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The two women regarded each other in silence for a long moment. Love had
gone from the eyes and the hearts of both. Hate, unacknowledged as yet,
was growing. Miss Webster bitterly envied the wide gulf between old age
and her quarter-century companion and friend. Abigail bitterly envied
the older woman's power to invoke the resemblance and appurtenances of
youth, to indulge her lifelong yearnings.

When the companion went to her pillow that night she wept passionately.
"I will go," she said. "I'll be a servant; but I'll stay here no
longer."

The next morning she stood on the veranda and watched Miss Webster drive
away to market. The carriage and horses were unsurpassed in California.
The coachman and footman were in livery. The heiress was attired in
lustreless black silk elaborately trimmed with jet. A large hat covered
with plumes was kept in place above her painted face and red wig by a
heavily dotted veil - that crier of departed charms. She held a black
lace parasol in one carefully gloved hand. Her pretty foot was encased
in patent leather.

"The old fool!" murmured Abby. "Why, oh, why could it not have been
mine? I could make myself young without being ridiculous."

She let her duties go and sauntered down to the lake. Many painted boats
were anchored close to ornamental boat-houses. They seemed strangely out
of place beneath the sad old willows. The lawns were green with the
green of spring. Roses ran riot everywhere. The windows of the handsome
old-fashioned houses were open, and Abby was afforded glimpses of
fluttering white gowns, heard the tinkle of the mandolin, the cold
precise strains of the piano, the sudden uplifting of a youthful
soprano.

"After all, it only makes a little difference to them that they got
nothing," thought the companion, with a sigh.

A young man stepped from one of the long windows of the Holt mansion and
came down the lawn. Miss Williams recognized Strowbridge. She had not
seen him for several weeks; but he had had his part in her bitter
moments, and her heart beat at sight of him to-day.

"I too am a fool," she thought. "Even with her money my case would be
hopeless. I am nearly double his age."

He jumped into a boat and rowed down the lake. As he passed the Webster
grounds he looked up and saw Abby standing there.

"Hulloa!" he called, as if he were addressing a girl of sixteen. "How
are you, all these years? Jump in and take a row."

He made his landing, sprang to the shore and led her to the boat with
the air of one who was not in the habit of being refused. Abby had no
inclination to suppress him. She stepped lightly into the boat, and a
moment later was gliding down the lake, looking with admiring eyes on
the strong young figure in its sweater and white trousers. A
yachting-cap was pulled over his blue eyes. His face was bronzed. Abby
wondered if many young men were as handsome as he. As a matter of fact,
he was merely a fine specimen of young American manhood, whose charm lay
in his frank manner and kindness of heart.

"Like this?" he asked, smiling into her eyes.

"Yes, indeed. Hiram used to row us sometimes; but the boat lurched so
when he lost his temper that I was in constant fear of being tipped
over."

"Hiram must have been a terror to cats."

"A what?"

"Beg pardon! Of course you don't know much slang. Beastly habit."

He rowed up and down the lake many times, floating idly in the long
recesses where the willows met overhead. He talked constantly; told her
yarns of his college life; described boat-races and football matches in
which he had taken part. At first his only impulse was to amuse the
lonely old maid; but she proved such a delighted and sympathetic
listener that he forgot to pity her. An hour passed, and with it her
bitterness. She no longer felt that she must leave Webster Hall. But she
remembered her duties, and regretfully asked him to land her.

"Well, if I must," he said. "But I'm sorry, and we'll do it again some
day. I'm awfully obliged to you for coming."

"Obliged to me? - you?" she said, as he helped her to shore. "Oh, you
don't know - " And laughing lightly, she went rapidly up the path to the
house.

Miss Webster was standing on the veranda. Her brows were together in an
ugly scowl.

"Well!" she exclaimed. "So you go gallivanting about with boys in your
old age! Aren't you ashamed to make such an exhibition of yourself?"

Abby felt as if a hot palm had struck her face. Then a new spirit, born
of caressed vanity, asserted itself.

"Wouldn't you have done the same if you had been asked?" she demanded.

Miss Webster turned her back and went up to her room. She locked the
door and burst into tears. "I can't help it," she sobbed, helplessly.
"It's dreadful of me to hate Abby after all these years; but - those
terrible thirty! I'd give three of my millions to be where she is. I
used to think she was old, too. But she isn't. She's young! Young! - a
baby compared to me. I could more than be her mother. Oh, I must try as
a Christian woman to tear this feeling from my heart."

