What Diantha Did

by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter VIII

Behind the straight purple backs and smooth purple legs on the box before them, Madam Weatherstone and Mrs. Weatherstone rolled home silently, a silence of thunderous portent. Another purple person opened the door for them, and when Madam Weatherstone said, “We will have tea on the terrace,” it was brought them by a fourth.

“I was astonished at your attitude, Viva,” began the old lady, at length. “Of course it was Mrs. Dankshire's fault in the first place, but to encourage that,—outrageous person! How could you do it!”

Young Mrs. Weatherstone emptied her exquisite cup and set it down.

“A sudden access of courage, I suppose,” she said. “I was astonished at myself.”

“I wholly disagree with you!” replied her mother-in-law. “Never in my life have I heard such nonsense. Talk like that would be dangerous, if it were not absurd! It would destroy the home! It would strike at the roots of the family.”

Viva eyed her quietly, trying to bear in mind the weight of a tradition, the habits of a lifetime, the effect of long years of uninterrupted worship of household gods.

“It doesn't seem so to me,” she said slowly, “I was much interested and impressed. She is evidently a young woman of knowledge and experience, and put her case well. It has quite waked me up.”

“It has quite upset you!” was the reply. “You'll be ill after this, I am sure. Hadn't you better go and lie down now? I'll have some dinner sent to you.”

“Thank you,” said Viva, rising and walking to the edge of the broad terrace. “You are very kind. No. I do not wish to lie down. I haven't felt so thoroughly awake in—” she drew a pink cluster of oleander against her cheek and thought a moment—“in several years.” There was a new look about her certainly.

“Nervous excitement,” her mother-in-law replied. “You're not like yourself at all to-night. You'll certainly be ill to-morrow!”

Viva turned at this and again astonished the old lady by serenely kissing her. “Not at all!” she said gaily. “I'm going to be well to-morrow. You will see!”

She went to her room, drew a chair to the wide west window with the far off view and sat herself down to think. Diantha's assured poise, her clear reasoning, her courage, her common sense; and something of tenderness and consecration she discerned also, had touched deep chords in this woman's nature. It was like the sound of far doors opening, windows thrown up, the jingle of bridles and clatter of hoofs, keen bugle notes. A sense of hope, of power, of new enthusiasm, rose in her.

Orchardina Society, eagerly observing “young Mrs. Weatherstone” from her first appearance, had always classified her as “delicate.” Beside the firm features and high color of the matron-in-office, this pale quiet slender woman looked like a meek and transient visitor. But her white forehead was broad under its soft-hanging eaves of hair, and her chin, though lacking in prognathous prominence or bull-dog breadth, had a certain depth which gave hope to the physiognomist.

She was strangely roused and stirred by the afternoon's events. “I'm like that man in 'Phantastes',” she thought contemptuously, “who stayed so long in that dungeon because it didn't occur to him to open the door! Why don't I—?” she rose and walked slowly up and down, her hands behind her. “I will!” she said at last.

Then she dressed for dinner, revolving in her mind certain suspicions long suppressed, but now flaming out in clear conviction in the light of Diantha's words. “Sleeping in, indeed!” she murmured to herself. “And nobody doing anything!”

She looked herself in the eye in the long mirror. Her gown was an impressive one, her hair coiled high, a gold band ringed it like a crown. A clear red lit her checks.

She rang. Little Ilda, the newest maid, appeared, gazing at her in shy admiration. Mrs. Weatherstone looked at her with new eyes. “Have you been here long?” she asked. “What is your name?”

“No, ma'am,” said the child—she was scarce more. “Only a week and two days. My name is Ilda.”

“Who engaged you?”

“Mrs. Halsey, ma'am.”

“Ah,” said Mrs. Weatherstone, musing to herself, “and I engaged Mrs. Halsey!” “Do you like it here?” she continued kindly.

“Oh yes, ma'am!” said Ilda. “That is—” she stopped, blushed, and continued bravely. “I like to work for you, ma'am.”

