Writing Home: Texts
10. Sui Sin Far, “The Inferior Woman”
Amy Ling and Annette White-Parks, eds., Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings / Sui Sin Far (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995).
Mrs. Spring Fragrance walked through the leafy alleys of the park, admiring the flowers and listening to the birds singing. It was a beautiful afternoon with the warmth from the sun cooled by
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a refreshing breeze. As she walked along she meditated upon a book which she had some notion of writing. Many American women wrote books. Why should not a Chinese? She would write a book about Americans for her Chinese women friends. The American people were so interesting and mysterious. Something of pride and pleasure crept into Mrs. Spring Fragrance’s heart as she pictured Fei and Sie and Mai Gwi Far listening to Lae-Choo reading her illuminating paragrahs.
As she turned down a by-path she saw Will Carman, her American neighbor’s son, coming towards her, and by his side a young girl who seemed to belong to the sweet air and brightness of all the things around her. They were talking very earnestly and the eyes of the young man were on the girl’s face.
“Ah!” murmured Mrs. Spring Fragrance, after one swift glance. “It is love.”
She retreated behind a syringa bush, which completely screened her from view.
Up the winding path went the young couple.
“It is love,” repeated Mrs. Spring Fragrance, “and it is the ‘Inferior Woman.’”
She had heard about the Inferior Woman from the mother of Will Carman.
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After tea that evening Mrs. Spring Fragrance stood musing at her front window. The sun hovered over the Olympic mountains like a great, golden red-bird with dark purple wings, its long tail of light trailing underneath in the waters of Puget Sound.
“How very beautiful!” exclaimed Mrs. Spring Fragrance; then she sighed.
“Why do you sigh?” asked Mr. Spring Fragrance.
“My heart is sad,” answered the wife.
“Is the cat sick?” inquired Mr. Spring Fragrance.
Mrs. Spring Fragrance shook her head. “It is not our Wise One who troubles me today,” she replied. “It is our neighbors. The sorrow of the Carman household is that the mother desires for her son the Superior Woman, and his heart enshrines but the Inferior. I have seen them together today, and I know.”
“What do you know?”
“That the Inferior Woman is the mate for young Carman.”
Mr. Spring Fagrance elevated his brows. Only the day before, his wife’s arguments had all been in favor of the Superior Woman. He uttered some words expressive of surprise, to which Mrs. Spring Fragrance retorted:
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“Yesterday, O Great Man, I was a caterpillar!”
Just then young Carman came strolling up the path. Mr. Spring Fragrance opened the door to him. “Come in, neighbor,” said he. “I have received some new books from Shanghai.”
“Good,” replied young Carman, who was interested in Chinese literature. While he and Mr. Spring Fragrance discussed the “Odes of Chow” and the “Sorrows of Han,” Mrs. Spring Fragrance, sitting in a low easychair of rose-colored silk, covertly studied her visitor’s countenance. Why was his expression so much more grave than gay? It had not been so a year ago—before he had known the Inferior Woman. Mrs. Spring Fragrance noted other changes, also, both in speech and manner. “He is no longer a boy,” mused she. “He is a man, and it is the work of the Inferior Woman.”
“And when, Mr. Carman,” she inquired, “will you bring home a daughter to your mother?”
“And when, Mrs. Spring Fragrance, do you think I should?” returned the young man.
Mrs. Spring Fragrance spread wide her fan and gazed thoughtfully over its silver edge.
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“The summer moons will soon be over,” said she. “You should not wait until the grass is yellow.”
“The woodmen’s blows responsive ring,
As on the trees they fall,
And when the birds their sweet notes sing,
They to each other call.
From the dark valley comes a bird,
And seeks a lofty tree,
Ying goes its voice, and thus it cries:
‘Companion, come to me’
The bird, although a creature small
Upon its mate depends,
And shall we men, who rank o’er all,
Not seek to have our friends?”
quoted Mr. Spring Fragrance.
Mrs. Spring Fragrance tapped his shoulder approvingly with her fan.
“I perceive,” said young Carman, “that you are both allied against my peace.”
“It is for your mother,” replied Mrs. Spring Fragrance soothingly. “She will be happy when she knows that your affections are fixed by marriage.”
