Read CHAPTER IX of Nancy of Paradise Cottage, free online book, by Shirley Watkins, on ReadCentral.com.

A QUARREL

You had your choice, at Miss Leland’s, between studying, and doing what the large majority of the girls did; namely, making friends, reading novels during your study periods, and leaving it to Providence to decide whether you passed your examinations or not. The teachers were lenient souls, with the exception of Miss Drinkwater, the Latin teacher, who was unreasonably irritable when her pupils came to class armed with the seraphic smiles of ignorance, and a number of convincing excuses, which invariably failed to convince Miss Drinkwater. In consequence, very few of the girls pursued their studies in that classic tongue longer than the first month. “What point was there in doing so?” they argued coolly; none of them had any aspirations toward college, and nearly all of them harbored a dread of learning anything that might show on the surface, and thereby discourage the attentions of the college youths which were of infinitely more importance in their eyes, as indeed, in the eyes of their fond mothers, likewise, than the attainment of the scholarly graces.

Miss Leland’s was one of those schools instituted primarily to meet the necessity of our young plutocrats for mingling with their own peculiar kind “forming advantageous connections,” it is called the question of education was secondary if not quite negligible. The daughters of steel magnates came from Pittsburgh to meet the daughters of railroad magnates from New York, and incidentally to meet one another’s brothers, at the small social functions which Miss Leland gave ostensibly for the purpose of developing in her charges an easy poise and the most correct drawing-room manners.

The girls, for the most part, regarded lessons as a wholly unnecessary adjunct to their school duties, and treated them as such. And this was all very well indeed, so far as they were concerned. From school they would plunge into the whirl of their debutante season, and from that into marriage it was all clearly mapped out for them, and the shadow of any serious doubt as to the course of their careers never fell across their serenely trustful indolence.

There is something peculiarly vitiating in such an atmosphere. Pleasure was regarded not merely as an embroidery on the sober fustian of life, but as the very warp and woof of it; where the most sober consideration was that of winning popularity and the opportunity of social advantages, where the clothes to be bought and the parties to be given during the holidays were already the subject of endless absorbing discussions.

The effect of all this on each of the Prescotts was diametrically opposed. Alma had adapted herself to it as easily as to a new cloak. Not having any stubborn notions of her own, she was as malleable to such an environment as a piece of modelling clay in warm water. Pretty, good-humored, easily led, she swam into a rather meaningless popularity inside of four days. This Nancy was glad of, but her satisfaction was not unmixed. She saw Alma gradually undergoing a change that threatened to damage her own steadying influence over her sister, and to divide their sympathies. Alma was only too ready, and too well suited temperamentally, to lose sight of the difference between her own circumstances, and those of the girls with whom she was now associated. Indeed the very fact that she could do so, while Nancy could not, lay at the root of the problem that had begun to worry Nancy. Aside from minor changes in Alma, such as, for instance, a new little affectedness of manner, unconsciously borrowed from Mildred Lloyd, and her use of Mildred’s particular slang phrases, Nancy had noticed in her sister at times a tinge of impatience, and a little air of superiority, with which Alma unwillingly listened to her when she tried to talk to her seriously. Nancy began to feel, unhappily, that Alma was coming to resent her efforts to guide her and advise her in regard to various small matters, and worst of all, that Alma was privately beginning to look upon her as rather unnecessarily serious, and even old-maidish.

It was impossible for Nancy to lose the feeling that she had that her mother had made a mistake in sending them to Miss Leland’s, which gave them little or nothing that they could use, and was very likely to affect even her own steady vision of their circumstances and opportunities. She was continually trying to counteract the consequences of this mistake; but Alma was less than willing to take her point of view.

Nancy still clung to her plan of getting herself ready for college; never for a moment could she lose sight of the fact that in all probability she would have to make her own living, which Alma, like her mother, was very ready to forget, counting always as they did on happy chance, to smooth out the future for them into a sunny vista. It was not that Nancy was a pessimist. She simply believed that good luck was something more or less of one’s own making. She was full of eagerness and enthusiasm for life, as ardent as an ambitious boy, and restive to make a trial of her own capabilities. She knew that there was a possibility of her uncle’s providing for them, after all, in spite of his own very clear hints to the contrary; but on the other hand, there remained the fact that he was an eccentric old fellow, more than equally likely to bequeath his entire fortune to some freakish project, or obscure charity organization.

