Mourning for Yonks
by Ellis Parker Butler
The death of the Hon. Yonks Van Dolsen fell on Wighamton like a wet pall. The blow came suddenly, and it was nonetheless serious to Wighamton because no one in the town had ever heard of the late Hon. Yonks.
Wighamton is a small Iowa town and its society is clustered on the "Hill." The farther up the hill one goes the more refined and exclusive the society becomes, and the Van Dolsens lived on the very top. Beyond the Van Dolsens the hill goes down again.
Richard Van Dolsen was out of town when the sad news spread abroad in Wighamton. He was somewhere in the wild Missouri mountains looking up timber tracts that had been offered at tempting prices, and Mrs. Van Dolsen had to bear the brunt of her first sorrow almost alone. She shut herself in her house and for a week received no one but Miss Arsdale. When she next appeared she was in deep mourning, and she immediately fled East with her sorrow.
Mrs. Van Dolsen was a lady of refinement. Her nose was aquiline and her eyes blue, and she held her position as social leader through two things -- her culture and the Van Dolsen name. She led because she felt that a Van Dolsen was entitled to lead.
"My dear," she would say to her husband, "why shouldn't we lead? We are Van Dolsens."
"My dear," her jolly fat husband would reply, "go ahead and lead if you like it. If I was half the Van Dolsen that you are I would be too aristocratic to do business."
She was, indeed, the most intense Van Dolsen of them all. Even the Long Island Van Dolsens, who were born to the name, took less pride in it. It was she who compiled the genealogy. She knew every Van Dolsen, living or dead, and once each year left Wighamton society leaderless to make a pilgrimage to the haunts of the Van Dolsen ancestors. The most distantly connected Van Dolsens were dearer to her than brother or sister.
It was elevating and refining to take tea with Mrs. Van Dolsen and hear her tell, in a soft voice, about the Eastern Van Dolsens. To be told about Katrina, of Syosset, Long Island, who lived alone in the old homestead, and of Piet, who dwelt in Flushing and still raised the ancestral tulips, was to be admitted to the inner circle. There was really no one in Wighamton who could boast of such ancestry except Hetty Arsdale, and she, poor girl, was the last of her line. She could have led Wighamton society, too, but she was too poor in purse.
Miss Arsdale was a victim of circumstances. Being an Arsdale, she could not stoop to do any work she was able to do, and being an Arsdale she could not accept indiscriminate charity. She had the Arsdale pride, tempered by necessity. Charity she would not permit, but she was grateful for opportunities to relieve her good friends of the regrettable necessity of destroying such things as they could no longer conveniently keep. In doing this she felt she was doing them a favor. Everyone dislikes to destroy useful articles that are outgrown or that have become superfluous, and Miss Arsdale saved them the pain of doing so.
She was a dear. Everyone liked her, and everyone schemed to accumulate superfluous and outgrown articles that she might relieve them of them.
The ladies of the nice set regularly made too many preserves and too much bread and bought too many potatoes, so that Miss Arsdale could prevent the utter waste of the surplus by accepting it. She had her system of pride systematized to a nicety, and there was an absolute line that divided her glad acceptance from her pained and haughty refusal. The ladies of the nice set, being ladies, were most careful of offending her. They respected her pride, which was fine, because it was for her family and not for herself, but it made it extremely difficult for them to keep her alive and clothed.
Miss Arsdale and Mrs. Van Dolsen were the best of friends. They were much the same age, past forty, and let no more be said. Their prides fitted snugly and worked smoothly together. Each admired and respected the other.
"My dear," Mrs. Van Dolsen would say, "without your good taste I should be a horrid frump." And to the ladies she would say, "Hetty is so good. She helps me so with my shopping. She is so patient and sweet and has such good taste," and then the ladies would smile and sigh, and say how sorry they were that dear Miss Hetty would not let them do more for her. She was a universal favorite, so thoughtful, so good to the sick and refreshing to the well. When they said she did doubly as much for them as she would permit them to do for her, they meant it.
