THE TRIALS OF MRS. MORPHER
Mr. Morpher, without replying to this question, apparently addressed to himself as an adult representative of the wayward species, appeared at the door, and endeavored to pour oil on the troubled waters.
“Oh, he’s all right, Sue! Don’t fuss about him,” said Mr. Morpher with an imbecile sense of conveying comfort in the emphasized pronoun. “He’s down the gulch, or in the tunnel, or over to the claim. He’ll turn up by bedtime. Don’t you worry about him. I’ll look him up in a minit,” and Mr. Morpher, taking his hat, sauntered down the road in the direction of the National Hotel.
Mrs. Mopher gazed doubtfully after her liege. “Looking up” Aristides, in her domestic experience, implied a prolonged absence in the bar-room of the hotel, the tedium whereof was beguiled by seven-up or euchre. But she only said: “Don’t be long, James,” and sighed hopelessly as she turned back into the house.
Once again within her own castle walls Mrs. Morpher dropped her look of patient suffering and glanced defiantly around for a fresh grievance.
The decorous little parlor offered nothing to provoke the hostility of her peculiar instincts. Spotless were the white curtains; the bright carpet guiltless of stain or dust. The chairs were placed arithmetically in twos, and added up evenly on the four sides with nothing to carry over. Two bunches of lavender and fennel breathed an odor of sanctified cleanliness through the room. Five daguerreotypes on the mantelpiece represented the Morpher family in the progressive stages of petrifaction, and had the Medusa-like effect of freezing visitors into similar attitudes in their chairs. The walls were further enlivened with two colored engravings of scenes in the domestic history of George Washington, in which the Father of his Country seemed to look blandly from his own correct family circle into Morpher’s, and to breathe quite audibly from his gilt frame a dignified blessing.
Lingering a moment in this sacred inclosure to readjust the tablecloth, Mrs. Morpher passed into the dining-room, where the correct Crytie presided at the supper-table, at which the rest of the family were seated. Mrs. Morpher’s quick eyes caught the spectacle of M’liss with her chin resting on her hands, and her elbows on the table, sardonically surveying the model of deportment opposite to her.
“Where’s your elbows?”
“Here’s one and there’s the other,” said M’liss quietly, indicating their respective localities by smartly tapping them with the palm of her hand.
“Take them off the table, instantly, you bold, forward girl—and you, sir, quit that giggling and eat your supper, if you don’t want to be put to bed without it!” added Mrs. Morpher to Lycurgus, to whom M’liss’s answer had afforded boundless satisfaction. “You’re getting to be just as bad as her, and mercy knows you never were a seraphim!”
“What’s a seraphim, mother, and what do they do?” asked Lycnrgus, with growing interest.
“They don’t ask questions when they should be eating their supper, and thankful for it,” interposed Clytie, authoritatively, as one to whom the genteel attributes and social habits of the seraphim had been a privileged revelation.
“Hush—and don’t be a heathen—run and see who is coming in,” said Mrs. Morpher, as the sound of footsteps was heard in the passage.
The door opened and McSnagley entered.
“Why, bless my soul—how do you do?” said Mrs. Morpher, with genteel astonishment. “Quite a stranger, I declare.”
This was a polite fiction. M’liss knew the fact to be that Mrs. Morpher was reputed to “set the best table” in Smith’s Pocket, and McSnagley always called in on Sunday evenings at supper to discuss the current gossip, and “nag” M’liss with selected texts. The verbal McSnagley as usual couldn’t stop a moment—and just dropped in “in passin’.” The actual McSnagley deposited his hat in the corner, and placed himself, in the flesh, on a chair by the table.
“And how’s Brother James, and the fammerly?”
“They’re all well—except ‘Risty;’ he’s off again,—as if my life weren’t already pestered out with one child,” and Mrs. Morpher glanced significantly at M’liss.
“Ah, well, we all of us have our trials,” said McSnagley. “I’ve been ailin’ again. That ager must be in my bones still. I’ve been rather onsettled myself to-day.”
There was the appearance of truth in this statement; Mr. McSnagley’s voice had a hollow resonant sound, and his eyes were nervous and fidgety. He had an odd trick, too, of occasionally stopping in the middle of a sentence, and listening as though he heard some distant sound. These things, which Mrs. Morpher recalled afterwards, did not, in the undercurrent of uneasiness about Aristides which she felt the whole of that evening, so particularly attract her notice.
