The Adventures of a Suburbanite

The Adventures of a Suburbanite

Ellis Parker Butler
Ellis Parker Butler

Author: Butler, Ellis Parker, 1869-1937
Humorous stories
United States — Social life and customs — Fiction
Married people — Fiction
Suburban life — Fiction
Automobiles — Fiction
The Adventures of a Suburbanite


By Ellis Parker Butler

Illustrated by A. B. Phelan

Garden City New York Doubleday, Page & Company




ISOBEL was born in a flat, and that was no fault of her own; but she was born in a flat, and reared in a flat, and married from a flat, and, for two years after we were married, we lived in a flat; but I am not a born flat-dweller myself, and as soon as possible I proposed that we move to the country. Isobel hesitated, but she hesitated so weakly that on the first of May we had bought the place at Westcote and moved into it.
The very day I moved into my house Millington came over and said he was glad some one had moved in, because the last man that had lived in the house was afraid of automobiles, and would never take a spin with him. He said he hoped I was not afraid; and when I said I was not, he immediately proposed that we take a little spin out to Port Lafayette as soon as I had my furniture straightened around. I thought it was very nice and neighbourly and unusual for a man with an automobile to begin an acquaintance that way; but I did not know Millington’s automobile so well then as I grew to know it afterward.
I liked Millington. He was a short, Napoleon-looking man, with bulldog jaws and not very much hair, and I was glad to have him for a neighbour, particularly as my neighbour on the other side was a tall, haughty-looking man. He leaned on the division fence and stared all the while our furniture was being moved in. I spoke to Millington about him, and all Millington said was: “Rolfs? Oh, he’s no good! He won’t ride in an automobile.”
At first, while we were really getting settled in our house, Isobel was bright and cheerful and seemed to have forgotten flats entirely but on the tenth of May I saw a change coming over her, and when I spoke of it she opened her heart to me.
“John,” she said, “I am afraid I cannot stand it. I shall try to, for your sake, but I do not think I can. I am so lonely! I feel like an atom floating in space.”
“Isobel!” I said kindly but reprovingly. “With the Millingtons on one side and the Rolfs on the other?”
“I know,” she admitted contritely enough; “but you can’t understand. Always and always, since I was born, some one has lived overhead, and some one has lived underneath. Sometimes only the janitor lived underneath—”
“Isobel,” I said, “if you will try to explain what you mean—”
“I mean flats,” she said dolefully. “I always lived in a flat, John, and there was always a family above and a family below, and it frightens me to think I am in a house where there is no family above me, and not even a janitor’s family below me. It makes me feel naked, or suspended in air, or as if there was no ground under my feet. It makes me gasp!”
“That is nonsense!” I said. “That is the beauty of having a house. We have it all to ourselves. Now, in a flat—”
“We had our flat all to ourselves, John,” she reminded me; “but a flat isn’t so unbounded as a house. Just think; there is nothing between us and the top of the sky! Not a single family! It makes me nervous. And there is nothing beneath us!”
“Now, my dear,” I said soothingly, “China is beneath us, and no doubt a very respectable family is keeping house directly below.”
Isobel sighed contentedly.
“I am so glad you thought of that!” she cried. “Now, when I feel lonely, I can imagine I feel the house jar as the Chinese family move their piano, or I can imagine that I hear their phonograph.”
“Very good,” I said; “and if you can imagine all that, why cannot you imagine a family overhead, too? The whole attic is there. Very well; I give up the entire attic to your imagination.”
Then I kissed her and went into the back garden. My opinion is that the man that laid out that back garden was over-sanguine. I am passionately fond of gardening, and believe in back gardens; but at the present price of seed and the present hardness of hoe handles, I think that back garden is too large. This is not a mere flash opinion, either; it is a matter of study. The first day I stuck spade into that garden I had given little thought to its size, but by the time I had spaded all day I began to have a pretty well-defined opinion of gardens and how large they should be, and by the end of the third day of spading I believe I may say I was well equipped to testify as an expert on garden sizes. That was the day the blisters on my hands became raw.

