THE HOUSE OF MARTHA
FRANK R. STOCKTON
Boston and New York Houghton, Mifflin and Company The Riverside Press, Cambridge 1891 Copyright, 1891, By Frank B. Stockton. All rights reserved. The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Mass., U. S. A. Electrotyped and Printed by H. O. Houghton & Co.
I. My Grandmother and I
II. Relating to my Year in Europe
III. The Modern Use of the Human Ear
IV. I obtain a Listener
V. Chester Walkirk
VI. My Under-Study
VII. My Book
VIII. The Malarial Adjunct
IX. Walkirk's Idea
X. The Plan of Seclusion
XI. My Nun
XIII. My Friend Vespa
XIV. I favor Permanency in Office
XV. How we went back to Genoa
XVI. I run upon a Sandbar
XVII. Regarding the Elucidation of National Characteristics
XVIII. An Illegible Word
XIX. Gray Ice
XX. Tomaso and I
XXI. Lucilla and I
XXII. I close my Book
XXIII. Racket Island
XXIV. The Interpolation
XXV. About Sylvia
XXVI. Mother Anastasia
XXVII. A Person
XXVIII. The Floating Grocery
XXX. A Discovery
XXXI. Taking up Unfinished Work
XXXII. Tomaso and Lucilla
XXXIII. The Distant Topsail
XXXIV. The Central Hotel
XXXV. Money makes the Mare go
XXXVI. In the Shade of the Oak
XXXVII. The Performance of my Under-Study
XXXVIII. A Broken Trace
XXXIX. A Soul Whisper?
XL. An Inspiration
XLI. Miss Laniston
XLII. The Mother Superior
XLIII. Was his Heart true to Poll?
XLIV. Preliminary Brotherhood
XLV. I make Coffee and get into Hot Water
XLVI. Going back for a Friend
XLVII. I interest Miss Laniston
XLVIII. In a Cold, Bare Room
XLIX. My Own Way
L. My Book of Travel
LI. A Loose End
LII. I finish the Sicilian Love-Story
THE HOUSE OF MARTHA.
MY GRANDMOTHER AND I.
My grandmother sat in her own particular easy-chair by the open window of her back parlor. This was a pleasant place in which to sit in the afternoon, for the sun was then on the other side of the house, and she could look not only over the smooth grass of the side yard and the flower beds, which were under her especial care, but across the corner of the front lawn into the village street. Here, between two handsome maple-trees which stood upon the sidewalk, she could see something of what was going on in the outer world without presenting the appearance of one who is fond of watching her neighbors. It was not much that she saw, for the street was a quiet one; but a very little of that sort of thing satisfied her.
She was a woman who was easily satisfied. As a proof of this, I may say that she looked upon me as a man who always did what was right. Indeed, I am quite sure there were cases when she saved herself a good deal of perplexing cogitation by assuming that a thing was right because I did it. I was her only grandchild: my father and mother had died when I was very young, and I had always lived with her,—that is, her house had always been my home; and as I am sure there had never been any reason why I should not be a dutiful and affectionate grandson, it was not surprising that she looked upon me with a certain tender partiality, and that she considered me worthy of all the good that she or fortune could bestow upon me.
My grandmother was nearly seventy, but her physical powers had been excellently well preserved; and as to her mental vigor, I could see no change in it. Even when a little boy I had admired her powers of sympathetic consideration, by which she divined the needs and desires of her fellow-creatures; and now that I had become a grown man I found those powers as active and ready as they had ever been.
The village in which we lived contained a goodly number of families of high standing and comfortable fortune. It was a village of well-kept and well-shaded streets, of close-cut grass, with no litter on the sidewalks. Our house was one of the best in the place, and since I had come of age I had greatly improved it. I had a fair inheritance from my mother, and this my grandmother desired me to expend without reference to what I was receiving and would receive from her. To her son's son would come ultimately everything that she possessed.
Being thus able to carry out my ideas concerning the comfort and convenience of a bachelor, I had built a wing to my grandmother's house, which was occupied only by myself. It communicated by several doors with the main building, and these doors were nearly always open; but it was satisfactory to me to think that if I chose I might shut and lock them, and thus give my apartment the advantages of a separate house. The ground floor of my establishment consisted of a large and handsome library and study, with a good-sized anteroom opening from it, and above were my sleeping and dressing rooms. With the exception of the time devoted to reading, reflection, and repose, I lived with my grandmother.
Neither of us, however, confined ourself to this village life. The winters my grandmother generally spent with a married sister in a neighboring city, and I was accustomed to visit and journey whenever it pleased me. Recently I had spent a year in Europe, and on my return I joined my grandmother for a while, before going to our village home.
RELATING TO MY YEAR IN EUROPE.
I do not suppose that any one ever enjoyed travel and residence in England and on the Continent more than I did; but I do not now intend to give any account of my experiences, nor of the effect they had upon me, save in one regard. I had traveled and lived for the most part alone, and one of the greatest pleasures connected with my life in Europe was the anticipation of telling my friends who had never crossed the ocean what I had seen, heard, and done.
But when I returned to America I met with a great disappointment: my glowing anticipations were not realized. I could find scarcely any one who cared to know what I had seen, heard, or done.
At this I was as much surprised as disappointed. I believed that I possessed fair powers of description and narration, and many of my traveling experiences were out of the common. In fact, I had endeavored to see things the ordinary traveler does not see, and to do things which he seldom does. I found, however, that my unusual experiences were of no advantage to me in making people desirous to hear accounts of my travels. I might as well have joined a party of personally conducted tourists.
My friends and acquaintances in town were all glad to see me, not that they might hear what had happened to me, but that they might tell me what had happened to them. This disposition sometimes threw me into a state of absolute amazement. I could not comprehend, for instance, why Mrs. Gormer, who had known me for years, and who I thought would take such an active interest in everything that concerned me, should dismiss my European tour with a few remarks in regard to my health in the countries I had passed through, and then begin an animated account of the troubles she had had since I had been away: how the house she had been living in had had two feet of water in the cellar for weeks at a time, and how nobody could find out whether it was caused by a spring in the ground or the bursting of an unknown water-pipe,—but no matter what it was, they couldn't stay there; and what a dreadful time they had in finding another house; and how the day appointed for Jennie's wedding coming directly in the middle of the moving, it had to be postponed, for she declared she would never be married anywhere but at home; and how several of Mr. Barclay's relations came down from New Hampshire on purpose to be at the wedding, and had to stay either at hotels or with friends, for it was more than a week before her house could be made ready for the wedding. She then remarked that of course I had heard of the shameful way in which John had been treated in regard to that position in the Treasury department at Washington; and as I had not heard she went on and told me about it, until it was time for me to go.
At my club, some of the men did not know that I had been away, but there were others who were very glad to hear that I had been in Europe, because it gave them an opportunity to tell me about that very exciting election of Brubaker, a man of whom I had never heard, who had been proposed by Shuster, with whom I was not acquainted, and seconded by Cushman, whom I did not know. I found no one desirous of hearing me talk about my travels, and those who were willing to do so were satisfied with a very few general points. Sometimes I could not but admire the facility and skill with which some of the people who stay at home were able to defend themselves against the attempted loquacity of the returned traveler.
Occasionally, in social gatherings, I met with some one, generally a lady, who did take an interest in hearing that I had been in such or such a place; but this was always some place in which she had been, and, after comparing experiences, she would go on to tell of things which she had seen and done, and often ended by making me feel very sorry for having neglected my opportunities.
"Yes," said one, "it must have been cold on the top of that lonely mountain, with nothing to warm you but those plump little wolves, and the constant fear that their mother might come back; but you ought to have been here during the blizzard." And then she went on with a full history of the great blizzard.
Everywhere I was met by that blizzard. Those people who had not moved, or who had not had a puzzling disease in the family, or who had not been instrumental in founding a free kindergarten, could always fall back on the blizzard. I heard how their fathers could not get home on the train, of the awful prices the people charged for clearing away the snow, of the way in which Jane and Adelaide had to get on without music lessons for nearly ten days, and of the scarcity of milk. No one who had seen and felt that irrepressible storm suffered from it as I did. It chilled the aspirations of my soul, it froze the unspoken words of my mouth, it overwhelmed and buried every rising hope of speech, and smothered and sometimes nearly obliterated my most interesting recollection. Many a time I have mentally sent that blizzard to regions where its icy blasts would have melted as in a hot simoom.
