Richmond Read-along 65
Welcome back to the Richmond Read-along! Today’s short story is a charming tale by Zona Gale, the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Gale decided that she was to be a writer as a child, completing a novel by the time she was thirteen. She initially made her living as a journalist, and also wrote novels, plays, poems and short stories. Her works revolved around small town American life, such as the town in Wisconsin that dominated her own life. Both critical and celebratory of her homely settings, Gale’s writing made her a beloved chronicler of Midwestern town life.
Gale was also very politically involved, being an ardent feminist, pacifist, liberal, and rights activist. She raised her child with her vegetarian diet, highly unusual in the early 1900s, and campaigned against the death penalty. She was also highly critical of materialist notions and the dominant economic ideas of competition, speaking instead for a system of cooperation. Towards the end of her life, Gale was swept up in the spiritualism of the time, and many of her later stories deal with mysticism.
The story we are reading today is an example of the portrayal of small town life that Gale did so well. Funny, poignant, sweet and ultimately upbeat and reassuring, it is one of Gale’s less ambitious stories, but does not suffer for lack of sophistication.
After breakfast one morning Peleas and I were standing at the drawing-room window watching a snowstorm. It was an unassuming storm of little flakes and infrequent gusts, and hardly looked important enough to keep a baby indoors. But we who have old age and rheumatism and heaven knows what to think of, are obliged to forego our walk if so much as a sprinkling-cart passes.
This always makes Peleas cross, and I myself, that morning, was disposed to take exception, and to fail to understand, and to resort to all the ill-bred devices of well-bred people, who are too polite to be openly quarrelsome.
“What a bony horse!” remarked Peleas
“I don’t think so,” I said; “its ribs don’t show in the least.”
“It’s bony,” reiterated Peleas irritably. “It isn’t well fed.”
“Perhaps,” said I, “that’s its type. A good many people would say that a slender woman——”
“They’re bony, too,” went on Peleas decidedly. “I never saw a slender woman yet who looked as if she had enough to eat.”
“Peleas!” I cried, aghast at such defection, “think of the women with lovely tapering waists ”
“Bean-poles,” said Peleas.
“And sloping shoulders——”
“Yes—pagoda-shaped shoulders,” said Peleas.
“And delicate, pointed faces——”
“They look hungry—every one of them—and bony,” Peleas dismissed the matter—Peleas who, in saner moods, commiserates me on my appalling plumpness!
“There’s the butter-woman,” said I, to change the subject.
“Yes,” said Peleas resentfully, finding fresh fuel in this, “Nichola uses four times too much butter in everything.”
“Peleas,” I rebuked him, “you know how careful she is.”
“No, I don’t,” replied Peleas stubbornly; “she’s extravagant in butter.”
“She uses a great deal of oil,” said I tremulously, not certain whether oil is cheaper.
“Butter, butter—she spreads butter on her soup,” stormed Peleas “I believe she uses butter to boil water——”
Then I laughed. Peleas is never more adorable than when he is cross—at someone else.
At that very moment the boy who was driving the butter-woman’s wagon began to whistle. It was a thin, rich little tune—a tune that pours slowly, like honey. I am not musical, but I can always tell honey-tunes. At sound of it Peleas’s face lighted as if at a prescription of magic.
“Ettare! Ettare!” he cried, “do you hear that tune?”
“Yes,” I said breathlessly.
“Do you remember——?”
“No,” said I, just as breathlessly.
“It’s the Varsovienne,” cried Peleas, “that we danced together the night that I met you, Ettare!”
With that Peleas caught me about the waist and hummed the air with all his might and whirled me down the long room more breathless than ever.
“Peleas!” I struggled, “I don’t know it. Let me go.”
For it has been forty years since I have danced or thought of dancing, and I could not in the least remember the silly step.
Leaving me to regain my breath as best I might, Peleas was off up the room, around chairs and about tables, stepping long and short, turning, retreating, and singing louder and louder.
