The Claim Jumpers by Stewart Edward White
Chapter XVI. A Noon Dinner
Bennington did not know what to make of his invitation. At one moment he told himself it must mean that Mary loved him, and that she wished him to meet her parents on that account. At the next he tormented himself with the conviction that she thus merely avoided the issue. Between these moods he alternated, without being able to abide in either. He forgot all about Old Mizzou.
Promptly at noon the following day he turned up the little right-hand trail for the first time.
The Lawton house he found, first of all, to be scrupulously neat. It stood on a knoll, as do most gulch cabins, in order that occasional freshets might pass below, and the knoll looked as though it had been clipped with a pair of scissors. Not a crooked little juniper bush was allowed to intrude its plebeian sprawl among the dignified pines and the gracefully infrequent bushes. In front of the cabin itself was a "rockery" of pink quartz, on which were piled elk antlers. The building was L-shaped, of two low stories, had a veranda with a railing, and possessed various ornamental wood edgings, all of which were painted. The whole affair was mathematically squared and correspondingly neat. Some boxes and pots of flowers adorned the window ledges.
Bennington's knock was answered by an elderly woman, who introduced herself at once as Mrs. Lawton. She commenced a voluble and slightly embarrassed explanation of how "she" would be down in a moment or so, at the same time leading the way into the parlour. While this explanation was going forward, Bennington had a good chance to examine his hostess and her surroundings.
Mrs. Lawton was of the fat but energetic variety. She fairly shone with cleanliness and with an insistent determination to keep busy. You could see that all the time her tongue was uttering polite platitudes concerning the weather, her mind was hovering like a dragon fly over this or that flower of domestic economy. She was one of the women who carry their housekeeping to a perfection uncomfortable both to herself and everybody else, and then delude themselves into the martyrlike belief that she is doing it all entirely for others. As a consequence, she exhibited much of the time an aggrieved air that comported but ludicrously with her tendency to bustle. And it must be confessed that in other ways Mrs. Lawton was ludicrous. Her dumpy little form was dressed in the loudest of prints, the figures of which turned her into a huge flower bed of brilliant cabbage-like blooms. Over this chaos of colours peered her round little face with its snapping eyes. She discoursed in sentences which began coherently, but frayed out soon into nothingness under the stress of inner thought. "I don't see where that husban' of mine is. I reckon you'll think we're just awful rude, Mr. de Laney, and that gal, an' Maude. I declare it's jest enough to try any one's patience, it surely is. You've no idea, Mr. de Laney, what with the hens settin', and this mis'able dry spell that sends th' dust all over everything and every one 'way behin' hand on everythin'----" Her eye was becoming vacant as she wondered about certain biscuits.
"I'm sure it must be," agreed Bennington uncomfortably.
"What was I a-sayin'? You must excuse me, Mr. de Laney, but you, being a man, can have no idea of the life us poor women folks lead, slavin' our very lives away to keep things runnin', and then no thanks fer it a'ter all. I'd just like t' see Bill Lawton try it fer jest one week. He'd be a ravin' lunatic, an' thet I tell him often. This country's jest awful, too. I tell him he must get out sometimes, and I 'spect he will, when he's made his pile, poor man, an' then we'll have a chanst to go back East again. When we lived East, Mr. de Laney, we had a house--not like this little shack; a good house with nigh on to a dozen rooms, and I had a gal to help me and some chanst to buy things once in a while, but now that Bill Lawton's moved West, what's goin' to become o' me I don't know. I'm nigh wore out with it all."
"Then you lived East once?" asked Bennington.
"Law, yes! We lived in Illinoy once, and th' Lord only knows I wisht we lived there yet, though the farmin' was a sight of work and no pay sometimes." The inner doubts as to the biscuits proved too much for her. "Heaven knows, you ain't t' git much to eat," she cried, jumping up, "but you ain't goin' to git anythin' a tall if I don't run right off and tend to them biscuit."
