Much Ado About Peter/Chapter 10

First published in McClure's Dec 1905

A PARABLE FOR HUSBANDS

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A PARABLE FOR HUSBANDS

BLUE GIPSY'S filly had broken two pairs of shafts, kicked a hole through a dash-board, and endeavoured to take a fence carriage and all, in a fixed determination not to become a harness-horse. It was evident that she had chosen her career and meant to stick to it.

"Break her to the shafts if you have to half kill her," Mr. Harry had said, but there were some things that Mr. Harry did not understand so well as Peter.

"Where's the use in spoilin' a good jumper for the sake o' makin' a poor drivin' horse?" Peter had asked the trainer, and he had added that the master was talking through his hat.

Peter had already explained the matter to Mr. Harry, but Mr. Harry was very much like the filly; when he had made up his mind he did not like to change. Peter decided to talk it over once more, however, before he risked another groom. The first groom had dislocated his shoulder, and he refused to have any further intercourse with Blue Gypsy's filly.

Poor Peter felt himself growing old under the weight of his responsibilities. Three years before he had been a care-free groom at Willowbrook; now, since Miss Ethel had married Mr. Harry, he was coachman at Jasper Place, with seven horses and three men under him. Occasionally he gazed rather wistfully across the meadow to where the Willowbrook stables showed a red blur through the gray-green trees. He had served there eleven years as stable-boy and groom, and though he had more than once tasted the end of a strap under Joe's vigorous dominion, it had been a happily irresponsible life. Not that he wished the old time back, for that would mean that there would be no Annie waiting supper for him at night in the coachman's cottage, but he did wish sometimes that Mr. Harry had a little more common sense about managing horses. Blue Gypsy's filly trotting peaceably between shafts! It was in her blood to jump, and jump she would; you might as well train a bull pup to grow up a Japanese poodle and sleep on a satin cushion.

Peter, pondering the matter, strolled over to the kitchen and inquired of Ellen where Mr. Harry was. Mr. Harry was in the library, she said, and Peter could go right through.

The carpet was soft, and he made no noise. He did not mean to listen, but he had almost reached the library door before he realized and then he stood still, partly because he was dazed, and partly because he was interested.

He did not know what had gone before, but the first thing he heard was Miss Ethel's voice, and though he could not see her, he knew from the tone what she looked like, with her head thrown back and her chin up and her eyes flashing.

"I am the best judge of my own actions," she said, "and I shall receive whom I please. You always put the wrong interpretation on everything I do, and I am tired of your interfering. If you would go away and leave me alone it would be best for us both—I feel sometimes as though I never wanted to see you again."

Then a long silence, and finally the cold, repressed tones of her husband asked: "Do you mean that?"

She did not answer, except by a long indrawn sob of anger. Peter had heard that sound before, when she was a child, and he knew how it ought to be dealt with; but Mr. Harry did not; he was far too polite.

After another silence he said quietly: "If I go, I go to stay—a long time."

"Stay forever, if you like."

Peter turned and tiptoed out, feeling unhappy and ashamed, as he had felt that other time when he had overheard. He went back to the stables, and sitting down with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands, he pondered the situation. If he were Mr. Harry for just ten minutes, he told himself fiercely, he would soon settle things; but Mr. Harry did not understand. When it came to managing horses he was too rough, as if they had no sense; and when it came to managing women, he was too easy, as if they were all sense. Peter sighed miserably. His heart ached for them both: for Miss Ethel, because he knew that she did not mean what she said, and would later be sorry; for Mr. Harry, because he knew that he did mean what he said—terribly and earnestly. Neither understood the other, and it was all such a muddle when just a little common sense would have made everything happy. Then he shrugged his shoulders and told himself that it was none of his business; that he guessed they could make up their quarrels without help from him. And he fell to scolding the stable-boy for mixing up the harness.

In about half an hour, Oscar, the valet, came running out to the stables looking pleased and excited, with an order to get the runabout ready immediately to go to the station. Oscar was evidently bursting with news, but Peter pretended not to be interested, and kept on with his work without looking up.

