Ladies-in-Waiting/Philippa's Nervous Prostration
PHILIPPA'S NERVOUS PROSTRATION
PHILIPPA'S NERVOUS PROSTRATION
A STUDY IN NOBLENESS
The door has just closed behind one of the most eminent physicians in the State, and I am no longer Philippa Armstrong, but a case of neurasthenia, an inmate of Room Number 17, which has a yellow placard over its entrance; a placard announcing that no callers are allowed within, save with the special permission of Dr. Levi Stanwood. At present the placard is the only thing I enjoy about the institution; that, at least, promises peace; at all events, such peace as can be found outside of one’s own soul.
I am counseled to have complete rest, cheerful surroundings, abstinence from newspapers and letters, sound sleep, careful and nourishing diet, freedom from anxiety, gentle tonics, with electrical and other treatments underlined upon a printed list.
The head physician (who is a genius in the way of diagnosis, seeing through the human system as if it were plate glass) has made a careful study of my symptoms and written my Cousin Sarah that all I need is six or eight weeks of his care to be quite myself again.
How little they understand us women, after all—poor, blind, unsuspicious doctors! My heart-beats, my color, my temperature, my pulse, my blood pressure, even my tongue, all these have told no tales to the scientific eye, and as it was literally impossible for Dr. Stanwood to discern my malady, it was equally beyond him to suggest a remedy. As a matter of fact, all I need to make and keep me well is large and constant doses of Richard Morton, Esq., of Baltimore; but who would confess that to a doctor?
Cousin Sarah does not suspect the state of things, the gentleman himself is, I trust, quite ignorant, and the doctor will waste upon me all the wealth of curative agencies at his command without effecting the least change in my condition.
Richard Morton is an orphan; so am I. He is young, strong, good-looking, clever, and poor. I am the first, second, and fifth; as to one’s own beauty and cleverness it is difficult to speak impartially.
I have thought for nearly six months, and indeed I am still inclined to think, that Richard Morton loves me, and I was equally certain, until a few weeks ago, that he was only awaiting a suitable opportunity to declare his love and ask me to marry him. I had made up my mind, whenever he should put the important question, to answer him frankly and joyously in the affirmative; not because he is the handsomest or most brilliant or most desirable person in the world, but because for sheer lovableness and husbandliness he is unsurpassed and unsurpassable.
In March Cousin Sarah made a visit to Germantown and met there a Mrs. Taunton, Richard Morton’s widowed aunt. When the intimacy had progressed sufficiently Mrs. Taunton told Cousin Sarah one day that she hoped her nephew would eventually marry a certain Amy Darling, a near neighbor of hers; that Miss Darling’s father and Richard’s had been friends from boyhood; and that they had always planned a marriage between the two young people, each an only child.
Of course, Mr. Darling, who died only this winter, did not indulge in any such melodramatic or bookish nonsense as setting down commands or desires in his will, nor were any of his bequests dependent upon them. He did talk with his daughter, however, during his last illness, and he did leave Richard Morton a letter expressing his regard and confidence, and saying that as his daughter was entirely without relatives he should have felt much happier had he seen her married before his death. If he had stopped there all would have been well, but he went on. He knew, he said, that Amy was one of the sweetest and most attractive girls in the world, and if a mutual affection should grow out of her acquaintance with Richard he would be glad to know that the fortune he had made by his own energy might be a basis for the future prosperity and business success of his old friend’s son.
Cousin Sarah came home from Germantown quite excited by this romance and discussed it with me daily, in exasperating unconsciousness that I could feel the least distaste for the subject.
“It seems almost providential, Philippa,” she said, over her knitting.
“Providential for which of them?” I asked, stabbing my sheet of music paper with the pen, while I tried in vain to think how many eighth notes would fill a measure.
“For both; though I was really thinking of Mr. Morton. His business is one that peculiarly requires capital; then again he has many interests in Philadelphia, and there is that beautiful place in Germantown with house, stable, horses, and gardens all ready for him.”
“And the girl, too; don’t forget her,” I responded. “Though some men don’t care for these ready-to-wear wives; they prefer to look about and to choose.”
“He would have to look a long distance before he found any one to compare with Miss Darling, either in beauty or suitableness,” said Cousin Sarah, thereby injecting the first drop of poison in my blood and starting me on the downward path toward nervous prostration.
“Miss Darling is a man’s woman,” she continued, unconsciously giving me another push; “the type with which neither you nor I have anything in common, but which we know to be irresistible.”
Now Cousin Sarah is fifty-five, thin, angular, erect, uncompromising. I love and respect her, but do not care to be lumped with her in affairs of the heart, at least not for thirty years to come; and although I think it is disgusting to be labeled a “man’s woman” it is insufferable to be told that one is not!
