The Story of a Discontented Woman
"Is the water hot?" she asked cheerily.
The girl at the table came instantly to her feet.
"Aunt Ellen!" she cried, aghast.
"Oh, yes, it's lovely," murmured the lady, peering into the copper boiler on the stove.
"But, auntie, you—I"—the girl paused helplessly.
"Let's see, are these the wipers?" pursued Mrs. Howland, her hand on one of the towels hanging behind the stove.
Kate's face hardened.
"Thank you, Aunt Ellen. You are very kind, but I can do quite well by myself. You will please go into the living-room. I don't allow company to do kitchen work."
"Of course not!" acquiesced Mrs. Howland imperturbably. "But your father's sister is n't company, you know. Let's see, you put your clean dishes here?"
"But, Aunt Ellen, you must n't," protested Kate. "At home you do nothing—nothing all day." A curious expression came into Mrs. Howland's face, but Kate Merton did not seem to notice. "You have servants to do everything, even to dressing you. No, you can't wipe my dishes."
For a long minute there was silence in the kitchen. Mrs. Howland, wiper in hand, stood looking out the window. Her lips parted, then closed again. When she finally turned and spoke, the old smile had come back to her face.
"Then if that is the case, it will be all the more change for me to do something," she said pleasantly. "I want to do them, Kate. It will be a pleasure to me."
Mrs. Howland's clear laugh rang through the kitchen at the scorn expressed in the one word.
"And is it so bad as that?" she demanded merrily.
"Worse!" snapped Kate. "I simply loathe dishes!" But a shamed smile came to her lips, and she got the pans and water, making no further objection.
"I like pretty dishes," observed Mrs. Howland, after a time, breaking a long silence. "There's a certain satisfaction in restoring them to their shelves in all their dainty, polished beauty."
"I should like them just as well if they always stayed there, and did n't come down to get all crumbs and grease in the sink," returned the other tartly.
"Oh, of course," agreed Mrs. Howland, with a smile; "but, as long as they don't, why, we might as well take what satisfaction there is in putting them in shape again."
"Don't see it—the satisfaction," retorted Kate, and her aunt dropped the subject where it was.
The dishes finished and the kitchen put to rights, the two women started for the chambers and the bed-making. Kate's protests were airily waved aside by the energetic little woman who promptly went to pillow-beating and mattress-turning.
"How fresh and sweet the air smells!" cried Mrs. Howland, sniffing at the open window.
"Lilacs," explained Kate concisely.
"Think so? I don't care for the odor myself," rejoined Kate.
The other shot a quick look from under lowered lids. Kate's face expressed mere indifference. The girl evidently had not meant to be rude.
"You don't like them?" cried Mrs. Howland. "Oh, I do! My dear, you don't half appreciate what it is to have such air to breathe. Only think, if you were shut up in a brick house on a narrow street as I am!"
"Think!" retorted Kate, with sudden heat. "I'd like to do something besides 'think'! I'd like to try it!"
"You mean you'd like to leave here?—to go to the city?"
"I do, certainly. Aunt Ellen, I'm simply sick of chicken-feeding and meal-getting. Why, if it was n't for keeping house for father I'd have been off to New York or Boston years ago!"
"But your home—your friends!"
"Commonplace—uninteresting!" declared Kate, disposing of both with a wave of her two hands. "The one means endless sweeping and baking; the other means sewing societies, and silly gossip over clothes, beaux, and crops."
Mrs. Howland laughed, though she sobered instantly.
"But there must be something, some one that you enjoy," she suggested.
Kate shook her head wearily.
"Not a thing, not a person," she replied; adding with a whimsical twinkle, "they're all like the dishes, Aunt Ellen,—bound to accumulate crumbs and scraps, and do nothing but clutter up."
"Oh, Kate, Kate," remonstrated Mrs. Howland, "what an incorrigible girl you are!" As she spoke her lips smiled, but her eyes did not—there was a wistful light in their blue depths that persistently stayed there all through the day as she watched her niece.
At ten, and again at half-past, some neighbors dropped in. After they had gone Kate complained because the forenoon was so broken up. The next few hours were free from callers, and at the supper table Kate grumbled because the afternoon was so stupid and lonesome. When Mr. Merton came in bringing no mail, Kate exclaimed that nobody ever answered her letters, and that she might just as well not write; yet when the next day brought three, she sighed over the time "wasted in reading such long letters."
The week sped swiftly and Sunday night came. Mrs. Howland's visit was all but finished. She was going early the next morning.
Sunday had not been an unalloyed joy. Mrs. Howland and her niece had attended church, but to Kate the sermon was too long, and the singing too loud. The girl mentioned both in a listless way, at the same time saying that it was always like that except when the sermon was interesting, then it was too short and the choir took up all the time there was with their tiresome singing.
Dinner had been long in preparation, and, in spite of Mrs. Howland's gladly given assistance, the dish-washing and the kitchen-tidying had been longer still. All day Kate's step had been more than lagging, and her face more than discontented. In the twilight, as the two women sat together, Mrs. Rowland laid hold of her courage with both hands and spoke.
"Kate, dear, is n't there something, anything, worth while to you?"
