Frank Stockton.

The Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine

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As soon as she thought it fit and proper – and this moment arrived in the course of the first forenoon – Mrs. Lecks spoke to Mr. Enderton on the subject of the board which should be paid to the Dusantes. She stated the arrangements we had made in the matter, and then told him that as he and his daughter had the best accommodations in the house, each occupying a large, handsome room, she thought that he should pay fifteen dollars a week for the two.

"Now, if your daughter," she continued, "can do anything about the house which will be of real help, though for the life of me I don't see what she can find to do, with me and Mrs. Aleshine here, somethin' might be took off on account of her services; but of course you, sir, can't do nothin', unless you was to preach on Sundays, and not knowin' what denomination the Dusantes belong to, it wouldn't be fair to take their money to pay for the preachin' of doctrines which, perhaps, they don't believe in."

This financial proposal aroused Mr. Enderton's opposition. "When I came here, madam," he said, "I did not expect to pay any board whatever, and I think, moreover, that your rates are exorbitant. In Nanfouchong, if I remember rightly, the best of board did not cost more than two or three dollars a week."

"I don't want to say anything, sir," said Mrs. Lecks, "which might look disrespectful, but as long as I've got a conscience inside of me I'm not goin' to stay here and see the Dusantes lose money by Chinese cheapness."

"I don't know anything about the Dusantes," said Mr. Enderton, "but I am not going to pay fifteen dollars a week for board for myself and daughter."

The discussion lasted for some time, with considerable warmth on each side, and was at last ended by Mr. Enderton agreeing to pay board at the same rate as the two women and myself, and each week to deposit in the ginger-jar eight dollars for himself and daughter.

"You may not care to remember, sir," said Mrs. Lecks, with cold severity, "that Mr. Craig and me and Mrs. Aleshine puts in services besides, although, to be sure, they don't go into the jar."

"I only remember," said Mr. Enderton, "that I am paying an unjustifiable price as it is."

Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine, however, were not at all of this opinion, and they agreed that, if it should be in their power, they would see to it that the Dusantes lost nothing by this close-fisted missionary.

After dinner – and I may remark that the newcomers were not consulted in regard to the hours for meals – Mrs. Lecks had an interview with the coxswain on the subject of board for himself and his two companions. This affair, however, was very quickly settled, for the three mariners had among them only one dollar and forty-three cents, and this, the coxswain explained, they would like to keep for tobacco. It was therefore settled that, as the three sailors could pay no money, as much work as possible should be got out of them, and to this plan they agreed heartily and cheerfully.

"There's only one thing we'll ask, ma'am," said the coxswain to Mrs.

Lecks, "and that is that we be put in a different mess from the parson. We've now eat two meals with the passengers, and me and my mates is agreed that that's about as much as we can go."

After this, therefore, the three men had their meals in the kitchen, where they were generally joined by Mrs. Aleshine, who much delighted in their company. But she made it a point sometimes to sit down with us in the dining-room, merely to show that she had as much right there as anybody.

"As to the work for them sailormen," said Mrs. Aleshine, "I don't see what they're goin' to do. Of course they don't know nothin' about gardenin', and it seems to me that the best thing to be done is to put 'em to fishin'."

Mrs. Lecks considered this a good suggestion, and accordingly the coxswain and his companions were told that thereafter they would be expected to fish for eight hours a day, Sundays excepted. This plan, however, did not work very well. During the first two days the sailors caught so many fish that, although the fishermen themselves had excellent appetites for such food, it was found utterly impossible to consume what they brought in. Consequently, it was ordered that thereafter they should catch only as many fish as should be needed, and then make themselves useful by assisting Mrs. Aleshine and Mrs. Lecks in any manner they might direct.

I found it quite easy to become acquainted with Miss Ruth Enderton, as she was very much inclined to conversation. "It's ever so long," she said, "since I've had anybody to talk to."

She had left the United States when she was quite a little girl, and had since seen nothing of her native land. She was, consequently, full of questions about America, although quite willing to talk of her life in China. Society, at least such kind as she had ever cared for, had been extremely scarce in the little missionary station at which she had lived so long, and now, coming from a wearisome sojourn on a disabled sailing-vessel, with no company but the crew and a preoccupied father, she naturally was delighted to get among people she could talk to. With Mrs. Lecks, Mrs. Aleshine, and myself she soon became very friendly, and showed herself to be a most lively and interesting young person.

