Story type: Literature
The fabric of my faithful love
No power shall dim or ravel
Whilst I stay here,–but oh, my dear,
If I should ever travel!
If you’ve spent more than one day in Okoochee, Oklahoma, you’ve had dinner at Pardee’s. Someone–a business acquaintance, a friend, a townsman–has said, “Oh, you stopping at the Okmulgee Hotel? WON–derful, isn’t it? Nothing finer here to the Coast. I bet you thought you were coming to the wilderness, didn’t you? You Easterners! Think we live in tents and eat jerked venison and maize, huh? Never expected, I bet, to see a twelve-story hotel with separate ice-water faucet in every bathroom and a bath to every room. What’d you think of the Peacock grill, h’m?”
“Well–uh”–hesitatingly–“very nice, but why don’t you have something native … Decorations and … Peacock grill is New York, not Okla—-“
“Z’that so! Well, let me tell you you won’t find any better food or service in any restaurant, New York or I don’t care where. But say, hotel meals are hotel meals. You get tired of ’em. Ever eat at Pardee’s, up the street? Say, there’s food! If you’re going to be here in town any time why’n’t you call up there some evening before six–you have to leave ’em know–and get one of Pardee’s dinners? Thursday’s chicken. And when I say chicken I mean—-Well, just try it, that’s all…. And for God’s sake don’t make a mistake and tip Maxine.”
Pardee’s you find to be a plain box-like two-story frame house in a quiet and commonplace residential district. Plainly–almost scantily–furnished as to living room and dining room. The dining room comfortably seats just twenty, but the Pardees “take” eighteen diners–no more. This because Mrs. Pardee has eighteen of everything in silver. And that means eighteen of everything from grapefruit spoons to cheese knives; and finger bowls before and after until you feel like an early Roman. As for Maxine–the friendly warning is superfluous. You would as soon have thought of slipping Hebe a quarter on Olympus–a rather severe-featured Hebe in a white silk blouse ordered through Vogue.
All this should have been told in the past tense, because Pardee’s is no more. But Okoochee, Oklahoma, is full of paradoxes like Pardee’s. Before you understand Maxine Pardee and her mother in the kitchen (dishing up) you have to know Okoochee. And before you know Okoochee you have to know Sam Pardee, missing.
There are all sorts of stories about Okoochee, Oklahoma–and almost every one of them is true. Especially are the fantastic ones true–the incredible ones. The truer they are the more do they make such Arabian knights as Aladdin and Ali Baba appear dull and worthy gentlemen in the retail lamp and oil business, respectively. Ali Baba’s exploit in oil, indeed, would have appeared too trivial for recounting if compared with that of any one of a dozen Okoochee oil wizards.
Take the tale of the Barstows alone, though it hasn’t the slightest bearing on this story. Thirteen years ago the Barstows had a parched little farm on the outskirts of what is now the near-metropolis of Okoochee, but what was then a straggling village in the Indian Territory. Ma Barstow was a woman of thirty-five who looked sixty; withered by child-bearing; scorched by the sun; beaten by the wind; gnarled with toil; gritty with dust. Ploughing the barren little farm one day Clem Barstow had noticed a strange oily scum. It seeped up through the soil and lay there, heavily. Oil! Weeks of suspense, weeks of disappointment, weeks of hope. Through it all Ma Barstow had washed, scrubbed, cooked as usual, and had looked after the welfare of the Barstow litter. Seventeen years of drudgery dull the imagination. When they struck the great gusher–it’s still known as Barstow’s Old Faithful–they came running to her with the news. She had been washing a great tubful of harsh greasy clothes–overalls, shirts, drawers. As the men came, shouting, she appeared in the doorway of the crazy wooden lean-to, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Oil!” they shouted, idiotically. “Millions! Biggest gusher yet! It’ll mean millions! You’re a millionaire!” Then, as she looked at them, dazedly, “What’re you going to do, Mis’ Barstow, huh? What’re you going to do with it?”
Ma Barstow had brought one hand up to push back a straggling wisp of damp hair. Then she looked at that hand as she brought it down–looked at it and it’s mate, parboiled, shrunken, big-knuckled from toil. She wiped them both on her apron again, bringing the palms down hard along her flat thighs. “Do?” The miracles that millions might accomplish burst full force on her work-numbed brain. “Do? First off I’m a-going to have the washing done out.”
Last week Mrs. Clement Barstow was runner-up in the women’s amateur golf tournament played on the Okoochee eighteen-hole course. She wore tweed knickers. The Barstow place on the Edgecombe Road is so honeycombed with sleeping porches, sun dials, swimming pools, bird baths, terraces, sunken gardens, and Italian marble benches that the second assistant Japanese gardener has to show you the way to the tennis courts.
