Mr. Barton Seeks a Wife

This is a short story I wrote a few years ago. It’s one of my favorites because it is modeled after the classic Victorian story in which there is a nice tidy plot, a moral lesson, and a happily ever after. When I was little my favorite books were by Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, and my favorite writing style is still the quaint, fairlytale-like storytelling of those old authors. As a writer in the modern world, I have been educated to not write that way, but it still pops out sometimes, like the seed of a touch-me-not. So, in order to both satirize and celebrate Victorian literature, I give you

Mr. Barton Seeks a Wife

In New York City around the turn of the century there lived a wealthy bachelor named Daniel Harold Arthur Barton. He went by “Dan” to his card playing mates or simply by “Mr. Barton” to the general public. He was around thirty years old, with dark, unruly hair, a clean-shaven face, eyes the color of blueberries, and a tall, well-formed figure. He wore the most expensive clothes in the latest fashions, and lived in the finest mansion on Madison Avenue. At that time he was considered the most famous rich man in the country, but no one remembers him now, even though the famous millionaires of that era had nothing on Mr. Barton. Mr. Barton was a blueblood; his money was old money. John Rockefeller only owned a socialist oil company. Mr. Barton’s family had been wealthy for hundreds of years, back in England where the Barton name had been synonymous with prosperity. And when his ancestors had come to America, they only did so to exchange their hundreds of thousands of British pounds into American dollars. It was in America that they had really become, as the saying goes, filthy rich. Andrew Carnegie only owned steel companies and built libraries and had half the buildings in Pittsburgh named after him.

Mr. Barton’s life story is simple to tell. His parents raised him to be a typical spoiled, whiny, greedy brat of a rich boy, and when they died in an accident during their son’s sixteenth year, they foolishly left him all the money. Thanks to Hugh, the loyal family butler, Mr. Barton was advised to save some of his fortune; otherwise in his youth the wealth would have been squandered. So he finished school and went on to college, soon quitting because (as he said), “it was too strict”, although other sources have indicated that he got expelled because of his general lack of respect for authority. At any rate, he then went on to the military, because he had heard how glamorous it is to be a rich military man. But he left that soon after starting, because it was stricter than college. So he returned to New York and spent his days throwing parties at the lavish Barton estate. By now (and by some freak of nature) he had become quite responsible with money, so he always wisely kept it in the bank to collect interest. He invested in oil, in steel, and in coal, all booming industries, and owned one or two factories. But as of yet no one had named any buildings after him, because for some reason no one wanted to.

On the evening of his thirtieth birthday he stretched himself on a chaise, lit a cigar, and considered himself a very successful young gentleman. But, he remarked to Hugh, how he felt that something was missing! And he couldn’t imagine why, with all his money and property, he would be seeking something else, but he was. He felt all empty. What a conundrum! So he pondered it and pondered it, until one night at 3 am he sat up in bed and snapped his fingers. That was it! Every successful young gentleman had a wife! That was the missing factor! So the next morning after breakfast he sent a message to be printed in the New York Times.

Mr. Barton Seeks a Wife.

That was it, for as you know, Mr. Barton was very wise with money and had no intention of wasting it on a classified ad. But the simple sentence was enough. As I said before, everyone in New York knew of Mr. Barton, so there was no need to illuminate on the details. Suddenly the papers christened him the “most eligible rich bachelor in New York”, somehow forgetting their former criticism of his wishy-washy lifestyle. News spread quickly of his intent on marriage, as such news always does. And soon every young maiden of New York’s upper class found it expedient to call on Mr. Barton. Every day from one to three there was a line of well-dressed ladies outside the huge front doors of Barton Manor (his estate, the one building named after him), a line that stretched from those doors to the street, winding its way through the circular driveway and pristine lawn and out Mr. Barton’s wrought-iron front gate.

The first day the callers came, Mr. Barton was delighted at the number. Surely there was chance of him finding a wife among these wealthy ladies! The very first caller was Mr. Rockefeller’s daughter Alta, who was about Mr. Barton’s age and had apparently had no luck with love yet. She was dressed in the very finest of walking ensembles: a tailored jacket and skirt of muted pastel green trimmed with fine white lace, an art nouveau brooch pinned on one lapel of the coat, a pair of soft white leather gloves buttoned with pearls, and a spectacular hat. It was angle-brimmed, made of white plush, decorated on the crown with a wide green ribbon, and garnished with millinery flowers of soft orange, blue, pink and yellow. A mist of fine lace settled over her chapeau, wound around it and lingering over her face. The general effect was very elegant and breathtaking. Mr. Barton was quite overcome.

