GOOD KIND MAN
A dramatic story of hateful kindness and a girl who knew what she wanted
A. R. BEVERLEYGIDDINGS
THE YEAR I graduated from law school, Uncle Ben came home for a visit. It was an afternoon in late July, and summer sat oppressively on the tidewater village. The street of crushed oyster shell lay parallel to the wide salt river. It looked like a new-forged sword, white hot under the intense sunshine, heat waves jigging madly above it, and every passing vehicle drew from it a fine white dust which powdered the tulippoplars along its brief length. There was no coolness in the river. It lay a flaccid mass brtween its widely separated shores.
I can ¿¿member the enervating odor it exhaled on that lifeless day; an odor of rotting weed and oyster shells, mixed with the salt smell of the sea from which every atom of haleness had been extracted by the sun.
I can remember the ferry coming toward us from the south shore, dividing the river with its prow, and the halves of disturbed water on either side curving back again with the viscosity of thick green oil. I had a curious feeling of depression as the boat drew into its slip. I remember that I could not rise to any enthusiasm as mother said with sharp excitement, “Look, Page, there’s Uncle Ben !”
The rector was with us, also Tom Hicks. The rector was a verbose man who, while profiting yearly to no small extent from Uncle Ben’s generosity, nevertheless had for him an admiration which went beyond any idea of personal profit, I am sure. I had always felt that though he was fulsome in his praise he was at the same time sincere. When mother spoke he laid a hand on my arm, pressing upward as though to lift my gaze, which I for some reason resisted. He said loudly in a moment: “That good man ! His very face shines with the milk of human kindness!” Mother smiled and waved her handkerchief violently. I looked at Tom Hicks. He was gazing down the length of
his long nose at the quiet water, and his lips were taut and derisive.
Then Uncle Ben’s Olympian presence was among us. He kissed mother heartily and remarked, “I declare, Millicent, you get handsomer every year.” Mother was forty-two; petite, pretty, youthful-looking. The seven years of her widowhood had been easy years. Uncle Ben had taken over the task of providing for his brother's family, and his limitless purse had acted as nothing else could in erasing the fretful lines from mother’s face.
I think as Uncle Ben released mother from his embrace and turned to me I saw him for the first time. That is, I saw' him as the Man, Benjamin Beauly, and not as the minor diety mother had made him out to be. He was big and square, florid of face from good living; his sandy hair, untouched by grey, was combed straight back and held
in place by an application of an expensive Parisian pomade. He had that superlatively well-groomed look which confirmed bachelors often achieve; a fruity look I thought then, and I have ever since applied the word to him. There was about him much of the rector’s unctuousness, expansiveness, with none of the rector’s humility. The hand he laid on my arm was large, strong; the nails carefully tended. The back of it sprouted a heavy growth of pale, curling hair.
He said, “Well, Page, we’ve lots to discuss, you and I,” and then turned away to greet the rector and Tom I licks.
As he did so his big limousine pulled aside from the stream of cars leaving tlie ferry and halted near by. The chauffeur got out and o|X*ned the rear door. Uncle Ben took mother’s arm. “You’re dining tonight with us. of course, parson,” he told the rector. In a moment he added, “You, too. Tom."
Tom Hicks shook his head. “No. thanks, Ben,” he answered. It was like him not to temper his refusal with an excuse. I saw mother’s eyes flick over Iiis face in a quick, probing glance. Whether she was annoyed or relieved, I could not determine. She said to me, “Come, Page.”
I reminded her that I had to drive our own car home. She remarked, “Very well, but don’t loiter in town.” T he limousine drew away. I stood looking after it until Tom Hicks touched my arm and said, “Let’s have a soda. Page.”
V\ TV. MOVED out into the hot * V sunshine which beat upon the street, and the glare made me blink. The village dozed. T om seemed to have absorljed some of its somnolence, for he said nothing during the entire course of our two-block walk. We turned into the cool and cavernous depths of the drugstore and perched ourselves on stools. Tom ordered. His hand lay on the counter and his fingers drummed absently. It was a minute before he spoke again and then it was with abruptness: “What’s Ben finally
decided to do with you?”
“I íe expects me to go into the lumber business with him.” I replied. “Out West. He wants me to handle the law end of it.” he repeated. “Figger you’re going to “Out West, like it?”
“No.” I said. “Why should I? It means leaving here, doesn’t it?”
“But it doesn’t mean leaving your mother,” he broke in. “She’ll go along. She’ll go along and keep house for you and Ben.”
