The Summer Serial 2011.
By George Bassett.
IF THE MORNING HAD BEEN given up to kitchen-gardening and remorse, the afternoon, at any rate, promised to be a pleasant one. Mrs. Potwin was, naturally, having very much her own way with Dunkin House and its inmates, and it was her pleasure to take possession of an old cedar-wood punt that lay idly among the lily pads. After appointing herself captain of the lazy craft, she ordained that Scarlett should serve for crew and I for freight. She had selected from among the mass of Japanese cushions and draperies which he had brought from Japan those which pleased her best, and when she herself, dressed in a charming little frock of Japanese silk, took her place in the punt, her lap filled with apple blossoms, she looked like a stray leaf from a Japanese picture-book dropped by some persistent breeze upon the sober English surface of the Thames. But she had not proposed to herself an afternoon of summer idleness, and I don’t think I ever heard so earnest a tone in her voice as when she told Scarlett to let the punt drift, and then said to me:
“I want to talk to you seriously. Sometimes you laugh at what I say and sometimes you scold me, but you always treat me as if I were a naughty little child who ought to be at school. But to-day I want to be serious, and I want you to help me decide and help Frank decide what he and I ought to do. If I were here alone with him, it would be no use for me to try to be wise. He just takes it for granted that everything is going to run smoothly, and that we are going to be married, and live happily ever after. Now will you listen to what I am going to say and tell me truly what you think ?”
I told her that I would do my best, and then she made Frank promise in his turn that he “would not take everything for granted.”
“Well,” began Mrs. Potwin, when she had assured herself an attentive hearing, “in the first place, I don’t think it is right for me to go on being conditionally engaged to Frank, and having all his friends think it’s a regular engagement. I told him before we left Japan that I didn’t consider he was any more held to it than I was, and that he could back out whenever he wanted to. But he won’t want to, because he is obstinate, and even if he did want to he wouldn’t, because he’d be ashamed, and I think we have got to make up our minds about it one way or the other. In America it is as easy as anything to break off an understanding like that, or even a regular engagement. I know lots of girls who have been engaged five or six times, and they don’t think anything of it; but here in England everybody seems to think it is a very serious thing. It is just like getting into one of your express trains. They lock the doors of the car, and you have to stay there until you get to where you have bought your ticket for. If I go on staying here with his mother and all his friends, and then, afterwards, I tell him that I don’t think it is going to do, they will all say I was a flirt and that I made a fool of him, and he would hate that, because he is awfully proud. Wouldn’t you, Frank?”
“I don’t like to look like, a fool, if that’s what you mean, my dear,” said Scarlett.
“But I don’t see what you want to talk all this nonsense for. Of course we are going to be married sooner or later. I’m not hurrying you; I will give you all the time you want. It seems to me the simplest thing in the world. You and I had an awfully good time out in Japan together, and we have a good time here. Why shouldn’t we be married and go on having a good time ?”
“I will tell you why,” said Mrs. Potwin. ” You know that man we saw the day we went over to Woodstock— the man who was driving what you call a piebald horse ? We call them paint horses in America. Well, I didn’t see anything out of the way about it. I think a spotted horse is awfully pretty. But you and all the other men on the coach laughed at it, and said that the horse looked as if it came out of a circus. Well, now, I am like a spotted horse. I am very pretty, but I am not the correct thing in England.
Japan was a kind of a circus to you, and when you saw me out there you thought I was lovely; but if we got married, you would find out, sooner or later, that all your friends wondered why you harnessed up a piebald horse instead of choosing a regular e very-day color like other people. I didn’t know it was going to be like that until I came over to England. That is what I wanted to come here for — to find out. It isn’t because I am a flirt ; truly it isn’t. I haven’t flirted with you the least bit, Frank. I like you ever so much, and the only reason I don’t want to marry you is, that I don’t believe it would work. Your mother’s awfully nice and kind to me, but I can see that she doesn’t think it is going to work either. Do you think it would work?” said the little woman, turning to me.
