"Mother seldom went, the hermetically sealed, air-proof architecture of the place not agreeing with her; so father, Eleanor, and I used to walk over, crossing the head of Washington Square, until, as we passed St. Mark's Church and reached the steps of the building, we often headed a procession as sedate and serious as if going to Sunday meeting, for there were fewer places to go in those days. Once within, we usually crept well up front, for my father was one of the executive committee who sat in the row of chairs immediately facing the platform, and to be near him added several inches to my stature and importance, at least in my own estimation. Then, too, there was always the awesome and fascinating possibility that one of these honourable personages might fall audibly asleep, or slip from his chair in a moment of relaxation. Such events had been known to occur. In fact, my father's habit of settling down until his neck rested upon the low chair back, made the slipping accident a perpetual possibility in his case.
"Then, when the meeting was called to order, and the minutes read with many h-hems and clearings of the throat, and the various motions put to vote with the mumbled 'All-in-favour-of-the-motion-will-please-signify- by-saying-Ay! Contrary-minded-no-the-motion-is-accepted!' that some one would only say 'No' was our perpetual wish, and we even once meditated doing it ourselves, but could not decide which should take the risk.
"Another one of our amusements was to give odd names to the dignitaries who presided. One with lurching gait, erectile whiskers, and blinking eyes we called 'The Owl'; while another, a handsome old man of the 'Signer' type, pink-cheeked, deep eyed, with a fine aquiline nose, we named 'The Eagle.'"
"Oh, I know whom you mean, exactly!" cried Martin, throwing back his head and laughing as heartily as Bradford might; "and 'The Owl' was supposed to have intentions of perpetuating his name by leaving the society money enough for a new building, but he didn't. But then, he doubtless inherited his thrift from the worthy ancestors of the ilk of those men who utilized trousers for a land measure. Do you also remember the discussions that followed the reading of paper or lecture? Sometimes quite heated ones too, if the remarks had ventured to even graze the historical bunions that afflicted the feet of many old families."
"No, I think we were too anxious to have the meeting declared adjourned to heed such things. How we stretched ourselves; the physical oppression that had been settling for an hour or two lifting suddenly as we got on our feet and felt that we might speak in our natural voices.
"Then father would say, 'You may go upstairs and examine the curiosities before joining us in the basement,' and we would go up timidly and inspect the Egyptian mummy. I wonder how he felt last year when there was a reception in the hall and a band broke the long stillness with 'The Gay Tomtit.' Was ever such chocolate or such sandwiches served in equally sepulchral surroundings as in the long room below stairs. I remember wondering if the early Christians ever lunched in the catacombs, and how they felt; and I should not have been surprised if Lazarus himself had appeared in one of the archways trailing his graveclothes after him, so strong was the spell of the mummy upon us.
"It seems really very odd that you were one of those polite young men who used sometimes to pass the plates of sandwiches to us where we stayed hidden in a corner so that the parental eye need not see how many we consumed."
Thus did Martin Cortright and Miss Lavinia meet on common ground and drift into easy friendship which it would have taken years of conventional intercourse to accomplish, while opposite, the talk between Sylvia and Bradford dwelt upon the new professorship and Sylvia's roommate of two years, who, instead of being able to remain and finish the course which was to fit her for gaining nominal independence through teaching, had been obliged to go home and take charge, owing to her mother's illness.
"Yes, Professor Jameson's decision to give all his time to outside literary work was very sudden," I heard Bradford say. "I thought that it might happen two or three years hence; but to find myself now not only in possession of a salary of four thousand dollars a year (hardly a fortune in New York, I suppose), but also freed this season from being tied at Northbridge to teach in the summer school, and able to be at home in peace and quiet and get together my little book of the 'Country of the English Poets,' seems to me almost unbelievable."
"I have been wondering how the book was coming on, for you never wrote of it," answered Sylvia. "I have been trying all winter, without success, to arrange my photographs in scrap-books with merely names and dates. But though, as I look back over the four months, everything has been done for me, even to the buttoning of my gloves, while I've seemingly done nothing for any one, I've barely had a moment that I could call my own."
"I do not think that it is strange, after having been away practically for six years, that family life and your friends should absorb you. Doubtless you will have time now that Lent has come," said Bradford, smiling. "Of course we country Congregationalists do not treat the season as you Anglican Catholics do, and I've often thought it rather a pity. It must be good to have a stated time and season for stopping and sitting down to look at oneself. I picked up one of your New York church papers in the library the other day, and was fairly surprised at the number of services and the scope of the movement and the work of the church in general."
Sylvia looked at him for a moment with an odd expression in her eyes, as if questioning the sincerity of his remarks, and then answered, I thought a little sadly: "I'm afraid it is very much like other things we read of in the papers, half truth, half fiction; the churches and the services are there, and the good earnest people, too—but as for our stopping! Ah, Mr. Bradford, I can hardly expect to make you understand how it is, for I cannot myself. It was all so different before I went to boarding school, and we lived down in the house in Waverley Place where I was born. The people of mamma's world do not stop; we simply whirl to a slightly different tune. It's like waltzing one way around a ballroom until you are quite dizzy, and then reversing,—there is no sitting down to rest, that is, unless it is to play cards."
"Yet whist is a restful game in itself," said Bradford, cheerfully; "an evening of whist, with even fairly intelligent partners, I've always found a great smoother-out of nerves and wrinkles."
"They do not play it that way here," answered Sylvia, laughing, in spite of herself, at his quiet assumption. "It's 'bridge' for money or expensive prizes; and compared to the excitement it causes, the tarantella is a sitting-down dance. I'm too stupid with cards to take the risk of playing; even mamma does not advise it yet, though she wishes to have me coached. So I shall have some time to myself after all, for my defect puts me out of three Lenten card clubs to which mamma belongs, two of which meet at our house. That leaves only two sewing classes, three Lenten theatre clubs (one for lunch and matinee and two for dinner and the evening), and Mr. Bell's cake-walk club, that practises with a teacher at our house on Monday evenings. The club is to have a semi-public performance at the Waldorf for charity, in Easter week, and as the tickets are to be ten dollars each, they expect to make a great deal of money. So you see there is very little time allowed us to sit down and look at ourselves."
"I cannot excuse cake-walking off the stage, among civilized people," interpolated Miss Lavinia, catching the word but not the connection, and realizing that, as hostess, she had inconsiderately lost the thread of the conversation. "It appeals to me as the expression of physical exuberance of a lower race, and for people of our grade of intelligence to imitate it is certainly lowering! The more successfully it is carried out the worse it is!"
Miss Lavinia spoke so fiercely that everybody laughed but Sylvia, who coloured painfully, and Horace Bradford deftly changed the subject in the lull that followed.
* * * * *
The men did not care to be left alone with their cigars and coffee, so we lingered in the dining-room. Suddenly a shrieking whistle sounded in the street, and the rapid clatter of hoofs made us listen, while Evan rushed to the door, seizing his hat on the way.
"Only the fire engines," said Miss Lavinia; "you would soon be used to them if you lived here; the engine house is almost around the corner."
"Don't you ever go after them?" I asked, without thinking, because to Evan and me going to fires is one of the standard attractions of our New York.
"Barbara, child, don't be absurd. What should I do traipsing after an engine?"
"Yet a good fire is a very exciting spectacle. I once had the habit of going," said Martin Cortright, emerging from a cloud of cigar smoke. "I remember when Barnum's Museum was burned my father and I ran to the fire together and stayed out, practically, all night."
More whistling and a fresh galloping of hoofs indicated that there was a second call, and the engines from up town were answering. I began to tap my feet restlessly, and Miss Lavinia noticed it.
"Don't hesitate to go if you wish to," she said. At the same moment Evan dashed back, calling: "It's a fire on the river front, a lumber yard; plenty of work ahead, with little danger and a wonderful spectacle. Why can we not all go to see it, for it's only half a dozen blocks away? Bundle up, though, it's bitterly cold."
Horace Bradford sprang to his feet and Sylvia was halfway upstairs and fairly out of her evening gown when Miss Lavinia made up her mind to go also, Evan's words having the infection of a stampede.
"Don't forget the apples," I called to Evan as I followed my hostess.
"The shops and stands are closed, I'm afraid," he called back from the stoop where he was waiting; "perhaps Miss Lavinia has some in the house."