“I know something,” said Lycurgus, during one of these pauses, from the retirement of his corner.
“If you dare to—Kerg!” said M’liss.
“M’liss says she knows where Risty is, but she won’t tell,” said the lawgiver, not heeding the warning. The words were scarcely uttered before M’liss’s red hand flashed in the air and descended with a sounding box on the traitor’s ear. Lycurgus howled, Mrs. Morpher darted into the corner, and M’liss was dragged defiant and struggling to the light.
“Oh, you wicked, wicked child—why don’t you say where, if you know?” said Mrs. Morpher, shaking her, as if the information were to be dislodged from some concealed part of her clothing.
“I didn’t say I knew for sure,” at last responded M’liss. “I said I thought I knew.”
“Well, where do you think he is?”
But M’liss was firm. Even the gloomy picture of the future state devised by McSnagley could not alter her determination. Mrs. Morpher, who had a wholesome awe for this strange child, at last had recourse to entreaty. Finally M’liss offered a compromise.
“I’ll tell the master, but I won’t tell you—partikerly him,” said M’liss, indicating the parson with a bodkin-like dart of her forefinger.
Mrs. Morpher hesitated. Her maternal anxiety at length overcame her sense of dignity and discipline.
“Who knows where the master is, or where he is to be found to-night?” she asked hastily.
“He’s over to Dr. Duchesne’s,” said Clytie eagerly; “that is,” she stammered, a rich color suddenly flushing from her temples to her round shoulders, “he’s usually there in the evenings, I mean.”
“Run over, there’s a dear, and ask him to come here,” said Mrs. Morpher, without noticing a sudden irregularity of conduct in her firstborn. “Run quick!”
Clytie did not wait for a second command. Without availing herself of the proffered company of McSnagley she hastily tied the strings of her school hat under her plump chin, and slipped out of the house. It was not far to the doctor’s office, and Clytie walked quickly, overlooking in her haste and preoccupation the admiring glances which several of the swains of Smith’s Pocket cast after her as she passed. But on arriving at the doctor’s door, so out of breath and excited was this usual model of deportment that, on finding herself in the presence of the master and his friend, she only stood in embarrassed silence, and made up for her lack of verbal expression by a succession of eloquent blushes.
Let us look at her for a moment as she stands there. Her little straw hat, trimmed with cherry-colored ribbons, rests on the waves of her blonde hair. There are other gay ribbons on her light summer dress, clasping her round waist, girdling her wrist, and fastening her collar about her white throat. Her large blue eyes are very dark and moist—it may be with excitement or a tearful thought of the lost Aristides—or the tobacco smoke, with which I regret to say the room is highly charged. But certainly as she stands leaning against the doorway, biting her moist scarlet lip, and trying to pull down the broad brim of her hat over the surging waves of color that will beat rhythmically up to her cheeks and temples, she is so dangerously pretty that I am glad for the masters sake he is the philosopher he has just described himself to his friend the doctor, and that he prefers to study human physiology from the inner surfaces.
When Clytie had recovered herself sufficiently to state her message, the master offered to accompany her back. As Clytie took his arm with some slight trepidation Dr. Duchesne, who had taken sharp notes of these “febrile” symptoms, uttered a prolonged whistle and returned thoughtfully to his office.
Although Clytie found the distance returning no further than the distance going, with the exhaustion of her first journey it was natural that her homeward steps should be slower, and that the master should regulate his pace to accommodate her. It was natural, too, that her voice should be quite low and indistinct, so that the master was obliged to bring his hat nearer the cherry-colored ribbons in the course of conversation. It was also natural that he should offer the sensitive young girl such comfort as lay in tenderly modulated tones and playful epithets. And if in the irregularities of the main street it was necessary to take Clytie’s hand or to put his arm around her waist in helping her up declivities, that the master saw no impropriety in the act was evident from the fact that he did not remove his arm when the difficulty was surmounted. In this way Clytie’s return occupied some moments more than her going, and Mrs. Morpher was waiting anxiously at the door when the young people arrived. As the master entered the rooom, M’liss called him to her. “Bend down your head” she said, “and I’ll whisper. But mind, now, I don’t say I know for truth where Risty is, I only reckon.”
