Chapter XVIII
 

On that same afternoon, several of the most influential members of the Santa Paloma Woman's Club met informally at Mrs. Carew's house. Some of the directors were there, Miss Pratt, Mrs. Lloyd and Mrs. Adams, and of course Mrs. White, who had indeed been instrumental in arranging the meeting. They had met to discuss Mrs. Burgoyne's plan of using the clubhouse as a meeting place for the Old Paloma factory girls. All these ladies were quite aware that their verdict, however unofficial, would influence the rest of the club, and that what this group of a dozen or fifteen decided upon to-day would practically settle the matter.

Mrs. Willard White, hitherto serenely supreme in this little world, was curiously upset about the whole thing, openly opposed to Mrs. Burgoyne's suggestion, and surprised that her mere wish in the matter was not sufficient to carry a negative vote. Her contention was that the clubhouse had been built for very different purposes than those Mrs. Burgoyne proposed, and that charity to the Old Paloma girls had no part in the club's original reasons for being. She meant, in the course of the argument, to hint that while so many of the actual necessities of decent living were lacking in the factory settlement homes, mere dancing and moving-pictures did not appeal to her as reasonable or right; and although uneasily aware that she supported the unpopular argument, still she was confident of an eventual triumph.

But despite the usual laughter, and the pleasantries and compliments, there was an air of deadly earnestness about the gathered club-women today that bespoke a deeper interest than was common in the matter up for discussion. The President's color rose and deepened steadily, as the afternoon wore on, and one voice after another declared for the new plan, and her arguments became a little less impersonal and a little more sharp. This was especially noticeable when, as was inevitable, the name of Mrs. Burgoyne was introduced.

"I personally feel," said Mrs. White finally, "that perhaps we Santa Paloma women are just a little bit undignified when we allow a perfect stranger to come in among us, and influence our lives so materially, just because she happens to be a multi-millionaire. Are we so swayed by mere money? I hope not. I hope we all live our lives as suits us best, not to please--or shall I say flatter, and perhaps win favor with?--a rich woman. We--some of us, that is!"--her smile was all lenience--"have suddenly decided we can dress more simply, have suddenly decided to put our girls into gingham rompers, and instead of giving them little dancing parties, let them play about like boys! We wonder why we need spend our money on imported hats and nice dinners and hand-embroidered underwear, and Oriental rugs, although we thought these things very well worth having a few months ago--and why? Just because we are easily led, I'm afraid, and not quite conscious enough of our own dignity!"

There had been a decided heightening of color among the listening women during this little speech, and, as the President finished, more than one pair of eyes rested upon her with a slightly resentful steadiness. There was a short silence, in which several women were gathering their thoughts for speech, but Mrs. Brown, always popular in Santa Paloma, from the days of her short braids and short dresses, and quite the youngest among them to-day, was the first to speak.

"I daresay that is quite true, Mrs. White," said Mrs. Brown, with dignity, "except that I don't think Mrs. Burgoyne's money influences me, or any of us! I admit that she herself, quite apart from her great fortune, has influenced me tremendously in lots of ways, but I don't think she ever tried to do it, or realizes that she has. And as far as copying goes, don't we women always copy somebody, anyway? Aren't we always imitating the San Francisco women, and don't they copy New York, and doesn't New York copy London or Paris? We read what feathers are in, and how skirts are cut, and how coffee and salads are served, and we all do it, or try to. And when Mrs. Burgoyne came to the Hall, and never took one particle of interest in that sort of thing, I just thought it over and wondered why I should attempt to impress a woman who could buy this whole town and not miss the money?"

Laughter interrupted her, and some sympathetic clapping, but she presently went on seriously:

"I took all the boys' white socks one day, and dyed them dark brown. And I dyed all their white suits dark blue. I've gotten myself some galatea dresses that nothing tears or spoils, and that come home fresh and sweet from the wash every week. And, as a result, I actually have some time to spare, for the first time since I was married. We are going to try some educational experiments on the children this winter, and, if that leaves any leisure, I am heart and soul for this new plan. Doctor Brown feels as I do. Of course, he's a doctor," said the loyal little wife, "and he knows! And he says that all those Old Paloma girls want is a little mothering, and that when there are mothers enough to go round, there won't be any charity or legislation needed in this world."

