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velvet, a chair brought by Clem; and that he had weakly chatted away a
pleasant hour or two without ever once daring to bring Miss Caroline's
evil state to that attention which it merited from her. His difficulty
seemed to have been similar to that experienced by the calling ladies.
He could observe no opening that promised anything but an ungracious
plunge or an awkward stumble, and the ladies had been wrong in
suspecting that his authority as a cleric would nerve him to either of
these things.

There was despair next day when it was known that he had come away even
lavisher in praise of Miss Caroline than Aunt Delia had become; that he
refused with a gentle but unbreakable stubbornness, a thing he was known
to be cursed with latently, ever again to approach the lady with a
concealed purpose or with aught in his heart but a warm and flagrant

So much for the public's knowledge; and doubtless the public in every
case knows all that it ought to know. But these are the facts as they
came to my privileged ears, and to what, I believe, are gifts of
interpretation not below the average.

When Clem brought the chair for the minister, Miss Caroline gave him a
brief, low-toned order, which he hurried away to execute. Within ten
minutes, and before Miss Caroline had finished telling how altogether
beautiful she found Arcady of the Little Country, Clem returned, bearing
breast-high a napkin-covered tray, from which towered twin pillars of
glass, topped with fragrant leafage and pierced each by a yellow straw.
This tray he placed upon the table beside the poems of Lord Byron, and
the minister permitted himself an oblique look thereat, even though this
involved deserting the eyes of his agreeable hostess. The ice in the
glasses tinkled a brief phrase of music, the tops burgeoned with a
luxuriant summer green, and the straws were of a sweetly pastoral
suggestiveness. The fragrance moved one to the heart of some
spice-scented dell where a brooklet purled down a pebbled course. The
ensemble was indeed overwhelming in its message of a refreshment joyous,
satisfying, timely, and of a consummate innocence.

"The day is warm," said Miss Caroline, receiving one of the glasses from
her servant, and with a bright look at her guest.

"It is intensely warm, and quite unusually so for this time of year,"
said the minister, absently taking the other glass now proffered him.

"We shall combat it," said Miss Caroline with some vivacity. She
delicately applied her lips to the straw, and a slight depression
appeared in each of her acceptable cheeks.

"A cooling beverage at this hour is most grateful," said the minister,
rejoicing in the icy feel of the glass, and falling hopefully to his own

"Clem makes them perfectly," said Miss Caroline.

"What do you call them?" asked the minister. He had relinquished his
straw, and his kind face shone with a pleased surprise.

"Why, mint juleps," replied Miss Caroline, glancing quickly up.

"Ah, mint! that explains it," said the minister with satisfaction, his
broad face clearing of a slight bewilderment.

"Clem found a beautiful patch of it by a spring half a mile up the
river," volunteered Miss Caroline, between dainty pulls at her straw.

"It is a lovely plant - a _lovely_ plant, indeed!" rejoined the minister,
for a moment setting down his glass to wipe his brow. "I remember now
detecting the same fragrance when I watered my horse at that spring. But
I did not dream that it - I wonder - " he broke off, taking up his
glass - "that its virtues are not more widely apprehended. I have never
heard that an acceptable beverage might be made from it."

"Not every one can make a mint julep as Clem can," said his hostess.

A moist and futile splutter from the bottom of the minister's glass was
his only reply.

He set the glass back on the table with a pleasant speculation showing
in his eyes. The talk became again animated. Chiefly the minister
talked, and his hostess found him most companionable.

"Let me offer you another julep," she said, after a little, noting that
his eyes had swept the empty glass with a chastened blankness. The
minister let her.

"If it would not be troubling you - really? The heat is excessive, and I
find that the mint, simple herb though it be, is strangely salutary."

The minister was a man of years and weight and worth. He possessed a
reliant simplicity that put him at once close to those he met. Of these,
by his manner, he asked all: confidence without reserve, troubles,
doubts, distresses, material or otherwise. And this manner of his
prevailed. The hearts of his people opened to him as freely as his own
opened to receive them. He was a good man and, partly by reason of this
ingenuous, unsuspicious mind, an invaluable instrument of grace.

When he had talked to Miss Caroline through the second
julep, - digressing only to marvel briefly again that the properties of
mint should so long have been Nature's own secret in Little
Arcady, - telling her his joys, his griefs, his interests, which were but
the joys and griefs and interests of his people, he wrought a spell upon
her so that she in turn became confiding.

