Far from the Maddening Girls/Chapter 5
“We are none of us infallible,” says a certain gentle cynic, “not even the youngest,” and I am not minded to impair the validity of this narrative by an attempt to prove that there were no weak spots in the armour of my bachelor philosophy. I am only a man. It is better than being a woman, but it does not put one on a par with the Delphic oracle. I have reserved my reference to these weaknesses until now, but with no intention of disguising or evading them.
No bird ever wove a nest so cunningly, or of materials so uniformly soft, that there was nowhere a stick or straw which came into uneasy contact with its tender ribs; and, carefully planned and sedulously supervised as had been the details of my life at “Sans Souci,” there were yet causes of friction and sharp angles which even usage did not turn smooth. For the moment, I am not speaking of Miss Berrith, nor of anything for which she was responsible. Nor have I reference to what might have been avoided by preliminary carefulness. There is a limit to the possibilities of forethought. Before you start upon a railway journey you will see men with hand-lamps, creeping under the coaches, and hear the sound of their test-hammers upon the axles, wheels, and springs. That means that minds trained to the work are applying the most approved precautionary measures, but it is no guarantee that unforeseen defects will not crop out before the train has proceeded many miles. To sharpen the analogy, it was the flat wheels, hot boxes, and sprung axles of housekeeping, which taught me that the domesticity of “Sans Souci” was a qualified blessing.
The first of these thorns in the flesh to make its existence manifest came when I discovered that Galvin possessed nothing with even a family resemblance to a bump of locality. Her capacity for dusting was inexhaustible; but when it came to replacing the articles thus treated she was something less systematic than a magpie. For one thing, she manœuvred my books in the same manner as my mattress and my pillows, with the evident impression that, like the former, they were reversible, and, like the latter, interchangeable at will. The effect of this inspiration was volume five where volume two should be, volume one in the place of volume six, and volumes three and four standing, with an air of extreme dissatisfaction, on their heads. The same rule applied to my pictures, each of which, after the morning’s dusting was completed, had a pronounced list, like a ship with her port coal-bins full and her starboard bunkers empty. So, too, I would find all the objects on my sideboard crowded desperately to one side, as if they had been the passengers on an excursion steamer in the act of passing a battleship or a boat-race. It would be impossible for me to compute the amount of time which I expended daily in restoring the laws of proportion and equilibrium which Galvin had knocked into a cocked hat.
Then there were rats in the cellar; and if a rat, either alive or dead, had been a dynamite bomb on the point of exploding, Galvin could not have displayed less eagerness to deal with it upon terms of intimacy. Therefore, if Darius did not happen to be at hand, it fell to me to rebait the trap and make decent disposal of the remains — a pretty occupation for a single gentleman not minded to be troubled with sordid details!
I am fond of flowers, and, since my garden had proved as unproductive as the Phœnix, the local florist delivered semi-weekly a generous assortment at my door. But there is an art in arranging flowers, an art in which I was imperfect and Galvin utterly deficient. My method was to put them together loosely, so they should loll negligently from the vase. This, as I found, causes the whole affair to fall prone upon the table the moment you loose your hold of it. Galvin’s system, on the contrary, was that more commonly employed in baling cotton or tying up asparagus. When she had finished, the flowers were so inseparably welded together, and so firmly wedged into the vase, that it seemed incredible that the result could have been arrived at without the aid of a hydraulic press.
Then there was always the eternal question of the culinary operations. I was asked, for example, if I would have noodles in my consommé. A noodle, to the best of my knowledge and belief, is a kind of silly, half-witted fellow, and by what process of reasoning it should appear appropriate to serve him in a soup it was beyond my power to understand. I agreed to the suggestion; but Galvin evidently changed her mind, because nothing unusual appeared in the consommé thereafter, if I except some little fragments of macaroni, which I found very palatable.
