Frank Stockton.

The Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine

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"Now, Barb'ry Aleshine," said Mrs. Lecks, "when you start off on a journey to Japan or any other place, an' leave mince-pies and buttered toast a-stickin' on the p'ints of your pickets for tramps that might come along and need 'em, you can do that kind of talkin'. But as that time hasn't come, let's hear the rest of Mr. Dusante's story."

"When I first visited my island this year," continued the narrator, "we made but a short stay, as we were all desirous of taking a somewhat extended sea-voyage in my steam-yacht. We visited several places of interest, and when we returned, just six weeks ago to-day – "

"Just one week, lackin' a day," exclaimed Mrs. Lecks, "after we left that spot!"

"If I'd 'a' knowed," said Mrs. Aleshine, rising to her feet, "that you'd be back so soon, I'd 'a' made them sailormen live on fish, I'd 'a' eat garden-truck myself, and I'd be bound I'd 'a' made the flour hold out for six days more for the rest of 'em, if I'd 'a' had to work my fingers to the skin and bone to do it!" Then she sat down solemnly.

"When we returned," continued Mr. Dusante, "I was pleased to find my bars intact; and when these were unlocked, and the boat from our yacht went through with ourselves and our servants, it was very agreeable to notice the good order which seemed to prevail everywhere. As we passed from the wharf to the house, not even fallen boughs or weeds were seen to indicate that we had been away from the place for more than two months. When we entered the house, my mother and sister immediately ascended to their chambers, and when the windows had been opened I heard them from above calling to each other and remarking upon the freshness and cleanliness of the rooms. I went to my library, and when I had thrown open the window I was struck with the somewhat peculiar air of order which seemed to obtain in the room. The books stood upon their shelves with a remarkable regularity, and the chairs and other furniture were arranged with a precision which impressed me as unusual. In a moment, sir, I saw your letter upon the table addressed to me. Greatly astonished, I opened and read it.

"When I had finished it my amazement was great indeed; but obeying an instant impulse, I stepped into the dining-room, which a servant had opened, and took the ginger-jar from the mantelpiece. When I lifted from it the little brown-paper parcel, and beneath it saw the money which had been mentioned in the letter, you may imagine the condition of my mind. I did not take out the money, nor count it; but covering it again with the paper parcel, which I believed contained fish-hooks, and with the jar in my hands, I returned to the library, where I sat down to ponder upon these most astounding revelations. While so doing my mother and sister hastily entered the room. Lucille declared in an excited manner that she believed that the brownies or some other fairies had been there while we were away and had kept the house in order. The whole place was actually cleaner, she said, than when we left it.

She had taken down a thin dress from her closet, and it looked as if it had just come from the hand of a laundress, with the ruffles ironed smoother and more evenly than they had ever been since it was first stitched together. 'Albert,' said my mother, her face pale, 'there has been somebody in this house!' Then she went on to say that the windows, which were left unwashed because we went away in somewhat of a hurry, were as bright and clean as if the maids had just been rubbing them; the floors and furniture were cleaner and freer from dust than they had ever been before; and the whole house looked as if we had just left it yesterday. 'In fact,' she said, 'it is unnaturally clean!'"

During this part of Mr. Dusante's story Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine sat very quiet, with an air of sedate humility upon their faces; but I could see by the proud light in their eyes that they felt their superiority to ordinary women, although they were properly resolved not to show such feeling.

"At that moment," continued Mr. Dusante, "a servant came hurrying into the room, and informed us that the flour was all gone, and that there was scarcely anything in the pantries to eat. At this my mother and my sister, who knew that an abundance of provisions had been left in the house, looked at each other aghast. But before they could express their consternation in words, I addressed them. 'My dear mother,' said I, 'and Lucille, there truly has been some one in this house. By this letter I am informed that for several weeks eight persons have lived here under this roof; a marriage has been solemnized, and the happy couple have gone forth from our doors. These persons have eaten our food, they have made use of our property, and this has been their temporary home. But they are good people, honest and true-hearted, for they have left the house in better order than they found it, and more than the price of all they have consumed is in that ginger-jar.' And thereupon I read them your letter, sir.

"I cannot undertake to describe the wonder and absorbing interest with which this letter filled our minds. All needful stores were brought ashore from the yacht, which lay outside the reef, and we began our usual life on the island; but none of the occupations or recreations in which we formerly employed our time now possessed any attractions for us. Our minds were filled with thoughts of the persons who had been so strangely living in our house; and our conversation was mainly made up of surmises as to what sort of people they were, whether or not we should ever see them, and similar suppositions."

