The Folly of Others/The Head of the House

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THE HEAD OF THE HOUSE.

“NOW, Katharine, there's no use talkin' to me," said Mrs. Young, flinging a handful of hulled strawberries into the pan. "I shan't say another word to your Pa about it. I want him to go to town to sign some deeds this afternoon, and I can't afford to rile him. Besides, it wouldn't do a particle of good if I was to talk him deaf, and you know it."

"Well, I think Pa might give in, for once," said Katharine, holding her little dark head on one side, like a plaintive bird. Her small fingers were slow as her speech, but deft, and she worked steadily, picking out of the pan now and then an unhulled berry or a leaf dropped in by her impatient mother. "Jack feels bad about it, too," she added.

"I don't know's he's any call to feel bad," said Mrs. Young sharply. "Strikes me it ain't a man's part to worry about where he's goin' to be married and how—that's women's business. It's his mother and sisters, I s'pose, that put him up to that."

"Well, he says there's lots of people that'll feel offended if they ain't asked—and you know we can't have more'n a dozen in that little front room. And then he says it looks so queer."

"Oh, he does? Well, I've told you what I'll do. You can have the best supper money'll buy, laid out in this house, and Jack Grant can ask all his relations, rich and poor, and anybody else he's a mind to—the ¦whole Valley for all I care. There'll be enough and to spare—nobody can accuse me of stinting. And you'll have a lovely dress and plenty of chance to show it. But you can't be married and not have your Pa there, and you know as well as I do that no earthly power'll get him over the doorsill of this house."

Katharine winked hard and her eyelids began to redden. Mrs. Young got up and carried the pan of strawberries into the kitchen, where two big kettles were bubbling richly on the stove. The tears came easily to her eyes and left no trace. She cried a little softly, standing by the hot stove and stirring the preserves. Then she put on the fresh strawberries in another kettle and went out again, calm and businesslike. The porch was enclosed with wire-screening, and shaded by the drooping branches of a large pepper-tree. Katharine sat by the table, which was still heaped with berries, picked that morning. Her small, pink-stained hands were folded in her lap.

"Come, get to work," said her mother shortly. "I want these finished up before we go to town. I've got to get your Pa's lunch now."

She hesitated a moment, looking over the girl's head and listening. Soft, long-drawn notes of a violin came from somewhere beyond the veil of pepper-branches.

"Don't you feel bad," she added, "you'll have the best outfit and wedding-supper of any girl was ever married here, I reckon. I'll see that you don't have any cause to sing small before his folks. And now, Katharine, let's have a cheerful face. I've done all I can for you—more'n you know."

Katharine looked up inquiringly, but Mrs. Young turned abruptly and went into the kitchen. Here she arranged a tray with a fresh blue-bordered napkin, a glass of milk, a piece of custard-pie and some crackers on china plates. With this in her hand she walked slowly through the dining-room, the sitting-room, and the parlor, all large rooms and, according to the Valley standard, handsomely furnished. The parlor had a satin "set," a grand piano, and three brass lamps. In the midst of these articles, still as spotless and brilliant as on the day she had bought them, Mrs. Young stood for five minutes, with the lines about her near-sighted eyes which came whenever she looked intently at anything. Then she returned to the kitchen, took her sun-hat from a nail behind the door and went out. Katharine was working steadily at the berries.

Beyond the woodshed, where the "help," a rawboned Swede girl, was washing, was the stable, and beyond this, three hundred feet from the "big house," stood a one-story frame cottage, rubbed down to a powdery gray by sun and rain. A pepper-tree leaned over its roof as though to efface it in a fall of green fronds, and a climbing rose covered the whole front and mingled its white pink-hearted blossoms with the bunches of pepper-berries. The front door was wide open, and from it issued a penetrating odor, by no means in harmony with the scent of roses.

Mrs. Young hurried through the narrow hall from which the four rooms opened. In what had been the kitchen she picked her way through a network of wires, wheels and pulley-belts and over wood-shavings, scattered tools and iron-filings, to reach the stove, on which a kettle was smoking violently. This she set off on a bench and retreated by the back door. Mr. Young was sitting in the shade of the pepper-tree, his chair tipped back against the wall of the house, his neatly-shaven chin cuddled on his fiddle. His face, rosy as a crab-apple drying on the tree, wore a peaceful smile.

"I've brought your lunch, Father," his wife said gently.

He opened his eyes, nodded, and finished the tune, drawing the last note out to the very end of the bow. Then he went in and sat down at the table in the old dining-room. He ate slowly and daintily, "pecking," his wife called it.

"There, I guess I've humored your teeth this time," she said dryly.

From her tone no one could have guessed that she was smiling. She picked off a gray hair from the old man's coat with a touch so light that it was unfelt.

