Myrtella, who had steeled herself for mortal combat, was not prepared for a foe who sat in the middle of the nursery bed, laughing behind a tumbled shock of shining brown hair.
"Oh! this is Myrtella, isn't it?" asked the bear, shaking back her mane and smiling with engaging frankness. "Bertie says you are Chick's aunt, and Chick's an old friend of mine, isn't it funny?"
"Where'd you ever know Chick?" demanded Myrtella with instant suspicion.
"We both live on Billy-goat Hill. We always wave to each other when I pass by, don't we, Chick?"
Chick, who was partially under the bed, still in his character of intrepid hunter, acknowledged the fact with such a torrent of enthusiastic incoherence that Myrtella interrupted sternly:
"Come out here this minute. It's time for you to be going on home anyhow. First thing I know I'll be getting complained at for having you hanging around so much. And look at your hands, Bertie Queerington! You are going to get put in the bath-tub right off, that's what you are going to get!"
"I'll bathe him," said Miss Lady eagerly.
"No," said Myrtella firmly, "there can't nobody but me manage him."
But in spite of the ferocity of Myrtella's aspect, there was a softened gleam in her eye that showed that the new mistress had begun by giving satisfaction.
The first few days after her arrival, Miss Lady spent in the dim parlor receiving callers. All the Doctor's relatives having survived their spasms of indignation over his marriage, united in a prompt determination to train up his young wife in the way she should go. Advice as various as it was profuse, was showered upon her. At first she was amused; then she was inexpressibly bored; at last she was desperate. She was not used to being indoors all day, she was not used to spending her time with elderly ladies who talked of moral obligations, and social demands, and civic consciences. The duties of her married life which had promised such interesting responsibilities, and wonderful opportunities for aiding the Doctor in his great work, seemed to be shrinking into the dull task of keeping herself and the children out of his way, preserving a tomb-like silence in the house, and entertaining an endless round of callers.
Even this would have been bearable if the Doctor could only have taken time from his soul-absorbing work to listen at the end of the day, with amused tenderness, to all her little experiences, if he had discussed with her the best way of handling the children, laughed with her over her struggles with Myrtella, and encouraged those affectionate words and caresses that were so much a part of her nature.
If he could have done this, Miss Lady would have soon found satisfaction in lavishing her affection upon him. It was her bent to be passionately attached to those about her, and she was not one to stand still in a mental or emotional imprisonment.
But the Doctor was struggling through the most nerve-wrecking month of the year at the university. The beginning of a new term, the adjustment of classes, the enrolment of new pupils, all made a heavy drain on his weakened constitution. He was in no condition in the evenings to give out anything more, even to a young and devoted bride who was quite ready to relinquish any other pleasure to burn incense at the shrine of his learning.
The homesickness that had hung over her since the day she had turned her back on Thornwood would have enveloped her completely had it not been for Connie. Connie was but a year her junior, and was thoroughly disapproved by the family connection. She enjoyed the reputation of being frivolous and vain, and wholly lacking in reverence to her elders.
Connie's friends and amusements proved the line of least resistance along which Miss Lady raced to freedom. The tennis court served as a joyful substitute for the drab dreariness of the new home, and the free and easy companionship of Connie's friends a happy relief from the elderly feminines that invaded it.
The Doctor was still the majestic pivot, round which her thoughts swung, but the circle was growing wider and wider. The difference in their ages, which at first to her inexperience had seemed such a trifling consideration, proved more serious as time went on.
She was eager for life, keen for pleasure, plastic, susceptible. Each new experience was to her an epoch, while to the Doctor, whose habits and opinions were fixed for eternity, it was usually but a fresh interruption to his work.
It was not that he failed to appreciate her. The light that came into his serious eyes whenever she was near, the unfailing courtesy and gentleness with which he spoke to her, the absolute freedom he allowed her, and the flattering appeal he made to her intellect, calmed whatever doubts might have risen in her mind.
Of her own feelings she dared not stop to think. Life was all so strange, so different from what she had expected. The flashes of doubt and perplexity that came in the pauses between Connie's closely planned festivities, she attributed to homesickness.
It was late when her last caller departed, and as she ran lightly up to the Doctor's study, she realized with a little sense of disappointment that she had not seen him since breakfast. Even now she paused at the door, for fear she would interrupt some flight of the muse. But on peeping in she found his big armchair drawn up to the window, and the top of a head appearing above its back. Tiptoeing cautiously forward she clapped her hands over his eyes and dropped a kiss on his upturned forehead.
In an instant a strange, belligerent little gentleman had sprung to his feet and was confronting her with features that resembled those of a magnified and outraged bumblebee.
"I am so sorry!" stammered Miss Lady in laughing chagrin, "I—I thought you were the Doctor!"
"Even so," admitted the stranger rather firmly, standing with chin lifted and nostrils dilated, "even so. You seem to have forgotten the fact that Doctor Queerington is now a benedict!"
"Yes, but you don't understand." I am—"
"A friend of Constance' no doubt. But under the circumstances you will permit me to say that such conduct is ill-advised. I should not mention it were I not a friend of the family—"
"Oh! You are Mr. Gooch?"
"I am. And I have the pleasure of addressing—"
"Why, I'm Mrs. Queerington," said Miss Lady, blushing furiously.
Mr. Gooch sank back into the chair and looked at her indignantly.
"Impossible!" he exploded. "They did not tell me—in fact I was not prepared—May I ask you not to mention my mistake to the girls? Constance, as you doubtless have discovered, is very silly, given to making great capital out of nothing. We will not mention it."
"Ah!" said the Doctor in the doorway with his arms full of books. "How are you, my dear? How are you, Mr. Gooch? What is this conspiracy of silence?"
"It is only against the girls," laughed Miss Lady. "We'll take him in, won't we, Mr. Gooch?"
The Doctor listened with tolerant amusement as Miss Lady gave a dramatic account of the double mistake, but Mr. Gooch failed to smile.
All through supper that evening Miss Lady tried in vain to propitiate the guest. His manner showed only too plainly that he regarded her as an intrusion in the family which he had seen fit to adopt. It was not until the pudding arrived that his mood mellowed. Myrtella's cooking was so eminently to his taste that he was willing to put up with a great deal for the privilege of enjoying it. Moreover, laughter always improved his digestion and the young person at the head of the table was proving amusing.
"Mr. Gooch is waiting for more coffee," announced Hattie, interrupting an animated account Miss Lady was giving of her first day at the country school.
"Let her finish the story," said the Doctor to whom food was immaterial. He was indulging in the unusual luxury of loitering at the table after the meal was finished, a habit seldom tolerated in the Queerington household.
"But there isn't time," insisted Hattie. "Connie is having a party to- night."
"A party?" The Doctor's brows lifted.
"Yes," broke in Connie. "Miss Lady said she didn't think you'd mind, and she persuaded Myrtella to let us dance in here. You won't mind the noise, just this one night, will you, Father?"
The Doctor considered the matter gravely. After all, his reading would be interrupted by Mr. Gooch, so he might as well assent. He seldom objected to any plan that did not interfere with his own actions. His absorption in the race precluded an interest in mere family matters.
"They are not pressing you into service, I hope?" he asked, glancing at Miss Lady.
"Indeed we are!" cried Connie. "She's going to play for us to dance, when she isn't dancing herself. Of course we want her with us."
"You forget, Constance, that there are other claims upon her. Mr. Gooch and I would like to have her with us in the study."
Miss Lady looked up in pleased surprise.
"That settles it, Connie," she said; "you girls can play for yourselves. Come on and go to bed, Kiddie," and with Bertie at her heels, the new mistress of Queerington raced down the hall.
For ten years Doctor Queerington and Mr. Gooch had played pinochle every Friday evening. The Doctor did not especially enjoy it, except as one of those incidents that grows acceptable by long repetition. He was a born routinist, regarding a well-regulated world as a place where everything ran in the same grooves to eternity. One of his chief sources of satisfaction in regard to his second marriage was that it promised not to interfere with those established laws which regulated his day, from the prompt breakfast at 7:15 to the long hours with his books in the evening. In short, Doctor Queerington was a sort of well- regulated human clock, announcing his opinions as irrevocably as the striker announces the hours, and ticking along so monotonously between times that one almost forgot he was there.
If the Friday evening game was to him merely a habit, to Mr. Gooch it was an occasion. Having once seated himself, and glanced around to make sure his hand was not reflected in a mirror, he spread his cards gingerly in his palm with only the corners visible, squared his jaw and proceeded with solemnity to observe the full rigor of the game. There was no trifling with points, or replaying of tricks. The marriage of kings and queens was solemnized without rejoicing, and even the parade of a royal sequence brought no flush of triumph to his cheek, but moved him only to chronicle it in small, precise figures in a red morocco note-book which he always brought with him for the purpose.
When Miss Lady came up to the study, after giving Bertie two encores to "Jack the Giant Killer," she found the men silently absorbed in their game. Sitting on a hassock at the Doctor's side, she tried to follow the detailed explanation that he gave during each deal. But the jargon of "declarations," and "sequences," and "common marriages" soon grew wearisome, and she found herself idly studying the Doctor's fine, serious face, and listening for his low, flexible voice which unconsciously softened when he spoke to her.
In spite of the fact that the study was very warm these sultry September evenings, and the Doctor's mental strides much too long for her to keep pace, she nevertheless looked eagerly forward to the hours spent there. If at times she failed to follow his elucidations, or grew sleepy reading aloud from some well-thumbed classic, it was not because her admiration and respect for her husband were lessening. In fact, he was always at his best at this time, surrounded by the books he knew and loved, and expanding under the approbation of his one appreciative listener. Here he reigned, a feudal lord, safe guarded in his castle of books against that strange and formidable enemy, the World.
"Four aces, and pinocle," announced Mr. Gooch with grim satisfaction.