I did all that I could to make Miss Ruth's time pass agreeably. I rowed with her on the lagoon, taught her to fish, and showed her all the pleasant points on the island which could be easily reached by walking. Mr. Enderton gave us very little of his company, for, having discovered that there was a library in the house, he passed most of his time in that room.

"You have made a very fair selection of books, sir," he remarked to me, "but it may readily be conceived, from the character of the works, that your tastes are neither ecclesiastic nor scientific."

Several times I explained to him the ownership of the library and the house, but he immediately forgot what I had said, or paid no attention to it. When he paid his board at the end of the week, he handed the money to Mrs. Lecks; and although before his eyes she put it into the ginger-jar, beneath the paper of fish-hooks, I know very well that he considered he was paying it to her for her own use and behoof. He was comfortably lodged, he had all that he needed – and very nearly all that he wanted – to eat, and I do not know that I ever saw a man more contented with his lot.

As for the coxswain and the two sailors, they had a very pleasant time of it, but Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine would not think of such a thing as allowing them to eat in idleness the bread of the Dusantes. After they had been with us a few days, Mrs. Lecks told me that she thought she could show the coxswain and his mates how to dig and gather the garden-stuff which was daily needed.

"To be sure," said she, "that work goes ag'in' part of your board, but fishin' and bringin' in fire-wood don't take up quarter of the time of them sailors, and so that the garden work is done, I don't suppose it matters to the Dusantes who does it. And that'll give you more time to make things pleasant for Miss Ruth, for, as far as I can see, there isn't a thing for her to do, even if she knows how to do it."

The three mariners were more than willing to do anything desired by Mrs. Lecks or Mrs. Aleshine, to whom they looked up with great admiration and respect. The latter was their favorite, not only because she was with them a great deal during their meals and at other times, but because of her genial nature and easy sociability. The men were always trying to lighten her labors, and to do something that would please her.

One of them climbed to the top of what she called a "palm-leaf-fan tree," and brought therefrom some broad leaves, which he cut and trimmed and sewed, in true nautical fashion, until he made some fans which were heavy and clumsy, but, as he said, they would stand half a gale of wind if she chose to raise it. The coxswain caught or trapped two sea-birds, and, having clipped their wings, he spent days in endeavoring to tame them, hoping to induce them, as far as the power in them lay, to take the place of the barn-yard fowls whose absence Mrs. Aleshine continually deplored. Every evening the two black-bearded sailors would dance hornpipes for her, much to her diversion and delight.

"I've often heard," she remarked, "that in these hot cocoanut countries the tricks of the monkeys was enough to keep everybody on a steady laugh, but I'm sure sailormen is a great deal better. When you get tired of their pranks and their tomfooleries you can tell 'em to stop, which with monkeys you can't."

It was about ten days after the arrival of the missionary's party that, as I was going to get ready the boat in which Miss Ruth and myself generally rowed in the cool of the evening, I saw Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine sitting on the beach in the shade of some low-growing trees. They were evidently waiting for me, and as soon as I appeared Mrs. Lecks beckoned to me; whereupon I joined them.

"Sit down," said Mrs. Lecks; "there's somethin' I want to talk to you about. Mrs. Aleshine and me have made up our minds that you ought to be hurried up a little about poppin' the question to Miss Ruth."

This remark astounded me. "Popping the question!" I exclaimed.

"Yes," continued Mrs. Lecks, "and me and Mrs. Aleshine know very well that you haven't done it yet, for both of us havin' been through that sort of thing ourselves, we know the signs of it after it has happened."

"And we wouldn't say nothin' to hurry you," added Mrs. Aleshine, "if it wasn't that the groceries, especially the flour, is a-gettin' low. We've been talkin' to them sailormen, and they're pretty well agreed that there's no use now in expectin' their captain to send for 'em; for if he was a-goin' to do it at all, he'd 'a' done it before this. And perhaps he never got nowhere himself, in which case he couldn't. And they say the best thing we can all do when the victuals has nearly give out, provided the Dusantes don't come back in time, is to take what's left, and all get into their big boat, and row away to that island, which I don't know just how far it is, that the captain of our ship was goin' to. There we can stay pretty comfortable till a ship comes along and takes us off."

"But what has all that to do," I asked, "with Miss Ruth and me?"

"Do?" cried Mrs. Lecks. "It has everythin' to do. When it's all settled and fixed between you and Miss Ruth, there'll be nothin' to hinder us from gettin' ready to start when we please."