“You stood over there,” he cried, still dancing, “the music had begun, and I was not your partner—but I caught you away before you could say no, and we danced—tol te tol te tol——”
Peleas performed with his back to the hall door. It opened softly, and he did not hear. There stood Nichola. I have never before seen that grim old woman look astonished, but at sight of the flying figure of Peleas she seemed ready to run away. It was something to see old Nichola nonplussed. Our old servant is a brave woman, afraid of nothing on earth but an artificial bath-water heater, which she would rather die than light, but the spectacle of Peleas, dancing, seemed actually to frighten her. She stood silent for a full minute—and this in itself was amazing in Nichola, whom I have always feared to take to the theatre, lest she answer back to the player-talk.
In one of the most frantic of his revolutions, Peleas faced the door and saw her. He stopped short as if he had been a toy and someone had ceased drawing the string. He was frightfully abashed, and was therefore never more haughty.
“Nichola,” said he, with lifted brows, “we did not ring.”
Nichola remained motionless, her little bead eyes, which have not grown old with the rest of her, quite round in contemplation.
“We are busy, Nichola,” repeated Peleas, slightly raising his voice.
Then Nichola came to and rolled her eyes naturally.
“Yah!” said she, with a dignity too fine for scorn. “Was it, then, a fire-drill?”
Really, Nichola tyrannizes over us and bullies us about in a manner not to be borne. We tell each other this every day.
Peleas looked at me rather foolishly for a minute when she had disappeared.
“That was the way it went,” said he, ignoring the interruption as one always does when one is nettled: “Tol te tol te tol——”
“Why don’t you sing da de da de da, Peleas?” I inquired, having noticed before that all the world is divided into those who sing tol, or da, or la, or na. “I always say ‘da.'”
“I prefer ‘tol,'” said Peleas shortly.
Some time I am going to classify people according to that one peculiarity, and see what so pronounced a characteristic can possibly augur.
“Dear, dear,” said I, to restore his good humor, “what a beau you were at that ball, Peleas.”
“Nonsense!” said Peleas, trying to conceal his pleasure.
“And how a few of us have kept together since,” I went on. “There are Polly Cleatam and Sally Chartres and their husbands, all living near us; and there’s Miss Lillieblade, too.”
“That’s so,” said Peleas, “and I suppose they all remember that very night—our night.”
“Of course,” said I confidently.
Peleas meditated, one hand over his mouth, his elbow on his knee.
“I wonder,” he said, “I was thinking—I wouldn’t be surprised if—well, why couldn’t we?”
He stopped and looked at me in some suspicion that I knew what he meant.
“Have them all here some evening?” said I daringly.
“And dance!” said he, in his most venturesome mood.
“Peleas,” I cried, “and all wear our old-fashioned things!”
Peleas smiled at me speechlessly.
The plan grew large in the eyes of both of us even before I remembered the climax of the matter.
“Thursday,” I said in a whisper, “Thursday, Peleas, is Nichola’s day out!
“Nichola’s day out” sounds most absurd to anyone who has seen our old servant. When she came to us, forty-odd years ago, she had landed but two weeks before from Italy and was a swarthy little beauty in the twenties. She spoke little English and was deliciously amazed at everything, and her Italian friends used to come and take her out once a week, on Thursday. With her black eyes flashing, she would tell me next night, while she dressed me for a ball, of the amazing sights that had been permitted to her. Those were the days when we had many servants, and Nichola was my own maid; then gradually all the rest left and Nichola alone remained—even through one black year when she had not a centime of wages. And so she had grown gray and bent in our service, and had changed in appearance, and lost her graces and her disposition alike. One thing only remained the same—she still had Thursday evenings “out.”
Where in the world she found to go, now, was a favorite subject of speculation with Peleas and me. She had no friends, no one came to see her, she did not mention frequenting any house; she was openly averse to the dark—not afraid, but averse; and her contempt for all places of amusement was second only to her distrust of the cable-cars. Yet every Thursday evening she set forth in her best purple bonnet and black “circular” and was gone until eleven o’clock. Old, lonely, withered woman—where did she go?
