Editor George Horace Lorimer accepted Sinclair Lewis’s short story “Nature, Inc.” from The Saturday Evening Post’s “slush pile” of manuscripts in 1915 and began a prolific relationship between the satirical author and the magazine. Lewis’s novel Babbitt (1922) brought this kinship to a screeching halt due to its critique of business and the middle class. Lorimer wrote an unkind review of the book, and Lewis was left out of the Post for years to come.
In his story “Things,” Lewis writes about a Minnesota family’s ascent to great wealth and their resulting materialistic tendencies. The world of drawing rooms, social homicide, and needless china is on full display in this tale of love-or-money during World War I.
Published on February 22, 1919
This is not the story of Theodora Duke and Stacy Lindstrom, but of a traveling bag with silver fittings, a collection of cloisonné, a pile of ratty schoolbooks, and a fireless cooker that did not cook.
Long before these things were acquired, when Theo was a girl and her father, Lyman Duke, was a so-so dealer in cut-over lands, there was a feeling of adventure in the family. They lived in a small brown house which predicated children and rabbits in the backyard, and a father invariably home for supper. But Mr. Duke was always catching trains to look at pine tracts in Northern Minnesota. Often his wife went along, and, in the wilds, way and beyond Grand Marais and the steely shore of Lake Superior, she heard wolves howl and was unafraid. The Dukes laughed much those years, and were eager to see mountains and new kinds of shade trees.
Theo found her own freedom in exploring jungles of five-foot mullen weeds with Stacy Lindstrom. That pale, stolid little Norwegian she chose from her playmates because he was always ready to try new games.
The city of Vernon was newer then — in 1900. There were no country clubs, no fixed sets. The pioneers from Maine and York State who had appropriated lumber and flour were richer than the newly come Buckeyes and Hoosiers and Scandinavians, but they were friendly. As they drove their smart trotters the leading citizens shouted “Hello, Heinie,” or “Evenin’, Knute,” without a feeling of condescension. In preferring Stacy Lindstrom to Eddie Barnes, who had a hundred-dollar bicycle and had spent a year in a private school, Theo did not consider herself virtuously democratic. Neither did Stacy!
The brown-haired, bright-legged, dark-cheeked, glowing girl was a gorgeous colt, while he was a fuzzy lamb. Theo’s father had an office, Stacy’s father a job in a planing mill. Yet Stacy was the leader. He read books, and he could do things with his hands. He invented Privateers, which is a much better game than Pirates. For his gallant company of one privateers he rigged a forsaken dump cart, in the shaggy woods on the Mississippi bluffs, with sackcloth sails, barrel-hoop cutlasses, and a plank for victims to walk. Upon the request of the victims, who were Theo, he added to the plank a convenient handrail.
But anyone could play Ship — even Eddie Barnes. From a territorial pioneer Stacy learned of the Red River carts which, with the earthquaking squawk of ungreased wheels and the glare of scarlet sashes on the buckskin shirts of drivers, used to come plodding all the redskin-haunted way from the outposts of the Free Trappers, bearing marten and silver fox for the throats of princesses. Stacy changed the privateers’ brigantine into a Red River cart. Sometimes it was seven or ten carts, and a barricade. Behind it Stacy and Theo kept off hordes of Dakotas.
After voyaging with Stacy, Theo merely ya-ah’d at Eddie Barnes when he wanted her to go skating. Eddie considered a figure eight, performed on the ice of a safe creek, the final accomplishment of imaginative sport, while Stacy could from immemorial caverns call the wizard Merlin as servitor to a little playing girl. Besides, he could jump on ski! And mend a bike! Eddie had to take even a dirty sprocket to the repair shop.
The city, and Theo, had grown less simple-hearted when she went to Central High School. Twenty-five hundred boys and girls gathered in those tall gloomy rooms, which smelled of water pails and chalk and worn floors. There were a glee club, a school paper, a debating society and dress-up parties. The school was brisk and sensible, but it was too large for the intimacy of the grade buildings. Eddie Barnes was conspicuous now, with his energy in managing the athletic association, his beautifully combed hair and his real gold watch. Stacy Lindstrom was lost in the mass.
It was Eddie who saw Theo home from parties. He was a man of the world. He went to Chicago as calmly as you or I would go out to the St. Croix River to spear pickerel.
Stacy rarely went to parties. Theo invited him to her own, and the girls were polite to him. Actually he danced rather better than Eddie. But he couldn’t talk about Chicago. He couldn’t talk at all. Nor did he sing or go out for sports. His father was dead. He worked Saturdays and three nights a week in an upholstery shop — a dingy, lint-blurred loft, where two old Swedes kept up as a permanent institution a debate on the Lutheran Church versus the Swedish Adventist.
“Why don’t you get a good live job?” Eddie patronizingly asked Stacy at recess, and Theo echoed the question; but neither of them had any suggestions about specific good live jobs.
Stacy stood from first to fifth in every class. But what, Eddie demanded, was the use of studying unless you were going to be a schoolteacher? Which he certainly was not! He was going to college. He was eloquent and frequent on this topic. It wasn’t the darned old books, but the association with the fellows, that educated you, he pointed out. Friendships. Fraternities. Helped a fellow like the dickens, both in society and business, when he got out of college.
“Yes, I suppose so,” sighed Theo.
Eddie said that Stacy was a longitudinal, latitudinous, isothermic, geologic, catawampaboid Scandahoofian. Everybody admired the way Eddie could make up long words. Theo’s older sister, Janet, who had cold, level eyes, said that Theo was a fool to let a shabby, drabby nobody like that Stacy Lindstrom carry her books home from school. Theo defended Stacy whenever he was mentioned. There is nothing which so cools young affection as having to defend people.
After high school Eddie went East to college, Stacy was a clerk in the tax commissioner’s department of the railroad — and the Dukes became rich, and immediately ceased to be adventurous.
Iron had been found under Mr. Duke’s holdings in Northern Minnesota. He refused to sell. He leased the land to the iron-mining company, and every time a scoop brought up a mass of brown earth in the open pit the company ran very fast and dropped twenty-five cents in Mr. Duke’s pocket. He felt heavy with silver and importance; he bought the P.J. Broom mansion and became the abject servant of possessions.
The Broom mansion had four drawing rooms, a heraldic limestone fireplace and a tower and a half. The half tower was merely an octagonal shingle structure with a bulbous Moorish top; but the full tower, which was of stone on a base of brick, had cathedral windows, a weather vane, and a metal roof down which dripped decorative blobs like copper tears. While the mansion was being redecorated the Dukes senior took the grand tour from Miami to Port Said, and brought home a carload of treasures. There was a ready-made collection of cloisonné, which an English baron had spent five years in gathering in Japan, and five hours in losing at Monte Carlo. There was a London traveling bag, real seal, too crammed with silver fittings to admit much of anything else, and too heavy for anyone save a piano mover to lift. There were rugs, and books, and hand-painted pictures, and a glass window from Nuremberg, and ushabti figures from Egypt, and a pierced brass lamp in the shape of a mosque.
All these symbols of respectability the Dukes installed in the renovated Broom mansion, and settled down to watch them.
Lyman Duke was a kindly man, and shrewd, but the pride of ownership was a germ, and he was a sick man. Who, he meditated, had such a lamp? Could even the Honorable Gerard Randall point to such glowing rods of book backs?
Mrs. Duke organized personally conducted excursions to view the Axminster rug in the library. Janet forgot that she had ever stood brushing her hair before a pine bureau. Now she sat before a dressing table displaying candlesticks, an eyelash pencil, and a powder-puff box of gold lace over old rose. Janet moved graciously, and invited little sister Theo to be cordially unpleasant to their grubby friends of grammar school days.
The accumulation of things to make other people envious is nothing beside their accumulation because it’s the thing to do. Janet discovered that life would be unendurable without an evening cloak. At least three evening cloaks were known to exist within a block of the Broom mansion. True, nobody wore them. There aren’t any balls or plays except in winter, and during a Vernon winter you don’t wear a satin cloak — you wear a fur coat and a muffler and a sweater and arctics, and you brush the frozen breath from your collar, and dig out of your wraps like a rabbit emerging from a brush pile. But if everybody had them Janet was not going to be marked for life as one ignorant of the niceties. She used the word “niceties” frequently and without quailing.
