Come and Find Me by Elizabeth Robins, Chapter 1 page 3
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CRISIS in the financial world of California kept the men who were employed in the Palmas Valley Bank of Valdivia hard at work for several hours after statutory closing time.
Nathaniel Mar never came home in these days without bringing a black leather bag full of papers, to work over in the dining-room.
He had his big desk in there because Mrs. Mar thought it out of place in the parlor, though the parlor was the quietest room in the house and the least used, whereas the dining-room was the most frequented quarter of the modest establishment, and the very place where both the big desk, and the big man who sat before it, were most in the way.
For here the family not only ate their meals, but here, in Mrs. Mar's rocking-chair, the screams of the infant daughter were drowned in milk or overcome by sleep; here the two small boys were taught letters and manners; here, on their mother's work-table, was reared the ever-
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renewed mountain of "mending," and these the walls that oftener than any others looked down upon the mistress's struggles with the "single-handed help"--a succession of Irish or Scandinavian girls who came, saw, conquered some of the china, and departed.
This concentration of family life in the dining-room was not peculiar to the Mars. Valdivia--all California, indeed all the towns of all the northern and western states, were full of houses where the shut-up parlors bore dumb witness to a social habit that was become mere tradition.
The forebears of these people, especially those German, French, or Spanish, had need of a room where they might receive their friends and talk to them at their ease. But in their descendants this much chastened need had taken on the air of an indulgence, and was shrinking out of sight.
It is true that even the less well-to-do, summoning all their strength, sometimes gave "parties," but few houses encouraged the cheerful custom of having friends "drop in." And so, no more useless room in any dwelling than the parlor. Yet so great was the power of this tradition of a lost hospitality, that people who had almost nothing else over and above the grimmest necessities, still had their parlor. Discomfort and cramping of every kind was stocically borne that the sacred precincts might be preserved inviolate. For what? Nobody ever asked.
So then, in the dining-room, sat Nathaniel Mar even on this fine Sunday afternoon, when, as a rule, the desk was shut and the owner gone to potter in the garden. But the exigency was great, and for once even the Seventh Day had brought no rest. As he sat there, bent over the desk,
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the light fell with such harshness on the man's fore-shortened features, under the unkempt mop of prematurely graying hair, that you would not easily have believed him to be under forty odd.
He was not yet thirty-five. The deep line that dropped from the side of each nostril, to lose itself in the heavy, dark mustache, gave to his face a stricken and weariful air. And he sat crooked, with one high shoulder more hunched than the other. You saw the reason of that when he got up to shut out the sounds of pan-banging, and fire-irons rattling, that came in through the inch of open door opposite the one leading into the hall. Before rising, Mar had felt for his walking-stick, and any one who noticed how heavily he bore upon it in limping over the worn carpet, knew why it was that one of his great shoulders was pushed awry.
He made the same detour in returning to his seat as had carried him to the kitchen door, carefully cruising round the pitfall presented by a half-yard or so of extra dilapidation in the yellow-brown carpet. As you looked closer at what his avoidance made more noticeable, you saw that a less faded piece had been tacked over a part hopelessly worn and mended, and how even this newer square had despairingly let go of the tacks that held it, and been kicked up by some foot less considerate or more courageous than Mr. Mar's. The superimposed piece sat now, in a frayed, rag-baggy condition, gaping with despair, and like some beggar in extremis by the way, ready to lay hold on the first unwary foot that passed.
The entire room wore that indescribable air of settled melancholy that no one thing in it, not even the carpet, seemed quite ugly or uncomfortable enough to account
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for. The furniture was heavy and old. Upon the walls, besides two or three reconnaissance maps, were some inoffensive prints. A "Signing of the Declaration of Independence" hung high between the two windows, and underneath, in oval, gilt frames, were companion pictures of Mar's mother and of his father, who had been for many years minister to Valdivia's first Presbyterian Church.
