SWORDS FOR SLANDER
In which the battling belles of Millburn demonstrate that the woman’s way passeth all understanding
D. K. FINDLAY
IT WAS a pity that they had to fight, for their husbands were lifelong friends. Joe Morgan and Miller Gobey had grown up together, gone to
college together and came back to live in white houses whose gardens adjoined. Miller married Madge Brooke, the belle of the town, and six months later Joe brought home Linnet Raymond from Toronto.
Madge was very pretty. Her coloring was that fair-brown, which looks so well in youth and health, and there were times when there was a sort of bloom on Madge that was breath-taking. She was inclined to be plump and she didn’t care. She was goodhearted and impulsive and went up and down her stairs like a rocket. She could be shrewish; she was easily depressed when things were dull and quickly cheered by a little bustle. Everybody liked Madge. Before she was married, when she was the belle of the town, she put a sparkle into the young affairs. Sometimes having a lively belle is more important to a town than to have a sober mayor or a shrewd merchant.
Elm Street found Linnet Morgan rather reserved. She was dark and quiet and played the piano nicely. She had one of those neat, thin figures that other women envy because of clothes, and she always looked as if she had just left her dressing table. Even the thickest male head in Millburn thought it a treat to meet Mrs. Joe Morgan walking along so neat, so much a lady. Millburn found that although she Was
quiet she was not dumb, and when she spoke it was to the point—sometimes to a needle point.
It began with a trivial incident at a Red Cross sewing party on Mrs. Frisbee’s veranda. Mrs. Frisbee, a gentle soul, was talking about Elm Street doings and she mentioned Madge. After the local custom she gave her her full maiden name, Madge Brooke, and it occurred to her that Linnet as a newcomer might need a light.
“She was a Brooke, you know.”
“And she does go on forever,” said Linnet candidly.
Several ladies went out of their way to tell Madge about it. Madge laughed and said that Linnet had never said a truer word—the good Lord had given her a tongue and she liked to use it. But after the fifth or sixth recital, when the story had taken on a few trimmings, her eyes began to narrow.
The rencontre took place promptly and the scene was again Mrs. Frisbee’s veranda. That good lady was trying hard to increase Millburn’s output of clothes for the Red Cross and sometimes it seemed to her that the ladies were only faintly interested. The talk was flowing on about children and maids. Linnet had a new Lilly and Millburn had noticed that Linnet had trouble keeping her maids.
She liked things done by rule and precisely —Millburn might have called her finicky —and the easygoing maids preferred to leave. Mrs. Todd had asked her if she and
Joe were going away for the holiday week end and she said they were, if Lilly was going to stay.
“Oh, surely,” said Madge, her eyes gleaming, “surely she’ll stay at least for the week end!”
Mrs. Todd let out a strangled snort and the room was swept by a nervous gale of laughter. Linnet’s color rose. It was a joke that even a man could understand and it was told over every supper table in town that night. The honors were with Madge.
THE quarrel developed brightly. Wherever they met they came armed, so to speak, with their needles. If either developed the smallest bubble of complacency, the other stood ready to prick it. There was no unladylike slugging, they sharpened their wits on each other, brightly and maliciously, in a way that enlivened and sometimes electrified tea parties on Elm, Maple and Tulip Streets. When they were not present they presented an absorbing topic of conversation. Linnet had a sweet, wry way of praising Madge’s clothes. Madge heartily spread the scandal that Joe wasn’t allowed in the house if his boots were muddy.
If some of the barbs they threw, and took so jauntily, hurt, they never showed it to Millburn. Sometimes they took an odd, objective view of their relation. Behold them sitting one afternoon on the Morgan steps, just after the Talmadge lawn party, their rackets and shoes at their feet. They were waiting for their husbands, who were coming along the street from work.
“Hello, how was the party?”
“The tennis wasn’t so hot,” said Madge, “but we had a good time.”
“We fought all afternoon,” said Linnet placidly. “You two!” said Joe impatiently. “Why can’t you behave?”
“If we had the party would have been a flop,” said Madge, “and that would have been a pity after Dora Talmadge worked so hard over it.”
“Is that so?” asked Miller indignantly. “I suppose you think the other ladies enjoy your acting like Kilkenny cats!”
Linnet gave him a twinkling, sidelong look. “Want to bet?”
Madge laughed, jumped up and took his arm.
