Part 2 out of 6
stop it, unless he came right out with the whole thing? I didn't believe
he was the man to do that ever, even under the loosening inspiration of
drink. In wine lies truth, no doubt; but within him, was not moral
elegance the bottom truth that would, even in his cups, keep him a
gentleman, and control all such revelations? He might smash the glasses,
but he would not speak of his misgivings as to Hortense Rieppe.
He began again, "Nor do I believe that a really nice girl would continue
to think as those few do, if she once got safe away from them. Why, my
dear sir," he stretched out his hand in emphasis, "you do not have to do
anything untimely and extreme if you are in good earnest a dead game
sport. The time comes, and you meet the occasion as the duck swims. There
was one of them--the right kind."
"Where?" I asked.
"Why--you're leaning against her headstone!"
The little incongruity made us both laugh, but it was only for the
instant. The tender mood of the evening, and all that we had said,
sustained the quiet and almost grave undertone of our conference. My own
quite unconscious act of rising from the grave and standing before him on
the path to listen brought back to us our harmonious pensiveness.
"She was born in Kings Port, but educated in Europe. I don't suppose
until the time came that she ever did anything harder than speak French,
or play the piano, or ride a horse. She had wealth and so had her
husband. He was killed in the war, and so were two of her sons. The third
was too young to go. Their fortune was swept away, but the plantation was
there, and the negroes were proud to remain faithful to the family. She
took hold of the plantation, she walked the rice-banks in high boots. She
had an overseer, who, it was told her, would possibly take her life by
poison or by violence. She nevertheless lived in that lonely spot with no
protector except her pistol and some directions about antidotes. She
dismissed him when she had proved he was cheating her; she made the
planting pay as well as any man did after the war; she educated her last
son, got him into the navy, and then, one evening, walking the
river-banks too late, she caught the fever and died. You will understand
she went with one step from cherished ease to single-handed battle with
life, a delicately nurtured lady, with no preparation for her trials."
"Except moral elegance," I murmured.
"Ah, that was the point, sir! To see her you would never have guessed it!
She kept her burdens from the sight of all. She wore tribulation as if it
were a flower in her bosom. We children always looked forward to her
coming, because she was so gay and delightful to us, telling us stories
of the old times--old rides when the country was wild, old journeys with
the family and servants to the Hot Springs before the steam cars were
invented, old adventures, with the battle of New Orleans or a famous duel
in them--the sort of stories that begin with (for you seem to know
something of it yourself, sir) 'Your grandfather, my dear John, the year
that he was twenty, got himself into serious embarrassments through
paying his attentions to two reigning beauties at once.' She was full
of stories which began in that sort of pleasant way."
I said: "When a person like that dies, an impoverishment falls upon us;
the texture of life seems thinner."
"Oh, yes, indeed! I know what you mean--to lose the people one has always
seen from the cradle. Well, she has gone away, she has taken her memories
out of the world, the old times, the old stories. Nobody, except a little
nutshell of people here, knows or cares anything about her any more; and
soon even the nutshell will be empty." He paused, and then, as if
brushing aside his churchyard mood, he translated into his changed
thought another classic quotation: "But we can't dawdle over the 'tears
of things'; it's Nature's law. Only, when I think of the rice-banks and
the boots and the pistol, I wonder if the Newport ladies, for all their
high-balls, could do any better!"
The crimson had faded, the twilight was altogether come, but the little
noiseless breeze was blowing still; and as we left the quiet tombs behind
us, and gained Worship Street, I could not help looking back where slept
that older Kings Port about which I had heard and had said so much. Over
the graves I saw the roses, nodding and moving, as if in acquiescent
VII: The Girl Behind the Counter--II
"Which of them is idealizing?" This was the question that I asked myself,
next morning, in my boarding-house, as I dressed for breakfast; the next
morning is--at least I have always found it so--an excellent time for
searching questions; and to-day I had waked up no longer beneath the
strong, gentle spell of the churchyard. A bright sun was shining over the
eastern waters of the town, I could see from my upper veranda the
thousand flashes of the waves; the steam yacht rode placidly and
competently among them, while a coastwise steamer was sailing by her, out
to sea, to Savannah, or New York; the general world was going on, and--
which of them was idealizing? It mightn't be so bad, after all. Hadn't I,
perhaps, over-sentimentalized to myself the case of John Mayrant? Hadn't
I imagined for him ever so much more anxiety than the boy actually felt?
For people can idealize down just as readily as they can idealize up. Of
Miss Hortense Rieppe I had now two partial portraits--one by the
displeased aunts, the other by their chivalric nephew; in both she held
between her experienced lips, a cigarette; there the similarity ceased.
And then, there was the toboggan fire-escape. Well, I must meet the
living original before I could decide whether (for me, at any rate) she
was the "brute" as seen by the eyes of Mrs. Gregory St. Michael, or the
"really nice girl" who was going to marry John Mayrant on Wednesday week.
Just at this point my thoughts brought up hard again at the cake. No; I
couldn't swallow that any better this morning than yesterday afternoon!
Allow the gentleman to pay for the feast! Better to have omitted all
feast; nothing simpler, and it would have been at least dignified, even
if arid. But then, there was the lady (a cousin or an aunt--I couldn't
remember which this morning) who had told me she wasn't solicitous. What
did she mean by that? And she had looked quite queer when she spoke about
the phosphates. Oh, yes, to be sure, she was his intimate aunt! Where, by
the way, was Miss Rieppe?
By the time I had eaten my breakfast and walked up Worship Street to the
post-office I was full of it all again; my searching thoughts hadn't
simplified a single point. I always called for my mail at the
post-office, because I got it sooner; it didn't come to the
boarding-house before I had departed on my quest for royal blood,
whereas, this way, I simply got my letters at the corner of Court and
Worship streets and walked diagonally across and down Court a few steps
to my researches, which I could vary and alleviate by reading and
answering news from home.
It was from Aunt Carola that I heard to-day. Only a little of what she
said will interest you. There had been a delightful meeting of the
Selected Salic Scions. The Baltimore Chapter had paid her Chapter a
visit. Three ladies and one very highly connected young gentleman had
come--an encouragingly full and enthusiastic meeting. They had lunched
upon cocoa, sherry, and croquettes, after which all had been more than
glad to listen to a paper read by a descendant of Edward the Third and
the young gentleman, a descendant of Catherine of Aragon, had recited a
beautiful original poem, entitled "My Queen Grandmother." Aunt Carola
regretted that I could not have had the pleasure and the benefit of this
meeting, the young gentleman had turned out to be, also, a refined and
tasteful musician, playing, upon the piano a favorite gavotte of Louis
the Thirteenth "And while you are in Kings Port," my aunt said; "I expect
you to profit by associating with the survivors of our good American
society--people such as one could once meet everywhere when I was young,
but who have been destroyed by the invasion of the proletariat. You are
in the last citadel of good-breeding. By the way, find out, if you can,
if any of the Bombo connection are extant; as through them I should like,
if possible, to establish a chapter of the Scions in South Carolina. Have
you, met a Miss Rieppe, a decidedly striking young woman, who says she is
from Kings Port, and who recently passed through here with a very common
man dancing attendance on her? He owns the Hermana, and she is said to be
engaged to him."
This wasn't as good as meeting Miss Rieppe myself; but the new angle at
which I got her from my Aunt was distinctly a contribution toward the
young woman's likeness; I felt that I should know her at sight, if ever
she came within seeing distance. And it would be entertaining to find
that she was a Bombo; but that could wait; what couldn't wait was the
Hermana. I postponed the Fannings, hurried by the door where they waited
for me, and, coming to the end of Court Street, turned to the right and
sought among the wharves the nearest vista that could give me a view of
the harbor. Between the silent walls of commerce desolated, and by the
empty windows from which Prosperity once looked out, I threaded my way to
a point upon the town's eastern edge. Yes, that was the steam yacht's
name: the Hermana. I didn't make it out myself, she lay a trifle too far
from shore; but I could read from a little fluttering pennant that her
owner was not on board; and from the second loafer whom I questioned I
learned, besides her name, that she had come from New York here to meet
her owner, whose name he did not know and whose arrival was still
indefinite. This was not very much to find out; but it was so much more
than I had found out about the Fannings that, although I now faithfully
returned to my researches, and sat over open books until noon, I couldn't
tell you a word of what I read. Where was Miss Rieppe, and where was the
owner of the Hermana? Also, precisely how ill was the hero of
Chattanooga, her poor dear father?
At the Exchange I opened the door upon a conversation which, in
consequence, broke off abruptly; but this much I came in for:--
"Nothing but the slightest bruise above his eye. The other one is in
It was the severe lady who said this; I mean that lady who, among all the
severe ones I had met, seemed capable of the highest exercise of this
quality, although she had not exercised it in my presence. She looked, in
her veil and her black street dress, as aloof, and as coldly scornful of
the present day, as she had seemed when sitting over her embroidery; but
it was not of 1818, or even 1840, that she had been talking just now: it
was this morning that somebody was bruised, somebody was in bed.
The handsome lady acknowledged my salutation completely, but not
encouragingly, and then, on the threshold, exchanged these parting
sentences with the girl behind the counter:--
"They will have to shake hands. He was not very willing, but he listened
to me. Of course, the chastisement was right--but it does not affect my
opinion of his keeping on with the position."
"No, indeed, Aunt Josephine!" the girl agreed. "I wish he wouldn't. Did
you say it was his right eye?"
"His left." Miss Josephine St. Michael inclined her head once more to me
and went out of the Exchange. I retired to my usual table, and the girl
read in my manner, quite correctly, the feelings which I had not supposed
I had allowed to be evident. She said:--
"Aunt Josephine always makes strangers think she's displeased with them."
I replied like the young ass which I constantly tell myself I have ceased
to be: "Oh, displeasure is as much notice as one is entitled to from Miss
The girl laughed with her delightful sweet mockery.
"I declare, you're huffed! Now don't tell me you're not. But you mustn't
be. When you know her, you'll know that that awful manner means Aunt
Josephine is just being shy. Why, even I'm not afraid of her George
Washington glances any more!"
"Very well," I laughed, "I'll try to have your courage." Over my
chocolate and sandwiches I sat in curiosity discreditable, but natural.
