Author of _The Bachelor's Christmas_, etc.
Charles Scribner's Sons
Babcock and Selma White were among the last of the wedding guests to
take their departure. It was a brilliant September night with a touch of
autumn vigor in the atmosphere, which had not been without its effect on
the company, who had driven off in gay spirits, most of them in
hay-carts or other vehicles capable of carrying a party. Their songs and
laughter floated back along the winding country road. Selma, comfortable
in her wraps and well tucked about with a rug, leaned back contentedly
in the chaise, after the goodbyes had been said, to enjoy the glamour of
the full moon. They were seven miles from home and she was in no hurry
to get there. Neither festivities nor the undisguised devotion of a city
young man were common in her life. Consideration she had been used to
from a child, and she knew herself to be tacitly acknowledged the
smartest girl in Westfield, but perhaps for that very reason she had
held aloof from manhood until now. At least no youth in her neighborhood
had ever impressed her as her equal. Neither did Babcock so impress her;
but he was different from the rest. He was not shy and unexpressive; he
was buoyant and self-reliant, and yet he seemed to appreciate her
quality none the less.
They had met about a dozen times, and on the last six of these occasions
he had come from Benham, ten miles to her uncle's farm, obviously to
visit her. The last two times her Aunt Farley had made him spend the
night, and it had been arranged that he would drive her in the Farley
chaise to Clara Morse's wedding. A seven-mile drive is apt to promote or
kill the germs of intimacy, and on the way over she had been conscious
of enjoying herself. Scrutiny of Clara's choice had been to the
advantage of her own cavalier. The bridegroom had seemed to her what her
Aunt Farley would call a mouse-in-the-cheese young man. Whereas Babcock
had been the life of the affair.
She had been teaching now in Wilton for more than a year. When, shortly
after her father's death, she had obtained the position of school
teacher, it seemed to her that at last the opportunity had come to
display her capabilities, and at the same time to fulfil her
aspirations. But the task of grounding a class of small children in the
rudiments of simple knowledge had already begun to pall and to seem
unsatisfying. Was she to spend her life in this? And if not, the next
step, unless it were marriage, was not obvious. Not that she mistrusted
her ability to shine in any educational capacity, but neither Wilton nor
the neighboring Westfield offered better, and she was conscious of a
lack of influential friends in the greater world, which was embodied for
her in Benham. Benham was a western city of these United States, with an
eastern exposure; a growing, bustling city according to rumor, with an
eager population restless with new ideas and stimulating ambitions. So
at least Selma thought of it, and though Boston and New York and a few
other places were accepted by her as authoritative, she accepted them,
as she accepted Shakespeare, as a matter of course and so far removed
from her immediate outlook as almost not to count. But Benham with its
seventy-five thousand inhabitants and independent ways was a fascinating
possibility. Once established there the world seemed within her grasp,
including Boston. Might it not be that Benham, in that it was newer, was
nearer to truth and more truly American than that famous city? She was
not prepared to believe this an absurdity.
At least the mental atmosphere of Westfield and even of the somewhat
less solemn Wilton suggested this apotheosis of the adjacent city to be
reasonable. Westfield had stood for Selma as a society of serious though
simple souls since she could first remember and had been one of them.
Not that she arrogated to her small native town any unusual qualities of
soul or mind in distinction from most other American communities, but
she regarded it as inferior in point of view to none, and typical of the
best national characteristics. She had probably never put into words the
reasons of her confidence, but her daily consciousness was permeated
with them. To be an American meant to be more keenly alive to the
responsibility of life than any other citizen of civilization, and to be
an American woman meant to be something finer, cleverer, stronger, and
purer than any other daughter of Eve. Under the agreeable but sobering
influence of this faith she had grown to womanhood, and the heroic deeds
of the civil war had served to intensify a belief, the truth of which
she had never heard questioned. Her mission in life had promptly been
recognized by her as the development of her soul along individual lines,
but until the necessity for a choice had arisen she had been content to
contemplate a little longer. Now the world was before her, for she was
twenty-three and singularly free from ties. Her mother had died when she
was a child. Her father, the physician of the surrounding country, a man
of engaging energy with an empirical education and a speculative habit
of mind, had been the companion of her girlhood. During the last few
years since his return from the war an invalid from a wound, her care
for him had left her time for little else.
