The brooding bird fulfills her task, Or she-bear lean and brown; All parent beasts see duty true, All parent beasts their duty do, We are the only kind that asks For duty upside down.
The stiff-rayed windmill stood like a tall mechanical flower, turning slowly in the light afternoon wind; its faint regular metallic squeak pricked the dry silence wearingly. Rampant fuchsias, red-jewelled, heavy, ran up its framework, with crowding heliotrope and nasturtiums. Thick straggling roses hung over the kitchen windows, and a row of dusty eucalyptus trees rustled their stiff leaves, and gave an ineffectual shade to the house.
It was one of those small frame houses common to the northeastern states, which must be dear to the hearts of their dwellers. For no other reason, surely, would the cold grey steep-roofed little boxes be repeated so faithfully in the broad glow of a semi-tropical landscape. There was an attempt at a “lawn,” the pet ambition of the transplanted easterner; and a further attempt at “flower-beds,” which merely served as a sort of springboard to their far-reaching products.
The parlor, behind the closed blinds, was as New England parlors are; minus the hint of cosiness given by even a fireless stove; the little bedrooms baked under the roof; only the kitchen spoke of human living, and the living it portrayed was not, to say the least, joyous. It was clean, clean with a cleanness that spoke of conscientious labor and unremitting care. The zinc mat under the big cook-stove was scoured to a dull glimmer, while that swart altar itself shone darkly from its daily rubbing.
There was no dust nor smell of dust; no grease spots, no litter anywhere. But the place bore no atmosphere of contented pride, as does a Dutch, German or French kitchen, it spoke of Labor, Economy and Duty—under restriction.
In the dead quiet of the afternoon Diantha and her mother sat there sewing. The sun poured down through the dangling eucalyptus leaves. The dry air, rich with flower odors, flowed softly in, pushing the white sash curtains a steady inch or two. Ee-errr!—Ee-errr!—came the faint whine of the windmill.
To the older woman rocking in her small splint chair by the rose-draped window, her thoughts dwelling on long dark green grass, the shade of elms, and cows knee-deep in river-shallows; this was California—hot, arid, tedious in endless sunlight—a place of exile.
To the younger, the long seam of the turned sheet pinned tightly to her knee, her needle flying firmly and steadily, and her thoughts full of pouring moonlight through acacia boughs and Ross's murmured words, it was California—rich, warm, full of sweet bloom and fruit, of boundless vitality, promise, and power—home!
Mrs. Bell drew a long weary sigh, and laid down her work for a moment.
“Why don't you stop it Mother dear? There's surely no hurry about these things.”
“No—not particularly,” her mother answered, “but there's plenty else to do.” And she went on with the long neat hemming. Diantha did the “over and over seam” up the middle.
“What do you do it for anyway, Mother—I always hated this job—and you don't seem to like it.”
“They wear almost twice as long, child, you know. The middle gets worn and the edges don't. Now they're reversed. As to liking it—” She gave a little smile, a smile that was too tired to be sarcastic, but which certainly did not indicate pleasure.
“What kind of work do you like best—really?” her daughter inquired suddenly, after a silent moment or two.
“Why—I don't know,” said her mother. “I never thought of it. I never tried any but teaching. I didn't like that. Neither did your Aunt Esther, but she's still teaching.”
“Didn't you like any of it?” pursued Diantha.
“I liked arithmetic best. I always loved arithmetic, when I went to school—used to stand highest in that.”
“And what part of housework do you like best?” the girl persisted.
Mrs. Bell smiled again, wanly. “Seems to me sometimes as if I couldn't tell sometimes what part I like least!” she answered. Then with sudden heat—“O my Child! Don't you marry till Ross can afford at least one girl for you!”
Diantha put her small, strong hands behind her head and leaned back in her chair. “We'll have to wait some time for that I fancy,” she said. “But, Mother, there is one part you like—keeping accounts! I never saw anything like the way you manage the money, and I believe you've got every bill since you were married.”
“Yes—I do love accounts,” Mrs. Bell admitted. “And I can keep run of things. I've often thought your Father'd have done better if he'd let me run that end of his business.”
