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   Chapter 2 No.2

Flower of the Dusk By Myrtle Reed Characters: 15763

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Miss Mattie

Miss Mattie was getting supper, sustained by the comforting thought that her task was utterly beneath her and had been forced upon her by the mysterious workings of an untoward Fate. She was not really "Miss," since she had been married and widowed, and a grown son was waiting impatiently in the sitting-room for his evening meal, but her neighbours, nearly all of whom had known her before her marriage, still called her "Miss Mattie."

"Old Maids"

The arbitrary social distinctions, made regardless of personality, are often cruelly ironical. Many a man, incapable by nature of life-long devotion to one woman, becomes a husband in half an hour, duly sanctioned by Church and State. A woman who remains unmarried, because, with fine courage, she will have her true mate or none, is called "an old maid." She may have the heart of a wife and the soul of a mother, but she cannot escape her sinister label. The real "old maids" are of both sexes, and many are married, but alas! seldom to each other.

A Grievance

In his introspective moments, Roger Austin sometimes wondered why marriage, maternity, and bereavement should have left no trace upon his mother. The uttermost depths of life had been hers for the sounding, but Miss Mattie had refused to drop her plummet overboard and had spent the years in prolonged study of her own particular boat.

She came in, with the irritating air of a martyr, and clucked sharply with her false teeth when she saw that her son was reading.

"I don't know what I've done," she remarked, "that I should have to live all the time with people who keep their noses in books. Your pa was forever readin' and you're marked with it. I could set here and set here and set here, and he took no more notice of me than if I was a piece of furniture. When he died, the brethren and sistern used to come to condole with me and say how I must miss him. There wasn't nothin' to miss, 'cause the books and his chair was left. I've a good mind to burn 'em all up."

"I won't read if you don't want me to, Mother," answered Roger, laying his book aside regretfully.

"I dunno but what I'd rather you would than to want to and not," she retorted, somewhat obscurely. "What I'm a-sayin' is that it's in the blood and you can't help it. If I'd known it was your pa's intention to give himself up so exclusive to readin', I'd never have married him, that's all I've got to say. There's no sense in it. Lemme see what you're at now."

She took the open book, that lay face downward upon the table, and read aloud, awkwardly:

"Leave to the diamond its ages to grow, nor expect to accelerate the births of the eternal. Friendship demands a religious treatment. We talk of choosing our friends, but friends are self-elected."

Peculiar Way of Putting Things

"Now," she demanded, in a shrill voice, "what does that mean?"

"I don't think I could explain it to you, Mother."

"That's just the point. Your pa couldn't never explain nothin', neither. You're readin' and readin' and readin' and you never know what you're readin' about. Diamonds growin' and births bein' hurried up, and friends bein' religious and voted for at township elections. Who's runnin' for friend this year on the Republican ticket?" she inquired, caustically.

Roger managed to force a laugh. "You have your own peculiar way of putting things, Mother. Is supper ready? I'm as hungry as a bear."

"I suppose you are. When it ain't readin', it's eatin'. Work all day to get a meal that don't last more'n fifteen minutes, and then see readin' goin' on till long past bedtime, and oil goin' up every six months. Which'll you have-fresh apple sauce, or canned raspberries?"

"It doesn't matter."

"Then I'll get the apple sauce, because the canned raspberries can lay over as long as they're kept cool."

Miss Mattie's Personal Appearance

Miss Mattie shuffled back into the kitchen. During the Winter she wore black knitted slippers attached to woollen inner soles which had no heels. She was well past the half-century mark, but her face had few lines in it and her grey eyes were sharp and penetrating. Her smooth, pale brown hair, which did not show the grey in it, was parted precisely in the middle. Every morning she brushed it violently with a stiff brush dipped into cold water, and twisted the ends into a tight knot at the back of her head. In militant moments, this knot seemed to rise and the protruding ends of the wire hairpins to bristle into formidable weapons of offence.

She habitually wore her steel-bowed spectacles half-way down her nose. They might have fallen off had not a kindly Providence placed a large wart where it would do the most good. On Sundays, when she put on shoes, corsets, her best black silk, and her gold-bowed spectacles, she took great pains to wear them properly. When she reached home, however, she always took off her fine raiment and laid her spectacles aside with a great sigh of relief. Miss Mattie's disposition improved rapidly as soon as the old steel-bowed pair were in their rightful place, resting safely upon the wart.