It was inevitable that Sam Pardee should hear of Okoochee; and, hearing of it, drift there. Sam Pardee was drawn to a new town, a boom town, as unerringly as a small boy scents a street fight. Born seventy-five years earlier he would certainly have been one of those intrepid Forty-niners; a fearless canvas-covered fleet crawling painfully across a continent, conquering desert and plain and mountain; starving, thirsting, fighting Indians, eating each other if necessity demanded, with equal dexterity and dispatch. Perhaps a trip like this would have satisfied his wanderlust. Probably not. He was like a child in a berry patch. The fruit just beyond was always the ripest and reddest. The Klondike didn’t do it. He was one of the first up the Yukon in that mad rush. He returned minus all the money and equipment with which he had started, including the great toe of his right foot–tribute levied by the frozen North. From boom town to boom town he went. The first stampede always found him there, deep in blue-prints, engineering sheets, prospectuses. But no sooner did the town install a water-works and the First National Bank house itself in a Portland-cement Greek temple with Roman pillars and a mosaic floor than he grew restless and was on the move.
A swashbuckler, Sam Pardee, in tan shoes and a brown derby. An 1890 Villon handicapped by a home-loving wife; an incurable romantic married to a woman who judged as shiftless any housewife possessed of less than two dozen bath towels, twelve tablecloths, eighteen wash cloths, and at least three dozen dish towels, hand-hemmed. Milly Pardee’s idea of adventure was testing the recipes illustrated in the How To Use The Cheaper Cuts page in the back of the woman’s magazines.
Perversely enough, they had been drawn together by the very attraction of dissimilarity. He had found her feminine home-loving qualities most appealing. His manner of wearing an invisible cloak, sword and buckler, though actually garbed in ready-mades, thrilled her. She had come of a good family; he of, seemingly, no family at all. When the two married, Milly’s people went through that ablutionary process known as washing their hands of her. Thus ideally mismated they tried to make the best of it–and failed. At least, Sam Pardee failed. Milly Pardee said, “Goodness knows I tried to be a good wife to him.” The plaint of all unappreciated wives since Griselda.
Theirs was a feast-and-famine existence. Sometimes Sam Pardee made sudden thousands. Mrs. Pardee would buy silver, linen, and other household furnishings ranging all the way from a grand piano to a patent washing machine. The piano and the washing machine usually were whisked away within a few weeks or months, at the longest. But she cannily had the linen and silver stamped–stamped unmistakably and irrevocably with a large, flourishing capital P, embellished with floral wreaths. Eventually some of the silver went the way of the piano and washing machine. But Milly Pardee clung stubbornly to a dozen and a half of everything. She seemed to feel that if once she had less than eighteen fish forks the last of the solid ground of family respectability would sink under her feet. For years she carried that silver about wrapped in trunks full of the precious linen, and in old underwear and cotton flannel kimonos and Sam’s silk socks and Maxine’s discarded baby-clothes. She clung to it desperately, as other women cling to jewels, knowing that when this is gone no more will follow.
When the child was born Milly Pardee wanted to name her Myrtle but her husband had said, suddenly, “No, call her Maxine.”
“After whom?” In Mrs. Pardee’s code you named a child “after” someone.
He had seen Maxine Elliott in the heyday of her cold, clear, brainless beauty, with her great, slightly protuberant eyes set so far apart, her exquisitely chiselled white nose, and her black black hair. She had thrilled him.
“After my Uncle Max that lives in–uh–Australia.”
“I’ve never heard you talk of any Uncle Max,” said Mrs. Pardee, coldly.
But the name had won. How could they know that Maxine would grow up to be a rather bony young woman who preferred these high-collared white silk blouses; and said “eyether.”
Maxine had been about twelve when Okoochee beckoned Sam Pardee. They were living in Chicago at the time; had been there for almost three years–that is, Mrs. Pardee and Maxine had been there. Sam was in and out on some mysterious business of his own. His affairs were always spoken of as “deals” or “propositions.” And they always, seemingly, required his presence in a city other than that in which they were living–if living can be said to describe the exceedingly impermanent perch to which they clung. They had a four-room flat. Maxine was attending a good school. Mrs. Pardee was using the linen and silver daily. There was a linen closet down the hall, just off the dining room. You could open the door and feast your eyes on orderly piles of neatly laundered towels, sheets, tablecloths, napkins, tea towels. Mrs. Pardee marketed and cooked, contentedly. She was more than a merely good cook; she was an alchemist in food stuffs. Given such raw ingredients as butter, sugar, flour, eggs, she could evolve a structure of pure gold that melted on the tongue. She could take an ocherous old hen, dredge its parts in flour, brown it in fat sizzling with onion at the bottom of an iron kettle, add water, a splash of tomato and a pinch of seasoning, and bear triumphantly to the table a platter heaped with tender fricassee over which a smooth, saddle-brown gravy simmered fragrantly. She ate little herself, as do most expert cooks, and found her reward when Sam or Maxine uttered a choked and appreciative “Mmm!”
