The Rich Mrs. Burgoyne by Kathleen Thompson Norris
From the moment of her arrival in Santa Paloma, when she stood on the station platform with a brisk spring wind blowing her veil about her face, and a small and chattering girl on each side of her, Mrs. Burgoyne seemed inclined to meet the friendly overtures of her new neighbors more than half-way. She remembered the baggage-agent's name from her visit two weeks before--"thank Mr. Roberts for his trouble, Ellen"--and met the aged driver of the one available carriage with a ready "Good afternoon, Mr. Rivers!" Within a week she had her pew in church, her box at the post-office, her membership in the library, and a definite rumor was afloat to the effect that she had invested several thousand dollars in the Mail, and that Barry Valentine had bought the paper from old Rogers outright; and had ordered new rotary presses, and was at last to have a free hand as managing editor. The pretty young mistress of Holly Hall, with her two children dancing beside her, and her ready pleased flush and greeting for new friends, became a familiar figure in Santa Paloma's streets. She was even seen once or twice across the river, in the mill colony, having, for some mysterious reason, immediately opened the bridge that led from her own grounds to that unsavory region.
She was not formal, not unapproachable, as it had been feared she might be. On the contrary, she was curiously democratic. And, for a woman straight from the shops of Paris and New York, her clothes seemed to the women of Santa Paloma to be surprising, too. She and her daughters wore plain ginghams for every day, with plain wide hats and trim serge coats for foggy mornings. And on Sundays it was certainly extraordinary to meet the Burgoynes, bound for church, wearing the simplest of dimity or cross-barred muslin wash dresses, with black stockings and shoes, and hats as plain--far plainer!--as those of the smallest children. Except for the amazing emeralds that blazed beside her wedding ring, and the diamonds she sometimes wore, Mrs. Burgoyne might have been a trained nurse in uniform.
"It is a pose," said Mrs. Willard White, at the club, to a few intimate friends. "She's probably imitating some English countess. Englishwomen affect simplicity in the country. But wait until we see her evening frocks."
It was felt that any formal calling upon Mrs. Burgoyne must wait until the supposedly inevitable session with carpenters, painters, paper-hangers, carpet-layers, upholsterers, decorators, furniture dealers, and gardeners was over at the Hall. But although the old house had been painted and the plumbing overhauled before the new owner's arrival, and although all day long and every day two or three Portuguese day-laborers chopped and pruned and shouted in the garden, a week and then two weeks slipped by, and no further evidences of renovation were to be seen.
So presently callers began to go up to the Hall; first Mrs. Apostleman and Mrs. White, as was fitting, and then a score of other women. Mrs. Apostleman had been the social leader in Santa Paloma when Mrs. White was little Clara Peck, a pretty girl in the High School, whose rich widowed mother dressed her exquisitely, and who was studying French, and could play the violin. But Mrs. Apostleman was an old woman now, and had been playing the game a long time, and she was glad to put the sceptre into younger hands. And she could have put it into none more competent than those of Mrs. Willard White.
Mrs. White was a handsome, clever woman, of perhaps six-or seven- and-thirty. She had been married now for seventeen years, and for all that time, and even before her marriage, she had been the most envied, the most admired, and the most copied woman in the village. Her mother, an insipid, spoiled, ambitious little woman, whose fondest hope was realized when her dashing daughter made a financially brilliant match, had lost no time in warning the bride that the agonies of motherhood, and the long ensuing slavery, were avoidable, and Clara had entirely agreed with her mother's ideas, and used to laughingly assure the few old friends who touched upon this delicate topic, that she herself "was baby enough for Will!" Robbed in this way of her natural estate, and robbed by the size of her husband's income from the exhilarating interest of making financial ends meet, Mrs. White, for seventeen years, had led what she honestly considered an enviable and carefree existence. She bought beautiful clothes for herself, and beautiful things for her house, she gave her husband and her mother very handsome gifts. She was a perfect hostess, although it must be admitted that she never extended the hospitalities of her handsome home to anyone who did not amuse her, who was not "worth while". She ruled her servants well, made a fine president for the local Women's Club, ran her own motor-car very skillfully, and played an exceptionally good game of bridge. She was an authority upon table-linens, fancy needlework, fashions in dress, new salads, new methods in serving the table.