"Apples, yes, plenty; but for mercy's sake what for? You surely aren't thinking of pelting the fire out with them!" she gasped, hurrying downstairs and struggling to disentangle her eyeglasses from her bonnet strings; a complication that was always happening at crucial moments, such as picking out change in an elevated railway station, and thereby blocking the crowd.
"No, apples to feed the fire horses; Barbara always does," Evan answered, dashing down the basement stairs to the kitchen, and returning quickly with a medley of apples and soup vegetables in a dish-towel bundle, leaving the solemn cook speechlessly astonished.
Then we started off, Evan leading the way, and the procession straggling after in Indian file; for the back streets were not well shovelled, and to go two abreast meant that one foot of each was on a side hill. Evan fairly dragged me along. Sylvia and Bradford, being fleet of foot, had no difficulty in following, but Martin and Miss Lavinia had rather a bumpy time of it. Still, as pretty much all the uncrippled inhabitants of the district were going the same way, our flight was not conspicuous.
It was, as Evan had promised, a glorious fire! Long before we reached the Hudson the sky rayed and flamed with all the smokeless change of the Northern Lights. Once there, Evan piloted us through the densely packed crowd to the side string-piece of a pier, Miss Lavinia giving little shrieks the while, and begging not to be pushed into the water.
From this point the great stacks of lumber that made the giant bonfire could be seen at the two points, from land and water side, where the fire-boats were shooting streams from their well-aimed nozzles.
As usual, after running the steam-pumping engines as close as desirable to the flames, the horses were detached, blanketed, and tied up safe from harm, and we found a group of three great intelligent iron-gray beauties close behind us, who accepted the contents of the dish-towel with almost human appreciation, while a queer, wise, brown dog, an engine mascot, who was perched on the back of the middle horse, shared the petting with a politely matter-of-fact air.
"It is wonderful! I only wish I could see a little better," murmured Miss Lavinia, who was short, and buried in the crowd.
"Why not stand on this barrel?" suggested Bradford, holding out his hand.
"It's full of garbage and ashes," she objected.
"Never mind that, they are frozen hard," replied Bradford, poking the mass practically.
Three pairs of hands tugged and boosted, and lo! Miss Lavinia was safely perched; and as there were more barrels Sylvia and I quickly followed suit, and we soon all became spellbound at the dramatic contrasts, for every now and again a fresh pile of Georgia pine would be devoured by the flames, the sudden flare coming like a noiseless explosion, making the air fragrantly resinous, while at the same time the outer boundaries of the doomed lumber yard were being draped with a fantastic ice fabric from the water that froze as it fell.
As to the firemen! don't talk to me of the bygone bravery of the crusaders and the lords of feudal times, who spent their lives in the sport of encamping outside of fortresses, at whose walls they occasionally butted with rams, lances, and strong language, leaving their wives and children in badly drained and draughty castles. If any one wishes to see brave men and true, simply come to a fire with Evan and me in our New York.
We might have stood there on our garbage pedestals half the night if Horace Bradford had not remembered that he must catch the midnight express, glanced at his watch, found that it was already nearly half-past ten, and realized that he had left his grip at Miss Lavinia's. Consequently we dismounted and pushed our way home.
As we were half groping our way up ill-lighted West Tenth Street Martin Cortright paused suddenly and, after looking about, remarked: "This is certainly a most interesting locality. That building opposite, which has long been a brewery, was once, in part at least, the first city or State's Prison. How often criminals must have traversed this very route we are following, on their way to Washington Square to be hanged. For you know that place, of later years esteemed so select, was once not only the site of Potter's Field, but of the city gallows as well!"
No one, however, joined more heartily than he in the merriment that his inapropos reminiscence caused, and we reached home in a good humour that effectually kept off the cold.
"Did you succeed in buying the gown?" Horace Bradford asked Miss Lavinia, as he stood in the hall making his farewells.
"Oh, yes, I had almost forgotten. Here is the package only waiting for your approval to be tied," and she led the way to the library.
Bradford touched the articles with his big fingers, as lovingly as if he were smoothing his mother's hair, or her hand.
"They are exactly right," he said heartily, turning and grasping Miss Lavinia's hand, as he looked straight into her eyes with an expression of mingled gratitude and satisfaction. "She will thank you herself, when we all meet next summer," and with a happy look at Sylvia, who had come to the library to see the gifts, and was leaning on the table, he grasped bag and parcel, shook hands all round, and hurried away.
"What do you think?" I asked Evan, as we closed our bedroom door.
"Of what?" he answered, with the occasional obtuseness that will overtake the best of men.
"Of Sylvia and Bradford, of course. Are they in love, do you think?"
"I rather think that he is," Evan answered, slowly, as if bringing his mind from afar, "but that he doesn't know it, and I hope he may stay in ignorance, for it will do him no good, for I am sure that she is not, at least with Bradford. She is drifting about in the Whirlpool now. She has not 'found herself' in any way, as yet. She seems a charming girl, but I warn you, Barbara, don't think you scent romance, and try to put a finger in this pie! Your knowledge of complex human nature isn't nearly as big as your heart, and the Latham set are wholly beyond your ken and comprehension." Then Evan, declining to argue the matter, went promptly to sleep.
Not so Sylvia. When Miss Lavinia went to her room to see if the girl was comfortable and have a little go-to-bed chat by the fire, she found her stretched upon the bed; her head hidden between the pillows, in a vain effort to stifle her passionate sobbing.
"What is it, my child?" she asked, truly distressed. "Are you tired, or have you taken cold, or what?"
"No, nothing like that," she whispered, keeping her face hidden and jerking out disjointed sentences, "but I can't do anything for anybody. No one really depends on me for anything. Helen Baker must leave college, because they need her at home,—just think, need her! Isn't that happiness? And Mr. Bradford is so joyful over his new salary, thinks it is a fortune, and with being able to buy those things for his mother,—father has sent me more money during the four months I've been back, so I may feel independent, he says, than the Professor will earn in a year. Independent? deserted is a better word! I hardly know my own parents, I find, and they expect nothing from me, even my companionship.
"Before I went away to school, if mamma was ill, I used to carry up her breakfast, and brush her hair; now she treats me almost like a stranger,—dislikes my going to her room at odd times. I hardly ever see her, she is always so busy, and if I beg to be with her, as I did once, she says I do not understand her duty to society.
"People should not have children and then send them away to school until they feel like strangers, and their homes drift so far away that they do not know them when they come back,—and there's poor Carthy out west all alone, after the plans we made to be together. It is all so different from what I expected. Why does not father come home, or mother seem to mind that he stays away? What is the matter, Aunt Lavinia? Is mamma hiding something, or is the fault all mine?"
Miss Lavinia closed the door, and soothed the excited girl, talking to her for an hour, and in fact slept on the lounge, and did not return to her own room until morning. She was surprised at the storm in a clear sky, but not at the cause. Miss Lavinia was keenly observant, and from two years' daily intercourse, she knew Sylvia's nature thoroughly. For some reasons, she wished with all her heart that Sylvia was in love with Horace Bradford, and at the same time feared for it; but before the poor girl fell asleep, she was convinced that such was not the case, and that the trouble that was already rising well up from her horizon was something far more complicated.
THE SWEATING OF THE CORN
April 14. Every one who has led, even in a partial degree, the life outdoors, must recognize his kinship with the soil. It was the first recorded fact of race history embodied in the Old Testament allegory of the creation, and it would seem from the beginning that nations have been strong or weak, as they acknowledged or sought to suppress it.
I read a deeper meaning in my garden book as the boys' human calendar runs parallel with it, and I can see month by month and day by day that it is truly the touch of Nature that makes kindred of us all—the throb of the human heart and not the touch of learning or the arts.
Everything grows restless as spring comes on—animate, and what is called inanimate, nature. March is the trying month of indecision, the tug-of-war between winter and spring, pulling us first one way and then the other, the victory often being, until the final moment, on the side of winter. Then comes a languid period of inaction, and a swift recovery. When the world finally throws off frost bondage, sun and the earth call, while humanity, indoors and out, in city tenement as well as in farmhouse, hears the voice, even though its words are meaningless, and grows restless.
Lavinia Dorman writes that she is feeling tired and low-spirited, the doctor has advised a tonic, and she misses the change of planting her back-yard garden. Down in the streets the tenement children are swarming in the sunny spots, and dancing to the hand-organs. I saw them early last week when I was in town for a few hours.