"Yes, indeed!" exclaimed Miss Lucille. "I thought of you by day and by night, and pictured you all in various ways, but never as you really are. Sometimes I used to think that the boat in which you went away had been sunk in a storm in which you were all drowned, and that perhaps your ghosts would come back and live in our house, and sleep in our beds, and clean our windows, and wash and iron our clothes, and do all sorts of things in the night."

"Goodnessful, gracious me!" cried Mrs. Aleshine, "don't talk that way! The idea of bein' a cold ghost, goin' about in the dark, is worse than slidin' down a snow-mountain, even if you had to do it on the bare of your back."

"Barb'ry!" said Mrs. Lecks, severely.

"The idea is jus' as chillin'," replied her undaunted friend.

"Two things connected with this matter," continued Mr. Dusante, "weighed heavily on my mind. One of these I have already mentioned – the cruel inhospitality of the barred entrance."

I had refrained from adding to the interruptions to Mr. Dusante's narrative, but I now felt impelled to assure the gentleman, on behalf of myself and wife, that we shared the opinions of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine, and felt that he could in no way be blamed for thus protecting his private property.

"You are very good," said Mr. Dusante, "but I will say here that there are now no bars to that entrance. I have left some people on the island, who will take care of my property and succor any unfortunate castaways who may arrive there. The other matter to which I alluded was, however, the heavier load which oppressed me. This was the money in the ginger-jar. I could not endure to reflect that I had been paid actual money for the hospitality I would have been so glad to offer to you poor shipwrecked people. Every sentiment of my being rebelled against such a thing. I was grieved. I was ashamed. At last I determined I would bear no longer the ignominy of this brand of inhospitality, and that, with the ginger-jar in my hand, I would search over the world, if necessary, for the persons who in my absence had paid board to me, and return to them the jar with its contents uncounted and untouched. Your letter informed me of the island to which you were bound, and if I did not find you there I could discover to what port you had taken your departure. There I could make further inquiries, and so follow you. When I proposed this plan to my family they agreed to it instantly, for their interest in the matter was almost as great as mine; and in a day or two we started on our quest.

"I easily traced you to San Francisco, and found the hotel at which you had stopped. Here I obtained fresh news of you, and learned that you had started East, and that the destination of the party was believed to be Philadelphia. I had hoped that I should meet with you before you left California; but supposing that by that time you had reached your destination, or were, at least, far on your way, I yielded to the solicitations of my sister and made some excursions in California, intending then to follow you to Philadelphia, and there to advertise for Mr. Craig, if he could not otherwise be found. However, by the rarest and most fortunate of chances, we have met thus early, and for this I can never be too devoutly thankful."

"Nor we," said I, earnestly; "for our greatly desired acquaintance with you and your family could not have begun too soon."

"Now," said Mr. Dusante, "I will perform the duty for which my journey was undertaken, and I assure you it is a great pleasure to me to be able so soon to carry out this cherished purpose."

He then took up from the floor by his side the package which he had so safely guarded during his swift and perilous descent of the mountain-side, and which he had since kept close by him. Placing this upon his knee, he removed the light shawl in which it had been rolled, and then several pieces of wrapping-paper, revealing to our eyes the familiar fat little ginger-jar which had stood on the mantelpiece of the dining-room in the house on the island, and in which we had deposited our board money.

"It would be simply impossible for me," said Mr. Dusante, "to consent to retain in my possession money paid for the aid which I involuntarily rendered to shipwrecked people. Had I been present on the island, that aid would have been most heartily and freely given, and the fact of my absence makes no difference whatever in regard to my feelings on the subject of your paying for the food and shelter you found at my house. Having understood from Mr. Craig's letter that it was Mrs. Lecks who superintended the collection and depositing of the money, I now return to you, madam, this jar with its contents."

"And which," said Mrs. Lecks, sitting up very rigidly, with her hands clasped behind her, "I don't take. If it had been a day and a night, or even two nights and over a Sunday, it wouldn't have mattered; but when me and Mrs. Aleshine – and the rest of the party can speak for themselves – stays for weeks and weeks, without leave or license, in a man's house, we pay our board – of course deductin' services. Good night."

With that she arose, and walked, very erect, into the adjoining room.

"It was all very well, Mr. Dusante," said Mrs. Aleshine, "for you to try to carry out what you thought was right; but we have our ideas as to what our duty is, an' you have your ideas as to what your duty is, an' consciences is even."