She got an evening cloak. Also a pair of fifteen-dollar gun-metal pumps, which she discarded for patent leathers as soon as she found that everybody wore those — everybody being a girl in the next block, whose house wasn’t anywhere near as nice as “ours.”
Theo was only half glad of their grandeur. Oh, undoubtedly she was excited about the house at first, and mentioned it to other girls rather often, and rang for maids she didn’t need. But she had a little pain in the conscience. She felt that she hadn’t kept up defending Stacy Lindstrom very pluckily.
She was never allowed to forget Stacy’s first call at the mansion. The family were settled in the house. They were anxious for witnesses of their nobility. The bell rang at eight one Saturday evening when they were finishing dinner. It was hard to be finishing dinner at eight. They had been used to starting at six-thirty-one and ending the last lap, neck and neck, at six-fifty-two. But by starting at seven, and having a salad, and letting father smoke his cigar at the table, they had stretched out the ceremony to a reasonable decency.
At the sound of the buzz in the butler’s pantry Janet squeaked: “Oh, maybe it’s the Garlands! Or even the Randalls!” She ran into the hall.
“Janet! Jan-et! The maid will open the door!” Mrs. Duke wailed.
“I know, but I want to see who it is!”
Janet returned snapping: “Good heavens, it’s only that Stacy Lindstrom! Coming at this early hour! And he’s bought a new suit, just to go calling. It looks like sheet iron.”
Theo pretended she had not heard. She fled to the distant library. She was in a panic. She was ashamed of herself, but she didn’t trust Stacy to make enough impression. So it was Mr. Duke who had the first chance at the audience:
“Ah, Stacy, glad to see you, my boy. The girls are round some place. Theo!”
“Lyman! Don’t shout so! I’ll send a maid to find her,” remonstrated Mrs. Duke.
“Oh, she’ll come a-running. Trust these girls to know when a boy’s round!” boomed Mr. Duke.
Janet had joined Theo in the library. She veritably hissed as she protested: “Boys-s-s-s-s! We come running for a commonplace railway clerk!”
Theo made her handkerchief into a damp, tight little ball in her lap, smoothed it out, and very carefully began to tear off its border.
Afar Mr. Duke was shouting: “Come see my new collection while we’re waiting.”
“I hate you!” Theo snarled at Janet, and ran into the last of the series of drawing rooms. From its darkness she could see her father and Stacy. She felt that she was protecting this, her brother, from danger; from the greatest of dangers — being awkward in the presence of the stranger, Janet. She was aware of Janet slithering in beside her.
“Now what do you think of that, eh?” Mr. Duke was demanding. He had unlocked a walnut cabinet, taken out an enameled plate.
Stacy was radiant. “Oh, yes. I know what that stuff is. I’ve read about it. It’s cloysoan.” He had pronounced it to rime with moan.
“Well, not precisely! Cloysonnay, most folks would call it. Or culwasonnay, if you want to be real highbrow. But cloysoan, that’s pretty good! Mamma! Janet! The lad says this is cloysoan! Ha, ha! Well, never mind, my boy. Better folks than you and I have made that kind of a mistake.”
Janet was tittering. The poisonous stream of it trickled through all the rooms. Stacy must have heard. He looked about uneasily.
Suddenly Theo saw him as a lout, in his new suit, that hung like wood. He was twisting a button and trying to smile back at Mr. Duke.
The cloisonné plate was given to Stacy to admire. What he saw was a flare of many-colored enamels in tiny compartments. In the center a dragon writhed its tongue in a field of stars, and on the rim were buds on clouds of snow, a flying bird, and amusing symbols among willow leaves.
But Mr. Duke was lecturing on what he ought to have seen:
“This is a sara, and a very fine specimen. Authorities differ, but it belonged either to the Shi sinwo or the Mon-zeki — princely monks, in the monastery of Nin-na-ji. Note the extreme thinness of the cloisons, and the pastes are very evenly vitrified. The colors are remarkable. You’ll notice there’s slate blue, sage green, chrome yellow, and — uh — well there’s several other colors. You see the ground shows the kara kusa. That bird there is a ho-ito in flight above the branches of the kiri tree.”
Stacy had a healthy suspicion that a few months before Mr. Duke had known no more about Oriental art than Stacy Lindstrom. But he had no Japanese words for repartee, and he could only rest his weight on the other foot and croak “Well, well!”
Mr. Duke was beatifically going on: “Now this chatsubo, you’ll notice, is not cloisonné at all, but champlevé. Very important point in studying shippo ware. Note the unusually fine kiku crest on this chawan.”
“I see. Uh — I see,” said Stacy.
“Just a goat, that’s all he is, just a giddy goat,” Janet whispered to Theo in the dark room beyond, and pranced away.
It was five minutes before Theo got up courage to rescue Stacy. When she edged into the room he was sitting in a large leather chair and fidgeting. He was fidgeting in twenty different but equally irritating ways. He kept recrossing his legs, and every time he crossed them the stiff trousers bagged out in more hideous folds. Between times he tapped his feet. His fingers drummed on the chair. He looked up at the ceiling, licking his lips, and hastily looked down, with an artificial smile in acknowledgment of Mr. Duke’s reminiscences of travel.
Theo swooped on Stacy with hands clapping in welcome, with a flutter of white muslin skirts about young ankles.
“Isn’t the house comfy? When we get a pig we can keep him under that piano! Come on, I’ll show you all the hidey holes,” she crowed.
She skipped off, dragging him by the hand — but she realized that she was doing altogether too much dragging. Stacy, who had always been too intent on their games to be self-conscious, was self-conscious enough now. What could she say to him?
She besought: “I hope you’ll come often. We’ll have lots of fun out of — ”
“Oh, you won’t know me anymore, with a swell place like this,” he mumbled.
As women do she tried to bandage this raw, bruised moment. She snapped on the lights in the third drawing room, and called his attention to the late Mr. P.J. Broom’s coat of arms carved on the hulking stone fireplace. “I got the decorator to puzzle it out for me, and as far as he could make out, if Pat Broom was right he was descended from an English duke, a German general and a Serbian undertaker. He didn’t miss a trick except — ”
“Well, it’s a pretty fine fireplace,” Stacy interrupted. He looked away, his eyes roving but dull, and dully he added: “Too fine for me, I guess.”
Not once could she get him to share her joy in the house. He seemed proud of the virtue of being poor. Like a boast sounded his repeated “Too darn fine for me — don’t belong in with all these doo-dads.” She worked hard. She showed him not only the company rooms but the delightful secret passage of the clothes chute which led from an upstairs bedroom to the laundry; the closet drawers which moved on rollers and could be drawn out by the little finger; the built-in clock with both Trinity and Westminster chimes; the mysterious spaces of the basement, with the gas drier for wet wash, and the wine cellar which — as it so far contained only a case of beer and seven bottles of ginger ale — was chiefly interesting to the sense of make-believe.
Obediently he looked where she pointed; politely he repeated that everything was “pretty fine”; and not once was he her comrade. The spirit of divine trust was dead, horribly mangled and dead, she panted, while she caroled in the best nice-young-woman tone she could summon: “See, Stace. Isn’t this cun-ning?”
It is by certain mystics fabled that the most malignant ghosts are souls that in life have been the most kindly and beloved. Dead though this ancient friendship seemed, it had yet one phase of horror to manifest. After having implied that he was a plain honest fellow and glad of it, Stacy descended to actual boasting. They sat uneasily in the smallest of the drawing rooms, their eyes fencing. Theo warned herself that he was merely embarrassed. She wanted to be sorry for him. But she was tired — tired of defending him to others, tired of fighting to hold his affection.
“I certainly am eating the work in the tax commissioner’s office. I’m studying accounting systems and banking methods evenings, and you want to watch your Uncle Stacy. I’ll make some of these rich fellows sit up! I know the cashier at the Lumber National pretty well now, and he as much as said I could have a job there, at better money, any time I wanted to.”