On the opposite wall a good engraving of Lincoln was flanked, somewhat incongruously, by a photograph of a buxom young woman with a group of girls behind her--Mar's wife in her school-teaching days, with her class. Besides these, an old view of the Lake of Geneva, a print of Cromwell, and on the wall behind Mar's revolving chair, an engraved portrait, bearing underneath it the inscription: John W. Galbraith, President Rock Hill Mining Co.
Even if these adornments were of a very mild description, they, at least, covered several feet of the marbled yellow paper that appartently had been chosen (and chosen a good while ago) to "go with" the hideous "grained" woodwork. That it did "go with" that peculiarly perverse soiling and smearing of inoffensive surfaces, may not be denied. It went far. It arrived at such a degree of success that all the little room irradiated a bilious yellowness "clawed" with muddy brown.
The very atmosphere was not left as nature sent it in at the window. It halted upon the sill and changed color, like one who gets wind of ill news. The moment it penetrated beyond the holland blinds it turned sick and overflowed the room in dirty saffron.
It may well be wondered why any creature who was
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not obliged to should come here. And yet the defeated looking man at the window did not lack high companionship. Sunset and the rain, the call of the winds, clouds of majesty, and mists of silver, not these alone. Daydreams penetrated the sullen walls. Here, where the rudest emigrant would not long abide, fair visions made themselves at home--"exultations, agonies"--a field here for the unconquerable mind no more unfit than many another for the long battle men call life.
On this particular July afternoon, Nathaniel Mar had no sooner shut out one order of disturbance, than another penetrated the room from a different direction.
"Sigma!" a loud, clear voice was calling from the region of the stairs. "Sigma," and again, "Sigma! Have you set the table? Sigma-a-a!"
Nathaniel Mar wrote on.
The door opened suddenly and in came a brisk, rather handsome dark-eyed woman, with an infant on her arm. Singularly enough the child seemed to be as little interrupted in its occupation of sleeping as the father in his writing. There were certain sounds that both were inured to. Among others, Mrs. Mar calling "Sigma," or "Kate," or "Jane." But when she stopped short near the threshold and asked:
"Where is that girl?" Mar, without raising his eyes from his paper, made a little motion toward the door he had just shut.
"I should think," he said quitely, "she was probably breaking up the kitchen stove."
Before he finished, Mrs. Mar had opened the other door, and again called "Sigma!"
"Yes--yes." In rushed a little white-headed Swede,
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fourteen to fifteen years of age, her sleeves tucked up, her coarse gown tucked up, her fair skin showing vividly a sooty mark across her forehead, which she had smudged down her nose and finely shaded off into the red of her cheek.
When Sigma was calm and collected she walked the floor as if it were knee-deep in sand. When she was agitiated she did not walk at all. She plunged. Sigma was agitated now.
"Coom!" she said, lifting a bare elbow toward the kitchen as another person might point with a finger. "Coom!" and turning heavily she was about to plunge back into her special domain.
But Mrs. Mar arrested her. "Why have n't you set the table? Look at the time." She pointed.
Sigma paused and thought. Following the index finger she recognized the clock, looked inquiringly from it to the lady, and then suddenly felt she understood, a thing of almost exciting infrequency. She scuffled good-naturedly across the room, picked up the heavy timepiece and was in the act of handing it to Mrs. Mar.
"Let the clock alone! Put it down, I say. What will she do next? The table. Table!" She beat upon it briskly with her one free hand. "Supper."
"Oh soopra!" says the girl, setting down the clock and lurching hurriedly toward the kitchen.
"Stop! Don't you understand you have to set the table earlier to-day? Before--you--go--out. Your evening. Understand? Your friend calls for you at six." She indicated the hour on the clock face. "Takes you--heaven knows where. She does n't forget if you do. Your--evening--out." As Sigma only stood and stared
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dully, Mrs. Mar dropped into the rocking-chair with, "I foresee this girl will drive me demented."
Sigma embraced the opportunity to shuffle toward the door again.
"Where are you off to now? You can't go till you've set the table. Here!" Still with the well-inured infant sleeping on her arm, Mrs. Mar, remarking in a conversational tone that she was "certain she should go mad," pulled open the sideboard drawer and took out the tablecloth. "Put this on. Straight, for a change. Then the mats."
