Rupert Hughes.

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So Mr. Clute blamed Mrs. Budlong for yet another expense. Husbands
all over town were blaming Mrs. Budlong for running their families
into fool extravagances. Mothers were blaming her for dragging them
round by the nose and leaving them no rest. But everybody in town
resentfully obeyed Mrs. Budlong, though Mrs. Roscoe Detwiller wanted
to organize a HomeKeepers Union, and strike. For the women never
dared trust themselves about the house in a wrapper, since Mrs.
Budlong might happen in as like as not - rather liker than not.

And then, just as the town was fermenting for revolt, Mrs. Budlong
came into a lot of money.




IV

ONLY A MILLIONAIRE

That is, Mr. Budlong came into a lot of money. Which meant that Mr.
Budlong would be permitted to take care of it while his wife got rid of
it. One of those relatives, very common in fiction, and not altogether
unknown in real life, finally let go of her money at the behest of her
impatient undertaker. The Budlongs had the pleasure of seeing the
glorious news of their good fortune in big headlines in the Carthage
papers.

It was the only display Mr. Budlong ever received in that paper without
paying for it - excepting the time when he ran for Mayor on the
opposition ticket and was referred to in letters an inch high as
"Candidate Nipped-in-the-Budlong."

But now the cornucopia of plenty had burst wide open on the front
porch. It seemed as if they would have to wade through gold dollars to
get to their front gate - when the money was collected. When the money
was collected.

And now it was Mrs. Budlong's telephone that rang and rang. It was
she that was called up and called up. It was she that sagged along the
wall and shifted from foot to foot, from elbow to elbow and ear to ear.

After living in Carthage all her life she was suddenly, as it were,
welcomed to the city as a distinguished visiting stranger. And now she
had no need to invite people to return their calls. They came
spontaneously. Sometimes there were a dozen calling at once. It was a
reception every day. There were overflow meetings in the room which
Mrs. Budlong called Mr. Budlong's "den." This was the place where she
kept the furniture that she didn't dare keep in the parlor.

People who had never come to see her in spite of her prehensile
telephone, dropped in to pay up some musty old call that had lain
unreturned for years. People who had always come formally, even
funereally, rushed in as informally and with as devouring an enthusiasm
as old chums. People who used to run in informally now drove up in
vehicles from MacMulkin's livery stable; or if they came in their own
turn-outs they had the tops washed and the harness polished, and the
gardener and furnaceman who drove, had his hat brushed, was not allowed
to smoke, and was urged to sit up straight and for heaven's sake to
keep his foot off the dashboard.

People who had been in the habit of devoting a day or two to cleaning
up a year's social debts and went up and down the streets dropping
doleful calls like wreaths on headstones, walked in unannounced of
mornings. It was now Mrs. Budlong that had to keep dressed up all day.
Everybody accepted the inevitable invitations to have a cup of tea,
till the cook struck. Cook said she had conthracted to cuke for a
small family, not to run a continurous bairbecue. Besides she had to
answer the doorbell so much she couldn't get her hands into the dough,
before they were out again. And dinner was never ready. The amount of
tea consumed and bakery cake and the butter, began to alarm Mrs.
Budlong. And Carthage people were so nervous at taking tea with a
millionairess that they kept dropping cups or setting saucers down too
hard.

Mrs. Budlong had never a moment the whole day long to leave the house,
and she suddenly found herself without a call returned. She had so
many invitations to dinners and luncheons, that her life became a hop,
skip and jump.

During the first ecstasy of the good news, Mrs. Budlong had raved over
the places she was going to travel, - Paris (now pronounced Paree),
London, Vienna, St. Marks, the Lion of Lucerne - she talked like a
handbook of Cook's Tours. To successive callers she told the story
over and over till the rhapsody finally palled on her own tongue. She
began to hate Paree, London, Vienna, St. Marks, and to loathe the Lion
of Lucerne. All she wanted to do was to get out of town to some quiet
retreat. Carthage was no longer quiet. It simmered to the
boiling-over point.

Once it had been Mrs. Budlong's pride to be the social leader of
Carthage. Now that her husband was worth (or to be worth) a hundred
thousand dollars Carthage seemed a very petty parish to be the social
leader of. She began to read New York society notes with expectancy,
as one cons the Baedeker of a town one is approaching.