The day after my little conversation with Isobel I returned home from business to find her awaiting me at the gate. She wore a bright smile, and she put her hand through my arm and hopped into step with me.
“John,” she said cheerfully, “the Prawleys moved in to-day.”
“The Prawleys? Who are the Prawleys, and what did they move into?” I asked.
“Why, how do I know who they are, John?” she said. “I suppose we will know all about them soon enough, but you can’t expect me to learn all about a family the day they move in. And as for what they moved into, of course there was only one vacant flat.”
“Flat? One vacant flat? What flat?” I asked. I was afraid Isobel was not entirely herself.
“The one above us,” she said, and then as she saw the blank look on my face she said: “The—the—oh, John, don’t you understand? The attic!”
“Hum!” I said suspiciously, looking at Isobel; but her face was so bright, and she looked so thoroughly contented that I did not tell her what I thought of this sort of pretending. Too much of it is not good for a person. “Very well,” I said; “I only hope they will not be too noisy.”
“I don’t think they will,” said Isobel, smiling. “At least not while you are home.” She helped me off with my light coat, and when we were seated at the table she said: “By the way, Mr. Millington leaned over the fence this afternoon, and said he hoped you would take a little ride to Port Lafayette with him soon. He says his automobile is in almost perfect shape now.”


ISOBEL was brighter at dinner than she had been for some days. She seemed quite contented, now that the imaginary Prawleys had moved into the attic. She said no more about them, and when I had finished my dinner I put on my gardening togs and went out to garden awhile before dark. Blisters are certainly most painful after a day of rest, and I did not work long. I was almost in despair about the garden. Fully half had not been touched, and what I had already done looked ragged and as if it needed doing over again. The more I dug, the more great chunks of sod I found buried in it, and it seemed as if my garden, when I had dug out all the chunks of sod, would be a pit instead of a level. It threatened to be a sunken garden.
“Isobel,” I said angrily, when the sun had set and I was once more sitting in the chair on my veranda, with my hands wrapped in wet handkerchiefs, “you know how passionately fond of gardening I am, and how I longed and pined for a garden for two full years, and you know, therefore, that it takes a great deal of gardening to satisfy me; but I must say that the man who laid out that garden must have been a man of shameful leisure. He laid out a garden twice as large as any garden should be.”
“Then why do you try to work it all?” she asked.
“Oh, work it!” I exclaimed with some irritation. “I can’t let half a garden go to weeds! That would look nice, wouldn’t it! I’ll work it all right! You don’t care how I suffer and struggle. You sit here—”
The next evening when I reached home
I did not feel particularly happy. My hands were quite raw, and my back had sharp pains and was stiff, and I spoke gruffly to Millington when he suggested an automobile ride to Port Lafayette for that evening.
“No!” I said shortly. “You ought to know I can’t go. I’ve got to kill myself in that garden!”
But I was resolved Isobel should never see me conquered by a patch of ground, and after dinner I went out with my spade and hoe. When my glance fell on the garden I stopped short. I was very angry.
“Isobel?” I called sharply.
She came tripping around the house and to my side.
“Who did that?” I asked severely. I was in no mood for nonsense.
She looked at the garden. One half of it—not the half I had struggled with, but the other ‘half—had been spaded, crushed, ridged, planted, and left in perfect condition. The small cabbage plants had been carefully watered. Not a grain of earth was larger than a pin head. Not a blade of grass stuck up anywhere. Isobel looked at the garden, and then at me.
“I warned him!” she said. “I warned him you would be angry when you came home! I told him you wanted to garden that half of the garden, too, and that you would probably go right up and give him a piece of your mind, but he insisted that he had a right to half the garden, and—”
Who insisted that he had a right to half my garden?” I demanded.
“Why,” said Isobel, as if surprised at the question, “Mr. Prawley did.”
“Prawley? Prawley? I don’t know any Prawley!”
“Don’t you know the Prawleys that moved into the flat above us?” said Isobel. “And he is a very nice man, too,” she continued. “He was not at all rude. He merely insisted, in a quiet way, that as he was a tenant and as there was only one back garden, and two families in the house, he was entitled to half the garden.”
She did not give me a chance to speak, but ran on in that vein, while I stood and looked at the garden and, among other things, thought of my blistered hands and my lame back.
“Well and good, Isobel,” I said at length. “I do not wish to have anything to say to the Prawleys, nor do I wish to quarrel with them, and since he demands half the garden you may tell him he is welcome to it. I cannot conceal that in taking half of it away from me he has robbed me of just that much passionate happiness, and you may tell him I do not like the way he gardens, but I will say no more about it!”
“Oh, you dear old John!” said Isobel. “And now you shall not touch that miserable garden with your poor sore hands. You shall just sit on the veranda with me and let me bathe your palms with witch hazel.” Although I assumed an air of sternness in speaking to Isobel of Mr. Prawley I was glad to be able to humour her, for she seemed so much happier after beginning to pretend that the Prawley family occupied the attic of our house. Giving in to these harmless little whims of our wives does much to make life pleasanter for them—and for us—and as long as Mr. Prawley left me my own half of the garden I could not be discontented. One half of that garden was really all a man should attempt to garden, no matter how passionately fond of gardening he might be.
It is fine to be the owner of a bit of soil and to feel the joy of possession, but it is still more delightful to be able to see one’s own garden truck springing into life after one has dug and planted and weeded and cultivated with one’s own hands. I had no greater desire in life than to devote all my spare time to my garden, but a man must give his health some attention, and Isobel pointed out that if I gardened but one half of the garden I would have time to ride to Port Lafayette with Millington in his automobile now and then, and as Port Lafayette is on the salt water the air would be good for me.
