Austin's Girl by Kathleen Norris
In the blazing heat of a July afternoon, Mrs. Cyrus Austin Phelps,
of Boston, arrived unexpectedly at the Yerba Buena rancho in
California. She was the only passenger to leave the train at the
little sun-burned platform that served as a station, and found not
even a freight agent there, of whom to ask the way to Miss Manzanita
Boone's residence. There were a few glittering lizards whisking about
on the dusty boards, and a few buzzards hanging motionless against the
cloudless pale blue of the sky overhead. Otherwise nothing living was
The train roared on down the valley, and disappeared. Its last echo
died away. All about was the utter silence of the foot-hills. The
even spires of motionless redwood trees rose, dense and steep, to
meet the sky-line with a shimmer of heat. The sun beat down
mercilessly, there was no shadow anywhere.
Mrs. Phelps, trim, middle-aged, richly and simply dressed, typical
of her native city, was not a woman to be easily disconcerted, but
she felt quite at a loss now. She was already sorry that she had come
at all to Yerba Buena, sorry that, in coming, she had not written
Austin to meet her. She already disliked this wide, silent,
half-savage valley, and already felt out of place here. How could she
possibly imagine that there would not be shops, stables, hotels at the
station? What did other people do when they arrived here? Mrs. Phelps
crisply asked these questions of the unanswering woods and hills.
After a while she sat down on her trunk, though with her small back
erect, and her expression uncompromisingly stern. She was sitting
there when Joe Bettancourt, a Portuguese milkman, happened to come by
with his shabby milk wagon, and his lean, shaggy horses, and— more
because Joe, not understanding English, took it calmly for granted
that she wished to drive with him, than because she liked the
arrangement—Mrs. Phelps got him to take her trunk and herself upon
their way. They drove steadily upward, through apple orchards that
stretched in hot zigzag lines, like the spokes of a great wheel, about
them, and through strips of forest, where the corduroy road was
springy beneath the wagon wheels, and past ugly low cow sheds, where
the red-brown cattle were already gathering for the milking.
"You are taking me to Mr. Boone's residence?" Mrs. Phelps would
ask, at two-minute intervals. And Joe, hunched lazily over the reins,
would respond huskily:
"Sure. Thaz th' ole man."
And presently they did turn a corner, and find, in a great gash of
clearing, a low, rambling structure only a little better than the cow
sheds, with wide, unpainted porches all about it, and a straggling
line of out-houses near by. A Chinese cook came out of a swinging door
to stare at the arrival, two or three Portuguese girls, evidently
house-servants, entered into a cheerful, nasal conversation with Joe
Bettancourt, from their seats by the kitchen door, and a very handsome
young woman, whom Mrs. Phelps at first thought merely another servant
came running down to the wagon. This young creature had a well-rounded
figure, clad in faded, crisp blue linen, slim ankles that showed above
her heavy buckled slippers, and a loosely-braided heavy rope of bright
hair. Her eyes were a burning blue, the lashes curled like a doll's
lashes, and the brows as even and dark as a doll's, too. She was
extraordinarily pretty, even Mrs. Phelps could find no fault with the
bright perfection of her face.
"Don't say you're Mother Phelps!" cried this young person,
delightedly, lifting the older woman almost bodily from the wagon.
"But I know you are!" she continued joyously. "Do you know who I am?
I'm Manzanita Boone!"
Mrs. Phelps felt her heart grow sick within her. She had thought
herself steeled for any shock,—but not this! Stricken dumb for a
moment, she was led indoors, and found herself listening to a stream
of gay chatter, and relieved of hat and gloves, and answering
questions briefly and coldly, while all the time an agonized
undercurrent of protest filled her heart: "He cannot—he SHALL NOT
Austin was up at the mine, of course, but Miss Boone despatched a
messenger for him in all haste. The messenger was instructed to say
merely that Manzanita had something she wanted to show him, but the
simple little ruse failed. Austin guessed what the something was, and
before he had fairly dismounted from his wheeling buckskin, his mother
heard his eager voice: "Mater! Where are you! Where's my mother?"
He came rushing into the ranch-house, and caught her in his arms,
laughing and eager, half wild with the joy of seeing his mother and
his girl in each other's company, and too radiant to suspect that his
mother's happiness was not as great as his own.
"You got my letter about our engagement, mater? Of course,—and you
came right on to meet my girl yourself, didn't you? Good little
mater, that was perfectly great of you! This is just about the best
thing that ever—and isn't she sweet—do you blame me?" He had his
arm about Manzanita, their eyes were together, his tender and proud,
the girl's laughing and shy,—they did not see Mrs. Phelps's
expression. "And what did you think?" Austin rushed on, "Were you
surprised? Did you tell Cornelia? That's good. Did you tell every
one—have the home papers had it? You know, mother," Austin dropped
his voice confidentially, "I wasn't sure you'd be awfully glad,—
just at first, you know. I knew you would be the minute you saw
Manz'ita; but I was afraid—But now, it's all right,—and it's just
"But I thought Yerba Buena was quite a little village, dear," said
Mrs. Phelps, accusingly.
"What's the difference?" said Austin, cheerfully, much concerned
because Manzanita was silently implying that he should remove his arm
from her waist.