Diantha gave a fierce little laugh. She admired her father in some ways, enjoyed him in some ways, loved him as a child does if not ill-treated; but she loved her mother with a sort of passionate pity mixed with pride; feeling always nobler power in her than had ever had a fair chance to grow. It seemed to her an interminable dull tragedy; this graceful, eager, black-eyed woman, spending what to the girl was literally a lifetime, in the conscientious performance of duties she did not love.
She knew her mother's idea of duty, knew the clear head, the steady will, the active intelligence holding her relentlessly to the task; the chafe and fret of seeing her husband constantly attempting against her judgment, and failing for lack of the help he scorned. Young as she was, she realized that the nervous breakdown of these later years was wholly due to that common misery of “the square man in the round hole.”
She folded her finished sheet in accurate lines and laid it away—taking her mother's also. “Now you sit still for once, Mother dear, read or lie down. Don't you stir till supper's ready.”
And from pantry to table she stepped, swiftly and lightly, setting out what was needed, greased her pans and set them before her, and proceeded to make biscuit.
Her mother watched her admiringly. “How easy you do it!” she said. “I never could make bread without getting flour all over me. You don't spill a speck!”
Diantha smiled. “I ought to do it easily by this time. Father's got to have hot bread for supper—or thinks he has!—and I've made 'em—every night when I was at home for this ten years back!”
“I guess you have,” said Mrs. Bell proudly. “You were only eleven when you made your first batch. I can remember just as well! I had one of my bad headaches that night—and it did seem as if I couldn't sit up! But your Father's got to have his biscuit whether or no. And you said, 'Now Mother you lie right still on that sofa and let me do it! I can!' And you could!—you did! They were bettern' mine that first time—and your Father praised 'em—and you've been at it ever since.”
“Yes,” said Diantha, with a deeper note of feeling than her mother caught, “I've been at it ever since!”
“Except when you were teaching school,” pursued her mother.
“Except when I taught school at Medville,” Diantha corrected. “When I taught here I made 'em just the same.”
“So you did,” agreed her mother. “So you did! No matter how tired you were—you wouldn't admit it. You always were the best child!”
“If I was tired it was not of making biscuits anyhow. I was tired enough of teaching school though. I've got something to tell you, presently, Mother.”
She covered the biscuits with a light cloth and set them on the shelf over the stove; then poked among the greasewood roots to find what she wanted and started a fire. “Why don't you get an oil stove? Or a gasoline? It would be a lot easier.”
“Yes,” her mother agreed. “I've wanted one for twenty years; but you know your Father won't have one in the house. He says they're dangerous. What are you going to tell me, dear? I do hope you and Ross haven't quarrelled.”
“No indeed we haven't, Mother. Ross is splendid. Only—”
“Only what, Dinah?”
“Only he's so tied up!” said the girl, brushing every chip from the hearth. “He's perfectly helpless there, with that mother of his—and those four sisters.”
“Ross is a good son,” said Mrs. Bell, “and a good brother. I never saw a better. He's certainly doing his duty. Now if his father'd lived you two could have got married by this time maybe, though you're too young yet.”
Diantha washed and put away the dishes she had used, saw that the pantry was in its usual delicate order, and proceeded to set the table, with light steps and no clatter of dishes.
“I'm twenty-one,” she said.
“Yes, you're twenty-one,” her mother allowed. “It don't seem possible, but you are. My first baby!” she looked at her proudly.
“If Ross has to wait for all those girls to marry—and to pay his father's debts—I'll be old enough,” said Diantha grimly.
Her mother watched her quick assured movements with admiration, and listened with keen sympathy. “I know it's hard, dear child. You've only been engaged six months—and it looks as if it might be some years before Ross'll be able to marry. He's got an awful load for a boy to carry alone.”
“I should say he had!” Diantha burst forth. “Five helpless women!—or three women, and two girls. Though Cora's as old as I was when I began to teach. And not one of 'em will lift a finger to earn her own living.”
“They weren't brought up that way,” said Mrs. Bell. “Their mother don't approve of it. She thinks the home is the place for a woman—and so does Ross—and so do I,” she added rather faintly.
