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   Chapter 6 NEW FRIENDS AND OLD

The Man-Made World; Or, Our Androcentric Culture By Charlotte Perkins Gilman Characters: 22027

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


'Twould be too bad to be true, my dear,

And wonders never cease;

Twould be too bad to be true, my dear,

If all one's swans were geese!

Vivian's startled cry of welcome was heard by Susie, perched on the stairs with several eager youths gathered as close as might be about her, and several pairs of hands helped her swift descent to greet her brother.

Miss Orella, dropping Mr. Dykeman's arm, came flying from the ball-room.

"Oh, Morton! Morton! When did you come? Why didn't you let us know? Oh, my dear boy!"

She haled him into their special parlor, took his hat away from him, pulled out the most comfortable chair.

"Have you had supper? And to think that we haven't a room for you! But there's to be one vacant-next week. I'll see that there is. You shall have my room, dear boy. Oh, I am so glad to see you!"

Susie gave him a sisterly hug, while he kissed her, somewhat gingerly, on the cheek, and then she perched herself on the arm of a chair and gazed upon him with affectionate interest. Vivian gazed also, busily engaged in fitting present facts to past memories.

Surely he had not looked just like that! The Morton of her girlhood's dream had a clear complexion, a bright eye, a brave and gallant look-the voice only had not changed.

But here was Morton in present fact, something taller, it seemed, and a good deal heavier, well dressed in a rather vivid way, and making merry over his aunt's devotion.

"Well, if it doesn't seem like old times to have Aunt 'Rella running 'round like a hen with her head cut off, to wait on me." The simile was not unjust, though certainly ungracious, but his aunt was far too happy to resent it.

"You sit right still!" she said. "I'll go and bring you some supper. You must be hungry."

"Now do sit down and hear to reason, Auntie!" he said, reaching out a detaining hand and pulling her into a seat beside him. "I'm not hungry a little bit; had a good feed on the diner. Never mind about the room-I don't know how long I can stay-and I left my grip at the Allen House anyway. How well you're looking, Auntie! I declare I'd hardly have known you! And here's little Susie-a regular belle! And Vivian-don't suppose I dare call you Vivian now, Miss Lane?"

Vivian gave a little embarrassed laugh. If he had used her first name she would never have noticed it. Now that he asked her, she hardly knew what answer to make, but presently said:

"Why, of course, I always call you Morton."

"Well, I'll come when you call me," he cheerfully replied, leaning forward, elbows on knees, and looking around the pretty room.

"How well you're fixed here. Guess it was a wise move, Aunt 'Rella. But I'd never have dreamed you'd do it. Your Dr. Bellair must have been a powerful promoter to get you all out here. I wouldn't have thought anybody in Bainville could move-but me. Why, there's Grandma, as I live!" and he made a low bow.

Mrs. Pettigrew, hearing of his arrival from the various would-be partners of the two girls, had come to the door and stood there regarding him with a non-committal expression. At this address she frowned perceptibly.

"My name is Mrs. Pettigrew, young man. I've known you since you were a scallawag in short pants, but I'm no Grandma of yours."

"A thousand pardons! Please excuse me, Mrs. Pettigrew," he said with exaggerated politeness. "Won't you be seated?" And he set a chair for her with a flourish.

"Thanks, no," she said. "I'll go back," and went back forthwith, attended by Mr. Skee.

"One of these happy family reunions, ma'am?" he asked with approving interest. "If there's one thing I do admire, it's a happy surprise."

"'Tis some of a surprise," Mrs. Pettigrew admitted, and became rather glum, in spite of Mr. Skee's undeniably entertaining conversation.

"Some sort of a fandango going on?" Morton asked after a few rather stiff moments. "Don't let me interrupt! On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined! And if she must"-he looked at Vivian, and went on somewhat lamely-"dance, why not dance with me? May I have the pleasure, Miss Lane?"

