02 Nov The Father
The Father by William Dean Howells
As soon as we heard the pleasant news—I suppose the news of an engagement ought always to be called pleasant—it was decided that I ought to speak first about it, and speak to the father. We had not been a great while in the neighborhood, and it would look less like a bid for the familiar acquaintance of people living on a larger scale than ourselves, and less of an opening for our own intimacy if they turned out to be not quite so desirable in other ways as they were in the worldly way. For the ladies of the respective families first to offer and receive congratulations would be very much more committing on both sides; at the same time, to avoid the appearance of stiffness, some one ought to speak, and speak promptly. The news had not come to us directly from our neighbors, but authoritatively from a friend of theirs, who was also a friend of ours, and we could not very well hold back. So, in the cool of the early evening, when I had quite finished rasping my lawn with the new mower, I left it at the end of the swath, which had brought me near the fence, and said across it,
My neighbor turned from making his man pour a pail of water on the earth round a freshly planted tree, and said, “Oh, good-evening! How d’ye do? Glad to see you!” and offered his hand over the low coping so cordially that I felt warranted in holding it a moment.
“I hope it’s in order for me to say how very much my wife and I are interested in the news we’ve heard about one of your daughters? May I offer our best wishes for her happiness?”
“Oh, thank you,” my neighbor said. “You’re very good indeed. Yes, it’s rather exciting—for us. I guess that’s all for to-night, Al,” he said, in dismissal of his man, before turning to lay his arms comfortably on the fence top. Then he laughed, before he added, to me, “And rather surprising, too.”
“Those things are always rather surprising, aren’t they?” I suggested.
“Well, yes, I suppose they are. It oughtn’t be so in our case, though, as we’ve been through it twice before: once with my son—he oughtn’t to have counted, but he did—and once with my eldest daughter. Yes, you might say you never do quite expect it, though everybody else does. Then, in this case, she was the baby so long, that we always thought of her as a little girl. Yes, she’s kept on being the pet, I guess, and we couldn’t realize what was in the air.”
I had thought, from the first sight of him, that there was something very charming in my neighbor’s looks. He had a large, round head, which had once been red, but was now a russet silvered, and was not too large for his manly frame, swaying amply outward, but not too amply, at the girth. He had blue, kind eyes, and a face fully freckled, and the girl he was speaking of with a tenderness in his tones rather than his words, was a young feminine copy of him; only, her head was little, under its load of red hair, and her figure, which we had lately noticed flitting in and out, as with a shy consciousness of being stared at on account of her engagement, was as light as his was heavy on its feet.
I said, “Naturally,” and he seemed glad of the chance to laugh again.
“Well, of course! And her being away at school made it all the more so. If we’d had her under our eye, here—Well, we shouldn’t have had her under our eye if she had BEEN here; or if we had, we shouldn’t have seen what was going on; at least I shouldn’t; maybe her mother would. So it’s just as well it happened as it did happen, I guess. We shouldn’t have been any the wiser if we’d known all about it.” I joined him in his laugh at his paradox, and he began again. “What’s that about being the unexpected that happens? I guess what happens is what ought to have been expected. We might have known when we let her go to a coeducational college that we were taking a risk of losing her; but we lost our other daughter that way, and SHE never went to ANY kind of college. I guess we counted the chances before we let her go. What’s the use? Of course we did, and I remember saying to my wife, who’s more anxious than I am about most things—women are, I guess—that if the worst came to the worst, it might not be such a bad thing. I always thought it wasn’t such an objectionable feature, in the coeducational system, if the young people did get acquainted under it, and maybe so well acquainted that they didn’t want to part enemies in the end. I said to my wife that I didn’t see how, if a girl was going to get married, she could have a better basis than knowing the fellow through three or four years’ hard work together. When you think of the sort of hit-or-miss affairs most marriages are that young people make after a few parties and picnics, coeducation as a preliminary to domestic happiness doesn’t seem a bad notion.”
“There’s something in what you say,” I assented.
“Of course there is,” my neighbor insisted. “I couldn’t help laughing, though,” and he laughed, as if to show how helpless he had been, “at what my wife said. She said she guessed if it came to that they would get to know more of each other’s looks than they did of their minds. She had me there, but I don’t think my girl has made out so very poorly even as far as books are concerned.”
