MARIA THOMPSON DAVIESS
"The Melting of Molly," "Miss Selina Lue," "Sue Jane," Etc.
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOHN EDWIN JACKSON
NEW YORK THE CENTURY CO.
Published, November, 1913
I DEDICATE THIS BOOK TO HANNAH DAVIESS PITTMAN WHO BLAZED MY TRAIL AND STILL DOES
I. THE LOAD 3
II. THE MAIDEN LANCE 26
III. A FLINT-SPARK 48
IV. SWEETER WHEN TAMED? 79
V. DEEPER THAN SHOULDERS OR RIBS 105
VI. MAN AND THE ASAFETIDA SPOON 136
VII. SOME SMOLDERINGS 173
VIII. AN ATTAINED TO-MORROW 211
IX. DYNAMITE 248
X. TOGETHER? 282
"You don't need another vine," I answered mutinously.....Frontispiece
He stood calmly in the midst of Sallie's family and baggage, both animate and inanimate 38
"Say, Polk, I let the Pup git hung by her apron to the wheel of your car" 98
His gray eyes were positively mysterious with interrupted dreams 182
"We must not allow the men time to get sore over this matter of the League" 218
"Is this right?" he asked 244
"She's our Mother," he said 276
Scrouged so close to his arm that it was difficult for both of them to walk 280
THE TINDER BOX
All love is a gas, and it takes either loneliness, strength of character, or religion to liquefy it into a condition to be ladled out of us, one to another. There is a certain dangerously volatile state of it; and occasionally people, especially of opposite sexes, try to administer it to each other in that form, with asphyxiation resulting to both hearts. And I'm willing to confess that it is generally a woman's fault when such an accident occurs. That is, it is a mistake of her nature, not one of intent. But she is learning!
Also when a woman is created, the winds have wooed star-dust, rose-dew, peach-down, and a few flint-shavings into a whirlwind of deviltry, and the world at large looks on in wonder and sore amazement, as well as breathless interest. I know, because I am one, and have just been waked up by the gyrations of the cyclone; and I'm deeply confounded. I don't like it, and wish I could have slept longer, but Fate and Jane Mathers decreed otherwise. At least Jane decreed, and Fate seems so far helpless to controvert the decree.
I might have known that when this jolly, easy-going old Fate of mine, which I inherited from a lot of indolent, pleasure-loving Harpeth Valley Tennesseans, let me pack up my graduating thesis, my B.S., and some delicious frocks, and go off to Paris for a degree from the Beaux Arts in Architecture, we would be caught up with by some kind of Nemesis or other, and put in our place in the biological and ethnological scheme of existence. Yes, Fate and I are placed, and Jane did it.
Also, I am glad, now that I know what is going to happen to me, that I had last week on shipboard, with Richard Hall bombarding my cardiac regions with his honest eyes and booming voice discreetly muffled to accord with the moonlight and the quiet places around the deck. I may never get that sort of a joy-drink again, but it was so well done that it will help me to administer the same to others when the awful occasion arrives.
"A woman is the spark that lights the flame on the altar of the inner man, dear, and you'll have to sparkle when your time comes," he warned me, as I hurried what might have been a very tender parting, the last night at sea.
"Spark"—she's a conflagration by this new plan of Jane's, but I'm glad he didn't know about it then. He may have to suffer from it yet. It is best for him to be as happy as he can as long as he can.
"Evelina, dear," said Jane, as she and Mary Elizabeth Conners and I sat in the suite of apartments in which our proud Alma Mater had lodged us old grads, returned for our second degrees, "your success has been remarkable, and I am not surprised at all that that positively creative thesis of yours on the Twentieth Century Garden, to which I listened to-night, procured you an honorable mention in your class at the Beaux Arts. The French are a nation that quickly recognizes genius. I am very happy to-night. All your honors and achievements make me only the more certain that I have chosen the right person for the glorious mission I am about to offer you."
"Oh, no, Jane!" I exclaimed, from a sort of instinct for trouble to come. I know that devoted, twenty-second century look in Jane's intense, near-sighted eyes, and I always fend from it. She is a very dear person, and I respectfully adore her. Indeed, I sometimes think she is the real spine in my back that was left out of me, and of its own strength got developed into another and a finer woman. She became captain of my Freshman soul, at the same time she captured the captaincy of the boat crew, on which I pulled stroke, and I'm still hitting the water when she gives the word, though it now looks as if we are both adrift on the high and uncharted seas—or sitting on the lid of a tinder-box, juggling lighted torches.
"You see, dear," she went on to say slowly, drawing Mary Elizabeth into the spell-bound circle of our intensity, as we three sat together with our newly-engraved sheepskins on our knees, "for these two years while you have been growing and developing along all your natural lines in a country which was not your own, in a little pool I should call it, out of even sight and sound of the current of events, we have been here in your own land engaged in the great work of the organization and reorganization which is molding the destinies of the women of our times, and those that come after us. That is what I want to talk to you about, and devoutly have I been praying that your heart will be receptive to the call that has claimed the life of Mary Elizabeth and me. There is a particular work, for which you are fitted as no other woman I have ever known is fitted, and I want to lay the case plainly before you to-night. Will you give me a hearing?"
And the hearing I gave that beloved and devout woman was the reveille that awakened me to this—this whirlwind that seems to be both inside me and outside me, and everywhere else in the whole world.
It's not woman's suffrage; it has gone way down past the road from votes for women. I wish I could have stopped in that political field of endeavor before Jane got to me. She might have left me there doing little things like making speeches before the United States Senate and running for Governor of Tennessee, after I had, single-handed, remade the archaic constitution of that proud and bat-blind old State of my birth; but such ease was not for me.
Of course for years, as all women have been doing who are sensible enough to use the brains God gave them and stop depending on their centuries-seasoned intuitions and fascinations, I have been reading about this feminist revolution that seems all of a sudden to have revoluted from nobody knows where, and I have been generally indignant over things whether I understood them or not, and I have felt that I was being oppressed by the opposite sex, even if I could not locate the exact spot of the pain produced. I have always felt that when I got to it I would shake off the shackles of my queer fondness and of my dependence upon my oppressors, and do something revengeful to them.
When my father died in my Junior year and left me all alone in the world, the first thing that made me feel life in my veins again was the unholy rage I experienced when I found that he had left me bodaciously and otherwise to my fifth cousin, James Hardin.
Cousin James is a healthy reversion to the primitive type of Father Abraham, and he has so much aristocratic moss on him that he reminds me of that old gray crag that hangs over Silver Creek out on Providence Road. Artistically he is perfectly beautiful in an Old-Testament fashion. He lives in an ancient, rambling house across the road from my home, and he is making a souvenir collection of derelict women. Everybody that dies in Glendale leaves him a relict, and including his mother, Cousin Martha, he now has either seven or nine female charges, depending on the sex of Sallie Carruthers's twin babies, which I can't exactly remember, but will wager is feminine.
My being left to him was an insult to me, though of course Father did not see it that way. He adored the Crag, as everybody else in Glendale does, and wouldn't have considered not leaving him precious me. Wanting to ignore Cousin James, because I was bound out to him until my twenty-fifth year or marriage, which is worse, has kept me from Glendale all these four years since father died suddenly while I was away at college, laid up with the ankle which I broke in the gymnasium. Still, as much as I resent him, I keep the letter the Crag wrote me the night after Father died, right where I can put my hand on it if life suddenly panics me for any reason. It covers all the circumstances I have yet met. I wonder if I ought to burn it now!
But, to be honest with myself, I will have to confess that the explosively sentimental scene on the front porch, the night I left for college, with Polk Hayes has had something to do with my cowardice in lingering in foreign climes. I feel that it is something I will have to go on with some day, and the devil will have to pick up the chips. Polk is the kind of man that ought to be exterminated by the government in sympathy for its women wards, if his clan didn't make such good citizens when they do finally marry. He ought at least to be labeled "poison for the very young." I was very young out on the porch that night. Still, I don't resent him like I do the archaic Crag.
And as Jane talked, my seasoned indignation of four years against my keeper flared up, and while she paused at intervals for breath I hurled out plans for his demolishment. I wish now I had been more conservatively quiet, and left myself a loophole, but I didn't. I walked into this situation and shut the door behind me.
"Yes, Evelina, I think you will have to insist forcibly on assuming charge of your own social and financial affairs in your own home. It may not be easy, with such a man as you describe, but you will accomplish it. However, many mediocre women have proved their ability to attend to their own fortunes, and do good business for themselves; but your battle is to be fought on still higher grounds. You are to rise and establish with your fellow-man a plane of common citizenship. You do it for his sake and your own, and for that of humanity."
"Suppose, after I get up there on that plateau, I didn't find any man at all," I ventured faint-heartedly, but with a ripple of my risibles; the last in life I fear.