Second-hand Things

When they sat down to supper, she reverted to the original topic. "As I was sayin'," she began, "there ain't no sense in the books you and your pa has always set such store by. Where he ever got 'em, I dunno, but they was always a comin'. Lots of 'em was well-nigh wore out when he got 'em, and he wouldn't let me buy nothin' that had been used before, even if I knew the folks.

"I got a silver coffin plate once at an auction over to the Ridge for almost nothin' and your pa was as mad as a wet hen. There was a name on it, but it could have been scraped off, and the rest of it was perfectly good. When you need a coffin plate you need it awful bad. While your pa was rampin' around, he said he wouldn't have been surprised to see me comin' home with a second-hand coffin in the back of the buggy. Who ever heard of a second-hand coffin? I've always thought his mind was unsettled by so much readin'.

"I ain't a-sayin' but what some readin' is all right. Some folks has just moved over to the Ridge and the postmaster's wife was a-showin' me some papers they get, every week. One is The Metropolitan Weekly, and the other The Housewife's Companion. I must say, the stories in those papers is certainly beautiful.

"Once, when they come after their mail, they was as mad as anything because the papers hadn't come, but the postmaster's wife was readin' one of the stories and settin' up nights to do it, so she wa'n't to blame for not lettin' 'em go until she got through with 'em. They slip out of the covers just as easy, and nobody ever knows the difference.

The Doctor's Darling

"She was tellin' me about one of the stories. It's named Lovely Lulu, or the Doctor's Darling. Lovely Lulu is a little orphant who has to do most of the housework for a family of eight, and the way they abuse that child is something awful. The young ladies are forever puttin' ruffled white skirts into her wash, and makin' her darn the lace on their blue silk mornin' dresses.

"There's a rich doctor that they're all after and one day little Lulu happens to open the front-door for him, and he gets a good look at her for the first time. As she goes upstairs, Arthur Montmorency-that's his name-holds both hands to his heart and says, 'She and she only shall be my bride.' The conclusion of this highly fascinatin' and absorbin' romance will be found in the next number of The Housewife's Companion."

"Mother," suggested Roger, "why don't you subscribe for the papers yourself?"

Miss Mattie dropped her knife and fork and gazed at him in open-mouthed astonishment. "Roger," she said, kindly, "I declare if sometimes you don't remind me of my people more'n your pa's. I never thought of that myself and I dunno how you come to. I'

ll do it the very first time I go down to the store. The postmaster's wife can get the addresses without tearin' off the covers, and after I get 'em read she can borrow mine, and not be always makin' the people at the Ridge so mad that she's runnin' the risk of losin' her job. If you ain't the beatenest!"

Basking in the unaccustomed warmth of his mother's approval, Roger finished his supper in peace. Afterward, while she was clearing up, he even dared to take up the much-criticised book and lose himself once more in his father's beloved Emerson.

* * *

Childish Memories

All his childish memories of his father had been blurred into one by the mists of the intervening years. As though it were yesterday, he could see the library upstairs, which was still the same, and the grave, silent, kindly man who sat dreaming over his books. When the child entered, half afraid because the room was so quiet, the man had risen and caught him in his arms with such hungry passion that he had almost cried out.

"Oh, my son," came in the deep, rich voice, vibrant with tenderness; "my dear little son!"

The Priceless Legacy

That was all, save a few old photographs and the priceless legacy of the books. The library was not a large one, but it had been chosen by a man of discriminating, yet catholic, taste. The books had been used and were not, as so often happens, merely ornaments. Page after page had been interlined and there was scarcely a volume which was not rich in marginal notes, sometimes questioning in character, but indicating always understanding and appreciation.

As soon as he learned to read, Roger began to spend his leisure hours in this library. When he could not understand a book, he put it aside and took up another. Always there were pictures and sometimes many of them, for in his later years Laurence Austin had contracted the baneful habit of extra-illustration. Never maternal, save in the limited physical sense, Miss Mattie had been glad to have the child out of her way.

Day by day, the young mind grew and expanded in its own way. Year by year, Roger came to an affectionate knowledge of his father, through the medium of the marginal notes. He wondered, sometimes, that a pencil mark should so long outlive the fine, strong body of the man who made it. It seemed pitiful, in a way, and yet he knew that books and letters are the things that endure, in a world of transition and decay.

The underlined passages and the marginal comments gave evidence of an extraordinary love of beauty, in whatever shape or form. And yet-the parlour, which was opened only on Sunday-was hideous with a gaudy carpet, stuffed chairs, family portraits done in crayon and inflicted upon the house by itinerant vendors of tea and coffee, and there was a basket of wax flowers, protected by glass, on the marble-topped "centre-table."

