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   Chapter 32 No.32

The Trumpeter Swan By Temple Bailey Characters: 13312

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The Major's call on Miss MacVeigh had been a great success. She was sitting up, and had much to say to him. Throughout the days of her illness and convalescence, the Major had kept in touch with her. He had sent her quaint nosegays from the King's Crest garden, man-tied and man-picked. He had sent her nice soldierly notes, asking her to call upon him if there was anything he could do for her. He had sent her books, and magazines, and now on this first visit, he brought back the "Pickwick" which he had picked up in the road after the accident.

"I have wondered," Madge said, "what became of it."

They were in the Flippin sitting-room. Madge was in a winged chair with a freshly-washed gray linen cover. The chair had belonged to Mrs. Flippin's father, and for fifty years had held the place by the east window in summer and by the fireplace in winter. Oscar had wanted to bring things from Hamilton Hill to make Madge comfortable. But she had refused to spoil the simplicity of the quiet old house. "Everything that is here belongs here, Oscar," she had told him, "and I like it."

She wore a mauve negligee that was sheer and soft and flowing, and her burnt-gold hair was braided and wound around her head in a picturesque and becoming coiffure.

As she turned the pages of the little book the Major noticed her hands. They were white and slender, and she wore only one ring-a long amethyst set in silver.

"Do you play?" he asked abruptly.

"Yes. Why?"

"Your hands show it."

She smiled at him. "I am afraid that my hands don't quite tell the truth." She held them up so that the light of the lamp shone through them. "They are really a musician's hands, aren't they? And I am only a dabbler in that as in everything else."

"You can't expect me to believe that."

"But I am. I have intelligence. But I'm a 'dunce with wits.' I know what I ought to do but I don't do it. I think that I have brains enough to write, I am sure I have imagination enough to paint, I have strength enough when I am well to"-she laughed,-"scrub floors. But I don't write or play or paint-or scrub floors-I don't believe that there is one thing in the world that I can do as well as Mary Flippin makes biscuits."

Her eyes seemed to challenge him to deny her assertion. He settled himself lazily in his chair, and asked about the book.

"Tell me why you like Dickens, when nobody reads him in these days except ourselves."

"I like him because in my next incarnation I want to live in the kind of world he writes about."

He was much interested. "You do?"

She nodded. "Yes. I never have. My world has always been-cut and dried, conventional, you know the kind." The slender hand with the amethyst ring made a little gesture of disdain. "There were three of us, my mother and my father and myself. Everything in our lives was very perfectly ordered. We were not very rich-not in the modern sense, and we were not very poor, and we knew a lot of nice people. I went to school with girls of my own kind, an exclusive school. I went away summers to our own cottage in an exclusive North Shore colony. We took our servants with us. After my mother died I went to boarding-school, and to Europe in summer, and when my school days were ended, and I acquired a stepmother, I set up an apartment of my own. It has Florentine things in it, and Byzantine things, and things from China and Japan, and the colors shine like jewels under my lamps-you know the effect. And my kitchen is all in white enamel, and the cook does things by electricity, and when I go away in summer my friends have Italian villas-like the Watermans, on the North Shore, although all of my friends are not like the Watermans." She threw this last out casually, not as a criticism, but that he might, it seemed, withhold judgment of her present choice of associates. "And I have never known the world of good cheer that Dickens writes about-wide kitchens, and teakettles singing and crickets chirping and everybody busy with things that interest them. Do you know that there are really no bored people in Dickens except a few aristocrats? None of the poor people are bored. They may be unhappy, but there's always some recompense in a steaming drink or savory stew, or some gay little festivity;-even the vagabonds seem to get something out of life. I realize perfectly that I've never had the thrills from a bridge game that came to the Marchioness when she played cards with Dick Swiveller-by stealth."

She talked rapidly, charmingly. He could not be sure how much in earnest she might be-but she made out her case and continued her argument.

"When I was a child I walked on gray velvet carpets, and there were etchings on the wall, and chilly mirrors between the long windows in the drawing-room. And the kitchen was in the basement and I never went down. There wasn't a cozy spot anywhere. None of us were cozy, my mother wasn't. She was very lovely and sparkling and went out a great deal and my father sparkled too. He still does. But there was really nothing to draw us together-like the Cratchits or even the Kenwigs. And we were never comfortable and merry like all of these lovely people in Pickwick."

She went on wistfully, "When I was nine, I found these little books in our library and after that I enjoyed vicariously the life I had never lived. That's why I like it here-Mrs. Flippin's kettle sings-and the crickets chirp-and Mr. and Mrs. Flippin are comfortable-and cozy-and content."

It was a long speech. "So now yon see," she said, as she ended, "why I like Dickens."

"Yes. I see. And so-in your next incarnation you are going to be like--"

"Little Dorrit."

He laughed and leaned forward. "I can't imagine-you."

"She really had a heavenly time. Dickens tried to make you feel sorry for her. But she had the best of it all through. Somebody always wanted her."

"But she was imposed upon. And her unselfishness brought her heavy burdens."

"She got a lot out of it in the end, didn't she? And what do selfish people get? I'm one of them. I live absolutely for myself. There isn't a person except Flora who gets anything of service or self-sacrifice out of me. I came down here because she wanted me, but I hated to come. The modern theory is that unselfishness weakens. And the modern psychologist would tell you that little Dorrit was all wrong. She gave herself for others-and it didn't pay. But does the other thing pay?"

"Selfishness?"

"Yes. I'm selfish, and Oscar is, and Flora, and George Dalton, and most of the people we know. And we are all bored to death. If being unselfish is interesting, why not let us be unsel

fish?" Her lively glance seemed to challenge him, and they laughed together.

