A Plain Girl

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By H. C. Bunner

Illustrations by C. Allan Gilbert

MOST of the novelists—at least, most of those novelists who deal in lustrous-eyed heroines, and in heroes running from "a little over the middle stature" to "six feet of manhood"—try to create the impression that the period of matrimonial engagement is a pleasant one. It isn't. It never was—at least, not to any properly constituted human beings. And why on earth should it be pleasant and to whom should it be pleasant? Let us take the case of the engagement of John Smith and Mary Jones. Their wedding-day is fixed. It is six months off, let us say. Now, do you expect John Smith to be happy? It is true that he has the promise of his heart's desire, but a promise is one thing and a certainty is another. The only certainty he has is that it will be six months sure and certain before he gets his heart's desire; and during those six months he has got to see his heart's desire every day, and to curse each day that comes along before the wedding-day. Also he has got to put in six months of solid reflection upon his own capabilities for supporting a wife, and possibly three or four younger persons.

And as for Mary Jones, her situation is even more uncomfortable. By all the laws of affection she is John's ownest own; and yet in reality she isn't anybody's own—not even her own self's own. Her parents have relinquished their claim to her just enough to enable them to go about looking as though she had deserted them in a snow-storm to run away with a disbeliever in revealed religion; and they keep enough authority over her to be as mean as conscientious parents can be whenever they get an opportunity. And few people can be meaner than a truly conscientious parent.

Here are presented a few of the facts which make the period of marital engagement anything but a happy time for the contracting parties. Any married couple who tell you that they had a good time when they were engaged either tell a sinful fib or prove that they are idiots of an extremely low organization; or else they are so old that they have forgotten all about it.

A young man—I do not vouch for the tale—who committed matrimony suddenly and without warning, showed that he had encountered a lady of experience by the excuse which he gave for his unconventional haste. "She said 'yes,'" he explained, "if I'd get a parson inside of one hour. 'Engagements,' she says, 'is mean.'"

But, if all engagements are mean, an engagement that is exceptionally and peculiarly mean among engagements must be a very mean thing indeed—and that is just what Tom Littleburgh thought of his engagement.

Perhaps an outsider might have thought Tom's engagement even meaner than Tom thought it; for an outsider might not have seen the charm that Tom saw in the young lady who was to be Mrs. Tom. Mary Leyden was undeniably a plain girl. She was not ugly in the least; in point of fact, she had no feature that was open to criticism; but as a friend of hers once remarked, summing up her case critically and æsthetically, as a good-looker Mary simply didn't get there. She was not by any means an unlovable girl; she was good and true and kind and intelligent and sensible; but in face and ways and manners she was just as plain as her plain Dutch name, and perhaps it was the Dutch blood in her that won Tom's heart, for it is a peculiar thing about the women of Holland that their attractiveness does not in the least depend upon their possession of handsome features. They have a wholesome, frank, amiable homeliness that is almost better than beauty, in a way, for you feel that you could see it around for a lifetime without getting tired of it.

However that may have been, Tom wanted nothing better than to see Mary's face around all his lifetime, and that was what made his engagement so miserable to him; for it lasted six months, and in all that time he only saw her for the space of twelve days, or, rather, for small fractional parts of the space of twelve days, and then under circumstances of an exasperating unpleasantness that will here be set forth.

Tom Littleburgh was an electrical engineer; and during the whole time of his engagement he was in charge of an important work of construction in a large town in New England. Mary Leyden was the only daughter of an ex-college professor who had given up his post for the more lucrative business of preparing young ladies for college.

It was in Florida in the winter-time that Tom had wooed and won Mary, and from the time that she said "yes" in January he had had no opportunity to see her until he managed to make a vacation for himself in August, when he arranged to see her at the ex-professor's summer home at Milford, Pa.—to see her there; not to stay at the house and have unlimited opportunities of talking with her and walking with her and gloating over her generally; for he had to stay at a hotel, the professor's house being full of young ladies in course of preparation for college.

Still, that was heaven enough for Tom. For twelve days—he had to lose a day coming and a day going—to see Mary, to look each day upon the plain face that lighted up for him with a love that was better than the best beauty in the world, was to Tom a dream of unspeakable delight. He had worked for it for months; he had thought of it by day and by night, and when the long-expected hour came, and he descended from the old-fashioned stage in front of the old-fashioned hotel, he was half-mad with the delightful anticipation. But, like all lovers, he thought first of his looks. As a matter of fact, it is only when two people are very much in love with each other that neither minds very much about the nice details of the other's appearance. When two people have been married for five or ten years it is most wise and desirable that they should take careful thought to the appearance which they present one to another; for about that time such things are liable to be noticed, but in the first flash of young love a girl may have a hat on crooked and a young man may have his hair mussed, and yet each may look beautiful exceedingly in the other's eyes even when everybody else is wondering what he can see in her or what she can see in him. And why not? Whose business is it, anyway, except theirs?