“I don’t know what I think, my dear Mrs. Potwin,” I replied. ” Sometimes I fancy you are rather too feather-headed a small person to marry anybody, but when you talk like this you don’t seem featherheaded at all. I don’t see that, after all, it is anybody’s business but yours and Frank’s, or that anybody else but you two can judge about it. If you both believe that you can be happy together, it is half the battle over already.”
I FELT RATHER A SNEAK as I said this, for, although I had been very careful not to express an opinion of any sort when I had been talking with Lady Scarlett that morning, I knew quite well that I had left her with the impression that I did not approve of her son’s matrimonial project. But I was touched by what Mrs. Potwin said, and I was beginning to think that perhaps I had been unjust to her, and that she had more unselfishness and good feeling than I had given her credit for.
“If it is my turn now,” said Scarlett, “perhaps I might say what I think, because, after all, I have something to do with it, you know. And what I’ve got to say is this: If the only reason you are afraid to marry me is that you think I will be ashamed of you, it’s all rubbish. I am not a hand to be always arguing about things and talking politics and all that, and I know a great many people seem to think I have no brains; but I know what I want as well as the next man – and what I want is you. I suppose what you are driving at is that if we had a house in town, and went up there every season, people would say I hadn’t made a smart marriage. But what difference does that make to me ? If I were a parson it might do me some good to marry a girl whose people were great swells and all that sort of thing. But I’m not. I don’t want anything of anybody, and, as for being up in town and dining out every night, I hate all that. I like to be comfortable, and I think you and I would have the jolliest sort of a life together. If you have any real reason for thinking that we wouldn’t, tell me what it is, but if it’s only that you think you’re a skewbald horse, I call it wasting time to talk about that.”
“Well, that isn’t all there is to it,” said Mrs. Potwin, “but it all comes to the same thing”; then, turning to me, she said :
“Don’t you think I ought to tell Frank about Temehichi? I have tried to tell him two or three times, but he won’t let me.”
“What’s Temehichi?” said Scarlett.
“Some place in Japan where you were riding what you call a ‘paint’ horse in a circus ? What do I care about that? Haven’t I seen you often enough flying about Yokohama with no hat on, and wasn’t I flying about with you, for that matter? I wouldn’t want to go down Piccadilly that way, and I don’t suppose you would either, and after we are married and settled I don’t suppose either of us will want to do that sort of thing. And, as for your trying to tell me some story of yours, I know that one evening up in Nikko you wanted to tell me all about some man you had been engaged to, and I told you I didn’t want to hear it. I know well enough you were married before, for that matter, and of course I wish you hadn’t been; but I don’t see any use in talking about it.”
Mrs. Potwin asked me again if I didn’t think she ought to tll Scarlett all about Temehichi, and in common honesty I had to say that I thought she ought.
AND SHE DID. THERE IN the broad, squareshouldered punt, on the quiet, comfortable English river, she told him the whole story
I knew, as soon as she began, that Scarlett would not laugh at that. And when I saw that she wasn’t trying to tone it down at all, that she meant to make him clearly understand that she had seriously thought of marrying a little copper-colored servant-boy, who was either a lunatic or worsen-either out of his head or engaged in some mad scheme of getting up a twopenny-ha’penny insurrection in Japan — I liked her better than I had ever liked her before. Scarlett heard her story to the end, leaning on his long punt-pole, and from time to time tlioughtfully stirring the mud in the riverbottom and watching the black clouds rise through the clear water. When she had said her say she looked up at him to see how he was taking it, and I looked the other way. I wished more than ever that they had not brought me with them. The punt shot ahead vigorously, and we were half a mile down this stream before Scarlett spoke. Then, letting his pole drag idly through the water, he said to Mrs. Potwin:
“I suppose you expect to have me tell you what I think of all this, but I can’t do it yet. You see, I am one of the slow kind — so now we will talk about something else, if you don’t mind.” I saw in his face that the story of Temehichi was gall to him. A moment later he let the punt run up to the bank, and said:
“If you people will amuse each other for a moment, there is a cottage just a hundred yards from the shore that my agent’s been talking to me about, and I want to have a look at it for myself.”
