The Warden house was more impressive in appearance than its neighbors. It had “grounds,” instead of a yard or garden; it had wide pillared porches and “galleries,” showing southern antecedents; moreover, it had a cupola, giving date to the building, and proof of the continuing ambitions of the builders.
The stately mansion was covered with heavy flowering vines, also with heavy mortgages. Mrs. Roscoe Warden and her four daughters reposed peacefully under the vines, while Roscoe Warden, Jr., struggled desperately under the mortgages.
A slender, languid lady was Mrs. Warden, wearing her thin but still brown hair in “water-waves” over a pale high forehead. She was sitting on a couch on the broad, rose-shaded porch, surrounded by billowing masses of vari-colored worsted. It was her delight to purchase skein on skein of soft, bright-hued wool, cut it all up into short lengths, tie them together again in contrasting colors, and then crochet this hashed rainbow into afghans of startling aspect. California does not call for afghans to any great extent, but “they make such acceptable presents,” Mrs. Warden declared, to those who questioned the purpose of her work; and she continued to send them off, on Christmases, birthdays, and minor weddings, in a stream of pillowy bundles. As they were accepted, they must have been acceptable, and the stream flowed on.
Around her, among the gay blossoms and gayer wools, sat her four daughters, variously intent. The mother, a poetic soul, had named them musically and with dulcet rhymes: Madeline and Adeline were the two eldest, Coraline and Doraline the two youngest. It had not occurred to her until too late that those melodious terminations made it impossible to call one daughter without calling two, and that “Lina” called them all.
“Mis' Immerjin,” said a soft voice in the doorway, “dere pos'tively ain't no butter in de house fer supper.”
“No butter?” said Mrs. Warden, incredulously. “Why, Sukey, I'm sure we had a tub sent up last—last Tuesday!”
“A week ago Tuesday, more likely, mother,” suggested Dora.
“Nonsense, Dora! It was this week, wasn't it, girls?” The mother appealed to them quite earnestly, as if the date of that tub's delivery would furnish forth the supper-table; but none of the young ladies save Dora had even a contradiction to offer.
“You know I never notice things,” said the artistic Cora; and “the de-lines,” as their younger sisters called them, said nothing.
“I might borrow some o' Mis' Bell?” suggested Sukey; “dat's nearer 'n' de sto'.”
“Yes, do, Sukey,” her mistress agreed. “It is so hot. But what have you done with that tubful?”
“Why, some I tuk back to Mis' Bell for what I borrered befo'—I'm always most careful to make return for what I borrers—and yo' know, Mis' Warden, dat waffles and sweet potaters and cohn bread dey do take butter; to say nothin' o' them little cakes you all likes so well—an'' de fried chicken, an''—”
“Never mind, Sukey; you go and present my compliments to Mrs. Bell, and ask her for some; and be sure you return it promptly. Now, girls, don't let me forget to tell Ross to send up another tub.”
“We can't seem to remember any better than you can, mother,” said Adeline, dreamily. “Those details are so utterly uninteresting.”
“I should think it was Sukey's business to tell him,” said Madeline with decision; while the “a-lines” kept silence this time.
“There! Sukey's gone!” Mrs. Warden suddenly remarked, watching the stout figure moving heavily away under the pepper trees. “And I meant to have asked her to make me a glass of shrub! Dora, dear, you run and get it for mother.”
Dora laid down her work, not too regretfully, and started off.
“That child is the most practical of any of you,” said her mother; which statement was tacitly accepted. It was not extravagant praise.
Dora poked about in the refrigerator for a bit of ice. She had no idea of the high cost of ice in that region—it came from “the store,” like all their provisions. It did not occur to her that fish and milk and melons made a poor combination in flavor; or that the clammy, sub-offensive smell was not the natural and necessary odor of refrigerators. Neither did she think that a sunny corner of the back porch near the chimney, though convenient, was an ill-selected spot for a refrigerator. She couldn't find the ice-pick, so put a big piece of ice in a towel and broke it on the edge of the sink; replaced the largest fragment, used what she wanted, and left the rest to filter slowly down through a mass of grease and tea-leaves; found the raspberry vinegar, and made a very satisfactory beverage which her mother received with grateful affection.
“Thank you, my darling,” she said. “I wish you'd made a pitcherful.”