She wrote off a check and directed it to her pastor, then rang for the
trained nurse her physician had imported from New York, and ordered her
to steam and massage her face and rub her old body with spirits of wine
and unguents.

Strowbridge acquired the habit of dropping in on Miss Williams at all
hours. Sometimes he called at the dairy and sat on a corner of the table
while she superintended the butter-making. He liked her old-fashioned
music, and often persuaded her to play for him on the new grand piano in
the sky-blue parlor. He brought her many books by the latter-day
authors, all of them stories by men about men. He had a young contempt
for the literature of sentiment and sex. Even Miss Webster grew to like
him, partly because he ignored the possibility of her doing otherwise,
partly because his vital frank personality was irresistible. She even
invited him informally to dinner; and after a time he joked and guyed
her as if she were a school-girl, which pleased her mightily. Of Miss
Williams he was sincerely fond.

"You are so jolly companionable, don't you know," he would say to her.
"Most girls are bores; don't know enough to have anything to talk about,
and want to be flattered and flirted with all the time. But I feel as if
you were just another fellow, don't you know."

"Oh, I am used to the r√іle of companion," she would reply.

With the first days of June he returned to Boston, and the sun turned
gray for one woman.

Life went its way in the old house. People became accustomed to the
spectacle of Miss Webster rejuvenated, and forgot to flatter. It may be
added that men forgot to propose, in spite of the four millions. Deeper
grew the gulf between the two women. Once in every week Abby vowed she
would leave, but habit was too strong. Once in every week Miss Webster
vowed she would turn the companion out, but dependence on the younger
woman had grown into the fibres of her old being.

Strowbridge returned the following summer. Almost immediately he called
on Miss Williams.

"I feel as if you were one of the oldest friends I have in the world,
don't you know," he said, as they sat together on the veranda. "And I've
brought you a little present - if you don't mind. I thought maybe you
wouldn't."

He took a small case from his pocket, touched a spring, and revealed a
tiny gold watch and fob. "You know," he had said to himself
apologetically as he bought it, "I can give it to her because she's so
much older than myself. It's not vulgar, like giving handsome presents
to girls. And then we are friends. I'm sure she won't mind, poor old
thing!" Nevertheless, he looked at her with some apprehension.

His misgivings proved to be vagaries of his imagination. Abby gazed at
the beautiful toy with radiant face. "For me!" she exclaimed - "that
lovely thing? And you really bought it for me?"

"Why, of course I did," he said, too relieved to note the significance
of her pleasure. "And you'll take it?"

"Indeed I'll take it." She laid it on her palm and looked at it with
rapture. She fastened the fob in a buttonhole of her blouse, but removed
it with a shake of the head. "I'll just keep it to look at, and only
wear it with my black silk. It's out of place on this rusty alpaca."

"What a close-fisted old girl the Circus must - "

"Oh, hush, hush! She might hear you." Abby rose hastily. "Let us walk in
the garden."

They sauntered between the now well-kept lawns and flower-beds and
entered a long avenue of fig-trees. The purple fruit hung abundantly
among the large green leaves. Miss Williams opened one of the figs and
showed Strowbridge the red luscious pith.

"You don't have these over there."

"We don't. Are they good to eat this way?"

She held one of the oval halves to his mouth.

"Eat!" she said.

And he did. Then he ate a dozen more that she broke for him.

"I feel like a greedy school-boy," he said. "But they are good, and no
mistake. You have introduced me to another pleasure. Now let us go and
take a pull."

All that afternoon there was no mirror to tell her that she was not the
girl who had come to Webster Hall a quarter of a century before. That
night she knelt long by her bed, pressing her hands about her face.

"I am a fool, I know," she thought, "but such things have been. If only
I had a little of her money."

The next day she went down to the lake, not admitting that she expected
him to take her out; it would be enough to see him. She saw him. He
rowed past with Elinor Holt, the most beautiful girl of the lakeside.
His gaze was fixed on the flushed face, the limpid eyes. He did not look
up.

Miss Williams walked back to the house with the odd feeling that she had
been smitten with paralysis and some unseen force was propelling her.
But she was immediately absorbed in the manifold duties of the
housekeeping. When leisure came reaction had preceded it.