It seemed to me that there was a sort of desperation in his tone. 1 turned to him because I had something to say and I meant to say it though it was embarrassing to me. “Tom.” I asked him. “you’d have married mother years ago if Uncle Ben had not influenced her against you?”
He said simply. “Yes. Why do you ask?”
“I wanted to know.” I reached for my soda, drank it. then mumbled with my eyes on the street: “I’d have liked that, Tom.”
“I know,” he said.
“There are things I don’t understand,” I said after a time. “Was Uncle Ben in love with mother before she married my father?”
He straightened up slowly and looked at me. He seemed to have difficulty in finding words to express precisely what lie wished to say. Finally he answered: “No one knows, save Ben and your mother. He may have been. That was before Pearson took him up and made a fortune for him. He was merely a younger son then, with no prospects. Millicent evidently preferred your father.” His eyes left mine and drifted off into space. “Your mother was quite a belle,” he went on presently. “I can conceive of one even so cold-blooded as Ben having been in love with her. Ben always did like fine things. He has a possession complex.” "Yes,” I said, “and other complexes.”
Once more his eyes swung to me. “Any one of which,” he said bleakly, “is ample excuse for someone to kill him.” I said nothing and it was a long time lx fore he spoke again.
“You don’t figger that there would Ire compensations, son?” He was talking again of my joining Uncle Ben’s business. “Money means a lot. Are you sure you want to buck Ben?”
“I fought that out in college, Tom,” I answered with conviction. "I’m inescapably small-town, and I’m smart enough to know it. I’m another Tom Hicks, willing to lay aside the chance of profit because the day is sweet and the bass are striking in Portman’s Creek. I don’t want Uncle Ben’s money. 1 ’in a lawyer now. I want to reopen my father’s office above your store. I can make a living.” “There’ll lx no compromise with Ben,” he warned me.
“I don’t want his money,” I answered promptly.
“I can make a living.”
He laid a hand on my shoulder for a moment, got up, placed two dimes on the counter, and walked out.
AFTER tlie rector's protracted leave-taking was over x*that night, mother and Uncle Ben returned to the screened porch. From my seat on the steps I could hear the murmur of their warm voices, their low laughter -the laughter of those who are pleased with themselves and with life. I could smell the fragrance of Uncle Ben’s Havana cigar.
It was a full hour before they called me. 1 went into the screened enclosure and sat down. Uncle lien reached over and laid a hand on my shoulder. I could feel his fingers tighten in anticipation of the unctuous words to come. I am sure he was savoring the thought of his omnipotence.
“So, Page," he remarked, “you’re a full-fledged lawyer now. That’s fine; that’s excellent. Now you’re ready to do tilings. Preparation is over; life begins. You did well at college.”
“Thanks, uncle.” 1 said.
“1 supjxjse you’ll want a little vacation.” he went on. "Well, you’ve earned it ; you’ll get it. After that you’re coming out West with me and learn the business.”
Mother said with a sigh of pure happiness: “Isn’t that wonderful, dear?”
I said nothing. Uncle Ben’s lingers tightened on my shoulder. He said: “You’ll like that, won't you, Page?”
1 told him then of what I had in my mind, and it seemed to me that no one. appreciating my earnest selfanalysis, could doubt my conviction. “I have no great ability, Uncle Ben.” I finished. “I haven’t anything imixirtant to contribute to your business. But I think I have something of helpfulness and understanding which may be a worth-while contribution to this—well, let’s call it a world of lesser pretension."
There was quiet for a full half minute after I was through; a sort of stunned silence. Then mother leaped to her feet, turned on the electric light above us. and stood over me. her eyes blazing with furious anger. “Are you mad?” she demanded. “Do you like poverty? Do you like going back to
“Tut, tut,” Uncle Ben interrupted. “You mustn’t be too severe with him. Millicent.” His chair creaked as he turned to me. "You feel some sense of obligation to me. don't you. Page?”
“I do. Uncle Ben,” I answered promptly. “I appreciate what you’ve done for us.”
“What any man would have done for his brother's widow and child,” he said blandly. He could not resist this, though he realized it weakened his argument.
“No!” mother cried harshly.
“Let me get this straight,” Uncle Ben said in a moment. “Do I understand. Page, that you want to stay here; that you want to reopen your father’s law office?”
“Ridiculous!” mother said, half hysterically. “The idea !”
Uncle Ben’s voice was oil-smooth as he asked me: “Understanding that you'll be quite on your own ? Naturally, after such a grievous disappointment, you
can’t expect me to contribute more to your support, to your mother’s, or to the upkeep of Beaulv Hall.”