“Why didn't you, Do?” her sisters demanded.
“You're too late,” said Dora, hunting for her needle and then for her thimble, and then for her twist; “but there's more in the kitchen.”
“I'd rather go without than go into the kitchen,” said Adeline; “I do despise a kitchen.” And this seemed to be the general sentiment; for no one moved.
“My mother always liked raspberry shrub,” said Mrs. Warden; “and your Aunt Leicester, and your Raymond cousins.”
Mrs. Warden had a wide family circle, many beloved relatives, “connections” of whom she was duly proud and “kin” in such widening ramifications that even her carefully reared daughters lost track of them.
“You young people don't seem to care about your cousins at all!” pursued their mother, somewhat severely, setting her glass on the railing, from whence it was presently knocked off and broken.
“That's the fifth!” remarked Dora, under breath.
“Why should we, Ma?” inquired Cora. “We've never seen one of them—except Madam Weatherstone!”
“We'll never forget her!” said Madeline, with delicate decision, laying down the silk necktie she was knitting for Roscoe. “What beautiful manners she had!”
“How rich is she, mother? Do you know?” asked Dora.
“Rich enough to do something for Roscoe, I'm sure, if she had a proper family spirit,” replied Mrs. Warden. “Her mother was own cousin to my grandmother—one of the Virginia Paddingtons. Or she might do something for you girls.”
“I wish she would!” Adeline murmured, softly, her large eyes turned to the horizon, her hands in her lap over the handkerchief she was marking for Roscoe.
“Don't be ungrateful, Adeline,” said her mother, firmly. “You have a good home and a good brother; no girl ever had a better.”
“But there is never anything going on,” broke in Coraline, in a tone of complaint; “no parties, no going away for vacations, no anything.”
“Now, Cora, don't be discontented! You must not add a straw to dear Roscoe's burdens,” said her mother.
“Of course not, mother; I wouldn't for the world. I never saw her but that once; and she wasn't very cordial. But, as you say, she might do something. She might invite us to visit her.”
“If she ever comes back again, I'm going to recite for her,” said, Dora, firmly.
Her mother gazed fondly on her youngest. “I wish you could, dear,” she agreed. “I'm sure you have talent; and Madam Weatherstone would recognize it. And Adeline's music too. And Cora's art. I am very proud of my girls.”
Cora sat where the light fell well upon her work. She was illuminating a volume of poems, painting flowers on the margins, in appropriate places—for Roscoe.
“I wonder if he'll care for it?” she said, laying down her brush and holding the book at arm's length to get the effect.
“Of course he will!” answered her mother, warmly. “It is not only the beauty of it, but the affection! How are you getting on, Dora?”
Dora was laboring at a task almost beyond her fourteen years, consisting of a negligee shirt of outing flannel, upon the breast of which she was embroidering a large, intricate design—for Roscoe. She was an ambitious child, but apt to tire in the execution of her large projects.
“I guess it'll be done,” she said, a little wearily. “What are you going to give him, mother?”
“Another bath-robe; his old one is so worn. And nothing is too good for my boy.”
“He's coming,” said Adeline, who was still looking down the road; and they all concealed their birthday work in haste.
A tall, straight young fellow, with an air of suddenly-faced maturity upon him, opened the gate under the pepper trees and came toward them.
He had the finely molded features we see in portraits of handsome ancestors, seeming to call for curling hair a little longish, and a rich profusion of ruffled shirt. But his hair was sternly short, his shirt severely plain, his proudly carried head spoke of effort rather than of ease in its attitude.
Dora skipped to meet him, Cora descended a decorous step or two. Madeline and Adeline, arm in arm, met him at the piazza edge, his mother lifted her face.
“Well, mother, dear!” Affectionately he stooped and kissed her, and she held his hand and stroked it lovingly. The sisters gathered about with teasing affection, Dora poking in his coat-pocket for the stick candy her father always used to bring her, and her brother still remembered.
“Aren't you home early, dear?” asked Mrs. Warden.
“Yes; I had a little headache”—he passed his hand over his forehead—“and Joe can run the store till after supper, anyhow.” They flew to get him camphor, cologne, a menthol-pencil. Dora dragged forth the wicker lounge. He was laid out carefully and fanned and fussed over till his mother drove them all away.
