"No, you haven't! There are other ways. You must go to work."
"Work!" he broke out fiercely. "Haven't I been trying to get a position ever since I came home? Who wants to tie up to me until this cursed case is decided? I have been trying to write, but my things come back faster than I can send them out. What am I good for? A game at billiards, sixty miles an hour in a motor car, a lark with any idler that happens in the club. Bah! I'm sick of having people patronize me because I am not in the game, because I've never earned a penny, except by gambling, in my life!"
"But that's all behind you, Don! You've got the rest of your life to live differently. When the case is decided—"
"Yes, and suppose it goes against me? It did before, it may again. Talk about justice and truth! I've failed to find them. I've had enough of this glorious thing called life; I'm ready to quit."
"You can't quit, Don!" She said it softly, with the firelight flushing her eager, solicitous face. "Don't you suppose we all want to quit sometimes? We've just got to take a fresh grip on our courage and fight it out. I'm in trouble myself, to-night, Don. Will you help me?"
His eyes flew to hers as he half knelt on the chair before her.
"I've sold Thornwood," she went on, her lips trembling. "I can hardly speak of it, even yet. I feel like a traitor to Daddy, to all the Carseys who ever lived here, to myself! You know what the place means to me. I believe I should die if I ever saw any one else living here! I don't know who bought it, I don't want to know. All I know is that I've been perfectly wretched every hour since I signed the paper, until just now when the Doctor offered to lend you the money. Oh! Don, if I thought selling Thornwood meant that we could help clear your name, there'd never be another instant of regret! You'll let us help you?"
He put up his hand as if to ward off a blow: "Don't," he said harshly. "I can't take your help. I can't even take your friendship, or the Doctor's. Don't you see that I'm going through hell? Don't you know that I love you?"
The color left her face, and her eyes wavered a moment, then steadied.
"You must never say that again, Don! You must try not to think of it. I'll forgive you because I want you to forgive me for something. You know the letter you sent me from San Francisco? I burned it, unopened, right there where you are standing now. It was a cowardly thing to do, even though I thought you were in the wrong. If I had known the truth I never would have kept silent all those months. It was a great wrong I did you, Don; can you forgive me?"
He studied her face, as if he would by sheer intensity probe those luminous eyes that said everything and nothing. At last his head dropped.
"I was a fool ever to think you cared," he said brokenly; "I knew I wasn't good enough for you. I knew it from the first, but I tried. Shall I keep on trying for your sake?"
"No, Don, not for mine. For your own, and for the sake of the girl you'll some day make your wife. But I want you to remember that I shall feel responsible for whatever happens to you. If you give up the fight and go back to the old life, I shall know it was because I failed you; if you succeed, as I believe you will, I shall be happy always in knowing that I had a little part in it. Shall we say good night?"
He took the hand she offered him and one of those silences followed which once having passed between a man and woman, is remembered above all spoken words, a silence in which all barriers fall away, and soul speaks to soul. It was like a great harmony quivering with beautiful things unsaid.
He left her standing in the firelight, her eyes shining strangely in her otherwise passive face. He closed the door resolutely on the light and warmth of the homelike, cheery room, and passing out to the road, miserably turned his steps toward the empty grandeur of the big house whose turreted and gabled roof broke the sky-line at the top of the Hill.
In two of the gloomiest and dirtiest little rooms in the dirtiest and gloomiest of little streets that dangle at loose ends from the courthouse yard, Mr. Gooch had his office. It was a small dark place that suggested nothing so much as an overflowing scrap-basket. Papers littered the table, and spilled out of every pigeon-hole of the old secretary; papers lay in stacks along the book-shelves, and bulged from fat envelopes on the mantel-shelf. Over and above and under all lay the undisturbed dust of months.
In the corner which was reduced to perpetual twilight by the proximity of the jail wall adjoining, Noah Wicker sat on his high stool, and by the assistance of a solitary swinging light, excavated lumps of legal lore from the mines of wisdom about him. To one who had not seen Noah since his first days of attorneyship, he presented an unfamiliar appearance. His feet, still hooked awkwardly under the rung of the stool, were shod in patent leather shoes of a style so pronounced that they rendered him slightly pigeon-toed. His clothes were of the most approved cut, and his hosiery reflected the hue of his tie.
His hair, only, was reminiscent of the country youth who had emerged from the law school a short time before, in store clothes and creaking boots. A front lock that has been assiduously urged to stand up for many years, is not inclined to sit down at the first whim of its owner. It has reached an age of independence, and is inclined to insist upon its rights.
Noah, alone in the office one spring day, surreptitiously took from his desk a small object, which he held in the palm of his broad hand, and studied minutely. When the rays from the swinging electric happened to strike it, it sent spots of light dancing on the grimy ceiling. For Noah was becoming anxious about his pompadour and could not refrain from examining it at frequent intervals. Every expedient had been resorted to from surgery to soap, but the stubbly blond lock defied him. It seemed the last barrier that rose between him and cosmopolitan life.
A light step on the stairs sent the mirror into the desk, and brought a look of absorbed concentration to his expansive brow.
"Is Mr. Gooch here?" asked Connie Queerington, thrusting a plumed hat into his range of vision.
Noah disengaged himself from the stool and came forward eagerly, but paused when he found that she was not alone.
"Come on in, Gerald," she said hospitably. "You know Mr. Wicker, don't you? At any rate he knows you. I've told him reams about you, haven't I, Mr. Wicker?"
Noah bowed gravely, and after bringing forward chairs, retired to his desk, in a state of outward calm and inward wrath.
Gerald Ivy daintily dusted the chair with his handkerchief, and sat down, nursing one silk-clad ankle across his knee, in order not to expose more of his garments than was necessary to the grime of Mr. Gooch's abode.
"What a nuisance he isn't here!" said Connie. "I could leave Father's message but I left word for Hat to meet me here. What time do you have to go, Gerald?"
"Four o'clock," said Gerald, then glancing at the clock, "it's only three-thirty now."
"The clock is slow," announced Noah unexpectedly from his corner.
Gerald leisurely removed his gloves. "What does half an hour matter when I can spend it with you? I was just going to meet Mater at the jail where she has been pinning rosebuds on repentant bosoms. Come, tell me all about yourself!" He leaned forward with elbows on his knees, and hands clasped, dropping his voice to a confidential tone, and bringing the whole battery of his glances to play upon her.
"Why should I?" asked Connie archly. "You haven't been near me since I went to the country."
"What was the use? You couldn't expect me to compete with a hero, who is making such a grandstand play as Morley. Giving himself up for an act he says he didn't commit, refunding money when he doesn't have to, going to work as a scrub reporter when he has lived like a lord all his life! I don't see how the theatrical managers have overlooked him! He is the stuff matinee idols are made of. He's turned the heads of half the girls in town!"
"He's turned mine all right," said Connie complacently. "I'm crazy about him. And he isn't doing all those things for effect either. He is not that kind. Is he, Mr. Wicker?"
Noah, thus suddenly appealed to, was compelled to answer truthfully that he was not. But he did so with a protesting jerk of the elbow, that sent an ink-bottle flying to the floor.
Gerald took advantage of the mishap to get Connie over to the window.
"It's beastly lonesome without you," he whispered. "When are you coming home?"
"Heaven knows!" said Connie, putting her hands behind her for safe- keeping. "Now that somebody else has rented the College Street house, and Miss Lady has sold Thornwood, I don't know what's to become of us."
"Don't you miss me a little bit?" asked Gerald, playing with the silver purse on her wrist.
"Of course I do, silly. Is my hat on straight? I wish I had a mirror."
Noah kneeling on the floor, mopping up the ink, reached toward the desk, and then paused.
"I'll be your mirror!" said Gerald, presenting his eyes in a way that only a very near-sighted person could have taken advantage of.
"City Hall clock's striking four," said Noah grimly.
But Noah's desire to have Connie to himself was not to be gratified. No sooner had Gerald gone, than Hattie arrived, very slim and angular, and carrying a prodigious stack of school-books.
"What was the sense of my meeting you here?" she demanded of Connie, wasting no time on amenities. "You've made me miss the four-two train, and come out of my way. What did you want with me?"
"I wanted to use your mileage book, dear," said Connie sweetly. "How long do you suppose it will be, Mr. Wicker, before Mr. Gooch comes in?"
"Any minute now," said Noah, smoothing down his hair with an inky finger. "I—I think the clock is a little fast." Then as Connie laughed, he jerked up the top of his desk and disappeared behind it.
"Stuffy old place!" said Connie, wandering about the room. "If Mr. Gooch wasn't so stingy he'd have it cleaned up."
"I wouldn't call a man stingy who had given a library to the law school," Hattie objected.
"Yes, and he's spent the rest of his life saving every penny to pay himself back for it. He has eaten fifty-two suppers a year at our house for ten years, that's five hundred and twenty suppers, and he's never even treated us to a chocolate sundae!"
"I don't think it's stingy to be economical," Hattie said with her most superior air.
Noah, who was facing the open door, suddenly began making strange gestures, and violent appeals for silence, but the girls were off on an old argument and did not see him.
