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Pop by Rupert Hughes

I

They made a handsome family group, with just the one necessary element of contrast.

Father was the contrast.

They were convened within and about the big three-walled divan which, according to the fashion, was backed up against a long library-table in what they now called the living-room. It had once been the sitting-room and had contained a what-isn't-it and a sofa like an enormous bald caterpillar, crowded against the wall so that you could fall off only one side of it.

It was a family reunion and unexpected. Father was not convened with the rest, but sat off in the shadow and counted the feet sticking out from the divan and protruding from the chairs. He counted fourteen feet, including his wife's and excluding his own. All the feet were expensively shod except his own.

Three of the children had come home for a visit, and father, glad as he was to see them, had a vague feeling that they had been brought in by some other motive than their loudly proclaimed homesickness. He was willing to wait until they disclosed it, for he had an idea what it was and he was always glad to postpone a payment. It meant so much less interest to lose. Father was a business man.

Father was also dismally computing the addition to the grocery bills, the butchery bills, and livery bills, and the others. He was figuring out the added expense of the dinner, with roast beef now costing as much as peacocks' tongues. He had raised a large family and there was not a dyspeptic in the lot—not even a banter.

They had been photographed together the day before and the proof had just come home. Father was not in the picture. It was a handsome picture. They admitted it themselves. They had urged father to come along, but he had pleaded his business, as usual. As they studied the picture they would glance across at father and realize how little the picture lost by his absence. It lost nothing but the contrast.

While they were engaged each in that most fascinating of employments—studying one's own photograph—they were all waiting for the dining-room maid to appear like a black-and-white sketch and crisply announce that dinner was served. They had not arrived yet at having a man. Indeed, that room could still remember when a frowsy, blowsy hired girl was wont to stick her head in and groan, “Supper's ready!”

In fact, mother had never been able to live down a memory of the time when she used to put her own head in at a humbler dining-room door and call with all the anger that cooks up in a cook: “Come on! What we got's on the table!” But mother had entirely forgotten the first few months of her married life, when she would sing out to father: “Oh, honey, help me set the table, will you? I've a surprise for you—something you like!”

This family had evolved along the cycles so many families go through—from pin feathers to paradise plumes—only, the male bird had failed to improve his feathers or his song, though he never failed to bring up the food and keep the nest thatched.

The history of an American family can often be traced by its monuments in the names the children call the mother. Mrs. Grout had begun as—just one Ma. Eventually they doubled that and progressed from the accent on the first to the accent on the second ma. Years later one of the inarticulate brats had come home as a collegian in a funny hat, and Mama had become Mater. This had lasted until one of the brattines came home as a collegienne with a swagger and a funny sweater. And then her Latin title was Frenchified to Mère—which always gave father a shock; for father had been raised on a farm, where only horses' wives were called by that name.

Father had been dubbed Pop at an early date. Efforts to change this title had been as futile as the terrific endeavors to keep him from propping his knife against his plate. He had been browbeaten out of using the blade for transportation purposes, but at that point he had simply ceased to develop.

Names like Pappah, Pater, and Père would not cling to him; they fell off at once. Pop he was always called to his face, whether he were referred to abroad as “the old man,” “the governor,” or “our dear father.”

The evolution of the Grout family could be traced still more clearly in the names the parents had given the children. The eldest was a daughter, though when she grew up she dropped back in the line and became ever so much younger than her next younger brothers. She might have fallen still farther to the rear if she had not run up against another daughter who had her own age to keep down.

The eldest daughter, born in the grim days of early penury, had been grimly entitled Julia. The following child, a son, was soberly called by his father's given and his mother's maiden names—John Pennock Grout, or Jno. P., as his father wrote it.

A year or two later there appeared another hostage. Labeling him was a matter of deep concern. John urged his own father's name, William; but the mother wafted this away with a gesture of airy disgust. There was a hired girl in the kitchen now and mother was reading a good many novels between stitches. She debated long and hard while the child waited anonymous. At length she ventured on Gerald. She changed that two or three times and the boy had a narrow escape from Sylvester. He came perilously near to carrying Abélard through an amused world; but she harked back to Gerald—which he spelled Jerrold at times.