In one of the downtown parks the youngsters were fairly rolling in the dirt, and rubbing their cheeks on the scanty grass as they furtively scooped up handfuls of cement-like soil to make mud pies, in spite of the big policeman, who, I like to think, was sympathetically blind.
The same impulse stirs my boys, even though they have all outdoors around them. They have suddenly left their house toys and outdoor games alike to fairly burrow in the soil. The heap of beach sand and pebbles that was carted from the shore and left under an old shed for their amusement, has lost its charm. They go across the road and claw the fresh earth from an exposed bank, using fingers instead of their little rakes and spades, and decorate the moist brown "pies" they make with dandelion ornaments.
A few days ago the Vanderveer boy came down to play with them, accompanied by an English head nurse of tyrannical mien, and an assortment of coats and wraps. The poor little chap had been ailing half the winter, it seems, with indigestion and various aches, until the doctor told his mother that she must take him to the country and try a change, as he feared the trouble was chronic appendicitis; so the entire establishment has arrived to stay until the Newport season, and the boy's every movement is watched, weighed, and discussed.
The nurse, having tucked him up in a big chair in the sun on the porch, with the boys for company, and in charge of father, who was looking at him with a pitying and critical medical eye, said she would leave him for half an hour while she went up the lane to see Martha Corkle. A few moments after, as I glanced across the road, I saw my boys burrowing away at their dirt bank, and their guest with them. I flew downstairs to call him in, fearing for the consequences, but father, who was watching the proceedings from the porch, laid a detaining hand upon me, saying: "His mother has consulted me about the child, and really sent him down here that I may look him over, and I am doing it, in my own fashion. I've no idea the trouble is appendicitis, though it might be driven that way. I read it as a plain case of suppressed boyhood.
"He doesn't know how to play, or run naturally without falling; he's afraid to sit down in the dirt—no wonder with those starched linen clothes; and he keeps looking about for the nurse, first over one shoulder and then over the other, like a hunted thing. Evidently they have weighed his food, measured his exercise, and bought his amusements; his only free will and vent is to get in a temper. They give him no chance to sweat off his irritation, only to fume; while that shaking, snorting teakettle of an automobile they bowl him about in, puts the final touch to his nervousness."
Then I sat down by father and watched the three boys together, while Richard was preventing his guest from pounding a toad with a stone because it preferred to hop away instead of being made into a dirt pie, and I saw the truth of what he said. The seven-year-old child who went to riding school, dancing school, and a military drill, did not know how to express his emotions in play, and frozen snowballs and other cruelty was his distorted idea of amusement. Poor rich boy, sad little only son, he was not allowed the freedom to respond to the voice of nature even as the tenement children that dance in the streets to the hand-organs or stir the mud in the gutter with their bare toes. It is not the tenement children of New York who are to be pitied; it is those that are being fitted to keep the places, in the unstable and frail crafts of the Whirlpool, that their parents are either striving to seize or struggling to reserve for them.
At the end of half an hour the boys came back to the porch, all three delightfully and completely dirty, and clamouring that they were hungry. The English tyrant not appearing, I took them into the house and, after a washing of hands and faces, gave the boys the usual eleven o'clock lunch of milk and simple cookies to take out in the sun to eat. As they were thus engaged the tyrant appeared on the horizon, horror written in every feature, and a volley of correction evidently taking shape on her lips, while an ugly look of cowed defiance spread itself over the child's face as he caught sight of her.
There was no scene, however. Father said in the most offhand way, as if being obeyed was a matter of course, "Go back and tell your mistress that I am carrying out her request, and that after luncheon I will send the boy safely home, with a written message."
"But his medicines, his hour's rest alone in the dark, his special food,—the medical man in New York said—" protested the woman, completely taken aback.
"You heard my message?" said father, cheerfully, and that was all.
"What are you going to advise?" I asked, as in the middle of the afternoon father came from his office, where he had given the lad a thorough inspection.
"Simply to turn him loose in light woollen clothes, give him companions of his age, and let him alone."
"Can't you word it differently?" I asked.
"Why, is not that fairly direct?" he replied, looking surprised; "and surely the direct method is almost always the best."
"I think this is the one case where it is not, dear old Daddy. In fact, if you are destined, as I see that you are, to pick up and tie the threads of ravelled health in the Bluff Colony, you will have to become more complicated, at least in speech, accustomed as they are to a series of specialists, and having importance attached to the very key in which a sneeze is pitched.
"Those few words would savour to the Whirlpoolers of lack of proper respect and consideration. You must give a name to both ailment and cure if you expect to be obeyed. Call the case a 'serious one of physical suppression,' and the remedy the 'fresh earth cure,' to be taken only in light woollen clothes, tell them to report progress to you every other day, and you gain the boy his liberty."
Father laughed heartily, and his nose twitched in a curious way it has when he is secretly amused and convinced against his will; but I think he took my advice, at least in part, for the next morning Papa Vanderveer drove down in the brake, announcing in a shout that "De Peyster slept all night without waking up and crying, for the first time in months," adding, "And, Dr. Russell, if you've got anything further in this liberty line to suggest, even to getting rid of the Duchess, now's your time. 'The Duchess?' Ah, she is that confounded head nurse woman that Maria will keep so that things may be done properly, until the poor kid's nearly been done for, I say. The Ponsonbys are crazy to get the woman to break in their youngest girl and keep her down and from growing up until they marry the others off; so Maria could part with her in the light of a favour to them, don't you see, without spilling blood. Peysey'll have to have some sort of a chaser, though, or Maria'll not hear of it."
Mr. Vanderveer glowed all over with delight when father condemned the automobile as a nerve racker, and suggested that a young man of the companionable tutor order, who could either play games, fish, and drive with the boy and his chums, or at times leave him wholly alone, according to need, would be a good substitute for a woman who viewed life as a school of don'ts, and had either wholly outlived her youth, or else had most unpleasant recollections of it.
"I've got my innings at last," he said. "You're the first doctor I've had who hasn't sided with Maria and shut me out until pay day."
"I wonder why spring is such a restless season," I said half to myself and half to father, as I sat on the porch half an hour later, trying to focus my mind on writing to Lavinia Dorman, while father, lounging on the steps opposite, was busy reading his mail.
"One would think we might be content merely to throw off winter and look and enjoy, but no, every one is restless,—birds, fourfoots, and humans. Lavinia Dorman writes that Sylvia Latham has just started for California to see her brother, and she expects to bring her father back with her. The boys disappeared mysteriously in the direction of Martha Corkle's immediately after breakfast, Evan went reluctantly to the train, declaring that it seemed impossible to sit still long enough to reach the city, you are twisting about and shuffling your feet, looking far oftener at the river woods than at your letters, and as for myself, it seems as if I must go over yonder and seize Bertel's spade and show him how to dig those seed beds more rapidly, so that I can begin to plant and kneel down and get close to the ground. Yesterday when the boys came in with very earthy faces, and I questioned them, I found that they had stuck their precious noses in their mud pies, essaying to play mole and burrow literally."
"It is the same mystery as the sweating of the corn," replied father, gathering his letters in a heap and tossing them into a chair with a gesture of impatience; "none of us may escape, even though we do not understand it.
"It was years ago that I first heard the legend from an old farmer of the corn belt, who, longing for a sight of salt water, had drifted eastward into one of the little hill farms beyond the charcoal camp. He had been bedridden nearly all winter, but uncomplainingly, his wife and daughter-in-law caring for him, and it was not until the early part of May, when all the world was growing green, that he began to mend and at the same time groan at his confinement.
"I tried to cheer him up, telling him that the worst was over, and that he soon would be about again, and he replied: ''Tain't me that's doin' of it, Doctor, hit's the sweatin' of the corn. You know everywhere in May folks be plantin' corn, the time bein' the sign that frost is over and done with.' I nodded assent, and he continued: 'Now naterally there's lots of corn in ear and shelled and ground to meal that isn't planted, and along as when the kernels in the ground begins to swell and sprout, this other corn knows it and begins to heave and sweat, and if it isn't handled careful-like, and taken in the air and cooled, it'll take on all sorts of moulds and musts, and like as not turn useless. I holds it's just the same with folks,—when springtime comes they fetch up restless and need the air and turning out to sweeten in the sun until they settle down again, else their naturs turn sour, pisen'us, and unwholesome, breedin' worms like sweated corn!'