Peleas and I used to wonder about it week by week, and now, for the first time, we planned to take a base and harmless advantage of her absence. We meant to give a party—a dance—with seven guests. Nichola, we decided, would not have supported the idea for one moment; she would have had a thousand silly objections about my sleeplessness and our digestion and Peleas’s nerves. We argued now that all three objections were inadequate, and that Nichola was made for us, not we for Nichola. This bold innovation of thought alone will show how adventuresome we were become.
We set about our preparation with proper caution. We had a disagreement at the outset, for whereas Peleas was eager to begin by inviting our guests, I was determined first to find out if any one of the old gowns in the garret chests might be worn. I kept Peleas for one whole forenoon in the kitchen, driving Nichola nearly mad with his forced excuses for staying, while I risked my old neck among boxes so long undisturbed that one would have said that they might have dreamed dresses within their empty walls in that long sleep. At last I lifted it from its place—the lustrous white silk that I had worn on the night that I met Peleas. It was as if the fragrance of that time had wrapped it round all these years and kept it fresh. Peleas and I had looked at it together sometimes and had smiled at each other and remembered, but for very long it had lain quite unregarded. The fine lace about the throat was yellowed, and it had caught the odors of the lonely days and nights, but it was no less beautiful in my eyes than the night when I had first worn it.
I hid it away in my closet beneath sober raiment, and went innocently downstairs to release Peleas.
“Dear,” said I, entering the kitchen, “don’t you want to come up and read for a little?”
Nichola looked at me at once, and without a word led me to the looking-glass in the door of the clock.
“Ah?” questioned she suspiciously. “Is it that you have built fires?”
There was a great place of dust on my cheek. I am a blundering criminal and should never be allowed in these choice informalities.
That afternoon, while Nichola was about her marketing, Peleas and I undertook to telephone to our guests. We seldom telephone, and we were both nervous at the idea. We turned on the lights in the hall, and I found the numbers as my share, for—though Peleas claims stoutly that his eyes are as good as mine—I lose no opportunity to prove my superiority of vision. Then Peleas said something like this to our friends:
“Do you remember the ball at the Selby-Whitfords? Yes—the one forty-nine years ago this winter. Well, Ettare and I are going to give another one to the seven survivors. Yes—a ball. Just we seven. And you must wear something that you might have worn that night. It’s going to be Thursday, at eight o’clock, and it’s quite a secret. Can you come?”
Could they come! Although the “seven survivors” suggested a steamship disaster, they could have risen to the occasion with no more thanksgiving. At the light that broke over Peleas’s face at their answers my old heart throbbed and I pressed my cheek against his coat sleeve in my anxiety to know what was being said. Could they come! Polly Cleatam promised for herself and her husband, although all their grandchildren were their guests that week. Sally Chartres’s son, a stout, middle-aged senator, was with her, but she said that she would leave him with his nurse; and Miss “Willy” Lillieblade—she was Wilhelmina—cried out at first that she was a sight with neuralgia and, at second thought, added that she would come anyway, and, if necessary, be buried right from our house.
The hall was dark and silent again when Nichola came toiling home, and there was nothing to tell her, as we thought, what a company of sweet presences had filled the air in her absence. Nor in the three days of our preparation did we leave behind, as we were sure, one scrap or one breath of evidence against us. We worked with the delighted caution of naughty children or escaping convicts. Peleas, who has a most delicate taste in sweets, ordered cakes while he took his afternoon walk, and went back to the shop every day to charge the man not to deliver the things until the evening. My sewing-woman’s son plays the violin divinely, and it was easy to engage him, and his sister to accompany him. Meanwhile, I rearranged my old gown, longing for Nichola, who has genius in more than cookery. To be sure, Peleas did his best to help me, though he knows no more of such matters than the spirits of the air; he can button very well, but to hook is utterly beyond his simple art. However, he attended to everything else. After dark, on Thursday, he smuggled some roses into the house, and though I set the pitcher in my closet, I could smell the flowers distinctly while we were at dinner. It is frightful to have a conscience that can produce not only terrors but fragrances!