He did not say what he wished to put into the railroad and the bank — only what he wished to get out of them. He had no plans, apparently, to build up great institutions for Vernon, but he did have plans to build up a large salary for Stacy Lindstrom.
And one by one, as flustered youth does, he dragged in the names of all the important men he had met. The conversation had to be bent distressingly to get them all in.
He took half an hour in trying to make an impressive exit.
“I hate him! He expects me to be snobbish! He made it so hard for me to apologize for being rich. He — Oh, I hate him!” Theo sobbed by her bed.
Not for a week did she want to see the boy again; and not for a month did he call. By that time she was used to doing without him. Before long she was used to doing without most people. She was left lonely. Janet had gone East to a college that wasn’t a college at all, but a manicurist’s buffer of a school, all chamois, celluloid and pink powder — a school all roses and purring and saddle horses and pleasant reading of little manuals about art. Theo had admired her older sister. She had been eager when Janet had let her wash gloves and run ribbons. She missed the joy of service. She missed too the conveniences of the old brown house — the straw-smelling dog house in the back yard, with the filthy, agreeable, gentlemanly old setter who had resided there; and the tree up which a young woman with secret sorrows could shin resentfully.
Not only Janet and Eddie Barnes but most of Theo’s friends had escaped domestic bliss and gone off to school. Theo wanted to follow them, but Mrs. Duke objected. “I wouldn’t like to have both my little daughters desert me at once.” At the age halfway between child and independent woman Theo was alone. She missed playing; she missed the achievements of housework.
In the old days on the hired girl’s night out Theo had not minded splashing in rainbow-bubbled suds and polishing the water glasses to shininess. But now there was no hired girl’s night out; and no hired girls. There were maids instead, three of them, with a man who took care of the furnace and garden and put on storm windows. The eldest of the maids was the housekeeper-cook, and she was a straight-mouthed, carp-eyed person named Lizzie. Lizzie had been in the best houses. She saw to it that neither the other servants nor the Dukes grew slack. She would have fainted at the sight of Sunday supper in the kitchen or of Theo washing dishes.
Mr. Duke pretended to be glad that they had a furnace man; that he no longer had to put on overalls and black leather gloves to tend the furnace and sift the ashes. That had been his before supper game at the shabby brown house. As a real-estate man he had been mediocre. As a furnace man he had been a surgeon, an artist. He had operated on the furnace delicately, giving lectures on his technic to a clinic of admiring young. You mustn’t, he had exhorted, shake for one second after the slivers of hot coal tumble through the grate. You must turn off the draft at exactly the moment when the rose and saffron flames quiver above the sullen mound of coal.
His wife now maintained that he had been dreadfully bored and put upon by chores. He didn’t contradict. He was proud that he no longer had to perch on a ladder holding a storm window or mightily whirling the screw driver as the screws sunk sweetly home. But it was to be noticed that with nothing to do but to look at the furnace man, to hold his pockets open for the quarters from the iron-mining company, and to gaze at his collections of jugs and bugs and rugs — he became slow of step and foggy of eye, and sometimes, about nothing in particular, he sighed.
Whenever they had guests for dinner he solemnly showed the cloisonné, and solemnly the guests said “Oh,” and “Really?” and “Is it?” They didn’t want to see the cloisonné, and Mr. Duke didn’t want to show it, and of his half-dozen words of Japanese he was exceeding weary. But if one is a celebrated collector one must keep on collecting and showing the collections.
These dinners and private exhibits were part of a social system in which the Dukes were entangled. It wasn’t an easy-fitting system. It was too new. If we ever have professional gentlemen in this country we may learn to do nothing and do it beautifully. But so far we want to do things. Vernon society went out for businesslike activities. There was much motoring, golf and the discussion of golf, and country club dances at which the men’s costumes ran from full evening dress through dinner coats to gray suits with tan shoes.
Most of the men enjoyed these activities honestly. They danced and motored and golfed because they liked to; because it rested them after the day in the office. But there was a small exclusive set in Vernon that had to spend all its time in getting recognized as a small exclusive set. It was social solitaire. By living in a district composed of a particular three blocks on the Boulevard of the Lakes Mr. Duke had been pushed into that exclusive set — Mrs. Duke giving a hand in the pushing.
Sometimes he rebelled. He wanted to be back at work. He had engaged a dismayingly competent manager for his real-estate office, and even by the most ingenious efforts to find something wrong with the books or the correspondence he couldn’t keep occupied at the office for more than two hours a day. He longed to discharge the manager, but Mrs. Duke would not have it. She enjoyed the ownership of a leisure-class husband.
For rich women the social system in Vernon does provide more games than for men. The poor we have always with us, and the purpose of the Lord in providing the poor is to enable us of the better classes to amuse ourselves by investigating them and uplifting them and at dinners telling how charitable we are. The poor don’t like it much. They have no gratitude. They would rather be uplifters themselves. But if they are taken firmly in hand they can be kept reasonably dependent and interesting for years.
The remnants of the energy that had once taken Mrs. Duke into the woods beyond the end of steel now drove her into poor-baiting. She was a committeewoman five deep. She had pigeonholes of mysteriously important correspondence, and she hustled about in the limousine. When her husband wanted to go back and do real work she was oratorical:
“That’s the trouble with the American man. He really likes his sordid office. No, dearie, you just enjoy your leisure for a while yet. As soon as we finish the campaign for censoring music you and I will run away and take a good trip — San Francisco and Honolulu.”
But whenever she actually was almost ready to go even he saw objections. How ridiculous to desert their adorable house, the beds soft as whipped cream, the mushrooms and wild rice that only Lizzie could cook, for the discomforts of trains and hotels! And was it safe to leave the priceless collections? There had been a burglar scare — there always has just been a burglar scare in all cities. The Dukes didn’t explain how their presence would keep burglars away, but they gallantly gave up their lives to guarding the cloisonné, while they talked about getting a caretaker, and never tried to get him.
Thus at last was Lyman Duke become a prison guard shackled to the things he owned, and the longest journey of the man who had once desired new peaks and softer air was a slow walk down to the Commercial Club for lunch.
When Janet and Eddie Barnes and the rest of Theo’s friends came back from college; when the sons went into their fathers’ wholesale offices and clubs, and the daughters joined their mothers’ lecture courses and societies, and there was an inheriting Younger Set and many family plans for marriages — then Theo ceased to be lonely, and remembered how to play. She had gone to desultory dances during their absence, but only with people too old or too young. Now she had a group of her own. She danced with a hot passion for music and movement; her questioning about life disappeared in laughter as she rose to the rushing of people and the flashing of gowns.
Stacy Lindstrom was out of existence in this colored world. Stacy was now chief clerk in the railroad tax commissioner’s office, and spoken of as future assistant cashier in the Lumber National Bank. But he was quite insignificant. He was thin — not slim. He was silent — not reserved. His clothes were plain — not cleverly inconspicuous. He wore eyeglasses with a gold chain attached to a hoop over one ear; and he totally failed to insist that he was bored by the vaudeville which everybody attended and everybody sneered at. Oh, he was ordinary, through and through.
Thus with boarding-school wisdom Janet dissected the unfortunate social problem known as Stacy Lindstrom. Theo didn’t protest much. It was not possible for youth to keep on for five years very ardently defending anybody who changed as little as Stacy. And Theo was busy.
Not only to dances did Janet lead her, but into the delights of being artistic. Janet had been gapingly impressed by the Broom mansion when the family had acquired it, but now, after vacation visits to Eastern friends, she saw that the large brown velvet chairs were stuffy, and the table with the inlaid chessboard of mother-of-pearl a horror. What Janet saw she also expressed, in words as cold and sharp as swords at chilly dawn.
In one of the manuals the girls had been tenderly encouraged to glance through at Janet’s college it was courageously stated that simplicity was the keynote in decoration. At breakfast, dinner, and even at suppers personally abstracted from the ice box at two a.m., Janet clamored that their ratty old palace ought to be refurnished. Her parents paid no attention. That was just as well.
