Miss Lulu Bett

by Zona Gale

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II - May

Lulu was dusting the parlour. The parlour was rarely used, but every morning it was dusted. By Lulu.

She dusted the black walnut centre table which was of Ina's choosing, and looked like Ina, shining, complacent, abundantly curved. The leather rocker, too, looked like Ina, brown, plumply upholstered, tipping back a bit. Really, the davenport looked like Ina, for its chintz pattern seemed to bear a design of lifted eyebrows and arch, reproachful eyes.

Lulu dusted the upright piano, and that was like Dwight—in a perpetual attitude of rearing back, with paws out, playful, but capable, too, of roaring a ready bass.

And the black fireplace—there was Mrs. Bett to the life. Colourless, fireless, and with a dust of ashes.

In the midst of all was Lulu herself reflected in the narrow pier glass, bodiless-looking in her blue gingham gown, but somehow alive. Natural.

This pier glass Lulu approached with expectation, not because of herself but because of the photograph on its low marble shelf. A large photograph on a little shelf-easel. A photograph of a man with evident eyes, evident lips, evident cheeks—and each of the six were rounded and convex. You could construct the rest of him. Down there under the glass you could imagine him extending, rounded and convex, with plump hands and curly thumbs and snug clothes. It was Ninian Deacon, Dwight's brother.

Every day since his coming had been announced Lulu, dusting the parlour, had seen the photograph looking at her with its eyes somehow new. Or were her own eyes new? She dusted this photograph with a difference, lifted, dusted, set it back, less as a process than as an experience. As she dusted the mirror and saw his trim semblance over against her own bodiless reflection, she hurried away. But the eyes of the picture followed her, and she liked it.

She dusted the south window-sill and saw Bobby Larkin come round the house and go to the wood-shed for the lawn mower. She heard the smooth blur of the cutter. Not six times had Bobby traversed the lawn when Lulu saw Di emerge from the house. Di had been caring for her canary and she carried her bird-bath and went to the well, and Lulu divined that Di had deliberately disregarded the handy kitchen taps. Lulu dusted the south window and watched, and in her watching was no quality of spying or of criticism. Nor did she watch wistfully. Rather, she looked out on something in which she had never shared, could not by any chance imagine herself sharing.

The south windows were open. Airs of May bore the soft talking.

"Oh, Bobby, will you pump while I hold this?" And again: "Now wait till I rinse." And again: "You needn't be so glum"—the village salutation signifying kindly attention.

Bobby now first spoke: "Who's glum?" he countered gloomily.

The iron of those days when she had laughed at him was deep within him, and this she now divined, and said absently:

"I used to think you were pretty nice. But I don't like you any more."

"Yes, you used to!" Bobby repeated derisively. "Is that why you made fun of me all the time?"

At this Di coloured and tapped her foot on the well-curb. He seemed to have her now, and enjoyed his triumph. But Di looked up at him shyly and looked down. "I had to," she admitted. "They were all teasing me about you."

"They were?" This was a new thought to him. Teasing her about him, were they? He straightened. "Huh!" he said, in magnificent evasion.

"I had to make them stop, so I teased you. I—I never wanted to." Again the upward look.

"Well!" Bobby stared at her. "I never thought it was anything like that."

"Of course you didn't." She tossed back her bright hair, met his eyes full. "And you never came where I could tell you. I wanted to tell you."

She ran into the house.

Lulu lowered her eyes. It was as if she had witnessed the exercise of some secret gift, had seen a cocoon open or an egg hatch. She was thinking:

"How easy she done it. Got him right over. But how did she do that?"

Dusting the Dwight-like piano, Lulu looked over-shoulder, with a manner of speculation, at the photograph of Ninian.

Bobby mowed and pondered. The magnificent conceit of the male in his understanding of the female character was sufficiently developed to cause him to welcome the improvisation which he had just heard. Perhaps that was the way it had been. Of course that was the way it had been. What a fool he had been not to understand. He cast his eyes repeatedly toward the house. He managed to make the job last over so that he could return in the afternoon. He was not conscious of planning this, but it was in some manner contrived for him by forces of his own with which he seemed to be coöperating without his conscious will. Continually he glanced toward the house.

