Part 1 (1/2)

The Gay Deceiver.

By Kathleen Norris.

After the meat course, Mrs. Tolley and Min rather languidly removed the main platters, and, by reaching backward, piled the dinner-plates .on the s.h.i.+ning new oak sideboard. Thus room was made for the salad, which was always mantled in tepid mayonnaise, whether it was sliced tomatoes, or potatoes, or asparagus. After the salad there was another partial clearance, and then every available inch of the table was needed for peach pies and apple sauce and hot gingerbread and raspberries, or various similar delicacies, and the coffee and yellow cheese and soda-crackers with which the meal concluded.

By the time these appeared, on a hot summer evening, the wheezing clock in the kitchen would have struck six,--dinner was early at Kirkwood,--and the level rays of the sun would be pouring boldly in at the uncurtained western windows. The dining-room was bare, and not entirely free from flies, despite an abundance of new green screening at the windows. Relays of new stiff oak chairs stood against its walls, ready for the sudden need of occasional visitors. On the walls hung framed enlarged photographs of machinery, and factories, and scaffoldings, and the like. There was one of laborers and bosses grouped about great generators and water-wheels in transit, and another of a monster switchboard, with a smiling young operator, in his ap.r.o.n and overalls, standing beside it.

Mrs. Tolley sat at the head of the table--a big, joyous, vigorous widow, who had managed the Company House at Kirkwood ever since its erection two years before, and who had been an employee of the Light and Power Company, in one capacity or another, for some five years before that--or ever since, as she put it, ”the juice got pore George.” Mrs. Tolley loved every inch of Kirkwood; for her it was the captured dream.

Min Tolley, sitting next to her mother, loved Kirkwood too, because she was going to marry Harry Garvey, who was one of the s.h.i.+ft bosses at the plant. Harry sat next to Min. Then came her brother Roosy, ten years old; and then the Hopps--Mrs. Lou, and little Lou, spattering rice and potato all over himself and his chair, and big Lou, silently, deeply admiring them both. Then there were two empty chairs, for the Chisholms, the resident manager and superintendent and his sister, at the end of the table; and then Joe Vorse, the switchboard operator, and his little wife; and then Monk White, another s.h.i.+ft boss; and lastly, at Mrs. Tolley's left, Paul Forster, newly come from New York to be Mr. Chisholm's stenographer and a.s.sistant.

Paul was the first to leave the table that night. He drank his coffee in three savage gulps, pushed back his crumpled napkin, and rose. ”If you'll excuse me--” he began.

”You're cert'n'y excusable!” said Mrs. Tolley elegantly--adding, when the door had closed behind him: ”And leave me tell you right now that somebody was real fond of children to raise you!”

”An' I'm not planning to spend the heyday of my girlhood ironing napkins for you, Pauly Pet!” said Min, reaching for his discarded napkin and folding it severely into a wooden ring.

Paul did not hear these remarks, but he heard the laughter that greeted them, and he scowled as he selected a rocker on the front porch. He put his feet up on the rail, felt in one pocket for tobacco, in another for papers, and in a third for his match-case, and set himself to the congenial task of composing a letter in which he should resign from the employ of the Light and Power Company. It was a question of a broken contract, so it must be diplomatically worded. Paul had spent the five evenings since his arrival at Kirkwood in puzzling over the phrasing of that letter.

Below the porch, the hillside, covered with scrub-oak and chaparral and madrono trees, and the stumps where redwoods had been, dropped sharply to the little river, which came tumbling down from the wooded mountains to plunge roaring into one end of the big power-house, and which foamed out at the other side to continue its mad rush down the valley. The powerhouse, looming up an immense crude outline in the twilight, rested on the banks of the stream and stood in a rough clearing. A great gash in the woods above it showed whence lumber for buildings and fires came; another ugly gash marked the course of the ”pole line” over the mountain. Near the big building stood lesser ones, two or three rough little unpainted cottages perched on the hill above it. There was a ”cook-house,” and a ”bunk-house,” and storage-sheds, and Mrs. Tolley's locked provision-shed, and the rough shack the builders lived in while construction was going on, and where the Hopps lived now, rent-free.

Nasturtiums languished here and there, where some of the women had made an effort to fight the unresponsive red clay. Otherwise, even after two years the power-house and its environs looked unfinished, crude, ugly. On all sides the mountains rose dark and steep, the pointed tops of the redwoods mounting evenly, tier on tier. Except for the lumber slide and the pole line, there was no break anywhere, not even a glimpse of the road that wound somehow out of the canon--up, up, up, twelve long miles, to the top of the ridge.