So he offered his caller a seat, and she sat on a fine brocade settee with her back to the front window of the parlor. For a while neither of them said anything, but instead smiled politely and a little awkwardly at each other. Finally Mr. Barton considered it appropriate to begin, as he was, after all, the one who had instigated the meeting.

“Well, Miss Rockefeller, I trust you have had a pleasant afternoon.”

“Indeed, Mr. Barton,” Alta replied.

“And what, if I may ask, are your interests these days?”
“Oh, not much, I am afraid. As it is summer, you know, almost everyone else is out of town. There is hardly anyone to talk to, except of course yourself. I have begged Papa to return to one of our estates out of town for the hot summer months, but he is too busy here.”

“Yes, yes, but – ” Mr. Barton swallowed, “What do you like?”

“I like our home in Cleveland very much, only it is often stormy, it being on the lake…”

“I can imagine. What, um…” Mr. Barton decided to try a different approach. “How do you spend your time in Cleveland?”

“Well, I enjoy parties.”

“Capital! So do I!” Mr. Barton felt relieved.

“That is to say, I only enjoy parties if they are very grand. I attended Miss Vanderbilt’s cotillion several years ago, and it was dreadfully shoddy. It seemed as if her father was only a millionaire, not the billionaire I know him to be.”

Mr. Barton gulped. He had enjoyed the Vanderbilt cotillion very much; Mr. Vanderbilt had actually spent more on that party than Mr. Barton usually spent on two parties combined. But he had little time to reflect on this, because Miss Rockefeller kept speaking.

“So where else do you make your home, Mr. Barton? I mean where are your various estates?”

“Well, I spend most of my time here in New York, of course, but whenever it strikes my fancy I like to travel down South. I have a house in Aiken, South Carolina. It’s a very nice little town, rather quaint and quiet, with a large horseracing community. I own a few thoroughbreds myself.

Miss Rockefeller gasped. “You don’t say?” The disgust on her face was evident. “I am simply amazed that such a nice man as yourself would be interested in horse racing. I see it as a horrendous gamble and a dreadful waste of time. And horses are so dirty!”

“Yes, I suppose they are… compared to humans, of course. But then again, one can’t expect them to be as clean as we are,” Mr. Barton tried to defend his good faith in the members of the animal kingdom. But Miss Alta was by no means convinced of their merit and presently rose, stating,

“I believe, Mr. Barton, that I should take no more of your precious time, especially as there are other young ladies who are waiting to meet you.” Her emphasis on the word other gave Mr. Barton a strange feeling of mingled disappointment and relief. Miss Rockefeller soon left, and Mr. Barton said to himself:

“It’s a shame that it didn’t work out with Alta. But she likes grander parties than I could afford, and anyway, she doesn’t like horses. I suppose this is for the best. The marriage would have been rocky anyway.”

For the remainder of that day and of the days that followed, Mr. Barton met with many high society ladies from New York and the surrounding area. As word spread, wealthy ladies came from further away: from Chicago, Asheville, St. Louis, and San Francisco. Soon Mr. Barton began to regret the sentence he had put in the paper. He had only intended to find a few local women, not every rich girl in the country. But, as the French say, c’est la vie. He had made the decision and was determined to stick it out. It couldn’t hurt. He was plenty on time, and if what they say is true, that time is money; well, he was plenty on that too.

After a few weeks of having callers five days each week (thank goodness that ladies observe weekends when they chase suitors!), Mr. Barton was tired and with half a mind to put a “do not disturb” sign on the front gate. One evening, after a particularly exhausting day, Mr. Barton collapsed onto his chaise, gasped at a cigar, and considered himself a very unfortunate young gentleman. “What is it, Hugh,” he remarked to the butler, “that is so difficult about finding a woman? One would think that a rich man such as myself should have no trouble in that respect. Well, upon second thought, I suppose I have no trouble attracting women, while I have considerable trouble choosing one who suits me.”

After letting his master talk out his troubles, Hugh offered his rarely sought and yet very sage advice: “Perhaps, Master Daniel, instead of finding a wife to suit yourself, it would be wise to find one whom you suit well.”

Mr. Barton gawked and congratulated Hugh on his excellent counsel, even though the poor rich man only had a vague idea of what the butler had actually said. But at least it was something to go on. And throughout the entire evening Mr. Barton repeated the ambiguous phrase over and over, purposing that it should stick to him, and that he would remember it through the night. And he did, falling asleep dreaming about a woman whom he suited well, yet still not knowing quite what sort of a woman that was. Then, waking suddenly from his dreams, he sat up in bed at 3 am and snapped his fingers.

“Ah, I see now!” he exclaimed. “The trick is not to find a woman to make me happy, but one whom I could bring happiness to!” Then he lay back down, fell back asleep, and began to dream of a small, petit, shabbily clad woman with dark brown hair and eyes and a small, elfin face that had no smile. And in his dreams Mr. Barton bought her pink roses and chocolates and took her to the opera. And she smiled wide and her eyes sparkled like diamonds. And Mr. Barton had never been so happy.

