Mrs. Tom's Spree
MRS. TOM'S SPREE.
By H. C. Bunner.
THERE was high carnival held in Northoak one breezy August day, some twenty odd years ago, in a time when the weather seems to me, as I look back on it, much more genially bracing and inspiriting than the weather we have nowadays. I am sure of one thing: we have no better days now than that day, none when the breeze blows more briskly, cool and soft, than it blew that day up and down the rolling hill-sides of Northoak, fluttering bright ribbons along every road and path.
It had been a carnival summer for Northoak though, to be sure, the revellers had very little thought that they were bidding farewell to the delights of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and were much astounded when the penitential day arrived. And on that August morning it was far enough off yet, and all they had to do was to be gay.
Now Northoak had never been gay before. Contented, happy, and well-to-do it had always been; but it reached its high-water mark of festivity each year with the regular annual lawn-party (called a fête champêtre by those who were wise in such things), which each family among the landed gentry took its turn at giving. One year it was the Westfields, another year the Lydeckers, the next the Turners, and this year perhaps the Brinckerhoffs. But it was always pretty much the same lawn-party; and while it was sure to be correct, decorous, discreetly liberal in material gratifications, and possibly enjoyable, it could not fairly—it would not if it could—have been called gay.
The gayety of that long-ago summer came to Northoak from outside, and was rather in Northoak than of it. And perhaps its character, as well as its relation to Northoak life, may be summed up in the statement that it was hotel gayety.
For the curse of the summer-hotel had come upon Northoak, and Northoak had received it with dignified submission, accepting it, perhaps, as a punishment for the sins of well-bred pride and polite self-complacency.
The place had always been well satisfied with itself. The little village had been satisfied to be a little village, with a few small shops bidding lazily for the custom of the people on the "estates." The estates, certainly, could look contentedly down from their uplands and rejoice in their well-cultivated acres and in their substantial houses.
Those houses—the older ones at least—were dwellings of an interesting and significant type, much in favor in northern New York. Their pattern is best described by saying that they had their front door at the back. The front must surely have been the end with the great Doric portico, looking out on the lawn. Yet you entered at the other end, and found a broad hall, perhaps with two reception-rooms. If the reception-rooms were there, you went into one or the other before you were announced in the large drawing-room beyond the hall. And if you were there to sell rose-bushes, or to collect money for the heathen, or to take orders for wine, the host came to you in the room on the right. But if you were there to make a call, the hostess came and led you forth from the room on the left to the grander chamber that looked out upon the lawn.
You may gather from this that Northoak had an aristocracy and something of a feudal system. It had both, and they were curiously well developed and firmly established for a downright rural community. This maintenance of an old-world social system in a democratic new-world was characteristic of the elder and larger towns of the State. It existed here because Northoak was originally a settlement of what are called retired business-men, who rented their New York houses and gardens, seventy-five or eighty years ago, and turned themselves into country gentlemen. Their grandsons still collected rent for the same property, only that they leased factories and warehouses. And they spent thousands where their grandfathers had spent hundreds, to live just about as their grandfathers had lived.
This state of affairs may seem most iniquitous to some, but I can testify that when I first went to Northoak, toward the end of my boyhood, Northoak great and Northoak small were well pleased with themselves and with each other; and that the stranger soon became sincerely attached to both.
I was but a summer boarder in the village; but summer boarders were rare birds in those days, and if they were birds of any sort of social plumage they were courteously entreated and well fed by the hospitable folk of the estates. It was in Northoak that I wore my first dress-coat to my first grand dinner, and I remember just how proud and just how uncomfortable I was. I would have died for the aristocracy that night—died, conscious of my tails, but loyal.
But if the village had sinned, retribution had come upon it. For the third time I came to Northoak in June, and lo! the village did not know itself, and indeed was no more a village, but a nameless suburb of a summer hotel.
Some sordid scout of the capitalists had found out what we of the elect few had found out long before—that Northoak was pretty and healthful. And so he desecrated Northoak in giving it over to the populace. Now the great hotel stood there, glaring in its paint of reddish-yellow and reddish-brown, and ten splendid elms had been done to death that it might rear its hideous mansard-roof above its three-storied veranda. Inside of it there were white kalsomined bedrooms, a great "general office," and a greater dining-room, with frescoed ceilings and gorgeous fittings of black walnut and gilt, in the taste of what has been aptly called "the Jim Fisk era." Then there were "French bronze" chandeliers that were neither French nor bronze, puffed upholstery of blue and yellow satin, carpets where gigantic flowers spread luxuriously over a white ground, walls covered with velvet paper—the hotel had every attraction that went to make up elegance and completeness in those happy days when we knew no better.
The elegance had spread to the poor little village. The grocery was an emporium; the thread-and-needle shop was a bazar—with only two a's. The honest old village inn was gone, with its innocent "Philadelphia and XXX Ales," and in its place was a gaudily painted frame building, of which the first floor was a sample-room. Above the sample-room, reached by a side-stairway, was a mysterious apartment into which men entered at all hours of the night, and whence they emerged, as a rule, at about five or six in the morning. The unceasing click of a roulette-ball, clearly audible on the street below, announced that a "quiet little game" was going on in the "Club house."
These things changed the face of the town, but the people brought a greater change. It was an early year in that series of years which linked the close of the war to the panic of 1873—a year, like its fellows, of general extravagance and ostentation. Thousands of people were rich who had never expected to be. Shoddy had stood the good fairy to some of them; others had found wealth in government contracts, in stock speculation, in the spouting of petroleum wells. Now, when each of these suddenly acknowledged children of wealth had built his grand house, furnished and pictured it, so to speak, and had made his trip to Paris and seen something of the glory of the Third Napoleon and Baron Haussmann, he had made up his mind to live luxuriously, and had to face the problem of ways and means. Luxury there was to be had, but it was such luxury as ministered to the quiet, conservative, and strictly private and esoteric pleasures of a limited and exclusive class. The newmade millionaire wanted something that showed for more in the shop-window. He found plenty of people to aid him in his search. The summer hotel sprang into existence to relieve him of all trouble for three months in the year. The Parisian opéra bouffe and the British burlesque came across the ocean to give a tone of sophisticated frivolity to the freshly formed society in which he found himself. He accustomed his palate to the taste of champagne. It was not long before his highest ethical aspirations were satisfied.