She was an Episcopalian. Her line had been born Episcopalians since a
time whereof no data were obtainable; and this was, of course, not a
condition to meddle with in late life, even if one's mind should grow
consenting. For that matter, Miss Caroline would be frank and pretend to
no change of mind. She was an old woman and fixed. She could not at this
day free herself of a doubtless incorrect notion that the outside
churches - meaning those not Episcopal - had been intended for people
other than her own family and its offshoots. Clem had once been a
Baptist, and it was true that he was now a Methodist. He had told her
that his new religion was distinguished from the old by being "dry
religion". But these were intricacies with which a woman of Miss
Caroline's years could not be expected to entangle herself. This she
would say, however, that during her residence in Little Arcady she would
fling aside the prejudice of a lifetime and worship each Sabbath at the
minister's Methodist church.

It did not seem to the minister that she said it as might an explorer
who consents for a time to adopt the manner and customs of the tribe
among which a spirit of adventure has led him. He accepted her implied
tribute modestly and with unaffected gratification, again wiping his
brow and his broad, good face.

When I joined them at four o'clock, having been moved by hope of a
cooling chat with Miss Caroline, the minister was slightly more flushed,
I thought, than the day could warrant. He was about to leave, was, in
fact, concluding his choicest anecdote of "Big Joe" Kestril - for he was
a man who met all our kinds. "Big Joe," six feet, five, a tower of
muscled brawn, standing on a corner, pleasantly inebriated, had watched
go feebly by the tottering, palsied form of little old Bolivar Kent, our
most aged and richest man. The minister, also passing, had observed
Kestril's humorous stare.

"The big fellow called to me," he was saying to Miss Caroline as I came
up. "'Parson,' said he - they all know me familiarly, madam - 'Parson,'
said he, 'I wish I could take all I'm worth and all old Kent is worth
and put it in a bunch on the sidewalk there and then fight the old cuss
for it!'"

It was a favorite anecdote of the minister's, but I had never known him
before to tell it to a lady on the occasion of his first call. Miss
Caroline laughed joyously as she turned to greet me.

"I can't tell you how finely I've been entertained," she said to me.

"Nor can I tell him for myself, madam," retorted the minister. I thought
indeed he spoke with an effort that made this gallantry seem not
altogether baseless in fact.

"I was on the point of leaving," said the minister.

"Are you returning home, or have you more calls in the neighborhood?" I
asked, feeling just a tinge of uneasiness about his expansive manner.

"No more calls, no. I had planned, instead, a pleasant walk up along the
riverside to a spring some distance above. I mean to procure a supply of
this delicious mint - for mint juleps," he added affably.

"Come with me," I urged. I was about to walk out myself. Together we
bade adieu to Miss Caroline.

But the minister's walk ended at my own door. In the cool gloom of my
little library I asked him if he would be good enough to excuse me a
moment, indicating the broad couch beneath the window.

"With pleasure, Major!" and he sank among the restful pillows. "I am
ashamed to say that the heat has rendered me a trifle indolent".

When I came softly back five minutes later, he lay in deep slumber, his
face cherubically innocent, his breathing soft as a babe's. He awoke
freshly two hours later. He apologized for his rudeness and expressed a
wish for a glass of cool water. Three of these he drank with evidences
of profound relish. Then he drew his large silver watch from his pocket.

"On my word, Major, it's after six, and I shall be late for tea! I have
trespassed shamefully upon you!"

"The heat was very trying," I said.

"Quite enervating, indeed! I seem only now to be feeling its effects."

As he walked briskly down the now cooling street, he bared his brow to
the gentle breeze of evening.

To the ladies, solicitous about Miss Caroline, who called upon him a few
days later, he said, "She is a most admirable and lovely woman - not at
all a person one could bring one's self to address on the painful
subject of intoxicants. Had she offered me a glass of wine or other
stimulant, a way might have been opened, but I am delighted to say that
her hospitality went no farther than this innocent beverage." The
minister indicated on his study table a glass containing sweetened
ice-water in which some leaves of mint had been submerged.

"It is called a mint julep," he added, "though I confess I do not get
the same delicate tang from the herb that her black fellow does. As he
prepared the decoction I assure you its flavor was capital!"