"I am a fool," she thought. "Of course he must show Elinor Holt
attention. He is her father's guest. But he might have looked up."

That night she could not sleep. Suddenly she was lifted from her
thoughts by strange sounds that came to her from the hall without. She
opened the door cautiously. A white figure was flitting up and down,
wringing its hands, the gray hair bobbing about the jerking head.

"No use!" it moaned. "No use, no use, no use! I'm old, old, old!
Seventy-four, seventy-four, seventy-four! Oh, Lord! oh, Lord! oh, Lord!
Thy ways are past finding out. Amen!"

Abby closed her door hurriedly. She felt the tragedy out there was not
for mortal eyes to look upon. In a few moments she heard the steps pause
before her door. Hands beat lightly upon it.

"Give me back those thirty years!" whimpered the old voice. "They are
mine! You have stolen them from me!"

Abby's hair rose. "Is Marian going mad?" she thought.

But the next morning Miss Webster looked as usual when she appeared,
after her late breakfast in bed, bedecked for her drive to market. She
had modified her mourning, and wore a lavender cheviot, and the parasol
and hat were in harmony with all but herself.

"Poor old caricature!" thought Abby. "She makes me feel young."

A week later, when the maid entered Miss Webster's bedroom at the
accustomed morning hour, she found that the bed had not been occupied.
Nor was her mistress visible. The woman informed Miss Williams at once,
and together they searched the house. They found her in her brother's
room, in the old mahogany bed in which she too had been born. She was
dead. Her gray hair was smooth under her lace nightcap. Her hands were
folded, the nails glistening in the dusky room. Death had come
peacefully, as to her brother. What had taken her there to meet it was
the last mystery of her strange old soul.


III

Again a funeral in the old house, again a crowd of mourners. This time
there was less ostentation of grief, for no one was left worth
impressing. The lakeside people gathered, as before, at the upper end of
the parlor and gossiped freely. "Miss Williams ought to have put the
blond wig on her," said Mrs. Holt. "I am sure that is what Marian would
have done for herself. Poor Marian! She was a good soul, after all, and
really gave liberally to charity. I wonder if she has left Miss Williams
anything?"

"Of course. She will come in for a good slice. Who is better entitled to
a legacy?"

Pertinent question! They exchanged amused glances. Words were
superfluous, but Mrs. Holt continued:

"I think we are pretty sure of our shanties this time; Marian was really
fond of us, and had neither kith nor kin; but I, for one, am going to
make sure of some memento of the famous Webster estate." And she
deliberately opened a cabinet, lifted down a small antique teapot, and
slipped it into her bag.

The others laughed noiselessly. "That is like your humor," said Mrs.
Meeker. Then all bent their heads reverently. The ceremony had begun.

Two days later Miss Williams wandered restlessly up and down the hall
waiting for the evening newspaper. She made no attempt to deceive
herself this time. She thought tenderly of the dead, but she was frankly
eager to learn just what position in the world her old friend's legacy
would give her. Two or three times she had been on the point of going to
a hotel; but deeply as she hated the place, the grip of the years was
too strong. She felt that she could not go until the law compelled her.

"I cannot get the capital for ten months," she thought, "but I can get
the income, or borrow; and I can live in the city, or perhaps - But I
must not think of that."

A boy appeared at the end of the walk. His arms were full of newspapers,
and he rolled one with expert haste. Miss Williams could contain,
herself no further. She ran down the walk. The boy gave the paper a
sudden twist and threw it to her. She caught it and ran up-stairs to her
room and locked the door. For a moment she turned faint. Then she shook
the paper violently apart. She had not far to search. The will of so
important a personage as Miss Webster was necessarily on the first page.
The "story" occupied a column, and the contents were set forth in the
head-lines. The head-lines read as follows:

WILL OF MISS MARIAN WEBSTER
- -
SHE LEAVES HER VAST FORTUNE TO
CHARITY
- -
FOUR MILLIONS THE PRICE OF ETERNAL
FAME
- -
NO LEGACIES

The room whirled round the forgotten woman. She turned sick, then cold
to her marrow. She fell limply to the floor, and crouched there with the
newspaper in her hand. After a time she spread it out on the floor and
spelled through the dancing characters in the long column. Her name was
not mentioned. Those thirty years had outweighed the devotion of more
than half a lifetime. It was the old woman's only revenge, and she had
taken it.