There was a slight gleam of amusement in the young man’s eyes as he answered: “But if my mother has no wish for a daughter—at least, no wish for the daughter I would want to give her?”
“When I first came to America,” returned
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Mrs. Spring Fragrance, “my husband desired me to wear the American dress. I protested and declared that never would I so appear. But one day he brought home a gown fit for a fairy, and ever since then I have worn and adored the American dress.”
“Mrs. Spring Fragrance,” declared young Carman, “your argument is incontrovertible.”
A young man with a determined set to his shoulders stood outside the door of a little cottage perched upon a bluff overlooking the Sound. The chill sea air was sweet with the scent of roses, and he drew in a deep breath of inspiration before he knocked.
“Are you not surprised to see me?” he inquired of the young person who opened the door.
“Not at all,” replied the young person demurely.
He gave her a quick almost fierce look. At their last parting he had declared that he would not come again unless she requested him, and that she assuredly had not done.
“I wish I could make you feel,” said he.
She laughed—a pretty infectious laugh
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which exorcised all his gloom. He looked down upon her as they stood together under the cluster of electric lights in her cozy little sitting-room. Such a slender, girlish figure! Such a soft cheek, red mouth, and firm little chin! Often in his dreams of her he had taken her into his arms and coaxed her into a good humor. But, alas! dreams are not realities, and the calm friendliness of this young person made any demonstration of tenderness well-nigh impossible. But for the shy regard of her eyes, you might have thought that he was no more to her than a friendly acquaintance.
“I hear,” said she, taking up some needlework, “that your Welland case comes on tomorrow.”
“Yes,” answered the young lawyer, “and I have all my witnesses ready.”
“So, I hear, has Mr. Greaves,” she retorted. “You are going to have a hard fight.”
“What of that, when in the end I’ll win.”
He looked over at her with a bright gleam in his eyes.
“I wouldn’t be too sure,” she warned demurely. “You may lose on a technicality.”
He drew his chair a little nearer to her side and turned over the pages of a book lying on her work-table. On the fly-leaf was inscribed
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in a man’s writing: “To the dear little woman whose friendship is worth a fortune.”
Another book beside it bore the inscription: “With the love of all the firm, including the boys,” and a volume of poems above it was dedicated to the young person “with the high regards and staunch affection” of some other masculine person.
Will Carman pushed aside these evidences of his sweetheart’s popularity with his own kind and leaned across the table.
“Alice,” said he, “once upon a time you admitted that you loved me.”
A blush suffused the young person’s countenance.
“Did I?” she queried.
“You did, indeed.”
“Well! If you love me and I love you—
“Oh, please!” protested the girl, covering her ears with her hands.
“I will please,” asserted the young man. "I have come here tonight, Alice, to ask you to marry me—and at once."
"Deary me!" exclaimed the young person; but she let her needlework fall into her lap as her lover, approaching nearer, laid his arm around her shoulders and, bending his face close to hers, pleaded his most important case.
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If for a moment the small mouth quivered, the firm little chin lost its firmness, and the proud little head yielded to the pressure of a lover’s arm, it was only for a moment so brief and fleeting that Will Carman had hardly become aware of it before it had been passed.
“No,” said the young person sorrowfully but decidely. She had arisen and was standing on the other side of the table facing him. “I cannot marry you while your mother regards me as beneath you.”
“When she knows you she will acknowledge you are above me. But I am not asking you to come to my mother, I am asking you to come to me, dear. If you will put your hand in mine and trust to me through all the coming years, no man or woman born can come between us.”
But the young person shook her head.
“No,” she repeated. “I will not be your wife unless your mother welcomes me with pride and pleasure.”
The night air was still sweet with the perfume of roses as Will Carman passed out of the little cottage door; but he drew in no deep breath of inspiration. His impetuous Irish heart was too heavy with disappointment. It might have been a little lighter, however, had he known that the eyes of the
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young person who gazed after him were misty with a love and yearning beyond expression.
“Will Carman has failed to snare his bird,” said Mr. Spring Fragrance to Mrs. Spring Fragrance.
Their neighbor’s son had just passed their veranda without turning to bestow upon them his usual cheerful greeting.