These glances Lulu saw. She was a woman of thirty-four and Di and Bobby were eighteen, but Lulu felt for them no adult indulgence. She felt that sweetness of attention which we bestow upon May robins. She felt more.

She cut a fresh cake, filled a plate, called to Di, saying: "Take some out to that Bobby Larkin, why don't you?"

It was Lulu's way of participating. It was her vicarious thrill.

After supper Dwight and Ina took their books and departed to the Chautauqua Circle. To these meetings Lulu never went. The reason seemed to be that she never went anywhere.

When they were gone Lulu felt an instant liberation. She turned aimlessly to the garden and dug round things with her finger. And she thought about the brightness of that Chautauqua scene to which Ina and Dwight had gone. Lulu thought about such gatherings in somewhat the way that a futurist receives the subjects of his art—forms not vague, but heightened to intolerable definiteness, acute colour, and always motion—motion as an integral part of the desirable. But a factor of all was that Lulu herself was the participant, not the onlooker. The perfection of her dream was not impaired by any longing. She had her dream as a saint her sense of heaven.

"Lulie!" her mother called. "You come out of that damp."

She obeyed, as she had obeyed that voice all her life. But she took one last look down the dim street. She had not known it, but superimposed on her Chautauqua thoughts had been her faint hope that it would be to-night, while she was in the garden alone, that Ninian Deacon would arrive. And she had on her wool chally, her coral beads, her cameo pin....

She went into the lighted dining-room. Monona was in bed. Di was not there. Mrs. Bett was in Dwight Herbert's leather chair and she lolled at her ease. It was strange to see this woman, usually so erect and tense, now actually lolling, as if lolling were the positive, the vital, and her ordinary rigidity a negation of her. In some corresponding orgy of leisure and liberation, Lulu sat down with no needle.

"Inie ought to make over her delaine," Mrs. Bett comfortably began. They talked of this, devised a mode, recalled other delaines. "Dear, dear," said Mrs. Bett, "I had on a delaine when I met your father." She described it. Both women talked freely, with animation. They were individuals and alive. To the two pallid beings accessory to the Deacons' presence, Mrs. Bett and her daughter Lulu now bore no relationship. They emerged, had opinions, contradicted, their eyes were bright.

Toward nine o'clock Mrs. Bett announced that she thought she should have a lunch. This was debauchery. She brought in bread-and-butter, and a dish of cold canned peas. She was committing all the excesses that she knew—offering opinions, laughing, eating. It was to be seen that this woman had an immense store of vitality, perpetually submerged.

When she had eaten she grew sleepy—rather cross at the last and inclined to hold up her sister's excellencies to Lulu; and, at Lulu's defence, lifted an ancient weapon.

"What's the use of finding fault with Inie? Where'd you been if she hadn't married?"

Lulu said nothing.

"What say?" Mrs. Bett demanded shrilly. She was enjoying it.

Lulu said no more. After a long time:

"You always was jealous of Inie," said Mrs. Bett, and went to her bed.

As soon as her mother's door had closed, Lulu took the lamp from its bracket, stretching up her long body and her long arms until her skirt lifted to show her really slim and pretty feet. Lulu's feet gave news of some other Lulu, but slightly incarnate. Perhaps, so far, incarnate only in her feet and her long hair.

She took the lamp to the parlour and stood before the photograph of Ninian Deacon, and looked her fill. She did not admire the photograph, but she wanted to look at it. The house was still, there was no possibility of interruption. The occasion became sensation, which she made no effort to quench. She held a rendezvous with she knew not what.

In the early hours of the next afternoon with the sun shining across the threshold, Lulu was paring something at the kitchen table. Mrs. Bett was asleep. ("I don't blame you a bit, mother," Lulu had said, as her mother named the intention.) Ina was asleep. (But Ina always took off the curse by calling it her "si-esta," long i.) Monona was playing with a neighbour's child—you heard their shrill yet lovely laughter as they obeyed the adult law that motion is pleasure. Di was not there.

A man came round the house and stood tying a puppy to the porch post. A long shadow fell through the west doorway, the puppy whined.

"Oh," said this man. "I didn't mean to arrive at the back door, but since I'm here——"

He lifted a suitcase to the porch, entered, and filled the kitchen.

"It's Ina, isn't it?" he said.

"I'm her sister," said Lulu, and understood that he was here at last.

