BY CLARENCE BUDINGTON KELLAND
I AM an observant person; indeed, I am safe in saying I am an extraordinarily observant person. This is due to no natural endowment, but solely to training and habit. I observe in order that I may reflect and draw enlightening conclusions. Had I been the sort of person who neglects the small phenomena which go on about him, I would, doubtless, never have noticed the distressing fact that the membership of our Country Club was divided into two sections or factions between which friendly intercourse was negligible. Adherents of each faction spoke in regrettable terms of asperity of adherents of the other faction; and I do not hesitate to say that on occasions perfectly well-bred individuals bore themselves in an objectionable manner.
There must be some underlying cause for this condition. It was a sociological manifestation worthy of investigation. Therefore, with a promptness and decision which is a part of my character I resolved to undertake the labor. I found it interesting.
The club-house was deserted, but I knew I should find some one playing at the game of golf, so I betook myself out of doors. At a considerable distance I saw Colonel Wickliff in the act of striking at a ball with an odd club of Scottish origin. Mr. Weatherly was his opponent. I walked toward them. When I arrived within speaking distance they were standing on a small area of lawn—a putting-green so-called. Colonel Wickliff was about to put the green to the purpose for which it is intended, namely, to strike the ball so that it rolls into a tiny hole in the ground. I advanced. The colonel did not greet me, but continued to take aim—which was useless, inasmuch as one of my feet—inadvertently, it is true—quite covered the objective hole.
"I beg your pardon," I said, interrupting, because my investigations seemed of more moment than his futile pastime.
The colonel turned his head slowly, very slowly, until he glared—I use the word advisedly—at me with one eye. I was startled. He suddenly stood upright, his teeth visible, and raised his club high above his head to bring it down on the ground with terrific force. The club snapped into three pieces. Gripping the shorter section, the colonel turned his back and walked rapidly away after uttering a word which I did not quite catch. He did not return.
I looked at Mr. Weatherly, who seemed to be amused. "Sir," said I, "may I have a moment of your time?"
"I have rheumatism," he replied, "and cannot run." I did not follow him, but imagined this to be a cant phrase expressing consent.
"You are a man experienced in the ways of society," I said. "Let me, therefore, put to you a hypothetical question. In a certain club—a country club—the following condition exists: A portion of the club members manifest by their bearing a distaste for a certain other portion of the members each portion is frigidly polite to the other; privately each portion is ironic, even acrimonious. The result is a disturbance of that serene atmosphere which should be maintained in a club of the character described. What, Mr. Weatherly, would bring about such a condition?"
"It may be caused, Mr. Small, by a variety of actions. For instance, by omitting certain names from a list of the invited; by living on different streets; by ancestors or the lack of them; by money or the lack of it; by coaxing away a cook; by repeating an innocent remark; by bulling the market; by having a pretty daughter; by keeping a bulldog; by an irritating knowledge of the French language; by patronizing or failing to patronize a certain tailor. Those are a few putative causes, Mr. Small."
"They seem inadequate—what one might call trivial," said I. "Your answer is helpful, doubtless, but a trifle diffuse. I shall analyze it at leisure. However, time presses. I shall be direct with you, sir. The condition I pictured actually exists." I paused for emphasis.
"You astonish me," said Mr. Weatherly. I was gratified at his surprise. It affirmed my unusual qualities of close observation.
"It exists," said I, "in this very club."
"Mr. Small!" he expostulated. "If that be true, something should be done. It should, indeed, but I trust you are mistaken."
"It is only too true," said I. Then, after a pause, "Have you anything to suggest?"
"You might," he said, "discuss the matter with Mrs. Wickliff."
"With Colonel Wickliffs wife?"
"No less," said he. "Also the mother of Colonel Wickliff's daughter Iseult."
"Deplorably named," said I. "It is regrettable to perpetuate the name of a woman who if alive to-day would feature in our divorce courts, and doubtless become a singer in comic opera wearing immodest costume. . . . However, I shall call upon Mrs. Wickliff.
I called upon Mrs. Wickliff that very afternoon and was received with flattering cordiality.
"This is an unusual pleasure," said Mrs. Wickliff when we were seated on the piazza.