"Since then I've heard it here and there in other words, but always the same motive, the old miller holding it all fact and no legend at all, saying that if he can keep his surplus corn from sweating and well aired through May and June, he never fears for it in the damper, more potent August heat. One thing is certain, that in my practice in countryside, village, and town, if strange doings break out and restless discontentment arises, it is never in winter, when I should expect partial torpidity to breed unrest, but in the pushing season of renewal, and, as the old man terms it, 'corn sweating.'"
* * * * *
A little later I was going toward the garden when father called after me to say that he was soon starting for a long trip, quite up to Pine Ridge, and that if I cared to go, taking a lunch for both, it might give me a chance to "turn and sweeten" in the sun and cure my restlessness with natural motion.
Go? Of course my heart leaped at the very thought, because, in spite of the boys, those long drives with father have grown more precious as they grow more rare. But where were the twins? They had disappeared under my very eyes; of a surety they must be at Martha's, but my conscience smote me when, on glancing at the clock, I saw that it was two hours since they left the breakfast table in their brand-new sailor suits, with the intention of showing them to her.
No, they were not at Martha's, and she came hurrying back with me, a very clucking hen of alarm. Timothy Saunders, who had by that time brought round the horses in the stanhope, ventured the opinion that they might be below, paddling in the duck pond, as all the village children gathered there at the first warm weather, "jest fer all the world like gnats the sun's drawd oot."
They were not there! Father had disappeared to make some preparations for the drive, and so I asked Timothy to drive with me along the highway toward the village. I did not feel exactly worried, but then one never knows.
We had gone half a mile perhaps, vainly questioning every one, when I spied two small figures coming across a field from the east, where the ground fell lower and lower for a mile or so until it reached salt water.
"There be the lads!" shouted Timothy Saunders, as if I had been a hundred yards away, and deaf at that; but the noise meant joy, so it was welcome. "My, but they're fagged and tattered well to boot!" And so they were; but they struggled along, hand in hand, waving cheerfully when they caught sight of me, and finally crept through the pasture bars by which I was waiting, and enveloped me with faint, weary hugs. Then I noticed that they wore no hats, their fresh suits were grimy with a gray dust like cement, the knees of their stockings and underwear were worn completely through to red, scratched skin, and the tips entirely scraped from their shoes.
I gathered them into the gig, and sought the explanation as we drove homeward, Timothy hurried by the vision of tearful Martha, whom he had seen with the tail of his eye dodge into the kitchen, her apron over her head, as he turned out the gate.
"We've been playing we was moles," said Ian, in answer to the first question as to where they had been. "Yesterday we tried to do it wif our own noses, but we couldn't, 'cause it hurt, and we wanted to go ever so far."
"So we went down to where those big round stone pipes are in the long hole," said Richard, picking up the story as Ian paused. (Workmen had been laying large cement sewer pipes from the foot of the Bluffs, a third of a mile toward the marshes, but were not working that day, owing to lack of material.) "They made nice mole holes, so I crawled right in, and for a little it was bully fun."
"Oh Richard, Richard, what made you?" I cried, holding him so tight that he squirmed away. "Suppose the other end had been closed, and you had smothered in there, and mother had never found you?" for the ghastly possibility made my knees quake.
"Oh no, mother," he pleaded, taking my face between his grimy hands and looking straight in my eyes, "it wasn't a dark hole. I could see it light out 'way at the other end, and it didn't look so vely far as it was to crawl it. And after a little I'd have liked to back out, only—only, well, you see, I couldn't."
"Why not?" I asked, and, as he did not answer, I again saw a vision of two little forms wedged in the pipes.
"That why was 'cause I was in behind, and I wouldn't back, and so Dick couldn't," said Ian. "You see, Barbara, I really, truly had to be a mole and get very far away, not to stay, only just for fun, you know," he added, as he saw signs of tears in his brother's eyes, and began to feel the smarting in his own bruised knees.
One blessed thing about Ian, even though he is sometimes passionate and stubborn, and will probably have lots of trouble with himself by and by, there isn't a drop of sneaky cur blood in him, which is the only trait that need make a mother tremble.
What should I do, punish, or act as I longed to, coddle the boys and comfort the poor knees? True, I had not forbidden them to crawl through the sewer pipes, because the idea of their doing it had never occurred to me, so they could not be said to have exactly disobeyed; but, on the other hand, there was an unwritten law that they must not go off the place without my permission, and the torn stockings furnished a hint.
"Mother is going away for all day with grandfather," I said slowly, as I examined their knees. "Even though I never told you not to do it, if you had stopped to think, you would have known it was wrong to crawl through the pipes."
"But, Barbara," argued Ian, as we reached the porch, "it wasn't us that crawled, it was moles, and they just digs right ahead and turns up the ground and flowers and everything, and never thinks things, do they, grandpop?"
"Martha will take you in," I said, steadying my voice with difficulty, "and bathe your knees and let you rest a while before she dresses you again. Martha, please put away those stockings for me to mend when I return; I cannot ask Effie to darn such holes for two little moles; she is only engaged to sew for boys."
"But, mother, you don't like to sew stockings; it makes you tight in your chest. I heard you tell father so," objected Richard, while Ian's face quivered and reddened, and he pounded his fists together, saying to himself, "Barbara shall not sit in the house and mend moles' stockings. I won't let her," showing that they were both touched in a tender spot.
Father only laughed when they went in, and said: "I'm glad you didn't do anything more than that to the little chaps, daughter; it's only a bit of boy life and impulse working in them, after all; their natural way of cooling the 'sweating of the corn.'" Then we drove away through the lanes draped with birch tassels and willow wands, while bloodroot and marshmarigold kept pace in the runnels, and I heard the twitter of the first barn-swallow of the year.
As we drove along we talked or were silent without apology and according to mood; and as father outlined his route to me, I resolved that I would call upon Horace Bradford's mother, for our way lay in that direction.
Many things filled father's mind aside from the beauty of the perfect April day, that held even the proper suggestion of hidden showers behind the curtain of hazy sunshine. The sweating of the human corn that came under father's eye was not always to be cured by air and sun, or rather, those who turned uneasily would not accept the cure.
The germ of unrest is busy in the village this spring. Not that it is wholly new, for unrest is wherever people congregate. But this year the key is altered somewhat. The sight of careless ease, life without labour, and a constant change of pleasures, that obtain in the Bluff Colony, is working harm. True, the people can always read of this life in book and paper, but to come in direct contact is another thing. Father said the other day that he wished that conservative country places that had lived respected and respectable lives for years could have the power to socially quarantine all newcomers before they were allowed to purchase land and set a pace that lured the young cityward at any cost. I, too, realize that the striving in certain quarters is no longer for home and love and happy times, but for something new, even if it is merely for the sake of change, and that this infection of social unrest is quickly spreading downward from the Bluffs, touching the surface of our little community, if not yet troubling its depths.
The leading merchant's daughter, Cora Blackburn, fresh from a college course that was a strain upon the family means, finds that she has built a wall four years wide between herself and her family; henceforth life here is a vacuum,—she is misunderstood, and is advertising for an opportunity to go to New York and the independence of a dreary back third or fourth story hall bedroom. But, as she said the other day, putting on what Evan calls her "capability-for-better-things" air, "One's scope is so limited here, and one never can tell whom one may meet in New York," which is, of course, perfectly true.
It was only last night that father returned from the hospital, distressed and perplexed, and called me into the office. A young woman of twenty-two, that I know very well, of a plain middle-class family over in town, had, it seems, sent her name for admission to the training-school for nurses. Father, in his friendly way, stopped at the house on his way home to talk with her about the matter, and found from a little sister, who was washing dishes, that the mother of the family was ill and being cared for by a neighbour. Presently, down tripped the candidate for nursing, well dressed, well shod, and with pink, polished finger nails.
Father, wondering why she did not care for her mother, asked his usual questions: "What leads you to wish to take up nursing? Are you interested in medicine, and fond of caring for the sick? For you should be, to enter such an exacting life." She seemed to misunderstand him altogether and take his inquiry for prying. She coloured, bit her lip, then lost her head and blurted out: "Interested in the sick! Of course not. Who could be, for they are always so aggravating. I don't mean to stay so very long at it, but it's a good chance to go into some swell family, and maybe marry and get into society."
Poor father was fairly in a rage at the girl's idea of what he deems a sacred calling, and it was not until Richard had kissed him from the end of his nose up over his short thick gray hair, and down again to the tickle place in his neck, that he calmed down. Unless my instinct fails me, he will have his social experience considerably widened during the coming season, even if his trustful nature is not strengthened.
