The Precipice

The Precipice


275 Pages
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Published 08 December 2010
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The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Precipice, by Elia Wilkinson Peattie
This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at
Title: The Precipice
Author: Elia Wilkinson Peattie
Release Date: April 27, 2004 [EBook #12177]
Language: English
Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1
Produced by Charles Aldarondo, Charlie Kirschner and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.
A Novel
A fanfare of trumpets is blowing to which women the world over are listening. They listen even against their wills, and not all of them answer, though all are disturbed. Shut their ears to it as they will, they cannot wholly keep out the clamor of those tru mpets, but whether in thrall to love or to religion, to custom or to old ideals of self-obliterating duty, they are stirred. They move in their sleep, or spring to action, and they present to the world a n ew problem, a new force--or a new menace....
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It was all over. Kate Barrington had her degree and her graduating honors; the banquets and breakfasts, the little intimate farewell gatherings, and the stirring convocation were through with. So now she was going home.
With such reluctance had the Chicago spring drawn to a close that, even in June, the campus looked poorly equipped for summer, and it was a pleasure, as she told her friend Lena Vroom, who had come with her to the station to see her off, to think how much further everything would be advanced "down-state."
"To-morrow morning, the first thing," she declared, "I shall go in the side entry and take down the garden shears and cut the roses to put in the Dresden vases on the marble mantelshelf in the front room."
"Don't try to make me think you're domestic," said Miss Vroom with unwonted raillery.
"Domestic, do you call it?" cried Kate. "It isn't being domestic; it's turning in to make up to lady mother for the four years she's been deprived of my society. You may not believe it, but that's been a hardship for her. I say, Lena, you'll be coming to see me one of these days?"
Miss Vroom shook her head.
"I haven't much feeling for a vacation," she said. "I don't seem to fit in anywhere except here at the University."
"I've no patience with you," cried Kate. "Why you should hang around here doing graduate work year after year passes my understanding. I declare I believe you stay here because it's cheap and passes the time; but really, you know, it's a makeshift."
"It's all very well to talk, Kate, when you have a home waiting for you. You're the kind that always has a place. If it wasn't your father's house it would be some other man's--Ray McCrea's, for example. As for me, I'm lucky to have acquired even a habit--and that's what collegeiswith me--since I've no home."
Kate Barrington turned understanding and compassionate eyes upon her friend. She had seen her growing a little thinner and more tense everyday; had seen her putting on spectacles, and fighting anaemia with tonics, and yielding unresistingly to shabbiness. Would she always be speeding breathlessly from one classroom to another, palpitantly yet sadly seeking for the knowledge with which she knew so little what to do?
The train came thundering in--they were waiting for it at one of the suburban stations--and there was only a second in which to say good-bye. Lena, however, failed to say even that much. She pecked at Kate's cheek with her nervous, thin lips, and Kate could only guess how much anguish was concealed beneath this aridity of manner. Some sense of it made Kate fling her arms about the girl and hold her in a warm embrace.
"Oh, Lena," she cried, "I'll never forget you--never!"
Lena did not stop to watch the train pull out. She marched away on her heelless shoes, her eyes downcast, and Kate, straining
her eyes after her friend, smiled to think there had been only Lena to speed her drearily on her way. Ray McCrea had, of course, taken it for granted that he would be informed of the hour of her departure, but if she had allowed him to come she might have committed herself in some absurd way--said something she could not have lived up to.
As it was, she felt quite peaceful and more at leisure than she had for months. She was even at liberty to indulge in memories and it suited her mood deliberately to do so. She went back to the day when she had persuaded her father and mother to let her leave the Silvertree Academy for Young Ladies and go up to the University of Chicago. She had been but eighteen then, but if she lived to be a hundred she never could forget the hour she streamed with five thousand others through Hull Gate and on to Cobb Hall to register as a student in that young, aggressive seat of learning.
She had tried to hold herself in; not to be too "heady"; and she hoped the lank girl beside her--it had been Lena Vroom, delegated by the League of the Young Women's Christian Association--did not find her rawly enthusiastic. Lena conducted her from chapel to hall, from office to woman's building, from registrar to dean, till at length Kate stood before the door of Cobb once more, fagged but not fretted, and able to look about her with appraising eyes.