Walking into the front room she stood looking at the worn, scanty old furniture, the carpet faded to a uniform dull gray, the faded wall-paper against which hung groups of framed daguerreotypes. On a shelf was a picture of herself, taken twenty-two years before, when she had come to this house a bride.

"Father," she called, rather huskily, "when you're through I wish you'd come here a minute … You know Katharine's going to be married two weeks from to-morrow," she went on, looking at him anxiously. "And I was thinking we might fix up this room pretty, with flowers an' green. We'll only ask the relatives to the wedding, and the supper's to be up at the other house—it'll be very quiet here, and I don't think it'll bother your head any, do you?"

"Oh, no, I guess not," said Mr. Young vaguely. "But I wouldn't go to makin' much of a fuss——"

"Well, we have to do something," said Mrs. Young with a sigh. "Young folks expect it nowadays. And I'm willing Katharine should have a little more show, if she likes it. And his folks expect it—most of 'em are well off, you know, and we can afford it as well as the best of 'em."

Mr. Young shuffled his feet uneasily and turned to go out. He disliked any allusion to the prosperity which had followed on his wife's taking over the management of the ranch, and a moment later she realized that her tongue had slipped again. Reminding him that he had promised to drive to town with her that afternoon, she was astonished by his prompt disavowal of any such intention.

"It's too hot, and my head feels bad," he said serenely. "I don't feel like doing business to-day."

"Now, Father, all you've got to do is to sign your name a couple o' times," Mrs. Young cried, with eagerness and entreaty. "And Katharine's got to go to the dressmaker's, and I don't want to take the time to go again this week——"

"Now, Cynthia, where's the hurry?" he drawled sweetly, edging out the door. "Next week'll do, and it's a hot day—an awful hot day. Besides, I'm busy. I'm makin' a new kind o' varnish. And that reminds me——"

He hurried into his workroom.

"I guess I let it boil rather too long," he said, discovering the kettle on the floor and examining its contents anxiously. "I'll have to let it cool off, then I can tell better."

He held the kettle in his hand for a moment, then absently set it back on the stove. His wife snatched it off as he turned away and flung it out the window into a clump of currant-bushes.

"Well," she said, resolutely, standing in the back door, "if I ain't goin' to town to-day I may as well get to cleaning here, I guess. The whole place needs it, and there's no telling when I'll have another free day."

Mr. Young would not let a servant into his house, and the effort of his life was to stave off the periodical clearing-out which his wife insisted on conducting. He paused in the act of taking up his fiddle.

"Now, Cynthia," he protested mildly, "it ain't more'n a week since you cleaned the hull house. Why can't you set down an' take things easy, this hot weather? It gets me all in a stew to see you fussin' around."

Mrs. Young was rolling up her sleeves.

"If I can stand it to work you ought to be able to stand seein' me," she retorted, as briskly as though she had not made this remark unnumbered times before.

"Now, what've you done with that new broom I had last time? There's no findin' anything in a house without a kitchen."

Mr. Young followed the search for the broom with obvious disturbance of mind, and at last said aggrievedly, "Well, if I can't have no peace at home I may's well go to town. If you'll wait till it's cooler——"

"I don't count on startin' till half-past three," said Mrs. Young, promptly pulling down her sleeves, "I ought to go earlier, but if your head's bad, why of course we won't. You better change your clothes now, 'fore you forget it, and I'll be along a little before four."

"What deeds are them you want me to sign?" demanded Mr. Young suddenly.

"What?" his wife stammered, changing color. "Why—just some property I'm disposin' of—some land I sold——"

"’Tisn't anything about Katharine, is it?"

"No—no, Father, I told you what I thought best to do for Katharine——"

Mr. Young looked suspiciously at his wife's flushed face.

"You see," she said, haltingly, "after Katharine's gone—it would be so lonely for me alone up there——"

"Cynthia," said the little man, "this is my house."

"I know it." Then she cried: "Why, Father, you didn't think I'd want to sell this?"

"Well, I didn't know what you might do next," he said thoughtfully. "But you always do as you please, Cynthia—outside this house. … Here—gimme the crumbs—I came near forgettin' my bird!"

He crumbled the crackers that had been left on the tray and scattered them on the ground at some little distance from his chair, then, returning, began to whistle melodiously.

"Go inside, Cynthia, you scare him," he whispered gently.

Mrs. Young went into the little bedroom and laid out her husband's best black suit. In this room, too, nothing had apparently been changed except by age since they had furnished it before their marriage. The mirror in the bureau was cracked and flaking off. It distorted Mrs. Young's face in a painful fashion, but she looked at it as though she saw, somewhere deep down, the two young faces that had once looked into the glass together.

