THE WHOLE FAMILY,
A NOVEL BY TWELVE AUTHORS
By William Dean Howells, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Mary Heaton Vorse, Mary Stewart Cutting, Elizabeth Jordan, John Kendrick Bangs, Henry James, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Edith Wyatt, Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews, Alice Brown, Henry Van Dyke
I. The Father by William Dean Howells II. The Old-Maid Aunt by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman III. The Grandmother by Mary Heaton Vorse IV. The Daughter-in-Law by Mary Stewart Cutting V. The School-Girl by Elizabeth Jordan VI. The Son-in-Law by John Kendrick Bangs VII. The Married Son by Henry James VIII. The Married Daughter by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps IX. The Mother by Edith Wyatt X. The School-Boy by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews XI. Peggy by Alice Brown XII. The Friend of the Family by Henry Van Dyke
THE WHOLE FAMILY
I. THE FATHER, by William Dean Howells
As soon as we heard the pleasant news—I suppose the news of an engagement ought always to be called pleasant—it was decided that I ought to speak first about it, and speak to the father. We had not been a great while in the neighborhood, and it would look less like a bid for the familiar acquaintance of people living on a larger scale than ourselves, and less of an opening for our own intimacy if they turned out to be not quite so desirable in other ways as they were in the worldly way. For the ladies of the respective families first to offer and receive congratulations would be very much more committing on both sides; at the same time, to avoid the appearance of stiffness, some one ought to speak, and speak promptly. The news had not come to us directly from our neighbors, but authoritatively from a friend of theirs, who was also a friend of ours, and we could not very well hold back. So, in the cool of the early evening, when I had quite finished rasping my lawn with the new mower, I left it at the end of the swath, which had brought me near the fence, and said across it,
My neighbor turned from making his man pour a pail of water on the earth round a freshly planted tree, and said, "Oh, good-evening! How d'ye do? Glad to see you!" and offered his hand over the low coping so cordially that I felt warranted in holding it a moment.
"I hope it's in order for me to say how very much my wife and I are interested in the news we've heard about one of your daughters? May I offer our best wishes for her happiness?"
"Oh, thank you," my neighbor said. "You're very good indeed. Yes, it's rather exciting—for us. I guess that's all for to-night, Al," he said, in dismissal of his man, before turning to lay his arms comfortably on the fence top. Then he laughed, before he added, to me, "And rather surprising, too."
"Those things are always rather surprising, aren't they?" I suggested.
"Well, yes, I suppose they are. It oughtn't be so in our case, though, as we've been through it twice before: once with my son—he oughtn't to have counted, but he did—and once with my eldest daughter. Yes, you might say you never do quite expect it, though everybody else does. Then, in this case, she was the baby so long, that we always thought of her as a little girl. Yes, she's kept on being the pet, I guess, and we couldn't realize what was in the air."
I had thought, from the first sight of him, that there was something very charming in my neighbor's looks. He had a large, round head, which had once been red, but was now a russet silvered, and was not too large for his manly frame, swaying amply outward, but not too amply, at the girth. He had blue, kind eyes, and a face fully freckled, and the girl he was speaking of with a tenderness in his tones rather than his words, was a young feminine copy of him; only, her head was little, under its load of red hair, and her figure, which we had lately noticed flitting in and out, as with a shy consciousness of being stared at on account of her engagement, was as light as his was heavy on its feet.
I said, "Naturally," and he seemed glad of the chance to laugh again.
"Well, of course! And her being away at school made it all the more so. If we'd had her under our eye, here—Well, we shouldn't have had her under our eye if she had BEEN here; or if we had, we shouldn't have seen what was going on; at least I shouldn't; maybe her mother would. So it's just as well it happened as it did happen, I guess. We shouldn't have been any the wiser if we'd known all about it." I joined him in his laugh at his paradox, and he began again. "What's that about being the unexpected that happens? I guess what happens is what ought to have been expected. We might have known when we let her go to a coeducational college that we were taking a risk of losing her; but we lost our other daughter that way, and SHE never went to ANY kind of college. I guess we counted the chances before we let her go. What's the use? Of course we did, and I remember saying to my wife, who's more anxious than I am about most things—women are, I guess—that if the worst came to the worst, it might not be such a bad thing. I always thought it wasn't such an objectionable feature, in the coeducational system, if the young people did get acquainted under it, and maybe so well acquainted that they didn't want to part enemies in the end. I said to my wife that I didn't see how, if a girl was going to get married, she could have a better basis than knowing the fellow through three or four years' hard work together. When you think of the sort of hit-or-miss affairs most marriages are that young people make after a few parties and picnics, coeducation as a preliminary to domestic happiness doesn't seem a bad notion."
"There's something in what you say," I assented.
"Of course there is," my neighbor insisted. "I couldn't help laughing, though," and he laughed, as if to show how helpless he had been, "at what my wife said. She said she guessed if it came to that they would get to know more of each other's looks than they did of their minds. She had me there, but I don't think my girl has made out so very poorly even as far as books are concerned."
Upon this invitation to praise her, I ventured to say, "A young lady of Miss Talbert's looks doesn't need much help from books."
I could see that what I had said pleased him to the core, though he put on a frown of disclaimer in replying, "I don't know about her looks. She's a GOOD girl, though, and that's the main thing, I guess."
"For her father, yes, but other people don't mind her being pretty," I persisted. "My wife says when Miss Talbert comes out into the garden, the other flowers have no chance."
"Good for Mrs. Temple!" my neighbor shouted, joyously giving himself away.
I have always noticed that when you praise a girl's beauty to her father, though he makes a point of turning it off in the direction of her goodness, he likes so well to believe she is pretty that he cannot hold out against any persistence in the admirer of her beauty. My neighbor now said with the effect of tasting a peculiar sweetness in my words, "I guess I shall have to tell my wife, that." Then he added, with a rush of hospitality, "Won't you come in and tell her yourself?"
"Not now, thank you. It's about our tea-time."
"Glad it isn't your DINNER-time!" he said, heartily.
"Well, yes. We don't see the sense of dining late in a place like this. The fact is, we're both village-bred, and we like the mid-day dinner. We make rather a high tea, though."
"So do we. I always want a dish of something hot. My wife thinks cake is light, but I think meat is."
"Well, cake is the New England superstition," I observed. "And I suppose York State, too."
"Yes, more than pie is," he agreed. "For supper, anyway. You may have pie at any or all of the three meals, but you have GOT to have cake at tea, if you are anybody at all. In the place where my wife lived, a woman's social standing was measured by the number of kinds of cake she had."
We laughed at that, too, and then there came a little interval and I said, "Your place is looking fine."
He turned his head and gave it a comprehensive stare. "Yes, it is," he admitted. "They tell me it's an ugly old house, and I guess if my girls, counting my daughter-in-law, had their way, they would have that French roof off, and something Georgian—that's what they call it—on, about as quick as the carpenter could do it. They want a kind of classic front, with pillars and a pediment; or more the Mount Vernon style, body yellow, with white trim. They call it Georgian after Washington?" This was obviously a joke.
"No, I believe it was another George, or four others. But I don't wonder you want to keep your house as it is. It expresses something characteristic." I saved myself by forbearing to say it was handsome. It was, in fact, a vast, gray-green wooden edifice, with a mansard-roof cut up into many angles, tipped at the gables with rockets and finials, and with a square tower in front, ending in a sort of lookout at the top, with a fence of iron filigree round it. The taste of 1875 could not go further; it must have cost a heap of money in the depreciated paper of the day.
I suggested something of the kind to my neighbor, and he laughed. "I guess it cost all we had at the time. We had been saving along up, and in those days it used to be thought that the best investment you could make was to put your money in a house of your own. That's what we did, anyway. I had just got to be superintendent of the Works, and I don't say but what we felt my position a little. Well, we felt it more than we did when I got to be owner." He laughed in good-humored self-satire. "My wife used to say we wanted a large house so as to have it big enough to hold me, when I was feeling my best, and we built the largest we could for all the money we had. She had a plan of her own, which she took partly from the house of a girl friend of hers where she had been visiting, and we got a builder to carry out her idea. We did have some talk about an architect, but the builder said he didn't want any architect bothering around HIM, and I don't know as SHE did, either. Her idea was plenty of chambers and plenty of room in them, and two big parlors one side of the front door, and a library and dining-room on the other; kitchen in the L part, and girl's room over that; wide front hall, and black-walnut finish all through the first floor. It was considered the best house at the time in Eastridge, and I guess it was. But now, I don't say but what it's old-fashioned. I have to own up to that with the girls, but I tell them so are we, and that seems to make it all right for a while. I guess we sha'n't change."