"Well, I'm Bert's brother," said Ninian. "So I can come in, can't I?"

He did so, turned round like a dog before his chair and sat down heavily, forcing his fingers through heavy, upspringing brown hair.

"Oh, yes," said Lulu. "I'll call Ina. She's asleep."

"Don't call her, then," said Ninian. "Let's you and I get acquainted."

He said it absently, hardly looking at her.

"I'll get the pup a drink if you can spare me a basin," he added.

Lulu brought the basin, and while he went to the dog she ran tiptoeing to the dining-room china closet and brought a cut-glass tumbler, as heavy, as ungainly as a stone crock. This she filled with milk.

"I thought maybe ..." said she, and offered it.

"Thank you!" said Ninian, and drained it. "Making pies, as I live," he observed, and brought his chair nearer to the table. "I didn't know Ina had a sister," he went on. "I remember now Bert said he had two of her relatives——"

Lulu flushed and glanced at him pitifully.

"He has," she said. "It's my mother and me. But we do quite a good deal of the work."

"I'll bet you do," said Ninian, and did not perceive that anything had been violated. "What's your name?" he bethought.

She was in an immense and obscure excitement. Her manner was serene, her hands as they went on with the peeling did not tremble; her replies were given with sufficient quiet. But she told him her name as one tells something of another and more remote creature. She felt as one may feel in catastrophe—no sharp understanding but merely the sense that the thing cannot possibly be happening.

"You folks expect me?" he went on.

"Oh, yes," she cried, almost with vehemence. "Why, we've looked for you every day."

"'See," he said, "how long have they been married?"

Lulu flushed as she answered: "Fifteen years."

"And a year before that the first one died—and two years they were married," he computed. "I never met that one. Then it's close to twenty years since Bert and I have seen each other."

"How awful," Lulu said, and flushed again.


"To be that long away from your folks."

Suddenly she found herself facing this honestly, as if the immensity of her present experience were clarifying her understanding: Would it be so awful to be away from Bert and Monona and Di—yes, and Ina, for twenty years?

"You think that?" he laughed. "A man don't know what he's like till he's roamed around on his own." He liked the sound of it. "Roamed around on his own," he repeated, and laughed again. "Course a woman don't know that."

"Why don't she?" asked Lulu. She balanced a pie on her hand and carved the crust. She was stupefied to hear her own question. "Why don't she?"

"Maybe she does. Do you?"

"Yes," said Lulu.

"Good enough!" He applauded noiselessly, with fat hands. His diamond ring sparkled, his even white teeth flashed. "I've had twenty years of galloping about," he informed her, unable, after all, to transfer his interests from himself to her.

"Where?" she asked, although she knew.

"South America. Central America. Mexico. Panama." He searched his memory. "Colombo," he superadded.

"My!" said Lulu. She had probably never in her life had the least desire to see any of these places. She did not want to see them now. But she wanted passionately to meet her companion's mind.

"It's the life," he informed her.

"Must be," Lulu breathed. "I——" she tried, and gave it up.

"Where you been mostly?" he asked at last.

By this unprecedented interest in her doings she was thrown into a passion of excitement.

"Here," she said. "I've always been here. Fifteen years with Ina. Before that we lived in the country."

He listened sympathetically now, his head well on one side. He watched her veined hands pinch at the pies. "Poor old girl," he was thinking.

"Is it Miss Lulu Bett?" he abruptly inquired. "Or Mrs.?"

Lulu flushed in anguish.

"Miss," she said low, as one who confesses the extremity of failure. Then from unplumbed depths another Lulu abruptly spoke up. "From choice," she said.

He shouted with laughter.

"You bet! Oh, you bet!" he cried. "Never doubted it." He made his palms taut and drummed on the table. "Say!" he said.

Lulu glowed, quickened, smiled. Her face was another face.

"Which kind of a Mr. are you?" she heard herself ask, and his shoutings redoubled. Well! Who would have thought it of her?

"Never give myself away," he assured her. "Say, by George, I never thought of that before! There's no telling whether a man's married or not, by his name!"

"It don't matter," said Lulu.

"Why not?"

"Not so many people want to know."

Again he laughed. This laughter was intoxicating to Lulu. No one ever laughed at what she said save Herbert, who laughed at her. "Go it, old girl!" Ninian was thinking, but this did not appear.