Miss Caroline dutifully returned the calls that were paid her, with
never a suspicion that her slavery to strong drink had been the secret
inspiration of them. She was not yet awake to our sentiments in this
matter. She had given strong waters to the minister with a heart as
innocent as their disguise of ice and leafage had made them actually
appear to that good man. And I, who was well informed, hesitated to warn
her, hoping weakly that she would come to understand. For I had seen
there were many things that Miss Caroline had not to be told in order to

For one, she had quickly divined that the ladies of Little Arcady
considered her furniture to be unfortunate. She knew that they scorned
it for its unstylishness; that some of them sympathized in the
humiliation that such impossible stuff must be to her; while others
believed that she was too unsophisticated to have any proper shame in
the matter. These latter strove by every device to have her note the
right thing in furniture and thus be moved to contrast it instructively
with her own: as when Mrs. Judge Robinson borrowed for an afternoon Aunt
Delia McCormick's best blue plush rocker, Mrs. Westley Keyts's new sofa,
upholstered with gorgeous ingrain, and Mrs. Eubanks's new black walnut
combination desk and bookcase with brass trimmings and little spindled
balconies, in which could be elegantly placed the mineral specimens
picked up along the river bank, and the twin statuettes of the fluting
shepherd and his inamorata. As Mrs. Judge Robinson herself possessed new
and high-priced furniture, including a gold-and-onyx stand to occupy the
bay window and uphold the Rogers group, "Going for the Parson," as well
as two fragile gilt chairs, which considerate guests would not sit in
but leave exposed to view, and a complete new set of black walnut, the
effect that day - which included a grand smell of varnish - was nothing
less than sumptuous.

The occasion was a semi-monthly meeting of the Ladies' Home Study and
Culture Club, at which Miss Caroline was to be present. There had been a
suspension of the Club's meetings while Mrs. Potts was in abeyance, but
on this day she was to enter the world again and preside over the
meeting as "Madam President," though the ladies sometimes forgot to call
her that.

The paper read by Mrs. Potts - who was not at all ineffective in her
black - was on "The Lake Poets," with a few pointed selections from
Wordsworth and others.

Whether or not Miss Caroline was rightly impressed by the furniture
exhibit was a question not easy to determine. True, she stared at it
with something in her eyes beyond a mere perception of its lines; but
whether this was the longing passion of an awakened soul or the simple
awe of the unenlightened was not to be ascertained at the moment.

Testimony as to her enjoyment of the President's paper was more
circumstantial. In the midst of this, as the listeners were besought to
"dwell a moment on this exquisite delineation of Nature," - expertly
pronounced "Nate-your" by Mrs. Potts, - Miss Caroline turned her head
aside as one deeply moved by the poet's magic. But Marcella Eubanks,
glancing at that moment into a mirror on the opposite wall, - a mirror in
a plush frame on which pansies had been painted, - caught the full and
frank exposure of a yawn. It was a thorough yawn. Miss Caroline had
surrendered abjectly to it, in the belief - unrecking the mirror - that
she could not be detected.

The discussion that followed the paper - as was customary at the
meetings - proved to be a bit livelier. Each lady said something she had
thought up to say, beginning, "Does it not seem - " or "Are we not forced
to conclude - "

I suspect that Miss Caroline was sleepy. Perhaps she was nettled by the
boredom she had been made to endure without just provocation; perhaps
the fashionable fumes of varnish had been toxic to her unaccustomed
senses. At any rate she now compromised herself regrettably.

Mrs. Westley Keyts had been thinking up something to say, something
choice that should yet be sufficiently vague not to incriminate her. It
had seemed that these requirements would be met if she said, in a tone
of easy patronage, "Mr. Wordsworth is certainly a very bright writer of
poetry, but as for me - give _me_ Shakspere!"

She had thought of saying "the Bard of Avon," a polished phrase coined
for his "Compendium" by the ingenious Mr. Gaskell; but, hearing her own
voice strangely break the silence, Mrs. Keyts became timid at the last
moment and let it go at "Shakspere."

"Oh, Shakspere - of _course_!" said most of the ladies at once, and those
not quick enough to utter it concertedly looked it almost reprovingly at
the speaker.

