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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesLady Baltimore - Chapter 10. High Walk And The Ladies
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Lady Baltimore - Chapter 10. High Walk And The Ladies Post by :kids8 Category :Long Stories Author :Owen Wister Date :May 2012 Read :1428

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Lady Baltimore - Chapter 10. High Walk And The Ladies

CHAPTER X. HIGH WALK AND THE LADIES

I now burned to put many questions to the rest of the company. If, through my foolish and outreaching slyness with the girl behind the counter, the door of my comprehension had been shut, Juno had now opened it sufficiently wide for a number of facts to come crowding in, so to speak, abreast. Indeed, their simultaneous arrival was not a little confusing, as if several visitors had burst in upon me and at once begun speaking loudly, each shouting a separate and important matter which demanded my intelligent consideration. John Mayrant worked in the custom house, and Kings Port frowned upon this; not merely Kings Port in general--which counted little with the boy, if indeed he noticed general opinion at all--but the boy's particular Kings Port, his severe old aunts, and his cousins, and the pretty girl at the Exchange, and the men he played cards with, all these frowned upon it, too; yet even this condemnation one could disregard if some lofty personal principle, some pledge to one's own sacred honor, were at stake--but here was no such thing: John Mayrant hated the position himself. The salary? No, the salary would count for nothing in the face of such a prejudice as I had seen glitter from his eye! A strong, clever youth of twenty-three, with the world before him, and no one to support--stop! Hortense Rieppe! There was the lofty personal principle, the sacred pledge to honor; he was engaged presently to endow her with all his worldly goods; and to perform this faithfully a bridegroom must not, no matter how little he liked "taking orders from a negro," fling away his worldly goods some few days before he was to pronounce his bridegroom's vow. So here, at Mrs. Trevise's dinner-table, I caught for one moment, to the full, a vision of the unhappy boy's plight; he was sticking to a task which he loathed that he might support a wife whom he no longer desired. Such, as he saw it, was his duty; and nobody, not even a soul of his kin or his kind, gave him a word or a thought of understanding, gave him anything except the cold shoulder. Yes; from one soul he had got a sign--from aged Daddy Ben, at the churchyard gate; and amid my jostling surmises and conclusions, that quaint speech of the old negro, that little act of fidelity and affection from the heart of a black man, took on a strange pathos in its isolation amid the general harshness of his white superiors. Over this it was that I was pausing when, all in a second, perplexity again ruled my meditations. Juno had said that the engagement was broken. Well, if that were the case--But was it likely to be the case? Juno's agreeable habit, a habit grown familiar to all of us in the house, was to sprinkle about, along with her vitriol, liberal quantities of the by-product of inaccuracy. Mingled with her latest illustrations, she had poured out for us one good dose of falsehood, the antidote for which it had been my happy office to administer on the spot. If John Mayrant wasn't in bed from the wounds of combat, as she had given us to suppose, perhaps Hortense Rieppe hadn't released him from his plighted troth, as Juno had also announced; and distinct relief filled me when I reasoned this out. I leave others to reason out why it was relief, and why a dull disappointment had come over me at the news that the match was off. This, for me, should have been good news, when you consider that I had been so lately telling myself such a marriage must not be, that I must myself, somehow (since no one else would), step in and arrest the calamity; and it seems odd that I should have felt this blankness and regret upon learning that the parties had happily settled it for themselves, and hence my difficult and delicate assistance was never to be needed by them.

Did any one else now sitting at our table know of Miss Rieppe's reported act? What particulars concerning John's fight had been given by Juno before my entrance? It didn't surprise me that her nephew was in bed from Master Mayrant's lusty blows. One could readily guess the manner in which young John, with his pent-up fury over the custom house, would "land" his chastisement all over the person of any rash critic! And what a talking about it must be going on everywhere to-day! If Kings Port tongues had been set in motion over me and my small notebook in a library, the whole town must be buzzing over every bruise given and taken in this evidently emphatic battle. I had hoped to glean some more precise information from my fellow-boarders after Juno had disembarrassed us of her sonorous presence; but even if they were possessed of all the facts which I lacked, Mrs. Trevise in some masterly fashion of her own banished the subject from further discussion. She held us off from it chiefly, I think, by adopting a certain upright posture in her chair, and a certain tone when she inquired if we wished a second help of the pudding. After thirty-five years of boarders and butchers, life held no secrets or surprises for her; she was a mature, lone, disenchanted, able lady, and even her silence was like an arm of the law.

An all too brief conversation, nipped by Mrs. Trevise at a stage even earlier than the bud, revealed to me that perhaps my fellow-boarders would have been glad to ask me questions, too.

