Read CHAPTER VIII - CINDERELLA of The Purple Heights, free online book, by Marie Conway Oemler, on ReadCentral.com.

It wasn’t a pleasant house, being of a dingy, bilious-yellow complexion, with narrow window eyes, and a mean slit of a doorway for a mouth; not sinister, but common, stupid, and uninteresting. If one should happen to be a house-psychologist, one would know that behind the Nottingham lace curtains looped back with soiled red ribbons, was all the tawdry, horrible junk that clutters such houses, even as mental junk clutters the minds of the people who have to live in them. One knew that the people who dwelt in that house didn’t know how to live, how to think, or how to cook; and that if by any chance a larger life, a real thought, or a bit of good cooking confronted them, they would probably reject it with suspicion.

The elderly gentleman in white linen who made acquaintance with this particular house on a very sultry noon in early August, hesitated before he rang the bell. He glanced over his shoulder at the hot, dusty street where a swarm of hot, dusty children were shrilling and shrieking, or staring at him round-eyed, dived into his pockets, fished up a handful of small change, whistled to insure their greater attention, and flung the coin among them. While they were snatching at the money like a flock of pigeons over a handful of grain, the elderly gentleman rang the bell. He could hear it jangling through the house, but it brought no immediate response. After a decent interval he rang again. This time the door was jerked open, and a girl in a bungalow apron, upon which she was wiping her hands, confronted him. She was a very young girl, a very hot, tired, perspiring, and sullen girl, fresh from a broiling kitchen and a red-hot stove.

She looked at the caller suspiciously, her glance racing over his linen suit, his white shoes, the Panama hat in his hand. She was puzzled, for plainly this wasn’t the usual applicant for board and lodging. Perhaps, then, he was a successful house-to-house agent for some indispensable necessity say an ice-pick that would pull nails, open a can, and peel potatoes. Or maybe a religious book agent. She rather suspected him of wanting to sell her Biblical Prophecies Elucidated by a Chicago Seer, or something like that. Or, stay: perhaps he was a church scout sent out to round up stray souls. Whatever he might be, she was bitterly resentful of having been taken from the thick of her work to answer his ring. She wasn’t interested in her soul, her hot and tired body being a much more immediate concern. Heaven is far off, and hell has no terrors and less interest for a girl immured in a red-hot kitchen in a Middle Western town in the dog-days.

“If it’s a Bible, we got one. If it’s sewin’-machines, we ain’t, but don’t. If it’s savin’ our souls, we belong to church reg’lar an’ ain’t interested. If it’s explainin’ God, nothin’ doin’! An’ if it’s tack-pullers with nail-files an’ corkscrews on ’em, you can save your breath,” said the girl rapidly, in a heated voice, and with a half-dry hand on the door-knob.

Mr. Chadwick Champneys’s long, drooping mustache came up under his nose, and his bushy eyebrows twitched.

“I am not trying to sell anything,” he said hurriedly, in order to prevent her from shutting the door in his face, which was her evident intention.

She said impatiently: “If you’re collectin’, this ain’t our day for payin’, an’ you got to call again. Come next week, on Tuesday. Or maybe Wednesday or Thursday or Friday or Sattiday.” The door began to close.

He inserted a desperate foot.

“I wish to see Miss Simms Miss Anne, or Nancy Simms. My information is that she lives in this house. I should have stated my errand at once, had I been allowed to do so.” He looked at the girl reprovingly.

Before she could reply, a female voice from a back region rose stridently:

“Nancy! You Nancy! What in creation you mean, gassin’ this hour o’ day when them biscuits is burnin’ up in the oven? Send that feller about his business, whatever it is, and you come tend to yours!”

The girl hesitated, and frowned.

“If you come to see Anne Simms, same as Nancy Simms, I’m her I mean, she’s me,” said she, hurriedly. “I got no time to talk with you now, Mister, but you can wait in the parlor until I dish up dinner, and whilst they’re eatin’ I’ll have time to run up and see what you want. Is it partic’ler?”

“Very.”

