All That I Know of a Certain Star

“ IDEALS are good to have, but they must be kept at a distance.” It was my aunt Angelica who said this, and my aunt Angelica had gone through life keeping everything and everybody at a distance. There were stories of a lover whom my aunt had kept so successfully at a distance that he, poor gentleman, had finally left her in despair to seek contentment in a country life. How true this was I cannot tell. I once said to her, “ But distance is so desolating, aunt Angelica.” “Yes, dear,” she replied, “ but nearness is so disappointing. When you get to be as old as I am ” — she was ten years older than I to a day — “you will find that it is the inaccessible and the remote which give us our most lasting peace of mind.”

The inaccessible and remote ! All my life I had suffered from those two words. It was when I was a very young girl that I first began to worship people, and these were always beings of a different world from the world in which I lived, gods and goddesses moving in a golden glamour of poesy and art, so high and far on their mountain tops that the adoring hand I reached out to them across the valley’s mists could never so much as touch the hem of their garment. Perhaps the one of all who most stirred the fresh fancies in my young breast was a radiant creature whom I once saw play Lady Macbeth. She was by no means a great actress, although to me, who had never before seen a play, she seemed a very great actress indeed. She was, however, a very great beauty, in fact, the forerunner of the English professional beauties who have since her day found that their faces were their fortune. I can see her now as she posed on the stage that night, the slender figure strong and straight, with lines perhaps a trifle too rigid for perfect grace, the Latin face standing out sad and clear against the coils of dark hair. She had a low brow, where the lids hung heavy over grave deep eyes whose expression would have been too austere had it not been for her smile; but when the light of that enchanting smile touched the red curve of her lips her countenance was flooded with an essential loveliness such as I have never seen on face of mortal woman.

After that memorable night when I first saw Thalia, I gave myself up to maudlin and mawkish attempts to be like her. These pathetic simulations took place by candlelight in my bedroom at an hour when healthy-minded girls were getting their beauty sleep. Attired in an old white crape shawl, with my hair, which, alas, was too full of kinks to be tragic, bushing about my face, I would go through that gruesome scene. “ Your nose is a pug, Miss, and hers is a Grecian, and you can’t look like her, so you had better go to bed and stop making a goose of yourself.” It was my aunt Angelica who had come upon me unawares long after midnight. “ William,” she said to my father the next day, “ that girl of yours is altogether too flighty ; she’s trailing about every night in her grandmother’s crape shawl, and howling like a banshee. The first thing you know she will be running away and making a play actress of herself. You ought to put your foot down.” Which my father did to such good purpose that I was straightway packed off to boarding school.

The years which intervened between the time when I saw Thalia and the time when I met Thalia went by, and in their course brought changes to me. To her, alas, came not changes only, but reverses as well. In fact, poor Thalia had stepped down from her lofty pedestal and was giving evenings of dramatic recitations, not in cities, nor even towns, but in small New England villages. It was in one of these villages that I had spent two of the happiest months of my life. The same good fortune which had led me to the peace of that secluded spot had in addition given me the kindest of landladies, Mrs. Crowley, by name, and the best of neighbors, whose house was divided from ours by an apple orchard. Everybody in the village loved good “ Doctor Ben,” as they called him, and many a time Mrs. Crowley and I had deplored the fact that so true and tender a man should be an old bachelor.

Mrs. Crowley’s house was small and brown. It stood on the village street up to its window sashes in flowers and grasses. On either side there were little balconies, and these opened out from the room, long and low and one flight up, which at that time was the joy of my existence. Brimming over, as they were, with morning-glories, nasturtiums, and trumpet vines, these balconies gave the little house, with its earlike chimneys, the appearance of a donkey trapped out for a gala day with panniers of gaudy bloom. And so it came about that my summer residence was known in the village as the " donkey house.” I was very happy in my donkey house, and that room, long and low, into which the light of the summer sun streamed soft and sweet through the blossoming vines, was to me a very heaven on earth. Its aesthetic charm came from articles at which an upholsterer would have turned up his nose. Not a thing there that was costly, or that had not been knocked about long enough to lose the sense of its own importance and to take on the power of assimilation. Odds and ends of dimity and chintz fished out of my landlady’s ragbag, chairs picked from woodpiles where they had been thrown for kindling wood, gilt cornices bought for a sixpence at a country auction, a lounge made of a trundle-bed with a yellow nankeen covering for it and its fat cushions, and standing back of it a wonderful screen made of an old-fashioned clotheshorse with green-yellow speckled calico tacked over it with brass nails, and on shelves against the yellow walls were here and there brown stone jars and crocks which I liked to keep filled with branches from my neighbor’s apple orchard. There was a Franklin stove whose logs were never lighted because of two little brown vagabonds, crickets, who had appropriated ray fireplace and turned it into a theatre where every night they gave a continuous performance. For the same reason one of the glass doors opening on to the balcony was never closed, for a huge black spider had spun his web from jamb to cornice, and not for a good deal would I have disturbed the industrious little weaver.

