Read CHAPTER XX - SHAMPUASHUH of Nobody , free online book, by Susan Warner, on ReadCentral.com.

It was in vain to try to talk of anything else; the conversation ran on that one subject all the evening.  Indeed, there was a great deal to be thought of and to be done, and it must of necessity be talked of first.

“How soon does she want to come?” Mrs. Armadale asked, meaning of course the new inmate proposed for the house.

“Just as soon as we are ready for her; didn’t you hear what I read, grandmother?  She wants to get into the country air.”

“A queer time to come into the country!” said Charity.  “I thought city folks kept to the city in winter.  But it’s good for us.”

“We must get in some coal for the parlour,” remarked Madge.

“Yes; and who’s going to make coal fires and clean the grate and fetch boxes of coal?” said Charity.  “I don’t mind makin’ a wood fire, and keepin’ it up; wood’s clean; but coals I do hate.”

There was general silence.

“I’ll do it,” said Lois.

“I guess you will!  You look like it.”

“Somebody must; and I may as well as anybody.”

“You could get Tim Bodson to carry coal for you,” remarked Mrs. Armadale.

“So we could; that’s an excellent idea; and I don’t mind the rest at all,” said Lois.  “I like to kindle fires.  But maybe she’ll want soft coal.  I think it is likely.  Mrs. Wishart never will burn hard coal where she sits.  And soft coal is easier to manage.”

“It’s dirtier, though,” said Charity.  “I hope she ain’t going to be a fanciful woman.  I can’t get along with fancy folks.  Then she’ll be in a fidget about her eating; and I can’t stand that.  I’ll cook for her, but she must take things as she finds them.  I can’t have anything to do with tomfooleries.”

“That means custards?” said Lois, laughing.  “I like custards myself.  I’ll take the tomfoolery part of the business, Charity.”

“Will you?” said Charity.  “What else?”

“I’ll tell you what else, girls.  We must have some new tablecloths, and some napkins.”

“And we ought to have our bonnets before anybody comes,” added Madge.

“And I must make some covers and mats for the dressing table and washstand in the best room,” said Lois.

“Covers and mats!  What for?  What ails the things as they are?  They’ve got covers.”

“O, I mean white covers.  They make the room look so much nicer.”

“I’ll tell you what, Lois; you can’t do everything that rich folks do; and it’s no use to try.  And you may as well begin as you’re goin’ on.  Where are you going to get money for coal and bonnets and tablecloths and napkins and curtains, before we begin to have the board paid in?”

“I have thought of that.  Aunt Marx will lend us some.  It won’t be much, the whole of it.”

“I hope we aren’t buying a pig in a poke,” said Charity.

“Mother, do you think it will worry you to have her?” Lois asked tenderly.

“No, child,” said the old lady; “why should it worry me?”

So the thing was settled, and eager preparations immediately set on foot.  Simple preparations, which did not take much time.  On her part Mrs. Barclay had some to make, but hers were still more quickly despatched; so that before November had run all its thirty days, she had all ready for the move.  Mr. Dillwyn went with her to the station and put her into the car.  They were early, so he took a seat beside her to bear her company during the minutes of waiting.

“I would gladly have gone with you, to see you safe there,” he remarked; “but I thought it not best, for several reasons.”

“I should think so!” Mrs. Barclay returned dryly.  “Philip, I consider this the very craziest scheme I ever had to do with!”

“Precisely; your being in it redeems it from that character.”

“I do not think so.  I am afraid you are preparing trouble for yourself; but your heart cannot be much in it yet!”

“Don’t swear that,” he said.

“Well, it cannot, surely.  Love will grow on scant fare, I acknowledge; but it must have a little.”

“It has had a little.  But you are hardly to give it that name yet.  Say, a fancy.”