Miss Lady rose restlessly and went to the window in the alcove. From the parlor below came the strains of a waltz and snatches of laughter; overhead the stars loomed big and white in the summer night. She thought how strange and lonesome it must be out at Thornwood with the lights all out and the windows nailed up. The little night things were singing in the garden by this time, and the cool breezes were beginning to stir the treetops. She wondered how Mike was getting along without her, and a lump rose in her throat. She swallowed resolutely, and smiled confidently up at the stars. Her married life was not in the least what she had expected, but it would all work out for the best. To be sure, nobody seemed to need her, nothing was required of her, but she would make a place for herself, she must make a place for herself. Perhaps if she had something to do besides playing with Connie and her friends all day, she would get over this feeling of uselessness, and this haunting homesickness for the hills and valleys, for her horses and dogs, and the old brick house among the trees.
Suddenly she caught her breath and listened:
"He's coming home," Mr. Gooch was saying in the room behind her. "At least, they've sent for him. Young Decker, who has just gotten back, says Morley will come on a stretcher rather than have people believe that he shot a man, then ran away. They had never heard a word of the indictment."
"As I expected," the Doctor said, shuffling the cards. "When does he return?"
"When he's able to travel, I suppose. Decker left him down with a fever in a hospital in Singapore. He's done for himself, I am afraid."
"Very probably," said the Doctor. "Poor Donald! It's your lead."
Miss Lady slipped behind the curtain, and steadied herself by the window sill. Why had her heart almost stopped beating? Why was it beating now as if it would strangle her? Why did the thought of Donald Morley lying ill and friendless in a foreign hospital rouse every desire in her to go to him at once at any cost? Waves of surprise and shame surged over her. She heard nothing, saw nothing, save the fact that something she thought was dead had come to life. She was wakening from a long numb sleep, and the wakening was terrifying. What irremediable catastrophe had happened between now and that supreme moment when she had stood under the lilacs in the twilight with Donald Morley's arms about her, his breath on her cheek, and his passionate plea: "Oh, if you only knew how I need you! I'll be anything under heaven for your sake if you'll only stand by me!"
"My game," said the Doctor. "Fortune has favored me. What became of Miss Lady? The call of the young people down-stairs grew too strong, I presume."
Mr. Gooch, in a very bad humor over the loss of the last game, sullenly packed his deck of cards in the case with the red morocco note-book and made ready to take his departure. The Doctor automatically placed the card table against the wall, arranged the chairs at their prefer angles, straightened a book on his desk, and turned out the lights, leaving a slim white figure with trembling hands and terror-stricken eyes, cowering in the starlight behind the swaying curtains.
It was always an occasion of significance when Mr. and Mrs. Basil Sequin found time in their busy lives to discuss a family matter. There was no particular lack of interest on either side, it was simply that their hours did not happen to fit. When he was not at his club, she was at hers; when she was dining at home, he was detained at a directors' meeting; when he went North to a Bankers' Convention, she went South to attend a bridge tournament. So it was small wonder the butler, removing the breakfast things, should have looked puzzled when Mr. and Mrs. Sequin remained at table in earnest conversation.
Mr. Sequin was a thin, stooped man, prematurely old at fifty. The harassed, driven expression that was so habitual to his face had plowed furrows that no lighter mood could now erase. His present mood, however, was not a light one. He sat with his hand shading his eyes, and scowled gloomily at the tablecloth.
"I told you a month ago," he was saying, "that you'd have to cut some of the expenses on the new house. We've already gone twenty thousand over the original estimate. There isn't a month now that our accounts are not overdrawn. Nothing has been said directly, but it is known on the street. Nothing will be said, as long as it is understood that I am to have the management of the Dillingham estate at the general's death, but if this estrangement should continue between Margery and Lee Dillingham—"
"Now, Basil!" Mrs. Sequin cried dramatically, "don't for mercy's sake take a nervous-prostration patient seriously. Margery is nothing but a bunch of notions, and Cropsie Decker has gotten her all stirred up about the injustice that has been done to Don. I won't even let her talk to me about it, it's all so silly. What possible difference can it make who did the shooting? The boys are well out of the scrape and it's almost forgotten by this time. Young people who are engaged have to have something to quarrel over; this won't amount to a row of pins. I am going right on making preparations for an early spring wedding. By the way, you know the bow window in the drawing-room? Well, I am having it made four feet wider so they can be married there facing the loggia, like this!"
Mrs. Sequin's two plump fingers did duty for the bride and groom, but Mr. Sequin was not interested.
"I should not be surprised if Decker cabled Donald to come home. He's in a great state of indignation over the fact that the blame was put on Don. You see, it is all a fresh issue with them."
"I'd be perfectly furious with Don," declared Mrs. Sequin, "if he came back and got into a quarrel with Lee. Margery will be sure to take his part; she's always so silly about Don. If she were well enough I'd be tempted to rush the wedding through before Christmas. But then, we couldn't have it in the new house, and I have practically built that first floor for the wedding. Everything depends on our having it there."
"Everything depends on our having it somewhere!" said Mr. Sequin grimly.
"Mrs. Queerington's cook, madam, wishes to speak to you," announced the butler at the pantry door.
"Tell her to wait," said Mrs. Sequin without turning her head. "What did you decide about the decorator's estimates, Basil?"
"Decide? What time have I to be considering decorations? Why can't you attend to it?"
"Why, indeed? I only have to attend to the alterations on the bow window, look at the new sketches for the garage, have a shampoo and massage, lunch at the Weldems', take Fanchonette to the veterinary, be fitted at three, and go to the Bartrums' at five. By all means, I'll attend to it. I'll give the order to Lefferan; he handles the most exclusive designs."
"That's what we want," said Mr. Sequin, rising; "the most exclusive and the most expensive. Our credit is good for a few months yet. Have the small car at the bank at 6:30. I will not be home for dinner."
Mrs. Sequin sighed as he slammed the front door. There was no use denying the fact that men were trying, even the best of them. Hadn't Cousin John Queerington, that paragon of perfection, toppled on his pedestal at the smile of an unsophisticated little country girl? And there was Basil, recognized as a veritable wizard of finance, waiting until the new house was almost completed, then getting panicky about the cost. And now Donald, whom she thought safely anchored on the other side of the world, threatening to come home at the most inopportune time and create no end of trouble!
"Excuse me, madam," said the butler, "but she says she ain't going to wait another minute."
"Jenkins!" Mrs. Sequin raised her brows disapprovingly. "Send that odious woman up to Miss Margery's room; I will see her there."
The room above the dining-room was one of those pink-and-white jumbles that convention prescribes for debutantes. Garlands of pink roses festooned the paper, tied at intervals by enormous pink bows. Pink bows and ruffles smothered the dresser and sewing table, and pink and white cushions filled the window seat. Cotillion favors, old dance cards, theater programs, were pinned to the heavy pink and white curtains that shut out the sunlight. Among the lace pillows of the brass bed lay a languid, pale-faced girl, who stared up at the rose- entwined ceiling, as a prisoner might stare at her bars.
"Close the door, Myrtella," Mrs. Sequin said as they entered. "I am mortally afraid of drafts. Good morning, Margery. Where is your blue hat? I told Miss Lady to send up for it, because I am going to take her to the Bartrums' this afternoon and I simply could not have her appear in that ridiculous little hat she wears all the time."
The girl in the bed turned a fretful face toward her mother:
"Why, Miss Lady promised to spend the afternoon with me. I've been looking forward to it for days."
"Yes, I know, dear, but I told her you weren't quite so well, and that she could come to-morrow. You see, she really can't afford to miss the Bartrums' tea; it's the first entertainment this fall and everybody will be there. I know you think Mrs. Bartrum a little gay, but you can't deny she runs that younger set."
Margery Sequin clasped her thin white hands tensely, and resumed her study of the vine-covered ceiling.
"Here's the hat," said Mrs. Sequin, handing a large hat box to Myrtella, then noting her offended expression she added by way of propitiation: "I don't know how they would get along without you at the Doctor's. I hear that the new mistress doesn't know a saucepan from a skillet."
"She ain't no fool," returned Myrtella instantly on the defensive.
"Of course not, just young and careless. I dare say she doesn't even order the groceries, does she?"
"Nor plan for the meals?"
"And you attend to everything just as if she weren't there? It's really too funny, isn't it, Margery? Tell Mrs. Queerington that I'll send the motor for her at five; and do see that she is properly hooked up."
Myrtella succeeded in getting herself and the box silently out of the room, but the butler passing her on the back stairs was startled by a verbal shower that was not in the least intended for him. It was as if a watering cart had suddenly and unexpectedly turned on its supply regardless of its surroundings.
At five o'clock Miss Lady, very radiant and apparently in high spirits, presented herself at the Sequins'.
"May I come in just for a minute?" she asked at Margery's door. "I've brought you some chrysanthemums. Uncle Jimpson brought them in from Thornwood this morning. It's too bad you aren't so well."
Margery turned admiring eyes on the bright face above her.
"I'm no worse," she said, "just disappointed. I thought I was going to have you all to myself this afternoon."
"But I didn't know you could have me! I'll run in and tell your mother."
Mrs. Sequin, who was being insinuated into a very tight gown by the sheer physical prowess of her maid, exclaimed with satisfaction as Miss Lady entered:
"There, I knew it! The hat makes the costume. You are perfect! Now, remember the people I want you to be especially nice to, Mrs. Gibbs, Mrs. Marchmont—"
"The silly old woman that paints her face and wears the pearls like moth balls? She drove around yesterday to tell me the name of her hairdresser. It's always the people that haven't any hair that want to have it dressed."
"Miss Lady! She is Mrs. Leslie Marchmont, the most sought after woman in town!"
"I don't care, her horses look as if they had been fed on corn stalks."
"But you mustn't say such things! You must cultivate discretion. If you want me to introduce you to the right people—"
"But they may not be the right people for me! Some of them are lovely, but I can't stand the affected ones, nor the ones that patronize me."
"But they won't patronize you if you are a little more reserved. There's no earthly reason for your telling them that you keep only one servant, and saying that you come from Billy-goat Hill. It's a horrid name given our beautiful hillside, by horrid people. You see, you really must cultivate more caution. You are,—what shall I say? too frank, too natural."
