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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe House Of Martha - Chapter 42. The Mother Superior
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The House Of Martha - Chapter 42. The Mother Superior Post by :gabby Category :Long Stories Author :Frank R Stockton Date :May 2012 Read :3065

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The House Of Martha - Chapter 42. The Mother Superior


Seldom, I think, has a berth in a sleeping-car held a more turbulent-minded man than I was during my journey from New York to Washington. The revelation that the same man had loved and been loved by Mother Anastasia and by Sylvia had disquieted me in a manner not easy to explain; but I knew that I was being torn by jealousy, and jealousy is a passion which it is sometimes impossible to explain.

An idea which came into my mind in the night increased the storm within me. I imagined that the wretch who had made suit to both Marcia and Sylvia was Walkirk. He knew a good deal about these women; sometimes I was surprised to discover how much he knew. Perhaps now, acting in a base disguise, he was endeavoring to make of me a stepping-stone to his ultimate success with one or the other. Hound! I would crush him!

My thoughts ran rapidly backward. I remembered how zealous he had been in following Miss Raynor's yacht. He had told me of his conversations with Sylvia, but what reason had I to believe he spoke the truth? That any man should have loved these two women filled me with rage. That that man should be Walkirk was an insupportable thought. I was not only jealous but I felt myself the victim of a treacherous insult.

It was seven o'clock when I reached Washington, but, although I had arrived at my destination, I could give no thought to the object of my journey until I had discovered the truth about Walkirk. That was all-important.

But of whom should I inquire? I could think of no one but Miss Laniston. I had been a fool not to ask her the name of the man when I was with her. But I would telegraph to her now, and ask for it. She might be asleep at that hour, but I believed she was a woman who would awake and answer my question and then go to sleep again.

I immediately went to the telegraph office, and sent this message: "What is the name of the man of whom we spoke last evening? It is necessary that I know it. Please answer at once." She would understand this. We had spoken of but one man.

For nearly an hour I walked the floor and tossed over the morning papers, and then came the answer to my message. It was this: "Brownson. He is dead."

There is a quality in the air of Washington which is always delightful to me, but I think it has never affected me as it did that morning. As I breathed it, it exhilarated me; it cheered and elated me; it rose-tinted my emotions; it gave me an appetite for my breakfast; it made me feel ready for any enterprise.

As soon as I thought it proper to make a morning call I went to number 906 Alaska Avenue. There I found a large and handsome house, of that independent and highly commendable style of architecture which characterizes many of the houses of Washington. I had not yet made up my mind whether I should inquire for Mother Anastasia or "Miss Raynor." I did not know the custom of Mother Superiors when traveling or visiting, and I determined, as I ascended the steps, to be guided in this matter by the aspect of the person who opened the door.

It has always been interesting to me to study the character, as well as I can do so in the brief opportunity generally afforded, of the servants who open to me the doors of houses. To a certain degree, although of course it does not do to apply this rule too rigidly, these persons indicate the characters of the dwellers in the house. My friends have disputed this point with me, and have asserted that they do not wish to be so represented, but nevertheless I have frequently found my position correct.

I prefer to visit those houses whose door service is performed by a neat, good-looking, intelligent, bright-witted, kindly-tempered, conscientious, and sympathetic maidservant. A man is generally very unsatisfactory. He performs his duty in a perfunctory manner. His heart is not in it. He fears to say a word more than he thinks absolutely necessary, lest you should imagine him new in service, and had not lost his interest in answering questions.

But even if the person you ask for be not at home, it is sometimes a pleasure to be told so by an intelligent maid, such as I have mentioned above. One's subsequent action is frequently influenced by her counsel and information. Frequently she is able to indicate to you your true relation with the household; sometimes she assists in establishing it.

When the door before me opened, I saw a colored woman. I was utterly discomfited. None of my rules applied to a middle-aged colored woman, who gazed upon me as if she recognized me as one whom she carried in her arms when an infant. Actuated by impulse only, I inquired for "Miss Raynor."

"I reckon," said she, "you's got to de wrong house. Dat lady doan' live hyar."

