"He would," Mrs. Palmer said, approvingly. "He's a kind-hearted creature, that old man."
Her husband laughed. "Alfred says he thinks his kind-heartedness is about cured! It seems that as soon as the man got well again he deliberately walked off with the old gentleman's glue secret. Just calmly stole it! Alfred says he believes that if he had a stroke in the office now, himself, his father wouldn't lift a finger to help him!"
Mrs. Palmer repeated the name to herself thoughtfully. "'Adams'—'Virgil Adams.' You said his name was Virgil Adams?"
She looked at her daughter. "Why, you know who that is, Mildred," she said, casually. "It's that Alice Adams's father, isn't it? Wasn't his name Virgil Adams?"
"I think it is," Mildred said.
Mrs. Palmer turned toward her husband. "You've seen this Alice Adams here. Mr. Lamb's pet swindler must be her father."
Mr. Palmer passed a smooth hand over his neat gray hair, which was not disturbed by this effort to stimulate recollection. "Oh, yes," he said. "Of course—certainly. Quite a good-looking girl—one of Mildred's friends. How queer!"
Mildred looked up, as if in a little alarm, but did not speak. Her mother set matters straight. "Fathers ARE amusing," she said smilingly to Russell, who was looking at her, though how fixedly she did not notice; for she turned from him at once to enlighten her husband. "Every girl who meets Mildred, and tries to push the acquaintance by coming here until the poor child has to hide, isn't a FRIEND of hers, my dear!"
Mildred's eyes were downcast again, and a faint colour rose in her cheeks. "Oh, I shouldn't put it quite that way about Alice Adams," she said, in a low voice. "I saw something of her for a time. She's not unattractive in a way."
Mrs. Palmer settled the whole case of Alice carelessly. "A pushing sort of girl," she said. "A very pushing little person."
"I——" Mildred began; and, after hesitating, concluded, "I rather dropped her."
"Fortunate you've done so," her father remarked, cheerfully. "Especially since various members of the Lamb connection are here frequently. They mightn't think you'd show great tact in having her about the place." He laughed, and turned to his cousin. "All this isn't very interesting to poor Arthur. How terrible people are with a newcomer in a town; they talk as if he knew all about everybody!"
"But we don't know anything about these queer people, ourselves," said Mrs. Palmer. "We know something about the girl, of course—she used to be a bit too conspicuous, in fact! However, as you say, we might find a subject more interesting for Arthur."
She smiled whimsically upon the young man. "Tell the truth," she said. "Don't you fairly detest going into business with that tyrant yonder?"
"What? Yes—I beg your pardon!" he stammered.
"You were right," Mrs. Palmer said to her husband. "You've bored him so, talking about thievish clerks, he can't even answer an honest question."
But Russell was beginning to recover his outward composure. "Try me again," he said. "I'm afraid I was thinking of something else."
This was the best he found to say. There was a part of him that wanted to protest and deny, but he had not heat enough, in the chill that had come upon him. Here was the first "mention" of Alice, and with it the reason why it was the first: Mr. Palmer had difficulty in recalling her, and she happened to be spoken of, only because her father's betrayal of a benefactor's trust had been so peculiarly atrocious that, in the view of the benefactor's family, it contained enough of the element of humour to warrant a mild laugh at a club. There was the deadliness of the story: its lack of malice, even of resentment. Deadlier still were Mrs. Palmer's phrases: "a pushing sort of girl," "a very pushing little person," and "used to be a bit TOO conspicuous, in fact." But she spoke placidly and by chance; being as obviously without unkindly motive as Mr. Palmer was when he related the cause of Alfred Lamb's amusement. Her opinion of the obscure young lady momentarily her topic had been expressed, moreover, to her husband, and at her own table. She sat there, large, kind, serene—a protest might astonish but could not change her; and Russell, crumpling in his strained fingers the lace-edged little web of a napkin on his knee, found heart enough to grow red, but not enough to challenge her.
She noticed his colour, and attributed it to the embarrassment of a scrupulously gallant gentleman caught in a lapse of attention to a lady. "Don't be disturbed," she said, benevolently. "People aren't expected to listen all the time to their relatives. A high colour's very becoming to you, Arthur; but it really isn't necessary between cousins. You can always be informal enough with us to listen only when you care to."
His complexion continued to be ruddier than usual, however, throughout the meal, and was still somewhat tinted when Mrs. Palmer rose. "The man's bringing you cigarettes here," she said, nodding to the two gentlemen. "We'll give you a chance to do the sordid kind of talking we know you really like. Afterwhile, Mildred will show you what's in bloom in the hothouse, if you wish, Arthur."
Mildred followed her, and, when they were alone in another of the spacious rooms, went to a window and looked out, while her mother seated herself near the center of the room in a gilt armchair, mellowed with old Aubusson tapestry. Mrs. Palmer looked thoughtfully at her daughter's back, but did not speak to her until coffee had been brought for them.
"Thanks," Mildred said, not turning, "I don't care for any coffee, I believe."
"No?" Mrs. Palmer said, gently. "I'm afraid our good-looking cousin won't think you're very talkative, Mildred. You spoke only about twice at lunch. I shouldn't care for him to get the idea you're piqued because he's come here so little lately, should you?"
"No, I shouldn't," Mildred answered in a low voice, and with that she turned quickly, and came to sit near her mother. "But it's what I am afraid of! Mama, did you notice how red he got?"
"You mean when he was caught not listening to a question of mine? Yes; it's very becoming to him."
"Mama, I don't think that was the reason. I don't think it was because he wasn't listening, I mean."
"I think his colour and his not listening came from the same reason," Mildred said, and although she had come to sit near her mother, she did not look at her. "I think it happened because you and papa——" She stopped.
"Yes?" Mrs. Palmer said, good-naturedly, to prompt her. "Your father and I did something embarrassing?"
"Mama, it was because of those things that came out about Alice Adams."
"How could that bother Arthur? Does he know her?"
"Don't you remember?" the daughter asked. "The day after my dance I mentioned how odd I thought it was in him—I was a little disappointed in him. I'd been seeing that he met everybody, of course, but she was the only girl HE asked to meet; and he did it as soon as he noticed her. I hadn't meant to have him meet her—in fact, I was rather sorry I'd felt I had to ask her, because she oh, well, she's the sort that 'tries for the new man,' if she has half a chance; and sometimes they seem quite fascinated—for a time, that is. I thought Arthur was above all that; or at the very least I gave him credit for being too sophisticated."
"I see," Mrs. Palmer said, thoughtfully. "I remember now that you spoke of it. You said it seemed a little peculiar, but of course it really wasn't: a 'new man' has nothing to go by, except his own first impressions. You can't blame poor Arthur—she's quite a piquant looking little person. You think he's seen something of her since then?"
Mildred nodded slowly. "I never dreamed such a thing till yesterday, and even then I rather doubted it—till he got so red, just now! I was surprised when he asked to meet her, but he just danced with her once and didn't mention her afterward; I forgot all about it—in fact, I virtually forgot all about HER. I'd seen quite a little of her——"
"Yes," said Mrs. Palmer. "She did keep coming here!"
"But I'd just about decided that it really wouldn't do," Mildred went on. "She isn't—well, I didn't admire her."
"No," her mother assented, and evidently followed a direct connection of thought in a speech apparently irrelevant. "I understand the young Malone wants to marry Henrietta. I hope she won't; he seems rather a gross type of person."
"Oh, he's just one," Mildred said. "I don't know that he and Alice Adams were ever engaged—she never told me so. She may not have been engaged to any of them; she was just enough among the other girls to get talked about—and one of the reasons I felt a little inclined to be nice to her was that they seemed to be rather edging her out of the circle. It wasn't long before I saw they were right, though. I happened to mention I was going to give a dance and she pretended to take it as a matter of course that I meant to invite her brother—at least, I thought she pretended; she may have really believed it. At any rate, I had to send him a card; but I didn't intend to be let in for that sort of thing again, of course. She's what you said, 'pushing'; though I'm awfully sorry you said it."
"Why shouldn't I have said it, my dear?"
"Of course I didn't say 'shouldn't.'" Mildred explained, gravely. "I meant only that I'm sorry it happened."
"Yes; but why?"
"Mama"—Mildred turned to her, leaning forward and speaking in a lowered voice—"Mama, at first the change was so little it seemed as if Arthur hardly knew it himself. He'd been lovely to me always, and he was still lovely to me but—oh, well, you've understood—after my dance it was more as if it was just his nature and his training to be lovely to me, as he would be to everyone a kind of politeness. He'd never said he CARED for me, but after that I could see he didn't. It was clear—after that. I didn't know what had happened; I couldn't think of anything I'd done. Mama—it was Alice Adams."
Mrs. Palmer set her little coffee-cup upon the table beside her, calmly following her own motion with her eyes, and not seeming to realize with what serious entreaty her daughter's gaze was fixed upon her. Mildred repeated the last sentence of her revelation, and introduced a stress of insistence.
"Mama, it WAS Alice Adams!"
But Mrs. Palmer declined to be greatly impressed, so far as her appearance went, at least; and to emphasize her refusal, she smiled indulgently. "What makes you think so?"
"Henrietta told me yesterday."
At this Mrs. Palmer permitted herself to laugh softly aloud. "Good heavens! Is Henrietta a soothsayer? Or is she Arthur's particular confidante?"
"No. Ella Dowling told her."
Mrs. Palmer's laughter continued. "Now we have it!" she exclaimed. "It's a game of gossip: Arthur tells Ella, Ella tells Henrietta, and Henrietta tells——"
"Don't laugh, please, mama," Mildred begged. "Of course Arthur didn't tell anybody. It's roundabout enough, but it's true. I know it! I hadn't quite believed it, but I knew it was true when he got so red. He looked—oh, for a second or so he looked—stricken! He thought I didn't notice it. Mama, he's been to see her almost every evening lately. They take long walks together. That's why he hasn't been here."
Of Mrs. Palmer's laughter there was left only her indulgent smile, which she had not allowed to vanish. "Well, what of it?" she said.
"Yes," said Mrs. Palmer. "What of it?"
"But don't you see?" Mildred's well-tutored voice, though modulated and repressed even in her present emotion, nevertheless had a tendency to quaver. "It's true. Frank Dowling was going to see her one evening and he saw Arthur sitting on the stoop with her, and didn't go in. And Ella used to go to school with a girl who lives across the street from here. She told Ella——"
"Oh, I understand," Mrs. Palmer interrupted. "Suppose he does go there. My dear, I said, 'What of it?'"