And here he was, holding high carnival in dazzled Northoak. He had brought his train with him. There were people from Keokuk and Peoria, people from Cynthiana, from Omaha, from San Francisco, from Petrolia, and from Des Moines. "Why, my dear," said one scandalized old lady of Northoak, "I really never supposed there were such places, except on the map, you know." There were gentlemen in velvet smoking-jackets, gentlemen in baggy knickerbockers, gentlemen with long, blond whiskers, and gentlemen who affected smoking-caps. There were ladies in silks and ladies in satin, and a great many of them cultivated a supposed resemblance to the Empress Eugenie, while still more were modelled upon the pattern of the "girl of the period." It was what was known as a "fast crowd," and about the most of its members there was nothing worse than the exuberant folly born of sudden luxury. They were gay birds of opulence, and they wanted to spread their wings and to curvet and caracole in the soft summer air. And if some birds of prey slipped in among them, who was to blame? The hotel-keepers of the day were not so wise in the matter of feathers as our experienced landlords of 1889.
On this August day of which I speak, the hotellites had some merrymaking afoot which awakened interest even among the people of the estates. Between the large contingent from the West and Southwest, and the minority from the Eastern and Middle States, there was a certain rivalry in all things, and each side had its leaders and champions. Two of these rivals (among the younger sets) were Jack Mowatt, of New York, and Clayton Adriance, of Kentucky. These young men danced equally well, they played about the same game of billiards, each was past-master at croquet, and each could
"Urge toward the table's centre,
With unerring hand, the squall."
(Squails and croquet! O gilded youth, shall aureate adolescence of 1910 smile thus at your tennis; at your exceeding skill with a little foolish round puzzle which has amused you much of late?) In these accomplishments there was nothing to choose between them; but in the matter of horsemanship, it seemed, they were unwilling to divide honors.
Other young men there were, also, who challenged their supremacy. To-day, therefore, a race, a wonderful race of twenty miles was to be run, in four-mile heats, on the track of the old county-fair grounds. It was an absurd contest; cruel on the country horses which had to be hired to supply four out of the five relays for each rider, and it was no fair test of the horsemanship of the two youths. Adriance was beyond doubt the more skilful and graceful horseman; but in a match like this he stood small chance against the superior wind and strength of his lithe, wiry, deep-chested antagonist, who had pulled in three college races, and who outclassed him in size and weight.
However, it was an opportunity for fun, for excitement, for showing of pretty gowns, betting of gloves and champagne and bon-bons and cigars. The hotellites turned out, one and all. Their landaulets and barouches and pony phaetons whirled pretty girls along the dusty highways, and all the primary colors flashed in the sun. Even the hill people came. A horse-race aroused every true American among them.
I trudged along the road, happy enough, yet longing for an invitation to ride beside the least of those pretty girls. I knew the hotel people, after a fashion; I was kindly permitted to hang on the outer edge of their grandeur. Jack Mowatt, who was always good-hearted, now and then deigned to patronize me—I was only three years his junior. I even had a love-affair, if I am not mistaken, with the youngest daughter of a family of eight girls. She was waiting for her two elder sisters to marry, and she condescendingly practised upon me while she waited for her mother to bring her out. But none of my new friends bade me mount with them. It was the good old aristocracy that took pity upon me. Tom Turner's dull, creaky voice hailed me:
"Hi, young man! going to the race?"
Mr. Tom Turner never wasted words—his vocabulary did not allow of extravagance. I climbed into his "two-seater," and sat behind, talking to Mrs. Tom, who shared the front seat with her husband. She had to look over her shoulder as we conversed, and she paid my budding manhood the tribute of a shy blush. She called me "Mr.," too; and I was proud and happy as I sat there talking to her and studying her as only a hobbledehoy can study a young woman.
Every boy goes through this time of standing outside the world of grown women and studying them. A pretty face opens to him a very treasure-house of speculation, and even a plain girl is worth critical examination if the faintest nimbus of romance hang around her head—if it be possible to imagine her loved and loving.
Mrs. Tom was undeniably plain. Her features were sharp, and somewhat large. Her hair and eyes were pale—no other word suggests their faded, neutral dulness of tint. Her teeth were white and regular, but sharply prominent. She was well-proportioned, yet her figure had the awkward lines of immaturity.
And yet there was nothing about her honest plainness to suggest that pitiless question: "Why did he marry her?" Any man might have married Mrs. Tom, for any one of a dozen good reasons, without even endangering his reputation for good taste. Mrs. Tom's face was kind, and it had a simple, youthful wholesomeness about it that must have been almost a positive charm, so pleasant does it seem to my memory after all these years. And she certainly had one positive charm, less subtle, yet less easy to tell of in fitting words. Cleanliness is an attribute that we predicate of all decent and lovable folk, yet there are persons whose cleanliness is offensive, and there are others whose cleanliness is so near to godliness as to be altogether lovable. Mrs. Tom carried with her an atmosphere of material as well as moral purity that absolutely radiated a sweet domesticity. Her fresh, soft skin was not brilliant; but it became her, it was characteristic; it was pleasant to the eye—part of a harmonious whole. For Mrs. Tom's soft gray and brown raiment helped to carry out the idea of her that you got from her face. On this day, I remember, she wore a gray gown, with a lawn kerchief at her neck—not at all in the fashion of the day, but quite in the eternal fashion of good taste and fitness.
We passed through the gates of the fair grounds and drove to a point on the back-stretch of the track, from which we could see the bright ribbon of blue that already hung between the judges little signal-tower and the Grand Stand opposite. When I looked upon the Grand Stand I stifled another wish that the world of fashion might remember me. I had seen that bleak, roofless structure before, black with country-folk in their holiday attire; but oh, how changed was it to-day! A sea, a multicolored sea of parasols covered it, and the bright silken domes bobbed up and down over pretty heads in a way that seemed maddeningly vivacious and engaging to a half-grown boy whose lot was cast, for the hour, with eminent but uninteresting respectability. However, I was in for it where I was, and, having been early instructed in a long antiquated code of manners that forbade me to trample my elders under foot, I did my best to make myself agreeable to my hosts, and found some reward therein. It was something to know the names of all the riders, and to be able to display that proud knowledge.
