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   Chapter 8 No.8

Unleavened Bread By Robert Grant Characters: 22172

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Littleton had not expected that Selma would accede to his request to be married at once, but he was delighted at her decision. He had uttered his wish in sincerity, for there was really no reason for waiting, and by an immediate marriage they would escape the tedium of an engagement during which they could hope to see each other but rarely. He was able to support a wife provided they were to live simply and economically. He felt sure that Selma understood his circumstances and was no less ready than he to forego luxuries in order that they might be all in all to each other spiritually as husband and wife. Besides he had hopes that his clientage would continue to grow so that he would be able to provide all reasonable comforts for his new home. Consequently he drove up from the station in New York with a light heart, fondly pointing out to his wife this and that building and other objects of interest. He mistook her pensive silence for diffidence at the idea of descending suddenly on another woman's home-a matter which in this instance gave him no concern, for he had unlimited confidence in Pauline's executive ability and her tendency not to get ruffled. She had been his good angel, domestically speaking, and, indeed, in every way, since they had first begun to keep house together, and it had rather amused him to let fall such a bombshell as the contents of his telegram upon the regularity of her daily life.

"Don't be nervous, darling," he said gayly. "You will find Pauline bubbling over with joy at our coming, and everything arranged as though we were expected to live there all our lives."

Selma looked at him blankly and then remembered. She was not feeling nervous, and Pauline was not in her thoughts. She had been lost in her own reflections-lost in the happy consciousness of the contrast between her new and her old husband, and in the increasing satisfaction that she was actually in New York. How bright and busy the streets looked! The throng of eager passers and jostling vehicles against the background of brilliant shop-windows bewildered and stimulated her. She was saying to herself that here was the place where she was suited to live, and mutely acknowledging its superiority to Benham as a centre of life. This was a rash, swift conclusion, but Selma prided herself on her capacity to arrive at wise judgments by rapid mental processes. So absorbed was she in the glittering, stirring panorama that Wilbur's efforts at enlightenment were practically wasted. She was in no humor for details; she was glorying in the exalted impression which the whole vivid scene produced upon her.

His remark caused her to realize that they must be near their destination. She had no misgivings on the score of her own reception, but she was interested and curious to see Pauline, this wonderful sister of whom Wilbur was so fond and so proud. Then her husband cried, "Here we are!" and in another moment she found herself in the hearty embrace of a large, comely woman who met her at the door. This of course must be Pauline. Selma was just a little shocked by the fervor of the greeting; for though she delighted in rapid intimacies, unexpected liberties with her person were contrary to her conceptions of propriety. Still it was delightful to be welcomed so heartily. She returned the embrace warmly but with dignity, and allowed herself to be convoyed into the house arm in arm with her new relation who seemed, indeed, to be bubbling over with joy. It was not until they were in the same room that Selma could get a good look at her.

Pauline Littleton was fine looking rather than pretty. She was tall and substantial, with an agreeable face, an intelligent brow, a firm yet sweet mouth, and steady, honest eyes which now sparkled with pleasure. Her physique was very different from her brother's. Selma noticed that she was taller than herself and only a little shorter than Wilbur. She had Wilbur's smile too, suggesting a disposition to take things humorously; but her expression lacked the poetic cast which made him so attractive and congenial to herself and excused the existence of the lighter vein. Selma did not admire women who were inclined to be stout. She associated spareness of person with high thinking, and an abundance of flesh as an indication of material or commonplace aims. She reflected that Pauline was presumably business-like and a good house-keeper, and, very likely, an industrious teacher in her classes, but she set her down in her mind as deficient in the finer sensibilities of the spirit belonging to herself and Wilbur. It was instinctive with Selma to form a prompt estimate of every one she met, and it was a relief to her to come to the agreeable conclusion that there was nothing in her sister-in-law's appearance to make her discontented with herself. This warmed her heart at once toward Pauline. To be sure Pauline manifested the same sort of social grace which distinguished Mrs. Hallett Taylor, but Selma, though she still regarded this with suspicion, for the reason that she had not yet become mistress of it, was secretly content to know that she had married into a family which possessed it. Altogether she was agreeably impressed by her scrutiny of her new sister, who, in her opinion, would not be an irritating rival either in looks or character, and yet who was a pleasing and sufficiently serious-minded person-in short just the sort of sister-in-law which she yearned to have.