"I think you've said it all, for all of us, Mary!" Mrs. Carew said, when some affectionate applause had subsided. "I think things were probably different, a few generations ago," she went on, "but nowadays when fashions are so arbitrary, and change so fast, really and honestly, some of us, whose incomes are limited, will have to stop somewhere. Why, the very children expect box-parties, and motor-trips, and caterers' suppers, in these days. And one wouldn't mind, if it left time for home life, and reading, and family intercourse, but it doesn't. We don't know what our children are studying, what they're thinking about, or what life means to them at all, because we are too busy answering the telephone, and planning clothes, and writing formal notes, and going to places we feel we ought to be seen in. I'm having more fun than I had in years, helping our children plan some abridged plays from Shakespeare, with the Burgoyne girls, for this winter, and I'm perfectly astonished, even though I'm their mother, at their enjoyment of it, and at my own. Mr. Carew himself, who never takes much interest in that sort of thing, asked me why they couldn't give them for the Old Paloma Girls' Club, if they get a club room. I didn't know he even knew anything about our club plans. I said, 'George, are you willing to have Jeannette get interested in that crowd?' and he said, 'Finest thing in the world for her!' and I don't know," finished Mrs. Carew, thoughtfully, "but what he's right."

"I'm all for it," said breezy Mrs. Lloyd, "I don't imagine I'd be any good at actually talking to them, but I would go to the dances, and introduce people, and trot partners up to the wallflowers--"

There was more laughter, and then Mrs. Adams said briskly:

"Well, let's take an informal vote!"

"I don't think that's necessary, Sue," said Mrs. White, generously, "I think I am the only one of us who believes in preserving the tradition of the dear old club, and I must bow to the majority, of course. Perhaps it will be a little hard to see strangers there; our pretty floors ruined, and our pretty walls spotted, but--" an eloquent shrug, and a gesture of her pretty hands finished the sentence with the words, "isn't that the law?"

And upon whole-hearted applause for Mrs. White, Mrs. Carew tactfully introduced the subject of tea.

They were all chatting amicably enough in the dining-room a few minutes later when George Carew and Barry Valentine came in. Barry, who seemed excited, exhilarated and tired, had come to borrow a typewriter from the Carews. He responded to sympathetic inquiries, that he had been working like a madman since noon, and that there would be an issue of the Mail ready for them in the morning. He said, "everyone had been simply corking about everything," and it began to look like smooth sailing now. In the few minutes that he waited for young George Carew to find the typewriter and bring it down to him, a fresh interruption occurred in the entrance of old Mrs. Apostleman.

Mrs. Apostleman, between being out of breath from hurrying up the hill in the late afternoon heat, and fearful that the gathering would break up before she could say what she wanted to say, and entirely unable to control her gasping and puffing, was a sight at once funny and pitiable. As she sank into a comfortable chair she held up one fat hand to command attention, and with the other laid forcible hold upon Barry Valentine. Three or four of the younger women hurried to her with fans and tea, and in a moment or two she really could manage disconnected words.

"Thanks, me dear. No, no cake. Just a mouthful of tea to--there, that's better! I was afraid ye'd all be gone--that'll do, thank ye, Susie! Well," she set down her tea-cup, "well! I've a little piece of news for you all--don't go, Barry, you'll be interested in this, and I couldn't wait to come up and tell ye!" She began to fumble in her bag, and presently produced therefrom her eye-glasses and a letter. The latter she opened with a great crackling of paper.

"This is from me brother, Alexander Wetherall," said she, with an impressive glance over her glasses. "As ye know, he's a family lawyer in New York, he has the histories of half the old families in the country pigeon-holed away in those old offices of his. He doesn't write me very often; his wife does now and then--stupid woman, but nice. However, I wrote him in May, and told him Mrs. Burgoyne had bought the Hall, and just asked him what he knew about her and her people. Here--"marking a certain line with a pudgy, imperative finger, she handed a page of the letter to Barry, "read from there on," she commanded, "this is what he says."

Barry took the paper, but hesitated.

"It's all right!" said the old lady, impatiently, "nobody could say anything that wasn't good about Sidney Burgoyne."