I truly believed that in our village I should find sensible people who would be glad to hear about interesting things which they never had seen. Many of them had not traveled, and a returned tourist was a comparative rarity in the place. I went down there on purpose to talk about Europe. It was too early for my grandmother's return to the country. I proposed to spend a week with my village friends, and, before their bright firesides, charm and delight them with accounts of those things which had so charmed and delighted me. The lives of city people are so filled with every sort of material that it is useless to try to crowd anything more into them. Here, however, were people with excellent intellects, whose craving for mental pabulum, especially in the winter, could be but partially satisfied.
But bless me! I never heard of such an over-stock of mental pabulum as I found there. It was poured upon me by every one with whom I tried to converse. I was frequently permitted to begin statements which I believed must win their way, if they were allowed a fair start; but very soon something I said was sure to suggest something which had occurred in the village, and before I could brace myself the torrent would burst upon me. Never did I hear, in the same space of time, so much about things which had happened as I then heard from my village neighbors. It was not that so much had occurred, but that so much was said about what had occurred. It was plain there was no hope for me here, and after three days I went back to town.
Now it was early summer, and my grandmother and I were again in our dear home in the village. As I have said, she was sitting by the open window, where she could look out upon the flowers, the grass, and a little of the life of her neighbors. I sat near her, and had been telling her of my three days in the Forest of Arden, and of the veritable Jaques whom I met there, when she remarked:—
"That must have been extremely interesting; and, speaking of the woods, I wish you would say to Thomas that so soon as he can find time I want him to bring up some of that rich wood-soil and put it around those geraniums."
This was the first time my grandmother had interjected any remark into my recitals. She had often asked me to tell her about my travels, and on every other occasion she had listened until she softly fell asleep. I now remembered having heard her say that it interfered with her night's rest to sleep in the daytime. Perhaps her present interruption was intended as a gentle rebuke, and no other kind of rebuke had ever come to me from my grandmother.
I went out to find Thomas, oppressed by a mild despair. If I were to tell my tales to a stone, I thought, it would turn on me with a sermon.
THE MODERN USE OF THE HUMAN EAR.
During my lonely walks and rides through the country about our village, I began to cogitate and philosophize upon the present social value of the human ear. Why do people in society and in domestic circles have ears? I asked myself. They do not use them to listen to one another. And then I thought and pondered further, and suddenly the truth came to me: the ears of the present generation are not purveyors to the mind; they are merely agents of the tongue, who watch for breaks or weak places in the speech of others, in order that their principal may rush in and hold the field. They are jackals, who scent out a timid pause or an unsuspecting silence which the lion tongue straightway destroys. Very forcibly the conviction came to me that nowadays we listen only for an opportunity to speak.
I was grieved that true listening had become a lost art; for without it worthy speech is impossible. To good listening is due a great part of the noble thought, the golden instruction, and the brilliant wit which has elevated, enlightened, and brightened the soul of man. There are fine minds whose workings are never expressed in writing; and even among those who, in print, spread their ideas before the world there is a certain cream of thought which is given only to listeners, if, happily, there be such.
Modern conversation has degenerated into the Italian game of moccoletto, in which every one endeavors to blow out the candles of the others, and keep his own alight. In such rude play there is no illumination. "There should be a reform," I declared. "There should be schools of listening. Here men and women should be taught how, with sympathetic and delicate art, to draw from others the useful and sometimes precious speech which, without their skillful cooeperation, might never know existence. To be willing to receive in order that good may be given should be one of the highest aims of life.
"Not only should we learn to listen in order to give opportunity for the profitable speech of others, but we should do so out of charity and good will to our fellow-men. How many weary sick-beds, how many cheerless lives, how many lonely, depressed, and silent men and women, might be gladdened, and for the time transformed, by one who would come, not to speak words of cheer and comfort, but to listen to tales of suffering and trial! Here would be one of the truest forms of charity; an almost unknown joy would be given to the world.
"There should be brotherhoods and sisterhoods of listeners; like good angels, they should go out among those unfortunates who have none to hear that which it would give them so much delight to say."
But alas! I knew of no such good angels. Must that which I had to tell remain forever untold for the want of one? This could not be; there must exist somewhere a man or a woman who would be willing to hear my accounts of travels and experiences which, in an exceptionable degree, were interesting and valuable.
I determined to advertise for a listener.
I OBTAIN A LISTENER.
The writing of my advertisement cost me a great deal of trouble. At first I thought of stating that I desired a respectable and intelligent person, who would devote a few hours each day to the services of a literary man; but on reflection I saw that this would bring me a vast number of answers from persons who were willing to act as secretaries, proof-readers, or anything of the sort, and I should have no means of finding out from their letters whether they were good listeners or not.
Therefore I determined to be very straightforward and definite, and to state plainly what it was I wanted. The following is the advertisement which I caused to be inserted in several of the city papers:—
"Wanted.—A respectable and intelligent person, willing to devote several hours a day to listening to the recitals of a traveler. Address, stating compensation expected, Oral."
I mentioned my purpose to no one, not even to my grandmother, for I should merely make myself the object of the ridicule of my friends, and my dear relative's soul would be filled with grief that she had not been considered competent to do for me so slight a service. If I succeeded in obtaining a listener, he could come to me in my library, where no one would know he was not a stenographer to whom I was dictating literary matter, or a teacher of languages who came to instruct me in Arabic.
I received a dozen or more answers to my advertisement, some of which were very amusing, and others very unsatisfactory. Not one of the writers understood what sort of services I desired, but all expressed their belief that they were fully competent to give them, whatever they might be.
After a good deal of correspondence and some interviewing, I selected at last a person who I believed would prove himself a satisfactory listener. He was an elderly man, of genteel appearance, and apparently of a quiet and accommodating disposition. He assured me that he had once been a merchant, engaged in the importation of gunny-bags, and, having failed in business, had since depended on the occasional assistance given him by a widowed daughter-in-law. This man I engaged, and arranged that he should lodge at the village inn, and come to me every evening.
I was truly delighted that so far I had succeeded in my plan. Now, instead of depending upon the whims, fancies, or occasional good-natured compliance of any one, I was master of the situation. My listener was paid to listen to me, and listen to me he must. If he did not do so intelligently, he should be dismissed. It would be difficult to express fully the delight given me by my new possession,—the ownership of attention.
Every evening my listener came; and during a great part of every day I thought of what I should say to him when he should come. I talked to him with a feeling of freedom and absolute independence which thrilled me like champagne. What mattered it whether my speech interested him or not? He was paid to listen, without regard to interest; more than that, he was paid to show an interest, whether he felt it or not. Whether I bored him or delighted him, it made no difference; in fact, it would be a pleasure to me occasionally to feel that I did bore him. To have the full opportunity and the perfect right to bore a fellow-being is a privilege not lightly to be prized, and an added zest is given to the enjoyment of the borer by the knowledge that the bored one is bound to make it appear that he is not bored.
In an easy-chair opposite to me my listener sat and listened for two hours every evening. I interested myself by watching and attempting to analyze the expressions on his face, but what these appeared to indicate made no difference in my remarks. I do not think he liked repetitions, but if I chose to tell a thing several times, I did so. He had no right to tell me that he had heard that before. Immunity from this remark was to me a rare enjoyment.
I made it a point to talk as well as I could, for I like to hear myself talk well, but I paid no attention to the likings of my listener. Later I should probably do this, but at present it was a joy to trample upon the likings of others. My own likings in this respect had been so often trampled upon that I would not now deny myself the exercise of the right—bought and paid for—to take this sweet revenge.
On the evenings of nine week-days and one Sunday, when I confined myself entirely to a description of a short visit to Palestine, I talked and my listener listened. About the middle of the evening of the tenth week-day, when I was engaged in the expression of some fancies evoked by the recollection of a stroll through the Egyptian department of the Louvre, I looked at my listener, and beheld him asleep.
As I stopped speaking he awoke with a start, and attempted to excuse himself by stating that he had omitted to take coffee with his evening meal. I made no answer, but, opening my pocket-book, paid and discharged him.
It is not my custom to be discouraged by a first failure. I looked over the letters which had been sent to me in answer to my advertisement, and wrote to another of the applicants, who very promptly came to see me.