"Besides," Connie was saying conclusively, "he cheats at cards; you know he does,"
"Only at solitaire. I don't see any reason why he shouldn't cheat himself if he wants to. He's all right, even if he is queer, and I think you ought to be ashamed of yourself to talk about him the way you do!"
"How do you do, Harriet?" said Mr. Gooch dryly, entering from the outer room and not glancing at Connie. "A message from your father?"
Connie slipped the note into Hattie's hand and took refuge with Noah behind the desk top.
"Did he hear?" she whispered hysterically. Then not waiting for a reply she pounced upon an object in the desk. "Is that a mirror?"
Noah shamefacedly produced it.
"Hold it for me," she commanded. "Not so far off. Like that!"
Standing there behind the desk holding his little mirror for her to powder her nose seemed to Noah the apotheosis of romance.
"Too much?" she asked, tilting her face for inspection. "And is my hat right? I want to look my best, because you know I may meet Donald Morley on the steps."
She was evidently not disappointed, for Noah, standing at the window waiting to catch the last flutter of her feather as she passed up the street, had to wait five agonizing minutes, at the end of which Don spoke to him from the door.
"Hello, Wick. Is Mr. Gooch here?"
"He was a minute ago."
"Is he coming back?"
"I don't know, I'm sure."
Noah made the answers in a tone that discouraged further conversation, and Donald after a sharp glance at him, shrugged his shoulders and picked up a book. He had not long to wait before Mr. Gooch returned.
"I've been telephoning all over town for you," said the lawyer testily. "Is this rumor true that you have bought back your bank stock?"
"It is. It was the only honest thing I could do."
"Not at all," complained Mr. Gooch, who became passionately attached to the contrary opinion the moment he ascertained yours. "It was a most quixotic, a most reckless course to take. I suppose you know of the double liability?"
"Yes, I know," Donald flung out impatiently.
"You are singularly fortunate, Mr. Morley, to be able to indulge these magnanimous whims. Your resources I presume—"
"My resources consist in a piece of real estate and a couple of race horses. That's about all that's left."
"The real estate?" Mr. Gooch looked encouraged. "City property?"
"No, it's a farm."
"On the Cane Run Road."
Noah's head appeared above the desk for the first time during the conversation and he looked surprised, as if he had made a discovery.
"Adjoining your sister's property, I judge?" continued Mr. Gooch. "That's good, very good. It ought to bring about—?"
"It's not for sale," said Donald shortly.
Mr. Gooch, who had emerged to the rim of his shell, promptly went in again.
"You see, Mr. Gooch," said Donald, leaning forward and speaking earnestly, "when you took this case I had no need to think of the financial end of it. I wanted to get the affair straight, and I didn't care a hang what it would cost. Since then things have changed. I think it's only fair to tell you that after I sell my horses and settle things up, there won't be more than a thousand dollars left. Will that cover your fee?"
Mr. Gooch was visibly offended. "It is not my custom, sir, to name a sum in advance. There's a great deal of work on this case, of a very annoying nature. We might try to come under the amount stipulated, and in a pinch of course you could sell the real estate."
"No," said Donald, "I shall not sell it. And I've got to know to-day what your terms will be. I've got work with the Herald-Post as temporary correspondent at the Capitol. I'm going up there to-morrow, and will probably stay on until my case is called. I'd like to have your definite answer at once."
"Well, I didn't want the case in the beginning," said Mr. Gooch. "It's the sort of thing I don't care for. I might be able to finish it for a thousand dollars, but I don't know that I'd care to commit myself."
"Very well," said Donald, rising with spirit. "That means that I'll have to get another lawyer."
"You'll be making a mistake," said Mr. Gooch, twisting his small features into a hard knot, and watching Donald closely. "It's a great risk to change lawyers in the middle of a case. There's a great deal at stake. You oughtn't to stand back on a question of money at a critical time like this."
"Good Lord, man! I'm not standing back on a question of money! I'd put up all I had if it was a million. Do you suppose I would have taken a job in Frankfort for ten dollars a week if I had any money?"
"But you still hold property!"
"I do, Mr. Gooch, and for reasons you could never understand I shall continue to hold it. Good day."
"Stop a minute!" Noah Wicker unfolded himself in sections, and got to his feet.
"Suppose you let me take your case."
Donald and Mr. Gooch looked at him with equal amazement.
"I haven't had much experience," Noah went on slowly and grimly. "I didn't even know a reputable lawyer could throw a case over in the middle when a client lost his money. I've got a lot to learn. But I do know this case from end to end, and I know you, Don Morley. If I can't clear you with or without money, I'd better give up the practice of law right here and now. Do you think you'd be willing to trust me?"
Donald hesitated for a moment, glancing from Noah's honest, homely face to Mr. Gooch's sneering one, then he jumped to a decision.
"It's a go, Wick! And the fee—"
Noah extended a hand, the breadth of whose palm has already been commented upon.
"The fee be damned," he drawled.
Donald Morley packed his few belongings and went on his small mission for the Herald-Post with a determination worthy of a larger cause. The remuneration was less than he had been in the habit of paying his stable boy, but failure to secure a position, together with a depleted bank account, had chastened his spirit, and he was ready to grasp at anything that would give him a chance to justify the belief of his friends.
When he first arrived at the sleepy little town where the state transacted its business, he took two rooms at the hotel. Later he moved to a boarding-house, and by the end of the third week he was in a small, bare room in an office building, eating his breakfasts at the depot, his luncheons at a restaurant, and his dinners at the hotel. For in his determination to square himself with the world he had managed to dispose of nearly all he had, excepting a thousand dollars which he had secretly deposited to Noah's account.
At first poverty was a somewhat diverting novelty; it served to keep his mind off those pursuing terrors that had filled his horizon. For the first time in life he was economizing for a purpose. But to make the usual expenditure of a day extend over a week requires forethought and judgment, neither of which qualities Donald possessed. He had counted on augmenting the small sum received from the Herald-Post by writing feature articles for other papers, but his efforts had met with small success. In vain he arranged his article after the exact plan laid down by Cropsie Decker. He clipped, pasted and pinned, looked up statistics, verified statements and ruthlessly weeded out every little vagrant fancy that dared intrude on the solemn company of facts. But his efforts when finished bore the same relation to Cropsie's that a pile of bricks does to a house.
Only once had he set Cropsie and his lapboard literature aside, and followed his own impulse. It was after his first call at the Queeringtons', when the Doctor had advised him to choose a congenial theme and let his fancy have full rein. A word of encouragement was all he needed to begin a series of tales that had burned for utterance ever since he left India. They were the adventures related to him by his Mohammedan bearer, Khalil Samad, who had sat on his heels many a night before the young sahib's fire, and spun yarns of marvelous variety. Donald had only to close his eyes to see the keen, subtle face surmounted by its huge white turban, and to hear the torrent of picturesque broken English that poured from the lips of one of the few Mohammedans in India who could curse the various natives in their own vernacular from the Khyber Pass to Trichinopoli.
But the story of Khalil's adventures having been launched into unknown waters, had not yet been heard from, and Donald patiently returned to his feature articles, holding himself down to the actual and being bored as only a person with a creative imagination can be bored by the naked, unadorned truth.
His one consolation these days was in the fact that Miss Lady would not have to give up Thornwood. Through an agent he had leased the place to the Queeringtons for the next two years at an absurdly low sum, and the thought of her in the midst of her beloved surroundings went far to reconcile him to the meagerness of his own.
His dingy little room boasted only an iron bed and washstand, the rest of the floor space being principally occupied by his imposing brass- bound steamer-trunk covered with foreign labels. On the dusty shelf over the washstand stood an incongruous array of silver-mounted, monogramed toilet articles; around the wall ran a dado of shoes, while from the gas-pipe depended a heavy bunch of neckties. The chief inconvenience in being poor, Donald had decided, was in not knowing what to do with one's things.
It was not only his things, however, that he found difficulty in disposing of. For a given number of hours a day a man can hold himself down to the task of sitting at a small deal table, covering yellow tablets with words that will probably never be read, but after too long a stretch nature is apt to rebel. At such times Donald raged like a pent lion. His mind involuntarily flew to the possibility of this confinement being but a foretaste of the other that waited for him should the rehearing not be granted. From the beginning he had refused to consider the possibility of conviction; he was innocent, he would be cleared. But as the days dragged on, a shadow began to dog his steps and to sit on the foot of his bed by night, grinning at him through bars of iron.
Had there been a friend to whom he could turn during these days he might have been spared some of the hours of anguish he endured, but his pride was cut to the quick, and he shrank from seeing any one who knew him or his family. Cropsie Decker could have helped him, but Cropsie was in Mexico. To Noah Wicker he had ceased to be an individual, he had become a client, a first client, and personalities were swamped in abstractions. The only place where he could have found sympathy and understanding was at Thornwood, the hospitable door of which he had resolutely closed with his own hand. If he thought the depths of loneliness had been sounded out there in the Orient, he had now to learn that it is only in one's own country, among one's own people, that the plummet strikes bottom.
The day before the case was to be presented Noah came up from the city, and once again they went over every tiresome, familiar detail. By the time evening arrived Donald was in a state of black dejection. Half a dozen sleepless nights, and the return of several articles did not tend to brighten the situation, and when Noah accepted an invitation from the Judge to dine with him, Donald felt that he had been abandoned to his fate.
