Pilgrims to Mecca by Mary Hallock Foote
"Notice the girl on your right, Elsie. That is the thing! You have to see it to understand. Do you understand, dear? Do you see the difference?"
A middle-aged little mother, with a sensitive, care-worn face, leaned across the Pullman section and laid a hand upon her daughter's by way of emphasis--needless, for her voice and manner conveyed all, and much more than the words could possibly carry. Volumes of argument, demonstration, expostulation were implied.
"Can you see her? Do you see what I mean? What, dear?"
The questions followed one another like beads running down a string. Elsie's silence was the knot at the end. She opened her eyes and turned them languidly as directed, but without raising her head from the back of the car-seat.
"I will look presently, mother. I can't see much of anything now."
"Oh, never mind. Forgive me, dear. How is your head? Lie still; don't try to talk."
Elsie smiled, patted her mother's hand, and closed her narrow, sweet, sleepy blue eyes. Mrs. Valentin never looked at them, when her mind was at rest, without wishing they were a trifle larger--wider open, rather. The eyes were large enough, but the lazy lids shut them in. They saw a good deal, however. She also wished, in moments of contemplation, that she could have laid on a little heavier the brush that traced Elsie's eyebrows, and continued them a little longer at the temples. Then, her upper lip was, if anything, the least bit too short. Yet what a sweet, concentrated little mouth it was,--reticent and pure, and not over-ready with smiles, though the hidden teeth were small, flawless, and of baby whiteness! Yes, the mother sighed, just a touch or two,--and she knew just where to put those touches,--and the girl had been a beauty. If nature would only consult the mothers at the proper time, instead of going on in her blindfold fashion!
But, after all, did they want a beauty in the family? On theory, no: the few beauties Mrs. Valentin had known in her life had not been the happiest of women. What they did want was an Elsie--their own Elsie--perfectly trained without losing her naturalness, perfectly educated without losing her health, perfectly dressed without thinking of clothes, perfectly accomplished without wasting her time, and, finally, an Elsie perfectly happy. All that parents, situated on the wrong side of the continent for art and culture, and not over-burdened with money, could do to that end, Mrs. Valentin was resolved should be done. Needless to say, very little was to be left to God.
Mrs. Valentin was born in the East, some forty-odd years before this educational pilgrimage began, of good Unitarian stock,--born with a great sense of personal accountability. She could not have thrown it off and been joyful in the words, "It is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves."
Elsie had got a headache from the early start and the suppressed agitation of parting from her home and her father. Suppression was as natural to her as expression was to her mother. The father and daughter had held each other silently a moment; both had smiled, and both were ill for hours afterward.
But Mrs. Valentin thought that in Elsie's case it was because she had not sent the girl to bed earlier the night before, and insisted on her eating something at breakfast.
Herself--she had lain sleepless for the greater part of that night and many nights previous. She had anticipated in its difficulties every stage of the getting off, the subsequent journey, the arrival, their reception by Eastern relatives not seen for years, the introduction of her grown-up daughter, the impression she would make, the beginning of life all over again in a strange city. (She had known her Boston once, but that was twenty years ago.) She foresaw the mistakes she would inevitably make in her choice of means to the desired ends--dressmakers, doctors, specialists of all sorts; the horrible way in which school expenses mount up; the trivial yet poignant comparisons of school life, from which, if Elsie suffered, she would be sure to suffer in silence.
After this fatiguing mental rehearsal she had risen at six, while the electric lights were still burning and the city was cloaked in fog. It was San Francisco of a midsummer morning; fog whistles groaning, sidewalks slippery with wet, and the gray-green trees and tinted flower-beds of the city gardens emerging like the first broad washes of a water-color laid in with a full brush.
She had taken a last survey of her dismantled home, given the last directions to the old Chinese servant left in charge, presided haggardly at the last home breakfast----what a ghastly little ceremony it was! Then Mr. Valentin had gone across the Oakland ferry with them and put them aboard the train, muffled up as for winter. They had looked into each other's pale faces and parted for two years, all for Elsie's sake. But what Elsie thought about it--whether she understood or cared for what this sacrifice of home and treasure was to purchase--it was impossible to learn. Still more what her father thought. What he had always said was, "You had better go."
"But do you truly think it is the best thing for the child?"
"I think that, whatever we do, there will be times when we'll wish we had done something different; and there will be other times when we shall be glad we did not. All we can do is the best we know up to date."
"But do you think it is the best?"
