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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesSeventeen - Chapter XII. PROGRESS OF THE SYMPTOMS
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Seventeen - Chapter XII. PROGRESS OF THE SYMPTOMS Post by :kirtlc Category :Long Stories Author :Booth Tarkington Date :February 2011 Read :1488

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Seventeen - Chapter XII. PROGRESS OF THE SYMPTOMS

Mrs. BAXTER'S little stroke of diplomacy
had gone straight to the mark,
she was a woman of insight. For every reason
she was well content to have her son spend his
evenings at home, though it cannot be claimed
that his presence enlivened the household, his
condition being one of strange, trancelike
irascibility. Evening after evening passed, while he
sat dreaming painfully of Mr. Parcher's porch;
but in the daytime, though William did not
literally make hay while the sun shone, he at
least gathered a harvest somewhat resembling
hay in general character.

Thus:

One afternoon, having locked his door to
secure himself against intrusion on the part of
his mother or Jane, William seated himself
at his writing-table, and from a drawer therein
took a small cardboard box, which he uncovered,
placing the contents in view before him upon
the table. (How meager, how chilling a word is
``contents''!) In the box were:

A faded rose.

Several other faded roses, disintegrated into
leaves.

Three withered ``four-leaf clovers.''

A white ribbon still faintly smelling of violets.

A small silver shoe-buckle.

A large pearl button.

A small pearl button.

A tortoise-shell hair-pin.

A cross-section from the heel of a small slipper.

A stringy remnant, probably once an improvised
wreath of daisies.

Four or five withered dandelions.

Other dried vegetation, of a nature now
indistinguishable.

William gazed reverently upon this junk of
precious souvenirs; then from the inner pocket
of his coat he brought forth, warm and crumpled,
a lumpish cluster of red geranium blossoms, still
aromatic and not quite dead, though naturally,
after three hours of such intimate confinement,
they wore an unmistakable look of suffering.
With a tenderness which his family had never
observed in him since that piteous day in his
fifth year when he tried to mend his broken doll,
William laid the geranium blossoms in the cardboard
box among the botanical and other relics.

His gentle eyes showed what the treasures
meant to him, and yet it was strange that they
should have meant so much, because the source
of supply was not more than a quarter of a mile
distant, and practically inexhaustible. Miss
Pratt had now been a visitor at the Parchers'
for something less than five weeks, but she
had made no mention of prospective departure,
and there was every reason to suppose that she
meant to remain all summer. And as any
foliage or anything whatever that she touched,
or that touched her, was thenceforth suitable for
William's museum, there appeared to be some
probability that autumn might see it so enlarged
as to lack that rarity in the component items
which is the underlying value of most collections.

William's writing-table was beside an open
window, through which came an insistent whirring,
unagreeable to his mood; and, looking down
upon the sunny lawn, he beheld three lowly
creatures. One was Genesis; he was cutting
the grass. Another was Clematis; he had
assumed a transient attitude, curiously triangular,
in order to scratch his ear, the while his anxious
eyes never wavered from the third creature.

This was Jane. In one hand she held a little
stack of sugar-sprinkled wafers, which she slowly
but steadily depleted, unconscious of the
increasingly earnest protest, at last nearing agony,
in the eyes of Clematis. Wearing unaccustomed
garments of fashion and festivity, Jane stood, in
speckless, starchy white and a blue sash, watching
the lawn-mower spout showers of grass as the
powerful Genesis easily propelled it along over
lapping lanes, back and forth, across the yard.

From a height of illimitable loftiness the owner
of the cardboard treasury looked down upon the
squat commonplaceness of those three lives.
The condition of Jane and Genesis and Clematis
seemed almost laughably pitiable to him, the
more so because they were unaware of it. They
breathed not the starry air that William breathed,
but what did it matter to them? The wretched
things did not even know that they meant
nothing to Miss Pratt!

Clematis found his ear too pliable for any great
solace from his foot, but he was not disappointed;
he had expected little, and his thoughts were
elsewhere. Rising, he permitted his nose to follow
his troubled eyes, with the result that it touched
the rim of the last wafer in Jane's external
possession.

This incident annoyed William. ``Look there!''
he called from the window. ``You mean to eat
that cake after the dog's had his face on it?''

Jane remained placid. ``It wasn't his face.''

``Well, if it wasn't his face, I'd like to know
what--''

``It wasn't his face,'' Jane repeated. ``It was
his nose. It wasn't all of his nose touched it,
either. It was only a little outside piece of his
nose.''

