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Holding Hands
by [?]

At first nobody knew him; then the Hotchkisses knew him, and then it seemed as if everybody had always known him. He had run the gauntlet of gossip and come through without a scratch. He was first noticed sitting in the warm corner made by Willcox’s annex and the covered passage that leads to the main building. Pairs or trios of people, bareheaded, their tennis clothes (it was a tennis year) mostly covered from view by clumsy coonskin coats, passing Willcox’s in dilapidated runabouts drawn by uncurried horses, a nigger boy sitting in the back of each, his thin legs dangling, had glimpses of him through the driveway gap in the tall Amor privet hedge that is between Willcox’s and the road. These pairs or trios having seen would break in upon whatever else they may have been saying to make such remarks as: “He can’t be, or he wouldn’t be at Willcox’s”; or, contradictorily: “He must be, or he’d do something besides sit in the sun”; or, “Don’t they always have to drink lots of milk?” or, “Anyway, they’re quite positive that it’s not catching”; or, “Poor boy, what nice hair he’s got.”

With the old-timers the new-comer, whose case was otherwise so doubtful, had one thing in common: a coonskin coat. It was handsome of its kind, unusually long, voluminous, and black. The upturned collar came above his ears, and in the opening his face showed thin and white, and his eyes, always intent upon the book in his lap, had a look of being closed. Two things distinguished him from other men: his great length of limb and the color and close-cropped, almost moulded, effect of his hair. It was the color of old Domingo mahogany, and showed off the contour of his fine round head with excellent effect.

The suspicion that this interesting young man was a consumptive was set aside by Willcox himself. He told Mrs. Bainbridge, who asked (on account of her little children who, et cetera, et cetera), that Mr. Masters was recuperating from a very stubborn attack of typhoid. But was Mr. Willcox quite sure? Yes, Mr. Willcox had to be sure of just such things. So Mrs. Bainbridge drove out to Miss Langrais’ tea at the golf club, and passed on the glad tidings with an addition of circumstantial detail. Mister Masters (people found that it was quite good fun to say this, with assorted intonations) had been sick for many months at–she thought–the New York Hospital. Sometimes his temperature had touched a hundred and fifteen degrees and sometimes he had not had any temperature at all. There was quite a romance involved, “his trained nurse, my dear, not one of the ordinary creatures, but a born lady in impoverished circumstances,” et cetera, et cetera. And later, when even Mister Masters himself had contradicted these brightly colored statements, Mrs. Bainbridge continued to believe them. Even among wealthy and idle women she was remarkable for the number of impossible things she could believe before breakfast, and after. But she never made these things seem even half plausible to others, and so she wasn’t dangerous.

Mister Masters never remembered to have passed so lonely and dreary a February. The sunny South was a medicine that had been prescribed and that had to be swallowed. Aiken on the label had looked inviting enough, but he found the contents of the bottle distasteful in the extreme. “The South is sunny,” he wrote to his mother, “but oh, my great jumping grandmother, how seldom! And it’s cold, mummy, like being beaten with whips. And it rains–well, if it rained cats and dogs a fellow wouldn’t mind. Maybe they’d speak to him, but it rains solid cold water, and it hits the windows the way waves hit the port-holes at sea; and the only thing that stops the rain is a wind that comes all the way from Alaska for the purpose. In protected corners the sun has a certain warmth. But the other morning the waiter put my milk on the wrong side of my chair, in the shade, namely, and when I went to drink it it was frozen solid. You were right about the people here all being kind; they are all the same kind. I know them all now–by sight; but not by name, except, of course, some who are stopping at Willcox’s. We have had three ice storms–‘Kennst du das Land wo die Citronen bluehen?’ I am getting to kennst it very well. But Willcox, who keeps a record of such things, says that this is the coldest winter Aiken has known since last winter!