The child Monona now arrived, banging the front gate and hurling herself round the house on the board walk, catching the toe of one foot in the heel of the other and blundering forward, head down, her short, straight hair flapping over her face. She landed flat-footed on the porch. She began to speak, using a ridiculous perversion of words, scarcely articulate, then in vogue in her group. And,

"Whose dog?" she shrieked.

Ninian looked over his shoulder, held out his hand, finished something that he was saying to Lulu. Monona came to him readily enough, staring, loose-lipped.

"I'll bet I'm your uncle," said Ninian.

Relationship being her highest known form of romance, Monona was thrilled by this intelligence.

"Give us a kiss," said Ninian, finding in the plural some vague mitigation for some vague offence.

Monona, looking silly, complied. And her uncle said my stars, such a great big tall girl—they would have to put a board on her head.

"What's that?" inquired Monona. She had spied his great diamond ring.

"This," said her uncle, "was brought to me by Santa Claus, who keeps a jewellery shop in heaven."

The precision and speed of his improvisation revealed him. He had twenty other diamonds like this one. He kept them for those Sundays when the sun comes up in the west. Of course—often! Some day he was going to melt a diamond and eat it. Then you sparkled all over in the dark, ever after. Another diamond he was going to plant. They say—— He did it all gravely, absorbedly. About it he was as conscienceless as a savage. This was no fancy spun to pleasure a child. This was like lying, for its own sake.

He went on talking with Lulu, and now again he was the tease, the braggart, the unbridled, unmodified male.

Monona stood in the circle of his arm. The little being was attentive, softened, subdued. Some pretty, faint light visited her. In her listening look, she showed herself a charming child.

"It strikes me," said Ninian to Lulu, "that you're going to do something mighty interesting before you die."

It was the clear conversational impulse, born of the need to keep something going, but Lulu was all faith.

She closed the oven door on her pies and stood brushing flour from her fingers. He was looking away from her, and she looked at him. He was completely like his picture. She felt as if she were looking at his picture and she was abashed and turned away.

"Well, I hope so," she said, which had certainly never been true, for her old formless dreams were no intention—nothing but a mush of discontent. "I hope I can do something that's nice before I quit," she said. Nor was this hope now independently true, but only this surprising longing to appear interesting in his eyes. To dance before him. "What would the folks think of me, going on so?" she suddenly said. Her mild sense of disloyalty was delicious. So was his understanding glance.

"You're the stuff," he remarked absently.

She laughed happily.

The door opened. Ina appeared.

"Well!" said Ina. It was her remotest tone. She took this man to be a pedlar, beheld her child in his clasp, made a quick, forward step, chin lifted. She had time for a very javelin of a look at Lulu.

"Hello!" said Ninian. He had the one formula. "I believe I'm your husband's brother. Ain't this Ina?"

It had not crossed the mind of Lulu to present him.

Beautiful it was to see Ina relax, soften, warm, transform, humanise. It gave one hope for the whole species.

"Ninian!" she cried. She lent a faint impression of the double e to the initial vowel. She slurred the rest, until the y sound squinted in. Not Neenyun, but nearly Neenyun.

He kissed her.

"Since Dwight isn't here!" she cried, and shook her finger at him. Ina's conception of hostess-ship was definite: A volley of questions—was his train on time? He had found the house all right? Of course! Any one could direct him, she should hope. And he hadn't seen Dwight? She must telephone him. But then she arrested herself with a sharp, curved fling of her starched skirts. No! They would surprise him at tea—she stood taut, lips compressed. Oh, the Plows were coming to tea. How unfortunate, she thought. How fortunate, she said.

The child Monona made her knees and elbows stiff and danced up and down. She must, she must participate.

"Aunt Lulu made three pies!" she screamed, and shook her straight hair.

"Gracious sakes," said Ninian. "I brought her a pup, and if I didn't forget to give it to her."

They adjourned to the porch—Ninian, Ina, Monona. The puppy was presented, and yawned. The party kept on about "the place." Ina delightedly exhibited the tomatoes, the two apple trees, the new shed, the bird bath. Ninian said the un-spellable "m—m," rising inflection, and the "I see," prolonging the verb as was expected of him. Ina said that they meant to build a summer-house, only, dear me, when you have a family—but there, he didn't know anything about that. Ina was using her eyes, she was arch, she was coquettish, she was flirtatious, and she believed herself to be merely matronly, sisterly, womanly ...