We were in a fever of excitement until Nichola got off. While Peleas tidied the drawing-room, I went down and wiped the dishes for her—in itself a matter to excite suspicion—and I broke a cup and was meek enough when Nichola scolded me. Every moment I expected the ice cream to arrive, in which event I believe that I would have tried to prove to Nichola that it was a prescription, and that the cakes were for the poor.
Peleas and I waited fearfully over the drawing-room fire, dreading her appearance at the door to say “good night,” for to our minds every chair and fixture was signaling a radiant, “Party! Party!” like a clarion. However, she thrust in her old face, nodded, and safely withdrew, and we heard the street door close. Thereupon we got upstairs at a perilous pace, and I had down the white gown in a twinkling, while Peleas, his dear hands trembling, made ready too.
I hardly looked in the mirror, for the roses had yet to be arranged. I gathered them in my arms, and Peleas followed me down, and as we entered the drawing-room I felt his arm about my waist.
“Ettare!” he said. “Look, Ettare!”
He led me to the great, gilt-framed cheval glass between the windows. I looked—since he was determined to have me.
I remembered her so well—that other I who stood before the glass forty-nine years ago that very month, dressed for the Selby-Whitford ball. The brown hair of the girl whom I remembered was piled high on her head and fastened with one red rose; the fine lace lay about her pretty throat and fell upon her white arms, and the shining folds of the silk touched and lifted about her, over a petticoat of lawn and lace. And here was the white gown, and here the petticoat and tucker, and my hair, which is quite white, too, was piled high, and held its one rose. The white roses in my arms and in my hair were like ghosts of the red ones that I had carried at that other ball—but I was no ghost! For as I looked at Peleas, and saw his dear face shining, and remembered our long love, I knew suddenly that I am, rather, the happy spirit risen from the dead days when roses were not white—only red.
Peleas bent to kiss me—bent just enough to make me stand on tiptoe as he always does, and then the door-bell rang.
“Peleas,” I scolded, “and the roses not arranged!”
“You know that you wanted to,” said Peleas shamelessly. And the truth of this did not in the least prevent my contradicting it.
Sally Chartres and Wilfred came first, Sally talking high and fast, as of old. Such a dear little old lady as Sally is—I can hardly write her down “old lady” without a smile at the hyperbole—for though she is more than seventy and is really Madame Sarah Chartres, she knows and I know the cheat—and that she is just Sally all the while.
She threw off her cloak in the middle of the floor, and made a beautiful courtesy, her pearl earrings and necklace bobbing and ticking. At sight of her blue gown, ruffled to the waist and laced with black velvet, I threw my arms about her, and we wellnigh laughed and cried together—for we both remembered how, before she was sure that Wilfred loved her, she had spent the night with me after a ball and had sat by the window, night long, in that very blue frock, weeping on my shoulder because Wilfred had danced so often with Polly Cleatam. And now here was Wilfred looking as if he had had no thought but Sally all his days.
In came Polly Cleatam herself presently, in her old silk poplin trimmed with fringe, and her dimples were as deep as on the day of her elopement. Polly was nineteen when she eloped, on the evening of her debut, with Horace, who was not among the guests—and the sequel is of the sort that should be suppressed, but I must tell it, being a very truthful old woman and having once assisted at an elopement myself: They are very happy. Polly is adorable as an old lady—she has been a grandmother for nineteen years, and the offense is Enid’s best friend. But whereas Sally and I have no idea of our own age, Polly, since her elopement, has rebounded into a Restraining Influence. That often happens—I think that the severest-looking women whom I know have eloped and come to think better of—everything else. The women who have no little histories like this never look severe. Polly, with an elopement behind her, is invariably the one to say, “Hush,” and “I wouldn’t.”
