ELLIS PARKER BUTLER
A voluble daughter, visited by an aggravated attack of beau fever, surely is a sore trial to any poor mother
MRS. MILBAY lost her daughter Nell so gradually that for quite a while she did not realize that she was lost. Two reasons she did not sooner feel that she had lost Nell were Jessica and Norbert, her other children. Jessica was in the Eighth Grade and in so many ways like what Nell had been that she rather slipped into Nell's place in Mrs. Milbay’s motherly concern, and Norbert—being still almost a baby—demanded a great deal of attention.
Nell was now a senior in High School and so involved in her own interests that it was almost as if her mother no longer existed. Her words with Mrs. Milbay were not longer heart to heart and mind to mind as in the old intimacy; her heart to heart and mind to mind talks were with he: girl companions. Of her mother she asked what there was to eat or what she could give the Sorority—cocoa or tea.
Nell was 'Avidly alive. She and her friends talked over the telephone by the hour, excitedly, bursting into laughter over matters that meant nothing to Mrs. Milbay.
Nell had so many girl friends! Suddenly Mrs. Milbay realized that the world had claimed Nell. The front door had slammed one evening as Nell hurried over to Cora’s on some gay and secret affair. Mr. Milbay, looking up from his paper saw tears glistening on his wife’s cheeks. “What is the matter, honey? Anything gone wrong?” "It is just Nell,” Mrs. Milbay answered.
“Has she been rude?”
“Oh, never! She’s always so dear, George. But she’s growing up so fast. I'm losing her. She isn’t mine any
It was easy to see that her daughter was greatly agitated and Mrs. Milbay’s thoughts went at once to Jessica who sometimes teased Nell quite unmercifully, but Nell could usually give as good as she got. Now, however, Nell’s eyes seemed to show: that she had reached some limit of restraint. There was fire in Nell’s eyes and thunder on her brow but the fire in her eyes was not one of mere anger, it was a dull blaze and it disturbed Mrs. Milbay. It was like the sullen covered fire in the eyes of some animal that is being cruelly pestered and which is ready to turn and rend; it was the smoldering fire in the eyes of one who is in pain but cannot understand the pain and who is apt to go mad with berserk anger.
“I think I have a right to know, mother, why some people are so positively impossible,” Nell hastened on before Mrs. Milbay could speak. “I am as broad-minded as anyone and I can put up with a good deal, and you know that’s so, mother. I can make allowances, and I do, mother, but when a person is positively impossible—” “But who is it, Nell?” Mrs. Milbay asked. “What has happened?”
“There are some things a person should just not stand,” Nell declared, “no matter what others may think about it. But of course you think I’m a fool just because there are some things I positively cannot stand, no matter how positively impossible a person is who does them, But just because you can sit there and take everything as placidly as if nothing ever amounted to anything, mother, is no sign that when a person is positively impossible I have to put up with everything of that sort, is it?”
“But, Nellie,” pleaded Mrs. Milbay: “What is it? You haven’t told me.”
“That’s just what I thought you would say, mother; it’s just the attitude I thought you would take!” Nell cried. “You think everyone is so noble and good because you don’t have to meet people whose characters are utterly despicable. You don’t meet positively impossible persons and have to be in school with them and probably meet them on the street and be insulted by them in the most positively despicable manner—”
“Nell, stop that!” exclaimed Mrs. Milbay. “You are working yourself into an absolutely hysterical condition.” “I am not!” Nell declared and to prove that she was not she threw herself on her mother’s bed and wept violently. She buried her face in her hands and cried like a hurt child and Mrs. Milbay went to the bed and sat on its edge beside Nell.
“Tell mother, Tootsie,” she urged, putting her hand on the back of Nell’s bobbed head: but Nell cried quite awhile before she spoke and when she did speak it was with the same anger. She seemed to include her mother in her hatred, for her voice was harsh with reproach.
“Well, I knew it was no use coming to you,” she sobbed. “You don’t care; you just think a person is perfect and noble and everything if he don’t look like a perfectly despicable person and goes to church and everything, as if that had anything to do with his true character.”
“Nell! You have no right to say that; I don’t know who you are talking about. What is the matter? Who are you talking about?”
“There! I knew it!” sobbed Nell. “I knew you would take sides against me. I knew it was no use to come to you. You think he is such a perfectly noble character and you don’t care what he does to show how perfectly despicable he is when it’s only your daughter.”
Mrs. Milbay had been inclined to take Nell in her arms and comfort her with kisses but this sort of thing was quite too unreasonable.
