Austin's Girl by Kathleen Thompson Norris
In the blazing heat of a July afternoon, Mrs. Cyrus Austin Phelps, of Boston, arrived unexpectedly at the Yerba Buena rancho in California. She was the only passenger to leave the train at the little sun-burned platform that served as a station, and found not even a freight agent there, of whom to ask the way to Miss Manzanita Boone's residence. There were a few glittering lizards whisking about on the dusty boards, and a few buzzards hanging motionless against the cloudless pale blue of the sky overhead. Otherwise nothing living was in sight.
The train roared on down the valley, and disappeared. Its last echo died away. All about was the utter silence of the foot-hills. The even spires of motionless redwood trees rose, dense and steep, to meet the sky-line with a shimmer of heat. The sun beat down mercilessly, there was no shadow anywhere.
Mrs. Phelps, trim, middle-aged, richly and simply dressed, typical of her native city, was not a woman to be easily disconcerted, but she felt quite at a loss now. She was already sorry that she had come at all to Yerba Buena, sorry that, in coming, she had not written Austin to meet her. She already disliked this wide, silent, half-savage valley, and already felt out of place here. How could she possibly imagine that there would not be shops, stables, hotels at the station? What did other people do when they arrived here? Mrs. Phelps crisply asked these questions of the unanswering woods and hills.
After a while she sat down on her trunk, though with her small back erect, and her expression uncompromisingly stern. She was sitting there when Joe Bettancourt, a Portuguese milkman, happened to come by with his shabby milk wagon, and his lean, shaggy horses, and-- more because Joe, not understanding English, took it calmly for granted that she wished to drive with him, than because she liked the arrangement--Mrs. Phelps got him to take her trunk and herself upon their way. They drove steadily upward, through apple orchards that stretched in hot zigzag lines, like the spokes of a great wheel, about them, and through strips of forest, where the corduroy road was springy beneath the wagon wheels, and past ugly low cow sheds, where the red-brown cattle were already gathering for the milking.
"You are taking me to Mr. Boone's residence?" Mrs. Phelps would ask, at two-minute intervals. And Joe, hunched lazily over the reins, would respond huskily:
"Sure. Thaz th' ole man."
And presently they did turn a corner, and find, in a great gash of clearing, a low, rambling structure only a little better than the cow sheds, with wide, unpainted porches all about it, and a straggling line of out-houses near by. A Chinese cook came out of a swinging door to stare at the arrival, two or three Portuguese girls, evidently house-servants, entered into a cheerful, nasal conversation with Joe Bettancourt, from their seats by the kitchen door, and a very handsome young woman, whom Mrs. Phelps at first thought merely another servant came running down to the wagon. This young creature had a well-rounded figure, clad in faded, crisp blue linen, slim ankles that showed above her heavy buckled slippers, and a loosely-braided heavy rope of bright hair. Her eyes were a burning blue, the lashes curled like a doll's lashes, and the brows as even and dark as a doll's, too. She was extraordinarily pretty, even Mrs. Phelps could find no fault with the bright perfection of her face.
"Don't say you're Mother Phelps!" cried this young person, delightedly, lifting the older woman almost bodily from the wagon. "But I know you are!" she continued joyously. "Do you know who I am? I'm Manzanita Boone!"
Mrs. Phelps felt her heart grow sick within her. She had thought herself steeled for any shock,--but not this! Stricken dumb for a moment, she was led indoors, and found herself listening to a stream of gay chatter, and relieved of hat and gloves, and answering questions briefly and coldly, while all the time an agonized undercurrent of protest filled her heart: "He cannot--he shall not marry her!"
Austin was up at the mine, of course, but Miss Boone despatched a messenger for him in all haste. The messenger was instructed to say merely that Manzanita had something she wanted to show him, but the simple little ruse failed. Austin guessed what the something was, and before he had fairly dismounted from his wheeling buckskin, his mother heard his eager voice: "Mater! Where are you! Where's my mother?"
He came rushing into the ranch-house, and caught her in his arms, laughing and eager, half wild with the joy of seeing his mother and his girl in each other's company, and too radiant to suspect that his mother's happiness was not as great as his own.
"You got my letter about our engagement, mater? Of course,--and you came right on to meet my girl yourself, didn't you? Good little mater, that was perfectly great of you! This is just about the best thing that ever--and isn't she sweet--do you blame me?" He had his arm about Manzanita, their eyes were together, his tender and proud, the girl's laughing and shy,--they did not see Mrs. Phelps's expression. "And what did you think?" Austin rushed on, "Were you surprised? Did you tell Cornelia? That's good. Did you tell every one--have the home papers had it? You know, mother," Austin dropped his voice confidentially, "I wasn't sure you'd be awfully glad,-- just at first, you know. I knew you would be the minute you saw Manz'ita; but I was afraid--But now, it's all right,--and it's just great!"
"But I thought Yerba Buena was quite a little village, dear," said Mrs. Phelps, accusingly.
"What's the difference?" said Austin, cheerfully, much concerned because Manzanita was silently implying that he should remove his arm from her waist.