"You must reach down your hands to them and draw them up to you," she answered in a tone of tonic inspiration. "You are to claim the same right to express your emotions that a man has. You are to offer your friendship to both men and women on the same frank terms, with no degrading hesitancy caused by an embarrassment on account of your sex. It is his due and yours. No form of affection is to be withheld from him. It is to be done frankly and impressively, and when the time comes—" I can hardly write this, but the memory of the wonderful though fanatic light in Jane's eyes makes me able to scrawl it—"that you feel the mating instinct in you move towards any man, I charge you that you are to consider it a sacred obligation to express it with the same honesty that a man would express the same thing to you, in like case, even if he has shown no sign of that impulse toward you. No contortions and contemptible indirect method of attack, but a fearless one that is yours by right, and his though he may not acknowledge it. The barbaric and senseless old convention that denies women the right of selection, for which God has given her the superior instinct, is to be broken down by just such women as you. A woman less dowered by beauty and all feminine charm could not do it just yet, but to you, to whom the command of men is a natural gift, is granted the wonderful chance to prove that it can be done, honestly and triumphantly, with no sacrifice of the sacredness of womanhood."
"Oh, Jane." I moaned into the arm of the chair on which I had bowed my head.
I am moaning; now just as much, down in the bottom of my heart. Where are all my gentle foremothers that smiled behind their lace fans and had their lily-white hands kissed by cavalier gentlemen in starched ruffles, out under the stars that rise over Old Harpeth, that they don't claim me in a calm and peaceful death? Still, as much as I would like to die, I am interested in what is going to happen.
"Yes, Evelina," she answered in an adamant tone of voice, "and when I have the complete record of what, I know, will be your triumphant vindication of the truth that it is possible and advisable for women to assert their divine right to choose a mate for their sacred vocation of bearing the race, I shall proceed, as I have told you, to choose five other suitable young women to follow your example, and furnish them the money, up to the sum of a hundred thousand dollars, after having been convinced by your experience. Be careful to make the most minute records, of even the most emotional phases of the question, in this book for their guidance. Of course, they will never know the source of the data, and I will help you elucidate and arrange the book, after it is all accomplished."
If Jane hadn't had two million dollars all this trouble would not be.
"I can never do it!" I exclaimed with horror, "And the men will hate it—and me. And if I did do it, I couldn't write it."
I almost sobbed as a vision flashed before me of thus verbally snap-shotting the scene with dear old Dickie as we stood against the rail of the ship and watched the waves fling back silvery radiance at the full moon, and I also wondered how I was to render in serviceable written data his husky:
"A woman is the flame that lights the spark—"
Also, what would that interview with Polk Hayes look like reproduced with high lights?
"Now," she answered encouragingly, "don't fear the men, dear. They are sensible and business-like creatures, and they will soon see how much to their advantage it is to be married to women who have had an equal privilege with themselves of showing their preferences. Then only can they be sure that their unions are from real preferences and not compromises, on the part of their wives, from lack of other choice. Of course, a woman's pride will make her refrain from courtship, as does her brother man, until she is financially independent, and self-supporting, lest she be put in the position of a mendicant." Jane has thought the whole thing out from Genesis to Revelation.
Still, that last clause about the mendicant leaves hope for the benighted man who still wants the cling of the vine. A true vine would never want—or be able—to hustle enough to flower sordid dollars instead of curls and blushes.
"A woman would have to be—to be a good deal of a woman, not any less one, to put such a thing across, Jane," I said, with a preflash of some of the things that might happen in such a cruel crusade of reformation and deprivation of rights.
"That is the reason I have chosen you to collect the data, Evelina," answered Jane, with another of those glorious tonic looks, issuing from my backbone in her back. "The ultimate woman must be superb in body, brain, and heart. You are that now more nearly than any one I have ever seen. You are the woman!"
I was silenced with awe.
"Jane plans to choose five girls who would otherwise have to spend their lives teaching in crowded cities after leaving college and to start them in any profession they choose, with every chance of happiness, in the smaller cities of the South and Middle West," said Mary Elizabeth gently, and somehow the tears rose in my eyes, as I thought how the poor dear had been teaching in the high school in Chicago the two glorious years I had been frolicking abroad. No time, and no men to have good times with.
And there were hundreds like her, I knew, in all the crowded parts of the United States. And as I had begun, I thought further. Just because I was embarrassed at the idea of proposing to some foolish man, who is of no importance to me, himself, or the world in general, down in Glendale, where they have all known me all my life, and would expect anything of me anyway after I have defied tradition and gone to college, five lovely, lonely girls would have to go without any delightful suitors like Richard—or Polk Hayes, forever.
And, still further, I thought of the other girls, coming under the influence of those five, who might be encouraged to hold up their heads and look around, and at least help out their Richards in their matrimonial quest, and as I sat there with Jane's compelling and Mary Elizabeth's hungry eyes on me, I felt that I was being besought by all the lovers of all the future generations to tear down some sort of awful barrier and give them happiness. And it was the thought of the men that was most appealing. It takes a woman who really likes them as I do, and has their good really at heart, to see their side of the question as Jane put it, poor dears. Suddenly, I felt that all the happiness of the whole world was in one big, golden chalice, and that I had to hold it steadily to give drink to all men and all women—with a vision of little unborn kiddies in the future.
Then, before I could stop myself, I decided—and I hope the dear Lord—I say it devoutly—indeed I do!—will help that poor man in Glendale if I pick out the wrong one. I'm going to do it.
"I accept your appointment and terms, Jane," I said quietly, as I looked both those devout, if fanatic, women in the face. "I pledge myself to go back to Glendale, to live a happy, healthy, normal life, as useful as I can make it. I had intended to do that anyway, for if I am to evolve the real American garden. I can't do better than sketch and study those in the Harpeth Valley, for at least two seasons all around. I shall work at my profession whole-heartedly, take my allotted place in the community, and refuse to recognize any difference in the obligations and opportunities in my life and that of the men with whom I am thrown, and to help all other women to take such a fearless and honest attitude—if Glendale blows up in consequence. I will seek and claim marriage in exactly the same fearless way a man does, and when I have found what I want I shall expect you to put one hundred thousand dollars, twenty to each, at the disposal of five other suitable young women, to follow my example, as noted down in this book—if it has been successful. Shall I give you some sort of written agreement?"
"Just record the agreement as a note in the book, and I will sign it," answered Jane, in her crispest and most business-like tone of voice, though I could see she was trembling with excitement, and poor Mary Elizabeth was both awe-struck and hopeful.
I'll invite Mary Elizabeth down to Glendale, as soon as I stake out my own claim, poor dear!
And here I sit alone at midnight, with a huge, steel-bound, lock-and-keyed book that Jane has had made for me, with my name and the inscription, "In case of death, send unopened to Jane Mathers, Boston, Massachusetts," on the back, committed to a cause as crazy and as serious as anything since the Pilgrimages, or the Quest of the Knights for the Grail. It also looks slightly like trying to produce a modern Don Quixote, feminine edition, and my cheeks are flaming so that I wouldn't look at them for worlds. And to write it all, too! I have always had my opinion of women who spill their souls out of an ink-bottle, but I ought to pardon a nihilist, that in the dead of night, cold with terror, confides some awful appointment he has had made him, to his nearest friend. I am the worst nihilist that ever existed, and the bomb I am throwing may explode and destroy the human race. But, on the other hand, the explosion might be of another kind. Suppose that suddenly a real woman's entire nature should be revealed to the world, might not the universe be enveloped in a rose glory and a love symphony? We'll see!
Also, could the time ever come when a woman wouldn't risk hanging over the ragged edge of Heaven to hold on to the hand of some man? Never! Then, as that is the case, I see we must all keep the same firm grip on the creatures we have always had, and haul them over the edge, but we must not do it any more without letting them know about it—it isn't honest. Yes, women must solidify their love into such a concrete form that men can weigh and measure it, and decide for themselves whether they want to—to climb to Heaven for it, or remain comfortable old bachelors. We mustn't any more lead them into marriage blinded by the overpowering gaseous fragrance called romantic love.
But, suppose I should lose all love for everybody in this queer quest for enlightenment I have undertaken? Please, God, let a good man be in Glendale, Tennessee, who will understand and protect me—no, that's the wrong prayer! Protect him—no—both of us!
THE MAIDEN LANCE
A woman may shut her eyes, and put a man determinedly out of her heart, and in two minutes she will wake up in an agony of fear that he isn't there. Now, as I have decided that Glendale is to be the scene of this bloodless revolution of mine—it would be awful to carry out such an undertaking anywhere but under the protection of ancestral traditions—I have operated Richard Hall out of my inmost being with the utmost cruelty, on an average of every two hours, for this week Jane and I have been in New York; and I have still got him with me.
I, at last, became determined, and chose the roof-garden at the Astor to tell him good-by, and perform the final operation. First I tried to establish a plane of common citizenship with him, by telling him how much his two years' friendship across the waters had meant to me, while we studied the same profession under the same masters, drew at the same drawing-boards and watched dear old Paris flame into her jeweled night-fire from Montmarte, together. I was frankly affectionate, and it made him suspicious of me.
Then I tried to tell him just a little, only a hint, of my new attitude towards his sex, and before he had had time even to grasp the idea he exploded.