"I don't see what you mean, mama. I'm so afraid he might think we knew about it, and that you and papa said those things about her and her father on that account—as if we abused them because he goes there instead of coming here."
"Nonsense!" Mrs. Palmer rose, went to a window, and, turning there, stood with her back to it, facing her daughter and looking at her cheerfully. "Nonsense, my dear! It was perfectly clear that she was mentioned by accident, and so was her father. What an extraordinary man! If Arthur makes friends with people like that, he certainly knows better than to expect to hear favourable opinions of them. Besides, it's only a little passing thing with him."
"Mama! When he goes there almost every——"
"Yes," Mrs. Palmer said, dryly. "It seems to me I've heard somewhere that other young men have gone there 'almost every!' She doesn't last, apparently. Arthur's gallant, and he's impressionable—but he's fastidious, and fastidiousness is always the check on impressionableness. A girl belongs to her family, too—and this one does especially, it strikes me! Arthur's very sensible; he sees more than you'd think."
Mildred looked at her hopefully. "Then you don't believe he's likely to imagine we said those things of her in any meaning way?"
At this, Mrs. Palmer laughed again. "There's one thing you seem not to have noticed, Mildred."
"It seems to have escaped your attention that he never said a word."
"Mightn't that mean——?" Mildred began, but she stopped.
"No, it mightn't," her mother replied, comprehending easily. "On the contrary, it might mean that instead of his feeling it too deeply to speak, he was getting a little illumination."
Mildred rose and came to her. "WHY do you suppose he never told us he went there? Do you think he's—do you think he's pleased with her, and yet ashamed of it? WHY do you suppose he's never spoken of it?"
"Ah, that," Mrs. Palmer said,—"that might possibly be her own doing. If it is, she's well paid by what your father and I said, because we wouldn't have said it if we'd known that Arthur——" She checked herself quickly. Looking over her daughter's shoulder, she saw the two gentlemen coming from the corridor toward the wide doorway of the room; and she greeted them cheerfully. "If you've finished with each other for a while," she added, "Arthur may find it a relief to put his thoughts on something prettier than a trust company—and more fragrant."
Arthur came to Mildred.
"Your mother said at lunch that perhaps you'd——"
"I didn't say 'perhaps,' Arthur," Mrs. Palmer interrupted, to correct him. "I said she would. If you care to see and smell those lovely things out yonder, she'll show them to you. Run along, children!"
Half an hour later, glancing from a window, she saw them come from the hothouses and slowly cross the lawn. Arthur had a fine rose in his buttonhole and looked profoundly thoughtful.
That morning and noon had been warm, though the stirrings of a feeble breeze made weather not flagrantly intemperate; but at about three o'clock in the afternoon there came out of the southwest a heat like an affliction sent upon an accursed people, and the air was soon dead of it. Dripping negro ditch-diggers whooped with satires praising hell and hot weather, as the tossing shovels flickered up to the street level, where sluggish male pedestrians carried coats upon hot arms, and fanned themselves with straw hats, or, remaining covered, wore soaked handkerchiefs between scalp and straw. Clerks drooped in silent, big department stores, stenographers in offices kept as close to electric fans as the intervening bulk of their employers would let them; guests in hotels left the lobbies and went to lie unclad upon their beds; while in hospitals the patients murmured querulously against the heat, and perhaps against some noisy motorist who strove to feel the air by splitting it, not troubled by any foreboding that he, too, that hour next week, might need quiet near a hospital. The "hot spell" was a true spell, one upon men's spirits; for it was so hot that, in suburban outskirts, golfers crept slowly back over the low undulations of their club lands, abandoning their matches and returning to shelter.
Even on such a day, sizzling work had to be done, as in winter. There were glowing furnaces to be stoked, liquid metals to be poured; but such tasks found seasoned men standing to them; and in all the city probably no brave soul challenged the heat more gamely than Mrs. Adams did, when, in a corner of her small and fiery kitchen, where all day long her hired African immune cooked fiercely, she pressed her husband's evening clothes with a hot iron. No doubt she risked her life, but she risked it cheerfully in so good and necessary a service for him. She would have given her life for him at any time, and both his and her own for her children.
Unconscious of her own heroism, she was surprised to find herself rather faint when she finished her ironing. However, she took heart to believe that the clothes looked better, in spite of one or two scorched places; and she carried them upstairs to her husband's room before increasing blindness forced her to grope for the nearest chair. Then, trying to rise and walk, without having sufficiently recovered, she had to sit down again; but after a little while she was able to get upon her feet; and, keeping her hand against the wall, moved successfully to the door of her own room. Here she wavered; might have gone down, had she not been stimulated by the thought of how much depended upon her;—she made a final great effort, and floundered across the room to her bureau, where she kept some simple restoratives. They served her need, or her faith in them did; and she returned to her work.
She went down the stairs, keeping a still tremulous hand upon the rail; but she smiled brightly when Alice looked up from below, where the woodwork was again being tormented with superfluous attentions.
"Alice, DON'T!" her mother said, commiseratingly. "You did all that this morning and it looks lovely. What's the use of wearing yourself out on it? You ought to be lying down, so's to look fresh for to-night."
"Hadn't you better lie down yourself?" the daughter returned. "Are you ill, mama?"
"Certainly not. What in the world makes you think so?"
"You look pretty pale," Alice said, and sighed heavily. "It makes me ashamed, having you work so hard—for me."
"How foolish! I think it's fun, getting ready to entertain a little again, like this. I only wish it hadn't turned so hot: I'm afraid your poor father'll suffer—his things are pretty heavy, I noticed. Well, it'll do him good to bear something for style's sake this once, anyhow!" She laughed, and coming to Alice, bent down and kissed her. "Dearie," she said, tenderly, "wouldn't you please slip upstairs now and take just a little teeny nap to please your mother?"
But Alice responded only by moving her head slowly, in token of refusal.
"Do!" Mrs. Adams urged. "You don't want to look worn out, do you?"
"I'll LOOK all right," Alice said, huskily. "Do you like the way I've arranged the furniture now? I've tried all the different ways it'll go."
"It's lovely," her mother said, admiringly. "I thought the last way you had it was pretty, too. But you know best; I never knew anybody with so much taste. If you'd only just quit now, and take a little rest——"
"There'd hardly be time, even if I wanted to; it's after five but I couldn't; really, I couldn't. How do you think we can manage about Walter—to see that he wears his evening things, I mean?"
Mrs. Adams pondered. "I'm afraid he'll make a lot of objections, on account of the weather and everything. I wish we'd had a chance to tell him last night or this morning. I'd have telephoned to him this afternoon except—well, I scarcely like to call him up at that place, since your father——"
"No, of course not, mama."
"If Walter gets home late," Mrs. Adams went on, "I'll just slip out and speak to him, in case Mr. Russell's here before he comes. I'll just tell him he's got to hurry and get his things on."
"Maybe he won't come home to dinner," Alice suggested, rather hopefully. "Sometimes he doesn't."
"No; I think he'll be here. When he doesn't come he usually telephones by this time to say not to wait for him; he's very thoughtful about that. Well, it really is getting late: I must go and tell her she ought to be preparing her fillet. Dearie, DO rest a little."
"You'd much better do that yourself," Alice called after her, but Mrs. Adams shook her head cheerily, not pausing on her way to the fiery kitchen.
Alice continued her useless labours for a time; then carried her bucket to the head of the cellar stairway, where she left it upon the top step; and, closing the door, returned to the "living-room;" Again she changed the positions of the old plush rocking-chairs, moving them into the corners where she thought they might be least noticeable; and while thus engaged she was startled by a loud ringing of the door-bell. For a moment her face was panic-stricken, and she stood staring, then she realized that Russell would not arrive for another hour, at the earliest, and recovering her equipoise, went to the door.
Waiting there, in a languid attitude, was a young coloured woman, with a small bundle under her arm and something malleable in her mouth. "Listen," she said. "You folks expectin' a coloured lady?"
"No," said Alice. "Especially not at the front door."
"Listen," the coloured woman said again. "Listen. Say, listen. Ain't they another coloured lady awready here by the day? Listen. Ain't Miz Malena Burns here by the day this evenin'? Say, listen. This the number house she give ME."
"Are you the waitress?" Alice asked, dismally.
"Yes'm, if Malena here."
"Malena is here," Alice said, and hesitated; but she decided not to send the waitress to the back door; it might be a risk. She let her in. "What's your name?"
"Me? I'm name' Gertrude. Miss Gertrude Collamus."
"Did you bring a cap and apron?"
Gertrude took the little bundle from under her arm. "Yes'm. I'm all fix'."
"I've already set the table," Alice said. "I'll show you what we want done."
She led the way to the dining-room, and, after offering some instruction there, received by Gertrude with languor and a slowly moving jaw, she took her into the kitchen, where the cap and apron were put on. The effect was not fortunate; Gertrude's eyes were noticeably bloodshot, an affliction made more apparent by the white cap; and Alice drew her mother apart, whispering anxiously,
"Do you suppose it's too late to get someone else?"
"I'm afraid it is," Mrs. Adams said. "Malena says it was hard enough to get HER! You have to pay them so much that they only work when they feel like it."
"Mama, could you ask her to wear her cap straighter? Every time she moves her head she gets it on one side, and her skirt's too long behind and too short in front—and oh, I've NEVER seen such FEET!" Alice laughed desolately. "And she MUST quit that terrible chewing!"
"Never mind; I'll get to work with her. I'll straighten her out all I can, dearie; don't worry." Mrs. Adams patted her daughter's shoulder encouragingly. "Now YOU can't do another thing, and if you don't run and begin dressing you won't be ready. It'll only take me a minute to dress, myself, and I'll be down long before you will. Run, darling! I'll look after everything."
Alice nodded vaguely, went up to her room, and, after only a moment with her mirror, brought from her closet the dress of white organdie she had worn the night when she met Russell for the first time. She laid it carefully upon her bed, and began to make ready to put it on. Her mother came in, half an hour later, to "fasten" her.
"I'M all dressed," Mrs. Adams said, briskly. "Of course it doesn't matter. He won't know what the rest of us even look like: How could he? I know I'm an old SIGHT, but all I want is to look respectable. Do I?"
"You look like the best woman in the world; that's all!" Alice said, with a little gulp.
Her mother laughed and gave her a final scrutiny. "You might use just a tiny bit more colour, dearie—I'm afraid the excitement's made you a little pale. And you MUST brighten up! There's sort of a look in your eyes as if you'd got in a trance and couldn't get out. You've had it all day. I must run: your father wants me to help him with his studs. Walter hasn't come yet, but I'll look after him; don't worry, And you better HURRY, dearie, if you're going to take any time fixing the flowers on the table."
