Read CHAPTER I of People of the Whirlpool, free online book, by Mabel Osgood Wright, on


February 2. Candlemas and mild, gray weather. If the woodchuck stirs up his banked life-fire and ventures forth, he will not see his shadow, and must straightway arrange with winter for a rebate in our favour. To-day, however, it seems like the very dawn of winter, and as if the cloud brooms were abroad gathering snow from remote and chilly corners of the sky.

Six years ago I began the planting of my garden, and at the same time my girlish habit of journal keeping veered into the making of a “Garden Boke,” to be a reversible signal, crying danger in face of forgotten mistakes, then turning to give back glints of summer sunshine when read in the attic of winter days and blue Mondays. Now once again I am in the attic, writing. Not in a garden diary, but in my “Social Experience Boke” this time, for it is “human warious,” and its first volume, already filled out, is lying in the old desk. Martin Cortright said, one stormy day last autumn when he was sitting in the corner I have loaned him of my precious attic retreat, that, owing to the incursion of the Bluff Colony of New Yorkers, which we had been discussing, I should call this second volume “People of the Whirlpool,” because ah, but I must wait and hunt among my papers for his very words as I wrote them down.

My desk needs cleaning out and rearranging, for the dust flies up as I rummage among the papers and letters that are a blending of past, present, and future. All my pet pens are rusty, and must be replaced from the box of stubs, for a stub pen assists one to straightforward, truthful expression, while a fine point suggests evasion, polite equivocation, or thin ideas. Even Lavinia Dorman’s letters, whose cream-white envelopes, with a curlicue monogram on the flap, quite cover the litter below, have been, if possible, more satisfactory since she has adopted a fountain stub that Evan gave her at Christmas.

There are many other things in the desk now beside the hickory-nut beads and old papers. Little whiffs of subtle fragrance call me backward through time faster than thought, and make me pinch myself to be sure that I am awake, like the little old woman with the cutabout petticoats, who was sure that if she was herself, her little dog would know her, but then he didn’t!

I am awake and surely myself, yet my old dog is not near to recognize me. This ring of rough, reddish hair, tied with a cigar ribbon and lying atop the beads, was Bluff’s best tail curl. Dear, happy, brave-hearted Bluff with the human eyes; after an honourable life of fifteen years he stole off to the happy hunting grounds of perpetual open season, quail and rabbit, two years ago at beginning of winter, as quietly as he used to slip out the back door and away to the fields on the first fall morning that brings the hunting fever. For a long while not only I, but neither father nor Evan could speak of him, it hurt so. Yet by a blessed dispensation a good dog lives on in his race, and may be renewed (I prefer that word to replaced) after a season, in a way in which our best human friends may not be, so that we do not lack dogs. Lark is senior now, and Timothy Saunders’s sheep dog, The Orphan, is also a veteran; the foxhounds are in their prime, while Martha Corkle, as we shall always call her, is raising a promising pair of collie pups.

Beside the curl, and covering mother’s diaries, lies a square white volume, the first part of my “Experience Boke” before mentioned, and upon it two queer fat little pairs of bronze kid shoes, buttonless and much worn on the toes, telling a tale of feet that dragged and ankles that wobbled through inexperience in walking. Ah yes! I’m quite awake and the same Barbara, though looking over a wider and eye-opening horizon, having had three rows of candles, ten in a row, around my last birthday cake and one extra in the middle, which extravagance has constrained the family to use lopsided, tearful, pink candles ever since.

And the two pairs of feet that first touched good earth so hesitatingly with those crumpled shoes are now standing firmly in wool-lined rubber boots topped by brown corduroy trousers, upon the winter slat walk that leads to the tool house, while their owners, touched by the swish of the Whirlpool that has recently drawn this peaceful town into its eddies, are busy trying to turn their patrol wagon, that for a year has led a most conservative existence as a hay wain and a stage-coach dragged by a curiously assorted team of dogs and goat, into the semblance of some weird sort of autocart, by the aid of bits of old garden hose, cast-away bicycle gearing, a watering-pot, and an oil lantern.