“Come on in an’ wait, then.”

“Nancy! You want I should come up there after you? Oh, my stars, an’ that girl knows how partic’ler Poppa is about his biscuits; they gotta be jest so or he won’t look at ’em, an’ her gassin’ and him likely to raise the roof!” screamed the voice.

“Oh, shut up! I’m comin’,” bawled the girl in reply. “You better sit over there by the winder, Mister,” she told her visitor, hastily. “There’s a breeze there, maybe. You’ll find to-day’s paper an’ a fan on the table.” She vanished, and he could hear her running kitchenward, and the shrieking voice subsiding into a whine.

Mr. Chadwick Champneys slumped limply into a chair. Everything he looked at added to his sense of astonishment and unease.

The outside of the house hadn’t lied: the inside matched it. Mr. Champneys found himself staring and being stared at by the usual crayon portraits of defunct members of the family, at least he hoped they were defunct, the man with a long mule face and neck whiskers; and opposite him his spouse, with her hair worn like mustard-plasters on the skull. “Male and female created He them.” Placed so that you had to see it the moment you entered the door, on a white-and-gold easel draped with a silkoline scarf trimmed with pink crocheted wheels, was a virulently colored landscape with a house of unknown architecture in the foreground, and mother-of-pearl puddles outside the gate. Mr. Champneys studied those mother-of-pearl puddles gravely. They hurt his feelings. So did the ornate golden-oak parlor set upholstered in red plush; and the rug on the floor, in which colors fought like Kilkenny cats; and a pink vase with large purple plums bunched on it; and the figured wall-paper, and the unclean lace curtains, and the mantel loaded with sorry plunder, and the clothespin butterflies, the tissue-paper parasols, and the cheap fans tacked to the walls. It was a hot and dusty room. The smell of bad cooking, of countless miserable meals eaten by men whose digestion they would ruin, clung to it and would not be gainsaid. Mr. Champneys thought the best thing that could happen to such houses would be a fire beginning in the cellar and ending at the roof.

His mind went back to another house an old white house in South Carolina, set in spacious grounds, with high-ceilinged, cool, large rooms filled with fine old furniture, a few pictures, glimpses of brass and silver, large windows opening upon lawns and trees and shrubs and flowers, a flash of blue river, a vista of green marshes melting into the cobalt sky. A stately, lovely, leisurely old house, typifying the stately, leisurely life that had called it into being; both gone irrevocably into the past. He sighed.

He looked about this atrocious room, and his jaw hardened. This, for Milly’s niece! Poor girl, poor friendless girl! He had known, of course, that the girl was poor. He and Milly had been poor, too. But, oh, never like this! This was being poor sordidly, vulgarly. He had seen and suffered enough in his time to realize how soul-murdering this environment might be to one who knew nothing better. He himself had had the memory of the old house in which he was born, and of low-voiced, gentle-mannered men and women; he had had his fine traditions to which to hold fast. He reflected that he would have a great deal to make up for to Nancy Simms!

The noon whistle had blown. People had begun to come in, men whose first movement on entering was to peel off collars and coats. They barely glanced at the quiet, white-clad figure as they passed the open parlor door, but stampeded for the basement dining-room. Mr. Champneys could hear the scraping of chairs, the rattling of dishes, the hum of loud conversation; then the steady clatter of knives and forks, and a dull, subdued murmur. Dinner was in full swing, a dinner of which boiled cabbage must have formed the piece de resistance.

Came a hurried footstep, and Nancy Simms entered the room. He was sitting with his back to the window; she sank into the chair fronting him, so that the light fell full upon her.

She was strong and well-muscled, as one could see under the enveloping apron. Her hands bore the marks of dish-washing and clothes-washing and floor-scrubbing and sweeping. They were shapely enough hands, even if red and calloused. The foot in the worn, down-at-the-heels shoe was a good foot, with a fine arch; and the throat rising from the checked gingham apron was full and strong; her face was prettily shaped, if one was observant enough to notice that detail.

