"Chapter I: Our Flat." by Enid Yandell (1870-), Jean Loughborough, and Laura Hayes
IT was growing late and Gene and the Duke were dressing for dinner in the great dreary room in the boarding-house owned in partnership by the girls. The Duke had let down the masses of her blue-black hair, while Gene was engaged in untangling a refractory shoe-lace, when a little knock came at the door, and a moment after Marjorie entered. She looked pale and worn, and as the girls looked up with a welcoming smile, Gene said, "What's the matter, dear, you look so tired to-night." Marjorie threw herself into a chair, and said, "It's the flat again. I have just had a note from Mrs. Black, saying that owing to a sudden change in her husband's business they have been called to New York, and now that white elephant is on my hands once more." "What is the flat?" asked the Duke, with interest. "Why, don't you know?" said Gene; "it has been the bane of Marjorie's existence for the last two years, for it contains all of her mother's furniture which she does not want to store, and the people to whom she rents it are always getting sick or leaving town, or for some reason or other giving it up, so it is on her hands again." "Where is it?" demanded the Duke. "Why, it is only two blocks down the street and in a very pleasant neighborhood, and for my [Page 10] part I wish we lived in it instead of in this dreary old boarding-house, where we can't get a thing to eat if we are not on time for meals." "Why not go to housekeeping?" cried the Duke, and the same thought came like a flash to all three, and then and there, regardless of the approaching dinner, they sat down to discuss eagerly the ways and means of accomplishing their object.
Two weeks later the girls came home to their own hearth and fireside. They had brought two friends with [Page 11] them to spend the night, and when the five girls gathered around the snowy table, with its bunch of flowers, in the pretty dining-room, with its sideboard full of the beautiful old-fashioned silver that had belonged to Marjorie's mother, it was with the happiest feeling they had all known for many a day. The neat little maid who had worked in the flat for the preceding occupants had stayed with them, and no one would ever have guessed from the way in which she served the dinner that it had all been cooked by herself in the little kitchen beyond.
"WHAT'S THE MATTER, DEAR? YOU LOOK SO TIRED."
It was not a very large suite of rooms–just seven, but they were comfortable and very light, having side windows that overlooked a field of waving grass, an unusual thing in the city.
(The Duke, who was standing at the dining-room window when I first read this chapter aloud, interrupted to say that I had forgotten to mention the adornments of the field, which consisted of a rusty stove, two battered silk [Page 12] hats, an old tin bath-tub with a hole in it, ten tomato cans and the janitor's six children.)
There was the parlor with its cheerful fire-light, the little library with its pictures, copies, for the most part, of famous paintings, and its rows of books in their leather-trimmed cases, and the dining-room and kitchen; then there was a room apiece for the girls; but I must not forget to mention one of the most important features of all–the hammock in the library. This great soft web of blue and white which swung in the half-darkness and yet gave a glimpse of the ruddy hearth in the parlor beyond, was a [Page 13] favorite resort of one, two and sometimes three tired girls, who could escape through the library door to their own rooms at the importunate ring of the door-bell.
THE JANITOR'S CHILDREN.
There had been one subject that had nearly wrecked their plans of housekeeping, and this had been the question of a chaperone, which they had discussed from every standpoint and with much feeling, for Gene had insisted upon having one, although, as she admitted, it would spoil much of their comfort, as there was no room for her in the flat. But even Gene's conservative ideas were finally changed by the two obstacles which presented themselves. The first was the impossibility of finding a chaperone that they liked (as they were strangers in the city and did not know who to call upon), and the second was the necessity of supporting her should they be able to find one. It was the latter point that settled the question finally, as the girls felt [Page 14] that they could not add to their expenses so materially, and they could hardly ask their chaperone to board with them.
There had been no changes to make, except the purchase of two new rugs, which the girls had taken as much pleasure in selecting as if they had been buying the outfit for a stately mansion. The week before moving in, Virginia had run over to the flat one morning to look about and see what there was to be done and to measure the parlor floor for the first new rug. She had left the door accidentally open, and was on her knees with tape measure in hand when she was startled by a voice behind her saying inquiringly, "Miss Fairfax?" She turned in some surprise at hearing her name, for the girls had only been to their new home once, and that after dark, and no one could possibly have known of their coming. [Page 15]
Before her stood a stout woman with rather an elegant figure and a tired and careworn look. She was dressed in a plain skirt covered by a large apron, and what Gene afterward described as a "grey and melancholy waist" and her appearance betokened respectable shabbiness. Her eyes, which must have been beautiful before sorrow had dimmed their lustre, rolled curiously about the room, as she stood watching Gene. Her soft, gray hair was banded away from a low brow, her hands were aristocratic and well kept, and her voice was soft and cultured as she spoke. Gene was beginning to wonder if she had dropped out of the sky, as she had not heard her enter, when she explained her appearance by saying "I am your neighbor,
[Page 16] Mrs. Brown. I saw you come in and thought I would run down and have a chat with you this morning." Then interrupting herself, as she saw Gene's occupation, "What, are you going to get new rugs ? Now I call that very shabby of you, when we live just overhead and our carpets are so old and worn." Gene tried to murmur some apology for having even thought of buying anything new without consulting our neighbors, when Mrs. Brown rambled on: "Are you any relation to old Governor Fairfax of Virginia? What, not his granddaughter? I am delighted to hear it, and I might have known it from that straight nose of yours. Blood will tell every time, I say. Now you must meet my husband's sister, Mrs. Jackson, who lives with me. She belongs to the old Jackson family of Virginia, and they lived right in the next county to the Fair-
faxes in the old Dominion State," and Mrs. Brown chattered on in the most interesting but interminable manner,
until Gene, who was half vexed with the delay, could not help being amused at the perfect friendliness and freedom with which her new acquaintance regaled her with family history.
