Elia W. Peattie.

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hair clustered engagingly; her flexible, rather large mouth, with lips
well but not seductively arched, and her clear skin with its uniform
tinting. Such beauty as she had, and it was far from negligible, would
endure. She was quite five feet ten inches, he estimated, with a good
chest development and capable shoulders. Her gestures were free and
suggestive of strength, and her long body had the grace of flexibility
and perfect unconsciousness. All of this was good; but what of the
spirit that looked out of her eyes? It was a glance to which the man was
not accustomed - feminine yet unafraid, beautiful but not related to sex.
The physician was not able to analyze it, though where women were
concerned he was a merciless analyst. Gratified, yet unaccountably
disturbed, he turned to his wife.

"Martha has forgotten to light up the parlor," he said testily. "Can't
you impress on her that she's to have the room ready for us when we've
finished inhere?"

"She's so excited over Kate's coming home," said Mrs. Barrington with a
placatory smile. "Perhaps you'll light up to-night, Frederick."

"No, I won't. I began work at five this morning and I've been going all
day. It's up to you and Martha to run the house."

"The truth is," said Mrs. Barrington, "neither Martha nor I can reach
the gasolier."

Dr. Barrington had the effect of pouncing on this statement.

"That's what's the matter, then," he said. "You forgot to get the
tapers. I heard Martha telling you last night that they were out."

A flush spread over Mrs. Barrington's delicate face as she cast about
her for the usual subterfuge and failed to find it. In that moment Kate
realized that it had been a long programme of subterfuges with her
mother - subterfuges designed to protect her from the onslaughts of the
irritable man who dominated her.

"I'll light the gas, mummy," she said gently. "Let that be one of my
fixed duties from now on."

"You'll spoil your mother, Kate," said the doctor with a whimsical

His jesting about what had so marred the hour of reunion brought a surge
of anger to Kate's brain.

"That's precisely what I came home to do, sir," she said significantly.
"What other reason could I have for coming back to Silvertree? The town
certainly isn't enticing. You've been doctoring here for forty years,
but you havn't been able to cure the local sleeping-sickness yet."

It stung and she had meant it to. To insult Silvertree was to hurt the
doctor in his most tender vanity. It was one of his most fervid beliefs
that he had selected a growing town, conspicuous for its enterprise. In
his young manhood he had meant to do fine things. He was
public-spirited, charitable, a death-fighter of courage and persistence.
Though not a religious man, he had one holy passion, that of the
physician. He respected himself and loved his wife, but he had from
boyhood confused the ideas of masculinity and tyranny. He believed that
women needed discipline, and he had little by little destroyed the
integrity of the woman he would have most wished to venerate. That she
could, in spite of her manifest cowardice and moral circumventions,
still pray nightly and read the book that had been the light to
countless faltering feet, furnished him with food for acrid sarcasm. He
saw in this only the essential furtiveness, inconsistency, and
superstition of the female.

The evening dragged. The neighbors who would have liked to visit them
refrained from doing so because they thought the reunited family would
prefer to be alone that first evening. Kate did her best to preserve
some tattered fragments of the amenities. She told college stories,
talked of Lena Vroom and of beautiful Honora Fulham, - hinted even at Ray
McCrea, - and by dint of much ingenuity wore the evening away.

"In the morning," she said to her father as she bade him good-night,
"we'll both be rested." She had meant it for an apology, not for herself
any more than for him, but he assumed no share in it.

Up in her room her mother saw her bedded, and in kissing her
whispered, -

"Don't oppose your father, Kate. You'll only make me unhappy. Anything
for peace, that's what I say."


It was sweet to awaken in the old room. Through the open window she
could see the fork in the linden tree and the squirrels making free in
the branches. The birds were at their opera, and now and then the shape
of one outlined itself against the holland shade. Kate had been
commanded to take her breakfast in bed and she was more than willing to
do so. The after-college lassitude was upon her and her thoughts moved
drowsily through her weary brain.

