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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesLife And Gabriella: The Story Of A Woman's Courage - Book 1. The Age Of Faith - Chapter 3. A Start In Life
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Life And Gabriella: The Story Of A Woman's Courage - Book 1. The Age Of Faith - Chapter 3. A Start In Life Post by :chris26 Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :2690

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Life And Gabriella: The Story Of A Woman's Courage - Book 1. The Age Of Faith - Chapter 3. A Start In Life


In the late 'seventies and early 'eighties the most important shop in the town of Gabriella's birth was known to its patrons (chiefly ladies in long basques, tightly tied back skirts, and small eccentric bonnets) as Brandywine & Plummer's drygoods store. At that period, when old Mrs. Carr, just completing her ninetieth year with a mind fixed upon heaven, would have dropped dead at the idea that her granddaughter should ever step out of her class, Gabriella's mother bought her dresses (grosgrain of the very best quality) from Major Brandywine. To be sure, even in those days, there were other shops in the city--for was not Broad Street already alluded to in the newspapers as "the shopping thoroughfare of the South?"--but, though they were as numerous as dandelions in June, these places were by no means patronized so widely by "the best people." Small shops, of course, carrying a single line of goods and supplying their particular products to an exacting and discriminating class, held their own even against the established reputation of Brandywine & Plummer's. O'Connell's linen store, Twitlow's china store, Mrs. Tonk's doll store, and Green & Brady's store for notions--all these were situated in Broad Street hardly a stone's throw from the Second Market. But none of these, excellent as they were, could bear comparison with the refined atmosphere, so different from the vulgar bustle of a modern department store, which enveloped one in the quiet gloom of Brandywine & Plummer's. In the first place, one could be perfectly sure that one would be waited on by a lady--for Brandywine & Plummer's, with a distinguished Confederate soldier at its head and front, provided an almost conventual shelter for distressed feminine gentility. There was, for instance, Miss Marye of the black silk counter, whose father had belonged to Stuart's cavalry and had fallen at Yellow Tavern; there was Miss Meason of the glove counter, and there was Mrs. Burwell Smith of the ribbon counter--for, though she had married beneath her, it was impossible to forget that she was a direct descendant of Colonel Micajah Burwell, of Crow's Nest Plantation.

Then, if one happened to be in search of cotton goods, one would be almost certain to remark on the way home: "Miss Peters, who waited on me in Brandywine's this morning, has unmistakably the manner of a lady," or "that Mrs. Jones in Brandywine's must be related to the real Joneses, she has such a refined appearance." And, at last, in the middle 'nineties, after the opening of the new millinery department, which was reached by a short flight of steps, decorated at discreet intervals with baskets of pink paper roses, customers were beginning to ask: "May I speak to Miss Gabriella for a minute? I wish to speak to Miss Gabriella about the hat she is having trimmed for me."

For here, also, because of what poor Jane called her "practical mind," the patrons of Brandywine & Plummer's were learning that Gabriella was "the sort you could count on." As far as the actual work went, she could not, of course, hold a candle (this was Mr. Plummer's way of putting it) to Miss Kemp or Miss Treadway, who had a decided talent for trimming; but no customer in balloon sleeves and bell-shaped skirt was ever heard to remark of these young women as they remarked of Gabriella, "No, I don't want anybody else, please. She takes such an interest." To take an interest in other people might become quite as marketable an asset, Mr. Plummer was discovering, after fifty years of adherence to strictly business methods, as a gift for the needle; and, added to her engaging interest, Gabriella appeared to know by instinct exactly what a customer wanted.

"I declare Miss Kemp had almost persuaded me to take that brown straw with the green velvet bandeau before I thought of asking Gabriella's advice," Mrs. Spencer was overheard saying to her daughter, as she paused, panting and breathless, at the head of the short flight of steps.

"Oh, Gabriella always had taste; I'll ask her about mine," Florrie tossed back gaily in the high fluting notes which expressed so perfectly the brilliant, if slightly metallic, quality of her personality.

Beside her mother, a plump, bouncing person, with a noisy though imperfectly articulate habit of speech, and the prominent hips and bust which composed the "fine figure" of the period, Florrie seemed to float with all the elusive, magic loveliness of a sunbeam. From the shining nimbus of her hair to her small tripping feet she was the incarnation of girlhood--of that white and gold girlhood which has intoxicated the imagination of man. She shed the allurement of sex as unconsciously as a flower sheds its perfume. Though her eyes were softly veiled by her lashes, every male clerk in Brandywine & Plummer's was dazzled by the deep blue light of her glances. In her red mouth, with its parted lips, in the pure rose and white of her flesh, in the rich curve of her bosom, which promised already the "fine figure" of her mother, youth and summer were calling as they called in the velvet softness of the June breeze. Innocent though she was, the powers of Life had selected her as a vehicle for their inscrutable ends.

