“Eastridge, June 3, 1907.
“To Gerrit Wendell, The Universe Club, New York:
“Do you remember promise? Come now, if possible. Much needed.
“Cyrus Talbert.” This was the telegram that Peter handed me as I came out of the coat-room at the Universe and stood under the lofty gilded ceiling of the great hall, trying to find myself at home again in the democratic simplicity of the United States. For two years I had been travelling in the effete, luxurious Orient as a peace correspondent for a famous newspaper; sleeping under canvas in Syria, in mud houses in Persia, in paper cottages in Japan; riding on camel-hump through Arabia, on horseback through Afghanistan, in palankeen through China, and faring on such food as it pleased Providence to send. The necessity of putting my next book through the press (The Setting Splendors of the East) had recalled me to the land of the free and the home of the brave. Two hours after I had landed from the steamship, thirty seconds after I had entered the club, there was Peter, in his green coat and brass buttons, standing in the vast, cool hall among the immense columns of verd-antique, with my telegram on a silver tray, which he presented to me with a discreet expression of welcome in his well-trained face, as if he hesitated to inquire where I had been, but ventured to hope that I had enjoyed my holiday and that there was no bad news in my despatch. The perfection of the whole thing brought me back with a mild surprise to my inheritance as an American, and made me dimly conscious of the point to which New York has carried republicanism and the simple life.
But the telegram—read hastily in the hall, and considered at leisure while I took a late breakfast at my favorite table in the long, stately, oak-panelled dining-room, high above the diminished roar of Fifth Avenue—the telegram carried me out to Eastridge, that self-complacent overgrown village among the New York hills, where people still lived in villas with rubber-plants in the front windows, and had dinner in the middle of the day, and attended church sociables, and listened to Fourth-of-July orations. It was there that I had gone, green from college, to take the assistant-editorship of that flapping sheet The Eastridge Banner; and there I had found Cyrus Talbert beginning his work in the plated-ware factory—the cleanest, warmest, biggest heart of a man that I have known yet, with a good-nature that covered the bed-rock of his conscience like an apple orchard on a limestone ridge. In the give-and-take of every day he was easy-going, kindly, a lover of laughter; but when you struck down to a question of right and wrong, or, rather, when he conceived that he heard the divine voice of duty, he became absolutely immovable—firm, you would call it if you agreed with him, obstinate if you differed.
After all, a conscience like that is a good thing to have at the bottom of a friendship. I could be friends with a man of almost any religion, but hardly with a man of none. Certainly the intimacy that sprang up between Talbert and me was fruitful in all the good things that cheer life's journey from day to day, and deep enough to stand the strain of life's earthquakes and tornadoes. There was a love-affair that might have split us apart; but it only put the rivets into our friendship. For both of us in that affair—yes, all three of us, thank God—played a straight game. There was a time of loss and sorrow for me when he proved himself more true and helpful than any brother that I ever knew. I was best man at his wedding; and because he married a girl that understood, his house became more like a home to me than any other place that my wandering life has found.
I saw its amazing architectural proportions erupt into the pride of Eastridge. I saw Cyrus himself, with all his scroll-saw tastes and mansard-roof opinions, by virtue of sheer honesty and thorough-going human decency, develop into the unassuming “first citizen” of the town, trusted even by those who laughed at him, and honored most by his opponents. I saw his aggravating family of charming children grow around him—masterful Maria, aesthetic Charles Edward, pretty Peggy, fairy-tale Alice, and boisterous Billy—each at heart lovable and fairly good; but, taken in combination, bewildering and perplexing to the last degree.
Cyrus had a late-Victorian theory in regard to the education of children, that individuality should not be crushed—give them what they want—follow the line of juvenile insistence—all the opportunities and no fetters. This late-Victorian theory had resulted in the production of a collection of early-Rooseveltian personalities around him, whose simultaneous interaction sometimes made his good old head swim. As a matter of fact, the whole family, including Talbert's preposterous old-maid sister Elizabeth (the biggest child of the lot), absolutely depended on the good sense of Cyrus and his wife, and would have been helpless without them. But, as a matter of education, each child had a secret illusion of superiority to the parental standard, and not only made wild dashes at originality and independent action, but at the same time cherished a perfect mania for regulating and running all the others. Independence was a sacred tradition in the Talbert family; but interference was a fixed nervous habit, and complication was a chronic social state. The blessed mother understood them all, because she loved them all. Cyrus loved them all, but the only one he thought he understood was Peggy, and her he usually misunderstood, because she was so much like him. But he was fair to them all—dangerously fair—except when his subcutaneous conscience reproached him with not doing his duty; then he would cut the knot of family interference with some tremendous stroke of paternal decision unalterable as a law of the Medes and Persians.