“Nell Milbay, stop this!” she cried, sitting straight and feeling strongly tempted to shake her daughter. “I am not going to have you talk to me this way! What happened? Who insulted you? Who is this person I am supposed to admire?”
For answer Nell merely moaned her distress.
“Nell, answer me! Who are you talking about?” Mrs. Milbay demanded.
At this Nell threw herself over and sat up. She glared at her mother with close set lips and wiped her eyes.
“You know quite well who I am talking about,” she said haughtily. “And, I think, mother, you know his true character quite as well as I do.”
“But who is he?” insisted Mrs. Milbay. “Nell, I command you to tell me who you are talking about.”
“Mother, I would not utter the name of anyone with such a perfectly despicable character and you oughtn’t to ask me to,” Nell said. “I certainly thought, mother, that you could judge a character like Edgar Mallin’s without having me shriek his name at you when a mere child could easily see that he is utterly despicable!”
“Edgar Mallin?” Mrs. Milbay repeated stupidly. She seemed to remember that the Mallins did have a boy and it was probable that he would be about Nell’s age or a few years more by this time, but she had only the vaguest memory of him. She could not identify him as distinct from the dozen or so boys who formed a sort of Saturn’s ring around the group of girls who formed Nell’s crowd; all those boys looked so much alike! There was one who seemed to stand out because he had red hair and went without a hat, but Mrs. Milbay knew that his name was Bill Huff, so he could not be Edgar Mallín. The others, as Mrs. Milbay tried to think of them now, seemed all alike—rather thin boys wdth insipid faces and
blue gray suits and felt hats all amazingly alike. Most of them had a few pimples around their mouths or on their chins and their principal occupation in life seemed to be walking just off the sidewalk on the edge of the group of girls in a way that suggested to Mrs. Milbay an escort of very young blue-gray collie dogs trying sedately to accompany a group of giggling sheep.
“What did Edgar Mallin do, daughter?” Mrs. Milbay asked.
“Well, mother,” Nell said, “I think you know me well enough to know I would never give any person cause to insult me. I think you know that, mother. And when a person—no matter what you think his true character is, mother—takes me by the arm and calls me ‘Toots’ in front of everybody in the school, practically, and practically jerks me so I almost turn clear around—well, I think a person with a character like that has a most despicable character!”
“Did he do that?” asked Mrs. Milbay, doing her best not to smile. “But perhaps he was only playing, Nell. You know boys are always rough. And after all ‘Toots’ is only what we all called you until a little while ago.”
“But, mother, he took me by the arm. He grasped my arm and jerked me and said, ‘Oh, you Toots!’ I don’t think even you, mother, would say that was what a true gentleman would do. I think it shows a despicable character, mother.”
MRS. MILBAY was not inclined to make fun of Nell for this. She was well aware that girls and boys, especially when about Nell’s age, find some things tremendously serious. She recalled her own enormous agitations and how she had herself wept when she was Nell’s age. On the other hand she was not quite prepared to admit that a boy who playfully grasped a girl by the arm and said, ‘Oh, you Toots!’ was a criminal fit for the electric chair or even a depraved character of the most degraded sort. Fortunately Mrs. Milbay did not have to admit this for one of Nell’s girl friends oo-ooed outside the house at that moment and Nell leaped from the bed and went to the window and oo-ooed back and, after a glance in the mirror and a dab at her hair, went rushing down the stairs seemingly the happiest girl in the world.
“Poor dear!” thought Mrs. Milbay, as she took up her sewing again.
“They all have to go through it!”
Half an hour later—they evidently had gone to the ice cream soda shop—
Mrs. Milbay saw Nell and her friend and another girl coming up the street toward the house and they had in some occult way gathered three of the High School youths to them. Cora, the sprightly plump girl, walked ahead with one of the boys and Nell and Josie were arm in arm. Nell was on the inside and their two youths walked on the outside, the four quite filling the walk, and while Josie carried on a brisk conversation Nell seemed to be listening thoughtfully. At the gate they paused for chatter and in this Nell took part and, while another might not have noticed it, Mrs. Milbay did notice that although Nell talked quite as much as any she did not speak to one of the boys directly.