Who was in bed--who would have to shake hands? And why had they stopped
talking when I came in? Of course, I found myself hoping that John
Mayrant had put the owner of the Hermana in bed at the slight cost of a
bruise above his left eye. I wondered if the cake was again
countermanded, and I started upon that line. "I think I'll have to-day,
if you please, another slice of that Lady Baltimore." And I made ready
for another verbal skirmish.
"I'm so sorry! It's a little stale to-day. You can have the last slice,
if you wish."
"Thank you, I will." She brought it. "It's not so very stale," I said.
"How long since it has been made?"
"Oh, it's the same you've been having. You're its only patron just now."
"Well, no. There's Mr. Mayrant."
"Not for a week yet, you remember."
So the wedding was on yet. Still, John might have smashed the owner of
"Have you seen him lately?" I asked.
There was something special in the way she looked. "Not to-day. Have
"Never in the forenoon. He has his duties and I have mine."
She made a little pause, and then, "What do you think of the President?"
"The President?" I was at a loss.
"But I'm afraid you would take his view--the Northern view," she mused.
It gave me, suddenly, her meaning. "Oh, the President of the United
States! How you do change the subject!"
Her eyes were upon me, burning with sectional indignation, but she seemed
to be thinking too much to speak. Now, here was a topic that I had
avoided, and she had plumped it at me. Very well; she should have my
"If you mean that a gentleman cannot invite any respectable member of any
race he pleases to dine privately in his house--"
"His house!" She was glowing now with it. "I think he is--I think he is--
to have one of them--and even if he likes it, not to remember--cannot
speak about him!" she wound up "I should say unbecoming things." She had
walked out, during these words, from behind the counter and as she stood
there in the middle of the long room you might have thought she was about
to lead a cavalry charge. Then, admirably, she put it all under, and
spoke on with perfect self-control. "Why can't somebody explain it to him?
If I knew him, I would go to him myself, and I would say, Mr. President,
we need not discuss our different tastes as to dinner company. Nor need
we discuss how much you benefit the colored race by an act which makes
every member of it immediately think that he is fit to dine with any king
in the world. But you are staying in a house which is partly our house,
ours, the South's, for we, too, pay taxes, you know. And since you also
know our deep feeling--you may even call it a prejudice, if it so pleases
you--do you not think that, so long as you are residing in that house,
you should not gratuitously shock our deep feeling?" She swept a
magnificent low curtsy at the air.
"By Jove, Miss La Heu!" I exclaimed, "you put it so that it's rather hard
"I'm glad it strikes you so."
"But did it make them all think they were going to dine?"
"Hundreds of thousands. It was proof to them that they were as good as
anybody--just as good, without reading or writing or anything. The very
next day some of the laziest and dirtiest where we live had a new strut,
like the monkey when you put a red flannel cap on him--only the monkey
doesn't push ladies off the sidewalk. And that state of mind, you know,"
said Miss La Heu, softening down from wrath to her roguish laugh, "isn't
the right state of mind for racial progress! But I wasn't thinking of
this. You know he has appointed one of them to office here."
A light entered my brain: John Mayrant had a position at the Custom
House! John Mayrant was subordinate to the President's appointee! She
hadn't changed the subject so violently, after all.
I came squarely at it. "And so you wish him to resign his position?"
But I was ahead of her this time.
"The Chief of Customs?" she wonderingly murmured.
I brought her up with me now. "Did Miss Josephine St. Michael say it was
over his left eye?"
The girl instantly looked everything she thought. "I believe you were
present!" This was her highly comprehensive exclamation, accompanied also
by a blush as splendidly young as John Mayrant had been while he so
stammeringly brought out his wishes concerning the cake. I at once
decided to deceive her utterly, and therefore I spoke the exact truth:
"No, I wasn't present."
They did their work, my true words; the false impression flowed out of
them as smoothly as California claret from a French bottle.
"I wonder who told you?" my victim remarked. "But it doesn't really
matter. Everybody is bound to know it. You surely were the last person
with him in the churchyard?"
"Gracious!" I admitted again with splendidly mendacious veracity. "How we
do find each other out in Kings Port!"
It was not by any means the least of the delights which I took in the
company of this charming girl that sometimes she was too much for me, and
sometimes I was too much for her. It was, of course, just the accident of
our ages; in a very few years she would catch up, would pass, would
always be too much for me. Well, to-day it was happily my turn; I wasn't
going to finish lunch without knowing all she, at any rate, could tell me
about the left eye and the man in bed.
"Forty years ago," I now, with ingenuity, remarked, "I suppose it would
have been pistols."
She assented. "And I like that better--don't you--for gentlemen?"
"Well, you mean that fists are--"
"Yes," she finished for me.
"All the same," I maintained, "don't you think that there ought to be
some correspondence, some proportion, between the gravity of the cause
and the gravity of--"
"Let the coal-heavers take to their fists!" she scornfully cried. "People
of our class can't descend--"
"Well, but," I interrupted, "then you give the coal-heavers the palm for
"Why, perfectly! Your coal-heaver kills for some offenses, while for
lighter ones he--gets a bruise over the left eye."
"You don't meet it, you don't meet it! What is an insult ever but an
"Oh, we in the North notice certain degrees--insolence, impudence,
impertinence, liberties, rudeness--all different."
She took up my phrase with a sudden odd quietness. "You in the North."
"Why, yes. We have, alas! to expect and allow for rudeness sometimes,
even in our chosen few, and for liberties in their chosen few; it's only
the hotel clerk and the head waiter from whom we usually get impudence;
while insolence is the chronic condition of the Wall Street rich."
"You in the North!" she repeated. "And so your Northern eyes can't see
it, after all!" At these words my intelligence sailed into a great blank,
while she continued: "Frankly--and forgive me for saying it--I was hoping
that you were one Northerner who would see it."
"But see what?" I barked in my despair.
She did not help me. "If I had been a man, nothing could have insulted me
more than that. And that's what you don't see," she regretfully finished.
"It seems so strange."
I sat in the midst of my great blank, while her handsome eyes rested upon
me. In them was that look of a certain inquiry and a certain remoteness
with which one pauses, in a museum, before some specimen of the
"You comprehend so much," she meditated slowly, aloud; "you've been such
an agreeable disappointment, because your point of view is so often the
same as ours." She was still surveying me with the specimen expression,
when it suddenly left her. "Do you mean to sit there and tell me," she
broke out, "that you wouldn't have resented it yourself?"
"O dear!" my mind lamentably said to itself, inside. Of what may have
been the exterior that I presented to her, sitting over my slice of Lady
Baltimore, I can form no impression.
"Put yourself in his place," the girl continued.
"Ah," I gasped, "that is always so easy to say and so hard to do."
My remark proved not a happy one. She made a brief, cold pause over it,
and then, as she wheeled round from me, back to the counter: "No
Southerner would let pass such an affront."
It was final. She regained her usual place, she resumed her ledger; the
curly dog, who had come out to hear our conversation, went in again; I
was disgraced. Not only with the profile of her short, belligerent nose,
but with the chilly way in which she made her pencil move over the
ledger, she told me plainly that my self-respect had failed to meet her
tests. This was what my remarkable ingenuity had achieved for me. I
swallowed the last crumbs of Lady Baltimore, and went forward to settle
"I suppose I'm scarcely entitled to ask for a fresh one to-morrow," I
ventured. "I am so fond of this cake."
Her officialness met me adequately. "Certainly the public is entitled to
whatever we print upon our bill-of-fare."
Now this was going to be too bad! Henceforth I was to rank merely as "the
public," no matter how much Lady Baltimore I should lunch upon! A happy
thought seized me, and I spoke out instantly on the strength of it.
"Miss La Heu, I've a confession to make."
But upon this beginning of mine the inauspicious door opened and young
John Mayrant came in. It was all right about his left eye; anybody could
see that bruise!
"Oh!" he exclaimed, hearty, but somewhat disconcerted. "To think of
finding you here! You're going? But I'll see you later?"
"I hope so," I said. "You know where I work."
"Yes--yes. I'll come. We've all sorts of things more to say, haven't we?
Did I hear, as I gained the street, something being said about the
General, and the state of his health?
VIII: Midsummer-Night's Dream
You may imagine in what state of wondering I went out of that place, and
how little I could now do away with my curiosity. By the droll looks and
head-turnings which followed me from strangers that passed me by in the
street, I was made aware that I must be talking aloud to myself, and the
words which I had evidently uttered were these: "But who in the world can
he have smashed up?"
Of course, beneath the public stare and smile I kept the rest of my
thoughts to myself; yet they so possessed and took me from my
surroundings, that presently, while crossing Royal Street, I was nearly
run down by an electric car. Nor did even this serve to disperse my
preoccupation; my walk back to Court and Chancel streets is as if it had
not been; I can remember nothing about it, and the first account that I
took of external objects was to find myself sitting in my accustomed
chair in the Library, with the accustomed row of books about the battle
of Cowpens waiting on the table in front of me. How long we had thus been
facing each other, the books and I, I've not a notion. And with such
mysterious machinery are we human beings filled--machinery that is in
motion all the while, whether we are aware of it or not--that now, with
some part of my mind, and with my pencil assisting, I composed several
stanzas to my kingly ancestor, the goal of my fruitless search; and yet
during the whole process of my metrical exercise I was really thinking
and wondering about John Mayrant, his battles and his loves.
ODE ON INTIMATIONS OF ROYALTY
I sing to thee, thou Great Unknown,
Who canst connect me with a throne
Through uncle, cousin, aunt, or sister,
But not, I trust, through bar sinister.
Gules! Gules! and a cuckoo peccant!
Such was the frivolous opening of my poem, which, as it progressed, grew
even less edifying; I have quoted this fragment merely to show you how
little reverence for the Selected Salic Scions was by this time left in
my spirit, and not because the verses themselves are in the least
meritorious; they should serve as a model for no serious-minded singer,
and they afford a striking instance of that volatile mood, not to say
that inclination to ribaldry, which will at seasons crop out in me, do
what I will. It is my hope that age may help me to subdue this, although
I have observed it in some very old men.