"The master's going in to New York and I follow to-night with his things, and to-morrow we sail for England! Maybe we 'll go from there on a hunting trip to India—I'm to pack the guns. There's been trouble," he added significantly. "Mrs. Jasper's in her room with the door banged shut, and the master is pretty quiet and white-like about the gills."

"Shut up an' mind yer own business," Peter snapped, and he led out the horses and began putting on the harness with hands that trembled.

As he drew up at the stepping-stone, Mr. Harry jumped in. "Well, Peter," he said, in a voice which was meant to be cheerful, but was a very poor imitation, "we must drive fast if we 're to make the four-thirty train."

"Yes, sir," said Peter, briskly clicking to the horses, and for once he thanked his stars that the station was four miles away. A great resolve had been growing in his mind, and it required some time and a good deal of courage to carry it out. He glanced sideways at the grim, pale face beside him, and cleared his throat uneasily.

"Beggin' yer pardon," he began, "I was at the library door to ask about the filly, an' without meanin' to, I heard why you was goin' away."

A quick flush spread over Mr. Harry's face, and he glanced angrily at his coachman.

"The devil!" he muttered.

"Yes, sir," said Peter. "I suppose ye 'll be dischargin' me, Mr. Harry, for speakin', but I feel it's me dooty, and I can't keep quiet. Beggin' yer pardon, sir, I've knowed Miss Ethel longer than you have. I was servin' at Willowbrook all the time that ye was in boardin' school an' college. Her hair was hangin' down her back an' she was drivin' a pony cart when I first come. I watched her grow and I know her ways—there was times, sir, when she was most uncommon troublesome. She's the kind of a woman as needs managin', and if ye 'll excuse me for sayin' so, it takes a man to do it. Ye 're too quiet an' gentleman-like, Mr. Harry. Though I guess she likes to have ye act like a gentleman, when ye can't do both she'd rather have ye act like a man. If I was her husband——"

"You forget yourself, Peter!"

"Yes, sir. Beg yer pardon, sir, but as I was sayin', if I was her husband, I'd let her see who was master pretty quick, an' she'd like me the better. And if she ever told me she would be glad for me to go away an' never come back, I'd look at her black like with me arms folded, and I'd say: 'Ye would, would ye? In that case I 'll stay right here an' niver go away.' An' then she'd be so mad she'd put her head down on the back o' the chair an' cry, deep like, the way she always did when she could n't have what she wanted, an' I'd wait with a frown on me brow, an' when she got through she'd be all over it, an' would ask me pardon sorrowful like; an' I'd wait a while an' let it soak in, an' then I'd forgive her."

Mr. Harry stared at Peter, too amazed to speak.

"Yes, sir," Peter resumed, "I 've watched Miss Ethel grow up, and I knows her like her own mother, as ye might say. I 've drove her to and from the town for thirteen years, and I 've rode after her many miles on horseback, an' when she felt like it she would talk to me as chatty as if I were n't a groom. She was always that way with the servants; she took an interest in our troubles, an' we all liked her spite o' the fact that she was a bit over-rulin'."

Mr. Harry knit his brows and stared ahead without speaking, and Peter glanced at him uneasily and hesitated.

"There's another thing I'd like to tell ye, sir, though I'm not sure how ye 'll take it."

"Don't hesitate on my account," murmured Mr. Harry, ironically. "Say anything you please, Peter."

"Well, sir, I guess ye may have forgotten, but I was the groom ye took with ye that time before ye was married when ye an' Miss Ethel went to see the old wreck."

Mr. Harry looked at Peter with a quick, haughty stare; but Peter was examining the end of his whip and did not see.

"An' ye left me an' the cart, sir, under the bank, if ye 'll remember, an' ye did n't walk far enough away, an' ye spoke pretty loud, and I could n't help hearin' ye."

"Damn your impertinence!" said Mr. Harry.