Around her and beneath her were swarms, literally, of fresh-faced, purposeful youths and maidens, an astonishingly large number of whom were meeting after the manner of friends long separated. Later Kate discovered how great a proportion of that enthusiasm took itself out in mere gesture and vociferation; but it all seemed completely genuine to her that first day and she thought with almost ecstatic anticipation of the relationships which soon would be hers. Almost she looked then to see the friend-who-was-to-be coming toward her with miraculous recognition in her eyes.
But she was none the less interested in those who for one reason or another were alien to her--in the Japanese boy, concealing his wistfulness beneath his rigid breeding; in the Armenian girl with the sad, beautiful eyes; in the Yiddish youth with his bashful earnestness. Then there were the women past
their first youth, abstracted, and obviously disdainful of their personal appearance; and the girls with heels too high and coiffures too elaborate, who laid themselves open to the suspicion of having come to college for social reasons. But all appealed to Kate. She delighted in their variety--yes, and in all these forms of aspiration. The vital essence of their spirits seemed to materialize into visible ether, rose-red or violet-hued, and to rise about them in evanishing clouds.
She was recalled to the present by a brisk conductor who asked for her ticket. Kate hunted it up in a little flurry. The man had broken into the choicest of her memories, and when he was gone and she returned to her retrospective occupation, she chanced upon the most irritating of her recollections. It concerned an episode of that same first day in Chicago. She had grown weary with the standing and waiting, and when Miss Vroom left her for a moment to speak to a friend, Kate had taken a seat upon a great, unoccupied stone bench which stood near Cobb door. Still under the influence of her high idealization of the scene she lost herself in happy reverie. Then a widening ripple of laughter told her that something amusing was happening. What it was she failed to imagine, but it dawned upon her gradually that people were looking her way. Knots of the older students were watching her; bewildered newcomers were trying, like herself, to discover the cause of mirth. At first she smiled sympathetically; then suddenly, with a thrill of mortification, she perceived that she was the object of derision.
What was it? What had she done?
She knew that she was growing pale and she could feel her heart pounding at her side, but she managed to rise, and, turning, faced a blond young man near at hand, who had protruding teeth and grinned at her like a sardonic rabbit.
"Oh, what is it, please?" she asked.
"That bench isn't for freshmen," he said briefly.
Scarlet submerged the pallor in Kate's face.
"Oh, I didn't know," she gasped. "Excuse me."
She moved away quickly, dropping her handbag and having to stoop for it. Then she saw that she had left her gloves on the
bench and she had to turn back for those. At that moment Lena hastened to her.
"I'm so sorry," she cried. "I ought to have warned you about that old senior bench."
Kate, disdaining a reply, strode on unheeding. Her whole body was running fire, and she was furious with herself to think that she could suffer such an agony of embarrassment over a blunder which, after all, was trifling. Struggling valiantly for self-command, she plunged toward another bench and dropped on it with the determination to look her world in the face and give it a fair chance to stare back.
Then she heard Lena give a throaty little squeak.
"Oh, my!" she said.
Something apparently was very wrong this time, and Kate was not to remain in ignorance of what it was. The bench on which she was now sitting had its custodian in the person of a tall youth, who lifted his hat and smiled upon her with commingled amusement and commiseration.
"Pardon," he said, "but--"
Kate already was on her feet and the little gusts of laughter that came from the onlookers hit her like so many stones.
"Isn't this seat for freshmen either?" she broke in, trying not to let her lips quiver and determined to show them all that she was, at any rate, no coward.
The student, still holding his hat, smiled languidly as he shook his head.
"I'm new, you see," she urged, begging him with her smile to be on her side,--"dreadfully new! Must I wait three years before I sit here?"
"I'm afraid you'll not want to do it even then," he said pleasantly. "You understand this bench--the C bench we call it--is for men; any man above a freshman."
Kate gathered the hardihood to ask:--
"But why is it for men, please?"
"I don't know why. We men took it, I suppose." He wasn't inclined to apologize apparently; he seemed to think that if the men wanted it they had a right to it.
