Only Chick survived, the ash-barrel baby, who really was not theirs at all, but who having begun life in their back yard, continued as everything else continued when once established at the Flathers', for the simple reason that no one ever took the trouble to change the existing disorder of things.
As Myrtella sailed wrathfully into port and docked at the door-step, Maria looked up with a gasp:
"Law! Myrtella, you gimme a turn. I forgot this here was your afternoon off. I thought sure you was Sheeley's rent man."
"Sheeley's?" repeated Myrtella, her curiosity getting the better of her temper, as she removed an old shoe and a flour sifter from the nearest chair and sat down.
"Yes, he's our landlord, but he gits another man to collect. Guess you heard about his gittin' shot?"
"Read every word that's been printed. Is he goin' to die?"
"Not him. Ain't nothin' the matter with him 'ceptin' his eye is blowed out. My uncle, back home, got both his eyes—You, Chick!" this to an invisible presence that manifested itself only through a shower of pebbles that followed in the wake of a fleeing cat. "Go up to the saloon, Chick, and tell yer Pappy he'll have to come on home. Yer Aunt 'Tella's here."
"Don't look like he grows a inch a year," said Myrtella thoughtfully, watching him depart.
"That there Mrs. Ivy's been after me agin to send him to the Widows and Orphans' Home. She says she can git him in, and they'll learn him to read and write."
"Well, he ain't goin'! I guess as long as I'm a payin' the grocery bills, I got a right to say who'll eat the food! What's that you are hidin'?"
Maria, who had been attempting to remove something surreptitiously from the table, looked apologetic.
"It's one of them plaster casts, I'll be bound," Myrtella continued. "I might 'a' knowed you'd git the mate to the other one, and not a square inch of space in the house to set it on! What did you give fer it?"
Mrs. Flathers withdrew her apron, and tenderly dusted the highly colored features of an Indian squaw, whose head-feathers reposed upon her arm. Then she placed it on a corner of the stove where its imposing dignity produced a momentary impression upon even the flinty Myrtella.
"How much?" she demanded heartlessly.
"A quarter down, and ten cents a week." Maria sighed. "'Twouldn't be no trouble at all if it wasn't for Phineas spending so much car-fare going to church and that bow-legged, onery rent-man, that comes sneakin' round here every week, acting like poor people just kep' money settin' 'round in jars waitin' fer the likes of him!"
Maria's hatred of the rent man was the one emotion that seemed to be left in her withered bosom. To baffle him, to evade him, to anticipate his coming and be away from home, constituted the chief object of her existence.
A bang of the gate announced the arrival of the head of the household, which was promptly followed by the strains of a hymn cheerfully whistled in rag-time.
Phineas Flathers, after months of abstinence, had reached that period where he felt that not only his constitution, but his profession would profit by a temporary fall from grace. Solicitude for his moral welfare was beginning to flag at the Church; his regular attendance, his apparent absorption in the sermon, and his emotional execution of the hymns, all went to lift him from the class of interesting converts, to the deadly commonplace of regular members. Only that afternoon he had decided to revive interest in his case at any cost. He had just treated others, as he would have others treat him at the Cant-Pass-It, when he was summoned home to see his sister.
He now presented himself in his own doorway, a hand on either side of the jamb, and bowed profoundly:
"Miss Flathers! Pleased to meet you! I see you still continue to favor yourself in looks. Lost your place, I suppose?"
"That's right, be insultin'!" Myrtella flared up haughtily; "throw it in my face that I'm hard to please, and ain't willin' to put up with any old place I come to."
"Now I wouldn't put it that I was throwing it in yer face exactly," began Phineas, anxious to propitiate.
"Which means I'm a story-teller?" Myrtella squared herself for action.
"Oh, come on along," coaxed Phineas; "no harm's meant. Go on an' tell us what you left fer."
"Who said I'd left? Puttin' words in my mouth I never thought of utterin'! I ain't left, and what's more I ain't going to. I got a good place."
Phineas whistled an aggravatingly attenuated note of surprise: "The lady you are working for must be a deef-mute."
"She is. The same as you'll be some day. She's been dead three years."
The triumph with which she made this announcement put a momentary quietus on Phineas, and enabled her to proceed:
"It's a widower gentleman with three children that I'm cookin' for, and I ain't set eyes on one of 'em except at meal times since I hired to 'em. Queerington's their names, out on College Street, right around the corner from the Immanuel Church. He's a teacher or something, one of them bookwormy men, whose head never pays no attention to what the rest of him is doing. 'Take charge,' said he, 'of everything, do the ordering, and cooking, and don't bother me with nothing.'"
"But does he bother you?" put in Phineas astutely; "that's the real point."
"Wasn't I just tellin' you that he didn't? He's been off on a trip to Virginia; gets home to-night. I've got the whole house in the pa'm of my hand, from cellar to attic. Miss Connie, she's the oldest, as flighty as a pidgeon and head so full of boys she don't pay no attention to another livin' thing. Then there's Miss Hattie, the second one, jes' at that spiteful thirteen age, but so busy peckin' on her sister, she ain't no time left for me—"
"Thought you said there was three children," put in Maria mildly.
"I did. You didn't think I lied, did you? Always ready to snatch up a person's words before they git 'em out of their mouth! The third one is a boy, Bertie they call him, sick and spin'ly, but a right nice little fellow. Where'd Chick go?"
"He's settin' out there on the door-step. Did you hear 'bout our shootin'?"
"Maria was tryin' to tell me, but she didn't seem to have nothin' clear to tell. Who do you think done it?"
Phineas Flathers, balancing himself on the hind legs of his chair, with his thumbs in the armholes of his vest, was nothing loath to launch forth into a full recital of the affair, embellishing it with many a flourish as he went along. In the bosom of his family he was freed from those bonds of restraint that embarrassed his utterance when in more formal society. The amount of profanity that he could dispose of in the course of an ordinary conversation was little short of astounding. This being more than an ordinary conversation and his mood being mellow, called for an extra vocabulary. He graphically set forth the facts in the case, then gave his imagination full sway in accounting for them. He interpreted the whole affair as a clash between capital and labor, a conflict between the pampered aristocrat and the common man. The shooting was the result of a deep-laid plan: Dillingham and Morley had met by appointment, moved by what motive he did not make clear, to kill Sheeley, an honest laboring man. Hadn't the one on horseback, that they say was Mr. Morley, stopped him at the crossing, on the very afternoon of the shooting, and engaged him in conversation? Phineas assured his listeners that he trembled even now when he thought of the danger he had been in!
"I'd seed him afore that day a ridin' with a pretty young lady, that most got her neck broke under a engine, but this time he was by hisself, a settin' there on his horse, as proud as a king and stirrin' me up about the rich folks not allowing us poor working classes to have no streets out here. I suspicioned somethin' right then; says I to myself, 'he's got a handsome face but his mind is a well of corruption.' And when I heard he'd shot Sheeley ...Now what in thunder is the matter with you, Chick?"
During this recital Chick had been sitting in the doorway, his knees drawn up to his chin, listening intently, but at this point he cried out in a sputter of protesting sounds.
"It's the shootin', it's done got on his mind," explained Maria, winding her long thin hair into a yet tighter knot at the back of her head. "He takes on like that every time he hears us talkin' 'bout it, and nobody can't make out a word he's sayin'. Fer two or three days I couldn't scarcely git him to eat nothin'."
"If your cooking ain't any better than it used to be I ain't surprised," Myrtella said. "How bad was Sheeley shot, Phineas?"
"Oh, he'll be laid up fer a month yit. They say the retinue of his eye was cracked right across the middle. But that ain't worryin' Sheeley. He's livin' in style at the hospital, all his bills paid, and the swells lookin' after him. I hear he ain't even goin' to prosecute. They've fixed him all right; besides he don't want to git that fly young gang down on his place. He's countin' on startin' up them sparrin' matches ag'in, as soon as the police quit noticin' him. Say, Sis, you don't happen to have a quarter 'bout you, do you?"
The peculiar persuasiveness of Phineas' voice when he threw out these financial suggestions, was very insidious. In some subtle way he made the favor all on the side of the recipient; he gave the donor, as it were, a chance to acquire merit.
But Myrtella wore the armor of experience. "No, I ain't!" she said, taking a firmer grasp on her bag. "I'm payin' the grocery man now, and buyin' clothes for Chick. What good does it do? I no more than git his hide covered than you go and sell the clothes offen his back. When are you goin' to git a job?"
"Well, you might say I had one now. Leastwise I'm a followin' Scriptures and bearin' one another's burdens. Jires, the flagman, over to the Junction has been laid up with rheumatism and he don't want the boss to know it. He sets in his box and hires me to go out and flag the trains like he tells me to."
"How many trains a day?"
"Two ups, three downs and a couple of freights."
"Should think you'd die of the exertion. How much do you get?"
"Oh, it ain't so much. But I ain't a ambitious man. What's the use of me a-slavin' and a-hordin' when I ain't got a child to leave it to? If Claude had a lived, or McKinley, I might 'a' had somethin' to work for."
"You mean you'd 'a' had somethin' to work for you. The Lord certainly done a good job when he changed His mind about letting them babies live."
"They're having onions next door fer supper," said Maria feebly, by way of diverting an old discussion. "I ain't been able to git 'em off my mind all afternoon."
Chick, who had been sent to the grocery to see what time it was, came back holding up five fingers.
"Gee, I got to be hiking!" said Phineas. "The passenger train from Virginia's due at five sixteen. It won't git here before a quarter of six, but I'm always there on the minute. That's what Jires pays me fer, fer bein' regular and reliable. Jes' let me get a regular habit and a clock ain't in it with me. Why, if I was to come in late at church, they'd stop the service!"
"Well, don't you be gittin' a regular habit of comin' 'round to the Queeringtons!" was Myrtella's parting shot as he rose unsteadily. "When I got anything to say to you I'll come here."
"That's right!" assented Phineas cordially; "you jes' make yourself at home. My home is your home. Maria'll tell you that I says to her only last night, I says, 'Maria, you needn't feel so cut up 'bout askin' Myrtella fer the rent this month, because this is her home, too. There ain't a board in it but I'd share with her, she knows that.' You tell her all I said, Maria, don't you keep back nothin'. Farewell!" and with an affectionate glance and a wave of the hand Phineas departed.
