The Rich Mrs. Burgoyne by Kathleen Thompson Norris
The new mistress of the Hall, in her vigorous young interest in all things, included naturally a keen enjoyment of the village love affairs, she liked to hear the histories of the old families all about, she wanted to know the occupants of every shabby old surrey that drew up at the post-office while the mail was being "sorted." But if the conversation turned to mere idle talk and speculation, she was conspicuously silent. And upon an occasion when Mrs. Adams casually referred to a favorite little piece of scandal, Mrs. Burgoyne gave the conversation a sudden twist that, as Mrs. White, who was present, said later, "made you afraid to call your soul your own."
"Do you tell me that that pretty little Thorne girl is actually meeting this young man, whoever he is, while her mother thinks she is taking a music lesson?" demanded Mrs. Burgoyne, suddenly entering into the conversation. "There's nothing against him, I suppose? She could see him at home."
"Oh, no, he's a nice enough little fellow," Mrs. White said, "but she's a silly little thing, and I imagine her people are very severe with her; she never goes to dances or seems to have any fun."
"I wonder if we couldn't go see the mother, and hint that there is beginning to be a little talk about Katherine," mused Mrs. Burgoyne. "Don't you think so, Mrs. Adams?"
"Oh, my goodness!" Mrs. Adams said nervously, "I don't know anything about it! I wouldn't for the world--I never dreamed--one would hate to start trouble--Mr. Adams is very fond of the Thornes--"
"But we ought to save her if we can, we married women who know how mischievous that sort of thing is," Mrs. Burgoyne urged.
"Why, probably they've not met but once or twice!" Mrs. White said, annoyed, but with a comfortable air of closing the subject, and no more was said at the time. But both she and Mrs. Adams were a little uneasy two or three days later, when, returning from a motor trip, they saw Mrs. Burgoyne standing at the Thornes' gate, in laughing conversation with pretty little Katherine and her angular, tall mother.
"And there is nothing in that story at all," said Mrs. Burgoyne later, to Mrs. Carew.
"I suppose you walked up and said, 'If you are Miss Thorne, you are clandestinely meeting Joe Turner down by the old mill every week!'" laughed Mrs. Carew,
"I managed it very nicely," Mrs. Burgoyne said, "I admired their yellow rose one day, as I passed the gate. Mrs. Thorne was standing there, and I asked if it wasn't a Banksia. Then the little girl came out of the house, and she happened to know who I am--"
"Astonishingly bright child!" said Mrs. Carew.
"Well, and then we talked roses, and the father came home--a nice old man. And I asked him if he'd lend me Miss Thorne now and then to play duets--and he agreed. So the child's been up to the Hall once or twice, and she's a nice little thing. She doesn't care tuppence for the Turner boy, but he's musical, and she's quite music-mad, and now and then they 'accidentally' meet. Her father won't let anyone see her at the house. She wants to study abroad, but they can't afford it, I imagine, so I've written to see if I can interest a friend of mine in Berlin--But why do you smile?" she broke off to ask innocently.
"At the thought of your friend in Berlin!" said Mrs. Carew audaciously. For she was not at all awed by Mrs. Burgoyne now.