He continued to stare at the simple-hearted edifice, so simple-hearted in its out-dated pretentiousness, and then he turned and leaned over the top of the fence where he had left his arms lying, while contemplating the early monument of his success. In making my journalistic study, more or less involuntary, of Eastridge, I had put him down as materially the first man of the place; I might have gone farther and put him down as the first man intellectually. We folk who have to do more constantly with reading and writing are apt to think that the other folk who have more to do with making and marketing have not so much mind, but I fancy we make a mistake in that now and then. It is only another kind of mind which they have quite as much of as we have of ours. It was intellectual force that built up the Plated-Ware Works of Eastridge, where there was no other reason for their being, and it was mental grip that held constantly to the management, and finally grasped the ownership. Nobody ever said that Talbert had come unfairly into that, or that he had misused his money in buying men after he began to come into it in quantity. He was felt in a great many ways, though he made something of a point of not being prominent in politics, after being president of the village two terms. The minister of his church was certainly such a preacher as he liked; and nothing was done in the church society without him; he gave the town a library building, and a soldier's monument; he was foremost in getting the water brought in, which was natural enough since he needed it the most; he took a great interest in school matters, and had a fight to keep himself off the board of education; he went into his pocket for village improvements whenever he was asked, and he was the chief contributor to the public fountain under the big elm. If he carefully, or even jealously guarded his own interests, and held the leading law firm in the hollow of his hand, he was not oppressive, to the general knowledge. He was a despot, perhaps, but he was Blackstone's ideal of the head of a state, a good despot. In all his family relations he was of the exemplary perfection which most other men attain only on their tombstones, and I had found him the best of neighbors. There were some shadows of diffidence between the ladies of our families, mainly on the part of my wife, but none between Talbert and me. He showed me, as a newspaper man with ideals if not abilities rather above the average, a deference which pleased my wife, even more than me.
It was the married daughter whom she most feared might, if occasion offered, give herself more consequence than her due. She had tried to rule her own family while in her father's house, and now though she had a house of her own, my wife believed that she had not wholly relinquished her dominion there. Her husband was the junior member of the law firm which Talbert kept in his pay, to the exclusion of most other clients, and he was a very good fellow, so far as I knew, with the modern conception of his profession which, in our smaller towns and cities, has resulted in corporation lawyers and criminal lawyers, and has left to a few aging attorneys the faded traditions and the scanty affairs of the profession. My wife does not mind his standing somewhat in awe of his father-in-law, but she thinks poorly of his spirit in relation to that managing girl he has married. Talbert's son is in the business with him, and will probably succeed him in it; but it is well known in the place that he will never be the man his father is, not merely on account of his college education, but also on account of the easy temperament, which if he had indulged it to the full would have left him no better than some kind of artist. As it is, he seems to leave all the push to his father; he still does some sketching outside, and putters over the aesthetic details in the business, the new designs for the plated ware, and the illustrated catalogues which the house publishes every year; I am in hopes that we shall get the printing, after we have got the facilities. It would be all right with the young man in the opinion of his censors if he had married a different kind of woman, but young Mrs. Talbert is popularly held just such another as her husband, and easy-going to the last degree. She was two or three years at the Art Students' League, and it was there that her husband met her before they both decided to give up painting and get married.
The two youngest children, or the fall chickens as they are called in recognition of the wide interval between their ages and those of the other children, are probably of the indeterminate character proper to their years. We think the girl rather inclines to a hauteur based upon the general neglect of that quality in the family, where even the eldest sister is too much engaged in ruling to have much force left for snubbing. The child carries herself with a vague loftiness, which has apparently not awaited the moment of long skirts for keeping pretenders to her favor at a distance. In the default of other impertinents to keep in abeyance we fancy that she exercises her gift upon her younger brother, who, so far as we have been able to note, is of a disposition which would be entirely sweet if it were not for the exasperations he suffers from her. I like to put myself in his place, and to hold that he believes himself a better judge than she of the sort of companions he chooses, she being disabled by the mental constitution of her sex, and the defects of a girl's training, from knowing the rare quality of boys who present themselves even to my friendly eyes as dirty, and, when not patched, ragged. I please myself in my guesses at her character with the conjecture that she is not satisfied with her sister's engagement to a fellow-student in a co-educational college, who is looking forward to a professorship.
In spite of her injustice in regard to his own companions, this imaginable attitude of hers impresses the boy, if I understand boys. I have no doubt he reasons that she must be right about something, and as she is never right about boys, she must be right about brothers-in-law, potential if not actual. This one may be, for all the boy knows, a sissy; he inclines to believe, from what he understands of the matter, that he is indeed a sissy, or he would never have gone to a college where half the students are girls. He himself, as I have heard, intends to go to a college, but whether Harvard, or Bryant's Business College, he has not yet decided. One thing he does know, though, and that is there are not going to be any girls in it. We have not allowed our invention so great play in regard to the elder members of our neighbor's family perhaps because we really know something more about them. Mrs. Talbert duly called after We came to Eastridge, and when my wife had self-respectfully waited a proper time, which she made a little more than a week lest she should feel that she had been too eager for the acquaintance, she returned the call. Then she met not only Mrs. Talbert, but Mrs. Talbert's mother, who lives with them, in an anxiety for their health which would impair her own if she were not of a constitution such as you do not find in these days of unladylike athletics. She was inclined to be rather strict with my wife about her own health, and mine too, and told her she must be careful not to let me work too hard, or overeat, or leave off my flannels before the weather was settled in the spring. She said she had heard that I had left a very good position on a Buffalo paper when I bought the Eastridge Banner, and that the town ought to feel very much honored. My wife suppressed her conviction that this was the correct view of the case, in a deprecatory expression of our happiness in finding ourselves in Eastridge, and our entire satisfaction with our prospects and surroundings. Then Mrs. Talbert's mother inquired, as delicately as possible, what denominations, religious and medical, we were of, how many children we had, and whether mostly boys or girls, and where and how long we had been married. She was glad, she said, that we had taken the place next them, after our brief sojourn in the furnished house where we had first lived, and said that there was only one objection to the locality, which was the prevalence of moths; they obliged you to put away your things in naphtha-balls almost the moment the spring opened. She wished to know what books my wife was presently reading, and whether she approved of women's clubs to the extent that they were carried to in some places. She believed in book clubs, but to her mind it was very questionable whether the time that ladies gave to writing papers on so many different subjects was well spent. She thought it a pity that so many things were canned, nowadays, and so well canned that the old arts of pickling and preserving were almost entirely lost. In the conversation, where she bore a leading part as long as she remained in the room, her mind took a wide range, and visited more human interests than my wife was at first able to mention, though afterward she remembered so many that I formed the notion of something encyclopedic in its compass. When she reached the letter Z, she rose and took leave of my wife, saying that now she must go and lie down, as it appeared to be her invariable custom to do (in behalf of the robust health which she had inherited unimpaired from a New England ancestry), at exactly half-past four every afternoon. It was this, she said, more than any one thing that enabled her to go through so much as she did; but through the door which she left open behind her my wife heard Talbert's voice saying, in mixed mockery and tenderness, "Don't forget your tonic, mother," and hers saying, "No, I won't, Cyrus. I never forget it, and it's a great pity you don't take it, too."
It was our conclusion from all the facts of this call, when we came to discuss them in the light of some friendly gossip which we had previously heard, that the eldest daughter of the Talberts came honestly by her love of ruling if she got it from her grandmother, but that she was able to indulge it oftener, and yet not so often as might have been supposed from the mild reticence of her mother. Older if not shrewder observers than ourselves declared that what went in that house was what Mrs. Talbert said, and that it went all the more effectively because what she said Talbert said too.
That might have been because she said so little. When her mother left the room she let a silence follow in which she seemed too embarrassed to speak for a while on finding herself alone with my wife, and my wife decided that the shyness of the girl whose engagement was soon afterward reported, as well as the easy-goingness of the eldest son, had come from their mother. As soon as Mrs. Talbert could command herself, she began to talk, and every word she said was full of sense, with a little gust of humor in the sense which was perfectly charming. Absolutely unworldly as she was, she had very good manners; in her evasive way she was certainly qualified to be the leader of society in Eastridge, and socially Eastridge thought fairly well of itself. She did not obviously pretend to so much literature as her mother, but she showed an even nicer intelligence of our own situation in Eastridge. She spoke with a quiet appreciation of the improvement in the Banner, which, although she quoted Mr. Talbert, seemed to be the result of her personal acquaintance with the paper in the past as well as the present. My wife pronounced her the ideal mother of a family, and just what the wife of such a man as Cyrus Talbert ought to be, but no doubt because Mrs. Talbert's characteristics were not so salient as her mother's, my wife was less definitely descriptive of her.