She was not pretty; not even pleasant. Her discontented face was liberally peppered with the sort of freckles that accompany red and rebellious hair; her mouth was hard, the lips pressed tightly together. Under dark, uncared-for eyebrows were grayish-green eyes, their expression made unfriendly by her habit of narrowing them. She had good teeth and a round chin, and her nose would have passed muster anywhere, save for the fact that it, too, was freckled. Unfortunately, one didn’t have time to admire her good points; one said at first sight of her, “Good heavens, what a disagreeable girl!” And then: “Bless me, I’ve never seen so many perfectly unnecessary freckles and so much fighting-red hair on one girl!”

“You’ll hafta hurry,” she admonished him, fanning herself vigorously with a folded newspaper. She wiped her perspiring face on her arm, tilted back her chair, revealing undarned stockings, and waited for him to explain himself.

He handed her his card, and at the name Champneys a faint interest showed in her face.

“I had a aunt married a feller by that name,” she volunteered. “Was you wishin’ to find out somethin’ about him or Aunt Milly? Because if so I don’t know nothin’ about him, nor yet her. I never set eyes on neither of ’em.”

“I am your Aunt Milly’s husband,” he told her. “And I have come to find out something about you.”

“It’s took you a long time to find your way, ain’t it?” Her manner was not cordial.

“We will waive that,” said he, composedly. “I am here, and my visit concerns yourself. To begin with, do you like living with your mother’s step-sister? That is her relationship to your mother and to my wife, I believe?”

“No: I don’t like livin’ with no step-aunt, though she ain’t that, bein’ further off: an’ no real kin. If you want to know why I don’t like it, it’s all work an’ no pay, that’s why. First off, when I was too little to do anything else, I minded the children an’ run errands an’ washed doilies an’ towels an’ stockin’s an’ sich, an’ set table an’ cleared table an’ washed dishes an’ made beds an’ emptied slops. Then I helped cook. Now I cook. Along with plenty other things. How’d you like it yourself?” Her tone was suddenly fierce. The fierceness of a strong and young creature in galling captivity.

His wandering life had given him an insight into such conditions and situations; and once or twice he had seen orphan children raised in homes where they “helped out.” Chattel slavery is easier by comparison and pleasanter in reality.

Before he could answer, “Nan-cy! You Nan-cy! Come on here an’ set them pie-plates! My Gawd! that girl’s goin’ to run me ravin’ crazy, tryin’ to keep her on her job! Nancy!”

Nancy looked at Mr. Champneys speculatively.

“Is what you got to say worth me tellin’ her to set them plates herself?” she asked.

“Well worth it,” said Mr. Champneys, emphatically.

She jumped for the door with cat-like quickness. Also, she lifted her voice with cat-like ferocity.

“I’m busy! I can’t co-ome. Set ’em yourself!”

“Can’t come! What you doin’?” shrieked the other voice.

“I’m entertainin’ comp’ny in the parler, that’s what I’m doin’! It’s somebody come to see me. An’ I’m goin’ to wait right here till I find out what they come for!”

On the heels of that, Nancy slammed the parlor door, and sat down.

“Now say what you got to say, an’ don’t waste no time askin’ if I’m stuck on livin’ here with somethin’ like that!”

“You wish, then, to leave your aunt?”

“She ain’t no aunt of mine, I tell you. She ain’t nothin’ but my mother’s stepfather’s daughter by his first wife. Sure I want to leave her. She took me because she needed a servant she didn’t have to pay reg’lar wages to. I don’t owe her nothin’. Nor him, neither. He’s worse ’n her.”

“They are not kind to you?”

“No, they ain’t what you’d call kind to me. But you ain’t come here to talk about them, I take it. What was you wantin’ to see me about, Mister?”

“Suppose,” said he, leaning forward, “that you should be offered, in exchange for this,” his gesture damned the whole room, “a beautiful home, travel, culture, ease, all that makes life beautiful; would that offer appeal to you?” He looked at her earnestly.

“No housework, no cooking! Clothes made for me especial? Not hand-me-downs an’ left-overs? No kids to mind, neither day nor night?”

