Every morning, even before breakfast, Mary Eliot's mother would criticize her for at least five things that she had done wrong, or not done. They were always little things, sometimes very little things, but things there would be. There were two hypotheses. The first was that her mother, seething with anger at her absent husband, was venting it on the nearest persons at hand. The second was that her mother, in some crazy way, held her responsible for Mr. Eliot's apparent defection. Both hypotheses had merit, and, on both it made sense to get away as quickly after breakfast as possible.
The nearest sanctuary was next door. Dr. Stowe and Sink were always welcoming, and they even seemed able to cope with Timmy. Dr. Stowe had a calming effect on the boy, and Sink sometimes took Timmy upstairs to play with his sculptures and tools.
Sitting downstairs with Dr. Stowe while Sink and Timmy were upstairs, Mary said,
"I hope I'm not imposing on Sink too much. Timmy can be awful."
"You mean the golf club incident?"
"Well, that and others."
"But those weren't with anyone like Sink. I think Timmy is a very smart little boy. Sink says he has a lot of curiosity about mathematics, and can understand things you wouldn't expect such a young child to grasp."
"My gosh, I thought they were just playing up there."
"Well, you know Sink. It's always a mixture of play and some sort of art or intellection. Anyhow, how's your mother doing?"
"She's pretty poisonous to me. But Dr. Sam Woodger comes around to console her. She's nice to him."
"I dare say. But she'll change in many ways. Abandoned women either fall apart or go on a major campaign to improve themselves. I don't think your mother will fall apart."
"No. Is the purpose of the improvement project that of attracting a new man?"
"In this case, Dr. Woodger."
"Wow! Will she stop eating chocolates and lose weight?"
"He's an exercise person. She'll have a long way to go."
"I can't imagine her charging around the golf course with him at dawn."
"That's a bit much. Incidentally, he's gotten me to agree to do it with him."
"Really? At least you're used to walking around the course."
"Not at the pace he goes."
"When is this supposed to happen?"
"Soon. I hope not too soon."
"That man is amazingly forceful and pushy. All I need is to have him as a step father!"
"Well, Mary, there's an obvious solution. It would be tactless of me to mention it, but ...."
"I know. Don't imagine that I haven't thought about it. But I've known Sink all my life, and he's twelve years older. He must still think of me as a little kid."
"I doubt that he thinks that. And, in his way, he may be finding out if he can manage with Timmy. It seems that he can."
"I'll have to be careful not to give him too much Timmy. He might find out otherwise!"
Sink and Timmy came down a little later. As they conversed, Timmy sat with a legal pad, drawing something that Mary couldn't make out. Sink was sunny and humorous as usual, but Mary couldn't tell whether he felt any sexual attraction to her. She wished idly that she had at her command something like the techniques Lee had used so successfully on Warren Eliot.
That evening, Mary caught Ruth alone and explained the situation to her. Ruth responded,
"That's it, Mame! Lu and I both think that you and Sink are perfect for each other. Then, Lu could still play golf with him, and you and I could go to cafes. Even if Mimsie should marry Dr. Sam, it wouldn't do the rest of us all that much harm."
"Yes, it would be nice to have things wrapped up all neatly and tied with a bow. Just like Jane Austen. The trouble is that I can't figure out whether he's at all attracted to me. And he's used to Lee!"
"We never heard what Lee and Sink said to each other, but it seemed as if it was fun and jokes all the way. And, of course, Sink paid her. They couldn't have been all that lovey dovey."
"True. But there still has to be a certain amount of plain old lust."
"Well, you haven't paid much attention to your clothes recently. We could get you all fixed up for Sunday dinner. Good perfume and everything. That might do it."
It was on Friday that Lucy made the call to Maine. She
got on well with the Maine men, and, after a little preliminary chit-chat, she popped her question. The answer came back easily,
"Ayer, he left a couple days ago. He allowed he was feelin some odd, but the air'll do im good."
Ruth had urged her, in case her father had already passed through, to ask whether Lee was with him, saying,
"They'll probably assume that Lee is a man, but the way they answer the question will tell us something."
Lucy was also good at casually tossing in off-hand remarks and questions. She managed a tone of voice which made it sound as if Lee were an old boy with a big tummy and a big appetite for scrambled eggs and beer. The negative answer came back just as casually as the question. After Lucy finally hung up, she said,
"Of course, if Lee were there, Dad would have hidden her from the boat house people."
"If we do decide to tell Mimsie, we needn't point that out."
After a pause, Mary said,
"I think he, or he and Lee, will get tired of the boat. And she had been planning on teaching in North Dakota. It's already August, so she'll have to get moving pretty quickly if she's going to carry through on it. I don't think she'd leave them high and dry with no teacher to start the school year."
"So this is just a romantic interlude, and he'll be back?"
"Unless he's afraid of his reception from mother."
"Or unless this experience shows him how good life with another woman can be."
It was Lucy who said,
"We'd better not say anything until we know more. Dr. Stowe will tell Mary if he gets a call from Dad."
Ruth went shopping with Mary on Saturday to prepare for dinner the next day. Mary had always found Ruth more interesting when she wasn't with Lucy, and they talked as they drove over to the shops in Wellesley. Ruth said,
"Clothes shopping irritates Lu, but I still like it."
"Your mother isn't pushy the way ours is, is she?"
