Good Sports/Fifteen Dollars' Worth
FIFTEEN DOLLARS' WORTH
THE Janse farm, if you could call it a farm, was a lonesome place. I'm pretty well acquainted with lonesome places. My business is sellin' pretty things to women and children at their houses, and my territory covers the out-lyin' districts, where it ain't very convenient for the women to get to the towns.
The Janse place was less than fifty miles from Boston, I know, but, honest, you'd never guess it as you stood on the tumble-down front steps of the little house, and cast your eyes out over the long flat meadows stretchin' away towards the west, as far as you could see, with never a sign of a road, or a house, or a scrap of cultivated land to let you know there was somebody alive besides yourself, this side of the horizon. 'Twa'n't a very lively place for a young girl to live. The road the house stood on ended up in a peat-meadow. There was a little cemetery where nobody was ever buried any more just before you got to the Janses', and there was a deserted gravel-pit just after you got by, but that's all the trace of civilization there was on that road. Say, but it was lonesome!
Isabel Janse lived all alone up there with her old gramma and grandpa Janse, and you couldn't call them exactly cheerful company. Their minds had begun to go back on 'em, and Isabel didn't have anything to talk normal to but a dozen hens, and a cow, and an old twenty-year-old horse that had begun to go lame.
Up-stairs in her bottom bureau drawer Isabel had got fifteen dollars stowed away. She'd got it 'stead of a revolver, she said, so's when the time came she couldn't stand it any more she could up and clear out.
The fifteen dollars was given her by one of them antique furniture-men, for a high-boy, that used to belong to her mother. She said she knew the high-boy was worth more'n fifteen dollars, but 'twa'n't worth fifteen cents to her, standin' up-stairs there in the hall, even if it was solid mahogany. Solid mahogany wouldn't pay for a ticket on a railroad train, would it, or old brass handles for a piece of bread-and-butter in a strange city?
"Except for that fifteen dollars," Isabel once told me, "there'd be three of us off in the top story up here on this hill. It's knowin' I can get away, if I have to, that's keepin' me from goin' stark crazy mad—livin' up here alone, never seein' a soul, never hearin' a soul, never even knowin' half the time but the rest of the world's all dead and buried, but just me and Gram and Gramp."
You wouldn't think any girl so near Boston as Isabel lived would feel that way now, would you? But I wasn't a bit surprised. I see a good deal of women in my business, and with most of 'em it's circumstances, not location, that build walls 'round 'em they can't get over.
My business, as I said, is distributin' pretty things to women and children. I collect my stuff cheap in the city stores, and usually, 'long in April sometime, me and Nellie, my mare, start out on the road. We don't make our expenses, nor anywhere near. Most of the women in the houses where we call haven't got much spare change for the kind of merchandise we've got to sell. But we make a lot of friends, and we reap a big harvest every year in welcomes, and come-agains and happy looks, when we leave behind us some little gewgaw or trinket, which, thanks to a few railroad shares left me by an uncle of mine, I can afford to part with for a little less than cost. I like people. I like to talk to 'em and get close to the inside of their thoughts. I'm kind of a sociable sort of man, I guess, and peddlin' suits me for a hobby first rate.
Two years ago last spring when I called up at the Janses' I hadn't been near the house for over eighteen months. I went up after supper 'bout sunset-time. The meadow down to the foot of the hill in front of the Janse house is kind of a swampy place—full of frogs in the spring, and as Nellie and I jogged along the little narrow road, and got nearer to the Janse house, I couldn't hear a sound but the wail of cryin', screechin', wild things all about me, to a depth of a hundred miles or so, it seemed.
When I reached the clump of lilacs, hidin' the Janse house, I hollered out a good healthy "Whoa" to Nellie, and cramped my wheel round sharp so's it would scrape and make a noise, and Isabel could know 'twas a human come to see her. Then I got out and lifted one of my suit-cases from the back of the buggy. I was goin' round to the back door, same's usual, when I caught a glimpse o' Isabel, settin' on the little low, front steps in front of the saggin' front door, which the wood-bine was doin' its best to cover up.
I cut across through the grass growin' rank and coarse in the front yard, and went over towards her way.
"Hello, Isabel," I said to her when I got near enough.
She was settin' on the lowest step, leanin' forward with her arms crossed on her knees, and each hand hold of an elbow.