“I can see Amy Darling in my mind’s eye,” I ventured; “blonde, dimply, fluffy as to head, willowy as to figure so as to cling the better, blue eyes swimming in unshed tears, and a manner so exquisitely feminine that she makes all the other women in her vicinity appear independent and mannish. But not all men care for pets, Cousin Sarah—some of them prefer companions.”
“A pet is a companion,” remarked Cousin Sarah casually as she left the room, giving me thereby an entirely new and most unpleasant thought.
I have known Richard Morton for many months, and although I have met him very often at other places, he has been a constant visitor at our house. If he has had any resemblance to a possible suitor why hasn’t Cousin Sarah discovered it? Is she deaf and blind, or have my ears and eyes played me false? Am I so undesirable that it would never cross her mind that a man might fall in love with me? Hardly, for she is well aware that several men have expressed their willingness to annex my poverty-stricken charms.
As I look back upon the weeks that followed the interview with Cousin Sarah I see that Richard was never the same after he received Mr. Darling’s letter. I felt a nameless difference. It was not only that I saw him less frequently, but that he gave me less of himself when I did see him. I, too, was on guard and never succeeded in being quite natural. I am not so foolish as to give up to another girl a man who loves me, simply because she is rich. The thought that worries me night and day is this: if at the moment he only feels for me friendship, ought I to let it grow into love when there is another woman who could give him with herself everything he needs to assure his career? With Philippa Armstrong for a wife he will have to work unceasingly, and unless fortune is particularly kind he may not achieve a large success for many years. If he marries Amy Darling (soft, silly, spineless little name!) he has house, lands, and money, all the influence of her father’s former business associates, and has, besides, carried out his own father’s wishes.
This is considerable; quite enough to make a man reflect and vacillate, unless he is so deeply in love already that no temptation is strong enough to assail him.
Richard Morton, I know, likes to dance with me, sing with me, golf with me, talk with me, consult with me about his affairs, write letters to me; and more than that, he doesn’t like to have other men usurp these privileges; but I am not prepared to say that he would pine away if circumstances removed me altogether from his path. At any rate, these perplexities have been too much for my peace of mind, and when Richard Morton announced that he had business which would keep him in Philadelphia for a month I began to feel physically ill and unable to bear Cousin Sarah’s sympathy, her curiosity, even at last her proximity. When the doctor advised my coming here to this quiet, restful place I eagerly embraced the opportunity simply because I could be alone, and because I need not meet Richard until he had enjoyed a full month of Amy Darling’s society, either succumbing to its fascination or resisting it, as the case might be.
Would it be nobler of me to give him up before he is really mine, knowing that in this way I am advancing his worldly interests? This is the question that I hope solitude will help me to answer, but its complications and side-issues are so many that I feel dazed by their number and their difficulty. I went to sleep last night echoing the old negro’s prayer: “Thou knowest what’s about right, Lord. Now do it!”
8 a.m.—Nurse gives me an alcohol bath.
8.30—She takes my pulse and temperature and enters them in the Bedside Record Book, afterwards reading me my diet-list. It seems I do not belong to the favored class, which, to be cured, is stuffed with pleasant things to eat; my symptoms demand a simple, unexciting bill of fare.
Fruit in season.
(This is its only name, but everybody knows it by sight.)
Poweretta Grits with Cream.
Wheatoata Process Coffee.
11.15—Drop of blood extracted from ear and subjected to examination.
11.30—Glass of Certified Milk.
12—Visit from physician.
Lamb Chop—Hominy or Rice.
2 to 3—Silent hour.
5—Cup of Predigested Maltese Milk.
5.30—Visit from head nurse.
Poached Egg on Whole-Wheat Toast.
Sterilized Stewed Apples—Zephyrettes.
Cup of Somnolina.
(A beverage from which everything pleasant and harmful has been extracted by a beneficent process.)
7.30—Miss Blossom, the nurse, insists on reading to me. It is not a good performance but it doesn’t matter. I know that Dick and Amy Darling are just starting for the theater.
8.30—Tepid sponge bath.
9.30—Glass of peptonized water.
9.45—Temperature and pulse taken.
Never in all my twenty-five years of life have I passed a busier or more exhausting day.
Precisely like Tuesday save for some new experiences in diet. There was a mild process-drink called Cocoatina; Teaette also made its appearance. There were dolls’ mattresses of shredded excelsior moistened with milk; nut salad, and Grahamata mush. I could never have supposed so many new cereals could be invented.
