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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesGentle Julia - Chapter 4
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Gentle Julia - Chapter 4 Post by :sherrieb Category :Long Stories Author :Booth Tarkington Date :May 2012 Read :2184

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Gentle Julia - Chapter 4

CHAPTER FOUR


Mrs. Dill, Noble's mother, talked of organizing a Young Men's Mothers' Club against Julia, nevertheless she acknowledged that in one solitary way Noble was being improved by the experience. His two previous attacks of love (one at twelve, and the other at eighteen) had been incomparably lighter, and the changes in him, noted at home, merely a slight general irritability and a lack of domestic punctuality due to too much punctuality elsewhere. But, when his Julia Atwater trouble came, the very first symptom he manifested was a strange new effort to become beautiful; his mother even discovered that he sometimes worked with pumice stone upon the cigarette stains on his fingers.

The most curious thing about his condition was that for a long time he took it for granted that his family did not know what was the matter with him; and this shows as nothing else could the meekness and tact of the Dills; for, excluding bad cooks and the dangerously insane, the persons most disturbing to the serenity of households are young lovers. But the world has had to accommodate itself to them because young lovers cannot possibly accommodate themselves to the world. For the young lover there is no general life of the species; for him the universe is a delicate blush under a single bonnet. He has but an irritated perception of every vital thing in nature except the vital thing under this bonnet; all else is trivial intrusion. But whatever does concern the centrifugal bonnet, whatever concerns it in the remotest--ah, _then he springs to life! So Noble Dill sat through a Sunday dinner at home, seemingly drugged to a torpor, while the family talk went on about him; but when his father, in the course of some remarks upon politics, happened to mention the name of the county-treasurer, Charles J. Patterson, Noble's startled attention to the conversation was so conspicuous as to be disconcerting. Mrs. Dill signalled with her head that comment should be omitted, and Mr. Dill became, for the moment, one factor in a fairly clear example of telepathic communication, for it is impossible to believe that his wife's almost imperceptible gesture was what caused him to remember that Charles J. Patterson was Julia Atwater's uncle.

That name, Charles J. Patterson, coming thus upon Noble's ear, was like an unexpected shrine on the wayside where plods the fanatic pilgrim; and yet Mr. Patterson was the most casual of Julia's uncles-by-marriage: he neither had nor desired any effect upon her destiny. To Noble he seemed a being ineffably privileged and fateful, and something of the same quality invested the wooden gateposts in front of Julia's house; invested everything that had to do with her. What he felt about her father, that august old danger, himself, was not only the uncalled-for affection inevitable toward Julia's next of kin, but also a kind of horror due to the irresponsible and awful power possessed by a sacred girl's parent. Florence's offer of protection had not entirely reassured the young lover, and, in sum, Noble loved Mr. Atwater, but often, in his reveries, when he had rescued him from drowning or being burned to death, he preferred to picture the peculiar old man's injuries as ultimately fatal.

For the other Atwaters his feeling held less of apprehension, more of tenderness; and whenever he saw one of them he became deferential and a little short of breath. Thus, on a sunny afternoon, having been home to lunch after his morning labour downtown, he paused in passing young Herbert's place of residence and timidly began a conversation with this glamoured nephew. It happened that during the course of the morning Herbert had chosen a life career for himself; he had decided to become a scientific specialist, an entomologist; and he was now on his knees studying the manners and customs of the bug inhabitants of the lawn before the house, employing for his purpose a large magnifying lens, or "reading glass." (His discovery of this implement in the attic, coincidentally with his reading a recent "Sunday Supplement" article on bugs, had led to his sudden choice of a vocation.)

"Did somebody--ah, have any of the family lost anything, Herbert?" Noble asked in a gentle voice, speaking across the fence.

Herbert did not look up, nor did he relax the scientific frown upon his brow. "No," he said. "They always _are losin' things, espesh'ly Aunt Julia, when she comes over here, or anywheres else; but I wouldn't waste _my time lookin' for any old earrings or such. I got more important things to do on my hands."

"_Has your Aunt Julia lost an earring, Herbert?"

