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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesLady Baltimore - Chapter 7. The Girl Behind The Counter--2
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Lady Baltimore - Chapter 7. The Girl Behind The Counter--2 Post by :chrischoi Category :Long Stories Author :Owen Wister Date :May 2012 Read :992

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Lady Baltimore - Chapter 7. The Girl Behind The Counter--2


"Which of them is idealizing?" This was the question that I asked myself, next morning, in my boarding-house, as I dressed for breakfast; the next morning is--at least I have always found it so--an excellent time for searching questions; and to-day I had waked up no longer beneath the strong, gentle spell of the churchyard. A bright sun was shining over the eastern waters of the town, I could see from my upper veranda the thousand flashes of the waves; the steam yacht rode placidly and competently among them, while a coastwise steamer was sailing by her, out to sea, to Savannah, or New York; the general world was going on, and--which of them was idealizing? It mightn't be so bad, after all. Hadn't I, perhaps, over-sentimentalized to myself the case of John Mayrant? Hadn't I imagined for him ever so much more anxiety than the boy actually felt? For people can idealize down just as readily as they can idealize up. Of Miss Hortense Rieppe I had now two partial portraits--one by the displeased aunts, the other by their chivalric nephew; in both she held between her experienced lips, a cigarette; there the similarity ceased. And then, there was the toboggan fire-escape. Well, I must meet the living original before I could decide whether (for me, at any rate) she was the "brute" as seen by the eyes of Mrs. Gregory St. Michael, or the "really nice girl" who was going to marry John Mayrant on Wednesday week. Just at this point my thoughts brought up hard again at the cake. No; I couldn't swallow that any better this morning than yesterday afternoon! Allow the gentleman to pay for the feast! Better to have omitted all feast; nothing simpler, and it would have been at least dignified, even if arid. But then, there was the lady (a cousin or an aunt--I couldn't remember which this morning) who had told me she wasn't solicitous. What did she mean by that? And she had looked quite queer when she spoke about the phosphates. Oh, yes, to be sure, she was his intimate aunt! Where, by the way, was Miss Rieppe?

By the time I had eaten my breakfast and walked up Worship Street to the post-office I was full of it all again; my searching thoughts hadn't simplified a single point. I always called for my mail at the post-office, because I got it sooner; it didn't come to the boarding-house before I had departed on my quest for royal blood, whereas, this way, I simply got my letters at the corner of Court and Worship streets and walked diagonally across and down Court a few steps to my researches, which I could vary and alleviate by reading and answering news from home.

It was from Aunt Carola that I heard to-day. Only a little of what she said will interest you. There had been a delightful meeting of the Selected Salic Scions. The Baltimore Chapter had paid her Chapter a visit. Three ladies and one very highly connected young gentleman had come--an encouragingly full and enthusiastic meeting. They had lunched upon cocoa, sherry, and croquettes, after which all had been more than glad to listen to a paper read by a descendant of Edward the Third and the young gentleman, a descendant of Catherine of Aragon, had recited a beautiful original poem, entitled "My Queen Grandmother." Aunt Carola regretted that I could not have had the pleasure and the benefit of this meeting, the young gentleman had turned out to be, also, a refined and tasteful musician, playing, upon the piano a favorite gavotte of Louis the Thirteenth "And while you are in Kings Port," my aunt said; "I expect you to profit by associating with the survivors of our good American society--people such as one could once meet everywhere when I was young, but who have been destroyed by the invasion of the proletariat. You are in the last citadel of good-breeding. By the way, find out, if you can, if any of the Bombo connection are extant; as through them I should like, if possible, to establish a chapter of the Scions in South Carolina. Have you, met a Miss Rieppe, a decidedly striking young woman, who says she is from Kings Port, and who recently passed through here with a very common man dancing attendance on her? He owns the Hermana, and she is said to be engaged to him."

This wasn't as good as meeting Miss Rieppe myself; but the new angle at which I got her from my Aunt was distinctly a contribution toward the young woman's likeness; I felt that I should know her at sight, if ever she came within seeing distance. And it would be entertaining to find that she was a Bombo; but that could wait; what couldn't wait was the Hermana. I postponed the Fannings, hurried by the door where they waited for me, and, coming to the end of Court Street, turned to the right and sought among the wharves the nearest vista that could give me a view of the harbor. Between the silent walls of commerce desolated, and by the empty windows from which Prosperity once looked out, I threaded my way to a point upon the town's eastern edge. Yes, that was the steam yacht's name: the Hermana. I didn't make it out myself, she lay a trifle too far from shore; but I could read from a little fluttering pennant that her owner was not on board; and from the second loafer whom I questioned I learned, besides her name, that she had come from New York here to meet her owner, whose name he did not know and whose arrival was still indefinite. This was not very much to find out; but it was so much more than I had found out about the Fannings that, although I now faithfully returned to my researches, and sat over open books until noon, I couldn't tell you a word of what I read. Where was Miss Rieppe, and where was the owner of the Hermana? Also, precisely how ill was the hero of Chattanooga, her poor dear father?

