cotton frock was drawn down as far as possible over a disconcerting length of black stocking. Her fair hair was worn in curls which fell about her shoulders. Fresh coloring and regularity of feature gave her a beauty partially discounted by an expression of resentful defiance, singularly at variance with her general rosebud effect.
"Mother sent me to see if her waist was ready, Miss Persis." Diantha spoke like a child repeating a lesson it has been kept after school to learn.
"It won't be done till Saturday, Diantha. I told your mother Saturday when she sent the goods over."
The girl rose nimbly, the movement revealing unexpected height and extreme slenderness, both qualities accentuated by her very juvenile attire. She made a bird-like dart in the direction of the door, then turned.
"Mother said I was to coax you into finishing it for to-morrow," she announced, a light mockery rasping under the melody of her voice. "I know it won't do any good, but I've got to be obedient. Please consider yourself coaxed."
"No, it won't do any good, Diantha. The waist'll be ready about two o'clock on Saturday." Persis stood watching the girl's retreating figure, and the serenity of her face was for the moment clouded.
"Diantha Sinclair reminds me of a Lombardy poplar," remarked Mrs. West. "Nothing but spindle till you're most to the top. It does seem fairly immoral, such a show o' stockings."
"Annabel Sinclair seems to think she can stop that girl's growing up by keeping her skirts to her knees," returned Persis grimly. "A young lady daughter would be a dreadful inconvenience to Annabel." Then the momentary sternness of her expression was lost in sympathetic comprehension as Mrs. West bowed her head and sprinkled the black serge with her tears.
"There, there, Mis' West. Cry if you feel like it. Crying's the best medicine when there's no men folks around to keep asking what the matter is. Just let yourself go, and don't mind me."
"Of course you know," exclaimed Mrs. West, her fat shoulders heaving as she took full advantage of the permission. "Everybody knows. Everybody's talking about it. To think that a son of mine would stoop to steal a wife's affection away from her lawful husband."
"Don't make things out any worse than they are, Mis' West. Your Thad can't steal what never was. And Annabel Sinclair never had any affection to give her husband nor nobody else."
Mrs. West's distress was too acute to permit her to find comfort in a distinction purely technical. "Thad always was such a good boy, Persis, but now I'm prepared for anything. I think she's capable of working him up to the point of running away with her."
Again Persis proffered consolation. "I don't think so. Annabel Sinclair's what I call a feeble sinner. She reminds me of Joel when he was a little boy. He'd go down to the river, along in April when the water was ice-cold, and he'd get off his clothes and stand on the bank shivering. After his teeth had chattered an hour or so, mother'd come to look him up and Joel would get into his trousers and go home meek as a lamb. Well, Annabel's the same way. She likes to shiver on the bank and think what a splash she'll make when she goes in, but she hasn't got the courage to risk a wetting, let alone drowning."
Mrs. West, blinking through her tears, looked hard at her friend. "Seems to me you're talking awful peculiar, Persis. 'Most as if you'd respect Annabel more if she was wickeder."
"Maybe I would," acknowledged Persis bluntly. "Seems to me it's almost better to have folks in earnest, if it's only about their sins. Annabel Sinclair turns everything into play-acting, good and bad alike."
"I don't know why Thad can't see through her," cried the distracted mother, voicing an age-old wonder. "I used to think he was as smart as chain-lightning, but I've changed my mind. Any man that'll let Annabel Sinclair lead him around by the nose hasn't got any more than just sense enough to keep him out of an asylum for the feeble-minded, if he is my son."
"That's where all of 'em belong when it comes to a woman like Annabel," said Persis with unwonted pessimism. "And Thad's just young enough to be proud of having that sort of acquaintance with a married woman. Men are queer cattle, Mis' West. The worst woman living likes to pretend to herself that she's as good as anybody, but a man who's been decent from the cradle up, gets lots of comfort out of thinking he's a regular devil. At the same time," she conceded, with a change of tone, "the thing ought to be stopped."
"Of course it had. But how are we going to do it? I've talked to Thad and talked to him, and so has his father. If I thought the minister would have any influence—"
"You just let Thad alone for a spell," Persis commanded with her usual decision. "And you leave this thing to me. I'll try to think a way out."
This astonishing offer was made in a matter-of-fact tone, significant in itself. Persis Dale earned her living as a dressmaker and pieced out her income by acting as a nurse in the dull seasons, but her real occupation in life was attending to other people's business. She had a divine meddlesomeness. She was inquisitive after the fashion of a sympathetic arch-angel. It appalled her to see people wrecking their lives by indecision, vacillation, incapacity, by poor judgment and crass stupidity. Her homely wisdom, the fruit of observant years, her native common sense, her strength and discernment were all at the service of the first comer. Responsibility, the bugbear of mankind, was as the breath in her nostrils.
"I wouldn't do any more talking to Thad," Persis repeated, as Mrs. West looked at her with the instant confidence of inefficiency in one who indicates a readiness to take the helm. "Don't make him feel that he's so awfully important just because he's making a fool of himself. Most boys attract more attention the first time they kick over the traces than they ever did in all their lives before. 'Tisn't any wonder to me that the elder brother gets a little cranky when he sees the fuss made over the prodigal, first because he's gone wrong and then because he's going right, same as decent folks have been doing all the time."
"What do you mean to do, Persis?" Mrs. West's tone indicated that by some mysterious legerdemain the burden had been shifted. It was now Persis' problem.
"That'll bear thinking about," Persis returned with no sign of resenting her friend's assumption. "And while I'm turning it over in my mind, let Thad alone, and don't wear yourself out worrying." The injunction probably had a figurative import though Mrs. West interpreted it literally.
"Wear myself out. I can't so much as wear off a pound. I've been too upset to eat or sleep for the last two months, and I've been gaining right along. Most folks can reduce by going without breakfast, but seems as if it don't make any difference with me whether I touch victuals or not."
She was rising ponderously when Persis checked her. "Your serge, Mis' West. We were going to see if 'twas worth making over."
"It's time to get supper, Persis, and there ain't a mite of hurry about that serge. Truth is," explained Mrs. West, lowering her voice to a confidential murmur, "'twasn't altogether the dress that brought me over. I sort of hankered for a talk with you. There never was such a hand as you be, Persis, to hearten a body up."
Persis found no time that evening for grappling with the problem for which she had voluntarily made herself responsible. The preparation of Joel's supper was a task demanding time and prayerful consideration, for as is the case with most chronic invalids, his fastidiousness concerning his food approached the proportions of a mania. Her efforts to gratify her brother's insatiable curiosity on points of history and literature, had put her several hours behind with her sewing, and as she owned to a most unprofessional pride in keeping her word to the letter, midnight found her still at work. A few minutes later she folded away the finished garment and picked from the rag carpet the usual litter of scraps and basting threads, after which she was at liberty to attend to that mysterious rite known to the housekeeper as "shutting up for the night," a rite never to be omitted even in the village of Clematis where a locked door is held to indicate that somebody is putting on airs.
Candle in hand, Persis paused before a photograph, framed in blue plush and occupying a prominent position on the mantel. "Good night, Justin," she said in as matter-of-fact a tone as if she were exchanging farewells with some chance caller. As the candle flickered, a wave of expression seemed to cross the face in the plush frame, almost as if it had smiled.
It was a pleasant young face with a good forehead and frank eyes. The indeterminate sweetness of the mouth and chin hinted that this was a man in the making, his strength to be wrought out, his weakness to be mastered. Like the blue plush the photograph was faded, as were alas, the roses in Persis' cheeks. It was twenty years since they had kissed each other good-by in that very room, boy and girl, sure of themselves and of the future. Justin was going away to make a home for her, and Persis would wait for him, if need be, till her hair was gray.
He had been unfortunate from the start. Up in the garret, spicy with the fragrance of dried herbs and of camphor, were his letters, locked away in a small horse-hair trunk. Twice a year Persis opened the trunk to dust the letters, and sometimes she drew out the contents of a yellowing envelope and read a line here and there. These were the letters over which she had wept long, long before,—blurred in places by youth's hot tears, the letters she had carried on her heart. They were full of the excuses in which failure is invariably fertile, breathing from every page the fatal certainty that luck would soon turn.