“Sensible men do not do such things for a fancy.  Why, Philip, suppose I am able to do my part, and that it succeeds to the full; though how I am even to set about it I have at present no idea; I cannot assume that these young women are ignorant, and say I have come to give them an education!  But suppose I find a way, and suppose I succeed; what then? You will be no nearer your aim ­perhaps not so near.”

“Perhaps not,” he said carelessly.

“Phil, it’s a very crazy business!  I wouldn’t go into it, only I am so selfish, and the plan is so magnificent for me.”

“That is enough to recommend it.  Now I want you to let me know, from time to time, what I can send you that will either tend to your comfort, or help the work we have in view.  Will you?”

“But where are you going to be?  I thought you were going to Europe?”

“Not till spring.  I shall be in New York this winter.”

“But you will not come to ­what is the name of the place ­where I am going?” she asked earnestly.

“No,” said he, smiling.  “Shall I send you a piano?”

“A piano!  Is music intended to be in the programme?  What should I do with a piano?”

“That you would find out.  But you are so fond of music ­it would be a comfort, and I have no doubt it would be a help.”

Mrs. Barclay looked at him with a steady gravity, under which lurked a little sparkle of amusement.

“Do you mean that I am to teach your Dulcinea to play?  Or to sing?”

“The use of the possessive pronoun is entirely inappropriate.”

“Which is she, by the way?  There are three, are there not?  How am I to know the person in whom I am to be interested?”

“By the interest.”

“That will do!” said Mrs. Barclay, laughing.  “But it is a very mad scheme, Philip ­a very mad scheme!  Here you have got me ­who ought to be wiser ­into a plan for making, not history, but romance.  I do not approve of romance, and not at all of making it.”

“Thank you!” said he, as he rose in obedience to the warning stroke of the bell.  “Do not be romantic, but as practical as possible.  I am.  Good-bye!  Write me, won’t you?”

The train moved out of the station, and Mrs. Barclay fell to meditating.  The prospect before her, she thought, was extremely misty and doubtful.  She liked neither the object of Mr. Dillwyn’s plan, nor the means he had chosen to attain it; and yet, here she was, going to be his active agent, obedient to his will in the matter.  Partly because she liked Philip, who had been a dear and faithful friend of her husband; partly because, as she said, the scheme offered such tempting advantage to herself; but more than either, because she knew that if Philip could not get her help he was more than likely to find some other which would not serve him so well.  If Mrs. Barclay had thought that her refusal to help him would have put an end to the thing, she would undoubtedly have refused.  Now she pondered what she had undertaken to do, and wondered what the end would be.  Mr. DilIwyn had been taken by a pretty face; that was the old story; he retained wit enough to feel that something more than a pretty face was necessary, therefore he had applied to her; but suppose her mission failed?  Brains cannot be bought.  Or suppose even the brains were there, and her mission succeeded?  What then?  How was the wooing to be done?  However, one thing was certain ­Mr. Dillwyn must wait.  Education is a thing that demands time.  While he was waiting, he might wear out his fancy, or get up a fancy for some one else.  Time was everything.

So at last she quieted herself, and fell to a restful enjoyment of her journey, and amused watching of her fellow-travellers, and observing of the country.  The country offered nothing very remarkable.  After the Sound was lost sight of, the road ran on among farms and fields and villages; now and then crossing a stream; with nothing specially picturesque in land or water.  Mrs. Barclay went back to thoughts that led her far away, and forgot both the fact of her travelling and the reason why.  Till the civil conductor said at her elbow ­“Here’s your place, ma’am ­Shampuashuh.”

Mrs. Barclay was almost sorry, but she rose, and the conductor took her bag, and they went out.  The afternoons were short now, and the sun was already down; but Mrs. Barclay could see a neat station-house, with a long platform extending along the track, and a wide, level, green country.  The train puffed off again.  A few people were taking their way homewards, on foot and in waggons; she saw no cab or omnibus in waiting for the benefit of strangers.  Then, while she was thinking to find some railway official and ask instructions, a person came towards her; a woman, bundled up in a shawl and carrying a horsewhip.