Willard White, as perfect a type in his own way as she was in hers, was very proud of her, when he thought of her at all, which was really much less often than their acquaintances supposed. He liked his house to be nicely managed, spent his money freely upon it, wanted his friends handsomely entertained, and his wine-cellar stocked with every conceivable variety of liquid refreshment. If Clara wanted more servants, let her have them, if she wanted corkscrews by the gross, why, buy those, too. Only let a man feel that there was a maid around to bring him a glass when he came in from golfing or motoring, and a corkscrew with the glass!
As a matter of fact, his club and his office, and above all, his motor-cars, absorbed him. His natural paternal instinct had been diverted toward these latter, and, quite without his knowing it, his cars were his nursery. Willard White had owned the first electric car ever seen in Santa Paloma. Later, there had been half-a-dozen machines, and he loved them all, and spoke of them as separate entities. He spoke of the runs they had made, of the strains they had triumphantly sustained, and he and his chauffeur held low-toned conferences over any small breakage, with the same seriousness that he might have used had Willard Junior--supposing there to have been such a little person--developed croup, and made the presence of a physician necessary. He liked to glance across his lawn at night to the commodious garage, visible in the moonlight, and think of his treasures, locked up, guarded, perfect in every detail, and safe.
He and Mrs. White always spoke of Santa Paloma as a "jay" town, and compared it, to its unutterable disadvantage, to other and larger cities, but still, business reasons would always keep them there for the greater part of the year, and they were both glad to hear that a fabulously wealthy widow, and a woman prominent in every other respect as well, had come to live in Santa Paloma. Mrs. White determined to play her game very carefully with Mrs. Burgoyne; there should be no indecent hurry, there should be no sudden overtures at friendship. "But, poor thing! She will certainly find our house an oasis in the desert!" Mrs. White comfortably decided, putting on the very handsomest of her afternoon gowns to go and call formally at the Hall.
Mrs. Burgoyne and the little girls were always most cordial to visitors. They spent these first days deep in gardening, great heaps of fragrant dying weeds about them, and raw vistas through the pruned trees already beginning to show the gracious slopes of the land, and the sleepy Lobos down beneath the willows. The Carew children and the little Browns were often there, fascinated by the outdoor work, as children always are, and little Billy Valentine squirmed daily through his own particular gap in the hedge, and took his share of the fun with a deep and silent happiness. Billy gave Mrs. Burgoyne many a heartache, with his shock of bright, unbrushed hair, his neglected grimed little hands, his boyish little face that was washed daily according to his own small lights, with surrounding areas of neck and ears wholly overlooked, and his deep eyes, sad when he was sad, and somehow infinitely more pathetic when he was happy. Sometimes she stealthily supplied Billy with new garters, or fastened the buttons on his blue overalls, or even gave him a spoonful of "meddy" out of a big bottle, at the mere sight of which Ellen shuddered sympathetically; a dose which was always followed by two marshmallows, out of a tin box, by way of consolation. But further than this she dared not go, except in the matter of mugs of milk, gingerbread, saucer-pies, and motherly kisses for any bump or bruise.
The village women, coming up to the Hall, in the pleasant summer afternoons, were puzzled to find the old place almost unchanged. Why any woman in her senses wanted to live among those early-Victorian horrors, the women of Santa Paloma could not imagine. But Mrs. Burgoyne never apologized for the old walnut chairs and tables, and the old velvet carpets, and the hopelessly old-fashioned white lace curtains and gilt-framed mirrors. Even Captain Holly's big clock-- "an impossibly hideous thing," Mrs. White called the frantic bronze horses and the clinging tiger, on their onyx hillside--was serenely ticking, and the pink china vases were filled with flowers. And there was an air of such homely comfort, after all, about the big rooms, such a fragrance of flowers, and flood of sunny fresh air, that the whole effect was not half as bad as it might be imagined; indeed, when Mammy Curry, the magnificent old negress who was supreme in the kitchen and respected in the nursery as well, came in with her stiff white apron and silver tea-tray, she seemed to fit into the picture, and add a completing touch to the whole.
