Author of The Bachelor's Christmas, etc.
Charles Scribner's Sons New York
BOOK I THE EMANCIPATION
BOOK II THE STRUGGLE
BOOK III THE SUCCESS
Babcock and Selma White were among the last of the wedding guests to take their departure. It was a brilliant September night with a touch of autumn vigor in the atmosphere, which had not been without its effect on the company, who had driven off in gay spirits, most of them in hay-carts or other vehicles capable of carrying a party. Their songs and laughter floated back along the winding country road. Selma, comfortable in her wraps and well tucked about with a rug, leaned back contentedly in the chaise, after the goodbyes had been said, to enjoy the glamour of the full moon. They were seven miles from home and she was in no hurry to get there. Neither festivities nor the undisguised devotion of a city young man were common in her life. Consideration she had been used to from a child, and she knew herself to be tacitly acknowledged the smartest girl in Westfield, but perhaps for that very reason she had held aloof from manhood until now. At least no youth in her neighborhood had ever impressed her as her equal. Neither did Babcock so impress her; but he was different from the rest. He was not shy and unexpressive; he was buoyant and self-reliant, and yet he seemed to appreciate her quality none the less.
They had met about a dozen times, and on the last six of these occasions he had come from Benham, ten miles to her uncle's farm, obviously to visit her. The last two times her Aunt Farley had made him spend the night, and it had been arranged that he would drive her in the Farley chaise to Clara Morse's wedding. A seven-mile drive is apt to promote or kill the germs of intimacy, and on the way over she had been conscious of enjoying herself. Scrutiny of Clara's choice had been to the advantage of her own cavalier. The bridegroom had seemed to her what her Aunt Farley would call a mouse-in-the-cheese young man. Whereas Babcock had been the life of the affair.
She had been teaching now in Wilton for more than a year. When, shortly after her father's death, she had obtained the position of school teacher, it seemed to her that at last the opportunity had come to display her capabilities, and at the same time to fulfil her aspirations. But the task of grounding a class of small children in the rudiments of simple knowledge had already begun to pall and to seem unsatisfying. Was she to spend her life in this? And if not, the next step, unless it were marriage, was not obvious. Not that she mistrusted her ability to shine in any educational capacity, but neither Wilton nor the neighboring Westfield offered better, and she was conscious of a lack of influential friends in the greater world, which was embodied for her in Benham. Benham was a western city of these United States, with an eastern exposure; a growing, bustling city according to rumor, with an eager population restless with new ideas and stimulating ambitions. So at least Selma thought of it, and though Boston and New York and a few other places were accepted by her as authoritative, she accepted them, as she accepted Shakespeare, as a matter of course and so far removed from her immediate outlook as almost not to count. But Benham with its seventy-five thousand inhabitants and independent ways was a fascinating possibility. Once established there the world seemed within her grasp, including Boston. Might it not be that Benham, in that it was newer, was nearer to truth and more truly American than that famous city? She was not prepared to believe this an absurdity.
At least the mental atmosphere of Westfield and even of the somewhat less solemn Wilton suggested this apotheosis of the adjacent city to be reasonable. Westfield had stood for Selma as a society of serious though simple souls since she could first remember and had been one of them. Not that she arrogated to her small native town any unusual qualities of soul or mind in distinction from most other American communities, but she regarded it as inferior in point of view to none, and typical of the best national characteristics. She had probably never put into words the reasons of her confidence, but her daily consciousness was permeated with them. To be an American meant to be more keenly alive to the responsibility of life than any other citizen of civilization, and to be an American woman meant to be something finer, cleverer, stronger, and purer than any other daughter of Eve. Under the agreeable but sobering influence of this faith she had grown to womanhood, and the heroic deeds of the civil war had served to intensify a belief, the truth of which she had never heard questioned. Her mission in life had promptly been recognized by her as the development of her soul along individual lines, but until the necessity for a choice had arisen she had been content to contemplate a little longer. Now the world was before her, for she was twenty-three and singularly free from ties. Her mother had died when she was a child. Her father, the physician of the surrounding country, a man of engaging energy with an empirical education and a speculative habit of mind, had been the companion of her girlhood. During the last few years since his return from the war an invalid from a wound, her care for him had left her time for little else.
No more was Babcock in haste to reach home; and after the preliminary dash from the door into the glorious night he suffered the farm-horse to pursue its favorite gait, a deliberate jog. He knew the creature to be docile, and that he could bestow his attention on his companion without peril to her. His own pulses were bounding. He was conscious of having made the whirligig of time pass merrily for the company by his spirits and jolly quips, and that in her presence, and he was groping for an appropriate introduction to the avowal he had determined to make. He would never have a better opportunity than this, and it had been his preconceived intention to take advantage of it if all went well. All had gone well and he was going to try. She had been kind coming over; and had seemed to listen with interest as he told her about himself: and somehow he had felt less distant from her. He was not sure what she would say, for he realized that she was above him. That was one reason why he admired her so. She symbolized for him refinement, poetry, art, the things of the spirit—things from which in the same whirligig of time he had hitherto been cut off by the vicissitudes of the varnish business; but the value of which he was not blind to. How proud he would be of such a wife! How he would strive and labor for her! His heart was in his mouth and trembled on his lip as he thought of the possibility. What a joy to be sitting side by side with her under this splendid moon! He would speak and know his fate.
"Isn't it a lovely night?" murmured Selma appreciatively. "There they go," she added, indicating the disappearance over the brow of a hill of the last of the line of vehicles of the rest of the party, whose songs had come back fainter and fainter.
"I don't care. Do you?" He snuggled toward her a very little.
"I guess they won't think I'm lost," she said, with a low laugh.
"What d'you suppose your folks would say if you were lost? I mean if I were to run away with you and didn't bring you back?" There was a nervous ring in the guffaw which concluded his question.
"My friends wouldn't miss me much; at least they'd soon get over the shock; but I might miss myself, Mr. Babcock."
Selma was wondering why it was that she rather liked being alone with this man, big enough, indeed, to play the monster, yet half school-boy, but a man who had done well in his calling. He must be capable; he could give her a home in Benham; and it was plain that he loved her.
"I'll tell you something," he said, eagerly, ignoring her suggestion. "I'd like to run away with you and be married to-night, Selma. That's what I'd like, and I guess you won't. But it's the burning wish of my heart that you'd marry me some time. I want you to be my wife. I'm a rough fellow along-side of you, Selma, but I'd do well by you; I would. I'm able to look after you, and you shall have all you want. There's a nice little house building now in Benham. Say the word and I'll buy it for us to-morrow. I'm crazy after you, Selma."
The rein was dangling, and Babcock reached his left arm around the waist of his lady-love. He had now and again made the same demonstration with others jauntily, but this was a different matter. She was not to be treated like other women. She was a goddess to him, even in his ardor, and he reached gingerly. Selma did not wholly withdraw from the spread of his trembling arm, though this was the first man who had ever ventured to lay a finger on her.
"I'd have to give up my school," she said.
"They could get another teacher."
"Not one like you. You see I'm clumsy, but I'm crazy for you, Selma." Emboldened by the obvious feebleness of her opposition, he broadened his clutch and drew her toward him. "Say you will, sweetheart."
This time she pulled herself free and sat up in the chaise. "Would you let me do things?" she asked after a moment.
"Do things," faltered Babcock. What could she mean? She had told him on the way over that her mother had chosen her name from a theatrical playbill, and it passed through his unsophisticated brain that she might be thinking of the stage.
"Yes, do something worth while. Be somebody. I've had the idea I could, if I ever got the chance." Her hands were folded in her lap; there was a wrapt expression on her thin, nervous face, and a glitter in her keen eyes, which were looking straight at the moon, as though they would outstare it in brilliancy.
"You shall be anything you like, if you'll only marry me. What is it you're wishing to be?"
"I don't know exactly. It isn't anything especial yet. It's the whole thing. I thought I might find it in my school, but the experience so far hasn't been—satisfying."
"Troublesome little brats!"
"No, I dare say the fault's in me. If I went to Benham to live it would be different. Benham must be interesting—inspiring."
"There's plenty of go there. You'd like it, and people would think lots of you."
"I'd try to make them." She turned and looked at him judicially, but with a softened expression. Her profile in her exalted mood had suggested a beautiful, but worried archangel; her full face seemed less this and wore much of the seductive embarrassment of sex. To Babcock she seemed the most entrancing being he had ever seen. "Would you really like to have me come?"
He gave a hoarse ejaculation, and encircling her eagerly with his strong grasp pressed his lips upon her cheek. "Selma! darling! angel! I'm the happiest man alive."
"You mustn't do that—yet," she said protestingly.
"Yes, I must; I'm yours, and you're mine,—mine. Aren't you, sweetheart? There's no harm in a kiss."
She had to admit to herself that it was not very unpleasant after all to be held in the embrace of a sturdy lover, though she had never intended that their relations should reach this stage of familiarity so promptly. She had known, of course, that girls were to look for endearments from those whom they promised to marry, but her person had hitherto been so sacred to man and to herself that it was difficult not to shrink a little from what was taking place. This then was love, and love was, of course, the sweetest thing in the world. That was one of the truths which she had accepted as she had accepted the beauty of Shakespeare, as something not to be disputed, yet remote. He was a big, affectionate fellow, and she must make up her mind to kiss him. So she turned her face toward him and their lips met eagerly, forestalling the little peck which she had intended. She let her head fall back at his pressure on to his shoulder, and gazed up at the moon.
"Are you happy, Selma?" he asked, giving her a fond, firm squeeze.
She could feel his frame throb with joy at the situation as she uttered his name.
"We'll be married right away. That's if you're willing. My business is going first-rate and, if it keeps growing for the next year as it has for the past two, you'll be rich presently. When shall it be, Selma?"