Then two daughters entered the family in succession and were stamped Beatrice—pronounced Bay-ah-treat-she by those who had the time and the energy—and Consuelo, which Pop would call Counser-eller.

By this time Julia had grown up and was beginning at finishing-school. She soon saw that Julia would never do—never! She had started with a handicap, but she caught up with the rest and passed them gracefully by ingeniously altering the final a to an e, and pronouncing it Zheelee.

Her father never could get within hailing distance of the French j and u, and teetered awkwardly between Jilly and Jelly. He was apt to relax sickeningly into plain Julia—especially before folks, when he was nervous anyway. Only they did not say “before folks” now; the Grouts never said “before folks” now—they said, “In the presence of guests.”

By the time the next son came the mother was shamelessly literary enough to name him Ethelwolf, which his school companions joyously abbreviated to Ethel, overlooking the wolf.

Ethelwolf was the last of the visitors. For by this time Mère had accumulated so many absolutely unforgivable grievances against her absolutely impossible husband that she felt qualified for that crown of comfortable martyrhood, that womanly ideal, “a wife in name only”—and only that “for the sake of the children.”

By this time the children, too, had acquired grievances against Pop. The more refined they grew the coarser-grained he seemed. They could not pulverize him in the coffee-mill of criticism. He was as hopeless in ideas as in language. It was impossible to make him realize that the best is always the cheapest; that fine clothes make fine people; that petty economies are death to “the larger flights of the soul”; and that parents have no right to have children unless they can give them what other people's children have.

If John Grout complained that he was not a millionaire the younger Grouts retorted that this was not their fault, but their misfortune; and it was “up to Pop” to do the best he could during what Mère was now calling their “formative years.” The children had liberal ideas, artistic and refined ideals; but Pop was forever talking poor, always splitting pennies, always dolefully reiterating, “I don't know where the money is coming from!”

It was so foolish of him, too—for it always came from somewhere. The children went to the best schools, traveled in Europe, wore as good clothes as anybody—though they did not admit this, of course, within father's hearing, lest it put false notions into his head; and the sons made investments that had not yet begun to turn out right.

Parents cannot fool their children long, and the Grout youngsters had learned at an early date that Pop always forked over when he was nagged into it. Any of the children in trouble could always write or telegraph home a “must have,” and it was always forthcoming. There usually followed a querulous note about “Sorry you have to have so much, but I suppose it costs a lot where you are. Make it go as far as you can, for I'm a little pinched just now.” But this was taken as a mere detail—an unfortunate paternal habit.

That was Pop's vice—his only one and about the least attractive of vices. It was harrowing to be the children of a miser—for he must have a lot hoarded away. His poor talk, his allusions to notes at the bank and mortgages and drafts to meet, were just bogies to frighten them with and to keep them down.

It was most humiliating for high-spirited children to be so misunderstood. Pop lacked refined tastes. It was a harsh thing to say of one's parent, but when you came right down to it Pop was a hopeless plebeian.

Pop noticed the difference himself. He would have doubted that these magnificent youngsters could be his own if that had not implied a criticism of his unimpeachable wife. So he gave her all the credit. For Mère was different. She was well read; she entertained charmingly; she loved good clothes, up-to-the-minute hats; she knew who was who and what was what. She was ambitious, progressive. She nearly took up French once.

But Pop was shabby. Pop always wore a suit until it glistened and his children ridiculed him into a new one. As for wearing evening dress, in the words of Gerald they “had to blindfold him and back him into his soup-and-fish, even on the night the Italian Opera Company came to town.”

Pop never could take them anywhere. A vacation was a thing of horror to him. It was almost impossible to drag him to a lake or the sea, and it was quite impossible to keep him there more than a few days. His business always called him home.

And such a business! Dry-goods!—and in a small town.

And such a town, with such a name! To the children who knew their Paris and their London, their New York and their Washington, a visit home was like a sentence to jail. It was humiliating to make a good impression on acquaintances of importance and then have to confess to a home town named Waupoos.

People either said, “I beg your pardon!” as if they had not heard it right, or they laughed and said, “Honestly?”

The children had tried again and again to pry Pop out of Waupoos, but he clung to it like a limpet. He had had opportunities, too, to move his business to big cities, but he was afraid to venture. He was fairly sure of sustenance in Waupoos so long as he nursed every penny; but he could never find the courage to transplant himself to another place.