Very simply, very unpretentiously, the new mistress of Holly Hall entered upon her new life. She was a woman of very quiet tastes, devoted to her little girls, her music, her garden and her books. With the negress, she had one other servant, a quiet little New England girl, with terrified, childish eyes, and a passionate devotion to her mistress and all that concerned her mistress. Fanny had in charge a splendid, tawny-headed little boy of three, who played happily by himself, about the kitchen door, and chased chickens and kittens with shrieks of delight. Mrs. Burgoyne spoke of him as "Fanny's little brother," and if the two had a history of any sort, it was one at which she never hinted. She met an embarrassing question with a readiness which rather amused Mrs. Brown, on a day when the two younger ladies were having tea with Mrs. Apostleman, and the conversation turned to the subject of maids.
"--but if your little girl Fanny has had her lesson, you'll have no trouble keepin' her," said Mrs. Apostleman.
"Oh, I hope I shall keep Fanny," said Mrs. Burgoyne, "she comes of such nice people, and she's such a sweet, good girl."
"Why, Lord save us!" said the old lady, repentantly, "and I was almost ready to believe the child was hers!"
"If Peter was hers, she couldn't be fonder of him!" Mrs. Burgoyne said mildly, and Mrs. Brown choked on her tea, and had to wipe her eyes.
In the matter of Fanny, and in a dozen other small matters, the independence of the great lady was not slow in showing itself in Mrs. Burgoyne. Santa Paloma might be annoyed at her, and puzzled by her, but it had perforce to accept her as she stood, or ignore her, and she was obviously not a person to ignore. She declined all invitations for daytime festivities; she was "always busy in the daytime," she said. No cards, no luncheons, no tea-parties could lure her away from the Hall, although, if she and the small girls walked in for mail or were down in the village for any other reason, they were very apt to stop somewhere for a chat on their way home. But the children were allowed to go nowhere alone, and not the smartest of children's parties could boast of the presence of Joanna and Ellen Burgoyne.
Santa Paloma children were much given to parties, or rather their parents were; and every separate party was a separate great event. The little girls wore exquisite hand-made garments, silken hose and white shoes. Professional entertainers, in fashionably darkened rooms, kept the little people amused, and professional caterers supplied the supper they ate, or perhaps the affair took the shape of a box-party for a matinee, and a supper at the town's one really pretty tea-room followed. These affairs were duly chronicled in the daily and weekly papers, and perhaps more than one matron would have liked the distinction of having Mrs. Burgoyne's little daughters listed among her own child's guests. Joanna and Ellen were pretty children, in a well-groomed, bright-eyed sort of way, and would have been popular even without the added distinction of their ready French and German and Italian, their charming manners, their naive references to other countries and peoples, and their beautiful and distinguished mother.
But in answer to all invitations, there came only polite, stilted little letters of regret, in the children's round script. "Mother would d'rather we shouldn't go to a sin-gul party until we are young ladies!" Ellen would say cheerfully, if cross-examined on the subject, leaving it to the more tactful Joanna to add, "But Mother thanks you just as much." They were always close to their mother when it was possible, and she only banished them from her side when the conversation grew undeniably too old in tone for Joanna and Ellen, and then liked to keep them in sight, have them come in with the tea-tray, or wave to her occasionally from the river bank.
"We've been wondering what you would do with this magnificent drawing-room," said Mrs. White, on her first visit. "The house ought to take a colonial treatment wonderfully--there's a remarkable man in San Francisco who simply made our house over for us last year!"
"It must have been a fearful upheaval," said Mrs. Burgoyne, sympathetically.
"Oh, we went away! Mr. White and I went east, and when we came back it was all done."
