BOOKS BY SINCLAIR LEWIS
THE INNOCENTS THE JOB THE TRAIL OF THE HAWK OUR MR. WRENN
HARPER & BROTHERS, NEW YORK [ESTABLISHED 1817]
A STORY FOR LOVERS
BY SINCLAIR LEWIS
AUTHOR OF "THE TRAIL OF THE HAWK" "THE JOB" ETC.
HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS NEW YORK AND LONDON
Copyright, 1917, by Harper & Brothers Printed in the United States of America Published October, 1917 F-R
A DEDICATORY INTRODUCTION
If this were a ponderous work of realism, such as the author has attempted to write, and will doubtless essay again, it would be perilous to dedicate it to the splendid assembly of young British writers, lest the critics search for Influences and Imitations. But since this is a flagrant excursion, a tale for people who still read Dickens and clip out spring poetry and love old people and children, it may safely confess the writer's strident admiration for Compton Mackenzie, Hugh Walpole, Oliver Onions, D. H. Lawrence, J. D. Beresford, Gilbert Cannan, Patrick MacGill, and their peers, whose novels are the histories of our contemporaneous Golden Age. Nor may these be mentioned without a yet more enthusiastic tribute to their master and teacher (he probably abominates being called either a master or a teacher), H. G. Wells.
Mr. and Mrs. Seth Appleby were almost old. They called each other "Father" and "Mother." But frequently they were guilty of holding hands, or of cuddling together in corners, and Father was a person of stubborn youthfulness. For something over forty years Mother had been trying to make him stop smoking, yet every time her back was turned he would sneak out his amber cigarette-holder and puff a cheap cigarette, winking at the shocked crochet tidy on the patent rocker. Mother sniffed at him and said that he acted like a young smart Aleck, but he would merely grin in answer and coax her out for a walk.
As they paraded, the sun shone through the fuzzy, silver hair that puffed out round Father's crab-apple face, and an echo of delicate silver was on Mother's rose-leaf cheeks.
They were rustic as a meadow-ringed orchard, yet Father and Mother had been born in New York City, and there lived for more than sixty years. Father was a perfectly able clerk in Pilkings's shoe-store on Sixth Avenue, and Pilkings was so much older than Father that he still called him, "Hey you, Seth!" and still gave him advice about handling lady customers. For three or four years, some ten years back, Father and Mr. Pilkings had displayed ill-feeling over the passing of the amiable elastic-sided Congress shoe. But that was practically forgotten, and Father began to feel fairly certain of his job.
There are three sorts of native New-Yorkers: East Side Jews and Italians, who will own the city; the sons of families that are so rich that they swear off taxes; and the people, descendants of shopkeepers and clerks, who often look like New-Englanders, and always listen with timid admiration when New-Yorkers from Ohio or Minnesota or California give them information about the city. To this meek race, doing the city's work and forgotten by the city they have built, belonged the Applebys. They lived in a brown and dusky flat, with a tortoise-shell tabby, and a canary, and a china hen which held their breakfast boiled eggs. Every Thursday Mother wrote to her daughter, who had married a prosperous and severely respectable druggist of Saserkopee, New York, and during the rest of her daytimes she swept and cooked and dusted, went shyly along the alien streets which had slipped into the cobblestoned village she had known as a girl, and came back to dust again and wait for Father's nimble step on the four flights of stairs up to their flat. She was as used to loneliness as a hotel melancholiac; the people they had known had drifted away to far suburbs. In each other the Applebys found all life.
In July, Father began his annual agitation for a vacation. Mr. Pilkings, of Pilkings & Son's Standard Shoe Parlor, didn't believe in vacations. He believed in staying home and saving money. So every year it was necessary for Father to develop a cough, not much of a cough, merely a small, polite noise, like a mouse begging pardon of an irate bee, yet enough to talk about and win him a two weeks' leave. Every year he schemed for this leave, and almost ruined his throat by sniffing snuff to make him sneeze. Every year Mr. Pilkings said that he didn't believe there was anything whatever the matter with Father and that, even if there was, he shouldn't have a vacation. Every year Mother was frightened almost to death by apprehension that they wouldn't be able to get away.
Father laughed at her this July till his fluffy hair shook like a dog's ears in fly-time. He pounded his fist on the prim center-table by which Mother had been solemnly reading the picture-captions in the Eternity Filmco's Album of Funny Film Favorites. The statuettes of General Lafayette and Mozart on the false mantel shook with his lusty thumping. He roared till his voice filled the living-room and hollowly echoed in the porcelain sink in the kitchen.
"Why," he declaimed, "you poor little dried codfish, if it wasn't for me you'd never have a vacation. You trust old dad to handle Pilkings. We'll get away just as sure as God made little apples."
"You mustn't use curse-words," murmured Mother, undiscouraged by forty years of trying to reform Father's vocabulary. "And it would be a just judgment on you for your high mightiness if you didn't get a vacation, and I don't believe Mr. Pilkings will give you one, either, and if it wa'n't for—"
"Why, I've got it right under my hat."
"Yes, you always think you know so much more—"
Father rounded the table, stealthily and treacherously put his lips at her ear, and blew a tremendous "Zzzzzzzz," which buzzed in her ear like a file on a saw-blade.
Mother leaped up, furious, and snapped, "I'm simply ashamed of you, the way you act, like you never would grow up and get a little common sense, what with scaring me into conniption fits, and as I was just going to say, and I only say it for your own good, if you haven't got enough sense to know how little sense you have got, you at your time of life, why, well, all I can say is—you ought to know better."
Then Father and Mother settled peacefully down and forgot all about their disagreement.
Since they had blessedly been relieved of the presence of their talented daughter, who, until her marriage, had been polite to them to such an extent that for years they had lived in terror, they had made rather a point of being naughty and noisy and happy together, but by and by they would get tired and look affectionately across the table and purr. Father tinkered away at a broken lamp-shade till suddenly, without warning, he declared that Mother scolded him merely to conceal her faith in his ability to do anything. She sniffed, but she knew that he was right. For years Mother had continued to believe in the cleverness of Seth Appleby, who, in his youth, had promised to become manager of the shoe-store, and gave the same promise to-day.
Father justified his shameless boast by compelling Mr. Pilkings to grant him the usual leave of absence, and they prepared to start for West Skipsit, Cape Cod, where they always spent their vacations at the farm-house of Uncle Joe Tubbs.
Mother took a week to pack, and unpack, to go panting down-stairs to the corner drug-store for new tubes of tooth-paste and a presentable sponge, to remend all that was remendable, to press Father's flappy, shapeless little trousers with the family flat-iron, to worry over whether she should take the rose-pink or the daffodil-yellow wrapper—which had both faded to approximately the same shade of gray, but which were to her trusting mind still interestingly different. Each year she had to impress Mrs. Tubbs of West Skipsit with new metropolitan finery, and this year Father had no peace nor comfort in the menage till she had selected a smart new hat, incredibly small and close and sinking coyly down over her ear. He was only a man folk, he was in the way, incapable of understanding this problem of fashion, and Mother almost slapped him one evening for suggesting that it "wouldn't make such a gosh-awful lot of difference if she didn't find some new fad to impress Sister Tubbs."
But Mother wearied of repacking their two cheap wicker suit-cases and the brown pasteboard box, and Father suddenly came to the front in his true capacity as boss and leader. He announced, loudly, on the evening before they were to depart, "We're going to have a party to-night, old lady."
At the masterful tones of this man of the world, who wasn't afraid of train or travel, who had gone successfully through the mysteries of purchasing transportation clear to Cape Cod, Mother looked impressed. But she said, doubtfully, "Oh, do you think we better, Father? We'll be traveling and all—"
"Yes-sir-ee! We're going to a movie, and then we're going to have a banana split, and I'm going to carry my cane and smoke a seegar. You know mighty well you like the movies as well as I do."
"Acting up like a young smarty!" Mother said, but she obediently put on her hat—Lord, no, not the new small hat; that was kept to impress West Skipsit, Massachusetts—and as she trotted to the movies beside him, the two of them like solemn white puppies venturing away from their mother, she occasionally looked admiringly up, a whole inch up, at her hero.
They took the steamer for Massachusetts at five o'clock. When the band started to play, when Mother feared that a ferry was going to collide with them, when beautiful youths in boating hats popped out of state-rooms like chorus-men in a musical comedy, when children banged small sand-pails, when the steamer rounded the dream-castles of lower New York, when it seemed inconceivable that the flag-staff could get under Brooklyn Bridge—which didn't clear it by much more than a hundred feet—when a totally new New York of factories and docks, of steamers bound for Ceylon and yachts bound for Newport, was revealed to these old New-Yorkers—then Mother mingled a terrific apprehension regarding ships and water with a palpitating excitement over sailing into the freedom which these two gray-haired children had longed for all their lives, and had found during two weeks of each year.
Father was perfectly tremendous. He apprehensive? Why, he might have been the original man to go down to the sea in ships. Mother wailed that all the deck-chairs had been taken; Father found mountains of chairs and flipped a couple of them open as though he were a steward with service stripes. He was simply immense in his manner of thrusting Mother and himself and his chairs and a mound of shawls and coats into the midst of the crowd gathered at the bow. He noted Mother's nervousness and observed, casually, "Mighty safe, these boats. Like ferries. Safer 'n trains. Yes, they're safer 'n staying home in bed, what with burgulars and fires and everything."
"Oh, do you really think they are safe?" breathed Mother, comforted.
Admirable though Father was, he couldn't sit still. He was wearing a decorative new traveling cap, very smart and extensive and expensive, shaped like a muffin, and patterned with the Douglas tartan and an Etruscan border. He rather wanted to let people see it. He was no Pilkings clerk now, but a world-galloper. With his cap clapped down on one side and his youthful cigarette-holder cocked up on the other, and in his buttonhole a carnation jaunty as a red pompon, with the breeze puffing out the light silver hair about his temples and his pink cheeks glowing in the westering sun, he promenaded round and round the hurricane-deck and stopped to pat a whimpering child. But always he hastened back, lest Mother get frightened or lonely. Once he imagined that two toughs were annoying her, and he glared at them like a sparrow robbed of a crumb.
As he escorted her into the dining-saloon Father's back was straight, his chin very high. He was so prosperous of aspect, so generous and proudly affectionate, that people turned to look. It was obvious that if he had anything to do with the shoe business, he must be a manufacturer in a large way, with profit-sharing and model cottages.