She lay awake nights wondering what she should wear at Mrs. Stuyvesant
Square's next party and at Mrs. Astor House's sociable. She fretted
the choice whether she should take a letter from her church to St.
Bartholomew's or to Grace or St. John's the Divine's. And all the
while she was pouring tea for the wives of harness makers and
druggists, dentists and grocers.

The more reason for not appearing before them in the same clothes
incessantly. But with a dinner or a reception or a tea or a ball every
night, her two dressy-up dresses became so familiar that at one party
when she was coming downstairs from laying off her cloak people spoke
to her dress before they could see her face. And she could hardly
afford to get new clothes, for after all she had not come into the
money. She had just come at it, or toward it; or as her husband began
to say, tip against it.

Mr. Budlong was kept on such tenterhooks by lawyers and papers to sign,
titles to clear, executors and executrices to consult, and waivers,
deeds, indentures and things that he had no time for his regular
business.

As there is housemaid's knee, and painter's colic, so there is
millionaire's melancholia. And the Budlongs were enduring the illness
without entertaining the microbe.

It is almost as much trouble to inherit money nowadays as to earn it in
the first place. Mr. Budlong was confronted with such a list of
post-mortem debts that must be postpaid for his deceased Aunt Ida that
he almost begrudged her her bit of very real estate in Woodlawn. And
the Budlongs began to think that tombstones were in bad form if
ostentatious. Heirs have notoriously simple tastes in monuments.

They had always accounted Aunt Ida a hard-fisted miser before, but now
she began to look like a slippery-palmed spendthrift. They began
almost to suspect the probity of the poor old maid. Worse yet, they
feared that a later will might turn up bequeathing all her money to
some abominable charity or other. She had been addicted to occasional
subscriptions during her lifetime.

The Budlongs themselves were beginning, even at this distance from
their money-to-be, to suffer its infection, its inevitable reaction on
the character. Those who live beyond their means joyously when their
means are small, become small themselves, when their means get beyond
living beyond. The Budlongs began to figure percentages on sums left
in the bank or put out on mortgages. They began to think money; and
money is money, large or small. Mrs. Budlong began to feel that she
had been unjust to Aunt Ida. What she had called miserliness was
really prudence and thrift and other pleasant-sounding virtues. What
she had called liberality was wanton waste.

Finally her social debts reached such a mass that she decided to give a
large dinner to wipe off a great number at once. But now when she
calculated that the olives, the turkey, the Malaga grapes, the English
walnuts, the salted almonds and a man from the hotel to wait on table,
would total up twenty-five dollars or so, she found herself figuring
how much twenty-five dollars would amount to in twenty-five years at
compound interest.

She grew frantic to be quit of Carthage - to rub it off her visiting
list. Unconsciously her motto became Cato's ruthless _Carthago delenda
est_.

But she could neither delete Carthage from her map, nor free her feet
from its dust. Her husband's business required him yet awhile. Even
to close it up took time. And he would not, and could not, borrow
money on Aunt Ida's estate till he was sure that it was his.

But all the while the festival reveled on. People in Carthage to whom
New York was an inaccessible Carcassone, were now planning to visit
Mrs. Budlong there at the palatial home she had described. Some of
them frankly told her they were coming to see her. Wealth took on a
new discomfort.

Sally Swezey afflicted the telephone with gossip: "As Mrs. Talbot was
saying only yes'day, my dear, so many folks have threatened to visit
you in your home on Fifth Avenue that you'll have to hang hammocks in
your front yard."

And now they had spoiled even her future for her. What pride could she
take in having a gorgeous home on Fifth Avenue with all these Carthage
people rocking on the front porch. Probably some warm evening when
Mrs. Hotel Vanderbilt was driving by in her new barouche, it would be
just like Roscoe Detwiller to turn in at the gate, flounce down on the
top step and sit there with his vest unbuttoned, and his seersucker
coat under his arm, while he mopped the inside of his hat with his
handkerchief.

But that was the discomfort of the morrow. To-day had its own spawn.
One morning she was called to the telephone by the merciless Sallie
Swezey with a new infliction. There was something almost ghoulish in
Mrs. Swezey's cackling glee as she sang out across the wire:

"We're all so glad, my dear, that the next meeting of the Progressive
Euchre is to be at your house."

Mrs. Budlong's chin dropped. She had quite forgotten this. Sallie
chortled on:

"And say, do you know what?"

"What?"

"Everybody says you're going to give solid gold prizes and that even
your booby prize will be handsomer than the first prize was at Mrs.
Detwiller's."