Pauline, on her part, was duly fascinated by the delicate and inspiring beauty of her brother's wife. She understood at once why Wilbur had chosen her in preference to any one of his own circle. Selma obviously symbolized by her grave, tense, thin face the serious ideals of living and womanhood, which had been dear to his meditation as a youth and a part of his heritage from his New England ancestors. It made her joyous to feel that he had found a wife who would be a constant source of inspiration to him, for she knew that Wilbur would not be happy with any one who fell short of his ideal as to what a woman should be. She knew her brother well, and she understood how deeply in earnest he was to make the most of his life, and what an exalted vision he entertained as to the possibilities for mutual sympathy and help between husband and wife.

Partly as a consequence of their limited means, partly owing to absorption in their respective studies and interests, the Littletons, though of gentle stock, lived simple lives according to New York standards. They were aware of the growth of luxury resulting from the accumulation of big fortunes since the war. As an architect, Wilbur saw larger and more elaborate public and private buildings being erected on every side. As a house-keeper and a woman with social interests, Pauline knew that the power of money was revolutionizing the public taste in the matter of household expenditure; that in the details of domestic life there was more color and more circumstance, and that people who were well-to-do, and many who were not, were requiring as daily comforts all sorts of things to which they had been unaccustomed. But though they both thus knew vaguely that the temper of society had changed, and that sober citizens and their wives, who, twenty years before, would have prated solemnly against a host of gay, enlivening or pretty customs as incompatible with American virtue, were now adopting these as rapidly as money could procure them-the brother and sister had remained comparatively unaffected by the consequences of the transformation scene. Certainly their home had. It was old-fashioned in its garniture and its gentility. It spoke of a day, not so many years before, when high thinking had led to blinking where domestic decoration was concerned, and people had bought ugly wooden and worsted things to live with because only the things of the spirit seemed of real importance. Still time, with its marvellous touch, has often the gift of making furniture and upholstery, which were hideous when bought, look interesting and cosey when they have become old-fashioned. In this way Pauline Wilbur's parlor was a delightful relic of a day gone by. There was scarcely a pretty thing in it, as Wilbur himself well knew, yet, as a whole, it had an atmosphere-an atmosphere of simple unaffected refinement. Their domestic belongings had come to them from their parents, and they had never had the means to replenish them. When, in due time, they had realized their artistic worthlessness, they had held to them through affection, humorously conscious of the incongruity that two such modern individuals as themselves should be living in a domestic museum. Then, presto! friends had begun to congratulate them on the uniqueness of their establishment, and to express affection for it. It had become a favorite resort for many modern spirits-artists, literary men, musicians, self-supporting women-and Pauline's oyster suppers, cooked in her grandmother's blazer, were still a stimulus to high thinking.

So matters stood when Selma entered it as a bride. Her coming signified the breaking up of the household and the establishment. Pauline had thought that out in her clear brain over night since receiving Wilbur's telegram. Wilbur must move into a modern house, and she into a modern flat. She would keep the very old things, such as the blazer and some andirons and a pair of candlesticks, for they were ancient enough to be really artistic, but the furniture of the immediate past, her father and mother's generation, should be sold at auction. Wilbur and she must, if only for Selma's sake, become modern in material matters as well as in their mental interests.

Pauline proceeded to unfold this at the dinner-table that evening. She had heard in the meanwhile from her brother, the story of Selma's divorce and the explanation of his sudden marriage; and in consequence, she felt the more solicitous that her sister-in-law's new venture should begin propitiously. It was agreed that Wilbur should make inquiries at once about houses further uptown, and that his present lease from year to year should not be renewed. She said to Selma:

"You have saved us from becoming an old-fashioned bachelor and maid. Our friends began to leave this neighborhood five years ago, and there is no one left. We are surrounded by boarding-houses and shops. We were comfortable, and we were too busy to care. But it would never do for a young married couple to begin house-keeping here. You must have a brand new house uptown, Selma. You must insist on that. Don't be alarmed, Wilbur. I know it will have to be small, but I noticed the other day several blocks of new houses going up on the side streets west of the Park, which looked attractive and cheap."

"I will look at them," said Wilbur. "Since you seem determined not to live with us, and we are obliged to move, we will follow the procession. But Selma and I could be happy anywhere." He turned from his sister to her as he spoke with a proud, happy look.