It was the male honeymooner who addressed me. "Did I understand you to say, sir, that Mr. Mayrant had received a bruise over his left eye?"

"Daphne!" called out Mrs. Trevise, "Mr. Henderson will take an orange."

And so we finished our meal without further reference to eyes, or noses, or anything of the sort. It was just as well, I reflected, when I reached my room, that I on my side had been asked no questions, since I most likely knew less than the others who had heard all that Juno had to say; and it would have been humiliating, after my superb appearance of knowing more, to explain that John Mayrant had walked with me all the way from the Library, and never told me a word about the affair.

This reflection increased my esteem for the boy's admirable reticence. What private matter of his own had I ever learned from him? It was other people, invariably, who told me of his troubles. There had been that single, quickly controlled outbreak about his position in the Custom House, and also he had let fall that touching word concerning his faith and his liking to say his prayers in the place where his mother had said them; beyond this, there had never yet been anything of all that must at the present moment be intimately stirring in his heart.

Should I "like to take orders from a negro?" Put personally, it came to me now as a new idea came as something which had never entered my mind before, not even as an abstract hypothesis I didn't have to think before reaching the answer though; something within me, which you ma call what you please--convention, prejudice, instinct--something answered most prompt and emphatically in the negative. I revolved in my mind as I tried to pack into a box a number of objects that I had bought in one or to "antique" shops. They wouldn't go in, the objects; they were of defeating and recalcitrant shapes, and of hostile materials--glass and brass--and I must have a larger box made, and in that case I would buy this afternoon the other kettle-supporter (I forget its right name) and have the whole lot decently packed. Take orders from a colored man? Have him give you directions, dictate you letters, discipline you if you were unpunctual? No, indeed! And if such were my feeling, how must this young Southerner feel? With this in my mind, I made sure that the part in my back hair was right, and after that precaution soon found myself on my way, in a way somewhat roundabout, to the kettle-supporter sauntering northward along High Walk, and stopping often; the town, and the water, and the distant shores all were so lovely, so belonged to one another, so melted into one gentle impression of wistfulness and tenderness! I leaned upon the stone parapet and enjoyed the quiet which every surrounding detail brought to my senses. How could John Mayrant endure such a situation? I continued to wonder; and I also continued to assure myself it was absurd to suppose that the engagement was broken.

The shutting of a front door across the street almost directly behind me attracted my attention because of its being the first sound that had happened in noiseless, empty High Walk since I had been strolling there; and I turned from the parapet to see that I was no longer the solitary person in the street. Two ladies, one tall and one diminutive, both in black and with long black veils which they had put back from their faces, were evidently coming from a visit. As the tall one bowed to me I recognized Mrs. Gregory St. Michael, and took off my hat. It was not until they had crossed the street and come up the stone steps near where I stood on High Walk that the little lady also bowed to me; she was Mrs. Weguelin St. Michael, and from something in her prim yet charming manner I gathered that she held it to be not perfectly well-bred in a lady to greet a gentleman across the width of a public highway, and that she could have wished that her tall companion had not thus greeted me, a stranger likely to comment upon Kings Port manners. In her eyes, such free deportment evidently went with her tall companion's method of speech: hadn't the little lady informed me during our first brief meeting that Kings Port at times thought Mrs. Gregory St. Michael's tongue "too downright"?

The two ladies having graciously granted me permission to join them while they took the air, Mrs. Gregory must surely have shocked Mrs. Weguelin by saying to me, "I haven't a penny for your thoughts, but I'll exchange."

"Would you thus bargain in the dark, madam?"

"Oh, I'll risk that; and, to say truth, even your back, as we came out of that house, was a back of thought."

"Well, I confess to some thinking. Shall I begin?"

It was Mrs. Weguelin who quickly replied, smiling: "Ladies first, you know. At least we still keep it so in Kings Port."

"Would we did everywhere!" I exclaimed devoutly; and I was quite aware that beneath the little lady's gentle smile a setting down had lurked, a setting down of the most delicate nature, administered to me not in the least because I had deserved one, but because she did not like Mrs. Gregory's "downright" tongue, and could not stop her.

Mrs. Gregory now took the prerogative of ladies, and began. "I was thinking of what we had all just been saying during our visit across the way--and with which you are not going to agree--that our young people would do much better to let us old people arrange their marriages for them, as it Is done in Europe."

"O dear!"

"I said that you would not agree; but that is because you are so young."

"I don't know that twenty-eight is so young."