"You're in dreadful haste. Well, I'll promise to give the selectmen notice to-morrow that they must find another teacher."
"Because the one they have now is going to become Mrs. Lewis J. Babcock. I'm the luckiest fellow, hooray! in creation. See here," he added, taking her hand, "I guess a ring wouldn't look badly there—a real diamond, too. Pretty little fingers."
She sighed gently, by way of response. It was comfortable nestling in the hollow of his shoulder, and a new delightful experience to be hectored with sweetness in this way. How round and bountiful the moon looked. She was tired of her present life. What was coming would be better. Her opportunity was at hand to show the world what she was made of.
"A real diamond, and large at that," he repeated, gazing down at her, and then, as though the far away expression in her eyes suggested kinship with the unseen and the eternal, he said, admiringly but humbly, "It must be grand to be clever like you, Selma. I'm no good at that. But if loving you will make up for it, I'll go far, little woman."
"What I know of that I like, and—and if some day, I can make you proud of me, so much the better," said Selma.
"Proud of you? You are an angel, and you know it."
She closed her eyes and sighed again. Even the bright avenues of fame, which her keen eyes had traversed through the golden moon, paled before this tribute from the lips of real flesh and blood. What woman can withstand the fascination of a lover's faith that she is an angel? If a man is fool enough to believe it, why undeceive him? And if he is so sure of it, may it even not be so? Selma was content to have it so, especially as the assertion did not jar with her own prepossessions; and thus they rode home in the summer night in the mutual contentment of a betrothal.
The match was thoroughly agreeable to Mrs. Farley, Selma's aunt and nearest relation, who with her husband presided over a flourishing poultry farm in Wilton. She was an easy-going, friendly spirit, with a sharp but not wide vision, who did not believe that a likelier fellow than Lewis Babcock would come wooing were her niece to wait a lifetime. He was hearty, comical, and generous, and was said to be making money fast in the varnish business. In short, he seemed to her an admirable young man, with a stock of common-sense and high spirits eminently serviceable for a domestic venture. How full of fun he was, to be sure! It did her good to behold the tribute his appetite paid to the buckwheat cakes with cream and other tempting viands she set before him—a pleasing contrast to Selma's starveling diet—and the hearty smack with which he enforced his demands upon her own cheeks as his mother-in-law apparent, argued an affectionate disposition. Burly, rosy-cheeked, good-natured, was he not the very man to dispel her niece's vagaries and turn the girl's morbid cleverness into healthy channels?
Selma, therefore, found nothing but encouragement in her choice at home; so by the end of another three months they were made man and wife, and had moved into that little house in Benham which had attracted Babcock's eye. Benham, as has been indicated, was in the throes of bustle and self-improvement. Before the war it had been essentially unimportant. But the building of a railroad through the town and the discovery of oil wells in its neighborhood had transformed it in a twinkling into an active and spirited centre. Selma's new house was on the edge of the city, in the van of real estate progress, one of a row of small but ambitious-looking dwellings, over the dark yellow clapboards of which the architect had let his imagination run rampant in scrolls and flourishes. There was fancy colored glass in a sort of rose-window over the front door, and lozenges of fancy glass here and there in the facade. Each house had a little grass-plot, which Babcock in his case had made appurtenant to a metal stag, which seemed to him the finishing touch to a cosey and ornamental home. He had done his best and with all his heart, and the future was before them.
Babcock found himself radiant over the first experiences of married life. It was just what he had hoped, only better. His imagination in entertaining an angel had not been unduly literal, and it was a constant delight and source of congratulation to him to reflect over his pipe on the lounge after supper that the charming piece of flesh and blood sewing or reading demurely close by was the divinity of his domestic hearth. There she was to smile at him when he came home at night and enable him to forget the cares and dross of the varnish business. Her presence across the table added a new zest to every meal and improved his appetite. In marrying he had expected to cut loose from his bachelor habits, and he asked for nothing better than to spend every evening alone with Selma, varied by an occasional evening at the theatre, and a drive out to the Farleys' now and then for supper. This, with the regular Sunday service at Rev. Henry Glynn's church, rounded out the weeks to his perfect satisfaction. He was conscious of feeling that the situation did not admit of improvement, for though, when he measured himself with Selma, Babcock was humble-minded, a cheerful and uncritical optimism was the ruling characteristic of his temperament. With health, business fortune, and love all on his side, it was natural to him to regard his lot with complacency. Especially as to all appearances, this was the sort of thing Selma liked, also. Presently, perhaps, there would be a baby, and then their cup of domestic happiness would be overflowing. Babcock's long ungratified yearning for the things of the spirit were fully met by these cosey evenings, which he would have been glad to continue to the crack of doom. To smoke and sprawl and read a little, and exchange chit-chat, was poetry enough for him. So contented was he that his joy was apt to find an outlet in ditties and whistling—he possessed a slightly tuneful, rollicking knack at both—a proceeding which commonly culminated in his causing Selma to sit beside him on the sofa and be made much of, to the detriment of her toilette.
As for the bride, so dazing were the circumstances incident to the double change of matrimony and adaptation to city life, that her judgment was in suspension. Yet though she smiled and sewed demurely, she was thinking. The yellow clapboarded house and metal stag, and a maid-of-all-work at her beck and call, were gratifying at the outset and made demands upon her energies. Selma's position in her father's house had been chiefly ornamental and social. She had been his companion and nurse, had read to him and argued with him, but the mere household work had been performed by an elderly female relative who recognized that her mind was bent on higher things. Nevertheless, she had never doubted that when the time arrived to show her capacity as a housewife, she would be more than equal to the emergency. Assuredly she would, for one of the distinguishing traits of American womanhood was the ability to perform admirably with one's own hand many menial duties and yet be prepared to shine socially with the best. Still the experience was not quite so easy as she expected; even harassing and mortifying. Fortunately, Lewis was more particular about quantity than quality where the table was concerned; and, after all, food and domestic details were secondary considerations in a noble outlook. It would have suited her never to be obliged to eat, and to be able to leave the care of the house to the hired girl; but that being out of the question, it became incumbent on her to make those obligations as simple as possible. However, the possession of a new house and gay fittings was an agreeable realization. At home everything had been upholstered in black horse-hair, and regard for material appearances had been obscured for her by the tension of her introspective tendencies. Lewis was very kind, and she had no reason to reproach herself as yet for her choice. He had insisted that she should provide herself with an ample and more stylish wardrobe, and though the invitation had interested her but mildly, the effect of shrewdly-made and neatly fitting garments on her figure had been a revelation. Like the touch of a man's hand, fine raiment had seemed to her hitherto almost repellant, but it was obvious now that anything which enhanced her effectiveness could not be dismissed as valueless. To arrive at definite conclusions in regard to her social surroundings was less easy for Selma. Benham, in its rapid growth, had got beyond the level simplicity of Westfield and Wilton, and was already confronted by the stern realities which baffle the original ideal in every American city. We like as a nation to cherish the illusion that extremes of social condition do not exist even in our large communities, and that the plutocrat and the saleslady, the learned professions and the proletariat associate on a common basis of equal virtue, intelligence, and culture. And yet, although Benham was a comparatively young and an essentially American city, there were very marked differences in all these respects in its community.
Topographically speaking the starting point of Benham was its water-course. Twenty years before the war Benham was merely a cluster of frame houses in the valley of the limpid, peaceful river Nye. At that time the inhabitants drank of the Nye taken at a point below the town, for there was a high fall which would have made the drawing of water above less convenient. This they were doing when Selma came to Benham, although every man's hand had been raised against the Nye, which was the nearest, and hence for a community in hot haste, the most natural receptacle for dyestuffs, ashes and all the outflow from woollen mills, pork factories and oil yards, and it ran the color of glistening bean soup. From time to time, as the city grew, the drawing point had been made a little lower where the stream had regained a portion of its limpidity, and no one but wiseacres and busybodies questioned its wholesomeness. Benham at that time was too preoccupied and too proud of its increasing greatness to mistrust its own judgment in matters hygienic, artistic, and educational. There came a day later when the river rose against the city, and an epidemic of typhoid fever convinced a reluctant community that there were some things which free-born Americans did not know intuitively. Then there were public meetings and a general indignation movement, and presently, under the guidance of competent experts, Lake Mohunk, seven miles to the north, was secured as a reservoir. Just to show how the temper of the times has changed, and how sophisticated in regard to hygienic matters some of the good citizens of Benham in these latter days have become, it is worthy of mention that, though competent chemists declare Lake Mohunk to be free from contamination, there are those now who use so-called mineral spring-waters in preference; notably Miss Flagg, the daughter of old Joel Flagg, once the miller and, at the date when the Babcocks set up their household gods, one of the oil magnates of Benham. He drank the bean colored Nye to the day of his death and died at eighty; but she carries a carboy of spring-water with her personal baggage wherever she travels, and is perpetually solicitous in regard to the presence of arsenic in wall-papers into the bargain.
Verily, the world has wagged apace in Benham since Selma first looked out at her metal stag and the surrounding landscape. Ten years later the Benham Home Beautifying Society took in hand the Nye and those who drained into it, and by means of garbage consumers, disinfectants, and filters and judiciously arranged shrubbery converted its channel and banks into quite a respectable citizens' paradise. But even at that time the industries on either bank of the Nye, which flowed from east to west, were forcing the retail shops and the residences further and further away. To illustrate again from the Flagg family, just before the war Joel Flagg built a modest house less than a quarter of a mile from the southerly bank of the river, expecting to end his days there, and was accused by contemporary censors of an intention to seclude himself in magnificent isolation. About this time he had yielded to the plea of his family, that every other building in the street had been given over to trade, and that they were stranded in a social Sahara of factories. So like the easy going yet soaring soul that he was, he had moved out two miles to what was known as the River Drive, where the Nye accomplishes a broad sweep to the south. There an ambitious imported architect, glad of such an opportunity to speculate in artistic effects, had built for him a conglomeration of a feudal castle and an old colonial mansion in all the grisly bulk of signal failure.