Upon this invitation to praise her, I ventured to say, “A young lady of Miss Talbert’s looks doesn’t need much help from books.”
I could see that what I had said pleased him to the core, though he put on a frown of disclaimer in replying, “I don’t know about her looks. She’s a GOOD girl, though, and that’s the main thing, I guess.”
“For her father, yes, but other people don’t mind her being pretty,” I persisted. “My wife says when Miss Talbert comes out into the garden, the other flowers have no chance.”
“Good for Mrs. Temple!” my neighbor shouted, joyously giving himself away.
I have always noticed that when you praise a girl’s beauty to her father, though he makes a point of turning it off in the direction of her goodness, he likes so well to believe she is pretty that he cannot hold out against any persistence in the admirer of her beauty. My neighbor now said with the effect of tasting a peculiar sweetness in my words, “I guess I shall have to tell my wife, that.” Then he added, with a rush of hospitality, “Won’t you come in and tell her yourself?”
“Not now, thank you. It’s about our tea-time.”
“Glad it isn’t your DINNER-time!” he said, heartily.
“Well, yes. We don’t see the sense of dining late in a place like this. The fact is, we’re both village-bred, and we like the mid-day dinner. We make rather a high tea, though.”
“So do we. I always want a dish of something hot. My wife thinks cake is light, but I think meat is.”
“Well, cake is the New England superstition,” I observed. “And I suppose York State, too.”
“Yes, more than pie is,” he agreed. “For supper, anyway. You may have pie at any or all of the three meals, but you have GOT to have cake at tea, if you are anybody at all. In the place where my wife lived, a woman’s social standing was measured by the number of kinds of cake she had.”
We laughed at that, too, and then there came a little interval and I said, “Your place is looking fine.”
He turned his head and gave it a comprehensive stare. “Yes, it is,” he admitted. “They tell me it’s an ugly old house, and I guess if my girls, counting my daughter-in-law, had their way, they would have that French roof off, and something Georgian—that’s what they call it—on, about as quick as the carpenter could do it. They want a kind of classic front, with pillars and a pediment; or more the Mount Vernon style, body yellow, with white trim. They call it Georgian after Washington?” This was obviously a joke.
“No, I believe it was another George, or four others. But I don’t wonder you want to keep your house as it is. It expresses something characteristic.” I saved myself by forbearing to say it was handsome. It was, in fact, a vast, gray-green wooden edifice, with a mansard-roof cut up into many angles, tipped at the gables with rockets and finials, and with a square tower in front, ending in a sort of lookout at the top, with a fence of iron filigree round it. The taste of 1875 could not go further; it must have cost a heap of money in the depreciated paper of the day.
I suggested something of the kind to my neighbor, and he laughed. “I guess it cost all we had at the time. We had been saving along up, and in those days it used to be thought that the best investment you could make was to put your money in a house of your own. That’s what we did, anyway. I had just got to be superintendent of the Works, and I don’t say but what we felt my position a little. Well, we felt it more than we did when I got to be owner.” He laughed in good-humored self-satire. “My wife used to say we wanted a large house so as to have it big enough to hold me, when I was feeling my best, and we built the largest we could for all the money we had. She had a plan of her own, which she took partly from the house of a girl friend of hers where she had been visiting, and we got a builder to carry out her idea. We did have some talk about an architect, but the builder said he didn’t want any architect bothering around HIM, and I don’t know as SHE did, either. Her idea was plenty of chambers and plenty of room in them, and two big parlors one side of the front door, and a library and dining-room on the other; kitchen in the L part, and girl’s room over that; wide front hall, and black-walnut finish all through the first floor. It was considered the best house at the time in Eastridge, and I guess it was. But now, I don’t say but what it’s old-fashioned. I have to own up to that with the girls, but I tell them so are we, and that seems to make it all right for a while. I guess we sha’n’t change.”