All this was rolling through my memory as I breakfasted at the Universe and considered the telegram from Eastridge.
“Do you remember promise?” Of course I remembered. Was it likely that either of us would forget a thing like that? We were in the dingy little room that he called his “den”; it was just after the birth of his third child. I had told my plan of letting the staff of The Banner fall into other hands and going out into the world to study the nations when they were not excited by war, and write about people who were not disguised in soldier-clothes. “That's a big plan,” he said, “and you'll go far, and be long away at times.” I admitted that it was likely. “Well,” he continued, laying down his pipe, “if you ever are in trouble and can't get back here, send word, and I'll come.” I told him that there was little I could do for him or his (except to give superfluous advice), but if they ever needed me a word would bring me to them. Then I laid down my pipe, and we stood up in front of the fire and shook hands. That was all the promise there was; but it brought him down to Panama to get me, five years later, when I was knocked out with the fever; and it would take me back to Eastridge now by the first train.
But what wasteful brevity in that phrase, “much needed”! What did that mean? (Why will a man try to put a forty-word meaning into a ten-word telegram?) Sickness? Business troubles? One of those independent, interfering children in a scrape? One thing I was blessedly sure of: it did not mean any difficulty between Cyrus and his wife; they were of the tribe who marry for love and love for life. But the need must be something serious and urgent, else he never would have sent for me. With a family like his almost anything might happen. Perhaps Aunt Elizabeth—I never could feel any confidence in a red-haired female who habitually dressed in pink. Or perhaps Charles Edward—if that young man's artistic ability had been equal to his sense of it there would have been less danger in taking him into the factory. Or probably Maria, with her great head for business—oh, Maria, I grant you, is like what the French critic said of the prophet Habakkuk, “capable de tout.”
But why puzzle any longer over that preposterous telegram? If my friend Talbert was in any kind of trouble under the sun, there was just one thing that I wanted—to get to him as quickly as possible. Find when the first train started and arrived—send a lucid despatch—no expensive parsimony in telegraphing:
'“To Cyrus Talbert, Eastridge, Massachusetts:
“I arrived this morning on the Dilatoria and found your telegram here. Expect me on the noon train due at Eastridge five forty-three this afternoon. I hope all will go well. Count on me always. Gerrit Wendell.”
It was a relief to find him on the railway platform when the train rolled in, his broad shoulders as square as ever, his big head showing only a shade more of gray, a shade less of red, in its strawberry roan, his face shining with the welcome which he expressed, as usual, in humorous disguise.
“Here you are,” he cried, “browner and thinner than ever! Give me that bag. How did you leave my friend the Shah of Persia?”
“Better,” I said, stepping into the open carriage, “since he got on the water-wagon—uses nothing but Eastridge silver-plated ice-pitchers now.”
“And my dear friend the Empress of China?” he asked, as he got in beside me.
“She has recovered her digestion,” I answered, “due entirely to the abandonment of chop-sticks and the adoption of Eastridge knives and forks. But now it's my turn to ask a question. How are YOU?”
“Well,” said he. “And the whole family is well, and we've all grown tremendously, but we haven't changed a bit, and the best thing that has happened to us for three years is seeing you again.”
“And the factory?” I asked. “How does the business of metallic humbug thrive?”
“All right,” he answered. “There's a little slackening in chafing-dishes just now, but ice-cream knives are going off like hot cakes. The factory is on a solid basis; hard times won't hurt us.”
“Well, then,” said I, a little perplexed, “what in Heaven's name did you mean by sending that—”
“Hold on,” said Talbert, gripping my knee and looking grave for a moment, “just you wait. I need you badly enough or else the telegram never would have gone to you. I'll tell you about it after supper. Till then, never mind—or, rather, no matter; for it's nothing material, after all, but there's a lot in it for the mind.”