At the Exchange I opened the door upon a conversation which, in consequence, broke off abruptly; but this much I came in for:--

"Nothing but the slightest bruise above his eye. The other one is in bed."

It was the severe lady who said this; I mean that lady who, among all the severe ones I had met, seemed capable of the highest exercise of this quality, although she had not exercised it in my presence. She looked, in her veil and her black street dress, as aloof, and as coldly scornful of the present day, as she had seemed when sitting over her embroidery; but it was not of 1818, or even 1840, that she had been talking just now: it was this morning that somebody was bruised, somebody was in bed.

The handsome lady acknowledged my salutation completely, but not encouragingly, and then, on the threshold, exchanged these parting sentences with the girl behind the counter:--

"They will have to shake hands. He was not very willing, but he listened to me. Of course, the chastisement was right--but it does not affect my opinion of his keeping on with the position."

"No, indeed, Aunt Josephine!" the girl agreed. "I wish he wouldn't. Did you say it was his right eye?"

"His left." Miss Josephine St. Michael inclined her head once more to me and went out of the Exchange. I retired to my usual table, and the girl read in my manner, quite correctly, the feelings which I had not supposed I had allowed to be evident. She said:--

"Aunt Josephine always makes strangers think she's displeased with them."

I replied like the young ass which I constantly tell myself I have ceased to be: "Oh, displeasure is as much notice as one is entitled to from Miss St. Michael."

The girl laughed with her delightful sweet mockery.

"I declare, you're huffed! Now don't tell me you're not. But you mustn't be. When you know her, you'll know that that awful manner means Aunt Josephine is just being shy. Why, even I'm not afraid of her George Washington glances any more!"

"Very well," I laughed, "I'll try to have your courage." Over my chocolate and sandwiches I sat in curiosity discreditable, but natural. Who was in bed--who would have to shake hands? And why had they stopped talking when I came in? Of course, I found myself hoping that John Mayrant had put the owner of the Hermana in bed at the slight cost of a bruise above his left eye. I wondered if the cake was again countermanded, and I started upon that line. "I think I'll have to-day, if you please, another slice of that Lady Baltimore." And I made ready for another verbal skirmish.

"I'm so sorry! It's a little stale to-day. You can have the last slice, if you wish."

"Thank you, I will." She brought it. "It's not so very stale," I said. "How long since it has been made?"

"Oh, it's the same you've been having. You're its only patron just now."

"Well, no. There's Mr. Mayrant."

"Not for a week yet, you remember."

So the wedding was on yet. Still, John might have smashed the owner of the Hermana.

"Have you seen him lately?" I asked.

There was something special in the way she looked. "Not to-day. Have you?"

"Never in the forenoon. He has his duties and I have mine."

She made a little pause, and then, "What do you think of the President?"

"The President?" I was at a loss.

"But I'm afraid you would take his view--the Northern view," she mused.

It gave me, suddenly, her meaning. "Oh, the President of the United States! How you do change the subject!"

Her eyes were upon me, burning with sectional indignation, but she seemed to be thinking too much to speak. Now, here was a topic that I had avoided, and she had plumped it at me. Very well; she should have my view.

"If you mean that a gentleman cannot invite any respectable member of any race he pleases to dine privately in his house--"

"His house!" She was glowing now with it. "I think he is--I think he is--to have one of them--and even if he likes it, not to remember--cannot speak about him!" she wound up "I should say unbecoming things." She had walked out, during these words, from behind the counter and as she stood there in the middle of the long room you might have thought she was about to lead a cavalry charge. Then, admirably, she put it all under, and spoke on with perfect self-control. "Why can't somebody explain it to him? If I knew him, I would go to him myself, and I would say, Mr. President, we need not discuss our different tastes as to dinner company. Nor need we discuss how much you benefit the colored race by an act which makes every member of it immediately think that he is fit to dine with any king in the world. But you are staying in a house which is partly our house, ours, the South's, for we, too, pay taxes, you know. And since you also know our deep feeling--you may even call it a prejudice, if it so pleases you--do you not think that, so long as you are residing in that house, you should not gratuitously shock our deep feeling?" She swept a magnificent low curtsy at the air.

"By Jove, Miss La Heu!" I exclaimed, "you put it so that it's rather hard to answer."

"I'm glad it strikes you so."

"But did it make them all think they were going to dine?"

"Hundreds of thousands. It was proof to them that they were as good as anybody--just as good, without reading or writing or anything. The very next day some of the laziest and dirtiest where we live had a new strut, like the monkey when you put a red flannel cap on him--only the monkey doesn't push ladies off the sidewalk. And that state of mind, you know," said Miss La Heu, softening down from wrath to her roguish laugh, "isn't the right state of mind for racial progress! But I wasn't thinking of this. You know he has appointed one of them to office here."

A light entered my brain: John Mayrant had a position at the Custom House! John Mayrant was subordinate to the President's appointee! She hadn't changed the subject so violently, after all.