Miss Lady laughed. "I haven't the least idea how to go about being unnatural, but, thank heaven, I don't have to learn to-day! Margery is feeling better and is going to let me stay with her."
"That's absurd! You are all ready to go, and I want Mrs. Bartrum to see you for the first time just as you look now. Where are your gloves?"
"I forgot them, but it doesn't matter, I'm not going."
"I'll send Jenkins for them at once."
Miss Lady's cheek flushed and she looked at Mrs. Sequin in perplexity, then her brow cleared.
"You are afraid I'll stay too long and wear Margery out? I promise to go the minute she looks tired. You can trust her with me, can't you?"
"But she has her nurse, there's no earthly reason—"
"Except that she wants me to stay. You'll feel happier, too, knowing that she isn't lonely."
"But don't you want to go to the tea?"
"Oh, I did a little. But I think that was because you and Connie and Margery said I looked nice. I'm awfully squeezed and uncomfortable; I wonder if Margery can't lend me a dressing sacque?"
Thus it was that Mrs. Sequin went off to the Bartrums' in a very bad humor, leaving the two girls chattering together in the pink boudoir, with the nurse banished to the lower regions.
"Don't you want some fresh air?" asked Miss Lady, when she had stood the heat as long as she could.
"You may open the door," said Margery, "we never leave the window up on account of drafts."
"But I can wrap you up, and put the screen up. There! You can't take cold with all that on. It's the kind of day that makes me want to be on a horse, galloping through the woods with the wind in my face."
Margery watched Miss Lady's quick motion as she opened all the windows behind the ruffled curtains, and let in a current of fresh invigorating air.
"How young you are!" she said. "Years and years younger than I feel. I can't realize you are married and have three step-children."
"Neither can I," said Miss Lady. "I'm always forgetting it. Wouldn't you like to sit up for a while?"
"Oh! I can't. I have to lie perfectly quiet."
"Who said so?"
"Everybody does who has nervous prostration. The doctors say that my nerves are nothing but quivering wires. I suppose I went too hard last winter, but of course I couldn't drop out in the middle of my first season."
"I don't believe it would hurt you a bit to sit up. If I fix that big rocker will you try it?"
"But I haven't sat up for six weeks. When I try it in bed I have such tingly sensations."
"That's because your legs are straight out. Let's try it in the chair, with them hanging down."
"I'll try it, but I know I can't stand it. There! Thank you so much! You wouldn't think that a year ago I was as strong as you are! Why, between October and March I went to over a hundred and fifty entertainments, besides the theaters and opera."
"Good heavens!" cried Miss Lady aghast.
"Of course, about New Year's, I began to wobble, but mother had me take massage and electricity and kept me going until Lent. After that I collapsed until summer. Then we went to White Sulphur, where the Dillinghams have a cottage, I had to lie down every afternoon, but I was always able to be up for the dances."
The nurse coming in with a long flower box, paused in surprise at the sight of her patient sitting up, then discreetly tiptoed out again.
"Somebody has sent you some flowers!" cried Miss Lady excitedly. "How nice! Shall I open the box?"
"Just as you like. They are probably from Lee. He sends them now instead of coming."
"But there may be a note," said Miss Lady, searching in the tissue paper.
Margery shook her head wearily; the little animation that had flushed her face, died out leaving it wan and listless.
"I suppose you think this is a queer way for an engaged girl to talk," she said presently, with a nervous catch in her voice. "The truth is Lee and I have quarreled over my uncle, Donald Morley. I will never forgive him for the way he has treated Don; never!"
"You will if you love him," said Miss Lady.
"But I'm not sure that I do!" burst out Margery. "I oughtn't to say it! I shan't say it again, but I shall die if I don't talk to somebody. Mother won't listen to a word. She says it's nerves. But the truth is, Miss Lady, I've never been sure; that's what's making me ill!"
"Have you told him?"
"Yes, and he laughs at me. He may be right, they all may be right. When I get well I may laugh at myself. But just now it seems so terrible for the preparations to be going on while I'm lying here, night after night, fighting down the doubts, trying to persuade myself, trying to be sure. How can you tell when you are in love? How do you know?"
Miss Lady's hand that had been softly stroking the girl's thin white fingers, paused; her eyes sought the open window, and she drew a short breath.
"Know?" she repeated as if to herself. "How do you know when you are cold, when you are hungry, when you're tired, when you're lonesome? How do you know that you want air when you are smothering? Everything about you tells you, your heart, your mind, your body, your soul. You can't help knowing!"
"But suppose I don't feel like that! And suppose I should, some day, for some one else! Oh! Miss Lady tell me what to do! Everybody else is rushing me on, telling me not to worry, not to be afraid. But you are not like the others, you consider something more than the outside advantages to be gained. Tell me, what would you do in my place?"
"I'd wait for the real one to come," cried Miss Lady, turning upon her almost fiercely, "I'd wait, if it was forever! They have no right to persuade you. You either love or you don't love and no power on earth can make it different. You can laugh at sentiment and pretend you don't believe in it, you can tell yourself a thousand times that you are doing the sensible thing. You can blind yourself utterly to the truth for a time. But some day you've got to realize that the only real thing in life is love, and that you are powerless to make it live or die."
After that they sat a long time in silence, until Miss Lady rose abruptly and, making some excuse, took a hurried departure. She was frightened at what she had said, at what she had thought. She was terrified at this strange, new self, that spoke out of a strange, new experience, and set at naught all her carefully acquired opinions. It was not until she reached home after a brisk walk through the crisp air, that the turmoil in her brain subsided.
On the hall table, beside a well-worn copy of Shelley, lay the Doctor's gloves and soft gray hat. She seized the gloves impulsively and laid them against her cheek.
"Dear, dear Doctor!" she whispered almost fiercely. "So good, and kind, and—and wonderful!"
Suddenly she was aware of some one watching her covertly through the crack of the dining-room door.
"Myrtella!" she cried. "Is that you?"
"Yes'm, if you please," came in strange, meek accents. "I'd like to speak with you."
It was so entirely out of the course of human events for Myrtella to assume humility, that Miss Lady looked at her in amazement.
"I can't say," began Myrtella, still half behind the door, "that I like the way things is run in this house. I'm thinkin' some of givin' notice."
"Why, Myrtella!" cried Miss Lady in dismay. "I'm afraid the work is too heavy. We might get—"
"Needn't mind finishing, Mis' Squeerington, you was goin' to say a house girl. If you think I'd share my room with any Dutch or Irish biddy, I must say you're mighty mistaken! Besides, ain't I givin' satisfaction? Ain't I doin' the work to suit you?"
"Of course you are, but I thought you—"
"Was gettin' old, I suppose, and couldn't do as much work as I used to. I look feeble, don't I?"
Miss Lady glanced at the massive figure with brawny arms akimbo, and smiled.
"Well, what's the trouble then?" she asked kindly. "Why do you want to leave?"
Myrtella's eyes shifted as she rubbed some imaginary dust from the door:
"I ain't used to working fer a lady that don't take no holt. It don't seem natural, and it leaves folks room to talk."
"But I thought you wanted to have full charge and run things just as you have done in the past."
"Well, it don't look right fer you not to be givin' me no orders, nor rowin' the grocery man, nor lightin' into nobody. If folks didn't know better they'd think you wasn't used to bein' a lady!"
Miss Lady bit her lip to keep from laughing. "I'll be only too glad to keep house, only I don't know much about it. Aunt Caroline and Uncle Jimpson did everything out home, and you've done everything here."
"Well, I ain't goin' to no longer," said Myrtella firmly. "If you want to light in and learn, I'll learn you. But I ain't going to stay except on one condition, you got to take a holt of everything! You got to lock things up and give me out what I need. You got to order all the meals and tell me what you want done every mornin'. I ain't goin' to have people throwin' it in my face that I work for a lady that don't know a skillet from a saucepan!"
"You're right, Myrtella," said Miss Lady, her face grown suddenly grave. "I don't wonder you are ashamed of me. Perhaps some good hard work will brush the cobwebs out of my brain. When shall I take charge of things, to-morrow?"
"As you say," said Myrtella meekly; then with a sudden flare, "though it does look like I might be trusted one more day to finish up the general cleaning and git after the ashman for not emptyin' them barrels."
"Friday," said Myrtella as one who signed her own death warrant, and the young mistress gazing absently out of the window little guessed that a powerful usurper was voluntarily abdicating a throne in order that the rightful owner might come into her own.
The red lamps were all lighted in Mrs. Ivy's small parlor, and the disordered tea-table and general confusion of the overcrowded room, gave evidence that one of her frequent "at homes" had been brought to an end.
It might have been inferred that the hostess had also been brought to an end, to judge from her closed eyes and clasped hands, and the effort with which she inhaled her breath and the violence with which she exhaled it. The maid, clearing away the tea things, viewed her with apprehension.
"Excuse me, ma'm, but will you be havin' the hot-water bag?" she asked when she could endure the strain no longer.
Mrs. Ivy opened one reluctant eye and condescended to recall her spirit to the material world.
"Norah, how could you?" she asked plaintively. "Haven't I begged you never to disturb my meditation?"
"Yis, ma'm, but this, you might say, was worse than usual. Me mother's twin sister died of the asthmy."
"Never speak to me when you see me entering into the silence. I was denying fatigue; now I shall have to begin all over!"
It was evidently difficult for Mrs. Ivy to again tranquilize her spirit. Her eyes roved fondly about the room, resting first upon one cherished object then upon another. Autographed photographs lined the walls, autographed volumes littered the tables. Above her head two small bronze censers sent wreaths of incense curling about a vast testimonial, acknowledging her valiant service in behalf of the anti- tobacco crusade. Flanking this were badges of divers shape and size, representing societies to which she belonged. In the cabinet at her left were still more disturbing treasures such as Gerald's first pair of shoes, and the gavel that the last president of the Federated Sisterhood had used before she had, as Mrs. Ivy was fond of saying, "been called upon to hand in her resignation by the Board of Death."