It was not a very easy task to study seriously at Miss Leland’s. An earnest student was immediately dubbed, vividly enough, if inelegantly, a “greasy grind” and was left more or less to her own devices; but if Nancy was not as popular as Alma, she was regarded with a good deal of respect and genuine admiration by the other girls, and in Charlotte Spencer she had found a really devoted friend.

Underneath her apparent rattle-patedness, Charlotte concealed from the view of those for whom she had no especial regard a stratum of rather unusual common sense, mingled with an idealism and a youthful ardor which few would have suspected in her nature. Opinions concerning her varied widely. Mildred Lloyd considered her crude, for example; most of the girls thought her simply amusing and odd, and hardly knew how to account for some of her queer, serious moods. In one way or another, without apparently studying at all, she managed always to take the highest marks in the school.

She was the only daughter of a very rich Western mine-owner, a widower, who found the problem of managing this child of his more difficult than any commercial nut he had ever had to crack. He had only the vaguest notions as to what was necessary for a girl’s career, and imagined that by sending his daughter to a fashionable Eastern school, he was getting at the heart of the solution. Charlotte wanted to study music, “not like a boarding-school miss,” she told Nancy. “I want to make it the real thing. I tell you I don’t know anything about it but I’m going to, yet.” Old Mr. Spencer, while he had no objections to one of the arts as a ladylike accomplishment, felt that it was not exactly respectable for a girl to go into it seriously, just why, he would have been at a loss to say. “You know,” Charlotte had explained, with her humorous smile, “there is a notion that it’s all right for a ‘lady’ to dabble in anything, painting, music, or embroidery and so on, so long as she doesn’t attempt to make a profession of it, or think of making money by it. Of course this idea is changing now a bit, but people like Mildred Lloyd, for instance, and all her kind, still think it’s not perfectly ‘nice’ as she puts it.” It was not in the least that Mr. Spencer had even a grain of snobbishness in his rough, vigorous makeup, so far as either himself or his three sons were concerned; his very love for his “Charlie,” as he called her, made him stubborn in his ideas concerning what was best for her. He wanted her to have everything that he could give her, and he gave her what he imagined her mother would have wanted him to give. It was because Charlotte understood that his stubbornness grew out of his adoration of her, that she good-naturedly gave in to his wishes.

“In good time, I’ll do what I want, of course,” she said with serene self-confidence. “But the least I can do for darling old Dad is to make him believe that all the time I’m doing what he wants. He is such a lamb, you know.”

The warm friendship that grew up between the two girls had a strong bond in the similarity of their position at Miss Leland’s, and in the circumstances of their being there, as well as in their mutual sympathy with each other’s ideas.

It was a Saturday afternoon, late in October, when the days were rapidly shortening into wintry dusks, and there was even the hint of an early snow in the slate-colored skies, against which the bare, stiff branches of the trees shivered in a nipping wind. Nancy, all ruddy, and breezy from a brisk walk with Charlotte, had come up to her room to finish an English paper. Across the hall a group of girls had gathered around Katherine Leonard’s chafing dish, from which the tantalizing smell of thick, hot fudge was beginning to pervade the corridors, and distract the thoughts of the more studious from their unsocial but conscientious labors.

“Come on in, Nance,” called Alma, waving a sticky spoon invitingly. “Surely you aren’t going to work now, are you?”

Nancy hesitated, her hand on the door-knob. They all looked so jolly, the room so cosy, and the warm, chocolaty smell of the fudge was almost irresistible. Nancy’s nose twitched at the delicious odor, and she smiled uncertainly.

“I’ve got to finish my English,” she began.

“Oh, bother your English,” cried Dolly Parker, “None of us have even looked at ours yet. Don’t be a ’grind’ come on.”

“You’re such a shark at it, Miss Garnett wouldn’t bother you if you loafed for a month,” added Maizie Forrest. This was quite true and that was the trouble. It was just because Miss Garnett was so lenient that Nancy felt the responsibility of keeping up in her work resting heavily on herself. Nearly all the girls loafed shamelessly, and Nancy had to guard against the temptation to imitate them. She knew that she would have to pass a stiff examination in English to enter college, and that it mattered nothing to Miss Garnett whether she passed or not.

“Well, the point is that I’ve got so little to do on it that I might as well finish it up and feel free,” she said, finally. “I’ll come in a little while, so don’t, for goodness’ sake, eat all the fudge.”