"No. It was always just assumed that I'd marry, and I liked boys. A little too well, actually."
"Did you have bad experiences?"
"Some. Enough to turn me away. In the meantime, I pretty much found out what men are like and how they work. Lu doesn't know or care, but it comes in handy at times."
"You probably know better than I do. With Dick, I didn't have to know anything. He was a self-starter, but Sink may need some encouragement."
"I think a pretty white dress will do it. Not enough like a wedding dress to scare him, but a virginal look."
"But neither he nor I are virgins."
"I don't think that matters. Despite the quirks, he's quite a conventional man. He'll be comfortable with a few illusions."
Mary, on a minimal weekly allowance, had almost no spending money. Indeed, her mother bought her clothes for her. These, while respectable and of good quality, were calculated not to get her into trouble with men. Ruth and Lucy, on the other hand, had considerable savings. Despite Mary's misgivings, it had been decided that an immediate investment in more attractive clothing for her was justified.
Ruth managed the salesladies better than Mary could have. Among other things, she kept them from grabbing handfuls of dresses at the back to make them conform to Mary's slim waist. The first two shops involved some fairly quiet conflicts of wills which Ruth won.
It was when Mary came out of the fitting room at the third shop, that Ruth pronounced approval. She said quietly to Mary,
"That material is good. It's easy to see through."
"But I have a slip that doesn't show through much, if at all."
"Sure. Mimsie won't be shocked. But it drives men crazy if they can see through the outer layer, no matter how much is underneath."
There had never been any thought of cancelling the usual Sunday dinner, but, in the changed circumstances, Mrs. Eliot invited Mr. and Mrs. Rolfe. In the event, Mary's new costume, complete with jewelry borrowed from Ruth, had its most obvious and immediate effect on Mr. Rolfe. The little man was virtually incoherent when he confronted Mary, which was probably just as well. Sink was clearly amused by the performance, and Mary was gladdened. His attention was certainly attached to her new style, and it was always possible that a better man might be influenced by a worse one.
* * * * * * * * *
Dr. Stowe, seemingly bumbling, managed a change of places that put Mary next to Sink. He was himself next to Mrs. Eliot, and remarked how nice Mary looked. Mrs. Eliot, surprisingly cheerful in the circumstances, replied,
"Yes, Ruth took her shopping yesterday and gave her a New York look. Besides, Dr. Stowe, you can't fool me. You've always wanted Mary for a daughter-in-law."
"Well, she's certainly an admirable young lady. She had a bad patch, but that's over."
"Of course, there's Timmy."
"Sink and I get along quite easily with him."
"So do I. It's just Mary who has trouble. But you might get her to be more sensible than I can."
"I do realize that you originally had in mind a pairing of Sink with Lucy, but things don't seem to be working out that way."
"Warren's escapades have changed everything. I may be the laughing-stock of the town, but I've simply stopped caring what people may think."
"A wise choice. In a way, you and I and Mrs. Rolfe can, in effect, form a sort of committee to give guidance to the younger people. Only when it's solicited, of course."
"I must say that Gertrude has been a great help to me. She's much more worldly-wise than I ever imagined. The only question, really, concerns Sink. Does he want to marry Mary?"
"As a general thing, I would have said that he didn't want to marry anyone. There have been girl friends all along, but they seldom lasted more than a few months."
"Do you talk with him about these things?"
"It's been a little tricky. A boy with no mother has a complicated relation to his father. And I'm not exactly the locker-room type who might trade off-color jokes with a teen- aged son."
"No, of course not. But you're also not pushy. If Dr. Sam were Sink's father, Sink wouldn't know any peace."
Dr. Stowe laughed and replied,
"I think I'll be able to tell how he feels about Mary. Right now, I would say that he very much likes being next to her."
"I think it will be something like a Victorian courtship. All we have to do is play our own roles."
"And that amounts simply to being nice to both parties."
As they turned to other conversational partners, Dr. Stowe wondered how much Mrs. Eliot might really have changed. Would she, for example, go so far as to be nice to Mary at breakfast.
Looking back at Mary and Sink, happily talking and laughing, Dr. Stowe overheard a few words and realized that they were laughing at him.
When they waddled home, their tummies overfilled, the two Stowes settled down in the front parlor. Sink made coffee, and, bringing it in, he said casually,
"Mary and I have arrived at the conclusion that the whole neighborhood wants us to marry."
That, thought Dr. Stowe, must have been what they were laughing about. He himself had been only part of an amusing conspiracy. He asked,
"How do you feel about that?"
"Mary's a practical young woman. She doesn't think I'm Romeo, but she'd rather live with us than with her own family. It's easy to see why, particularly now."
"Yes. What about you?"
"I've always known that she's smart, and I always found her interesting, even as a teenager. But I hadn't really looked at her closely until Lee told me some things about her. And then, just today, I realized how attractive she is."
"That sounds like full speed ahead."
"It's money. I don't want to work to support Mary and Timmy."
Dr. Stowe laughed and replied,
"I never imagined that you would. With luck, we could get Mary to cook so that we wouldn't always have to go to the same old restaurants."
"Yes. I wonder if she's a good cook."
"Is there any way of finding out?"
"Not easily or tactfully. We may have to just risk that one."
"Yes. After all, one doesn't want life to be totally predictable."