The worst of his cowardice was that he blamed the children—at least, he said he dared not face a year or two of possible loss lest they might need something. So he stayed in Waupoos and managed somehow to keep the family afloat and the store open.

When Mère revolted and longed for a glimpse of the outer world he always advised her to take a trip and have a good time. He always said he could afford that much, and he took an interest in seeing that she had funds to buy some city clothes with; but he never had funds enough to go along.

That was one of mother's grievances. Pop bored her to death at home and she wanted to scream every time he mentioned his business—it was so selfish of him to talk of that at night when she had so much to tell him of the misbehavior of the servants. But, greatly as he annoyed her round the house, she cherished an illusion that she would like him in a hotel.

She had tried to get him to read a certain novel—a wonderful book mercilessly exposing the curse of modern America; which is the men's habit of sticking to their business so closely that they give their poor wives no companionship. They leave their poor wives to languish at home or to go shopping or gossiping, while they indulge themselves in the luxuries of vibration between creditor and debtor.

In this novel, and in several others she could have named, the poor wife naturally fell a prey to the fascinations of a handsome devil with dark eyes, a motor or two, and no office hours.

Mère often wondered why she herself had not taken up with some handsome devil fully equipped for the entertainment of neglected wives.

If she had not been a member of that stanch American womanhood to which the glory of the country and its progress are really due, she might have startled her husband into realizing too late, as the too-late husbands in the novels realized, that a man's business is a side issue and that the perpetuation of romance is the main task. Her self-respect was all that held Mère to the home; that and—whisper!—the fact that no handsome devil with any kind of eyes ever tried to lure her away.

When she reproached Pop and threatened him he refused to be scared. He paid his wife that most odious of tributes—a monotonous trust in her loyalty and an insulting immunity to jealousy. Almost worse was his monotonous loyalty to her and his failure to give her jealousy any excuse.

They quarreled incessantly, but the wrangles were not gorgeously dramatic charges of intrigue with handsome men or painted women, followed by rapturous make-ups. They were quarrels over expenditures, extravagances, and voyages.

Mère charged Pop with parsimony and he charged her with recklessness. She accused him of trying to tie them down to a village; he accused her of trying to drive him to bankruptcy. She demanded to know whether he wanted his children to be like children of their neighbors—clerks in small stores, starveling tradespeople and wives of little merchants. He answered that she was breeding a pack of snobs that despised their father and had no mercy on him—and no use for him except as a lemon to squeeze dry. She answered with a laugh of scorn that lemon was a good word; and he threw up his hands and returned to the shop if the war broke out at noon, or slunk up to bed if it followed dinner.

This was the pattern of their daily life. Every night there was a new theme, but the duet they built on it ran along the same formulas.

The children sided with Mère, of course. In the first place, she was a poor, downtrodden woman; in the second, she was their broker. Her job was to get them things. They gave her the credit for what she got them. They gave Pop no praise for yielding—no credit for extracting somehow from the dry-soil of an arid town the money they extracted from him. They knew nothing of the myriad little agonies, the ingenuity, the tireless attention to detail, the exquisite finesse that make success possible in the mêlée of competition. Their souls were above trade and its petty nigglings.

Jno. P., who was now known as J. Pennock, was aiming at a million dollars in New York, and his mother was sure that he would get it next time if Pop would only raise him a little more money to meet an irritating obligation or seize a glittering opportunity. Pop always raised the money and J. Pennock always lost it. Yet Pennock was a financier and Pop was a village merchant. And now Pen had come home unexpectedly. He was showing a great interest in Pop's affairs.

Gerald was home also unexpectedly. He was an artist of the most wonderful promise. None of his promises was more wonderful than those he made his father to repay just one more loan—to tide him over until he sold his next picture; but it never sold, or it sold for a mere song. Gerald solaced himself and Mère solaced him for being ahead of his time, unappreciated, too good for the public. She thanked Heaven that Gerald was a genius, not a salesman. One salesman in the family was enough!

And Gerald had beaten Pen home by one train. He had greeted Pen somewhat coldly—as if Pen were a trespasser on his side of the street. And when it was learned that Julie had telegraphed that she would arrive the next day, both the brothers had frowned.