“Oh, Nancy, you make me tired,” pouted Alma. “If you’re going to be such an old poke, you don’t deserve any fudge.”

Nancy only laughed in reply, and calmly went in to her room, and shut the door. She flung her sweater on her bed, sent her scarlet tam-o’-shanter after it, and then stood for a moment, her hands in the pockets of her skirt, looking about her. The Prescotts’ room was certainly not the cosiest and most inviting in the school, and she had listened long to Alma’s petitions for an easy chair, and a new lamp to take the place of the green-shaded student’s lamp which by its hard, sharp light intensified the severe bareness of the little place. Besides the two beds, there were the two desks, two stiff desk-chairs, and the two small bureaus. Nothing had been added to soften the chilly aspect except a pair of cheap, chintz curtains at the window, and a few small cushions on the window-seat. They had no pictures or photographs, no rugs, no tea service none of the hundred and one little knickknacks with which the other girls managed to turn their bedrooms into luxurious little dens. Consequently, they were never besieged by bands of hilarious callers, and Alma herself was never in her room any more than she could help. At night she preferred a dressing-gown chat in Mildred’s room, or in Kay Leonard’s; even when she studied, which occupied, indeed, little enough of her time, she sought a more congenial atmosphere, and Nancy, except for Charlotte’s company, was a good deal by herself. But there was nothing to be done about it. She could not go to the expense of a new rug and an easy chair and a new lamp, and that was all there was to it. Alma felt ashamed of the mute confession of a narrow purse, expressed by the chill simplicity of the room; losing her memory of their straitened means amid the easy affluence of the other girls, she became more and more sulky against Nancy for her rigid economy. She contended that she saw no reason for it that Nancy was carrying it to unnecessary extremes.

With a shrug of her shoulders, Nancy began to rummage in her desk for her half-finished English paper, and then sat down to it, grimly determined to concentrate on it, and to drive away all distracting thoughts. She forgot about the fudge-party, and an hour went by before she looked up with a sigh, and carefully glancing over her finished pages folded them neatly inside her copy of “Burke’s Speeches.” All her work was finished, and she could look forward to Sunday with a comfortable anticipation of unhampered freedom. It was still half an hour before the dressing bell would ring, so she put on her kimono and, her sociable mood having passed, tucked herself up on the window-seat with a book.

In a little while the door opened, and Alma came in to change her frock. Nancy glanced up, and saw in an instant that Alma was annoyed. She felt troubled. It seemed as if every day they were growing farther apart. They no longer had those happy chats together which had bound them close by affection and sympathy. Alma no longer sought her as her confidant, and seemed to resent her advice rather than to seek it. Instead, the younger girl had, as it were, transferred her affection and her admiration to the headstrong and annoyingly self-assured Mildred Lloyd. Mildred had deigned to pronounce Alma pretty, and “interesting,” and had “taken her up” as the phrase is, thereby completely turning poor Alma’s head so that she was gradually merging even her personality into a pale imitation of Mildred’s blase expressions and mannerisms. Alma was not left ignorant of the fact that Mildred’s friendship, like her fancy, was extremely variable, and that she was quite likely to turn a cold shoulder to her new chum, without deigning to provide any reason for doing so. But Alma preferred to believe that in her case Mildred’s interest would not wane, just as she preferred to forget her early prejudice of their first meeting with Mildred.

An uncomfortable little silence reigned, which Nancy pretended to be unaware of, by giving a great deal of attention to her book, although the light from the window was so faint that no human eye could have spelt out the words on the page. But when, at length, she was forced by the lateness of the hour to begin dressing, it was impossible to preserve the wretched silence any longer, or to speak as if nothing were the matter.

“You you seem worried, Alma,” she began hesitatingly. “Is there something on your mind?”

“I’m not worried a bit,” returned Alma coldly.

“Well are you angry about something?”

There was a silence. Alma flung her hair over her shoulder and began to brush the ends vigorously, while Nancy watched the operation with an intentness that showed her mind to be on other things. Presently Alma said in a grave voice:

“I know that it’s none of my business, of course, but I do think, Nancy, that you are making a mistake.”

“A mistake,” repeated Nancy, in amazement. “How? How do you mean?”

“Well, it seems to me that as far as you are concerned, it has been simply money wasted to send you here.”

