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   Chapter 5 A BOX FROM HOME.

Elizabeth Hobart at Exeter Hall By Jean K. Baird Characters: 27519

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


For some days the relations between Elizabeth and her roommate were strained. No further words concerning the order of the room passed between them, but each time they dressed, whether for breakfast or dinner, Miss Wilson made a point of looking about both rooms to see that each article was as it should be. The very calmness of her manner was exasperating. Elizabeth was hurt more by it than by words. She paid no attention to Mary's vain efforts, for they had grown to be vain, as Elizabeth was keeping the tightest kind of a rein on herself.

Each article of dress was hung in its proper place as it left her hand. Each pencil went back to the pencil-holder even when she intended using it in a few minutes. She did not grant herself a second's grace. Her efforts were untiring during the first and second week. Many times she went back from the door of the class-room to be sure that every article in her room was where it should be.

Gradually she formed the habit of being orderly. It was but a few weeks until she discovered that she put her clothes away without thinking about it. She discovered, too, that she was actually saving time in not having to hunt for anything.

Mrs. Schuyler, the preceptress, generally looked in upon the rooms while the girls were at class. She was a dainty little widow, with a manner which she supposed to be pleasant and ingratiating but which the girls termed monotonously servile. Her expression was so exceedingly pleasant that the students named her Mrs. Smiles.

One Saturday morning as she made her daily rounds, she found both Elizabeth and Mary in their rooms.

"Miss Hobart, I must speak with you," she said, sweeping in, the long train of her black house gown trailing after her. "I wish to commend you on the improvement you have made in keeping your apartments in order. It has been weeks since I have found an article out of place on your dresser; and your closet has been in excellent order."

"You are very kind to tell me so," was the response. "But I take little credit to myself for the improvement. I've had such an example and mentor always before me that I could scarce be anything else but improved."

Miss Wilson stood by but gave no indication of hearing the remark until Mrs. Smiles, smiling and bowing, dragged her train from the room. Then she turned to Elizabeth.

"I scarcely expect you'll forgive me for the way I spoke that evening. But I was provoked and-and-humiliated. Miss Watson has always been my ideal and I did wish her to see me at my best."

"I think she did. You were all that could be expected of a girl. The Sphinx itself, could not have been more outwardly calm. I fancy Miss Watson went away in admiration of your self-control. If I remember, I was the only one who appeared to disadvantage."

There was a trace of bitterness in the girl's voice, for in spite of her effort to forget, the hurt of that evening still rankled within her.

"Now, Elizabeth, please do not speak in that tone. I was sorry for my words that evening the moment I spoke. But I am hasty. I try my best to keep quiet when I'm angry; but now and then I express myself before I realize it. You can't expect perfection in anyone. A quick temper is my besetting sin. I try to overcome it; but until I do my friends must bear with me. No one is perfection."

"Indeed," was the reply, "I'm rather surprised that you hold such an opinion. From the way you spoke that evening, I could not have judged you to be so liberal."

Miss Wilson knew her words were wasted. With a quick, impulsive movement she crossed the room to where Elizabeth stood, and throwing her arms about her, cried out, "You must not talk like that, Elizabeth. You are not naturally sarcastic. Let me be the disagreeable one-if one there must be."

She drew Elizabeth's head down, kissing her warmly. It was impossible to be vexed long with such a whole-souled, impulsive girl as Miss Wilson. Elizabeth smiled and relented. From that time matters between the two moved smoothly as at first; but Elizabeth did not relax her vigilance. She realized how others might be inconvenienced and mortified by her carelessness. From an economical point of view, too, it was better to reform; for she had lost much time, and been tardy at class frequently on account of having to hunt for some needed article.

This week proved to be one of the most eventful of Elizabeth's school year. She did not plan to go home for Thanksgiving. The Saturday previous she received a box from her mother. It was filled with all the good things a mother's heart could devise and a cook's skillful hands make ready. Miss Wilson carried the news of the arrival of the box to Elizabeth.

"The expressman's on his way up with an immense box," she cried, tossing back her hair, and talking as excitedly as though Exeter Hall were governed by a Board of Starvation.

Elizabeth hurried to the door. The expressman was already there, with about as much as he could carry.

Mary, as usual, arose to the occasion. She assisted to unpack. She expressed the proper amount of enthusiasm and admiration at each edible as it was brought forth. When the contents had been properly disposed of on every available window-sill, study-table and on the floor close to the wall where they would not be in the way of passing feet, she arose from her knees before the empty box. "You'll have the spread to-night, I suppose. Some of the girls will be away to-morrow."