The sun went down; Long Island Sound was shot with red gold as little waves reached up hands at the wonder of light. Father and Mother gazed and ate chocolate ice-cream and large quantities of cake, with the naive relish of people who usually dine at home.
They sat on deck till Mother yawned and nodded and at last said the "Wel-l—" which always means, "Let's go to bed." Father had so inspired her with faith in the comparative safety of their wild voyaging that she was no longer afraid, but just sleepy. She nestled in her chair and smiled shamefacedly and said, "It's only half-past nine, but somehow—". In her drowsiness the wrinkles smoothed away from round her eyes and left her face like that of a plump, tired, happy little girl.
When they were at home Father's and Mother's garments had a way of getting so familiarly mixed that even Mother could scarcely keep their bureau drawers separate. But when they traveled they were aristocrats, and they had entirely separate suit-cases and berths. From the pompous manner in which Father unpacked his bag you would have been utterly beguiled, and have supposed him to be one of those high persons who have whole suites to themselves and see their consorts only at state banquets, when there are celery and olives, and the squire invited to dinner. There was nothing these partners in life more enjoyed than the one night's pretense that they were aloof. But they suddenly forgot their roles; they squealed with pleasure and patted each other's shoulders fondly. For simultaneously they had discovered the surprises. In Mother's suit-case, inside her second-best boots, Father had hidden four slender beribboned boxes of the very best chocolate peppermints; while in Father's seemly nightgown was a magnificent new mouth-organ.
Father was an artist on the mouth-organ. He could set your heart prancing with the strains of "Dandy Dick and the Candlestick." But his old mouth-organ had grown wheezy. Now he sat down and played softly till their tiny inside state-room was filled with a tumbling chorus of happy notes.
When Mother was asleep in the lower berth and Father was believed to be asleep in the upper he slipped on his coat and trousers and kitten-footed out of the state-room to a dark corner of the deck. For, very secretly, Father was afraid of the water. He who had insouciantly reassured Mother had himself to choke down the timorous speculations of a shop-bound clerk. While the sun was fair on the water and there were obviously no leviathans nor anything like that bearing down upon them he was able to conceal his fear—even from himself. But now that he didn't have to cheer Mother, now that the boat rolled forward through a black nothingness, he knew that he was afraid. He sat huddled, and remembered all the tales he had heard of fire and collision and reefs. He vainly assured himself that every state-room was provided with an automatic sprinkler. He made encouraging calculations as to the infrequency of collisions on the Sound, and scoffed at himself, "Why, the most shipping there could be at night would be a couple of schooners, maybe a torpedo-boat." But dread of the unknown was on him.
Father went through this spasm of solitary fear each first night of vacation. It wasn't genuine fear. It was the growing-pain of freedom. The cricket who chirped so gaily when he was with Mother was also a weary man, a prisoner of daily routine. He had to become free for freedom.
Laughingly, then bitterly, he rebuked himself for fear. And presently he was bespelled by the wonder of the unknown. Beyond the water through which they slid, black and smooth as polished basalt, he saw a lighthouse winking. From his steamer time-table he learned that it must be Great Gull Island light. Great Gull Island! It suggested to him thunderous cliffs with surf flung up on beetling rock, screaming gulls, and a smuggler on guard with menacing rifle. He lost his fear of fear; he ceased to think about his accustomed life of two aisles and the show-case of new models and the background of boxes and boxes and boxes of shoes—tokens of the drudgery that was ground into him like grit. The Father who worried was changing into the adventurous wanderer that henceforward he would be—for two weeks. He stretched out his short arms and breathed deeply of the night wind.
Half an hour later he was asleep. But not, it must be confessed, in the aristocratic seclusion of his own berth. He was downily curled beside Mother, his cheek nuzzled beside her delicate old hand.
They changed from steamer to railroad; about eleven in the morning they stepped out at West Skipsit, Cape Cod. Uncle Joe Tubbs and Mrs. Tubbs were driving up, in a country buggy. Father and Mother filled their nostrils with the smell of the salt marshes, their ears with the long murmur of the mile-distant surf, their eyes with the shine of the great dunes and the demure peace of a New England white cottage standing among firs and apple-trees—scent and sound and sight of their freedom.
"Father, we're here!" Mother whispered, her eyes wet. Then, "Oh, do be careful of that box. There's a hat there that's going to make Matilda Tubbs catch her death from envy!"
To the Tubbses, though they were cynical with a hoary wisdom in regard to New-Yorkers and summerites and boarders in general, the annual coming of the Applebys was welcome as cider and buttered toast—yes, they even gave Father and Mother the best chamber, with the four-poster bed and the mirror bordered with Florida shells, at a much reduced rate. They burrowed into their grim old hearts as Uncle Joe Tubbs grubbed into the mud for clams, and brought out treasures of shy affection.
As soon as they reached the Tubbs farm-house the two women went off together to the kitchen, while the men sneaked toward the inlet. Mother didn't show her new hat as yet; that was in reserve to tantalize Mrs. Tubbs with the waiting. Besides, for a day or two the women couldn't take down the bars and say what they thought. But the men immediately pounded each other on the back and called each other "Seth" and "Joe," and, keeping behind banks lest they be seen by young uns, they shamefacedly paddled barefoot—two old men with bare feet and silvery shanks, chuckling and catching crabs, in a salt inlet among rolling hillocks covered with sedge-grass that lisped in the breeze. The grass hollows were filled with quiet and the sound of hovering flies. Beyond was a hill shiny with laurel.
They dug for Little-Neck clams in the mud by the Pond, they discussed the cranberry bog and the war and the daily catch of the traps; they interrupted their sage discourse to whoop at a mackerel gull that flapped above them; they prowled along the inlet to the Outside, and like officials they viewed a passing pogie-boat. Uncle Joe Tubbs ought to have been washing dishes, and he knew it, but the coming of the Applebys annually gave him the excuse for a complete loaf. Besides, he was sure that by now Mother Appleby would be in apron and gingham, helping the protesting yet willing Mrs. Tubbs.
The greatest philosophical theory in the world is that "people are people." The Applebys, who had mellowed among streets and shops, were very much like the Tubbses of Cape Cod. Father was, in his unquenchable fondness for Mother, like Romeo, like golden Aucassin. But also in his sly fondness for loafing on a sunny grass-bank, smoking a vile pipe and arguing that the war couldn't last more than six months, he was very much like Uncle Joe Tubbs. As for Mother, she gossiped about the ancient feud between the West Skipsit Universalists and Methodists, and she said "wa'n't" exactly like Mrs. Tubbs.
There were other boarders at the Tubbses', and before them at supper both of the old couples maintained the gravity with which, vainly, Age always endeavors to impress Youth. Uncle Joe was crotchety, and Mrs. Tubbs was brisk about the butter, and the Applebys were tremendously dignified and washed and brushed, and not averse to being known as superior star boarders from that superior city, New York, personages to whom the opera and the horse-show were perfectly familiar. Father dismissed a small, amateurish war debate by letting it be known that in his business—nature of business not stated—he was accustomed to meet the diplomatic representatives of the very choicest nations, and to give them advice. Which, indeed, he did—regarding shoes. For Pilkings & Son had a rather elite clientele for Sixth Avenue, and Father had with his own hands made glad the feet of the Swedish consul and the Bolivian trade agent.
A man from South Bromfield started to cap the pose, as low persons always do in these boarding-houses, but Father changed the subject, in a slightly peppery manner. Father could be playful with Mother, but, like all men who are worth anything, he could be as Olympian as a king or a woman author or a box-office manager when he was afflicted by young men who chewed gum and were chatty. He put his gold-bowed eye-glasses on the end of his nose and looked over them so wealthily that the summerites were awed and shyly ate their apple-sauce to the last dreg.
Twelve o'clock dinner at the Tubbses' was a very respectable meal, with roasts and vegetables to which you could devote some skill and energy. But supper was more like an after-thought, a sort of afternoon tea without the wrist-watch conversation. It was soon over, the dishes soon washed, and by seven o'clock the Applebys and Tubbses gathered in the sacred parlor, where ordinary summerites were not welcome, where the family crayon-enlargements hung above the green plush settee from Boston, which was flanked by the teak table which Uncle Joe's Uncle Ira had brought from China, and the whale's vertebrae without which no high-caste Cape Cod household is virtuous. With joy and verbal fireworks, with highly insulting comments on one another's play, began the annual series of cribbage games—a world's series, a Davis cup tournament. Doffing his usual tobacco-chewing, collarless, jocose manner, Uncle Joe reverently took from the what-not the ancestral cribbage-board, carved from a solid walrus-tooth. They stood about exclaiming over it, then fell to. "Fifteen-two, fifteen-four, and a pair is six!" rang out, triumphantly. Finally (as happened every year on the occasion of their first game), when the men had magnificently won, Mrs. Tubbs surprised them with refreshments—they would have been jolly well surprised if she hadn't surprised them—and Father played recent New York musical comedy songs on his new mouth-organ, stopping to explain the point of each, whereupon Mother shook her head and said, warningly, "Now, Father, you be careful what you say. Honestly, I don't know what the world is coming to, Mrs. Tubbs, the way men carry on nowadays." But she wasn't very earnest about it because she was gigglingly aware that Uncle Joe was stealing Mrs. Tubbs's share of the doughnuts.
They were all as hysterical as a girls' school during this annual celebration. But Father peeped out of the parlor window and saw the lush moonlight on marsh and field. To Mother, with an awed quiet, "Sarah, it's moonlight, like it used to be—" The Tubbses seemed to understand that the sweethearts wanted to be alone, and they made excuses to be off to bed. On the porch, wrapped in comforters and coats against the seaside chill, Father and Mother cuddled together. They said little—everything was said for them by the moonlight, silvery on the marshes, wistful silver among the dunes, while the surf was lulled and the whole spacious night seemed reverent with love. His hand cradled hers as the hand of a child would close round a lily leaf.
Halcyon days of sitting in rocking-chairs under the beech-trees on locust-zizzing afternoons, of hunting for shells on the back-side shore of the Cape, of fishing for whiting from the landing on the bay side, of musing among the many-colored grasses of the uplands. They would have gone ambling along such dreamland roads to the end of their vacation had it not been for the motor-car of Uncle Joe's son-in-law.