Otherwise Janet would have lost the chance to get into her portable pulpit and admonish: “When I have a house it will be absolutely simple. Just a few exquisite vases, and not one chair that doesn’t melt into the environment. Things — things — things — they are so dreadful! I shan’t have a thing I can’t use. Use is the test of beauty.”
Theo knew that the admirable Janet expressed something which she had been feeling like a dull unplaced pain. She became a member of an informal art association consisting of herself, Janet, Eddie Barnes and Harry McPherson, Janet’s chief suitor. It is true that the art association gave most of its attention to sitting together in corners at dances and giggling at other people’s clothes, but Janet did lead them to an exhibit at the Vernon Art Institute, and afterward they had tea and felt intellectual and peculiar and proud.
Eddie Barnes was showing new depths. He had attended a great seaboard university whose principal distinction, besides its athletics, was its skill in instructing select young gentlemen to discuss any topic in the world without having any knowledge of it whatever. During Janet’s pogrom against the Dukes’ mosque-shaped brass lamp Eddie was heard to say a number of terribly good things about the social value of knowing wall sconces.
When Janet and Harry McPherson were married Eddie was best man, Theo bridesmaid.
Janet had furnished her new house. When Theo had accompanied Janet on the first shopping flight she had wanted to know just what sort of chairs would perform the miracle of melting into the environment. She wondered whether they could be found in department stores or only in magic shops. But Janet led her to a place only too familiar — Ye Crafts League Shoppe, where Mrs. Duke always bought candle shades and small almond dishes.
Janet instantly purchased a hand-tooled leather box for playing cards, and a desk set which included a locked diary in a morocco cover and an ingenious case containing scissors, magnifying glass, pencil sharpener, paper cutter, steel ink eraser, silver penknife. This tool kit was a delightful toy, and it cost thirty-seven dollars. The clerk explained that it was especially marked down from forty-five dollars, though he did not explain why it should be especially marked down.
Theo wailed: “But those aren’t necessary! That last thingumajig has four different kinds of knives, where you only need one. It’s at least as useless as papa’s cloisonné.”
“I know, but it’s so amusing. And it’s entirely different from papa’s old stuff. It’s the newest thing out!” Janet explained.
Before she had bought a single environment-melting chair Janet added to her simple and useful furnishings a collection of glass fruit for table centerpiece, a set of Venetian glass bottles, a traveling clock with a case of gold and platinum, and works of tin. For her sensible desk she acquired a complicated engine consisting of a tiny marble pedestal, on which was an onyx ball, on which was a cerise and turquoise china parrot, from whose back, for no very clear anatomical reason, issued a candlestick. But not a stick for candles. It was wired for electricity.
As she accepted each treasure Janet rippled that it was so amusing. The clerk added “So quaint,” as though it rimed with amusing. While Theo listened uncomfortably they two sang a chorus of disparagement of Mid-Victorian bric-a-brac, and praise of modern clever bits.
When Janet got time for the miraculous chairs —
She had decided to furnish her dining room in friendly, graceful Sheraton, but the clerk spoke confidentially of French lacquer, and Theo watched Janet pledge her troth to a frail red-lacquered dining-room set of brazen angles. The clerk also spoke of distinguished entrance halls, and wished upon Janet an enormous Spanish chair of stamped leather upholstery and dropsical gilded legs, with a mirror that cost a hundred and twenty dollars, and a chest in which Janet didn’t intend to keep anything.
Theo went home feeling that she was carrying on her shoulders a burden of gilded oak; that she would never again run free.
When Janet’s house was done it looked like a sale in a seaside gift shop. Even her telephone was covered with a brocade and china doll. Theo saw Janet spending her days vaguely endeavoring to telephone to living life through brocade dolls.
After Janet’s marriage Theo realized that she was tired of going to parties with the same group; of hearing the same Eddie tell the same stories about the cousin of the Vanderbilts who had almost invited him to go yachting. She was tired of Vernon’s one rich middle-aged bachelor; of the bouncing girl twins who always roughhoused at dances. She was peculiarly weary of the same salads and ices, which all Vernon hostesses always got from the same caterer. There was one kind of cake with rosettes of nuts which Theo met four times in two weeks — and expected to meet till the caterer passed beyond. She could tell beforehand how any given festivity would turn out. She knew at just what moment after a luncheon the conversation about babies would turn into uneasy yawns, and the hostess would, inevitably, propose bridge. Theo desired to assassinate the entire court of face cards.
Stacy Lindstrom had about once a year indicated a shy desire to have her meet his own set. He told her that they went skiing in winter and picnicking in summer; he hinted how simply and frankly they talked at dinners. Theo went gladly with him to several parties of young married people, and a few unmarried sisters and cousins. For three times she enjoyed the change in personnel. As she saw the bright new flats, with the glassed-in porches, the wicker furniture, the colored prints and the davenports; as she heard the people chaff one another; as she accompanied them to a public skating rink and sang to the blaring band — she felt that she had come out of the stupidity of stilted social sets and returned to the naturalness of the old brown house.
But after three parties she knew all the jokes of the husbands about their wives, and with unnecessary thoroughness she knew the opinions of each person upon movies, Chicago, prohibition, the I.W.W., Mrs. Sam Jenkins’ chronic party gown, and Stacy’s new job in the Lumber National. She tried to enliven the parties. She worked harder than any of her hostesses. She proposed charades, music. She failed. She gave them one gorgeous dance, and disappeared from their group forever. She did go with Stacy on a tramp through the snow, and enjoyed it — till he began to hint that he, too, might have a great house and many drawing rooms someday. He had very little to say about what he hoped to do for the Lumber National Bank in return.
Then did Theo feel utterly deserted. She blamed herself. Was something wrong with her that she alone found these amusements so agonizingly unamusing? And feeling thus why didn’t she do something about it? She went on helping her mother in the gigantic task of asking Lizzie what orders Lizzie wanted them to give her. She went on planning that someday she would read large books and know all about world problems, and she went on forgetting to buy the books. She was twenty-six, and there was no man to marry except the chattering Eddie Barnes. Certainly she could not think romantically about that Stacy Lindstrom whose ambition seemed to be to get enough money to become an imitation chattering Eddie Barnes.
Then America entered the war.
Eddie Barnes went to the first officers’ training camp, and presently was a highly decorative first lieutenant in a hundred-dollar uniform. Stacy Lindstrom made his savings over to his mother, and enlisted. While Eddie was still stationed at a cantonment as instructor Stacy was writing Theo ten-word messages from France. He had become a sergeant, and French agriculture was interesting, he wrote.
Stacy’s farewell had been undistinguished. He called — a slight, commonplace figure in a badly fitted private’s uniform. He sat on the piano stool and mouthed: “Well, I have a furlough; then we get shipped across. Well — don’t forget me, Theo.”
At the door Stacy kissed her hand so sharply that his teeth bruised her skin, and ran down the steps, silent.
But Eddie, who came up from the cantonment at least once a month, at least that often gave a long, brave farewell to Theo. Handsome, slim, erect — he invariably paced the smallest drawing room, stopped, trembled, and said in a military tone, tenor but resolute: “Well, old honey, this may be the last time I see you. I may get overseas service anytime now. Theo dear, do you know how much I care? I shall take a picture of you in my heart, and it may be the last thing I ever think of. I’m no hero, but I know I shall do my duty. And, Theo, if I don’t come back — ”
The first two times Theo flared into weeping at this point, and Eddie’s arm was about her, and she kissed him. But the third, fourth and fifth times he said goodbye forever, she chuckled “Cheer up, old boy.” It was hard for her to feel tragic about Eddie’s being in the service, because she was in the service herself.
At last there was work that needed her. She had started with three afternoons a week at Red Cross; chatty afternoons, with her mother beside her, and familiar neighbors stopping in the making of surgical dressings to gurgle: “Oh, did you hear about how angry George Bangs was when Nellie bought a case of toilet soap at a dollar a cake? Think of it. A dollar! When you can get a very nice imported soap at twenty-five cents.”