I did not send my poem to Aunt Carola, but I wrote her a letter, even
there and then, couched in terms which I believe were altogether
respectful. I deplored my lack of success in discovering the link that
was missing between me and king's blood; I intimated my conviction that
further effort on my part would still be met with failure; and I
renounced with fitting expressions of disappointment my candidateship for
the Scions thanking Aunt Carola for her generosity, by which I must now
no longer profit. I added that I should remain in Kings Port for the
present, as I was finding the climate of decided benefit to my health,
and the courtesy of the people an education in itself.
Whatever pain at missing the glory of becoming a Scion may have lingered
with me after this was much assuaged in a few days by my reading an
article in a New York paper, which gave an account of a meeting of my
Aunt's Society, held in that city. My attention was attracted to this
article by the prominent heading given to it: THEY WORE THEIR CROWNS.
This in very conspicuous Roman capitals, caused me to sit up. There must
have been truth in some of it, because the food eaten by the Scions was
mentioned as consisting of sandwiches, sherry and croquettes; yet I think
that the statement that the members present addressed each other
according to the royal families from which they severally traced descent,
as, for example, Brother Guelph and Sister Plantagenet, can scarce have
beers aught but an exaggeration; nevertheless, the article brought me
undeniable consolation for my disappointment.
After finishing my letter to Aunt Carola I should have hastened out to
post it and escape from Cowpens, had I not remembered that John Mayrant
had more or less promised to meet me here. Now, there was but a slender
chance that he boy would speak to me on the subject of his late
encounter; this I must learn from other sources; but he might speak to me
about something that would open a way for my hostile preparations against
Miss Rieppe. So far he had not touched upon his impending marriage in any
way, but this reserve concerning a fact generally known among the people
whom I was seeing could hardly go on long without becoming ridiculous. If
he should shun mention of it to-day, I would take this as a plain sign
that he did not look forward to it with the enthusiasm which a lover
ought to feel for his approaching bliss; and on such silence from him I
would begin, if I could, to undermine his intention of keeping an
engagement of the heart when the heart no longer entered into it.
While my thoughts continued to be busied over this lover and his
concerns, I noticed the works of William Shakespeare close beside me upon
a shelf; and although it was with no special purpose in mind that I took
out one of the volumes and sat down with it to wait for John Mayrant, in
a little while an inspiration came to me from its pages, so that I was
more anxious than ever the boy should not fail to meet me here in the
Was it the bruise on his forehead that had perturbed his manner just now
when he entered the Exchange? No, this was not likely to be the reason,
since he had been full as much embarrassed that first day of my seeing
him there, when he had given his order for Lady Baltimore so lamely that
the girl behind the counter had come to his aid. And what could it have
been that he had begun to tell her to-day as I was leaving the place? Was
the making of that cake again to be postponed on account of the General's
precarious health? And what had been the nature of the insult which young
John Mayrant had punished and was now commanded to shake hands over?
Could it in truth be the owner of the Hermana whom he had thrashed so
well as to lay him up in bed? That incident had damaged two people at
least, the unknown vanquished combatant in his bodily welfare, and me in
my character as an upstanding man in the fierce feminine estimation of
Miss La Heu; but this injury it was my intention to set right; my
confession to the girl behind the counter was merely delayed. As I sat
with Shakespeare open in my lap, I added to my store of reasoning one
little new straw of argument in favor of my opinion that John Mayrant was
no longer at ease or happy about his love affair. I had never before met
any young man in whose manner nature was so finely tempered with good
bringing-up; forwardness and shyness were alike absent from him, and his
bearing had a sort of polished unconsciousness as far removed from raw
diffidence as it was from raw conceit; it was altogether a rare and
charming address in a youth of such true youthfulness, but it had failed
him upon two occasions which I have already mentioned. Both times that he
had come to the Exchange he had stumbled in his usually prompt speech,
lost his habitual ease, and betrayed, in short, all the signs of being
disconcerted. The matter seemed suddenly quite plain to me: it was the
nature of his errands to the Exchange. The first time he had been
ordering the cake for his own wedding, and to-day it was something about
the wedding again. Evidently the high mettle of his delicacy and breeding
made him painfully conscious of the view which others must take of the
part that Miss Rieppe was playing in all this--a view from which it was
out of his power to shield her; and it was this consciousness that
destroyed his composure. From what I was soon to learn of his fine and
unmoved disregard for unfavorable opinion when he felt his course to be
the right one, I know that it was no thought at all of his own scarcely
heroic role during these days, but only the perception that outsiders
must detect in his affianced lady some of those very same qualities which
had chilled his too precipitate passion for her, and left him alone,
without romance, without family sympathy, without social acclamations,
with nothing indeed save his high-strung notion of honor to help him
bravely face the wedding march. How appalling must the wedding march
sound to a waiting bridegroom who sees the bride, that he no longer
looks at except with distaste and estrangement, coming nearer and nearer
to him up the aisle! A funeral march would be gayer than that music, I
should think! The thought came to me to break out bluntly and say to him:
"Countermand the cake! She's only playing with you while that yachtsman
is making up his mind." But there could be but one outcome of such advice
to John Mayrant: two people, instead of one, would be in bed suffering
from contusions. As I mused on the boy and his attractive and appealing
character, I became more rejoiced than ever that he had thrashed
somebody, I cared not very much who nor yet very much why, so long as
such thrashing had been thorough, which seemed quite evidently and
happily the case. He stood now in my eyes, in some way that is too
obscure for me to be able to explain to you, saved from some reproach
whose subtlety likewise eludes my powers of analysis.
It was already five minutes after three o'clock, my dinner hour, when he
at length appeared in the Library; and possibly I put some reproach into
my greeting: "Won't you walk along with me to Mrs. Trevise's?" (That was
my boarding house.)
"I could not get away from the Custom House sooner," he explained;
and into his eyes there came for a moment that look of unrest and
preoccupation which I had observed at times while we had discussed Newport
and alcoholic girls. The two subjects seemed certainly far enough apart!
But he immediately began upon a conversation briskly enough--so briskly
that I suspected at once he had got his subject ready in advance; he
didn't want me to speak first, lest I turn the talk into channels
embarrassing, such as bruised foreheads or wedding cake. Well, this
should not prevent me from dropping in his cup the wholesome bitters
which I had prepared.
"Well, sir! Well, sir!" such was his hearty preface. "I wonder if you're
feeling ashamed of yourself?"
"Never when I read Shakespeare," I answered restoring the plume to its
He looked at the title. "Which one?"
"One of the unsuitable love affairs that was prevented in time."
"Romeo and Juliet?"
"No; Bottom and Titania--and Romeo and Juliet were not prevented in time.
They had their bliss once and to the full, and died before they caused
each other anything but ecstasy. No weariness of routine, no tears of
disenchantment; complete love, completely realized--and finis!
It's the happiest ending of all the plays."
He looked at me hard. "Sometimes I believe you're ironic!"
I smiled at him. "A sign of the highest civilization, then. But please to
think of Juliet after ten years of Romeo and his pin-headed intelligence
and his preordained infidelities. Do you imagine that her predecessor,
Rosamond, would have had no successors? Juliet would have been compelled
to divorce Romeo, if only for the children's sake.
"The children!" cried John Mayrant. "Why, it's for their sake deserted
women abstain from divorce!"
"Juliet would see deeper than such mothers. She could not have her little
sons and daughters grow up and comprehend their father's absences, and
see their mother's submission to his returns for such discovery would
scorch the marrow of any hearts they had."
At this, as we came out of the Library, he made an astonishing rejoinder,
and one which I cannot in the least account for: "South Carolina does not
"Then I should think," I said to him, "that all you people here would be
doubly careful as to what manner of husbands and wives you chose for
Such a remark was sailing, you may say, almost within three points of the
wind; and his own accidental allusion to Romeo had brought it about with
an aptness and a celerity which were better for my purpose than anything
I had privately developed from the text of Bottom and Titania; none the
less, however, did I intend to press into my service that fond couple
also as basis for a moral, in spite of the sharp turn which those last
words of mine now caused him at once to give to our conversation. His
quick reversion to the beginning of the talk seemed like a dodging of
remarks that hit too near home for him to relish hearing pursued.
"Well, sir," he resumed with the same initial briskness, "I was ashamed
if you were not."
"I still don't make out what impropriety we have jointly committed."
"What do you think of the views you expressed about our country?"
"Oh! When we sat on the gravestones."
"What do you think about it to-day?"
I turned to him as we slowly walked toward Worship Street. "Did you say
anything then that you would take back now?"
He pondered, wrinkling his forehead. "Well, but all the same, didn't we
give the present hour a pretty black eye?"
"The present hour deserves a black eye, and two of them!"
He surveyed me squarely. "I believe you're a pessimist!"
"That is the first trashy thing I've heard you say."
"Thank you! At least admit you're scarcely an optimist."
"Optimist! Pessimist! Why, you're talking just like a newspaper!"
He laughed. "Oh, don't compare a gentleman to a newspaper."
"Then keep your vocabulary clean of bargain-counter words. A while ago
the journalists had a furious run upon the adjective 'un-American.'
Anybody or anything that displeased them was 'un-American.' They ran it
into the ground, and in its place they have lately set up 'pessimist,'
which certainly has a threatening appearance. They don't know its
meaning, and in their mouths it merely signifies that what a man says
snakes them feel personally uncomfortable. The word has become a dusty
rag of slang. The arrested burglar very likely calls the policeman a
pessimist; and, speaking reverently and with no intention to shock you,
the scribes and Pharisees would undoubtedly have called Christ a
pessimist when He called them hypocrites, had they been acquainted with
Once more my remarks drew from the boy an unexpected rejoinder. We had
turned into Worship Street, and, as we passed the churchyard, he stopped
and laid his hand upon the railing of the pate.
"You don't shock me," he said; and then: "But you would shock my aunts."
He paused, gazing into the churchyard, before he continued more slowly:
"And so should I--if they knew it--shock them."
"If they knew what?" I asked.
His hand indicated a sculptured crucifix near by.
"Do you believe everything still?" he answered. "Can you?"
As he looked at me, I suppose that he read negation in my eyes.
