A Daughter of To-day - Cover

A Daughter of To-day

Copyright© 2011 by Sara Jeannette Duncan

Chapter 2

"Leslie." said Mrs. Bell, making the unnecessary feminine twist to get a view of her back hair from the mirror with a hand-glass, "aren't you delighted? Try to be candid with yourself now, and own that she's tremendously improved."

It would not have occurred to anybody but Mrs. Bell to ask Mr. Leslie Bell to be candid with himself. Candor was written in large letters all over Mr. Leslie Bell's plain, broad countenance. So was a certain obstinacy, not of will, but of adherence to prescribed principles, which might very well have been the result of living for twenty years with Mrs. Leslie Bell. Otherwise he was a thick-set man with an intelligent bald head, a fresh-colored complexion, and a well-trimmed gray beard. Mr. Leslie Bell looked at life with logic, or thought he did, and took it with ease, in a plain way. He was known to be a good man of business, with a leaning toward generosity, and much independence of opinion. It was not a custom among election candidates to ask Leslie Bell for his vote. It was pretty well understood that nothing would influence it except his "views," and that none of the ordinary considerations in use with refractory electors would influence his views. He was a man of large, undemonstrative affections, and it was a matter of private regret with him that there should have been only one child, and that a daughter, to bestow them upon. His simplicity of nature was utterly beyond the understanding of his wife, who had been building one elaborate theory after another about him ever since they had been married, conducting herself in mysterious accordance, but had arrived accurately only at the fact that he preferred two lumps of sugar in his tea.

Mr. Bell did not allow his attention to be taken from the intricacies of his toilet by his wife's question until she repeated it.

"Aren't you charmed with Elfrida, Leslie? Hasn't

Philadelphia improved her beyond your wildest dreams?"

Mr. Bell reflected. "You know I don't think Elfrida has ever been as pretty as she was when she was five years old, Maggie."

"Do say Margaret," interposed Mrs. Bell plaintively. She had been suffering from this for twenty years.

"It's of no use, my dear; I never remember unless there's company present. I was going to say Elfrida had certainly grown. She's got to her full size now, I should think, and she dwarfs you, moth—Margaret."

Mrs. Bell looked at him with tragic eyes. "Do you see no more in her than that?" she exclaimed.

"She looks well, I admit she looks well. She seems to have got a kind of style in Philadelphia."


"I don't mean fashionable style—a style of her own; and according to the professors, neither the time nor the money has been wasted. But she's been a long year away, Maggie. It's been considerably dull without her for you and me. I hope she won't take it into her head to want to leave home again."

"If it should be necessary to her plan of life—"

"It won't be necessary. She's nineteen now, and I'd like to see her settle down here in Sparta, and the sooner the better. Her painting will be an interest for her all her life, and if ever she should be badly off she can teach. That was my idea in giving her the training."

"Settle down in Sparta!" Mrs. Bell repeated, with a significant curve of her superior lip. "Why, who is there—"

"Lots of people, though it isn't for me to name them, nor for you either, my dear. But speaking generally, there isn't a town of its size in the Union with a finer crop of go-ahead young men in it than Sparta."

Mrs. Bell was leaning against the inside shutter of their bedroom window, looking out, while she waited for her husband. As she looked, one of Sparta's go-ahead young men, glancing up as he passed in the street below and seeing her there behind the panes, raised his hat.

"Heavens, no!" said Mrs. Bell. "You don't understand,


"Perhaps not," Mr. Bell returned. "We must get that packing-case opened after dinner. I'm anxious to see the pictures." Mr. Bell put the finishing touches to his little finger-nail and briskly pocketed his penknife. "Shall we go downstairs now?" he suggested. "Fix your brooch, mother; it's just on the drop."

Elfrida Bell had been a long year away—a year that seemed longer to her than it possibly could to anybody in Sparta, as she privately reflected when her father made this observation for the second and the third time. Sparta accounted for its days chiefly in ledgers, the girl thought; there was a rising and a going down of the sun, a little eating and drinking and speedy sleeping, a little discussion of the newspapers. Sparta got over its days by strides and stretches, and the strides and stretches seemed afterward to have been made over gaps and gulfs full of emptiness. The year divided itself and got its painted leaves, its white silences, its rounding buds, and its warm fragrances from the winds of heaven, and so there were four seasons in Sparta, and people talked of an early spring or a late fall; but Elfrida told herself that time had no other division, and the days no other color. Elfrida seemed to be unaware of the opening of the new South Ward Episcopal Methodist Church. She overlooked the municipal elections too, the plan for overhauling the town waterworks, and the reorganization of the public library. She even forgot the Browning Club.