Indeed, she and Mrs. Brown were growing genuinely fond of their new neighbor, and the occupants of the Hall supplied them with constant amusement and interest. Great lady and great heiress Sidney Burgoyne might be, but she lived a life far simpler than their own, and loved to have them come in for a few minutes' talk even if she were cutting out cookies, with Joanna and Ellen leaning on the table, or feeding the chickens whose individual careers interested her so deeply. She walked with the little girls to school every morning, and met them near the school at one o'clock. In the meantime she made a visit to the Mail office, and perhaps spent an hour or two there, or in the markets; but at least three times a week she wandered over to Old Paloma, and spent the forenoon in the dingy streets across the river. What she did there, perhaps no one but Doctor Brown, who came to have a real affection and respect for her, fully appreciated. Mrs. Burgoyne would tell him, when they met in some hour of life or death, that she was "making friends." It was quite true. She was the type of woman who cannot pass a small child in the street. She must stop, and ask questions, decide disputes and give advice. And through the children she won the big brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers of Old Paloma. Even a deep-rooted prejudice against the women of her class and their method of dealing with the less fortunate could not prevail against her disarming, friendly manner, her simple gown and hat, her eagerness to get the new baby into her arms; all these told in her favor, and she became very popular in the shabby little settlement across the bridge. She would sit at a sewing-machine and show old Mrs. Goodspeed how to turn a certain hem, she would prescribe barley-water and whey for the Barnes baby, she would explain to Mrs. Ryan the French manner of cooking tough meat, it is true; but, on the other hand, she let pale little discouraged Mrs. Weber, of the Bakery, show her how to make a German potato pie, and when Mrs. Ryan's mother, old Mrs. Lynch, knitted her a shawl, with clean, thin old work-worn hands, the tears came into her bright eyes as she accepted the gift. So it was no more than a neighborly give-and-take after all. Mrs. Burgoyne would fall into step beside a factory girl, walking home at sunset. "How was it today, Nellie? Did you speak to the foreman about an opening for your sister?" the rich, interested voice would ask. Or perhaps some factory lad would find her facing him in a lane. "Tell me, Joe, what's all this talk of trouble between you and the Lacy boys at the rink?"
"I'm a widow, too," she reminded poor little Mrs. Peevy, one day, "I understand." "Do let me send you the port wine I used to take after Ellen was born," she begged one little sickly mother, and when she loaned George Manning four hundred dollars to finish his new house, and get his wife and babies up from San Francisco, the transaction was made palatable to George by her encouraging: "Everyone borrows money for building, I assure you. I know my father did repeatedly."
When more subtle means were required, she was still equal to the occasion. It was while Viola Peet was in the hospital for a burned wrist that Mrs. Burgoyne made a final and effective attempt to move poor little Mrs. Peet out of the bedroom where she had lain complaining, ever since the accident that had crippled her and killed her husband five years before. Mrs. Burgoyne put it as a "surprise for Viola," and Mrs. Peet, whose one surviving spark of interest in life centred in her three children, finally permitted carpenters to come and build a porch outside her dining-room, and was actually transferred, one warm June afternoon, to the wide, delicious hammock-bed that Mrs. Burgoyne had hung there. Her eyes, dulled with staring at a chocolate wall-paper, and a closet door, for five years, roved almost angrily over the stretch of village street visible from the porch; the perspective of tree-smothered roofs and feathery elm and locust trees.
"'Tisn't a bit more than I'd do for you if I was rich and you poor," said Mrs. Peet, rebelliously.
"Oh, I know that!" said Mrs. Burgoyne, busily punching pillows.
"An', as you say, Viola deserves all I c'n do for her," pursued the invalid. "But remember, every cent of this you git back."
"Every cent, just as soon as Lyman is old enough to take a job," agreed Mrs. Burgoyne. "There, how's that? That's the way Colonel Burgoyne liked to be fixed."
"You're to make a note of just what it costs," persisted Mrs. Peet, "this wrapper, and the pillers, and all."
"Oh, let the wrapper be my present to you, Mrs. Peet!"
"No, ma'am!" said Mrs. Peet, firmly. And she told the neighbors, later, in the delightfully exciting afternoon and evening that followed her installation on the porch, that she wasn't an object of charity, and she and Mrs. Burgoyne both knew it. Mrs. Burgoyne would not stay to see Viola's face, when she came home from the hospital to find her mother watching the summer stars prick through the warm darkness, but Viola came up to the Hall that same evening, and tried to thank Mrs. Burgoyne, and laughed and cried at once, and had to be consoled with cookies and milk until the smiles had the upper hand, and she could go home, with occasional reminiscent sobs still shaking her bony little chest.
"What are you trying to do over there?" asked Dr. Brown, coming in with his wife for a rubber of bridge, as Viola departed. "Whereever I go, I come across your trail. Are we nursing a socialist in our bosom?"