Tom went to his room at the hotel and put on summer clothes of great beauty and elegance. He brushed his hair and he tried to do something with his mustache, which did not happen to be a mustache that anything could be done with. Still, Tom surveyed it in the mirror as he tied his necktie, and was proud of it, and felt that, as far as his unworthy self could be prepared for presentation to his lady, he was prepared. And so he marched off up the street to the professor's house.

Every true lover's fancy outruns his journey to his appointed meeting. Tom had pictured to himself a quiet old-fashioned parlor with green blinds with the slats turned down and vases of flowers variously disposed around and Mary waiting for him in a delightful semi-obscurity, and a subsequent extinction of all the natural laws of time until they two had got through with what they had got to say to each other. Instead, he found his betrothed seated on the veranda of a very modern house in the company of seven other young ladies. She greeted him with a sincere but cool affection which was so strange and unexpected that it startled rather than depressed him. She let him take her a yard or two into the hall, where he kissed her in a hurried, ready-made, and generally unsatisfactory way, and then he found himself taken outside and introduced to all the seven girls. They were all young, they were all pretty: he didn't want any one of them, and he would have given the whole lot for Mary's little finger. But Mary not only took pains that he should know them all, but she went over their first names, which she seemed to consider an interesting catalogue, though they seemed to Tom nothing out of the usual thing in the way of young-womanish nomenclature. There were two Berties and a Gussie and an Annie and a Gladys—and there were others, much the same. And, as I have said, they were all pretty girls, but none of them was the plain girl whom Tom Littleburgh wished to see more than all the girls in the world.

And yet, somehow, before five minutes had passed, Tom found that he was paying an afternoon call on eight young ladies instead of upon one. There was no quiet, shady parlor with the golden sunlight just filtering through the half-closed blinds, no nice old horsehair sofa with a kind of sag-down in the middle that seemed to tumble two occupants together, no flowers, no romance, no nothing. There was a great sunlit porch, seven girls whom he didn't know, or want to know, and the beloved of his heart talking like all the rest of them on subjects he neither knew nor cared about. And so it went on until dinnertime came, and the ex-professor came in and Tom had to go back to the hotel, solitary male guests not being invited to join at feeding-time in the professor's dove-cot.

Tom called again after dinner, and found the whole household assembled in the parlor of his prospective father-in-law. They were at the piano. There was a book with green pasteboard covers on the piano, and from its faded pages they were singing, "Shall We Gather at the River?" and "Ye Evening Bells." Thus painfully passed the time until the professor arrived to give the signal for what he called retirement. As for Tom, he retired to his room and walked the floor until three o'clock in the morning. There was no man more amazed than he in the State of Pennsylvania, and there were few more indignant. He examined himself as to his conduct during his whole period of engagement and he could not find that he had been remiss in the smallest particular. Indeed, there was not much room for doubt about the matter. He had not seen his sweetheart since a week after the day on which she had given herself to him, and as far as his letters were concerned, he had not missed a day, and if each letter had not breathed a little more devotion than the preceding one it certainly had not been his fault. Tom's intellect might have been commonplace, but he knew that it had been conscientiously worked to the fullest extent from week to week in devising modes of telling Mary that he loved her a great deal more than anybody else had ever loved anybody else. And yet here was his first day at Milford gone and spent utterly; and he had had something like twenty-seven seconds' private conversation with Mary, and all the rest of the time he had had to share her society with seven Berties and Gussies and Annies, who might be as pretty as they pleased, but for whom he cared not a stiver.

The next morning Tom breakfasted early and hurried to the professor's house. He found Mary not alone, it is true, for she was superintending operations in a little spring-house dairy, but certainly much more like the old Mary than she had seemed the day before. In fact, she was so simple and sweet and natural in her manner, so seemingly unconscious of having tried him in any way, that Tom's spirit was wonderfully soothed, and yesterday's perplexity began to fade from his memory. For a half-hour he chatted with her while she directed the work of two pretty bare-armed maids, and when the work was done and Mary was free he followed her out into the sunshine in the confident belief that she was going to lead him to some favorite haunt near the bank of the little river, or under the great trees at the foot of the hill. She did nothing of the sort. She took him to a small classroom where Gussie and Annie and one of the Berties were studying and got him to correct Greek exercises all the rest of the morning.