No more was Babcock in haste to reach home; and after the preliminary
dash from the door into the glorious night he suffered the farm-horse to
pursue its favorite gait, a deliberate jog. He knew the creature to be
docile, and that he could bestow his attention on his companion without
peril to her. His own pulses were bounding. He was conscious of having
made the whirligig of time pass merrily for the company by his spirits
and jolly quips, and that in her presence, and he was groping for an
appropriate introduction to the avowal he had determined to make. He
would never have a better opportunity than this, and it had been his
preconceived intention to take advantage of it if all went well. All had
gone well and he was going to try. She had been kind coming over; and
had seemed to listen with interest as he told her about himself: and
somehow he had felt less distant from her. He was not sure what she
would say, for he realized that she was above him. That was one reason
why he admired her so. She symbolized for him refinement, poetry, art,
the things of the spirit - things from which in the same whirligig of
time he had hitherto been cut off by the vicissitudes of the varnish
business; but the value of which he was not blind to. How proud he would
be of such a wife! How he would strive and labor for her! His heart was
in his mouth and trembled on his lip as he thought of the possibility.
What a joy to be sitting side by side with her under this splendid moon!
He would speak and know his fate.
"Isn't it a lovely night?" murmured Selma appreciatively. "There they
go," she added, indicating the disappearance over the brow of a hill of
the last of the line of vehicles of the rest of the party, whose songs
had come back fainter and fainter.
"I don't care. Do you?" He snuggled toward her a very little.
"I guess they won't think I'm lost," she said, with a low laugh.
"What d'you suppose your folks would say if you _were_ lost? I mean if I
were to run away with you and didn't bring you back?" There was a
nervous ring in the guffaw which concluded his question.
"My friends wouldn't miss me much; at least they'd soon get over the
shock; but I might miss myself, Mr. Babcock."
Selma was wondering why it was that she rather liked being alone with
this man, big enough, indeed, to play the monster, yet half school-boy,
but a man who had done well in his calling. He must be capable; he could
give her a home in Benham; and it was plain that he loved her.
"I'll tell you something," he said, eagerly, ignoring her suggestion.
"I'd like to run away with you and be married to-night, Selma. That's
what I'd like, and I guess you won't. But it's the burning wish of my
heart that you'd marry me some time. I want you to be my wife. I'm a
rough fellow along-side of you, Selma, but I'd do well by you; I would.
I'm able to look after you, and you shall have all you want. There's a
nice little house building now in Benham. Say the word and I'll buy it
for us to-morrow. I'm crazy after you, Selma."
The rein was dangling, and Babcock reached his left arm around the waist
of his lady-love. He had now and again made the same demonstration with
others jauntily, but this was a different matter. She was not to be
treated like other women. She was a goddess to him, even in his ardor,
and he reached gingerly. Selma did not wholly withdraw from the spread
of his trembling arm, though this was the first man who had ever
ventured to lay a finger on her.
"I'd have to give up my school," she said.
"They could get another teacher."
"Not one like you. You see I'm clumsy, but I'm crazy for you, Selma."
Emboldened by the obvious feebleness of her opposition, he broadened his
clutch and drew her toward him. "Say you will, sweetheart."
This time she pulled herself free and sat up in the chaise. "Would you
let me do things?" she asked after a moment.
"Do things," faltered Babcock. What could she mean? She had told him on
the way over that her mother had chosen her name from a theatrical
playbill, and it passed through his unsophisticated brain that she might
be thinking of the stage.
"Yes, do something worth while. Be somebody. I've had the idea I could,
if I ever got the chance." Her hands were folded in her lap; there was a
wrapt expression on her thin, nervous face, and a glitter in her keen
eyes, which were looking straight at the moon, as though they would
outstare it in brilliancy.