There is mush in the evening, mush in the morning,
Mush when it’s looked for and mush without warning.
It is rather like the immortal “Charge of the Light Brigade”:
Oats to the right of them,
Corn to the left of them,
Wheat to the north of them,
Grits to the south of them,
Into the Valley of Mush rode the two hundred.
I was allowed to sit on my balcony for an hour this morning. This would have been a pleasant change had I not heartily disliked at first sight my next-door neighbor who was sitting on the adjoining balcony. At noon she sent me a bunch of pansies and her card: Mrs. Grosvenor Chittenden-Ffollette.
Among fifty or sixty attendants there are always a few who gossip in spite of repeated warnings from the authorities. Sometimes it is a young nurse, sometimes a masseuse, a manicure or a shampooer, but there are always those who retail the news, mostly innocent news, of an institution like this. Cold-packing, or rubbing, or spraying, or electrifying, or brushing, or polishing—all these operations open the flood-gates of speech and no damming process is effectual. Miss Phœbe Blossom is the herald who proclaims tidings of various kinds in my room, and there is also a neophyte in the electricity department who is always full of information and quite unable to retain it. It would be almost more than human to ask them to be silent when they are the only links with the world outside. A system reduced to nothingness by a supper of Wheatoata Coffee, Cracker-dust Croquettes, Cosmos with milk, and a choice of Cerealina, Nuttetta, Proteinetta, or Glucosa is in no fit state to resist gossip.
It seems that Mrs. Chittenden-Ffollette is more than a mere woman—she is a remarkable “case,” and has proved a worldwide advertisement for this sanitarium. Dr. Stanwood has almost effected a cure; her disease has had to be named and her symptoms have been written up in all the medical journals. I don’t know what sort of person she was before she became a case, but she is now a greater tyrant than Caligula or Catherine of Russia. As to her disease, she has those things that she ought not to have, and she has not those things that she ought to have, and there is no health in her; or at least there was not until she came here a year ago. Now she is strong enough to perambulate in the corridor a little while each morning or be wheeled along the board-walk in the afternoon, and when she hears that some of the other patients are suffering, she sneers at their modest, uninteresting ailments and glances in at their doors with half-disguised contempt. You know the expression of the prize dog who is borne from the show hung with medals and ribbons—how he gazes on the little mongrel curs that gather with the crowd in the streets?
Her name, Chittenden-Ffollette, is of as vital importance as her medical-journal malady. When the third floor is in dire confusion; when Mrs. Parks has hysterics and Miss Simmons is crying for her mother, and Mrs. Bell’s hot-water bottle has burst in the bed, and Miss Phipps has discovered that the undergraduate has bandaged the wrong ankle, Miss Blossom sometimes becomes flustered and hurried and calls her patient Mrs. Follett, whereupon she says, “Chittenden-Ffollette, if you please!”
If by any chance she sees the Chittenden-Ffollette without the hyphen in the Nurses’ Bedside Record Book or scribbled on the morning paper she does n’t need any stimulant the rest of the day. The omission of the hyphen sends up her pulse and temperature to the required point for several hours, though there is always a reaction afterward. I’ve told Dr. Levi that I should name one of her complaints hyphenitis. The occasional operation performed on the hyphen by Miss Blossom, or the young lady at the stationery counter, might be called hyphenotomy. Everybody detests Mrs. Chittenden-Ffollette, but as the banner patient of the sanitarium she must be treated with respectful consideration. All America’s most skillful physicians have struggled with her organism. They have tried to get her symptoms into line, so to speak, so as to deduce some theory from the grand array of phenomena, but the symptoms courteously decline to point in any one direction. When the doctors get seven eighths of them in satisfactory relation there are always two or three that stay out and sulk, refusing to collaborate in any sort of harmony. They act precisely like an obstinate jury, in that they calmly refuse to agree, and then Mrs. Chittenden-Ffollette appeals to a higher court where flaws in the testimony are always found, judgment is reversed, and a new trial ordered. The greatest surgeons in Europe have left the bedsides of crowned heads to ponder over her inscrutable mysteries, and have returned to their sovereigns crushed and humbled. All this attention would have upset a stronger character than hers, and now that she is in a fair way to recover, her pride will have its inevitable fall. Though much more agreeable and docile than when she entered, she is in uniformly low spirits. The truth is, she liked being an unsolved mystery and she is a good deal nettled at being found at last both soluble and curable—obliged to live, like an ex-president, on the glories of the past.
