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- What Can She Do? - 3/72 -
"What are you crying about?" was Zell's brusque response. "Oh, I see; a novel. What a ridiculous old thing you are. I never saw you shed a tear over real trouble, and yet every few days you are dissolved in brine over Adolph Moonshine's agonies, and Seraphina's sentiment, which any sensible person can see is caused by dyspepsia. No such whipped syllabub for me, but real life."
"And what does 'real life' mean for you, I would like to know, but eating, dressing, and flirting?" was the acid retort.
"Though you call me 'child,' I have lived long enough to learn that eating, dressing, and flirting, and while you are about it you might as well add drinking, is the 'real life' of most of the ladies of our set. Indeed, if my poor memory does not fail me, I have seen you myself take a turn at these things sufficiently often to make the sublime scorn of your tone a little inconsistent."
As these barbed arrows flew, the tears rapidly exhaled from the hot cheeks of the young lady on the sofa. Her elegant languor vanished, and she started up; but Mrs. Allen now interfered, and in tones harsh and high, very different from the previous delicate murmurs, exclaimed:
"Children, you drive me wild. Zell, leave the room, and don't show yourself again till you can behave yourself."
Zell was now sobbing, partly in sorrow and partly in anger, but she let fly a few more Parthian arrows over her shoulder as she passed out.
"This is a pretty way to treat one on their birthday. I came home with heart as light as the snowflakes around me, and now you have spoiled everything. I don't know how it is, but I always have a good time everywhere else, but there is something in this house that often sets one's teeth on edge," and the door banged appropriately with a spiteful emphasis as the last word was spoken.
"Poor child," said Edith, "it _is_ too bad that she should be so dashed with cold water on her birthday."
"She isn't a child," said the eldest sister, rising from the sofa and sweeping from the room, "though she often acts like one, and a very bad one too. Her birthday should remind her that if she is ever to be a woman, it is time to commence," and the stately young lady passed coldly away. Edith, went to the window and looked dejectedly out into the early gloom of the declining winter day. Mrs. Allen sighed and looked more nervous and uncomfortable than usual.
The upholsterer had done his part in that elegant home, The feet sank into the carpets as in moss. Luxurious chairs seemed to embrace the form that sank into them. Everything, was padded, rounded, and softened, except tongues and tempers. If wealth could remove the asperities from these as from material things, it might well be coveted. But this is beyond the upholsterer's art, and Mrs. Allen knew little of the Divine art that can wrap up words and deeds with a kindness softer than eider-down.
"Mother's room," instead of being a refuge and a favorite haunt of these three girls, was a place where, as we have seen, their "teeth were set on edge."
Naturally they shunned the place, visiting the invalid rather than living with her; their reluctant feet impelled across the threshold by a sense of duty rather than drawn by the cords of love. The mother felt this in a vague, uncomfortable way, for mother love was there, only it had seemingly turned sour, and instead of attracting her children by sweetness and sympathy, she querulously complained to them and to her husband of their neglect. He would sometimes laugh it off, sometimes shrug his shoulders indifferently, and again harshly chide the girls, according to his mood, for he varied much in this respect. After being cool and wary all day in Wall Street, he took off the curb at home; therefore the variations that never could be counted on. How he would be at dinner did not depend on himself or any principle, but on circumstances. In the main he was indulgent and kind, though quick and passionate, brooking no opposition; and the girls were really more attached to him and found more pleasure in his society than in their mother's. Zelica, the youngest, was his special favorite, and he humored and petted her at a ruinous rate, though often storming at some of her follies.
Mrs. Allen saw this preference of her husband, and was weak enough to feel and show jealousy. But her complainings were ineffectual, for we can no more scold people into loving us than nature could make buds blossom by daily nipping them with frost. And yet she made her children uncomfortable by causing them to feel that it was unnatural and wrong that they did not care more for their mother. This was especially true of Edith, who tried to satisfy her conscience, as we have seen, by bringing costly presents and delicacies that were seldom needed or appreciated.