"You will know it when you are seventy-three." This observation again came from Mrs. Weguelin St. Michael, and again with a gentle and attractive smile. It was only the second time that she had spoken; and throughout the talk into which we now fell as we slowly walked up and down High Walk, she never took the lead; she left that to the "downright" tongue--but I noticed, however, that she chose her moments to follow the lead very aptly. I also perceived plainly that what we were really going to discuss was not at all the European principle of marriage-making, but just simply young John and his Hortense; they were the true kernel of the nut with whose concealing shell Mrs. Gregory was presenting me, and in proposing an exchange of thoughts she would get back only more thoughts upon the same subject. It was pretty evident how much Kings Port was buzzing over all this! They fondly believed they did not like it; but what would they have done without it? What, indeed, were they going to do when it was all over and done with, one way or another? As a matter of fact, they ought to be grateful to Hortense for contributing illustriously to the excitement of their lives.

"Of course, I am well aware," Mrs. Gregory pursued, "that the young people of to-day believe they can all 'teach their grandmothers to suck eggs,' as we say in Kings Port."

"We say it elsewhere, too," I mildly put in.

"Indeed? I didn't know that the North, with its pest of Hebrew and other low immigrants, had retained any of the good old homely saws which we brought from England. But do you imagine that if the control of marriage rested in the hands of parents and grandparents (where it properly belongs), you would be witnessing in the North this disgusting spectacle of divorce?"

"But, Mrs. St. Michael--"

"We didn't invite you to argue when we invited you to walk!" cried the lady, laughing.

"We should like you to answer the question," said Mrs. Weguelin St. Michael.

"And tell us," Mrs. Gregory continued, "if it's your opinion that a boy who has never been married is a better judge of matrimony's pitfalls than his father."

"Or than any older person who has bravely and worthily gone through with the experience," Mrs. Weguelin added.

"Ladies, I've no mind to argue. But we're ahead of Europe; we don't need their clumsy old plan."

Mrs. Gregory gave a gallant, incredulous snort. "I shall be interested to learn of anything that is done better here than in Europe."

"Oh, many things, surely! But especially the mating of the fashionable young. They don't need any parents to arrange for them; it's much better managed through precocity."

"Through precocity? I scarcely follow you."

And Mrs. Weguelin softly added, "You must excuse us if we do not follow you." But her softness nevertheless indicated that if there were any one present needing leniency, it was myself.

"Why, yes," I told them, "it's through precocity. The new-rich American no longer commits the blunder of keeping his children innocent. You'll see it beginning in the dancing-class, where I heard an exquisite little girl of six say to a little boy, 'Go away; I can't dance with you, because my mamma says your mamma only keeps a maid to answer the doorbell.' When they get home from the dancing-class, tutors in poker and bridge are waiting to teach them how to gamble for each other's little dimes. I saw a little boy in knickerbockers and a wide collar throw down the evening paper--"

"At that age? They read the papers?" interrupted Mrs. Gregory.

"They read nothing else at any age. He threw it down and said, 'Well, I guess there's not much behind this raid on Steel Preferred.' What need has such a boy for parents or grandparents? Presently he is travelling to a fashionable boarding-school in his father's private car. At college all his adolescent curiosities are lavishly gratified. His sister at home reads the French romances, and by eighteen she, too, knows (in her head at least) the whole of life, so that she can be perfectly trusted; she would no more marry a mere half-millionaire just because she loved him than she would appear twice in the same ball-dress. She and her ball-dresses are described in the papers precisely as if she were an animal at a show--which indeed is what she has become; and she's eager to be thus described, because she and her mother--even if her mother was once a lady and knew better--are haunted by one perpetual, sickening fear, the fear of being left out. And if you desire to pay correct ballroom compliments, you no longer go to her mother and tell her she's looking every bit as young as her daughter; you go to the daughter and tell her she's looking every bit as old as her mother, for that's what she wishes to do, that's what she tries for, what she talks, dresses, eats, drinks, goes to indecent plays and laughs for. Yes, we manage it through precocity, and the new-rich American parent has achieved at least one new thing under the sun, namely, the corruption of the child."

My ladies silently consulted each other's expressions, after which, in equal silence, their gaze returned to me; but their equally intent scrutiny was expressive of quite different things. It was with expectancy that Mrs. Gregory looked at me--she wanted more. Not so Mrs. Weguelin; she gave me disapproval; it was shadowed in her beautiful, lustrous eyes that burned dark in her white face with as much fire as that of youth, yet it was not of youth, being deeply charged with retrospection.

In what, then, had I sinned? For the little lady's next words, coldly murmured, increased in me an uneasiness, as of sin:--

"You have told us much that we are not accustomed to hear in Kings Port."