"Don't talk to me as if you were an alienist trying to examine an abstruse case, Evelina," he growled, with extreme temper. "Go on down and rusticate with your relatives for the summer, and fly the bats in your belfry at the old moss-backs, while I am getting this Cincinnati and Gulf Stations commission under way. Then, when I can, I will come for you. Let's don't discuss the matter, and it's time I took you back to your hotel."
Not a very encouraging tilt for my maiden lance.
I've had a thought. If I should turn and woo Dickie, like he does me, I suppose we would be going-so fast in opposite directions that we would be in danger of passing each other without recognizing signals. I wonder if that might get to be the case of humanity at large if women do undertake the tactics I am to experiment with, and a dearth of any kind of loving and claiming at all be the result. I will elucidate that idea and shoot it into Jane. But I have no hope; she'll have the answer ticketed away in the right pigeon-hole, statistics and all, ready to fire back at me.
I have a feeling that Jane won't expect such a diary as this locked cell of a book is becoming, but I can select what looks like data for the young from these soul squirmings, and only let her have those for The Five. I don't know which are which now, and I'll have to put down the whole drama.
And my home-coming last night was a drama that had in it so much comedy, dashed with tragedy, that I'm a little breathless over it yet. Jane, and my mind is breathing unevenly still.
Considering the situation, and my intentions, I was a bit frightened as the huge engine rattled and roared its way along the steel rails that were leading me back, down into the Harpeth Valley. But, when we crossed the Kentucky line, I forgot the horrors of my mission, and I thrilled gloriously at getting hack to my hills. Old Harpeth had just come into sight, as we rounded into the valley and Providence Knob rested back against it, in a pink glow that I knew came from the honeysuckle in bloom all over it like a mantle. I traveled fast into the twilight, and I saw all the stars smile out over the ridge, in answer to the hearth stars in the valley, before I got across Silver Creek. I hadn't let any one know that I was coming, so I couldn't expect any one to meet me at the station at Glendale. There was nobody there I belonged to—just an empty house. I suppose a man coming home like that would have whistled and held up his head, but I couldn't. I'm a woman.
Suddenly, that long glowworm of a train stopped just long enough at Glendale to eject me and my five trunks, with such hurried emphasis that I felt I was being planted in the valley forever, and I would have to root myself here or die. I still feel that way.
And as I stood just where my feet were planted, in the dust of the road, instead of on the little ten-foot platform, that didn't quite reach to my sleeper steps, I felt as small as I really am in comparison to the universe. I looked after the train and groveled.
Then, just as I was about to start running down the track, away from nowhere and to nowhere, I was brought to my senses by a loud boohoo, and then a snubby choke, which seemed to come out of my bag and steamer-blanket that stood in a pile before me.
"Train's gone, train's gone and left us! I knew it would, when Sallie stopped to put the starch on her face all over again. And Cousin James, he's as slow as molasses, and I couldn't dress two twins in not time to button one baby. Oh, damn, oh, damn!" And the sobs rose to a perfect storm of a wail.
Just at that moment, down the short platform an electric light, that was so feeble that it seemed to show a pine-knot influence in its heredity, was turned on by the station-agent, who was so slow that I perceived the influence of a descent from old Mr. Territt, who drove the stage that came down from the city before the war, and my fellow-sufferer stood revealed.
She was a slim, red-haired bunch of galatea, stylish of cut as to upturned nose and straight little skirt but wholly and defiantly unshod save for a dusty white rag around one pink toe. A cunning little straw bonnet, with an ecru lace jabot dangled in her hand, and her big brown eyes reminded me of Jane's at her most inquisitive moments.
"If you was on a train, what did you git offen it here for?" she demanded of me, with both scorn and curiosity in her positive young voice.
"I don't know why," I answered weakly, not at all in the tone of a young-gallant-home-from-the-war mood I had intended to assume towards the first inhabitant of my native town to whom I addressed a remark.
"We was all a-goin' down to Hillsboro, to visit Aunt Bettie Pollard for a whole week, to Cousin Tom's wedding, but my family is too slow for nothing but a funeral. And Cousin James, he's worse. He corned for us ten minutes behind the town clock, and Mammy Dilsie had phthisic, so I had to fix the two twins, and we're done left. I wisht I didn't have no family!" And with her bare feet the young rebel raised a cloud of dust that rose and settled on my skirt.
"There they come now," she continued, with the pained contempt still rising in her voice.
And around the corner of the station hurried the family party, with all the haste they would have been expected to use if they had not, just two minutes earlier, beheld their train go relentlessly on down the valley to Hillsboro and the wedding celebration. I hadn't placed the kiddie, but I might have known, from her own description of her family, to whom she belonged.
First came Sallie Carruthers, sailing along in the serene way that I remembered to have always thought like a swan in no hurry, and in her hands was a wet box from which rose sterns protruded.
Next in the procession came Aunt Dilsie, huge and black and wheezing, fanning herself with a genteel turkey-tail fan, and carrying a large covered basket.
But the tail-piece of the procession paralyzed all the home-coming emotions that I had expected to be feeling, save that of pure hilarity. James Hardin was carrying two bubbly, squirmy, tousle-headed babies, on one arm, and a huge suitcase in the other hand, and his gray felt hat set on the back of his shock of black hair at an angle of deep desperation, though patience shone from every line of his strong, gaunt body, and I could see in the half light that there were no lines of irritation about his mouth, which Richard had said looked to him like that of the prophet Hosea, when I had shown him the picture that Father had had snapped of himself and the Crag, with their great string of quail, on one of their hunting-trips, just before Father died.
"Eve!" he exclaimed, when he suddenly caught sight of me, standing in the middle of the dusty road, with my impedimenta around me, and as he spoke he dropped both babies on the platform in a bunch, and the small trunk on the other side. Then he just stood and looked, and I had to straighten the roar that was arising in me at the sight of him into a conventional smile of greeting, suitable to bestow on an enemy.
But before the smile was well launched, Sallie bustled in and got the full effect of it.
"Why, Evelina Shelby, you darling thing, when did you come?" she fairly bubbled, as she clasped me in the most hospitable of arms, and bestowed a slightly powdery kiss on both my cheeks. I weakly and femininely enjoyed the hug, not that a man might not have—Sallie is a dear, and I always did like her gush, shamefacedly.
"She got often that train that left us, and she ain't got a bit of sense, or she wouldn't," answered the Blue Bunch for me, in a matter-of-fact tone of voice.
"What for did you all unpack outen the surrey, if you sawed the train go by?" she further demanded, with accusing practicality. "Don't you know when youse left?"
"Oh, Henrietta," exclaimed Sallie, looking at the young-philosopher with terrified helplessness. "Please don't mind her, Evelina. I don't understand her being my child, and nobody does, unless it was Henry's grandmother on his mother's side. You had heard of my loss?"
If I hadn't heard of the death of Henry Carruthers, Sallie's elaborate black draperies, relieved by the filmy exquisiteness of white crepe ruches at the neck and wrists, would have proclaimed the fact.
Suddenly, something made me look at Cousin James, as he stood calmly in the midst of Sallie's family and baggage, both animate and inanimate, and the laugh that had threatened for minutes fairly flared out into his placid, young prophet face.
"Oh, I am so sorry, Sallie, and so glad to see all of you that I'm laughing at the same time," I exclaimed to save myself from the awfulness of greeting a young widow's announcement of her sorrow in such an unfeeling manner. To cover my embarrassment and still further struggles with the laugh that never seemed to be able to have itself out, I bent and hugged up one of the toddlers, who were balancing against the Crag's legs, with truly feminine fervor.
"I'm glad to see you, Evelina," said Cousin James gently, and I could see that the billows of my mirth had got entirely past him.
I was glad he had escaped, and I found myself able to look with composure at his queer, long-tailed gray coat, which made me know that little old Mr. Pinkus, who had been Father's orderly all through the war, was still alive and tailoring in his tiny shop down by the post-office, though now that Father is dead he probably only does it for Cousin James. The two of them had been his only customers for years. And as I looked, I saw that the locks that curled in an ante-bellum fashion around the Crag's ears, were slightly sprinkled with gray, and remembered how he had loved and stood by Father, even in the manner of wearing Pinkus clothes; my heart grew very large all of a sudden, and I held out my hand to him.
"I'm glad to be at home," I said, gazing straight into his eyes, with a look of affection that you would have been proud of, Jane,—using unconsciously, until after I had done it, the warmth I had tried unsuccessfully on Richard Hall at the Astor, not forty-eight hours ago, but two thousand miles away. And it got a response that puzzles me to think of yet. It was just a look, but there was a thought of Father in it, also a suggestion of the glance he bestowed on Sallie's twins. I remembered that the Crag seldom speaks, and that's what makes you spend your time breathlessly listening to him.
"Well, come on, everybody, let's go home and undress, and forget about the wedding," came in Henrietta's positive and executive tones. "Let's go and take the strange lady with us. We can have company if we can't be it. She can sleep other side of me, next the wall."
I have never met anybody else at all like Henrietta Carruthers, and I never shall unless Jane Mathers marries and—I sincerely hope that some day she and Jane will meet.