Her mother, by an unwonted exercise of self-control, kept from the room
that morning, stopping only now and then at the door for a question or a
look. That was sweet, too. Kate loved to have her hovering about like
that, and yet the sight of her, so fragile, so fluttering, added to the
sense of sadness that was creeping over her. After a time it began to
rain softly, the drops slipping down into the shrubbery and falling like
silver beads from the window-hood. At that Kate began to weep, too, just
as quietly, and then she slept again. Her mother coming in on tiptoe saw
tears on the girl's cheek, but she did not marvel. Though her experience
had been narrow she was blessed with certain perceptions. She knew that
even women who called themselves happy sometimes had need to weep.

* * * * *

The little pensive pause was soon over. There was no use, as all the
sturdier part of Kate knew, in holding back from the future. That very
afternoon the new life began forcing itself on her. The neighbors
called, eager to meet this adventurous one who had turned her back on
the pleasant conventions and had refused to content herself with the
Silvertree Seminary for Young Ladies. They wanted to see what the new
brand of young woman was like. Moreover, there was no one who was not
under obligations to be kind to her mother's daughter. So, presently the
whole social life of Silvertree, aroused from its midsummer torpor by
this exciting event, was in full swing.

Kate wrote to Honora a fortnight later: -

I am trying to be the perfect young lady according to dear
mummy's definition. You should see me running baby ribbon in
my _lingerie_ and combing out the fringe on tea-napkins.
Every afternoon we are 'entertained' or give an
entertainment. Of course we meet the same people over and
over, but truly I like the cordiality. Even the
inquisitiveness has an affectionate quality to it. I'm
determined to enjoy my village and I do appreciate the homely
niceties of the life here. Of course I have to 'pretend'
rather hard at times - pretend, for example, that I care about
certain things which are really of no moment to me whatever.
To illustrate, mother and I have some recipes which nobody
else has and it's our rôle to be secretive about them! And we
have invented a new sort of 'ribbon sandwich.' Did you ever
hear of a ribbon sandwich? If not, you must be told that it
consists of layers and layers of thin slices of bread all
pressed down together, with ground nuts or dressed lettuce in
between. Each entertainer astonishes her guests with a new
variety. That furnishes conversation for several minutes.

"How long can I stand it, Honora, my dear old defender of
freedom? The classrooms are mine no more; the campus is a
departed glory; I shall no longer sing the 'Alma Mater' with
you when the chimes ring at ten. The whole challenge of the
city is missing. Nothing opposes me, there is no task for me
to do. I must be supine, acquiescent, smiling, non-essential.
I am like a runner who has trained for a race, and, ready for
the speeding, finds that no race is on. But I've no business
to be surprised. I knew it would be like this, didn't I? the
one thing is to ¸make and keep mummy happy. She needs me _so_
much. And I am happy to be with her. Write me often - write me
everything. Gods, how I'd like a walk and talk with you!"

Mrs. Barrington did not attempt to conceal her interest in the letters
which Ray McCrea wrote her daughter. She was one of those women who
thrill at a masculine superscription on a letter. Perhaps she got more
satisfaction out of these not too frequent missives than Kate did
herself. While the writer didn't precisely say that he counted on Kate
to supply the woof of the fabric of life, that expectation made itself
evident between the lines to Mrs. Barrington's sentimental perspicacity.

Kate answered his letters, for it was pleasant to have a masculine
correspondent. It provided a needed stimulation. Moreover, in the back
of her mind she knew that he presented an avenue of escape if Silvertree
and home became unendurable. It seemed piteous enough that her life with
her parents should so soon have become a mere matter of duty and
endurance, but there was a feeling of perpetually treading on eggs in
the Barrington house. Kate could have screamed with exasperation as one
eventless day after another dawned and the blight of caution and
apprehension was never lifted from her mother and Martha. She writhed
with shame at the sight of her mother's cajolery of the tyrant she
served - and loved. To have spoken out once, recklessly, to have entered
a wordy combat without rancor and for the mere zest of tournament, to
have let the winnowing winds of satire blow through the house with its
stale sentimentalities and mental attitudes, would have reconciled her
to any amount of difference in the point of view. But the hushed voice
and covertly held position afflicted her like shame.