I knew then that he was in one of his fundamental moods, imperviously jolly on the surface, inflexibly Puritan underneath, and that the only thing to do was to let the subject rest until he chose to take it up in earnest. So we drove along, chaffing and laughing, until we came to the dear, old, ugly house. The whole family were waiting on the veranda to bid me welcome home. Mrs. Talbert took my hands with a look that said it all. Her face had not grown a shade older, to me, since I first knew her; and her eyes—the moment you look into them you feel that she understands. Alice seemed to think that she had become too grown-up to be kissed, even by the friend of the family; and I thought so, too. But pretty Peggy was of a different mind. There is something about the way that girl kisses an old gentleman that almost makes him wish himself young again.
At supper we had the usual tokens of festivity: broiled chickens and pop-overs and cool, sliced tomatoes and ice-cream with real strawberries in it (how good and clean it tasted after Ispahan and Bagdad!) and the usual family arguing and joking (how natural and wholesome it sounded after Vienna and Paris!). I thought Maria looked rather strenuous and severe, as if something important were on her mind, and Billy and Alice, at moments, had a conscious air. But Charles Edward and Lorraine were distinctly radiant, and Peggy was demurely jolly. She sounded like her father played on a mandolin.
After supper Talbert took me to the summer-house at the foot of the garden to smoke. Our first cigars were about half burned out when he began to unbosom himself.
“I've been a fool,” he said, “an idiot, and, what is more, an unnatural and neglectful father, cruel to my children when I meant to be kind, a shirker of my duty, and a bringer of trouble on those that I love best.”
“As for example?” I asked.
“Well, it is Peggy!” he broke out. “You know, I like her best of them all, next to Ada; can't help it. She is nearer to me, somehow. The finest, most unselfish little girl! But I've been just selfish enough to let her get into trouble, and be talked about, and have her heart broken, and now they've put her into a position where she's absolutely helpless, a pawn in their fool game, and the Lord only knows what's to come of it all unless he makes me man enough to do my duty.”
From this, of course, I had to have the whole story, and I must say it seemed to me most extraordinary—a flagrant case of idiotic interference. Peggy had been sent away to one of those curious institutions that they call a “coeducational college,” chiefly because Maria had said that she ought to understand the duties of modern womanhood; she had gone, without the slightest craving for “the higher education,” but naturally with the idea of having a “good time”; and apparently she had it, for she came home engaged to a handsome, amatory boy, one of her fellow “students,” named Goward. At this point Aunt Elizabeth, with her red hair and pink frock, had interfered and lured off the Goward, who behaved in a manner which appeared to me to reduce him to a negligible quantity. But the family evidently did not think so, for they all promptly began to interfere, Maria and Charles Edward and Alice and even Billy, each one with an independent plan, either to lure the Goward back or to eliminate him. Alice had the most original idea, which was to marry Peggy to Dr. Denbigh; but this clashed with Maria's idea, which was to entangle the doctor with Aunt Elizabeth in order that the Goward might be recaptured. It was all extremely complicated and unnecessary (from my point of view), and of course it transpired and circulated through the gossip of the town, and poor Peggy was much afflicted and ashamed. Now the engagement was off; Aunt Elizabeth had gone into business with a clairvoyant woman in New York; Goward was in the hospital with a broken arm, and Peggy was booked to go to Europe on Saturday with Charles Edward and Lorraine.
“Quite right,” I exclaimed at this point in the story. “Everything has turned out just as it should, like a romance in an old-fashioned ladies' magazine.”
“Not at all,” broke out Talbert; “you don't know the whole of it, Maria has told me” (oh, my prophetic soul, Maria!) “that Charley and his wife have asked a friend of theirs, a man named Dane, ten years older than Peggy, a professor in that blank coeducational college, to go with them, and that she is sure they mean to make her marry him.”
“What Dane is that?” I interrupted. “Is his first name Stillman—nephew of my old friend Harvey Dane, the publisher? Because, if that's so, I know him; about twenty-eight years old; good family, good head, good manners, good principles; just the right age and the right kind for Peggy—a very fine fellow indeed.”