``Well, are you going to eat that cake, I ask
you?''

Jane broke off a small bit of the wafer. She
gave the bit to Clematis and slowly ate what
remained, continuing to watch Genesis and
apparently unconscious of the scorching gaze from
the window.

``I never saw anything as disgusting as long
as I've lived!'' William announced. ``I wouldn't
'a' believed it if anybody'd told me a sister of
mine would eat after--''

``I didn't,'' said Jane. ``I like Clematis, anyway.''

``Ye gods!'' her brother cried. ``Do you think
that makes it any better? And, BY the WAY,'' he
continued, in a tone of even greater severity, ``I'd
a like to know where you got those cakes. Where'd
you get 'em, I'd just like to inquire?''

``In the pantry.'' Jane turned and moved
toward the house. ``I'm goin' in for some more,
now.''

William uttered a cry; these little cakes were
sacred. His mother, growing curious to meet a
visiting lady of whom (so to speak) she had
heard much and thought more, had asked May
Parcher to bring her guest for iced tea, that
afternoon. A few others of congenial age had been
invited: there was to be a small matinee, in fact,
for the honor and pleasure of the son of the house,
and the cakes of Jane's onslaught were part of
Mrs. Baxter's preparations. There was no telling
where Jane would stop; it was conceivable that
Miss Pratt herself might go waferless.

William returned the cardboard box to its
drawer with reverent haste; then, increasing the
haste, but dropping the reverence, he hied himself
to the pantry with such advantage of longer
legs that within the minute he and the wafers
appeared in conjunction before his mother, who
was arranging fruit and flowers upon a table in
the ``living-room.''

William entered in the stained-glass attitude
of one bearing gifts. Overhead, both hands
supported a tin pan, well laden with small cakes and
wafers, for which Jane was silently but repeatedly
and systematically jumping. Even under the
stress of these efforts her expression was cool and
collected; she maintained the self-possession that
was characteristic of her.

Not so with William; his cheeks were flushed,
his eyes indignant. ``You see what this child is
doing?'' he demanded. ``Are you going to let her
ruin everything?''

``Ruin?'' Mrs. Baxter repeated, absently,
refreshing with fair water a bowl of flowers upon
the table. ``Ruin?''

``Yes, ruin!'' William was hotly emphatic,
``If you don't do something with her it 'll all be
ruined before Miss Pr--before they even get
here!''

Mrs. Baxter laughed. ``Set the pan down,
Willie.''

``Set it DOWN?'' he echoed, incredulously
``With that child in the room and grabbing
like--''

``There!'' Mrs. Baxter took the pan from him,
placed it upon a chair, and with the utmost coolness
selected five wafers and gave them to Jane.
``I'd already promised her she could have five
more. You know the doctor said Jane's digestion
was the finest he'd ever misunderstood. They
won't hurt her at all, Willie.''

This deliberate misinterpretation of his motives
made it difficult for William to speak. ``Do YOU
think,'' he began, hoarsely, ``do you THINK--''

``They're so small, too,'' Mrs. Baxter went on.
``SHE probably wouldn't be sick if she ate them
all.''

``My heavens!'' he burst forth. ``Do you think
I was worrying about--'' He broke off, unable to
express himself save by a few gestures of despair.
Again finding his voice, and a great deal of it, he
demanded: ``Do you realize that Miss PRATT will
be here within less than half an hour? What do
you suppose she'd think of the people of this
town if she was invited out, expecting decent
treatment, and found two-thirds of the cakes
eaten up before she got there, and what was left
of 'em all mauled and pawed over and crummy
and chewed-up lookin' from some wretched
CHILD?'' Here William became oratorical, but not
with marked effect, since Jane regarded him with
unmoved eyes, while Mrs. Baxter continued to
be mildly preoccupied in arranging the table.
In fact, throughout this episode in controversy
the ladies' party had not only the numerical but
the emotional advantage. Obviously, the
approach of Miss Pratt was not to them what it
was to William. ``I tell you,'' he declaimed;--
``yes, I tell you that it wouldn't take much
of this kind of thing to make Miss Pratt think
the people of this town were--well, it wouldn't
take much to make her think the people of this
town hadn't learned much of how to behave in
society and were pretty uncilivized!'' He
corrected himself . ``Uncivilized! And to think
Miss Pratt has to find that out in MY house!
To think--''

``Now, Willie,'' said Mrs. Baxter, gently,
``you'd better go up and brush your hair again
before your friends come. You mustn't let yourself
get so excited.''