“Now, just rest,” she said. “It's an hour to supper time yet!” And she covered him with her latest completed afghan, gathering up and carrying away the incomplete one and its tumultuous constituents.
He was glad of the quiet, the fresh, sweet air, the smell of flowers instead of the smell of molasses and cheese, soap and sulphur matches. But the headache did not stop, nor the worry that caused it. He loved his mother, he loved his sisters, he loved their home, but he did not love the grocery business which had fallen so unexpectedly upon him at his father's death, nor the load of debt which fell with it.
That they need never have had so large a “place” to “keep up” did not occur to him. He had lived there most of his life, and it was home. That the expenses of running the household were three times what they needed to be, he did not know. His father had not questioned their style of living, nor did he. That a family of five women might, between them, do the work of the house, he did not even consider.
Mrs. Warden's health was never good, and since her husband's death she had made daily use of many afghans on the many lounges of the house. Madeline was “delicate,” and Adeline was “frail”; Cora was “nervous,” Dora was “only a child.” So black Sukey and her husband Jonah did the work of the place, so far as it was done; and Mrs. Warden held it a miracle of management that she could “do with one servant,” and the height of womanly devotion on her daughters' part that they dusted the parlor and arranged the flowers.
Roscoe shut his eyes and tried to rest, but his problem beset him ruthlessly. There was the store—their one and only source of income. There was the house, a steady, large expense. There were five women to clothe and keep contented, beside himself. There was the unappeasable demand of the mortgage—and there was Diantha.
When Mr. Warden died, some four years previously, Roscoe was a lad of about twenty, just home from college, full of dreams of great service to the world in science, expecting to go back for his doctor's degree next year. Instead of which the older man had suddenly dropped beneath the burden he had carried with such visible happiness and pride, such unknown anxiety and straining effort; and the younger one had to step into the harness on the spot.
He was brave, capable, wholly loyal to his mother and sisters, reared in the traditions of older days as to a man's duty toward women. In his first grief for his father, and the ready pride with which he undertook to fill his place, he had not in the least estimated the weight of care he was to carry, nor the time that he must carry it. A year, a year or two, a few years, he told himself, as they passed, and he would make more money; the girls, of course, would marry; he could “retire” in time and take up his scientific work again. Then—there was Diantha.
When he found he loved this young neighbor of theirs, and that she loved him, the first flush of happiness made all life look easier. They had been engaged six months—and it was beginning to dawn upon the young man that it might be six years—or sixteen years—before he could marry.
He could not sell the business—and if he could, he knew of no better way to take care of his family. The girls did not marry, and even when they did, he had figured this out to a dreary certainty, he would still not be free. To pay the mortgages off, and keep up the house, even without his sisters, would require all the money the store would bring in for some six years ahead. The young man set his teeth hard and turned his head sharply toward the road.
And there was Diantha.
She stood at the gate and smiled at him. He sprang to his feet, headacheless for the moment, and joined her. Mrs. Warden, from the lounge by her bedroom window, saw them move off together, and sighed.
“Poor Roscoe!” she said to herself. “It is very hard for him. But he carries his difficulties nobly. He is a son to be proud of.” And she wept a little.
Diantha slipped her hand in his offered arm—he clasped it warmly with his, and they walked along together.
“You won't come in and see mother and the girls?”
“No, thank you; not this time. I must get home and get supper. Besides, I'd rather see just you.”
He felt it a pity that there were so many houses along the road here, but squeezed her hand, anyhow.
She looked at him keenly. “Headache?” she asked.
“Yes; it's nothing; it's gone already.”
“Worry?” she asked.
“Yes, I suppose it is,” he answered. “But I ought not to worry. I've got a good home, a good mother, good sisters, and—you!” And he took advantage of a high hedge and an empty lot on either side of them.
Diantha returned his kiss affectionately enough, but seemed preoccupied, and walked in silence till he asked her what she was thinking about.
“About you, of course,” she answered, brightly. “There are things I want to say; and yet—I ought not to.”
“You can say anything on earth to me,” he answered.
“You are twenty-four,” she began, musingly.
“Admitted at once.”
“And I'm twenty-one and a half.”
“That's no such awful revelation, surely!”
“And we've been engaged ever since my birthday,” the girl pursued.
“All these are facts, dearest.”
“Now, Ross, will you be perfectly frank with me? May I ask you an—an impertinent question?”
