from Brown Book of Boston
The Girl With the Gilded Nose
by Ellis Parker Butler
The village of Darbyville slept in perfect peace and harmony under the torrid sun of an August afternoon. A few flies buzzed around a discarded watermelon rind in the road before Hollister's Store, and Hollister himself stood, wide awake but yawning, leaning against the side of his doorway. Every other living being slept.
Darbyville was at all times the epitome of peace and harmony. Its voters were all Republicans, its people Baptists, its men all members of the L of G benevolent society. It had but a single thought on any subject, and all its hearts beat, languidly but faithfully, as one.
On this August afternoon, the three men to whose efforts this everlasting harmony was due, slept the sleep of the well deserving. The Reverend Milo Mills slept at ease on his couch in his cool shaded dining room. On the bench before Hollister's store Squire Wiggs and Constable Langerer nodded in perspiring discomfort. On a day so peaceful, who could blame even the religious, judicial and executive authorities for nodding? Brotherly love, negative but evident, hovered in the visible heat that arose from the dusty road, and clung to the limp leaves of the parched elm trees. Brotherly harmony rested upon the two dogs that lay sleeping under the bench on which the Squire and Constable sat. Sisterly communion of peace exuded from the hens that clustered drowsily in the shadow of the store building. Darbyville, sweetly sleeping, seemed, on this August day an apotheosized type of itself. As the scoffing wits of the neighboring town of Jefferson were wont to say, it was "harmonized to a finish."
To mar this picture of still life there appeared far up the dusty road a black speck, moving rapidly. As it neared the village it grew in size and changed from black to blue. A little nearer and the object separated itself from the cloud of dust that surrounded it, and with the merry peal of a bell, as if to challenge the sleepers to attention, a pretty girl clad in a blue skirt, a white waist and a jaunty straw hat and mounted on a red wheel flashed past Hollister's store and disappeared, hidden by the dust that followed in her wake.
It was as if a mischievous sprite had passed, dissipating the spell of peacefulness by the roguish glance she cast toward the Squire and the Constable as she flew by. The hens fled squawking from the road, the dogs sprang up, one growling and the other barking, the heat waves swirled in little eddies, and the Squire and the Constable sat bolt upright, while Hollister ran to the edge of the platform before his store and gazed earnestly up the road, and at the same moment the Reverend Milo Mills rolled from his couch and awoke with a horrid feeling that he was falling into the bottomless pit.
For a full minute the Squire gazed after the retreating cloud of dust and then turning his perspiring face toward the Constable, he said:
"Hanged if I see why a girl should go and gild her nose!"
"Hey?" said the Constable.
"I say I'm hanged," reiterated the Squire, "if I can see why a girl should go ski-hootin' 'round the country with a gilded nose."
The Constable looked at the Squire doubtfully. Then he coughed apologetically.
"Well, now, Squire," he said, "you ain't sayin' that girl's nose was gilded, are you?"
"Of course it was gilded," said the Squire. "Do you tell me it wasn't?"
"Well, I shouldn't rightly say it was what you might call gilded, Squire," ventured the Constable mildly.
"What kind of a nose would you call it then?" asked the Squire.
"I should call it," said the Constable slowly, as if recalling the precise nose he had in mind, "I should call it fairish sort of a nose, with a little turn-up at the end, an' say, mebby twelve freckles towards the top."
The Squire looked at him sternly.
"And you say it wasn't gilded?" he asked severely.
"Nary a gild," said the Constable firmly.
"You were asleep!" said the Squire, disdainfully. "That girl had a Roman cast of nose, with a good sized hump half way up, and the whole nose was as gold as my watch."
"You must have dreamed it, Squire," said the Constable soothingly. "I wasn't asleep. I can tell you the color of her hair and -- yes, by jingo, the color of her shoes. Can you tell me the color of her shoes, Squire?"
"No, sir!" exclaimed the Squire, "No, sir! and good reason, too. I wasn't looking at her feet. I was looking at her nose. Do you think I'd lay around lookin' at feet when a girl with a gilded nose goes by? No, sir! I was studyin' that nose, which," he added, "was gilded."
