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- Beasley's Christmas Party - 2/10 -
introduced me. She made the presentation general; and I had the experience of receiving a nod and a slow glance, in which there was a sort of dusky, estimating brilliance, from the beautiful lady opposite me.
It might have been better mannered for me to address myself to Mr. Dowden, or one of the very nice elderly women, who were my fellow-guests, than to open a conversation with Miss Apperthwaite; but I did not stop to think of that.
"You have a splendid old house next door to you here, Miss Apperthwaite," I said. "It's a privilege to find it in view from my window."
There was a faint stir as of some consternation in the little company. The elderly ladies stopped talking abruptly and exchanged glances, though this was not of my observation at the moment, I think, but recurred to my consciousness later, when I had perceived my blunder.
"May I ask who lives there?" I pursued.
Miss Apperthwaite allowed her noticeable lashes to cover her eyes for an instant, then looked up again.
"A Mr. Beasley," she said.
"Not the Honorable David Beasley!" I exclaimed.
"Yes," she returned, with a certain gravity which I afterward wished had checked me. "Do you know him?"
"Not in person," I explained. "You see, I've written a good deal about him. I was with the "Spencerville Journal" until a few days ago, and even in the country we know who's who in politics over the state. Beasley's the man that went to Congress and never made a speech--never made even a motion to adjourn--but got everything his district wanted. There's talk of him now for Governor."
"And so it's the Honorable David Beasley who lives in that splendid place. How curious that is!"
"Why?" asked Miss Apperthwaite.
"It seems too big for one man," I answered; "and I've always had the impression Mr. Beasley was a bachelor."
"Yes," she said, rather slowly, "he is."
"But of course he doesn't live there all alone," I supposed, aloud, "probably he has--"
"No. There's no one else--except a couple of colored servants."
"What a crime!" I exclaimed. "If there ever was a house meant for a large family, that one is. Can't you almost hear it crying out for heaps and heaps of romping children? I should think--"
I was interrupted by a loud cough from Mr. Dowden, so abrupt and artificial that his intention to check the flow of my innocent prattle was embarrassingly obvious--even to me!
"Can you tell me," he said, leaning forward and following up the interruption as hastily as possible, "what the farmers were getting for their wheat when you left Spencerville?"
"Ninety-four cents," I answered, and felt my ears growing red with mortification. Too late, I remembered that the new-comer in a community should guard his tongue among the natives until he has unravelled the skein of their relationships, alliances, feuds, and private wars--a precept not unlike the classic injunction:
"Yes, my darling daughter. Hang your clothes on a hickory limb, But don't go near the water."
However, in my confusion I warmly regretted my failure to follow it, and resolved not to blunder again.
Mr. Dowden thanked me for the information for which he had no real desire, and, the elderly ladies again taking up (with all too evident relief) their various mild debates, he inquired if I played bridge. "But I forget," he added. "Of course you'll be at the 'Despatch' office in the evenings, and can't be here." After which he immediately began to question me about my work, making his determination to give me no opportunity again to mention the Honorable David Beasley unnecessarily conspicuous, as I thought.
I could only conclude that some unpleasantness had arisen between himself and Beasley, probably of political origin, since they were both in politics, and of personal (and consequently bitter) development; and that Mr. Dowden found the mention of Beasley not only unpleasant to himself but a possible embarrassment to the ladies (who, I supposed, were aware of the quarrel) on his account.
After lunch, not having to report at the office immediately, I took unto myself the solace of a cigar, which kept me company during a stroll about Mrs. Apperthwaite's capacious yard. In the rear I found an old-fashioned rose-garden--the bushes long since bloomless and now brown with autumn--and I paced its gravelled paths up and down, at the same time favoring Mr. Beasley's house with a covert study that would have done credit to a porch-climber, for the sting of my blunder at the table was quiescent, or at least neutralized, under the itch of a curiosity far from satisfied concerning the interesting premises next door. The gentleman in the dressing-gown, I was sure, could have been no other than the Honorable David Beasley himself. He came not in eyeshot now, neither he nor any other; there was no sign of life about the place. That portion of his yard which lay behind the house was not within my vision, it is true, his property being here separated from Mrs. Apperthwaite's by a board fence higher than a tall man could reach; but there was no sound from the other side of this partition, save that caused by the quiet movement of rusty leaves in the breeze.
My cigar was at half-length when the green lattice door of Mrs. Apperthwaite's back porch was opened and Miss Apperthwaite, bearing a saucer of milk, issued therefrom, followed, hastily, by a very white, fat cat, with a pink ribbon round its neck, a vibrant nose, and fixed, voracious eyes uplifted to the saucer. The lady and her cat offered to view a group as pretty as a popular painting; it was even improved when, stooping, Miss Apperthwaite set the saucer upon the ground, and, continuing in that posture, stroked the cat. To bend so far is a test of a woman's grace, I have observed.
She turned her face toward me and smiled. "I'm almost at the age, you see."
"What age?" I asked, stupidly enough.
"When we take to cats," she said, rising. "Spinsterhood" we like to call it. 'Single-blessedness!'"
"That is your kind heart. You decline to make one of us happy to the despair of all the rest."
She laughed at this, though with no very genuine mirth, I marked, and let my 1830 attempt at gallantry pass without other retort.
"You seemed interested in the old place yonder." She indicated Mr. Beasley's house with a nod.
"Oh, I understood my blunder," I said, quickly. "I wish I had known the subject was embarrassing or unpleasant to Mr. Dowden."
"What made you think that?"
"Surely," I said, "you saw how pointedly he cut me off."
"Yes," she returned, thoughtfully. "He rather did; it's true. At least, I see how you got that impression." She seemed to muse upon this, letting her eyes fall; then, raising them, allowed her far-away gaze to rest upon the house beyond the fence, and said, "It IS an interesting old place."
"And Mr. Beasley himself--" I began.
"Oh," she said, "HE isn't interesting. That's his trouble!"
"You mean his trouble not to--"
She interrupted me, speaking with sudden, surprising energy, "I mean he's a man of no imagination."
"No imagination!" I exclaimed.
"None in the world! Not one ounce of imagination! Not one grain!"
"Then who," I cried--"or what--is Simpledoria?"
"Simple--what?" she said, plainly mystified.
"Simpledoria?" she repeated, and laughed. "What in the world is that?"
"You never heard of it before?"
"Never in my life."
"You've lived next door to Mr. Beasley a long time, haven't you?"
"All my life."
"And I suppose you must know him pretty well."
"What next?" she said, smiling.
"You said he lived there all alone," I went on, tentatively.
"Except for an old colored couple, his servants."
"Can you tell me--" I hesitated. "Has he ever been thought--well, 'queer'?"
"Never!" she answered, emphatically. "Never anything so exciting! Merely deadly and hopelessly commonplace." She picked up the saucer, now exceedingly empty, and set it upon a shelf by the lattice door. "What was it about--what was that name?--'Simpledoria'?"
"I will tell you," I said. And I related in detail the singular
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