“I’ve thought of all that,” I answered. But I had not expected him to lx* so hard. He stilled the bitter words on mother’s lips with a little wave of his hand. “We’ll not talk about it any more tonight. Page.” he said, that professional kindness thick in his voice. “It’s too serious a matter for both you and your mother”—he emphasized the last word - “to decide lightly.”
“I’ve been considering the matter for two years,” I said. “I tell you. Uncle Ben ”
I le cut me short. “Good night, Page,” he said cheerfully. “We’ll talk again tomorrow.”
T ACCEPTED my dismissal, arose and went to an uneasy bed. Mother’s room was next to mine, connected by a door. Presently she came upstairs. She did not come to say good night to me, as was her invariable habit. I heard the springs creak as she got into bed; then for hours thereafter her low bitter sobbing. It beat on my ears until my nerves wrere as vibrant as a violin string. About tw'o o’clock she fell asleep. I tossed and turned wretchedly until the pale dawn came through the windows.
Three nights of this and I gave in. unable to endure mother’s tearsher disappointmenther overwhelming misery. I told her briefly that I would do as she wished. She cried, from the depths of her vast relief, patted my hand and went upstairs immediately to inform Uncle Ben. Presently I heard his step on the stairs. He came into the library, sat down and said benignly: "That’s better, Page. I didn’t educate you to have you turn dilettante on my
hands. Like your father, you’re a little bit inclined to the aesthetic, the impractical.” There was a faint undertone of sarcasm in his suave tone.
I had never realized the extent of my distrust of him — nor the extent of my dislike until that moment. It came to me in a flash of clarity that he had never liked me; that his desire to dominate my life was entirely sadistic. I remembered that as a boy I had distrusted him; I remembered that he had never received from me the admiration he got generally from the Beaulv clan. I had always preferred Tom Hicks and he knew it. Because of Uncle Ben’s fondness for mother, I was regarded as his principal heir. In that moment I knew I was not. I knew it as definitely as though I had read his will. The money would go to his ward, Lucille Pearson, who was the daughter of one of his partners, now dead; to my other uncle’s twin sons, who were now working for Uncle Ben, with mother receiving a small income for life.
There was something in this thought which lightened my spirits at once. And my face. He looked at me narrowly, started to speak, checked himself, then substituted: “All the Beaulys, save myself, have married young.”
“Well,” I told him, “I’ll oblige you in that, too. I’m as good as engaged to Peggy Ryland.”
He nodded and chewed on the butt of his cigar, his eyes squinted against the smoke. I said angrily: “You don’t seem to like anything I wish to do.”
He got up and I caught a whiff of that odor so characteristic of him, compounded principally of jximade and fine Havana cigars. Deliberately he said: “I don’t like that. I’ve other plans for you.”
7I saw that there was no sense in getting angry. “I'm sure you’ll approve of Peggy when you see her," I returned. ‘‘She’s unusual—”
Halting me with a wave of his hand, he said: “I know. Your mother told me that. I can well believe it. Her mother was lovely. All three of those Cummings girls were. But, as I said. I have plans for you which do not include village girls.” He was lost for a time in reverie, and when finally my impatient movement recalled him to the present he decided not to pursue the subject further just then. “We’ll talk again about this,” he said.
Mother came into the room, smiling. Uncle Ben said. “Well, Millicent, it’s all arranged.” He slipped an arm around her waist. I fought the repulsion that the gesture evoked in me. I could not analyze it. It was possessive but not in a physical sense. It held a queer and hateful quality of complete dominance.
UNCLE BEN had sent for his ward. Lucille Pearson. I went the following day to meet her train. I had not seen her before, but I spotted her easily enough from mother’s description. She was a tall. pale, serious girl with yellow hair; she looked older than her twenty years. I had heard mother say a hundred times, “How nice it would be. Page, if you married Lucille,” so it was natural enough for me to greet her with suspicion and reserve. She looked at me curiously as I introduced myself; remarked thoughtfully, “So you’re Page Beauly,” and I knew immediately that mother and Uncle Ben had extended their propaganda in her direction also.
I do not think she had for me any kinder feelings than I
had for her. I wanted to say bluntly, “Look here, you don't like me and I don’t care particularly for you. Let’s nip this nonsense in the bud and save ourselves a lot of grief.” I was actually on the point of blurting out this bit of common sense when she let drop a remark which brought me up short. A little probing brought to light the fact that she had for Uncle Ben a queer, intense adoration. I reasoned she would fall in with his plans. I decided to take refuge in commonplaces, to deal with her warily.