"That's Jack Mowatt there, mounting the bay with a star—Adriance is the thin fellow with the chestnut. The little chap on the big gray horse is De Vere—I think he used to be on the stage. The man in the queer-looking buckskin—see! that yellowish one—is McAlpine—he plays billiards with his fingers. The other one I think his name is Ferguson—he's on his own horse; he's so rich he doesn't know what to do with his money, and he's got three horses here; he only had to hire two. But he can't ride much. It's between Mowatt and Adriance."
"And which is your man?" inquired Mrs. Tom, smiling.
"Mowatt, of course. New York against Kentucky."
"Then he's mine," said Mrs. Tom.
As she spoke the bell rang, the horses started forward, made a bad start, and went back. Then came another bad start, and then they got off, on the worst start of all three, with Mowatt in the lead, and Adriance badly pocketed by De Vere and McAlpine. Jack pushed his horse and rode like a madman. He was a dozen lengths ahead when he passed us.
"Ah!" growled Tom Turner, in disgust: "fool—he'll never last!"
Even to my eyes Jack was riding foolishly. He had a great, heavy-built colt, strong and willing, but the cheers, the yelling, and, above all, the brutal pace, frightened the poor beast, and on the third lap, when he led by nearly a mile, he began to go wild.
"Bolt, sure!" said Tom, as he saw the leader come into the back-stretch.
And bolt he did, heading straight for us—we stood close to the track, with no rail to separate us. Turner stood nearest the course, I was next, with Mrs. Tom just behind me. She was nervously twisting her handkerchief in both hands—for she had taken her side already, and she was as well able to judge of the chances as any man on the ground.
Then came as quick a bit of work as I ever saw. The big horse left the track, stumbled on the turf, and came down on his knees, Jack Mowatt going over his head. Turner had the animal by the bridle, and brought him to his feet in a second, quivering and panting, but unhurt, save for a scratch or two. Jack, who had landed lightly, was up again as soon as his horse. In an instant his foot was in the stirrup and his hand on the crupper, and then he stopped. The blood from a sharp cut on his forehead was trickling into his eyes. He dashed it out with his left hand, and then, just as a look of despair came over his face, Mrs. Tom stepped up and tied her white handkerchief around his head, tight and firm. Her face was pale but her hands were steady, and the blinding flow was stopped before any one except Jack knew what she was doing.
He knew. His eyes lighted up, he bent, caught one of her hands in his free hand, kissed it, and swung himself into the saddle. I saw Mrs. Tom's white face flush a burning red, and then I turned to see Jack take the track again, just as the field thundered by us, Adriance far ahead, leading by a dozen lengths.
I am not going to tell the story of that race. It was a cruel affair, as far as it went, for they ran only three heats. Mowatt won. He took his own horse for the next relay, and nearly ruined a splendid animal in four miles of mad riding. But he passed the field as if they stood still, and he rode Adriance down after a long and brutal struggle. At the end of the third heat, when he led the Kentucky boy by a quarter of a mile, and the poor youngster looked as though he were about to fall off his horse, the judges stopped the race. All the other riders had dropped off except the despised Ferguson, who was sticking to it a mile or so in the rear. Three horses had been spoiled for life, and the "sporting blood" of the judges had had all it could endure.
Adriance was badly shaken up. He was out of training and incapable of sustained exertion. He shook Mowatt's hand and tried to smile as he said:
"My only regret is that you weren't born in Kentucky."
The Grand Stand went wild, of course, and made the most of its two heroes, and even of Ferguson, who had shown an unexpected pluck. Jack Mowatt was the hero of the hour, and the women fairly flung themselves at his feet. If it had not been Jack's lot in life to bask in women's smiles, his head might have been turned. But Jack had flirted from his cradle up, and to have a hundred women worshipping him instead of one was an experience differing only in degree, and not in kind, from many which he had enjoyed in the brief course of his youth.
He smiled on his admirers for a few minutes, and then made for the stable. Half-way there, as if a sudden thought had come to him, he turned and came up the course to our group on the back-stretch. Mrs. Tom flushed red once more as she saw him, and there was still a touch of color in her face when I proudly introduced the hero, and he began to express his gratitude in Jack's own demonstrative way. He said no more than he meant, perhaps; but he said a great deal more than was necessary, and a great deal more, I have no doubt, than he thought he was saying. Mrs. Tom heard him for the most part in silence. When she said anything, it was with a fluttered, nervous brightness that was wholly unlike her natural manner. Yet it was a manner natural enough under the circumstances. Nine women out of ten would have talked in just that tone. There was nothing odd about the tone, except that it was Mrs. Tom who used it.
Mowatt could not stay long; the cut on his head needed dressing, and the local doctor was already beckoning him toward the stables. But before he bade farewell to Mrs. Tom, I could not help hearing a characteristic speech which he made. Turner and I were tightening buckles on the harness, and Mowatt had his back to me as he said:
"I'll send your handkerchief back to-morrow, Mrs. Turner. I wish—I wish I might keep it, as a memento—of the race. But I suppose——"
I did not hear what Mrs. Tom said in reply. But as we drove home I learned that Tom had agreed to take her to the "hop" at the hotel that evening; and all the way that I went with them Mrs. Tom looked back to talk to me in that same softly fluttered way, asking questions and running on without waiting for answers. I noticed that the flush was still on her cheeks.
"I've never been to a hop at the hotel," she said. "I suppose it's quite festive beside our dull doings here. I haven't an idea what to wear. What do the ladies generally wear? Oh, but there! what do you know about such things? You don't notice ladies' dresses, do you? Men never do. But it must be lovely to dance to that splendid band! Do you dance? If you do, you mustn't forget your country friends—" and so on, while Tom drove stolidly along, and I watched this poor little gray pigeon preen her wings—watched her with all a boy's cruel but observant interest.
