From The Whole Family: A Novel by Twelve Authors (Harper & Brothers Publishers; New York: 1908)
I am sure that I shall surprise no mother of a large family when I say that this hour is the first one I have spent alone for thirty years. I count it, alone. For while I am driving back in the run-about along the six miles of leafy road between the hospital and Eastridge with mother beside me, she is sound asleep under the protection of her little hinged black sunshade, still held upright. She will sleep until we are at home; and, after our anxious morning at the hospital, I am most grateful to the fortune sending me this lucid interval, not only for thinking over what has occurred in the last three days, but also for trying to focus clearly for myself what has happened in the last week, since Elizabeth went on the 5.40 to New York; since Charles followed Elizabeth; since Maria, under Dr. Denbigh's mysteriously required escort, followed Charles; since Tom followed Maria; and since Cyrus, with my dear girl, followed Tom.
On the warm afternoon before Elizabeth left, as I walked past her open door, with Lena, and carrying an egg-nog to Peggy, I could not avoid hearing down the whole length of the hall a conversation carried on in clear, absorbed tones, between my sister and Alice.
“Did I understand you to say,” said Elizabeth, in an assumption of indifference too elaborate, I think, to deceive even her niece, “that this Mr. Wilde you mention is now living in New York?”
“Oh yes. He conducts all the art-classes at the Crafts Settlement. He encouraged Lorraine's sisters in their wonderful work. I would love to go into it myself.”
Lorraine's sisters and her circle once entertained me at tea in their establishment when I visited Charles before his marriage, in New York. They are extremely kind young women, ladies in every respect, who have a workshop called “At the Sign of the Three-legged Stool.” They seem to be carpenters, as nearly as I can tell. They wear fillets and bright, loose clothes; and they make very rough-hewn burnt-wood footstools and odd settees with pieces of glass set about in them. It is all very puzzling. When Charles showed me a candlestick one of the young ladies had made, and talked to me about the decoration and the line, I could see that it was very gracefully designed and nicely put together. But when he noticed that in the wish to be perfectly open-minded to his point of view I was looking very attentively at a queer, uneven wrought-iron brooch with two little pendant polished granite rocks, he only laughed and put his hand on my shawl a minute and brought me more tea.
So that I could understand something of what Alice was mentioning as she went on: “You know Lorraine says that, though not the most prominent, Lyman Wilde is the most radical and temperamental leader in the great handicraft development in this country. Even most of the persons in favor of it consider that he goes too far. She says, for instance, he is so opposed to machines of all sorts that he thinks it would be better to abolish printing and return to script. He has started what they call a little movement of the kind now, and is training two young scriveners.”
Elizabeth was shaking her head reflectively as I passed the door, and saying: “Ah — no compromise. And always, always the love of beauty.” And I heard her advising Alice never, never to be one of the foolish women and men who hurt themselves by dreaming of beauty or happiness in their narrow little lives; repeating sagely that this dream was even worse for the women than for the men; and asked whether Alice supposed the Crafts Settlement address wouldn't probably be in the New York telephone-book. Alice seemed to be spending a very gratifying afternoon.
My sister Elizabeth's strongest instinct from her early youth has been the passion inspiring the famous Captain Parklebury Todd, so often quoted by Alice and Billy: “I do not think I ever knew a character so given to creating a sensation. Or p'r'aps I should in justice say, to what, in an Adelphi play, is known as situation.” Never has she gratified her taste in this respect more fully than she did — as I believe quite accidentally and on the inspiration of these words with Alice — in taking the evening train to New York with Mr. Goward.
Twenty or thirty people at the station saw them starting away together, each attempting to avoid recognition, each in the pretence of avoiding the other, each with excited manners. So that, as both Peggy and Elizabeth have been born and brought up here; as, during Mr. Goward's conspicuous absence and silence, during Peggy's illness, and all our trying uncertainties and hers, in the last weeks, my sister had widely flung to town talk many tacit insinuations concerning the character of Mr. Goward's interest in herself; as none of the twenty or thirty people were mute beyond their kind; and as Elizabeth's nature has never inspired high neighborly confidence — before night a rumor had spread like the wind that Margaret Talbert's lover had eloped with her aunt.
Billy heard the other children talking of this news and hushing themselves when he came up. Tom learned of the occurrence by a telephone, and, after supper, told Cyrus and myself; Maria was informed of it by telephone through an old friend who thought Maria should know of what every one was saying. Lorraine, walking to the office to meet Charles, was overtaken on the street by Mrs. Temple, greatly concerned for us and for Peggy, and learned the strange story from our sympathetic neighbor, to repeat it to Charles. At ten o'clock there was only one person in the house, perhaps in Eastridge, who was ignorant of our daughter's singular fortune. That person was our dear girl herself.