Having said this, she followed her friend.

Mr. Dusante looked surprised and troubled, and he turned toward me. "My dear sir," said I, "those two good women are very sensitive in regard to right and justice, and I think it will be well not to press this subject upon them. As for my wife and me, neither of us would consent to touch money which was placed in that jar by Mrs. Lecks with the expectation that no one but you or one of your family would take it out."

"Very well, sir," said Mr. Dusante, replacing the wrapping-paper around the jar; "I will drop the subject for the present. But you will allow me to say, sir, that I also am very sensitive in regard to right and justice."

Early the next morning the man who had been sent to the railroad-station came back, bringing news that a four-horse wagon would shortly be sent for us, and also bearing a letter from Mr. Enderton to Ruth. In this that gentleman informed his daughter that he was quite well, but that he had suffered anxiety on account of her probable hardships in the abandoned stage-coach. He had hoped, however, that the snow which had precluded his return with assistance had fallen lightly in the elevated position in which she had been left; and he had trusted also that Mr. Craig had bethought himself to build a fire somewhere near the coach, where his daughter might be warmed; and that the provisions, of which he knew an ample quantity had been packed for the trip, had been properly heated for her and given to her at suitable intervals. This anxiety, he said, had added very much to his own mental disquietude occasioned by the violent vituperations and unjust demands of the driver of the stage-coach, who had seen fit to attack him with all manner of abuse, and might even have resorted to personal violence had it not been for the interference of by-standers and the locking of his room door. He was now, however, much relieved by the departure of this driver, and by the news that his daughter had reached a place of safety, which, of course, he had supposed she would do, her detention having occurred on an ordinary route of travel.

While waiting for the arrival of the wagon, the adventures of Mrs. Lecks, Mrs. Aleshine, and myself, as well as those of Ruth and her father, from the time the one party left America and the other China, were related at length to the Dusantes, who showed a deep interest in every detail, and asked many questions.

Mrs. Dusante, whose nervous equilibrium had been fully restored by her night's rest, and who, although feeling a little stiff and bruised, now declared herself quite well, proved to be a very pleasant lady of fifty-five or thereabouts. She was of a quiet disposition, but her speech and manner showed that in former years, at least, she had been a woman of society, and I soon found out that she was much interested in the study of character. This interest was principally shown in the direction of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine, whom she evidently looked upon as most remarkable women. If any of her sentiments were those of admiration, however, they were not returned in kind; Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine had but a small opinion of her.

"There's mother-in-laws, and stepmothers, and real mothers, and grandmothers, and sometimes great-grandmothers livin'," said Mrs. Lecks to me, apart; "but though Mr. Dusante may be a well-meanin' man, – and I don't doubt he is, – and wishin', I haven't the least reason to disbelieve, to do his whole duty by his fellow-men, still I must say, bein' brought up as I was, he hasn't any right to make a new kind of mother. To be sure, a man can adopt children, but that isn't goin' backward, like this is, which is ag'in' nat'ral law and gospel."

"I expect," said Mrs. Aleshine, who was with us, "that them French has got fashions that we don't know about, and thankful we ought to be that we don't! I never had no patience with French heels an' French arsenic-green beans; an' now, if there's to be adoptin' of mothers in this country, the next thing will be gullotynes."

"I don't see," said I, "why you look upon the Dusantes as French people. They are just as much American as French."

"Well," said Mrs. Lecks, "it's not for me and Mrs. Aleshine to set ourselves up to judge other people. In our part of the country we don't adopt mothers; but if they do it in France, or the Sandwich Islands, or down East, I don't know that we ought to have anything to say."

"He might as well have adopted a father at the same time," said Mrs. Aleshine, "although, to be sure, he would 'a' had to been particular to take one that was acquainted with Mrs. Dusante, and not had 'em strangers to each other, though parents to him."

"If I was you, Barb'ry Aleshine," said Mrs. Lecks, "I'd adopt some sort of rag to the top of my head to serve for a bonnet; for here comes the wagon, and I suppose now we'll be off."

We took leave of the kind-hearted ranch people, who looked upon us as a godsend into their lonely life, and disposed ourselves as comfortably as we could in the large wagon. Our journey of seven or eight miles to the railroad-station was slow, and over ways that were rough. Mrs. Dusante was a delicate woman and not used to hardship, whereas Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine were exceedingly vigorous and tough. The consequence of this difference was that the kindly hearts of the latter prompted them to do everything they could to prevent Mrs. Dusante feeling the bumps and jolts, and to give her such advantages of wraps and position as would help her to bear better the fatigues of the journey.