The appearance of this man somewhat discouraged me. My first thought concerning him was that a man who seemed to be so thoroughly alive was not likely to prove a good listener. But after I had had a talk with him I determined to give him a trial. Of one thing I was satisfied: he would keep awake. He was a man of cheerful aspect; alert in motion, glance, and speech. His age was about forty; he was of medium size, a little inclined to be stout, and his face, upon which he wore no hair, was somewhat ruddy. In dress he was neat and proper, and he had an air of friendly deference, which seemed to me to suit the position I wished him to fill.
He spoke of himself and his qualifications with tact, if not with modesty, and rated very highly his ability to serve me as a listener; but he did so in a manner intended to convince me that he was not boasting, but stating facts which it was necessary I should know. His experience had been varied: he had acted as a tutor, a traveling companion, a confidential clerk, a collector of information for technical writers, and in other capacities requiring facility of adaptation to exigencies. At present he was engaged in making a catalogue for a collector of prints, whose treasures, in the course of years, had increased to such an extent that it was impossible for him to remember what his long rows of portfolios contained. The collector was not willing that work among his engravings should be done by artificial light, and, as the evenings of my visitor were therefore disengaged, he said he should be glad to occupy them in a manner which would not only be profitable to him, but, he was quite sure, would be very interesting.
The man's name was Chester Walkirk, and I engaged him to come to me every evening, as my first listener had done.
I began my discourses with Walkirk with much less confidence and pleasurable anticipation than I had felt with regard to the quiet, unassuming elderly person who had been my first listener, and whom I had supposed to be a very model of receptivity. The new man I feared would demand more,—if not by word, at least by manner. He would be more like an audience; I should find myself striving to please him, and I could not feel careless whether he liked what I said or not.
But by the middle of the first evening all my fears and doubts in regard to Walkirk had disappeared. He proved to be an exceptionally good listener. As I spoke, he heard me with attention and evident interest; and this he showed by occasional remarks, which he took care should never be interruptions. These interpolations were managed with much tact; sometimes they were in the form of questions, which reminded me of something I had intended to say, but had omitted, which led me to speak further upon the subject, perhaps on some other phase of it. Now and then, by the expression on his countenance, or by a word or two, he showed interest, gratification, astonishment, or some other appropriate sentiment.
When I stopped speaking, he would sit quietly and muse upon what I had been saying; or, if he thought me not too deeply absorbed in reflection, would ask a question, or say something relative to the subject in hand, which would give me the opportunity of making some remarks which it gratified me to know that he wanted to hear.
I could not help feeling that I talked better to Walkirk than I had ever done to any one else; and I did not hesitate to admit to myself that this gratifying result was due in great part to his ability as a listener. I do not say that he drew me out, but he gave me opportunities to show myself in the broadest and best lights. This truly might be said to be good listening; it produced good speech.
Day after day I became better and better satisfied with Chester Walkirk, and it is seldom that I have enjoyed myself more than in talking to him. I am sure that it gave me more actual pleasure to tell him what I had seen and what I had done than I had felt in seeing and doing those things. This may appear odd, but it is a fact. I readily revived in myself the emotions that accompanied my experiences, and to these recalled emotions was added the sympathetic interest of another.
In other ways Walkirk won my favor. He was good-natured and intelligent, and showed that he was anxious to please me not only as a listener, but as a companion, or, I might better say, as an associate inmate of my study. What he did not know in this respect he set himself diligently to learn.
In talking about my travels to Chester Walkirk, I continued for a time to treat the subject in the same desultory manner in which I had related my experiences to my first listener; but the superior intelligence, and I may say the superior attention, of Walkirk acted upon me as a restraint as well as an incentive. I made my descriptions as graphic and my statements as accurate as I could, and, stimulated by his occasional questions and remarks, I began to discourse systematically and with a well-considered plan. I went from country to country in the order in which I had traveled through them, and placed my reflections on social, political, or artistic points where they naturally belonged.
It was plain to see that Walkirk's interest and pleasure increased when my rambling narrations resolved themselves into a series of evening lectures upon Great Britain, the Continent, and the north coast of Africa, and his pleasure was a decided gratification to me. If his engagements and mine had permitted, I should have been glad to talk to him at other times, as well as in the evening.
After a month or more of this agreeable occupation, the fact began to impress itself upon me that I was devoting too much time to the pleasure of being listened to. My grandmother gently complained that the time I gave to her after dinner appeared to be growing less and less, and there was a good deal of correspondence and other business I was in the habit of attending to in the evening which now was neglected, or done in the daytime, when I should have been doing other things.
I was not a man of leisure. My grandmother owned a farm about a mile from our village, and over the management of this I exercised a supervision. I was erecting some houses on land of my own on the outskirts of the village, and for this reason, as well as others, it frequently was necessary for me to go to the city on business errands. Besides all this, social duties had a claim on me, summer and winter.
I had gradually formed the habit of talking with Walkirk on other subjects than my travels, and one evening I mentioned to him some of the embarrassments and annoyances to which I had been subjected during the day, on account of the varied character of my affairs. Walkirk sat for a minute or two, his chin in his hand, gazing steadfastly upon the carpet; then he spoke:—
"Mr. Vanderley, what you say suggests something which I have been thinking of saying to you. I have now finished the catalogue of prints, on which I was engaged when I entered your service as a listener; and my days, therefore, being at my disposal, it would give me great pleasure to put them at yours."
"In what capacity?" I asked.
"In that of an under-study," said he.
I assured him that I did not know what he meant.
"I don't wonder at that," said he, with a smile, "but I will explain. In theatrical circles each principal performer is furnished with what is termed in the profession an under-study. This is an actor, male or female, as the case may be, who studies the part of the performer, and is capable of going through with it, with more or less ability, in case the regular actor, from sickness or any other cause, is prevented from appearing in his part. In this way the manager provides against emergencies which might at any time stop his play and ruin his business. Now, I should like very much to be your under-study, and I think in this capacity I could be of great service to you."
I made no answer, but I am sure my countenance expressed surprise.
"I do not mean," he continued, "to propose that I shall act as your agent in the various forms of business which press upon you, but I suggest that you allow me to do for you exactly what the under-study does for the actor; that is, that you let me take your place when it is inconvenient or impossible for you to take it yourself."
"It strikes me," said I, "that, in the management of my affairs, it would be very seldom that you or any one else could take my place."
"Of course," said Walkirk, "under present circumstances that would be impossible; but suppose, for instance, you take me with you to those houses you are building, that you show me what has been done and what you intend to do, and that you let me make myself familiar with the whole plan and manner of the work. This would be easy for me, for I have superintended house-building; and although I am neither a plumber, a mason, a carpenter, a paper-hanger, or a painter, I know how such people should do their work. Therefore, if you should be unable to attend to the matter yourself,—and in such case only,—I could go and see how the work was progressing; and this I could do with regard to your farm, or any other of your business with the details of which you should care to have me make myself familiar,—always remembering that I should not act as your regular agent in any one of these affairs, but as one who, when it is desirable, temporarily takes your place. I think, Mr. Vanderley, that it would be of advantage to you to consider my proposition."
I did consider it, and the next evening I engaged Chester Walkirk as an under-study.
In order to be at hand when I might need him, Walkirk took up his residence at the village tavern, or, as some of us were pleased to call it, the inn. To make him available when occasion should require, I took him with me to the scene of my building operations and to my grandmother's farm, and he there showed the same intelligent interest that he gave to my evening recitals. I had no difficulty in finding occupation for my under-study, and, so far as I could judge, he attended to the business I placed in his hands as well as I could have done it myself; indeed, in some instances, he did it better, for he gave it more time and careful consideration.
In this business of supplying my place in emergencies, Walkirk showed so much ability in promoting my interests that I became greatly pleased with the arrangement I had made with him. It was somewhat surprising to me, and I think to Walkirk, that so many cases arose in which I found it desirable that he should take my place. I was going to look at a horse: some visitors arrived; I sent Walkirk. There was a meeting of a scientific society which I wished very much to attend, but I could not do that and go to a dinner party to which I had been invited on the same evening; Walkirk went to the meeting, took notes, and the next day gave me a full report in regard to some particular points in which I was interested, and which were not mentioned in the short newspaper notice of the meeting.