"Why, I thought I could stay at a hotel, or at least a boarding-
house—" began his mother. Miss Boone laughed out. She was a noisy
"We'll 'phone the Waldorf-Astoria," said she.
"Seriously, Austin—" said Mrs. Phelps, looking annoyed.
"Seriously, mater," he met her distress comfortably, "you'll stay
here at the ranch-house. I live here, you know. Manz'ita'll love to
have you, and you'll get the best meals you ever had since you were
born! This was certainly a corking thing for you to do, mother!" he
broke off joyfully. "And you're looking awfully well!"
"I find you changed, Austin," his mother said, with a delicate
inflection that made the words significant. "You're brown, dear, and
bigger, and—heavier, aren't you?"
"Why don't you say fat?" said Manzanita, with a little push for her
affianced husband. "He was an awfully pasty-looking thing when he
came here," she confided to his mother. "But I fed him up, didn't I,
Aus?" And she rubbed her cheek against his head like a little
"And he's going to marry her!" Mrs. Phelps said to herself,
heartsick. She felt suddenly old and discouraged and helpless; out of
their zone of youth and love. But on the heels of despair, her courage
rose up again. She would save Austin while there was yet time, if
human power could do it.
The three were sitting in the parlor, a small, square room, through
whose western windows the sinking sun streamed boldly. Mrs. Phelps
had never seen a room like this before. There was no note of
quaintness here; no high-boy, no heavy old mahogany drop-leaf table,
no braided rugs or small-paned windows. There was not even comfort.
The chairs were as new and shining as chairs could be; there was a
"mission style" rocker, a golden-oak rocker, a cherry rocker, heavily
upholstered. There was a walnut drop-head sewing-machine on which a
pink saucer of some black liquid fly-poison stood. There was a "body
Brussels" rug on the floor. Lastly, there was an oak sideboard, dusty,
pretentious, with its mirror cut into small sections by little, empty
It all seemed like a nightmare to poor little Mrs. Phelps, as she
sat listening to the delighted reminiscences of the young people, who
presently reviewed their entire acquaintanceship for her benefit. It
seemed impossible that this was her Austin, this big- voiced, brown,
muscular young man! Austin had always been slender, and rather silent.
Austin had always been so close to her, so quick to catch her point of
view. He had been nearer her even than Cornelia—
Cornelia! Her heart reached Cornelia's name with a homesick throb.
Cornelia would be home from her club or concert or afternoon at cards
now,—Mrs. Phelps did not worry herself with latitude or
longitude,—she would be having tea in the little drawing-room, under
the approving canvases of Copley and Gilbert Stuart. Her mother could
see Cornelia's well-groomed hands busy with the Spode cups and the
heavy old silver spoons; Cornelia's fine, intelligent face and smooth
dark head well set off by a background of rich hangings and soft
lights, polished surfaces, and the dull tones of priceless rugs.
"I beg your pardon?" she said, rousing herself.
"I asked you if you didn't have a cat-fit when you realized that
Aus was going to marry a girl you never saw?" Manzanita repeated with
friendly enjoyment. Mrs. Phelps gave her only a few seconds' steady
consideration for answer, and then pointedly addressed her son.
"It sounds very strange to your mother, to have you called anything
but Austin, my son," she said.
"Manz'ita can't spare the time," he explained, adoring eyes on the
girl, whose beauty, in the level light, was quite startling enough to
hold any man's eyes.
"And you young people are very sure of yourselves, I suppose?" the
mother said, lightly, after a little pause. Austin only laughed
comfortably, but Manzanita's eyes came suddenly to meet those of the
older woman, and both knew that the first gun had been fired. A color
that was not of the sunset burned suddenly in the girl's round cheeks.
"She's not glad we're engaged!" thought Manzanita, with a pang of
utter surprise. "She knows why I came!" Mrs. Phelps said triumphantly
For Mrs. Phelps was a determined woman, and in some ways a
merciless one. She had been born with Bostonian prejudices strong
within her. She had made her children familiar, in their very nursery
days, with the great names of their ancestors. Cornelia, when a plain,
distinguished-looking child of six, was aware that her nose was "all
Slocumb," and her forehead just like "great-aunt Hannah Maria Rand
Babcock's." Austin learned that he was a Phelps in disposition, but
"the image of the Bonds and the Baldwins." The children often went to
distinguished gatherings composed entirely of their near and distant
kinspeople, ate their porridge from silver bowls a hundred years old,
and even at dancing-school were able to discriminate against the
beruffled and white-clad infants whose parents "mother didn't know."
In due time Austin went to a college in whose archives the names of
his kinsmen bore an honorable part; and Cornelia, having skated and
studied German cheerfully for several years, with spectacles on her
near-sighted eyes, her hair in a club, and a metal band across her big
white teeth, suddenly blossomed into a handsome and dignified woman,
who calmly selected one Taylor Putnam Underwood as the most eligible
of several possible husbands, and proceeded to set up an
irreproachable establishment of her own.
All this was as it should be. Mrs. Phelps, a bustling little figure
in her handsome rich silks, with her crisp black hair severely
arranged, and her crisp voice growing more and more pleasantly
positive as years went by, fitted herself with dignity into the role
of mother-in-law and grandmother. Cornelia had been married several
years. When Austin came home from college, and while taking him
proudly with her on a round of dinners and calls, his mother
naturally cast her eye about her for the pearl of women, who should
become his wife.