"Oh, I haven't begun to tell you!" I exclaimed cheerily.

"You certainly have not told us," said Mrs. Gregory, "how your 'precocity' escapes this divorce degradation."

"Escape it? Those people think it is--well, provincial--not to have been divorced at least once!"

Mrs. Gregory opened her eyes, but Mrs. Weguelin shut her lips.

I continued: "Even the children, for their own little reasons, like it. Only last summer, in Newport, a young boy was asked how he enjoyed having a father and an ex-father."

"Ex-father!" said Mrs. Gregory. "Vice-father is what I should call him."

"Maria!" murmured Mrs. Weguelin, "how can you jest upon such topics?"

"I am far from jesting, Julia. Well, young gentleman, and what answer did this precious Newport child make?"

"He said (if you will pardon my giving you his little sentiment in his own quite expressive idiom), 'Me for two fathers! Double money birthdays and Christmases. See?' That was how he saw divorce."

Once again my ladies consulted each other's expressions; we moved along High Walk in such silence that I heard the stiff little rustle which the palmettos were making across the street; even these trees, you might have supposed, were whispering together over the horrors that I had recited in their decorous presence.

It was Mrs. Gregory who next spoke. "I can translate that last boy's language, but what did the other boy mean about a 'raid on Steel Preferred'--if I've got the jargon right?"

While I translated this for her, I felt again the disapproval in Mrs. Weguelin's dark eyes; and my sins--for they were twofold--were presently made clear to me by this lady.

"Are such subjects as--as stocks" (she softly cloaked this word in scorn immeasurable)--"are such subjects mentioned in your good society at the North?"

I laughed heartily. "Everything's mentioned!"

The lady paused over my reply. "I am afraid you must feel us to be very old-fashioned in, Kings Port," she then said.

"But I rejoice in it!"

She ignored my not wholly dexterous compliment. "And some subjects," she pursued, "seem to us so grave that if we permit ourselves to speak of them at all we cannot speak of them lightly."

No, they couldn't speak of them lightly! Here, then, stood my two sins revealed; everything I had imparted, and also my tone of imparting it, had displeased Mrs. Weguelin St. Michael, not with the thing, but with me. I had transgressed her sound old American code of good manners, a code slightly pompous no doubt, but one in which no familiarity was allowed to breed contempt. To her good taste, there were things in the world which had, apparently, to exist, but which one banished from drawing-room discussion as one conceals from sight the kitchen and outhouses; one dealt with them only when necessity compelled, and never in small-talk; and here had I been, so to speak, small-talking them in that glib, modern, irresponsible cadence with which our brazen age rings and clatters like the beating of triangles and gongs. Not triangles and gongs, but rather strings and flutes, had been the music to which Kings Port society had attuned its measured voice.

I saw it all, and even saw that my own dramatic sense of Mrs. Weguelin's dignity had perversely moved me to be more flippant than I actually felt; and I promised myself that a more chastened tone should forthwith redeem me from the false position I had got into.

"My dear," said Mrs. Gregory to Mrs. Weguelin, "we must ask him to excuse our provincialism."

For the second time I was not wholly dexterous. "But I like it so much!" I exclaimed; and both ladies laughed frankly.

Mrs. Gregory brought in a fable. "You'll find us all 'country mice' here."

This time I was happy. "At least, then, there'll be no cat!" And this caused us all to make little bows.

But the word "cat" fell into our talk as does a drop of some acid into a chemical solution, instantly changing the whole to an unexpected new color. The unexpected new color was, in this instance, merely what had been latently lurking in the fluid of our consciousness all through and now it suddenly came out.

Mrs. Gregory stared over the parapet at the harbor. "I wonder if anybody has visited that steam yacht?"

"The Hermana?" I said. "She's waiting, I believe, for her owner, who is enjoying himself very much on land." It was a strong temptation to add, "enjoying himself with the cat," but I resisted it.

"Oh!" said Mrs. Gregory. "Possibly a friend of yours?"

"Even his name is unknown to me. But I gather that he may be coming to Kings Port--to attend Mr. John Mayrant's wedding next Wednesday week."

I hadn't gathered this; but one is at times driven to improvising. I wished so much to know if Juno was right about the engagement being broken, and I looked hard at the ladies as my words fairly grazed the "cat." This time I expected them to consult each other's expressions, and such, indeed, was their immediate proceeding.

"The Wednesday following, you mean," Mrs. Weguelin corrected.

"Postponed again? Dear me!"

Mrs. Gregory spoke this time. "General Rieppe. Less well again, it seems."