From time to time, it seemed that there was a sister of Mr. Talbert's who visited in the family, but was now away on one of the many other visits in which she passed her life. She was always going or coming somewhere, but at the moment she was gone. My wife inferred from the generation to which her brother belonged that she had long been a lady of that age when ladies begin to be spoken of as maiden. Mrs. Talbert spoke of her as if they were better friends than sisters-in-law are apt to be, and said that she was to be with them soon, and she would bring her with her when she returned my wife's call. From the general impression in Eastridge we gathered that Miss Talbert was not without the disappointment which endears maiden ladies to the imagination, but the disappointment was of a date so remote that it was only matter of pathetic hearsay, now. Miss Talbert, in her much going and coming, had not failed of being several times in Europe. She especially affected Florence, where she was believed to have studied the Tuscan School to unusual purpose, though this was not apparent in any work of her own. We formed the notion that she might be uncomfortably cultured, but when she came to call with Mrs. Talbert afterward, my wife reported that you would not have thought, except for a remark she dropped now and then, that she had ever been out of her central New York village, and so far from putting on airs of art, she did not speak of any gallery abroad, or of the pensions in which she stayed in Florence, or the hotels in other cities of Italy where she had stopped to visit the local schools of painting.
In this somewhat protracted excursion I have not forgotten that I left Mr. Talbert leaning against our party fence, with his arms resting on the top, after a keen if not critical survey of his dwelling. He did not take up our talk at just the point where we had been in it, but after a reflective moment, he said, "I don't remember just whether Mrs. Temple told my mother-in-law you were homoeopaths or allopaths."
"Well," I said, "that depends. I rather think we are homoeopaths of a low-potency type." My neighbor's face confessed a certain disappointment. "But we are not bigoted, even in the article of appreciable doses. Our own family doctor in our old place always advised us, in stress of absence from him, to get the best doctor wherever we happened to be, so far as we could make him out, and not mind what school he was of. I suppose we have been treated by as many allopaths as homoeopaths, but we're rather a healthy family, and put it all together we have not been treated a great deal by either."
Mr. Talbert looked relieved. "Oh, then you will have Dr. Denbigh. He puts your rule the other way, and gets the best patient he can, no matter whether he is a homoeopath or an allopath. We have him, in all our branches; he is the best doctor in Eastridge, and he is the best man. I want you to know him, and you can't know a doctor the way you ought to, unless he's your family physician."
"You're quite right, I think, but that's a matter I should have to leave two-thirds of to my wife: women are two-thirds of the patients in every healthy family, and they ought to have the ruling voice about the doctor." We had formed the habit already of laughing at any appearance of joke in each other, and my neighbor now rolled his large head in mirth, and said:
"That's so, I guess. But I guess there won't be any trouble about Mrs. Temple's vote when she sees Denbigh. His specialty is the capture of sensible women. They all swear by him. You met him, didn't you, at my office, the other day?"
"Oh yes, and I liked him so much that I wished I was sick on the spot!"
"That's good!" my neighbor said, joyfully.
"Well, you could meet the doctor there almost any afternoon of the week, toward closing-up hours, and almost any evening at our house here, when he isn't off on duty. It's a generally understood thing that if he isn't at home, or making a professional visit, he's at one place or the other. The farmers round stop for him with their buggies, when they're in a hurry, and half our calls over the 'phone are for Dr. Denbigh. The fact is he likes to talk, and if there's any sort of man that I like to talk with better than another, it's a doctor. I never knew one yet that didn't say something worth while within five minutes' time. Then, you know that you can be free with them, be yourself, and that's always worth while, whether you're worth while yourself or not. You can say just what you think about anybody or anything, and you know it won't go farther. You may not be a patient, but they've always got their Hippocratic oath with them, and they're safe. That so?"
My neighbor wished the pleasure of my explicit assent; my tacit assent he must have read in my smile. "Yes," I said, "and they're always so tolerant and compassionate. I don't want to say anything against the reverend clergy; they're oftener saints upon earth than we allow; but a doctor is more solid comfort; he seems to understand you exponentially."
"That's it! You've hit it! He's seen lots of other cases like yours, and next to a man's feeling that he's a peculiar sufferer, he likes to know that there are other fellows in the same box."
We both laughed at this; it was, in fact, a joke we were the joint authors of.
"Well, we don't often talk about my ailments; I haven't got a great many; and generally we get on some abstract topic. Just now we're running the question of female education, perhaps because it's impersonal, and we can both treat of it without prejudice."
"The doctor isn't married, I believe?"
"He's a widower of long standing, and that's the best kind of doctor to have: then he's a kind of a bachelor with practical wisdom added. You see, I've always had the idea that women, beginning with little girls and ending with grandmothers, ought to be brought up as nearly like their brothers as can be—that is, if they are to be the wives of other women's brothers. It don't so much matter how an old maid is brought up, but you can't have her destiny in view, though I believe if an old maid could be brought up more like an old bachelor she would be more comfortable to herself, anyway."
"And what does Dr. Denbigh say?"
"Well, you must hear him talk. I guess he rather wants to draw me out, for the most part."
"I don't wonder at that. I wish you'd draw yourself out. I've thought something in the direction of your opinion myself."
"Have you? That's good! We'll tackle the doctor together sometime. The difficulty about putting a thing like that in practice is that you have to co-operate in it with women who have been brought up in the old way. A man's wife is a woman—"
"Generally," I assented, as if for argument's sake.
He gave himself time to laugh. "And she has the charge of the children as long as they're young, and she's a good deal more likely to bring up the boys like girls than the girls like boys. But the boys take themselves out of her hands pretty soon, while the girls have to stay under her thumb till they come out just the kind of women we've always had."
"We've managed to worry along with them."
"Yes, we have. And I don't say but what we fancy them as they are when we first begin to 'take notice.' One trouble is that children are sick so much, and their mothers scare you with that, and you haven't the courage to put your theories into practice. I can't say that any of my girls have inherited my constitution but this one." I knew he meant the one whose engagement was the origin of our conversation. "If you've heard my mother-in-law talk about her constitution you would think she belonged to the healthiest family that ever got out of New England alive, but the fact is there's always something the matter with her, or she thinks there is, and she's taking medicine for it, anyway. I can't say but what my wife has always been strong enough, and I've been satisfied to have the children take after her; but when I saw this one's sorrel-top as we used to call it before we admired red hair, I knew she was a Talbert, and I made up my mind to begin my system with her." He laughed as with a sense of agreeable discomfiture. "I can't say it worked very well, or rather that it had a chance. You see, her mother had to apply it; I was always too busy. And a curious thing was that though the girl looked like me, she was a good deal more like her mother in temperament and character."
"Perhaps," I ventured, "that's the reason why she was your favorite."
He dropped his head in rather a shamefaced way, but lifted it with another laugh. "Well, there may be something in that. Not," he gravely retrieved himself, "that we have ever distinguished between our children."
"No, neither have we. But one can't help liking the ways of one child better than another; one will rather take the fancy more than the rest."
