Ma Refuses to Meddle
HELEN GORDON MATTERN
An amusing tale of a managing matchmaker who thought her son was "kind o’ dumb"
WHEN the chronically weary Mr. McMullen finally yawned his way to a better world, Ma McMullen remarked to her son Tom:
"Well, it gives me a lot of comfort to think of pa settin’ up there listenin’ to music. Pa was so fond of settin’, and when he was a young feller he played the accordion real well.” Ma herself had never had much time for settin’. having been far t busy most of her life keeping a roof over pa’s rocking chair; consequently she had never developed the reading habit and so had never heard of Mrs. Wiggs or Pollyanna. A pity, for she would have enjoyed meeting, even lx-tween the covers of a bk, that quality so lamentably rare in real life.
But even her persistent optimism suffered a reversal the day Tom told her casually he was bringing Florence Simpkins home for supper that night to meet her future motherin-law.
Of course she'd known he’d been stepping out lately. The care with which, two or three evenings a week, lie slicked himself up had told her that. And one day when she was turning out his pockets before pressing his best suit she had come across the snapshot of a girl in a bathing suit, head tilted on one side, her mass of glittering curls tied up coquettishly in a wide ribbon.
From the sketchiness of the bathing suit and the provo-
cation of the smile, ma had turned away. It looked like a picture of one of them bathin’ beauties whose scantily clad, languorous bodies on parade in competition always made it a little hard for her to keep up her stout defense of modem young folks.
Still Tom, the youngest of her sons, was a good boy who had worked hard, terribly hard, during his short school years and those following. He’d never had much fun. Every man sowed a few wild oats sooner or later, so folks said, and if the perky miss in the snapshot was his idea of a field crop, she had no objections.
But that Tom. the clannish, who loved best the familiarity of well-known faces, would ever seriously consider marrying anyone else but Esther Ferguson was a thought which had never entered ma’s head.
Search as she would for the bright spot, her heart ached miserably. It wasn’t just that the day was at hand when she must leave this dear little house where she and Tom had lived these last eight years. She had been happy here, but never for a moment had she allowed herself to forget that some day he would marry and she would have to leave; for ma was a firm believer in the theory that young folks ought to be alone when they launch their frail craft on the uncharted seas of matrimony.
No, it wasn’t that. It was Esther who was like her own daughter. It was the unpleasant provocation of that pictured smile, and it was all mixed up with her love for Tom. Tom’s plumbing business was expanding rapidly. Last year, in spite of hard times, his income had come very near the five figure mark. He was proud of his success and ambitious. But if he married the wrong girl . . .
Did Esther know? Or guess? If not, in what dreadful
way might she not be told? It was that fear which sent ma scurrying to the telephone—that pride ful instrument of torture —as soon as Tom left. When Esther got her blow it would not be before unfriendly eyes.
The doorbell rang and ma hurried out to answer it. Esther’s sunny smile enveloped her in friendly warmth. For a second, ma, who all her life had bome other people’s burdens, longed to lay her head on that capable shoulder and weep out her disappointment. Instead she said cheerfully:
“Well, here you are. That a new suit, dearie? You suit them plain tailor-mades real well.” Bustling out ahead of her guest, she apologized. “I’m goin’ to have comp’ny for supper, so I thought you wouldn’t mind if we set in the kitchen.”
"pSTIIER laughed, sinking down by the table gay with its crimson cloth.
"You old fraud. You know I love your kitchen.”
While they drank the hot tea and ate crisp sandwiches, ma questioned her guest.
“How’s your folks, Esther? You tell your ma to step over and see me soon. I ain’t seen her for ages. How’s the school?”
“Fine!” Esther’s face lit up with enthusiasm at mention of her work in the settlement house. Her voice was a soft mezzo, and as she talked her fine brown eyes smiled. Ma, watching her, marvelled at the stupidity of men.
“You seen Tom lately?” she broke in, and then stopped abruptly. The canary, flooding the room with a golden torrent of song, had saved her. She must be tactful. ‘Do have another doughnut,” she urged hospitably. “I made
them yesterday and I thought they turned out real well.”
But the clock on the mantel struck, warning her of the passing time. She straightened, her uncertainty gone. Esther wasn’t the cry-baby kind. Esther had pluck.