She departed, while Alice sat at the mirror again, to follow her advice concerning a "tiny bit more colour." Before she had finished, her father knocked at the door, and, when she responded, came in. He was dressed in the clothes his wife had pressed; but he had lost substantially in weight since they were made for him; no one would have thought that they had been pressed. They hung from him voluminously, seeming to be the clothes of a larger man.
"Your mother's gone downstairs," he said, in a voice of distress.
"One of the buttonholes in my shirt is too large and I can't keep the dang thing fastened. I don't know what to do about it! I only got one other white shirt, and it's kind of ruined: I tried it before I did this one. Do you s'pose you could do anything?"
"I'll see," she said.
"My collar's got a frayed edge," he complained, as she examined his troublesome shirt. "It's a good deal like wearing a saw; but I expect it'll wilt down flat pretty soon, and not bother me long. I'm liable to wilt down flat, myself, I expect; I don't know as I remember any such hot night in the last ten or twelve years." He lifted his head and sniffed the flaccid air, which was laden with a heavy odour. "My, but that smell is pretty strong!" he said.
"Stand still, please, papa," Alice begged him. "I can't see what's the matter if you move around. How absurd you are about your old glue smell, papa! There isn't a vestige of it, of course."
"I didn't mean glue," he informed her. "I mean cabbage. Is that fashionable now, to have cabbage when there's company for dinner?"
"That isn't cabbage, papa. It's Brussels sprouts."
"Oh, is it? I don't mind it much, because it keeps that glue smell off me, but it's fairly strong. I expect you don't notice it so much because you been in the house with it all along, and got used to it while it was growing."
"It is pretty dreadful," Alice said. "Are all the windows open downstairs?"
"I'll go down and see, if you'll just fix that hole up for me."
"I'm afraid I can't," she said. "Not unless you take your shirt off and bring it to me. I'll have to sew the hole smaller."
"Oh, well, I'll go ask your mother to——"
"No," said Alice. "She's got everything on her hands. Run and take it off. Hurry, papa; I've got to arrange the flowers on the table before he comes."
He went away, and came back presently, half undressed, bringing the shirt. "There's ONE comfort," he remarked, pensively, as she worked. "I've got that collar off—for a while, anyway. I wish I could go to table like this; I could stand it a good deal better. Do you seem to be making any headway with the dang thing?"
"I think probably I can——"
Downstairs the door-bell rang, and Alice's arms jerked with the shock.
"Golly!" her father said. "Did you stick your finger with that fool needle?"
She gave him a blank stare. "He's come!"
She was not mistaken, for, upon the little veranda, Russell stood facing the closed door at last. However, it remained closed for a considerable time after he rang. Inside the house the warning summons of the bell was immediately followed by another sound, audible to Alice and her father as a crash preceding a series of muffled falls. Then came a distant voice, bitter in complaint.
"Oh, Lord!" said Adams. "What's that?"
Alice went to the top of the front stairs, and her mother appeared in the hall below.
Mrs. Adams looked up. "It's all right," she said, in a loud whisper. "Gertrude fell down the cellar stairs. Somebody left a bucket there, and——" She was interrupted by a gasp from Alice, and hastened to reassure her. "Don't worry, dearie. She may limp a little, but——"
Adams leaned over the banisters. "Did she break anything?" he asked.
"Hush!" his wife whispered. "No. She seems upset and angry about it, more than anything else; but she's rubbing herself, and she'll be all right in time to bring in the little sandwiches. Alice! Those flowers!"
"I know, mama. But——"
"Hurry!" Mrs. Adams warned her. "Both of you hurry! I MUST let him in!"
She turned to the door, smiling cordially, even before she opened it. "Do come right in, Mr. Russell," she said, loudly, lifting her voice for additional warning to those above. "I'm SO glad to receive you informally, this way, in our own little home. There's a hat-rack here under the stairway," she continued, as Russell, murmuring some response, came into the hall. "I'm afraid you'll think it's almost TOO informal, my coming to the door, but unfortunately our housemaid's just had a little accident—oh, nothing to mention! I just thought we better not keep you waiting any longer. Will you step into our living-room, please?"
She led the way between the two small columns, and seated herself in one of the plush rocking-chairs, selecting it because Alice had once pointed out that the chairs, themselves, were less noticeable when they had people sitting in them. "Do sit down, Mr. Russell; it's so very warm it's really quite a trial just to stand up!"
"Thank you," he said, as he took a seat. "Yes. It is quite warm." And this seemed to be the extent of his responsiveness for the moment. He was grave, rather pale; and Mrs. Adams's impression of him, as she formed it then, was of "a distinguished-looking young man, really elegant in the best sense of the word, but timid and formal when he first meets you." She beamed upon him, and used with everything she said a continuous accompaniment of laughter, meaningless except that it was meant to convey cordiality. "Of course we DO have a great deal of warm weather," she informed him. "I'm glad it's so much cooler in the house than it is outdoors."
"Yes," he said. "It is pleasanter indoors." And, stopping with this single untruth, he permitted himself the briefest glance about the room; then his eyes returned to his smiling hostess.
"Most people make a great fuss about hot weather," she said. "The only person I know who doesn't mind the heat the way other people do is Alice. She always seems as cool as if we had a breeze blowing, no matter how hot it is. But then she's so amiable she never minds anything. It's just her character. She's always been that way since she was a little child; always the same to everybody, high and low. I think character's the most important thing in the world, after all, don't you, Mr. Russell?"
"Yes," he said, solemnly; and touched his bedewed white forehead with a handkerchief.
"Indeed it is," she agreed with herself, never failing to continue her murmur of laughter. "That's what I've always told Alice; but she never sees anything good in herself, and she just laughs at me when I praise her. She sees good in everybody ELSE in the world, no matter how unworthy they are, or how they behave toward HER; but she always underestimates herself. From the time she was a little child she was always that way. When some other little girl would behave selfishly or meanly toward her, do you think she'd come and tell me? Never a word to anybody! The little thing was too proud! She was the same way about school. The teachers had to tell me when she took a prize; she'd bring it home and keep it in her room without a word about it to her father and mother. Now, Walter was just the other way. Walter would——" But here Mrs. Adams checked herself, though she increased the volume of her laughter. "How silly of me!" she exclaimed. "I expect you know how mothers ARE, though, Mr. Russell. Give us a chance and we'll talk about our children forever! Alice would feel terribly if she knew how I've been going on about her to you."
In this Mrs. Adams was right, though she did not herself suspect it, and upon an almost inaudible word or two from him she went on with her topic. "Of course my excuse is that few mothers have a daughter like Alice. I suppose we all think the same way about our children, but SOME of us must be right when we feel we've got the best. Don't you think so?"
"Yes. Yes, indeed."
"I'm sure I am!" she laughed. "I'll let the others speak for themselves." She paused reflectively. "No; I think a mother knows when she's got a treasure in her family. If she HASN'T got one, she'll pretend she has, maybe; but if she has, she knows it. I certainly know I have. She's always been what people call 'the joy of the household'—always cheerful, no matter what went wrong, and always ready to smooth things over with some bright, witty saying. You must be sure not to TELL we've had this little chat about her—she'd just be furious with me—but she IS such a dear child! You won't tell her, will you?"
"No," he said, and again applied the handkerchief to his forehead for an instant. "No, I'll——" He paused, and finished lamely: "I'll—not tell her."
Thus reassured, Mrs. Adams set before him some details of her daughter's popularity at sixteen, dwelling upon Alice's impartiality among her young suitors: "She never could BEAR to hurt their feelings, and always treated all of them just alike. About half a dozen of them were just BOUND to marry her! Naturally, her father and I considered any such idea ridiculous; she was too young, of course."
Thus the mother went on with her biographical sketches, while the pale young man sat facing her under the hard overhead light of a white globe, set to the ceiling; and listened without interrupting. She was glad to have the chance to tell him a few things about Alice he might not have guessed for himself, and, indeed, she had planned to find such an opportunity, if she could; but this was getting to be altogether too much of one, she felt. As time passed, she was like an actor who must improvise to keep the audience from perceiving that his fellow-players have missed their cues; but her anxiety was not betrayed to the still listener; she had a valiant soul.
Alice, meanwhile, had arranged her little roses on the table in as many ways, probably, as there were blossoms; and she was still at it when her father arrived in the dining-room by way of the back stairs and the kitchen.
"It's pulled out again," he said. "But I guess there's no help for it now; it's too late, and anyway it lets some air into me when it bulges. I can sit so's it won't be noticed much, I expect. Isn't it time you quit bothering about the looks of the table? Your mother's been talking to him about half an hour now, and I had the idea he came on your account, not hers. Hadn't you better go and——"
"Just a minute." Alice said, piteously. "Do YOU think it looks all right?"
"The flowers? Fine! Hadn't you better leave 'em the way they are, though?"
"Just a minute," she begged again. "Just ONE minute, papa!" And she exchanged a rose in front of Russell's plate for one that seemed to her a little larger.
"You better come on," Adams said, moving to the door.
"Just ONE more second, papa." She shook her head, lamenting. "Oh, I wish we'd rented some silver!"
"Because so much of the plating has rubbed off a lot of it. JUST a second, papa." And as she spoke she hastily went round the table, gathering the knives and forks and spoons that she thought had their plating best preserved, and exchanging them for more damaged pieces at Russell's place. "There!" she sighed, finally.
"Now I'll come." But at the door she paused to look back dubiously, over her shoulder.
"What's the matter now?"
"The roses. I believe after all I shouldn't have tried that vine effect; I ought to have kept them in water, in the vase. It's so hot, they already begin to look a little wilted, out on the dry tablecloth like that. I believe I'll——"
"Why, look here, Alice!" he remonstrated, as she seemed disposed to turn back. "Everything'll burn up on the stove if you keep on——"
"Oh, well," she said, "the vase was terribly ugly; I can't do any better. We'll go in." But with her hand on the door-knob she paused. "No, papa. We mustn't go in by this door. It might look as if——"
"As if what?"
"Never mind," she said. "Let's go the other way."
"I don't see what difference it makes," he grumbled, but nevertheless followed her through the kitchen, and up the back stairs then through the upper hallway. At the top of the front stairs she paused for a moment, drawing a deep breath; and then, before her father's puzzled eyes, a transformation came upon her.