"Nothing, auntie. I feel simply buried alive."
"But can't you think of anything—"
"Think of anything!" interrupted the girl swiftly. "Of course I can! If I had money—or lived somewhere else—or could go somewhere, or see something once in a while, it would be different; but here—!'"
Mrs. Howland shook her head.
"But it would n't be different, my dear," she demurred.
"Why, of course it would!" laughed Kate bitterly. "It could n't help it."
Again Mrs. Howland shook her head. Then a whimsical smile crossed her face.
"Kate," she said, "there are crumbs on the plates out in the world just the same as there are here; and if here you teach yourself to see nothing but crumbs, you will see nothing but crumbs out there. In short, dissatisfaction with everyday living is the same joy-killer whether in town or city, farmhouse or palace. Oh, I'm preaching, I know, dear," went on Mrs. Howland hurriedly, as she saw the angry light in the other's eyes, "but—I had to speak—you don't know how it's growing on you. Come, let's kiss and make up; then think it over."
Kate frowned, then laughed constrainedly.
"Don't worry, aunt," she replied, rising, and just touching her aunt's lips with her own. "I still think it would be different out there; but—I suppose you 'll always remain unconvinced, for I shall never have the chance to prove it. My plates won't belong anywhere but in Hopkinsville cupboards! Come, will you play to me?"
When Mrs. Rowland returned from England, one of the first letters she received after reaching home was a cordial invitation from her dead brother's daughter, Kate, to visit her.
In the last five years Mrs. Howland had seen her niece but once. That was during the sad, hurried days just following Mr. Merton's sudden death four years before. Since then Mrs. Howland had been abroad and there had been many changes at the little farmhouse in Hopkinsville. The farm had been sold, and Kate had married and had gone to Boston to live. Beyond the facts that Kate's husband was older than she, and was a man of considerable means, Mrs. Howland knew little of her niece's present circumstances. It was with curiosity, as well as pleasure, that she accepted Kate's invitation, and took the train specified.
At the South Station Mrs. Howland found a stylishly gowned, smiling young woman with a cordial welcome. An imposing carriage with a liveried coachman waited to take her to Kate's home.
"Oh, what handsome horses!" cried Mrs. Howland appreciatively, as she stepped into the carriage.
"Yes, are n't they," agreed Kate. "If only they matched better, they'd be perfect. I wish both had stars on their foreheads!"
"Let me see, you are on Beacon Street, I believe," remarked Mrs. Howland, as the carriage left the more congested quarter of the city.
Kate frowned. "Yes," she answered. "I wanted Commonwealth Avenue, but Mr. Blake preferred Beacon. All his people live on Beacon, and have for years."
"Oh, but Beacon is lovely, I think."
"Do you? Well, perhaps; but Commonwealth is so much wider and more roomy. I could breathe on Commonwealth Avenue, I think!"
"And don't you, where you are?" laughed Mrs. Howland.
Her niece made a playfully wry face.
"Just pant—upon my word I do! Not one full breath do I draw," she asserted.
"Hm-m; I've always understood that deep breathing was necessary for health," commented Mrs. Howland, with a critical, comprehensive glance; "but—you seem to thrive all right! You are looking well, Kate."
"I don't feel so. I have the most shocking headaches," the other retorted. "Ah, here we are!"
Mrs. Howland followed her hostess up a short flight of stone steps into a handsome hall. A well-trained maid was at once in attendance, and another, a little later, helped her unpack.
"My dear," Mrs. Howland said to her niece when she came downstairs, "what a lucky woman you are to have two such maids! They are treasures!"
Kate's hands flew to her head with a gesture of despair.
"Maids!—Aunt Ellen, don't ever say the word to me, I beg! I never keep one more than a month, and I'm shaking in my shoes this very minute. There's a new cook in the kitchen, and I have n't the least idea what your dinner will be."
"I'm not a bit worried," rejoined Mrs. Howland. "What a pretty home you have, Kate," she added, tactfully changing the subject.
"Think so? I'm glad you like it. I sometimes wish I could get hold of the man who built this house, though, and give him a piece of my mind. The rooms on this floor are so high studded they give me the shivers, while all the chambers are so low they are absurd. Did n't you notice it in your room?"
"Why—no; I don't think I did."
"Well, you will now."
"Perhaps so, since you have told me to," returned Mrs. Howland, a curious smile on her lips.
The dinner was well planned, well cooked, and well served, in Mrs. Howland's opinion, though to her niece it was none of the three. Kate's husband, the Honorable Eben Blake, proved to be a genial, distinguished-looking man who welcomed Mrs. Howland with the cordiality that he displayed toward anybody or anything connected in the most remote degree with his wife. It was evidently with sincere regrets that he made his apologies after dinner, and left the house with a plea of business.
"It's always that way when I want him!" exclaimed Kate petulantly. "Then night after night when I don't want him he'll stay at home and read and smoke."
"But you have friends—you go out," hazarded Mrs. Howland.
Mrs. Blake raised her eyebrows.
"Oh, of course! But, after all, what do calls and receptions amount to? You always meet the same people who say the same things, whether you go to see them or they come to see you."
