Chapter III. Mrs. Whitney Intervenes
 

As Hiram had always been silent and seemingly abstracted, no one but Ellen noted the radical change in him. She had brought up her children in the old-fashioned way--her thoughts, and usually her eyes, upon them all day, and one ear open all night. When she no longer had them to guard, she turned all this energy of solicitude to her husband; thus the passionate love of her youth was having a healthy, beautiful old age. The years of circumventing the easily roused restiveness of her spirited boy and girl had taught her craft; without seeming to be watching Hiram, no detail of his appearance or actions escaped her.

"There's mighty little your pa don't see," had been one of her stock observations to the children from their earliest days. "And you needn't flatter yourselves he don't care because he don't speak." Now she noted that from under his heavy brows his eyes were looking stealthily out, more minutely observant than ever before, and that what he saw either added to his sadness or took a color of sadness from his mood. She guessed that the actions of Adelaide and Arthur, so utterly different from the actions of the children of her and Hiram's young days--except those regarded by all worth-while people as "trifling and trashy"--had something to do with Hiram's gloom. She decided that Arthur's failure and his lightness of manner in face of it were the chief trouble--this until Hiram's shoulders began to stoop and hollows to appear in his cheeks and under his ears, and a waxlike pallor to overspread his face. Then she knew that he was not well physically; and, being a practical woman, she dismissed the mental causes of the change. "People talk a lot about their mental troubles," she said to herself, "but it's usually three-fourths stomach and liver."

As Hiram and illness, real illness, could not be associated in her mind, she gave the matter no importance until she heard him sigh heavily one night, after they had been in bed several hours. "What is it, father?" she asked.

There was no answer, but a return to an imitation of the regular breathing of a sleeper.

"Hiram," she insisted, "what is it?"

"Nothing, Ellen, nothing," he answered; "I must have ate something that don't sit quite right."

"You didn't take no supper at all," said she.

This reminded him how useless it was to try to deceive her. "I ain't been feeling well of late," he confessed, "but it'll soon be over." He did not see the double meaning of his words until he had uttered them; he stirred uneasily in his dread that she would suspect. "I went to the doctor."

"What did he say?--though I don't know why I should ask what such a fool as Milbury said about anything."

"I got some medicine," replied he, evading telling her what doctor.

Instantly she sat up in bed. "I haven't seen you take no drugs!" she exclaimed. Drugs were her especial abhorrence. She let no one in the family take any until she had passed upon them.

"I didn't want to make a fuss," he explained.

"Where is it?" she demanded, on the edge of the bed now, ready to rise.

"I'll show it to you in the morning, mother. Lie down and go to sleep. I've been awake long enough."

"Where is it?" she repeated, and he heard her moving across the room toward the gas fixture.

"In my vest pocket. It's a box of pills. You can't tell nothin' about it."

She lit the gas and went to his waistcoat, hanging where it always hung at night--on a hook beside the closet door. He watched her fumble through the pockets, watched her take her spectacles from the corner of the mantel and put them on, the bridge well down toward the end of her nose. A not at all romantic figure she made, standing beside the sputtering gas jet, her spectacles balanced on her nose, her thin neck and forearms exposed, and her old face studying the lid of the pill box held in her toil- and age-worn hands. The box dropped from her fingers and rolled along the floor. He saw an awful look slowly creep over her features as the terrible thought crept over her mind. As she began to turn her face toward him, with a motion of the head like that of a machine on unoiled bearings, he closed his eyes; but he felt her looking at him.

"Dr. Schulze!" she said, an almost soundless breathing of the name that always meant the last resort in mortal illness.

He was trying to think of lies to tell her, but he could think of nothing. The sense of light upon his eyelids ceased. He presently felt her slowly getting into bed. A pall-like silence; then upon his cheek, in long discontinued caress, a hand whose touch was as light and soft as the fall of a rose leaf--the hand of love that toil and age cannot make harsh, and her fingers were wet with her tears. Thus they lay in the darkness and silence, facing together the tragedy of the eternal separation.