And the next ten minutes was one of the most strenuous periods of time I ever put in, in all my life. I longed, really longed, to go home with Sallie and Henrietta, and sleep next the wall at Widegables with the rest of the Crag's collection. But I knew Glendale well enough to see plainly that if I thus once give myself up to the conventions that by Saturday night they would have me nicely settled with his relicts, or in my home with probably two elderly widows and a maiden cousin or so to look after me. And then, by the end of the next week, they would have the most suitable person in town fairly hunted by both spoken and mental influence, to the moonlight end of my front porch, with matrimonial intentions in his pocket. I knew I had to take a positive stand, and take it immediately. I must be masculinely firm. No feminine wiles would serve in such a crisis as this.
So, I let Cousin James pack me into his low, prehistoric old surrey, in the front seat, at his side, while Sallie took Aunt Dilsie and one twin with her on the back seat. Henrietta scrouged down at my feet, and I fearingly, but accommodatingly, accepted the other twin. It was a perfect kitten of a baby, and purred itself to sleep against my shoulder as soon as anchored.
The half-mile from the station, along the dusty, quiet village streets, was accomplished in about the time it would take a modern vehicle to traverse Manhattan lengthwise, and at last we stopped at the gate of Widegables. The rambling, winged, wide-gabled, tall-columned old pile of time-grayed brick and stone, sat back in the moonlight, in its tangle of a garden, under its tall roof maples, with a dignity that went straight to my heart. There is nothing better in France or England, and I feel sure that there are not two hundred houses in America as good. I'll paint it, just like I saw it to-night, for next Spring's Salon. A bright light shone from the windows of the dining-room in the left wing, where the collection of clinging vines were taking supper, unconscious of the return of the left-behinds that threatened.
And as I glanced at my own tall-pillared, dark old house, that stands just opposite Widegables, and is of the same period and style, I knew that if I did not escape into its emptiness before I got into Cousin Martha's comfortable arms, surrounded by the rest of the Crag's family, I would never have the courage to enter into the estate of freedom I had planned.
"Sallie," I said firmly, as I handed the limp Kitten down to Aunt Dilsie, as Henrietta took the other one—"Puppy" I suppose I will have to call the young animal,—from her mother and started on up the walk in the lead of the return expedition, "I am going over to stay in my own home to-night. I know it seems strange, but—I must. Please don't worry about me."
"Why, dear, you can't stay by yourself, with no man on the place," exclaimed Sallie, in a tone of absolute panic. "I'll go tell Cousin Martha you are here, while Cousin James unpacks your satchel and things." And she hurried in her descent from the ark, and also hurried in her quest for the reinforcement of Cousin Martha's authority.
"I'm going to escape before any of them come back," I said determinedly to the Crag, who stood there still, just looking at me. "I'm not up to arguing the question to-night, for the trip has been a long one, and this is the first time I have been home since—Just let me have to-night to myself, please." I found myself pleading to him, as he held up his arms to lift me clear of the wheels.
His eyes were hurt and suffering for a second, then a strange light of comprehension came from them into mine, like a benediction, as he gently set me on my feet.
"Must you, Eve?"
"Yes," I answered, with a gulp that went all the way down to my feminine toes, as I glanced across the road at the grim, dark old pile that towered against the starlit sky. "I want to stay in my own house to-night—and—and I'm not afraid."
"You won't need to be frightened. I understand, I think—and here's your key, I always carry it in my pocket. Your Father's candle is on the mantel. You shall have to-night to yourself. Good-night, and bless your home-coming, dear!"
"Good-night," I answered as I turned away from his kind eyes quickly, to keep from clinging-to him with might and main, and crossed the road to my own gate. With my head up, and trying for the whistle, at least in my heart, I went quickly along the front walk with its rows of blush peonies, nodding along either edge. The two old purple lilacs beside the front steps have grown so large they seemed to be barring my way into my home with longing, sweet embraces, and a fragrant little climbing rose, that has rioted across the front door, ever since I could remember, bent down and left a kiss on my cheeks.
The warm, mellow old moon flooded a glow in front of me, through the big front door, as I opened it, and then hastened to pour into the wide windows as I threw back the shutters.
Logs lay ready for lighting in the wide fireplace at the end of the long room, and Father's tobacco jar gleamed a reflected moonlight from its pewter sides from the tall mantel-shelf. The old hooks melted into the dusk of their cases along the wall, and the portrait of Grandfather Shelby lost its fierce gaze and became benign from its place between the windows.
I was being welcomed to the home of my fathers, with a soft dusk that was as still and sweet as the grave. Sweet for those that want it; but I didn't. Suddenly, I thrilled as alive as any terror-stricken woman that ever found herself alone anywhere on any other edge of the world, and then as suddenly found myself in a complete condition of fright prostration, crouched on my own threshold. I was frightened at the dark, and could not even cry. Then almost immediately, while I crouched quivering in every nerve I seemed to hear a man's voice say comfortingly:
"You don't need to be frightened."
Courageously I lifted my eyes and looked down between the old lilac bushes, and saw just what I expected I would, a tall, gray figure, pacing slowly up and down the road. Then it was that fear came into me, stiffened my muscles and strengthened my soul—fear of myself and my own conclusions about destiny and all things pertaining thereto.
I never want to go through such another hour as I spent putting things in order in Father's room, which opens off the living-room, so I could go to bed by candle-light in the bed in which he and I were both born. I wanted to sleep there, and didn't even open any other part of the grim old house.
And when I put out the candle and lay in the high, old four-post bed, I again felt as small as I really am, and I was in danger of a bad collapse from self-depreciation when my humor came to the rescue. I might just as well have gone on and slept between Henrietta and the wall, as was becoming my feminine situation, for here my determination to assert my masculine privileges was keeping a real man doing sentry duty up and down a moonlight road all night—and I wanted it.
"After this, James Hardin, you can consider yourself safe from any of my attentions or intentions," I laughed to myself, as I turned my face into the pillow, that was faintly scented from the lavender in which Mother had always kept her linen. "I've been in Glendale two hours, and one man is on the home base with his fingers crossed. James, you are free! Oh, Jane!"
A FLINT SPARK
The greatest upheavals of nature are those that arrive suddenly, without notifying the world days beforehand of their intentions of splitting the crust of the Universe wide open. One is coming to Glendale by degrees, but the town hasn't found out about it yet. I'm the only one who sees it, and I'm afraid to tell.
When Old Harpeth, who has been looking down on a nice, peaceful, man ordained, built, and protected world, woke Glendale up the morning after my arrival and found me defiantly alone in the home of my fathers—also of each of my foremothers, by the courtesy of dower—he muttered and drew a veil of mist across his face. Slight showers ensued, but he had to come out in less than an hour from pure curiosity. I found the old garden heavenly in its riot of neglected buds, shoots, and blooms, wet and welcoming with the soft odors of Heaven itself.
It was well I was out early to enjoy it, for that was to be the day of my temptation and sore trial. I am glad I have recorded it all, for I might have forgotten some day how wonderfully my very pliant, feminine attitude rubbed in my masculine intentions as to my life on the blind side of all the forces brought to bear on me to put me back into my predestined place in the scheme of the existence.
"Your Cousin James's home is the place for you, Evelina, and until he explained to me how you felt last night I was deeply hurt that you hadn't come straight, with Sallie, to me and to him," said Cousin Martha, in as severe a voice as was possible for such a placid individual to produce. Cousin Martha is completely lovely, and the Mossback gets his beauty from her. She is also such a perfect dear that her influence is something terrific, even if negatively expressed.
"I have come to help you get your things together, so you can move over before dinner," she continued with gentle force. "Now, what shall we put in the portmanteau first? I see you have unpacked very little, and I am glad that it confirms me in my feeling that your coming over here for the night was just a dutiful sentiment for your lost loved ones, and not any unmaidenly sense of independence in the matter of choice where it is best for you to live. Of course, such a question as that must be left to your guardian, and of course James will put you under my care."
"I—I really thought that perhaps Cousin James did not have room for me, Cousin Martha," I answered meekly. "How many families has he with him now?" I asked with a still further meekness that was the depths of wiliness.
"There are three of us widows, whom he sustains and comforts for the loss of our husbands, and also the three Norton girls, cousins on his father's side of the house, you remember. It is impossible for them to look after their plantation since their father's death robbed them of a protector, at least, even though he had been paralyzed since Gettysburg. James is a most wonderful man, my dear—a most wonderful man. Though as he is my son I ought to think it in silence."
"Indeed he is," I answered from the heart. "But—but wouldn't it be a little crowded for him to have another—another vine—that is, exactly what would he do with me? I know Widegables is wide, but that is a houseful, isn't it?"
"Well, all of us did feel that it made the house uncomfortably full when Sallie came with the three children, but you know Henry Carruthers left James his executor and guardian of the children, and Sallie of course couldn't live alone, so Mrs. Hargrove and I moved into the south room together, and gave Sallie and the children my room. It is a large room, and it would be such a comfort to Sallie to have you stay with her and help her at night with the children. She doesn't really feel able to get up with them at all. Then Dilsie could sleep in the cabin, as she ought to on account of the jimsonweed in her phthisic pipe. It would be such a beautiful influence in your lonely life, Evelina, to have the children to care for."