Buckle, in his “History of Civilization,” claims that men and women are divided into three classes. The first and lowest talks of persons, the second of things, and the third and highest, of ideas. I should divide the human race into four, instead of three classes, and name as the lowest those persons who discuss their symptoms. The patients here are counseled not to do it, so the vice is reduced to a minimum, being practiced, say, not more than three out of the fourteen waking hours.
Swinging in a hammock in a shady nook this afternoon the conversation that floated to me under my distant tree was somewhat after this fashion.
Mrs. A. “Once I had neurasthenia. For three months I couldn’t be moved in bed, and for nine weeks I could n’t turn my head on the pillow.”
|Mrs. C.||“Oh, Mrs. A.!”|
|Mrs. D.||“Good gracious!”|
Mrs. E. “Cerebro-spinal meningitis is worse than neurasthenia. I had it four years ago, and the doctor said he’d never seen a woman live that was as ill as I was. One night my temperature was 167.”
|Mrs. B.||“That’s pretty high!”|
|Mrs. A.||“Are you sure?”|
Mrs. E. “Yes, I’m perfectly sure, or at least I think I am; I am seldom wrong on figures.”
Mrs. A. “I asked, because I’ve noticed here that the thermometers register only 110, and I wondered how they measured the temperature when it rose above that point.”
Mrs. E. (huffily). “Probably they have extra long thermometers for extreme cases.”
Mrs. F. “I am glad that in this sanitarium they take the temperature by tucking the barometer-thing under the arm. My doctor at home always puts it under the tongue, and it is a perfect nuisance. He never gets it well placed but that I think of something I want to say. Then, of course, I have to keep still for three minutes, which seem three hundred, and by that time I have either forgotten it or changed my mind, so there I am!”
Mrs. G. “Just after my youngest child was three years old—”
Mrs. F. (interrupting). “I was going to say, when Mrs. E. spoke about the barometer, that after I was engaged to Mr. F. I had a dreadful attack of brain fever. I was ill in bed three months and they could n’t touch a brush to my hair for nine days.”
Mrs. G. (bravely). “Just after my youngest child was three—”
Mrs. X. “A man patient was brought on to our floor this morning.”
Mrs. S. “Our floor? I wish they would have separate corridors for male patients.”
Mrs. X. “This gentleman is an old friend of Dr. Levi’s. His wife has been here four weeks, and now he’s been taken ill, so they’ve put him next her on the first floor.”
Mrs. S. “I don’t care, I hate to have him near us.”
Mrs. B. “Why? He’s perfectly harmless; he is too ill to move.”
Mrs. C. “I’m sure I wish he could! Anything to relieve this hideous dullness. What’s the matter with him, I wonder!”
Mrs. D. “I’ll ask Miss Oaks when I have my hot fomentations this afternoon; she knows everything and she’s as generous as a prince with her knowledge.”
Mrs. G. (patiently). “Just after my youngest child was—”
A nurse passes through the grove, bearing a sterilized tray with peptonized preparations on it.
Mrs. Y. (calling her). “Nurse! what’s the matter with the new man-patient on our floor?”
Nurse (discreetly). “I don’t know, Mrs. Y.”
Mrs. X. (as the nurse vanishes). “She does, but she’s a stiff thing! Anyway, I heard the attendants whispering about him in the corridor before breakfast. Something—I think it’s an organ—is floating about in him.”
All. “Floating? What kind of an organ? Horrors!”
Mrs. X. “I could n’t understand exactly. You know people always roar if they have nothing particular to say, but if it is interesting they whisper. I distinctly heard the word ‘floating.’ I don’t know whether it’s one of his regular organs, or something he swallowed accidentally.”
Mrs. C. (plaintively). “Doctors are never satisfied. If anything floats they want to get it stationary, and if it’s stationary they want to cut it loose.”
Mrs. G. “Just after my youngest child—”
Mrs. B. “They say Mrs. H. is going to leave to-morrow; she does n’t like the food or the service.”
Mrs. E. “Goodness, she has all the service there is on our floor! Nobody else gets a chance! She spends her whole silent hour pushing the electric button.”
Mrs. D. “Yes, Miss Oaks declares she ‘lays’ on it. She says that the head nurse told Mrs. H. she must ring less frequently, or the bell would be removed. Miss Oaks says the patients that pay the smallest rates always ring the bells most. It is n’t fair that a thirty-dollar patient should annoy a whole row of eighty-dollar ones and prevent their bells from being answered.”
Mrs. X. “There’s nothing made out of Mrs. H. at thirty dollars a week. She was as contented as possible last night, but this morning she wanted her bed in the other corner, awnings put on the windows, and the bureau changed for a chiffonier. Come, we must all go in for treatment—it wants five minutes of four.”