Twilight was closing in, the kind that has no beginning and no end, a damp, gray saturating twilight that smothers the soul in a fog of gloom and relaxes all the moral fibers. Donald went to his small window and looked out. The street below was deserted, save for an occasional shabby surrey, splashing through the mud on its way to the station. At long intervals an umbrella bobbed past, and once a drove of cattle lumbered by, driven by a boy astride a mule. Donald jerked down the shade savagely, and lit the single gas-jet.
In a magazine which he picked up was a graphic article on child labor in the mines, giving pictures of ragged, emaciated children who spent their lives underground, breathing foul air and becoming dwarfed in body and soul. He flung the book from him and dropped his head upon his arms. Life seemed a great, inexorable machine, setting at naught human aspiration, human endeavor. What was the good of fighting it? What was the sense in believing in a divine order, in such infernal chaos?
Unable to stand his own company any longer, he seized his hat and started for the hotel. He was in a reckless, hopeless mood, ready to take diversion wherever he found it, and as is usual in such cases, diversion met him half way.
The little hotel office was in a spasm of activity, bells were ringing, doors slamming, and guests arriving. The group of loiterers who usually sat facing the fire, criticizing the daily proceedings of the legislature, now stood in a semicircle with their backs to it, watching the new arrivals.
"It's a theatrical company," explained one of the voluble crowd to Donald; "the liveliest lay-out we've had for moons. That's the star talking to the fellow in the checked suit. Some winner, isn't she?"
The object of this remark, having just told a story that elicited a round of laughter, turned carelessly and swept the room with a brilliant, experienced glance. The searchlight passed the porter and bell boys, the obsequious clerk at the desk, the semicircle of admirers at the fire, and came to an audacious pause when it reached Donald Morley.
He was lighting a cigarette at the moment, and presented an appearance of colossal indifference to all stars, terrestrial and celestial. But when he had tossed the match into the open grate, he nonchalantly sauntered to the desk and glanced at the register.
There was the dashing signature, the ink still wet on the flourish,
It was Cropsie Decker's old flame, "The Serpent of the Nile," whom he had last seen poised on the cork of a champagne bottle on a poster on Billy-goat Hill! Without looking up he was aware that the same mischievous eyes which had peeped through the black-gloved fingers on the poster, were watching him now with the liveliest interest. They followed him across the room, they laughed at him over the shoulder of the man in the checked suit, they flung a challenge at his feet, and dared him pick it up.
Donald watched her with increasing fascination. It was good just to be near anything so careless, and gay, and irresponsible. He, too, had once poised tiptoe on the perilous edge of things, and laughed defiance in the face of Fate. Why shouldn't he do it again? A man about to be hanged is given a last good dinner, why shouldn't he humor himself to one more good time before the die was cast on the morrow?
It would only be necessary to present his card and mention Cropsie Decker, and the rest would be easy. He had just about enough money to pay for a theater ticket, and a cozy little supper afterward. But what about flowers?
He thrust his hand eagerly into his pocket on an investigating tour. As he did so his ringers encountered a small, hard object which he drew forth and looked at curiously. It was the dried hip of a wild rose, that had been transferred from pocket to pocket since the day it dared to bloom before its time, in a cranny of the stone wall that circled the garden at Thornwood. The touch of it brought back an old barrel hammock under the lilacs, and the glowing eyes of a girl, lifted to his with a look of trusting innocence.
Without another glance at "The Serpent of the Nile," he turned up his coat collar, pulled his hat over his eyes and plunged out into the wet, dismal street. For hours he tramped, neither knowing nor caring where he went. He was fighting the hardest fight a man is called on to fight, the fight against himself with no reward in view.
When he got back to his room, spent and disheveled at nine o'clock, he found two letters under his door. One, a black-bordered envelope addressed in Connie's familiar scrawl, he thrust into his pocket, smiling in spite of himself at the memory of Miss Lady's bargain stationery. The other, a long, bulky envelope, bearing the device of a well-known magazine, caused him to sit limply down on his steamer- trunk and gaze at it miserably.
His cherished story had come back at last! The possibility of its being accepted had been the one hope he had clung to during many a desperate hour. In it he had, for the first time, dared to say the things he felt, to venture boldly into the land of romance which hitherto he had cautiously skirted. Dozens of other similar tales were teeming in his brain, only waiting to know the fate of this one. And it had come back! It was the best he had to offer, and his best was not good enough! He looked at the shabby, dog-eared sheet, and the folded enclosure that doubtless set forth the editor's smug regrets, then with an impatient gesture he flung the envelope and its contents into the scrap-basket, cursing himself and his conceit in thinking he could write, and editors and their conceit in thinking they could judge.
The folded enclosure, meanwhile, that had been in the manuscript elected to disprove the total depravity of inanimate things, and instead of falling face downward, fell face upward on the very top of the heap. Thus it was that Donald Morley, charging desperately about his limited quarters, suddenly spied a word that made him snatch up the sheet of paper and rush to the light.
The editor, it appeared, had read the story with genuine pleasure. Khalil Samad was an entirely new creation, presented with an originality and humor altogether delightful. The one fault of the story was its brevity. Of course, the magazine would accept it as it was, but the opinion of the office was to the effect that if the author had material for other stories of a similar nature it was a pity for him not to elaborate it into a book. A novel with Khalil Samad for a hero, if written with the same charm as this first story, would be an undoubted success. This was merely a suggestion, of course, and might not fall in with Mr. Morley's other literary plans. In any case the editor congratulated him upon the originality of his story and would look forward to publishing it in one form or the other.
Donald read the note through twice before he mastered its contents, then he drew a prodigious breath. Other stories of a similar nature? Why, he knew dozens of them! Khalil Samad had been his sole companion for two months, and Khalil's chief occupation had been talking about himself and his escapades. Donald knew the main incidents of his dramatic career from the time he had been stolen by a Bengali bandit and sold into matrimony at the age of ten, to the day he had salaamed a tearful farewell from the dock at Bombay.
Yes, most certainly, the writing of the novel did fall in with Mr. Morley's literary plans. But what about his other plans? He caught himself up suddenly. How did he know what twenty-four hours might bring forth? What if, through some terrible error, he was not granted a new hearing? But Noah Wicker was confident. He had discovered a point in the former trial which was technically inadmissible. A witness had been permitted to make a statement over Mr. Gooch's objection, and Noah had succeeded in finding a previous decision that made him believe a reversal was practically certain.
Somehow since his story was accepted, Donald found it much easier to share Noah's confidence. Waves of returning courage swept over him. Perhaps after all, he was going to be able to do something worth while in the world! He would work like a Trojan, he would begin to-night.
He seized pen and paper, but the desire to share his good news prompted him to write letters rather than fiction. He wanted to tell Miss Lady, he wanted to tell the Doctor. He wanted to paralyze Cropsie Decker! Then he thought of Noah, and ramming the editor's note in his pocket, he went plunging down the steps and across to the hotel.
Noah had gone to bed, but he was unceremoniously routed out.
"Read that!" shouted Don, thrusting his hand in his pocket and pulling out an envelope.
"It isn't opened," said Noah, yawning; then recognizing Connie Queerington's handwriting he suddenly woke up.
"Hang it! That's the wrong one," said Donald, diving for the other note. "Here it is! Behold a budding author, Wick! I've written some stuff they say is worth while. They want more!"
Noah read the note, then returned it calmly.
"It's encouraging, I congratulate you," he observed laconically.
Donald's face clouded, then cleared and he stepped forward impulsively:
"See here, Wick," he said, "you think I'm poaching on your preserves. I'm not. That's the first letter I have had from Connie for weeks. I haven't written her a line since I left home, but she likes to keep me on the string. She just plays with Ivy and me to keep her hand in. Don't you mind either one of us. Stick to it and win."
"Oh, I'm sticking to it all right," said Noah doggedly, "but I don't seem to stand much chance with the rest of you."
"Nonsense, man! Think of your head-piece! The Lord started you out with more brains than most of us end with. The Judge said this morning that you knew more common law than any young lawyer he could think of."
"Yes, but knowledge of common law won't win this suit. She'll never look at me, Donald, except as a last resort. She thinks I am a heavy, awkward hayseed, and I reckon she's about right."
He towered there in his blue pajamas two sizes too small for him, his hair on end, and his large hands grasping the chair back. "I don't know the game," he went on helplessly. "You fellows take the trick while I am making up my mind what to play. She's too much for me. You are all too much for me, but I shan't throw down my hand, not yet."
Donald got up from the foot of the bed where he had been sitting, and took Noah by the shoulders.
"You've been working like a dog on my case, old fellow. Suppose you let me take charge of yours?"
"How do you mean?"
"You say you don't know the rules of the game. I know them backwards and forwards and upside down. You let me play this hand for you with Connie Queerington, and you stand to win."
"Heavens, man! Do you suppose if it were anything to me I'd have forgotten to read her letter all this time? No, I am through with that sort of thing." He turned his head abruptly and his face darkened. "There never was but one race for me, that was worth the running and I got left at the post."