Pop had sighed. He was glad to see his wonderful offspring, but he had already put off the grocer and the butcher—and even his life-insurance premium—because he had an opportunity by a quick use of cash to obtain the bankrupt stock of a rival dealer who had not nursed his pennies as Pop had. It was by such purchases that Pop had managed to keep his store alive and his brilliant children in funds.

He had temporarily drawn his bank account down to the irreducible minimum and borrowed on his securities up to the insurmountable maximum. It was a bad time for his children to tap him. But here they were—Jno. P., Jerry, and Julia—all very unctuous over the home-coming, and yet all of them evidently cherishing an ulterior idea.

He watched them lounging in fashionable awkwardness. They were brilliant children. And he was as proud of them as he was afraid of them—and for them.

II

If the children looked brilliant to Pop he did not reflect their refulgence. As they glanced from the photographer's proof to Pop they were not impressed. They were not afraid of him or for him.

His bodily arrangement was pitifully gawky; he neither sat erect nor lounged—he slumped spineless. Big spectacles were in style now, but Pop's big spectacles were just out of it. His face was like a parchment that had been left out in the rain and had dried carelessly in deep, stiff wrinkles—with the writing washed off.

Ethelwolf, the last born, had no ulterior idea. He always spent his monthly allowance by the second Tuesday after the first Monday, and sulked through a period of famine and debt until the next month. It was now the third Tuesday and he was disposed to sarcasm.

“Look at Pop!” he muttered. “He looks just like the old boy they put in the cartoons to represent The Common People.”

“He's the Beau Brummel of Waupoos, all right!” said Bayahtreatshe, who was soon returning to Wellesley. And Consuelo, who was preparing for Vassar, added under her breath, “Mère, can't you steal up on him and swipe that already-tied tie?”

Had Pop overheard, he would have made no complaint. He had known the time when they had thrown things at him. The reverence of American children for their fathers is almost as famous as the meekness of American wives before their husbands. Yet it might have hurt Pop a little to see Mother shake her head and hear her sigh:

“He's hopeless, children! Do take warning from my misfortune and be careful what you marry.”

Poor Mère had absolutely forgotten how proud she had been when Johnnie Grout came courting her, and how she had extracted a proposal before he knew what he was about, and had him at the altar before he was ready to support a wife in the style she had been accustomed to hope for. She remembered only the dreams he had not brought true, the harsh realities of their struggle upward. She had worked and skimped with him then. Now she was like a lolling passenger in a jinrikisha, who berates the shabby coolie because he stumbles where the roads are rough and sweats where they are steep.

Julie spoke up in answer to her mother's word of caution:

“There's one thing better than being careful what you marry—and that's not marrying at all!”

The rest of them were used to Julie's views; but Pop, who had paid little heed to them, almost collapsed from his chair. Julie went on:

“Men are all alike, Mère. They're very soft-spoken when they come to make love; but it's only a bluff to make us give up our freedom. Before we know it they drag us up before another man, a preacher, and make us swear to love, honor, and obey. They kill the love, make the honor impossible, and the obey ridiculous. Then they coop us up at home and expect us to let them run the world to suit themselves. They've been running it for thousands of years—and look at the botch they've made of it! It's time for us to take the helm.”

“Go to it, sis,” said Ethelwolf. “I care not who makes the laws so long as I can break them.”

“Let your sister alone!” said Mère. “Go on, Julie!”

“I've put it all in the address I read before the Federation last week,” said Julie. “It was reported at length in one of the papers. I've got a clipping in my handbag here somewhere.”

She began to rummage through a little condensed chaos of handkerchiefs, gloves, powder-puff, powdery dollar bills, powdery coins, loose bits of paper, samples, thread, pins, buttons—everything—every-whichway.

J. Pennock laughed. “Pipe what's going to run the world! Better get a few pockets first.”

“Don't be a brute, Pen!” said Mère.

At last Julie found the clipping she sought and, shaking the powder from it, handed it to her mother.

“It's on the strength of this speech that I was elected delegate to the international convention at San Francisco,” she said.

“You were!” Mère gasped, and Beatrice and Consuelo exclaimed, “Ripsnorting!”