Moving a little, she could see through the open window the old man sitting on the edge of his chair, chirping to a mocking-bird which was snatching at the cracker crumbs. The bird seemed to answer him by occasional short, sharp notes, but when he very cautiously, not even venturing to lift the violin to his shoulder, slid the bow over the open strings, it took fright and darted up into the pepper-tree.

"Darn it!" muttered the old man, "can't I never teach that bird anything?"

Mrs. Young's broad shoulders and bosom shook with silent laughter.

"Child," she said through the window, "I'll come for you by a quarter to four. Don't forget, now."

"All right," he said, beginning to play "Listen to the Mocking-Bird" on the E-string.

Mrs. Young stood for a moment on the front porch, enclosed by a dense mat of rose-vines which no breeze could penetrate. The house was badly placed. It faced the east, whereas the sea-breeze came from the southwest. It was near the road which ran through the place but below its level. Dust settled thick on the leaves of the rose-vine and the geraniums which grew in great clumps on either side of the walk. The rose had grown from a cutting planted the first year of her marriage. She pulled a white blossom, top-heavy on its thin, thorny stem, and took it back with her.

There were no rose-vines about the big house, and no trees, except the old pepper at the back. An acre of orange trees had been destroyed to make room for the house and what was meant for a lawn. The growth of coarse grass was still scanty, however, in spite of care and coaxing, and the little fan-palms which bordered the driveway and walk looked stiff and obstinate, as though determined not to grow another inch. Mrs. Young walked around the house and down to the road, turned and looked the place over, from the colonial porch to the gilt spike on the cupola. The glare of the sun on the light paint was too much for her eyes; she wiped the tears from them as she went indoors.

Having set out some bread and milk and cake on the dining-room table, she called Katharine, and sat in silence until the girl had finished her luncheon.

"Katharine!" she said then, so sharply that the girl jumped.

"Well, Ma."

"I guess I may's well tell you now. I hadn't calculated to tell you till it was over, but it's as good as done now. The deeds'll be signed this afternoon. I—Katharine—I shan't live in this house after you're married."

"Why, Ma!"

"Well, why should I? I'd look fine, living here alone, wouldn't I?"

Mrs. Young turned impatiently from the girl and looked out the window. "It takes you forever to get a thing through your head, Katharine. You're just like your Pa. You ain't got room for any ideas but your own."

"Well, Ma, what will you do——"

"I'm going to live in the old house."

"In the old house?" repeated Katharine, her large eyes almost glassy. "Why, Ma——"

"Katharine, I ain't bound to explain my actions to you, and there's a lot of things you won't understand till you've lived as long as I have, and maybe not then, for you take after your Pa—so much the better for you. But I'll never live in this house again, and I'm going to live in the old house, and I'm going back because I want to. I wouldn't have stayed here this long if it hadn't been for you."

"For me?"

Katharine stared blankly for some moments, then she flushed.

"Oh, Ma! Do you mean that you—that I—oh, then, perhaps I shan't have to live with Jack's folks after all——"

It was Mrs. Young's turn to stare, but only for an instant.

"No, Katharine! I don't mean that. Do you remember asking me a couple of weeks ago why I took Mr. Miller over the house? Well, I've sold it to him."

"Sold it?"

"Yes, I didn't want it to stand empty—seemed a sinful waste. Thank goodness, I haven't got enough sentiment to bother me. I can invest the money."

Katharine's eyelids fell, and tears gathered under them.

"What's the use of building this house—and having the best place in the valley—if you go and sell it—and live in a—shanty——"

"You needn't cry. I guess if I can stand to sell it, and see strangers living in it, when I built every inch of it with money I made myself, and made the plans, and watched it from start to finish—I guess if I can stand it, you can."

Mrs. Young's hand closed tight on the arms of her chair.

"Well, Ma, if you feel that way, why——"

"Now, Katharine, I know what you're thinking. If I don't want to live here, why can't you? I know you hate the idea of livin' with his folks, and Lord knows I'd like well enough to have you here under my eye. And 'tisn't that I care for the money—what do I want to pile up money for? I've got enough, and it'll be enough for you some day. But money ain't always a blessing, and I don't want you to find that out the way I did.

"Jack Grant can make a good livin' for you, and in time he'll buy his father out of that place, or else get one of his own. I could make you richer than he is, now, but I'd rather see every dollar I've made burn up. I want to see you livin' as he's planned for you and makin' the best of it, even if you do have a hard time for a year or two, and you'll be happier so than you would boardin' and lodgin' your husband in your own house. He wouldn't be happy that way, no man could—not even your Pa, though he ain't a managing man. I ain't afraid but you'll come out all right. You take after your Pa, and you'll get your own way full as much as is good for you—you've got that same slow way with you, that tires out a quick-tempered person so't they give in, spite of themselves, and glad to do it. Lord knows I'd have given up this house long ago if it hadn't been for you. I thought it was right you should have advantages, and you've had 'em."