"Where is Miss Carr? I must speak to Miss Carr, please," she said to one of the shop girls who came up, eager to serve her. "Will you tell her that Miss Spencer is waiting to speak to her?"

Responding to the girl's artless stare of admiration, she threw a friendly glance at her before she turned away to try on a monstrous white Leghorn hat decorated around the crown with a trellis of pink roses. Unless she happened to be in a particularly bad humour--and this was not often the case--Florrie was imperturbably amiable. She enjoyed flattery as a cat enjoys the firelight on its back, and while she purred happily in the pleasant warmth, she had something of the sleek and glossy look of a pretty kitten.

"How does this look on me, mother?" she asked over her shoulder of Mrs. Spencer, who was babbling cheerfully in her loud tones to Miss Lancaster, the forewoman.

Though some of the best blood in Virginia, profusely diluted with some of the worst, flowed comfortably in Mrs. Spencer's veins, it was impossible even for her relatives to deny that she could be at times decidedly vulgar. Having been a conspicuous belle and beauty of a bold and dashing type in her youth, she now devoted her middle-age to the enjoyment of those pleasures which she had formerly sacrificed to the preservation of her figure and her complexion. Though she still dyed her somewhat damaged hair, and strenuously pinched in her widening waist, she had ceased, since her fiftieth birthday, to forego the lesser comforts of the body. As she was a person of small imagination, and of no sentiment, it is probable that she was happier now than she had been in the days when she suffered the deprivations and enjoyed the triumphs of beauty.

"What's that, Florrie?" she inquired shrilly. "No, I shouldn't get that if I were you. It doesn't flare enough. I'm crazy about a flare."

"But I want a pink bandeau, mother," replied Florrie a little pettishly, as she patted her golden-red fringe. "I wonder where Gabriella is? Isn't she ever coming, Miss Lancaster?"

"I thought I saw her when I came in," observed Mrs. Spencer, craning her handsome neck, which was running to fat, in the direction of the trimming room. "Florrie, just turn your head after a minute and look at the hat Patty Carrington is buying--pea green, and it makes her face look like a walnut. She hasn't the faintest idea how to dress. Do you think I ought to speak to her about it?"

"No, let her alone," replied Florrie impatiently. "Is this any better than the Leghorn?"

"Well, I must say I don't think there is much style about it, though, of course, with your hair, you can carry off anything. Isn't it odd how exactly she inherited my hair, Miss Lancaster? I remember her father used to say that he would have fallen in love with a gatepost if it had had golden-red hair."

Miss Lancaster, a thin, erect woman of fifty, with impassive features, and iron-gray hair that looked as if it were rolled over wood, glanced resignedly from Mrs. Spencer's orange-coloured crimps to the imprisoned sunlight in Florrie's hair.

"I'd know you were mother and daughter anywhere," she remarked in the noncommittal manner she had acquired in thirty years of independence; "and she is going to have your beautiful figure, too, Mrs. Spencer."

"Well, I reckon I'll lose my figure now that I've stopped dieting," remarked the lively lady, casting an appreciative glance in the mirror. "Florrie tells me I wear my sleeves too large, but I think they make me look smaller."

"They are wearing them very large in Paris," replied Miss Lancaster, as if she were reciting a verse out of a catalogue. She had, as she sometimes found occasion to remark, been "born tired," and this temperamental weariness showed now in her handsome face, so wrinkled and dark around her bravely smiling eyes. Where she came from, or how she spent her time between the hour she left the shop and the hour she returned to it, the two women knew as little as they knew the intimate personal history of the Leghorn hat on the peg by the mirror. Beyond the fact that she played the part of a sympathetic chorus, they were without curiosity about her life. Their own personalities absorbed them, and for the time at least appeared to absorb Miss Lancaster.

"I like the Leghorn hat," said Florrie decisively, as she tried it on for the third time, "but I'll wait till I ask Gabriella's opinion."

"I hope she's getting on well here," said Mrs. Spencer, who found it impossible to concentrate on Florrie's hat. "Don't you think it was very brave of her to go to work, Miss Lancaster?"

"I understood that she was obliged to," rejoined Miss Lancaster, with the weary amiability of her professional manner.

"She might have married, I happen to know that," returned Mrs. Spencer. "Arthur Peyton has been in love with her ever since she was a child, and there was a young man from New York last winter who seemed crazy about her. Florrie, don't you think George Fowler was just crazy about Gabriella?"

"I'm sure I don't know, mother. He paid her a great deal of attention, but you never can tell about men."

"Julia Caperton told me, and, of course, she's very intimate with George's sister, that he went back to New York because he heard that Gabriella was engaged to Arthur. Florrie, do you suppose she is really engaged to Arthur?"

Thus appealed to, Florrie removed the Leghorn hat from her head, and answered abstractedly: "Jane thought so, but if she is engaged, I don't see why she should have started to work. I know Arthur would hate it."