In the midst of creature comforts such as these Sam Pardee said, one evening, “Oil.”
Mrs. Pardee passed it, but not without remonstrance. “It’s the same identical French dressing you had last night, Sam. I mixed enough for twice. And you didn’t add any oil last night.”
Sam Pardee came out of his abstraction long enough to emit a roar of laughter and an unsatisfactory explanation. “I was thinking of oil in wells, not in cruets. Millions of barrels of oil, not a spoonful. Crude, not olive.”
She saw her child, her peace, her linen closet threatened. “Sam Pardee, you don’t mean—-“
“Oklahoma. That’s what I meant by oil. It’s oozing with it.”
Real terror leaped into Milly Pardee’s eyes. “Not Oklahoma. Sam, I couldn’t stand—-” Suddenly she stiffened with resolve. Maxine’s report card had boasted three stars that week. Oklahoma! Why, there probably were no schools at all in Oklahoma. “I won’t bring my child up in Oklahoma. Indians, that’s what! Scalped in our beds.”
Above Sam Pardee’s roar sounded Maxine’s excited treble. “Oo, Oklahoma! I’d love it.”
Her mother turned on her, almost fiercely. “You wouldn’t.”
The child had thrown out her arms in a wide gesture. “It sounds so far away and different. I like different places. I like any place that isn’t here.”
Milly Pardee had stared at her. It was the father talking in the child. Any place that isn’t here. Different.
Out of years of bitter experience she tried to convince the child of her error; tried, as she had striven for years to convince Sam Pardee.
“Places are just the same,” she said, bitterly, “and so are people, when you get to ’em.”
“They can’t be,” the child argued, stubbornly. “India and China and Spain and Africa.”
Milly Pardee had turned accusing eyes on her amused husband. “I hope you’re satisfied.”
He shrugged. “Well, the kid’s right. That’s living.”
She disputed this, fiercely. “It is not. Living’s staying in a place, and helping it grow, and growing up with it and belonging. Belong!” It was the cry of the rolling stone that is bruised and weary.
Sam Pardee left for Oklahoma the following week. Milly Pardee refused to accompany him. It was the first time she had taken this stand. “If you go there, and like it, and want to settle down there, I’ll come. I know the Bible says, ‘Whither thou goest, I will go,’ but I guess even What’shername would have given up at Oklahoma.”
For three years, then, Sam Pardee’s letters reeked of oil: wells, strikes, gushers, drills, shares, outfits. It was early Oklahoma in the rough. This one was getting five hundred a day out of his well. That one had sunk forty thousand in his and lost out.
“Five hundred what?” Maxine asked. “Forty thousand what?”
“Dollars, I guess,” Milly Pardee answered. “That’s the way your father always talks. I’d rather have twenty-five a week, myself, and know it’s coming without fail.”
“I wouldn’t. Where’s the fun in that?”
“Fun! There’s more fun in twenty-five a week in a pay envelope than in forty thousand down a dry well.”
Maxine was fifteen now. “I wish we could live with Father in Oklahoma. I think it’s wrong not to.”
Milly Pardee was beginning to think so, too. Especially since her husband’s letters had grown rarer as the checks they contained had grown larger. On his occasional trips back to Chicago he said nothing of their joining him out there. He seemed to have grown accustomed to living alone. Liked the freedom, the lack of responsibility. In sudden fright and resolve Milly Pardee sold the furnishings of the four-room flat, packed the peripatetic linen and silver, and joined a surprised and rather markedly unenthusiastic husband in Okoochee, Oklahoma. A wife and a fifteen-year-old daughter take a good deal of explaining on the part of one who has posed for three years as a bachelor.
The first thing Maxine said as they rode (in a taxi) to the hotel, was: “But the streets are paved!” Then, “But it’s all electric lighted with cluster lights!” And, in final and utter disgust, “Why, there’s a movie sign that says, ‘The Perils of Pauline.’ That was showing at the Elite on Forty-third Street in Chicago just the night before we left.”