“Come home to supper, pa, and don’t stand there gassing about something you don’t understand.”
This offhand attitude to their private differences was not shared by their neighbors. Mrs. Frisbee, who liked everything gentle and kind, took her troubles to Mrs. Boomer, the ex-arbiter of Millburn. Mrs. Boomer was forceful, shrewd and cynical. She rarely went out nowadays. She told her cronies that Millburn was as dull as ditchwater and what the town needed was a good scandalous love affair.
“You really should do something,” pleaded Mrs. Frisbee. “It’s not exactly the things they say—it’s the terrible things you feel that they might say. With those two in the room it’s like dancing on the brink of volcano!”
“As bad as that? Dear! dear! Tell me about the Red Cross work—how are the circles getting along?” “Oh, splendidly!” cried Mrs. Frisbee. “Ever so much better. Everyone has been so good at finding time to come. Last week we sent 100 children’s suits!” Mrs. Boomer’s eyes began to twinkle.
“Good. Very good indeed. Well, Mary, I shan’t interfere. Doubtless there are faults on both sides and playing peacemaker is a thankless task. They’re young. A spat or two won’t hurt them. I’ve always liked Madge Brooke, she always had spirit; and Linnet Morgan struck me as an intelligent young woman.”
IN ALL well-regulated fights there are placid intervals. There were times when Madge and Linnet behaved like ordinary young women and neighbors, and denied that they ever had a quarrel. Linnet said there was no one she admired more than Madge, and Madge said that Linnet was sweet. The bottom of the Gobey lawn formed the side of the Morgan garden, where Joe had his gladioli beds. He was an enthusiast and right after supper he would change into his gladioli pants and rush out to his beds. Madge and Miller would stroll over for a gossip, and Madge, who could never see anyone working without wanting to help, would borrow a glove and get down on her knees, and Linnet and Miller would
stretch out in the deck chairs and commend their industry.
One such evening the case of Mrs. Oliphant and Mr. Tedbury vexed the tranquil scene. Mr. Tedbury had insulted Mrs. Oliphant again.
“It’s awfully hard to talk about music without insulting Mabel Oliphant,” grumbled Madge.
Mr. Tedbury was a spry, eccentric wisp of a music teacher. His nervousness and excitability made for some hectic misadventures among adults but he got along well with the children. When one of them showed promise Mr. Tedbury skipped with pleasure. When things went badly, as in the baseball and skipping season, he called up the mothers and abused them roundly. Being scolded by Mr. Tedbury was a part of the routine of raising children in Millburn. But now the wretched creature had insulted Mrs. Oliphant, one of the musical powers.
She was a thin-skinned contralto, with a slight tendency to flat. The town received her many appearances amiably enough and accepted her as one of the guardians of their culture. She was singing at the children’s concert—no one knew why— when Mr. Tedbury rose two inches from the piano stool, struck a note violently several times, crying “E, e, e, e!” and went on with the accompaniment. Afterward there was a scene in the wings and Mrs. Oliphant said that she had never been so insulted in her life. And before the
children, too. The children, when questioned by their parents, had received no durable impress—they were too much engrossed with the importance of their own parts. “Oh, Mrs. Oliphant screamed at Teddy and Teddy screamed back but she screamed the loudest.” But Mrs. Oliphant had managed to make a town matter out of it. She demanded that Mr. Tedbury be dismissed from his post of teacher of music to the public school. She had pulled strings skilfully and Mr. Tedbury had simply flown into a tizzy and reluctantly the Home and School Association had called a meeting.
Joe thought it was pretty small of them.
“If they had told Mabel Oliphant to mind her own business the thing would have been forgotten in a week. But now they’ve gone formal and haughty no one knows what will happen.”
“What will happen if he is dismissed from the school—will he have to leave Millburn?”
“Sure. It’s the loss of half his living for one thing, and his pride would never let him stay. Everybody knows he’s a darn good teacher. Linnet, you’re a musician—you should go and stick up for him.”
“I think it’s a great pity,” said Linnet. “Not only to lose him but to hurt his feelings by holding a meeting about him. But I’m not a parent or a teacher.”
“But you’re a citizen,” said Miller.
“We’re all citizens,” said Madge, rising from the gladioli bed. “Let’s all go.”