"But isn't he too poor to marry?" inquired Mrs. Spencer, whose curiosity was as robust as her constitution. "Haven't you always understood that the Peytons were poor, Miss Lancaster, in spite of the lovely house they live in?"

Her large, good-humoured face, which had once been as delicate as a flower, but was now growing puffed and mottled under a plentiful layer of rice powder, became almost violently animated, while she adjusted her belt with a single effective jerk of her waist. Though Bessie Spencer was admitted to have one of the kindest hearts in the world, she was chiefly remarkable for her unhappy faculty of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. An inveterate, though benevolent, gossip, she would babble on for hours, reciting the private affairs of her relatives, her friends, and her neighbours. Everybody feared her, and yet everybody was assured that "she never meant any harm." The secrets of the town flowed through her mind as grist flows through a mill, and though she was entirely without malice, she contrived, in the most innocent manner, to do an incalculable amount of injury. Possessing a singularly active intelligence, and having reached middle-age without acquiring sufficient concentration to enjoy books, she directed a vigorous, if casual, understanding toward the human beings among whom she lived. She knew everything that it was possible to know about the people who lived in Franklin Street, and yet her mind was so constituted that she never by any chance knew it correctly. Though she was not old, she had already passed into a proverb. To receive any statement with the remark, "You have heard that from Bessie Spencer," was to cast doubt upon it.

"You don't think I'm getting any stouter, do you, Miss Lancaster?" she inquired dubiously, with her hands on her hips and her eyes measuring the dimensions of her waist. "I'm making up my mind to try one of those B. and T. corsets that Mrs. Murray is wearing. She told me it reduced her waist at least three inches."

"Oh, you aren't like Mrs. Murray--she didn't measure a fraction under thirty inches," replied Miss Lancaster, with her patient politeness. Then, after a pause, which Mrs. Spencer's nimble wit filled with a story about the amazing number of mint juleps Mrs. Murray was seen to drink at the White Sulphur Springs last summer, Florrie exclaimed eagerly:

"Why, there is Gabriella! Won't you get her for us, Miss Lancaster?"

Near one of the long windows, beyond which large greenish flies were buzzing around the branch of a mulberry tree in the alley, Gabriella was trying a purple hat on a prim-looking lady who regarded herself in the mirror with a furtive and deprecating air as if she were afraid of being unjustly blamed for her appearance. "I'm not sure--but I don't think it suits me exactly," she appeared to murmur in a strangled whisper, while she twisted her mouth, which held a jet-headed hatpin, into a quivering grimace.

"She's waiting on Matty French," said Mrs. Spencer, and she added impulsively, "I wonder what it is that men see in Gabriella. You wouldn't call her really pretty, would you, Miss Lancaster?"

"Well, not exactly pretty, but she has an interesting face. It is so full of life."

"Can't you get her, mother?" asked Florrie; and Mrs. Spencer, always eager to oblige, rustled across the room and pounced vivaciously upon the prim lady and Gabriella.

"We've been looking for you everywhere, Gabriella," she began, nodding agreeably to Miss French. "Florrie has tried on all the hats in the room, and she wants you to tell her if that white Leghorn is becoming. Good morning, Matty! That blue wing is so stylish. I think you are very sensible to wear colours and not to stick to black as Susie Chamberlain does. It makes her look as old as the hills, and I believe she does it just to depress people. Life is too short, as I said when I left off mourning, to be an ink blot wherever you go. And it doesn't mean that she grieves a bit more for her husband than anybody else does. Everybody knows they led a cat and dog's life together, and I've even heard, though I can't remember who told me, that she was on the point of getting a divorce when he died. Are you going? Well, I'm glad you decided on that blue hat. I don't believe you'll ever regret it. Good-bye. Be sure and come to see me soon. Gabriella, will you help Florrie about her hat now? I declare, I thought Matty would never get through with you. And, of course, we didn't want anybody but you to wait on us. We were just saying that you had the most beautiful taste, and it is so wise of you to go out to work and not sit down and sew at home in order to support your position. A position that can't support itself isn't much of a prop, my husband used to say. But I don't believe you'll stay here long, you sly piece. You'll be married before the year is up, mark my word. The men are all crazy about you, everybody knows that. Why, Florrie met George Fowler in the street this morning, and when he asked after you, his face turned as hot as fire, she said--"

Gabriella's face, above her starched collar with its neat red tie, was slowly flooded with colour. Her brown eyes shone golden under her dark lashes, and Mrs. Spencer told herself that the girl looked almost pretty for a minute. "If she wasn't so sallow, she'd be really good looking."

Happily unaware that her face had betrayed her, Gabriella slid back a glass door, took a hat out of the case, and answered indifferently, while she adjusted the ribbon bow on one side of the crown:

"I didn't know Mr. Fowler had come back. I haven't seen him for ages."