Theo felt that there was too much lint on the conversation and too little on their hands. She found herself one with a dozen girls who had been wrens and wanted to be eagles. Two of them learned motor repairing and got across to France. Theo wanted to go, but her mother refused. After a dignified protest from Mrs. Duke, Theo became telephone girl at Red Cross headquarters, till she had learned shorthand and typing, and was able to serve the head of the state Red Cross as secretary. She envied the motor-corps women in their uniforms, but she exulted in power — in being able to give quick, accurate information to the distressed women who came fluttering to headquarters.
Mrs. Duke felt that typing was low. Theo was protected by her father.
“Good thing for the girl to have business training,” he kept insisting, till the commanding officer of the house impatiently consented.
It was the American Library Association collection which turned Theo from a dim uneasiness about the tyranny of possessions to active war. She bounced into the largest drawing room one dinner time, ten minutes late, crying: “Let’s go over all our books tonight and weed out a dandy bunch for the soldiers!”
Mrs. Duke ruled: “Really, my dear, if you would only try to be on time for your meals! It’s hard enough on Lizzie and myself to keep the house running — ”
“Come, come, come! Get your hat off and comb your hair and get ready for dinner. I’m almost starved!” grumbled Mr. Duke.
Theo repeated the demand as soon as she was seated. The soldiers, she began, needed —
“We occasionally read the newspapers ourselves! Of course we shall be very glad to give what books we can spare. But there doesn’t seem to be any necessity of going at things in this — this — hit-or-a-miss! Besides, I have some letters to write this evening,” stated Mrs. Duke.
“Well, I’m going over them anyway!”
“I wish to see any books before you send them away!”
With Theo visualizing herself carrying off a carload of books the Dukes ambled to the library after finishing dinner — and finishing coffee, a cigar and chocolate peppermints, and a discussion of the proper chintz for the shabby chairs in the guest room. Theo realized as she looked at the lofty, benign and carefully locked bookcases that she hadn’t touched one of the books for a year; that for six months she hadn’t seen anyone enter the room for any purpose other than sweeping.
After fifteen minutes spent in studying every illustration in a three-volume history Mrs. Duke announced: “Here’s something I think we might give away, Lym. Nobody has ever read it. A good many of the pages are uncut.”
Mr. Duke protested: “Give that away? No, sir! I been meaning to get at that for a long time. Why, that’s a valuable history. Tells all about modern Europe. Man ought to read it to get an idea of the sources of the war.”
“But you never will read it, papa,” begged Theo.
“Now, Theo,” her mother remonstrated in the D.A.R. manner, “if your father wishes to keep it that’s all there is to be said, and we will make no more words about it.” She returned the three volumes to the shelf.
“I’ll turn it over to you just as soon as I’ve read it,” her father obliged. Theo reflected that if any soldiers in the current conflict were to see the history they would have to prolong the war till 1960.
But she tried to look grateful while her father went on: “Tell you what I was thinking, though, mother. Here’s these two shelves of novels — none of ’em standard authors — all just moonshine or blood and thunder. Let’s clear out the whole bunch.”
“But those books are just the thing for a rainy day — nice light reading. And for guests. But now this — this old book on saddlery. When we had horses you used to look at it, but now, with motors and all — ”
“I know, but I still like to browse in it now and then.”
Theo fled. She remembered piles of shabby books in the attic. While the Dukes were discovering that after all there wasn’t one of the four hundred volumes in the library which they weren’t going to read right away Theo heaped the dining room table with attic waifs. She called her parents. The first thing Mrs. Duke spied was a Tennyson, printed in 1890 in a type doubtless suitable to ants, small sand-colored ants, but illegible to the human eye. Mrs. Duke shrieked: “Oh! You weren’t thinking of giving that handsome Tennyson away! Why, it’s a very handsome edition. Besides, it’s one of the first books your father and I ever had. It was given to us by your Aunt Gracie.”
“But moth-er dear! You haven’t even seen the book for years!”
“Well, I’ve thought of it often.”
“How about all these Christmas books?”
“Now, Theodora, if you wouldn’t be so impatient, but kindly give your father and me time to look them over — ”
Two hours and seventeen minutes after dinner Mr. and Mrs. Duke had almost resignedly agreed to present the following literary treasures to the soldiers of these United States for their edification and entertainment:
One sixth-grade geography. One Wild Flowers of Northern Wisconsin. Two duplicate copies of Little Women. The Congressional Record for part of 1902. One black, depressed, religious volume entitled The Dragon’s Fight With the Woman for 1260 Prophetic Days; from which the last seven hundred days were missing, leaving the issue of the combat in serious doubt. Four novels, all by women, severally called Griselda of the Red Hand, Bramleigh of British Columbia, Lady Tip-Tippet, and Billikins’ Lonely Christmas.
Theo looked at them. She laughed. Then she was sitting by the table, her head down, sobbing. Her parents glanced at each other in hurt amazement.
“I can’t understand the girl. After all the pains we took to try to help her!” sighed Mrs. Duke later, when they were undressing.
“O-o-o-oh,” yawned Mr. Duke as he removed his collar from the back button — with the slight invariable twinge in his rheumatic shoulder blades. “Oh, she’s nervous and tired from her work down at that Red Cross place. I’m in favor of her having a little experience, but at the same time there’s no need of overdoing. Plenty of other people to help out.”
He intended to state this paternal wisdom to Theo at breakfast, but Theo at breakfast was not one to whom to state things paternally. Her normally broad shining lips were sucked in. She merely nodded to her parents, then attended with strictness to her oatmeal, and departed — after privily instructing Lizzie to give the smaller pile of books in the dining room to the junk collector.
Three novels from the pile she did take to the public library for the A.L.A. To these she added twenty books, mostly trigonometries, bought with her own pocket money. Consequently, she had no lunch save a glass of milk for twenty days. But as the Dukes didn’t know that, everybody was happy. The battle of the books led to other sanguinary skirmishes.
Theo was responsive to her father’s kindliness. She knew that in her mother’s perpetual committees there was as much desire to make a cleaner world as there was desire to have notoriety. But she believed that in this time of flaming worlds no one was exempt. She ceased to take daily things as a matter of course.
There was the fireless cooker.
It was an early, homemade fireless cooker, constructed in the days when anything in the shape of one box inside another, with any spare scraps of sawdust between, was regarded as a valuable domestic machine. Aside from the fact that it didn’t cook, the Dukes’ cooker took up room in the kitchen, gathered a film of grease which caught a swamp of dust, and regularly banged Lizzie’s shins. For six years the Dukes had talked about having it fixed. They had run through the historical, scientific and financial aspects of cookers at least once a season.
“I’ve wondered sometimes if we couldn’t just have the furnace man take out the sawdust and put in something else or Theo, wouldn’t you like to run into Whaley & Baumgarten’s one of these days, and price all of the new fireless cookers?” beamed Mrs. Duke.
In a grieved, spacious manner Mrs. Duke reproved: “Well, my dear, I certainly am too busy, what with the party for the new rector and his bride — ”
“Call up the store. Tell ’em to send up a good cooker on trial,” said Theo.
“But these things have to be done with care and thought — ”
Theo was stalking away as she retorted: “Not by me, they don’t!”
She was sorry for her rudeness afterward, and that evening she was gay and young as she played ballads for her father and did her mother’s hair. After that, when she was going to bed, and very tired, and horribly confused in her thinking, she was sorry because she had been sorry because she had been rude.
The furnace went wrong, and its dissipations were discussed by Mr. Duke, Mrs. Duke, Mrs. Harry McPherson nee Duke, Lizzie, the furnace man and the plumber — till Theo ran up to her room and bit the pillow to keep from screaming. She begged her father to install a new furnace: “The old one will set the house afire — it’s a terrible old animal.”
“Nonsense. Take a chance on fire,” said he. “House and everything well insured anyway. If the house did burn down there’d be one good thing — wouldn’t have to worry any more about getting that twelve tons of coal we’re still shy.”
When Mr. Duke was summoned to Duluth by the iron-mining company Mrs. Duke sobbingly called Theo home from the midst of tearing work.
Theo arrived in terror. “What is it? What’s happened to papa?”