Milly Pardee smiled grimly. “Palestine’s paved, too,” she observed. “And they’re probably running that same reel there next week.”
Milly Pardee and her husband had a plain talk. Next day Sam Pardee rented the two-story frame house in which, for years, the famous Pardee dinners were to be served. But that came later. The house was rented with the understanding that the rent was to be considered as payment made toward final purchase. The three lived there in comfort. Maxine went to the new pressed-brick, many-windowed high school. Milly Pardee was happier than she had been in all her wedded life. Sam Pardee had made no fortune in oil, though he talked in terms of millions. In a burst of temporary prosperity, due to a boom in some oil-stocks Sam Pardee had purchased early in the game, they had paid five thousand dollars down on the house and lot. That left a bare thousand to pay. There were three good meals a day. Milly Pardee belonged to the Okoochee Woman’s Thursday Club. All the women in Okoochee seemed to have come from St. Louis, Columbus, Omaha, Cleveland, Kansas City, and they spoke of these as Back East. When they came calling they left cards, punctiliously. They played bridge, observing all the newest rulings, and speaking with great elaborateness of manner.
“Yours, I believe, Mrs. Tutwiler.”
“Pardon, but didn’t you notice I played the ace?”
Maxine graduated in white, with a sash. Mrs. Pardee was on the committee to beautify the grounds around the M. K. & T. railroad station. When relatives from Back East (meaning Nebraska, Kansas, or Missouri) visited an Okoocheeite cards were sent out for an “At Home,” and everything was as formal as a court levee in Victoria’s time. Mrs. Pardee began to talk of buying an automobile. The town was full of them. There were the flivvers and lower middle-class cars owned by small merchants, natives (any one boasting twelve year’s residence) and unsuccessful adventurers of the Sam Pardee type. Then there were the big, high-powered scouting cars driven by steely-eyed, wiry, cold-blooded young men from Pennsylvania and New York. These young men had no women-folk with them. Held conferences in smoke-filled rooms at the Okmulgee Hotel. The main business street was called Broadway, and the curb on either side was hidden by lines of cars drawn up slantwise at an angle of ninety. No farmer wagons. A small town with all the airs of a big one; with none of the charming informality of the old Southern small town; none of the engaging ruggedness of the established Middle-Western town; none of the faded gentility of the old New England town. A strident dame, this, in red satin and diamonds, insisting that she is a lady. Interesting, withal, and bulging with personality and possibility.
Milly Pardee loved it. She belonged. She was chairman of this committee and secretary of that. Okoochee was always having parades, with floats, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce of Okoochee and distinguished by schoolgirls grouped on bunting-covered motor trucks, their hair loose and lately relieved from crimpers, three or four inches of sensible shirt-sleeve showing below the flowing lines of their cheesecloth Grecian robes. Maxine was often one of these. Yes, Milly Pardee was happy.
Sam Pardee was not. He began, suddenly, to talk of Mexico. Frankly, he was bored. For the first time in his life he owned a house–or nearly. There was eleven hundred dollars in the bank. Roast on Sunday. Bathroom shelf to be nailed Sunday morning. Y.M.C.A., Rotary Club, Knights of Columbus, Kiwanis, Boy Scouts.
“Hell,” said Sam Pardee, “this town’s no good.”
Milly Pardee took a last stand. “Sam Pardee, I’ll never leave here. I’m through traipsing up and down the world with you, like a gypsy. I want a home. I want to be settled. I want to stay here. And I’m going to.”
“You’re sure you want to stay?”
“I’ve moved for the last time. I–I’m going to plant a Burbank clamberer at the side of the porch, and they don’t begin to flower till after the first ten years. That’s how sure I am.”
There came a look into Sam Pardee’s eyes. He rubbed his neat brown derby round and round with his coat sleeve. He was just going out.
“Well, that’s all right. I just wanted to know. Where’s Max?”
“She stayed late. They’re rehearsing for the Pageant of Progress down at the Library.”
Sam Pardee looked thoughtful–a little regretful, one might almost have said. Then he clapped on the brown derby, paused on the top step of the porch to light his cigar, returned the greeting of young Arnold Hatch who was sprinkling the lawn next door, walked down the street with the quick, nervous step that characterized him, boarded the outgoing train for God knows where, and was never heard from again.
“Well,” said the worse-than-widowed (it was her own term), “we’ve got the home.”