Port Lafayette is about eleven miles from Westcote, and I had often wished to go to Port Lafayette, but Millington is absurdly jealous. Of course, I could have taken Isobel by train in about one half hour, or I could walk it in two or three hours, or drive there in an hour; but I knew that would hurt Millington’s feelings. He would take it as an insult to his automobile.
But now I told Isobel that as soon as my garden got into reasonable shape we would go to Port Lafayette with Millington. Isobel told me that my health was more important than radishes, and reasoned that a few weeds in a garden were not a bad thing. Weeds, she said, grow rapidly, while vegetables are modest and retiring things, and she considered that a few weeds in my half of the garden might set a good example to the vegetables.
Mr. Prawley evidently held a different view, for he did not allow a single weed to raise its head in his half of the garden, and I told Isobel, rather sharply, that his idea was the right one, and that I should weed my garden every evening until there was not a weed in it.
“But, John,” she said, “I have never ridden in an automobile, and it would be a great treat for me.”
“No doubt,” I groaned—I was weeding in my garden at the moment—“but, treat or no treat, I am not going to have this half of the garden look like a forest.”
“I know you enjoy it,” she began, but I silenced her.
“I am passionately fond of gardening,” I said, “and I have told you so a million times. Now will you leave me alone to enjoy it, or won’t you?”
She went into the house and left me enjoying it alone.
The very next evening, when I looked into my half of the garden, I found it weeded and put into the best of shape, and when I hunted up Isobel, angry indeed at having so much pleasure taken from me, she did not dare look me in the eye.
“Isobel,” I said sharply, “what is the meaning of this?”
“John,” she said meekly, “I am afraid I am to blame. You know Mr. Prawley does not like automobile riding—”
“I know nothing of the kind, Isobel,” I said. “I know I am passionately fond of gardening, and that some one has robbed me of the pleasure I have looked forward to for years: the joy of weeding my own garden on my own land.”
“Mr. Prawley does not like automobile riding,” continued Isobel, “and he came to me this morning and told me his health was so poor that his doctor had told him nothing but gardening could save his life. When he showed the garden to his doctor, the doctor told him he was not getting half enough gardening—that he must garden twice as much. I told Mr. Prawley he could not have your half of the garden, because you were passionately fond of it—”
“True, Isobel!” I said, rubbing my back at the lamest spot.
“But he begged on his knees, saying that while it was only a pleasure for you, it was life and health for him, and when his wife wept, I had not the heart to refuse. He said he would make a fair exchange, and that as he was an anti-vegetarian you could have all the vegetables that grew in your own half, and all that grew in his, too.”
“Isobel,” I said, taking her hand, “this is a great, great disappointment to me. It robs me of a pleasure of which I may say I am passionately fond, but I cannot disown a contract made by my little wife. Mr. Prawley may garden my half of the garden.”
I must admit that the Prawleys were ideal tenants. Not a sound came from his floor of the house. Indeed, I did not see him nor his family at all. But during my days in town he and Isobel seemed to have many conversations, and she was so tender-hearted and easily moved that one by one she let Mr. Prawley take all the outdoor work of which I may rightly claim to be passion—to be exceedingly fond.
Mowing the lawn is one of the things in which I delight. I ardently love pushing the lawn mower, and if, occasionally, I allowed the grass to grow rather long, it was only because I was saving the pleasure of cutting it, as a child saves the icing of its cake for the last sweet bite. I remember remarking, quite in joke, one morning, that the confounded lawn needed mowing again, and that the grass seemed to do nothing but grow, and that I’d probably have to break my back over it when I got home that evening. But when I reached home that evening I suspected that Isobel must have taken my little joke as earnest, for the lawn was nicely mown and the edges trimmed. It seemed, when I questioned Isobel, that Mr. Prawley’s doctor was not satisfied with his progress and had assured him that lawn mowing was necessary for his complete recovery. Thus Isobel allowed Mr. Prawley to usurp another of my pleasures.
So, one by one, the outdoor tasks of which I am so passionately fond were wrested from me. I allowed them to go because I thought it necessary to humour Isobel in her pretence that some family occupied a flat above us, and all seemed well; and we were ready to go to Port Lafayette in Mr. Millington’s automobile whenever it was ready to take us, when one day in June I happened to notice that our grass was getting unusually long and untidy.
“Isobel,” I said, “I have humoured Mr. Prawley, abandoning to him all the outdoor chores of which I am so passionately fond, but if he is to do this lawn I want him to do it, and not neglect it shamefully. I will not have it looking like this!”
“But, John—” she began.
“I tell you, Isobel,” I said, with rising anger, “I won’t have it! I’ll stand a good deal, but when I have robbed myself of my greatest pleasure, and then see the other man neglecting it, I rebel. If this goes on I’ll forget that Mr. Prawley has bad health. I’ll enjoy cutting the lawn myself!”
“John,” said Isobel, throwing her arms about my neck, “you will be so glad! I have good news to tell you! The Prawleys have moved away! Now you can do all your own hoeing and mowing.”
“The Prawleys have moved away?” I gasped.
“Yes,” she said cheerfully, “and now you can garden all the garden, and cut all the lawn and rake all the walks, and weed, and do all the things you are so fond of doing.”
“Isobel,” I said sternly, “if I thought only of myself I would indeed be glad. But I cannot have my little wife fearing the empty flat above her. You must immediately hire another—er—get another family.”
“But I shall not be nervous any more, John,” she said; “and it is a shame to deprive you of the outdoor work.”
I looked out upon the large lawn and the large garden.
“No, Isobel,” I said, “you must take no chances. You may not think you will be nervous, but the feeling may return. If you do not get a family to move in, I shall!”
I rubbed the palms of my hands where the blisters had been, and thought of the middle of my back where the pains and aches had congregated. I was ready to sacrifice my passionate longing for outdoor work once more for Isobel’s sake.