He continued to stare at the simple-hearted edifice, so simple-hearted in its out-dated pretentiousness, and then he turned and leaned over the top of the fence where he had left his arms lying, while contemplating the early monument of his success. In making my journalistic study, more or less involuntary, of Eastridge, I had put him down as materially the first man of the place; I might have gone farther and put him down as the first man intellectually. We folk who have to do more constantly with reading and writing are apt to think that the other folk who have more to do with making and marketing have not so much mind, but I fancy we make a mistake in that now and then. It is only another kind of mind which they have quite as much of as we have of ours. It was intellectual force that built up the Plated-Ware Works of Eastridge, where there was no other reason for their being, and it was mental grip that held constantly to the management, and finally grasped the ownership. Nobody ever said that Talbert had come unfairly into that, or that he had misused his money in buying men after he began to come into it in quantity. He was felt in a great many ways, though he made something of a point of not being prominent in politics, after being president of the village two terms. The minister of his church was certainly such a preacher as he liked; and nothing was done in the church society without him; he gave the town a library building, and a soldier’s monument; he was foremost in getting the water brought in, which was natural enough since he needed it the most; he took a great interest in school matters, and had a fight to keep himself off the board of education; he went into his pocket for village improvements whenever he was asked, and he was the chief contributor to the public fountain under the big elm. If he carefully, or even jealously guarded his own interests, and held the leading law firm in the hollow of his hand, he was not oppressive, to the general knowledge. He was a despot, perhaps, but he was Blackstone’s ideal of the head of a state, a good despot. In all his family relations he was of the exemplary perfection which most other men attain only on their tombstones, and I had found him the best of neighbors. There were some shadows of diffidence between the ladies of our families, mainly on the part of my wife, but none between Talbert and me. He showed me, as a newspaper man with ideals if not abilities rather above the average, a deference which pleased my wife, even more than me.
It was the married daughter whom she most feared might, if occasion offered, give herself more consequence than her due. She had tried to rule her own family while in her father’s house, and now though she had a house of her own, my wife believed that she had not wholly relinquished her dominion there. Her husband was the junior member of the law firm which Talbert kept in his pay, to the exclusion of most other clients, and he was a very good fellow, so far as I knew, with the modern conception of his profession which, in our smaller towns and cities, has resulted in corporation lawyers and criminal lawyers, and has left to a few aging attorneys the faded traditions and the scanty affairs of the profession. My wife does not mind his standing somewhat in awe of his father-in-law, but she thinks poorly of his spirit in relation to that managing girl he has married. Talbert’s son is in the business with him, and will probably succeed him in it; but it is well known in the place that he will never be the man his father is, not merely on account of his college education, but also on account of the easy temperament, which if he had indulged it to the full would have left him no better than some kind of artist. As it is, he seems to leave all the push to his father; he still does some sketching outside, and putters over the aesthetic details in the business, the new designs for the plated ware, and the illustrated catalogues which the house publishes every year; I am in hopes that we shall get the printing, after we have got the facilities. It would be all right with the young man in the opinion of his censors if he had married a different kind of woman, but young Mrs. Talbert is popularly held just such another as her husband, and easy-going to the last degree. She was two or three years at the Art Students’ League, and it was there that her husband met her before they both decided to give up painting and get married.
The two youngest children, or the fall chickens as they are called in recognition of the wide interval between their ages and those of the other children, are probably of the indeterminate character proper to their years. We think the girl rather inclines to a hauteur based upon the general neglect of that quality in the family, where even the eldest sister is too much engaged in ruling to have much force left for snubbing. The child carries herself with a vague loftiness, which has apparently not awaited the moment of long skirts for keeping pretenders to her favor at a distance. In the default of other impertinents to keep in abeyance we fancy that she exercises her gift upon her younger brother, who, so far as we have been able to note, is of a disposition which would be entirely sweet if it were not for the exasperations he suffers from her. I like to put myself in his place, and to hold that he believes himself a better judge than she of the sort of companions he chooses, she being disabled by the mental constitution of her sex, and the defects of a girl’s training, from knowing the rare quality of boys who present themselves even to my friendly eyes as dirty, and, when not patched, ragged. I please myself in my guesses at her character with the conjecture that she is not satisfied with her sister’s engagement to a fellow-student in a co-educational college, who is looking forward to a professorship.
