"If a wife is allowed to boil at all she will always boil over."
The Gentle Art of Cooking Wives
By ELIZABETH STRONG WORTHINGTON
Author of "How to Cook Husbands," etc.
Published at 150 Fifth Avenue, New York by the Dodge Publishing Company
[The Gentle Art of Cooking Wives]
COPYRIGHT IN THE YEAR NINETEEN HUNDRED BY DODGE PUBLISHING CO.
"Girls, come to order!" shouted Hilda Bretherton in a somewhat disorderly tone.
"How can we come to order without a president?" queried a rosy-cheeked, roly-poly damsel answering to the name of Puddy Kennett.
"I elect Prue Shaftsbury!" screamed Hilda above the merry din of voices.
"You can't elect—you simply nominate," said Prue.
"I second the motion," said Nannie Branscome, and her remark was instantly followed by a storm of "ayes" before they were called for, and the president was declared elected and proceeded to take her seat.
"Young ladies," said she, "we are met to consider a scandalous——"
"Scurrilous," suggested Hilda.
"——alarming article," continued the president, "entitled 'How to Cook Wives.'"
"Here! here!" interrupted Hilda again, "we can't do anything until we've elected officers and appointed committees."
"Out of a club of four members?" queried Prudence.
"Certainly. Mother said that yesterday at her club, out of eight women they elected twelve officers and appointed seven committees of three each. Why, you know two men can't meet on a street corner without immediately forming a secret society, electing president, vice-president, secretary, and treasurer, and appointing a committee of five to get up a banquet."
"But to return to the subject," persisted the president—a long-faced girl with a solemn countenance, but a suspicious gleam in her eye. "'How to Cook Wives'—that is the question before the house."
"'How to Cook Wives!' Well, if that isn't rich! It makes me think of the old English nursery song—'Come, ducky, come and be killed.' Now it will be, 'Come, ducky, come and be cooked.' I move that Congress be urged to enact a law adopting that phrase as the only legal form of proposal. Then if any little goose accepts she knows what to expect, and is not caught up and fried without foreknowledge."
"Young ladies," said the president.
"Don't mow me down in my prime," urged Hilda in an injured tone. "I'm making my maiden speech in the house."
"Oh, girls, look, quick!" cried Puddy. "See Miss Leigh. Isn't that a fetching gown she has on?"
The entire club rushed to the window.
"Who's she with?" asked Hilda. "He's rather fetching, too."
"I believe his name is Chance," said Puddy Kennett. "He's not a society fellow."
"Oh, he's the chum of that lovely man," said Hilda.
"Which lovely man?" asked Prue. "There are so many of them."
"Why—oh, you know his name. I can't think of it—Loveland—Steve Loveland. We met him at Constance Leigh's one evening."
Here Nannie Branscome colored, but no one noticed her.
"Young ladies, come to order," said the president.
"Or order will come to you," said Hilda. "Prue has raised her parasol—gavel, I mean."
"There goes Amy Frisbe," remarked Puddy from her post by the window. "Do you know her engagement's off?"
"Well, I'll be jig——" Hilda began.
"Sh-h!" said the president.
"The president objects to slang, but I'll still be jiggered, as Lord Fauntleroy's friend remarked."
"Sh-h!" said the president.
"Girls, that reminds me," said Puddy. "I met a publisher from New York at the opera last night who objected to the slightest slang."
"Oh, me!" exclaimed Hilda. "Why, where has Mother Nature been keeping the dear man all these years?"
"On Mr. Sheldon's editorial staff," suggested Nannie Branscome.
"Oh, that's too bad, Nannie," exclaimed Prudence. "My father—and he's not a religious man—said the Topeka Capital was a wonderful paper Sheldon's week."
"I'm not denying that," said Nannie. "I believe it was wonderful. I believe and tremble."
"With other little——"
"Sh-h!" said the president, and Hilda subsided.
"Was Amy Frisbe at the opera last night?" asked Puddy rather irrelevantly.
"No," said Hilda, "but Arthur Driscol was. He sat in a box with the Gorman party and was devoted to Mamie Moore all the evening. If I'd been Mrs. Gorman I'd dropped him over the railing."
"You don't mean that Amy Frisbe has been jilted?" exclaimed the president.
"I do, and it's her third serious heart wound. Really, that girl is entitled to draw a pension."
"Well, I'll be jig——" began Nannie.
"Sh-h!" said the president, and then she added: "Young ladies, it is for you to decide how you'll be served up in future."
"Is it for us to decide?" asked Nannie Branscome.
She had a peculiar way of saying things of this sort. She would lower her head and look out from under her head frizzles in a non-committal fashion, but with a suggestion of something that made her piquant, bewitching face irresistible.
"Certainly," said the president. "The style of cooking depends on the cook."
"Well, let us first see what choice we have in the matter. What variety of dishes are named? Where's the article and where did it come from?" asked Hilda.
"George Daly had it last night and he read bits of it between the acts."
"So that's what I missed by declining Mrs. Warren's box party invitation!" exclaimed Hilda. "Well, let's have the article."
"I haven't got it," said Puddy. "George wouldn't give it to me. He said it belonged to Mr. Porter, but I copied some of it."
"Oh, there's Evelyn Rogers. Let's call her in. Evelyn! Evelyn!"
Hilda was at the window gesticulating and calling.
"Young ladies," said the president, "I'm surprised. Come to order. Good-morning, Evelyn. We are met to consider an important matter—'How to Cook Wives.'"
"Is that all you called me in for? I heard enough of that last night. It was George Daly's theme all the evening."
"Were you at the box party?" asked Hilda.
"Yes, I was so silly as to go. Oh, these society people just wear me out. I'm more tired this morning than I should be if I'd worked at a churn all day yesterday. They're so stupid. They talk all night about nothing."
"You ought to commend them for intellectual economy; they make a little go such a long way," said Prudence.
"Seriously, though, are you met to consider that piece?" asked Evelyn.
"No," said Puddy. "We just happened to meet, and that came up for discussion."
"Well, as I don't care——" began Evelyn, laughing.
"Sh-h!" said the president.
"The publisher from New York says slang is not used in the best circles," said Hilda.
She recited this in a loud, stereotyped tone, giving the last word a strong upward inflection, suggestive of a final call to the dining-room.
"Yes, I know," said Evelyn. "I met him at the box party last night, and he told me so."
"What did you say?" inquired Puddy.
"I said it must be awful to be deaf from birth."
"Did he hear that?" laughed Hilda.
"I presume he did, for he gave me one look and straightway became dumb as well as deaf."
"Girls, I must be going!" exclaimed Hilda suddenly. "Really, if any poor galley slave works harder than I do, I commend him to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Adults. I've already been out to a luncheon to-day, at Mrs. Pierce's, and Pachmann's matinee this afternoon, and I must go to Joe Harding's dinner to-night——"
"Are you going to that swell affair?" interrupted Puddy. "I envy you."
"I don't," said Evelyn scornfully. "Joe Harding's little better than an idiot, and he's notorious in many ways."
"He can give swell dinners, though, and the best people are his guests."
"No, they're not," said Evelyn emphatically. "I'm not there and never will be."
"Young ladies, come to order," said Hilda in a severe tone, "and listen to my tale of woe. After the Harding dinner I go to the opera with the Harding party, and then, with my chaperone, that pink of propriety, Mrs. Warren, I attend the Pachmann reception at the Rutherfords. Now, if your scrubwoman can name a longer, harder, or——"
"More soul and brain enervating list," continued Evelyn.
"I should be pleased—I mean pained to hear it," concluded Hilda.
"And what does it all amount to?" asked Evelyn. "Will any one tell me what you are working for?"
"A settlement," said Nannie promptly. "I'm the only niece of poor but impecunious relatives, and they expect me to do my best and marry well."
"Goodness, child!" exclaimed Hilda, "I hope you don't tell the brutal, cold-blooded truth in society!"
"Why, no, that isn't it," said Puddy. "We are going out to have a good time."
"Oh, you slaves and bondwomen!" exclaimed Evelyn. "You don't know what a good time means. I must be off. Adieu, seneschals." And with a pitying smile she left them.
She was a handsome, spirited-looking girl, with a queenly carriage. As she went out of the house Constance Leigh came by, and the two walked off together.
"There's a pair of them," Hilda remarked.
"Awfully nice girls," said Nannie.
"Oh, yes, but they're rabid. Constance Leigh is as independent as a March hare, and Evelyn is perfectly fierce for reforms now."
"What, a socialist?" asked Prudence.
"No, not exactly, but she gathers the most awful class of people about her, and fairly bristles with indignation if one ventures to criticise them."
"What do you mean—criminals?" asked Prudence.
"You'd think so if you chanced to run into one of them. Why, last Sunday evening she had an inebriate up to tea with her; next Sunday she expects a wife-beater, or choker, or something of that sort, and the other day, when I was coming out from a call on her, I met a black-browed, desperately wicked-looking man—as big as a mountain. I know he was a murderer or something. I never was so frightened in my life. Why, I took to my heels and ran the length of the street. I presume he was after me, but I didn't dare look behind."