To this boy, therefore, Mrs. Milbay gave her closest attention. He was, if possible, handsomer than the other boys, but he seemed quite like them, as if the three had been made in one strip and then sliced off. He seemed at the moment more spirited than the other boys and the rim of his hat was pulled askew more rakishly; he seemed to be inclined to skittishness like a young colt, and when the group moved on and left Nell, he put out his hand and grasped Nell’s, pumping it up and down in an exaggerated manner. Nell pulled her hand away, laughing, and struck at him, hitting the top of his hat as he ducked and he laughed and ran after the others, calling back—
‘Goodbye, Toots! See you to-morrow!’
Nell came into the house and ran up the stairs and into her mother’s room, but she seemed entirely happy and did not mention the new insult.
She asked if she had left her books there and when Mrs. Milbay said she had not she ran downstairs again and a moment later Mrs. Milbay heard her playing something from ‘Erminie’ on the piano. She played gaily, too.
Mrs. Milbay sighed with relief but after dinner, the maid being out and it being Nell’s turn to wipe the dishes
Nell began as soon as her mother had drawn the hot water into the dishpan.
“Mother, it is all very well for you to say that being grasped by the arm and practically turned clear around is not a sign that a person has a despicable character,” Nell said, although Mrs. Milbay had said nothing of the kind, “but I hope you saw him this afternoon and I’d like to know what you think of the character of a person whose character is that kind of a character. I hope you don’t think a person could ever trust a person with a character of that kind, mother!”
“Well, honestly, Nell,” Mrs. Milbay said, “I did not see anything very serious. I did see you hit Edgar Mallín on the head, if that is what you mean.”
“But that has nothing to do with it,” said Nell. “I hope you saw how he grasped at my hand and jerked it, mother, and I don’t think any gentleman would do anything of the sort—not a true gentleman—because gentlemen don’t do things of that sort, mother. I don’t think any true gentleman with a character anyone can depend on ever does a thing of that sort because, mother, I did not give him the slightest provocation to do anything of that sort, but it just shows what a despicable character some persons have. And I would like to know, mother, how a person with any respect for herself can stop a person from doing that sort of despicable thing when she’s got to go to school and be in the same town and have him walking home on the same street practically every day!”
“I think if he annoys you, Nellie, you might avoid him,” suggested Mrs. Milbay.
“Yes, it’s just like you to say that, mother,” said Nell, resentfully. “It is all very well for you to tell a person to avoid a person but when a person is in the same classes with him and he sits practically next to her in three classes I don’t think you have a right to say his character is not a despicable character when he acts that way. I don’t know why you have to talk as if he was such a noble character and everything and blame me for everything. I should think if I had a daughter who had to be annoyed by a character of that sort, mother, you would make father sell this house and move to another town where a
person need not be insulted all the time by a despicable character of that sort.”
“Well, we couldn’t move very well just now,” Mrs. Milbay ventured.
“Yes, and that’s just what I say, mother. You refuse to see what a despicable character a person has, or that it amounts to anything, and stick up for him against your own daughter as if he had a noble character and was practically a knight in white armor or something noble. A person like he is, mother, is always thinking of himself, because that’s why he grasps persons by the arm or hand even when they don’t want him to. It’s a purely selfish reason, mother, and it hasn’t anything to do with whether a person wants him to or not. And I call that a purely despicable kind of character.”
r"PHE outcome was that before Nell had finished wiping the plates she threw down the towel and fled weeping to her own room upstairs and Mrs. Milbay finished the dishes thoughtfully. Nell’s despicable character obsession was becoming rather nerve-destroying and Mrs. Milbay hoped there would not be much more of it, but there was. Sometimes each day, alternating with spells of reckless gaiety, Nell renewed her insistence that a certain person was despicable in character and finally Mrs. Milbay, to save her nerves, allowed herself to admit Edgar Mallin’s character was indeed despicable and that he was certainly not a gentleman. This admission was made in Mrs. Milbay’s room one afternoon.
“Well, mother,” Nell exclaimed, twisting her bead necklace around her fingers, “I’m glad you see it now. I’m glad somebody in this family besides myself can see what a despicable character a person has when he— when he—”
Nell here showed how glad she was by beginning to sob as if her heart was broken and a moment later she slammed Mrs. Milbay’s door, which was seldom even closed, and rushed to her own room, slamming that door, too. For quite awhile Mrs. Milbay looked out of the window seeing nothing, then shook her head and sighed.
For several days Nell said no more about despicable characters but she carried herself with a haughty resentfulness and hardly spoke to her mother at all. It was not until the beginning of the next week that she came again to Mrs. Milbay’s room after school. Her face and her attitude indicated that the great moment had come at last, when she must break all ties with her mother.
