Miss Lulu Bett

by Zona Gale

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III - June

On a June morning Dwight Herbert Deacon looked at the sky, and said with his manner of originating it: "How about a picnic this afternoon?"

Ina, with her blank, upward look, exclaimed: "To-day?"

"First class day, it looks like to me."

Come to think of it, Ina didn't know that there was anything to prevent, but mercy, Herbert was so sudden. Lulu began to recite the resources of the house for a lunch. Meanwhile, since the first mention of picnic, the child Monona had been dancing stiffly about the room, knees stiff, elbows stiff, shoulders immovable, her straight hair flapping about her face. The sad dance of the child who cannot dance because she never has danced. Di gave a conservative assent—she was at that age—and then took advantage of the family softness incident to a guest and demanded that Bobby go too. Ina hesitated, partly because she always hesitated, partly because she was tribal in the extreme. "Just our little family and Uncle Ninian would have been so nice," she sighed, with her consent.

When, at six o'clock, Ina and Dwight and Ninian assembled on the porch and Lulu came out with the basket, it was seen that she was in a blue-cotton house-gown.

"Look here," said Ninian, "aren't you going?"

"Me?" said Lulu. "Oh, no."

"Why not?"

"Oh, I haven't been to a picnic since I can remember."

"But why not?"

"Oh, I never think of such a thing."

Ninian waited for the family to speak. They did speak. Dwight said:

"Lulu's a regular home body."

And Ina advanced kindly with: "Come with us, Lulu, if you like."

"No," said Lulu, and flushed. "Thank you," she added, formally.

Mrs. Bett's voice shrilled from within the house, startlingly close—just beyond the blind, in fact:

"Go on, Lulie. It'll do you good. You mind me and go on."

"Well," said Ninian, "that's what I say. You hustle for your hat and you come along."

For the first time this course presented itself to Lulu as a possibility. She stared up at Ninian.

"You can slip on my linen duster, over," Ina said graciously.

"Your new one?" Dwight incredulously wished to know.

"Oh, no!" Ina laughed at the idea. "The old one."

They were having to wait for Di in any case—they always had to wait for Di—and at last, hardly believing in her own motions, Lulu was running to make ready. Mrs. Bett hurried to help her, but she took down the wrong things and they were both irritated. Lulu reappeared in the linen duster and a wide hat. There had been no time to "tighten up" her hair; she was flushed at the adventure; she had never looked so well.

They started. Lulu, falling in with Monona, heard for the first time in her life, the step of the pursuing male, choosing to walk beside her and the little girl. Oh, would Ina like that? And what did Lulu care what Ina liked? Monona, making a silly, semi-articulate observation, was enchanted to have Lulu burst into laughter and squeeze her hand.

Di contributed her bright presence, and Bobby Larkin appeared from nowhere, running, with a gigantic bag of fruit.

"Bullylujah!" he shouted, and Lulu could have shouted with him.

She sought for some utterance. She wanted to talk with Ninian.

"I do hope we've brought sandwiches enough," was all that she could get to say.

They chose a spot, that is to say Dwight Herbert chose a spot, across the river and up the shore where there was at that season a strip of warm beach. Dwight Herbert declared himself the builder of incomparable fires, and made a bad smudge. Ninian, who was a camper neither by birth nor by adoption, kept offering brightly to help, could think of nothing to do, and presently, bethinking himself of skipping stones, went and tried to skip them on the flowing river. Ina cut her hand opening the condensed milk and was obliged to sit under a tree and nurse the wound. Monona spilled all the salt and sought diligently to recover it. So Lulu did all the work. As for Di and Bobby, they had taken the pail and gone for water, discouraging Monona from accompanying them, discouraging her to the point of tears. But the two were gone for so long that on their return Dwight was hungry and cross and majestic.

"Those who disregard the comfort of other people," he enunciated, "can not expect consideration for themselves in the future."

He did not say on what ethical tenet this dictum was based, but he delivered it with extreme authority. Ina caught her lower lip with her teeth, dipped her head, and looked at Di. And Monona laughed like a little demon.

As soon as Lulu had all in readiness, and cold corned beef and salad had begun their orderly progression, Dwight became the immemorial dweller in green fastnesses. He began:

"This is ideal. I tell you, people don't half know life if they don't get out and eat in the open. It's better than any tonic at a dollar the bottle. Nature's tonic—eh? Free as the air. Look at that sky. See that water. Could anything be more pleasant?"

