The Vacation of Charlie French

THE fall Doc’ Burger had his shock Green Valley went without dental attention. For years the little dark waiting-room had been a kind of purgatory, and all Green Valley had had a nervous hand in pulling to pieces the one ancient willow chair which graced it, while they waited for the old doc’ to finish his game of solitaire back in the office. Stop in the middle of his game he never did, not for the angriest molar or the most abusive tongue. He said a little solitaire steadied his hand; and true it was that, once his patient was clamped in the faded red-plush chair and choked with a vast expanse of rubber, the old doc’ fell to with a kind of fierce glee, and dug, and drilled, and hammered as if he never would have done, paying no more attention to his wriggling victim than to the purring of his great Maltese cat.

But the old man’s days of service had come to a sudden end, and the fact that Green Valley bore him no malice for those racking hours was proved by the long line of slow-moving surreys which followed him to the cemetery.

After that, Green Valley elders went, down to the city, if need was pressing; and Green Valley children were guilefully tied by their loosened members to a door which slammed shut, taking with it their cherished teeth, while they stood amazedly looking after. It was a species of parental deceit which got noised abroad after a time, however, and then there were no more takers. All in all, it was a makeshift time, and Green Valley heard with satisfaction that Charlie French was going to move down and set up in Doc’ Burger’s office.

Charlie French had been a Green Valley boy not so many years before but that middle-aged citizens remembered plucking him out of their apple trees; but he had done well in the city, which partially removed the curse of youth and undue familiarity. Green Valley did not know where he had found his red-headed wife, but the impression was general that she, like all the other strange women their sons had married, had been some sort of stenographer and quite lacking a conventional family background.

It was in the spring that the family moved into a suite of rooms over Norton’s hardware store on the main street, where, Mrs. French said, they could at least hear the ’bus going down to the train, and see the traveling men smoking on the Commercial House porch across the street.

Abbie Barnes and Isa Rann went to call at once, tiptoeing up the narrow dark stairs with their best silk dresses carefully hoisted, and knocking doubtfully at the half-open door. It was a startling call, beginning with the halfdressed little girl with the mop of red hair flaming aureole fashion about her face, who led them, chattering very fast, into a small room crowded with furniture, gilt chairs jostling heavy oak tables, which, in their turn, bumped into a large mahogany piano which seemed to fill half the room. Miss Abbie and Isa Rann removed a dish of fudge from a gay pink divan shaped like an S, and sat down looking at one another.

Over the piano hung a large copy of Taylor’s Home-Keeping Hearts are Happiest, and Miss Isa pointed to it. ‘I always did admire that picture,’ she observed charitably.

‘Humph ! ’ said Miss Abbie.

Then Mrs. French came in. ‘And if she did n’t have a lavender chiffon dressing-jacket over her petticoat, and that at three o’clock in the afternoon! ’ Miss Abbie commented caustically afterward. At three o’clock, it is needless to say, all proper Green Valley women were neatly frizzed and buttoned, and sitting down to their crocheting in peace and quiet.

With her advent the ordinary streamlet of talk became a wild mill-race, whirling the bewildered ladies past conversational timber at which they could only gasp. Wild strictures upon this dead little old town, which she loathed, ended in the same sentence with eulogies of the dear darling people inhabiting it. Gloomy references to marital unhappiness were mixed with apostrophes to her dear sweet little old Charlie, slaving his life away. And topics pursued only by Green Valley intimates, by candlelight, and then in the most cautious seclusion, were brought merrily forward into the light of day while a knowing-eyed little girl listened observantly from a corner.

Her visitors became so confused that they entirely forgot the object of their call, which had been to invite Charlie French’s wife to a lawn party in honor of Mary Sellers; and they had to send a little boy back with a note. ‘Tickled to death to come,’ Mrs. French scribbled back on lavender-bordered paper. ‘If you do this often, you’ll keep Charlie from being a widower.’

The little groups buzzing gayly away under the maple trees in Isa Rann’s front yard a few days later grew frankly quiet as they caught sight of the newcomer swinging her purple umbrella far down the shady walk. Mary Sellers — who was now Mary Sellers Yeats, since she had married a rich Westerner after a violent courting which had left Green Valley gasping — grew pink with interest and put down her ice-cream saucer nervously. ‘ She doesn’t look so queer,’ she whispered to Abbie Barnes.