THE meeting was wandering unhappily, pricked on by the Oliphant indignation and troubled by a suspicion that they might be better employed elsewhere. It was hot and stuffy in the council chamber
and tempers began to fray—when the lightning struck from an unexpected quarter. People still talk about that inexplicable scene.
There are several distinct and varying versions as to who began it, what Linnet said, and what Madge had said, but all agreed that it was a startling exhibition. Mrs. Faraday, who was nearest and frightened nearly out of her wits, was no help at all. Her story didn’t make sense. She thought that Linnet turned to Madge and said: “How would you like to be screamed at, especially in E flat?” And Madge had said: “lean scream pretty fair myself,” and all at once their voices got loud and excited saying things like: “Do we all have to call a public meeting whenever our feelings are hurt? . . . Will you keep out of this?—This is a private quarrel! . . . Private, my foot! Look at you, sitting around like a lot of owls, batting your eyes over something silly and stupid and in bad taste . . . How dare you call me a silly owl? ... I didn't . . . You did!”—and then, in a cataclysmic burst of temper, they stood there and screamed at each other, simply screamed! Then Madge, who inherited the Brooke temper, let fly with her library book and it went through a window, and she stormed out. Joe took Linnet out too, scolding all the way, and the meeting broke up. People were too upset to bother passing motions of censure on poor Mr. Tedbury.
That night the husbands, Joe and Miller, staged a rebellion of their own. They swore that anything their wives did would never affect their friendship— and also if their wives misbehaved again they’d bat them flat.
The upshot of it all was the revival of the Florence Nightingale Club. Once this had been a strong social force, uniting the women in good works, indulging
in a tonic amount of squabbling and meddling, and generally keeping the town’s affairs tidy. Merky Sawyer said that he would as soon have the Gestapo after him as the Nightingales. Now, with Mrs. Boomer returning from her seclusion to take the helm, the Nightingales prepared to take up the slack.
They found a number of things that needed attention. A number of new families had come to Millburn, some brought to the mill by war orders, some whose husbands were in the services. They gave a soiree, introduced the newcomers to local society, listened to their troubles and enrolled their services for the Red Cross and the other committees.
They made them acquainted with the local folklore, including the legend of the Linnet Morgan-Madge Gobey feud, which lost nothing in the telling. Many an uprooted lady, pleased to find herself in a friendly group again, kept a fascinated eye on the two nicelooking young women working side by side at the cutting table, who might at any moment begin using their scissors on one another. Not for the world would the newcomers have admitted it, but it did add a certain zest.
IT WAS in the Nightingale’s rooms that a new club was born.
Madge had been talking about a situation which was giving the town concern. The Army had opened a camp at Petowa, 50 miles away, and Millburn was the railway junction for the camp. Soldiers coming and going had a two-hour wait between trains and they employed it hanging about the streets and picking up girls. Some of the girls who were willing to be picked up were high school kids and the citizens saw things
which pained them.
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Madge was just running on, saying it was disgraceful the way the soldiers behaved and that some of the girls deserved a spanking, when Linnet said: “Rats!” in a ladylike way, and
several ladies gave a start of apprehension.
“What do you mean?”
“The soldiers have nowhere to go and nothing to do but to hang around the poolrooms and whistle at girls. If they had some place where they could amuse themselves they would be glad to get off the streets. And it’s not a spanking the young girls need. It’s a little help. Why don’t you help them?” “Why me?”
“Because you know every young girl in town. They all know you and look up to you. They’d do anything you say. You could take these soldiers and girls out of dark corners and set them to dancing and singing and playing games. And they’d love it.”
Everybody was staring at Madge, because it was perfectly true. Madge was a born hostess. When she turned loose her high spirits and personality everyone had a wonderful time.
“And where would all this take place?” she asked.
“We could ask Mr. Ions if he would lend us that empty store across from the Wonderland. We could clean it and furnish it with borrowed furniture—” “Oh, dear me, yes,” said Mrs. Frisbee. “I have ever so many things we could use—and perhaps we could arrange a little supper every night— just coffee and sandwiches, you know. I think it’s a splendid idea!”
Within a week the Uniform Club was functioning. It meant a great deal of work for Madge but she took it wide and handsome. She organized the girls into junior hostesses, who came to the club in rotation to help entertain the boys. Everybody had a good time and the idea was copied all over the country. The Millburn Herald used to print letters from grateful soldiers, and Millburn was proud of Madge.