Considering our ideals, it is a wonder that no one has provided a law forbidding the erection of all the architecturally attractive, or sumptuous houses in one neighborhood. It ought not to be possible in a republic for such a state of affairs to exist as existed in Benham. That is to say all the wealth and fashion of the city lay to the west of Central Avenue, which was so literally the dividing line that if a Benhamite were referred to as living on that street the conventional inquiry would be "On which side?" And if the answer were "On the east," the inquirer would be apt to say "Oh!" with a cold inflection which suggested a ban. No Benhamite has ever been able to explain precisely why it should be more creditable to live on one side of the same street than on the other, but I have been told by clever women, who were good Americans besides, that this is one of the subtle truths which baffle the Gods and democracies alike. Central Avenue has long ago been appropriated by the leading retail dry-goods shops, huge establishments where everything from a set of drawing-room furniture to a hair-pin can be bought under a single roof; but at that time it was the social artery. Everything to the west was new and assertive; then came the shops and the business centre; and to the east were Tom, Dick, and Harry, Michael, Isaac and Pietro, the army of citizens who worked in the mills, oil yards, and pork factories. And to the north, across the river, on the further side of more manufacturing establishments, was Poland, so-called—a settlement of the Poles—to reach whom now there are seven bridges of iron. There were but two bridges then, one of wood, and journeys across them had not yet been revealed to philanthropic young women eager to do good.
Selma's house lay well to the south-west of Central Avenue, far enough removed from the River Drive and the Flagg mansion to be humble and yet near enough to be called looking up. Their row was complete and mainly occupied, but the locality was a-building, and in the process of making acquaintance. So many strangers had come to Benham that even Babcock knew but few of their neighbors. Without formulating definitely how it was to happen, Selma had expected to be received with open arms into a society eager to recognize her salient qualities. But apparently, at first glance, everybody's interest was absorbed by the butcher and grocer, the dressmaker and the domestic hearth. That is, the other people in their row seemed to be content to do as they were doing. The husbands went to town every day—town which lay in the murky distance—and their wives were friendly enough, but did not seem to be conscious either of voids in their own existence or of the privilege of her society. To be sure, they dressed well and were suggestive in that, but they looked blank at some of her inquiries, and appeared to feel their days complete if, after the housework had been done and the battle fought with the hired girl, they were able to visit the shopping district and pore over fabrics, in case they could not buy them. Some were evidently looking forward to the day when they might be so fortunate as to possess one of the larger houses of the district a mile away, and figure among what they termed "society people." There were others who, in their satisfaction with this course of life, referred with a touch of self-righteousness to the dwellers on the River Drive as deserving reprobation on account of a lack of serious purpose. This criticism appealed to Selma, and consoled her in a measure for the half mortification with which she had begun to realize that she was not of so much account as she had expected; at least, that there were people not very far distant from her block who were different somehow from her neighbors, and who took part in social proceedings in which she and her husband were not invited to participate. Manifestly they were unworthy and un-American. It was a comfort to come to this conclusion, even though her immediate surroundings, including the society of those who had put the taunt into her thoughts, left her unsatisfied.
Some relief was provided at last by her church. Babcock was by birth an Episcopalian, though he had been lax in his interest during early manhood. This was one of the matters which he had expected marriage to correct, and he had taken up again, not merely with resignation but complacency, the custom of attending service regularly. Dr. White had been a controversial Methodist, but since his wife's death, and especially since the war, he had abstained from religious observances, and had argued himself somewhat far afield from the fold of orthodox belief. Consequently Selma, though she attended church at Westfield when her father's ailments did not require her presence at home, had been brought up to exercise her faculties freely on problems of faith and to feel herself a little more enlightened than the conventional worshipper. Still she was not averse to following her husband to the Rev. Henry Glynn's church. The experience was another revelation to her, for service at Westfield had been eminently severe and unadorned. Mr. Glynn was an Englishman; a short, stout, strenuous member of the Church of England with a broad accent and a predilection for ritual, but enthusiastic and earnest. He had been tempted to cross the ocean by the opportunities for preaching the gospel to the heathen, and he had fixed on Benham as a vineyard where he could labor to advantage. His advent had been a success. He had awakened interest by his fervor and by his methods. The pew taken by Babcock was one of the last remaining, and there was already talk of building a larger church to replace the chapel where he ministered. Choir boys, elaborate vestments, and genuflections, were novelties in the Protestant worship of Benham, and attracted the attention of many almost weary of plainer forms of worship, especially as these manifestations of color were effectively supplemented by evident sincerity of spirit on the part of their pastor. Nor were his energy and zeal confined to purely spiritual functions. The scope of his church work was practical and social. He had organized from the congregation societies of various sorts to relieve the poor; Bible classes and evening reunions which the members of the parish were urged to attend in order to become acquainted. Mr. Glynn's manner was both hearty and pompous. To him there was no Church in the world but the Church of England, and it was obvious that as one of the clergy of that Church he considered himself to be no mean man; but apart from this serious intellectual foible with respect to his own relative importance, he was a stimulating Christian and citizen within his lights. His active, crusading, and emotional temperament just suited the seething propensities of Benham.
His flock comprised a few of the residents of the River Drive district, among them the Flaggs, but was a fairly representative mixture of all grades of society, including the poorest. These last were specimens under spiritual duress rather than free worshippers, and it was a constant puzzle to the reverend gentleman why, in the matter of attendance, they, metaphorically speaking, sickened and died. It had never been so in England. "Bonnets!" responded one day Mrs. Hallett Taylor, who had become Mr. Glynn's leading ally in parish matters, and was noted for her executive ability. She was an engaging but clear-headed soul who went straight to the point.
"I do not fathom your meaning," said the pastor, a little loftily, for the suggestion sounded flippant.
"It hurts their feelings to go to a church where their clothes are shabby compared with those of the rest of the congregation."
"Yes, but in God's chapel, dear lady, all such distinctions should be forgotten."
"They can't forget, and I don't blame them much, poor things, do you? It's the free-born American spirit. There now, Mr. Glynn, you were asking me yesterday to suggest some one for junior warden. Why not Mr. Babcock? They're new comers and seem available people."
Mr. Glynn's distress at her first question was merged in the interest inspired by her second, for his glance had followed hers until it rested on the Babcocks, who had just entered the vestry to attend the social reunion. Selma's face wore its worried archangel aspect. She was on her good behavior and proudly on her guard against social impertinence. But she looked very pretty, and her compact, slight figure indicated a busy way.
"I will interrogate him," he answered. "I have observed them before, and—and I can't quite make out the wife. It is almost a spiritual face, and yet—"
"Just a little hard and keen," broke in Mrs. Taylor, upon his hesitation. "She is pretty, and she looks clever. I think we can get some work out of her."
Thereupon she sailed gracefully in the direction of Selma. Mrs. Taylor was from Maryland. Her husband, a physician, had come to Benham at the close of the war to build up a practice, and his wife had aided him by her energy and graciousness to make friends. Unlike some Southerners, she was not indolent, and yet she possessed all the ingratiating, spontaneous charm of well-bred women from that section of the country. Her tastes were aesthetic and ethical rather than intellectual, and her special interest at the moment was the welfare of the church. She thought it desirable that all the elements of which the congregation was composed should be represented on the committees, and Selma seemed to her the most obviously available person from the class to which the Babcocks belonged.
"I want you to help us," she said. "I think you have ideas. We need a woman with sense and ideas on our committee to build the new church."
Selma was not used to easy grace and sprightly spontaneity. It affected her at first much as the touch of man; but just as in that instance the experience was agreeable. Life was too serious a thing in her regard to lend itself casually to lightness, and yet she felt instinctively attracted by this lack of self-consciousness and self-restraint. Besides here was an opportunity such as she had been yearning for. She had met Mrs. Taylor before, and knew her to be the presiding genius of the congregation; and it was evident that Mrs. Taylor had discovered her value.
"Thank you," she said, gravely, but cordially. "That is what I should like. I wish to be of use. I shall be pleased to serve on the committee."
"It will be interesting, I think. I have never helped build anything before. Perhaps you have?"
"No," said Selma slowly. Her tone conveyed the impression that, though her abilities had never been put to that precise test, the employment seemed easily within her capacity.
"Ah! I am sure you will be suggestive" said Mrs. Taylor. "I am right anxious that it shall be a credit in an architectural way, you know."
Mr. Glynn, who had followed with more measured tread, now mingled his hearty bass voice in the conversation. His mental attitude was friendly, but inquisitorial; as seemed to him to befit one charged with the cure of souls. He proceeded to ask questions, beginning with inquiries conventional and domestic, but verging presently on points of faith. Babcock, to whom they were directly addressed, stood the ordeal well, revealing himself as flattered, contrite, and zealous to avail himself of the blessings of the church. He admitted that lately he had been lax in his spiritual duties.
"We come every Sunday now," he said buoyantly, with a glance at Selma as though to indicate that she deserved the credit of his reformation.
"The holy sacrament of marriage has led many souls from darkness into light, from the flesh-pots of Egypt to the table of the Lord" Mr. Glynn answered. "And you, my daughter," he added, meaningly, "guard well your advantage."
It was agreeable to Selma that the clergymen seemed to appreciate her superiority to her embarrassed husband, especially as she thought she knew that in England women were not expected to have opinions of their own. She wished to say something to impress him more distinctly with her cleverness, for though she was secretly contemptuous of his ceremonials, there was something impressive in his mandatory zeal. She came near asking whether he held to the belief that it was wrong for a man to marry his deceased wife's sister, which was the only proposition in relation to the married state which occurred to her at the moment as likely to show her independence, but she contented herself instead with saying, with so much of Mrs. Taylor's spontaneity as she could reproduce without practice, "We expect to be very happy in your church."
