The Wild Oats of a Spinster
THE WILD OATS OF A SPINSTER
WITH PICTURES BY H. S POTTER
JUDGING from appearances Miss Lucinda Perkins was justifying her reason for being by conforming absolutely to her environment. She apparently fitted as perfectly into her little niche in the Locustwood Seminary for young ladies as Miss Joe Hill fitted into hers. The only difference was that Miss Joe Hill did not confine herself to a niche; she filled the seminary, as a plump hand does a tight glove.
It was the year after Miss Lucinda had come to the seminary to teach elocution that Miss Joe Hill discovered in her an affinity. As principal, Miss Joe Hill's word was never questioned, and Miss Lucinda, with pleased obedience, accepted the honor that was thrust upon her, and meekly moved her few belongings into Miss Joe Hill's apartment.
For four years they had lived in the rarified atmosphere of celestial friendship. They clothed their bodies in the same raiment, and their minds in the same thoughts, and when one was cold the other shivered.
If Miss Lucinda, in those early days found it difficult to live up to Miss Joe Hill's transcendental code she gave no sign of it. She forswore meat and became a practical vegetarian. She laid aside her mildly adorned garments and enveloped her small angular person in a conventional garb of brown. Even the modest bird that adorned her hat was replaced by an severe band, to conform to the unbending regularity of Miss Joe Hill's uniform. In fact, the two minds which ought to have been Miss Lucinda's by all psychic laws were not in evidence. It was as if she carried her objective mind in Miss Joe Hill's dome-like forehead, and the subjective mind which she was left was compelled to accept its premises from extraneous sources.
It was not until Floss Speckert entered the senior class at Locustwood Seminary that this sublimated friendship suffered a shock from the nether world. Floss's father lived in Chicago, and it was due to his unerring discernment in the buying and selling of live stock that Floss was being "finished" in all branches without regard to the cost.
"Learn her all you want to," he said magnanimously to Miss Lucinda, who negotiated the arrangement. "I ain't got but two children, her and Tom. He's just like me—don't know a blame thing but business; but Floss—" his bosom swelled under his checked vest—"she's on to it all. I pay for everything you get into her head. Dancin', singin', French—all them extries goes."
Miss Lucinda had consequently undertaken the management of Floss Speckert, and the result had been far-reaching in its consequences.
Floss was a person whose thoughts did not dwell upon the highest development of the spiritual life. Her mind was given over to the pursuit of worldly amusements, her only serious thought being a burning ambition to win histrionic honors. The road to this led naturally through the elocution classes, and Floss accepted Miss Lucinda as the only means toward the desired end.
A drop of water in a bottle of ink produces no visible result, but a drop of ink in a glass of water contaminates it at once. Miss Lucinda took increasing interest in her frivolous young pupil; she listened with half-suppressed eagerness to unlimited gossip about stage-land, and even sank to the regular perusal of certain bold theatrical papers. She was unmistakably becoming contaminated.
Meanwhile Miss Joe Hill, in the blind infatuation of celestial affinity, condoned the friendship. "You are developing your own character," she told Miss Lucinda. "You are exercising self-control and forbearance in dealing with that crude, undisciplined girl. Florence is the natural outcome of common stock and newly acquired riches. It is your noble aspiration to take this vulgar clay and mold it into something higher than itself. Your motive is laudable, Lucinda; your self-sacrifice in giving up our evening hour together is heroic. I read you like an open book, dear; I know your every thought."
And Miss Lucinda listened and trembled. They were standing together before the window of their rigid little sitting room, the chastened severity of which banished all ideas of comfort. "What purpose do you serve?" Miss Joe Hill demanded of every article that went into her apartment, and so many of the comforts of life failed to pass the examination that the result was a dreary combination of doctor's office and Sunday-school room.
After Miss Joe Hill had gone out, Miss Lucinda remained at the window and restlessly tapped her knuckles against the sill. The insidious spring sunshine, the laughter of the girls in the court below, the foolish happy birds telling their secrets under the new, green leaves, all worked together to disturb her peace of mind.