No tears came to Miss Williams's relief. She gasped occasionally. "How
could she? how could she? how could she?" her mind reiterated. "What
difference would it have made to her after she was dead? And I - oh
God - what will become of me?" For a time she did not think of
Strowbridge. When she did, it was to see him smiling into the eyes of
Elinor Holt. Her delusion fell from her in that hour of terrible
realities. Had she read of his engagement in the newspaper before her
she would have felt no surprise. She knew now what had brought him back
to California. Many trifles that she had not noted at the time linked
themselves symmetrically together, and the chain bound the two young
people.

"Fool! fool!" she exclaimed. "But no - thank heaven, I had that one
little dream! - the only one in forty-three years!"

The maid tapped at her door and announced dinner. She bade her go away.
She remained on the floor, in the dark, for many hours. The stars were
bright, but the wind lashed the lake, whipped the trees against the
roof. When the night was half done she staggered to her feet. Her limbs
were cramped and numbed. She opened the door and listened. The lights
were out, the house was still. She limped over to the room which had
been Miss Webster's. That too was dark. She lighted the lamps and
flooded the room with soft pink light. She let down her hair, and with
the old lady's long scissors cut a thick fringe. The hair fell softly,
but the parting of years was obtrusive. A bottle of gum tragacanth stood
on one corner of the dressing-table, and with its contents Abby matted
the unneighborly locks together. The fringe covered her careworn brow,
but her face was pallid, faded. She knew where Miss Webster had kept her
cosmetics. A moment later an array of bottles, jars, and rouge-pots
stood on the table before her.

She applied the white paint, then the red. She darkened her eyelashes,
drew the lip-salve across her pale mouth. She arranged her soft abundant
hair in a loose knot. Then she flung off her black frock, selected a
magnificent white satin dinner-gown from the wardrobe, and put it on.
The square neck was filled with lace, and it hid her skinny throat. She
put her feet into French slippers and drew long gloves up to her elbows.
Then she regarded herself in the Psyche mirror.

Her eyes glittered. The cosmetics, in the soft pink light, were the
tintings of nature and youth. She was almost beautiful.

"That is what I might have been without aid of art had wealth been mine
from the moment that care of nature's gifts was necessary," she said,
addressing her image. "I would not have needed paint for years yet, and
when I did I should have known how to use it! I need not have been old
and worn at forty-three. Even now - even now - if wealth were mine, and
happiness!" She leaned forward, and pressing her finger against the
glass, spoke deliberately; there was no passion in her tones: "When that
letter came twenty-five years ago offering me a home, I wish I had
flouted it, although I did not have five dollars in the world. I wish I
had become a harlot - a harlot! do you hear? Nothing - nothing in life can
be as bad as life empty, wasted, emotionless, stagnant! I have existed
forty-three years in this great, beautiful, multiform world, and I might
as well have died at birth for all that it has meant to me. Nature gave
me abundantly of her instincts. I could have been a devoted wife, a
happy mother, a gay and careless harlot! I would have chosen the first,
but failing that - rather the last a thousand times than this! For then I
should have had some years of pleasure, excitement, knowledge - "

She turned abruptly and started for the door, stopped, hesitated, then
walked slowly to the wardrobe. She unhooked a frock of nun's veiling and
tore out the back breadths. She returned to the mirror and fastened the
soft flowing stuff to her head with several of the dead woman's
ornamental pins.

For a few moments longer she gazed at herself, this time silently. Her
eyes had the blank look of introspection. Then she went from the house
and down to the lake.

The next day the city on the ranchos was able to assure itself
comfortably that Webster Lake had had its tragedy.

Of the Tragedy it knew nothing.