Everyone said it was really too bad that the death of Yonks Van Dolsen should come at the time it did, right in the midst of the social season, but especially just before Miss Hetty's wedding. Miss Hetty's engagement was an important event. She had never been married before in all her forty years, and had never expected to be married, and no one else had expected it. People had come to look upon her spinsterhood as one of the immutable things, like the eternal hills and taxes, and her approaching marriage had all the wonderful qualities of the unexpected and the awesome.
No man in Wighamton would have had the temerity to shake good old customs by marrying Miss Hetty. It would have been sacrilegious. But the Wighamton Mortgage & Trust Company got into difficulties and the Scotch investors sent over Hector McGregor to look after their interest, and, like the rough, blundersome Scot he was, he strode relentlessly through customs and snatched up Miss Hetty as if she was not destined by the town fates to be an eternal spinster.
And then, just three weeks before the wedding day, when everyone was so glad that Mrs. Van Dolsen would be such a help to Miss Hetty in getting ready, Yonks Van Dolsen upset everything, and Mrs. Van Dolsen went in black and shut up her house and went away.
Some -- but they were outside the best set and, consequently, jealous persons -- said it was inconsiderate and unnecessary for Mrs. Van Dolsen to go in mourning for a relative of whom she had never spoken before. The ladies of the best set did not say this, but they gently intimated among themselves that perhaps Mrs. Van Dolsen was carrying her family pride a little too far. Her very closest friends never had heard her speak of the late Honorable Yonks, and her mourning was so excessively deep. Even her lingerie, it was whispered, was edged with black.
One or two who ventured to condole with her, and who suggested kindly that to share her grief would be to lighten it, were kindly but firmly told that some things were too sacred to be told to even one's dearest friends. Miss Hetty herself was told nothing, although she spent the week aiding Mrs. Van Dolsen in the preparation of her mourning. She told those who asked that Mrs. Van Dolsen was not overwhelmed by grief; that she had not shed a tear, but that she seemed to wish to do Yonks Van Dolsen all the posthumous honor possible. It came to be believed that probably in her young womanhood she had been wooed by Yonks Van Dolsen, and that through some complication she had wed Richard Van Dolsen instead. That would account for her silence regarding Yonks. It might account for Richard Van Dolsen's silence too.
When, some days after Mrs. Van Dolsen left for the East, Richard Van Dolsen alighted from the train at the Wighamton depot, it was apparent that the death of his honored relative had not dimmed his spirits. He had made a good trade in the Missouri timberlands, and he walked briskly up the street toward his office, whistling.
At the corner of Main Street and Elm Avenue he met Tom Garrick, the city attorney, and they exchanged a hearty handclasp. Garrick watched Van Dolsen's face closely.
"Well!" he exclaimed, "glad to see you back, Dick! Deal go through all right?"
"Fine!" Van Dolsen replied. "I think I have a good thing in those lands, Tom. How's Wighamton been since I left?"
"All right," said Garrick. "I suppose you have heard all the news. Knew Miss Arsdale was engaged?"
"No, you don't tell me!" cried Van Dolsen, laughing. "That is news. Anything more? I've been where the mail can't go, you know. Rode four hundred miles in a sledge. Been living on bacon and corn pone, and having a grand old time. I wished forty times a day that you were along."
Garrick moved along beside his friend, keeping his eyes on his face.
"Dick," he said suddenly, "I suppose you know Mrs. Van has gone East?"
"Well, no," said Van Dolsen easily. "I didn't know it, exactly, but I supposed she would be gone by the time I got back. She intended going."
He looked at Garrick curiously.
"Why do you look at me that way, Tom?" he asked anxiously. "There's nothing wrong with Elizabeth, is there?"
"No, not with Mrs. Van," Garrick assured him. "She was well when she left. But --" he hesitated. "But Yonks Van Dolsen is dead," he said.
Van Dolsen stopped.
"What's that?" he asked sharply.
"I said Yonks Van Dolsen is dead," Garrick repeated.
"Oh, thunder!" exclaimed Van Dolsen, moving on again, "I should hope so. He ought to be. But what are you so serious about? What is the joke?"