"You shall be anything you like, if you'll only marry me. What is it
you're wishing to be?"
"I don't know exactly. It isn't anything especial yet. It's the whole
thing. I thought I might find it in my school, but the experience so far
hasn't been - satisfying."
"Troublesome little brats!"
"No, I dare say the fault's in me. If I went to Benham to live it would
be different. Benham must be interesting - inspiring."
"There's plenty of go there. You'd like it, and people would think lots
"I'd try to make them." She turned and looked at him judicially, but
with a softened expression. Her profile in her exalted mood had
suggested a beautiful, but worried archangel; her full face seemed less
this and wore much of the seductive embarrassment of sex. To Babcock she
seemed the most entrancing being he had ever seen. "Would you really
like to have me come?"
He gave a hoarse ejaculation, and encircling her eagerly with his strong
grasp pressed his lips upon her cheek. "Selma! darling! angel! I'm the
happiest man alive."
"You mustn't do that - yet," she said protestingly.
"Yes, I must; I'm yours, and you're mine, - mine. Aren't you, sweetheart?
There's no harm in a kiss."
She had to admit to herself that it was not very unpleasant after all to
be held in the embrace of a sturdy lover, though she had never intended
that their relations should reach this stage of familiarity so promptly.
She had known, of course, that girls were to look for endearments from
those whom they promised to marry, but her person had hitherto been so
sacred to man and to herself that it was difficult not to shrink a
little from what was taking place. This then was love, and love was, of
course, the sweetest thing in the world. That was one of the truths
which she had accepted as she had accepted the beauty of Shakespeare, as
something not to be disputed, yet remote. He was a big, affectionate
fellow, and she must make up her mind to kiss him. So she turned her
face toward him and their lips met eagerly, forestalling the little peck
which she had intended. She let her head fall back at his pressure on to
his shoulder, and gazed up at the moon.
"Are you happy, Selma?" he asked, giving her a fond, firm squeeze.
She could feel his frame throb with joy at the situation as she uttered
"We'll be married right away. That's if you're willing. My business is
going first-rate and, if it keeps growing for the next year as it has
for the past two, you'll be rich presently. When shall it be, Selma?"
"You're in dreadful haste. Well, I'll promise to give the selectmen
notice to-morrow that they must find another teacher."
"Because the one they have now is going to become Mrs. Lewis J. Babcock.
I'm the luckiest fellow, hooray! in creation. See here," he added,
taking her hand, "I guess a ring wouldn't look badly there - a real
diamond, too. Pretty little fingers."
She sighed gently, by way of response. It was comfortable nestling in
the hollow of his shoulder, and a new delightful experience to be
hectored with sweetness in this way. How round and bountiful the moon
looked. She was tired of her present life. What was coming would be
better. Her opportunity was at hand to show the world what she was made
"A real diamond, and large at that," he repeated, gazing down at her,
and then, as though the far away expression in her eyes suggested
kinship with the unseen and the eternal, he said, admiringly but humbly,
"It must be grand to be clever like you, Selma. I'm no good at that. But
if loving you will make up for it, I'll go far, little woman."
"What I know of that I like, and - and if some day, I can make you proud
of me, so much the better," said Selma.
"Proud of you? You are an angel, and you know it."
She closed her eyes and sighed again. Even the bright avenues of fame,
which her keen eyes had traversed through the golden moon, paled before
this tribute from the lips of real flesh and blood. What woman can
withstand the fascination of a lover's faith that she is an angel? If a
man is fool enough to believe it, why undeceive him? And if he is so
sure of it, may it even not be so? Selma was content to have it so,
especially as the assertion did not jar with her own prepossessions; and
thus they rode home in the summer night in the mutual contentment of a
The match was thoroughly agreeable to Mrs. Farley, Selma's aunt and
nearest relation, who with her husband presided over a flourishing
poultry farm in Wilton. She was an easy-going, friendly spirit, with a
sharp but not wide vision, who did not believe that a likelier fellow
than Lewis Babcock would come wooing were her niece to wait a lifetime.
