Half a dozen letters went rapidly back and forth, and then the proposal bounded along as unexpectedly as every other detail of the courtship. There was very little sentiment of expression about it, but he was in earnest and gave references as to his respectability, etc., much as if he were applying for a business position, and ended by asking her at which end of his route she preferred to live, New York, or Portland, Maine, and if in New York, would she prefer Brooklyn or Harlem?
Fannie quickly decided upon Harlem, for, as Marie said, "There one only need give the street name and number, while very few people yet realize that Brooklyn really is in New York."
This important matter settled, the Penney girls arose in their might upon the wings of ambition. There should be a church wedding.
Now the Penneys were, as all their forbears had been, Congregationalists; but that church had no middle aisle, besides, as there was no giving away of the bride in the service, there was little chance for pomp and ceremony. It was discovered that the groom's parents had been Episcopalians, and though he was liberal to the degree of indifference upon such matters, it was decided that to have the wedding in St. Peter's would be a delicate compliment to him.
All the spring the village dressmaker has been at work upon the gowns of bride and of bridesmaids, of whom there are to be six, and now the cards are out and the groom's name also, the L at the last moment having been found to stand for Liberty. If they had consulted the groom, he would have decried all fuss, for Fannie's chief attraction was that he thought her an unspoiled, simple-minded country girl.
The hour was originally set for the morning, but as Fannie saw in her fashion paper that freckled people often developed a peculiarly charming complexion when seen by lamplight, the time was changed to eight at night, in spite of the complications it caused.
A week before the invitations were issued Fannie came to see me and after some preamble said: "Mrs. Evan, I want my wedding to be good form, and I'd like to do the swell thing all through. Now the Parlour Journal says that the front pews that are divided off by a white ribbon should be for the bride's folks on one side of the aisle and the groom's on the other. Mr. Middleton hasn't any people near by enough to come, so I thought I'd have the Bluff folks sit on that side."
"The Bluff people?" I queried, in amazement. "You surely aren't going to invite them? Do you know any of them?"
"Well, not intimately, but Mrs. Ponsonby has been to the house for eggs, and Mrs. Latham's horse dropped a shoe last week and father set it, and the Vanderveer boy's pony ran away into our front yard the other day, so I don't feel as if they were strangers and to be left out. Oh, Mrs. Evan, if they'd only come and wear some of their fine clothes to light up the church, it would be in the papers, the Bee and the Week's News over town maybe, and give me such a start! For you know I'm to live in New York, and as I've never left home before, it would be so pleasant to know somebody there!"
I almost made up my mind to try to put things before her in their true light, and save her from disappointment, but then I realized that I was too near her own age. Ah, if Lavinia Dorman had only been here that day she could possibly have advised Fannie without giving offence.
* * * * *
May 16th. The wedding is over. Shall I ever forget it? The rain and cool weather of the past ten days kept back the apple blossoms, so that the supply for decorating the church was poor and the blossoms themselves only half open and water-soaked. Mrs. Jenks-Smith, who always hears everything, knowing of the dilemma, in the goodness of her heart sent some baskets of hothouse flowers, but the girls and men who were decorating did not know how to handle them effectively, for Fannie, still clinging to sentiment, had gilded nearly a barrel of old horseshoes, which were tied with white ribbon to every available place, being especially prominent on the doors of the reserved pews.
Late in the afternoon a fine mist set in with clouds of fog, which, if it got into the church, I knew would completely conceal the glimmer of the oil lamps. It seems that Papa Penney was not told until an hour before the ceremony that he was to walk up the aisle with the bride on his arm and give her away. This he flatly refused to do. He considered it enough of an affliction to have the wedding in church at all, and it was not until his wife had given her first exhibition of fainting, and Fannie had cried her eyes red, that he apparently yielded.
We arrived at the church at about ten minutes to eight, father and Evan having been persuaded to come in recognition of good neighbourhood feeling. The back part of the church was well filled, but the space above the ribbon was painfully empty. The glimmering lamps did little more than reveal the gloom, and the horseshoes gave a strange racing-stable effect.
We tried to spread ourselves out as much as possible to fill up, and presently the Ponsonby girls entered with some friends, seemingly astonished at being seated within the barrier, for they had never seen their cards of invitation, and had come as a sort of lark to kill time on a wet evening.
The ushers wandered dismally up and down, stretching their hands nervously as if unused to gloves. Presently they fell back, and the organ, in the hands of an amateur performer and an inadequate blower, began to chirp and hoot merrily, by which we knew the bridal party was about to appear.
The ushers came first, divided, and disappeared successfully in the shadows, on either side of the chancel steps. A long wait and then Marie Penney followed, walking alone, as maid of honour; she had insisted upon having plenty of room, as she said so few people walked well that they spoiled her gait. Next came the six bridesmaids on a gallop, then Papa Penney and the bride. He walked along at a jog trot, and he looked furtively about as if for a loophole of escape. As for poor Mrs. Penney, instead of being seated in the front pew before the procession entered, she was entirely forgotten in the excitement, and stood trembling near the door, until some one drew her into a seat in neighbourly sympathy.
The clergyman stood waiting, the bridesmaids grouped themselves behind papa, so that there was no retreat, but where was the groom and the best man? One, two, three minutes passed, but no sign. He had been directed to the vestry door as the bridal party drove up. Could he suddenly have changed his mind, and disappeared?
The silence was awful, the Ponsonby girls giggled aloud, and finally got into such gales of laughter that I was ashamed. The organ had dropped into the customary groaning undertone that is meant, I suppose, to give courage to the nervous and weak-voiced during the responses.
* * * * *
Outside the church, in the rear, two men in evening dress might have been seen blundering about in the dark, vainly trying to find an open door, for besides the door to the vestry there were three others close together, one opening into the little chantry, one the Sunday-school room, and one into the cellar. They battered and pulled and beat to no purpose, until a mighty pound forced one in, and the two men found themselves flying down a flight of steps, and landing in a heap of coal.
Dazed, and not a little bruised, the groom struck a match, and looked about; the best man had sprained his ankle, and said so in language unbefitting the location, but Liberty Middleton arose superior to the coal. Judging by the music that the ceremony had begun, he told his crippled friend to sit still until he came back for him, and, by lighting a series of wax matches, found his way back to the front door of the church, and strode up the aisle dishevelled, and with a smutty forehead, just as Papa Penney had succeeded in breaking through the bridesmaids, dragging Fannie with him. A sigh of relief arose. The couple stepped forward and the ceremony began. When, however, the giving away time came, it was found that Papa Penney had retreated to a pew, from which he could not be dislodged. Another hitch was only averted by the groom turning pleasantly toward his father-in-law, and saying, with a wave of his hand, "It's all right, don't trouble to move; you said 'I do,' I think; the Parson understands." The ceremony was ended without further complication. When Fannie walked out upon the arm of the self-possessed Liberty, I thought that the travelling man had the makings of a hero in him after all. It afterward transpired that the hapless best man, left in the coal cellar, and not missed until the party was halfway home, had only wrenched his ankle, and made his escape to the village tavern for consolation, proving that even commercial travellers may be upset by a fashionable wedding ceremony.
THE WHIRL BEGINS
May 30. The People of the Whirlpool have come to the Bluffs, and the swirl and spray has, in a measure, followed them. I had well-nigh written, "are settled at the Bluffs," but the Whirlpoolers are perpetual migrants, unlike the feathered birds of passage never absolutely settling anywhere even for the nesting season, sometimes even taking to the water by preference, at the time, of all others, when home is most loved and cherished by the "comfortably poor."
The houses, nominally closed since the holidays, have been reopened, one by one, ever since the general return from the south in April, after which season, Mrs. Jenks-Smith assures me, it is bad form to be seen in New York on Sunday.
This fiat, however, does not prevent members of almost every family from spending several days a week in the city, thus protecting themselves against the possible monotony of home living by lunching and dining, either singly or in informal groups, at the public restaurants.
Father has always held the theory that ladies should dress inconspicuously in the public streets and hostelries, and for a woman to do otherwise, he considered, was to prove that she had no claim upon gentility. Evan used to go so far as to say that the only people who display their fine clothes in hotels are those who have no homes in which to wear them.
Dear, innocent provincials, the Whirlpoolers have changed all that, and given the custom their hall mark that stamps it vogue. In fact, in glancing at the papers, by the light of our Bluff Colony, which, after all, is but a single current of the pool that whirls in the shape of the letter S, it seems to me that a new field has been opened for the society journalist—the reporting of the gowns worn at the restaurants in the "between seasons."
One evening, a few weeks ago, Evan and I went, by request, to one of the most celebrated of these resorts to call upon some friends of his, a bride and groom, then passing through the city. We were directed where to find them in the corridor—midway would have been a better term. We found them, and many others beside!