"Perhaps Miss Connie—"
"Likes me? Of course she does. And I like her tremendously. That's how I am going to help you. Leave it to me, Wick. Let me write her all the letters I want to. Let me tell her about the stir you are making up here, about the Judge cottoning to you, and the Governor asking you to dinner. In short, let me dramatize you, Wick; I'll write her a play in five acts with you for the hero. All you have to do is to ease up on your letters and keep out of her sight for a month or so. Tell her that as long as you can't be anything more to her you will be a good friend. Connie hates a man to be a friend! She wants him to be either an acquaintance or a lover. You have gotten out of the first class, and she will never let you alone until she gets you back into the third."
Noah rubbed his massive and bewildered brow. "It's too complicated for me," he said; "I guess I'll have to accept your services."
That night Donald worked until the small hours, eagerly blocking out the chapters of his new book. So absorbed was he that it was not until he straightened his tired back, and started to make ready for bed that he remembered that he had not yet read Connie's letter.
It was a blotted and incoherent scrawl.
"Dear Cousin Don," he read, "I don't see how I am ever going to write, for my eyes are almost out from crying, but Miss Lady simply can't do everything, and somebody has to tell the relatives. Hattie ought to help me, but she thinks she has to write to her intimate friends first, and she's got about a dozen. You know how hateful she is.
"Well, he was taken worse last week, Father, I mean. I can't go into the details for I have told them over to so many people now that I'm about crazy, and every time I go over them I almost cry myself to death. He didn't know any of us all last night or this morning, except once he called for Miss Lady and patted her cheek. At the end he seemed to get stronger and opened his eyes and asked for his manuscript. It was the most pitiful thing you ever saw at the last, to see him trying to turn over the sheets, with his poor eyes staring out at the wall, not knowing any of us. You'll see about the funeral in the morning's paper. I don't see how we are ever going through with it.
"Your loving cousin,
"P. S. Please tell Mr. Wicker—I'd rather die than write another letter."
The summer that followed the People's Bank failure was one of those uncompromising summers that arrive in May and depart only with the last leaf in October. The river dwindling to a feeble stream staggered between distant banks, and the countryside lay parched and panting beneath an unrelenting sun.
In the city Noah Wicker toiled laboriously over his first case which had been granted a rehearing, and set for November the sixth. At the Capitol, Donald Morley sat day after day, coatless, collarless, in the torrid confines of his small bedroom, furiously covering reams of paper with compact handwriting. At Thornwood Miss Lady, who had been left in command of a sinking ship, struggled heroically to bring it into port.
One day early in July, Myrtella Flathers sat just inside the screen door of the summer kitchen, armed with a fly-spanker and a countenance of impending gloom. She was evidently rehearsing a speech, for her lips moved in scornful curves, and her bristling black locks were tossed in defiance. Mike, venturing out of a shady corner and catching a glimpse of her face, thought her inaudible remarks were addressed to him and retired with guilty eyelid and drooping tail to the woodshed.
Myrtella's bitter reflections were interrupted by the appearance of Miss Lady on the vine-covered porch. She looked absurdly young in her widow's weeds, in spite of the fact that her color was gone and her eyes beginning to look too big for her face.
"They've come to stay a week!" she announced, sinking wearily on the top step and casting a desperate glance at the closed shutters of the guest room above. "And it's Friday, and Mr. Gooch will be here to supper. Do you see how we are ever going to hold out?"
"I ain't!" declared Myrtella, spanking a fly into eternity with deadly precision. "I'm sick and tired of company. There ain't been a day in the three months since the Doctor died that we ain't had his kin folks on our hands. It beats my time how half the world gits a prowlin' fit every summer, and goes pestering them that stays at home. As to these old maids that come to-day, if they had a eye in their heads they'd see you was plumb wore out. I wouldn't 'a' ast 'em to stay."
"But I had to. They are the Doctor's cousins. They said they'd been coming to see him every summer for years, and they don't want to lose sight of the children."
"Umph! The children wouldn't mind losing sight of them! Miss Hattie got sent to bed onct for sassing the thin one that wants special dishes and all her water boiled. I bet she'll ast you to change her mattress."
"She has already. That's what I came out to tell you, and she wants her supper an hour earlier than ours. But that isn't what's troubling me, Myrtella, I have something much more serious than Cousin Emily to worry over."
"You ain't no exception," said Myrtella, somewhat defensively. "Trouble is about the only thing that rich people ain't got a monopoly on. I've had my share; it's a wonder I got a black hair left in my head!"
"Has your brother lost his good place?" Miss Lady asked.
"Phineas? No, mam. He's been at Iselin's ever since he left Mrs. Sequin's, an' to hear him tell it he's runnin' the whole 'stablishment. I must say he's doin' better 'n he ever done before, but he's as full of airs as a music-box, an' that there Maria, a paternizing me like I hadn't been payin' her rent all these years. But I kin get along without them. It's little Chick I'm a worryin' about."
"What's the matter with Chick?"
"Matter with him?" Myrtella turned on her fiercely. "Ever' thing is the matter with him. What chanct has he got in the world? Picked out of a ash-barrel, livin' in dirt an' ignorance, drinkin' the beer that leaks outen the kegs on the freight cars, hangin' 'round the saloons an' gittin' runtier an' dumber an' more pitifuller every day he lives. My Lord! Ain't that enough the matter with him?"
Miss Lady's quick, eager sympathy leapt into her face.
"We must do something for Chick. Dr. Wyeth believes he can cure him if they can ever get him into the Children's Hospital. Why can't we—" she checked herself, and sat looking off to the hills across the river.
"Myrtella, I've got to tell you something," she began again desperately, "I've been trying to tell you all day, but I didn't know how. You have been so good to us, all through the Doctor's illness, and before. But I'm afraid after this month we'll have to let you go."
Myrtella had been threatening to give notice for a month, but at this announcement she looked as if she had been the victim of an unsuccessful electrocution.
"It's a question of money," went on Miss Lady hurriedly. "You see we simply haven't any. I've kept account of every cent that comes in and goes out, just as Mr. Gooch told me to; but it doesn't balance. We'll just have to keep on cutting down expenses until it does."
"An' you are going to begin on me," said Myrtella furiously, "an' git in some onery nigger that'll carry home more in a basket than my wages would come to!"
"No, Myrtella; we are going to try to do the work ourselves."
"You mean you are! An' Miss Connie'll primp herself up an' go hiking into town after beaux, an' Miss Hattie'll set around with her nose in a book, an' you'll go on workin' an' slavin' an' wearin' yourself to the bone fer them, an' their tribe of prowlin' kin. Where's the money you got for this farm?"
"It went to pay the debts and to carry out the Doctor's wishes."
"'Bout printin' all them books he wrote over again, an' bringin' 'em out in the same kind of covers?"
"How many was there, in all?"
Myrtella compressed her lips, and with difficulty refrained from comment. However freely the Doctor's will had been discussed in public, no criticism of it was brooked in the presence of Miss Lady.
"As to your leaving," she said, changing the subject, while Myrtella vented her wrath on the flies, "you know you have wanted to go for months. It was only your goodness that made you come out here with us after you had saved money enough to start your boarding-house. We haven't been paying you enough, I know that, and—and we haven't enough to go on even as we are."
Myrtella wheeled in the doorway, her face purple with anger:
"If you think I'm a-goin' an' leave you children in this big house, messin' up yer own food, an' lettin' everybody run over you, you are mighty mistaken! Miss Hattie 'd be having indigestion inside a week, an' Bertie 'd git the croup, an' you'd have every female Queerington that could buy a railroad ticket comin' an' settin' down on you!"
"But what can we do, Myrtella? I tell you the money is giving out!"
"Do? I'll tell you what we can do. We can board the company! We can fill up the rooms with folks that pay for what they eat, an' there won't be any room for the free prowlers. You git the boarders an' I'll manage 'em."
"Why, Mrs. Ivy and Gerald wanted to come that way, but I laughed at them. Besides I don't know about Gerald—"
"On account of Miss Connie?" asked Myrtella, who had been too much in charge of the family not to know its secrets. "You let him come. He's one of them men that's like vanilla extract—you git too much of him onct, you never want no more!"
"And perhaps Mr. Gooch would come."
"Well it would go kinder hard with him to pay fer anything he's always got free. But git Miss Hattie to ast him. He'd do it fer her quicker'n anybody."
The project, under Myrtella's able generalship, developed immediately. Mr. Gooch and the Ivys gladly availed themselves of the opportunity of fleeing from the stifling city to the cool shade of Thornwood. Two former pupils of the Doctor's, who were taking a summer course at the university, also asked if they might have a room, and at the end of a week paying guests were in possession and the family relegated to any nook or corner that was large enough to accommodate a bed.
One problem was unexpectedly solved by the appearance of Uncle Jimpson, who announced that "he had done come back home to stay." The distinction of driving forth daily in solitary grandeur to exercise the Sequins' horses, had palled upon him, and the prospect of conducting the Queerington boarders back and forth to the station, and renewing his intimacy with old John and Mike, had proven irresistible.
Aunt Caroline had died in the early spring, and Uncle Jimpson found even the society of Myrtella a relief after his enforced loneliness. He listened with bulging eyes and sagging jaw to her accounts of the latest murders and obeyed her slightest command with a briskness that would have amazed the old Colonel.