Were all women who became good wives asked to falsify themselves? Was
furtive diplomacy, or, at least, spiritual compromise, the miserable
duty of woman? Was it her business to placate her mate, and, by
exercising the cunning of the weak, to keep out from under his heel?

There was no one in all Silvertree whom the discriminating would so
quickly have mentioned as the ideal wife as Mrs. Barrington. She
herself, no doubt, so Kate concluded with her merciless young
psychology, regarded herself as noble. But the people in Silvertree had
a passion for thinking of themselves as noble. They had, Kate said to
herself bitterly, so few charms that they had to fall back on their
virtues. In the face of all this it became increasingly difficult to
think of marriage as a goal for herself, and her letters to McCrea were
further and further apart as the slow weeks passed. She had once read
the expression, "the authentic voice of happiness," and it had lived
hauntingly in her memory. Could Ray speak that? Would she, reading his
summons from across half the world, hasten to him, choose him from the
millions, face any future with him? She knew she would not. No, no;
union with the man of average congeniality was not her goal. There must
be something more shining than that for her to speed toward it.

However, one day she caught, opportunely, a hint of the further meanings
of a woman's life. Honora provided a great piece of news, and
illuminated with a new understanding, Kate wrote: -


"You write me that something beautiful is going to happen to
you. I can guess what it is and I agree that it is glorious,
though it does take my breath away. Now there are two of
you - and by and by there will be three, and the third will be
part you and part David and all a miracle. I can see how it
makes life worth living, Honora, as nothing else
could - nothing else!

"Mummy wouldn't like me to write like this. She doesn't
approve of women whose understanding jumps ahead of their
experiences. But what is the use of pretending that I don't
encompass your miracle? I knew all about it from the
beginning of the earth.

"This will mean that you will have to give up your laboratory
work with David, I suppose. Will that be a hardship? Or are
you glad of the old womanly excuse for passing by the outside
things, and will you now settle down to be as fine a mother
as you were a chemist? Will you go further, my dear, and make
a fuss about your house and go all delicately bedizened after
the manner of the professors' nice little wives - go in, I
mean, for all the departments of the feminine profession?

"I do hope you'll have a little son, Honora, not so much on
your account as on his. During childhood a girl's feet are as
light as a boy's bounding over the earth; but when once
childhood is over, a man's life seems so much more coherent
than a woman's, though it is not really so important. But it
takes precisely the experience you are going through to give
it its great significance, doesn't it?

"What other career is there for real women, I wonder? What,
for example, am I to do, Honora? There at the University I
prepared myself for fine work, but I'm trapped here in this
silly Silvertree cage. If I had a talent I could make out
very well, but I am talentless, and all I do now is to answer
the telephone for father and help mummy embroider the towels.
They won't let me do anything else. Some one asked me the
other day what colors I intended wearing this autumn. I
wanted to tell them smoke-of-disappointment, ashes-of-dreams,
and dull-as-wash-Monday. But I only said ashes-of-roses.
"'Not all of your frocks, surely, Kate,' one of the girls
cried. 'All,' I declared; 'street frocks, evening gowns,
all.' 'But you mustn't be odd,' my little friend warned.
'Especially as people are a little suspicious that you will
be because of your going to a co-educational college.'

"I thought it would be so restful here, but it doesn't offer
peace so much as shrinkage. Silvertree isn't pastoral - it's
merely small town. Of course it is possible to imagine a
small town that would be ideal - a community of quiet souls
leading the simple life. But we aren't great or quiet souls
here, and are just as far from simple as our purses and
experience will let us be.

"I dare say that you'll be advising me, as a student of
psychology, to stop criticizing and to try to do something
for the neighbors here - go in search of their submerged
selves. But, honestly, it would require too much
paraphernalia in the way of diving-bells and air-pumps.