That car changed their entire life. Among the hills of peace there was waiting for them an adventure.
Uncle Joe's son-in-law lived in a portable bungalow a mile away. He rotated crops. He peddled fish with a motor-car. In five minutes he could detach from the back of his car the box in which he carried the fish, clap on a rather rickety tonneau, and be ready to compete in stylish pleasures with the largest limousine from Newport or Brookline. Father and Mother went wheezing about the country with him. Father had always felt that he had the makings of a motorist, because of the distinct pleasure he had felt in motor-bus rides on New York Sundays, and he tactfully encouraged the son-in-law in the touring mania. So it was really Father's fault that they found the tea-room.
The six of them, the Applebys, the Tubbses, and son-in-law and daughter, somewhat cramped as to space and dusty as to garments, had motored to Cotagansuit. Before them, out across the road, hung the sign: Ye Tea Shoppe.
"Say, by Jiminy! let's go into that Tea Shoppy and have some eats," said Father. "My treat."
"Nope, it's mine," said the Tubbses' son-in-law, hypocritically.
"Not a word out of you!" sang out Father, gallantly. "Hey there, chauffeur, stop this new car of mine at the Shoppy."
As the rusty car drew up Mrs. Tubbs and Mother looked rather agitatedly at a group of young people, girls in smocks and men in white flannels, who were making society noises before the brown barn which had been turned into a tea-room. The two old women felt that they weren't quite dressed for a party; they were shy of silken youth. Mrs. Tubbs's daughter was conscious of the fact that her $1.98 wash-dress, shapeless from many washings, was soiled in front. But Uncle Joe, the old hardshell, was never abashed at anything. He shifted his tobacco quid and "guessed he'd have to get some white pants like that young red-headed fellow's."
Then Father again proved himself magnificent. Wasn't he a New-Yorker? "No flossy tea-room and no bunch of young fellows in ice-cream breeches—probably they were only clerks, anyway, if the truth was known!—was going to scare your Uncle Dudley offn tea! Not that he cared so much for tea itself; 'drather have a good cup of coffee, any time; but he didn't want Joe Tubbs to think he wasn't used to fashionable folks." So, with a manner of wearing goggles and gauntlets, he led the women and the shambling son-in-law and the brazenly sloppy Uncle Joe through the flowery youth and into the raftered room, with its new fireplace and old William and Mary chairs, its highboy covered with brassware, and its little tea-tables with slender handicraft vases each containing one marigold. Father ignored all these elegances and commanded a disdainful waitress with a frilly white apron, "Let's have a couple of tables together here, eh?" He himself shifted chairs, and made a joke, and started to select impressive food.
He was used to New York restaurants, and to quite expensive hotels, for at least once a year, on his birthday, Mr. Pilkings took him to lunch at the Waldorf. While he had apparently been devoting himself to arranging the tables his cunning old brain had determined to order tea and French pastry. Apparently the Tea Shoppe was neutral. There was no French pastry on the bill, but, instead, such curious edibles as cinnamon toast, cream cheese, walnut sandwiches, Martha Washington muffins. Nor was the tea problem so easy as it had seemed. To Father there were only two kinds of tea—the kind you got for a nickel at the Automat, and the kind that Mother privately consumed. But here he had to choose intelligently among orange pekoe, oolong, Ceylon, and English-breakfast teas.
Father did a very brave thing, though he probably will never get the Carnegie medal for it. Instead of timidly asking the lofty waitress's advice, he boldly plunged in and ordered two kinds of sandwiches, cinnamon toast, and, because he liked the name, orange pekoe. He rather held his breath, but apparently the waitress took him quite seriously, and some time in the course of the afternoon actually brought him what he had asked for.
Ye Tea Shoppe was artistic. You could tell that by the fact that none of the arts and crafts wares exposed for sale were in the least useful. And it was too artistic, too far above the sordidness of commercialism, to put any prices on the menu-cards. Consequently Father was worried about his bill all the time he was encouraging his guests to forget their uncomfortably decorative surroundings and talk like regular people. But when he saw how skinny were the sandwiches and how reticent the cinnamon toast he was cheered. He calculated that the whole bill couldn't, in decency, be more than ninety cents for the six of them.
In the midst of his nicest flow of fancy about Mother's fear of mice, the bill was laid decorously on its face beside him. Still talking, but hesitating somewhat, he took a peep at the bill. It was for three dollars and sixty cents.
He felt congealed, but he talked on. He slid a five-dollar bill from his diminutive roll and gallantly paid up. His only comment when, in the car, Mother secretly asked how much he had been overcharged, was the reflection, "They certainly ought to make money out of those tea-rooms. Their profit must be something like five hundred per cent. That strikes me as a pretty good way to earn a living, old lady. You live in a nice comfortable place in the country and don't have to do any work but slice bread and stick in chicken or cream cheese, and make five hundred per cent. Say—"
He didn't say it. But Father had been knocked breathless by an idea. He was silent all the way home. He made figures on the last leaf of his little pocket account-book. He manoeuvered to get Mother alone, and exultantly shot his idea at her.
They were beginning to get old; the city was almost too much for them. They would pick out some pretty, rustic spot and invest their savings in a tea-room. At five-hundred per cent. they would make enough during three months of summer to keep them the rest of the year. If they were located on Cape Cod, perhaps they could spend the winter with the Tubbses. They would have a garden; they would keep chickens, dogs, pussies, yes, a cow; they would buy land, acre by acre; they would have a farm to sustain them when they were too old for work; maybe they would open a whole chain of tea-rooms and ride about supervising them in a motor-car big as a house; they would—
"Now hold your horses, Father," she begged, dizzily. "I never did see such a man for running on. You go on like a house afire. You ought to know more, at your time of life, than to go counting your chickens before—"
"I'm going to hatch them. Don't they tell us in every newspaper and magazine you can lay your hand on that this is the Age of the Man with the Idea? Look here. Two slices of home-made bread, I calc'late, don't cost more than three-fifths of a cent, I shouldn't think, and cream cheese to smear on them about half a cent; there's a little over a cent; and overhead—'course you wouldn't take overhead into account, and then you go and say I ain't practical and hatching chickens, and all, but let me tell you, Sarah Jane Appleby, I'm a business man and I've been trained, and I tell you as Pilkings has often said to me, it's overhead that makes or breaks a business, that's what it is, just like he says, yes, sir, overhead! So say we'll allow—now let me see, ten plus ten is twenty, and one six-hundredth of twenty would be—six in two is—no, two in six is—well, anyway, to make it ab-so-lute-ly safe, we'll allow a cent and a half for each sandwich, to cover overhead and rent and fuel, and then they sell a sandwich at fifteen cents, which is, uh, the way they figure percentage of profit—well, make it, say, seven hundred per cent.! 'Course just estimating roughly like. Now can you beat that? And tea-rooms is a safe, sound, interesting, genteel business if there ever was one. What have you got to say to that?"
Father didn't often thus deluge her with words, but then he didn't often have a Revolutionary Idea. She had never heard of "overhead," and she was impressed; though in some dim confused way she rather associated "overhead" with the rafters of the tea-room. She emerged gasping from the shower, and all she could say was: "Yes: it would be very genteel. And I must say I always did like them hand-painted artistic things. But do you really think it would be safe, Father?"
"Safe? Pooh! Safe's the bank!"
They were in for it. Of course they were going to discuss it back and forth for months, and sit up nights to make figures on the backs of laundry-bills. But they had been fated the moment Father had seen Mother and himself as delightful hosts playing with people in silk sweaters, in a general atmosphere of roses, fresh lobster, and gentility.
They explored the Cape for miles around, looking for a place where they might open a tea-room if they did decide to do so. They said good-by to the Tubbses and returned to New York, to the noisy streets and the thankless drudgery at Pilkings & Son's.
In December they definitely made up their minds to give up the shoe business, take their few hundred dollars from the bank, and, the coming summer, open a tea-room in an old farm-house on the Cliffs at Grimsby Head, Cape Cod.
Out of saving money for the tea-room, that winter, the Applebys had as much fun as they had ever found in spending. They were comrades, partners in getting along without things as they had been partners in working to acquire little luxuries. They went to the movies only once a month—that made the movies only the more thrilling! On the morning before they were to go Father would pound softly on the pillow by Mother's head and sing, "Wake up! It's a fine day and we're going to see a photoplay to-night!"
Mother did without her chocolate peppermints, and Father cut his smoking down to one cigarette after each meal—though occasionally, being but a mortal man, he would fall into sinful ways and smoke up three or four cigarettes while engaged in an enthralling conversation regarding Mr. Pilkings's meanness with fellow-clerks at lunch at the Automat. Afterward he would be very repentant; he would have a severe case of conviction of sin, and Mother would have to comfort him when he accused himself:
"Seems as if I couldn't doggone never learn to control myself. I ain't hopeless, am I? I declare, I'm disgusted with myself when I think of your going without your chocolates and me just making a profane old razorback hog of myself."
There was no sordidness in their minute economy; no chill of poverty; they were saving for an excursion to paradise. They crowed as they thought of the beauty of their discovery: lonely Grimsby Head, where the sea stretched out on one side of their house and moors on the other, with the State road and its motorists only two hundred feet from their door. Though they should live in that sentinel house for years, never would they enjoy it more than they now did in anticipation when they sat of an evening in their brown flat, looking down on a delicatessen, a laundry, and a barber-shop, and planned to invest in their house of accomplished dreams the nickels they were managing to save.
The only thing that worried Father was the fact that their project put upon Mother so great a burden in the way of preparations. At first he took it for granted that only women could know about tea and tea-cups, decorations and paper napkins and art and the disposal of garbage. He determined to learn. By dint of much deep ratiocination while riding in the Elevated between flat and store he evolved the new idea—cheapness.
It was nonsense, he decided, to have egg-shell china and to charge fifteen cents for tea. Why not have neat, inexpensive china, good but not exorbitant tea, and charge only five or ten cents, as did the numerous luncheon-places he knew? Mother eagerly agreed.
Then the man of ideas began to turn his brain to saving Mother the trouble of selecting the tea-room equipment. It was not an easy problem for him. This gallant traveler, who wore his cap so cockily and paid a three-dollar-and-sixty-cent check so nonchalantly when he was traveling, was really an underpaid clerk.