"Oh, no," cried Miss Orella, "we'd much rather be with you!"

"But I'd rather dance than talk, any time," said he, and crooked his elbow to Vivian with an impressive bow.

Somewhat uncertain in her own mind, and unwilling to again disappoint Fordham Greer, who had already lost one dance and was visibly waiting for her in the hall, the girl hesitated; but Susie said, "Go on, give him part of one. I'll tell Mr. Greer." So Vivian took Morton's proffered arm and returned to the floor.

She had never danced with him in the old days; no special memory was here to contrast with the present; yet something seemed vaguely wrong. He danced well, but more actively than she admired, and during the rest of the evening devoted himself to the various ladies with an air of long usage.

She was glad when the dancing was over and he had finally departed for his hotel, glad when Susie had at last ceased chattering and dropped reluctantly to sleep.

For a long time she lay awake trying to straighten out things in her mind and account to herself for the sense of vague confusion which oppressed her.

Morton had come back! That was the prominent thing, of which she repeatedly assured herself. How often she had looked forward to that moment, and felt in anticipation a vivid joy. She had thought of it in a hundred ways, always with pleasure, but never in this particular way-among so many strangers.

It must be that which confused her, she thought, for she was extremely sensitive to the attitude of those about her. She felt an unspoken criticism of Morton on the part of her new friends in the house, and resented it; yet in her own mind a faint comparison would obtrude itself between his manners and those of Jimmie Saunders or Mr. Greer, for instance. The young Scotchman she had seen regarding Morton with an undisguised dislike, and this she inwardly resented, even while herself disliking his bearing to his aunt-and to her grandmother.

It was all contradictory and unsatisfying, and she fell asleep saying over to herself, "He has come back! He has come back!" and trying to feel happy.

Aunt Orella was happy at any rate. She would not rest until her beloved nephew was installed in the house, practically turning out Mr. Gibbs in order to accommodate him. Morton protested, talked of business and of having to go away at any time; and Mr. Gibbs, who still "mealed" with them, secretly wished he would.

But Morton did not go away. It was a long time since he had been petted and waited on, and he enjoyed it hugely, treating his aunt with a serio-comic affection that was sometimes funny, sometimes disagreeable.

At least Susie found it so. Her first surprise over, she fell back on a fund of sound common sense, strengthened by present experience, and found a good deal to criticise in her returned brother. She was so young when he left, and he had teased her so unmercifully in those days, that her early memories of him were rather mixed in sentiment, and now he appeared, not as the unquestioned idol of a manless family in a well-nigh manless town, but as one among many; and of those many several were easily his superiors.

He was her brother, and she loved him, of course; but there were so many wanting to be "brothers" if not more, and they were so much more polite! Morton petted, patronized and teased her, and she took it all in good part, as after the manner of brothers, but his demeanor with other people was not to her mind.

His adoring aunt, finding no fault whatever with this well-loved nephew, lavished upon him the affection of her unused motherhood, and he seemed to find it a patent joke, open to everyone, that she should be so fond.

To this and, indeed, to his general walk and conversation, Mrs. Pettigrew took great exception.

"Fine boy-Rella's nephew!" she said to Dr. Bellair late one night when, seeing a light over her neighbor's transom, she dropped in for a little chat. Conversation seemed easier for her here than in the atmosphere of Bainville.

"Fine boy-eh? Nice complexion!"

Dr. Bellair was reading a heavy-weight book by a heavier-weight specialist. She laid it down, took off her eyeglasses, and rubbed them.

"Better not kiss him," she said.

"I thought as much!" said Grandma. "I thought as much! Huh!"

"Nice world, isn't it?" the doctor suggested genially.

"Nothing the matter with the world, that I know of," her visitor answered.

"Nice people, then-how's that?"

"Nothing the matter with the people but foolishness-plain foolishness. Good land! Shall we never learn anything!"