As soon as she discovered that Gene was one of the Fairfax family, she took her into her confidence, and before she left, Virginia was in possession of the facts that Mrs. Brown had been a reigning belle at Baltimore in her youth, and had wedded at an early age a brilliant young physician who had once figured prominently before the people of the United States through an Arctic expedition, though this marriage, as she candidly admitted, had been but an incident in her career.
By it, however, she had reached a most enviable position, and had been for several years petted and idolized by a large circle of friends and admirers. After Dr. Jackson's death, which left her nearly penniless, she had returned to Baltimore, where she lived in great retirement, until one day, having been persuaded to go to a dinner, (where, as we subsequently learned from Mrs. Jackson, she was charming in a simple toilet of white muslin and blue ribbons) she met her fate in handsome Andrew Brown, who in return, fell instantly in love with her and they were married soon after.
COPIES OF FAMOUS PAINTINGS.
Many happy years of wedded life followed, when Mr. Brown, who was one of the finest men in the world, died of [Page 18] a fever, leaving her with a large family of children to educate. She had preferred to leave Baltimore when she was obliged to sell her home, and after trying several cities had finally settled in Chicago. All this she told Virginia, and with perfect candor stated the exact amount of her present income, which was not large, the number of frocks Ariadne wore out each year, and the size of their last month's butcher bill (which they had forgotten to pay).
When Gene came home and told us about her interview with our neighbor and mentioned the number in the family, we felt our first misgiving as to our new home.
There was Mrs. Brown, her sister Mrs. Jackson; Ariadne, aged twenty; Jean Paul, fourteen; Lycurgus, twelve; Thomas Jefferson, ten; and little Philander, popularly known as Phil., aged two; and all of these in a seven-room flat which just furnished us three girls with a bedroom each and left none to spare.
We had interviewed the landlord and succeeded in getting his promise to put new papering in the dining-room, we had ordered the rugs, and were getting the ruffled muslin curtains made, expecting to move on the following Tuesday, when one morning brought a note from Mrs. Brown.
"Dear Miss Fairfax," it ran, "I write to tell you of my terrible dilemma, and to beg that if possible you will aid me to escape. Ariadne was invited so many places last winter, that she must give a little party in return, and Lycurgus wants to entertain his classmates for an evening, and would you oblige us by letting us have the use of your [Page 19] flat next Thursday and Friday ? Our piano is in your dining-room, and it would be so nice for the children to dance in there. I ask you to do us this kindness, knowing that you cannot be cruel enough to refuse, when I tell you that the invitations are already out." And the note concluded by begging the pleasure of our company for Thursday evening following.
We had a long and earnest debate over this remarkable communication, and the Duke vowed with a strange and terrible vow that we should not allow ourselves to be thus imposed upon; and that we could not postpone our moving for three days at the request of a mere stranger; but the upshot of it all was that Virginia wrote a courteous note, giving Mrs. Brown the necessary permission, and promising to attend if possible.
I will not go into details and explain how Gene did go to the party, nor will I tell of the anguish of mind with which she joined the crowd in our dear little flat, who were dancing the wax off the newly polished floors, and elbowing the art paper that had just been placed upon the dining-room wall. But this was not the worst; for many weeks afterwards we kept meeting friends on the street who regretted so much that they could not come to "our party" that Thursday night, and we learned to our dismay that the invitations had been given out in our joint names.
We had not been settled long before we had become acquainted with the entire family, and a more happy, entertaining, shiftless, pleasant set of people it was never our good fortune to meet. There was only one drawback, and that was that there were so many of them. It was all very [Page 20]
well to have Ariadne with her quiet manners and her pale face come in and spend the evening, or to hear a knock at the door and opening it find three little kittens that mischievous Tom had deserted on our threshold; and it was pleasant, too, to have Mrs Jackson come in with her reddish wig and Spanish lace mantilla to tell us the tales of bygone days–but it was always someone. Lycurgus would surprise us by dangling strange and unexpected things down the shaft into our bath-room, or little [Page 21] Philander would come in with his toys to stay as long as he was allowed; but the one who came most frequently was Mrs. Brown herself, who never could stay very long, but who always appeared at a most unexpected moment. We all took it good-naturedly enough except the Duke who rather rebelled, though she did not say much.