When he awoke, he found the sun shining through the silk curtains of his room and it gave him even fresher resolve than he had had at 3 am. He donned his gentleman’s robe and went straight downstairs for a quick breakfast, the quickest he had ever eaten. He then hurried back to his room to dress in fine black trousers, a crisp oxford shirt, a burgundy silk vest and a black silk tie under a black suit jacket, glistening patent leather shoes, and a shiny top hat. On his way down the staircase he buttoned on some white gloves and stuck a white carnation in his suit coat buttonhole. The general effect was that of a very wealthy, well-mannered gentleman, of which Mr. Barton was very much the former and working toward being the latter.

He went out the side door of the mansion, to the little portico where a carriage sat waiting for him. He entered it, and it took him down the cobblestone drive past dozens of ladies and out the wrought-iron gates to the brick streets of New York.

“Drive slower, please,” he begged the driver, “and can’t you go to a poorer section of town?” The poor driver was not prepared for such orders. He had been taught that time was money, so naturally men with money must be short on time and could not waste it driving about in the streets. And furthermore, it went against every ounce of wealthy-family-chauffeur training to take a rich employer to the lowest part of town. But he did, because what was part of wealthy-family-chauffeur training was doing as you’re told.

So they came to the dirty slums. There were sagging tenement buildings, garbage and mud puddles in the streets, and a cold dampness that hung in the air and clung to the buildings and the people outside them. Even the sky overhead seemed dirty gray, though it had been nicely blue just a while ago. Some grubby children ran by with a makeshift ball, involved in a sort of game. Soiled, tired faces peeped out of the dusty windows, and high up some work-worn women were pulling the laundry in from the line.

“Do stop, please,” said Mr. Barton to his driver. “I would like to walk.”

The driver almost suffered a stroke. “Y-yes sir. Shall I wait here?”

“No thank you, I’ll just walk home.”

The driver audibly gasped, but Mr. Barton didn’t notice. He had already set out among the street, his hands clasped behind his back, observing the New York slums as if he were observing paintings at the Louvre. He was quite overcome by the sights he was now seeing, even more overcome than he had been the day Miss Rockefeller had called. He realized that he had never walked in New York; he had taken a few strolls in the park, yes, but he had never actually walked the streets. He had only passed by quickly in the carriage, never seeing the tiny details that make up life. And he saw that he had bypassed all which was important – people and their feelings – to reach what he had once thought was important – money and prestige. But he didn’t think those things so important now.

Everyone he passed looked upon him in wonderment. Who was this rich man who walked with so contemplative an air and who seemed unconcerned that he was out of place? He didn’t bother to avoid the puddles or skirt around the dirty children or shy away from the darkest alleys. He only walked, distracted by the sheer unfamiliarity of it all.

He came upon a dark, run down tenement with most of the windows broken and boarded up. The front door was boarded shut, but next to it was a little stone staircase that led down to a beaten basement door. The little patch of pavement that served for this door’s porch was wet and muddy like the rest, but on it was set several stone pots and a few glass jars. In all these containers were planted flowers: pink roses, climbing morning glories, violets, and daisies. Mr. Barton gazed upon the little garden with awe. He had seen many grand and famous gardens, but this one seemed to surpass all of them. It was probably because of its location. This garden offered the sole piece of color and beauty that could be found in such a dark, hopeless place, and this made it all the more beautiful.

Mr. Barton had just thought this when the battered door opened to let out a young lady: a small, petit, shabbily clad woman with dark brown hair and eyes and a small, elfin face that had no smile. Mr. Barton’s heart suddenly stopped beating and then began beating again, only to seem to burst with excitement and happiness. This was she! This was the girl of his dreams, literally of his dreams!

She stopped, surprised to see such an evidently wealthy man at her doorstep. “Can I help you, sir?” she asked in a kind, soft, and rather worried voice.

“No, I mean yes, I mean…” Mr. Barton, for the first time in his life, was tongue-tied. “I mean, what a lovely garden, miss.”

“Thank you. May I ask what brings you here?” her brow wrinkled.

“I am… on an errand.”

“Oh?” her brows raised.

“Yes, and I came by here on it.”

“I see.”

“Yes.” He nodded.

A silence followed that was rather awkward, she unsure of his sanity and he unsure of it as well.

“Well sir, I mustn’t keep you from your errand…” she finally said.

“Oh, you are not at all,” he replied.

She looked confused.

“Ah, what I mean to say is, is that you actually were the errand.”

“Beg your pardon?”

“Well, it is a rather long story, so perhaps I should begin by introducing myself.”