I have wondered for a week past what yeast was working in their brains. Of course, the seven-year-old Vanderveer boy on the Bluffs had an electric runabout for a Christmas gift, also a man to run it! Corney Delaney, as Evan named the majestic gray goat of firm disposition blended with a keen sense of humour that father gave the boys last spring and who has been their best beloved ever since, has for many days been left in duress with the calves in the stack-yard, where the all-day diet of cornstalks is fatally bulging his once straight-fronted figure.

In fact, it is the doings of these two pairs of precious feet, with the bodies, heads, and arms that belong to them, that have caused the dust to gather in my desk, and the “Garden Boke,” though not the garden, which is more of a joy than ever, to be suspended and take a different form. Flesh-and-blood books that write themselves are so compelling and absorbing that one often wonders at the existence of any other kind, and, feeling this strongly, yet I turn to paper pages as silent confidants. Why? Heredity and its understudy, Habit, the two h’s that control both the making of solitary tartlets as well as family pies.

So the last entry in the “Garden Boke” was made a week before the day recorded in the white book with the cherubs’ heads painted on it that underlies the shoes.

It seems both strange and significant to me now that this book chanced to be given me by Lavinia Dorman, mother’s school friend and bridesmaid, a spinster of fifty-five, and was really the beginning of the transfer of her friendship to me, the only woman friendship that I have ever had, and its quality has that fragrant pungence that comes from sweet herbs, that of all garden odours are the most lasting.

I suppose that it is one of the strongest human habits to write down the very things that one is least likely to forget, and vice-versa; for certainly I shall never forget the date and double record on that first fair page beneath the illuminated word Born, yet I often steal up here to peep at it, and live the intervening five years backward for pure joy. January 10, 189-, Richard Russell-- and John Evan--.

Every time I read the names anew I wonder what I should have done if there had been a single name upon the page. I must then have chosen between naming him for father or Evan an impossibility; for even if the names had been combined, whose should I have put first?

No, the twins are in every way an advantage. To Evan, in providing him at once with a commuted family sufficient for his means; to father, among other reasons, by giving him the pleasure of saying, to friends who felt it necessary to visit him in the privacy of his study and be apologetically sympathetic, “I have observed that the first editions of very important books are frequently in two volumes,” sending them away wondering what he really meant; to me by saving the rack of argument, the form of evil I most detest, and to their own chubby selves no less, in that neither one has been handicapped for a single day by the disadvantage of being an only child!

It doubtless seems very odd for me to feel this last to be a disadvantage, being myself an only child, and always a happy one, sharing with mother all the space in father’s big heart. But this is because God has been very good to me, leaving me safe in the shelter of the home nest. Suppose it had been otherwise and I had been forced to face the world, how it would have hurt, for individual love is cruelly precious sometimes, and an “onliest” cannot in the very nature of things be as unselfish and adaptable as one of many.

I was selfish even when the twins came. I was so glad that they were men-children. I could not bear to think of other woman hands ministering to father and Evan, and I rejoiced in the promise of two more champions. I often wonder how mother felt when I was born and what she thought. Was she glad or disappointed? I wish that she had left written words to guide me, if ever so few, they would mean so much now; and let me know if in her day social things surprised and troubled her as for the first time they now stir me, and therefore belong to all awakening motherhood. Her diaries were a blending of simple household happenings and garden lore, nothing more; for when I was five years old and her son came, he stayed but a few short hours and then stole her away with him.

I wonder if my boys, when they are grown and begin to realize woman, will care to look into this book of mine, and read in and between the lines of its jumble of scraps and letters what their mother thought of them, and how things appeared to her in the days of their babyhood. Perhaps; who knows? At present, being but five years old, they are centred in whatever thing the particular day brings forth, and but that they are leashed fast by an almost prenatal and unconscious affection, they are as unlike in disposition, temperament, and colouring as they are alike in feature. Richard is dark, like father and me, very quiet, except in the matter of affection, in which he is clingingly demonstrative, slow to receive impressions, but withal tenacious. He clearly inherits father’s medical instinct of preserving life, and the very thought of suffering on the part of man or beast arouses him to action. When he was only a little over three years old, I found him carefully mending some windfall robins’ eggs, cracked by their tumble, with bits of rubber sticking-plaster, then putting them hopefully back into the nest, with an admonition to the anxious parents to “sit very still and don’t stwatch.” While last summer he unfortunately saw a chicken decapitated over at the farm barn, and, in Martha Corkle’s language, “the way he wound a bit o’ paper round its poor neck to stop its bleedin’ went straight to my stummick, so it did, Mrs. Evan;” for be it said here that Martha has fulfilled my wildest expectations, and whereas, as queen of the kitchen, she was a trifle unexpected and uncomfortable, as Mrs. Timothy Saunders, now comfortably settled in the new cottage above the stable at the north corner of the hayland, she is a veritable guardian angel, ready to swoop down with strong wings at a moment’s notice, in sickness or health, day or night, and seize the nursery helm.