"I have, however, a reasonable cause of worry. Dear little
mummy isn't well. At first we thought her indisposition of
little account, but she seems run down. She has been flurried
and nervous ever since I came home; indeed, I may say she has
been so for years. Now she seems suddenly to have broken
down. But I'm going to do everything I can for her, and I
know father will, too; for he can't endure to have any one
sick. It arouses his great virtue, his physicianship."

* * * * *

A week later Kate mailed this: -

"I am turning to you in my terrible fear. Mummy won't answer
our questions and seems lost in a world of thought. Father
has called in other physicians to help him. I can't tell you
how like a frightened child I feel. Oh, my poor little
bewildered mummy! What do you suppose she is thinking about?"

* * * * *

Then, a week afterward, this - on black-bordered paper: -


"She's been gone three days. To the last we couldn't tell why
she fell ill. We only knew she made no effort to get well. I
am tormented by the fear that I had something to do with her
breaking like that. She was appalled - shattered - at the idea
of any friction between father and me. When I stood up for my
own ideas against his, it was to her as sacrilegious as if I
had lifted my hand against a king. I might have
capitulated - ought, I suppose, to have foregone everything!

"There is one thing, however, that gives me strange comfort.
At the last she had such dignity! Her silence seemed fine and
brave. She looked at us from a deep still peace as if, after
all her losing of the way, she had at last found it and
Herself. The search has carried her beyond our sight.

"Oh, we are so lonely, father and I. We silently accuse each
other. He thinks my reckless truth-telling destroyed her
timid spirit; I think his twenty-five years of tyranny did
it. We both know how she hated our rasping, and we hate it
ourselves. Yet, even at that hour when we stood beside her
bed and knew the end was coming, he and I were at sword's
points. What a hackneyed expression, but how terrible! Yes,
the hateful swords of our spirits, my point toward his breast
and his toward mine, gleamed there almost visibly above that
little tired creature. He wanted her for himself even to the
last: I wanted her for Truth - wanted her to walk up to God
dressed in her own soul-garments, not decked out in the rags
and tags of those father had tossed to her.

"She spoke only once. She had been dreaming, I suppose, and a
wonderful illuminated smile broke over her face. In the midst
of what seemed a sort of ecstasy, she looked up and saw
father watching her. She shivered away from him with one of
those apologetic gestures she so often used. 'It wasn't a
heavenly vision,' she said - she knew he wouldn't have
believed in that - 'it was only that I thought my little brown
baby was in my arms.' She meant me, Honora, - think of it. She
had gone back to those tender days when I had been dependent
on her for all my well-being. My mummy! I gathered her close
and held her till she was gone, my little, strange,
frightened love.

"Now father and I hide our thoughts from each other. He
wanted to know if I was going to keep house for him. I said
I'd try, for six months. He flew in one of his rages because
I admitted that it would be an experiment. He wanted to know
what kind of a daughter I was, and I told him the kind he had
made me. Isn't that hideous?

"I've no right to trouble you, but I must confide in some one
or my heart will break. There's no one here I can talk to,
though many are kind. And Ray - perhaps you think I should
have written all this to him. But I wasn't moved to do so,
Honora. Try to forgive me for telling you these troubles now
in the last few days before your baby comes. I suppose I turn
to you because you are one of the blessed corporation of
mothers - part and parcel of the mother-fact. It's like being
a part of the good rolling earth, just as familiar and
comforting. Thinking of you mysteriously makes me good. I'm
going to forget myself, the way you do, and 'make a home'
for father.

"Your own


In September she sent Honora a letter of congratulation.

"So it's twins! Girls! Were you transported or amused?
Patience and Patricia - very pretty. You'll stay at home with
the treasures, won't you? You see, there's something about
you I can't quite understand, if you'll forgive me for saying
it. You were an exuberant girl, but after marriage you grew
austere - put your lips together in a line that discouraged
kissing. So I'm not sure of you even now that the babies have
come. Some day you'll have to explain yourself to me.