Now if he had followed the straight and narrow path, indicated by the rocks and tin cans, that led to the Junction, instead of the broad highway indicated by the plank walk that led to the Cant-Pass-It, the tragedy that hovered over Billy-goat Hill might have been averted.
But he had left the saloon in the midst of a heated controversy with two Italians, concerning the supremacy of America over all other nations. The fact that his country had never been proud of him in no way deterred him from being very proud of his country. Until the dispute was properly ended he felt that the honor of the nation was at stake.
His patriotic fervor ran so high that by the time he reached the crossing, the passenger train was already in sight. Jires, helpless and terrified at his post, was distractedly shouting directions from his little sentinel box.
"Flathers! There's a washout down the road! We've got to hold up the passenger train. Get out the red flag! Quick man! Be ready to signal the engineer. Three times cross ways! The red flag, you fool! the RED FLAG! Oh, my God!"
For Phineas Flathers, to whom all flags now looked red, white and blue, was standing at the crossing, joyously waving a white flag, while the engineer with his hand on the throttle, released the brakes, and sent his train thundering down the grade to destruction.
* * * * *
Meanwhile Myrtella, having finished her visit in a grand finale of pyrotechnics, in which she displayed Phineas to his wife in a number of blazing lifelike portraits, took her departure. It was not the first time she had faced the alternative of paying the rent, or seeing her only relative turned into the street, nor was it the first time that, after giving innumerable pieces of her mind to Maria, she had followed them up with the rent.
All the way home she discussed the matter audibly with herself, and was still muttering darkly when she reached the Queeringtons'. So absorbed was she in her own wrongs that she did not notice that the front door stood open, and figures were hurrying about in the hall.
As she let herself into the side door, a white-faced young girl, with her hair brushed straight back into a long braid, rushed through the pantry.
"What's the matter, Miss Hattie?"
The girl steadied herself by the banister. "It's father!" she said with chattering teeth. "There's been an awful accident just below the Junction. They can't even bring him home. They are taking him to a place out there, a Colonel Carsey's. Colonel Carsey was killed. He was sitting right by father. Oh! Myrtella, I'm so afraid father's going to die!"
Myrtella standing helplessly before the terror-stricken girl, could find no words of sympathy. In fact she appeared even more formidable and bristling than usual.
"Well, he ain't dead yet," she said shortly, "and any how, there ain't no reason why you shouldn't have supper. Trouble always sets heavy on a empty stomach."
The fatal accident which Phineas Flathers' misguided patriotism had precipitated, changed the course of many a life, but to none did it bring more far-reaching consequences than to the daughter of old Bob Carsey.
Miss Lady could never clearly recall those first days after her father's death. They seemed to her a confused nightmare of strange doctors and nurses, of a strange man hovering between life and death in the guest-room bed, of strange people coming and going, or sitting in hushed groups on the stiff horsehair chairs in the hall, waiting for news. Two facts alone remained fixed in the whirling chaos of unrealities; her father was dead, and no letter had come from Donald Morley.
Each day when the mail arrived she roused from her apathy, and with trembling fingers sorted out the letters, going over them again and again, and never finding the one she sought. Gradually beneath the poignant grief for her father, came the dull persistent pain of a first disillusion. The belief and loyalty with which she had started out to defend Donald began to weaken before his silence. In his trouble she had been ready to rush to him, to succor and forgive, but he had not called upon her. Now in her great need, she was calling to him, and he did not come. Suspicion began to crowd on the heels of doubt.
Had he not acknowledged his instability? Had her father not seen it from the first? Was his desire to settle down in the country but one of the whims of which his life seemed made up? Perhaps she herself had only been a passing fancy, something wanted for the moment, but soon forgotten. At the end of a week her pride rushed to arms. Whatever reason he might offer now would come too late.
The sudden plunge from irresponsible girlhood into this mysterious region of grief and doubt, where one must tread the thorny path alone, terrified and bewildered her. She did all the last sad, futile things one can do for the dead; then when all was over, fled from the confusion at Thornwood, and sought the silence of the woods. Here fierce outbursts of rebellious grief were followed by hours of apathy when she tramped for miles, seeing and hearing nothing, but urged on by an insistent desire to be in motion.
It was at the end of one of these tramps that Noah Wicker found her late one evening, on the grass by the river, sobbing out her heart at the spot where the Colonel used to fish.
Noah's words of comfort were as scarce as his other words, so he sat on a log near by and waited silently until she was ready to go home. At the stile, where he left her, he handed her a letter.
"I got it at the station this noon," he said. "Thought I'd be over earlier, but didn't know if you wanted me."
She did not hear him, the letter had come! Her fingers thrilled at its touch, and the warm blood surged to her heart. Without another thought for Noah, she sped up the walk to the house, where she locked herself into the living-room. Match after match sputtered and went out in her nervous fingers, before the lamp was lighted.
He had written! He cared! He was coming! Over and over she whispered the words to herself. Then she looked at the postmark on the heavy envelope, and her heart sank. San Francisco! After all he was not coming back!
Her eager finger was at the seal, when her eyes fell upon a briar-wood pipe that lay on the table beside a half-filled pouch of tobacco. In an instant she seemed to see a stubby brown hand reaching for it, the quick spurt of the match, the flare of light on an old weather-beaten face, then a deep-drawn breath of contentment as the Colonel settled back and held out his other hand to his little girl.
And her last promise to him had been to do nothing until Donald's name should be cleared. She could keep her promise now, but could she after she had read Donald's letter? If the mere touch of it in her hand plead for him, what would the living words do?
She looked hopelessly around the cheerful, homely room, every foot of which spoke to her of her father, and of his love for her. On the white door-frame were penciled the proud records he had made of her height on each successive birthday. On the walls were pictures of her he had treasured, from the time she was a round-eyed baby, to the present day. In the cupboard was a green box containing her first shoes, her little dresses, her first letter, her baby curls.
Over the harpsichord was a portrait of the Colonel himself, painted before she was born. It represented a dashing, young sportsman, surrounded by his pack of hounds. Twenty years ago this gallant hunter had given up the chase, with many another joy, to minister to her baby needs, to share her joys and sorrows, and be father, mother, play- fellow, all in one.
She clasped Donald Morley's letter tightly and closed her eyes. Never in her short life had she wanted to do anything so desperately as she wanted to read that letter, and yet the reading of it would mean breaking a promise to one whom she could never promise anything again. Her newly awakened love and her sense of justice pleaded hotly for Donald, but the empty room and her empty heart, and a passionate sense of loyalty to the dead, spoke mutely for her father.
After all, nothing could justify those long days of silence, that failure on Donald's part to come to her in her trouble. Her father's judgment was probably right after all, and it was best she should put an end to the matter once and for all.
Sobbing like a child, she kissed the letter again and again, and kneeling by the fire, held it to the flame, and watched it burn to ashes on the hearth.
After that one dreary week followed another, with the same invasion of strangers, the same varying reports from the sick room. Gradually, however, the reports became more favorable, the tension eased, visitors became less frequent, and Thornwood began to settle down to its normal state.
Owing to the nature of Doctor Queerington's injury, and the severe shock he had sustained, it was not thought best to move him to the city until he was stronger. The quiet country house was an excellent place for convalescence, and under the direction of his trained nurse he could be allowed to read and write, free from the annoyance that must beset him when once he returned home.
This arrangement was listlessly agreed to by Miss Lady, who had no plans for the future, and dreaded another adjustment. She was singularly alone in the world, and too dazed for the present to know what her next step should be. The only thing of which she was certain, was that she would never leave Thornwood.
On one of the first days that Doctor Queerington was allowed to sit up, she went in to see him. Her first impression in the darkened room was the kindly clasp of a hand, and a wonderful low voice that spoke words of comfort. Then gradually she saw the slender, over-serious face of a middle-aged man, with small eyes somewhat too close together, a broad intellectual forehead, and a firm, well-formed mouth that seemed a stranger to smiles.
From that time on she found his room a refuge. He had been the unknown object of her admiration since she was a child, he was her father's friend, the last to be with him before his death, and he talked to her for hours about the great mysteries of life and death. He was the only person to whom she talked who never seemed to be in doubt.
It was not the first time that the Doctor had proven a consoling presence in time of affliction. Where others conjectured, or evaded, he boldly affirmed. The universe to him was an open book, from which he enjoyed reading aloud.
One morning, six weeks after the accident, Miss Lady came into his room with a handful of flowers and found him propped up in bed, his books about him, and a note in his hand.
"I have a communication from my cousin, Mrs. Sequin," he said with the polite formality that was habitual to him. "It seems that she is going to honor me with a visit."
"Mrs. Sequin?" Miss Lady wheeled so suddenly that she overturned the vase in which she was arranging the flowers. "Now see what I've done! I'll fix it, Miss Wuster; don't bother."
It apparently required little self-control for the trained nurse to refrain from bothering. She was sitting with her heels firmly hooked under the rung of a straight-back chair, crocheting with passionate abandon. Filling hot-water bottles, taking temperatures, feeding patients, were mere interruptions to her real vocation of converting spools of linen thread into yards of linen lace.
"She states her intention of coming to see me," the Doctor continued, "but I cannot decipher her hieroglyphics sufficiently to find out the time. Perhaps you can assist me."
"Is this a D?" asked Miss Lady, looking over his shoulder.
"I judge so; an adaptation of the Greek character. Why the art of handwriting should be considered obsolete, I am at a loss to—"
"Oh, she says she is coming to-day," interrupted Miss Lady, "on the eleven train. I must go down and tell Uncle Jimpson to be at the station, and have Aunt Caroline put on another plate for dinner."
"Then what are you going to do, my dear?"
"I was going to the cemetery."
"You would better come up here instead. In your mental state a person is very sensitive to environment. You should avoid everything that excites the emotions. I think you can trust me to know what is best for you just now?"
"Indeed I can," Miss Lady said impulsively; "you have helped me more than anybody. Daddy would be so grateful if he knew."
"He does know," announced the Doctor with the finality of one to whom all things have been revealed. "But we must not discuss these things now. Miss Wuster has just been reading me the account of young Dillingham's trial. Perhaps you have been following it?"
"Yes," said Miss Lady without looking up.
"It is a matter of especial interest to me," continued the Doctor; "especial regret I should say. Young Dillingham is engaged to be married to the daughter of my cousin whom I expect to-day, and the other young man involved, Donald Morley, is Mrs. Sequin's brother."