We left the town behind, and I took the back—and shorter road for home. The day was one of wind and rain, warm without being sticky, the kind of weather which distills from field and woodland the fullest measure of their fragrance. Alone, I would have dawdled along, enjoying the scented afternoon. Now, with this pale girl beside me to render me uneasy, I was intent on reaching home. And so it was that when I reached the outskirts of the village and turned abruptly into the street, I nearly ran over
The front fender grazed her. She was unhurt, but startled. I hastily stopped the car and got out. She came around to the side of the car and slipped back the raincoat she had draped over her head.
Lucille said aloud, in surprised involuntary tribute. “Lovely!” and Peggy raised her eyes to the tall girl’s face with some embarrassment. They were blue eyes, of a shade so deep as to be astonishing. In combination with her black hair and milk-white skin, they were almost incredible. I’m sure Lucille was aware of her rude stare; I think she could not help it. The gusty wind fitted the light dress to the delightful contours of Peggy’s shapely body.
and I heard Lucille sigh.
Hastily I made the introductions. Peggy said, “How do you do?” and then asked me smilingly, “Trying to get rid of me, Page?”
“Gosh,” I returned, “I’m still full of goose pimples, so don’t pick on me. Peg. When did you get back?” “This morning. I telephoned you a few minutes ago.”
We were standing in a little puddle and the rain was beating down on us. I said, “I’ll be over tonight. Uncle Ben’s back.”
“1 heard.” Her eyes searched mine.
“It’s going to be all right,” I told her with grimness.
She nodded, pressed my arm and went on.
I got back into the car. Lucille asked thoughtfully: “Just who is the ravishing young lady?”
“The girl I’m going to marry,” I said, and was conscious of her narrowed eyes on me for the rest of the brief journey.
T HAVE thought it odd ever since that I was ixrmitted without hindrance or reproach to devote that ensuing fortnight so largely to Peggy. Mother and Uncle Ben made no comment, though they knew how much of my time I sjxmt with her. Perhaps theirs was the apathy of vacation in weather which was extremely hot. Lucille, where I was concerned, proved singularly undemanding. I drove her to town when she had shofv ping to do; escorted her occasionally to a movie. The rest of her time was occupied with many little personal tasks which seemed to engross and satisfy her. One sultry, uncertain day
I t(x>k the sloop and sailed upriver to the village. Peggy was waiting for me on the dock. As 1 drew in, she hastily lowered a lunch basket and as hastily got into the boat. “Your Uncle Ben is at the post office,” she informed me. “Tom Hicks said he is looking for me.”
She pushed the sloop away from the dock. The wind caught the sheet and moved us along. We were in midriver before the tenseness left her body. Then she sigh«!, came back and sat beside me. “Let’s forget him,” she said. “This is nice.”
I looked down at the dark head nestling against my shoulder; at the sweet pure lines of nose, chin and throat; at the soft, kind, womanly mouth. And it came to me that I was unduly apprehensive of Uncle Ben, for 1 knew that here in the person of this girl was the one thing that he. or no one else save herself, could take from me and leave me alive. The thought was not melodramatic. It caus«! no surging and pulsing within me. Only a deep, immovable conviction.
“Peggy.” I said, “how about our getting married?”
She turned her face up to mine. “My dear,” she answered softly, “you haven’t a chance of getting away without me. Uncle Ben or no Uncle Ben.” A little smile touched her lips. “You expected me to say that, didn’t you?”
“I’d have died if you hadn't,” I said.
After that there was an urgency on us both to face what unpleasantness was in store; to get the fireworks over and plan for our marriage. We had come abreast of Beauly Hall. I said. “Now?” and Peggy nodded. I put the helm over and headed for shore. Mother was on the jxirch when we reached the house. She got up as we approached and her gaze took in Peggy from head to feet. Impersonally she said: “What a pretty girl, Page.” I said, impatient of this vagueness: “This is Peggy, mother.” She answered: “Yes, of course. You’ll find your uncle in the library. He’s—”
“I haven’t told you, mother,” I cut in, “but I’m going to marry Peggy next month.”
“Yes,” she interrupted and repeated: “You'll find your uncle in the library.”
