Duck! Dive! Here comes another one! Wait till the crest-ruffles show! Beyond is smooth water in beauty and wonder— Shut your mouth! Hold your breath! Dip your head under! Dive through the weight and the wash, and the thunder— Look out for the undertow!
If Diantha imagined that her arithmetical victory over a too-sordid presentation of the parental claim was a final one, she soon found herself mistaken.
It is easy to say—putting an epic in an epigram—“She seen her duty and she done it!” but the space and time covered are generally as far beyond our plans as the estimates of an amateur mountain climber exceed his achievements.
Her determination was not concealed by her outraged family. Possibly they thought that if the matter was well aired, and generally discussed, the daring offender might reconsider. Well-aired it certainly was, and widely discussed by the parents of the little town before young people who sat in dumbness, or made faint defense. It was also discussed by the young people, but not before their parents.
She had told Ross, first of all, meaning to have a quiet talk with him to clear the ground before arousing her own family; but he was suddenly away just as she opened the subject, by a man on a wheel—some wretched business about the store of course—and sent word that night that he could not come up again. Couldn't come up the next night either. Two long days—two long evenings without seeing him. Well—if she went away she'd have to get used to that.
But she had so many things to explain, so much to say to make it right with him; she knew well what a blow it was. Now it was all over town—and she had had no chance to defend her position.
The neighbors called. Tall bony Mrs. Delafield who lived nearest to them and had known Diantha for some years, felt it her duty to make a special appeal—or attack rather; and brought with her stout Mrs. Schlosster, whose ancestors and traditions were evidently of German extraction.
Diantha retired to her room when she saw these two bearing down upon the house; but her mother called her to make a pitcher of lemonade for them—and having entered there was no escape. They harried her with questions, were increasingly offended by her reticence, and expressed disapproval with a fullness that overmastered the girl's self-control.
“I have as much right to go into business as any other citizen, Mrs. Delafield,” she said with repressed intensity. “I am of age and live in a free country. What you say of children no longer applies to me.”
“And what is this mysterious business you're goin' into—if one may inquire? Nothin you're ashamed to mention, I hope?” asked Mrs. Delafield.
“If a woman refuses to mention her age is it because she's ashamed of it?” the girl retorted, and Mrs. Delafield flushed darkly.
“Never have I heard such talk from a maiden to her elders,” said Mrs. Schlosster. “In my country the young have more respect, as is right.”
Mrs. Bell objected inwardly to any reprimand of her child by others; but she agreed to the principle advanced and made no comment.
Diantha listened to quite a volume of detailed criticism, inquiry and condemnation, and finally rose to her feet with the stiff courtesy of the young.
“You must excuse me now,” she said with set lips. “I have some necessary work to do.”
She marched upstairs, shut her bedroom door and locked it, raging inwardly. “Its none of their business! Not a shadow! Why should Mother sit there and let them talk to me like that! One would think childhood had no limit—unless it's matrimony!”
This reminded her of her younger sister's airs of superior wisdom, and did not conduce to a pleasanter frame of mind. “With all their miserable little conventions and idiocies! And what 'they'll say,' and 'they'll think'! As if I cared! Minnie'll be just such another!”
She heard the ladies going out, still talking continuously, a faint response from her mother now and then, a growing quiet as their steps receded toward the gate; and then another deeper voice took up the theme and heavily approached.
It was the minister! Diantha dropped into her rocker and held the arms tight. “Now I'll have to take it again I suppose. But he ought to know me well enough to understand.”
“Diantha!” called her mother, “Here's Dr. Major;” and the girl washed her face and came down again.
Dr. Major was a heavy elderly man with a strong mouth and a warm hand clasp. “What's all this I hear about you, young lady?” he demanded, holding her hand and looking her straight in the eye. “Is this a new kind of Prodigal Daughter we're encountering?”
He did not look nor sound condemnatory, and as she faced him she caught a twinkle in the wise old eyes.