A silence fell, as if every one must have time to recover from this
trivial platitude. But it was a silence outrageously shattered by Miss
Caroline, who said: -

"O dear! I've always considered Shakspere such an overrated man!"

The silence grew more intense, only Mrs. Potts emitting a slight but
audible gasp. But swift looks flashed from each lady to her horrified
sisters. Was it possible that the unfortunate woman had been in no
condition to come among them?

"Oh, a _greatly_ overrated man!" repeated Miss Caroline, terribly, "far
too wordy - too fond of wretched puns - so much of his humor coarse and
tiresome. By the way, have you ladies taken up Byron?"

The moment was charged, almost to explosion. A crisis impended, out of
the very speechlessness of the gathering. Mrs. Potts was aghast in
behalf of William Shakspere, and Marcella Eubanks was crimsoning at the
blunt query about Byron, well knowing that he could be taken up by a
lady only with the wariest caution, and that he would much better be let
alone. The others were torn demoralizingly between these two extremes of

But the situation was saved by the ready wit of Mrs. Judge Robinson.

"I think the hour has come for refreshments, Madam President!" she said
urbanely, and the meeting was nervously adjourned. Under the animation
thus induced an approximate equilibrium was restored. The ladies gulped
down chicken salad, many of them using forks with black thread tied
about them to show they were borrowed from Mrs. Eubanks. They drank
lemonade from a fine glass pitcher that had come as a gratuitous mark of
esteem from the tea merchant patronized by the hostess; and they
congealed themselves pleasantly with vanilla ice-cream eaten from dishes
of excellent pressed glass that had come one by one as the Robinson
family consumed its baking powder.

But Miss Caroline would have been dense indeed had she not divined, even
amid that informal babbling, that she was being viewed by the ladies of
the Club with a shocked stupefaction.

Precisely what emotion this knowledge left with her I have never known.
But I do know that before the meeting broke up, it had been agreed to
hold the next one at the house of Miss Caroline herself. It may be that
she suggested and urged this in pure desperation, wishing to regain a
favor which she had felt unaccountably withdrawn; and it may be that the
ladies accepted in a similar desperation, knowing not how to inform her
that she was grossly ineligible for membership in a Home Study Club.

The intervening two weeks were filled with tales and talks of Miss
Caroline's heresy. Excitement and adverse criticism were almost
universally aroused. It was a scandal of proportions almost equal to
that of her love for strong drink. About most writers one could be
permitted to have an opinion. But it was not thought that one could
properly have an opinion about Shakspere, and, so far as we knew, no one
had ever before subjected him to this indignity. One might as well have
an opinion about Virtue or the law of gravitation. An opinion of any
sort was impossible. One favorable would be puny, futile, immodestly
patronizing. An unfavorable opinion had heretofore not been within
realms of the idlest speculation.

There were but two of us, I believe, who did not promptly condemn Miss
Caroline's violence of speech - two men of varying parts. Westley Keyts
frankly said he had never been able to "get into" Shakspere, and
considered it, as a book for reading purposes, inferior to "Cudjo's
Cave," which he had read three times. The minister, whose church Miss
Caroline now patronized, - that term being chosen after some
deliberation, - held up both his hands at the news and mildly exclaimed,
"Well!" Then, after a pause, "Well, well!" And still again, after
another pause, "Well, well, well!"

This was thought to be shifty and evasive - certainly not so outspoken as
the town had a right to expect.

Solon Denney, though in his heart true to Shakspere, affected to be
gleeful. A paragraph, mysterious to many, including Miss Caroline,
appeared in the ensuing _Argus_: -

"An encounter long supposed by scientists to be a mere metaphysical
abstraction of almost playful import has at last occurred in sober
physics. The irresistible force has met up with the immovable body. We
look for results next week."

I knew that Solon considered Miss Caroline to be an irresistible force.
I was uncertain whether Shakspere or Mrs. Potts was meant by the
immovable body. I knew that he held them in equal awe, and I knew that
Mrs. Potts felt, in a way, responsible for Shakspere this far west of
Boston, regarding any attack upon him as a personal affront to herself.

