Wit and Humor of America, The Vol 07



The confirmed bachelor sat apart, fairly submerged by a sea of Sunday papers; yet a peripheral consciousness of the ladies' presence was revealed in his embryonic smile.

He folded over a voluminous sheet containing an account of the latest murder, and glanced at a half-page picture, labeled, "The Scene of the Crime."

"Was there ever yet a woman that could keep a secret," he demanded, apparently of the newspaper. "Now, if this poor fellow had only kept his little plans to himself—but, of course, he had to go and tell some woman."

"Looks like the man didn't know how to keep his secret that time," returned Mrs. Pendleton with a smile calculated to soften harsh judgments against her sex.

"There are some secrets woman can keep," observed Elsie Howard. Her gaze happened to rest upon Mrs. Pendleton's golden hair.

"For instance," demanded the confirmed bachelor. (His name was Barlow.)

"Oh—her age for one thing." Elsie withdrew her observant short-sighted eyes from Mrs. Pendleton's crowning glory, and a smile barely touched the corners of her expressively inexpressive mouth. Mrs. Pendleton glanced up, faintly suspicious of that last remark.

Mr. Barlow laughed uproariously. In the two years that he had been a "guest" in Mrs. Howard's boarding-house he had come to regard Miss Elsie as a wit, and it was his habit—like the Italians at the opera—to give his applause before the closing phrases were delivered.

"I guess that's right. You hit it that time. That's one secret a woman can keep." He chuckled appreciatively.

Mrs. Pendleton laughed less spontaneously than usual and said, "It certainly was a dangerous subject," that "she had been looking for silver hairs amongst the gold herself lately." And again Elsie's eyes were attracted to the hairs under discussion. For three months now she had questioned that hair. At night it seemed above reproach in its infantile fairness, but in the crude unkind daylight there was a garish insistence about it that troubled the eye.

At that moment the door opened and Mrs. Hilary came in with her bonnet on. She glanced around with frigid greeting.

"So I'm not late to dinner after all. I had thought you would be at table. The tram was so slow I was sorry I had not walked and saved the fare." She spoke with an irrational rising and falling of syllables that at once proclaimed her nationality. She was a short, compact little woman with rosy cheeks, abundant hair and a small tight mouth. Mrs. Hilary was a miniature painter by choice and a wife and mother by accident. She was subject to lapses in which she unquestionably forgot the twins' existence. She recalled them suddenly now.

"Has any one seen Gladys and Gwendolen? Dear, dear, I wonder where they are. They wouldn't go to church with me. Those children are such a responsibility."

"But they are such happy children," said gentle little Mrs. Howard, who had come in at the beginning of this speech. In her heart Mrs. Howard dreaded the long-legged, all-pervasive twins, but she pitied the widowed and impoverished little artist. "So sad," she was wont to say to her intimates in describing her lodger, "a young widow left all alone in a foreign country."

"But one would hardly call America a foreign country to an Englishwoman," one friend had interpolated at this point.

"Yes, I know," Mrs. Howard had acknowledged, "but she seems foreign. Her husband was an American, I believe, and he evidently left her with almost nothing. He must have been very unkind to her, she has such a dislike of Americans. She wasn't able to give the regular price for the rooms, but I couldn't refuse her—I felt so sorry for her."

Mrs. Howard liked to "feel sorry for" people. Yet she was apt to find herself at sea in attempting to sympathize with Mrs. Hilary. She was a sweet-faced, tired-looking little woman with a vague smile and dreamy eyes. About five years ago Mrs. Howard had had "reverses" and had been forced by necessity to live to violate the sanctity of her hearth and home; grossly speaking, she had been obliged to take boarders, no feasible alternative seeming to suggest itself. The old house in Eleventh Street, in which she had embarked upon this cheerless career, had never been a home for her or her daughter. Yet an irrepressible sociability of nature enabled her to find a certain pleasure in the life impossible to her more reserved daughter.

As they all sat around now in the parlor, into which the smell of the Sunday turkey had somehow penetrated, a few more guests wandered in and sat about provisionally on the impracticable parlor furniture, waiting for the dinner signal. Mrs. Howard bravely tried to keep up the simulation of social interchange with which she ever pathetically strove to elevate the boarding-house intercourse into the decency of a chosen association.

Suddenly there came a thump and a crash against the door and the twins burst in, their jackets unbuttoned, their dusty picture hats awry.

"Oh! mater, mater!" they cried tumultuously, dancing about her.

"Such sport, mater. We fed the elephant."

"And the rabbits—"

"And a monkey carried off Gwendolen's gloves—"

"Children," exclaimed Mrs. Hilary impotently, looking from one to the other, "where have you been?" (She pronounced it bean.)