It was with something like grim desperation that Tom asked her, as he left, to take a drive with him that afternoon; but when she cheerfully consented he brightened up and determined to get the narrowest buggy he could find. He got it and was at the professor's house promptly at two o'clock. Mary greeted him, placid, candid, unruffled, and told him in a most matter-of-fact way that she was very sorry indeed that she could not go with him, for one of the inmates of the household had been taken with sudden illness and required her attention. Furthermore, she asked if, since he had the horse and carriage, he would mind driving Gussie over to see her aunt at Dingman's Ferry. He drove Gussie to Dingman's Ferry. Gussie was a little thing with golden hair and bright blue eyes and a creamy complexion, but for all Tom noticed of her she might have been a red-headed mulatto. Gussie subsequently referred to him as "that silent gentleman who grinds his teeth while he drives."

The next day Tom committed the serious mistake of remonstrating with Mary. It sometimes pays to remonstrate with a woman, but not frequently, and never unless you know exactly what she is up to. Tom got nothing by his remonstrance except getting put in his place in a way which made him feel there was no getting out of it. He was reminded that Mary had her duties; he was asked if he desired her to neglect them, and he was accused of wounding a tender heart by a cruel suspicion born of the deepest selfishness. Then he had the satisfaction of knowing that he had made her cry, and altogether he felt like killing himself.

The days went on but the situation remained the same. If Tom saw Mary alone it was at some hour unsuitable for what the French call "expansions." It is difficult for the tender sentiment to expand while the object of a heart's devotion is washing teacups or putting whale-oil soap on rose-bushes. Of Gussie and Annie and both the Berties and the rest of "the preparatories," as they were called, he saw much more than he wanted to—so much, indeed, that much against his will he had to learn their names and their separate identities, and to distinguish one from the other. And never before, probably, were six really pretty girls so outrageously slighted by a young man of marriageable age. Tom tried his best to be civil, and even courteous, but after he had had ten days of acting as escort and cavalier in general to the whole seven he came to the conclusion that they were the most helpless set of young women he had ever encountered, and that perhaps Mary was not so much to blame as he had thought for her neglect. "They do seem," he admitted to himself, "to require more attention than any other girls I ever heard of. Why, I had to take that Bertie girl with a big hat down to the store to buy a piece of ribbon, and Gussie Thingumbob can't walk down the street after supper without having me to look after her. It's my opinion Mary has too much done for them. Let them alone and they'd be more self-reliant. Anyway, I don't see why I should have to help to nuss 'em."

What with brooding over the fleeting days and his scanty allowance of Mary, Tom, who was generally good nature's self, began to grow surly, and his fair charges among themselves called him a "bear." It cannot be said that, except in one case, they minded much. They were all pretty. The town was full of "summery folk" and all had adorers enough, with perhaps a few to spare; and Tom was, at the best, that stupidest of things, a hopelessly engaged man.

The one case where Tom's increasing sullenness of manner produced an unpleasant effect was that of little Bessie Bailey, the youngest of the seven "preparatories" and the spoiled child of the household. But "spoiled child" is a very clumsy term to use as applied to little Bessie. The tenderness which had surrounded her from infancy had spoiled none of her sweetness and gentleness, and had only served to keep her in ignorance of the fact that there were such things as unkindness and unfriendliness in the world. She was a mere child at seventeen or eighteen, innocent, pretty, and so lovable and sweet of disposition that it is probable that the first human being who had ever looked upon her with unkindly eyes was good-natured Tom Littleburgh; and instead of his unkindness—to give it no harsher name—leaving her indifferent, as might have been expected, it stirred her to a deep and fervent indignation. It was the first slight the poor child had ever known, and her whole soul rose up against it. She was amazed and puzzled and mortified, and when a girl gets up as many emotions as that over a man, she is in a mighty near way of falling in love with him, and poor little Bessie Bailey was certainly losing her spirits because, for the first time in her young life, a man had been cool—perhaps a little more than cool—to her.

Poor Tom was not insensible to this state of affairs. In fact, Mary rebuked him for it herself.

"Since you must be thrown with the poor little thing, Tom, you might be just pleasant with her; it's only for a few days, you know."

"Yes, that's just it," said Tom desperately, "it is only for a few days—too confounded few days."

But Mary only left him with a rebuking smile to go about that endless chain of duties, and she had no sooner departed than the old professor stepped up and somewhat diffidently asked his young friend and son-in-law-to-be if he would not be so kind as to assist Miss Bessie Bailey in a difficult point in trigonometry.

"I hate, of course, to ask you to trouble yourself in your vacation-time, but I am in a very unpleasant predicament. Miss Trunkett, my mathematical teacher, is ill and cannot attend to her work, and I am no mathematician. Mary, of course, is able to help me out to some extent, but trigonometry is beyond poor Mary, and I fear, I greatly fear, I shall have to trespass on your kindness."