"I am able to devote little time to social matters, as you can understand," I said; "nevertheless, I wish I might have more leisure to study our so-called upper classes. They present interesting phenomena."
"Ah," said Mrs. Wickliff.
"Indeed," said I, "I am applying scientific methods to the investigation of a peculiar condition at the Country Club."
"Ah," said Mrs. Wickliff a second time.
"Yes," said I. "There seems to be a deplorable enmity between two factions of the membership."
"Ah," said Mrs. Wickliff again. I had never seen her so monosyllabic.
"I came to you to ask if you could assist, if you could give me facts that would enable me to penetrate to the true cause of the—the animosity."
"I can," said Mrs. Wickliff, with some asperity. "I am indeed in a position to do so. It may be traced to the fact that some years ago—for alleged business reasons—our husbands allowed to be admitted to membership several persons who would have been much more at home elsewhere. These persons, men who have little interest in the club, were no doubt hectored into pushing themselves in by wives who hoped for social recognition. These individuals have not only grown in number, but in energy. There has been a deliberate and offensive campaign. In the case of certain families who make large sums of money from overalls or some other commodity there has been an effort to deceive the public. The press has been subsidized, I am told, with the result that the public has become confused and often mistakes those families for genuine leaders in our society. This is very galling, you will admit."
I nodded, though without intention to partisanship. It was my desire to reserve judgment until the facts were thoroughly spread before me.
"And latterly," Mrs. Wickliff said, with what I recognized as a mingling of wrath and disdain, "efforts have been made to marry their daughters to our sons, or our sons to their daughters. You may discredit my veracity, but it is an actual fact that a son of William Higgins—overalls is his business—has paid marked attention to my daughter Iseult. When this crisis arrived we all deemed it best to call a halt. Accordingly a halt was called—emphatically."
"May I ask if your daughter was wholly in accord? Did she view young Mr. Higgins as—an ineligible inferior?"
Mrs. Wickliff blushed. "I am ashamed to say," she said, "that she did not. But the matter was adequately handled, and the danger is past."
"You have made the matter perfectly clear," I told her, and after thanking her for her assistance I took my leave. That evening I catalogued and scrutinized the facts collected. They seemed to me no adequate cause for the result produced. It appeared that overalls and such like, and not people, were—shall I say, the casus belli? Why overalls? I asked myself. Why are overalls less socially desirable than oil, or steamships—which was the Wickliff line—or varnishes, which must be eligible or the Brandishes would not permit themselves to manufacture them? It was an interesting question, and I determined at some future day to give it my attention, in fact to write a monograph on the subject of "Overalls in American Society.
I am a man of action as well as thought. That has doubtless been recognized. Therefore, when I determined that night to put an end to the aggravating condition at the club I did not delay, but began taking active steps. My first active step was to evolve a plan.
The point in the affair that seemed sorest to the touch was that young Higgins—Peter was his name—had aspired to Iseult Wickliff's hand. I judged that he continued to aspire, though discouraged by her parents. Clearly, the first thing to do was to correct this. If Iseult bestowed her affections on a man acceptable to her mother, and if Peter Higgins courted a young woman from his own faction in the club, then that irritant would be removed, and peace would be so much nearer. It was my plan to bring about this desirable result. It would require tact, diplomacy. It was indeed fortunate that I possessed these qualities to a degree.
I readily perceived that my great primary difficulty would be to persuade some suitable young man to pay assiduous, indeed significant, attentions to Miss Wickliff. I was nonplussed for a moment, then there came to my assistance a flash—with all modesty I feel warranted in saying it—a flash of genius. I was young, my social position was not uncertain, and I was positive Mrs. Wickliff would object neither to railroads, government bonds, nor metropolitan real estate as a source of income. Add to this that I had already been considering matrimony, had indeed determined to take a wife, and was still of the same state of mind. Why should not I become a suitor for Miss Iseult's hand? Why not, indeed? Despite the young lady's name, to which I could not lend my approval, she was generally satisfactory. One looked at her without dissatisfaction, or rather with enjoyment. While not brilliant, she appeared intelligent, though not free from levity. That, however, would be subject to correction. Intimacy with myself would, I felt, mold her character. I would flatter her by seeking her assistance in my various researches, until subtly, before she realized it herself, her mind would take on a serious cast; she would come to care for more interesting and important matters. In short, she would become a fit mate and companion for a man of my character and habits.