"To the park, mater—"

"To see the animals—"

"Oh, mater, you should see the ducky little baby lion!"

"What is it that they call you?" inquired a perpetually smiling young kindergartner who had just taken possession of a top-floor hall-room.

Mrs. Hilary glanced at her slightingly.

"What is it that they call me? Why, mater, of course."

"Ah, yes," the girl acquiesced pleasantly. "I remember now; it's English, of course."

"Oh, no," returned Mrs. Hilary instructively, "it's not English; it's Latin."

The kindergartner was silent. Mrs. Pendleton suppressed a chuckle that strongly suggested her "mammy." Mr. Barlow grinned and Elsie Howard's mouth twitched.

"They are such picturesque children," Mrs. Howard put in hastily. "I wonder you don't paint them oftener."

"I declare I just wish I could paint," Mrs. Pendleton contributed sweetly, "I think it's such pretty work."

Mrs. Hilary was engrossed in the task of putting the twins to rights.

"I don't know what to do with them, they are quite unmanageable," she sighed. "It's so bad for them—bringing them up in a lodging-house."

Mrs. Howard flushed and Mrs. Pendleton's eyes flashed. The dinner bell rang and Elsie Howard rose with a little laugh.

"An English mother with American children! What do you expect, Mrs. Hilary?"

Mrs. Hilary was busy retying a withered blue ribbon upon the left side of Gladys' brow. She looked up to explain:

"They are only half-American, you know. But their manners are getting quite ruined with these terrible American children."

Then they filed down into the basement dining-room for the noon dinner.

"Horrid, rude little Cockney," Mrs. Pendleton whispered in Elsie Howard's ear.

The girl smiled faintly. "Oh, she doesn't know she is rude. She is just—English."

Mrs. Howard, over the characterless soup, wondered what it was about the little English artist that seemed so "different." Conversation with Mrs. Hilary developed such curious and unexpected difficulties. Mrs. Howard looked compassionately over at the kindergartner who, with the hopefulness of inexperience, started one subject after another with her unresponsive neighbor. What quality was it in Mrs. Hilary that invariably brought both discussion and pleasantry to a standstill? Elsie, upon whom Mrs. Howard depended for clarification of her thought, would only describe it as "English." In her attempts to account for this alien presence in her household, Mrs. Howard inevitably took refuge in the recollection of Mrs. Hilary's widowhood. This moving thought occurring to her now caused her to glance in the direction of Mrs. Pendleton's black dress and her face lightened. Mrs. Pendleton was of another sort. Mrs. Pendleton had proved, as Mrs. Howard always expressed it, "quite an acquisition to our circle." She felt almost an affection for the merry, sociable talkative Southern woman, with her invariable good spirits, her endless fund of appropriate platitude and her ready, superficial sympathy. Mrs. Pendleton had "come" through a cousin of a friend of a friend of Mrs. Howard's, and these vague links furnished unlimited material for conversation between the two women. Mrs. Pendleton was originally from Savannah, and the names which flowed in profusion from her lips were of unimpeachable aristocracy. Pendleton was a very "good name" in the South, Mrs. Howard had remarked to Elsie, and went on to cite instances and associations.

Besides those already mentioned, the household consisted of three old maids, who had been with Mrs. Howard from her first year; a pensive art student with "paintable" hair; a deaf old gentleman whose place at table was marked by a bottle of lithia tablets; a chinless bank clerk, who had jokes with the waitress, and a silent man who spoke only to request food.

Mr. Barlow occupied, and frankly enjoyed the place between Miss Elsie and Mrs. Pendleton. He found the widow's easy witticisms, stock anecdotes and hackneyed quotations of unfailing interest and her obvious coquetry irresistible. Mr. Barlow took life and business in a most un-American spirit of leisure. He never found fault with the food or the heating arrangements, and never precipitated disagreeable arguments at table. All things considered, he was probably the most contented spirit in the house.

The talk at table revolved upon newspaper topics, the weather, the health of the household, and a comparison of opinions about plays and actresses. At election times it was strongly tinged with politics, and on Sundays, popular preachers were introduced, with some expression as to what was and was not good taste in the pulpit. Among the feminine portion a fair amount of time was devoted to a review of the comparative merits of shops.

Mrs. Pendleton's conversation, however, had a somewhat wider range, for she had traveled. Just what topics were favored in those long undertone conversations with Mr. Barlow only Elsie Howard could have told, as the seat on the other side of the pair was occupied by the deaf old gentleman. There were many covert glances and much suppressed laughter, but neither of the two old maids opposite were able to catch the drift of the low-voiced dialogue, so it remained a tantalizing mystery. Mrs. Pendleton, when pleased to be general in her attentions, proved to be, as Mrs. Howard had said, "an acquisition." She spoke most entertainingly of Egypt, of Japan and Hawaii. Yet all these experiences seemed tinged with a certain sadness, as they had evidently been associated with the last days of the late Mr. Pendleton. They had crossed the Pyrenees when "poor Mr. Pendleton was so ill he had to be carried every inch of the way." In Egypt, "sometimes it seemed like he couldn't last another day. But I always did say 'while there is life there is hope,'" she would recall pensively, "and the doctors all said the only hope for his life was in constant travel, and so we were always, as you might say, seeking 'fresh fields and pastures new.'"