"Well," my neighbor owned, "I don't know but it's that kind of shyness in them both. I suppose one likes to think his girl looks like him, but doesn't mind her being like her mother. I'm glad she's got my constitution, though. My eldest daughter is more like her grandmother in looks, and I guess she's got her disposition too, more. I don't know," he said, vaguely, "what the last one is going to be like. She seems to be more worldly. But," he resumed, strenuously, as if the remembrance of old opposition remained in his nerves, "when it came to this going off to school, or college, or whatever, I put my foot down, and kept it down. I guess her mother was willing enough to do my way, but her sister was all for some of those colleges where girls are educated with other girls and not with young men. She said they were more ladylike, and a lot more stuff and nonsense, and were more likely to be fit for society. She said this one would meet a lot of jays, and very likely fall in love with one; and when we first heard of this affair of Peggy's I don't believe but what her sister got more satisfaction out of it than I did. She's quick enough! And a woman likes to feel that she's a prophetess at any time of her life. That's about all that seems to keep some of them going when they get old." I knew that here he had his mother-in-law rather than his daughter in mind, and I didn't interrupt the sarcastic silence into which he fell. "You've never met the young man, I believe?" he asked, at quite another point, and to the negation of my look he added, "To be sure! We've hardly met him ourselves; he's only been here once; but you'll see him—you and Mrs. Temple. Well!" He lifted his head, as if he were going away, but he did not lift his arms from the fence, and so I knew that he had not emptied the bag of his unexpected confidences; I did not know why he was making them to me, but I liked him the better for them, and tried to feel that I was worthy of them. He began with a laugh, "They both paid it into me so," and now I knew that he meant his eldest daughter as well as her grandmother, "that my wife turned round and took my part, and said it was the very best thing that could happen; and she used all the arguments that I had used with her, when she had her misgivings about it, and she didn't leave them a word to say. A curious thing about it was, that though my arguments seemed to convince them, they didn't convince me. Ever notice, how when another person repeats what you've said, it sounds kind of weak and foolish?" I owned that my reasons had at times some such way of turning against me from the mouths of others, and he went on: "But they seemed to silence her own misgivings, and she's been enthusiastic for the engagement ever since. What's the reason," he asked, "why a man, if he's any way impetuous, wants to back out of a situation just about the time a woman has got set in it like the everlasting hills? Is it because she feels the need of holding fast for both, or is it because she knows she hasn't the strength to keep to her conclusion, if she wavers at all, while a man can let himself play back and forth, and still stay put."
"Well, in a question like that," I said, and I won my neighbor's easy laugh, "I always like to give my own sex the benefit of the doubt, and I haven't any question but man's inconsistency is always attributable to his magnanimity."
"I guess I shall have to put that up on the doctor," my neighbor said, as he lifted his arms from the fence at last, and backed away from it. I knew that he was really going in-doors now, and that I must come out with what was in my mind, if I meant to say it at all, and so I said, "By-the-way, there's something. You know I don't go in much for what's called society journalism, especially in the country press, where it mostly takes the form of 'Miss Sadie Myers is visiting with Miss Mamie Peters,' but I realize that a country paper nowadays must be a kind of open letter to the neighborhood, and I suppose you have no objection to my mentioning the engagement?"
This made Mr. Talbert look serious; and I fancy my proposition made him realize the affair as he had not before, perhaps. After a moment's pause, he said, "Well! That's something I should like to talk with my wife about."
"Do so!" I applauded. "I only suggest it—or chiefly, or partly—because you can have it reach our public in just the form you want, and the Rochester and Syracuse papers will copy my paragraph; but if you leave it to their Eastridge correspondents—"
"That's true," he assented. "I'll speak to Mrs. Talbert—" He walked so inconclusively away that I was not surprised to have him turn and come back before I left my place. "Why, certainly! Make the announcement! It's got to come out. It's a kind of a wrench, thinking of it as a public affair; because a man's daughter is always a little girl to him, and he can't realize—And this one—But of course!"
"Would you like to suggest any particular form of words?" I hesitated.
"Oh no! Leave that to you entirely. I know we can trust you not to make any blare about it. Just say that they were fellow-students—I should like that to be known, so that people sha'n't think I don't like to have it known—and that he's looking forward to a professorship in the same college—How queer it all seems!"
"Very well, then, I'll announce it in our next. There's time to send me word if Mrs. Talbert has any suggestions."
"All right. But she won't have any. Well, good-evening."
"Good-evening," I said from my side of the fence; and when I had watched him definitively in-doors, I turned and walked into my own house.
The first thing my wife said was, "You haven't asked him to let you announce it in the Banner?"
"But I have, though!"
"Well!" she gasped.
"What is the matter?" I demanded. "It's a public affair, isn't it?"
"It's a family affair—"
"Well, I consider the readers of the Banner a part of the family."
II. THE OLD-MAID AUNT, by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
I am relegated here in Eastridge to the position in which I suppose I properly belong, and I dare say it is for my best spiritual and temporal good. Here I am the old-maid aunt. Not a day, not an hour, not a minute, when I am with other people, passes that I do not see myself in their estimation playing that role as plainly as if I saw myself in a looking-glass. It is a moral lesson which I presume I need. I have just returned from my visit at the Pollards' country-house in Lancaster, where I most assuredly did not have it. I do not think I deceive myself. I know it is the popular opinion that old maids are exceedingly prone to deceive themselves concerning the endurance of their youth and charms, and the views of other people with regard to them. But I am willing, even anxious, to be quite frank with myself. Since—well, never mind since what time—I have not cared an iota whether I was considered an old maid or not. The situation has seemed to me rather amusing, inasmuch as it has involved a secret willingness to be what everybody has considered me as very unwilling to be. I have regarded it as a sort of joke upon other people.
But I think I am honest—I really mean to be, and I think I am—when I say that outside Eastridge the role of an old-maid aunt is the very last one which I can take to any advantage. Here I am estimated according to what people think I am, rather than what I actually am. In the first place, I am only fifteen years older than Peggy, who has just become engaged, but those fifteen years seem countless aeons to the child herself and the other members of the family. I am ten years younger than my brother's wife, but she and my brother regard me as old enough to be her mother. As for Grandmother Evarts, she fairly looks up to me as her superior in age, although she DOES patronize me. She would patronize the prophets of old. I don't believe she ever says her prayers without infusing a little patronage into her petitions. The other day Grandmother Evarts actually inquired of me, of ME! concerning a knitting-stitch. I had half a mind to retort, "Would you like a lesson in bridge, dear old soul?" She never heard of bridge, and I suppose she would have thought I meant bridge-building. I sometimes wonder why it is that all my brother's family are so singularly unsophisticated, even Cyrus himself, able as he is and dear as he is.
Sometimes I speculate as to whether it can be due to the mansard-roof of their house. I have always had a theory that inanimate things exerted more of an influence over people than they dreamed, and a mansard-roof, to my mind, belongs to a period which was most unsophisticated and fatuous, not merely concerning aesthetics, but simple comfort. Those bedrooms under the mansard-roof are miracles not only of ugliness, but discomfort, and there is no attic. I think that a house without a good roomy attic is like a man without brains. Possibly living in a brainless house has affected the mental outlook of my relatives, although their brains are well enough. Peggy is not exactly remarkable for hers, but she is charmingly pretty, and has a wonderful knack at putting on her clothes, which might be esteemed a purely feminine brain, in her fingers. Charles Edward really has brains, although he is a round peg in a square hole, and as for Alice, her brains are above the normal, although she unfortunately knows it, and Billy, if he ever gets away from Alice, will show what he is made of. Maria's intellect is all right, although cast in a petty mould. She repeats Grandmother Evarts, which is a pity, because there are types not worth repeating. Maria if she had not her husband Tom to manage, would simply fall on her face. It goes hard with a purely patronizing soul when there is nobody to manage; there is apt to be an explosion. However, Maria HAS Tom. But none of my brother's family, not even my dear sister-in-law, Cyrus's wife, have the right point of view with regard to the present, possibly on account of the mansard-roof which has overshadowed them. They do not know that today an old-maid aunt is as much of an anomaly as a spinning-wheel, that she has ceased to exist, that she is prehistoric, that even grandmothers have almost disappeared from off the face of the earth. In short, they do not know that I am not an old-maid aunt except under this blessed mansard-roof, and some other roofs of Eastridge, many of which are also mansard, where the influence of their fixed belief prevails. For instance, they told the people next door, who have moved here recently, that the old-maid aunt was coming, and so, when I went to call with my sister-in-law, Mrs. Temple saw her quite distinctly. To think of Ned Temple being married to a woman like that, who takes things on trust and does not use her own eyes! Her two little girls are exactly like her. I wonder what Ned himself will think. I wonder if he will see that my hair is as red-gold as Peggy's, that I am quite as slim, that there is not a line on my face, that I still keep my girl color with no aid, that I wear frills of the latest fashion, and look no older than when he first saw me. I really do not know myself how I have managed to remain so intact; possibly because I have always grasped all the minor sweets of life, even if I could not have the really big worth-while ones. I honestly do not think that I have had the latter. But I have not taken the position of some people, that if I cannot have what I want most I will have nothing. I have taken whatever Providence chose to give me in the way of small sweets, and made the most of them. Then I have had much womanly pride, and that is a powerful tonic.