"I think, Emmy, that you will never be satisfied until you have tried it, and it's worth the money to me to have you feel that you have done your best."
Mrs. Valentin sighed. "Sometimes I wonder why we do cling to that old fetich of the East. Why can't we accept the fact that we are Western people? The question is, Shall we be the self-satisfied kind or the unsatisfied kind? Shall we be contented and limited, or discontented and grow?"
"I guess we shall be limited enough, either way," Mr. Valentin retorted easily. He had no hankering for the East and no grudge against fate for making him a Western man malgre lui. "I've known kickers who didn't appear to grow much, except to grow cranky," he said.
Up to the moment of actual departure, Mrs. Valentin had continued to review her decision and to agonize over its possibilities of disaster; but now that the journey had begun, she was experiencing the rest of change and movement. She was as responsive as a child to fresh outward impressions, and the hyperbolical imagination that caused her such torture when it wrought in the dark hours on the teased fabric of her own life, could give her compensating pleasures by daylight, on the open roads of the world. There was as yet nothing outside the car windows which they had not known of old,--the marsh-meadows of the Lower Sacramento, tide-rivers reflecting the sky, cattle and wild fowl, with an occasional windmill or a duck-hunter's lodge breaking the long sweeps of low-toned color. The morning sun was drinking up the fog, the temperature in the Pullman steadily rising. Jackets were coming off and shirt-waists blooming out in summer colors, giving the car a homelike appearance.
It was a saying that summer, "By their belts ye shall know them." Shirt-waists no longer counted, since the ready-made ones for two dollars and a half were almost as chic as the tailor-made for ten. But the belts, the real belts, were inimitable. Sir Lancelot might have used them for his bridle--
"Like to some branch of stars we see Hung in the golden galaxy."
Mrs. Valentin had looked with distinct approval on a mother and daughter who occupied the section opposite. Their impedimenta and belongings were "all right," arguing persons with cultivated tastes, abroad for a summer spent in divers climates, who knew what they should have and where to get it. A similarity of judgment on questions of clothes and shops is no doubt a bond between strange women everywhere; but it was the daughter's belt-buckle before which Mrs. Valentin bowed down and humbled herself in silence. The like of that comes only by inheritance or travel. Antique, pale gold--Cellini might have designed it. There was probably not another buckle like that one in existence. An imitation? No more than its wearer, a girl as white as a white camellia, with gray eyes and thin black eyebrows, and thick black lashes that darkened the eyes all round. There was nothing noticeable in her dress except its freshness and a certain finish in lesser details, understood by the sophisticated. "Swell" was too common a word for her supreme and dainty elegance. Her resemblance to the ordinary full-fleshed type of Pacific coast belle was that of a portrait by Romney--possibly engraved by Cole--to a photograph of some reina de la fiesta. This was Mrs. Valentin's exaggerated way of putting it to herself. Such a passionate conservative as she was sure to be prejudiced.
The mother had a more pronounced individuality, as mothers are apt to have, and looked quite fit for the ordinary uses of life. She was of the benignant Roman-nosed Eastern type, daughter of generations of philanthropists and workers in the public eye for the public good; a deep, rich voice, an air of command, plain features, abundant gray hair, imported clothes, wonderful, keen, dark eyes overlapped by a fold of the crumpled eyelid,--a personage, a character, a life, full of complex energies and domineering good sense. With gold eye-glasses astride her high-bridged nose, knees crossed, one large, well-shod foot extended, this mother in Israel sat absorbed like a man in the daily paper, and wroth like a man at its contents. Occasionally she would emit an impatient protest in the deep, maternal tones, and the graceful daughter would turn her head and read over her shoulder in silent assent.
"How trivial, how self-centred we are!" Mrs. Valentin murmured, leaning across to claim a look from Elsie. "I realize it the moment we get outside our own little treadmill. We do nothing but take thought for what we shall eat and drink and wherewithal we shall be clothed. I haven't thought of the country once this morning. I've been wondering if all the good summer things are gone at Hollander's. It may be very hot in Boston the first few weeks. You will be wilted in your cloth suit."
"Oh, mammy, mammy! what a mammy!" purred Elsie, her pretty upper lip curling in the smile her mother loved--with a reservation. Elsie had her father's sense of humor, and had caught his half-caressing way of indulging it at the "intense" little mother's expense.