“Are you going?” said Mère when she recovered from her awe.

“Well, it's a pretty expensive trip. That's why I came home—to see if—Well, we can take that up later. Tell me how you like the speech.”

Mère mumbled the report aloud to the delighted audience. Pop heard little of it. He was having a chill. It was very like plain ague, but he credited it to the terror of Julie's mission home. All she wanted him to do was to send her on a little jaunt to San Francisco! The tyrant, as usual, was expected to finance the rebellion.

When Mère had finished reading everybody applauded Julie except Pop. Mère overheard his silence and rounded on him across the aristocratic reading-glass she wielded.

“Did you hear that?”

Pop was so startled that he answered, “Uh-huh!”

“Didn't you think it was splendid?” Mère demanded.

“Uh-huh!” said Pop.

“What didn't you like about it?”

“I liked it all first-rate. Julie is a smart girl, I tell you.”

Mère scented his evasion, and she would never tolerate evasions. She repeated:

“What didn't you like about it?”

“I liked all I could understand.”

“Understand!” snapped Mère, who rarely wasted her culture on Pop. “What didn't you understand? Could anything be clearer than this? Listen!” She read in an oratorical voice:

“'Woman has been for ages man's mere beast of burden, his household drudge. Being a wife has meant being a slave—the only servant without wages or holiday. But the woman of to-day at last demands that the shackles be stricken off; she demands freedom to live her life her own way—to express her selfhood without the hampering restrictions imposed on her by the barbaric customs inherited from the time of the cave-man.'”

Mère folded up the clipping and glared defiance at the cave-man slumped in the uneasy chair.

“What's clearer than that?” she reiterated.

Pop was at bay. He was like a desperate rabbit. He answered:

“It's clear enough, I guess; but it's more than I can take in. Seems to me the women folks are hollering at the men folks to give 'em what the men folks have never been able to get for themselves.”

It was peevish. Coming from Pop, it amounted to an outburst, a riot, a mutiny. Such a tendency was dangerous. He must be sharply repressed at once—as a new servant must be taught her place. Mère administered the necessary rebuke, aided and abetted by the daughters. The sons did not rally to their father's defense. He was soon reduced to submission, but his apology was further irritation:

“I'm kind of rattled like. I ain't feeling as chipper as usual.” “Chipper” was bad enough, but “ain't” was unendurable! They rebuked him for that and he put in another irrelevant plea: “I had a kind of sick spell at the store. I had to lay down.”

“Lie down!” Beatrice corrected.

“Lie down,” he accepted. “But as soon as I laid down—”

“Lay down!”

“Lay down—I had chills and shootin' pains; and I—”

“It's the weather,” Mère interrupted, impatiently. “I've had a headache all day—such a headache as never was known! It seemed as if hammers were beating upon my very brain. It was—”

“I'm not feeling at all well myself,” said Consuelo.

There was almost a tournament of rivalry in describing sufferings.

Pop felt as if he had wakened a sleeping hospital. He sank back ashamed of his own outburst. He rarely spoke of the few ailments he could afford. When he did it was like one of his new clerks pulling a bolt of goods from the shelf and bringing down a silken avalanche.

The clinic was interrupted by the crisp voice of Nora: “Dinner is served!”

Everybody rose and moved to the door with quiet determination. Pop alone failed to rise. Mère glowered at him. He pleaded: “I don't feel very good. I guess I'd better leave my stummick rest.”

The children protested politely, but he refused to be moved and Mère decided to humor him.

“Let him alone, children. It won't hurt him to skip a meal.”

They said: “Too bad, Pop!”—“You'll be all right soon,” and went out and forgot him.

Pop heard them chattering briskly. It was polite talk. If slang were used it was the very newest. He gleaned that Pen and Gerald were opposing Julie's mission to San Francisco on the ground of the expense. He smiled bitterly to hear that word from them. He heard Julie's retort:

“I suppose you boys want the money yourselves! Well, I've got first havers at Pop. I saw him first!”

At about this point the conversation lost its coherence in Pop's ears. It was mingled with a curious buzzing and a dizziness that made him grip his chair lest it pitch him to the floor. Chills, in which his bones were a mere rattlebox, alternated with little rushes of prairie fire across his skin. Throes of pain wrung him.