I heard Uncle Ben’s step in the passage. He opened the door and came out. That look of loving kindness was on his face again; that appearance of sublime patience with an imperfect world. “I don’t quite like this.” he began, and stopped short for his eyes had drift«! to Peggy. I heard the hiss of his quick indrawn breath. I saw his face change; saw it sharpen. Then lie said what mother had said: "What a pretty girl. Page.”
*‘'I'His is Peggy Hyland,” 1 told him. “My fiancée.”
HE TOOK that in his stride Ixcause he was no longer thinking of me. Astonishingly, he stepped forward and took Peggy’s hand between His. He was bland, oily, dripping with kindness and good will. “My dear,” he remarked, “I had no idea!” He drew her down on the ixirch swing, and she kx)k«I at me with a funny little glance as much as to say, "So this is your ogre.”
Mother sjxike. "You and Peggy will lunch with us.”
I looked at Uncle Ben. He said at once. “Of course!”
I was confused but I managed to drive through my rioting thoughts with a clinching statement: “We’re going to get married next month. Uncle Ben ”
He said the only clever thing I have heard him say. “There are no rules for girls like Peggy. It’s been that way through the history of the human race.” He regarded me for a moment through half-closed lids before he went on. “Given a wider opportunity, she would have gone far beyond you. She has a quality of value.’'
I made no response beyond a short ixxl. He engaged Peggy in conversation and I thought she was warming to him. I did not wonder. He was at Ins bland best. I looked at mother. The crease between her brows, the distant look in her eyes, indicated, I thought, not puzzlement so much as speculation.
Before lunch was over Uncle Ben had ask«! Peggy to visit us for a time to get to know, as he put it. the family. This tacit acceptance of her as my fiancée pleased me greatly. I felt kinder toward Uncle Ben than ever I had before, and it came to me that the West would not be hard with Peggy along to help. I told Uncle Ben: “You’ve been mighty nice about this. I’ll try and reciprocate.”
He patted me genially on the shoulder. “I think you’ll find that I have your Ix-st interests at heart.” he lxx>med, and mother chimed in: "I’m sure Page is beginning to
realize that, Ben.”
Driving Peggy home that aftenvxw. I said to her a little wryly: “Considering the reception you got today, I
imagine you think I’m a bit of a false alarmist.”
She turned and regarded me for a long moment with those cool. calm, sea-blue eyes of hers. "No,” she returned deliberately. “I don’t.”
To my own surprise. I was quick to defend Ben. “1 think he behaved splendidly.” I said with some warmth.
"Do you?” she asked, and said again, “Do you? and smiled a brief enigmatic smile.
“You don’t like him.” I said slowly. “That’s odd. ^ ou re the first woman I’ve ever known who didn’t fall all over him. You noticed the subjugation of mother and Lucille-—” “Subjugation,” she cut in. “You’ll make a good lawyer. You’ve the right word for the right place.” I was about to reply when she went on: “Put me off at the post office, please, Page.”
I halted the car. “See you tonight,” she said, smiled and got out. But she did not go to the ixist office. She crossed the street and entered Tom Hicks’ store.
7*PHE morning of Peggy’s tenth day with •L us, I was at the back of the house cut'ting some roses for mother when I saw tbicle Ben striding toward me. He took
,e blooms I held out to him a little hesitantly as though it were slightly below his dignity to accept the fragrant burden, but made no protest. Peggy was on the lawn with Lucille. He called to her, gave her the flowers with instructions to take them to mother, and ran a fond hand over her shining hair.
His attitude toward her was inexplicable to me. He was not an amorous man. Yet that he was completely captivated was quite obvious. Tom Hicks had said that Uncle Ben had a strong desire for ownership of fine things, but I thought it unlikely that this complex in a confirmed bachelor would extend to a girl. Not that I was worried about the matter. I was grateful to him for his kindness to her, his acceptance of her. Occasionally, perhaps, I would have momentary qualms when he was particularly demonstrative. As now,
with his fat hand on her sleek head. I had a quick feeling that I had created for myself a fool’s paradise.
Peggy drew away from his hand and walked toward the house. His eyes followed her. “Lovely, isn’t she?” he asked me. “She gets lovelier, if possible, every day.” He mused for a time on the fact. Then he swung around. “You’d hate to lose her, eh, Page? You wouldn’t get over that in a hurry, would you? Eh, Page?” “No,” I retorted with some grimness. “In that event it would be just too bad for—somebody.” I laughed. “Lay off me, Uncle Ben,” I said.
There was no answering humor in the cool, appraising glance he threw me. He said presently: “You don't mind if I take Peggy to the city this morning? I promised her a trinket or two.”