Her shoulders, like her eyelids, had been drooping, but now she threw her head back: the shoulders straightened, and the lashes lifted over sparkling eyes; vivacity came to her whole body in a flash; and she tripped down the steps, with her pretty hands rising in time to the lilting little tune she had begun to hum.
At the foot of the stairs, one of those pretty hands extended itself at full arm's length toward Russell, and continued to be extended until it reached his own hand as he came to meet her. "How terrible of me!" she exclaimed. "To be so late coming down! And papa, too—I think you know each other."
Her father was advancing toward the young man, expecting to shake hands with him, but Alice stood between them, and Russell, a little flushed, bowed to him gravely over her shoulder, without looking at him; whereupon Adams, slightly disconcerted, put his hands in his pockets and turned to his wife.
"I guess dinner's more'n ready," he said. "We better go sit down."
But she shook her head at him fiercely, "Wait!" she whispered.
"What for? For Walter?"
"No; he can't be coming," she returned, hurriedly, and again warned him by a shake of her head. "Be quiet!"
"Oh, well——" he muttered.
He was thoroughly mystified, but obeyed her gesture and went to the rocking-chair in the opposite corner, where he sat down, and, with an expression of meek inquiry, awaited events.
Meanwhile, Alice prattled on: "It's really not a fault of mine, being tardy. The shameful truth is I was trying to hurry papa. He's incorrigible: he stays so late at his terrible old factory—terrible new factory, I should say. I hope you don't HATE us for making you dine with us in such fearful weather! I'm nearly dying of the heat, myself, so you have a fellow-sufferer, if that pleases you. Why is it we always bear things better if we think other people have to stand them, too?" And she added, with an excited laugh: "SILLY of us, don't you think?"
Gertrude had just made her entrance from the dining-room, bearing a tray. She came slowly, with an air of resentment; and her skirt still needed adjusting, while her lower jaw moved at intervals, though not now upon any substance, but reminiscently, of habit. She halted before Adams, facing him.
He looked plaintive. "What you want o' me?" he asked.
For response, she extended the tray toward him with a gesture of indifference; but he still appeared to be puzzled. "What in the world——?" he began, then caught his wife's eye, and had presence of mind enough to take a damp and plastic sandwich from the tray. "Well, I'll TRY one," he said, but a moment later, as he fulfilled this promise, an expression of intense dislike came upon his features, and he would have returned the sandwich to Gertrude. However, as she had crossed the room to Mrs. Adams he checked the gesture, and sat helplessly, with the sandwich in his hand. He made another effort to get rid of it as the waitress passed him, on her way back to the dining-room, but she appeared not to observe him, and he continued to be troubled by it.
Alice was a loyal daughter. "These are delicious, mama," she said; and turning to Russell, "You missed it; you should have taken one. Too bad we couldn't have offered you what ought to go with it, of course, but——"
She was interrupted by the second entrance of Gertrude, who announced, "Dinner serve'," and retired from view.
"Well, well!" Adams said, rising from his chair, with relief. "That's good! Let's go see if we can eat it." And as the little group moved toward the open door of the dining-room he disposed of his sandwich by dropping it in the empty fireplace.
Alice, glancing back over her shoulder, was the only one who saw him, and she shuddered in spite of herself. Then, seeing that he looked at her entreatingly, as if he wanted to explain that he was doing the best he could, she smiled upon him sunnily, and began to chatter to Russell again.
Alice kept her sprightly chatter going when they sat down, though the temperature of the room and the sight of hot soup might have discouraged a less determined gayety. Moreover, there were details as unpropitious as the heat: the expiring roses expressed not beauty but pathos, and what faint odour they exhaled was no rival to the lusty emanations of the Brussels sprouts; at the head of the table, Adams, sitting low in his chair, appeared to be unable to flatten the uprising wave of his starched bosom; and Gertrude's manner and expression were of a recognizable hostility during the long period of vain waiting for the cups of soup to be emptied. Only Mrs. Adams made any progress in this direction; the others merely feinting, now and then lifting their spoons as if they intended to do something with them.
Alice's talk was little more than cheerful sound, but, to fill a desolate interval, served its purpose; and her mother supported her with ever-faithful cooings of applausive laughter. "What a funny thing weather is!" the girl ran on. "Yesterday it was cool—angels had charge of it—and to-day they had an engagement somewhere else, so the devil saw his chance and started to move the equator to the North Pole; but by the time he got half-way, he thought of something else he wanted to do, and went off; and left the equator here, right on top of US! I wish he'd come back and get it!"
"Why, Alice dear!" her mother cried, fondly. "What an imagination! Not a very pious one, I'm afraid Mr. Russell might think, though!" Here she gave Gertrude a hidden signal to remove the soup; but, as there was no response, she had to make the signal more conspicuous. Gertrude was leaning against the wall, her chin moving like a slow pendulum, her streaked eyes fixed mutinously upon Russell. Mrs. Adams nodded several times, increasing the emphasis of her gesture, while Alice talked briskly; but the brooding waitress continued to brood. A faint snap of the fingers failed to disturb her; nor was a covert hissing whisper of avail, and Mrs. Adams was beginning to show signs of strain when her daughter relieved her.
"Imagine our trying to eat anything so hot as soup on a night like this!" Alice laughed. "What COULD have been in the cook's mind not to give us something iced and jellied instead? Of course it's because she's equatorial, herself, originally, and only feels at home when Mr. Satan moves it north." She looked round at Gertrude, who stood behind her. "Do take this dreadful soup away!"
Thus directly addressed, Gertrude yielded her attention, though unwillingly, and as if she decided only by a hair's weight not to revolt, instead. However, she finally set herself in slow motion; but overlooked the supposed head of the table, seeming to be unaware of the sweltering little man who sat there. As she disappeared toward the kitchen with but three of the cups upon her tray he turned to look plaintively after her, and ventured an attempt to recall her.
"Here!" he said, in a low voice. "Here, you!"
"What is it, Virgil?" his wife asked.
"What's her name?"
Mrs. Adams gave him a glance of sudden panic, and, seeing that the guest of the evening was not looking at her, but down at the white cloth before him, she frowned hard, and shook her head.
Unfortunately Alice was not observing her mother, and asked, innocently: "What's whose name, papa?"
"Why, this young darky woman," he explained. "She left mine."
"Never mind," Alice laughed. "There's hope for you, papa. She hasn't gone forever!"
"I don't know about that," he said, not content with this impulsive assurance. "She LOOKED like she is." And his remark, considered as a prediction, had begun to seem warranted before Gertrude's return with china preliminary to the next stage of the banquet.
Alice proved herself equal to the long gap, and rattled on through it with a spirit richly justifying her mother's praise of her as "always ready to smooth things over"; for here was more than long delay to be smoothed over. She smoothed over her father and mother for Russell; and she smoothed over him for them, though he did not know it, and remained unaware of what he owed her. With all this, throughout her prattlings, the girl's bright eyes kept seeking his with an eager gayety, which but little veiled both interrogation and entreaty—as if she asked: "Is it too much for you? Can't you bear it? Won't you PLEASE bear it? I would for you. Won't you give me a sign that it's all right?"
He looked at her but fleetingly, and seemed to suffer from the heat, in spite of every manly effort not to wipe his brow too often. His colour, after rising when he greeted Alice and her father, had departed, leaving him again moistly pallid; a condition arising from discomfort, no doubt, but, considered as a decoration, almost poetically becoming to him. Not less becoming was the faint, kindly smile, which showed his wish to express amusement and approval; and yet it was a smile rather strained and plaintive, as if he, like Adams, could only do the best he could.
He pleased Adams, who thought him a fine young man, and decidedly the quietest that Alice had ever shown to her family. In her father's opinion this was no small merit; and it was to Russell's credit, too, that he showed embarrassment upon this first intimate presentation; here was an applicant with both reserve and modesty. "So far, he seems to be first rate a mighty fine young man," Adams thought; and, prompted by no wish to part from Alice but by reminiscences of apparent candidates less pleasing, he added, "At last!"
Alice's liveliness never flagged. Her smoothing over of things was an almost continuous performance, and had to be. Yet, while she chattered through the hot and heavy courses, the questions she asked herself were as continuous as the performance, and as poignant as what her eyes seemed to be asking Russell. Why had she not prevailed over her mother's fear of being "skimpy?" Had she been, indeed, as her mother said she looked, "in a trance?" But above all: What was the matter with HIM? What had happened? For she told herself with painful humour that something even worse than this dinner must be "the matter with him."
The small room, suffocated with the odour of boiled sprouts, grew hotter and hotter as more and more food appeared, slowly borne in, between deathly long waits, by the resentful, loud-breathing Gertrude. And while Alice still sought Russell's glance, and read the look upon his face a dozen different ways, fearing all of them; and while the straggling little flowers died upon the stained cloth, she felt her heart grow as heavy as the food, and wondered that it did not die like the roses.
With the arrival of coffee, the host bestirred himself to make known a hospitable regret, "By George!" he said. "I meant to buy some cigars." He addressed himself apologetically to the guest. "I don't know what I was thinking about, to forget to bring some home with me. I don't use 'em myself—unless somebody hands me one, you might say. I've always been a pipe-smoker, pure and simple, but I ought to remembered for kind of an occasion like this."
"Not at all," Russell said. "I'm not smoking at all lately; but when I do, I'm like you, and smoke a pipe."
Alice started, remembering what she had told him when he overtook her on her way from the tobacconist's; but, after a moment, looking at him, she decided that he must have forgotten it. If he had remembered, she thought, he could not have helped glancing at her. On the contrary, he seemed more at ease, just then, than he had since they sat down, for he was favouring her father with a thoughtful attention as Adams responded to the introduction of a man's topic into the conversation at last. "Well, Mr. Russell, I guess you're right, at that. I don't say but what cigars may be all right for a man that can afford 'em, if he likes 'em better than a pipe, but you take a good old pipe now——"
He continued, and was getting well into the eulogium customarily provoked by this theme, when there came an interruption: the door-bell rang, and he paused inquiringly, rather surprised.
Mrs. Adams spoke to Gertrude in an undertone:
"Just say, 'Not at home.'"
"If it's callers, just say we're not at home."
Gertrude spoke out freely: "You mean you astin' me to 'tend you' front do' fer you?"
She seemed both incredulous and affronted, but Mrs. Adams persisted, though somewhat apprehensively. "Yes. Hurry—uh—please. Just say we're not at home if you please."
Again Gertrude obviously hesitated between compliance and revolt, and again the meeker course fortunately prevailed with her. She gave Mrs. Adams a stare, grimly derisive, then departed. When she came back she said:
"He say he wait."