Austin, it was understood, was to go into Uncle Hubbard
Frothingham's office. All the young sons and nephews and cousins in
the family started there. When Austin, agreeing in the main to the
proposal, suggested that he be put in the San Francisco branch of the
business, Mrs. Phelps was only mildly disturbed. He had everything to
lose and nothing to gain by going West, she explained, but if he
wanted to, let him try California.
So Austin went, and quite distinguished himself in his new work for
about a year. Then suddenly out of a clear sky came the astounding
news that he had left the firm,—actually resigned from Frothingham,
Curtis, and Frothingham!—and had gone up into the mountains, to
manage a mine for some unknown person named Boone! Mrs. Phelps shut
her lips into a severe line when she heard this news, and for several
weeks she did not write to Austin. But as months went by, and he
seemed always well and busy, and full of plans for a visit home, she
forgave him, and wrote him twice weekly again,—charming, motherly
letters, in which newspaper clippings and concert programmes likely to
interest him were enclosed, and amateur photographs,—snapshots of
Cornelia in her furs, laughing against a background of snowy Common,
snapshots of Cornelia's children with old Kelly in the motor-car, and
of dear Taylor and Cornelia with Sally Middleton on the yacht. Did
Austin remember dear Sally? She had grown so pretty and had so many
It was Cornelia who suggested, when the staggering news of Austin's
engagement came to Boston, that her mother should go to California,
stay at some "pretty, quiet farm-house near by," meet this Miss
Manzanita Boone, whoever she was, and quietly effect, as mothers and
sisters have hoped to effect since time began, a change of heart in
And so she had arrived here, to find that there was no such thing
in the entire valley as the colonial farmhouse of her dreams, to find
that, far from estranging Austin from the Boone family, she must
actually be their guest while she stayed at Yerba Buena, to find that
her coming was interpreted by this infatuated pair to be a sign of her
entire sympathy with their plans. And added to all this, Austin was
different, noisier, bigger, younger than she remembered him: Manzanita
was worse than her worst fears, and the rancho, bounded only by the
far-distant mountain ridges, with its canyons, its river, its wooded
valleys and trackless ranges, struck actual terror to her homesick
"Well, what do you think of her? Isn't she a darling?" demanded
Austin, when he and his mother were alone on the porch, just before
"She's very PRETTY, dear. She's not a college girl, of course?"
"College? Lord, no! Why, she wouldn't even go away to boarding-
school." Austin was evidently proud of her independent spirit. "She
and her brothers went to this little school over here at Eucalyptus,
and I guess Manz'ita ran things pretty much her own way. You'll like
the kids. They have no mother, you know, and old Boone just adores
Manzanita. He's a nice old boy, too."
"Austin, DEAR!" Mrs. Phelps's protest died into a sigh.
"Well, but he is, a fine old fellow," amended Austin.
"And you think she's the sort of woman to make you happy, dear. Is
she musical? Is she fond of books?"
Austin, for the first time, looked troubled.
"Don't you LIKE her, mother?" he asked, astounded.
"Why, I've just met her, dear. I want you to tell me about her."
"Every one here is crazy about her," Austin said half sulkily.
"She's been engaged four times, and she's only twenty-two!"
"And she TOLD you that, dear? Herself?"
The boy flushed quickly.
"Why shouldn't she?" he said uncomfortably. "Every one knows it."
His mother fanned for a moment in silence.
"Can you imagine Cornelia—or Sally—engaged four times, and
talking about it?" she asked gently.
"Things are different here," Austin presently submitted, to which
Mrs. Phelps emphatically assented, "Entirely different!"
There was a pause. From the kitchen region came much slamming of
light wire door, and the sound of hissing and steaming, high-keyed
remarks from the Chinese and the Portuguese girls, and now and then
the ripple of Manzanita's laughter. A farm-hand crossed the yard,
with pails of milk, and presently a dozen or more men came down the
steep trail that led to the mine.
These were ranch-hands, cow-boys, and road-keepers, strong, good-
natured young fellows, who had their own house and their own cook
near the main ranch-house, and who now began a great washing and
splashing, at a bench under some willow trees, where there were
basins and towels. An old Spanish shepherd, with his dogs, came down
from the sheep range; other dogs lounged out from barns and stables;
there was a cheerful stir of reunion and relaxation as the hot day
dropped to its close.
A great hawk flapped across the canyon below the ranch-house, bats
began to wheel in the clear dusk, owls called in the woods. Just
before Manzanita appeared in the kitchen doorway to ring a clamorous
bell for some sixty ear-splitting seconds, her father, an immense old
man on a restless claybank mare, rode into the yard, and the four
brothers, Jose, Marty, Allen, and the little crippled youngest,
eight-year-old Rafael, appeared mysteriously from the shadows, and
announced that they were ready for dinner. Martin Boone, Senior, gave
Mrs. Phelps a vigorous welcome.
"Well, sir! I never thought I'd be glad to see the mother of the
fellow who carried off my girl," said Martin Boone, wringing Mrs.