"Well for the life of me," said Miss Wuster, counting stitches between her sentences, "I can't see how they got Mr. Dillingham off, unless it was the way Mr. Gooch said."
"Who is Mr. Gooch?" asked Miss Lady of the Doctor.
"The gentleman who came to see me yesterday. He is a lawyer and has followed the case closely. He does not scruple to affirm that the trial was a farce, one of those legal travesties that sometimes occur when a scion of a rich and influential family happens to transgress the law. It seems that the saloon-keeper, who was at first reasonably sure of what happened, suffered a strange lapse of memory when on the stand. Gooch thinks he was bought up, but Gooch is fallible where human motives are involved. His misanthropy invariably colors his judgment."
"Well, nothing on earth can keep me from thinking that Mr. Dillingham did the shooting!" declared the nurse with violent partizanship. "Look at the way he sneaked home, and left the other young man to get a doctor and help move Sheeley to the hospital. Yes, sir, it's time for your medicine, just wait 'till I finish this spool and I'll go down and heat the water."
"He—he oughtn't to have gone away?" said Miss Lady, looking at the Doctor interrogatively.
"Donald, you mean? Certainly not, it was most ill-advised, probably some quixotic idea about not wanting to testify against his friend. If you knew the boy you would understand what a hot-headed, harum-scarum person he is. He was my pupil at one time and I grew quite fond of him. He has ability, undoubted ability, but he is a ship without a rudder; he has been drifting ever since he was born."
"This acquittal of Mr. Dillingham puts the blame on—on him, doesn't it?"
"Naturally. His absence at the trial was undoubtedly one of the strongest arguments in Dillingham's favor. Mr. Gooch tells me that the counsel for the defense took especial pains to throw suspicion upon Donald. The case has been confusing in the extreme, the absence of witnesses, the failure to establish the ownership of the pistol, the absurd complication about the slot machine and crowbar,—an absolute jumble of contradictory evidence. As for Donald Morley's being guilty, it's absurd! He is not the sort of man who runs away from punishment."
Miss Lady's heart swelled with gratitude. Of course Donald Morley was nothing to her now. She had assured herself of that so continuously for two months that she was beginning to believe it. She knew that he was wild, reckless and unreliable, that he had failed her in her greatest need, and that she had put him out of her life forever. But it was good of the Doctor to take his part!
"I know now what my father meant when he said you were the justest man he ever knew!" she said timidly, lifting a pair of shining eyes.
"Unfortunately for Donald the Court does not share my opinion. It is not known even by the family as yet, but Mr. Gooch tells me that Donald has been indicted by the grand jury."
"Yes, he can never return to Kentucky without standing his trial. It is a serious affair for him, I fear."
When in the course of the morning Uncle Jimpson started to the station to meet Mrs. Sequin, he did not have to direct the course of his steed. Had old John not known the way from experience, the inherited memory of his ancestors would have prompted him to turn twice to the right, once to the left, and pull up at a certain corner of the station platform. For the honor of being the Carseys' "station horse" had descended to him from his father Luke, whose father Mark had in the days of prosperity traveled in harness with Matthew, fulfilling that same important office. Thus John was, in a way, enjoying the distinction of apostolic succession.
Arrived at the station Uncle Jimpson stepped jauntily around the post- office box and ostentatiously took out the Carseys' mail. It was a small act to take pride in, but in lieu of more important duties it had to serve. For the past six weeks the advent of city people at Thornwood had stirred up old ambitions in him. A new sprightliness was observable in his gait, a briskness in his speech, which Aunt Caroline did not hesitate to characterize as "taking on airs."
The blood of a butler coursed through Uncle Jimpson's veins, a stately, ebony butler who had been wont to stand at the Thornwood door during the old days and hold a silver tray covered with boutonnieres, for the arriving guests. Uncle Jimpson had inherited this tray along with an ambition that was not above buttons. Year after year he had descended with the descending Carsey fortunes, passing from the house to the horses, then to the field, and finally becoming the man of all work, but never relinquishing that dream of his youth, to stand in livery in the halls of the rich, and exercise those talents with which Providence had blessed him.
As he passed the compliments of the day with two farm hands, who were loading a wagon near by, his eye fell upon a strange object that stood in the door of the dining-room. It looked to Uncle Jimpson like pictures he had seen of lions, only it was small and white and barked remarkably like a dog.
"Dat sure am a curious lookin' animal," he observed. "Hit must b'long to a show."
One of the farm hands laughed and pointed with his thumb to the waiting-room. Uncle Jimpson tiptoed to the window and peered in. All that he could see was the back of a very imposing lady and the top of a large plumed hat.
"Is—is she a-waitin' fer anybody?" he whispered, motioning anxiously with his soft hat.
"Oh! no," said the nearest man; "she ain't waitin'; she's just enjoyin' the scenery on them railroad posters. She likes to set there, been doin' it for a half hour."
Uncle Jimpson scraped the mud from his shoes, buttoned the one button that was left on his linen coat, and dropping his hat outside the door summoned courage to present himself.
"'Scuse me, mam, but does dis heah happen to be Mrs. Sequm?"
"It is," said the lady, haughtily.
"Yas'm, dat's what I 'lowed. Dat's what I tole Carline—leastwise dat's what I'st gwine tell her. Ise Cunnel Carsey's coachman."
Mrs. Sequin eyed him coldly through a silver lorgnette. "Didn't they understand that I was coming on the eleven train?"
"Yes'm, dat's right. But you allays has to 'low fer dem narrow gauges. Dey has to run slow to keep from fallin' offen de track. Dat must have been de ten o'clock train you come on."
"Not at all, I left the city at ten minutes of eleven."
"Yas'm, dat was de ten train den. De leben train don't start 'til long about noon."
"Preposterous!" said Mrs. Sequin, sweeping to her feet. "Take me to the carriage. Fanchonette! Where are you?"
Uncle Jimpson apologetically dragged forward his left foot, upon the trouser hem of which the small dog had fastened her sharp little teeth.
"Frightfully obstinate little beast," said Mrs. Sequin, "she won't let go until she gets ready. You needn't be afraid of her biting you. She couldn't be induced to bite a colored person."
Uncle Jimpson, carrying the dog along on his foot, led the way, while Mrs. Sequin, with the cautious tread of a stout person used to the treacheries of oriental rugs on hardwood floors, followed. She was a woman of full figure and imposing presence, whose elaborate coiffure and attention to detail in dress, gave evidence that the world had its claims.
At sight of the shabby, old, mud-covered buggy, and the decrepit apostolic John she paused.
Jimpson all obsequious politeness, put a linen duster over the wheel, and with a gesture worthy of Chesterfield, handed her in.
"I wish the top up," she commanded. "The glare is unspeakable."
Uncle Jimpson, standing by the wheel, shuffled his feet in embarrassment: "Yas'm," he agreed, "I'll put it up effen you want me to. But it won't stay up. No, mam, it won't stay. Looks lak in de las' two or three years it got a way o' fallin' back. Cunnel 'lowed he was gwine to git it fixed onct or twict, but he ain't done it."
Fanchonette just here became enraged at a bit of paper that was caught in the wheel, and gave vent to such a violent burst of temper that it required the undivided attention of her mistress to calm her.
Uncle Jimpson, occupying the smallest possible portion of the seat, and with one leg hanging outside the buggy, rejoiced in the proximity of so much elegance. It gave him a feeling of prosperity and importance, and made him straighten his back, crook his elbow, and even adopt a more formal manner with old John. He deeply regretted that he had not put on a clean coat and as for the buggy, he was already planning a thorough cleaning of it before driving the stylish guest back in the afternoon.
"Stop a moment!" commanded Mrs. Sequin peremptorily. "What a view! I had no idea there was such scenery anywhere around here!"
"Yas'm, hits about de fines' sceneries in de world! You kin see from dem heights clean down to de bridge. All dis hill used to be our-alls. I 'member hearin' how Mr. Rogers Clark done gib it to de Cunnel's gran'paw fer a lan' grant when de Injuns libed here!"
"Who owns it now? Who owns the hilltop?"
"I don't know, mam. We been sellin' off considerable."
"Well, I must find out about that at once. I'll send an agent out to- morrow to look into the matter. Colonel Carsey left only one daughter, I believe, and she never married?"
Uncle Jimpson jerked the reins and looked a bit nettled.
"Not yit," he said, "but she ain't no old maid, Miss Lady ain't. Dere neber wuz a Carsey lady yit dat withered on de stalk; de trouble wif dem is dey git picked too soon. Ez fer Miss Lady's ma, she wasn't but jes turned sebenteen when me an' de Cunnel went down to Alabama to marry her."
"Who are Miss Carsey's relatives, her advisers?"
"She ain't got none. She didn't hab a livin', breathin' soul but her paw, 'ceptin' me an' Carline, an' Carline's liable to drop off mos' anytime."
"But who is going to live with her?"
"I spec she gwine git married some day," Jimpson said hopefully, "all de boys been plumb 'stracted 'bout dat chile since she wuz a little girl. But she wuz so crazy 'bout her paw, she jes laff at 'em. Now de Cunnel's gone, she'll hab to git somebody else to make ober."
"Well, I must find out about that hill," said Mrs. Sequin, turning for a last glimpse. "Whose old place is this we are coming to?"
"Dis is our place, dis is Thornwood," said Uncle Jimpson, half in pride, half in apology, as he skirted the holes in the road. "It don't look lak itself. It's a terrible pretty place when it's fixed up."
"Dreadfully run down," said Mrs. Sequin to herself, making a sweeping survey of the premises, "all this front lawn ought to be terraced and have granitoid walks and formal approaches. The house could be made quite imposing."
They had turned in the long winding avenue, and were following the old gray wall that swept in a wide circle past the negro cabins, then toward the house.
Suddenly Mrs. Sequin pointed dramatically to the little porch of one of the cabins.
"A Sheraton! Great heavens! Where did it come from? What is it doing there?"
Uncle Jimpson, following the direction of her finger, looked surprised: "Dat ain't no sheraton, dat's a sideboard. Leastwise it wuz one 'fore I fixed it into a chicken coop. I took out de drawers and put on dem cross-pieces. Got forty de purtiest little chickens you eber seen!"
"And the legs are curved and have knobs, haven't they?"