The letters became infrequent after old Mr. Ware's "stroke." Persis understood. For them there could be no thought of marrying nor giving in marriage while the old man lay helpless. All that Justin could spare from his scant earnings, little enough, she knew, must be sent home. And meanwhile Joel having discovered in a three months' illness his fitness to play the part of invalid, had apparently decided to make the role permanent. Like many another, Persis had found in work and responsibility, a mysterious solace for the incessant dull ache at her heart.
That was twenty years before. Persis Dale, climbing the stairs as nimbly as if it were early morning and she herself just turned sixteen, seemed a woman eminently practical. Yet in the changes of those twenty years, though trouble had been a frequent guest under the sloping roof of the old-fashioned house and death had entered more than once, there had never been a time when Persis had gone to her bed without a good night to the photograph in the blue plush frame, never a morning when she had begun the day without looking into the eyes of her old lover.
The most practical woman that ever made a button-hole or rolled a pie-crust, despite a gray shimmer at her temples and a significant tracery at the corners of her eyes, has a chamber in her heart marked "private" where she keeps enshrined some tender memory. At the core, every woman is a sentimentalist.
Thomas Hardin, trudging through the dusk of the spring evening, his shoulders stooping and his hands thrust deep into his pockets, wore an expression better befitting an apprehensive criminal than an expectant lover. As he approached the Dale cottage where the light of Persis' lamp shone redly through the curtained window, his look of gloom increased, and he gave vent to frequent and explosive sighs.
The sense of unworthiness likely to overwhelm the best of men who seek the love of a good woman, was in Thomas' case complicated by a morbidly sensitive conscience and ruthless honesty. To Thomas, Persis Dale represented all that was loveliest in womankind, but he would have resigned unhesitatingly all hope of winning her rather than have gained her promise under false pretenses. "I can stand getting the mitten if it comes to that," Thomas assured himself with a fearful sinking of the heart, which belied the boast. "But I can't stand the idea of taking her in." When she knew him at his undisguised worst, it would be time enough to consider taking him for a possible better.
Unluckily for his peace of mind, confession was more intricate and protracted than in his complacency he would have believed. It seemed impossible to finish with it. Whenever he nerved himself to the point of putting the question which had trembled on his lips for a dozen years, dark episodes from his past flashed into his memory with the disconcerting suddenness of a search-light, and further humiliating disclosures were in order before he could direct his attention to the business of love-making. Sometimes Thomas felt that his reputation for uprightness was a proof of hypocrisy, and that his friends and neighbors would shrink away aghast if they suspected a fraction of his unsavory secrets.
Persis was alone when Thomas entered. Not till the last lingering tinge of gold had deserted the west, would Joel venture to leave the room barricaded against the hostile element. But at any moment now he might think it safe to risk himself down-stairs, and knowing this, Thomas resolved to waste no time in preliminaries.
"How's your sister and the children?" Persis asked, shaking hands and returning to her sewing. She offered no excuse for continuing her work, nor did Thomas wish it. There was a delicious suggestion of domesticity in the sight of Persis sewing by the shaded lamp while he sat near enough to have touched the busy fingers, had he but won the right to such a privilege.
"Nellie's well. Little Tom's eyes have been troubling him since he had the measles, but the doctor thinks it's nothing serious. Look here, Persis, I was wondering as I came along if you knew that I chewed."
Persis' lids dropped just in time to hide a quizzical, humorous gleam in her eyes. The rest of her face remained becomingly grave. "I may have suspected it, Thomas."
"It's a filthy habit," he said, inordinately relieved by her astuteness and yet with wonder.
She looked up from her work to explain. "It's this way, Thomas. Sometimes when I go into the store I catch sight of you before you see me, and maybe one of your cheeks will be all swollen up as if you had the toothache. Then you slip into the back room, and come out in quarter of a minute with both of 'em the same size. It's a woman's way, Thomas, to put two and two together."
Thomas' face was radiant. That weight was off his conscience. He had a right to proceed to more agreeable disclosures, undeterred by the fear of practising deception on the noblest of God's creatures. It contributed to his joy that Persis had known of his weakness, and yet had not crushed him with her contempt. She had not even expressed agreement when he had called chewing tobacco a filthy habit.
"Persis," he began in his deepest tones, "I was thinking as I came along—"
The stairs creaked and Persis interrupted him. "There's Joel. It makes it hard for him when the days are getting longer all the time. He'll be glad when we have to light the lamps at five."
Thomas was in a mood to wish that the village of Clematis basked in the rays of the midnight sun. He forced a smile to his reluctant lips as Persis' brother entered and magnanimously put the question, "How do you find yourself to-night, Joel?" though he knew only too well the consequences to which this exposed him. There was no surer passport to Joel's favor than to inquire about his health if one was also willing to listen to his answer. The people who said, "How do you do?" and immediately began to talk of something else were the objects of Joel's detestation, while his grateful affection went out to the select few willing to hear in detail his physical biography since their last meeting. Joel experienced the same satisfaction in describing the pains in his abdomen or an attack of palpitation that a bride feels in exhibiting her trousseau.
"I've nothing to complain of, especially when you take into account that I'd have been six feet under the sod by now, if I hadn't discovered that sunshine was poison to my constitution. It sort of draws all the vitality out of me, same as it draws the oil out of goose feathers. I'd have improved a good ideal faster," Joel continued with sudden irritation, "if it hadn't been for Persis' carelessness in leaving the door open. You'd think that I had a good big life insurance in her favor, the way she acts. As the Frenchman said, 'Defend me from my friends, I can defend myself—'"
"I've always understood that sunshine was about the healthiest of anything," interrupted Thomas, reddening angrily at the criticism of Persis. "And if you want my opinion, you look to me a good deal like a plant that's sprouted in the cellar."
The last thing Joel wanted was another's opinion. He continued as though Thomas had not spoken.
"And besides that, I've been eating too much meat. Science tells us that the human body is pretty near all water. Don't that show that most of the needs of the body can be supplied by drinking plenty of water?"
Thomas shook his head. "I'd hate to try it. When I'm hungry, I wouldn't swap a good piece of beef-steak for a hogshead of water."
"You eat too much meat." Joel, extending an almost transparent hand toward his sister's caller, shook a bony forefinger in warning. "You're undermining your constitution. You're shortening your days by your inordinate use of animal food."
"Me! Why, bless you, Joel, I never was sick a day in my life."
"Well, that don't prove that you never will be, does it? And anybody with half an eye can see that you're not in good shape. Flesh don't show nothing. A man who weighs two hundred is the first to go under when disease gets hold of him. Your color, as like as not, is due to fever. How many times a day do you eat meat?"
"Well, always twice, and sometimes—"
Joel groaned. "Rank suicide! Suicide just as much as if you put a revolver to your head. It sounds well to talk about prime cuts of beef and all that, but when you come down to cold facts, what's meat? Dead stuff, that's all. It ain't reasonable to talk of building up life out of death."
Persis' quick ear had caught the sound of stealthy movements in the adjoining room. She wove her needle into the seam, a practise so habitual that probably she would have done the same if the lamp had exploded unexpectedly, and crossing to the kitchen door, opened it without warning. A small untidy woman, the shortcoming of her appearance partly concealed by the old plaid shawl that enveloped her person, dodged away from the key-hole with a celerity perhaps due to practise.
"It just struck me that there was more voices than two," she explained with self-accusing haste. "And I didn't want to intrude if you was entertaining company. Sounded to me like Thomas Hardin's voice."
"Yes, it's Mr. Hardin. Will you come in, Mis' Trotter?" Persis' invitation lacked its usual ring of cordiality.
"Oh, I wouldn't want to intrude. But I says to Bartholomew this very day, 'I'm going to run over to Persis Dale's after supper,' says I, 'to see if she can't let me have some pieces of white goods left over from her dressmaking.' You're doing a good deal in white this time of the year, as a rule," concluded Mrs. Trotter, a greedy look coming into her eyes.
"Mis' Trotter, I always send back the pieces, even if they're no bigger than a handkerchief. If anybody's going to make carpet rags out of the scraps, I don't know why it shouldn't be the people who bought and paid for the goods."