She resolutely turned her back to the window and took breathing exercises. That was one of Miss Joe Hill's sternest requirements—fifteen minutes three times a day and two pints of water between meals. Then she sat down in a straight-back chair and tried to read "The Power Through Poise." Her body was doing its duty, but it did not deceive her mind. She knew that she was living a life of black deception; evidences of her guilt were on every hand. Behind the books on her little shelf was a paper of chocolate creams; in the music rack, back to back with Grieg and Brahms, was an impertinent sheet of ragtime which Floss had persuaded her to learn as an accompaniment. And deeper and darker and falser than all was a plan which had been fermenting in her mind for days.
In a fortnight the school term would be over. Following the usual custom, Miss Lucinda was to go to her brother in the country and Miss Joe Hill to her sister for a week. This obligation to their respective families being discharged, they would repair to the seclusion of a Catskill farmhouse, there to hang upon each other's souls for the rest of the summer.
Miss Lucinda's visits to her brother were reminiscent of a multiplicity of children and a scarcity of room. To her the Inferno presented no more disquieting prospect than the necessity of sharing her bedroom. Instead of going to him this spring, a plan had been proposed—a plan which for sheer brilliancy surpassed anything that had ever crossed her straight and narrow path. Floss Speckert had gained her father's consent to spend her first week out of school in New York, and in casting about for a chaperon she had selected the first and most harmless person in sight.
Miss Lucinda's joy would have risen to rapture had not one specter of opposition appeared at the first mention of the affair, and confronted her at every turn. In her hearts of hearts she knew that Miss Joe Hill would never countenance the proposition.
She resolutely read another page of "Power Through Poise," then dropped the book in her lap and gazed unhappily out of the window.
Suddenly she was startled by a noise from without, and rising to investigate it, she collided with Floss Speckert, who was making a hasty and undignified entrance through the window.
"I came down the fire escape!" the young person announced breathlessly, "Hush! Listen!" For a moment they stood motionless, the Floss went on: "We were making fudge in No. 7, and Miss Joe Hill caught us. You don't care, do you? I had to come somewhere."
But Miss Lucinda's traditions were firm. "Why, Florence," she began reproachfully, but Floss interrupted her:
"Don't 'Florence' me, Miss Lucy! You're just pretending to be mad; I know you. Miss Joe Hill keeps after you just like she does after us. The girls told me how she made you rip all the trimmings off your clothes, and would n't let you have sugar in your coffee. I don't care how smart she is or how good she is, we all love you best."
Miss Lucinda protested vehemently, but she did not withdraw her hand from Flossie's plump grasp.
"And when we get to New York," the girl declared, taking advantage of this slight encouragement, "I am going to give you the time of your life! Dad's got to put us up in style—a room and a bath apiece and maybe a sitting-room. He says he's glad I know how to be a rich man's daughter. Dear old Dad! You see, he worked too long; he's been so busy out at the yards that he has n't learned how to act like a rich man yet."
Miss Lucinda glanced apprehensively toward the door and then back at the sparkling face before her.
"I can't go," she said, jerking her words out as if they were loath to come. "My brother is expecting me and Miss Joe——"
"Oh, bother Miss Joe! If you are afraid of her, don't tell her. It will be more of a lark, anyhow, if we can slip off. I never did get to slip off, for Dad always lets me do things. You can pretend you are going to your brother's and meet me some place on the road."
Miss Lucinda looked horrified, but she listened. A material kept plastic by years of manipulation does not harden to a new hand. Her objections to Floss's plan grew fainter and fainter.
"Think of the theaters," went on the temptress, putting an arm around her neck, and ignoring the fact that caresses embarrassed Miss Lucinda almost to the point of tears; "think of it! A new show every night, and operas and pictures. There will be three Shakspere plays that week, 'Merchant of Venice,' 'Twelfth Night,' and 'Hamlet.'"
Miss Lucinda's heart fluttered in her bosom. Although she had spent a great part of her life interpreting the Bard of Avon, she had never seen one of his plays produced. In her secret soul she believed that her own rendition of "The quality of mercy," was not to be excelled.