He began by informing himself on all the technicalities of tea-rooms. He lunched at tea-rooms. He prowled in front of tea-rooms. He dreamed about tea-rooms. He became a dabster at tucking paper napkins into his neat little waistcoat without tearing them. He got acquainted with the waitress at the Nickleby Tavern, which was not a tavern, though it was consciously, painstakingly, seriously quaint; and he cautiously made inquiry of her regarding tea and china. During his lunch-hours he frequented auction sales on Sixth Avenue, and became so sophisticated in the matter of second-hand goods that the youngest clerk at Pilkings & Son's, a child of forty who was about to be married, respectfully asked Father about furnishing a flat. He rampaged through department stores without buying a thing, till store detectives secretly followed him. He read the bargain-sale advertisements in his morning paper before he even looked at the war-news head-lines.
Father was no fool, but he had been known to prefer kindliness to convenience. When he could get things for the same price he liked to buy them from small struggling dealers rather than from large and efficient ones—thereby, in his innocent way, helping to perpetuate the old system of weak, unskilled, casual, chaotically competitive businesses. This kindliness moved him when, during his search for information about tea-room accessories, he encountered a feeble but pretentious racket-store which a young Hungarian had established on Twenty-sixth Street, just off Sixth Avenue. The Hungarian and one girl assistant were trying by futile garish window-decorations to draw trade from the great department stores and the five-and-ten-cent stores on one side of them and the smart shops on the other side. But the Hungarian was clever, too clever. He first found out all of Father's plans, then won Father's sympathy. He coughed a little, and with a touching smile which was intended to rouse admiration, declared that his lungs were bad, but never mind, he would fight on, and go away for a rest when he had succeeded. He insinuated that, as he was not busy now, he could do all the buying and get better terms from wholesalers or bankruptcy bargain sales than could Father himself. The Hungarian's best stock in trading with Father was to look young and pathetically threadbare, to smile and shake his head and say playfully, as though he were trying to hide his secret generosity by a pretense of severity, "But of course I'd charge you a commission—you see I'm a hard-hearted fella."
It was January. In a month, now, Mother would be grunting heavily and beginning the labor of buying for the tea-room. So far she had done nothing but crochet two or three million tidies for the tea-room chairs, "to make them look homey."
The Hungarian showed Father tea-cups with huge quantities of gold on them. He assured Father that it was smarter to buy odd cups—also cheaper, as thus they could take advantage of broken lots and closing-out sales. Fascinated, Father kept hanging around, and at last he bolted frantically and authorized the Hungarian to purchase everything for him.
Which the Hungarian had already done, knowing that the fly was on the edge of the web.
You know, the things didn't look so bad, not so very bad—as long as they were new.
Tea-cups and saucers gilded like shaving-mugs and equally thick. Golden-oak chairs of mid-Chautauquan patterns, with backs of saw-mill Heppelwhite; chairs of cane and rattan with fussy scrolls and curlicues of wicker, the backs set askew. Reed tables with gollops of wicker; plain black wooden tables that were like kitchen tables once removed; folding-tables that may have been suitable to card-playing, if you didn't play anything more exciting than casino. Flat silver that was heavily plated except where it was likely to wear. Tea-pots of mottled glaze, and cream-jugs with knobs of gilt, and square china ash-trays on which one instinctively expected to find the legend "Souvenir of Niagara Falls." Too many cake-baskets and too few sugar-bowls. Dark blue plates with warts on the edges and melancholy landscapes painted in the centers. Chintzes and wall-papers of patterns fashionable in 1890. Tea-cartons that had the most inspiring labels; cocoa that was bitter and pepper that was mild; preserves that were generous with hayseed and glucose.
But everything was varnished that could be varnished; everything was tied with pink ribbon that would stand for it; the whole collection looked impressively new to a man accustomed to a shabby flat; the prices seemed reasonable; and Mother was saved practically all the labor of buying.
She had clucked comfortably every time he had worried aloud about her task. Yet she was secretly troubled. It gave her a headache to climb down the four flights of stairs from their flat. The acrid dust of the city streets stung her eyes, the dissonant grumble of a million hurrying noises dizzied her, and she would stand on a street-corner for five minutes before daring to cross. When Father told her that all the buying was done, and awaiting her approval, she gasped. But she went down with him, was impressed by the shininess and newness of things—and the Hungarian was given a good share of the Applebys' life-savings, agitatedly taken out of the savings-bank in specie.
They had purchased freedom. The house at Grimsby Head was eager for them. Mother cried as she ripped up the carpet in their familiar flat and saw the treasured furniture rudely crated for shipment to the unknown. She felt that she was giving up ever so many metropolitan advantages by leaving New York so prematurely. Why, she'd never been inside Grant's Tomb! She'd miss her second cousin—not that she'd seen the cousin for a year or two. And on the desert moors of Grimsby she couldn't run across the street to a delicatessen. But none of the inconveniences of going away so weighed upon her spirit as did the memory of their hours together in this flat.
But when she stood with him on the steamer again, bound for the Cape, when the spring breeze gave life to her faded hair, she straightened her shoulders and stood like a conqueror.
"Gee! we'll be at Grimsby to-morrow," piped Father, throwing his coat open and debonairly sticking his thumbs into his lower waistcoat pockets. "The easy life for me, old lady. I'm going to sit in a chair in the sun and watch you work."
"How you do run on!" she said. "You wait and find out the way you have to wash dishes and all. We'll see what we see, my fine young whiffet."
"Say, James J. Jerusalem but I've got a fine idea. I know what we'll call the tea-room—'The T Room'—see, not spelling out the T. Great, eh?"
It was May in Arcady, and those young-hearted old lovers, Mr. and Mrs. Seth Appleby, were almost ready to open the tea-room. They had leased for a term of two years an ancient and weathered house on the gravel cliffs of Grimsby Head. From the cliffs the ocean seemed more sweepingly vast than when beheld from the beach, and the plain of it was colored like a pearly shell. To the other side of their dream-house were moors that might have been transplanted from Devon, rolling uplands covered with wiry grass that was springy to the feet, dappled with lichens which gave to the spacious land its lovely splashes of color—rose and green and sulphur and quiet gray.
It was a lonely countryside; the nearest signs of human life were a church gauntly silhouetted on the hill above Grimsby Center, two miles away, and a life-saving station, squat and sand-colored, slapped down in a hollow of the cliffs. But near the Applebys' door ran the State road, black and oily and smooth, on which, even at the beginning of the summer season, passed a procession of motors from Boston and Brockton, Newport and New York, all of them unquestionably filled with people who would surely discover that they were famished for tea and preserves and tremendous quantities of sandwiches, as soon as Father and Mother hung out the sign, "The T Room."
They would open in a day or two, now, when Mother had finished the livid chintz window-curtains. The service-room was already crammed with chairs and tables till it resembled a furniture-store. A maid was established, a Cape Verde Portygee girl from Mashpee. All day long Father had been copying the menu upon the florid cards which he had bought from a bankrupt Jersey City printer—thick gilt-edged cards embossed with forget-me-nots in colors which hadn't quite registered.
From their upper rooms, in which Mother had arranged the furniture to make the new home resemble their New York flat, the Applebys came happily down-stairs for the sunset. They were still excited at having country and sea at their door; still felt that all life would be one perpetual vacation. Every day now they would have the wild peace of the Cape, for two weeks of which, each year, they had had to work fifty weeks. Think of stepping out to a view of the sea instead of a view of Brambach's laundry! They were, in fact, as glad to get into the open as the city-seeking youngster is to get away from it.
On the landward side of the bleak house, crimson-rambler roses were luxuriant, and a stiff shell-bordered garden gave charily of small marigolds. Riches were these, by comparison with the two geraniums in a window-box which had been their New York garden. But they had an even greater pride—the rose-arbor. Sheltered by laurel from the sea winds was a whitewashed lattice, covered with crimson ramblers. Through a gap in the laurels they could see the ocean, stabbingly blue in contrast to the white dunes which reared battlements along the top of the gravel cliff. Far out a coasting schooner blossomed on the blue skyline. Bees hummed and the heart was quiet. Already the Applebys had found the place of brooding blossoms for which they had hoped; already they loved the rose-arbor as they had never loved the city. He nuzzled her cheek like an old horse out at pasture, and "Old honey!" he whispered.
Two days more, and they had the tea-room ready for its opening.
Father insisted on giving the evening over to wild ceremonies. He played "Juanita" and "Kelly with the Green Necktie," and other suitable chants upon that stately instrument, the mouth-organ, and marched through the tea-room banging on a dishpan with the wooden salad-spoon. Suddenly he turned into the first customer, and seating himself in a lordly manner, with his legs crossed, his thumbs in his waistcoat pockets and his hands waving fan-wise, he ordered, "Lettuce sandwiches, sody-water, a tenderloin steak, fish-balls, a bottle of champagne, and ice-cream with beef gravy, and hustle my order, young woman."
Mother was usually too shy for make-believe, but this time she was stirred to stand with her fat doll-arms akimbo, and to retort, "You'll get nothing here, young fellow. This is a place for ladies and gents only!"
They squealed and hugged each other. From the kitchen door the Portygee maid viewed her employers with lofty scorn, as Father gave a whole series of imitations of the possible first customer, who, as variously presented, might be Jess Willard, Senator Lodge, General von Hindenburg, or Mary Pickford.
At four next afternoon, with the solemn trembling of an explorer hoisting the flag to take possession of new territory, they hung out their sign, stepped back to admire it as it swung and shone against the crimson ramblers, and watched for the next motor-car.
It was coming! It was a seven-passenger car, filled with women in blanket coats. One of them actually waved, as the car approached the little couple who were standing in the sun, unconsciously arm in arm. Then the car had streaked by, was gone round the bend.
The second car passed them, and the third. A long intense period when the road was vacant. Then the fourth and fifth cars, almost together; and the file of motorists turned from exciting prospects into just motorists, passing strangers, oblivious of the two old people under their hopeful sign.
While they were forlornly re-entering the house the eleventh car suddenly stopped, and five hungry people trooped into the tea-room with demands for tea and muffins and cake. The Applebys didn't have muffins, but they did have sandwiches, and everybody was happy. Mother shooed the maid out into the kitchen, and herself, with awkward eagerness to get orders exactly right, leaned over the tea-table. In the kitchen Father stuffed kindling into the stove to bring the water to a boil again, and pantingly seized the bread-knife and attacked a loaf as though he were going to do it a violence. Mother entered, took the knife away from him, and dramatically drove him out to cut up more kindling.