And here, as the conversation which I had overheard a few minutes before was the beginning of a bad business, for which Jack Mowatt has been often blamed, let me say a word for that unlucky butterfly. I knew him well in after years, and knew him for a perfectly harmless and highly ornamental insect. Flirting was as much a part of his daily existence as eating, drinking, or sleeping—if you can call that flirtation which was merely the exchange of the most obvious flattery and innocently exaggerated deference for that delightfully familiar sort of petting which women are always ready to lavish on the man who is not to be taken seriously. And only two women that I have heard of ever took Jack seriously. One was Mrs. Tom—the other was the girl who finally married him. And it was characteristic of this graceful and voluble woman-worshipper that when his time came, and he was really in love, he lost his tongue and his wits, and had to be dragged through his courtship and up to the speaking-point like any country oaf.
So I think I may fairly say that when Jack kissed Mrs. Tom's hand and begged her handkerchief, he did no more than he would have done had it been his own grandmother—and meant no more ill. It was Jack's way of being decently and respectfully civil to a woman.
It was late that night when I laid aside my books and hurried eagerly over to the hotel. The distant music had twisted up my trigonometry for three hours, and the figures of the lanciers and the quadrille had wellnigh driven another sort of figures out of my young head. However, young conscience was somehow satisfied when I entered the great dining-room, turned into a ball-room by the presence of two fiddlers and a double-bass and a clarinet, supporting the lean hotel "accompanist" in the piano-corner. Yet I had not been three minutes in that scene of revelry before I wished that I had not left my shabby, calf-covered books, my little white-cloth-topped table, my poor kerosene lamp, whereon the moths and mosquitoes stuck fast in the oil, looking like Christian martyrs after the festival of human torches.
Tom Turner was the first person I met. He was leaving the ball-room, headed for the billiard-room. He only nodded when he saw me.
"Where is Mrs. Turner?" I asked.
"In there," he said, and went on his way. He was always taciturn, impassive, chary of his words; but he spoke with such a sullen shortness that—boy-like—I fancied I had done something to offend him.
I went "in there." It was a little parlor or drawing-room, opening from the large hall. There sat Jack Mowatt, on a yellow and blue satin divan—a hideous round structure, such as you still may see in the abodes of the aristocracy on our modern realistic stage. He was doing the wounded hero to perfection, his manly beauty not wholly marred by a narrow strip of sticking-plaster running half-way across his forehead. In front of him half-a-dozen women had drawn up their chairs to form a circle of worship. There were four young girls, not yet out of the age of gigglehood, a black-browed, aquiline-nosed, handsome bird of prey from San Francisco, and Mrs. Tom.
Mrs. Tom in a white silk dress, with a girlish pink sash, and with the pinkest of pink roses in her poor colorless hair; Mrs. Tom talking loud and fast, and talking nonsense—that is what Mrs. Tom's young friend heard and saw as he stood stupefied in the door-way of the room with the yellow and blue satin divan.
"So like the knights and cavaliers of old!" this young man heard her say. "Didn't you feel like a knight, Mr. Mowatt?"
"Didn't Mr. Mowatt act like a knight?" queried the Bird of Prey, dryly, and the four girls giggled.
"I should have been a poor knight without my rescuing lady," said Jack, and the girls giggled again. Mrs. Tom heard them not.
"Mr. Mowatt was the knightliest of knights," she said, laughing shrilly. Her eyes shone; there was a hot color in her high cheek-bones.
I withdrew softly; no one had noticed my presence. They were all too intent on drawing out poor Mrs. Tom—all except Jack, who was frowning furtively at the beauty with the aquiline nose.
I was chagrined and humiliated. The reckless jollity, the crude luxury of the hotel life had attracted me; but my friends were the good, quiet, gentlefolk on the hills, and to see one of them made the dupe and the butt of these half-breed savages wounded my juvenile loyalty. I slipped out of the ball-room, and I thought that the whole pleasure of the evening was lost for me, when I stumbled across my own immature charmer, the youngest of the eight, sulking in a dark corner of the veranda, where she could look in at the gayety which she might not share with her seven elders.
She confided to me that she considered her exclusion "real mean"—she said "reel"—and I sat down by her side and consoled her in the soft summer night. By and by I forgot Mrs. Tom (and myself, wellnigh), and I received a painful shock when Maude Addie said:
"They're dancing the Caledonian quadrille! Who is that queer creature dancing all out of time?"
I knew before I looked in the window. It was Mrs. Tom, and Jack Mowatt was her partner. She was dancing furiously, awkwardly, and quite out of time. Some of the younger girls were imitating her angular movements to her very face; but she danced on, smiling, radiant, unconscious of everything but the strange elation that had taken possession of her. By the end the dance had degenerated almost to a romp; but Mrs. Tom smiled on, gayly, triumphantly. A minute later she passed us on Jack's arm.
"Upon my word, Mrs. Turner," I heard him say, "there's no one I ever knew who could dance like you."
"Oh, you flatterer!" said the poor woman, looking up at him with blind gratitude in her face.
The next morning Mrs. Tom, driving down to the village, as was her custom, stopped at the hotel to see the Bird of Prey, or some other of her new friends, and incidentally carried Jack off for a drive. The day after, Turner went fishing, and Mrs. Tom passed most of the day with the hotellites. The third day it was much the same; on the fourth, I was invited to dinner at the Brinckerhoffs, who were Turner's first-cousins, and after dinner old Mrs. Brinckerhoff took me aside and asked me plumply if it was true that Tom's wife was associating so freely with "these people." I tried to fib; but the occasion was not happy for mendacity.
However, it mattered little. Mrs. Tom's infatuation for her new society was beyond all concealing, and the nature of it was clear enough. She was fighting for her woman's birthright of admiration, romance, and worship. For the first time it had come into her head that she might be as these other women—courted, petted, pelted with rose-leaf flatteries; that she, too, might have her adorers; might drink the champagne of this sparkling, glorious life. A week before she had been contented in her wholesome dulness, with the husband whom she had married as a matter of course, who loved her (as she loved him) yet had never made love to her. She had been contented when the glass told her that her face was plain: the thought troubled her no more than the thought that she could not read Greek. She could have honestly admired a beautiful woman, just as she might have respected a Greek scholar. She had never longed for beauty: it went for little in her world—for less than fair birth or breeding, and both of these she had. It was natural enough that she should have been contented. Do you envy the splendid colonel whom you admire as he rides at the head of his regiment? Do you want his uniform to go about your business in? Do you want his mettlesome great horse, that you couldn't ride to save your life? Do you want even his glory, bought at the cost of wounds and cares and privations? Not for an instant. Envy of him will never keep you awake o' nights. But join his regiment as the rawest of privates, and you will envy every rag of gold lace on that man's body. So it was with Mrs. Tom. A man had kissed her hand, and she longed for beauty.