"Yes, sir," said Peter. "I never told no one, not even me wife, but I understood after that how things was goin'. An' when ye went away travellin' so sudden, I s'picioned ye was n't feelin' very merry over the trip; an' I watched Miss Ethel, and I was sure she was n't feelin' merry, for all she tried mighty hard to make people think she was. When they was lookin', sir, she laughed an' flirted most outrageous with them young men as used to be visitin' at Willowbrook, but I knew, sir, that she did n't care a snap of her finger for any o' them, for in between times she used to take long rides on the beach, with me followin' at a distance—at a very respectful distance; she was n't noticin' my troubles then, she had too many of her own. When there were n't no one on the beach she'd leave me the horses an' walk off by herself, an' sit on a sand dune, an' put her chin in her hand an' stare at the water till the horses was that crazy with the sand flies I could scarcely hold 'em. An' sometimes she'd put her head down an' cry soft like, fit to break a man's heart, and I'd walk the horses off, with me hands just itchin'—beggin' yer pardon, sir, to get a holt o' you, for I knew that ye was the cause."

"You know a great deal too much," said Mr. Harry, dryly.

"A groom learns considerable without meanin' to, and it's lucky his masters is if he knows how to keep his mouth shut. As I was sayin', Mr. Harry, I knew all the time she was longin' for ye, but was too proud to let ye know. If ye 'll allow the impertinence, sir, ye made a mistake in the way ye took her at her word. She loved ye too much not to be willin' to forgive ye for everything; and if ye'd only understood her an' handled her right, she would n't 'a' throwed ye over."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, if ye 'll excuse me speakin' allegorical like, as she's the kind of a woman as needs a sharp bit and a steady hand on the bridle, an' when she bolts a touch o' the lash—not too much, for she would n't stand it, but enough to let her see who's master. I 've known some women an' many horses, sir, an' I 've noticed as the blooded ones is alike in both. If ye 'll excuse me mentionin' it, Miss Ethel was badly broke, sir. She was given the rein when she needed the whip, but for all that, she's a thoroughbred, sir, an' that's the main thing."

Peter imperceptibly slowed his horses.

"If ye don't mind, Mr. Harry, I'd like to tell ye a little story. It happened six or seven years ago when ye was away at college, and if Miss Ethel is a bit unreasonable now, she was more unreasonable then. It was when the old master first bought Blue Gypsy—as was a devil if there ever was one. One afternoon Miss Ethel takes it into her head she wants to try the new mare, so she orders her out, with me to follow. What does she do but make straight for the beach, sir, an' gallop along on the hard sand close to the water-line. It was an awful windy day late in October, with the clouds hangin' low an' the waves dashin' high, and everything sort o' empty an' lonesome. Blue Gypsy was n't used to the water, an' she was so scared she was 'most crazy, rearin' an' plungin' till ye would a swore she had a dozen legs—not much of a horse for a lady, but Miss Ethel could ride all right. She kept Blue Gypsy's head to the wind an' galloped four or five miles up the beach, with me poundin' along behind, hangin' on to me hat for dear life.

"’Twas ebb-tide, but time for the flood, and I was beginning to think we'd better go back, unless we wanted to plough through the loose shingle high up, which is mighty hard on a horse, sir. But when we come to the Neck, Miss Ethel rode straight on; I did n't like the looks of it much, but I did n't say nothin' for the Neck's never under water an' there were n't no danger. But what does she do when we comes to the end o' the Neck, but turn to ride across the inlet to the mainland, which ye can do easy enough at low tide, but never at high. The sand was already gettin' oozy, an' with the wind blowin' off the sea the tide was risin' fast. Ye know what it would 'a' meant, sir, if she'd gone out an' got caught. An' what with that unknown devil of a Blue Gypsy she was ridin', there was no tellin' when it would happen.

"'Miss Ethel,' I calls, sort o' commandin' like, for I was too excited for politeness, 'ye can't go across.'

"She turns around an' stares at me haughty, an' goes on.

"I gallops up an' says: 'The tide's a risin', Miss Ethel, an' the inlet is n't safe.'

"She looks me over cool an' says: 'It is perfectly safe. I am goin' to ride across; if you are afraid, Peter, you may go home.'

"With that she whips up an' starts off. I was after her in a minute, gallopin' up beside her, an' before she knew what I was doin' I reaches out me hand an' grabs hold o' the bridle an' turns Blue Gypsy's head. I did n't like to do it, for it seemed awful familiar, but with people as contrary as they is, sir, ye 've got to be familiar sometimes, if ye 're goin' to do any good in the world.