‘You just wait,’ Miss Abbie returned grimly.

A dozen pairs of eyes took mental note of the large black hat tilted over carefully marceled auburn locks, and the thin white dress cut to show plump shoulders. Then Mrs French bore down on them, smiling. It was plain that Mary Sellers was the object of her liveliest curiosity. ‘Some people have all the luck,’ she bemoaned herself, shaking Mary’s hand and staring incredulously at the small quiet figure. ‘ I tell Charlie if I’d had a chance at money, why true love and a garret like ours would n’t have had a chance.’ Her high voice carried, and everyone edged nearer. ‘Are n’t you all proud of her?’ she turned on them suddenly. ‘You ought to be. Though I ’ll bet all you old maids are jealous,’ she added, shaking her parasol gayly at Ella Flagg and Isa Rann who stood near. ‘It’s all right to pretend you like the single state,’ she went on, ‘but we know better. We know where the shoe pinches, don’t we? ’ turning to Mary, who stood helpless, blushing to her hair.

‘Have some ice-cream,’ interrupted Abbie Barnes, roughly shoving a mound of vivid pink at her, and following with an immense plate of heavily iced cakes.

Supper-tables that night oozed excited comment. ‘ She was downright insulting,’ more than one woman protested to her husband. ‘Just as if Abbie and Isa and the others could n’t have had their pick of a dozen men!’ they insisted loyally.

The men laughed and vowed they would like to see the woman who could put it over Abbie Barnes, like that — Abbie, whose ready tongue was respected wherever it was known.

As the weeks passed, Charlie French’s business prospered. The little office had been overhauled and painted white, and many bright steel instruments gleamed in neat rows from his new glass case. Green Valley could hardly accustom itself to the immaculate white jackets he wore, and the painstaking way in which he scrubbed his long thin delicate hands. His gentle manner contrasted surprisingly with the old doc’s sharpness, and his low kind voice was of a quality to brace a whimpering child. He was devoted to his work, too, they said, and his office light burned late many a warm night. But in spite of a growing business Charlie French’s bank account remained always in an embryonic state, for Mrs. French drew out as fast as her husband could put in, at least, according to reports from the Green Valley State Bank. Skeptical anti-feminists smiled wisely and hinted that that was all you could expect when you were fool enough to let a woman draw her own checks. Indeed, the Woman’s Suffrage League felt that Mrs. French was seriously injuring their cause.

A warm friendship sprang up between French and his second cousin, Nathan Flagg, so that it became no uncommon sight to see the dentist, slim and professional-looking in his gray suit and crisp straw hat, perched on the high wagon seat beside Nathan’s stooped figure, driving over to salt the sheep on the west eighty. Behind them the church bells rang a chiming protest, and Sunday-shirted farmers in freshly washed buggies called jocose warning that they were headed the wrong way for church. There was a pleasant half hour when Charlie French was given the reins, and Nathan, with his bag of salt, strayed far out in the green pasture. Only the baa-ing sheep, crowding their master at the far edge by the stone fence, broke the Sabbath silence which hung like a benediction over the halfploughed meadow and the ripening yellow fields beyond; and the far-off lazy progress of the flock and the occasional swoop of a hawk across the blue was all there was of movement. Driving back in the brooding warm sunshine, there were long silences broken by the briefest speeches.

‘Women are queer,’ said Charlie French one day.

‘Yes,’ responded Nathan, heartily, thinking of Mary Sellers, whom he had always thought to marry, before she took an unfair advantage and became engaged to a stranger, ‘they are.’

‘But they ’re all we’ve got,’ continued Charlie French; and Nathan again said, ‘Yes.’

That fall the Green Valley Herald announced that Miss Eugenia French, who had had the benefit of the best instruction in ‘vocal,’ and æsthetic dancing, would direct a children’s cantata to be given shortly in Barnes’s Opera House, herself taking a leading rôle. Eugenia’s mother corralled all the children in town between the ages of six and twelve, and for days after practice began they could be seen far down the street as they came from school, dipping grandly to right and left, clapping impassioned chubby fingers to their hearts, which in many cases proved to be on the wrong side, and waving a dramatic pencil in time to an unheard rhythm. Mothers complained that, their children were too tired to sleep and too excited to eat, and the tide of popular opinion set in strong again, against Charlie French’s wife. She and Eugenia buttonholed every man on the street, proffering pink tickets at twenty-five cents, and few had strength to resist.