Beauty itself she must have known was beyond her reach. But that she would be in the ranks of beauty, be one of the women who charm and are courted, breathe the delicious incense of men's adoration—this had been revealed to her by proof indubitable. Had not the very paragon of women-worshippers kissed her hand? Was he not wearing her handkerchief in his waistcoat? Cinderella had come to the court of the king!
It was a mad fancy of Mrs. Tom's, but it was born, perhaps, of vague, half-formulated, half-repressed dreams that none of those about her knew of, and it was fostered by a most malicious combination of circumstances. Jack began his innocent blandishments in good faith; then he passed, all unsuspicious, to a dangerous jest; then he found the jest broadening under the smiles of the spectators, and sought a way out of it by turning it into palpable burlesque—palpable, he found, to all save the woman whose head he had turned—a woman who had no sense of humor, and who had never heard of the possibility of raillery so cruel and unchivalrous. And then, foreseeing in himself a red-handed butcher of courtesy and delicacy, he lost his head and took to his heels. He was much to be condemned—he was condemned—but this is to be said for him, that he began in good faith and went wrong before he knew it; and that the management of a maniac, when that maniac is a woman insane on the subject of her own charms, is a problem that might prove too much for many an older man of the world than this poor flibbertigibbet of twenty-one.
His solution of the problem was simple. On Friday he went to New York—on business, he said. He was to be back by Saturday evening. Calypso waited for him Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. On Tuesday she saw his trunks go out of the hotel marked for New York. A letter to one of his friends among the men conveyed the intelligence that he was called away by the illness of a relative.
It turned out to be no solution at all. He dealt his victim a cruel blow, but did not awaken her from her dream. In that one week Mrs. Tom had heard more about flirtations and jiltings and transfers of affection generally than she had heard in all her previous life. She had even met one ingenuous Southern maid who was habitually engaged to three gentlemen at once. She accepted this as her first defeat in a world which she had already learned was a world of secret but unceasing strife. She smothered her humiliation, and determined to go on with the fight.
She had no difficulty in carrying on her campaign. She was a rich joke for the hotel, in more senses than one. The harpy contingent had already discovered that she was well-to-do in her own right. They set their young men to "taking turns at Mrs. Tom," and keeping her supplied with all the flattering attentions which she would accept. And, by the irony of fate, she found a genuine adorer. He was a sulky, loutish youth, who had been brought up on a farm until he came into the fortune of an oil-well uncle. This silent, dull youngster, half a dozen years her junior, fell honestly in love with her, and trailed about after her like an ill-conditioned poodle.
A lively chase Mrs. Tom led him. The end of that second week found her in the fore-front of all the hotel gayety. She slept at home; but her days and her evenings were passed with her hotellites, who diverted themselves without ceasing. That week a flash, fashionable dress-maker and milliner came up from New York, and Mrs. Tom gave orders for dresses that made the eyes shine in the scheming heads of the birds of prey. The dresses were confected with great rapidity under their directions, and such marvels of gorgeous bad taste were they that, even in that day of loud things, they scandalized the most advanced thought of the hotel. Mrs. Tom, clean out of her modest depth in color, fairly floundered in reds and greens and blues and yellows—and let me remind you that we had had no scot and lot on all the excursions and picnic parties, which festivities were not conducted on a modest scale. One of them won some fame at the time. Ferguson, the millionaire contractor, took a driving-party of twenty to the Mountain House, a sporting resort some ten miles away, up in the hills, and when they sat down to supper (cooked by a New York chef, served by New York waiters) each lady found her napkin rolled up in a gold bracelet set with diamonds, by way of a napkin-ring—a dainty conceit of the millionaire's. It was at this supper, I believe, that they induced Mrs. Tom to sing "Dites-lui," and found great sport therein.in those days, no Burne-Jones to tell us of the sin of primary colors, or to teach us the holiness of sage-green and the sacredness of old gold and the terra-cotta family. Mrs. Tom made ample return for these aids to fashionable elegance. She lent money to ladies expecting remittances, and showed unwearying patience in awaiting the remittances; she guaranteed their credit at the dress-maker's; she gave them costly presents; and she payed her
But what, you ask, were Mrs. Tom's relatives doing all this while? They were doing just about what relatives and friends usually do under comparable circumstances, and to just about as much purpose. "If any of my people," we have all said, at one time or another, "were to attempt to disgrace the family, I would do—" this, that, or the other. But when the time comes we all of us find that we have very little influence in the matter, and that a wilful whippersnapper of eighteen, even, can peg stones at the family escutcheon at his or her sweet will. How about your niece? Didn't she run away and join the comic-opera company, as she said she would? How about my cousin? Didn't he marry her, as he said he would? You and I are connections by marriage, and we wouldn't be if we could have helped it.
And what was Tom Turner doing? For the first three weeks everybody asked that question. By the fourth week everybody knew that he was drinking hard. He found himself in a situation that was to him as incomprehensibly unreal as a nightmare. His orderly, narrow life afforded no precedent to guide him. He knew that everything was wrong. He knew not how to set it right. He remonstrated, he quarrelled with her; then he relapsed into sullen silence, went fishing day after day, and drank more than was good for him.
I have no doubt that his meagre vocabulary put him at a disadvantage. He could tell his wife that she was "carrying on," perhaps that she was "making a fool of herself;" but beyond this he probably found himself unable to characterize her conduct without saying that it was "not respectable." And with men of Tom's class this phrase had a specific meaning which would have made its use impossible. Tom could not insult his wife with the thought. Indeed, through all the time of her folly, no one ever dreamed of thinking it anything worse than folly, pure and simple. Even the hotel harpies knew better than to misconstrue her silliness. The most cynical and reckless of the velveteen-coated adventurers would not have dared to enlighten Mrs. Tom's ignorance; for whatever black depths there might be in the world where she moved, they were carefully screened from her eyes, and to the end she believed that the "flirtations" of those about her were as innocent as her own.
