Michael O'Halloran by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter II. Moccasins and Lady Slippers
"No messenger boy for those," said Douglas Bruce as he handed the florist the price set on the lady slippers. "Leave them where people may enjoy them until I call."
As he turned, another man was inquiring about the orchids; he too preferred the slippers; but when he was told they were taken, he had wanted the moccasins all the time, anyway. The basket was far more attractive. He refused delivery, returning to his waiting car smiling over the flowers. He also saw a vision of the woman into whose sated life he hoped to bring a breath of change with the wonderful gift. He saw the basket in her hands, and thrilled in anticipation of the favours her warmed heart might prompt her to bestow upon him.
In the mists of early morning the pink orchids surrounded by rosemary and ladies' tresses had glowed and gleamed from the top of a silvery moss mound four feet deep, under a big tamarack in a swamp, through the bog of which the squaw plunged to her knees at each step to uproot them. In the evening glow of electricity, snapped from their stems, the beautiful basket untouched, the moccasins lay on the breast of a woman of fashion, while with every second of contact with the warmth of her body, they drooped lower, until clasped in the arms of her lover, they were quite crushed, then flung from an automobile to be ground to pulp by passing wheels.
The slippers had a happier fate. Douglas Bruce carried them reverently. He was sure he knew the swamp in which they grew. As he went his way, he held the basket, velvet-white, in strong hands, swaying his body with the motion of the car lest one leaf be damaged. When he entered the hall, down the stairs came Leslie Winton.
"Why Douglas, I wasn't expecting you," she said.
Douglas Bruce held up the basket.
"Joy!" she cried. "Oh joy unspeakable! Who has been to the tamarack swamp?"
"A squaw was leaving Lowry's as he put these in his window," answered Douglas.
"Bring them," she said.
He followed to a wide side veranda, set the basket on a table in a cool spot, then drew a chair near it. Leslie Winton seated herself, leaning on the table to study the orchids. Unconsciously she made the picture Douglas had seen. She reached up slim fingers in delicate touchings here and there of moss, corolla and slipper.
"Never in all my days--" she said. "Never in all my days--I shall keep the basket always, and the slippers as long as I possibly can. See this one! It isn't fully open. I should have them for a week at least. Please hand me a glass of water."
Douglas started to say that ice water would be too cold, but with the wisdom of a wise man waited; and as always, was joyed by the waiting. For the girl took the glass and cupping her hands around it sat talking to the flowers, and to him, as she warmed the water with heat from her body. Douglas was so delighted with the unforeseen second that had given him first chance at the orchids, and so this unexpected call, that he did not mind the attention she gave the flowers. He had reasons for not being extravagant; but seldom had a like sum brought such returns. He began drawing interest as he watched Leslie. Never had her form seemed so perfect, her dress so becoming and simple. How could other women make a vulgar display in the same pattern that clothed her modestly? How wonderful were the soft coils of her hair, the tints paling and flushing on her cheeks, her shining eyes! Why could not all women use her low, even, perfectly accented speech and deliberate self-control?
He was in daily intercourse with her father, a high official of the city, a man of education, social position, and wealth. Mr. Winton had reared his only child according to his ideas; but Douglas, knowing these things, believed in blood also. As Leslie turned and warmed the water, watching her, the thought was strong in his mind: what a woman her mother must have been! Each day he was with Leslie, he saw her do things that no amount of culture could instil. Instinct and tact are inborn; careful rearing may produce a good imitation, they are genuine only with blood. Leslie had always filled his ideal of a true woman. To ignore him for his gift would have piqued many a man; Douglas Bruce was pleased.
"You wonders!" she said softly. "Oh you wonders! When the mists lifted in the marshes this morning, and the first ray of gold touched you to equal goldness, you didn't know you were coming to me. I almost wish I could put you back. Just now you should be in such cool mistiness, while you should be hearing a hermit thrush sing vespers, a cedar bird call, and a whip- poor-will cry. But I'm glad I have you! Oh I'm so glad you came to me! I never materialized a whole swamp with such vividness as only this little part of it brings. Douglas, when you caught the first glimpse of these, how far into the swamp did you see past them?"
"To the heart--of the swamp--and of my heart."
"I can see it as perfectly as I ever did," she said. "But I eliminate the squaw; possibly because I didn't see her. And however exquisite the basket is, she broke the law when she peeled a birch tree. I'll wager she brought this to Lowry, carefully covered. And I'm not sure but there should have been a law she broke when she uprooted these orchids. Much as I love them, I doubt if I can keep them alive, and bring them to bloom next season. I'll try, but I don't possess flower magic in the highest degree."