"Well, then," I asked quickly, "is there a lady here named Mother Anastasia?"

The woman showed thirty-two perfectly developed teeth.

"Oh, dat's she? You means de sister. She's hyar, yes, sah. Want to see her?"

I stated that I certainly desired to see her.

"She's gone out now, sah, an' dere's no tellin' when dey'll git back. Dey ginerally all gits back 'bout dark. Commonly jist a little arter dark."

"Not return before dark!" I exclaimed. "That is bad. Can you give me any idea where I might find Mother Anastasia?"

"I 'spects you kin fin' her mighty easy. Mos' likely, she's at de Patent Office, or at de Army and Navy Buildin', or de White House, or de Treasury, or de Smifsonian, or de Navy Yard, or de new 'Servatory, or on de avenue shoppin', or gone to de Capitol to de Senate or de House, one; or perhaps she druv out to Arlin'ton, or else she's gone to de 'Gressional Libr'y. Mos' likely she's at one or de odder of dem places; an' about one o'clock, she an' Mis' Gardley is mighty sure to eat der luncheon somewhar, an' arter that I reckon they'll go to 'bout four arternoon teas. I doan' know 'xactly whare de teas 'll be dis arternoon, but ye kin tell de houses whar dar is a tea inside by de carriages a-waitin',--an' ef it aint a tea, it's a fun'ral,--and all yer's got to do is to go inside an' see if she's dar."

I could not refrain from smiling, but I was greatly discouraged. How could I wait until evening for the desired interview?

"If you is kin to de sister," said the woman,--"an' I reckon you is, for I see de likeness powerful strong,--she'll be mighty glad to see ye, sah. Want me ter tell her ye'll come back this evening, if you doan' fin' her before dat?"

I desired her to give such a message, and went away well pleased that the woman had not asked my name. It was desirable that Mother Anastasia should not know who was coming to call on her.

I am, as I have said before, much given to the consideration of motives and all that sort of thing, and, in the course of the day, I found myself wondering why I should have taken the trouble to walk through the Patent Office and half a dozen other public buildings, continually looking about me, not at the objects of interest therein, but at the visitors; that is, if they were ladies. Why this uneasy desire to find the Mother Superior, when, by quietly waiting until evening, I was almost certain to see her? But in the midst of my self-questionings I went on looking for Mother Anastasia.

I finished my long ramble by a visit to the gallery of the House of Representatives. A member was making a speech on a bill to establish a national medical college for women. The speech and the subject may have interested some people, but I did not care for either, and I am afraid I was a little drowsy. After a time I took a cab and went to my hotel. At all events, the long day of waiting was nearly over.

Early in the evening I called again at Mrs. Gardley's house, and to my delight I was informed that the lady I desired to see was at home.

When Mother Anastasia came into the drawing-room, where I awaited her, she wore the gray gown of her sisterhood, but no head covering. I had before discovered that a woman could be beautiful in a Martha gown, but at this moment the fact asserted itself with peculiar force. She greeted me with a smile and an extended hand.

"You do not seem surprised to see me," I said.

"Why should I be?" she answered. "I saw you in the House of Representatives, and wondered why you should doze when such an interesting matter was being discussed; and when I came home, and heard that a gentleman answering your description intended to call on me this evening, I declined to go out to the theatre, wishing to be here to receive you."

I was disgusted to think that she had caught me napping, and that she had been near me in the House and I had not known it, but I said nothing of this.

"You are very good," I remarked, "to give up the theatre"--

"Oh, don't thank me," she interrupted; "perhaps you will not think I am good. Before we say anything more, I want you to tell me whether or not you came here to talk about Sylvia Raynor."

Here was a blunt question, but from the bottom of my heart I believed that I answered truly when I said I had not come for that purpose.

"Very good," said Mother Anastasia, leaning back in her chair. "Now I can freely say that I am glad to see you. I was dreadfully afraid you had come to talk to me on that forbidden subject, and I must admit that this fear had a very powerful influence in keeping me at home this evening. If you had come to talk to me of her, I would have had something very important to say to you, but I am delighted that my fears were groundless. And now tell me how you could help being interested in that grand scheme for a woman's college."