"You needn't have worried, Hilda," said Prudence. "You know big men never run after you."
It was a notorious fact that most of Hilda's admirers were about half her size.
"Oh, yes. That holds good in society, but I don't know what might obtain in criminal circles."
"Hilda, did your villain carry a cane and wear glasses?"
"I was too frightened to notice, but I believe he flourished a stout stick of some sort, and I do remember a wicked gleam about his eyes—might have been spectacles."
The girls burst out laughing.
"Why, it's Professor Thing-a-my-Bob, or Dry-as-Dust, or somebody or other, from Washington. He's her fiance."
"Well, I don't care if he is," persisted Hilda. "He's a wicked-looking villain."
"Oh!" screamed the girls, and then Prudence added, with mock solemnity:
"Any one who could talk slightingly of a genuine college professor would speak disrespectfully of the equator or be sassy to the dictionary."
"I'd just enjoy telling the poor old proff what Hilda——" began Nannie, but the persevering president interrupted her.
"Young ladies, you will now come to order and consider the subject in hand."
"Which hand? Or in other words, where's that article? I should like to see it," said Hilda.
"It appeared in the Tribune, but I didn't see it," said Puddy, "but I can give you some little bits, here and there, that I jotted down as George Daly read them. Now listen."
"Order," said the president.
"'First catch your fish,'" Puddy read impressively, looking around for approval.
"First go a-fishing, I should say," said Hilda.
"'Don't hang up your fish on a hook in the housekeeper's department and think your work is done.'"
"That's Hugh Millett," murmured the president. "I don't think he's been home since he returned from his wedding trip."
"'Start with a clear fire, not too hot. Don't pile on all the wood and coal at once, for if the fire burns down before your fish is done it will be quite spoiled.'"
"Well, Mrs. Munsey is a spoiled fish, then," said Hilda. "Don't you remember, Prue, how Will Munsey heaped on the lovering at first? It was four inches deep—lovey this and dovey that till it fairly cloyed one. But the fire went out long ago. There's no spark or sparking on that hearth now."
"'Don't think, after the cooking is well under way, that you can leave it to take care of itself.' I had something more," said Puddy, fumbling in her reticule for another bit of paper. "Oh, here it is: 'Don't stuff your fish with dried crusts composed of the way your mother used to do this.' And here's another: 'Some husbands, after making it so hot in private that their poor wives are nearly reduced to a cinder, serve them up in public with a cold shoulder. Others toss them carelessly into a kettle to simmer from morning till night over the nursery fire.'"
"I'm going," said Nannie abruptly, and without further ceremony she departed, just as Evelyn Rogers came in again.
"Nannie Branscome is a perfect——" Hilda began.
"Sh-h!" said the president.
"Well, I trust she'll settle in a heavily wooded country, for the cooking she'll require before she's palatable would break a millionaire if fuel was dear."
"Oh! she'll do well enough when she has her growth," said Prudence in her dry way.
Nannie's growth was a subject of jest among her mates. At sixteen she suddenly thrust her foot forward into womanhood with saucy bravado, as it seemed. At seventeen she snatched it back—pettishly, some said, but there were those who looked deeper, and they discerned a certain vague terror in the movement—a dread of the unknown. Since that time—almost a year now—Nannie had been hovering on the border line, something like a ghost that has ceased to be an inhabitant of this world and yet refuses to be well laid.
"Now listen to this, girls," said Puddy, who was intent on reading her excerpts to the bitter end. "'If a wife is allowed to boil at all, she always boils over.'"
"It would require a high temperature to boil you, Hilda," said Prudence with a laugh, for Hilda's good-nature had passed into proverb.
The girl looked down from her five feet nine inches of height with her easy, comfortable smile.
"Why? Because of my altitude?" she asked.
"'And you will be sure to scald your fingers and get the worst of it,'" Puddy went on relentlessly.
This struck Evelyn's fancy and she exclaimed:
"Girls, I can just see Nannie's husband sitting in the doorway of their cabin blowing his fingers and wincing."
"Can you?" said a voice, and the girls started as they saw Nannie standing between the curtains of the folding doors.
Sometimes she resembled an elf in her weird beauty; just now she looked more like an imp.
Something disagreeable might have ensued, for Nannie's temper was uncertain and undisciplined, but Prudence said in a presidential tone:
"Young ladies, it is for you to decide how you will be served up in future. Will some one please make a motion?"
"Oh, let's decide how each other will be served," said Hilda. "You know at church nobody applies any of the sermon to himself, but fits it all on to his neighbors."
"Evelyn will be raked over the coals," said Nannie in a low, intense voice.
Evelyn's handsome face flushed and her lips parted for a retort, but Hilda exclaimed:
"Puddy will be made into delicious round croquets," and she smacked her lips with anticipatory relish.
"Hilda'll be kept in a nice continual stew," retorted Puddy.
"Nannie'll be parboiled, fried, fricasseed——" began Hilda, but Nannie exclaimed:
"No, I'll be roasted—you see if I'm not!"
"Prue will be baked in a genteel, modern way," said Evelyn.
"Yes!" shouted Hilda, to get above the noise. "Girls, mark my words. Some day Mr. Smith, Brown, or Jones, whoever he is, will invite us all to a clambake, and when we arrive we'll find it's just dear old Prue served up."
This hit at Prudence's usual silence struck the company forcibly, and after a little more from the recipe they broke up with noisy mirth.
On the doorstep Nannie paused and looked about her. Puddy's last extract from the article under discussion was wandering through her brain, something as a cat wanders through a strange house.
"Order a dressing as rich and as plentiful as you can afford."
Nannie understood this well enough. She was wearing such a dressing at that very moment, but the next sentence puzzled her.
"If you can't afford the best, heap your fish with crumbs of comfort. Press some of these into pretty shapes, such as hearts, and roses, and true lovers' knots. If you have neither the patience nor the skill to follow these directions, take my advice and don't go a-fishing."
Nannie had never received a caress at home in her life and very few abroad, for she was not one to form close friendships among the girls. Her parents had died before she could become acquainted with them, and the aunt who had reared her was a worldly woman who looked upon her merely as a valuable piece of social property. Nannie's lack of popularity was disappointing, but the aunt still hoped that her unusual beauty would atone for her brusqueness, crudity, and lack of tact, and she would form a rich alliance. Between her aunt and uncle there had never been, to Nannie's knowledge, the slightest expression of affection, and so when one spoke of "hearts and roses" and "true lovers' knots" in a domestic connection, the words fell strangely upon the girl's ears.
The sun was streaming through the trees that lined the broad, handsome avenue as the merry group broke up. Happy children, their dear little bodies tastefully clothed and their dear little faces wreathed in smiles, flitted about here and there at play, like pretty elves. Now and then some one or more of them would run, with shouts of glee, to welcome a home-coming father.
In the heart of a more womanly, more happily trained girl, all this would have awakened tender yearnings. It awakened a feeling in Nannie's heart—just what it meant she could not have told—but this vague, unused something was soon swept one side by a more comical image. As she looked at the handsome dwellings she seemed to hear a voice calling:
"Wives for dinner! wives for dinner!"
And from the household altars there rose the smoke of unique dishes—domestic fries, feminine roasts, conjugal stews, in highly colored family jars.
"Come, ducky, come and be cooked!" sounded in her ears.
"No, I thank you," said Nannie audibly.
And she hurried down the avenue.
One evening a few weeks previous to the formation of the Young Woman's Club—for an infant society of that name dated from the burlesque meeting just described—Randolph Chance was seated in the room of his nearest friend and was talking over the events of the day. Ordinarily he was not free of speech, but with this man he could think aloud. There are folk whose very presence is enough to shut one up with a snap as the wrong touch closes the shell of a clam; there are others who act upon us as heaven's own sun and dew act upon the flowers.
For a time after Randolph had taken his accustomed seat—an old chair in an ingle-nook of the fireplace—he was silent, possibly through physical disability, for there was no elevator at night, and nine flights of stairs is not provocative of conversation; or he may have been awed into silence, for he often told Steve that he was nearer heaven than he would ever be again in all probability. Be that as it may, he sat there enjoying his thoughts and the restful atmosphere of the room. Quite unlike a bachelor's apartment, this; as unlike as many another belonging to that particular branch of the genus homo—rooms in which we would probably receive a mild shock and be compelled to rebuild our entire structure of theories on the subject of the helplessness, uncomfortableness, and general miserableness of that specimen known as bachelor. To be sure, Steve Loveland was fortunate in the selection of his rookery, but that might be called an outcome of his genius—a genius with which bachelors are not supposed to be blessed. At first glance, one who had no such gift for situation would not have considered such a spot favorable for the construction of a home—if this word may, for a moment, be snatched from the wedded portion of the human race—but the artist in Steve recognized its possibilities.