"We's helpin' Miss Lady git a start," he would say proudly again and again, "an' then maybe she git married some more."
"Married!" Myrtella would flare, "yes, she orter git married to another widower with three children, and a thousand kin folks. Besides, who's she going to marry?"
"Ain't no trouble 'bout dat," Uncle Jimpson said wisely; "you jes' let her peek over de blinds onct, an' you see what gwine happen."
"Well, she ain't going to peek," Myrtella said firmly. "She ain't got a thought in her head, but gittin' Miss Hattie an' Bertie educated, an' keepin' Miss Connie straight, an' carryin' out that fool will of the Doctor's."
"Jest wait," Uncle Jimpson smilingly insisted, "dat chile can't no more help 'cumulatin' beaux dan a flower kin bees. An' hits de king bee dat's comin' dis time, shore!"
"Where's Connie? Where's Hat?" cried Miss Lady breathlessly, bringing her foam-flecked horse to a halt in front of the porch where Mrs. Ivy was sitting in the twilight. "Don Morley has written a book and it's going to be published this month!"
"A book!" echoed Mrs. Ivy incredulously, then,
"Ah, my dear, do get off that vicious beast; I haven't had a moment's peace since Mr. Wicker sent him over!"
Miss Lady slipped to the ground and stood with her arm around Prince's neck, laughing. The thrill of her long ride, the first one in nearly two years, still surged through her, and the news just received made her heart dance for joy. Happiness, in spite of her efforts not to expect it, was beginning to shine across the troubled waters, a dim and wavering light as yet, but drawing her toward it with irresistible fascination. It was something to steer by in times of stress and storm, something to turn to tremulously, in the lonely hours of the night, when over-taxed muscles refused to relax and her tired brain ached with the pity and sorrow of the world.
During her long ride this afternoon she had dared for the first time to give rein to thoughts that had hitherto been held in check. Surely life was more than the dreary, monotonous, loveless business of the past summer! With all its problems and perplexities, it was nevertheless a mysterious, fascinating thing. She did not approve of it, nor did she altogether trust it, but she was incorrigibly in love with it—and would be to the end.
"I suppose you know that supper is over," said Mrs. Ivy, with veiled reproach. "Were there no letters for me?"
"Oh, dear, how stupid of me. I forgot to look through the rest of the mail. Here it is."
Mrs. Ivy sorted out her own official-looking budget, then peered closely at the two remaining envelopes.
"As I suspected," she said with a significant lifting of her eyebrows; "two for Constance, in the same handwriting and both postmarked from the Capitol."
"But what of it, Mrs. Ivy?"
"My dear," Mrs. Ivy breathed, "don't you see they are from Mr. Morley?"
"Yes; but I have one from him, too; he's telling us about his book."
Mrs. Ivy smiled with sad superiority, "Ah, my dear, you are not a very sophisticated little chaperon. I have hesitated to speak to you before, but I really think this young man's attention to Constance should be stopped. It isn't fair to poor Gerald. You know how she has always adored my boy, ever since she was in pinafores, and I don't mind confessing to you that I've encouraged her. Of course Gerald's artistic temperament has made him susceptible to many forms of beauty, but he has really been quite devoted of late. I simply can not endure the thought of that Mr. Morley interfering with the blossoming of their childhood love."
"But Mrs. Ivy, he—he is her cousin; he looks upon her as a child."
"She is only a year younger than you are, my dear, and much more worldly wise. I've had my eyes open and I've seen a great deal. She is getting quite secretive, and she isn't always gracious to Gerald. Mr. Morley's back of it all, you 'II see."
"I don't think there is any danger," said Miss Lady critically examining the tip of Prince's nose.
"Ah, my dear girl, you have been too engrossed for the past six months to notice. Ask Mr. Wicker; he spoke to Gerald about it last spring. Ask Gerald himself, he's wretchedly unhappy. And now you are helping her to get ready to go up to the Capitol to visit, and he's sure to see her every day. I must say that I think it's wretched taste for him to pay attentions to any girl under the circumstances."
In an instant Miss Lady had wheeled with flashing eyes:
"Donald's friends know that he hasn't done anything to be ashamed of! I don't believe he thinks of Connie in the way you mean, but if he does she has every reason to be proud of it!"
And without waiting for an answer she drew the bridle over her arm and tramped indignantly off to the stable.
Mrs. Ivy sighed, then turned to join Mr. Gooch who had just come out on the porch.
"Has it ever occurred to you," she said as if enunciating a hitherto unuttered truth, "how reluctant youth is to learn of age? This dear little widow that the good Doctor left to our care, is making some grave mistakes."
"I think she does fairly well," said Mr. Gooch, settling himself comfortably; "the beef is not always good, but the fowls and the vegetables are ex-excellent."
Mr. Gooch spoke with unusual warmth. Myrtella's cooking, together with Miss Lady's graciousness, and the sharp proprietorship that Hattie had assumed over him, were working a miracle. Even now as the sounds of music and laughter came forth from the living-room, he paused to listen. He was surprised to find that "Molly Darlings," and "Nellie Grays," and other musical girls he'd left behind him, still haunted the dim corridors of his argumentative mind, and gave him little thrills of pleasure.
"Ah," purred Mrs. Ivy, continuing the conversation. "Far be it from me to criticize her. It is against my principles to entertain a critical attitude toward any one. Besides, I quite adore the dear child. I consider her a precious gift to a grateful world. But you must acknowledge, Mr. Gooch, that with all her sweetness, she doesn't always allow herself to be guided."
"Good Lord, no," said Mr. Gooch testily.
"She'll look you straight in the eye and smile, while you are advising her, then go straight off and do as she pleases. This matter of the Doctor's will, for instance. I spent two days arguing with her about the futility of publishing two dozen volumes that nobody will ever read."
"But that was his dying request, Mr. Gooch. Only one who has loved and lost can know the nature of that obligation." Mr. Gooch sniffed impatiently. Conjugal felicity was a subject that irritated him in every fiber.
"Then her charities," he went on crustily; "she's got no money to be throwing away, yet every family on Billy-goat Hill comes to her when it gets into trouble."
"Yes, and she doesn't hesitate to sit down in those dreadful hovels, and take those unclean babies in her arms. It has made me frightfully nervous since we came here. Gerald is so sensitive to germs."
"What is this latest tomfoolery about a kindergarten?"
"Why, she has actually gotten Mrs. Bartrum and Mrs. Horton, and some of those other society women, to rent the hall over the grocery where the Cant-Pass-It Saloon used to be. They are going to open a kindergarten and Margery Sequin is coming home from Europe to take charge of it. I am afraid the project is built upon the sands. There is not a church member on the board!"
"Well, they needn't come to me for a contribution," said Mr. Gooch. "I don't believe in kindergartens."
While this conversation was taking place, quite a different one was in progress, on the up-stairs side porch which had been converted into a summer bedroom for Miss Lady and Bertie.
"Do you 'spose," Bert was saying sleepily, "that God 'ud give me a horn 'stead of a harp when I get to heaven, if I ask him to?"
"I know He will, Bert. Take off your other shoe."
"Why didn't He give Chick something to say?"
"He did, but Chick's throat won't let the words come through. Step out of your clothes now, hurry up, Buddikin!"
But Bert's feet were firmly planted, and his sleepy eyes fixed in philosophic musings:
"If He had all kinds of throats I don't see why He didn't give Chick a good one."
This required elucidation, and Miss Lady attempted to make the matter clear while extricating the small boy from his clothes.
"Ain't you going to tell me a story?"
"Not to-night, Bert. I'm so tired; all the stories have run out."
Bert crawled into his bed silently, and lay watching the shadows in the big tree outside.
"I wish Cousin Don was here," he sighed. "He never does run out of stories. When is he coming back?"
"I don't know, dear. Shut your eyes now, and go to sleep."
He shut his eyes obediently, but continued the conversation drowsily,
"He knows all about whales and tigers, and big ships and elephants. He's—been—clear—around—the—earth—"
But the Sandman had conquered, and Miss Lady, having slipped on a dressing-gown and loosened her hair, tiptoed to the far end of the porch and sitting on the railing gazed fixedly out into the gathering darkness. For half an hour the dim enchantments of twilight had been abroad, transforming hill and valley, and merging heaven and earth in a tender, elusive atmosphere of dreams. But her absorbed, white face, and tense hands locked about her knees, showed that she was not concerned with the beauty of the evening.
Mrs. Ivy's words had kindled a bonfire, by the light of which recent events leapt into view. Connie had been secretive, not only about her letters but about her engagements as well. She was growing daily more indifferent to Gerald Ivy, and developing a taste for reading that had been the cause of much surmising and teasing on the part of the household.
Twice during the summer Donald had come to Thornwood, and on both occasions Miss Lady had been seized with an unreasoning fear, not only of him, but of herself. She had received him under the depressing chaperonage of Mr. Gooch and Mrs. Ivy, and she remembered now how Connie had taken possession of him on both occasions. But even if Connie's transitory affections were temporarily engaged, surely Donald was not encouraging her!
A low whistle from the path below made her look down. It was Connie and she was stepping very cautiously as if trying to elude somebody.
"Miss Lady!" she called softly. "Aren't you coming down again?"
"No, I'm going to bed."
