THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
IT was during the height of the season, and at the end of a long list of calls, that we suddenly thought of the old friends we had not seen for so long.
“It is a little out of the way, but I think we shall have time, ” said my companion.
Almost all the carriages on Connecticut Avenue were going in the other direction, and we seemed to be driving out of the world of busy, happy, careless leisure, — the world of painstaking idleness, of conscientious pleasure-seeking, and of obvious advantages ! It made one feel a little lonely to be going the other way. It was a very attractive world indeed.
On one of the still unpaved avenues framed in a distant glimpse of woods and hills, we explored slowly for the house. It was at the very end of a pretty little white stone block, aggressively new, and turning a blank stare — in the form of an unsheathed brick wall — upon the neglected field just beyond. The elevation of the street was such that one could look diagonally across the city and see the late afternoon sunlight flash in a glittering rebound from the golden dome of the library.
A maid evidently as new as the house, but not as urban, opened the door for us, and was good-naturedly uncertain whether to let us in or not, as “the Missus is sick, ye know.”
But before she had clumped halfway upstairs to see if we should be received, the Squire had heard our voices, and came hurrying down. His grim old face wore a look of welcome that seemed to erase the stern lines, and he shook both of us by the hand at once, long and heartily. “Come right up! ” he said. “It ’ll do her a heap of good to see you.”
She was sitting in the front chamber, — a small, fragile figure half hidden in a pink chintz easy-chair, with the most inviting of footstools under her helpless feet. There was a pale pink bow in her dainty cap to match the ribbon at the throat of her white wrapper. The sunlight, flowing through the broad window to ripple placidly on the walls, seemed a very different thing from the blinding dazzle on the library dome, — it was mellow and tranquil, — the golden heart of the sun poured out there todelight and cheer those faded blue eyes.
“I ’ll take myself off and leave you ladies together, ” said the Squire. He bustled away with a great assumption of hurried responsibility. We three talked awhile of old friends, happy associations, and beloved places. She forgot a great deal, repeated herself very often, and cried softly from time to time, as she stroked our hands, and told us how glad she was that we had come. We could see how much she had failed since we saw her last, but her wrinkled face was prettier than many a girl’s with both beauty of feature and the immortal loveliness of a gentle nature and a pure, sweet soul.
We had always called her husband “ the Squire. ” The title traveled with him from his own little town when he first came to Congress. He was a rugged old fellow, of pronounced views, — often as narrow as they were positive, — but the man was genuine through and through; there was not an ounce of expediency in his being. When he clung with savage energy to some position which seemed — and probably was — retrogressive to younger, broader men, it was never a matter of cautious policy or a weighing of possible benefits, but the defense of a profound conviction. By and by they did not return him to Congress. That was after his wife began to fail. His career was her glory. He put off telling her again and again. At last the usual time came for them to move to Washington, and she began to wonder at the delay. He made a sudden, desperate resolve, — she should never know at all. The packing began, the journey was taken, and this small house rented on the outskirts of the city. He picked up a little law practice here and there, through interested friends and his real ability. He requested those of us who were likely to see his wife not to mention his defeat before her.
It was slow, hard work for him, but even in his native town, through his long absences, he was no longer in the current of things, and it was perhaps almost as easy to gain a modest income here.
I sat where I could see him filing papers in the next room. With nervous fingers he pored over them, and fastened them carefully into neat packages with the rubber bands which are a sine qua non to every man who has once been a Congressman. His eyes wandered from time to time toward the little figure in the front window, and I saw for the first time on that grim face an undisguised look of yearning tenderness. And then he silently drifted back into our room again, “to put things to rights on the mantel-piece. ”
A few more moments, and he was standing behind her chair, forgetting that he had ever tried to stay away. She reached a soft wrinkled hand up to him without a word, and he covered it in both of his. Then we all went on quietly talking.
“Ezra had to go up to the house today, ” she said, “and the morning was a whole year long without him. I ’m a selfish old woman, for I know the country needs him, and I’m afraid his committee work is getting behind; but it is n’t going to be for long,—and I want him so. Ezra, you must n’t ever leave me again! ” She turned to look back at him, with anxious, clinging, dependent worship in her eyes. He lifted a loop of the little bow on her cap over his finger, and bent to kiss it.
“No, no, wife, never again. We ’ll let Congress go.” He half turned toward us as he spoke, and there was a pleading inquiry in the motion. It said, “You will spare her? — and help me pretend ? ”
Proud and sensitive, defeated and set aside, he chose to bear it all alone.
“Your husband can afford to stay away awhile now,” I said quickly. “He has won his reputation, you know. Don’t you remember I happened to be beside you in the gallery the day he was called the best parliamentarian on the floor ? ” (He had defeated the consideration of a very popular measure which he considered extravagant, by a clever and pertinacious use of points of order.) I have always been so glad I was there that day, for as I spoke, his old back straightened, and the “official” poise came back.
“Ah, yes, yes, I remember that day well, ” he said, with a gratified ring in his voice. She said nothing, but watched him proudly.
As we went away, he escorted us downstairs, but first he kissed her, and she clung to him as if he were going from her on a long journey. She called down to us, “Come again soon. Perhaps if you can spend the morning some day I would let Ezra go up to Congress, — but I don’t know, — I don’t believe they need him as much as I do — just now. ”
And with smiling, patient bravery, as if she could see him from her chamber, he called back cheerily, “I don’t believe they do, wife — just now ! ”