The mistress's eye falling suddenly upon that deplorable place in the carpet, she was forcibly reminded of the little copper-toed boots that had wrought the havoc.
"What are they at now?" she said, half to herself, as she crossed the room, and, craning her chin over the sleeping child at her breast, she guided the toe of her shoe under the tacked bit, stroking down the darned tatters underneath, before she straightened and trod flat the outer layer. Each time thereafter that she crossed the troubled area her foot, half impatient, half caressing, encouraged the patch to lie still. "What keeps those children so quiet? Where are they?"
Sigma, hearing the anxious rise in her mistress's voice, dropped the corner of the cloth she was twitching and rushed for the mats.
"No, no, finish. Here. Straight. Like this." A moment's silence, and then again, "Where are those children?"
Sigma hurriedly offered her the cruet.
"Idiot. I am asking you about the children. The--chil--dren. Where--are--they? Don't you know? Lit-
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tle boys. Trenn, and Harry, and Jack Galbraith--where gone?"
"Oh, Yack! He --" Sigma, with great action of hip and elbow, splurged over to the window, and motioned away across an empty lot.
"What, again? Here," Mrs. Mar wheeled upon her husband, "you must hold the baby a moment. If I lay her down she 'll wake up and scream."
As Mrs. Mar hastened out through the kitchen you could hear that she paused an instant to exclaim aghast at something she found there.
Mr. Mar had accepted the charge with a curious tranquillity, making the infant comfortable in the hollow of his left arm. Then he went on with his writing.
Sigma returned to the intricate task of setting the table. She did it all with an excited gravity, as if she were engaged in some spirited game, putting down plates, knives, and forks with an air of one playing trumps, and yet not quite sure it was the right moment for them. When she had placed the straw mats with mathematical precision, she drew off proudly, to get the full splendor of effect. When it came to dealing with the sugar bowl, she glanced ar Mar's bent head, and helped herself to a lump, became furiously industrious upon the strength of that solatium, and plunged after spoons and cups. Whenever she made a clatter she stopped sucking and glanced nervously toward Mar, as if she expected him to rise and overwhelm her.
He, with unlifted head, wrote steadily on.
The child slept.
Sigma put a worn horsehair chair at head and foot of the table, two high chairs on one side for the little
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boys, and an ordinary one on the other; as she did this last her eye fell on the four cups. She paused uncertain, till she had noiselessly counted five on her stumpy fingers. Then, "Oh, Yack maa ha' en!" she reminded herself, lurched away into the kitchen and reappeared wiping a cup on a dish towel, one end of which she had tucked in her apron string. As she was about to deposit the fifth cup, she glanced at the man bent over the desk, and put her disengaged hand again in the sugar bowl. Mar turned suddenly in his creaking chair; Sigma started, and meaning to drop the sugar, dropped the cup instead. She stared an instant, open-mouthed, as at some unaccountable miracle; and then, with a howl, flung up her bare arms and fled round the table on her way to the kitchen, caught her great foot in the carpet-trap and measured her length on the floor.
"Look here, you must go into the kitchen to do that." Mar spoke as one not presuming to deny that it might be a part of her duty to precipitate herself on her stomach and howl, but questioning only the propriety of the spot selected. "I can't have you doing it here," he said.
Sigma was still "doing it," so far as howling went, but she was also scrambling up, with her elbow held over her head, as if she counted on a thumping. From under her bare forearm her streaming eyes looked out at Mar. Whether the man's quiet face in the midst of the uproar astonished, calmed her--she gaped, letting the rude lamentation die in her throat.
"Men--Meesis Marr--rr!" she said under her breath, picking up the cup.
Mrs. Mar's husband held out his hand for it. "It 's only the handle," he said, and set the cup down on the
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writing-table, that he might change the position of the fretting child. For his long-suffering daughter was at last roused to protest.
The little maid-servant wiped her eyes, and, with the air of one who is willing to let bygones be bygones, shuffled a step nearer to the desk.
"Me--Gif Sigma," she said, and held out her red arms.