Madge took a rather mean revenge on Linnet. She made her convener of the Wash-up Committee, whose job it was to see that the rooms were tidy and the dishes washed and put away every night. She did something else, too, which was to have curious consequences.
OLD Dr. Marchildon had been nagging away at the women to form a volunteer nurses’ corps. He pointed out that two of the doctors and all the young nurses were in the services and there were not enough doctors and nurses to meet the ordinary needs of the town. He was scared of what would happen if an epidemic broke out. Or an emergency—he said you could always count on an emergency sooner or later.
He finally persuaded the Nightingales that it was their business and they were going through the preliminaries, talking it up and deciding who should be captain. Miss Watson and Mrs. Swanson were in their minds. Miss Watson was a trained nurse and had been matron of a military hospital. Mrs. Swanson was a blond billowy woman, a capable exemplar, with a terrific record for being on hand when the worst happened. Millburn recognized that she was a natural genius in the sickroom, but she couldn’t organize. She couldn’t have organized a commando raid among the Tulip Street Tigers. Miss Watson was a fiend for organization, but on the other hand she could never forget she was a profes-
sional and ladies who tried to work with her sometimes lost a little skin
To the Nightingales the trick of raising, equipping and training a nursing service was child’s play. They saw that the real problem was to prevent a collision between the sensibilities of Miss Watson and Mrs. Swanson—which is what occurred at the first meeting.
Miss Watson reported that she had written an old friend in the service, who was so enthusiastic over the proposed nursing corps that she had promised to scrounge all sorts of equipment— plasma bottles, and stretchers and splints and carriers as supplied to the troops. Miss Watson admitted afterward that she was somewhat carried away by her enthusiasm—she had the corps equipped and drilled and practically marched off to serve in Europe— when Mrs. Swanson rose. Mrs. Swanson’s idea of a volunteer nurse was one who knew what to do until the doctor came, and if he didn’t come could deliver the baby herself, and she was puzzled by this military marching and countermarching. She said that she did not see how all this was going to help Mrs. McGillicuddy, who needed her back rubbed daily, or Mrs. Horlick, who was expecting her seventh— unless, of course, they liked parades. She then disassociated herself from the movement and Miss Watson in high dudgeon also disassociated herself and washed her hands of it, and the nursing corps was wrecked before it was born.
Madge, who had Millburn in her bones, surveyed the whole problem in all its ramifications in the twinkling of an eye, and because she was Madge, she saw a solution. She made a neat speech, paid tribute to Miss Watson and Mrs. Swanson in their respective spheres and moved that they be named lieutenants in charge of organization and training, respectively, and that Linnet Morgan be named as captain.
It was realized at once how much faith Millburn had in Linnet. Anyone would accept office under her. Simply, she was so much a lady. No one had ever heard her say a malicious thing— except about Madge. No one considered her capable of a mean action— except toward Madge. The Nightingales recognized that the battle was as good as won and turned expectantly to Linnet.
Poor Linnet’. She rose, and in her distress she made wringing motions with her hands, like an old-fashioned heroine.
“Oh, I couldn’t—I simply couldn’t! I’m simply ghastly at anything to do with nursing! It makes me faint even to go into a hospital—”
“Not going to be a quitter, are you?” muttered Madge.
Linnet lost color and her eyes glittered a little. She pulled herself together and said that if it was the wish of the meeting she would serve to the best of her ability.
AS IT turned out the nurses’ corps was a great success and lots of fun. They had lectures from the doctors, and classes in first aid, and home meetings, when they tied bandages and carried victims around and put them to bed. One of Millburn’s best stories grew out of the time Circle Four gave Louella May Wilsinki—200 pounds and ticklish—a bath.
Perhaps it was not as much fun for Linnet but she made a capable leader. Whatever she did she did thoroughly and she worked very hard. She was not very well, she was thin and pale, and Dr. Marchildon told Joe that he was not at all pleased with her. Then one afternoon—Joe was away at a convention—the doctor was called suddenly to the Morgan house. Linnet
was pretty sick. He prodded her abdomen, packed her in ice and told her to lie quiet. If there had been a vacant bed in the hospital he would have phoned for the ambulance, but the hospital was full.
That night brought the emergency the doctor had feared. The second section of a troop train plowed into the rear of the first section standing in Fairfield station. Fairfield was six miles from Millburn and the agent remembered the nursing corps there. Linnet was among the first to know.