"But I told you to tell anybody we were not at home," Mrs Adams returned. "Who is it?"
"Say he name Mr. Law."
"We don't know any Mr. Law."
"Yes'm; he know you. Say he anxious to speak Mr. Adams. Say he wait."
"Tell him Mr. Adams is engaged."
"Hold on a minute," Adams intervened. "Law? No. I don't know any Mr. Law. You sure you got the name right?"
"Say he name Law," Gertrude replied, looking at the ceiling to express her fatigue. "Law. 'S all he tell me; 's all I know."
Adams frowned. "Law," he said. "Wasn't it maybe 'Lohr?'"
"Law," Gertrude repeated. "'S all he tell me; 's all I know."
"What's he look like?"
"He ain't much," she said. "'Bout you' age; got brustly white moustache, nice eye-glasses."
"It's Charley Lohr!" Adams exclaimed. "I'll go see what he wants."
"But, Virgil," his wife remonstrated, "do finish your coffee; he might stay all evening. Maybe he's come to call."
Adams laughed. "He isn't much of a caller, I expect. Don't worry: I'll take him up to my room." And turning toward Russell, "Ah—if you'll just excuse me," he said; and went out to his visitor.
When he had gone, Mrs. Adams finished her coffee, and, having glanced intelligently from her guest to her daughter, she rose. "I think perhaps I ought to go and shake hands with Mr. Lohr, myself," she said, adding in explanation to Russell, as she reached the door, "He's an old friend of my husband's and it's a very long time since he's been here."
Alice nodded and smiled to her brightly, but upon the closing of the door, the smile vanished; all her liveliness disappeared; and with this change of expression her complexion itself appeared to change, so that her rouge became obvious, for she was pale beneath it. However, Russell did not see the alteration, for he did not look at her; and it was but a momentary lapse the vacation of a tired girl, who for ten seconds lets herself look as she feels. Then she shot her vivacity back into place as by some powerful spring.
"Penny for your thoughts!" she cried, and tossed one of the wilted roses at him, across the table. "I'll bid more than a penny; I'll bid tuppence—no, a poor little dead rose a rose for your thoughts, Mr. Arthur Russell! What are they?"
He shook his head. "I'm afraid I haven't any."
"No, of course not," she said. "Who could have thoughts in weather like this? Will you EVER forgive us?"
"Making you eat such a heavy dinner—I mean LOOK at such a heavy dinner, because you certainly didn't do more than look at it—on such a night! But the crime draws to a close, and you can begin to cheer up!" She laughed gaily, and, rising, moved to the door. "Let's go in the other room; your fearful duty is almost done, and you can run home as soon as you want to. That's what you're dying to do."
"Not at all," he said in a voice so feeble that she laughed aloud.
"Good gracious!" she cried. "I hadn't realized it was THAT bad!"
For this, though he contrived to laugh, he seemed to have no verbal retort whatever; but followed her into the "living-room," where she stopped and turned, facing him.
"Has it really been so frightful?" she asked.
"Why, of course not. Not at all."
"Of course yes, though, you mean!"
"Not at all. It's been most kind of your mother and father and you."
"Do you know," she said, "you've never once looked at me for more than a second at a time the whole evening? And it seemed to me I looked rather nice to-night, too!"
"You always do," he murmured.
"I don't see how you know," she returned; and then stepping closer to him, spoke with gentle solicitude: "Tell me: you're really feeling wretchedly, aren't you? I know you've got a fearful headache, or something. Tell me!"
"Not at all."
"You are ill—I'm sure of it."
"Not at all."
"On your word?"
"I'm really quite all right."
"But if you are——" she began; and then, looking at him with a desperate sweetness, as if this were her last resource to rouse him, "What's the matter, little boy?" she said with lisping tenderness. "Tell auntie!"
It was a mistake, for he seemed to flinch, and to lean backward, however, slightly. She turned away instantly, with a flippant lift and drop of both hands. "Oh, my dear!" she laughed. "I won't eat you!"
And as the discomfited young man watched her, seeming able to lift his eyes, now that her back was turned, she went to the front door and pushed open the screen. "Let's go out on the porch," she said. "Where we belong!"
Then, when he had followed her out, and they were seated, "Isn't this better?" she asked. "Don't you feel more like yourself out here?"
He began a murmur: "Not at——"
But she cut him off sharply: "Please don't say 'Not at all' again!"
"You do seem sorry about something," she said. "What is it? Isn't it time you were telling me what's the matter?"
"Nothing. Indeed nothing's the matter. Of course one IS rather affected by such weather as this. It may make one a little quieter than usual, of course."
She sighed, and let the tired muscles of her face rest. Under the hard lights, indoors, they had served her until they ached, and it was a luxury to feel that in the darkness no grimacings need call upon them.
"Of course, if you won't tell me——" she said.
"I can only assure you there's nothing to tell."
"I know what an ugly little house it is," she said. "Maybe it was the furniture—or mama's vases that upset you. Or was it mama herself—or papa?"
"Nothing 'upset' me."
At that she uttered a monosyllable of doubting laughter. "I wonder why you say that."
"Because it's so."
"No. It's because you're too kind, or too conscientious, or too embarrassed—anyhow too something—to tell me." She leaned forward, elbows on knees and chin in hands, in the reflective attitude she knew how to make graceful. "I have a feeling that you're not going to tell me," she said, slowly. "Yes—even that you're never going to tell me. I wonder—I wonder——"
"Yes? What do you wonder?"
"I was just thinking—I wonder if they haven't done it, after all."
"I don't understand."
"I wonder," she went on, still slowly, and in a voice of reflection, "I wonder who HAS been talking about me to you, after all? Isn't that it?"
"Not at——" he began, but checked himself and substituted another form of denial. "Nothing is 'it.'"
"Are you sure?"
"How curious!" she said.
"Because all evening you've been so utterly different."
"But in this weather——"
"No. That wouldn't make you afraid to look at me all evening!"
"But I did look at you. Often."
"No. Not really a LOOK."
"But I'm looking at you now."
"Yes—in the dark!" she said. "No—the weather might make you even quieter than usual, but it wouldn't strike you so nearly dumb. No—and it wouldn't make you seem to be under such a strain—as if you thought only of escape!"
"But I haven't——"
"You shouldn't," she interrupted, gently. "There's nothing you have to escape from, you know. You aren't committed to—to this friendship."
"I'm sorry you think——" he began, but did not complete the fragment.
She took it up. "You're sorry I think you're so different, you mean to say, don't you? Never mind: that's what you did mean to say, but you couldn't finish it because you're not good at deceiving."
"Oh, no," he protested, feebly. "I'm not deceiving. I'm——"
"Never mind," she said again. "You're sorry I think you're so different—and all in one day—since last night. Yes, your voice SOUNDS sorry, too. It sounds sorrier than it would just because of my thinking something you could change my mind about in a minute so it means you're sorry you ARE different."
But disregarding the faint denial, "Never mind," she said. "Do you remember one night when you told me that nothing anybody else could do would ever keep you from coming here? That if you—if you left me it would be because I drove you away myself?"
"Yes," he said, huskily. "It was true."
"Are you sure?"
"Indeed I am," he answered in a low voice, but with conviction.
"Then——" She paused. "Well—but I haven't driven you away."
"And yet you've gone," she said, quietly.
"Do I seem so stupid as all that?"
"You know what I mean." She leaned back in her chair again, and her hands, inactive for once, lay motionless in her lap. When she spoke it was in a rueful whisper:
"I wonder if I HAVE driven you away?"
"You've done nothing—nothing at all," he said.
"I wonder——" she said once more, but she stopped. In her mind she was going back over their time together since the first meeting—fragments of talk, moments of silence, little things of no importance, little things that might be important; moonshine, sunshine, starlight; and her thoughts zigzagged among the jumbling memories; but, as if she made for herself a picture of all these fragments, throwing them upon the canvas haphazard, she saw them all just touched with the one tainting quality that gave them coherence, the faint, false haze she had put over this friendship by her own pretendings. And, if this terrible dinner, or anything, or everything, had shown that saffron tint in its true colour to the man at her side, last night almost a lover, then she had indeed of herself driven him away, and might well feel that she was lost.
"Do you know?" she said, suddenly, in a clear, loud voice. "I have the strangest feeling. I feel as if I were going to be with you only about five minutes more in all the rest of my life!"
"Why, no," he said. "Of course I'm coming to see you—often. I——"
"No," she interrupted. "I've never had a feeling like this before. It's—it's just SO; that's all! You're GOING—why, you're never coming here again!" She stood up, abruptly, beginning to tremble all over. "Why, it's FINISHED, isn't it?" she said, and her trembling was manifest now in her voice. "Why, it's all OVER, isn't it? Why, yes!"
He had risen as she did. "I'm afraid you're awfully tired and nervous," he said. "I really ought to be going."
"Yes, of COURSE you ought," she cried, despairingly. "There's nothing else for you to do. When anything's spoiled, people CAN'T do anything but run away from it. So good-bye!"
"At least," he returned, huskily, "we'll only—only say good-night."
Then, as moving to go, he stumbled upon the veranda steps, "Your HAT!" she cried. "I'd like to keep it for a souvenir, but I'm afraid you need it!"
She ran into the hall and brought his straw hat from the chair where he had left it. "You poor thing!" she said, with quavering laughter. "Don't you know you can't go without your hat?"
Then, as they faced each other for the short moment which both of them knew would be the last of all their veranda moments, Alice's broken laughter grew louder. "What a thing to say!" she cried. "What a romantic parting—talking about HATS!"
Her laughter continued as he turned away, but other sounds came from within the house, clearly audible with the opening of a door upstairs—a long and wailing cry of lamentation in the voice of Mrs. Adams. Russell paused at the steps, uncertain, but Alice waved to him to go on.
"Oh, don't bother," she said. "We have lots of that in this funny little old house! Good-bye!"
And as he went down the steps, she ran back into the house and closed the door heavily behind her.
Her mother's wailing could still be heard from overhead, though more faintly; and old Charley Lohr was coming down the stairs alone.
He looked at Alice compassionately. "I was just comin' to suggest maybe you'd excuse yourself from your company," he said. "Your mother was bound not to disturb you, and tried her best to keep you from hearin' how she's takin' on, but I thought probably you better see to her."
"Yes, I'll come. What's the matter?"
"Well," he said, "I only stepped over to offer my sympathy and services, as it were. I thought of course you folks knew all about it. Fact is, it was in the evening paper—just a little bit of an item on the back page, of course."
"What is it?"