`` `Excited!' '' he cried, incredulously. ``Do
you think I'm EXCITED? Ye gods!''
He smote his hands together and, in his despair
of her intelligence, would have flung himself
down upon a chair, but was arrested half-way by
simultaneous loud outcries from his mother and
Jane.

``Don't sit on the CAKES!'' they both screamed.

Saving himself and the pan of wafers by a
supreme contortion at the last instant, William
decided to remain upon his feet. ``What do I
care for the cakes?'' he demanded, contemptuously,
beginning to pace the floor. ``It's the
question of principle I'm talking about! Do you
think it's right to give the people of this town a
poor name when strangers like Miss PRATT come
to vis--''

``Willie!'' His mother looked at him hopelessly.
``Do go and brush your hair. If you
could see how you've tousled it you would.''

He gave her a dazed glance and strode from
the room.

Jane looked after him placidly. ``Didn't he
talk funny!'' she murmured.

``Yes, dear,'' said Mrs. Baxter. She shook her
head and uttered the enigmatic words, ``They
do.''

``I mean Willie, mamma,'' said Jane. ``If it's
anything about Miss Pratt. he always talks awful
funny. Don't you think Willie talks awful funny
if it's anything about Miss Pratt, mamma?''

``Yes, but--''

``What, mamma?'' Jane asked as her mother
paused.

``Well--it happens. People do get like that at
his age, Jane.''

``Does everybody?''

``No, I suppose not everybody. Just some.''

Jane's interest was roused. ``Well, do those
that do, mamma,'' she inquired, ``do they all act
like Willie?''

``No,'' said Mrs. Baxter. ``That's the trouble;
you can't tell what's coming.''

Jane nodded. ``I think I know,'' she said.
``You mean Willie--''

William himself interrupted her. He returned
violently to the doorway, his hair still tousled,
and, standing upon the threshold, said, sternly:

``What is that child wearing her best dress
for?''

``Willie!'' Mrs. Baxter cried. ``Go brush your
hair!''

``I wish to know what that child is all dressed
up for?'' he insisted.

``To please you! Don't you want her to look
her best at your tea?''

``I thought that was it!'' he cried, and upon
this confirmation of his worst fears he did
increased violence to his rumpled hair. ``I
suspected it, but I wouldn't 'a' believed it! You
mean to let this child--you mean to let--'' Here
his agitation affected his throat and his utterance
became clouded. A few detached phrases fell
from him: ``--Invite MY friends--children's
party--ye gods!--think Miss Pratt plays dolls--''

``Jane will be very good,'' his mother said. ``I
shouldn't think of not having her, Willie, and
you needn't bother about your friends; they'll be
very glad to see her. They all know her, except
Miss Pratt, perhaps, and--'' Mrs. Baxter
paused; then she asked, absently: ``By the way,
haven't I heard somewhere that she likes
pretending to be a little girl, herself?''

``WHAT!''

``Yes,'' said Mrs. Baxter, remaining calm;
``I'm sure I've heard somewhere that she likes
to talk `baby-talk.' ''

Upon this a tremor passed over William, after
which he became rigid. ``You ask a lady to your
house,'' he began, ``and even before she gets here,
before you've even seen her, you pass judgment
upon one of the--one of the noblest--''

``Good gracious! _I haven't `passed judgment.'
If she does talk `baby-talk,' I imagine she does it
very prettily, and I'm sure I've no objection.
And if she does do it, why should you be insulted
by my mentioning it?''

``It was the way you said it,'' he informed her,
icily.

``Good gracious! I just said it!'' Mrs. Baxter
laughed, and then, probably a little out of
patience with him, she gave way to that innate
mischievousness in such affairs which is not unknown
to her sex. ``You see, Willie, if she pretends to
be a cunning little girl, it will be helpful to Jane
to listen and learn how.''

William uttered a cry; he knew that he was
struck, but he was not sure how or where. He
was left with a blank mind and no repartee.
Again he dashed from the room.

In the hall, near the open front door, he came
to a sudden halt, and Mrs. Baxter and Jane heard
him calling loudly to the industrious Genesis:

``Here! You go cut the grass in the back yard,
and for Heaven's sake, take that dog with you!''

``Grass awready cut roun' back,'' responded
the amiable voice of Genesis, while the lawn-
mower ceased not to whir. ``Cut all 'at back yod
's mawnin'.''

``Well, you can't cut the front yard now. Go
around in the back yard and take that dog with
you.''

``Nemmine 'bout 'at back yod! Ole Clem ain'
trouble nobody.''