Again, it would come to a discussion of the relative merits of sirloin and porter-house steaks — a distinction which is as clear in my mind as that between Gog and Magog. I was so puzzled in this matter that I determined to consult a reliable informant, and — on the memorable day when Galvin’s cousin was married — I looked up the question of steaks in a cook-book which I found in the drawer of the kitchen table. As a fair sample of the chaos which reigns in the departments of science regulated by the feminine intelligence, I will submit three fragments of the information which I thus gleaned from an eminent authority.
“Every part of the sirloin … is named porter-house steak.
“The rump steak … is also called porter-house steak.
“Rump steaks are also known as sirloin.”
And there you are! A sirloin is a porter-house, and a porter-house is a rump steak, and a rump steak is a sirloin. If the title-page of that book had not borne the name of another author, I should infallibly have taken it to be the work of Mr. Edward Lear.
When I wearied, as I soon did, of these vexations, for which Galvin was principally responsible, I turned, for distraction, to Darius Doane, with an amused recollection of his diverting personality.
But Darius, although restored to favour, was a changed being. The mouth-organ, once the bane of my existence, was as mute as the harp that once through Tara’s halls. The smile which so often had disarmed me was lost to sight, to memory dear. And the breeziness of speech which had been his most salient characteristic had folded its tent like the Arabs. I was disappointed in Darius. Of course, the peculiarities I have mentioned were, in a sense, his faults; but then an individual has no more right to discard his faults without due notice to his kinsfolk and acquaintance than to have his hair dyed or the conformation of his nose altered by a facial specialist. There are more than a few people whom it would be impossible to recognize without their faults.
The decorum which had replaced the former insouciance of Darius impressed me with a vague uneasiness. I seemed to detect, behind it, the omnipresent and all-powerful influence of Miss Berrith, that influence of which I had determined to rid myself and my surroundings. I know of nothing more disconcerting than the feeling that a person who is materially dependent upon you is really governed in the details of his conduct by the judgment of some one else. The implication that what you say or do is accepted, not as of necessity final, or even important, but simply as something to be referred to a superior intelligence for estimate and criticism, is humiliating to the last degree. In the nature of things I should have been the mentor, exemplar, and Admirable Crichton of Darius. As it was, not I, but Miss Susie Berrith, was the power behind the Doane. I was convinced that they discussed me, and that I made a poor showing upon the dissecting table. I detested the idea. I had no chance of justifying myself, of disarming criticism, of throwing a favourable light upon my character and actions. If there had been any basis for the hypothesis, I should have thought myself the prey of a guilty conscience.
I was in a miserable quandary. It would have been a simple thing enough to have put a stop to that tendency to open interference in my affairs which Miss Berrith had at first displayed; but of this her letter in regard to my dismissal of Darius was the final instance. The thing with which I now had to deal was totally intangible. I felt rather than perceived it. So I could only possess my soul in patience, in the hope that some overt act of meddling, or some flagrant offer of gratuitous and unsolicited advice, would enable me to resent her behaviour in a firm and final manner.
It would be an easy matter to follow out a premeditated course of action if only the party of the second part would remain passive, or, better yet, make the moves which one expects. But that is exactly what never happens — otherwise I should have won many a game of checkers, both actual and metaphorical, in which I have come out second-best. Now, for example, just as I was preparing to administer a deserved rebuke to Miss Berrith, she jumped three of my men, as it were, by inviting me to tea. I accepted and went, with a dim idea that this would afford me the opening I had been seeking. I was never more mistaken in my life.