"No, mam, dey ain't no more bow-legged dan most chickens. Do you raise chickens on your place?"
"No, but we may when we get to the country. By the way, you don't happen to know of a good colored man around here, do you? One who understands horses, and would look well in livery?"
Uncle Jimpson's eyes set in their sockets. Old John and the rattling buggy faded from his consciousness. In their place he saw himself on the box seat of a grand Victoria, in a double-breasted coat and high hat, lightly shaking the reins across the backs of two sleek thoroughbreds. It was even more alluring than his cherished dream of butlerhood! Already he felt his swelling chest strain against the gold buttons!
But what about Miss Lady? Who was going to stay at Thornwood and take care of her? Domestic infelicities had rendered him callous to Aunt Caroline's claims, but Miss Lady, his "little Missis"?
"No, mam," he said dejectedly as he assisted Mrs. Sequin to alight. "I can't say ez I do, not jes' at present. Sometime I might heah ob a good man, say 'bout my size an' build. You, Mike!"
Mike had rushed at the small poodle with the apparent intention of swallowing her at a mouthful, but at Uncle Jimpson's stern reproof he snapped at a fly instead, and tried to give the impression that that was what he was after all along.
"Ain't you 'shamed ob yourself?" Uncle Jimpson muttered. "Fussin' 'round here an' stickin' out yer lip at white folks? Come on 'round back where you b'longs. You an' me is corn-field niggers, dat's all we is!"
And with that irritable dejection that often follows self-sacrifice, Uncle Jimpson limped away with the subdued Mike skulking at his heels.
As Mrs. Basil Sequin swept up the broad steps at Thornwood, she congratulated herself upon a duty about to be accomplished. She had not foregone a bridge luncheon to make this tiresome trip to the country for purely altruistic reasons. She had come to prove to herself, and to her circle, the bond of friendship that existed between her and her distinguished cousin. Experience had taught her that an occasional reference to "my favorite cousin, John Jay Queerington, the author, you know," had its influence. "His is the only great intellect," she was fond of telling her husband, "to which I am related either by blood or marriage."
Doctor Queerington's reputation was one of those local assumptions that might be described as prenatal rather than posthumous. It was what he was going to be, that made his name an awe-inspiring word in the community, more than what he was already. It was the conviction of his friends and colleagues that a tardy world would too late recognize his genius.
After waiting impatiently for some one to respond to her vigorous use of the heavy knocker, Mrs. Sequin tucked Fanchonette under her arm and pushed open the door. The hall had doors to right and left, but before making further investigations she paused to examine minutely the tall mahogany clock, and the quaint silver candlesticks that stood on an old table at the foot of the steps.
While bending to inspect the latter, she heard a door open, and looking up saw a pretty, slender girl in a short white petticoat and a sleeveless black dress lining, which displayed a pair of remarkably shapely arms.
"Oh, I didn't know you had come!" exclaimed the young person, cordially extending a smiling welcome. "What a darling little dog! Is he a poodle?"
"She is a French poodle," said Mrs. Sequin with a manner intended to impress this exceedingly casual person. "Where shall I find my cousin, Doctor Queerington?"
"The front room up-stairs, on that side. I'd go up with you, only Miss Ferney Foster, our neighbor, is fitting this lining and she has to get back to her pickles. I wish we were born feathered like birds, don't you?"
Mrs. Sequin, who had a masculine susceptibility to a pretty face, could not repress a smile.
"I know this lining looks queer," went on the girl with an answering twinkle. "But it doesn't look any queerer than it feels. Miss Ferney doesn't know what's the matter, and neither do I. Would you mind taking a peep at it up there between the shoulders? I'll hold the doggie."
To her surprise, Mrs. Sequin found herself removing her gloves, and adjusting a badly cut lining across a smooth white neck, while the girl before her, having shifted all responsibility, fell to making love to the poodle which she cuddled in her arms.
"It's too tight here," said Mrs. Sequin, pinning and adjusting, "and too loose there. Have her take up the side seams to the place I have marked, and lengthen the shoulder seams at least an inch."
"Thank you so much. It feels heavenly now. You go right up-stairs! You can take your things off in my room, if you like, just across the hall from the Doctor's." And without further ceremony the young hostess went tripping down the hall, leaving Mrs. Sequin to ascend the stairs alone.
Ascending was one of Mrs. Sequin's chief accomplishments. Twenty-five years' experience on the social ladder had made her exceedingly surefooted. Her reward now was in sitting on the top rung and dictating arbitrarily to all those below. She had acquired a passion for dictating, for arranging, and setting in order. The crooked seams which she had just pinned straight gave her a satisfaction that almost counteracted her annoyance at the informality of her reception.
Once established at the Doctor's bedside, with the nurse detailed to exercise Fanchonette in the yard below, she gave herself up to the pleasure of recounting at length her troubles of the past few months. She enjoyed talking, as a prima donna enjoys singing: she loved to hear the cadences of her own voice, and to watch the gestures of her jeweled hands.
"It's an unspeakable relief," she assured the Doctor, "to actually see with my own eyes that you aren't a mangled cripple from the terrible wreck! You can't imagine how frightfully anxious I've been, but then this whole spring has been a veritable nightmare. Donald and Lee Dillingham both involved in this unspeakable scrape, Margery on the verge of nervous prostration, you perhaps fatally injured, and Basil Sequin too engrossed in his own affairs to give mine a moment's consideration."
"Basil has grave responsibilities as president of the People's Bank, Katherine," said the Doctor, keeping his fingers between the leaves of the massive volume which he had regretfully closed at her entrance. "I, for one, owe him a debt of gratitude for relieving me of all financial anxiety. Besides you are always thoroughly capable of taking the reins in a family crisis."
"Yes, but it's telling on me. I notice it in bridge. I am not the player I was a year ago. This trial of Lee Dillingham's has been a hideous strain. Of course, if he had been convicted, I should have compelled Margery to break her engagement, and that would have complicated things frightfully. You know his grandfather, the old general, is the largest stockholder in the People's Bank, and Basil insists that he must not be offended. That was one reason why I was so anxious to keep Don out of the way. Even if Lee was guilty, Don couldn't appear against him when he was engaged to Margery. The only possible course was to hush up the entire affair with as little publicity as possible. Thank heaven, General Dillingham has gotten Lee off, and I am beginning to breathe again."
"And you have heard nothing from Donald?"
"No, indeed, and I hope I won't for the present. I wrote immediately after the shooting to every place I could possibly think of his going, and implored him, if he had a grain of gratitude for me, or affection for Margery, that he would keep away, and not even let his whereabouts be known until this wretched affair had blown over. I can nearly always appeal to Don on the score of gratitude. I must say for him that, like the rest of the Morley men, he sows his wild oats like a gentleman. You remember Uncle Curtis? They said at the club he was a frightful drinker, and yet not a woman of his family ever saw him intoxicated. Then look at Grandfather Morley!" Mrs. Sequin was mounted on a favorite hobby. She had a large and varied collection of family skeletons, some of rare antiquity, which she delighted in exhibiting. She could recount the details of the unfortunate matrimonial alliances on both sides of the family for generations back, and was even more infallible in the matter of birth dates than the family Bible. If a relative by any chance got a trifle confused, and acknowledged to thirty-nine next June instead of last June, Mrs. Sequin pounced upon the error like a cat on a mouse. She could prove to him immediately that he was born the spring that Uncle Lem Miller died, and that was the same year that Grandmother Weller married the second time, therefore he was thirty-nine last June.
"Donald ought to return at once," declared Doctor Queerington, when she paused for breath; "if he is guilty, he ought to take his punishment; if innocent, as I believe, he ought to be vindicated."
"Well, we can't find him," said Mrs. Sequin with resigned cheerfulness. "He is probably in the Orient with Cropsie Decker. What a magnificent bed this is! Do you suppose I could buy it? Country people nearly always prefer new furniture."
The suggestion of a smile hovered over the Doctor's thin lips: "Thornwood's possessions, I imagine, are not for sale."
"I suppose the extraordinary young person I met in the front hall was Miss Carsey? What sort of a girl is she, anyhow?"
"Miss Lady?" The Doctor shifted his pillow. "An extremely nice girl, I believe. Exceedingly sympathetic and attentive to all my wants, and receptive to a remarkable degree. She has been reading to me daily, and I find rather an unusual mind, undisciplined of course, but original and interesting."
"But what amazing manners the child has! She greeted me in her bare arms, and asked me to fit a dress for her when she had never seen me before in her life. But she certainly is pretty! I haven't seen as pretty a creature for years."
"Indeed!" said the Doctor, adjusting his eyeglasses. "I had not observed it, especially. A fine, frank countenance, with dark eyes— yes, I believe I did notice that she had chestnut eyes of unusual clearness; I remember I did notice that."
"What is she going to do? Who is going to stay with her?" asked Mrs. Sequin. "Fancy a girl like that buried here in the country! Properly dressed, and toned down a bit, she'd make a sensation. I shouldn't at all mind asking her in to spend a few days with me sometime. You know I adore young people, and poor Margery, like all the other last year debutantes, is simply done for. Hasn't a spark of enthusiasm for anything. I hope you have not forgotten the fact that your Constance ought to come out this winter?"
"My dear Katherine," said the Doctor with an air of enforced patience, "you do not seem to realize that my time and mind are engrossed in far greater things than society. I hope in the next year to complete the fifth and last volume of my 'History of the Norman Influence on English Literature and Language.' If I have been able to give my children very little of my time and attention, it is only because of my desire to leave them something of far greater worth—a name that I trust will stand among those of the foremost English scholars of my day."
Mrs. Sequin soothed her irritation by studying her highly polished nails. "Of course, that will be an advantage to them. But what on earth's to become of them in the meanwhile? Heaven knows what Hattie will develop into if she isn't taken in hand. She refuses to have trimming on her underclothes now, and wears boy's shoes. As for Constance! I've quite despaired of getting hold of her. She's simply running wild, making no social connections whatever. What they really need, Cousin John, is a mother."
"I must try to look after them more," the Doctor said, somewhat helplessly. "Have you seen them recently?"
"I came by there this morning. They were all well, I suppose; Connie was at the Ivy's as usual, and Hattie at school. What a savage creature your new cook, Myrtella, is. I believe she is an anarchist! She opened the door only a crack, and when I asked her how the young ladies were, she said she was sure she didn't know, that she hadn't asked them."
