“Lovest thou me?” said the Fair Ladye; And the Lover he said, “Yea!” “Then climb this tree—for my sake,” said she, “And climb it every day!” So from dawn till dark he abrazed the bark And wore his clothes away; Till, “What has this tree to do with thee?” The Lover at last did say.
It was a poor dinner. Cold in the first place, because Isabel would wait to thoroughly wash her long artistic hands; and put on another dress. She hated the smell of cooking in her garments; hated it worse on her white fingers; and now to look at the graceful erect figure, the round throat with the silver necklace about it, the soft smooth hair, silver-filletted, the negative beauty of the dove-colored gown, specially designed for home evenings, one would never dream she had set the table so well—and cooked the steak so abominably.
Isabel was never a cook. In the many servantless gaps of domestic life in Orchardina, there was always a strained atmosphere in the Porne household.
“Dear,” said Mr. Porne, “might I petition to have the steak less cooked? I know you don't like to do it, so why not shorten the process?”
“I'm sorry,” she answered, “I always forget about the steak from one time to the next.”
“Yet we've had it three times this week, my dear.”
“I thought you liked it better than anything,” she with marked gentleness. “I'll get you other things—oftener.”
“It's a shame you should have this to do, Isabel. I never meant you should cook for me. Indeed I didn't dream you cared so little about it.”
“And I never dreamed you cared so much about it,” she replied, still with repression. “I'm not complaining, am I? I'm only sorry you should be disappointed in me.”
“It's not you, dear girl! You're all right! It's just this everlasting bother. Can't you get anybody that will stay?”
“I can't seem to get anybody on any terms, so far. I'm going again, to-morrow. Cheer up, dear—the baby keeps well—that's the main thing.”
He sat on the rose-bowered porch and smoked while she cleared the table. At first he had tried to help her on these occasions, but their methods were dissimilar and she frankly told him she preferred to do it alone.
So she slipped off the silk and put on the gingham again, washed the dishes with the labored accuracy of a trained mind doing unfamiliar work, made the bread, redressed at last, and joined him about nine o'clock.
“It's too late to go anywhere, I suppose?” he ventured.
“Yes—and I'm too tired. Besides—we can't leave Eddie alone.”
“O yes—I forget. Of course we can't.”
His hand stole out to take hers. “I am sorry, dear. It's awfully rough on you women out here. How do they all stand it?”
“Most of them stand it much better than I do, Ned. You see they don't want to be doing anything else.”
“Yes. That's the mischief of it!” he agreed; and she looked at him in the clear moonlight, wondering exactly what he thought the mischief was.
“Shall we go in and read a bit?” he offered; but she thought not.
“I'm too tired, I'm afraid. And Eddie'll wake up as soon as we begin.”
So they sat awhile enjoying the soft silence, and the rich flower scents about them, till Eddie did wake presently, and Isabel went upstairs.
She slept little that night, lying quite still, listening to her husband's regular breathing so near her, and the lighter sound from the crib. “I am a very happy woman,” she told herself resolutely; but there was no outpouring sense of love and joy. She knew she was happy, but by no means felt it. So she stared at the moon shadows and thought it over.
She had planned the little house herself, with such love, such hope, such tender happy care! Not her first work, which won high praise in the school in Paris, not the prize-winning plan for the library, now gracing Orchardina's prettiest square, was as dear to her as this most womanly task—the making of a home.
It was the library success which brought her here, fresh from her foreign studies, and Orchardina accepted with western cordiality the youth and beauty of the young architect, though a bit surprised at first that “I. H. Wright” was an Isabel. In her further work of overseeing the construction of that library, she had met Edgar Porne, one of the numerous eager young real estate men of that region, who showed a liberal enthusiasm for the general capacity of women in the professions, and a much warmer feeling for the personal attractions of this one.
Together they chose the lot on pepper-shaded Inez Avenue; together they watched the rising of the concrete walls and planned the garden walks and seats, and the tiny precious pool in the far corner. He was so sympathetic! so admiring! He took as much pride in the big “drawing room” on the third floor as she did herself. “Architecture is such fine work to do at home!” they had both agreed. “Here you have your north light—your big table—plenty of room for work! You will grow famouser and famouser,” he had lovingly insisted. And she had answered, “I fear I shall be too contented, dear, to want to be famous.”
That was only some year and a-half ago,—but Isabel, lying there by her sleeping husband and sleeping child, was stark awake and only by assertion happy. She was thinking, persistently, of dust. She loved a delicate cleanliness. Her art was a precise one, her studio a workshop of white paper and fine pointed hard pencils, her painting the mechanical perfection of an even wash of color. And she saw, through the floors and walls and the darkness, the dust in the little shaded parlor—two days' dust at least, and Orchardina is very dusty!—dust in the dining-room gathered since yesterday—the dust in the kitchen—she would not count time there, and the dust—here she counted it inexorably—the dust of eight days in her great, light workroom upstairs. Eight days since she had found time to go up there.