"Not till it's too late apparently," the doctor gloomily agreed, turning slowly in her swivel chair. "That boy never was taught anything to protect him. What did Rella know? Or for that matter, what do any boys' fathers and mothers know? Nothing, you'd think. If they do, they won't teach it to their children."

"Time they did!" said the old lady decidedly. "High time they did! It's never too late to learn. I've learned a lot out of you and your books, Jane Bellair. Interesting reading! I don't suppose you could give an absolute opinion now, could you?"

"No," said Dr. Bellair gravely, "no, I couldn't; not yet, anyway."

"Well, we've got to keep our eyes open," Mrs. Pettigrew concluded. "When I think of that girl of mine--"

"Yes-or any girl," the doctor added.

"You look out for any girl-that's your business; I'll look out for mine-if I can."

Mrs. Pettigrew's were not the only eyes to scrutinize Morton Elder. Through the peep-hole in the swing door to the kitchen, Jeanne Jeaune watched him darkly with one hand on her lean chest.

She kept her watch on whatever went on in that dining-room, and on the two elderly waitresses whom she had helped Miss Elder to secure when the house filled up. They were rather painfully unattractive, but seemed likely to stay where no young and pretty damsel could be counted on for a year. Morton joked with perseverance about their looks, and those who were most devoted to Susie seemed to admire his wit, while Vivian's special admirers found it pointless in the extreme.

"Your waitresses are the limit, Auntie," he said, "but the cook is all to the good. Is she a plain cook or a handsome one?"

"Handsome is as handsome does, young man," Mrs. Pettigrew pointedly replied. "Mrs. Jones is a first-class cook and her looks are neither here nor there."

"You fill me with curiosity," he replied. "I must go out and make her acquaintance. I always get solid with the cook; it's worth while."

The face at the peep-hole darkened and turned away with a bitter and determined look, and Master Theophile was hastened at his work till his dim intelligence wondered, and then blessed with an unexpected cookie.

Vivian, Morton watched and followed assiduously. She was much changed from what he remembered-the young, frightened, slender girl he had kissed under the li

lac bushes, a kiss long since forgotten among many.

Perhaps the very number of his subsequent acquaintances during a varied and not markedly successful career in the newer states made this type of New England womanhood more marked. Girls he had known of various sorts, women old and young had been kind to him, for Morton had the rough good looks and fluent manner which easily find their way to the good will of many female hearts; but this gentle refinement of manner and delicate beauty had a novel charm for him.

Sitting by his aunt at meals he studied Vivian opposite, he watched her in their few quiet evenings together, under the soft lamplight on Miss Elder's beloved "center table;" and studied her continually in the stimulating presence of many equally devoted men.

All that was best in him was stirred by her quiet grace, her reserved friendliness; and the spur of rivalry was by no means wanting. Both the girls had their full share of masculine attention in that busy houseful, each having her own particular devotees, and the position of comforter to the others.

Morton became openly devoted to Vivian, and followed her about, seeking every occasion to be alone with her, a thing difficult to accomplish.

"I don't ever get a chance to see anything of you," he said. "Come on, take a walk with me-won't you?"

"You can see me all day, practically," she answered. "It seems to me that I never saw a man with so little to do."

"Now that's too bad, Vivian! Just because a fellow's out of a job for a while! It isn't the first time, either; in my business you work like-like anything, part of the time, and then get laid off. I work hard enough when I'm at it."

"Do you like it-that kind of work?" the girl asked.

They were sitting in the family parlor, but the big hall was as usual well occupied, and some one or more of the boarders always eager to come in. Miss Elder at this moment had departed for special conference with her cook, and Susie was at the theatre with Jimmie Saunders. Fordham Greer had asked Vivian, as had Morton also, but she declined both on the ground that she didn't like that kind of play. Mrs. Pettigrew, being joked too persistently about her fondness for "long whist," had retired to her room-but then, her room was divided from the parlor only by a thin partition and a door with a most inefficacious latch.