“Housework? Old clothes? Minding children? Certainly not! I am not hiring a servant! What are you thinking of?”

“I’m thinkin’ of me, that’s what I’m thinkin’ of! I’m wearin’ her old clothes on Sundays now. I hate ’em. They look like her an’ they smell like her and they feel like her mean an’ ugly an’ tight. If I could ever get enough money o’ my own together, an’ enough clothes ” she stopped, and looked at him with the sudden ferocity that at times flashed out in her “earned honest, though, and come by respectable,” said she, grimly, “then I’d get out o’ here an’ try something else. I’m strong, an’ if I had half a chanst I could earn my livin’ easy enough.”

His jaw hardened. He couldn’t blind himself to the fact that he was disappointed in Milly’s niece; so disappointed that he felt physically sick. Had he been less fanatical, less obstinate, less fixed upon his monomaniacal purpose, he would have settled a sufficient sum upon her, and gone his way. His disappointment, so far from turning him aside, hardened his determination to carry the thing through. He had so acutely felt the lack of money himself, that now, perhaps, he overestimated its power. Whatever money could accomplish for this girl, money should do. The zeal of the reformer gathered in him.

“I wish,” he explained, “to adopt you in a sense. I have no children, and it is my desire that you should bear the Champneys name for your Aunt Milly’s sake. I propose, then, to take you away from these surroundings, and to educate you as a lady bearing the name of Champneys should be educated. You will have to study, and to work hard. You will have to obey orders instantly and implicitly. Do you follow me?”

“As far as you go,” said she, cautiously. “Go on: I’m waitin’ to hear more.”

“Aside from yourself, I have but one close relative, my brother’s son. You two, then, are to be my children.”

“How old is he?”

“About twenty.”

“But if you got a real heir, where do I come in?” she wondered.

“Share and share alike. He’s my nephew: you’re Milly’s niece.”

She reflected, a puzzled frown coming to her forehead.

“You’re aimin’ to give us both a whole lot, ain’t you? But I’ve found out nobody don’t get somethin’ for nothin’ in this world. Where’s the nigger in the woodpile? What do I do for what I get?”

“You make yourself worthy of the name you are to bear. You place yourself unreservedly in the hands of those appointed to instruct and ah form you. Make no mistake on this head: it will be far from easy for you.”

“Nothin’ ’s ever been easy for me, first nor yet last,” said Nancy Simms. “So that ‘s nothin’ new to me. I want you should speak out plain. What you really mean I’m to do?”

For a moment the iron-willed old man hesitated; he remembered young Peter, eager, hopeful, crystal-clear young Peter, back there in South Carolina. He looked challengingly and fiercely at the girl, as if his bold will meant to seize upon her as upon a piece of clay and mold it to his desire. Then, “I mean you’re to marry,” he said crisply.

“Me? Who to? You?” asked Nancy, blankly.

“Me!” gasped Mr. Champneys. “Are you demented?”

“Well, then, who?” she asked, not unnaturally. “And why?”

“The other heir. My nephew. Peter Champneys. Because such is my will and intention,” said he, peremptorily and haughtily, bending his eagle-look upon her.

“What sort of a feller is he? He ain’t got nothin’ the matter with him, has he?”

A wild desire to slap Milly’s niece came upon Chadwick Champneys at that.

“He is my nephew!” he said haughtily. “Why on earth should he have anything the matter with him?”

It occurred to him then that it mightn’t be such an easy matter to get a high-spirited young fellow, with ideals, to take on trust this young female person with the red hair. He felt grateful that he had exacted a promise from Peter. The Champneyses always kept their promises.

“I’m wonderin’!” said Nancy, staring at him. “Why are you so bent on him an’ me marryin’? You say it’s just because you want it, but that ain’t no explanation, nor yet no reason. After all, it’s me. I got the right to ask why, then, ain’t I? You can’t expect to walk in unbeknownst an’ tell a girl you want she should marry a feller she’s never laid eyes on, without bein’ asked a few questions, can you?”