Carnot Fonnac, who originally reared and owned the building under discussion, was himself a wretched, reprehensible bachelor, but being also a Frenchman he possessed some taste; and intending to make his abode in the sky-parlor of his structure, he so planned it that there was a hint of grace and beauty in its arches and dimensions, as well as of expanse. An English friend suggested the fireplace, and he had the good sense to act upon this most sensible advice. After Fonnac's death his building went into retirement, so to speak; fashion minced off in another direction and left it to its grief, so now, at the remove of some fifteen years, Steve Loveland obtained the rental of the attic for a mere song, and here he cast his lot, for he was his own housekeeper. A few screens skillfully arranged reduced the apparent size of the apartment; some old-fashioned furniture his mother spared him made it homelike and comfortable; an air-tight stove on the one side (there were two chimneys) held Boreas at bay, while on the other a little basket grate of coals, setting like a ruddy gem in the center of the ample fireplace, was at once an element of good cheer and a respecter of the law of economy.
On this particular evening the cronies sat in their accustomed places within the fireplace, one on either side; a little stand, on which were set a couple of plates of crackers and cheese, stood near by, and a pot of oysters, cheerily simmering, hung from the crane above the fire.
Randolph was silent; so was Steve—the latter never talked; in place of words he used the poker—not in any fiendish way; heaven forbid! but in a mild, unobtrusive manner, intelligible only to himself and Randolph. In this system of fireworks stenography, so to speak, a series of slow, deliberate pokes under the fire implied contemplation; poking down from above stood for disagreement; while thrusts of the poker between the ribs of the grate expressed sympathy or agitation.
"Steve," said Randolph—his chair was tilted against the brick side wall of the chimney, and he was leaning back, with his hands clasped behind his head—"I tell you she's a pretty nice girl; an awfully sensible girl; one of the kind that sets your brain to jogging. It's easy to talk to her, she's so suggestive, wide awake, and at the same time she's restful, too. She's none of your hoity-toity characters, one thing one day and another the next, so you never know where you stand with them. You can feel secure with her. I feel as if I had known her all my life; there's the most perfect understanding between us; we don't have to talk; I think she knows my thoughts, and I'm certain I know hers. Awfully nice girl; one of the nicest I ever knew."
"Must be," said Steve gently.
After this there was some talk of a desultory sort, some solicitous watching of the oysters that were singing softly preparatory to boiling, and then Randolph bethought him of a conversation he overheard on the train that day and repeated it to Loveland, who sat bending over toward the fire, his elbows resting on his knees and poker in hand ready for action.
"I tell you, Steve, it sets one thinking to get at the woman's side of the matter," said Randolph. "I've been idiot enough to suppose they thought just as we do on most subjects."
Loveland smiled and poked the fire gently from above.
"You know we've always been taught that women were naturally dependent, and I supposed it was second nature for them to receive money from their husbands, and so they got enough they cared no more about it. Do you think many of them feel like that woman in the car?"
Loveland poked the fire from beneath and then sighed helplessly.
"Can't say, I'm sure," he replied in his gentle, hesitant way. "They don't seem to go according to tradition in anything, so far as I've noticed. They're a peculiar race."
"Oh, I don't know about that," said Randolph in a practical tone. "It's pretty easy to understand, once your attention's called to it. I'd never given the subject any thought, but if one chooses to observe he can very soon find out what's what. Some men are idiots and won't learn, so they get in a mess.
"It's natural for you to be mystified, Steve," continued Randolph after a short pause, "but you see I have a sister and I know all about women. You can judge of the rest by any one of them. They're pretty much alike."
Loveland gave the top of the fire a few little jabs.
"Yes, I know," said Randolph. "You have mother and sister both, but you haven't lived with them for years. If you don't actually live in the same house with women you can't know them. Of course even then you may be in the dark on a point or two, as I was on the money question, but you can soon learn. All a woman wants is fair treatment. If a man drinks and makes a beast of himself or sulks around in place of telling her what he don't like and letting her change it, of course she isn't going to be happy. It's easy as rolling off a log to manage a woman."
Loveland rose and thrust the poker down through the top crust of the fire and left it standing there.
"As far as management goes," Randolph went on unheedingly, "leaving morality, and expense, and all that out of the question, I'd just as soon turn Mormon and marry forty women."
Here Loveland stabbed the fire clear through the body, bringing the poker out on the under side and against the hearth with a force that bent its glowing point.
"The stew's done," he said. "We'll dish up now."
This little scene, or rather the conversation that seasoned the stew, soon faded from Randolph's memory, but it lingered in the mind of his companion. Men like the latter, little given to speech, are apt to turn and re-turn in thought what has been said to them, and therefore do not easily forget.
Several weeks after this the two men sat on the bachelor hearth once more; Loveland in his usual quiet mood and Chance smarting from a recent wound. He had begun to feel that his position was almost secure with Miss Leigh, but that day, on the occasion of a picnic at which he had amused himself by trifling with a silly young girl, he was amazed, mortified, and hurt by receiving the cold shoulder when he proffered his company to Miss Leigh on the way home.
His friend's hospitable hearth had more than once proven a refuge and a solace. It was so to-night, and Randolph began to take heart again as he settled back in his comfortable chair in the ingle-nook and watched the hanging of the oyster stew upon the crane.
For a time the gentle simmering of the appetizing dish was the only sound to be heard. Randolph did not feel like talking or even listening, and his companion knew how to hold his peace.
Steve Loveland was one of those men whose intuitive sense is as fine as a woman's; of delicate physique, strong brain, and a sensitive temperament that might have gone off on a morbid tangent but for the common sense, cheerfulness, and unselfishness that held it true to the course. The last man in the world to lead a lonely life, but there was an invalid mother and a delicate sister in a pretty little country town home some two hundred miles away, and that was why Steve had no home of his own. Loving nature as I think most men of fine, sensitive fiber do, yearning for wife, and children, and hearthstone, as every good man must, he had cheerfully and forever put one side all hope of fulfilling these holy dreams and had taken his place on the force of a daily paper, never thinking he was a hero. His comrades never thought of that, either; they only knew that he was always pleasant, always considerate, always every inch a man, and they loved him with one accord.
It was to such a friend as this that Randolph had given his heart, for although he did not fully understand him, he loved him, and the answering affection he received was one of the most beautiful of tributes to his own fine qualities.
When Randolph was ready to talk he told the story of the day—its hope, its disappointment, and humiliation.
"It beats the Dutch, Steve. I can't think what was the matter. There wasn't a thing I did or a word I said to make her behave so."
Steve was softly poking the fire from above. The night was quite cool for June.
"No, there was not," Randolph reaffirmed. "I've gone over the whole day again and again. I didn't give her the least excuse. What do you suppose was the matter with her?"
Steve looked up with an almost startled air.
"Oh, I'm sure I can't say. They're quite beyond me."
"They're beyond every one," said Randolph in the tone of a Supreme Court judge. "I don't see what the Lord made them for."
Steve looked up again and there was the least suspicion of a twinkle in his eye.
"How is it," he asked in his gentle way—"how many of them is it you are prepared to manage?"
Randolph brought his chair down on its four legs.
"Not a confounded one!" he said.
For a time Randolph Chance was fairly dazed by the suddenness with which his fortune changed. Yesterday it was down—deep down; to-day it had gone flying up. He had followed Constance Leigh when she walked to the lake in the afternoon; had helped her from a perilous place in the midst of rough winds and still rougher waves; and as he took her from the pier their eyes had met, and this was why, later on, he sat by his friend's fireside in a state of bewildered rapture.
An outsider, one of the world's common folk, would have made but little out of Randolph's brief, rough-hewn sentences. But Loveland was finely strung; he understood.
"I can't forget that look. It breaks me all up every time I think of it."
Randolph spoke like a man who was talking to himself.
"It's so unreal—I may have dreamed it," he went on slowly. "I tell you, Steve"—this with a sudden turn—"I don't dare to hope, but if——"
There was no perceptible tremor in his voice, but the sentence broke sharply.
"I know, old man, I know," said Steve in his gentlest voice.
And he poked the fire softly between the ribs of the grate.
It seemed that Randolph's hope was not without foundation, for after he had been the toy of fate somewhat longer he came to Steve one night with great news, and yet no news to Steve, who had long discerned the signs of the times and had been dreading what he saw must come. Now, although he felt sharp pangs of grief on seeing his boon and sole companion snatched from him and about to be offered up upon the altar matrimonial, yet he rejoiced thereat with the full force of his unselfish nature.
On this especial night the two men sat beside the fire, and also beside some of the last oysters that would ever be served up with the spicy sauce of this same good comradeship. As befitted so memorable an occasion, the oysters were big fellows and were frying gloriously.
Randolph, who was in great good spirits, leaned over and lifted them carefully with a fork he held in hand.
"Here we are!" he exclaimed. "Things are done brown now!"
Then the two men looked up at each other and burst out laughing.
There was one important ceremony which Randolph felt must precede the marriage service, and that was the introduction of his bosom friend to his fiancee.
"I've been puzzling my brains to think how I can bring this about," he said to Constance one day. "I've already hinted at it to Steve, but he don't take. I know he wants to meet you, but he's such a retiring fellow—not really bashful, but like a clam in his shell."
"Don't distress yourself, I beg of you," said Constance with a mischievous smile. "Mr. Loveland and I have already met and are now the best of friends."