Mrs. G., in despair, as she sees the occupants of the hammocks dispersing, almost shrieks: “Just after my youngest—”
But the ladies, for some reason or other, do not care to hear anything about Mrs. G.’s youngest, and she is obliged to seek another audience.
The doctor found me “over-treated” this morning and advised a day of quiet, with a couple of hours on the roof-garden or under the trees.
I have heard at various times sighs of weariness or discontent or pain issuing from the room opposite mine, and this afternoon when Miss Blossom had gone into Number 19 to sit with the haughty Mrs. Chittenden-Ffollette I stole across the corridor and glanced in at the half-open door of Number 18.
The quaintest girl raised herself from a mound of sofa-pillows and exclaimed: “Why, you beautiful thing! Are you Number 17? I did n’t know you looked like that!”
“It’s very kind of you,” I answered, blushing at this outspoken greeting; “but I am not beautiful in the least; it is because you do not expect much from a person who has just crept out of bed. I don’t look any better when I am dressed for a party.”
“You don’t need to,” she said. “Now get on my bed and cuddle under the afghan and we’ll talk till Miss Blossom comes back. Won’t she beat you for being out of your room? Why are you here? You have n’t the least resemblance to a rest cure! What is the matter with you?”
“Backache, sideache, shoulderache, headache, sensation of handcuffs on wrists, balls and chains on ankles, lack of appetite, and insomnia.”
“Is that all? Have n’t you any disease?”
“I believe not,” I answered humbly, “but the effect is the same as if I had. Why are you here?” I asked in return, as I looked admiringly at her shining brown hair, plump, rosy cheeks, and dancing eyes.
“I came here, so to speak, in response to an ideal; not my ideal—I never have any—but Laura Simonds’s. She is my dearest friend and one of the noblest girls you ever knew. She said the separation from the world would do us both good, and so it might if she could have stayed to keep me company. Now she has the world and I have the separation.”
“She is n’t here, then?”
“No, worse luck! She is always working and planning for the good of others, but she is constantly meeting with ingratitude and misunderstanding. She had just brought me here when she was telegraphed for to turn about and go home. You see she had sent two ailing slum children to be taken care of at her house, and it proved to be scarlet fever, and, of course, her stepmother took it the first thing—she’s a hateful person and takes everything she can get—and then the cook followed suit. Now they blame Laura and she has to find trained nurses and settle everything before she comes back to me.”
“Then you’re not an invalid? I thought you were in pain and could n’t reach the bell. That’s the reason I looked in.”
“Oh, dear, no, I was only yawning! I came for what Laura calls the healing influence of solitude, but Laura thought as the place was so expensive, and treatment was included, we’d better take Turkish baths, massage, and electricity, they’re so good for the complexion. I have a little table to myself in the convalescents’ dining-room and have n’t made any acquaintances. I can’t stand their sweetbread complexions and their double chins. The patients are all so fat they might sing Isaac Watts’ hymn in unison: ‘Much of my time has run to waist.’”
“It is not an inspiring assemblage,” I agreed, “though I have n’t seen them all together, as you have.”
“And they think of nothing but themselves, which is exactly what I want to think about—myself, I mean. There’s one charming girl on this floor. Something’s the matter with her solar plexus and they won’t allow her to talk, so we have had some nice conversations in the silent hour. They’ve told me now I must n’t call again; it seems that I was too exciting. Tell me something about yourself, Vashti—I am sure that’s your name, or Semiramis or Zenobia or Judith, and if it is n’t one or another of those I don’t want to hear what it is, for you would n’t look like it.”
Just here a page brought in a letter which she glanced through with an “Excuse me, please.”
“Oh, dear! Now Laura can’t come to-morrow! She is certainly the most unfortunate being in the universe. She became very much interested in a deaf man that she met in her settlement work, and so as to give the poor thing employment she appointed him Superintendent of the Working Boys’ Club. Now the working boys refuse to play with him and the directors have had a meeting asking Laura to remove him at once. I do think they might have endured him one season when I gave him a twenty-dollar ear-trumpet, but some people are utterly unreasonable; and here I am, in need of advice every moment, and Laura kept in the city!”
“Have n’t you any family?”
“Not a soul; have you?”
“No one but a cousin.”
“I believe nobody nice and interesting has a family nowadays. Laura has no one but an uncongenial stepmother, and that is the reason we are so intimate. I am so giddy and frivolous, and Laura is so noble and self-sacrificing that I try to form myself on her now and then, when I’m not too busy.”
“You live with her, do you?”
