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- The Whole Family - 30/38 -
do, instead of talking about the facts of life and different kinds of horse-feed, which is important in the winter. And I heard mother say in a "sort-of-vochy" tone to Peggy:
"They really seem to be fond of each other. Perhaps there may be an engagement to write you about, Peggy."
I thought to myself that mother didn't know that Dr. Denbigh was prejudiced to being engaged, but I didn't say anything--it's wise not to say anything to your family beyond the necessary jargon of living. Peggy seemed to think the same, for she didn't answer a syllabus, but after dropping her glass of water into the fried potatoes which Lena was kindly handing to her, she jumped and scooted. A few minutes later I wanted her to sew a sail on a boat, so I tried her door and it was locked, and then I knocked and she took an awfully long time simply to open that door, and when she did her eyes were red and she was shivering as if she was cold.
"Oh, Billy, Billy!" she said, and then, of all things, she grabbed me and kissed me.
I wriggled loose, and I said: "Sew up this sail for me, will you? Hustle!"
But she didn't pay attention. "Oh, Billy, be a little good to me!" she said. "I'm so wretched, and nobody knows but you. Oh, Billy--he likes somebody better than me!"
"Who does?" I asked. "Father?"
She half laughed, a sort of sickly laugh. "No, Billy. Not father--he--Jack--Dr. Denbigh. Oh, you know. Billy! You heard what mother said."
"O--o--oh!" I answered her, in a contemplating slowness. "Oh--that's so! Do you mind if he gets engaged to Aunt Elizabeth?"
"Do--I--MIND?" said Peggy, as if she was astonished. "Mind? Billy, I'll love him till I die. It would break my heart."
"Oh no, it wouldn't," I told her, because I thought I'd sort of comfort her. "That's truck. You can't break muscles just by loving. But I know how you feel, because that's the way I felt when father gave that Irish setter to the Tracys."
She went on chattering her teeth as if she was cold, so I put the table-cover around her. "You dear Billy," she said. But that was stuff.
"I wouldn't bother," I said. "Likely he's forgotten about you. I often forget things myself." That didn't seem to comfort her, for she began to sob out loud. "Oh, now. Peg, don't cry," I observed to her. "He probably likes Aunt Elizabeth better than you, don't you see? I think she's prettier, myself. And, of course, she's a lot cleverer. She tells funny stories and makes people laugh; you never do that--You're a good sort, but quiet and not much fun, don't you see? Maybe he got plain tired of you."
But instead of being cheered up by my explaining things, she put her head on the table and just yowled. Girls are a queer species.
"You're cruel, cruel!" she sobbed out, and you bet that surprised me--me that was comforting her for all I was worth! I patted her on the back of the neck, and thought hard what other soothings I could squeeze out. Then I had an idea. "Tell you what, Peg," I said, "it's too darned bad of Dr. Denbigh, if he just did it for meanness, when you haven't done anything to him. But maybe he got riled because you begged him so to let you be engaged to him. Of course a man doesn't want to be bothered--if he wants to get engaged he wants to, and if he doesn't want to he doesn't, and that's all. I think probably Dr. Denbigh was afraid you'd be at him again when you came home, so he hurried up and snatched Aunt Elizabeth."
Peggy lifted her face and stared at me. She was a sight, with her eyes all bunged up and her cheeks sloppy. "You think he IS engaged to her, do you, Billy?" she asked me.
Her voice sort of shook, and I thought I'd better settle it for her one way or the other, so I nodded and said, "Wouldn't be surprised," and then, if you'll believe it, that girl got angry--at ME. "Billy, you're brutal--you're like any other man-thing--cold-blooded and faithless--and--" And she began choking--choking again, and I was disgusted and cleared out.
I was glad when she went off to college, because, though she's a kind-hearted girl, she was so peevish and untalkative it made me tired. I think people ought to be cheerful around their own homes. But the family didn't seem to see it; there are such a lot of us that you have to blow a trumpet before you get any special notice--except me, when I don't wash my hands. Yet, what's the use of washing your hands when you're certain to get them dirty again in five minutes?
Well, then, awhile ago Peggy wrote she was engaged to Harry Goward, and there was great excitement in the happy home. My people are mobile in their temperatures, anyway--a little thing stirs them up. I thought it was queerish, but I didn't know but Peggy had changed her mind about loving Dr. Denbigh till she died. I should think that was too long myself. I was busy getting my saddle mended and a new bridle, so I didn't have time for gossip.