“It is too bad,” sighed Mrs. Spring Fragrance sympathetically. She clasped her hands together and exclaimed:
“Ah, these Americans! These mysterious, inscrutable, incomprehensible Americans! Had I the divine right of learning I would put them into an immortal book!”
“The divine right of learning,” echoed Mr. Spring Fragrance, “Humph!”
Mrs. Spring Fragrance looked up into her husband’s face in wonderment.
“Is not the authority of the scholar, the student, almost divine?” she queried.
“So ‘tis said,” responded he. “So it seems.”
The evening before, Mr. Spring Fragrance, together with several Seattle and San Francisco merchants, had given a dinner to a number of young students who had just
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arrived from China. The morning papers had devoted several columns to laudation of the students, prophecies as to their future, and the great influence which they would exercise over the destiny of their nation; but no comment whatever was made on the givers of the feast, and Mr. Spring Fragrance was therefore feeling somewhat unappreciated. Were not he and his brother merchants worthy of a little attention? If the students had come to learn things in America, they, the merchants, had accomplished things. There were those amongst them who had been instrumental in bringing several of the students to America. One of the boys was Mr. Spring Fragrance’s own young brother, for whose maintenance and education he had himself sent the wherewithal every year for many years. Mr. Spring Fragrance, though well read in the Chinese classics, was not himself a scholar. As a boy he had come to the shores of America, worked his way up, and by dint of painstaking study after working hours acquired the Western language and Western business ideas. He had made money, saved money, and sent money home. The years had flown, his business had grown. Through his efforts trade between his native town and the port city in which he lived had greatly
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increased. A school in Canton was being built in part with funds furnished by him and a railway syndicate, for the purpose of constructing a line of railway from the big city of Canton to his own native town, was under process of formation, with the name of Spring Fragrance at its head.
No wonder then that Mr. Spring Fragrance muttered “Humph!” when Mrs. Spring Fragrance dilated upon the “divine right of learning,” and that he should feel irritated and humiliated, when, after explaining to her his grievances, she should quote in the words of Confutze: “Be not concerned that men do not know you; be only concerned that you do not know them.” And he had expected wifely sympathy.
He was about to leave the room in a somewhat chilled state of mind when she surprised him again by pattering across to him and following up a low curtsy with these words:
“I bow to you as the grass bends to the wind. Allow me to detain you for just one moment.”
Mr. Spring Fragrance eyed her for a moment with suspicion.
“As I have told you, O Great Man,” continued Mrs. Spring Fragrance, “I desire to
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write an immortal book, and now that I have learned from you that it is not necessary to acquire the ‘divine right of learning’ in order to accomplish things, I will begin the work without delay. My first subject will be ‘The Inferior Woman of America.' Please advise me how I shall best inform myself concerning her.”
Mr. Spring Fragrance, perceiving that his wife was now serious, and being easily mollified, sat himself down and rubbed his head. After thinking for a few moments he replied:
“It is the way in America, when a person is to be illustrated, for the illustrator to interview the person’s friends. Perhaps, my dear, you had better confer with the Superior Woman.”
“Surely,” cried Mrs. Spring Fragrance, “no sage was ever so wise as my Great Man.”
“But I lack the ‘divine right of learning,’” dryly deplored Mr. Spring Fragrance.
“I am happy to hear it,” answered Mrs. Spring Fragrance. “If you were a scholar you would have no time to read American poetry and American newspapers.”
Mr. Spring Fragrance laughed heartily.
“You are no Chinese woman,” he teased. “You are an American.”
“Please bring me my parasol and my
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folding fan,” said Mrs. Spring Fragrance. “I am going out for a walk.”
And Mr. Spring Fragrance obeyed her.
“This is from Mary Carman, who is in Portland,” said the mother of the Superior Woman, looking up from the reading of a letter, as her daughter came in from the garden.
“Indeed,” carelessly responded Miss Evebrook.
“Yes, it’s chiefly about Will.”
“Oh, is it? Well, read it then, dear. I’m interested in Will Carman, because of Alice Winthrop.”