"But, my dear friends," I said with much earnestness, "I have not the slightest idea of proposing to Miss Enderton."

"That's just what I said to Mrs. Aleshine," said Mrs. Lecks, "and that's the reason we let our irons cool, and come out here to talk to you. It's just like a young man to keep puttin' off that sort of thing, but this can't be put off."

"That's so!" cried Mrs. Aleshine; "and I'll just let you see how the matter stands. There is housekeepers who allows a pint of flour a day to each person, but this is for farm-hands and people who works hard and eats hearty, and I've found that three quarters of a pint will do very well, if the dough is kneaded conscientious and made up light, so that it'll rise well when it's put into the oven. Now I've measured all the flour that's left, and me and Mrs. Lecks we've calculated that, allowin' three quarters of a pint of flour a day to each one of us, there's just eight days more that we can stay here – that is, if the Dusantes don't come back before that time, which, of course, can't be counted on. So you can see for yourself, Mr. Craig, there's no time to be lost, even considerin' that she hasn't to make up anything to be married in."

"No," said Mrs. Lecks; "just for us and three sailors, that wouldn't be needed."

I looked from one to the other in dumb astonishment. Mrs. Lecks gave me no time to say anything.

"In common cases," said she, "this might all be put off till we got somewhere; but it won't do now. Here you are, with everythin' in your own hands, but just get away from here, and there's an end of that. She's as pretty a girl as you'll see in a month of Sundays, and if she leaves here without your gettin' her, there's no knowing who'll snap her up. When we've got to that island, you may see her once a week, but maybe you won't. She may go away in one ship, and you in another, and there may be somebody right there – a missionary, for all I know – who'll have her before you have a chance to put in a word."

"And that's not the worst of it," said Mrs. Aleshine. "Supposin' them Dusantes come back before we go. There's no knowin' what that Mr. Dusante is. He may be a brother of Emily and Lucille. And what sort of a chance would you have then, I'd like to know, with Miss Ruth right here in his own house, and he ownin' the rowboat, and everythin'? Or it may be he's a widower, and that'll be a mighty sight worse, I can tell you."

"No matter whether they're widowers or never been married," said Mrs. Lecks, "there'll be plenty that'll want her as soon as they see her; and if it isn't for the girl's own pretty face, it'll be for her father's money."

"Her father's money!" I exclaimed. "What are you talking of?"

"There's no good tellin' me anything about that," said Mrs. Lecks, very decidedly. "There never was a man as close-fisted as Mr. Enderton who hadn't money."

"And you know as well as we do," said Mrs. Aleshine, "that in them countries where he's been the heathens worship idols of silver and idols of gold, and when them heathens is converted, don't you suppose the missionaries get any of that? I expect that Mr. Enderton has converted thousands of heathens."

At this suggestion I laughed outright. But Mrs. Lecks reproved me.

"Now, Mr. Craig," said she, "this is no laughin' matter. What me and Mrs. Aleshine is sayin' is for your good, and for the good of Miss Ruth along with you. I haven't much opinion of her father, but his money is as good as anybody else's, and though they had to leave their trunks on board their ship, what little they brought with them shows that they've been used to havin' the best there is. Mrs. Aleshine and me has set up till late into the night talkin' over this thing, and we are both of one mind that you two need never expect to have the same chance again that you've got now. The very fact that the old gentleman is a preacher, and can marry you on the spot, ought to make you tremble when you think of the risks you are runnin' by puttin' it off."

"I've got to go into the house now to see about supper," said Mrs. Aleshine, rising, "and I hope you'll remember, Mr. Craig, when your bread is on your plate, and Miss Ruth is sittin' opposite to you, that three quarters of a pint of flour a day is about as little as anybody can live on, and that time is flyin'."

Mrs. Lecks now also rose. But I detained the two for a moment.

"I hope you have not said anything to Miss Enderton on this subject," I said.

"No," replied Mrs. Aleshine, "we haven't. We are both agreed that as you're the one that's to do what's to be done, you are the one that's to be spoke to. And havin' been through it ourselves, we understand well enough that the more a woman don't know nothin' about it, the more likely she is to be ketched if she wants to be."

The two women left me in an amused but also somewhat annoyed state of mind. I had no intention whatever of proposing to Miss Ruth Enderton. She was a charming girl, very bright and lively, and withal, I had reason to believe, very sensible. But it was not yet a fortnight since I first saw her, and no thought of marrying her had entered into my head. Had Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine, or, more important than all, had Miss Enderton, any reason to believe that I was acting the part of a lover?

