Nina Wilcox Putnam wrote lighthearted comedy, gothic horror, romance, and western novels and short stories (in addition to her journalistic pursuits) throughout the early 20th century. Putnam wrote the story that was adapted into The Mummy starring Boris Karloff, and she even drafted the first 1040 packet for the Bureau of Internal Revenue in 1914. With artist and satirist Norman Jacobsen, Putnam authored several stories and novels including “The Vulgar Dollar,” a send-up of society philanthropy during World War I.
Published on August 17, 1918
The more impossible one’s relations are the more impossible becomes the task of making them possible, yet the greater is the impossibility of abandoning the attempt to — to, well, make them possible, if you know what I mean! And generous hearts such as dear Mrs. DeWynt’s, when coupled with a strong clan feeling, find it extremely hard to allow any branch of the family to go, as I may say, to seed. Unless of course they happen to be very remote connections who are in so impecunious a condition as to render their keeping up with the right sort of people quite out of the question. Such relations as these she would naturally leave well enough alone.
But in the case of Esmeralda, the vexing problem of whether to receive her or not arose, as it were, automatically.
Being ex-social secretary to dear Mrs. DeWynt I have not unnaturally remained more or less in her confidence regarding such delicate matters, and when she made her gallant but little understood attempt at reinstating her niece in our set it so happened that I was with my dear patroness.
Pending my transfer from the Yeomanry — for I had left my post with the wife of our leading Republican senator only to serve my country — pending my transfer from the Yeomanry to the Y.M.C.A., where we all felt my peculiar qualities would be of more real service to our dear country than on the actual firing line, I was on leave, and of course only too eager to comply with Mrs. DeWynt’s request that I assist her with a bridge drive which she had long been contemplating giving for the benefit of the Red Cross.
It was most fortunate that I was free at the moment. The episode came, I do assure you, as a most welcome break in the, as I must say, somewhat monotonous routine of the work I had been doing.
And so it came about that while I was on leave and all that, and the senator was arranging for my transfer, I went to the Longhampton cottage with dear Mrs. DeWynt, and it was there that the question came up whether our young Western relative and her new husband should or should not be included among the house guests who were to be asked down to make the semipublic bridge drive endurable to Mrs. DeWynt, if you know what I mean.
Our conversation regarding the matter took place in the little oval boudoir my dear patroness had copied from Versailles, and impressed itself on my mind — the conversation did — because I distinctly recall my protest against having them.
“Let well enough alone!” was the sum and substance of my advice on the matter — though of course my terms were more erudite and the advice given indirectly. Dear Mrs. DeWynt does not relish direct advice.
“Of course the girl is uncouth,” said my dear lady, “but she is so interested in war work; and Red Cross is war work, isn’t it, Aggie?”
My dear lady always abbreviated Aloysius, my given name, in this playful manner.
“I assure you that it is war work!” I replied earnestly, “and that we are, as I may say, practically in the trenches ourselves in doing it!”
Mrs. DeWynt brushed this aside and came directly to more important matters — to wit, our immediate affairs.
“Well,” said she, “of course Esmeralda did a terrible thing in eloping without my permission. But after all she is my own niece, though she has been brought up so differently from our Eastern girls. And her husband is Lord Castlewing’s cousin!”
Dear Mrs. DeWynt is always so kind and forgiving. Perceiving that she had already decided before asking my opinion, I of course changed my tactics at once and confirmed her judgment.
“And it isn’t as if they were poor,” I remarked. “His competence is considerable, I understand.”
“I think you had better drop them a line, Aggie,” said my dear lady; “I understand Captain Tugwell is next in line for the title and that his cousin is not strong. In case of a bereavement it would hardly look well if there were any estrangement between us!”
Considering that I am of an extraordinarily sensitive nature and that Mrs. DeWynt must have realized how uneasy Miss or rather Mrs. Esmeralda’s presence in the house always made me, I think this command was a trifle unkind. Of course I am a confirmed bachelor, and all that. Living so long in any household as I did at the DeWynts’ is apt to make a man that. And I am not jealous by nature. But even so, our prospective visitor always, as I may say, disturbed me — profoundly. And so it was with a melancholy trend of thought that I wrote as I was bidden, and when the Captain and Mrs. Tugwell — Lord Castlewing’s cousin, he is, did I tell you? — arrived I hardly felt, as I may say, cheery about it.
I always considered that man Tugwell to be an awful ass, and how it ever came about that the British Government sent him over here to purchase supplies I cannot imagine. Family simply must have had something to do with it! And why his wife ever chose him when at least one man of brains and of infinitely better form in the social, if not the, as I may say, physical sense was available, likewise remains a mystery to me.
But I was right in supposing it best to leave these half way sort of relatives alone. So much was certainly proved. And that Mrs. DeWynt’s act in at length dropping them will be vindicated when my statement as hereinafter set forth is read I am sure. Certainly to anyone in our own set, and after all they are the only ones who matter.
Well, our first evening was a dull one and needs no recording here beyond the mere mention of the fact that the Tugwells were both extremely late for dinner on the flimsy excuse that their government work, which I understand they are doing together, had detained them. It was not until the next day that things — really distressing things — began to happen.