"Elsie," she observed, "you know I don't mind your way of speaking to me,--as if I were the girl of sixteen and you the woman of forty,--but I hope you won't use it before the aunts and cousins. I shall be sure to lay myself open, but, dear, be careful. It isn't very good form to be too amused with one's mother. Of course there's as much difference in mothers as in girls," Mrs. Valentin acknowledged. "A certain sort of temperament interferes with the profit one ought to get out of one's experience. If you had my temperament I shouldn't waste this two years' experiment on you; I should know that nothing could change your--spots. But you will learn--everything. How is your head, dear--what?"
Elsie had said nothing; she had not had the opportunity.
At a flag station where the train was halted (this overland train was a "local" as far as Sacramento) Mrs. Valentin looked out and saw a colored man in livery climb down from the back seat of a mail-cart and hasten across the platform with a huge paper box. It proved to be filled with magnificent roses, of which he was the bearer to the ladies opposite. A glance at a card was followed by gracious acknowledgments, and the footman retired beaming. He watched the train off, hat in hand, bowing to the ladies at their window as only a well-raised colored servant can bow.
"The Coudert place lies over there," said Mrs. Valentin, pointing to a mass of dark trees toward which the trap was speeding. "They have been staying there," she whispered, "doing the west coast, I suppose, with invitations to all the swell houses."
"Is your daughter not well?" the deep voice spoke across the car.
As Elsie could not ride backward, her mother, to give her room, and for the pleasure of watching her, was seated with her own back to the engine, facing most of the ladies in the car.
"She is a little train-sick; she could not eat this morning, and that always gives her a headache."
Elsie raised her eyelashes in faint dissent.
"She should eat something, surely. Have you tried malted milk? I have some of the lozenges; she can take one without raising her head."
Search was made in a distinguished-looking bag, Mrs. Valentin protesting against the trouble, and beseeching Elsie with her eyes to accept one from the little silver box of pastils that was passed across the aisle.
Elsie said she really could not--thanks very much.
The keen, dark eyes surveyed her with the look of a general inspecting raw troops, and Mrs. Valentin felt as depressed as the company officer who has been "working up" the troops. "Won't you try one, Elsie?" she pleaded.
"I'd rather not, mother," said Elsie.
She did not repeat her thanks to the great authority, but left her mother to cover her retreat.
"The young girls nowadays do pretty much as they please about eating or not eating," observed the Eastern matron, in her large, impersonal way. "They can match our theories with quite as good ones of their own." She smiled again at Elsie, and the overtures on that side ceased.
"I would have eaten any imaginable thing she offered me," sighed Mrs. Valentin, "but Elsie is so hard to impress. I cannot understand how a girl, a baby, who has never been anywhere or seen anything, can be so fearfully posee. It's the Valentin blood. It's the drop of Indian blood away, 'way back. It's their impassiveness, but it's awfully good form--when she grows up to it."
After this, Mrs. Valentin sat silent for such an unnatural length of time that Elsie roused herself to say something encouraging.
"I shall be all right, mother, after Sacramento. We will take a walk. The fresh air is all I need."
She was as good as her word. The cup of tea and the twenty minutes' stroll made such a happy difference that Mrs. Valentin sent a telegram to her husband to say that Elsie's head was better and that she had forgotten her trunk keys, and would he express them to her at once.
So much refreshed was Elsie that her mother handed her the letters which had come to her share of that morning's mail. There were four or five of them, addressed in large, girlish hands, and exhibiting the latest and most expensive fads in stationery. Over one of them Elsie gave a shriek of delight, an outburst so unexpected and out of character with her former self that their distinguished fellow travelers involuntarily looked up,--and Mrs. Valentin blushed for her child.
"Oh, mammy, how rich! How just like Gladys! She kept it for a last surprise! Mother, Gladys is going to Mrs. Barrington's herself."
The mother's face fell.
"Indeed!" she said, forcing a tone of pleasure. "Well, it's a compliment--on both sides. Mrs. Barrington is very particular whom she takes, and the Castants are sparing nothing that money can do for Gladys."
"Oh, what fun!" cried Elsie, her face transformed. "Poor Gladys! she'll have a perfectly awful time too, and we can sympathize."
"Are you expecting to have an 'awful time,' Elsie,"--the mother looked aghast,--"and are you going to throw yourself into the arms of Gladys for sympathy? Then let me say, my daughter, that neither Mrs. Barrington nor any one else can do much for your improvement, and all the money we are spending will be thrown away. If you are going East to ally yourself exclusively with Californian girls, to talk California and think California and set yourself against everything that is not Californian, we might just as well take the first train west at Colfax."