I wondered if Cousin Martha had ever heard that galatea bunch indulge in such heartfelt oaths as had followed that train down the track last night!
"It would be lovely," I answered—and the reply was not all insincerity, as I thought of the darkness of that long night, and the Bunch's offer of a place at her sturdy little back "next the wall."
"But I will be so busy with my own work, Cousin Martha, that I am afraid I couldn't do justice to the situation and repay the children and Sallie for crowding them."
"Why, you couldn't crowd us, Evelina, honey," came in Sallie's rich voice, as she sailed into the room, trailing the Pup and the Kit at her skirts and flying lavender ribbons at loose ends. "We've come to help you move over right away."
"Well, not while I have a voice in the affairs of my own husband's niece! How are you, Evelina, and are you crazy, Sallie Carruthers?" came in a deep raven croak of a voice that sounded as if it had harked partly from the tomb, as Aunt Augusta Shelby stood in the doorway, with reproof on her lips and sternness on her brow. "Peter and I will have Evelina move down immediately with us. James Hardin has as much in the way of a family as he can very well stand up under now."
And as she spoke, Aunt Augusta glared at Sallie with such ferocity that even Sallie's sunshiny presence was slightly dimmed.
"Are you ready, Evelina? Peter will send the surrey for your baggage," she continued, and for a moment I quailed, for Aunt Augusta's determination of mind is always formidable, but I summoned my woman's wit and man's courage, and answered quickly before she fairly snatched me from under my own roof-tree.
"That would be lovely, Aunt Augusta, and how are you?" I answered and asked in the same breath, as I drew near enough to her to receive a business-like peck on my cheek. "I expect to have you and Uncle Peter to look after me a lot, but somehow I feel that Father would have liked—liked for me to live here and keep my home—his home—open. Some way will arrange itself. I haven't talked with Cousin James yet," I felt white feathers sprouting all over me, as I thus invoked the masculine dominance I had come to lay.
"You'll have to settle that matter with your Uncle Peter, then, for, following his dictates of which I did not approve, I have done our duty by the orphan. Now, Evelina, let me say in my own person, that I thoroughly approve of your doing just as you plan." And as she uttered this heresy, she looked so straight and militant and altogether commanding, that both Cousin Martha and Sallie quailed. I felt elated, as if my soul were about to get sight of a kindred personality. Or rather a soul-relative of yours, Jane.
"Oh, she would be so lonely, Mrs. Shelby, and she—" Sallie was venturing to say with trepidation, when Aunt Augusta cut her short without ceremony.
"Lonely, nonsense! Such a busy woman as I now feel sure Evelina is going to be, will not have time to be lonely. I wish I could stay and talk with you further about your plans, but I must hurry back and straighten out Peter's mind on that question of the town water-supply that is to come up in the meeting of the City Council to-day. He let it be presented all wrong last time, and they got things so muddled that it was voted on incorrectly. I will have to write it out for him so he can explain it to them. I will need you in many ways to help me help Peter be Mayor of Glendale, Evelina. I am wearied after ten years of the strain of his office. I shall call on you for assistance often in the most important matters," with which promise, that sounded like a threat, she proceeded to march down the front path, almost stepping on Henrietta, who was coming up the same path, with almost the same emphasis. There was some sort of an explosion, and I hope the kind of words I heard hurled after the train were not used.
"That old black crow is a-going to git in trouble with me some day, Marfy," Henrietta remarked, as she settled herself on the arm of Cousin Martha's chair, after bestowing a smudgy kiss on the little white curl that wrapped around one of the dear old lady's pink little ears. I had felt that way about Cousin Martha myself at the Bunch's age, and we exchanged a sympathetic smile on the subject.
"Well, what are you going to do, Evelina?" asked Sallie, and she turned such a young, helpless, wondering face up to me from the center of her cluster of babies, that my heart almost failed me at the idea of pouring what seemed to me at that moment the poison of modernity into the calm waters of her and Cousin Martha's primitive placidity.
"You'll have to live some place where there is a man," she continued, with worried conviction.
My time had come, and the fight was on. Oh, Jane!
"I don't believe I really feel that way about it," I began in the gentlest of manners, and slowly, so as to feel my way. "You see, Sallie dear, and dearest Cousin Martha, I have had to be out in the world so much—alone, that I am—used to it. I—I haven't had a man's protection for so long that I don't need it, as I would if I were like you two blessed sheltered women."
"I know it has been hard, dear," said Cousin Martha gently looking her sympathy at my lorn state, over her glasses.
"I don't see how you have stood it at all," said Sallie, about to dissolve in tears. "The love and protection and sympathy of a man are the only things in life worth anything to a woman. Since my loss I don't know what I would have done without Cousin James. You must come into his kind care, Evelina."
"I must learn to endure loneliness," I answered sadly, about to begin to gulp from force of example, and the pressure of long hereditary influence.
I'm glad that I did not dissolve, however, before what followed happened, for in the twinkling of two bare feet I was smothered in the embrace of Henrietta, who in her rush brought either the Pup or the Kit, I can't tell which yet, along to help her enfold me.
"I'll come stay with you forever, and we don't need no men! Don't like 'em no-how!" she was exclaiming down my back, when a drawl from the doorway made us all turn in that direction.
"Why, Henrietta, my own, can it be you who utter such cruel sentiments in my absence?" and Polk Hayes lounged into the room, with the same daring listlessness that he had used in trying to hold me in his arms out on the porch the night I had said good-by to him and Glendale, four years ago.
Henrietta's chubby little body gave a wriggle of delight, and much sentiment beamed in her rugged, small face, as she answered him with enthusiasm, though not stopping to couch her reply in exactly complimentary terms.
"You don't count, Pokie," she exclaimed, as she made a good-natured face at him.
"That's what Evelina said four years ago—and she has proved it," he answered her, looking at me just exactly as if he had never left off doing it since that last dance.
"How lovely to find you in the same exuberant spirits in which I left you, Polk, dear," I exclaimed, as I got up to go and shake hands with him, as he had sunk into the most comfortable chair in the room, without troubling to bestow that attention upon me.
Some men's hearts beat with such a strong rhythm that every feminine heart which comes within hearing distance immediately catches step, and goes to waltzing. It has been four years since mine swung around against his, at that dance, but I'm glad Cousin Martha was there, and interrupted, us enough to make me drag my eyes from his, as he looked up and I looked down.
"Please help us to persuade Evelina to come and live with James and me, Polk, dear," she said, glancing at him with the deepest confidence and affection in her eyes. There is no age-limit to Polk's victims, and Cousin Martha had always adored him.
"All women do, Evelina, why not you—live with James?" he asked, and I thought I detected a mocking flicker in his big, hazel, dangerous eyes.
"If I ever need protection it will be James—and Cousin Martha I will run to for it—but I never will," I answered him, very simply, with not a trace of the defiance I was fairly flinging at him in either my voice or manner.
Paris and London and New York are nice safe places to live in, in comparison with Glendale, Tennessee, in some respects. I wonder why I hadn't been more scared than I was last night, as the train whirled me down into proximity to Polk Hayes. But then I had had four years of forgetting him stored up as a bulwark.
"But what are you going to do, Evelina?" Sallie again began to question, with positive alarm in her voice, and I saw that it was time for me to produce some sort of a protector then and there—or capitulate.
And I record the fact that I wanted to go home with Sallie and Cousin Martha and the babies and—and live under the roof of the Mossback forever. All that citizenship-feeling I had got poured into me from Jane and had tried on Dickie, good old Dickie, had spilled out of me at the first encounter with Polk.
There is a great big hunt going on in this world, and women are the ones only a short lap ahead. Can we turn and make good the fight—or won't we be torn to death? It has come to this it seems: women must either be weak, and cling so close to man that she can't be struck, keep entirely out of the range of his fists and arms,—or develop biceps equal to his. Jane ought to have had me in training longer, for I'm discovering that I'm weak—of biceps.
"Are you coming—are you coming to live with us, Evelina? Are you coming? Answer!" questioned the small Henrietta, as she stood commandingly in front of me.
"Please, Evelina," came in a coax from Sallie, while the Kit crawled over and caught at my skirt as Cousin Martha raised her eyes to mine, with a gentle echo of the combined wooings.
Then suddenly into Polk's eyes flamed still another demand, that something told me I would have to answer later. I had capitulated and closed this book forever when the deliverance came.
Jasper, a little older, but as black and pompous as ever, stood in the doorway, and a portly figure, with yellow, shining face, on the step behind him.
"Why, Uncle Jasper, how did you know I was here?" I exclaimed, as I fairly ran to hold out my hand to him.
"Mas' James sont me word last night, and I woulder been here by daybreak, Missie, 'cept I had to hunt dis yere suitable woman to bring along with me. Make your 'beesence to Miss Evelina, Lucy Petunia," he commanded.
"You needn't to bother to show her anything, child," he continued calmly, "I'll learn her all she needs to know to suit us. Then, if in a week she have shown suitable ability to please us both, my word is out to marry her next Sunday night. Ain't that the understanding, Tuny?" he this time demanded.