Elizabeth had been long enough at Exeter to learn the meaning of that magic word "spread." There are receptions, socials and spreads, but the greatest of these are spreads. A spread means slipping through dimly lighted corridors long after the retiring-bell has sounded its last warning; it means bated breaths, whispers and suppressed giggles. Its regalia is dressing-gowns or kimonos with bedroom slippers. It means mysterious knocks at the hostess' door; a hurried skirmish within; and when it is found that one of the enlightened is rapping for admission, there is a general exodus from closets, from behind window draperies and from beneath study-tables.

Spreads have never been prohibited. Indeed, it is generally understood that the faculty would gladly grant permission for them, if the time and place were opportune. But never in the history of school-life has permission been asked. With permission granted, a spread would not be a spread. It would be a mere lunch-an opportunity to partake of delicacies.

Elizabeth's eyes grew big at Mary's suggestion. "We'll have it to-night," she exclaimed, "after the lights are out. Do you think we could have it here? Mrs. Smiles is at the end of the hall. We'll have to be so careful."

"So much the more fun. A spread is supposed to be risky, else it would not be a spread. Whom will you invite?"

Elizabeth began to name them on her fingers. "Anna Cresswell, Landis, Min, Mame Welch, and Miss O'Day." Her acquaintance with the last-named student had not progressed far enough to permit calling her by her first name. As far as Miss O'Day was concerned, the Exeter girls knew not friendship. Elizabeth could see that the girl herself made no advances. From her attitude, it was impossible to judge whether she was proud or shy. Scarcely the latter, for she carried herself with a self-poise which was suggestive of confidence. Elizabeth had not learned the cause of the estrangement between her and the other students. No one had ventured an explanation to her and she would not ask. Now at the mention of her name, Miss Wilson grew dignified-a sure sign that she was half angry.

"I wouldn't ask her," she said.

"Why not?"

"Oh, simply because I wouldn't. None of the girls ever invite her, or haven't for the last year."

"Oh, well, no doubt I do a great many things which none of the other girls do, so I might as well do this. I don't object to being a little odd."

"Well, if you do-if you take Nora O'Day up and make a friend of her, the other girls will surely cut you."

"Cut me?" exclaimed Elizabeth, for the first time in her life fairly indignant. Her pride was aroused. "Cut me? Well, let that be as they choose. They'll not have the opportunity, for I can let them as severely alone as they do Nora O'Day. If I cannot invite whom I please to my spread without asking the advice of a dozen other girls, then I'll not have it at all. I don't know and don't wish to know why you girls snub Miss O'Day. As far as I can see, she acts quite as well as some others at Exeter."

"We don't snub her, at least I have never done so. I treat her with conventional courtesy."

"Conventional courtesy! Deliver me from it, then. Why, the thermometer falls below zero whenever she comes where you girls are together. I know no evil of her. She has always treated me nicely, and I shall treat her so. When I discover that she is not fit to associate with, then I'll let her alone."

"But, Elizabeth, if you only knew!"

"But I don't know and I don't want to know." Mary hesitated. She was not tempted to tell Elizabeth the whole story of the year before. She was never tempted to tell news or bruit from one student to another what was no concern of hers. She hesitated because she was uncertain whether it paid to carry the discussion further. After a moment's thought, she decided that much talking would not be effective.

"Very well, Elizabeth, do as you please. Ask anyone you choose. Of course the spread is yours. But if you ask Nora O'Day, you may expect to find me occupied at that time. Landis will not mind if I go over to her rooms. I'm off now to geometry! Of course, I'll help you get ready and all that."

With this parting shot, she quitted the room. Elizabeth had a vacant period following, a time generally devoted to looking over her work. To-day she employed it in reviewing her conversation with Mary Wilson. She was gradually awakening to the knowledge that a certain independence of thought and action was necessary if one would not become a mere tool used by each and all of her friends. At Bitumen, her parents and Miss Hale had influenced her. But there had been such a sweet unselfishness in all they did, such an evidence that they were working for her good, that Elizabeth had allowed their will to become her own. As she considered the matter now, she could remember no instance when she had been conscious of feeling that any other course of action save that which they suggested would have been pleasing to her. She was fond of her roommate. Mary had helped her over many a little difficulty in regard to classes and gym work. She was one of those whole-souled girls who was more than ready and willing to divide both her good times and her possessions.