“Thank you, Ilda. Will you ask Mrs. Halsey to come to me—at once, please.”

Ilda went, more impressed than ever with the desirability of her new place, and mistress.

As she was about to pass the door of Mr. Matthew Weatherstone, that young gentleman stepped out and intercepted her. “Whither away so fast, my dear?” he amiably inquired.

“Please let one pass, sir! I'm on an errand. Please, sir?”

“You must give me a kiss first!” said he—and since there seemed no escape and she was in haste, she submitted. He took six—and she ran away half crying.

Mrs. Halsey, little accustomed to take orders from her real mistress, and resting comfortably in her room, had half a mind to send an excuse.

“I'm not dressed,” she said to the maid.

“Well she is!” replied Ilda, “dressed splendid. She said 'at once, please.'”

“A pretty time o' day!” said the housekeeper with some asperity, hastily buttoning her gown; and she presently appeared, somewhat heated, before Mrs. Weatherstone.

That lady was sitting, cool and gracious, her long ivory paper-cutter between the pages of a new magazine.

“In how short a time could you pack, Mrs. Halsey?” she inquired.

“Pack, ma'am? I'm not accustomed to doing packing. I'll send one of the maids. Is it your things, ma'am?”

“No,” said Mrs. Weatherstone. “It is yours I refer to. I wish you to pack your things and leave the house—in an hour. One of the maids can help you, if necessary. Anything you cannot take can be sent after you. Here is a check for the following month's wages.”

Mrs. Halsey was nearly a head taller than her employer, a stout showy woman, handsome enough, red-lipped, and with a moist and crafty eye. This was so sudden a misadventure that she forgot her usual caution. “You've no right to turn me off in a minute like this!” she burst forth. “I'll leave it to Madam Weatherstone!”

“If you will look at the terms on which I engaged you, Mrs. Halsey, you will find that a month's warning, or a month's wages, was specified. Here are the wages—as to the warning, that has been given for some months past!”

“By whom, Ma'am?”

“By yourself, Mrs. Halsey—I think you understand me. Oscar will take your things as soon as they are ready.”

Mrs. Halsey met her steady eye a moment—saw more than she cared to face—and left the room.

She took care, however, to carry some letters to Madam Weatherstone, and meekly announced her discharge; also, by some coincidence, she met Mr. Matthew in the hall upstairs, and weepingly confided her grievance to him, meeting immediate consolation, both sentimental and practical.

When hurried servants were sent to find their young mistress they reported that she must have gone out, and in truth she had; out on her own roof, where she sat quite still, though shivering a little now and then from the new excitement, until dinner time.

This meal, in the mind of Madam Weatherstone, was the crowning factor of daily life; and, on state occasions, of social life. In her cosmogony the central sun was a round mahogany table; all other details of housekeeping revolved about it in varying orbits. To serve an endless series of dignified delicious meals, notably dinners, was, in her eyes, the chief end of woman; the most high purpose of the home.

Therefore, though angry and astounded, she appeared promptly when the meal was announced; and when her daughter-in-law, serene and royally attired, took her place as usual, no emotion was allowed to appear before the purple footman who attended.

“I understood you were out, Viva,” she said politely.

“I was,” replied Viva, with equal decorum. “It is charming outside at this time in the evening—don't you think so?”

Young Matthew was gloomy and irritable throughout the length and breadth of the meal; and when they were left with their coffee in the drawing room, he broke out, “What's this I hear about Mrs. Halsey being fired without notice?”

“That is what I wish to know, Viva,” said the grandmother. “The poor woman is greatly distressed. Is there not some mistake?”

“It's a damn shame,” said Matthew.

The younger lady glanced from one to the other, and wondered to see how little she minded it. “The door was there all the time!” she thought to herself, as she looked her stepson in the eye and said, “Hardly drawing-room language, Matthew. Your grandmother is present!”

He stared at her in dumb amazement, so she went on, “No, there is no mistake at all. I discharged Mrs. Halsey about an hour before dinner. The terms of the engagement were a month's warning or a month's wages. I gave her the wages.”