‘I just tell Charlie to skip along to the hotel for his meals,’ she remarked airily, when Nellie Snyder said she had no time to make the cheesecloth robes for her two girls. ‘ I have n’t time for meals now. Goodness, what do men think we’re for? Not to slave over a hot stove for them. Charlie knows better,’ she ended, with a toss of her head. ‘I believe in the new woman, and he has to, too.’

September proved very warm, and the rooms over Norton’s hardware store, in their dusty disorder, were particularly close. Charlie French’s blond paleness seemed more pronounced, and he stooped over the bicycle bars as he rode back to the office, after a noisy meal in the mosquito-draped diningroom of the Commercial House. But he made no protest, not even when he heard that Eugenia had been taken out of school until the performance should be over.

Barnes’s Opera House was full the night of Eugenia’s cantata. Her mother, in a lace dress with a drooping aigrette in her hair, flew wildly back and forth, from stage to audience, and from audience to stage. ‘Your Bella is a dream, the way I’ve fixed her hair,’ she would drop in a loud whisper, as she flew past some uneasy parent. The June-bugs from the opened windows whirled noisily about the great lamps, and now and then fell heavily on some woman’s hair, while the band tuned their instruments and then tuned them again.

Meanwhile, the crowd looked for Charlie French, who had not appeared. ‘He hates this fol-de-rol,’ Nathan Flagg whispered to his sister. ‘I know.’

At last the performance began, with a circle of children dressed in green, who were elves, and progressed to other children in rose, who sang loudly and long, and ended with children in yellow, who were twinkling stars on a background of black cambric.

In the midst of all moved Eugenia, who was the Sun, in an abbreviated orange costume, her fiery hair twisted into a Grecian knot. She ran, she leaped, she whirled wildly, she curved her bare arms to embrace the audience, she flung them scornfully from her, at intervals she sang breathlessly. At length the curtain came down on a cascade of pirouettes and kicks. Then the audience swarmed out of the stuffy room into the cool darkness. ‘The fool-killers ain’t all dead yet!’ one old citizen grumbled to the crowd.

The next morning, just as Miss Abbie was finishing her sliced peaches and cream, and starting in on hot muffins and coffee, Ella Flagg came hurrying in without stopping to knock.

‘Abbie,’ she said, ‘Charlie French is gone!’

Miss Abbie jumped. ‘Gone! Not dead, Ella?’

‘No — not — well, we don’t know. May be. But he ’s gone, anyway. She telephoned Nathan early this morning. He never came home last night. They can’t remember when they saw him last — probably not since morning yesterday.’

She sat down and began fanning herself nervously with a great palm-leaf fan.

‘When’s the last anybody saw him ?’ Miss Abbie asked practically.

‘Well, we don’t know. Old Jeb Norton thinks he saw him riding by to the office yesterday morning, but he can’t be sure but what ’t was the day before. Is n’t it awful, Abbie? She’s about distracted.’

‘About what she deserves,’ Miss Abbie disagreed. She had never forgiven the episode of the lawn party.

‘I’ve got to go to see her — Charlie being a sort of cousin,’ Ella went on, getting up; ‘but I hate to so! She ’ll cry all over me.’

Miss Abbie followed her friend to the street, where little knots of people were already congregating. ‘His wheel ’s gone,’ one of them vouchsafed. ‘And he was n ’t, to the hotel to dinner yesterday noon,’ put in another woman, hurrying up. Isa Rann began to cry, the slow tears trickling down her large, heavy cheeks. ‘He was so good and kind,’ she choked, ‘and never hurt any more than he just had to.’

All day Charlie French’s wife moaned hysterically on the pink divan, clutching at any friend who was handy; while Eugenia, scared and white, roamed about the little rooms, and ran nervously to the door whenever a sound was heard. Mrs. French had firmly and positively adopted the theory that her husband was dead. ‘Only death could keep him from me this long,’ she sobbed. ‘He was always a home body. Just see that.’ And she pointed to the picture over the piano. ‘He gave it to me on our wedding-day, and I chose the frame to match the chairs,’ she moaned.