"I—I have n't any clothes," she urged feebly, putting up her last defense.
"I have," declared Floss in triumph—"two trunks full, and we are almost the same size. It's just for a week, Miss Lucy; won't you come?"
Miss Lucinda, sitting rigid, felt a warm cheek pressed against her own, and a stray curl touched her lips. She sat for a moment with her eyes closed. It was more than disconcerting to be so close to youth and joy and life; it was infectious. The blood surged suddenly through her veins, and an exultation seized her.
"I'm going to do it," she cried recklessly; "I never had a real good time in my life."
Floss threw her arms about her and waltzed her across the room, but a step in the hall brought them to a halt.
"It's Miss Joe Hill," whispered Floss, with trepidation; "I am going out the way I came. Don't you forget; you have promised."
When Miss Joe Hill entered, she smiled complacently at finding Miss Lucinda in the straight-back chair, absorbed in the second volume of the "Power Through Poise."
At the Union Depot in Chicago, two weeks later, a small, nervous lady fluttered uncertainly from one door to another. She wore a short, brown coat suit of classic severity, and a felt hat which was fastened under her smoothly braided hair by a narrow elastic band.
On her fourth trip to the main entrance she stopped a train-boy. "Can you tell me where I can get a drink?" she asked, fanning her flushed face. He looked surprised. "Third door to the left," he answered. Miss Lucinda, carrying a hand-bag, a suit-case, and an umbrella, followed directions. When she pushed open the heavy door she was confronted by a long counter with shining glasses and a smiling bartender. Beating a confused retreat, she fled back to the main entrance, and stood there trembling. For the hundredth time that day she wished she had not come.
The arrangements, so glibly planned by Floss, had not been adhered to in any particular. At the last moment that mercurial young person had decided to go on two days in advance and visit a friend in Philadelphia. She wrote Miss Lucinda to come on to Chicago, where Tom would meet her and give her her ticket, and that she would meet her in New York.
With many misgivings and grievous twinges of conscience, Miss Lucinda had bade Miss Joe Hill a guilty farewell, and started ostensibly for her brother's home. At the Junction she changed cars for Chicago, missed two connections, and lost her lunch-box. Now that she had arrived in Chicago, three hours late, nervous and excited over her experiences, there was no one to meet her.
A sense of homesickness rushed over her, and she decided to return to Locustwood. It was the same motive that might prompt a newly hatched chicken, embarrassed by its sudden liberty, to return to its shell. Just as she was going in search of a time-table, a round-faced young man came up.
"Miss Perkins?" he asked, and when she nodded, he went on: "Been looking for you for half an hour. Floss told me what you looked like, but I could n't find you." He failed to observe that Floss's comparison had been a squirrel.
"Is n't it nearly time to start?" asked Miss Lucinda, nervously.
"Just five minutes; but I want to explain something to you first." He looked through the papers in his pocket and selected one. "This is a pass," he explained; "the governor can get them over this road. I got there late, so I could only get one that had been made out for somebody else and not been used. It's all right, you know; you won't have a bit of trouble."
Miss Lucinda took the bit of paper, put on her glasses, and read, "Mrs. Lura Doring."
"Yes," said Tom; "that's the lady it was made out for. Nine chances out of ten they won't mention it; but if anything comes up, you just say yes, you are Mrs. Doring, and it will be all right."
"But," protested Miss Lucinda, ready to weep, "I cannot tell a falsehood."
"I don't think you 'll have to," said Tom, somewhat impatiently; "but if you deny it, you 'll get us both into no end of a scrape. Hello! there's the call for your train. I 'll bring your bag."
In the confusion of getting settled in her section, and of expressing her gratitude to Tom, Miss Lucinda forgot for the time the deadly weight of guilt that rested upon her. It was not until the conductor called for her ticket that her heart grew cold, and a look of consternation swept over her face. It seemed to her that he eyed the pass suspiciously and when he did not return it (passed on, without returning the pass), a terror seized her. She knew he was coming back to ask her name, and what was her name? Mrs. Dora Luring, or Mrs. Dura Loring, or Mrs. Lura Doring?