Diantha put her pan of white puff-balls into the oven, sliced a quantity of smoked beef in thin shavings, and made white sauce for it, talking the while as if these acts were automatic. “I don't agree with Mrs. Warden on that point, nor with Ross, nor with you, Mother,” she said, “What I've got to tell you is this—I'm going away from home. To work.”
Mrs. Bell stopped rocking, stopped fanning, and regarded her daughter with wide frightened eyes.
“Why Diantha!” she said. “Why Diantha! You wouldn't go and leave your Mother!”
Diantha drew a deep breath and stood for a moment looking at the feeble little woman in the chair. Then she went to her, knelt down and hugged her close—close.
“It's not because I don't love you, Mother. It's because I do. And it's not because I don't love Ross either:—it's because I do. I want to take care of you, Mother, and make life easier for you as long as you live. I want to help him—to help carry that awful load—and I'm going—to—do—it!”
She stood up hastily, for a step sounded on the back porch. It was only her sister, who hurried in, put a dish on the table, kissed her mother and took another rocking-chair.
“I just ran in,” said she, “to bring those berries. Aren't they beauties? The baby's asleep. Gerald hasn't got in yet. Supper's all ready, and I can see him coming time enough to run back. Why, Mother! What's the matter? You're crying!”
“Am I?” asked Mrs. Bell weakly; wiping her eyes in a dazed way.
“What are you doing to Mother, Diantha?” demanded young Mrs. Peters. “Bless me! I thought you and she never had any differences! I was always the black sheep, when I was at home. Maybe that's why I left so early!”
She looked very pretty and complacent, this young matron and mother of nineteen; and patted the older woman's hand affectionately, demanding, “Come—what's the trouble?”
“You might as well know now as later,” said her sister. “I have decided to leave home, that's all.”
“To leave home!” Mrs. Peters sat up straight and stared at her. “To leave home!—And Mother!”
“Well?” said Diantha, while the tears rose and ran over from her mother's eyes. “Well, why not? You left home—and Mother—before you were eighteen.”
“That's different!” said her sister sharply. “I left to be married,—to have a home of my own. And besides I haven't gone far! I can see Mother every day.”
“That's one reason I can go now better than later on,” Diantha said. “You are close by in case of any trouble.”
“What on earth are you going for? Ross isn't ready to marry yet, is he?”
“No—nor likely to be for years. That's another reason I'm going.”
“But what for, for goodness sake.”
“To earn money—for one thing.”
“Can't you earn money enough by teaching?” the Mother broke in eagerly. “I know you haven't got the same place this fall—but you can get another easy enough.”
Diantha shook her head. “No, Mother, I've had enough of that. I've taught for four years. I don't like it, I don't do well, and it exhausts me horribly. And I should never get beyond a thousand or fifteen hundred dollars a year if I taught for a lifetime.”
“Well, I declare!” said her sister. “What do you expect to get? I should think fifteen hundred dollars a year was enough for any woman!”
Diantha peered into the oven and turned her biscuit pan around.
“And you're meaning to leave home just to make money, are you?”
“Why not?” said Diantha firmly. “Henderson did—when he was eighteen. None of you blamed him.”
“I don't see what that's got to do with it,” her mother ventured. “Henderson's a boy, and boys have to go, of course. A mother expects that. But a girl—Why, Diantha! How can I get along without you! With my health!”
“I should think you'd be ashamed of yourself to think of such a thing!” said young Mrs. Peters.
A slow step sounded outside, and an elderly man, tall, slouching, carelessly dressed, entered, stumbling a little over the rag-mat at the door.
“Father hasn't got used to that rug in fourteen years!” said his youngest daughter laughingly. “And Mother will straighten it out after him! I'm bringing Gerald up on better principles. You should just see him wait on me!”
“A man should be master in his own household,” Mr. Bell proclaimed, raising a dripping face from the basin and looking around for the towel—which his wife handed him.
“You won't have much household to be master of presently,” said Mrs. Peters provokingly. “Half of it's going to leave.”
Mr. Bell came out of his towel and looked from one to the other for some explanation of this attempted joke, “What nonsense are you talking?” he demanded.
“I think it's nonsense myself,” said the pretty young woman—her hand on the doorknob. “But you'd better enjoy those biscuits of Di's while you can—you won't get many more! There's Gerald—good night!” And off she ran.