Phelps's aching fingers, "but you and I married in our day, ma'am,
and it's the youngsters' turn. But he'll have to be a pretty fine
fellow to satisfy Manzanita!" And before the lady could even begin
the spirited retort that rose to her lips, he had led the way to the
long, overloaded dinner-table.
"I am too terribly heartsick to go into details," wrote the poor
little lady, when Manzanita had left her for the night in her bare,
big bedroom and she had opened her writing-case upon a pine table
over which hung, incongruously enough, a large electric light.
"Austin is apparently blind to everything but her beauty, which is
really noticeable, not that it matters. What is mere beauty beside
such refinement as Sally's, for instance, how far will it go with OUR
FRIENDS when they discover that Austin's wife is an untrained, common
little country girl? Even when I tell you that she uses such words as
'swell,' and 'perfect lady,' and that she asked me who Phillips Brooks
was, and had never heard of William Morris or Maeterlinck you can
really form no idea of her ignorance! And the dinner,—one shudders at
the thought of beginning to teach her of correct service; hors
d'oeuvres, finger-bowls, butter-spreaders, soup-spoons and salad-forks
will all be mysteries to her! And her clothes! A rowdyish-looking
little tight-fitting cotton a servant would not wear, and openwork
hose, and silver bangles! It is terrible, TERRIBLE. I don't know what
we can do. She is very clever. I think she suspects already that I do
not approve, although she began at once to call me 'Mother
Phelps'—with a familiarity that is quite typical of her. My one hope
is to persuade Austin to come home with me for a visit, and to keep
him there until his wretched infatuation has died a natural death.
What possible charm this part of the world can have for him is a
mystery to me. To compare this barn of a house to your lovely home is
enough to make me long to be there with all my heart. Instead of my
beautiful rooms, and Mary's constant attendance, imagine your mother
writing in a room whose windows have no shades, so that one has the
uncomfortable sensation that any one outside may be looking in. Of
course the valley descends very steeply from the ranch-house, and
there are thousands of acres of silent woods and hills, but I don't
like it, nevertheless, and shall undress in the dark. ...I shall
certainly speak seriously to Austin as soon as possible."
But the right moment for approaching Austin on the subject of his
return to Boston did not immediately present itself, and for several
days Manzanita, delighted at having a woman guest, took Mrs. Phelps
with her all over the countryside.
"I like lady friends," said Manzanita once, a little shyly. "You
see it's 'most always men who visit the rancho, and they're no fun!"
She used to come, uninvited but serene, into her prospective
mother- in-law's room at night, and artlessly confide in her, while
she braided the masses of her glorious hair. She showed Mrs. Phelps
the "swell" pillow she was embroidering to represent an Indian's head,
and which she intended to finish with real beads and real feathers.
She was as eagerly curious as a child about the older woman's dainty
toilet accessories, experimenting with manicure sets and creams and
powders with artless pleasure. "I'm going to have that and do it that
way!" she would announce, when impressed by some particular little
nice touch about Cornelia's letters, or some allusion that gave her a
"If you ever come to Boston, you will be expected to know all these
things," Mrs. Phelps said to her once, a little curiously.
"Oh, but I'll never go there!" she responded confidently.
"You will have to," said the other, sharply. "Austin can hardly
spend his whole life here! His friends are there, his family. All his
traditions are there. Those may not mean much to him now, but in time
to come they will mean more."
"We'll make more money than we can spend, right here," Manzanita
said, in a troubled voice.
"Money is not everything, my dear."
"No—" Manzanita's brown fingers went slowly down to the last fine
strands of the braid she was finishing. Then she said, brightening:
"But I AM everything to Aus! I don't care what I don't know, or
can't do, HE thinks I'm fine!"
And she went off to bed in high spirits. She was too entirely
normal a young woman to let anything worry her very long,—too busy to
brood. The visitor soon learned why the ranch-house parlor presented
so dismal an aspect of unuse. It was because Manzanita was never
inside it. The girl's days were packed to the last instant with
duties and pleasures. She needed no parlor. Even her bedroom was as
bare and impersonal as her father's. She was never idle. Mrs. Phelps
more than once saw the new-born child of a rancher's or miner's wife
held in those capable young arms, she saw the children at the mine
gathering about Manzanita, the women leaving their doorways for eager
talk with her. And once, during the Eastern woman's visit, death came
to the Yerba Buena, and Manzanita and young Jose spent the night in
one of the ranch-houses, and walked home, white, tired, and a little
sobered, in the early morning, for breakfast.