Being accountable for the smooth, or as I may say impeccable running of a ménage such as the DeWynts’ is never a light task — not even on those days when we are alone, or practically so, for one can never tell what emergency will arise in the matter of entertaining, can one? But the dawn — for it was barely 9:30 when I arose — of the morning following was burdened with the shadow of the forthcoming bridge drive, which, though long expected by me, was none the less awe-inspiring when I realized that its eventuation was imminent. My dear patroness had devised it as a means of replenishing the nearly always depleted coffers of our local branch of the Red Cross. Of course you will at once appreciate the fact that this condition in that admirable organization is not uncommon — at least in our part of the world, and indeed the national organization has at times criticized us for our lack of funds. To me it has always been a matter for annoyed conjecture as to why people at large cannot see that rich persons are constantly hampered by enormous personal expenses — indeed that the richer they are the greater become their obligations to themselves and the upkeep of their position; the proportion of what they have to give away actually diminishes in accordance with the size of what they are obliged to spend, if you know what I mean. Of course our local branch was poor — why not, when one considers the innumerable obligations of its members? And though when we were first organized I recalled that there were many generous donations toward furnishing the rooms in the village, which the local real estate person, I think it was, had loaned rent free for this usage, which donations included two comfortable wicker armchairs that dear Mrs. DeWynt took from my sitting room, still, when the question of actual cash funds arose all the ladies were in perfect accord as to how the obtaining of them should be accomplished — namely, by the good conservative method of a benefit of some sort. And so we had had, as occasion demanded, amateur theatricals, an informal costume dance at the club, and now, the treasury being again at, as I may say, ebb tide, was to come the most important function of this sort which had so far occurred during the season — the bridge drive on Mrs. DeWynt’s lawn.
Let it be clearly understood that Mrs. DeWynt made no small sacrifice in allowing this piece of patriotic effort to be consummated upon her premises, involving as it did an enormous expense for caterers, hiring of public furniture for the seating of that selected public which would be admitted, and a considerable amount of my time and strength, which was of course somewhat diverted from my usual duties and focused upon the success of the afternoon. I had prepared lists of invitations, arranged with the newspapers and photographers, and in every way taken the greatest care that the affair should have the appearance of extreme exclusiveness. No one would pay five dollars admission to something which seemed in any manner lacking, as I may say, in cachet. And of course we expected a large crowd to be drawn by dear Mrs. DeWynt’s name and well-known Italian garden.
This much having been clearly demonstrated, and the sacrifice that our household was making understood, surprise at the attitude that Esmeralda Tugwell took regarding the event will be the greater.
Coming downstairs so early I had scarcely anticipated encountering any of the household except the servants. But fortunately I am never embarrassed by unexpected meetings, being always arrayed nowadays in my uniform, even when about to perform the more material duties of my situation, such as overseeing Hoskins while he oversaw the caterer’s men in the arrangement of the tables on the west terrace. Therefore it was with some surprise, though without embarrassment, that I encountered Esmeralda upon emerging through the drawing room window into the clear sunlight beyond.
As usual she was the first thing discernible, being perched upon the terrace balustrade in a most undignified posture, her red head fairly, as I may say, burning against the blue waters beyond. That uncouth animal, her Jeff-dog, as she called it, was with her, as always, and she was watching the caterer’s men hurrying about, while she swung one foot to the rhythm of the tune she was singing “My country, ’tis of thee,” it was, I believe. When she saw me she jumped down and met me halfway across the terrace.
“Say, Penny!” she began abruptly, waving one of her capable hands in a sweeping gesture that encompassed the entire activity then in progress by the caterer’s men in conjunction with our own servants: “Say, Penny, how much is this blow-out going to cost in cold cash?”
For a moment I pondered her singular inquiry, having first interpreted her language to myself and digested it.
“Do you mean that you wish to know the extent of the expenditure which your aunt is making in this good cause?” I inquired in my turn, endeavoring to insinuate a more proper attitude of mind than that which was all too plainly existent in her.
“That’s about it,” said Mrs. Esmeralda. “What will it set her back?”
“Your aunt has not set any definite limit on the expenditure,” I replied; “nor have I any exact figures on the matter. I do not believe that dear Mrs. DeWynt would consider it altogether delicate to keep too close a track on such a thing. But roughly speaking and including the music I would say that the cost will be at least fifteen hundred dollars.” I made this announcement with some pride, but I cannot truthfully record that Mrs. Esmeralda was duly impressed. Instead she stood there fixing me with that quizzical look of hers which always upset me so unaccountably.
“And how many invitations at five dollars a ticket have been sent out?” she went on.
“Two hundred,” I replied. “This is to be distinctly exclusive; if the list were too large the people who are rather on the outside would not be so eager to come!”
“So if every one of them does come,” said Mrs. Esmeralda slowly, “you will take in a thousand dollars. And the show will have cost half as much again!”
To say that I was shocked by her commercial attitude is putting it mildly. But I endeavored to clarify her point of view, as was ever my custom when she obtruded her ignorance, which was the more pitiful because of its utter unconsciousness, if you know what I mean.
“My dear Mrs. Tugwell,” I remonstrated as gently as possible, “you do not understand. This is not a commercial investment in which your dear aunt is putting fifteen hundred dollars with the prospect of getting back her money and having a profit left over to turn into the hands of the Red Cross! Every cent that comes in will be turned over to that organization by her in person at the next committee meeting. The money she is spending is spent out of her own pocket!”
“Then why doesn’t she give it direct to the Red Cross,” Mrs. Esmeralda wanted to know, “instead of going to all this bother? They’d be making on it at that!”
“My dear lady!” I protested. “Can you not perceive that more than mere money will come of this? Many women now without interest in the Red Cross will gain that interest through having attended this function. The organization will get publicity from it in connection with Mrs. DeWynt’s name. And besides, the upkeep of any charitable organization conducted by gentle people is never done in the way you suggest. If such a thing were even attempted it would at once lose the interest of our set!”
“I don’t know about losing the interest of people,” said Esmeralda slowly, “and I didn’t know that the Red Cross was a charitable institution, either. I thought it was a patriotic affair like men volunteering for the Army. And as for the business end of it, if your local branch doesn’t know any more about it than you say, well, it’s time they learned, that’s all!”
With that she turned and left me there wordless before such a peculiar viewpoint. But without waiting to discover whether or not I had anything further to say she and her dog disappeared in the direction of the garage.