And here would thoughts of Thalia come, for all these years I had remained true to my youthful enthusiasm. How well she would fit in, I often thought, with my life here and its surroundings! When I heard that Thalia was coming, actually coming to the village, it compelled me to believe that after all if we remain true to them, our ideals sooner or later come to us. Fame is ephemeral, and few in the village had heard of Thalia, so that when the doors of the town hall were thrown open only a very few people presented themselves.

The first to arrive were Mrs. Crowley and myself, escorted by the doctor; after us came the rector, the notary public, and the village schoolmaster. “ What a pity it is that they are all unmarried,” I whispered to Mrs. Crowley ; " families are so desirable from a box-office point of view.” There was a desultory straggling in of villagers, but these I judged from their apathy to be deadheads. It was certainly disheartening for poor Thalia. We all sat about like islands in a dark ocean, I, perhaps, being the only one who remembered Thalia in her glory. And then once more she stood before me, the same, yet not the same. She wore the gown of white crape and the red rose was in her hair, but the years had brought sharpness to the face and figure, and not softness. I crushed back the tears, and could I believe it, Thalia was in a bad temper. We were all being berated because the printer had omitted the final “ me ” from the word programme. This, Thalia told us with asperity, was an affront to the pure and undefiled English which she had striven for years to teach the American people. No one knew why she held us responsible for that wretched printer’s misdeed, but she certainly made us all feel very guilty and miserable.

Then she commanded us to look more like an audience, to colonize, as it were, and to sit as near one another and her as we could. The rector made the move, and under his convoy a procession marched up the aisle and rallied its forces around Mrs. Crowley and myself. Having arranged us to suit herself, Thalia threw her head back, and with a splendid disregard of us all, delivered Lady Clara Vere de Vere, after which she gave us the May Queen and Lady Clare, and a scene from the School for Scandal, and closed by giving the sleepwalking scene from Macbeth. I forgot everything but the beautiful ideal of the days of long ago and far away. I was once more the same impulsive child reaching out adoring hands to my goddess. Only now my hand had found its way to her hand, and I was looking into her face and faltering out my wish that she would come to me and let me rest her and serve her and try to make her forget the world’s forgetfulness, and oh, rapture beyond rapture, she had promised to come the next morning!

It was on our walk home that Mrs. Crowley confided to me that she was frightened to death at the thought of having such a great personage as her guest. “ Do you think, Miss Mary, she will like to live in your simple way, with no water faucets nor gas, and nothing to cook on but a kerosene stove, and to sleep late in the morning, as you do ? ”

“ That’s just what she will like,” I replied promptly. “ Now, don’t worry, dear Mrs. Crowley. Artists are like children, and really the greater they are the easier they are to entertain. I know she will like to live in just our way ; besides, I have read somewhere she is a very domestic little woman.”

“ Humph,” said the doctor, who had marched along at my side. “ Domesticity, with a Medici’s nose like that woman’s, is apt to be a pretty serious affair. However, you mean for the best, Miss Mary, and I hope it will come out for the best.”

Now I had always supposed that a Bohemian would be an easy kind of a person to settle, but I must confess that it took a good deal of running about, in and out, up and down, on the part of Mrs. Crowley and myself, to get Thalia and her boxes and bags and bathtub anywhere near settled, — to her own satisfaction at least, — and even then I had a sneaking suspicion that she was not altogether well pleased. The only comment she had made upon my sitting room was when she said my dimity curtains looked as if they might be full of microbes. We went to bed that night tired out with the day’s work.

I woke up with a bounce the next morning. It was cockcrow, and Thalia was calling for hot water. “ Hot water, Mrs. Crowley, hot water for my bath, if you please ! ” I sank back among my pillows and groaned. The donkey house had no facilities for hot baths at five o’clock in the morning. I could hear poor Mrs. Crowley scratching matches and doing the best she could with the teakettle and the kerosene stove. After a little she crept softly upstairs, and deposited something at Thalia’s door.

I had sunk into the morning sleep, which is the sweetest sleep of all, when again I was aroused by the voice of Thalia. “ Mrs. Crowley, Mrs. Crowley,” she cried, “ I really can’t take my bath in a pint pot! Pray don’t dally, my good woman, and fetch me several gallons of hot water.” There was nothing to do but to jump up and go to the assistance of Mrs. Crowley. We made a fire in the kitchen range, and filled the clothes’ boiler with water, and when it was hot we carried it up to Thalia’s room, — a proceeding which required a great deal of dexterity if we were to keep from being scalded to death.