"And that's where you're right," Mrs. Trotter agreed, with the adaptability that was one of her strong points. "There was Mattie Kendall, now, who kept up her dressmaking after she married Henry Beach. Well, she set out to dress her children on the left-overs, and it went all right while they was little. But Mamie got grasping. After her oldest girl was as long-legged as a colt, she'd send word to her customers and say that they needed another yard and a half or two yards to make their dresses in any kind of style. Of course it got out in time, and everybody who wanted sewing done went to a woman in South Rivers. I often say to Bartholomew that honesty's the best policy, even where it looks the other way round."
During the progress of this moral tale, Persis' thoughts had been self-accusing. She reflected that curiosity is not among the seven deadly sins, and that if Mrs. Trotter found in listening at key-holes any compensation for the undeniable hardships of her lot, only a harsh nature would grudge her such solace. Moreover ingrained in Persis' disposition, was the inability to hold a grudge against one who asked her a favor.
"I don't know, Mis' Trotter, but maybe I've got some white pieces of my own that aren't big enough for anything but baby clothes. I'll look over my piece-bag to-morrow. If there's anything you can use, you'll be welcome."
Mrs. Trotter expressed her appreciation, "With all the sewing I done when Benny was expected, I did think I was pretty well fixed, come what might. I didn't reckon on the twins, you see. And then when little Tom died, they laid him out in the embroidered dress I'd counted on for the christening of the lot. Not that I grudged it to him," added the mother quickly, and sighed.
This had the effect of dissipating Persis' sense of annoyance. "I'm pretty sure I can find you something, Mis' Trotter. And I'll speak to one or two of my customers. Some of 'em may have things put away that they're not likely to want again."
Mrs. Trotter received the offer with a dignity untainted by servile gratitude.
"Me and Bartholomew feel that in raising up a family the size of ourn, we're doing the community a service. So we ain't afraid to take a little help when we happen to need it. And by the way, if you should find some of the white pieces you was talking about, maybe you wouldn't mind cutting out the little slips and just stitching 'em up on your machine. The needle of mine's been broke this six months, and anyway, something's the matter with the wheels. They won't hardly turn."
"Need oil, probably," commented Persis. She knew she was wasting her breath in making the suggestion. The shiftlessness which left the sewing-machine useless junk in a family of eight was a Trotter characteristic. If Bartholomew could have appreciated the value of machine oil, he would have been an entirely different man, and probably able to support his family. In view of this, Persis felt that she could do no less than add: "To be sure I'll stitch 'em up. 'Twon't take much of any time."
"Now I'm not going to keep you a minute longer. I guess Thomas Hardin don't come here to talk to your brother the whole evening." Mrs. Trotter smiled pleasantly, but with a distinct tinge of patronage, the inevitable superiority of the wedded wife to the woman who has carried her maiden name well through the thirties. And indeed in Mrs. Trotter's estimation, the hardships of her matrimonial experience were trivial in comparison with the unspeakable calamity of being an old maid.
After Joel was once fairly launched on the subject of hygiene, it was difficult, as a rule, to introduce another topic of conversation under an hour and a quarter. Persis was almost startled, on her return, to find the two men discussing an alien theme. More surprising still, instead of sulking over the curtailment of the dear privilege of self-dissection, Joel was plainly interested.
"It's one of the games where you can't lose, if you take their word for it," Thomas was explaining to his absorbed listener. "The company begins to pay you int'rest on your investment just as soon as you hand over the money, six per cent. every year up to the time the orchard gets to bearing. Then it goes up little by little, and by the tenth year they guarantee you twenty-five per cent. Even that doesn't cover it. They say that orchard owners in the same locality are making as much as a hundred per cent. most years. Anybody who could spare a few thousand would be sure of a good income for the rest of his days."
"But there's the off years," objected Joel, a crackle of greed in his high-pitched voice.
"There's not going to be any off years the way those fellows figure. They say that by thinning out the apples when the yield is heavy, they can be sure of a crop every season." Thomas' gaze wandered to Persis who had resumed her seat and taken up her sewing. "We're talking of a chance to put your money where it'll get more than savings bank int'rest," he said, resolved that Joel should not monopolize every topic of conversation. "The Apple of Eden Investment Company, they call it."
"I heard you say something about twenty-five per cent," returned Persis, sewing placidly. "'Most too good to please me."
"Now if that ain't a woman all over," Joel interjected excitedly. "The toe of a stocking is a good enough bank for any of 'em, and as for using foresight and putting a little capital where it'll bring in an income for your old age, you'd think to hear 'em talk, that such a thing was never heard tell of. If I'd had the handling of the money that's come into this house for the last twenty years, we'd have been on Easy Street by now. But Persis has the kind of setness that doesn't take no account of reason. And as the poet says:
"'He is a fool who thinks by force or skill To turn the current of a woman's will.'"
Thomas, purpling with resentment, addressed his next remark to Persis. "I don't s'pose our folks would take so much stock in all these fine promises if there wasn't a Clematis boy secretary of the company. I guess you remember him, Persis. Ware, his name was. Justin Ware."
"Yes, I remember him." An abrupt movement on Persis' part had unthreaded her needle. She bent close to the lamp, vainly trying to insert the unsteady end of the thread into the opening it had so lately quitted.
"I've been telling you right along you needed glasses," triumphed Joel. "And to keep on saying that you don't, ain't going to help the matter. 'When age, old age comes creeping on,' as the poet says—"
"I don't need glasses any more than you need a crutch." The denial came out with a snap. Persis Dale, patient to the point of weakness, enduring submissively for twenty years the thankless exactions of her brother, proved herself wholesomely human by her prompt resentment. "My eyes are as good as they ever were," she insisted, and closed the discussion if she did not prove her point, by putting her work away. Secretary of an investment company making such golden promises! That looked as if at last fortune had smiled on Justin Ware.
The two men had the talk to themselves. Persis' absorption was penetrated now and then by references to the miracles wrought by scientific spraying and pruning, or the possibility of heating orchards so that late frosts would no longer have terrors for the fruit grower, sober facts which the literature of the Apple of Eden Investment Company had enveloped in the rosy atmosphere of romance. Like many people who have never made money by hard work, Joel believed profoundly in making it by magic. His pallid face flushed feverishly, and his eyes glittered as he discussed the possibility of making a thousand dollars double itself in a year.
It was ten o'clock when Thomas again had the field to himself and in Clematis only sentimental visits were prolonged beyond that hour. Thomas' opportunity had arrived, but with it unluckily had come the recollection of a misdeed for which he must receive absolution before the flood-gates of his heart were opened.
"Persis, do you remember that old Baptist minister who lived opposite the schoolhouse when we were kids? Elder Buck, everybody called him."
With an effort she set aside her own recollections in favor of his. "Oh, yes, I remember. The one whose false teeth were always slipping down."
"His picket fence was all torn to pieces one night. He had a way of calling names in the pulpit, the elder had,—children of the devil and that sort of thing—and it got some of the boys riled. And to pay him back, they tore down his fence. Persis, I—I was one of those boys."
He looked at her appealingly and felt his heart sink. Persis' eyes were lowered. Her face was grave and a little sad as befits one who has been tendered irrefutable proof of a friend's unworthiness. Thomas gulped. Well, it was only what he had expected all along. A woman like Persis could not be asked to overlook everything.
"Good night, Persis," he said huskily, and he thought it more than his deserts when she answered him with her usual kindness, "Good night, Thomas."
During the spring and summer Persis rose at half past five, and though she slept little the night following Thomas Hardin's disclosures, she refused to concede to her feeling of weariness so much as an extra half-hour. Her fitful slumbers had been haunted by dreams of apples, apples in barrels, apples in baskets, apples dropping from full boughs and pelting her like hail-stones, for all her dodging. There were feverishly red apples, gnarly green apples and the golden sweets, the favorites of her childhood, all of them turning into goblins as she approached, and leering up at her out of impish eyes which nevertheless bore a startling resemblance to those eyes in whose depths she had once seen only the reflection of her own loyalty. It was small wonder that Persis woke unrefreshed. "I declare," she mused, as she twisted her hair into the unyielding knob, highly in favor among the feminine residents of Clematis as a morning coiffure, "a few more nights like that would set me against apple pie for good and all."