"But am I to be different to Gladys when we meet away from home?" Elsie's sensitive eyes clouded. Her brows went up.
"Of course not. Gladys is a dear, delightful girl. I'm as fond of her as you are. But you can have Gladys all the rest of your life, I hope. I'm not a snob, dear, but I do think we should recognize the fact that some acquaintances are more improving than others."
"And cultivate them for the sake of what they can do for us?"
In Elsie's voice there was an edge of resistance, hearing which her mother, when she was wise, would let speech die and silence do its work. Her influence with the girl was strongest when least insisted upon. She was not wiser than usual that morning, but the noise of the train made niceties of statement impossible. She abandoned the argument perforce, and Elsie, left with her retort unanswered, acknowledged its cheapness in her own quick, strong, wordless way.
The dining-car would not be attached to the train until they reached Ogden. At twilight they stopped "twenty minutes for refreshment," and the Valentins took the refreshment they needed most by pacing the platform up and down,--the tall daughter, in her severely cut clothes, shortening her boyish stride to match her mother's step; the mother, looking older than she need, in a light-gray traveling-cap, with Elsie's golf cape thrown over her silk waist.
The Eastern travelers were walking too. They had their tea out of an English tea-basket, and bread and butter from the buffet, and were independent of supper stations. With the Valentins it was sheer improvidence and want of appetite.
"Please notice that girl's step," said Mrs. Valentin, pressing Elsie's arm. "'Art is to conceal art.' It has taken years of the best of everything, and eternal vigilance besides, to create such a walk as that; but c'est fait. You don't see the entire sole of her foot every time she takes a step."
"Having a certain other person's soles in view, mammy?"
"I'm afraid I should have them in full view if you came to meet me. Not the heel quite so pronounced, dearest."
"Oh, mother, please leave that to Mrs. Barrington! Let us be comrades for these few days."
"Dearest, it would be the happiness of my life to be never anything but a comrade. But who is to nag a girl if not her mother? I very much doubt if Mrs. Barrington will condescend to speak of your boot-soles. She will expect all that to have been attended to long ago."
"It has been--a thousand years ago. Sometimes I feel that I'm all boot-soles."
"The moment I see some result, dear, I shall be satisfied. One doesn't speak of such things for their own sake."
"Can't we get a paper?" asked Elsie. "What is that they are shouting?"
"I don't think it can be anything new. We brought these papers with us on the train. But we can see. No; it's just what we had this morning. They are preparing for a general assault. There will be heavy fighting to-morrow. Why, that is to-day!" Mrs. Valentin held the newspaper at arm's length.
"Is there anything more? I can read only the head-lines."
The girl took the paper and looked at it with a certain reluctance, narrowing her eyelids.
"Mother, there was something else in Gladys's letter. Billy Castant has enlisted with the Rough Riders. He was in that fight at Las Guasimas, while we were packing our trunks. He did badly again in his exams, and he--he didn't go home; he just enlisted."
"The foolish fellow!" Mrs. Valentin exclaimed. A sharp intuition told her there was trouble in the wind, and defensively she turned upon the presumptive cause. "The foolish boy! What he needs is an education. But he won't work for it. It's easier to go off mad and be a Rough Rider."
"I don't think it was easy at Las Guasimas," Elsie said, with a strained little laugh. "You remember the last war, mother; did you belittle your volunteers?"
Mrs. Valentin listened with a catch in her breath. What did this portend? So slight a sign as that in Elsie meant tears and confessions from another girl.
"And did you hear of this only just now, from Gladys's letter?"
"You extraordinary child--your father all over again! I might have known by the way you laughed over that letter that you had bad news to tell--or keep to yourself."
"I don't call that bad news, do you, mother? He does need an education, but he will never get it out of books."
"Well, it's a pretty severe sort of education for his parents--nineteen, an only son, and to go without seeing them again. He might at least have come home and enlisted from his own State."
They were at the far end of the platform, facing the dark of the pine-clad ravines. Deep, odorous breaths of night wind came sighing up the slopes.
"Mother, there was something happened last winter that I never told you," Elsie began again, with pauses. "It was so silly, and there seemed no need to speak of it. But I can't bear not to speak now. I don't know if it has made any difference--with Billy's plans. It seems disloyal to tell you. But you must forget it: he's forgotten, I am sure. He said--those silly things, you know! I couldn't have told you then; it was too silly. And I said that I didn't think it was for him or for me to talk about such things. It was for men and women, not boys who couldn't even get their lessons."