In other cases, of which at first I could not have imagined the possibility, my under-study was of use to me. I was invited to address my fellow townsmen and townswomen on the occasion of the centennial anniversary of the settlement of our village, and as I had discovered that Walkirk was a good reader I took him with me, in order that he might deliver my written address in case my courage should give out. My courage did not give out, but I am very sure that I was greatly supported and emboldened by the knowledge that if, at the last moment, my embarrassment should not allow me to begin my address, or if in the course of its delivery I should feel unable, for any reason, to go on with it, there was some one present who would read it for me.
It had long been my habit to attend with my grandmother, bi-monthly, an early evening whist party at the house of an elderly neighbor. I had a bad headache on one of these appointed evenings, and Walkirk, who was a perfectly respectable and presentable man, went with my grandmother in my stead. I afterward heard that he played an excellent hand at whist, a remark which had never been made of me.
But I will not refer at present to any further instances of the usefulness of my under-study, except to say that, as I found his feet were of the same size and shape as my own, I sent him to be measured for a pair of heavy walking-shoes which I needed; and I once arranged for him to serve in my place on a coroner's jury, in the case of a drowned infant.
The evening listenings still went on, and as the scope of my remarks grew wider, and their purpose became better defined, it began to dawn upon me that it was selfish to devote these accounts of remarkable traveling experiences to the pleasure of only two men, myself and my listener; the public would be interested in these things. I ought to write a book.
This idea pleased me very much. As Walkirk was now able to take my place in so many ways, I could give a good deal of time each day to composition; and, moreover, there was no reason why such work should interfere with my pleasure in being listened to. I could write by day, and talk at night. It would be all the better for my book that I should first orally deliver the matter to Walkirk, and afterward write it. I broached this idea to Walkirk; but, while he did not say so in words, it was plain to me he did not regard it with favor. He reflected a little before speaking.
"The writing of a book," he said, "is a very serious thing; and although it is not my province to advise you, I will say that if I were in your place I should hesitate a good while before commencing a labor like that. I have no doubt, judging from what I have already heard of your travels, that you would make a most useful and enjoyable book, but the question in my mind is, whether the pleasure you would give your readers would repay you for the time and labor you would put upon this work."
This was the first time that Walkirk had offered me advice. I had no idea of taking it, but I did not resent it.
"I do not look at the matter in that way," I said. "An absorbing labor will be good for me. My undertaking may result in overworking you, for you will be obliged to act as my under-study even more frequently than you do now."
"Oh, I'm not afraid of work," said he; "I can stand any amount of it. But how about the evening discourses,—will they come to an end?"
"Not at all," said I; "I shall go on giving you an account of my travels, just as before. This will help me to judge better what to put in and what to leave out."
"I am very glad to hear that," he said, with animation; "I do not hesitate to own to you that I should very greatly regret to lose those most interesting accounts of your experiences."
This was very complimentary, but, as he was paid to listen, the remark did not possess the force it would have had, had he paid to hear me.
Enthusiastically I went to work upon my book, and I found that talking about my travels to Walkirk helped me to write about them for the public. But a week had not passed when I came to the conclusion that writing was in no way so pleasant as talking. I disliked labor with the pen; I disliked long sitting at my desk. The composition of the matter was enough for me; some one else should put it on paper. I must have a secretary. I went immediately to Walkirk, who was at the inn, working upon some of my accounts.
"Walkirk," said I, "I can get somebody else to do that sort of thing. I want you to act as my amanuensis."
To my surprise his face clouded. He seemed troubled, even pained.
"I am very, very sorry," he said, "to decline any work which you may desire me to do, but I really must decline this. I cannot write from dictation. I cannot be your amanuensis. Although it may seem like boasting, this is one of the few things I cannot do: my nervous temperament, my disposition, in fact my very nature, stand in the way, and make the thing impossible."
I could not understand Walkirk's objections to this sort of work, for he was a ready writer, a good stenographer, and had shown himself perfectly willing and able to perform duties much more difficult and distasteful than I imagined this possibly could be. But there are many things I do not understand, and which I consider it a waste of time to try to understand; and this was one of them.
"Then I must get some one else," said I.
"If you decide to do that," said Walkirk, "I will attend to the matter for you, and you need trouble yourself no further about it. I will go to the city, or wherever it is necessary to go, and get you an amanuensis."
"Do so," said I, "but come and report to me before you make any engagement."
The next day Walkirk made his report. He had not been as successful as he had hoped to be. If I had been doing my work in the city, he could have found me stenographers, amanuenses, or type-writers by the hundred. By living and working in the country, I made his task much more difficult. He had found but few persons who were willing to come to me every day, no matter what the weather, and only one or two who would consent to come to our village to live.
But he had made a list of several applicants who might suit me, and who were willing to accept one or the other of the necessary conditions.
"They are all women!" I exclaimed, when I looked at it.
"Yes," said he; "it would be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to find a competent man who would answer your purpose. The good ones could not afford to give you part of their time, which is all you require, and you would not want any other. With women the case is different; and besides, I am sure, from my own experience, that a lady amanuensis would suit your purpose much better than a man: she would be more patient, more willing to accommodate herself to your moods, in every way more available."
I had not engaged Walkirk to be my under-study in matters of judgment, and I did not intend that he should act in that capacity; but there was force in his remarks, and I determined to give them due consideration. Although I had apartments of my own, I really lived in my grandmother's house; and of course it was incumbent upon me to consult her upon this subject. She looked at the matter in her usual kindly way, and soon came to be of the opinion that, if I could give a worthy and industrious young woman an opportunity to earn her livelihood, I ought to do it; taking care, of course, to engage no one who could not furnish the very best references.
I now put the matter again into Walkirk's hands, and told him to produce the persons he had selected. He managed the matter with great skill, and in the course of one morning four ladies called upon me, in such a way that they did not interfere with each other. Of these applicants none pleased me. One of them was a dark-haired, dark-eyed, rather spare person, whose youthful energies had been so improved by years that I was sure her briskness of action, her promptness of speech, and her evident anxiety to get to work and to keep at it would eventually drive me crazy.
Another was a skilled stenographer, who could write I forget how many hundred words a minute; and when I told her there were no minutes in which I could dictate as many words as that, even if I wanted to, and that there would be many minutes in which I should not dictate any words at all, she said she was afraid that if she fell into a dilly-dally, poky way of working it would impair her skill, and it might be difficult, when she left my employment, to regain her previous expertness. She was quite willing, however, to engage with me, and thought that if I would try to dictate as fast as possible I might, in time, be able to keep her nearly up to her normal standard.
A third one was willing to write longhand, and to work as slowly and as irregularly as I pleased. I gave her a short trial, but her writing was so illegible that I could not discover whether or not she made mistakes in spelling. I had, however, my suspicions on this point.
The fourth applicant I engaged to come for a week on trial. She exhibited no prominent disabilities, and I thought she might be made to answer my purpose; but as she possessed no prominent capabilities, and as she asked me to repeat almost every sentence which I dictated to her, I found it very tiresome to work with her, and I punished Walkirk by making him act as my under-study on the third and fourth days of her engagement. I requested him to dictate to her some detailed incidents of travel which I had told him, and which I was sure he remembered very well. He undertook the task with alacrity, but after two mornings' work he advised me to discharge her. Dictating to her, he said, was like talking into a tin spout with nobody at the other end. Somebody might come if you shouted long enough, but this was tiresome.
THE MALARIAL ADJUNCT.
The fifth applicant on Walkirk's list had a morning to herself. So soon as she entered my study I hoped that she would suit me, and I had not talked with her ten minutes before I decided that she would. Her personality was exceedingly agreeable; she was neither too young nor too old. She expressed herself with a good-humored frankness which I liked, and appeared to be of a very practical turn of mind. She was a practiced stenographer, was accustomed to write from dictation and to read aloud, could correct proof, and had some admirable references. Her abilities appeared so excellent, and her demeanor was so agreeable to me, that I engaged her.
"I am very happy indeed, Mr. Vanderley," she said, with the pretty dimpled smile which had so frequently shown itself in the course of our conversation, "that you have given me this position. I am sure that I shall like it, and I shall try very hard to make my work satisfactory. I shall come up every morning in the nine o'clock train, as you desire; and I shall be obliged to bring my husband with me, but this will not in any way interfere with my work. He is suffering from a malarial disease, and is subject to periods of faintness, so that it would be impossible for me to leave him for the whole morning; but he can sit outside anywhere, under a tree, or perhaps somewhere in the house if it happens to rain. He is perfectly contented if he has a comfortable place to sit in. He is not able to attend to any business, and as I now have to be the bread-winner I am most deeply grateful for this work which you have given me. I am sure that the little trip in and out of town will do him good, and as I shall buy commutation tickets it will not be expensive. He came with me this morning, and if you will excuse me I will bring him in and introduce him." And without waiting for any remark from me she left the room, and shortly returned with the malarial subject. He was an extremely mild-mannered man, of light weight and sedate aspect. The few words in which he indicated his gratification with his wife's engagement suggested to me the need of sulphate of quinia.