It would be like Juno to magnify a delay into a rupture. Then I had a hilarious thought, which I instantly put to the ladies. "If the poor General were to die completely, would the wedding be postponed completely?"

"There would not be the slightest chance of that," Mrs. Gregory declared. And then she pronounced a sentence that was truly oracular: "She's coming at once to see for herself."

To which Mrs. Weguelin added with deeper condemnation than she had so far employed at all: "There is a rumor that she is actually coming in an automobile."

My silence upon these two remarks was the silence of great and sudden interest; but it led Mrs. Weguelin St. Michael to do my perceptions a slight injustice, and she had no intention that I should miss the quality of her opinion regarding the vehicle in which Hortense was reported to be travelling.

"Miss Rieppe has the extraordinary taste to come here in an automobile," said Mrs. Weguelin St. Michael, with deepened severity.

Though I understood quite well, without this emphasizing, that the little lady would, with her unbending traditions, probably think it more respectable to approach Kings Port in a wheelbarrow, I was absorbed by the vague but copious import of Mrs. Gregory's announcement. The oracles, moreover, continued.

"But she is undoubtedly very clever to come and see for herself," was Mrs. Weguelin's next comment.

Mrs. Gregory's face, as she replied to her companion, took on a censorious and superior expression. "You'll remember, Julia, that I told Josephine St. Michael it was what they had to expect."

"But it was not Josephine, my dear, who at any time approved of taking such a course. It was Eliza's whole doing."

It was fairly raining oracles round me, and they quite resembled, for all the help and light they contained, their Delphic predecessors.

"And yet Eliza," said Mrs. Gregory, "in the face of it, this very morning, repeated her eternal assertion that we shall all see the marriage will not take place."

"Eliza," murmured Mrs. Weguelin, "rates few things more highly than her own judgment."

Mrs. Gregory mused. "Yet she is often right when she has no right to be right."

I could not bear it any longer, and I said, "I heard to-day that Miss Rieppe had broken her engagement."

"And where did you hear that nonsense?" asked Mrs. Gregory.

My heart leaped, and I told her where.

"Oh, well! you will hear anything in a boarding-house. Indeed, that would be a great deal too good to be true."

"May I ask where Miss Rieppe is all this while?"

"The last news was from Palm Beach, where the air was said to be necessary for the General."

"But," Mrs. Weguelin repeated, "we have every reason to believe that she is coming here in an automobile."

"We shall have to call, of course," added Mrs. Gregory to her, not to me; they were leaving me out of it. Yes, these ladies were forgetting about me in their using preoccupation over whatever crisis it was that now hung over John Mayrant's love affairs--a preoccupation which was evidently part of Kings Port's universal buzz to-day, and which my joining them in the street had merely mitigated for a moment. I did not wish to be left out of it; I cannot tell you why--perhaps it was contagious in the local air--but a veritable madness of craving to know about it seized upon me. Of course, I saw that Miss Rieppe was, almost too grossly and obviously, "playing for time"; the health of people's fathers did not cause weekly extensions of this sort. But what was it that the young lady expected time to effect for her? Her release, formally, by her young man, on the ground of his worldly ill fortune? Or was it for an offer from the owner of the Hermana that she was waiting, before she should take the step of formally releasing John Mayrant? No, neither of these conjectures seemed to furnish a key to the tactics of Miss Rieppe and the theory that each of these affianced parties was strategizing to cause the other to assume the odium of breaking their engagement, with no result save that of repeatedly countermanding a wedding-cake, struck me as belonging admirably to a stage-comedy in three acts, but scarcely to life as we find it. Besides, poor John Mayrant was, all too plainly, not strategizing; he was playing as straight a game as the honest heart of a gentleman could inspire. And so, baffled at all points, I said (for I simply had to try something which might lead to my sharing in Kings Port's vibrating secret):--

"I can't make out whether she wants to marry him or not."

Mrs. Gregory answered. "That is just what she is coming to see for herself."

"But since her love was for his phosphates only--!" was my natural exclamation.

It caused (and this time I did not expect it) my inveterate ladies to consult each other's expressions. They prolonged their silence so much that I spoke again:--

"And backing out of this sort of thing can be done, I should think, quite as cleverly, and much more simply, from a distance."

It was Mrs. Weguelin who answered now, or, rather, who headed me off. "Have you been able to make out whether he wants to marry her or not?"

"Oh, he never comes near any of that with me!"

"Certainly not. But we all understand that he has taken a fancy to you, and that you have talked much with him."

