The Youngest Son
The Youngest Son
MARY TOWNSEND sat at one end of what was known in her family as the "back parlor," her eyes on a book. Under the cover of her book she was watching her two daughters, who, at the extreme end of the front room, were holding earnest conversation—very earnest conversation it seemed to Mary Townsend, very grave. Their occasional glances toward her told her that there were things of grave moment happening in her family.
She looked up from her book, and they, even though deep in conversation, were conscious of their mother's presence, looked up and smiled at her. Her older daughter called to her mother:
"It's such a beautiful spring day; why aren't you out on the piazza?"
"It's so bright outside," she explained, with a shade of apology in her voice, "that the light hurts my eyes to read."
Alice Townsend, the younger daughter, said in a low voice to her married sister:
"Don't you think we'd better go up-stairs? I think mother's watching us."
The other responded: "She'd be sure to think there was something afoot if we did. We'd better stay where we are."
They resumed their conversation, but in lighter tones. Mary Townsend let her unseeing eyes fall on her book. There was a tension in the air; all three women were playing a part, and the same part—they were all pretending to be at ease, the two daughters for the sake of the mother, the mother for the sake of the daughters.
The importance of what they were discussing swept the two younger women off their guard. Bending over, each from her chair, their heads close together, they talked rapidly and in undertones.
At last the tension wore on the elder woman; she joined her daughters. She was met by bright glances. Both of the girls rose, and brought their mother a chair, and included her gayly in their little circle.
"What do you think of the tableaux they are planning for the benefit of the library?" asked Mrs. Hamilton, the married daughter. She had changed the subject with a dexterity bred of long habit.
Mrs. Townsend answered vaguely, but Alice instantly took the cue, and in a moment the three women were talking with what an outsider would have supposed to be lively interest in the subject of the entertainment. In spite of the way they all three strove to keep the surface of things unruffled, the tension grew. Marion's gayety grew a hint sharp. Mrs. Townsend rose. She couldn't bear it any longer. Anxiety peered out at her behind their smiles. But for what she didn't know—for what it would be useless to ask.
"I think I will go out into the sunshine a moment," she said, "and leave you girls to talk it out alone."
She walked listlessly out of the room, her delicate shawl hanging in despondent lines from her shoulders. Her head hadn't its usual buoyantly erect bearing.
"You seem tired, darling," said Alice.
"I suppose it's the spring weather," responded the other, lightly. Her glance did not meet her daughter's anxious look.
"Did you notice how tired mother was?" Alice asked her sister. "There's a frailness about her this spring—"
"To think of this coming!" Marion groaned. "It's simply got to be kept from her; and when you think Alec insists he's coming home—"
"If he comes," Alice responded, "he's got to be muzzled. The idea of mother being bothered with his affairs now! Alec's got to wait till he gets through college, that's all there is about it; the idea of his thinking of getting married now!"
The younger girl stood up abruptly.
"Oh, I can't bear to think of his pitching all this on mother! I just can't have it! Any little bit of worry—"
The two girls looked at each other, fear in their eyes at the possibility of what might happen.
"And just think of what it would mean to mother!" pursued Marion. "Why, he says he won't even graduate! He wants to marry now! Think what it would mean to mother to have him give up his profession! You remember how disappointed she was when Don wouldn't study medicine. It made her almost sick, years and years ago, well and strong as she was. She'd made up her mind to have one of the boys follow father's profession. It isn't as if Alec didn't care for medicine—he's always wanted to study it. And now to think of his giving up everything—his whole career—just for a girl! Why can't he wait three years? What if he doesn't see Barbara in that time? At least we'll have time to ward him off if he comes," Marion finished, with a touch of hopefulness.
Alice walked restlessly round the room.
"You don't know what it means to me," she said, "to have this happen now! I've guarded her so. You do, of course, all you can—you're a dear— but it's all come on me—you know how much I've given up for mother. And then to have Alec undo everything, after paying the price I've paid—and the price I'm paying—to keep her well and happy!"
Marion got up and put her hands on her sister's shoulders.
"I know, dear," she sympathized, and kissed her.
"Oh, you don't know everything," said Alice, drearily. "In the end it 'll make serious trouble between Henderson and me. He can't see it at all as I do. He doesn't understand that until mother gets stronger I can't possibly tell her about our engagement. And in the end—in the end I may have to give him up," she said, slowly.