In spite of her injustice in regard to his own companions, this imaginable attitude of hers impresses the boy, if I understand boys. I have no doubt he reasons that she must be right about something, and as she is never right about boys, she must be right about brothers-in-law, potential if not actual. This one may be, for all the boy knows, a sissy; he inclines to believe, from what he understands of the matter, that he is indeed a sissy, or he would never have gone to a college where half the students are girls. He himself, as I have heard, intends to go to a college, but whether Harvard, or Bryant’s Business College, he has not yet decided. One thing he does know, though, and that is there are not going to be any girls in it. We have not allowed our invention so great play in regard to the elder members of our neighbor’s family perhaps because we really know something more about them. Mrs. Talbert duly called after We came to Eastridge, and when my wife had self-respectfully waited a proper time, which she made a little more than a week lest she should feel that she had been too eager for the acquaintance, she returned the call. Then she met not only Mrs. Talbert, but Mrs. Talbert’s mother, who lives with them, in an anxiety for their health which would impair her own if she were not of a constitution such as you do not find in these days of unladylike athletics. She was inclined to be rather strict with my wife about her own health, and mine too, and told her she must be careful not to let me work too hard, or overeat, or leave off my flannels before the weather was settled in the spring. She said she had heard that I had left a very good position on a Buffalo paper when I bought the Eastridge Banner, and that the town ought to feel very much honored. My wife suppressed her conviction that this was the correct view of the case, in a deprecatory expression of our happiness in finding ourselves in Eastridge, and our entire satisfaction with our prospects and surroundings. Then Mrs. Talbert’s mother inquired, as delicately as possible, what denominations, religious and medical, we were of, how many children we had, and whether mostly boys or girls, and where and how long we had been married. She was glad, she said, that we had taken the place next them, after our brief sojourn in the furnished house where we had first lived, and said that there was only one objection to the locality, which was the prevalence of moths; they obliged you to put away your things in naphtha-balls almost the moment the spring opened. She wished to know what books my wife was presently reading, and whether she approved of women’s clubs to the extent that they were carried to in some places. She believed in book clubs, but to her mind it was very questionable whether the time that ladies gave to writing papers on so many different subjects was well spent. She thought it a pity that so many things were canned, nowadays, and so well canned that the old arts of pickling and preserving were almost entirely lost. In the conversation, where she bore a leading part as long as she remained in the room, her mind took a wide range, and visited more human interests than my wife was at first able to mention, though afterward she remembered so many that I formed the notion of something encyclopedic in its compass. When she reached the letter Z, she rose and took leave of my wife, saying that now she must go and lie down, as it appeared to be her invariable custom to do (in behalf of the robust health which she had inherited unimpaired from a New England ancestry), at exactly half-past four every afternoon. It was this, she said, more than any one thing that enabled her to go through so much as she did; but through the door which she left open behind her my wife heard Talbert’s voice saying, in mixed mockery and tenderness, “Don’t forget your tonic, mother,” and hers saying, “No, I won’t, Cyrus. I never forget it, and it’s a great pity you don’t take it, too.”
It was our conclusion from all the facts of this call, when we came to discuss them in the light of some friendly gossip which we had previously heard, that the eldest daughter of the Talberts came honestly by her love of ruling if she got it from her grandmother, but that she was able to indulge it oftener, and yet not so often as might have been supposed from the mild reticence of her mother. Older if not shrewder observers than ourselves declared that what went in that house was what Mrs. Talbert said, and that it went all the more effectively because what she said Talbert said too.
That might have been because she said so little. When her mother left the room she let a silence follow in which she seemed too embarrassed to speak for a while on finding herself alone with my wife, and my wife decided that the shyness of the girl whose engagement was soon afterward reported, as well as the easy-goingness of the eldest son, had come from their mother. As soon as Mrs. Talbert could command herself, she began to talk, and every word she said was full of sense, with a little gust of humor in the sense which was perfectly charming. Absolutely unworldly as she was, she had very good manners; in her evasive way she was certainly qualified to be the leader of society in Eastridge, and socially Eastridge thought fairly well of itself. She did not obviously pretend to so much literature as her mother, but she showed an even nicer intelligence of our own situation in Eastridge. She spoke with a quiet appreciation of the improvement in the Banner, which, although she quoted Mr. Talbert, seemed to be the result of her personal acquaintance with the paper in the past as well as the present. My wife pronounced her the ideal mother of a family, and just what the wife of such a man as Cyrus Talbert ought to be, but no doubt because Mrs. Talbert’s characteristics were not so salient as her mother’s, my wife was less definitely descriptive of her.