"Where do these people come from?" I whispered to Evan, looking down the row of women of all ages and, if expression may indicate, all grades, who, dressed and undressed in lavish opulence, were lolling about, much as if expecting a call to go upon the stage and take part in some spectacle, but that the clothes and jewels were too magnificent to be stage properties.
"Brewers' wives from the west, and unknown quantities; people who come to New York to see and be seen," he answered carelessly; but almost as he spoke his words were checked by the entrance of an equally gorgeous group, composed of those who Lavinia Dorman had assured us were among the most conservative of our new neighbours, all talking aloud, as if to an audience, as they literally swept into the dining room, where Mrs. Center was already seated. To be sure, the clothes, in their cases, were worn with a difference,—the ease of habit,—but to all outward appearance the distinction began and ended there. Ah me! to think of having such things cross the horizon in May, when, unless one is forced to be miserable, one must be inexpressibly happy.
I have been working all the month in my garden, as of old, or trying to, at least, but upon the principle that no member of a community can either live or die wholly to, or by, himself, I here missed the untrammelled liberty of yore. Not that I care if I am detected collarless, in a brown holland apron, with earthy fingers, and sometimes even a smutty nose, but the Whirlpoolers, unable to regard the work as serious, do not hesitate to interrupt, if nothing more.
Imagine the assurance of the twenty-two-year-old Ponsonby girl, who came dashing up all of a fume last Saturday morning, when I was comfortably seated on the old tea tray, transplanting a flat of my best ostrich plume asters, and begging me, her mother being away, to chaperon her to a ball game, in a town not far off up the railroad, with harmless, pink-eyed Teddy Tice, one of her brother's college mates. It seems that if she could have driven up and taken a groom it would have been good form, but there was some complication about the horses, and to go by rail unchaperoned, even though surrounded by a earful of people, was not to be thought of. I pointed to the asters that must be set out and covered before the sun was high, but she couldn't understand, and went off in a huff.
What a disagreeable word chaperon is at best, and what a thankless vocation the unlisted, active, and very irregular verb 'to chaperon' implies. I quite agree with Johnson, who denounced the term as affected, for certainly its application is, though Lavinia Dorman says it is the natural effect of a definite cause, and that it is quite necessary from the point of view of the quarter where it most obtains.
Monday morning I was again interrupted in my garden operations by a Whirlpooler, but the reason was quite different. The twins have gardens of their own, which are as individual and distinctive as their two selves. Richard delights in straight rows, well patted down between, and treats the small seeds that he plants with a sort of paternal patience. Ian disdains any seed smaller than a nasturtium or bean, whose growth is soon apparent, and has collected a motley assortment of bulbs, roots, and plants, without regard to size or season, and bordered his patch with onion sets for Corney Delaney's express benefit, the goat having a Gallic taste for highly flavoured morsels. Both boys are fairly patient with their own gardening operations, but their joy is to "help" me by handing tools, watering plants, and squirting insecticides, in my society and under my direction.
Of course I could do it all much quicker by myself, and it has hampered me this spring, for last season they were too irresponsible to more than play work a few minutes at a time.
Now I have come to the conclusion that it is their right to learn by helping me, and that it is the denial of companionship, either from selfishness or some absurd educational theory, that weakens the force of home ties later on.
I have been frequently lectured by those older, but more especially "new mothers" younger than I, about staying with the boys at bedtime until they grow drowsy. "The baby is put to bed, and if he cries I pay no attention; it is only temper, not pain, for he stops the minute I speak to him," they say. I feel the blood rush to my face and the sting to my tongue always when I hear this.
Not pain, not temper, but the unconscious yearning for companionship, for mother-love, is oftener the motive of the pitiful cry. Why should it be denied? The mother bird broods her young in the nest at twilight, and the father bird sings a lullaby to both. The kittens luxuriously sup themselves to sleep with the warm mother flesh responding to their seeking paws. In wild life I know not an animal who does not in some way soothe her young to sleep. Why should the human child, the son of man, be forced to live without the dream memories that linger about happy sleeping times? What can the vaunted discipline give to replace them? It is then, as they grow, and speech forms on their lips, that little confessions come out and wrongs are naturally righted through confidence, before they can sprout and grow.
I was not quite five when I last watched mother sowing her flower seeds, and yet I remember to this day the way in which she did it, and so when it came time to give my bed of summer roses its first bath of whale oil, soap, and water, and the boys gave whoops of joy when they saw Bertel wheel out the tub and I appeared with the shining brass syringe, I resolved to let them have the questionable delight of administering the shower bath, even if it took all day.
I have appropriated a long strip of rich, deep soil for these tender roses, quite away from the formal garden and across the path from the new strawberry bed, which by the necessity of rotation has worked its way from the vegetable garden to the open spot under the bank wall by the stable where the hotbeds congregate. This wall breaks the sweep of the wind, and so both our tender roses and strawberries are of the earliest, the fruit already being well set and large.
It was the middle of the morning. The work was progressing finely, without more than the usual amount of slop and misdirected effort, when a violent tooting from the direction of the highway caused me to stop, and Ian dropped the squirter that I had newly filled for his turn, upon the grass border, while he and Richard scurried toward the gateway to see what was the matter, for the sound was like the screech of an automobile horn in distress. It was!
A streak of dark red and a glitter of brass flashed in between the gate posts, grazing them, and barely escaping an upset, and then came plunging toward me. I screamed to the boys, who seemed to me directly in the path of the Thing, which in another moment I recognized as an automobile of the battering-ram variety, belonging to Harvey Somers, Gwendolen Burton's fiance, which for the past week had been the terror of father's steady old gray horses, owing to its constitutional eccentricities.
Mr. Somers was handling it single-handed, and though he was coming at a reckless speed, I expected that he would swing back of the house and come to one of the dramatic sudden stops, on the verge of an accident, for which he is famous. So he did, but not on the driveway!
The Thing gave a lurch and veered toward the barn, spitting like a cageful of tiger cats. Somers was pushing the lever and gripping the brake with all his athletic might, but to no purpose. The children, who, wild with excitement, had by this time sought the safety of the open barn door, seemed a second time to be in the monster's path.
Another lurch! Surely man and machine would be dashed to bits against the substantial stable wall!
Then the Thing changed its course, and showing a ray of flustered intelligence, made a mighty leap off the bank wall and landed hub deep in the soft, friable soil of the new strawberry bed, where, after one convulsive effort, some part of its anatomy blew up with the triple report of a rapid-fire gun, and after having relieved itself of a cloud of steam, it settled down peacefully, as if a strawberry bed was the place of all others it preferred for a noonday nap.
Harvey Somers was shot with a left-handed twirl directly into one of the hotbed frames, from which the sash was pushed back, and landed in a doubled-up position, amid a tearing sound and the crash of broken glass. Meanwhile, the boys, frightened at the cloud of steam, yelled "Fire!" at the top of their lungs.
As I flew to help him, I could for the instant think of nothing but the Lizard Bill's assisted progress up the chimney and into the cucumber frame, but as a rather faint voice said, "Not you; kindly call the Doctor," my mirth changed to alarm, which was not lessened when Timothy Saunders, hearing the uproar and the cry of fire, arriving too late to grasp the situation with his slow Scotch brain, and seeing me leaning over the plant frame, picked up the squirt and deluged the unfortunate man with whale-oil spray!
Coughing and choking, Mr. Somers finally sat up, but did not offer to do more, wiped his eyes, and said to me in most delightful and courteous tones, "Would you be so good as to allow your man to bring me either a bath robe or a mackintosh?"
I was at once relieved, for I knew that the lacerations were of trousers and not flesh, and at the same time I saw that the crash of glass was caused merely by the toppling backward of the sash, also that all my young heliotrope plants that were in the frame where the chauffeur reposed were hopelessly ruined.
Timothy brought out Evan's bath gown, and in a few moments Mr. Somers was himself again, and after surveying the scene of the disaster, he approached me with a charming bow, and drawing a crumpled note from his pocket said:—
"I promised Bertie Chatterton to give you this invitation for his studio tea to-morrow, in person, and I fear that I have rather overshot my promise. Best way to get that brute up will be from the bank wall,—will damage your fruit less. I will have a derrick sent up to-morrow, or if possible this afternoon. I'm awfully sorry, Mrs. Evan, but I think you'll bear me witness that the accident was quite out of my control. May I beg the favour of a trap home? I'm a trifle shaken up, that's all." And as if the accident were an everyday affair, he departed without fuss and having steadied my nerves by his entire self-control.