“You can call it that if you want to,” she said, “Only I thought the Prodigal Son just spent his money—I'm going to earn some.”
“I want you to talk to Diantha, Doctor Major,” Mrs. Bell struck in. “I'm going to ask you to excuse me, and go and lie down for a little. I do believe she'll listen to you more than to anybody.”
The mother retired, feeling sure that the good man who had known her daughter for over fifteen years would have a restraining influence now; and Diantha braced herself for the attack.
It came, heavy and solid, based on reason, religion, tradition, the custom of ages, the pastoral habit of control and protection, the father's instinct, the man's objection to a girl's adventure. But it was courteous, kind, and rationally put, and she met it point by point with the whole-souled arguments of a new position, the passionate enthusiasm of her years.
They called a truce.
“I can see that you think its your duty, young, woman—that's the main thing. I think you're wrong. But what you believe to be right you have to do. That's the way we learn my dear, that's the way we learn! Well—you've been a good child ever since I've known you. A remarkably good child. If you have to sow this kind of wild oats—” they both smiled at this, “I guess we can't stop you. I'll keep your secret—”
“Its not a secret really,” the girl explained, “I'll tell them as soon as I'm settled. Then they can tell—if they want to.” And they both smiled again.
“Well—I won't tell till I hear of it then. And—yes, I guess I can furnish that document with a clean conscience.”
She gave him paper and pen and he wrote, with a grin, handing her the result.
She read it, a girlish giggle lightening the atmosphere. “Thank you!” she said earnestly. “Thank you ever so much. I knew you would help me.”
“If you get stuck anywhere just let me know,” he said rising. “This Proddy Gal may want a return ticket yet!”
“I'll walk first!” said Diantha.
“O Dr. Major,” cried her mother from the window, “Don't go! We want you to stay to supper of course!”
But he had other calls to make, he said, and went away, his big hands clasped behind him; his head bent, smiling one minute and shaking his head the next.
Diantha leaned against a pearly eucalyptus trunk and watched him. She would miss Dr. Major. But who was this approaching? Her heart sank miserably. Mrs. Warden—and all the girls.
She went to meet them—perforce. Mrs. Warden had always been kind and courteous to her; the girls she had not seen very much of, but they had the sweet Southern manner, were always polite. Ross's mother she must love. Ross's sisters too—if she could. Why did the bottom drop out of her courage at sight of them?
“You dear child!” said Mrs. Warden, kissing her. “I know just how you feel! You want to help my boy! That's your secret! But this won't do it, my dear!”
“You've no idea how badly Ross feels!” said Madeline. “Mrs. Delafield dropped in just now and told us. You ought to have seen him!”
“He didn't believe it of course,” Adeline put in. “And he wouldn't say a thing—not a thing to blame you.”
“We said we'd come over right off—and tried to bring him—but he said he'd got to go back to the store,” Coraline explained.
“He was mad though!” said Dora—“I know.”
Diantha looked from one to the other helplessly.
“Come in! Come in!” said Mrs. Bell hospitably. “Have this rocker, Mrs. Warden—wouldn't you like some cool drink? Diantha?”
“No indeed!” Mrs. Warden protested. “Don't get a thing. We're going right back, it's near supper time. No, we can't think of staying, of course not, no indeed!—But we had to come over and hear about this dear child's idea!—Now tell us all about it, Diantha!”
There they sat—five pairs of curious eyes—and her mother's sad ones—all kind—all utterly incapable of understanding.
She moistened her lips and plunged desperately. “It is nothing dreadful, Mrs. Warden. Plenty of girls go away to earn their livings nowadays. That is all I'm doing.”
“But why go away?”
“I thought you were earning your living before!”
“Isn't teaching earning your living?”
“What are you going to do?” the girls protested variously, and Mrs. Warden, with a motherly smile, suggested!!!!!