Before the error of fatigue had been entirely erased from her mental state, her eyes fell upon a pamphlet, and she immediately became absorbed in its contents. It set forth the need for a Home for Crippled Animals, and by the time she reached the second page she was framing a motion to be presented to her club on the morrow. Mrs. Ivy was greatly addicted to motions; in fact, it was one of her missions in life continually to move that things should be other than they were, without in any way supplying the motive power to change them.
While thus engaged she was interrupted by a belated caller. He was a short, heavy-set young man, with a square prominent jaw, and a twinkle in his eye.
"Mister Decker!" exclaimed Mrs. Ivy, swimming toward him. "After all these months in those wonderful Eastern lands! I can almost catch the odor of sandalwood about you!"
"It's dope," said Decker, with an easy laugh. "Chinese dope. I've had these clothes cleaned twice, and I can't get rid of it. Had them on one night in an opium den in Hankow. Funny how that smell stays with you."
"An opium den?" repeated Mrs. Ivy, lifting a protesting hand. "And is no effort being made to stamp out such iniquities in China? Might not some concerted action on the part of the women's clubs in all the Christian countries create a public sentiment against them?"
Decker bit his lip as he stooped to pick up the leaflet she had dropped.
"Gerald's here I suppose?"
"Of course! How thoughtless of me not to explain that I always insist upon the dear lad resting between four and five. He inherits delicate lungs from his father, and an emotional, artistic temperament from me. Then both of his maternal grandparents had heart trouble."
"Still hammers away at his music, I suppose?" Decker asked, minutely inspecting the photograph of a meek-looking female who appeared totally unable to live up to the bold, aggressive signature with which she had signed herself.
"Dear Miss Snell," Mrs. Ivy explained, "corresponding secretary of the A. T. L. A. If you had only come sooner you could have met her. What were you asking? Oh, yes! about Gerald's music. Why, you could no more imagine Gerald without music, than you could think of a bird without wings. He would simply perish without a piano. When we are abroad we rent one if we are only going to be in a place ten days. His Papa can't understand this, but then Mr. Ivy is not musical, poor dear; he really doesn't know a fugue from a fantasie."
"Neither do I," said Decker. "Do the Queeringtons still live next door?"
"Yes. You know our beloved Doctor has married again."
"What! Good old Syllogism Queerington! you don't mean it! I wonder if he knows her first name? He taught me four years up at the University and never could remember mine."
"Oh! here's my boy! Are you feeling better, dear?" Mrs. Ivy turned expectant eyes to the door where a lean, loosely put together young man was just entering. He had the slouching gait that indicates relaxed ambitions as well as relaxed muscles, and his hands were deep in his pockets as if they were at home there.
"Hello, Decker, glad to see you," he drawled languidly. "Wish you'd stir the fire, Mater dear; it's beastly cold in here."
"I'll do it," said Decker shortly.
Gerald Ivy dropped gracefully on the sofa, and became absorbed in examining his nails. He was rather a handsome if anemic youth, with the general air of one who has weighed the world and found it wanting. His eyes, large and brown and effective, swept the room restlessly. They were accomplished eyes, being capable of expressing more emotions in a moment than Gerald had felt in a lifetime.
As he idly turned the leaves of a magazine, he asked Decker how long he had been back in America.
"A couple of months, but I've only been in town two weeks. Sorry to hear you are under the weather."
"Oh! I'm a ruin," said Gerald; "a dilapidated, romantic ruin. Something's gone wrong in the belfry to-day. Is my face swollen, Mater?"
Mrs. Ivy bent over him in instant solicitude.
"I do believe it is swollen, darling; just here. Look, Mr. Decker, doesn't it seem a trifle fuller than the other side?"
Cropsie Decker's eye, not being trained by years of maternal solicitude, failed to distinguish any difference.
"No matter," said Gerald gloomily; "if it isn't then it's something else. What's the news, Decker?"
"The only news for me is this idiotic talk that has been allowed to go the rounds about Don Morley. That is what I came to see you about. What does Dillingham have to say about it?"
"Oh, you know Dill; he side-steps. The whole thing has blown over here months ago; the subject is as extinct as the dodo."
"Well, it won't be extinct long! I've cabled Don to come home, and I bet he'll stir things up. There's nothing to hold him now that Margery Sequin's broken her engagement."
"So sad!" murmured Mrs. Ivy. "I hope young Mr. Dillingham won't do anything desperate. To think of his cup of happiness being dashed from his lips—"
The two young men looked at each other and laughed.
"Don't worry about Dill, Mater. He has more than one cup to fall back on. It is old man Sequin that may do something desperate. I hear they have made no end of a row, but Margery holds her own."
"They say on the street," said Decker, "that Mr. Sequin has been counting on the Dillinghams' money to reinforce the bank. He's been going it pretty heavy the last two years."
"One cannot live by bread alone," quoted Mrs. Ivy; "our friends have been living the material life, they have forgotten that they are but stewards, and as stewards will be held accountable for the way they use their wealth. Mrs. Sequin makes absolutely no effort to advance the progress of the world. She has refused from the first to join the A.T.L.A. and she is not even a member of the Woman's Club."
"Well, I hope Mr. Sequin hasn't been playing with Don Morley's money," said Decker, resuming the subject from which Mrs. Ivy had flown off at a tangent. "Donald has always left everything to him, and doesn't know anything more about his investments than I do. All he is concerned with is spending his income, and that keeps him busy."
At this moment Norah appeared with fresh tea and cakes, making her way with some difficulty through the labyrinth of red lamps, small tables, foot-stools and marble-crowned pedestals that crowded the room.
"Ah!" cried Mrs. Ivy, "here are some of the little cakes, Gerald, that you love. You will try one, won't you? We have the greatest time tempting his appetite, Mr. Decker. He can only eat what he likes. I have always contended with his father that there was some physical cause for his craving sweets. I never refused them to him when he was a child. But from the time he was born he has never really lived on food, he has lived on music."
Gerald, at the moment regaling himself with his second cake, gave evidence that he did not rely solely on the sustaining power of music.
"And now, will you excuse me, dear Mr. Decker?" asked Mrs. Ivy, gathering her lavender skirts about her. "I am a very, very busy woman, and my desk claims much of my time. You will come to us again, won't you? Gerald's friends, you know, are my friends. Good-by." And with a tender pressure of the hand, and a lingering look she was gone.
Gerald waited until the door was closed, then produced cigarettes which he proffered to Decker.
"Mater's last hobby is tobacco," he smiled indulgently. "She is going to abolish it from the universe. Do you remember how Doctor Queerington used to hold forth on the subject at the university?"
"By the way, your mother tells me he has married again. I don't know why, but that tickles me. Was she a widow?"
Gerald with his elbows on the arms of his chair and holding his teacup with both hands just below the level of his eyes, looked suddenly gloomy.
"No," he said. "I wish to Heaven she was one!"
"What's the matter with Old Syllogism? I always thought he was a rather good sort."
"I'm not thinking about him!" Gerald said impatiently. "I am thinking of the girl. She can't be much older than I am and the most exquisite thing you ever beheld. Her coloring is absolutely luminous. She ought to be painted by Besnard or La Touche or some of those French chaps that make a specialty of light. She positively radiates!"
"How did she ever happen to marry the Doctor?"
"Heaven knows! He captured her in the woods somewhere. I don't suppose she had ever seen a man before. Jove! You ought to see her play tennis, and to hear her laugh. She's a perfect wonder, as free and easy as one of the boys, but straight as a die. Doesn't give a flip for money or clothes, or society. Did you ever hear of a really pretty girl being like that?"
"I hope Doctor Queerington likes her as well as you do."
"Heavens, man! everybody likes her; you can't help it. But nobody understands her. You see they look on her as a child; they haven't the faintest conception of what she is going through."
"And you think you have?"
"I know it. She's trying to adjust herself, and she can't. She's finding out her mistake and making a game fight to hide it. When she first came she went in for everything. She had never played tennis or golf, and she got more fun out of learning than anybody I ever saw. Then suddenly she stopped. Some old desiccated relative told the Doctor it didn't look well for his wife to be running around with the young people, and that settled it. She gave up like an angel, and she's not the kind that likes to give up either. Now her days are devoted to the heavy domestic, and her evenings to improving her mind in the Doctor's stuffy old study."
"Talking to the Doctor," confessed Decker, "always affected me like looking at Niagara Falls; grand, and imposing and awe-inspiring, but a little goes a long way. How is she standing it?"
"Getting thinner and paler and prettier every day. She's a country girl, you know, used to horses, and outdoor exercise. She must have been beastly homesick, but she's game through and through. It was awfully hard for her to bluff at first. That's because she is so honest. But she has had to learn. No woman, good or bad, can get through life without learning to bluff, only it comes harder for the good ones. What's that confounded racket in the street?"
They rose and went to the window, Gerald looking over the shoulder of his shorter companion.
A superannuated gray mule hitched to a heavy cart had come to a standstill in the middle of the street, and a group of excited negroes were vainly trying to induce him to move on. With one ear cocked forward, and his forefeet firmly planted, the decrepit animal dumbly made his declaration of independence, taking the blows that rained upon his back with the dogged heroism of one who has resolved to die rather than surrender.
"By Jupiter, if those coons aren't fixing to build a fire under him!" exclaimed Decker. "They'd rather fool with a balking mule than eat watermelon! Let's go out to see the sport."
When Decker reached the porch, having left Gerald at the hall mirror, inspecting his face with minute solicitude, a new figure had appeared on the scene. It was a girl dressed in white, standing in the Queeringtons' yard, and as he looked he saw her suddenly dart out of the gate and into the street as if she had been shot from a cannon.
"Stop pulling his head like that!" she demanded. "Don't you dare to strike him again. Take that fire away!"
The negroes fell back somewhat astonished, and the driver arrested his whip in the air.
"I'll show you how to make him go," she went on; "put mud in his mouth. Yes, mud, a big lump of mud. There, that'll do; make it into a ball, and put it in. Yes, you can! Oh, dear! Give it to me!"
She seized the mule's lower jaw with her thumb and forefinger, and with a deft movement succeeded in getting the unwelcome substance between the animal's teeth.