It is owing to her that I have never been obliged to have a nursemaid under my feet or tagging after the boys, to the ruin of their independence. For the first few years Effie, whose fiery locks have not yet found their affinity, helped me, but now merely sees to buttons, strings, and darns.

I found out long ago that those who get the best return from their flower gardens were those who kept no gardeners, and it is the same way with the child garden; those who are too overbusy, irresponsible, ignorant, or rich to do without the orthodox nurse, never can know precisely what they lose. To watch a baby untrammelled with clothes, dimple, glow, and expand in its bath, is in an intense personal degree like watching, early of a June morning, the first opening bud of a rose that you have coaxed and raised from a mere cutting. You hoped and believed that it would be fair and beautiful, but ah, what a glorious surprise it is!

And so it is at the other end of day, when sleep comes over the garden and all the flowers that have been basking in sun vigour relax and their colours are subdued, blended by the brush of darkness, and the night wind steals new perfumes from them, and wings of all but a few night birds have ceased to cleave the air. As you walk among the flowers and touch them, or throw back the casement and look out, you read new meanings everywhere. In the white cribs in the alcove the same change comes, bright eyes, hair, cheeks, and lips lie blended in the shadow, the only sound is the even breath of night, and when you press your lips behind the ear where a curl curves and neck and garments meet, there comes a little fragrance born of sweet flesh and new flannel, and the only motion is that of the half-open hand that seems to recognize and closes about your fingers as a vine to its trellis, or as a sleeping bird clings to its perch.

A gardener or a nurse is equally a door between one and these silent pleasures, for who would not steal up now and then from a troubled dream to satisfy with sight and touch that the babes are really there and all is well?

Richard has a clinging way even in sleep, and his speech, though very direct for his age, is soft and cooing; he says “mother” in a lingering tone that might belong to a girl, and there are what are called feminine traits in him.

Ian (to save confusion, we called him from the first by the pretty Scotch equivalent of Evan’s first name) is of a wholly masculine mould, and like his father in light hair, gray eyes, and determination. His very speech is quick and staccato, his tendency is to overcome, to fight rather than assuage, though he is the champion of everything he loves. From the time he could form distinct sounds he has called me Barbara, and no amount of reasoning will make him do otherwise, while the imitation of his father’s pronunciation of the word goes to my heart.

Recently, now that he is fully able to comprehend, Evan took him quietly on his knee and told him that he must say “mother” and that he was not respectful to me. He thought a few minutes, as if reasoning with himself, and then the big gray eyes filled with tears, a very rare occurrence, as he seemed to feel that he could not yield, and he said, trying very hard to steady his voice, “Favver, I truly can’t, I think it muvver_ inside, but you and I, we must say it Barbara,” and I confess that my heart leaped with joy, and I begged Evan to let the matter end here. To be called, if it so may be, by one name from the beginning to the end of life by the only true lovers that can never be rivals, is bliss enough for any woman.

Equally resolved, but in a thing of minor importance, is Ian about his headgear. As a baby of three, when he first tasted the liberty of going out of garden bounds daily into the daisy field beyond the wild walk, while Richard clung to his protecting baby sunbonnet, Ian spurned head covering of any kind, and blinked away at the sun through his tangled curls whenever he had the chance, in primitive directness until his cheeks glowed like burnished copper; and his present compromise is a little cap worn visor backward.

When the twins were very young, people were most funny in the way in which they seemed to think it necessary to feel carefully about to make sure whether condolence or congratulations were in order. The Severely Protestant was greatly agitated, as, being himself the possessor of an overflowing quiverful, his position was difficult. After making sure which was the right side of the fence, and placing himself on it, he tugged painfully at his starved red beard, and made an elaborate address ending in a parallel, the idea of the complete Bible being in two volumes, the Old and New Testament, each being so necessary to the other, and so inseparable, that they were only comparable to twins!