Lying there, wide-eyed and motionless, she stood outside in thought and looked at the house—as she used to look at it with him, before they were married. Then, it had roused every blessed hope and dream of wedded joy—it seemed a casket of uncounted treasures. Now, in this dreary mood, it seemed not only a mere workshop, but one of alien tasks, continuous, impossible, like those set for the Imprisoned Princess by bad fairies in the old tales. In thought she entered the well-proportioned door—the Gate of Happiness—and a musty smell greeted her—she had forgotten to throw out those flowers! She turned to the parlor—no, the piano keys were gritty, one had to clean them twice a day to keep that room as she liked it.
From room to room she flitted, in her mind, trying to recall the exquisite things they meant to her when she had planned them; and each one now opened glaring and blank, as a place to work in—and the work undone.
“If I were an abler woman!” she breathed. And then her common sense and common honesty made her reply to herself: “I am able enough—in my own work! Nobody can do everything. I don't believe Edgar'd do it any better than I do.—He don't have to!”—and then such a wave of bitterness rushed over her that she was afraid, and reached out one hand to touch the crib—the other to her husband.
He awakened instantly. “What is it, Dear?” he asked. “Too tired to sleep, you poor darling? But you do love me a little, don't you?”
“O yes!” she answered. “I do. Of course I do! I'm just tired, I guess. Goodnight, Sweetheart.”
She was late in getting to sleep and late in waking.
When he finally sat down to the hurriedly spread breakfast-table, Mr. Porne, long coffeeless, found it a bit difficult to keep his temper. Isabel was a little stiff, bringing in dishes and cups, and paying no attention to the sounds of wailing from above.
“Well if you won't I will!” burst forth the father at last, and ran upstairs, returning presently with a fine boy of some eleven months, who ceased to bawl in these familiar arms, and contented himself, for the moment, with a teaspoon.
“Aren't you going to feed him?” asked Mr. Porne, with forced patience.
“It isn't time yet,” she announced wearily. “He has to have his bath first.”
“Well,” with a patience evidently forced farther, “isn't it time to feed me?”
“I'm very sorry,” she said. “The oatmeal is burned again. You'll have to eat cornflakes. And—the cream is sour—the ice didn't come—or at least, perhaps I was out when it came—and then I forgot it..... I had to go to the employment agency in the morning!.... I'm sorry I'm so—so incompetent.”
“So am I,” he commented drily. “Are there any crackers for instance? And how about coffee?”
She brought the coffee, such as it was, and a can of condensed milk. Also crackers, and fruit. She took the baby and sat silent.
“Shall I come home to lunch?” he asked.
“Perhaps you'd better not,” she replied coldly.
“Is there to be any dinner?”
“Dinner will be ready at six-thirty, if I have to get it myself.”
“If you have to get it yourself I'll allow for seven-thirty,” said he, trying to be cheerful, though she seemed little pleased by it. “Now don't take it so hard, Ellie. You are a first-class architect, anyhow—one can't be everything. We'll get another girl in time. This is just the common lot out here. All the women have the same trouble.”
“Most women seem better able to meet it!” she burst forth. “It's not my trade! I'm willing to work, I like to work, but I can't bear housework! I can't seem to learn it at all! And the servants will not do it properly!”
“Perhaps they know your limitations, and take advantage of them! But cheer up, dear. It's no killing matter. Order by phone, don't forget the ice, and I'll try to get home early and help. Don't cry, dear girl, I love you, even if you aren't a good cook! And you love me, don't you?”
He kissed her till she had to smile back at him and give him a loving hug; but after he had gone, the gloom settled upon her spirits once more. She bathed the baby, fed him, put him to sleep; and came back to the table. The screen door had been left ajar and the house was buzzing with flies, hot, with a week's accumulating disorder. The bread she made last night in fear and trembling, was hanging fatly over the pans; perhaps sour already. She clapped it into the oven and turned on the heat.
Then she stood, undetermined, looking about that messy kitchen while the big flies bumped and buzzed on the windows, settled on every dish, and swung in giddy circles in the middle of the room. Turning swiftly she shut the door on them. The dining-room was nearly as bad. She began to put the cups and plates together for removal; but set her tray down suddenly and went into the comparative coolness of the parlor, closing the dining-room door behind her.
She was quite tired enough to cry after several nights of broken rest and days of constant discomfort and irritation; but a sense of rising anger kept the tears back.
“Of course I love him!” she said to herself aloud but softly, remembering the baby, “And no doubt he loves me! I'm glad to be his wife! I'm glad to be a mother to his child! I'm glad I married him! But—this is not what he offered! And it's not what I undertook! He hasn't had to change his business!”