She wasn't a very handsome girl—awful drab-colored and spiritless-lookin'. And she always wore drab-colored calico wrappers that didn't help to brighten her up much. She hadn't any what you call "figure" either—awful skinny girl.
"Hello," she replied, not stirrin'.
"How's Gramp and Gram?" I asked, bright's I could.
"Same as usual," said Isabel.
"Abed?" I inquired, lookin' round at the silent house.
Isabel nodded. "Yes. I get 'em to bed early nights now."
Isabel's voice didn't have any pretty ups and downs to it. She talked all on one note—a kind of dull, mouse-colored note to match the rest of her.
"Well," I went on, still cheerful, "Nellie and me are off on the road again to-morrow mornin', and I said to her this afternoon, I said, 'Well, Nellie, we'll have to pay the Janses a call to-night, if we don't pass by 'em entirely this trip.'"
"There's nothin' I want," said Isabel.
"Oh, that's all right," I replied, and put down my suit-case close up against the house. Then I went over to where Isabel was and set down on the low step beside her. It didn't seem right to leave any woman idle in a place like that, settin' all alone, lookin' at nothing in particular, listenin' to that swamp.
Isabel didn't move over when I sat down, nor say anything to make me feel welcome. I didn't take offense. I'm used to Isabel's kind.
I took off my hat and laid it on the grass beside me, and after a minute or two, I asked, "Well, Isabel, how are yer?"
"All right," she said, curt and brief.
"I see you're still on the job."
Isabel give a shrug, and kind of a grunt, but didn't say anything.
"Haven't had to resort to what you got in the lowest drawer of your bureau yet, anyhow," I remarked.
"I suppose you're referrin' to that fifteen dollars," says Isabel.
"Yes, I was," I allowed.
"Lot of good that's doin' me!" she murmured.
"You used to say it did you a lot of good," I reminded her. "You used to say that that fifteen dollars was what kept you from goin' stark crazy mad."
"Well, it ain't!" she kind of snapped at me. "It's myself and my own makin'-up-my-mind that's keepin' me from going crazy mad. A person can stand what they've got to stand if they've got a mind to, fifteen dollars, or no fifteen dollars," she says.
"That's the way to talk, Isabel," I replied, full of admiration. "Will-power is a lot more use to anybody in keepin' sane and steady than fifteen dollars is."
But she wasn't goin' to let me praise her, if she could help it. "I don't know 'bout that," she spurts out, "but I know fifteen dollars is a lot too much to pay for a bottle of rat-poison, and it's a lot too little for a girl to go to the bad on, if she prefers that way of puttin' an end to things she thinks she can't stand. At least it's a lot too little for a girl like me, with no face and no figure, and no clothes to cover up how ugly she is." She gave a kind of snort, meant to be a laugh, I guess. Then tossed up her head much as to say, "I don't care if I have shocked yer!"
She didn't shock me a mite. She wasn't the first girl I'd heard talk rank and extreme to cover up a lot of fine qualities inside, which they wouldn't let you get a peep at for anything. I know, too, what the effect is, on a woman, of years and years of hardship with mighty few good times sprinkled in, and mighty few kind words, and kind looks to warm 'em up. Flowers don't grow very plenty up in the Arctic regions, where the wind blows hard, and the sun don't shine much.
After a minute I asked, "What are you goin' to do with your fifteen dollars, Isabel?"
"I'm goin' to spend it," she spat at me, spiteful-like.
"On myself," she said and she was awful savage about it. "On fifteen dollars' worth of pleasure for myself."
"What sort of pleasure?"
"I haven't decided yet."
"Well," I told her, "if I can help select something for you, when I'm in the city sometime—"
"Oh, the kind of stuff you know about is nothin' I'm interested in," she said. "Jewelry, and stuff to rig myself up in would be a lot of use to me up here in this hole, wouldn't it?"
Isabel had always been awful indifferent towards the things in my suit-cases. Once I'd given her as a present a comb with rhinestones in it. Thought she might like it for her hair. But she'd shoved it back in my suit-case again and said she didn't want it. I'd made her keep it, though. Said to put it in the stove if she had no other use for it—kind of as if I was offended, and she'd shrugged and stuck it up careless on the mantel, and gone off about her work.
"Ever been to Boston?" I inquired now, an idea slowly formin' in the back of my brain.