“Perhaps you should.” A smile teased the corners of her mouth.

“My name is Daniel Barton. Have you heard of me?”

“Why, of course! Who hasn’t? Forgive me for not noticing sooner!” she looked worried again.

“Oh, hang that!” he responded. “I don’t mind at all. I rather like not being noticed for once.”

“I suppose that lately you’ve been getting a lot of attention.”

“Oh, so you have heard about the, um, contest?”

“Oh yes. Everyone has.”

“Well, yes. That brings me to my errand.”

“And what is that, Mr. Barton?”

“Finding a wife.”

She started. “I should think that you of all people would have no trouble in that regard.”

“That’s what I thought too! But when all the ladies came and told me about themselves, I realized that I did not suit them.”

“What do you mean?” asked the girl, tilting her head.

“I mean that they don’t really want husbands; they want lap dogs or bodyguards or benefactors. They don’t want a friend to spend their lives with, to be happy with.”

“I can imagine that,” she replied, nodding. “But what does this have to do with me?”

Mr. Barton inhaled, his heart hammering. Gone was all his dashing wit and grandeur. In its place was terrified excitement. “Well, miss, I hope that you would consent to being my wife.”

She almost suffered a stroke.

Me?” she finally sputtered. “Oh Mr. Barton, what are you talking about? You only met me a few minutes ago! And I’m poor as dirt. What could a rich man like you want with me?”

Mr. Barton thought a moment. “Do you like pink roses?”

She stared. “Yes.”

“Do you like chocolates?”

“More than anything.”

“Do you like the opera?”

“I’ve never gone, but from what I’ve heard it must be divine.”

“Do you think you could love me?”

“I think I already do.”

“And why do you think that?”

She bit her lip and pondered. “Because you are so very kind. And because I think that you are very friendly and happy and good-hearted.”

“If it helps, I believe I’ve seen you somewhere before.”

“Oh?”

“And I fell in love with you at once.”

She smiled and bowed her head a little, unsure of what to say.

“Well? What of it?” he asked, reaching for her hand. “Marry me?”

She laughed and gave her hand to him. “Of course, Mr. Barton! I will!”

And so she ducked back inside her little apartment and came back out with a carpetbag filled with the few little treasures she owned. And she and Mr. Barton walked arm in arm toward his mansion, which was quite a long way but of course it didn’t seem at all like it because they were in love. And it was only after about two miles that Mr. Barton suddenly stopped and asked what her name was. And she smiled wide and her eyes sparkled like diamonds as she told him that her name was Lenora Beecher. This settled, they walked on.

When they came to the mansion, the line of ladies was still stretched across the lawn, even though Mr. Barton had been gone over three hours. As he and Lenora walked down the driveway, he greeted the ladies one by one very matter-of-factly. And one by one the ladies turned, staring, gaping at the little lady on Mr. Barton’s arm. She flushed a little, but it was enough to render her perfectly beautiful. And all the ladies whispered to themselves on who this shabby-but-stunning street waif could be.

Mr. Barton came to the front door, and Hugh let him and Lenora in. Then the door was shut again, leaving the crowd of women completely befuddled. Inside the house Mr. Barton introduced the butler to his future wife, and Hugh like her immediately. Then Mr. Barton commanded that new clothes be ordered for her and that she be shown to the finest guestroom. Then Mr. Barton hurried to the parlor and on his shiny new telephone he rang up the parson and explained the whole ordeal, setting the wedding for the following day. Then he sent a message to be printed in the New York Times:

Mr. Barton found a wife.

The next morning every wealthy young lady in the country found the need to be struck with a sick headache and confined to bed. Even Mr. Barton’s card playing mates were skeptical. But at the wedding Lenora was so sweet and kind and lovely in every perceptible way that everyone (with exception to Mr. Barton’s former admirers) was immediately won over.

And so Mr. and Mrs. Barton lived happily; not ever after, because of course it is not realistic to expect every married couple to completely adore each other all the time, but as a rule they were very happy and very suited to one another. Mr. Barton gave his money to create schools for the poor children in town, and he and Lenora worked with them every day. Mr. Barton found that he really loved working with children, and he was also glad to finally have a building named after him. He and Lenora also went to the slums and fixed up the old melancholy buildings into beautiful, stately ones. But their lives were not completely full of charitable activities. There were leisurely ones too. Mr. Barton helped his wife plant a huge garden in back of the mansion, where most of the flowers were pink roses. And every Sunday after church they had picnics in the park, eating nothing but chocolates. And when Mr. Barton took his wife to the opera, she thought it was divine. And she smiled wide and her eyes sparkled even brighter than the diamonds that she wore.

And Mr. Barton had never been so happy.

Thanks for reading!

Hannah

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