The master bent down his head. As usual in such cases, everybody else felt constrained to listen, and McSnagley’s curiosity was awakened to its fullest extent. When the master had received the required information, he said quietly:—
“I think I’ll go myself to this place which M’liss wishes to make a secret of and see if the boy is there. It will save trouble to any one else, if she should be mistaken.”
“Hadn’t you better take some one with you?” said Mrs. Morpher.
“By all means. I ‘ll go!” said Mr. McSnagley, with feverish alacrity.
The master looked inquiringly at M’liss.
“He can go if he wants to, but he’d better not,” said M’liss, looking directly into McSnagley’s eyes.
“What do you mean by that, you little savage?” said McSnagley quickly.
M’liss turned scornfully away. “Go,” she said,—“go if you want to,” and resumed her seat in the corner.
The master hesitated. But he could not withstand the appeal in the eyes of the mother and daughter, and after a short inward struggle he turned to McSnagley and bade him briefly “Come.”
When they had left the house and stood in the road together, McSnagley stopped.
“Where are you goin’?”
“To Smith’s Pocket.”
McSnagley still lingered. “Do you ever carry any weppings ?” he at length asked.
“Weapons? No. What do you want with weapons to go a mile on a starlit road to a deserted claim. Nonsense, man, what are you thinking of? We’re hunting a lost child, not a runaway felon. Come along,” and the master dragged him away.
Mrs. Morpher watched them from the door until their figures were lost in the darkness. When she returned to the dining-room, Clytie had already retired to her room, and Mrs. Morpher, overruling M’liss’s desire to sit up until the master returned, bade her follow that correct example. “There’s Clytie, now, gone to bed like a young lady, and do you do like her,” and Mrs. Morpher, with this one drop of balm in the midst of her trials, trimmed the light and sat down in patience to wait for Aristides, and console herself with the reflection of Clytie’s excellence. “Poor Clytie!” mused that motherly woman; “how excited and worried she looks about her brother. I hope she’ll be able to get to sleep.”
It did not occur to Mrs. Morpher that there were seasons in the life of young girls when younger brothers ceased to become objects of extreme solicitude. It did not occur to her to go upstairs and see how her wish was likely to be gratified. It was well in her anxiety that she did not, and that the crowning trial of the day’s troubles was spared her then. For at that moment Clytie was lying on the bed where she had flung herself without undressing, the heavy masses of her blond hair tumbled about her neck, and her hot face buried in her hands.
Of what was the correct Clytie thinking?
She was thinking, lying there with her burning cheeks pressed against the pillow, that she loved the master! She was recalling step by step every incident that had occurred in their lonely walk. She was repeating to herself his facile sentences, wringing and twisting them to extract one drop to assuage the strange thirst that was growing up in her soul. She was thinking—silly Clytie!—that he had never appeared so kind before, and she was thinking—sillier Clytie!—that no one had ever before felt as she did then.
How soft and white his hands were! How sweet and gentle were the tones of his voice! How easily he spoke—so unlike her father, McSnagley, or the young men whom she met at church or on picnics! How tall and handsome he looked as he pressed her hand at the door! Did he press her hand, or was it a mistake? Yes, he must have pressed her hand, for she remembers now to have pressed his in return. And he put his arm around her waist once, and she feels it yet, and the strange perfume as he drew her closer to him. (Mem.—The master had been smoking. Poor Clytie!)
When she had reached this point she raised herself and sat up, and began the process of undressing, mechanically putting each article away in the precise, methodical habit of her former life. But she found herself soon sitting again on the bed, twisting her hair, which fell over her plump white shoulders, idly between her fingers, and patting the carpet with her small white foot. She had been sitting thus some minutes when she heard the sound of voices without, the trampling of many feet, and a loud rapping at the door below. She sprang to the door and looked out in the passage. Something white passed by her like a flash and crouched down at the head of the stairs. It was M’liss.
Mrs. Morpher opened the door.
“Is Mr. Morpher in?” said a half dozen strange, hoarse voices.
“Where is he?”
“He’s at some of the saloons. Oh, tell me, has anything happened? Is it about Aristides? Where is he—is he safe?” said Mrs. Morpher, wringing her hands in agony.
“He’s all right,” said one of the men, with Mr. Morpher’s old emphasis; “but”—
M’liss moved slowly down the staircase, and Clytie from the passage above held her breath.
“There’s been a row down to Smith’s old Pocket—a fight—a man killed.”
“Who?” shouted M’liss from the stairs.