Selma said nothing to mar

his confidence. She had no intention of living either with Pauline or in their present house, and she felt that her sister-in-law had shown good sense in recognizing that neither was possible. She necessarily had vague ideas as to New York houses and locations, but she had seen enough in her drive from the station to understand that it was a wonderful and decorative place. Although her experience of Benham had taught her that some old things-such as Mrs. Hallett Taylor's gleanings from Europe-were desirable, she associated new things with progress-especially American progress. Consequently the Littleton household possessions had puzzled her, for though she thought them ugly, she was resolved not to commit herself too hastily. But now that Pauline had sounded a note of warning, the situation was clear. They had suffered themselves to fall behind the times, and she was to be her husband's good angel by helping him to catch up with them. And it was evident that Pauline would be her ally. Selma for the first time asked herself whether it might be that Wilbur was a little visionary.

Meanwhile he was saying: "Pauline is right, Selma. I had already asked myself if it would not be fairer to you to move uptown where we should be in the van and in touch with what is going on. Pauline is gently hinting to you that you must not humor me as she has done, and let me eat bread and milk out of a bowl in this old curiosity shop, instead of following in the wake of fashion. She has spoiled me and now she deserts me at the critical moment of my life. Selma, you shall have the most charming modern house in New York within my means. It must be love in a cottage, but the cottage shall have the latest improvements-hot and cold water, tiles, hygienic plumbing and dados."

"Bravo!" said Pauline. "He says I have spoiled him, Selma. Perhaps I have. It will be your turn now. You will fail to convert him as I have failed, and the world will be the better for it. There are too few men who think noble thoughts and practice them, who are true to themselves and the light which is in them through thick and thin. But you see, he admits himself that he needs to mix with the world a little more. Otherwise he is perfect. You know that perhaps, already, Selma. But I wish to tell it to you before him. Take care of him, dear, won't you?"

"It was because I felt that his thoughts were nobler than most men's that I wished to marry him," Selma replied, seraphically. "But I can see that it is sensible to live where your friends live. I shall try not to spoil him, Pauline." She was already conscious of a mission which appealed to her. She had been content until now in the ardor of her love to regard Wilbur as flawless-as in some respects superior to herself; but it was a gratification to her to detect this failing, and to perceive her opportunity for usefulness. Surely it was important for her husband to be progressive and not merely a dreamer.

Littleton looked from one to the other fondly. "Not many men are blessed with the love of two such women," he said. "I put myself in your hands. I bow my neck to the yoke."

In New York in the early seventies the fashionable quarter lay between Eighth and Fortieth Streets, bounded on either side by Fourth and Sixth Avenues. Central Park was completed, but the region west of it was, from the social stand-point, still a wilderness, and Fifth Avenue in the neighborhood of Twenty-third Street was the centre of elegant social life. Selma took her first view of this brilliant street on the following day on her way to hunt for houses in the outlying district. The roar and bustle of the city, which thrilled yet dazed her, seemed here softened by the rows of tall, imposing residences in brown stone. Along the sunny sidewalks passed with jaunty tread an ever-hurrying procession of stylishly clad men and women; and along the roadbed sped an array of private carriages conducted by coachmen in livery. It was a brilliant day, and New Yorkers were making the most of it.

Selma had never seen such a sight before. Benham faded into insignificance in comparison. She was excited, and she gazed eagerly at the spectacle. Yet her look, though absorbed, was stern. This sort of thing was unlike anything American within her personal experience. This avenue of grand houses and this procession of fine individuals and fine vehicles made her think of that small section of Benham into which she had never been invited, and the thought affected her disagreeably.

"Who are the people who live in these houses?" she asked, presently.

Littleton had already told her that it was the most fashionable street in the city.

"Oh, the rich and prosperous."

"Those who gamble in stocks, I suppose." Selma wished to be assured that this was so.

"Some of them," said Littleton, with a laugh. "They belong to people who have made money in various ways or have inherited it-our well-to-do class, among them the first families in New York, and many of them our best citizens."

"Are they friends of yours?"

Littleton laughed again. "A few-not many. Society here is divided into sets, and they are not in my set. I prefer mine, and fortunately, for I can't afford to belong to theirs."

"Oh!"

The frigidity and dryness of the exclamation Littleton ascribed to Selma's intuitive enmity to the vanities of life.