“Not at all,” I returned heartily. “And thanks a lot.”
“She can take presents from me, of course,” he said. “I stand to you in lieu of a father. It's quite correct.”
“Sure,” I said. I did not see why he should stress the fact.
He walked away. I cut another rose or two, and when I had finished I found Lucille beside me. “He’s wonderful to Peggy, isn’t he?” she asked softly. “He’s wonderful to everybody. Did you hear that he gave the rector sixty thousand dollars for the restoration of the old church?”
“Mighty nice,” I said, impressed. “It's a fine old building.”
"The rector is having a plaque set into the brickwork eulogizing Uncle Ben,” she went on. “He told me it would say something about the milk of human kindness.” She shot me a sharp glance. “You never liked Uncle Ben,” she said. “You never appreciated him properly. You could see only your side of things.”
“Yeh,” I said noncommittally and walked back to the house with her. Uncle Ben and Peggy were preparing to leave. The limousine stood in front of the door, and the chauffeur was assisting Peggy to the rear seat. I was impressed with the way her beauty dignified that luxurious vehicle. Her lips curved in a smile as she waved a hand to me. I watched the car draw away and found myself curiously disturbed.
Late that afternoon I went down to the store to see Tom Hicks. I found him in the office at the rear, his feet up on the desk, a deep crease between his eyes. He said at once: “I just got back from the city. I saw Peggy and Ben there.”
“Buying finery,” I commented easily. He nodded and repeated, “Buying finery.” In a moment he took his feet off the desk and swung on me. “Figgerin’ on gettin’ married pretty soon, Page?” “Before I go West,” I answered.
He did not answer. He was uneasy, frowning to himself, thinking deeply. I dropped into a chair beside him and asked: “What’s on your mind, Tom?”
But I knew—and he knew that I knew. He did not answer me.
“You think,” I said at last, “that he does not mean me to have Peg. You think he’s trying to turn her away from me by turning her head. I’ve been thinking that all afternoon. But I’m not worrying. Because Peggy’s on to him.”
“He hasn’t fooled her, if that’s what you mean,” Tom returned. “She knows he’s trying to turn her from you, temporarily at any rate. She told me so. He wants her to go abroad for a couple of years.”
“Abroad,” I repeated and laughed.
“She laughed, too,” he said, and added: “Then.”
I caught him up quickly. “And now?” “And now,” he said, “he’s showing her the great advantages which lie in having plenty of money.”
“I suppose I can’t laugh that off.” My throat felt raw.
“No,” lie answered. “You can’t laugh that off. That girl never had a frock in her life which cost over fifteen dollars.” Tom turned away from me and his fingers drummed a moment on the desk. “She was buying shoes when I ran into her this afternoon. Shoes to go with the evening gowns Ben bought her. The shoes were twenty-two fifty a pair.”
“Pretty obvious,” 1 commented. “He’s not so smart.”
“You don’t have to be smart when you have all that money,” Tom said. He caught my arm.
“Look here. Page, let’s figger this thing, What’s he after? Why’s he doing this?”
T LOOKED out the window and watched for a moment the heat waves dancing above the shell road. Then I repeated: “Why?”
Tom replied: “I’m asking you. I don’t know. It would be understandable in an amorous man. Ben’s not amorous.”
“Cruelty,” I shouted suddenly. “He’s cruel. He was born with it, and since he got rich he indulged himself in it until it’s a mania. Look what he’s done to mother, to you. Look at Lucille. She’s a slave to him. She has no interest outside him. He’s taking her youth. He’s ruining her life. He blights every human thing he comes into contact with. He’s made a fool and sycophant out of the rector.”
Tom moved his head in slow assent. “I think you’re right,” he commented at last.
I said with desperation: “But Peggy’s on to him, Tom. She won’t let money change her. She’s not that kind.”
‘‘I don’t know,” he answered wretchedly. “I don’t know. She has every physical advantage. She’d go far with Ben’s money and influence behind her. I keep thinking of that; keep coming back to that. He could make a good case, for instance, of this going abroad idea of his. Don’t think he couldn’t. Furthermore, he could get Peggy’s people behind him. Why not? She’s only nineteen. Why shouldn’t she take thechanceof gettinga broader education -of seeing something of the world?”
“I believe in her,” I said doggedly.
"He took Millicent from me,” Tom replied so low that I could barely hear him. "And he did it with money.”
"Then she wasn’t worth having,” I retorted furiously, "even if she is my mother!”
"She was—is—ambitious,” he said. "Most women are."