"What did he say, dearest?" she asked. She had not used that word to him since the first baby came and they began to call each other "father" and "mother." All these years the children had been between them, and each had held the other important chiefly as related to them. Now it was as in their youth--just he and she, so close that only death could come between them.

"It's a long way off," said Hiram. He would not set ringing in her ears that knell which was clanging to him its solemn, incessant, menacing "Put your house in order!"

"Tell me what he said," she urged gently.

"He couldn't make out exactly. The medicine'll patch me up."

She did not insist--why fret him to confess what she knew the instant she read "Schulze" on the box? After an hour she heard him breathing as only a sleeper can breathe; but she watched on until morning. When they were dressing, each looked at the other furtively from time to time, a great tenderness in his eyes, and in hers the anguish of a dread that might not be spoken.

On the day after Mrs. Whitney's arrival for the summer, she descended in state from the hills to call upon the Rangers.

When the front bell rang Mrs. Ranger was in the kitchen--and was dressed for the kitchen. As the "girl" still had not been replaced she answered the door herself. In a gingham wrapper, with her glasses thrust up into her gray hair, she was facing a footman in livery.

"Are Mrs. Ranger and Miss Ranger at home?" asked he, mistaking her for a servant and eying her dishevelment with an expression which was not lost on her.

She smiled with heartiest good nature. "Yes, I'm here--I'm Mrs. Ranger," said she; and she looked beyond him to the victoria in which sat Mrs. Whitney. "How d'ye do, Matilda?" she called. "Come right in. As usual when the canneries are running, I'm my own upstairs girl. I reckon your young man here thinks I ought to discharge her and get one that's tidier."

"Your young man here" was stiffly touching the brim of his top hat and saying: "Beg parding, ma'am."

"Oh, that's all right," replied Mrs. Ranger; "I am what I look to be!"

Behind her now appeared Adelaide, her cheeks burning in mortification she was ashamed of feeling and still more ashamed of being unable to conceal. "Go and put on something else, mother," she urged in an undertone; "I'll look after Mrs. Whitney till you come down."

"Ain't got time," replied her mother, conscious of what was in her daughter's mind and a little contemptuous and a little resentful of it. "I guess Tilly Whitney will understand. If she don't, why, I guess we can bear up under it."

Mrs. Whitney had left her carriage and was advancing up the steps. She was a year older than Ellen Ranger; but so skillfully was she got together that, had she confessed to forty or even thirty-eight, one who didn't know would have accepted her statement as too cautious by hardly more than a year or so. The indisputably artificial detail in her elegant appearance was her hair; its tinting, which had to be made stronger year by year as the gray grew more resolute, was reaching the stage of hard, rough-looking red. "Another year or two," thought Adelaide, "and it'll make her face older than she really is. Even now she's getting a tough look."

Matilda kissed Mrs. Ranger and Adelaide affectedly on both cheeks. "I'm so glad to find you in!" said she. "And you, poor dear"--this to Mrs. Ranger--"are in agony over the servant question." She glanced behind her to make sure the carriage had driven away. "I don't know what we're coming to. I can't keep a man longer than six months. Servants don't appreciate a good home and good wages. As soon as a man makes acquaintances here he becomes independent and leaves. If something isn't done, the better class of people will have to move out of the country."

"Or go back to doing their own work," said Mrs. Ranger.

Mrs. Whitney smiled vaguely--a smile which said, "I'm too polite to answer that remark as it deserves."

"Why didn't you bring Jenny along?" inquired Mrs. Ranger, when they were in the "front parlor," the two older women seated, Adelaide moving restlessly about.

"Janet and Ross haven't come yet," answered Mrs. Whitney. "They'll be on next week, but only for a little while. They both like it better in the East. All their friends are there and there's so much more to do." Mrs. Whitney sighed; before her rose the fascination of all there was to "do" in the East--the pleasures she was denying herself.

"I don't see why you don't live in New York," said Mrs. Ranger. "You're always talking about it."

"Oh, I can't leave Charles!" was Mrs. Whitney's answer. "Or, rather he'd not hear of my doing it. But I think he'll let us take an apartment at Sherry's next winter--for the season, just--unless Janet and I go abroad."