“That makes no difference,” continued Cyrus, fiercely. “I don't care whose nephew he is, nor how old he is, nor what his manners are. My point is that Peggy positively shall not be pushed, or inveigled, or dragooned, or personally conducted into marrying anybody at all! Billy and Alice were wandering around Charley's garden last Friday night, and they report that Professor Dane was there with Peggy. Alice says that she looked pale and drooping, 'like the Bride of Lammermoor.' There has been enough of this meddling with my little Peggy, I say, and I'm to blame for it. I don't know whether her heart is broken or not. I don't know whether she still cares for that fellow Goward or not. I don't know what she wants to do—but whatever it is she shall do it, I swear. She sha'n't be cajoled off to Europe with Charles Edward and Lorraine to be flung at the head of the first professor who turns up. I'll do my duty by my little girl. She shall stay at home and be free. There has been too much interference in this family, and I'm damned if I stand any more; I'll interfere myself now.”
It was not the unusual violence of the language in the last sentence that convinced me. I had often seen religious men affected in that way after an over-indulgence in patience and mild behavior. It was that ominous word, “my duty,” which made me sure that Talbert had settled down on the bed-rock of his conscience and was not to be moved. Why, then, had he sent for me, I asked, since he had made up his mind?
“Well,” said he, “in the first place, I hadn't quite made it up when I sent the telegram. And in the second place, now that you have helped me to see absolutely what is right to do, I want you to speak to my wife about it. She doesn't agree with me, wants Peggy to go to Europe, thinks there cannot be any risk in it. You know how she has always adored Charles Edward. Will you talk to her?”
“I will,” said I, after a moment of reflection, “on one condition. You may forbid Peggy's journey, to-morrow morning if you like. Break it off peremptorily, if you think it's your duty. But don't give up her state-room on the ship. And if you can be convinced between now and Saturday that the danger of interference with her young affections is removed, and that she really needs and wants to go, you let her go! Will you?”
“I will,” said he. And with that we threw away the remainder of our second cigars, and I went up to the side porch to talk with Mrs. Talbert. What we said I leave you to imagine. I have always thought her the truest and tenderest woman in the world, but I never knew till that night just how clear-headed and brave she was. She agreed with me that Peggy's affair, up to now more or less foolish, though distressing, had now reached a dangerous stage, a breaking-point. The child was overwrought. A wrong touch now might wreck her altogether. But the right touch? Or, rather, no touch at all, but just an open door before her? Ah, that was another matter. My plan was a daring one; it made her tremble a little, but perhaps it was the best one; at all events, she could see no other. Then she stood up and gave me both hands again. “I will trust you, my friend,” said she. “I know that you love us and our children. You shall do what you think best and I will be satisfied. Good-night.”
The difficulty with the situation, as I looked it over carefully while indulging in a third cigar in my bedroom, was that the time was desperately short. It was now one o'clock on Tuesday morning. About nine Cyrus would perform his sacred duty of crushing his darling Peggy by telling her that she must stay in Eastridge. At ten o'clock on Saturday the Chromatic would sail with Charles Edward and Lorraine and Stillman Dane. Yet there were two things that I was sure of: one was that Peggy ought to go with them, and the other was that it would be good for her to—but on second thought I prefer to keep the other thing for the end of my story. My mind was fixed, positively and finally, that the habit of interference in the Talbert family must be broken up. I never could understand what it is that makes people so crazy to interfere, especially in match-making. It is a lunacy. It is presuming, irreverent, immoral, intolerable. So I worked out my little plan and went to sleep.
Peggy took her father's decree (which was administered to her privately after breakfast on Tuesday) most loyally. Of course, he could not give her his real reasons, and so she could not answer them. But when she appeared at dinner it was clear, in spite of a slight rosy hue about her eyes, that she had decided to accept the sudden change in the situation like a well-bred angel—which, in fact, she is.
I had run down to Whitman in the morning train to make a call on young Goward, and found him rather an amiable boy, under the guard of an adoring mother, who thought him a genius and was convinced that he had been entrapped by designing young women. I agreed with her so heartily that she left me alone with him for a half-hour. His broken arm was doing well; his amatoriness was evidently much reduced by hospital diet; he was in a repentant frame of mind and assured me that he knew he had been an ass as well as a brute (synonymes, dear boy), and that he was now going West to do some honest work in the world before he thought any more about girls. I commended his manly decision. He was rather rueful over the notion that he might have hurt Miss Talbert by his bad conduct. I begged him not to distress himself, his first duty now was to get well. I asked him if he would do me the favor, with the doctor's permission, of taking the fresh air with his mother on the terrace of the hospital about half-past five that afternoon. He looked puzzled, but promised that he would do it; and so we parted.