I got up and stood above him. "All right.” 1 said, and cleared my throat to get the thickness out of my voice. “I’m frightened. I admit it. What now? I can kill him. I can kick him out of the house. In the first instance, they’ll hang me; in the second, mother will never forgive me. Or maybe it's time to stop thinking about other people.”
"Maybe it is,” Tom said. “That is, if it isn’t too late.”
"You mean Peggy.”
He did not answer. "You know something I don’t,” I said. “What, Tom? For lord's sake, what?”
"Nothing definite,” he returned uneasily, and shook his head. "I did get the feeling from Peggy’s strained attitude, while I was talking with her in the store, that her conscience was bothering her. She seemed confused, ashamed. I got in my car and came home, and the more I thought the matter over, the more apprehensive I became. I was going up to see you. Going up to your mother’s house. I haven’t been there in years.”
The village clock struck six times through his voice as though to drown the bitterness in it.
“We'll go up together.” I remarked. “He and Peggy should be back about eight. We'll go then.”
yf OTHER was sitting on the porch when we arrived. The night was hot. muggy, with a flicker of lightning on the horizon. She said. "Well, Tom. it's time you came to see me.” I saw Tom’s face light up.
He flushed and stammered, “It’s good to be here, Millicent.” Mother motioned us to chairs, and rang for Elley Lou to bring us cold drinks.
A few minutes later the limousine swung into the driveway. Peggy got out, followed by Lucille, Uncle Ben and the rector. I thought as Peggy came into the light that her face was curiously taut. Both men, however, seemed in high spirits. They shook hands with Tom, and the rector said, "It’s nice to see you here.”
Tom returned laconically, “Thanks.”
I dropped into a chair by Peggy’s side. "Tired?” I asked.
“A little,” she answered. I thought her lip trembled. My hand went over hers. Mother, Uncle Ben, Lucille, Tom and the rector were grouped in one corner, talking and laughing. Under cover of this conversation, I said to Peggy in a low voice: “How’d you like to get married tomorrow?”
I felt her fingers tighten convulsively on mine and again I saw her lips tremble. She shot a frightened glance at Uncle Ben, and as though by some process of telepathy he broke off his sentence in the middle and turned his eyes to hers. He said possessively: "Page bothering you, my dear?”
It is an actual physical phenomenon that one sees red in moments of wild fury. I felt the blood pounding in my head and forcing itself to my eyeballs. I said nothing merely because in my rage I could find no words.
Peggy spoke. "Page is not bothering me.”
I saw Tom move in his chair. “Parson,” he said, “I hope I'm not talkin’ out of turn, but I wish y’-all could get together on a date for the weddin’. I was talkin’ with Page today 'bout it. He figgered he’d like to get married soon. If Peg is ready, I don’t see any reason for stallin’.”
Uncle Ben’s eyes swung to Tom’s face. "There’ll be no wedding,” he said, and his words dripped with cold venom. There was no mistaking his intent. He saw the look of consternation on the rector’s face and amended without haste: "That is, not for some time. Peggy is going abroad with me, and when I return in three months I shall leave her there, perhaps for two years.”
"For two years,” mother repeated. Her mouth was a thin white line. I thought she was going to say more but she did not. Lucille put in: "I'm going along. I think it’s simply marvellous.”
Tom said bluntly to Peggy: “What do you say? Are they talkin' for you. Peg?”
It was a full quarter minute before she spoke. But I could feel her fingers on mine, clenching and unclenching as though she were summoning her courage. I wanted to help her but I dare not. Finally lier answer cut through that dead silence. “No,” she said. “I’m not going and he can’t make me go. A minute or two ago Page asked me to marry him tomorrow. I’m going to do that.”
Uncle Ben’s face was congested with blood. “What do you mean, making a fool of me?” he shouted. “Didn’t you agree—”
“No,” she answered, and now there was hot anger in her voice. “You thought you were talking for me. I was frightened of you, I admit; frightened of what you could do to me and Page. You’re powerful —and absolutely ruthless. You’ll use any means in your power to get what you want. You made me buy those things today. You stood by me all the time, urging me; bullying me. actually, in that soft, relentless way you have. I’m not afraid of you now. I realized that when Page asked me to marry him tomorrow.”
I laughed from the heights of my happiness.
“No,” I assured her, “we’re not afraid of him.”
The rector broke in, his face flushed, his voice uncomfortable: “Please! Please!
Surely there’s a misunderstanding.”
