Miss Kimpsey dropped into an arm-chair in Mrs. Leslie Bell's drawing-room and crossed her small dusty feet before her while she waited for Mrs. Leslie Bell. Sitting there, thinking a little of how tired she was and a great deal of what she had come to say, Miss Kimpsey enjoyed a sense of consideration that came through the ceiling with the muffled sound of rapid footsteps in the chamber above. Mrs. Bell would be "down in a minute," the maid had said. Miss Kimpsey was inclined to forgive a greater delay, with this evidence of hasteful preparation going on overhead. The longer she had to ponder her mission the better, and she sat up nervously straight pondering it, tracing with her parasol a sage-green block in the elderly aestheticated pattern of the carpet.
Miss Kimpsey was thirty-five, with a pale, oblong little face, that looked younger under its softening "bang" of fair curls across the forehead. She was a buff-and-gray-colored creature, with a narrow square chin and narrow square shoulders, and a flatness and straightness about her everywhere that gave her rather the effect of a wedge, to which the big black straw hat she wore tilted a little on one side somehow conduced. Miss Kimpsey might have figured anywhere as a representative of the New England feminine surplus—there was a distinct suggestion of character under her unimportant little features—and her profession was proclaimed in her person, apart from the smudge of chalk on the sleeve of her jacket. She had been born and brought up and left over in Illinois, however, in the town of Sparta, Illinois. She had developed her conscience there, and no doubt, if one knew it well, it would show peculiarities of local expansion directly connected with hot corn-bread for breakfast, as opposed to the accredited diet of legumes upon which consciences arrive at such successful maturity in the East. It was, at all events, a conscience in excellent controlling order. It directed Miss Kimpsey, for example, to teach three times a week in the boys' night-school through the winter, no matter how sharply the wind blew off Lake Michigan, in addition to her daily duties at the High School, where for ten years she had imparted instruction in the "English branches," translating Chaucer into the modern dialect of Sparta, Illinois, for the benefit of Miss Elfrida Bell, among others. It had sent her on this occasion to see Mrs. Leslie Bell, and Miss Kimpsey could remember circumstances under which she had obeyed her conscience with more alacrity.
"It isn't," said Miss Kimpsey, with internal discouragement, "as if I knew her well."
Miss Kimpsey did not know Mrs. Bell at all well. Mrs. Bell was president of the Browning Club, and Miss Kimpsey was a member, they met, too, in the social jumble of fancy fairs in aid of the new church organ; they had a bowing acquaintance—that is, Mrs. Bell, had. Miss Kimpsey's part of it was responsive, and she always gave a thought to her boots and her gloves when she met Mrs. Bell. It was not that the Spartan social circle which Mrs. Bell adorned had any vulgar prejudice against the fact that Miss Kimpsey earned her own living—more than one of its ornaments had done the same thing—and Miss Kimpsey's relations were all "in grain" and obviously respectable. It was simply that none, of the Kimpseys, prosperous or poor, had ever been in society in Sparta, for reasons which Sparta itself would probably be unable to define; and this one was not likely to be thrust among the elect because she taught school and enjoyed life upon a scale of ethics.
Mrs. Bell's drawing-room was a slight distraction to Miss Kimpsey's nervous thoughts. The little school-teacher had never been in it before, and it impressed her. "It's just what you would expect her parlor to be," she said to herself, looking furtively round. She could not help her sense of impropriety; she had always been taught that it was very bad manners to observe anything hi another person's house, but she could not help looking either. She longed to get up and read the names of the books behind the glass doors of the tall bookcase at the other end of the room, for the sake of the little quiver of respectful admiration she knew they would give her; but she did not dare to do that. Her eyes went from the bookcase to the photogravure of Dore's "Entry into Jerusalem," under which three Japanese dolls were arranged with charming effect. "The Reading Magdalen" caught them next, a colored photograph, and then a Magdalen of more obscure origin in much blackened oils and a very deep frame; then still another Magdalen, more modern, in monochrome. In fact, the room was full of Magdalens, and on an easel in the corner stood a Mater Dolorosa, lifting up her streaming eyes. Granting the capacity to take them seriously, they might have depressed some people, but they elevated Miss Kimpsey.