Father had made three calls, and we had eaten our luncheon by the wayside, unhooking the horses, and baiting them by a low bridge rail that sloped into the bushes, where they could eat and drink at leisure, before we reached Pine Ridge. Once there, he dropped me at the Bradford farm, while he drove westward, along the Ridge, to a consultation with the local doctor over a complicated broken leg that would not knit.
As I closed the neat white picket gate behind me, and walked slowly toward the porch, a blaze of yellow on the south side of the red brick house drew my attention. It was the Forsythia, the great bush of "yellow bells," of which Horace Bradford had spoken as blooming in advance of any in the neighbourhood, and for a moment I felt as if I were walking into the pages of a story-book.
I wielded the heavy brass knocker on the half-door, with diamond-paned glass top, and paused to look off to where the flower and fruit garden sloped south and west. Presently, as no one answered the knock, I peered through the glass, into an open square, that was evidently both hall and sitting room. In one corner was a chimney place, in which a log burned lazily, opposite a broad, low window, its shelves filled with flower pots, near which, in a harp-backed chair, an old lady sat sewing. She wore a simple black gown, with a small shawl thrown across her shoulders, and her hair, clear steel colour and white, was held in a loose knot by an old-fashioned shell comb. In spite of the droop and lines of age (for Horace Bradford's mother must have been quite seventy), the nose had a fine, strong Roman curve, and the brow a thoughtful width.
What was she thinking of as she sat there alone, this bright April afternoon, shaping a garment, with a smile hovering about her lips? Her son's promotion and bright prospects, perhaps.
I looked across at the old mahogany chest of drawers behind her, to see if I could recognize any of the framed photographs that stood there. One, evidently copied from a daguerrotype, was of a curly-haired girl, about fourteen, probably the daughter who died years ago, and another, close at her elbow, was of a lanky boy of eight or ten, wearing a broad straw hat, and grasping a fishing pole, probably Horace, as a child, but there was nowhere to be seen the photograph of him in cap, gown, and hood that stood on Miss Lavinia's chimney shelf.
Then as Mrs. Bradford folded her hands over her work, and gazed through the plants and window, at some far-away thought, I felt like a detective, spying upon her, and hastily knocked again.
This time she heard at once, and coming quickly to the door, admitted me, with a cordial smile and a hearty grasp of the hand that reminded me of her son, and was totally unlike the clammy and noncommittal touch of so many of the country folk, bred evidently of their general habit of caution.
"You are Mrs. Evan, the Doctor's daughter. I know your father well, though I have never met you face to face since you were a little girl."
Then the conversation drifted easily along to Miss Lavinia, and my meeting with Horace, his professorship, the prospect of his being at home all summer, and to the different changes in the community, especially that wrought by the colony at the Bluffs, which were really the halfway mark between Oaklands and Pine Ridge.
Mrs. Bradford saw the purely commercial and cheerful side of the matter; as yet, few of the new places were well equipped with gardens,—it had opened a good market for the farmers on the Ridge, and they were no longer obliged to take their eggs, fruit, poultry, and butter into town.
In spite of a certain reticence, she was eager to know the names of all the newcomers; but when I mentioned Mrs. Latham, saying that she was the mother of Sylvia, one of her son's pupils, and described the beauty of their place, I thought that she gave a little start, and that I heard her speak the initials S. L. under her breath; but when I looked up, I could detect nothing but a slight quiver of the eyelids.
Then we went out into the garden, arm in arm, for Mrs. Bradford's footing seemed insecure upon the cobbled walk, and she turned to me at once as naturally as if I were a neighbour's daughter. Together we grew enthusiastic over the tufts of white violets, early hyacinths, and narcissi, or equally so over the mere buds of things. For it is the rotary promise that is the inspiration of a garden; it is this that lures us on from year to year, and softens the sharp punctuation of birthdays.
Was there anything in her garden that I had not? She would be so pleased to exchange plants with me, and had I any of the new cactus Dahlias, and so on, until we reached the walk's end, and turned about under a veteran cherry tree that showered us with its almond-scented petals.
Then Mrs. Bradford relaxed completely, and pulling down a branch, buried her face in the blossoms, drawing long breaths.
"I've kept away from the garden all day," she said, "because I had some sewing to finish, so those unfortunate Hornblower children might begin the spring term at school to-morrow; and when I once smell the cherry flowers, my very bones ache to be out doors, and I'm not good for a thing but to potter about the garden from now on, until the strawberries show red, and everything settles down for summer. It's always been the same, since I was a little girl, and used to watch the cherry blooms up through the top sash of the schoolhouse windows, when they had screened the lower part to keep us from idling, and it's lasted all through my married life. The Squire and I always went on a May picnic by ourselves, until the year he died, though the neighbours all reckoned us feeble-minded."
The "Sweating of the Corn," I almost said aloud.
"I've reasoned with myself every spring all through the between years, until now I've made up my mind it's something that's meant to be, and I'm going to give in to it. Sit down here under the trees, my dear, and Esther Nichols will bring us some tea and fresh cider cake. Yes, I see that you look surprised to have afternoon tea offered on Pine Ridge, but I got the habit from the English grandmother that reared me, and I've always counted it a better hospitality than the customary home-made cordials and syrups that, between ourselves, make one stomach-sick. Yes, there comes Esther now; she always knows my wants. She and her husband are distant cousins of the Bradfords, and my helpers indoors and out, for I am too old to manage farm hands, especially now that they are mostly Slavs, and it makes Horace feel happier to have kinsfolk here than if I trusted to transient service."
So we sipped the well-made breakfast tea beneath the cherry blossoms as I told her about my boys and Miss Lavinia's expected visit. When father called for me I left reluctantly, feeling as if nobody need be without a family, when one becomes necessary, for in addition to an aunt in Lavinia Dorman I had found a sort of spirit grandmother there in the remote and peaceful highlands,—a woman at once simple and restful, yet withal having no narrowness or crudity to cramp or jar.
It was nearly five o'clock when we turned into the highway west of the Bluffs. We had gone but a few rods when a great clanking of chains and jar of wheels sounded behind. As I stretched out to see what was coming, a horn sounded merrily.
"A coaching party," said father. "I will turn out of the road, for there is a treacherous pitch on the other side, and for me to let them topple into the ditch might be profitable, but hardly professional."
We had barely turned into low bushes when the stage came alongside. The horses dropped back to a walk, as they passed, for it was a decided up grade for thirty yards, so that we had a good chance to view both equipage and occupants. To my surprise I saw that the coach was the Jenks-Smith's. I did not know they had returned from the trip abroad where they had been making their annual visit to repair the finances of their son-in-law.
Monty Bell was driving, with Mrs. Jenks-Smith at his side. The robust Lady of the Bluffs, evidently having some difficulty in keeping her balance, was clutching the side bar desperately. She was dressed in bright-figured hues from top to toe, her filmy hat had lurched over one eye, and all together she looked like a Chinese lantern, or a balloon inflated for its rise but entangled in its moorings.
Jenks-Smith sat behind, with Mrs. Latham and a very pretty young girl as seatmates, while behind them came a giggling bevy of young people and the grooms,—Sylvia being of course absent.
Mrs. Latham was clad in pale violet embroidered with iris in deeper tones, her wide hat was irreproachably poised, her veil draped gracefully, her white parasol, also embroidered with iris, held at as becoming an angle, and her corsage violets as fresh as if she was but starting out, while in fact the party must have driven up from New York since morning.
They did not even glance at the gray horses which had been drawn aside to give them right of way, much less acknowledge the courtesy, but clanked by in a cloud of misty April dust.
"What a contrast between his mother and hers," I said unconsciously, half aloud.
"Which? Whose? I did not quite catch the connection of that remark," said father, turning toward me with his quizzical expression, for a standing joke of both father and Evan was to thus trip me up when I uttered fragmentary sentences, as was frequently the case, taking it for granted, they said, that they either dreamed the connection or could read my thoughts.
"I meant what a great contrast there is between Mrs. Bradford and Mrs. Latham," I explained, at once realizing that there was really no sense in the comparison outside of my own irrepressibly romantic imagination, even before father said:—
"And why, pray, should they not be different? Under the circumstances it would be very strange if they were not. And where does the his and her come in? Barbara, child, I think you are 'dreaming pussy willows,' as you used to say you did in springtime, when you were a very little girl."