"And Bertie, did you see Bertie?"
"Yes, he was with her. Had a dirty piece of dough in his hands which he said was going to be a cake. I must say she seems good to Bertie, but I would not tolerate her impertinence for a moment."
"Myrtella carries concealed virtues," said the Doctor. "She is an excellent cook, and a good manager. Her only faults, apparently, are faults of the disposition."
"From which Heaven defend me! What on earth is that noise? It sounds as if some one were kicking the door."
"Please open!" called a voice from without, and as Mrs. Sequin complied, Miss Lady came in, carrying a large luncheon tray gaily decorated with flowers from the garden.
"'Blest be those feasts with simple plenty crowned,'" quoted the Doctor. "You see how they spoil me, Katherine?"
"I don't believe he could be spoiled, do you, Mrs. Sequin?" Miss Lady asked, as she fixed his eggs. "Is there anything else, Doctor?"
"Don't run away," Mrs. Sequin said, following her movements with frank admiration. "Come here and sit down, I want to talk to you. I've discovered the ideal site for my new house, and I want to ask you about it. You know the western crest of this hill overlooking the river; did that belong to your father?"
"It all used to be ours, long before it was ever called Billy-goat Hill."
"The name is a handicap," said the Doctor. "You might modify it, Katherine, by calling your prospective mansion 'Angora Heights.'"
"The very thing," said Mrs. Sequin, eager to seize upon any suggestion that emanated from the Queerington intellect. "But who does the ground belong to?"
"It belongs to Mr. Wicker, now."
"Wicker?" repeated Mrs. Sequin. "Where have I heard that name? Why, Cousin John, wasn't that the man Don stayed with, when he was looking for a farm? How we laughed over that absurd notion of his farming!"
"I did not laugh at it," said the Doctor. "I encouraged him. It seemed to me the most excellent idea!"
"But you did not allow for Don's fickleness. Of course he's a darling fellow but he has had as many hobbies as he has had sweethearts."
"I allowed for his character, which may yet strike root in the proper soil," the Doctor said with dignity; then turning to Miss Lady, who had risen and was standing by the bed, her hands tightly clasped and her eyes fixed on his, he explained: "We are speaking of the young brother of Mrs. Sequin; I was telling you about him this morning. Why, child!" For Miss Lady had suddenly dropped her face in her hands and made a rush for the door.
"It's the shock of her father's death," explained Mrs. Sequin, who prided herself on divining motives. "I was like that for weeks when my last dog was run over. The most casual thing would upset me. I lost two games of cards one afternoon because somebody merely mentioned an ice wagon."
The Doctor's long, slender fingers drummed absently on the bedspread. Presently he broke in quite irrelevantly on Mrs. Sequin's steady flow of talk: "I said chestnut brown, Katherine, they are more of a hazel, I should say, a deep hazel with considerable fire."
The long, summer months dragged their length for Miss Lady, months of heartache and rebellion, of loneliness and tears. Then came a day when, without apparent reason, the shadows lifted. She was tramping across the river flats, with Mike at her heels, when once again she heard the world singing, and before she knew it an answering song sprang to her lips.
Uncle Jimpson, plowing near by, looked up and smiled:
"Dat's right, Honey; sounds lak ole times to hear you singin' ag'in. I was jus' settin' here steddyin' how good I'd feel ef de Cunnel could come a stompin' 'long an' gimme one of his 'fore-de-war cussin's fer bein' lazy."
"Oh, Uncle Jimpson, if he could! It seems so long since he left us. I have just been over to Miss Ferney's, but she wasn't there. I want to get her to come and stay with me until I know what I am going to do. They expect to take the Doctor home to-morrow."
"Yas'm, Carline was tellin' me. Looks to me lak he's been well enough to go fer some time." Uncle Jimpson scratched his head wisely.
"I don't know what's to become of us," said Miss Lady ruefully twisting Mike's ears. "They say unless I sell the rest of Thornwood, we won't have money enough to live on. But I won't sell another acre. I'll teach school first."
Uncle Jimpson was scandalized: "Now, Miss Lady, chile, don't you git dem notions in your head. Dem's ole maid notions, you ain't no ole maid yit! Why don't you git married, and git a kerridge, an' I'll dribe an' Carline'll cook an' tak' care de chillun."
"I'm never going to marry, Uncle Jimpson," Miss Lady declared, with the passionate assurance of youth. "And I am never going to leave Thornwood. If you see Miss Ferney going down the road, ask her to stop by a minute. Come on, Mike, we are late now."
And they were late, five minutes, by the open-faced watch that lay in the Doctor's hand as they entered the garden. He was sitting in his wheel-chair with his books and manuscripts on a table at his elbow, and he lifted an expectant face toward the gate as she entered.
It was strange what two months at Thornwood had done for the Doctor. He had been brought there unconscious, a serious, middle-aged professor, who had run in the same groove for twenty years. The same surroundings, the same people, the same monotonous, daily routine had rendered him as rusty and faded as the text-books he lived with. Nothing short of a collision could have jolted him out of his rut, and the collision had arrived.
The sudden change from the grim realism of a lecture platform, with its bleak blackboard and creaking chalk, to the romance of an old flower garden where blossoms flirted with each other across the borders, and birds made love in every bough, was enough to freshen the spirit of even a John Jay Queerington. His cosmic conscience, which usually worked overtime, striving to solve problems which Nature had given up, seemed to be asleep. His fine, serious face relaxed somewhat from its austerity, and as the days passed he read less and observed more.
His observations, before long, resulted in a discovery; he, who was so weary of the cultivated hothouse species of femininity, had chanced quite by accident upon a rare, unclassified wild-flower, that piqued his curiosity and enlisted his interest. For two months he had depended almost entirely upon his young hostess for companionship, and the fact that the large box of books he had ordered from the city remained unopened, gave evidence that the Doctor had not been bored.
During the hours when he was not engrossed in verifying statistics, and appending references to those voluminous and still accumulating notes for the fifth volume of his great work, he devoted himself to sorting and arranging the odds and ends of facts and fancies that he found stored away in Miss Lady's brain. Under ordinary circumstances he would have dismissed a pupil to whom clearness and accuracy were strangers, and whose attention wandered with every passing butterfly. In the classroom he not only demanded but practised order and system. He arrived at his conclusions by as methodical a series of mental actions as he arrived at his desk every morning at twenty-nine minutes to nine. But these were not ordinary circumstances.
The impetuous young person who listened to him with such rapt admiration and respect, when she listened at all, had no method or system whatever. She simply waited for the hint, the flash that revealed the vision, then she joyously and fearlessly leaped to her conclusion.
The fact that amazed him was not that she frequently landed before he did, but that she landed at all!
As for Miss Lady herself, she was finding the Doctor's interest and companionship a welcome solace in her loneliness. The well of his knowledge seemed to her fathomless, and she never tired of hanging over the brink and looking down, often seeing stars in the darkness that she never saw in the day.
When this last lesson was finished, the Doctor closed the book reluctantly:
"I have given you the merest outline for future work," he said. "The rest remains with you. Have you decided yet what you are going to do?"
"No, I'll do whatever you tell me, Doctor. Only I do hope it won't be to teach school,—the very thought of teaching makes me shrivel."
"It is not altogether beyond the range of possibility that you will marry," said the Doctor, tracing parallelograms on the arm of the chair. "Such things do happen, you know."
Miss Lady, sitting with her elbows on the table and her chin on her palms, flashed a strange, questioning glance at him.
"Do you believe in love, Doctor?"
"Why, of course, you foolish girl, in all its manifestations, filial, paternal, marital. Assuredly I do."
"But I mean that other kind, the kind that makes a little heaven for a man and woman here on earth, that answers all their longings, so that nothing else matters, just so they have each other. I read about it in novels and in poetry, but I don't see it. The married people I know take each other as much for granted as they do their hands and feet. That's not what love means to me."
The Doctor smiled indulgently. "Wait until you have passed the sentimental age before you give your verdict! Most young ladies imagine that because love does not arrive, full panoplied on a snow- white steed, that it is not love. You, probably, like the rest, have read too many romantic novels. When you come to know life better you will realize that moral equality and intellectual affinity promise a much safer union than a violent romantic attachment."
She regarded him as earnestly as if he had been the fount of all wisdom.
"How long does it usually last?" she asked.
"Last?" he repeated.
"The sentimental age. I suppose a girl ought to get through it by the time she is twenty. But I never do things on time. I didn't even know I was sentimental until you told me. I have learned a great many things since you came."
"There were some things you did not need to learn," said the Doctor quietly. "Kindness and sympathy, and rare understanding. I shall always look back with pleasure to these quiet weeks spent under your father's roof. They have given me the only chance I have had in years for undisturbed writing on the History that will stand for my life work. I must confess that I dread my return home. The noise and confusion, the constant invasion of my privacy, the demands upon my time, appal me. Very few realize the magnitude of my work, and the necessity it lays upon me for isolating myself. You have been singularly sympathetic and helpful in that respect."
"But think what your being here has meant to me! You came into my life just when everything else seemed to drop out. You explained things to me, and gave me something to do. You can't begin to know how you have helped me."
"I have only tried to direct and suggest," the Doctor said; "in short to take the place—"
"Of a father," finished Miss Lady enthusiastically.
The Doctor tapped his foot impatiently. After all her father was a much older man than he: the distance, at that moment, between forty and sixty seemed infinitely greater than that between forty and twenty.
"You see," Miss Lady went on, unconsciously, "you have taken Daddy's place in so many ways that I have been depending on you for everything. It makes me awfully lonesome when I think of your leaving. Down here you have just belonged to Miss Wuster and me, and once you get back to town you will be the famous Doctor Queerington again and belong to everybody. I shan't dare write to you for fear I spell a word wrong."
"Indeed, I shall expect a weekly letter reporting the progress of your studies, and I shall come to see you from time to time and help you with your plans for the future."
"Yes, but it won't be the same. We will sit in the parlor, and you'll be company, and I shall be afraid of you. I am always afraid of you the minute I get out of your sight."
"What nonsense! I never criticize anything but your pronunciation, and an occasional exaggeration of statement. If I have seemed severe—"
"You haven't! You've been an angel! When I think of all the time you have taken from your writing to help me, I am ashamed for letting you do it."