So they all understood this, did they? This, too, had played its little special part in the buzz? Very well, then, nothing of my private impressions should drop from my lips here, to be quoted and misquoted and battledored and shuttlecocked, until it reached the boy himself (as it would inevitably) in fantastic disarrangement. I laughed. "Oh, yes! I have talked much with him. Shakespeare, I think, was our latest subject."

Mrs. Weguelin was plainly watching for something to drop. "Shakespeare!" Her tone was of surprise.

I then indulged myself in that most delightful sort of impertinence, which consists in the other person's not seeing it. "You wouldn't be likely to have heard of that yet. It occurred only before dinner to-day. But we have also talked optimism, pessimism, sociology, evolution--Mr. Mayrant would soon become quite--" I stopped myself on the edge of something very clumsy.

But sharp Mrs. Gregory finished for me. "Yes, you mean that if he didn't live in Kings Port (where we still have reverence, at any rate), he fit would imbibe all the shallow quackeries of the hour and resemble all the clever young donkeys of the minute."

"Maria!" Mrs. Weguelin murmurously expostulated.

Mrs. Gregory immediately made me a handsome but equivocal apology. "I wasn't thinking of you at all!" she declared gayly; and it set me doubting if perhaps she hadn't, after all, comprehended my impertinence. "And, thank Heaven!" she continued, "John is one of us, in spite of his present stubborn course."

But Mrs. Weguelin's beautiful eyes were resting upon me with that disapproval I had come to know. To her, sociology and evolution and all "isms" were new-fangled inventions and murky with offense; to touch them was defilement, and in disclosing them to John Mayrant I was a corrupter of youth. She gathered it all up into a word that was radiant with a kind of lovely maternal gentleness:--

"We should not wish John to become radical."

In her voice, the whole of old Kings Port was enshrined: hereditary faith and hereditary standards, mellow with the adherence of generations past, and solicitous for the boy of the young generation. I saw her eyes soften at the thought of him; and throughout the rest of our talk to its end her gaze would now and then return to me, shadowed with disapproval.

I addressed Mrs. Gregory. "By his 'present stubborn course' I suppose you mean the Custom House."

"All of us deplore his obstinacy. His Aunt Eliza has strongly but vainly expostulated with him. And after that, Miss Josephine felt obliged to tell him that he need not come to see her again until he resigned a position which reflects ignominy upon us all."

I suppressed a whistle. I thought (as I have said earlier) that I had caught a full vision of John Mayrant's present plight. But my imagination had not soared to the height of Miss Josephine St. Michael's act of discipline. This, it must have been, that the boy had checked himself from telling me in the churchyard. What a character of sterner times was Miss Josephine! I thought of Aunt Carola, but even she was not quite of this iron, and I said so to Mrs. Gregory. "I doubt if there be any old lady left in the North," I said, "capable of such antique severity."

But Mrs. Gregory opened my eyes still further. "Oh, you'd have them if you had the negro to deal with as we have him. Miss Josephine," she added, "has to-day removed her sentence of banishment."

I felt on the verge of new discoveries. "What!" I exclaimed, "and did she relent?"

"New circumstances intervened," Mrs. Gregory loftily explained. "There was an occurrence--an encounter, in fact--in which John Mayrant fittingly punished one who had presumed. Upon hearing of it, this morning, Miss Josephine sent a message to John that he might resume visiting her.

"But that is perfectly grand!" I cried in my delight over Miss Josephine as a character.

"It is perfectly natural," returned Mrs. Gregory, quietly. "John has behaved with credit throughout. He was at length made to see that circumstances forbade any breach between his family and that of the other young man. John held back--who would not, after such an insult?--but Miss Josephine was firm, and he has promised to call and shake hands. My cousin, Doctor Beaugarcon, assures me that the young man's injuries are trifling--a week will see him restored and presentable again."

"A week? A mere nothing!" I answered "Do you know," I now suggested, "that you have forgotten to ask me what I was thinking about when we met?"

"Bless me, young gentleman! and was it so remarkable?"

"Not at all, but it partly answers what Mrs. Weguelin St. Michael asked me. If a young man does not really wish to marry a young woman there are ways well known by which she can be brought to break the engagement."

"Ah," said Mrs. Gregory, "of course; gayeties and irregularities--"

"That is, if he's not above them," I hastily subjoined.

"Not always, by any means," Mrs. Gregory returned. "Kings Port has been treated to some episodes--"

Mrs. Weguelin put in a word of defence. "It is to be said, Maria, that John's irregularities have invariably been conducted with perfect propriety."

"Oh," said Mrs. Gregory, "no Mayrant was ever known to be gross!"