"Yes, sir," answered the Petunia with radiant but modest hope shining from her comely yellow face.
"I've kept everything ready for you child, since Old Mas' died, and I ain't never stayed offen the place a week at a time—I was just visiting out Petunia's way when I heard you'd come, and gittin' a wife to tend to us and back to you quick was the only thing that concerned me. Now, we can all settle down comf'table, while I has Tuny knock up some dinner, a company one I hopes, if Miss Martha and the rest will stay with us." Jasper's manner is an exact copy of my Father's courtly grace, done in sepia, and my eyes misted for a second, as I reciprocated his invitation, taking acceptance for granted.
"Of course they will stay, Uncle Jasper."
"Well," remarked Sallie with a gasp, "you've gone to housekeeping in two minutes, Evelina."
"Jasper has always been a very forceful personality," said Cousin Martha. "He managed everything for your Father at the last, Evelina, and I don't know how the whole town would have been easy about the Colonel unless they had trusted Jasper."
"I like the terms on which he takes unto himself a wife," drawled Polk, as he lighted a cigarette without looking at me. "Good for Jasper!"
"However, it does take a 'forceful personality' to capture a 'suitable woman' in that manner," I answered with just as much unconcern, and then we both roared, while even Sallie in all her anxiety joined in.
The commanding, black old man, and the happy-faced, plump, little yellow woman, had saved one situation—and forced another, perhaps?
Jasper's home-coming dinner party was a large and successful one. Two of the dear little old Horton lady-cousins got so impatient at Cousin Martha's not bringing me back to Widegables that they came teetering over to see about it, heavily accompanied by Mrs. Hargrove, whose son had been Cousin James's best friend at the University of Virginia, and died and left her to him since I had been at college. The ponderosity of her mind was only equaled by that of her body. I must say Petunia made a hit with the dear old soul, by the seasoning of her chicken gravy.
Sallie wanted to send the children home, but Jasper wouldn't let her, and altogether we had eleven at the table.
Polk maneuvered for a seat at the head of my festive board, with a spark of the devil in his eyes, but Jasper's sense of the proprieties did not fail me, and he seated Cousin Martha in Father's chair, with great ceremony.
And as I looked down the long table, bright with all the old silver Jasper had had time to polish, gay with roses from my garden, that he had coaxed Henrietta into gathering for him, which nodded back and forth with the bubbling babies, suddenly my heart filled to the very brim with love of it all—and for mine own people.
But, just as suddenly, a vision came into my mind of the long table across the road at Widegables, with the Mossback seated at one end with only two or three of his charges stretched along the empty sides to keep him company.
I wanted him to be here with us! I wanted him badly, and I went to get him. I excused myself suddenly, telling them all just why. I didn't look at Polk, but Cousin Martha's face was lovely, as she told me to run quickly.
I found him on the front porch, smoking his pipe alone, while the two little relics, whom he had had left to dine with him, were taking their two respective naps. Our dinner was late on account of the initiation of Petunia, and he had finished before we began.
"I stole most of your family to-day," I plunged headlong into my errand, "but I want you, too, most of all."
"You've got me, even if you do prefer to keep me across the road from you," he answered, with the most solemn expression on his face, but with a crinkle of a smile in the corners of his deep eyes.
I can't remember when I didn't look with eagerness for that crinkle in his eyes, even when I was a child and he what I at that time considered a most glorious grownup individual, though he must have been the most helpless hobbledehoy that ever existed.
"You don't need another vine," I answered mutinously.
"You know I want you, but Jasper's is the privilege of looking after you," he answered calmly. "I want you to be happy, Evelina," and I knew as I raised my eyes to his that I could consider myself settled in my own home.
"Well, then, come and have dinner number two with me," I answered with a laugh that covered a little happy sigh that rose from my heart at the look in the kind eyes bent on mine.
I felt, Jane, you would have approved of that look! It was so human to human.
He came over with me, and that was one jolly party in the old dining-room. They all stayed until almost sunset, and almost everybody in town dropped in during the afternoon to welcome me home, and ask me where I was going to live. Jasper and Petunia hovering in the background, the tea-tray out on the porch set with the silver and damask all of them knew of old, and the appearance of having been installed with the full approval of Cousin Martha and James and the rest of the family, stopped the questions on their lips, and they spent the afternoon much enlivened but slightly puzzled.
Time doesn't do much to people in a place like the Harpeth Valley, that is out of the stream of modern progress; and most of my friends seem to have just been sitting still, rocking their lives along in the greatest ease and comfort.
Still, Mamie Hall has three more kiddies, which, added to the four she had when I left, makes a slightly high, if charming, set of stair-steps. Mamie also looks decidedly worn, though pathetically sweet. Ned was with her, and as fresh as any one of the buds. Maternity often wilts women, but paternity is apt to make men bloom with the importance of it. Ned showed off the bunch as if he had produced them all, while Mamie only smiled like an angel in the background.
A slight bit of temper rose in a flush to my cheeks, as I watched Caroline Lellyett sit on the steps and feed cake to one twin and two stair-steps with as much hunger in her eyes for them as there was in theirs for the cake. Lee Greenfield is the responsible party in this case, and she has been loving him hopelessly for fifteen years. Lots of other folks wanted to marry her, but Lee has pinned her in the psychic spot and is watching her flutter.
Polk departed in the trail of Nell Kirkland's fluffy muslin skirts, smoldering dangerously, I felt. Nell has grown up into a most lovely individual, and I felt uneasy about her under Folk's ministrations. Her eyes follow him rather persistently. On the whole, I am glad Jane committed me to this woman's cause. I'll have to begin to exercise the biceps of Nell's heart—as soon as I get some strength into my own.
And after they had all gone, I sat for an hour out on the front steps of my big, empty old house, and enjoyed my own loneliness, if it could be called enjoying. I could hear the Petunia's happy giggle, answering Jasper's guttural pleasantries, out on the cabin porch behind the row of lilac bushes. I do hope that Petunia gets much and the right sort of courting during this week that Jasper has allowed her!
With the last rays of the sun, I had found time to read a long, dear letter from Richard Hall, and though I had transferred it from my pocket to my desk, while I dressed for the afternoon, its crackle was still in my mind. I wondered what it all meant, this dissatisfied longing that human beings send out across time and distance, one to and for another.
If a woman's heart were really like a great big golden chalice, full to the brim with the kind of love she is taught God wants her to have in it for all mankind, both men and women, why shouldn't she offer drafts of it to every one who is thirsty, brothers as well as sisters? I wonder how that would solve Jane's problem of emotional equality! I do love Dicky—and—and I do love Polk—with an inclination to dodge. Now, if there were enough of the right sort of love in me, I ought to be able to get them to see it, and drink it for their comforting, and have no trouble at all with them about their wanting to seize the cup, drain all the love there is in it, shut it away from the rest of the world—and then neglect it.
Yes, why can't I love Polk as I love you, Jane, and have him enjoy it? Yes, why?
I think if I had Dicky off to myself for a long time, and very gently led him up to the question of loving him hard in this new way, he might be induced to sip out of the cup just to see if he liked it—and it might be just what he craved, for the time being; but I doubt it. He would storm and bluster at the idea.
Of course the Crag would let a woman love him in any old kind of new or experimental way she wanted to, if it made her happy. He would take her cup of tenderness and drink it as if it were sacramental wine, on his knees. But he doesn't count. He has to be man to so many people that there is danger of his becoming a kind of superman. Think of the old Mossback being a progressive thing like that! I laughed out loud at the idea—but the echo was dismal.
I wonder if Sallie will marry him.
And as I sat and thought and puzzled, the moonlight got richer and more glowing, and it wooed open the throats of the thousand little honeysuckle blossoms, clinging to the vine on the trellis, until they poured out a perfect symphony of perfume to mingle in a hallelujah from the lilacs and roses that ascended to the very stars themselves.
I had dropped my head on my arms, and let my eyes go roaming out to the dim hills that banked against the radiant sky, when somebody seated himself beside me, and a whiff of tobacco blew across my face, sweet with having joined in the honeysuckle chorus. Nobody said a word for a long time, and then I looked up and laughed into the deep, gray eyes looking tenderly down into mine. With a thrill I realized that there was one man in the world I could offer the chalice to and trust him to drink—moderately.
"Jamie," I said in a voice as young as it used to be when I trailed at his heels, "thank you for letting me be contrary and independent and puzzling. I have been busy adventuring with life, in queer places and with people not like—like us. Now I want a little of real living and to think—and feel. May I?"
"You may, dear," the Crag answered in a big comfortable voice, that was a benediction in itself. "I understood last night when you told me that you wanted to come home alone. I can trust Jasper with you, and I am going to sleep down at the lodge room, right across the road here, so I can hear you if you even think out loud. No one shall worry you about it any more. Now will you promise to be happy?"
I could not answer him, I was so full of a deepness of peace. I just laid my cheek against the sleeve of his queer old gray coat, to show him what I could not say.
He let me do it, and went on smoking without noticing me.
