Search This Blog

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

CHAPTER NINETEEN - CHANGES A Modern Trio in an Old Town


I found the cablegram that had come for Viola told her that her father was dead; the father whom she had not written since her complaining, begging letter of Christmas time.

It made me feel so sorry for her that I didn’t know what to do; for I knew that the sorrow would be enough for her without acute regret attached to it; and I knew that she was going to suffer from that too.

I stood in the doorway, that afternoon, for quite a few moments before I could go in, and when I did and Viola saw me, she sat up. Her cheeks were flushed and she didn’t look as if she had cried.

“Do you remember that letter?” she said.

I nodded. I couldn’t speak. “What - can you remember just what I said in it?” she asked. I evaded as hard and convincingly as I could, but it did no good. She remembered it, only she had to talk of it, and she did it through questioning me.

“I - I told him that Leslie’s clothes made me feel like a pauper,” she stated in a hard, high voice, “that - that I’d had to struggle and pinch. I told him…”

I broke in then. And I made her lie down, and I got Leslie started at making tea, and then I helped Viola into bed, and tried to do what I could to divert her through taking off her clothes and making her comfortable and brushing her hair, and Leslie took the cue and stopped saying, “Oh, my dear, how can I help you?” which was not just what Viola needed then.

Everyone was dreadfully upset, and worried for Viola, and Miss Meek came over with smelling salts, and Miss Bannister came tiptoeing to the door to ask what she could do, and Mr. Hemmingway, whose eyes were flooded in tears, told me of the death of his dear father - and he remembered the date - and Miss Julianna, with tears on her pretty round cheeks, came pattering in with offers of all sorts of strange things, and a little shrine, which she set up by Viola’s bed.

“La Madre Santa,” she said, which meant “The Sainted Mother,” and Leslie, who doesn’t seem to understand the people who differ from her in their way of worship, asked Viola if it should stay.

“I can take it away, darling,” she said in an undertone, “when Miss Julianna is gone.”

But Viola shook her head, and I was glad, for I liked its being there. I felt a good deal of comfort through the picture of the pretty woman who held the little baby so tightly in her arms and smiled at anyone who looked at her. We all needed comfort, and someone who could smile.

It was twelve before Viola slept, and after she did, I put out the light, and tiptoed down to Leslie’s room.

I found Leslie sitting up by her table, writing, and I couldn’t help seeing an envelope on it that was addressed to Ben Forbes.

She saw that I saw it, and she spoke.

“Jane,” she said, “I’ve been a perfect fool. I’ve always hated anyone who belittled my importance or anything about me. When Viola did, you know how it was,” (She drew her pretty pink, quilted dressing gown closer around her, and went on.) “and I imagine the reason I haven’t been wild over Aunt Sheila was because I felt she didn’t worship. And you know I wanted to punish Ben Forbes because he told me the truth. I’m writing him,” she shoved the sheet of paper on which she had been writing toward me, “because, after he had hurt me, with truth, I told him that what he said made no difference to me, that I considered him rather uncouth, and that I had written him only from kindness, and the fact that I felt he was rather shut off out there in the wilds, and lots more! Well, to get through with this, this afternoon and tonight some things have been driven home to me by Viola’s losing her own father after she had hurt him. She’ll have to remember now, all her life, how she had hurt him just before he died. They say,” Leslie groped for a handkerchief, and mopped her tears frankly, “they say that all sorts of accidents happen on - on r-ranches.”

And then she covered her face and sobbed.

I moved around the table to stand by her and put my arm around her, and then she spoke.

“Read it,” she said, with a big sob between the two words, and I did.

“DEAR BEN:” she had written.

 “All my life I have been conceited; you must know it now. I do - which is a miracle - and I’m writing tonight to say that the truth you told me helped me and is helping me. I am working hard; I hope I am less a fool.

            “With gratitude,

            “Your old neighbor and friend,

            “LESLIE PARRISH.”

“Is it all right?” she asked, as I laid it down.

“Yes,” I answered, “but if he likes you, and you hurt him, you ought to say you are sorry for that.”

She nodded quickly, and reached for her pen. “What would you say?” she asked, as she looked down, uncertainly, at her lovely monogramed paper.

“If I liked him, really,” I said, “I would write a postscript. I’d say something like, ‘Dear Ben, I like you, and I didn’t mean those things I said when I was cross. I will be very grateful if you will forgive me.’”

And she wrote just that.

“It doesn’t sound like me,” she commented in a voice that shook. “It’s - it’s too nice.” And, again, she wiped away tears.

 I leaned over, and folded the sheet, and stuck it in the envelope and sealed it, as Leslie laughed in a funny, weak way.

“Where are your stamps?” I asked. She told me, and I licked one and stuck it on. Then we kissed each other, and that was unusual. I never was so very much for kissing everybody all the time, and I think when girls do, too much, it’s silly, but it was different that night. Then I went out and laid the letter on the table in the hall - we always left them there for the first person who went out to take, and then I looked in to see that Viola was still sleeping, and after that I went to bed.

That day began a new sort of life for us all. The tragedy that came to Viola was like a stone that is thrown into the center of a still pool. All sorts of widening circles grew from her trouble, and she, herself, found through it a new depth. I don’t mean that everything changed in a day, for things don’t change in that manner, but all the time Viola was building up new habits in place of the old ones that were crumbling away.

I saw the roots of a fine strong habit, on the day when she got the first letter from home written after her father died.

I was with her when it came, and she looked up from the black-bordered sheet to say - vacantly, and in a level, stupid-sounding sort of tone - “He was poor!” I was sewing clean cuffs and collars in my serge dress and I stuck myself and made a spot of blood on one cuff. I was so sorry for her that I really shook when anything new that was hard came to her.