When they had quite gone from sight I addressed myself to the work for which I had descended at such an impossible hour. But the fulfillment of my task was purely mechanical. Despite my utmost endeavor I could not but ponder upon this, as I may call her, stranger in our midst, and her peculiar conception of almost every custom that had long ago been settled correctly by — by a precedent or some equally good authority, if you know what I mean. Take bridge, for example. Before Mrs. Esmeralda’s marriage my dear patroness, when she discovered that the game was unknown even by name to her niece, intrusted me with the not repugnant task of instructing that young lady in the rudiments of the art.
“Aggie,” my dear lady had said, “Aggie, get two other poor players who won’t mind, and make that girl learn. If I am to take her about with me at all she must have some equipment as a dinner guest!” And so, though I would infinitely have preferred double-dummy, I managed to persuade Mrs. Ted Collins, who is absolutely shameless about the quality of her game, and her husband, who was always most awfully decent to our Western relative, to assist me in imparting the necessary knowledge to Esmeralda. And my complaint is not that she failed to learn the game. Far from that! She acquired it with an ease that was almost unmaidenly. But she did not care for it, or so she said, as a pastime.
“I think this game is a dead one!” she announced after the first hour, during which I may mention en passant she had won a dollar and sixty cents at a penny a point. “It moves so slowly!”
I endeavored to explain to her that the game was an intellectual effort and hardly a pastime as she had termed it; and how it broadened one and strengthened the brain.
Mr. and Mrs. Ted failed to give me much backing on this, and I fear it did not make much impression on our pupil, for she only said: “What does it strengthen and broaden your brain for, Penny?”
“Why — er — for more and better bridge!” I replied.
Really the girl had a way of asking the most pointless questions at times! And so, though I could faithfully report to my dear patroness that she had learned the game and learned it well, I was careful not to add that she had no taste for it. If I had but mentioned the fact, what disaster might we not have avoided! But at the time I had no conception that Esmeralda’s lack of enthusiasm about what I fancy I may well term the national sport of the best people could possibly have any deeper significance than a mere expression of personal taste.
Nor did the appearance of the too-large table upon the terrace have any sinister aspect to my unsuspecting eyes. Its advent occurred directly after Mrs. Esmeralda had left me to the performance of my duties after her questionnaire, as I may call it, regarding the cost of the forthcoming festivities.
As I have mentioned, I was superintending Hoskins as he superintended the caterer’s men, and I confess that I was somewhat absorbed in thoughts along other lines than those connected with my immediate task when Hoskins called upon me to settle an important point. I awoke from my, as I may call it, reverie, to find him at my elbow.
“Beg pardon, sir,” said Hoskins, “but if we scatter the tables so that they occupy the entire terrace they’ll be rather skimpy-looking, sir, and far apart, sir!”
I pulled myself together and grasped this difficult situation with that firmness which dear Mrs. DeWynt has been so kind as to describe as my masterly hand on the proper setting for a social function. I considered the size of the card tables, the length of the terrace and the likely number of guests. Hoskins was undoubtedly correct. It was at this point that I gave those directions which afterward had such fatal consequences.
“Have the tables put closer together, Hoskins,” I instructed him, “and fill out the far end by having one of the long tables from the library brought out. You may put a large bowl of tall bright-colored flowers in the center and place cigarettes, matches and extra packs of new cards on either side.”
I saw to the doing of this myself, and as a result the terrace balanced nicely. Not too empty nor overcrowded, but giving that pleasing sense of rightness which is so essential to the morale of any outdoor function, if you know what I mean; an arrangement which prevented the guests from feeling too uncomfortably close to Nature, and all that. I then established the position for music, the time and method of serving tea, and at length felt at liberty to indulge in a well-earned rest.
Is it not strange how often the most momentous incidents can come upon us without casting the, as I may say, faintest shadow of foreboding before them? From the most serene sky can come, as some poet chap has it — doubtless one of Mrs. Ted’s Bohemian curiosities — from a serene blue sky can come a bolt, or words to that effect, if you know what I mean. And possibly one of the very oddest things about our sky while Esmeralda was technically in our midst was that the bolts usually came in groups of two or even more. And the apparently well-attended-to day of our bridge drive was actually one of the worst. I have described how, my morning’s labor ended, I was about to retire to the privacy of my chambers and indulge in a milkshake and a concentrated perusal of the social notes in the more important newspapers with a view of thus getting refreshment both intellectual and physical, when a most amazing occurrence temporarily impeded my progress.
At dear Mrs. DeWynt’s otherwise perfect country place there is one architectural defect. It is a narrow and even at noon totally dark corridor, which attaches the culinary department to the luncheon room. This amazing error in construction is due to the unfortunate fact that the plans of the house as originally submitted to my dear patroness and approved by her contained no culinary department whatsoever. You see the architect who made the drawings was Reginald Carrington-Tweedle, old Tweedle’s only son, you know. And of course when Mrs. DeWynt heard that the poor misguided young chap had actually gone in for such a, as I might almost say, menial occupation as one of the arts, she at once, with her unfailing class instinct, felt that the least she could do for his poor mother was to assist him in confining his employment to the best people only. Besides which it was his first commission, and so of course a very large fee was out of the question.
But unfortunately neither young Reggie nor my dear lady even thought about the kitchens, and so forth; with the result that the house was nearly built before this important though vulgar detail was missed. Consequently the necessary addition was hastily made; but the aforementioned dark little hallway was unavoidable. On one side of this corridor was the butler’s pantry; on the other side, the luncheon room. At one end of it was a small dressing room for guests’ hats, and so forth, and at the other end the main hall.