‘It’s real pretty,’ Ella Flagg agreed honestly.

By night they were all speaking of Charlie in the past tense, with a grave impersonal kindness, rehearsing little anecdotes of his boyhood, and describing with hushed awe the last time they had laid eyes on him. A dozen men, under the direction of Nathan Flagg, started out with ropes and grapplingirons to drag the little lake, the only body of water near the town. The crescent moon came up and found them still working, pale but determined. ‘I think he’s here, all right,’ Nathan Flagg said grimly. ‘It ’s what I’d’ a’ done myself if I’d got her.’

Careful search of Charlie French’s office next day revealed a memorandum of personal property, and affixed to it the address of a dealer in second-hand office furniture. His little red accountbook was carefully balanced up to date, and there was a slip with a small list of Green Valley citizens owing bills. There was also a certificate for some shares of stock, made out to his wife. Then the bank came forward with the statement that Charlie French had drawn twenty dollars the morning of the cantata. No one had seen him after that.

When these points were communicated to Mrs. French, she threw up her hands, and with one hysterical leap jumped to another settled conviction. ‘He’s deserted me for another woman! ’ she screamed, running her fingers through her uncombed hair until it stood out in wildest disarray. ‘He’s left me and his helpless child for another woman, and we without a cent. Men are brutes, brutes, brutes!’ Her shrill voice ended in a scream.

Green Valley, though unconvinced, was mightily shocked. Business was practically at a standstill, and the conscientious farmer who went forth to distant fields each morning returned to civilization, asking, ‘Any news of French?’ People’s walks took them strangely often past the old office, whose tightly closed door seemed to defy the curious glance; and children shivered, and looked behind when they ran home after dark.

‘Do you suppose he’s run off with another woman?’ Isa Rann asked for the twentieth time in hushed tones, putting down her hemming and looking beseechingly at Miss Abbie.

‘No, I don’t, if you want the truth. Though we’ll never know. There ain’t a particle of evidence for or against.’

‘Mrs. French found that lock of brown hair in his desk,’ Isa Rann persevered with pathetic zeal.

‘And it looks just like his dead sister ’s to me,’ Miss Abbie interposed decisively. ‘But if he has, I can’t say I blame him.’

‘Why-y-y, Abbie! You’re as bad as that free-love woman.’

‘Rot!’ Miss Abbie bit off the exclamation sharply. ‘ But I think too much of Charlie French’s good sense to accuse him of running to another woman after her. It’s peace and quiet he’s wanting.’

It was the general opinion in Green Valley. After a week the intensest excitement died out, although Mrs. French still babbled to the gentlemen of the press who came in numbers to Green Valley from the city. She said they were the most sympathetic friends she had. It was settled that Charlie French had cleared out, and scarcely a tongue in Green Valley wagged in censure. ‘Of course, we’ve got to look after her and the girl,’ the men said, talking about things at the post-office. ‘We’ll all have to chip in.’

And then he came back. Jeb Norton saw him riding his wheel up to the store one early morning, and grew white under his old tan, as if he had seen a ghost.

‘You — you — got back, Charlie?’ the old man quavered.

‘Yes, I got back, Uncle Jeb,’ French returned quietly.

‘Had a little vacation?’ he persevered.

‘Yes, a little vacation.’

The traveler was obviously tired and very dusty, and his face seemed thin, but his eyes wore a curious and baffling expression which Jeb Norton could not fathom. Then he vanished up the wooden stairway to his rooms.

That was all. The office-door stood open at the usual time, and the business of filling and pulling and polishing the teeth of Green Valley went on as usual. Green Valley knew no more, nor — it was suspected — did his family, although Mrs. French was accustomed thereafter to refer jocosely to the time Charlie tried to make a grass widow out of her.

There were the same silent Sunday morning rides with Nathan Flagg, down country roads, soft now with fallen yellow leaves, and bordered with outlying clumps of goldenrod.

‘Funny how the year goes right on,’ said Nathan one brisk cold morning. ‘Can’t nothing stop it — can’t stop itself.’

‘No funnier than the way we go right on,’ said Charlie French.