Then, after a little while, he began to tell me all about Father and his death, that had come so suddenly while he seemed as well as ever, and how he had worried about my probably not wanting to be left to him, and that he wanted me to feel independent, but to please let him do all that I would to help me, and not to feel that I was alone with nobody to love me. That he was always there, and would be forever and ever.
And he did stay so late that Jasper had to send him home!
There is such a thing as a man's being a father and mother and grown sister and brother and a college-chum and a preacher of the Gospel and a family physician to a woman—with no possibility of being her husband either. She wouldn't so drag such a man from his high estate as to think of such a worldly relation in connection with him.
I have certainly collected some phenomena in the reaction of a woman's heart this day. Did you choose me wisely for these experiments, Jane?
It takes a woman of nerve to go to housekeeping in a tinder-box, when she isn't sure she even knows what flint is when she sees it, and might strike out a spark without intending it at all.
SWEETER WHEN TAMED?
I wonder if men ever melt suddenly into little boys, and try to squirm and run back to hide their heads in their mothers' skirts. It is an open secret that starchy, modern women often long to wilt back into droopy musk roses, that climb over gates and things, but they don't let each other. When I feel myself getting soluble, I write it out to Jane and I get a bracing cold wave of a letter in reply. The one this morning was on the subject of love, or, at least, that is what Jane would have said it was on. She wrote:
Yes, it is gratifying to know that Mary Elizabeth is so happily engaged to the young teacher who has been in her work with her. She writes that she was encouraged by our resolution, at last to be her best self while in his presence as she had not had the courage to do last year. You see, Evelina? And also, you are right in your conclusion that there is not enough abstract love in this world of brotherhood and sisterhood; that the doctrine of divine love calls us to give more and more of it. We cannot give too much! But also, considerations for the advancement of the world call for experiments by the more illumined women along more definite and concrete lines. How old is this Mr. Hayes, on whom you have chosen to note the reactions of sisterly affection? Are you sure that he is not a fit subject for your consideration in the matter of a choice for a mate?
Remember to be as frank in your expressions of regard for him as he is in his of regard for you. That is the crux of the whole matter. Be frank, be courageous! Let a man look freely into your heart, and thus encouraged he will open his to you. Then you will both have an opportunity to judge each other with reference to a life-long union. It is the only way; and remember what rests on you in this matter. The destinies of many women are involved.
* * * * *
I don't say this in a spirit of levity, but I do wish Polk Hayes and Jane Mathers were out on the front steps in the moonlight, after a good supper that has made him comfortable, Jane to be attired in something soft that would float against his arm, whether she wanted it to or not! I believe it would be good for Jane, and make things easier for me. Be frank with Polk as to how much he asphyxiates me? I know better than to blow out the gas like that! No, Jane!
But what is a woman going to do when she is young and hearty and husky, with the blood running through her veins at a two-forty rate, when her orchard is in bloom, the mocking-birds are singing the night through, and she is not really in love with anybody? The loneliness does fill her heart full of the solution of love, and she has got to pour off some of it into somebody's life. There is plenty of me to be both abstract and concrete, at the same time, and I thought of Uncle Peter.
Uncle Peter Is the most explosive and crusty person that ever happened in Glendale, and it takes all of Aunt Augusta's energy, common-sense and force of character to keep him and the two chips he carries on his shoulders, as a defiance to the world in general, from being in a constant state of combustion. He has been ostensibly the Mayor of Glendale for twenty-five years, and Aunt Augusta has done the work of the office very well indeed, while he has blown up things in general with great energy. He couldn't draw a long breath without her, but of course he doesn't realize it. He thinks he is in a constant feud with her and her sex. His ideas on the woman question are so terrific that I have always run from them, but I concluded that it would be a good thing for me to liquefy some of my vague humanitarianism, and help Aunt Augusta with him, while she wrestles with the City Council on the water question. Anyway, I have always had a guarded fondness for the old chap.
I chose a time when I knew Aunt Augusta had to be busy with his report of the disastrous concrete paving trade the whole town had been sold out on, and I lay in wait to capture him and the chips. This morning I waited behind the old purple lilac at the gate, which immediately got into the game by sweeping its purple-plumed arms all around me, so that not a tag of my dimity alarmed him as he came slowly down the street.
"Uncle Peter," I said, as I stepped out in front of him suddenly, "please, Uncle Peter, won't you come in and talk to me?"
"Yes, Uncle Peter, it's Evelina," and I hesitated with terror at the snap in his dear old eyes, back under their white brows. Then I let my eyes uncover my heart full of the elixir I had prepared for him, and offered him as much as he could drink.
"I'm lonely," I said, with a little catch in my voice.
"Lonely—hey?" he grumbled, but his feet hesitated opposite my gate.
In about two and a half minutes I had him seated in a cushioned rocker on the south side of the porch. Jasper had given us both a mint julep, and Uncle Peter was much Jess thirsty than he had been for a long time. Aunt Augusta is as temperate in all things as a steel ramrod.
"You see, Uncle Peter, I needed you so that I just had to kidnap you," I said to him, as he wiped his lips with a pocket-handkerchief, as stiffly starched as was his wife herself.
"Why didn't you go over and live in James's hennery—live with James—hey?" he snapped, with the precision of a pistol cap.
To be just, I suppose Aunt Augusta's adamant disposition accounts, to some extent, for Uncle Peter's explosive way of thinking and speaking. A husband would have to knock Aunt Augusta's nature down to make any impression whatever on it. Uncle Peter always has the air of firing an idea and then ducking his head to avoid the return shot.
"His house is so full, and I need a lot of space to carry on my work," I answered him, with the words I have used so often in the last two weeks that they start to come when the Petunia asks me if I want waffles or batter-cakes for supper.
"Well, Sallie Carruthers will get him, and then there'll be a dozen more to run the measure over—children—hey? All girls! A woman like Sallie would not be content with producing less than a dozen of her kind—hey?"
His chuckle was so contagious that I couldn't help but join him, though I didn't like it so very much. But why shouldn't I? Sallie is such a gorgeous woman that a dozen of her in the next generation will be of value to the State. Still, I didn't like it. I didn't enjoy thinking of Cousin James as so serving his country.
"Carruthers left her to James—he'll have to take care of her. Henry turned toes in good time. Piled rotten old business and big family on to James's shoulders, and then died—good time—hey? Get a woman on your hands, only thing to do is to marry or kill her. Poor James—hey?" He peered at me with a twinkle in his eyes that demanded assent from me.
"Why, Uncle Peter, I don't know that Sallie has any such idea. She grieves dreadfully over Mr. Carruthers, and I don't believe she would think of marrying again," I answered, trying to put enough warmth in my defense to convince myself.
"Most women are nothing but gourd-vines, grow all over a corn-stalk, kill it, produce gourds until it frosts, and begin all over again in the next generation. James has to do the hoeing around Sallie's roots, and feed her. Might as well marry her—hey?"
"Does—does Cousin James have to support Sallie and the children, Uncle Peter?" I asked, coming with reluctance down to the rock-bed of the discussion.
"Thinks he does, and it serves him right—serves him right for starting out to run a widow-ranch in the first place; it's like making a collection of old shoes. He let Henry Carruthers persuade him to mortgage everything and buy land on the river for the car-shops of the new railroad, which just fooled the town out of a hundred thousand dollars, and is going by on the other side of the river with the shops up at Bolivar. If James didn't get all the lawing in Alton County they would all starve to death—which would be hard on the constitution of old lady Hargrove, and her two hundred-weight."
"Oh, has Cousin James really lost all of his fortune?" I asked, and I was surprised at the amount of sympathetic dismay that rose in me at the information.
"Everything but what he carries around under that old gray hat of his—not so bad a fortune, at that!—hey?"
I feel I am going to love Uncle Peter for the way he disdainfully admires Cousin James.
"And—and all of his—his guests are really dependent on him?" I asked again, as the stupendous fact filtered into my mind.
"All the flock, all the flock," answered Uncle Peter, with what seemed, under the circumstances, a heartless chuckle. "They each one have little dabs of property, about as big as a handful of chicken feed, and as they have each one given it all to James to manage, they expect an income in return—and get it—all they ask for. A lot of useless old live stock—all but Sallie, and she's worse—worse, hey?"
I agreed with his question—but I didn't say so.
"Glad your money is safe in Public Town Bonds and City Securities, Evelina. If James could, he might lose it, and you'd have to move over. It would then be nip and tuck between you and Sallie which got James—nip and tuck—hey?"
"Oh, Uncle Peter!" I exclaimed with positive horror that was flavored with a large dash of indignation.
"Well, yes, a race between a widow and a girl for a man is about like one between a young duck and a spring chicken, across a mill-pond—girl and chicken lose—hey? But let Sallie have him, since you don't need him. I've got to go home and listen to Augusta talk about my business, that she knows nothing in the world about, or I won't be ready for town meeting this afternoon. Women are all fools,—hey?"
"Will you come again, Uncle Peter?" I asked eagerly. I had set out to offer Uncle Peter a cup of niecely affection, and I had got a good, stiff bracer to arouse me in return.