She turned the glass, touching it with questioning palm. Was it near the warmth of bog water? After all, was bog water warm? Next time she was in a swamp she would plunge her hand deeply in the mosses to feel the exact temperature to which those roots had been accustomed. Then she spoke again.
"Yes, I eliminate the squaw," she said. "These golden slippers are the swamp to me, but I see you kneeling to lift them. I am so glad I'm the woman they made you see."
Douglas sat forward and opened his lips. Was not this the auspicious moment?
"Did the squaw bring more?" she questioned.
"Yes," he answered. "Pink moccasins in a basket of red osiers, with the same moss, rosemary and white tresses. Would you rather those?"
She set down the glass, drawing the basket toward her with both hands. As she parted the mosses to drop in the water she slowly shook her head.
"One must have seen them to understand what that would be like," she said. "I know it was beautiful, but I'm sure I should have selected the gold had I been there. Oh I wonder if the woman who has the moccasins will give them a drink to-night! And will she try to preserve their roots?"
"She will not!" said Douglas emphatically.
"How can you possibly know?" queried the girl.
"I saw the man who ordered them," laughed Douglas.
"Oh!" cried Leslie, comprehendingly.
"I'd stake all I'm worth the moccasins are drooping against a lavender dress; the roots are in the garbage can, while the cook or maid has the basket," he said.
"Douglas, how can you!" exclaimed Leslie.
"I couldn't! Positively couldn't! Mine are here!"
The slow colour crept into her cheek. "I'll make those roots bloom next spring; you shall see them in perfection," she promised.
"That would be wonderful!" he exclaimed warmly.
"Tell me, were there yet others?" she asked hastily.
"Only these," he said. "But there was something else. I came near losing them. While I debated, or rather while I possessed these, and worshipped the others, there was a gutter row that almost made me lose yours."
"In the gutter again?" she laughed.
"Once again," he admitted. "Such a little chap, with an appealing voice, while his inflection was the smallest part of what he was saying. 'Aw kid, come on. Be square!' Oh Leslie!"
"Why Douglas!" the girl cried. "Tell me!"
"Of all the wooden-head slowness!" he exclaimed. "I've let him slip again!"
"Let who 'slip again?'" questioned Leslie. "My little brother!" answered he.
"Oh Douglas! You didn't really?" she protested.
"Yes I did," he said. "I heard a little lad saying the things that are in the blood and bone of the men money can't buy and corruption can't break. I heard him plead like a lawyer and argue his case straight. I lent a hand when his eloquence failed, got him his deserts, then let him go! I did have an impulse to keep him. I did call after him. But he disappeared."
"Douglas, we can find him!" she comforted.
"I haven't found either of the others I realized I'd have been interested in, after I let them slip," he answered, "while this boy was both of them rolled into one, and ten more like them."
"Oh Douglas! I'm so sorry! But maybe some other man has already found him," said Leslie.
"No. You can always pick the brothered boys," said Douglas. "The first thing that happens to them is a clean-up and better clothing; then an air of possessed importance. No man has attached this one."
"Douglas, describe him," she commanded. "I'll watch for him. How did he look? What was the trouble?"
"One at a time," cautioned the man. "He was a little chap, a white, clean, threadbare little chap, with such a big voice, so wonderfully intoned, and such a bigger principle, for which he was fighting. One of these overgrown newsboys the public won't stand for unless he is in the way when they are making a car, had hired him to sell his papers while he loafed. Mickey----"
"'Mickey?'" repeated Leslie questioningly.
"The big fellow called him 'Mickey'; no doubt a mother who adored him named him Michael, and thought him 'like unto God' when she did it. The big fellow had loafed all afternoon. When Mickey came back and turned over the money, and waited to be paid off, his employer laughed at the boy for not keeping it when he had it. Mickey begged him 'to be square' and told him that 'was not business'--'not business,' mind you, but the big fellow jeered at him and was starting away. Mickey and I reached him at the same time; so I got in the gutter again. I don't see how I can be so slow! I don't see how I did it!"
"I don't either," she said, with a twinkle that might have referred to the first of the two exclamations. "It must be your Scotch habit of going slowly and surely. But cheer up! We'll find him. I'll help you."
"Have you reflected on the fact that this city covers many square miles, of which a fourth is outskirts, while from them three thousand newsboys gathered at the last Salvation Army banquet for them?"