"You must not think," said the Doctor slowly, "that I have been wholly disinterested. I have found you singularly helpful to me. I think I may say that you stimulate me and refresh me more than any one I know."
"I do? Oh! Doctor! That's about the nicest thing I ever had said to me."
He was not prepared for the radiant face of gratitude that was lifted to his, nor for the proximity of her glowing eyes which gave him no further reason for doubting their exact hue.
"Yes," he said with slight embarrassment, "your mind interests me exceedingly. It is not complex, nor subtle, but remarkably intuitive. You have imagination and humor, and great receptivity."
Miss Lady wore the absorbed look people usually wear when their characteristics are undergoing vivisection; she could not have been more fascinated had she been viewing her face for the first time in a mirror.
"This little volume now," the Doctor continued, picking up an elementary treatise on evolution; "I am particularly anxious to see what effect it will have on a fresh, unsophisticated mind. Make notes as you read, and we will discuss it when you have finished."
"And you won't forget to send me the copy of Mrs. Browning?"
"No, I seldom forget. But I may not send it. Science is better for you just now than poetry. What is that blossom you are so carefully cherishing?"
Miss Lady's eyes fell, and the color leapt to her face.
"This? Just a wild rose I found over there by the wall. I thought they had stopped blooming weeks ago."
The Doctor took it in his hand and examined it minutely: "It is the Rosa Blanda," he said, "five cleft sepals that terminate in a tube. Pliny tells us that in ancient days the warriors used the petals of this rose to garnish their choicest meats. Who is that quaint person coming over the stile?"
"It's Miss Ferney. What a nuisance, on our last day! But I forgot, I asked her to come. If she stays very long, just tell a little fib, won't you, and say you need me for something?"
"It will not be a fib," said the Doctor quietly, "I do need you."
Miss Lady met her caller at the front porch and relieved her of the jar she was carrying.
"It's pickles," said Miss Ferney, a withered little woman whose small, nibbling face suggested a squirrel's. "I thought having company you might need 'em. Don't know though. City people may be too aristocratic to eat country pickles."
"The idea, Miss Ferney! Don't you sell them in the city all the time?"
"Yes, under labels. City people lay stress on labels. When I was a child, I wasn't allowed to eat things that was labeled. I hear he's going?"
"Your Doctor. Don't see how you've ever stood him so long."
"Oh! you don't know Doctor Queerington! It's been a great privilege to have him here, He is a very distinguished man, Miss Ferney, and so kind and good!"
"Good or bad, they are all the same to me. Just as soon have a fly under my mosquito bar as a man buzzing around in my house. When's he going?"
"To-morrow. Will that be too soon for you to come over?"
"No, I'm ready to come. Sis 'Lizzie will be sure to try some of those new-fangled receipts and spoil a bushel or two of cucumbers, but I said I'd come and I will. What is this Jimpson is telling me about your taking the examinations for the county school?"
Miss Lady sighed: "I may have to teach; I don't know."
"Sell off some more land. You don't need a hundred acres."
"We've sold too much already! It will be the house next. I am determined to hold on to Thornwood if the roof tumbles in on my head!"
"I know how you feel," said Miss Ferney whose sentiments ran to real estate. "I've been saving every nickel I made for nearly twenty years to buy back our place. From all the talk we heard last spring, Sis Lizzie rather allowed you was going to get married."
"Well, I am not."
"I am glad of it. Folks are keen enough to believe in every beau a girl has 'til she's thirty. After that they don't believe in any of them. Sis was misled by what they told her over at the Wickers'."
"What did they tell her?" asked Miss Lady, training a rebellious moon vine up the trellis.
"Oh, they told her about that young city fellow you was rampaging all over the country with last spring. Mrs. Wicker said he hadn't a thought in his head but you. That he wore her plumb out telling her about you, just as if she hadn't help raise you on a bottle!"
Miss Lady still found the vine absorbing, but she took time to say over her shoulder:
"Tell your sister and Mrs. Wicker that that young man has gone to China."
"Well, nobody could wish him further! I hope he will stay. You are too nice a girl to get married. What do women want to marry for anyway? Look at me! Forty years single and not one minute of it spent in wishing I was married! I glory in my independence, I glory in my freedom."
Miss Ferney was allowed to glory undisturbed, for Miss Lady, leaning against the railing of the porch, had apparently forgotten her existence.
"You just make up your mind to take that school job, and lead a useful, independent life. I know a teacher in Shelby County that's had the same school for fifteen years, ever since she was a plump, pretty girl, and she's thin as I am now, and gray as a rat. Kept that same position and done well all these years."
Miss Lady wheeled suddenly and flung out her arms:
"If you don't hush this minute, Miss Ferney, I'll run off and join the circus! I'd lots rather stand on one toe in fluffy, spangled skirts, and jump through a hoop than teach school!"
Miss Ferney looked scandalized: "You don't seem right well," she said as if in excuse for such flippancy. "I do believe you've got a fever. I'm going straight home and mix you up a tonic."
Miss Lady sat for some time on the steps with her eyes on the distant river. Up the hillside the treetops rippled in the breeze, and down in the valley the winding stream danced in the shallows or loitered in brown pools to whisper secrets to the low-hanging boughs. The world seemed to her not only very beautiful, but very lonesome, and the vow of eternal celibacy, made to Uncle Jimpson, loomed large and terrible in the presence of Miss Ferney.
"Oh, here you are," said the nurse, coming around the house; "the Doctor has been refusing to lie down until you come out to the garden. He says he needs you for something. Deliver me from convalescents!"
Miss Lady laughed and ran down the path to the garden, where the Doctor greeted her with his rarest smile. The rest of the morning they pored over manuscripts, sorting notes, and making corrections, she happy in having even a tiny share in his great work, and he finding her enthusiasm and interest a welcome condiment to stir his jaded appetite for his task. Meanwhile, a bedraggled little rose languished unnoticed beneath the manuscript of "The History of Norman Influence on English Language and Literature."
For three hundred and sixty-five days Myrtella Flathers held undisputed sway in the house of Queerington. The Doctor's semi- invalidism, after his return from Thornwood, threw all responsibility upon her, and while she permitted him to wear the crown, it was she who wielded the scepter. Never had the house been in such immaculate order, nor the young Queeringtons appeared in such presentable garments, and never had the front door been slammed so persistently in the face of unwelcome guests.
For the Queerington family tree was afflicted with too many branches. There were little dry twigs of maidenly cousins, knotted and dwarfed stumps of half-gone uncles and aunts, vigorous, demanding shoots of nephews and niece's, all of whom had hitherto imposed upon the Doctor's slender income, and his too generous hospitality.
Myrtella objected to the inroads these invaders made on his time and strength, and she also objected to the extra work their presence entailed upon her. In short, she felt that the family tree needed pruning, and she set herself right heartily to the job. By persistent discourtesy she managed to lop off one relative after another, until she gained for the Doctor a privacy hitherto undreamed of.
"There ain't a hour in the day that I ain't headin' off somebody!" she triumphantly announced one day to the cook from next door. "When I come here you'd 'a' thought it was a railroad station, people comin' and goin' with satchels; and bells a-ringin', and trunks being dragged over the carpets. Dirt from the top of the house to the bottom; Miss Hattie with her petticoats hanging down below her dress; and all the neighbor children racing in and out, and actually takin' the mattress off Bertie's bed to coast down the stairs on!"
"In the name of St. Patrick!" sympathized Norah, the visitor; "and their pa not doin' nothin' with 'em at all?"
"Who said he wasn't?" blazed Myrtella instantly. "You'll be hintin' around next that I was talkin' about the Doctor behind his back. You're fixin' to lose me my place, that's what you are doin'."
"Not me! It's braggin' on you I was not over a week ago, sayin' what a fine, nice cook you was, and how grand and clean it was over here."
"Of course," said Myrtella haughtily, "I may not be workin' fer a lady that's so smart she wouldn't even know her own kitchen if she met it walkin' up the street. I may not work in a house where they pull down the shades and burn red lamps in the day time to keep from showin' the dirt under the sofa. We don't keep two servants and not have enough to feed 'em, but I'm satisfied. At least fer the present. The day will come when I won't have to be in service to no one. I'm puttin' by each week, and the time ain't distant when I'll be settin' at the head of my own boardin'-house table, an' it will be 'Miss Flathers,' if you please! You, Bertie!" this to a frail-looking little boy in the back yard. "You git up off the grass this minute! Fixin' to catch the croup and have me up with you all night, like I was last week."
"Sure 'n I might find a worse place than Mrs. Ivy's," continued Norah. "A bit of blarney, and frish flowers every day in front of her photygraph, and things right for Mr. Gerald, is all she wants. The last place I worked,—Mrs. Sequin's, bad luck to her!... It was a party or a dinner between me and me rest ivery night of the week! Sorra a bit did I care for the whole kit of 'em, barring Mr. Don Morley, as fine a young gentleman as ever set foot in sole leather!"
"Him that shot Dick Sheeley and run away?"
"Him they laid it on," said Norah with indignant emphasis. "It was that good-for-nothin' Mr. Lee Dillingham done it, and Mrs. Sequin a- movin' heaven to marry Miss Margery off to him. I seen how they was tryin' to keep Mr. Don from comin' home and hearin' the tales they was tellin'. He is worth the whole bunch of 'em tied in a knot; a gentleman inside and out, and his hand in his pocket ivery time you served him. Ain't that somebody a-callin' ye down the back stairs?"
"Let 'em call," said Myrtella, to whom these comparisons of past places were replete with interest. "It's just Miss Hattie; if she's got anything worth sayin', she can come down and say it."
It was evidently worth saying, for a moment later, a thin, sharp- featured girl of fourteen thrust her head in at the door.
"Myrtella, I told you I wanted that white dress fixed. I am going to wear it this afternoon."
"It's too early to wear summer clothes," Myrtella announced, continuing her ironing. "I never sewed the buttons on a purpose, so 's you couldn't wear it."
"Well I will wear it! I am going right straight up stairs and pin it on."
As the door slammed, Myrtella turned a beaming face on Norah:
"It ain't hemmed!" she said with satisfaction.
Norah shrugged her shoulders:
"It would be a cold day that'd see anybody makin' me do the cookin' and nursin', and sewin' for a family of four, for five dollars a week!"