“That doesn't explain your wanting to leave Ross, my dear—and your mother!”
“I don't want to leave them,” protested Diantha, trying to keep her voice steady. “It is simply that I have made up my mind I can do better elsewhere.”
“Do what better?” asked Mrs. Warden with sweet patience, which reduced Diantha to the bald statement, “Earn more money in less time.”
“And is that better than staying with your mother and your lover?” pursued the gentle inquisitor; while the girls tried, “What do you want to earn more money for?” and “I thought you earned a lot before.”
Now Diantha did not wish to state in so many words that she wanted more money in order to marry sooner—she had hardly put it to herself that way. She could not make them see in a few moments that her plan was to do far more for her mother than she would otherwise ever be able to. And as to making them understand the larger principles at stake—the range and depth of her full purpose—that would be physically impossible.
“I am sorry!” she said with trembling lips. “I am extremely sorry. But—I cannot explain!”
Mrs. Warden drew herself up a little. “Cannot explain to me?—Your mother, of course, knows?”
“Diantha is naturally more frank with me than with—anyone,” said Mrs. Bell proudly, “But she does not wish her—business—plans—made public at present!”
Her daughter looked at her with vivid gratitude, but the words “made public” were a little unfortunate perhaps.
“Of course,” Mrs. Warden agreed, with her charming smile, “that we can quite understand. I'm sure I should always wish my girls to feel so. Madeline—just show Mrs. Bell that necktie you're making—she was asking about the stitch, you remember.”
The necktie was produced and admired, while the other girls asked Diantha if she had her fall dressmaking done yet—and whether she found wash ribbon satisfactory. And presently the whole graceful family withdrew, only Dora holding her head with visible stiffness.
Diantha sat on the floor by her mother, put her head in her lap and cried. “How splendid of you, Mother!” she sobbed. “How simply splendid! I will tell you now—if—if—you won't tell even Father—yet.”
“Dear child” said her Mother, “I'd rather not know in that case. It is—easier.”
“That's what I kept still for!” said the girl. “It's hard enough, goodness knows—as it is! Its nothing wicked, or even risky, Mother dear—and as far as I can see it is right!”
Her mother smiled through her tears. “If you say that, my dear child, I know there's no stopping you. And I hate to argue with you—even for your own sake, because it is so much to my advantage to have you here. I—shall miss you—Diantha!”
“Don't, Mother!” sobbed the girl.
“Its natural for the young to go. We expect it—in time. But you are so young yet—and—well, I had hoped the teaching would satisfy you till Ross was ready.”
Diantha sat up straight.
“Mother! can't you see Ross'll never be ready! Look at that family! And the way they live! And those mortgages! I could wait and teach and save a little even with Father always losing money; but I can't see Ross wearing himself out for years and years—I just can't bear it!”
Her mother stroked her fair hair softly, not surprised that her own plea was so lost in thought of the brave young lover.
“And besides,” the girl went on “If I waited—and saved—and married Ross—what becomes of you, I'd like to know? What I can't stand is to have you grow older and sicker—and never have any good time in all your life!”
Mrs. Bell smiled tenderly. “You dear child!” she said; as if an affectionate five-year old had offered to get her a rainbow, “I know you mean it all for the best. But, O my dearest! I'd rather have you—here—at home with me—-than any other 'good time' you can imagine!”
She could not see the suffering in her daughter's face; but she felt she had made an impression, and followed it up with heart-breaking sincerity. She caught the girl to her breast and held her like a little child. “O my baby! my baby! Don't leave your mother. I can't bear it!”
A familiar step outside, heavy, yet uncertain, and they both looked at each other with frightened eyes.
They had forgotten the biscuit.
“Supper ready?” asked Mr. Bell, with grim humor.
“It will be in a moment, Father,” cried Diantha springing to her feet. “At least—in a few moments.”
“Don't fret the child, Father,” said Mrs. Henderson softly. “She's feeling bad enough.”