"No more can I," he murmured. Again he looked in among the tombstones and
flowers, where the old custodian saw us and took off his hat. "Howdy,
Daddy Ben!" John Mayrant returned pleasantly, and then resuming to me:
"No more can I believe everything." Then he gave a brief, comical laugh.
"And I hope my aunts won't find that out! They would think me gone to
perdition indeed. But I always go to church here" (he pointed to the
quiet building, which, for all its modest size and simplicity, had a
stately and inexpressible charm), "because I like to kneel where my
mother said her prayers, you know." He flushed a little over this
confidence into which he had fallen, but he continued: "I like the words
of the service, too, and I don't ask myself over-curiously what I do
believe; but there's a permanent something within us--a Greater Self--
don't you think?"
"A permanent something," I assented, "which has created all the religions
all over the earth from the beginning, and of which Christianity itself
is merely one of the present temples."
He made an exclamation at my word "present."
"Do you think anything in this world is final?" I asked him.
"But--" he began, somewhat at a loss.
"Haven't you found out yet that human nature is the one indestructible
reality that we know?"
"But--" he began again.
"Don't we have the 'latest thing' all the time, and never the ultimate
thing, never, never? The latest thing in women's hats is that
huge-brimmed affair with the veil as voluminous as a double-bed mosquito
netting. That hat will look improbable next spring. The latest thing in
science is radium. Radium has exploded the conservation of energy
theory--turned it into a last year's hat. Answer me, if Christianity is
the same as when it wore among its savage ornaments a devil with horns
and a flaming Hell! Forever and forever the human race reaches out its
hand and shapes some system, some creed, some government, and declares:
'This is at length the final thing, the cure-all,' and lo and behold,
something flowing and eternal in the race itself presently splits the
creed and the government to pieces! Truth is a very marvelous thing. We
feel it; it can fill our eyes with tears, our hearts with joy, it can
make us die for it; but once our human lips attempt to formulate and thus
imprison it, it becomes a lie. You cannot shut truth up in any words."
"But it shall prevail!" the boy exclaimed with a sort of passion.
"Everything prevails," I answered him.
"I don't like that," he said.
"Neither do I," I returned. "But Jacob got Esau's inheritance by a mean
"Jacob was punished for it."
"Did that help Esau much?"
"You are a pessimist!"
"Just because I see Jacob and Esau to-day, alive and kicking in Wall
Street, Washington, Newport, everywhere?"
"You're no optimist, anyhow!"
"I hope I'm blind in neither eye."
"You don't give us credit--"
"For what we've accomplished since Jacob."
"Printing, steam, and electricity, for instance? They spread the Bible
and the yellow journal with equal velocity."
"I don't mean science. Take our institutions."
"Well, we've accomplished hospitals and the stock market--a pretty even
set-off between God and the devil."
He laughed. "You don't take a high view of us!"
"Nor a low one. I don't play ostrich with any of the staring permanences
of human nature. We're just as noble to-day as David was sometimes, and
just as bestial to-day as David was sometimes, and we've every
possibility inside us all the time, whether we paint our naked skins, or
wear steel armor or starched shirts."
"Well, I believe good is the guiding power in the world."
"Oh, John Mayrant! Good and evil draw us on like a span of horses,
sometimes like a tandem, taking turns in the lead. Order has melted into
disorder, and disorder into new order--how many times?"
"But better each time."
"How can you know, who never lived in any age but your own?"
"I know we have a higher ideal."
"Have we? The Greek was taught to love his neighbor as himself. He gave
his great teacher a cup of poison. We gave ours the cross."
Again he looked away from me into the sweet old churchyard. "I can't
answer you, but I don't believe it."
This brought me to gayety. "That's unanswerable, anyhow!"
He still stared at the graves. "Those people in there didn't think all
these uncomfortable things."
"Ah! no! They belonged in the first volume of the history of our national
soul, before the bloom was off us."
"That's an odd notion! And pray what volume are we in now?"
"Only the second."
"Since that momentous picnic, the Spanish War!"
"I don't see how that took the bloom off us."
"It didn't. It merely waked Europe up to the facts."
"Our battleships, you mean?"
"Our steel rails, our gold coffers, our roaring affluence."
"And our very accurate shooting!" he insisted; for he was a Southerner,
and man's gallantry appealed to him more than man's industry.
I laughed. "Yes, indeed! We may say that the Spanish War closed our first
volume with a bang. And now in the second we bid good-by to the virgin
wilderness, for it's explored; to the Indian, for he's conquered; to the
pioneer, for he's dead; we've finished our wild, romantic adolescence and
we find ourselves a recognized world power of eighty million people, and
of general commercial endlessness, and playtime over."
I think, John Mayrant now asserted, "that it is going too far to say the
bloom is off us."
"Oh, you'll find snow in the woods away into April and May. The
freedom-loving American, the embattled farmer, is not yet extinct in the
far recesses. But the great cities grow like a creeping paralysis over
freedom, and the man from the country is walking into them all the time
because the poor, restless fellow believes wealth awaits him on their
pavements. And when he doesn't go to them, they come to him. The Wall
Street bucket-shop goes fishing in the woods with wires a thousand miles
long; and so we exchange the solid trailblazing enterprise of Volume One
for Volume Two's electric unrest. In Volume One our wagon was hitched to
the star of liberty. Capital and labor have cut the traces. The labor
union forbids the workingman to labor as his own virile energy and skill
prompt him. If he disobeys, he is expelled and called a 'scab.' Don't let
us call ourselves the land of the free while such things go on. We're all
thinking a deal too much about our pockets nowadays. Eternal vigilance
cannot watch liberty and the ticker at the same time.
"Well," said John Mayrant, "we're not thinking about our pockets in Kings
Port, because" (and here there came into his voice and face that sudden
humor which made him so delightful)--"because we haven't got any pockets
to think of!"
This brought me down to cheerfulness from my flight among the cold
He continued: "Any more lamentations, Mr. Jeremiah?"
"Those who begin to call names, John Mayrant--but never mind! I could
lament you sick if I chose to go on about our corporations and corruption
that I see with my pessimistic eye; but the other eye sees the American
man himself--the type that our eighty millions on the whole melt into and
to which my heart warms each time I land again from more polished and
colder shores--my optimistic eye sees that American dealing adequately
with these political diseases. For stronger even than his kindness, his
ability, and his dishonesty is his self-preservation. He's going to stand
up for the 'open shop' and sit down on the 'trust'; and I assure you that
I don't in the least resemble the Evening Post."
A look of inquiry was in John Mayrant's features.
"The New York Evening Post," I repeated with surprise. Still the inquiry
of his face remained.
"Oh, fortunate youth!" I cried. "To have escaped the New York Evening Post!"
"Is it so heinous?"
"Well! ... well! ... how exactly describe it? ... make you see it? ...
It's partially tongue-tied, a sad victim of its own excesses. Habitual
over-indulgence in blaming has given it a painful stutter when attempting
praise; it's the sprucely written sheet of the supercilious; it's the
after-dinner pill of the American who prefers Europe; it's our Republic's
common scold, the Xantippe of journalism, the paper without a country."
"The paper without a country! That's very good!"
"Oh, no! I'll tell you something much better, but it is not mine. A
clever New Yorker said that what with The Sun--"
"I know that paper."
"--what with The Sun making vice so attractive in the morning and the
Post making virtue so odious in the evening, it was very hard for a man
to be good in New York."
"I fear I should subscribe to The Sun," said John Mayrant. He took his
hand from the church-gate railing, and we had turned to stroll down
Worship Street when he was unexpectedly addressed.
For some minutes, while John Mayrant and I had been talking, I had grown
aware, without taking any definite note of it, that the old custodian of
the churchyard, Daddy Ben, had come slowly near us from the distant
corner of his demesne, where he had been (to all appearances) engaged in
some trifling activity among the flowers--perhaps picking off the faded
blossoms. It now came home to me that the venerable negro had really
been, in a surreptitious way, watching John Mayrant, and waiting for
something--either for the right moment to utter what he now uttered, or
his own delayed decision to utter it at all.
"Mas' John!" he called quite softly. His tone was fairly padded with
caution, and I saw that in the pause which followed, his eye shot a swift
look at the bruise on Mayrant's forehead, and another look, equally
swift, at me.
"Well, Daddy Ben, what is it?"
The custodian shunted close to the gate which separated him from us.
"Mas' John, I speck de President he dun' know de cullud people like we
knows 'um, else he nebber bin 'pint dat ar boss in de Cussum House, no,
After this effort he wiped his forehead and breathed hard.
To my astonishment, the effort brought immediately a stern change over
John Mayrant's face; then he answered in the kindest tones, "Thank you,
This answer interpreted for me the whole thing, which otherwise would
have been obscure enough: the old man held it to be an indignity that his
young "Mas' John" should, by the President's act, find himself the
subordinate of a member of the black race, and he had just now, in his
perspiring effort, expressed his sympathy! Why he had chosen this
particular moment (after quite obvious debate with himself) I did not see
until somewhat later.
He now left us standing at the gate; and it was not for some moments that
John Mayrant spoke again, evidently closing, for our two selves, this
"I wish we had not got into that second volume of yours."
"That's not progressive."
"I hate progress."
"What's the use? Better grow old gracefully!
"'Qui no pas I'esprif de son age
De son age a tout le malheur.'"
"Well, I'm personally not growing old, just yet."
"Neither is the United States."
"Well, I don't know. It's too easy for sick or worthless people to
survive nowadays. They are clotting up our square miles very fast.
Philanthropists don't seem to remember that you can beget children a
great deal faster than you can educate them; and at this rate I believe
universal suffrage will kill us off before our time."
"Do not believe it! We are going to find out that universal suffrage is
like the appendix--useful at an early stage of the race's evolution but
to-day merely a threat to life."
He thought this over. "But a surgical operation is pretty serious, you
"It'll be done by absorption. Why, you've begun it yourselves, and so has
Massachusetts. The appendix will be removed, black and white--and I
shouldn't much fear surgery. We're not nearly civilized enough yet to
have lost the power Of recuperation, and in spite of our express-train
speed, I doubt if we shall travel from crudity to rottenness without a
pause at maturity."
"That is the old, old story," he said.
"Yes; is there anything new under the sun?"