I fell asleep again, only to be awakened once more by Thalia’s voice. She was now in the dining room directly under me, and the ceiling was thin. “ Mrs. Crowley, it seems to me that this breakfast table is somewhat sparsely laid.” Indeed it was, for a breakfast at seven o’clock. I breakfasted at nine, and my meal on hygienic principles was light. Poor, dear Mrs. Crowley had to go to the butcher’s for sausages, bacon, and chops, and was told for her trouble that on following mornings in addition to the substantial she must provide crumpets, muffins, toasts, and gooseberry jam.

Later in the morning an errand to the other end of the village called me away. I begged Thalia to make herself at home in my absence, and to do just as she would do if she were in her own house. When I returned what a sight met my eyes ! The poor little donkey house stood bleak and bare, its grasses cut to the quick, and every vine and blossom torn from its balconies, and lying in wilted heaps on the ground. Thalia’s voice — I began to hate Thalia’s voice — greeted me as I mounted the stairs. “ You see, I have taken you at your word ; I am very literal, and I always take people at their word ; besides, you know, I am utilitarian. I have found a great many useless things littering up your room, and some very useful things which you have rendered quite nonsensical by trying to make ornamental. This, for instance,” pointing to the clotheshorse, stripped of its covering, and beneath it the trundlebed, also denuded. “ I shall hang my gowns on the one, and I shall sleep in the other.”

I gazed about with a choking sensation. Every characteristic of the little room was gone. As I had no words Thalia continued : “ I have decided to take this room for my bedchamber, because it is impossible to turn around where you put me, and so I ordered Mrs. Crowley to fetch in my tub and also her sewing machine, and I also ordered her to remove all those unsightly stone pots to the place where they belonged in her pantry, and I have also had her hang your curtains on the clothesline to be thoroughly aired, and I assure you, my dear young lady, I was shocked to find your room in such a state of neglect that spiders had made their webs over the window, and I actually found two most objectionable little bugs — the word is vulgar, but really I can’t dignify them by the name of insects — in your fireplace, and I speedily dispatched them with the heel of my slipper. I assure you I came just in time to save you from being brought up before the board of health.”

Thalia was so occupied with a carpet sweeper which she had sent out and bought, together with a lawn mower, — at my expense, — that she did not observe the tears which rushed to my eyes as I left the little room where I had no heart to remain. She called after me, “ By night I shall be glad to see you, for I shall be comfy then.” “ Comfy,” that inane corruption greatly in vogue with the English, to this day falls on my spirit with the dejection it carried when I first heard it uttered by Thalia.

She went on making herself “ comfy,” and poor Mrs. Crowley and me more and more miserable. She never rested, and she took it as an affront if anybody in the house did. Those awful baths at screech of dawn, and those dreadful breakfasts which made the neighborhood reek of lard, and worse, those noonday dinners with bacon and greens and cannon balls of dumplings, with cheese and tarts, and all day long those vicious dishes of tea, green tea, strong enough to give nervous prostration to an ox, and when night came, with its lovely moon, Thalia sitting stiff and straight darning stockings or running Mrs. Crowley’s sewing machine by an ugly oil lamp, the night shut out because she said it was malarious! This went on for a week.

Now good Mrs. Crowley had but one fault, that of absent-mindedness, and the week with Thalia had accentuated this fault to a degree. There was a certain horrid and torrid day in September when the poor creature, under the impression that they were cinnamon and sugar, filled the muffineer with which Thalia sprinkled her waffles with cayenne pepper and saleratus, and substituted " elixir pro.” for Worcestershire in the sauce cruet. She confided to me on that day that her brains felt like soft custard. I made her go to bed that afternoon as I did myself, but sleep was impossible; Thalia was at the melodeon singing her favorite ballad, They Tell Me Thou 'rt the Favored Guest. There was to be no repose that day, not even when night came and we had gone to our rooms. It was then that I heard horrible sounds coming from Thalia’s room. Upon going to her I found her storming up and down with a naturalness which would have made her immortal had she ever displayed it on the stage. She was flinging her hands wildly about her head, upon which by the moonlight I saw something white and fluttering. Thoughts of owls and night birds flashed through my mind, but when I struck a light this proved to be a large piece of fly paper such as Thalia had compelled us to sprinkle the house with from top to bottom. Poor Mrs. Crowley had intended to lay it on the table, but in the shattered state of her nerves she had placed it on Thalia’s pillow. This, Thalia thought, was my idea of a practical joke, — poor literal Thalia with no sense of humor whatever : in her towering rage there was no use in trying to exonerate myself or to extricate her.