From time to time, it seemed that there was a sister of Mr. Talbert’s who visited in the family, but was now away on one of the many other visits in which she passed her life. She was always going or coming somewhere, but at the moment she was gone. My wife inferred from the generation to which her brother belonged that she had long been a lady of that age when ladies begin to be spoken of as maiden. Mrs. Talbert spoke of her as if they were better friends than sisters-in-law are apt to be, and said that she was to be with them soon, and she would bring her with her when she returned my wife’s call. From the general impression in Eastridge we gathered that Miss Talbert was not without the disappointment which endears maiden ladies to the imagination, but the disappointment was of a date so remote that it was only matter of pathetic hearsay, now. Miss Talbert, in her much going and coming, had not failed of being several times in Europe. She especially affected Florence, where she was believed to have studied the Tuscan School to unusual purpose, though this was not apparent in any work of her own. We formed the notion that she might be uncomfortably cultured, but when she came to call with Mrs. Talbert afterward, my wife reported that you would not have thought, except for a remark she dropped now and then, that she had ever been out of her central New York village, and so far from putting on airs of art, she did not speak of any gallery abroad, or of the pensions in which she stayed in Florence, or the hotels in other cities of Italy where she had stopped to visit the local schools of painting.
In this somewhat protracted excursion I have not forgotten that I left Mr. Talbert leaning against our party fence, with his arms resting on the top, after a keen if not critical survey of his dwelling. He did not take up our talk at just the point where we had been in it, but after a reflective moment, he said, “I don’t remember just whether Mrs. Temple told my mother-in-law you were homoeopaths or allopaths.”
“Well,” I said, “that depends. I rather think we are homoeopaths of a low-potency type.” My neighbor’s face confessed a certain disappointment. “But we are not bigoted, even in the article of appreciable doses. Our own family doctor in our old place always advised us, in stress of absence from him, to get the best doctor wherever we happened to be, so far as we could make him out, and not mind what school he was of. I suppose we have been treated by as many allopaths as homoeopaths, but we’re rather a healthy family, and put it all together we have not been treated a great deal by either.”
Mr. Talbert looked relieved. “Oh, then you will have Dr. Denbigh. He puts your rule the other way, and gets the best patient he can, no matter whether he is a homoeopath or an allopath. We have him, in all our branches; he is the best doctor in Eastridge, and he is the best man. I want you to know him, and you can’t know a doctor the way you ought to, unless he’s your family physician.”
“You’re quite right, I think, but that’s a matter I should have to leave two-thirds of to my wife: women are two-thirds of the patients in every healthy family, and they ought to have the ruling voice about the doctor.” We had formed the habit already of laughing at any appearance of joke in each other, and my neighbor now rolled his large head in mirth, and said:
“That’s so, I guess. But I guess there won’t be any trouble about Mrs. Temple’s vote when she sees Denbigh. His specialty is the capture of sensible women. They all swear by him. You met him, didn’t you, at my office, the other day?”
“Oh yes, and I liked him so much that I wished I was sick on the spot!”
“That’s good!” my neighbor said, joyfully.
“Well, you could meet the doctor there almost any afternoon of the week, toward closing-up hours, and almost any evening at our house here, when he isn’t off on duty. It’s a generally understood thing that if he isn’t at home, or making a professional visit, he’s at one place or the other. The farmers round stop for him with their buggies, when they’re in a hurry, and half our calls over the ‘phone are for Dr. Denbigh. The fact is he likes to talk, and if there’s any sort of man that I like to talk with better than another, it’s a doctor. I never knew one yet that didn’t say something worth while within five minutes’ time. Then, you know that you can be free with them, be yourself, and that’s always worth while, whether you’re worth while yourself or not. You can say just what you think about anybody or anything, and you know it won’t go farther. You may not be a patient, but they’ve always got their Hippocratic oath with them, and they’re safe. That so?”
