The Desert and The Sown by Mary Hallock Foote
I. A Council of the Elders
It was an evening of sudden mildness following a dry October gale. The colonel had miscalculated the temperature by one log--only one, he declared, but that had proved a pitchy one, and the chimney bellowed with flame. From end to end the room was alight with it, as if the stored-up energies of a whole pine-tree had been sacrificed in the consumption of that four-foot stick.
The young persons of the house had escaped, laughing, into the fresh night air, but the colonel was hemmed in on every side; deserted by his daughter, mocked by the work of his own hands, and torn between the duties of a host and the host's helpless craving for his after-dinner cigar.
Across the hearth, filling with her silks all the visible room in his own favorite settle corner, sat the one woman on earth it most behooved him to be civil to,--the future mother-in-law of his only child. That Moya was a willing, nay, a reckless hostage, did not lessen her father's awe of the situation.
Mrs. Bogardus, according to her wont at this hour, was composedly doing nothing. The colonel could not make his retreat under cover of her real or feigned absorption in any of the small scattering pursuits which distract the female mind. When she read she read--she never "looked at books." When she sewed she sewed--presumably, but no one ever saw her do it. Her mind was economic and practical, and she saved it whole, like many men of force, for whatever she deemed her best paying sphere of action.
It was a silence that crackled with heat! The colonel, wrathfully perspiring in the glow of that impenitent stick, frowned at it like an inquisitor. Presently Mrs. Bogardus looked up, and her expression softened as she saw the energetic despair upon his face.
"Colonel, don't you always smoke after dinner?"
"That is my bad habit, madam. I belong to the generation that smokes--after dinner and most other times--more than is good for us." Colonel Middleton belonged also to the generation that can carry a sentence through to the finish in handsome style, and he did it with a suave Virginian accent as easy as his seat in the saddle. Mrs. Bogardus always gave him her respectful attention during his best performances, though she was a woman of short sentences herself.
"Don't you smoke in this room sometimes?" she asked, with a barely perceptible sniff the merest contraction of her housewifely nostrils.
"Ah--h! Those rascally curtains and cushions! You ladies--women, I should say--Moya won't let me say ladies--you bolster us up with comforts on purpose to betray us!"
"You can say 'ladies' to me," smiled the very handsome one before him. "That's the generation I belong to."
The colonel bowed playfully. "Well, you know, I don't detect myself, but there's no doubt I have infected the premises."
"Open fires are good ventilators. I wish you would smoke now. If you don't, I shall have to go away, and I'm exceedingly comfortable."
"You are exceedingly charming to say so--on top of that last stick, too!" The colonel had Irish as well as Virginian progenitors. "Well," he sighed, proceeding to make himself conditionally happy, "Moya will never forgive me! We spoil each other shamefully when we're alone, but of course we try to jack each other up when company comes. It's a great comfort to have some one to spoil, isn't it, now? I needn't ask which it is in your family!"
"The spoiled one?" Mrs. Bogardus smiled rather coldly. "A woman we had for governess, when Christine was a little thing, used to say: 'That child is the stuff that tyrants are made of!' Tyrants are made by the will of their subjects, don't you think, generally speaking?"
"Well, you couldn't have made a tyrant of your son, Mrs. Bogardus. He's the Universal Spoiler! He'll ruin my striker, Jephson. I shall have to send the fellow back to the ranks. I don't know how you keep a servant good for anything with Paul around."
"Paul thinks he doesn't like to be waited on," Paul's mother observed shrewdly. "He says that only invalids, old people, and children have any claim on the personal service of others."
"By George! I found him blacking his own boots!"
Mrs. Bogardus laughed.
"But I'm paying a man to do it for him. It upsets my contract with that other fellow for Paul to do his work. We have a claim on what we pay for in this world."
"I suppose we have. But Paul thinks that nothing can pay the price of those artificial relations between man and man. I think that's the way he puts it."
"Good Heavens! Has the boy read history? It's a relation that began when the world was made, and will last while men are in it."
"I am not defending Paul's ideas, Colonel. I have a great sympathy with tyrants myself. You must talk to him. He will amuse you."
"My word! It's a ticklish kind of amusement when we get talking. Why, the boy wants to turn the poor old world upside down--make us all stand on our heads to give our feet a rest. Now, I respect my feet,"--the colonel drew them in a little as the lady's eyes involuntarily took the direction of his allusion,--"I take the best care I can of them; but I propose to keep my head, such as it is, on top, till I go under altogether. These young philanthropists! They assume that the Hands and the Feet of the world, the class that serves in that capacity, have got the same nerves as the Brain."
"There's a sort of connection," said Mrs. Bogardus carelessly. "Some of our Heads have come from the class that you call the Hands and Feet, haven't they?"
The colonel admitted the fact, but the fact was the exception. "Why, that's just the matter with us now! We've got no class of legislators. I don't wish to plume myself, but, upon my word, the two services are about all we have left to show what selection and training can do. And we're only just getting the army into shape, after the raw material that was dumped into it by the civil war."
"Weren't you in the civil war yourself?"
"I was--a West Pointer, madam; and I was true to my salt and false to my blood. But, the flag over all!--at the cost of everything I held dear on earth." After this speech the colonel looked hotter than ever and a trifle ashamed of himself.