As I stood by the gateway pondering upon the matter and the easy manners of this Whirlpooler, Mrs. Jenks-Smith drove past. She had met Mr. Somers, and as her curiosity was piqued by his strange attire, she stopped to see if I could furnish a clew. She says, by the way, that he is not a New Yorker, but from Boston, and that his father is an English Honourable and his mother a Frenchwoman.
A gang of men with a sort of wrecking machine hired from the railroad company removed the Thing next day, and towed it off, but of course the strawberries were half ruined; next a man from the florist's in town came with directions to repair all damage to turf and replace the smashed plants. Yet that is not all—the sense of peace and protection that I had when working in my garden has had a shock. In spite of the inhospitable air it gives the place, I think we must keep the gates closed.
Why was Jenks-Smith inspired to start a land-boom here and fate allowed to make fashion smile on it, when we were so uneventfully happy, so twinfully content?
* * * * *
Martin Cortright arrived on Wednesday, and is safely ensconced with Martha and Timothy Saunders, who could give him the couple of plainly furnished rooms he desired, and breakfast at any hour. For a man of no hours (which usually means he never breakfasts before nine) to forgather cheerfully at a commuter's table at 7:15 A.M. is a trial to him, and a second breakfast is apt to cause a cloud in Madam C.'s domestic horizon. Therefore, father allowed Martin to do as he suggested, live at the farm cottage and work here in the library or attic den, as suits his convenience. In this way he feels quite independent, has motive for exercise in walking to and fro, and as he is always welcome to dine with us, can mix his portion of solitude and society in the exact proportion of his taste, even as his well-shaped fingers carefully blend the tobacco for his outdoor pipe.
Dear old fellow, he seems so happy and bubbling over with good temper at having overstepped the tyranny of habit, that I shall almost expect to see his gray hairs turn brown again as the wintry pelt of the weasel does in spring.
If the Vanderveer boy is diagnosed as a case of "suppressed boyhood," then Martin Cortright's only ailment should be dubbed "suppressed youth!"
He was to have come earlier in the month, but a singular circumstance prevented. The old-time gentlewoman, at whose house in Irving Place he has had his apartments so long that a change seemed impossible, died, and he was obliged not only to move, but put his precious belongings in storage until he can place himself suitably once more. So that his plan of coming here bridges the break, and seems quite providential.
He and father walk up and down the garden together after dinner, smoking and chatting, and it does me good to see dear daddy with one of his old-time friends. I think I am only now realizing what he, with his sociable disposition, gave up in all those years before Evan came, that I should not be alone, and that he might be all in all to me.
It was quite cool yesterday. We had hearth fires all through the house, and Martin, rearranging some reference books for his own convenience in the little room that is an annex to father's library, wore his skull cap and Chinese silk dressing gown, which gave him an antique air quite at variance with his clear skin and eyes.
Lavinia Dorman had been due all the week, but worry with the workmen who are building in the rear of her house detained her, and she telegraphed me that she would take the morning express, and asked me to meet her over in town. So I drove in myself, dropping father at the hospital on the way, but on reaching the station the train brought me no passenger.
I returned home, hoping to be in time for our way train, thinking I had mistaken her message, and missed it; but the postmistress,—for every strange face is noticed in town,—told me that the lady who visited me two weeks ago walked up from the ten o'clock train; that she had a new bonnet and "moved right spry," and asked if she was a relative of mine. "An aunt, maybe, and was the pleasant new gentleman an uncle, and did he write a newspaper? She thought maybe he did because he was so particular about his mail." I said something about their being adopted relations, and hurried home.
The boys were industriously digging dandelions on the side lawn. I inconsistently let the dear, cheery flowers grow and bloom their fill in the early season, when they lie close to the sward, but when they begin to stretch awkward, rubbery necks, and gape about as if to see where they might best shake out their seed puffs, they must be routed. Do it as thoroughly as possible, enough always remain to repay my cruelty with a shower of golden coin the next spring. Bertel spends all his spare time on the other bits of grass, but the side lawn is the boys' plunder, where, by patiently working each day at grubbing out the roots at twenty-five cents a hundred, they expect, before the dandelion season is over, to amass wealth enough to buy an alluring red goat harness trimmed with bells that is on exhibition at the harness shop in town, for Corney Delaney. Yes, they said, Aunt Lavinia had just come, but she said they need not stop, for she could go in by herself.
There was no one in the hall, sitting room, den, or upstairs, neither had Effie seen any person enter. Thinking I heard voices in the direction of father's office, I went there and through to the library "annex," where an unexpected picture met my gaze. Martin Cortright, the precise, in stocking feet, skull cap, and dressing gown, perched on top of the step-ladder, was clutching a book in one hand, within the other he held Miss Lavinia's slender fingers in greeting, while his face had a curious expression of surprise, pleasure, and a wild desire to regain his slippers that were down on the floor, a combination that made him look extremely foolish as well as "pudgy."
Up to that moment, Miss Lavinia, who cannot distinguish a face three feet away without her lorgnette, thought she was speaking to father. Under cover of our mutual hilarity, I led her back to a seat in the study, so that Martin might recover his wits, coat, and slippers at the same time, for Miss Lavinia had stumbled over the latter and sent them coasting in different directions.
Yes, the postmistress was right, Lavinia Dorman had a new bonnet. Not the customary conservative but monotonous upholstered affair of jet and lace, but a handful of pink roses in a tulle nest, held on by wisps of tulle instead of ribbons.
"Hortense, who has made bonnets for years, said this was more appropriate for the country, and would show dirt less than black,—and even went so far as to suggest omitting the strings altogether," she said in rather flurried tones, as a few moments later we went upstairs, and I removed the pins that held the confection in place, and commented upon its prettiness.
* * * * *
Martin Cortright stayed to dinner, and afterward he, Miss Lavinia, father, and Evan sat down to a "real old-fashioned," serious game of whist! Of all things, to the fifth wheel, who is out of it, would not be in if she could, cannot learn, and prefers jackstraws to card games of any sort, an evening of serious whist is the most aggravating. They were too well matched to even enliven matters by squabbling or casting venomous glances at each other. Evan played with Martin Cortright, whose system he was absorbed in mastering, and he never spoke a word, and barely looked up. This, too, when he had been away for several days on a business trip. It was moonlight, and I wanted him to see the new iris that were in bloom along the wild walk, dilate upon the game of leap-frog that the automobile played, and—well—there is a great deal to say when Evan has been away that cannot be thought of indoors or be spoken hurriedly in the concise, compact, public terms in which one orders a meal. Conversation is only in part made of words, its subtilties are largely composed of touch and silence.
I myself, being wholly responsible for the present whist combination, of course could say nothing except to myself and the moon. What a hoard of personal reminiscences and heart to heart confessions the simpering old thing must have stored away behind her placid countenance. It is a wonder that no enterprising journal has syndicated her memoirs by wireless telegraphy for the exclusive use of their Sunday issue.
I resolved that I must wait awhile, and then if this silence lasted many evenings, I must hunt up a game of cards that takes only two. How could I get out of the room without appearing to be in a huff or bored? Ah! a wordless excuse; a slight noise upstairs. Ian sometimes walks in his sleep. I go up and sit in my window and look out through the diamond panes at the garden. Ian stirs and mutters something about a drink. I hasten to get it, and he, gripping the glass with his teeth, swallows eagerly, with a clicking noise in his throat.
"Is your throat sore?" I ask apprehensively. He opens his eyes, realizes where he is, nestles his head into my neck and whispers,—
"Not zactly lumpy sore, Barbara, just crusty, 'cause I made—lots of dandelion curls wif my tongue to-day, and they're—velly—sour," and with a satisfied yawn he rolled back on his pillow, into the funny spread-eagle attitude peculiar to himself, but Richard slept peacefully on like a picture child, cheek on hand, and the other little dandelion-stained paw above the sheet.
(N.B.—When one's husband and father together take to serious whist of a moonlight night in spring, twins are not only an advantage but a necessity.)
I have searched the encyclopedia for the description of an intellectual game of cards, arranged as a duet, and found one. It is piquet! Now I can wait developments peacefully, for are there not also in reserve chess, checkers, backgammon, and—jackstraws?
* * * * *
June 2. A gentle summer shower at sunset after a perfect day has filled the world with fragrance and song, for do the birds ever sing so perfectly with such serene full-noted ecstasy as after the rains of May and June? Or is it the clearness of the air after the rain that transmits each note in full, prisoning nothing of its value?
To-night I am unhappy. Perhaps that is an exaggeration, and perplexed is the better word, and it is only in pages of my social experience book that the cause can be given.
Friday was Peysey Vanderveer's eighth birthday, and it has been celebrated by a party on a scale of magnificence that to my mind would have been suitable for the only son of royalty.