"Elsie!" Mrs. Valentin gave a little choked laugh. "Did you say that? The poor boy! Why, I thought you were such good friends!"
"He wasn't talking friendship, mother, and I was furious with him for flunking his exams. He passed in only five out of seven. He ought to have done better than that. He's not stupid; it's that fatal popularity. He's captain of this and manager of that, and they give him such a lot of money. And they pet him, too; they make excuses for him all the time. I told him he must do something before he began to have feelings. The only feeling he had any right to have was shame for his miserable record."
"And that was all the encouragement you gave him?"
"If you call that 'encouragement,'" said Elsie.
"You did very well, my dear; but I suppose you know it was the most intimate thing you could have said to him, the greatest compliment you could pay him. If he ever does make any sort of a record, you have given him the right to come back to you with it."
"He will never come back to me without it," said the girl. "But it was nothing--nothing! All idleness and nonsense, and the music after supper that went to his head."
"I hope it was nothing more than"--Mrs. Valentin checked herself. There were things she said to her husband which sometimes threatened to slip out inadvertently when his youthful copy was near. "Well, I see nothing to be ashamed of, on your side. But such things are always a pity. They age a girl in spite of herself. And the boys--they simply forget. The rebuke does them good, but they forget to whom they owe it. It's just one of those things that make my girlie older. But oh, how fast life comes!"
Elsie slipped her hand under her mother's cloak, and Mrs. Valentin pressed her own down hard upon it.
"We must get aboard, dear. But I'm so glad you told me! And I didn't mean quite what I said about Billy's 'going off mad.' He has given all he had to give, poor boy; why he gave it is his own affair."
"I hope--what I told you--has made no difference about his coming home. It's stupid of me to think it. But hard words come back, don't they, mother? Hard words--to an old friend!"
"Billy is all right, dear; and it was so natural you should be tried with him! 'For to be wroth with one we'"--Mrs. Valentin had another of her narrow escapes. "Come, there is the porter waiting for us."
"Mother," said Elsie sternly, "please don't misunderstand. I should never have spoken of this if I had been 'wroth' with him--in that way."
"Of course not, dear; I understand. And it would never do, anyway, for father doesn't like the blood."
"Father doesn't like the--what, mother?"
Elsie asked the question half an hour later, as they sat in an adjoining section, waiting for their berths to be made up.
"What did you say father doesn't like--in the Castants?"
"Oh, the blood, the family. This generation is all right--apparently. But blood will tell. You are too young to know all the old histories that fathers and mothers read young people by."
"I think we are what we are," said Elsie; "we are not our great-grandfathers."
"In a measure we are, and it should teach us charity. Not as much can be expected of Billy Castant, coming of the stock he does, as you might expect of that ancestry," and Mrs. Valentin nodded toward the formidable Eastern contingent. (Elsie was consciously hating them already.) "The fountain can rise no higher than its source."
"I thought there was supposed to be a source a little higher than the ground--unless we are no more than earth-born fountains."
"'Out of the mouth of babes,'" said Mrs. Valentin, laughing gently. "I own it, dear. Middle age is suspicious and mean and unspiritual and troubled about many things. A middle-aged mother is like an old hen when hawks are sailing around; she can't see the sky."
"Yes," said Elsie, settling cosily against her mother's shoulder. "I always know when mammy speaks as my official mother, and when she is talking 'straight talk.' I shall be so happy when she believes I am old enough to hear only straight talk."
* * * * *
"I've got a surprise for you, Elsie," said Mrs. Valentin, a day and a night eastward of the Sierras. They were on the Great Plains, at that stage of an overland journey which suggests, in the words of a clever woman, the advisability of "taking a tuck in the continent."
Elsie's eyebrows seemed to portend that surprises are not always pleasant.
"I've been talking with our Eastern lady, and imagine! her daughter is one of Mrs. Barrington's girls too. This will be her second year. So there is"--
"An offset to Gladys," Elsie interrupted.
"So there is a chance for you to know one girl, at least, of the type I've always been holding up to you, always believed in, though the individuals are so rare."