Manzanita rode and drove horses of which even her brothers were
afraid; she handled a gun well, she chattered enough Spanish,
Portuguese, Indian, and Italian to make herself understood by the
ranch hands and dairy-men. And when there was a housewarming, or a
new barn to gather in, she danced all night with a passionate
enjoyment. It might be with Austin, or the post-office clerk, or a
young, sleek-haired rancher, or a miner shining from soap and water;
it mattered not to Manzanita, if he could but dance. And when she and
Mrs. Phelps drove, as they often did, to spend the day with the
gentle, keen, capable women on other ranches thereabout, it was quite
the usual thing to have them bring out bolts of silk or gingham for
Manzanita's inspection, and seriously consult her as to fitting and
Mrs. Phelps immensely enjoyed these day-long visits, though she
would have denied it; hardly recognized the fact herself. One could
grow well acquainted in a day with the clean, big, bare ranch-
houses, the very old people in the shining kitchens, the three or
four capable companionable women who managed the family; one with a
child at her breast, perhaps another getting ready for her wedding, a
third newly widowed, but all dwelling harmoniously together and
sharing alike the care of menfolk and children. They would all make
the Eastern woman warmly welcome, eager for her talk of the world
beyond their mountains, and when she and Manzanita drove away, it was
with jars of specially chosen preserves and delicious cheeses in their
hands, pumpkins and grapes, late apples and perhaps a jug of cider in
the little wagon body, and a loaf of fresh-baked cake or bread still
warm in a white napkin. Hospitable children, dancing about the
phaeton, would shout generous offers of "bunnies" or "kitties,"
Manzanita would hang at a dangerous angle over the wheel to accept
good-by kisses, and perhaps some old, old woman, limping out to stand
blinking in the sunlight, would lay a fine, transparent, work-worn
hand on Mrs. Phelps and ask her to come again. It was an "impossible"
life, of course, and yet, at the moment, absorbing enough to the
new-comer. And it was at least surprising to find the best of
magazines and books everywhere,—"the advertisements alone seem to
keep them in touch with everything new," wrote Mrs. Phelps.
Her whole attitude toward Manzanita might have softened sometimes,
if long years of custom had not made the little things of life
vitally important to her. A misused or mispronounced word was like a
blow to her; inner forces over which she had no control forced her to
discuss it and correct it. She had a quick, horrified pity for
Manzanita's ignorance on matters which should be part of a lady's
instinctive knowledge. She winced at the girl's cheerful
acknowledgement of that ignorance. No woman in Mrs. Phelps's own
circle at home ever for one instant admitted ignorance of any
important point of any sort; what she did not know she could superbly
imply was not worth knowing. Even though she might be secretly
enjoying the universal, warm hospitality of the rancho, Mrs. Phelps
never lost sight of the fact that Manzanita was not the wife for
Austin, and that the marriage would be the ruin of his life. She told
herself that her opposition was for Manzanita's happiness as well as
for his, and plotted without ceasing against their plans.
"I've had a really remarkable letter from Uncle William, dear!" she
said, one afternoon, when by some rare chance she was alone with her
"Good for you!" said Austin, absently, clicking the cock of the gun
he was cleaning. "Give the old boy my love when you write."
"He sends you a message, dear. He wants to know—but you're not
listening," Mrs. Phelps paused. Austin looked up.
"Oh, I'm listening. I hear every word."
"You seem so far from me these days, Austin," said his mother,
plaintively. But—" she brightened, "I hope dear Uncle William's plan
will change all that. He wants you to come home, dear. He offers you
the junior partnership, Austin." She brought it out very quietly.
"Offers me the—WHAT?"
"The junior partnership,—yes, dear. Think of it, at your age,
Austin! What would your dear father have said! How proud he would
have been! Yes. Stafford has gone into law, you know, and Keith
Curtis will live abroad when Isabel inherits. So you see!"
"Mighty kind of Uncle William," mused Austin, "but of course
there's nothing in it for me!" He avoided her gaze, and went on
cleaning his gun. "I'm fixed here, you know. This suits me."
"I hope you are not serious, my son." Austin knew that voice. He
braced himself for unpleasantness.
"Manzanita," he said simply. There was a throbbing silence.
"You disappoint one of my lifelong hopes for my only son, Austin,"
his mother said very quietly.
"I know it, mother. I'm sorry."
"For the first time, Austin, I wish I had another son. I am going
to beg you—to beg you to believe that I can see your happiness
clearer than you can just now!" Mrs. Phelps's voice was calm, but she
was trembling with feeling.
"Don't put it that way, mater. Anyway, I never liked office work
much, you know."
"Austin, don't think your old mammy is trying to manage you," Mrs.
Phelps was suddenly mild and affectionate. "But THINK, dear. Taylor
says the salary is not less than fifteen thousand. You could have a
lovely home, near me. Think of the opera, of having a really formal
dinner again, of going to Cousin Robert Stokes's for Christmas, and
yachting with Taylor and Gerry."
Austin was still now, evidently he WAS thinking.
"My idea," his mother went on reasonably, "would be to have you
come on with me now, at once. See Uncle William,—we mustn't keep his
kindness waiting, must we?—get used to the new work, make sure of
yourself. Then come back for Manzanita, or have her come on—" She
paused, her eyes a question.
"I'd hate to leave Yerba Buena—" Austin visibly hesitated.
"But, Austin, you must sooner or later." Mrs. Phelps was framing a
triumphant letter to Cornelia in her mind.
But just then Manzanita came running around the corner of the
house, and seeing them, took the porch steps in two bounds, and came
to lean on Austin's shoulder.
"Austin!" she burst out excitedly. "I want you to ride straight
down to the stock pens,—they've got a thousand steers on the flats
there going through from Portland, and the men say they aren't to
leave the cars to-night! I told them they would HAVE to turn them out
and water them, and they just laughed! Will you go down?" She was
breathing hard like an impatient child, her cheeks two poppies, her
eyes blazing. "Will you? Will you?"
"Sure I will, if you'll do something for me." Austin pulled her
"Well, there!" She gave him a child's impersonal kiss. "You'll make
them water them, won't you, Austin?"
