The Beautiful Joke

A Story of New England Village Life

Annie Hamilton Donnell

From The Girl's Own Paper and Woman's Magazine Aug 1917, Volume 38, Page(s) 573

 

 

The stout figure panted up the walk and faced the slender figure.

“I suppose you've heard the news, Corinthia Woolley?”

“I haven't heard it — I've seen it. Going by, in Robert Atwood's wagon. I knew by the set of Robert's shoulders —the I've-sold-Perry-House-at-last set to 'em. Oh, Alice-May!”

“Oh, Corinthia!”

Stout and slender, they regarded each other excitedly, but in Alice-May's excitement lurked despair. It was evident she had progressed further into the news than her friend. She had more than seen it go by.

The stout woman was Alice-May, a name ludicrously unbecoming, but no more to be shed than her stoutness. For fifty years Alice-May had borne a secret grudge against Corinthia Woolley because of her queenly name. But now, at this moment of stress, all minor grudges were sunk in the grudge against Robert Atwood for committing crime against the little town of Melody.

“Corinthia, you didn't see the worst! You wouldn't stand there as calm as the Statue of Liberty — you don't know who he's sold it to. It's a sanatorium!”

What! Say that again, Alice-May — spell it!”

S-a-n-a, sanna, t-o-r-i, tory, u-m, um. That's what Perry House is coming to! I suppose you've heard of sanatoriums!”

“Not in Melody village I haven't, and, what's more, I never expect to! Do you think I'm going to live next to one in my old age? Robert Atwood can make up his mind to that. Oh, Alice-May, what are we going to do! Are you perfectly sure?”

“I wish I wasn't. I've got to sit down somewheres, Corinthia. It takes all my strength away. They're going to add on wings and sun-parlours and outdoor bedrooms. It's a couple o' doctors have bought it, and they're awful pleased with the location. They said that, for sick folks —”

“What kind of sick folks?” demanded Corinthia Woolley.

“Oh, I don't know! Contagious, as likely as not. They'll have nurses all round, in white caps, and just going by the house will make us feel symptoms.”

“What do you think living by the house will do! But there won't be any sanatoriums, not if I've got a drop of the Woolley grit in my veins. If I can't manage it alone, then the Melody ‘Ways and Means Society’ has got to hold up my hands. You go home and telephone to the Liscomb girls and Aunt Senthrilla Barnes — Aunt Senthy will be right up and bristling — and the rest of 'em, and prepare their minds. I shall sit here on these steps till Robert Atwood comes back. I suppose he's driven those — those men to the station. When he comes back on his way home, I have something to say to him.”

Robert Atwood, house and estate agent he called himself, drove homeward rather more briskly than usual, his naturally drooping mouth-corners slightly upturned. To have nearly sold Perry House was far beyond his placid expectation.

“Robert! Robert Atwood!” someone called him.

“Whoa! — That you, C'rinthia? — Didn't I tell ye to whoa, you!”

“Have you sold Perry House, Robert? For a sanatorium!”

“'Most,” he answered laconically, “'most sold; it's more'n I've been able to do for going on five years. I feel some set-up.”

“Do you mean it isn't sold?” demanded Corinthia, hope surging over her.

We-ell, I wouldn't go as far's that. Those fellows are just about ready to bite — I don't have much doubt but they'll do it, give 'em a little time. They want to go on up-country and look at some other places; but they'll come back and buy this one, you see. They like every last thing about Perry House. They've made measurements and decided where to add on, and all that — oh, they'll bite!”

“How long before they're coming back?” How much time was she to have? “Up-country” might mean much or little.

“'Fore the first. Let's see, this is the thirteenth, ain't it? Won't be long, anyhow!”

From the thirteenth to before the first — it was something, but not much. There was no moment to waste. Corinthia sat long after Robert's departure in awful concentration of thought. The salvation of her beloved little village of Melody seemed resting upon her alone. The others would feel exactly as she did about the desecration a sanatorium would be to the conservative little place; but the others would but groan “Woe! Woe!” It was she who must fight.

She went to the telephone and called up Alice-May.