He was gloomy. "Nothing, I suppose." Then the gloom lightened. "Nothing
new under the sun--except the fashionable families of Newport!"
This again brought us from the clouds of speculation down to Worship
Street, where we were walking toward South Place. It also unexpectedly
furnished me with the means to lead back our talk so gently, without a
jolt or a jerk, to my moral and the delicate topic of matrimony from
which he had dodged away, that he never awoke to what was coming until it
had come. He began pointing out, as we passed them, certain houses which
were now, or had at some period been, the dwellings of his many
relatives: "My cousin Julia So-and-so lives there," he would say; or, "My
great-uncle, known as Regent Tom, owned that before the War"; and once,
"The Rev. Joseph Priedieu, my great-grandfather, built that house to
marry his fifth wife in, but the grave claimed him first."
So I asked him a riddle. "What is the difference between Kings Port and
This he, of course, gave up.
"Here you are all connected by marriage, and there they are all connected
"That's true!" he cried, "that's very true. I met the most embarrassingly
"Oh, they weren't embarrassed!" I interjected.
"No, but I was," said John.
"And you told me you weren't innocent!" I exclaimed. "They are going to
institute a divorce march," I continued. "'Lohengrin' or 'Midsummer-
Night's Dream' played backward. They have not settled which it is
to be taught in the nursery with the other kindergarten melodies."
He was still unsuspectingly diverted; and we walked along until we turned
in the direction of my boarding-house.
"Did you ever notice," I now said, "what a perpetual allegory
'Midsummer-Night's Dream' contains?"
"I thought it was just a fairy sort of thing."
"Yes, but when a great poet sets his hand to a fairy sort of thing, you
get--well, you get poor Titania."
"She fell in love with a jackass," he remarked. "Puck bewitched her."
"Precisely. A lovely woman with her arms around a jackass. Does that
never happen in Kings Port?"
He began smiling to himself. "I'm afraid Puck isn't all dead yet."
I was now in a position to begin dropping my bitters. "Shakespeare was
probably too gallant to put it the other way, and make Oberon fall in
love with a female jackass. But what an allegory!"
"Yes," he muttered. "Yes."
I followed with another drop. "Titania got out of it. It is not always
solved so easily."
"No," he muttered. "No." It was quite evident that the flavor of my
bitters reached him.
He was walking slowly, with his head down, and frowning hard. We had now
come to the steps of my boarding-house, and I dropped my last drop. "But
a disenchanted woman has the best of it--before marriage, at least."
He looked up quickly. "How?"
I evinced surprise. "Why, she can always break off honorably, and we
never can, I suppose."
For the third time this day he made me an astonishing rejoinder: "Would
you like to take orders from a negro?"
It reduced me to stammering. "I have never--such a juncture has never--"
"Of course you wouldn't. Even a Northerner!"
His face, as he said this, was a single glittering piece of fierceness. I
was still so much taken aback that I said rather flatly: "But who has
"I have to." With this he abruptly turned on his heel and left me
standing on the steps. For a moment I stared after him; and then, as I
rang the bell, he was back again; and with that formality which at times
overtook him he began: "I will ask you to excuse my hasty--"
"Oh, John Mayrant! What a notion!"
But he was by no means to be put off, and he proceeded with stiffer
formality: "I feel that I have not acted politely just now, and I beg to
assure you that I intended no slight."
My first impulse was to lay a hand upon his shoulder and say to him: "My
dear fellow, stuff and nonsense!" Thus I should have treated any Northern
friend; but here was no Northerner. I am glad that I had the sense to
feel that any careless, good-natured putting away of his deliberate and
definitely tendered apology would seem to him a "slight" on my part. His
punctilious value for certain observances between man and man reached me
suddenly and deeply, and took me far from the familiarity which breeds
"Why, John Mayrant," I said, "you could never offend me unless I thought
that you wished to, and how should I possibly think that?"
"Thank you," he replied very simply.
I rang the bell a second time. "If we can get into the house," I
suggested, "won't you stop and dine with me?"
He was going to accept. "I shall be--" he had begun, in tones of
gratification, when in one instant his face was stricken with complete
dismay. "I had forgotten," he said; and this time he was gone indeed, and
in a hurry most apparent. It resembled a flight.
What was the matter now? You will naturally think that it was an
appointment with his ladylove which he had forgotten; this was certainly
my supposition as I turned again to the front door. There stood one of
the waitresses, glaring with her white eyes half out of her black face at
the already distant back of John Mayrant.
"Oh!" I thought; but, before I could think any more, the tall, dreadful
boarder--the lady whom I secretly called Juno--swept up the steps, and by
me into the house, with a dignity that one might term deafening.
The waitress now muttered, or rather sang, a series of pious apostrophes.
"Oh, Lawd, de rampages and de ructions! Oh, Lawd, sinner is in my way,
Daniel!" She was strongly, but I think pleasurably, excited; and she next
turned to me with a most natural grin, and saying, "Chick'n's mos' gone,
sah," she went back to the dining room.
This admonition sent me upstairs to make as hasty a toilet as I could.
Each recent remarkable occurrence had obliterated its predecessor, and it
was with difficulty that I made a straight parting in my hair. Had it
been Miss Rieppe that John so suddenly ran away to? It seemed now more as
if the boy had been running away from somebody. The waitress had stared
at him with extraordinary interest; she had seen his bruise; perhaps she
knew how he had got it. Her excitement--had he smashed up his official
superior at the custom house? That would be an impossible thing, I told
myself instantly; as well might a nobleman cross swords with a peasant.
Perhaps the stare of the waitress had reminded him of his bruise, and he
might have felt disinclined to show himself with it in a company of
gossiping strangers. Still, that would scarcely account for it--the
dismay with which he had so suddenly left me. Was Juno the cause--she had
come up behind me; he must have seen her and her portentous manner
approaching--had the boy fled from her?
And then, his fierce outbreak about taking orders from a negro when I was
moralizing over the misfortune of marrying a jackass! I got a sort of
parting in my hair, and went down to the dining room.
Juno was there before me, with her bonnet, or rather her headdress, still
on, and I heard her making apologies to Mrs. Trevise for being so late.
Mrs. Trevise, of course, sat at the head of her table, and Juno sat at
her right hand. I was very glad not to have a seat near Juno, because
this lady was, as I have already hinted, an intolerable person to me.
Either her Southern social position or her rent (she took the whole
second floor, except Mrs. Trevise's own rooms) was of importance to Mrs.
Trevise; but I assure you that her ways kept our landlady's cold,
impervious tact watchful from the beginning to the end of almost every
meal. Juno was one of those persons who possess so many and such strong
feelings themselves that they think they have all the feelings there are;
at least, they certainly consider no one's feelings but their own. She
possessed an inexhaustible store of anecdote, but it was exclusively
about our Civil War; you would have supposed that nothing else had ever
happened in the world. When conversation among the rest of us became
general, she preserved a cold and acrid inattention; when the fancy took
her to open her own mouth, it was always to begin some reminiscence, and
the reminiscence always began: "In September, 1862, when the Northern
vandals," etc., etc., or "When the Northern vandals were repulsed by my
husband's cousin, General Braxton Bragg," etc., etc. Now it was not that
I was personally wounded by the term, because at the time of the vandals
I was not even born, and also because I know that vandals cannot be kept
out of any army. Deeply as I believed the March to the Sea to have been
imperative, of "Sherman's bummers" and their excesses I had a fair
historic knowledge and a very poor opinion; and this I should have been
glad to tell Juno, had she ever given me the chance; but her immodest
sympathy for herself froze all sympathy for her. Why could she not
preserve a well-bred silence upon her sufferings, as did the other old
ladies I had met in Kings Port? Why did she drag them in, thrust them,
poke them, shove them at you? Thus it was that for her insulting
disregard of those whom her words might wound I detested Juno; and as she
was a woman, and nearly old enough to be my grandmother, it was, of
course, out of the question that I should retaliate. When she got very
bad indeed, it was calm Mrs. Trevise's last, but effective, resort to
tinkle a little handbell and scold one of the waitresses whom its sound
would then summon from the kitchen. This bell was tinkled not always by
any means for my sake; other travellers from the North there were who
came and went, pausing at Kings Port between Florida and their habitual
At present our company consisted of Juno; a middle-class Englishman
employed in some business capacity in town; a pair of very young
honeymooners from the "up-country"; a Louisiana poetess, who wore the
long, cylindrical ringlets of 1830, and who was attending a convention
the Daughters of Dixie; two or three males and females, best described as
et ceteras; and myself. "I shall only take a mouthful for the sake of
nourishment," Juno was announcing, "and then I shall return to his
"Is he very suffering?" inquired the poetess, in melodious accent.
"It was an infamous onslaught," Juno replied.
The poetess threw up her eyes and crooned, "Noble, doughty champion!"
"You may say so indeed, madam," said Juno.
"Raw beefsteak's jolly good for your eye," observed the Briton.
This suggestion did not appear to be heard by Juno.
"I had a row with a chap," the Briton continued. He's my best friend now.
He made me put raw beefsteak--"
"I thank you," interrupted Juno. "He requires no beefsteak, raw or
The face of the Briton reddened. "Too groggy to eat, is he?"
Mrs. Trevise tinkled her bell. "Daphne! I have said to you twice to hand
"I done handed 'em twice, ma'am."
"Hand them right away, Daphne, and don't be so forgetful." It was not
easy to disturb the composure of Mrs. Trevise.
The poetess now took up the broken thread. "Had I a son," she declared,
"I would sooner witness him starve than hear him take orders from a
"But mightn't starving be harder for him to experience than for you to
witness, y' know?" asked the Briton.
At this one of the et ceteras made a sort of snuffing noise, and ate his
It was the male honeymooner who next spoke. "Must have been quite a
"It was an infamous onslaught!" repeated Juno. "Wish I'd seen it!" sighed
His bride smiled at him beamingly. "You'd have felt right lonesome to be
out of it, David."
"No apology has yet been offered," continued Juno.
"But must your nephew apologize besides taking a licking?" inquired the
Juno turned an awful face upon hint. "It is from his brutal assailant
that apologies are due. Mr. Mayrant's family" (she paused here for
blighting emphasis) "are well-bred people, and he will be coerced into
behaving like a gentleman for once."