As to Tom, she told him he was prejudiced, unkind, and selfish. She was doing no harm, she was spending her own money, she was having a good time. If he did not like her friends, well and good. And so Tom went off to his fish and his bottle, and Mrs. Tom went on making herself the laughing-stock of the hotel and the horror of her family. The people on the hills wept over her, and the children at the hotel invented a pretty pastime which they called "making believe be Mrs. Tom."
One morning in the first week of September I stood on the steps of the hotel gazing at Mr. Ferguson's new span of horses, when I heard a rustle of silks by my side, a hand was laid lightly on my shoulder, and a high-pitched voice, which I knew in spite of its affected, drawling tone, said:
"Why, de-ar boy! I haven't seen you in an age!"
It was Mrs. Tom, or what passed for Mrs. Tom in these days, though it was not easy to recognize her at a glance, in her glaring red and green shot silk, with rouge and powder making a hectic illumination on her high-boned cheeks, with her eyebrows blackened, her hair dyed a strange shiny yellow, and with diamonds stuck and hung all over her—at ten o clock in the morning.
"I must get Ferguson," she said, "to let me take you out behind these grays. You shall handle the ribbons, and you shall smoke, too, if you like. Why don't you let us see something of you? We" (she dwelt on the pronoun as though it were sweet in her mouth) "would like to have you. And if you want to have a good time, you know, you've got to come with us. And there's just the chance for you, dear boy! Young Mason, who's been making himself so sweet to Mrs. Gilderoy—his mother's just taken him away. She was afraid!" (Mrs. Tom tittered.) "Now's your chance. Do you know Mrs. Gilderoy? No? She's from New Orleans. The loveliest woman! Yes, you positively must come to the front."
I stumbled out some confused acknowledgment. I felt all the shame that she should have felt. She saw my blush, and smiled complacently as she moved away. She took it for the tribute of bashfulness.
I watched her as she walked along the veranda. She was trying to imitate a carriage that had a brief vogue at that time—the body was thrown forward of the hips, involving a general distortion of other anatomical processes.
She sat down among her friends, who were scarcely less besilked and bejewelled than she. I looked back to the street, and saw Tom Turner's road-wagon turning in from the Highkill Falls road.
It was a sight common enough of late. Turner often spent the night at Highkill, where there was a sportsmen's tavern; and his man drove over for him in the morning. But to-day Turner was not in the wagon. His man was driving alone, and he drove straight for the hotel, peering under the veranda as he came until his eye fell on his mistress. He alighted, went up to her, gave her a note, and marched back to his wagon.
Mrs. Tom read the letter, gave a husky little cry, turned paler than her powder, and straightened out rigid, as though she were in an epileptic fit. The group of women closed in about her. I hurried toward them, but before I came near, Mrs. Tom had recovered herself, at least enough to walk, with a woman on each side of her, and they took her to the nearest room. She passed within a yard of me, and the frightened, stricken stare of the eyes that looked out from that painted face was like a vision of death and judgment.
I need hardly say that in her few moments of unconsciousness somebody in the crowd read her letter. I heard its contents discussed in the open street. It was from Tom, and said that he had gone away, and that she should not see him again. It was a drunken man's letter; but, drunk or sober, Tom never failed of his word.
The next day a delegation of the harpies, who had no notion to let their prey slip away so easily, drove up to call on poor dear Mrs. Turner. They were refused admittance at the gates. The three children were dangerously ill, the lodge-keeper said, and Mrs. Turner would see no one.
It was believed for a time that the sickness of the children was a mere excuse for retirement; but the next day the local doctor hailed me from his gig, and gave me some news. He was a testy, kindly, vehement conservative, this little, gray old doctor.
"Your people have gone home, haven't they?" he asked.
"Yes, sir—last week. I've got to stay and finish my grind. It's a beast."
"Well, you'd best get out too. There's something like an epidemic in town. The three Turner children are down—I think they'll come out all right—mother's with 'em now, nursing 'em day and night—but it's hard to tell. Dysentery—that's all—but I've had seven other cases within thirty-six hours, and there are one or two I don't like the looks of. Don't believe in scares—but you know what the papers say. Cholera on the other side—had a genuine case in New York yesterday. Just about time we had another turn of it in this country. And if it does come, young man, this is the sort of place that's just ripe for it. Five hundred new people here since June—not a drain—not a damn drain—beg your pardon, sir!—It's manslaughter—rank manslaughter! And if it gets into that devil's toy-shop there"—he pointed to the hotel—"it will have everything its own way—close the cussed place, I hope! Clk! Kitty, git up! Don't you stay here, my boy; don't you stay here! Clk!"
Being a boy, of course I did not go. The prospect of beholding a pestilence was far too alluring.
The doctor was right. Bad drainage—or, rather, no drainage at all—and a summer of uninterrupted heat had worked together to produce a local epidemic of a serious nature. It was on a Monday that this conversation was held: on Tuesday a half-dozen cases appeared at the hotel, and then this little army of frivolity, a host of weak creatures with nothing to tie up to in this world or the next, were smitten with utter, shameless panic. Those of them who could go at once went. Before Wednesday night one hundred and twenty-seven people had left the hotel. More than that number remained against their will, held by one cause or another—in most cases, impecuniosity. There were many fair ladies in that caravansary who were in the habit of depositing their diamonds in the hotel-safe at night; not because they were in fear of thieves, but because the proprietor particularly requested it. Various gentlemen, moreover, were chained, as it were, to the bar-room slate and the account-book of the billiard-room keeper. There was much telegraphing for remittances, and the faro-bank did a rushing business twenty-four hours in the day, and would willingly have kept open twenty-five hours, had it been possible.
Saturday ended this carnival of fear, for the great hotel closed. Nearly six-score people, sick and well, left the great barracks, staring at the dull fall day out of its hundreds of blindless windows, marched down the long street, and piled in confusion into the two stuffy little cars that made up a train on the shaky little railroad that ran from Northoak to the Hudson River. The decenter of the lot somehow settled in the rearward car; in that behind the engine the wilder spirits got together, and to watch these I slipped in and sate myself on the wood-box.