Mrs. Bogardus's face wore its most unobservant expression. "I don't agree with Paul," she said. "I wish in some ways he were more like other young men--exercise, for instance. It's a pity for young men not to love activity and leadership. Besides, it's the fashion. A young man might as well be out of the world as out of the fashion. Blood is a strange thing," she mused.
The colonel looked at her curiously. In a woman so unfrank, her occasional bursts of frankness were surprising and, as he thought, not altogether complimentary. It was as if she felt herself so far removed from his conception of her that she might say anything she pleased, sure of his miscomprehension.
"He is not lazy intellectually," said the colonel, aiming to comfort her.
"I did not say he was lazy--only he won't do things except to what he calls some 'purpose.' At his age amusement ought to be purpose enough. He ought to take his pleasures seriously--this hunting-trip, for instance. I believe, on the very least encouragement, he would give it all up!"
"You mustn't let him do that," said the colonel, warming. "All that country above Yankee Fork, for a hundred miles, after you've gone fifty north from Bonanza, is practically virgin forest. Wonderful flora and fauna! It's late for the weeds and things, but if Paul wants game trophies for your country-house, he can load a pack-train."
Mrs. Bogardus continued to be amused, in a quiet way. "He calls them relics of barbarism! He would as soon festoon his walls with scalps, as decorate them with the heads of beautiful animals,--nearer the Creator's design than most men, he would say."
"He's right there! But that doesn't change the distinction between men and animals. He is your son, madam--and he's going to be mine. But, fine boy as he is, I call him a crank of the first water."
"You'll find him quite good to Moya," Mrs. Bogardus remarked dispassionately. "And he's not quite twenty-four."
"Very true. Well, I should send him into the woods for the sake of getting a little sense into him, of an every-day sort. He 'll take in sanity with every breath."
"And you don't think it's too late in the season for them to go out?"
There was no change in Mrs. Bogardus's voice, unconcerned as it was; yet the colonel felt at once that this simple question lay at the root of all her previous skirmishing.
"The guide will decide as to that," he said definitely. "If it is, he won't go out with them. They have got a good man, you say?"
"They are waiting for a good man; they have waited too long, I think. He is expected in with another party on Monday, perhaps, Paul is to meet the Bowens at Challis, where they buy their outfit. I do believe"--she laughed constrainedly--"that he is going up there more to head them off than for any other reason."
"How do you mean?"
"Oh, it's very stupid of them! They seem to think an army post is part of the public domain. They have been threatening, if Paul gives up the trip, to come down here on a gratuitous visit."
"Why, let them come by all means! The more the merrier! We will quarter them on the garrison at large."
"Wherever they were quartered, they would be here all the time. They are not intimate friends of Paul's. Mrs. Bowen is--a very great friend. He is her right-hand in all that Hartley House work. The boys are just fashionable young men."
"Can't they go hunting without Paul?"
"Wheels within wheels!" Mrs. Bogardus sighed impatiently. "Hunting trips are expensive, and--when young men are living on their fathers, it is convenient sometimes to have a third. However, Paul goes, I half believe, to prevent their making a descent upon us here."
"Well; I should ask them to come, or make it plain they were not expected."
"Oh, would you?--if their mother was one of the nicest women, and your friend? Besides, the reservation does not cover the whole valley. Banks Bowen talks of a mine he wants to look at--I don't think it will make much difference to the mine! This is simply to say that I wish Paul cared more about the trip for its own sake."
"Well, frankly, I think he's better out of the way for the next fortnight. The girls ought to go to bed early, and keep the roses in their cheeks for the wedding. Moya's head is full of her frocks and fripperies. She is trying to run a brace of sewing women; and all those boxes are coming from the East to be 'inspected, and condemned' mostly. The child seems to make a great many mistakes, doesn't she? About every other day I see a box as big as a coffin in the hall, addressed to some dry-goods house, 'returned by ----'"
"Moya should have sent to me for her things," said Mrs. Bogardus. "I am the one who makes her return them. She can do much better when she is in town herself. It doesn't matter, for the few weeks they will be away, what she wears. I shall take her measures home with me and set the people to work. She has never been fitted in her life."
The colonel looked rather aghast. He had seldom heard Mrs. Bogardus speak with so much animation. He wondered if really his household was so very far behind the times.
"It's very kind of you, I'm sure, if Moya will let you. Most girls think they can manage these matters for themselves."
"It's impossible to shop by mail," Mrs. Bogardus said decidedly. "They always keep a certain style of things for the Western and Southern trade."
The colonel was crushed. Mrs. Bogardus rose, and he picked up her handkerchief, breathing a little hard after the exertion. She passed out, thanking him with a smile as he opened the door. In the hall she stopped to choose a wrap from a collection of unconventional garments hanging on a rack of moose horns.
"I think I shall go out," she said. "The air is quite soft to-night. Do you know which way the children went?" By the "children," as the colonel had noted, Mrs. Bogardus usually meant her daughter, the budding tyrant, Christine.
"Fine woman!" he mused, alone with himself in his study. "Splendid character head. Regular Dutch beauty. But hard--eh?--a trifle hard in the grain. Eyes that tell you nothing. Mouth set like a stone. Never rambles in her talk. Never speculates or exaggerates for fun. Never runs into hyperbole--the more fool some other folks! Speaks to the point or keeps still."