"I will, whenever I can escape Augusta," he answered, and there was such a kindly crackle in his voice that I felt that he had wanted and needed what I had offered him. "I'll drop in often and analyze the annals of the town with you. Glad to have you home, child, good young blood to stir me up—hey?"
And as I sat and watched the Mayor go saunteringly down the street, with his crustiness carried like a child on his shoulder, which it delighted him to have knocked off, so that he could philosophize in the restoring of it to its position, suddenly a realization of the relation of Glendale to the world in general was forced upon me—and I quailed.
Glendale is like a dozen other small towns in the Harpeth Valley; they are all drowsy princesses who have just waked up enough to be wondering what did it. The tentative kiss has not yet disclosed the presence of the Prince of Revolution, and they are likely to doze for another century or two. I think I had better go back into the wide world and let them sleep on. One live member is likely to irritate the repose of the whole body.
Their faint stirrings of progress are pathetic.
They have an electric plant, but, as I have noted before, the lights therefrom show a strong trace of their pine-knot heredity, and go out on all important occasions, whether of festivity or tragedy. Kerosene lamps have to be kept filled and cleaned if a baby or a revival or a lawn festival is expected.
They have a lovely, wide concrete pavement in front of six of the stores around the public square, but no two stretches of the improvement join each other, and it makes a shopping progression around the town somewhat dangerous, on account of the sudden change of grade of the sidewalk, about every sixty feet. Aunt Augusta wanted Uncle Peter to introduce a bill in the City Council forcing all of the property owners on the Square to put down the pavement in front of their houses, at small payments per annum, the town assuming the contract at six per cent. Uncle Peter refused, because he said that he felt a smooth walk around the Square would call out what he called "a dimity parade" every afternoon.
They have a water system that is supplied by so much mud from the river that it often happens that the town has to go unwashed for a week, while the pipes are cleaned out. There is a wonderful spring that could be used, with a pump to supply the town, Aunt Augusta says.
The City Council tied up the town for a hundred thousand dollars' subscription to the new railroad, and failed to tie the shops down in the contract. They are to be built in Bolivar. A great many of the rich men have lost a lot of money thereby, Cousin James the most of all, and everybody is sitting up in bed blinking.
There are still worse things happening in the emotional realm of Glendale.
Lee Greenfield has been in the state of going to ask Caroline Lellyett to marry him for fifteen years, and has never done it. Caroline has been beautiful all her life, but she is getting so thin and faded at thirty that she is a tragedy. Lee goes to see her twice a week, and on Sunday afternoon takes her out in his new and rakish runabout, that is as modern as his behavior is obsolete. Caroline knows no better, and stands it with sublime patience and lack of character. That is a situation I won't be able to keep my hands off of much longer.
Ned Hall's wife has seven children with the oldest one not twelve, and she looks fifty. Ned goes to all the dances at the Glendale Hotel dining-room and looks thirty. He dresses beautifully and Nell and all the girls like to dance with him. Just ordinary torture wouldn't do for him.
Polk Hayes wouldn't be allowed to run loose in London society.
Sallie Carruthers is a great big husky woman, with three children that she is responsible for having had. She and her family must consume tons of green groceries every month and a perfectly innocent man pays for them.
Mrs. Dodd, the carpenter-and-contractor's wife is a Boston woman who came down here—Before I could write all about that Boston girl so that Jane could understand perfectly the situation Polk came around from the side street and seated himself on the railing of the porch so near the arm of my chair that I couldn't rock without inconveniencing him.
I am glad he found me in the mood I was in and I am glad to record the strong-minded—it came near being the strong-armed—contest in which we indulged.
"Me for a woman that has a lot of spirit—she is so much sweeter when tamed, Evelina," was one of the gentle remarks with which he precipitated the riot. "I think it has been spunkily fascinating of you to come and live by yourself in this old barn. It keeps me awake nights just to think of you over here—alone. How long is the torture to go on?"
Jane, I tried, but if I had frankly and courageously shown Polk Hayes what was in my heart for him at that moment, I couldn't have answered for the results.
From the time I was eighteen until I was twenty the same sort of assault and battery had been handed out to me from him. He had beaten me with his love. He didn't want me—he doesn't want any woman except so long as he is uncertain that he can get her. Just because I had been firm with him when even a child and denied him, he has been merciless. And now that I am a woman and armed for the combat, it will be to the death.
Shall I double and take refuge in a labyrinth of subterfuge or turn and fight? So I temporized to-day.
"It is lonely—but not quite 'torture' to me, with the family so close, across the street," I answered him, and I went on whipping the lace on a piece of fluff I am making, to discipline myself because I loathe a needle so. "Please don't you worry over me, dear." I raised my eyes to his and I tried the common citizenship look. It must have carried a little way for he flushed, the first time I ever saw him do it, and his hand with the cigarette in it shook.
"Evelina, are you real or a—farce?" he asked, after a few minutes of peace.
"I'm trying to be real, Polk," I answered, and this time I raised my eyes with perfect frankness. "If you could define a real woman, Polk, in what terms would you express her?" I asked him straight out from the shoulder.
"Hell fire and a hallelujah chorus, if she's beautiful," he answered me promptly.
I laughed. I thought it was best under the circumstances.
"I'll tell you, Evelina," he continued, stealthily. "A man just can't generalize the creatures. Apparently they are craving nothing so much as emotional excitement and when you offer it to them they want to go to housekeeping with it. Love is a business with them and not an art."
"Would you like to try a genuine friendship with one. Polk?" I asked, and again struck from the shoulder—with my eyes.
"Help! Not if you mean yourself, beautiful," he answered promptly and with fervor. "I wouldn't trust myself with you one minute off-guard like that."
"You could safely."
"But I won't!"
"Will you try?"
"Will you go over and sit in that chair while I tell you something calmly, quietly, and seriously? It'll give you a new sensation and maybe it will be good for you." I looked him straight in the face and the battle of our eyes was something terrific. I had made up my mind to have it out with him then and there. There was nothing else to do. I would be frank and courageous and true to my vow—and accept the consequences.
He slid along the railing of the porch and down into the chair in almost a daze of bewilderment.
"Polk," I began, concealing a gulp of terror, "I love you more than I can possibly—"
"Say, Polk, I let the Pup git hung by her apron to the wheel of your car out in the road and her head is dangersome kinder upside down. It might run away. Can you come and git her loose for me?"
Henrietta's calmness under dire circumstances was a lesson to both Polk and me, for with two gasps that sounded as one we both raced across the porch, down the path and out to the road where Folk's Hupp runabout stood by the worn old stone post that had tethered the horses of the wooers of many generations of the maids of my house.
But, prompt as our response to Henrietta's demand for rescue had been, Cousin James was there before us. He stood in the middle of the dusty road with the tousled mite in his arms, soothing her frightened sobs against his cheek with the dearest tenderness and patting Sallie on the back with the same comforting.
"Oh, Henrietta, how could you nearly kill your little sister like this?" Sallie sobbed. "Please say something positive to her, James!"
"Henrietta," began Cousin James with a suspicion of embarrassment at Polk's and my presence at the domestic scene. Polk choked a chuckle and I could have murdered him.
"Wait a minute," said Henrietta, in her most commanding voice. "Sallie, didn't you ask me to take that Pup from Aunt Dilsie, 'cause of the phthisic, and keep her quiet while the Kit got a nap, and didn't I ask you if it would be all right if I got her back whole and clean?"
"Yes, Henrietta, but you—"
"Ain't she whole all over and clean?"
"Couldn't nobody do any better than that with one of them twins. I won't try. If I have to 'muse her it has to be in my own way." And with her head in the air the Bunch marched up the walk to the house.
At this Polk shouted and the rest of us laughed.
"Polk, please don't encourage Henrietta in the way she treats me and her little sisters," Sallie begged between her laughs and her half-swallowed sobs. "I need my friends' help with my children, not to have them make it hard for me. Henrietta is devoted to you and you could influence her so for the best. Please try to help me make a real woman out of her and not some sort of a terrible—terrible suffragette."
Sallie is the most perfectly lovely woman I almost ever saw. She has great violet eyes with black lashes that beg you for a piece of your heart, and her mouth is as sweet as a blush rose with cheeks that almost match it in rosiness. She and the babies always remind me of a cluster rose and roses, flower and buds, and I don't see why every man that sees her is not mad about her. They all used to be before she married, and I suppose they will be again as soon as the crepe gets entirely worn off her clothes. As she stood with the bubbly baby in her arms and looked up at Polk I couldn't see how he could take it calmly.
"Sallie," he answered seriously, with a glint in his eyes over at me, "if you'll give me a few days longer, I will then have found out by experience what a real woman is and I'll begin on Henrietta for you accordingly."
"Don't be too hard on the kiddie," Cousin James answered him with the crinkle in the corner of his eyes that might have been called shrewd in eyes less beautifully calm. "Let's trust a lot to Henrietta's powers of observation of her mother and—her neighbors." He smiled suddenly, with his whole face, over both Sallie and me, and went on down the street in a way that made me sure he was forgetting all about all of us before he reached the corner of the street.