The customers were served. While they ate and drank, and talked about what they had eaten and drunk at lunch at an inn, they were unconscious of two old pairs of eyes that watched them from the kitchen door, as brightly, as furtively, as excitedly as two birds in a secret thicket. The host paid without remarks what seemed to the Applebys an enormous bill, a dollar and sixty cents, and rambled out to the car, still unknowing that two happy people wanted to follow him with their blessings. This history is unable to give any further data regarding him; when his car went round the bend he disappeared from the fortunes of the Applebys, and he was not to know how much blessing he had scattered. I say, perhaps he was you who read this—you didn't by any chance happen to be motoring between Yarmouth and Truro, May 16, 1915, did you? With five in the party; coffee-colored car with one mud-guard slightly twisted?
The season was not quick in opening. To the Applebys the time between mid-May and mid-June was crawlingly slow. On some days they had two orders; some days, none at all. Of an evening, before they could sink into the sunset-colored peace of the rose-arbor, they had to convince themselves that they couldn't really expect any business till the summerites had begun to take their vacations. There was a curious psychological fact. It had always been Father, the brisk burden-bearer, who had comforted the secluded Mother. He had brought back to the flat the strenuousness of business. But inactivity was hard on his merry heart; he fretted and fussed at having nothing to do; he raged at having to throw away unused bread because it was growing stale. It was Mother who reminded him that they couldn't expect business before the season.
Mid-June came; the stream of cars was almost a solid parade; the Portygee maid brought the news that there were summer boarders at the Nickerson farm-house; and the Applebys, when they were in Grimsby Center buying butter and bread, saw the rocking-chair brigade mobilizing on the long white porches of the Old Harbor Inn.
And trade began!
There was no rival tea-room within ten miles. Father realized with a thumping heart that he had indeed chosen well in selecting Grimsby Head. Ten, twelve, even fifteen orders a day came from the motorists. The chronic summerites, they who came to Grimsby Center each year, walked over to see the new tea-room and to purchase Mother's home-made doughnuts. On June 27th the Applebys made a profit of $4.67, net.
As they rested in the rose-arbor at dusk of that day, Father burst out in desperate seriousness: "Oh my dear, my dear, it is going to go! I was beginning to get scared. I couldn't have forgiven myself if I'd let you in for something that would have been a failure. Golly! I've been realizing that we would have been pretty badly up against it if the tea-room hadn't panned out right. I'd have wanted to shoot myself if I'd been and gone and led you into want, old honey!"
Then, after the first of July, when the Cape Cod season really began, business suddenly fell away to nothing. They couldn't understand it. In panic they reduced the price of tea to five cents. No result. They had about one customer a day. They had not looked to Grimsby Center for the cause. That they might personally attend to business they had been sending the maid to the Center for their supplies, while they stuck at home—and wore out their hearts in vain hoping, in terrified wonder as to why the invisible gods had thus smitten them. Not for a week, a week of draining expense without any income to speak of, did they find out.
One July evening they walked to Grimsby Center. Half-way down they came to a new sign, shaped like a tea-pot, declaring in a striking block of print:
MISS MITCHIN OF BROOKLINE ANNOUNCES THE QUAINTEST TEA-ROOM ON THE CAPE. HISTORIC SOULE MANSION, GRIMSBY CENTER. CRUMPETS AND SALLY LUNNS WITH FRESH STRAWBERRY JAM. OPEN JULY 1.
And the Applebys had never heard of crumpets or Sally Lunns.
While the light turned the moors to a wistful lavender, the little old couple stood in a hollow of the road, looking mutely up at the sign that mocked them from its elevation on a bare gravel bank beside the way. Father's shoulders braced; he bit his lips; he reached out for Mother's hand and patted it. He led her on, and it was he who spoke first:
"Oh, that kind of miffle-business won't hurt us any. Girly-girly stuff, that's what it is. Regular autoists would rather have one of your home-made doughnuts than all the crumples in the world, and you can just bet your bottom dollar on that, Sary Jane."
He even chuckled, but it was a feeble chuckle, and he could find no other solace to give as they trudged toward Grimsby Center, two insignificant people, hand in hand, dim in the melancholy light which made mysterious the stretching moors. Presently they and the black highroad disappeared. Only the sandy casual trails and mirror-bright tiny pools stood out in the twilight.
Yet there was light enough for them to see the silhouettes of two more tea-pot signs before they entered Grimsby Center.
The village was gay, comparatively. There was to be a motion-picture show in the town hall, and the sign advertising it was glaring with no less than four incandescent lights. In the Old Harbor Inn the guests were dancing to phonograph music, after their early supper. A man who probably meant well was playing long, yellowish, twilit wails on a cornet, somewhere on the outskirts. Girls in sailor jumpers, with vivid V's of warmly tanned flesh, or in sweaters of green and rose and violet and canary yellow, wandered down to the post-office. To the city-bred Applebys there would have been cheer and excitement in this mild activity, after their farm-house weeks; indeed Father suggested, "We ought to stay and see the movies. Look! Royal X. Snivvles in 'The Lure of the Crimson Cobra'—six reels—that sounds snappy." But his exuberance died in a sigh. A block down Harpoon Street they saw a sign, light-encircled, tea-pot shaped, hung out from a great elm. Without explanations they turned toward it.
They passed a mansion of those proud old days when whalers and China traders and West-Indiamen brought home gold and blacks, Cashmere shawls and sweet sandalwood, Malay oaths and the jawbones of whales. The Applebys could see by the electric lights bowered in the lilac-bushes that a stately grass walk, lined with Madonna lilies and hollyhock and phlox, led to the fanlight-crested white door, above which hung the mocking tea-pot sign. The house was lighted, the windows open. To the right of the hall was the arts-shop where, among walls softened with silky Turkish rugs and paintings of blue dawn amid the dunes, were tables of black-and-white china, sports hats, and Swiss toys, which the Grimsby summer colony meekly bought at the suggestion of the sprightly Miss Mitchin.
To the left was the dining-room, full of small white candle-lighted tables and the sound of laughter.
"Gosh! they even serve supper there!" Father's voice complained. He scarcely knew that he had spoken. Like Mother, he was picturing their own small tea-room and the cardboard-shaded oil-lamp that lighted it.
"Come, don't let's stand here," said Mother, fiercely, and they trailed forlornly past. They were not so much envious as in awe of Miss Mitchin's; it seemed to belong to the same unattainable world as Newport and the giant New York hotels.
The Applebys didn't know it, but Grimsby Center had become artistic. They couldn't know it, but that sharp-nosed genius-hound Miss Mitchin was cashing in on her salon. She came from Brookline, hence Massachusetts Brahmins of almost pure caste could permit themselves to be seen at her tea-room. But nowadays she spent her winters in New York, as an artistic photographer, and she entertained interior decorators, minor fiction-writers, and minus poets with free food every Thursday evening. It may be hard to believe, but in A.D. 1915 she was still calling her grab-bag of talent a "salon." It was really a saloon, with a literary free-lunch counter. In return, whenever they could borrow the price from commercialized friends, the yearners had her take their photographs artistically, which meant throwing the camera out of focus and producing masterpieces which were everything except likenesses.
When Miss Mitchin resolved to come to Grimsby Center her group of writers, who had protected themselves against the rude, crude world of business men and lawyers by living together in Chelsea Village, were left defenseless. They were in danger of becoming human. So they all followed Miss Mitchin to Grimsby, and contentedly went on writing about one another.
There are many such groups, with the same summer watering-places and the same winter beering-places. Some of them drink hard liquor and play cards. But Miss Mitchin's group were very mild in manner, though desperately violent in theory. The young women wore platter-sized tortoise-shell spectacles and smocks that were home-dyed to a pleasing shrimp pink. The young men also wore tortoise-shell spectacles, but not smocks—not usually, at least. One of them had an Albanian costume and a beard that was a cross between the beard of an early Christian martyr on a diet and that of a hobo who merely needed a shave. Elderly ladies loved to have him one-step with them and squeeze their elbows.
All of the yearners read their poetry aloud, very superior, and rising in the inflections. It is probable that they made a living by taking in one another's literary washing. But they were ever so brave about their financial misfortunes, and they could talk about the ballet Russe and also charlotte russes in quite the nicest way. Indeed it was a pretty sight to see them playing there on the lawn before the Mitchin mansion, talking about the novels they were going to write and the revolutions they were going to lead.
Had Miss Mitchin's ballet of hobohemians been tough newspapermen they wouldn't have been drawing-cards for a tea-room. But these literary ewe-lambs were a spectacle to charm the languishing eyes of the spinsters who filled the Old Harbor Inn and the club-women from the yellow water regions who were viewing the marvels of nature as displayed on and adjacent to the ocean. Practically without exception these ladies put vine leaves in their hair—geranium leaves, anyway—and galloped to Miss Mitchin's, to drink tea and discuss Freud and dance the fox-trot in a wild, free, artistic, somewhat unstandardized manner.
Because it was talked about and crowded, ordinary untutored motorists judged Miss Mitchin's the best place to go, and permitted their wives to drag them past the tortoise-shell spectacles and the unprostituted art and the angular young ladies in baggy smocks breaking out in sudden irresponsible imitations of Pavlova.
None of this subtlety, this psycho-analysis and fellowship of the arts, was evident to the Applebys. They didn't understand the problem, "Why is a Miss Mitchin?" All that they knew, as they dragged weary joints down the elm-rustling road and back to the bakery on Main Street, was that Miss Mitchin's caravanserai was intimidatingly grand—and very busy.
They were plodding out of town again when Mother exclaimed, "Why, Father, you forgot to get your cigarettes."
"No, I— Oh, I been smoking too much. Do me good to lay off."
They had gone half a mile farther before she sighed: "Cigarettes don't cost much. 'Twouldn't have hurt you to got 'em. You get 'em the very next time we're in town—or send Katie down. I won't have you denying—"
Her voice droned away. They could think of nothing but mean economies as they trudged the wide and magic night of the moors.
When they were home, and the familiar golden-oak chairs and tidies blurred their memory of Miss Mitchin's crushing competition, Father again declared that no dinky tea-pot inn could permanently rival Mother's home-made doughnuts. But he said it faintly then, and more faintly on the days following, for inactivity again enervated him—made him, for the first time in his life, feel almost old.