She screamed. Dwight was at the gate. Now the meeting, exclamation, banality, guffaw ... good will.

And Lulu, peeping through the blind.

When "tea" had been experienced that evening, it was found that a light rain was falling and the Deacons and their guests, the Plows, were constrained to remain in the parlour. The Plows were gentle, faintly lustrous folk, sketched into life rather lightly, as if they were, say, looking in from some other level.

"The only thing," said Dwight Herbert, "that reconciles me to rain is that I'm let off croquet." He rolled his r's, a favourite device of his to induce humour. He called it "croquette." He had never been more irrepressible. The advent of his brother was partly accountable, the need to show himself a fine family man and host in a prosperous little home—simple and pathetic desire.

"Tell you what we'll do!" said Dwight. "Nin and I'll reminisce a little."

"Do!" cried Mr. Plow. This gentle fellow was always excited by life, so faintly excited by him, and enjoyed its presentation in any real form.

Ninian had unerringly selected a dwarf rocker, and he was overflowing it and rocking.

"Take this chair, do!" Ina begged. "A big chair for a big man." She spoke as if he were about the age of Monona.

Ninian refused, insisted on his refusal. A few years more, and human relationships would have spread sanity even to Ina's estate and she would have told him why he should exchange chairs. As it was she forbore, and kept glancing anxiously at the over-burdened little beast beneath him.

The child Monona entered the room. She had been driven down by Di and Jenny Plow, who had vanished upstairs and, through the ventilator, might be heard in a lift and fall of giggling. Monona had also been driven from the kitchen where Lulu was, for some reason, hurrying through the dishes. Monona now ran to Mrs. Bett, stood beside her and stared about resentfully. Mrs. Bett was in best black and ruches, and she seized upon Monona and patted her, as her own form of social expression; and Monona wriggled like a puppy, as hers.

"Quiet, pettie," said Ina, eyebrows up. She caught her lower lip in her teeth.

"Well, sir," said Dwight, "you wouldn't think it to look at us, but mother had her hands pretty full, bringing us up."

Into Dwight's face came another look. It was always so, when he spoke of this foster-mother who had taken these two boys and seen them through the graded schools. This woman Dwight adored, and when he spoke of her he became his inner self.

"We must run up-state and see her while you're here, Nin," he said.

To this Ninian gave a casual assent, lacking his brother's really tender ardour.

"Little," Dwight pursued, "little did she think I'd settle down into a nice, quiet, married dentist and magistrate in my town. And Nin into—say, Nin, what are you, anyway?"

They laughed.

"That's the question," said Ninian.

They laughed.

"Maybe," Ina ventured, "maybe Ninian will tell us something about his travels. He is quite a traveller, you know," she said to the Plows. "A regular Gulliver."

They laughed respectfully.

"How we should love it, Mr. Deacon," Mrs. Plow said. "You know we've never seen very much."

Goaded on, Ninian launched upon his foreign countries as he had seen them: Population, exports, imports, soil, irrigation, business. For the populations Ninian had no respect. Crops could not touch ours. Soil mighty poor pickings. And the business—say! Those fellows don't know—and, say, the hotels! Don't say foreign hotel to Ninian.

He regarded all the alien earth as barbarian, and he stoned it. He was equipped for absolutely no intensive observation. His contacts were negligible. Mrs. Plow was more excited by the Deacons' party than Ninian had been wrought upon by all his voyaging.

"Tell you," said Dwight. "When we ran away that time and went to the state fair, little did we think—" He told about running away to the state fair. "I thought," he wound up, irrelevantly, "Ina and I might get over to the other side this year, but I guess not. I guess not."

The words give no conception of their effect, spoken thus. For there in Warbleton these words are not commonplace. In Warbleton, Europe is never so casually spoken. "Take a trip abroad" is the phrase, or "Go to Europe" at the very least, and both with empressement. Dwight had somewhere noted and deliberately picked up that "other side" effect, and his Ina knew this, and was proud. Her covert glance about pensively covered her soft triumph.