Afternoon tea is a thing of which, in ordinary, I have a profound distrust. Applied to a healthy appetite for dinner, it has much the same effect as does kerosene oil when administered to an able-bodied mosquito. The insidiously appealing draught itself, the seemingly innocuous slices of buttered toast and little cakes which are wont to accompany it, homoeopathic as are their proportions, undermine and corrode a system accustomed to soups and rare beef as infallibly as the imported luxuries of Greece sapped the stamina of the Roman Empire. What is more, the whole manner of conducting this function is invested with a factitious suggestion of coziness highly inimical to the equipoise of a bachelor’s philosophy. He will be seen to prosper amazingly in his solitude at all hours save this of the transitory tryst of day and darkness; but there is something malignantly hypnotic about the tinkle of little spoons on porcelain saucers, the contented purr of a brass kettle, and the subdued hum of conversation, all of which are to the tea-table what the somnolent murmur of bees is to a lazy, hazy, summer afternoon. The physicians will tell you that human vitality is at its lowest in the small hours of the morning, but it has been my experience that the principle of celibacy reaches its ebb about five in the afternoon.
The sensation was no novelty to me, and I was on my guard against it as Miss Berrith touched a match to the wick of the alcohol lamp. I had taken the most uncomfortable chair in the room, and was resolved to limit myself to one cup of tea. I was finishing my second when the conversation shifted suddenly from the forest fires in the North and the floods in the West to the subject of Darius Doane.
“Don’t you find him improved?” inquired Miss Berrith.
Here was the very chance for which I had been angling, but somehow it slipped off my hook before I could get it into the boat.
“I suspect,” I said with miserable weakness, “that at present I am better satisfied with him than he with me. It wasn’t a very admirable performance on my part to discharge him, I’m afraid; and, while he has probably forgiven it, the chances are against his having forgotten. In some ways I’m rather a despicable character. Miss Berrith.” Now, that was about as insensate a remark as I could possibly have made, and I cannot imagine what led me to say anything so idiotic unless it was the second cup of tea. The words had no sooner left my lips than I was seized with a profound sense of disgust. Here it was, the same old story — an autumn afternoon, drawing on to twilight; such a “cozy corner” as now comes, complete and ready-made, in any department store, at a maximum cost of thirteen dollars and a half; tea; a girl; a ridiculous appearance of intimacy which did not exist — and I was beginning to maunder like a Sophomore in a hammock. Bah!
“You see, I’ve never had a girl friend,” I added, by way of topping the obelisk of silliness with the capstone of fatuity. It was only a step now to something about the refining influence of woman, the pitiable loneliness of the bachelor, affinity, platonic affection, and the rest of it. I felt that I could have bitten off my tongue-tip. Instead, I ate a sweet cake, which went promptly to my head, and there installed itself in the vacuum which I had fondly imagined was occupied by something remotely resembling a brain.
It was curious that Miss Berrith made no reply. She was bending solicitously over the flame of the alcohol lamp (there was nothing whatever the matter with it) and her hair looked uncommonly fluffy. The sweet cake which was performing the process of cerebration for me suggested that I rather liked it that way. After all, there was something about her …
I looked down at my teacup. It was full for the third time. I have not the faintest remembrance of how it came to be so.
“Sometimes,” I continued, heavily, “I feel that I have made a mistake. Perhaps I should have been more of a success as a married man.”
Miss Berrith looked up with a little laugh.
“Oh, no!” she exclaimed. “Oh dear, no, Mr. Sands!”
I put my teacup on the table. It was empty again — for all the world like something out of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” — but I was too much irritated to give it more than passing notice. It was not that I had any desire to test my fitness for the part I had suggested — nothing was further from my thoughts— but it is not flattering to have one’s incapacity in any direction taken as a matter of course.
“I don’t see why you should say that so positively,” I replied. “I have the ordinary degree of intelligence, somewhat more than my share of health, sufficient means, and a not unamiable disposition. I don’t know how we happened to enter upon this discussion, which, in view of my opinions, is certainly somewhat purposeless; but, since you have raised the question, Miss Berrith, I am bound to say that I see no reason why I should not make a very tolerable kind of husband.”
Miss Berrith coolly looked me over, as I was speaking, with the most exasperating little smile, and then slowly shook her head.
“There are insuperable objections,” said she.
“What, for example?” 1 demanded.