He coughed. "Well, it ain't anything so terrible," he said. "Fact is, your brother Walter's got in a little trouble—well, I suppose you might call it quite a good deal of trouble. Fact is, he's quite considerable short in his accounts down at Lamb and Company."
Alice ran up the stairs and into her father's room, where Mrs. Adams threw herself into her daughter's arms. "Is he gone?" she sobbed. "He didn't hear me, did he? I tried so hard——"
Alice patted the heaving shoulders her arms enclosed. "No, no," she said. "He didn't hear you—it wouldn't have mattered—he doesn't matter anyway."
"Oh, POOR Walter!" The mother cried. "Oh, the POOR boy! Poor, poor Walter! Poor, poor, poor, POOR——"
"Hush, dear, hush!" Alice tried to soothe her, but the lament could not be abated, and from the other side of the room a repetition in a different spirit was as continuous. Adams paced furiously there, pounding his fist into his left palm as he strode. "The dang boy!" he said. "Dang little fool! Dang idiot! Dang fool! Whyn't he TELL me, the dang little fool?"
"He DID!" Mrs. Adams sobbed. "He DID tell you, and you wouldn't GIVE it to him."
"He DID, did he?" Adams shouted at her. "What he begged me for was money to run away with! He never dreamed of putting back what he took. What the dangnation you talking about—accusing me!"
"He NEEDED it," she said. "He needed it to run away with! How could he expect to LIVE, after he got away, if he didn't have a little money? Oh, poor, poor, POOR Walter! Poor, poor, poor——"
She went back to this repetition; and Adams went back to his own, then paused, seeing his old friend standing in the hallway outside the open door.
"Ah—I'll just be goin', I guess, Virgil," Lohr said. "I don't see as there's any use my tryin' to say any more. I'll do anything you want me to, you understand."
"Wait a minute," Adams said, and, groaning, came and went down the stairs with him. "You say you didn't see the old man at all?"
"No, I don't know a thing about what he's going to do," Lohr said, as they reached the lower floor. "Not a thing. But look here, Virgil, I don't see as this calls for you and your wife to take on so hard about—anyhow not as hard as the way you've started."
"No," Adams gulped. "It always seems that way to the other party that's only looking on!"
"Oh, well, I know that, of course," old Charley returned, soothingly. "But look here, Virgil: they may not catch the boy; they didn't even seem to be sure what train he made, and if they do get him, why, the ole man might decide not to prosecute if——"
"HIM?" Adams cried, interrupting. "Him not prosecute? Why, that's what he's been waiting for, all along! He thinks my boy and me both cheated him! Why, he was just letting Walter walk into a trap! Didn't you say they'd been suspecting him for some time back? Didn't you say they'd been watching him and were just about fixing to arrest him?"
"Yes, I know," said Lohr; "but you can't tell, especially if you raise the money and pay it back."
"Every cent!" Adams vociferated. "Every last penny! I can raise it—I GOT to raise it! I'm going to put a loan on my factory to-morrow. Oh, I'll get it for him, you tell him! Every last penny!"
"Well, ole feller, you just try and get quieted down some now." Charley held out his hand in parting. "You and your wife just quiet down some. You AIN'T the healthiest man in the world, you know, and you already been under quite some strain before this happened. You want to take care of yourself for the sake of your wife and that sweet little girl upstairs, you know. Now, good-night," he finished, stepping out upon the veranda. "You send for me if there's anything I can do."
"Do?" Adams echoed. "There ain't anything ANYBODY can do!" And then, as his old friend went down the path to the sidewalk, he called after him, "You tell him I'll pay him every last cent! Every last, dang, dirty PENNY!"
He slammed the door and went rapidly up the stairs, talking loudly to himself. "Every dang, last, dirty penny! Thinks EVERYBODY in this family wants to steal from him, does he? Thinks we're ALL yellow, does he? I'll show him!" And he came into his own room vociferating, "Every last, dang, dirty penny!"
Mrs. Adams had collapsed, and Alice had put her upon his bed, where she lay tossing convulsively and sobbing, "Oh, POOR Walter!" over and over, but after a time she varied the sorry tune. "Oh, poor Alice!" she moaned, clinging to her daughter's hand. "Oh, poor, POOR Alice to have THIS come on the night of your dinner—just when everything seemed to be going so well—at last—oh, poor, poor, POOR——"
"Hush!" Alice said, sharply. "Don't say 'poor Alice!' I'm all right."
"You MUST be!" her mother cried, clutching her. "You've just GOT to be! ONE of us has got to be all right—surely God wouldn't mind just ONE of us being all right—that wouldn't hurt Him——"
"Hush, hush, mother! Hush!"
But Mrs. Adams only clutched her the more tightly. "He seemed SUCH a nice young man, dearie! He may not see this in the paper—Mr. Lohr said it was just a little bit of an item—he MAY not see it, dearie——"
Then her anguish went back to Walter again; and to his needs as a fugitive—she had meant to repair his underwear, but had postponed doing so, and her neglect now appeared to be a detail as lamentable as the calamity itself. She could neither be stilled upon it, nor herself exhaust its urgings to self-reproach, though she finally took up another theme temporarily. Upon an unusually violent outbreak of her husband's, in denunciation of the runaway, she cried out faintly that he was cruel; and further wearied her broken voice with details of Walter's beauty as a baby, and of his bedtime pieties throughout his infancy.
So the hot night wore on. Three had struck before Mrs. Adams was got to bed; and Alice, returning to her own room, could hear her father's bare feet thudding back and forth after that. "Poor papa!" she whispered in helpless imitation of her mother. "Poor papa! Poor mama! Poor Walter! Poor all of us!"
She fell asleep, after a time, while from across the hall the bare feet still thudded over their changeless route; and she woke at seven, hearing Adams pass her door, shod. In her wrapper she ran out into the hallway and found him descending the stairs.
"Hush," he said, and looked up at her with reddened eyes. "Don't wake your mother."
"I won't," she whispered. "How about you? You haven't slept any at all!"
"Yes, I did. I got some sleep. I'm going over to the works now. I got to throw some figures together to show the bank. Don't worry: I'll get things fixed up. You go back to bed. Good-bye."
"Wait!" she bade him sharply.
"You've got to have some breakfast."
"Don't want 'ny."
"You wait!" she said, imperiously, and disappeared to return almost at once. "I can cook in my bedroom slippers," she explained, "but I don't believe I could in my bare feet!"
Descending softly, she made him wait in the dining-room until she brought him toast and eggs and coffee. "Eat!" she said. "And I'm going to telephone for a taxicab to take you, if you think you've really got to go."
"No, I'm going to walk—I WANT to walk."
She shook her head anxiously. "You don't look able. You've walked all night."
"No, I didn't," he returned. "I tell you I got some sleep. I got all I wanted anyhow."
"Here!" he interrupted, looking up at her suddenly and setting down his cup of coffee. "Look here! What about this Mr. Russell? I forgot all about him. What about him?"
Her lip trembled a little, but she controlled it before she spoke. "Well, what about him, papa?" she asked, calmly enough.
"Well, we could hardly——" Adams paused, frowning heavily. "We could hardly expect he wouldn't hear something about all this."
"Yes; of course he'll hear it, papa."
"Well, what?" she asked, gently.
"You don't think he'd be the—the cheap kind it'd make a difference with, of course."
"Oh, no; he isn't cheap. It won't make any difference with him."
Adams suffered a profound sigh to escape him. "Well—I'm glad of that, anyway."
"The difference," she explained—"the difference was made without his hearing anything about Walter. He doesn't know about THAT yet."
"Well, what does he know about?"
"Only," she said, "about me."
"What you mean by that, Alice?" he asked, helplessly.
"Never mind," she said. "It's nothing beside the real trouble we're in—I'll tell you some time. You eat your eggs and toast; you can't keep going on just coffee."
"I can't eat any eggs and toast," he objected, rising. "I can't."
"Then wait till I can bring you something else."
"No," he said, irritably. "I won't do it! I don't want any dang food! And look here"—he spoke sharply to stop her, as she went toward the telephone—"I don't want any dang taxi, either! You look after your mother when she wakes up. I got to be at WORK!"
And though she followed him to the front door, entreating, he could not be stayed or hindered. He went through the quiet morning streets at a rickety, rapid gait, swinging his old straw hat in his hands, and whispering angrily to himself as he went. His grizzled hair, not trimmed for a month, blew back from his damp forehead in the warm breeze; his reddened eyes stared hard at nothing from under blinking lids; and one side of his face twitched startlingly from time to time;—children might have run from him, or mocked him.
When he had come into that fallen quarter his industry had partly revived and wholly made odorous, a negro woman, leaning upon her whitewashed gate, gazed after him and chuckled for the benefit of a gossiping friend in the next tiny yard. "Oh, good Satan! Wha'ssa matter that ole glue man?"
"Who? Him?" the neighbour inquired. "What he do now?"
"Talkin' to his ole se'f!" the first explained, joyously. "Look like gone distracted—ole glue man!"
Adams's legs had grown more uncertain with his hard walk, and he stumbled heavily as he crossed the baked mud of his broad lot, but cared little for that, was almost unaware of it, in fact. Thus his eyes saw as little as his body felt, and so he failed to observe something that would have given him additional light upon an old phrase that already meant quite enough for him.
There are in the wide world people who have never learned its meaning; but most are either young or beautifully unobservant who remain wholly unaware of the inner poignancies the words convey: "a rain of misfortunes." It is a boiling rain, seemingly whimsical in its choice of spots whereon to fall; and, so far as mortal eye can tell, neither the just nor the unjust may hope to avoid it, or need worry themselves by expecting it. It had selected the Adams family for its scaldings; no question.
The glue-works foreman, standing in the doorway of the brick shed, observed his employer's eccentric approach, and doubtfully stroked a whiskered chin.
"Well, they ain't no putticular use gettin' so upset over it," he said, as Adams came up. "When a thing happens, why, it happens, and that's all there is to it. When a thing's so, why, it's so. All you can do about it is think if there's anything you CAN do; and that's what you better be doin' with this case."
Adams halted, and seemed to gape at him. "What—case?" he said, with difficulty. "Was it in the morning papers, too?"
"No, it ain't in no morning papers. My land! It don't need to be in no papers; look at the SIZE of it!"
"The size of what?"
"Why, great God!" the foreman exclaimed. "He ain't even seen it. Look! Look yonder!"
Adams stared vaguely at the man's outstretched hand and pointing forefinger, then turned and saw a great sign upon the facade of the big factory building across the street. The letters were large enough to be read two blocks away.