“Sh'd think she would,” replied her husband. “Moreover—to my mind—she ought to.”
He got out the small damp local paper and his pipe, and composed himself in obvious patience: yet somehow this patience seemed to fill the kitchen, and to act like a ball and chain to Diantha's feet.
She got supper ready, at last, making griddle-cakes instead of biscuit, and no comment was made of the change: but the tension in the atmosphere was sharply felt by the two women; and possibly by the tall old man, who ate less than usual, and said absolutely nothing.
“I'm going over to see Edwards about that new incubator,” he said when the meal was over, and departed; and Mrs. Bell, after trying in vain to do her mending, wiped her clouded glasses and went to bed.
Diantha made all neat and tidy; washed her own wet eyes again, and went out under the moon. In that broad tender mellow light she drew a deep breath and stretched her strong young arms toward the sky in dumb appeal.
“I knew it would be hard,” she murmured to herself, “That is I knew the facts—but I didn't know the feeling!”
She stood at the gate between the cypresses, sat waiting under the acacia boughs, walked restlessly up and down the path outside, the dry pepper berries crush softly under foot; bracing herself for one more struggle—and the hardest of all.
“He will understand!” he told herself, over and over, but at the bottom of her heart she knew he wouldn't.
He came at last; a slower, wearier step than usual; came and took both her hands in his and stood holding them, looking at her questioningly. Then he held her face between his palms and made her look at him. Her eyes were brave and steady, but the mouth trembled in spite of her.
He stilled it with a kiss, and drew her to a seat on the bench beside him. “My poor Little Girl! You haven't had a chance yet to really tell me about this thing, and I want you to right now. Then I'm going to kill about forty people in this town! Somebody has been mighty foolish.”
She squeezed his hand, but found it very difficult to speak. His love, his sympathy, his tenderness, were so delicious after this day's trials—and before those further ones she could so well anticipate. She didn't wish to cry any more, that would by no means strengthen her position, and she found she couldn't seem to speak without crying.
“One would think to hear the good people of this town that you were about to leave home and mother for—well, for a trip to the moon!” he added. “There isn't any agreement as to what you're going to do, but they're unanimous as to its being entirely wrong. Now suppose you tell me about it.”
“I will,” said Diantha. “I began to the other night, you know, you first of course—it was too bad! your having to go off at that exact moment. Then I had to tell mother—because—well you'll see presently. Now dear—just let me say it all—before you—do anything.”
“Say away, my darling. I trust you perfectly.”
She flashed a grateful look at him. “It is this way, my dear. I have two, three, yes four, things to consider:—My own personal problem—my family's—yours—and a social one.”
“My family's?” he asked, with a faint shade of offence in his tone.
“No no dear—your own,” she explained.
“Better cut mine out, Little Girl,” he said. “I'll consider that myself.”
“Well—I won't talk about it if you don't want me to. There are the other three.”
“I won't question your second, nor your imposing third, but isn't the first one—your own personal problem—a good deal answered?” he suggested, holding her close for a moment.
“Don't!” she said. “I can't talk straight when you put it that way.”
She rose hurriedly and took a step or two up and down. “I don't suppose—in spite of your loving me, that I can make you see it as I do. But I'll be just as clear as I can. There are some years before us before we can be together. In that time I intend to go away and undertake a business I am interested in. My purpose is to—develop the work, to earn money, to help my family, and to—well, not to hinder you.”
“I don't understand, I confess,” he said. “Don't you propose to tell me what this 'work' is?”
“Yes—I will—certainly. But not yet dear! Let me try to show you how I feel about it.”
“Wait,” said he. “One thing I want to be sure of. Are you doing this with any quixotic notion of helping me—in my business? Helping me to take care of my family? Helping me to—” he stood up now, looking very tall and rather forbidding, “No, I won't say that to you.”