"Ha, ha!" laughed Mrs. Budlong in a tone that sounded just like the
spelling.

Mrs. Budlong's wealth seemed to be accepted as a sort of municipal
legacy. All Carthage assumed to own it in community, and to enjoy it
with her. Her walls rang with the hilarity of her neighbors. But her
laughter took on more and more the sound of icicles snapping from the
eaves of a shed.

She became the logical candidate for all the chief offices in clubs and
societies and circles. She suddenly found herself seven or eight
presidents and at least eleven chairwomen. The richest woman in town
heretofore was Mrs. Foster Herpers, wife of the pole and shaft
manufacturer. He owned about half of the real estate in town, but his
wife had to distill expenses out of him in pennies. With a profound
sigh of relief she resigned all her honors in Mrs. Budlong's favor.

Being president chiefly meant lending one's house for meetings as well
as one's china and tea and sandwiches, and being five dollars ahead of
anybody else in every subscription. Mrs. Budlong was panic-stricken
with her own success, for there is nothing harder to handle than a
dam-break of prosperity.

Worse yet, Mr. Budlong was ceasing to be the meek thing of yore. Every
day was the first of the month with him.

It was well on in November when he flung himself into a Morris chair
one evening and groaned aloud:

"I don't believe Aunt Ida ever left any money. If she did I don't
believe we'll ever get any of it. And if we do, I know we'll not have
a sniff at it before January. One of the lawyers has been called
abroad on another case. We've got to stay in Carthage, at least over
Christmas."

"Christmas!" The word crackled and sputtered in Mrs. Budlong's brain
like a fuse in the dark. The past month had been so packed with other
excitements that she had forgotten the very word. Now it blew up and
came down as if one of her own unstable Christmas trees had toppled
over on her with all its ropes of tinsel, its lambent tapers, and its
eggshell splendors.




V

THE BITER BIT

First, Mrs. Budlong felt amazement that she could have so ignored the
very focus of her former ambition. Then she felt shame at her
unpreparedness. She caught the evening paper out of her husband's
lap to find the date. November ninth and not a Christmas thing
begun. Yet a few days and the news-stands would have apprised her
that Christmas was coming, for by the middle of November all the
magazines put on their holly and their chromos of the three Magi and
their Santa Clauses, as women put on summer straw hats at Easter.

Mrs. Budlong's hands sought and wrung each other as if in mutual
reproach. They had been pouring tea and passing wafers when they
should have been Dorcassing at their Christmas tasks. It had been
left for her husband of all people to warn her that her own special
Bacchanal was imminent.

If he had been a day later, the neighbors would have anticipated him
as well as the magazines. The Christmas idea seemed to strike the
whole town at once. Mrs. Budlong became the victim of her own
classic device of pretending to let slip a secret. The townswomen
shamelessly turned her own formula against her.

Mrs. Detwiller met her at church and said:

"Yesterday morning at eleven I had the most curious presentiment, my
dear. I remember the hour so exactly because I've been making it a
rule to begin work on your Christmas present every morning at - Oh,
but I didn't inTend to let you know. No, dearie, I won't tell you
what it is. But I can't help believing it's Just what you'll need in
New York."

Myra Eppley, with whom Mrs. Budlong had never exchanged Christmas
presents, at all, but with whom an intimacy had sprung up since Mrs.
Budlong came into the reputation of her money - Myra Eppley had the
effrontery to call up on the telephone and say:

"Would you mind telling me, my dear, the shade of wall paper you're
going to have in your New York parlor, because I'm making you the
daintiest little - well, no matter, but will you tell me?"

Poor Mrs. Budlong almost swooned from the telephone. She did not
know what the color of her wall paper would be in New York. She did
not know that she would ever have wall paper in New York. She only
knew that Myra Eppley, too, was calling her "my dear." Myra Eppley
also was going to give her a Christmas present. And would have to be
given one.

Mrs. Budlong had received fair warning, but she felt about as
grateful as a wayfarer feels to the rattlesnake that whizzes "Make
r-r-r-ready for the corrroner-r-r."

Next, young Mrs. Chur (Editha Cinnamon as was, for she had finally
landed Mr. Chur in spite of the accident - or because of it) called up
to say:

"Oh, my dear, my husband wants to know what brand of cigars your
husband smokes; and would you tell me, dearie - it's rather personal,
but - what size bath-slippers you wear?"