She set about keeping it. We know that she had a gift for cooking that amounted almost to culinary inspiration. Pardee’s dinners became an institution in Okoochee. Mrs. Pardee cooked. Maxine served. And not even the great new stucco palaces on the Edgecombe Road boasted finer silver, more exquisite napery. As for the food–old Clem Barstow himself, who had a chef and a butler and sent east for lobster and squabs weekly, came to Pardee’s when he wanted a real meal. From the first they charged one dollar and fifty cents for their dinners. Okoochee, made mellow by the steaming soup, the savoury meats, the bland sauces and rich dessert, paid it ungrudgingly. They served only eighteen–no more, though Okoochee could never understand why. On each dinner Mrs. Pardee made a minimum of seventy-five cents. Eighteen times seventy-five … naught and carry the four … naught … five … thirteen-fifty … seven times … well, ninety-five dollars or thereabouts each week isn’t so bad. Out of this Mrs. Pardee managed to bank a neat sum. She figured that at the end of ten or fifteen years….
“I hate them,” said Maxine, washing dishes in the kitchen. “Greedy pigs.”
“They’re nothing of the kind. They like good food, and I’m thankful they do. If they didn’t I don’t know where I’d be.”
“We might be anywhere–so long as it could be away from here. Dull, stupid, stick-in-the-muds, all of them.”
“Why, they’re no such thing, Maxine Pardee! They’re from all over the world, pretty nearly. Why, just last Thursday they were counting there were sixteen different states represented in the eighteen people that sat down to dinner.”
“Pooh! States! That isn’t the world.”
“What is, then?”
Maxine threw out her arms, sprinkling dish-water from her dripping finger tips with the wide-flung gesture. “Cairo! Zanzibar! Brazil! Trinidad! Seville–uh–Samar–Samarkand.”
“I don’t know. And I’m going to see it all some day. And the different people. The people that travel, and know about what kind of wine with the roast and the fish. You know–the kind in the novels that say, ‘You’ve chilled this sauterne too much, Bemish.”
“And when you do see all these places,” retorted Mrs. Pardee, with the bitterness born of long years of experience, “you’ll find that in every one of them somebody’s got a boarding house called Pardee’s, or something like that, where the people flock same’s they do here, for a good meal.”
“Yes, but what kind of people?”
“Same kind that comes here.” Sam Pardee had once taken his wife to see a performance of The Man From Home when that comedy was at the height of its popularity. A line from this play flashed into Mrs. Pardee’s mind now, and she paraphrased it deftly. “There are just as many kinds of people in Okoochee as there are in Zanzibar.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Well, it’s so. And I’m thankful we’ve got the comforts of home.”
At this Maxine laughed a sharp little laugh that was almost a bark. Perhaps she was justified.
The eighteen straggled in between six and six-thirty, nightly. A mixture of townspeople and strangers. While Maxine poured the water in the dining room the neat little parlour became a mess. The men threw hats and overcoats on the backs of the chairs. Their rubbers slopped under them. They rarely troubled to take them off. While waiting avidly for dinner to be served they struck matches and lighted cigarettes and cigars. Sometimes they called in to Maxine, “Say, girlie, when’ll supper be ready? I’m ’bout gone.”
The women trotted upstairs, chattering, and primped and fussed in Maxine’s neat and austere little bedroom. They used Maxine’s powder and dropped it about on the tidy dresser and the floor. They brushed away only what had settled on the front of their dresses. They forgot to switch off the electric light, leaving Maxine to do it, thriftily, between serving courses. Every penny counted. Every penny meant release.
After dinner Maxine and her mother sat down to eat off the edge of the kitchen table. It was often nine o’clock before the last straggling diner, sprawling on the parlour davenport with his evening paper and cigar, departed, leaving Maxine to pick up the scattered newspapers, cigarette butts, ashes; straighten chairs, lock doors.
Then the dishes. The dishes!
When Arnold Hatch asked her to go to a movie she shook her head, usually. “I’m too tired. I’m going to read, in bed.”
“Read, read! That’s all you do. What’re you reading?”
“Oh, about Italy. La bel Napoli!” She collected travel folders and often talked in their terms. In her mind she always said “brooding Vesuvius”; “blue Mediterranean”; “azure coasts”; “Egypt’s golden sands.”
Arnold Hatch ate dinner nightly at Pardee’s. He lived in the house next door, which he owned, renting it to an Okoochee family and retaining the upstairs front bedroom for himself. A tall, thin, eye-glassed young man who worked in the offices of the Okoochee Oil and Refining Company, believed in Okoochee, and wanted to marry Maxine. He had twice kissed her. On both these occasions his eyeglasses had fallen off, taking the passion, so to speak, out of the process. When Maxine giggled, uncontrollably, he said, “Go on–laugh! But some day I’m going to kiss you and I’ll take my glasses off first. Then look out!”