From her small, smooth head to her slender feet she had acquired in three months the composed efficiency of Miss Lancaster; and one might have imagined, as Mrs. Spencer remarked to Florrie afterwards, that "she had been born in a hat shop."

But instead of the weary patience of Miss Lancaster, she brought to her work the brimming energy and the joyous self-confidence of youth. It was impossible to watch her and not realize that she had given both ability and the finer gift of personality to the selling of hats. Had she started life as a funeral director instead of a milliner, it is probable that she would have infused into the dreary business something of the living quality of genius.

"Oh, Florrie hadn't seen him for ages either," chirped Mrs. Spencer, with her restless eyes on the hat in Gabriella's hand. "I don't know whether I ought to tell you or not, but you and Florrie are so intimate I suppose I might as well--Julia Caperton told Florrie that George came back because he heard in some way that you had broken your engagement to Arthur. Of course, as I told Julia afterwards, you hadn't mentioned a word of it to me, but I've got eyes and I can't help using them. I was obliged to see that George was simply out of his mind about you. It would be a splendid match, too, for they say his father has made quite a large fortune since he went to New York--"

"Mother!" interrupted Florrie sternly, over her shoulder, "you know Julia told you not to breathe a single word as coming from her. She is the bosom friend of George's sister."

"But, Florrie, I haven't told a soul except Gabriella, and I know she wouldn't repeat a thing that I said to her."

"Now, isn't that exactly like mother?" observed Florrie, with the casual disapprobation of youth. "She was on the point of telling Miss Lancaster all about it when I stopped her."

"Why, Florrie, I didn't say a word except that men were crazy about Gabriella--you know I didn't. Of course, I talk a great deal," she pursued in an aggrieved, explanatory tone to Gabriella, "but I never repeat a word--not a single word that is told me in confidence. If Julia had asked me not to tell Gabriella what she said, I shouldn't have dreamed of doing so."

"Oh, it doesn't matter in the least, Mrs. Spencer," said Gabriella hastily, "only there isn't a word of truth in it."

The becoming flush was still in her cheeks, and she poised a hat over Florrie's head with a swift, flying grace which Mrs. Spencer had never noticed in her before. "I wonder if Gabriella can really care about George?" she thought quickly. "But if it is George she is in love with, why on earth did she start to work in a shop?" Then suddenly, following a flash of light, she reasoned it out to her complete satisfaction. "It must have been that she didn't know that George cared--that is why she is blushing so at this minute."

An hour or so later, when Florrie and her mother had fluttered volubly downstairs, and the exhausted assistants were putting the hats away before closing the cases, Gabriella went into the dressing-room, where Miss Nash, a stout, pleasant-looking girl, was sitting in a broken chair, with her shoes off, her blue serge skirt rolled back from her knees, and her head bowed, over her crossed arms, on the window-sill.

At Gabriella's entrance she glanced up, and remarked cheerfully: "My feet were killing me. I just had to take off my shoes."

"They do get dreadfully tired," assented Gabriella in the tone of sympathetic intimacy she had caught from the other girls.

Her naturally friendly spirit had refused to "hold aloof" from her companions, as her mother had begged her to do, and at the end of three months she had learned things about most of them which interested her profoundly. One supported an invalid father, another had a family of six little brothers and sisters to care for, and still another had lost her lover through a railroad accident only two days before her marriage. Several of them were extravagantly loud, one or two were inclined to be vulgar; but the others were quite as refined and gentle as the girls with whom she had grown up, and what impressed her about them all was their courageous and yet essentially light-hearted Southern spirit. To her surprise, she found an utter absence of jealousy among them. The elder women were invariably kind and helpful, and though she liked the girls, she soon discovered in herself a growing feeling of respect for these older women. They represented a different type, for the hardness she noticed in some of the younger girls was entirely lacking in the women of Miss Lancaster's generation. Many of them even her mother would have called well born, and one and all, they were almost painfully ladylike. With their thin, erect figures, their wan, colourless faces, their graying hair, and their sweet Southern voices, they imparted a delicate social air to the shop.

Usually Gabriella stopped to talk to the girls who crowded in from the workroom, brushing shreds of silk or ribbon from their skirts, but to-day her mind wandered while she answered Miss Nash, and when, a minute later, Miss Lancaster spoke to her on her way out, and asked her to match the flowers for Florrie's hat, she was obliged to make an effort before she could recall her roving attention. She was thinking not of Florrie's hat, but of Mrs. Spencer's words, "He has come back because he heard that your engagement was broken." And at the first insurgent rise of emotion, she ceased to be the business woman and became merely an imaginative girl, dreaming of love.

"They aren't quite the right shade, are they?" she asked with an uncertainty which was tactful rather than sincere, "or, perhaps, the ribbon might be darker?"

Her eyes questioned Miss Lancaster, who moved a step nearer the window as she held the bolt of ribbon toward the daylight.