“But! but!” Madam Weatherstone was genuinely confused by this sudden inexplicable, yet perfectly polite piece of what she still felt to be in the nature of 'interference' and 'presumption.' “I have had no fault to find with her.”

“I have, you see,” said her daughter-in-law smiling. “I found her unsatisfactory and shall replace her with something better presently. How about a little music, Matthew? Won't you start the victrolla?”

Matthew wouldn't. He was going out; went out with the word. Madam Weatherstone didn't wish to hear it—had a headache—must go to her room—went to her room forthwith. There was a tension in the atmosphere that would have wrung tears from Viva Weatherstone a week ago, yes, twenty-four hours ago.

As it was she rose to her feet, stretching herself to her full height, and walked the length of the great empty room. She even laughed a little. “It's open!” said she, and ordered the car. While waiting for it she chatted with Mrs. Porne awhile over the all-convenient telephone.

Diantha sat at her window, watching the big soft, brilliant moon behind the eucalyptus trees. After the close of the strenuous meeting, she had withdrawn from the crowd of excited women anxious to shake her hand and engage her on the spot, had asked time to consider a number of good opportunities offered, and had survived the cold and angry glances of the now smaller but far more united Home and Culture Club. She declined to talk to the reporters, and took refuge first in an open car. This proved very unsatisfactory, owing to her sudden prominence. Two persistent newspaper men swung themselves upon the car also and insisted on addressing her.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” she said, “I am not acquainted with you.”

They eagerly produced their cards—and said they were “newspaper men.”

“I see,” said Diantha, “But you are still men? And gentlemen, I suppose? I am a woman, and I do not wish to talk with you.”

“Miss Bell Declines to Be Interviewed,” wrote the reporters, and spent themselves on her personal appearance, being favorably impressed thereby.

But Miss Bell got off at the next corner and took a short cut to the house where she had rented a room. Reporters were waiting there, two being women.

Diantha politely but firmly declined to see them and started for the stairs; but they merely stood in front of her and asked questions. The girl's blood surged to her cheeks; she smiled grimly, kept absolute silence, brushed through them and went swiftly to her room, locking the door after her.

The reporters described her appearance—unfavorably this time; and they described the house—also unfavorably. They said that “A group of adoring-eyed young men stood about the doorway as the flushed heroine of the afternoon made her brusque entrance.” These adorers consisted of the landlady's Johnny, aged thirteen, and two satellites of his, still younger. They did look at Diantha admiringly; and she was a little hurried in her entrance—truth must be maintained.

Too irritated and tired to go out for dinner, she ate an orange or two, lay down awhile, and then eased her mind by writing a long letter to Ross and telling him all about it. That is, she told him most of it, all the pleasant things, all the funny things; leaving out about the reporters, because she was too angry to be just, she told herself. She wrote and wrote, becoming peaceful as the quiet moments passed, and a sense grew upon her of the strong, lasting love that was waiting so patiently.

“Dearest,” her swift pen flew along, “I really feel much encouraged. An impression has been made. One or two men spoke to me afterward; the young minister, who said such nice things; and one older man, who looked prosperous and reliable. 'When you begin any such business as you have outlined, you may count on me, Miss Bell,' he said, and gave me his card. He's a lawyer—P. L. Wiscomb; nice man, I should think. Another big, sheepish-looking man said, 'And me, Miss Bell.' His name is Thaddler; his wife is very disagreeable. Some of the women are favorably impressed, but the old-fashioned kind—my! 'If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence!'—but it don't.”

She wrote herself into a good humor, and dwelt at considerable length on the pleasant episode of the minister and young Mrs. Weatherstone's remarks. “I liked her,” she wrote. “She's a nice woman—even if she is rich.”

There was a knock at her door. “Lady to see you, Miss.”

“I cannot see anyone,” said Diantha; “you must excuse me.”

“Beg pardon, Miss, but it's not a reporter; it's—.” The landlady stretched her lean neck around the door edge and whispered hoarsely, “It's young Mrs. Weatherstone!”