“I got comp’ny coinin’ for supper,” she said, pushing aside her cup. “Tom’s bringin’ home a girl.
Her name’s Florence Simpkins.”
There was a tiny pause while Esther sipped her tea.
“That’ll be nice,” she said quietly, but the rising inflection in her voice asked a question.
“He’s goin’ to marry her,” me. blurted, and, getting up. began to cram wood into her shining stove.
Something scratched at the door.
“Well, I do declare.” she said.
“if I ain’t clean forgot to give Toby his milk. Well, you rascal, want your afternoon tea, do you?”
Esther’s chair scraped back as she rose.
"I must go, dear Mrs. McMullen.
1 hope Tom will be very happy. If Miss Simpkins is the girl I saw him
with one night, she’s very pretty. I know you’ll love her.” The old eyes behind the steel-rimmed glasses met the clear young brown eyes in a mute appeal for understanding.
“Of course, I’ll love her. I couldn’t rightly do nothin’ else but love any girl my Tommy married, could I?”
Esther bent forward and kissed her. laying her fresh young face for a moment against the rosy wrinkled one.
“Of course, you couldn’t, dear. And you won’t—I mean— I’m all right.”
Turning quickly, she hurried out.
It seemed to ma that she had only been alone a minute when the front door banged and she heard the hearty booming which was Tom. Taking off her apron she trotted out to meet him and his girl.
In the tiny hall Tom bulked enormous, his broad shoulders and unusual height towering over the slender figure of the girl by his side. Like ma, he was ruddily fair, with the same, vivid blue eyes twinkling beneath strongly marked brows. But there the resemblance ended, for while ma kept her small self trotting at top speed, Tom moved slowly and deliberately, with that easy grace which so often characterizes the very big man.
“Ma,” he said, “this is Florence.”
The girl, lounging with one hand on her slender hip, held out the other. Ma ignored it.
“N\ ell, I m real glad to meet you. dearie,” she said heartily. “My, you’re a pretty little thing. No wonder Tom loves you.” She put her arms about the rigid young hxxlv and kissed the averted cheek warmly. “Tom, you look after her while I put supper on the table.”
CUPPER, in spite of all she could do. was a constrained ^ meal. Her heart sank. Dear, dear! It was a dreadful thing not to make a guest feel at home. Again and again she tried to draw the girl out, but the conversational plant was a delicate growth which repeatedly withered and died beneath the rebuff of that icy stare. Tom, big. good-natured lorn, so clever in business matters, so dense among the tangled subtleties of human relationships, seemed unaware of discord, his admiring eyes resting complacently on Florence while he ate busily.
Do have another piece of chicken,” ma urged, distressed. "You re such a thin little thing. Why, you ain't got no more appetite than a sparrow.”
The big china-blue eyes raked over ma's comfortably padded form in obvious disapproval.
I got all the weight I need for my height,” she said briefly.
Don t you know it's not fashionable to be fat no more?” Tom teased them both with affectionate impartiality. “Florence has to think of her shape.”
“Silhouette.” she corrected him elegantly.
Tom himself was apparently indifferent to his silhouette as he helped himself to fried chicken and hot biscuit and then to two helpings of plum preserves and three pieces of cake. Bein in love, ma reflected, hadn’t hurt his appetite none.
Supper over, she led the way to the parlor and waved them to the best chairs, immaculate in stiffly starched antimacassars.
^ ou just set while I clear up,” she urged, excusing herself., I can t never enjoy myself with a mess of dirty dishes Ivin around. Tom, you see if there’s anvthing good on the radio.”
But evidently Florence had other ideas for the evening’s amusement, for it was not long until Tom, coming into the kitchen, told her uncomfortably they were going to a show. Seems kind of mean to leave you,” he worried, ii ‘*°-n you!” she scoffed as she led the way to the lall. "Young folks ought to have a good time. I’ll set and
read the paixT and maybe go to Ix-d early. I’ve had kind of a busy day.”
“Someone been here?” Tom asked.
“Esther. She come in for a cup of tea.”
“Oh ! I low is she? I haven’t seen her for ages.”
“Fine,” ma said briefly.
"Who’s Esther?” Florence asked idly. cx|x.*rtly applying lipstick before the hall mirror.