Now to my incident:
As I was crossing the last-mentioned end, whom should I encounter but Mrs. Esmeralda, who ran into me at a great speed and, being both a trifle breathless and inclined to suppressed mirth, pulled me into the nearest drawing room. It was only then that I got the opportunity of observing that though she was evidently gowned for luncheon in a most becoming frock of white lace — Mrs. DeWynt’s choice, I have no doubt — she carried a partially consumed ham sandwich of enormous proportions in one hand.
“Penny!” she said excitedly, “tell me quick! Do I look anything like Mrs. St. Johns, even in the dark?”
I did not need to hesitate. Even though Esmeralda looked undeniably smart and indeed in my estimation beautiful, she in no wise resembled her fashionable cousin, and I told her so quite frankly.
“Well, Penny, you old copper,” said Mrs. Esmeralda, “I’ve just been kissed for her in the corridor!”
“Kissed!” I exclaimed in all due horror, a sort of sickening feeling coming upon me at the thought. “Will you kindly explain?”
“Well,” said Esmeralda, “I’ve just been in the kitchen getting Gaston, your chef, to fix me up a little snack to ward off starvation till the luncheon company all get here, and as I was crossing the dark hall that Mr. Wynnet St. Johns grabbed me and kissed me. And here I am alive, having had the sense to hold on to my food during the battle. Don’t you tell on him — but never, never again think even to yourself that I am not just as stylish as the rest of you folks! Aunt Sally’s taste in clothes gets across even in the dark.”
And then that awful young woman was off with a laugh, running up the front stairs and finishing her crude morsel of food quite openly.
But that was only the beginning. Before I could recover my breath Wynnet himself came into the room almost, as I may say, at a run, which he, however, quickly controlled as soon as he caught sight of me, and spoke most composedly, he being preeminently one of ourselves and seldom if ever showing emotion. He simply shot his cuffs and addressed me in a voice that lacked nothing in composure except a little, as I may put it, wind.
“Did Mrs. Langdon pass this way?” was the amazing question which he put to me.
“She did not,” I said. “I believe she has not as yet arrived, though she will be here for luncheon.”
“Oh — ah!” said he. “I — I — rather thought I saw her.”
Then he lit a cigarette, and as he did not offer me one, but stalking out through one of the French windows left me to my own devices, I continued my progress toward my own rooms without further interruption. On the way upstairs I could not but smile at the curiously piquant flavor which is somehow attached to many of the doings of dear Mrs. DeWynt’s set. Here was Wynnet, just married to Marjorie DeWynt, and Mrs. Langdon, our distinguished divorcee, an old flame of his, and — well of course if it had occurred in any other set it might have appeared a trifle improper. As it was, of course, the situation could merely be called, as I have said, piquant, and I was rather pleased with my astuteness in ascertaining it. Almost it made up for my lack of opportunity for rest, because we were forced to have luncheon earlier — at barely half after one as a matter of fact, because the senator motored down ahead of time, bringing Mr. Willy, of the President’s Purchasing Board.
Now it is far from my mind to make any critical comment about the husband of my dear patroness; nevertheless, though he is of course the most powerful Republican senator we have and a man of enormous distinction and importance, I greatly fear that his very early life, which was spent in some obscure occupation in the Far West — an affair I believe which had some connection with the construction of transcontinental railroads — has left its mark upon him in certain ways.
Of course he is always beautifully tailored, and is so silent when at home that his manner is nearly perfect. But he appears — with all his opportunity, with all the, as I may say, arduous labors of my dear patroness and the unlimited effort that she has made to spend his enormous wealth to the most advantageous ends — he appears, I repeat, to have utterly failed to develop any interest in or enjoyment of our many splendid functions, and can only be persuaded to attend an occasional one after what, from a person of less importance than Mrs. DeWynt, might honestly be termed a severe urging.
It appears that such an inducement had been put upon him just prior to the occasion of our bridge drive for the benefit of the Red Cross. Dear Mrs. DeWynt, being a woman of infinite mind and foresight, of course realized what a splendid asset the senator’s presence would be at such an affair. And his own plans for a little golf coinciding with her arrangements, he had consented to appear, though curiously enough he does not play bridge and merely gave his word to be on hand for a few moments during the afternoon.
Well, the senator’s arrival a little early with the demand that luncheon be hurried in order that he and Mr. Willy might play a round of their golf before fulfilling their promise put us all in a great flurry. But fortunately the few guests we expected were already in the house, my dear patroness following the good old Long Island colony custom of having people wandering about the place at all times.
I went into luncheon with the family, as is always my custom on these informal occasions. There were only Marjorie and St. Johns, Captain Tugwell, Esmeralda and Mrs. Langdon, besides the senator, Mr. Willy and my dear patroness. The senator was this day unusually taciturn, and at intervals cast a gloomy speculative eye upon the festive arrangements beyond the windows. But though this silence might easily have cast a damper upon the affair, dear Mrs. DeWynt was so much on the alert owing to the part she was to play during the afternoon that she positively kept us all going.
Yet despite her cheeriness something was wrong with the atmosphere — even before the senator’s unfortunate remark. Mrs. St. Johns for some reason had a concealed but discernible uneasiness about her, if you know what I mean; and St. Johns did not seem to have wholly recovered from the dazed condition in which he had left me a short while before, and which had palpably increased since Mrs. Langdon’s arrival in her roadster, from which I had seen him help her to descend. Altogether things were not quite happy when the senator spoke. Taki and Whaki, Mrs. DeWynt’s prize Pekingese dogs, were disporting themselves about the room in the free manner which was always allowed them, and it was apropos of them that the senator spoke.
“Where is your dog, Essie?” said the senator to Esmeralda. “I never see him in the dining room; and he is a regular dog!”
Mrs. Esmeralda’s face took on a worried expression — one of the few occasions upon which I have seen her give any such appearance.