So I stole down the stairs and sought the apple orchard of my good neighbor, Doctor Ben, where I flung myself down on an old green settle and burst into a torrent of tears, — the tears which wring the heart and scald the eyes when one’s ideal is shattered. Presently my hand, hot and restless, lay in the clasp of a hand cool and calm. Doctor Ben was seated by my side. “ Mary,” he said, calling me for the first time by my name, “ this must stop. If it does n’t, my dear child, — and now I am speaking as a physician, — then you will be a bigger lunatic than that domineering domestic tyrant of a play actress.”

“ It can’t stop. I did n’t tell her how long I wanted her to stay, and she means to stay forever.” Then I gave the doctor a tearful history of that awful week. “ But indeed, indeed, doctor, I could have stood everything if she had n’t killed those poor little crickets.” Here my sobs broke out afresh.

“ What a tender-hearted child it is,” he murmured, stroking my hair. “ But now, my dear, I want you to brace up and show fight. You must get rid of that termagant, and before to-morrow night, do you hear me ? ”

“ I can’t,” I repeated, “ I simply can’t; I am too weak to fight with her.”

“ Well, then, if you can’t, do you know anybody who can, anybody near enough to you to come here and exercise some wholesome authority ? ”

“ Only one person,” I said faintly, “ and I am ashamed to ask her.”

“ And who is she ? ”

“ My aunt,” I said, with a sudden rally, “ my aunt Angelica Southgate.”

It may have been the moonlight falling on the doctor’s face that made it change and grow pale, or it may have been some association connected with the name. He sat silent as if in a reverie. I said impulsively, “ I wish you knew my aunt Angelica, Doctor Ben, she is so good and clever and handsome, and she has always told me that when we really worship and love a person the only thing to do is to keep him at a distance; I wish I could send for her, but I don’t like to, for she has pulled me out of too many scrapes just like this one.”

The doctor sat there like one in a dream. After a little he said, “Well, dear, go to bed now : things will brighten to-morrow, and if you don’t mind, I wish you would give me your aunt’s address.”

Well, things did brighten the next day, for, greatly to my surprise and delight, my aunt Angelica came, and Thalia — went. There was no scene, no words. Aunt Angelica drove her over to the station, boxes and bags and bathtub, bought her a ticket, put her on the train, and sent her back to town. It was done with so much grace and dignity that I doubt if Thalia realized then or since that it was being done.

That afternoon aunt Angelica and I had a happy time making the little room look as it used to look. “ How glad I am, dear,” she said to me from the top of a stepladder where she was tacking up the dimity curtains, “ that you sent for me.”

“ But I did n’t,” I cried, “ I did n’t send for you ! I wanted to, but I did n’t dare to.”

“ But if you did n’t, who did ? Your name was signed to the telegram.”

“ I know, I know ! ” I cried suddenly, “ I know who it was! It was dear old Doctor Ben.”

“ And who on earth is dear old Doctor Ben ? ” she asked, not sufficiently interested to stop hammering.

“ Doctor Ben,” I replied, “ is my nextdoor neighbor, and the very best and kindest and dearest soul in the world. Everybody calls him Doctor Ben, but his real name is Doctor Benoni Butler.”

The hammer fell from the hand of my aunt Angelica, and she came down from the ladder. “ When and where and how on earth did you ever find Benoni Butler ? ” she asked, with the soft color flying over her face. Before I could tell her, Mrs. Crowley made her appearance with an armful of apple branches from the orchard and a little box, “ From the doctor for you, Miss Mary,” and there were two dear little brown crickets. After this my aunt Angelica grew grave and I thought a little sad.

When the moon was high and warm in the September night I said, “ Come, aunt Angelica, and take a little stroll with me.” For I knew that in the orchard’s depths Doctor Ben was sitting on the old green settle. Aunt Angelica and I walked along in silence till we were close upon the place where I knew we should find the doctor, and sure enough there he was.

I think that my aunt Angelica did not see him, but I did, and his attitude was one of dejection, his face being buried in his arms. I touched him lightly on his shoulder, meaning to call him Doctor Ben, but with one of those slips of the tongue which take place under stress of emotion I called softly, “ Uncle Ben.” At hearing himself thus addressed he raised his head and rose to his feet. I saw that there were tears in his eyes, and I think that aunt Angelica must have seen them too, for she made a little cry and stood trembling before him with outstretched hands, and then I turned away and ran as fast as I could back to my little room in the donkey house where the crickets were singing a song of home and cheer and rest.

After a time I went back to find my aunt Angelica and Doctor Ben, and when I found them on the old green settle under the apple tree with the moonlight all about them the look on their faces told me that they loved and worshiped each one the other. Their hands were locked, and the head of my aunt Angelica lay on the breast of Doctor Ben, and mine was the victory, for I knew by these tokens that there would be no more distance between them.

Justine Ingersoll.