Ma said hastily, before Tom could answer:
“Oh, she’s a girl we’ve known all her life. An old neighbor.”
"That the old maid school teacher we met at Fort Francis, Tom? Kind of plain and awful dowdy?”
“Well, maybe,” he said hesitantly. "Only I wouldn’t call Esther‘plain.’ I’ve always thought ”
“What show you goin’ to?” ma interrupted hastily. “1 seen a billboard advertising that one at the Gem. It looked as if it’d be real good.”
TEFT alone, she thought of many things. Her feelings were in a real untidy mess, and she couldn’t get them sorted out. Two things, however, eventually emerged sharply. The first, indignation at Tom. Imagine a great big man of thirty wanting to marry that baby! The other, her fear for him. That he was infatuated was fairly evident, but her searching mother’s eyes had failed to find any answering warmth in the girl’s as they rested on her lover.
“A mother’s duty,” said ma to herself very firmly, “is to love her son’s wife. Now, don’t let me catch you thinkin’ hateful thoughts like that again ! I I got to snap out of it !" she finished triumphantly to her friend and constant companion, the cat Toby, who purred his approval of her resolve, looking at her with mild topaz eyes.
Hattie helped. All the world knows there is nothing like fighting a person’s battles to make you like them, and ma was very human. Hattie arrived the next afternoon, bringing Junior and Betty Lou to see grandma. At least that was, ostensibly, the object of the visit. For a while the two women talked idly of family matters; but when the time came to repair to the warm sunny kitchen for tea, they stopped sparring and plunged into the heart of the subject uppermost in their thoughts.
“What’s this I hear about Tom?” Hattie demanded. “Fred says he’s going to be married.”
“He is,” said ma heartily. “In May.”
Hattie sniffed. “Some flapper works in Prout’s. Seventeen !”
“Nineteen,” ma said firmly. “She’s a pretty little thing with lovely yellow curls.”
Continued on page 48
Continued from page 13
Hattie, pulling up Betty Lou’s stocking, murmured something about peroxide.
“Why? You seen her?” ma demanded.
“No, but Fred saw her with Tom one night.”
“Peroxide, eh? My, ain’t Fred observant!’’ ma remarked admiringly.
Hattie flushed. “I might have known ! you'd take it this way. But after all the years he’s gone with Esther ! I should think you’d be sick about it for her sake.”
For a moment ma wavered. Esther’s sweet brown eyes, the pain far back in them . . .
“I don’t know’s I ever thought there was anything serious between Tom and Esther,” she said a trifle mendaciously. “They was more like brother and sister, and bein’ neighbors it was natural—”
“Betty Lou! Get down off that chair, pet. Do you want to upset granma’s canary? Pretty birdie! Well, let me tell you right out, ma, Tom’s making a mistake. Likely he’s just infatuated with a pretty face. I should think,” Hattie hinted darkly, “if I you wanted him to be happy you’d do something about it.”
Ma set down her cup with a bang that cracked the saucer.
“Tut, tut! Now look at what I done. One of my best set, too. Hattie, I don’t know’s Esther’d like it so well if she knew we was talkin’ as if Tom had threw her over. She’s proud, Esther is, and Tom ain’t her only beau. She could have Dave Foster any day she wanted, and I hear that that Mr. Lane wants to marry her, too. And him a rich lawyer who could buy and sell Tom.”
“Junior! When mother says ‘no’ she means it!” Hattie broke in sharply, pulling her son’s arm out of the enticing cookie jar. “You’ve had three already. Well, of course, ma, if you won’t do anything, there’s nothing more to be said. But at least I’ve done my duty.”
“It’s always nice to feel we’ve done our duty.” Ma was placidly feeding Betty Lou bites of cookie between sips of milk. “Seems too bad we don’t always see eye to eye about what our duty is-—not so fast, dearie ! Granma’s pet mustn’t be greedy—Now me, as I see it, my duty is to love Tom’s wife. And.” she finished significantly, “I’m agoin’ to do it!”
Yes, Hattie had helped. With all the family showing a tendency to pick on Florence, ma rose stoutly to her defense. She even ranged herself with Florence against Tom one night. Tom, as April grew into May, showed an increasing inclination to sit in the parlor of an evening, listening to the radio and watching Florence’s slender body sway to the rhythm of far-away orchestras. Or else he liked to have her sit beside him on the settee, her little hand in his big one. while he read the financial section of the evening paper.