"But this particular young lady," said Mrs. Weguelin, "would not be estranged by an masculine irregularities and gayeties. Not many."

"How about infidelities?" I suggested. "If he should flagrantly lose his heart to another?"

Mrs. Weguelin replied quickly. "That answers very well where hearts are in question."

"But," said I, "since phosphates are no longer--?"

There was a pause. "It would be a new dilemma," Mrs. Gregory then said slowly, "if she turned out to care for him, after all."

Throughout all this I was getting more and more the sense of how a total circle of people, a well-filled, wide circle of interested people, surrounded and cherished John Mayrant, made itself the setting of which he was the jewel; I felt in it, even stronger than the manifestation of personal affection (which certainly was strong enough), a collective sense of possession in him, a clan value, a pride and a guardianship concentrated and jealous, as of an heir to some princely estate, who must be worthy for the sake of a community even before he was worthy for his own sake. Thus he might amuse himself--it was in the code that princely heirs so should pour se deniaiser, as they neatly put it in Paris--thus might he and must he fight when his dignity was assailed; but thus might he not marry outside certain lines prescribed, or depart from his circle's established creeds, divine and social, especially to hold any position which (to borrow Mrs. Gregory's phrase) "reflected ignominy" upon them all. When he transgressed, their very value for him turned them bitter against him. I know that all of us are more or less chained to our community, which is pleased to expect us to walk its way, and mightily displeased when we please ourselves instead by breaking the chain and walking our own way; and I know that we are forgiven very slowly; but I had not dreamed what a prisoner to communal criticism a young American could be until I beheld Kings Port over John Mayrant.

And to what estate was this prince heir? Alas, his inheritance was all of it the Past and none of it the Future; was the full churchyard and the empty wharves! He was paying dear for his princedom! And then, there was yet another sense of this beautiful town that I got here completely, suddenly crystallized, though slowly gathering ever since my arrival: all these old people were clustered about one young one. That was it; that was the town's ultimate tragic note: the old timber of the forest dying and the too sparse new growth appearing scantily amid the tall, fine, venerable, decaying trunks. It had been by no razing to the ground and sowing with salt that the city had perished; a process less violent but more sad had done away with it. Youth, in the wake of commerce, had ebbed from Kings Port, had flowed out from the silent, mourning houses, and sought life North and West, and wherever else life was to be found. Into my revery floated a phrase from a melodious and once favorite song: O tempo passato perche non ritorni?

And John Mayrant? Why, then, had he tarried here himself? That is a hard saying about crabbed age and youth, but are not most of the sayings hard that are true? What was this young man doing in Kings Port with his brains, and his pride, and his energetic adolescence? If the Custom House galled him, the whole country was open to him; why not have tried his fortune out and away, over the hills, where the new cities lie, all full of future and empty of past? Was it much to the credit of such a young man to find himself at the age of twenty-three or twenty-four, sound and lithe of limb, yet tied to the apron strings of Miss Josephine, and Miss Eliza, and some thirty or forty other elderly female relatives?

With these thoughts I looked at the ladies and wondered how I might lead them to answer me about John Mayrant, without asking questions which might imply something derogatory to him or painful to them. I could not ever say to them a word which might mean, however indirectly, that I thought their beautiful, cherished town no place for a young man to go to seed in; this cut so close to the quick of truth that discourse must keep wide away from it. What, then, could I ask them? As I pondered, Mrs. Weguelin solved it for me by what she was saying to Mrs. Gregory, of which, in my preoccupation, I had evidently missed a part:--

"--if he should share the family bad taste in wives."

"Eliza says she has no fear of that."

"Were I Eliza, Hugh's performance would make me very uneasy."

"Julia, John does not resemble Hugh."

"Very decidedly, in coloring, Maria."

"And Hugh found that girl in Minneapolis, Julia, where there was doubtless no pick for the poor fellow. And remember that George chose a lady, at any rate."

Mrs. Weguelin gave to this a short assent. "Yes." It portended something more behind, which her next words duly revealed. "A lady; but do--any--ladies ever seem quite like our own?

"Certainly not, Julia."

You see, they were forgetting me again; but they had furnished me with a clue.

"Mr. John Mayrant has married brothers?"

"Two," Mrs. Gregory responded. "John is the youngest of three children."

"I hadn't heard of the brothers before."

"They seldom come here. They saw fit to leave their home and their delicate mother."

"Oh!"

"But John," said Mrs. Gregory, "met his responsibility like a Mayrant."

"Whatever temptations he has yielded to," said Mrs. Weguelin, "his filial piety has stood proof."