She shook her head.
"The fare ain't much to Boston," I said, "and I know a place down there where you can sleep for a dollar a night. I believe you could stay for two or three days and still have enough left of your fifteen dollars for the rat-poison," I kind of laughed, "which I bet you wouldn't have any use for after seein' the crowds and theaters, and things in Boston, and eatin' food somebody else raised and cooked beside yourself, in restaurants I can give you the names of."
"And who do you think," asked Isabel, scathin' and scornful, "would be here, lookin' out that Gram didn't wander down in the swamp and get stuck, the way she has twice; and seein' Gramp didn't go out and hoe in his night-shirt, and go to bed in his overalls; and feedin' the hens; and milkin' the cow? You talk nonsense!"
"'Twouldn't be the first time Nellie and me have done a little accommodatin'," I suggested shy.
"And what pleasure do you think 'twould be to me," Isabel went on, ignorin' my generous offer, "to gallivant 'round Boston all alone, and eat in restaurants where I'd feel strange, and stared at; and go to theaters, where everybody but me is dressed up fine, and laughin' and talkin' to somebody? No, thanks."
"Oh, all right," I said, as if I washed my hands of her. Kindness won't break through the material women like Isabel clog up the avenue to their souls with, half as quick sometimes as something sharp and biting. You know how lye acts on the kitchen-sink pipe that's got stopped. That's how my pique acted on Isabel.
"I don't care what you do with your money," I went on. "It's nothin' to me. I was only suggestin'. Throw it into the swamp for all I care."
"I might tell you what I'm thinkin' of doin' with it," she said, "if you'd stop talkin' that way and give me a chance."
"Oh, you don't have to," I said, kind of sulky.
"I was thinkin'," she said, "that I might possibly consider buyin' one of them talkin'-machines with it."
"One of them contrivances that serves up Sousa and Mrs. Shuman-Hienze and the Star-Spangled Banner on a brass band in your own front parlor!" I exclaimed. "I didn't know you was fond of music, Isabel."
"I don't know that I am fond of it either," she says, "but some of the records are people talkin'. I thought I wouldn't hear the swamp so loud in the spring, nor the crickets in the fall, nor the wind in winter, if I could listen to somebody talkin', when I sit down after the work is done. I thought it might be kind of company; but I don't know, perhaps it wouldn't. It's only a thing, after all. I haven't decided on it yet."
I left Isabel ten or fifteen minutes later. I pondered on her a good deal the four miles back to town, and when I got to where I was puttin' up, I asked some questions. They told me that Isabel Janse never came to any of the functions in the town. And she didn't attend any church, far as they knew. The old Janse horse was going pretty lame now, and 'twas all he could do, they guessed, to haul down the corn every fall to Hobb's mill on the turnpike.
Nellie and I were headed for Vermont that spring. We have a big territory in New Hampshire, where we've got lots of friends, too, and it was two years before we got back to Massachusetts again. In all that time I didn't hear a word about Isabel Janse. I wondered about her a good deal, and dropped her a post-card once or twice, the way I do, to stop myself worryin' about people. She hadn't answered my cards. I didn't expect she would. None of my friends are very long on the writin' line. Fact is, 'twas in the newspapers, not from anybody thinkin' I might be interested, that I first read that the United States Government had lighted on the particular section of the state where Isabel lived, and where I was so familiar, for an encampment to train soldiers in, to send across the Atlantic to fight the nasty Huns.
Nellie and I usually came down from New Hampshire near the coast, but I decided we could just as well keep inland and take in the soldiers' camp on the way. I'd never visited an army trainin'-camp and had a kind of curiosity to see what it was like. I had no idea where it was located, north, south, east or west of the town where Nellie and me usually put up. We struck the turnpike a mile or two east of the place where the Janse road leads off it. We had had a long steady pull of twenty miles or so, and I was intendin' to keep right on to a restin'-place for Nellie for the night, and start out bright and fresh to visit the camp—wherever it was, in the mornin'. But as I got nearer the Janse road, I got to wonderin' more and more, if Isabel had got her talkin'-machine yet. I had to be in Boston on Wednesday followin' (this was a Saturday) and I decided if I really wanted to find out, I better drop in at Janses' when 'twas handy.