“Would there be anything wrong in my meaning exactly that?” she asked, holding her own head a little higher; “both what you said and what you didn't?”
“It would be absolutely wrong, all of it,” he answered. “I cannot believe that the woman I love would—could take such a position.”
“Look here, Ross!” said the girl earnestly. “Suppose you knew where there was a gold mine—knew it—and by going away for a few years you could get a real fortune—wouldn't you do it?”
“Naturally I should,” he agreed.
“Well, suppose it wasn't a gold mine, but a business, a new system like those cigar stores—or—some patent amusement specialty—or anything—that you knew was better than what you're doing—wouldn't you have a right to try it?”
“Of course I should—but what has that to do with this case?”
“Why it's the same thing! Don't you see? I have plans that will be of real benefit to all of us, something worth while to do—and not only for us but for everybody—a real piece of progress—and I'm going to leave my people—and even you!—for a little while—to make us all happier later on.”
He smiled lovingly at her but shook his head slowly. “You dear, brave, foolish child!” he said. “I don't for one moment doubt your noble purposes. But you don't get the man's point of view—naturally. What's more you don't seem to get the woman's.”
“Can you see no other point of view than those?” she asked.
“There are no others,” he answered. “Come! come! my darling, don't add this new difficulty to what we've got to carry! I know you have a hard time of it at home. Some day, please God, you shall have an easier one! And I'm having a hard time too—I don't deny it. But you are the greatest joy and comfort I have, dear—you know that. If you go away—it will be harder and slower and longer—that's all. I shall have you to worry about too. Let somebody else do the gold-mine, dear—you stay here and comfort your Mother as long as you can—and me. How can I get along without you?”
He tried to put his arm around her again, but she drew back. “Dear,” she said. “If I deliberately do what I think is right—against your wishes—what will you do?”
“Do?” The laughed bitterly. “What can I do? I'm tied by the leg here—I can't go after you. I've nothing to pull you out of a scrape with if you get in one. I couldn't do anything but—stand it.”
“And if I go ahead, and do what you don't like—and make you—suffer—would you—would you rather be free?” Her voice was very low and shaken, but he heard her well enough.
“Free of you? Free of you?” He caught her and held her and kissed her over and over.
“You are mine!” he said. “You have given yourself to me! You cannot leave me. Neither of us is free—ever again.” But she struggled away from him.
“Both of us are free—to do what we think right, always Ross! I wouldn't try to stop you if you thought it was your duty to go to the North Pole!” She held him a little way off. “Let me tell you, dear. Sit down—let me tell you all about it.” But he wouldn't sit down.
“I don't think I want to know the details,” he said. “It doesn't much matter what you're going to do—if you really go away. I can't stop you—I see that. If you think this thing is your 'duty' you'll do it if it kills us all—and you too! If you have to go—I shall do nothing—can do nothing—but wait till you come back to me! Whatever happens, darling—no matter how you fail—don't ever be afraid to come back to me.”
He folded his arms now—did not attempt to hold her—gave her the freedom she asked and promised her the love she had almost feared to lose—and her whole carefully constructed plan seemed like a child's sand castle for a moment; her heroic decision the wildest folly.
He was not even looking at her; she saw his strong, clean-cut profile dark against the moonlit house, a settled patience in its lines. Duty! Here was duty, surely, with tenderest happiness. She was leaning toward him—her hand was seeking his, when she heard through the fragrant silence a sound from her mother's room—the faint creak of her light rocking chair. She could not sleep—she was sitting up with her trouble, bearing it quietly as she had so many others.
The quiet everyday tragedy of that distasteful life—the slow withering away of youth and hope and ambition into a gray waste of ineffectual submissive labor—not only of her life, but of thousands upon thousands like her—it all rose up like a flood in the girl's hot young heart.
Ross had turned to her—was holding out his arms to her. “You won't go, my darling!” he said.
“I am going Wednesday on the 7.10,” said Diantha.