Elsie's sentiments, unexpressed, were that she wished they might be rarer. Not that the flower of Eastern culture was not all her mother protested she was; but there are crises of discouragement on the upward climb of trying to realize a mother's ambitions for one's self, when one is only a girl--the only girl, on whom the family experiments are all to be wreaked. Elsie suffered in silence many a pang that her mother never dreamed of--pangs of effort unavailing and unappreciated. She wished to conform to her mother's exigent standard, but she could not, all at once, and be a girl too--a girl of sixteen, a little off the key physically, not having come to a woman's repose of movement; a little stridulous mentally, but pulsing with life's dumb music of aspiration; as intense as her mother in feeling, without her mother's power to throw off the strain in words.
"Well, mother?" she questioned.
"She is older than you, and she will be at home. The advances, of course, must come from her, but I hope, dear, you will not be--you will try to be responsive?"
"I never know, mother, when I am not responsive. It's like wrinkling my forehead; it does itself."
Mrs. Valentin made a gesture expressive of the futility of argument under certain not unfamiliar conditions.
"'You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.' I am leading my Pegasus to the fountain of--what was the fountain?"
Elsie laughed. "Your Pegasus is pretty heavy on the wing, mammy. But I will drink. I will gorge myself, truly I will. The money shall not be spent in vain."
"Oh, the money! Who cares about the money?--if only there were more of it."
They stopped over night in Chicago, and Mrs. Valentin bought some shirt-waists; for the heat had "doubled up on them," as a Kansas farmer on the train remarked.
Elsie trailed about the shops with her mother, not greatly interested in shirt-waists or bargains in French underclothing.
The war pressure seemed to close in upon them as they left the mid-West and drew toward the coast once more. The lists from El Caney were throbbing over the wires, and the country, so long immune from peril and suffering, was awakening to the cost of victory. There was a terrible flippancy in the irrepressible spirit of trade which had seized upon the nation's emblems, freshly consecrated in the blood of her sons, and was turning them to commercial account,--advertising, in symbols of death and priceless devotion, that ribbons or soap or candy were for sale. The flag was, so to speak, dirt-cheap. You could wear it in a hatband or a necktie; you could deface it, or tear it in two, in opening an envelope addressed to you by your bootmaker.
Elsie cast hunted eyes on the bulletin boards. She knew by heart that first list after Las Guasimas. One glance had burned it in forever. It had become one of the indelible scars of a lifetime. Yet those were the names of strangers. If a whiff from an avalanche can fell trees a mile away, how if the avalanche strike you?
They returned to their hotel, exhausted, yet excited, by the heat; and Mrs. Valentin admonished herself of what our boys must be suffering in that "unimaginable climate," and she entered into details, forgetting to spare Elsie, till the girl turned a sickly white.
It was then the bishop's card was sent up--their own late bishop, much mourned and deplored because he had been transferred to an Eastern diocese. There could be no one so invariably welcome, who knew so well, without effort, how to touch the right chord, whether in earnest or in jest that sometimes hid a deeper earnest. His manner at first usually hovered between the two, your own mood determining where the emphasis should rest. He had brought with him the evening paper, but he kept it folded in his hand.
"So you are pilgrims to Mecca," he said, looking from mother to daughter with his gentle, musing smile. "But are you not a little early for the Eastern schools?"
"There are the home visits first, and the clothes," said Mrs. Valentin.
"And where do you stop, and for how long?"
"Boston, for one year, Bishop, and then we go abroad for a year, perhaps."
"Bless me! what has Elsie done that she should be banished from home for two years?"
"She takes her mother with her."
"Yes; that is half of the home. Perhaps that's as much as one girl ought to expect."
"The fathers are so busy, Bishop."
"Yes; the fathers do seem to be busy. So Elsie is going East to be finished? And how old is she now? How does she presume to account for the fact that she is taller than her mother and nearly as tall as her bishop?"
Elsie promptly placed herself at the bishop's side and "measured," glancing over her shoulder at him in the glass. He turned and gravely placed his hand upon her head.
"I thought of writing to you at one time," said Mrs. Valentin, "but of course you cannot keep us all on your mind. We are a 'back number.'"
"She thought I would have forgotten who these Valentins were," said the bishop, smiling.
"No; but you cannot keep the thread of all our troubles--the sheep of the old flock and the lambs of the new. I have had a thousand minds lately about Elsie, but this was the original plan, made years ago, when we were young and sure about things. Don't you think young lives need room, Bishop? Oughtn't we to seek to widen their mental horizons?"