"Oh, yes. I'll 'tend to them." Austin got up, his arm about her.
"Look here," said he. "How'd you like to come and live in Boston?"
Her eyes went quickly from him to his mother.
"I wouldn't!" she said, breathing quickly and defiantly.
"Never, never, never! Unless it was just to visit. Why, Austin—"
her reproachful eyes accused him, "you said we needn't, ever! You
KNOW I couldn't live in a street!"
Austin laughed again. "Well, that settles Uncle William!" he
announced comfortably. "I'll write him to-morrow, mother. Come on,
now, we'll settle this other trouble!"
And he and Manzanita disappeared in the direction of the stable.
Mrs. Phelps sat thinking, deep red spots burning in her cheeks.
Things could not go on this way. Yet she would not give up. She
suddenly determined to try an idea of Cornelia's.
So the word went all over the ranch-house next day that Mrs. Phelps
was ill. The nature of the illness was not specified, but she could
not leave her bed. Austin was all filial sympathy, Manzanita an
untiring nurse. Hong Fat sent up all sorts of kitchen delicacies, the
boys brought trout, and rare ferns, and wild blackberries in from
their daily excursions, for her especial benefit, and before two days
were over, every hour found some distant neighbor at the rancho with
offers of sympathy and assistance. An old doctor came up from Emville
at once, and Jose and Marty accompanied him all the twenty miles back
into town for medicines.
But days went by, and the invalid was no better. She lay, quiet and
uncomplaining, in the airy bedroom, while October walked over the
mountain ranges, and the grapes were gathered, and the apples brought
in. She took the doctor's medicine, and his advice, and agreed
pleasantly with him that she would soon be well enough to go home, and
would be better off there. But she would not try to get up.
One afternoon, while she was lying with closed eyes, she heard the
rattle of the doctor's old buggy outside, and heard Manzanita greet
him from where she was labelling jelly glasses on the porch. Mrs.
Phelps could trace the old man's panting approach to a porch chair,
and heard Manzanita go into the house with a promise of lemonade and
crullers. In a few minutes she was back again, and the clink of ice
against glass sounded pleasantly in the hot afternoon.
"Well, how is she?" said the doctor, presently, with a long, wet
gasp of satisfaction.
"She's asleep," answered Manzanita. "I just peeked in.—There's
more of that," she added, in apparent reference to the iced drink. And
then, with a change of tone, she added, "What's the matter with her,
anyway, Doc' Jim?"
To which the old doctor with great simplicity responded:
"You've got me, Manz'ita. I can diagnose as good as any one," he
went on after a pause, "when folks have GOT something. If you mashed
your hand in a food cutter, or c't something poisonous, or come down
with scarlet fever, I'd know what to do for ye. But, these rich
"Well, you know, I could prescribe for her, and cure her, too,"
said Manzanita. "All I'd do is tell her she'd got to go home right
off. I'd say that this climate was too bracing for her, or something."
"Shucks! I did say that," interrupted the doctor.
"Yes, but you didn't say you thought she'd ought to take her son
along in case of need," the girl added significantly. There was a
"She don't want ye to marry him, hey?" said the doctor, ending it.
Manzanita evidently indicated an assent, for he presently resumed
indignantly: "Who does she want for him—Adelina Patti?" He marvelled
over a third glass. "Well, what do you know about that!" he murmured.
Then, "Well, I'll be a long time prescribing that."
"No, I want you to send her off, and send him with her," said
Manzanita, decidedly, "that's why I'm telling you this. I've thought
it all over. I don't want to be mean about it. She thinks that if he
saw his sister, and his old friends, and his old life, he'd get to
hate the Yerba Buena. At first I laughed at her, and so did Aus. But,
I don't know, Doc' Jim, she may be right!"
"Shucks!" said the doctor, incredulously.
"No, of course she isn't!" the girl said, after a pause. "I know
Aus. But let her take him, and try. Then, if he comes back, she can't
blame me. And—" She laughed. "This is a funny thing," she said, "for
she doesn't like me. But I like her. I have no mother and no aunts,
you know, and I like having an old lady 'round. I always wanted some
one to stay with me, and perhaps, if Aus comes back some day, she'll
get to liking me, too. She'll remember," her tone grew a little
wistful, "that I couldn't help his loving me! And besides— "and the
tone was suddenly confident again—"I AM good—as good as his sister!
And I'm learning things. I learn something new from her every day! And
I'd LIKE to feel that he went away from me—and had to come back!"
"Don't you be a fool," cautioned the doctor. "A feller gets among
his friends for a year or two, and where are ye? Minnie Ferguson's
feller never come back to her and she was a real pretty, good girl,
"Oh, I think he'll come back," the girl said softly, as if to
"I only hope, if he don't show up on the minute, you'll marry
somebody else so quick it'll make her head spin!" said the doctor,
fervently. Manzanita laughed out, and the sound of it made Mrs.
Phelps wince, and shut her eyes.
"Maybe I will!" the girl said hardily. "You'll suggest his taking
her home, anyway, won't you, Doc' Jim?" she asked.
"Well, durn it, I'd jest as soon," agreed the doctor. "I don't know
as you're so crazy about him!"