Since my own intelligence of the report I had not left her alone with anybody else for a moment; and now I was standing in the hall watching her start safely up-stairs, when to our surprise the front-door latch clicked suddenly; she turned on the stairs; the door opened, and we both faced Charles. From the first still glances he and I gave each other he knew she hadn't heard. Then he said quietly that he had wished to see Peggy for a moment before she went to sleep. He bade me a very confiding and responsible good-night, and went out with her to the garden where they used to play constantly together when they were children.
Up-stairs, unable to lie down till she came back, I put on a little cambric sack and sat by the window waiting till I should hear her foot on the stairs again. “Charles is telling her,” I said to Cyrus. He was walking up and down the room, dumb with impatience and disgust, too pained for Peggy, too tried by his own helplessness to rest or even to sit still. In a way it has all been harder for him than for any one else. His impulses are stronger and deeper than my dear girl's, and far less cool. She is very especially precious to him; and, whether because she looks so like him, or because he thinks her ways like my own, her youth and her fortune have always been at once a more anxious and a more lovely concern with him than any one else's on earth. She is, somehow, our future to him.
While we waited here in this anxiety up-stairs, down in the garden I could hear not the words, but the tones of our children as they spoke together. Charles's voice sounded first for a long time, with an air of calmness and directness; and Peggy answered him at intervals of listening, answered apparently less with surprise at what he told her than in a quiet acceptance, with a little throb of control, and then in accord with him. Then it was as though they were planning together.
In the still village night their voices sounded very tranquil; after a little while, even buoyant. Peggy laughed once or twice. Little by little a breath of relief blew over both her father's solicitude and mine. It was partly from the coolness and freshness of the out-door air, and the half-unconscious sense it often brings, that beyond whatever care is close beside you at the instant there is — and especially for the young — so much else in all creation. Then, for me, there was a deep comfort in the knowledge that in this time of need my children had each other; that they could speak so together, in an intimate sympathy, and were, not only superficially in name, but really and beautifully, a brother and sister.
At last, as they parted at the gate, Charles said, in a spirited, downright tone: “Stick to that, cling to it, make it your answer to everything. It's all you now know and all you need to know, and you'll be as firm on it as on a rock.”
The lamplight from the street filtering through the elm leaves glimmered on Peggy's bright hair as she looked up at him. Her eyelashes were wet, but she was laughing as she said: “But, of course, I have to cling to it. It's the truth. Good-night! Good-night!” And her step on the stairs was light and even skipping.
On the next morning, when I knocked at her door to find whether she would rather breakfast up-stairs, I saw at once she had slept. She stood before the mirror fastening her belt ribbon, and looking so lovely it seemed impossible misfortune should ever touch her.
“Why, mother dear, you aren't dressed for the library-board meeting! Isn't that this morning?”
She looked at me with her little, sweet, quick smile, and we sat down for a moment on her couch together, each with a sense that neither would say one word too sharply pressing.
“Dear mother, why not go to the board meeting? You don't need to protect me so. You can't protect me every minute. You see, of course, last night Charles — told me of what everybody thinks.” Her voice throbbed again. She stopped for a minute. “But for weeks and weeks I had felt something like this coming toward me. And now that it's come,” she went on, bravely, “we can only just do as we always have done — and not make any difference — can we?”
“Except that I feel I must be here, because we can't know from minute to minute what may come up.”
“You feel you can't leave me, mother. But you can. I want to see whoever comes, just as usual. I'd have to at some time, you know, at any rate. And I mean to do it now — until I go away out of Eastridge. Charles is going to arrange that so very wonderfully. He has gone to New York now to see about it.”
“He has, my dear?” I said, in some surprise.
“Yes. And, mother, about — about what's over,” she whispered.
“Oh, just — just it couldn't all have happened in this way if” — she spoke in quite a clear, soft voice, looking straight into my eyes, with one of her quick turns — “he were a real man — anybody I could think of as being my husband. It was just that I didn't truly know him. That was all.”
We held each other's hands fast for one moment of perfect understanding before we rose.
“Then I'll go, dear, this morning, just as you like,” I said. She came into my room and fastened my cuff-pins for me. “Why, mother, I don't believe you and your little duchesse cuffs and your little, fine, gold watch-chain have ever been away from the chair of the library committee at a board meeting for twenty years! Just think what a sensation you were going to make if I hadn't interfered! There, how nice you look!”