On the day of the next meeting the ladies of the Club gathered in the
dingy and inelegant drawing-room of Miss Caroline. No vividly flowered
carpet decked the floor; only a time-toned rug that left the outer edge
of the floor untidily exposing its dull stain; no gilt and onyx table
bore its sculptured fantasy by the busy Rogers. The mantel and shelves
were bare of those fixed ornaments that should decorate the waste places
of all true homes; there were no flint arrow-heads, no "specimens," no
varnished pine cones, no "Rock of Ages," no waxen lilies, not even a
china cup goldenly emblazoned with "Love the Giver," in German script.
And there were no beautiful chairs with delicate gilded spindles - not an
elegant and impracticable chair in the whole big room - not one chair
which could not be occupied as comfortably as any common kitchen rocker.
It was indeed a poor place; obviously the woman's best room, yet showing
careless traces of almost daily use. To ladies who never opened their
best rooms save to dust and air them on days when company was expected,
and who would as soon have lounged in them informally as they would have
desecrated a church, this laxity was heinous.

And ordinarily, in the best rooms of one another, the ladies became
spontaneously, rigidly formal as they assembled, speaking in tones
suitably stiff of the day's paper, or viewing with hushed esteem those
art treasures that surrounded them.

But so difficult was it to attain this formality amid the homely
surroundings of Miss Caroline that to-day they not only lounged with
negligent ease in the big chairs and on the poor, broad sofas, but they
talked familiarly of their household concerns quite as if they had been
in one of their own second-best rooms on any common day.

On a table in one cool corner was a huge bowl of thin silver, whence
issued a baffling fragrance. Discreet observation, as the throng
gathered, revealed this to contain a large block of ice and a colored
liquid in which floated cherries with slices of lemon and orange. A
ladle of generous lines reposed in the bowl, and circling it on the
table were many small cups.

There was a feeling of relief when these details had been ascertained.
Fear had been felt that Miss Caroline might forget herself and offer
them a glass of wine, or something worse, from a large black bottle; for
Little Arcady believed, in its innocent remoteness, that the devil's
stuff came in no other way than large black bottles. Miss Eubanks had
made sure that the ladies wore their white ribbons. Marcella's own satin
bow was larger than common, so that no one might mistake the principles
of the heart beating beneath it.

But the cool big bowl with its harmless fruit restored confidence at
once, and when Miss Caroline urged them to try Clem's punch they
refrained not. The walk to the north end of town on a sultry afternoon
had qualified them to receive its consolations, and they gathered
gratefully about.

Marcella Eubanks quaffed the first beaker, a trifle timorously, it is
true, for the word "punch" had stirred within her a vague memory of
sinister associations. Sometime she had read a tale in which one Howard
Melville had gone to the great city and wrecked a career of much promise
by accepting a glass of something from the hands of a beautiful but
thoughtless girl, pampered child of the banker with whom he had secured
a position. For a dread moment Marcella seemed to recall that the fatal
draught was named "punch." But after a tentative sip of the compound at
hand, she decided that it must have been something else - doubtless "a
glass of sparkling wine." For this punch before her was palpably of a
babe's innocence. Indeed it tasted rather like an inferior lemonade. But
it was cold, and Marcella tossed off a second cup of it. She could make
better lemonade herself, and she murmured slightingly of the stuff to
Aunt Delia McCormick.

"It wants more lemons and more sugar," said Marcella, firmly. Aunt Delia
pressed back the white satin bow on her bosom in order to manage her
second glass with entire safety.

"I don't know, Marcella," she said in a dreamy undertone, after draining
the cup to its cherry. "I don't know - it does seem to take hold, for all
it tastes so trifling."

As each lady arrived she was led to the punch-bowl. When the last one
had been taught the way to that cool nook, there was a pleasant hum of
voices in the room. There was still an undercurrent of difference as to
the punch's merit - other than mere coolness; though Miss Eubanks now
agreed with Aunt Delia that it possessed virtues not to be discerned in
the first careless draught. The conversation continued to be general, to
the immense delight of the hostess, for she had dreaded the ordeal of
that formal opening, with its minutes of the last meeting; and she had
dared even to hope that the day's paper might, by tactful management, be

She waxed more daringly hopeful when Clem came to refill the punch-bowl.
She felt that she owed much to the heat of the day, which was insuring
the thirst of the arrivals. The punch and general conversation seemed to

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Online LibraryHarry Leon WilsonThe Boss of Little Arcady → online text (page 12 of 20)