I discovered on the following day that Miss Iseult had not been leaving her home since her mother discovered her partiality for Peter Higgins. Mrs. Wickliff had deemed it best to have her daughter under observation until the danger she feared was removed. I was convinced that Miss Iseult would welcome recreation; therefore I called again upon Mrs. Wickliff to state my position and to receive her approval. I need not affirm that she did approve; indeed, she evinced enthusiasm. It was at her suggestion that I took Miss Iseult for a drive in my car.
Miss Iseult—I constantly find myself wishing the original possessor of that name had been a trifle more reserved in her manner and circumspect in her conduct—appeared somewhat surprised when I invited her to accompany me, but, nevertheless, she assented eagerly, saying, "I'd cry with joy to get out of this house, even with an animated copy of Webster's Unabridged."
It was an odd expression, but young women make use of peculiar diction, I have observed. When we were on the road I opened the conversation by observing that Professor Maultsbetch, of the University of Leipsic, had recently issued a fascinating book in support of his theory that the aboriginal Mayans of Central America were actual descendants of prehistoric Eskimos inhabiting that region when, instead of being tropical, as it is to-day, owing to a shifting of the earth's axis, it was close to the pole. She was aroused to immediate interest.
"Did you bring the book with you?" she asked. "I have it in my pocket," said I, delighted to have a glimpse of a side of her intellect of which I had not dreamed.
"The car seems to run smoothly," said she. "Suppose you read it."
I opened the volume and began to read.
"No, no, not aloud," she said, quickly. "I'm afraid I shouldn't grasp it. But I shall be glad to have you go ahead by yourself. I know you will enjoy that more than talking with me. . . . I love to see men comfortable."
It was delightfully considerate of her, and my heart warmed toward her as it had not done before. I may say that until that moment I had not been whole-eartedly enthusiastic for marriage with the young woman. But her solicitude on my behalf was not without its effect. I thanked her and reopened my book.
We drove until the dinner-hour was near, a time sufficient for me to read with care chapters three to ten of Professor Maultsbetch's work. Never, I say, without fear of contradiction, have I enjoyed so pleasant a drive; never had female companionship been so delightful.
I left Miss Iseult at her home after promising to call for her again without delay.
"Thank you, Simeon," she said, sweetly, for that is the word most aptly describing her tone and manner. "Do so . . . and be sure to bring your book."
I have had comparatively little to do with women, and must confess that there has been no embarrassing eagerness on their part to seek my society. Indeed, I have had my disappointments, due, I believe, to failure on my part to study the subject as I should. There must, thought I, be some one who treats instructively of the subject of women. It was an idea to act upon with promptness. I therefore hastened to our public library and approached the young woman in charge.
Said I, "I desire a book from which I can gain information on the subject of women."
I thought she looked at me a trifle peculiarly. "Would you mind," she asked, "telling me more particularly what you want to know?"
"Such knowledge," said I, "as would be helpful to a young man desirous of acquiring the admiration, indeed the affection, of a young lady."
She turned her back and coughed alarmingly. When the paroxysm passed she turned and said, in a strangled voice: "I can recommend the works of three authors—Jane Austen, E. P. Roe, and Charlotte Bronte. They have treated extensively of the subject in the way you require."
"Indeed," said I; "I have never heard of them. Will you give me one of the works of Jane Austen? The name sounds substantial and dependable. Doubtless she deals with the matter thoroughly and thoughtfully."
"She does," replied the young woman, and presently she returned with the book.
On my arrival at home I found it to be quite different from what I had anticipated. It was, in short, a story—fiction. However, inasmuch as it had been recommended by the librarian, I determined to peruse it. You will be astonished to learn that it was actually instructive! I gleaned from it an important fact, namely, that young women are attracted by romance, and that in their eyes the most romantic of acts is an elopement. It seems that a young lady prefers to elope with a man she dislikes rather than to marry in due form and prosaically a gentleman who has won her affection. I considered this a curious thing.