The weather was so inclement during my absence that I felt quite secure concerning all intrusion for her. At noon the storm rose high, with a close-timed thunder and lightning; the Episcopal church spire was struck; two trees were blown over in the square; and, instead of ordering Dan and the horses out in this tumult, I dined with a board member living next the library, and drove home at three o'clock when the violence of the gale had abated.
The house was perfectly still when I reached it. The children were at school; Cyrus, at the factory; mother, napping, with her door closed. In her own room up-stairs, in the middle of the house, Peggy sat alone, in a loose wrapper, with her hair flying over her shoulders. An open book lay unnoticed in her lap. Her face was white and tear-stained, and her eyes looked wild and ill.
As her glance fell on me I saw her need of me, and hurried in to close the door. “Oh, mother, mother!” she moaned. “Such a morning! It's all come back — all I fought against — all I was conquering. What does it mean? What does it mean?”
“What has happened? Who has been here?”
“Maria — sneering at Charles's ideas, asking me questions, petting me and pitying me and making a baby of me, until I broke down at last and wanted all the things she wanted to have done, and let her kiss me good-bye for her kindness in doing them —”
In a passion of tears she walked up and down, up and down the room, as her father does, except with that quick, nervous grace she always has, and in a painful, sobbing excitement.
Every sense I had was for an instant's passage fused in one clear, concentrated anger against a sister who could play so ruthlessly upon my poor child's woman pulses and emotions, so disarm her of her self-control and right free spirit.
“Why did she come?” I said, at last, with the best calmness I could muster. Peggy stood still for a moment, startled by a coldness in my voice I couldn't alter.
“She came to find out about things for herself. Then when she did find out about Charles's way of helping us she simply hated it — and she sent me after — after the letter you had. I got it from your desk, and Maria took it to find out its real address.”
At that she sank again in a chair, and buried her face in her hands, hardly knowing what she was saying. “Oh, what shall I do? What shall I do?” she repeated, softly and wildly. “Yesterday I could behave so well by what I knew was true about him. Then, when Maria came and spoke as though I was three years old, and hadn't any understanding nor any dignity of my own, and the best thing for any girl, at any rate, were to cling to the man she loved as though she were his mother and he were her dear, erring child” (she began to laugh a little), “the feebler he were the more credit to her for her devotion — then I couldn't go on by what I knew was true about him — only back, back again to all my — old mistake.” She was laughing and crying now with little, quick gasps, in a sheer hysteria which no doubt would have given her sister entire satisfaction as a manifesto of her normal womanliness.
I brought her a glass of water, and, trying to conceal my own distress for her as well as I could, sat down, silently, near her. Gradually she grew quieter, until the room was so still that we could hear the raindrops from the eaves plash down outside. Peggy pushed back her cloud of bright hair and fastened it in the nape of her neck. At last she said, with conviction: “Mother, Maria didn't say these things, but I know she thinks them for me, thinks that a woman's love is just all forgiveness and indulgence. By that she could — she did work on my nerves. But” — and her gray eyes glanced so beautifully and so darkly with a girl's fine, straight, native, healthy spirit as she said it — “I couldn't marry any man but one that I admired.”
“I'm sure you couldn't,” I said, firmly. “And, my dear child, I must confess I fail to understand why your sister should wish so patronizingly for you a fortune she would never have accepted for herself. How can she possibly like for you such a mawkish and a morbid thing as the prospect of a marriage with a man in whom neither you nor any other person feels the presence of one single absolute and manly quality?”
“Why, mother, I have never heard you speak so strongly before —”
At that moment Lena came searching through the hall, and knocking at the door of my room, next Peggy's, to announce Lorraine. The kind-hearted girl was with us constantly, and of the greatest unobtrusive solace to Peggy in those three days after our travellers had all gone, one after the other, like the fairy-tale family, at the chance word of Clever Alice.
It was on the fifth morning afterward, as I was sitting on the piazza hemming an organdie ruffle for my big little girl — she does shoot up so fast — that I heard on the gravel Charles's footstep.
For some time after his arrival, as he sat, with his hat thrown off, talking lightly of his New York sojourn, I was so completely glad to see him, and to see him looking so well and in such buoyant spirits, that I could think of nothing else until he mentioned taking tea “At the Sign of the Three-legged Stool” with Lorraine's sisters, with Lyman Wilde — and with Aunt Elizabeth.
My work dropped out of my hands.