Father and Evan were present at the time, I dared not look at either, and as soon as we were again alone, the room shook with laughter, until Martha Corkle, who was then in temporary residence, popped in to be sure that I was not being unduly agitated.

“The Old and New Testament, I wonder which is which?” gasped father, going upstairs to look at the uninteresting if promising woolly bundles by light of this startling suggestion.

Now, however, the joke has developed a serious side, as their two characters, though in no wise precocious, have become distinctive. Ian represents the Old, primitive and direct, the “sword of the Lord and Gideon” type, while Richard is the New, the reconciler and peacemaker.

The various congratulations that the twins were boys, from my standpoint I took as a matter of course, even though I had always heard that boys gave the most worry and girls were referred to among our friends and neighbours as the greatest comforts in a home unless they did something decidedly unusual, fitting into nooks, and often taking up and bearing burdens the brothers left behind. But when many people who had either daughters or nieces of their own, and might be said to be in that mystic ring called “Society,” congratulated me pointedly about the boys, I began to ponder about the matter mother-wise. Then, three years ago the New York Colony seized upon the broad acres along the Bluffs, and dotted two miles with the elaborate stone and brick houses they call cottages; not for permanent summer homes (the very rich, the spenders, have no homes), but merely hotels in series. These, for the spring and fall between seasons and week-end parties and golfing, men and girls gay in red and green coats, replaced the wild flowers in the shorn outlying fields. I watched these girls, and, beginning to understand, wondered if I had grown old before my time, or if I were too young to comprehend their point of view, for, to their strange enlightenment I was practically as yet unborn.

Lavinia Dorman says caustically that I really belong with her in the middle of the last century, and she, born to what father says was really the best society and privilege of New York life, like his college chum Martin Cortright, is now swept quite aside by the swirl.

“Yes, dear child,” she insists (how different this use of the word sounds from when the Lady of the Bluffs uses the universal “my dear” impartially to mistress and maid, shopgirl and guest), “you not only belong to the last century, but as far back in it as myself, and I am fifty-five, full measure.

“The new idea among the richer and consequently more privileged classes is, that girls are to be fitted not only to go out into the world and shine in different ways unknown to their grandmothers, but to be superior to home, which of necessity unfits them for a return trip if the excursion is unsuccessful.

“What with high ideas, high rents, and higher education, the home myth is speedily following Santa Claus out of female education, and, argue as one may, New York is the social pace-maker ‘East of the Rockies,’ as the free delivery furniture companies advertise. I congratulate you anew that the twins are boys!”

I laughed to myself over Miss Lavinia’s letter; she is always so deliciously in earnest and so perturbed over any change in the social ways of her dearly beloved New York, that I’m wondering how she finds it, on her return after two years or more abroad (she was becoming agitated before she left), and whether she will ask me down for another of those quaint little visits, where she so faithfully tours me through the shops and a few select teas, when, to wind it up, Evan buys opera box seats so that she may have the satisfaction of having her hair dressed, wearing her point lace bertha and aigret, and showing us who is who, and the remainder who are not. For she is well born, intricately related to the original weavers of the social cobweb, and knows every one by name and sight; but has found lately, I judge, that this knowledge unbacked by money is no longer a social power that carries beyond mixed tea and charity entertainments. Never mind, Lavinia Dorman is a dear! Ah, if she would only come out here, and return my many little visits by a long stay, and act as a key to the riddle the Whirlpool people are to me. But of course she will not; for she frankly detests the country, that is, except Newport and Staten Island, is wedded even in summer to her trim back-yard that looks like a picture in a seed catalogue, and, like a faithful spouse, declines to leave it or Josephus for more than a few days. Josephus is a large, sleek, black cat, a fence-top sphinx, who sits all day in summer wearing a silver collar, watching the sparrows and the neighbourhood’s wash with impartial interest, while at night he goes on excursions of his own to a stable down a crooked street in “Greenwich Village,” where they still keep pigeons. Some day he won’t come back!