But the developments of the day were soon to elbow out of Persis' thoughts the visions of the night. As she stepped out on the porch for a whiff of the invigorating morning air, her eyes fell upon a unique figure coming toward her across the dewy grass. In certain details it gave a realistic presentment of an Indian famine sufferer. In respect to costume, it was reminiscent of a bathing beach in mid-July.
"Of all things!" Persis gasped, one hand groping for support, while the other shaded her incredulous and indignant eyes. "Have you taken leave of your senses, Joel Dale?"
Her brother ascended the steps, wearing the expression of triumph ordinarily assumed in honor of his great hygienic discoveries. He replied to her question by another: "Persis, what do you s'pose is at the bottom of all human ills?"
"I don't know as I'd undertake to speak for 'em all, but I should say that a good nine-tenths was due to a lack of common sense."
Joel disdained to take up the gauntlet. "Persis, it's clothes."
His sister looked him over. Joel was attired in a pair of bathing trunks and a bath towel, the latter festooned gracefully about his body, low enough to show his projecting ribs. "If the style you're wearing at present was ever to get what you'd call popular," she agreed dryly, "I think it would make considerable trouble."
Joel again refused to be diverted. "Clothes, Persis, are an invention of the devil. The electricity of the body, instead of passing off into the earth as it would do if we went around the way the Lord intended, is kept pent up in our insides by our clothes, and of course it gets to playing the mischief with all our organs. As old Fuller says, 'He that is proud of the rustling of his silks, like a madman laughs at the rattling of his fetters.'"
"The sun is shining right on your bare back," remarked Persis acridly. "According to your ideas yesterday, you'd ought to be ready to drop dead."
Joel magnanimously ignored the taunt. Like some greater men, he had discovered that to be true to to-day's vision, one must often violate yesterday's conviction. The charge of inconsistency never troubled him.
"Earth and air are stuffed with helpfulness, Persis, and the clothes we wear won't give it a chance at us. If the Lord had wanted us to be covered, we'd have come into the world with a shell like a turtle. Now, this rig ain't ideal because we've got to make some concessions to folks' narrowness and prejudice, but it's a long way ahead of ordinary dress."
"Joel Dale!" The grim resolution of Persis' voice warned the dreamer of the family that the limit of her forbearance had been reached. "I'm not going to stand up for clothes, though seeing that my living, and yours too, depends on 'em, it's not for me to run 'em down. But this I will say, as long as we live in a civilized land, we've got to act civilized. And as for having you show yourself on this lawn in a get-up that would set every dog in Clematis to barking, I won't. Go up-stairs and dress like somebody beside a Fiji islander, but first give your feet and legs a good rubbing. If you don't, the next thing you know, you'll be down with pneumonia."
Perhaps Joel's tyrannical rule in the household for the last twenty years had been due in part to his knowing the time to yield, a knowledge that would have prolonged the sway of many a despot. He went up-stairs in a rebellious mood which found expression in invectives against womankind, its blindness, its wilfulness, its weak subservience to usage. But when he appeared at the breakfast table, the conventional shirt and trousers testified to the extent of Persis' authority.
Little was said during the progress of the meal. Joel, saddened by the lack of enthusiasm with which his great discovery had been received, maintained a dignified silence. Persis, always moved to magnanimity by triumph, forbore to emphasize her victory by obtruding on her brother's reserve. Not till Joel had been fortified by a hearty breakfast and had reached the advertising columns in his perusal of the weekly paper, did she venture to touch upon another delicate theme.
"Joel, I wish you'd open the shutters of your bedroom and run up the shade to the top. If ever a room needed airing and sunning, that's the one. I'm going to give it a good cleaning as soon as I can take the time, but this morning I'm too busy. Annabel Sinclair's coming for a fitting at ten o'clock and that young Mis' Thompson at eleven. And I'm as sure as I can be of anything but death and taxes, that Annabel will be late."
Persis' apprehension would have taken on a keener edge, could she have been favored at that moment with a glimpse of the patron of whose punctuality she was in doubt. Ever since eight o'clock, Diantha Sinclair had been opening the door of her mother's room at intervals of five minutes and closing the same noiselessly, after a brief survey of the figure on the bed. As the tenantry of field and forest apprehend the approach of some natural cataclysm, by means of signs imperceptible to man's grosser senses, so to Diantha the curve of her mother's shoulder under the sheet, presaged a storm. Her uneasiness was due to a horrid uncertainty as to which would anger her mother the more, to be wakened too early or to be allowed to sleep too long.
By nine o'clock, the second of the alternatives seemed to Diantha the more serious. She stole into her mother's room, and stationing herself by the bed, spoke in the softest of voices; "Mama, your new dress—"
The opening showed a tact creditable to her years. After all, it is one thing to be wakened by the crashing of a boarding-house breakfast gong, and another to be roused by the music of a harp. Annabel opened her eyes with a sense of something agreeable on the way, and Diantha promptly acted on her advantage.
"Mama, you are to try on your new dress at ten o'clock, and it's nine already."
"Nine!" moaned Annabel. "You should have called me before." Yet she made no effort to rise and after a moment added sharply: "What are you waiting for? Can't you see I'm awake?"
Diantha scurried like a rabbit, and her mother turned on her pillow for another half-hour, an indulgence she would not have ventured under her daughter's observant eyes. Like many people who defy public opinion in large matters, she was acutely sensitive to criticism over trifles. Aspersions of her character she accepted philosophically, almost complacently indeed, because of her inward conviction that they were indirectly a tribute paid by jealousy to her superior fascinations. But a suggestion that a dress was unbecoming would make her unhappy for days.
Her first act on rising was to run up the shade, in order to benefit by the full light of the morning sun. Then for some minutes she studied her reflection in a little hand-mirror which gave back to her view a face rapt and absorbed. With Annabel this rite was a substitute for morning prayer, and it brought her a peace not always secured by equally sincere devotions. Diantha's willowy height woke in her a sense of exasperated fear. It sometimes seemed to her that the girl's growth was with deliberate purpose, a malicious demonstration of the fact that her mother was not so young as she looked.
The testimony of the hand-mirror was reassuring, clear pink and white, the crisp freshness of apple blossoms. Annabel worshiped and rose from her knees, duly fortified against the mischances of the day, though her divinity had been only her own beauty.
At nineteen, Annabel had married a man twenty years her senior, who like many of his sex assumed that a pretty wife is from the Lord and associated amiability, compliance and other feminine graces with a rose-leaf complexion. The earlier years of their married life had been a succession of ghastly struggles in which both sides had been worsted, descending to incredible brutalities. Sinclair was essentially a gentleman, and long after those contentious years he sometimes woke from his sleep in a cold sweat, remembering what he had said to his wife and she to him. Her unwelcome motherhood had only widened the breach between them. Her hysterically fierce resentment of that which he had innocently assumed to be a woman's crowning happiness, had extinguished finally the last gleaming embers of a flame which might have been altar fire and hearth fire both in one.
The man's growing apathy at length gave the victory to the woman. If he did not hate his wife, Stanley Sinclair was so far from loving her that his thin lips curled mockingly over the recollection of what he had hoped on his wedding-day. If there is pathos in the lost illusions of youth, those of middle life are grim tragedy. Sinclair wanted peace at any price. The masculine intolerance of rivalry was less insistent than it would have been in a younger man. Out of the wreck of things he asked to save only quiet and the chance to live a gentleman. His wife might go her way, so that she showed him a serene face and treated him with tolerable courtesy. And so tacitly the two made the Great Compromise.
At fifty-seven Stanley Sinclair was a cynically cheerful philosopher. He had long before discovered that technically his rights as a husband were safe. The woman whose vanity is stronger than her affections is shielded by triple armor, and Annabel's virtue was safe, at least while her complexion lasted. She was a glutton of admiration, and since the highest homage a man could pay her charms was to fall in love with her, she bent her energies unweariedly to bringing him to the point of candid love-making. With success, her interest waned. A lover might last six months or even a year, but as a rule he was displaced in considerably less time by some understudy whom Annabel had thoughtfully kept in training for the star role.