Though the invitations fortunately were only given two days in advance, Richard and Ian were agog over the matter to the extent of muttering in their sleep, and getting up this morning before eight, in order, if possible, to make the hour of three come quicker, and to be sure to be ready in time.
When the invitation was brought by Mr. Vanderveer in person, he asked if Lavinia Dorman and I would not like to come up also and see the children play, adding that I need feel no responsibility about the boys, as he was going to be at home and give himself up to seeing that the "kids" had a jolly time, and got into no scrapes.
We agreed that it would be amusing to go up with the children, stay a little while to be sure that they could adapt themselves, and then leave; for if there is anything dampening to the ardour of children at play it is a group of elders with minds divided between admiration and correction, punctuating unwise remarks upon beauty and cleverness with "Maud, you are overheated." "Tommy, don't! Use your handkerchief!" "Billy, your stocking is coming down!" "Reggie, you must wait, girls should be helped first."
The boys certainly looked comfortably and humanly handsome in their white cheviot sailor suits, loose blue ties, black stockings and pumps. They really are good-looking children. Lavinia Dorman, who is candour itself, says so. I suppose people think that my opinion does not count, and that I should consider them perfect if they were of the human chipmunk variety. But I am sure I am not prejudiced, for I do not think them perfect, only well made and promising, thus having the two first requisites of all young animals.
When we arrived at the Vanderveers a little late, owing to the fact of father's having been obliged to use our horse for a hurry call, the party had "gathered," to use an old-fashioned expression, and I saw that Richard and Ian were by several years the youngest of the group of thirty or more, the others ranging from eight to thirteen or fourteen.
The house and grounds were decorated wherever decoration was possible. Though it was wholly a daylight affair, Japanese lanterns hung by festoons of handsome ribbon from verandas, trees, and around the new pergola, the marble columns of which, in the absence of vines, were wound with ribbons and roofed with bright flags, to form a tent for the collation. In an arbour decorated in a like manner, an Hungarian orchestra in uniform, much in vogue, Miss Lavinia says, for New York dinner dances, was playing ragtime, while a dozen smart traps and road carts filled with exquisitely dressed women lining the driveway around the sunken tennis court, indicated that a matched game was to take place.
Yes, after every one had exchanged greetings, Miss Lavinia, meeting several friends who not only treated her with something akin to homage, but were unfeignedly pleased to see her, the guests divided, a dozen of the elder girls and boys going toward the tennis court, where Monty Bell seemed to be acting as general manager. I afterward discovered that two prizes for doubles and two for singles were to be played for, not pretty trifles suitable for children, but jewellery, belt buckles of gold and silver, gold sleeve links, and a loving cup.
Meanwhile Mr. Vanderveer took charge of the younger group and led them through the garden to where some young spruce trees hid the wall. Here a surprise awaited them in the shape of two of the largest of the growing trees festooned with ribbons and laden with strange fruit in the shape of coloured toy balloons that bobbed about and tugged at their moorings as if anxious to escape.
On each balloon a number was painted in white. A wide ribbon was stretched barrierwise across the walk about fifteen feet from the trees, and near it were several large baskets, one full of bows and dart-pointed arrows, and the other heaped with expensive toys and bonbon boxes of painted satin, for prizes, each article being numbered.
"Step up, ladies and gentlemen. Stand in line by the ribbon and take your turn at the most unique shooting match ever seen in this county,—one at a time,—and whoever points the arrow at anything but the balloons is ruled out," rattled Mr. Vanderveer, after the manner of a fakir at a country fair, and beaming with pleasure. For Evan says that outside of business dealings he has the reputation of being the most good-natured and generous of men, and that to invent ways to lavish money upon his son and his friends is almost as keen a pleasure to him as to promote schemes for winning it.
Mr. Vanderveer picked up a bow and dart to illustrate the game, aimed at a balloon, the arrow glanced off, but at the second shot the balloon went pop and shrivelled away with the whistle of escaping gas and shouts of applause from both children and their elders.
Feeling assured that my boys were quite at their ease and not likely to balk and act like wild rabbits, as is sometimes the case with children when they find themselves among strangers, and seeing nothing that they would be likely to fall out of or into, except a great bowl of lemonade arranged in a bower that represented a well, we came away, Lavinia Dorman sniffing in the spectacle like a veteran war-horse scenting powder, and enjoying the gayety, as I myself should have done heartily if it had not been for the boys.
I was not worried about their clothes, their taking cold, or sticking the darts into their fingers, but I was beginning to realize the responsibility of consequences. What would the effect of this fete be upon the birthday parties of our village community, where a dish of mottoes, a home-made frosted sponge cake, and a freezer of ice cream (possibly, but not always) from town, eaten out-of-doors, meant bliss.
I suppose it is only the comfortably poor who have to think of consequences, the uncomfortably rich think they can afford not to, and tired of mere possession, they must express their wealth audibly at any cost.
* * * * *
Richard and Ian came home about half past six, driven by Timothy Saunders, who was in a sulky mood. When I asked him, by way of cheerful conversation, if the Vanderveer grounds did not look pretty, and if he had heard the band (he is very fond of music), he fairly glowered at me as he used in his bachelor days, before Martha's energetic affection had mellowed him, and he began to jerk out texts, his dialect growing more impossible each moment, so that the only words that I caught were "scarlet weemen—Philistines—wrath—mammon o' the unriteous," etc., until I seized the boys and fled into the porch, because when Timothy Saunders is wrathful, and quotes scripture as a means of expressing it, some one must fly, and it is never Timothy.
The boys, however, were jubilant, and began at once to unwrap the various bundles they were hugging, prizes, it seemed, for every game they played, that represented enough plunder to deck a small Christmas tree. After these had been duly admired, with some misgivings on my part, Ian jumped up suddenly, clapping his hand to his pocket, and coming close, so that he could rest upon my knee, he began pulling out shining new dimes and quarters, until his hands, moist and trembling with excitement, could hold no more, and he poured the coins into my lap.
"Count them please, Barbara, vely quick, 'cause I can't say so many," he begged, standing with his curly head a little on one side, and his eyes flashing with eagerness.
Wondering what new form of extravagance it was, I counted, "One, two, three dollars and a half."
"Then we can go and buy the red harness for Corney to-morrow, without bothering to dig up any more dandies, 'cause Dick's got some too," he fairly shouted. "It was all bully fun, but that swizzle game where the marble ran round was the bestest of all, only some numbers it sat on took the pennies and some gave them back," and he indicated something flying round in a circle as he capered about. Ian's slightest gestures, like his father's, are very realistic, and I turned sick as I realized the game by which the silver had been won was probably roulette! Could it be possible? How had Mr. Vanderveer dared? No, there must be some mistake.
At that instant my attention was attracted by Richard, who, after unpacking his toys, had curled up in a deep piazza chair, where he sat without saying a word, but looking flushed and heavy-eyed.
"Do you feel sick? Perhaps you ate too much cream, and then ran too fast. Come and let mother feel of your hands," I said. His hands were cold and his head burning.
"It wasn't the cweam," he replied finally, as if not quite sure what was the matter, "it was the lemonade with the bitter currant jelly in it that made the cweam and all swell up,—and I guess it's going to spill pretty soon."
"Lemonade with bitter jelly in it?" queried father, coming out, "what sort of a mess have they given him?" Father stooped, smelled his breath, saying, "Astringent wine of some sort, unless my nose fails me. Did you have any, Ian?"
"Not pink, only yellow. I was all full up by then."
"Why, when the big boys caught some of us and said we must drink pink lemonade to make us grow quick."
Father gave me a keen glance of intelligence, and I took the boys upstairs, where Richard's trouble soon righted itself, and, early as it was, they went quickly to sleep with the precious money under their pillows, fatigue conquering even their excitement.
Evan came home rather late, and at dinner we talked of other things. As far back as I remember anything, I can hear father's voice saying alike to Aunt Lot, myself, or a complaining servant, "The family board is sacred; meals are not the time for disagreeables."
Immediately after dinner, and before I had a chance to tell Evan, Mrs. Jenks-Smith stopped on her way home from a drive, the Whirlpoolers not dining until eight, to ask father if she might take some friends in to see the hospital to-morrow, an appeal having been recently made for new bedding, etc., saying: "We're going to have smashing strawberries and roses this year; they'll come on before the crowd moves along in July, and we might as well shake up a fete for the hospital as anything else, as we're bound to keep moving.
"Were you up at Vanderveers this afternoon? Oh, yes, to be sure, I saw you going down hill as I drove in. Quite a chic affair for a little between-season place like this; but after all, it's the people, not the place, that make the pace, isn't it, Miss Dorman? And a swell New Yorker can leave a wake that'll show the way anywhere.