The first part of the Janse road goes through some woods, and the leaves of the trees 'long the side brushed the spokes of the wheels of our buggy every now and then, as Nellie and me threaded our way through it. Seemed 's if the branches had grown thicker. Seemed, too, 's if the grass ribbons in the middle of the road were a little higher and ranker than I remembered. I hoped they weren't all dead and buried up at the Janses'. After I'd crossed two old rotten bridges in awful repair, and forded two brooks runnin' willy nilly straight 'cross my path, I began to feel pretty certain I'd find the Janse house deserted, or burned to the ground, one of the two. But I didn't! Neither one!
I don't know as I have ever been so surprised in my life as I was when I broke out of the piece of pine-grove beside the cemetery, a quarter of a mile before you come to the Janse house. I was expectin', of course, to see the meadow stretched out before me, the same as usual, simmerin' in the late afternoon sunshine, with a haze, like steam, broodin' over it, reachin' away miles and miles. But the meadow had disappeared! 'Twa'n't there!
The place it ought to be was there—the space, I mean—but everything that made a meadow had been rubbed out, and in its place another picture had been sketched in—hasty, with charcoal on a piece of brown butcher's paper—looked like from the color, or the lack of color. Supposed to be the picture of a city, I guessed. Queer-lookin' city. A child might have built it, with blocks cut all one size. The buildin's were all alike—long and low, like cars in a train-yard—about a million or so of them, seemed as if—with black roofs on 'em. And shootin' up into the sky out of the roofs were a whole lot of chimneys—high slim affairs, painted black. Made me think of the trunks of dead trees shootin' up out of some valley, where a long time ago, a forest fire had swept away all of the small timber.
I calculated the city (which of course, I guessed to be the soldiers' camp) lay about a half-a-mile away from the spot where Nellie and me were standin' and starin' with our eyes hangin' out on our cheeks. Anyhow, we were near enough to see some of the dirt-colored space, between the buildin's (there wasn't a scrap of meadow green left behind) and crawlin' 'round over the space, I could make out objects (dirt-colored, too—'bout the shade of a swarm of bees), single, and in bunches movin' 'bout slow and deliberate, the way bees do in the early spring.
After Nellie and me had stood there and stared about ten minutes, I clucked at her to go on, and we went round the curve of the road up towards Janses'. I'd read how some of the officers had made use of the farmers' houses round the camp for their families to live in, and I concluded as likely as not I'd find a major's wife and children settled at the Janses' 'stead of Isabel and Gram and Gramp. So when Nellie got 'round the last curve before you reach the house, and I caught the sound of men's voices and laughin', I wasn't much surprised. I guessed the major was doin' a little entertainin'.
But 'twa'n't any major that was doin' the entertainin'. 'Twas somebody I've been tellin' about. Or, leastways, it was somebody she'd turned into! I began to suspicion it before I got out of my buggy even.
There's one of them great big-trunked elm trees with long, graceful, dippin' branches, you see so often in front of New England farm-houses, near the lilac clump by the Janses'. As I drew Nellie up under it, I caught sight of a board tacked up on it, 'bout as high up as you could reach, with some printin' on it. At the top of the board there was an arrow painted, pointin' towards the house behind the lilacs, and underneath the arrow in home-made letterin' it said:
HOT DOUGHNUTS AND COTTAGE CHEESE
EVERY WEDNESDAY AND SATURDAY AFTERNOONS
FROM 2 TO 6 O'CLOCK
FREE TO ALL SOLDIERS.
I got out and stole 'round the lilac clump. I never seen the Janse house look so pleasant. The grass was cut in the front yard, and there was a little neat round bed of redeach side of the front door. The front door was still kind of saggin', true enough, and the house needed paint worse than it did last time I was there, but what with its windows pushed up, and the front door open in kind of an invitin' fashion, and the lower floor so crammed full of United States Army that it was oozin' out all the open holes, (there were men's arms and shoulders in khaki fillin' up the window-spaces, and a pair of army-clad legs a-danglin' out one of the front ones) there was nothin' very forlorn or lonesome-lookin' 'bout the place. There was nothin' very forlorn or lonesome-soundin' either!
I went 'round unobserved to the back door. There's a shed off the kitchen, and I stationed myself up close to some wash-tubs in the shed, and peeked in at the goin's-on in the kitchen.