“I don’t know where Jeff is, uncle,” said she. “He got away from me this morning going after some birds, and I can’t find him. But I guess he’ll find me before long!”
Now it sometimes occurs that a word uttered lightly and even thoughtlessly may prove a prophecy, if you know what I mean. And in this instance I regret to state it proved so. This was a fatal day for all of us, and if it were not for the necessity of making a complete vindication of my dear patroness I would omit what followed. But were I to omit it some malicious person might at some future period disclose the event in all its horror, and the rest of this record be accused of worthlessness by reason of the omission.
Mrs. Esmeralda had scarcely mentioned her supposition that her animal would find her when her words were fulfilled. How the creature managed to elude both the second footman and Hoskins I cannot imagine, but he entered the room silently, and our attention was first called to him by a curious snapping sound. It came during a momentary lull in the conversation, and as a consequence we all looked in the direction from which it came. And there in full view of the entire assemblage lay Jeff, his front paws upon an object the nature of which was not at first discernible, and at a portion of which he was gently pulling with his teeth. He would grasp the flexible surface and pull back his head and then open his jaws; whereupon the thing would snap back into place with a sound that was evidently pleasing to the brute. It was a long moment before any of us understood, and had not the senator unexpectedly roared with laughter the terrible scene that ensued might conceivably have been avoided, at least in its worst aspects. But the senator’s laugh did the damage irrevocably.
The sound startled that Jeff-dog, who sprang to his feet, still holding firmly to his prize. And then we all saw. It was distinctly and undeniably a rubber corset!
Mercifully the picture lasted but a moment, for Jeff, still frightened and possibly fearful of the loss of that — that unmentionable object, flew — I can use no other term — flew out through the window — and Mrs. Esmeralda after him!
Now this last was of course the very worst thing that could have happened, for, dear Mrs. DeWynt being undeniably stout and avowedly reducing, there was but one logical ownership for the wretched thing. And had Esmeralda but remained seated we might not have seen it again — or heard of it. But no! Off she rushed after that impossible beast of hers, calling “Jeff Here, Jeff! Bring that here this instant, sir!”
My poor dear patroness lay back in an almost fainting condition, the while the senator laughed and laughed with actual tears of mirth running down his face. Really I cannot bring myself to make a criticism of so prominent a man; but I can and will at this moment refer to marriage, which no one holds above criticism; and I hereby state that I can well perceive that at times things occur, such as lack of proper sympathy, for example, which must make the married state well-nigh unbearable — if you know what I mean.
I will say of Mrs. Esmeralda that she did not bring that — that supposedly necessary and hygienic but most indecorous garment back with her to the luncheon table. She rescued it from her pet, whom she soundly boxed on the ears, and gave the thing to Mrs. DeWynt’s maid, who at the alarm had hurried out on the terrace. But Mrs. Esmeralda did something almost as bad. She returned to her place a trifle flushed and spoke directly to her aunt, who had only partly recovered.
“I got it all right, Aunt Sally,” said that unabashed but honestly apologetic young person; “I got it all right, and it isn’t much torn. I think it can even be used again. I am so sorry, because I’ve noticed in the advertisements how expensive they are!”
At this my dear patroness merely glared at her uncouth niece and turned the subject, her face a color which I will term a blush, but which in a person of less social importance might almost have been called purple.
Of course the whole thing was dropped immediately. But the most curious part of it all was the fact that somehow the dullness seemed to have been entirely wiped out of the luncheon party! A fact which, in view of the tragic thing that had just occurred, puzzles me to this day.
I have at times considered it is to be regretted that among ourselves a certain good old English custom has been dropped — to wit, that of the proper chastisement of insubordinate young females by the elders in authority — a tradition that seems to have become obsolete unless it is still maintained by laboring persons, petty clerks, and so forth. But among us there appears to be no method by which the hapless parent, husband or guardian can, as I may say, establish his or her authority over the intractable junior. And such was the position of Mrs. DeWynt.
Of course one of the chief difficulties my dear patroness encountered was the fact that after all Esmeralda never did anything wrong. Merely things which are simply not done, if you know what I mean, and all with a disarming simplicity which loudly proclaimed her entire innocence of intent to do a single thing out of the ordinary.
Perchance if the ancient power vested in the older members of the, as I may call them, baronial households had been applicable to Mrs. Esmeralda the disasters of the day might have ended at the luncheon table. But as the modern tendency to giving the younger women an absolutely free hand has apparently become an unassailable precedent, Mrs. DeWynt was helpless except for the quality of her facial expression; and it is well known that when my dear patroness concludes to assume her cloak of unapproachableness the effect is, to put it mildly, dampening.
But curiously enough its impression upon her niece was nil; and when that young lady reappeared in the afternoon arrayed in a delicious creation of cinnamon chiffon her manner bore not the slightest trace of shame or repentance. Upon the strictest instructions she had locked her terrible Jeff-dog into safe quarters, and it seemed to me that she hung about waiting for the guests to arrive in rather a forlorn manner, being accompanied only by her husband, Captain Tugwell, who sat beside her on the edge of the terrace and seemed to be endlessly talking about beastly unpleasant things like the war, which I am sure must have bored her awfully, though she made every effort to conceal the fact, owing doubtless to her undeniable kindness of heart. Had I not been so overwhelmed by my final duties in regard to the imminent advent of the guests I should of course have rescued her, out of sheer pity.
