The Butterfly House
The Butterfly House
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
“A Humble Romance,” “A New England Nun,”
“The Winning Lady,” etc.
With illustrations by
Paul Julien Meylan
Dodd, Mead and Company
Fairbridge, the little New Jersey village, or rather city (for ithad won municipal government some years before, in spite of theprotest of far-seeing citizens who descried in the distance bondeddebts out of proportion to the tiny shoulders of the place), was amisnomer. Often a person, being in Fairbridge for the first time, andbeing driven by way of entertainment about the rural streets, wouldinquire, “Why Fairbridge?”
Bridges there were none, except those over which the trainsthundered to and from New York, and the adjective, except to oldinhabitants who had a curious fierce loyalty for the place, did notseemingly apply. Fairbridge could hardly, by an unbiassed person whodid not dwell in the little village and view its features through therosy glamour of home life, be called “fair.” There werea few pretty streets, with well-kept sidewalks, and ambitious,although small houses, and there were many lovely bits of views to beobtained, especially in the green flush of spring, and the red glowof autumn over the softly swelling New Jersey landscape with its warmred soil to the distant rise of low blue hills; but it was not fairenough in a general way to justify its name. Yet Fairbridge it was,without bridge, or natural beauty, and no mortal knew why. The originof the name was lost in the petty mist of a petty past.
Fairbridge was tragically petty, inasmuch as it saw itself great.In Fairbridge narrowness reigned, nay, tyrannised, and was notrecognised as such. There was something fairly uncanny aboutFairbridge's influence upon people after they had lived there even afew years. The influence held good, too, in the cases of men whodaily went to business or professions in New York. Even Wall Streetwas no sinecure. Back they would come at night, and the terrible,narrow maelstrom of pettiness sucked them in. All outside interestwas as naught. International affairs seemed insignificant when onceone was really in Fairbridge.
Fairbridge, although rampant when local politics were concerned,had no regard whatever for those of the nation at large, except asthey involved Fairbridge. Fairbridge, to its own understanding, was anucleus, an ultimatum. It was an example of the triumph of theinfinitesimal. It saw itself through a microscope and loomed upgigantic. Fairbridge was like an insect, born with the convictionthat it was an elephant. There was at once something ludicrous, andmagnificent, and terrible about it. It had the impressiveness of theabnormal and prehistoric. In one sense, it was prehistoric.It was as a giant survivor of a degenerate species.
Withal, it was puzzling. People if pinned down could not say why,in Fairbridge, the little was so monstrous, whether it depended uponlocal conditions, upon the general population, or upon a few who hadan undue estimation of themselves and all connected with them. WasFairbridge great because of its inhabitants, or were the inhabitantsgreat because of Fairbridge? Who could say? And why was Fairbridge soimportant that its very smallness overwhelmed that which, by thenature of things, seemed overwhelming? Nobody knew, or rather, sotremendous was the power of the small in the village, that nobodyinquired.
It is entirely possible that had there been any delicate gauge ofmentality, the actual swelling of the individual in his ownestimation as he neared Fairbridge after a few hours' absence, mighthave been apparent. Take a broker on Wall Street, for instance, or alawyer who had threaded his painful way to the dim light ofunderstanding through the intricate mazes of the law all day, as histrain neared his loved village. From an atom that went to make up themotive power of a great metropolis, he himself became an entirety. Hewas It with a capital letter. No wonder that under the circumstancesFairbridge had charms that allured, that people chose it for suburbanresidences, that the small, ornate, new houses with their perkylittle towers and æsthetic diamond-paned windows,multiplied.
Fairbridge was in reality very artistically planned as to thesites of its houses. Instead of the regulation Main Street of thecountry village, with its centre given up to shops and post-office,side streets wound here and there, and houses were placed with a viewto effect.
The Main Street of Fairbridge was as naught from a social point ofview. Nobody of any social importance lived there. Even thephysicians had their residences and offices in a more aristocraticlocality. Upon the Main Street proper, that which formed the centreof the village, there were only shops and a schoolhouse and one ortwo mean public buildings. For a village of the self-importance ofFairbridge, the public buildings were very few and very mean. Therewas no city hall worthy of the name of this little city which heldits head so high. The City Hall, so designated by ornate gilt lettersupon the glass panel of a very small door, occupied part of thebuilding in which was the post-office. It was a tiny building, twostories high. On the second floor was the millinery shop of Mrs.Creevy, and behind it the two rooms in which she kept house with herdaughter Jessy.
On the lower floor was the post-office on the right, filthy withthe foot tracks of the Fairbridge children who crowded it in a noisyrabble twice a day, and perpetually red-stained with the shale of NewJersey, brought in upon the boots of New Jersey farmers, who alwaysbore about with them a goodly portion of their native soil. On theleft, was the City Hall. This was vacant except upon the first Mondayof every month, when the janitor of the Dutch Reformed Church, whoeked out a scanty salary with divers other tasks, got himself towork, and slopped pails of water over the floor, then swept, andbuilt a fire, if in winter.