And even at the top, Paul reflected bitterly, there was only an unpainted farmhouse, where the stage stopped three times a week with mail. From there it was a fifty-mile drive to town--a California country town, asleep in the curve of two sluggish little rivers. And from ”town” to San Francisco it was almost a day's trip, and from San Francisco to the Grand Central Station at Forty-second Street it was nearly five days more.

Paul shoved his hands in his pockets and began again: ”Light and Power Co.--Gentlemen.”

Night came swiftly to Kirkwood. For a few wonderful moments the last of the sunlight lingered, hot and gold, on the upper branches of the highest trees along the ridge; then suddenly the valley was plunged in soft twilight, and violet shadows began to tangle themselves about the great shafts of the redwoods. The heat of the day dropped from the air like a falling veil. A fine mist spun itself above the river; bats began to wheel on the edge of the clearing.

With the coming of darkness every window in the place was suddenly alight. The Company House blazed with it; the great power-house doorway sent a broad stream of yellow into the deepening shadows of the night; the ”cookhouse,” where w.i.l.l.y Chow Tong cooked for a score of ”hands” and oilers, showed a thousand golden cracks in its rough walls. The little cottages on the hill were hidden by the glare from their dangling porch lights. Light was so plentiful, at this factory of light, that even the Hopps' barnlike home blazed with a dozen ”thirty-twos.”

”Nothing like having a little light on the subject, Mr. Fo'ster,” said Mrs. Tolley, coming out to the porch. The Vorses had small children that they could not leave very long alone; so, when Min and her mother had reduced the kitchen to orderly, warm, soap-scented darkness every night, and wound the clock, and hung up their ap.r.o.ns, they went up to the Vorses to play ”five hundred.”

”Seems's if I never could get enough light, myself,” the matron continued agreeably, descending the porch steps. ”Before I come here I never had nothing in my kitchen but an oil-lamp and a reflector. Jest as sure as I'd be dis.h.i.+ng up dinner, hot nights, that lamp would begin to flicker and suck--well, shucks! I'd look up at it and I'd say, ”Well, why don't you go out? Go ahead!'” Mrs. Tolley laughed joyously. ”Well, one night George--” she was continuing with relish, when Min pulled at her sleeve and, with a sort of affectionate impatience, said, ”Oh, f'e'ven's sakes, Ma!”

”Yes, I'm coming,” said Mrs. Tolley, recalled. ”Wish't you played ”five hundred: Mr. Fo'ster,” she added politely.

”I don't play either that or old maid,” said Paul distinctly. This remark was taken in good part by the Tolleys.

”Old maid's a real comical game,” Min conceded mildly.

”Well, you won't be s'lunsum next week when the Chisholms get back,” said Mrs. Tolley, unaffectedly gathering up the skirt of her starched gown to avoid contact with the sudden heavy dews. ”He's an awful nice feller, and she--she's twenty-six, but she's as jolly as a girl. I declare, I just love Patricia Chisholm.”

”Twenty-six, is she?” said Paul disgustedly to himself: when the Tolley's had gone. ”Only one woman--of any cla.s.s, that is--in this forsaken hole, and she twenty-six!” And he had been thinking of this Patricia with a good deal of interest, he admitted resentfully. Paul was twenty-four, and liked slender little girls well under twenty.

”Lord, what a place!” he said, for the hundredth time.

He sat brooding in the darkness; discouraged and homesick. So he had sat for all his nights at Kirkwood.

The men at the cook-house were playing cards, silently, intently. The cook, serene and cool, was smoking in the doorway of his cabin. Above the dull roar of the river Paul could hear Min Tolley's cackle of laughter, from the cottages a hundred yards away, and Mrs. Hopps' crooning over her baby.

Presently the night s.h.i.+ft went down to the power-house, the men taking great boyish leaps on the steep trail. Some of the lighted windows were blotted out--the Hopps', the cook-house light. The singing pole line above Paul's head ceased abruptly, and with a little rising whine the opposite pole line took up the buzzing current. That meant that the copper line had been cut in, and the aluminum one would be ”cold” for the night.

Minutes went by, eventless . Half an hour, an hour--still Paul sat staring into the velvet dark and wrestling with bitter discouragement and homesickness.

”Lord, what a place!” he said once or twice under his breath.

Finally, feeling cramped and chilly, he went stiffly indoors, through the hot, bright halls, that smelled of varnish and matting, to his room.

The next day was exactly like the five preceding days--hot, restless, aimless; and the next night Paul sat on the porch again, and listened to the rush of the river, and Min Tolley's laugh at the ”five hundred” table, and the Hopps' baby's lullaby. And again he composed his resignation, and calculated that it would take three days for it to reach San Francisco, and another three for him to receive their acceptance of it--another week at least of Kirkwood!