For instance, years ago, when my best lamp of life went out, so to speak, I lit all my candles and kept my path. I took just as much pains with my hair and my dress, and if I was unhappy I kept it out of evidence on my face. I let my heart ache and bleed, but I would have died before I wrinkled my forehead and dimmed my eyes with tears and let everybody else know. That was about the time when I met Ned Temple, and he fell so madly in love with me, and threatened to shoot himself if I would not marry him. He did not. Most men do not. I wonder if he placed me when he heard of my anticipated coming. Probably he did not. They have probably alluded to me as dear old Aunt Elizabeth, and when he met me (I was staying at Harriet Munroe's before she was married) nobody called me Elizabeth, but Lily. Miss Elizabeth Talbert, instead of Lily Talbert, might naturally set him wrong. Everybody here calls me Elizabeth. Outside Eastridge I am Lily. I dare say Ned Temple has not dreamed who I am. I hear that he is quite brilliant, although the poor fellow must be limited as to his income. However, in some respects it must be just as well. It would be a great trial to a man with a large income to have a wife like Mrs. Temple, who could make no good use of it. You might load that poor soul with crown jewels and she would make them look as if she had bought them at a department store for ninety-eight cents. And the way she keeps her house must be maddening, I should think, to a brilliant man. Fancy the books on the table being all arranged with the large ones under the small ones in perfectly even piles! I am sure that he has his meals on time, and I am equally sure that the principal dishes are preserves and hot biscuits and cake. That sort of diet simply shows forth in Mrs. Temple and her children. I am sure that his socks are always mended, but I know that he always wipes his feet before he enters the house, that it has become a matter of conscience with him; and those exactions are to me pathetic. These reflections are uncommonly like the popular conception as to how an old-maid aunt should reflect, had she not ceased to exist. Sometimes I wish she were still existing and that I carried out her character to the full. I am not at all sure but she, as she once was, coming here, would not have brought more happiness than I have. I must say I thought so when I saw poor Harry Goward turn so pale when he first saw me after my arrival. Why, in the name of common-sense, Ada, my sister-in-law, when she wrote to me at the Pollards', announcing Peggy's engagement, could not have mentioned who the man was, I cannot see.
Sometimes it seems to me that only the girl and the engagement figure at all in such matters. I suppose Peggy always alluded to me as "dear Aunt Elizabeth," when that poor young fellow knew me at the Abercrombies', where we were staying a year ago, as Miss Lily Talbert. The situation with regard to him and Peggy fairly puzzles me. I simply do not know what to do. Goodness knows I never lifted my finger to attract him. Flirtations between older women and boys always have seemed to me contemptible. I never particularly noticed him, although he is a charming young fellow, and there is not as much difference in our ages as in those of Harriet Munroe and her husband, and if I am not mistaken there is more difference between the ages of Ned Temple and his wife. Poor soul! she looks old enough to be his mother, as I remember him, but that may be partly due to the way she arranges her hair. However, Ned himself may have changed; there must be considerable wear and tear about matrimony, taken in connection with editing a country newspaper. If I had married Ned I might have looked as old as Mrs. Temple does. I wonder what Ned will do when he sees me. I know he will not turn white, as poor Harry Goward did. That really worries me. I am fond of little Peggy, and the situation is really rather awful. She is engaged to a man who is fond of her aunt and cannot conceal it. Still, the affection of most male things is curable. If Peggy has sense enough to retain her love for frills and bows, and puts on her clothes as well, and arranges her hair as prettily, after she has been married a year—no, ten years (it will take at least ten years to make a proper old-maid aunt of me)—she may have the innings. But Peggy has no brains, and it really takes a woman with brains to keep her looks after matrimony.
Of course, the poor little soul has no danger to fear from me; it is lucky for her that her fiance fell in love with me; but it is the principle of the thing which worries me. Harry Goward must be as fickle as a honey-bee. There is no assurance whatever for Peggy that he will not fall headlong in love—and headlong is just the word for it—with any other woman after he has married her. I did not want the poor fellow to stick to me, but when I come to think of it that is the trouble. How short-sighted I am! It is his perverted fickleness rather than his actual fickleness which worries me. He has proposed to Peggy when he was in love with another woman, probably because he was in love with another woman. Now Peggy, although she is not brilliant, in spite of her co-education (perhaps because of it), is a darling, and she deserves a good husband. She loves this man with her whole heart, poor little thing! that is easy enough to be seen, and he does not care for her, at least not when I am around or when I am in his mind. The question is, is this marriage going to make the child happy? My first impulse, when I saw Harry Goward and knew that he was poor Peggy's lover, was immediately to pack up and leave. Then I really wondered if that was the wisest thing to do. I wanted to see for myself if Harry Goward were really in earnest about poor little Peggy and had gotten over his mad infatuation for her aunt and would make her a good husband. Perhaps I ought to leave, and yet I wonder if I ought. Harry Goward may have turned pale simply from his memory of what an uncommon fool he had been, and the consideration of the embarrassing position in which his past folly has placed him, if I chose to make revelations. He might have known that I would not; still, men know so little of women. I think that possibly I am worrying myself needlessly, and that he is really in love with Peggy. She is quite a little beauty, and she does know how to put her clothes on so charmingly. The adjustments of her shirt-waists are simply perfection. I may be very foolish to go away; I may be even insufferably conceited in assuming that Harry's change of color signified anything which could make it necessary. But, after all, he must be fickle and ready to turn from one to another, or deceitful, and I must admit that if Peggy were my daughter, and Harry had never been mad about me six weeks ago, but about some other woman, I should still feel the same way.
Sometimes I wonder if I ought to tell Ada. She is the girl's mother. I might shift the responsibility on to her. I almost think I will. She is alone in her room now, I know. Peggy and Harry have gone for a drive, and the rest have scattered. It is a good chance. I really don't feel as if I ought to bear the whole responsibility alone. I will go this minute and tell Ada.
Well, I have told Ada, and here I am back in my room, laughing over the result. I might as well have told the flour-barrel. Anything like Ada's ease of character and inability to worry or even face a disturbing situation I have never seen. I laugh, although her method of receiving my tale was not, so to speak, flattering to me. Ada was in her loose white kimono, and she was sitting at her shady window darning stockings in very much the same way that a cow chews her cud; and when I told her, under promise of the strictest secrecy, she just laughed that placid little laugh of hers and said, taking another stitch, "Oh, well, boys are always falling in love with older women." And when I asked if she thought seriously that Peggy might not be running a risk, she said: "Oh dear, no; Harry is devoted to the child. You can't be foolish enough. Aunt Elizabeth, to think that he is in love with you NOW?"
I said, "Certainly not." It was only the principle involved; that the young man must be very changeable, and that Peggy might run a risk in the future if Harry were thrown in much with other women.
Ada only laughed again, and kept on with her darning, and said she guessed there was no need to worry. Harry seemed to her very much like Cyrus, and she was sure that Cyrus had never thought of another woman besides herself (Ada).
I wonder if another woman would have said what I might have said, especially after that imputation of the idiocy of my thinking that a young man could possibly fancy ME. I said nothing, but I wondered what Ada would say if she knew what I knew, if she would continue to chew her cud, that Cyrus had been simply mad over another girl, and only married her because he could not get the other one, and when the other died, five years after he was married to Ada, he sent flowers, and I should not to this day venture to speak that girl's name to the man. She was a great beauty, and she had a wonderful witchery about her. I was only a child, but I remember how she looked. Why, I fell in love with her myself! Cyrus can never forget a woman like that for a cud-chewing creature like Ada, even if she does keep his house in order and make a good mother to his children. The other would not have kept the house in order at all, but it would have been a shrine. Cyrus worshipped that girl, and love may supplant love, but not worship. Ada does not know, and she never will through me, but I declare I was almost wicked enough to tell her when I saw her placidly darning away, without the slightest conception, any more than a feather pillow would have, of what this ridiculous affair with me might mean in future consequences to poor, innocent little Peggy. But I can only hope the boy has gotten over his feeling for me, that he has been really changeable, for that would be infinitely better than the other thing.