He smiled at his wife. This man's face was glowing with simple pleasure. He loved the out-of-doors with a love which could not explain itself. But he now lost a definite climax when his wife's comment was heard to be:

"Monona! Now it's all over both ruffles. And mamma does try so hard...."

After supper some boys arrived with a boat which they beached, and Dwight, with enthusiasm, gave the boys ten cents for a half hour's use of that boat and invited to the waters his wife, his brother and his younger daughter. Ina was timid——not because she was afraid but because she was congenitally timid—with her this was not a belief or an emotion, it was a disease.

"Dwight darling, are you sure there's no danger?"

Why, none. None in the world. Whoever heard of drowning in a river.

"But you're not so very used——"

Oh, wasn't he? Who was it that had lived in a boat throughout youth if not he?

Ninian refused out-of-hand, lighted a cigar, and sat on a log in a permanent fashion. Ina's plump figure was fitted in the stern, the child Monona affixed, and the boat put off, bow well out of water. On this pleasure ride the face of the wife was as the face of the damned. It was true that she revered her husband's opinions above those of all other men. In politics, in science, in religion, in dentistry she looked up to his dicta as to revelation. And was he not a magistrate? But let him take oars in hand, or shake lines or a whip above the back of any horse, and this woman would trust any other woman's husband by preference. It was a phenomenon.

Lulu was making the work last, so that she should be out of everybody's way. When the boat put off without Ninian, she felt a kind of terror and wished that he had gone. He had sat down near her, and she pretended not to see. At last Lulu understood that Ninian was deliberately choosing to remain with her. The languor of his bulk after the evening meal made no explanation for Lulu. She asked for no explanation. He had stayed.

And they were alone. For Di, on a pretext of examining the flocks and herds, was leading Bobby away to the pastures, a little at a time.

The sun, now fallen, had left an even, waxen sky. Leaves and ferns appeared drenched with the light just withdrawn. The hush, the warmth, the colour, were charged with some influence. The air of the time communicated itself to Lulu as intense and quiet happiness. She had not yet felt quiet with Ninian. For the first time her blind excitement in his presence ceased, and she felt curiously accustomed to him. To him the air of the time imparted itself in a deepening of his facile sympathy.

"Do you know something?" he began. "I think you have it pretty hard around here."

"I?" Lulu was genuinely astonished.

"Yes, sir. Do you have to work like this all the time? I guess you won't mind my asking."

"Well, I ought to work. I have a home with them. Mother too."

"Yes, but glory. You ought to have some kind of a life of your own. You want it, too. You told me you did—that first day."

She was silent. Again he was investing her with a longing which she had never really had, until he had planted that longing. She had wanted she knew not what. Now she accepted the dim, the romantic interest of this rôle.

"I guess you don't see how it seems," he said, "to me, coming along—a stranger so. I don't like it."

He frowned, regarded the river, flicked away ashes, his diamond obediently shining. Lulu's look, her head drooping, had the liquid air of the look of a young girl. For the first time in her life she was feeling her helplessness. It intoxicated her.

"They're very good to me," she said.

He turned. "Do you know why you think that? Because you've never had anybody really good to you. That's why."

"But they treat me good."

"They make a slave of you. Regular slave." He puffed, frowning. "Damned shame, I call it," he said.

Her loyalty stirred Lulu. "We have our whole living——"

"And you earn it. I been watching you since I been here. Don't you ever go anywheres?"

She said: "This is the first place in—in years."

"Lord. Don't you want to? Of course you do!"

"Not so much places like this——"

"I see. What you want is to get away—like you'd ought to." He regarded her. "You've been a blamed fine-looking woman," he said.

She did not flush, but that faint, unsuspected Lulu spoke for her:

"You must have been a good-looking man once yourself."

His laugh went ringing across the water. "You're pretty good," he said. He regarded her approvingly. "I don't see how you do it," he mused,

"blamed if I do."

"How I do what?"

"Why come back, quick like that, with what you say."

Lulu's heart was beating painfully. The effort to hold her own in talk like this was terrifying. She had never talked in this fashion to any one. It was as if some matter of life or death hung on her ability to speak an alien tongue. And yet, when she was most at loss, that other Lulu, whom she had never known anything about, seemed suddenly to speak for her. As now:

"It's my grand education," she said.

She sat humped on the log, her beautiful hair shining in the light of the warm sky. She had thrown off her hat and the linen duster, and was in her blue gingham gown against the sky and leaves. But she sat stiffly, her feet carefully covered, her hands ill at ease, her eyes rather piteous in their hope somehow to hold her vague own. Yet from her came these sufficient, insouciant replies.