"I have never given it any thought. Do you care for it?"

"Care for it!" she exclaimed. "I am enlisted in the cause, hand and heart. I came down here because the bill was to be brought before the House. If the college is established,--and I believe it will be,--I expect to be one of the faculty."

"You are not a physician?" said I.

"Oh, I have studied and practiced medicine," she answered, "and expect to do a great deal more of it before we begin operations. The physician's art is my true vocation."

"And you will leave the House of Martha?" I asked.

"Yes," she replied. "The period for which I entered it has nearly expired. I do not regret the time I have spent there, but I must admit I shall be glad to leave the sisterhood. That life is too narrow for me, and perhaps too shallow. I say nothing against it in a general way; I only speak of it as it relates to myself. The very manner in which I rejoice in the prospect of freedom proves to me that I ought to be free, and that I did a wise thing in limiting the term of my sisterhood."

As Mother Anastasia spoke there was a glow of earnest pleasure upon her face. She was truly very happy to be able to talk of her approaching freedom.

I am a prudent man and a cautious one. This frank enthusiasm alarmed me. How deftly she had put Sylvia out of sight! How skillfully she had brought herself into full view, free and untrammeled by vows and rules,--a woman as other women!

The more I saw of Mother Anastasia the better I liked her, but I perceived that she was a woman with whom it was very necessary to be cautious. She was apt, I thought, to make convictions of her presumptions. If she presumed that my love for Sylvia was an utterly hopeless affection, to be given up and forgotten, I did not like it. It might be that it was hopeless, but I did not care to have any one else settle the matter for me in that way,--not even Mother Anastasia.

"Of course," I remarked, "I am glad that you have concluded to withdraw from a vocation which I am sure is not suited to you, and yet I feel a little disappointed to hear that you will not continue at the head of the House of Martha, for I came to Washington on purpose to make you a proposition in regard to that institution."

"Came to Washington on purpose to see me, and to make a proposition! What can it possibly be?"

I now laid before her, with considerable attention to detail, my plan for working in cooeperation with the House of Martha. I showed her the advantages of the scheme as they had suggested themselves to me, and as an example of what could be done I mentioned Sylvia's fancy for typewriting, and demonstrated how easily I could undertake the outside management of this very lucrative and pleasant occupation. I warmed up as I talked, and spoke quite strongly about what I--and perhaps in time other men--might do for the benefit of the sisterhood, if my proposition were accepted.

She listened to me attentively, her face growing paler and harder as I proceeded. When I had finished she said:--

"It is not at all necessary for me to discuss this utterly preposterous scheme, nor even to refer to it, except to say that I plainly see its object. Whatever you have persuaded yourself to think of your plan, I know that its real object is to reestablish a connection with Sylvia. You would know, if you would allow yourself to think about it, that your absurd and even wicked scheme of typewriting, companionship in work, and all that stuff, could only result in making the girl miserable and perhaps breaking her heart. You know that she loves you, and that it has been a terrible trial to her to yield to her conscience and do what she has done; and you know, furthermore,--and this more than anything else darkens your intention,--that Sylvia's artless, ingenuous, and impulsive nature would give you advantages which would not be afforded to you by one who did not love you, and who better understood the world and you."

"Madam," I exclaimed, "you do me an injustice!"

She paid no attention to this remark, and proceeded: "And now let me tell you that what you have said to me to-night has changed my plans, my life. I shall not leave Sylvia exposed to your cruel attacks,--attacks which I believe will come in every practical form that your ingenuity can devise. It was my example that brought that girl into the House of Martha, and now that she has vowed to devote her life and her work to its service I shall not desert her. I will not have her pure purpose shaken and weakened, little by little, day by day, until it falls listless and deadened, with nothing to take its place. Therefore, until I know that you are no longer a source of danger to her, I shall remain Mother Superior of the House of Martha, and rest assured that while I am in that position Sylvia shall be safe from you." And with that she rose and walked out of the room.

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