I came squarely at it. "And so you wish him to resign his position?"

But I was ahead of her this time.

"The Chief of Customs?" she wonderingly murmured.

I brought her up with me now. "Did Miss Josephine St. Michael say it was over his left eye?"

The girl instantly looked everything she thought. "I believe you were present!" This was her highly comprehensive exclamation, accompanied also by a blush as splendidly young as John Mayrant had been while he so stammeringly brought out his wishes concerning the cake. I at once decided to deceive her utterly, and therefore I spoke the exact truth: "No, I wasn't present."

They did their work, my true words; the false impression flowed out of them as smoothly as California claret from a French bottle.

"I wonder who told you?" my victim remarked. "But it doesn't really matter. Everybody is bound to know it. You surely were the last person with him in the churchyard?"

"Gracious!" I admitted again with splendidly mendacious veracity. "How we do find each other out in Kings Port!"

It was not by any means the least of the delights which I took in the company of this charming girl that sometimes she was too much for me, and sometimes I was too much for her. It was, of course, just the accident of our ages; in a very few years she would catch up, would pass, would always be too much for me. Well, to-day it was happily my turn; I wasn't going to finish lunch without knowing all she, at any rate, could tell me about the left eye and the man in bed.

"Forty years ago," I now, with ingenuity, remarked, "I suppose it would have been pistols."

She assented. "And I like that better--don't you--for gentlemen?"

"Well, you mean that fists are--"

"Yes," she finished for me.

"All the same," I maintained, "don't you think that there ought to be some correspondence, some proportion, between the gravity of the cause and the gravity of--"

"Let the coal-heavers take to their fists!" she scornfully cried. "People of our class can't descend--"

"Well, but," I interrupted, "then you give the coal-heavers the palm for discrimination."

"How's that?"

"Why, perfectly! Your coal-heaver kills for some offenses, while for lighter ones he--gets a bruise over the left eye."

"You don't meet it, you don't meet it! What is an insult ever but an insult?"

"Oh, we in the North notice certain degrees--insolence, impudence, impertinence, liberties, rudeness--all different."

She took up my phrase with a sudden odd quietness. "You in the North."

"Why, yes. We have, alas! to expect and allow for rudeness sometimes, even in our chosen few, and for liberties in their chosen few; it's only the hotel clerk and the head waiter from whom we usually get impudence; while insolence is the chronic condition of the Wall Street rich."

"You in the North!" she repeated. "And so your Northern eyes can't see it, after all!" At these words my intelligence sailed into a great blank, while she continued: "Frankly--and forgive me for saying it--I was hoping that you were one Northerner who would see it."

"But see what?" I barked in my despair.

She did not help me. "If I had been a man, nothing could have insulted me more than that. And that's what you don't see," she regretfully finished. "It seems so strange."

I sat in the midst of my great blank, while her handsome eyes rested upon me. In them was that look of a certain inquiry and a certain remoteness with which one pauses, in a museum, before some specimen of the cave-dwelling man.

"You comprehend so much," she meditated slowly, aloud; "you've been such an agreeable disappointment, because your point of view is so often the same as ours." She was still surveying me with the specimen expression, when it suddenly left her. "Do you mean to sit there and tell me," she broke out, "that you wouldn't have resented it yourself?"

"O dear!" my mind lamentably said to itself, inside. Of what may have been the exterior that I presented to her, sitting over my slice of Lady Baltimore, I can form no impression.

"Put yourself in his place," the girl continued.

"Ah," I gasped, "that is always so easy to say and so hard to do."

My remark proved not a happy one. She made a brief, cold pause over it, and then, as she wheeled round from me, back to the counter: "No Southerner would let pass such an affront."

It was final. She regained her usual place, she resumed her ledger; the curly dog, who had come out to hear our conversation, went in again; I was disgraced. Not only with the profile of her short, belligerent nose, but with the chilly way in which she made her pencil move over the ledger, she told me plainly that my self-respect had failed to meet her tests. This was what my remarkable ingenuity had achieved for me. I swallowed the last crumbs of Lady Baltimore, and went forward to settle the account.

"I suppose I'm scarcely entitled to ask for a fresh one to-morrow," I ventured. "I am so fond of this cake."

Her officialness met me adequately. "Certainly the public is entitled to whatever we print upon our bill-of-fare."

Now this was going to be too bad! Henceforth I was to rank merely as "the public," no matter how much Lady Baltimore I should lunch upon! A happy thought seized me, and I spoke out instantly on the strength of it.

"Miss La Heu, I've a confession to make."

But upon this beginning of mine the inauspicious door opened and young John Mayrant came in. It was all right about his left eye; anybody could see that bruise!

"Oh!" he exclaimed, hearty, but somewhat disconcerted. "To think of finding you here! You're going? But I'll see you later?"

"I hope so," I said. "You know where I work."

"Yes--yes. I'll come. We've all sorts of things more to say, haven't we? We--good-by!"

Did I hear, as I gained the street, something being said about the General, and the state of his health?

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