“Happened? Why, nothing. But he didn’t have a chance to take a single thing to Duluth, and he simply won’t know what to do without his traveling bag — the one he got in London — all the fittings and everything that he’s used to so he could put his hand on a toothbrush right in the dark — ”
“But mother dear, I’m sure bathrooms in Duluth have electric lights, so he won’t need to put his hand on toothbrushes in the dark. And he can get nice new lovely brushes at almost any drug store and not have to fuss — ”
“Fuss? Fuss? It’s you who are doing the fussing. He just won’t know what to do without his traveling bag.”
While she helped her mother and Lizzie drag the ponderous bag down from the attic; while her mother, merely thinking aloud, discussed whether “Your father” would want the madras pyjamas or the flannelette; while, upon almost tearful maternal request, Theo hunted all through the house for the missing cut-glass soap case — she was holding herself in. She disliked herself for being so unsympathetic. She remembered how touched she had been by exactly the same domestic comedy two years before. But unsympathetic she was, even two days later, when her mother triumphantly showed Mr. Duke’s note: “I can’t tell you how glad I was to see good old bag showing up here at hotel; felt lost without it.”
“Just the same, my absence that afternoon cost the Red Cross at least fifty dollars, and for a lot less than that he could have gone out and bought twice as good a bag — lighter, more convenient. Things! Poor dad is the servant of that cursed pig-iron bag,” she meditated.
She believed that she was being very subtle about her rebellion, but it must have been obvious, for after Mr. Duke’s return her mother suddenly attacked her at dinner.
“So far as I can make out from the way you’re pouting and sulking and carrying on, you must have some sort of a socialistic idea that possessions are unimportant. Now you ought — ”
“Anarchist, do you mean, mother dear?”
“Kindly do not interrupt me! As I was saying: It’s things that have made the world advance from barbarism. Motor cars, clothes you can wash, razors that enable a man to look neat, canned foods, printing presses, steamers, bathrooms — those are what have gotten men beyond living in skins in horrid damp caves.”
“Of course. And that’s why I object to people fussing so about certain things, and keeping themselves from getting full use of bigger things. If you’re always so busy arranging the flowers in the vase in a limousine that you never have time to go riding, then the vase has spoiled the motor for — ”
“I don’t get your logic at all. I certainly pay very little attention to the flowers in our car. Lizzie arranges them for me!” triumphed Mrs. Duke.
Theo was charging on. She was trying to get her own ideas straight. “And if a man spends valuable time in tinkering with a worn-out razor when he could buy a new one, then he’s keeping himself in the damp cave and the bearskin undies. That isn’t thrift. It’s waste.”
“I fancy that people in caves, in prehistoric times, did not use razors at all, did they, Lyman?” her mother majestically corrected.
“Now you always worry about papa’s bag. It was nice once, and worth caring for, but it’s just a bother now. On your principle a factory would stop running for half the year to patch up or lace up the belting, or whatever it is they do, instead of getting new belting and thus — Oh, can’t you see? Buy things. Use ’em. But throw ’em away if they’re more bother than good. If a bag keeps you from enjoying traveling — chuck it in the river! If a man makes a tennis court and finds he really doesn’t like tennis, let the court get weedy rather than spend glorious free October afternoons in mowing and raking — ”
“Well, I suppose you mean rolling it,” said her mother domestically. “And I don’t know what tennis has to do with the subject. I’m sure I haven’t mentioned tennis. And I trust you’ll admit that your knowledge of factories and belting is not authoritative. No. The trouble is, this Red Cross work is getting you so you can’t think straight. Of course with this war and all, it may be permissible to waste a lot of good time and money making dressings and things for a lot of green nurses to waste, but you girls must learn the great principle of thrift.”
“We have! I’m practicing it. It means — oh, so much, now. Thrift is doing without things you don’t need, and taking care of things as long as they’re useful. It distinctly isn’t wasting time and spiritual devotion over things you can’t use — just because you happen to be so unfortunate as to own ’em. Like our eternal fussing over that clock in the upper hall that no one ever looks at — ”
Not listening her mother was placidly rolling on: “You seem to think this house needs too much attention. You’d like it, wouldn’t you, if we moved to a couple of rooms in the Dakota Lodging House!”
Theo gave it up.
Two days later she forgot it.
Creeping into her snug life, wailing for her help, came a yellow-faced apparition whose eyes were not for seeing but mere gashes to show the suffering within. It was — it had been — one Stacy Lindstrom, a sergeant of the A.E.F.
Stacy had lain with a shattered shoulder in a shell pit for three days. He had had pneumonia. Four distinct times all of him had died, quite definitely died — all but the desire to see Theo.
His little, timid, vehemently respectable mother sent for Theo on the night when he was brought home, and despite Mrs. Duke’s panicky protest Theo went to him, at eleven in the evening.
“Not going to die for little while. Terribly weak, but all here. Pull through — if you want me to. Not asking you to like me. All I want — want you to want me to live. Made ’em send me home. Old doc — the major himself — I told him I’d die on him if didn’t ship me home. Was all right on the sea. But weak. Got touch of typhoid in New York. Didn’t show up till on the train. But all right and cheerful Oh! I hurt so. Just hurt, hurt, hurt, every inch of me. Never mind. Well, seen you again. Can die now. Guess I will.”
Thus in panting words he muttered, while she knelt by him and could not tell whether she loved him or hated him; whether she shrank from this skinny claw outstretched from the grave or was drawn to him by a longing to nurse his soul back to a desire for life. But this she knew: Even Red Cross efficiency was nothing in the presence of her first contact with raw living life — most rawly living when crawling out from the slime of death.
She overruled Mrs. Lindstrom; got a nurse and Doctor Rollin — Rollin, the interior medicine specialist.
“Boy’s all right. Hasn’t got strength enough to fight very hard. Better cheer him up,” said Doctor Rollin. “Bill? My bill? He’s a soldier, isn’t he? Don’t you suppose I wanted to go into the army too? Chance to see beautiful cases for once. Yes. Admit it. Like to have fool salutes too. Got to stay home, nurse lot of damn-fool women. Charge a soldier? Don’t bother me,” he grumbled, while he was folding up his stethoscope, and closing his bag, and trying to find his hat, which Mrs. Lindstrom had politely concealed.
Every day after her work Theo trudged to the Lindstrom house — a scrubbed and tidied cottage, in whose living room was a bureau with a lace cover, a gilded shell, and two photographs of stiff relatives in Norway. She watched Stacy grow back into life. His hands, which had been yellow and drawn as the talons of a starved Chinaman, became pink and solid. The big knuckles, which had been lumpy under the crackly skin, were padded again.
She had been surprised into hot pity for him. She was saved equally by his amusement over his own weakness, and by his irritableness. Though he had called for her, during the first week he seemed to dislike her and all other human beings save his nurse. In the depths of lead-colored pain nothing mattered to him save his own comfort. The coolness of his glass of water was more to him than the war. Even when he became human again, and eager at her coming, there was nothing very personal in their talk. When he was able to do more than gasp out a few words she encouraged in him the ambition to pile up money which she detested.
Uncomfortably she looked at him, thin against a plump pillow, and her voice was artificially cheery as she declared: “You’ll be back in the bank soon. I’m sure they’ll raise you. No reason why you shouldn’t be president of it someday.”
He had closed his pale eyelids. She thought he was discouraged. Noisily she reassured, “Honestly! I’m sure you’ll make money — lots of it.”
His eyes were open, blazing. “Money! Yes! Wonderful thing!”
“Buys tanks and shells, and food for homeless babies. But for me — I just want a living. There isn’t any Stacy Lindstrom any more. He was absorbed in that bigger thing over there, in that Nirvana — a fighting Nirvana! I’ve got ambitions, big ’uns, but not to see myself in a morning coat and new gloves on Sunday!”
He said nothing more. A week after he was sitting up in bed, reading, in a Lindstromy nightgown of white cotton edged with red. She wondered at the book. It was Colloquial French.
“You aren’t planning to go back?” she asked casually.