After dinner I requested Peggy to make me happy by going for a little drive in the runabout with me. She came down looking as fresh as a wild rose, in a soft, white dress with some kind of light greenery about it, and a pale green sash around her waist, and her pretty, sunset hair uncovered. If there is any pleasanter avocation for an old fellow than driving in an open buggy with a girl like that, I don't know it. She talked charmingly: about my travels; about her college friends; about Eastridge; and at last about her disappointment in not going to Europe. By this time we were nearing the Whitman hospital.
“I suppose you have heard,” said she, looking down at her bare hands and blushing; “perhaps they have told you why I wanted especially to go away.”
“Yes, my dear child,” I answered, “they have told me a lot of nonsense, and I am heartily glad that it is all over. Are you?”
“More glad than I can tell you,” she answered, frankly, looking into my face.
“See,” said I, “there is the hospital. I believe there is a boy in there that knows you—name of Goward.”
“Yes,” she said, rather faintly, looking down again, but not changing color.
“Peggy,” I asked, “do you still—think now, and answer truly—do you still HATE him?”
She waited a moment, and then lifted her clear blue eyes to mine. “No, Uncle Gerrit, I don't hate him half as much as I hate myself. Really, I don't hate him at all. I'm sorry for him.”
“So am I, my dear,” said I, stretching my interest in the negligible youth a little. “But he is getting well, and he is going West as soon as possible. Look, is that the boy yonder, sitting on the terrace with a fat lady, probably his mother? Do you feel that you could bow to him, just to oblige me?”
She flashed a look at me. “I'll do it for that reason, and for another, too,” she said. And then she nodded her red head, in the prettiest way, and threw in an honest smile and a wave of her hand for good measure. I was proud of her. The boy stood up and took off his hat. I could see him blush a hundred feet away. Then his mother evidently asked him a question, and he turned to answer her, and so EXIT Mr. Goward.
The end of our drive was even pleasanter than the beginning. Peggy was much interested in a casual remark expressing my pleasure in hearing that she had recently met the nephew of one of my very old friends, Stillman Dane.
“Oh,” she cried, “do you know HIM? Isn't that lovely?”
I admitted that he was a very good person to know, though I had only seen a little of him, about six years ago. But his uncle, the one who lately died and left a snug fortune to his favorite nephew, was one of my old bachelor cronies, in fact, a member of the firm that published my books. If the young man resembled his uncle he was all right. Did Peggy like him?
“Why, yes,” she answered. “He was a professor at our college, and all the girls thought him a perfect dandy!”
“Dandy!” I exclaimed. “There was no sign of an excessive devotion to dress when I knew him. It's a great pity!”
“Oh!” she cried, laughing, “I don't mean THAT. It is only a word we girls use; it means the same as when you say, 'A VERY FINE FELLOW INDEED.”'
From that point we played the Stillman Dane tune, with variations, until we reached home, very late indeed for supper. The domestic convulsion caused by the formal announcement of Talbert's sudden decision had passed, leaving visible traces. Maria was flushed, but triumphant; Alice and Billy had an air of conscience-stricken importance; Charles Edward and Lorraine were sarcastically submissive; Cyrus was resolutely jovial; the only really tranquil one was Mrs. Talbert. Everything had been arranged. The whole family were to go down to New York on Thursday to stop at a hotel, and see the travellers off on Saturday morning—all except Peggy, who was to remain at home and keep house.
“That suits me exactly,” said I, “for business calls me to town to-morrow, but I would like to come back here on Thursday and keep house with Peggy, if she will let me.”
She thanked me with a little smile, and so it was settled. Cyrus wanted to know, when we were sitting in the arbor that night, if I did not think he had done right. “Wonderfully,” I said. He also wanted to know if he might not give up that extra state-room and save a couple of hundred dollars. I told him that he must stick to his bargain—I was still in the game—and then I narrated the afternoon incident at the hospital. “Good little Peggy!” he cried. “That clears up one of my troubles. But the great objection to this European business still holds. She shall not be driven.” I agreed with him—not a single step!