Mar looked up, understood, and handed over the baby. It was curious to see the practised sureness with which this female barbarian--who caught her big feet in the carpet and dropped the china--with what skill she handled that fragile and intricate mechanism, an infant. Mar watched her as she stood there, swaying her own thick body back and forth like a human rocking-chair, holding the child in sure comfort, patting it softly, and crooning to it uncouth words in a foreign tongue. Miss Mar understood perfectly, and responded by laying her small pink face against the scullion's untidy gown and falling back into slumber.
The opening of the front door, and voices in the hall--above all one voice ordaining that certain persons should go up-stairs and wait for her!--made Sigma pause, listen, and then still holding close the pacified infant, she beat a stealthy retreat, shutting the kitchen door behind her with a softness incredible.
Mrs. Mar, upon her reappearance, was seen to be ushering in by the shoulder an anxious little boy of eight or nine. As with some force she conveyed him across the room, his foot caught in the same place where Sigma had met defeat. But Sigma had not been sustained by Mrs. Mar's hand. The lady merely unhooked the boy with an
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extra shake. Then, with her free hand, she pulled his chair out from the table, and thrust him into it.
"Now, you 're to sit right there, and then I 'll know that at least till supper-time you won't be getting my children into any more mischief."
Mar had looked up upon their entrance, seemed about to speak, and then dropped a discreet head over his work.
"Where 's the baby?" demanded his wife.
"This precious protégé of yours," interrupted the lady, again straightening the carpet with the toe of her shoe; "this precious protégé of yours has pulled up a plank out of the sidewalk, dragged it across the field down to the duck-pond, and there I found him, using it as a raft."
"I had n't used it--not yet." A world of lost opportunity was heavily recalled.
"Oh, no, you were n't using it."
But the irony was lost.
"Vere was n't woom for all of us, so I let Twenn and Hawwy go ve first voyage. I 'm vewwy kind to little boys."
"Oh, indeed! So kind you preferred to risk other children's lives while you looked on."
"Looked on? Oh, no, ma'am, did n't you see I was workin' like anyfing?" He glanded across at his ally. "It was a steamship, Mr. Mar. I was ve injine. I 'm a most glowious injine--"
"Yes, if you please," Mrs. Mar broke in. "He 's been propelling the plank all round the pond with those two poor little innocents on it--the greatest wonder they were n't drowned."
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"It was very wrong," said Mr. Mar, gravely--then, under his breath to his wife, "but the water is n't much over a foot at the deepest."
"Quite enough to drown any wretched baby that might fall in--but, of course, you defend that boy no matter what he--"
"Not at all--not at all. I don't approve in the least of his--"
"And our two little boys mud and dirt from their heads to their heels, looking like a couple of chimney-sweeps--"
"No ma'am," said the young gentleman from the horsehair chair, in a conciliatory tone. "Twenn and Hawwy ain't black, only just bwown."
"Brown indeed! I 'll brown you, sir, if you ever do such a thing again while you 're staying here! Harry with his stocking quite torn off one leg! And Trennor's only decent breeches--"
"Vere was a nail in vat board," Jack explained, conversationally, putting a finger through a jag in his own trouser knee.
"Small matter to you, if you do ruin you things." (Jack began to swing his muddy feet--it was gloriously true.) "But you 've got to remember that other children's clothes don't grow on gooseberry bushes."
"My pants did n't neever," returned Jack, sturdily.
"Keep you feet still and your tongue, too."
Mrs. Mar was in the act of turning away, after a further slight attention to the carpet patch, when her eye fell upon the handleless cup on the desk.
"Did you do that?" she demanded.
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Mar cleared his throat, and Mrs. Mar for once, not waiting to hear the horrid details, sat down in her rocking-chair, despair in her face and the broken cup in her hand.
"I never saw anything like it. The grate in the kitchen range has just collapsed, too."
"Really? That 's bad--"
"It 's worse than bad--it 's awful."
"We must let the stove people know--"
"How are you going to do that on Sunday?"
