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- Many Kingdoms - 30/34 -


off.

"If the secret of happiness is work, as most authorities agree," I reminded Jessica, "Professor von Heller's wife ought to be the happiest bride in this country."

Jessica turned one disgusted glance upon me, rose with dignity, and moved haughtily down the road to a street-car which was bumping its way toward us on its somewhat uneven track.

"Oh, well, if you are going to be funny over a tragedy in which one of your dearest friends is a victim," she observed, icily, "we will not discuss the matter. But I, for one, have learned a lesson: I know _now_ what matrimony is."

I had a dim sense that even this experience, interesting and educative though it was, could not be fairly regarded as a post-graduate course in matrimonial knowledge, and I ventured to say so.

Jessica set her teeth and declined to discuss the matter further, resolutely turning the conversation to the neutral topic of a cat-bird which was mewing plaintively in a hedge behind us. Late that night, however, she awoke me from my innocent slumbers with a request for knowledge as to the correct spelling of _irrevocable_ and _disillusionment_. She was at her desk, writing hard, with her brows knit into an elaborate pattern of cross-stitching. I knew the moment I looked upon her set young face that the missive was to Arthur Townsend Jennings, the brother of a classmate, whose letter urging her to "wait five years" for him Jessica had received only that morning. It was quite evident, even to the drowsiest observation, that Jessica was not promising to wait.

Jessica's pessimism on the subject of matrimony dated from that hour, and grew with each day that followed. Coldly, even as she had turned from the plea of Arthur Townsend Jennings, did she turn from all other suitors. She grew steadily in charm and beauty, and her opportunities to break hearts were, from the susceptible nature of man, of an almost startling frequency. Jessica grasped each one with what seemed even to my loyal eyes diabolical glee. She was an avenging Nemesis, hot on the trail of man. Grave professors, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton Juniors and Seniors, loyal boy friends of her youth who came in manhood to lay their hearts at her feet--all of these and more Jessica sent forth from her presence, a long, stricken procession. "I know _now_ what matrimony is," was Jessica's battle-cry. If, in a thoughtless partisan spirit, I sought to say a good word for one of her victims, pointing out his material advantages or his spiritual graces, or both, Jessica turned upon me with a stern reminder. "Have you forgotten Katrina?" she would ask. As I had not forgotten Katrina, the question usually silenced me.

For myself, I must admit, Jessica's Spartan spirit had its effect as an example. Left alone to work out the problem according to my elemental processes, I might possibly have arrived at the conclusion that Katrina's domestic infelicity, assuming that it existed, need not necessarily spread a sombre pall over the entire institution of matrimony. But Jessica's was a dominant personality, and I was easily influenced. In my humble way I followed her example; and though, lacking her beauty and magnetism, the havoc I wrought was vastly less than hers, I nevertheless succeeded in temporarily blighting the lives of two middle-aged professors, one widower in the dry-goods line, and the editor of a yellow newspaper. This last, I must admit, my heart yearned over. I earnestly desired to pluck him from the burning, so to speak, and assist him to find the higher nature of which he had apparently entirely lost sight. There was something singularly pleasing to me in the personality of this gentleman, but Jessica would have none of him. I finally agreed to be a maiden aunt to him, and, this happy compromise effected, I was privileged to see him frequently. If at any time I faltered, quoting him too often on the political problems of the day, or thoughtlessly rereading his letters in Jessica's presence, she reminded me of Katrina. I sighed, and resumed the mantle, so to speak, of the maiden aunt. Unlike Katrina, I never had been good at running errands, and now, in my early thirties, I was taking on stoutness: it was plain that the risk of matrimony was indeed too great.

For we had been growing older, Jessica and I, and many things more or less agreeable had happened to us. We had been graduated with high honors, we had spent four years abroad in supplementary study, and we had then returned to the congenial task of bringing education up to date in our native land. We taught, and taught successfully; and our girls went forth and married, or studied or taught, and came back to show us their babies or their theses, according to the character of their productiveness. We fell into the routine of academic life. Occasionally, at longer intervals as the years passed, an intrepid man, brushing aside the warnings of his anxious friends, presented himself for the favor of Jessica, and was sternly sent to join the long line of his predecessors. Life was full, life in its way was interesting, but it must be admitted that life was sometimes rather lonely. My editor, loyal soul that he was, wrote regularly, and came to see me twice a year. Professor Herbert Adams, a victim long at Jessica's feet, made sporadic departures from that position, and then humbly returned. These two alone were left us. Jessica acquired three gray hairs and a permanent crease in her intellectual brow.