For a moment her face trembled, and she threw back her head.
"And I'd do it, too, for mother. And now here comes Alec, and all my sacrifice will go for nothing. That's what I can't bear."
Meanwhile, Mrs. Townsend sat in the place appointed for her by her daughter, outwardly a picture of placid old age, inwardly full of anxiety for the unknown thing that she knew was happening. She was on the outside of her children's lives. All their kindness, all their watchful care, all their efforts to spare her, daily emphasized to her that she was old, that life was slipping from her. She was hedged in from realities, not so much by her years as by the loving care of her dear children. For her sake they made an unreal world for her, a sweet, placid world, full of pleasant things, things as carefully selected as the playthings of a beloved child; things not of her own choosing, but given her by her children.
Spring was sweet in the air. A wandering breeze, as warm as a summer wind, stirred the white fringe on her shawl and the soft white curls of her forehead, and moved the branches of the flowering white shrubs behind her The air was full of the pleasant sounds of spring, of happy children playing out-of-doors, and of birds, and the whisper of little young leaves on the maples beyond.
Her eyes wandered down over the pleasant valley. There were patches of brown earth, other patches green with the emerald of young sprouted grain; farther still were woods, hazy and soft colored in the warm spring air.
She forgot her daughters inside the house, talking about the things she mustn't know, and breathed in deep the soft air. Formerly, as a young woman, on just such days as this, she had started off for a walk without stopping for her hat, just following the impulse of the moment. Not far below the house was a pasture, where, she knew, grew all sorts of pleasant wild things, young ferns and violets. It was hardly a step down there. Why shouldn't she go, just as she had in former times, bareheaded? Why should the adventure of spring come for every one else in the world but for herself?
Before she knew what she was doing she had walked from the piazza and was swinging at a gallant pace down the long brick path that led to the street. It had been months since she felt like this. So intent was she on her purpose that she ran into the arms of her eldest son.
"Where are you going, mother?" he asked, bending to kiss her. "How bright you look!" he added, approvingly, and turned to walk with her. At every little unevenness in the ground he tightened his pressure on her arm. "Where do you want to go?" he asked next.
"There are lovely ferns," she answered, wistfully, "in the pasture—it's only a step."
"Why, you wouldn't think of going there," he reproved her, "would you? It's as wet as anything, and the ground's awfully uneven. The boys will get you all the ferns you want."
She walked on a little farther, then, "I think I'll go back now," she told him.
All at once she felt tired and subdued.
"There!" he chaffed, tenderly, "I knew you didn't want to walk as far as that old pasture. You mustn't overdo, you know."
She submitted to it with her accustomed gentleness, submitted to being led back to her chair—back to old age, it seemed to her,—while Don went into the house to talk over the unknown thing with his sisters. She sat there, all the charm of spring gone, the dreariness of the isolation of age sweeping over her.
In her mind she went back over the past years step by step, seeing how she had come to the place which she now held, so far outside her children's lives. There had been years, after her husband's death, when she had been at the helm, and her children, both the boys and the girls, had turned to her for everything. She had managed the business affairs tranquilly and ably. As they grew older, they had begun to take care of her. It had seemed to her sweet and touching, even when their care now and again annoyed her. But even in her moments of light irritation it had seemed to her touching that her children—her little children—should look out for her and worry about her.
Then, seven years before, had come an illness, and when she came back to life, slowly, carefully, as her strength returned she found her daughter Marion in her place, guiding the household, looking after her with a watchful tenderness, as though she had been a child; and since then, through all those seven years, it seemed as though all her children had been in some mysterious league to keep her old. It had been from that moment that all their former smaller reticences had been crystallized into a definite policy of, "We mustn't worry mother!"
Oh, the things in her world that she mustn't know any more, the things she mustn't do; things that she felt in herself reserves of strength to bear, that their watchfulness forever prevented her using! Little by little they had walled her in by their relentless tenderness.
All of them but Alec. For him she was still "mother" as she had been. He came to her with his affairs. He took her on excursions that the others declared were too much for her strength. When Alec was home she lived again—youth came to her again. A storm of longing for her younger son, whom her older children thought blind and inconsiderate, came over her.