“This is Corinthia — yes. What did Aunt Senthy say and the Liscomb girls? … What? … Oh, they did! Well, that's what I supposed they'd say. … What's that? … Oh! Forty pounds — Aunt Senthy? Isn't she an old dear? … No — no, I haven't decided yet — not this quick. But, Alice-May, it isn't sold yet, and Robert needn't be so mighty certain it will be — I'm not! ‘Bird in the hand’ — this is only in the bush!”

Late into the night she sat thinking, for in her soul Corinthia quaked. Perry House was as good as sold, and all her brave talk would not prevent it. It was such a good place for a sanatorium. Oh, there was no denying that! Up high and breezy, quiet, big — all the things. Those doctors had seen it all at a glance. They would be back again, and then —

Corinthia snatched up a pencil and scribbled fast on the back of an envelope. She made a list of all the “Ways and Means” members, and headed it with Aunt Senthy and her offered forty pounds. She put twenty pounds opposite the Liscomb girls and Alice-May and herself, though only goodness knew how any of them could spare it. Lesser sums she appended to other names, as it seemed to her they might be willing to give. All they could give — she stretched everybody's “means” as elastically as she dared. Then she added up.

Ninety-two pounds — call it one hundred. That's all, and more, too. And the Perry heirs ask a thousand — one-half down. Robert says they won't budge an inch.

It did not look encouraging. It did look very discouraging. But the Woolley blood was fomenting in Corinthia; it sizzled and boiled. She threw up her head.

“There isn't going to be any sanatorium at Perry House! Those men can buy one o' those up-country places right now.”

The impossible should be achieved. In Corinthia Woolley's lexicon, also, was no such word as failure.

At eleven she was still gazing at her list of names that stood for “Ways and Means” possibilities. Opposite her own name she had written forty pounds instead of twenty pounds — could she manage that? Also, she had added the names of all the principal shopkeepers of Melody Village, with what she considered appropriate sums opposite them. But she had reluctantly struck these out, on second thoughts. Asa Wilder, and Fuller French and Bonney Brothers would welcome a sanatorium as stimulus to trade — they'd jump at one!

At twelve, Corinthia thought of Horace Dusenberry. Blessed thought! When, in thirty years, had Horace ever failed her? Of course this was a great thing to ask; but Horace was a great man. He was rich and a bachelor and Melody-born — oh, very Melody-born! He would not want a sanatorium with its atmosphere of ether — Corinthia was sure there would be ether — and nurses and pain and death, in his peaceful little birthplace. She would write to Horace Dusenberry. She would write now — with Corinthia to think was to do. If she posted it in the post-office slot three-quarters of a mile away to-night, it would go out on the early morning train.

She set forth her case to Horace in brief narrative. Her fingers flew over the paper.


“Now don't you want to invest some of your money in Perry House, Horace?” she wrote. “It's a beautiful old place, and only needs the roof mended and a little tinkering around. For a summer home, Horace, instead of that fashionable place you go to. Why, in Melody you could wear soft collars and roll your sleeves up. Horace, you buy Perry House and save our lives! You always used to save 'em. Remember when you pulled Alice-May out of the mill pond and rolled her on a barrel? And when you caught me in your arms when I fell out of the ‘tall oak’? You were always round to save us girls from somewhere or something. We're old girls now, but we're still worth saving! What do you say, Horace? It's a thousand pounds — half down. Robert Atwood is handling it — he'll have all the papers made out and send them to you to sign. It won't be any trouble at all!


Corinthia's smiling lips were actually tremulous with wistfulness as she penned her little pleasantries. If Horace was the old Horace who had caught her in his arms!


“You could get Aunt Senthy to live there and look after you in the summer. You always loved Aunt Senthy and her sugary doughnuts. You sit down and think, Horace; just think, and see what you can do. And I'll pray.”


Out to the letter box went Corinthia exultantly. It was beautiful to be alone with the stars; they winked down at her friendlily. “Trust Horace,” they said. And “I'm trusting,” Corinthia laughed back. Queer how saved she felt!