Randolph stared at her in open-mouthed amazement.
"Where?" he managed to ask.
"Right here in this parlor. I must tell you about it—it was most beautiful. His card took me by surprise, but I supposed you had brought him. When I came downstairs there he was, looking altogether different from your descriptions."
"Well, I like that!" said Randolph. "Do you mean to impeach my statements?"
"Altogether better," persisted Constance. "Yes, he is taller and has a most interesting face. He came forward to greet me without a particle of embarrassment, and there was something so manly and simple, and withal so high-bred in his every movement, that I was charmed. I know he must come of a fine family."
"Oh, he does. He had a line of ancestors a mile long aboard the Mayflower. A cousin of his was telling me. He never said a word. He never talks."
"Ah!" said Constance with an arch smile. "He talked that evening, I assure you, and to good effect. He had but a few moments to stay, but he made every moment tell. For one thing, he assured me, with a most winning smile, that he should feel constrained to rise in church and forbid the banns unless I promised to adopt him as a brother."
Randolph's eyes and mouth opened again.
"Perhaps you'd better adopt him as something still nearer!" he said, with a pretense of anger.
"Now that you mention it," Constance replied in a confidential tone, "I came very near doing so. The only reason I did not was that he forgot to ask me."
Randolph broke into a laugh. Then he added in a puzzled tone:
"Well, it beats everything! In all the ten years I've known him I've never heard him say as much as that!"
"I can't repeat all he said——" Constance began again.
"What!" Randolph cried with another semblance of jealousy.
"No, because it lay in his manner; that gentle, affectionate, yet manly manner—indescribable! perfectly indescribable!"
"It's the same to everybody," said Randolph, "and everybody loves him. I never knew another such fellow. It's past belief the way he wins people. And he says nothing, too."
"Ah, but he does!" repeated Constance. "Well, well, there's no telling it all. I continually think of the word delightful in recurring to it and him. I assured him that he would be a member of our family, and that our fireside and our crust—I really didn't dare to promise more than a crust, you know, Randolph—would be his as well as ours. When he left he said good-by in the same perfectly easy, natural way, calling me Constance——"
"What?" Randolph exclaimed.
"And then he said, 'I am a brother now, you know,' and he bent and kissed me."
"The dickens!" cried Randolph.
And Constance finished the sentence.
"He did. And really in the most delightful way," she added naively.
Shortly after this cementing of new bonds there was a quiet wedding ceremony one morning at the little suburban church, and when this was over Randolph and Constance were ready for their walk through life.
This walk—sometimes quickened into a jog trot and even into a lope, sometimes slackened till it becomes a crawl—is variously diversified, according to the temper and general disposition of the parties. In the present instance there was reasonable hope of some harmony of gait, but life is life, whether within or without the wedded fold, and "human natur' is human natur';" and although David Harum may tell us that some folks have more of this commodity than others, yet we know that every one has a lump of it, at least, and usually, thank God! a lump of leaven as well.
The first agitating question upon marriage is that of residence. Happily Randolph and Constance were agreed upon this point. Both were indifferent to the city; both were lovers of the country. Randolph had once read a certain sweet pastoral termed "Liberty and a Living," and hardly a day had passed since the reading that he had not recalled it and speculated as to how he could adjust it to his own life.
The fact that the writer, like himself, was a journalist; that he broke loose from just such shackles as were wearing Randolph's pleasure in life, made it seem more possible to the latter, and now that he had joined hands with a woman of similar tastes, the experiment seemed really feasible.
"It's easy enough if we'll only think so," said Randolph.
"It looks easy," Constance replied more cautiously; "that's one reason why I am afraid of it. That proves to me that we don't know anything about it. If it were really so easy more people would try it. We're not the only ones who love the country."
"I wonder more people don't try it," Randolph exclaimed. "When I look around me in the train and see the care-worn, harassed faces the men wear, I wonder they don't break loose from their drudgery and go to living. What's the use of existing if you have to drudge continually for your bread, and must eat even that in debt half the time?"
"We may have to do without bread," said Constance, smiling.
"Then we'll eat cake, as Marie Antoinette suggested," Randolph responded promptly.
There really was some practical preparation for the proposed country life, although many of the plans seemed visionary enough. Randolph had long been considering an offer from a local magazine that would enable him to do most of his work at home, but the pay was smaller and less certain than he could wish. However, he at last decided to resign from the newspaper force with which he had for years been connected and to risk taking the other position.
Now, happily, he had done good, faithful work in his present place and was highly esteemed. Consequently, as soon as the editor of the paper learned why he was going and what he wanted, he offered him the editorship of the literary department in the Saturday issue, at a smaller salary than he had been receiving, to be sure, but still a larger and more certain one than he could earn on the magazine, and this he accepted and went on his way with much rejoicing.
"I'll only have to go into the city once a week now," he said to Constance, "and my literary work at home won't require over three hours a day. That's something like living!"
Constance was as delighted as he, but she was more cautious and said less. She once remarked in this connection that she intended to borrow a motto from Steve's coat of arms—"Mum's the Word."
During the past few years Randolph's expenses had been small and his earnings considerable; consequently he had quite a goodly sum in bank. With a portion of this he and Constance bought a small place in the country, happening on a genuine bargain, as one will if he has cash in hand. The house was little more than a cabin, and they decided to devote it to their servants—a married pair—while they built a cottage for their own use.
The latter deserves more than a passing word. Both Randolph and Constance had "Liberty and a Living" in mind when they planned it, and although it did not precisely repeat that charming little domicile, yet it was built in much the same style. The one big room—library, dining-room, and sometime kitchen combined—looked out from three sides. In the early morning it saw the clouds piled up in expectant glory over the way across the surging lake; toward evening its windows to the left blazed their farewell as day sailed into the west; while golden sunbeams played at hide-and-go-seek among its pretty furnishings throughout the midway hours. Even on cold, cloudy days there was still good cheer, for a big log fire crackled on the ample hearth beneath the oaken mantel, whereon a glowing iron had etched Cowper's invitation (who could say it nay?):
"Nor stir the fire and close the shutters fast; Let fall the curtains; Wheel the sofa round; And while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn Throws up a steamy column, and the cups That cheer, but not inebriate, wait on each, So let us welcome cheerful evening in."
The very furnishings of this library were intellectually and spiritually appetizing. A large desk, off one side, bespoke brain work; a solid center-table, strewn with books and magazines, made one long for the glow of the big lamp and the leisure of the evening, while Constance's grand piano seemed to stir the very air with a dream of harmony. The room was lined with low book-cases; above Shakespeare stood his bust; above the many volumes on musical themes, busts of Beethoven and Wagner; pictures—not costly paintings, but engravings, photo-gravures, and etchings, scenes from other lands, sweet spiritual faces, suggestions of great lives—looked down from the walls; while over all, as a frieze to the oaken room, ran the words: "'Tis love that makes the world go round."
To Steve Loveland this home seemed more like Paradise than mortal abode. He watched its building and making with as intense an interest as Randolph's and with far more of sentiment. Marriage to him meant Elysium—the inexpressible, the unattainable; more so than ever now. But whatever yearnings the sweet little nest awoke in the breast of this lonely outsider, his duty and purpose remained fixed.
In the fall of the year, when the grapes hung in luscious bunches on the slender vine; when country by-lanes were mellow with a wealth of sumach and maple coloring; when Nature was saying farewell in her own sweet way, at once so festive and so melancholy, then Constance and Randolph turned their backs on the din and confusion of the city, and seeking the happy woodlands, entered their own little home.
On that very same day Steve received a summons to his sister, who lived with her mother in the little country town. There he was witness to a short, sharp contest with pneumonia; then came a defeat; and then a quiet burial in the village churchyard; next a sinking from hour to hour of the invalid mother whose prop and stay had been taken from beneath her; a second calling of friends to the stricken home; and ere two weeks of absence had been told, Steve found himself alone in the world, as far as any near of kin were concerned.
His grief was quiet, but very poignant. The old bachelor lodgings became unendurable. Randolph had gone to a home of his own, and Steve could not sit there alone, listening to the clods of earth as they fell on mother and Mary.
Both Randolph and Constance stretched out tender, sympathizing hands to the lonely man, and would have been glad had he consented to widen their fireside circle by his presence, but beyond an occasional visit Steve did not feel that he could go to them. He had long been independent—he was over thirty now, and he was not ready to merge his life into the life of another household. Still less was he willing to intrude his continued presence upon a newly married couple. The life there was sacred to him, and although he felt himself next of kin, almost, to its inmates, he shrank from robbing them of their right to be alone.
Go somewhere he must, however, so he gathered a few of his effects and prepared for a flitting—where he hardly knew when he set out, but he chanced to alight in the domicile of some elderly friends, who were delighted to give him house and table room in their rather solitary home.
It chanced that Steve's new rookery (he was in the fourth story) was quite near Mrs. Lamont's handsome house, and Mrs. Lamont was the aunt of Nannie Branscome—bewitching, provoking, maddening Nannie Branscome; uncured, unbaked, indigestible little Nannie Branscome—and they met, to quote from Kate Douglas Wiggin, "every once in so often."