The afternoon waned; it was time for their early tea. The married children asked if they might stay, and all through the meal their talk moved on easily, without pause, while the cloud of anxiety which possessed all four grew and spread until it filled the room, invisible, but like some suffocating gas; and yet they talked on, and she answered them, and pretended to have interest in what they were saying; while within her grew the desire, almost irresistible, to say:
"I know you're worried about something—I know there's something happening—something that concerns me closely, and I must know!"
And again she knew that were she to ask she would be met by smiling glances, reassurances that would turn her anxiety into the petulant suspicion of old age.
She left them early to go to her room, saying that she would read a while and then go to bed. As she went up the stairs she heard Don tell Alice,
"Mother seems unusually tired."
After she was in bed she could hear the murmur of their voices on the piazza, Don's heavier voice alternating with the girls' lighter tones.
Something was very wrong; something had happened.
Then suddenly came to her a vision of what it was—of whom they were talking about. Alec, that was it! Alec was in some trouble. All day she had seen things moving through the fog of her ignorance, things that made her hold her breath; and now she realized that it was Alec that they all concerned.
One after another all the things that may befall a dear son came to the tormented spirit of Mary Townsend. One thing was certain—he wasn't dead. There would have been no smiling evasions had he been dead. That, at least, they couldn't keep from her; nor would his illness demand any such long discussions. He was in some trouble, then. She knew the world of men too well to believe, as some women do, that her own sons could be exempted from all temptations of men, and as one thing after another occurred to her there was nothing that her spirit didn't meet valiantly. No matter what he had done, there was nothing she didn't feel herself strong enough to bear, nothing that she wouldn't help him through with. If the others failed him and blamed him, he still had his mother. She longed to hold him to her and tell him that, whatever was wrong, everything was well between them.
She lay there in her quiet room; the arc-light at the corner made patterns of a curtain on the light carpet. A light air stirred the curtains back and forth. But for the noises of the night and the murmur of the voices on the piazza, everything was still. She was more at peace now, her whole being flooded with love for this boy.
Then, far down the street, came the sound of rapid footsteps. She listened to them with straining ears as they came nearer the house; for her imagination had made her fancy that this was Alec coming, that she recognized his steps as she had so many times before.
The footsteps came up the long brick path, clean-cut and decided. She almost held her breath in the intensity of her listening. She knew it was Alec. She was at the window in time to catch sight of him, his head held high, his shoulders held back. Then she sighed out her breath with deep relief. There was no defeat in his bearing. Whatever it was, he was meeting it without discouragement.
She heard the smothered exclamations from his brother and sisters. Then, very quickly, she slipped on her dressing-gown and slippers and softly made her way down the stairs. They did not hear her as she came out on the piazza. She heard Alec's voice saying:
"I want to talk to her. She'll know what to do. I want to see mother!"
She could see Alice put a detaining hand on his coat, and hear her concentrated voice saying:
"Don't you know that you mustn't bother her? Don't you know that you mustn't tell her at all?"
"I want to see mother!" he insisted, obstinately, and started as if he would make his way inside the house.
Alice barred his way.
"Listen!" she said. "I've been engaged to Henderson for two years. I've never told mother. I didn't wish her life complicated. He doesn't understand why I won't marry him, and because he can't we're drifting farther apart. I see him going from me, misunderstandings one after another coming between us. Do you think it's easy for me to lose what's so dear to me? But I never let mother suspect. And now you come—you, with your selfish plans—"
Some little sound made them turn.
"Mother!" Alec cried—it was the same joyful "mother" with which he had greeted her so many times as he rushed into the house with some new thing to tell her. He ran to her now, and held her in his arms and kissed her.
"Now," she said, holding his hands fast in hers, "tell me what it is. Why are you here, Alec?"
Alice made one last stand.
"Oh, Alec just happened to come up from college," she ventured, lamely.
Mary Townsend paid no attention to her daughter.
"Tell me," she said again, "Alec."
"It's just that I'm engaged," he told her. "I'm engaged to Barbara Shepherd, and I want to leave college and marry her right away. If I don't, she'll be sailing for Europe with her aunt, and be gone for years."
At this there was a tense silence, the older son and the two daughters looking at their mother. The blow had fallen.
Mary Townsend's eyes rested on her younger son, all the flood of affection she had for him shining from them.
"Well," she said, quietly, "why shouldn't you marry Barbara?"