"Well, Mr. Harry, as ye can believe, she did n't like it, an' she calls out sharp and imperative for me to let go. But I hangs on an' begins to gallop, an' with that she raises her crop an' cuts me over the hand as hard as she can. It hurt considerable, but I held on an' did n't say nothin', an' she raised her arm to strike again. But just at that moment a wave broke almost at the horses' feet, an' Blue Gypsy reared, an' Miss Ethel, who was n't expectin' it, almost lost her balance an' the crop dropped on the sand.

"'Peter,' she says, 'go back an' get me that crop.'

"But by that time I'd got the bit in me teeth, sir, an' I just laughs—ugly like—an' keeps holt o' the bridle an' gallops on. Well, sir, then she was 'most crazy, an' she tries to shake off me arm with her fist, but she might as well have tried to shake down a tree. I looks at her, an' smiles to meself impertinent, an' keeps on. An' she looks all around, desperate like, hopin' to see someone within call, but the beach was empty, an' there was n't nothin' she could do, I bein' so much stronger."

"You brute!" said Mr. Harry.

"I was savin' her life," said Peter. "An' when she saw she could n't do nothin' she kind o' sobbed down low to herself an' said, soft like: 'I'll discharge you, Peter, when we get home.'

"I touches me hat an' says as polite as ye please: 'Very well, miss, but we ain't home yet, miss, and I'm boss for the present.'

"With that a great big wave comes swash up against the horses' legs, an' lucky it is that I had a holt o' the bridle, for Blue Gypsy would 'a' thrown her sure. An' after I got her back on her four legs—Blue Gypsy, sir—an' we was goin' on again, Miss Ethel throws a look over her shoulder at the inlet which was all under water, an' then she looks down at me hand that had a great big red welt across it, an' she said so low I could scarce hear her over the waves:

"'You can take your hand away, Peter. I 'll ride straight home.'

"I knew she meant it, but me hand was burnin' like fire, and I'd got me temper up, so I looks at her doubtin' like, as if I could n't believe her, an' she turns red an' says, 'Can't ye trust me, Peter?' an' with that I touches me hat an' falls behind.

"An' when we got back, sir, and I got off at the porter-ker-cher to help her dismount, what does she do but take me big red hand in both o' hers, an' she looks at the scar, an' then she looks in me eyes, an' she says, like as ye hit straight from the shoulder, sir, 'Peter,' she says, 'I'm sorry I struck you. Will ye forgive me?' she says.

"An' I touches me hat an' says: 'Certainly, miss. Don't mention it, miss,' an' we was friends after that.

"An' that's the reason, Mr. Harry, I hate to see ye go off an'—beggin' yer pardon—make a fool o' yerself. For she loves ye true, sir, like as Annie loves me, an' I know, sir, if she took it hard before ye was married, it ud near kill her now. Ye must n't mind what she says when she's angry, for she just thinks o' the worst things she can to hurt yer feelin's, but Lord! sir, she don't mean it no more'n a rabbit, an' if ye 'll give her half a chance and don't act like an iceberg she 'll want to make up. Me an' Annie, Mr. Harry, we pulls together lovely. I'm the boss in some things, an' she's the boss in others; I lets her think she can manage me, an' she lets me think I can manage her—and I can, sir. Sometimes we have little quarrels, but it's mostly for the joy o' makin' up, an' we 're that happy, sir, that we wants to see everyone else happy."

The horses had slowed to a walk, but Mr. Harry did not notice it. A smile was beginning to struggle with the hard lines about his mouth.

"Well, Peter," he said, "you 've preached quite a sermon. What would you advise?"

"That ye go back an' take a firm hold o' the bridle, sir, an' if she uses the whip, just hold on hard an' don't let on that it hurts."

Mr. Harry looked at Peter and the smile spread to his eyes. "And then when she drops it," he asked, "just laugh and ride on?"

Peter coughed a deprecatory cough.

"Beggin' yer pardon, Mr. Harry, I think if I was in your place I'd pick it up an' keep it meself. It might come in handy in case of emergencies."

Mr. Harry threw back his head in a quick, boyish laugh, and reaching over he took the lines and turned the horses' heads.

"Peter," he said, "you may be elemental, but I half suspect you 're right."