One evening, however, she had a caller, and had been interrupted two or three times by Mrs. Brown's knocking at the front door. She had opened it each time very politely and asked her to come in, but at last her patience was exhausted, and when the fourth knock came she did not move. Mrs. Brown knocked and called once or twice, for she knew that the Duke was inside; but that stubborn young woman refused to answer, though Cousin John could hardly restrain his laughter. Mrs. Brown, however, was not to be outdone in that way. It was but the work of a moment to go to her kitchen, down the back stairs, in our back door, and back into the parlor, which she entered exclaiming triumphantly: "You see you can't keep me out, Miss Wendell," and the poor Duke was overcome with shame and confusion, especially as Mrs. Brown carried with her a plate of delicious home-made candy that Ariadne had made that afternoon.
They borrowed everything we had, from hats through to shoe-blacking, but the climax was reached one Sunday morning when Mrs. Brown came to the front door and asked if she might take our frying pan. Virginia, who had answered the knock, said "Why, of course Mrs. Brown, if we have one, and I suppose that we have; I'll ring and tell Katie to bring it to you." "Oh, no," said Mrs. Brown, "I'll just run back into the kitchen and get it myself"; but Virginia planted herself in the way, for she knew that the [Page 22]
girls were still at breakfast, and that Mr. Middleton had just come with his Sunday morning flowers, and she did not care to have our neighbors prying into our affairs. Now Gene has a great deal of dignity, and it would take some courage to pass her with that determined look in her eyes, but Mrs. Brown neither looked nor stopped until she reached the kitchen. Marjorie had gone to her room for something, so as Mrs. Brown passed through the dining-room she caught a glimpse of the Duke and Mr. Middleton, who were talking together. As she came back she held the frying pan up beside her face like a huge lorgnette, saying "Never mind, young people, I won't look at you," which made the Duke perfectly furious, although she [Page 23] did not in the least consider Mr. Middleton her particular prey.
But if they borrowed of us they were equally willing to lend, as was proven the night that Marjorie was going to the Charity Ball. Mrs. Brown had heard her say that she did not have anything to wear, so at eight o'clock that evening her customary knock was heard and she entered with a great armful of old-fashioned flounces of black lace and with a most exquisite point lace shawl, which she insisted upon draping about Marjorie until she saw on the bed the pretty tulle gown of pale blue, with its wreaths of rosebuds, which the girls had made that day, when she desisted.
All the Brown family were exceedingly strict about chaperones. They frankly confessed that they were shocked when the girls went to the opera or to the theatre with young men, even though the cavaliers in question were cousins or old, old friends. Poor Ariadne in consequence was deprived of many an innocent pleasure, for it was quite impossible to chat with callers at home when she knew that all the family were playing whist in the next room within hearing and would comment on the conversation at breakfast the next day, or when wicked Tom would come dancing by the hall door in his night dress, making faces of fiendish delight as he saw her torment.
But it was too much for our gravity when Mrs. Brown told us of an incident that happened one day when Mrs. Jackson wanted Dr. Gordon to look at her throat which had been troubling her. Now Dr. Gordon is an extremely pleasant young fellow, good looking as Apollo and yet entirely wanting in the conceit that makes handsome men usually odious. He has the highest professional and social [Page 24] standing, and moreover he was a warm friend of the Brown family. The two ladies went over to the drugstore on the corner, where they sat in state while they sent the clerk up stairs to call the young doctor down, for as Mrs. Brown afterwards confessed, "it would have been so improper for dear Mrs. Jackson to have gone to his office." Mrs. Jackson's conscious look when Mrs. Brown made this remark showed that despite her eighty-nine years, she concurred in this opinion.
[Page 25] But despite their little peculiarities, we enjoyed the Browns. Their comings and goings were a source of infinite distraction, and we should have missed them sorely had they moved away.
Below us lived a young married couple who were evidently from the country. The bride was both young and pretty, though as Mrs. Brown said, she had "no style;" but it was the occupation of her life to prevent the neighbors from making the discovery that she kept no servant. Instead of emptying her ashes in the chute which would have necessitated her appearance in the back hall, she saved them up for several days, and then after dark carried them cautiously down her stairs into the cellar, and taking off the lids filled all the laundry stoves. She had another little peculiarity–so Katie told us–of throwing her dishwater out of the window into the clean, stone-paved court where the handmaids of the flats usually congregated in the evening with their beaux. One of the excitements of the back hall was the warfare waged against the lower flat by all the servants, who were assisted in the crusade by their firm friends, the butchers and milkmen.
Just across the hall on the same floor, dwelt some neighbors of a very different stamp. Here, in great retirement, lived a well-known general and his charming family. His wife had been the widow of a prominent politician who had figured as candidate in a notable presidential campaign, and her grace and beauty had given her an almost national reputation. As her husband's health was delicate, she went but little into society, but busied herself with her duties to her children and her church, to which she was devoted. Her daughters had inherited her beauty, and no amount of seclusion could keep the glances of admiration from [Page 26] noting the great black eyes of the elder, or the heavy chestnut braids and glowing cheeks of the younger. Edith was our especial friend, and it was Gene's delight to coax her into a literary or scientific discussion and see her cheeks kindle and her eyes flash with the inherited power of oratory when she became interested in her subject.
Taking it altogether, we felt that we were particularly happy in our neighbors.