The doughnut-fryin' was in progress at that minute (I'd guessed it already from the smell), and helpin' at it were no less than a dozen or fifteen great, big, healthy-lookin' soldier boys in uniform. A half-a-dozen of them were gathered 'round the fat on the stove; two or three others 'round a table, where one, with a woman's blue checked apron tied 'round him, was busy with the dough and cutter; and a few more were just simply takin' up room, and makin' a lot of talk and noise. One of 'em was perched up on an edge of the kitchen sink, sort of purrin' on a Jew's-harp. Over by the window where in the winter-time the geraniums in cans used to set on the sill, seated in the old high-backed rocker was Gramp Janse ('twasn't till later I learned there wasn't any Gram Janse any more) with his hands folded 'cross his stomach, kind of smilin' to himself, lookin' on interested, as if he was at a play in the theater or something.
I didn't get a glimpse of Isabel at first, but every little while I saw her hand shoot up over the heads of the men grouped 'round the stove (at least I guessed 'twas hers) as she held up a long fork with a golden-brown doughnut—color of a trout pool when the sun strikes it—drippin' on the end of it.
I didn't blame the soldiers for sendin' up a shout every time Isabel's hand shot up. Nothin' so good in the world to sink your teeth into as a fresh doughnut sizzlin' with the fat it was born in, crisp as a fresh potato-chip on the outside, soft as a fresh griddle-cake on the in, and so pipin' hot you got to open your mouth, and draw in, or get burned.
I was glad when two of the men 'round the stove shouted: "Cheese," and with a doughnut stuck onto each thumb went off into the front room where the cow's part of the show was. For then I got a chance to see Isabel.
She was standin' close up to the stove, with one hand on her hip, and the other busy with the fork dabbin' at the doughnuts in the fat-pot. She was standin' real straight and perky-like. She still wore a gray wrapper, but it was pulled in tight 'round her waist, and, as I looked at the profile of her figure, and remembered how awful shapeless and scrawny it used to be, I wondered if she might not have made use of a few ruffles or somethin'. She had a red ribbon tied 'round her waist, and a red bow to match 'round the neck of her dress, that was turned down low. And her hair was curled in the front, and in the back I saw something sparklin' that looked mighty like my rhinestone comb!
I won't try to persuade you that Isabel had got pretty (she's got an awful big nose that nothing can ever change) but she'd gotten bright and shiny. Perhaps it was only the warmth from the stove that made Isabel's cheeks so pink, but it was warmth from nothing cast-iron, I can tell you, that put color into her voice. Every little while Isabel spoke, flung out an order, called out a nick-name, said somethin' 'r other, and her voice was anythin' but dull and flat. And what she said was anythin' but dull and flat too! It was tart and snappy, and full of bubbles—like soda water. Not very refined perhaps you'd say, but 'twas good-natured and cheerful-soundin'. You could see the men liked her style of humor first-rate.
"Come, Fatty," she sang out, "don't be a pig! These doughnuts ain't pills to swallow whole," and later, "Look it here, you little bow legged corp, what you got your paw out for another for? Your jaws are still busy on the one I gave you last," and with a dangerous wave of her sharp-pronged fork, "Move back, all of yer, I'm boss here, and the next doughnut's goin' to the noisy party on the edge of the sink." She meant the little feller with the Jew's-harp. "Come on, you!" she hollered out, and beckoned to him with a lift of one of her bony shoulders. He grinned broad, and jumped down off his perch. "There's a core to that," she says to him as she passed him one of her pretty works of art. "Chew it fine." Then with a slow wink to the others, "That'll shut up his noise for a spell," she said.
I don't know as I can make you see, that as rough as Isabel's humor was, and no too much knowledge of the English language, and not pretty, as girls go, there was a real attractiveness about her. It made one think of the attractiveness of certain flowers—wild, hardy ones, like Golden-rod, or Tansy—and she gave you the impression that she was able to take care of herself, like those kind of flowers, too.
One of the fellows slid his arm around her while I was watchin'.
She let it stay there a little while. Then, "Look it here, Cheeky," she says to him, as if she'd been used to men like him all her life, "it's doughnuts I'm servin' this afternoon."
He just gave her a squeeze at that, and left his arm right where 'twas.
She went on fryin' for a while, not mindin' 'parently. Then very quiet and off-hand she picks up a spoon off a shelf beside her, and, smart 's you please, drops a bit of hot fat on the soldier's hand. He let go then all right, and you ought to have heard the laugh go up when he howled.