"You mustn't pass judgment on them too hastily," he said. "New York is a wonderful place, and it's likely to shock you before you learn to appreciate what is interesting and fine here. I will tell you a secret, Selma. Every one likes to make money. Even clergymen feel it their duty to accept a call from the congregation which offers the best salary, and probing men of science do not hesitate to reap the harvest from a wonderful invention. Yet it is the fashion with most of the people in this country who possess little to prate about the wickedness of money-getters and to think evil of the rich. That proceeds chiefly from envy, and it is sheer cant. The people of the United States are engaged in an eager struggle to advance themselves-to gain individual distinction, comfort, success, and in New York to a greater extent than in any other place can the capable man or woman sell his or her wares to the best advantage-be they what they may, stocks, merchandise, law, medicine, pictures. The world pays well for the things it wants-and the world is pretty just in the long run. If it doesn't like my designs, that will be because they're not worth buying. The great thing-the difficult thing to guard against in the whirl of this great city, where we are all striving to get ahead-is not to sell one's self for money, not to sacrifice the thing worth doing for mere pecuniary advantage. It's the great temptation to some to do so, for only money can buy fine houses, and carriages and jewels-yes, and in a certain sense, social preferment. The problem is presented in a different form to every man. Some can grow rich honestly, and some have to remain poor in order to be true to themselves. We may have to remain poor, Selma mia." He spoke gayly, as though that prospect did not disturb him in the least.

"And we shall be just as good as the people who own these houses." She said it gravely, as if it were a declaration of principles, and at the same moment her gaze was caught and disturbed by a pair of blithe, fashionably dressed young women gliding by her with the quiet, unconscious grace of good-breeding. She was inwardly aware, though she would never acknowledge it by word or sign, that such people troubled her. More even than Mrs. Taylor had troubled her. They were different from her and they tantalized her.

At the same moment her husband was saying in reply, "Just as good, but not necessarily any better. No-other things being equal-not so good. We mustn't deceive ourselves with that piece of cant. Some of them are frivolous enough, and dishonest enough, heaven knows, but so there are frivolous and dishonest people in every class. But there are many more who endeavor to be good citizens-are good citizens, our best citizens. The possession of money gives them the opportunity to become arbiters of morals and taste, and to seek culture under the best advantages. After all, an accumulation of money represents brains and energy in some one. Look at this swell," he continued, indicating an attractive looking young man who was passing. "His grandfather was one of the ablest men in the city-an intelligent, self-respecting, shrewd, industrious, public-spirited citizen who made a large fortune. The son has had advantages which I have never had, and I happen to know that he is a fine fellow and a very able one. If it came to comparisons, I should be obliged to admit that he's a more ornamental member of society than Jones, Brown, or Robinson, and certainly no less useful. Do I shock you-you sweet, unswerving little democrat of the democrats?"

It always pleased Selma to be called endearing names, and it suited her in her present frame of mind to be dubbed a democrat, for it did not suit her to be painfully realizing that she was unable, at one brilliant swoop, to take her place as a leader in social influence. Somehow she had expected to do this, despite her first difficulties at Benham, for she had thought of New York as a place where, as the wife of Littleton, the architect, she would at once be a figure of importance. She shook her head and said, "It's hard to believe that these people are really in earnest; that they are serious in purpose and spirit." Meanwhile she was being haunted by the irritating reflection that her clothes and her bearing were inferior to those of the women she was passing. Secretly she was making a resolve to imitate them, though she believed that she despised them. She put her hand through her husband's arm and added, almost fiercely, as she pressed closer to him, "We needn't trouble our heads about them, Wilbur. We can get along without being rich and fashionable, you and I. In spite of what you say, I don't consider this sort of thing American."

"Get along? Darling, I was merely trying to be just to them; to let you see that they are not so black as they're painted. We will forget them forever. We have nothing in common with them. Get along? I feel that my life will be a paradise living with you and trying to make some impression on the life of this big, striving city. But as to its not being American to live like these people-well you know they are Americans and that New York is the Mecca of the hard-fisted sons of toil from all over the country who have made money. But you're right, Selma. Those who go in for show and extravagance are not the best Americans-the Americans whom you and I believe in. Sometimes I get discouraged when I stop to think, and now I shall have you to keep me steadfast to our faith."

"Yes, Wilbur. And how far from here are we to live?"

"Oh, a mile or more. On some side street where the land is cheap and the rent low. What do we care for that, Selma mia?"

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