He knew he must try to make it clear to her, as he had tried to make it clear to Peter. Peter, being Peter, had presently understood. Whether this girl would understand remained to be seen.

“I wish you to marry, because, as I have already told you, you are my wife’s niece, and Peter is my brother’s son. I have of late years become possessed of well, let’s say a great deal of money, and I propose that this money shall go to my own people but on my own conditions. These conditions being that it shall all be kept in the Champneys name. It is an old name, a good name, it was once a wealthy and an honored name. It must be made so again. I say, it must be made so again! There are but you two to make it so. The boy is the last, on my side; and you’re Milly’s. Milly must have her share in the upbuilding as if you were her child. Now, do you see?”

“Good Lord! ain’t you got funny notions, though! Who ever heard the beat? One name’s about as good as another, seems to me. But seein’ you’ve got the money to pay for your notions, them that’s willin’ to take your money ought to be willin’ to humor ’em.” Nancy, in her way, had what might be called a sense of ethics.

“You agree?”

“Well, I just got to make a change, Mr. Champneys. I can’t stand this place no more. If I was to say ‘No’ to you, an’ stay here, an’ have time to think it over, down in that sizzlin’ kitchen, with her squallin’ at me all day, I’d end up in a padded cell. If I was to leave just so, I’d maybe get me a job in a shop at less than I could live on honest. You see?”

He nodded, and she went on somberly:

“So I’m most at the end of my tether. It’s real curious you should come just now, with me feelin’ that desperate I been minded to walk out anyhow an’ risk things. You sure that feller ain’t got nothin’ ails him? Not crazy, nor a dope, nor nothin’?”

“My nephew is perfectly normal in every respect,” said Mr. Champneys, frigidly.

“What’s he look like in the face?” she demanded. “Is he as ugly as me?”

“He is a gentleman,” said Peter’s uncle, even more frigidly. “As to his appearance, I believe he resembles me. At least, he looks like what I used to look like.”

“Well I’ve seen worse,” said she, and fetched a sigh.

A sudden thought struck him. “Perhaps,” he suggested, making allowance for the sentimentality of extreme youth, “perhaps you have some notion about er ah marrying for love, or something like that? There may be some young fellow you think you fancy? Young people in your ah that is, in the circumstances to which you unfortunately have been subjected, often rush into ill-considered entanglements.”

“In love? Who, me? Who with, for Gawdsake? One feller means just as much to me as another feller: they’re all alike,” said she, contemptuously. “I just asked about him for for references. You know what you’re gettin’, an’ I got a right to know what I’m gettin’.”

“You have: so please remember that you are getting a considerable portion of the Champneys money for doing what you’re told to do,” said he.

“I never knew till you told me so that the Champneyses had any money. But if it’s there, I’m willing to do what I’m told, for my share. Why not? There ain’t nothin’ better for me, nowheres, nohow.”

“I am to understand, then, that you agree?”

“What else can I do but agree?” she asked, twisting a fold of her apron.

The parlor door opened with violence; a thick-set man with a bald head and a red face, followed by a shrewish, thin woman with pinched lips, appeared on the threshold.

“I s’pose,” said the woman, with elaborate courtesy, “we kin come in our own parler, Miss Simms? Has you resigned your job that you gotta pick out the parler to set in whilst I’m doin’ your work for you?”

Nancy’s visitor rose, and at sight of the tall old gentleman an avid curiosity appeared in both vulgar faces.

“Mr. Champneys, this is the lady an’ gentleman I live with and work for without wages, Mister an’ Missis Baxter. Mister an’ Missis Baxter, this gentleman is Aunt Milly’s husband, an’ he’s come to see me; an’ you ain’t called to show off the manners you ain’t got!”

“Well, why couldn’t you say who he was at first, an’ have done with it?” grumbled the man. “But no, you gotta upset the whole house! She’s the provokin’est piece o’ flesh on the created earth, when she starts,” he explained to the visitor.