Elizabeth had not become so interested in Miss O'Day that her presence at the spread would cause her any great pleasure. Had Mary Wilson not shown such a spirit of authority, such a desire to have her own will in this, Elizabeth would have dropped the matter without a thought. But now she felt that she would ask Miss O'Day. If she did so, she would be an independent person; if she did not, she would be doing merely as her roommate wished, in a blind way, without knowing the reason for her action.

While she was pondering the matter, there came back to her the words her father had spoken when he had planned to send her to school. "The girls will teach you more than any of the faculty." There was one thing they would teach her, she decided instantly, and that was to form her own opinions of people, and to follow out her own course of action. She would ask Miss O'Day to her spread. Mary Wilson could come or stay away just as she chose. Mary should decide that matter for herself.

When once Elizabeth made a decision, there was no dilly-dallying, no going back and wondering if she had done the right thing. Taking up her pencil, she began to jot down the names of those to be invited. Nora O'Day's name headed the list with Azzie Hogan's tagged on at the last. The majority of the girls were at class. Her only opportunity for seeing them was immediately before dinner or during study-hour in the evening, providing Mrs. Smiles did not keep too close a watch.

She wondered what Mary Wilson would think of asking Azzie Hogan. Azzie did not take advantage of the social privileges of Exeter. Azzie was a genius-a boarding student who put in all her time with music-who sat for hours producing the most marvelous tones from instruments where other girls drew discords-who would sit all day at the piano, and not find the time long; and who spent her leisure in dawdling over sofas, or playing practical jokes on every one about her. She was a long-limbed, fair-haired girl, with a touch of wit from some remote ancestor who must have had O' tacked to his name, and a great inaptitude toward books. She could play. Exeter had never before boasted such skill as hers. Her fame had spread over the state. But other lessons were impossible.

The subject of the guests was not brought up again between the roommates. Mary had a successful interview with the matron, and returned to her rooms with cream for cocoa, and a few forks and spoons, borrowing cups and plates from the girls in the hall. Elizabeth had a class late in the afternoon. When she came back she found the work she planned already done. She started off immediately to issue her invitations.

The rooms occupied by Min and Landis were nearest her own. She stopped there first. She found the girls busy, Landis at the study-table, putting the last touches to a composition for the following day's rhetoric. Min was sitting on a low chair by the window, sewing braid on the bottom of a dress-skirt. Unconsciously, Elizabeth gave th

e article in Min's hand a second glance, and recognized it as the skirt Landis generally wore to class.

Landis, whose eye was quick to note all that occurred in her presence, caught the second glance. "Isn't Min good?" she asked. "She is putting a new braid on my everyday skirt. I caught my heel in it yesterday and ripped the binding almost off. If there is one piece of work which I detest above another, it is putting on braids."

"How about Min?" asked Elizabeth. "Does she enjoy it?"

"She doesn't dislike it," was the response. "She likes to be busy, and is quite as content to be at that as at some of the greater things of life. Min does that for me, and I'm left free to do a line of work which would not claim her." As she spoke, she arose and moved from the table. Before doing so, she was careful to lay a book across the top of the page on which she had been writing. She might have placed it there to keep the papers from being scattered over the room, but it looked more as though she placed it in a position to hide the title. She sank down in a low chair beside Elizabeth and watched Min work. Her speech impressed her hearer that she was doing work of so high an order that common spirits like her own could not comprehend. Elizabeth had heard Landis make such reference before, but after having talked with Miss Rice, she concluded that Landis, when speaking in her own peculiar way, had in mind the life of a missionary which was to be hers on leaving school. Elizabeth had a great reverence for religion. So while Landis made these speeches, she listened with becoming attention.

But Min, to whom all things were material, and the nearest point the only one seen, blurted out in her slow, uncomprehending way, "Yes, I'd much rather sew on a binding than to do the work Landis does. What one of us likes to do, the other one don't. So we fit fairly well as roommates. This noon when she was complaining about the mending she must do, I told her I'd do it all if she'd get my thesis ready for to-morrow. We have a discussion on the Literature of the Elizabethan Period. As though I could write a thousand words on that! So we traded off."

A flush had come to Landis' cheek while her roommate talked. She stopped her as quickly as was consistent with tact. When once Min started it was impossible to tell when she would stop.

"Tell Elizabeth about the trip your father is planning," said Landis, breaking into Min's discourse.

But Elizabeth arose, declaring that she had no time to stay longer; she had merely stopped in to ask them both to come to her room for a spread that evening, any time after the lights were out.