'Twas a good-natured laugh, though. 'Twas a good-natured howl, too. Everythin' was good-natured about it. Isabel's slow smile afterwards was good-natured. I was surprised. I didn't know Isabel had hid in her a gift of dealin' with the male sex, in a tellin', unoffendin' way like that. Probably she didn't know it either, like some actors don't know they can act, till they find themselves all of a sudden before the footlights.
After about fifteen minutes or so I got out from back of the wash-tubs, and strolled into the kitchen, makin' signs to the fellers who took notice of me not to let on to Isabel she'd got an unexpected visitor. I placed myself opposite her, behind a layer o' uniforms, and when there came a little gap between 'em, shoved in on the front row.
When she caught sight of me she colored up awful red 'way up under the hair she'd got curled on her forehead.
"Hello, Edwin Sparks!" she flung out at me in a kind of bravado sort of way.
"Hello, Isabel," I answered quiet, starin' at her hard, lettin' my amazement at what I was seein' and hearin' show plain as day on my face.
"Want one?" she says, tryin' to cover up her confusion by offerin' me a doughnut.
I took it, and thanked her. But still I stared. I made up my mind she'd got to give me some sort of explanation for what my eyes and ears told me was no dream. And she did, too, in her own way, and her own time.
'Twas after I'd made an observation 'bout how much she seemed to be enjoyin' herself.
"You appear to be havin' some fun, Isabel," I said.
Not lookin' at me at all, but apparently addressin' the doughnut she was intent on spearin', she replied, "I'm havin' fifteen dollars' worth, I guess."
So that was how the boys got their doughnuts and cheese free. I'd suspicioned it.
After I'd finished my doughnut, I walked over to Gramp and shook hands with the old man. Isabel must have thought I was shakin' hands good-by, for she made some sort of excuse about some salt in the cupboard, passed her fryin' fork to the feller next her, and came over my way.
"There's oats in the bin. Put your horse up in the barn," she said in a low voice, "and stay to supper, if you want to."
"All right, I will, thank yer."
I stayed all night as it happened, Nellie bein' tired, and Gram's room empty, and Isabel warmin' up later, and urgin' me.
The soldiers all went back to their camp after a while. 'Twas then I discovered how 'twas the old road I'd come by was so neglected. There was a cart-road in front of the Janses' that used to run down to the meadow. Now, I saw, as I watched the soldiers amble along it that it ran down to a brand new state high-way, that went past the encampment. You could see automobiles whizzin' by on it.
'Twa'n't till after we'd had some supper and Gramp had been put to bed, that I found out why Isabel had been so cordial 'bout Nellie and me stoppin' to supper. It was because of what was in my suit-cases! Would you believe it! She, who'd always spurned and shrugged up her shoulders at my things before!
I was settin' on the steps in front of the front door when she came down from puttin' Gramp to bed. I was smokin', gazin' out at the changed scene before me down in the valley, listenin' to the cheerful sounds it made, and thinkin' how different it all was from two years ago.
"Got your suit-cases with you, Edwin?" asked Isabel.
"Why, of course."
"Well," she went on, kind of ill-at-ease like, "for something better to do, I might look over some of your foolishness, if you'll go out and bring your stuff in."
"All right," I said, quiet, though I could have thrown up my hat, if I'd had it handy, and shouted.
"An antique man," Isabel went on, "told me once, that these unset cameos of my mother's," she hauled out a little package from the front of her waist, "were worth a lot of money. I didn't know but what you'd take 'em for pay," she said, "that is, if you've got anythin' I took a fancy to."
I reached out and Isabel passed me the cameos. My customers don't have any use for anythin' antique. Really, the cameos were nothin' I wanted, but I said, examinin' the littlest one of them careful ('bout as big as a five-cent piece, 'twas), "Why, Isabel, even this small little feller would buy you a lot of my stuff. I got an awful pretty one-piece challie with white dots that ought to look real nice on you. Go inside and light up, and I'll bring my shop in."
We were busy for an hour or more takin' off and tryin' on, shakin' out and foldin' up, comparin' and examinin', selectin' and discardin'. I had the satisfaction of seein' Isabel Janse's face light up real bright over my pretty things, the way any normal young woman's ought to, when she goes shoppin'. And, honest, I don't know whose eyes were shiniest—Isabel's or mine, when she stood up before me in the blue challie with the polka dots dancin' all over her.