The mule evinced surprise, then curiosity. His fore feet relaxed, his eye lost its fire, and when a gentle pressure fell upon his halter, he was too engrossed in the new sensation to resist it.
"Bravo, Miss Lady!" called Gerald, sauntering forward to meet her. "I told you you were irresistible. What did you whisper in his ear?"
"Lots of things!" she said, accepting his immaculate handkerchief to wipe the mud from her hands, "but of course the mud helped. Uncle Jimpson taught me that trick. He says a mule has room in his head for only one thought at a time, and all you have to do is to change his balking thought for some other and he'll go."
"I hope you will never have to put mud in my mouth," said Gerald, looking at her with no attempt to conceal his admiration. "Can't you come over and see mother for a bit? She'd love to give you a cup of tea."
"I don't like tea in the afternoon; it spoils my supper." "Well, then, come over to see me. There's a friend of mine I want you to meet. I've been telling him about you."
"I can't. I'm drawing pictures for Bertie. He'll be disappointed."
"So will I. So will Decker."
"Decker?" Miss Lady flashed a glance at him. "You don't mean Cropsie Decker?"
"Yes, I do; the special correspondent for the Herald-Post. Is that sufficient inducement?"
Miss Lady looked at him rather strangely. "I'll come," she said after a moment's hesitation.
They did not return to the parlor but to the music-room, a large room on the opposite side of the hall, which Mrs. Ivy, a firm believer in the psychological effect of color, had fitted out in blue to induce a contemplative mood in the occupants. On the mantel and tables were the same miscellaneous collection of bric-a-brac that characterized the parlor. Several pictures of Gerald adorned the walls, the most imposing of which presented him seated at the piano, with his mother standing beside him, a rapt expression on her elevated profile.
Miss Lady flitted about from object to object, asking questions, not waiting for answers, seeing everything, commenting on everything while the two young men stood side by side on the hearth rug and watched her. She was like a humming-bird afraid to light.
"Please, Mrs. Queerington," Gerald begged at last. "You know you don't care for those old kodaks. I'll show them to you another time. I want you to talk to Decker. Sit down here in this big chair and I'll sit at your feet, where I belong, and Cropsie'll sit anywhere he likes and tell us about his adventures."
"But where's your mother? I thought you said she was serving tea?"
"She'll be down directly. Now, tell us a story, Decker. A man can't wander around the Orient for a year without having something exciting happen to him."
"I'm afraid I haven't an experiencing nature," said Decker, smiling. "You ought to have Morley here. He's the fellow that went over with me, Mrs. Queerington. I'll back him against the field for having adventures. You remember that big fire last year in Tokyo? Don was the first Johnny on the spot, doing the noble hero act, dragging out women and children and gallantly fighting the flames, while I lay up in bed at the Imperial Hotel and fought mosquitoes! He was in a collision at sea, just off the coast of Korea, got mixed up in a Chinese uprising in Nanking and was arrested for a spy while taking pictures of the fortifications at Miyajima. If I had half his luck I'd be the highest priced man in the syndicate."
"I don't know that I particularly envy him his luck in the incident that happened here just before he left," said Gerald, lighting a fresh cigarette.
"It was nothing to his discredit," said Decker hotly. "He happened to be a witness when that fool Dillingham got into a shooting scrape, and he left town because he did not want to testify against the man his niece was going to marry. He didn't consider the consequences, he never does. It was a toss up when I met him in 'Frisco whether he would come home, or go on."
"Didn't he know he was indicted?" asked Gerald.
"Certainly not. Neither of us knew it until I got home and found people talking about 'Poor Donald Morley,' and acting as if he were a refugee from justice. Two or three letters came from Mrs. Sequin, but she was so busy urging Don to stay away that she hadn't time to write anything else. We did get one old home paper, somewhere in Java, with an account of the trial. That was the first intimation Don had that Dillingham was throwing off on him. Even then he could scarcely believe it; there's nothing in him to understand a man like Lee Dillingham."
"But he was with him,—that night at the saloon," ventured Miss Lady, sitting up very straight and listening very intently.
Gerald smiled skeptically. "He went in out of the rain, my dear lady; that's what he wrote home, I understand; and he didn't indulge in a single drink. Rather a strain on the imagination in the light of subsequent events."
"See here, Ivy," said Decker, rising and standing before the fire with his square jaw thrust out, and the twinkle gone from his eye. "I happen to know this story from beginning to end, and we both know Don Morley. He's as full of faults as a porcupine is of quills, but he's neither a liar nor a coward. If he says he was sober that night I'd stake my life he was."
There was an uncomfortable pause during which Gerald tenderly felt his afflicted face, and Decker glared at the chandelier.
"He ought to have stayed to explain," said Miss Lady, not daring to look up; "a man's first duty is to himself and—and to those who care for him."
"That was the trouble," said Decker slowly. "It seems that the one person Don cared most about wouldn't listen to an explanation. He wrote her full particulars, and asked her to telegraph him if he should go or stay. When I met him in 'Frisco he had been waiting for that wire for three days, and he was nearly off his head. I got him on the steamer almost by main force. We laid over ten days in Honolulu, and he got the notion that a letter would be waiting for him in Yokohama, and that he would take the next steamer home. All the way across I heard about that girl from the time the Chino brought our coffee in the morning until we went below again for the night. He all but said his prayers to her; cut out everything to drink; even refused to play a friendly game of poker. Why, I've tramped so many decks to the tune of that girl's charms that I could write a book about her."
"What is her name?" asked Gerald greatly interested.
"Heavens, I don't know! She was a wood nymth, a dryad, a jewel, a flower, I could keep it up indefinitely. He had a new one for her every day. When we reached Japan, he couldn't wait for the steamer to dock but went ashore in the pilot boat, and made a bee line for Cook's. There was nothing there. It was like that at every port we touched. Each time he would get his hopes up to fever heat, and each time he'd be disappointed. I never saw such perseverance and belief. He made excuse after excuse for her. He was too proud to write again, and he got leaner and leaner and more and more homesick. You know that collision I spoke of? Well, he got in that by waiting over a steamer at Nagasaki in the hope of getting a letter before he left Japan."
"What happened next?" asked Gerald; "did another planet swim into his ken?"
"Hardly. The smash came just before I left him, a couple of months ago. We were at Raffles Hotel in Singapore having tea with some French girls from the steamer. Our purser happened along and gave Don a letter which I recognized as being from Mrs. Sequin. He read the first sheet, then looked up in a wild sort of way, and asked if we'd mind excusing him as he had something he wanted to see to before the steamer sailed. At five o'clock he'd never shown up, and I had to hustle our bags ashore and start out to look for him. He'd been awfully seedy for a couple of months and when he got left I knew something serious had happened. I found him late that night in the foreign hospital out of his head with a fever. It seems the letter had told him that his girl was going to be married, and half beside himself he had gotten into a rikisha, and ridden for hours in the tropical sun, trying to face the fact. Of course in the run-down state he was in, it put him out of business, and by the time he got back to Raffles', he didn't know who he was, nor where he was. I stayed with him until the Herald-Post sent for me to come home. Maybe you don't think I hated to leave the old chap, in that God-forsaken country, lying flat on his back, staring at the ceiling, with all his illusions smashed."
"Did he want to come with you?" asked Gerald.
"He didn't want anything. He had wanted one thing so long there was no more want left in him. I tried to get him to let me engage passage for him on the next home-bound steamer. But he said he doubted if he'd ever come back, that as soon as he was able to travel he would go on around the world, and that it didn't make much difference where he landed."
"Quite a tragic little romance," Gerald said. "What a lot of mischief you women have to answer for, Mrs. Q.!"
But Miss Lady did not hear him, she was still leaning forward absorbed in Decker's narrative.
"If he comes home, in answer to your cable, when can he get here?" she asked.
"Not before Christmas I should say."
"If I were Lee Dillingham I should go South for the winter," Gerald said, going to the piano and striking a few random chords.
After Cropsie Decker left, Miss Lady sat very quiet in the big chair, while Gerald played to her. It was well that only the kindly old bust of Liszt looked down on her tense white face, and clasped hands.
For over two months she had been fighting a specter, never daring to lift her eyes to it, but fighting it blindly, passionately, unceasingly. She had denied its existence, refuted every memory, filled her life to the brim with other interests, other affections, and here suddenly she had met it face to face, and it was no longer horrible, but a beautiful, radiant vision, a thing to be buried in her innermost being, a sacred, solemn thing, not to be looked at, or dwelt upon, but no longer to be denied.
The stormy, insistent strains of the "Appassionata" filled the room, surging through every fiber of her, lifting and abasing her by turns. How could she get hold of herself while Gerald played like that? She was sinking in a great sea of emotion and the music swept about her like a mighty gale, shutting out everything in the world but Donald Morley. He had not failed her, it was she who had failed him. He was coming home, and it was too late. She would have to meet him face to face, to see all that he had suffered in his eyes and speak no word. Surely she might give him this one hour, just while the music lasted; give it to him and to herself for the lifetime together they had missed.
She did not know when the music stopped, she did not know when Gerald came back to the hassock at her feet. He had evidently been there some time when she was aware of his elbow on the arm of her chair, and his head buried in it.
"Gerald!" she said, starting up; "what's the matter?"
"Everything. Is that your trouble?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that you are unhappy," he said, catching her hand.
She sprang to her feet and snapped on the electric lights.
"Do I look as if I were unhappy?" she demanded, flashing on him her old, bright smile. "It was the music, and the twilight, and the way you played. That sonata ought never to be played except in a crowded room with all the lights on."
"It wasn't the music," Gerald persisted; "you know it wasn't. Something's troubling you, and something is troubling me. May I tell you what is the matter with me, Miss Lady?"
He was looking at her very intently across the table, and Miss Lady for the first time recognized the danger signals in his eyes.
"Let me guess!" she cried, her wits springing to her rescue. "I think I know. I thought so when I first came in. It's mumps!"