“You may ask me any question you like; it couldn't be impertinent.”
“You'll be scandalised, I know—but—well, here goes. What would you think if Madeline—or any of the girls—should go away to work?”
He looked at her lovingly, but with a little smile on his firm mouth.
“I shouldn't allow it,” he said.
“O—allow it? I asked you what you'd think.”
“I should think it was a disgrace to the family, and a direct reproach to me,” he answered. “But it's no use talking about that. None of the girls have any such foolish notion. And I wouldn't permit it if they had.”
Diantha smiled. “I suppose you never would permit your wife to work?”
“My widow might have to—not my wife.” He held his fine head a trifle higher, and her hand ached for a moment.
“Wouldn't you let me work—to help you, Ross?”
“My dearest girl, you've got something far harder than that to do for me, and that's wait.”
His face darkened again, and he passed his hand over his forehead. “Sometimes I feel as if I ought not to hold you at all!” he burst out, bitterly. “You ought to be free to marry a better man.”
“There aren't any!” said Diantha, shaking her head slowly from side to side. “And if there were—millions—I wouldn't marry any of 'em. I love you,” she firmly concluded.
“Then we'll just wait,” said he, setting his teeth on the word, as if he would crush it. “It won't be hard with you to help. You're better worth it than Rachael and Leah together.” They walked a few steps silently.
“But how about science?” she asked him.
“I don't let myself think of it. I'll take that up later. We're young enough, both of us, to wait for our happiness.”
“And have you any idea—we might as well face the worst—how many years do you think that will be, dearest?”
He was a little annoyed at her persistence. Also, though he would not admit the thought, it did not seem quite the thing for her to ask. A woman should not seek too definite a period of waiting. She ought to trust—to just wait on general principles.
“I can face a thing better if I know just what I'm facing,” said the girl, quietly, “and I'd wait for you, if I had to, all my life. Will it be twenty years, do you think?”
He looked relieved. “Why, no, indeed, darling. It oughtn't to be at the outside more than five. Or six,” he added, honest though reluctant.
“You see, father had no time to settle anything; there were outstanding accounts, and the funeral expenses, and the mortgages. But the business is good; and I can carry it; I can build it up.” He shook his broad shoulders determinedly. “I should think it might be within five, perhaps even less. Good things happen sometimes—such as you, my heart's delight.”
They were at her gate now, and she stood a little while to say good-night. A step inside there was a seat, walled in by evergreen, roofed over by the wide acacia boughs. Many a long good-night had they exchanged there, under the large, brilliant California moon. They sat there, silent, now.
Diantha's heart was full of love for him, and pride and confidence in him; but it was full of other feelings, too, which he could not fathom. His trouble was clearer to her than to him; as heavy to bear. To her mind, trained in all the minutiae of domestic economy, the Warden family lived in careless wastefulness. That five women—for Dora was older than she had been when she began to do housework—should require servants, seemed to this New England-born girl mere laziness and pride. That two voting women over twenty should prefer being supported by their brother to supporting themselves, she condemned even more sharply. Moreover, she felt well assured that with a different family to “support,” Mr. Warden would never have broken down so suddenly and irrecoverably. Even that funeral—her face hardened as she thought of the conspicuous “lot,” the continual flowers, the monument (not wholly paid for yet, that monument, though this she did not know)—all that expenditure to do honor to the man they had worked to death (thus brutally Diantha put it) was probably enough to put off their happiness for a whole year.
She rose at last, her hand still held in his. “I'm sorry, but I've got to get supper, dear,” she said, “and you must go. Good-night for the present; you'll be round by and by?”
“Yes, for a little while, after we close up,” said he, and took himself off, not too suddenly, walking straight and proud while her eyes were on him, throwing her a kiss from the corner; but his step lagging and his headache settling down upon him again as he neared the large house with the cupola.
Diantha watched him out of sight, turned and marched up the path to her own door, her lips set tight, her well-shaped head as straightly held as his. “It's a shame, a cruel, burning shame!” she told herself rebelliously. “A man of his ability. Why, he could do anything, in his own work! And he loved it so!
“To keep a grocery store!!!!!
“And nothing to show for all that splendid effort!”
“They don't do a thing? They just live—and 'keep house!' All those women!
“Six years? Likely to be sixty! But I'm not going to wait!”