“Perhaps you are Mrs. Barclay?” she said unceremoniously.  “I have come after you.”

“Thank you.  And who is it that has come after me?”

“You are going to the Lothrops’ house, ain’t you?  I thought so.  It’s all right.  I’m their aunt.  You see, they haven’t a team; and I told ’em I’d come and fetch you, for as like as not Tompkins wouldn’t be here.  Is that your trunk? ­Mr. Lifton, won’t you have the goodness to get this into my buggy? it’s round at the other side.  Now, will you come?”

This last to Mrs. Barclay.  And, following her new friend, she and her baggage were presently disposed of in a neat little vehicle, and the owner of it got into her place and drove off.

The soft light showed one of those peaceful-looking landscapes which impress one immediately with this feature in their character.  A wide grassy street, or road, in which carriages might take their choice of tracks; a level open country wherever the eye caught a sight of it; great shadowy elms at intervals, giving an air of dignity and elegance to the place; and neat and well-to-do houses scattered along on both sides, not too near each other for privacy and independence.  Cool fresh air, with a savour in it of salt water; and stillness ­stillness that told of evening rest, and quiet, and leisure.  One got a respect for the place involuntarily.

“They’re lookin’ for you,” the driving lady began.

“Yes.  I wrote I would be here to-day.”

“They’ll do all they can to make you comfortable; and if there’s anything you’d like, you’ve only to tell ’em.  That is, anything that can be had at Shampuashuh; for you see, we ain’t at New York; and the girls never took in a lodger before.  But they’ll do what they can.”

“I hope I shall not be very exacting.”

“Most folks like Shampuashuh that come to know it.  That is! ­we don’t have much of the high-flyin’ public; that sort goes over to Castletown, and I’m quite willin’ they should; but in summer we have quite a sprinklin’ of people that want country and the sea; and they most of ’em stay right along, from the beginning of the season to the end of it.  We don’t often have ’em come in November, though.”

“I suppose not.”

“Though the winters here are pleasant,” the other went on. “I think they’re first-rate.  You see, we’re so near the sea, we never have it very cold; and the snow don’t get a chance to lie.  The worst we have here is in March; and if anybody is particular about his head and his eyes, I’d advise him to take ’em somewheres else; but, dear me! there’s somethin’ to be said about every place.  I do hear folks say, down in Florida is a regular garden of Eden; but I don’ know! seems to me I wouldn’t want to live on oranges all the year round, and never see the snow.  I’d rather have a good pippin now than ne’er an orange.  Here we are.  Mr. Starks!” ­addressing a man who was going along the side way ­“hold on, will you? here’s a box to lift down ­won’t you bear a hand?”

This service was very willingly rendered, the man not only lifting the heavy trunk out of the vehicle, but carrying it in and up the stairs to its destination.  The door of the house stood open.  Mrs. Barclay descended from the buggy, Mrs. Marx kept her seat.

“Good-bye,” she said.  “Go right in ­you’ll find somebody, and they’ll take care of you.”

Mrs. Barclay went in at the little gate, and up the path of a few yards to the house.  It was a very seemly white house, quite large, with a porch over the door and a balcony above it.  Mrs. Barclay went in, feeling herself on very doubtful ground; then appeared a figure in the doorway which put her meditations to flight.  Such a fair figure, with a grave, sweet, innocent charm, and a manner which surprised the lady.  Mrs. Barclay looked, in a sort of fascination.

“We are very glad to see you,” Lois said simply.  “It is Mrs. Barclay, I suppose?  The train was in good time.  Let me take your bag, and I will show you right up to your room.”

“Thank you.  Yes, I am Mrs. Barclay; but who are you?”

“I am Lois.  Mrs. Wishart wrote to me about you.  Now, here is your room; and here is your trunk.  Thank you, Mr. Starks. ­What can I do for you?  Tea will be ready presently.”