The pride of Miss Mattie's heart was a chair, which, with incredible industry, she had made from an empty flour barrel. She had spoiled a good barrel to make a bad chair, but her thrifty soul rejoiced in her achievement. Roger never went near it, so Miss Mattie herself sat in it on Sunday afternoons, nodding, and crooning hymns to herself.

An Awful Chasm

"How did father stand it?" thought Roger, intending no disrespect. He loved his mother and appreciated her good qualities, but he saw the awful chasm between those two souls, which no ceremony of marriage could ever span.

Roger Austin

In appearance, Roger was like his father. He had the same clear, dark skin, with regular features and kind, dark eyes, the same abundant, wavy hair, strong, square chin, and incongruous, beauty-loving mouth. He had, too, the lovable boyishness, which never quite leaves some fortunate men. He was studying law in the judge's office, and hoped by another year to be ready to take his examinations. After working hard all day, he found refreshment for mind and body in an hour or so at night spent with the treasures of his father's library.

"Let us buy our entrance to this guild with a long probation," read Roger. "Why should we desecrate noble and beautiful souls by intruding upon them? Why insist upon rash personal relations with your friend? Why go to his house, and know his mother and brother and sisters? Why be visited by him at your own? Are these things material to our covenant? Leave this touching and clawing. Let him be to me--"

"I've spoke twice," complained Miss Mattie, "and you don't hear me no more'n your pa did."

"I beg your pardon, Mother. I did not hear you come in. What is it?"

"I was just a-sayin' that maybe those papers would be too expensive. Maybe I ought not to have 'em."

"I'm sure they're not, Mother. Anyhow, you get them, and we'll make it up in some other way if we have to." Dimly, in the future, Roger saw long, quiet evenings in which his disturbing influence should be rendered null and void by the charms of Lovely Lulu, or the Doctor's Darling.

A Morning Call

"Barbara North sent her pa over here this morning to ask for some book. I disremember now what it was, but it was after you was gone."

Roger's expressive face changed instantly. "Why didn't you tell me sooner, Mother?" He spoke with evident effort. "It's too late now for me to go over there."

"There's no call for you to go over. They can send again. Miss Miriam can come after it any time. They ain't got no business to let a blind old man like Ambrose North run around by himself the way they do."

"He takes very good care of himself. He knew this place before he was blind, and I don't think there is any danger."

"Just the same, he ought not to go around alone, and that's what I told him this morning. 'A blind old man like you,' says I, 'ain't got no business chasin' around alone. First thing you know, you'll fall down and break a leg or arm or something.'"

Roger shrank as if from a physical hurt. "Mother!" he cried. "How can you say such things!"

"Why not?" she queried, imperturbably. "He knows he's blind, I guess, and he certainly can't think he's young, so what harm does it do to speak of it? Anyway," she added, piously, "I always say just what I think."

Roger got up, put his hands in his pockets, and paced back and forth restlessly. "People who always say what they think, Mother," he answered, not unkindly, "assume that their opinions are of great importance to people who probably do not care for them at all. Unless directly asked, it is better to say only the kind things and keep the rest to ourselves."

"I was kind," objected Miss Mattie. "I was tellin' him he ought not to take the risk of hurtin' himself by runnin' around alone. I don't know what ails you, Roger. Every day you get more and more like your pa."

Dangerous Rocks

"How long had you and father known each other before you were married?" asked Roger, steering quickly away from the dangerous rocks that will loom up in the best-regulated of conversations.

"'Bout three months. Why?"

"Oh, I just wanted to know."

"I used to be a pretty girl, Roger, though you mightn't think it now." Her voice was softened, and, taking off her spectacles, she gazed far into space; seemingly to that distant girlhood when radiant youth lent to the grey old world some of its own immortal joy.

"I don't doubt it," said Roger, politely.

"Your pa and me used to go to church together. He sang in the choir and I had a white dress and a bonnet trimmed with lutestring ribbon. I can smell the clover now and hear the bees hummin' when the windows was open in Summer. A bee come in once while the minister was prayin' and lighted on Deacon Emory's bald head. Seems a'most as if 't was yesterday.

Great Notions

"Your pa had great notions," she went on, after a pause. "Just before we was married, he said he was goin' to educate me, but he never did."

* * *

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