"You don't look happy, though, Mrs. Evan. The boys ate too much? No? Roulette a little too high for you?
"Well, my dear, I half agree with you. I think things were a little too stiff this afternoon for such youngsters; but Vandy is such a liberal fellow he couldn't do enough,—nor tell when to stop,—actually lugged up half a dozen bags of new silver and dealt it to the kids in handfuls. Harm? Why, he didn't see any, I dare say. He wasn't robbing anybody; besides, I'll bet Monty Bell put him up to it. I know how you feel, though. I wouldn't play for money myself, if I'd young boys; but as I haven't, it doesn't matter, and one must be amused. That's the way Mrs. Latham jogged poor Carthy off and began the gap with her husband. Latham gambles on change, of course, but drew the line at his house. Didn't know it? You poor innocent, you're as bad as Sylvia herself. Why, yes, they're as good as divorced, by mutual agreement, though; he's kept away all of two years. I expect that they will announce it any time now.
"Won't let the boys keep the money? Don't be silly now and make a fuss; change it to bills and put it on the church plate; that's what all the really conscientious women always do with their Lenten winnings anyway,—that is, when they can afford it.
"I'll allow, though, they didn't manage the drinks well this afternoon. The lemonade was for the youngsters, and their spread was in the pergola; the next age had claret cup in the tea house back of the tennis court, and there was also a spread there with champagne cup for the elders.
"Claret cup? Oh, yes, nowadays you insult a boy over twelve if you offer him lemonade. But the trouble was, the big boys tumbled to the champagne cup, got hold of a bowl of it, grew excited, and fed the youngsters with the claret stuff, and made a lot of them sick. Your Richard one of them? I see,—I don't wonder you're put out, my dear, indeed I don't. I should be too, that is, if it mattered; but one person disapproving won't turn the wheel the other way, it only means to lose your own footing." So saying, the Lady of the Bluffs rustled away, promising to call for father in her 'bus in the morning.
"Is this true?" asked Evan, presently, and I had never seen his eyes look so steely cold.
"Yes, I'm afraid so," I answered, meeting his gaze.
"Where is the money?"
"Under their pillows; they expect to buy the red goat harness to-morrow."
"It's a crying shame, the whole thing. The poor little babies!"
"What shall I do?"
"You? Nothing. I shall return the money. This is my business; man to man. As a woman you inevitably must be emotional and make a doubtful issue of it. You mother the boys well, God knows; this is my chance to father them."
"But the money,—shall I get it now?"
"No, in the morning; they will bring it to me, and I will make them understand, as far as babies may. In one way, I fear, we are unwittingly somewhat to blame ourselves. Every one who is drawn toward a social and financial class a little beyond his depth, and yields, though feeling the danger, is unwise. I think, sweetheart, this commuter, his wife, and babies had better be content to wade in safe shallows and not go within touch of the Whirlpool current."
Then Evan and I went and stood silently by the two white beds, and now he is walking up and down in the garden smoking quietly, while I am writing up here, and unhappy because I think of to-morrow and the boys' disappointment about the little red harness.
June 10. Sylvia Latham has returned alone. Her father came with her as far as Chicago, where, having business that would detain him for perhaps ten days, and warm weather having set in, he insisted that Sylvia should at once proceed eastward. At least that is what Miss Lavinia tells me; but she has suddenly turned quite reticent in everything that concerns the Lathams, which, together with Mrs. Jenks-Smith's random remarks, have inevitably set me to thinking.
I had hoped to form a pleasant friendship with Sylvia, for though I have only met her two or three times, I feel as if I really knew her; but there will be little chance now, as they go on to Newport the first of July, and the continual procession of house parties, for golf, tennis, etc., at the Bluffs, even though they are called informal, necessarily stand in the way of intimate neighbourly relations between us. Monty Bell has been dividing his week ends between the Ponsonby, Vanderveer, and Jenks-Smith households, yet he always is in the foreground when I have been to see Sylvia, even though I have tried to slip in between times in the morning.
I do not like this Monty Bell; he seems to be merely an eater of dinners and a cajoler of dames, such superficial chivalry of speech as he exhibits being only one of the many expedients that gain him the title of "socially indispensable" that the Whirlpoolers accord him.
Personally anything but attractive, he seems able to organize and control others in a most singular way. Perhaps it is because he has a genius for taking pains and planning successful entertainments for his friends, even to the minutest detail, and giving them the subtle distinction of both originality and finish, without troubling their givers to think for themselves. Miss Lavinia-says that he has the entree of the two or three very exclusive New York houses that have never yet opened their doors to Mrs. Latham and several more aspiring Whirlpoolers, Mrs. Jenks-Smith having penetrated the sacred precincts, only by right of having been presented at the English Court in the last reign through the influence of her stepdaughter, who married a poverty-stricken title.
"I don't know what it all amounts to," said the outspoken Lady of the Bluffs on her return, "except that I'm in it now with both feet, which is little enough pay for the trouble I took and the money Jenks-Smith put out.
"Our son-in-law? No, he's not exactly English, he's Irish, blood of the old kings, they say; but all the good it does him is, that he can wear his hat with a feather in it, or else his shoes, I can never remember which, in the presence of royalty, when if it wasn't for good American money he'd have neither one or the other.
"Money? Oh yes, that's all they want of us over there; we've no cause to stick up our noses and think it's ourselves. We know, Jenks-Smith and I, for haven't we been financial mother and father in law to a pair of them for ten years? Jenks-Smith was smart, though; he wouldn't give a lump sum down, but makes them an allowance, and we go over every year or so and bail them out of some sort of a mess to boot, have the plumbing fixed up, and start the children all over with new clothes. That's what we're doing when the papers say, 'Mr. and Mrs. Jenks-Smith, who went to Carlsbad for the waters, are now in Ireland, being entertained in regal style by their daughter and son-in-law at Bally-whack House.'"
Miss Lavinia says with a shiver that whoever marries Monty Bell, and it is absolutely necessary for him to make a wealthy connection in the immediate future, will have all New York doors open to her, and that, as Mrs. Latham is leaving no stone unturned in order to become a social leader, a marriage between Sylvia and Mr. Bell would secure her the complete prestige necessary to her ambition, while rearranged families are so common and often the results of such trivial causes, that the fact of the man's having a lovely wife and two children living abroad does not militate against him in the least. It all seems ghastly, this living life as if it was a race track, where to reach the social goal is the only thought, no matter how, or over or through what wreckage, or in what company the race is to be won.
Since her return Sylvia has looked pale and seemed less buoyant. She is much disappointed because her plan of going to Rockcliffe to see her class graduate cannot be carried out. Miss Lavinia had promised to go with her, and the poor child was looking forward to a week of girlish pleasure among the friends with whom she had spent two years, when, lo and behold! the rose and strawberry festival, that the Lady of the Bluffs had stirred up for the benefit of the hospital, assumed such huge proportions that the entire colony became involved, and the dates conflicting, it was impossible for Sylvia to leave home without entirely tipping over her mother's plans.
The places on the north side of the Bluff road are to be thrown open, grand-chain fashion, each contributing something by way of entertainment, games, a merry-go-round brought with great expense from the city, fortune telling, a miniature show of pet animals, and an amateur circus, being a few of the many attractions offered.
The spectators are to pay a fee and enter by the Ponsonbys', the first place on the south, and gradually work their way up to the Jenks-Smiths', where the rose garden and an elaborate refreshment booth will be reached. The Latham garden is too new to make any showing, but Mrs. Latham, who has been much in New York of late, promises something novel in the way of a tea room in her great reception hall, while Mrs. Jenks-Smith insisted that Sylvia should have charge of her rose booth, saying: "Your name's suitable for the business, you'll look well in a simple hat and baggy mull gown, such as artists always want to put on the people they paint, and I must positively have some one who'll stay by me and see that things are not torn to bits, for all the rest of the girls will slide off with the first pair of trousers that comes along. Anyway, you don't match the little Ponsonby and Chatfield minxes that your mother has chosen for her six Geisha girls, for you are a head taller than the bunch."
Nothing is talked of now but this fete. Of course it will help the hospital, even though ten times the amount is being spent upon the preparation than any sum that can possibly be made for the charity; but it pleases the people to spend. Father says that the Whirlpoolers are already bored; that they have used up the place, for the time being, and if it were not for this festival, the Bluffs would be deserted for Newport and Long Island long before July.
Social ambition has even infected our rector's jolly little wife, who has never felt able or called upon to entertain in any but the most informal way. After hearing the report of a clerical luncheon in New York, where the clergyman sat at the foot of his own table with a miniature shepherd's crook before him, and the favour beside the plate of each female guest consisted of a woolly lamb, she, not to be outdone, immediately imperilled the possibility of a new winter gown by inviting all the non-resident members of the congregation to lunch, and serving the ice cream in a toy Noah's Ark, while the animals from it were grouped about a large dish of water, to form an appropriate decoration in the centre of the table, and sugar doves at each plate held leaves in their mouths, upon which the name of the guest was neatly pricked with a pin.