"This bench was given to the men, perhaps?" she persisted, not knowing how to move away.
"No," admitted the young man; "I don't believe it was. It was presented to the University by a senior class."
"A class of men?"
"Naturally not. A graduating class is composed of men and women. C bench," he explained, "is the center of activities. It's where the drum is beaten to call a mass meeting, and the boys gather here when they've anything to talk over. There's no law against women sitting here, you know. Only they never do. It isn't--oh, I hardly know how to put it--it isn't just the thing--"
"Can't you break away, McCrea?" some one called.
The youth threw a withering glance in the direction of the speaker.
"I can conduct my own affairs," he said coldly.
But Kate had at last found a way to bring the interview to an end.
"I said I was new," she concluded, flinging a barbed shaft. "I thought it was share and share alike here--that no difference was made between men and women. You see--I didn't understand."
The C bench came to be a sort of symbol to her from then on. It was the seat of privilege if not of honor, and the women were not to sit on it.
Not that she fretted about it. There was no time for that. She settled in Foster Hall, which was devoted to the women, and where she expected to make many friends. But she had been rather unfortunate in that. The women were not as coöperative as she had expected them to be. At table, for example, the conversation dragged heavily. She had expected to find it liberal, spirited, even gay, but the girls had a way of holding back. Kate had to confess that she didn't think men would be like that. They would--most of them--have understood that the
chief reason a man went to a university was to learn to get along with his fellow men and to hold his own in the world. The girls labored under the idea that one went to a university for the exclusive purpose of making high marks in their studies. They put in stolid hours of study and were quietly glad at their high averages; but it actually seemed as if many of them used college as a sort of shelter rather than an opportunity for the exercise of personality.
However, there were plenty of the other sort--gallant, excursive spirits, and as soon as Kate became acquainted she had pleasure in picking and choosing. She nibbled at this person and that like a cautious and discriminating mouse, venturing on a full taste if she liked the flavor, scampering if she didn't.
Of course she had her furores. Now it was for settlement work, now for dramatics, now for dancing. Subconsciously she was always looking about for some one who "needed" her, but there were few such. Patronage would have been resented hotly, and Kate learned by a series of discountenancing experiences that friendship would not come--any more than love--at beck and call.
That gave her pause. Love had not come her way. Of course there was Ray McCrea. But he was only a possibility. She wondered if she would turn to him in trouble. Of that she was not yet certain. It was pleasant to be with him, but even for a gala occasion she was not sure but that she was happier with Honora Daley than with him. Honora Daley was Honora Fulham now--married to a "dark man" as the gypsy fortune-tellers would have called him. He seemed very dark to Kate, menacing even; but Honora found it worth her while to shed her brightness on his tenebrosity, so that was, of course, Honora's affair.
Kate smiled to think of how her mother would be questioning her about her "admirers," as she would phrase it in her mid-Victorian parlance. There was really only Ray to report upon. He would be the beau ideal "young gentleman,"--to recur again to her mother's phraseology,--the son of a member of a great State Street dry-goods firm, an excellently mannered, ingratiating, traveled person with the most desirable social connections. Kate would be able to tell of the two mansions,
one on the Lake Shore Drive, the other at Lake Forest, where Ray lived with his parents. He had not gone to an Eastern college because his father wished him to understand the city and the people among whom his life was to be spent. Indeed, his father, Richard McCrea, had made something of a concession to custom in giving his son four years of academic life. Ray was now to be trained in every department of that vast departmental concern, the Store, and was soon to go abroad as the promising cadet of a famous commercial establishment, to make the acquaintance of the foreign importers and agents of the house. Oh, her mother would quite like all that, though she would be disappointed to learn that there had thus far been no rejected suitors. In her mother's day every fair damsel carried scalps at her belt, figuratively speaking--and after marriage, became herself a trophy of victory. Dear "mummy" was that, Kate thought tenderly--a willing and reverential parasite, "ladylike" at all costs, contented to have her husband provide for her, her pastor think for her, and Martha Underwood, the domineering "help" in the house at Silvertree, do the rest. Kate knew "mummy's" mind very well--knew how she looked on herself as sacred because she had been the mother to one child and a good wife to one husband. She was all swathed around in the chiffon-sentiment of good Victoria's day. She didn't worry about being a "consumer" merely. None of the disturbing problems that were shaking femininity disturbed her calm. She was "a lady," the "wife of a professional man." It was proper that she should "be well cared for." She moved by her well-chosen phrases; they were like rules set in a copybook for her guidance.