The followin' is a list of the articles Isabel was able to exchange for that little cameo of hers: one blue challie dress with polka dots; one pink striped percale with hamburg collar; two cute little aprons with ruffles round the bib-part and blue bows stuck saucy on some puffy little pockets in front; two white waists with lots of val insertion; one white wash skirt; one wide crushed girdle of soft plaid silk; one piece of enamel jewelry (brooch, blue-bird design); and one string of uncrushable pearl beads.
I tell you by the time I'd helped Isabel pick out all those things, she'd got real friendly with me. At first she'd been rather inclined not to discuss her affairs any more than necessary, and I hadn't found out how 'twas she managed to make fifteen dollars last so long. For one of the soldiers told me that Isabel had been carryin' on these Wednesday and Saturday parties of hers for two years now, come fall. After our shoppin'-bee, she opened up quite human and told me.
"My fifteen dollars took root and sprouted. That's all," she said. "I just told the boys one day when I got down close to the bottom of my first barrel of flour, that I was sorry I wa'n't an heiress in disguise, but I wa'n't, and so next Wednesday I'd be obliged to serve 'em cottage cheese and apples ('twas in the fall), 'stead of cottage cheese and doughnuts. And after the apples from our orchard were all et up, it would have to be cottage cheese and snow-balls, far as I could see. One of 'em at that, took out a little tin box he carried in his pocket to keep tobacco in, and cut a slot in the top of it and hollered out to the others that he was goin' to stick it up on the mantel. That's all there was said about it, as far as I know. It's all there's ever been said. The box is always up there, and if anybody wants to drop anythin' in it, they do; and if they don't then they don't. I've got an overflow box upstairs full of those boys' pennies and nickels and dimes."
"Good for you, Isabel!" I said. "Must be quite a payin' enterprise." And I wondered just a little mite why she had offered me her mother's cameos, 'stead of money which is usually a little more useful to me.
"Payin'!" she repeated scornful. "That money ain't mine! Every cent belongs to those boys down there in the valley, or the ones who'll fill their places when this particular bunch moves on to France. I don't want to make money out of them! It's more than pay enough for me to just have 'em around to listen to twice a week. Sometimes," she said, her voice gettin' real soft and pretty, "they get to singin' together grand—all different parts, like an organ, and sometimes its harmonicas and accordions and guitars; and sometimes just talkin' and laughin' and a Jew's-harp like to-day, and as I stand there over the kettle, 'parently jest fryin' the doughnuts, I keep thinkin' and thinkin' how lucky I am to have got a talkin'-machine with such a lot of human-soundin' records, and warm blood in it besides."
"And eyes," I tucked in smilin', "to see you dressed up in your pretty new clothes. Yes, Isabel," I said serious, "I guess you are lucky." I was thinkin' when I said that, of the women I knew whose lonesome swamps would never be wiped out for 'em, by Uncle Sam, the way Isabel's was. "But you're wise, too. Wise people," I said, not bein' able not to preach a little, "wise people like you and me, Isabel, know that if money can return you smiles, and happy looks, and laughs and thank-yous, like yours does you, Isabel, it's lots more soul-satisfyin' than its value in material that ain't alive."
About ten o'clock or so that night, after Isabel thought I'd turned in, I stole out of Gram's room on the first floor and sat outside a spell and had another pipe.
There was a light in the kitchen and I could hear Isabel movin' 'round in there. I discovered when I walked over that way that she was mixin' bread, not goin' about it listless, the way she used to work, but real smart and in-a-hurry.
I stopped still a minute in my tracks. Isabel was hummin' a little low song without much tune to it, to herself. As I stood there quiet, listenin' to the sort of purrin' sound she made, floatin' around the little kitchen, tender and caressin', and driftin' out shy to where I was, it came over me that Isabel's talkin'-machine couldn't play anything sweeter to listen to, I guessed, than that low rumble comin' out of her own throat. There isn't any sweeter music under God's heaven, I think, than a woman hummin' to herself, unconscious-like, the way they do over their work, sometimes, when their hearts feel kind o' soft and happy inside 'em.
After I'd listened for five minutes or so, I went up close to the open window and spoke.
"That's your prettiest record, Isabel," I said, gentle.