A Daughter of To-day - Cover

A Daughter of To-day

Copyright© 2011 by Sara Jeannette Duncan

Chapter 13

Janet Cardiff, running downstairs to the drawing-room from the top story of the house in Kensington Square with the knowledge that a new American girl, who wrote very clever things about pictures, awaited her there, tried to remember just what sort of description John Kendal had given of her visitor. Her recollection was vague as to detail; she could not anticipate a single point with certainty, perhaps because she had not paid particular attention at the time. She had been given a distinct impression that she might expect to be interested, however, which accounted for her running downstairs. Nothing hastened Janet Cardiff's footsteps more than the prospect of anybody interesting. She and her father declared that it was their great misfortune to be thoroughly respectable, it cut them off from so much. It was in particular the girl's complaint against their life that humanity as they knew it was rather a neutral-tinted, carefully woven fabric too largely "machine-made," as she told herself, with a discontent that the various Fellows of the Royal Society and members of the Athenaeum Club, with whom the Cardiffs were in the habit of dining, could hardly have thought themselves capable of inspiring. It seemed to Janet that nobody crossed their path until his or her reputation was made, and that by the time people had made their reputations they succumbed to them, and became uninteresting.

She told herself at once that nothing Kendal could have said would have prepared her for this American, and that certainly nothing she had seen or read of other Americans did. Elfrida was standing beside the open window looking out. As Janet came in a breeze wavered through and lifted the fluffy hair about her visitor's forehead, and the scent of the growing things in the little square came with it into the room. She turned slowly, with grave wide eyes and a plaintive indrawing of her pretty underlip, and held out three full-blown gracious Marechal Neil roses on long slender stems. "I have brought you these," she said, with a charming effect of simplicity, "to make me welcome. There was no reason, none whatever, why I should be welcome, so I made one. You will not be angry—perhaps?"

Janet banished her conventional "Very glad to see you" instantly. She took the roses with a quick thrill of pleasure. Afterward she told herself that she was not touched, not in the least, she did not quite know why; but she freely acknowledged that she was more than amused.

"How charming of you!" she said. "But I have to thank you for coming as well. Now let us shake hands, or we shan't feel properly acquainted." Janet detected a half-tone of patronage in her voice, and fell into a rage with herself because of it. She looked at Elfrida sharply to note a possible resentment, but there was none. If she had looked a trifle more sharply she might have observed a subtler patronage in the little smile her visitor received this commonplace with; but, like the other, she was too much occupied in considering her personal effect. She had become suddenly desirous that it should be a good one.

Elfrida went on in the personal key. "I suppose you are very tired of hearing such things," she said, "but I owe you so much."

This was not quite justifiable, for Miss Cardiff was only a successful writer in the magazines, whose name was very familiar to other people who wrote in them, and had a pleasant association for the reading public. It was by no means fame; she would have been the first to laugh at the magniloquence of the word in any personal connection. For her father she would accept a measure of it, and only deplored that the lack of public interest in Persian made the measure small. She had never confessed to a soul how largely she herself was unacquainted with his books, and how considerably her knowledge of her father's specialty was covered by the opinion that Persian was a very decorative character. She could not let Elfrida suppose that she thought this anything but a politeness.

"Oh, thanks—impossible!" she cried gaily. "Indeed, I assure you it is months since I heard anything so agreeable," which was also a departure from the strictest verity.

"But truly! I'm afraid I am very clumsy," Elfrida added, with a pretty dignity, "but I should like to assure you of that."

"If you have allowed me to amuse you now and then for half an hour it has been very good of you," Janet returned, looking at Miss Bell with rather more curious interest than she thought it polite to show. It began to seem to her, however, that the conventional side of the occasion was not obvious from any point of view. "You are an American, aren't you?" she asked. "Mr. Kendal told me so. I suppose one oughtn't to say that one would like to be an American. But you have such a pull! I know I should like living there."

Elfrida gave herself the effect of considering the matter earnestly. It flitted, really, over the surface of her mind, which was engaged in absorbing Janet and the room, and the situation.

"Perhaps it is better to be born in America than in—most places," she said, with a half glance at the prim square outside. "It gives you a point of view that is—splendid." In hesitating this way before her adjectives, she always made her listeners doubly attentive to what she had to say. "And having been deprived of so much that you have over here, we like it better, of course, when we get it, than you do. But nobody would live in constant deprivation. No, you wouldn't like living there. Except in New York, and, oh, I should say Santa Barbara, and New Orleans perhaps, the life over there is—infernal."

"You are like a shower-bath," said Janet to herself; but the shower-bath had no palpable effect upon her. "What have we that is so important that you haven't got?" she asked.

"Quantities of things." Elfrida hesitated, not absolutely sure of the wisdom of her example. Then she ventured it. "The picturesqueness of society—your duchesses and your women in the green-grocers' shops." It was not wise, she saw instantly.

"Really? It is so difficult to understand that duchesses are interesting—out of novels; and the green-grocers' wives are a good deal alike, too, aren't they?"

"It's the contrast; you see our duchesses were green-grocers' wives the day before yesterday, and our green-grocers' wives subscribe to the magazines. It's all mixed up, and there are no high lights anywhere. You move before us in a sort of panoramic pageant," Elfrida went on, determined to redeem her point, "with your Queen and Empress of India—she ought to be riding on an elephant, oughtn't she?—in front, and all your princes and nobles with their swords drawn to protect her. Then your Upper Classes and your Upper Middle Classes walking stiffly two and two; and then your Lower Middle Classes with large families, dropping their h's; and then your hideous people from the slums. And besides," she added, with prettily repressed enthusiasm, "there is the shadowy procession of all the people that have gone before, and we can see that you are a good deal like them, though they are more interesting still. It is very pictorial." She stopped suddenly and consciously, as if she had said too much, and Janet felt that she was suggestively apologized to.

"Doesn't the phenomenal squash make up for all that?" she asked. "It would to me. I'm dying to see the phenomenal squash, and the prodigious water-melon, and—"

"And the falls of Niagara?" Elfrida put in, with the faintest turning down of the corners of her mouth. "I'm afraid our wonders are chiefly natural, and largely vegetable, as you say."

"But they are wonders. Everything here has been measured so many times. Besides, haven't you got the elevated railway, and a statue of Liberty, and the 'Jeanne d'Arc, ' and W. D. Howells! To say nothing of a whole string of poets—good gray poets that wear beards and laurels, and fanciful young ones that dance in garlands on the back pages of the Century. Oh, I know them all, the dear things! And I'm quite sure their ideas are indigenous to the soil."

Elfrida let her eyes tell her appreciation, and also the fact that she would take courage now, she was gaining confidence. "I'm glad you like them," she said. "Howells would do if he would stop writing about virtuous sewing-girls, and give us some real romans psychologiques. But he is too much afraid of soiling his hands, that monsieur; his betes humaines are always conventionalized, and generally come out at the end wearing the halo of the redeemed. He always reminds me of Cruikshank's picture of the ghost being put out by the extinguisher in the 'Christmas Carol.' His genius is the ghost, and conventionality is the extinguisher. But it is genius, so it's a pity."

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