"Don't go yet. I'm coming up. I want to tell you something."
A moment later Connie opened the door, and closed it carefully behind her.
"Is Bertie asleep?"
"It's all over!" she announced tragically. "Gerald and I have had an awful quarrel, and he swears he'll never live to see another dawn."
"Of course he won't, I doubt if he has ever seen one. What's his trouble?"
"Everything! He wants me to sit at his feet every hour in the day and adore him, and how can I adore a man who is afraid of a bumblebee, and can't drive, and sleeps with an umbrella over his head to shut out the light? I just simply can't stand him another minute!"
"But, Connie, you were so crazy about him, you wouldn't listen to a word against him."
"I know it. I've been a perfect little idiot." Connie was sobbing now on Miss Lady's shoulder. "The first time I saw him he'd just gotten home from Europe. He was playing at a concert. Everybody said he was a genius, and his eyes were so wonderful, and I had never seen anybody like him. The more he snubbed me the crazier I got about him. It wasn't until Cousin Don came back that I saw him as he really is."
Miss Lady patted the heaving shoulders, but said nothing.
"And the very minute," Connie continued tempestuously, "that I began to feel differently, Gerald began to like me. He has worked himself up to a terrible pitch, and doesn't want me out of his sight for a minute. I feel as if I'd been living on chocolate creams for three months!"
"Connie!" Miss Lady took the tear-stained face between her hands. "I'm glad it isn't Gerald. I'm glad from the bottom of my heart, but are you sure it isn't somebody else?"
Connie's blue eyes, never very steadfast, shifted uneasily, and Miss Lady went on earnestly:
"Are you quite sure you aren't doing just what you did before, getting infatuated, and making yourself miserable over some one who doesn't care for you?"
"But he does!" burst out Connie indignantly; "he cares for me more than for anybody in the world!"
"How do you know?"
"He's told me so! There—I oughtn't to have told! I swore I wouldn't until after the trial. But you won't breathe it, Miss Lady? Promise you won't even ask me to tell you anything more?"
Miss Lady looked at her strangely.
"I know everybody is going to disapprove," Connie went on recklessly, "and say horrid things about him. But I don't care if you will just stand by me. And you will, won't you?"
Twice Miss Lady tried to speak before the words would come, then:
"Yes," she whispered almost breathlessly, "yes, I promise to stand by you,—and by him."
After Connie had gone she went back to her seat on the railing and stared out into the gathering night. For the first time in her life the dark immensity terrified her. The beacon lights by which she had steered were no longer visible. The great lonely sea of life lay about her, and she had lost her course.
"Daddy!" she whispered in terror, "Daddy help me!"
But only the faint cry of a whippoorwill in the valley below answered her call. A trembling seized her and feeling her way to the bed where Bertie lay, she crept in beside him, cuddling the soft, warm little body close, and checking her sobs that they might not wake him. Long after the whippoorwill had ceased its plaint, she lay there staring into the darkness, waiting for the dawn.
The autumn sun struggled palely through the windows of the Children's Hospital, and sent a beam across the high narrow bed where Chick Flathers lay, suspiciously watching the proceedings of the attendant nurses. He was not at all sure that he had done right in coming. For two days he had been made to stay in bed, and this morning he had suffered his third bath and been deprived of his breakfast. His being there at all was merely a concession to friendship. Mis' Queerington had persuaded him. He wouldn't have come for the Other One, the fat one who smiled and talked about The Willows Awful Home. He wouldn't even come for Aunt 'Telia, but Mis' Queerington was different; she understood fellows. She had said that the doctors would fix his throat so that he could yell louder than any boy on Billy-goat Hill! All the suppressed yells of a dozen years quivered on his lips at the thought of it! "Chick, here's a orange and some cookies I brought you." It was Aunt 'Telia who sat down by the bed and took his hand. "If you ever get well Aunt 'Tella's going to take you to the circus, or the seashore, or somewheres."
The seashore presented no concrete idea, so Chick preferred to dwell upon the circus, but even that alluring prospect could not hold his attention while so many disturbing things were taking place about him. One nurse had felt his pulse, another had put a glass tube in his mouth, and now a third was wheeling in a curious little bed on wheels.
He turned restlessly from the black-browed, anxious face bending over him to the door where Mrs. Queerington was entering. But he knew by experience that it would be some time before she reached him. All those other sick duffers would want her to talk to them, and the nurses would stop her, and the young house-doctor would claim a flower for his buttonhole. Chick hated them all indiscriminately. It seemed an hour before her bright, reassuring face bent over him, and he heard her say:
"It won't be long, now, Chicky Boy. Dr. Wyeth will be here soon, and they will give you a ride on this funny little wagon. I wonder what Skeeter Sheeley is doing about this time? Going to school, I expect."
This diverted Chick marvelously. The thought of Skeeter having to spend the morning in the schoolroom, made his own lot less hard.
"Is Number Seventeen prepared for the operation?" he heard some one ask, and at the same moment Aunt 'Tella's fingers closed on his like a vise.
Then the big doctor, who had brought him there, appeared at the foot of his bed.
"Ah, Mrs. Queerington!" he was saying, "the very sight of you ought to hearten up these youngsters. But you are still paler than I like to see you. Been overdoing again?"
She shook her head. "I'm all right, but what about your patient?"
The doctor stroked his chin and appeared to be interested in the ceiling. "Some rather grave complications. Very anemic. Very little to work on. Possibly an even chance. However—" he shrugged his broad shoulders. "Has he any people?"
"No, except this foster-aunt who supports him. Myrtella!"
But Myrtella had turned her back at sight of the doctor, and refused to look up.
Chick narrowly watching the two speakers at the foot of the bed, and trying vainly to understand what they were saying about him, was relieved when Dr. Wyeth handed Miss Lady a book and said lightly:
"You see that I, like everybody else, have fallen a victim to 'Khalil Samad.' I understand it is already in its tenth edition. Young Morley has a career before him, if he gets through this trial. Do you know when it is set for?"
"November the sixth."
"So soon as that? Well, I don't know the young man, but I hope he'll be cleared. I want him to write some more books for me to read. I'm sorry Kinner has charge of the prosecution. He'd rather convict an innocent man than a guilty one. All right, my boy, I guess we are ready."
"Don't try to get up!" admonished the nurse to Chick; "I'll lift you over."
But Chick scorned assistance. Hadn't he only last week valiantly bucked the center in a football game between the Bean Alley Busters, and the Shanty Boat Bums, and, covered with mud and blood and glory, been carried from the field? They needn't think because he was little and thin and couldn't talk that he was a baby! He got himself on to the wheeled stretcher, but refused to lie down.
"Let him sit up then," said Mrs. Queerington. "He likes to see where he is going, don't you, Chick? Here goes our automobile! Honk! Honk!"
The nurse wheeled him through the tall, gloomy halls, while Myrtella shambled at one side, clinging to his hand, and wiping her eyes. Miss Lady flitted along on the other, telling him about the new football that was going to be on his bed when he woke up.
Then they halted, and Myrtella bent over him wildly. "Chick!" she cried, her face suddenly contorted, "look at me just once more! Tell me you fergive me, Chicky! Oh, if they kill you—!"
The stretcher was shoved hastily into the elevator and the door closed on everybody but Chick and the nurse and the orderly.
It was about that time that Chick decided to lie down. Where were they taking him? What were they going to do with him? What did Aunt 'Tella mean by those strange words? Where had Mis' Squeerington gone? With sudden quaking terror he looked at the nurse and broke into hoarse interrogatory sounds.
"Here we are!" she cried soothingly, as the elevator came to a halt. "And here's Dr. Wyeth waiting for us."
"Well, my little man," said the large figure in white, taking a small cold hand in his large strong one, "we are going to put you to sleep and when you wake up, it will be all over. You are pretty game, aren't you?"
Chick, trying very hard to keep his knees from shaking the sheet, nodded emphatically.
"I thought so," lied the doctor cheerfully, looking into the terror- stricken eyes. "I can almost always tell when a fellow's made out of the right sort of stuff. You don't wear false teeth, do you?"
Chick's sudden, toothless smile revealed the futility of this question.
"That's good. No danger of your swallowing them. Now suppose you put this funnel over your mouth and take a big breath. That's right! Another one! That's right, once more!"
Chick felt a hot, sweet air rush into his throat, and began to choke. But the doctor's voice kept saying insistently, "Once more!" "Once more, my boy!" And the doctor thought he was game.
He shut his eyes and tried not to be afraid, but fearful things were happening! His skin was leaving his body; and he was going up in the air; lights danced before his eyes and he was suddenly in a terrible hurry about something. He had never been in such a hurry before! He was leaving doctors and nurses far below, he could hear their voices growing fainter every moment. Then suddenly the lights began to dance again, and the hurry came back, and all the breath was being squeezed out of him. No, he couldn't be game any longer! He must fight! Savagely, blindly, dumbly he struggled against this awful unknown thing that was mastering him. Then, after a last agonizing effort he sank helplessly into the abyss of sleep.
Meanwhile, on the floor below, sitting on the cold bare steps beside the door of the elevator, two white-faced women waited anxiously. All was silent in the high, narrow corridor except for the footsteps of passing nurses, and the occasional sharp cry of pain, or groan of weariness from some suffering patient.