"Why, I thought I could stay at a hotel, or at least a boarding- house--" began his mother. Miss Boone laughed out. She was a noisy young creature.
"We'll 'phone the Waldorf-Astoria," said she.
"Seriously, Austin--" said Mrs. Phelps, looking annoyed.
"Seriously, mater," he met her distress comfortably, "you'll stay here at the ranch-house. I live here, you know. Manz'ita'll love to have you, and you'll get the best meals you ever had since you were born! This was certainly a corking thing for you to do, mother!" he broke off joyfully. "And you're looking awfully well!"
"I find you changed, Austin," his mother said, with a delicate inflection that made the words significant. "You're brown, dear, and bigger, and--heavier, aren't you?"
"Why don't you say fat?" said Manzanita, with a little push for her affianced husband. "He was an awfully pasty-looking thing when he came here," she confided to his mother. "But I fed him up, didn't I, Aus?" And she rubbed her cheek against his head like a little friendly pony.
"And he's going to marry her!" Mrs. Phelps said to herself, heartsick. She felt suddenly old and discouraged and helpless; out of their zone of youth and love. But on the heels of despair, her courage rose up again. She would save Austin while there was yet time, if human power could do it.
The three were sitting in the parlor, a small, square room, through whose western windows the sinking sun streamed boldly. Mrs. Phelps had never seen a room like this before. There was no note of quaintness here; no high-boy, no heavy old mahogany drop-leaf table, no braided rugs or small-paned windows. There was not even comfort. The chairs were as new and shining as chairs could be; there was a "mission style" rocker, a golden-oak rocker, a cherry rocker, heavily upholstered. There was a walnut drop-head sewing-machine on which a pink saucer of some black liquid fly-poison stood. There was a "body Brussels" rug on the floor. Lastly, there was an oak sideboard, dusty, pretentious, with its mirror cut into small sections by little, empty shelves.
It all seemed like a nightmare to poor little Mrs. Phelps, as she sat listening to the delighted reminiscences of the young people, who presently reviewed their entire acquaintanceship for her benefit. It seemed impossible that this was her Austin, this big- voiced, brown, muscular young man! Austin had always been slender, and rather silent. Austin had always been so close to her, so quick to catch her point of view. He had been nearer her even than Cornelia--
Cornelia! Her heart reached Cornelia's name with a homesick throb. Cornelia would be home from her club or concert or afternoon at cards now,--Mrs. Phelps did not worry herself with latitude or longitude,--she would be having tea in the little drawing-room, under the approving canvases of Copley and Gilbert Stuart. Her mother could see Cornelia's well-groomed hands busy with the Spode cups and the heavy old silver spoons; Cornelia's fine, intelligent face and smooth dark head well set off by a background of rich hangings and soft lights, polished surfaces, and the dull tones of priceless rugs.
"I beg your pardon?" she said, rousing herself.
"I asked you if you didn't have a cat-fit when you realized that Aus was going to marry a girl you never saw?" Manzanita repeated with friendly enjoyment. Mrs. Phelps gave her only a few seconds' steady consideration for answer, and then pointedly addressed her son.
"It sounds very strange to your mother, to have you called anything but Austin, my son," she said.
"Manz'ita can't spare the time," he explained, adoring eyes on the girl, whose beauty, in the level light, was quite startling enough to hold any man's eyes.
"And you young people are very sure of yourselves, I suppose?" the mother said, lightly, after a little pause. Austin only laughed comfortably, but Manzanita's eyes came suddenly to meet those of the older woman, and both knew that the first gun had been fired. A color that was not of the sunset burned suddenly in the girl's round cheeks. "She's not glad we're engaged!" thought Manzanita, with a pang of utter surprise. "She knows why I came!" Mrs. Phelps said triumphantly to herself.
For Mrs. Phelps was a determined woman, and in some ways a merciless one. She had been born with Bostonian prejudices strong within her. She had made her children familiar, in their very nursery days, with the great names of their ancestors. Cornelia, when a plain, distinguished-looking child of six, was aware that her nose was "all Slocumb," and her forehead just like "great-aunt Hannah Maria Rand Babcock's." Austin learned that he was a Phelps in disposition, but "the image of the Bonds and the Baldwins." The children often went to distinguished gatherings composed entirely of their near and distant kinspeople, ate their porridge from silver bowls a hundred years old, and even at dancing-school were able to discriminate against the beruffled and white-clad infants whose parents "mother didn't know." In due time Austin went to a college in whose archives the names of his kinsmen bore an honorable part; and Cornelia, having skated and studied German cheerfully for several years, with spectacles on her near-sighted eyes, her hair in a club, and a metal band across her big white teeth, suddenly blossomed into a handsome and dignified woman, who calmly selected one Taylor Putnam Underwood as the most eligible of several possible husbands, and proceeded to set up an irreproachable establishment of her own.
All this was as it should be. Mrs. Phelps, a bustling little figure in her handsome rich silks, with her crisp black hair severely arranged, and her crisp voice growing more and more pleasantly positive as years went by, fitted herself with dignity into the role of mother-in-law and grandmother. Cornelia had been married several years. When Austin came home from college, and while taking him proudly with her on a round of dinners and calls, his mother naturally cast her eye about her for the pearl of women, who should become his wife.