In despair she fled to the dressing room and stood there concealed by the curtains. In a few moments the conductor passed, and she peeped at his retreating figure. He stopped in the narrow passage by the window and studied her pass, then he compared it with a telegram which he held in his hand. Just then the porter joined him, and she flattened herself against the wall and held her breath.
"It's the same name," she heard the conductor say in an undertone. "I 'll wire back to headquarters at the next stop."
If ever retribution followed an erring soul, it followed Miss Lucinda on that trip. No one spoke to her, and nothing happened, but she sat in terrified suspense, looking neither to right nor left, her heart beating frantically at every approach, and the whirring wheels repeating the questioning refrain, "Dora Luring? Dura Loring? Lura Doring?"
In New York, Floss met her as she stepped off the train, fairly enveloping her in her enthusiasm.
"Here you are, you old darling! I have been having a fit a minute for fear you would n't come. This is my Cousin May. She is going to stay with us the whole week. New York is simply heavenly, Miss Lucy. We have made four engagements already. Matinée this afternoon, a dinner to-night—What's the matter? Did you leave anything on the train?"
"No, no," stammered Miss Lucinda, still casting furtive glances backward at the conductor. "Was he talking to a policeman?" she asked suspiciously.
The girls laughed.
"I don't wonder you were scared," said Floss; "a policeman always does remind me of Miss Joe Hill."
They called a cab and, to Miss Lucinda's vast relief, were soon rolling away from the scene of danger.
It needed only one glance into a handsome suite of an up-town hotel one week later to prove the rapid moral deterioration of the prodigal.
Arrayed in a shell-pink kimono, she was having her nails manicured. Her gaily figured garment was sufficient in itself to give her an unusual appearance; but there was a more obvious reason.
Miss Lucinda's hair, hitherto a pale drab smoothly drawn into a braided coil at the back, had undergone a startling metamorphosis. It was the victim of a well-meant suggestion of Floss's that Miss Lucinda wash it in "Golden Glow," a preparation guaranteed to restore luster and beauty to faded locks. Miss Lucinda had been over-zealous, and the result was that of copper in sunshine.
These outward manifestations, however, were insignificant compared with the evidences of Miss Lucinda's inner guilt. She was taking the keenest interest in the manicure's progress, only lifting her eyes occasionally to survey herself with satisfaction in the mirror opposite.
At first her sense of propriety had been deeply offended by her changed appearance. She wept so bitterly that the girls, seeking to console her, had overdone the matter.
"I never thought you could look so pretty," Floss had declared; "you look ten years younger. It makes your eyes brighter and your skin clearer. Of course this awfully bright color will wear off, and then it will be just dear."
Miss Lucinda began to feel better; she even allowed May to arrange her changed locks in a modest pompadour.
The week she had spent in New York was a riotous round of dissipation. May's fiancé had prepared a whirlwind of pleasures, and Miss Lucinda was caught up and revolved at a pace that made her dizzy. Dances, dinners, plays, roof-gardens, coaching parties, were all held together by a line of candy, telegrams, and roses.
There was only one time in the day when Miss Lucinda came down to earth. That was when she wrote to Miss Joe Hill. Every evening, no matter how exhausted she might be from the frivolities of the day, she conscientiously penned an affectionate letter to her celestial affinity, expressing her undying devotion, and incidentally mentioning the health and doings of her brother's family. These she sent under separate cover to her brother to be mailed.
Her conscience assured her that the reckoning would come, that sooner or later she would face the bar of justice and receive the verdict of guilty; but while one day of grace remained, she would still "in the fire of spring, her winter garments of repentance fling."
As the manicure put the finishing touch to her nails, Floss came rushing in:
"Hurry up, Miss Lucy dear! Dick Benson has just 'phoned that he is going to take us for a farewell frolic. We leave here at five, have dinner somewhere, then do all sorts of stunts. You are going to wear my tan coat-suit and light blue waist. Yes, you are, too! That's all foolishness; everybody wears elbow-sleeves. Blue's your color, and I 've got the hat to match. May says she 'll fix your hair, and you can wear her French-heel Oxfords again. They pitch you over? Oh, nonsense! you just tripped along the other day like a nice little jay-bird. Hurry, hurry!"