“Oh, no! I don’t live anywhere in particular. Of course I have a house and a lady housekeeper, but she does n’t count. I’ve been staying mostly with a Mrs. Beckett, an old friend of my mother’s. She is the dearest and loveliest woman in the world and I can’t bear to be away from her.”
“Why can’t she join forces with you if you are so alone in the world?”
“Because there’s a son.”
“Is he too young, or too old, to join forces?”
“No, he’s just right, and he’d be only too glad to join forces, or anything else that had me in it, but he must n’t, and that’s the reason Laura made me come here!” And with this she punched the sofa-pillows rebelliously, looking more like an enraged Angora kitten than anything else.
“It’s your hour for cold spray,” said Jimmy, the page-boy, peeping in at the crack of the door.
“I’ll come!” she responded unwillingly. “Now do steal in again,” she whispered, turning to me, “for I must talk to somebody, and if Laura could see you I know she would think you safer than anybody here.”
That afternoon, as I swung in my hammock in the grove below the sanitarium, I looked up at its three stories of height and its rows upon rows of windows, and wondered how many cases of neurasthenia under its roof were traceable to a conflict between love and conscience. “I begin to have an interest in that chatterbox neighbor of mine,” I thought drowsily, “and that, after vowing not to make an acquaintance in this place. Love will be a side dish, not the roast, in her bill of fare, if I am any judge of character, and why does her Laura attempt to stem the natural tide of events? It is almost wicked of the Fates to give such a featherhead any problems to solve; she ought to have her what’s-his-name, Beckett, if she wants him, particularly if he wants her. As for the noble Laura, I long to make her acquaintance. I can almost hear the uncongenial stepmother, the feverish cook, and the infuriated directors, clamoring for a providence to remove her from their field of vision, and substitute some thoroughly practical and ignoble person in her stead.”
I was very happy all the morning; so happy that I forgot my tonics, massage, and sedative tablets; but the doctor called at noon and spoke of the wonderful way in which my system responded to his remedies, so I said nothing.
Cousin Sarah forwarded me a letter from Richard Morton, who is superintending some surveying near a small town in Pennsylvania. He knows that I am not well and away from home on a visit to the country, but, of course, he is not aware of my exact whereabouts. It was just one of his gay, friendly letters, with an undertone of something warmer in it. Among other things he said:
Is there not a note of tenderness here, a note that has crept in only during the last few months? But what if there is? It occurred to me after dinner that the question of his feeling for me is not the only, nor even the principal one to be considered. The point under advisement is, shall I allow him to love me when there is something better in store for him?
Miss Blossom had scarcely left my room this evening when I heard a pattering step and a hurried tap on my door. On my saying “Come,” my opposite neighbor slipped in and turned the key in the lock. It was an unconventional and amusing performance, but I did n’t mind. Somehow one could n’t mind anything with such a spoiled baby.
“Good-evening, Zuleika!” she said. “No, you need n’t smile and raise your finger at me as if you were dying to tell me your name is Abigail! Miss Blossom has gone for the night, has n’t she? I thought so. You know it’s the nurses’ ball this evening, and there’s only one attendant on duty in each corridor from now to half-past nine. May I have this big chair by the window? I am so bored with this place that it excites me even to think how stupid it is. I almost wish I had a symptom or two, just by way of sensation. Did you have Somnolina for supper? I did, and some time I shall make a scene in the dining-room when I watch the hundred and fifty dyspeptics simultaneously lifting cups of Teaette or Somnolina to their parched lips.”
“You ought to be ashamed,” I chided, “when you know almost every one who is here needs to be put upon a diet. You would n’t expect champagne, terrapin, and canvasback ducks?”
“I know it; don’t scold, it makes you look like Cassandra. Is n’t the moonlight enchanting, and if this were n’t a health resort would n’t it be a heaven upon earth?”
The broad, unscreened windows were wide open and vines of woodbine or honeysuckle framed them on every side. A lake shone like a silver mirror in the distant landscape and the elms and maples and chestnuts swayed in the summer breeze. Little groups chatted on the broad piazzas, and here and there on a rustic bench in the moonlight sat a man and a woman—two minds with but a single thought, and that thought his or her own solar plexus.
It was an hour for confidences, and I remember that my troubled heart cried out for a strong, tried friendship on which to draw for counsel and sympathy. What wonder, then, that the Angora kitten, deprived of her Laura, emptied her silky little head of some of its worries, divining that I was older and graver and perhaps would find her lost ball and give it to her to play with again.