"I'm not joking," said Garrick. "You don't understand me. I said Yonks Van Dolsen is dead. Yonks, you know."
He was very serious.
"Well, what of it?" asked Van Dolsen. "Hasn't he as much right to be dead as any man has? Let me in on the joke, Tom."
"I guess you don't catch my meaning yet, Dick," said Garrick slowly. "What I said was that Yonks Van Dolsen is dead. Your wife felt it deeply. When she left she was wearing heavy mourning for him."
Van Dolsen had a valise in his hand. He dropped it suddenly and leaned against a convenient wall for support. His face worked convulsively, and he doubled over and shook his head helplessly from side to side, gasping for breath.
Garrick, frightened, tried to shake him by the shoulder, but as he reached out his hand Van Dolsen straightened up, and raising his head, yelled. The yells burst forth like great howls, and the tears streamed down his face. He was laughing.
Garrick stood back and watched him helplessly. At first his face showed fright, but as Van Dolsen writhed in an evident overwhelming ecstasy of joy, a curious smile touched the corners of his mouth.
"Oh!" gasped Van Dolsen. He pressed his hands hard into his ribs and gasped again and again before he caught his breath sufficiently to stand erect, and then he wiped his eyes while sobs of laughter shook him.
"Oh, my!" he cried, "my sides. Oh! You nearly killed me that time, Tom. One more minute and I would have been dead! I'm getting too fat to laugh like that!"
"Elizabeth in mourning for that old rhinoceros-hided reprobate," he cried, after another burst of laughter. "You will kill me, Tom! Did she really put on mourning? My, my! But that wife of mine is a wonder! Why, Tom, that old Yonks has been -- in mourning for Yonks, hey! Say it again, Tom."
They had reached his office, and Van Dolsen led the way up the stairs, chuckling. He felt in his pocket for the key, and unlocked the door, and they both entered.
"Yonks dead," he said, with evident amusement, as he set his valise on the chair and threw off his heavy fur coat. He turned to his table still repeating, "Poor Yonks!" and "Dead is he, the old blister?"
From the top of his small pile of mail he took the letter that he was sure his wife had left for him. He tore open the envelope hastily and ran his fingers through the sheets. There were several, closely written.
"Sit down, Tom," he said, and began to read the letter. As he read his face alternately became sober and broadened into a grin. When he had finished he folded the letter and pushed it slowly into the envelope. Then he turned to Garrick.
"Tom," he said, "Yonks Van Dolsen is dead! My wife has written me all about it. He was a fine old man. I'm going into mourning for him. If anyone asks you how I took the news, Tom, tell them the truth. Say I was all broken up."
As soon as possible Richard Van Dolsen had a crepe band sewed on his hat. His friends all said something kind to him regarding his loss, and even at first he accepted their sympathy in a manly manner.
"Yes," he said, "I appreciate your sympathy, but he was an old man; a very old man. Personally, it is not as if I had known him. I shouldn't have thought of putting on mourning for him myself, but Mrs. Van wished it. One of the family, after all."
As the days passed and he became more accustomed to the idea, he seemed to enter more into the spirit of the crepe hatband. He felt, perhaps, that he wasn't doing the late Yonks justice, for it was hard for him to sink his habitual cheerfulness. He became frankly talkative about Yonks -- so much so that Yonks became something of a bore to Wighamton.
"The more I think of it," he said to one of his friends, "the more I feel I have never done Yonks justice. He was a fine fellow. No foolishness about him. One of the good, solid type. Poor old Yonks! He will never walk the earth again."
To another he said:
"Jim, I can't seem to realize that I am mourning for Yonks. It doesn't seem possible. I lay awake half the night thinking about it. I almost blubbered out loud when I thought of his poor family."
"Did he have children?" asked Jim, sympathetically.
"Children!" cried Van Dolsen. "He had eighteen! But I wasn't thinking of them. They are all dead. His wife is dead, too. I was thinking of his family -- the Eastern Vans; of the blow it must be to them to know that Yonks is no more. You can bet they don't mourn for him in the half-hearted way that I do!"
Continued in McCall's August 1907.