Selma, however, supplemented her words with her tense spiritual look. She felt happier than she had for weeks, inasmuch as life seemed to be opening before her. For a few moments she listened to Mr. Glynn unfold his hopes in regard to the new church, trying to make him feel that she was no common woman. She considered it a tribute to her when he took Lewis aside later and asked him to become a junior warden.
At this time the necessity for special knowledge as to artistic or educational matters was recognized grudgingly in Benham. Any reputable citizen was considered capable to pass judgment on statues and pictures, design a house or public building, and prescribe courses of study for school-children. Since then the free-born Benhamite, little by little, through wise legislation or public opinion, born of bitter experience, has been robbed of these prerogatives until, not long ago, the un-American and undemocratic proposition to take away the laying out of the new city park from the easy going but ignorant mercies of the so-called city forester, who had been first a plumber and later an alderman, prevailed. An enlightened civic spirit triumphed and special knowledge was invoked.
That was twenty-five years later. Mrs. Hallett Taylor had found herself almost single-handed at the outset in her purpose to build the new church on artistic lines. Or rather the case should be stated thus: Everyone agreed that it was to be the most beautiful church in the country, consistent with the money, and no one doubted that it would be, especially as everyone except Mrs. Taylor felt that in confiding the matter to the leading architect in Benham the committee would be exercising a wise and intelligent discretion. Mr. Pierce, the individual suggested, had never, until recently, employed the word architect in speaking of himself, and he pronounced it, as did some of the committee, "arshitect," shying a little at the word, as though it were caviare and anything but American. He was a builder, practised by a brief but rushing career in erecting houses, banks, schools, and warehouses speedily and boldly. He had been on the spot when the new growth of Benham began, and his handiwork was writ large all over the city. The city was proud of him, and had, as it were, sniffed when Joel Flagg went elsewhere for a man to build his new house. Surely, if it were necessary to pay extra for that sort of thing, was not home talent good enough? Yet it must be confessed that the ugly splendor of the Flagg mediaeval castle had so far dazed the eye of Benham that its "arshitect" had felt constrained, in order to keep up with the times, to try fancy flights of his own. He had silenced any doubting Thomases by his latest effort, a new school-house, rich in rampant angles and scrolls, on the brown-stone front of which the name Flagg School appeared in ambitious, distorted hieroglyphics.
Think what a wealth of imagery in the tossing of the second O on top of the L. If artistic novelty and genius were sought for the new church, here it was ready to be invoked. Besides, Mr. Pierce was a brother-in-law of one of the members of the committee, and, though the committee had the fear of God in their hearts in the erection of his sanctuary, it was not easy to protest against the near relative of a fellow member, especially one so competent.
The committee numbered seven. Selma had been chosen to fill a vacancy caused by death, but at the time of her selection the matter was still in embryo, and the question of an architect had not been mooted. At the next meeting discussion arose as to whether Mr. Pierce should be given the job, under the eagle eyes of a sub-committee, or Mrs. Taylor's project of inviting competitive designs should be adopted. It was known that Mr. Glynn, without meaning disrespect to Mr. Pierce, favored the latter plan as more progressive, a word always attractive to Benham ears when they had time to listen. Its potency, coupled with veneration, for the pastor's opinion, had secured the vote of Mr. Clyme, a banker. Another member of the committee, a lawyer, favored Mrs. Taylor's idea because of a grudge against Mr. Pierce. The chairman and brother-in-law, and a hard-headed stove dealer, were opposed to the competitive plan as highfalutin and unnecessary. Thus the deciding vote lay with Selma.
Now that they were on the same committee, Mrs. Taylor could not altogether make her out. She remembered that Mr. Glynn had said the same thing. Mrs. Taylor was accustomed to conquests. Without actual premeditation, she was agreeably conscious of being able to convert and sweep most opponents off their feet by the force of her pleasant personality. In this case the effect was not so obvious. She was conscious that Selma's eyes were constantly fixed upon her, but as to what she was thinking Mrs. Taylor felt less certain. Clearly she was mesmerized, but was the tribute admiration or hostility? Mrs. Taylor was piqued, and put upon her metal. Besides she needed Selma's vote. Not being skilled in psychological analyses, she had to resort to practical methods, and invited her to afternoon tea.
Selma had never been present at afternoon tea as a domestic function in her life. Nor had she seen a home like Mrs. Taylor's. The house was no larger than her own, and had cost less. Medicine had not been so lucrative as the manufacture of varnish. Externally the house displayed stern lines of unadorned brick—the custom-made style of Benham in the first throes of expansion before Mr. Pierce's imagination had been stirred. Mr. Taylor had bought it as it stood, and his wife had made no attempt to alter the outside, which was, after all, inoffensively homely. But the interior was bewildering to Selma's gaze in its suggestion of cosey comfort. Pretty, tasteful things, many of them inexpensive knick-knacks of foreign origin—a small picture, a bit of china, a mediaeval relic—were cleverly placed as a relief to the conventional furniture. Selma had been used to formalism in household garniture—to a best room little used and precise with the rigor of wax flowers and black horse-hair, and to a living room where the effect sought was purely utilitarian. Her new home, in spite of its colored glass and iron stag, was arranged in much this fashion, as were the houses of her neighbors which she had entered.
Selma managed to seat herself on the one straight-backed chair in the room. From this she was promptly driven by Mrs. Taylor and established in one corner of a lounge with a soft silk cushion behind her, and further propitiated by the proffer of a cup of tea in a dainty cup and saucer. All this, including Mrs. Taylor's musical voice, easy speech, and ingratiating friendliness, alternately thrilled and irritated her. She would have liked to discard her hostess from her thought as a light creature unworthy of intellectual seriousness, but she found herself fascinated and even thawed in spite of herself.
"I'm glad to have the opportunity really to talk to you," said Mrs. Taylor. "At the church reunions one is so liable to interruptions. If I'm not mistaken, you taught school before you were married?"
"For a short time."
"That must have been interesting. It is so practical and definite. My life," she added deprecatingly, "has been a thing of threads and patches—a bit here and a bit there."
She paused, but without forcing a response, proceeded blithely to touch on her past by way of illustration. The war had come just when she was grown up, and her kin in Maryland were divided on the issue. Her father had taken his family abroad, but her heart was in the keeping of a young officer on the Northern side—now her husband. Loss of property and bitterness of spirit had kept her parents expatriated, and she, with them, had journeyed from place to place in Europe. She had seen many beautiful places and beautiful things. At last Major Taylor had come for her and carried her off as his bride to take up again her life as an American.
"I am interested in Benham," she continued, "and I count on you, Mrs. Babcock, to help make the new church what it ought to be artistically—worthy of all the energy and independence there is in this place."
Selma's eye kindled. The allusion to foreign lands had aroused her distrust, but this patriotic avowal warmed her pulses.
"Every one is so busy with private affairs here, owing to the rapid growth of the city," pursued Mrs. Taylor, "that there is danger of our doing inconsiderately things which cannot easily be set right hereafter. An ugly or tawdry-looking building may be an eyesore for a generation. I know that we have honest and skilful mechanics in Benham, but as trustees of the church funds, shouldn't we at least make the effort to get the best talent there is? If we have the cleverest architect here, so much the better. An open competition will enable us to find out. After all Benham is only one city among many, and a very new city. Why shouldn't we take advantage of the ideas of the rest of the country—the older portion of the country?"
"Mr. Pierce built our house, and we think it very satisfactory and pretty."
Selma's tone was firm, but she eyed her hostess narrowly. She had begun of late to distrust the aesthetic worth of the colored glass and metal stag, and, though she was on her guard against effrontery, she wished to know the truth. She knew that Mr. Pierce, with fine business instinct, had already conveyed to her husband the promise that he should furnish the varnish for the new church in case of his own selection, which, as Babcock had remarked, would be a nice thing all round.
Mrs. Taylor underwent the scrutiny without flinching. "I have nothing to say against Mr. Pierce. He is capable within his lights. Indeed I think it quite possible that we shall get nothing more satisfactory elsewhere. Mr. Flagg's grim pile is anything but encouraging. That may sound like an argument against my plan, but in the case of the Flagg house there was no competition; merely unenlightened choice on the one side and ignorant experimenting on the other."
"You don't seem to think very highly of the appearance of Benham," said Selma. The remark was slightly interrogative, but was combative withal. She wished to know if everything, from the Flagg mansion down, was open to criticism, but she would fain question the authority of the censor—this glib, graceful woman whose white, starched cuffs seemed to make light of her own sober, unadorned wrists.
This time Mrs. Taylor flushed faintly. She realized that their relations had reached a critical point, and that the next step might be fatal. She put down her teacup, and leaning forward, said with smiling confidential eagerness, "I don't. I wouldn't admit it to anyone else. But what's the use of mincing matters with an intelligent woman like you? I might put you off now, and declare that Benham is well enough. But you would soon divine what I really think, and that would be the end of confidence between us. I like honesty and frankness, and I can see that you do. My opinion of Benham architecture is that it is slip-shod and mongrel. There! You see I put myself in your hands, but I do so because I feel sure you nearly agree with me already. You know it's so, but you hate to acknowledge it."
Selma's eyes were bright with interest. She felt flattered by the appeal, and there was a righteous assurance in Mrs. Taylor's manner which was convincing. She opened her mouth to say something—what she did not quite know—but Mrs. Taylor raised her hand by way of interdiction.