Mrs. Ranger had not been listening. She now started up. "If you'll excuse me, Mattie, I must see what that cook's about. I'm afraid to let her out of my sight for five minutes for fear she'll up and leave."

"What a time your poor mother has!" said Mrs. Whitney, when she and Adelaide were alone.

Del had recovered from her attack of what she had been denouncing to herself as snobbishness. For all the gingham wrapper and spectacles anchored in the hair and general air of hard work and no "culture," she was thinking, as she looked at Mrs. Whitney's artificiality and listened to those affected accents, that she was glad her mother was Ellen Ranger and not Matilda Whitney. "But mother doesn't believe she has a hard time," she answered, "and everything depends on what one believes oneself; don't you think so? I often envy her. She's always busy and interested. And she's so useful, such a happiness-maker."

"I often feel that way, too," responded Mrs. Whitney, in her most profusely ornate "grande dame" manner. "I get so bored with leading an artificial life. I often wish fate had been more kind to me. I was reading, the other day, that the Queen of England said she had the tastes of a dairy maid. Wasn't that charming? Many of us whom fate has condemned to the routine of high station feel the same way."

It was by such deliverances that Mrs. Whitney posed, not without success, as an intellectual woman who despised the frivolities of a fashionable existence--this in face of the obvious fact that she led a fashionable existence, or, rather, it led her, from the moment her masseuse awakened her in the morning until her maid undressed her at night. But, although Adelaide was far too young, too inexperienced to know that judgment must always be formed from actions, never from words, she was not, in this instance, deceived. "It takes more courage than most of us have," said she, "to do what we'd like instead of what vanity suggests."

Mrs. Whitney did not understand this beyond getting from it a vague sense that she had somehow been thrust at. "You must be careful of that skin of yours, Adele," she thrust back. "I've been looking at it. You can't have been home long, yet the exposure to the sun is beginning to show. You have one of those difficult, thin skins, and one's skin is more than half one's beauty. You ought never to go out without a veil. The last thing Ross said to me was, 'Do tell Adelaide to keep her color down.' You know he admires the patrician style."

Adelaide could not conceal the effect of the shot. Her skin was a great trial to her, it burned so easily; and she hated wrapping herself in under broad brims and thick veils when the feeling of bareheadedness was so delightful. "At any rate," said she sweetly, "it's easier to keep color down than to keep it up."

Mrs. Whitney pretended not to hear. She was now at the window which gave on the garden by way of a small balcony. "There's your father!" she exclaimed; "let's go to him."

There, indeed, was Hiram, pacing the walk along the end of the garden with a ponderousness in the movements of his big form that bespoke age and effort. It irritated Mrs. Whitney to look at him, as it had irritated her to look at Ellen; very painful were the reminders of the ravages of time from these people of about her own age, these whom she as a child had known as children. Crow's-feet and breaking contour and thin hair in those we have known only as grown people, do not affect us; but the same signs in lifelong acquaintances make it impossible to ignore Decay holding up the mirror to us and pointing to aging mouth and throat, as he wags his hideous head and says, "Soon--you, too!"

Hiram saw Matilda and his daughter the instant they appeared on the balcony, but he gave no hint of it until they were in the path of his monotonous march. He was nerving himself for Mrs. Whitney as one nerves himself in a dentist's chair for the descent of the grinder upon a sensitive tooth. Usually she got no further than her first sentence before irritating him. To-day the very sight of her filled him with seemingly causeless anger. There was a time when he, watching Matilda improve away from her beginnings as the ignorant and awkward daughter of the keeper of a small hotel, had approved of her and had wished that Ellen would give more time to the matter of looks. But latterly he had come to the conclusion that a woman has to choose between improving her exterior and improving her interior, and that it is impossible or all but impossible for her to do both; he therefore found in Ellen's very indifference to exteriors another reason why she seemed to him so splendidly the opposite of Charles's wife.

"You certainly look the same as ever, Hiram," Matilda said, advancing with extended, beautifully gloved hand. The expression of his eyes as he turned them upon her gave her a shock, but she forced the smile back into her face and went on, "Ross says you always make him think of a tower on top of a high hill, one that has always stood there and always will."