“I had hoped, Ethel, at one time that you would have been interested in him for his own sake. However, this is what she writes:
“I came here chiefly to rid myself of a melancholy mood which has taken possession of me lately, and also because I cannot bear to see my boy so changed towards me, owing to his infatuation for Alice Winthrop. It is incomprehensible to me how a son of mine can find any pleasure whatever in the society of such a girl. I have traced her history, and find that she is not only uneducated in the ordinary sense, but her environment, from childhood up, has been the sordid and demoralizing one
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of extreme poverty and ignorance. This girl, Alice, entered a law office at the age of fourteen, supposedly to do the work of an office boy. Now, after seven years in business, through the friendship and influence of men far above her socially, she holds the position of private secretary to the most influential man in Washington—a position which by rights belongs only to a well-educated young woman of good family. Many such applied. I myself sought to have Jane Walker appointed. Is it not disheartening to our woman’s cause to be compelled to realize that girls such as this one can win men over to be friends and lovers, when there are so many splendid young women who have been carefully trained to be companions and comrades of educated men?”
“Pardon me, mother,” interrupted Miss Evebrook, “but I have heard enough. Mrs. Carman is your friend and a well-meaning woman sometimes; but a woman suffragist, in the true sense, she certainly is not. Mark my words: If any young man had accomplished for himself what Alice Winthrop has accomplished, Mrs. Carman could not have said enough in his praise. It is women such as Alice Winthrop who, in spite of every drawback, have raised themselves to the level of those who have had every advantage, who are the pride and glory of America. There are thousands of them, all over this land: women who have been of service to others
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all their years and who graduated from the university of life with honor. Women such as I, who are called the Superior Women of America, are after all nothing but schoolgirls in comparison.
Mrs. Evebrook eyed her daughter mutinously. “I don’t see why you should feel like that,” said she. “Alice is a dear bright child, and it is prejudice engendered by Mary Carman’s disappointment about you and Will which is the real cause of poor Mary’s bitterness towards her; but to my mind, Alice does not compare with my daughter. She would be frightened to death if she had to make a speech!”
“You foolish mother!” rallied Miss Evebrook. “To stand upon a platform at woman suffrage meetings and exploit myself is certainly a great recompense to you and father for all the sacrifices you have made in my behalf. But since it please you, I do it with pleasure even on the nights when my beau should ‘come a courting.’”
“There is many a one who would like to come, Ethel. You’re the handsomest girl in this Western town—and you know it.”
“Stop that, mother. You know very well I have set my mind upon having ten years’
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freedom; ten years in which to love, live, suffer, see the world, and learn about men (not schoolboys) before I choose one.”
“Alice Winthrop is the same age as you are, and looks like a child beside you.”
“Physically, maybe; but her heart and mind are better developed. She has been out in the world all her life, I only a few months.”
“Your lecture last week on ‘The Opposite Sex’ was splendid.”
“Of course. I have studied one hundred books on the subject and attended fifty lectures. All that was necessary was to repeat in an original manner what was not by any means original.”
Miss Evebrook went over to a desk and took a paper therefrom.
“This,” said she, “is what Alice has written me in reply to my note suggesting that she attend next week the suffrage meeting, and give some of the experiences of her business career. The object I had in view when I requested the relation of her experiences was to use them as illustrations of the suppression and oppression of women by men. Strange to say, Alice and I have never conversed on this particular subject. If we had I would not have made this request of her, nor written her as I did. Listen:
I should dearly love to please you, but I am afraid that my experiences, if related, would not help the cause. It may be, as you say, that men prevent women from rising to their level; but if there are such men, I have not met them. Ever since, when a little girl, I walked into a law office and asked for work, and the senior member kindly looked me over through his spectacles and inquired if I thought I could learn to index books, and the junior member glanced under my hat and said: "This is a pretty little girl and we must be pretty to her," I have loved and respected the men amongst whom I have worked and wherever I have worked. I may have been exceptionally fortunate, but I know this: the men for whom I have worked and amongst whom I have spent my life, whether they have been business or professional men, students or great lawyers and politicians, all alike have upheld me, inspired me, advised me, taught me, given me a broad outlook upon life for a woman; interested me in themselves and in their work. As to corrupting my mind and my morals, as you say so many men do, when they have young and innocent girls to deal with: As a woman I look back over my years spent amongst business and professional men, and see myself, as I was at first, an impressionable, ignorant little girl, born a Bohemian, easy to lead and easy to win, but borne aloft and morally supported by the goodness of my brother men, the men amongst whom I have worked. That is why, dear Ethel, you will have to forgive me, because I cannot carry out your design, and help your work, as otherwise I would like to do.