Corinthia went home and slept the sleep of the saved. Her answer, when it came from Horace Dusenberry, was in the shape of a telegram, which to Corinthia's thrifty New England idea of telegrams was most extravagant. This telegram seemed endless.


“Fine idea have written Robert, but can't occupy for two years as present summer place is leased for that time but give you girls the Perry House to do as you please with meanwhile afternoon teas or golf links or quilting-parties. Am grateful for chance to save your lives once more feel like a boy again engage Aunt Senthy for two years ahead.
    “Horace.”


Corinthia Woolley discovered an amazing thing — she was sobbing and kissing that telegram of Horace Dusenberry's!

She flew to the telephone with her joyous news. Alice-May, at the other end, wondered plumply and placidly at the gusts of excitement that came overwire to her. Corinthia always had been a fly-to-pieces.

“Horace Dusenberry, you say? How'd you ever happen to think of him? I'd most forgot there was a — What? Outright, soon's he got your letter? Well, now I remember there was one, and this is him! He used to do sudden things.” Was Alice-May thinking of her sudden rescue from the millpond? “What? Say that over again. Corinthia — Oh! Well, you needn't feel that way — he's got mints o' money. He could buy a dozen Perry Houses easy as we buy a dozen bananas. What? Me? Of course I'm glad, but I ain't so excited I shake. I feel you shaking this minute!”

Corinthia hung up her receiver and sat looking at her hands. They were certainly shaking. She laughed unevenly. Was it of the rescued Perry House she was thinking, or of its rescuer? Old memories gripped at her heart-strings and would not let go. She saw those memories — the boy and girl that wandered through them all, teasing each other, defending, making boy-and-girl love.

“I wish I could get hold of Horace Dusenberry's hands!” Corinthia exclaimed suddenly aloud. She would grip them hard enough to express this gratitude and the tenderness of those old loves that was thrilling her elderly soul. Good old Horace — good old Horace!

For the space of a week Melody babbled with wonder over the success of Corinthia Woolley's plan to save Perry House. Then the mild stir settled and calmed, and Melody drowsed once more. Only the “Ways and Means” continued to be gently excited, for it was the Ways and Means Society that was virtually to own the place for two years, according to the real owner's generous mandate. What were they to do with it? Small wonder they met in frequent councils and debatings. It was thrilling to own a place even for two years, and pleasant sensations began to travel up and down all their middle-aged and elderly spines, followed a little later on by responsibilities solemn as well as delightful.

 


PLEASANT SENSATIONS BEGAN TO TRAVEL UP AND DOWN
THEIR MIDDLE-AGED AND ELDERLY SPINES.

 

“We must mend the roof,” Corinthia said, “that's the least we can do for Horace Dusenberry, after what he has done for us. And we can take turns having our men-folks keep the lawn mowed. I haven't any, but I can hire one — that's the best kind!” laughed Corinthia.

Gradually plans matured for having the “Ways and Means” sewings and quiltings and tea-drinkings at Perry House. But all this was in the summer, outdoor weather. There came months when the big place stood empty and lone once more, and now its shelter and possibilities of comfort seemed wasted shelter and wasted comfort. Corinthia, especially, mourned this. Two years at best was a short lease, and so much that was splendid might be done with a beautiful, big, furnished house if anybody knew what it was! Even Corinthia failed here.

In November, Corinthia went to the city for her every-three-years' visit to her Cousin Sophia Stern. It was an event in her rather colourless Melody life.

At Cousin Sophia Stern's boarded a deaconess, a splendidly-built woman inside and out, whose busy life was spent among the city's poor and needy. To Corinthia this woman was the chief attraction of the visit; she watched her with a sort of admiring wonderment and reverence.

“She doesn't stop at anything — dirt, disease, drunkenness,” wrote Corinthia to Alice-May. “She goes down into the dregs. I'm going with her some day. I guess we don't know what misery is at Melody.”

The next letter Corinthia had been down into the dregs. Alice-May read with constricting throat.


“The little children, Alice-May; I can't bear the little children. The babies! There was one to-day who is dying of no chance, and its mother is watching it die. That poor woman loves that little baby as you loved your boys and Milly; I can't think of anything but that poor mother to-night.”