"No-o-o, I don't think I'm that," said Sidney laughing, and pushing the porch-chairs into comfortable relation. "Let's sit out here until Mr. Valentine comes. No, I'm not a socialist. But I can't help feeling that there's some solution for a wretched problem like that over there," a wave of the hand indicated Old Paloma, "and perhaps, dabbling aimlessly about in all sorts of places, one of us may hit upon it."
"But I thought the modern theory was against dabbling," said Mrs. Brown, a little timidly, for she held a theory that she was not "smart." "I thought everything was being done by institutions, and by laws--by legislation."
"Nothing will ever be done by legislation, to my thinking at least," Mrs. Burgoyne said. "A few years ago we legislated some thousands of new babies into magnificent institutions. Nurses mixed their bottles, doctors inspected them, nurses turned them and washed them and watched them. Do you know what percentage survived?"
"Doesn't work very well," said the doctor, shaking a thoughtful head over his pipe.
"Just one hundred per cent didn't survive!" said Mrs. Burgoyne. "Now they take a foundling or an otherwise unfortunate baby, and give it to a real live mother. She nurses it if she can, she keeps near to it and cuddles it, and loves it. And so it lives. In all the asylums, it's the same way. Groups are getting smaller and smaller, a dozen girls with a matron in a cottage, and hundreds of girls 'farmed out' with good, responsible women, instead of enormous refectories and dormitories and schoolrooms. And the ideal solution will be when every individual woman in the world extends her mothering to include every young thing she comes in contact with; one doll for her own child and another doll for the ashman's little girl, one dimity for her own debutante, and another just as dainty for the seventeen-year-old who brings home the laundry every week."
"Yes, but that's puttering here and there," asserted Mrs. Brown, "wouldn't laws for a working wage do all that, and more, too?"
"In the first place, a working wage doesn't solve it," Mrs. Burgoyne answered vigorously, "because in fully half the mismanaged and dirty homes, the working people have a working wage, have an amount of money that would amaze you! Who buys the willow plumes, and the phonographs, and the enlarged pictures, and the hair combs and the white shoes that are sold by the million every year? The poor people, girls in shops, and women whose babies are always dirty, and always broken out with skin trouble, and whose homes are hot and dirty and miserable and mismanaged."
"Well, make some laws to educate 'em then, if it's education they all need," suggested the doctor, who had been auditing every clause of the last remark with a thoughtful nod.
"No, wages aren't the question," Mrs. Burgoyne reiterated. "Why, I knew a little Swedish woman once, who raised three children on three hundred dollars a year."
"She couldn't!" ejaculated Mrs. Brown.
"Oh, but she did! She paid one dollar a week for rent, too. One son is a civil engineer, now, and the daughter is a nurse. The youngest is studying medicine."
"But what did they eat, do you suppose?"
"Oh, I don't know. Potatoes, I suppose, and oatmeal and baked cabbage, and soup. I know she got a quart of buttermilk every day, for three cents. They were beautiful children. They went to free schools, and lectures, and galleries, and park concerts, and free dispensaries, when they needed them. Laws could do no more for her, she knew her business."
"Well, education would solve it then," concluded Mrs. Brown.
"I don't know." Mrs. Burgoyne answered, reflectively, "Book education won't certainly. But example might, I believe example would."
"You mean for people of a better class to go and live among them?" suggested the doctor.
"No, but I mean for people of a better class to show them that what they are striving for isn't vital, after all. I mean for us to so order our lives that they will begin to value cleanliness, and simplicity, and the comforts they can afford. You know, Mary Brown," said Mrs. Burgoyne, turning suddenly to the doctor's wife, with her gay, characteristic vehemence, "it's all our fault, all the misery and suffering and sin of it, everywhere!"
"Our fault! You and me!" cried Mrs. Brown, aghast.
"No, all the fault of women, I mean!" Mrs. Burgoyne laughed too as Mrs. Brown settled back in her chair with a relieved sigh. "We women," she went on vigorously, "have mismanaged every separate work that was ever put into our hands! We ought to be ashamed to live. We cumber--"
"Here!" said the doctor, smiling in lazy comfort over his pipe, "that's heresy! I refuse to listen to it. My wife is a woman, my mother, unless I am misinformed, was another--"
"Don't mind him!" said Mrs. Brown, "but go on! What have we all done? We manage our houses, and dress our children, and feed our husbands, it seems to me."