Myrtella glared at her across the ironing board:
"Who said anybody was makin' me? I'm paid to do the cookin' and housework in this house, and if I see fit to light in and boss things 'round a bit, it's my own business. Thank the Lord, I got manners enough to attend to it! How much coffee did you come over here to borrow?"
"A cupful will do, 'til the morning. I'll bring it back before breakfast."
"Put it in this jar when you do. I keep what you pay back separate from ours, so's I can lend it to you again. We ain't used to chicory."
Norah coughed deprecatingly behind her hand:
"Sure you might make allowance fer a lady as busy as Mrs. Ivy. She can't get her mind down to ordn'ary things."
"Stop her settin' on club boards, and meetin' on committees, and tryin' to regulate the nation, and she might remember to order the groceries. What's she workin' on now?"
"A begger man. It was readin' Scriptures to him she was when I come away, and him a-settin' there, right pitiful, a-tellin' her how he'd lost all he had in the flood. A religious talkin' man if I ever heard one."
"Red-headed?" inquired Myrtella, arresting a hot iron in mid air.
"When she gits done with him, you send him over here," Myrtella brought the iron down on the board with a thud. "If there is one person in the world I'm layin' for it's a red-headed flood-sufferer."
Norah on her way out encountered another visitor and turned back to announce him:
"Git on to what Bertie has drawed out here! The craziest, dirtiest kid! Puts me in mind of a egg on a couple of toothpicks!"
Myrtella, peering over her shoulder, suddenly scrambled down the steps.
"It's Chick!" she cried, beaming upon him. "How long you been here, Chick?"
"And who's Chick?" asked Norah, instantly curious. "You seem to set a great store by him! What ails the child? What's he pointin' at our house for? Ain't he got a tongue in his head?"
"He has, though not so long as some folks. Chick! Bertie! Come in here!" and without ceremony Myrtella swept them into the kitchen and slammed the door in Norah's face.
Once within her stronghold, she first embraced Chick, then dragged him forcibly to the sink, and subjected him to a vigorous scrubbing. Both actions apparently bored him acutely, for he turned his soap-dimmed eyes enviously upon the smaller boy who pranced about in transports of joy.
"We'll skate on the pavement!" Bertie was crying excitedly. "You can have one skate, and I'll have the other and we'll see who can beat."
"You won't do nothin' of the kind!" quoth Fate at the faucet. "I ain't goin' to have you racin' 'round and gettin' het up and takin' cold. Besides, you ain't big enough to keep up with Chick!" Then seeing the disappointment her ultimatum had caused, she added, "if it wasn't for you stickin' every thing up, I might make you some candy."
"Oh, 'Tella! will you? 'Lasses candy? Ask him if he likes 'lasses candy."
Violent nods of affirmation from the steam-enveloped victim.
Myrtella had started with the simple ambition to wash Chick's face, but the boundary line had proved troublesome. Whether she sharply defined it, or attempted artistic effects in chiaroscuro the result was equally unsatisfactory. Myrtella was nothing if not thorough; before she finished with Chick, he was standing with his feet in a bucket, as clean and wet and naked as a fish.
All this consumed time, and both boys were growing impatient, when a peculiar noise from outside attracted their attention. To Chick, only, the sound seemed to be familiar, for he laughed and wagged his head and pointed to the yard.
"It sounds like hiccoughs!" said Bertie, his head on one side.
Myrtella's mouth closed like a trap. "I'll hiccough him!" she breathed mysteriously, and leaving the children to watch the candy, she went out on the porch and closed the door behind her.
Bertie, in his short kilts, with his feet curled up in a chair, watched Chick with absorbed interest as he donned his ragged, dirty trousers. A pair of purple suspenders that had once belonged to Mr. Flathers, excited his special admiration.
"Say, Chick, have you got a partner?"
"You couldn't be partners with me, too, could you?"
A violent shake of the head.
"I didn't think you could with two fellows at once." Bertie contemplated the boiling candy thoughtfully. "I could get lots of partners if I wasn't always sick. If you ever don't have the one you have got, could you take me, Chick?"
Chick looked him over critically, stood him up and measured heights and even felt his arm for muscle. Then he made a remark that while lacking lucidity was nevertheless conclusive.
"But I'm going to get bigger," urged Bertie.
"And I've got a music box, and a water pistol, and some marbles—"
At this Chick promptly produced a handful of marbles from his own pocket, and signified, by many whispers and hisses, that he was engaged in a wholesale and retail trade along that line, and open to negotiations.
Bertie made a hurried trip to the nursery and returned with a neat blue bag from which he poured treasures of agate and crystal.
Chick lost all interest in the candy. His professional reputation was at stake. Never could he face the gang on Billy-goat Hill, if he failed to fleece this lamb that Providence had so clearly thrust in his way.
Meanwhile Myrtella was exercising an elder sister's prerogative on the back steps, and bestowing upon her brother what she modestly called a piece of her mind.
For Phineas, in one of his periodical backslidings, had slid too far. His ambition to excel as a regenerate had carried him out of the quiet pastures of the Immanuel flock, into the more exhilarating battle- field of the Salvation Army. Lured by the prospect of recounting his experiences on a street corner to the accompaniment of an accordion, he had forsaken the safe shelter of the Ladies' Aid, and sought new worlds to conquer.
The experiment had not been a success. He was now, at the end of a year, going from door to door, ragged and unkempt, playing the small and uninteresting role of flood-sufferer. But Phineas' spirit soared blithely above his circumstances. He even encouraged Myrtella in her tirade against him, spurring her on to fresh effort, as the monks of old! courted flagellation.
"That's right, Sis!" he urged, "you git it all out of your system. I says to the lady next door, I says, what I need is a dressing down from my good sister. She'll give me gussie, says I, then she'll light in an' help me. That's her way, I says, there ain't a more generous person on this terrestrial globe. I 'lowed maybe she'd be moved to follow your example, but she wasn't. She handed me out a line of Sunday school talk fer more 'n a hour, then she didn't give me nothin' but this here Bible, an' me a starvin' man! I've ate a little of everything in my day, but I'm skeered to risk my digestion on Deuteronomies and Psa'ms!"
"Well, you needn't come beggin' 'round here, and trackin' in the mud," announced Myrtella firmly. "I'm done with you! You had just as good a chance to get on as me. I never ast favors of nobody; I went to work an' hustled. What's more, I ain't goin' to stop 'til I get to be a boardin'-house keeper. And what'll you be? A lazy, drunken, good-for- nothin' sponge."
Phineas, toying with his hat, suddenly sniffed the air and smiled.
"Molasses candy!" he exclaimed joyfully. "I couldn't git on to what was making me feel so good. Say, Sis, you must 'a' knowed I was a- comin'."
Myrtella stood in rigid disapproval on the top step and surveyed her next of kin with such chilling contempt that he decided to change his tactics.
"Honest, now, Sis, I never come to beg for nothin'. What I really come for was to tell you 'bout our good luck."
This move was so adroit that it caught Myrtella unawares, and elicited a faint show of curiosity. "We never knowed it 'til last week," Phineas proceeded mysteriously, "an' we ain't mentioned it to nobody 'til we git a parlor fitted up an' a sign painted."
"Fer see-ances! There's been a Dago doctor, calls himself Professor King, hangin' 'round the Hill, an' the minute he lays eyes on Maria Flathers he seen she was a mejium. He give her four lessons fer a dollar, an' she begin to hear raps an' bells ringin' the fifth settin'. Last night she begin to move the furniture."
"She must 'a' been in a trance!" exclaimed Myrtella. "I been knowin' Maria about fourteen years an' I never heard of her movin' the furniture. She can go to more pains to scrub around a table leg than any one I ever knowed."
But in spite of her scoffing, Myrtella was impressed. For many years she had considered a visit to a spiritualist, or clairvoyant, one of her wildest and most extravagant dissipations. The possibility of having a medium in the family was a luxury not to be lightly dismissed.
"Where'd you git the money fer the lessons?" she demanded suddenly.
Phineas hesitated and was lost.
"You spent Chick's! He's as ragged as a scarecrow. Looks like he don't get enough food to push his ribs out. I ketch you spendin' the money I give him on sperrits, livin' or dead, an' I'll never give you another cent!"
"Now, Sis, hold on! You didn't lemme finish. I'm thinkin' some of running a undertaker's business, along in conjunction with the see- ances. We could keep tab on the customers then, and build up a good trade. All on earth we need is just a little capital, an' we'd be a self-supportin' couple inside a week."
So convincing were Phineas' arguments, that in the end Myrtella consented to act as deus ex machina for the new psychical venture, on condition that Chick should be properly clothed, and fed, and made to go to school.
This agreement having been arrived at, Myrtella reached for her broom, and began such a vigorous attack on the steps, that Flathers was forced to conclude that his presence could be cheerfully dispensed with. He gathered himself up, slapped his hat on the side of his head, tucked his Bible under his arm, and made a sweeping bow.
"Fare thee well, my own true love. Bring the money Saturday night, an' Maria'll wind up the sperrits an' let 'em manifest fer you, free of charge. Sorry I can't wait fer that molasses candy to git done. You might send me some by Chick. Adiew!"
Myrtella stood, broom in hand, and watched the loose-jointed figure slouch down the pavement and out the back gate. He was cheerfully whistling the doxology, and his face wore the rapt expression of one whose thoughts are not on earthly things. She sighed and shook her head.
"Front door bell's ringing," called Bertie, "so's the telephone, and Father's gone out and says you can clean his study. There's the bell again."
"I expect it's Mr. Gooch inviting himself to supper. I ain't goin' to let him in. Give me that there plate to pour the candy in."
"Look, 'Telia, what Chick traded me!"
Myrtella cast a side glance at Bertie's extended palm, and promptly rescinded the deal.
"Ain't you ashamed of yourself, Chick Flathers! Tradin' a little fellow's fine marbles fer them comman allies? It's cheatin', that's what it is, it's stealin'! Ain't you ashamed?"
Chick was ashamed and had the grace to show it. His contrition would probably not have developed except through exposure, but standing before Myrtella's accusing glance, and the surprised, hurt look in Bertie's eyes, his hardened conscience was pricked, and his lip began to tremble.
With a fierce gesture of protection Myrtella pulled him to her:
"Don't, Chick! Don't cry! I wasn't meanin' to scold you. You ain't had a chance like other boys. You never had no playthings, you never had nothin'. You was a poor little abandoned child ever since you was born. Oh! God, I'm a wicked woman! I ain't fit to live on the earth!"