“Yes. I’ve got it straight now.” He leaned back, pulled the bedclothes carefully up about his neck and said quietly, “I’m going back, to fight. But not just for the duration of the war. Now I know what I was meant for. I can do things with my hands, and I get along with plain folks. I’m going back on reconstruction work. We’re going to rebuild France. I’m studying — French, cottage architecture, cabbages. I’m a pretty good farmer — ’member how I used to work on the farm, vacations? If they’ll let me I’m going to be the servant of the peasants. That’s a big ambition — to be a servant — to be intrusted with lives, with food and babies. What do you think?”
“I think it’s wonderful!”
She meant it. She saw that all self-consciousness was gone from him. He was again the Stacy Lindstrom who had been lord of the Red River carts. Her haunted years of nervousness about life disappeared, and suddenly she was again too fond of her boy companion to waste time considering whether she was fond of him. They were making plans, laughing the quick curt laughs of intimates.
A week later Mrs. Lindstrom took her aside.
Mrs. Lindstrom had always, after admitting Theo and nodding without the slightest expression in her anaemic face, vanished through the kitchen doorway. Tonight as Theo was sailing out Mrs. Lindstrom hastened after her through the living room.
“Miss! Miss Duke! Yoost a minute. Could you speak wit’ me?”
“Dis — Ay — Da boy get along pretty gude, eh? He seem werry gude, today. Ay vish you should — ” The little woman’s face was hard. “Ay don’t know how to say it elegant, but if you ever — I know he ain’t your fella, but he always got that picture of you, and maybe now he ban pretty brave soldier, maybe you could like him better, but I know I yoost ban Old Country woman. If you and him marry — I keep away, not bother you. Your folks is rich and — Oh, I gif, I gif him to you — if you vant him.”
Mrs. Lindstrom’s sulky eyes seemed to expand, grow misty. Her Puritanical chest was terribly heaving. She sobbed: “He always talk about you ever since he ban little fella. Please, excuse me I spoke, if you don’t vant him, but I vanted you should know, I do anyt’ing for him. And you.”
She fled, and Theo could hear the scouring of a pot in the kitchen. Theo fled the other way.
It was that same evening, at dinner, that Mrs. Duke delicately attempted social homicide.
“My dear, aren’t you going to see this Lindstrom boy rather oftener than you need to? From what you say he must be convalescing. I hope that your pity for him won’t lead you into any foolish notions and sentiment about him.”
Theo laughed. “No time to be sentimental about anything, these days. I’ve canned the word — ”
“‘Canned’! Oh, Theo!”
“ — ‘sentiment’ entirely. But if I hadn’t, Stace wouldn’t be a bad one to write little poems about. He used to be my buddy when — ”
“Please — do — not — be — so — vulgar! And Theo, however you may regard Stacy, kindly do stop and think how Mrs. Lindstrom would look in this house!”
The cheerful, gustatory manner died in Theo. She rose. She said with an intense, a religious solemnity: “This house! Damn this house!”
The Lindstroms were not mentioned again. There was no need. Mrs. Duke’s eyebrows adequately repeated her opinions when Theo came racing in at night, buoyant with work and talking and fighting over Stacy’s plans.
Theo fancied that her father looked at her more sympathetically. She ceased to take Mr. Duke as a matter of course, as one more fixed than the radiators. She realized that he spent these autumn evenings in staring at the fire. When he looked up he smiled, but his eyes were scary. Theo noticed that he had given up making wistful suggestions to Mrs. Duke that he be permitted to go back to real work, or that they get a farm, or go traveling. Once they had a week’s excursion to New York, but Mrs. Duke had to hasten back for her committees. She was ever firmer with her husband; more ready with reminders that it was hard to get away from a big house like this; that men oughtn’t to be so selfish and just expect Lizzie and her —
Mr. Duke no longer argued. He rarely went to his office. He was becoming a slippered old man.
Eddie Barnes was back in Vernon on the sixth of his positively last, final, ultimate farewells.
Theo yelled in joy when he called. She was positively blowzy with healthy vulgarity. She had won an argument with Stacy about teaching the French to plant corn, and had walked home almost at a trot.
“Fine to see you! Saying an eternal farewell again?” she brutally asked Eddie.
For one of the young samurai Eddie was rather sheepish. He stalked about the largest drawing-room. His putties shone. Eddie really had very nice legs, the modern young woman reflected.
“Gosh, I am an awful fareweller. Nope, I’m not going to do a single weep. Because this time I’ve got my orders. I’ll be in France in three weeks. So I just thought — I just thought — maybe — I’d ask you if you could conveniently — Ouch, that tooth still aches; have to get this bridge finished tomorrow sure. Could you marry me?”
“Ungh!” Theo flopped into a chair.
“You’ve queered all my poetic tactics by your rude merry mirth. So just got to talk naturally.”
“Glad you did. Now let me think. Do I want to marry you?”
“We get along bully. Listen — wait till I get back from France, and we’ll have some celebration. Oh, boy! I’ll stand for the cooties and the mud till the job’s done, but when I get back and put the Croix de Guerre into the safe-deposit I’m going to have a drink of champagne four quarts deep! And you and I — we’ll have one time! Guess you’ll be pretty sick of Red Cross by — ”
“No. Now I know. Dear, you are a good playmate. But I know a man who thinks that when the war is over, then the real work begins.”
Eddie was grave, steady, more mature than he had ever seemed. “Yes. Stacy Lindstrom. See here, honey; he has big advantages over me. I’m not picturesque. I never had to work for my bread and butter, and I was brought up to try to be amusing, not noble. Nothing more touching than high ideals and poverty. But if I try to be touching, you laugh at me. I’m — I may get killed, and I’ll be just as dead in my expensible first lieut’s pants as any self-sacrificing private.”
“I hadn’t thought of that. Of course. You have disadvantages. Comfort isn’t dramatic. But still — It’s the champagne and the big time. I’ve — ”
“See here, honey, you’d be dreadfully bored by poverty. You do like nice things.”
“That’s it. Things! That’s what I’m afraid of. I’m interested in tractors for France, but not in the exact shade of hock glasses. And beauty — It’s the soul of things, but it’s got to be inherent, not just painted on. Nice things! Ugh! And — If I married you what would be your plans for me? How would I get through twenty-four hours a day?”
“Why — uh — why, how does anybody get through ’em? You’d have a good time — dances, and playin’ round, and maybe children, and we’d run down to Palm Beach — ”
“Yes. You’d permit me to go on doing what I always did till the war came. Nope. It isn’t good enough. I want to work. You wouldn’t let me, even in the house. There’d be maids, nurses. It’s not that I want a career. I don’t want to be an actress or a congresswoman. Perfectly willing to be assistant to some man. Providing he can really use me in useful work. No. You pre-war boys are going to have a frightful time with us post-war women.”
“But you’ll get tired — ”
“Oh, I know, I know! You and father and mother will wear me out. You all may win. You and this house, this horrible sleek warm house that Mrs. — that she isn’t fit to come into! She that gave him — ”
Her voice was rising, hysterical. She was bent in the big chair, curiously twisted, as though she had been wounded.
Eddie stroked her hair, then abruptly stalked out.
Theo sat marveling. “Did I really send Eddie away? Poor Eddie. And he’ll lead his company — Oh, I’ll write him. He’s right. Nice to think of brave maiden defiantly marrying poor hero. But they never do. Not in this house.”
The deep courthouse bell, awakening Theo to bewildered staring at the speckled darkness — a factory whistle fantastically tooting, then beating against her ears in long steady waves of sound — the triumphant yelping of a small boy and the quacking of a toy horn — a motor starting next door, a cold motor that bucked and snorted before it began to sing, but at last roared away with the horn blaring — finally the distant “Extra! Extra!”
Her sleepy body protestingly curled tighter in a downy ball in her bed on the upper porch, but her mind was frantically awake as the clamor thickened. “Is it really peace this time? The armistice really signed?” she exulted.
In pleasant reasonable phrases the warm body objected to the cold outside the silk comforter. “Remember how you were fooled on Thursday. Oo-oo! Bed feels so luxurious!” it insisted.
She was a practical heroine. She threw off the covers. The indolent body had to awaken, in self-defense. She merely squeaked “Ouch!” as her feet groped for their slippers on the cold floor. She flung downstairs, into rubbers and a fur coat, and she was out on the walk in time to stop a bellowing newsboy.