"Education," he said laughing heartily. "That's mine, too." He spoke a creed. "I ain't never had it and I ain't never missed it."

"Most folks are happy without an education," said Lulu.

"You're not very happy, though."

"Oh, no," she said.

"Well, sir," said Ninian, "I'll tell you what we'll do. While I'm here I'm going to take you and Ina and Dwight up to the city."

"To the city?"

"To a show. Dinner and a show. I'll give you one good time."

"Oh!" Lulu leaned forward. "Ina and Dwight go sometimes. I never been."

"Well, just you come with me. I'll look up what's good. You tell me just what you like to eat, and we'll get it——"

She said: "I haven't had anything to eat in years that I haven't cooked myself."

He planned for that time to come, and Lulu listened as one intensely experiencing every word that he uttered. Yet it was not in that future merry-making that she found her joy, but in the consciousness that he—some one—any one—was planning like this for her.

Meanwhile Di and Bobby had rounded the corner by an old hop-house and kept on down the levee. Now that the presence of the others was withdrawn, the two looked about them differently and began themselves to give off an influence instead of being pressed upon by overpowering personalities. Frogs were chorusing in the near swamp, and Bobby wanted one. He was off after it. But Di eventually drew him back, reluctant, frogless. He entered upon an exhaustive account of the use of frogs for bait, and as he talked he constantly flung stones. Di grew restless. There was, she had found, a certain amount of this to be gone through before Bobby would focus on the personal. At length she was obliged to say, "Like me to-day?" And then he entered upon personal talk with the same zest with which he had discussed bait.

"Bobby," said Di, "sometimes I think we might be married, and not wait for any old money."

They had now come that far. It was partly an authentic attraction, grown from out the old repulsion, and partly it was that they both—and especially Di—so much wanted the experiences of attraction that they assumed its ways. And then each cared enough to assume the pretty rôle required by the other, and by the occasion, and by the air of the time.

"Would you?" asked Bobby—but in the subjunctive.

She said: "Yes. I will."

"It would mean running away, wouldn't it?" said Bobby, still subjunctive.

"I suppose so. Mamma and papa are so unreasonable."

"Di," said Bobby, "I don't believe you could ever be happy with me."

"The idea! I can too. You're going to be a great man—you know you are."

Bobby was silent. Of course he knew it—but he passed it over.

"Wouldn't it be fun to elope and surprise the whole school?" said Di, sparkling.

Bobby grinned appreciatively. He was good to look at, with his big frame, his head of rough dark hair, the sky warm upon his clear skin and full mouth. Di suddenly announced that she would be willing to elope now.

"I've planned eloping lots of times," she said ambiguously.

It flashed across the mind of Bobby that in these plans of hers he may not always have been the principal, and he could not be sure ... But she talked in nothings, and he answered her so.

Soft cries sounded in the centre of the stream. The boat, well out of the strong current, was seen to have its oars shipped; and there sat Dwight Herbert gently rocking the boat. Dwight Herbert would.

"Bertie, Bertie—please!" you heard his Ina say.

Monona began to cry, and her father was irritated, felt that it would be ignominious to desist, and did not know that he felt this. But he knew that he was annoyed, and he took refuge in this, and picked up the oars with: "Some folks never can enjoy anything without spoiling it."

"That's what I was thinking," said Ina, with a flash of anger.

They glided toward the shore in a huff. Monona found that she enjoyed crying across the water and kept it up. It was almost as good as an echo. Ina, stepping safe to the sands, cried ungratefully that this was the last time that she would ever, ever go with her husband anywhere. Ever. Dwight Herbert, recovering, gauged the moment to require of him humour, and observed that his wedded wife was as skittish as a colt. Ina kept silence, head poised so that her full little chin showed double. Monona, who had previously hidden a cooky in her frock, now remembered it and crunched sidewise, the eyes ruminant.

Moving toward them, with Di, Bobby was suddenly overtaken by the sense of disliking them all. He never had liked Dwight Herbert, his employer. Mrs. Deacon seemed to him so overwhelmingly mature that he had no idea how to treat her. And the child Monona he would like to roll in the river. Even Di ... He fell silent, was silent on the walk home which was the signal for Di to tease him steadily. The little being was afraid of silence. It was too vast for her. She was like a butterfly in a dome.

But against that background of ruined occasion, Lulu walked homeward beside Ninian. And all that night, beside her mother who groaned in her sleep, Lulu lay tense and awake. He had walked home with her. He had told Ina and Herbert about going to the city. What did it mean? Suppose ... oh no; oh no!

"Either lay still or get up and set up," Mrs. Bett directed her at length.

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