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Chapter 8

VIII.

The notion that a girl of Margaret Vance's traditions would naturally form of girls like Christine and Mela Dryfoos would be that they were abashed in the presence of the new conditions of their lives, and that they must receive the advance she had made them with a certain grateful humility. However they received it, she had made it upon principle, from a romantic conception of duty; but this was the way she imagined they would receive it, because she thought that she would have done so if she had been as ignorant and unbred as they. Her error was in arguing their attitude from her own temperament, and endowing them, for the purposes of argument, with her perspective. They had not the means, intellectual or moral, of feeling as she fancied. If they had remained at home on the farm where they were born, Christine would have grown up that embodiment of impassioned suspicion which we find oftenest in the narrowest spheres, and Mela would always have been a good-natured simpleton; but they would never have doubted their equality with the wisest and the finest. As it was, they had not learned enough at school to doubt it, and the splendor of their father's success in making money had blinded them forever to any possible difference against them. They had no question of themselves in the social abeyance to which they had been left in New York. They had been surprised, mystified; it was not what they had expected; there must be some mistake.

They were the victims of an accident, which would be repaired as soon as the fact of their father's wealth had got around. They had been steadfast in their faith, through all their disappointment, that they were not only better than most people by virtue of his money, but as good as any; and they took Margaret's visit, so far as they, investigated its motive, for a sign that at last it was beginning to get around; of course, a thing could not get around in New York so quick as it could in a small place. They were confirmed in their belief by the sensation of Mrs. Mandel when she returned to duty that afternoon, and they consulted her about going to Mrs. Horn's musicale. If she had felt any doubt at the name for there were Horns and Horns—the address on the card put the matter beyond question; and she tried to make her charges understand what a precious chance had befallen them. She did not succeed; they had not the premises, the experience, for a sufficient impression; and she undid her work in part by the effort to explain that Mrs. Horn's standing was independent of money; that though she was positively rich, she was comparatively poor. Christine inferred that Miss Vance had called because she wished to be the first to get in with them since it had begun to get around. This view commended itself to Mela, too, but without warping her from her opinion that Miss Vance was all the same too sweet for anything. She had not so vivid a consciousness of her father's money as Christine had; but she reposed perhaps all the more confidently upon its power. She was far from thinking meanly of any one who thought highly of her for it; that seemed so natural a result as to be amiable, even admirable; she was willing that any such person should get all the good there was in such an attitude toward her.

They discussed the matter that night at dinner before their father and mother, who mostly sat silent at their meals; the father frowning absently over his plate, with his head close to it, and making play into his mouth with the back of his knife (he had got so far toward the use of his fork as to despise those who still ate from the edge of their knives), and the mother partly missing hers at times in the nervous tremor that shook her face from side to side.

After a while the subject of Mela's hoarse babble and of Christine's high-pitched, thin, sharp forays of assertion and denial in the field which her sister's voice seemed to cover, made its way into the old man's consciousness, and he perceived that they were talking with Mrs. Mandel about it, and that his wife was from time to time offering an irrelevant and mistaken comment. He agreed with Christine, and silently took her view of the affair some time before he made any sign of having listened. There had been a time in his life when other things besides his money seemed admirable to him. He had once respected himself for the hard-headed, practical common sense which first gave him standing among his country neighbors; which made him supervisor, school trustee, justice of the peace, county commissioner, secretary of the Moffitt County Agricultural Society. In those days he had served the public with disinterested zeal and proud ability; he used to write to the Lake Shore Farmer on agricultural topics; he took part in opposing, through the Moffitt papers, the legislative waste of the people's money; on the question of selling a local canal to the railroad company, which killed that fine old State work, and let the dry ditch grow up to grass, he might have gone to the Legislature, but he contented himself with defeating the Moffitt member who had voted for the job. If he opposed some measures for the general good, like high schools and school libraries, it was because he lacked perspective, in his intense individualism, and suspected all expense of being spendthrift. He believed in good district schools, and he had a fondness, crude but genuine, for some kinds of reading—history, and forensics of an elementary sort.