That was a hideous journey. Fear—the most abject, dastardly, selfish fear possessed this crowd that was so brazen three days before; and, after the manner of their kind, they tried to hide it with bravado. Some had bottles of champagne, all had whiskey or brandy, and as time went on they drank themselves half-wild. They sang, they shouted, they made mad and brutal jokes. The restrictions of decency and even of discretion were forgotten. Strange relationships stood out in undisguised frankness, and the ugliest part of all their ugliness was the open selfishness that showed how frail was the tie that knit one human being to another. And among them all not one spoke the word that summed up all their terrors. They spoke of "it;" and that "it" meant the cholera. Typhus and malaria were waiting for many of them; but of these dangers, which had obviously menaced them through all their sojourn at that drainless barrack, they thought nothing. It was a baseless terror, an all but impossible possibility, that struck terror to their weak souls.
Save myself, there were but two silent passengers in the car. Directly opposite me sat the bird of prey, Mrs. Grilderoy, of New Orleans. Sheer fright had prostrated her, and had brought back an old trouble, quiescent for years. She had been taken with hemorrhage of the lungs. She had telegraphed to New York, to a certain Sister of Charity, "She will come," the scared wretch said, and she had come, and now was taking this pallid shadow of a woman back to New York, to die within the white walls of a hospital, no longer a person, an agent for good or ill in the breathing world—a number, in a numbered cot, for which some other wretch waits, to be a number in her turn. Looking at the faces of these two women, as they sat side by side, you saw that they were sisters in another sense than that of Christian charity. But peace was in one face and deadly fear in the other.
Just as we drew into our station on the Hudson, a woman fainted, and an access of fright set the whole carload of men and women struggling for the doors. That was the last I saw of them. They took the railroad; I crossed the river in a row-boat and went down to New York in a freight-barge, which is the ideal way of travelling, if there are no calves aboard.
It was ten years before I saw Northoak again, and it was only an idle impulse that took me there. I had three or four last days at the end of a vacation in the mountains. My party had disbanded; no one expected me in New York before the next Monday. It came into my head to stop at Northoak on my way back, to whip the trout-streams after my own fashion—a luxury I cannot indulge in when there are professional-amateur anglers to wither me with their scorn. Yes, I take a book in my pocket, and if the trout will not have me, I lie down under a tree and walk the London streets with Mr. Samuel Pepys, monstrous fine in his waistcoat made of his wife's brocade petticoat, or stroll under the Italian skies with Eichendorff's Good-for-nothing in his mystic, magical Wander-Jahre. Northoak trout were too small game for the gentry who despise this sort of fishing; yet there be trout at Northoak, so there I went. I had other reasons, of course—a foolish fancy of reminiscence leading me back to look for boyhood in boyhood's paths.
I found my old abiding-place, still a refuge for the stranger, but now only as a lodging-house for those who "mealed" at the hotel. It was kept by a brisk woman of business, fresh from New England, who could tell me nothing of my old friends. I asked for the room that had been mine; but when I saw it, and found how close and small it was (and always must have been) I gladly took a larger chamber on the floor below.
I went to dinner at the hotel. There it was, the same hotel, but, oh! how changed from that hotel I had known. All the smartness of it had vanished. The wood-work was warped; the paint, of a later era of bad taste, was dull and weather-worn; the frescoed ceiling of the great dining-room had fallen in a dozen places, and the damages had been repaired with white plaster. The yellow and blue satin furniture was gone. Strange, angular furniture had taken its place. I was told that it was in the Eastlake style. The house was full—filled with quiet, decorous families from Boston and Philadelphia, with a small mingling of highly respectable, hard working artists. I don't think there was a bottle of champagne in the place. I know that there was a sewing-circle in the rooms where the faro-bank used to be, and a candy-shop in the place of the saloon.
Not a trace left of the old life—the old silly, reckless, dangerous, hopeful, happy life. Everything is better now, wiser, more wholesome. And yet we were happy in those days when the "Blue Danube" was new; when we first beheld le sabre de mon père; when our veins thrilled with the potency of pleasures that we have grown tired of since: in those crude days when things were fresher than they are now. And this much I am sure of: we who left our boyhood behind us a score of years ago were a deal merrier, more companion able, juicier fellows than the finished youths of to-day, who take their pleasures so sadly; who know such a weary, worry some lot about what is good form and what isn't, and who treat women just as they would men.
On the morning after my arrival I sat in my room writing letters. Looking up and out the window I saw a dog-cart going along the street. In it sat a gray-haired woman, bolt upright, dressed in a gown of yellow and black, so strange in fashion, as well as in color, that it might have been the caprice of a mad woman. I saw her—and she was gone. But I knew Mrs. Tom.
I had a feeling of something like dizziness as I tried to realize that I had actually seen this thing, and not dreamed it. I had seen Mrs. Tom, gray-haired and pale, dressed in the clothes I had seen her in a decade before. What was she now? A ghostly maniac, revisiting the scenes of her mad happiness?
I thought about it until I could write letters no longer, and set out for a walk. I had hardly crossed the threshold of the house when a voice cried:
I stopped, and a man grasped my hand.
"Knew you right off!" he said. "Glad to see you. Changed, haven't you? Stopping here, eh? No! Won't do! Come up to my house. Mrs. Turner glad to see you. After trout? Show you lots. Mustn't stay here—won't have it! Come for you at three. Get your traps ready. Bless you—knew you right off—didn't I?"
I had been only a boy when he knew me for a summer or two, but when he bade me good-by, after making me promise to visit him, he walked on smiling, as though he had met his best friend. He was changed, too. His hair was grizzled, and when he was not speaking his eyes had a half-vacant, half-sleepy look that had not belonged to his youthful stolidity.
At three he came for me, and I had to go, much as I dreaded meeting Mrs. Tom. He was cheerful as we drove along; but as taciturn as of old. If he spoke, it was to say something about the weather or the crops, or the cattle in the fields which we passed. Mrs. Turner was well, he said, and the children. They had had another one since I had seen them—a splendid boy—four years old now. A fine growing summer! They would have the finest crop of hay ever gathered in the county—didn't I think so?
We found Mrs. Tom in the great drawing-room that opened on the lawn, and my heart sank within me as I saw that she was dressed in a gown of faded pink, almost as startlingly out of fashion as the odd garment she had worn in the morning. But though she blushed a little as she greeted me (and her blush, against her soft gray hair, made her look almost pretty), she showed no embarrassment, no strangeness of manner, and in a moment I felt quite at ease, not only for myself but for her. At the first look I fancied that her pale face seemed stern; at the second, I saw in it such a sweet dignity that I wondered why I had ever thought of the clothes she had on.