Yet Martin Cortright, the Bookworm, was a pavement worshipper too, and he came last fall for over a Sunday to wake father up; for I believe men sometimes need the society of others of their own age and past, as much as children need childlife, and Martin stayed a month, and is promising to return next spring. I wonder if the Sylvia Latham who has been travelling with Miss Lavinia is any kin of the Lathams who are building the great colonial home above the Jenks-Smiths. I have never seen any of the family except Mrs. Latham, a tall, colourless blonde, who reminds one of a handsome unlit lamp. She seems to be superintending the work by coming up now and then, and I met her at the butcher’s where she was buying sweetbreads “a trifle for luncheon.” Accusation N, against the Whirlpoolers: Since their advent sweetbreads have risen from two pairs for a quarter, and “thank you kindly for taking them off our hands,” to fifty cents to a dollar a “set.” We no longer care for sweetbreads!

I was therefore amused, but no longer surprised, at the exaggerated way in which the childless Lady of the Bluffs, her step-daughter having ten years back made a foolish foreign marriage, gave me her views upon the drawbacks of the daughters of her world, when she made me, on her return from a European trip, a visit upon the twins’ first birthday, bearing, with her usually reckless generosity, a pair of costly gold apostle spoons, as she said, “to cut their teeth on.” I admired, but frugally popped them into the applewood treasure chests that father has had made for the boys from the “mother tree,” that was finally laid low by a tornado the winter of their birth and is now succeeded by a younger one of Richard’s choice.

“My dear woman,” she gasped, turning my face toward the light and dropping into a chair at the same time, “how well you look; not a bit upset by the double dose and sitting up nights and all that. But then, maybe, they sleep and you haven’t; for it’s always the unexpected and unusual that happens in your case, as this proves. But then, they are boys, and that’s everything nowadays, the way society’s going, especially to people like you, whose husband’s trade, though pretty, is too open and above-board to be a well-paying one, and yet you’re thoroughbreds underneath.” (Poor vulgar soul, she didn’t in the least realize how I might take her stricture any more than she saw my desire to laugh.)

“Of course here and there a girl in society does turn out well and rides an elephant or a coronet, of course I mean wears a coronet, though ten to one it jams the hairpins into her head, but mostly daughters are regular hornets, that is, if you’re ambitious and mean to keep in society. Of course you’re not in it, and, being comfortably poor, so to speak, might be content to see your girls marry their best chance, even if it wasn’t worth much a year, and settle down to babies and minding their own business; but then they mightn’t agree to that, and where would you and Evan be?

“This nice old house and garden of yours wouldn’t hold ’em after they got through with dolls, and some girls don’t even have any doll-days now. It would be town and travel and change, and you haven’t got the price of that between you all, and to keep this going, too. You’d have to go to N’York, for a couple of months at least, to a hotel, and what would that Evan of yours do trailing round to dances? For you’re not built for it, though I did once think you’d be a go in society with that innocent-wise way, and your nose in the air, when you don’t like people, would pass for family pride. I’d wager soon, in a few years, he’d stop picking boutonnières in the garden every morning and sailing down to that 8:15 train as cool as if he owned time, if those boys were girls! Though if Jenks-Smith gets the Bluff Colony he’s planned under way next spring, there’ll soon be some riding and golfing men hereabouts that’ll shake things up a bit, bridge whist, poker, and perhaps red and black to help out in the between-seasons.” (I little thought then what this colony and shaking would come to mean.)

“Money or not, it’s hard lines with daughters now work and poor pay for the mothers mostly. You know that Mrs. Townley that used to visit me? He was a banker and very rich; died four years ago, and left his wife with one son, who lived west, and five daughters, four that travelled in pairs and an odd one, all well fixed and living in a big house in one of those swell streets, east of the park, where never less than ten in help are kept. Well, if you’ll believe it, she’s living alone with a pet dog and a companion, except in summer, when the Chicago son and his wife and babies make her a good visit down at North East, the only home comfort she has.