* * * * *
The boys were having their supper in the hall when I arrived home, for, warm as the days are, it grows cool toward night until we are past middle May.
The scraped knees were still knobby with bandages, but the lads were in good spirits, and seemed to have some secret with Martha that involved a deal of whispering and some chuckling. After the traces of bread and butter were all wiped away, they came hobbling up (for the poor knees were sadly stiff and lame), and wedged themselves, one on each side of me, in the window seat of the den, where I was watching for the smoke of Evan's train, my signal for going down the road. Ah, how I always miss the sight of the curling smoke and the little confidential walk in the dark winter days!
There was some mystery afoot, I could see, for Martha hovered about the fireplace, asking if a few sticks wouldn't temper the night air, to which I readily assented, yet still she did not go, and the boys kept the hands close against their blouse fronts.
Suddenly Ian threw his arms about my neck and bent my head close to his, saying, in his abrupt voice of command, "Barbara must not stay indoors tomorrow and be sad and mend the moles' stockings."
"Yes, Barbara must," I answered firmly, feeling, yet much dreading, the necessity of the coming collision.
"No, she can't," said Ian, trying to look stern, but breaking into little twinkling smiles at the mouth corners. "She can't, because the moles' stockings haven't any more got holes!" and he pulled something from his blouse and spread it in my lap, Richard doing likewise.
There were two stockings mended, fearfully and wonderfully, to be sure, and quite unwearable, but still legally mended.
"I don't understand," I said, while the boys, seeing my puzzled expression, clapped their hands and hopped painfully about as well as they were able.
Then Martha Corkle emerged from the background and explained: "The boys they felt most terrible in their minds, Mrs. Evan, soon after you'd went (their sore knees, I think, also keepin' them in sight of their doings), and they begged me, Mrs. Evan, wouldn't I mend the stockings, which I would most cheerfully, only takin' the same as not to be your idea, mum. So I says, says I, somebody havin' to be punished, your ma's goin' to do it to take the punishment herself, that is, in lest you do it your own selves instead. So, says I, I'll mend one stocking of each if you do the other, Mrs. Evan, and no disrespect intended.
"I borried Effie's embroidery rings and set the two holes for them and run them in one way, leavin' them the fillin' to do, which they have, sittin' the whole afternoon at it most perseverin'."
"Richard did his one stitch, but I did mine four stitch; it ate up the hole quicker, and it's more different," quoth Ian, waving his stocking, into the knee of which he had managed to introduce a sort of kindergarten weaving pattern.
"But mine looks more like Martha's, doesn't it, mother?" pleaded patient Richard, who, though the threads were drawn and gathered, had kept to the regular one up and one down throughout.
Then the signal of the smoke arose against the opal of the twilight sky, and we went out hand in hand, all three happy, to meet our breadwinner.
Late that night, when all the household slept, I added a little package to my treasures in the attic desk,—two long stockings with queer darned knees,—and upon the paper band that bound them is written a date and "The Sweating of the Corn."
A WAYSIDE COMEDY
May 5th. Madame Etiquette has entered this peaceful village. Not, however, as the court lady of the old French regime, but travelling in the wake of the Whirlpoolers under dubious aliases, being sometimes called Good Form and at other The Correct Thing. At present she is having a hand-to-hand encounter with New England Prejudice, a once stalwart old lady of firm will, but now considerably weakened by age and the incessant arguing of her great-grandchildren.
The result of the conflict is quite uncertain, for actually even the Sunday question hangs in the balance; while the spectacle is most amusing to the outsider and embarrassing to the referees.
Father, seeing through medical eyes, regards the matter merely in the light of a mild epidemic. Evan is rather sarcastic; he much preferred garden quiet and smoking his evening pipe to the tune of soothing conversation concerning the rural days' doings, to the reflex anxiety of settling social problems. In these, lo and behold, I find myself unwillingly involved, for one New England habit has not been abandoned—that of consulting the wife of minister and doctor, even if holes are afterward picked in the result, and in this case a daughter stands in the wife's place.
The beginning was two years back, when the Bluff colony began to be an, object of speculation, followed in turn by censure, envy, and finally aspiration that has developed this spring into an outbreak of emulation.
Ever since I can remember, social life has moved along quite smoothly hereabout, the doings being regulated by the age and purses of the participants. The householders who went to the city for a few winter months were a little more precise in their entertaining than the born and bred country folk. As they commonly dined at night, they asked people to dinner rather than to supper, which is the country meal of state. But lawn parties, picnics, and clambakes at the shore were pretty much on the same scale, those who could afford it having music and employing a caterer, while those who could not made no secret of the cause, and felt neither jealous nor humiliated. A wagon load of neighbourly young people might go on a day's excursion uncriticised, without thought of dragging a mother or aunt in their wake as chaperon. In fact, though no one is more particular than father in matters of real propriety, I cannot remember being formally chaperoned in my life or of suffering a shadow of annoyance for the lack.
Weddings were always home affairs among the strictly country folk, by common consent and custom, no matter to what denomination the people belonged. Those with contracted houses went quietly to parsonage or rectory with a few near friends; others were married at the bride's home, the ceremony followed by more or less merrymaking. A church wedding was regarded as so great a strain upon the families that the young people had no right to ask it, even if they so desired.
That has passed, at least for the time being, and all eyes are fixed upon the movements of the Bluff people, and many feet are stumbling along in their supposed footsteps. It would be really funny if it were not half pitiful. The dear simple folk are so terribly in earnest that they do not see that they are losing their own individuality and gaining nothing to replace it.
The Whirlpoolers, though only here for the between seasons, are constantly entertaining among themselves, and hardly a day passes but a coaching party drives up from town with week-end golfers for whom a dance is given, or stops en route to the Berkshires or some farther point. A few outsiders are sometimes asked to the more general of these festivities, friends of city friends who have places hereabout, the clergy and their wives, and, alas, the Doctor's daughter; but society-colonies do not intend associating with the-natives except purely for their own convenience, and when they do, pay no heed to the code they enforce among themselves.
It is not harsh judgment in me, I feel sure, when I say that Evan would not be asked so often to the Bluffs to dinner if he were not a well-known landscape architect whose advice has a commercial value. They always manage to obtain enough of it in the guise of after-dinner conversation and the discussion of garden plans to make him more than earn his fare. For the Whirlpoolers are very thrifty, the richer the more so, especially those of Dutch trading blood, and they are not above stopping father on the road, engaging in easy converse, praising the boys, and then asking his opinion about a supposititious case, rather than send for him in the regular way and pay his modest fee.
In fact, Mrs. Ponsonby asked me to a luncheon last autumn, and it quickly transpired afterward, that she had an open trap for sale suitable for one horse; she knew that Evan was looking for such a vehicle for me, and suggested that I might like this one.
A bulky and curious correspondence grew up around the transaction, and the letters are now lying in my desk marked "Mrs. Ponsonby, and the road cart." Finally I took the vehicle out on a trial trip. I noticed that it had a peculiar gait, and stopping at the blacksmith's, called him to examine the running gear. He gave one look and burst into a guffaw: "Land alive, Mrs. Evan, that's Missis Ponsonby's cart, that stood so long in the city stable, with the wheels on, that they're off the circle and no good. I told her she'd have to get new ones; but her coachman allowed she'd sell it to some Jay. You ain't bought it, hev yer?"
Good-natured Mrs. Jenks-Smith, the pioneer of the Bluffs, was the first one to throw open her grounds, when completed, for an afternoon and evening reception, with all the accompaniments of music, electric lit fountains, and unlimited refreshments. Everybody went, and satisfaction reigned for the time; but when another season it was found that she had no intention of returning calls, great disappointment was felt. Others in turn exhibited their grounds for the benefit of the different churches, while the Ponsonbys gave a lawn party for the orphan asylum, and considering that they had done their duty, straightway forgot the village.
The village did not forget; it had observed and has begun to put in practice. The first symptom was noticed by Evan. Last summer several family horses of respectable mien and Roman noses appeared with their tails banged. Not docked, mind you, but squared-off as closely as might be without resorting to cruelty; while their venerable heads, accustomed to turn freely and look their drivers in the face reproachfully if kept standing too long, were held in place by overdraw checks. At the same time the driver's seat in the buggy or runabout was raised from beneath so as to tilt the occupant forward into an almost standing posture. This worked well enough in an open wagon, but in a buggy the view was apt to be cut off by the hood, if the driving lady (it was always a woman) was tall.