Diantha set the plateful on the table, puffy, brown, and crisply crusted. “Supper's ready,” she said. “Do sit down, Mother,” and she held the chair for her. “Minnie's quite right, Father, though I meant not to tell you till you'd had supper. I am going away to work.”
Mr. Bell regarded his daughter with a stern, slow stare; not so much surprised as annoyed by an untimely jesting. He ate a hot biscuit in two un-Fletcherized mouthfuls, and put more sugar in his large cup of tea. “You've got your Mother all worked up with your nonsense,” said he. “What are you talking about anyway?”
Diantha met his eyes unflinchingly. He was a tall old man, still handsome and impressive in appearance, had been the head of his own household beyond question, ever since he was left the only son of an idolizing mother. But he had never succeeded in being the head of anything else. Repeated failures in the old New England home had resulted in his ruthlessly selling all the property there; and bringing his delicate wife and three young children to California. Vain were her protests and objections. It would do her good—best place in the world for children—good for nervous complaints too. A wife's duty was to follow her husband, of course. She had followed, willy nilly; and it was good for the children—there was no doubt of that.
Mr. Bell had profited little by his venture. They had the ranch, the flowers and fruit and ample living of that rich soil; but he had failed in oranges, failed in raisins, failed in prunes, and was now failing in wealth-promising hens.
But Mrs. Bell, though an ineffectual housekeeper, did not fail in the children. They had grown up big and vigorous, sturdy, handsome creatures, especially the two younger ones. Diantha was good-looking enough. Roscoe Warden thought her divinely beautiful. But her young strength had been heavily taxed from childhood in that complex process known as “helping mother.” As a little child she had been of constant service in caring for the babies; and early developed such competence in the various arts of house work as filled her mother with fond pride, and even wrung from her father some grudging recognition. That he did not value it more was because he expected such competence in women, all women; it was their natural field of ability, their duty as wives and mothers. Also as daughters. If they failed in it that was by illness or perversity. If they succeeded—that was a matter of course.
He ate another of Diantha's excellent biscuits, his greyish-red whiskers slowly wagging; and continued to eye her disapprovingly. She said nothing, but tried to eat; and tried still harder to make her heart go quietly, her cheeks keep cool, and her eyes dry. Mrs. Bell also strove to keep a cheerful countenance; urged food upon her family; even tried to open some topic of conversation; but her gentle words trailed off into unnoticed silence.
Mr. Bell ate until he was satisfied and betook himself to a comfortable chair by the lamp, where he unfolded the smart local paper and lit his pipe. “When you've got through with the dishes, Diantha,” he said coldly, “I'll hear about this proposition of yours.”
Diantha cleared the table, lowered the leaves, set it back against the wall, spreading the turkey-red cloth upon it. She washed the dishes,—her kettle long since boiling, scalded them, wiped them, set them in their places; washed out the towels, wiped the pan and hung it up, swiftly, accurately, and with a quietness that would have seemed incredible to any mistress of heavy-footed servants. Then with heightened color and firm-set mouth, she took her place by the lamplit table and sat still.
Her mother was patiently darning large socks with many holes—a kind of work she specially disliked. “You'll have to get some new socks, Father,” she ventured, “these are pretty well gone.”
“O they'll do a good while yet,” he replied, not looking at them. “I like your embroidery, my dear.”
That pleased her. She did not like to embroider, but she did like to be praised.
Diantha took some socks and set to work, red-checked and excited, but silent yet. Her mother's needle trembled irregularly under and over, and a tear or two slid down her cheeks.
Finally Mr. Bell laid down his finished paper and his emptied pipe and said, “Now then. Out with it.”
This was not a felicitious opening. It is really astonishing how little diplomacy parents exhibit, how difficult they make it for the young to introduce a proposition. There was nothing for it but a bald statement, so Diantha made it baldly.
“I have decided to leave home and go to work,” she said.
“Don't you have work enough to do at home?” he inquired, with the same air of quizzical superiority which had always annoyed her so intensely, even as a little child.
She would cut short this form of discussion: “I am going away to earn my living. I have given up school-teaching—I don't like it, and, there isn't money enough in it. I have plans—which will speak for themselves later.”
