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- The Fashionable Adventures of Joshua Craig - 6/47 -
aristocracy was to dwell in grandeur among the humble. The Severence place, enclosed by a high English-like wall of masonry, filled the whole huge square. On each of its four sides it put in sheepish and chop-fallen countenance a row of boarding houses. In any other city the neighborhood would have been intolerable because of the noise of the rowdy children. But in Washington the boarding house class cannot afford children; so, few indeed were the small forms that paused before the big iron Severence gates to gaze into the mysterious maze of green as far as might be--which was not far, because the walk and the branching drives turn abruptly soon after leaving the gates.
From earliest spring until almost Christmas that mass of green was sweet with perfume and with the songs of appreciative colonies of bright birds. In the midst of the grounds, and ingeniously shut in on all sides from any view that could spoil the illusion of a forest, stood the house, Colonial, creeper-clad, brightened in all its verandas and lawns by gay flowers, pink and white predominating. The rooms were large and lofty of ceiling, and not too uncomfortable in winter, as the family was accustomed to temperatures below the average American indoors. In spring and summer and autumn the rooms were delightful, with their old- fashioned solid furniture, their subdued colors and tints, their elaborate arrangements for regulating the inpour of light. All this suggested wealth. But the Severances were not rich. They had about the same amount of money that old Lucius Quintus had left; but, just as the neighborhood seemed to have degenerated when in fact it had remained all but unchanged, so the Severence fortune seemed to have declined, altogether through changes of standard elsewhere. The Severances were no poorer; simply, other people of their class had grown richer, enormously richer. The Severence homestead, taken by itself and apart from its accidental setting of luxurious grounds, was a third-rate American dwelling-house, fine for a small town, but plain for a city. And the Severence fortune by contrast with the fortunes so lavishly displayed in the fashionable quarter of the capital, was a meager affair, just enough for comfort; it was far too small for the new style of wholesale entertainment which the plutocracy has introduced from England, where the lunacy for aimless and extravagant display rages and ravages in its full horror of witless vulgarity. Thus, the Severences from being leaders twenty years before, had shrunk into "quiet people," were saved from downright obscurity and social neglect only by the indomitable will and tireless energy of old Cornelia Bowker.
Cornelia Bowker was not a Severence; in fact she was by birth indisputably a nobody. Her maiden name was Lard, and the Lards were "poor white trash." By one of those queer freaks wherewith nature loves to make mockery of the struttings of men, she was endowed with ambition and with the intelligence and will to make it effective. Her first ambition was education; by performing labors and sacrifices incredible, she got herself a thorough education. Her next ambition was to be rich; without the beauty that appeals to the senses, she married herself to a rich New Englander, Henry Bowker. Her final and fiercest ambition was social power. She married her daughter to the only son and namesake of Lucius Quintus Severence. The pretensions of aristocracy would soon collapse under the feeble hands of born aristocrats were it not for two things--the passion of the masses of mankind for looking up, and the frequent infusions into aristocratic veins of vigorous common blood. Cornelia Bowker, born Lard, adored "birth." In fulfilling her third ambition she had herself born again. From the moment of the announcement of her daughter's engagement to Lucius Severence, she ceased to be Lard or Bowker and became Severence, more of a Severence than any of the veritable Severences. Soon after her son-in-law and his father died, she became so much THE Severence that fashionable people forgot her origin, regarded her as the true embodiment of the pride and rank of Severence--and Severence became, thanks wholly to her, a synonym for pride and rank, though really the Severences were not especially blue-blooded.
She did not live with her widowed daughter, as two establishments were more impressive; also, she knew that she was not a livable person--and thought none the worse of herself for that characteristic of strong personalities. In the Severence family, at the homestead, there were, besides five servants, but three persons--the widowed Roxana and her two daughters, Margaret and Lucia--Lucia so named by Madam Bowker because with her birth ended the Severence hopes of a son to perpetuate in the direct line the family Christian name for its chief heir. From the side entrance to the house extended an alley of trees, with white flowering bushes from trunk to trunk like a hedge. At one end of the alley was a pretty, arched veranda of the house, with steps descending; at the other end, a graceful fountain in a circle, round which extended a stone bench. Here Margaret was in the habit of walking every good day, and even in rainy weather, immediately after lunch; and here, on the day after the Burke dance, at the usual time, she was walking, as usual--up and down, up and down, a slow even stride, her arms folded upon her chest, the muscles of her mouth moving as she chewed a wooden tooth-pick toward a pulp. As she walked, her eyes held steady like a soldier's, as if upon the small of the back of an invisible walker in front of her. Lucia, stout, rosy, lazy, sprawling upon the bench, her eyes opening and closing drowsily, watched her sister like a sleepy, comfortable cat. The sunbeams, filtering through the leafy arch, coquetted with Margaret's raven hair, and alternately brightened and shadowed her features. There was little of feminine softness in those unguarded features, much of intense and apparently far from agreeable thought. It was one of her bad days, mentally as well as physically--probably mentally because physically. She had not slept more than two hours at most, and her eyes and skin showed it.