"Well, we'd better look at it again in the morning. You are in a hurry, Miss Carr?"

"Oh, no, I've all the time in the world," answered Gabriella, though she longed to be out with the June scents and her dreams, "but I am sure the ribbon ought to be a deeper blue to tone with the ragged robins."

"You've a wonderful eye for colour, that's why I ask your advice," said the other, and a sudden friendliness shone in her tired eyes, for she had liked Gabriella from the beginning. That the girl possessed a genuine gift of taste, the elder woman had already discovered. For herself, Miss Lancaster had always hated the sight of hats, and had taken up the work merely because a place in Brandywine & Plummer's had been offered her shortly after her father, a gallant fighter but a poor worker, had gone to end his kindly anecdotal days in the Home for Confederate Soldiers. She was a repressed, conscientious woman, who had never been younger than she was now at fifty, and who regarded youth, not with envy, but with admiring awe. For she, also, patient and uncomplaining creature, belonged to that world of decay and inertia from which Gabriella had revolted. It was a world where things happened to-day just as they happened yesterday, where no miracles had occurred since the miracles of Scripture, where people hated change, not because they were satisfied, but because they were incapable of imagination. Miss Lancaster, who had never wanted anything with passion, except to be a perfect lady, was proud of the fact that she had been twenty years in business without losing her "shrinking manner."

"Yes, you have an eye for colour," she repeated gently; "if you could only learn to sew, you might command a most desirable position."

"I despise sewing," replied Gabriella, with serene good-humour, "and I could never learn, even at school, anything that I despised. But I suppose I can always tell somebody else how it ought to be done."

Then, because her work always interested her, she forgot the disturbing words Mrs. Spencer had spoken--she forgot even her impatience to feel the June air in her face. Her best gift, the power of mental control, enabled her to bring the needed discipline to her emotion; and when the moment of her release came, she found that the brief restlessness had passed from her mind. "There's no use letting myself get impatient," she thought; "I've got to stick to it, so it won't do a bit of good to begin wriggling."

All the other girls had gone home before her, and on the sidewalk Miss Meason, of the glove counter, stood talking about the spring sales to Mr. Brandywine. As Gabriella passed them, in her white shirtwaist and dark belted skirt, they looked thoughtfully after her until her sailor hat, with the scarlet band, crossed Broad Street and disappeared on the opposite side.

"She's a remarkable girl," observed Mr. Brandywine, with his paternal manner. "I hope she is beginning to feel at home with us."

"I believe she'd feel at home anywhere," replied Miss Meason, "and she's obliged to get on. There's no doubt of it."

"A pleasant face, too. Not exactly pretty, I suppose, but you would call it a pleasant face."

"Oh, well, I'd call her pretty in her way," answered Miss Meason. "Her eyes are lovely, and she has a singularly bright expression. I always say that a bright expression makes up for anything."

"Her mother was a beauty in her day," said Mr. Brandywine reminiscently; "she was the snow and roses sort, and her eldest daughter took after her, though she is a wreck now, poor lady."

"That's Charley Gracey," remarked Miss Meason tartly, for she had the self-supporting woman's contempt for the rake. "Yes, she was lovely as a girl. I remember as well as if it were yesterday how happy she looked when I sold her her wedding gloves. She is a beautiful character, too, they say, but somehow Gabriella, even as a child, appealed to me more. She has three times the sense of her sister."

Then they shook hands and parted, while Gabriella, tripping through the Second Market, was saying to herself: "There's not the least bit of sense in your thinking about him, Gabriella."

In Hill Street, maple and poplar trees were in full leaf, and little flakes of sunshine, as soft as flowers, were scattered over the brick pavement. Beyond the housetops the sky was golden, and at the corner the rusty ironwork of an old balcony had turned to the colour of bronze. The burning light of the sunset blinded her eyes, while an intense sweetness came to her from the honeysuckle clambering over a low white porch; and this light and this sweetness possessed an ineffable quality. Life, which had been merely placid a few hours before, had become suddenly poignant--every instant was pregnant with happiness, every detail was piercingly vivid. Her whole being was flooded with a sensation of richness and wonder, as if she had awakened with surprise to a different world from the one she had closed her eyes on a minute before.

As she crossed the street she saw her mother's head above a box of clove pinks in the window; and a little later the front door opened and Miss Polly Hatch, a small, indomitable spinster who sewed out by the day, walked rapidly between the iron urns and stopped under the creamy blossoms of the old magnolia tree in the yard.

"It's too late for your ma to be workin', Gabriella. You'd better stop her."

Pausing in the middle of the walk, she comfortably tucked under her arm an unwieldy bundle she carried, and added, with the shrewdness which was the result of a long and painful experience with human nature: "It's funny--ain't it?--how downright mulish your ma can be when she wants to?"