This amazing outburst so stunned the two small boys, that they stood looking at her in open-eyed astonishment. For some moments she swayed to and fro with her apron over her head, then savagely dried her eyes, and, bidding them follow her, stalked up the back stairs with broom and dust pan.
Doctor Queerington's study was at the top of the house, where by means of closing the doors and windows, and stuffing his ears with cotton, he was able to shut out that material world to which he preferred to remain a stranger. The room was filled from floor to ceiling with books, and it was one of the crosses of Myrtella's life that behind the visible rows of volumes, stood other rows, forming a sort of submerged library beyond the reach of her cloth and duster.
In no room in the house did she feel her importance more fully than in this inner shrine. She had calculated with mathematical precision the exact position of each of the Doctor's desk utensils, she knew the divinity that hedged about a manuscript, and the inviolable nature of bookmarks.
When Bertie began fingering the inkstand, she pounced upon him.
"Don't you dare touch a thing, either one of you! When the Doctor told me to take charge of his things, I took it. There ain't ever been a word of complaint since I come here, and I ain't goin' to have one at this here late date. There's the Doctor now comin' up the steps; I'll finish up here later. Get away from there, Chick!"
But Chick had made a discovery. On the Doctor's desk, smiling out from a porcelain frame, he had found his divinity! It was the beautiful young lady who had once taken his part in a fight with Skeeter Sheeley over a whip handle; it was the young lady who always smiled at him when she rode by Billy-goat Hill; it was she who had changed his life ambition from grand larceny to plumbing! Heedless of warning he snatched at the picture, and as he did so it slipped from his fingers and the frame shattered on the floor.
Doctor Queerington, at the doorway, took in the situation at a glance. He looked quickly from Myrtella's horrified face to the cringing figure of the strange child, then he smiled reassuringly.
"There is no serious harm done," he said in a quiet, pleasant voice; "the frame can be easily replaced, and as for the photograph—" he paused and smiled again, then he drew Bertie's hand into his; "Myrtella, I shall no longer have need of a photograph of that young lady. She has consented to come herself and take charge of us all."
Myrtella stood as one petrified; her massive figure with its upraised duster was silhoueted against the light, like a statue of the goddess of war. At last she found voice:
"To take charge?" she gasped. "Do you mean she's comin' to be Mis' Squeerington?"
"Well, I give notice," announced Myrtella with all the dignity of offended majesty, and shoving Chick before her, she slammed the door upon the astonished Doctor and stalked haughtily down the stairs.
"A bride who doesn't see her duty, should be made to see it," declared Mrs. Sequin to Mrs. Ivy in her most impressive manner." Something is naturally expected of the wife of John Jay Queerington. I told her expressly that Friday was her day, I even telephoned to remind her, and here it is four o'clock, and people beginning to come, and she off playing tennis!"
They were waiting in the twilight of the Queerington parlor, that plain, stiff, old maid of a parlor that had sprung completely furnished from the brain of a decorator some two decades before and never blinked an eyelid since. It was a room with which no one had ever taken liberties. Hattie had once petulantly remarked that her father would as soon have moved a tooth from his lower to his upper jaw, as to have moved an ornament or picture from the parlor to the second floor.
Mrs. Ivy, the lady addressed, smiled tolerantly. It was one of Mrs. Ivy's most irritating characteristics that she was always tolerant of other people's annoyances. She was blond and plump, and wore a modified toga and a crystallized smile.
"Ah! Mrs. Sequin," she purred, "our little bride is a child of Nature. Sweetness and light! We must not expect too much of her at first. My Gerald says she's like a wild little waterfall dancing in the sun, undammed by conventions. Gerald phrases things so perfectly."
"Well, I've had enough of trying to manage a waterfall!" Mrs. Sequin said grimly. "Cousin John asked me to take her in hand, and I must say I am finding her difficult. Perfectly sweet and good natured, you know, but she goes right on her own way. She has decided that she likes Connie's friends better than the Doctor's, that her hair doesn't feel right arranged the way it should be, that she isn't going to wear dresses made by fashionable dressmakers because they are uncomfortable. She actually told me she liked to be a few minutes out of style!"
"But isn't she right?" murmured Mrs. Ivy. "God has given her a graceful, symmetrical body, shouldn't she clothe it in flowing robes that do not confine or—"
"For Heaven's sake, Mrs. Ivy, don't you dare start her on dress reform! Her one chance for social success is her beauty. She simply terrifies me the way she says right out the first thing that comes into her mind. It will take me months to teach her the first lesson in society, that the most immodest thing in the world is the naked truth."
"What I hope to rouse in the dear girl," said Mrs. Ivy with a superior smile, "is a sense of responsibility toward her fellowmen. I have already proposed her name for the Anti-Tobacco League and Miss Snell, our corresponding secretary of the Foreign Missionary Society, has promised to meet me here at five. It is these young, ardent souls that must take up the banner of reform when it drops from the hands of us veterans."
"Well," said Mrs. Sequin, turning a handsome, bored profile to her companion, "I shall never get over the absurdity of the marriage!"
"Ah!" said Mrs. Ivy, laying a plump white hand on Mrs. Sequin's arm, "cosmic forces brought them together! The thing we seek is seeking us. She was young, inexperienced, adrift in the world; he was ill, lonely, and with three motherless children. She told me that through the past year, the Doctor's letters were all that sustained her."
"Of course they did! Cousin John's letters sustain everybody. Especially if you haven't heard his lectures. Of course he does repeat himself."
"As for her youth," went on Mrs. Ivy. "What if she is a mere rosebud as yet? She'll unfold; we'll help her to unfold, you and I, won't we?"
Meanwhile the bride had slipped in the side entrance and was making frantic haste in the room above to exchange a tennis costume for a new house-dress.
Connie Queerington was assisting, but Connie's assistance was generally a hindrance. She was an exceedingly voluble, blond young person, with blue eyes that enjoyed nothing more than their own reflection.
"I'll never get it hooked if you don't hold still," she was saying. "Every time you laugh you pop it open."
"Fifteen—love, thirty—love, forty—love, game!" rehearsed Miss Lady, practising a newly acquired serve with a vigorous stroke of her racket. "I could play all day and all night! Do you think I'll ever get to be a good player?"
"Of course, if you just won't get so excited and hit the balls before they bounce. Gerald Ivy says your overhand play is great. He's mad about you, anyhow. I'd give both my little fingers to have him look at me as he did at you to-day."
"Silly!" laughed Miss Lady. "There goes the button off my slipper. Do you suppose any one will notice if I pin the strap?"
"Nobody but Myrtella. Sit on your foot if she comes around. If you don't hurry Cousin Katherine will have nervous prostration."
"I don't see why you have to treat reception day like judgment day," complained Miss Lady. "Who else is down stairs?"
"Only Mrs. Ivy now. She is the one who held your hand and called you a sunbeam. Gerald's mother, you know. Hat can't abide her; says she's a pussy-cat. Of course Mr. Gooch will be here for supper."
"A friend of the Doctor's?"
"No, indeed. He isn't anybody's friend. He bores us all to extinction."
"Well, what's he coming for?"
"I don't know. He always comes on Friday. He came in here once to get out of the rain, and Mother asked him to stay to tea. That was ten years ago and he has been back nearly every Friday since."
"Do you have company like this all the time?" asked Miss Lady somewhat breathlessly.
"This is nothing!" exclaimed Connie dramatically. "Before Myrtella came I never knew what it was to sleep in my own bed, and I had to eat the legs of chickens until I felt like a centipede. There! You are all right; come along. Don't forget to tell Father about the party!"
Miss Lady had been married two weeks, but she was still circling wildly in a vortex of new experiences that excited and bewildered her. Through a long, lonely winter she had fought out her problems at the little country school, relying implicitly upon Doctor Queerington's friendship and guidance. His weekly letters, couched in paragraphs of technical perfection, seemed to her oracles of wisdom and beauty. Then the amazing and unbelievable thing had happened! He, the great Doctor Queerington, her father's friend, her friend, the man whom she respected more than any one else in the world, had chosen her, a young, inexperienced girl to be his wife!
To one who was quite sure that she was through with illusions for ever, and who flattered herself that the sentimental age was safely behind her, the honor of a life-long companionship with a man like Doctor Queerington was almost overwhelming. She wanted passionately to be of use in the world, to make her life count for something. The opportunity of being of service to the Doctor, of helping him complete the great work that absorbed him, of ministering to his physical needs, and bringing joy into his life, assumed the character of a sacred privilege.
If haunting doubts and vague unsatisfied longings possessed her at times, she attributed them to that dear but unreal glamour of romance that the Doctor had taught her must be expected to play for a while about the dawn of youth, but which fades away in the noon of maturity. And so not being skilled in the science of self-analysis, she fearlessly put her hand into the Doctor's, and promised to obey with a frank sense of relief at the shifted responsibility.
The new life into which she entered proved different in every respect from what she had expected. The Doctor's time, scheduled to the minute, admitted of no interruptions, however helpful from her. In fact, he seemed to regard her as a cherished luxury which he had no time to enjoy. The children accepted her according to their respective natures, Connie as a chum, Hattie as an arch enemy, and Bertie as an idol.
Hattie was fourteen, and had solved all the problems of the universe. She firmly upheld Aristotle and scornfully dismissed Plato from the world of philosophy. She disapproved of boys, of society, of second marriages, and she had four desperately intimate friends, all of whom were going to be authoresses. According to her observations she was the one person in the universe, excepting her father, who adhered to the truth. Hence her mission in life was to struggle single-handed against other people's inaccuracies.
Miss Lady found refuge from Hattie's caustic comments in Bertie's immediate devotion. He had won her heart on the night of her arrival, when he had gone to sleep in her lap with a last injunction, that she "must stay with them always, until God sent for her."
Whatever ideas Miss Lady had cherished of taking charge of the domestic affairs were promptly discouraged by Myrtella, who had graciously consented to give the new mistress a month's trial, threatening that at the first interference she would abandon her to her fate.
Their first meeting was auspicious. Myrtella on returning from her afternoon out, had heard a wild commotion in the nursery and hastened up to investigate. Bertie's introduction was breathless:
"It's the new mother, 'Tella, and Chick's here, and we are playing bear, and we've broken the bed-springs, and she knows heaps and heaps of stories, and she knows Chick!"