"A box from home!" exclaimed Min. "Isn't that lovely? That is what it means to have a mother! Our housekeeper is as kind as can be and would be only too glad to send me a box if she thought of it. But that is the difference, a mother would think. If father was there, I'd go home to-morrow. But he won't be, so I would rather stay here than be in that big house alone with servants. Landis has an invitation to go out into the country for dinner. I'm sure I'd go if I were she. Miss Rice has asked her to come but she won't go."

"I do not think it would be kind to leave Min alone," she said, as though that were her sole motive in staying.

"Miss Rice!" exclaimed Elizabeth. "I know her. I met her the evening of the reception."

"Quite a character, isn't she?" responded Landis, as she might have spoken of one with whom she had but a passing acquaintance, instead of one on whom she was depending for all she had. "I often think she would make an admirable character for a novel. If my talent ran in that direction, I would certainly put Betty Rice in a book."

"Isn't she related to you?" asked Elizabeth in that innocent way which springs from the heart of one who has no guile and does not suspect others.

Landis drew down her eyebrows and pondered as though she were figuring out just what the relation was. The impression her manner gave to one who was merely a casual observer was that she deliberated and thought before speaking in order that her statements might not deviate by a hairbreadth from justice and truth.

"I was just trying to think if she really were related at all or if we call her so from mere courtesy. If she be related to us, it is so distant that I cannot explain it. I fancy we call her so without any blood ties at all. You know how it is with a family like ours-in fact all English families of the upper class. We've lived in one place for generations, and always have played the Lady Bountiful to the poorer folk until they grow to believe they have a claim upon us. Betty Rice is not the only one of these hangers-on. But I'm not complaining. She's a good soul and always does her best. I really have a fondness for her. You can be sure that so long as I have a home Betty shall have one too."

Min Kean had never talked with Miss Rice or Miss Rice's friends. She forthwith expressed her admiration of Landis' noble generosity of spirit and purse.

Elizabeth's lack of experience in meeting with people made her slow to comprehend and compare. Although she remembered Miss Rice's statements made the evening of the reception, and now heard those made by Landis, she did not reach a conclusion in regard to them. It was not until weeks later that her mind sifted these conflicting ideas, placing and ticketing each in its proper relation.

"But about the spread! You'll come?"

"It's useless to ask such a question! Of course we'll come. We have never been known to miss a spread."

The other girls accepted with the same readiness. It was not until Azzie was reached that any uncertainty arose.

Azzie was at the piano when Elizabeth found her. "It depends," she replied. "If Smiles will allow me to do overtime this evening, I won't be able to come. I'll be too tired. If she's cranky and locks up the music room, I'll come."

"Then I hope she'll be cranky. We want you," was the response.

"I don't. Professor Van Buren gave me the sweetest thing to-day-a little German composition. I want to work on it. It isn't hard, but the runs need practice." She turned back to her music.

Elizabeth went on to find Miss O'Day. Their acquaintance had not gone beyond that of class-room meetings and hall chats. She had never visited the girl's rooms. She was surprised at their beauty and elegance. All the Exeter girls had comfortable apartments, but this surpassed anything else at the Hall. The draperies between the doors were of imported India material; her tea-table showed many pieces of Royal Worcester; her extra chairs were of fine cabinet woods. The occupant of the room was seated in a low chair by the fire. She was already dressed for dinner. Since the evening Dr. Morgan had sent her to her room because she had appeared in a low-necked gown, her dressing had been less elaborate, yet by no means could it be called simple.

Her hands were covered with rings. Her hair was piled high in quite the fashion of a grown-up woman. It was more noticeable, perhaps, because the younger students at Exeter wore their hair in girlish fashion.

She arose to greet Elizabeth, shaking her by the hand and leading her to a chair. She was pleased that Elizabeth had called, yet her manner had a certain icy courtesy about it which made her guest ill at ease.

"This is the first time you have come to see me," she said. "But I am glad you have come at last. Sit here. This low chair is the most comfortable."

"I haven't time," said Elizabeth. Nevertheless she took the proffered chair. "Your rooms are beautiful, Miss O'Day," she said. "As you say, this is the first time I have been in them, but I had caught glimpses from the hall of your pretty draperies and chairs. Your tea-table is a dream."

"Why haven't you come in before and seen it close at hand?" she asked.

Elizabeth knew no polite way of evading the question. She was not skilled in the little methods of saying much and meaning little.

"You never came to see me," she replied, "and I fancied you did not care to have me come, though you have always been very pleasant when I have met you in the hall. But I supposed if you wanted to know me better, you would have come to see me."