"That's him!" cried Myrtella hysterically as one of these cries reached her.
"No, no. He is sound asleep by this time. He won't know anything until it is all over." Then as another cry brought Myrtella to her feet, Miss Lady added, "Please, Myrtella, don't be so frightened. Those cries come from the floor below."
Myrtella shook off her hand impatiently. "How long have they been gone? Why didn't you tell me they was going to keep him hours and hours?"
"It's only been twenty minutes. I know how anxious you are, but you must try to be calm. If you aren't they won't let you go in the room when they bring him down."
"Won't let me in the room!" Myrtella's face blazed with anger. "I'd like to see 'em stop me! Who's got a better right? The doctor? The nurse? You? There ain't none of you got the right to him I have. Ain't I his mother?"
Miss Lady looked at her with amazement, and shrank instinctively from the desperate, defiant woman.
"That's right!" cried Myrtella, almost beside herself. "Snatch your hand off my arm, shrink away from me like I was a leper! Tell everybody, tell the police that I throwed my baby in the ash barrel and abandoned it! It don't make no difference now, nothin' makes no difference but Chick. Oh, my God! How long have they been?"
"They will be down very soon now, Myrtella. Don't tear your handkerchief like that. Here, take mine."
But Myrtella's eyes were too full of terror for tears; she sat with her hands locked about her knees swaying to and fro.
"I've never told nobody," she went on wildly; "all these years I've kept it bottled up in my soul 'til it's eat it plumb out. I never done it to Chick! He wasn't Chick then. He was just somethin' that belonged to a devil. Then he growed to be Chick, and all my hate turned to love, and now God's gittin' even, I knowed He would! He wouldn't let him live now, just to spite me!"
"Myrtella!" Miss Lady's voice commanded indignantly. "Don't you dare say such things! Who knows but this very minute God's giving Chick back to you? Perhaps He is taking this way of showing you He forgives you. Pray to Him, Myrtella! Ask Him to do what's best for Chick, whatever it may be."
Myrtella's head had sunken on her knees, and her coarse, work-hardened hands were clinging to Miss Lady's slender ones.
Suddenly they both started. The elevator descended creakingly and halted beside them. There was a shuffling of feet and the stretcher was wheeled past with a small, white-sheeted form lying motionless upon it.
"It's all over," said Dr. Wyeth, following briskly. "He put up a pretty stiff fight while taking the anesthetic, but we downed him at last. The conditions were less serious than I anticipated. With care and good nursing he ought to get well right away now. Hello! Here's another patient!"
For Myrtella, glaring at him through her steel-rimmed spectacles, had dropped like a log straight across the corridor and lay unconscious with her fly-away hat crushed under one ear.
"Loosen her collar," directed Dr. Wyeth, "and bring me some ice water. There! She'll come around in a minute."
He knelt beside her with his hand on her pulse, looking at her curiously. Then he turned to Miss Lady:
"Queer how faces come back to you. I attended this woman twelve years ago, when I was interne in the maternity ward at the City Hospital."
As the sixth of November approached, Donald Morley's friends for the first time became seriously apprehensive over the result of his final trial. The fact that he had engaged an unknown, inexperienced lawyer to cope with the redoubtable Kinner, was looked upon as his crowning folly. The case, which had always excited considerable local interest on account of the prominence of the families involved, now became a matter of much graver significance, concerning, as it did, the author of "Khalil Samad," the most talked-about book of the hour.
Miss Lady, alone at Thornwood now, except for Bertie and Myrtella, fought through the days as best she could. Since Connie's confession she had seen little of her, for after a round of visits in the Blue Grass region, that restless young person had been with friends in town, and was still there when the date set for the trial arrived.
Up to this time Miss Lady had conquered in the hourly struggle she was making with her own heart. Again and again Donald had tried to see her, but on one pretext or another she had evaded him. She was puzzled, bewildered, and hopelessly wretched, and she asked herself repeatedly why her happiness should be sacrificed for that of a shallow, irresponsible butterfly. For Donald, she had no blame, he had drifted into this affair with Connie when his need was greatest, and now that his honor was involved as well as hers, there must be no turning back.
But when the second day of the trial dawned, and she came down after a sleepless night to read discouraging news reports of the previous day's proceedings, she found that something stronger than herself was taking possession of her. In vain did she try to fulfil her accustomed tasks. Every atom of her was there in the courthouse beside Donald Morley, standing trial with him. Twice she flung on her coat and hat, only to take them off again, and stand at the window impatiently watching the storm.
For the long summer had finally come to an end. After days of radiant October sunshine, when winter seemed, like the hereafter, vague and far off, a wind came rushing out of the north, stripping the trees in a single night, and leaving them surprised at their sudden nakedness. Then the sleet came, and, not content with attacking trees and shrubs, must storm the house itself, invading windows and doors, besieging every nook and corner, only to waste away at last into icy streams that went rattling noisily down the gutters.
As the morning wore on Miss Lady grew more and more restless. Suppose the preposterous should happen, and for the second time twelve honest men should pronounce an innocent man guilty? Could Connie face the ignominy of the verdict? Would her fickle, inconstant heart steady to such a test? Suppose that once again the person on whom Donald Morley depended, should fail him in a supreme hour?
For the third time Miss Lady threw on her wraps. She could no longer stand the suspense, she must go to him, in case he needed her.
"'Fore de Lawd!" exclaimed Uncle Jimpson when her intention was made known to him. "I dunno what ole John'll think of us, takin' him to de station a day lak dis! 'Sides de noon train's done went."
"Then we'll have to drive to town. Hitch up as quickly as you can!"
"But, Miss Lady, Honey, you fergit de sleet! Ole John 'ud slide 'round de road lak a fly on a bald spot."
"No matter! I'm going. Hurry!"
Myrtella, who was fashioning a dough man, under the personal supervision of Bert, looked up indignantly:
"You don't think you are going out in this storm without no lunch, do you?"
"I can't eat anything, I'm not hungry."
"That's what you said at breakfast. I ain't got a bit of patience with people that get theirselves sick in bed and be a nuisance to everybody, just for the pleasure of slopping around in the slush on a day like this. I'm going to fix you some toast and a egg, while he's hitchin' up."
"Go on with the story, 'Telia," demanded Bertie, carefully bestowing a nose on the dough man.
"Well," resumed Myrtella, from the stove, casting an anxious glance at Miss Lady who stood at the window impatiently tapping the pane, "everbody was a wonderin' what would be his very first words, an' Dr. Wyeth he sez, 'Don't pester him to talk, jes' let it come natural.' One day me an' the nurse, the stuck-up one I was tellin' you 'bout, was fixin' to spray out his throat, an' he look so curious at all the little rubber tubes, an' fixin's, that she sez, 'You'll know a lot when you leave here, Chick.' And what do you think he up an' answered? Just as smart an' plain as if he'd a been talkin' all his life?"
"What?" demanded Bertie as breathlessly as if he hadn't heard the story a dozen times.
"'Shucks', sez Chick, 'I knowed a lot when I come!'" Myrtella's pride in this first articulation of her offspring was so great that it rendered her oblivious to the fact that the toast was scorching.
"When will you be able to bring Chick home?" asked Miss Lady, gulping down the hot tea with a watchful eye on the stable door.
"Jes' as soon as the doctor quits foolin' with his throat every day. He's been gittin' on fine ever' since I took him back to Phineas'. Maria's gittin' right stuck on him, now she's got to give him up. Says she always knowed he was smart, but she never dreamed of the things he had bottled up in his head."
"I haven't forgotten about your house," said Miss Lady absently. "Dr. Wyeth knows a nice place down on Chestnut Street, and says you can make a good living letting the rooms to shop girls. It isn't right for me to keep you out here any longer."
"Well, I ain't goin' 'til spring." Myrtella rattled the pans with unnecessary vehemence. "Me an' Chick's goin' to stay right here 'til we git you settled. Now that Mr. Gooch has got a spell of spendin', an' is sendin' Miss Hattie to college, I guess she's settled fer a spell. Like as not Miss Connie'll be marryin' some smart-alecky, good- fer-nothin' fellow, then she'll be settled. But what's goin' to become of you and Bertie?"
Miss Lady leaned impulsively over the child's back as he knelt in a chair beside the table, and kissed the bit of neck that showed between the collar and the curls: "Bert and I?" she repeated with a little catch in her voice; "why, we'll have to take care of each other, won't we, Bert?"
The Flathers' family was indulging in a birthday party. The table, set in the bedroom so that Chick might participate, was decorated at one end by a gorgeous pink cake, bearing a single candle, and at the other by Loreny herself, blue of eye, and chubby of cheek, who crawled triumphantly about among the dishes, bestowing equal attention on the sugar bowl and the molasses jug, only pausing to emit ecstatic screams when a rough, red head appeared above the table rim.
In the bed, propped on pillows and with throat bandaged, Chick executed a lively tune with knife and fork on his plate, while Maria Flathers dedicated herself to the task of preventing Loreny May from putting her blue-slippered foot in the butter.