Also, he was a little afraid—he was afraid he might not be able to get to the store in the morning. And important people were coming! He had to make the first payment on the invoice of that bankrupt stock. A semiannual premium was overdue on his life insurance. The month of grace had nearly expired, and if he failed to pay the policy would lapse—now of all times! He had kept it up all these years; it must not lapse now, for he was going to be right sick. He wanted somebody to nurse him: his mother—or that long-lost girl he had married in the far past.

His shoes irked him; his vest—what they wanted called his waistcoat—was as tight as a corset. He felt that he would be safer in bed. He'd better go up to his own room and stretch out. He rose with extraordinary difficulty and negotiated a swimming floor on swaying legs.

The laughter from the dining-room irritated him. He would be better off up-stairs, where he could not hear it. The noise in his ears was all he could stand. He attained the foot of the stairs and the flight of steps seemed as long and as misty as Jacob's Ladder. And he was no angel!

The Grouts lingered at dinner and over their black coffee and tobacco until it was time to dress for the reception at Mrs. Alvin Mitnick's, at which Waupoos society would pass itself in review. The later you got there the smarter you were, and most people put off dressing until the last possible minute in order to keep themselves from falling asleep before it was time to start.

The Grouts, however, were eager to go early and get it over with. They loved to trample on Waupoos traditions. As they drifted into the hall they found it dark. They shook their heads in dismal recognition of a familiar phenomenon, and Ethelwolf groaned:

“Pop has gone up-stairs. You can always trace Pop. Wherever he has passed by the lights are out.”

“He has figured out that by darkening the halls while we are at dinner he saves nearly a cent a day,” Mère groaned.

“If Pop were dying he'd turn out a light somewhere because he wouldn't need it.” And Ethelwolf laughed.

But Mère groaned again: “Can you wonder that I get depressed? Now, children, I ask you—”

“Poor old Mère! It's awful!”—“Ghastly!”—“Maddening!”

They gathered round her lovingly, echoing her moans. They started up the dark stairway, Consuelo first and turning back to say to Beatrice:

“Pop can cut a penny into more slices than—” Then she screamed and started back.

Her agitation went down the stairway through the climbing Grouts like a cold breeze. What was it? She looked close. A hand was just visible on the floor at the head of the stairs. She had stepped on it.

III

Pop had evidently reached the upper hall, when the ruling passion burning even through his fever had led him to grope about for the electric switch. His last remaining energy had been expended for an economy and he had collapsed.

They switched the light on again; they were always switching on currents that he switched off—and paid for. They found him lying in a crumpled sprawl that was awkward, even for Pop.

They stared at him in bewilderment. They would have said he was drunk; but Pop never drank—nor smoked—nor played cards. Perhaps he was dead!

This thought was like a thunderbolt. There was a great thumping in the breasts of the Grouts.

Suddenly Mère strode forward, dropped to her knees and put her hand on Pop's heart. It was not still—far from that. She placed her cold palm on his forehead. His brow was clammy, hot and cold and wet.

“He has a high fever!” she said.

Then, with a curious emotion, she brushed back the scant wet hair; closed her eyes and felt in her bosom a sudden ache like the turning of a rusty iron. She felt young and afraid—a young wife who finds her man wounded.

She looked up and saw standing about her a number of tall ladies and gentlemen—important-looking strangers. Then she remembered that they had once been nobodies. She felt ashamed before them and she said, quickly:

“He's going to be ill. Telephone for the doctor to come right away. And you girls get his bed ready. No, you'd better put him in my room—it gets the sunlight. And you boys fill the ice-cap—and the hot-water bag and—hurry! Hurry!”

The specters vanished. She was alone with her lover. She was drying his forehead with her best lace handkerchief and murmuring:

“John honey, what's the matter! Why, honey—why didn't you tell me?”

Then a tall gentleman or two returned and one of them said:

“Better let us get him off the floor, Mère.”

And the big sons of the frail little man picked him up and carried him into the room and pulled off his elastic congress gaiters, and his coat and vest, and his detached cuffs, and his permanently tied tie, and his ridiculous collar.

Then Mère put them out, and when the doctor arrived Pop was in bed in his best nightshirt.