"He refused," added Mrs. Gregory, "when George (and I have never understood how George could be so forgetful of their mother) wrote twice, offering him a lucrative and rising position in the railroad company at Roanoke."

"That was hard!" I exclaimed.

She totally misapplied my sympathy. "Oh, Anna Mayrant," she corrected herself, "John's mother, Mrs. Hector Mayrant, had harder things than forgetful sons to bear! I've not laid eyes on those boys since the funeral."

"Nearly two years," murmured Mrs. Weguelin. And then, to me, with something that was almost like a strange severity beneath her gentle tone: "Therefore we are proud of John, because the better traits in his nature remind us of his forefathers, whom we knew."

"In Kings Port," said Mrs. Gregory, "we prize those who ring true to the blood."

By way of response to this sentiment, I quoted some French to her. "Bon chien chasse de race."

It pleased Mrs. Weguelin. Her guarded attitude toward me relented. "John mentioned your cultivation to us," she said. "In these tumble-down days it is rare to meet with one who still lives, mentally, on the gentlefolks' plane--the piano nobile of intelligence!"

I realized how high a compliment she was paying me, and I repaid it with a joke. "Take care. Those who don't live there would call it the piano snobile."

"Ah!" cried the delighted lady, "they'd never have the wit!"

"Did you ever hear," I continued, "the Bostonian's remark--'The mission of America is to vulgarize the world'?"

"I never expected to agree so totally with a Bostonian!" declared Mrs. Gregory.

"Nothing so hopeful," I pursued, "has ever been said of us. For refinement and thoroughness and tradition delay progress, and we are sweeping them out of the road as fast as we can."

"Come away, Julia," said Mrs. Gregory. "The young gentleman is getting flippant again, and we leave him."

The ladies, after gracious expressions concerning the pleasure of their stroll, descended the steps at the north end of High Walk, where the parapet stops, and turned inland from the water through a little street. I watched them until they went out of my sight round a corner; but the two silent, leisurely figures, moving in their black and their veils along an empty highway, come back to me often in the pictures of my thoughts; come back most often, indeed, as the human part of what my memory sees when it turns to look at Kings Port. For, first, it sees the blue frame of quiet sunny water, and the white town within its frame beneath the clear, untainted air; and then it sees the high-slanted roofs, red with their old corrugated tiles, and the tops of leafy enclosures dipping below sight among quaint and huddled quadrangles; and, next, the quiet houses standing in their separate grounds, their narrow ends to the street and their long, two-storied galleries open to the south, but their hushed windows closed as if against the prying, restless Present that must not look in and disturb the motionless memories which sit brooding behind these shutters; and between all these silent mansions lie the narrow streets, the quiet, empty streets, along which, as my memory watches them, pass the two ladies silently, in their black and their veils, moving between high, mellow-colored garden walls over whose tops look the oleanders, the climbing roses, and all the taller flowers of the gardens.

And if Mrs. Gregory and Mrs. Weguelin seemed to me at moments as narrow as those streets, they also seemed to me as lovely as those serene gardens; and if I had smiled at their prejudices, I had loved their innocence, their deep innocence, of the poisoned age which has succeeded their own; and if I had wondered this day at their powers for cruelty, I wondered the next day at the glimpse I had of their kindness. For during a pelting cold rainstorm, as I sat and shivered in a Royal Street car, waiting for it to start upon its north-bound course, the house-door opposite which we stood at the end of the track opened, and Mrs. Weguelin's head appeared, nodding to the conductor as she sent her black servant out with hot coffee for him! He took off his hat, and smiled, and thanked her; and when we had started and I, the sole passenger in the chilly car, asked him about this, he said with native pride: "The ladies always watches out for us conductors in stormy weather, sir. That's Mistress Weguelin St. Michael, one of our finest." And then he gave me careful directions how to find a shop that I was seeking.

Think of this happening in New York! Think of the aristocracy of that metropolis warming up with coffee the--but why think of it, or of a New York conductor answering your questions with careful directions! It is not New York's fault, it is merely New York's misfortune: New York is in a hurry; and a world of haste cannot be a world either of courtesy or of kindness. But we have progress, progress, instead; and that is a tremendous consolation.

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CHAPTER XI. DADDY BEN AND HIS SEEDBut what was Hortense Rieppe coming to see for herself?Many dark things had been made plain to me by my talk with the two ladies; yet while disclosing so much, they had still left this important matter in shadow. I was very glad, however, for what they had revealed. They had showed me more of John Mayrant's character, and more also of the destiny which had shaped his ends, so that my esteem for him had increased; for some of the words that they had exchanged shone like bright lanterns down into his nature upon
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