On the seventh day the Chisholms rode down the trail that followed the pole line, and arrived in a hospitable uproar. Alan Chisholm, some five years older than Paul, was a fine-looking, serious, dark youth, a fellow of not many words, being given rather to silent appreciation of his sister's speech than to speech of his own. Miss Chisholm was very tall, very easy in manner, and powdered just now to her eyelashes with fine yellow dust. Paul sat on the porch while the Chisholms went upstairs to brush and change, and thought that the wholesome noise of their splas.h.i.+ng and calling, opening drawers, and banging doors was a pleasant change from the usual quiet of the house.

Miss Chisholm was the first to reappear. She was followed by Min and Mrs. Tolley, and was asking questions at a rate that kept both answering at once. Had her kodak films come? Was Minnie going to have some little sense and be married in a dress she could get some use out of? How were the guinea-pigs, the ducks, the vegetables, the caged fox, the ”boys” generally, Roosy's ear, Consuela Vorse's lame foot? Did Mrs. Tolley know that she had made a deep impression on the old fellow who drove the stage? ”Oh, look at her blush, Min! Well, really!”

She came, delightfully refreshed by toilet waters and crisp linen, to take a deep rocket opposite Paul, and leaned luxuriously back, showing very trim feet shod in white.

”Admit that you've fallen in love with Kirkwood, Mr. Forster,” said she.

”I can't admit anything of the sort,” said Paul firmly, but smiling because she was so very good to look at. He had to admit that he had never seen handsomer dark eyes, nor a more tender, more expressive and characterful mouth than the one that smiled so readily and showed so even a line of big teeth.

”Oh, you will!” she a.s.sured him easily. ”There's no place like Kirkwood, is there, Alan?” she said to her brother, as he came out. He smiled.

”We don't think there is, Forster. My sister's been crazy about the place since we got here--that's eighteen months ago; and I'm crazy about it myself now!”

”Wait until you've slept out on the porch for a while,” said Miss Chisholm, ”and wait until you've got used to a plunge in the pool before breakfast every morning. Alan, you must take him down to the pool to-morrow, and I'll listen for his shrieks. Where are you going now--the power-house? No, thank you, I won't go. I'm going out to find something special to cook you for your suppers.”

The something special was extremely delicious; Paul had a vague impression that there was fried chicken in it, and mushrooms, and cream, and sherry. Miss Chisholm served it from a handsome little copper blazer, and also brewed them her own particular tea, in a Canton teapot. Paul found it much pleasanter at this end of the table. To his surprise, no one resented this marked favoritism--Mrs. Tolley observing contentedly that her days of messing for men were over, and Mrs. Vorse remarking that she'd ”orghter reely git out her chafing-dish and do some cooking” herself.

Paul found that Miss Chisholm possessed a leisurely gift of fun; she was droll, whether she quite meant to be or not. Everybody laughed. Mrs. Tolley became tearful with mirth.

”Now, this is the nicest part of the day,” said Patricia, when they three had carried their coffee out to the porch and were seated. ”Did you ever watch the twilight come, sitting here, Mr. Forster?”

”It seems to me I have never done anything else,” said Paul. She gave him a keen glance over her lifted teaspoon; then she drank her coffee, set the cup down, and said: ”Well! How is that combination of vaudeville and railway station and zoetrope that is known as New York?”

”Oh, the little old berg is all there,” said Paul lightly. But his heart gave a sick throb. He hoped she would go on talking about it. But it was some time before anyone spoke, and then it was Alan Chisholm, who took his pipe out of his mouth to say: ”Patricia hates New York.”

”I can't imagine anyone doing that,” Paul said emphatically.

”Well, there was a time when I thought I couldn't live anywhere else,” said Alan good-naturedly; ”but there's a lot of the pioneer in any fellow, if he gives it a chance.”

”Oh, I had a nice enough time in New York,” said Patricia lazily, ”but it just wears you out to live there; and what do you get out of it? Now, here--well, one's equal to the situation here!”

”And then some,” Paul said; and the brother and sister laughed at his tone.

”But, honestly,” said Miss Chisholm, ”you take a little place like Kirkwood, and you don't need a Socialist party. We all eat the same; we all dress about the same; and certainly, if any one works hard here, it's Alan, and not the mere hands. Why, last Christmas there wasn't a person here who didn't have a present--even w.i.l.l.y Chow Tong! Everyone had all the turkey he could eat; everyone a fire, and a warm bed, and a lighted house. Mrs. Tolley gets only fifty dollars a month, and Monk White gets fifty--doesn't he, Alan? But money doesn't make much difference here. You know how the boys adore Monk for his voice; and as for Mrs. Tolley, she's queen of the place! Now, how much of that's true of New York!”

”Oh, well, put it that way--” Paul said, in the tone of an offended child.