"Come over here by the fire," said Morton, "and I'll tell you all about it."

He seated himself on a sofa, comfortably adjacent to the fireplace, but Vivian preferred a low rocker.

"I suppose you mean travelling-and selling goods?" he pursued. "Yes, I like it. There's lots of change-and you meet people. I'd hate to be shut up in an office."

"But do you-get anywhere with it? Is there any outlook for you? Anything worth doing?"

"There's a good bit of money to be made, if you mean that; that is, if a fellow's a good salesman. I'm no slouch myself, when I feel in the mood. But it's easy come, easy go, you see. And it's uncertain. There are times like this, with nothing doing."

"I didn't mean money, altogether," said the girl meditatively, "but the work itself; I don't see any future for you."

Morton was pleased with her interest. Reaching between his knees he seized the edge of the small sofa and dragged it a little nearer, quite unconscious that the act was distasteful to her.

Though twenty-five years old, Vivian was extremely young in many ways, and her introspection had spent itself in tending the inner shrine of his early image. That ikon was now jarringly displaced by this insistent presence, and she could not satisfy herself yet as to whether the change pleased or displeased her. Again and again his manner antagonized her, but his visible devotion carried an undeniable appeal, and his voice stirred the deep well of emotion in her heart.

"Look here, Vivian," he said, "you've no idea how it goes through me to have you speak like that! You see I've been knocking around here for all this time, and I haven't had a soul to take an interest. A fellow needs the society of good women-like you."

It is an old appeal, and always reaches the mark. To any women it is a compliment, and to a young girl, doubly alluring. As she looked at him, the very things she most disliked, his too free manner, his coarsened complexion, a certain look about the eyes, suddenly assumed a new interest as proofs of his loneliness and lack of right companionship. What Mrs. St. Cloud had told her of the ennobling influence of a true woman, flashed upon her mind.

"You see, I had no mother," he said simply-"and Aunt Rella spoiled me-." He looked now like the boy she used to know.

"Of course I ought to have behaved better," he admitted. "I was ungrateful-I can see it now. But it did seem to me I couldn't stand that town a day longer!"

She could sympathize with this feeling and showed it.

"Then when a fellow knocks around as I have so long, he gets to where he doesn't care a hang for anything. Seeing you again makes a lot of difference, Vivian. I think, perhaps-I could take a new start."

"Oh do! Do!" she said eagerly. "You're young enough, Morton. You can do anything if you'll make up your mind to it."

"And you'll help me?"

"Of course I'll help you-if I can," said she.

A feeling of sincere remorse for wasted opportunities rose in the young man's mind; also, in the presence of this pure-eyed girl, a sense of shame for his previous habits. He walked to the window, his hands in his pockets, and looked out blankly for a moment.

"A fellow does a lot of things he shouldn't," he began, clearing his throat; she met him more than half way with the overflowing generosity of youth and ignorance:

"Never mind what you've done, Morton-you're going to do differently now! Susie'll be so proud of you-and Aunt Orella!"

"And you?" He turned upon her suddenly.

"Oh-I? Of course! I shall be very proud of my old friend."

She met his eyes bravely, with a lovely look of hope and courage, and again his heart smote him.

"I hope you will," he said and straightened his broad shoulders manfully.

"Morton Elder!" cried his aunt, bustling in with deep concern in her voice, "What's this I hear about you're having a sore throat?"

"Nothing, I hope," said he cheerfully.

"Now, Morton"-Vivian showed new solicitude-"you know you have got a sore throat; Susie told me."

"Well, I wish she'd hold her tongue," he protested. "It's nothing at all-be all right in a jiffy. No, I won't take any of your fixings, Auntie."

"I want Dr. Bellair to look at it anyhow," said his aunt, anxiously. "She'll know if it's diphtheritic or anything. She's coming in."

"She can just go out again," he said with real annoyance. "If there's anything I've no use for it's a woman doctor!"