* * * * *
Lavinia Dorman has decided to stay with me and do without her maid, rather than take a cottage, or board, for we find that we do not wear on each other in the least. We never plan for one another, or interfere in any way, and each takes it for granted that if the other desires assistance of any sort, she will ask for it.
Miss Lavinia pokes about the garden at her own sweet will. I gather the flowers,—I could not give that up to any one,—and she takes charge of arranging them in the house. She is very fond of doing fancy work, I am not, so that her offer to re-cover the sofa cushions in den, study, and library comes in the light of a household benefaction.
Besides this, she has a very good effect upon the boys, and without being at all fussy, she is instilling their absorbent minds quite unconsciously with some little bits of the quaint good breeding of other days that they will never forget. They love to go to town with her, one of her first stipulations being that if I chose to include her in some of our long drives, well and good, otherwise she wished the liberty of telephoning the stable for horse and man, whenever she pleased, without my troubling myself about her movements.
Meanwhile, I really think that this living in the midst of a family without losing her independence is making Lavinia Dorman grow backwards toward youth. She has bought an outing hat without strings, trimmed with fluffy white, she takes her work out under the trees in a basket, and has given up tying her head in a thin and a thick veil every time she drives out. If she could learn to sit comfortably back and lounge a trifle, and if a friendly magpie would only chance along and steal her stock of fronts, for a nest, so that she would be obliged to show her own lovely hair that shades like oxidized silver, the transformation would be complete.
Martin Cortright also is developing mental energy. He always had considerable physical vim, as I found the Sunday after he first came, when he accompanied Evan upon one of his long walks, and was not used up by it. He has stopped fumbling with reference books and shuffling bits of paper by the hour, and writes industriously every day by the west window of the attic, where he can refresh himself by looking out of the window at the garden, or across at the passers on the highway. I was afraid that he might wish to read the results nightly to either father or Evan, but no, he keeps them safely under lock and key in a great teacher's desk that he bought second hand over in town. He stays to dine with us two or three nights a week, but he has grown flexible, and our meals are very merry ones. Laugh softly to yourself, Experience Book, and flutter your leaves just a bit as I write, that of their own volition, Miss Lavinia and Martin have drifted from whist to piquet, as by natural transition, and Evan is free for garden saunterings once more.
* * * * *
June 25. Yesterday was the day of the festival, and it was neither sultry, foggy, nor brought to a sudden stop by a thunder shower, as so often happens at this season.
By half past two in the afternoon the country teams could be seen winding Bluff ward by all the various roads, and before three, the hour at which the gates were to be opened, every available hitching place was occupied, and the line of vehicles extended well up one of the back lanes that was bounded by a convenient rail fence.
Horace Bradford arrived home at Pine Ridge night before last. He had expected to see Sylvia and Miss Lavinia at Rockcliffe. Missing them, and not knowing the cause of their change of plan, very naturally his first thought was to drive down to Oak-lands and make a double call. On taking up the local paper he saw the announcement of the rose festival set forth in ornamental type, which gave him a key to the situation, so that the substantial, if not ornamental, farm buggy, drawn by a young horse with plenty of free-gaited country go but no "manners," was one of the first to reach the Bluffs, Horace innocently hoping to have a few moments with Sylvia before the festivities began. He therefore inquired his way to the Latham house direct, instead of going into the fair grounds by way of the Ponsonbys', and encountered Perkins, Potts, and Parker, who were on guard at the door, as well as two footmen who stood by the steps with straw wheel guards ready to assist people from their traps, and two grooms in silk-sleeved buff jackets, who waited to take charge of the horses of the men who were expected to ride over from a neighbouring social settlement.
The outdoor group seemed to be in doubt how to proceed. Bradford had all the ease of bearing that they instinctively felt belonged to a gentleman, but his turnout was beyond the pale, and the grooms hesitated to give it the shelter of the perfectly equipped stable.
Perkins, however, did not hesitate, and before Bradford could open his lips, came through the doors that were fastened wide open, and, with a wave of his hand said, in freezing tones, "You've come in the wrong way; the entrance gate and ticket booth is below, as the sign shows."
"I wish to see Miss Latham," said Bradford, handing his card, and at the same time with difficulty suppressing a violent desire to knock the man down.
"Not at home," replied immovable Perkins, vouchsafing no further information.
"Then take my card to Mrs. Latham," thundered Bradford, nettled by his slip in not asking for both at the first instance, and; as the man still hesitated, he strode past him through the porch and into the hall.
As Perkins disappeared through one of the many doorways, Bradford stood still for a moment before his eyes focussed to the change of light. The pillars of the hall that supported the balcony corridor of the second story were wreathed with light green vines, delicate green draperies screened the windows, the pale light coming from many Japanese lanterns and exquisitely shaded bronze lamps rather than outside. Half a dozen little arbours were formed by large Japanese umbrellas, under which tea tables were placed, and the sweet air of the summer afternoon was changed and made suffocatingly heavy by burning incense.
Of course all this paraphernalia belonged to the festival, and yet Bradford was not prepared to find Sylvia living in such daily state as the other surroundings implied. He knew that she belonged to a prosperous family, but his entrance to what he supposed would be, as the name implied, a country cottage, was a decided shock to him.
He had been drawn irresistibly toward Sylvia almost from their meeting in the lecture room several years before, but he could hardly allow himself the luxury of day dreams then, and it was not until his promotion had seemed to him to place him upon a safe footing, that he had paused long enough to realize how completely she was woven into all his thoughts of the future. Now, as he waited there, a broad gulf, not a crossable river, seemed to stretch before him, not alone financial but ethical,—a sweeping troublous torrent, the force of which he could neither stem nor even explain to himself,—verily the surging of the Whirlpool at his feet.
Babbling girlish voices waked him from his revery, and half a dozen young figures, disguised in handsomely embroidered Japanese costumes and headgear, their eyes given the typical almond-shaped and upward slant by means of paint and pencil, came down the stairs, followed a moment later by a taller figure in still richer robes, and so carefully made up by powder and paint that at a distance she looked but little older than the girls. Coming toward Bradford with an expression of playful inquiry, she said: "Is this Mr. Bradford? I am Mrs. Latham. Did you wish to see me? I've only a moment to spare, for at three o'clock I lose my identity and become a Geisha girl."
Bradford was embarrassed for a moment, even quite disconcerted. Why should he have taken it for granted that Sylvia had spoken of him, and that he should be known to her mother? But such was the case, and he felt bitterly humbled.
"I was one of Miss Latham's instructors at Rockcliffe two years ago. I have returned now to spend the vacation with my mother, whom perhaps you know, at Pine Ridge, and finding that you have come to live here—I—ventured to call." If poor Bradford had desired to be stiff and uninterestingly didactic, he could not have succeeded better.
"Ah, yes—Rockcliffe—Sylvia was there for a couple of years, and will doubtless be glad to hear of the place. I myself never approved of college life for girls, it makes them so superior and offish when they return to society. Even two years abroad have not put Sylvia completely at her ease among us again.
"We do not live here; this is merely a between-season roost, and we leave again next week, so I have not met your mother. The only one of the name I recollect is an old country egg woman back somewhere in the hills toward Pine Ridge. You will find Sylvia at Mrs. Jenks-Smith's, just above, at the rose booth. Pardon me if I leave you now, I have so much on my hands this afternoon."
Thus dismissed, Bradford went out into the light again. He noticed for the first time that his horse and buggy, standing unheeded where he left them, looked strangely out of date, and as he went down the steps, the horse turned his head, and recognizing him, gave a joyful whinny that caused the grooms to grin. He could feel the colour rising to his very eyes, and for a moment he determined to go home without making any further effort to find Sylvia, and he felt grateful that his mother had declined his invitation to come with him to the festival.
His mother, "the egg-woman"! What would she have thought of Sylvia's mother thus painted and transformed in the name of charity? He experienced a thrill of relief at the escape.
As he found himself on the free highway once more, he faltered. He would see how Sylvia bore herself in the new surroundings before he put it all behind him. This time he found a bit of shade and a fence rail for the too friendly nag, and entering the Jenks-Smith grounds afoot, followed the crowd that was gathering.
The rose garden of five years' well-trained growth was extremely beautiful, while the pergola that separated it from the formal garden of the fountain, and at the same time served as a gateway to it, was utilized as the booth where roses and fanciful boxes of giant strawberries were to be sold.