"Don't answer yet. Let me show you what I mean. I'm as proud of Benham as anyone. I am absorbed by the place, I look to see it fifty years hence—perhaps less—a great city, and a beautiful city too. Just at present everything is commercial and—and ethical; yes, ethical. We wish to do and dare, but we haven't time to adorn as we construct. That is, most of us haven't. But if a few determined spirits—women though they be—cry 'halt,' art may get a chance here and there to assert herself. Look at this," she said, gliding across the room and holding up a small vase of exquisite shape and coloring, "I picked it up on the other side and it stands almost for a lost art. The hands and taste which wrought it represent the transmitted patience and skill of hundreds of years. We like to rush things through in a few weeks on a design hastily conceived by a Mr. Pierce because we are so earnest. Now, we won't do it this time, will we?"
"No, we won't," said Selma. "I see what you mean. I was afraid at first that you didn't give us credit for the earnestness—for the ethical part. That's the first thing, the great thing according to my idea, and it's what distinguishes us from foreigners,—the foreigners who made that vase, for instance. But I agree with you that there's such a thing as going too fast, and very likely some of the buildings here aren't all they might be. We don't need to model them on foreign patterns, but we must have them pretty and right."
"Certainly, certainly, my dear. What we should strive for is originality—American originality; but soberly, slowly. Art is evolved painfully, little by little; it can't be bought ready-made at shops for the asking like tea and sugar. If we invite designs for the new church, we shall give the youths of the country who have ideas seething in their heads a chance to express themselves. Who knows but we may unearth a genius?"
"Who knows?" echoed Selma, with her spiritual look. "Yes, you are right, Mrs. Taylor. I will help you. As you say, there must be hundreds of young men who would like to do just that sort of thing. I know myself what it is to have lived in a small place without the opportunity to show what one could do; to feel the capacity, but to be without the means and occasion to reveal what is in one. And now that I understand we really look at things the same way, I'm glad to join with you in making Benham beautiful. As you say, we women can do much if we only will. I've the greatest faith in woman's mission in this new, interesting nation of ours. Haven't you, Mrs. Taylor? Don't you believe that she, in her new sphere of usefulness, is one of the great moving forces of the Republic?" Selma was talking rapidly, and had lost every trace of suspicious restraint. She spoke as one transfigured.
"Yes, indeed," answered Mrs. Taylor, checking any disposition she may have felt to interpose qualifications. She could acquiesce generally without violence to her convictions, and she could not afford to imperil the safety of the immediate issue—her church. "I felt sure you would feel so if you only had time to reflect," she added. "If you vote with us, you will have the pleasant consciousness of knowing that you have advanced woman's cause just so much."
"You may count on my vote."
Selma stopped on her way home, although it was late, to purchase some white cuffs. As she approached, her husband stood on the grass-plot in his shirt sleeves with a garden-hose. He was whistling, and when he saw her he kissed his hand at her jubilantly,
"Well, sweetheart, where you been?"
"Visiting. Taking tea with Mrs. Taylor. I've promised her to vote to invite bids for the church plans."
Babcock looked surprised. "That'll throw Pierce out, won't it?"
"Not unless some one else submits a better design than he."
Lewis scratched his head. "I considered that order for varnish as good as booked."
"I'm not sure Mr. Pierce knows as much as he thinks he does," said Selma oracularly. "We shall get plans from New York and Boston. If we don't like them we needn't take them. But that's the way to get an artistic thing. And we're going to have the most artistic church in Benham. I'm sorry about the varnish, but a principle is involved."
Babcock was puzzled but content. He cared far more for the disappointment to Pierce than for the loss of the order. But apart from the business side of the question, he never doubted that his wife must be right, nor did he feel obliged to inquire what principle was involved. He was pleased to have her associate with Mrs. Taylor, and was satisfied that she would be a credit to him in any situation where occult questions of art or learning were mooted. He dropped his hose and pulled her down beside him on the porch settee. There was a beautiful sunset, and the atmosphere was soft and refreshing. Selma felt satisfied with herself. As Mrs. Taylor had said, it was her vote which would turn the scale on behalf of progress. Other things, too, were in her mind. She was not ready to admit that she had been instructed, but she was already planning changes in her own domestic interior, suggested by what she had seen.
She let her husband squeeze her hand, but her thoughts were wandering from his blandishments. Presently she said: "Lewis, I've begun lately to doubt if that stag is really pretty."
"The stag? Well, now, I've always thought it tasty—one of the features of our little place."
"No one would mistake it for a real deer. It looks to me almost comical."
Babcock turned to regard judicially the object of her criticism.
"I like it," he said somewhat mournfully, as though he were puzzled. "But if you don't, we'll change the stag for something else. I wish you to be pleased first of all. Instead we might have a fountain; two children under an umbrella I saw the other day. It was cute. How does that strike you?"
"I can't tell without seeing it. And, Lewis, promise me that you won't select anything new of that sort until I have looked at it."
"Very well," Babcock answered submissively. But he continued to look puzzled. In his estimate of his wife's superiority to himself in the subtleties of life, it had never occurred to him to include the choice of every-day objects of art. He had eyes and could judge for himself like any other American citizen. Still, he was only too glad to humor Selma in such an unimportant matter, especially as he was eager for her happiness.
Seven designs for the new church were submitted, including three from Benham architects. The leaven of influence exercised by spirits like Mrs. Taylor was only just beginning to work, and the now common custom of competing outside one's own bailiwick was still in embryo. Mr. Pierce's design was bold and sumptuous. His brother-in-law stated oracularly not long before the day when the plans were to be opened: "Pierce is not a man to be frightened out of a job by frills. Mark my words; he will give us an elegant thing." Mr. Pierce had conceived the happy thought of combining a Moorish mosque and New England meeting-house in a conservative and equitable medley, evidently hoping thereby to be both picturesque and traditional. The result, even on paper, was too bold for some of his admirers. The chairman was heard to remark: "I shouldn't feel as though I was in church. That dome set among spires is close to making a theatre of the house of God."
The discomfiture of the first architect of Benham cleared the way for the triumph of Mrs. Taylor's taste. The design submitted by Wilbur Littleton of New York, seemed to her decidedly the most meritorious. It was graceful, appropriate, and artistic; entirely in harmony with religious associations, yet agreeably different from every day sanctuaries. The choice lay between his and that presented by Mr. Cass, a Benham builder—a matter-of-fact, serviceable, but very conventional edifice. The hard-headed stove dealer on the committee declared in favor of the native design, as simpler and more solid.
"It'll be a massive structure" he said, "and when it's finished no one will have to ask what it is. It'll speak for itself. Mr. Cass is a solid business man, and we know what we'll get. The other plan is what I call dandified."
It was evident to the committee that the stove dealer's final criticism comprehended the architect as well as his design. Several competitors—Littleton among them—had come in person to explain the merits of their respective drawings, and by the side of solid, red-bearded, undecorative Mr. Cass, Littleton may well have seemed a dandy. He was a slim young man with a delicate, sensitive face and intelligent brown eyes. He looked eager and interesting. In his case the almost gaunt American physiognomy was softened by a suggestion of poetic impulses. Yet the heritage of nervous energy was apparent. His appearance conveyed the impression of quiet trigness and gentility. His figure lent itself to his clothes, which were utterly inconspicuous, judged by metropolitan standards, but flawless in the face of hard-headed theories of life, and aroused suspicion. He spoke in a gentle but earnest manner, pointing out clearly, yet modestly, the merits of his composition.
Selma had never seen a man just like him before, and she noticed that from the outset his eyes seemed to be fastened on her as though his words were intended for her special benefit. She had never read the lines—indeed they had not been written—
"I think I could be happy with a gentleman like you."
Nor did the precise sentiment contained in them shape itself in her thought. Yet she was suddenly conscious that she had been starving for lack of intellectual companionship, and that he was the sort of man she had hoped to meet—the sort of man who could appreciate her and whom she could appreciate.
It did not become necessary for Selma to act as Mr. Littleton's champion, for the stove dealer's criticism found only one supporter. The New Yorker's design for the church was so obviously pretty and suitable that a majority of the Committee promptly declared in its favor. The successful competitor, who had remained a day to learn the result, was solemnly informed of the decision, and then elaborately introduced to the members. In shaking hands with him, Selma experienced a shade of embarrassment. It was plain that his words to her, spoken with a low bow—"I am very much gratified that my work pleases you" conveyed a more spiritual significance than was contained in his thanks to the others. Still he seemed more at his ease with Mrs. Taylor, who promptly broke the ice of the situation by fixing him as a close relative of friends in Baltimore. Straightway he became sprightly and voluble, speaking of things and people beyond Selma's experience. This social jargon irritated Selma. It seemed to her a profanation of a noble character, yet she was annoyed because she could not understand.
Mrs. Taylor, having discovered in Mr. Littleton one who should have been a friend long before, succeeded in carrying him off to dinner. Yet, before taking his leave, he came back to Selma for a few words. She had overheard Mrs. Taylor's invitation, and she asked herself why she too might not become better acquainted with this young man whose attitude toward her was that of respectful admiration. To have a strange young man to dine off-hand struck her as novel. She had a general conviction that it would seem to Lewis closely allied to light conduct, and that only foreigners or frivolous people let down to this extent the bars of family life. Now that Mrs. Taylor had set her the example, she was less certain of the moral turpitude of such an act, but she concluded also that her husband would be in the way at table. What she desired was an opportunity for a long, interesting chat about high things.
While she reflected, he was saying to her, "I understand that your committee is to supervise my work until the new church is completed, so I shall hope to have the opportunity to meet you occasionally. It will be necessary for me to make trips here from time to time to see that everything is being done correctly by the mechanics."
"Do you go away immediately?"
"It may be that I shall be detained by the arrangements which I must make here until day after to-morrow."