The latter portion of this question was almost immediately answered to my satisfaction by the appearance of Miss Ruth, who came skipping down to me and calling out to me in that free and hearty manner with which a woman addresses a friend or near acquaintance, but never a suspected lover. She betrayed no more notion of the Lecks and Aleshine scheme than on the day I first met her.

But, as I was rowing her over the lagoon, I felt a certain constraint which I had not known before. There was no ground whatever for the wild imaginings of the two women, but the fact that they had imagined interfered very much with the careless freedom with which I had previously talked to Miss Ruth. I do not think, however, that she noticed any change in me, for she chatted and laughed, and showed, as she had done from the first, the rare delight which she took in this novel island life.

When we returned to the house, we were met by Mrs. Aleshine. "I am goin' to give you two your supper," she said, "on that table there under the tree. We all had ours a little earlier than common, as the sailormen seemed hungry; and I took your father's to him in the libr'ry, where I expect he's a-sittin' yet, holdin' a book in one hand and stirrin' his tea with the other, till he's stirred out nearly every drop on the floor; which, however, won't matter at all, for in the mornin' I'll rub up that floor till it's as bright as new."

This plan delighted Miss Ruth, but I saw in it the beginning of the workings of a deep-laid scheme. I was just about to sit down when Mrs. Aleshine said to me in a low voice, as she left us:

"Remember that the first three quarters of a pint apiece begins now!"

"Don't you think that Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine are perfectly charming?" said Miss Ruth, as she poured out the tea. "They always seem to be trying to think of some kind thing to do for other people."

I agreed entirely with Miss Enderton's remark, but I could not help thinking of the surprise she would feel if she knew of the kind thing that these two women were trying to do for her.

"Have you taken any steps yet?" asked Mrs. Lecks of me, the next day. On my replying that I had taken no steps of the kind to which I supposed she alluded, she walked away with a very grave and serious face.

A few hours later Mrs. Aleshine came to me. "There's another reason for hurryin' up," said she. "Them sailormen seems able to do without 'most anything in this world except tobacco, and Mrs. Lecks has been sellin' it to 'em out of a big box she found in a closet up-stairs, at five cents a teacupful, – which I think is awful cheap, but she says prices in islands is always low, – and wrapping the money up in a paper, with 'Cash paid by sailormen for tobacco' written on it, and puttin' it into the ginger-jar with the board money. But their dollar and forty-three cents is nearly gone, and Mrs. Lecks she says that not a whiff of Mr. Dusante's tobacco shall they have if they can't pay for it. And when they have nothin' to smoke they'll be wantin' to leave this island just as quick as they can, without waitin' for the flour to give out."

Here was another pressure brought to bear upon me. Not only the waning flour, but the rapidly disappearing tobacco money was used as a weapon to urge me forward to the love-making which Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine had set their hearts upon.

I was in no hurry to leave the island, and hoped very much that when we did go we should depart in some craft more comfortable than a ship's boat. In order, therefore, to prevent any undue desire to leave on the part of the sailors, I gave them money enough to buy a good many teacups full of tobacco. By this act I think I wounded the feelings of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine, although I had no idea that such would be the effect of my little gift. They said nothing to me on the subject, but their looks and manners indicated that they thought I had not been acting honorably. For two days they had very little to say to me, and then Mrs. Aleshine came to me to make what, I suppose, was their supreme effort.

"Mrs. Lecks and me is a-goin' to try," she said, – and as she spoke she looked at me with a very sad expression and a watery appearance about the eyes, – "to stretch out the time for you a little longer. We are goin' to make them sailormen eat more fish; and as for me and her, we'll go pretty much without bread, and make it up, as well as we can, on other things. You and Miss Ruth and the parson can each have your three quarters of a pint of flour a day, just the same as ever, and what we save ought to give you three or four days longer."

This speech moved me deeply. I could not allow these two kind-hearted women to half starve themselves in order that I might have more time to woo, and I spoke very earnestly on the subject to Mrs. Aleshine, urging her to give up the fanciful plans which she and Mrs. Lecks had concocted.

"Let us drop this idea of love-making," I said, "which is the wildest kind of vagary, and all live happily together, as we did before. If the provisions give out before the Dusantes come back, I suppose we shall have to leave in the boat; but, until that time comes, let us enjoy life here as much as we can, and be the good friends that we used to be."

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