I checked an impulse here to speak out and express my doubts as to the
family coercion being founded upon any dissatisfaction with John's
"I wonder if reading or recitation might not soothe your nephew?" said
the poetess, now.
"I should doubt it," answered Juno. "I have just come from his bedside."
"I should so like to soothe him, if I could," the poetess murmured. "If
he were well enough to hear my convention ode--"
"He is not nearly well enough," said Juno.
The et cetera here coughed and blew his nose so remarkably that we all
A short silence followed, which Juno relieved.
"I will give the young ruffian's family the credit they deserve," she
stated. "The whole connection despises his keeping the position."
Another et cetera now came into it. "Is it known what exactly
precipitated the occurrence?"
Juno turned to him. "My nephew is a gentleman from whose lips no unworthy
word could ever fall.'
"Oh!" said the et cetera, mildly. "He said something, then?"
"He conveyed a well-merited rebuke in fitting terms."
"What were the terms?" inquired the Briton.
Juno again did not hear him. "It was after a friendly game of cards. My
nephew protested against any gentleman remaining at the custom house
since the recent insulting appointment."
I was now almost the only member of the party who had preserved strict
silence throughout this very interesting conversation, because, having no
wish to converse with Juno at any time, I especially did not desire it
now, just after her seeing me (I thought she must have seen me) in
amicable conference with the object of her formidable displeasure.
"Every Mayrant is ferocious that I ever heard of," she continued. "You
cannot trust that seemingly delicate and human exterior. His father had
it, too--deceiving exterior and raging interior, though I will say for
that one that he would never have stooped to humiliate the family name as
his son is doing. His regiment was near by when the Northern vandals
burned our courthouse, and he made them run, I can tell you! It's a mercy
for that poor girl that the scales have dropped from her eyes and she has
broken her engagement with him."
"With the father?" asked a third et cetera.
Juno stared at the intruder.
Mrs. Trevise drawled a calm contribution. "The father died before this
boy was born."
"Oh, I see!" murmured the et cetera, gratefully.
Juno proceeded. "No woman's life would be safe with him."
"But mightn't he be safer for a person's niece than for their nephew?"
said the Briton.
Mrs. Trevise's hand moved toward the bell.
But Juno answered the question mournfully: "With such hereditary
bloodthirstiness, who can tell?" And so Mrs. Trevise moved her hand away
"Excuse me, but do you know if the other gentleman is laid up, too?"
inquired the male honeymooner, hopefully.
"I am happy to understand that he is," replied Juno.
In sheer amazement I burst out, "Oh!" and abruptly stopped.
But it was too late. I had instantly become the centre of interest. The
et ceteras and honeymooners craned their necks; the Briton leaned toward
me from opposite; the poetess, who had worn an absent expression since
being told that the injured champion was not nearly well enough to listen
to her ode, now put on her glasses and gazed at me kindly; while Juno
reared her headdress and spoke, not to me, but to the air in my general
"Has any one later intelligence than what I bring from my nephew's
So she hadn't perceived who my companion at the step had been! Well, she
should be enlightened, they all should be enlightened, and vengeance was
mine. I spoke with gentleness:--
"Your nephew's impressions, I fear, are still confused by his deplorable
"May I ask what you know about his impressions?"
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the hand of Mrs. Trevise move toward
her bell; but she wished to hear all about it more than she wished
concord at her harmonious table; and the hand stopped.
Juno spoke again. "Who, pray, has later news than what I bring?"
My enemy was in my hand; and an enemy in the hand is worth I don't know
how many in the bush.
I answered most gently: "I do not come from Mr. Mayrant's bedside,
because I have just left him at the front door in sound health--saving a
bruise over his left eye."
During a second we all sat in a high-strung silence, and then Juno became
truly superb. "Who sees the scars he brazenly conceals?"
It took away my breath; my battle would have been lost, when the Briton
suggested: "But mayn't he have shown those to his Aunt?"
We sat in no silence now; the first et cetera made extraordinary sounds
on his plate, Mrs. Trevise tinkled her handbell with more unction than I
had ever yet seen in her; and while she and Daphne interchanged streams
of severe words which I was too disconcerted to follow, the other et
ceteras and the honeymooners hectically effervesced into small talk. I
presently found myself eating our last course amid a reestablished calm,
when, with a rustle, Juno swept out from among us, to return (I suppose)
to the bedside. As she passed behind the Briton's chair, that invaluable
person kicked me under the table, and on my raising my eyes to him he
gave me a large, robust wink.
X: High Walk and the Ladies
I now burned to put many questions to the rest of the company. If,
through my foolish and outreaching slyness with the girl behind the
counter, the door of my comprehension had been shut, Juno had now opened
it sufficiently wide for a number of facts to come crowding in, so to
speak, abreast. Indeed, their simultaneous arrival was not a little
confusing, as if several visitors had burst in upon me and at once begun
speaking loudly, each shouting a separate and important matter which
demanded my intelligent consideration. John Mayrant worked in the custom
house, and Kings Port frowned upon this; not merely Kings Port in
general--which counted little with the boy, if indeed he noticed general
opinion at all--but the boy's particular Kings Port, his severe old
aunts, and his cousins, and the pretty girl at the Exchange, and the men
he played cards with, all these frowned upon it, too; yet even this
condemnation one could disregard if some lofty personal principle, some
pledge to one's own sacred honor, were at stake--but here was no such
thing: John Mayrant hated the position himself. The salary? No, the
salary would count for nothing in the face of such a prejudice as I had
seen glitter from his eye! A strong, clever youth of twenty-three, with
the world before him, and no one to support--stop! Hortense Rieppe! There
was the lofty personal principle, the sacred pledge to honor; he was
engaged presently to endow her with all his worldly goods; and to perform
this faithfully a bridegroom must not, no matter how little he liked
"taking orders from a negro," fling away his worldly goods some few days
before he was to pronounce his bridegroom's vow. So here, at Mrs.
Trevise's dinner-table, I caught for one moment, to the full, a vision of
the unhappy boy's plight; he was sticking to a task which he loathed that
he might support a wife whom he no longer desired. Such, as he saw it,
was his duty; and nobody, not even a soul of his kin or his kind, gave
him a word or a thought of understanding, gave him anything except the
cold shoulder. Yes; from one soul he had got a sign--from aged Daddy Ben,
at the churchyard gate; and amid my jostling surmises and conclusions,
that quaint speech of the old negro, that little act of fidelity and
affection from the heart of a black man, took on a strange pathos in its
isolation amid the general harshness of his white superiors. Over this it
was that I was pausing when, all in a second, perplexity again ruled my
meditations. Juno had said that the engagement was broken. Well, if that
were the case--But was it likely to be the case? Juno's agreeable habit,
a habit grown familiar to all of us in the house, was to sprinkle about,
along with her vitriol, liberal quantities of the by-product of
inaccuracy. Mingled with her latest illustrations, she had poured out for
us one good dose of falsehood, the antidote for which it had been my
happy office to administer on the spot. If John Mayrant wasn't in bed
from the wounds of combat, as she had given us to suppose, perhaps
Hortense Rieppe hadn't released him from his plighted troth, as Juno had
also announced; and distinct relief filled me when I reasoned this out. I
leave others to reason out why it was relief, and why a dull
disappointment had come over me at the news that the match was off. This,
for me, should have been good news, when you consider that I had been so
lately telling myself such a marriage must not be, that I must myself,
somehow (since no one else would), step in and arrest the calamity; and
it seems odd that I should have felt this blankness and regret upon
learning that the parties had happily settled it for themselves, and
hence my difficult and delicate assistance was never to be needed by
Did any one else now sitting at our table know of Miss Rieppe's reported
act? What particulars concerning John's fight had been given by Juno
before my entrance? It didn't surprise me that her nephew was in bed from
Master Mayrant's lusty blows. One could readily guess the manner in which
young John, with his pent-up fury over the custom house, would "land" his
chastisement all over the person of any rash critic! And what a talking
about it must be going on everywhere to-day! If Kings Port tongues had
been set in motion over me and my small notebook in a library, the whole
town must be buzzing over every bruise given and taken in this evidently
emphatic battle. I had hoped to glean some more precise information from
my fellow-boarders after Juno had disembarrassed us of her sonorous
presence; but even if they were possessed of all the facts which I
lacked, Mrs. Trevise in some masterly fashion of her own banished the
subject from further discussion. She held us off from it chiefly, I
think, by adopting a certain upright posture in her chair, and a certain
tone when she inquired if we wished a second help of the pudding. After
thirty-five years of boarders and butchers, life held no secrets or
surprises for her; she was a mature, lone, disenchanted, able lady, and
even her silence was like an arm of the law.
An all too brief conversation, nipped by Mrs. Trevise at a stage even
earlier than the bud, revealed to me that perhaps my fellow-boarders
would have been glad to ask me questions, too.
It was the male honeymooner who addressed me. "Did I understand you to
say, sir, that Mr. Mayrant had received a bruise over his left eye?"
"Daphne!" called out Mrs. Trevise, "Mr. Henderson will take an orange."
And so we finished our meal without further reference to eyes, or noses,
or anything of the sort. It was just as well, I reflected, when I reached
my room, that I on my side had been asked no questions, since I most
likely knew less than the others who had heard all that Juno had to say;
and it would have been humiliating, after my superb appearance of knowing
more, to explain that John Mayrant had walked with me all the way from
the Library, and never told me a word about the affair.
This reflection increased my esteem for the boy's admirable reticence.
What private matter of his own had I ever learned from him? It was other
people, invariably, who told me of his troubles. There had been that
single, quickly controlled outbreak about his position in the Custom
House, and also he had let fall that touching word concerning his faith
and his liking to say his prayers in the place where his mother had said
them; beyond this, there had never yet been anything of all that must at
the present moment be intimately stirring in his heart.