She marched up and down the scant space, and then stopped short and laughed drily, continuing her smothered soliloquy.
“'Do you love me?' they ask, and, 'I will make you happy!' they say; and you get married—and after that it's Housework!”
“They don't say, 'Will you be my Cook?' 'Will you be my Chamber maid?' 'Will you give up a good clean well-paid business that you love—that has big hope and power and beauty in it—and come and keep house for me?'”
“Love him? I'd be in Paris this minute if I didn't! What has 'love' to do with dust and grease and flies!”
Then she did drop on the small sofa and cry tempestuously for a little while; but soon arose, fiercely ashamed of her weakness, and faced the day; thinking of the old lady who had so much to do she couldn't think what to first—so she sat down and made a pincushion.
Then—where to begin!
“Eddie will sleep till half-past ten—if I'm lucky. It's now nearly half-past nine,” she meditated aloud. “If I do the upstairs work I might wake him. I mustn't forget the bread, the dishes, the parlor—O those flies! Well—I'll clear the table first!”
Stepping softly, and handling the dishes with slow care, she cleaned the breakfast table and darkened the dining-room, flapping out some of the flies with a towel. Then she essayed the parlor, dusting and arranging with undecided steps. “It ought to be swept,” she admitted to herself; “I can't do it—there isn't time. I'll make it dark—”
“I'd rather plan a dozen houses!” she fiercely muttered, as she fussed about. “Yes—I'd rather build 'em—than to keep one clean!”
Then were her hopes dashed by a rising wail from above. She sat quite still awhile, hoping against hope that he would sleep again; but he wouldn't. So she brought him down in full cry.
In her low chair by the window she held him and produced bright and jingling objects from the tall workbasket that stood near by, sighing again as she glanced at its accumulated mending.
Master Eddy grew calm and happy in her arms, but showed a growing interest in the pleasing materials produced for his amusement, and a desire for closer acquaintance. Then a penetrating odor filled the air, and with a sudden “O dear!” she rose, put the baby on the sofa, and started toward the kitchen.
At this moment the doorbell rang.
Mrs. Porne stopped in her tracks and looked at the door. It remained opaque and immovable. She looked at the baby—who jiggled his spools and crowed. Then she flew to the oven and dragged forth the bread, not much burned after all. Then she opened the door.
A nice looking young woman stood before her, in a plain travelling suit, holding a cheap dress-suit case in one hand and a denim “roll-bag” in the other, who met her with a cheerful inquiring smile.
“Are you Mrs. Edgar Porne?” she asked.
“I am,” answered that lady, somewhat shortly, her hand on the doorknob, her ear on the baby, her nose still remorsefully in the kitchen, her eyes fixed sternly on her visitor the while; as she wondered whether it was literature, cosmetics, or medicine.
She was about to add that she didn't want anything, when the young lady produced a card from the Rev. Benjamin A. Miner, Mrs. Porne's particularly revered minister, and stated that she had heard there was a vacancy in her kitchen and she would like the place.
“Introducing Mrs. D. Bell, well known to friends of mine.”
“I don't know—” said Mrs. Porne, reading the card without in the least grasping what it said. “I—”
Just then there was a dull falling sound followed by a sharp rising one, and she rushed into the parlor without more words.
When she could hear and be heard again, she found Mrs. Bell seated in the shadowy little hall, serene and cool. “I called on Mr. Miner yesterday when I arrived,” said she, “with letters of introduction from my former minister, told him what I wanted to do, and asked him if he could suggest anyone in immediate need of help in this line. He said he had called here recently, and believed you were looking for someone. Here is the letter I showed him,” and she handed Mrs. Porne a most friendly and appreciative recommendation of Miss D. Bell by a minister in Jopalez, Inca Co., stating that the bearer was fully qualified to do all kinds of housework, experienced, honest, kind, had worked seven years in one place, and only left it hoping to do better in Southern California.
Backed by her own pastor's approval this seemed to Mrs. Porne fully sufficient. The look of the girl pleased her, though suspiciously above her station in manner; service of any sort was scarce and high in Orchardina, and she had been an agelong week without any. “When can you come?” she asked.
“I can stop now if you like,” said the stranger. “This is my baggage. But we must arrange terms first. If you like to try me I will come this week from noon to-day to noon next Friday, for seven dollars, and then if you are satisfied with my work we can make further arrangements. I do not do laundry work, of course, and don't undertake to have any care of the baby.”
“I take care of my baby myself!” said Mrs. Porne, thinking the new girl was presuming, though her manner was most gently respectful. But a week was not long, she was well recommended, and the immediate pressure in that kitchen where the harvest was so ripe and the laborers so few—“Well—you may try the week,” she said. “I'll show you your room. And what is your name?”