Kate seemed to see a moving-picture show of her mother's days. Now she was pouring the coffee from the urn, seasoning it scrupulously to suit her lord and master, now arranging the flowers, now feeding the goldfish; now polishing the glass with tissue paper. Then she answered the telephone for her husband, the doctor,--answered the door, too, sometimes. She received calls and paid them, read the ladies' magazines, and knew all about what was "fitting for a lady." Of course, she had her prejudices. She couldn't endure Oriental rugs, and didn't believe that smuggling was wrong; at least, not when done by the people one knew and when the things smuggled were pretty.
Kate, who had the spirit of the liberal comedian, smiled many times remembering these things. Then she sighed, for she realized that her ability to see these whimsicalities meant that she and her mother were, after all, creatures of diverse training and thought.
What! Silver tree? She hadn't realized how the time had been flying. But there was the sawmill. She could hear the whir and buzz! And there was the old livery-stable, and the place where farm implements were sold, and the little harness shop jammed in between;--and there, to convince her no mistake had been made, was the lozenge of grass with "Silvertree" on it in white stones. Then, in a second, the station appeared with the busses backed up against it, and beyond them the familiar surrey with a woman in it with yearning eyes.
Kate, the specialized student of psychology, the graduate with honors, who had learned to note contrasts and weigh values, forgot everything (even her umbrella) and leaped from the train while it was still in motion. Forgotten the honors and degrees; the majors were mere minor affairs; and there remained only the things which were from the beginning.
She and her mother sat very close together as they drove through the familiar village streets. When they did speak, it was incoherently. There was an odor of brier roses in the air and the sun was setting in a "bed of daffodil sky." Kate felt waves of beauty and tenderness breaking over her and wanted to cry. Her mother wanted to and did. Neither trusted herself to speak, but when they were in the house Mrs. Barrington pulled the pins out of Kate's hat and then Kate took the faded, gentle woman in her strong arms and crushed her to her.
"Your father was afraid he wouldn't be home in time to meet you," said Mrs. Barrington when they were in the parlor, where
the Dresden vases stood on the marble mantel and the rose-jar decorated the three-sided table in the corner. "It was just his luck to be called into the country. If it had been a really sick person who wanted him, I wouldn't have minded, but it was only Venie Sampson."
"Still having fits?" asked Kate cheerfully, as one glad to recognize even the chronic ailments of a familiar community.
"Well, she thinks she has them," said Mrs. Barrington in an easy, gossiping tone; "but my opinion is that she wouldn't be troubled with them if only there were some other way in which she could call attention to herself. You see, Venie was a very pretty girl."
"Has that made her an invalid, mummy?"
"Well, it's had something to do with it. When she was young she received no end of attention, but some way she went through the woods and didn't even pick up a crooked stick. But she got so used to being the center of interest that when she found herself growing old and plain, she couldn't think of any way to keep attention fixed on her except by having these collapses. You know you mustn't call the attacks 'fits.' Venie's far too refined for that."
Kate smiled broadly at her mother's distinctive brand of humor. She loved it all--Miss Sampson's fits, her mother's jokes; even the fact that when they went out to supper she sat where she used in the old days when she had worn a bib beneath her chin.
"Oh, the plates, the cups, the everything!" cried Kate, ridiculously lifting a piece of the "best china" to her lips and kissing it.
"Absurdity!" reproved her mother, but she adored the girl's extravagances just the same.
"Everything's glorious," Kate insisted. "Cream cheese and parsley! Did you make it, mummy? Currant rolls--oh, the wonders! Martha Underwood, don't dare to die without showing me how to make those currant rolls. Veal loaf--now, what do you think of that? Why, at Foster we went hungry sometimes--not for lack of quantity, of course, but because of the quality. I used to