With murder in his heart Tom sought the stuffy class-room where he had passed the first morning after his arrival, and there sat Bessie and raised a pair of reproachful fawnlike eyes toward him from the great book with all its wearisome figures. Tom explained what he had been sent for and Bessie only said, "Oh!" in a tone that she might have used had he explained that he was the executioner; and they went to work.

But the lesson was long and hard and what Bessie called horrid, and Bessie was not bright about trigonometry and Bessie would play with her pencils. These things so rattled and irritated Tom that he made one final pull on his manhood and determined to be good and kind and patient and considerate even if he had to drop down dead when he got through with it.

And the worst of it was that he saw that Bessie saw just how matters stood. She saw that he was not a bear, she saw that he naturally was not gruff or rude or thoughtless of other people's feelings. She caught the kindly inflections of his natural voice whenever she did anything that deserved the least commendation, and once for ten or fifteen minutes they got to be quite friendly when Tom gave her a little rest and filled up the time by telling her something about himself and his work and his early struggles.

Now, Tom did not in the least mean to do this for any ulterior motive. He was not in the habit of talking about himself, and he was too simple-minded a fellow to know that, among men of the world, talking about one's self is a favorite way of making love. But he did see from Bessie's manner and her few shy speeches that he was getting himself into worse trouble than before. He saw that Bessie had wholly revised her judgment of him, and that as soon as he became conscious of conviction of error she began to rush to the other extreme and to accuse herself in her own mind of being a desperately wicked girl whose frivolity and stupidity and thoughtlessness must have been a great annoyance to this distinguished, high-minded, and earnest man whose knowledge and experience set him so many miles above her. The symptoms of emotion working in her young breast on her own account were patent to even unobservant Tom, and they irritated him the more that he could not help contrasting to himself the gentle submissiveness of this tender young nature with Mary's cold-blooded self-sufficiency. "Here's a girl," he said to himself, "who would manage to get some time out of twelve days to talk alone with a lover who had come hundreds of miles to see her." And as he thought thus he cast a side glance at Bessie and noticed really for the first time how very pretty she was. The lesson was resumed, but Bessie's attention wandered, Tom's conscience fidgeted, and finally, when he had occasion to look for a pencil in a hurry and found Bessie absent-mindedly stacking them up with the chalks and pens in the well of the inkstand, he uttered an exclamation of utter irritation—he never remembered exactly what it was, except that there was a damn in it somewhere—and before it was finished poor little Bessie was in a flood, a passion, an agony, of tears, sobbing, trembling, and wringing her hands.

Tom was unaccustomed to these expressions of feminine emotions, and they scared him, as he subsequently said, stiff; moreover, they opened the floodgates of his heart, and he felt as one might who in a passion had damned a baby. He tried his best to console her and quiet her, but with clumsy, ignorant, nervous efforts; and her paroxysms of grief only grew more violent as they grew more silent; for she seemed to, be willing to render him any submission in her power. Her low murmurs of self-reproach and self-accusation, her extravagant appeals for pardon, and the oblivion of complete contempt—all these childish speeches stuck knives into his earnest, tender heart. And just then he heard the professor's heavy footfall coming deliberately down the long corridor.

He looked about him in a frenzy. "My dear Miss Bailey—Bessie! I can't let them see you like this. What the devil shall I do? Oh, here, come here, child!", And throwing his arm about the small form, he kicked open the one French window of the stuffy little room and bolted out with Bessie from the smell of ink and chalk and slates to where the moonlight shone on the garden at the back of the house with the orchard beyond it, and the glen and its whispering stream below.

Tom did not know what he was saying to Bessie when Mary found them half an hour later with the little girl's head pillowed on the big man's breast; but if she had wanted to she could have assured him that in all her experience as head teacher in an institution for preparing young ladies for college she had never seen a more pronounced case of moonstruck love-making.

Bessie fled with a shriek. Tom dropped his hands by his side and stood looking doggedly at Mary, who gazed at him with a strange and inexplicable expression.

"You saw," he said at last.

"Yes," she said, "and oh, Tom, I am so happy"; and then she wound her arms around Tom's neck, laid her head about six inches above where Bessie's had been, and sighed with satisfaction, as only a true woman can sigh.

"Tom," she said, as he stood speechless, "do you remember when you asked me to marry you? You told me that you had never made love to any girl in your life. I knew that must be true, Tom, or you never would have been fool enough to say it. I am plain, Tom, but I'm proud, too. Now, for the rest of the time you're here, Tom, I sha'n't leave you one single moment from morning till night, and I'll try to make up, dear."

And she did.

  1. H. C. Bunner. It was written for the series afterward collected as "More Short Sixes," and is dated August 24, 1894.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.