In another letter it was a crippled child who broke Corinthia's heart. Oh, the little crippled children! Oh, the mothers of little crippled children! All the mothers of the world appealed to Corinthia, a wasted mother.


“I keep thinking and thinking of all our room and air — we must be very selfish at Melody, Alice-May. It makes me almost ashamed to go home. To-day a doctor told me I didn't know the A B C of slum miseries — and I know so much! I should die of the whole alphabet. I couldn't bear it.”

In six weeks from the time of Corinthia's departure from home Alice-May received her last letter, and it was immediately thereafter that things began to happen at the old Perry House. All Melody looked on in mild wonderment and the kindly Melody branch of curiosity. What had started up the “Ways and Means” women like this?

The “Ways and Means” kept their own counsel, either loath to answer questions or too busy. They spent days at Perry House, sweeping and dusting, scouring and airing. They bore mysterious and bulky bundles there, which later would seem to have been sheets and blankets and donations of fat pillows. Every bed in the house was made up, every fireplace prepared for use. The Liscomb girls, who had inherited voices from a bygone famous Liscomb singer, carolled sweetly as they worked, and woke the long-silent echoes of the old house. Everyone appeared to beam with enthusiastic cheer.

 


THEY BORE MYSTERIOUS AND BULKY PARCELS.
Drawn by Denham Fink.

 

“This is such fun!” beamed the younger Liscomb girl, who could still speak of enjoyment as “fun.” “How many did Alice-May say she was going to bring? The poor little mites!”

“I don't know. … Alice-May! Alice-May, how many's Corinthia going to bring?”

The call carried along the line of workers to Alice-May, making cakes in the kitchen.

 


THE CALL CARRIED ALONG TO ALICE-MAY, MAKING CAKES IN THE KITCHEN.
Drawn by Denham Fink.

 

“Six — this time. The deaconess is coming to help bring 'em, and two of their mothers. There's more to follow. Corinthia said if we opened the house at all we'd stretch it. Might as well. Anybody asked Aunt Senthy if she'd decided to stay?”

Stay!” Aunt Senthy herself appeared at the kitchen door. “Did any o' you girls think Aunt Senthy hadn't got a scrid o' heart? I'd stay if I had to sleep on the roof! I been thanking the Lord while I dusted that I'd got another chance coming to rock a baby.”

“Poor babies, I guess their own mothers never got time away from washtubs to rock 'em,” Alice-May sighed. “I'm coming up here myself every day to take my shift. And the Liscomb girls are coming — I guess everybody is. That's near as we can get to nurses yet awhile.”

But they got very near indeed to nurses before the winter ended, when tender little Melody awoke to what was going on at Perry House and put its hands in its pockets. Two slender, white-uniformed figures fluttered about the old place and mingled with the vari-coloured “Ways and Means.” The Melody doctor and a brisk young practitioner from the next town made regular visits — there was much doing at Perry House.

The city deaconess came and went, bringing now a limp little bundle of fading humanity, and now some young creature whose grasp on life was fast weakening in the city slum. Gradually the new-made “wards” filled up. Then spring came, and the healing of sunny days out of doors set in. Passers-by saw babies rolling over the grass, and mothers, renewed and fresh-couraged, sitting beside them. Life — new life — bloomed there. Corinthia Woolley next door watched joyously.

Horace Dusenberry, on his way in late June to his summer place at the sea, stopped at Melody. The whim seized him quite unexpectedly. His pleasant, ruddy face wrinkled humorously at the remembrance that he was a landowner at little Melody. He really ought to stop and take a look at that property of his. Of course he remembered the old Perry House distinctly; he had realised its value as an investment when Corinthia Woolley wrote him, begging him to save it from becoming a sanatorium. It had been another sudden whim — Horace Dusenberry abounded in whims — answering that plea as he did, and letting the old place lie idle for a couple of years.