"The horizons widen, they widen of themselves, Mrs. Valentin--very suddenly sometimes, and beyond our ken." The bishop's voice had struck a deeper note; he paused and looked at Elsie with eyes so kind and tender that the girl choked and turned away. "This war is rather a widening business, and California is getting her share. Our boys of the First, for instance,--you see I still call them our boys,--what were they doing a year ago, and what are they doing now? I'll be bound half of them a year ago didn't know how 'Philippines' was spelled."
Mrs. Valentin became restless.
"Is that the evening paper?" she asked.
The bishop glanced at the paper. "And who," said he, "is to open the gates of sunrise for our Elsie? With whom do you intend to place her in Boston?"
"Oh, with Mrs. Barrington."
Mrs. Valentin was watching the bishop, whose eyes still rested upon Elsie.
"She is to be one of the chosen five, is she? The five wise virgins--of the East? But they are all Western virgins this year, I believe."
"If you mean that they are all from the Western States, I think you are mistaken, Bishop."
"Am I? Let us see. There is Elsie, and Gladys Castant, perhaps, and the daughters of my friend Mr. Laws of West Dakota"--
"Of West Dakota; that makes four. And then the young lady who was on the train with you, Miss Bigelow, from Los Angeles."
"Bishop! I am certain you are mistaken there. If those people are not Eastern, then I'm from West Dakota myself!"
"We are all from West Dakota virtually, so far as Mecca is concerned. But Mrs. Barrington offers her young ladies those exceptional social opportunities which Western girls are supposed to need. If you want Elsie to be with Eastern girls of the East, let her go to a good Boston Latin school. Did you not go to one yourself, Mrs. Valentin?"
Mrs. Valentin laughed. "That was ages ago, and I was at home. I had the environment--an education in itself. Won't you dine with us, Bishop? We shall have dinner in half an hour."
"In half an hour I must be on the limited express. You seem to have made different connections."
"'The error was, we started wrong,'" said Mrs. Valentin lightly. "We took the morning instead of the evening train. But I was convinced we should be left, and I preferred to get left by the wrong train and have the right one to fall back on." She ceased her babble, as vain words die when there is a sense of no one listening.
Elsie stood at the window looking back into the room. She thought, "Mother doesn't know what she is saying. What is she worried about?"
The bishop was writing with a gold pencil on the margin of the newspaper. He folded it with the writing on top.
"If you had consulted me about that child,"--he looked at Elsie,--"I should have said, 'Do not hurry her--do not hurry her. Her education will come as God sends it.' With experience, as with death, it is the prematureness that hurts."
His beautiful voice and perfect accent filled the silence with heart-warmed cadences.
"Well, good-by, Mrs. Valentin. Remember me to that busy husband."
Mrs. Valentin rose; the bishop took her hand. "Elsie will see me to the elevator. This is the evening paper."
He offered it with the writing toward her. Mrs. Valentin read what he had written: "Billy Castant was killed in the charge at San Juan. Every man in that fight deserves the thanks of the nation."
"Come, Elsie, see me to my carriage," the bishop was saying. He placed the girl's hand on his arm and led her out of the room. At the elevator grating they waited a moment; the cold draft up the shaft fanned the hair back from Elsie's forehead as she stood looking down, watching the ascent of the cage.
"It would be a happy thing," said the bishop, "if parents could always go with their children on these long roads of experience; but there are some roads the boys and the girls will have to take alone. We shall all meet at the other end, though--we shall all meet at the end."
Elsie walked up and down the hall awhile, dreading to go back to the room. A band in the street below was playing an old war-song of the sixties, revived this battle summer of '98,--a song that was sung when the cost of that war was beginning to tell, "We shall meet, but we shall miss him." Elsie knew the music; she had not yet learned the words.
Next morning Mr. Valentin received one of his wife's vague but thrifty telegrams, dated at Chicago, on Sunday night, July 3:
"We cannot go through with it. Expect us home Wednesday."
Mrs. Valentin had spent hours, years, in explaining to Elsie's father the many cogent and crying reasons for taking her East to be finished. It needed not quite five minutes to explain why she had brought her back.
Strangely, none of the friends of the family asked for an explanation of this sudden change of plan. But Elsie envies Gladys her black clothes, and the privilege of crying in public when the bands play and the troops go by.
"Such children--such mere children!" Mrs. Valentin sighs.
But she no longer speaks to Elsie about wrinkling her forehead or showing her boot-soles. It is eye to eye and heart to heart, and only straight talk between them now, as between women who know.