The gray shadow over Hiram's face grew grayer. "But you ought to rest," Mrs. Whitney went on. "You and Charles both ought to rest. It's ridiculous, the way American men act. Now, Charles has never taken a real vacation. When he does go away he has a secretary with him and works all day. But at least he gets change of scene, while you--you rarely miss a day at the mills."

"I haven't missed a whole day in forty-three years," replied Hiram, "except the day I got married, and I never expect to. I'll drop in the harness. I'd be lost without it."

"Don't you think that's a narrow view of life?" asked Mrs. Whitney. "Don't you think we ought all to take time to cultivate our higher natures?"

"What do you mean by higher natures?"

Mrs. Whitney scented sarcasm and insult. To interrogate a glittering generality is to slur its projector; she wished her hearers to be dazzled, not moved to the impertinence of cross-examination. "I think you understand me," she said loftily.

"I don't," replied Hiram. "I'm only a cooper and miller. I haven't had the advantages of a higher education"--this last with a steady look toward his son, approaching from the direction of the stables. The young man was in a riding suit that was too correct at every point for good taste, except in a college youth, and would have made upon anyone who had been born, or initiated into, the real mysteries of "good form" an impression similar to that of Mrs. Whitney's costume and accent and manner. There was the note of the fashion plate, the evidence of pains, of correctness not instinctive but studied--the marks our new-sprung obstreperous aristocracy has made familiar to us all. It would have struck upon a sense of humor like a trivial twitter from the oboe trickling through a lull in the swell of brasses and strings; but Hiram Ranger had no sense of humor in that direction, had only his instinct for the right and the wrong. The falseness, the absence of the quality called "the real thing," made him bitter and sad. And, when his son joined them and walked up and down with them, he listened with heavier droop of face and form to the affected chatter of the young "man of the world" and the old "grande dame" of Chicago society. They talked the language and the affairs of a world he had never explored and had no wish to explore; its code and conduct, his training, his reason and his instinct all joined in condemning as dishonorable shirking of a man's and woman's part in a universe so ordered that, to keep alive in it, everyone must either work or steal.

But his boy was delighted with the conversation, with Mrs. Whitney, and, finally, with himself. A long, hard ride had scattered his depression of many weeks into a mere haze over the natural sunshine of youth and health; this haze now vanished. When Mrs. Whitney referred to Harvard, he said lightly, "You know I was plucked."

"Ross told me," said she, in an amused tone; "but you'll get back all right next fall."

"I don't know that I care to go," said Arthur. "I've been thinking it over. I believe I've got about all the good a university can do a man. It seems to me a year or so abroad--traveling about, seeing the world--would be the best thing for me. I'm going to talk it over with father--as soon as he gets through being out of humor with me."

Hiram did not look at his son, who glanced a little uneasily at him as he unfolded this new scheme for perfecting his education as "man of the world."

"Surely your father's not angry" cried Mrs. Whitney, in a tone intended to make Hiram ashamed of taking so narrow, so rural, a view of his son's fashionable mischance.

"No," replied Hiram, and his voice sounded curt. He added, in an undertone: "I wish I were."

"You're wrong there, Hiram," said Mrs. Whitney, catching the words not intended for her, and misunderstanding them. "It's not a case for severity."

Arthur smiled, and the look he gave his father was a bright indication of the soundness of his heart. Severity! The idea was absurd in connection with the most generous and indulgent of fathers. "You don't get his meaning, Mrs. Whitney," said he. "I, too, wish he were angry. I'm afraid I've made him sad. You know he's got old-fashioned views of many things, and he can't believe I've not really disgraced him and myself."

"Do you believe it?" inquired Hiram, with a look at him as sudden and sharp as the ray of a search light.

"I know it, father," replied Arthur earnestly. "Am I not right, Mrs. Whitney?"

"Don't be such an old fogy, Hiram," said Mrs. Whitney. "You ought to be thankful you've got a son like Arthur, who makes a splendid impression everywhere. He's the only western man that's got into exclusive societies at Harvard in years simply on his own merits, and he's a great favorite in Boston and in New York."