"AFTER THE FIFTEENTH OF NEXT MONTH THIS BUILDING WILL BE OCCUPIED BY THE J. A. LAMB LIQUID GLUE CO. INC."
A gray touring-car had just come to rest before the principal entrance of the building, and J. A. Lamb himself descended from it. He glanced over toward the humble rival of his projected great industry, saw his old clerk, and immediately walked across the street and the lot to speak to him.
"Well, Adams," he said, in his husky, cheerful voice, "how's your glue-works?"
Adams uttered an inarticulate sound, and lifted the hand that held his hat as if to make a protective gesture, but failed to carry it out; and his arm sank limp at his side. The foreman, however, seemed to feel that something ought to be said.
"Our glue-works, hell!" he remarked. "I guess we won't HAVE no glue-works over here not very long, if we got to compete with the sized thing you got over there!"
Lamb chuckled. "I kind of had some such notion," he said. "You see, Virgil, I couldn't exactly let you walk off with it like swallering a pat o' butter, now, could I? It didn't look exactly reasonable to expect me to let go like that, now, did it?"
Adams found a half-choked voice somewhere in his throat. "Do you—would you step into my office a minute, Mr. Lamb?"
"Why, certainly I'm willing to have a little talk with you," the old gentleman said, as he followed his former employee indoors, and he added, "I feel a lot more like it than I did before I got THAT up, over yonder, Virgil!"
Adams threw open the door of the rough room he called his office, having as justification for this title little more than the fact that he had a telephone there and a deal table that served as a desk. "Just step into the office, please," he said.
Lamb glanced at the desk, at the kitchen chair before it, at the telephone, and at the partition walls built of old boards, some covered with ancient paint and some merely weatherbeaten, the salvage of a house-wrecker; and he smiled broadly. "So these are your offices, are they?" he asked. "You expect to do quite a business here, I guess, don't you, Virgil?"
Adams turned upon him a stricken and tortured face. "Have you seen Charley Lohr since last night, Mr. Lamb?"
"No; I haven't seen Charley."
"Well, I told him to tell you," Adams began;—"I told him I'd pay you——"
"Pay me what you expect to make out o' glue, you mean, Virgil?"
"No," Adams said, swallowing. "I mean what my boy owes you. That's what I told Charley to tell you. I told him to tell you I'd pay you every last——"
"Well, well!" the old gentleman interrupted, testily. "I don't know anything about that."
"I'm expecting to pay you," Adams went on, swallowing again, painfully. "I was expecting to do it out of a loan I thought I could get on my glue-works."
The old gentleman lifted his frosted eyebrows. "Oh, out o' the GLUE-works? You expected to raise money on the glue-works, did you?"
At that, Adams's agitation increased prodigiously. "How'd you THINK I expected to pay you?" he said. "Did you think I expected to get money on my own old bones?" He slapped himself harshly upon the chest and legs. "Do you think a bank'll lend money on a man's ribs and his broken-down old knee-bones? They won't do it! You got to have some BUSINESS prospects to show 'em, if you haven't got any property nor securities; and what business prospects have I got now, with that sign of yours up over yonder? Why, you don't need to make an OUNCE o' glue; your sign's fixed ME without your doing another lick! THAT'S all you had to do; just put your sign up! You needn't to——"
"Just let me tell you something, Virgil Adams," the old man interrupted, harshly. "I got just one right important thing to tell you before we talk any further business; and that's this: there's some few men in this town made their money in off-colour ways, but there aren't many; and those there are have had to be a darn sight slicker than you know how to be, or ever WILL know how to be! Yes, sir, and they none of them had the little gumption to try to make it out of a man that had the spirit not to let 'em, and the STRENGTH not to let 'em! I know what you thought. 'Here,' you said to yourself, 'here's this ole fool J. A. Lamb; he's kind of worn out and in his second childhood like; I can put it over on him, without his ever——'"
"I did not!" Adams shouted. "A great deal YOU know about my feelings and all what I said to myself! There's one thing I want to tell YOU, and that's what I'm saying to myself NOW, and what my feelings are this MINUTE!"
He struck the table a great blow with his thin fist, and shook the damaged knuckles in the air. "I just want to tell you, whatever I did feel, I don't feel MEAN any more; not to-day, I don't. There's a meaner man in this world than I am, Mr. Lamb!"
"Oh, so you feel better about yourself to-day, do you, Virgil?"
"You bet I do! You worked till you got me where you want me; and I wouldn't do that to another man, no matter what he did to me! I wouldn't——"
"What you talkin' about! How've I 'got you where I want you?'"
"Ain't it plain enough?" Adams cried. "You even got me where I can't raise the money to pay back what my boy owes you! Do you suppose anybody's fool enough to let me have a cent on this business after one look at what you got over there across the road?"
"No, I don't."
"No, you don't," Adams echoed, hoarsely. "What's more, you knew my house was mortgaged, and my——"
"I did not," Lamb interrupted, angrily. "What do I care about your house?"
"What's the use your talking like that?" Adams cried. "You got me where I can't even raise the money to pay what my boy owes the company, so't I can't show any reason to stop the prosecution and keep him out the penitentiary. That's where you worked till you got ME!"
"What!" Lamb shouted. "You accuse me of——"
"'Accuse you?' What am I telling you? Do you think I got no EYES?" And Adams hammered the table again. "Why, you knew the boy was weak——"
"I did not!"
"Listen: you kept him there after you got mad at my leaving the way I did. You kept him there after you suspected him; and you had him watched; you let him go on; just waited to catch him and ruin him!"
"You're crazy!" the old man bellowed. "I didn't know there was anything against the boy till last night. You're CRAZY, I say!"
Adams looked it. With his hair disordered over his haggard forehead and bloodshot eyes; with his bruised hands pounding the table and flying in a hundred wild and absurd gestures, while his feet shuffled constantly to preserve his balance upon staggering legs, he was the picture of a man with a mind gone to rags.
"Maybe I AM crazy!" he cried, his voice breaking and quavering. "Maybe I am, but I wouldn't stand there and taunt a man with it if I'd done to him what you've done to me! Just look at me: I worked all my life for you, and what I did when I quit never harmed you—it didn't make two cents' worth o' difference in your life and it looked like it'd mean all the difference in the world to my family—and now look what you've DONE to me for it! I tell you, Mr. Lamb, there never was a man looked up to another man the way I looked up to you the whole o' my life, but I don't look up to you any more! You think you got a fine day of it now, riding up in your automobile to look at that sign—and then over here at my poor little works that you've ruined. But listen to me just this one last time!" The cracking voice broke into falsetto, and the gesticulating hands fluttered uncontrollably. "Just you listen!" he panted. "You think I did you a bad turn, and now you got me ruined for it, and you got my works ruined, and my family ruined; and if anybody'd 'a' told me this time last year I'd ever say such a thing to you I'd called him a dang liar, but I DO say it: I say you've acted toward me like—like a—a doggone mean—man!"
His voice, exhausted, like his body, was just able to do him this final service; then he sank, crumpled, into the chair by the table, his chin down hard upon his chest.
"I tell you, you're crazy!" Lamb said again. "I never in the world——" But he checked himself, staring in sudden perplexity at his accuser. "Look here!" he said. "What's the matter of you? Have you got another of those——?" He put his hand upon Adams's shoulder, which jerked feebly under the touch.
The old man went to the door and called to the foreman.
"Here!" he said. "Run and tell my chauffeur to bring my car over here. Tell him to drive right up over the sidewalk and across the lot. Tell him to hurry!"
So, it happened, the great J. A. Lamb a second time brought his former clerk home, stricken and almost inanimate.
About five o'clock that afternoon, the old gentleman came back to Adams's house; and when Alice opened the door, he nodded, walked into the "living-room" without speaking; then stood frowning as if he hesitated to decide some perplexing question.
"Well, how is he now?" he asked, finally.
"The doctor was here again a little while ago; he thinks papa's coming through it. He's pretty sure he will."
"Something like the way it was last spring?"
"Not a bit of sense to it!" Lamb said, gruffly. "When he was getting well the other time the doctor told me it wasn't a regular stroke, so to speak—this 'cerebral effusion' thing. Said there wasn't any particular reason for your father to expect he'd ever have another attack, if he'd take a little care of himself. Said he could consider himself well as anybody else long as he did that."
"Yes. But he didn't do it!"
Lamb nodded, sighed aloud, and crossed the room to a chair. "I guess not," he said, as he sat down. "Bustin' his health up over his glue-works, I expect."
"I guess so; I guess so." Then he looked up at her with a glimmer of anxiety in his eyes. "Has he came to yet?"
"Yes. He's talked a little. His mind's clear; he spoke to mama and me and to Miss Perry." Alice laughed sadly. "We were lucky enough to get her back, but papa didn't seem to think it was lucky. When he recognized her he said, 'Oh, my goodness, 'tisn't YOU, is it!'"
"Well, that's a good sign, if he's getting a little cross. Did he—did he happen to say anything—for instance, about me?"
This question, awkwardly delivered, had the effect of removing the girl's pallor; rosy tints came quickly upon her cheeks. "He—yes, he did," she said. "Naturally, he's troubled about—about——" She stopped.
"About your brother, maybe?"
"Yes, about making up the——"
"Here, now," Lamb said, uncomfortably, as she stopped again. "Listen, young lady; let's don't talk about that just yet. I want to ask you: you understand all about this glue business, I expect, don't you?"
"I'm not sure. I only know——"
"Let me tell you," he interrupted, impatiently. "I'll tell you all about it in two words. The process belonged to me, and your father up and walked off with it; there's no getting around THAT much, anyhow."
"Isn't there?" Alice stared at him. "I think you're mistaken, Mr. Lamb. Didn't papa improve it so that it virtually belonged to him?"
There was a spark in the old blue eyes at this. "What?" he cried. "Is that the way he got around it? Why, in all my life I never heard of such a——" But he left the sentence unfinished; the testiness went out of his husky voice and the anger out of his eyes. "Well, I expect maybe that was the way of it," he said. "Anyhow, it's right for you to stand up for your father; and if you think he had a right to it——"
"But he did!" she cried.
"I expect so," the old man returned, pacifically. "I expect so, probably. Anyhow, it's a question that's neither here nor there, right now. What I was thinking of saying—well, did your father happen to let out that he and I had words this morning?"
"Well, we did." He sighed and shook his head. "Your father—well, he used some pretty hard expressions toward me, young lady. They weren't SO, I'm glad to say, but he used 'em to me, and the worst of it was he believed 'em. Well, I been thinking it over, and I thought I'd just have a kind of little talk with you to set matters straight, so to speak."