“You seem to have obliging neighbours!  Ought I not to pay him for his trouble?” said Mrs. Barclay, looking after the retreating Starks.

“Pay?  O no!” said Lois, smiling.  “Mr Starks does not want pay.  He is very well off indeed; has a farm of his own, and makes it valuable.”

“He deserves to be well off, for his obligingness.  Is it a general characteristic of Shampuashuh?”

“I rather think it is,” said Lois.  “When you come down, Mrs. Barclay, I will show you your other room.”

Mrs. Barclay took off her wrappings and looked about her in a maze.  The room was extremely neat and pleasant, with its white naperies and old-fashioned furniture.  All that she had seen of the place was pleasant.  But the girl! ­O Philip, Philip! thought Mrs. Barclay, have you lost your heart here! and what ever will come of it all?  I can understand it; but what will come of it!

Down-stairs Lois met her again, and took her into the room arranged for her sitting-room.  It was not a New York drawing-room; but many gorgeous drawing-rooms would fail in a comparison with it.  Warm-coloured chintz curtains; the carpet neither fine nor handsome, indeed, but of a hue which did not clash violently with the hue of the draperies; plain, dark furniture; and a blaze of soft coal.  Mrs. Barclay exclaimed,

“Delightful!  O, delightful!  Is this my room, did you say?  It is quite charming.  I am afraid I am putting you to great inconvenience?”

“The convenience is much greater than the inconvenience,” said Lois simply.  “I hope we may be able to make you comfortable; but my sisters are afraid you will not like our country way of living.”

“Are you the housekeeper?”

“No,” said Lois, with her pleasant smile again; “I am the gardener and the out-of-doors woman generally; the man of business of the house.”

“That is a rather hard place for a woman to fill, sometimes.”

“It is easy here, and where people have so little out-of-door business as we have.”

She arranged the fire and shut the shutters of the windows; Mrs. Barclay watching and admiring her as she did so.  It was a pretty figure, though in a calico and white apron.  The manner of quiet self-possession and simplicity left nothing to be desired.  And the face, ­but what was it in the face which so struck Mrs. Barclay?  It was not the fair features; they were fair, but she had seen others as fair, a thousand times before.  This charm was something she had never seen before in all her life.  There was a gravity that had no connection with shadows, nor even suggested them; a curious loftiness of mien, which had nothing to do with external position or internal consciousness; and a purity, which was like the grave purity of a child, without the child’s want of knowledge or immaturity of mental power.  Mrs. Barclay was attracted, and curious.  At the same time, the dress and the apron were of a style ­well, of no style; the plainest attire of a plain country girl.

“I will call you when tea is ready,” said Lois.  “Or would you like to come out at once, and see the rest of the family?”

“By all means! let me go with you,” Mrs. Barclay answered; and Lois opened a door and ushered her at once into the common room of the family.  Here Mrs. Armadale was sitting in her rocking-chair.

“This is my grandmother,” said Lois simply; and Mrs. Barclay came up.

“How do you do, ma’am?” said the old lady.  “I am pleased to see you.”

Mrs. Barclay took a chair by her side, made her greetings, and surveyed the room.  It was very cheerful and home-looking, with its firelight, and the table comfortably spread in the middle of the floor, and various little tokens of domestic occupation.

“How pleasant this fire is!” she remarked.  “Wood is so sweet!”

“It’s better than the fire in the parlour,” said Mrs. Armadale; “but that room has only a grate.”

“I will never complain, as long as I have soft coal,” returned the new guest; “but there is an uncommon charm to me in a wood fire.”

“You don’t get it often in New York, Lois says.”

“Miss Lois has been to the great city, then?”

“Yes, she’s been there.  Our cousin, Mrs. Wishart, likes to have her, and Lois was there quite a spell last winter; but I expect that’s the end of it.  I guess she’ll stay at home the rest of her life.”

“Why should she?”