A peculiar expression passed over the hearer's face. She gave Elizabeth a quick, questioning glance, as though she doubted the good faith of this statement. But the glance satisfied her that her visitor was not acting a part. She leaned forward as though to warm her hands at the grate. In reality, she was taking time to consider well her words before she spoke.

"I really wished to call on you," she said, "but hesitated lest I intrude. Your roommate, Miss Wilson, would not be at all pleased to have me. That is why I did not call."

"But the rooms are half mine! She would have nothing at all to do with my callers. Surely that was a queer sort of reason to keep away."

"That was the first reason. Then there was another. How should I know that you would receive me? One girl influences another so. I knew Miss Wilson did not wish me to come. How was I to know that she had not filled your mind so with school gossip that you, too, would be glad to have me keep at a distance?"

The girl's manner of speaking was peculiar. It was difficult to understand whether she were hiding her arrogant pride by an assumption of humility or whether she truly felt that her calls would not be looked upon with favor. Her manner was not easy at any time. It was marked by a self-consciousness that gave her companions the impression that the little courtesies from well-bred people were something new to her.

Elizabeth flared up at her words. "Do you think I'm a handful of putty," she asked, "to be moulded any way my companions choose? I form my own opinions. So long as you treat me fairly, I would do the same by you. But really, you do Mary an injustice. She never told me anything against you. Of course, I knew there was some feeling that was not altogether friendly between you. But I learned that from your manner as much as I did from hers."

Miss O'Day made no response. Elizabeth waited a few moments for her to answer. Being disappointed in this, she turned the conversation to the object of her errand.

"Mother sent me a box. The girls will be in for a spread this evening and I want you to come. It will be at the usual hour-any time after lights are out and you can get rid of Smiles."

Elizabeth arose, moving toward the door. "I'll have less than ten minutes to dress for dinner. Do you think I can do it in that time? I haven't been late since I came to Exeter, so I shall not hurry now. One late mark will keep me in harmony with the rest of the girls." Her hand was upon the knob.

"Wait, Miss Hobart!" Miss O'Day had arisen. There was a sound of rustling petticoats as she moved. She twisted her hands nervously as though dreading to speak. "I should like nothing better than coming. I haven't been to a 'blow-out' this fall. But I hardly think I can come now." She hesitated. She spoke slowly as though she could not put her thoughts into the proper words. "I really wish to come, Miss Hobart. It is kind of you to ask me. I don't want to take advantage of your goodness, so I must tell you why the girls here do not care to know me. I did something wrong last year-something they look upon as dreadful. They all belong to the Christian Association. As an Association they are pledged to discountenance just what I did. I'm not a member. So since last spring I've been cut out of every social affair except those the school gives."

"Well, I call that mean," cried Elizabeth. "Why don't you-"

"No, they were right in one way. I tell you so much because I cannot accept your invitation if you do not know. If you wish me to tell you all about it, I will, although I have spoken of the matter to no one. I couldn't."

"No, I don't want to hear. I wish you to come to-night. I'd rather find matters out for myself. You'll come?"

"Does Miss Wilson know you intend asking me?"

"Yes, of course. I made out the list this morning." She did not add that Miss Wilson had expressed herself rather strongly on the subject.

"Well, then I shall come."

"I must go, or I shall be too late to get any dinner at all. This is roast beef night, too; and that's the night I always pay the cook a compliment by eating two portions-my own and Anna Cresswell's. She doesn't like roast beef, and I don't like rice pudding. So we trade. Good-bye. I'll see you then to-night."

"The mail has come," was Miss Wilson's greeting, as Elizabeth entered her room. "I have a letter from Mrs. Gleason. She writes to invite me to spend a Sabbath with her at my earliest convenience. I am to bring you along. I did not know you knew her. I've mentioned her so often and you never said that you were friends."

"I don't know her." Elizabeth was struggling into a white shirtwaist as she talked. "I never saw her. There must be some mistake about her asking me."

"No; there's the letter. Read it when you have leisure. I thought from the way she wrote that she knew you well. Odd, isn't it? But we'll go. It is the best place to visit."

"But we cannot go for several weeks. I'm to lead Sabbath evening."

"And I can't go until Anna Cresswell can be here. She has been going away on Saturday. They need a soprano. And she and I appear to be the only availables." Mary shook back her hair, as she adjusted the last pin in her cuff. "There's the last bell, Elizabeth, and you're not half ready. Well, I'll hurry on, and if you are locked out, I'll get Maggie to bring your dinner up here. She'll do anything if you give her a small tip."

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