"Oh--ah--well, it matters less I suppose on Sunday than if it happened on a week-day."
"It won't matter in the least, of course, to have no hot water to wash the clothes in, Monday morning. Perhaps you 'll think it matters more when it comes to eating cold things for I don't know how long."
"I think you 'll find I shall be able to put up with--"
"Yes, it 's perfectly true, I always find you readier to put up with disaster than to struggle against it."
"How would you propose I should struggle against a broken stove?"
She turned her flushed face from him.
"Did n't I tell you not to kick the table?" she demanded of Jack.
"Oh! Yes 'm. I forgot." He curled up the disgraced foot underneath him, for a reminder that it was to keep still.
"The furniture," Mrs. Mar went on, looking round the room, "is quite dilapidated enough without your making it worse."
"Well, I suppose I must go and attend to those chil-
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dren, and the supper. But don't let him kick the furniture, Nathaniel, even if he is the son of you adored Galbraith. The owner of all that Rock Hill Mining property did n't trouble himself much about you."
"Yes, he did. He was a very good friend," and Mar made a slight movement as of one clearing a space in the air before setting to work again.
His wife, in her progress to the door, halted mechanically in the middle of the patch, as though the momentary weight of her presence there would leave behind a subjugating effect. But she murmured absently: "I must have another hunt for--" Then, turning with sudden animation: "Is it you who 've taken away my tack-hammer?" she demanded of Jack.
"Well, understand," she went on, precisely as though he had admitted his responsibility for the disappearance of the tool, "understand you 're to sit there till supper, and this is the last of your playing about that dirty duck-pond."
"I forgot it was Sunday," he said, penitent.
"Sunday or any other day--never again."
Jack gasped with incredulity, and then, slowly, "You don't weally mean we 're never to go to ve pond for ever and ever!"
"Well, just you try it! And you 'll find yourself going back to school to spend your holidays with the janitor."
In the pause that followed this awful threat Jack murmured: "Never go a-sploring any more!" and then sat as one paralyzed by an awful and unexpected blow.
Mrs. Mar replaced the handleless cup upon the table, and took up the corner of the cloth to determine the extent of the damage wrought in the last washing.
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"Everything we possess seems to be giving out at once--like the different parts of the One Hoss Shay. It 's exactly"--she turned her bright, dark eyes toward the writing-table, and spoke with a sudden access of vigor--"exactly as if there was a law that allowed you for months and years to patch and tinker, to bolster up your rickety furniture, to darn your old carpets, to reseat your old chairs, to make over the clothes, to solder the sauce-pans, and keep things going generally, up to a given moment. But when that moment comes"--she lifted her finger Sibyl-like in the air--"every blessed belonging begins to crack, or fray, or creak with the pangs of approaching dissolution. Are you listening to what I say, Nathaniel? There is n't a thing in this house that does n't need to be renewed." She spoke with a directness that seemed pointedly to include her husband among the dilapidations. He, half-absent, half-speculative, looked round upon objects familiar to him from childhood.
"Who 'd ever think," pursued his wife, "who 'd ever think that we 'd been married less than eight years? But this is what comes of not furnishing new when you first set up housekeeping. If you don't get nice things when you marry you never get them."
"Some people," said Mar, "seem to like old furniture."
"Let them have it, then!" Her quick gesture presented the entire contents of the house to the first bidder. "I say for young people to begin life with the battered belongings of their fathers and mothers is a mistake."
"Well, my dear," returned her husband, with some dignity, "it 's a mistake you had no share in. But," he added hastily, "we had no choice."
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"No," she said bitterly, "we 've had very little choice."
"We did once," said Nathaniel Mar.
In the pause she looked down at the patch on the carpet.
"And we ignored it," he finished.
"Oh, if you are going back upon that old foolishness." She turned abruptly and set down the broken cup.
"You did n't think it so foolish when I first told you about it."
"Oh, did n't I!"
"No. It made just all the difference then."
"What difference, I 'd like to know, did it ever make?"
"It made you say 'Yes' after you 'd said 'No.'"
"The more fool I," she said, and left the room.
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