Miss “Willy” Lillieblade was late. She came in wound in costly furs—heaven provided her bank account in the neuter gender—and she stood revealed in a gorgeous flowered gown—new, but quite like the one that she had worn at the very ball that we were celebrating. Miss Lillieblade is tiny; her hair has turned only a little, and she seems to have taken on none of the graces of age. She has grown old like an India-rubber ball, retaining some of her elasticity and constantly suggesting her former self, instead of becoming another article altogether. She has adopted caps—not soft, black old-lady caps, but perky little French affairs of white. She is a good deal bent, and she walks with a tall, white staff, silver-headed—the head being filled with two kinds of pills, though few know about that.
We were a great contrast, I suspect; for Miss Lillieblade is become a fairy-godmother-looking old lady; Polly Cleatam has taken on severity and poise and has conquered all obstacles but her dimples; Sally has developed into a grande dame of old lace and Roman mosaic pins, and I look for all the world like the plump grandmothers that they paint on calendars.
Peleas and Wilfred and Horace talked us over.
“Boys,” said Wilfred, “they don’t look a day older than when we were married—and Miss Willy is younger than anybody!”
Wilfred, who used to be slim and bored, is the plumpest, rosiest old gentleman, interested in everything to the point—never beyond!—of curiosity. Oh, these youthful poses of languor and faint surprise—how they exchange themselves, in spite of themselves, for sterling coin!
Horace beamed across at Polly—Horace is a man of affairs, still in active life in Nassau street, and his name is conjured with as the line between his eyes would lead one to suspect; yet his eyes twinkled quite as they used before the line was there.
“Polly,” he begged, “may I call you ‘Polly’ tonight? I’ve been restricted to ‘Penelope,'” he explained, “ever since our Polly was born, and she’s forty, and now her husband is condemned to the same practice. I dare say little Polly will rebuke us any day for undue familiarity. May I say ‘Polly’?”
Peleas was smiling.
“I leave it to you,” he said to everybody, “to say if Ettare’s hair was not white at our wedding? She has never looked any other way than the way she looks now.”
Miss “Willy” Lillieblade sighed and tapped with her stick.
“Pooh!” said she, “old married people always live in the past. I’m a young thing of seventy-four, and I’ve learned to live in the present. Let’s dance. My neuralgia is coming back.”
We had the chairs away in a minute, and Peleas summoned the little musicians from the dining-room—a Danish lad with a mane of straight, light hair over his eyes, and his equally Danish sister in a collarless loose wool frock. They struck into the Varsovienne with a will—heaven knows where they had unearthed the music—and at the sound my old heart bounded and, Peleas having taught me the step when Nichola was not looking, I danced away with Horace as if I knew how to do nothing else. Peleas danced with Miss “Willy,” who kept her stick in her hand and would tap the floor with it at all the impertinent rests in the music, while Peleas sang “tol” above everything.
Sally insisted upon dancing alone—I suspect because her little feet are almost as trim as when she wore ones. She lifted her blue gown and sailed about among us, and Polly put on her set expression and kept her head prettily on one side for all the world as she used, though her gray curls were bobbing. Wilfred, who suffers frightfully from gout, kept beside her at a famous pace, and his eyes were squinted with the pain. “Tol te tol te tol!” insisted Peleas, with Miss “Willy” holding her hand to her neuralgia as she whirled. I looked down at the figures of the carpet gliding under my feet, and for one charmed moment, with the lilt of the music in my blood, I could have sworn that now was not now, but then!
This lasted, as you may imagine, somewhat less than three minutes. Breathless and limp, we sank down one by one, though Sally and Peleas out-danced us all, and kept on until we dreaded to think what the morrow held for them both. Miss Lillieblade was down on her knees by the fire, trying to warm her painful cheek on an andiron knob, and laughing happily. Polly, with flushed face and tumbled hair, forgetful of nudity and poise, was fanning herself with a plaque that had been knocked down. We all knew, for that matter, that we would have to pay—but then we paid anyway. If one has to have gout and attendant evils, one might as well make it a fair exchange for innocent pleasure, instead of permitting it to be mere usury! Peleas said that, afterward.