"Well, there's the big business of motherhood," began Mrs. Burgoyne, "the holiest and highest thing God ever let a mortal do. We evade it and ignore it to such an extent that the nation--and other nations-- grows actually alarmed, and men begin to frame laws to coax us back to the bearing of children. Then, if we have them, we turn the entire responsibility over to other people. A raw little foreigner of some sort answers the first questions our boys and girls ask, until they are old enough to be put under some nice, inexperienced young girl just out of normal school, who has fifty or sixty of them to manage, and of whose ideas upon the big questions of life we know absolutely nothing. We say lightheartedly that 'girls always go through a trying age,' and that we suppose boys 'have to come in contact with things,' and we let it go at that! We 'suppose there has always been vice, and always will be,' but we never stop to think that we ourselves are setting the poor girls of the other world such an example in the clothes we wear, and the pleasures we take, that they will sell even themselves for pretty gowns and theatre suppers. We regret sweat-shops, even while we patronize the stores that support them, and we bemoan child-labor, although I suppose the simplest thing in the world would be to find out where the cotton goes that is worked by babies, and refuse to buy those brands of cotton, and make our merchants tell us where they do get their supply! We have managed our household problem so badly that we simply can't get help--"
"You cannot do your own work, with children," said Mrs. Brown firmly.
"Of course you can't. But why is it that our nice young American girls won't come into our homes? Why do we have to depend upon the most ignorant and untrained of our foreign people? Our girls pour into the factories, although our husbands don't have any trouble in getting their brothers for office positions. There is always a line of boys waiting for a possible job at five dollars a week."
"Because they can sleep at home," submitted the doctor.
"You know that, other things being equal, young people would much rather not sleep at home," said Mrs. Burgoyne, "it's the migrating age. They love the novelty of being away at night."
"Well, when a boy comes into my office," the doctor reasoned slowly, "he knows that he has certain unimportant things to do, but he sees me taking all the real responsibility, he knows that I work harder than he does."
"Exactly," said Mrs. Burgoyne. "Men do their own work, with help. We don't do ours. Not only that, but every improvement that comes to ours comes from men. They invent our conveniences, they design our stoves and arrange our sinks. Not because they know anything about it, but because we're not interested."
"One would think you had done your own work for twenty years!" said Mrs. Brown.
"I never did it," Mrs. Burgoyne answered smiling, "but I sometimes wish I could. I sometimes envy those busy women who have small houses, new babies, money cares--it must be glorious to rise to fresh emergencies every hour of your life. A person like myself is handicapped. I can't demonstrate that I believe what I say. Everyone thinks me merely a little affected about it. If I were such a woman, I'd glory in clipping my life of everything but the things I needed, and living like one of my own children, as simply as a lot of peasants!"
"And no one would ever be any the wiser," said Mrs. Brown.
"I don't know. Quiet little isolated lives have a funny way of getting out into the light. There was that little peasant girl at Domremy, for instance; there was that gentle saint who preached poverty to the birds; there was Eugenie Guerin, and the Cure of Ars, and the few obscure little English weavers--and there was the President who split--"
"I thought we'd come to him!" chuckled the doctor.
"Well," Mrs. Burgoyne smiled, a little confused at having betrayed hero-worship. "Well, and there was one more, the greatest of all, who didn't found any asylums, or lead any crusade--" She paused.
"Surely," said the doctor, quietly. "Surely. I suppose that curing the lame here, and the blind there, and giving the people their fill of wine one day, and of bread and fishes the next, might be called 'dabbling' in these days. But the love that went with those things is warming the world yet!"
"Well, but what can we do?" demanded Mrs. Brown after a short silence.
"That's for us to find out," said Mrs. Burgoyne, cheerfully.
"A correct diagnosis is half a cure," ended the doctor, hopefully.