"I guess we had better look at flannels first," Eunice said. "It won't do to get all wool, aside from the expense, for with that Ramsey woman's washing it wouldn't last any time."
She and her aunt made most of their purchases in Adams & Wood's. They succeeded in obtaining quite a comfortable little outfit for Jessy Ramsey, and at last boarded a car laden with packages. Eunice had a fish-net bag filled to overflowing, but Maria, who, coming from the vicinity of New York, looked down on bags, carried her parcels in her arms.
Directly they were seated in the car Eunice gave Maria a violent nudge with her sharp elbow. "He's on this car," she whispered in her ear, with a long hiss which seemed to penetrate the girl's brain.
Maria made an impatient movement.
"Don't you think you ought to just step over and thank him?" whispered Eunice. "I'll hold your bundles. He's on the other side, a seat farther back. He raised his hat to me."
"Hush! I can't here."
"Well, all right, but I thought it would look sort of polite," said Eunice. Then she subsided. Once in a while she glanced back at George Ramsey, then uneasily at her niece, but she said nothing more.
The car was crowded. Workmen smelling of leather clung to the straps. One, in the aisle next Maria, who sat on the outside this time, leaned fairly against her. He was a good-looking young fellow, but he had a heavy jaw. He held an unlighted pipe in his mouth, and carried a two-story tin dinner-pail. Maria kept shrinking closer to her aunt, but the young man pressed against her all the more heavily. His eyes were fixed with seeming unconsciousness ahead, but a furtive smile lurked around his mouth.
George Ramsey was watching. All at once he arose and quietly and unobtrusively came forward, insinuated himself with a gentle force between Maria and the workman, and spoke to her. The workman muttered something under his breath, but moved aside. He gave an ugly glance at George, who did not seem to see him at all. Presently he sat down in George's vacated seat beside another man, who said something to him with a coarse chuckle. The man growled in response, and continued to scowl furtively at George, who stood talking to Maria. He said something about the fineness of the day, and Maria responded rather gratefully. She was conscious of an inward tumult which alarmed her, and made her defiant both at the young man and herself, but she could not help responding to the sense of protection which she got from his presence. She had not been accustomed to anything like the rudeness of the young workman. In New Jersey caste was more clearly defined. Here it was not defined at all. An employe in a shoe-factory had not the slightest conception that he was not the social equal of a school-teacher, and indeed in many cases he was. There were by no means all like this one, whose mere masculine estate filled him with entire self-confidence where women were concerned. In a sense his ignorance was pathetic. He had honestly thought that the pretty, strange girl must like his close contact, and he felt aggrieved that this other young man, who did not smell of leather and carried no dinner-pail, had ousted him. He viewed Maria's delicate profile with a sort of angry tenderness.
"Say, she's a beaut, ain't she?" whispered the man beside him, with a malicious grin, and again got a surly growl in response.
Maria finally, much to her aunt's delight, said to George that they had been shopping, and thanked him for the articles which his money had enabled them to buy.
"The poor little thing can go to school now," said Maria. There was gratitude in her voice, and yet, oddly enough, still a tinge of reproach.
"If mother and I had dreamed of the true state of affairs we would have done something before," George Ramsey said, with an accent of apology; and yet he could not see for the life of him why he should be apologetic for the poverty of these degenerate relatives of his. He could not see why he was called upon to be his brother's keeper in this case, but there was something about Maria's serious, accusing gaze of blue eyes, and her earnest voice, that made him realize that he could prostrate himself before her for uncommitted sins. Somehow, Maria made him feel responsible for all that he might have done wrong as well as his actual wrong-doing, although he laughed at himself for his mental attitude. Suddenly a thought struck him. "When are you going to take all these things (how you ever managed to get so much for ten dollars I don't understand) to the child?" he asked, eagerly.
Maria replied, unguardedly, that she intended to take them after supper that night. "Then she will have them all ready for Monday," she said.
"Then let me go with you and carry the parcels," George Ramsey said, eagerly.
Maria stiffened. "Thank you," she said, "but Uncle Henry is going with me, and there is no need."
Maria felt her aunt Eunice give a sudden start and make an inarticulate murmur of remonstrance, then she checked herself. Maria knew that her uncle walked a mile from his factory to save car-fare; she knew also that she was telling what was practically an untruth, since she had made no agreement with her uncle to accompany her.
"I should be happy to go with you," said George Ramsey, in a boyish, abashed voice.
Maria said nothing more. She looked past her aunt out of the window. The full moon was rising, and all at once all the girl's sweet light of youthful romance appeared again above her mental horizon. She felt that it would be almost heaven to walk with George Ramsey in that delicious moonlight, in the clear, frosty air, and take little Jessy Ramsey her gifts. Maria was of an almost abnormal emotional nature, although there was little that was material about the emotion. She dreamed of that walk as she might have dreamed of a walk with a fairy prince through fairy-land, and her dream was as innocent, but it unnerved her. She said again, in a tremulous voice, that she was very much obliged, and murmured something again about her uncle Henry; and George Ramsey replied, with a certain sober dignity, that he should have been very happy.
Soon after that the car stopped to let off some passengers, and George moved to a vacant seat in front. He did not turn around again. Maria looked at his square shoulders and again gazed past her aunt at the full orb of the moon rising with crystalline splendor in the pale amber of the east. There was a clear gold sunset which sent its reflection over the whole sky.
Presently, Eunice spoke in her little, deprecating voice, which had a slight squeak.
"Did you speak to your uncle Henry about going with you this evening?" she asked.
"No, I didn't," admitted Maria, reddening, "but I knew he would be willing."
"I suppose he will be," said Eunice. "But he does get home awful tuckered out Saturday nights, and he always takes his bath Saturday nights, too."
Eunice looked out of the window with a slight frown. She adored her husband, and the thought of that long walk for him on his weary Saturday evening, and the possible foregoing of his bath, troubled her.
"I don't believe George Ramsey liked it," she whispered, after a little.
"I can't help it if he didn't," replied Maria. "I can't go with him, Aunt Eunice."
As they jolted along, Maria made up her mind that she would not ask her uncle to go with her at all; that she would slip out unknown to Aunt Maria and ask the girl who lived in the house on the other side, Lily Merrill, to go with her. She thought that two girls need not be afraid, and she could start early.
As she parted from her aunt Eunice at the door of the house, after they had left the car (Eunice's door was on the side where the Ramseys lived, and Maria's on the Merrill side), she told her of her resolution.
"Don't say anything to Uncle Henry about going with me," said she.
"Why, what are you going to do?"
"I'll get Lily Merrill. I know she won't mind."
Maria and Lily Merrill had been together frequently since Maria had come to Amity, and Eunice accounted them as intimate. She looked hesitatingly a second at her niece, then she said, with an evident air of relief:
"Well, I don't know but you can. It's bright moonlight, and it's late in the season for tramps. I don't see why you two girls can't go together, if you start early."
"We'll start right after supper," said Maria.
"I would," said Eunice, still with an air of relief.
Maria took her aunt's fish-net bag, as well as her own parcels, and carried them around to her aunt Maria's side of the house, and deposited them on the door-step. There was a light in the kitchen, and she could see her aunt Maria's shadow moving behind the curtain, preparing supper. Then she ran across the yard, over the frozen furrows of a last year's garden, and knocked at the side-door of the Merrill house.
Lily herself opened the door, and gave a little, loving cry of surprise. "Why, is it you, dear?" she said.
"Yes. I want to know if you can go over the river with me to-night on an errand?"
"Over the river? Where?"
"Oh, only to Jessy Ramsey's. Aunt Eunice and I have been to Westbridge and bought these things for her, and I want to carry them to her to-night. I thought maybe you would go with me."
Lily hesitated. "It's a pretty lonesome walk," said she, "and there are an awful set of people on the other side of the river."
"Oh, nonsense!" cried Maria. "You aren't afraid—we two together—and it's bright moonlight, as bright as day."
"Yes, I know it is," replied Lily, gazing out at the silver light which flooded everything, but she still hesitated. A light in the house behind gave her a background of light. She was a beautiful girl, prettier than Maria, taller, and with a timid, pliant grace. Her brown hair tossed softly over her big, brown eyes, which were surmounted by strongly curved eyebrows, her nose was small, and her mouth, and she had a fascinating little way of holding her lips slightly parted, as if ready for a loving word or a kiss. Everybody said that Lily Merrill had a beautiful disposition, albeit some claimed that she lacked force. Maria dominated her, although she did not herself know it. Lily continued to hesitate with her beautiful, startled brown eyes on Maria's face.
"Aren't you afraid?" she said.
"Afraid? No. What should I be afraid of? Why, it's bright moonlight! I would just as soon go at night as in the daytime when the moon is bright."
"That is an awful man who lives at the Ramseys'!"
"Nonsense! I guess if he tried to bother us, Mrs. Ramsey would take care of him," said Maria. "Come along, Lily. I would ask Uncle Henry, but it is the night when he takes his bath, and he comes home tired."
"Well, I'll go if mother will let me," said Lily.
Then Lily called to her mother, who came to the sitting-room door in response.
"Mother," said Lily, "Maria wants me to go over to the Ramseys', those on the other side of the river, after supper, and carry these things to Jessy."
"Aren't you afraid?" asked Lily's mother, as Lily herself had done. She was a faded but still pretty woman who had looked like her daughter in her youth. She was a widow with some property, enough for her Lily and herself to live on in comfort.
"Why, it's bright moonlight, Mrs. Merrill," said Maria, "and the Ramseys live just the other side of the river."