Mrs. Howland laughed; then she said, softly,
"The old, old story, Kate,—the crumbs on the plates."
"What?" demanded the younger woman in frank amazement. There was a moment's pause during which she gazed blankly into her aunt's eyes. "Oh!—that?" she added, coloring painfully; then she uptilted her chin. "You are very much mistaken, auntie," she resumed with some dignity. "It is nothing of the sort. I am very happy—very happy, indeed!"—positively. "I have a good husband, a pretty home, more money than is good for me, and—well, everything," she finished a little breathlessly.
Again Mrs. Howland laughed, but her face grew almost instantly grave.
"And yet, my dear," she said gently, "scarcely one thing has been mentioned since I came that was quite right."
"Oh, Aunt Ellen, how can you say such a dreadful thing!"
"Listen," replied Mrs. Howland; "it's little bits of things that you don't think of. It has grown on you without your realizing it: the horses did n't both have stars; the house was n't on Commonwealth Avenue; the rooms are too high or too low studded; the roast was over-done; your husband could n't"—
"Oh, auntie, auntie, I beg of you!"—interrupted Kate hysterically.
"Are you convinced, then?"
Kate shook her head. "I can't, auntie—I can't believe it!" she cried. "It—it can't be like that always. There must have been special things to-day that plagued me. Auntie, I'm not such a—monster!"
"Hm-m; well—will you consent to an experiment to—er—find out?"
"Indeed I will!" returned Kate promptly.
"Very good! Every time I hear those little dissatisfied fault-findings, I am going to mention crumbs or plates or china. I think you'll understand. Is it a bargain?"
"It's a bargain," agreed Kate, and she smiled confidently.
The rest of the evening Mrs. Blake kept close guard over her tongue. Twice a "but" and once an "only" slipped out; but she bit her lips and completed her sentence in another way in each case, and if Mrs. Howland noticed, she made no sign.
It rained the next morning. Kate came into the dining-room with a frown.
"I'm so sorry, auntie," she sighed. "I'd planned a drive this morning. It always rains when I want to do something, but when I don't, it just shines and shines, week in and week out."
"Won't the rain wash the—plates?" asked Mrs. Howland in a low voice, as she passed her niece's chair.
"Wha-at?" demanded Mrs. Blake; then she flushed scarlet. "Weather doesn't count," she finished flippantly.
"No? Oh!" smiled Mrs. Howland.
"Fine muffins, these!" spoke up Mr. Blake, a little later. "New cook—eh?"
"Yes," replied his wife. "But they're graham. I'd much rather have had corn-cake."
"There are not so many—crumbs to graham," observed Mrs. Howland musingly.
There was no reply. The man of the house looked slightly dazed. His wife bit her lip, and choked a little over her coffee. Through the rest of the meal Mrs. Blake confined herself almost exclusively to monosyllables, leaving the conversation to her husband and guest.
At ten the sky cleared, and Mrs. Blake ordered the horses.
"We can't drive far," she began discontentedly, "for I ordered an early luncheon as we have tickets for a concert this afternoon. I wanted to go away out beyond the Newtons, but now we'll have to take a little snippy one."
"Oh, I don't mind," rejoined her guest pleasantly. "Where one can't have the whole cake one must be satisfied with—crumbs."
"Why, I don't see"—began Kate aggressively; then she stopped, and nervously tapped her foot.
"Oh, how pretty that vine is!" cried Mrs. Howland suddenly. The silence was growing oppressive.
"It looks very well now, but you should see it in winter," retorted Kate. "Great, bare, snake-like things all over the—now, don't cudgel your brains to bring 'plates' or 'crumbs' into that!" she broke off with sudden sharpness.
"No, ma'am," answered Mrs. Howland demurely.
By night the guest, if not the hostess, was in a state of nervous tension that boded ill for sleep. The day had been one long succession of "crumbs" and "china plates"—conversationally. According to Kate, the roads had been muddy; the sun had been too bright; there had been chops when there should have been croquettes for luncheon; the concert seats were too far forward; the soprano had a thin voice, and the bass a faulty enunciation; at dinner the soup was insipid, and the dessert a disappointment; afterwards, in the evening, callers had stayed too long.
Mrs. Howland was in her own room, on the point of preparing for bed, when there came a knock at her chamber door,
"Please, Aunt Ellen, may I come in?"
"Certainly, my dear," called Mrs. Howland, hastening across the room.
Kate stepped inside, closed the door, and placed her back against it.
"I'll give it up," she began, half laughing, half crying. "I never, never would have believed it! Don't ever say 'crumbs' or 'plates' to me again as long as you live—please! I believe I never can even see the things again with any peace or comfort. I am going to try—try—Oh, how I'm going to try!—but, auntie, I think it's a hopeless case!" The next instant she had whisked the door open and had vanished out of sight.
"'Hopeless'?" Mrs. Howland was whispering to herself the next day, as she passed through the hall. "'Hopeless'? Oh, no, I think not." And she smiled as she heard her niece's voice in the drawing-room saying:"High studded, Eben?—these rooms? Yes, perhaps; but, after all, it does n't matter so much, being a drawing-room—and one does get better air, you know!"