You have to have a good deal of humour to stand being laughed at by a girl you’ve kissed; especially a girl who emphasizes her aloofness by wearing those high-collared white silk blouses.
“You haven’t got a goitre, have you?” said Arnold Hatch, one evening, brutally. Then, as she had flared in protest, “I know it. I love that little creamy satin hollow at the base of your throat.”
“You’ve never s—-” The scarlet flamed up. She was human.
“I know it. But I love it just the same.” Pretty good for a tall thin young man who worked in the offices of the Okoochee Oil and Refining Company.
Sometimes he said, “I’m darned certain you like me”–bravely–“love me. Why won’t you marry me? Cut out all this slaving. I could support you. Not in much luxury, maybe, but—-“
“And settle down in Okoochee! Never see anything! Stuck in this God-forsaken hole! This drab, dull, oil-soaked village! When there are wonderful people, wonderful places, colour, romance, beauty! Damascus! Mandalay! Singapore! Hongkong!… Hongkong! It sounds like a temple bell. It thrills me.”
“Over in Hongkong,” said Arnold Hatch, “I expect some Chinese Maxine Pardee would say, Okoochee! It sounds like an Indian war drum. It thrills me.’”
Sometimes Maxine showed signs of melting. But she always congealed again under the influence of her resolve. One evening an out-of-town diner, on hearing her name, said, “Pardee! Hm. Probably a corruption of Pardieu. A French name originally, I suppose.”
After that there was no approaching her for a week. Maxine Pardieu. Pardieu. “By God!” it meant. A chevalier he must have been, this Pardieu. A musketeer! A swashbuckler, with lace falling over his slim white hand, and his hand always ready on his sword. Red heels. Plumed hat. Pardieu!
How she hated anew the great oil tanks that rose on the town’s outskirts, guarding it like giant sentinels. The new houses. The new country club. Twenty-one miles of asphalt road. Population in 1900, only 467. In 1920 over 35,000. Slogan, Watch Us Grow. Seventeen hundred oil and gas wells. Fields of corn and cotton. Skyscrapers. The Watonga Building, twelve stories. Haynes Block, fourteen stories. Come West, young man! Ugh!
Sometimes she made little rhymes in her mind.
There’s Singapore and Zanzibar,
And Cairo and Calais.
There’s Samarkand and Alcazar,
Rangoon and Mandalay.
“Yeh,” said Arnold Hatch, one evening, when they were talking in the Pardee back yard. It was nine o’clock. Dishes done. A moon. October. Maxine had just murmured her little quatrain. They were standing by the hedge of pampas grass that separated the Pardee yard from Hatch’s next door.
“Yeh,” said Arnold Hatch. “Likewise:
“There’s Seminole and Shawnee,
There’s Agua and Pawnee,
He knew his Oklahoma.
“Oh!” exclaimed Maxine, in a little burst of fury; and stamped her foot down hard. Squ-ush! said something underfoot. “Oh!” said Maxine again; in surprise this time. October was a dry month. She peered down. Her shoe was wet. A slimy something clung to it. A scummy something shone reflected in the moonlight. She had not lived ten years in Oklahoma for nothing. Arnold Hatch bent down. Maxine bent down. The greasy wet patch lay just between the two back yards. They touched it, fearfully, with their forefingers. Then they straightened and looked at each other. Oil. Oil!
Things happened like that in Oklahoma.
You didn’t try to swing a thing like that yourself. You leased your land for a number of years. A well cost between forty and sixty thousand dollars. You leased to a company represented by one or two of those cold-blooded steely-eyed young men from Pennsylvania or New York. There was a good deal of trouble about it, too. This was a residence district–one of the oldest in this new town. But they bought the Pardee place and the Hatch place. And Arnold Hatch, who had learned a thing or two in the offices of the Okoochee Oil and Refining Company, drove a hard bargain for both. The yard was overrun with drillers, lawyers, engineers, superintendents, foremen, machinery.
Arnold came with papers to sign. “Five hundred a day,” he said, “and a percentage.” He named the percentage. Maxine and her mother repeated this after him, numbly.
Mrs. Pardee had been the book-keeper in the Pardee menage. She tried some mathematical gymnastics now and bumped her arithmetical nose.
“Five hundred a day. Including Sundays, Arnold?”