In Annabel's creed, masculine admiration was the supreme good. It was the ultimate test of a woman's success, as the ability to make money tested the success of men. Beauty was precious, because it was the most effective lure. Talent was not to be despised, since it too could boast its captives. But the woman who claimed that she prized her gift for its own sake was guilty of an affectation which could deceive no one, not at least, so shrewd an observer as Annabel.
At nineteen she had married a man more than twice her age. Since then her preference for youthfulness had been growing, a phenomenon not unusual in women of her type. At thirty-seven, she looked upon her husband as senile, patriarchal, as far removed from her generation as the Pilgrim fathers. Men of her own age bored her. They were interested in business, politics, their families, a thousand things besides herself. They had lost the obsession of personality, the you-and-I attitude which is the life-blood of flirtation.
Just now Annabel preferred boys still young enough to be secretly proud of the necessity of shaving every other day, young enough to swagger a little when they lighted a cigarette. At her present rate of progress, by the time she was fifty, she would have come by successive gradations to the level of short trousers and turn-over collars.
The average worshiper may hurry over his prayers, but the devotee of vanity must not make haste with her toilet. It was quarter of eleven when Annabel was dressed, but since the results were satisfactory, she was untroubled over her lack of punctuality. It was Diantha who fidgeted, and looked at the clock.
"You're 'most an hour behind time. You'd better hurry if you don't want Miss Persis to scold."
"I shan't hurry for any one," Annabel returned, selecting after due deliberation the parasol with the pink lining. Her husband was lounging on the porch as she went out, and he greeted her with his usual, "Good morning, my dear," his gaze following her with the gently satiric smile which always made her feverishly impatient to consult the little mirror she carried in her hand-bag. That smile hinted at extraordinary insight and unnerved her as his frenzied outbursts of anger had never done. She had lost her power to hurt him except in the way of humiliation, but he cynically argued that the constant amusement she afforded him almost paid this last indebtedness. It was like having a season ticket to a theater.
Persis Dale was fitting young Mrs. Thompson, the traveling man's wife, when Annabel made her appearance. She nodded, glad that the half dozen pins held loosely between her lips, relieved her from the obligation of a welcoming smile.
"Maybe you'd like to set on the porch, Mis' Sinclair, till I'm at liberty. Your hour was ten, you know. It's shady out there and you can look over the new books. And now, Mis' Thompson, before I go any further we've got to decide whether it's to open in the front or in the back."
"I think the buttons down the back are more stylish," said young Mrs. Thompson.
"There's no doubt of that," Persis agreed. "Everything in the book is back. But there's always more'n one way to skin a cat. I could put a row of hooks under the lace, around this side of the yoke, and nobody'd ever know where it was fastened, or whether you were just run into it."
Young Mrs. Thompson hesitated, studying herself in the mirror. Persis employed several pins in tightening a seam and expressed her views at some length.
"It's just this way, Mis' Thompson. If you had a nice little girl, big enough to stand on a chair and fasten you up the back, I wouldn't say a word against it. But of all things that rack your nerves and spoil your temper, twisting and squirming and trying to reach three or four buttons, first from above and then from below, is certainly the limit. And putting a shawl over your shoulders on a hot day and going to find some neighbor to do it for you, ain't a great deal better."
"But this is going to be my Sunday dress," said the six-months bride, whose color had increased appreciably during the course of Persis' remarks. "And Will is always home for Sunday."
"Well, if you feel like taking the risk, Mis' Thompson, I haven't a word to say. But when a man's home for a Sunday rest, he generally wants a rest, and dresses that button up the back don't seem to fit in with the idea. Human nature can't stand only just so much and man nature considerable less."
An undecided murmur escaped the lips of young Mrs. Thompson.
"I had a customer," continued Persis, recklessly filling her mouth with pins, "who gave up a good position as cashier in a city glove store, to keep house for her brother when his wife died. She was always telling me how grateful he was. Seemed like he couldn't do enough for her. She used to say it 'most made her uncomfortable to see that man racking his brains to find some way of showing her how he appreciated what she'd done for him. Please walk to the end of the room, Mis' Thompson, slow and graceful, till I see how that skirt hangs. Just a trifle long on the seam. I thought so.
"Well, I made her a princess dress; gray it was and very stylish. It hooked down the back, and then there was a drapery effect that hooked up the side and across the shoulder. I wouldn't dare say how many cards of hooks and eyes I used on that dress. I did ask her once how she'd get into it, and she said that her brother, what with having been married and all, was as handy as a woman at such things.
"I sent it home of a Saturday, and I didn't see her for two weeks. Then she brought it in and she was crying. She wanted me to fix it some way so that she could get into it by herself. Easier said than done, you can believe. She'd worn it twice, and both times they'd had words, and some of 'em were swear words, too. Well, I did the best I could by the dress, but it was too late to save the day. You see she'd taken such comfort in thinking how grateful he was, that she hadn't minded what she'd given up herself, but after that, things was different. She went back to the city in less than a year. I think she's a cashier in some restaurant. She couldn't get her old place in the glove store."
Young Mrs. Thompson had a bright idea. "Couldn't you put a row of buttons down the back, just for looks, and then hook it under the lace, same as you said?"
"Easiest thing in the world," Persis assured her. The domestic peace of the Thompson family was preserved for the time being, though neither woman guessed for how brief a period.
Annabel Sinclair was thoroughly out of temper when the time for her fitting came, though she paid Persis the compliment of making a whole-hearted effort to conceal her feelings. Persis Dale was one of the few of whom Annabel stood in awe. Behind her back she frequently referred to the dressmaker as an "interfering old maid," but in Persis' presence she paid reluctant tribute to the dominating personality. When very angry, Annabel indulged in whatever brutalities of plain speech were suggested by a somewhat limited imagination, but her habitual weapon was innuendo. She shrank from Persis' bluntness as a dog cringes away from a whip.
When young Mrs. Thompson had hurried off to the brand-new cottage on the hill, Annabel concealed her annoyance under a smile, inquired after Joel's health and yielded to Persis' opinion with flattering deference. But Persis' mood was not merciful.
"How your Diantha is growing, Mis' Sinclair. She must have left you way behind before this."
Annabel winced. She had long been in the habit of referring to Diantha as "my little girl." Of late she had fancied that her listeners looked amused at her choice of a qualifying adjective.
"It's such a pity," she answered in her softest voice, "for a child to grow that way. People expect so much more of tall children."
"Well, girls often get their growth by the time they're Diantha's age. Let's see. She must be six—"
"I believe that seam twists," Annabel exclaimed. She chose her criticism at random with the sole purpose of distracting Persis' attention before the obnoxious word should be spoken. Yet it was true that she had been married eighteen years. In another seven she would be able to celebrate her silver wedding, an anniversary she had always associated with old age. The horror of the situation was not lessened by its grotesqueness.
"The worst of it is that everybody in this dreadful little town knows all about it," she thought with a sense of panic. "People haven't anything to do but remember dates." She wondered if she could prevail upon her husband to go west, leaving Diantha in school somewhere. Then she could say what she chose of her "little girl" without appealing to the risibilities of her audience.
Persis, distracted for a moment by the false alarm of a twisting seam, soon returned to her guns. With a skill Annabel was forced to admire, she veiled her cruelty in compliment.
"Diantha is a pretty girl. Pretty and clever with her tongue. An apple's got to have flavor as well as a rosy skin. There'll be lively times at your place before long. It'll make you and Mr. Sinclair feel young again to have courting going on in the house."
If murderous thoughts were as potent as daggers, Persis would never have fitted another gown. Annabel was reaching the point where self-control was difficult. Young again! Again! Even her reflection in the mirror and the knowledge that the new dress was becoming, failed to restore her equanimity.
Yet in the end it was Annabel who scored. For when at length she crossed Persis' threshold, a young man happened to be passing. A ravishing smile banished Annabel's look of sullen resentment. Her white-gloved hand fluttered in greeting.