“Here’s where her work is,” said the old lady; “and one is best where one’s work is.”

“But her work might be elsewhere?  She’ll marry some day.  If I were a man, I think I should fall in love with her.”

“She mightn’t marry you, still,” said Mrs. Armadale, with a fine smile.

“No, certainly,” said Mrs. Barclay, returning the smile; “but ­you know, girls’ hearts are not to be depended on.  They do run away with them, when the right person comes.”

“My Lois will wait till he comes,” said the old lady, with a sort of tender confidence that was impressive and almost solemn.  Mrs. Barclay’s thoughts made a few quick gyrations; and then the door opened, and Lois, who had left the room, came in again, followed by one of her sisters bearing a plate of butter.

“Another beauty!” thought Mrs. Barclay, as Madge was presented to her.  “Which is which, I wonder?” This was a beauty of quite another sort.  Regular features, black hair, eyes dark and soft under long lashes, a white brow and a very handsome mouth.  But Madge had a bow of ribband in her black hair, while Lois’s red-brown masses were soft, and fluffy, and unadorned.  Madge’s face lacked the loftiness, if it had the quietness, of the other; and it had not that innocent dignity which seemed ­to Mrs. Barclay’s fancy ­to set Lois apart from the rest of young women.  Yet most men would admire Madge most, she thought.  O Philip, Philip! she said to herself, what sort of a mess have you brought me into!  This is no common romance you have induced me to put my fingers in.  These girls! ­

But then entered a third, of a different type, and Mrs. Barclay felt some amusement at the variety surrounding her.  Miss Charity was plain, like her grandmother; and Mrs. Armadale was not, as I have said, a handsome old woman.  She had never been a handsome young one; bony, angular, strong, not gracious; although the expression of calm sense, and character, and the handwriting of life-work, and the dignity of mental calm, were unmistakeable now, and made her a person worth looking at.  Charity was much younger, of course; but she had the plainness without the dignity; sense, I am bound to say, was not wanting.

The supper was ready, and they all sat down.  The meal was excellent; but at first very silently enjoyed.  Save the words of anxious hospitality, there were none spoken.  The quicker I get acquain’ted, the better, thought Mrs. Barclay.  So she began.

“Your village looks to me like a quiet place.”

“That is its character,” said Mrs. Armadale.

“Especially in winter, I suppose?”

“Well, it allays was quiet, since I’ve known it,” the old lady went on.  “They’ve got a hotel now for strangers, down at the Point ­but that ain’t the village.”

“And the hotel is empty now,” added Lois.

“What does the village do, to amuse itself, in these quiet winter days and nights?”

“Nothing,” said Charity.

“Really?  Are there no amusements?  I never heard of such a place.”

“I don’t know what you mean by amusements,” Mrs. Armadale took up the subject.  “I think, doin’ one’s work is the best amusement there is.  I never wanted no other.”

“Does the old proverb not hold good then in Shampuashuh, of ’All work and no play’ ­you know?  The consequences are said to be disastrous.”

“No,” said Lois, laughing, “it does not hold good.  People are not dull here.  I don’t mean that they are very lively; but they are not dull.”

“Is there a library here?”

“A sort of one; not large.  Books that some of the people subscribe for, and pass round to each other’s houses.”

“Then it is not much of a reading community?”

“Well, it is, considerable,” said Mrs. Armadale.  “There’s a good many books in the village, take ’em all together.  I guess the folks have as much as they can do to read what they’ve got, and don’t stand in need of no more.”

“Well, are people any happier for living in such a quiet way?  Are they sheltered in any degree from the storms that come upon the rest of the world?  How is it?  As I drove along from the station to-night, I thought it looked like a haven of peace, where people could not have heartbreaks.”

“I hope the Lord will make it such to you, ma’am,” the old lady said solemnly.

The turn was so sudden and so earnest, that it in a sort took Mrs. Barclay’s breath away.  She merely said, “Thank you!” and let the talk drop.