Upon the evenings of these first Mondays the Mayor and cityofficials met and made great talk over small matters, and with thelabouring of a mountain, brought forth mice. The City Hall was closedupon other occasions, unless the village talent gave a play for somelocal benefit. Fairbridge was intensely dramatic, and it waspopularly considered that great, natural, histrionic gifts weresquandered upon the Fairbridge audiences, appreciative though theywere. Outside talent was never in evidence in Fairbridge. Notheatrical company had ever essayed to rent that City Hall. People inFairbridge put that somewhat humiliating fact from their minds.Nothing would have induced a loyal citizen to admit that Fairbridgewas too small game for such purposes. There was a tiny theatre in theneighbouring city of Axminister, which had really some claims tobeing called a city, from tradition and usage, aside from size.Axminister was an ancient Dutch city, horribly uncomfortable, butexceedingly picturesque. Fairbridge looked down upon it, and seldompatronised the shows (they never said “plays”) staged inits miniature theatre. When they did not resort to their own CityHall for entertainment by local talent, they arrayed themselves intheir best and patronised New York itself.
New York did not know that it was patronised, but Fairbridge knew.When Mr. and Mrs. George B. Slade boarded the seven o'clock train,Mrs. Slade, tall, and majestically handsome, arrayed most elegantly,and crowned with a white hat (Mrs. Slade always affected white hatswith long drooping plumes upon such occasions), and George B., nattyin his light top coat, standing well back upon the heels of his shinyshoes, with the air of the wealthy and well-assured, holding a beltedcigar in the tips of his grey-gloved fingers, New York was mostdistinctly patronised, although without knowing it.
It was also patronised, and to a greater extent, by little Mrs.Wilbur Edes, very little indeed, so little as to be almost symbolicof Fairbridge itself, but elegant in every detail, so elegant as toarrest the eye of everybody as she entered the train, holding up thetail of her black lace gown. Mrs. Edes doted on black lace. Hersmall, fair face peered with a curious calm alertness from under theblack plumes of her great picture hat, perched sidewise upon acarefully waved pale gold pompadour, which was perfection and wouldhave done credit to the best hairdresser or the best French maid inNew York, but which was achieved solely by Mrs. Wilbur Edes' ownnative wit and skilful fingers.
Mrs. Wilbur Edes, although small, was masterly in everything, fromwaving a pompadour to conducting theatricals. She herself was thestar dramatic performer of Fairbridge. There was a strong feeling inFairbridge that in reality she might, if she chose, rival Bernhardt.Mrs. Emerston Strong, who had been abroad and had seen Bernhardt onher native soil, had often said that Mrs. Edes reminded her of thegreat French actress, although she was much handsomer, and so moral!Mrs. Wilbur Edes was masterly in morals, as in everything else. Shewas much admired by the opposite sex, but she was a model wife andmother.
Mr. Wilbur Edes was an admired accessory of his wife. He was sovery tall and slender as to suggest forcible elongation. He carriedhis head with a deprecatory, sidewise air as if in accordance withhis wife's picture hat, and yet Mr. Wilbur Edes, out of Fairbridgeand in his law office on Broadway, was a man among men. He was anexception to the personal esteem which usually expanded a malecitizen of Fairbridge, but he was the one and only husband of Mrs.Wilbur Edes, and there was not room at such an apex as she occupiedfor more than one. Tall as Wilbur Edes was, he was overshadowed bythat immaculate blond pompadour and that plumed picture hat. He was aprime favourite in Fairbridge society; he was liked and admired, buthis radiance was reflected, and he was satisfied that it should beso. He adored his wife. The shadow of her black picture hat was hisplace of perfect content. He watched the admiring glances of othermen at his wonderful possession with a triumph and pride which madehim really rather a noble sort. He was also so fond and proud of hislittle twin daughters, Maida and Adelaide, that the fondness andpride fairly illuminated his inner self. Wilbur Edes was a cleverlawyer, but love made him something bigger. It caused him to immolateself, which is spiritually enlarging self.
In one respect Wilbur Edes was the biggest man in Fairbridge; inanother, Doctor Sturtevant was. Doctor Sturtevant depended upon noother person for his glory. He shone as a fixed star, with his ownlustre. He was esteemed a very great physician indeed, and it wasconsidered that Mrs. Sturtevant, who was good, and honest, and portlywith a tight, middle-aged portliness, hardly lived up to her husband.It was admitted that she tried, poor soul, but her limitations wereheld to be impossible, even by her faithful straining following oflove.
When the splendid, florid Doctor, with his majestically curvingexpanse of waistcoat and his inscrutable face, whirred through thestreets of Fairbridge in his motor car, with that meek bulk ofwomanhood beside him, many said quite openly how unfortunate it wasthat Doctor Sturtevant had married, when so young, a woman somanifestly his inferior. They never failed to confer that faintpraise, which is worse than none at all, upon the poor soul.
“She is a good woman,” they said. “She meanswell, and she is a good housekeeper, but she is no companion for aman like that.”
Poor Mrs. Sturtevant was aware of her status in Fairbridge, andshe was not without a steady, plodding ambition of her own. Thatutterly commonplace, middle-aged face had some lines of strength.Mrs. Sturtevant was a member of the women's club of Fairbridge, whichwas poetically and cleverly called the Zenith Club.
She wrote, whenever it was her turn to do so, papers upon everyimaginable subject. She balked at nothing whatever. She ranged fromhousehold discussions to the Orient. Then she stood up in the midstof the women, sunk her double chin in her lace collar, and read herpaper in a voice like the whisper of a blade of grass. DoctorSturtevant had a very low voice. His wife had naturally a stridentone, but she essayed to follow him in the matter of voice, as in allother things. The poor hen bird tried to voice her thoughts like hermate, and the result was a strange and weird note. However, Mrs.Sturtevant herself was not aware of the result. When she sat downafter finishing her papers her