She bustled out. Bennington had time then to notice the decorations of the "parlour." They offered to the eye a strange mixture of the East and West--reminiscences of the old home in "Illinoy" and trophies of the new camping-out on the frontier. From the ceiling hung a heavy lamp with prismatic danglers, surrounded by a globe on which were depicted stags in the act of leaping six-barred gates. By way of complement to this gorgeous centrepiece, the paper on the walls showed, in infinitely recurring duplicate, a huntress in green habit and big hat carrying on a desperate flirtation with a young man in the habiliments of the fifteenth century, while across the background a huddle of dogs pursued a mammoth deer. Mathematically beneath the lamp stood a table covered with a red-figured spread. On the table was a glass bell, underneath which were wax flowers and a poorly-stuffed robin. In one angle of the room austerely huddled a three-cornered "whatnot" of four shelves. Two china pugs and a statuette of a simpering pair of children under a massive umbrella adorned this article of furniture. On the wall ticked an old-fashioned square wooden clock. The floor was concealed by a rag carpet. So much for the East. The West contributed brilliant green copper ore, flaky white tin ore, glittering white quartz ore, shining pyrites, and one or two businesslike specimens of oxygenated quartz, all of which occupied points of exhibit on the "whatnot." Over the carpet were spread a deer skin, and a rug made from the hide of a timber wolf. Bennington found all this interesting but depressing. He was glad when Mrs. Lawton returned and took up her voluble discourse.
In the midst of a dissertation on the relation of corn meal to eggs the door opened, and Mr. Lawton sidled in.
"Oh, here y' are at last!" observed his spouse scornfully, and rattled on. Lawton nodded awkwardly, and perched himself on the edge of a chair. He had assumed an ill-fitting suit of store clothes, in which he unaccustomedly writhed, and evidently, to judge from the sleekness of his hair, had recently plunged his head in a pail of water. He said nothing, but whenever Mrs. Lawton was not looking he winked elaborately and solemnly at Bennington as though to imply that circumstances alone prevented any more open show of cordiality. At last, catching the young man's eye at a more than usually propitious moment, he went through the pantomime of opening a bottle, then furtively arose and disappeared. Mrs. Lawton, remembering her cakes, ran out. Bennington was left alone again. He had not spoken six words.
The door slowly opened, and another member of the family sidled in. Bennington owned a helpless feeling that this was a sort of show, and that these various actors in it were parading their entrances and their exits before him. Or that he himself were the object of inspection on whom the others were satisfying their own curiosity.
The newcomer was a child, a little girl about eight or ten years old. Bennington liked children as a usual thing. No one on earth could have become possessed in this one's favour. She was a creature of regular but mean features, extreme gravity, and evidently of an inquiring disposition. On seeing her for the first time, one sophisticated would have expected a deluge of questions. Bennington did. But she merely stood and stared without winking.
"Hullo, little girl!" Bennington greeted her uneasily.
The creature only stared the harder.
"My doll's name is Garnet M-a-ay," she observed suddenly, with a long-drawn nasal accent.
After this interesting bit of information another silence fell.
"What is your name, little girl?" Bennington asked desperately at last.
"Maude," remarked the phenomenon briefly.
This statement she delivered in that whining tone which the extremely self-conscious infant imagines to indicate playful childishness. She approached.
"D' you want t' see my picters?" she whimpered confidingly.
Bennington expressed his delight.
For seven geological ages did he gaze upon cheap and horrible woodcuts of gentlemen in fashionable raiment trying to lean against conspicuously inadequate rustic gates; equally fashionable ladies, with flat chests, and rat's nest hair; and animals whose attitudes denoted playful sportiveness of disposition. Each of these pictures was explained in minute detail. Bennington's distress became apathy. Mrs. Lawton returned from the cakes presently, yet her voice seemed to break in on the duration of centuries.
"Now, Maude!" she exclaimed, with a proper maternal pride, "you mustn't be botherin' the gentleman." She paused to receive the expected disclaimer. It was made, albeit a little weakly. "Maude is very good with her Book," she explained. "Miss Brown, that's the school teacher that comes over from Hill Town summers, she says Maude reads a sight better than lots as is two or three years older. Now how old would you think she was, Mr. de Laney?"