Well, I shall not need to go away. Harry Goward has himself solved that problem. He goes himself to-morrow. He has invented a telegram about a sick uncle, all according to the very best melodrama. But what I feared is true—he is still as mad as ever about me. I went down to the post-office for the evening mail, and was coming home by moonlight, unattended, as any undesirable maiden aunt may safely do, when the boy overtook me. I had heard his hurried steps behind me for some time. Up he rushed just as we reached the vacant lot before the Temple house, and caught my arm and poured forth a volume of confessions and avowals, and, in short, told me he did not love Peggy, but me, and he never would love anybody but me. I actually felt faint for a second. Then I talked. I told him what a dishonorable wretch he was, and said he might as well have plunged a knife into an innocent, confiding girl at once as to have treated Peggy so. I told him to go away and let me alone and write friendly letters to Peggy, and see if he would not recover his senses, if he had any to recover, which I thought doubtful; and then when he said he would not budge a step, that he would remain in Eastridge, if only for the sake of breathing the same air I did, that he would tell Peggy the whole truth at once, and bear all the blame which he deserved for being so dishonorable, I arose to the occasion. I said, "Very well, remain, but you may have to breathe not only the same air that I do, but also the same air that the man whom I am to marry does." I declare that I had no man whatever in mind. I said it in sheer desperation. Then the boy burst forth with another torrent, and the secret was out.
My brother and my sister-in-law and Grandmother Evarts and the children, for all I know, have all been match-making for me. I did not suspect it of them. I supposed they esteemed my case as utterly hopeless, and then I knew that Cyrus knew about—well, never mind; I don't often mention him to myself. I certainly thought that they all would have as soon endeavored to raise the dead as to marry me, but it seems that they have been thinking that while there is life there is hope, or rather, while there are widowers there is hope. And there is a widower in Eastridge—Dr. Denbigh. He is the candle about which the mothlike dreams of ancient maidens and widows have fluttered, to their futile singeing, for the last twenty years. I really did not dream that they would think I would flutter, even if I was an old-maid aunt. But Harry cried out that if I were going to marry Dr. Denbigh he would go away. He never would stay and be a witness to such sacrilege. "That OLD man!" he raved. And when I said I was not a young girl myself he got all the madder. Well, I allowed him to think I was going to marry Dr. Denbigh (I wonder what the doctor would say), and as a consequence Harry will flit to-morrow, and he is with poor little Peggy out in the grape-arbor, and she is crying her eyes out. If he dares tell her what a fool he is I could kill him. I am horribly afraid that he will let it out, for I never saw such an alarmingly impetuous youth. Young Lochinvar out of the west was mere cambric tea to him. I am really thankful that he has not a gallant steed, nor even an automobile, for the old-maid aunt might yet be captured as the Sabine women were.
Well, thank fortune, Harry has left, and he cannot have told, for poor little Peggy has been sitting with me for a solid hour, sniffing, and sounding his praises. Somehow the child made me think of myself at her age. I was about a year older when my tragedy came and was never righted. Hers, I think, will be, since Harry was not such an ass as to confess before he went away. But all the same, I am concerned for her happiness, for Harry is either fickle or deceitful. Sometimes I wonder what my duty is, but I can't tell the child. It would do no more good for me to consult my brother Cyrus than it did to consult Ada. I know of no one whom I can consult. Charles Edward and his wife, who is just like Ada, pretty, but always with her shirt-waist hunching in the back, sitting wrong, and standing lopsided, and not worrying enough to give her character salt and pepper, are there. (I should think she would drive Charles Edward, who is really an artist, only out of his proper sphere, mad.) Tom and Maria are down there, too, on the piazza, and Ada at her everlasting darning, and Alice bossing Billy as usual. I can hear her voice. I think I will put on another gown and go for a walk.
I think I will put on my pink linen, and my hat lined with pink chiffon and trimmed with shaded roses. That particular shade of pink is just right for my hair. I know quite well how I look in that gown and hat, and I know, also, quite well how I shall look to the members of my family assembled below. They all unanimously consider that I should dress always in black silk, and a bonnet with a neat little tuft of middle-aged violets, and black ribbons tied under my chin. I know I am wicked to put on that pink gown and hat, but I shall do it. I wonder why it amuses me to be made fun of. Thank fortune, I have a sense of humor. If I did not have that it might have come to the black silk and the bonnet with the tuft of violets, for the Lord knows I have not, after all, so very much compared with what some women have. It troubles me to think of that young fool rushing away and poor, dear little Peggy; but what can I do? This pink gown is fetching, and how they will stare when I go down!
Well, they did stare. How pretty this street is, with the elms arching over it. I made quite a commotion, and they all saw me through their eyeglasses of prejudice, except, possibly, Tom Price, Maria's husband. I am certain I heard him say, as I marched away, "Well, I don't care; she does look stunning, anyhow," but Maria hushed him up. I heard her say, "Pink at her age, and a pink hat, and a parasol lined with pink!" Ada really looked more disturbed than I have ever seen her. If I had been Godiva, going for my sacrificial ride through the town, it could not have been much worse. She made her eyes round and big, and asked, in a voice which was really agitated, "Are you going out in that dress. Aunt Elizabeth?" And Aunt Elizabeth replied that she certainly was, and she went after she had exchanged greetings with the family and kissed Peggy's tear-stained little face. Charles Edward's wife actually straightened her spinal column, she was so amazed at the sight of me in my rose-colored array. Charles Edward, to do him justice, stared at me with a bewildered air, as if he were trying to reconcile his senses with his traditions. He is an artist, but he will always be hampered by thinking he sees what he has been brought up to think he sees. That is the reason why he has settled down uncomplainingly in Cyrus's "Works," as he calls them, doing the very slight aesthetics possible in such a connection. Now Charles Edward would think that sunburned grass over in that field is green, when it is pink, because he has been taught that grass is green. If poor Charles Edward only knew that grass was green not of itself, but because of occasional conditions, and knew that his aunt looked—well, as she does look—he would flee for his life, and that which is better than his life, from the "Works," and be an artist, but he never will know or know that he knows, which comes to the same thing.
Well, what does it matter to me? I have just met a woman who stared at me, and spoke as if she thought I were a lunatic to be afield in this array. What does anything matter? Sometimes, when I am with people who see straight, I do take a certain pleasure in looking well, because I am a woman, and nothing can quite take away that pleasure from me; but all the time I know it does not matter, that nothing has really mattered since I was about Peggy's age and Lyman Wilde quarrelled with me over nothing and vanished into thin air, so far as I was concerned. I suppose he is comfortably settled with a wife and family somewhere. It is rather odd, though, that with all my wandering on this side of the water and the other I have never once crossed his tracks. He may be in the Far East, with a harem. I never have been in the Far East. Well, it does not matter to me where he is. That is ancient history. On the whole, though, I like the harem idea better than the single wife. I have what is left to me—the little things of life, the pretty effects which go to make me pretty (outside Eastridge); the comforts of civilization, travelling and seeing beautiful things, also seeing ugly things to enhance the beautiful. I have pleasant days in beautiful Florence. I have friends. I have everything except—well, except everything. That I must do without. But I will do without it gracefully, with never a whimper, or I don't know myself. But now I AM worried over Peggy. I wish I could consult with somebody with sense. What a woman I am! I mean, how feminine I am! I wish I could cure myself of the habit of being feminine. It is a horrible nuisance; this wishing to consult with somebody when I am worried is so disgustingly feminine.
Well, I have consulted. I am back in my own room. It is after supper. We had three kinds of cake, hot biscuits, and raspberries, and—a concession to Cyrus—a platter of cold ham and an egg salad. He will have something hearty, as he calls it (bless him! he is a good-fellow), for supper. I am glad, for I should starve on Ada's New England menus. I feel better, now that I have consulted, although, when I really consider the matter, I can't see that I have arrived at any very definite issue. But I have consulted, and, above all things, with Ned Temple! I was walking down the street, and I reached his newspaper building. It is a funny little affair; looks like a toy house. It is all given up to the mighty affairs of the Eastridge Banner. In front there is a piazza, and on this piazza sat Ned Temple. Changed? Well, yes, poor fellow! He is thin. I am so glad he is thin instead of fat; thinness is not nearly so disillusioning. His hair is iron-gray, but he is, after all, distinguished-looking, and his manners are entirely sophisticated. He shows at a glance, at a word, that he is a brilliant man, although he is stranded upon such a petty little editorial island. And—and he saw ME as I am. He did not change color. He is too self-poised; besides, he is too honorable. But he saw ME. He rose immediately and came to speak to me. He shook hands. He looked at my face under my pink-lined hat. He saw it as it was; but bless him! that stupid wife of his holds him fast with his own honor. Ned Temple is a good man. Sometimes I wonder if it would not have been better if he, instead of Lyman—Well, that is idiotic.