“We won’t discuss them,” replied Miss Berrith easily. “As you say, this line of conversation is somewhat purposeless.”
I have already explained that the object of these notes is, for my future reference, to summarize the details of my conduct as fully and fairly as in me lies, and therefore I shall make no effort at this point to gloss over the astounding precipitancy of my next move. I have dwelt enough upon the demoralizing effect of afternoon tea to establish the hypothesis that I could not have been wholly, or even in part, responsible.
In secondary parenthesis, I may say that I was from infancy a child who would never take a dare. On more occasions than I could now enumerate I have wet my feet, or rent my clothes asunder, or barked my shins against an insurmountable precipice, in the unique attempt to cram an imputation of my cowardice down the throat of a companion. This spirit survived my arrival at maturity. For example, I no more had a reasonable cause for plunging into the morass or up the steeps of matrimony than I had had for braving the infinitely less perilous swamps and precipices of my boyhood, but the suggestion that it was beyond my power to do so was enough.
“Miss Berrith,” said I, “there is a side to my character which you have never seen — a tender side, a considerate side, a side which is calculated to insure any woman’s happiness. I have not the ardour of a youthful lover, but I have something better — the sobriety of common-sense and the experience of a man of the world. I have a home to offer, and an affection which, if not impetuous, is stable and enduring. I am persuaded that my life is incomplete, and I make bold to suggest that yours is, also. I am not a vain man, but I think I can promise to make you happy. I have the honour and the pleasure” — and I bowed — “of asking you to become my wife.”
With incredible promptitude Miss Berrith replied:
“And I, Mr. Sands, have the honour and the regret of declining your very flattering offer.”
“You refuse me!” I exclaimed.
“Unqualifiedly!” said she, and — for no reason whatever — stamped with her foot upon the polished floor.
A moment later I was in the open air with two perceptions, distinct and yet related, dominating all others in my mind. I had been rejected— that was the lesser of them. I had escaped! — that was the greater.
With what depth of gratitude I returned to “Sans Souci” I shall not attempt to say. Around me the autumn day was luxuriously yawning and preparing to retire. A great peace and sense of sanity pervaded all the woodland, through which the road wound for a level mile toward my home. After the warm, close air of the Berrith’s tea-room, that which now struck against my face was incomparably fresh and invigorating. It spoke with an appealing eloquence of a wide and wind-swept liberty of the birds and forest beasts; the liberty of the sea and the western breeze; deliberately which I had striven for, had gained, had wantonly imperilled, and which was still mine — though I had not myself to thank for that. I felt like a man — as indeed I was — who has been for a moment in mortal peril and finds himself miraculously saved.
I fancy that I am not unique in my familiarity with a curious but not infrequent experience. I mean that of falling at night into a tranquil slumber, at peace with myself and the world and with a conscience like a glass of distilled water, only to awaken, two or three hours later, to the pitch blackness of a room unearthly still, and a painful impression that the total value of life would be amply represented by a three-cent piece. As Master Morpheus took his seat upon my bedside that night our talk was all of the happy escape I had had; but when, close upon midnight, his place was taken by Mistress Insomnia, I opened my eyes upon a very different set of sensations. Of course it was the tea; but if it had been, instead, the knowledge that I had lost my uttermost farthing in the stock market, I could not have been more lamentably depressed. The thought of Miss Berrith hung upon the outskirts of this desert of dejection like the mirage of some fair oasis, and the whole history of “Sans Souci,” as I looked back upon it, seemed an arid waste, in which my hopes, my plans, my opinions, and my performances, stood out as grotesquely as forms of cacti against a stretch of sand. Then a line from Hamlet incongruously popped out of nothingness into my mind:
- “This is the very ecstasy of love.”
Love, indeed! As if I did not know the symptoms of an indigestion!