The Constable looked at the road sadly and then spat into it.
"Gilded tomcats!" he remarked.
"Don't you tomcat me!" cried the Squire glancing at the Constable.
"Gilded tomcats!" repeated the Constable firmly.
"Ah!" the Squire ejaculated. He raised his hand as if to strike the imperturbable Constable, but thought better of it. A blow provokes anger, but a soft anger turneth away wrath.
"You are an old fool!" he said, instead.
The Constable raised his eyes slowly until they rested on those of the Squire. He gazed long and scornfully. At length he seemed satisfied, and turned his face toward the road again.
"Gilded tomcats!" he said, gently but earnestly.
In a moment the Squire had reached over and grasped the Constable by the collar. The Constable was a thin man and the Squire was a thick one. All the advantage of weight was on the Squire's side, but the Constable had the greater agility. The Squire drew the Constable's head close under his arm and lowering his arm upon it held it closely, almost affectionately, but the Constable's neck was long and prehensible and, squirming about, he grasped one of the Squire's legs around the knee, and boosting it up, he threw the Squire upon the flat of his back on the bench. Then by a gentle pull he caused the Squire to fall flat on the boardwalk.
When I was a boy I once, quite by accident, dropped a plump and self-satisfied toad from the height of some three feet upon a well trodden bit of bare ground. The grunt of surprise uttered by the toad was like the grunt that escaped the plump and self-satisfied Squire. But my toad lay still, vainly endeavoring to grasp the situation, while the Squire, still keeping the Constable's head beneath his arm, rolled over and eclipsed the little man's body beneath a mass of flesh.
"Now!" gasped the Squire, "Now!"
From the region of the Squire's heart a muffled voice struggled forth, stuffy but unconquered:
"Gilded tomcats!" it said.
For answer the Squire bore his weight more heavily upon the prostrate Constable, but suddenly he kicked convulsively with one massive leg.
"Drat you," he cried, "no fair pinching!"
"Then let my head loose," mumbled the Constable.
For reply the Squire pressed his arm closer upon the Constable's head. Immediately the Squire's other leg waved in the air.
"Dang it!" shouted the Squire, "you will pinch, will you?"
He raised his chest enough to allow his idle arm free movement, and reaching over grasped the Constable's hair.
"Wow!" cried the Constable, "let go my hair!"
"Stop pinching, then," said the Squire, whose legs were now waving wildly in the air.
"Leggo my hair, first," murmured the Constable.
For a minute only the labored breathing of the Squire, and the more labored breathing of the Constable, broke the stillness. Then the hands of the Constable, creeping upward, reached the Squire's ribs. The Constable was trying to reach the Squire's head, but as his fingers wiggled their way upward along his ribs the Squire squirmed convulsively.
"If you tickle me, Zed Langerer," he said, solemnly, "I'll mash your head into the boardwalk."
For reply, the Constable eagerly wiggled his fingers against the ribs of the Squire, and the Squire squirmed, pitched to and fro, and finally rolled over and sat upright. The Constable did likewise. Both panted for breath, and each glared at the other.
Hollister, who had watched the contest with languid interest, now took a seat on the bench facing them.
"You two old fellers oughn't to excite yourselves like that on a hot day like this," he said, judicially.
The two contestants glared at Hollister, angrily.
"What in Sam Hill stirred you up to wrastle, anyway?" continued Hollister.
The Constable gasped for breath.
"This old fool here," he said, rubbing his nose tenderly, "let on to say that bicycle girl had a gilded nose."
"And this old fool here," gasped the Squire, "let on to say her nose wasn't gilded."
"Well, gents," said Hollister, thoughtfully, "you shouldn't never fight, nohow. Most things can be arbitrated better than they can be fought for. Now, I seen that girl, and I seen her nose, and I could have settled the thing without your gettin' all het up and making idiots of yourselves, if you'd just asked me."
"Well, sir," said the Squire and Constable in unison "which was it, gilded or not gilded?"