"If you would really like to see me, I live at 25 Onslow Avenue."
"Thank you very much." Littleton took out a small memorandum book and carefully noted the address. "Mrs. Babcock, 25 Onslow Avenue. I shall make a point of calling to-morrow afternoon if I stay—and probably I shall."
He bowed and left Selma pleasantly stirred by the interview. His voice was low and his enunciation sympathetically fluent. She said to herself that she would give him afternoon tea and they would compare ideas together. She felt sure that his must be interesting.
Later in the evening at Mrs. Taylor's, when there was a pause in their sympathetic interchange of social and aesthetic convictions, Littleton said abruptly:
"Tell me something, please, about Mrs. Babcock. She has a suggestive as well as a beautiful face, and it is easy to perceive that she is genuinely American—not one of the women of whom we were speaking, who seem to be ashamed of their own institutions, and who ape foreign manners and customs. I fancy she would illustrate what I was saying just now as to the vital importance of our clinging to our heritage of independent thought—of accepting the truth of the ancient order of things without allowing its lies and demerits to enslave us."
"I suppose so," said Mrs. Taylor. "She certainly does not belong to the dangerous class of whom you were speaking. I was flattering myself that neither did I, for I was agreeing with all you said as to the need of cherishing our native originality. Yet I must confess that now that you compare me with her (the actual comparison is my own, but you instigated it), I begin to feel more doubts about myself—that is if she is the true species, and I'm inclined to think she is. Pray excuse this indirect method of answering your inquiry; it is in the nature of a soliloquy; it is an airing of thoughts and doubts which have been harassing me for a fortnight—ever since I knew Mrs. Babcock. Really, Mr. Littleton, I can tell you very little about her. She is a new-comer on the horizon of Benham; she has been married very recently; I believe she has taught school and that she was brought up not far from here. She is as proud as Lucifer and sometimes as beautiful; she is profoundly serious and—and apparently very ignorant. I fancy she is clever and capable in her way, but I admit she is an enigma to me and that I have not solved it. I can see she does not approve of me altogether. She regards me with suspicion, and yet she threw the casting vote in favor of my proposal to open the competition for the church to architects from other places. I am trying to like her, for I wish to believe in everything genuinely American if I can. There, I have told you all I know, and to a man she may seem altogether attractive and inspiring."
"Thank you. I had no conception that I was broaching such a complex subject. She sounds interesting, and my curiosity is whetted. You have not mentioned the husband."
"To be sure. A burly, easy-going manufacturer of varnish, without much education, I should judge. He is manifestly her inferior in half a dozen ways, but I understand that he is making money, and he looks kind."
Wilbur Littleton's life since he had come to man's estate had been a struggle, and he was only just beginning to make headway. He had never had time to commiserate himself, for necessity on the one hand and youthful ambition on the other had kept his energies tense and his thoughts sane and hopeful. He and his sister Pauline, a year his senior, had been left orphans while both were students by the death of their father on the battlefield. To persevere in their respective tastes and work out their educations had been a labor of love, but an undertaking which demanded rigorous self-denial on the part of each. Wilbur had determined to become an architect. Pauline, early interested in the dogma that woman must no longer be barred from intellectual companionship with man, had sought to cultivate herself intelligently without sacrificing her brother's domestic comfort. She had succeeded. Their home in New York, despite its small dimensions and frugal hospitality, was already a favorite resort of a little group of professional people with busy brains and light purses. Wilbur was in the throes of early progress. He had no relatives or influential friends to give him business, and employment came slowly. He had been an architect on his own account for two years, but was still obliged to supplement his professional orders by work as a draughtsman for others. Yet his enthusiasm kept him buoyant. In respect to his own work he was scrupulous; indeed, a stern critic. He abhorred claptrap and specious effects, and aimed at high standards of artistic expression. This gave him position among his brother architects, but was incompatible with meteoric progress. His design for the church at Benham represented much thought and hope, and he felt happy at his success.
Littleton's familiarity with women, apart from his sister, had been slight, but his thoughts regarding them were in keeping with a poetic and aspiring nature. He hoped to marry some day, and he was fond of picturing to himself in moments of reverie the sort of woman to whom his heart would be given. In the shrine of his secret fancy she appeared primarily as an object of reverence, a white-souled angel of light clad in the graceful outlines of flesh, an Amazon and yet a winsome, tender spirit, and above all a being imbued with the stimulating intellectual independence he had been taught to associate with American womanhood. She would be the loving wife of his bosom and the intelligent sharer of his thoughts and aspirations—often their guide. So pure and exacting was his ideal that while alive to the value of coyness and coquetry as elements of feminine attraction for others, Wilbur had chosen to regard the maiden of his faith as too serious a spirit to condescend to such vanities; and from a similar vein of appreciation he was prone to think of her as unadorned, or rather untarnished, by the gewgaws of fashionable dressmaking and millinery. His first sight of Selma had made him conscious that here was a face not unlike what he had hoped to encounter some day, and he had instinctively felt her to be sympathetic. He was even conscious of disappointment when he heard her addressed as Mrs. Babcock. Evidently she was a free-born soul, unhampered by the social weaknesses of a large city, and illumined by the spiritual grace of native womanliness. So he thought of her, and Mrs. Taylor's diagnosis rather confirmed than impaired his impression, for in Mrs. Taylor Wilbur felt he discerned a trace of antagonism born of cosmopolitan prejudice—an inability to value at its true worth a nature not moulded on conventional lines. Rigorous as he was in his judgments, and eager to disown what was cheap or shallow, mere conventionalism, whether in art or daily life, was no less abhorrent to him. Here, he said to himself, was an original soul, ignorant and unenlightened perhaps, but endowed with swift perception and capable of noble development.
The appearance of Selma's scroll and glass bedizened house did not affect this impression. Wilbur was first of all appreciatively an American. That is he recognized that native energy had hitherto been expended on the things of the spirit to the neglect of things material. As an artist he was supremely interested in awakening and guiding the national taste in respect to art, but at the same time he was thoroughly aware that the peculiar vigor and independence of character which he knew as Americanism was often utterly indifferent to, or ignorant of, the value of aesthetics. After all, art was a secondary consideration, whereas the inward vision which absorbed the attention of the thoughtful among his countrymen and countrywomen was an absolute essential without which the soul must lose its fineness. He himself was seeking to show that beauty, in external material expression, was not merely consistent with strong ideals but requisite to their fit presentment. He recognized too that the various and variegated departures from the monotonous homely pattern of the every-day American house, which were evident in each live town, were but so many indicators that the nation was beginning to realize the truth of this. His battle was with the designers and builders who were guiding falsely and flamboyantly, not with the deceived victims, nor with those who were still satisfied merely to look inwardly, and ignored form and color. Hence he would have been able to behold the Babcocks' iron stag without rancor had the animal still occupied the grass-plot. Selma, when she saw the figure of her visitor in the door-way, congratulated herself that it had been removed. It would have pleased her to know that Mr. Littleton had already placed her in a niche above the level of mere grass-plot considerations. That was where she belonged of course; but she was fearful on the score of suspected shortcomings. So it was gratifying to be able to receive him in a smarter gown, to be wearing white cuffs, and to offer him tea with a touch of Mrs. Taylor's tormenting urbanity. Not so unreservedly as she. That would never do. It was and never would be in keeping with her own ideas of serious self-respect. Still a touch of it was grateful to herself. She felt that it was a grace and enhanced her effectiveness.
A few moments later Selma realized that for the first time since she had lived in Benham she was being understood and appreciated. She felt too that for the first time she was talking to a kindred spirit—to be sure, to one different, and more technically proficient in concrete knowledge, possibly more able, too, to express his thoughts in words, but eminently a comrade and sympathizer. She was not obliged to say much. Nor were, indeed, his actual words the source of her realization. The revelation came from what was left unsaid—from the silent recognition by him that she was worthy to share his best thoughts and was herself a serious worker in the struggle of life. No graceful but galling attitude of superiority, no polite indifference to her soul-hunger, no disposition to criticise. And yet he was no less voluble, clever, and spirited than Mrs. Taylor. She listened with wrapt interest to his easy talk, which was ever grave in tone, despite his pleasant sallies. He spoke of Benham with quick appreciation of its bustling energy, and let her see that he divined its capacity for greatness. This led him to refer with kindling eyes to the keen impulse toward education and culture which was animating the younger men and women of the country; to the new beginnings of art, literature, and scientific investigation. At scarcely a hint from her he told briefly of his past life and his hopes, and fondly mentioned his sister and her present absorption in some history courses for women.
"And you?" he said. "You are a student, too. Mrs. Taylor has told me, but I should have guessed it. Duties even more interesting claim you now, but it is easy to perceive that you have known that other happiness, 'To scorn delights and live laborious days.'"
His words sounded musical, though the quotation from Lycidas was unfamiliar to her ears. Her brain was thrilling with the import of all he had told her—with his allusions to the intellectual and ethical movements of Boston and New York, in which she felt herself by right and with his recognition a partner and peer.
"You were teaching school when you married, I believe?" he added.
"And before that, if I may ask?"
"I lived at Westfield with my father. It is a small country town, but we tried to be in earnest."
"I understand—I understand. You grew up among the trees, and the breezes and the brooks, those wonderful wordless teachers. I envy you, for they give one time to think—to expand. I have known only city life myself. It is stimulating, but one is so easily turned aside from one's direct purpose. Do you write at all?"
"Not yet. But I have wished to. Some day I shall. Just now I have too many domestic concerns to—"
She did not finish, for Babcock's heavy tread and whistle resounded in the hall and at the next moment he was calling "Selma!"
She felt annoyed at being interrupted, but she divined that it would never do to show it.
"My husband," she said, and she raised her voice to utter with a sugared dignity which would have done credit to Mrs. Taylor,
"I am in the parlor, Lewis."
