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Chapter 1

MR. AND MRS. EDWARD ROBERTS; THE CHOREWOMAN

Mrs. Roberts, with many proofs of an afternoon's shopping in her hands and arms, appears at the door of the ladies' room, opening from the public hall, and studies the interior with a searching gaze, which develops a few suburban shoppers scattered over the settees, with their bags and packages, and two or three old ladies in the rocking-chairs. The Chorewoman is going about with a Saturday afternoon pail and mop, and profiting by the disoccupation of the place in the hour between the departures of two great expresses, to wipe up the floor. She passes near the door where Mrs. Roberts is standing, and Mrs. Roberts appeals to her in the anxiety which her failure to detect the object of her search has awakened: "Oh, I was just looking for my husband. He was to meet me here at ten minutes past three; but there don't seem to be any gentlemen."

The Chorewoman: "Mem?"

Mrs. Roberts: "I was just looking for my husband. He was to meet me here at ten minutes past three; but there don't seem to be any gentlemen. You haven't happened to notice—"

The Chorewoman: "There's a gentleman over there beyant, readin', that's just come in. He seemed to be lukun' for somebody." She applies the mop to the floor close to Mrs. Roberts's skirts.

Mrs. Roberts, bending to the right and to the left, and then, by standing on tiptoe, catching sight of a hat round a pillar: "Then it's Mr. Roberts, of course. I'll just go right over to him. Thank you ever so much. Don't disturb yourself!" She picks her way round the area of damp left by the mop, and approaches the hat from behind. "It is you, Edward! What a horrid idea I had! I was just going to touch your hat from behind, for fun; but I kept myself from it in time."

Roberts, looking up with a dazed air from the magazine in his hand: "Why, what would have happened?"

Mrs. Roberts: "Oh, you know it mightn't have been you."

Roberts: "But it was I."

Mrs. Roberts: "Yes, I know; and I was perfectly sure of it; you're always so prompt, and I always wonder at it, such an absent-minded creature as you are. But you came near spoiling everything by getting here behind this pillar, and burying yourself in your book that way. If it hadn't been for my principle of always asking questions, I never should have found you in the world. But just as I was really beginning to despair, the Chorewoman came by, and I asked her if she had seen any gentleman here lately; and she said there was one now, over here, and I stretched up and saw you. I had such a fright for a moment, not seeing you; for I left my little plush bag with my purse in it at Stearns's, and I've got to hurry right back; though I'm afraid they'll be shut when I get there, Saturday afternoon, this way; but I'm going to rattle at the front door, and perhaps they'll come—they always stay, some of them, to put the goods away; and I can tell them I don't want to buy anything, but I left my bag with my purse in it, and I guess they'll let me in. I want you to keep these things for me, Edward; and I'll leave my shopping-bag; I sha'n't want it any more. Don't lose any of them. Better keep them all in your lap here together, and then nobody will come and sit on them." She disburdens herself of her packages and parcels, and arranges them on her husband's knees, while she goes on talking. "I'm almost ready to drop, I'm so tired, and I do believe I should let you go up to Stearns's for me; but you couldn't describe the bag so they would recognize it, let alone what was in it, and they wouldn't give it to you, even if they would let you in to inquire: they're much more likely to let a lady in than a gentleman. But I shall take a coupe, and tell the driver simply to fly, though there's plenty of time to go to the ends of the earth and back before our train starts. Only I should like to be here to receive the Campbells, and keep Willis from buying tickets for Amy and himself, and us, too, for that matter; he has that vulgar passion—I don't know where he's picked it up—for wanting to pay everybody's way; and you'd never think of your Hundred-Trip ticket-book till it was too late. Do take your book out and hold it in your hand, so you'll be sure to remember it, as soon as you see Willis. You had better keep saying over to yourself, 'Willis—Hundred-Trip Tickets—Willis—Hundred-Trip Tickets;' that's the way I do. Where is the book? I have to remember everything! Do keep your ticket-book in your hand, Edward, till Willis comes."

Roberts: "But I want to read, Agnes, and I've got to hold my Pop. Sci. with one hand and keep your traps in my lap with the other. Did you find a cook?"

Mrs. Roberts, with rapturous admiration of him: "Well, Edward, you have got a brain! I declare, the cook had utterly gone out of my mind. Forgetting that plush bag makes me forget everything. I've got a splendid one—a perfect treasure. She won't do any of the wash, and we'll have to put that out; and she's been used to having a kitchen-maid; but she said we were such a small family that she could shell the pease herself. She's the most respectable-looking old thing you ever saw; and she's been having ten dollars a week from the last family she was in; but she'll come the summer with us for six. I was very fortunate to get her; all the good girls are snapped up for the sea-side in May, and they won't go into the country for love or money. It was the greatest chance! She's such a neat, quiet, lady-like person, and all the better for being Irish and a Catholic: Catholics do give so much more of a flavor; and I never could associate that Nova Scotia, sunken-cheeked leanness of Maria's with a cook. This one's name is—well, I forget what her name is; Bridget, or Norah, or something like that—and she's a perfect little butter-ball. She's coming to go out on the same train with us; and she'll get the dinner to-night; and I sha'n't have the mortification of sitting down to a pickup meal with Amy Campbell, the first time she has visited us; she's conceited enough about her house-keeping as it is, I'm sure, and I wouldn't have her patronizing and pitying me for worlds. The cook will be here at half-past three precisely; I had to pretend the train started a little earlier than it does so as to make her punctual; they are such uncertain things! and I don't suppose I shall be back by that time, quite, Edward, and so you must receive her. Let me see!" She glances up at the clock on the wall. "It's just quarter-past now, and our train goes at ten minutes to four—My goodness! I'll have to hurry."

The Colored Man who cries the trains, walking half-way into the room and then out: "Cars ready for Cottage Farms, Longwood, Chestnut Hill, Brookline, Newton Centre, Newton Highlands, Waban, Riverside, and all stations between Riverside and Boston. Circuit Line train now ready on Track No. 3."

Mrs. Roberts, in extreme agitation: "Good gracious, Edward, that's our train!"

Roberts, jumping to his feet and dropping all her packages: "No, no, it isn't, my dear! That's the Circuit Line train: didn't you hear? Ours doesn't go till ten to four, on the Main Line."

Mrs. Roberts: "Oh yes, so it does. How ridiculous! But now I must run away and leave you, or I never shall get back in time. Be sure to speak to the cook as soon as she comes in, or she'll get discouraged and go away again; you can't depend on them for an instant; I told her you would be here to meet her, if I wasn't—I thought I might be late; and you mustn't let her slip. And if the Campbells happen to get here before I'm back, don't you give them the least inkling of our having just engaged a cook. I'm going to smuggle her into the house without Amy's knowing it; I wouldn't have her know it for the world. She prides herself on keeping that impudent, spoiled thing of hers, with her two soups; and she would simply never stop crowing if she knew I'd had to change cooks in the middle of the summer."

Roberts, picking up and dropping the multitudinous packages, and finally sitting down with them all in his lap, very red and heated: "I'll be careful, my dear."

Mrs. Roberts: "How flushed you are, bending over! You're so stout now, you ought to bend sidewise; it's perfect folly, your trying to bend straight over; you'll get apoplexy. But now I must run, or I shall never be back in the world. Don't forget to look out for the cook!"

Roberts, at whom she glances with misgiving as she runs out, holding the parcels on his knees with both elbows and one hand, and contriving with the help of his chin to get his magazine open again: "No, no; I won't, my dear." He loses himself in his reading, while people come and go restlessly. A gentleman finally drops into the seat beside him, and contemplates his absorption with friendly amusement.

William Dean Howells

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