Harry came to visit the family, and the minute I inspected him over I knew he was a sissy. If you'll believe me, that grown-up man can't chin himself. He sings and paints apple blossoms, but he fell three-cornered over a fence that I vaulted. He may be fascinating, as Lorraine says, but he isn't worth saving, in my judgments. I said so to Dr. Denbigh one day when he picked me up in his machine and brought me home from school, and he was sympathetic and asked intelligent questions--at least, some of them were; some of them were just slow remarks about if Peggy seemed to be very happy, and that sort of stuff that doesn't have any foundations. I told him particularly that I like automobiles, and he thought a minute, and then said:
"If you were going to be playing near the Whitman station to-morrow I'd pick you up and take you on a twenty-mile spin. I'm lunching with some people near Whitman, and going on to Elmville."
"Oh, pickles!" said I. "Will you, really? Of course, I'll be there. I'll drive over with the expressman--he's a friend of mine--right after lunch," I said, "and I'll wait around the station for you."
So I did that, and while I was waiting I saw Aunt Elizabeth coming--I saw her first, so I hid--I was afraid if she saw me she'd find out I was going with Dr. Denbigh and snatch him herself. I heard her sending a crazy telegram to Harry Goward, and then I forgot all about it until I wanted to distract Alice's mind off some cookies that I'd accumulated at Lorraine's house. Alice is a pig. She never lets me stuff in peace. So I told her about the telegram--I knew Alice would be perturbed with that. She just loves to tell things, but she made me tell Peggy, and there was a hullabaloo promptly. Nobody confided a word to me, and I didn't care much, but I saw them all whispering in low tones and being very busy about it, and Peg looking madder than a goat, and I guessed that Alice had made me raise Cain.
Now, I've got to back up and start over. Golly! it's harder than you'd think just to write down things the way they happened, like I promised Lorraine. Let's see--Oh yes, of course--about Dr. Denbigh and the bubble. I was in a fit for fear dear Aunt Elizabeth would linger around till the doctor came, and then somehow I'd be minus one drive in a machine. She didn't; she cleared out with solidity and despatch, and my Aurora, as the school-teacher would say, came in his whirling car, and in I popped, and we had a corking time. He let me drive a little. You see, the machine is a--Oh, well, Lorraine said, specially, I was not to describe automobiles. That seems such a stupid restrictiveness, but it's a case of cookies, so I'll cut that out.
There really wasn't much else to tell, only that Dr. Denbigh started right in and raked out the inmost linings of my soul about Peggy and Harry Goward. It wasn't exactly cross-examination, because he wasn't cross, yet he fired the questions at me like a cannon, and I answered quick, you bet. Dr. Denbigh knows what he wants, and he means to get it. Just by accident toward the last I let out about that day in the winter when they were chaffing Aunt Elizabeth at the table about him, and how he'd taken her out in the machine, and how mother had said there might be an engagement to write Peggy about.
"Oh!" said Dr. Denbigh. "Oh!--oh!"
Funny, the way he went on saying, "Oh! Oh!"
I thought if that interested him he might like to hear about Peg throwing a fit in her room after, so I told him that, and how I tried to comfort her, and how unreasonable she was. And what do you suppose he said? He looked at me a minute with his eyebrows away down, and his mouth jammed together, and then he brought out:
"You little devil!"
That's not the worst he said, either. I guess mother wouldn't let me go out with him if she knew he used profanity--Maria wouldn't, anyway. I have decided I won't tell them. It's the only time I ever caught him. The other thing is this. He said to himself--but out loud--I think he had forgotten me: "So they made her believe I liked her aunt better." And then, in a minute: "She said it would break her heart--bless her!" And two or three other interlocutory remarks like that, meaning nothing in particular. And then all of a sudden he brought his fist down on his knee with a bang and said, "Damn Aunt Elizabeth!"--not loud, but compressed and explodingly, you know. I looked at him, and he said: "Beg pardon. Billy. Your aunt's a very charming woman, but I mean it. I only asked her to go out with me because she talked more about Peggy than anybody else would," he went on.
I thought a minute, and put two and two together pretty quick. "You mind about Peggy's being engaged to Harry Goward, don't you?" I asked him; for I saw right through him then.
He looked queer. "Yes, I mind," he said.
"But you wouldn't be engaged to her yourself," I propounded to him; and he grinned, and said something about more things in heaven and earth, and called me Horatio. I reckon he got struck crazy a minute. And then he made me tell him further what Peggy said and what I said, and he laughed that time about my comforting her, though I don't see why. It doesn't pay to give up important things, to be kind and thoughtful in this world--nobody appreciates it, and you are sure to be sorry you took the time. When I got up-stairs, after comforting Peggy, my toad had jumped in the water-pitcher and got about drowned--he never was the same toad after--and if I hadn't stopped in Peg's room to do good it wouldn't have happened. And Dr. Denbigh laughed at me besides. However, for an old chap of forty, he's a peach. I'm not kicking at Dr. Denbigh.
Then let's see--(It makes me tired to go on writing this stuff--I wish
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