He laughed. “Yes. Dear mother, since you never have seen him, I don't know that I can hope to convey any right conception of Wilde's truly remarkable character. He is, to begin with, the best of men. Picture, if you can, a nature with a soul completely beautiful and selfless, and a nervous surface quite as pachydermatous and indiscriminating as that of an ox. Wilde accepts everybody's estimate of himself. Not only the quality of his mercy, but also of his admiration, is quite unstrained. So that he sees the friend of his youth not at all as I or any humanized perception at the Crafts Settlement would see her, but quite as she sees herself, as a fascinating, gifted, capricious woman of the world, beating the wings of her thwarted love of beauty against cruel circumstance. I noticed his attitude as soon as I mentioned to him that Lorraine had by chance discovered that he and my aunt were old acquaintances. He said that he would be very much interested in seeing her again. As he happened at the moment to be looking over a packet of postals announcing his series of talks on ‘Script,’ he asked me her address, called his stenographer, and had it added to his mailing-list. But before the postal reached her she had called him up to tell him she had lately heard of his work and of him for the first time after all these years, through Lorraine, and to ask him to come to see her. His call, I am sure, they spent in a rich mutual misunderstanding as thoroughly satisfactory to both as any one could wish. For, as I say, on my last visit in the Crafts neighborhood she was taking tea with all of them and Dr. Denbigh.”
“Dr. Denbigh!” I repeated, in surprise. “Oh, Charles, are any of them not well?”
“No, no. I think he's been in New York” — he gave a groan — “on account of some delicate finesse on Maria's part, some incomprehensible plan of hers for bringing Goward back here. The worst of it is that, like all her plans, I believe it's going to be perfectly successful.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, in consternation.
“From every natural portent, I think that horrid infant in arms was, when I left New York, about to cast his handkerchief or rattle toward Peggy again. I'm morally certain that he and all his odious emotional disturbances will be presenting themselves for her consideration in Eastridge before long; and, since they strike me as quite too odious for the nicest girl in the world, I hope, before they reach here, she'll be far away — absolutely out of reach.”
“I hope so, too.” But as I said it, for the first time there came around me, like a blank, rising mist, the prospect of a journey farther and a longer separation than any I had before imagined between us.
“I knew you'd think so. That was, partly, why I acted as I did, for her, dear mother” — he leaned forward a little toward me and took up one end of the ruffle I was stitching again to cover my excitement — “and for Lorraine and for me, in engaging our passage abroad.”
He seemed not to expect me to speak at once, but after a little quiet pause, while we both sat thinking, went on, with great gentleness: “You know it's about our only way of really protecting her from any annoyance here, even that of thoughts of her own she doesn't like. There will be so very wonderfully much for her to see, and I believe she'll enjoy it. One of Lorraine's younger sisters is coming to be with us, perhaps, for a while in Switzerland — and the Elliots — animal sculptors. You remember them, don't you, and Arlington — studying decorative design that winter when you were in New York? They'll be abroad this summer. I believe we'll all have a very charming, care-free time walking and sketching and working — a time really so much more charming for a lovely and sensible young woman than sitting in a talking town subject to the incursions of a lover she doesn't truly like.” He stopped a moment before he added, sincerely: “Then — it isn't simply for her that this way would be better, mother, but for me, for every one.”
“For you and for every one?” I managed to make myself ask with tranquillity.
“Yes. Why wouldn't this relieve immensely all the sufferers from my commercial career at the factory? Don't you think that's somewhat unjust, not simply to Maria's and Tom's requirements for the family standing and fortunes” — he laughed a moment — “but to father's need there of a right-hand business man?” That was his way of putting it. “For a long time,” he pursued, more earnestly than I've ever heard him speak before in his life, “I've been planning, mother, to go away to study and to sketch. I'm doing nothing here. Maybe what I would do away from here might not seem to you so wonderful. But it would have one dignity — whatever else it were or were not, it would be my own.”
Perhaps it may seem strange, but in those few words and instants, when my son spoke so simply and sincerely of his own work, I felt, more than in his actual wedding with his wife, the cleaving pang of a marriage for him. At the same time I was stricken beyond all possible speech by my rising consciousness of the injustice of his sense of failure here in his own father's house, in my house. How weakly I had been lost in the thousand little anxieties and preoccupations of my every-day, to let myself be unwittingly engulfed in his older sister's strange, blank prejudice, to lose my own true understanding of the rights and the happiness of one of the children — I can think it, all unspoken and in silence — somehow most my own.
It seemed as though my heartstrings tightened. Everything blurred before me. I never in my life have tried so hard before to hold my soul absolutely still to see quite clearly, as though none of this were happening to myself, what would be best for my boy's future, for Peggy's, for their whole lives. It was in the midst of these close-pressing thoughts that I heard him saying: “So that perhaps this would truly be the right way for every one.” Only too inevitably I knew his words were true; and now I could force myself at last to say, quietly: “Why — yes — if that would make you happier, Charles.”