During all these changing scenes we had not seen Katrina. Under no circumstances, after that first melancholy visit, would we willingly have seen her again. At long intervals we heard from her. We knew there were three fat babies, whose infant charms, hitherto unparalleled, were caricatured in snapshots sent us by their proud mother. Jessica looked at these, groaned, and dropped them into the dark corners of our study. Our visits home were rare, and there had been no time in any of them for a second call at the home of Professor von Heller. Seven years after our return from Europe, however, Jessica decided that she needed a rest and a summer in her native air. Moreover, she had just given Professor Adams his final _conge_, and he had left her in high dudgeon. I sapiently inferred that Jessica had found the experience something of a strain. As Jessica acted as expeditiously in other matters as in blighting lives, I need hardly add that we were transported to our home town with gratifying despatch. We had stepped from the train at the end of our journey before a satisfactory excuse for remaining behind had occurred to me, and it was obviously of little avail to mention it then. Twenty-four hours after the newspapers had chronicled the exciting news of our arrival, Katrina called on us.

We gasped as we looked at her. Was this, indeed, Katrina--this rosy, robust, glowing, radiant German with shining eyes and with vitality flowing from her like the current of an electric battery? I looked at Jessica's faded complexion, the tired lines in her face, the white threads in her dark hair, and my heart contracted suddenly. I knew how I looked--vastly more tired, more faded than Jessica, for I had started from a point nearer to these undesirable goals. We three were about the same age. There were six months at the most between us. Who would believe it to look at us together?

Katrina seized us in turn, and kissed us on both cheeks. To me there was something life-giving in the grasp of her strong, firm hands, in the touch of her cool, soft lips. She insisted that we come to see her and at once. When would we come? We had no excuse now, she pointed out, and if we needed a rest, the farm--her home--was the best place in the world for rest. With a faint access of hope I heard her. The farm? Had she, then, moved? No, she was still in the same place, Katrina explained, but the city had lurched off in another direction, leaving her and Hans and the children undisturbed in their peaceful pastoral life.

"Ka-tri-na!"

I almost jumped, but it was only a memory, helped on by my vivid fancy. I had tried to picture the peaceful pastoral life, but all that responded was the echo of that distant summons. Jessica, however, was explaining that we would come--soon, very soon--next week--yes, Tuesday, of course. Jessica subsequently inquired of me, with the strong resentment of the person who is in the wrong, how I expected her to get us out of it. It was something that had to be done. Obviously, she said, it was one of those things to do and have done with.

She discoursed languidly about Katrina in the interval between the promise and the visit.

"Well! Of course she's well," drawled Jessica. "She's the kind that wouldn't know it if she wasn't well. For the rest, she's phlegmatic, has no aspirations, and evidently no sensitiveness. All she asks is to wait on that man and his children, and from our glimpse of Hans we can safely surmise that he is still gratifying that simple aspiration. Heavens! don't let's talk about it! It's too horrible!"

Tuesday came, and we made our second visit to Katrina's--fourteen years to a month from the time of our first. Again the weather was perfect, but the years and professional cares had done their fatal work, and our lagging spirits refused to respond to the jocund call of the day. Again we approached, with an absurd shrinking, the bleak old house. The bleak old house was not there; nay, it was there, but transformed. It was painted red. Blossoming vines clambered over it; French windows descended to meet its wide verandas; striped awnings sheltered its rooms from the July sun. The lawns, sloping down to a close-clipped hedge, were green and velvety. The iron dog was gone. A great hammock swung in the corner of the veranda, and in it tumbled a fat, pink child and a kitten. The fat child proved that all was not a dream. It was Katrina reborn--the Katrina of that first day in school, twenty years and more ago. Rather unsteadily we walked up the gravel path, rather uncertainly we rang the bell. A white-capped maid ushered us in. Yes, Frau von Heller was at home and expecting the ladies. Would the ladies be gracious enough to enter? The ladies would. The ladies entered.

The partition between two of the rooms had been taken down and the entire floor made over. There was a wide hall, with a great living- room at the right. As we approached it we heard the gurgle of a baby's laugh, Katrina's answering ripple, and the murmur of a bass voice buzzing like a cheerful bumblebee. Our footsteps were deadened by the thick carpet, and our entrance did not disturb for a moment the pleasing family tableau on which we gazed. The professor was standing with his baby in his arms, his profile toward the door, facing his wife, who was laughing up at him. The infant had grasped a handful of his father's wavy gray hair and was making an earnest and gratifyingly successful effort to drag it out by the roots. Von Heller's face, certainly ten years younger than when we saw it last, was alight with pride in this precocious offspring. Seeing us, he tossed the baby on his shoulder, holding it there with one accustomed arm, and came to meet us, his wife close by his side. They reached us together, but it was the professor who gave us our welcome. This time he needed no introduction.

"My wife's friends, Miss Lawrence and Miss Gifford, is it not?" He smiled, extending his big hand to each of us in turn, and giving our hands a grip the cordiality of which made us wince. "It is a pleasure. But you will excuse this young man, is it not?" He lowered the baby to his breast as he spoke, while his wife fell upon our necks in


Many Kingdoms - 30/34

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