Hollister turned his head on one side and looked meditatively across the road.
"Yes," he said, slowly, "I could have saved you all that wrastling. But seein' you thought fit to wrastle for it, why, I guess I ain't called on to say which nor whether."
"Now, I leave it to you, Maria," said the Constable to his wife that night, "would a girl gild her nose? Is there any sense in it? And what's the sense of anybody doing anything there ain't any sense in?"
Mrs. Langerer had had a hard day. She was a large woman and the heat "overbore" her, as she phrased it. Everything had gone wrong and she was irritated, not only mentally but by prickly heat. For twenty years she had repressed a tendency to skittishness because skittishness would be unseemly in Constable Langerer's wife. And now her husband had abandoned his dignity to mix in a street brawl.
"There ain't any sense in an old man wrastling like a ten-year-old boy, neither," she said crossly.
"You wouldn't gild your nose, Maria," ventured the Constable, mildly, "you wouldn't do anything so foolish like, now would you?"
She turned on him angrily.
"For twenty years, Zed Langerer," she snapped, "I've left undone things it was in my nature to do, and I've kept corked and bottled up for your sake. I've been an old stupid woman from the day I married you, and I'd glory to have spunk enough to gild my nose, if I felt like it, and little harm it would do, so far as I can see, except to make old fools show they was old fools!"
The Constable sat in shocked surprise.
"Maria Langerer," he said at last, "I fair believe you've gone crazy."
"When I went crazy," she replied, "was the day I married you, I guess."
The Constable put on his hat and went out, slamming the door behind him.
As the Squire helped himself to another piece of bread he cleared his throat with the elocutionary "hem" that he used as justice of the peace.
"As for the fact that the girl's nose was gilded," he said, "it is undoubted, for I saw it with my own eyes. Nor is there anything remarkable in the fact. Girls are capable of any folly these days. I read the papers and, beside what some of them do, a gilded nose is a mere bit of play. She may have done it on a bet, or it may be some new fangled fashion. In the first place --"
Mrs. Wiggs, a hard-faced little woman, set her teacup down sharply.
"For goodness sake, Squire," she snapped, "don't begin at me with your 'firstlys' and 'secondlys.' I've enough to bear this hot weather, with six children and a big house to care for without listening to your world-without-end arguments when I'm dead tired and fagged out. Gilded nose! Gilded tomcats!"
The Squire started suddenly as his wife repeated the Constable's very expression.
"My dear Louise --" he began.
"O, tush!" exclaimed his wife, "don't begin 'my dear Louiseing' me, I don't believe a girl would gild her nose for love nor money, and I think you must be losing your senses. Hurry up your supper. I've got to wash these dishes and get the baby to bed."
The Squire finished his meal in silence and then quietly put on his hat and left the house.
In less than a week all Darbyville had taken sides on the gilded nose question, with the exception of Hollister and the Reverend Milo Mills. Hollister refused to commit himself because his grocery depended on both sides for trade. The Reverend Milo Mills, in the interest of peace and harmony, hoped to solve the problem and draw all together again, but the outcome seemed doubtful. The Reverend Milo Mills received from his united congregation barely sufficient to keep body and soul together and as Squire Wiggs was the leader in church matters, the entire Langerer faction withdrew, and if the contest was prolonged to any extent it seemed likely that the Reverend Milo would be starved to death before harmony arrived.
The L of G lodge split, half the members withdrawing to form a chapter of the Ancient Wild Men of Borneo, and the Constable announced his defection from the Republican Party and adhesion to the Populists, and in this he was followed by half the voters. Neighbors refused to lend each other rakes and sugar and things, and hens that got into other people's gardens were not apt to come out alive. Disputes on all sorts of subjects spread, and wrangling among the women was echoed by fistfights among the men. Darbyville became in short, a quarrelsome place and its past reputation for harmonious living seemed a sarcasm. The rapid passage of a girl with, or without a gilded nose had ruined the village and every day the meanness and irritation of its inhabitants increased.