If Galvin had made my bed with the express intention of rendering me as uncomfortable as possible, the result of her endeavours could not have been a more unqualified success. I tossed restlessly for a small eternity, and, with every movement, the memory of the previous afternoon turned over in my mind, kicked, as I did, furiously at its bedclothes, sought a cool place on its pillow, twitched, turned again, dozed for a moment, and awoke with a start, more desperately uneasy than before.
I rose as the first gray of dawn touched my window and groped about for the matches. As I did so, something slipped off my table to the floor, and, upon striking a light, I found it was a dinner-card, preserved as a memento of a recent festivity in town. It was a ridiculous affair, designed by the youngest daughter of the hostess, and represented an anatomically impossible gentleman in the act of bounding nimbly into something which resembled an ill-constructed bird’s nest. Below, in gilt paint, were my name and these lines:
“There was a man in our town
And he was wondrous wise;
He jumped into a bramble-bush
And scratched out both his eyes:
And when he found his eyes were out,
With all his might and main
He jumped into that bramble-bush
And scratched them in again.”
I remembered that, when I had found this beside my place at table, I thought it the most meaningless thing in the world; but, for that matter, there is no record of King Belshazzar having immediately seen the point of the writing on the wall. Now the significance of the doggerel was as clear as crystal. I was the man. The confirmed estate of bachelorhood was the bramble-bush. My unpractised manner of jumping into the latter, at first, had naturally led me to scratch my eyes out over a silly semblance of a love-affair. Well, I was the wiser for the experience, and the same thing would not be apt to happen a second time. I could jump back into my bramble-bush with the certainty of recovering my former point of view. I replaced the prophetic card upon my table, turned in, and slept like a top till noon.
My first act, on arising, was to write a handsome note of apology to Miss Berrith. I did not preserve a copy, but it was something like this:
“My Dear Miss Berrith:
“I shall not attempt to explain the access of folly which prompted me to the extravagant exhibition of yesterday afternoon. It was like a baby crying for the moon, for which, even in the event of his obtaining it, he could have no possible use. I think you will be glad to know that I have learned a very salutary lesson, for which I thank you. You will, I am sure, agree with me in thinking that any but the most formal relations between us in future could only prove embarrassing to both. I beg that you will forgive and forget. Pray have no regret for your action. If you have trampled upon me it was for my good.
- “Very truly yours,
- “John Endicott Sands.”
- “Very truly yours,
This I dispatched by the hand of Darius, and in the course of half an hour he returned with Miss Berrith’s answer.
“Dear Mr. Sands:
“Yes, let bygones be bygones. Your simile of the baby and the moon seems to fit the case to a nicety, and suggests to me that the luminary in question, having as much as she can attend to with the tide, had best leave the untied alone in the solitude which he craves. Did I ‘trample’ on you? I’m sorry, but I’m glad it did you good.
“‘Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints in the Sands!’
“And so, good-bye. “Susie Berrith.”
It was a bright note enough, but I thought it heartless.
So I am ready to conclude. My absurd proposal for the hand of Miss Berrith is not two weeks old, but she has passed out of my life completely. Since our interchange of letters we have met but once, and then only to pass each other with a formal bow. As I review the foregoing pages, there is only one thing which I should like to change. Coming to think of it, I imagine it is unlikely that she has ever deliberately thrown herself at my head.
As I close, the rake of Darius is rasping on the gravel outside, and in the distance, at the wash-tub, Galvin is wailing “Bonnie Dundee” in adagio time. But these are trifles, and “Sans Souci” was never more deserving of the name.
The chronicle is complete. It only remains to seal up these pages for future reperusal. But, as a last word, I will venture a prophecy. It is that, at whatever date I shall read this record through once more, it will only be to lay it aside, finally and forever, with the identical conviction which is at present in my mind — that, far from being in any sense a pathetic figure, I am by all odds the most fortunate person of my acquaintance. For I have found the secret of a peaceful and contented life in divining the sole condition under which such a thing is humanly obtainable. Need I say that this is to be far from the maddening girls?