The doctor made his way up through the little mob of terrified children. He found Mrs. Grout vastly agitated and much ashamed of herself. She did not wish to look sentimental. She had reached the Indian-summer modesty of old married couples.

The doctor went through the usual ritual of pulse-feeling and tongue-examining and question-asking, while Pop lay inert, with a little thermometer protruding from his mouth like a most inappropriate cigarette.

The doctor was uncertain yet whether it were one of the big fevers or pneumonia or just a bilious attack. Blood-tests would show; and he scraped the lobe of the ear of the unresisting, indifferent old man, and took a drop of thin pink fluid on a bit of glass. The doctor tried to reassure the panicky family, but his voice was low and important.

IV

The brilliant receptions and displays that Mère and the children had planned were abandoned without regret. All minor regrets were lost in the one big regret for the poor old, worn-out man up-stairs.

There was a dignity about Pop now. The lowliest peasant takes on majesty when he is battling for his life and his home.

There was dismay in all the hearts now—dismay at the things they had said and the thoughts and sneers; dismay at the future without this shabby but unfailing provider.

The proofs of the family photograph lay scattered about the living-room. Pop was not there. They had smiled about it before. Now it looked ominous! What would become of this family if Pop were not there?

The house was filled with a thick sense of hush like a heavy fog; but thoughts seemed to be all the louder in the silence—jumbled thoughts of selfish alarm; filial terror; remorse; tenderness; mutual rebuke; dread of death, of the future, of the past.

The day nurse and the night nurse were in command of the house. The only events were the arrivals of the doctor, his long stops, his whispered conferences with the nurses, and the unsatisfactory, evasive answers he gave as the family ambushed him at the foot of the stairs on his way out.

Meanwhile they could not help Pop in his long wrestle. They had drained his strength and bruised his heart while he had his power, and now that he needed their help and their youth they could not lend him anything; they could not pay a single instalment on the mortgages they had incurred.

They could only stand at the door now and then and look in at him. They could not beat off one of the invisible vultures of fever and pain that hovered over him, swooped, and tore him.

They could not even get word to him—not a message of love or of repentance or of hope. His brain was in a turmoil of its own. His white lips were muttering delirious nonsense; his soul was fluttering from scene to scene and year to year, like a restless dragon-fly. He was young; he was old; he was married; he was a bachelor; he was at home; he was in his store; he was pondering campaigns of business, slicing pennies or making daring purchases; he was retrenching; he was advertising; but he was afraid always that he might sink in the bog of competition with rival merchants, with creditors, debtors, bankers, with his wife, his children, his neighbors, his ideals, his business axioms——

“Ain't the moon pirty to-night, honey! Gee! I'm scared of that preacher! What do I say when he says, 'Do you take this woman for your'—The pay-roll? I can't meet it Saturday. How am I going to meet the pay-roll? I don't see how we can sell those goods any cheaper, but we got to get rid of 'em. My premium! My premium! I haven't paid my premium! What'll become of the children? Three cents a yard—it's robbery! Eight cents a yard—that's givin' it away! Don't misunderstand me, Sally. It's my way of making love. I can't say pirty things like some folks can, but I can think 'em. My premium—the pay-roll—so many children! Couldn't they do without that? I ain't a millionaire, you know. Every time I begin to get ahead a little seems like one of the children gets sick or in trouble—the pay-roll! Three cents a yard—the new invoice—I can't buy myself a noo soot. The doctor's bills! I ain't complaining of 'em; but I've got to pay 'em! Let me stay home—I'd rather. I've had a hard day. My premium! Don't put false notions in their heads! The pay-roll! Don't scold me, honey! I got feelings, too. You haven't said a word of love to me in years! I'll raise the money somehow. I know I'm close; but somebody's got to be—the pay-roll—so many people depending on me. So many mouths to feed—the children—all the clerks—the delivery-wagon drivers—the advertising bills—the pay-roll—the children! I ain't as young as I was—honey, don't scold me!”

The ceaseless babbling grew intolerable. Then it ceased; and the stupor that succeeded was worse, for it meant exhaustion. The doctor grew more grave. He ceased to talk of hope. He looked ashamed. He tried to throw the blame from himself.