"Yes, Mr. Lamb."
"For instance," he said, "it's like this. Now, I hope you won't think I mean any indelicacy, but you take your brother's case, since we got to mention it, why, your father had the whole thing worked out in his mind about as wrong as anybody ever got anything. If I'd acted the way your father thought I did about that, why, somebody just ought to take me out and shoot me! Do YOU know what that man thought?"
"I'm not sure."
He frowned at her, and asked, "Well, what do you think about it?"
"I don't know," she said. "I don't believe I think anything at all about anything to-day."
"Well, well," he returned; "I expect not; I expect not. You kind of look to me as if you ought to be in bed yourself, young lady."
"I guess you mean 'Oh, yes'; and I won't keep you long, but there's something we got to get fixed up, and I'd rather talk to you than I would to your mother, because you're a smart girl and always friendly; and I want to be sure I'm understood. Now, listen."
"I will," Alice promised, smiling faintly.
"I never even hardly noticed your brother was still working for me," he explained, earnestly. "I never thought anything about it. My sons sort of tried to tease me about the way your father—about his taking up this glue business, so to speak—and one day Albert, Junior, asked me if I felt all right about your brother's staying there after that, and I told him—well, I just asked him to shut up. If the boy wanted to stay there, I didn't consider it my business to send him away on account of any feeling I had toward his father; not as long as he did his work right—and the report showed he did. Well, as it happens, it looks now as if he stayed because he HAD to; he couldn't quit because he'd 'a' been found out if he did. Well, he'd been covering up his shortage for a considerable time—and do you know what your father practically charged me with about that?"
"No, Mr. Lamb."
In his resentment, the old gentleman's ruddy face became ruddier and his husky voice huskier. "Thinks I kept the boy there because I suspected him! Thinks I did it to get even with HIM! Do I look to YOU like a man that'd do such a thing?"
"No," she said, gently. "I don't think you would."
"No!" he exclaimed. "Nor HE wouldn't think so if he was himself; he's known me too long. But he must been sort of brooding over this whole business—I mean before Walter's trouble he must been taking it to heart pretty hard for some time back. He thought I didn't think much of him any more—and I expect he maybe wondered some what I was going to DO—and there's nothing worse'n that state of mind to make a man suspicious of all kinds of meanness. Well, he practically stood up there and accused me to my face of fixing things so't he couldn't ever raise the money to settle for Walter and ask us not to prosecute. That's the state of mind your father's brooding got him into, young lady—charging me with a trick like that!"
"I'm sorry," she said. "I know you'd never——"
The old man slapped his sturdy knee, angrily. "Why, that dang fool of a Virgil Adams!" he exclaimed. "He wouldn't even give me a chance to talk; and he got me so mad I couldn't hardly talk, anyway! He might 'a' known from the first I wasn't going to let him walk in and beat me out of my own—that is, he might 'a' known I wouldn't let him get ahead of me in a business matter—not with my boys twitting me about it every few minutes! But to talk to me the way he did this morning—well, he was out of his head; that's all! Now, wait just a minute," he interposed, as she seemed about to speak. "In the first place, we aren't going to push this case against your brother. I believe in the law, all right, and business men got to protect themselves; but in a case like this, where restitution's made by the family, why, I expect it's just as well sometimes to use a little influence and let matters drop. Of course your brother'll have to keep out o' this state; that's all."
"But—you said——" she faltered.
"Yes. What'd I say?"
"You said, 'where restitution's made by the family.' That's what seemed to trouble papa so terribly, because—because restitution couldn't——"
"Why, yes, it could. That's what I'm here to talk to you about."
"I don't see——"
"I'm going to TELL you, ain't I?" he said, gruffly. "Just hold your horses a minute, please." He coughed, rose from his chair, walked up and down the room, then halted before her. "It's like this," he said. "After I brought your father home, this morning, there was one of the things he told me, when he was going for me, over yonder—it kind of stuck in my craw. It was something about all this glue controversy not meaning anything to me in particular, and meaning a whole heap to him and his family. Well, he was wrong about that two ways. The first one was, it did mean a good deal to me to have him go back on me after so many years. I don't need to say any more about it, except just to tell you it meant quite a little more to me than you'd think, maybe. The other way he was wrong is, that how much a thing means to one man and how little it means to another ain't the right way to look at a business matter."
"I suppose it isn't, Mr. Lamb."
"No," he said. "It isn't. It's not the right way to look at anything. Yes, and your father knows it as well as I do, when he's in his right mind; and I expect that's one of the reasons he got so mad at me—but anyhow, I couldn't help thinking about how much all this thing HAD maybe meant to him;—as I say, it kind of stuck in my craw. I want you to tell him something from me, and I want you to go and tell him right off, if he's able and willing to listen. You tell him I got kind of a notion he was pushed into this thing by circumstances, and tell him I've lived long enough to know that circumstances can beat the best of us—you tell him I said 'the BEST of us.' Tell him I haven't got a bit of feeling against him—not any more—and tell him I came here to ask him not to have any against me."
"Yes, Mr. Lamb."
"Tell him I said——" The old man paused abruptly and Alice was surprised, in a dull and tired way, when she saw that his lips had begun to twitch and his eyelids to blink; but he recovered himself almost at once, and continued: "I want him to remember, 'Forgive us our transgressions, as we forgive those that transgress against us'; and if he and I been transgressing against each other, why, tell him I think it's time we QUIT such foolishness!"
He coughed again, smiled heartily upon her, and walked toward the door; then turned back to her with an exclamation: "Well, if I ain't an old fool!"
"What is it?" she asked.
"Why, I forgot what we were just talking about! Your father wants to settle for Walter's deficit. Tell him we'll be glad to accept it; but of course we don't expect him to clean the matter up until he's able to talk business again."
Alice stared at him blankly enough for him to perceive that further explanations were necessary. "It's like this," he said. "You see, if your father decided to keep his works going over yonder, I don't say but he might give us some little competition for a time, 'specially as he's got the start on us and about ready for the market. Then I was figuring we could use his plant—it's small, but it'd be to our benefit to have the use of it—and he's got a lease on that big lot; it may come in handy for us if we want to expand some. Well, I'd prefer to make a deal with him as quietly as possible—-no good in every Tom, Dick and Harry hearing about things like this—but I figured he could sell out to me for a little something more'n enough to cover the mortgage he put on this house, and Walter's deficit, too—THAT don't amount to much in dollars and cents. The way I figure it, I could offer him about ninety-three hundred dollars as a total—or say ninety-three hundred and fifty—and if he feels like accepting, why, I'll send a confidential man up here with the papers soon's your father's able to look 'em over. You tell him, will you, and ask him if he sees his way to accepting that figure?"
"Yes," Alice said; and now her own lips twitched, while her eyes filled so that she saw but a blurred image of the old man, who held out his hand in parting. "I'll tell him. Thank you."
He shook her hand hastily. "Well, let's just keep it kind of quiet," he said, at the door. "No good in every Tom, Dick and Harry knowing all what goes on in town! You telephone me when your papa's ready to go over the papers—and call me up at my house to-night, will you? Let me hear how he's feeling?"
"I will," she said, and through her grateful tears gave him a smile almost radiant. "He'll be better, Mr. Lamb. We all will."
One morning, that autumn, Mrs. Adams came into Alice's room, and found her completing a sober toilet for the street; moreover, the expression revealed in her mirror was harmonious with the business-like severity of her attire. "What makes you look so cross, dearie?" the mother asked. "Couldn't you find anything nicer to wear than that plain old dark dress?"
"I don't believe I'm cross," the girl said, absently. "I believe I'm just thinking. Isn't it about time?"
"Time for what?"
"Time for thinking—for me, I mean?"
Disregarding this, Mrs. Adams looked her over thoughtfully. "I can't see why you don't wear more colour," she said. "At your age it's becoming and proper, too. Anyhow, when you're going on the street, I think you ought to look just as gay and lively as you can manage. You want to show 'em you've got some spunk!"
"How do you mean, mama?"
"I mean about Walter's running away and the mess your father made of his business. It would help to show 'em you're holding up your head just the same."
"All these other girls that——"
"Not I!" Alice laughed shortly, shaking her head. "I've quit dressing at them, and if they saw me they wouldn't think what you want 'em to. It's funny; but we don't often make people think what we want 'em to, mama. You do thus and so; and you tell yourself, 'Now, seeing me do thus and so, people will naturally think this and that'; but they don't. They think something else—usually just what you DON'T want 'em to. I suppose about the only good in pretending is the fun we get out of fooling ourselves that we fool somebody."
"Well, but it wouldn't be pretending. You ought to let people see you're still holding your head up because you ARE. You wouldn't want that Mildred Palmer to think you're cast down about—well, you know you wouldn't want HER not to think you're holding your head up, would you?"
"She wouldn't know whether I am or not, mama." Alice bit her lip, then smiled faintly as she said:
"Anyhow, I'm not thinking about my head in that way—not this morning, I'm not."
Mrs. Adams dropped the subject casually. "Are you going down-town?" she inquired.
"Just something I want to see about. I'll tell you when I come back. Anything you want me to do?"
"No; I guess not to-day. I thought you might look for a rug, but I'd rather go with you to select it. We'll have to get a new rug for your father's room, I expect."
"I'm glad you think so, mama. I don't suppose he's ever even noticed it, but that old rug of his—well, really!"
"I didn't mean for him," her mother explained, thoughtfully. "No; he don't mind it, and he'd likely make a fuss if we changed it on his account. No; what I meant—we'll have to put your father in Walter's room. He won't mind, I don't expect—not much."
"No, I suppose not," Alice agreed, rather sadly. "I heard the bell awhile ago. Was it somebody about that?"
"Yes; just before I came upstairs. Mrs. Lohr gave him a note to me, and he was really a very pleasant-looking young man. A VERY pleasant-looking young man," Mrs. Adams repeated with increased animation and a thoughtful glance at her daughter. "He's a Mr. Will Dickson; he has a first-rate position with the gas works, Mrs. Lohr says, and he's fully able to afford a nice room. So if you and I double up in here, then with that young married couple in my room, and this Mr. Dickson in your father's, we'll just about have things settled. I thought maybe I could make one more place at table, too, so that with the other people from outside we'd be serving eleven altogether. You see if I have to pay this cook twelve dollars a week—it can't be helped, I guess—well, one more would certainly help toward a profit. Of course it's a terribly worrying thing to see how we WILL come out. Don't you suppose we could squeeze in one more?"