“Well,” she said thoughtfully, “I know of an excellent coloured man in Lower Westcote, that we can hire by the day—I mean that we can get to move into the flat—but I can hardly afford, with my present allowance, to pay his wages—that is, I mean—”
“For some time, Isobel,” I said hastily, “I have been thinking your allowance was too small. You must have a—a great many household expenses of which I know nothing.”
“I have,” she said simply.
That evening when I returned from the city I saw that the lawn grass had been cut so closely that it looked as if the lawn had been shaved. Isobel ran to meet me.
“John!” she cried; “John! Who do you think has moved into the flat overhead?”
“Dear me!” I exclaimed. “How should I know?”
“The Prawleys!” she cried. “The Prawleys have moved back again. Are you not glad?”
I concealed my chagrin. I hid the sorrow with which I saw my passionate fondness for outdoor work once more defeated of its object.
“Isobel,” I said, “I wish you would tell Mr. Prawley’s doctor to tell Mr. Prawley that it is imperative for Mr. Prawley’s best health that Mr. Prawley dig the grass out of the gravel walks to-morrow. Tell him—”
“I told him this evening to do the walks the first thing in the morning,” said Isobel innocently, “and when he has done them I am going to have him help Mary wash the windows.”


NOW that Mr. Prawley is back,” I told Isobel, “we can take that trip to Port Lafayette with Millington,” and it was then Isobel mentioned the advisability

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The Adventures of a Suburbanite
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