"Enter your chief domestic concern," said Littleton blithely. "A happy home is preferable to all the poems and novels in the world."
Babcock, pushing open the door, which stood ajar, stopped short in his melody.
"This is Mr. Littleton, Lewis. The architect of our new church."
"Pleased to make your acquaintance." And by way of accounting for the sudden softening of his brow, Babcock added, "I set you down at first as one of those lightning-rod agents. There was one here last week who wouldn't take 'no' for an answer."
"He has an advantage over me," answered Littleton with a laugh. "In my business a man can't solicit orders. He has to sit and wait for them to come to him."
"I want to know. My wife thinks a lot of your drawings for the new church."
"I hope to make it a credit to your city. I've just been saying to your wife, Mr. Babcock, that Benham has a fine future before it. The very atmosphere seems charged with progress."
Babcock beamed approvingly. "It's a driving place, sir. The man in Benham who stops by the way-side to scratch his head gets left behind. When we moved into this house a year ago looking through that window we were at the jumping-off place; now you see houses cropping up in every direction. It's going to be a big city. Pleased to have you stop to supper with us," he added with burly suavity as their visitor rose.
Littleton excused himself and took his leave. Babcock escorted him to the front door and full of his subject delayed him on the porch to touch once more on the greatness of Benham. There was a clumsy method too in this optimistic garrulity, for at the close he referred with some pride to his own business career, and made a tender of his business card, "Lewis Babcock & Company, Varnishes," with a flourish. "If you do anything in my line, pleased to accommodate you."
Littleton departing, tickled by a pleasant sense of humor, caught through the parlor window a last glimpse of Selma's inspired face bowing gravely, yet wistfully, in acknowledgment of his lifted hat, and he strode away under the spell of a brain picture which he transmuted into words: "There's the sort of case where the cynical foreigner fails to appreciate the true import of our American life. That couple typifies the elements of greatness in our every-day people. At first blush the husband's rough and material, but he's shrewd and enterprising and vigorous—the bread winner. He's enormously proud of her, and he has reason to be, for she is a constant stimulus to higher things. Little by little, and without his knowing it, perhaps, she will smoothe and elevate him, and they will develop together, growing in intelligence and cultivation as they wax in worldly goods. After all, woman is our most marvellous native product—that sort of woman. Heigho!" Having given vent to this sigh, Littleton proceeded to recognize the hopelessness of the personal situation by murmuring with a slightly forced access of sprightliness
"If she be not fair for me, What care I how fair she be?"
Still he intended to see more of Mrs. Babcock, and that without infringing the tenth or any other commandment. To flirt with a married woman savored to him of things un-American and unworthy, and Littleton had much too healthy an imagination to rhapsodize from such a stand-point. Yet he foresaw that they might be mutually respecting friends.
Selma knew intuitively that an American woman was able to cook a smooth custard, write a poem and control real society with one and the same brain and hand, and she was looking forward to the realization of the apotheosis; but, though she was aware that children are the natural increment of wedlock, she had put the idea from her ever since her marriage as impersonal and vaguely disgusting. Consequently her confinement came as an unwelcome interruption of her occupations and plans.
Her connection with the committee for the new church had proved an introduction to other interests, charitable and social. One day she was taken by Mrs. Taylor to a meeting of the Benham Woman's Institute, a literary club recently established by Mrs. Margaret Rodney Earle, a Western newspaper woman who had made her home in Benham. Selma came in upon some twenty of her own sex in a hotel private parlor hired weekly for the uses of the Institute. Mrs. Earle, the president, a large florid woman of fifty, with gray hair rising from the brow, fluent of speech, endowed with a public manner, a commanding bust and a vigorous, ingratiating smile, wielded a gavel at a little table and directed the exercises. A paper on Shakespeare's heroines was read and discussed. Selections on the piano followed. A thin woman in eye-glasses, the literary editor of the Benham Sentinel, recited "Curfew must not ring to-night," and a visitor from Wisconsin gave an exhibition in melodious whistling. In the intervals, tea, chocolate with whipped cream and little cakes were dispensed.
Selma was absorbed and thrilled. What could be more to her taste than this? At the close of the whistling exercise, Mrs. Earle came over and spoke to her. They took a strong fancy to each other on the spot. Selma preferred a person who would tell you everything about herself and to whom you could tell everything about yourself without preliminaries. People like Mrs. Taylor repressed her, but the motherly loquacity and comprehension of Mrs. Earle drew her out and thawed at once and forever the ice of acquaintanceship. Before she quite realized the extent of this fascination she had promised to recite something, and as in a dream, but with flushing cheeks, she heard the President rap the table and announce "You will be gratified to hear that a talented friend who is with us has kindly consented to favor us with a recital. I have the honor to introduce Mrs. Lewis Babcock."
After the first flush of nervousness, Selma's grave dignity came to her support, and justified her completely in her own eyes. Her father had been fond of verse, especially of verse imbued with moral melancholy, and at his suggestion she had learned and had been wont to repeat many of the occasional pieces which he cut from the newspapers and collected in a scrap-book. Her own preference among these was the poem, "O why should the spirit of mortal be proud?" which she had been told was a great favorite of Abraham Lincoln. It was this piece which came into her mind when Mrs. Earle broached the subject, and this she proceeded to deliver with august precision. She spoke clearly and solemnly without the trace of the giggling protestation which is so often incident to feminine diffidence. She treated the opportunity with the seriousness expected, for though the Institute was not proof against light and diverting contributions, as the whistling performance indicated, levity of spirit would have been out of place.
"'Tis a twink of the eye, 'tis a draught of the breath From the blossom of health to the paleness of death; From the gilded saloon to the bier and the shroud, O why should the spirit of mortal be proud?"
Selma enjoyed the harmony between the long, slow cadence of the metre and the important gravity of the theme. She rolled out the verses with the intensity of a seer, and she looked a beautiful seer as well. Liberal applause greeted her as she sat down, though the clapping woman is apt to be a feeble instrument at best. Selma knew that she had produced an impression and she was moved by her own effectiveness. She was compelled to swallow once or twice to conceal the tears in her voice while listening to the congratulations of Mrs. Earle. The words which she had just recited were ringing through her brain and seemed to her to express the pitch at which her life was keyed.
Selma was chosen a member of the Institute at the next meeting, and forthwith she became intimate with the president. Mrs. Margaret Rodney Earle was, as she herself phrased it, a live woman. She supported herself by writing for the newspapers articles of a morally utilitarian character—for instance a winter's series, published every Saturday, "Hints on Health and Culture," or again, "Receipts for the Parlor and the Kitchen." She also contributed poetry of a pensive cast, and chatty special correspondence flavored with personal allusion. She was one of the pioneers in modern society journalism, which at this time, however, was comparatively veiled and delicate in its methods. Besides, she was a woman of tireless energy, with theories on many subjects and an ardor for organization. She advocated prohibition, the free suffrage of woman, the renunciation of corsets, and was interested in reforms relating to labor, the pauper classes and the public schools. In behalf of any of these causes she was ready from time to time to dash off an article at short notice or address an audience. But her dearest concern was the promotion of woman's culture and the enlargement of woman's sphere of usefulness through the club. The idea of the woman's club, which was taking root over the country, had put in the shade for the time being all her other plans, including the scheme of a society for making the golden-rod the national flower. As the founder and president of the Benham Institute, she felt that she had found an avocation peculiarly adapted to her capacities, and she was already actively in correspondence with clubs of a similar character in other cities, in the hope of forming a national organization for mutual enlightenment and support.
Mrs. Earle received Selma by invitation at her lodgings the following day, and so quickly did their friendship ripen that at the end of two hours each had told the other everything. Selma was prone instinctively to regard as aristocratic and un-American any limitations to confidence. The evident disposition on the part of Mrs. Earle to expose promptly and without reserve the facts of her past and her plans for the future seemed to Selma typical of an interesting character, and she was thankful to make a clean breast in her turn as far as was possible. Mrs. Earle's domestic experience had been thorny.
"I had a home once, too," she said, "a happy home, I thought. My husband said he loved me. But almost from the first we had trouble. It went on so from month to month, and finally we agreed to part. He objected, my dear, to my living my own life. He didn't like me to take an interest in things outside the house—public matters. I was elected on the school-board—the only woman—and he ought to have been proud. He said he was, at first, but he was too fond of declaring that a woman's place is in her kitchen. One day I said to him, 'Ellery, this can't go on. If we can't agree we'd better separate. A cat-and-dog life is no life at all.' He answered back, 'I'm not asking you to leave me, but if you're set on it don't let me hinder you, Margaret. You don't need a man to support you. You're as good as a man yourself.' He meant that to be sarcastic, I suppose. 'Yes,' said I, 'thank God, I think I can take care of myself, even though I am a woman.' That was the end of it. There was no use for either of us to get excited. I packed my things, and a few mornings later I said to him, 'Good-by, Ellery Earle: I wish you well, and I suppose you're my husband still, but I'm going to live my own life without let or hindrance from any man. There's your ring.' My holding out the ring was startling to him, for he said, 'Aren't you going to be sorry for this, Margaret?' 'No,' said I, 'I've thought it all out, and it's best for both of us. There's your ring.' He wouldn't take it, so I dropped it on the table and went out. Some people miss it, and misbelieve I was ever married. That was close on to twenty years ago, and I've never seen him since. When the war broke out I heard he enlisted, but what's become of him I don't know. Maybe he got a divorce. I've kept right on and lived my own life in my own way, and never lacked food or raiment. I'm forty-five years old, but I feel a young woman still."