There was a pause, then Katharine said reflectively, "I call Pa an awful selfish person. I don't mean on my account this time—I was thinking about you. He ought to be willing to live in this house. Who cares if he didn't build it?"

"It's easy to say what other people ought to do—'specially for young folks. I used to think I knew, too."

"Well, I think it's a shame—your living in that old place."

"Don't worry about me! I'll move your Pa's workshop out to the old stable, and then the house'll be just as it was when we began housekeepin' there, and we thought then it was good enough. I haven't sold the new stable, nor any of the land back of it. I'm going to keep the horses and work the place same as ever, for the bit of housekeepin' there won't give me enough to do. And—Katharine—I've sort o' wanted to say something to you—I see you feel bad about this—and you don't need to. If you'd—been happy for fifteen years in a place—and there was somebody there would be glad to see you back—you wouldn't be sorry to go—would you? … Them berries!"

Mrs. Young hurried into the kitchen. Katharine pushed back her chair, sat rolling her napkin around her fingers, a look of soft reflection about her drooping eyelids and half-smiling mouth. At a sudden clatter of hoofs on the plank bridging of the zanja before the house she sprang up radiant. A crunching on the gravelled driveway—a shrill whistle—she ran out through the kitchen. Her mother was murmuring in a throaty alto, as she arranged the glass jars in a pan of hot water:

 

"Who is 't I wish to see?
Robin Adair!

The day of Katharine's wedding was a long blaze of sunlight under which the valley seemed to brown visibly and the mountains to deepen their metallic purples. But at five o'clock the sea-breeze began to stir the tops of the eucalyptus trees and when the sun dropped in a red haze the air cooled suddenly. All through the night the stored heat of the earth would be distilling in a heavy dew, gathering on every surface, every leaf and blossom.

At eleven o'clock, when the big house stood empty and dark, two middle-aged persons were defying rheumatism under the pepper-tree behind the cottage.

Mr. Young sat in his accustomed chair and his wife beside him in an arm-chair he had brought out for her, the skirt of her new black silk gown turned up carefully. She had finished talking about the supper and the dance, and they were silent. Her face was turned a little away from him. She was looking up at the peaked roof and the cupola which stood out against the brilliant sky. Mr. Young looked at her, and after a little took up her hand and kissed it.

"Pshaw, Henry!" she cried. "What a boy you are! I feel like a grandmother."

"I don't," said the old man emphatically. "I feel as young as I ever did—younger. As I set here listenin' to the music it was all I could do to keep my heels on the ground. I come near joinin' in. If I hadn't been afraid of scarin' folk I might've gone up there and danced a reel with you and then fetched you home. Yes, I thought of it. But now you're here, anyway. Wait—I'll give you the tune."

He hurried into the house for his fiddle and came back playing "Money Musk." Then followed "Pop Goes the Weasel," the musician prancing up and down the floor of hard-beaten earth under the pepper-tree, while his wife beat time on her knee. The old man held his head high, and struck the strings with a firm, sure bow, embroidering the tunes with many quaint devices and playing fantastic tricks with his left hand. Then he took a fuller tone and lifted up "John Brown's Body," with a martial and triumphant ring, double-stopping the chorus and throwing all the strength of his wrist into it.

"Why, that's wonderful!" cried the audience as his bow dropped. "If it don't sound for all the world like a whole band."

The old man sat down beside his wife and played "Ye Banks and Braes o' Bonnie Doon," with a pure tenderness that brought tears.

"Now sing 'Robin Adair,' Cynthia," he said softly.

Mrs. Young shook her head and dived for her handkerchief.

"Well, then, listen—I'll show you something pretty."

In the pause the trilling of a mocking-bird could be heard somewhere above.

"He's over in that eucalyptus tree. Now, I'll call him."

He whistled loud and clear; then a gentle persuasive note. The trilling ceased, and after a few moments the bird replied from an orange tree a few rods distant. The man whistled a staccato phrase and the bird sang defiantly a very fair imitation. Then the player lifted his violin and began a simple melody. This time the bird did not wait its turn, but broke in impatiently, trilling, piping, louder and louder, until, not being able to keep pace with the violin's crescendo, he fell to raucous shrieking. Then the old man stopped, laughing.

"He's an awful jealous fellow. He can't stand the fiddle makin' more noise than he can. Kind o' human, ain't he? Now, Cynthia, sing 'Robin Adair'!"