"That's where we can find him!" she cried. "Thanksgiving, or Christmas! Of course we'll see him then."
"Mickey didn't have a Salvation Army face," he said. "I am sure he is a free lance, and a rare one; besides, this is May. I want my little brother to go on my vacation with me. I want him now."
"Would it help any if I'd be a sister to you?"
"Not a bit," said Douglas. "I don't in the very least wish to consider you in the light of a sister; you have another place in my heart, very different, yet all your own; but I do wish to make of Mickey the little brother I never have had. Minturn was telling me what a rejuvenation he's getting from the boy he picked up. Already he has him in his office, and is planning school and partnership with a man he can train as he chooses."
"But Minturn has sons of his own!" protested Leslie.
"Oh no! Not in the least!" exclaimed Douglas. "Minturn has sons of his wife's. She persistently upsets and frustrates Minturn's every idea for them, while he is helpless. You will remember she has millions; he has what he earns. He can't separate his boys, splendid physical little chaps, from their mother's money and influence, and educate them to be a help to him. They are to be made into men of wealth and leisure. Minturn will evolve his little brother into a man of brains and efficiency."
"But Minturn is a power!" cried the girl.
"Not financially," explained Douglas. "Nothing but money counts with his wife. In telling me of this boy, Minturn confessed that he was forced, forced mind you, to see his sons ruined, while he is building a street gamin as he would them, if permitted."
"How sad, Douglas!" cried Leslie. "Your voice is bitter. Can't he do something?"
"Not a blooming thing!" answered Douglas. "She has the money. She is their mother. Her character is unimpeachable. If Minturn went to extremes, the law would give them to her; she would turn them over to ignorant servants who would corrupt them, and be well paid for doing it. Why Minturn told me--but I can't repeat that. Anyway, he made me eager to try my ideas on a lad who would be company for me, when I can't be here and don't wish to be with other men."
"Are you still going to those Brotherhood meetings?"
"I am. And I always shall be. Nothing in life gives me such big returns for the time invested. There is a world of talk breaking loose about the present 'unrest' among women; I happen to know that the 'unrest' is as deep with men. For each woman I personally know, bitten by 'unrest,' I know two men in the same condition. As long as men and women are forced to combine, to uphold society, it is my idea that it would be a good thing if there were to be a Sisterhood organized; then the two societies frankly brought together and allowed to clear up the differences between them."
"But why not?" asked the girl eagerly.
"Because we are pursuing false ideals, we have a wrong conception of what is worth while in life," answered the Scotsman. "Because the sexes except in rare, very rare, instances, do not understand each other, and every day are drifting farther apart, while most of the married folk I know are farthest apart of all. Leslie, what is it in marriage that constrains people? We can talk, argue and agree or disagree on anything, why can't the Minturns?"
"From what you say, it would seem to me it's her idea of what is worth while in life," said Leslie.
"Exactly!" cried Douglas. "But he can sway men! He can do powerful work. He could induce her to marry him. Why can't he control his own blood?"
"If she should lose her money and become dependent upon him for support, he could!" said Leslie.
"He should do it anyway," insisted Douglas.
"Do you think you could?" she queried.
"I never thought myself in his place," said Douglas, "but I believe I will, and if I see glimmerings, I'll suggest them to him."
"Good boy!" said the girl lightly. And then she added: "Do you mind if I think myself in her place and see if I can suggest a possible point at which she could be reached? I know her. I shouldn't consider her happy. At least not with what I call joy."
"What do you call joy?" asked Douglas.
"Being satisfied with your environment."
Douglas glanced at her, then at her surroundings, and looking into her eyes laughed quizzically.
"But if it were different, I am perfectly confident that I should work out joy from life," insisted Leslie. "It owes me joy! I'll have it, if I fight for it!"
"Leslie! Leslie! Be careful! You are challenging Providence. Stronger men than I have wrought chaos for their children," said a warning voice, as her father came behind her chair.
"Chaos or no, still I'd put up my fight for joy, Daddy," laughed the girl. "Only see, Preciousest!"
"One minute!" said her father, shaking hands with Douglas. "Now what is it, Leslie? Oh, I do see!"
"Take my chair and make friends," said the girl.
Mr. Winton seated himself, then began examining and turning the basket. "Indians?" he queried.
"Yes," said Douglas. "A particularly greasy squaw. I wish I might truthfully report an artist's Indian of the Minnehaha type, but alack, it was the same one I've seen ever since I've been in the city, and that you've seen for years before my arrival."