Yes. It was true. Official report from Washington. War over.
“Hurray!” said the ragged newsboy, proud of being out adventuring by night; and “Hurray!” she answered him. She felt that she was one with awakening crowds all over the country, from the T Wharf to the Embarcadero. She wanted to make great noises.
The news had reached the almost Western city of Vernon at three. It was only four, but as she stood on the porch a crush of motor cars swept by, headed for downtown. Bumping behind them they dragged lard cans, saucepans, frying pans. One man standing on a running board played Mr. Zip on a cornet. Another dashing for a trolley had on his chest a board with an insistent electric bell. He saw her on the porch and shouted, “Come on, sister! Downtown! All celebrate! Some carnival!”
She waved to him. She wanted to get out the electric and drive down. There would be noise — singing.
Four strange girls ran by and shrieked to her, “Come on and dance!”
Suddenly she was asking herself: “But do they know what it means? It isn’t just a carnival. It’s sacred.” Sharply: “But do I know all it means, either? Worldwide. History, here, now!” Leaning against the door, cold but not conscious that she was cold, she found herself praying.
As she marched back upstairs she was startled. She fancied she saw a gray figure fleeing down the upper hall. She stopped. No sound.
“Heavens; I’m so wrought up! All jumpy. Shall I give papa the paper? Oh, I’m too trembly to talk to anyone.”
While the city went noise-mad it was a very solemn white small figure that crawled into bed. The emotion that for four years had been gathering burst into sobbing. She snuggled close, but she did not sleep. Presently: “My Red Cross work will be over soon. What can I do then? Come back to packing papa’s bag?”
She noticed a glow on the windows of the room beside the sleeping porch. “They’re lighting up the whole city. Wonder if I oughtn’t to go down and see the fun? Wonder if papa would like to go down? No, mother wouldn’t let him! Windows all shining. House might almost be afire.” Out of a nap she awoke sharply. “Oh, I wish the house were afire! I want the little old brown shack. Where Stacy could come and play. Mother used to give him cookies then.
“I wish I had the nerve to set the place afire. If I were a big fighting soul I would. But I’m a worm. Am I being bad to think this way? Guess so — committed mental arson, but hadn’t the nerve — My God, the house is afire!”
She was too frightened to move. She could smell smoke, hear a noise like the folding of stiff wrapping paper. Instantly, apparently without ever having got out of bed, she was running by a bedroom into which flames were licking from the clothes chute that led to the basement. “That dratted old furnace!” she could hear herself saying aloud. She was bursting into her parents’ room, hysterically shaking her mother.
“Get up! Get up!”
With a drowsy dignity her mother was saying, “Yes — I know — peace — get paper morning — let me sleep.”
“It’s fire! Fire! The house afire!”
Her mother sat up, a thick gray lock bobbing in front of one eye, and said indignantly, “How perfectly preposterous!”
Already Mr. Duke was out of bed, in smoke-prickly darkness, flapping his hands in the air. “Never could find that globe. Ought to have bedside light. Come, mother, jump up! Theo, have you got on a warm bathrobe?” He was cool. His voice trembled, but only with nervousness.
He charged down the back hall, Theo just behind. Mrs. Duke remained at the head of the front stairs, lamenting, “Don’t leave me!”
The flames were darting hissing heads into the hall. As Theo looked they caught a box couch and ran over an old chest of drawers. The heat seemed to slap her face.
“Can’t do anything. Get out of this. Wake the servants. You take your mother down,” bled Mr. Duke.
Theo had her mother into a loose gown, shoes and a huge fleecy couch cover, and down on the front porch, by the time Mr. Duke appeared driving the maids — Lizzie a gorgon in curl papers.
“Huh! Back stairs all afire,” he grunted, rubbing his chin. His fingers, rubbing then stopping, showed that for a split second he was thinking, “I need a shave.”
“Theo! Run down to the corner. Turn in alarm. I’ll try to phone. Then save things,” he commanded.
Moved by his coolness to a new passion of love Theo flung her arm, bare as the sleeve of her bathrobe fell from it, about his seamed neck, beseeching: “Don’t save anything but the cloisonné. Let ‘em burn. Won’t have you go in there, risk your life for things. Here — let me phone!”
Unreasoning she slammed the front door, bolted him out. She shouted their address and “Fire — hustle alarm!” at the telephone operator. In the largest drawing room she snatched bit after bit of cloisonné from the cabinet and dumped them into a wastebasket. Now the lower hall, at her back, was boiling with flame-tortured smoke. The noise expanded from crackling to a roar.
The window on the porch was smashed. Her father’s arm was reaching up to the catch, unlocking the window. He was crawling in. As the smoke encircled him he puffed like a man blowing out water after a dive.
Theo ran to him. “I didn’t want you here! I have the cloisonné — ”
As calmly as though he were arguing a point at cards he mumbled, “Yes, yes, yes! Don’t bother me. You forgot the two big saras in the wall safe.”
While the paint on the balusters in the hall bubbled and charred, and the heat was a pang in her lungs, he twirled the knob of the safe behind the big picture and drew out two cloisonné plates. Flames curled round the doorjamb of the room like fingers closing on a stick.
“We’re shut off!” Theo cried.
“Yep. Better get out. Here. Drop that basket!”
Mr. Duke snatched the cloisonné from her, dropped it, hurled away his two plates, shoved her to the window he had opened, helped her out on the porch. He himself was still in the burning room. She gripped his arm when he tried to dart back. The cloisonné was already hidden from them by puffs of smoke.
Mr. Duke glanced back. He eluded her; pulled his arm free; disappeared in the smoke. He came back with a cheap china vase that for a thing so small was monumentally ugly. As he swung out of the window he said, “Your mother always thought a lot of that vase.” Theo saw through eyes stinging with smoke that his hair had been scorched.
Fire engines were importantly unloading at the corner, firemen running up. A neighbor came to herd the Dukes into her house, and into more clothes.
Alone, from the room given to her by the neighbor, Theo watched her home burn. The flames were leering out of all the windows on the ground floor. Her father would never read the three-volume history that was too valuable for soldiers. Now the attic was glaring. Gone the elephant of a London traveling bag. Woolly smoke curled out of the kitchen windows as a fireman smashed them. Gone the fireless cooker that would not cook. She laughed. “It’s nicely cooked itself! Oh, I’m beastly. Poor mother. All her beautiful marked linen — ”
But she did not lose a sensation of running ungirdled, of breathing Maytime air.
Her father came in, dressed in the neighbor-host’s corduroy hunting coat, a pair of black dress trousers and red slippers. His hair was conscientiously combed, but his fingers still querulously examined the state of his unshaven chin.
She begged: “Daddy dear, it’s pretty bad, but don’t worry. We have plenty of money. We’ll make arrangements — ”
He took her arms from about his neck, walked to the window. The broken skeleton of their home was tombed in darkness as the firemen controlled the flames. He looked at Theo in a puzzled way.
He said hesitatingly: “No, I won’t worry. I guess it’s all right. You see — I set the house afire.”
She was silent, but her trembling fingers sought her lips as he went on: “Shoveled hot coals from the furnace into kindling bin in the basement. Huh! Yes. Used to be good furnace tender when I was a real man. Peace bells had woke me up. Wanted to be free. Hate destruction, but — no other way. Your mother wouldn’t let me sell the house. I was going mad, sticking there, waiting — waiting for death. Now your mother will be willing to come. Get a farm. Travel., And I been watching you. You couldn’t have had Stacy Lindstrom, long as that house bossed us. You almost caught me, in the hall, coming back from the basement. It was kind of hard, with house afire, to lie there in bed, quiet, so’s your mother wouldn’t ever know — waiting for you to come wake us up. You almost didn’t, in time. Would have had to confess. Uh, let’s go comfort your mother. She’s crying.”
Theo had moved away from him. “But it’s criminal! We’re stealing — robbing the insurance company.”
The wrinkles beside his eyes opened with laughter.
“No. Watched out for that. I was careful to be careless, and let all the insurance run out last month. Huh! Maybe I won’t catch it from your mother for that, though! Girl! Look! It’s dawn!”