Austin, it was understood, was to go into Uncle Hubbard Frothingham's office. All the young sons and nephews and cousins in the family started there. When Austin, agreeing in the main to the proposal, suggested that he be put in the San Francisco branch of the business, Mrs. Phelps was only mildly disturbed. He had everything to lose and nothing to gain by going West, she explained, but if he wanted to, let him try California.
So Austin went, and quite distinguished himself in his new work for about a year. Then suddenly out of a clear sky came the astounding news that he had left the firm,--actually resigned from Frothingham, Curtis, and Frothingham!--and had gone up into the mountains, to manage a mine for some unknown person named Boone! Mrs. Phelps shut her lips into a severe line when she heard this news, and for several weeks she did not write to Austin. But as months went by, and he seemed always well and busy, and full of plans for a visit home, she forgave him, and wrote him twice weekly again,--charming, motherly letters, in which newspaper clippings and concert programmes likely to interest him were enclosed, and amateur photographs,--snapshots of Cornelia in her furs, laughing against a background of snowy Common, snapshots of Cornelia's children with old Kelly in the motor-car, and of dear Taylor and Cornelia with Sally Middleton on the yacht. Did Austin remember dear Sally? She had grown so pretty and had so many admirers.
It was Cornelia who suggested, when the staggering news of Austin's engagement came to Boston, that her mother should go to California, stay at some "pretty, quiet farm-house near by," meet this Miss Manzanita Boone, whoever she was, and quietly effect, as mothers and sisters have hoped to effect since time began, a change of heart in Austin.
And so she had arrived here, to find that there was no such thing in the entire valley as the colonial farmhouse of her dreams, to find that, far from estranging Austin from the Boone family, she must actually be their guest while she stayed at Yerba Buena, to find that her coming was interpreted by this infatuated pair to be a sign of her entire sympathy with their plans. And added to all this, Austin was different, noisier, bigger, younger than she remembered him: Manzanita was worse than her worst fears, and the rancho, bounded only by the far-distant mountain ridges, with its canyons, its river, its wooded valleys and trackless ranges, struck actual terror to her homesick soul.
"Well, what do you think of her? Isn't she a darling?" demanded Austin, when he and his mother were alone on the porch, just before dinner.
"She's very pretty, dear. She's not a college girl, of course?"
"College? Lord, no! Why, she wouldn't even go away to boarding- school." Austin was evidently proud of her independent spirit. "She and her brothers went to this little school over here at Eucalyptus, and I guess Manz'ita ran things pretty much her own way. You'll like the kids. They have no mother, you know, and old Boone just adores Manzanita. He's a nice old boy, too."
"Austin, dear!" Mrs. Phelps's protest died into a sigh.
"Well, but he is, a fine old fellow," amended Austin.
"And you think she's the sort of woman to make you happy, dear. Is she musical? Is she fond of books?"
Austin, for the first time, looked troubled.
"Don't you like her, mother?" he asked, astounded.
"Why, I've just met her, dear. I want you to tell me about her."
"Every one here is crazy about her," Austin said half sulkily. "She's been engaged four times, and she's only twenty-two!"
"And she told you that, dear? Herself?"
The boy flushed quickly.
"Why shouldn't she?" he said uncomfortably. "Every one knows it."
His mother fanned for a moment in silence.
"Can you imagine Cornelia--or Sally--engaged four times, and talking about it?" she asked gently.
"Things are different here," Austin presently submitted, to which Mrs. Phelps emphatically assented, "Entirely different!"
There was a pause. From the kitchen region came much slamming of light wire door, and the sound of hissing and steaming, high-keyed remarks from the Chinese and the Portuguese girls, and now and then the ripple of Manzanita's laughter. A farm-hand crossed the yard, with pails of milk, and presently a dozen or more men came down the steep trail that led to the mine.
These were ranch-hands, cow-boys, and road-keepers, strong, good- natured young fellows, who had their own house and their own cook near the main ranch-house, and who now began a great washing and splashing, at a bench under some willow trees, where there were basins and towels. An old Spanish shepherd, with his dogs, came down from the sheep range; other dogs lounged out from barns and stables; there was a cheerful stir of reunion and relaxation as the hot day dropped to its close.
A great hawk flapped across the canyon below the ranch-house, bats began to wheel in the clear dusk, owls called in the woods. Just before Manzanita appeared in the kitchen doorway to ring a clamorous bell for some sixty ear-splitting seconds, her father, an immense old man on a restless claybank mare, rode into the yard, and the four brothers, Jose, Marty, Allen, and the little crippled youngest, eight-year-old Rafael, appeared mysteriously from the shadows, and announced that they were ready for dinner. Martin Boone, Senior, gave Mrs. Phelps a vigorous welcome.
"Well, sir! I never thought I'd be glad to see the mother of the fellow who carried off my girl," said Martin Boone, wringing Mrs. Phelps's aching fingers, "but you and I married in our day, ma'am, and it's the youngsters' turn. But he'll have to be a pretty fine fellow to satisfy Manzanita!" And before the lady could even begin the spirited retort that rose to her lips, he had led the way to the long, overloaded dinner-table.