The young fellow swung upon his heel, his boyish face flushing in undisguised rapture. He waited till Annabel reached the sidewalk, took the pink-lined parasol from her hand with an air of proud possession, and the two walked away together.
From the window Persis looked grimly after them. "Make the most of this chance," she apostrophized the pair. "I'm getting ready to take your case in hand."
THE WOMAN'S CLUB
Persis Dale was under no misapprehension, regarding her standing in the community. She fully appreciated the fact that she was a pillar of Clematis society and would have accepted as her due the complimentary implication of Mrs. Warren's post-card, even if its duplicates had not offered a similar tribute to at least thirty of her acquaintances. The invitations were all written in Mrs. Warren's near-Spencerian hand, the t's expanding blottily at the tips, the curves of the capitals suggesting in their sudden murky expansion, the Mississippi River after its union with the muddy Missouri.
"As one of the representative women of Clematis, you are invited to attend a meeting at the home of Mrs. Sophia Warren, Saturday the 12th inst. at 2 P. M. Object of meeting, the organization of a Woman's Club for the purpose of expanding the horizon of the individual members and uplifting the community as a whole. Please be prompt."
The arrival of the postman while Persis was busy with a fitting, gave Joel time to examine the mail and frame a withering denunciation of Mrs. Warren's plan. He sprung the same upon his sister with pyrotechnic effect a little later.
"A woman's club! Clematis is getting on. Pretty soon the women'll be smoking cigarettes and wanting to run for mayor and letting their own rightful sphere go to the everlasting bow-wows. Expand their horizons! What's the good of a horizon to a woman who's got a house to look after, and a man around to do her thinking for her? If women folks nowadays worked as hard as their grandmothers did, we wouldn't hear any of this nonsense about clubs. As good old Doctor Watts says:
"'For Satan finds some mischief still For idle hands to do.'"
Persis, arranging a cascade of lace, over the voluptuous bosom of her adjustable bust-form, stood back to get the effect. "Maybe you're right, Joel," she acknowledged placidly, "but I'm going to that meeting at Sophia Warren's Saturday if I have to sew all Friday night to get my week's work out of the way."
In the face of masculine scoffs, which sometimes, as in Joel's case, became denunciatory rather than humorous, about twenty of the representative thirty Mrs. Warren had called from her list of acquaintances, accepted the invitation and were on hand at the hour designated. The opposition of sundry husbands and fathers, as well as of those unattached males who disapproved of women's clubs on general principles, had lent to the project the seductive flavor of forbidden fruit. The women who donned their Sunday best that Saturday afternoon had an exhilarating sense of adventure. Even Annabel Sinclair, invariably bored by the society of her own sex, made her appearance with the others and from her post of observation in the corner, noted the effect of lavender on Gladys Wells' complexion, and wondered why Thad West's mother didn't try anti-fat.
As the clock struck two, Mrs. Warren rose with a Jack-in-the-box effect from behind the table where she had ensconced herself after welcoming the last arrival. Mrs. Warren had taught school before her marriage and under the stimulus of her present responsibility, her voice and manner reverted to their earlier pedagogical precision. As she rapped the assembly to order, she had every appearance of a teacher calling on the A-class to recite.
"Ladies, I am glad to see so many of you punctual. Miss Persis Dale has sent word that she will be detained for a little by the pressure of Saturday's work, but that she will join us later, and undoubtedly other tardy arrivals will have excuses equally good. And now, ladies, the first business of the afternoon will be the election of a chairman."
"Oh, you've got to be chairman," observed Mrs. West conversationally from the largest armchair. "None of the rest of us know enough." Corroborative nods and murmurs approved the suggestion, and Mrs. Warren acknowledged the compliment by a prim little bow.
"Do I understand you to make this in the form of a motion, Mrs. West?"
"Why, ye-es, I s'pose so," returned Mrs. West, visibly startled by the suggestion that she had performed that feat without a realizing sense of its momentous character.
"Is there a second to this motion?"
The chilling silence, which the first hint of parliamentary procedure imposes on the most voluble gathering, unaccustomed to its technicalities, was broken at length, by the voice of Susan Fitzgerald, who said faintly, "I do," and blushed to the roots of her hair.
"You have heard the motion, ladies. All in favor signify it, by saying aye."
Twenty voices in unison gave an effect at once businesslike and harmonious; and the representative women of Clematis looked vaguely pleased to find their end so easily attained.
"Contrary-minded, the same sign." A breathless pause while the assembly waited for the daring opposition to manifest itself. "The motion appears to be carried, carried unanimously, ladies. I thank you for your confidence. We shall now proceed to consider the best method of organizing ourselves so as to expand the horizon of the individual members"—Mrs. Warren was quoting, unabashed, from her own post-card—"in addition to uplifting the community as a whole."
The chairman went into temporary eclipse by taking her seat, and the gathering no longer frozen into speechlessness by the realization that there was a motion before the house, rippled out in brook-like fluency.
"I think a card club would be just too grand for anything," gushed Gladys Wells with an effect of girlishness, quite misleading. "My cousin in Springfield belongs to a card club, and they have just the grandest times. Everybody pays ten cents each meeting, and that goes for the prize. My cousin won a perfectly grand cut-glass butter dish."
"I don't see how parlor gambling would help uplift the community," commented Mrs. Richards coldly from the opposite side of the room.
The seemingly inevitable clash was averted by Susan Fitzgerald, who rose and addressed the chair, a feat of such reckless daring as to reduce the assembly to instant dumbness.
"Mrs. President, I think a suffrage club is what we need in Clematis 'most of anything. We women have submitted to being downtrodden long enough, and the only way for us to force men to give us our rights is to organize and stand shoulder to shoulder. It's time for us to arise—to arise in our might and defy the oppressor."
Susan subsided, mopping her moist forehead as if her oratorical effort had occupied an hour, rather than a trifle over thirty seconds. Gradually the meeting recovered from its temporary paralysis.
"If it's going to be that sort of a club, I'm sure Robert wouldn't approve of my having anything to do with it," Mrs. Hornblower remarked with great distinctness, though apparently addressing her remarks to her right-hand neighbor. "Robert isn't what you'd call a tyrant, but he believes that a man ought to be master in his own house. If he thought there was any danger of my getting interested in such subjects, he'd put his foot right down and that would be the end of it."
The ghost of a titter swept over the gathering. Mrs. Hornblower, though fond of flaunting her wifely subjection in the faces of her acquaintances, never failed to get her own way in any domestic crisis where she had taken the trouble to form a preference. And on the other hand, poor Susan Fitzgerald, for all her blustering defiance of the tyrant sex, could in reality be overawed and browbeaten by any male not yet out of kilts. Before the phantom-like laughter had quite died away, Mrs. Hornblower added majestically: "But I don't want my opinions to count too much either way as I may be leaving Clematis before long."
The expansion of the horizon of the representative women of Clematis, with the incidental uplift of the community, was immediately relegated to the background of interest. "Leaving Clematis!" exclaimed a dozen voices, the accent of shocked protest easily perceptible above mere surprise and curiosity.
Mrs. Hornblower, in her evident enjoyment of the sensation of which she was the center, was in no hurry to explain.
"We're thinking of selling the farm and investing in an apple orchard," she announced at length. "Robert's worked hard all his life, and we think it's about time he began to take things easy. The comp'ny undertakes to do all the work of taking care of the orchard and marketing the fruit for a quarter of our net profits, and that'll leave me and Robert free to travel 'round and enjoy ourselves. We're looking over plans now for our villa."
Even Annabel Sinclair straightened herself suddenly, galvanized into closer attention by that magic word.
"I've heard tell that there was lots of money in apples," exclaimed Mrs. West. "But I didn't s'pose there was enough so that folks wouldn't need to do any work to get it out."
"You see, people in general don't appreciate what science and system can do," patronizingly explained Mrs. Hornblower. "If you'd read some of the literature the Apple of Eden Investment Comp'ny sends us, it would be an eye-opener."
"Ladies, ladies!" expostulated the chairman, "we are forgetting the object of our meeting." Then temporarily setting aside her official duties in favor of her responsibility as hostess, she hurried forward to greet a new arrival. "So glad to see you, Mrs. Leveridge. But I'm sorry you couldn't persuade young Mrs. Thompson to accompany you."