"Well, if Lily isn't afraid, I don't care," said Mrs. Merrill. She had an ulterior motive for her consent, of which neither of the two girls suspected her. She was smartly dressed, and her hair was carefully crimped, and she had, as always in the evening, hopes that a certain widower, the resident physician of Amity, Dr. Ellridge, might call. He had noticed her several times at church suppers, and once had walked home with her from an evening meeting. Lily never dreamed that her mother had aspirations towards a second husband. Her father had been dead ten years; the possibility of any one in his place had never occurred to her; then, too, she looked upon her mother as entirely too old for thoughts of that kind. But Mrs. Merrill had her own views, which she kept concealed behind her pretty, placid exterior. She always welcomed the opportunity of being left alone of an evening, because she realized the very serious drawback that the persistent presence of a pretty, well-grown daughter might be if a wooer would wish to woo. She knew perfectly well that if Dr. Ellridge called, Lily would wonder why he called, and would sit all the evening in the same room with her fancy-work, entirely unsuspicious. Lily might even think he came to see her. Mrs. Merrill had a measure of slyness and secrecy which her daughter did not inherit. Lily was not brilliant, but she was as entirely sweet and open as the flower for which she was named. She was emotional, too, with an innocent emotionlessness, and very affectionate. Mrs. Merrill made almost no objection to Lily's going with Maria, but merely told her to wrap up warmly when she went out. Lily looked charming, with a great fur boa around her long, slender throat, and red velvet roses nestling under the brim of her black hat against the soft puff of her brown hair. She bent over her mother and kissed her.
"I hope you won't be very lonesome, mother dear," she said.
Mrs. Merrill blushed a little. To-night she had confident hopes of the doctor's calling; she had even resolved upon a coup. "Oh no, I shall not be lonesome," she replied. "Norah isn't going out, you know."
"We shall not be gone long, anyway," Lily said, as she went out. She had not even noticed her mother's blush. She was not very acute. She ran across the yard, the dry grass of which shone like a carpet of crisp silver in the moonlight, and knocked on Maria's door. Maria answered her knock. She was all ready, and she had her aunt Eunice's fish-net bag and her armful of parcels.
"Here, let me take some of them, dear," said Lily, in her cooing voice, and she gathered up some of the parcels under her long, supple arm.
Maria's aunt Maria followed her to the door. "Now, mind you don't go into that house," said she. "Just leave the things and run right home; and if you see anybody who looks suspicious, go right up to a house and knock. I don't feel any too safe about you two girls going, anyway."
Aunt Maria spoke in a harsh, croaking voice; she had a cold. Maria seized her by the shoulders and pushed her back, laughingly.
"You go straight in the house," said she. "And don't you worry. Lily and I both have hat-pins, and we can both run, and there's nothing to be afraid of, anyway."
"Well, I don't half like the idea," croaked Aunt Maria, retreating.
Lily and Maria went on their way. Lily looked affectionately at her companion, whose pretty face gained a singular purity of beauty from the moonlight.
"How good you are, dear," she said.
"Nonsense!" replied Maria. Somehow all at once the consciousness of her secret, which was always with her, like some hidden wound, stung her anew. She thought suddenly how Lily would not think her good at all if she knew what an enormous secret she was hiding from her, of what duplicity she was guilty.
"Yes, you are good," said Lily, "to take all this trouble to get that poor little thing clothes."
"Oh, as for that," said Maria, "Mr. George Ramsey is the one to be thanked. It was his money that bought the things, you know."
"He is good, too," said Lily, and her voice was like a song with cadences of tenderness.
Maria started and glanced at her, then looked away again. A qualm of jealousy, of which she was ashamed, seized her. She gave her head a toss, and repeated, with a sort of defiance, "Yes, he is good enough, I suppose."
"I think you are real sweet," said Lily, "and I do think George Ramsey is splendid."
"I don't see anything very remarkable about him," said Maria.
"Don't you think he is handsome?"
"I don't know. I don't suppose I ever think much about a man being handsome. I don't like handsome men, anyway. I don't like men, anyway, when it comes to that."
"George Ramsey is very nice," said Lily, and there was an accent in her speech which made the other girl glance at her. Lily's face was turned aside, although she was clinging close to Maria's arm, for she was in reality afraid of being out in the night with another girl.
They walked along in silence after that. When they came to the covered bridge which crossed the river, Lily forced Maria into a run until they reached the other side.
"It is awful in here," she said, in a fearful whisper.
Maria laughed. She herself did not feel the least fear, although she was more imaginative than the other girl. At that time a kind of rage against life itself possessed her which made her insensible to ordinary fear. She felt that she had been hardly used, and she was, in a measure, at bay. She knew that she could fight anything until she died, and beyond that there was nothing certainly to fear. She had become abnormal because of her strained situation as regarded society. However, she ran because Lily wished her to do so, and they soon emerged from the dusty tunnel of the bridge, with its strong odor of horses, and glimpses between the sides of the silver current of the river, into the moon-flooded road.
After the bridge came the school-house, then, a half-mile beyond that, the Ramsey house. The front windows were blazing with light, and the sound of a loud, drunken voice came from within.
Lily shrank and clung closely to Maria.
"Oh, Maria, I am awfully afraid to go to the door," she whispered. "Just hear that. Eugene Ramsey must be home drunk, and—and perhaps the other man, too. I am afraid. Don't let's go there."
Maria looked about her. "You see that board fence, then?" she said to Lily, and as she spoke she pointed to a high board fence on the other side of the street, which was completely in shadow.
"Well, if you are afraid, just go and stand straight against the fence. You will be in shadow, and if you don't move nobody can possibly see you. Then I will go to the door and leave the things."
"Oh, Maria, aren't you afraid?"
"No, I am not a bit afraid."
"You won't go in, honest?"
"No, I won't go in. Run right over there."
Lily released her hold of Maria's arm and made a fluttering break for the fence, against which she shrank and became actually invisible as a shadow. Maria marched up to the Ramsey door and knocked loudly. Mrs. Ramsey came to the door, and Maria thrust the parcels into her hands and began pulling them rapidly out of the fish-net bag. Mrs. Ramsey cast a glance behind her at the lighted room, through which was visible the same man whom Maria had seen before, and also another, and swung the door rapidly together, so that she stood in the dark entry, only partly lighted by the moonlight.
"I have brought some things for Jessy to wear to school, Mrs. Ramsey," said Maria.
"Thank you," Mrs. Ramsey mumbled, doubtfully, with still another glance at the closed door, through which shone lines and chinks of light.
"There are enough for her to be warmly clothed, and you will see to it that she has them on, won't you?" said Maria. Her voice was quite sweet and ingratiating, and not at all patronizing.
Suddenly the woman made a clutch at her arm. "You are a good young one, doin' so much for my young one," she whispered. "Now you'd better git up and git. They've been drinkin'. Git!"
"You will see that Jessy has the things to wear Monday, won't you?" said Maria.
"Sure." Suddenly the woman wiped her eyes and gave a maudlin sob. "You're a good young one," she whimpered. "Now, git."
Maria ran across the road as the door closed after her. She did not know that Mrs. Ramsey had given the parcels which she had brought a toss into another room, and when she entered the room in which the men were carousing and was asked who had come to the door, had replied, "The butcher for his bill," to be greeted with roars of laughter. She did, indeed, hear the roars of laughter. Lily slunk along swiftly beside the fence by her side. Maria caught her by the arm. Curiously enough, while she was not afraid for herself, she did feel a little fear now for her companion. The two girls hurried until they reached the bridge, and ran the whole length. On the other side, coming into the lighted main street of Amity, they felt quite safe.
"Did you see any of those dreadful men?" gasped Lily.
"I just caught a glimpse of them, then Mrs. Ramsey shut the door," said Maria.
"They were drunk, weren't they?"
"I shouldn't wonder."
"I do think it was an awful place to go to," said Lily, with a little sigh of relief that she was out of it.
The girls went along the street until they reached the Ramsey house, next the one where Maria lived. Suddenly a man's figure appeared from the gate. It was almost as if he had been watching.
"Good-evening," he said, and the girls saw that he was George Ramsey.
"Good-evening, Mr. Ramsey," responded Maria. She felt Lily's arm tremble in hers. George walked along with them. "I have been to carry the presents which I bought with your money," said Maria.
"Good heavens! You don't mean that you two girls have been all alone up there?" said George.
"Why, yes," said Maria. "Why not?"
"Weren't you afraid?"
"Maria isn't afraid of anything," Lily's sweet, little, tremulous voice piped on the other side.
George was walking next Maria. There was a slight and very gentle accusation in the voice.
"It wasn't safe," said George, soberly, "and I should have been glad to go with you."
Maria laughed. "Well, here we are, safe and sound," she said. "I didn't see anything to be much afraid of."
"All the same, they are an awful set there," said George. They had reached Maria's door, and he added, "Suppose you walk along with me, Miss Edgham, and I will see Lily home." George had been to school with Lily, and had always called her by her first name.
Maria again felt that little tremor of Lily's arm in hers, and did not understand it. "All right," she said.
The three walked to Lily's door, and had said good-night, when Lily, who was, after all, the daughter of her mother, although her little artifices were few and innocent, had an inspiration. She discovered that she had lost her handkerchief.
"I think I took it out when we reached your gate, Mr. Ramsey," she said, timidly, for she felt guilty.
It was quite true that the handkerchief was not in her muff, in which she had carried it, but there was a pocket in her coat which she did not investigate.
They turned back, looking along the frozen ground.