But people were arriving before I could reach her, and naturally I was at once almost rushed to death with the effort of attending to these half-strangers and at the same time appearing very leisurely and casual in my manner, if you know what I mean. The senator and Mr. Willy had disappeared almost immediately after luncheon, and the other members of our own crowd had grouped themselves defensively in the long drawing room, where Hoskins had set out a special table with drinks. This was keeping them amused, because St. Johns had invented some concoction which he called a “Frozen Hell,” and the ladies, Mrs. Langdon in particular, seemed to find it very entertaining to “play bartender,” as they called it, and help him in the manufacture of them. The loud indifference of this group to the arriving guests, which was of course one of the recognized privileges of people in their social standings, made my work a trifle difficult. Dear Mrs. DeWynt could, it is true, occasionally be, as I may say, pried away from the group when I whispered to her of some more important arrival. But she always returned to her own unit at the earliest possible instant. Captain Tugwell and Esmeralda, with their heads close together at the far end of the terrace, were of course worse than useless, and so the whole thing devolved upon me.
Fortunately the bridge tables were not difficult to seat, and when the orchestra began to play softly it helped, as subdued music always does, to veil, as it were, the awkwardness incident to the raw beginnings of almost any entertainment. It is odd, really, how few of the men we knew had come to this function, or, even if they had appeared, troubled to play. The senator and Mr. Willy had plainly avowed their preference for golf — an exerting occupation for which I personally have very little use. And St. Johns, that champion of the brainy and, as I may call it, scientific game of bridge, was devoting himself to the concoction of his newly invented beverage! Nevertheless, there was a sprinkling of men at the tables — for the most part younger dancing fellows, who were more or less useful for that sort of thing and for big dinners or any place where one runs rather short.
But the affair was draggy — even after the usual crucial first half hour. There was no denying it — the bridge drive was not promising to prove the brilliant success which we had anticipated with such supposedly well-grounded confidence. The reporters had arrived, and the camera men; but it is an unfortunate truth that the guests had not. That is to say, nothing like so many of them as we had expected and provided for. Indeed I felt it incumbent upon me to hold the newspaper and photographic persons in conversation as long as was possible, hoping that more people would appear. But though the day was very fine and all conditions auspicious it is actually true that not quite half of the outsiders whom Mrs. De Wynt had commissioned me to invite put in an appearance!
As I was in the midst of, as it were, restraining the persons from the press and experiencing more than the usual difficulties in so doing, I caught sight of an unexpected move on the part of Mrs. Esmeralda. She and Captain Tugwell rose from their seats, and I, helplessly caught in the very midst of an unfinished sentence addressed to the reporters, was obliged to witness without protest the beginnings of the extraordinary performance that ensued.
Without even calling upon the assistance of a servant, Esmeralda and Captain Tugwell removed the large bowl of flowers from the center of that long table that had been moved out from the library. And they next ascertained, by use of the captain’s handkerchief, that the surface was completely dry. Then, getting rid also of the supply of surplus tobacco, Esmeralda broke the seals of a couple of packs of new cards and began some mysterious manipulations with them.
Must I say that this conspicuous conduct of hers drew the attention of every eye? There will be no need to make such an assurance. Playing was partly suspended at every table, those who were at the moment dummy giving their entire interest to the redheaded girl, who I regret to add had not even troubled to lower her voice.
“Believe me, it moves a whole lot faster than bridge!” she was assuring her husband. “And money skips right along through it like a sheriff’s posse was on its trail. Let me show you.”
At this juncture Mrs. Ted, who was evidently neither interested in the bridge nor in Wynnet’s new drink, strolled out and joined the two at the long table.
“Why, hello!” said Mrs. Ted in her odd unconventional manner, which somehow never offends anyone. “Why, hello! Here’s a game I like too!”
Almost simultaneously the senator and Mr. Willy appeared round the corner of the house, looking very serious, as if the prospect of the promised fulfillment of duty ahead of them lay, as I may say, heavily on their minds. At sight of Esmeralda, the captain and Mrs. Ted, however, they cautiously skirted the bridge crowd, the open drawing room windows, and joined the group at the long table. When the senator saw what was in progress there he emitted what I can only describe as a howl of joy. Really, I am aware that such a statement regarding so prominent a personage might easily be accounted an indiscretion. But such was the fact. I might further add that his face broke into a smile that gave him almost the aspect of a child who has unexpectedly come upon a new toy that particularly pleases it. Mr. Willy, of the President’s Purchasing Board, also gave a distinct demonstration of pleasure, and one of the bridge players, who was dummy at the table nearest this newly developed group, also rose and joined them; a young man he was, about whom we really knew very little.
These peculiar demonstrations were, I confess, too much for my powers of composure, and so excusing myself to the press people I hastily traversed the length of the terrace with the intent of ascertaining what was, as I may say, afoot. As I simultaneously with one or two others joined the group Esmeralda looked up from her occupation of dealing out cards in a most peculiar fashion and caught my eye.
“Hello, Penny!” said Mrs. Esmeralda briskly; “want to get in?”
And it was at this moment that I discovered the horrible and indisputable fact that she had a little pile of money at her elbow — actual cash — bank notes and silver! Now of course all the best people play for money — that goes without the saying. But always by check; or at any rate matters are settled after the game, the amounts being inconspicuously tabulated. But real money on the table, with ladies present — really! Shocked as I was I managed a reply to her question.
“Get in?” I said. “What are you playing, may I ask?”
“Blackjack!” said she briefly.
“I fear I do not comprehend,” said I somewhat stiffly. “Is it a native American Indian game of some sort?”
“Indians have been known to play it,” replied Esmeralda. “But since you are so particular, the right name is Fantianna.”
“Fantianna?” I repeated, puzzled. “May I ask you to interpret?”
“Why, Penny, you bluff!” said Esmeralda. “I thought you knew French! It means 21, of course!”
A light, as I may say, broke upon me at this.
“Vingt-et-un!” I exclaimed.
“Have it your own way,” said she cheerfully; “but a natural wins in any language!”