When Sally Swezey came to the Progressive Euchre skirmish at Mrs.
Budlong's she noted with joy that her hint had borne fruit. The
prizes were indeed of solid gold. Mr. Budlong did not learn it till
the first of the following month when the bill came in from Jim
Henderson's jewelry store.

As if she had not done enough in forcing solid gold prizes on Mr.
Budlong, Sally had to say:

"I'm just dying to see your back parlor, my dear, this next Christmas
afternoon. It has always been a sight for sore eyes; but this
Christmas it will be a perfect wonder, for I do declare everybody in
town is going to send you something nice."

This conviction was already chilling Mrs. Budlong's marrow. Of old
she would have rejoiced at the golden triumph, but now she could only
realize that if everybody in Carthage sent her something nice, it was
because everybody in Carthage expected something nicer. And her
Christmas crops were hopelessly backward. At a time when she should
be half done, she could not even begin. She had not tatted or
smeared or hammered a thing.




VI

DESPAIR AND AN IDEA

Days and days went by in a stupor of dull hopelessness. Thanksgiving
came and the Budlong turkey might as well have been a crow. In
desperation she decided to make a tentative exploration of the shops
now burgeoning with Christmas splendor; every window a spasm of
gewgaws. Since she had no time to make, she must buy.

The length of her list sent her to the cheaper counters, but she was
not permitted to browse among them. At Strouther and Streckfuss's, Mr.
Strouther came up and said with reeking unctuousness:

"Vat is Mees Bootlonk doink down here amonkst all this tresh? Come see
our importet novelties."

And he led her to a region where the minimum price was MBBA-BDJA, which
meant that it cost 12.25 and could be safely marked down to 23.75.

She eluded him and got back to the 25-cent realm only to be apprehended
by Mr. Streckfuss, who beamed:

"Ah, nothink is here for a lady like you are. Only fine kvality suits
such a taste you got."

By almost superfeminine strength she evaded purchasing anything. She
went to other shops only to be haled to the expensive counters.
Storekeepers simply would not discuss cheap things with the
millionairess-elect.

She crept home and threw herself on her husband's mercy. He had none
and she lighted hard. It was the first of December, and in addition to
his monthly rage, Mr. Budlong was working himself up to his regular
pre-Christmas frenzy, when he always felt poor and talked poorer to
keep the family in check.

His face was a study when he had heard his wife's state of mind.
Forthwith he delivered the annual address on Christmas folly that one
hears from fathers of families all round the world at this time:

"Christmas has quit being a sign of people's affections," Mr. Budlong
thundered. "It has become a public menace. It's worse than Wall
Street. Wall Street is supposed have started as the thermometer of the
country's business and now it's gone and got so goldum big that the
thermometer is makin' the weather. When Wall Street feels muggy it's
got to rain and the sun don't dare shine without takin' a peek at the
thermometer first off.

"Christmas ain't any longer an opportunity to show good will to your
neighbors. It's a time when you got to show off before your neighbors.
You women make yourselves and us men sick the way you carry on all
through December. And the children! - they're worse'n the grown-ups.

"Old-fashioned Christmas was like old-fashioned circuses - mostly meant
for the young ones. Nowadays circuses have growed so big and so
improper that nobody would dast take a child to one, or if you do, they
get crazy notions.

"When I was a boy, if I got a drum and a tin horn I was so happy I
couldn't keep quiet. But last Christmas little Ulie Junior cried all
day because he got a 'leven dollar automobile when he wanted a
areaplane big enough to carry the cat over the barn.

"This Christmas trust business ought to be investigated by the gov'ment
and dissolved. Talk about your tariff schedules! What we need is
somebody to pare down this Christmas gouge. It's the one kind of tax
you can't swear off.

"And as for you - why, you're goin' daffy. Other years I didn't mind so
much. You spent a lot of time and some money on your annual splurge,
but I will say, you took in better'n you gave. But now you're on the
other side the fence. These Carthage women have got you on the run.
You'll have to give 'em twice as good as they send or you're gone.
You're gone anyway. If you gave each one of 'em a gold platter full of
diamonds they'd say you'd inherited Aunt Ida's stinginess as well as
her money."

Mrs. Budlong went on twisting her fingers: "Oh, of course you're right,
Ule. But what's the use of being right when it's so hateful? All I
can think of is that Everybody in town is going to give me a present!
Everybody!"