Careless, irresponsible Nannie Branscome! growing wild in the garden.
But the cook was near at hand and the fire was lighted.
What manner of cook? A chef or a stupid mixer of messes?
It was bleak and drear. A raw, angry wind came out of the north and went raging through the woods, tearing the pretty clothing of the trees to pieces and rudely hurling the dust of the street in one's face. The sun got behind the clouds and in grief and dismay hid his face while this dismal looting went on unrebuked and unrestrained. But Nature is fickle, possibly because she is feminine. At all events, she can change both mind and conduct, and in short order. So ere long she came out of her November rage and sat down in still, mellow sunshine, and gathering her children about her, whispered beautiful stories in their ears; warmed them with her love and brightness; soothed their care-lined brows and filled their hearts with a sense of the nearness of the Giver of all good.
It was on one of these days of Indian summer that Steve cut loose from work and started off on a tramp. He worked in town; he rested in country.
He had put something like five miles of woodland and late fall meadow between himself and the distractions of city life, when looking adown a path that sloped gently to a brook he saw, sitting on a tree that lay athwart the stream and paddling her white feet in the sunny water, Nannie Branscome. His surprise robbed him of his reserve and he hastened to her.
"Are you lost, Miss Branscome?"
"Yes," she answered calmly.
She still sat there, paddling her feet, with nothing of consternation or perplexity in her face or manner. All around her were the browns of a summer that had come and gone; heaps of dead leaves nestled close to the trees, mute witnesses of a lost beauty; while here and there an ox-eyed daisy glowed from out its somber company as a firefly shines through the dusk of twilight. In the midst of all this sat Nannie in her pretty suit trimmed in scarlet, looking like a bird of paradise amid a flock of sparrows and other soberly clad creatures. Indeed, she reminded one of a bird, with her head cocked on one side and her air—not bold, but saucy.
Steve stood on the bank of the creek, perplexed for a moment. Then he asked with a slight smile:
"What are you going to do about it?"
The girl lowered her head a trifle and looked out at him from 'neath her curls, but she said nothing.
"Let us go home, Miss Branscome."
She continued looking at him without a word, and he returned her gaze as he stood there with a gentle dignity that had its effect upon her.
"Barefooted?" she asked.
"No. I am going to explore this creek for a little distance, and you can get ready while I'm gone."
"But suppose my shoes and stockings have floated down the stream? What then?"
Steve was dismayed, but he maintained his quiet air.
"Suppose," persisted Nannie.
Just then Steve caught a glimpse of a tiny shoe at the foot of a near tree.
"And suppose," he said, "they have not, but are awaiting their owner over yonder?"
Nannie laughed and looked around and Steve walked on.
When he returned she was ready, and they set off together toward town.
"Were you really lost?" asked Steve.
"Yes. I've been wandering around for at least two hours."
"How came you to go out there?" he asked.
"I was expected to go somewhere else," she answered with one of her elfin looks.
Steve was silent. Mentally he was wondering if this was the mainspring of conduct in all women. He thought very likely it was. Mary often asked his advice and then always took her own way, and it was invariably opposite to the course he had indicated.
They had not gone much further, when, happening to look around for something, Nannie caught a glimpse of her dress skirt and saw that it was creased and stained with mud.
"There now! I've just ruined my gown!" she exclaimed, and then burst into passionate tears.
"Miss Branscome! don't!" said Steve, who was fairly startled out of his usual quiet into something akin to excitement. "Don't! I beg of you. Nannie! don't cry, my dear!"
He failed to notice how he had spoken; so did she, apparently.
"We can make it all right, I know," he continued, but for a time she refused to be comforted.
"You would cry too, I guess, if you were in my place and would get such an awful scolding at home."
"No doubt I would," assented Steve in deep distress.
"I wish I were dead and buried under a landslide," sobbed Nannie.
In the depth of her sorrow she wanted to delve deep into mother earth.
"Oh, no. Don't wish that! What should we do without you?" said Steve earnestly.
"Oh, you needn't to worry," replied Nannie pettishly, the violence of her grief having spent itself. "Nothing so good as that is going to happen. I shall live to get home and have my head taken off, and stalk around as a torso ever afterward."
"Now do let me see if I can't set things to rights," said Steve. "You've no idea how handy I am in such matters."
He proved the truth of his words by going to work upon the injured gown, and after patient effort bringing it out of its dilapidated condition in such shape that only a keen eye would detect any sign of mishap.
Nannie was delighted and, stimulated by the excitement attendant upon her rapid change of fortunes, became quite talkative.
"I wouldn't have minded it so much, but I have on one of my best gowns, and Aunt Frances makes such a fuss every time she has to buy me anything. She says it's of no use to spend on me. It don't amount to a row of pins."
Steve looked at her inquiringly. In actual time he was many years her senior, but Nannie had been in society for a season now, and even young girls age fast there—too fast, by far.
"She means I don't bid fair to get married off well. I'm not very popular, you know."
Still Steve was silent. Nannie was speaking in a language of which he was ignorant.
"I dressed this morning to go to Joe Harding's breakfast, but I hate him, and I went walking instead. Now I've got to see some of the girls who went and make up a lot of stuff about it at home, or Aunt Frances'll be awfully mad."
Steve looked into the beautiful face of the young girl who was talking in this repellent fashion. Then he took her gently by the hand and said in a firm, kindly tone:
"Nannie, you must come out of all this."
"How can I?" she asked. "I have no mother or father—no one who really cares. I suppose I'll marry Joe Harding some day. He wants me, and Aunt Frances keeps at me about it eternally, but I hate him."
"You must not marry him," said Steve firmly. "He is not a good man."
"And he's awfully ugly, too, but he's rich, and he's one of the swell set. Ugh! but I do hate him!"
"Why are you going to marry him?"
"Why?" she asked, looking at him with straight, frank surprise. "I've got to. Nobody else wants me."
The pettish look had passed from her face; so also had the world-wise expression. There was something in her present naive frankness that prevented it from seeming bold.
As he looked at her swift images of love and marriage flitted across his brain. Somehow his loneliness was borne in upon him, and with this realization there came as a sudden flash the consciousness that he could marry. Long ago he had put all this one side, and in his grief over the loss of mother and sister it had never once occurred to him that he was free. The knowledge almost overwhelmed him now, and in his bewilderment for the moment he lost sight of his ideal. Like most reticent men, he cherished an ideal. Since meeting Constance Leigh, unconsciously to himself that ideal had grown very like her. But now he was sitting beside a fascinating young girl—for fascinating she was to Steve, even in her brusqueness and plainness of speech; a mere child, as it were, who was without home and without the protection of love and parental care, and as he looked into her eyes, still wet with tears, he felt his heart go out to her.
"Listen to me, Nannie," he said, taking her hand once more. "I am a very lonely man. I need a wife——"
"Come, ducky, come and be killed," flashed through Nannie's mind.
"I think you need me and I'm sure I need you."
"How?" thought Nannie; "fricasseed or boiled?"
"If you would let me I would take you and try——"
"Fry, you mean," said Nannie mentally as he hesitated.
Then with a sudden whirl, peculiar to her gusty temperament, she said to herself:
"He's proposing, and I needn't marry that hideous creature!"
She caught her breath and pressed her hands together.
"Oh, if only I could escape from Joe Harding!" she exclaimed.
Something very holy in Steve's nature came up then and changed the man. No longer shy, no longer reserved, he bent toward Nannie without touching her and said:
"My dear, marriage is a gate at once solemn and beautiful. When it is used as a door of escape it opens into a dark forest abounding with terrible wild beasts and hideous crawling things, but if one opens it with love's key, I can't tell you what it leads to, for I have never been there, but I believe it is the gateway to the Elysium fields that lie just on the hither side of heaven."
Nannie looked up into the grave eyes and saw something of tenderness, something of reverence there that was new to her. She had stepped into an unknown world and was awed. As she sat there all mockery and levity faded from her face, and in its place there crept a look of deep admiration and deep respect for this man, and something awoke in her soul.
She said not a word—she had no words for such as this—but by and by she put her hand into Steve's.
"For life, Nannie?" he asked.
"Yes," she said, and burst into tears.
A lover's ecstasy is ofttimes cut short by the reflection that he has yet to face that awful bugbear—the old folk. There is something terrible about age, it would seem, not only to its possessor, but even to those who must encounter it second hand, and Steve was not without his qualms. Although in his wooing he had not for one moment lost his gentle self-possession, he had entirely forgotten about the ordeal of an interview with Nannie's guardians until she reminded him by saying with an impish chuckle:
"Won't Aunt Frances be happy when she hears of this!"
"Is she anxious that you should marry?" asked Steve with some wonder.
Nannie looked at him with wide eyes for a moment. It seemed hardly possible that one could be so dull of comprehension, and yet there was no doubting Steve's grave, earnest expression.
"Yes," was her only reply, but inwardly she was convulsed with laughter as she looked ahead and in thought rapidly sketched a scene.
And so Steve walked up to his task with but a faint conception of its magnitude.