She was equally elevated by the imitation willow pattern plates over the door, and the painted yellow daffodils on the panels, and the orange-colored Revue des Deux Mondes on the corner of the table, and the absence of all bows or draperies from the furniture. Miss Kimpsey's own parlor was excrescent with bows and draperies. "She is above them," thought Miss Kimpsey, with a little pang. The room was so dark that she could not see how old the Revue was; she did not know either that it was always there, that unexceptionable Parisian periodical, with Dante in the original and red leather, Academy Notes, and the Nineteenth Century, all helping to furnish Mrs. Leslie Bell's drawing-room in a manner in accordance with her tastes; but if she had, Miss Kimpsey would have been equally impressed. It took intellect even to select these things. The other books, Miss Kimpsey noticed by the numbers labelled on their backs, were mostly from the circulating library—"David Grieve," "Cometh up as a Flower," "The Earthly Paradise," Ruskin's "Stones of Venice," Marie Corelli's "Romance of Two Worlds." The mantelpiece was arranged in geometrical disorder, but it had a gilt clock under a glass shade precisely in the middle. When the gilt clock indicated, in a mincing way, that Miss Kimpsey had been kept waiting fifteen minutes, Mrs. Bell came in. She had fastened her last button and assumed the expression appropriate to Miss Kimpsey at the foot of the stair. She was a tall, thin woman, with no color and rather narrow brown eyes much wrinkled round about, and a forehead that loomed at you, and grayish hair twisted high into a knot behind—a knot from which a wispy end almost invariably escaped. When she smiled her mouth curved downward, showing a number of large even white teeth, and made deep lines which suggested various things, according to the nature of the smile, on either side of her face. As a rule one might take them to mean a rather deprecating acceptance of life as it stands—they seemed intended for that—and then Mrs. Bell would express an enthusiasm and contradict them. As she came through the door under the "Entry into Jerusalem," saying that she really must apologize, she was sure it was unpardonable keeping Miss Kimpsey waiting like this, the lines expressed an intention of being as agreeable as possible without committing herself to return Miss Kimpsey's visit.
"Why, no, Mrs. Bell," Miss Kimpsey said earnestly, with a protesting buff-and-gray smile, "I didn't mind waiting a particle—honestly I didn't. Besides, I presume it's early for a call; but I thought I'd drop in on my way from school." Miss Kimpsey was determined that Mrs. Bell should have every excuse that charity could invent for her. She sat down again, and agreed with Mrs. Bell that they were having lovely weather, especially when they remembered what a disagreeable fall it had been last year; certainly this October had been just about perfect. The ladies used these superlatives in the tone of mild defiance that almost any statement of fact has upon feminine lips in America. It did not seem to matter that their observations were entirely in union.
"I thought I'd run in—" said Miss Kimpsey, screwing herself up by the arm of her chair.
"And speak to you about a thing I've been thinking a good deal of, Mrs. Bell, this last day or two. It's about Elfrida."
Mrs. Bell's expression became judicial. If this was a complaint—and she was not accustomed to complaints of Elfrida—she would be careful how she took it.
"I hope—" she began.
"Oh, you needn't worry, Mrs. Bell. It's nothing about her conduct, and it's nothing about her school work."
"Well, that's a relief," said Mrs. Bell, as if she had expected it would be. "But I know she's bad at figures. The child can't help that, though; she gets it from me. I think I ought to ask you to be lenient with her on that account."
"I have nothing to do with the mathematical branches, Mrs, Bell. I teach only English to the senior classes. But I haven't heard Mr. Jackson complain of Elfrida at all." Feeling that she could no longer keep her errand at arm's length, Miss Kimpsey desperately closed with it. "I've come—I hope you won't mind—Mrs. Bell, Elfrida has been quoting Rousseau in her compositions, and I thought you'd like to know."
"In the original?" asked Mrs. Bell, with interest. "I didn't think her French was advanced enough for that."
"No, from a translation," Miss Kimpsey replied. "Her sentence ran: 'As the gifted Jean Jacques Rousseau told the world in his "Confessions"'—I forget the rest. That was the part that struck me most. She had evidently been reading the works of Rousseau."
"Very likely. Elfrida has her own subscription at the library," Mrs. Bell said speculatively. "It shows a taste in reading beyond her years, doesn't it, Miss Kimpsey? The child is only fifteen."
"Well, I've never read Rousseau," the little teacher stated definitely. "Isn't he—atheistical, Mrs. Bell, and improper every way?"