"Never mind," Lily said, cheerfully, when they had reached the Ramsey gate and returned to the Edgham's, and the handkerchief was not forthcoming, "it was an old one, anyway. Good-night."
She knew quite well that George Edgham would do what he did—walk home with her the few steps between her house and Maria's, and that Maria would not hesitate to say good-night and enter her own door.
"I guess I had better go right in," said Maria. "Aunt Maria has a cold, and she may worry and be staying up."
Lily was entirely happy at walking those few steps with George Ramsey. He had pulled her little hand through his arm in a school-boy sort of fashion. He left her at the door with a friendly good-night, but she had got what she wanted. He had not gone those few steps alone with Maria. Lily loved Maria, but she did not want George Ramsey to love her.
When Lily entered the house, to her great astonishment she found Dr. Ellridge there. He was seated beside her mother, who was lying on the sofa.
"Why, mother, what is it—are you sick?" Lily cried, anxiously, while the doctor looked with admiration at her face, glowing with the cold.
"I had one of my attacks after supper, and sent Norah for Dr. Ellridge. I thought I had better," Mrs. Merrill explained, feebly. She sighed and looked at the doctor, who understood perfectly, but did not betray himself. He was, in fact, rather flattered.
"Yes, your mother has been feeling quite badly, but she will be all right now," he said to Lily.
"I am sorry you did not feel well, mother," Lily said, sweetly. Then she got her fancy-work from her little silk bag on the table and seated herself, after removing her wraps.
Her mother sighed. The doctor's mouth assumed a little, humorous pucker.
Lily looked at her mother with affectionate interest. She was quite accustomed to slight attacks of indigestion which her mother often had, and was not much alarmed, still she felt a little anxious. "You are sure you are better, mother?" she said.
"Oh yes, she is much better," the doctor answered for her. "There is nothing for you to be alarmed about."
"I am so glad," said Lily.
She took another stitch in her fancy-work, and her beautiful face took on an almost seraphic expression; she was thinking of George Ramsey. She hardly noticed when the doctor took his leave, and she did not in the least understand her mother's sigh when the door closed. For her the gates of love were wide open, but she had no conception that for her mother they were not shut until she should go to heaven to join her father.
The next evening Maria, as usual, went to church with her two aunts. Henry Stillman remained at home reading the Sunday paper. He took a certain delight in so doing, although he knew, in the depths of his soul, that his delight was absurd. He knew perfectly well that it did not make a feather's weight of difference in the universal scheme of things that he, Henry Stillman, should remain at home and read the columns of scandal and politics in that paper, instead of going to church, and yet he liked to think that his small individuality and its revolt because of its injuries at the hands of fate had its weight, and was at least a small sting of revenge.
He watched his wife adjust her bonnet before the looking-glass in the sitting-room, and arrange carefully the bow beneath her withered chin, and a great pity for her, because she was no longer as she had been, but was so heavily marked by time, and a great jealousy that she should not lose the greatest of all things, which he himself had lost, came over him. As she—a little, prim, mild woman, in her old-fashioned winter cape and her bonnet, with its stiff tuft of velvet pansies—passed him, he caught her thin, black-gloved hand and drew her close to him.
"I'm glad you are going to church, Eunice," he said.
Eunice colored, and regarded him with a kind of abashed wonder.
"Why don't you come, too, Henry?" she said, timidly.
"No, I've quit," replied Henry. "I've quit begging where I don't get any alms; but as for you, if you get anything that satisfies your soul, for God's sake hold on to it, Eunice, and don't let it go." Then he pulled her bonneted head down and kissed her thin lips, with a kind of tenderness which was surprising. "You've been a good wife, Eunice," he said.
Eunice laid her hand on his shoulder and looked at him a second. She was almost frightened. Outward evidences of affection had not been frequent between them of late years, or indeed ever. They were New-Englanders to the marrow of their bones. Anything like an outburst of feeling or sentiment, unless in case of death or disaster, seemed abnormal. Henry realized his wife's feeling, and he smiled up at her.
"We are getting to be old folks," he said, "and we've had more bitter than sweet in life, and we have neither of us ever said much as to how we felt to each other, but—I never loved you as much as I love you now, Eunice, and I've taken it into my head to say it."
Eunice's lips quivered a little and her eyes reddened. "There ain't a woman in Amity who has had so good a husband as I have all these years, if you don't go to meeting," she replied. Then she added, after a second's pause: "I didn't know as you did feel just as you used to, Henry. I didn't know as any man did. I know I've lost my looks, and—"
"I can seem to see your looks, brighter than ever they were, in your heart," said Henry. He colored himself a little at his own sentiment. Then he pulled her face down to his again and gave her a second kiss. "Now run along to your meeting," he said. "Have you got enough on? The wind sounds cold."
"Yes," replied Eunice. "This cape's real thick. I put a new lining in it this winter, you know, and, besides, I've got my crocheted jacket under it. I'm as warm as toast."
Eunice, after she had gone out in the keen night air with her sister-in-law and her niece, reflected with more uneasiness than pleasure upon her husband's unwonted behavior.
"Does it seem to you that Henry looks well lately?" she asked the elder Maria, as they hurried along.
"Yes; why not?" returned Maria.
"I don't know. It seems to me he's been losing flesh."
"Nonsense!" said Maria. "I never saw him looking better than he does now. I was thinking only this morning that he was making a better, healthier old man than he was as a young man. But I do wish he would go to meeting. I don't think his mind is right about some things. Suppose folks do have troubles. They ought to be led to the Lord by them, instead of pulling back. Henry hasn't had anything more to worry him, nor half as much, as most men. He don't take things right. He ought to go to meeting."
"I guess he's just as good as a good many who do go to meeting," returned Eunice, with unwonted spirit.
"I don't feel competent to judge as to that," replied Maria, with a tone of aggravating superiority. Then she added, "'By their works ye shall know them.'"
"I would give full as much for Henry's chances as for some who go to meeting every Sunday of their lives," said Eunice, with still more spirit. "And as for trials, they weigh heavier on some than on others."
Then young Maria, who had been listening uneasily, broke in. She felt herself a strong partisan of her Aunt Eunice, for she adored her uncle, but she merely said that she thought Uncle Henry did look a little thin, and she supposed he was tired Sunday, and it was the only day he had to rest; then she abruptly changed the whole subject by wondering if the Ramseys across the river would let Jessy go to church if she trimmed a hat for her with some red velvet and a feather which she had in her possession.
"No, they wouldn't!" replied her aunt Maria, sharply, at once diverted. "I can tell you just exactly what they would do, if you were to trim up a hat with that red velvet and that feather and give it to that young one. Her good-for-nothing mother would have it on her own head in no time, and go flaunting out in it with that man that boards there."
Nothing could excel the acrimonious accent with which Aunt Maria weighed down the "man who boards there," and the acrimony was heightened by the hoarseness of her voice. Her cold was still far from well, but Aunt Maria stayed at home from church for nothing short of pneumonia.
The church was about half a mile distant. The meeting was held in a little chapel built out like an architectural excrescence at the side of the great, oblong, wooden structure, with its piercing steeple. The chapel windows blazed with light. People were flocking in. As they entered, a young lady began to play on an out-of-tune piano, which Judge Josiah Saunders had presented to the church. She played a Moody-and-Sankey hymn as a sort of prologue, although nobody sang it. It was a curious custom which prevailed in the Amity church. A Moody-and-Sankey hymn was always played in evening meetings instead of the morning voluntary on the great organ.
Maria and her two aunts moved forward and seated themselves. Maria looked absently at the smooth expanse of hair which showed below the hat of the girl who was playing. The air was played very slowly, otherwise the little audience might have danced a jig to it. Maria thought of the meetings which she used to attend in Edgham, and how she used to listen to the plaint of the whippoorwill on the river-bank while the little organ gave out its rich, husky drone. This, somehow, did not seem so religious to her. She remembered how she had used to be conscious of Wollaston Lee's presence, and how she had hoped he would walk home with her, and she reflected with what shame and vague terror she now held him constantly in mind. Then she thought of George Ramsey, and directly, without seeing him, she became aware that he was seated on her right and was furtively glancing at her. A wild despair seized her at the thought that he might offer to accompany her home, and how she must not allow it, and how she wanted him to do so. She kept her head steadfastly averted. The meeting dragged on. Men rose and spoke and prayed, at intervals the out-of-tune piano was invoked. A woman behind Maria sang contralto with a curious effect, as if her head were in a tin-pail. There were odd, dull, metallic echoes about it which filled the whole chapel. The woman's daughter had some cheap perfume on her handkerchief, and she was incessantly removing it from her muff. A man at the left coughed a good deal. Maria saw in front of her Lily Merrill's graceful brown head, in a charming hat with red roses under the brim, and a long, soft, brown feather. Lily's mother was not with her. Dr. Ellridge did not attend evening meetings, and Mrs. Merrill always remained at home in the hope that he might call.
After church was over, Maria stuck closely to her aunts. She even pushed herself between them, but they did not abet her. Both Eunice and Aunt Maria had seen George Ramsey, and they had their own views. Maria could not tell how it happened, but at the door of the chapel she found herself separated from both her aunts, and George Ramsey was asking if he might accompany her home. Maria obeyed her instincts, although the next moment she could have killed herself for it. She smiled, and bowed, and tucked her little hand into the crook of the young man's offered arm. She did not see her aunts exchanging glances of satisfaction.
"It will be a real good chance for her," said Eunice.
"Hush, or somebody will hear you," said Maria, in a sharp, pleased tone, as she and her sister-in-law walked together down the moonlit street.