Corinthia Woolley — Corinthia! It would be good to see her again. He wondered if her hair were still red — how he had teased her in old days! Her letter had sounded red-headed! Horace laughed as he gathered up his bags and got out at the station. He moved jubilantly, like a boy. Perhaps Melody and Corinthia would renew his youth — it needed it badly enough.

It was the same Melody, and the same Corinthia when he sought her out at her little Woolley homestead. She came running down the same straight path to meet him, and it seemed to the world-worn, grey-haired man that they must be the self-same pansies and double daisies abloom beside the path.

Corinthia's hair was still red!

“Well, Horace Dusenberry!”

“I say, Corinthy, make it the old name.”

“Hod!” she laughed. Her small, wiry hands in his one big smooth one felt good. Energy and fun trickled through them to him. Corinthia's eyes were twinkling.

“Mine's red, but you haven't any! Hod, you're bald-headed! Never mind, I can remember how nice and curly —”

“Red-head! Red-head!” he jibed. His curls had been as sensitive a point to him as her red crop to her. They faced each other, swaying back and forth, and jeered joyously at each other. The years rolled off their shoulders.

“Oh, this is great!” Corinthia breathlessly concluded. “Come in, and I'll give you a jelly tart thirty years old — see if it isn't! Well, when you've finished, I'll take you over and show you your house. Oh, Hod, I — I hope you'll like it! We've put it out to interest. You didn't want me to hide it in a napkin, did you?”

In spite of her gay spirits, Corinthia was a little anxious. She had no sense of guilt at all; Perry House had been theirs to use as they willed; but this use of it — If Horace didn't like babies and nurses and little children on crutches — “It — it isn't empty, you know,” she explained as they went up the little piece of road.

“Looks pretty full,” Horace soliloquised. “Summer boarders, Corinthy? You girls always had great heads for business.”

“They pay us beautifully,” Corinthia murmured.

So they were introduced to Horace Dusenberry — babies and nurses and little crippled children. He was taken about and shown the improvised wards and Aunt Senthy's housekeeping quarters. He was bidden to admire a wan little creature who had walked on two crutches, but now walked on one.

 


THEY WERE INTRODUCED TO HORACE DUSENBERRY – BABIES AND NURSES AND LITTLE CRIPPLED CHILDREN.
Drawn by Denham Fink.

 

“An' I'm most finished with this one!” sang the child. “I'm a-goin' to walk on two feet nex'!

Corinthia, stilled and sobered, watched her old friend's face as he made his rounds under her guidance.

“Now,” she presently said, “we can go back to my house. You've seen all these; but I want to tell you — there's a year and a third left, and we can help cure a lot more in a year and a third. We're going to do it as long as our lease lasts, unless you turn us out. Now you can talk, Hod.”

But he was silent. Curiously, two impulses equally fought within him for expression. He wanted to cry and he wanted to laugh. He looked downward, sideways, at Corinthia, and suddenly decided not to laugh, anyway. Never! As long as suns rose and set he would never let Corinthy know that this thing she had done was a joke — a tremendous joke. She had not found it out — she should not find it out through him. For to Horace Dusenberry, earth-worn and earth-hardened, it was suddenly revealed as a very beautiful joke that Corinthia should have fought tooth and nail against turning that old place into a sanatorium, and herself have made it what he had just seen it. Oh, a beautiful joke!

“Corinthy,” he said at her gate, “I'm going; but I'm coming back again in a week or so. That's my place up the road there, and I've been taking measurements with my eye.” Had it been with his soul, rather? “I intend to add on a few things like wings and verandahs. And there ought to be another bath-room, and a place for your sick folks to soak in the sun — What is it they're called, those rooms? We'll double the usefulness of that old house, Corinthy!”

“Hod!” she breathed, and the light in her vivid, young-old face made him want to stoop and kiss her. Tenderness caught at his throat. He had thought his heart petrified in his breast — an elderly, useless heart. But this one that leaped into boyish throbbing at sight of Corinthia's lighted face. He went away in a strange unrest of wonder. Was it possible — could there be another thing he might try to “add on” when he came back? He wished he had taken measurements! Tender laughter leaped into his eyes at the thought.

Corinthy — Red-head! Red-head!