My neighbor wished the pleasure of my explicit assent; my tacit assent he must have read in my smile. “Yes,” I said, “and they’re always so tolerant and compassionate. I don’t want to say anything against the reverend clergy; they’re oftener saints upon earth than we allow; but a doctor is more solid comfort; he seems to understand you exponentially.”
“That’s it! You’ve hit it! He’s seen lots of other cases like yours, and next to a man’s feeling that he’s a peculiar sufferer, he likes to know that there are other fellows in the same box.”
We both laughed at this; it was, in fact, a joke we were the joint authors of.
“Well, we don’t often talk about my ailments; I haven’t got a great many; and generally we get on some abstract topic. Just now we’re running the question of female education, perhaps because it’s impersonal, and we can both treat of it without prejudice.”
“The doctor isn’t married, I believe?”
“He’s a widower of long standing, and that’s the best kind of doctor to have: then he’s a kind of a bachelor with practical wisdom added. You see, I’ve always had the idea that women, beginning with little girls and ending with grandmothers, ought to be brought up as nearly like their brothers as can be—that is, if they are to be the wives of other women’s brothers. It don’t so much matter how an old maid is brought up, but you can’t have her destiny in view, though I believe if an old maid could be brought up more like an old bachelor she would be more comfortable to herself, anyway.”
“And what does Dr. Denbigh say?”
“Well, you must hear him talk. I guess he rather wants to draw me out, for the most part.”
“I don’t wonder at that. I wish you’d draw yourself out. I’ve thought something in the direction of your opinion myself.”
“Have you? That’s good! We’ll tackle the doctor together sometime. The difficulty about putting a thing like that in practice is that you have to co-operate in it with women who have been brought up in the old way. A man’s wife is a woman—”
“Generally,” I assented, as if for argument’s sake.
He gave himself time to laugh. “And she has the charge of the children as long as they’re young, and she’s a good deal more likely to bring up the boys like girls than the girls like boys. But the boys take themselves out of her hands pretty soon, while the girls have to stay under her thumb till they come out just the kind of women we’ve always had.”
“We’ve managed to worry along with them.”
“Yes, we have. And I don’t say but what we fancy them as they are when we first begin to ‘take notice.’ One trouble is that children are sick so much, and their mothers scare you with that, and you haven’t the courage to put your theories into practice. I can’t say that any of my girls have inherited my constitution but this one.” I knew he meant the one whose engagement was the origin of our conversation. “If you’ve heard my mother-in-law talk about her constitution you would think she belonged to the healthiest family that ever got out of New England alive, but the fact is there’s always something the matter with her, or she thinks there is, and she’s taking medicine for it, anyway. I can’t say but what my wife has always been strong enough, and I’ve been satisfied to have the children take after her; but when I saw this one’s sorrel-top as we used to call it before we admired red hair, I knew she was a Talbert, and I made up my mind to begin my system with her.” He laughed as with a sense of agreeable discomfiture. “I can’t say it worked very well, or rather that it had a chance. You see, her mother had to apply it; I was always too busy. And a curious thing was that though the girl looked like me, she was a good deal more like her mother in temperament and character.”
“Perhaps,” I ventured, “that’s the reason why she was your favorite.”
He dropped his head in rather a shamefaced way, but lifted it with another laugh. “Well, there may be something in that. Not,” he gravely retrieved himself, “that we have ever distinguished between our children.”
“No, neither have we. But one can’t help liking the ways of one child better than another; one will rather take the fancy more than the rest.”