Maria did not see Lily Merrill's start and look of piteous despair as she took George's arm. Lily was just behind her. Maria, in fact, saw nothing. She might have been walking in a vacuum of emotion.
"It is a beautiful evening," said George Ramsey, and his voice trembled a little.
"Yes, beautiful," replied Maria.
Afterwards, thinking over their conversation, she could not remember that they had talked about anything else except the beauty of the evening, but had dwelt incessantly upon it, like the theme of a song.
The aunts lagged behind purposely, and Maria went in Eunice's door. She thought that her niece would ask George to come in and she would not be in the way. Henry looked inquiringly at the two women, who had an air of mystery, and Maria responded at once to his unspoken question.
"George Ramsey is seeing her home," she said, "and the front-door key is under the mat, and I thought Maria could ask him in, and I would go home through the cellar, and not be in the way. Three is a company." Maria said the last platitude with a silly simper.
"I never saw anything like you women," said Henry, with a look of incredulous amusement. "I suppose you both of you have been making her wedding-dress, and setting her up house-keeping, instead of listening to the meeting."
"I heard every word," returned Maria, with dignity, "and it was a very edifying meeting. It would have done some other folks good if they had gone, and as for Maria, she can't teach school all her days, and here is her father with a second wife."
"Well, you women do beat the Dutch," said her brother, with a tenderly indulgent air, as if he were addressing children.
Aunt Maria lingered in her brother's side of the house, talking about various topics. She hesitated even about her stealthy going through the cellar, lest she should disturb Maria and her possible lover. Now and then she listened. She stood close to the wall. Finally she said, with a puzzled look to Eunice, who was smoothing out her bonnet-strings, "It's queer, but I can't hear them talking."
"Maybe he didn't come in," said Eunice.
"If they are in the parlor, you couldn't hear them," said Henry, still with his half-quizzical, half-pitying air.
"She would have taken him in the parlor—I should think she would have known enough to," said Eunice; "and you can't always hear talking in the parlor in this room."
Maria made a move towards her brother's parlor, on the other side of the tiny hall.
"I guess you are right," said she, "and I know she would have taken him in there. I started a fire in there on purpose before I went to meeting. It was borne in upon me that somebody might come home with her."
Maria tiptoed into the parlor, with Eunice, still smoothing her bonnet-strings, at her heels. Both women stood close to the wall, papered with white-and-gold paper, and listened.
"I can't hear a single thing," said Maria.
"I can't either," said Eunice. "I don't believe he did come in."
"It's dreadful queer, if he didn't," said Maria, "after the way he eyed her in meeting."
"Suppose you go home through the cellar, and see," said Eunice.
"I guess I will," said Maria. "I'll knock low on the wall when I get home, if he isn't there."
The cellar stairs connected with the kitchen on either side of the Stillman house. Both women flew out into the kitchen, and Maria disappeared down the cellar stairs, with a little lamp which Eunice lit for her. Then Eunice waited. Presently there came a muffled knock on the wall.
"No, he didn't come in," Eunice said to her husband, as she re-entered the sitting-room.
Suddenly Eunice pressed her ear close to the sitting-room wall. Two treble voices were audible on the other side, but not a word of their conversation. "Maria and she are talking," said Eunice.
What Aunt Maria was saying was this, in a tone of sharp wonder:
"Where is he?"
"Who?" responded Maria.
"Why, you know as well as I do—George Ramsey." Aunt Maria looked sharply at her niece. "I hope you asked him in, Maria Edgham?" said she.
"No, I didn't," said Maria.
"Why didn't you?"
"I was tired, and I wanted to go to bed."
"Wanted to go to bed? Why, it's only a little after nine o'clock!"
"Well, I can't help it, I'm tired." Maria spoke with a weariness which was unmistakable. She looked away from her aunt with a sort of blank despair.
Aunt Maria continued to regard her. "You do act the queerest of any girl I ever saw," said she. "There was a nice fire in the parlor, and I thought you could offer him some refreshments. There is some of that nice cake, and some oranges, and I would have made some cocoa."
"I didn't feel as if I could sit up," Maria said again, in her weary, hopeless voice. She went out into the kitchen, got a little lamp, and returned. "Good-night," she said to her aunt.
"Good-night," replied Aunt Maria. "You are a queer girl. I don't see what you think."
Maria went up-stairs, undressed, and went to bed. After she was in bed she could see the reflection of her aunt's sitting-room lamp on the ground outside, in a slanting shaft of light. Then it went out, and Maria knew that her aunt was also in bed in her little room out of the sitting-room. Maria could not go to sleep. She heard the clock strike ten, then eleven. Shortly after eleven she heard a queer sound, as of small stones or gravel thrown on her window. Maria was a brave girl. Her first sensation was one of anger.
"What is any one doing such a thing as that for?" she asked herself. She rose, threw a shawl over her shoulders, and went straight to the window next the Merrill house, whence the sound had come. She opened it cautiously and peered out. Down on the ground below stood a long, triangle-shaped figure, like a night-moth.
"Who is it?" Maria called, in a soft voice. She was afraid, for some reason which she could not define, of awakening her aunt. She was more afraid of that than anything else.
A little moan answered her; the figure moved as if in distress.
"Who is it? What do you want?" Maria asked again.
A weak voice answered her then, "It's I."
"Who's I? Lily?"
"Yes. Oh, do let me in, Maria." Lily's voice ended in a little, hysterical sob.
"Hush," said Maria, "or Aunt Maria will hear you. Wait a minute." Maria unlocked her door with the greatest caution, opened it, and crept down-stairs. Then she unlocked and opened the front door. Luckily Aunt Maria's room was some feet in the rear. "Come quick," Maria whispered, and Lily came running up to her. Then Maria closed and locked the front door, while Lily stood trembling and waiting. Then she led her up-stairs in the dark. Lily's slender fingers closed upon her with a grasp of ice. When they were once in Maria's room, with the door closed and locked, Maria took hold of Lily violently by the shoulders. She felt at once rage and pity for her.
"What on earth is the matter, Lily Merrill, that you come over here this time of night?" she asked. Then she added, in a tone of horror, "Lily Merrill, you haven't a thing on but a skirt and your night-gown under your shawl. Have you got anything on your feet?"
"Slippers," answered Lily, meekly. Then she clung to Maria and began to sob hysterically.
"Come, Lily Merrill, you just stop this and get into bed," said Maria. She unwound Lily's shawl, pulled off her skirt, and fairly forced her into bed. Then she got in beside her. "What on earth is the matter?" she asked again.
Lily's arm came stealing around her and Lily's cold, wet cheek touched her face. "Oh, Maria!" she sobbed, under her breath.
"Well, what is it all about?"
"Oh, Maria, are—are you—"
"Am I what?"
"Are you going with him?"
"With George—with George Ramsey?" A long, trembling sob shook Lily.
"I am going with nobody," answered Maria, in a hard voice.
"But he came home with you. I saw him; I did, Maria." Lily sobbed again.
"Well, what of it?" asked Maria, impatiently. "I didn't care anything about his going home with me."
"Didn't he come in?"
"No, he didn't."
"Didn't you—ask him?"
"No, I didn't."
"Maria, aren't you going to marry him if he asks you?"
"No," said Maria, "I am never going to marry him, if that is what you want to know. I am never going to marry George Ramsey."
"I should think you would be ashamed of yourself. I should think any girl would, acting so," said Maria. Her voice was a mere whisper, but it was cruel. She felt that she hated Lily. Then she realized how icy cold the girl was and how she trembled from head to feet in a nervous chill. "You'll catch your death," she said.
"Oh, I don't care if I do!" Lily said, in her hysterical voice, which had now a certain tone of comfort.
Maria considered again how much she despised and hated her, and again Lily shook with a long tremor. Maria got up and tiptoed over to her closet, where she kept a little bottle of wine which the doctor had ordered when she first came to Amity. It was not half emptied. A wineglass stood on the mantel-shelf, and Maria filled it with the wine by the light of the moon. Then she returned to Lily.
"Here," she said, still in the same cruel voice. "Sit up and drink this."
"What is it?" moaned Lily.
"Never mind what it is. Sit up and drink it."
Lily sat up and obediently drank the wine, every drop.
"Now lie down and keep still, and go to sleep, and behave yourself," said Maria.
Lily tried to say something, but Maria would not listen to her.
"Don't you speak another word," said she. "Keep still, or Aunt Maria will be up. Lie still and go to sleep."
It was not long before, warmed by the wine and comforted by Maria's assertion that she was never going to marry George Ramsey, that Lily fell asleep. Maria lay awake hearing her long, even breaths, and she felt how she hated her, how she hated herself, how she hated life. There was no sleep for her. Just before dawn she woke Lily, bundled her up in some extra clothing, and went with her across the yard, home.
"Now go up to your own room just as still as you can," said she, and her voice sounded terrible even in her own ears. She waited until she heard the key softly turn in the door of the Merrill house. Then she sped home and up to her own room. Then she lay down in bed again and waited for broad daylight.
When Maria dressed herself the next morning, she had an odd, shamed expression as she looked at herself in her glass while braiding her hair. It actually seemed to her as if she herself, and not Lily Merrill, had so betrayed herself and given way to an unsought love. She felt as if she saw Lily instead of herself, and she was at once humiliated and angered. She had to pass Lily's house on her way to school, and she did not once look up, although she had a conviction that Lily was watching her from one of the sitting-room windows. It was a wild winter day, with frequent gusts of wind swaying the trees to the breaking of the softer branches, and flurries of snow. It was hard work to keep the school-house warm. Maria, in the midst of her perturbation, had a comforted feeling at seeing Jessy Ramsey in her warm clothing. She passed her arm around the little girl at recess; it was so cold that only a few of the boys went outside.