Bradford, standing at a little distance, under an archway, scanned the faces of the smart married women who bustled about canvassing, and the young girls who carelessly gathered the sumptuous roses into bouquets for the buyers, making a great fuss over the thorns as they did so. Then one tall, white-clad figure arrested his attention. It was Sylvia. She handled the flowers lovingly, and was bestowing patient attention upon a country woman, to whom these pampered roses were a revelation, and who wished a bouquet made up of samples, one of each variety, and not a mass all of a colour like the bunches that were arranged in the great baskets.
As Sylvia held the bouquet up for the woman's approval, adding a bud here and there, pausing to breathe its fragrance herself before handing it to the purchaser, Horace's courage came back. She was plainly not a part of the vortex that surrounded her. Circumstances at present seemed to stand between. He could not even venture a guess if she ever gave him other than a friendly thought; but a feeling came over him as he stood in the deep shade, that some day she might be lonely and need steadfast friendship, and then the opportunity to serve her would give him the right to question.
Now thoroughly master of himself, he went toward her, and was rewarded by a greeting of unfeigned pleasure, a few moments of general talk, and a big bunch of roses for his mother.
"No, you shall not buy these. I am sending them to your mother with my love, to beg pardon for Miss Lavinia and myself, for we've been trying to go to Pine Ridge all the week; but this affair has kept me spinning like a top, and when I do stop I expect to fall over with weariness. I was so sorry about Rockcliffe Commencement. Some day, perhaps, mamma will have finished bringing me out, and then I can crawl in again where it is quiet, and live. Ah, you went to the house and saw her, and she said we were going away next week? I did not know it, but we flit about so one can never tell. I've half a mind to be rebellious and ask to be left here with Lavinia Dorman for guardian, I'm so tired of change. Yes, I enjoyed my flying trip to the West, in a way, though father only came as far as Chicago with me, but I expect him to-morrow."
Then the crowd surged along, peering, staring, and feeling, so that it would have blocked the way conspicuously if Bradford had lingered longer. As he vanished, Monty Bell sauntered up, and, entering the booth, took his place by Sylvia. Under pretext of good-naturedly saving her fingers from thorns by tying the bouquets for her, kept by her side all the afternoon, and when a lull came at tea time, strolled with her toward the refreshment tent, where he coaxed her to sit down to rest in one of the little recesses that lined the garden wall, where she would be free from the crowd while he brought her some supper.
This she did the more readily because she was really tired, almost to the point of faintness, and even felt grateful when Mr. Bell returned with some dainty food, and sat beside her to hold her plate. She was so used to seeing him about at all hours, making himself generally useful, that the little attentions he continually showered upon her never held a fragment of personality in her eyes.
Now, however, something familiar in his manner jarred upon her and put her strangely on her guard. One of the man's peculiarities was that he had a hypnotic manner, and presently, almost before she could really understand what he was about, he had put his arm around her and was making an easy, take-it-all-for-granted declaration of love.
For an instant she could not believe her ears, and then his tightening clasp brought realization. Tearing herself away, and dropping her plate with a crash, she faced him with white face and blazing eyes, saying but one word—"Stop!" in so commanding a tone that even his fluency faltered, and he paused in exceeding amaze at the result of what he had supposed any woman of his set would esteem an honour, much more this strange girl whose mother was engaged so systematically in securing a place at the ladder top.
"If I had understood that your casual politeness to me and usefulness to my mother meant insult such as this, we should have checked it long ago."
"Insult?" ejaculated Monty Bell, looking over his shoulder, apprehensive lest some one should be within ear-shot, for to be an object of ridicule was the greatest evil that could come to him. "You don't understand. I want you to marry me."
"Insult, most certainly! What else do you call it for a man with two little daughters, and divorced by his wife for his own unforgivable fault, to ask any woman to marry him! Yes, I know, you see. Lavinia Dorman is a friend of Mrs. Bell!"
"The devil!" muttered the man, still looking about uneasily, under the gaze of her uncompromising accusation. In some way the directness of her words made him feel uncomfortable for the moment, but he quickly recovered, changed his tactics, and burying his hands in his pockets, assumed his usually jaunty air, while half a smile, half a sneer, crossed his face as he said lightly: "What a droll, Puritan spitfire we are, aren't we? As if rearranged families were not a thing of daily happening. Don't feel called upon to kick up a rumpus, it isn't necessary; besides, take a tip from me, your mother won't like it! If you are through with that cup, I will take the things back," and nonchalantly shying the bits of the broken plate into the bushes, he went toward the refreshment tent, saying to his host, Mrs. Jenks-Smith, who was inquiring for Sylvia: "Yes, she is yonder in the second arbour. I've taken her some tea, for she's quite done up; that beastly overland trip home was too much for her in the first hot weather."
Consequently the warm-hearted Lady of the Bluffs was naturally prepared to find Sylvia sick and faint, and urged sending her home, where she could slip in and get to bed unobserved, which was the one thing that the girl most desired. Also this shrewd lady was wise enough to give no sign, even though she drew her conclusions, when on turning to leave the arbour she saw a bit of the broken plate lying on the ground at the opposite side near where a point of the rustic work had torn a shred from Sylvia's mull drapery as she had pulled herself away.
* * * * *
By the time that Sylvia had gained her room the warm twilight sky had been transformed to a silver lake by the moon, but she neither enjoyed its beauty nor heard the music that was beginning to come from the rose garden above, as well as the tea room below stairs. She sat by the window, deaf to all outside things, with only one thought in her mind; she would gladly have buried the occurrence of the arbour, if it were possible, but as it was, she must tell her mother, as now, that his motive was made plain, Monty Bell, as a matter of course, could no longer come to the house. Finally she went to bed and slept from sheer exhaustion, never for a moment doubting that her mother would take her view of the matter. Presently the French maid crept in and closed the blinds, wondering why Mademoiselle often seemed to take pleasure so sadly, and appeared older than Madame, her mother, and then, feeling at liberty, hurried down gayly to dance on the back porch with the loitering gentlemen's gentlemen who gathered there.
* * * * *
Mrs. Latham slept late the next morning, and at eleven o'clock had only finished looking over her mail without yet touching her breakfast, when, without waiting for an answer to her knock, Sylvia entered. Her mother looked up in some surprise, for she did not encourage running in and out at all hours, or any of the usual intimacies between a mother and grown daughter who are companions. In fact she did not even ask Sylvia to sit down, or if she was ill, though her pallor was very apparent, but merely raised questioning eyebrows, saying, "What is it?" as she turned her attention to some legal-looking documents in her lace-decked lap.
Chilled to the heart Sylvia seated herself in a low chair by her mother, so that she need not raise her voice, and twisting her hands nervously, told what had happened in as few words as possible, much as if she had repeated them over and over until they were learned like a lesson.
Mrs. Latham's cold gray eyes at first snapped viciously, and then grew big with wonder as Sylvia ended by saying, "I should never have spoken of this to any one, and tried to forget, but you would think it strange that Mr. Bell should stop coming here—and—"
"Think it strange?" said Mrs. Latham, speaking harshly and rapidly, a thing she rarely did. "Do you know what I think of you? That you are the most absolute little fool I ever imagined. You not only refuse a man who could make your social position secure, but rant and get into tantrums over the compliment he pays you, and call it an 'insult,' exactly as your canting grandmother Latham might have done. I've no patience with you; and if you think that this nonsense of yours shuts the door in Monty Bell's face, you are wholly mistaken.
"While we are upon this subject of divorce that seems to shock you so, I may as well tell you what you will not see for yourself, and your father appears to have been too mealy-mouthed to explain,—we have agreed to separate. No need of your getting tragic, there are no public recriminations on either side, no vulgar infidelity or common quarrelling, everything quite amicable, I assure you. Simply we find our tastes totally different, and have done so for several years. Mr. Latham's ambitions are wholly financial, mine are social. He repelled and ignored my best friends, and as we are in every way independent of each other, he has been wise enough to avoid possible and annoying complications by standing out of my way and making it easy for me to legalize the arrangement and readjust myself completely to new conditions."
"But what of Carthy and me?" gasped Sylvia, in a voice so choked and hollow that the older woman hesitated, but for a single instant only. "Have neither you nor father thought of us? Where do we belong? Where is our home? Can people who have once loved each other forget their children and throw them off so? Does God allow it? You must have cared for father once, for I remember when I was a little girl you told me that you called me Sylvia, to have my name as nearly like father's—Sylvester—as possible. Have you forgotten it all, that you can do this thing, when you say in the same breath that father has done no evil?"