It was as good an excuse as another, and I could very well understand that he wanted to be alone for a moment. When we were left there together in the punt, Mrs. Potwin said, quietly enough:
“He sees now that I am a paint horse. I guess, now that he knows about Temehichi, it will be easy enough to persuade him that he had better not marry me. Do you know what I believe? I believe it was because Temehichi used to clean up the flat that Frank thinks it is so awful. It seems just the same to him as if it were one of the big footmen up at the house. He doesn’t see the difference the least bit.”
“It is a singular story, you know, when a man hears it for the first time,” said I, a little sharply perhaps, for at the moment I felt much more sorry for Scarlett than for her.
“Oh, it’s singular enough,” replied Mrs. Potwin; “anybody would say that. But when you call it singular, that’s a kind of a half-polite way of calling it disgusting. I supposed you’d be disgusted when I told you the story on board the steamer last year, only you didn’t like me enough to care anything about it one way or the other; but it disgusts Frank; anybody can see that easy enough. There isn’t any cottage up there. He’s just gone off to cool down, that’s all.”
“That is quite likely,” said I. “It can’t flatter a man’s vanity much to have Temehichi for a rival.”
“It is so hard to make you Englishmen understand!” cried Mrs. Potwin. “With us, people’s ideas are so different. You can’t expect it to be any other way. There are a few people in New York and in Baltimore and one or two other big cities who bring up their children on the English plan, but a good many people laugh at them for it.”
“And you were not brought up on the English plan?” I asked.
“No,” said Mrs. Potwin, “I wasn’t. My father was rich, and of course he had a splendid position in Washington; but he thought all those old-fashioned European ideas were ridiculous, and I guess my mother thought so too. It’s awfully hard to explain it, but if I could only make you understand, you wouldn’t blame me half so much. Why, you take it there in California: nearly all the old ladies whose husbands have so much money now — the old ladies that everybody looks up to — they worked with their hands thirty or forty years ago. Maybe they weren’t servants in anybody else’s houses, but they were servants in their own houses, anyhow. They worked like servants, they ate like servants, they talked like servants, and they thought like servants. According to our American ideas they’re commoner than the ladies in the East, but I don’t see but that it is just the same everywhere. I have been up, when I was a little girl, to stay with some cousins of mine in Vermont — people who were as proud as could be — but it was a farm, and the ladies used to do most of the cooking themselves. They had only one hired girl, and they used to have to get the men’s dinner ready, hired men and all, and wait on them at table, too. Do you suppose that when a child sees such things, that child will grow up with English ideas about social distinctions and all that? Why, those old ladies up in Vermont would have thought any such talk as that worse than nonsense ; they would have said it was downright wickedness. They had a kind of a Puritan idea that one person was just as good as another, and that it was wrong to be worldly, as they called it. That’s the way all our grandmothers were in America. And we grow up to be as worldly as can be, and to want to spend lots of money, and to wear good clothes, and everything like that, but we still have their ideas about one person being just as good as another. I know I was wrong to encourage Temehichi to think about me, but if I had been in earnest it wouldn’t have been wrong, according to the old American idea of things. You English people think it’s awful bad manners for girls to flirt, in the joking kind of way our girls do, without trying to hide it ; but I guess English girls brought up the way we are — girls in what you call the middle classes — are just the same. It isn’t fair to judge me as if I had been brought up like your sisters. We don’t have governesses tagging after us when we go out to walk : we go around alone, and of course we don’t grow up so prim. It is very well for you Englishmen to be surprised at our American ways, but I have seen Australian girls come to America, and they carry on with everybody just as American girls do. They are not a bit more proud, and yet they are real English stock, aren’t they ? It isn’t a mixture of Germans and Italians and French and everything else, as it is in America. They are all of them English enough, but Lady Scarlett would find their manners and everything else about them just as queer as anything I do.”