"I am too terribly heartsick to go into details," wrote the poor little lady, when Manzanita had left her for the night in her bare, big bedroom and she had opened her writing-case upon a pine table over which hung, incongruously enough, a large electric light. "Austin is apparently blind to everything but her beauty, which is really noticeable, not that it matters. What is mere beauty beside such refinement as Sally's, for instance, how far will it go with our friends when they discover that Austin's wife is an untrained, common little country girl? Even when I tell you that she uses such words as 'swell,' and 'perfect lady,' and that she asked me who Phillips Brooks was, and had never heard of William Morris or Maeterlinck you can really form no idea of her ignorance! And the dinner,--one shudders at the thought of beginning to teach her of correct service; hors d'oeuvres, finger-bowls, butter-spreaders, soup-spoons and salad-forks will all be mysteries to her! And her clothes! A rowdyish-looking little tight-fitting cotton a servant would not wear, and openwork hose, and silver bangles! It is terrible, terrible. I don't know what we can do. She is very clever. I think she suspects already that I do not approve, although she began at once to call me 'Mother Phelps'--with a familiarity that is quite typical of her. My one hope is to persuade Austin to come home with me for a visit, and to keep him there until his wretched infatuation has died a natural death. What possible charm this part of the world can have for him is a mystery to me. To compare this barn of a house to your lovely home is enough to make me long to be there with all my heart. Instead of my beautiful rooms, and Mary's constant attendance, imagine your mother writing in a room whose windows have no shades, so that one has the uncomfortable sensation that any one outside may be looking in. Of course the valley descends very steeply from the ranch-house, and there are thousands of acres of silent woods and hills, but I don't like it, nevertheless, and shall undress in the dark. ...I shall certainly speak seriously to Austin as soon as possible."
But the right moment for approaching Austin on the subject of his return to Boston did not immediately present itself, and for several days Manzanita, delighted at having a woman guest, took Mrs. Phelps with her all over the countryside.
"I like lady friends," said Manzanita once, a little shyly. "You see it's 'most always men who visit the rancho, and they're no fun!"
She used to come, uninvited but serene, into her prospective mother- in-law's room at night, and artlessly confide in her, while she braided the masses of her glorious hair. She showed Mrs. Phelps the "swell" pillow she was embroidering to represent an Indian's head, and which she intended to finish with real beads and real feathers. She was as eagerly curious as a child about the older woman's dainty toilet accessories, experimenting with manicure sets and creams and powders with artless pleasure. "I'm going to have that and do it that way!" she would announce, when impressed by some particular little nice touch about Cornelia's letters, or some allusion that gave her a new idea.
"If you ever come to Boston, you will be expected to know all these things," Mrs. Phelps said to her once, a little curiously.
"Oh, but I'll never go there!" she responded confidently.
"You will have to," said the other, sharply. "Austin can hardly spend his whole life here! His friends are there, his family. All his traditions are there. Those may not mean much to him now, but in time to come they will mean more."
"We'll make more money than we can spend, right here," Manzanita said, in a troubled voice.
"Money is not everything, my dear."
"No--" Manzanita's brown fingers went slowly down to the last fine strands of the braid she was finishing. Then she said, brightening:
"But I am everything to Aus! I don't care what I don't know, or can't do, he thinks I'm fine!"
And she went off to bed in high spirits. She was too entirely normal a young woman to let anything worry her very long,--too busy to brood. The visitor soon learned why the ranch-house parlor presented so dismal an aspect of unuse. It was because Manzanita was never inside it. The girl's days were packed to the last instant with duties and pleasures. She needed no parlor. Even her bedroom was as bare and impersonal as her father's. She was never idle. Mrs. Phelps more than once saw the new-born child of a rancher's or miner's wife held in those capable young arms, she saw the children at the mine gathering about Manzanita, the women leaving their doorways for eager talk with her. And once, during the Eastern woman's visit, death came to the Yerba Buena, and Manzanita and young Jose spent the night in one of the ranch-houses, and walked home, white, tired, and a little sobered, in the early morning, for breakfast.
Manzanita rode and drove horses of which even her brothers were afraid; she handled a gun well, she chattered enough Spanish, Portuguese, Indian, and Italian to make herself understood by the ranch hands and dairy-men. And when there was a housewarming, or a new barn to gather in, she danced all night with a passionate enjoyment. It might be with Austin, or the post-office clerk, or a young, sleek-haired rancher, or a miner shining from soap and water; it mattered not to Manzanita, if he could but dance. And when she and Mrs. Phelps drove, as they often did, to spend the day with the gentle, keen, capable women on other ranches thereabout, it was quite the usual thing to have them bring out bolts of silk or gingham for Manzanita's inspection, and seriously consult her as to fitting and cutting.