Not so Florence. She was young and modern and “Let’s go places and do things,” came readily to her crimson lips.
“Can’t you be content to just sit at home one night?” he demanded with the first hint of impatience ma had ever seen him show toward the girl. Immediately repen! tant, he stretched out his hand and drew her to him. “I’m a busy man. honey. I don’t like to be running out every night.”
Florence stiffened with hostility, her eyes hard.
"Oh. yeah! Well, if you don’t want to show me a good time, big boy. what’s the idea? Think I’m going to sit home every evening after we’re married?”
“Of course not,” ma intervened. “Don’t you let him get in no such ways as that. Tom McMullen, you get off that settee this minute and take Florence to a show.”
T-IATTIE, outwardly resigned, eventually followed ma’s lead. She asked the whole family to supper one night, and did what she could to allay the cold suspicion with which the bride-to-be met all advances from Terr’s family. Meeting for the first
time the clan McMullen en masse, Florence seemed to cling to ma for protection, and her confidence was not misplaced.
After the long and cheerfully noisy meal was over, Fred took his guests out to see his new garage and admire his garden, while ma and Marjory, Jim’s wife, helped Hattie clear away.
“Florence hasn’t any people of her own, has she?” Marjory asked. “Where are they going to be married?”
“I wanted to have it at our place,” ma explained, “but Florence, she says it ain’t the thing to be married at the man’s house. She’s got Tom worked around to bein’ married in church and havin’ a lunch party at the Fort Frances afterward.”
Marjory thought that would be nice. It would be fun for all of them, and Tom could afford it.
Hattie sniffed. “And doesn’t she know it, just! It’s my belief she's marrying him for his money and nothing else.”
“Well, I don’t know’s that’s such a crime,” ma said comfortably. “She’s had to fend for herself since she was a mite, and it’s natural for her to want to get a nice safe home. And Tom’s a mighty nice man and a mighty handsome one. I expect she’ll get real fond of him.”
“Why, Ma McMullen,” Hattie gasped, “how can you say such a thing?” In her agitation she seized a pile of clean dishes and dumped them back into the hot suds. “What did you say, Marjory? Well, no wonder I’m rattled. Ma sitting there saying it’s all right for the girl to marry Tom for his money!”
“I didn’t exactly say that,” ma defended herself.
“Anyone can see,’’ Hattie protested warmly, “that they aren’t suited to each other. She’s absolutely the wrong wife for him.”
“And I don’t know that either. Of course, I think my Tommy’s pretty nice, but I got sense enough to know he ain’t perfect. I wouldn’t be surprised if she makes him a real good wife; her always wantin’ to buy things and go places. I wouldn’t wonder if it ain’t Providence balancin’ things up all round,” ma finished placidly.
Hattie’s shining modern kitchen rang with her own snorts, her sister-in-law’s gales of laughter, and ma’s comfortable chuckle.
As Tom had an appointment for the next morning, they left early, driving Florence home first. Ma and he put the car away and walked around to the front of the house.
“Lawn’s lookin’ pretty dry,’’ ma remarked. “How much would one of them new sprinkler things cost?”
“Don’t know,” Tom said absently. “If it don’t rain soon I’ll get out the hose.” He bent to straighten a drooping lilac bush. “Looks as if Patterson’s dog has been chasing Toby again. You want to watch out he don't get him one of these days, ma.” “Toby,” said ma complacently, “can look after himself. That woman who lives in the Spencer house phoned me to say Toby chased her dog clean into her kitchen. She was kind of mad.”
Someone was coming along the street. Ma, from the verandah, called to Tom to bring her the key. But she was too late. It was Esther, and he had seen her.
“Hello, stranger,” he called, stopping her. “Where’ve you been this last coon’s age?” She smiled faintly. “Hello, Tom. Hello, Mrs. McMullen. I’ve been around. But you’ve been busy yourself. When’s the wedding?”
“Sixteenth. And say, I expect you to be there in your best bib and tucker.”
Her eyes met ma’s again with that same faint, inscrutable smile, then turned back to Tom.