"I know what you mean."

"Of course you do. Everybody does who thinks."

"And so you are going to wait for the next plane to do the things that you want to do?"

"Yes."

"But why-wait?"

"How can I break away? I am tied into knots with the people whom I have always known; and I shall keep on doing the things I have always done, just as I shall keep on wearing pale purples and letting my skin get burned, so that I may seem distinctive."

It came to him with something of a shock that she did these things with intention. That the charms which seemed to belong to her were carefully planned.

Yet how could he tell if what she said was true, when her eyes laughed?

"I shall get all I can out of being here. Mary Flippin is going to let me help her make butter, and Mrs. Flippin will teach me to make corn-bread, and some day I am going fishing with the Judge and Mr. Flippin and learn to fry eggs out-of-doors--"

"So those are the things you like?"

She nodded. "I think I do. George Dalton says it is only because I crave a change. But it isn't that. And I haven't told him the way I feel about it-the Dickens way-as I have told you."

He was glad that she had not talked to Dalton as she had talked to him.

"I wonder," he said slowly, "why you couldn't shake yourself free from the life which binds you?"

"I'm not strong enough. I'm like the drug-fiend, who doesn't want his drug, but can't give it up."

"Perhaps you need-help. There are doctors of everything, you know, in these days."

"None that can cure me of the habit of frivolity-of the claims of custom--"

"If a man takes a drug, he is cured, by substituting something else for a while until he learns to do without it."

"What would you substitute for-my drug?"

"I'll have to think about it. May I come again and tell you?"

"Of course. I am dying to know."

Mrs. Flippin entered just then with a tall pitcher of lemonade and a plate of delicate cakes. "I think Miss MacVeigh is looking mighty fine," she said, "don't you, Major?"

He would not have dared to tell how fine she looked to him.

He limped across the room with the plate of cakes, and poured lemonade into a glass for Madge. Her eyes followed his strong soldierly figure. What a man he must have been before the war crippled him. What a man he was still, and his strength was not merely that of body. She felt the strength too of mind and soul.

"I think," said Mrs. Flippin that night, "that Major Prime is one of the nicest men."

Madge was in bed. The nurse had made her ready for the night, and was out on the porch with Mr. Flippin. Mrs. Flippin had fallen into the habit of having a little nightly talk with Madge. She missed her daughter, and Madge was pleasant and friendly.

"I think that Major Prime is one of the nicest men," repeated Mrs. Flippin as she sat down beside the bed, "but what a dreadful thing that he is lame."

"I am not sure," Madge said, "that it is dreadful."

She hastened to redeem herself from any possible charge of bloodthirstiness.

"I don't mean," she said, "that it isn't awful for a man to lose his leg. But men who go through a thing like that and come out-conquerors-are rather wonderful, Mrs. Flippin."

Madge had hold of Mrs. Flippin's hand. She often held it in this quiet hour, and the idea rather amused her. She was not demonstrative, and it seemed inconceivable that she should care to hold Mrs. Flippins' hand. But there was a motherliness about Mrs. Flippin, a quality with which Madge had never before come closely in contact. "It is like the way I used to feel when I was a little girl and said my prayers at night," she told herself.

Madge did not say her prayers now. Nobody did, apparently. She thought it rather a pity. It was a comfortable thing to do. And it meant a great deal if you only believed in it.

"Do you say your prayers, Mrs. Flippin?" she asked suddenly.

Mrs. Flippin was getting used to Madge's queer questions. She treated them as a missionary might treat the questions of a beautiful and appealing savage, who having gone with him to some strange country was constantly interrogatory.

"She don't seem to know anything about the things we do," Mrs. Flippin told her husband. "She got the nurse to wheel her out into the kitchen this afternoon, and watched me frost a cake and cut out biscuits. And she says that she has never seen anything so sociable as the teakettle, the way it rocks and sings."

So now when Madge asked Mrs. Flippin if she said her prayers, Mrs. Flippin said, "Do you mean at night?"

"Yes."

"Bob and I say them together," said Mrs. Flippin. "We started on our wedding night, and we ain't ever stopped."

It was a simple statement of a sublime fact. For thirty years this plain man and this plain woman had kept alive the spiritual flame on the household altar. No wonder that peace was under this roof and serenity.

Madge, as she lay there holding Mrs. Flippin's hand, looked very young, almost like a little girl. Her hair was parted and the burnished braids lay heavy on her lovely neck. Her thin fine gown left her arms bare. "Mrs. Flippin," she said, "I wish I could live here always, and have you come every night and sit and hold my hand."

Her eyes were smiling and Mrs. Flippin smiled back. "You'd get tired."

"No," said Madge, "I don't believe anybody ever gets tired of goodness. Not real goodness. The kind that isn't hypocritical or priggish. And in these days it is so rare, that one just loves it. I am bored to death with near-bad people, Mrs. Flippin, and near-good ones. I'd much rather have them real saints and real sinners."

The nurse came in just then, and Mrs. Flippin went away. And after a time the house was very still. Madge's bed was close to the window. Outside innumerable fireflies studded the night with gold. Now and then a screech-owl sounded his mournful note. It was a ghostly call, and there was the patter of little feet on the porch as the old cat played with her kittens in the warm dark. But Madge was not afraid. She had a sense of great content as she lay there and thought of the things she had said to Major Prime. It was not often that she revealed herself, and when she did it was still rarer to meet understanding. But he had understood. She was sure of that, and she would see him soon. He had promised. And she would not have to go back to Oscar and Flora until she was ready. Flora was better, but still very weak. It would be much wiser, the doctor had said, if she saw no one but her nurses for several days.

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