This last informal remark was addressed to the senator, and I turned away hastily to find and take counsel with my dear patroness. Matters were coming to a terrible state. People were leaving the bridge tables quite unceremoniously and gathering about the quickly moving red head of our Western relative, whose clear voice could be heard calling out such strange remarks as “Crack ’em down, boys! The money won’t grow in your pocket like the hair on your heads!”
A short silence ensued. Then I was amazed to hear the senator’s voice excitedly calling out “Hit me! Hit me! Whoa!”
Laughter began to manifest itself among the crowd, and an air of gayety that was of a quality quite different from our sort of thing started to develop. I fairly fled to Mrs. DeWynt. She was still in the drawing room, unconscious of all that was afoot, and when I whispered the alarming tidings in her ear she, with her ever-ready social generalship, if you know what I mean, mustered the little crowd of intimates from about the improvised bar and led them out upon the terrace with full intent to break up that terrible gathering about the library table, which I had so inadvertently placed there as a means to an unforeseen end.
Now if there is anything that one expects of one’s friends it is that they will herd with one in a social crisis. Most certainly such a thing could have been justifiably expected from such persons as St. Johns, Mrs. Langdon, Ted Collins, Marjorie and the Lennotts. And to do them justice, Marjorie and Mrs. Langdon certainly stuck to my dear patroness in the best possible form, but whether St. Johns’ new alcoholic experiments had anything to do with the matter or whether there was really something contagious about that long table and the, as I may say, presiding spirit I cannot pretend to state. But I do know that hardly had Mrs. DeWynt’s little troop reached the scene of action when all save the two aforementioned ladies deserted, creating a situation that was, to say the least of it, deucedly awkward. There was but one thing to do, and my dear lady did it without hesitation.
“William!” she said, raising her lorgnette and staring fixedly at the senator. “William, I think you and I might form the basis of a new bridge table. At once!”
It was masterly — or ought to have been, if you know what I mean. But somehow it wasn’t. The senator unfortunately happened to be winning at that moment, and the face he turned to his wife was actually flushed with excitement, while his eyes shone like a boy’s.
“Not on your life, Sally!” he cried laughingly. “Wow! A natural — once and a half!”
It was truly awful. But I do not think that anyone, excepting Mrs. DeWynt and myself, really heard him, there was so much noise going on; and of course we covered it at once by talking and laughing with the rest and seeming to form a part of what was shortly the event of the day. The senator was, however, irrepressible. He even urged his wife to take part in Mrs. Esmeralda’s outrageous undertaking.
“You ought to get into this, old girlie!” he cried. “It’s the squarest game I’ve seen in a long time. Stands on 17, draws to 16, and doesn’t take stand-offs. And pays once and a half for naturals!”
Of course Mrs. DeWynt paid no more attention to this remark than would any self-respecting wife. But no one noticed this little difference of opinion, because just then Mr. Willy — the Mr. Willy of the President’s Purchasing Board — suddenly began shouting: “Once more, once more! Busted, by gad!”
Mrs. Esmeralda, totally unabashed by this outbreak, acclaimed in a loud clear voice that her bank roll having increased she was now prepared to take bets of 10 dollars. No one responding immediately, she renewed her familiar singsong — a sort of aboriginal chant, I take it to be — about “Crack ’em down, crack ’em down, boys!” referring doubtless to the tomahawk of her native district.
Then the rush began again. I must here mention that for the most part her transactions continued to take place in actual cash — perhaps because the amazing young female who was running the game kept assuring her delighted public that she would cash their checks, but that there was “no tick,” whatever that might mean!
“Cash for cash!” she would call. “Cash for cash and fire the bookkeeper!”
And at this the senator would pound the table and yell with an emphasis which, though it would doubtless befit the nature of his public duties during a period of national crisis, was scarcely of a sufficiently dignified quality to make it suitable to one of his wife’s entertainments, if you know what I mean. Altogether the degree to which the game affected the poor dear man was quite extraordinary.
Nor was his enthusiasm the only surprise produced by this aboriginal pastime, for Mr. Willy became equally excited. He being by nature taciturn, rugged and ruddy in appearance, and well-gotten-up in a breezy sort of, as I may call it, country-squire fashion, one would not have been surprised by an outburst of enthusiasm from him on, let us say, the subject of golf. His appearance warranted such a demonstration. But Mr. Willy had, so I understand, some connection with that same unfortunately crude period of the senator’s early life to which I have unwillingly, yet I trust not too tactlessly, referred. In short their acquirement of their knowledge of Mrs. Esmeralda’s game must have been about simultaneous, to judge from their similar behavior upon this occasion, and their occasional somewhat cryptic reminiscences. Mr. Willy developed a peculiar habit — unquestionably an old and abandoned one which memory renewed — of standing on one leg and swinging the other foot in a half circle through the air, to the accompaniment of a very individual whistling sound made through his front teeth. These demonstrations reoccurred with great regularity and increasing vehemence whenever he made a play. Whether he won or lost never altered the vehemence of the whistle or the swing of the boot.
To say that the crowd was delighted by the spectacle of these two prominent persons so openly enjoying themselves is merely a mild indication of what actually occurred. As a matter of fact the other gamblers — I can call them by no other word — became almost as wild as the three leading lights of this “social” gathering. The noise was growing quite deafening and, greatest calamity of all, those wretched newspaper people and photographers instead of keeping their proper distance actually joined the game; one quite impossible little chap, in an obviously ready-made suit of tweeds, almost outdid the senator himself in shouting and pounding.
The spirit of the West was becoming, as I may say, rampant. I can truthfully assert that had the men drawn revolvers and begun firing into the air I should have been in no whit surprised. It was just as things got to this appalling state that poor dear Mrs. DeWynt’s almost amazonian, if I may respectfully so term it, social leadership reasserted itself in full force. Never, never, in all the time I have known her, has it failed to do so at any tremendously critical time. Completely recovering her usual manner by a stupendous effort of will, she simply ordered tea, thereby automatically bringing her doomed garden party to its close.