That Hollister could have settled the matter neither the Squire nor the Constable doubted, but Hollister chose not to speak voluntarily and neither the Squire nor the Constable dared put the question directly. While each was sure of the reply Hollister should make, neither was sure of the answer he would make, and in the meantime each sought to fortify his cause by winning Hollister's good will, and Hollister profited by an increased trade.
As the Fall election day drew near, the acrimony and debate became more intense, for there were two tickets in the field. On the Republican ticket, the Squire was up for re-election, while on the Populist side, the Constable was nominated for the position of successor to Squire Wiggs. The canvas was furious, and every trick aside from actual bribery was tried in order to win votes.
A week before the election, two meetings were held simultaneously in the road before Hollister's store. From a wagon on one side of the road Squire Wiggs addressed a gathering of his adherents. From a wagon on the opposite side of the road Constable Langerer held forth on the beauties of populism. All the men and many of the women of the village were present in one or the other of the groups, and Squire Wiggs was eloquently calling attention to the glories of the Republican party when he stopped suddenly with one hand raised in the air, and his eyes gazing far down the road. As he gazed his massive form swelled, and he straightened his shoulders and folded his arms across his chest. Every one in his group turned and gazed with him to where a cloud of dust crept nearer and nearer.
"Friends," cried the Squire. "If I am not mistaken, yonder comes the girl who passed through here the day my worthy opponent for the office of justice of the peace insulted me and all who believe in me. I then said, and I still say, that the girl had a gilded nose. It is too much to claim that she will have a gilded nose today. It may have been a whim of a passing moment, but if this is the girl, we shall interrogate her. I will abide by her answer. If I was wrong, defeat me. If I was right, elect me."
As the girl drew nearer, it could be seen that she wore a blue skirt, a white waist and a jaunty straw hat and that she was mounted on a red wheel.
From his wagon the Constable, noticing the commotion, ceased his speech, and looked in the direction toward which his rival was looking. As he saw the rapidly approaching girl, his face assumed a puzzled expression, then it grew white, and following the example of the Squire, he folded his arms and waited.
The girl drew nearer rapidly and with a clangor of her bell, and head bent low, seemed to dart through the crowd, but some of the men ranged themselves in her path and her wheel stopped, wobbled a little, and she let it fall under her. As the wheel fell she covered her face with her hands. Rather roughly two of the men drew her hands aside and, smiling slightly, she looked up at Squire Wiggs. The sunlight fell full upon her nose and a ray, reflected from its gilded surface, trembled up to the Squire and rested on his triumphant brow.
A cheer arose, but as it died and before it had time to rise again, the sharp ringing of a bicycle bell called attention to the road once more, and to the direction opposite to that from whence the girl with the gilded nose had come, speeding toward the village came a girl mounted on a red wheel. Her skirt was blue, her waist was white, and she wore a jaunty straw hat. Her nose was not gilded. She rode into the center of the crowd and dismounted. As she was about to speak she saw the girl with the gilded nose, and she paused and, involuntarily, glanced toward the Constable. The Constable was smiling a weakly, sickly smile. The Squire was also smiling a foolish smile. The two girls looked at each other in embarrassment.
Hollister was leaning against his door, and he languidly waved his hand and straightened himself.
"Ladies and Gents," he said, "our respected friends, the Squire and the Constable seem to have both thunk the same thought, but they both thunk wrong. The girl what went through here last August had red hair, as they seem to have forgot. I was awake, and I seen her. I seen her before they did, and I had a good long look before they ever woke up. Now I don't reckon you want officers in this town of Darbyville that will put up tricks, so I will nominate the Reverend Milo Mills for Squire and the Honorable Mister Hollister, which you all know is myself, for Constable."
A hearty cheer and cries of "That's the stuff," and "You're all right," followed this speech, and then someone cried, "Was her nose gilded, Hollister?"
"Well, now, fellers," said Hollister, good naturedly, "You just elect Reverend Milo and me, and I'll tell you the whole truth about that nose."
The election is to be held next Tuesday, and I sincerely hope Hollister will be elected, for I should really like to know the facts about that girl's nose.