“That may all very well be,” said I, ” but you must remember that the young ladies from Australia have not had just the sort of fathers and grandfathers that women like Lady Scarlett have had. They were English, if you please, but they were a very different sort of English, and a sort of English we don’t know. A good many of their grandfathers were transported English convicts, and for that matter most of the men who go out to the colonies even nowadays are a worthless, shiftless lot, or else are the sons of worthless, shiftless people in England. If they were well off they’d stay at home. The emigration of the unfit is incidental to the survival of the fittest.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Potwin, “if you come down to that I suppose it was the same way with our grandfathers who went to America. If they hadn’t been paupers or criminals or religious cranks like the Salvation Army or some other kind of no-account people they wouldn’t have gone. And how can you expect me to have the same ideas that an English lady has when all her people have been taken care of like the gardens at Dunkin House, for generation after generation?” And Mrs. Potwin, turning her head away, and nestling down in the cushions, added:
“I wish you would go and look at that cottage, too. I’m a little bit upset, and I’d like to be alone for a while.” I stepped out of the punt, and as I walked up the green slope of the bank I heard her crying softly.
Scarlett was already far ahead of me, skirling the edge of a field of corn. No cottage was in sight. He had marched off, as Mrs. Potwin said, because he wanted to be alone. I was thoroughly uncomfortable. There was a wall at the farther end of the field, and when he came to it he put his elbows on it, and stood there with his hands crossed under his chin and his head bowed. As I came up behind him, I said:
“You had better come back to the punt, old chap. She feels just as bad as you do, and it’s not very civil to leave her there all alone.”
“Why didn’t you stay with her, then ?” asked Scarlett.
“I – I wanted to be quiet for five minutes. I was afraid I might say something I would be sorry for afterwards. It’s a beastly story — a beastly story.”
“It’s not her fault that you didn’t hear it long ago,” said I.
“Oh, you needn’t make excuses for her,” said Scarlett. ” I’m not blaming her. She doesn’t look at things just the way you and I do-that’s all. It’s filthy! That’s what I call it.”
I MADE NO REPLY, and we walked slowly back across the field. As we neared the river-bank I thought I saw the bushes move, and wondered if Mrs. Potwin had left the punt. But she was lying there, half hidden in the soft Japanese cushions. Scarlett stepped into the punt, and, picking up his pole, said:
“I fancy we’d better be making our way up stream again, hadn’t we?”
There was no answer, and, as I followed him into the punt, I remarked that I had gone to have a look at the cottage too. Still there was no answer from Mrs. Potwin. I leaned over the side of the punt to look at her eyes and see if she were still crying, and as I did so Scarlett looked, too.
Over her head, quite covering her face and her yellow hair, and clasped tightly around her throat, was a bronze helmet, a larger copy of the one Temehichi had sent her with the doll. It was a great bird’s head, with garnet eyes, and a beak like a hawk’s, made of gold. I thought at first that it was a toy she had put on to make us laugh. It seemed an ill-timed farce, and I had it on the end of my tongue to ask her to take it off, when I saw something in the position of her arms that made me reach out to remove it myself. But it was clamped on, shut like a trap with a strong spring.
I jumped out of the punt and up the bank. Far away down the road I saw the receding figure of a man, undersized, no taller than a boy.
I turned to the punt again. Scarlett was holding her in his arms, the grotesque metal head, with its golden beak, hanging on his breast.
He was picking at the joint in the side of the helmet, and at last he found the spring and lifted the casque from her shoulders.
Her yellow hair was matted by the weight of the bronze, and a gray line encircled her throat where the collar of the helmet had compressed her soft flesh. Her eyes were staring, as the blue eyes of the wax doll had stared. And she was quite dead, suffocated by the monstrous thing that the Son of Tokugawa had locked upon her head.
| Chapter Index |