"She'd agreed to come," replied Mrs. Leveridge, loosening her bonnet-strings and sighing. "But at the last minute she found it wasn't possible."
The room rustled expectantly. There is always a chance that the reason for a bride's regrets may be of interest.
"Nothing serious, I hope," said Mrs. West insinuatingly.
Mrs. Leveridge's sigh was provocative of further questions.
"Well, no, and then again, yes. It isn't anything like a death in the family. But you don't have to live long to find out that death ain't the worst thing."
"My goodness, Minerva," exclaimed Susan Fitzgerald, aghast. "What's happened?"
Mrs. Leveridge's deliberative gaze swept the silently expectant company.
"Of course, I wouldn't repeat it everywhere. But I'm sure anything I say won't go a step further."
Twenty voices replied, "Of course not," with a unanimity which gave it the effect of a congregational response in the litany.
Mrs. Leveridge, having made terms with her conscience, from all appearances rather enjoyed the responsibility of enlightening her audience, "It's her husband."
"Her husband!" cried Susan Fitzgerald protestingly; "why, she hasn't been married six months."
Mrs. Leveridge's smile showed more than a tinge of patronage.
"If you'd ever been married yourself, Susan, you'd know that six months was enough, quite enough. If he's that kind of a man, six weeks is about as long as he can keep on his good behavior."
"He hasn't been beating her, has he?" asked Mrs. Hornblower, her voice dropping to a thrilled whisper.
"No, I'd call it worse than that, myself. You see when I stopped for Mis' Thompson, on my way here, I found her crying and taking on something terrible. She had a letter in her hand, and of course I s'posed it had brought some bad news that was working her up, and I begged her to tell me about it so's to ease her mind, you understand.
"Well, she kept on moaning and crying, and at last it all came out. It seems that when she went to the closet to get down her jacket, a coat of her husband's fell off the hanger. The pockets was stuffed with letters, the shiftless way men-folks have, and they went sprawling all over the floor. She picked up this among the rest. It was addressed to W. Thompson, at some hotel in Cleveland, and it had been forwarded to the city office of his firm. And seeing it was a dashing sort of writing that stretched clear across the envelope, and didn't look a mite like business, she was curious to know what it was about."
"Now, don't tell me there was anything bad in that letter," implored Mrs. West. "I always thought young Mr. Thompson had such a nice face."
"Well, if handsome is that handsome does, he hasn't any more looks to boast of than a striped snake. It was a letter from a girl, a regular love-letter from start to finish. It opened up with 'Tommy Darling.'"
"But young Mr. Thompson's name is Wilbur," somebody objected.
"I guess the Tommy was pet for Thompson. The envelope was directed to W. Thompson and you can't squeeze a Tommy out of a W. no matter how hard you try. The girl, whoever she is, has gone into it with her eyes open. Two or three times she dropped little hints about his wife. Didn't say wife right out, you know. It was kind of veiled, but you couldn't help understanding."
"Was there any name signed?" asked Annabel Sinclair, opening her lips for the first time that afternoon. She herself had long before realized the unadvisability of signing one's name to one's epistolary efforts.
"'Twas just signed 'Enid.' There was a monogram on the paper, but I couldn't make it out. Seems as if you could find 'most any letter in a monogram. The paper was nice and heavy and all scented up. Poor Mis' Thompson!"
"She ought to leave him," exploded Susan Fitzgerald. "And I shouldn't blame her a mite if she poisoned his coffee first. If women could vote, they'd send a man like that to the gallows."
Mrs. West championed the absent sex. "In a case of that sort, Susan, you can't put all the blame off on to the man. There's a woman in it, too, every time, and the one's as deep in the mud as the other is in the mire. And like as not," continued Mrs. West, a tell-tale tension in her voice, "he was a nice, clean-minded young man when she came along, making eyes at him, like a snake charming a sparrow. I'm not crazy about voting, but if I had the ballot, I'd vote for locking up those kind of women and keeping every last one of 'em at hard labor for the term of their natural lives."
The moment was electric, and Mrs. Warren hastily proffered her services as a lightning-rod. "Is she going to leave him, do you think?"
"Well, I guess she's got a crazy notion in her head that maybe he can explain. I tried to talk her out of that idea. As I said to her, a man capable of anything of that sort won't stop at lying out of it. And I should judge," concluded Mrs. Leveridge, "that that young Mr. Thompson would be capable of a real convincing lie. He don't look wicked, but he does look smart."
The outer door opened and closed with an impetus just short of a slam, irresistibly suggestive in some obscure fashion, of the entrance of ardent youth. "I didn't think 'twas worth while to ring," explained Persis Dale, nodding to the right and left as she advanced to greet her hostess. "Sorry to be so late. I guess you've got everything pretty nearly settled by now." She bowed rather stiffly to Annabel Sinclair, sitting silent in her corner, and acknowledged with reluctant admiration that the woman certainly was a credit to her dressmaker.
A guilty constraint settled upon the gathering so fluent a moment before, and psychologically considered, there was food for reflection in the sudden embarrassed silence. These good women were far from being vulgar gossips with one or two possible exceptions. They were shocked at this unanticipated revelation of human perfidy. The young wife, humiliated and heart-broken before the morning glow of romance had faded from her marriage, had their profoundest sympathy. Yet when the curtain rises on a human drama, however tragic its development, the little thrill that runs over the audience is not altogether unpleasant. Regrettable as it is that Othello should smother his wife, there seems a certain gratification in making ourselves familiar with the details of the operation. It was the consciousness of this unacknowledged satisfaction which rendered Mrs. Warren's guests abashed at Persis' advent, like children discovered in some forbidden pastime. They avoided one another's eyes, assuming an expression of grave absorption, whose obvious implication was that the uplifting of the community was the matter most in their thought.
With all her interest in other people's affairs, the personality of Persis Dale was as a killing frost to many a flourishing scandal. She had a readiness to believe the best, a reluctance to condemn her fellow men on anything short of convincing proof, fatal to calumny. Although perhaps justified in thinking the worst of young Mr. Thompson, no one present felt disposed to enlighten Persis as to the character of the discussion which had engrossed a gathering convened for the high moral purposes outlined on Mrs. Warren's post-card.
"I—we—well, we have not reached any conclusion as yet," explained the chairman of the meeting, with a notable accession of color. "Several suggestions have been made, however, and we hope you will have something to add."
Persis would not have been Persis had she failed to have something to suggest. Whether her businesslike methods aided in bringing matters to a focus, or whether the change was due to a conscience-stricken reaction on the part of the representative women of Clematis, it is certain that the deliberations of the body were not again side-tracked by the intrusion of personal matters. The business of the afternoon was transacted with a rapidity putting to shame some more pretentious conventions, the women wisely refusing to be hampered or restricted by the tangles of parliamentary law, in which, as every one knows, much really important legislation is strangled.
When the meeting adjourned at quarter of six, an hour which sent prudent housewives scurrying homeward, Mrs. Sophia Warren was the duly elected president of the Clematis Woman's Club, while Susan Fitzgerald had accepted the duties of secretary of the organization. The members had voted to meet weekly, taking up the study of English literature, and current events, the two subjects to divide the program equally. The club was to hold itself in readiness to grapple with questions of civic improvement, and already a committee had been appointed to arrange for a Harvest Home Festival at the county almshouse for the edification of the inmates. It really began to look as if the horizon of a number of people would be enlarged and the community as a whole uplifted, with or without its consent.
DIANTHA GROWS UP.
Now that Annabel Sinclair had no immediate use for Persis' services, Diantha's wardrobe could receive attention. The girl presented herself at the dressmaker's late one afternoon, her smooth forehead disfigured by an irritated frown, her mouth resolutely unsmiling. Under one arm she carried a roll of cheap white lawn. Annabel frequently commented on the uselessness of buying expensive materials for a girl who grew as rapidly as Diantha, though the reasonableness of this contention was slightly discounted by her recognized ability to demonstrate that the cream of things was invariably her portion, while an all-wise Providence had obviously designed the skimmed milk for the rest of the world.