Without, the sleet pelted the windows, and the red top of Mr. Iseling's wagon waiting at the gate. It whistled and rattled down Bean Alley and converted the telegraph wires into cables of ice. But the Flathers family, luxuriating in the unusual extravagance of an open fire, and cheered by the hilarity of the occasion, was happily oblivious to the storm until a sharp rap at the door brought the redheaded bear from under the table to answer the summons.
"Well, if it ain't Mis' Squeerington!" cried Phineas Flathers effusively. "Out in all this storm! But I ain't surprised. Didn't I tell you, Maria, that I knowed she'd bring the baby a birthday present? Come up to the fire, mam. Maria git her a rocker."
"No, no!" cried Miss Lady breathlessly. "I can't stay. I must get to town. My horse broke down in the bridge, and I'm on my way to the Junction to see if I can't get on the next train when it stops for water. I want you to go over and help me on."
"Next train don't stop. It's a express. The local ain't due fer a hour an' a half. You ain't fit to go on yit, mam, nohow. I never seen you all in like this before! Maria, can't you fix her up a cup of coffee or somethin'?"
Miss Lady shook her head, and leaned wearily against the mantel.
"I'll be all right. Are you sure about the trains?"
"Sure az the taxes. You're in fer a wait, an' we'll git a nice little visit out of you. Guess you are 'sprised to see me home this time of day?"
"I hadn't thought about it."
"Well, you see it's her birthday, an' tormadoes couldn't 'a' kept me from bringin' her a cake. Ain't she the purties' object you ever set yer two optics on? Say 'Da-da,' Loreny,—leave off talkin' to her, Chick. Go on, Loreny, say, 'Da-da' fer de purty lady!"
"He's that silly about her," said Maria Flathers, trying to conceal her own pride. "He won't leave me put anything but white dresses and blue shoes on her, an' he works extra time to pay fer 'em. Myrtella says there ain't no fools like old ones."
"That's all right," said Phineas; "she'll have more to say when I give Loreny a diamond ring on her next birthday. Iseling'll be givin' me a raise soon. He's as good as said so. He knows I'm good fer everything from bossin' a big job to drivin' a wagon; then look at the trade I command! Why, Mis' Squeerington, them Ladies' Aiders in the Immanuel Church, follered me solid, an' Mrs. Ivy an' the Anti-Tobacs—Shoo, I could start out fer myself tomorrow."
"It's one o'clock!" warned Maria, anxious to speed her master on his way in order that she might come in for a few conversational crumbs.
"One o'clock! Holy Moses! I must be hiking, if I want to hear the rest of the trial."
"The trial?" repeated Miss Lady instantly alert; "were you at the courthouse this morning?"
"Yes, mam, I was. Everybody was. Court room packed to the doors. I sez to Iseling this morning, I sez, 'I'll make the noon delivery all right, but the rest of the day's my own. It ain't only because of my former connection with the Sequin family,' sez I; 'it's because Mr. Don Morley is a personal friend of mine. He's white an' he's square,' sez I, 'an' the open-handedest young gent I ever done a favor for. If it's a case of standin' by him in trouble, or losin' my job,' I sez, 'why ta-ta to the job!'"
"But when you left," urged Miss Lady, "what were they doing? How did people feel about it?"
"Mighty shaky, mam. They ain't got a scrap of good evidence fer him, an' enough ag'in him to sink a ship. Old man Wicker's son is puttin' up a stiff fight, but he's up aginst Kinner, an' Kinner could convict St. Peter hisself!"
"But can't they get the truth out of Sheeley? Can't they force him to tell what happened?"
Phineas shrugged contemptuously: "Sheeley lost his memory when he lost his eye. One was put out with lead, an' the other with silver. Says now he wasn't in the fight at all."
"It's a lie! He wuz!" Chick had risen from his pillow, and was leaning forward excitedly.
"What do you mean, Chick? How do you know?"
"He wuz in the fight!" he cried huskily. "It was 'tween him an' the drunk. Sheeley ketched him fakin' a ace, an' he calls Sheeley a liar, an' they fit all over the floor. The big one wasn't in it! He kep' tryin' to stop 'em, buttin' in with his whip."
"But how do you know all this, Chick?" cried Miss Lady almost fiercely; "did the Sheeley boy tell you?"
"Skeeter? Shucks, he don't know nothin' 'ceptin' what his paw tole him."
"But who told you?"
Chick closed his lips and shook his head: "He'll set the cop on me."
"Skeeter's paw. Fer smashin' the slot machine. But I never took none of his money, Mis' Squeerington; it was mine!" His lips began to tremble.
"The cop won't get you, Chick," said Miss Lady, now on her knees beside him, coaxing out each statement, and trying to keep down her excitement. "Tell me, quick! How do you know about the shooting?"
"'Cause," said Chick fearfully, "I—I seen it!"
"Well, if that ain't the limit!" said Phineas, while Maria gathered Loreny up under the impression that Chick had lost his mind, and might become dangerous.
"I got shut up in the saloon," continued Chick, evidently torn between the desire to be a hero and the fear of the consequences, "an' it was night, an' I went to sleep."
"Yes, yes!" pressed Miss Lady; "go on."
"Then they come in an' got to rough-housin' an' I crawl up-stairs an' lay on me stommick an' peek through the crack. An' Sheeley an' the Drunk they got to scrappin' like I tole you. An' then while the big one was tryin' to git Sheeley to quit, the Drunk he come over to the door right where I was layin' at, an' he steady hisself aginst the wall an' bang loose at Sheeley with a pistol."
"Would you know the Big One again? Oh, Chick, try to remember what he looked like!"
Chick shook his head, "Naw, I don't 'member what none of 'em looked like. But you know which one he was; he gimme the silver knob offen his whip."
Miss Lady sprang to her feet: "We must get him to the courthouse, Mr. Flathers. Quick! Help me with his clothes. I'll put on his shoes and stockings."
"But the train—" began Phineas.
"We can't wait for it!" cried Miss Lady. "You must drive us in the wagon." In a surprisingly few minutes Chick, bewildered but interested, was fully clothed. "Give me the blankets off the bed and help me wrap them around him," said Miss Lady. "There! You carry him and I'll hold the umbrella. Keep your mouth shut, Chick; don't you dare open it until I tell you."
The bewildered Chick, encased like a mummy, was rushed out to the wagon and deposited between two ice-cream freezers, while Miss Lady knelt beside him, trying to shield him from the wind. Just as Phincas was driving away there was a call from the cottage.
For the first and only time in her life Maria Flathers had collided with an idea. In vain she reversed her mental engines and tried to back off, but the collision was head on, and she and the idea were firmly welded together.
"Here's the whip han'le!" she called wildly, as the wind caught her skirts and twisted them about her. "I been usin' it fer a thimble. An' here's the whip itself—Take'em along! Take'em fer a witness!"
Once again the red-topped wagon got started, this time in earnest. Through the mud and slush of Bean Alley, past the Dump Heap, across the Common, the sturdy little mare dashed furiously.
"Don't breathe through your mouth, Chick!" implored Miss Lady. "And don't be afraid. All you have to do is to tell what you saw. Don't keep back anything, tell it just as you told it to me."
"'Bout the slot machine?" queried an anxious voice from the blankets.
"About everything. Nobody is going to hurt you, or blame you. You aren't catching cold, are you? Here put on my gloves, and you mustn't talk, not another word."
For an interminable time they splashed through the slush of the road, before they came to the pavements of the city. Looking out of the wagon, they could see the broad yellow waters of the river with its long, black coal barges, and the dim outline of Billy-goat Hill, growing fainter in the distance.
"Faster, Mr. Flathers, drive faster!" implored Miss Lady.
Phineas willingly laid the whip across the flank of the little mare, and they dashed along, through the crowded thoroughfare into a broad street of warehouses, where they followed the tramway straight across the murky city. All the while the sleet beat on the red top of the wagon and rattled under the horse's hoofs, and Miss Lady sat clasping Chick, counting the passing moments.
At last the dark courthouse loomed up ahead of them, and Phineas rounding a curb by a fraction, dashed for the open square.
"Morley case gone to the jury?" he hung half out of the wagon to shout to a man coming down the wide steps.
Miss Lady was already frantically pulling the blankets from the submerged Chick.
"Wait for Mr. Flathers to carry you," she cried, springing to the ground and looking up at him anxiously. "Remember you are going to tell them everything. You are helping to save Mr. Morley, and you're doing it for me."
The eyes of the pale, spindle-legged child, standing in the end of the wagon, flashed past the courthouse to the barred windows of the adjoining jail. Suddenly his legs fell to shaking harder even than they had shaken at the hospital, and his lips quivered threateningly.
"Chick!" cried Miss Lady despairingly. "You aren't going to fail me— you are going to stand by me, aren't you?"
For a moment he shut his eyes very tight, then he transferred the small quid of tobacco which had been his one solace in the past hour, from his right cheek to his left.
"Sure!" he said resolutely.
"One! two! three! four!"
The big clock that had ticked away so many anxious moments for so many anxious watchers, hurled its announcement over the crowded court room. The last testimony had been given, Chick had told his story, produced his proofs and identified Morley; the prosecuting attorney had torn his story to tatters, and confused the youthful witness hopelessly; the counsel for the defense had now risen to make his final speech to the jury. Suspense hung thick as a fog over the court room.