“Well,” my neighbor owned, “I don’t know but it’s that kind of shyness in them both. I suppose one likes to think his girl looks like him, but doesn’t mind her being like her mother. I’m glad she’s got my constitution, though. My eldest daughter is more like her grandmother in looks, and I guess she’s got her disposition too, more. I don’t know,” he said, vaguely, “what the last one is going to be like. She seems to be more worldly. But,” he resumed, strenuously, as if the remembrance of old opposition remained in his nerves, “when it came to this going off to school, or college, or whatever, I put my foot down, and kept it down. I guess her mother was willing enough to do my way, but her sister was all for some of those colleges where girls are educated with other girls and not with young men. She said they were more ladylike, and a lot more stuff and nonsense, and were more likely to be fit for society. She said this one would meet a lot of jays, and very likely fall in love with one; and when we first heard of this affair of Peggy’s I don’t believe but what her sister got more satisfaction out of it than I did. She’s quick enough! And a woman likes to feel that she’s a prophetess at any time of her life. That’s about all that seems to keep some of them going when they get old.” I knew that here he had his mother-in-law rather than his daughter in mind, and I didn’t interrupt the sarcastic silence into which he fell. “You’ve never met the young man, I believe?” he asked, at quite another point, and to the negation of my look he added, “To be sure! We’ve hardly met him ourselves; he’s only been here once; but you’ll see him—you and Mrs. Temple. Well!” He lifted his head, as if he were going away, but he did not lift his arms from the fence, and so I knew that he had not emptied the bag of his unexpected confidences; I did not know why he was making them to me, but I liked him the better for them, and tried to feel that I was worthy of them. He began with a laugh, “They both paid it into me so,” and now I knew that he meant his eldest daughter as well as her grandmother, “that my wife turned round and took my part, and said it was the very best thing that could happen; and she used all the arguments that I had used with her, when she had her misgivings about it, and she didn’t leave them a word to say. A curious thing about it was, that though my arguments seemed to convince them, they didn’t convince me. Ever notice, how when another person repeats what you’ve said, it sounds kind of weak and foolish?” I owned that my reasons had at times some such way of turning against me from the mouths of others, and he went on: “But they seemed to silence her own misgivings, and she’s been enthusiastic for the engagement ever since. What’s the reason,” he asked, “why a man, if he’s any way impetuous, wants to back out of a situation just about the time a woman has got set in it like the everlasting hills? Is it because she feels the need of holding fast for both, or is it because she knows she hasn’t the strength to keep to her conclusion, if she wavers at all, while a man can let himself play back and forth, and still stay put.”
“Well, in a question like that,” I said, and I won my neighbor’s easy laugh, “I always like to give my own sex the benefit of the doubt, and I haven’t any question but man’s inconsistency is always attributable to his magnanimity.”
“I guess I shall have to put that up on the doctor,” my neighbor said, as he lifted his arms from the fence at last, and backed away from it. I knew that he was really going in-doors now, and that I must come out with what was in my mind, if I meant to say it at all, and so I said, “By-the-way, there’s something. You know I don’t go in much for what’s called society journalism, especially in the country press, where it mostly takes the form of ‘Miss Sadie Myers is visiting with Miss Mamie Peters,’ but I realize that a country paper nowadays must be a kind of open letter to the neighborhood, and I suppose you have no objection to my mentioning the engagement?”
This made Mr. Talbert look serious; and I fancy my proposition made him realize the affair as he had not before, perhaps. After a moment’s pause, he said, “Well! That’s something I should like to talk with my wife about.”
“Do so!” I applauded. “I only suggest it—or chiefly, or partly—because you can have it reach our public in just the form you want, and the Rochester and Syracuse papers will copy my paragraph; but if you leave it to their Eastridge correspondents—”
“That’s true,” he assented. “I’ll speak to Mrs. Talbert—” He walked so inconclusively away that I was not surprised to have him turn and come back before I left my place. “Why, certainly! Make the announcement! It’s got to come out. It’s a kind of a wrench, thinking of it as a public affair; because a man’s daughter is always a little girl to him, and he can’t realize—And this one—But of course!”
“Would you like to suggest any particular form of words?” I hesitated.
“Oh no! Leave that to you entirely. I know we can trust you not to make any blare about it. Just say that they were fellow-students—I should like that to be known, so that people sha’n’t think I don’t like to have it known—and that he’s looking forward to a professorship in the same college—How queer it all seems!”
“Very well, then, I’ll announce it in our next. There’s time to send me word if Mrs. Talbert has any suggestions.”
“All right. But she won’t have any. Well, good-evening.”
“Good-evening,” I said from my side of the fence; and when I had watched him definitively in-doors, I turned and walked into my own house.
The first thing my wife said was, “You haven’t asked him to let you announce it in the Banner?”
“But I have, though!”
“Well!” she gasped.
“What is the matter?” I demanded. “It’s a public affair, isn’t it?”
“It’s a family affair—”
“Well, I consider the readers of the Banner a part of the family.”