She got out of bed to the phone. Ina few minutes cars with nurses and stretchers, blankets, hot-water bottles and bandages were streaming out of Millburn. Linnet herself was there before the doctors. It was a dreadful scene at Fairfield. The track was lit by flares; dead and injured were strewn along the right of way, and masses of people, confused and stricken, were milling about.
Linnet, who once grew faint at the sight of blood, never faltered, though as the night wore on her arms were red to the shoulder. People, hurt and unhurt, drew strength from her. When the worst was over and relief was on the way from Camp Petowa, she knew she was going to be deathly sick. She spoke to no one; she managed to get to her own car and she drove herself home. Mrs. Frisbee, who saw the car lights and was frantic for news of the accident, tripped over her on the kitchen steps.
She got a message to Dr. Marchildon, who had sworn when he had found her at Fairfield. As soon as he could he came hurtling back to Millburn. He put the unconscious Linnet on the kitchen table and began to get out his instruments.
“Telephone Dr. Stone. Get hold of Miss Hoffman or Miss Murphy at the hospital.”
Mrs. Frisbee stared at him, her lips trembling. She had been frantically trying to get someone—anyone. There was neither doctor nor nurse to be had in Millburn that night.
At that moment Madge ran up the kitchen steps. She had been at Fairfield, doing what she could, and suddenly she missed Linnet. She was the only woman there who knew about Dr. Marchildon’s visit that afternoon. A quick search of the groups along the track and in the station failed to discover her and Madge’s instinct told her that something was wrong. She took a car and drove back to Millburn.
She came into the Morgan kitchen to see Linnet on the kitchen table and Dr. Marchildon shouting at a chalkfaced Mrs. Frisbee. Dr. Marchildon had been on his feet for 24 hours and operating the last four. “I’ve got to hâve an anaesthetist! I’ve got to have a nurse! Don’t you understand? Don’t just stand there!”
“What is it?” asked Madge.
“I think her appendix has burst . . . We’re waiting for Dr. Stone.”
He went back to the table and felt Linnet’s pulse and skin. “I can’t wait
any longer.” He went to Madge and took her by the shoulders. He had just remembered the feud.
“Listen, Madge. If you’ve ever disliked this girl, hate her now. You’ve got to help me—you’re the only one. And you’ve got to be like ice.”
Just before they were about to begin, Linnet stirred and came to. Her dark eyes wandered from the white-robed doctor to Madge in a nurse’s apron. She moved, she tried to get her hand free. A faint smile touched her white face.
“We didn’t do—so badly, did we, Madge?”
Madge gulped and took her hand and her tears fell on it like rain.
The tears did not matter. Otherwise she was like a rock. Neither the reek of ether nor the red line following the scalpel unnerved her. She did all that was required of her, intensely, without a sound, all that a hospital nurse could have done, and when it was over and the doctor was taking off his gloves she slipped to the floor in a faint.
“Best thing that could have happened,” said Dr. Marchildon. “She’s pure gold, that girl.”
Miller, her husband, who had been walking up and down outside, slung her across his shoulder and carried her home. The air revived her and she babbled to be put down. She put her head down on the kitchen table and cried.
Miller tried to comfort her.
“She’s going to be all right. The Doctor thought she would be all right,” he said.
Madge only cried.
“Don’t you want her to get better?”
Madge cried the harder.
He stood there, stroking the back of her head. His mind was tired and confused, crowded with the memories of the scenes at the wreck, and Linnet there, and then Linnet quiet on a kitchen table. The nurses’ corps had been a godsend. Without them a dozen soldiers would have died. All Millburn had done well. He was proud of his town. He thought of the Uniform Club and the fun it made, and the Nightingales with their thread of help going out endlessly to distress. There had been a time when he had thought that Millburn was drying up, when you could hardly get people to come to a meeting. That was before Madge and Linnet had started throwing forks at each other. He had a vivid memory flash of that inexplicable night his wife had thrown a book through a window.
Between her sobs, Madge was saying something.
“. . . no one will ever know . . . how much she is to me . . .”
There came to him with a sense of shock a moment of clarity, a lightness flooding into his mind with a sense of unfolding, design upon design. It seemed to him that he was on the verge of understanding women. Then the moment passed and he was still standing there, stroking his wife’s comely head.