"I can't do a thing on earth with her," answered Gabriella in distress. "You have more influence over her than I have, Miss Polly."

Miss Polly, who had the composed and efficient bearing of a machine, shook her head discouragingly as she opened the gate and passed out.

"I reckon she's set for good and all," she remarked emphatically, and went on her way.

"Mother, it's time to stop sewing and think about supper," called Gabriella gaily, as she ran into the room and bent to kiss her mother, who turned a flat, soft cheek in her direction, and remarked gloomily: "Gabriella, you've had a visitor."

Not for worlds would Mrs. Carr have surrendered to the disarming cheerfulness of her daughter's manner; for since Gabriella had gone to work in a shop, her mother's countenance implied that she was piously resigned to disgrace as well as to poverty. It was inconceivable to her that any girl with Berkeley blood in her veins could be so utterly devoid of proper pride as Gabriella had proved herself to be; and the shock of this discovery had left a hurt look in her face. There were days when she hardly spoke to the girl, when refusing food, she opened her lips only to moisten her thread, when the slow tears seemed forever welling between her reddened eyelids. As they had just passed through one of these painful periods, Gabriella was surprised to find that, for the moment at least, her mother appeared to have forgotten her righteous resentment. Though it could hardly be said that Mrs. Carr spoke cheerfully--since cheerfulness was foreign to her nature--at least she had spoken. Of her own accord, unquestioned and unurged, she had volunteered a remark to her daughter; and Gabriella felt that, for a brief respite, the universe had ceased to be menacing.

"Gabriella, you have had a visitor," repeated Mrs. Carr, and it was clear that her sorrow (she never yielded to passion) had been overcome by a natural human eagerness to tell her news.

"Not Cousin Jimmy?" asked the girl lightly.

"No, you could never guess, if you guessed all night."

"Not Charley Gracey surely? I wouldn't speak to him for the world."

Though Jane had returned to Charley, and even Mrs. Carr, feeling in her heart that her younger daughter had dealt her the hardest blow, had been heard to say that she "pitied her son-in-law more than she censured him," Gabriella had not softened in her implacable judgment.

"Of course it wasn't Charley. I shouldn't have mentioned it if it had been, because you are so bitter against him. But it was somebody you haven't seen for months. Do you remember Evelyn Randolph's son who paid you so much attention last winter?"

"George Fowler! Has he been here?" asked Gabriella, and her voice quivered like a harp.

"I told Marthy to say you were out. Of course I wasn't fit to see company, but he caught sight of me on his way to the gate and came back on the porch to speak to me. He remembered all about my having gone to school with his mother, and it seems she had told him about the time she was Queen of May and I maid of honour. I asked him how Evelyn stood living in New York, but he said she likes it better than his father does. Archie Fowler insists that he is coming back to Virginia to end his days. They seem to have plenty of money. I expect Archie has made a fortune up there or he wouldn't be satisfied to live out of Virginia."

"Did George ask when I'd be at home?" inquired Gabriella.

Though she knew that it was unwise to divert her mother's attention from the main narrative, her whole body ached with the longing to hear what George had said of her, and she felt that it was impossible to resist the temptation to question.

"He said something about you as he was going away, but I can't remember whether he asked when you would be in or not." In spite of the fact that Mrs. Carr had the most tenacious memory for useless detail, she was never able to recall the significant points of an interview.

"He didn't ask where I was?"

The question was indiscreet, for it jerked Mrs. Carr's mind back with violence from its innocent ramble into the past, while it reminded her of Gabriella's present unladylike occupation. She shut her lips with soft but obstinate determination, and Gabriella, watching her closely, told herself that "wild horses couldn't drag another word out of her mother to-night." The girl longed to talk it over; but she might have tried as successfully to gossip with the angel on a marble tombstone. She wanted to hear what George had said, to ask how he was looking, and to wonder aloud why he had come back. She wanted to throw herself into her mother's arms and listen to all the little important things that filled the world for her. If only the aloof virtue in Mrs. Carr's face would relax into a human expression!

Taking off her hat, Gabriella went into the bedroom, and then, coming back again after a short absence, remarked with forced gaiety: "I suppose he didn't have anything interesting to tell you, did he?"

"No." Though the light had almost waned, Mrs. Carr broke off a fresh piece of thread and leaned nearer the window, while she tried to find the eye of the needle.

"Let me thread your needle, mother. It is too late to work, anyway. You will ruin your eyesight."

"I have never considered my eyesight, Gabriella."

"I know you haven't, and that's why you ought to begin."

As it was really growing too dark to see, Mrs. Carr rolled the thread back on the spool, stuck the needle into the last buttonhole, and folding the infant's dress on which she was working, laid it away in her straw work-basket.

"Will you light the gas, Gabriella?"

"Don't work any more to-night, mother. It is almost supper time."