“That mother,” declared Miss Evebrook, “answers all Mrs. Carman’s insinuations,
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and should make her ashamed of herself. Can any one know the sentiments which little Alice entertains toward men, and wonder at her winning out as she has?”
Mrs. Evebrook was about to make a reply, when her glance happening to stray out of the window, she noticed a pink parasol.
“Mrs. Spring Fragrance!” she ejaculated, while her daughter went to the door and invited in the owner of the pink parasol, who was seated in a veranda rocker calmly writing in a note-book.
“I’m so sorry that we did not hear your ring, Mrs. Spring Fragrance,” said she.
“There is no necessity for you to sorrow,” replied the little Chinese woman. “I did not expect you to hear a ring which rang not. I failed to pull the bell.”
“You forgot, I suppose,” suggested Ethel Evebrook.
“Is it wise to tell secrets?” ingenuously inquired Mrs. Spring Fragrance.
“Yes, to your friends. Oh, Mrs. Spring Fragrance, you are so refreshing.”
“I have pleasure, then, in confiding to you. I have an ambition to accomplish an immortal book about the Americans, and the conversation I heard through the window was so interesting to me that I thought I would
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take some of it down for my book before I intruded myself. With your kind permission I will translate for your correction.”
“I shall be delighted—honored,” said Miss Evebrook, her cheeks glowing and her laugh rippling, “if you will promise me that you will also translate for our friend, Mrs. Carman.”
“Ah, yes, poor Mrs. Carman! My heart is so sad for her,” murmured the little Chinese woman.
When the mother of Will Carman returned from Portland, the first person upon whom she called was Mrs. Spring Fragrance. Having lived in China while her late husband was in the customs service there, Mrs. Carman’s prejudices did not extend to the Chinese, and ever since the Spring Fragrances had become the occupants of the villa beside the Carmans, there had been social good feeling between the American and Chinese families. Indeed, Mrs. Carman was wont to declare that amongst all her acquaintances there was not one more congenial and interesting than little Mrs. Spring Fragrance. So after she had sipped a cup of delicious tea, tasted some piquant
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candied limes and told Mrs. Spring Fragrance all about her visit to the Oregon city and the Chinese people she had met there, she reverted to a personal trouble confided to Mrs. Spring Fragrance some months before and dwelt upon it for more than half an hour. Then she checked herself and gazed at Mrs. Spring Fragrance in surprise. Hithero she had found the little Chinese woman sympathetic and consoling. Chinese ideals of filial duty chimed in with her own. But today Mrs. Spring Fragrance seemed strangely uninterested and unresponsive.
“Perhaps,” gently suggested the American woman, who was nothing if not sensitive, “you have some trouble yourself. If so, my dear, tell me all about it.”
“Oh no!” answered Mrs. Spring Fragrance brightly. “I have no troubles to tell; but all the while I am thinking about the book I am writing.”
“Yes, a book about Americans, an immortal book.”
“My dear Mrs. Spring Fragrance!” exclaimed her visitor in amazement.
“The American woman writes books about the Chinese. Why not a Chinese woman write books about the Americans?”
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“I see what you mean. Why, yes, of course. What an original idea!”
“Yes, I think that is what it is. My book I shall take from the words of others.”
“What do you mean, my dear?”
“I listen to what is said, I apprehend, I write it down. Let me illustrate by the ‘Inferior Woman’ subject. The Inferior Woman is most interesting to me because you have told me that your son is in much love with her. My husband advised me to learn about the Inferior Woman from the Superior Woman. I go to see the Superior Woman. I sit on the veranda of the Superior Woman’s house. I listen to her converse with her mother about the Inferior Woman. With the speed of flames I write down all I hear. When I enter the house the Superior Woman advises me that what I write is correct. May I read to you?”
“I shall be pleased to hear what you have written; but do not think you were wise in your choice of subject,” returned Mrs. Carman somewhat primly.
“I am sorry I am not wise. Perhaps I had better not read?” said Mrs. Spring Fragrance with humility.