Mrs. Phelps immensely enjoyed these day-long visits, though she would have denied it; hardly recognized the fact herself. One could grow well acquainted in a day with the clean, big, bare ranch- houses, the very old people in the shining kitchens, the three or four capable companionable women who managed the family; one with a child at her breast, perhaps another getting ready for her wedding, a third newly widowed, but all dwelling harmoniously together and sharing alike the care of menfolk and children. They would all make the Eastern woman warmly welcome, eager for her talk of the world beyond their mountains, and when she and Manzanita drove away, it was with jars of specially chosen preserves and delicious cheeses in their hands, pumpkins and grapes, late apples and perhaps a jug of cider in the little wagon body, and a loaf of fresh-baked cake or bread still warm in a white napkin. Hospitable children, dancing about the phaeton, would shout generous offers of "bunnies" or "kitties," Manzanita would hang at a dangerous angle over the wheel to accept good-by kisses, and perhaps some old, old woman, limping out to stand blinking in the sunlight, would lay a fine, transparent, work-worn hand on Mrs. Phelps and ask her to come again. It was an "impossible" life, of course, and yet, at the moment, absorbing enough to the new-comer. And it was at least surprising to find the best of magazines and books everywhere,--"the advertisements alone seem to keep them in touch with everything new," wrote Mrs. Phelps.
Her whole attitude toward Manzanita might have softened sometimes, if long years of custom had not made the little things of life vitally important to her. A misused or mispronounced word was like a blow to her; inner forces over which she had no control forced her to discuss it and correct it. She had a quick, horrified pity for Manzanita's ignorance on matters which should be part of a lady's instinctive knowledge. She winced at the girl's cheerful acknowledgement of that ignorance. No woman in Mrs. Phelps's own circle at home ever for one instant admitted ignorance of any important point of any sort; what she did not know she could superbly imply was not worth knowing. Even though she might be secretly enjoying the universal, warm hospitality of the rancho, Mrs. Phelps never lost sight of the fact that Manzanita was not the wife for Austin, and that the marriage would be the ruin of his life. She told herself that her opposition was for Manzanita's happiness as well as for his, and plotted without ceasing against their plans.
"I've had a really remarkable letter from Uncle William, dear!" she said, one afternoon, when by some rare chance she was alone with her son.
"Good for you!" said Austin, absently, clicking the cock of the gun he was cleaning. "Give the old boy my love when you write."
"He sends you a message, dear. He wants to know--but you're not listening," Mrs. Phelps paused. Austin looked up.
"Oh, I'm listening. I hear every word."
"You seem so far from me these days, Austin," said his mother, plaintively. But--" she brightened, "I hope dear Uncle William's plan will change all that. He wants you to come home, dear. He offers you the junior partnership, Austin." She brought it out very quietly.
"Offers me the--what?"
"The junior partnership,--yes, dear. Think of it, at your age, Austin! What would your dear father have said! How proud he would have been! Yes. Stafford has gone into law, you know, and Keith Curtis will live abroad when Isabel inherits. So you see!"
"Mighty kind of Uncle William," mused Austin, "but of course there's nothing in it for me!" He avoided her gaze, and went on cleaning his gun. "I'm fixed here, you know. This suits me."
"I hope you are not serious, my son." Austin knew that voice. He braced himself for unpleasantness.
"Manzanita," he said simply. There was a throbbing silence.
"You disappoint one of my lifelong hopes for my only son, Austin," his mother said very quietly.
"I know it, mother. I'm sorry."
"For the first time, Austin, I wish I had another son. I am going to beg you--to beg you to believe that I can see your happiness clearer than you can just now!" Mrs. Phelps's voice was calm, but she was trembling with feeling.
"Don't put it that way, mater. Anyway, I never liked office work much, you know."
"Austin, don't think your old mammy is trying to manage you," Mrs. Phelps was suddenly mild and affectionate. "But think, dear. Taylor says the salary is not less than fifteen thousand. You could have a lovely home, near me. Think of the opera, of having a really formal dinner again, of going to Cousin Robert Stokes's for Christmas, and yachting with Taylor and Gerry."
Austin was still now, evidently he was thinking.
"My idea," his mother went on reasonably, "would be to have you come on with me now, at once. See Uncle William,--we mustn't keep his kindness waiting, must we?--get used to the new work, make sure of yourself. Then come back for Manzanita, or have her come on--" She paused, her eyes a question.
"I'd hate to leave Yerba Buena--" Austin visibly hesitated.
"But, Austin, you must sooner or later." Mrs. Phelps was framing a triumphant letter to Cornelia in her mind.
But just then Manzanita came running around the corner of the house, and seeing them, took the porch steps in two bounds, and came to lean on Austin's shoulder.
"Austin!" she burst out excitedly. "I want you to ride straight down to the stock pens,--they've got a thousand steers on the flats there going through from Portland, and the men say they aren't to leave the cars to-night! I told them they would have to turn them out and water them, and they just laughed! Will you go down?" She was breathing hard like an impatient child, her cheeks two poppies, her eyes blazing. "Will you? Will you?"
"Sure I will, if you'll do something for me." Austin pulled her toward him.
"Well, there!" She gave him a child's impersonal kiss. "You'll make them water them, won't you, Austin?"