"However do you stand it, Rita!" said Lucia, as Margaret approached the fountain for the thirty-seventh time. "It's so dull and tiring, to walk that way."
"I've got to keep my figure," replied Margaret, dropping her hands to her slender hips, and lifting her shoulders in a movement that drew down her corsets and showed the fine length of her waist.
"That's nonsense," said Lucia. "All we Severences get stout as we grow old. You can't hope to escape."
"Grow old!" Margaret's brow lowered. Then she smiled satirically. "Yes, I AM growing old. I don't dare think how many seasons out, and not married, or even engaged. If we were rich, I'd be a young girl still. As it is, I'm getting on.'"
"Don't you worry about that, Rita," said Lucia. "Don't you let them hurry you into anything desperate. I'm sure _I_ don't want to come out. I hate society and I don't care about men. It's much pleasanter lounging about the house and reading. No dressing--no fussing with clothes and people you hate."
"It isn't fair to you, Lucy," said Margaret. "I don't mind their nagging, but I do mind standing in your way. And they'll keep you back as long as I'm still on the market."
"But I want to be kept back." Lucia spoke almost energetically, half lifting her form whose efflorescence had a certain charm because it was the over-luxuriance of healthy youth. "I shan't marry till I find the right man. I'm a fatalist. I believe there's a man for me somewhere, and that he'll find me, though I was hid-- was hid--even here." And she gazed romantically round at the enclosing walls of foliage.
The resolute lines, the "unfeminine" expression disappeared from her sister's face. She laughed softly and tenderly. "What a dear you are!" she cried.
"You can scoff all you please," retorted Lucia, stoutly. "I believe it. We'll see if I'm not right. ...How lovely you did look last night! ... You wait for your 'right man.' Don't let them hurry you. The most dreadful things happen as the result of girls' hurrying, and then meeting him when it's too late."
"Not to women who have the right sort of pride." Margaret drew herself up, and once more her far-away but decided resemblance to Grandmother Bowker showed itself. "I'd never be weak enough to fall in love unless I wished."
"That's not weakness; it's strength," declared Lucia, out of the fulness of experience gleaned from a hundred novels or more.
Margaret shook her head uncompromisingly. "It'd be weakness for me." She dropped upon the bench beside her sister. "I'm going to marry, and I'm going to superintend your future myself. I'm not going to let them kill all the fine feeling in you, as they've killed it in me."
"Killed it!" said Lucia, reaching out for her sister's hand. "You can't say it's dead, so long as you cry like you did last night, when you came home from the ball."
Margaret reddened angrily, snatched her hand away. "Shame on you!" she cried. "I thought you were above spying."
"The door was open between your bedroom and mine," pleaded Lucia. "I couldn't help hearing."
"You ought to have called out--or closed it. In this family I can't claim even my soul as my own!"
"Please, dear," begged Lucia, sitting up now and struggling to put her arms round her sister, "you don't look on ME as an outsider, do you? Why, I'm the only one in all the world who knows you as you are--how sweet and gentle and noble you are. All the rest think you're cold and cynical, and--"
"So I am," said Margaret reflectively, "except toward only you. I'm grandmother over again, with what she'd call a rotten spot."
"That rotten spot's the real you," protested Lucia.
Margaret broke away from her and resumed her walk. "You'll see," said she, her face stern and bitter once more.
A maidservant descended the steps. "Madam Bowker has come," announced she, "and is asking for you, Miss Rita."
A look that could come only from a devil temper flashed into Margaret's hazel eyes. "Tell her I'm out."
"She saw you from the window."
Margaret debated. Said Lucia, "When she comes so soon after lunch she's always in a frightful mood. She comes then to make a row because, without her after-lunch nap, she's hardly human and can
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