Gerald's hand flew instinctively to his face, and his eyes sought the mirror. Miss Lady, in applying to Gerald Ivy, Uncle Jimpson's remedy for a balking mule, had averted a disaster.
Time was an abstraction of which the inhabitants of Bean Alley took little notice. The arbitrary division of one's life into weeks and days and hours seemed, on the whole, useless. There was but one day for the men, and that was pay day, and one for the women, and that was rent day. As for the children, every day was theirs, just as it should be in every corner of the world.
On this particular fall afternoon, just outside Phineas Flathers' cottage, a lively game was in progress. It was a game known in Bean Alley as "Sockabout," and it had to do with caps or battered hats laid in a row, and with a small rubber ball that was thrown into them from a distance. Like many other apparently simple diversions, Sockabout had its complexities. In fact, the rules admitted of so many interpretations that an umpire was indispensable.
Under ordinary circumstances Chick Flathers would have scorned so passive a role as umpire, but to-day he was handicapped. In the first place he had no cap to contribute to the row on the ground, and in the second he was burdened with a very large and wriggly bundle, which gave evidence of marked disfavor the moment he ceased to jolt it violently on his knees.
In the midst of an unusually fierce altercation, in which four boys contended for the same cap, Skeeter Sheeley's voice rose above the clamor.
"It's our turn! Umpire says so, didn't you, Chick? Aw, you did, too! I kin understand you better 'n you kin understand yourself. 'Course it's ours. Stop shovin' me, Gussie McGlory, I'll swat yer in the jaw in a minute! Look out, Chick! Look out fer the kid!"
The youngest resident of Bean Alley was probably saved from premature death by the timely appearance of two ladies at the far end of the street.
Chick, recognizing the younger one, started joyfully to meet her, but at sight of her companion he stopped short. For two years he had regarded that plump, smiling, elderly lady as his arch enemy. She was after him. She wanted to put him in something that sounded like "The Willows Awful Home." Once she had almost gotten him, but Aunt 'Tella interposed. He was not afraid of the truant officer, nor of the cop, although they were generally after him, too, but he had horrible nightmares in which he saw himself being dragged into captivity by this bland lady in the purple dress, who always smiled.
Just as he was seeking a hiding-place sufficiently large to accommodate himself and his charge, he was summoned home. Considerable commotion was apparent in the crowded kitchen and Mr. Flathers was moving about with an alacrity unusual to him.
"Git off your shoes and stockings, Chick, and turn your coat inside out. Here, I'll hold the baby; yer Mammy's nursing the other one. Shove that beer can under the stove, and hide that there cuckoo clock."
Chick followed instructions with the air of one who understood the situation. It was not the first time he had prepared hurriedly for visitors.
"They're stopping at Jireses'," reported Mr. Flathers from the window. "Here, take this kid and set out there on the door-step. Don't you dare budge till they've saw you and spoke to you."
Chick resumed his position on the door-step with a heavy heart. The line of battle had been pushed south, and he was completely out of the firing line.
His bare feet and legs were cold in the biting November air, and he had jolted the baby until he felt there were no more jolts left in him. It was, moreover, a terrifying business to sit there and calmly wait his fate.
"Them's them!" announced Skeeter Sheeley, racing down the alley. "They give Mr. Jires some oranges. If they give you one, you goin' to gimme half?"
Chick was too miserable to answer. The bars of an institution seemed to be already closing upon him.
Mrs. Ivy, holding her skirts very high and picking her way gingerly around the frozen puddles, was the first to reach him.
"Ah! Here's our good little friend Rick, or Dick, is it? And this is the sweet little baby sister that God sent you."
"Naw it ain't," said Skeeter; "that there's a boy, an' it ain't no kin to him. Its paw's in the pen, an' its maw's up fer ninety days, an' its jes' boardin' at his house."
"The case that was reported for the Home," said Mrs. Ivy, turning with a significant nod to her companion who had just come up.
At the word "home" Chick shuddered. It was the most terrible word in the English language to him.
"What's the matter with your thumb, old fellow?" Miss Lady asked, seeing his frightened look. "Come here, Skeeter, and tell me what he says."
She relieved Chick of the young person whose parents were not in a position to minister to his wants, and sat on the door-step between the two boys, listening with flattering attention to a detailed description of each hero's wounds and scars and how they had been received.
Mrs. Ivy, meanwhile, a veritable spider in the midst of a web of institutions, was warily planning to ensnare every helpless, poverty- stricken fly that came her way. To her, the web was not made for the fly, but the fly for the web; supplying flies was her chief occupation.
Standing just inside the kitchen door with her skirts still gathered carefully about her, she viewed her surroundings with mournful sympathy.
"The fact are," Phineas was saying as he held his coat together at the collar, in a pretended effort to conceal his lack of a shirt, "that we ain't been prosperin' since you was last here. Looks like the hand of the Lord—"
"Ah, Mr. Flathers," remonstrated Mrs. Ivy, with a finger on her lip, "never forget that whom He loveth He chasteneth."
"I don't, Mrs. Ivy, I don't. I keep that in mind. If it wasn't fer that, Mrs. Ivy, I declare I don't know what I would do. Now you comin' to-day was a answer to prayer! I just ast that some way would be pervided 'fore the rent man come back at six o'clock. I didn't say in my prayer what way, I just said a way, that a way would be pervided. And when I seen you and the young lady turnin' in the alley, I sez to Maria, 'never try to shake my faith no more, the clouds has been lifted!'"
Mrs. Ivy, who was much more given to dispensing morals than money, shifted her position.
"Mr. Flathers," she said, looking at him with what she conceived to be a searching glance, "do you ever drink?"
Assuring himself that Chick had gotten the can quite out of sight, Phineas looked at her reproachfully:
"Me? Why, Mrs. Ivy, I thought everybody knowed that since I joined the Church—of course I ain't denying that there was a time when I knowed the taste of liquor. There ain't no good denying that, and, besides confession is good fer me, it humbles my spirit, Mrs. Ivy, it keeps me from being a publican."
"And tobacco?" queried Mrs. Ivy. "Liquor and tobacco go hand in hand, they are twin evils. Are you addicted to the use of tobacco?"
"Not me!" said Phineas, truthfully for once. "I ain't soiled my lips with a seegar for over twenty years, and you couldn't git me to chew if you chloroformed me. Ef liquor is the drink, terbaccer is the food of the devil, as I see it." Mrs. Ivy beamed upon him, as she opened the silver bag at her belt. "I shall report your case at our next meeting," she said with enthusiasm. "I shall quote your very words. And now I am going to pin this little badge on you, this little white badge that tells the world you belong to the Anti-Tobacco League. You have the honor of wearing what few of our greatest statesmen can wear! You have proven that a humble laborer can lead the way to Reform."
Miss Lady appeared at this point with the Boarder, who like most individuals of his class, complained continuously of the quantity and quality of his food.
"You find us in a bad way, Mis' Squeerington," Phineas said, offering her a bottomless chair with the air of a Christian martyr. "If my sister Myrtella knowed the half of what we was passin' through she wouldn't continue to steel her heart against us."
"Myrtella's heart's all right," said Miss Lady cheerfully; "she takes care of Chick, doesn't she?"
"She does, mam, in a way. But there's heavy expenses on a pore man with a family. Mrs. Flathers now ain't been able to have a see-ance since before the baby come. She did give one trance settin' yesterday, but she says she don't know what's got into her, she feels so sort of weak like!"
"How long has she been taking care of this other baby?" Miss Lady asked.
"Most ever since ours come. The Juvenile Court was looking round fer some one to nurse him till his maw got out of the jail hospital. I sez to Maria, 'Here's a chanct to do a good Christian act an' earn a honest penny. We'll take it in an' treat it like our own, sez I, an' the Lord will not fergit us, sez I!"
The Boarder, taking advantage of this assurance of hospitality, set up such a peremptory demand for food, that Miss Lady was compelled to walk the floor with him.
"Where is Mrs. Flathers?" she asked in despair. "Can't we give him a bottle or something?"
Maria, more limp, and inanimate than usual, came out of the dim interior of the adjoining room, carrying a yet more limp and inanimate bundle which she exchanged with Miss Lady for hers, and silently retired into the inner room where she was followed by Mrs. Ivy.
"An' this here is ours!" exclaimed Phineas, bending with sudden enthusiasm over the child in Miss Lady's arms, and tenderly lifting the shawl from the weazened face and tiny claw-like hands. "This here is Loreny. There ain't nary one of the rest of 'em lived over two weeks, an' this here one is goin' on four. Kinder looks like we're goin' to keep her with us, don't it?"
Miss Lady could find no answer. The white lips and the blue circles about the small, sunken eyes, bespoke the same disinclination to risk life under such circumstances as had been shown by all the other little Flatherses.
"Course she ain't like that other baby," Phineas went on with genuine earnestness, "but then he's a boy, an' eats more. She's goin' to git fat an' pretty, ain't you, Loreny?"
He put his coarse brown thumb into the little hand which closed about it and clung to it, and sat watching her, unmindful of his visitor.
"She don't look what you'd call strong," he went on, anxiously, "but you wouldn't say she was sick, would you?"
"I am afraid I should," Miss Lady said gravely; "she looks very sick to me."
"She does? Then I'd better git the doctor," Phineas rose hurriedly, then sat down again. "But he never done the others no good. Maria always contended it was him that killed 'em. Ain't there somethin' we kin do? Don't you know somethin'?"
"Yes, I think I do, only you may not be willing to do it."
"You try me. I'll do anything you say, Miss. If the Lord will only spare her—"
"It's not the Lord that's taking her," Miss Lady cried impatiently, "it's you that are sending her, Mr. Flathers. Can't you see that you are killing your baby?"
He looked at her in amazed horror.
"Yes, you are!" went on Miss Lady fiercely, "you are selling her food to another baby; you are letting her mother work so hard that she can scarcely nourish herself. Just look at Mrs. Flathers! Anybody can see that if she had better food and less to do she'd be a different person."
"Oh, Maria was real pretty onct," Phineas said somewhat resentfully, "but when a man marries one of them slim little blondes he never knows what he's gittin'. They sort of shrink up on yer an' git faded an' stringy."