The second sign was when Mrs. Barton—a widow of some sixty odd years, with some pretensions to breeding, but who had been virtually driven from several villages where she had located since her widowhood, owing to inaccuracy of speech, beside which the words of the Village Liar and the Emporium were quite harmless—contracted inflammatory rheumatism by chaperoning her daughters' shore party and first wetting her lower half in clamming and then the upper via a thunder shower. The five "Barton girls" range from twenty-five to forty, and are so mentally and physically unattractive and maladroit that it would be impossible to regard them as in any danger if they went unattended to the uttermost parts of the earth. On this particular occasion the party consisted of two dozen people, ranging from twenty to fifty, which it would seem afforded ample protection.
To be chaperoned was the swell thing, however, and chaperoned the "Barton girls" would be.
"I cannot compete with multi-millionnaires," said Mrs. Barton, lowering her voice, when father, on being called in, asked if she had not been rather rash at her age to go wading in cold water for clams; "but as a woman of the world I must do all that I can to follow the customs of good society, and give my daughters protection from even a breath that might affect their reputations."
The drawling tone was such a good imitation of Mrs. Ponsonby's that father could barely control his laughter, especially as she continued: "I also feel that I owe it to the neighbourhood to do all in my power to put a stop to buggy riding, the vulgar recreation of the unmarried. Of course all cannot afford suitable traps and grooms to attend them, but good form should be maintained at all hazards, and mothers should not begrudge taking trouble."
Father said that the vision of shy young folks driving miserably along the country lanes on Sunday afternoons in the family carryall, with mamma seated in the middle of the back seat, rose so ludicrously before him that he was obliged to beat a retreat, promising to send a special remedy for the rheumatism by Timothy Saunders.
All winter I have noticed that great local interest has been taken in the fashion journals that treat of house decoration and etiquette, and on one occasion, when making a call at one of our most comfortable farms, I found the worthy Deacon's wife poring over an ornamental volume, entitled "Hints to those about to enter Society."
After she had welcomed me and asked me to "lay off" my things, she hesitated a moment, and then, opening the book where her fat finger was keeping the place, she laid it on my lap, saying in a whisper: "Would you tell me if that is true, Mrs. Evan? Lurella says you hobnob some with the Bluff folks, and I wanted to make sure before we break it to pa."
The sentence to which she pointed read, "No gentleman will ever come to the table without a collar, or be seen on porch or street in his shirt sleeves." Here, indeed, was a difficulty and a difference. How should I explain?
I compromised feebly and advised her not to worry the Deacon about what the Bluff people did or the book said, for it need not apply to the Cross Roads farmers.
"I'm reel glad you don't hold it necessary fer pa," she said with a sigh of relief; "he'd take it so hard, eatin' gettin' him all het up anyhow. Now between ourselves, Mrs. Evan, don't you think writ out manners is terrible confusin' and contradictin'? I wouldn't hev Lurella hear me say so, she's so set on keepin' up with things, but she's over to town this afternoon.
"I've been readin' for myself some, and observin' too. The Bluff folks that plays grass hockey, all over what was Bijah Woods's farm, men and girls both, has their sleeves pushed up as if they were going at a day's wash, and their collars open and hanging to the hind button, which to my mind looks shiftlesser than doin' without. I do hear also that those same girls when they git in to dinner takes off their waists altogether and sets down to eat all stripped off to a scrap of an underbody. That's true, for pa saw it when he was takin' cream over to Ponsonby's; the windows was open on the piazza, and he couldn't refrain from peekin', though I hope you'll not repeat. Of course they may feel dreadful sweaty after chasin' round in the sun all day, though I wouldn't hold such sudden coolin' wholesome; but why if women so doin' should they insist on men folks wearin' collars, say I?"
I told the dear soul that I had never quite been able to understand the reason why of many of these things, and that my ways were also quite different from those of the Bluff people; for though father and Evan had been brought up to wear collars, I had never yet stripped to my underbody at dinner time.
Thus emboldened, she beckoned me mysteriously toward the best parlour, saying as she went, "Lurella seen the picture of a Turkey room in the pattern book, and as she's goin' to have a social this spring, she's fixed a corner of it into our north room."
When the light was let in I beheld a "cosey corner" composed of a very hard divan covered with a broche shawl, and piled high with pillows of various hues, while a bamboo fishing-pole fastened crosswise between the top of the window frames held a sort of beaded string drapery that hung to the floor in front, and was gathered to the ceiling, in the corner, with a red rosette. On close examination I found, to my surprise, that the trailers were made of strings of "Job's Tears," the seed of a sort of ornamental maize, the thought of the labour that the thing had involved fairly making my eyes ache.
"That is a very pretty shawl," I remarked, as no other truthful word of commendation seemed possible.
"Yes, it is handsome, and I miss it dreadful. You see, it belonged to pa's mother, and I calkerlated to wear it a lifetime for winter best, but the fashion papers do say shawls are out of it, and this is the only use for them, which Lurella holds. I can't ever take the same comfert in a bindin' sack, noway; and pa, he's that riled about the shawl bein' used to set on, I daren't leave the door open. Says the whole thing's a 'poke hole,' and the curt'in recollects him of 'strings of spinnin' caterpillars,' and 'no beau that's worth his shoes won't ever get caught in no such trap,' which is most tryin' to Lurella, so I hev to act pleased, and smooth things over best I can."
Well-a-day, it is always easier to answer the riddles that puzzle others, rather than those that confront ourselves.
Fully a year ago Mrs. Jenks-Smith gave me a well-meaning hint that it is not "good form" for me to allow father or Evan to smoke while we drive or walk in public together. The very next night we three happened to be dining, why I don't know, at the most socially advanced house on the Bluffs. When the moment came for the midway pause in the rotation of foods, that we might tamp down and make secure what we had already eaten by the aid of Roman punch, the gentlemen very nearly discounted the effort, as far as I was concerned at least, by smoking cigarettes, leaning easily back in their chairs, and with no more than a vague "by your leave," to the ladies. What was more, there was a peculiarly sickening sweet odour to the smoke that father afterward told me was because the tobacco was tinctured with opium. Yet it is "bad form" for Evan and father to smoke in my society, out in the road or street under the big generous roof of the sky. Dear little boys, I wonder what the custom will be when you are grown, and read your mother's social experience book?
* * * * *
The present crisis to be faced is in the form of a wedding,—an apple-blossom wedding, to take place in St. Peter's Church. I have been made a confident in the matter from the very beginning of the wayside comedy which led to it; but I wish it understood that I am not responsible for the list of invited guests, or the details of the ceremony, which have been laboriously compiled from many sources, any more than I shall be for the heartburnings that are sure to follow in its wake.
* * * * *
One morning early last summer Fannie Penney was driving home from town, with a rather lopsided load of groceries on the back of the buckboard. Fanny did not enjoy these weekly trips for groceries, but she did not rebel, as her sisters did; and though she had aspirations, they had not developed as quickly in her as in the others, for she was considered already an old maid (a state that in the country, strangely enough, sets in long before it does in the city, often beginning quite at noonday) at the time the Bluff colony began to attract attention.
The Penney family live in a plain but substantial house on the main road, a little way north of the village, where Mr. Penney combines farming, a blacksmith's shop, and a small line of groceries, for the benefit of his family. Up to the present time this family has jogged along at a fairly comfortable pace, only one daughter, the youngest, Mollie, having so far escaped from the traditional female employments of the region as to spend a season in New York, supplementing the grammar school education by a course in elocution, with Delsarte accompaniments. When she returned she gave her old friends to understand that she was thoroughly misunderstood by her family; also, that she was now to be called Marie and preferably Miss, hinted that she was soon going on a professional tour, and condescendingly agreed to give a free recital at a Sunday-school entertainment. At this she startled the community by reciting the sleep-walking scene from Lady Macbeth, clad in a lace-trimmed Empire nightgown, red slippers with high heels, whitened face, wild hair, and, of course, the candlestick, with such terrible effect that the mothers of the infant class had difficulty in getting their progeny to stay in bed in the dark for some weeks to come. The pastor considered that, under the circumstances, she gave the words "out damned spot" undue emphasis, while the "Watch-out Committee" of the S. C. E. failed entirely to agree as to what gave the nightgown a decided pink tint, opinions greatly varying. Some insisted that it was flesh, while the pastor's wife, knowing the flavour of persecution, firmly insisted that it was merely a pink cambric slip, as was most right and proper. But her charity was immediately discounted by Mrs. Barton, who said that likely it was pink lining, for Marie's flesh was yellow, and not pink.