In doing this these good women gradually forgot the adopted mother, and came to think only of the very pleasant lady who needed their attentions, and who took such a lively and agreeable interest in their family histories, their homes, their manner of living, and everything that pertained to them; and before we reached the end of our trip these three were talking together like old friends. Ruth and Miss Lucille had also struck up a warm acquaintance, while I found Mr. Dusante a very entertaining man – of sedate and careful speech, ingenious ideas, and of a very courteous disposition.

When we arrived at the railroad-station we were met by Mr. Enderton, who showed a moderate degree of pleasure at seeing us, and an immoderate amount of annoyance, exhibited principally to me, in being obliged to give up to the women of our party the large room he had occupied in the only lodging-house in the little settlement.

When I informed him that the strangers with us were the Dusantes, on whose island we had been staying, he at first listened vaguely. He had always looked upon the Dusante family as a sort of fable used by Mrs. Lecks to countenance her exactions of money from the unfortunate sojourners on the island. But when I told him what Mr. Dusante had done, and related how he had brought the board money with him, and had offered to pay it back to us, an eager interest was aroused in him.

"I do not wonder," he exclaimed, "that the conscience-stricken man wishes to give the money back, but that any one should refuse what actually belongs to him or her is beyond my comprehension! One thing is certain – I shall receive my portion. Fifteen dollars a week for my daughter and myself that woman charged me, and I will have it back."

"My dear sir," I said, "your board was reduced to the same sum as that paid by the rest of us – four dollars a week each."

"I call to mind no reduction," said Mr. Enderton. "I remember distinctly the exorbitant sum charged me for board on a desert island. It made a deep impression upon me."

"I do not care to talk any further on this subject," I said. "You must settle it with Mrs. Lecks."

Mr. Enderton gave a great sniff, and walked away with dignity. I could not but laugh as I imagined his condition two minutes after he had stated his opinions on this subject to Mrs. Lecks.

When Mr. Dusante had started from San Francisco on his search for us, he had sent his heavy baggage ahead of him to Ogden City, where he purposed to make his first stop. He supposed that we might possibly here diverge from our homeward-bound route in order to visit the Mormon metropolis; and, if we had done so, he did not wish to pass us. It was therefore now agreed that we should all go to Ogden City, and there await the arrival of our effects left in the snowed-up vehicles on the mountain-side. We made arrangements with the station-master that these should be forwarded to us as soon as the stage-coach and the carriage could be brought down. All the baggage of my party was on the coach, and it consisted only of a few valises bought in San Francisco, and a package containing two life-preservers, which Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine said they would take home with them, if they took nothing else.

On the morning after our arrival at Ogden City, Mr. Dusante took me aside. "Sir," he said, "I wish to confide to you my intentions regarding the jar containing the money left by your party in my house, and I trust you will do nothing to thwart them. When your baggage arrives, you, with your party, will doubtless continue your eastern way, and we shall return to San Francisco. But the jar, with its contents, shall be left behind to be delivered to Mrs. Lecks. If you will take charge of the jar, and hand it to her, sir, I shall be obliged greatly."

I promised Mr. Dusante that I would not interfere with his intentions, but asserted that I could, on no account, take charge of the jar. The possession of that piece of pottery, with its contents, was now a matter of dispute between him and Mrs. Lecks, and must be settled by them.

"Very well, then, sir," he said. "I shall arrange to depart before you and your company, and I shall leave the jar, suitably packed, in the care of the clerk of this hotel, with directions to hand it to Mrs. Lecks after I am gone. Thus there will be nothing for her to do but to receive it."

Some one now came into the smoking-room, where we were sitting, and no more was said on this subject. Mr. Dusante's statement of his intention very much amused me, for Mrs. Lecks had previously taken me into her confidence in regard to her intentions in this matter. "Mr. Dusante," she had said, "hasn't dropped a word more about the money in that ginger-jar, but I know just as well as he does what he's goin' to do about it. When the time comes to go, he's goin' to slip off quietly, leavin' that jar behind him, thinkin' then I'll be obliged to take it, there bein' nobody to give it back to. But he'll find me just as sharp as he is. I've got the street and number of his business place in Honolulu from his sister, – askin' about it in an offhand way, as if it didn't mean anything, – an' if that jar is left for me, I'll pack it in a box, money and all, and I'll express it to Mr. Dusante; and when he gets to Honolulu he'll find it there, and then he'll know that two can play at that sort of game."

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