"And you'll stay to dinner?" Manzanita instantly changed the
subject. "There's ducks. Of course the season's over, but a string of
them came up to Jose and Marty, and pushed themselves against their
guns—you know how it is."
"Sure, I'll stay," said the doctor. "Go see if she's awake,
Manz'ita, that's a good girl. If she ain't—I'll walk up to the mine
for a spell."
So Manzanita tiptoed to the door of Mrs. Phelps's room and
noiselessly opened it, and smiled when she saw the invalid's open
"Well, have a nice nap?" she asked, coming to put a daughterly
little hand over the older woman's hand. "Want more light? Your books
"I'm much better, dear," said Mrs. Phelps. The Boston woman's tone
would always be incisive, her words clear. But she kept Manzanita's
hand. "I think I will get up for dinner. I've been lying here
thinking that I've wasted quite enough time, if we are to have a
wedding here before I go home—"
Manzanita stared at her. Then she knelt down beside the bed and
began to cry.
On a certain Thursday afternoon more than a year later, Mrs. Phelps
happened to be alone in her daughter's Boston home. Cornelia was
attending the regular meeting of a small informal club whose reason
for being was the study of American composers. Mrs. Phelps might have
attended this, too, or she might have gone to several other club
meetings, or she might have been playing cards, or making calls, but
she had been a little bit out of humor with all these things of late,
and hence was alone in the great, silent house. The rain was falling
heavily outside, and in the library there was a great coal fire. Now
and then a noiseless maid came in and replenished it.
Cornelia was always out in the afternoons. She belonged to a great
many clubs, social, literary, musical and civic clubs, and card
clubs. Cornelia was an exceptionally capable young woman. She had two
nice children, in the selection of whose governesses and companions
she exercised very keen judgment, and she had a fine husband, a
Harvard man of course, a silent, sweet-tempered man some years her
senior, whose one passion in life was his yacht, and whose great
desire was that his wife and children should have everything in life
of the very best. Altogether, Cornelia's life was quite perfect,
well-ordered, harmonious, and beautiful. She attended the funeral of a
relative or friend with the same decorous serenity with which she
welcomed her nearest and dearest to a big family dinner at Christmas
or Thanksgiving. She knew what life expected of her, and she gave it
with calm readiness.
The library in her beautiful home, where her mother was sitting
now, was like all the other drawing-rooms Cornelia entered. Its
mahogany reading-table bore a priceless lamp, and was crossed by a
strip of wonderful Chinese embroidery. There were heavy antique brass
candlesticks on the mantel, flanking a great mirror whose carved
frame showed against its gold rare touches of Florentine blue. The
rugs on the floor were a silken blend of Oriental tones, the books in
the cases were bound in full leather. An oil portrait of Taylor hung
where his wife's dutiful eyes would often find it, lovely pictures of
the children filled silver frames on a low book-case.
Eleanor, the ten-year-old, presently came into the room, with
Fraulein Hinz following her. Eleanor was a nice child, and the only
young life in the house since Taylor Junior had been sent off to
"Here you are, grandmother," said she, with a kiss. "Uncle Edward
brought us home. It's horrid out. Several of the girls didn't come at
"And what have you to do now, dear?" Mrs. Phelps knew she had
something to do.
"German for to-morrow. But it's easy. And then Dorothy's coming
over, for mamma is going out. We'll do our history together, and have
dinner upstairs. She's not to go home until eight!"
"That's nice," said Mrs. Phelps, claiming another kiss before the
child went away. She had grown quite used to seeing Eleanor only for
a moment now and then.
When she was alone again, she sat staring dreamily into the fire, a
smile coming and going in her eyes. She had left Manzanita's letter
upstairs, but after all, she knew the ten closely covered pages by
heart. It had come a week ago, and had been read several times a day
since. It was a wonderful letter.
They wanted her—in California. In fact, they had always wanted
her, from the day she came away. She had stayed to see the new house
built, and had stayed for the wedding, and then had come back to
Boston, thinking her duty to Austin done, and herself free to take up
the old life with a clear conscience. But almost the first letters
from the rancho demanded her! Little Rafael had painfully written to
know where he could find this poem and that to which she had
introduced him. Marty had sent her a bird's nest, running over with
ants when it was opened in Cornelia's breakfast-room, but he never
knew that. Jose had written for advice as to seeds for Manzanita's
garden. And Austin had written he missed her, it was "rotten" not to
find mater waiting for them, when they came back from their honeymoon.
But best of all, Manzanita had written, and, ah, it was sweet to be
wanted as Manzanita wanted her! News of all the neighbors, of the
women at the mine, pressed wildflowers, scraps of new gowns, and
questions of every sort; Manzanita's letters brimmed with them. She
could have her own rooms, her own bath, she could have everything she
liked, but she must come back!
"I am the only woman here at the house," wrote Manzanita, "and it's
no fun. I'd go about ever so much more, if you were here to go with
me. I want to start a club for the women at the mine, but I never
belonged to a club, and I don't know how. Rose Harrison wants you to
come on in time for her wedding, and Alice has a new baby. And old
Mrs. Larabee says to tell you—"
And so on and on. They didn't forget her, on the Yerba Buena, as
the months went by. Mrs. Phelps grew to look eagerly for the letters.