Sally suddenly laughed aloud.
“They think that we have to be helped up and down steps!” she said blithely.
We caught her meaning, and joined in the laugh at the expense of a world that fancied we had had our day.
“If we liked,” said Miss Lillieblade, “I have no doubt we could meet here every night, when no one was looking, and be our exact selves of the Selby-Whitford ball.”
Horace smiled across at Polly.
“Who would read them to sleep with fairy stories?” he demanded.
Polly nodded her gray curls and smiled tenderly.
“And who would get my son, the senator, a drink of water when he cried for it?” demanded Sally gaily.
Peleas and I were silent. The evenings that we spent together in the nursery were so bitterly long ago. …
“Ah, well,” said Miss Lillieblade, with a little sigh, “I could come, at any rate.”
She was silent for a moment.
“Let’s dance again!” she cried. We danced a six-step—those little people could play anything that we asked for—and then we walked through a minuet, to rest, Peleas playing a double role in that. And thereafter we all sat down and shook our heads at the music, and pretended to be most exhausted, and I was glad that the rest pretended, for I was really weak with fatigue, and so was Peleas. For half an hour we sat about the fire. Miss “Willy” with her face usually on the andiron, though she recalled more delightful things than anybody.
“Then there was Aunt Effie, in Vermont,” she said, her voice cracking on its high tones, “who went about, when the plain skirts came in, declaring that she never would have one that wasn’t full, because she couldn’t make a comforter out of it afterward!”
In the laugh that followed Peleas and I slipped out. We were both in an agony of foreboding, for we had not once heard the area bell ring, and if the ices and cakes had been left outside it would probably be true that, by now, they had gone to the poor.
The back stairway was dark—Nichola always extinguished all the lower lights when she went out. We groped our way down the stairs as best we might, Peleas clasping my hand. We were breathing quickly, and for myself, my knees were trembling. The enormity of our situation for the first time overcame me. What if the ice cream had not come? Or had been stolen? What about plates? And spoons? Where did Nichola keep the best napkins? And, after all, Sally was Madame Sarah Chartres, whose entertainments had been superb. All this flooded my spirit at once, and I clung to Peleas for strength.
“Peleas,” I whispered weakly, “did the ice cream man promise to have it here in time?”
“He’s had to promise every day since I first ordered it,” Peleas assured me cheerfully; “five or six times, in all.”
“Oh,” said I, as if I had no character, “I feel as if I would faint, Peleas!”
Three steps from the bottom I stood still and caught at his coat. Through the crack over the top of the door I could see a light—in the kitchen! At the same moment an odor—faint, permeating, delicious, unmistakable—saluted us both. It was coffee!
Peleas flung open the door, and we stood transfixed on the lowest step.
The kitchen was brightly lighted, and a hot fire blazed on the hearth. The gas-range was burning, and there a kettle of coffee was playing its fragrant role. Plates, napkins and silver were on the dresser; the ice cream freezer was under the window; and on the table stood the cakes, cut, and flanked by a great tray of thin white sandwiches. And in the rocking-chair before the fire, wearing her best white apron and waiting with closed eyes sat—Nichola!
“Oh, Nichola!” we cried together in awed voices, “Nichola!”
She opened one eye, without so much as lifting her head.
“For the love of heaven!” said she, “I’m glad you’ve come, at last. The coffee is just ready. Go back up-stairs, both of you!”
We went. In the dark of the stairway we clung to each other, filled with amazement and thanksgiving. We could hear Nichola moving briskly about the kitchen, collecting her delicacies. How had she found us out?
From above stairs came the laughter of the others—echoes of that ancient ball which we had been pretending to relive—trading that empty past for the largess and beauty of now!
Peleas slipped his arm about me to help me up the stairs.
“Oh, dear heart,” I cried suddenly and happily, “I’m so glad that now is now—and not then!”
Come back tomorrow for the next Richmond Read-along!