“Why, what on earth are you talking about, Alma?” exclaimed Nancy, her temper beginning to rise in spite of her amusement at the fluffy Alma’s gravely judicial air. Inasmuch as she studied harder and more seriously than any girl in the school, and rivalled Charlotte in brilliant marks, it was interesting as well as irritating to learn that Alma considered her unsuccessful.

“Well, you know as well as I do that Mother’s purpose in sending us here was for us to make friends. There isn’t a girl in the school that you show the least interest in, except Charlotte, and Charlotte well ” Alma shrugged her shoulders, expressing thereby what she hesitated to put into words. Instantly Nancy flared up. Usually the most even tempered and controlled of girls, she could not keep down her anger when it was roused by Alma’s periodic fits of snobbishness.

“What about Charlotte? Why do you shrug your shoulders like that? Because Charlotte isn’t considered perfectly ‘nice’ by Mildred? Because Mildred thinks Charlotte ’rather ordinary a bit crude, don’tcherknow?’ She’s the realest girl in the school, and everyone of them knows it, too! She’s the only one whose mind isn’t forever running on beaux and dances and other girls’ faults. She’s the only one of them who has brains and a heart she’s the only real aristocrat of the whole lot! She’s the only one of them whose friendship I’d give tuppence-ha’penny for ”

Alma quailed a little under Nancy’s indignation she was indeed a bit ashamed of her snobbish remark; but she did not lower her flag.

“That’s no reason why you should let all the other girls know it. We need all the friends we can get, and we can’t afford to lose this opportunity of making advantageous connections.”

This last bit was rather an unfortunate choice of words, smacking as it did just a bit too strongly of Mildred to soothe Nancy’s irate ear at just that moment.

I didn’t come here to make friends simply for what they could give me regardless of whether I liked them or not. And I think it’s the most contemptible thing in the world to toady to girls simply because they are rich or fashionable, and may invite you to parties and things that you can never repay. And it’s just that snobbish selfishness that complete loss of self-respect for the sake of self-interest that makes so many poor people contemptible. I’d rather die before I’d play the rôle of little sister to the rich.” Her voice began to quiver, and she had a wretched feeling that she was very near tears tears not of anger so much as of genuine unhappiness. She felt as if every word she uttered was doing more damage, and her heart ached because she was quarrelling with Alma, and because Alma was changing more every day. She longed to throw her arms around her sister, and kiss away the memory of every word she had uttered, but stubborn pride, as much a fault with Nancy as a virtue, held her back.

“Do you mean that I’m toadying?” asked Alma, her eyes growing wide. “I know now what you think of me and I know that you’re simply jealous of my fondness for Mildred,” she went on passionately. “I don’t know what has come over you anyway, Nancy you don’t approve of a single thing I do ”

“Oh, Alma darling! How can you say such things?” The tears began to roll down Nancy’s cheeks. “Whatever put such thoughts into your head, when you know how much I love you. It’s not me, but you who have changed. Can’t you see that I can’t let my work go just to play around with a lot of girls who don’t care a rap for me, myself? Life isn’t a song and a dance for us, Alma and we can’t waste our time just for a little popularity with girls who’d forget us to-morrow. Mildred ”

“Oh, go ahead, and say a lot of mean things about Mildred,” interrupted Alma bitterly. “You never liked her. You took a prejudice to her at first sight. You never even tried to know her. I never heard of anything so unjust in my life! You don’t think that anyone is capable of a real friendship but you and Charlotte. Mildred is every bit as good a friend. Just because she’s rich you think that she must be selfish you’re the most narrow-minded girl I ever knew. It’s the same way with all my friends you think Frank Barrows is just an idler a conceited little ”

“What on earth did I ever say against Frank Barrows?” Nancy defended herself weakly.

“Oh, you never say anything. You just look and I know perfectly well what you think. It seems as if we can never agree about anything, any more. Now, this afternoon you might have been just a little bit sociable instead of that you shut yourself up, as if you thought all those girls were simply a lot of sillies; but you were able to spend an hour and a half with Charlotte.”

“I had to finish my English paper, and that’s all there was to it,” retorted Nancy. “In any other school under the sun work has to come before play. Neither one of us can afford to take advantage of the leniency of the teachers here if I did only what they required I wouldn’t get to college in ten years. And I’ve got to get to college, no matter what Mildred thinks of me. I’m sorry she doesn’t approve of my behavior, but it can’t be helped.” In her hurt anger, she had lost her head a little bit, or she would not have thrown that last stone at Alma’s chosen friend. For the time being at least, it was impossible to repair the breach that the two wounded, indignant girls had made between each other.