“Mother,” she said, “I think it is time that I told you frankly what I think. I know that you consider me a mere child and not capable of being intelligent or anything, but I do hope there are some things I can think about and decide about. I know very well that a mere child is not expected to have any independence in this house, but I feel that it is time somebody in this house had a little justice when it comes to thinking what kind of character a person has.'’
“But my darling Nell!” exclaimed Mrs. Milbay.
“You needn’t speak like that, mother,” Nell continued, "because you know very well what I mean. Just because you happened to see a person, maybe, shake hands with me at the gate, as any real gentleman is apt to do if he happens to do it, is no reason why you should say he is a person with no character or a purely despicable character, because, mother, I'll ask you—what has a mere playful act to do with the inner character of a person whose character may be as noble as anybody’s. And just because of that everybody in this house, practically, has to be constantly dropping hints that a person I can’t help meeting now and then on the way home from school is a person no nice girl should associate with.”
“Mercy me!” exclaimed Mrs. Milbay as Nell stopped for breath. “Is it Edgar Mallín again?”
“Well, you needn't speak of him in that tone of voice, mother,” said Nell, on the verge of tears, “as if he was anything to me, because he is nothing in the world to me, mother, and I only mention him because I think it is shameful to have a whole family and even my own mother think I care anything for a person, when all I think is that it is shameful for them to keep saying and saying he is a person with a
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despicable character when for all they know he is a person of as good a character as anyone or he might even have a true and noble character for all they know. But to have my own mother say again and again that a person has practically an ignoble character when she don’t really know what sort of character is—why— well, I think it is unjust, mother!”
“My goodness!” thought Mrs. Milbay as she gazed at Nell: “Now, I have to go through the whole thing again and admit that silly boy is a perfect knight, without fear and without reproach!” but she said nothing. She closed her lips in pretended steadfastness in her opinion of Edgar Mallin’s character and let Nell have her fill of talking about him, for that was what Nell wanted, she believed. “It doesn’t matter,” Mrs. Milbay thought, “because, if I do admit that the boy has a noble character Nell will be at me again instantly to admit that he hasn’t.”
So for another week Nell quarreled with her mother, Nell doing all the quarreling, and a Wednesday evening came when a friend of Nell’s was giving a little party and, as the night was warm, Mrs. Milbay sat on the veranda until Mr. Milbay yawned and went up to bed. Then
she stretched out on the couch hammock to wait for Nell, and fell asleep there. She was awakened by whispering voices and scuffling feet and raised her head. She heard Nell’s voice coming from the veranda steps outside the screen-
“No, Edgar! Stop! Please stop! You mustn’t!” Nell’s whisper said.
“Aw, please!” she heard Edgar Mallin’s whisper. “Just one, Nell! I will!”
“No. I won’t let you! I won’t!” Nell insisted and there was more scuffling and then the unmistakable sound of a kiss and then Nell’s “Oh! you mean thing!” and the sound of a slap—a clean-cut resounding slap.
“Ouch!” said Edgar Mallin promptly and as if he meant it. Nell ran up the veranda steps and slammed the door behind her. Mrs. Milbay lowered her head very carefully to the hammock cushions and closed her eyes in complete imitation of a mother in a deep sleep.
“Good night, Edgar!” called Nell in a voice that held no rancor whatever.
“Good night, Toots!” Edgar called. “See you to-morrow!”
“See you to-mor-row!” called Nell cheerfully. She stood until Edgar
Mallin’s whistle died in the distance and then she switched on the veranda light and saw her mother apparently in sweet slumber. She walked to the hammock and seated herself on the edge and awakened Mrs. Milbay with a kiss. Mrs. Milbay opened her eyes.
“Oh!” she exclaimed. “Oh! Are you home, Nell?”
Nell sought and found her mother’s hand. She bent over and let her cheek rest against her mother’s face.
“Mother,” she said dreamily, “Edgar brought me home. Mother, Edgar kissed me.”
“Did he?” said Mrs. Milbay.
“Mother,” said Nell, “don’t you think Edgar is an awfully nice boy?”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Milbay, “I do think he is an awfully nice boy.”
They lay in the hammock for quite a few minutes longer, saying nothing. Tne tornado was over.
“Mother, you’re smiling! I can feel you smile. What is it?” Nell asked.
“Nothing at all,” said Mrs. Milbay but she was thinking that Nell’s next lovers’ quarrel would not have to be conducted with Mrs. George Milbay acting as Edgar Mallin’s proxy.