“ ’Fraid not, Tommy. I’m going on a motor trip with Kathleen and Jim.”’
“Well, the wedding’s off then,” Tom threatened. “I can’t be married without my best friends to back me up.”
Her charming face puckered in a little
moue of regret. “It is a shame. But JinTs getting his holidays early and I’ve asked for mine.’’
Tom was upset. “Say. this is serious. Come on in and we’ll talk it over. It's early yet.”
“Not tonight, old dear. Mother’s waiting up for me. But I’ll see you again before 1 leave.”
She had on the new grey suit over a powder-blue blouse. From beneath the brim of a smart little hat one caught a glimpse of shining, silken, smooth brown hair, and her slender feet were shod in grey suede brogues.
Tom’s eyes, taking in the picture she made against the lilacs at the gate, were eloquent with admiration. But her gentle, persistent refusal to stay and talk seemed to annoy him. for he stood watching her until her trim figure turned the corner and was lost to sight.
“She’s certainly looking well,” he said. “But it’s queer she wouldn’t come in. I wonder why not?”
Ma was a little irritated with him. Men were dumb. To have noticed that Esther looked nice, and yet not to have noticed the violet shadows beneath her lovely eyes or the constraint in her manner.
He followed her into the kitchen while she gave Toby his milk and covered the canary’s cage for the night.
“Queer why she wouldn’t come in,” Tom persisted. “She used to be over here every day or so.”
Ma said mildly. "I guess she’s busy. I seen her out with Mr. Lane yesterday and Dave Foster sticks around.”
“Lane, the lawyer?” Tom wrinkled his forehead. “What’s she go around with him for? He’s old enough to be her father. And that Dave Foster isn’t worth the powder and shot to—”
Ma interrupted him, arms akimbo on her hips.
“Tommy McMullen,” she said, her set lips struggling with the glint of humor twinkling behind her spectacles. “They’s times even now when I’d like to shake you. But I guess Providence knew what he was doin’ when he made you so dumb.”
TN HER growing reconciliation to the * approaching marriage, ma expanded once more into her old cheerful, talkative self. But it wasn’t till the night when Tom, called away suddenly on business, left her and Florence alone, that the two women had an opportunity for one of those talkfests so dear to women, be they seventeen or seventy.
As the door closed behind Tom, ma drew her mending basket toward her.
“Put a pillow at your back, dearie,” she said, “and make yourself comfy. That settee is kind of stiff. You want to get Tom to buy you one of them chesterfield suites like Hattie has. Tom’s pa and me bought that settee when we was first married. Kind of nice havin’ the house clear of men for a while, ain’t it? I remember when Tom first went into business—”
She talked and talked, retelling the saga of Tom from the first tooth onward, while her busy fingers flew.
“I used to think you didn’t want Tom to marry me,” Florence said, idly examining glittering fingertips.
Ma pushed her glasses down on her nose, and, leaning forward, patted her hand.
“Well, you see dearie, it was because 1 was afraid—you see. Tom’s a good boy— and anyways. I don’t feel that way now. But he has got his faults.”
She broke off, her eyes troubled. It didn’t seem right to be runnin’ Tom down behind his back. And yet—
"Well, seein’ as you’re goin’ to marry him and’ll find out anyhow, I guess maybe I might’s well tell you. ¡Tom’s real queer about some things. Now, you take that electric refrigerator I been wantin' him to buy.”
To the tale of the refrigerator she added the story of the kitchen curtains she’d wanted and hadn’t got, and the linoleum for the cellar steps and the sprinkler for the lawn.
“Of course I don’t want you to think he’s
stingy or anything.” she said anxiously. “Just a little mite too careful. But that’s natural, seein’ what a struggle he had. You see. the other boys left home early, and Tom, he left school to help me give the girls a chance. We had to watch every jienny in them days. But he’ll be all right with you. dearie. You won't let him get to bein’ too savin.’ ”
She paused to listen as a car drove up outside and someone ran up the steps.
“There’s Tom now. I'll go fix us up a cup of cocoa.”
Busily gathering up her mending, she failed to see the appraising glance Florence shot at her lover as she raised an indifferent cheek for his kiss.
Therefore, it came as a shock to her the next day when Tom appeared in the kitchen in the middle of the afternoon.