Her lips began to move. “Seven times five … thirty-five hundred a … fifty-two times thirty—-“
She stopped, overcome. But she began again, wildly, as a thought came to her. “Why, I could build a house. A house, up on Edgecombe. A house like the Barstows’ with lawns, and gardens, and sleeping porches, and linen closets!… Oh, Maxine! We’ll live there—-“
“Not I,” said Maxine, crisply. Arnold, watching her, knew what she was going to say before she said it. “I’m going to see the world. I want to penetrate a civilization so old that its history wanders down the centuries and is lost in the dim mists of mythology.” [See Baedeker.]
Sudden wealth had given Arnold a new masterfulness. “Marry me before you go.”
“Not at all,” replied Maxine. “On the boat going over—-“
“Honolulu, on my way to Japan, I’ll meet a tall bearded stranger, sunburned, with the flame of the Orient in his eyes, and on his thin, cruel, sensual mouth—-“
Arnold Hatch took off his glasses. Maxine stiffened. “Don’t you d—-” But she was too late.
“There,” said Arnold, “he’ll have to have some beard, and some flame, and some thin, cruel, sensual mouth to make you forget that one.”
Maxine started, alone, against her mother’s remonstrances. After she’d picked out her boat she changed to another because she learned, at the last minute, that the first boat was an oil-burner. Being an inexperienced traveller she took a good many trunks and was pretty unpopular with the steward before he could make her understand that one trunk to the stateroom was the rule. On the first two days out on the way to the Hawaiian Islands she spent all her time (which was twenty-four hours a day in her bed) hoping that Balboa was undergoing fitting torment in punishment for his little joke about discovering the so-called Pacific Ocean. But the swell subsided, and the wind went down, and Maxine appeared on deck and in another twelve hours had met everyone from the purser to the honeymoon couple, in the surprising way one does on these voyages. She looked for the tall bearded stranger with the sunburn of the Orient and the thin, cruel, sensual lips. But he didn’t seem to be about. Strangely enough, everyone she talked to seemed to be from Nebraska, or Kansas, or Iowa, or Missouri. Not only that, they all were very glib with names and places that had always seemed mythical and glamorous.
“Oh, yes, Mr. Tannenbaum and I went to India last year, and Persia and around. Real interesting. My, but they’re dirty, those towns. We used to kick about Des Moines, now that they use so much soft coal, and all the manufacturing and all. But my land, it’s paradise compared to those places. And the food! Only decent meals we had in Egypt was a place in Cairo called Pardee’s, run by a woman whose husband’s left her or died, or something. Real home-loving woman she was. Such cooking…. Why, that’s so! Your name’s Pardee, too, isn’t it! Well, I always say to Mr. Tannenbaum, it’s a small world, after all. No relation, of course?”
“Of course not.” How suddenly safe Oklahoma seemed. And Arnold Hatch.
“Where you going from Honolulu, Miss Pardee?”
“Oh, yeh. Samar–le’ see now, where is that, exactly? I used to know, but I’m such a hand for forgetting—-“
“I don’t know,” said Maxine, distinctly.
“Don’t–but I thought you said you were going—-“
“I am. But I don’t know where it is.”
“You just go to an office, where there are folders and a man behind the desk, and you say you want to go to Samarkand. He shows you. You get on a boat. That’s all.”
The people from Iowa, and Kansas, and Nebraska and Missouri said, Oh, yes, and there was nothing like travel. So broadening. Maxine asked them if they knew about the Vale of Kashmir and one of them, astoundingly enough, did. A man from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who had spent a year there superintending the erection of a dredge. A plump man, with eyeglasses and perpetually chewing a dead cigar.
Gold and sunlight, myrrh and incense, the tinkling of anklets. Maxine clung to these wildly, in her mind.
But Honolulu, the Moana Hotel on Waikiki Beach, reassured her. It was her dream come true. She knew it would be so when she landed and got her first glimpse of the dark-skinned natives on the docks, their hats and necks laden with leis of flowers. There were palm trees. There were flaming hibiscus hedges. Her bed was canopied with white netting, like that of a princess (the attendant explained it was to keep out the mosquitoes).
You ate strange fruits (they grew a little sickening, after a day or two). You saw Duke, the Hawaiian world champion swimmer, come in on a surf-board, standing straight and slim and naked like a god of bronze, balancing miraculously on a plank carried in on the crest of a wave with the velocity of a steam engine. You saw Japanese women in tight kimonos and funny little stilted flapping footgear running to catch a street car; and you laughed at the incongruity of it. You made the three-day trip to the living volcano at Hilo and sat at the crater’s brink watching the molten lava lake tossing, hissing, writhing. You hung there, between horror and fascination.