After a while the children came in, and presently Turner took them off to see if the new Jersey cow had arrived. The three elder were attractive children. The two girls were perhaps fifteen and sixteen, well-mannered, and pretty, or comely at least. The boy was a fine fellow of thirteen, with a manly way about him. The youngest was of a different sort. I thought him dull and heavy, and he had the pettish bearing of a spoiled child. But I saw that this Benjamin was as the apple of his mother's eye. There was a difference not only of degree but of kind in the look which she cast after him as her eyes followed her children out of the room.
They had hardly gone when she looked up at me with a tremulous eagerness and said:
"You didn't want to come? No, I understand. But I wanted to tell you that I'm glad to have you here. Of course, I wanted you to come because it pleased him; but I'm glad to see you, anyway—for myself, don't you know."
I said that I had hoped she would care to see me; but she paid no attention to my awkward equivocations, and went on:
"I thought you'd feel that I wouldn't want to see you, on account of—that time, you know—my spree. Oh, yes, I know. That's what they called it. I know a good deal now that I didn't know then. I know just how—just how I seemed to people. That's why I don't mind seeing you. It wasn't quite the same with you. You never had anything to do with making me act—as I did."
She snatched up a little dress from the work-basket by her side, stretched it out and shaped it upon her lap, threaded a needle with that mechanical deftness which belongs to women, and began sewing and talking at once.
"I don't believe you ever made fun of me. They all did. I've often thought, since, thinking how those men pretended to make love to me, that you were always respectful—don't you understand me? It made me feel, when I used to think about it, that I was worth it—you know what I mean? I've ground my teeth sometimes, just for pain, and then I've thought how nice you were to me, and I've felt better."
Great God! I thought to myself, can the chance of a boy's decent breeding mean so much to his fellow-beings?
"I didn't mean to talk about that time," she began again, after she had stitched for a minute in silence. "I only meant to tell you something so that you would understand how it is now. I don't know whether you heard much about what happened afterwards."
"I heard something," I said; "you went West."
"Not till the next summer. We tried, all we could, but we didn't find out where he was till then. And Ethel wasn't really strong until June. Then I heard where he was, and I went out and found him in Omaha."
She paused again, and kept her head down close over her work.
"He wouldn't even see me. He wouldn't let me come near him. He was drinking, you know. I don't mean that I blame him"—she raised her head and looked me in the eye, feeling herself the champion of her husband—"he never would have done it if it hadn't been for me—and he wasn't himself." She dropped her head again. "Then he had the delirium, and I could come and nurse him, and then came the brain fever, and after that he woke up one morning just as clear as ever—just like his own self—and he's been so ever since. That's when we came home—and, oh, it seemed to me that I could just get down and kiss the ground!"
She held her work at arm's length and winked at it until she could see it clearly.
"I don't know that I should say just his old self," she began again; "he's never been the same, exactly. You know he used to be quite bright."
I never had known it; but I said I had.
"Well, I think he's getting clearer, all the time. He knew you at once, didn't he?"
"He spoke to me first," I hastened to say, "before I recognized him."
"Yes, he came home and told me. He was very proud of it. That's one reason why I was so glad you came. He knows it, you know, and it's such a gain when he feels sure of himself."
I nursed my conceit for a while. Then Mrs. Tom began once more, looking straight at me, though her cheeks were flushed.
"Of course you've noticed—" her eyes dropped, and she looked at her dress as though she would have me look at it. "I'm wearing them out."
I suppose my eyes were blankly inquisitive.
"They're the things I had then. I'm wearing them out. It's a part of my penance. I don't mean in a Roman Catholic way, you know," she interpolated, with a look of shocked affright in her eyes; "I don't mean anything of that sort, of course, but only—oh, you can't get away from what you've done. And you wouldn't believe it, but in that one month that I was—on my spree—I had nineteen dresses made, and had eleven more ordered—just to have more than anybody else in that horrid place. And then there were fourteen that I had ordered from Paris. They came home at Christmas—just the day before. That was my only Christmas present that year—and hadn't I bought it myself? Oh, I knew that then!"
She had dropped her work and had folded her hands in her lap.
"I don't know that I can make you understand why I wear those things," she said. "It's like having a whip on my back sometimes, to get them on. I don't know why I'm talking to you like this, anyway, except that I never have talked to anyone. But, don't you see, the children are growing up, and they'll know all about it. Oh, I've told them—the older ones—but they don't understand. It doesn't mean anything to them. They can't think their mother ever did anything wrong—it's like talking of original sin to them. But you know they'll be out in the world—that is our world—here in a little while, and then it will all be told to them, and you know how it will be told—you know just how they'll have to hear it. And it's always seemed to me that if they saw me in those clothes they'd understand it—that they wouldn't be so far away from it—that they'd feel they knew about it, and it was something that had come naturally to them, and they could forgive it, and say, 'Poor mother, we don't mind that!’ And they're so used to me—so used to these things—I think they will. Don't you understand?"
The setting sun made the white walls pink. I watched the warm light spreading. I had looked once in Mrs. Tom's eyes, and I had nothing to say. But soon she spoke again, in a cheerful, hopeful voice.
"I've worn them all almost out. When I get to the end of them I'll have my own things again."
By and by the children came in again. The new cow had arrived, and papa was waiting for mamma in the lower pasture. We went down, and joined with Tom in praising the beautiful Jersey. I noticed that at every word of critical praise he uttered he appealed to his wife, and that she confirmed his judgment in a tone that was almost maternal. Even so might a mother assent to her boy's simple guesses at the use and meaning of the things about him.
As we left the pasture Tom took his wife's hand to direct her attention to something in the economy of the farm about which he asked her advice. We went up the hill in the twilight, and I lingered behind with the children, and saw that he still kept hold of the tips of her fingers, as they walked up the hill together.
Mrs. Tom is dead, or this tale would not be told. But it is only a few years since she died, and I think that she had time enough on earth to wear out those cruel clothes, and to sit a while with her husband and her children, clad in such a soft gray gown as I saw her wear once upon a time, with a white handkerchief folded over a peaceful breast.