Should I "like to take orders from a negro?" Put personally, it came to
me now as a new idea came as something which had never entered my mind
before, not even as an abstract hypothesis I didn't have to think before
reaching the answer though; something within me, which you ma call what
you please--convention, prejudice, instinct--something answered most
prompt and emphatically in the negative. I revolved in my mind as I tried
to pack into a box a number of objects that I had bought in one or to
"antique" shops. They wouldn't go in, the objects; they were of defeating
and recalcitrant shapes, and of hostile materials--glass and brass--and I
must have a larger box made, and in that case I would buy this afternoon
the other kettle-supporter (I forget its right name) and have the whole
lot decently packed. Take orders from a colored man? Have him give you
directions, dictate you letters, discipline you if you were unpunctual? No,
indeed! And if such were my feeling, how must this young Southerner feel?
With this in my mind, I made sure that the part in my back hair was
right, and after that precaution soon found myself on my way, in a way
somewhat roundabout, to the kettle-supporter sauntering northward along
High Walk, and stopping often; the town, and the water, and the distant
shores all were so lovely, so belonged to one another, so melted into one
gentle impression of wistfulness and tenderness! I leaned upon the stone
parapet and enjoyed the quiet which every surrounding detail brought to
my senses. How could John Mayrant endure such a situation? I continued to
wonder; and I also continued to assure myself it was absurd to suppose
that the engagement was broken.
The shutting of a front door across the street almost directly behind me
attracted my attention because of its being the first sound that had
happened in noiseless, empty High Walk since I had been strolling there;
and I turned from the parapet to see that I was no longer the solitary
person in the street. Two ladies, one tall and one diminutive, both in
black and with long black veils which they had put back from their faces,
were evidently coming from a visit. As the tall one bowed to me I recognized
Mrs. Gregory St. Michael, and took off my hat. It was not until they had
crossed the street and come up the stone steps near where I stood on High
Walk that the little lady also bowed to me; she was Mrs. Weguelin St.
Michael, and from something in her prim yet charming manner I gathered
that she held it to be not perfectly well-bred in a lady to greet a
gentleman across the width of a public highway, and that she could have
wished that her tall companion had not thus greeted me, a stranger likely
to comment upon Kings Port manners. In her eyes, such free deportment
evidently went with her tall companion's method of speech: hadn't the
little lady informed me during our first brief meeting that Kings Port at
times thought Mrs. Gregory St. Michael's tongue "too downright"?
The two ladies having graciously granted me permission to join them while
they took the air, Mrs. Gregory must surely have shocked Mrs. Weguelin by
saying to me, "I haven't a penny for your thoughts, but I'll exchange."
"Would you thus bargain in the dark, madam?"
"Oh, I'll risk that; and, to say truth, even your back, as we came out of
that house, was a back of thought."
"Well, I confess to some thinking. Shall I begin?"
It was Mrs. Weguelin who quickly replied, smiling: "Ladies first, you
know. At least we still keep it so in Kings Port."
"Would we did everywhere!" I exclaimed devoutly; and I was quite aware
that beneath the little lady's gentle smile a setting down had lurked, a
setting down of the most delicate nature, administered to me not in the
least because I had deserved one, but because she did not like Mrs.
Gregory's "downright" tongue, and could not stop her.
Mrs. Gregory now took the prerogative of ladies, and began. "I was
thinking of what we had all just been saying during our visit across the
way--and with which you are not going to agree--that our young people
would do much better to let us old people arrange their marriages for
them, as it Is done in Europe."
"I said that you would not agree; but that is because you are so young."
"I don't know that twenty-eight is so young."
"You will know it when you are seventy-three." This observation again
came from Mrs. Weguelin St. Michael, and again with a gentle and
attractive smile. It was only the second time that she had spoken; and
throughout the talk into which we now fell as we slowly walked up and
down High Walk, she never took the lead; she left that to the "downright"
tongue--but I noticed, however, that she chose her moments to follow the
lead very aptly. I also perceived plainly that what we were really going
to discuss was not at all the European principle of marriage-making, but
just simply young John and his Hortense; they were the true kernel of the
nut with whose concealing shell Mrs. Gregory was presenting me, and in
proposing an exchange of thoughts she would get back only more thoughts
upon the same subject. It was pretty evident how much Kings Port was
buzzing over all this! They fondly believed they did not like it; but
what would they have done without it? What, indeed, were they going to do
when it was all over and done with, one way or another? As a matter of
fact, they ought to be grateful to Hortense for contributing
illustriously to the excitement of their lives.
"Of course, I am well aware," Mrs. Gregory pursued, "that the young
people of to-day believe they can all 'teach their grandmothers to suck
eggs,' as we say in Kings Port."
"We say it elsewhere, too," I mildly put in.
"Indeed? I didn't know that the North, with its pest of Hebrew and other
low immigrants, had retained any of the good old homely saws which we
brought from England. But do you imagine that if the control of marriage
rested in the hands of parents and grandparents (where it properly
belongs), you would be witnessing in the North this disgusting spectacle
"But, Mrs. St. Michael--"
"We didn't invite you to argue when we invited you to walk!" cried the
"We should like you to answer the question," said Mrs. Weguelin St.
"And tell us," Mrs. Gregory continued, "if it's your opinion that a boy
who has never been married is a better judge of matrimony's pitfalls than
"Or than any older person who has bravely and worthily gone through with
the experience," Mrs. Weguelin added.
"Ladies, I've no mind to argue. But we're ahead of Europe; we don't need
their clumsy old plan."
Mrs. Gregory gave a gallant, incredulous snort. "I shall be interested to
learn of anything that is done better here than in Europe."
"Oh, many things, surely! But especially the mating of the fashionable
young. They don't need any parents to arrange for them; it's much better
managed through precocity."
"Through precocity? I scarcely follow you."
And Mrs. Weguelin softly added, "You must excuse us if we do not follow
you." But her softness nevertheless indicated that if there were any one
present needing leniency, it was myself.
"Why, yes," I told them, "it's through precocity. The new-rich American
no longer commits the blunder of keeping his children innocent. You'll
see it beginning in the dancing-class, where I heard an exquisite little
girl of six say to a little boy, 'Go away; I can't dance with you,
because my mamma says your mamma only keeps a maid to answer the
doorbell.' When they get home from the dancing-class, tutors in poker and
bridge are waiting to teach them how to gamble for each other's little
dimes. I saw a little boy in knickerbockers and a wide collar throw down
the evening paper--"
"At that age? They read the papers?" interrupted Mrs. Gregory.
"They read nothing else at any age. He threw it down and said, 'Well, I
guess there's not much behind this raid on Steel Preferred.' What need
has such a boy for parents or grandparents? Presently he is travelling to
a fashionable boarding-school in his father's private car. At college all
his adolescent curiosities are lavishly gratified. His sister at home
reads the French romances, and by eighteen she, too, knows (in her head
at least) the whole of life, so that she can be perfectly trusted; she
would no more marry a mere half-millionaire just because she loved him
than she would appear twice in the same ball-dress. She and her
ball-dresses are described in the papers precisely as if she were an
animal at a show--which indeed is what she has become; and she's eager to
be thus described, because she and her mother--even if her mother was
once a lady and knew better--are haunted by one perpetual, sickening
fear, the fear of being left out. And if you desire to pay correct
ballroom compliments, you no longer go to her mother and tell her she's
looking every bit as young as her daughter; you go to the daughter and
tell her she's looking every bit as old as her mother, for that's what
she wishes to do, that's what she tries for, what she talks, dresses,
eats, drinks, goes to indecent plays and laughs for. Yes, we manage it
through precocity, and the new-rich American parent has achieved at least
one new thing under the sun, namely, the corruption of the child."
My ladies silently consulted each other's expressions, after which, in
equal silence, their gaze returned to me; but their equally intent
scrutiny was expressive of quite different things. It was with expectancy
that Mrs. Gregory looked at me--she wanted more. Not so Mrs. Weguelin;
she gave me disapproval; it was shadowed in her beautiful, lustrous eyes
that burned dark in her white face with as much fire as that of youth,
yet it was not of youth, being deeply charged with retrospection.
In what, then, had I sinned? For the little lady's next words, coldly
murmured, increased in me an uneasiness, as of sin:--
"You have told us much that we are not accustomed to hear in Kings Port."
"Oh, I haven't begun to tell you!" I exclaimed cheerily.
"You certainly have not told us," said Mrs. Gregory, "how your
'precocity' escapes this divorce degradation."
"Escape it? Those people think it is--well, provincial--not to have been
divorced at least once!"
Mrs. Gregory opened her eyes, but Mrs. Weguelin shut her lips.
I continued: "Even the children, for their own little reasons, like it.
Only last summer, in Newport, a young boy was asked how he enjoyed having
a father and an ex-father."
"Ex-father!" said Mrs. Gregory. "Vice-father is what I should call him."
"Maria!" murmured Mrs. Weguelin, "how can you jest upon such topics?"
"I am far from jesting, Julia. Well, young gentleman, and what answer did
this precious Newport child make?"
"He said (if you will pardon my giving you his little sentiment in his
own quite expressive idiom), 'Me for two fathers! Double money birthdays
and Christmases. See?' That was how he saw divorce."
Once again my ladies consulted each other's expressions; we moved along
High Walk in such silence that I heard the stiff little rustle which the
palmettos were making across the street; even these trees, you might have
supposed, were whispering together over the horrors that I had recited in
their decorous presence.
It was Mrs. Gregory who next spoke. "I can translate that last boy's
language, but what did the other boy mean about a 'raid on Steel
Preferred'--if I've got the jargon right?"
While I translated this for her, I felt again the disapproval in Mrs.
Weguelin's dark eyes; and my sins--for they were twofold--were presently
made clear to me by this lady.
"Are such subjects as--as stocks" (she softly cloaked this word in scorn
immeasurable)--"are such subjects mentioned in your good society at the
I laughed heartily. "Everything's mentioned!"
The lady paused over my reply. "I am afraid you must feel us to be very
old-fashioned in, Kings Port," she then said.
"But I rejoice in it!"
She ignored my not wholly dexterous compliment. "And some subjects," she
pursued, "seem to us so grave that if we permit ourselves to speak of
them at all we cannot speak of them lightly."