Thus reassured, Barry turned obediently to the indicated place.

"'You ask me about your new neighbor,'" he read, "'I suppose of course you know that she is Paul Frothingham's only child by his second marriage. Her mother died while she was a baby, and Frothingham took her all over the world with him, wherever he went. She married very young, Colonel John Burgoyne, of the Maryland family, older than she, but a very fine fellow. As a girl and as his wife she had an extraordinary opportunity for social success, she was a great favorite in the diplomatic circle at Washington, and well known in the best London set, and in the European capitals. She seems to be quite a remarkable young woman, but you are all wrong about her money; she is very far from rich. She--'"

Barry stopped short. Mrs. Apostleman cackled delightedly; no one else stirred.

"'She got very little of Frothingham's money,'" Barry presently read on, '"it came to him from his first wife, who was a widow with two daughters when he married her. The money naturally reverted to her girls, Mrs. Fred Senior and Mrs. Spencer Mack, both of this city.'"

"Ha! D'ye get that?" said Mrs. Apostleman. "Go on!"

"'Frothingham left his own daughter something considerably less than a hundred thousand dollars,'" Barry presently resumed, "'not more than seventy or eighty thousand, certainly. It is still invested in the estate. It must pay her three or four thousand a year. And besides that she has only Burgoyne's insurance, twenty or twenty- five thousand, for those years of illness pretty well used up his own money. I believe the stepsisters were very anxious to make her a more generous arrangement, but she seems to have declined it. Alice says they are quite devoted--'"

"Alice don't count!" said the old lady "that's his wife. That's enough." She stopped the reader and refolded the letter, her mischievous eyes dancing. "Well, what d'ye think of that?" she demanded.

Barry's bewildered, "Well, I will be darned!" set loose a babel of tongues. Mrs. Apostleman had not counted in vain upon a sensation; everyone talked at once. Mrs. White's high, merry laugh dominated all the other voices.

"So there is a very much better reason for this simple-dinner-blue- gingham existence than we supposed," said the President of the Santa Paloma Women's Club amusedly when the first rush of comment died away. "I think that is quite delicious! While all of us were feeling how superior she was not to get a motor, and not to rebuild the Hall, she was simply living within her income, and making the best of it!"

"I don't know that it makes her any less superior," Mrs. Carew said thoughtfully. "It--it certainly makes her seem--nicer. I never suspected her of--well, of preaching, exactly, but I have sometimes thought that she really couldn't enter into our point of view, with all that money! I think I'm going to like her more than ever!" she finished laughingly.

"Why, it's the greatest relief in the world!" exclaimed Mrs. Adams. "I've been rather holding back about going up there, and imitating her, because I honestly didn't want to be influenced by eight millions, and I was afraid. I was. Not a week ago Wayne asked me if I thought she'd like him to donate a sewing machine to her Girls' Club for them to run up their little costumes with--he has the agency, you know--and I said, 'Oh, don't, Wayne, she can buy them a sewing machine apiece if she wants to, and never know it!' But I'm going to make him write her, to-night," said Mrs. Adams, firmly, "and I declare I feel as if a weight had dropped off my shoulders. It means so much more now, if we offer her the club. It means that we aren't merely giving a Lady Bountiful her way, but that we're all working together like neighbors, and trying to do some good in the world."

"And I don't think there's any question that she would live exactly this way," Miss Pratt contributed shyly, "and play with the children, and dress as she does, even if she had fifty millions! She's simply found out what pays in this life, and what doesn't pay, and I think a good many of us were living too hard and fast ever to stop and think whether it was really worth while or not. She's the happiest woman I ever knew; it makes one happy just to be with her, and no money can buy that."

"But it's curious she never has taken the trouble to undeceive us," said Mrs. White beginning to fit on an immaculate pair of white gloves, finger by finger.

"Why--you'll see!--She never dreamed we thought she was anything but one of ourselves." Mrs. Brown predicted. "Why should she? When did she ever speak of money, or take the least interest in money? She never speaks of it. She says 'I can't afford the time, or I can't afford the effort,' that's what counts with her. Doesn't it, Barry?"

"Barry, do you really suppose--" Mrs. Carew was beginning, as she turned to the doorway where he had been standing.

But Barry had gone.