Mrs. Bell raised her eyebrows and pushed out her lips at the severity of this ignorant condemnation. "He was a genius, Miss Kimpsey—rather I should say he is, for genius cannot die. He is much thought of in France. People there make a little shrine of the house he occupied with Madame Warens, you know."
"Oh!" returned Miss Kimpsey, "French people."
"Yes. The French are peculiarly happy in the way they sanctify genius," said Mrs. Bell vaguely, with a feeling that she was wasting a really valuable idea.
"Well, you'll have to excuse me, Mrs. Bell. I'd always heard you entertained about as liberal views as there were going on any subject, but I didn't expect they embraced Rousseau." Miss Kimpsey spoke quite meekly. "I know we live in an age of progress, but I guess I'm not as progressive as some."
"Many will stay behind," interrupted Mrs. Bell impartially, "but many more will advance."
"And I thought maybe Elfrida had been reading that author without your knowledge or approval, and that perhaps you'd like to know."
"I neither approve nor disapprove," said Mrs. Bell, poising her elbow on the table, her chin upon her hand, and her judgment, as it were, upon her chin. "I think her mind ought to develop along the lines that nature intended; I think nature is wiser than I am"—there was an effect of condescending explanation here—"and I don't feel justified in interfering. I may be wrong—"
"Oh no!" said Miss Kimpsey.
"But Elfrida's reading has always been very general. She has a remarkable mind, if you will excuse my saying so; it devours everything. I can't tell you when she learned to read, Miss Kimpsey—it seemed to come to her. She has often reminded me of what you see in the biographies of distinguished people about their youth. There are really a great many points of similarity sometimes. I shouldn't be surprised if Elfrida did anything. I wish I had had her opportunities!"
"She's growing very good-looking," remarked Miss Kimpsey.
"It's an interesting face," Mrs. Bell returned. "Here is her last photograph. It's full of soul, I think. She posed herself," Mrs. Bell added unconsciously.
It was a cabinet photograph of a girl whose eyes looked definitely out of it, dark, large, well shaded, full of a desire to be beautiful at once expressed and fulfilled. The nose was a trifle heavily blocked, but the mouth had sensitiveness and charm. There was a heaviness in the chin, too, but the free springing curve of the neck contradicted that, and the symmetry of the face defied analysis. It was turned a little to one side, wistfully; the pose and the expression suited each other perfectly.
"Full of soul!" responded Miss Kimpsey. "She takes awfully well, doesn't she! It reminds me—it reminds me of pictures I've seen of Rachel, the actress, really it does."
"I'm afraid Elfrida has no talent that way." Mrs.
Bell's accent was quite one of regret.
"She seems completely wrapped up in her painting just now," said Miss Kimpsey, with her eyes still on the photograph.
"Yes; I often wonder what her career will be, and sometimes it comes home to me that it must be art. The child can't help it—she gets it straight from me. But there were no art classes in my day." Mrs. Bell's tone implied a large measure of what the world had lost in consequence. "Mr. Bell doesn't agree with me about Elfrida's being predestined for art," she went on, smiling; "his whole idea is that she'll marry like other people."
"Well, if she goes on improving in looks at the rate she has, you'll find it difficult to prevent, I should think, Mrs. Bell." Miss Kimpsey began to wonder at her own temerity in staying so long. "Should you be opposed to it?"
"Oh, I shouldn't be opposed to it exactly. I won't say I don't expect it. I think she might do better, myself; but I dare say matrimony will swallow her up as it does everybody—almost everybody—else." A finer ear than Miss Kimpsey's might have heard in this that to overcome Mrs. Bell's objections matrimony must take a very attractive form indeed, and that she had no doubt it would. Elfrida's instructress did not hear it; she might have been less overcome with the quality of these latter-day sentiments if she had. Little Miss Kimpsey, whom matrimony had not swallowed up, had risen to go. "Oh, I'm sure the most gifted couldn't do better!" she said, hardily, in departing, with a blush that turned her from buff-and-gray to brick color.
Mrs. Bell picked up the Revue after she had gone, and read three lines of a paper on the climate and the soil of Poland. Then she laid it down again at the same angle with the corner of the table which it had described before.
"Rousseau!" she said aloud to herself. "C'est un peu fort mais—" and paused, probably for maturer reflection upon the end of her sentence.