"Can't you take your last year's presents and pass 'em along to other
folks?"

"Everybody would recognize them, and I'd be the talk of the town."

"You're that anyway, so what difference does it make?"

"I'd rather die."

"You'd save a lot of money and trouble if you did."

"Just look at the list of presents I must give."

She handed him a bundle of papers. He pushed up his spectacles and put
on his reading glasses, and instantly snorted:

"Say! What is this? the town directory?"

He had not read far down the list when he missed one important name.
"You've overlooked Mrs. Alsop."

"Oh, her! I've quarreled with her. We don't speak, thank heaven."

"It would be money In your pocket, if you didn't speak to anybody.
Gosh!" he slapped his knee. "I have an idea. Stop speaking to
everybody."

"Don't he silly."

"I mean it."




VII

FOILED

Ulysses S. G. Budlong was a man fertile in ideas and unflinching in
their execution. Otherwise he would never have attained his present
unquestioned supremacy, as the leading hay and feed merchant in
Carthage.

"It's as easy as falling off a log," he urged. "You women are always
spatting about something. Now's your chance to capitalize your spats."

"Men are such im-boo-hoo-ciles!" was Mrs. Budlong's comment, as she
began to weep. Her husband patted her with a timid awkwardness as if
she were the nose of a strange horse. "There! there! we'll fix this up
fine. What did you quarrel with Mrs. Alsop about?"

"She told Sally Swezey and Sally Swezey told me - that I used my
Carthage presents to send to relatives in other towns."

"She flattered you at that," said Mr. Budlong unconsolingly. "But
don't you dream of forgiving her till after Christmas."

Mrs. Budlong was having such a good cry, and enjoying the optical hath
so heartily, that her grief became very precious to her. It suggested
what a beautiful thing grief is to those who make a fine art of it.

She smiled wet-liddedly. "There is nothing in your idea, Ulie, but it
has suggested a good one to me. I'll announce that I can't celebrate
Christmas because of our great grief for Aunt Ida."

"Great grief!" Mr. Budlong echoed. "Why, you couldn't have celebrated
Aunt Ida's finish more joyous without you'd serenaded her in Woodlawn
with a brass band."

"Ulysses Budlong! you ought to be ashamed of yourself for saying such a
thing!" But she suddenly heard, in fancy, the laugh that would go up
if she sprung such an excuse. She gave in:

"We'll have to quarrel with somebody then. But what excuse is there?"

"Women don't need any real excuse. You simply telephone Sally Swezey
that a certain person told you - and you won't name any names - that she
had been making fun of you and you'd be much obliged if she never spoke
to you again for you'd certainly never speak to her again."

"But how do I know Sally Swezey has been making fun of me?"

"Oh, there ain't any doubt but what everybody in town is doing that."

"Ulysses Budlong! how can you talk so!"

"If people without money couldn't make fun of people with - what
consolation would they have? Anyway, it's not me but the other folks
you're supposed to quarrel with. You spend an hour at that telephone
and you can get the whole town by the ears."

"But I can't use the same excuse for everybody."

"You'll think up plenty once you put your mind to it." And with that
another excuse came in pat. Came in howling and flagrant.

Ulysses Junior burst into the room, as if he had forgotten the presence
of the door. He was yelping like a coyote and from his tiny nose an
astonishing amount of blood was spouting.

"What on earth is the matter!" the startled mother gasped. "Come here
to me, you poor child - -and be careful not to bleed on the new rug."

Ulysses' articulation was impeded with sobs and the oscillations of
three semi-detached teeth, that waved in the breeze as he screamed:
"Little Clarence Detwiller LICKED me! so he did! and I on'y p-pushed
him off his sled into a puddle of ice wa-wa-water and he attackted me
and kicked my f-f-Face-ace off."

Mr. and Mrs. Budlong were so elated with the same idea that they forgot
to console their heart-broken offspring with more than Mr. Budlong's
curt, "First teeth anyway; saves you a trip to the dentist." He nodded
to his wife.

"Just the excuse we were looking for."

"Sent direct from heaven," nodded Mrs. Budlong. "You call up Roscoe
Detwiller this minute and tell him his son has criminal tendencies and
ought to be in jail and will undoubtedly die on the gallows. Then he
won't speak to you to-morrow."

"You bet he won't. He'll just quietly do to me what his boy did to


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Online LibraryRupert HughesMrs. Budlong's Chrismas Presents → online text (page 2 of 4)