VI

The Tragedy of a Snob


I

The first twenty-three years of Andrew Webb's life were passed in that
tranquillity of mind and body induced by regular work, love of exercise,
and a good digestion. He lived in a little flat in Harlem, with his
widowed mother and a younger sister who was ambitious to become an
instructor of the young and to prove that woman may be financially
independent of man. At that time Andrew's salary of thirty dollars a
week, earned in a large savings-bank of which he was one of many
book-keepers, covered the family's needs. Mr. Webb had died when his son
was sixteen, leaving something under two thousand dollars and a
furnished flat in Harlem. For a time the outlook was gloomy. Andrew left
school and went to work. Good at figures, stoically steady, he rose by
degrees to command a fair remuneration. A brother of Mrs. Webb,
currently known as "Uncle Sandy Armstrong," lived in miserly fashion on
the old homestead in New Jersey. Occasionally he sent his sister a
ten-dollar bill. Mrs. Webb, believing him to be as straitened as
herself, albeit without a family, never applied to him for assistance.
Twice a year she dutifully visited him and put his house in order. Her
children rarely could be induced to accompany her. They detested their
fat garrulous unkempt uncle, and only treated him civilly out of the
goodness of their hearts and respect for their mother. On Christmas Day
he invariably dined with them, and his meagre presents by no means
atoned for his atrocious table-manners.

The family in the flat was a happy one, despite the old carpets, the
faded rep furniture, the general air of rigid economy, and the
inevitable visits of Uncle Sandy. Mrs. Webb was sweet of temper, firm of
character, sound of health. Her cheeks and eyes were faded, her black
dress was always rusty, her general air that of a middle-class
gentlewoman who bore her reverses bravely. Polly was a plump bright-eyed
girl, with a fresh complexion and her mother's evenness of temper. In
spite of her small allowance, she managed to dress in the prevailing
style. She had barely emerged from short frocks when she took a course
of lessons in dress-making, she knew how to bargain, and spent the
summer months replenishing her own and her mother's wardrobe. Mrs. Webb
did the work of the flat, assisted by an Irish maiden who came in by the
day: there was no place in the flat for her to sleep.

Andrew was the idol of the family. He supported them, and he was a
thoroughly good fellow; he had no bad habits, and they had never seen
him angry. His neighbors were regularly made acquainted with the proud
fact that he walked home from his office in lower Broadway every
afternoon in the year, "except Sundays and during his vacation," as his
mother would add. She was a conscientious woman. Moreover, they thought
him very handsome. He was five feet ten, lean, and athletic in
appearance. It is true that his head was narrow and his face cast in a
heavy mould; but there was no superfluous flesh in his cheeks, and his
thick skin was clean. Like his sister, he managed to dress well. He was
obliged to buy his clothes ready-made, but he had the gift of selection.

When the subtle change came, his mother and sister uneasily confided to
each other the fear that he was in love. As the years passed, however,
and he brought them no new demand upon their affections and resources,
they ceased to worry, and finally to wonder. Andrew was not the old
Andrew; but, if he did not choose to confide the reason, his reserve
must be respected. And at least it had affected neither his generosity
nor his good temper. He still spent his evenings at home, listened to
his mother or Polly read aloud, and never missed the little supper of
beer and crackers and cheese before retiring.


II

One morning, while Webb was still one with his little family, he read,
as was usual with him on the long ride down-town, his Harlem edition of
one of the New York dailies. He finished the news, the editorials, the
special articles: nothing was there to upset the equilibrium of his
life. His attention was attracted, as he was about to close the paper,
by a long leaded "story" of a ball given the night before by some people
named Webb. Their superior social importance was made manifest by the
space and type allotted them, by the fact that their function was not
held over for the Sunday issue, and by the imposing rhetoric of the
head-lines.

Andrew read the story with a feeling of personal interest. From that
moment, unsuspected by himself, the readjustment of his mind to other
interests began - the divorce of his inner life from the simple
conditions of his youth.

Thereafter he searched the Society columns for accounts of the doings of
the Webb folk. Thence, by a natural deflection, he became generally
interested in the recreations of the great world: he acquired a habit,
much to his sister's delight, of buying the weekly chronicles of
Society, and all the Sunday issues of the important dailies.

At first the sparkle and splendor, the glamour and mystery of the world
of fashion dazzled and delighted him. It was to him what fairy tales of
prince and princess are to children. For even he, prosaic, phlegmatic,
with nerves of iron and brain of shallows, had in him that germ of the
picturesque which in some natures shoots to high and full-flowered
ideals, in others to lofty or restless ambitions, coupled with a true


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Online LibraryGertrude Franklin Horn AthertonThe Bell in the Fog and Other Stories → online text (page 7 of 14)