And now came this one, and the greatest news in the world—! And now,
it was as it should be, Manzanita wanted her more than ever!
Cornelia came in upon her happy musing, to kiss her mother, send
her hat and furs upstairs, ring for tea, and turn on the lights, all
in the space of some sixty seconds.
"It was so interesting to-day, mater," reported Cornelia. "Cousin
Emily asked for you, and Edith and the Butlers sent love. Helen is
giving a bridge lunch for Mrs. Marye; she's come up for Frances'
wedding on the tenth. And Anna's mother is better; the nurse says you
can see her on Wednesday. Don't forget the Shaw lecture Wednesday,
though. And there is to be a meeting of this auxiliary of the
political study club,—I don't know what it's all about, but one feels
one must go. I declare," Cornelia poured a second cup, "next winter
I'm going to try to do less. There isn't a single morning or afternoon
that I'm not attending some meeting or going to some affair. Between
pure milk and politics and charities and luncheons,- -it's just too
much! Belle says that women do all the work of the world, in these
"And yet we don't GET AT anything," said Mrs. Phelps, in her brisk,
impatient little way. "I attend meetings, I listen to reports, I sit
on boards—But what comes of it all! Trained nurses and paid workers
do all the actual work—"
"But mother, dear, a great deal will come of it all," Cornelia was
mildly reproachful. "You couldn't inspect babies and do nursing
yourself, dear! Investigating and tabulating and reporting are very
difficult things to do!"
"Sometimes I think, Cornelia, that the world was much pleasanter
for women when things were more primitive. When they just had
households and babies to look out for, when every one was personally
"Mother, DEAR!" Cornelia protested indulgently. "Then we haven't
progressed at all since MAYFLOWER days?"
"Oh, perhaps we have!" Mrs. Phelps shrugged doubtfully. "But I am
sometimes sorry," she went on, half to herself, "that birth and
wealth and position have kept me all my life from REAL things! I
can't help my friends in sickness or trouble, Cornelia, I don't know
what's coming on my own table for dinner, or what the woman next door
looks like! I can only keep on the surface of things, dressing a
certain way, eating certain things, writing notes, sending flowers,
"All of which our class—the rich and cultivated people of the
world—have been struggling to achieve for generations!" Cornelia
reminded her. "Do you mean you would like to be a laborer's mother,
mater, with all sorts of annoying economies to practice, and all
sorts of inconveniences to contend with?"
"Yes, perhaps I would!" her mother laughed defiantly.
"I can see you've had another letter from California," said
Cornelia, pleasantly, after a puzzled moment. "You are still a
pioneer in spite of the ten generations, mater. Austin's wife is NOT
a lady, Austin is absolutely different from what he was, the people
out there are actually COMMON, and yet, just because they like to
have you, and think you are intelligent and instructive, you want to
go. Go if you want to, but I will think you are mad if you do! A girl
who confused 'La Boheme' with 'The Bohemian Girl,' and wants an
enlarged crayon portrait of Austin in her drawing-room! Really,
it's—well, it's remarkable to me. I don't know what you see in it!"
"Crayon portraits used to be considered quite attractive, and may
be again," said Mrs. Phelps, mildly. "And some day your children will
think Puccini and Strauss as old-fashioned as you think 'Faust' and
Offenbach. But there are other things, like the things that a woman
loves to do, for instance, when her children are grown, and her
husband is dead, that never change!"
Cornelia was silent, frankly puzzled.
"Wouldn't you rather do nothing than take up the stupid routine
work of a woman who has no money, no position, and no education?" she
"I don't believe I would," her mother answered, smiling. "Perhaps
I've changed. Or perhaps I never sat down and seriously thought
things out before. I took it for granted that our way of doing things
was the only way. Of course I don't expect every one to see it as I
do. But it seems to me now that I belong there. When she first called
me 'Mother Phelps,' it made me angry, but what sweeter thing could she
have said, after all? She has no mother. And she needs one, now. I
don't think you have ever needed me in your life, Cornelia—actually
NEEDED me, my hands and my eyes and my brain."
"Oh, you are incorrigible!" said Cornelia, still with an air of
lenience. "Now," she stopped for a kiss, "we're going out to-night,
so I brought you The Patricians to read; it's charming. And you read
it, and be a good mater, and don't think any more about going out to
stay on that awful, uncivilized ranch. Visit there in a year or two,
if you like, but don't strike roots. I'll come in and see you when
And she was gone. But Mrs. Phelps felt satisfied that enough had
been said to make her begin to realize that she was serious, and she
contentedly resumed her dreaming over the fire.
The years, many or few, stretched pleasantly before her. She smiled
into the coals. She was still young enough to enjoy the thought of
service, of healthy fatigue, of busy days and quiet evenings, and
long nights of deep sleep, with slumbering Yerba Buena lying beneath
the moon outside her open window. There would be Austin close beside
her and other friends almost as near, to whom she would be sometimes
necessary, and always welcome.
And there would be Manzanita, and the child,—and after a while,
other children. There would be little bibs to tie, little prayers to
hear, deep consultations over teeth and measles, over morals and
manners. And who but Grandmother could fill Grandmother's place?
Mrs. Phelps leaned back in her chair, and shut her eyes. She saw
visions. After a while a tear slipped from between her lashes.