"Her? Well, she nearly always _has lost somep'n or other, but that isn't bother'n' _me any. I got better things to do with my time." Herbert spoke without interrupting his occupation or relaxing his forehead. "Nacher'l history is a _little more important to the inhabitants of our universe than a lot o' worthless jew'lry, I guess," he continued; and his pride in discovering that he could say things like this was so great that his frown gave way temporarily to a look of pleased surprise, then came back again to express an importance much increased. He rose, approached the fence, and condescended to lean upon it. "I don't guess there's one person in a thousand," he said, "that knows what they _ought to know about our inseck friends."

"No," Mr. Dill agreed readily. "I guess that's so. I guess you're right about that, Herbert. When did your Aunt Julia lose the earring, Herbert?"

"I d' know," said Herbert. "Now, you take my own father and mother: What do they know? Well, mighty little. They may have had to learn a little teeny bit about insecks when they were in school, but whatever little it was they went and forgot it proba'ly long before they were married. Well, that's no way. F'r instance, you take a pinchin' bug: What do you suppose my father and mother know about its position in the inseck world?"

"Well----" said Noble uneasily. "Well----" He coughed, and hastened to add: "But as I was saying, if she lost her earring somewhere in your yard, or----"

The scientific boy evidently did not follow this line of thought, for he interrupted: "Why, they wouldn't know a thing about it, and a pinchin' bug isn't one of the highest insecks at all. Ants are way up compared to most pinchin' bugs. Ants are way up anyway. Now, you take an ant----" He paused. "Well, everybody ought to know a lot more'n they do about ants. It takes time, and you got to study 'em the right way, and of course there's lots of people wouldn't know how to do it. I'm goin' to get a book I been readin' about. It's called 'The Ant.'"

For a moment Noble was confused; he followed his young friend's discourse but hazily, and Herbert pronounced the word "ant" precisely as he pronounced the word "aunt." The result was that Noble began to say something rather dreamy concerning the book just mentioned, but, realizing that he was being misunderstood, he changed his murmur into a cough, and inquired:

"When was she over here, Herbert?"

"Who?"

"Your Aunt Julia."

"Yesterday evening," said Herbert. "Now, f'r instance, you take a common lightning-bug----"

"Did she lose it, then?"

"Lose what?"

"Her earring."

"I d' know," said Herbert. "You take the common lightning-bug or, as it's called in some countries, the firefly----"

He continued, quoting and misquoting the entomological authority of the recent "Sunday Supplement"; but his friend on the other side of the fence was inattentive to the lecture. Noble's mind was occupied with a wonder; he had realized, though dimly, that here was he, trying to make starry Julia the subject of a conversation with a person who had the dear privilege of being closely related to her--and preferred to talk about bugs.

Herbert talked at considerable length about lightning-bugs, but as his voice happened rather precociously to be already in a state of adolescent change, the sound was not soothing; yet Noble lingered. Nephews were queer, but this one was Julia's, and he finally mentioned her again, as incidental to lightning-bugs; whereupon the mere hearer of sounds became instantly a listener to words.

"Well, and then I says," Herbert continued;--"I says: 'It's phosphorus, Aunt Julia.' I guess there's hardly anybody in the world doesn't know more than Aunt Julia, except about dresses and parasols and every other useless thing under the sun. She says: 'My! I always thought it was sulphur!' Said nobody ever _told her it wasn't sulphur! I asked her: I said: 'You mean to sit there and tell me you don't know the difference?' And she says: 'I don't care one way or the other,' she says. She said she just as soon a lightning-bug made his light with sulphur as with phosphorus; it didn't make any difference to her, she says, and they could go ahead and make their light any way they wanted, _she wouldn't interfere! I had a whole hatful of 'em, and she told me not to take 'em into their house, because grandpa hates insecks as much as he does animals and violets, and she said they never owned a microscope or a magnifying-glass in their lives, and wouldn't let me hunt for one. All in the world she knows is how to sit on the front porch and say: 'Oh you don't mean _that!_' to somebody like Newland Sanders or that ole widower!"

"When?" Noble asked impulsively. "When did she say that?"

"Oh, I d' know," said Herbert. "I expect she proba'ly says it to somebody or other about every evening there is."

"She does?"

"Florence says so," Herbert informed him carelessly. "Florence goes over to grandpa's after dark and sits on the ground up against the porch and listens."

Noble first looked startled then uneasily reminiscent. "I don't believe Florence ought to do that," he said gravely.