Mrs. Bett, her arm still circling the child Monona, now made her first observation.

"Pity not to have went while the going was good," she said, and said no more.

Nobody knew quite what she meant, and everybody hoped for the best. But Ina frowned. Mamma did these things occasionally when there was company, and she dared. She never sauced Dwight in private.

And it wasn't fair, it wasn't fair——

Abruptly Ninian rose and left the room.

The dishes were washed. Lulu had washed them at break-neck speed—she could not, or would not, have told why. But no sooner were they finished and set away than Lulu had been attacked by an unconquerable inhibition. And instead of going to the parlour, she sat down by the kitchen window. She was in her chally gown, with her cameo pin and her string of coral.

Laughter from the parlour mingled with the laughter of Di and Jenny upstairs. Lulu was now rather shy of Di. A night or two before, coming home with "extra" cream, she had gone round to the side-door and had come full upon Di and Bobby, seated on the steps. And Di was saying:

"Well, if I marry you, you've simply got to be a great man. I could never marry just anybody. I'd smother."

Lulu had heard, stricken. She passed them by, responding only faintly to their greeting. Di was far less taken aback than Lulu.

Later Di had said to Lulu: "I s'pose you heard what we were saying."

Lulu, much shaken, had withdrawn from the whole matter by a flat "no." "Because," she said to herself, "I couldn't have heard right."

But since then she had looked at Di as if Di were some one else. Had not Lulu taught her to make buttonholes and to hem—oh, no! Lulu could not have heard properly.

"Everybody's got somebody to be nice to them," she thought now, sitting by the kitchen window, adult yet Cinderella.

She thought that some one would come for her. Her mother or even Ina. Perhaps they would send Monona. She waited at first hopefully, then resentfully. The grey rain wrapped the air.

"Nobody cares what becomes of me after they're fed," she thought, and derived an obscure satisfaction from her phrasing, and thought it again.

Ninian Deacon came into the kitchen.

Her first impression was that he had come to see whether the dog had been fed.

"I fed him," she said, and wished that she had been busy when Ninian entered.

"Who, me?" he asked. "You did that all right. Say, why in time don't you come in the other room?"

"Oh, I don't know."

"Well, neither do I. I've kept thinking, 'Why don't she come along.' Then I remembered the dishes." He glanced about. "I come to help wipe dishes."

"Oh!" she laughed so delicately, so delightfully, one wondered where she got it. "They're washed——" she caught herself at "long ago."

"Well then, what are you doing here?"


"Rest in there." He bowed, crooked his arm. "Señora," he said,—his Spanish matched his other assimilations of travel—— "Señora. Allow me."

Lulu rose. On his arm she entered the parlour. Dwight was narrating and did not observe that entrance. To the Plows it was sufficiently normal. But Ina looked up and said:

"Well!"—in two notes, descending, curving.

Lulu did not look at her. Lulu sat in a low rocker. Her starched white skirt, throwing her chally in ugly lines, revealed a peeping rim of white embroidery. Her lace front wrinkled when she sat, and perpetually she adjusted it. She curled her feet sidewise beneath her chair, her long wrists and veined hands lay along her lap in no relation to her. She was tense. She rocked.

When Dwight had finished his narration, there was a pause, broken at last by Mrs. Bett:

"You tell that better than you used to when you started in telling it," she observed. "You got in some things I guess you used to clean forget about. Monona, get off my rocker."

Monona made a little whimpering sound, in pretence to tears. Ina said "Darling—quiet!"—chin a little lifted, lower lip revealing lower teeth for the word's completion; and she held it.

The Plows were asking something about Mexico. Dwight was wondering if it would let up raining at all. Di and Jenny came whispering into the room. But all these distractions Ninian Deacon swept aside.

"Miss Lulu," he said, "I wanted you to hear about my trip up the Amazon, because I knew how interested you are in travels."

He talked, according to his lights, about the Amazon. But the person who most enjoyed the recital could not afterward have told two words that he said. Lulu kept the position which she had taken at first, and she dare not change. She saw the blood in the veins of her hands and wanted to hide them. She wondered if she might fold her arms, or have one hand to support her chin, gave it all up and sat motionless, save for the rocking.

Then she forgot everything. For the first time in years some one was talking and looking not only at Ina and Dwight and their guests, but at her.

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