This time there was no failure. For once tea appeared it would of course be impossible for any guest to have continued playing. And though it was barely four o’clock and so under ordinary conditions far too early to order it, still it more than served its purpose, and the crowd at the long table began to disperse.
Of course it is possible that Mrs. Esmeralda’s unexpected willingness to, as she called it, “quit” may have had something to do with the readiness with which her audience left her board for ours — to crack a mild joke, if you know what I mean! Far from opposing their desertion she even rather encouraged it.
“I guess this crowd is pretty thoroughly cleaned out, anyway!” she remarked. “Go along and get your ice cream, folks! No, thanks, nothing for me! I’ll just count up now!”
During the tea which followed, and which my dear patroness succeeded in making as dull and consequently as brief as possible, I had perforce to pass the long table where Esmeralda still sat surrounded by a persistent group of admirers. And as I did so I fairly chilled with horror at sight of the money that she was engaged in assorting. There seemed an amazing lot of it in bills, silver, and even a little gold. And that outrageous young woman was coolly straightening it out and making notes concerning it with Captain Tugwell’s notebook and pencil. She was even chatting in a friendly fashion with the people about her. I hurried by as fast as possible, for the sight somehow wounded my sensibilities to the quick.
I have ever observed that when a situation reaches a point where endurance of it no longer seems possible a change occurs, and usually for the better. I dare say Nature or something like that takes care of the matter, if you know what I mean. Like blondes marrying brunettes, and rain after a dry period, and all that sort of thing. And so it was in this instance.
The guests, having finished their uncomfortable tea, at length began to depart, my dear lady by this time having reached such a pitch of, as I may call it, nervous strain that she scarcely heeded their farewells. Indeed she once or twice simply turned her back upon some of the outsiders when they tried to say good-by. And then finally there was left only a little group of ourselves — the senator, Mr. Willy and Captain Tugwell, all deeply absorbed in helping Esmeralda at her task, Mrs. Ted, Mrs. Langdon, and of course St. Johns and Marjorie remained to see the thing out.
Preparing for the inevitable and wishing to be in an advantageous position, my dear patroness ensconced herself in a large chair and surrounded herself with her little group of loyal ones. She was evidently determined that the girl should come to her, and so indeed it happened. After a very few moments Mrs. Esmeralda rose and approached her aunt, bearing a cake basket full of money, and backed up in the rear by the senator, Mr. Willy and Captain Tugwell. Mrs. DeWynt eyed the oncoming procession unsmilingly. But Esmeralda was plainly elated, and when she was in such a mood I assure you there was something contagious about her, even if one were trying to stand on one’s dignity.
“Look, Aunt Sally!” she exclaimed. “Pretty good pickings! We make it 2,000 dollars. This village must represent a lot of hard money!”
Mrs. Esmeralda’s announcement was electrifying. St. Johns gave a long whistle, and the other women took on a rigid expression. All but my dear lady, who half rose from her seat and then sank back again.
“Two thousand dollars!” she said. “But my dear child! And what on earth are you going to do with all that pin-money?”
A dead silence followed the question. I think the expression on Esmeralda’s face was the cause of it. For once it was deadly serious, and she lost all her color, becoming very white, as though she had been suddenly and badly frightened. But she was not frightened; her eyes showed that. She was merely extremely angry, and holding on to her temper in, as I must say, the very best of form. Her voice was very quiet, yet distinctly disconcerted.
“Aunt Sally,” said she slowly, “every person on this terrace was playing for money — even at the bridge tables. Do you mean to tell me they expected to keep their winnings?”
“Now, Esmeralda — ” began Mrs. DeWynt. But that stern young figure would not allow her aunt to go on.
“I was playing for the Red Cross,” said Mrs. Esmeralda. “I thought the others were too. I see by your face that I was wrong. Well, there’s no question about where my money goes!”
In silence still we watched her count off a certain number of bills, which she retained. Then she set her basketful of assorted wealth upon the arm of her aunt’s chair.
“There you are — all but 60 dollars,” said she. “With the 300 you took in at the gate the boys over there will get quite a lot of help.”
“And for what, may I ask, are you retaining that 60 dollars?” inquired Mrs. DeWynt.
Esmeralda laughed a little, though not very gayly.
“This member of the Red Cross pays expenses first!” she said, pointing to herself. “And that 60 was lent me by my husband to stake the bank!”
With that she turned to hand him the money. But he was gone — vanished utterly!
“Well, never mind,” said Mrs. Esmeralda, stuffing the money into her belt. “I’ll give it to him next time I see him, unless he wants to donate it. But I’ll let him do it himself.”
And then, to the infinite relief of all of us, Hoskins appeared with the tray of before dressing cocktails. What marvelous inventions food and drink are, and how many a difficult situation have they not solved!
I do not as a rule partake of alcoholic stimulants, so I left the party at this juncture to complete my duties for the day, as they were by no means finished. And as I entered the long drawing room I discovered the missing Captain Tugwell.
Now from the moment of his introduction to us I claimed that he was of very inferior mentality, and what I now saw convinced me that he was perhaps even feebleminded. For there was no one in the room — mind you, absolutely no one — and yet the man was laughing, conversing and making gestures. On my word of honor! He was leaning against the sofa, his back toward me, and he was alternately beating the air with his hands and slapping his knees with them, his shoulders shaking with almost silent mirth, and in a whisper he kept saying over and over: “Rippin’! Simply rippin’! Oh, I say, rearly! it’s too much!” And a lot more mere gibberish like that. On my word of honor! No wonder Mrs. DeWynt had to drop those people. They were impossible — you can see it for yourself. Absolutely impossible!
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