“Read it, Jane,” she said, and she held out the letter. I did, and I couldn’t imagine that anyone who had ever known or really loved Viola’s father had written it. It was full of complaints and self-pity, because the husband of the woman who had written it had died to leave his widow with less money than she thought she should have. I didn’t know what to say. Then I suppose I did a dreadful thing, but I did it without meaning to do anything dreadful, and because I have been brought up to speak the truth.

“Maybe,” I said, “he is happier dead.”

The tears stood out in Viola’s eyes.

“I only said that,” I explained miserably, “because I thought it might make you feel better, for if your mother talked to him like that I – I guess it worried you.” (I stammered terribly over it; it was so hard to say anything that sounded even half right)

“I talked that way too,” said Viola. I couldn’t say anything to that. So I began to sew in my collar.

“He hated the hyphenated name!” said Viola. I finished sewing in my collar and began on my last cuff.

“I don’t mind the money, but I have to think of it. What shall I do? I hate sponging. I will say I always hated it! Mother can go visit people - and she will - but I - I can’t!”

“Why don’t you work?” I asked.

 She looked at me hard. “What would I do?” she asked after several moments of scrutiny.

“Accompany,” I answered. “Even Devil Paggi” (I am ashamed to say that we called him that sometimes) “says you can do that.”

“Yes,” Viola answered in a funny, low voice.

“He said he’d get any of us positions,” I went on, “and touring with a great singer wouldn’t be bad.”

That captured her!

“Basses are always fat,” she said; “I hope to goodness it will be a tenor!” Which was a whole lot like Viola, and a joke that I didn’t appreciate then, for when Viola - who did learn to accompany really beautifully - got her position, it was with a fat German contralto who had five children, a fat poodle dog that Viola had to chaperon a great deal of the time, and a temper that Viola had to suffer, or leave!

I stood up a little time after that, and as I stepped into the corridor I met Leslie, who was taking a letter out for Beata to mail.

“Look here,” I said, as I swung into step by her, and we reached the hall near the entrance door, “Viola had a letter from her mother, and her father hasn’t left much.”

“How ghastly!”

“Well,” I said, “I don’t know. It may help Viola.”

“I’ll lend her anything she needs, any amount,” said Leslie, and then I spoke.

“Please don’t,” I begged. She drew herself up.
“Will you be good enough to explain?” she said frigidly, and I did. I said that, unless she intended to support Viola all her life, she had no business to get Viola into the habit of taking and expecting, and I went on to say that it was the one chance for Viola to learn to work, and that she would be helped through her trouble by work. I was sure she would, and I was sure that Leslie oughtn’t to help her, and I spoke with a lot of energy.
Leslie didn’t like it - Rome wasn’t built in a day! - and then she said that when she needed my expert advice she’d call for it, and that she didn’t intend to see Viola starve; and after that, we parted.
At dinner that night she was frosty as James Whitcomb Riley’s famed pumpkins, but I could see by Viola’s careless manner (Viola always paid a great deal of attention to Leslie after she borrowed money) that Leslie hadn’t spoken to her of her willingness to help.
For a couple of days Leslie avoided making real conversation with me, and then one morning while I was practising I looked up to see Leslie in the doorway.

She had on a French blue negligee that had pale two-toned pink ribbons on it, and her cheeks were flushed and her eyes bright, and she carried a tray on which was a pot of tea, some little cakes that she knows I like, and some biscuits. She always got her own breakfast because the pension allowance was small, and she knew that I was always hungry until after lunch.
“Here!” she said, as she set it down on a chair by me. “Suppose you’re starved as usual. I, myself, am entirely certain that the scant breakfasts stunt the race - I’m certain that it makes them short. I want to say several things.”
I began to eat. “Go ahead,” I said, in a tone that I must confess was muffled.
“In the first place you, ah, you were right about Viola.” (I almost fainted, but I bit into a biscuit and held on to consciousness.) “I see it now. Then, this afternoon I am going out to buy a wedding present for Beata, and I want you to go with me; can you?”
“If you’ll wait till I get through practising,” I answered.
“Certainly, that’s understood. Have to with you.” (She always resented and never understood why my first thought had to be music.) “And another thing,” she went on, and she fumbled in the front of her negligee to find a cablegram, “I’ve heard from him.”
I took it and read it.
“He must have cared a lot to write those two pleases in a cablegram,” I said.
She nodded and tried not to smile, but the inclination was so much stronger than her ability to hold it in check, that she smiled in a silly, ashamed sort of way, and she avoided meeting my eyes.

Ben Forbes had cabled, “Thank you. Letter follows. Please please write me again.”

“I thought I’d get Beata a silver coffee service,” said Leslie, who can’t seem to accommodate to other people’s circumstances.

“She’d never use that,” I said. “You might as well get her a wooden leg or a pair of stilts! I’d get her some horrible picture, or candlesticks for their front room, or a lamp with a funny, warty, red and green shade.”

“You’re right,” she said, and then she went off. She kissed her fingers to me from the doorway, and again she smiled in that misty, vacant way.

I practised hard, for that afternoon I had a lesson, and it was that afternoon that Signor Paggi began to be most kind to me.

“You have more feel in the tune,” he said. (I was very happy.) “I think Cupeed have come to make you see,” he went on.

“Not to me,” I said, “but to someone I like.”

“Have as you will,” he stated, “but play again, for me.”

And I did. And as I did, I thought of how Sam had looked when he heard me practise that very same music at the Pension Dante. He had said it was beautiful, and it had helped me.

Friendship is a wonderful thing!

Chapter 20 

No comments:

Post a Comment