Mr. Winton still turned the basket.
"I've bought their stuff for years, because neither Leslie nor her mother ever would tolerate fat carnations and overgrown roses so long as I could find a scrap of arbutus, a violet or a wake-robin from the woods. We've often motored up and penetrated the swamp I fancy these came from, for some distance, but later in the season; it's so very boggy now. Aren't these rather wonderful?" He turned to his daughter.
"Perfectly, Daddy," she said. "Perfectly!"
"But I don't mean for the Creator," explained Mr. Winton. "I am accustomed to His miracles. Every day I see a number of them. I mean for the squaw."
"I'd have to know the squaw and understand her viewpoint," said Leslie.
"She had it in her tightly clenched fist," laughed Douglas. "One, I'm sure; anyway, not over two."
"That hasn't a thing to do with the art with which she made the basket and filled it with just three perfect plants," said Leslie.
"You think there is real art in her anatomy?" queried Mr. Winton.
"Bear witness, O you treasures of gold!" cried Leslie, waving toward the basket.
"There was another," explained Douglas as he again described the osier basket.
Mr. Winton nodded. He looked at his daughter.
"I like to think, young woman, that you were born with and I have cultivated what might be called artistic taste in you," he said. "Granted the freedom of the tamarack swamp, could you have done better?"
"Not so well, Daddy! Not nearly so well. I never could have defaced what you can see was a noble big tree by cutting that piece of bark, while I might have worshipped until dragged away, but so far as art and I are concerned, the slippers would still be under their tamarack."
"You are begging the question, Leslie," laughed her father. "I was not discussing the preservation of the wild, I was inquiring into the state of your artistic ability. If you had no hesitation about taking the flowers, could you have gone to that swamp, collected the material and fashioned and filled a more beautiful basket that this?"
"How can I tell, Daddy?" asked the girl. "There's only one way to learn. I'll forget my scruples, you get me a pair of rubber boots, then we'll drive to the tamarack swamp and experiment."
"We'll do it!" cried Mr. Winton. "The very first half day I can spare, we'll do it. And you Douglas, you will want to come with us, of course."
"Why, 'of course,'" laughed Leslie.
"Because he started the expedition with his golden slippers. When it come to putting my girl, and incidentally my whole family, in competition with an Indian squaw on a question of art, naturally, her father and one of her best friends would want to be present."
"But maybe 'Minnie' went alone, and what chance would her work have with you two for judges?" asked Leslie.
"We needn't be the judges," said Douglas Bruce quietly.
"We can put this basket in the basement in a cool, damp place, where it will keep perfectly for a week. When you make your basket we can find the squaw and bring her down with us. Lowry could display the results side by side. He could call up whomever you consider the most artistic man and woman in the city and get their decision. You'd be willing to abide by that, wouldn't you?"
"Surely, but it wouldn't be fair to the squaw," explained Leslie. "I'd have had the benefit of her art to begin on."
"It would," said Mr. Winton. "Does not every artist living, painter, sculptor, writer, what you will, have the benefit of all art that has gone before?"
"You agree?" Leslie turned to Douglas.
"Your father's argument is a truism."
"But I will know that I am on trial. She didn't. Is it fair to her?" persisted Leslie.
"For begging the question, commend me to a woman," said Mr. Winton. "The point we began at, was not what you could do in a contest with her. She went to the swamp and brought from it some flower baskets. It is perfectly fair to her to suppose that they are her best art. Now what we are proposing to test is whether the finest product of our civilization, as embodied in you, can go to the same swamp, and from the same location surpass her work. Do I make myself clear?"
"Perfectly clear, Daddy, and it would be fair," conceded Leslie. "But it is an offence punishable with a heavy fine to peel a birch tree; while I wouldn't do it, if it were not."
"Got her to respect the law anyway," said Mr. Winton to Douglas. "The proposition, Leslie, was not that you do the same thing, but that from the same source you outdo her. You needn't use birch bark if it involves your law-abiding soul."
"Then it's all settled. You must hurry and take me before the lovely plants have flowered," said Leslie.
"I'll go day after to-morrow," promised Mr. Winton.
"In order to make our plan work, it is necessary that I keep these orchids until that time," said Leslie.
"You have a better chance than the lady who drew the osier basket has of keeping hers," said Mr. Winton. "If I remember I have seen the slippers in common earth quite a distance from the lake, while the moccasins demand bog moss, water and swamp mists and dampness."