With his good head for figures he doubted doctors and despised preachers; he thought lawyers were all rascals, but he respected them for their ability; he was not himself litigious, but he enjoyed the intellectual encounters of a difficult lawsuit, and he often attended a sitting of the fall term of court, when he went to town, for the pleasure of hearing the speeches. He was a good citizen, and a good husband. As a good father, he was rather severe with his children, and used to whip them, especially the gentle Conrad, who somehow crossed him most, till the twins died. After that he never struck any of them; and from the sight of a blow dealt a horse he turned as if sick. It was a long time before he lifted himself up from his sorrow, and then the will of the man seemed to have been breached through his affections. He let the girls do as they pleased—the twins had been girls; he let them go away to school, and got them a piano. It was they who made him sell the farm. If Conrad had only had their spirit he could have made him keep it, he felt; and he resented the want of support he might have found in a less yielding spirit than his son's.

His moral decay began with his perception of the opportunity of making money quickly and abundantly, which offered itself to him after he sold his farm. He awoke to it slowly, from a desolation in which he tasted the last bitter of homesickness, the utter misery of idleness and listlessness. When he broke down and cried for the hard-working, wholesome life he had lost, he was near the end of this season of despair, but he was also near the end of what was best in himself. He devolved upon a meaner ideal than that of conservative good citizenship, which had been his chief moral experience: the money he had already made without effort and without merit bred its unholy self-love in him; he began to honor money, especially money that had been won suddenly and in large sums; for money that had been earned painfully, slowly, and in little amounts, he had only pity and contempt. The poison of that ambition to go somewhere and be somebody which the local speculators had instilled into him began to work in the vanity which had succeeded his somewhat scornful self-respect; he rejected Europe as the proper field for his expansion; he rejected Washington; he preferred New York, whither the men who have made money and do not yet know that money has made them, all instinctively turn. He came where he could watch his money breed more money, and bring greater increase of its kind in an hour of luck than the toil of hundreds of men could earn in a year. He called it speculation, stocks, the Street; and his pride, his faith in himself, mounted with his luck. He expected, when he had sated his greed, to begin to spend, and he had formulated an intention to build a great house, to add another to the palaces of the country-bred millionaires who have come to adorn the great city. In the mean time he made little account of the things that occupied his children, except to fret at the ungrateful indifference of his son to the interests that could alone make a man of him. He did not know whether his daughters were in society or not; with people coming and going in the house he would have supposed they must be so, no matter who the people were; in some vague way he felt that he had hired society in Mrs. Mandel, at so much a year. He never met a superior himself except now and then a man of twenty or thirty millions to his one or two, and then he felt his soul creep within him, without a sense of social inferiority; it was a question of financial inferiority; and though Dryfoos's soul bowed itself and crawled, it was with a gambler's admiration of wonderful luck. Other men said these many-millioned millionaires were smart, and got their money by sharp practices to which lesser men could not attain; but Dryfoos believed that he could compass the same ends, by the same means, with the same chances; he respected their money, not them.

When he now heard Mrs. Mandel and his daughters talking of that person, whoever she was, that Mrs. Mandel seemed to think had honored his girls by coming to see them, his curiosity was pricked as much as his pride was galled.

"Well, anyway," said Mela, "I don't care whether Christine's goon' or not; I am. And you got to go with me, Mrs. Mandel."

"Well, there's a little difficulty," said Mrs. Mandel, with her unfailing dignity and politeness. "I haven't been asked, you know."

"Then what are we goun' to do?" demanded Mela, almost crossly. She was physically too amiable, she felt too well corporeally, ever to be quite cross. "She might 'a' knowed—well known—we couldn't 'a' come alone, in New York. I don't see why, we couldn't. I don't call it much of an invitation."

"I suppose she thought you could come with your mother," Mrs. Mandel suggested.

"She didn't say anything about mother: Did she, Christine? Or, yes, she did, too. And I told her she couldn't git mother out. Don't you remember?"

"I didn't pay much attention," said Christine. "I wasn't certain we wanted to go."