"Oh hush, hush!" cried Vivian, too late.

"Don't apologize," said Dr. Bellair from her doorway. "I'm not in the least offended. Indeed, I had rather surmised that that was your attitude; I didn't come in to prescribe, but to find Mrs. Pettigrew."

"Want me?" inquired the old lady from her doorway. "Who's got a sore throat?"

"Morton has," Vivian explained, "and he won't let Aunt Rella-why where is she?"

Miss Elder had gone out as suddenly as she had entered.

"Camphor's good for sore throat," Mrs. Pettigrew volunteered. "Three or four drops on a piece of sugar. Is it the swelled kind, or the kind that smarts?"

"Oh-Halifax!" exclaimed Morton, disgustedly. "It isn't any kind. I haven't a sore throat."

"Camphor's good for cold sores; you have one of them anyhow," the old lady persisted, producing a little bottle and urging it upon Morton. "Just keep it wet with camphor as often as you think of it, and it'll go away."

Vivian looked on, interested and sympathetic, but Morton put his hand to his lip and backed away.

"If you ladies don't stop trying to doctor me, I'll clear out to-morrow, so there!"

This appalling threat was fortunately unheard by his aunt, who popped in again at this moment, dragging Dr. Hale with her. Dr. Bellair smiled quietly to herself.

"I wouldn't tell him what I wanted him for, or he wouldn't have come, I'm sure-doctors are so funny," said Miss Elder, breathlessly, "but here he is. Now, Dr. Hale, here's a foolish boy who won't listen to reason, and I'm real worried about him. I want you to look at his throat."

Dr. Hale glanced briefly at Morton's angry face.

"The patient seems to be of age, Miss Elder; and, if you'll excuse me, does not seem to have authorized this call."

"My affectionate family are bound to have me an invalid," Morton explained. "I'm in imminent danger of hot baths, cold presses, mustard plasters, aconite, belladonna and quinine-and if I can once reach my hat-"

He sidled to the door and fled in mock terror.

"Thank you for your good intentions, Miss Elder," Dr. Hale remarked drily. "You can bring water to the horse, but you can't make him drink it, you see."

"Now that that young man has gone we might have a game of whist," Mrs. Pettigrew suggested, looking not ill-pleased.

"For which you do not need me in the least," and Dr. Hale was about to leave, but Dr. Bellair stopped him.

"Don't be an everlasting Winter woodchuck, Dick! Sit down and play; do be good. I've got to see old Mrs. Graham yet; she refuses to go to sleep without it-knowing I'm so near. By by."

Mrs. Pettigrew insisted on playing with Miss Elder, so Vivian had the questionable pleasure of Dr. Hale as a partner. He was an expert, used to frequent and scientific play, and by no means patient with the girl's mistakes.

He made no protest at a lost trick, but explained briefly between hands what she should have remembered and how the cards lay, till she grew quite discouraged.

Her game was but mediocre, played only to oblige; and she never could see why people cared so much about a mere pastime. Pride came to her rescue at last; the more he criticised, the more determined she grew to profit by all this advice; but her mind would wander now and then to Morton, to his young life so largely wasted, it appeared, and to what hope might lie before him. Could she be the help and stimulus he seemed to think? How much did he mean by asking her to help him?

"Why waste a thirteenth trump on your partner's thirteenth card?" Dr. Hale was asking.

She flushed a deep rose color and lifted appealing eyes to him.

"Do forgive me; my mind was elsewhere."

"Will you not invite it to return?" he suggested drily.

He excused himself after a few games, and the girl at last was glad to have him go. She wanted to be alone with her thoughts.

Mrs. Pettigrew, sitting unaccountably late at her front window, watched the light burn steadily in the small office at the opposite corner. Presently she saw a familiar figure slip in there, and, after a considerable stay, come out quietly, cross the street, and let himself in at their door.

"Huh!" said Mrs. Pettigrew.

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