"I have seen slippers in the woods myself," said Leslie. "I think the conservatory will do, so they shall go there right now. I have to be fair to 'Minnie.'"
"Let me carry them for you," offered Douglas, arising.
"'Scuse us. Back in a second, Daddy," said Leslie. "I am interested, excited and eager to make the test, yet in a sense I do not like it."
"But why?" asked Douglas.
"Can't you see?" countered Leslie.
"No," said Douglas.
"It's shifting my sense of possession," explained the girl. "The slippers are no longer my beautiful gift from you. They are perishable things that belong to an Indian squaw. In justice to her, I have to keep them in perfect condition so that my work may not surpass hers with the unspeakable art of flower freshness; while instead of thinking them the loveliest thing in the world, I will now lie awake half the night, no doubt, studying what I can possibly find that is more beautiful."
Douglas Bruce opened his slow lips, taking a step in her direction.
"Dinner is served," announced her father. He looked inquiringly toward his daughter. She turned to Douglas.
"Unless you have a previous engagement, you will dine with us, won't you?" she asked.
"I should be delighted," he said heartily.
When the meal was over and they had returned to the veranda, Leslie listened quietly while the men talked, most of the time, but when she did speak, what she said proved that she always had listened to and taken part in the discussions of men, until she understood and could speak of business or politics intelligently.
"Have you ever considered an official position, Douglas?" inquired Mr. Winton. "I have an office within my gift, or so nearly so that I can control it, and it seems to me that you would be a good man. Surely we could work together in harmony."
"It never has appealed to me that I wanted work of that nature," answered Douglas. "It's unusually kind of you to think of me, and make the offer, but I am satisfied with what I am doing, while there is a steady increase in my business that gives me confidence."
"What's your objection to office?" asked Mr. Winton.
"That it takes your time from your work," answered Douglas. "That it changes the nature of your work. That if you let the leaders of a party secure you a nomination, and the party elect you, you are bound to their principles, at least there is a tacit understanding that you are, and if you should happen to be afflicted with principles of your own, then you have got to sacrifice them."
"'Afflict' is a good word in this instance," said Mr. Winton. "It is painful to a man of experience to see you young fellows of such great promise come up and 'kick' yourself half to death 'against the pricks' of established business, parties, and customs, but half of you do it. In the end all of you come limping in, poor, disheartened, defeated, and then swing to the other extreme, by being so willing for a change you'll take almost anything, and so the dirty jobs naturally fall to you."
"I grant much of that," Douglas said, in his deliberate way, "but happily I have sufficient annual income from my father's estate to enable me to live until I become acquainted in a strange city, and have time to establish the kind of business I should care to handle. I am thinking of practising corporation law; I specialized in that, so I may have the pleasure before so very long of going after some of the men who do what you so aptly term the 'dirty' jobs."
"A repetition of the customary chorus," said Mr. Winton, "differing only in that it is a little more emphatic than usual. I predict that you will become an office-holder, having party affiliations, inside ten years."
"Possibly," said Douglas. "But I'll promise you this: it will be a new office no man ever before has held, in the gift of a party not now in existence."
"Oh you dreamers!" cried Mr. Winton. "What a wonderful thing it is to be young and setting out to reform the world, especially on a permanent income. That's where you surpass most reformers."
"But I said nothing about reform," corrected Douglas. "I said I was thinking of corporation law."
"I'm accustomed to it; while you wouldn't scare Leslie if you said 'reform,'" remarked Mr. Winton. "She's a reformer herself, you know."
"But only sweat-shops, child labour, civic improvement, preservation of the wild, and things like that!" cried Leslie so quickly and eagerly, that both men laughed.
"God be praised!" exclaimed her father.
"God be fervently praised!" echoed her lover.
Before she retired Leslie visited the slippers.
"I'd like to know," she said softly, as she touched a bronze striped calyx, "I'd like to know how I am to penetrate your location, and find and fashion anything to outdo you and the squaw, you wood creatures you!" Then she bent above the flowers and whispered: "Tuck this in the toe of your slipper! Three times to-night it was in his eyes, and on his tongue, but his slowness let the moment pass. I can 'bide a wee' for my Scotsman, I can bide forever, if I must; for it's he only, and no other."
The moccasins soon had been ground to pulp and carried away on a non-skid tire while at three o'clock in the morning a cross, dishevelled society woman, in passing from her dressing room to her bed, stumbled over the osier basket, kicking it from her way.