This revelation of a malarial adjunct to the labors of myself and this very agreeable lady greatly surprised me, and, I must admit, threw me back from that condition of satisfaction in which I had found myself upon engaging her; and yet I could think of no reasonable objection to make. The lady had promised that he should not be in the way, and the most I could say, even to myself, was that the arrangement did not appear attractive to me. Of course, with no reason but a chaotic distaste, I would not recede from my agreement, and deprive this worthy lady of the opportunity of supporting herself and her husband; and the two departed, to return on the following day prepared to labor and to wait.
I inquired of Walkirk, I fear with some petulance, if he had known of the incumbrance attached to this candidate; and he replied that she had informed him that she was married, but he had no idea she intended to bring her husband with her. He was very sorry that this was necessary, but in his judgment the man would not live very long.
My grandmother was greatly pleased when I told her of the arrangement I had made to assist a devoted wife to support an invalid husband. She considered it a most worthy and commendable action, and she was rejoiced that such an opportunity had been afforded me. She would do what she could to make the poor man comfortable while his wife was at work; and if he had any sense at all, and knew what was to his advantage, he would be very careful not to interfere with her duties.
The next morning the couple appeared, and the lady was ensconced in the anteroom to my study, which I had fitted up for the use of my secretary, where, through the open window in front of her, she could see her husband, seated in a rocking-chair, under a wide-spreading apple-tree. By his side was a table, on which lay the morning paper and some books which my grandmother had sent out to him. For a time she gave him also her society, but, as she subsequently informed me, she did not find him responsive, and soon concluded that he would be happier if left to his reflections and the literature with which she had provided him.
As an amanuensis I found my new assistant everything that could be desired. She wrote rapidly and correctly, never asked me to repeat, showed no nervousness at the delays in my dictation, and was ready to write the instant I was ready to speak. She was quick and intelligent in looking up synonyms, and appeared perfectly at home in the dictionary. But in spite of these admirable qualifications, I did not find myself, that morning, in a condition favorable to my best literary work. Whenever my secretary was not actually writing she was looking out of the window; sometimes she would smile and nod, and on three occasions, while I was considering, not what I should say next, but whether or not I could stand this sort of thing, she went gently to the window, and asked the invalid, in a clear whisper, intended to be entirely undisturbing, how he was getting on and if he wanted anything.
Two days after this the air was damp and rain threatened, and the malarial gentleman was supplied with comfortable quarters in the back parlor. I do not know whether or not he liked this better than sitting under a tree, but I am sure that the change did not please his wife. She could not look at him, and she could not ask him how he was getting on and if he wanted anything. I could see that she was worried and fidgety, although endeavoring to work as faithfully and steadily as usual. Twice during a break in the dictation she asked me to excuse her for just one minute, while she ran into the parlor to take a peep at him.
The next day it rained, and there seemed every probability that we should have continued wet weather, and that it would be days before the malarial one could sit under the apple-tree. Therefore I looked the situation fairly in the face. It was impossible for me to dictate to a nervous, anxious woman, whose obvious mental condition acted most annoyingly upon my nerves, and I suggested that she bring her husband into her room, and let him sit there while she worked. With this proposition my secretary was delighted.
"Oh, that will be charming!" she cried. "He will sit just as still as a mouse, and will not disturb either of us, and I shall be able to see how he feels without saying a word."
For four days the malarial gentleman, as quiet as a mouse, sat by my secretary's window, while she wrote at the table, and I walked up and down my study, or threw myself into one chair or another, endeavoring to forget that that man was sitting by the window; that he was trying his best not to do anything which might disturb me; that he did not read, or write, or occupy his mind in any way; that he heard every word I dictated to his wife without indicating that he was not deaf, or that he was capable of judging whether my words were good, bad, or unworthy of consideration. Not only did I endeavor not to think of him, but I tried not to see either him or his wife. The silent, motionless figure of the one, and the silent but animated and vivacious figure of the other, filled with an eager desire to do her work properly, with a bubbling and hearty love for her husband, and an evident joyousness in the fact that she could love, work, and watch, all at the same time, drove from my mind every thought of travel or foreign experiences. Without the malarial husband I should have asked for no better secretary; but he spoiled everything. He was like a raw oyster in a cup of tea.
I could not drive from my mind the vision of that man even when I knew he was asleep in his bed. There was no way of throwing him off. His wife had expressed to my grandmother the delight she felt in having him in the room with her while she worked, and my grandmother had spoken to me of her own sympathetic pleasure in this arrangement. I saw it would be impossible to exile him again to the apple-tree, even if the ground should ever be dry enough. There was no hope that he would be left at his home; there was no hope that he would get better, and go off to attend to his own business; there was no hope that he would die.
From dictating but little I fell to dictating almost nothing at all. To keep my secretary at work, I gave her some notes of travel of which to make a fair copy, while I occupied myself in wondering what I was going to do about that malarial husband.
At last I ceased to wonder, and I did something. I went to the city, and, after a day's hard work, I secured a position for my secretary in a large publishing establishment, where her husband could sit by a window in a secluded corner, and keep as quiet as a mouse. The good lady overwhelmed me with thanks for my kindness. She had begun to fear that, as the season grew colder, the daily trip would not suit her husband, and she gave me credit for having thought the same thing.
My grandmother and Walkirk were greatly concerned, as well as surprised, at what I had done. The former said that, if I attempted to write my book with my own hand, she feared the sedentary work would tell upon my health; and my under-study, while regretting very much that his efforts to provide me with an amanuensis had proved unsuccessful, showed very plainly, although he did not say so, that he hoped I had found that authorship was an annoying and unprofitable business, and that I would now devote myself to pursuits which were more congenial, and in which he could act for me when occasion required.
Walkirk very soon discovered that I had no intention whatever of giving up the writing of my book, and I quieted the fears of my grandmother, in regard to my health, by assuring her that the sedentary work connected with the production of my volume would not be done by me. Secretaries could be had, and I would get one.
This determination greatly disturbed Walkirk. He did not wish to see me perform a service for myself which it was his business to perform for me, and in which he had failed. I know that he gave the matter the most earnest consideration, and two days after my late secretary and her husband had left me he came into my study, his face shining with a new idea.
"Mr. Vanderley," said he, "to find you an amanuensis who will exactly suit you, and who will be willing to come here into the country to work, is, I think you will admit, a very difficult business; but I do not intend, if I can help it, to be beaten by it. I have thought of a plan which I believe will meet all contingencies, and I have come to propose it to you. You know that institution just outside the village,—the House of Martha?"
I replied that I knew of it.
"Well," he continued, "I did not think of it until a day or two ago, and I have since been inquiring into its organization and nature. That sisterhood of Martha is composed of women who propose not only to devote themselves to a life of goodness, but to imitate the industrious woman for whom they have named themselves. They work not only in their establishment, but wherever they can find suitable occupation, and all that they earn is devoted to the good of the institution. Some of them act as nurses for the sick,—for pay if people can afford it, for nothing if they cannot. Others have studied medicine, and practice in the same way. They also prepare medicines and dispense them, and do a lot of good things,—if possible, for money and the advantage of the House of Martha. But every woman who joins such an institution cannot expect immediately to find the sort of remunerative work she can best do, and I am informed that there are several women there who, at present, are unemployed. Now, it is my opinion that among these you could find half a dozen good secretaries."
I laughed aloud. "Those women," said I, "are just the same as nuns. It is ridiculous to suppose that one of them would be allowed to come here as my secretary, even if she wanted to."
"I am not so sure of that," persisted Walkirk; "I do not see why literary, or rather clerical, pursuits should not be as open to them as medicine or nursing."
"You may not see it," said I, "but I fancy that they do."
"It is impossible to be certain on that point," he replied, "until we have proposed the matter to them, and given them the opportunity to consider it."