“All the girls married to foreigners? Not a blessed one. Two were bookish and called literary, but not enough to break out into anything; they didn’t agree with society (had impossible foreheads that ran nearly back to their necks, and thin hair); they went to college just to get the name of it and to kill time, but when they got through they didn’t rub along well at home; called taking an interest in the house beneath them and the pair that liked society frivolous; so they took a flat (I mean apartment a flat is when it’s less than a hundred a month and only has one bathroom), and set up for bachelor girls. The younger pair did society for a while, and poor Mrs. Townley chaperoned round after them, as befitted her duty and position, and had gorgeous Worth gowns, all lace and jets, that I do believe shortened her breath, until one night in a slippery music-room she walked up the back of a polar bear rug, fell off his head, and had an awful coast on the floor, that racked her knee so that she could stay at home without causing remark, which she cheerfully did. The two youngest girls were pretty, but they were snobs, and carried their money on their sleeves in such plain sight that they were too suspicious, and seemed to expect every man that said ‘good evening’ was waiting to grab it. So they weren’t popular, and started off for Europe to study art and music. Of course when they came back they had a lot of lingo about the art atmosphere and all that; home was a misfit and impossible, so they went to live in a swell studio with two maids and a Jap butler in costume, and do really give bang-up musicals, with paid talent of course. I went to one.

“That left Georgie, the odd one, who was the eldest, with poor Mrs. Townley. By this time the old lady was kind of broken-spirited, and worried a good deal as to why all her girls left her, ’she’d always tried to do her duty,’ and all that. This discouraged Georgie; she got blue and nervous, had indigestion, and, mistaking it for religion, vamoosed into a high-church retreat. And I call it mighty hard lines for the old lady.”

I thought “too much money,” but I didn’t say it, for this brutally direct but well-meaning woman could not imagine such a thing, and she continued: “Yet Mrs. Townley had a soft snap compared to some, for she was in the right set at the start, with both feet well up on the ladder, and didn’t have to climb; but Heaven help those with daughters who have thin purses and have to stretch a long neck and keep it stiff, so, in a crowd at least, nobody’ll notice their feet are dangling and haven’t any hold.

“Ah, but this isn’t the worst yet; that’s the clever ‘new daughter’ kind that sticks by her ma, who was herself once a particular housekeeper, and takes charge of her long before there’s any need; regulates her clothes and her food and her callers, drags her around Europe to rheumatism doctors, and pushes her into mud baths; jerks her south in winter and north in summer, for her ‘health and amusement,’ so she needn’t grow narrow, when all the poor soul needs and asks is to be let stay in her nice old-fashioned country house, and have the village children in to make flannel petticoats; entertain the bishop when he comes to confirm, with a clerical dinner the same as she used to; spoil a lot of grandchildren, of which there aren’t any; and once in a while to be allowed to go into the pantry between meals, when the butler isn’t looking, and eat something out of the refrigerator with her fingers to make sure she’s got them!

“No, my dear, rather than that, I choose the lap dog and poor relation, who is generally too dejected to object to anything. Besides, lap dogs are much better now than in the days when the choice lay only between sore-eyed white poodles and pugs. Boston bulls are such darlings that for companions they beat half the people one knows!”

I am doubly glad that the twins are boys! Well, so be it, for women do often frighten me and I misunderstand them, but men are so easy to comprehend and love. While now, when Richard and Ian puzzle me, all I need to do is to point to father and Evan, and say, “Look! ask them, for they can tell you all you need to know!”

Almost sunset, the boys climbing up stairs, and Effie bringing a letter? Yes, and from Lavinia Dorman, pages and pages the dear soul! I must wait for a light. What is this? she wishes to see me will make me a long visit in May if I like has no longer the conscience to ask me to leave the twins to come to her boys of their age need so much care then something about Josephus! Yes, Sylvia Latham is the daughter of the new house on the Bluffs, etc. You blessed twins! here is another advantage I owe to you at last a promised visit from Lavinia Dorman!

Ah, as I push my book into the desk the reason for its title turns up before me, worded in Martin Cortright’s precise language:

“Everything, my dear Barbara, has a precedent in history or the basis of it. It is well known that the Indian tribes have taken their distinctive names chiefly from geographical features, and these often in turn control the pace of the people. The name for the island since called New Amsterdam and York was Mon-ah-tan-uk, a phrase descriptive of the rushing waters of Hell Gate that separated them from their Long Island neighbours, the inhabitants themselves being called by these neighbours Mon-ah-tans, anglice Manhattans, literally, People of the Whirlpool, a title which, even though the termagant humour of the waters be abated, it beseems me as aptly fits them at this day.”