Even Miss Lucinda's week of strenuous living had not prepared her for what followed. First, there was a short trip on the train, during which she conscientiously studied a map, and attempted to verify her hitherto theoretic knowledge of geography.
Then followed a dinner at a large and ostentatious hotel. The decorations were more brilliant, the music louder, and the dresses gayer, than at any place Miss Lucinda had yet been. She viewed the passing show through her glasses, and experienced a pleasant thrill of sophistication. This, she assured herself, was society; henceforth she was in a position to rail at its follies as one having authority.
In the midst of these complacent reflections she choked on a crumb, and, after groping with closed eyes for her tumbler, gulped down the contents. A strange, delicious tingle filled her mouth; she forgot she was choking, and opened her eyes. To her horror, she found that she had emptied her glass of champagne.
"Spirituous liquor!" she thought in dismay, as the shade of Miss Joe Hill rose before her.
Total abstinence was such a firm plank in the platform of the celestial affinity that, even in the chafing-dish, alcohol had been tabooed. The utter iniquity of having deliberately swallowed a glass of champagne was appalling to Miss Lucinda. She sat silent during the rest of the dinner, eating little, and plucking nervously at the ruffles about her elbows. The fear of rheumatism in her wrists which had assailed her earlier in the evening gave way to a deeper and more disturbing discomfort. Slowly but surely she was reverting to the original type.
When the dinner was over, the party started forth on a hilarious round of sight-seeing. Miss Lucinda limped after them, vaguely aware that she was in a giant electric cage filled with swarming humanity, that bands were playing, drums beating, and that at every turn disagreeable men with loud voices were imploring her to step this way.
"Come on!" cried Dick. "We are going on the scenic railway."
But the worm turned. "I—I'm not going," she protested. "I will wait here. All of you go; I will wait right here."
With a sigh of relief she slipped into a vacant corner, and gave herself up to the luxury of being miserable. She longed for solitude in which to face the full enormity of her misdeed, and to plan an immediate reformation. She would throw herself bodily upon the mercy of Miss Joe Hill, she would spare herself nothing; penance of any kind would be welcome, bodily pain even——
She shifted her weight to the slender support of one high-heeled shoe while she rested the other foot. Her hair, unused to its new arrangement, pulled cruelly upon every restraining hair-pin, and her head was beginning to ache.
"There is a healing power resident in my mental organism," she quoted to herself, but the thought failed to have any effect.
A two-ringed circus was in progress at her right, while at her left a procession of camels and Egyptians was followed by a noisy crowd of urchins. People were thronging in every direction, and she realized that she was occasionally the recipient of a curious glance. She began to watch rather anxiously for the return of her party. Ten minutes passed, and still they did not come.
Suddenly the awful possibility presented itself that they might have lost her. She had no money, and even if she had had, she knew she could never find her way back to the hotel alone. Anxiety gained upon her in leaps. In bitter remorse she upbraided herself for ever having strayed from the blessed protection of Miss Joe Hill's authority. Gulfs of hideous possibility yawned at her feet; imagination faltered at the things that might befall a lone and unprotected lady in this bedlam of frivolity.
Just as her fear was turning to terror the party returned.
"Oh, here you are!" cried Floss. "We thought we had lost you. It was just dandy, Miss Lucy; you ought to have gone. It makes you feel like your feet are growing right out of the top of your head. Come on; we are going to have our tintypes taken."
Strengthened by the fear of being left alone again, Miss Lucinda rallied her courage, and once more followed in their wake. She was faint and exhausted, but the one grain of comfort she extracted from the situation was that through her present suffering she was atoning for her sins.
At midnight Dick said: "There's only one other thing to do. It's more fun than all the rest put together. Come this way."
Miss Lucinda followed blindly. She had ceased to think; there were only two realities left in the world, French-heels and hair-pins.
At the foot of a flight of steps the party paused to buy tickets.
"You can wait for us here, Miss Lucy," said Floss.