"If you imagine," I said, "that I have the effrontery to go to that nunnery—for it is no more nor less than that—and ask the Lady Abbess to lend me one of her nuns to write at my dictation, you have very much mistaken me."
Walkirk smiled. "I hardly expected you to do that," said he, "although I must insist that it is not a nunnery, and there is no Lady Abbess. There is a Head Mother, and some sub-mothers, I believe. My idea was that Mrs. Vanderley should drive over there and make inquiries for you. A proposition from an elderly lady of such high position in the community would have a much better effect than if it came from a gentleman."
Walkirk's plan amused me very much, and I told him I would talk to my grandmother about it. When I did so, I was much surprised to find that she received the idea with favor.
"That Mr. Walkirk," she said, "is a man of a good deal of penetration and judgment, and if you could get one of those sisters to come here and write for you I should like it very much; and if the first one did not suit, you could try another without trouble or expense. The fact that you had a good many strings to your bow would give you ease of mind and prevent your getting discouraged. I don't want you to give up the idea of having a secretary."
Then, with some hesitation, my good grandmother confided to me that there was another reason why this idea of employing a sister pleased her. She had been a little afraid that some lady secretary, especially like that very pleasant and exemplary person with the invalid husband, might put the notion into my head that it would be a good thing for me to have a wife to do my writing. Now, of course she expected me to get married some day. That was all right, but there was no need of my being in any hurry about it; and as to my wife doing my writing, that was not to be counted upon positively. Some wives might not be willing to do it, and others might not do it well; so, as far as that matter was concerned, nothing would be gained. But one of those sisters would never suggest matrimony. They were women apart from all that sort of thing. They had certain work to do in this world, and they did it for the good of the cause in which they were enlisted, without giving any thought to those outside matters which so often occupy the minds of women who have not, in a manner, separated themselves from the world. She would go that very afternoon to the House of Martha and make inquiries.
THE PLAN OF SECLUSION.
My grandmother returned from the House of Martha disappointed and annoyed. Life had always flowed very smoothly for her, and I had rarely seen her in her present mental condition.
"I do not believe," she said, "that that institution will succeed. Those women are too narrow-minded. If they were in a regular stone-walled convent, it would be another thing, but they are only a sisterhood. They are not shut up there; it's their business and part of their religion to go out, and why they should not be willing to come here and do good, as well as anywhere else, I cannot see, for the life of me."
"Then they objected to the proposition?" I asked.
"Yes," she replied, "they did, and without any reason whatever. I saw their superior, whom they call Mother Anastasia, and from her I learned that there were several women in the establishment who were thoroughly competent to act as secretaries; but when I proposed that one of them should come and write for you, she said that would not do at all. I reasoned the matter with her: that literature was as high a profession as medicine, and as much good could be done with the practice of one as the other; and if the sisters went out to nurse and to cure, they might just as well go out to write for those who cannot write for themselves. To that she answered, it was not the writing she objected to,—that was all well enough,—but it was decidedly outside of the vocation of the order for one of the sisters to spend her mornings with a young gentleman. If he were sick and suffering, and had no one else to attend to him, it would be different. Upon this, I told her that you would be sick if you were obliged to do your own writing, and therefore I couldn't see the difference.
"But I must admit she was very good-natured and pleasant about it, and she told me that if you chose to come to their visitors' room and make yourself comfortable there, and dictate, one of the sisters would sit at the table behind the grating and would write for you. I replied that I did not believe you would like that, but that I would mention it to you."
I laughed. "So much for Walkirk's brilliant idea," I said. "I fancy myself going every morning to that nunnery to do my work in their cheerless visitors' room!"
"Cheerless? I should say so!" exclaimed my grandmother,—"bare floors, bare walls, and hard wooden chairs. It is not to be thought of."
That evening I informed Walkirk of the ill success of my grandmother's mission, but to my surprise he did not appear to be discouraged.
"I don't think we need have any trouble at all in managing that affair," said he. "Why shouldn't you have a grating put up in the doorway between your study and the secretary's room? Then the sister could go in there, the other door could be locked, and she would be as much shut off from the world as if she were behind a grating in the House of Martha. I believe, if this plan were proposed to the sisters, it would be agreed to."
I scouted the idea as utterly absurd; but when, the next morning, I mentioned it to my grandmother, she caught at it eagerly, and no sooner had she finished her breakfast than she ordered her carriage and drove to the House of Martha.
She returned triumphant.
"We had a long discussion," she said, "but Mother Anastasia finally saw the matter in its proper light. She admitted that if a room could be arranged in this house, in which a sister could be actually secluded, there was no good reason why she should not work there as consistently with their rules as if she were in the House of Martha. Therefore, she agreed, if you concluded to carry out this plan, to send a sister every morning to write for you. So now, if you want a secretary from the House of Martha, you can have one."
To this I replied that I most positively wanted one; and Walkirk was immediately instructed to have a suitable grating made for the doorway between my study and the secretary's room.
Nearly a week was required for the execution of this work, and during this time I took a rest from literary composition and visited some friends, leaving all the arrangements for my new secretary in the hands of my grandmother and Walkirk. When I returned, the iron grating was in its place. It was a neat and artistic piece of work, but I did not like it. I object decidedly to anything which suggests restraint. The whole affair of the secretary was indeed very different from what I would have had it, but I had discovered that even in our advanced era of civilization one cannot always have everything he wants, albeit he be perfectly able and willing to pay for it.
At nine o'clock on the morning of the appointed day my new secretary came, accompanied by one of those sisters called by Walkirk sub-mothers.
My grandmother received the two, and conducted them to the secretary's room. I was sitting in my study, but no attention was paid to me. The sub-mother advanced to the grating, and, having examined it, appeared satisfied to find that it was securely fastened in the doorway. The nun, as I called her, although Walkirk assured me the term was incorrect, stood with her back toward me, and when her companion had said a few words to her, in a low tone, she took her seat at the table. She wore a large gray bonnet, the sides and top of which extended far beyond her face, a light gray shawl, and a gray gown. She sat facing the window, with her left side turned toward me, and from no point of my study could I get a glimpse of her features.
The sub-mother looked out of the window, which opened upon little more than the once husband-sheltering apple-tree, and then, after a general glance around the room, she looked at me, and for the first time addressed me.
"I will come for the sister at twelve o'clock," she said, and with that she followed my grandmother out of the room, and locked the door behind her.
I stood and looked through the grating at my new secretary. I am not generally a diffident man, and have never been so with persons in my employment; but now, I must admit, I did not feel at my ease. The nun sat perfectly motionless; her hands were folded in her gray lap, and her gray bonnet was slightly bowed, so that I did not know whether she was gazing down at the table or out of the window.
She was evidently ready for work, but I was not. I did not know exactly how to begin with such a secretary. With the others I had been outspoken from the first; I had told them what I wanted and what I did not want, and they had been ready enough to listen and ready enough to answer. But to this silent, motionless gray figure I did not feel that I could be outspoken. No words suggested themselves as being appropriate to speak out. If I could see her face but for a moment, and discover whether she were old or young, cross-looking or gentle, I might know what to say to her. My impulse was to tell her there was a hook on which she could hang her bonnet and shawl, but as I did not know whether or not these sisters ever took off their bonnets and shawls, I did not feel at liberty to make this suggestion.
But it would not do to continue there, looking at her. She might be a very shy person, and if I appeared shy it would probably make her all the shyer; so I spoke.
"You will find paper," I said, "in the drawer of your table, and there are pens, of different sorts, in that tray." She opened the drawer, took out some paper, and selected a pen, all without turning her head toward me. Having broken the ice, I now felt impelled to deliver a short lecture on my requirements; but how could I say what I required without knowing what manner of person it was of whom I required it? I therefore postponed the lecture, and determined to begin work without further delay, as probably that would be the best way to put us both at our ease. But it had been more than two weeks since I had done any work, and I could not remember what it was that I had been dictating, or endeavoring to dictate, to the lady with the malarial husband. I therefore thought it well to begin at a fresh point, and to leave the gap to be filled up afterward. I felt quite sure, when last at work, I had been treating of the south of France, and had certainly not reached Marseilles. I therefore decided to take a header for Marseilles, and into Marseilles I plunged.