Whereas—though Elfrida would never have said "whereas" —the days in Philadelphia had been long and full. She had often lived a week in one of them, and there had been hours that stretched themselves over an infinity of life and feeling, as Elfrida saw it, looking back. In reality, her experience had been usual enough and poor enough; but it had fed her in a way, and she enriched it with her imagination, and thought, with keen and sincere pity, that she had been starved till then. The question that preoccupied her when she moved out of the Philadelphia station in the Chicago train was that of future sustenance. It was under the surface of her thoughts when she kissed her father and mother and was made welcome home; it raised a mute remonstrance against Mr. Bell's cheerful prophecy that she would be content to stay in Sparta for a while now, and get to know the young society; it neutralized the pleasure of the triumphs in the packing-box. Besides, their real delight had all been exhaled at the students' exhibition in Philadelphia, when Philadelphia looked at them. The opinion of Sparta, Elfrida thought, was not a matter for anxiety. Sparta would be pleased in advance.

Elfrida allowed one extenuating point in her indictment of Sparta: the place had produced her as she was at eighteen, when they sent her to Philadelphia. This was only half conscious—she was able to formulate it later —but it influenced her sincere and vigorous disdain of the town correctively, and we may believe that it operated to except her father and mother from the general wreck of her opinion to a greater extent than any more ordinary feeling did. It was not in the least a sentiment of affection for her birthplace; if she could have chosen she would very much have preferred to be born somewhere else. It was simply an important qualifying circumstance. Her actual and her ideal self, her most mysterious and interesting self, had originated in the air and the opportunities of Sparta. Sparta had even done her the service of showing her that she was unusual, by contrast, and Elfrida felt that she ought to be thankful to somebody or something for being as unusual as she was. She had had a comfortable, spoiled feeling of gratitude for it before she went to Philadelphia, which had developed in the meantime into a shudder at the mere thought of what it meant to be an ordinary person. "I could bear not to be charming," said she sometimes to her Philadelphia looking-glass, "but I could not bear not to be clever."

She said "clever," but she meant more than that. Elfrida Bell believed that something other than cleverness entered into her personal equation. She looked sometimes into her very soul to see what, but the writing there was in strange characters that faded under her eyes, leaving her uncomprehending but tranced. Meanwhile art spoke to her from all sides, finding her responsive and more responsive. Some books, some pictures, some music brought her a curious exalted sense of double life. She could not talk about it at all, but she could slip out into the wet streets on a gusty October evening, and walk miles exulting in it, and in the light on the puddles and in the rain on her face, coming back, it must be admitted, with red cheeks and an excellent appetite. It led her into strange absent silences and ways of liking to be alone, which gratified her mother and worried her father. When Elfrida burned the gas of Sparta late in her own room, it was always her father who saw the light under the door, and who came and knocked and told her that it was after eleven, and high time she was in bed. Mrs. Bell usually protested. "How can the child reach any true development," she asked, "if you interfere with her like this?" to which Mr. Bell usually replied that whatever she developed, he didn't want it to be headaches and hysteria. Elfrida invariably answered, "Yes, papa," with complete docility; but it must be said that Mr. Bell generally knocked in vain, and the more perfect the submission of the daughterly reply the later the gas would be apt to burn. Elfrida was always agreeable to her father. So far as she thought of it she was appreciatively fond of him, but the relation pleased her, it was one that could be so charmingly sustained. For already out of the other world she walked in—the world of strange kinships and insights and recognitions, where she saw truth afar off and worshipped, and as often met falsehood in the way and turned raptly to follow—the girl had drawn a vague and many-shaped idea of artistic living which embraced the filial attitude among others less explicable. It gave her pleasure to do certain things in certain ways. She stood and sat and spoke, and even thought, at times, with a subtle approval and enjoyment of her manner of doing it. It was not actual artistic achievement, but it was the sort of thing that entered her imagination, as such achievement's natural corollary. Her self-consciousness was a supreme fact of her personality; it began earlier than any date she could remember, and it was a channel of the most unfailing and intense satisfaction to her from many sources. One was her beauty, for she had developed an elusive beauty that served her moods. When she was dull she called herself ugly—unfairly, though her face lost tremendously in value then—and her general dislike of dullness and ugliness became particular and acute in connection with herself. It is not too much to say that she took a keen enjoying pleasure in the flush upon her own cheek and the light in her own eyes no less than in the inward sparkle that provoked it—an honest delight, she would not have minded confessing it. Her height, her symmetry, her perfect abounding health were separate joys to her; she found absorbing and critical interest in the very figment of her being. It was entirely preposterous that a young woman should kneel at an attic window in a flood of spring moonlight, with, her hair about the shoulders of her nightgown, repeating Rossetti to the wakeful budding garden, especially as it was for herself she did it—nobody else saw her. She knelt there partly because of a vague desire to taste the essence of the spring and the garden and Rossetti at once, and partly because she felt the romance of the foolish situation. She knew of the shadow her hair made around her throat, and that her eyes were glorious in the moonlight. Going back to bed, she paused before the looking-glass and wafted a kiss, as she blew the candle out, to the face she saw there. It was such a pretty face, and so full of tire spirit of. Rossetti and the moonlight, that she couldn't help it. Then she slept, dreamlessly, comfortably, and late; and in the morning she had never taken cold.

The source of this story is Finestories

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