No, they couldn't speak of them lightly! Here, then, stood my two sins
revealed; everything I had imparted, and also my tone of imparting it,
had displeased Mrs. Weguelin St. Michael, not with the thing, but with
me. I had transgressed her sound old American code of good manners, a
code slightly pompous no doubt, but one in which no familiarity was
allowed to breed contempt. To her good taste, there were things in the
world which had, apparently, to exist, but which one banished from
drawing-room discussion as one conceals from sight the kitchen and
outhouses; one dealt with them only when necessity compelled, and never
in small-talk; and here had I been, so to speak, small-talking them in
that glib, modern, irresponsible cadence with which our brazen age rings
and clatters like the beating of triangles and gongs. Not triangles and
gongs, but rather strings and flutes, had been the music to which Kings
Port society had attuned its measured voice.
I saw it all, and even saw that my own dramatic sense of Mrs. Weguelin's
dignity had perversely moved me to be more flippant than I actually felt;
and I promised myself that a more chastened tone should forthwith redeem
me from the false position I had got into.
"My dear," said Mrs. Gregory to Mrs. Weguelin, "we must ask him to excuse
For the second time I was not wholly dexterous. "But I like it so much!"
I exclaimed; and both ladies laughed frankly.
Mrs. Gregory brought in a fable. "You'll find us all 'country mice'
This time I was happy. "At least, then, there'll be no cat!" And this
caused us all to make little bows.
But the word "cat" fell into our talk as does a drop of some acid into a
chemical solution, instantly changing the whole to an unexpected new
color. The unexpected new color was, in this instance, merely what had
been latently lurking in the fluid of our consciousness all through and
now it suddenly came out.
Mrs. Gregory stared over the parapet at the harbor. "I wonder if anybody
has visited that steam yacht?"
"The Hermana?" I said. "She's waiting, I believe, for her owner, who is
enjoying himself very much on land." It was a strong temptation to add,
"enjoying himself with the cat," but I resisted it.
"Oh!" said Mrs. Gregory. "Possibly a friend of yours?"
"Even his name is unknown to me. But I gather that he may be coming to
Kings Port--to attend Mr. John Mayrant's wedding next Wednesday week."
I hadn't gathered this; but one is at times driven to improvising. I
wished so much to know if Juno was right about the engagement being
broken, and I looked hard at the ladies as my words fairly grazed the
"cat." This time I expected them to consult each other's expressions, and
such, indeed, was their immediate proceeding.
"The Wednesday following, you mean," Mrs. Weguelin corrected.
"Postponed again? Dear me!"
Mrs. Gregory spoke this time. "General Rieppe. Less well again, it
It would be like Juno to magnify a delay into a rupture. Then I had a
hilarious thought, which I instantly put to the ladies. "If the poor
General were to die completely, would the wedding be postponed completely?"
"There would not be the slightest chance of that," Mrs. Gregory declared.
And then she pronounced a sentence that was truly oracular: "She's coming
at once to see for herself."
To which Mrs. Weguelin added with deeper condemnation than she had so far
employed at all: "There is a rumor that she is actually coming in an
My silence upon these two remarks was the silence of great and sudden
interest; but it led Mrs. Weguelin St. Michael to do my perceptions a
slight injustice, and she had no intention that I should miss the quality
of her opinion regarding the vehicle in which Hortense was reported to be
"Miss Rieppe has the extraordinary taste to come here in an automobile,"
said Mrs. Weguelin St. Michael, with deepened severity.
Though I understood quite well, without this emphasizing, that the little
lady would, with her unbending traditions, probably think it more
respectable to approach Kings Port in a wheelbarrow, I was absorbed by
the vague but copious import of Mrs. Gregory's announcement. The oracles,
"But she is undoubtedly very clever to come and see for herself," was
Mrs. Weguelin's next comment.
Mrs. Gregory's face, as she replied to her companion, took on a
censorious and superior expression. "You'll remember, Julia, that I told
Josephine St. Michael it was what they had to expect."
"But it was not Josephine, my dear, who at any time approved of taking
such a course. It was Eliza's whole doing."
It was fairly raining oracles round me, and they quite resembled, for all
the help and light they contained, their Delphic predecessors.
"And yet Eliza," said Mrs. Gregory, "in the face of it, this very
morning, repeated her eternal assertion that we shall all see the
marriage will not take place."
"Eliza," murmured Mrs. Weguelin, "rates few things more highly than her
Mrs. Gregory mused. "Yet she is often right when she has no right to be
I could not bear it any longer, and I said, "I heard to-day that Miss
Rieppe had broken her engagement."
"And where did you hear that nonsense?" asked Mrs. Gregory.
My heart leaped, and I told her where.
"Oh, well! you will hear anything in a boarding-house. Indeed, that would
be a great deal too good to be true."
"May I ask where Miss Rieppe is all this while?"
"The last news was from Palm Beach, where the air was said to be
necessary for the General."
"But," Mrs. Weguelin repeated, "we have every reason to believe that she
is coming here in an automobile."
"We shall have to call, of course," added Mrs. Gregory to her, not to me;
they were leaving me out of it. Yes, these ladies were forgetting about
me in their using preoccupation over whatever crisis it was that now hung
over John Mayrant's love affairs--a preoccupation which was evidently
part of Kings Port's universal buzz to-day, and which my joining them in
the street had merely mitigated for a moment. I did not wish to be left
out of it; I cannot tell you why--perhaps it was contagious in the local
air--but a veritable madness of craving to know about it seized upon me.
Of course, I saw that Miss Rieppe was, almost too grossly and obviously,
"playing for time"; the health of people's fathers did not cause weekly
extensions of this sort. But what was it that the young lady expected
time to effect for her? Her release, formally, by her young man, on the
ground of his worldly ill fortune? Or was it for an offer from the owner
of the Hermana that she was waiting, before she should take the step of
formally releasing John Mayrant? No, neither of these conjectures seemed
to furnish a key to the tactics of Miss Rieppe and the theory that each
of these affianced parties was strategizing to cause the other to assume
the odium of breaking their engagement, with no result save that of
repeatedly countermanding a wedding-cake, struck me as belonging
admirably to a stage-comedy in three acts, but scarcely to life as we
find it. Besides, poor John Mayrant was, all too plainly, not
strategizing; he was playing as straight a game as the honest heart of a
gentleman could inspire. And so, baffled at all points, I said (for I
simply had to try something which might lead to my sharing in Kings
Port's vibrating secret):--
"I can't make out whether she wants to marry him or not."
Mrs. Gregory answered. "That is just what she is coming to see for
"But since her love was for his phosphates only--!" was my natural
It caused (and this time I did not expect it) my inveterate ladies to
consult each other's expressions. They prolonged their silence so much
that I spoke again:--
"And backing out of this sort of thing can be done, I should think, quite
as cleverly, and much more simply, from a distance."
It was Mrs. Weguelin who answered now, or, rather, who headed me off.
"Have you been able to make out whether he wants to marry her or not?"
"Oh, he never comes near any of that with me!"
"Certainly not. But we all understand that he has taken a fancy to you,
and that you have talked much with him."
So they all understood this, did they? This, too, had played its little
special part in the buzz? Very well, then, nothing of my private
impressions should drop from my lips here, to be quoted and misquoted and
battledored and shuttlecocked, until it reached the boy himself (as it
would inevitably) in fantastic disarrangement. I laughed. "Oh, yes! I
have talked much with him. Shakespeare, I think, was our latest subject."
Mrs. Weguelin was plainly watching for something to drop. "Shakespeare!"
Her tone was of surprise.
I then indulged myself in that most delightful sort of impertinence,
which consists in the other person's not seeing it. "You wouldn't be
likely to have heard of that yet. It occurred only before dinner to-day.
But we have also talked optimism, pessimism, sociology, evolution--Mr.
Mayrant would soon become quite--" I stopped myself on the edge of
something very clumsy.
But sharp Mrs. Gregory finished for me. "Yes, you mean that if he didn't
live in Kings Port (where we still have reverence, at any rate), he fit
would imbibe all the shallow quackeries of the hour and resemble all the
clever young donkeys of the minute."
"Maria!" Mrs. Weguelin murmurously expostulated.
Mrs. Gregory immediately made me a handsome but equivocal apology. "I
wasn't thinking of you at all!" she declared gayly; and it set me
doubting if perhaps she hadn't, after all, comprehended my impertinence.
"And, thank Heaven!" she continued, "John is one of us, in spite of his
present stubborn course."
But Mrs. Weguelin's beautiful eyes were resting upon me with that
disapproval I had come to know. To her, sociology and evolution and all
"isms" were new-fangled inventions and murky with offense; to touch them
was defilement, and in disclosing them to John Mayrant I was a corrupter
of youth. She gathered it all up into a word that was radiant with a kind
of lovely maternal gentleness:--
"We should not wish John to become radical."
In her voice, the whole of old Kings Port was enshrined: hereditary faith
and hereditary standards, mellow with the adherence of generations past,
and solicitous for the boy of the young generation. I saw her eyes soften
at the thought of him; and throughout the rest of our talk to its end her
gaze would now and then return to me, shadowed with disapproval.
I addressed Mrs. Gregory. "By his 'present stubborn course' I suppose you
mean the Custom House."
"All of us deplore his obstinacy. His Aunt Eliza has strongly but vainly
expostulated with him. And after that, Miss Josephine felt obliged to
tell him that he need not come to see her again until he resigned a
position which reflects ignominy upon us all."
I suppressed a whistle. I thought (as I have said earlier) that I had
caught a full vision of John Mayrant's present plight. But my imagination
had not soared to the height of Miss Josephine St. Michael's act of
discipline. This, it must have been, that the boy had checked himself
from telling me in the churchyard. What a character of sterner times was
Miss Josephine! I thought of Aunt Carola, but even she was not quite of
this iron, and I said so to Mrs. Gregory. "I doubt if there be any old
lady left in the North," I said, "capable of such antique severity."
But Mrs. Gregory opened my eyes still further. "Oh, you'd have them if
you had the negro to deal with as we have him. Miss Josephine," she
added, "has to-day removed her sentence of banishment."
I felt on the verge of new discoveries. "What!" I exclaimed, "and did she
"New circumstances intervened," Mrs. Gregory loftily explained. "There
was an occurrence--an encounter, in fact--in which John Mayrant fittingly
punished one who had presumed. Upon hearing of it, this morning, Miss