"Have you got them on, dear?" she whispered.
"Yes'm," said Jessy. Then, to Maria's consternation, she caught her hand and kissed it, and began sobbing. "They're awful warm," sobbed Jessy Ramsey, looking at Maria with her little, convulsed face.
"Hush, child," said Maria. "There's nothing to cry about. Mind you keep them nice. Have you got a bureau-drawer you can put them in?—those you haven't on? Don't cry. That's silly."
"I 'ain't got no bureau," sobbed Jessy. "But—"
"Haven't any," corrected Maria.
"Haven't any bureau-drawer," said the child. "But I got a box what somethin'—"
"That something," said Maria.
"That something came from the store in, an' I've got 'em—"
"Them all packed away. They're awful warm."
"Don't cry, dear," said Maria.
The other children did not seem to be noticing them. Suddenly Maria, who still had her arm around the thin shoulders of the little girl, stooped and kissed her rather grimy but soft little cheek. As she did so, she experienced the same feeling which she used to have when caressing her little sister Evelyn. It was a sort of rapture of tenderness and protection. It was the maternal instinct glorified and rendered spiritual by maidenhood, and its timid desires. Jessy Ramsey's eyes looked up into Maria's like blue violets, and Maria noticed with a sudden throb that they were like George Ramsey's. Jessy, coming as she did from a degenerate, unbeautiful branch of the family-tree, had yet some of the true Ramsey features, and, among others, she had the true Ramsey eyes. They were large and very dark blue, and they were set in deep, pathetic hollows. As she looked up at Maria, it was exactly as if George were looking at her with pleading and timid love. Maria took her arm sudden away from the child.
"Be you mad?" asked Jessy, humbly.
"No, I am not," replied Maria. "But you should not say 'be you mad'; you should say are you angry."
"Yes'm," said Jessy Ramsey.
Jessy withdrew, still with timid eyes of devotion fixed upon her teacher, and Maria seated herself behind her desk, took out some paper, and began to write an exercise for the children to copy upon the black-board. She was trembling from head to foot. She felt exactly as if George Ramsey had been looking at her with eyes of love, and she remembered that she was married, and it seemed to her that she was horribly guilty.
Maria never once looked again at Jessy Ramsey, at least not fully in the eyes, during the day. The child's mouth began to assume a piteous expression. After school that afternoon she lingered, as usual, to walk the little way before their roads separated, so to speak, in her beloved teacher's train. But Maria spoke quite sharply to her.
"You had better run right home, Jessy," she said. "It is snowing, and you will get cold. I have a few things to see to before I go. Run right home."
Poor little Jessy Ramsey, who was as honestly in love with her teacher as she would ever be with any one in her life, turned obediently and went away. Maria's heart smote her.
"Jessy," she called after her, and the child turned back half frightened, half radiant. Maria put her arm around her and kissed her. "Wash your face before you come to school to-morrow, dear," she said. "Now, good-bye."
"Yes'm," said Jessy, and she skipped away quite happy. She thought teacher had rebuffed her because her face was not washed, and that did not trouble her in the least. Lack of cleanliness or lack of morals, when brought home to them, could hardly sting any scion of that branch of the Ramseys. Lack of affection could, however, and Jessy was quite happy in thinking that teacher loved her, and was only vexed because her face was dirty. Jessy had not gone a dozen paces from the school-house before she stopped, scooped up some snow in a little, grimy hand, and rubbed her cheeks violently. Then she wiped them on her new petticoat. Her cheeks tingled frightfully, but she felt that she was obeying a mandate of love.
Maria did not see her. She in reality lingered a little over some exercises in the school-house before she started on her way home. It was snowing quite steadily, and the wind still blew. The snow made the wind seem as evident as the wings of a bird. Maria hurried along. When she reached the bridge across the Ramsey River she saw a girl standing as if waiting for her. The girl was all powdered with snow and she had on a thick veil, but Maria immediately knew that she was Lily Merrill. Lily came up to her as she reached her with almost an abject motion. She had her veiled face lowered before the storm, and she carried herself as if her spirit also was lowered before some wind of fate. She pressed timidly close to Maria when she reached her.
"I've been waiting for you, Maria," she said.
"Have you?" returned Maria, coldly.
"Yes, I wanted to see you, and I didn't know as I could, unless I met you. I didn't know whether you would have a fire in your room to-night, and I thought your aunt would be in the sitting-room, and I thought you wouldn't be apt to come over to my house, it storms so."
"No, I shouldn't," Maria said, shortly.
Then Lily burst out in a piteous low wail, a human wail piercing the wail of the storm. The two girls were quite alone on the bridge.
"Oh, Maria," said Lily, "I did want you to know how dreadfully ashamed I was of what I did last night."
"I should think you would be," Maria said, pitilessly. She walked on ahead, with her mouth in a straight line, and did not look at the other girl.
Lily came closer to her and passed one of her arms through Maria's and pressed against her softly. "I wanted to tell you, too," she said, "that I made an excuse about—that handkerchief the other night. I thought it was in my coat-pocket all the time. I did it just so he would go home with me last."
Maria looked at her. "I never saw such a girl as you are, Lily Merrill," she said, contemptuously, but in spite of herself there was a soft accent in her voice. It was not in Maria's nature to be hard upon a repentant sinner.
Lily leaned her face against Maria's snow-powdered shoulder. "I was dreadfully ashamed of it," said she, "and I thought I must tell you, Maria. You don't think so very badly of me, do you? I know I was awful." The longing for affection and approbation in Lily's voice gave it almost a singing quality. She was so fond of love and approval that the withdrawal of it smote her like a frost of the spirit.
"I think it was terribly bold of you, if you want to know just what I think," Maria said; "and I think you were very deceitful. Before I would do such a thing to get a young man to go home with me, I would—" Maria paused. Suddenly she remembered that she had her secret, and she felt humbled before this other girl whom she was judging. She became conscious to such an extent of the beam in her own eye that she was too blinded to see the mote in that of poor Lily, who, indeed, was not to blame, being simply helpless before her own temperament and her own emotions.
"I know I did do a dreadful thing," moaned Lily.
Then Maria pressed the clinging arm under her own.
"Well," said she, as she might have spoken to a child, "if I were you I would not think any more about it, Lily, I would put it out of my mind. Only, I would not, if I were you, and really wanted a young man to care for me, let him think I was running after him."
As she said the last, Maria paled. She glanced at Lily's beautiful face under the veil, and realized that it might be very easy for any young man to care for such a girl, who had, in reality, a sweet nature, besides beauty, if she only adopted the proper course to win him, and that it was obviously her (Maria's) duty to teach her to win him.
"I know it. I won't again," Lily said, humbly.
The two girls walked on; they had crossed the bridge. Suddenly Lily plucked up a little spirit.
"Say, Maria," said she.
"What is it, dear?"
"I just happened to think. Mother was asked to tea to Mrs. Ralph Wright's to-night, but she isn't going. Is your aunt going?"
"Yes, I believe she is," said Maria.
"She won't be home before eight o'clock, will she?"
"No, I don't suppose she will. They are to have tea at six, I believe."
"Then I am coming over after mother and I have tea. I have something I want to tell you."
"All right, dear," replied Maria, hesitatingly.
When Maria got home she found her aunt Maria all dressed, except for her collar-fastening. She was waiting for Maria to attend to that. Her thin gray-blond hair was beautifully crimped, and she wore her best black silk dress. She was standing by the sitting-room window when Maria entered.
"I am glad you have come, Maria," said she. "I have been standing quite awhile. You are late."
"Yes, I am rather late," replied Maria. "But why on earth didn't you sit down?"
"Do you suppose I am going to sit down more than I can help in this dress?" said her aunt. "There is nothing hurts a silk dress more than sitting down in it. Now if you will hook my collar, Maria. I can do it, but I don't like to strain the seams by reaching round, and I didn't want to trail this dress down the cellar stairs to get Eunice to fasten it up." Aunt Maria bewailed the weather in a deprecating fashion while Maria was fastening the collar at the back of her skinny neck. "I never want to find fault with the weather," said she, "because, of course, the weather is regulated by Something higher than we are, and it must be for our best good, but I do hate to wear this dress out in such a storm, and I don't dare wear my cashmere. Mrs. Ralph Wright is so particular she would be sure to think I didn't pay her proper respect."
"You can wear my water-proof," said Maria. "I didn't wear it to-day, you know. I didn't think the snow would do this dress any harm. The water-proof will cover you all up."
"Well, I suppose I can, and can pin my skirt up," said Aunt Maria, in a resigned tone. "I don't want to find fault with the weather, but I do hate to pin up a black silk skirt."
"You can turn it right up around your waist, and fasten the braid to your belt, and then it won't hurt it," said Maria, consolingly.
"Well, I suppose I can. Your supper is all ready, Maria. There's bread and butter, and chocolate cake, and some oysters. I thought you wouldn't mind making yourself a little stew. I couldn't make it before you came, because it wouldn't be fit to eat. You know how. Be sure the milk is hot before you put the oysters in. There is a good fire."