He said he had to go to the post-office, and then it was time for him to go home to supper (to the cake and sauce, I suppose), and with my permission he would walk with me. So he did. I don't know how it happened that I consulted with him. I think he spoke of Peggy's engagement, and that led up to it. But I could speak to him, because I knew that he, seeing me as I really am, would view the matter seriously. I told him about the miserable affair, and he said that I had done exactly right. I can't remember that he offered any actual solution, but it was something to be told that I had done exactly right. And then he spoke of his wife, and in such a faithful fashion, and so lovingly of his two commonplace little girls. Ned Temple is as good as he is brilliant. It is really rather astonishing that such a brilliant man can be so good. He told me that I had not changed at all, but all the time that look of faithfulness for his wife never left his handsome face, bless him! I believe I am nearer loving him for his love for another woman than I ever was to loving him for himself.
And then the inconceivable happened. I did what I never thought I should be capable of doing, and did it easily, too, without, I am sure, a change of color or any perturbation. I think I could do it, because faithfulness had become so a matter of course with the man that I was not ashamed should he have any suspicion of me also. He and Lyman used to be warm friends. I asked if he knew anything about him. He met my question as if I had asked what o'clock it was, just the way I knew he would meet it. He knows no more than I do. But he said something which has comforted me, although comfort at this stage of affairs is a dangerous indulgence. He said, very much as if he had been speaking of the weather, "He worshipped you, Lily, and wherever he is, in this world or the next, he worships you now." Then he added: "You know how I felt about you. Lily. If I had not found out about him, that he had come first, I know how it would have been with me, so I know how it is with him. We had the same views about matters of that kind. After I did find out, why, of course, I felt different—although always, as long as I live, I shall be a dear friend to you. Lily. But a man is unfaithful to himself who is faithful to a woman whom another man loves and whom she loves."
"Yes, that is true," I agreed, and said something about the hours for the mails in Eastridge. Lyman Wilde dropped out of Ned's life as he dropped out of mine, it seems. I shall simply have to lean back upon the minor joys of life for mental and physical support, as I did before. Nothing is different, but I am glad that I have seen Ned Temple again, and realize what a good man he is.
Well, it seems that even minor pleasures have dangers, and that I do not always read characters rightly. The very evening after my little stroll and renewal of friendship with Ned Temple I was sitting in my room, reading a new book for which the author should have capital punishment, when I heard excited voices, or rather an excited voice, below. I did not pay much attention at first. I supposed the excited voice must belong to either Maria or Alice, for no others of my brother's family ever seem in the least excited, not to the extent of raising their voices to a hysterical pitch. But after a few minutes Cyrus came to the foot of the stairs and called. He called Aunt Elizabeth, and Aunt Elizabeth, in her same pink frock, went down. Cyrus met me at the foot of the stairs, and he looked fairly wild. "What on earth, Aunt Elizabeth!" said he, and I stared at him in a daze.
"The deuce is to pay," said he. "Aunt Elizabeth, did you ever know our next-door neighbor before his marriage?"
"Certainly," said I; "when we were both infants. I believe they had gotten him out of petticoats and into trousers, but much as ever, and my skirts were still abbreviated. It was at Harriet Munroe's before she was married."
"Have you been to walk with him?" gasped poor Cyrus.
"I met him on my way to the post-office last night, and he walked along with me, and then as far as his house on the way home, if you call that walking out," said I. "You sound like the paragraphs in a daily paper. Now, what on earth do you mean, if I may ask, Cyrus?"
"Nothing, except Mrs. Temple is in there raising a devil of a row," said Cyrus. He gazed at me in a bewildered fashion. "If it were Peggy I could understand it," he said, helplessly, and I knew how distinctly he saw the old-maid aunt as he gazed at me. "She's jealous of you, Elizabeth," he went on in the same dazed fashion. "She's jealous of you because her husband walked home with you. She's a dreadfully nervous woman, and, I guess, none too well. She's fairly wild. It seems Temple let on how he used to know you before he was married, and said something in praise of your looks, and she made a regular header into conclusions. You have held your own remarkably well, Elizabeth, but I declare—" And again poor Cyrus gazed at me.
"Well, for goodness' sake, let me go in and see what I can do," said I, and with that I went into the parlor.
I was taken aback. Nobody, not even another woman, can tell what a woman really is. I thought I had estimated Ned Temple's wife correctly. I had taken her for a monotonous, orderly, dull sort of creature, quite incapable of extremes; but in reality she has in her rather large, flabby body the characteristics of a kitten, with the possibilities of a tigress. The tigress was uppermost when I entered the room. The woman was as irresponsible as a savage. I was disgusted and sorry and furious at the same time. I cannot imagine myself making such a spectacle over any mortal man. She was weeping frantically into a mussy little ball of handkerchief, and when she saw me she rushed at me and gripped me by the arm like a mad thing.
"If you can't get a husband for yourself," said she, "you might at least let other women's husbands alone!"
She was vulgar, but she was so wild with jealousy that I suppose vulgarity ought to be forgiven her. I hardly know myself how I managed it, but, somehow, I got the poor thing out of the room and the house and into the cool night air, and then I talked to her, and fairly made her be quiet and listen. I told her that Ned Temple had made love to me when he was just out of petticoats and I was in short dresses. I stretched or shortened the truth a little, but it was a case of necessity. Then I intimated that I never would have married Ned Temple, anyway, and THAT worked beautifully. She turned upon me in such a delightfully inconsequent fashion and demanded to know what I expected, and declared her husband was good enough for any woman. Then I said I did not doubt that, and hinted that other women might have had their romances, even if they did not marry. That immediately interested her. She stared at me, and said, with the most innocent impertinence, that my brother's wife had intimated that I had had an unhappy love-affair when I was a girl. I did not think that Cyrus had told Ada, but I suppose a man HAS to tell his wife everything.
I hedged about the unhappy love-affair, but the first thing I knew the poor, distracted woman was sobbing on my shoulder as we stood in front of her gate, and saying that she was so sorry, but her whole life was bound up in her husband, and I was so beautiful and had so much style, and she knew what a dowdy she was, and she could not blame poor Ned if—But I hushed her.
"Your husband has no more idea of caring for another woman besides you than that moon has of travelling around another world," said I; "and you are a fool if you think so; and if you are dowdy it is your own fault. If you have such a good husband you owe it to him not to be dowdy. I know you keep his house beautifully, but any man would rather have his wife look well than his house, if he is worth anything at all."
Then she gasped out that she wished she knew how to do up her hair like mine. It was all highly ridiculous, but it actually ended in my going into the Temple house and showing Ned's wife how to do up her hair like mine. She looked like another woman when it was puffed softly over her forehead—she has quite pretty brown hair. Then I taught her how to put on her corset and pin her shirt-waist taut in front and her skirt behind. Ned was not to be home until late, and there was plenty of time. It ended in her fairly purring around me, and saying how sorry she was, and ashamed, that she had been so foolish, and all the time casting little covert, conceited glances at herself in the looking-glass. Finally I kissed her and she kissed me, and I went home. I don't really see what more a woman could have done for a rival who had supplanted her. But this revelation makes me more sorry than ever for poor Ned. I don't know, though; she may be more interesting than I thought. Anything is better than the dead level of small books on large ones, and meals on time. It cannot be exactly monotonous never to know whether you will find a sleek, purry cat, or an absurd kitten, or a tigress, when you come home. Luckily, she did not tell Ned of her jealousy, and I have cautioned all in my family to hold their tongues, and I think they will. I infer that they suspect that I must have been guilty of some unbecoming elderly prank to bring about such a state of affairs, unless, possibly, Maria's husband and Billy are exceptions. I find that Billy, when Alice lets him alone, is a boy who sees with his own eyes. He told me yesterday that I was handsomer in my pink dress than any girl in his school.
"Why, Billy Talbert!" I said, "talking that way to your old aunt!"
"I suppose you ARE awful old," said Billy, bless him! "but you are enough-sight prettier than a girl. I hate girls. I hope I can get away from girls when I am a man."
I wanted to tell the dear boy that was exactly the time when he would not get away from girls, but I thought I would not frighten him, but let him find it out for himself.
Well, now the deluge! It is a week since Harry Goward went away, and Peggy has not had a letter, although she has haunted the post-office, poor child! and this morning she brought home a letter for me from that crazy boy. She was white as chalk when she handed it to me.
"It's Harry's writing," said she, and she could barely whisper. "I have not had a word from him since he went away, and now he has written to you instead of me. What has he written to you for, Aunt Elizabeth?"