Apparently the Applebys' customers had liked "The T Room" well enough—some of them had complimented Mrs. Appleby on the crispness of her doughnuts, the generousness of her chicken sandwiches. Those who had quarreled about the thickness of the bread or the vagueness of flavor in the tea Father had considered insulting, and he had been perky as a fighting-sparrow in answering them. A good many must have been pleased, for on their trip back from Provincetown they returned, exclaimed that they remembered the view from the rose-arbor, and chatted with Father about the roads and New York and fish. As soon as the first novelty of Miss Mitchin's was gone, the Applebys settled down to custom which was just large enough to keep their hopes staggering onward, and just small enough to eat away their capital a few cents a day, instead of giving them a profit.
In the last week of July they were visited by their daughter Lulu—Lulu the fair, Lulu the spectacled, Lulu the lily wife of Harris Hartwig, the up-to-date druggist of Saserkopee, New York.
Lulu had informed them two weeks beforehand that they were to be honored with the presence of herself and her son Harry; and Father and Mother had been unable to think of any excuse strong enough to keep her away. Lulu wasn't unkind to her parents; rather, she was too kind; she gave them good advice and tried to arrange Mother's hair in the coiffures displayed by Mrs. Edward Schuyler Deflaver of Saserkopee, who gave smart teas at the Woman's Exchange. Lulu cheerily told Father how well he was withstanding the hand of Time, which made him feel decrepit and become profane.
In fact, though they took it for granted that they adored their dear daughter Lulu, they knew that they would not enjoy a single game of cribbage, nor a single recital by Signor Sethico Applebi the mouth-organ virtuoso, as long as she was with them. But she was coming, and Mother frantically cleaned everything and hid her favorite old shoes.
Mrs. Lulu Hartwig arrived with a steamer-trunk, two new gowns, a camera, and Harry. She seemed disappointed not to find a large summer hotel with dancing and golf next door to "The T Room," and she didn't hesitate to say that her parents would have done better—which meant that Lulu would have enjoyed her visit more—if they had "located" at Bar Harbor or Newport. She rearranged the furniture, but as there was nothing in the tea-room but chairs, tables, and a fireplace, there wasn't much she could do.
She descended on Grimsby Center, and came back enthusiastic about Miss Mitchin's. She had met the young man with the Albanian costume, and he had talked to her about vorticism and this jolly new Polish composer with his suite for tom-tom and cymbals. She led Father into the arbor and effervescently demanded, "Why don't Mother and you have a place like that dear old mansion of Miss Mitchin's, and all those clever people there and all?"
Father fairly snarled, "Now look here, young woman, the less you say about Miss Mitten the more popular you'll be around here. And don't you dare to speak to your mother about that place. It's raised the devil with our trade, and I won't have your mother bothered with it. And if you mean the young fellow that needs a decent pair of pantaloons by this 'Albanian costume' business, why I sh'd think you'd be ashamed to speak of him."
"Now, Father, of course you have particularly studied artists—"
"Look here, young woman, when you used to visit us in New York, it was all right for you to get our goats by sticking your snub nose in the air and asking us if we'd read a lot of new-fangled books that we'd never heard of. I'll admit that was a good way to show us how superior you were. But this Miss Mitten place is a pretty serious proposition for us to buck, and I absolutely forbid you to bother your mother with mentioning it."
Father stood straight and glared at her. There was in him nothing of the weary little man who was in awe of Miss Mitchin's. Even his daughter was impressed. She forgot for a moment that she was Mrs. Hartwig, now, and had the best phonograph in Saserkopee. But she took one more shot:
"All the same, it would be a good thing for you if you had some clever people—or some society people—coming here often. It would advertise the place as nothing else would."
"Well, we'll see about that," said Father—which meant, of course, that he wouldn't see about it.
Lulu Hartwig was a source of agitation for two weeks. After Father's outbreak she stopped commenting, but every day when business was light they could feel her accusingly counting the number of customers. But she did not become active again till the Sunday before her going.
The Applebys were sitting up-stairs, that day, holding hands and avoiding Lulu. Below them they heard a motor-car stop, and Mother prepared to go down and serve the tourists. The brazen, beloved voice of Uncle Joe Tubbs of West Skipsit blared out: "Where's the folks, heh? Tell 'em the Tubbses are here."
And Lulu's congealed voice, in answer: "I don't know whether they are at home. If they are, who shall I tell them is calling, please?"
"Huh? Oh, well, just say the Tubbses."
"Mr. and Mrs. Tubbs?"
"Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!"
By this time Father and Mother were galloping down-stairs. They welcomed the Tubbses with yelps of pleasure; the four of them sat in rockers on the grass and talked about the Tubbses' boarders, and the Applebys admired to hear that Uncle Joe now ran the car himself. But all of them were conscious that Lulu, in a chiffon scarf and eye-glasses, was watching them amusedly, and the Tubbses uneasily took leave in an hour, pleading the distance back to West Skipsit.
Not till evening, when he got the chance to walk by himself on the beach below the gravel cliffs, did Father quite realize what his daughter had done—that, with her superior manner, she had frightened the Tubbses away. Yet there was nothing to do about it.
Even at her departure there was a certain difficulty, for Lulu developed a resolution to have her parents visit her at Saserkopee. Perhaps she wished to show them in what state she now lived; or it may conceivably be that, in her refined and determined manner, she was fond of her parents. She kissed them repeatedly and was gone with much waving of a handkerchief and yelps of "Now don't forget—you're you're to visit me—be sure and write—Harry, don't stick your head out of the window, d'yuhhearme?"
* * * * *
Lulu's visit had two effects upon the lives of Father and Mother. They found that their quiet love had grown many-fold stronger, sweeter, in the two weeks it had been denied the silly fondnesses of utterance. They could laugh, now that there was no critic of their shy brand of humor. Father stopped on the step and winked an immense shameless wink at Mother, and she sighed and said, with unexpected understanding, "Yes, I'm afraid Lulu is a little—just a leet-le bit—"
"And I reckon we won't be in such a gosh-awful hustle to visit her."
Mother was so vulgar as to grunt, "Well, I guess not!"
That evening they sat in the rose-arbor again. And had tone poems on the mouth-organ. And dreamed that something would happen to make their investment pay.
Another result there was of Lulu's visit. Father couldn't help remembering her suggestion that they ought to bag a social or artistic lion as an attraction for "The T Room." He was delighted to find that, after weeks of vacuous worry, he had another idea.
Now that August, the height of the season, had come, he would capture Mrs. Vance Carter herself.
Mrs. Vance Carter was the widow of the Boothbay Textile Mills millions. She was a Winslow on her father's side, a Cabot on her mother's, and Beacon Street was officially swept from end to end and tidied with little pink feather dusters whenever she returned to Boston. She was so solid that society reporters didn't dare write little items about her, and when she was in Charleston she was invited to the Saint Cecilia Ball. Also she was rather ignorant, rather unhappy, and completely aimless. She and her daughter spent their summers three miles from Grimsby Head, in an estate with a gate-house and a conservatory and a golf course and a house with three towers and other architecture. When America becomes a military autocracy she will be Lady Carter or the Countess of Grimsby.
The Applebys saw her go by every day, in a landaulet with liveried chauffeur and footman.
With breathless secrecy Father planned to entice Mrs. Vance Carter to "The T Room." Once they had her there, she would certainly appreciate the wholesome goodness of Mother's cooking. He imagined long intimate conversations in which Mrs. Carter would say to him, "Mr. Appleby, I can't tell you how much I like to get away from my French cook and enjoy your nice old house and Mrs. Appleby's delicious homey doughnuts." It was easy to win Mrs. Carter, in imagination. Sitting by himself in the rose-arbor while Mother served their infrequent customers or stood at the door unhappily watching for them, Father visualized Mrs. Carter exclaiming over the view from the arbor, the sunset across the moors as seen from their door—which was, Father believed, absolutely the largest and finest sunset in the world. He even went so far as to discover in Mrs. Vance Carter, Mrs. Cabot-Winslow-Carter, a sneaking fondness for cribbage, which, in her exalted social position, she had had to conceal. He saw her send the chauffeur away, and cache her lorgnette, and roll up her sleeves, and simply wade into an orgy of cribbage, with pleasing light refreshments of cider and cakes waiting by the fireplace. Then he saw Mrs. Carter sending all her acquaintances to "The T Room," and the establishment so prosperous that Miss Mitchin would come around and beg the Applebys to enter into partnership.
Father was not such a fool as to believe all his fancies. But hadn't he heard the most surprising tales of how friendly these great folk could be? Why here just the other day he had been reading in the boiler-plate innards of the Grimsby Recorder how Jim Hill, the railroad king, had dropped off at a little station in North Dakota one night, incog., and talked for hours to the young station-master.
He was burning to do something besides helping Mother in the kitchen—something which would save them and pull the tea-room out of the hole. Without a word to Mother he started for Grimsby Hill, the estate of Mrs. Vance Carter. He didn't know what he was going to do, but he was certain that he was going to do something.
As he arrived at the long line of iron picket fence surrounding Grimsby Hill, he saw Mrs. Carter's motor enter the gate. It seemed to be a good omen. He hurried to the gate, peered in, then passed on. He couldn't go and swagger past that exclusive-looking gate-house and intrude on that sweep of rhododendron-lined private driveway. He walked shyly along the iron fence for a quarter of a mile before he got up courage to go back, rush through the towering iron gateway and past the gate-house, into the sacred estate. He expected to hear a voice—it would be a cockney servant's voice—demanding, "'Ere you, wot do you want?" But no one stopped him; no one spoke to him; he was safe among the rhododendrons. He clumped along as though he had important business, secretly patting his tie into shape and smoothing his hair. Just let anybody try to stop him! He knew what he was about! But he really didn't know what he was about; he hadn't the slightest notion as to whether he would go up and invite their dear cribbage-companion Mrs. Carter to come and see them or tack up a "T Room" advertisement on the porch.
He came to a stretch of lawn, with the house and all its three towers scowling down at him. Behind it were the edges of a group of out-buildings. He veered around toward these. Outside the garage he saw the chauffeur, with his livery coat off, polishing a fender. Great! Perhaps he could persuade the chauffeur to help him. He put on what he felt to be a New York briskness, furtively touched his tie again, and skipped up to the chauffeur.
"Fine day!" he said, breezily, starting with the one neutral topic of conversation in the world.