Too sick at heart for tears, too despairingly conscious of the uselessness of any attempt at reconciliation, Nancy began to dress in a miserable silence.

During dinner Nancy made a pretense at eating, but she could not join in the chatter with the other girls. Once or twice Charlotte glanced at her, but with her instinctive gentle tact appeared not to notice Nancy’s blues.

At her table, Alma was feverishly gay; as a matter of fact she was on the point of tears. Never before had they had such a quarrel, never before had she seen Nancy so heedlessly angry, never before had they deliberately tried to say things to hurt each other. Waves of desperate homesickness assailed her, and with the memory of happy nights when they had gossiped together in their room at the little brown house, a lump ached in her throat. She wanted Nancy more than anyone else in the world. What was it they had said to each other that had caused such a dreadful coldness between them? She tried to tell herself that Nancy had misjudged her, that Nancy was wrong, and that she was right in maintaining her ground; but listening to the banter that went on around her, struggling to keep up her own end of it bravely, she felt that not one girl in the room, nor any pleasure in the world was of the slightest value to her so long as she did not have Nancy as her confidant and dearest friend.

With these thoughts battering at the foolish pride in their hearts it would have taken only a whispered word to send the sisters into one another’s embrace, but the reconciliation for which they were both longing so piteously was postponed by an incident which threatened to make their quarrel even more serious. It was simply the outcome of an unfortunate chance. For some time both the girls had known that Miss Leland had planned to give them different roommates, since she thought it a good idea for sisters to be separated so that they could make closer friendships with other girls.

After dinner she spoke of this again, not to Nancy but to Alma, leaving it to the younger girl to announce the change to Nancy. She had, of course, no knowledge of their quarrel, nor could she have possibly gauged the unfortunate timing of the change.

Nancy went up to her room directly after dinner, not waiting for the usual hour of music and dancing, and giving as her excuse the pretense that she had some mending to do.

She did, indeed, get out her work-basket as a sort of defense against unwelcome intrusion, but with a stocking drawn over her hand, she sat with her back to the door, and gave herself up to the sad consolation of tears. In a little while the door opened. Someone came in. Nancy bent over her stocking, and began to run a threadless needle through a “Jacob’s-ladder”; from the corner of her eye she saw Alma busily engaged in taking some of her things out of the bureau-drawers. Alma was as painstaking in keeping her own face concealed as Nancy, though she tried to hum a tune under her breath. The silence became intolerable, but diffidence weighted their tongues. Each one of them longed to throw her pride to the winds and sue for a reconciliation; but the fear of having her overtures met with coldness held her back. At length Alma said in a voice which she vainly tried to make natural and casual:

“Miss Leland has changed us. Charlotte Spencer is going to be your roommate from now on and and I’m going in with with Mildred.”

“That’s a a good idea,” replied Nancy; sarcasm was a thousand miles from her mind, and she spoke really only for the sake of sounding as if all differences had been forgotten; but a more ill-chosen sentence could not have fallen from her lips.

“I suppose you you’re glad to be rid of me,” said Alma, her lips quivering. “Anyway, you’ll have Charlotte, and she’s ever so much more congenial with you than I am.”

Nancy did not answer. If Alma had not made that last reference to Charlotte she would have had Nancy back in a moment, but there is a little devil who takes a delight in twisting people’s tongues when they most need to be inspired with the right thing to say.

With her night-gown and dressing-gown over her arm, and her sponge-bag in her hand, Alma walked in silence to the door. There she paused, and like Lot’s wife flung back at Nancy one piteous parting look, which, alas, met only the back of Nancy’s down-bent head. The door closed.

Nancy sprang up, and crossed the room, running, while the spools from her overturned basket rolled off placidly under the bed. Then she paused; pride conquered the tenderness in her heart at that moment, bringing in its trail a sequence of unhappy days.

“No it won’t do to admit I’m wrong. I’m not, and I’ll just let her find it out.”

And having voiced this stern resolution, she flung herself down on the bed and, burying her face in the pillows, cried herself into a doze; while, separated from her by a thin partition of lath and plaster, Alma made up her new bed, and bedewed it with her doleful tears.