"I have called, Mrs. Lamont," he said in his easy, gentlemanly way, "to ask for the hand of your niece. Nannie and I have had a little talk about it and understand each other, I think, and now we await your consent."
"You surely don't expect my consent," said Mrs. Lamont.
Steve's shyness and gentleness seemed to return to him.
"I really," he said hesitatingly, "had not thought of any reason why we should not have it."
"Mr. Loveland—well, this is intensely trying to me. You've no idea, I am sure, how I dislike to be so plain; but can you not understand that you are hardly a suitable match for Nannie? You are very poor, I believe."
"Why, no," said Steve gently.
He had a good position on a daily paper and his mother's little property had been disposed of to advantage, so that he had several thousand in bank now. To him, with his small needs and quiet tastes, this seemed like wealth.
"Oh, why will you force me to such brutal plainness!" exclaimed Mrs. Lamont impatiently. "Really this interview will make me ill."
"It may indeed," said Steve.
He had no thought of sarcasm.
"Mr. Loveland, this is a business matter. We must understand each other. You have property, I suppose?"
"Not now; it was sold."
"What do you own, may I ask? Oh, isn't it fearful to have to talk so! But I must lead you to see things clearly."
"I have forty-five hundred dollars in bank and a good situation," said Steve, with a feeling that he was turning his life inside out under a stranger's gaze, and had returned to barbarism and was buying Nannie.
"Bringing you what, may I ask?"
"A hundred and twenty-five a month."
Mrs. Lamont gave a short laugh.
"Why, my dear sir—excuse me, but that would not suffice to keep Nannie's carriage, let alone herself."
"Must she have a carriage?" asked Steve with a lengthening face.
"As a matter of course! Would you expect her to walk?"
Several things flashed through Steve's bewildered brain. Until to-day he had always met Nannie in her own or some other parlor. She had walked to-day, it is true, but perhaps she ought not to have done so. He remembered that when he saw her feet as she was paddling in the brook he thought them wonderfully small. He also recalled the fact that Chinese women of rank have very small feet and cannot walk; possibly Nannie was in a similar predicament.
"Is she deformed?" he gasped.
And then Mrs. Lamont put her handkerchief to her face and wept for vexation.
Meanwhile Steve sat there, bewildered and distressed. He had come to expect this sort of conduct from women in general, but it was harrowing. His poor invalid mother often wept; Mary had cried now and then, poor worn-out girl; and last week, when he was at her house, even Constance had burst into tears when Randolph tried to explain something to her; Nannie had cried that day, and now Mrs. Lamont was weeping. No doubt it was a sort of melancholy punctuation mark in vogue with the sex.
"Evidently we speak different languages, and it is an almost hopeless task to try to explain," said the lady at length; "but Nannie's interests are at stake, and I must attempt it."
She knew only too well how futile it would be to try to influence Nannie. If this affair were ended it must be by Steve.
"Can you not see," she continued, emphasizing every word and speaking in a hard, metallic tone, "that Nannie's position in society calls for certain expenditures which are far beyond your means? As a woman of fashion she will be obliged to keep a carriage and maintain a style of living which would eat up your monthly salary in half a day. She has a suitor of abundant means, a millionaire several times over—Mr. Harding. He is infatuated with her and he will give her everything she can desire."
"But he is a very bad man," said Steve simply.
"Oh, well—really, Mr. Loveland, please don't push me into a discussion of such matters. Few men are saints, and I think he'll make a good husband. He is very rich and he moves in the best circles."
"Does Nannie love him?" asked Steve, and his voice and manner had changed. He spoke very firmly.
"Mr. Loveland, you exhaust me! Some of us who have reached maturity have the good sense to provide for material advantages and take the rest for granted."
"If Nannie loves Mr. Harding and wishes me to withdraw in his favor, I will do so."
"I don't!" said a curt voice, and looking around with a start, Mrs. Lamont beheld her dutiful niece between the portieres.
For a moment nothing was said, but Nannie's appearance did not portend peace. Her eyes looked out wickedly from beneath her curls, and her impish mouth was pursed up in an expression already familiar to her aunt.
"Leave the room instantly!" cried Mrs. Lamont at last with rising anger.
"I won't!" said Nannie shortly.
"Then I will teach you that I also can be firm. I command you to break off this foolish, insane affair at once."
"I won't!" said Nannie.
"Ungrateful minx!" cried Mrs. Lamont. "Here I have dressed you all these years and gone to no end of other expense, and this is how you repay me."
"It is," said Nannie.
Now, Mrs. Lamont was a shrewd, worldly woman, and she took in the situation fully. She realized that Nannie would hold to her own course. She also realized that arguments such as hers were without weight with Steve. These two, then, would marry for all she could say or do, for Nannie was just come of age. Now she had already strained her means to provide for the fashionable necessities of Nannie's debut and society life, and she dreaded her wedding. Had the child married well, however, all the monetary effort attendant upon the occasion could have been repaid afterward—all that and more; but now to have an outlay and no return—that was too much! She would avert it.
"I can do nothing with this saucy, impudent girl, this ungrateful creature, but I appeal to you," she said to Steve, "to let her come to her senses."
It was Mrs. Lamont, he thought, who was worse than mad to try to force a young girl into an odious marriage, and Nannie's rebellion seemed justifiable to him, unused though he himself was to defying any one.
"Nannie and I have decided," he said quietly. "I regret that you feel so."
"You shall never be married from this house!" cried the aunt.
"We can go elsewhere," said Steve, not realizing that he was walking into a net.
"And you may expect a bitter time after this conduct, miss," she added.
"Mrs. Lamont," said Steve, stepping forward and taking Nannie's little hand in his, "you will force us to an earlier marriage than we had contemplated."
And now Steve was well in the toils of the net, and this was how it happened that Mrs. Lamont was spared further expense for her willful niece, and that Steve all but took Randolph's and Constance's breath away by inviting them to a very quiet wedding which was to take place at a church one morning about a week after this stormy scene, and society buzzed like a bee over the elopement, as it called it, and so forth, and so on, and all at once in the midst of the distractions Nannie caught her breath and cried out:
"Why, goodness me! I'm married!"
And Steve received the news with almost equal dismay.
Really, if the Shah of Persia had presented this gentleman with a white elephant, with long flowing trunk and two tails—three or four tails, in fact—and this little gift had been brought up to his room on a silver salver (always supposing that were possible) he could not have felt much more nonplussed as to its proper disposal and care than he did when he suddenly came out of a dream to realize he had a wife on his hands.
"Where do you wish to live, my dear?" he asked in a tone that might imply that he had all Europe and America to draw from as a place of residence.
He was rather expecting Nannie to say that she wished to reside on Calumet Avenue and to have a coach and four purchased that very day.
But nothing could surprise him now, so he received her abrupt answer calmly.
"I want to live in the country, near Mrs. Chance."
Happily this wish was not impossible of fulfillment, so Steve at once consulted his friends, and after much walking about (Nannie could walk) and much discussion, the four agreed upon a small dovecote of a place about a mile from Randolph's and Constance's home—a dear little cottage with enough land about it to raise anything and everything.
Nannie was like a child with a new toy, and her delight lent her a hundred little airs and graces that would only have provoked Mrs. Lamont had she seen them. She always said that the child was rude and stupid in society where she should have done her best, and only fascinating with people who could be of no earthly use to her.
And now the little kitchen was set up, the fire was burning briskly, the cook was at hand, and the delectable, indigestible material was ready for the spit.
Why people born and bred for city life will take to the woods; why people shapen, as it were, for the plow will fly to town, and men built for a naval gait will attempt to sit in high places on shore, is one of those elusive problems that are forever defying solution. We only know that such things exist, and a few of us come up and have a crack at them, as it were, and fail to make the slightest impression on their thick skulls. And still the wonder grows. Now it is a naval hero come ashore from seas where he was master of the situation, laden with honors and refulgent with glory sufficient for the lifetime of ten reasonable men, who straightway begins to covet a chair of whose very shape and proportions he is ignorant, and in which he can only be conspicuous as a melancholy misfit. O Heroism! why failest them to reach the judgment? O Glory! why canst thou not touch up the common sense? Anon we have a yeoman who has struck oil and has been thrown up on high by its monetary power, forsaking the obscure nook for which nature shaped him and attempting to sit in our drawing-room, eat at our dinner-table, and obtrude his rich vulgarity upon gentler guests.
It was in accordance with this lamentable fashion of undertaking that for which they have no gift; this rushing in of certain folk where angels fear to tread, that Steve turned farmer. Not that he gave up his situation on the paper. Ah, no! He tried to be that which no man could be successfully without supernatural aid—journalist and farmer both. His work in the city had for some time been such that he could do much of it in his room if he chose; indeed, there were times—a day, occasionally—when it was not necessary to go near the office. Consequently when he repaired to the country with his unique wife, he thought his affairs were admirably adapted to a dual existence.