“Yes, yes, do, please.”
There was eagerness in Mrs. Carman’s
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voice. What could Ethel Evebrook have to say about that girl!
When Mrs. Spring Fragrance had finished reading, she looked up into the face of her American friend—a face in which there was nothing now but tenderness.
“Mrs. Mary Carman,” said she, “you are so good as to admire my husband because he is what the Americans call ‘a man who has made himself.’ Why then do you not admire the Inferior Woman who is a woman who has made herself?”
“I think I do,” said Mrs. Carman slowly.
It was an evening that invited to reverie. The far stretches of the sea were gray with mist, and the city itself, lying around the sweep of the Bay, seemed dusky and distant. From her cottage window Alice Winthrop looked silently at the open world around her. It seemed a long time since she had heard Will Carman’s whistle. She wondered if he were still angry with her. She was sorry that he had left her in anger, and yet not sorry. If she had not made him believe that she was proud and selfish, the parting would have been much harder; and perhaps
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had he known the truth and realized that it was for his sake, and not for her own, that she was sending him away from her, he might have refused to leave her at all. His was such an imperious nature. And then they would have married—right away. Alice caught her breath a little, and then she sighed. But they would not have been happy. No, that could not have been possible if his mother did not like her. When a gulf of prejudice lies between the wife and mother of a man, that man’s life is not what it should be. And even supposing she and Will could have lost themselves in each other, and been able to imagine themselves perfectly satisfied with life together, would it have been right? The question of right and wrong was a very real one to Alice Winthrop. She put herself in the place of the mother of her lover—a lonely elderly woman, a widow with an only son, upon whom she had expended all her love and care ever since, in her early youth, she had been bereaved of his father. What anguish of heart would be hers if that son deserted her for one whom she, his mother, deemed unworthy! Prejudices are prejudices. They are like diseases.
The poor, pale, elderly woman, who cherished bitter and resentful feelings towards the girl
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whom her son loved, was more an object of pity than condemnation to the girl herself.
She lifted her eyes to the undulating line of hills beyond the water. From behind them came a silver light. “Yes,” said she aloud to herself—and, though she knew it not, there was an infinite pathos in such philosophy from one so young—“if life cannot be bright and beautiful for me, at least it can be peaceful and contented.”
The light behind the hills died away; darkness crept over the sea. Alice withdrew from the window and went and knelt before the open fire in her sitting-room. Her cottage companion, the young woman who rented the place with her, had not yet returned from town.
Alice did not turn on the light. She was seeing pictures in the fire, and in every picture was the same face and form—the face and form of a fine, handsome young man with love and hope in his eyes. No, not always love and hope. In the last picture of all there was an expression which she wished she could forget. And yet she would remember—ever—always—and with it, these words: “Is it nothing to you—nothing—to tell a man that you love him, and then to bid him go?”
Yes, but when she had told him she loved him she had not dreamed that her love for
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him and his for her would estrange him from one who, before ever she had come to this world, had pillowed his head on her breast.
Suddenly this girl, so practical, so humorous, so clever in every-day life, covered her face with her hands and sobbed like a child. Two roads of life had lain before her and she had chosen the hardest.
The warning bell of an automobile passing the cross-roads checked her tears. That reminded her that Nellie Blake would soon be home. She turned on the light and went to the bedroom and bathed her eyes. Nellie must have forgotten her key. There she was knocking.
The chill sea air was sweet with the scent of roses as Mary Carman stood upon the threshold of the little cottage, and beheld in the illumination from within the young girl whom she had called “the Inferior Woman.”
“I have come, Miss Winthrop,” said she, “to beg of you to return home with me. Will, reckless boy, met with a slight accident while out shooting, so could not come for you himself. He has told me that he loves you, and if you love him, I want to arrange for the prettiest wedding of the season. Come dear!”
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“I am so glad,” said Mrs. Spring Fragrance, “that Will Carman’s bird is in his nest and his felicity is assured.”
“What about the Superior Woman?” asked Mr. Spring Fragrance.
“Ah, the Superior Woman! Radiantly beautiful, and gifted with the divine right of learning! I love well the Inferior Woman; but, O Great Man, when we have a daughter, may Heaven ordain that she walk in the groove of the Superior Woman.”
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