He was hearty, comical, and generous, and was said to be making money
fast in the varnish business. In short, he seemed to her an admirable
young man, with a stock of common-sense and high spirits eminently
serviceable for a domestic venture. How full of fun he was, to be sure!
It did her good to behold the tribute his appetite paid to the buckwheat
cakes with cream and other tempting viands she set before him - a
pleasing contrast to Selma's starveling diet - and the hearty smack with
which he enforced his demands upon her own cheeks as his mother-in-law
apparent, argued an affectionate disposition. Burly, rosy-cheeked,
good-natured, was he not the very man to dispel her niece's vagaries and
turn the girl's morbid cleverness into healthy channels?
Selma, therefore, found nothing but encouragement in her choice at home;
so by the end of another three months they were made man and wife, and
had moved into that little house in Benham which had attracted Babcock's
eye. Benham, as has been indicated, was in the throes of bustle and
self-improvement. Before the war it had been essentially unimportant.
But the building of a railroad through the town and the discovery of oil
wells in its neighborhood had transformed it in a twinkling into an
active and spirited centre. Selma's new house was on the edge of the
city, in the van of real estate progress, one of a row of small but
ambitious-looking dwellings, over the dark yellow clapboards of which
the architect had let his imagination run rampant in scrolls and
flourishes. There was fancy colored glass in a sort of rose-window over
the front door, and lozenges of fancy glass here and there in the
facade. Each house had a little grass-plot, which Babcock in his case
had made appurtenant to a metal stag, which seemed to him the finishing
touch to a cosey and ornamental home. He had done his best and with all
his heart, and the future was before them.
Babcock found himself radiant over the first experiences of married
life. It was just what he had hoped, only better. His imagination in
entertaining an angel had not been unduly literal, and it was a constant
delight and source of congratulation to him to reflect over his pipe on
the lounge after supper that the charming piece of flesh and blood
sewing or reading demurely close by was the divinity of his domestic
hearth. There she was to smile at him when he came home at night and
enable him to forget the cares and dross of the varnish business. Her
presence across the table added a new zest to every meal and improved
his appetite. In marrying he had expected to cut loose from his bachelor
habits, and he asked for nothing better than to spend every evening
alone with Selma, varied by an occasional evening at the theatre, and a
drive out to the Farleys' now and then for supper. This, with the
regular Sunday service at Rev. Henry Glynn's church, rounded out the
weeks to his perfect satisfaction. He was conscious of feeling that the
situation did not admit of improvement, for though, when he measured
himself with Selma, Babcock was humble-minded, a cheerful and uncritical
optimism was the ruling characteristic of his temperament. With health,
business fortune, and love all on his side, it was natural to him to
regard his lot with complacency. Especially as to all appearances, this
was the sort of thing Selma liked, also. Presently, perhaps, there would
be a baby, and then their cup of domestic happiness would be
overflowing. Babcock's long ungratified yearning for the things of the
spirit were fully met by these cosey evenings, which he would have been
glad to continue to the crack of doom. To smoke and sprawl and read a
little, and exchange chit-chat, was poetry enough for him. So contented
was he that his joy was apt to find an outlet in ditties and
whistling - he possessed a slightly tuneful, rollicking knack at both - a
proceeding which commonly culminated in his causing Selma to sit beside
him on the sofa and be made much of, to the detriment of her toilette.
As for the bride, so dazing were the circumstances incident to the
double change of matrimony and adaptation to city life, that her
judgment was in suspension. Yet though she smiled and sewed demurely,
she was thinking. The yellow clapboarded house and metal stag, and a
maid-of-all-work at her beck and call, were gratifying at the outset and
made demands upon her energies. Selma's position in her father's house
had been chiefly ornamental and social. She had been his companion and
nurse, had read to him and argued with him, but the mere household work
had been performed by an elderly female relative who recognized that her
mind was bent on higher things. Nevertheless, she had never doubted that
when the time arrived to show her capacity as a housewife, she would be
more than equal to the emergency. Assuredly she would, for one of the
distinguishing traits of American womanhood was the ability to perform
admirably with one's own hand many menial duties and yet be prepared to
shine socially with the best. Still the experience was not quite so easy
as she expected; even harassing and mortifying. Fortunately, Lewis was
more particular about quantity than quality where the table was
concerned; and, after all, food and domestic details were secondary
considerations in a noble outlook. It would have suited her never to be
obliged to eat, and to be able to leave the care of the house to the
hired girl; but that being out of the question, it became incumbent on
her to make those obligations as simple as possible. However, the
possession of a new house and gay fittings was an agreeable realization.