“So,” said Mr. Bell, “Plans all made, eh? I suppose you've considered your Mother in these plans?”
“I have,” said his daughter. “It is largely on her account that I'm going.”
“You think it'll be good for your Mother's health to lose your assistance, do you?”
“I know she'll miss me; but I haven't left the work on her shoulders. I am going to pay for a girl—to do the work I've done. It won't cost you any more, Father; and you'll save some—for she'll do the washing too. You didn't object to Henderson's going—at eighteen. You didn't object to Minnie's going—at seventeen. Why should you object to my going—at twenty-one.”
“I haven't objected—so far,” replied her father. “Have your plans also allowed for the affection and duty you owe your parents?”
“I have done my duty—as well as I know how,” she answered. “Now I am twenty-one, and self-supporting—and have a right to go.”
“O yes. You have a right—a legal right—if that's what you base your idea of a child's duty on! And while you're talking of rights—how about a parent's rights? How about common gratitude! How about what you owe to me—for all the care and pains and cost it's been to bring you up. A child's a rather expensive investment these days.”
Diantha flushed, she had expected this, and yet it struck her like a blow. It was not the first time she had heard it—this claim of filial obligation.
“I have considered that position, Father. I know you feel that way—you've often made me feel it. So I've been at some pains to work it out—on a money basis. Here is an account—as full as I could make it.” She handed him a paper covered with neat figures. The totals read as follows:
Miss Diantha Bell, To Mr. Henderson R. Bell, Dr. To medical and dental expenses... $110.00 To school expenses... $76.00 To clothing, in full... $1,130.00 To board and lodging at $3.00 a week... $2,184.00 To incidentals... $100.00 ———— $3.600.00
He studied the various items carefully, stroking his beard, half in anger, half in unavoidable amusement. Perhaps there was a tender feeling too, as he remembered that doctor's bill—the first he ever paid, with the other, when she had scarlet fever; and saw the exact price of the high chair which had served all three of the children, but of which she magnanimously shouldered the whole expense.
The clothing total was so large that it made him whistle—he knew he had never spent $1,130.00 on one girl's clothes. But the items explained it.
Materials, three years at an average of $10 a year... $30.00 Five years averaging $20 each year... $100.00 Five years averaging $30 each year... $50.00 Five years averaging $50 each year... $250.00 ———- $530.00
The rest was “Mother's labor”, averaging twenty full days a year at $2 a day, $40 a year. For fifteen years, $600.00. Mother's labor—on one child's, clothes—footing up to $600.00. It looked strange to see cash value attached to that unfailing source of family comfort and advantage.
The school expenses puzzled him a bit, for she had only gone to public schools; but she was counting books and slates and even pencils—it brought up evenings long passed by, the sewing wife, the studying children, the “Say, Father, I've got to have a new slate—mine's broke!”
“Broken, Dina,” her Mother would gently correct, while he demanded, “How did you break it?” and scolded her for her careless tomboy ways. Slates—three, $1.50—they were all down. And slates didn't cost so much come to think of it, even the red-edged ones, wound with black, that she always wanted.
Board and lodging was put low, at $3.00 per week, but the items had a footnote as to house-rent in the country, and food raised on the farm. Yes, he guessed that was a full rate for the plain food and bare little bedroom they always had.
“It's what Aunt Esther paid the winter she was here,” said Diantha.
Circuses—three... $1.50 Share in melodeon... $50.00 Yes, she was one of five to use and enjoy it. Music lessons... $30.00
And quite a large margin left here, called miscellaneous, which he smiled to observe made just an even figure, and suspected she had put in for that purpose as well as from generosity.
“This board account looks kind of funny,” he said—“only fourteen years of it!”
“I didn't take table-board—nor a room—the first year—nor much the second. I've allowed $1.00 a week for that, and $2.00 for the third—that takes out two, you see. Then it's $156 a year till I was fourteen and earned board and wages, two more years at $156—and I've paid since I was seventeen, you know.”
“Well—I guess you did—I guess you did.” He grinned genially. “Yes,” he continued slowly, “I guess that's a fair enough account. 'Cording to this, you owe me $3,600.00, young woman! I didn't think it cost that much to raise a girl.”