It was in the merry month of April when they landed. I use the latter term advisedly, for they were indeed upon a foreign shore. All about them Nature was giving evidence of a present awakening from her long nap. With her quickening circulation there was increased warmth, and in this the snow speedily slipped away. A chorus of songsters came out to greet the newly wedded pair, and sang so sweetly of love that Steve's delicate, sensitive nature thrilled in response. Nannie listened and looked at them askance, but to her they spoke, like our opera singers, in a foreign tongue.
Now, this breaking Steve from off his natural tree and grafting him upon an alien bough occasioned some changes. From being cheerful, slow, and gentle he suddenly became anxious, hasty, and at times dictatorial.
"You must have a garden," one of his neighbors said.
Steve went to work like a galley slave upon his spare days, and dug, and raked, and planted.
"You must keep bees," said another of the neighbors.
Steve bought two hives at once.
"You must keep chickens," said another neighbor, a sort of two-edged woman, who dwelt over across the swamp and whose scolding voice could be heard for miles.
So Steve bought thirteen hens and a rooster.
"You must have a cow," said a fourth neighbor, and he promptly sold Steve a cantankerous beast that wanted to rival him in authority, and indeed for a time ran the place.
"You must have a cat," said an old woman who wanted to get rid of an unamiable Thomas, and Steve brought him home in a sack caterwauling all the way.
"You must get a dog," said a man who had a bull terrier for sale.
"I've got one!" bawled Steve—the man was deaf.
"No, Scotch! and he's all I want!" and Steve closed the front door with needless vigor.
"What did you buy those nasty hens for?" asked Nannie, who did not like chickens.
"Oh, they'll give us something good to eat. It will be so nice to go out every morning and bring in some new-laid eggs for breakfast. You'll like to do that, Nannie."
"I guess you'd better," she said with a peculiar look.
So the next morning Steve tiptoed out, through the wet grass, to the hen-house, in his dressing-gown and slippers, he was so eager to pluck this new fruit.
He came in empty-handed, but cheerful.
"We could hardly expect them to lay the first day; they have got to get their bearings."
Every morning before breakfast Steve took this little walk. There was soon a well-beaten track between the back door and the hen-house. He always returned empty-handed, and Nannie watched with an impish smile from an upper window.
One morning she came upon him in the act of taking off a white door-knob.
"What are you doing?" she demanded.
He looked guilty, but answered with a fair show of spirit:
"I'm going to put this in one of the nests. You see, they must think a hen has been there and laid it."
Nannie burst into a laugh.
"Well, I wouldn't waste time eating the eggs of hens that would be such fools as to think any poor old chicken had laid that door-knob!"
But Steve put it in, nevertheless.
And still morning after morning, with lowered head and dragging footstep, he returned to the house alone—still alone; not so much as a single egg as companion.
Then it was that a pair of imp-like, black eyes danced 'neath the careless ringlets above them.
"How would you like your door-knob this morning—hard or soft?"
This raillery went on day after day until even Steve—gentle, patient Steve had enough.
He looked up at the window and said quietly, but firmly:
"There, Nannie, drop it, if you please."
"On toast?" she screamed, and Steve went into the house.
But his triumph was near at hand, for one morning, about four weeks after he had bought the chickens, he discovered something besides the door-knob in one of the nests, and forthwith came strutting toward the house, holding the egg on high that Nannie might see it from the window of her room.
Hearing no noise he looked up. Was she dead? Ah, no! There she sat, straining her eyes through a field-glass to see the yield of his first month.
"Mix well," she called to him, "thirteen hens, one rooster, one door-knob, and one month, and you'll have a delicious egg."
And again Steve got into the house.
He was obliged to come out again later on, for there were many things upon this miniature plantation which were clamoring for attention. Indeed, Steve was slowly coming to believe in communities, such associations meaning in his mind a body of men banded together to run a small acre of ground; one man attending to the chickens, one to the fruit trees, one to the vegetable garden, one to the horse, several to the cow, and so on. It will be seen later on why, in this distribution of labor, Steve always assigned several men—able-bodied at that—to the cow. It has already been mentioned that he was persuaded early in his matrimonial career to buy a beast of this variety. This beautiful animal (for she was handsome, unless she be judged by the homely rule that regulates beauty by conduct) he immediately presented to Nannie. Whether she was originally vicious (and this her former owner vehemently denied) or was affected by the nature of her mistress, no one knows. Suffice it to say that upon Nannie's flying out of the house to gaze upon her new possession, the latter lowered her head, raised her tail like a flagstaff, and galloped to meet her, and it was only by the execution of a sort of double-barreled backward somersault that Nannie saved her life.
"Most extraordinary conduct," said Steve. "Threatening from both ends."
Nannie was in no wise dismayed, and either by reason of her fearlessness or because of a secret bond between their natures, she and Sarah Maria—for so she named her after a troublesome neighbor—became comrades after a fashion. Between Sarah Maria and Brownie, however, there was always war from horn to heel, and nothing could effect a reconciliation. The danger of this enmity was clearly demonstrated on a Sabbath morning, otherwise peaceful, when Nannie started out with Brownie (the former carrying a milk pail, for some reason best known to herself, since she knew nothing of milking) and went down to the pasture for Sarah Maria. The latter was awaiting them at the bars, and, as it appeared, was ready for the business of the day. No sooner was she liberated from the bondage of the pasture than she made a bold charge upon Brownie, who promptly took to cover behind his mistress, barking the while in a manner both rasping and aggravating to one of Sarah Maria's irritable nervous system. The bovine's attention being now drawn to Nannie, it behooved the latter to clear the path, and in short order, and Steve, who came running to the scene, attracted by the din of battle, beheld with horror-stricken sight a confused medley consisting of wife, dog, Sarah Maria, milk pail—all going head over heels into the nearest ditch.
By some miracle no one was hurt, and an energetic use of the milk pail—a use unforeseen by the manufacturers—restored quiet to the agitated district.
It was soon after this escapade that Jacob, the man about the place thought himself called to some other profession than farming, and accordingly left. As Sarah Maria remained, it was necessary to secure a milker. This difficulty was happily surmounted about eleven o'clock the first morning, when a man selling rustic chairs appeared upon the scene and good-naturedly consented for the time to step within the breach made by Jacob's disappearance.
Later on it was borne in on Steve's consciousness that he was the man to whom Sarah Maria must look for relief. The situation was a critical one, but Steve's was not a nature to shirk responsibilities or shun sacrifices. Accordingly, arming himself with a hatchet and a club, on the end of which latter instrument he suspended the milk pail, he set out, and in this new business worked with such gentle deliberation that at the end of an hour he could have shown a quart of milk for his pains had not Sarah Maria testified to her respect for the day of small things by lifting the aforementioned pail on high.
By the end of a week, however, Steve succeeded in bringing his milking lessons to a favorable conclusion, and was ready to take his place not among the best, it is true, but still among the milkers of the world. He must have prosecuted his education with remarkable ardor, for his overalls had given out in spots, and one industrious day Nannie took it into her head to patch them. Having no suitable material at hand—such is the misfortune of the newly wedded, with everything whole about them—she utilized some Scotch plaid pieces left over from a tea gown. But hardly was the patch well set than she began to reflect that its rather conspicuous beauty would no doubt catch the eye of Sarah Maria, and might occasion nothing less than Steve's death if he were taken unawares when his back was turned. To extract the patch was not to be thought of for a moment, since it was a wonderful triumph of art for Nannie, nor could she consent, wicked though she was, to let Steve walk forth arrayed in all its glory. A bottle of shoe polish solved the problem and made a somewhat stiff but subdued foundation, upon which Steve rested with more or less insecurity.
One morning Nannie was out in the garden, not at work as she should have been (she left all that to Steve), but walking around in a sort of lordly way, after the fashion of many idlers in this world who without scruple appropriate the results of industry.
She had often noted an old codger whose place backed up on hers, but had never held any converse with him. This morning, however, he seemed inclined to break the ice, as it were, for as she strutted about he leaned on the fence and said cheerily:
Nannie gave one glance at his old broad-brimmed straw hat and rusty overalls, and then said with a certain winning sauciness all her own:
"Good-morning, old Hayseed."
The man laughed. He had a rotund, jovial countenance, which even his smoked glasses could not plunge into gloom. His every feature had an upward turn, and there was something strong and good about the face that made one feel that his heart also curved upward.
"So ye're gard'nin', be yer?" he remarked by way of introduction.
"No, I ain't," said Nannie curtly. "Steve gardens, and you know it. You've seen him bent like a bow over these beds ever since we came here."
"Yes, that's so."
"And I've held myself as straight as an arrow."
"Now thet's so, too," and the old man laughed. "Ye're cute, yer air."
"I can see right ahead of me. I don't wear smoked glasses," said Nannie with a pretty little grimace.
"There's a deal goes on ahind smoked glasses sometimes," said the old fellow with a laugh.
"How do you keep house?" asked Nannie with an abrupt change of subject. "You haven't any wife or daughter."
"I don't keep it; jest trust it. Don't turn no key nor nothin' on it, an' I ain't never knowed it to stray outside ther yard. Ther's a heap in hevin' faith in things."
Nannie's face grew thoughtful.