"I'm going to marry her—I've told them,"—he looked toward his sisters and brother. "I've told them I was going to. I can't let her go away from me like that—I can't stand years of life away from her! And they've said I mustn't tell you—they've said I must let her go—that it would make you sick if you knew—that you wouldn't be able to bear the shock. You see," he went on, "if I marry Barbara now, I'll have to go into business right away—I've got a good chance."
She put her hand protectingly on his shoulder. "I'm glad you're willing to do that," she said, "but you don't need to. You can marry Barbara and make your profession too. I've plenty of money for that."
At this the others, who had kept silence, spoke all together. Don's scandalized exclamation of, "Mother! you aren't suggesting to break into your capital, are you?" dominating the women's appeals of, "Alec, you can't let mother do such a thing!"
Mary Townsend checked them with a gesture.
"It's my turn to speak," she announced, quietly, "and my turn to act. What I have to say and do concerns Alec, not any of you. It's for me to offer and for him to decide—to decide as freely as if only he and I existed. I don't wish him influenced by the fear of your disapproval. And when I think of your standing between him and me, as you have, my patience is small!"
She turned her dark eyes, eloquent with indignation, on one after another of them. There was a moment's silence, and in that moment the balance of power someway shifted. Time seemed to flow backwards. They were again the children who had been found out, and she the mother reproving them with just displeasure. There came, unbidden, to Marion's mind some scene of childhood, when on this same piazza they three, Don, Alice, and herself, had stood, conscience-stricken, before their mother. Don shifted restlessly on his feet, as if he were a small boy.
"How long, Alec," she asked, "have you been engaged?"
"It happened at Easter," he replied, "when I was at home. I wanted to tell you then."
"And they've kept this happiness from me all this time!... What," she asked them, "do you think that life holds for me but your happiness? As I sit alone for hours, of what do you suppose I'm dreaming? How many times do you suppose I've wished that before I go I might see my girl and my boy married, and happily? No woman," she went on, more gently, "could have better children than you three have been to me; and yet, seeing you as I do, trying to foresee every wish of mine, it seems strange to me that you shouldn't realize that the wish of my heart doesn't demand from you barren sacrifices. You can't give me happiness by giving up your own!
"You, Alice, I heard what you said just now. I heard you boast that you'd 'kept it from me.' You've kept what troubled you from me; but do you suppose that I've lived with you and not seen? Do you suppose I haven't lain awake at night wondering what your trouble was? Every day, a dozen times, I've come to you with the question on my lips—and then turned away again, because I knew it wouldn't be answered. And we've kept up this sad comedy for two years, each one deceiving the other! Oh, my little girl, how could you think that it would worry me to see you married to some one who loves you and whom you love!"
She went to Alice and put her arms around her shelteringly and protectingly. Then she released her and stood before them all, her head up, the light behind her playing on the soft, disordered curls around her face. She seemed to them transfigured. It was as if all that was young in her spirit had been released from the bonds of age; as if, with the necessity of acting, years had slid from her, and had brought back to them the mother who had slipped into the shadows of years.
"Now, between us, Alec," she said, looking at her younger son, her manner, the tone of her voice, not the less firm, "you can go into business if you wish; but first hear what I have to say. I know how dear your profession is to you, and you know what it means to me. If I died to-morrow, you could go on with it; your share of the little inheritance I have for you would be enough. Because I must go on living for a few years yet, will you deny yourself and me what is so dear to both of us?"
He looked at her a moment, clear-eyed.
"No, mother," he answered, and put his hand in hers. She held it close, while she turned again to the others.
"Now that the silence between us is broken at last, I've some more things to say to you. Don't keep me out of your lives. Don't try to spare me so much. While I'm still in the world—perhaps for so short a time—let me live in it; let me live my life with yours. Nothing can happen as bad as my unspoken fears. No anxiety that I share with you can be as great as my lonely anxiety when I see tears behind your smiles. Often you ask me why I seem sad. It's because I'm lonely. Often, when you say, 'Mother seems tired,' it's that I'm tired with the inaction that your thoughtfulness has forced on me. Old age at best is a lonely place, and sometimes an empty one; but it is made lonelier and emptier than it need be. Let me share what there is to be shared. Let me do the things that I feel strength for, whether you happen to think they're good for me or not."
She smiled at them, with the smile of tenderness that a mother uses to her little children.
"After all," she said, "I am older than you, and may sometimes know what is best for all of us."