"Don't be tragic, Sylvia, and rake up things that have nothing to do with the matter. As to your brother, it was your father's foolish severity about a card debt, and insisting upon placing him away from me, that is primarily responsible for the divorce, not any wish of mine to exile Carthy. And you ask where your home is, as if I had turned you out, when you have just refused an offer that any unmarried society woman, who can afford it, would clutch."
Sylvia sat silent, looking blindly before her. Her mother waited a moment, as if expecting some reply, and then continued: "Now that the matter is virtually settled, I suppose in a few days the papers will save me the trouble of announcing it. Under the circumstances, I shall rent the Newport house for the season, as I have had several good offers, and go abroad for two or three months on the continent, so that before my return the town house will be redecorated and everything will be readjusted for a successful winter. You had better take a few days before deciding what to do. You can, of course, come with me, if you are not sick of travel, or go to your father, who is ready to make you a handsome allowance; though you will find that awkward at present, as he is moving about so much. If you choose to feel aggrieved just now, you might persuade your dear, prim Miss Dorman to either stay here with you or take that little furnished house that is to rent on the lower road, if you prefer that form of discomfort they call simplicity. You needn't decide now; take time," she added genially, as if she was doing all that could be asked.
When she ceased speaking, Sylvia, with bowed head, rose and quickly left the room.
Then Mrs. Latham gave a sigh of relief that the interview was over, threw the papers into a bureau drawer, called to the maid, who had been all the while listening in the dressing room, to prepare to arrange her hair, and, taking the chances that Sylvia would keep her room, at least for some hours, wrote a hasty note to Monty Bell, inviting him to luncheon.
Meanwhile, Sylvia, instead of going to her room to cry, took her hat and crept out into the lane that led to the woods. She must be quite away by herself and gain time to think. This was a terrible sort of grief that could neither be kept secret nor halved by sympathy, but must be worn in the full glare of day. Her heart condemned her mother wholly, and she understood why her father kept the silence of shame,—to whom could she turn? As she gained the woods, and throwing herself down on a soft bed of hemlock needles, closed her dry, burning eyes, two people seemed to stand side by side and look at her pityingly,—Lavinia Dorman and Horace Bradford,—and mentally she turned toward one and shrank from the other. In Miss Lavinia she saw her only refuge, but between herself and Horace the shadow of his upright mother seemed to intervene. What could they think of her mother playing at Geisha girl in her own home at the very hour of its wreck?
July 1. It was several days after the festival before the news of the Latham divorce was made definitely public by a paragraph under the heading of "Society News," in one of the New York papers, though of course the rumour had crept into every house on the Bluffs, by way of the back stairs.
Miss Lavinia was greatly distressed, and yet did not know exactly how to act in the matter; for though Mrs. Latham was seen driving by, as usual, Sylvia made no sign.
We may read of such cases often enough, and yet when the blow falls in the immediate neighbourhood, one must feel the reflex of the shock. While sympathy for Sylvia keeps the thing ever present, like a weight upon the chest, I find myself wondering if anything could have been done to avert the disaster, and we all rove about in a half unsettled condition. Half a dozen times a day Lavinia Dorman starts up with the determination of calling upon Sylvia, but this morning decided upon writing her a letter instead, and having sent it up by Timothy Saunders, is now sitting out in the arbour, while Martin Cortright is reading to her from his manuscript; but her attention is for the first time divided, and she is continually glancing up the road as if expecting a summons,—a state of things that causes an expression of mild surprise and disappointment to cross Martin's countenance at her random and inapropos criticisms. I see that in my recent confusion I have forgotten to record the fact that Miss Lavinia has fallen into the role of critic for Martin's book, and that for the last ten days, as a matter of course, he reads to her every afternoon the result of his morning's work, finding, as he says, that her power of condensation is of the greatest help in enabling him to eliminate much of the needless detail of his subject that blocked him, and to concentrate his vitality upon the rest.
This all looks promising, to my romantic mind; for the beginning of all kinds of affection, physical, mental, and spiritual, that are huddled together in varying proportions as component parts of love, has its origin in dependence. Father declares independence, selfishness, and aloofness to be the trinity of hell. Now Martin Cortright has come to depend upon Lavinia Dorman's opinion, and she is beginning not only to realize and enjoy his dependence, but to aid and abet it. Is not this symptomatic?
When I approach father upon the Latham affair, he says that he thinks the rupture was inevitable from the point of view and conditions that existed. He feels, from the evidence that long experience with the inner life of households has given him, that though a thoughtless woman may be brought to realize, and a woman with really bad inherited instincts reclaimed, through love, the wholly selfish woman of Mrs. Latham's type remains immovable to word of God or man, and is unreachable, save through the social code of the class that forms her world, and this code sanctions both the marriage and the divorce of convenience, and receives the results equally with open arms.
As to the effect upon Sylvia, father exhibits much concern, and no little anxiety, for he has read her as a nature in some respects old for her twenty-one years, and in others, the side of the feminine, wholly young and unawakened, so that this jar, he thinks, comes at a most critical moment.
He has a pretty theory that the untroubled heart of a young girl is like a vessel full of the fresh spring sap of the sugar maple that is being freed by slow fire from its crudities and condensed to tangible form. When a certain point is reached, it is ready to crystallize about the first object that stirs it ever so lightly, irrespective of its quality: this is first love. But if the condensing process is lingering, no jar disturbing it prematurely until, as it reaches perfection, the vital touch suddenly reaches its depths, then comes real love, perfected at first sight, clinging everlastingly to the object, love that endures by its own strength, not by mere force of habit; and this love belongs only to the heart's springtime, before full consciousness has made it speculative.
* * * * *
When Horace Bradford drove homeward the afternoon of the fete, he was in a brown study, having no realization of time or place until the wise horse turned in at the barnyard gate, and after standing a moment by his usual hitching post, looked over his shoulder and gave a whinny to attract his master's attention. Then Horace started up, shook off his lethargy, and hurried to the porch, where his mother stood waiting, to give her the roses, and Sylvia's message.
Mrs. Bradford was, for one of her reserve, almost childishly eager to hear of the experiences of the afternoon, and was prepared to sit down comfortably on the porch and have her son give a full account of it; but instead, he gave her a few rather incoherent details, and leaving her standing with the splendid roses held close to her face, very much in Sylvia's own attitude, he hurried up to his room, where she could hear him moving about as if unpacking his things, and opening and shutting drawers nervously.
"Never mind," she said softly to herself, "he will tell me all about her when he is ready. Meanwhile, I'll wait, and not get in his way,—that is what mothers are for." But by some strange impulse she loosened the string that bound the roses, and placed them in one of her few treasures, a silver bowl, in the centre of the supper table, and going to her bedchamber, which was, country fashion, back of the sitting room, arrayed herself in Horace's gifts,—the silk gown and fichu, with the onyx bar and butterflies to fasten it,—and then returned to the porch to watch the twilight gently veil sunset.
Upstairs, Horace unpacked his trunks in a rebellious mood. In the morning he had felt in the proper sense self-sufficient and contented,—the position, which a few months before he thought perhaps ten years ahead of him, had suddenly dropped at his feet, and he felt a natural elation, though it stopped quite short of self-conceit. He could afford to relax the grip with which he had been holding himself in check, and face the knowledge that he loved Sylvia; while the fact that fate had brought her to summer in his vicinity seemed but another proof that fortune was smiling upon him.
Now everything, though outwardly the same, was changed by the new point of view, which he realized that he had already tried to conceal from his mother, by his scanty account of the festival. He had been suddenly confronted by conditions that he never expected to meet outside of the pages of fiction, and felt himself utterly unable to combat them. Under the present circumstances even neighbourly friendship with Sylvia would be difficult. It was not that Mrs. Latham had overawed him in the least, but she had raised in him so fierce and blinding a resentment by her only half unconscious reference to his mother, that he resolved that under no circumstances should she run the risk of being equally rebuffed. He would protect her from a possible intercourse, where she could not be expected, at her age, to hold her own, at no matter what cost to himself.
"Egg woman!" Was it not his mother's pride and endeavour, her thrift and courage to carry on the great farm alone, and the price of such things as those very eggs, that had carried through his dying father's wish, and sent him to college, thus giving him his chance in the world? No regret at the fact, no false pride, dawned on him even for a second. All his rage was that such a woman as Sylvia's mother should have the power to stir him so, and then his love for Sylvia herself, intensified by pity for the unknown trouble that he sensed rather than read in her face, cut into him like a wound. He felt as if he must pick her up in his strong arms and bear her away from all those clamouring people; and then the realization both of his inability and ignorance of her own attitude fell upon him like a chill, for she had never written or said a word to him that might not have passed between any two college friends. Such thoughts occupied him, until finally, as often fortunately happens in our mental crises, a humdrum, domestic voice, the supper bell, called him, and leaving his garments strewn about the room, he went downstairs.