“Certainly a pretty sight, isn’t it?” said her fellow travellers. “Makes the Grand Canyon look sick, I think, don’t you?”
“I’ve never seen it.”
On her return from Hilo she saw him. A Vandyke beard; smouldering eyes; thin red lips; lean nervous hands; white flannel evening clothes; sunburned a rich brown. Maxine drew a long breath as if she had been running. It was after dinner. The broad veranda was filled with gayly gowned women; uniformed officers from the fort; tourists in white. They were drinking their after-dinner coffee, smoking, laughing. The Hawaiian orchestra made ready to play for the dancing on the veranda. They began to play. Their ukeleles throbbed and moaned. The musicians sang in their rich, melodious voices some native song of a lost empire and a dead king. It tore at your heart. You ached with the savage beauty of it. It was then she saw him. He was seated alone, smoking, drinking, watching the crowd with amused, uneager glance. She had seen him before. It was a certainty, this feeling. She had known him–seen him–before. Perhaps not in this life. Perhaps only in her dreams. But they had met.
She stared at him until her eye caught his. It was brazen, but she was shameless. Nothing mattered. This was no time for false modesty. Her eyes held his. Then, slowly, she rose, picked up her trailing scarf, and walked deliberately past him, glancing down at him as she passed. He half rose, half spoke. She went down the steps leading from the veranda to the court-yard, down this walk to the pier, down the pier to the very end, where the little roofed shelter lay out in the ocean, bathed in moonlight, fairylike, unreal. The ocean was a thing of molten silver. The sound of the wailing voices in song came to her on the breeze, agonizing in its beauty. There, beyond, lay Pearl Harbour. From the other side, faintly, you heard the music and laughter from the Yacht Club.
Maxine seated herself. The after-dinner couples had not yet strolled out. They were waiting for the dancing up there on the hotel veranda. She waited. She waited. She saw the glow of his cigar as he came down the pier, a tall, slim white figure in the moonlight. It was just like a novel. It was a novel, come to life. He stood a moment at the pier’s edge, smoking. Then he tossed his cigar into the water and it fell with a little s-st! He stood another moment, irresolutely. Then he came over to her.
In Okoochee you would have said, “Sir!” But not here. Not now. Not Maxine Pardieu. “Yes, isn’t it!”
The mellow moon fell full on him–bronzed, bearded, strangely familiar.
At his next question she felt a little faint. “Haven’t we–met before?”
She toyed with the end of her scarf. “You feel that, too?”
He nodded. He took a cigarette from a flat platinum case. “Mind if I smoke? Perhaps you’ll join me?” Maxine took a cigarette, uncertainly. Lighted it from the match he held. Put it to her lips. Coughed, gasped. “Maybe you’re not used to those. I smoke a cheap cigarette because I like ’em. Dromedaries, those are. Eighteen cents a package.”
Maxine held the cigarette in her unaccustomed fingers. Her eyes were on his face. “You said you thought–you felt–we’d met before?”
“I may be mistaken, but I never forget a face. Where are you from, may I ask?”
Maxine hesitated a moment. “Oklahoma.”
He slapped his leg a resounding thwack. “I knew it! I’m hardly ever mistaken. Name’s–wait a minute–Pardee, isn’t it?”
“Yes. But how—-“
“One of the best meals I ever had in my life, Miss Pardee. Two years ago, it was. I was lecturing on Thibet and the Far East.”
“Lecturing?” Her part of the conversation was beginning to sound a good deal like the dialogue in a badly written play.
“Yes, I’m Brainerd, you know. I thought you knew, when you spoke up there on the veranda.”
“Brainerd?” It was almost idiotic.
“Brainerd. Paul Brainerd, the travelogue man. I remember I gave you and your mother complimentary tickets to the lecture. I’ve got a great memory. Got to have, in my business. Let’s see, that town was—-“
“Okoochee! That’s it! It’s a small world after all, isn’t it? Okoochee. Why, I’m on my way to Oklahoma now. I’m going to spend two months or more there, taking pictures of the vast oil fields, the oil wells. A new country. An Aladdin country; a new growth; one of the most amazing and picturesque bits in the history of our amazing country. History in the making. An empire over-night. Oklahoma! Well! What a relief, after war-torn Europe and an out-worn civilization.”
“But you–you’re from—-?”
“I’m from East Orange, New Jersey, myself. Got a nice little place down there that I wouldn’t swap for all the palaces of the kings. No sir!… Already? Well, yes, it is a little damp out here, so close to the water. Mrs. Brainerd won’t risk it. I’ll walk up with you. I’d like to have you meet her.”