I despatched a messenger to Miss Iseult with a note inviting her to accompany me to the mid-week dance at the Country Club that night. She returned a favorable reply. As you may have assumed, I do not give myself to the pastime of dancing, yet I felt sure Miss Iseult would not lack for partners. This would permit me to withdraw to the reading-room, leaving her to her devices until it was the hour for returning home. I was not mistaken in my conjectures.
During the evening a rather delightful episode occurred. Young Peter Higgins sought me out in the library.
"Mr. Small," said he, shaking my hand warmly, "I have long admired you—your character and your habits—but until to-night I feel I have never appreciated you as I should."
I was astonished, but gratified. "You flatter me," said I; "but why has your appreciation increased to-night?"
"The fact," said he, "that you have the courage to steel yourself against the frivolity—the delightful frivolity—of the dance, and occupy this time with profitable reading. It has been a lesson to me. I want to thank you." He insisted on shaking my hand again.
"I am glad," said I, modestly, "if I have been helpful."
"Helpful?" said he, with a burst of youthful enthusiasm. "You've been a regular double-jointed, rip-snorting, back-action, self-loading life-saver."
I deplored the number of compound words he chose to aline in a single sentence, but with the sentiment I could have no quarrel. "You put it strongly," said I.
"I can't express what is in my heart," said he, "without using improper words. My vocabulary, I regret to say, has been neglected. And," he went on, with a note of admiration in his voice, "do you actually intend to remain here the rest of the evening?"
"Until the last dance is completed," I said, firmly.
"It will be a favor," said he, "if you will permit me to inform you when that moment comes." Again he shook hands with me and left me. I may be excused for a deep sense of gratification that came over me. One cannot but take pleasure from a knowledge of deserved appreciation—and from an unexpected quarter. It was apparent that this Peter Higgins was a young man of discernment. He seemed, rather to my surprise, to bear me no ill will for becoming what my author, Miss Jane Austen, referred to many times as a rival.
Peter returned in an hour or so with the word that the dance was ended. I accompanied him in search of Miss Iseult and found that he had taken the trouble, in my behalf, to obtain her cloak and see to it that she was ready for departure. She greeted me with obvious pleasure.
On the drive home I broached the subject of marriage. Not directly, but somewhat obliquely, in order not to frighten her. Miss Austen speaks emphatically on this point. It seems young women are frightened by sudden proffers of the hand.
"Miss Iseult," said I, "you may have been a trifle surprised at the frequency with which I have sought your society."
"That is hardly the word to describe my sentiments," she said, gravely.
"Let me ask you," said I, "to consider the facts when you are alone. Perhaps, by this means, you may make some conjecture as to my purpose." I thought that rather delicate and tactful. It would compel her to think of me; it might, indeed, lead her to guess my intention, yet it could by no means cause her alarm.
"I shall not fail to do as you ask," she said.
We spoke no further words until we arrived at her door, where I said good night gently, but with restraint. I thought I had gone far enough to make an excellent beginning.
During the next two weeks I was much with Miss Iseult, and came, I admit it without shame, to harbor a genuine desire to possess her as my wife. We went to many events together, and, surprisingly enough, encountered young Peter Higgins frequently. I judged that he had taken these occasions to seek me out and pass a moment in my company. His devotion to me was no less than touching. I invited him to call at my house—a thing which it seemed he was unable to do because of business engagements.
Gradually I had drawn closer to the subject of marriage. Miss Iseult had been wholly unable to guess at my reason for seeking her presence, but I am convinced she was not untouched by a theory as to my purpose before the month was out. While I never mentioned the subject directly, I did skirt about it deftly, and she was a young woman of some perception.
At last I deemed the time to have come for my disclosure. We were seated on her piazza; the moon shone brightly upon us—a condition much recommended by Miss Austen.
"Miss Iseult," said I, "I am about to astonish you."
"Simeon," said she, "you astonish me every little while. About a dozen times a day I tell myself you can't actually be true."
"Very encouraging," thought I. Aloud I said, "The events which have preceded to-night have been but the preliminaries of a courtship."
She sat erect and stared at me. "I never should have dreamed it," she exclaimed.
"It is true. I have been giving you an opportunity to know me—to study me, so that you might arrive at a comprehensive knowledge of my personality and of my suitability to become your husband. You have had ample opportunity, so now there can be neither danger nor impropriety in asking the question I am about to ask."