At home everything had been upholstered in black horse-hair, and regard
for material appearances had been obscured for her by the tension of her
introspective tendencies. Lewis was very kind, and she had no reason to
reproach herself as yet for her choice. He had insisted that she should
provide herself with an ample and more stylish wardrobe, and though the
invitation had interested her but mildly, the effect of shrewdly-made
and neatly fitting garments on her figure had been a revelation. Like
the touch of a man's hand, fine raiment had seemed to her hitherto
almost repellant, but it was obvious now that anything which enhanced
her effectiveness could not be dismissed as valueless. To arrive at
definite conclusions in regard to her social surroundings was less easy
for Selma. Benham, in its rapid growth, had got beyond the level
simplicity of Westfield and Wilton, and was already confronted by the
stern realities which baffle the original ideal in every American city.
We like as a nation to cherish the illusion that extremes of social
condition do not exist even in our large communities, and that the
plutocrat and the saleslady, the learned professions and the proletariat
associate on a common basis of equal virtue, intelligence, and culture.
And yet, although Benham was a comparatively young and an essentially
American city, there were very marked differences in all these respects
in its community.
Topographically speaking the starting point of Benham was its
water-course. Twenty years before the war Benham was merely a cluster of
frame houses in the valley of the limpid, peaceful river Nye. At that
time the inhabitants drank of the Nye taken at a point below the town,
for there was a high fall which would have made the drawing of water
above less convenient. This they were doing when Selma came to Benham,
although every man's hand had been raised against the Nye, which was the
nearest, and hence for a community in hot haste, the most natural
receptacle for dyestuffs, ashes and all the outflow from woollen mills,
pork factories and oil yards, and it ran the color of glistening bean
soup. From time to time, as the city grew, the drawing point had been
made a little lower where the stream had regained a portion of its
limpidity, and no one but wiseacres and busybodies questioned its
wholesomeness. Benham at that time was too preoccupied and too proud of
its increasing greatness to mistrust its own judgment in matters
hygienic, artistic, and educational. There came a day later when the
river rose against the city, and an epidemic of typhoid fever convinced
a reluctant community that there were some things which free-born
Americans did not know intuitively. Then there were public meetings and
a general indignation movement, and presently, under the guidance of
competent experts, Lake Mohunk, seven miles to the north, was secured as
a reservoir. Just to show how the temper of the times has changed, and
how sophisticated in regard to hygienic matters some of the good
citizens of Benham in these latter days have become, it is worthy of
mention that, though competent chemists declare Lake Mohunk to be free
from contamination, there are those now who use so-called mineral
spring-waters in preference; notably Miss Flagg, the daughter of old
Joel Flagg, once the miller and, at the date when the Babcocks set up
their household gods, one of the oil magnates of Benham. He drank the
bean colored Nye to the day of his death and died at eighty; but she
carries a carboy of spring-water with her personal baggage wherever she
travels, and is perpetually solicitous in regard to the presence of
arsenic in wall-papers into the bargain.
Verily, the world has wagged apace in Benham since Selma first looked
out at her metal stag and the surrounding landscape. Ten years later the
Benham Home Beautifying Society took in hand the Nye and those who
drained into it, and by means of garbage consumers, disinfectants, and
filters and judiciously arranged shrubbery converted its channel and
banks into quite a respectable citizens' paradise. But even at that time
the industries on either bank of the Nye, which flowed from east to
west, were forcing the retail shops and the residences further and
further away. To illustrate again from the Flagg family, just before the