She looked at me so piteously, poor, dear little girl! that if I could have gotten hold of Harry Goward that moment I would have shaken him. I tried to speak, soothingly. I said:
"My dear Peggy, I know no more than you do why he has written to me. Perhaps his uncle is dead and he thought I would break it to you."
That was rank idiocy. Generally I can rise to the occasion with more success.
"What do I care about his old uncle?" cried poor Peggy. "I never even saw his uncle. I don't care if he is dead. Something has happened to Harry. Oh, Aunt Elizabeth, what is it?"
I was never in such a strait in my life. There was that poor child staring at the letter as if she could eat it, and then at me. I dared not open the letter before her. We were out on the porch. I said:
"Now, Peggy Talbert, you keep quiet, and don't make a little fool of yourself until you know you have some reason for it. I am going up to my own room, and you sit in that chair, and when I have read this letter I will come down and tell you about it."
"I know he is dead!" gasped Peggy, but she sat down.
"Dead!" said I. "You just said yourself it was his handwriting. Do have a little sense, Peggy." With that I was off with my letter, and I locked my door before I read it.
Of all the insane ravings! I put it on my hearth and struck a match, and the thing went up in flame and smoke. Then I went down to poor little Peggy and patched up a story. I have always been averse to lying, and I did not lie then, although I must admit that what I said was open to criticism when it comes to exact verity. I told Peggy that Harry thought that he had done something to make her angry (that was undeniably true) and did not dare write her. I refused utterly to tell her just what was in the letter, but I did succeed in quieting her and making her think that Harry had not broken faith with her, but was blaming himself for some unknown and imaginary wrong he had done her. Peggy rushed immediately up to her room to write reassuring pages to Harry, and her old-maid aunt had the horse put in the runabout and was driven over to Whitman, where nobody knows her—at least the telegraph operator does not. Then I sent a telegram to Mr. Harry Goward to the effect that if he did not keep his promise with regard to writing F. L. to P. her A. would never speak to him again; that A. was about to send L., but he must keep his promise with regard to P. by next M.
It looked like the most melodramatic Sunday personal ever invented. It might have meant burglary or murder or a snare for innocence, but I sent it. Now I have written. My letter went in the same mail as poor Peggy's, but what will be the outcome of it all I cannot say. Sometimes I catch Peggy looking at me with a curious awakened expression, and then I wonder if she has begun to suspect. I cannot tell how it will end.
III. THE GRANDMOTHER, by Mary Heaton Vorse
The position of an older woman in her daughter's house is often difficult. It makes no difference to me that Ada is a mother herself; she might be even a great-grandmother, and yet in my eyes she would still be Ada, my little girl. I feel the need of guiding her and protecting her just as much this minute as when she was a baby in the nursery; only now the task is much more difficult. That is why I say that the position of women placed as I am is often hard, harder than if I lived somewhere else, because although I am with Ada I can no longer protect her from anything—not even from myself, my illnesses and weaknesses. It sometimes seems to me, so eagerly do I follow the lights and shadows of my daughter's life, as if I were living a second existence together with my own. Only as I grow older I am less fitted physically to bear things, even though I take them philosophically.
When Ada and the rest of my children were little, I could guard against the menaces to their happiness; I could keep them out of danger; if their little friends didn't behave, I sent them home. When it was needed, I didn't hesitate to administer a good wholesome spanking to my children. There isn't one of these various things but needs doing now in Ada's house. I can't, however, very well spank Cyrus, nor can I send Elizabeth home. All I CAN do is to sit still and hold my tongue, though I don't know, I'm sure, what the end of it all is to be.
Life brings new lessons at every turn in the road, and one of the hardest of all is the one we older people have to learn—to sit still while our children hurt themselves, or, what is worse, to sit still while other people hurt our children. It is especially hard for me to bear, when life is made difficult for my Ada, for if ever any one deserved happiness my daughter does. I try to do justice to every one, and I hope I am not unfair when I say that the best of men, and Cyrus is one of them, are sometimes blind and obstinate. Of all my children, Ada gave me the least trouble, and was always the most loving and tender and considerate. Indeed, if Ada has a fault, it is being too considerate. I could, if she only would let me, help her a great deal more around the house; although Ada is a very good housekeeper, I am constantly seeing little things that need doing. I do my best to prevent the awful waste of soap that goes on, and there are a great many little ways Ada could let me save for her if she would. When I suggest this to her she laughs and says, "Wait till we need to save as badly as that, mother," which doesn't seem to me good reasoning at all. "Waste not, want not," say I, and when it comes to throwing out perfectly good glass jars, as the girls would do if I didn't see to it they saved them, why, I put my foot down. If Ada doesn't want them herself to put things up in, why, some poor woman will. I don't believe in throwing things away that may come in handy sometime. When I kept house nobody ever went lacking strings or a box of whatever size, to send things away in, or paper in which to do it up, and I can remember in mother's day there was never a time she hadn't pieces put by for a handsome quilt. Machinery has put a stop to many of our old occupations, and the result is a generation of nervous women who haven't a single thing in life to occupy themselves with but their own feelings, while girls like Peggy, who are active and useful, have nothing to do but to go to school and keep on going to school. If one wanted to dig into the remote cause of things, one might find the root of our present trouble in these changed conditions, for Cyrus's sister, Elizabeth, is one of these unoccupied women. Formerly in a family like ours there would have been so much to do that, whether she liked it or not, and whether she had married or not, Elizabeth would have had to be a useful woman—and now the less said the better.
It is hard, I say, to see the causes for unhappiness set in action and yet do nothing, or, if one speaks, to speak to deaf ears. Oh, it is very hard to do this, and this has been the portion of older women always. Our children sometimes won't even let us dry their tears for them, but cry by themselves, as I know Ada has been doing lately—though in the end she came to me, or rather I went to her, for, after all, I am living in the same world with the rest of them. I have not passed over to the other side yet, and while I stay I am not going to be treated as if I were a disembodied spirit. I have eyes of my own, and ears too, and I can see as well as the next man when things go wrong.
I have always known that no good would come of sending Peggy to a coeducational college. I urged Ada to set her foot down, for Ada didn't wish to send Peggy there, naturally enough, but she wouldn't.
"Well," said I, "I'M not afraid to speak my mind to your husband." Now I very seldom open my mouth to Cyrus, or to any one else in this house, for it is more than ever the fashion for people to disregard the advice of others, and the older I get the more I find it wise to save my breath to cool my porridge—there come times, however, when I feel it my duty to speak.
"Mark my words, Cyrus," I said. "You'll be sorry you sent Peggy off to a boys' school. Girls at her age are impressionable, and if they aren't under their mothers' roofs, where they can be protected and sheltered, why, then send them to a seminary where they will see as few young men as possible."
Cyrus only laughed and said:
"Well, mother, you can say 'I told you so' if anything bad comes of it."
"It's all very well to laugh, Cyrus," I answered, "but I don't believe in putting difficulties into life that aren't there already, and that's what sending young men and young women off to the same college seems to ME!"
When Peggy came home engaged, after her last year, everybody was surprised.
"I'm sure I don't know what Cyrus expected," I said to Ada. "You can't go out in the rain without getting wet. Let us pray that this young man will turn out to be all right, though we know so little about him." For all we knew was what Peggy told us, and you know the kind of things young girls have to tell one about their sweethearts. Peggy didn't even know what church his people went to! I couldn't bear the thought of that dear child setting out on the long journey of marriage in such a fashion. I looked forward with fear to what Ada might have to go through if it didn't turn out all right. For one's daughter's sorrows are one's own; what she suffers one must suffer, too. It is hard for a mother to see a care-free, happy young girl turn into a woman before her eyes. Even if a woman is very happy, marriage brings many responsibilities, and a woman who has known the terror of watching beside a sick child can never be quite the same, I think. We ourselves grew and deepened under such trials, and we wouldn't wish our daughters to be less than ourselves; but, oh, how glad I should be to have Peggy spared some things! How happy I should be to know that she was to have for her lot only the trials we all must have! I do not want to see my Ada having to bear the unhappiness of seeing Peggy unhappy. Even if Peggy puts up a brave face, Ada will know—she will know just as I have known things in my own children's lives; and I shall know, too. This young man has it in his hands to trouble my old age.
No mother and daughter can live together as Ada and I have without what affects one of us affecting the other. When her babies were born I was with her; I helped her bring them up; as I have grown older, though she comes to me less and less, wishing to spare me, I seem to need less telling; for I know myself when anything ails her.