He rose and came up to my chair then so beautifully, and moved it to a shadier place, as Peggy, catching sight of him from the garden, ran up with a cry of surprise to meet him, to talk about it all.
I scarcely know whether her father's consciousness of the coming separation for me, or my consciousness of the coming separation for him, made things harder or easier for both of us. Cyrus was obliged to make a business trip to Washington on the next day, and it was decided that as Peggy especially wished to be with him now before her long absence, she should accompany him in the morning.
On the midnight before we were all startled from sleep by the clang of the door-bell. Good little Billy, always hoping for excitement, and besides extremely sweet in doing errands, answered it. The rest of us absurdly assembled in kimonos and bathrobes at the head of the stairs, dreading we scarcely knew what, for the members of the family not in the house. Within a few minutes Billy dashed up-stairs again, considerately holding high, so that we all could see it, a special-delivery letter, the very same illegible, bleared envelope which had before annoyed us so extremely. It was addressed in washed-out characters to Miss — Talbert. The word Peggy, very clear and black, had been lately inserted in the same handwriting; and below, the street and number had been recently refreshed, apparently by the hand of Maria.
As this familiar, wearisome object reappeared before us all, Peggy, with a little quiver of mirth, looking out between her long braids, cried: “Call back the boy!” By the time the messenger had returned she had readdressed the envelope, unopened, to Mr. Goward. Billy took it back down-stairs again; and every one trooped off to bed, Alice and mother with positive snorts and flounces of impatience.
Needless to say, Tom and Maria returned in perfect safety on Saturday. Before then, at twelve o'clock on the same morning, when Cyrus and Peggy had gone, I was sitting on the piazza making a little money-bag for her, with mother sitting rocking beside me, and complaining of every one in peace, when Dr. Denbigh drove up to the horse-block, flung his weight out of the buggy, and hurried up the steps. He shook hands with us hastily and abstractedly, and asked if he might speak to me inside the house.
“Mrs. Talbert,” he said, closing the door of the library as soon as we were inside it, “I am sure you will try not to feel alarmed at something I must tell you of at once. The early morning train I came on from New York, the one that ought to get in at Eastridge at eleven, was derailed two hours ago on a misplaced switch between here and Whitman. No one was killed, but many of the passengers were injured. Among the injured I took care of was Mr. Goward. His arm has been broken. He's been badly shaken up — and he's now in a state of shock at the Whitman Hospital. The boy has been asking for Peggy, and then for you. I promised him that after my work was done — all the injured were taken there by a special as soon as possible after the wreck — I'd ask you to drive back to see him. Will you come?”
Of course I went, then. And at Harry Goward's request I have gone twice since. He is very ill, too ill to talk, and though Dr. Denbigh says he will outlive a thousand stronger men, he has been rather worse this morning. When I first saw him he asked for Peggy in one gasping word, and when he learned she had gone to Washington turned even whiter than he had been before. He is nervously quite wrecked and wretched; has no confidence in Dr. Denbigh; and either Maria or I will go to the hospital every day till the boy's mother comes from California. It is a very trying situation. For his misfortune has, of course, not changed my knowledge of his nature. I dread telling Cyrus and Peggy, when I meet their returning noon train, after I have left mother at home, of everything that has happened here.
As though these difficulties were not enough, this morning, just before we started to Whitman, we were involved in another perplexity through the unwilling agency of Mr. Temple. He called me up to read me a bewildering telegram he had received an hour before from Elizabeth. It said:
“Please end Eastridge scandal by announcing my engagement in Banner. — Lily.”
“Engagement to whom?” Mr. Temple had asked by telephone of Charles, who said none of us could be responsible for any definite information in the matter unless, perhaps, Maria. On consultation, Maria had said to Mr. Temple that in New York Mr. Goward had imparted to her that Elizabeth had told him many weeks ago that she was irrevocably betrothed to Dr. Denbigh. Mr. Temple had finally referred unsuccessfully to me for Elizabeth's address in order to ask her to send a complete announcement in the full form she wished printed.
(“Whoa, Douglas. Well — mother, you had a nice little nap, didn't you. No, no; I won't be late. It's not more than five minutes to the station. Thanks, Lena. Yes, Billy dear, you can get in. Why, I don't know why you shouldn't drive.”)
The train is just pulling in. Charles is there and Maria, each standing on one side of the car-steps. Now I see them. That looks like Peggy's suit-case the porter's carrying down. Yes, it is. There — there they are, coming down the steps behind him, Cyrus and my dear girl — how well they look! Oh, how I hope everything will come right for them!