"What of it?" said the chauffeur, and went on polishing.
"Well, uh, say, I wanted to have a talk with you."
"I guess there's nothing stopping you. G'wan and have your talk. I can't get away. The old dragon wanted to have a talk with me, too, this morning. So did the housekeeper. Everybody does." And he polished harder than ever.
"Ha, ha!" Which indicates Father's laughter, though actually it sounded more like "Hick, hick!" As carelessly as he could Father observed: "That's how it goes, all right. I know. When I was in the shoe business—"
"Waal, waal, you don't say so, Si! Haow's the shoe business in Hyannis, papa?"
"Hyannis, hell! I've been in business in New York City, New York, for more than forty years!"
Father felt that he had made an impression. He stuck his thumbs in his waistcoat pockets—as he had not done these six gloomy weeks—threw out his chest, and tried to look like Thirty-fourth and Broadway, with a dash of Wall Street and a flavor of Fifth Avenue.
The chauffeur sighed, "Well, all I can say is that any guy that's lived in New York that long and then comes to this God-forsaken neck of land is a nut."
With an almost cosmic sorrow in his manner and an irritated twist in his suspenders, the chauffeur disappeared into the garage. Father forlornly felt that he wasn't visibly getting nearer to the heart and patronage of Mrs. Vance Carter.
He stood alone on the cement terrace before the garage. The square grim back of the big house didn't so much "look down on him" as beautifully ignore him. A maid in a cap peeped wonderingly at him from a window. A man in dun livery wheeled a vacuum cleaner out of an unexpected basement door. An under-gardener, appearing at the corner, dragging a cultivator, stared at him. Far off, somewhere, he heard a voice crying, "Fif' love!" He could see a corner of a sunken garden with stiff borders of box. He had an uneasy feeling that a whole army of unexpected servants stood between him and Mrs. Vance Carter; that, at any moment, a fat, side-whiskered, expensive butler, like the butlers you see in the movies, would pop up and order him off the grounds.
The unsatisfactory chauffeur reappeared. In a panic Father urged, "Say, my name's Appleby and I run the tea-room at Grimsby Head—you know, couple of miles this side of the Center. It would be pretty nice for our class of business if the Madam was to stop there some time, and I was just wondering, just kinda wondering, if some time when she felt thirsty you c—"
"She don't never tell me when she's thirsty. She just tells me when she's mad."
"Well, you know, some time you might be stopping to show her the view or something—you fix it up, and— Here, you get yourself some cigars." He timidly held out a two-dollar bill. It seemed to bore the chauffeur a good deal, but he condescended to take it. Father tried to look knowing and friendly and sophisticated all at once. He added, "Any time you feel like a good cup o' tea and the finest home-made doughnuts you ever ate, why, you just drop in yourself, and 'twon't cost you a cent."
"All right, 'bo, I'll see what I can do," said the chauffeur, and vanished again.
Father airily stamped along the driveway. His head was high and hopeful. He inspected the tennis-courts as though he were Maurice McLoughlin. He admitted that the rhododendrons were quite extensive. In fact, he liked Grimsby Hill.
He had saved their fortunes—not for himself, but for Mother. He whistled "The Harum-Scarum Rag" all the way home, interrupting himself only to murmur: "I wonder where the back door of that house is. Not at the back, anyway. Never saw even a garbage-pail."
And then for two weeks he sat with Mother in the sun and watched the motors go by.
They were almost ready to admit, now, that their venture was a complete failure; that they were ruined; that they didn't know what they would do, with no savings and a rainy day coming.
They let their maid go. They gave the grocer smaller and smaller orders for bread and butter and cheese—and even these orders were invariably too large for the little custom that came their way.
For a week Father concealed the fact that Mrs. Vance Carter would be coming—not now, but very soon. Then he had to tell Mother the secret to save her from prostrating worry. They talked always of that coming miracle as they sat with hand desperately clutching hand in the evening; they nearly convinced themselves that Mrs. Carter would send her friends. September was almost here, and it was too late for Mrs. Carter's influence to help them this year, but they trusted that somehow, by the magic of her wealth and position, she would enable them to get through the winter and find success during the next year.
They developed a remarkable skill in seeing her car coming far down the road. When either of them saw it the other was summoned, and they waited tremblingly. But the landaulet always passed, with Mrs. Carter staring straight ahead, gray-haired and hook-nosed; sometimes with Miss Margaret Carter, whose softly piquant little nose would in time be hooked like her mother's. Father's treacherous ally the chauffeur never even looked at "The T Room." Sometimes Father wondered if the chauffeur knew just where the house was; perhaps he had never noticed it. He planned to wave and attract the chauffeur's attention, but in face of the prodigious Mrs. Carter he never dared to carry out the plan.
September 1st. The Applebys had given up hope of miracles. They were making up their minds to notify Mr. Pilkings, of Pilkings & Son's Sixth Avenue Standard Shoe Parlor, that Father again wanted the job he had held for so many years.
They must leave the rose-arbor for the noise of that most alien of places, their native New York.
Mother was in the kitchen; Father at the front door, aimlessly whittling. He looked up, saw the Vance Carter motor approach. He shrugged his shoulders, growled, "Let her go to the dickens."
Then the car had stopped, and Mrs. Vance Carter and Miss Margaret Carter had incredibly stepped out, had started up the path to the tea-room.
Father's hand kept on aimlessly whittling, while his eyes poked out like those of a harassed fiddler-crab when he saw Mrs. Vance Carter actually stop. It was surely a dream. In his worry over inactivity he had found himself falling into queer little illusions lately. He was conscious that the chauffeur, whom he had bribed to stop some day, was winking at him in a vulgar manner not at all appropriate to his dove-gray uniform. He had a spasm of indignant wonder. "I'll bet a hat that fellow didn't have a thing to do with this; he's a grafter." Then he sprang up, bowing.
Mrs. Carter rustled up to him and murmured, "May we have some tea, here, and a cake, do you know?"
"Oh yes, ma'am! Won't you step right in? Fine day, ma'am."
Mrs. Carter seemed not to have any opinions regarding the day. Quite right, too; it wasn't an especially fine day; just a day.
She marched in, gave one quick, nervous look, and said, with tremendous politeness: "May we have this table by the window? You have such a charming view over the cliffs."
"Oh yes, ma'am! We hoped some day you'd take that table. Kind of kept the view for you," said Father, with panting gallantry, fairly falling over himself as he rushed across the floor to pull out their chairs and straighten the table-cloth.
Mrs. Carter paid no attention to him whatsoever. She drew a spectacle-case from her small hand-bag and set upon her beetling nose a huge pair of horn-rimmed eye-glasses. She picked up the menu-card as though she were delicately removing a bug—supposing there to be any bug so presumptuous as to crawl upon her smart tan suit. She raised her chin and held the card high.
"Uh, tea, lettuce sandwiches, cream-cheese sandwiches, chicken sandwiches, doughnuts, cinnamon toast," she read off to her daughter.
So quickly that he started, she turned on Father and demanded, "What sort of tea have you, please?"
"Why, uh—just a minute and I'll ask."
Father bolted through the door into the large, clean, woodeny, old-fashioned kitchen, where Mother was wearily taking a batch of doughnuts out of the fat-kettle.
"Mother!" he exulted. "Mrs. Carter—she's here!"
Mother dropped the doughnuts back into the kettle. The splashing fat must have burnt her, but beyond mutely wiping the grease from her hand, she paid no attention to it. She turned paper white. "Oh, Seth!" she groaned. Then, in agony, "After your going and getting them here, I haven't a thing ready for them but lettuce sandwiches and fresh doughnuts."
"Never mind. I'll make them take those. Say, what kind of tea have we got now?"
"Oh, dear! we haven't got a thing left but just—well, it's just tea, mixed."
He galloped back into the tea-room, frightened lest the royal patrons leave before they were served. On the way he resolved to lie—not as the pinching tradesman lies, smugly and unconsciously, but desperately, to save Mother.
"We have orange pekoe and oolong," he gasped.
"Then you might give us some orange pekoe and—oh, two chicken sandwiches."
"Gee! I'm awfully sorry, ma'am, but we're just out of chicken sandwiches. If we'd only known you were coming— But we have some very nice fresh lettuce sandwiches, and I do wish you would try some of our doughnuts. They're fresh-made, just this minute."
He clasped his hands, pressed them till the fingers of one gouged the back of the other. Father was not a Uriah Heep. At Pilkings & Son's he had often "talked back" to some of his best customers. But now he would gladly have licked Mrs. Vance Carter's spatted shoes.
"No—oh, bring us some lettuce sandwiches and some orange pekoe. I don't think we care for any doughnuts," said Mrs. Carter, impatiently.
Father bolted again, and whispered to Mother, who stood where he had left her, "Lettuce sandwiches and tea, and for Heaven's sake make the tea taste as much like orange pekoe as you can."
The Applebys had no delicately adjusted rule about the thickness of bread in sandwiches. Sometimes Mother was moved to make them very dainty, very thin and trim. But now, because he was in such a fever to please the Carters, Father fairly slashed their last loaf of bread, and slapped in the lettuce, while Mother was drawing tea. In two minutes he was proudly entering with the service-tray. He set it down before the Carters; he fussed with a crumb on the table-cloth, with the rather faded crimson rambler in the ornate pressed-glass vase. Mrs. Carter glanced at him impatiently. He realized that he was being officious, and rushed away.
Mother was sitting by the wide kitchen table, which was scarred with generations of use of cleaver and bread-knife and steak-pounder. The kitchen door was open to the broad land, which flowed up to the sill in a pleasant sea of waving grass. But she was turned from it, staring apprehensively toward the tea-room. Round her swirled the heat from the stove, and restless flies lighted on her cheek and flew off at hectic tangents.
Father tiptoed up to her, smiling. "I've left the door open wide enough so you can see them," he whispered. "Come and take a look at them. Mrs. Vance Carter—gee! And her daughter's a mighty pretty girl—not that I think much of these blouses that are cut so low and all."
"Oh, I wouldn't dare—"
Mother stopped short. Quiet as they were, they could distinctly hear the voices from the other room.
The Carter girl—she who was known as "Pig Carter" at Miss Severance's school—was snapping, "What in the world ever made you come to this frightful hole, mama?"
"Simply because I wanted to stop some place, and I really can't stand that mincing Miss Mitchin and her half-baked yearners and that odious creature with the beard and the ballet skirt, again."