"Oh, yes. I'll 'tend to them." Austin got up, his arm about her. "Look here," said he. "How'd you like to come and live in Boston?"
Her eyes went quickly from him to his mother.
"I wouldn't!" she said, breathing quickly and defiantly.
"Never, never, never! Unless it was just to visit. Why, Austin--" her reproachful eyes accused him, "you said we needn't, ever! You know I couldn't live in a street!"
Austin laughed again. "Well, that settles Uncle William!" he announced comfortably. "I'll write him to-morrow, mother. Come on, now, we'll settle this other trouble!"
And he and Manzanita disappeared in the direction of the stable.
Mrs. Phelps sat thinking, deep red spots burning in her cheeks. Things could not go on this way. Yet she would not give up. She suddenly determined to try an idea of Cornelia's.
So the word went all over the ranch-house next day that Mrs. Phelps was ill. The nature of the illness was not specified, but she could not leave her bed. Austin was all filial sympathy, Manzanita an untiring nurse. Hong Fat sent up all sorts of kitchen delicacies, the boys brought trout, and rare ferns, and wild blackberries in from their daily excursions, for her especial benefit, and before two days were over, every hour found some distant neighbor at the rancho with offers of sympathy and assistance. An old doctor came up from Emville at once, and Jose and Marty accompanied him all the twenty miles back into town for medicines.
But days went by, and the invalid was no better. She lay, quiet and uncomplaining, in the airy bedroom, while October walked over the mountain ranges, and the grapes were gathered, and the apples brought in. She took the doctor's medicine, and his advice, and agreed pleasantly with him that she would soon be well enough to go home, and would be better off there. But she would not try to get up.
One afternoon, while she was lying with closed eyes, she heard the rattle of the doctor's old buggy outside, and heard Manzanita greet him from where she was labelling jelly glasses on the porch. Mrs. Phelps could trace the old man's panting approach to a porch chair, and heard Manzanita go into the house with a promise of lemonade and crullers. In a few minutes she was back again, and the clink of ice against glass sounded pleasantly in the hot afternoon.
"Well, how is she?" said the doctor, presently, with a long, wet gasp of satisfaction.
"She's asleep," answered Manzanita. "I just peeked in.--There's more of that," she added, in apparent reference to the iced drink. And then, with a change of tone, she added, "What's the matter with her, anyway, Doc' Jim?"
To which the old doctor with great simplicity responded:
"You've got me, Manz'ita. I can diagnose as good as any one," he went on after a pause, "when folks have got something. If you mashed your hand in a food cutter, or c't something poisonous, or come down with scarlet fever, I'd know what to do for ye. But, these rich women--"
"Well, you know, I could prescribe for her, and cure her, too," said Manzanita. "All I'd do is tell her she'd got to go home right off. I'd say that this climate was too bracing for her, or something."
"Shucks! I did say that," interrupted the doctor.
"Yes, but you didn't say you thought she'd ought to take her son along in case of need," the girl added significantly. There was a long pause.
"She don't want ye to marry him, hey?" said the doctor, ending it.
Manzanita evidently indicated an assent, for he presently resumed indignantly: "Who does she want for him--Adelina Patti?" He marvelled over a third glass. "Well, what do you know about that!" he murmured. Then, "Well, I'll be a long time prescribing that."
"No, I want you to send her off, and send him with her," said Manzanita, decidedly, "that's why I'm telling you this. I've thought it all over. I don't want to be mean about it. She thinks that if he saw his sister, and his old friends, and his old life, he'd get to hate the Yerba Buena. At first I laughed at her, and so did Aus. But, I don't know, Doc' Jim, she may be right!"
"Shucks!" said the doctor, incredulously.
"No, of course she isn't!" the girl said, after a pause. "I know Aus. But let her take him, and try. Then, if he comes back, she can't blame me. And--" She laughed. "This is a funny thing," she said, "for she doesn't like me. But I like her. I have no mother and no aunts, you know, and I like having an old lady 'round. I always wanted some one to stay with me, and perhaps, if Aus comes back some day, she'll get to liking me, too. She'll remember," her tone grew a little wistful, "that I couldn't help his loving me! And besides-- "and the tone was suddenly confident again--"I am good--as good as his sister! And I'm learning things. I learn something new from her every day! And I'd like to feel that he went away from me--and had to come back!"
"Don't you be a fool," cautioned the doctor. "A feller gets among his friends for a year or two, and where are ye? Minnie Ferguson's feller never come back to her and she was a real pretty, good girl, too."
"Oh, I think he'll come back," the girl said softly, as if to herself.
"I only hope, if he don't show up on the minute, you'll marry somebody else so quick it'll make her head spin!" said the doctor, fervently. Manzanita laughed out, and the sound of it made Mrs. Phelps wince, and shut her eyes.
"Maybe I will!" the girl said hardily. "You'll suggest his taking her home, anyway, won't you, Doc' Jim?" she asked.
"Well, durn it, I'd jest as soon," agreed the doctor. "I don't know as you're so crazy about him!"