"Yes, but think what she got," said Miss Lady determined to press the matter home. "Myrtella says you were a strong, handsome young man, who could have turned your hand to almost anything, and look at you now! A broken-down loafer, sitting around the saloons, talking religion while your baby starves. I don't wonder Myrtella is ashamed of you, I am ashamed of you, and if this poor little girl ever lives to grow up, she will be ashamed of you, too!"
"No, no," cried Phineas brokenly, his head in his hands, "she won't be that—if the Lord,—I mean if she lives, I'll be a better man, Mis' Squeerington, indeed I will. Nobody ever will know in the world how much I want children of my own. That's why I 'dopted Chick—that's one reason I took in this new one. Seemed like as if my baby went—"
"We'll try to keep her," Miss Lady said with a rush of sympathy. "I'll do everything I can but you must help, Mr. Flathers. You are willing to do your part, aren't you?"
His emotions, used to responding to false stimulants, being now appealed to by the one genuine feeling in him, threatened to become uncontrolled.
"There, there!" Miss Lady said, "if you really want to save her, I think there's a way."
"Not a Orphan's Home?" asked Phineas, lifting one eye from the baby's petticoat where his head had been buried.
"No, a clean home of her own. There's no reason why you shouldn't go to work, Mr. Flathers, and support your family decently. I'll take Chick home with me. Myrtella will be glad to have him for a little visit. Mrs. Ivy is going to send the other baby to the Foundling's Home. Then you'll only have to look after Mrs. Flathers and the baby; you surely can do that, can't you?"
"Yes 'm, I kin do that. 'Course any man kin do that. But I been out of a regular job so long, you'd sorter help me find something to start on?"
"I'll get you something to do, if you will only stick to it. Perhaps Mrs. Sequin can give you work at her new house. She gave our old colored man, Uncle Jimpson, a place."
"Jes' so it ain't garden work, nor gittin' up coal, nor nothin' that brings on rheumatism."
"Have you rheumatism?"
"No, mam, Praise God! I have escaped this far by bein' kereful. You know what it means, Mis' Squeerington, when a man with a family gits down with the rheumatism. There's Jires, now—"
"Yes, and Mr. Jires does more for his family lying flat on his back than you do for yours, up and walking around! You're not fooling me one bit, Mr. Flathers, and there's no use trying to fool yourself. You either mean seriously to go to work or you don't. Which is it?"
Phineas Flathers' strong impulse was to flee the scene. He saw his liberty vanishing before the awful prospect held out by this pretty young lady who could be so sympathetic one moment and so stern the next. But the tiny claw-like fingers of Loreny held him fast. He looked at his imprisoned thumb and smiled tenderly. Then he faced Miss Lady squarely for the first time.
"You help me git a job, Miss, an' I'll promise to take keer of this here baby."
"What you need," came the murmur of Mrs. Ivy's voice from the next room, where she was taking leave of Maria Flathers, "is more beauty in your home, something to uplift you and inspire you. I am going to send you one of our traveling art galleries, you may keep the pictures a whole week, long enough to learn the titles and the names of the painters. Just think what it will mean to lift your tired eyes to a beautiful, serene Madonna! And couldn't you have more color in your home? We find color so stimulating. Scarlet geraniums for instance. Wouldn't you like some scarlet geraniums?"
"I dunno where we'd put 'em at," Maria said wearily, shifting the weight of the Boarder to her other arm. Then her face hardened suddenly, and she wheeled into the kitchen.
"Flathers," she said, "it's him coming round the house now. He said he'd be back before six, an' wouldn't stand no foolin'. What you goin' to do, Flathers?"
Before Miss Lady and Mrs. Ivy could make their exit, the way was blocked by a heavy-set, muscular, one-eyed man who placed a hand on either side of the door jamb and unnecessarily announced that there he was. Frantic efforts on the part of Phineas to signify to the newcomer by winks and gestures, that the presence of guests would prevent his talking business, were without effect.
"You ladies'll have to excuse me," said the intruder cheerfully, "but I can't fool with this bunch no longer. It's pay, or git out, this time and no mistake."
Maria began to cry, and forgot to jolt the Boarder, and the Boarder who insisted upon being jolted every instant he was not sleeping or eating, began to cry also. Whereupon Loreny, who had been laid upon the kitchen table, heard the noise and felt called upon to add her voice to the chorus.
By this time Chick and his colleagues, scenting excitement from afar, had followed its trail and now presented themselves breathless and interested to await developments. "Puttin' out" was not a particular novelty in Bean Alley, but the presence of guests added a picturesque feature.
"If you can wait a week longer," said Phineas with some attempt at dignity, "I'll be in a position to settle up to date. I'm expectin' to git a job—"
At this the rent man threw back his head and laughed, and the youngsters back of him laughed, and even the Boarder stopped crying a moment to see what had happened.
"But he really is," insisted Miss Lady, coming to Phineas' assistance. "He's going to work the first of the week. Surely you can wait a week longer."
"I can, Miss!" said the man in the door, gallantly. "I been waiting a week longer on Flathers for more'n two months. There ain't absolutely no use in arguing the matter further. It's pay up, or git out, to-day."
"Well, if this ain't the limit!" said Phineas, with the air of one who had reached it many times before, but never such a limitless limit as this.
"But if we pay this month's rent for him, can't you let him make up the back rent later?" argued Miss Lady, trying to comfort Maria who threatened to become hysterical.
"When you've known Flathers as long as I have, you won't talk about him paying up."
"But you can't put them out like this, with that little baby and no place to go!"
"There's the Charity Organization, and the Alms House," suggested Mrs. Ivy, wiping her eyes through sympathy.
"I'd hate to drive 'em to that," said the man doggedly, "but I got my own family to consider, and I ain't what I once was, since I lost my eye."
"Poor man," sighed Mrs. Ivy; "how fortunate It was the left one! How did it happen?"
"Shot out," said the man, nothing loath to enter into particulars. "In a scrap between a pair of young swells that was hangin' round my place. Shot out in cold blood when I wasn't lookin'."
"But, my good man, didn't you prosecute?" asked Mrs. Ivy. "You know we have a Legal Aid Society for just such cases as yours."
"Yes'm, but one of the young gentlemen skipped the country, lit out fer foreign parts, took to the tall timber, as you might say."
"But he was not the one who did the shooting, was he?" asked Miss Lady, a sudden bright spot on either cheek, and the steady determination in her eye that had been Flathers' undoing.
"I ain't never been able to say which one done it," said the man, faltering under her steady gaze.
"Perhaps it was worth your while not to say?"
The man shot a quick glance of suspicion at her, then his eye came back to Phineas.
"Of course, I don't want to push him into the Poor House, and if he expects to get work—"
"I do, Dick," said Phineas fervently. "Monday morning I put my shoulder-blade to the wheel somewhere."
"Well, if the ladies'll stand for this month," said the man, evidently anxious to get away, "I'll wait a week longer on the back rent."
Miss Lady was preoccupied and silent on the way home. The world sometimes seemed desperately sordid, and human nature a baffling proposition.
At her gate Mrs. Ivy halted suddenly: "Do you know," she said, "it has just occurred to me! I shouldn't be one bit surprised if that horrid one-eyed man was the very one Mr. Morley shot!"
Christmas night on Billy-goat Hill, and twinkling lights, beginning with candles set in bottles in the humblest cottages in Bean Alley, dotted the hillside here and there, until they all seemed to converge at one brilliant spot on the summit, where a veritable halo of light hung above the hilltop.
For Angora Heights was having a house-warming, and never since old Bob Carsey brought home his young bride from Alabama, had such preparations been known for a social function. All the carriages in the neighborhood had been pressed into service, and a half dozen motors had been sent out from town to convey the guests from the station to the house.
Within the mansion everything was magnificently new. Period rooms, carried out with conscientious accuracy, opened into each other through arcaded doorways. Massive gilt mirrors accentuated the wide spaces of the hall, and repeated the lights of innumerable chandeliers. If a stray memory or an old association had by any chance crept into the Christmas ball, it would have found no familiar object on which to dwell. The atmosphere was as formal and impersonal as that of a museum.
In the middle of the drawing-room, like a general issuing last orders before a battle, stood Mrs. Sequin, her ample figure encased in an armor of glistening black spangles, and her elaborately puffed coiffure surmounted by an incipient helmet of blazing gems.
"Pull those portieres back a trifle," she commanded, "and lower that window from the top. Has Jimpson gone to the station for the Queeringtons?"
"Yes, madam, half an hour ago," answered the maid.
"The moment he returns tell him that he is to take the small wagon and go back to the station at ten o'clock. The caterer has just 'phoned that he is sending the extra ices out on the last train, but that he cannot send another waiter. Jenkins, leaving the way he did, has upset everything. I suppose it is too late to get anybody now; the special car gets here at nine. What is that noise? It sounds like some one singing in the dining-room."
"It's the new furnace man, madam, that Mrs. Queerington sent. It looks like he can't keep himself quiet."
"I'll quiet him!" said Mrs. Sequin, who was as near irritation as full dress would permit.
Phineas Flathers, having replenished the fire, was pausing a moment to admire himself in the Dutch mirror above the mantel when Mrs. Sequin startled him by inquiring peremptorily if he was the new man.
"I am," said Phineas with pronounced deference, "the new man and a new man. Regenerated, born again, mam, the spirit of evil having departed from me."
Mrs. Sequin gasped. "What is your name?"
"Dreadful! I will call you Benson."
"Benson it is. Better men than me have changed their names. There was Saul now, Saul of Tarsus—"
"Turn the drafts off in the furnace and don't come up-stairs again on any account. But no,—wait a moment." Mrs. Sequin's keen eye swept him from head to foot. "Have you ever had any experience in serving?"
Phineas, whose only claim to serving was that "they also serve who only stand and wait," dropped his eyes.
"Only the communion, mam, and the collection. But I ain't above lending a hand, mam. You'd do as much for me. I was just saying to the lady in the kitchen, that anybody was fortunate to work for a person with as generous a face as yours."