Without replying, Mrs. Carr moved with her basket to a chair under the chandelier. Once seated there, she unfolded the dress, took the needle from the unfinished buttonhole, and tried again unsuccessfully to run the thread through the eye. Then, while Gabriella rushed to her aid, she removed her glasses and patiently polished them on a bit of chamois skin she kept in her basket.

"Don't you feel as if you could eat a chop to-night, mother?"

"I haven't been able to swallow a morsel all day, Gabriella."

"I've saved you a little cream. Shall I make you a toddy?"

"I don't want it. Drink it yourself, dear."

After this there followed one of those pauses which fill not only the room, but the universe with a fury of sound. There were times when Gabriella felt that she could stand anything if only her mother would fly into a rage--when she positively envied Florrie Spencer because her plebeian parent scolded her at the top of her voice instead of maintaining a calm and ladylike reticence. But Mrs. Carr was one of those women who never, even in the most trying circumstances, cease to be patient, who never lose for an instant so much as the palest or the thinnest of the Christian virtues.

Going into the bedroom, Gabriella changed from her shirtwaist into a gown of flowered muslin, with sleeves that looked small beside the balloon ones of the season, and a skirt which was shrunken and pale from many washings the summer before. She had worn the frock when she met George, and though it was old, she knew it was becoming, and she told herself joyfully that if she put it on to-night, "something must come of it." As she smoothed her hair by the dim gas-jet over the mirror, she saw again the face of George as it had first smiled down on her beneath the boughs of a mimosa tree in Mrs. Spencer's front garden. At the time, a year ago, she was engaged to Arthur--she had even called the placid preference she felt for him "being in love"--but while she talked to George she had found herself thinking, "I wonder how it would feel to be engaged to a man like this instead of to Arthur?" Then, since all Southern engagements of the period were secret, she had seen a good deal of George during the summer; and in the autumn, while she was still trying to make believe that it was merely a friendship, he had gone back to New York without saying good-bye. She had tried her best to stop thinking of him, and until this evening, she had never really let herself confess that she cared. But if she didn't care why was she so happy to-night? If she didn't care why was there such intoxicating sweetness in the thought of his return? If she didn't care why had she dressed herself so carefully in the flowered muslin he had once said that he liked? Her face, smiling back at her from the mirror, was suffused with a delicate glow--not pink, not white, but softly luminous as if a lamp, shining behind it, enkindled its expression. She had never seen herself so nearly pretty, and with this thought in her mind, she went back to her mother, who was still working buttonholes under the chandelier.

"Marthy has brought the lamp, mother. Why don't you move over to the table?"

"I can see perfectly, thank you, Gabriella."

"I hate to see you working. Let me finish those buttonholes."

"I'd rather get through them myself, dear."

"Have you seen Jane to-day?"


"Has Cousin Pussy been here?"


"Did you get out for a walk?"


The appalling silence again filled the room like a fog, and Gabriella, moving cautiously about in it, began straightening chairs and picking up shreds of cambric from the carpet. She felt suddenly that she could not endure the strain for another minute, and glancing at Mrs. Carr's bent head, where the thin hair was wound into a tight knot and held in place by a tortoise-shell comb with a carved top, she wondered how her mother could possibly keep it up day after day as she did? But, if she had only known it, this silence, which tried her nerves to the breaking point, was positively soothing to her mother. Mrs. Carr could keep it up not only for days and weeks, but, had it been necessary, she could have kept it up with equal success for half a lifetime. While she sat there, working buttonholes in a bad light, she thought quite as passionately as Gabriella, though her mental processes were different. She thought sadly, but firmly, with a pensive melancholy not untinged with pleasure, that "life was becoming almost too much for her." It seemed incredible to her that after all her struggles to keep up an appearance things should have turned out as they had; it seemed incredible that after all her sacrifices her children should not consider her more. "They have no consideration for me," she reflected, while she took the finest stitch possible to the needle she held. "If Jane had considered me she would never have married Charley. If Gabriella had considered me, or anybody but herself, she would not have gone to work in a store." No, they had never considered her, they had never asked her advice before acting, though she had brought them into the world and had worked like a slave in order to keep them in that respected station of life in which they had been born. Then, her sorrow getting the better of her resolution, she turned her head and spoke:

"I know you never tell me anything on purpose, Gabriella, but I think I have a right to know whether or not you have discarded Arthur for good."

"I told you all about it, mother. I told you I found I was mistaken."

"I suppose you never thought for a moment how much it would distress me? Though Lydia Peyton is so much older than I am, she was always my best friend--we often stayed in the room together when we were girls. I had set my heart on your marrying her son."

"I know that, mother, and I am very sorry, but when it came to the point I couldn't marry him. You can't make yourself care--"

"I should have thought that my wishes might influence you. I should never wish you to do anything that wasn't for your good, Gabriella."

"Of course, mother, you've given up your life to us. I know that, and Jane knows it as well as I do. That's why I want to earn money enough to let you rest. I want you to stop work for good and be happy."