"Oh yes, I know how. Don't you worry about me," said Maria, turning up her aunt's creaseless black silk skirt gingerly. It was rather incomprehensible to her that anybody should care so much whether a black silk skirt was creased or not, when the terrible undertone of emotions which underline the world, and are its creative motive, were in existence, but Maria was learning gradually to be patient with the small worries of others which seemed large to them, and upon which she herself could not place much stress. She stood at the window, when her aunt at last emerged from the house, and picked her way through the light snow, and her mouth twitched a little at the absurd, shapeless figure. Her Aunt Eunice had joined her, and she was not so shapeless. She held up her dress quite fashionably on one side, with a rather generous display of slender legs. Aunt Maria did not consider that her sister-in-law was quite careful enough of her clothes. "Henry won't always be earning," she often said to Maria. To-day she had eyed with disapproval Eunice's best black silk trailing from under her cape, when she entered the sitting-room. She had come through the cellar.
"Are you going that way, in such a storm, in your best black silk?" she inquired.
"I haven't any water-proof," replied Eunice, "and I don't see what else I can do."
"You might wear my old shawl spread out."
"I wouldn't go through the street cutting such a figure," said Eunice, with one of her occasional bursts of spirit. She was delighted to go. Nobody knew how this meek, elderly woman loved a little excitement. There were red spots on her thin cheeks, and she looked almost as if she had used rouge. Her eyes snapped.
"I should think you would turn your skirt up, anyway," said Aunt Maria. "You've got your black petticoat on, haven't you?"
"Yes," replied Eunice. "But if you think I am going right through the Main Street in my petticoat, you are mistaken. Snow won't hurt the silk any. It's a dry snow, and it will shake right off."
So Eunice, at the side of Aunt Maria, went with her dress kilted high, and looked as preternaturally slim as her sister-in-law looked stout. Maria, watching them, thought how funny they were. She herself was elemental, and they, in their desires and interests, were like motes floating on the face of the waters. Maria, while she had always like pretty clothes, had come to a pass wherein she relegated them to their proper place. She recognized many things as externals which she had heretofore considered as essentials. She had developed wonderfully in a few months. As she turned away from the window she caught a glimpse of Lily Merrill's lovely face in a window of the opposite house, above a mass of potted geraniums. Lily nodded, and smiled, and Maria nodded back again. Her heart sank at the idea of Lily's coming that evening, a sickening jealous dread of the confidence which she was to make to her was over her, and yet she said to herself that she had no right to have this dread. She prepared her supper and ate it, and had hardly cleared away the table and washed the dishes before Lily came flying across the yard before the storm-wind. Maria hurried to the door to let her in.
"Your aunt went, didn't she?" said Lily, entering, and shaking the flakes of snow from her skirts.
"I don't see why mother wouldn't go. Mother never goes out anywhere, and she isn't nearly as old as your aunts."
Lily and Maria seated themselves in the sitting-room before the stove. Lily looked at Maria, and a faint red overspread her cheeks. She began to speak, then she hesitated, and evidently said something which she had not intended.
"How pretty that is!" she said, pointing to a great oleander-tree in flower, which was Aunt Maria's pride.
"Yes, I think it is pretty."
"Lovely. The very prettiest one I ever saw." Lily hesitated again, but at last she began to speak, with the red on her cheeks brighter and her eyes turned away from Maria. "I wanted to tell you something, Maria," said she.
"Well?" said Maria. Her own face was quite pale and motionless. She was doing some fancy-work, embroidering a centre-piece, and she continued to take careful stitches.
"I know you thought I was awful, doing the way I did last night," said Lily, in her sweet murmur. She drooped her head, and the flush on her oval cheeks was like the flush on a wild rose. Lily wore a green house-dress, which set her off as the leaves and stem set off a flower. It was of some soft material which clung about her and displayed her tender curves. She wore at her throat an old cameo brooch which had belonged to her grandmother, and which had upon its onyx background an ivory head as graceful as her own. Maria, beside Lily, although she herself was very pretty, looked ordinary in her flannel blouse and black skirt, which was her school costume.
Maria continued taking careful stitches in the petals of a daisy which she was embroidering. "I think we have talked enough about it," she said.
"But I want to tell you something."
"Why don't you tell it, then?"
"I know you thought I did something awful, running across the yard and coming here in the night the way I did, and showing you that I—I, well, that I minded George Ramsey's coming home with you; but—look here, Maria, I—had a little reason."
Maria paled perceptibly, but she kept on steadily with her work.
Lily flushed more deeply. "George Ramsey has been home with me from evening meeting quite a number of times," she said.
"Has he?" said Maria.
"Yes. Of course we were walking the same way. He may not really have meant to see me home." There was a sort of innate honesty in Lily which always led her to retrieve the lapses from the strict truth when in her favor. "Maybe he didn't really mean to see me home, and sometimes he didn't offer me his arm," she added, with a childlike wistfulness, as if she desired Maria to reassure her.
"I dare say he meant to see you home," said Maria, rather shortly.
"I am not quite sure," said Lily. "But he did walk home with me quite a number of times, first and last, and you know we used to go to the same school, and a number of times then, when we were a good deal younger, he really did see me home, and—he kissed me good-night then. Of course he hasn't done that lately, because we were older."
"I should think not, unless you were engaged," said Maria.
"Of course not, but he has said several things to me. Maybe he didn't mean anything, but they sounded—I thought I would like to tell you, Maria. I have never told anybody, not even mother. Once he said my name just suited me, and once he asked me if I thought married people were happier, and once he said he thought it was a doubtful experiment for a man to marry and try to live either with his wife's mother or his own. You know, if he married me, it would have to be one way or the other. Do you think he meant anything, Maria?"
"I don't know," said Maria. "I didn't hear him."
"Well, I thought he spoke as if he meant it, but, of course, a girl can never be sure. I suppose men do say so many things they don't mean. Don't you?"
"Yes, I suppose they do."
"Do you think he did, Maria?" asked Lily, piteously.
"My dear child, I told you I didn't hear him, and I don't see how I can tell," repeated Maria, with a little impatience. It did seem hard to her that she should be so forced into a confidence of this kind, but an odd feeling of protective tenderness for Lily was stealing over her. She reached a certain height of nobility which she had never reached before, through this feeling.
"I know men so often say things when they mean nothing at all," Lily said again. "Perhaps he didn't mean anything. I know he has gone home with Agnes Sears several times, and he has talked to her a good deal when we have been at parties. Do you think she is pretty, Maria?"
"Yes, I think she is quite pretty," replied Maria.
"Do you think—she is better-looking than—I am?" asked Lily, feebly.
"No, of course I don't," said Maria. "You are a perfect beauty."
"Oh, Maria, do you think so?"
"Of course I do! You know it yourself as well as I do."
"No, honest, I am never quite sure, Maria. Sometimes it does seem to me when I am dressed up that I am really better-looking than some girls, but I am never quite sure that it isn't because it is I who am looking at myself. A girl wants to think she is pretty, you know, Maria, especially if she wants anybody to like her, and I can't ever tell."
"Well, you can rest easy about that," said Maria. "You are a perfect beauty. There isn't a girl in Amity to compare with you. You needn't have any doubt at all."
An expression of quite innocent and naive vanity overspread Lily's charming face. She cast a glance at herself in a glass which hung on the opposite wall, and smiled as a child might have done at her own reflection. "Do you think this green dress is becoming to me?" said she.
"But, Maria, do you suppose George Ramsey thinks I am so pretty?"
"I should think he must, if he has eyes in his head," replied Maria.
"But you are pretty yourself, Maria," said Lily, with the most open jealousy and anxiety, "and you are smarter than I am, and he is so smart. I do think he cares a great deal more for you than for me. I think he must, Maria."
"Nonsense!" said Maria. "Just because a young man walks home with me once you think he is in love with me." Maria tried to speak lightly and scornfully, but in spite of herself there was an accent of gratification in her tone. In spite of herself she forgot for the moment.
"I think he does, all the same," said Lily, dejectedly.
"Nonsense! He doesn't; and if he did, he would have to take it out in caring."
"Then you were in earnest about what you said last night?" said Lily, eagerly. "You really mean you wouldn't have George Ramsey if he asked you?"
"Not if he asked every day in the year for a hundred years."
"I guess you must have seen somebody else whom you liked," said Lily, and Maria colored furiously. Then Lily laughed. "Oh, you have!" she cried, with sudden glee. "You are blushing like anything. Do tell me, Maria."
"I have nothing to tell."
"Maria Edgham, you don't dare tell me you are not in love with anybody?"
"I should not answer a question of that kind to any other girl, anyway," Maria replied, angrily.
"You are. I know it," said Lily. "Don't be angry, dear. I am real glad."
"I didn't say I was in love, and there is nothing for you to be glad about," returned Maria, fairly scarlet with shame and rage. She tangled the silk with which she was working, and broke it short off. Maria was as yet not wholly controlled by herself.
"Why, you'll spoil that daisy," Lily said, wonderingly. She herself was incapable of any such retaliation upon inanimate objects. She would have carefully untangled her silk, no matter how deeply she suffered.
"I don't care if I do!" cried Maria.
"Well, I don't care. I am fairly sick of so much talk and thinking about love and getting married, as if there were nothing else."
"Maybe you are different, Maria," admitted Lily, in a humiliated fashion.
"I don't want to hear any more about it," Maria said, taking a fresh thread from her skein of white silk.
"But do you mean what you said?"
"Yes, I do, once for all. That settles it."
Lily looked at her wistfully. She did not find Maria as sympathetic as she wished. Then she glanced at her beautiful visage in the glass, and remembered what the other girl had said about her beauty, and again she smiled her childlike smile of gratified vanity and pleasure. Then suddenly the door-bell rang.
Lily gave a great start, and turned white as she looked at Maria. "It's George Ramsey," she whispered.