Notwithstanding Mrs. Earle's business-like directness and the protuberance of her bust in conclusion, by way of reasserting her satisfaction with the results of her action, there was a touch of plaintiveness in her confession which suggested the womanly author of "Hints on Culture and Hygiene," rather than the man-hater. This was lost on Selma, who was fain to sympathize purely from the stand-point of righteousness.
"It was splendid," she said. "He had no right to prevent you living your own life. No husband has that right."
Mrs. Earle brushed her eyes with her handkerchief. "You musn't think, my dear, that I'm not a believer in the home because mine has been unhappy—because my husband didn't or couldn't understand. The true home is the inspirer and nourisher of all that is best in life—in our American life; but men must learn the new lesson. There are many homes—yours, I'm sure—where the free-born American woman has encouragement and the opportunity to expand."
"Oh, yes. My husband lets me do as I wish. I made him promise before I accepted him that he wouldn't thwart me; that he'd let me live my own life."
Selma was so appreciative of Mrs. Earle, and so energetic and suggestive in regard to the scope of the Institute, that she was presently chosen a member of the council, which was the body charged with the supervision of the fortnightly entertainments. It occurred to her as a brilliant conception to have Littleton address the club on "Art," and she broached the subject to him when he next returned to Benham and appeared before the church committee. He declared that he was too busy to prepare a suitable lecture, but he yielded finally to her plea that he owed it to himself to let the women of Benham hear his views and opinions.
"They are wives and they are mothers," said Selma sententiously. "It was a woman's vote, you remember, which elected you to build our church. You owe it to Art; don't you think so?"
A logical appeal to his conscience was never lost on Littleton. Besides he was glad to oblige Mrs. Babcock, who seemed so earnest in her desire to improve the aesthetic taste of Benham. Accordingly, he yielded. The lecture was delivered a few weeks later and was a marked success, for Littleton's earnestness of theme and manner was relieved by a graceful, sympathetic delivery. Selma, whose social aplomb was increasing every day, glided about the rooms with a contented mien receiving felicitations and passing chocolate. She enjoyed the distinction of being the God behind the curtain.
A few days later the knowledge that she herself was to become a mother was forced upon her attention, and was a little irksome. Of necessity her new interests would be interrupted. Though she did not question that she would perform maternal duties fitly and fully, they seemed to her less peculiarly adapted to her than concerns of the intellect and the spirit. However, the possession of a little daughter was more precious to her than she had expected, and the consciousness that the tiny doll which lay upon her breast, was flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone affected her agreeably and stirred her imagination. It should be reared, from the start, in the creed of soul independence and expansion, and she herself would find a new and sacred duty in catering to the needs of this budding intelligence. So she reflected as she lay in bed, but the outlook was a little marred by the thought that the baby was the living image of its father—broad-featured and burly—not altogether desirable cast of countenance for a girl. What a pity, when it might just as well have looked like her.
Babcock, on his part, was transported by paternity. He was bubbling over with appreciation of the new baby, and fondly believed it to be a human wonder. He was solicitous on the score of its infantile ailments, and loaded it with gifts and toys beyond the scope of its enjoyment. He went about the house whistling more exuberantly than ever. There was no speck on his horizon; no fly in his pot of ointment. It was he who urged that the child should be christened promptly, though Dr. Glynn was not disposed to dwell on the clerical barbarism as to the destiny of unbaptized infants. Babcock was cultivating a conservative method: He realized that there was no object in taking chances. Illogical as was the theory that a healthy dog which had bitten him should be killed at once, lest it subsequently go mad and he contract hydrophobia, he was too happy and complacent to run the risk of letting it live. So it was with regard to baby. But Selma chose the name. Babcock preferred in this order another Selma, Sophia, after his mother, or a compliment to the wife of the President of the United States. But Selma, as the result of grave thought, selected Muriel Grace. Without knowing exactly why, she asked Mrs. Taylor to be godmother. The ceremony was solemn and inspiring to her. She knew from the glass in her room that she was looking very pretty. But she was weak and emotional. The baby behaved admirably, even when Lewis, trembling with pride, held it out to Mr. Glynn for baptism and held it so that the blood rushed to its head. "I baptize thee in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost." She was happy and the tears were in her eyes. The divine blessing was upon her and her house, and, after all, baby was a darling and her husband a kind, manly soul. With the help of heaven she would prove herself their good angel.
When they returned home there was a whistle of old silver of light, graceful design, a present from Mrs. Taylor to Muriel. Her aunt, Mrs. Farley, compared this to its disparagement with one already purchased by Lewis, on the gaudily embossed stem of which perched a squirrel with a nut in its mouth. But Selma shook her head. "Both of you are wrong," she said with authority. "This is a beauty."
"It doesn't look new to my eyes," protested Mrs. Parley.
"Of course it isn't new. I shouldn't wonder if she bought it while travelling abroad in Europe. It's artistic, and—and I shan't let baby destroy it."
Babcock glanced from one gift to the other quizzically. Then by way of disposing of the subject he seized his daughter in his arms and dandling her toward the ceiling cried, "If it's artistic things we must have, this is the most artistic thing which I know of in the wide world. Aren't you, little sugar-plum?"
Mrs. Farley, with motherly distrust of man, apprehensively followed with her eyes and arms the gyrations of rise and fall; but Selma, though she saw, pursued the current of her own thought which prompted her to examine her wedding-ring. She was thinking that, compared with Mrs. Taylor's, it was a cart wheel—a clumsy, conspicuous band of metal, instead of a delicate hoop. She wondered if Lewis would object to exchange it for another.
With the return of her strength, Selma took up again eagerly the tenor of her former life, aiding and abetting Mrs. Earle in the development of the Institute. The president was absorbed in enlarging its scope by the enrollment of more members, and the establishment of classes in a variety of topics—such as literature, science, philosophy, current events, history, art, and political economy. She aimed to construct a club which should be social and educational in the broadest sense by mutual co-operation and energy. Selma, in her eagerness to make the most of the opportunities for culture offered, committed herself to two of the new topic classes—"Italian and Grecian Art," and "The Governments of Civilization," and as a consequence found some difficulty in accommodating her baby's nursing hours to these engagements. It was indeed a relief to her when the doctor presently pronounced the supply of her breast-milk inadequate. She was able to assuage Lewis' regret that Muriel should be brought up by hand with the information that a large percentage of Benham and American mothers were similarly barren and that bottle babies were exceedingly healthy. She had gleaned the first fact from the physician, the second from Mrs. Earle, and her own conclusion on the subject was that a lack of milk was an indication of feminine evolution from the status of the brute creation, a sign of spiritual as opposed to animal quality. Selma found Mrs. Earle sympathetic on this point, and also practical in her suggestions as to the rearing of infants by artificial means, recommendations concerning which were contained in one of her series of papers entitled "Mother Lore."
The theory of the new classes was co-operation. That is, the members successively, turn by turn, lectured on the topic, and all were expected to study in the interim so as to be able to ask questions and discuss the views of the lecturer. Concerning both Italian and Grecian Art and the Governments of Civilization, Selma knew that she had convictions in the abstract, but when she found herself face to face with a specific lecture on each subject, it occurred to her as wise to supplement her ideas by a little preparation. The nucleus of a public library had been recently established by Joel Flagg and placed at the disposal of Benham. Here, by means of an encyclopaedia and two hand-books, Selma was able in three forenoons to compile a paper satisfactory to her self-esteem on the dynasties of Europe and their inferiority to the United States, but her other task was illumined for her by a happy incident, the promise of Littleton to lend her books. Indeed he seemed delightfully interested in both of her classes, which was especially gratifying in view of the fact that Mrs. Taylor, who was a member of the Institute, had combated the new programme on the plea that they were attempting too much and that it would encourage superficiality. But Littleton seemed appreciative of the value of the undertaking, and he made his promise good forthwith by forwarding to her a package of books on art, among them two volumes of Ruskin. Selma, who had read quotations from Ruskin on one or two occasions and believed herself an admirer of, and tolerably familiar with, his writings, was thrilled. She promptly immersed herself in "Stones of Venice" and "Seven Lamps of Architecture," sitting up late at night to finish them. When she had read these and the article in the encyclopaedia under the head of Art, she felt bursting with her subject and eager to air her knowledge before the class. Her lecture was acknowledged to be the most stirring and thorough of the course.
Reports of its success came back to her from Littleton, who offered to assist his pupil further by practical demonstration of the eternal architectural fitness and unfitness of things—especially the latter—in walks through the streets of Benham. But six times in as many months, however. There was no suggestion of coquetry on either side in these excursions, yet each enjoyed them. Littleton's own work was beginning to assume definite form, and his visits to Benham became of necessity more frequent; flying trips, but he generally managed to obtain a few words with Selma. He continued to lend her books, and he invited her criticism on the slowly growing church edifice. The responsibility of critic was an absorbing sensation to her, but the stark glibness of tongue which stood her in good stead before the classes of the Institute failed her in his presence—the presence of real knowledge. She wished to praise, but to praise discriminatingly, with the cant of aesthetic appreciation, so that he should believe that she knew. As for the church itself, she was interested in it; it was fine, of course, but that was a secondary consideration compared with her emotions. His predilection in her favor, however, readily made him deaf in regard to her utterances. He scarcely heeded her halting, solemn, counterfeit transcendentalisms; or rather they passed muster as subtle and genuine, so spell bound was he by the Delphic beauty of her criticising expression. It was enough for him to watch her as she stood with her head on one side and the worried archangel look transfiguring her profile. What she said was lost in his reverie as to what she was—what she represented in his contemplation. As she looked upon his handiwork he was able to view it with different eyes, to discern its weaknesses and to gain fresh inspiration from her presence. He felt that it was growing on his hands and that he should be proud of it, and though, perhaps, he was conscious in his inner soul that she was more to him than another man's wife should be, he knew too, that no word or look of his had offended against the absent husband.