"There are worse things than work," replied Mrs. Carr in a tone which implied that Gabriella had brought them upon her.

After a pause, in which her needle flew mournfully, she added: "I hope for your own sake that you will marry some good man before you lose your attractions. Poor Becky Bollingbroke proved to me how unfortunate it is for a woman to remain unmarried."

For an instant Gabriella looked at her mother without replying. She felt tempted--strongly tempted, she told herself--to say something cross. Then the sight of the bent gray head, of the bowed shoulders, of the knotted needle-pricked fingers, pierced her heart. Though she could not always agree with her mother, she loved her devotedly, and the thought that she must lose her some day had been the most terrible nightmare of her childhood.

"Don't worry about me, mother, dear," she answered tenderly. "I can always take care of myself. I can manage my life, you know that, don't you?" Then she stopped quickly while her heart gave a single bound and lay quiet. She had heard the click of the gate, and a minute later, as Mrs. Carr gathered up her sewing, there was a ring at the bell.

"It can't be a visitor before supper, can it, Gabriella?"

"I think not, mother, but I shouldn't run away if I were you."

"I'd better go. I don't feel dressed. Wait a minute, Marthy, and let me get out of the room before you open the door." She fled, clutching her work-basket, while Gabriella, turning to lower the flaming wick of the lamp, heard George's voice at the door and his footsteps crossing the hall.

"I knew something would happen," she thought wildly, as she went forward to meet him.

"I saw you pull down the shade as I was going by," he began rather lamely; and she hardly heard his words because of the divine tumult in her brain. Her heart sang; her pulses throbbed; every drop of her blood seemed to become suddenly alive with ecstasy. Under the tarnished garlands of the chandelier his face looked younger, gayer, more intensely vivid than it had looked in her dreams. It was the face of her dreams made real; but with what a difference! She saw his crisp brown hair brushed smoothly back from its parting, his blue eyes, with their gay and conquering look, the firm red brown of his cheek, and even the bluish shadow encircling his shaven mouth. In his eyes, which said enchanting things, she could not read the trivial and commonplace quality of his soul--for he was not only a man, he was romance, he was adventure, he was the radiant miracle of youth!

"Florrie told me this morning that you had come back," she answered coldly, as she held out her hand.

Her words seemed to come to her from a distance--from the next room, from the street outside, from the farthest star--but while she uttered them, she knew that her words meant nothing. She shed her joy as if it were fragrance; and her softness was like the magnolia-scented softness of the June night. Even her mother would not have known her, so greatly had she changed in a minute. Of the businesslike figure in the sailor hat and trim shirtwaist--of the Gabriella who had said, "I can manage my life"--there remained only an outline. The very feet of the capable woman had changed into the shrinking and timid feet of a lovesick girl. She was afraid to go forward, afraid to move, afraid to breathe lest she break the wonderful spell of the magic. Not only her basic common sense, but the very soul that shaped her body had become as light, as sweet, as formless as liquid honey.

But of course, she knew nothing of this. She was innocent of deception; she was innocent even of any definite purpose to allure. The thought in her mind, if there were any thought, which is doubtful, was that she must be composed, she must be indifferent if it killed her.

"I know I've come at an awkward hour, but I simply couldn't go by after I saw you."

"Won't you stay?" she asked, trying in vain to shut out the ominous sound of Marthy bringing their scant supper. She remembered, with horror, that she had ordered only two chops, and a wave of rebellion swept over her because life always spoiled its divine instants.

"No, I can't stay. I've an engagement for supper. I merely wanted to see you. You've no idea how I've wanted to see you."

"Have you?" said Gabriella in so low a voice that he hardly heard her. Then, lifting her glowing eyes, she added softly, "I am glad that you wanted to."

"There were times when I simply couldn't get you out of my mind," he responded, and went on almost joyously, with the romantic look which had first enchanted her imagination. "You see I believed that you were going to marry Arthur Peyton. Julia told me that your engagement was broken. That was why I came back. Didn't you guess it?"

"Yes, I guessed it," she answered simply, and all the softness, the sweetness, the beauty of her feeling passed into her voice.

Then, in the very midst of her happiness, there occurred one of those sordid facts which appear to spring, like vultures, upon the ineffable moments. She heard the bell--the awful supper bell which her mother insisted upon having rung because her parents had had it rung for generations before her. As the horrible sound reverberated through the house, Gabriella felt that the noise passed through her ears, not into her brain, but into the very depths of her suffering soul.

"There, I must go," said George, without embarrassment, for which she blessed him. From his manner, the supper bell might have made a delightful harmony instead of a hideous discord. "I'll see you to-morrow, if I may. May I, Gabriella?"

He smiled charmingly as he went, and looking after him, a minute later, over the clove pinks in the window-box, she saw him turn and gaze back at her from the opposite pavement.

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