Her hand was over her mouth, her head turned away; she trembled visibly, but did not speak.
"Miss Iseult," said I, "will you elope with me?"
"Elope!" she cried, starting erect and staring at me.
I saw I had done well by thus suddenly injecting the element of romance. It seemed I had taken her heart by storm. That is another phrase developed by careful reading of Miss Austen.
"Yes," said I; "we can fly together, procure the services of an ordained minister, be made one, and thwart the opposition of your hard-hearted parents." I found Miss Austen invaluable.
She was silent. I did not interrupt her thoughts. For a long time she remained without word or movement. "Have you made any plans?" she asked, presently.
"I have," said I. "A servant will be bribed to carry out your baggage and bring it to me. On the appointed night I shall have in waiting on the corner below a closed carriage containing your bags. You will be in readiness, waiting for my whistle under your window. You will leave your room, creep down the stairs, emerge from the carriage door, and together we will fly."
Again she was silent. Presently she asked another question. "When can you be prepared to carry out your plan?"
"I have decided on Thursday night as a suitable time."
"Very well, Simeon. I shall be waiting for your whistle."
I was enchanted. I became ardent. "Ought I not, as your accepted suitor, to have the privilege of—kissing my—bride." This language was difficult for me.
She permitted me to kiss her—once—and I took my leave.
Next day I informed Mrs. Wickliff of the plan, and together we laughed at the manifestly humorous features of it. Mrs. Wickliff admired my acumen in devising the romance, agreeing to do her part faithfully. I need not say I was delighted. By one masterly move I had served two causes: I had procured for myself a wife, and I had removed from the midst of the Country Club the most irritating cause of the enmity existing there.
Thursday morning Miss Iseult's bags arrived at my house. Thursday evening, with my hired carriage, I repaired to the shadows of a near-by corner. Then, using the caution of an aboriginal American, I approached the Wickliff home, crept to a place under Iseult's window, and whistled. She waved her hand.
Presently she emerged from the door and we fled across the lawn. She was in terror of apprehension. "Where—is the—carriage?" she panted.
"On the next corner," said I.
"Let me run ahead," she breathed. "You remain here—to guard my escape. Stop anybody that comes—at any cost.
"They shall pass only over my inanimate body," I assured her, and assumed a heroic posture of defense. She disappeared in the shadows.
I gave her ample time to reach the carriage, then followed at a dignified pace. I arrived at the spot. The carriage was gone! I looked about me, thinking Iseult might have wished it moved to a place of greater security, but it was nowhere to be seen. I hastened hither and thither, much perturbed. Suddenly my feet encountered an obstacle, and I was hurled headlong to the ground. Scrambling with all possible speed to my feet, I discovered—with amazement—that I had fallen over my own baggage!
I lighted a match. It is needless to say that I was alarmed. I was more than alarmed. The match disclosed plainly my bags. To one of them was fastened an envelope, which I snatched and opened.
Dear Simeon [I read by the match's flickering light],—At the last moment my heart rebelled. I could not complete my elopement with you—though I could not bear to deprive you of at least a part of it. Peter Higgins has been so kind as to relieve you of the difficulties remaining. We have gone to Meadsboro, where we will be married. Until my dying hour, Simeon, you shall have my gratitude and esteem.
It turned out that they did not go to Meadsboro at all, but quite in another direction—to Alameda. Doubtless this was due to a sudden change of plan after writing the note.
Nonplussed and distressed, I hastened to acquaint Mrs. Wickliff with the news. In her surprise she spoke somewhat harshly to me, and presently called in Colonel Wickliff, whose vocabulary contained many words with which I had small acquaintance. Numbered among them was the peculiar trisyllable "nincompoop."
I retired as hastily as I might and returned to my home, where I spent the remainder of the night contemplating the situation with mixed feelings. I felt a certain embarrassment, so much so that I kept to the house for a week.
Going once again into society, I learned that Peter and Iseult were on their way to Europe, but, worst of all, that more than two hundred resignations had poured in to the board of governors of the club; that, indeed, there was a serious schism, and that a portion of the membership had seceded to form another organization. I received a communication to that effect from the governors. Their letter ended, "We have already received two hundred resignations—but can find leisure to act on one more."
That was incomprehensible to me. Why one more?