However, this event was soon forgotten in the greater interest that gathered about Fannie Penney's return ride from town.
It seems that soon after Fannie left the town limits and was jogging along the turnpike, the big roan horse of all work began to stumble, then grew lame forward, and finally came to a standstill.
Fannie got out, examined his feet, soon found that not only had he cast a shoe, but in doing so had managed to step on a nail and drive it into his frog. With the good judgment of a farrier's daughter, she promptly unharnessed him. Looking about and seeing cows grazing in a neighbouring pasture, she led him slowly to the side of the road, let down the bars and turned him loose, where he immediately showed his appreciation of the situation by lying down and nibbling at the grass within reach.
So far so good, but when Fannie began to consider the possibility of walking home, with the chance of being picked up on the road by some one, and getting her father to come and remove the nail, the load of groceries loomed up before her. Not only did they represent considerable money value, country reckoning, and there was no house within half a mile either way, but some of the articles, such as lard, were in danger of being ruined by the hot sun; so Fannie walked along the road, searching the dust for the lost shoe, seeing no way out of her dilemma unless some one should come by.
She did not find the shoe, but soon a cloud of dust from the town side told of an approaching team, and she went to the shade of the only near-by tree and waited.
A moment later, the team coming up proved to be a freshly painted runabout, drawn by a fine bay horse in trim harness, driven by the average stable boy; while beside him sat a smooth-faced, keen-eyed man, rather under middle age, dressed in a spotless light suit, tan shoes, lilac shirt, opalesque tie, finished above by a Panama hat pinched into many dimples.
He was evidently a man of quick action, for he saw the girl and horseless wagon at a glance, touched the reins, stopped the horse, and jumped out before Fannie could think, taking off his hat and saying:—
"Lady in distress, runaway horse, lucky not to have upset load—can I be of any use?" all in one breath.
Fannie had never read Dickens, so that no comparison with the speech of Alfred Jingle arose to make her distrustful, which was unnecessary, and the bowing figure appeared to her the perfection of up-to-date manly elegance. Could it—yes, it must be a guest on the way to the Bluffs.
She blushingly explained the complication, feeling almost ashamed to mention her fears as to the melting lard, it seemed so insignificant in such a presence; but he quickly reassured her by going to the wagon, pulling it energetically under the tree, and spreading the linen lap-robe over the goods, the effort causing streams of perspiration to alter the stately appearance of a three-inch high collar. Next he sprang over the fence into the field, found that the nail was too firmly wedged to be drawn from the horse's hoof with either fingers or a wagon wrench, and returned to the road again.
"Now, may I ask where you live?" he said, dusting himself off with vigorous flips of a large Yale blue silk handkerchief.
Fannie told him, and her name, also, and ventured to ask that, if he was going through Oaklands, he would be good enough to tell her uncle, who kept the livery stable, to send out for her.
"I guess we can better that," he said, smiling genially. "I'm going to Oaklands to meet my trunk and stop over a day. I'll leave the boy here with your goods, drive you in, pick up your father, he returns with this horse, brings tools, fixes up his own, boy takes rig back to town, your father drives goods home, see?"
Fannie saw that the arrangements were unanswerably suitable; also, that to carry them out she must take a drive with the unknown, a drive of necessity to be sure, yet one that she could safely call romantic, especially as, when he turned to help her into the runabout, he picked up a horseshoe that lay in the bottom and gave it to her, saying, "It's yours; I found it half a mile back; I never pass a horseshoe, never can tell when it'll bring luck."
Before they had gone very far her dream of his being a guest on his way to the Bluffs was shattered by his saying: "I've got the advantage of you—know your name, you don't know mine. That's not fair. 'Aim to be fair' 's my motto, even if I don't chance to hit it," and he pulled out a bulky wallet and held it toward her with one hand, that she might help herself to one of the cards with which it was filled.
Her hand touched his; she blushed so that her freckles were veiled for the moment as she read, half aloud: "L. Middleton—with Frank Brothers. Dealers in first-class canned goods," the New York address being in the corner. The feeling of disappointment only lasted for a moment, for was not a travelling man, as the drummer is always called in country towns, a person of experience and knowledge of the world, as well as being not infrequently shrouded in mystery? As she pondered on the card, wondering if she dared put it in her pocket, he said in a matter-of-fact way, again extending the wallet: "Don't hesitate, take the deck, may come handy, father like to keep goods in stock some time. That's my regular; carry a side line too, perfumes and an A1 hair restorer. Got all my samples at Oaklands depot. You mind stopping there on the way? Want to get fresh collar."
No, of course Fannie would not mind; this last request fixed her companion firmly in her esteem. Any other man of her acquaintance would have removed his collar and proceeded without one, never giving the matter a thought; in fact, she had been momentarily expecting that this would happen. Now she would have the bliss of taking him home in all the perfection of his toilet as she first beheld him.
From that moment she grew more conversational, and his utterance became less jerky, until, when they finally drove up back of the long red brick railway station at Oaklands, a little before noon, she had not only given him a synopsis of local history, but was, in her excitement, vainly trying to recollect what day of the week it was, so that she might judge of the dinner probabilities at home, also if it would be safe to ask him to stay. Fortunately remembering that she saw her father beheading chickens the night before, which guaranteed a substantial meal, she decided it was an absolute duty.
As L. Middleton emerged from the baggage room in a fresh collar, even higher than the other, he threw an ornamental bottle of violet water into Fannie's lap to keep company with the horseshoe. Immediately Hope arose at the combination, and Settled under the left folds of Fannie's pink shirt waist; for Middleton seems a distinguished name to one who has been called Penney for twenty-eight years, and romance had never died in the heart under the pink waist for the reason that it was only at this moment being born.
On arriving at home, Fate continued to prove kind. Mrs. Penney was inspired to ask the guest to "stop to dinner," without any hints or gesticulations being necessary, which might have marred the first impression. Not only did the chickens appear at the table, where no canned food was present, but there was a deep cherry pie as well, which was eaten with peculiar relish by the commercial traveller, accustomed to the awful fare of New England country hotels, where he was often obliged to use his own samples to fill gaps. He gazed about at the comfortable kitchen, and won Mamma Penney by praising the food and saying that he was raised on a farm. Father Penney took a hasty bite in the buttery, and soon disappeared to rescue his goods from the highway. He was always considered something of a drawback to the matrimonial prospects of his daughters; for, as his nose indicated, he had a firm, not to say combative, disposition, and frequently insisted upon having not only the last but the first word upon every subject, so that Fannie regarded his going in the light of a special providence.
After dinner the three other Penney sisters all tried their best to be agreeable, Marie donning a clinging blue gown and walking up and down the piazza watering plants at this unusual hour of the day for his particular benefit, a performance which caused L. Middleton to ask, "Say, did you ever do a vaudeville turn?" And Marie, not knowing whether to take the remark as a criticism or a compliment, preferred to take the latter view and answer in languid tones,—
"No, but I have acted, and I've been seriously advised to go on the stage."
In the middle of the afternoon, the load of groceries having arrived safely, Fannie's "hero" took his leave, Papa Penney driving him to the village inn, where he was to unpack his samples.
For a while L. Middleton was a standard topic of conversation among the girls. They wondered for what L. stood. Fannie guessed Louis, Marie spitefully suggested that it might be Lucifer, and that was why he didn't spell it out. Then as he seemed about fading from the horizon, he reappeared suddenly one crisp October morning, just starting on his eastern fall route, he said, and invited Fanny to go to the County Fair.
Again a period of silence followed. The sisters remarked that most travelling men were swindlers, etc., but Fannie persistently put violet water on the handkerchief that she tucked under her pillow every night, until, as winter set in, the supply failed.
Then an idea came to her, she took the horseshoe from where it had been hanging over her door, covered its dinginess with two coats of gold paint, cut the legend, "Sweet Violets," together with the embossed flowers, from the label on the perfume bottle, and pasted them on the horseshoe, which she further ornamented with an enormous ribbon bow, and despatched it secretly to L. Middleton by express a few days before Christmas.
At New Year's a box arrived for Fannie. It contained a gold pin in the shape of a horseshoe, in addition to a large, heart-shaped candy box filled with such chocolates that each was as a foretaste of celestial bliss to Fannie, who now thought she might fairly assume airs of importance.