"My children need no one to defend them to me," said Hiram, in what might be called his quiet tone--the tone he had never in his life used without drying up utterly the discussion that had provoked it. Many people had noted the curious effect of that tone and had resolved to defy it at the next opportunity, "just to see what the consequences would be." But when the opportunity had come, their courage had always withered.

"You can't expect me to be like you, father. You wouldn't, want it," said Arthur, after the pause. "I must be myself, must develop my own individuality."

Ranger stopped and that stopped the others. Without looking at his son, he said slowly: "I ain't disputing that, boy. It ain't the question." There was tremendousness in his restrained energy and intensity as he went on: "What I'm thinking about is whether I ought to keep on helping you to 'develop' yourself, as you call it. That's what won't let me rest." And he abruptly walked away.

Mrs. Whitney and Arthur stared after him. "I don't think he's quite well, Artie," she said reassuringly. "Don't worry. He'll come round all right. But you ought to be a little more diplomatic."

Arthur was silent. Diplomacy meant deceit, and he hadn't yet reached the stage of polite and comfortable compromise where deceit figures merely as an amiable convenience for promoting smoothness in human intercourse. But he believed that his father would "come round all right," as Mrs. Whitney had so comfortingly said. How could it be otherwise when he had done nothing discreditable, but, on the contrary, had been developing himself in a way that reflected the highest credit upon his family, as it marched up toward the lofty goal of "cultured" ambition, toward high and secure social station.

Mrs. Whitney, however, did not believe her own statement. In large part her reputation of being a "good, kind sort," like many such reputations, rested on her habit of cheering on those who were going the wrong way and were disturbed by some suspicion of the truth. She had known Hiram Ranger long, had had many a trying experience of his character, gentle as a trade wind--and as steady and unchangeable. Also, beneath her surface of desperate striving after the things which common sense denounces, or affects to denounce, as foolishness, there was a shrewd, practical person. "He means some kind of mischief," she thought--an unreasoned, instinctive conclusion, and, therefore, all-powerful with a woman.

That evening she wrote her daughter not to cut short her visit to get to Saint X. "Wait until Ross is ready. Then you can join him at Chicago and let him bring you."

Just about the hour she was setting down this first result of her instinct's warning against the danger signal she had seen in Hiram Ranger's manner, he was delivering a bombshell. He had led in the family prayers as usual and had just laid the Bible on the center-table in the back parlor after they rose from their knees. With his hands resting on the cover of the huge volume he looked at his son. There was a sacrificial expression in his eyes. "I have decided to withdraw Arthur's allowance," he said, and his voice sounded hollow and distant, as unfamiliar to his own ears as to theirs. "He must earn his own living. If he wants a place at the mills, there's one waiting for him. If he'd rather work at something else, I'll do what I can to get him a job."

Silence; and Hiram left the room.

Adelaide was first to recover sufficiently to speak. "O mother," cried she, "you're not going to allow this!"

To Adelaide's and Arthur's consternation, Ellen replied quietly: "It ain't no use to talk to him. I ain't lived all these years with your father without finding out when he means what he says."

"It's so unjust!" exclaimed Adelaide.

There came into Ellen's face a look she had never seen there before. It made her say: "O mother, I didn't mean that; only, it does seem hard."

Mrs. Ranger thought so, too; but she would have died rather than have made the thought treason by uttering it. She followed her husband upstairs, saying: "You and Arthur can close up, and put out the lights."

Adelaide, almost in tears over her brother's catastrophe, was thrilled with admiration of his silent, courageous bearing. "What are you going to do, Artie?"

This incautious question drew his inward ferment boiling to the surface. "He has me down and I've got to take his medicine," said the young man, teeth together and eyes dark with fury.

This she did not admire. Her first indignation abated, as she sat on there thinking it out. "Maybe father is nearer right than we know," she said to herself finally. "After all, Arthur will merely be doing as father does. There's something wrong with him, and with me, too, or we shouldn't think that so terrible." But to Arthur she said nothing. Encourage him in his present mood she must not; and to try to dissuade him would simply goad him on.