"_I wouldn't do it!" Herbert was emphatic.

"That's right, Herbert. I'm glad you wouldn't."

"No, sir," the manly boy declared. "You wouldn't never catch _me takin' my death o' cold sittin' on the damp grass in the night air just to listen to a lot o' tooty-tooty about 'I've named a star for you,' and all such. You wouldn't catch me----"

Noble partly concealed a sudden anguish. "Who?" he interrupted. "Who did she say _that to?"

"She didn't. They say it to her, and she says? 'Oh, you don't mean that!' and of course then they haf to go on and say some more. Florence says----" He checked himself. "Oh, I forgot! I promised Florence I wouldn't tell anything about all this."

"It's safe," Noble assured him quickly. "I'm quite a friend of Florence's and it's absolutely safe with me. I won't speak of it to anybody, Herbert. Who was it told her he'd named a star for her?"

"It was the way some ole poem began. Newland Sanders wrote it. Florence found it under Aunt Julia's sofa-cushions and read it all through, but _I wouldn't wade through all that tooty-tooty for a million dollars, and I told her to put it back before Aunt Julia noticed. Well, about every day he writes her a fresh one, and then in the evening he stays later than the rest, and reads 'em to her--and you ought to hear grandpa when _he gets to talkin' about it!"

"He's perfectly right," said Noble. "Perfectly! What does he say when he talks about it, Herbert?"

"Oh, he says all this and that; and then he kind of mutters around, and you can't tell just what all the words are exactly, so't he can deny it if any o' the family accuses him of swearing or anything." And Herbert added casually: "He was kind of goin' on like that about you, night before last."

"About _me_! Why, what could he say about _me_?"

"Oh, all this and that."

"But what did he find to say?"

"Well, he heard her tellin' you how you oughtn't to smoke so many cigarettes and all about how it was killin' you, and you sayin' you guessed it wouldn't matter if you _did die, and Aunt Julia sayin' 'Oh, you don't mean that,' and all this and such and so on, you know. He can hear anything on the porch pretty good from the lib'ary; and Florence told me about that, besides, because she was sittin' in the grass and all. She told Great-Uncle Joe and Aunt Hattie about it, too."

"My heavens!" Noble gasped, as for the first time he realized to what trumpeting publicity that seemingly hushed and moonlit bower, sacred to Julia, had been given over. He gulped, flushed, repeated "My heavens!" and then was able to add, with a feeble suggestion of lightness: "I suppose your grandfather understood it was just a sort of joke, didn't he?"

"No," said Herbert, and continued in a friendly way, for he was flattered by Noble's interest in his remarks, and began to feel a liking for him. "No. He said Aunt Julia only talked like that because she couldn't think of anything else to say, and it was wearin' him out. He said all the good it did was to make you smoke more to make her think how reckless you were; but the worst part of it was, he'd be the only one to suffer, because it blows all through the house and he's got to sit in it. He said he just could stand the smell of _some cigarettes, but if you burned any more o' yours on his porch he was goin' to ask your father to raise your salary for collectin' real-estate rents, so't you'd feel able to buy some real tobacco. He----"

But the flushed listener felt that he had heard as much as he was called upon to bear; and he interrupted, in a voice almost out of control, to say that he must be "getting on downtown." His young friend, diverted from bugs, showed the greatest willingness to continue the narrative indefinitely, evidently being in possession of copious material; but Noble turned to depart. An afterthought detained him. "Where was it she lost her earring?"

"Who?"

"Your Aunt Julia."

"Why, _I didn't say she lost any earring," Herbert returned. "I said she always _was losin' 'em: I didn't say she did."

"Then you didn't mean----"

"No," said Herbert, "_I haven't heard of her losin' anything at all, lately." Here he added: "Well, grandpa kept goin' on about you, and he told her----Well, so long!" And gazed after the departing Mr. Dill in some surprise at the abruptness of the latter's leave-taking. Then, wondering how the back of Noble's neck could have got itself so fiery sunburnt, Herbert returned to his researches in the grass.

* * * * *

The peaceful street, shady and fragrant with summer, was so quiet that the footfalls of the striding Noble were like an interruption of coughing in a silent church. As he seethed adown the warm sidewalk the soles of his shoes smote the pavement, for mentally he was walking not upon cement but upon Mr. Atwater.