``You hear what I tell you?'' William shouted.
``You do what I say and you do it quick!''

Genesis laughed gaily. ``I got my grass to
cut!''

``You decline to do what I command you?''
William roared.

``Yes, indeedy! Who pay me my wages? 'At's
MY boss. You' ma say, 'Genesis, you git all 'at
lawn mowed b'fo' sundown.' No, suh! Nee'n'
was'e you' bref on me, 'cause I'm got all MY time
good an' took up!''

Once more William presented himself fatefully
to his mother and Jane. ``May I just kindly ask
you to look out in the front yard?''

``I'm familiar with it, Willie,'' Mrs. Baxter
returned, a little wearily.

``I mean I want you to look at Genesis.''

``I'm familiar with his appearance, too,'' she
said. ``Why in the world do you mind his cutting
the grass?''

William groaned. ``Do you honestly want
guests coming to this house to see that awful old
darky out there and know that HE'S the kind of
servants we employ? Ye gods!''

``Why, Genesis is just a neighborhood outdoors
darky, Willie; he works for half a dozen
families besides us. Everybody in this part of
town knows him.''

``Yes,'' he cried, ``but a lady that didn't live
here wouldn't. Ye gods! What do you suppose
she WOULD think? You know what he's got on!''

``It's a sort of sleeveless jersey he wears, Willie,
I think.''

``No, you DON'T think that!'' he cried, with
great bitterness. ``You know it's not a jersey!
You know perfectly well what it is, and yet you
expect to keep him out there when--when one of
the one of the nobl--when my friends arrive!
And they'll think that's our DOG out there, won't
they? When intelligent people come to a house
and see a dog sitting out in front, they think it's
the family in the house's dog, don't they?''
William's condition becoming more and more
disordered, he paced the room, while his agony rose
to a climax. ``Ye gods! What do you think Miss
Pratt will think of the people of this town, when
she's invited to meet a few of my friends and the
first thing she sees is a nigger in his undershirt?
What 'll she think when she finds that child's
eaten up half the food, and the people have to
explain that the dog in the front yard belongs to
the darky--'' He interrupted himself with a
groan: ``And prob'ly she wouldn't believe it.
Anybody'd SAY they didn't own a dog like that!
And that's what you want her to see, before she
even gets inside the house! Instead of a regular
gardener in livery like we ought to have, and a
bulldog or a good Airedale or a fox-hound, or
something, the first things you want intelligent
people from out of town to see are that awful old
darky and his mongrel scratchin' fleas and like
as not lettin' 'em get on other people! THAT'd be
nice, wouldn't it? Go out to tea expecting decent
treatment and get fl--''

``WILLIE!''

Mrs. Baxter managed to obtain his attention.
``If you'll go and brush your hair I'll
send Genesis and Clematis away for the rest of
the afternoon. And then if you 'll sit down
quietly and try to keep cool until your friends
get here, I'll--''

`` `Quietly'!'' he echoed, shaking his head over
this mystery. ``I'm the only one that IS quiet
around here. Things 'd be in a fine condition to
receive guests if I didn't keep pretty cool, I
guess!''

``There, there,'' she said, soothingly. ``Go and
brush your hair. And change your collar, Willie;
it's all wilted. I'll send Genesis away.''

His wandering eye failed to meet hers with any
intelligence. ``Collar,'' he muttered, as if in
soliloquy. ``Collar.''

``Change it!'' said Mrs. Baxter, raising her
voice. ``It's WILTED.''

He departed in a dazed manner.

Passing through the hall, he paused abruptly,
his eye having fallen with sudden disapproval
upon a large, heavily framed, glass-covered
engraving, ``The Battle of Gettysburg,'' which
hung upon the wall, near the front door. Undeniably,
it was a picture feeble in decorative
quality; no doubt, too, William was right in
thinking it as unworthy of Miss Pratt, as were
Jane and Genesis and Clematis. He felt that she
must never see it, especially as the frame had
been chipped and had a corner broken, but it was
more pleasantly effective where he found it than
where (in his nervousness) he left it. A few
hasty jerks snapped the elderly green cords by
which it was suspended; then he laid the picture
upon the floor and with his handkerchief made a
curious labyrinth of avenues in the large oblong
area of fine dust which this removal disclosed
upon the wall. Pausing to wipe his hot brow
with the same implement, he remembered that
some one had made allusions to his collar and
hair, whereupon he sprang to the stairs, mounted
two at a time, rushed into his own room, and
confronted his streaked image in the mirror.

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