Then Mrs. Howard's gentle eyes would fill with sympathy. "Poor Mrs. Pendleton," she would often say to Elsie after one of these distressing allusions. "How terrible it must have been. Think of seeing some one you love dying that way, by inches before your eyes. She must have been very fond of him, too. She always speaks of him with so much feeling."

"Yes," said Elsie with untranslatable intonation. "I wonder what he died of."

"I don't know," returned her mother regretfully. She had no curiosity, but she had a refined and well-bred interest in diseases. "I never heard her mention it and I didn't like to ask."

"Poor Mrs. Howard," Mrs. Pendleton was wont to say with her facile sympathy. "So hard for her to have to take strangers into her home. I believe she was left without anything at her husband's death; mighty hard for a woman at her age."

"How long has her husband been dead?" the other boarder to whom she spoke would sometimes inquire.

Mrs. Pendleton thought he must have been dead some time, although she had never heard them say, exactly. "You never hear Elsie speak of him," she added, "so I reckon she doesn't remember him right well."

As the winter wore on the tendency to tête-à-tête between Mrs. Pendleton and Mr. Barlow became more marked. They lingered nightly in the chilly parlor in the glamour of the red lamp after the other guests had left. It was discovered that they had twice gone to the theater together. The art student had met them coming in late. As a topic of conversation among the boarders the affair was more popular than food complaints. A subtile atmosphere of understanding enveloped the two. It became so marked at last that even Mrs. Hilary perceived it—although Elsie always insisted that Gladys had told her.

One afternoon in the spring, as Mrs. Pendleton was standing on the door-step preparing to fit the latch-key into the lock, the door opened and a man came out uproariously, followed by Gladys and Gwendolen, who, in some inexplicable way, always had the effect of a crowd of children. The man was tall and not ill-looking. Mrs. Pendleton was attired in trailing black velveteen, a white feather boa, and a hat covered with tossing plumes, and the hair underneath was aggressively golden. A potential smile hovered about her lips and her glance lingered in passing. Inside the house she bent a winning smile upon Gwendolen, who was the less sophisticated of the two children.

"Who's your caller, honey?"

"That's the pater," replied Gwendolen with her mouth full of candy. "He brought us some sweets. You may have one if you wish."

"Your—your father," translated Mrs. Pendleton with a gasp. She was obliged to lean against the wall for support.

The twins nodded, their jaws locked with caramel.

"He doesn't come very often," Gladys managed to get out indistinctly. "I wish he would."

"I suppose his business keeps him away," suggested Mrs. Pendleton.

Gladys glanced up from a consideration of the respective attractions of a chocolate cream and caramel.

"He says it is incompatibility of humor," she repeated glibly. Gladys was more than half American.

"Of humor!" Mrs. Pendleton's face broke up into ripples of delight. She flew at once to Mrs. Howard's private sitting room, arriving all out of breath and exploded her bomb immediately.

"My dear, did you know that Mrs. Hilary is not a widow?"

"Not a widow!" repeated Mrs. Howard with dazed eyes.

"I met her husband right now at the door. He was telling the children good-by. He isn't any more dead than I am."

"Not dead!" repeated Mrs. Howard, collapsing upon the nearest chair with all the prostration a news bearer's heart could desire. "And she was always talking about what he used to do and used to think and used to say. Why—why I can't believe it."

"True as preachin'," declared Mrs. Pendleton, adding that you could have knocked her down with a feather when she discovered it.

Elsie Howard came into her mother's room just then and Mrs. Pendleton repeated the exciting news, adding, "Gladys says they don't live together because of incompatibility of humor!"

Elsie smiled and remarked that it certainly was a justifiable ground for separation and unkindly went off, leaving the subject undeveloped.

The next day Mrs. Howard had a caller. It was the friend whose cousin had a friend that had known Mrs. Pendleton. In the process of conversation the caller remarked casually:

"So Mrs. Pendleton has got her divorce at last."

Mrs. Howard smiled vaguely and courteously.

"Some connection of our Mrs. Pendleton? I don't think I have heard her mention it. Dear me, isn't it dreadful how common divorce is getting to be!"

The guest stared.

"You don't mean to say—why, my dear Mrs. Howard—is it possible you don't know? It is your Mrs. Pendleton."