“Parson,” Tom cut in, “you’re a good man but a fool. Keep out of this.”
THE RECTOR gasped, subsided. I could see Uncle Ben fighting to get control of himself, and his jowls were purple from the effort. He must have realized that he had pushed us too far; that perhaps for the first time in a good many years he had made a miscalculation, that his strategy had been faulty. I expected a downpour of furious words from him; of denunciation and threat. But he was clever even in his defeat because, undoubtedly, he could not accept his defeat as final.
After a long moment he lifted his shoulders. He smiled suddenly with that vast blandness of his. “Have it your way.” he said. “I consent to the marriage tomorrow.”
Peggy took a quick step forward, her teeth bared in queer primitive rage.
“Oh no, you don’t!” she shouted. “We don’t want your consent. I know what you have in mind. You’re agreeing to our getting married because you have to. But you’ll be starding by thereafter, waiting your chance, working on us both, trying to separate us—sure eventually you’ll have your way!” She broke off. glaring at him. When she went on, her voice was under control. “But we’re on to you. Get that straight in your mind.”
Uncle Ben’s pale lashes flicked spasmodically across his eyeballs a dozen times, but other than that he showed no sign of perturbation or anger. Finally he spoke to me: “You think that, too, Page.” “I know it.” I told him without heat. “That’s why we’re making a definite break with you.”
It was a long time before be replied. “I see.” he said then. “Nevertheless, you have my consent—and the promise of my financial help.”
Peggy cut in: “We don’t want either.” His face did not change. “I’m not thinking of you two only.” he retorted. “There is—one other. And even you in this panic selfishness of yours can’t ignore her. For her sake I can’t allow myself to become antagonized." He added with
cold finality: “Without my help you are not able to support her. Without my help she'll lose her home. Have you considered that? Or are you so callously wrapped up in your own concerns that you don’t care?”
He was watching us closely, noting the only too obvious effect of his brutal words, noting Peggy’s flaming cheeks. He sat back complacently.
Mother laughed suddenly, a hard, brittle laugh.
“No, Ben,” she said, “I can’t let you be so forgiving.”
“Don’t be a fool, Millicent !” he flung at her. His tone was not angry; impatient, rather. He was too sure of her, I thought.
“That’s what I’m trying not to be -a fool,” mother answered. “You know, Ben, one can’t go on being a fool forever. One’s bound to see, soon or late. I've been watching you this last week, and seeing you, something I’ve never been able to do before. Because you’re so bland and persuasive, Ben. I’ve understood what you’ve been trying to do to Page. You hadn’t a chance in the world of getting away with it.” She laughed again with blended bitterness and self-contempt. “You’ve had enough of my life—and of Tom’s. We’ve all paid you, as a matter of fact, over and over for every dollar you’ve spent on us. But we’ll call it even.” She stood up. “That’s all. I’ll have Ellev Lou pack your bags. You’ll be leaving in the morning.” She inclined her head slightly to the group, went indoors. We heard her steps on the stairway.
rT'OM jumped to his feet, his face savage and jubilant, his big shoulders hunched.
“You heard,” he gritted. “And don’t worry about this place. I’ll attend to that. In fact, you have no call to worry about anyone but yourself.” He moved forward with that quick litheness of his, his hands clenched.
The rector thrust himself between the two. There was a queer kind of humble dignity on him; something compelling. “Please,” he said gently. I saw the tenseness leave Tom’s body. He turned back to his chair and sat down.
We sat there in silence. Unde Ben was slumped down in his chair, not penitent, not angry, turning over with cold calculation his defeat, looking for a way that would save his dignity, his pride. He could not save these things himself, but the faithful Lucille did so in a measure for him. She came over and kissed him affectionately.
“Let's leave tonight, dear,” she said and flashed a furious glance at me.
He stood up. “It would he wise.” he answered, and his tone seemed to bestow forgiveness on those undeserving of such, “until these people come to their senses. We’ll go to the hotel. I’ll send for the heavy luggage in the morning.” She followed him into the house.
The rector said in genuine distress: “There’s been some dreadful mistake. I’m sure this matter can be put right.”
We paid him no attention. It was raining outside. I could hear the beat of it on the foliage. Presently the rector sat down. When Lucille and Uncle Ben came out, he went with them.
That night I heard mother crying in her room. I did not go to her. The one virtue of misery is that it does not last. I knew that Tom would soon console her.
THE church has been restored and there is a brass plate let into the brickwork which bears a date and Uncle Ben’s name. It says nothing about the milk of human kindness.