And one dreadful day he called the family together in the living-room. Once more they were all there—all those expensively shod feet; those well-clothed, well-fed bodies. In the chair where Pop had slumped the doctor sat upright. He was saying:

“Of course there's always hope. While there's life there's always hope. The fever is pretty well gone, but so is the patient. The crisis left him drained. You see he has lived this American business man's life—no exercise, no vacations, no change. The worst of it is that he seems to have given up the fight. You know we doctors can only stand guard outside. The patient has to fight it out inside himself. It's a very serious sign when the sick man loses interest in the battle. Mr. Grout does not rally. His powerful mind has given up.”

In spite of themselves there was a general lifting of the brows of surprise at the allusion to Pop's poor little footling brain as a powerful mind. Perhaps the doctor saw it. He said:

“For it was a powerful mind! Mr. Grout has carried that store of his from a little shop to a big institution; he has kept it afloat in a dull town through hard times. He has kept his credit good and he has given his family wonderful advantages. Look where he has placed you all! He was a great man.”

When the doctor had gone they began to understand that the town had looked upon Pop as a giant of industry, a prodigal of vicarious extravagance. They began to feel more keenly still how good a man he was. While they were flourishing like orchids in the sun and air, he had grubbed in the earth, sinking roots everywhere in search of moisture and of sustenance. Through him, things that were lowly and ugly and cheap were gathered and transformed and sent aloft as sap to make flowers of and color them and give them velvet petals and exquisite perfume.

They gathered silently in his room to watch him. He was white and still, hardly breathing, already the overdue chattel of the grave.

They talked of him in whispers, for he did not answer when they praised him. He did not move when they caressed him. He was very far away and drifting farther.

They spoke of how much they missed him, of how perfect a father he had been, competing with one another in regrets and in praise. Back of all this belated tribute there was a silent dismay they did not give voice to—the keen, immediately personal reasons for regret.

“What will become of us?” they were thinking, each in his or her own terrified soul.

“I can't go back to school!”

“This means no college for me!”

“I'll have to stay in this awful town the rest of my life!”

“I can't go to San Francisco! The greatest honor of my life is taken from me just as I grasped it.”

“I had a commission to paint the portrait of an ambassador at Washington—it would have been the making of me! It meant a lot of money, too. I came home to ask Pop to stake me to money enough to live on until it was finished.”

“My business will go to smash! I'll be saddled with debts for the rest of my life. If I could have hung on a little longer I'd have reached the shore; but the bank wouldn't lend me a cent. Nobody would. I came home to ask Pop to raise me some cash. I counted on him. He never failed me before.”

“What will become of us all?”

There was a stir on the pillow. The still head began to rock, the throat to swell, the lips to twitch.

Mère ran to the bedside and knelt by it, laying her hand on the forehead. A miracle had been wrought in the very texture of his brow. He was whispering something. She put her ear to his lips.

“Yes, honey. What is it? I'm here.”

She caught the faint rustling of words. It was as if his hovering soul had been eavesdropping on their thoughts. Perhaps it was merely that he had learned so well in all these years just what each of them would be thinking. For he murmured:

“I've been figuring out—how much the—funeral will cost—you know they're awful expensive—funerals are—of course I wouldn't want anything fancy—but—well—besides—and I've been thinking the children have got to have so many things—I can't afford to—be away from the store any longer. I ain't got time to die! I've had vacation enough! Where's my clothes at?”

They held him back. But not for long. He was the most irritatingly impatient of convalescents. In due course of time the family was redistributed about the face of the earth. Ethelwolf was at preparatory school; Beatrice and Consuelo were acquiring and lending luster at Wellesley and Vassar; Gerald was painting a portrait at Washington; and J. Pennock was like a returned Napoleon in Wall Street.

Pop was at his desk in the store. All his employees had gone home. He was fretfully twiddling a telegram from San Francisco:

Julie's address sublime please telegraph two hundred more love

MERE.

Pop was remembering the words of the address: “Woman has been for ages man's mere beast of burden.... Being a wife has meant being a slave.”

Pop could not understand it yet. But he told everybody he met about the first three words of the telegram, and added:

“I got the smartest children that ever was and they owe it all to their mother, every bit.”

 
 
 

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