“I got some news for you, ma. The wedding’s off.”
“What?” she gasped. “Why, my poor boy! What’s happened?”
He sat down heavily, looking at her with hurt, bewildered eyes.
“She took me in at noon to see a bracelet she wanted. Three hundred dollars. I told her I didn’t feel I ought to spend that much right now, with business so bad. And anyway, she just got her ring a while back. She called me a tightwad, and when I got sore she said, ‘All right, big boy. You play in your yard and I’ll play in mine. Your money won’t do me no good if I have to pry it off you as if it was a court plaster.’ ”
“But the weddin’,” ma protested, still dazed.
“I know,” he said glumly. “The railroad tickets are in my pocket this minute, and that lunch at the Fort Frances paid for, and the flowers she ordered.”
Ma’s hand, stroking his crisp, fair hair, slowed and stopped.
“You talk as if the money mattered. That ain’t what counts, Tommy boy.”
“Oh, I know that. But no one,’’ he said angrily, “likes to be made a fool of. She told me she had only one regret; she’d got kind of fond of you.”
A SIGHED, her eyes misting.
“I’d got real fond of her, too, poor j little mite. No folks of her own. But you’re real lucky you found out now she don’t care nothin’ for you.”
“Fine fool I’ll look,” he grated. “All my friends asked to the wedding. I wish I could get married anyway.”
“Now you look here, Tom,” ma said sternly. "That ain’t the way I brung you up. Matrimony is a holy state, and not to be spoke of in that loose way. I should think you’d be thankin’ your—”
But he wasn’t listening to her. Brows drawn together absently, he sat bundled forward in his chair, his big shoulders drooping.
“I wish 1 knew. I wonder—”
He looked up at her, eyes narrowing in speculation.
“I wonder.” He paused and then his words came in a rush. “I wonder if Esther would marry me? By heck, I’m going to ask her.”
He sprang to his feet and grabbed his hat. But ma was before him, her outi stretched arms blocking the doorway, her j eyes flashing.
“Now, you see here, Tom McMullen! You’re my own son and a good one. But | I’m goin’ to tell you a few home truths. | You was just caught with a pretty face. : and now, instead of thankin’ your Maker for your escape, all you care about is your sinful pride. Talkin’ of goin' over and askin’ Esther to marry you. Insultin’ her, you mean.”
She brushed his startled interruption aside scornfully.
“You hush up and listen to me. Esther is a queen, she is, with beaux to burn. She’s far too good for you, you—you dumb critter!”
The anger was fading from Tom’s eyes. In its place had come a white hurt and a vague bewilderment. Turning, he sat down at the table and buried his face in his hands. Ma winced, but she wasn’t through.
“Esther wouldn’t have no more use for your stingy ways than what Florence had. Real mean you've been gettin’ about money the last few years, Tommy boy.”
Her heart, which had been beating in thick jerks against her side, slowed gradually. She’d ought to be ashamed of herself, lettin’ her sinful temper get the better of her, this way. Lowering her trembling ! limbs into the chair beside him, she touched j his hair with loving fingers. Presently she began to croon :
“There, there, son. Don’t take it so ; hard, dearie.”
It seemed to her a century passed before he at last raised his head and looked at her j with humble, little-boy eyes.
“Don’t you care, ma. I had it coming to I me. I’ve been awful near making a terrible j mistake.” He gulped, squeezing her hand.
I “It makes me shiver when I think of what I might have said to Esther. I’ve been a—”
His voice was suddenly tense with fear. “Ma, do you think she’s going to marry that Lane bird?”
“I hope not, son.”
He seemed to hesitate, but presently he leaned over and kissed her.
“You quit crying, ma. If I’m too late I guess I can take it like a man. But I’m going over to tell Esther I love her, and I’ve always loved her—only I was—so dumb.”
For a long time after the front door closed behind him ma sat motionless. Presently she stirred and wiped her face on her apron. A long finger of sunlight stole through the window and fell at her feet. The canary’s throat swelled in an ecstasy of song, and the kettle hummed on the back of the stove.
“Well now,” she remarked to her friend, Toby the cat, who rubbed against her skirts. "Don’t that beat all? Ain’t the ways of Providence wonderful? And, oh my! Ain’t I glad I didn't meddle?”