Miss Lucinda protested eagerly that she was not too tired to go with them. The prospect of being left alone again nerved her to climb to any height.
"But," cried Floss, "if you get up there, there's only one way to come down. You have to——"
"Let her come!" interrupted the others in laughing chorus, and, to Miss Lucinda's great relief, she was allowed to pass through the little gate.
When she reached the top of the long stairs, she looked about for the attraction. A wide inclined plane slanted down to the ground floor, and on it were bumps of various sizes and shapes, all of a shining smoothness. She had a vague idea that it was a mammoth map for the blind, until she saw Dick and Floss sit down at the top and go sliding to the bottom.
"Come on, Miss Lucinda!" cried May. "You can't get down any other way, you know. Look out! Here I go!"
One by one the others followed, and Miss Lucinda could not distinguish them as they merged in the laughing crowd at the base.
Delay was fatal; they would lose her again if she hesitated. In desperation she gathered her skirts about her, and let herself cautiously down on the floor. For one awful moment terror paralyzed her, then, grasping her skirts with one hand and her hat with the other and closing her eyes, she slid.
Miss Lucinda did not "bump the bumps"; she slid gracefully around them, describing fanciful curves and loops in her airy flight. When she arrived in a confused bunch on the cushioned platform below, she was greeted with a burst of applause.
"Ain't it great?" cried Floss, straightening Miss Lucinda's hat and trying to get Miss Lucinda to open her eyes. "Dick says you are the gamest chaperon he ever saw. Sit up and let me pin your collar straight."
But Miss Lucinda's sense of direction had evidently been disturbed, for she did not yet know which was up, and which was down. She leaned limply against Floss and tried to get her breath.
"Excuse me," said a man's voice above her, "but are either of you ladies Mrs. Lura Doring?"
The effect was electrical. Miss Lucinda sat bolt upright and stared madly about. Tom Speckert had told her to be sure to answer to that name. It would get him into trouble if she failed to do so.
"Yes, yes," she gasped; "I am Mrs. Lura Doring."
The members of her little party looked at her anxiously and ceased to laugh. The slide had evidently unsettled her mind.
"Why, this is Miss Perkins—Miss Lucinda Perkins of Locustwood, Seminary," explained Dick Benson to the officer, "She's rather upset by her tobogganing, and did n't understand you."
"I did," declared Miss Lucinda, making mysterious signs to Dick to be silent. "It's all right; I am Mrs. Doring."
The officer looked suspiciously from one to the other, then consulted his memorandum: "Small, slender woman, yellow hair, gray eyes, answers to name of Mrs. Lura Doring. Left Chicago on June 10."
"When did she get to New York?" asked the officer.
"A week ago to-morrow, on the eleventh," said Floss, eagerly.
"Then I guess I 'll have to take her up," said the officer; "she answers all the requirements. I 've got a warrant for her arrest."
"Arrest!" gasped Benson. "What for?"
"For forging her husband's name, and defrauding two hotels in Chicago."
"My husband—" Miss Lucinda staggered to her feet, then, catching sight of the crowd that had collected, she gave a fluttering cry and fainted away in the arms of the law.
When Miss Joe Hill arrived in New York, in answer to an urgent telegram, she went directly to work with her usual executive ability to unravel the mystery. After obtaining the full facts in the case, she was able to make a satisfactory explanation to the officers at headquarters. Then she sent the girls to their respective homes, and turned her full attention upon Miss Lucinda.
"The barber will be here in half an hour to cut your hair," she announced on the eve of their departure for the Catskills.
"You ought not to be so good to me!" sobbed Miss Lucinda, who was lying limply on a couch.
Miss Joe Hill took her hand firmly and said: and said in a commanding voice: "Lucinda, collect yourself! You have temporarily lost your poise. Let the past week be wiped from our memories. You have gotten out of the center of your individuality; with my help you shall return. Divorce yourself from all positive thought, Lucinda. Allow the subliminal self to assert itself."
The next morning, shorn and penitent, Miss Lucinda was led forth from the scene of her recent profligacy. It was her final exit from a world which for a little space she had loved not wisely but too well.