"I reckon you wasn't goun' to let her see that we cared much," said Mela, half reproachful, half proud of this attitude of Christine. "Well, I don't see but what we got to stay at home." She laughed at this lame conclusion of the matter.

"Perhaps Mr. Conrad—you could very properly take him without an express invitation—" Mrs. Mandel began.

Conrad looked up in alarm and protest. "I—I don't think I could go that evening—"

"What's the reason?" his father broke in, harshly. "You're not such a sheep that you're afraid to go into company with your sisters? Or are you too good to go with them?"

"If it's to be anything like that night when them hussies come out and danced that way," said Mrs. Dryfoos, "I don't blame Coonrod for not wantun' to go. I never saw the beat of it."

Mela sent a yelling laugh across the table to her mother. "Well, I wish Miss Vance could 'a' heard that! Why, mother, did you think it like the ballet?"

"Well, I didn't know, Mely, child," said the old woman. "I didn't know what it was like. I hain't never been to one, and you can't be too keerful where you go, in a place like New York."

"What's the reason you can't go?" Dryfoos ignored the passage between his wife and daughter in making this demand of his son, with a sour face.

"I have an engagement that night—it's one of our meetings."

"I reckon you can let your meeting go for one night," said Dryfoos. "It can't be so important as all that, that you must disappoint your sisters."

"I don't like to disappoint those poor creatures. They depend so much upon the meetings—"

"I reckon they can stand it for one night," said the old man. He added,

"The poor ye have with you always."

"That's so, Coonrod," said his mother. "It's the Saviour's own words."

"Yes, mother. But they're not meant just as father used them."

"How do you know how they were meant? Or how I used them?" cried the father. "Now you just make your plans to go with the girls, Tuesday night. They can't go alone, and Mrs. Mandel can't go with them."

"Pshaw!" said Mela. "We don't want to take Conrad away from his meetun', do we, Chris?"

"I don't know," said Christine, in her high, fine voice. "They could get along without him for one night, as father says."

"Well, I'm not a-goun' to take him," said Mela. "Now, Mrs. Mandel, just think out some other way. Say! What's the reason we couldn't get somebody else to take us just as well? Ain't that rulable?"

"It would be allowable—"

"Allowable, I mean," Mela corrected herself.

"But it might look a little significant, unless it was some old family friend."

"Well, let's get Mr. Fulkerson to take us. He's the oldest family friend we got."

"I won't go with Mr. Fulkerson," said Christine, serenely.

"Why, I'm sure, Christine," her mother pleaded, "Mr. Fulkerson is a very good young man, and very nice appearun'."

Mela shouted, "He's ten times as pleasant as that old Mr. Beaton of

Christine's!"

Christine made no effort to break the constraint that fell upon the table at this sally, but her father said: "Christine is right, Mela. It wouldn't do for you to go with any other young man. Conrad will go with you."

"I'm not certain I want to go, yet," said Christine.

"Well, settle that among yourselves. But if you want to go, your brother will go with you."

"Of course, Coonrod 'll go, if his sisters wants him to," the old woman pleaded. "I reckon it ain't agoun' to be anything very bad; and if it is, Coonrod, why you can just git right up and come out."

"It will be all right, mother. And I will go, of course."

"There, now, I knowed you would, Coonrod. Now, fawther!" This appeal was to make the old man say something in recognition of Conrad's sacrifice.

"You'll always find," he said, "that it's those of your own household that have the first claim on you."

"That's so, Coonrod," urged his mother. "It's Bible truth. Your fawther ain't a perfesser, but he always did read his Bible. Search the Scriptures. That's what it means."

"Laws!" cried Mely, "a body can see, easy enough from mother, where Conrad's wantun' to be a preacher comes from. I should 'a' thought she'd 'a' wanted to been one herself."

"Let your women keep silence in the churches," said the old woman, solemnly.

"There you go again, mother! I guess if you was to say that to some of the lady ministers nowadays, you'd git yourself into trouble." Mela looked round for approval, and gurgled out a hoarse laugh.

William Dean Howells