“There’s no telling when Laura will be here!” she exclaimed despairingly. “When there is any duty within a thousand miles she stays to perform it. Mrs. Beckett has poisoned herself with mercury and Laura thinks she ought to go and nurse her for a day or two—as if Mrs. Beckett had n’t six maids and twenty thousand a year to spend in nurses! Laura can’t bear Tom, his incurable levity gets on her nerves, and why she wants to martyr herself by staying in the house with him when I’d be only too glad to go, passes my comprehension!”
(I can’t explain it, but at this juncture I seemed to have visions of Laura flirting with the Beckett during the Kitten’s absence.)
“Sometimes,” she continued, rippling along as if natural speech had been denied her for hours, “sometimes I wish I had n’t selected such a superior being for a bosom friend, and then again I despise myself for harboring such a mean feeling. I’m forever trying to climb, and Laura is continually trying to drag me to her level, but I suppose I don’t belong there, and that’s the reason I keep slipping off and sliding down. At this minute, if she’d let me be the groveling little earthworm I am by nature, I could marry Tom Beckett and be as happy as the day is long.”
“What is the matter?” I asked sympathetically, though rather ashamed to drop a plummet into so shallow a brook. “If you love his mother so dearly, and love him too, and are sure of his affection, why don’t you marry him? Is n’t he suitable?”
“Oh, yes; he’s almost too suitable; that’s one of the lions in the way. His family is good, he is as handsome as Apollo, and he has a much larger income than mine, but you see there’s another man.”
“Another man! You did n’t mention him yesterday.”
“Did n’t I? How funny! But after all it was our very first interview, and even silly I have my reserves.”
“Do you love them both equally?” I asked, trying to keep the note of sarcasm out of my voice.
“Certainly not. I care nothing about anybody but Tom Beckett, but Laura says that such a marriage will simply mean a life of self-indulgent luxury, idleness, and pleasure. She says marriage is something loftier and nobler than pleasing one’s self; that it ought to mean growth and development both to the man and the woman. She says that I should have no influence on Tom, and that I need somebody strong and serious to steady me. She says Tom and I would only frisk through life and leave the world no better or wiser than we found it. She even says” (and here she turned her face to the honeysuckles)—“I don’t like to repeat it, but Laura is so advanced she makes my embarrassment seem simply idiotic—she even says that the children of such a union would be incurably light-minded and trivial; and oh, Zuleika, if one is n’t a bit advanced in any way, does n’t it seem hard to keep from marrying somebody you love just for the good of a few frivolous children you’ve never seen in your life?”
It was neither the place, the hour, nor the subject for laughter, but I forgot my neurasthenia and gave way to a burst of wholehearted mirth! Every second of time seemed to increase the unconscious humor of her point of view, and only fear of the nurse on duty in the corridor enabled me to control myself at all.
“Have I been funny?” she asked delightedly, as she drew her head in the window. “I never can see my own jokes, but I’m glad to have amused you, only I did hope for a little sympathy. Everybody can’t be Zenobias and Vashtis and Lauras, superior to common weaknesses!”
“I do, I do sympathize,” I said, wiping the tears of merriment from my eyes, “and I agree with you much more than with Laura. Now the ‘other man’ is, I suppose, all that is grave and reverend—a complete contrast to the too trivial Thomas?”
“Yes, and he’s as good as good can be; trustworthy, talented, honorable, everything; you know the kind? I never get on with them.”
“Does he love you?”
“Laura thinks he does, but I’ve no reason to suppose so. We’ve always been friends, while Tom Beckett and I squabble and make up twice a week; but anyway, even if he does n’t adore me in Tom’s silly way, Laura says I ought not to mind. She says it would be noble of me to help him to a splendid and prosperous career, and thinks I ought to remember how much my father wanted him for a son-in-law—you see he is awfully poor.”
At this coupling of fathers and poverty a sudden light blazed in upon my consciousness and I sat bolt upright among the sofa-pillows. How could I have guessed that the love-affairs of this rosy-cheeked dumpling, the casual acquaintance of a rest-cure, could have any connection with my own? If she had n’t been the sort of person who confides at first sight we should have learned each other’s names at the beginning and been on guard. The truth is, I had thought of no one but Tom Beckett in her confessions; the personality of “the other man” had stolen into the chronicle so late in the day that I had taken no interest in him.
“Are you Amy Darling?” I asked her plump.
“Yes, but how mean of you to pump Blossom! I wanted to go on thinking of you as Zuleika and have you call me something imaginary and romantic.”
“I am Philippa Armstrong. Did you ever hear the name?”
“No, but it’s all right; it looks like you, and it’s nearly as pretty as Zenobia. Now if Tom Beckett had only chosen you and I could have obliged Laura by falling in love with—”
“Don’t mention the other man’s name!” I cried hastily; “it just comes to me that I may have met him.”