As soon as I began to speak the nun began to write, and having at last got her at work I felt anxious to keep her at it, and went steadily on through the lively seaport; touching upon one point after another as fast as I thought of them, and without regard to their proper sequence. But although I sometimes skipped from one end of the city to the other, and from history to street scenes, I dictated steadily, and the nun wrote steadily. She worked rapidly, and apparently heard and understood every word I said, for she asked no questions and did not hesitate. I am sure I never before dictated so continuously. I had been in the habit of stopping a good deal to think, not only about my work, but about other things, but now I did not wish to stop.
This amanuensis was very different from any other I had had. The others worked to make money for themselves, or to please me, or because they liked it. This one worked from principle. The money which I paid for her labor did not become her money. It was paid to the House of Martha. She sat there and wrote to promote the principles upon which the House of Martha was founded. In fact, so far as I was concerned, she was nothing more than a principle.
Now, to interfere with the working of a principle is not the right thing to do, and therefore I felt impelled to keep on dictating, which I did until the hall door of the secretary's room was unlocked and the sub-mother walked in. She came forward and said a few words to the nun, who stopped writing and wiped her pen. The other then turned to me, and in a low voice asked if the work of the sister was satisfactory. I advanced to the grating, and answered that I was perfectly satisfied, and was about to make some remarks, which I hoped would lead to a conversation, when the sub-mother—whose name I subsequently learned was Sister Sarah—made a little bow, and, saying if that were the case they would return at nine the next morning, left the room in company with the nun. The latter, when she arose from the table, turned her back to me, and went out without giving me the slightest opportunity of looking into her cavernous bonnet. This she did, I must admit, in the most natural way possible, which was probably the result of training, and gave one no idea of rudeness or incivility.
When they were gone I was piqued, almost angry with myself. I had intended stopping work a little before noon, in order to talk to that nun, even if she did not answer or look at me. She should discover that if she was a principle, I was, at least, an entity. I did not know exactly what I should say to her, but it would be something one human being would be likely to say to another human being who was working for him. If from the first I put myself on the proper level, she might in time get there. But although I had lost my present chance, she was coming again the next day.
I entered the secretary's room by the hall door, and looked at the manuscript which had been left on the table. It was written in an excellent hand, not too large, very legible, and correctly punctuated. Everything had been done properly, except that after the first three pages she had forgotten to number the leaves at the top; but as every sheet was placed in its proper order, this was an omission which could be easily rectified. I was very glad she had made it, for it would give me something to speak to her about.
At luncheon my grandmother asked me how I liked the new secretary, and added that if she did not suit me I could try another next day. I answered that so far she suited me, and that I had not the least wish at present to try another. I think my grandmother was about to say something regarding this sister, but I instantly begged her not to do so. I wished to judge her entirely on her merits, I said, and would rather not hear anything about her until I had come to a decision as to her abilities. I did not add that I felt such an interest in the anticipated discovery of the personality of this secretary that I did not wish that discovery interfered with.
In the evening Walkirk inquired about the sister-amanuensis, but I merely answered that so far she had done very well, and dropped the subject. In my own mind I did not drop the subject until I fell asleep that night. I found myself from time to time wondering what sort of a woman was that nun. Was she an elderly, sharp-faced creature; was she a vapid, fat-faced creature, or a young and pleasing creature? And when I had asked myself these questions, I snubbed myself for taking the trouble to think about the matter, and then I began wondering again.
But upon one point I firmly made up my mind: the relationship between my secretary and myself should not continue to be that of an entity dictating to a principle.
The next day, when the nun and Sister Sarah entered the secretary's room, I advanced to the grating and bade them good-morning. They both bowed, and the nun took her seat at the table. Sister Sarah then turned to me and asked if I had a gold pen, adding that the sister was accustomed to writing with one. I answered that I had all kinds of pens, and if the sister wanted a gold one it was only necessary to ask me for it. I brought several gold pens, and handed them through the grating to the sub-mother, who gave them to the secretary, and then took her leave, locking the door behind her. My nun took one of the pens, tried it, arranged the paper, and sat ready to write. I stood by the grating, hoping to converse a little, if it should be possible.
"Is there anything else you would like?" I said. "If there is, you know you must mention it."
She gently shook her head. The idea now occurred to me that perhaps my nun was dumb; but I almost instantly thought that this could not be, for dumb people were almost always deaf, and she could hear well enough. Then it struck me that she might be a Trappist nun, and bound by a vow of silence; but I reflected that she was not really a nun, and consequently could not be a Trappist.
Having been unsuccessful in my first attempt to make her speak, and having now stood silent for some moments, I felt it might be unwise to make another trial just then, for my object would be too plain. I therefore sat down and began dictating.
I did not work as easily as I had done on the preceding morning, for I intended, if possible, to make my nun look at me, or speak, before the hour of noon, and thinking of this intention prevented me from keeping my mind upon my work. From time to time I made remarks in regard to the temperature of the room, the quality of the paper, or something of the kind. To these she did not answer at all, or slightly nodded, or shook her head in a deprecatory manner, as if they were matters not worth considering.
Then I suddenly remembered the omission of the paging, and spoke of that. In answer she took up the manuscript she had written and paged every sheet. After this my progress was halting and uneven. Involuntarily my mind kept on devising plans for making that woman speak or turn her face toward me. If she would do the latter, I would be satisfied; and even if she proved to be an unveiled prophetess of Khorassan, there would be no further occasion for conjectures and wonderings, and I could go on with my work in peace. But it made me nervous to remain silent, and see that nun sitting there, pen in hand, but motionless as a post, and waiting for me to give her the signal to continue the exercise of the principle to which her existence was now devoted.
I went on with my dictation. I had left Marseilles, had touched slightly upon Nice, and was now traveling by carriage on the Cornice Road to Mentone. "It was on this road," I dictated, "that an odd incident occurred to me. We were nearly opposite the old robber village of"—and then I hesitated and stopped. I could not remember the name of the village. I walked up and down my study, rubbing my forehead, but the name would not recur to me. I was just thinking that I would have to go to the library and look up the name of the village, when from out of the depths of the nun's bonnet there came a voice, low but distinct, and, I thought, a little impatient, and it said, "Eza."
"Eza! of course!" I exclaimed,—"certainly it is Eza! How could I have forgotten it? I am very much obliged to you for reminding me of the name of that village. Perhaps you have been there?"
In answer to this question I received the least little bit of a nod, and the nun's pen began gently to paw the paper, as if it wanted to go on.
I was now really excited. She had spoken. Why should I not do something which should make her turn her face toward me,—something which would take her off her guard, as my forgetfulness had just done? But no idea came to my aid, and I felt obliged to begin to dictate the details of the odd incident, when suddenly the door opened, Sister Sarah walked in, and the morning's work was over.
I had not done much, but I had made that nun speak. She said "Eza." That was a beginning, and I felt confident that I should get on very well in time. I was a little sorry that my secretary had been on the Cornice Road. I fancied that she might have been one of those elderly single women who become Baedeker tourists, and, having tired of this sort of thing, had concluded to devote her life to the work of the House of Martha. But this was mere idle conjecture. She had spoken, and I should not indulge in pessimism.
I prepared a very good remark with which to greet the sub-mother on the next morning, and, although addressing Sister Sarah, I would be in reality speaking to my nun. I would say how well I was getting on. I had thought of saying we were getting on, but reflected afterward that this would never do; I was sure that the House of Martha would not allow, under any circumstances, that sister and myself to constitute a we. Then I would refer to the help my secretary had been to me, and endeavor to express the satisfaction which an author must always feel for a suggestion of this kind, or any other, from one qualified to make them. If there was any gratitude or vanity in my nun's heart, I felt I could stir it up, if Sister Sarah would listen to me long enough; and if gratitude, or even vanity, could be stirred, the rigidity of my nun would be impaired, and she might find herself off her guard.
But I had no opportunity of making my remark. At nine o'clock the door of the secretary's room opened, the nun entered, and the door was then closed and locked. Sister Sarah must have been in a hurry that morning. Just as well as not I might have made my remark directly to my nun, but I did not. She walked quickly to the table, arranged her paper, opened her inkstand, and sat down. I fancied that I saw a wavy wriggle of impatience in her shawl. Perhaps she wanted to know the rest of that odd incident near Eza. It may have been that it was impatient interest which had impaired her rigidity the day before.
I went on with the odd incident, and made a very good thing of it. Even when on well-worn routes of travel, I tried to confine myself to out-of-the-way experiences. Walkirk had been very much interested in this affair when I had told it to him, and there was no reason why this nun should not also be interested, especially as she had seen Eza.