Edith soon became so oppressed by her mother's sighs and silence and the heavy perfumed air, that she sprang up, and pressing a remorseful kiss on the white thin face, said:
"I must dress for dinner, mamma: I will send your maid," and vanished also.
A FUTURE OF HUMAN DESIGNING
The dining-room at six o'clock wore a far more cheerful aspect than the invalid's room upstairs. It was furnished in a costly manner, but more ostentatiously than good taste would dictate. You instinctively felt that it was a sacred place to the master of the house, in which he daily sacrificed to one of his chosen deities.
The portly colored waiter, in dress coat and white vest, has just placed the soup on the table, and Mr. Allen enters, supporting his wife. He had sort of manly toleration for all her whims and weaknesses. He had never indulged in any lofty ideas of womanhood, nor had any special longings for her sympathy and companionship. Business was the one engrossing thing of his life, and this he honestly believed woman incapable of, from her very nature. It was true of his wife, but due to a false education rather than to any innate difficulties, and he no more expected her to comprehend and sympathize intelligently with his business operations, than to see her go down to Wall Street with him wearing his hat and coat.
She had been the leading belle in his set years ago. He had admired her immensely as a stylish, beautiful woman, and carried her off from dozens of competitors, who were fortunate in their failure. He always maintained a show of gallantry and deference; which, though but veneer, was certainly better than open disregard and brutal neglect.
So now, with a good-natured tolerance and politeness, he seated the feeble creature in a cushioned chair at the table, treating her more like a spoiled child than as a friend and companion. The girls immediately appeared also, for they knew their father's weakness too well to keep him waiting for his dinner.
Zell bounded into his arms in her usual impulsive style, and the father caressed her in a way that showed that his heart was very tender toward his youngest child.
"And so my baby is seventeen to-day," he said. "Well, well, how fast we are growing old."
The girl laughed; the man sighed. The one was on the threshold of what she deemed the richest pleasures of life; the other had well-nigh exhausted them, and for a moment realized it.
Still he was in excellent spirits, for he had been unusually fortunate that day, and had seen his way to an "operation" that promised a golden future. He sat down therefore to the good cheer with not a little of the spirit of the man in the parable, whose complacent exhortation to his soul has ever been the language of false security and prosperity.
The father's open favoritism for Zell was another source of jealousy, her sisters naturally feeling injured by it. Thus in this household even human love was discordant and perverted, and the Divine love unknown. What chance had character, that thing of slow growth, in such an atmosphere?
The popping of a champagne cork took the place of grace at the opening of the meal, and the glasses were filled all around. In honor of Zell's birthday they drank to her health and happiness. By no better form or more suggestive ceremony could this Christian (?) family wish their youngest member "God-speed" on entering the vicissitudes of a new year of life. But what they did was done heartily, and every glass was drained. To them it seemed very appropriate and her father said, glancing admiringly at her flaming cheeks and dancing eyes--
"This is just the thing to drink Zell's health in, for she is as full of sparkle and effervescence as the champagne itself."
Had he been a wiser and more thoughtful man, he would have carried the simile further and remembered the fate of champagne when exposed. However piquant and pleasing Zell's sparkle might be, it would hardly secure success and safety for life. But in his creed a girl's first duty was to be pretty and fascinating, and he was extremely proud of the beauty of his daughters. It was his plan to marry them to rich men who would maintain them in the irresponsible luxury that their mother had enjoyed.
Circumstances seemed to justify his security. The son of a rich man, he had also inherited a taste for business and the art of making money. Years of prosperity had confirmed his confidence, and he looked complacently around upon his family and talked of the future in sanguine tones.
He was a man considerably past his prime, and his florid face and portly form indicated that he was in the habit of doing ample justice to the good cheer before him. Intense application to business in early years and indulgence of appetite in later life had seriously impaired a constitution naturally good. He reminded you of a flower fully blown or of fruit overripe.
"Since you have permitted Zell to leave school, I suppose she must make her debut soon," said Mrs. Allen with more animation than usual in her tone.
"Oh, certainly," cried Zell, "on Edith's birthday, in February. We have arranged it all, haven't we, Edith?"
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