“Met Dick Morton?”
It was true then! Here was the girl whom Richard ought, for his worldly good, to marry, and she was not a woman at all, only an Angora kitten, and moreover a kitten in love with Tom Beckett!
“Yes, I have met him, but I only this moment suspected it!”
“Have you known him long?”
“Less than a year.”
“That settles it!” she cried, leaping to her feet excitedly. “If Dick Morton has known you for a year he won’t want me and I can marry Tom! Goody, goody, goody!”
“Stuff and nonsense!” I said quickly. “Richard Morton is only a very dear friend.”
“Stuff and nonsense yourself! No man with an eye in his head could be a dear friend to you! And Dick Morton is the hero sort who does n’t care for Dottie Dimples, but worships Vashtis and Zuleika-Zenobias. Have you any money?”
“Not a penny!”
“Oh, dear! I might have known you would n’t have, with that hair and those eyes. Never mind! I’m certain that Dick would rather have a pauper goddess than a rich little earthworm.”
“You must n’t talk any more about the matter,” I said with as much dignity as I could muster in the midst of her laughter-provoking nonsense, which made the most sacred subjects seem a natural matter of discussion. “I know through Mrs. Taunton all about the circumstances—your father’s wishes and his letter to Richard. If you can possibly love him you must accept him, advance his fortunes, and do your duty by your father. I am determined to be as noble as Laura Simonds in this matter and I refuse to be a stumbling-block!”
The girl fell limply into the lounging-chair.
“Oh,” she said despondently, “if you are going to be noble, too, there’s no use discussing the matter. What an example we shall be for the heathen nations! You will be noble and give up Dick Morton; I shall be noble and marry him; and be noble at the same time in giving up Tom; Tom will be noble in suffering me to marry anybody but himself; Dick will be noble in obliging my father and marrying me instead of you; Laura is always noble! We could use up a whole order of nobility among us! And it is all so silly! Do you suppose my dear father would want four of us to be unhappy, his own daughter among them? It’s really only Laura who matters, and if you had any ingenuity you could pacify her and persuade her that it is my duty for once to follow my ignoble inclinations. I am afraid of her, but you need n’t be! You could blaze and flash and tower, if you only would, and save us all!”
“You seem to forget,” I urged, “that Mr. Morton has never asked me to marry him.”
“That’s nothing; he has probably been thinking how he could get me nicely disposed of, or how he could earn a roof under which he could ask you to step in wet weather. He’s been too stupid and moody and dull this last winter for any use, and now I understand him. Has he ever seen you like this with your Rebecca-at-the-well hair down?”
“I thought so; or he’d have forgotten the necessary roof!—Come in!—Goodness! it’s your room and I locked the door! Do excuse me; I’ll open it. A telegram for you.—Wait outside for an answer, Jimmy.”
I tore open the envelope, confidently expecting that Cousin Sarah had been struck with paralysis; instead of which I read:
Have this moment secured a large and important contract assuring two years’ lucrative work. May I come to see you immediately? Name earliest day.
I handed the message to the Kitten, who read it and exclaimed: “I knew he was only waiting for the roof! You see he does n’t worry about my prospects—selfish pig! Answer it and say Thursday—you can get well by Thursday, can’t you?—for I want to send for Tom on the same day. There’s a polo game at home on Saturday, and Tom has a new motor car. Tell Dick the best hotel in the town is the Brooks House. I must wire to Laura, too. I shall say, let me see: I shall say: ‘You should n’t have left me. I could n’t be noble alone.’ That’s just ten words. She’ll understand fast enough, and it will pave the way for you when you explain the situation to her. We’ll leave the sanitarium Friday and get your Cousin Sarah to chaperon us on the journey home. Here, I’ve written my messages, now do yours—hurry! There!—Jimmy, you’re too old to play with matches, aren’t you?”
“Very well, then, you can be trusted with these two telegrams. Don’t hold them near the fire; there’s a match in each of them.”
As a patient Dr. Levi says I am almost as great a credit to the institution as Mrs. Chittenden-Ffollette herself.
Monday.—I slept all day, waking only for meals.
Tuesday.—The handcuffs slipped off my wrists and the balls and chains off my ankles.
Wednesday.—My headache, sideache, backache, and shoulderache disappeared. Breakfasted with the doctor on coffee, hot biscuits, beefsteak, and griddle cakes with sausage.
Thursday.—Richard Morton came.
Friday.—Dismissed as completely cured.
“The dimensions of this mercy are above my thoughts,” as Cromwell wrote after the Worcester fight.
The Riverside Press
CAMBRIDGE . MASSACHUSETTS
U . S . A