Unconsciously his pace presently became slower for a more concentrated brooding upon this slanderous old man who took advantage of his position to poison his daughter's mind against the only one of her suitors who cared in the highest way. And upon this there came an infinitesimal consolation in the midst of anguish, for he thought of what Herbert had told him about Mr. Newland Sanders's poems to Julia, and he had a strong conviction that one time or another Mr. Atwater must have spoken even more disparagingly of these poems and their author than he had of Orduma cigarettes and their smoker. Perhaps the old man was not altogether vile.

This charitable moment passed. He recalled the little moonlit drama on the embowered veranda, when Julia, in her voice of plucked harp strings, told him that he smoked too much, and he had said it didn't matter; nobody would care much if he died--and Julia said gently that his mother would, and other people, too; he mustn't talk so recklessly. Out of this the old eavesdropper had viciously represented him to be a poser, not really reckless at all; had insulted his cigarettes and his salary. Well, Noble would show him! He had doubts about being able to show Mr. Atwater anything important connected with the cigarettes or the salary, but he _could prove how reckless he was. With that, a vision formed before him: he saw Julia and her father standing spellbound at a crossing while a smiling youth stood directly between the rails in the middle of the street and let a charging trolley-car destroy him--not instantly, for he would live long enough to whisper, as the stricken pair bent over him: "Now, Julia, which do you believe: your father, or me?" And then with a slight, dying sneer: "Well, Mr. Atwater, is _this reckless enough to suit you?"

* * * * *

Town squirrels flitted along their high paths in the shade-tree branches above the embittered young lover, and he noticed them not at all, which was but little less than he noticed the elderly human couple who observed him from a side-yard as he passed by. Mr. and Mrs. Burgess had been happily married for fifty-three years and four months. Mr. Burgess lay in a hammock between two maple trees, and was soothingly swung by means of a string connecting the hammock and the rocking-chair in which sat Mrs Burgess, acting as a mild motor for both the chair and the hammock. "That's Noble Dill walking along the sidewalk," Mrs. Burgess said, interpreting for her husband's failing eyes. "I bowed to him, but he hardly seemed to see us and just barely lifted his hat. He needn't be cross with _us because some other young man's probably taking Julia Atwater out driving!"

"Yes, he need!" Mr. Burgess declared. "A boy in his condition needs to be cross with everything. Sometimes they get so cross they go and drink liquor. Don't you remember?"

She laughed. "I remember once!" she assented, and laughed again.

"Why, it's a terrible time of life," her husband went on. "Poets and suchlike always take on about young love as if it were a charming and romantic experience, but really it's just a series of mortifications. The young lover is always wanting to do something dashing and romantic and Sir Walter Raleigh-like, but in ordinary times about the wildest thing he can do, if he can afford it, is to learn to run a Ford. And he can't stand a word of criticism; he can't stand being made the least little bit of fun of; and yet all the while his state of mind lays him particularly open to all the things he can't stand. He can't stand anything, and he has to stand everything. Why, it's a _horrible time of life, mamma!"

"Yes, it is," she assented placidly. "I'm glad we don't have to go through it again, Freddie; though you're only eighty-two, and with a girl like Julia Atwater around nobody ought to be sure."

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CHAPTER FIVE Although Noble had saluted the old couple so crossly, thus unconsciously making them, as he made the sidewalk, proxy for Mr. Atwater, so to speak, yet the sight of them penetrated his outer layers of preoccupation and had an effect upon him. In the midst of his suffering his imagination paused for a shudder: What miserable old gray shadows those two were! Thank Heaven he and Julia could never be like that! And in the haze that rose before his mind's eye he saw himself leading Julia through years of adventure in far parts of the world: there were
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CHAPTER THREE Julia, like Herbert, had been a little puzzled by Florence's expression of a partiality for the young man, Noble Dill; it was not customary for anybody to confess a weakness for him. However, the aunt dismissed the subject from her mind, as other matters pressed sharply upon her attention; she had more worries than most people guessed. The responsibilities of a lady who is almost officially the prettiest person in a town persistently claiming sixty-five thousand inhabitants are often heavier than the world suspects, and there were moments when Julia found the position so trying that she would have
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