“To aggravate an’ torment them that’s raised her an’ kept her out of the asylum an’ fed an’ clothed an’ learned her like a daughter, is what Nancy Simms ‘d rather do than eat an’ drink,” supplemented Mrs. Baxter, acridly.

Nancy snorted. Mr. Champneys said nothing.

“Well! An’ so you’re poor Milly’s husband!” said the woman, staring at him. “You wasn’t so awful anxious to find out nothin’ about her kith an’ kin, was you? Not that I’m any kin,” she added, hastily. “When all’s said an’ done, Nancy ain’t no real kin, neither. You an’ her’s only connected by marriage, but bein’ as you have come at last, I hope she’ll have more gratefulness to you than she’s got for me. As you ain’t never done nothin’ by her, an’ I have, she’s sure to.”

“You make me so sick!” Nancy, with her hands on her hips, glared at the pair. “Anything you ever done for me you paid yourself for double. If you don’t owe me nothin’, like you said this mornin’, I don’t owe you nothin’, neither, so it’s quits. You’d oughta be glad I’m goin’.”

“Goin’? Who’s goin’? Goin’ where?” Mrs. Baxter’s voice rose shrilly. “Now, ain’t it always so? You take a orphan child to your bosom an’ after many days it’ll grow up like a viper, an’ the minute your back ’s turned it’ll spit in your face!”

“Goin’, hey? Where you goin’ to when you go?” demanded Mr. Baxter, hoarsely.

“She is going with me,” said Mr. Champneys. The whole situation nauseated him; he felt that if he didn’t escape from that red-plush parlor very soon, he was going to be violently sick. “I am now in a position to look after my wife’s niece, and I propose to do so. From what I have heard from you both, I should think you would be rather glad than sorry to part with her.”

“You won’t gain nothin’ by raisin’ a row,” put in Nancy, in a hard voice. “I’m goin’. Make up your minds to that.”

“Oh, you are, are you, Miss Simms? That’s all the thanks I mighta expected from you, you red-headed freckle-face! I sure hope he’ll get his fill of you before he’s done! Walkin’ off like a nigger without a minute’s notice, an’ me with my house full of men comin’ to their meals they’ve paid for an’ has to have!”

“Hire another nigger an’ pay ’em somethin’, so’s they won’t quit without notice, then,” suggested the girl, unfeelingly.

“How you know this feller’s Milly Champneys’s husband?” asked Mr. Baxter. “Who’s to prove it?”

Nancy looked at him and laughed. But Milly Champneys’s husband said hastily: “Let us go, for God’s sake! If there’s a telephone here, ring for a cab or a taxi. How soon can you be ready?”

“I can walk out bag and baggage in ten minutes,” she replied, and darted from the room.

The South Carolina Don Quixote looked at the sordid, angry pair before him. He felt like one in an evil dream, a dream that degraded him, and Milly’s memory, and Milly’s niece.

“If you wish to make any inquiries, I shall be at the Palace Hotel until this evening,” he told them. “And would a hundred dollars soothe your feelings?”

The woman’s eyes slitted; the man’s bulged.

“You musta come by money since Milly died,” said Mrs. Baxter. “Yes, sure we’ll take the hundred. We ain’t refusin’ money. It’s little enough, too, considerin’ all I done for that girl!”

Mr. Champneys counted out ten crisp bills into the greedy hand, and the three waited silently until Nancy appeared. Champneys almost screamed at sight of her. His heart sank like lead, and the task he had set for himself of a sudden assumed monumental proportions.

“I ain’t took nothin’ out of this house but the few things belongin’ to my mother. You’re welcome to the rest,” she told the woman, briefly. The man she ignored altogether.

A cab rattled up to the door. In silence the aristocratic old man in white linen, and the red-headed girl in a cheap embroidered shirt-waist, a dark, shabby skirt, and a hat that was an outrage on millinery, climbed in. There were no farewells. The girl settled back, clutching her hand-satchel. “Giddap,” said the driver, and cracked his whip. The cab rolled away from the dingy, smelly house, and turned a corner. So rode Nancy Simms out of her old life into her new one.