I finished the narrative, and began another, a rather exciting one, connected with the breaking of a carriage wheel and an exile from Monte Carlo; but never once did curiosity or any other emotion impair the rigidity of that nun. She wrote almost as fast as I could dictate, and when I stopped I know she was filled with nervous desire to know what was coming next,—at least I fancied that her shawl indicated such nervousness; but hesitate as I might, or say what I might,—and I did say a good many things which almost demanded a remark or answer,—not one word came from her during the whole morning, nor did she ever turn the front of her bonnet toward me.
MY FRIEND VESPA.
I was very much disgusted at the present state of affairs. Three days had elapsed, and I did not know what sort of a human being my secretary was. I might as well dictate into a speaking-tube. A phonograph would be better; for although it might seem ridiculous to sit in my room and talk aloud to no one, what was I doing now? That nun was the same as no one.
The next day was Sunday, and there would be no work, and no chance to solve the problem, which had become an actual annoyance to me; but I did not intend that this problem should continue to annoy me and interfere with my work. I am open and aboveboard myself, and if my secretary did not choose to be open and aboveboard, and behave like an ordinary human being, she should depart, and I would tell Walkirk to get me an ordinary human being, capable of writing from dictation, or depart himself. If he could not provide me with a suitable secretary, he was not the efficient man of business that he claimed to be. As to the absurdity of dictating to a mystery in a barrow bonnet, I would have no more of it.
I do not consider myself an ill-tempered person, and my grandmother asserts that I have a very good temper indeed; but I must admit that on Monday morning I felt a little cross, and when Sister Sarah and the nun entered my antechamber I bade them a very cold good-morning, and allowed the former to go without attempting any conversation whatever. The nun having arrived, I would not send her away; but when the sub-mother came at noon, I intended to inform her that I did not any longer desire the services of the writing sister, and if she wished to know why I should tell her plainly. I would not say that I would as soon dictate to an inanimate tree-stump, but I would express that idea in as courteous terms as possible.
For fifteen minutes I let the nun sit and wait. If her principles forbade idleness, I was glad to have a crack at her principles. Then I began to dictate steadily and severely. I found that the dismissal from my mind of all conjectures regarding the personality of my secretary was of great service to me, and I was able to compose much faster than she could write.
It was about half past ten, I think, and the morning was warm and pleasant, when there gently sailed into the secretary's room, through the open window, a wasp. I saw him come in, and I do not think I ever beheld a more agreeable or benignant insect. His large eyes were filled with the light of a fatherly graciousness. His semi-detached body seemed to quiver with a helpful impulse, and his long hind legs hung down beneath him as though they were outstretched to assist, befriend, or succor. With wings waving blessings and a buzz of cheery greeting, he sailed around the room, now dipping here, now there, and then circling higher, tapping the ceiling with his genial back.
The moment the nun saw the wasp, a most decided thrill ran down the back of her shawl. Then it pervaded her bonnet, and finally the whole of her. As the beneficent insect sailed down near the table, she abruptly sprang to her feet and pushed back her chair. I advanced to the grating, but what could I do? Seeing me there, and doubtless with the desire immediately to assure me of his kindly intentions, my friend Vespa made a swoop directly at the front of the nun's bonnet.
With an undisguised ejaculation, and beating wildly at the insect with her hands, the nun bounded to one side and turned her face full upon me. I stood astounded. I forgot the wasp.
I totally lost sight of the fact that a young woman was in danger of being badly stung. I thought of nothing but that she was a young woman, and a most astonishingly pretty one besides.
The state of terror she was in opened wide her lovely blue eyes, half crimsoned her clear white skin, and threw her rosy lips and sparkling teeth into the most enchanting combinations.
"Make it go away!" she cried, throwing up one arm, and thereby pushing back her gray bonnet, and exhibiting some of the gloss of her light brown hair. "Can't you kill it?"
Most gladly would I have rushed in, and shed with my own hands the blood of my friend Vespa, for the sake of this most charming young woman, suddenly transformed from a barrow-bonneted principle. But I was powerless. I could not break through the grating; the other door of the secretary's room was locked.
"Don't strike at it," I said; "remain as motionless as you can, then perhaps it will fly away. Striking at a wasp only enrages it."
"I can't stay quiet," she cried; "nobody could!" and she sprang behind the table, making at the same time another slap at the buzzing insect.
"You will surely be stung," I said, "if you act in that way. If you will slap at the wasp, don't use your hand; take something with which you can kill it."
"What can I take?" she exclaimed, now running round the table, and stopping close to the grating. "Give me something."
I hurriedly glanced around my study. I saw nothing that would answer for a weapon but a whisk broom, which I seized, and endeavored to thrust through the meshes of the grating.
"Oh!" she cried, as the wasp made a desperate dive close to her face, "give me that, quick!" and she stretched out her hand to me.
"I cannot," I replied; "I can't push it through. It won't go through. Take your bonnet."
At this, my nun seized her bonnet by a sort of floating hood which hung around the bottom of it and jerked it from her head, bringing with it certain flaps and ligatures and combs, which, being thus roughly removed, allowed a mass of wavy hair to fall about her shoulders.
Waving her bonnet in her hand, like a slung-shot, she sprang back and waited for the wasp. When the buzzing creature came near enough, she made a desperate crack at him, missing him; she struck again and again, now high, now low; she dashed from side to side of the room, and with one of her mad sweeps she scattered a dozen pages of manuscript upon the floor.
The view of this combat was enrapturing to me; the face of my nun, now lighted by a passionate determination to kill that wasp, was a delight to my eyes. If I could have assured myself that the wasp would not sting her, I would have helped him to prolong the battle indefinitely. But my nun was animated by very different emotions. She was bound to be avenged upon the wasp, and avenged she was. Almost springing into the air, she made a grand stroke at him, as he receded from her, hit him, and dashed him against the wall. He fell to the floor, momentarily disabled, but flapping and buzzing. Then down she stooped, and with three great whacks with her bonnet she finished the battle. The wasp lay motionless.
"Now," she said, throwing her bonnet upon the table, "I will close that window;" and she walked across the room, her blue eyes sparkling, her face glowing from her violent exercise, and her rich brown hair hanging in long waves upon her shoulders.
"Don't do that," I said; "it will make your room too warm. There is a netting screen in the corner there. If you put that under the sash, it will keep out all insects. I wish I could do it for you."
She took the frame and fitted it under the sash.
"I am sorry I did not know that before," she said, as she returned to her table; "this is a very bad piece of business."
I begged her to excuse me for not having informed her of the screen, but I did not say that I was sorry for what had occurred. I merely expressed my gratification that she had not been stung. Her chair had been pushed away from the table, its back against the wall, opposite to me. She seated herself upon it, gently panting. She looked from side to side at the sheets of manuscript scattered upon the floor.
"I will pick them up presently and go to work, but I must rest a minute." She did not now seem to consider that it was of the slightest consequence whether I saw her face or not.
"Never mind the papers," I said; "leave them there; they can be picked up any time."
"I wish that were the worst of it;" and as she spoke she raised her eyes toward me, and the least little bit of a smile came upon her lips, as if, though troubled, she could not help feeling the comical absurdity of the situation.
"It is simply dreadful," she continued. "I don't believe such a thing ever before happened to a sister."
"There is nothing dreadful about it," said I; "and do you mean to say that the sisters of the House of Martha, who go out to nurse, and do all sorts of good deeds, never speak to the people they are befriending, nor allow them to look upon their faces?"
"Of course," said she, "you have to talk to sick people; otherwise how could you know what they need? But this is a different case;" and she began to gather up her hair and twist it at the back of her head.
"I do not understand," I remarked; "why is it a different case?"
"It is as different as it can be," said she, picking up her comb from the floor and thrusting it through her hastily twisted knot of hair. "I should not have come here at all if your grandmother had not positively asserted that there would be nothing for me to do but to listen and to write. And Mother Anastasia and Sister Sarah both of them especially instructed me that I was not to speak to you nor to look at you, but simply to sit at the table and work for the good of the cause. That was all I had to do; and I am sure I obeyed just as strictly as anybody could, except once, when you forgot the name of Eza, and I was so anxious to have you go on with the incident that I could not help mentioning it. And now, I am sure I don't know what I ought to do."