"I'm one who needs explanations all along the road. Why? Why?
Why? That is what my soul keeps demanding. Why couldn't I go
back to Chicago with Ray McCrea? He was down here the other
day, but I wouldn't let him say the things he obviously had
come to say, and now he's on his way abroad and very likely
we shall not meet again. I feel so numb since mummy died that
I can't care about Ray. I keep crying 'Why?' about Death
among other things. And about that horrid gulf between father
and me. If we try to get across we only fall in. He has me
here ready to his need. He neither knows nor cares what my
thoughts are. So long as I answer the telephone faithfully,
sterilize the drinking-water, and see that he gets his
favorite dishes, he is content. I have no liberty to leave
the house and my restlessness is torture. The neighbors no
longer flutter in as they used when mummy was here. They
have given me over to my year of mourning - which
means vacuity.

"Partly for lack of something better to do I have cleaned the
old house from attic to cellar, and have been glad to creep
to bed lame and sore from work, because then I could sleep.
Father won't let me read at night - watches for signs of the
light under my door and calls out to me if it shows. It is
golden weather without, dear friend, and within is order and
system. But what good? I am stagnating, perishing. I can see
no release - cannot even imagine in what form I would like it
to come. In your great happiness remember my sorrow. And with
your wonderful sweetness forgive my bitter egotism. But
truly, Honora, I die daily."

The first letter Honora Fulham wrote after she was able to sit at her
desk was to Kate. No answer came. In November Mrs. Fulham telephoned to
Lena Vroom to ask if she had heard, but Lena had received no word.

"Go down to Silvertree, Lena, there's a dear," begged her old
schoolmate. But Lena was working for her doctor's degree and could not
spare the time. The holidays came on, and Mrs. Fulham tried to imagine
her friend as being at last broken to her galling harness. Surely there
must be compensations for any father and daughter who can dwell
together. Her own Christmas was a very happy one, and she was annoyed
with herself that her thoughts so continually turned to Kate. She had
an uneasy sense of apprehension in spite of all her verbal assurances to
Lena that Kate could master any situation.

* * * * *

What really happened in Silvertree that day changed, as it happened, the
course of Kate's life. Sorrow came to her afterward, disappointment,
struggle, but never so heavy and dragging a pain as she knew that
Christmas Day.

She had been trying in many unsuspected ways to relieve her father's
grim misery, - a misery of which his gaunt face told the tale, - and
although he had said that he wished for "no flubdub about Christmas,"
she really could not resist making some recognition of a day which found
all other homes happy. When the doctor came in for his midday meal, Kate
had a fire leaping in the old grate with the marble mantel and a turkey
smoking on a table which was set forth with her choicest china and
silver. She had even gone so far as to bring out a dish distinctly
reminiscent of her mother, - the delicious preserved peaches, which had
awaked unavailing envy in the breasts of good cooks in the village.
There was pudding, too, and brandy sauce, and holly for decorations. It
represented a very mild excursion into the land of festival, but it was
too much for Dr. Barrington.

He had come in cold, tired, hungry, and, no doubt, bitterly sorrowful at
the bottom of his perverse heart. He discerned Kate in white - it was
the first time she had laid off her mourning - and with a chain of her
mother's about her neck. Beyond, he saw the little Christmas feast and
the old silver vase on the table, red with berries.

"You didn't choose to obey my orders," he said coldly, turning his
unhappy blue eyes on her.

"Your orders?" she faltered.

"There was to be no fuss and feathers of any sort," he said. "Christmas
doesn't represent anything recognized in my philosophy, and you know it.
We've had enough of pretense in this house. I've been working to get
things on a sane basis and I believed you were sensible enough to help
me. But you're just like the rest of them - you're like all of your sex.
You've got to have your silly play-time. I may as well tell you now that
you don't give me any treat when you give me turkey, for I don't
like it."

"Oh, dad!" cried Kate; "you do! I've seen you eat it many times! Come,
really it's a fine dinner. I helped to get it. Let's have a good time
for once."

"I have plenty of good times, but I have them in my own way."

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Online LibraryElia W. PeattieThe Precipice → online text (page 2 of 23)