Diantha rose to her feet, a little bewildered. “I'll be right down,” she said. But a voice broke in from the hall, “I beg your pardon, Miss Bell, but I took the liberty of coming up; may I come in?”

She came in, and the landlady perforce went out. Mrs. Weatherstone held Diantha's hand warmly, and looked into her eyes. “I was a schoolmate of Ellen Porne,” she told the girl. “We are dear friends still; and so I feel that I know you better than you think. You have done beautiful work for Mrs. Porne; now I want you to do to it for me. I need you.”

“Won't you sit down?” said Diantha.

“You, too,” said Mrs. Weatherstone. “Now I want you to come to me—right away. You have done me so much good already. I was just a New England bred school teacher myself at first, so we're even that far. Then you took a step up—and I took a step down.”

Diantha was a little slow in understanding the quick fervor of this new friend; a trifle suspicious, even; being a cautious soul, and somewhat overstrung, perhaps. Her visitor, bright-eyed and eager, went on. “I gave up school teaching and married a fortune. You have given it up to do a more needed work. I think you are wonderful. Now, I know this seems queer to you, but I want to tell you about it. I feel sure you'll understand. At home, Madam Weatherstone has had everything in charge for years and years, and I've been too lazy or too weak, or too indifferent, to do anything. I didn't care, somehow. All the machinery of living, and no living—no good of it all! Yet there didn't seem to be anything else to do. Now you have waked me all up—your paper this afternoon—what Mr. Eltwood said—the way those poor, dull, blind women took it. And yet I was just as dull and blind myself! Well, I begin to see things now. I can't tell you all at once what a difference it has made; but I have a very definite proposition to make to you. Will you come and be my housekeeper, now—right away—at a hundred dollars a month?”

Diantha opened her eyes wide and looked at the eager lady as if she suspected her nervous balance.

“The other one got a thousand a year—you are worth more. Now, don't decline, please. Let me tell you about it. I can see that you have plans ahead, for this business; but it can't hurt you much to put them off six months, say. Meantime, you could be practicing. Our place at Santa Ulrica is almost as big as this one; there are lots of servants and a great, weary maze of accounts to be kept, and it wouldn't be bad practice for you—now, would it?”

Diantha's troubled eyes lit up. “No—you are right there,” she said. “If I could do it!”

“You'll have to do just that sort of thing when you are running your business, won't you?” her visitor went on. “And the summer's not a good time to start a thing like that, is it?”

Diantha meditated. “No, I wasn't going to. I was going to start somewhere—take a cottage, a dozen girls or so—and furnish labor by the day to the other cottages.”

“Well, you might be able to run that on the side,” said Mrs. Weatherstone. “And you could train my girls, get in new ones if you like; it doesn't seem to me it would conflict. But to speak to you quite frankly, Miss Bell, I want you in the house for my own sake. You do me good.”

They discussed the matter for some time, Diantha objecting mainly to the suddenness of it all. “I'm a slow thinker,” she said, “and this is so—so attractive that I'm suspicious of it. I had the other thing all planned—the girls practically engaged.”

“Where were you thinking of going?” asked Mrs. Weatherstone.

“To Santa Ulrica.”

“Exactly! Well, you shall have your cottage and our girls and give them part time. Or—how many have you arranged with?”

“Only six have made definite engagements yet.”

“What kind?”

“Two laundresses, a cook and three second maids; all good ones.”

“Excellent! Now, I tell you what to do. I will engage all those girls. I'm making a change at the house, for various reasons. You bring them to me as soon as you like; but you I want at once. I wish you'd come home with me to-night! Why don't you?”

Diantha's scanty baggage was all in sight. She looked around for an excuse. Mrs. Weatherstone stood up laughing.

“Put the new address in the letter,” she said, mischievously, “and come along!”

And the purple chauffeur, his disapproving back ineffectual in the darkness, rolled them home.


Return to the What Diantha Did Summary Return to the Charlotte Perkins Gilman Library

© 2022 AmericanLiterature.com