Her eyes upon the girl's averted face, Persis measured off the coarse stuff, using her arm as a yard-stick. "Hm! Even with skirts as skimpy as they are now, this won't be enough by a yard and a half. Better call it two yards. It's high time your skirts were coming down where they belong. You can't stay a little girl forever."
Some magic had erased the fretful pucker between Diantha's brows. The grim ungirlish compression of her lips softened into angelic mildness. As she turned upon Persis, she looked an older sister of the Sistine cherubs.
"How long—about how long do you think it had better be, Miss Persis?"
"I should say"—Persis looked her over with an impersonal air, lending weight to the resulting judgment—"I should say about to your shoe-tops."
Had she guessed the consequences of such an expression of opinion, she might have modified her verdict or at least held it in reserve. A tempest swept the room. Persis was seized, whirled this way and then that, hugged, kissed, forced to join in a delirious two-step. With scarcely breath to protest, powerless in the grip of the storm she had herself evoked, she finally came to anchor between the secretary and the armchair, Diantha still holding her fast.
"Shoe-tops! You did say shoe-tops, didn't you, darling Miss Persis?"
"Yes, I said shoe-tops, and I'm glad I didn't say a train. A real long dress would have been the death of me, it's more'n likely. For all you're as tall as Jack's bean-stalk, Diantha Sinclair, you're not grown up yet."
Persis freed herself, smiling ruefully as she arranged her disordered hair. The delicious girlishness of the outburst in which she had involuntarily participated had the effect of challenging her own obstinate sense of being on the threshold of things, and making her wonder if perhaps she were not growing old. That the passing shadow on her face failed to attract Diantha's attention was due less to lack of insight than to youth's cheerfully selfish absorption in its own problems. "May I pick out the style from the grown-up part of the fashion books?" was the girl's breathless question.
"It's got to be simple," Persis warned her sternly. Then softening: "But good land! Grandmothers nowadays are wearing simple little girlish things with ribbon bows in the back. Pick out what you want. Everything in this month's book is just about right for sixteen."
As Diantha gave herself to rapturous study of the fashion-plates, Persis studied her. "She's in a fair way to make a beauty. Annabel at her best never held a candle to what this girl is likely to turn out. Annabel's looks are skin deep. Diantha's have top-roots running to her brain and her heart, too. Only she ought to be happier. 'Most any girl face is pretty to look at if it's happy enough, same as 'most any flower is pretty if it grows in the sun."
A harassing reflection troubled Diantha's bliss. "Miss Persis, I haven't got a petticoat that comes below my knees."
"I'll make you a petticoat the same length as the dress. That's always the best way. A skirt that's too long looks as if you wanted to show the lace, and one's that too short looks as if you were trying to save on cotton cloth, and I don't know which is worse." To herself Persis added: "If she went home and asked her mother for a long petticoat, the fat would all be in the fire."
For a woman at least as conscientious as the average of her sex, Persis was singularly unmindful of the enormity of encouraging a daughter to act in defiance of her mother's wishes. Had she been called upon to defend herself, she might have explained that she had small respect for the authority of a motherhood which had never progressed beyond the physical relationship. Annabel, a reluctant mother in the beginning, had been consistently selfish ever since, and Persis gave scant recognition to parental rights that were not the out-growth of parental love. Moreover, the project she had in mind was of too complex importance for her to allow it to be side-tracked by petty scruples.
"Like enough she'll refuse to pay my bill," thought Persis, with a grim smile, as she watched Diantha turning the gaily colored plates like a butterfly fluttering from blossom to blossom. "I guess she won't go as far as that though, as long as there ain't another dressmaker in Clematis she'd trust to make her a kimono. If she says anything, that'll pave the way for me to give her a good plain talking to, and even if I never get a cent for the dress, I might as well give my missionary money that way as any other."
The rush of the season—Clematis is sufficiently sophisticated to know in what months propriety demands overworking one's dressmaker and milliner—was already over, and the little frock made rapid progress. Cheap and plain and simple as it was, its effect upon the wearer, even in its stages of incompleteness, was so striking that Persis sometimes forgot her official duty in the satisfaction of a long admiring stare. And probably in her sixteen years of existence, Diantha had never so nearly approximated all the cardinal virtues as in that idyllic week. She besieged Persis with offers of assistance, pleading for permission to pull basting threads or overcast seams. At home she was gentle, yielding, subdued. Her father, having learned through bitter experience how open to the attack of a million miseries love makes the heart, had resolved that fate should not again trick him. He had steeled himself against the appeal of Diantha's babyhood and had watched unmoved her precocious development. The mocking politeness which characterized his manner toward his wife was replaced in the case of the daughter by a distant formality. Yet now as Diantha went about the house with dreamy eyes and a half smile on her lips, there were times when the father looked at her almost wistfully and wondered of what she were thinking. With all due respect to the human will, we must acknowledge ourselves creatures of circumstance in no little degree, when two yards of lawn, retailing at twelve and a half cents, can prove so potent a factor in character and destiny.
Diantha's mother might have prescribed quinine had she noted anything unusual in the girl's demeanor. But Annabel had reached a crucial stage in her flirtation with Thad West. The boy was developing a gratifying jealousy of the tenor singer in the Unitarian church choir and must be treated with a nice commingling of indulgence and severity to prevent his asserting himself in the crude masculine fashion, and either terminating the intimacy or else permanently getting the upper hand. Annabel was enjoying the crisis of the game and found it impossible to spare from her own absorbing interests a thought for such a minor consideration as Diantha's moods.
Diantha anticipated the time when she was to call for her finished frock by more than an hour. "I know you're not ready yet," she apologized, as Persis looked at the clock. "But I thought I'd like to watch you work, if you don't mind."
"Of course I don't mind, child. Just put those fashion books on the table and take the easy chair." Persis bent over the finishings of the little frock with a vague satisfaction in the nearness of the motionless figure. She was growing fond of Diantha, a not unnatural result of the adoring attention Diantha had lavished upon her for a week past. But because Persis was a woman with a living to make, and Diantha was a girl with a dream to be dreamed, scarcely a word was spoken till the last stitch was taken.
"There!" Persis removed a basting thread with a jerk, making an unsuccessful pretense that the finishing of this dress was like the completion of any other piece of work. "There! It's done at last. I suppose you'll want to try it on."
"Yes," said Diantha, "I'll try it on." And as the faded blue serge slipped from her shoulders to be replaced by the white lawn, the Diantha who had been, took her departure to that remote country from which the children never come back.
Persis was almost appalled by the result for which she was principally responsible. The tall Diantha in a dress to her shoe-tops was disconcertingly unlike the little girl she had known. She looked older than her years, stately, self-contained and beautiful. It was not till Persis had fortified herself by the reflection that she might as well be hung for an old sheep as for a lamb, that she ventured another revolutionary suggestion.
"Diantha, I s'pose you'll make some change in the way you do your hair?"
"Yes, indeed." Diantha, scrutinizing herself in the mirror, frowned at the drooping curls with an air of restrained disgust. "This way is only suitable for children."
Persis' negligent gesture called attention to the open door of the bedroom. "There's a box of hairpins on the dresser. If you like, you can fix yourself up and surprise your mother."
Diantha vanished swiftly. She had no illusions regarding the nature of the coming surprise. Her mother would be very angry, but the sooner that storm had spent itself, the better. Relentlessly the golden curls were sacrificed to the impressive coiffure of the woman of fashion. For a novice Diantha was remarkably deft, her skill suggesting periods of anticipatory practise with her door locked and no eyes but her own to admire the effect.
During the progress of this rite, Persis in the adjoining room, looked at the clock, glanced at the window and then paced the floor, for once in her well-disciplined life too nervous to utilize the flying moments. Persis was in the dilemma of a stage manager whose curtain is ready to go up, and whose prima donna is about to appear, while the audience has failed to materialize. To such mischances does one subject one's self in assuming the responsibilities of a deputy-providence.
Then her brow cleared, even while her heart jumped into her throat. The gate clicked, and a lithe figure swung up the path. Persis took her time in answering the peremptory knock.