"And you'll stay to dinner?" Manzanita instantly changed the subject. "There's ducks. Of course the season's over, but a string of them came up to Jose and Marty, and pushed themselves against their guns--you know how it is."
"Sure, I'll stay," said the doctor. "Go see if she's awake, Manz'ita, that's a good girl. If she ain't--I'll walk up to the mine for a spell."
So Manzanita tiptoed to the door of Mrs. Phelps's room and noiselessly opened it, and smiled when she saw the invalid's open eyes.
"Well, have a nice nap?" she asked, coming to put a daughterly little hand over the older woman's hand. "Want more light? Your books have come."
"I'm much better, dear," said Mrs. Phelps. The Boston woman's tone would always be incisive, her words clear. But she kept Manzanita's hand. "I think I will get up for dinner. I've been lying here thinking that I've wasted quite enough time, if we are to have a wedding here before I go home--"
Manzanita stared at her. Then she knelt down beside the bed and began to cry.
On a certain Thursday afternoon more than a year later, Mrs. Phelps happened to be alone in her daughter's Boston home. Cornelia was attending the regular meeting of a small informal club whose reason for being was the study of American composers. Mrs. Phelps might have attended this, too, or she might have gone to several other club meetings, or she might have been playing cards, or making calls, but she had been a little bit out of humor with all these things of late, and hence was alone in the great, silent house. The rain was falling heavily outside, and in the library there was a great coal fire. Now and then a noiseless maid came in and replenished it.
Cornelia was always out in the afternoons. She belonged to a great many clubs, social, literary, musical and civic clubs, and card clubs. Cornelia was an exceptionally capable young woman. She had two nice children, in the selection of whose governesses and companions she exercised very keen judgment, and she had a fine husband, a Harvard man of course, a silent, sweet-tempered man some years her senior, whose one passion in life was his yacht, and whose great desire was that his wife and children should have everything in life of the very best. Altogether, Cornelia's life was quite perfect, well-ordered, harmonious, and beautiful. She attended the funeral of a relative or friend with the same decorous serenity with which she welcomed her nearest and dearest to a big family dinner at Christmas or Thanksgiving. She knew what life expected of her, and she gave it with calm readiness.
The library in her beautiful home, where her mother was sitting now, was like all the other drawing-rooms Cornelia entered. Its mahogany reading-table bore a priceless lamp, and was crossed by a strip of wonderful Chinese embroidery. There were heavy antique brass candlesticks on the mantel, flanking a great mirror whose carved frame showed against its gold rare touches of Florentine blue. The rugs on the floor were a silken blend of Oriental tones, the books in the cases were bound in full leather. An oil portrait of Taylor hung where his wife's dutiful eyes would often find it, lovely pictures of the children filled silver frames on a low book-case.
Eleanor, the ten-year-old, presently came into the room, with Fraulein Hinz following her. Eleanor was a nice child, and the only young life in the house since Taylor Junior had been sent off to boarding-school.
"Here you are, grandmother," said she, with a kiss. "Uncle Edward brought us home. It's horrid out. Several of the girls didn't come at all to-day."
"And what have you to do now, dear?" Mrs. Phelps knew she had something to do.
"German for to-morrow. But it's easy. And then Dorothy's coming over, for mamma is going out. We'll do our history together, and have dinner upstairs. She's not to go home until eight!"
"That's nice," said Mrs. Phelps, claiming another kiss before the child went away. She had grown quite used to seeing Eleanor only for a moment now and then.
When she was alone again, she sat staring dreamily into the fire, a smile coming and going in her eyes. She had left Manzanita's letter upstairs, but after all, she knew the ten closely covered pages by heart. It had come a week ago, and had been read several times a day since. It was a wonderful letter.
They wanted her--in California. In fact, they had always wanted her, from the day she came away. She had stayed to see the new house built, and had stayed for the wedding, and then had come back to Boston, thinking her duty to Austin done, and herself free to take up the old life with a clear conscience. But almost the first letters from the rancho demanded her! Little Rafael had painfully written to know where he could find this poem and that to which she had introduced him. Marty had sent her a bird's nest, running over with ants when it was opened in Cornelia's breakfast-room, but he never knew that. Jose had written for advice as to seeds for Manzanita's garden. And Austin had written he missed her, it was "rotten" not to find mater waiting for them, when they came back from their honeymoon.
But best of all, Manzanita had written, and, ah, it was sweet to be wanted as Manzanita wanted her! News of all the neighbors, of the women at the mine, pressed wildflowers, scraps of new gowns, and questions of every sort; Manzanita's letters brimmed with them. She could have her own rooms, her own bath, she could have everything she liked, but she must come back!
"I am the only woman here at the house," wrote Manzanita, "and it's no fun. I'd go about ever so much more, if you were here to go with me. I want to start a club for the women at the mine, but I never belonged to a club, and I don't know how. Rose Harrison wants you to come on in time for her wedding, and Alice has a new baby. And old Mrs. Larabee says to tell you--"
And so on and on. They didn't forget her, on the Yerba Buena, as the months went by. Mrs. Phelps grew to look eagerly for the letters. And now came this one, and the greatest news in the world--! And now, it was as it should be, Manzanita wanted her more than ever!