The business that called me to New York was Stillman Dane. A most intelligent and quick-minded young gentleman—not at all a beauty man—not even noticeably academic. He was about the middle height, but very well set up, and evidently in good health of body and mind; a clean-cut and energetic fellow, who had been matured by doing his work and had himself well in hand. There was a look in his warm, brown eyes that spoke of a heart unsullied and capable of the strongest and purest affection; and at the same time certain lines about his chin and his mouth, mobile but not loose lipped, promised that he would be able to take care of himself and of the girl that he loved. His appearance and his manner were all that I had hoped—even more, for they were not only pleasant but thoroughly satisfactory.
He was courteous enough to conceal his slight surprise at my visit, but not skilful enough to disguise his interest in hearing that I had just come from the Talberts. I told him of the agreement with Cyrus Talbert, the subsequent conversation with Mrs. Talbert, Peggy's drive with me to Whitman, and her views upon dandies and other cognate subjects.
Then I explained to him quite clearly what I should conceive my duty to be if I were in his place. He assented warmly to my view. I added that if there were any difficulties in his mind I should advise him to lay the case before my dear friend the Reverend George Alexanderson, of the Irving Place Church, who was an extraordinarily sensible and human clergyman, and to whom I would give him a personal letter stating the facts. Upon this we shook hands heartily, and I went back to Peggy on Thursday morning.
The house was delightfully quiet, and she was perfection as a hostess. I never passed a pleasanter afternoon. But the evening was interrupted by the arrival of Stillman Dane, who said that he had run up to say good-bye. That seemed quite polite and proper, so I begged them to excuse me, while I went into the den to write some letters. They were long letters.
The next morning Peggy was evidently flustered, but divinely radiant. She said that Mr. Dane had asked her to go driving with him—would that be all right? I told her that I was sure it was perfectly right, but if they went far they would find me gone when they returned, for I had changed my mind and was going down to New York to see the voyagers off. At this Peggy looked at me with tears sparkling in the edge of her smile. Then she put her arms around my neck. “Good-bye,” she whispered, “good-bye! YOU'RE A DANDY TOO! Give mother my love—and THAT—and THAT—and THAT!”
“Well, my dear,” I answered, “I rather prefer to keep THOSE for myself. But I'll give her your message. And mind this—don't you do anything unless you really want to do it with all your heart. God bless you! Promise?”
“I promise, WITH ALL MY HEART,” said she, and then her soft arms were unloosed from my neck and she ran up-stairs. That was the last word I heard from Peggy Talbert.
On Saturday morning all the rest of us were on the deck of the Chromatic by half-past nine. The usual farewell performance was in progress. Charles Edward was expressing some irritation and anxiety over the lateness of Stillman Dane, when that young man quietly emerged from the music-room, with Peggy beside him in the demurest little travelling suit with an immense breast-plate of white violets. Tom Price was the first to recover his voice.
“Peggy!” he cried; “Peggy, by all that's holy!”
“Excuse me,” I said, “Mr. and Mrs. Stillman Dane! And I must firmly request every one except Mr. and Mrs. Talbert, senior, to come with me at once to see the second steward about the seats in the dining-saloon.”We got a good place at the end of the pier to watch the big boat swing out into the river. She went very slowly at first, then with astonishing quickness. Charles Edward and Lorraine were standing on the hurricane-deck, Peggy close beside them. Dane had given her his walking-stick, and she had tied her handkerchief to the handle. She was standing up on a chair, with one of his hands to steady her. Her hat had slipped back on her head. The last thing that we could distinguish on the ship was that brave little girl, her red hair like an aureole, waving her flag of victory and peace. “And now,” said Maria, as we turned away, “I have a lovely plan. We are all going together to our hotel to have lunch, and after that to the matinee at—”
I knew it was rude to interrupt, but I could not help it.
“Pardon me, dear Maria,” I said, “but you have not got it quite right. You and Tom are going to escort Alice and Billy to Eastridge, with such diversions by the way as seem to you appropriate. Your father and mother are going to lunch with me at Delmonico's—but we don't want the whole family.”