"Yer kin 'most b'lieve a man inter bein' honest, an' I reckon it acts ther same on wimmin, though they be a leetle different."
Nannie looked up from under her curls with a glance half inquiring, half defiant.
"When wimmin's young they be like a colt—it's hard ter keep 'em stiddy. When they git older they be somethin' like a mule—it's hard ter start 'em up now an' agin."
"I guess men are the same. They belong to the same stock—all the world's akin, you know," said Nannie mischievously.
"All the world's akin, eh?" said the old man slowly, turning this thought over in his mind. "Well, now, mebbe thet's so, but if it is ther's a deal of difference atween ther cousins."
Again Nannie's face grew thoughtful. Then she raised her eyes and pointed, with a little laugh, to a passer-by.
"There goes one kind of a cousin, I suppose."
"He's a coon," said the old man. "Him an' his mother, they live off yonder nigh ther swamp. They used ter own this 'ere place ye're on, an' then it passed ter ther datter, an' then her husban' bought it. She's in ther insane asylum now, an' these rel'tives claim she ain't crazy, but thet she was put in by ther malice of her husban'. An' they claim he's got ther place wrongful, an' hadn't a right ter sell ter you folks."
"That's why they're bothering us so?"
"Thet's why," said old Hayseed.
"Well, they'll find we're two many for them."
Then with a sudden burst of laughter she exclaimed:
"Oh, I'm going to egg Steve on to a fight! Wouldn't it be fun! I wonder if Steve could fight!"
"Reckon he could," said the old man with a gleam in his eye that seemed to pierce the darkness of his glasses. "He don't look it exact an' his manners don't promise it, but ther may be fight in him somewhere. Ther be men, yer know, can't talk even about ther weather without shakin' a fist in yer face. He ain't thet kind."
"No. If he were he would have murdered Sarah Maria long ago."
"He would thet, fer a fact. Then ther's others thet air so afeard—so skeart thet a two-year-old bootblack or ther shadder of publick derishion could put 'em ter flight. Be thet his kind?"
"I guess not!" blazed Nannie. "Steve's afraid of nothing, living or dead."
"No, he ain't afeard. I kin see thet; but he's peaceable."
Just at this moment Nannie glanced down the sloping sides of the ravine and saw Hilda Bretherton panting her way up toward the house. Now, these two had not met since Hilda married and started off on her wedding trip to France, shortly before Nannie became engaged. True to the usual direction of her popularity, Hilda had married a small man, beside whom she looked the good-natured giantess she indeed was, but he was enormously rich, and in her particular set she was accounted one of fortune's favorites.
Since casting her lot in the country Nannie had been into town but little. For society as she had known it she cared nothing. Then, too, marriage had entered the magic circle of the Young Woman's Club and changed its membership, so that Nannie felt herself an alien. She was not consciously lonely in the country, but yet there was something so significant in the glad cry she uttered when she caught sight of Hilda, and the unusual warmth of her greeting, that old Hayseed looked on from his side of the fence with a meditative air.
"The colt's a-yearnin' fer somethin' without knowin' it," he said to himself as Nannie dragged Hilda into the house.
"I ought not to sit down," Hilda panted. "Oh, dear! Let me get my breath! Do you see how awfully fat I am? and my husband don't weigh but a hundred and twenty—think of that! A sparrow for a protector! If ever I wanted to get behind him to escape a mouse or anything, what should I do?"
"Where is he?" asked Nannie.
"What—the mouse?" screamed Hilda.
"No," said Nannie, "the husband;" and then the two fell a-laughing in the old foolish way.
"Husband! Oh, I thought you'd have something of that kind around, and one would be enough for to-day."
"No, really! Where is he?"
"Over on the other side of the ravine. You see, we missed the road and got entangled in the forest. Ye gods! how literally you've taken to the woods, Nannie! Well, DeLancy didn't feel he was equal to a climb, so I came alone, presumably to find the road, but I couldn't go on without seeing you, so I've stolen a visit."
"You'd better!" said Nannie. "If ever you pass me by I'll haunt you!"
"I know that. I always was afraid of you. I always said you were a little——"
"Sh-h!" said Nannie, imitating Prudence Shaftsbury's air and manner.
"Dear old Prue!" said Hilda. "I saw her the other day. I believe she's really happy. She don't say much, but she looks it. She's awfully swell, too. Why, you hear Mrs. Ralph Porter on all sides. She leads everything. That girl has more tact and diplomacy than any one I ever saw. Awfully nice girl, too. Here I am, always putting my foot in it. DeLancy says I fling a rope around my neck so surely as I open my mouth, and with each succeeding word I give it a jerk. Oh, dear me! I ought to be going. He'll be wild! Why, you don't look any too well. What's the matter with you, Nan? Aren't you happy, child?"
"Yes. Mind your business!" said Nannie in the old defiant way.
"Bless me! bless me! You haven't changed a mite! I thought marriage would improve you. Oh, do you know Evelyn Rogers was married the other day?"
"No," said Nannie with quickened interest.
"Yes—not at her home. She was visiting her aunt in New York, and there she married her villainous-looking professor, and would you believe it? I heard they went right off to the slums on a wedding trip, taking a thief, and an anarchist, and a murderer with them, as chaperons, I suppose. Oh, I ought to be going!"
"To the slums?" asked Nannie.
"No, no. I ought to get out of here. DeLancy is insane by this time, I know! I must run!"
"Hilda, you sit still and cool off! You've just been in a stew ever since you came."
"I'm in one all the time. Do you remember what some of you girls said of me at that first meeting of the club—I'd be kept in a continual stew? Never were truer words spoken. Oh!" and she groaned loudly.
"Why don't you get done—with it?" asked Nannie.
"I can't," said Hilda coolly. "I'm in for it now and must go on to the bitter end. It's too late to chew the cud of reflection."
"Don't count on the end," laughed Nannie, looking at her friend's rotund figure. "There's no end to you, Hilda. You're an all-round woman."
"Indeed I am! If you could only see the number of offices I fill. I'm nurse, doctor, valet, messenger, and on cross days general vent for the humors."
"Is he really ill?"
"Oh, I don't know. He has dyspepsia. I guess he don't feel any too well, and nothing pleases him. He took a notion that a sea voyage would cure him, and it didn't. He snarled and snapped all the way, and oh, I was so sick—ugh! and I had to drag myself around after him. Then next he tried the German baths. He's tried everything, and now—oh, now," she continued with a groan, putting her handkerchief to her face, "he says that society is injurious to him. And what do you suppose he has done?" she asked, raising her voice and peering from above the handkerchief which she had pressed to her face. "He's rented a lonely cabin in the Adirondacks for a year—a year! and there I'm to live! Imagine me, my dear! I shall grow so rusty that when I return to civilization I shall only be able to hang on the back door and creak while others are talking. Mercy upon us! there's DeLancy! He'll find me visiting! I'll never hear the last of this as long as I live! Where can I go? What can I get under? Oh, there's nothing big enough in all the world to cover me! Woe is me! I must always remain in the open!"
"Lie down there," said Nannie authoritatively. "I'll cover you."
"You!" screamed Hilda. "You! Oh, you elf! you brownie! you mite—you widow's mite! What could you cover?"
"Lie down! Be quick! The enemy approaches!" cried Nannie, convulsed with laughter.
Hilda gave one glance from out the window and then fell flat on the divan.
"I am lost!" she groaned.
"I'll defend you," said Nannie bravely.
"You! Oh, you atom! you molecule! you microbe! What can you do?"
"Be quiet. You are dead—do you hear? You're dead—dead as a doornail; dead as a mummy—the mummy that walked the streets of Thebes when Moses was a young man."
But Nannie did not hear, for she was running to meet the enemy, a bit of a man who looked like a woodland sprite as he walked along the edge of the ravine. In contrast with the big figure that lay prone upon the divan, his size was really ridiculous. Had his pettiness been merely external, that would not have mattered. Small men have been known to tower as giants before us. Luther was called the little monk, and the Corsican who altered the world's map was of still smaller proportions.
This little creature, however, was the reverse of Julia Ward Howe's youthful daughter, who announced to an offending visitor that she was "big inside," inasmuch as he was made on a small pattern, within as well as without.
His petty face was all puckered up when Nannie encountered him, and his rasping voice was at its most irritating pitch.
The moment he was within hailing distance he began his complaint, heedless even of the courtesy of a greeting. He declared he was too exhausted to take another step; that he had lost his wife, and he asked if Nannie had seen her.
"Oh, Mr. Seymour! Hilda—Hilda—is—at my house—dead."
"Dead!" he fairly screamed.
He started toward the house with the speed of the wind, but Nannie stopped him.
"Don't!" she exclaimed. "Wait! Oh, I'm so excited I'm all mixed up! She's had an awful spell, but she's better now; but you mustn't startle her. Something's the matter with her heart. It was beating like a sledge-hammer—an awful spell."
"Oh, if she dies, who'll take care of me? What shall I do?"
And he wrung his weak little hands.
"She won't die, I guess, if we take good care of her. Oh, it's awful to have anything of this kind happen when you're out in the country miles from a doctor."