"Nonsense! How do you know?" asked Maria, laying her work on the table beside the lamp, and rising.
"I don't know. I do know."
"Nonsense!" Still Maria stood looking irresolutely at Lily.
"I know," said Lily, and she trembled perceptibly.
"I don't see how you can tell," said Maria. She made a step towards the door.
Lily sprang up. "I am going home," said she.
"Going home? Why?"
"He has come to see you, and I won't stay. I won't. I know you despised me for what I did the other night, and I won't do such a thing as to stay when he has come to see another girl. I am not quite as bad as that." Lily started towards her cloak, which lay over a chair.
Maria seized her by the shoulders with a nervous grip of her little hands. "Lily Merrill," said she, "if you stir, if you dare to stir to go home, I will not go to the door at all!"
Lily gasped and looked at her.
"I won't!" said Maria.
The bell rang a second time.
"You have got to go to the door," said Maria, with a sudden impulse.
Lily quivered under her hands.
"Why? Oh, Maria!"
"Yes, you have. You go to the door, and I will run up-stairs the back way to my room. I don't feel well to-night, anyway. I have an awful headache. You go to the door, and if it is—George Ramsey, you tell him I have gone to bed with a headache, and you have come over to stay with me because Aunt Maria has gone away. Then you can ask him in."
A flush of incredulous joy came over Lily's face.
"You don't mean it, Maria?" she whispered, faintly.
"Yes, I do. Hurry, or he'll go away."
"Have you got a headache, honest?"
"Yes, I have. Hurry, quick! If it is anybody else do as you like about asking him in. Hurry!"
With that Maria was gone, scudding up the back stairs which led out of the adjoining room. She gained her chamber as noiselessly as a shadow. The room was very dark except for a faint gleam on one wall from a neighbor's lamp. Maria stood still, listening, in the middle of the floor. She heard the front door opened, then she heard voices. She heard steps. The steps entered the sitting-room. Then she heard the voices in a steady flow. One of them was undoubtedly a man's. The bass resonances were unmistakable. A peal of girlish laughter rang out. Maria noiselessly groped her way to her bed, threw herself upon it, face down, and lay there shaking with silent sobs.
Maria did not hear Lily laugh again, although the conversation continued. In reality, Lily was in a state of extreme shyness, and was, moreover, filled with a sense of wrong-doing. There had been something about Maria's denial which had not convinced her. In her heart of hearts, the heart of hearts of a foolish but loving girl, who never meant anybody any harm, and, on the contrary, wished everybody well, although naturally herself first, she was quite sure that Maria also loved George Ramsey. She drooped before him with this consciousness when she opened the door, and the young man naturally started with a little surprise at the sight of her.
"Maria has gone to bed with a headache," she faltered, before George had time to inquire for her. Then she added, in response to the young man's look of astonishment, the little speech which Maria had prepared for her. "Her aunt has gone out, and so I came over to stay with her." Lily was a born actress. It was not her fault that a little accent of tender pity for Maria in her lonely estate, with her aunt away, and a headache, crept into her voice. She at the moment almost believed what she said. It became quite real to her.
"I am sorry Miss Edgham has a headache," said George, after a barely perceptible second of hesitation, "but, as long as she has, I may as well come in and make you a little call, Lily."
Lily quivered perceptibly. She tried to show becoming pride, but failed. "I should be very happy to have you," she said, "but—"
"Well, it is asking you to play second fiddle, and no mistake," laughed George Ramsey, "for I did think I would make Miss Edgham a little call. But, after all, the second fiddle is an indispensable thing, and you and I are old friends, Lily."
He could not help the admiration in his eyes as he looked at Lily. She carried a little lamp, and the soft light was thrown upon her lovely face, and her brown hair gleamed gold in it. No man could have helped admiring her. Lily had never been a very brilliant scholar, but she could read admiration for herself. She regained her self-possession.
"I don't mind playing second fiddle," said she. "I should be glad if I could play any fiddle. Come in, Mr. Ramsey."
"How very formal we have grown!" laughed George, as he took off his coat and hat in the icy little hall. "Why, don't you remember we went to school together? What is the use?"
"George, then," said Lily. Her voice seemed to caress the name.
The young man colored. He was of a stanch sort, but he was a man, and the adulation of such a beautiful girl as this touched him. He took the lamp out of her hand.
"Come in, then," he said; "but it is rather funny for me to be calling on you here, isn't it?"
"Funnier than it would be for you to call on me at my own house," said Lily, demurely, with a faint accent of reproach.
"Well, I must admit I am not very neighborly," George replied, with an apologetic air. "But, you see, I am really busy a good many evenings with accounts, and I don't go out very much."
Lily reflected that he had come to call on Maria, in spite of being busy, but she said nothing. She placed Maria's vacant chair for him beside the sitting-room stove.
"It is a hard storm," she said.
"Very. It is a queer night for Miss Edgham's aunt to go out, it seems to me."
"Mrs. Ralph Wright has a tea-party," said Lily. "Maria's aunt Eunice has gone, too. My mother was invited, but mother never goes out in the evening."
After these commonplace remarks, Lily seated herself opposite George Ramsey, and there was a little silence. Again the expression of admiration came into the young man's face, and the girl read it with delight. Sitting gracefully, her slender body outlined by the soft green of her dress, her radiant face showing above the ivory cameo brooch at her throat, she was charming. George Ramsey owned to himself that Lily was certainly a great beauty, but all the same he thought regretfully of the other girl, who was not such a beauty, but who had somehow appealed to him as no other girl had ever done. Then, too, Maria was in a measure new. He had known Lily all his life; the element of wonder and surprise was lacking in his consciousness of her beauty, and she also lacked something else which Maria had. Lily meant no more to him—that is, her beauty meant no more to him—than a symmetrical cherry-tree in the south yard, which was a marvel of scented beauty, humming with bees every spring. He had seen that tree ever since he could remember. He always looked upon it with pleasure when it was in blossom, yet it was not to him what a new tree, standing forth unexpectedly with its complement of flowers and bees, would have been. It was very unfortunate for Lily that George had known her all his life. In order really to attract him it would be necessary for him to discover something entirely new in her.
"It was very good of you to come in and stay with Miss Edgham while her aunt was gone," said George.
He felt terribly at a loss for conversation. He had, without knowing it, a sense of something underneath the externals which put a constraint upon him.
Lily had one of the truth-telling impulses which redeemed her from the artifices of her mother.
"Oh," said she, "I wanted to come. I proposed coming myself. It is dull evenings at home, and I did not know that Maria would go to bed or that you would come in."
"Well, mother has gone to that tea-party, too," said George, "and I looked over here and saw the light, and I thought I would just run in a minute."
For some unexplained reason tears were standing in Lily's eyes and her mouth quivered a little. George could not see, for the life of him, why she should be on the verge of tears. He felt a little impatient, but at the same time she became more interesting to him. He had never seen Lily weeping since the time when she was a child at school, and used to conceal her weeping little face in a ring of her right arm, as was the fashion among the little girls.
"This light must shine right in your sitting-room windows," said Lily, in a faint voice. She was considering how pitiful it was that George had not had the impulse to call upon her, Lily, when she was so lovely and loving in her green gown; and how even this little happiness was not really her own, but another girl's. She had not the least realization of how Maria was suffering, lying in her room directly overhead.
Maria suffered as she had never suffered before. George Ramsey was her first love; the others had been merely childish playthings. She was strangling love, and that is a desperate deed, and the strangler suffers more than love. Maria, with the memory of that marriage which was, indeed, no marriage, but the absurd travesty of one, upon her, was in almost a suicidal frame of mind. She knew perfectly well that if it had not been for that marriage secret which she held always in mind, that George Ramsey would continue to call, that they would become engaged, that her life might be like other women's. And now he was down there with Lily—Lily, in her green gown. She knew just how Lily would look at him, with her beautiful, soft eyes. She hated her, and yet she hated herself more than she hated her. She told herself that she had no good reason for hating another girl for doing what she herself had done—for falling in love with George Ramsey. She knew that she should never have made a confidant of another girl, as Lily had made of her. She realized a righteous contempt because of her weakness, and yet she felt that Lily was the normal girl, that nine out of ten would do exactly what she had done. And she also had a sort of pity for her. She could not quite believe that a young man like George Ramsey could like Lily, who, however beautiful she was, was undeniably silly. But then she reflected how young men were popularly supposed not to mind a girl's being silly if she was beautiful. Then she ceased to pity Lily, and hated her again. She became quite convinced that George Ramsey would marry her.
She had locked her door, and lay on her bed fully dressed. She made up her mind that when Aunt Maria came she would pretend to be asleep. She felt that she could not face Aunt Maria's wondering questions. Then she reflected that Aunt Maria would be home soon, and a malicious joy seized her that Lily would not have George Ramsey long to herself. Indeed, it was scarcely half-past eight before Maria heard the side-door open. Then she heard, quite distinctly, Aunt Maria's voice, although she could not distinguish the words. Maria laughed a little, smothered, hysterical laugh at the absurdity of the situation.
It was, in fact, ludicrous. Aunt Maria entered the sitting-room, a grotesque figure in her black skirt bundled up under Maria's waterproof, which was powdered with snow. She wore her old black bonnet, and the wind had tipped that rakishly to one side. She stared at Lily and George Ramsey, who both rose with crimson faces.
"Good-evening," Lily ventured, feebly.
"Good-evening, Miss Stillman," George said, following the girl's lead. Then, as he was more assured, he added that it was a very stormy night.