"At least Mitchin's shop is better than this awful place. Why, this might be one of those railroad lunch-rooms you see from a train."
"I'm not so sure this really is worse than the Mitchin creature's zoo, Marky. At least this is a perfect study in what not to do. I fancy it would be a good thing for every interior decorator to come here and learn what to avoid. And, you know, they really might have done something with this place—rather a decent old house, with a good plain fireplace. But then, any one could make a charming room, and only a genius could have imagined this combination—an oak dining-room chair with a wicker table and a cotton table-cloth. I'm sure that Exhibition of Bad Taste—wasn't it? I don't pore over the newspapers as you do—that they held in New York would have been charmed to secure that picture of the kittens and the infant."
All this, conveyed in the Carters' clear, high-bred voices, Father and Mother heard perfectly.... The picture of kittens and a baby they had bought just after Lulu's birth, and it had always hung above the couch in their living-room in New York.
Margaret Carter was continuing: "I don't mind the bad taste a bit, but I was hungry after motoring all day, almost, and I did want a decent tea. If you could see that horrid Victorian drawing-room at Miss Severance's you could stand even sticky kitties—in a picture. I don't care about the interior decoration as long as Marky's little interior gets decorated decently. But this tea is simply terrible. Orange pekoe! Why, even Miss Severance's horrid Ceylon is better than this, and she does give you cream, instead of this milk of magnesia or soapy water or whatever the beastly stuff is. And to have to drink it out of these horrid thick cups—like toothbrush mugs. I'm sure I'll find a chewed-up old toothbrush when I get to the bottom."
"Don't be vulgar, Marky. You might remember this is Massachusetts, not New York."
"Well, this Massachusetts lettuce—I'm perfectly convinced that they used it for floor-rags before they went and lost it in the sandwiches—and this thick crumby bread—oh, it's unspeakable. I do wish you wouldn't poke around in these horrid places, mama, or else leave me in the car when you are moved to go slumming. I'm sure I don't feel any call to uplift the poor."
"My dear child, I seem to remember your admiring Freddy Dabney because he is so heroically poor. It's very good for you to come to a place like this. Now you know what it's like to be poor, Marky. You can see precisely how romantic it really is."
"Oh, I'll admit Marky is a perfect little devil. But I do want you to observe that she's been brave enough to eat part of her sandwich. Let's go. Where is the nice smiling little man? Let's pay our bill and go."
Twenty feet from the bored Carters was tragedy. Gray-faced, dumb, Father stood by Mother's chair, stroking her dull hair as she laid her head on the crude kitchen table and sobbed. Mechanically, back and forth, back and forth, his hand passed over her dear, comfortable head, while he listened, even as, on the stairs to the guillotine, a gallant gentleman of old France might have caressed his marquise.
"Mother—" he began. It was hard to say anything when there was nothing to say. "It's all right. They're just silly snobs. They—"
Yes, the Applebys could not understand every detail of what the well-bred Carters had said. "Interior decoration"—that didn't mean anything to them. All that they understood was that they were fools and failures, in the beginning of their old age; that they belonged to the quite ludicrously inefficient.
Father realized, presently, that the Carters were waiting for their bill. For a minute more he stroked Mother's hair. If the Carters would only go from this place they had desecrated, and take their damned money with them! But he had been trained by years of dealing with self-satisfied people in a shoe-store at least to make an effort to conceal his feelings. He dragged himself into the tea-room, kept himself waiting with expressionless face till Mrs. Carter murmured:
"The bill, please?"
Tonelessly he said, "Thirty cents."
Mrs. Carter took out, not three, but four dimes—four nice, shiny, new dimes; she sometimes said at her bank that really she couldn't touch soiled money. She dropped them on the table-cloth, and went modestly on her way, an honorable, clever, rather kindly and unhappy woman who had just committed murder.
Father picked up the ten-cent tip. With loathing he threw it in the fireplace. Then went, knelt down, and picked it out again. Mother would need all the money he could get for her in the coming wintry days of failure—failure he himself had brought upon her.
Having once admitted hopelessness, it was humanly natural that they should again hope that they hoped. For perhaps two weeks after the Carters' visit they pretended that the tea-room was open, and they did have six or seven customers. But late in September Father got his courage up, took out the family pen and bottle of ink, the tablet of ruled stationery and a stamped-envelope, and wrote to Mr. J. Pilkings that he wanted his shoe-store job back.
When he had mailed the letter he told Mother. She sighed and said, "Yes, that is better, after all."
An Indian summer of happiness came over them. They were going back to security. Again Father played the mouth-organ a little, and they talked of the familiar city places they would see. They would enjoy the movies—weeks since they had seen a movie! And they would have, Father chucklingly declared, "a bang-up dinner at Bomberghof Terrace, with music, and yes, by Jiminy! and cocktails!"
For a week he awaited an answer, waited anxiously, though he kept reassuring himself that old Pilkings had promised to keep the job open for him. He received a reply. But it was from Pilkings's son. It informed him that Pilkings, pere, was rather ill, with grippe, and that until he recovered "no action can be taken regarding your valued proposition in letter of recent date."
Bewildered, incredulous, Father had a flash of understanding that he, who felt himself so young and fit, was already discarded.
Mother sat across the kitchen table from him, pretending to read the Grimsby Recorder, but really watching him.
He held his forehead, looked dizzy, and let the letter slip from his fingers. "I—uh—" he groaned. "I— Is there anything I can do for you around the house?"
"Tell me—what did the letter say?"
"Oh, Mother, Mother, maybe I won't get my job back at all! I honestly don't know what we can do."
Running to her, he hid his face in her lap—he, the head of the family, the imperturbable adventurer, changed to a child. And Mother, she who had always looked to him for inspiration, was indeed the mother now. She stroked his cheek, she cried, "Never mind—'course you'll get it back, or a better one!" She made fun of his tousled hair till she had him ruefully smiling. Her voice had a crisp briskness which it had lacked in the days when she had brooded in the flat and waited for her man.
Father could not face another indefinite period of such inactivity as had been sapping him all summer. He longed for the dusty drudgery of Pilkings & Son's; longed to be busy all day, and to bring home news—and money—to Mother at night.
Aside from his personal desires, what were they going to do? They had left, in actual money, less than fifty dollars.
Father did not become querulous, but day by day he became more dependent on Mother's cheer as October opened, as chilly rains began to shut them in the house. When she was not busy, and he was not cutting wood or forlornly pecking away at useless cleanings of the cold and empty tea-room, they talked of what they would do. Father had wild plans of dashing down to New York, of seeing young Pilkings, of getting work in some other shoe-store. But he knew very little about other stores. He was not so much a shoe-clerk as a Pilkings clerk. It had been as important a part of his duties, these many years, to know what to say to Mr. Pilkings as to know what to show to customers. Surely when Pilkings, senior, was well he would remember his offer to keep the job open.
Mother cautiously began to suggest her plan. She spoke fondly of their daughter Lulu, of their grandson Harry, of how estimable and upright a citizen was their son-in-law, Mr. Harris Hartwig of Saserkopee, New York. As Father knew none of these suggestions to have any factual basis whatever his clear little mind was bored by them. Then, after a stormy evening when the fire was warm and they had cheered up enough to play cribbage, Mother suddenly plumped out her plan—to go to Saserkopee and live with daughter till something turned up.
Father shrank. He crouched in his chair, a wizened, frightened, unhappy, oldish man. "No, no, no, no!" he cried. "She is a good girl, but she would badger us to death. She wouldn't let us do one single thing our way. She always acts as though she wanted to make you all over, and I love you the way you are. I'd rather get a job cooking on a fishing schooner than do that."
But he knew Mother's way of sticking to an idea, and he began to persuade himself that Saserkopee was a haven of refuge. Whenever they seemed to be having a peaceful discussion of Lulu Hartwig's canary-yellow sweater, they were hearing her voice, wondering if they could tolerate its twangy comments the rest of their lives.
If the weather was clear they sat out in the rose-arbor as though they were soon to lose it. The roses were dead, now, but a bank of purple asters glowed by the laurel-bushes, and in the garden plucky pansies withstood the chill. They tried to keep up a pretense of happiness, but always they were listening—listening.
There were two or three October days when the sea was blue and silver, sharply and brightly outlined against the far skyline where the deep blue heavens modulated to a filmy turquoise. Gulls followed the furrows of the breakers. Father and Mother paced the edge of the cliff or sat sun-refreshed in the beloved arbor. Then a day of iron sea, cruelly steel-bright on one side and sullenly black on the other, with broken rolling clouds, and sand whisking along the dunes in shallow eddies; rain coming and the breakers pounding in with a terrifying roar and the menace of illimitable power. Father gathered piles of pine-knots for the fire, whistling as he hacked at them with a dull hatchet—trimming them, not because it was necessary, but because it gave him something energetic to do. Whenever he came into the kitchen with an armful of them he found Mother standing at the window, anxiously watching the flurries of sand and rain.
"Be a fine night to sit by the fire," he chirruped. "Guess we'll get out the old mouth-organ and have a little band-concert, admission five bucks, eh?" Something of the old command was in his voice. Mother actually needed his comfort against the black hours of storm!
Though they used a very prosaic stove for cooking, the old farm-house fireplace still filled half the back of the kitchen, and this had become the center of their house. Neither of them could abide the echoing emptiness and shabby grandeur of the tea-room. Before the fireplace they sat, after a supper at which Father had made much of enjoying fish chowder, though they had had it four times in eight days. Cheaper. And very nourishing.
The shutters banged, sand crashed against the panes, rain leaked in a steady drip down one corner of the room, and the sea smashed unceasingly. But Father played "My Gal's a High-born Lady" and "Any Little Girl That's a Nice Little Girl Is the Right Little Girl for Me," and other silly, cheerful melodies which even the hand-organs had forgotten.
There was a sense of glaring mounting light through the window which gave on the cliff.
"I wonder what that is," Mother shuddered. "It's like a big fire. I declare it seems as though the whole world was coming to an end to-night." She turned from the window and shivered over the embers, in her golden-oak rocker which Father had filled with cushions.
He kissed her boyishly and trotted over to the window. The fact that they were alone against the elements, with no apartment-house full of people to share the tumultuous night, weakened her, but delighted him. He cried out, with a feeling of dramatic joy.