"Well, fortunately," said the mistress of Holly Hall cheerfully, as she sugared Mrs. Apostleman's cup of tea, "fortunately all these things of Mrs. Holly's were in splendid condition, except for a little cleaning and polishing. They used to make things so much more solid, don't you think so? Why, there are years of wear left in these carpets, and the chairs and tables are like rocks! Captain Holly apparently got the very best of everything when he furnished this place, and I reap the benefit. It's so nice to feel that one needn't buy a chair or a bed for ten years or more, if one doesn't want to!"
"Dear, sweet people, the Hollys," said Mrs. White, pleasantly, utterly at a loss. Did people of the nicer class speak of furniture as if it were made merely to be useful? "But what a distinct period these things belong to, don't they?" she asked, feeling her way. "So--so solid!"
"Yes, in a way it was an ugly period," said Mrs. Burgoyne, placidly. "But very comfortable, fortunately. Fancy if he had selected Louis Quinze chairs, for example!"
Mrs. White gave her a puzzled look, and smiled.
"Come now, Mrs. Burgoyne," said she, good-naturedly, "Confess that you are going to give us all a surprise some day, and change all this. One sees," said Mrs. White, elegantly, "such lovely effects in New York"
"In those upper Fifth Avenue shops--ah, but don't you see lovely things!" the other woman assented warmly. "Of course, one could be always changing," she went on. "But I like associations with things- -and changing takes so much time! Some day we may think all this quite pretty," she finished, with a contented glance at the comfortable ugliness of the drawing-room.
"Oh, do you suppose we shall really!" Mrs. White gave a little incredulous laugh. She was going pretty far, and she knew it, but as a matter of fact, she was entirely unable to believe that there was a woman in the world who could afford to have what was fashionable and expensive in household furnishings or apparel, and who deliberately preferred not to have it. That her own pretty things were no sooner established than they began to lose their charm for her, never occurred to Mrs. White: she was a woman of conventional type, perfectly satisfied to spend her whole life in acquiring things essentially invaluable, and to use a naturally shrewd and quick intelligence in copying fashions of all sorts, small and large, as fast as advanced merchants and magazines presented them to her. She was one of the great army of women who help to send the sale of an immoral book well up into the hundreds of thousands; she liked to spend long afternoons with a box of chocolates and a book unfit for the touch of any woman; a book that she would review for the benefit of her friends later, with a shocked wonder that "they dare print such things!" She liked to tell a man's story, and the other women could not but laugh at her, for she was undeniably good company, and nobody ever questioned the taste of anything she ever said or did. She was a famous gossip, for like all women, she found the private affairs of other people full of fascination, and, having no legitimate occupation, she was always at liberty to discuss them.
Yet Mrs. White was not at all an unusual woman, and, like her associates, she tacitly assumed herself to be the very flower of American womanhood. She quoted her distinguished relatives on all occasions, the White family, in all its ramifications, supplied the correct precedent for all the world; there was no social emergency to which some cousin or aunt of Mrs. White's had not been more than equal. Having no children of her own, she still could silence and shame many a good mother with references to Cousin Ethel Langstroth's "kiddies", or to Aunt Grace Thurston's wonderful governess.
Personally, Mrs. White vaguely felt that there was something innately indecent about children anyway, the smaller they were the less mentionable she found them. The little emergencies, of nose- bleeds and torn garments and spilled porridge, that were constantly arising in the neighborhood of children, made her genuinely sick and faint. And she had so humorous and so assured an air of saying "Disgusting!" or "Disgraceful!" when the family of some other woman began to present itself with reasonable promptness, that other women found themselves laughing and saying "Disgusting!" too.
Mrs. Burgoyne, like Mrs. White, was a born leader. Whether she made any particular effort to influence her neighbors or not, they could not but feel the difference in her attitude toward all the various tangible things that make a woman's life. She was essentially maternal, wanted to mother all the little living and growing things in the world, wanted to be with children, and talk of them and study them. And she was simple and honest in her tastes, and entirely without affectation in her manner, and she was too great a lady to be either laughed at or ignored. So Santa Paloma began to ask itself why she did this or that, and finding her ways all made for economy and comfort and simplicity, almost unconsciously copied them.