Mr. de Laney tried to appraise, while the object hung her head self-consciously and twisted her feet. He had no idea of children's ages.
"About eleven," he guessed, with an air of wisdom.
"Jest eight an' a half!" cried the dame, folding her hands triumphantly. She let her fond maternal gaze rest on the prodigy. Suddenly she darted forward with extraordinary agility for one so well endowed with flesh, and seized her offspring in relentless grasp.
"I do declare, Maude Eliza!" she exclaimed in horror-stricken tones, "you ain't washed your ears! You come with me!"
They disappeared in a blue mist of wails.
As though this were his cue, the crafty features of Lawton appeared cautiously in the doorway, bestowed a furtive and searching inspection on the room, and finally winked solemnly at its only occupant. A hand was inserted. The forefinger beckoned. Bennington arose wearily and went out.
Lawton led the way to a little oat shed standing at some distance from the house. Behind this he paused. From beneath his coat he drew a round bottle and two glass tumblers.
"No joke skippin' th' ole lady," he chuckled in an undertone. He poured out a liberal portion for himself, and passed the bottle along. Bennington was unwilling to hurt the old fellow's feelings after he had taken so much trouble on his account, but he was equally unwilling to drink the whisky. So he threw it away when Lawton was not looking.
They walked leisurely toward the house, Lawton explaining various improvements in a loud tone of voice, intended more to lull his wife's suspicions than to edify the young man. The lady looked on them sternly, and announced dinner. At the table Bennington found Mary already seated.
The Easterner was placed next to Mrs. Lawton. At his other hand was Maude Eliza. Mary sat opposite. Throughout the meal she said little, and only looked up from her plate when Bennington's attention was called another way.
Her mere presence, however, seemed to open to the young man a different point of view. He found Mrs. Lawton's lengthy dissertations amusing; he considered Mr. Lawton in the light of a unique character, and Maude Eliza, while as disagreeable as ever, came in for various excuses and explanations on her own behalf in the young man's mind. He became more responsive. He told a number of very good stories, at which the others laughed. He detailed some experiences of his own at places in the world far remote, selected, it must be confessed, with some slight reference to their dazzling effect on the company. Without actually "showing off," he managed to get the effect of it. The result of his efforts was to harmonize to some extent these diverse elements. Mrs. Lawton became more coherent, Mr. Lawton more communicative; Maude Eliza stopped whining--occasionally and temporarily. Bennington had rarely been in such high spirits. He was surprised himself, but then was not that day of moment to him, and would he not have been a strange sort of individual to have seen in the world aught but brightness?
But Mary responded not at all. Rather, as Bennington arose, she fell, until at last she hardly even moved in her place.
"Chirk up, chirk up!" cried Mrs. Lawton gaily, for her. "I know some one who ought to be happy, anyhow." She glanced meaningly from one to the other and laughed heartily.
Bennington felt a momentary disgust at her tactlessness, but covered it with some laughing sally of his own. The meal broke up in great good humour. Mrs. Lawton and Maude Eliza remained to clear away the dishes. Mr. Lawton remarked that he must get back to work, and shook hands in farewell most elaborately. Bennington laughingly promised them all that he would surely come again. Then he escaped, and followed Mary up the hill, surmising truly enough that she had gone on toward the Rock. He thought he caught a glimpse of her through the elders. He hastened his footsteps. At this he stumbled slightly. From his pocket fell a letter he had received that morning. He picked it up and looked at it idly.
It was from his mother and covered a number of closely-written pages. As he was about to thrust it back into his pocket a single sentence caught his eye. It read: "Sally Ogletree gave a supper last week, which was a very pretty affair."
He stopped short on the trail, and the world seemed to go black around him. He almost fell. Then resumed his way, but step now was hesitating and slow, and he walked with his eyes bent thoughtfully on the ground.