George had been sitting on one side of the stove, Lily on the other, in the chairs which Maria and Lily had occupied before the young man's arrival. They had both sprung up with a guilty motion when Aunt Maria entered. Aunt Maria stood surveying them. She did not return their good-evenings, nor George's advance with regard to the weather. Her whole face expressed severe astonishment. Her thin lips gaped slightly, her pale eyes narrowed. She continued to look at them, and they stood before her like culprits.
"Where's Maria gone?" said Aunt Maria, finally, in a voice which seemed to have an edge to it.
Then Lily spoke with soft and timid volubility. "Maria said her head ached so she thought she had better go to bed, Miss Stillman," she said.
"I didn't hear anything about any headache before I went away. Must have come on mighty sudden," said Aunt Maria.
"She said it ached very hard," repeated Lily. "And when the door-bell rang, when Mr. Ramsey came—"
"It's mighty queer she should have had a headache when George Ramsey rang the door-bell," said Aunt Maria.
"I guess it must have ached before," said Lily, faintly.
"I should suppose it must have," Aunt Maria said, sarcastically. "I don't see any reason why Maria's head should begin to ache when the door-bell rang."
"Of course," said Lily. "I suppose she just felt she couldn't talk, that was all."
"It's mighty queer," said Aunt Maria. She stood quite immovable. She was so stern that even her rakishly tipped bonnet did not seem at all funny. She looked at Lily and George Ramsey, and did not make a movement to remove her wraps.
Lily took a little, faltering step towards her. "You are all covered with snow, Miss Stillman," she said, in her sweet voice.
"I don't mind a little snow," said Aunt Maria.
"Won't you take this chair?" asked George Ramsey, pointing to the one which he had just vacated.
"No, thank you," replied Aunt Maria. "I ain't going to sit down. I've got on my best black silk, and I don't ever sit down in it when I can help it. I'm going to take it off and go to bed."
Then George Ramsey immediately made a movement towards his coat and hat, which lay on the lounge beside Lily's wraps. "Well," he said, with an attempt to laugh and be easy, "I must be going. I have to take an early car to-morrow."
"I must go, too," said Lily.
They both hustled on their outer garments. They said good-evening when they went out, but Aunt Maria did not reply. She immediately took off Maria's water-proof and her bonnet, and slipped off her best black silk gown. Then she took the little lamp which was lighted in the kitchen and went up-stairs to Maria's room. She had an old shawl over her shoulders, otherwise she was in her black quilted petticoat. She stepped softly, and entered the spare room opposite Maria's. It was icy cold in there. She set the lamp on the bureau and went out, closing the door softly. It was then quite dark in the little passageway between the spare room and Maria's. Aunt Maria stood looking sharply at Maria's door, especially at the threshold, which was separated from the floor quite a space by the shrinkage of the years. The panels, too, had their crevices, through which light might be seen. It was entirely dark. Aunt Maria opened the door of the spare room very softly and got the little lamp off the bureau, and tiptoed down-stairs. Then she sat down before the sitting-room stove and pulled up her quilted petticoat till her thin legs were exposed, to warm herself and not injure the petticoat. She looked unutterably stern and weary. Suddenly, as she sat there, tears began to roll over her ascetic cheeks.
"Oh, Lord!" she sighed to herself; "to think that child has got to go through the world just the way I have, when she don't need to!"
Aunt Maria rose and got a handkerchief out of her bureau-drawer in her little bedroom. She did not take the one in the pocket of her gown because that was her best one, and very fine. Then she sat down again, pulled up her petticoat again, put the handkerchief before her poor face, and wept for herself and her niece, because of a conviction which was over her that for both the joy of life was to come only from the windows of others.
Lily Merrill, going home across the yard through the storm, leaning on George Ramsey's arm, gave a little, involuntary sob. It was a sob half of the realization of slighted affection, half of shame. It gave the little element of strangeness which was lacking to fascinate the young man. He had a pitiful heart towards women, and at the sound of the little, stifled sob he pressed Lily's arm more closely under his own.
"Don't, Lily," he said, softly.
Lily sobbed again; she almost leaned her head towards George's shoulder. She made a little, irresistible, nestling motion, like a child.
"I can't help it," she said, brokenly. "She did look at me so."
"Don't mind her one bit, Lily," said George. He half laughed at the memory of Aunt Maria's face, even while the tender tone sounded in his voice. "Don't mind that poor old maid. Neither of us were to blame. I suppose it did look as if we had taken possession of her premises, and she was astonished, that was all. How funny she looked, poor thing, with her bonnet awry!"
"I know she must think I have done something dreadful," sobbed Lily.
"Nonsense!" George said again, and his pressure of her arm tightened. "I was just going when she came in, anyway. There is nothing at all to be ashamed of, only—" He hesitated.
"What?" asked Lily.
"Well, to tell you the truth, Lily," he said then, "it does look to me as if Miss Edgham's headache was only another way of telling me she did not wish to see me."
"Oh, I guess not," said Lily.
"For some reason or other she does not seem to like me," George said, with rather a troubled voice; but he directly laughed.
"I don't see any reason why she shouldn't like you," Lily said.
They had reached Lily's door, and the light from the sitting-room windows shone on her lovely face, past which the snow drifted like a white veil.
"Well, I think she doesn't," George said, carelessly, "but you are mighty good to say you see no reason why she shouldn't. You and I have always been good friends, haven't we, Lily, ever since we went to school together?"
"Yes," replied Lily, eagerly, although she did not like the word friends, which seemed to smite on the heart. She lifted her face to the young man's, and her lips pouted almost imperceptibly. It could not have been said that she was inviting a kiss, but no man could have avoided kissing her. George Ramsey kissed her as naturally as he breathed. There seemed to be nothing else to do. It was one of the inevitables of life. Then Lily opened the door and slid into the house with a tremulous good-night.
George himself felt tremulous, and also astonished and vexed with himself. He had certainly not meant to kiss Lily Merrill. But it flashed across his mind that she would not think anything of it, that he had kissed her often when they were children, and it was the same thing now. As he went away he glanced back at the lighted windows, and a man's shadow was quite evident. He wondered who was calling on Lily's mother, and then wondered, with a slight shadow of jealousy, if it could be some one who had come to see Lily herself. He reflected, as he went homeward through the storm, that a girl as pretty as Lily ought to have some one worthy of her. He went over in his mind, as he puffed his cigar, all the young men in Amity, and it did not seem to him that any one of them was quite the man for her.
When he reached home he found his mother already there, warming herself by the sitting-room register. She had gone to the tea-party in a carriage (George would not have her walk), but she was chilled. She was a delicate, pretty woman. She looked up, shivering, as George entered.
"Where have you been, dear?" she asked.
George laughed, and colored a little. "Well, mother, I went to see one young lady and saw another," he replied.
Just then the maid came in with some hot chocolate, which Mrs. Ramsey always drank before she went to bed, and she asked no more questions until the girl had gone; then she resumed the conversation.
"What do you mean, dear?" she inquired, looking over the rim of the china cup at her son, with a slight, anxious contraction of her forehead.
"Well, I felt a little lonely after you went, mother, and I had nothing especial to do, and it occurred to me that I would go over and call on our neighbor."
"On young Maria Edgham?"
"Well, I suppose it was a polite thing for you to do," said his mother, mildly, "but I don't quite care for her has I do for some girls. She is so very vehement. I do like a young girl to be gentle."
"Well, I didn't see her, mother, in either a gentle or vehement mood," said George. "As nearly as I can find out, she had a premonition who it was when I rang the door-bell, and said she had a headache, and ran up-stairs to bed."
"Why, how do you know?" asked his mother, staring at him. "Her aunt was at the tea. Who told you?"
"Lily Merrill was there," replied George, and again he was conscious of coloring. "She had come to stay with Maria because her aunt was going out. She answered my ring, and so I made a little call on her until Miss Stillman returned, and was so surprised to see her premises invaded and her niece missing that I think she inferred a conspiracy or a burglar. At all events, Lily and I were summarily dismissed. I have just seen Lily home."
"Lily Merrill is pretty, and I think she is a nice, lady-like girl," said Mrs. Ramsey, and she regarded her son more uneasily than before, "but I don't like her mother, George."
"Why, what is the matter with Lily's mother?"
"She isn't genuine. Adeline Merrill was never genuine. She has always had her selfish ends, and she has reached them by crooks and turns."
"I think Lily is genuine enough," said George, carelessly, putting another lump of sugar in his cup of chocolate. "I have seen more brilliant girls, but she is a beauty, and I think she is genuine."
"Well, perhaps she is," Mrs. Ramsey admitted. "I don't know her very well, but I do know her mother. I know something now."
"I know you don't like gossip, but if ever a woman was—I know it is a vulgar expression—but if ever a woman was setting her cap for a man, she is setting hers for Dr. Ellridge. She never goes anywhere evenings, in the hope that he may call, and she sends for him when there is nothing whatever the matter with her, if he doesn't. I know, because Dr. Ellridge's wife's sister, Miss Emmons, who has kept house for him since his wife died, told me so. He goes home and tells her, and laughs, but I know she isn't quite sure that the doctor won't marry her."
"Miss Emmons is jealous, perhaps," said George. "Perhaps Mrs. Merrill is really ill."
"No, the doctor says she is not, and Miss Emmons is not jealous. She told me that as far as she was concerned, although she would lose her home, she should be glad to see the doctor married, if he chose a suitable woman; but I don't think she likes Mrs. Merrill. I don't see how anybody can like a woman who so openly proclaims her willingness to marry a man before he has done her the honor to ask her. It seems shameless to me."