Cornelia came in upon her happy musing, to kiss her mother, send her hat and furs upstairs, ring for tea, and turn on the lights, all in the space of some sixty seconds.
"It was so interesting to-day, mater," reported Cornelia. "Cousin Emily asked for you, and Edith and the Butlers sent love. Helen is giving a bridge lunch for Mrs. Marye; she's come up for Frances' wedding on the tenth. And Anna's mother is better; the nurse says you can see her on Wednesday. Don't forget the Shaw lecture Wednesday, though. And there is to be a meeting of this auxiliary of the political study club,--I don't know what it's all about, but one feels one must go. I declare," Cornelia poured a second cup, "next winter I'm going to try to do less. There isn't a single morning or afternoon that I'm not attending some meeting or going to some affair. Between pure milk and politics and charities and luncheons,- -it's just too much! Belle says that women do all the work of the world, in these days--"
"And yet we don't get at anything," said Mrs. Phelps, in her brisk, impatient little way. "I attend meetings, I listen to reports, I sit on boards--But what comes of it all! Trained nurses and paid workers do all the actual work--"
"But mother, dear, a great deal will come of it all," Cornelia was mildly reproachful. "You couldn't inspect babies and do nursing yourself, dear! Investigating and tabulating and reporting are very difficult things to do!"
"Sometimes I think, Cornelia, that the world was much pleasanter for women when things were more primitive. When they just had households and babies to look out for, when every one was personally needed."
"Mother, dear!" Cornelia protested indulgently. "Then we haven't progressed at all since Mayflower days?"
"Oh, perhaps we have!" Mrs. Phelps shrugged doubtfully. "But I am sometimes sorry," she went on, half to herself, "that birth and wealth and position have kept me all my life from real things! I can't help my friends in sickness or trouble, Cornelia, I don't know what's coming on my own table for dinner, or what the woman next door looks like! I can only keep on the surface of things, dressing a certain way, eating certain things, writing notes, sending flowers, making calls!"
"All of which our class--the rich and cultivated people of the world--have been struggling to achieve for generations!" Cornelia reminded her. "Do you mean you would like to be a laborer's mother, mater, with all sorts of annoying economies to practice, and all sorts of inconveniences to contend with?"
"Yes, perhaps I would!" her mother laughed defiantly.
"I can see you've had another letter from California," said Cornelia, pleasantly, after a puzzled moment. "You are still a pioneer in spite of the ten generations, mater. Austin's wife is not a lady, Austin is absolutely different from what he was, the people out there are actually common, and yet, just because they like to have you, and think you are intelligent and instructive, you want to go. Go if you want to, but I will think you are mad if you do! A girl who confused 'La Boheme' with 'The Bohemian Girl,' and wants an enlarged crayon portrait of Austin in her drawing-room! Really, it's--well, it's remarkable to me. I don't know what you see in it!"
"Crayon portraits used to be considered quite attractive, and may be again," said Mrs. Phelps, mildly. "And some day your children will think Puccini and Strauss as old-fashioned as you think 'Faust' and Offenbach. But there are other things, like the things that a woman loves to do, for instance, when her children are grown, and her husband is dead, that never change!"
Cornelia was silent, frankly puzzled.
"Wouldn't you rather do nothing than take up the stupid routine work of a woman who has no money, no position, and no education?" she asked presently.
"I don't believe I would," her mother answered, smiling. "Perhaps I've changed. Or perhaps I never sat down and seriously thought things out before. I took it for granted that our way of doing things was the only way. Of course I don't expect every one to see it as I do. But it seems to me now that I belong there. When she first called me 'Mother Phelps,' it made me angry, but what sweeter thing could she have said, after all? She has no mother. And she needs one, now. I don't think you have ever needed me in your life, Cornelia--actually needed me, my hands and my eyes and my brain."
"Oh, you are incorrigible!" said Cornelia, still with an air of lenience. "Now," she stopped for a kiss, "we're going out to-night, so I brought you The Patricians to read; it's charming. And you read it, and be a good mater, and don't think any more about going out to stay on that awful, uncivilized ranch. Visit there in a year or two, if you like, but don't strike roots. I'll come in and see you when I'm dressed."
And she was gone. But Mrs. Phelps felt satisfied that enough had been said to make her begin to realize that she was serious, and she contentedly resumed her dreaming over the fire.
The years, many or few, stretched pleasantly before her. She smiled into the coals. She was still young enough to enjoy the thought of service, of healthy fatigue, of busy days and quiet evenings, and long nights of deep sleep, with slumbering Yerba Buena lying beneath the moon outside her open window. There would be Austin close beside her and other friends almost as near, to whom she would be sometimes necessary, and always welcome.
And there would be Manzanita, and the child,--and after a while, other children. There would be little bibs to tie, little prayers to hear, deep consultations over teeth and measles, over morals and manners. And who but Grandmother could fill Grandmother's place?
Mrs. Phelps leaned back in her chair, and shut her eyes. She saw visions. After a while a tear slipped from between her lashes.