Mrs. Howard remained looking at her friend. Once or twice her lips moved but no words came.

"Her husband is dead," she said at last, faintly.

The caller laughed. "Then he must have died yesterday. Why, didn't you know that was the reason she spent last year in Colorado?"

"For her husband's health," gasped Mrs. Howard, clinging to the last shred of her six months' belief in Mrs. Pendleton's widowhood. "I always had an impression that it was there he died."

The other woman laughed heartlessly. "Did she tell you he was dead?"

Mrs. Howard collected her scattered faculties and tried to think.

"No," she said at last. "Now that you speak of it, I don't believe she ever did. But she certainly gave that impression. She seemed to be always telling of his last illness and his last days. She never actually mentioned the details of his death—but then, how could she—poor thing?"

"She couldn't, of course. That would have been asking too much." Mrs. Howard's guest went off again into peals of unseemly laughter.

When her caller had left, Mrs. Howard climbed up to the chilly skylight room occupied by her daughter and dropped upon the bed, exclaiming:

"Well, I never would have believed it of Mrs. Pendleton!"

Elsie, who was standing before her mirror, regarded her mother in the glass.

"What's up. Has she eloped with Billie Barlow at last?"

Mrs. Howard tried to say it, but became inarticulate with emotion. After five minutes of preamble and exclamation, her daughter was in possession of the fact.

"That explains about her hair," was Elsie's only comment. "I am so relieved to have it settled at last."

"Why didn't she tell me?" wailed Mrs. Howard.

"Oh, people don't always tell those things."

Mrs. Howard was silent.

As they passed the parlor door on their way down to dinner, Mrs. Pendleton's merry laugh rang out and Elsie caught a glimpse of the golden hair under the red lamp and the fugitive glimpse of Mr. Barlow's bald spot.

About two days later, as the girl came in from an afternoon's shopping, and was on her way upstairs, her mother called to her. Something in the sound of it attracted her attention. She hurried down the few steps and into her mother's room. Mrs. Howard was sitting over by the window in the fading light, with a strange look upon her face. An open telegram lay in her lap. Elsie went up to her quickly.

"What is it, mother?"

Mrs. Howard handed her the telegram.

"Your father," she said.

Elsie Howard read the simple announcement in silence. Then she looked up, the last trace of an old bitterness in her faint smile.

"We will miss him," she said.

"Elsie!" cried her mother. It was a tone the girl had never heard from her before. Her eyes fell.

"No, it wasn't nice to say it. I am sorry. But I can't forget what life was with him." She raised her eyes to her mother's. "It was simply hell, mother; you can't have forgotten. You have said it yourself so often. We can not deny that it is a relief to know—"

"Hush, Elsie, never let me hear you say anything like that again."

"Forgive me, mother," said the girl with quick remorse. "I never will. I don't think I have ever felt that death makes such things so different, and I didn't realize how you would—look at it."

"My child, he was your father," said Mrs. Howard in a low voice. Then Elsie saw the tears in her mother's eyes.

"Such a shock to her," Mrs. Pendleton murmured, sympathetically, to Elsie. "I know, Miss Elsie; I can feel for her—" Elsie mechanically thought of the last hours of Mr. Pendleton, then recalled herself with a start. "Death always is a shock," Mrs. Pendleton finished gracefully, "even when one most expects it. You must let me know if there is anything I can do."

Later in the evening she communicated the astonishing news to Mrs. Hilary, who ejaculated freely: "Only fancy!" and "How very extraordinary!"

"Didn't you think he had been dead a hundred years?" exclaimed Mrs. Pendleton.

"One never can tell in the states," responded Mrs. Hilary conservatively. "Divorce is so common over here. It isn't the thing at all in England, you know."

Mrs. Pendleton stared.

"But they were not divorced, only separated. Do you never do that—in England?"

"Divorced people are not received at court, you know," explained Mrs. Hilary.

Mrs. Pendleton's glance lingered upon the Englishwoman's immobile face and a laugh broke into her words.

"But when you are in Rome, you do as the Romans—is that it, Mrs. Hilary?" But the shot glanced off harmlessly from the thick armor of British literalness.

"In Rome divorce doesn't exist at all," she graciously informed her companion. "The Romish church does not permit it, you know."

The American woman looked at the Englishwoman more in sorrow than in anger.

"How," she reflected, "is one to be revenged like a lady upon an Englishwoman?"

It was about a week later that Mrs. Pendleton, finding herself alone with Mrs. Howard and Elsie, made the final announcement.

"I hope you-all will be ready to dance at my wedding next month. It's going to be very quiet, but I couldn't think of being married without you and Miss Elsie—and Mr. Barlow, he feels just like I do about it."

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