"Clean yourself up, and put on Jenkins' coat, and if another waiter is absolutely necessary, they can call on you," directed Mrs. Sequin hurriedly, then calling to the maid, "Has Miss Margery come down yet?"
"She's in the library, mam."
Margery, pale and listless, turned from the window as her mother entered.
"I was just watching for Miss Lady," she said; "it will be rather amusing to see her and Connie at their first big party."
"I hope she won't wear that childish dress she was married in. It is all right for Connie to affect white muslin and blue ribbons, but Cousin John's wife ought to wear something that makes her look older. Why, with that short gown, and the way she wears her hair, she looks like a schoolgirl!"
"She looks very beautiful."
"Of course she does, but what good does it do her? Here at the end of four months she has made practically no headway. Not that she didn't have every opportunity! People were quite ready to take her up, but she simply wouldn't let them. What can you expect of a person who says that bridge and boned gowns make her back ache? She hasn't an idea in her head beyond the Doctor, the children and a lot of paupers. I must say I am terribly disappointed in her. But then I ought to be used to disappointments by this time. What will she be when she's middle- aged?"
"She'll never be middle-aged," Margery smiled; "she'll go on being young and making people around her feel young. Father says she is the only person he knows who makes him forget his age. By the way, where is Father?"
"Delayed in town as usual. He'll probably motor out when the evening is half over and be too tired to be polite. I've never seen him so upset. Of course it's your broken engagement. He says we may have to close the house, now that we've gotten into it, and go abroad to reduce expenses, but of course that's ridiculous! That reminds me, did the Hortons send regrets?"
"She did," said Margery absently.
"Oh, dear, that means he'll be here! He's so horribly fastidious, he's sure to make remarks about my putting an Italian loggia on a Louis XVI drawing-room. It does seem that with all the time and money we've spent on this place—Isn't that the carriage?"
"Yes, I hear Miss Lady laughing."
As the front door swung open two bundled-up figures hurried into the hall, bringing a gust of youth and merriment along with the keen night air.
"I hope we are the first guests," cried Miss Lady, shaking a scarf from her head, "because we have had an accident. We both fell down. Connie slipped on the step and I sat down on top of her. There was an awful rip and we don't know whose it is! I'm afraid to take my coat off!"
"But where is the Doctor?" cried Mrs. Sequin in dismay.
"Father would love to have come," began Connie glibly, but Miss Lady broke in: "I don't think he really wanted to come, Mrs. Sequin. He said he would be ever so much happier up in his study, playing pinocle, than sitting out here in a straight-back gilt chair eating ice cream. Perhaps you think I oughtn't to have come without him?"
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Mrs. Sequin. "I get perfectly exasperated when Cousin John does this way. There were at least a half dozen people I'd promised to introduce to him. If he had no consideration for me he ought to have for you. He has been keeping you at home entirely too much. He forgets that you are twenty years his junior; he expects you to act as if you were forty."
"No, he doesn't," protested Miss Lady loyally; "the Doctor never expects anything of anybody that isn't right. He urged me to come, didn't he, Connie?"
But Connie was absorbed in a trailing flounce that hung limply about her feet.
"Look!" she cried tragically; "it's torn clear across the front. What shall I do?"
"Margery's gowns would all be too long for you," said Mrs. Sequin, viewing the rent through her lorgnette, "perhaps Marie can do something with this."
"I won't wear it all tacked up!" cried Connie on the verge of tears; "I'll go home first—"
"No, you won't," said Miss Lady; "this is your first grown-up party and you've been counting on it for weeks. You are going to change dresses with me. I don't mind a bit being hiked up a little, and, besides, nobody's going to notice me."
"That's perfectly absurd!" exclaimed Mrs. Sequin indignantly; "you must remember who you are, and that everybody is noticing you. Why can't you wear one of Margery's dresses, and let Connie have yours?"
"All right, I'll wear anything you say. Don't you dare cry, Connie! I'll never forgive you if you make your nose red. Listen! The musicians are tuning up! May I have the first waltz, madam?" and seizing Mrs. Sequin by her plump gloved hands, she danced that august person down the long hall.
"Let me go, you ridiculous child," laughed Mrs. Sequin, hurrying her up the steps; "the motors are coming up the hill now. Make her look as pretty as you can, Marie, and hurry!"
At a distance the brilliant, moving lights of automobiles and the dimmer ones of carriages could be seen approaching, and very soon under the blaze of the porch lights, hurrying figures in furs, rustling satin, and soft velvets were being ushered formally into the big reception hall.
Mrs. Sequin, mounted on her highest social stilts, stood with Margery in the alcove, so carefully planned for another occasion. A ball to be sure was a poor substitute for a wedding, but Mrs. Sequin was not one to waste her energies on vain regret. The ball was going to be a success; already the rooms were filling rapidly with the people Mrs. Sequin most desired to see. Old Mrs. Marchmont had risen from a sick bed to drive out from town and bare her ancient bones in honor of the occasion. Mrs. Bartrum had taken possession of the most becoming corner in the library and was holding gay court there; the young people were thronging from one room to another; everybody was laughing and chatting and exclaiming over the charms of the new house. In fact the complacency of the hostess over her achievement was only surpassed by the curiosity of the guests who were confirming with their own eyes the wild rumors which had been current of the Sequins' extravagance.
Mr. Horton, the local architect who had not been considered of sufficient renown to make the plans for the house, wandered from room to room on a quiet tour of inspection. Mrs. Sequin's fears of his judgment were not without cause, for Mr. Horton was one of those critics whose advice one always ignores but whose approval one ardently desires. He was a trim, immaculate person with short, pointed beard, and narrow, critical eyes that always seemed to be taking measurements. Passing from the Dutch dining-room, with its blue tile, and old pewter, he paused in the doorway of the drawing-room where the dancing had already begun. His glance, taking in everything from the gilded fluting of the panels to the bronze heads on the upright lines of the marble mantels, rested at last upon an object which evidently gave his critical taste complete satisfaction.
A young girl had paused near him and was eagerly watching the dancers. She presented a harmony in green and gold, from her shining hair caught in a loose coil low on her neck, to her small gold slippers that tapped time to the music. The clinging gown of pale green that fell in loose lines from her shoulders was veiled in deep-toned lace, revealing her round white throat and long shapely arms, bare from shoulder to finger tips. Horton smiled unconsciously as he watched her eager, responsive face, and felt the suppressed vitality in every movement of her slender body.
"Who is she?" he asked of Cropsie Decker, who stood near.
"That radiant young thing in green. She doesn't belong in a ballroom, she belongs in a forest with ivy leaves in her hair. By Jove, look at the lines of her, and the freedom of her movements. I haven't seen such arms in years!"
Cropsie followed his glance: "Oh, that's the new Mrs. Queerington,— the wife of John Jay, you know."
"But I mean the young girl going through the door there, with the wonderful hair, and the profile?"
"That's Mrs. Queerington. Isn't she a stunner? Everybody's talking about her to-night. I'll introduce you if you like."
Horton followed him around the outer edge of the dancers, still confident that Cropsie had made a mistake. But when he was duly presented there was no longer room for doubt.
"I hope I'm not too late to claim a dance," he said. "I always make it a point to dance but once during an evening, and that with the most beautiful woman on the floor. I hope you aren't going to let these young sharks cut me out of my dance?"
Miss Lady lifted a pair of sparkling, excited eyes to his. From the moment when she had appeared, half timidly in her borrowed feathers and taken refuge under Mrs. Sequin's experienced wing, she had been the sensation of the evening. Adroitly conveyed from one group to another she had left enthusiasm in her wake. She was evidently enjoying to the utmost the novelty of receiving homage from one black- coated courtier after another, and of hearing delightful things about herself. The only apparent drawback to her pleasure was when she was compelled to say as she did now:
"Thank you ever so much, but I'm not dancing."
"Not dancing?" repeated Mr. Horton, not unmindful of the whiteness of her shoulders against the dark marble of a neighboring pedestal,— '"Why not?"
"The Doctor and I have given up dancing."
"Oh, so he doesn't allow you to dance?"
"Allow me?" she lifted her level brows, smiling. "He simply doesn't care for it."
"And you don't care for it either?"
"Oh, yes, I do, I care for it too much. That's why I'm not dancing."
"But you are dancing. You've been dancing ever since you came in. I've watched you. Mightn't you just as well be dancing with me, as dancing by yourself?"
She laughed and shook her head, but her foot continued to pat the time, and her eyes followed the swaying couples that swung past.
"What's the Doctor's objection?" Mr. Horton urged.
"He thinks it's undignified for married women to dance, and I guess I do, too, only—" Miss Lady sighed,—"you see, I keep forgetting that I am a married woman!"
"You certainly make other people want to forget it," then his eyes dropped before the childlike candor of her gaze. "Come now, Mrs. Queerington, aren't you taking matrimony a little seriously?"
"Perhaps I am, but I'm new, you know, and I've an awful lot to learn."
"Hasn't it ever occurred to you that the Doctor might have something to learn?"
"No," she said brightly, "he knows everything. I sometimes wish he didn't. I'd be proud if I could teach him even that much!" and she measured off the amount on the tip of her little finger.
"Perhaps he isn't as good a pupil as you are. You should take him to see 'Harnessing a Husband,' at the Ardmore this week."
"A play? I'd love to go to the theater just once."
"You've never been? How extraordinary! Come with Mrs. Horton and me on Friday night and let us share your first thrill."
"May I?" Miss Lady began eagerly, then checking herself, "I'm afraid the Doctor doesn't care much about the modern stage. He used to enjoy seeing the great actors, but he says the plays they put on now bore him fearfully. Mayn't we come to call sometime instead?"
"As you like," said Mr. Horton, shrugging, "but I hope you realize that you are spoiling that learned husband of yours. Instead of adapting yourself to him, make him adapt himself to you. Come now, isn't it about time for you to reform? Why not begin by finishing this dance with me?"
Still she laughed and shook her head. "It isn't that I don't want to! I'd rather dance than do anything in the world—except ride horseback."