“I know it,” said she. “But here's the other side.”
It was the other side. He had never once thought of such a side to the case. This account was as clear and honest as the first and full of exasperating detail. She laid before him the second sheet of figures and watched while he read, explaining hurriedly:
“It was a clear expense for ten years—not counting help with the babies. Then I began to do housework regularly—when I was ten or eleven, two hours a day; three when I was twelve and thirteen—real work you'd have had to pay for, and I've only put it at ten cents an hour. When Mother was sick the year I was fourteen, and I did it all but the washing—all a servant would have done for $3.00 a week. Ever since then I have done three hours a day outside of school, full grown work now, at twenty cents an hour. That's what we have to pay here, you know.”
Thus it mounted up:
Mr. Henderson R. Bell, To Miss Diantha Bell, Dr.
For labor and services!!!!!
Two years, two hours a day at 10c. an hour... $146.00 Two years, three hours a day at 10c. an hour... $219.00 One year, full wages at $5.00 a week... $260.00 Six years and a half, three hours a day at 20c... $1423.50 ———— $2048.50
Mr. Bell meditated carefully on these figures. To think of that child's labor footing up to two thousand dollars and over! It was lucky a man had a wife and daughters to do this work, or he could never support a family.
Then came her school-teaching years. She had always been a fine scholar and he had felt very proud of his girl when she got a good school position in her eighteenth year.
California salaries were higher than eastern ones, and times had changed too; the year he taught school he remembered the salary was only $300.00—and he was a man. This girl got $600, next year $700, $800, $900; why it made $3,000 she had earned in four years. Astonishing. Out of this she had a balance in the bank of $550.00. He was pleased to see that she had been so saving. And her clothing account—little enough he admitted for four years and six months, $300.00. All incidentals for the whole time, $50.00—this with her balance made just $900. That left $2,100.00.
“Twenty-one hundred dollars unaccounted for, young lady!—besides this nest egg in the bank—I'd no idea you were so wealthy. What have you done with all that?”
“Given it to you, Father,” said she quietly, and handed him the third sheet of figures.
Board and lodging at $4.00 a week for 4 1/2 years made $936.00, that he could realize; but “cash advance” $1,164 more—he could not believe it. That time her mother was so sick and Diantha had paid both the doctor and the nurse—yes—he had been much cramped that year—and nurses come high. For Henderson, Jr.'s, expenses to San Francisco, and again for Henderson when he was out of a job—Mr. Bell remembered the boy's writing for the money, and his not having it, and Mrs. Bell saying she could arrange with Diantha.
Arrange! And that girl had kept this niggardly account of it! For Minnie's trip to the Yosemite—and what was this?—for his raisin experiment—for the new horse they simply had to have for the drying apparatus that year he lost so much money in apricots—and for the spraying materials—yes, he could not deny the items, and they covered that $1,164.00 exactly.
Then came the deadly balance, of the account between them:
Her labor... $2,047.00 Her board... $936.00 Her “cash advanced”... $1,164.00 ————- $4,147.00 His expense for her... $3,600 ————- Due her from him... $547.00
Diantha revolved her pencil between firm palms, and looked at him rather quizzically; while her mother rocked and darned and wiped away an occasional tear. She almost wished she had not kept accounts so well.
Mr. Bell pushed the papers away and started to his feet.
“This is the most shameful piece of calculation I ever saw in my life,” said he. “I never heard of such a thing! You go and count up in cold dollars the work that every decent girl does for her family and is glad to! I wonder you haven't charged your mother for nursing her?”
“You notice I haven't,” said Diantha coldly.
“And to think,” said he, gripping the back of a chair and looking down at her fiercely, “to think that a girl who can earn nine hundred dollars a year teaching school, and stay at home and do her duty by her family besides, should plan to desert her mother outright—now she's old and sick! Of course I can't stop you! You're of age, and children nowadays have no sense of natural obligation after they're grown up. You can go, of course, and disgrace the family as you propose—but you needn't expect to have me consent to it or approve of it—or of you. It's a shameful thing—and you are an unnatural daughter—that's all I've got to say!”
Mr. Bell took his hat and went out—a conclusive form of punctuation much used by men in discussions of this sort.