"Perhaps she doesn't," George said again. Then he added, "It would be rather hard for Lily if her mother did marry the doctor. He is a good man enough, but with his own three girls, the oldest older than Lily, she would have a hard time."
George looked quite sober, reflecting upon the possible sad lot of poor Lily if her mother married the second time.
"Adeline Merrill wouldn't stop for such a thing as the feelings of her own daughter, if she had her mind set on anything," said his mother, in her soft voice, which seemed to belie the bitterness of her words. She was not in reality bitter at all, not even towards Mrs. Merrill, but she had clearly defined rules of conduct for gentlewomen, and she mentioned it when these rules were transgressed.
"Well, mother dear, I can't see that it is likely to make much difference to either you or me, anyway," said George, and his mother felt consoled. She told herself that it was not possible that George thought seriously of Lily, or he would not speak so.
"Miss Stillman is very eccentric," she remarked, departing from the subject. "I offered to bring her home with me in the carriage. I knew you would not mind the extra money. She has such a cold that I really wondered that she came at all in such a storm; but, no, she seemed fairly indignant at the idea. I never saw any one so proud. I asked Mrs. Henry Stillman, but she did not like to have her sister-in-law to go alone, so she would not accept, either; but Miss Stillman walked herself, and made her sister walk, too, and I am positive it was because she was proud. Do you really mean you think young Maria did not want to see you, George?"
"It looked like it," George replied, laughing.
"Why?" asked his mother.
"How do I know, mother dear? I don't think Miss Edgham altogether approves of me for some reason."
"I should like to know what reason she has for not approving of you," cried his mother, jealously. She looked admiringly at her son, who was handsome, with a sort of rugged beauty, and whose face displayed strength, and honesty not to be questioned. "I would like to know who Maria Edgham thinks she is. She is rather pretty, but she cannot compare with Lily Merrill as far as that goes, and she is teaching a little district school, and from what I have seen of her, her manners are subject to criticism. She is not half as lady-like as other girls in Amity. When I think of the way she flew in here and attacked us for not clothing those disreputable people across the river, just because they have the same name, I can't help being indignant. I never heard of a young girl's doing such a thing. And I think that if she ran off when the bell rang, because she thought it was you, it was certainly very rude. I think she virtually ascribed more meaning to your call than there was."
"Lily said she had a headache," said George, but his own face assumed an annoyed expression. That version of Maria's flight had not occurred to him, and he was a very proud fellow. When he went up-stairs to his own room he continued wondering whether it was possible that Maria, remembering their childish love-affair, could have really dreamed that he had called that evening with serious intentions, and he grew more and more indignant at the idea. Then the memory of that soft, hardly returned kiss which he had given Lily came to him, and now he did not feel vexed with himself because of it. He was quite certain that Lily was too gentle and timid to think for a minute that he meant anything more than their old childish friendship. The memory of the kiss became very pleasant to him, and he seemed to feel Lily's lips upon his own like a living flower which thrilled the heart. The next morning, when he took the trolley-car in front of his house, Maria was just passing on her way to school. She was wading rather wearily, yet still sturdily, through the snow. It had cleared during the night, and there were several inches of drifted snow in places, although some portions of the road were as bare as if swept by a broom of the winds.
Maria, tramping through the snow, which was deep just there, merely glanced at George Ramsey, and said good-morning. She had plenty of time, if she had chosen to do so, to express her regrets at not seeing him the evening before, for the car had not yet reached him. But she said nothing except good-morning, and George responded rather curtly, raising his hat, and stepping forward towards the car. He felt it to be unmistakable that Maria wished him to understand that she did not care for his particular acquaintance, and the sting which his mother had suggested the evening before, that she must consider that his attentions were significant, or she would not take so much trouble to repulse them, came over him again. He boarded the car, which was late, and moving sluggishly through the snow. It came to a full stop in front of the Merrill house, and George saw Lily's head behind a stand of ferns in one of the front windows. He raised his hat, and she bowed, and he could see her blush even at that distance. He thought again, comfortably, that Lily, remembering their childish caresses, could attach no importance to what had happened the night before, and yet a thrill of tenderness and pleasure shot through him, and he seemed to feel again the flower-like touch of her lips. It was a solace for any man, after receiving such an unmistakable rebuff as he had just received from Maria Edgham. He had no conception of the girl plodding through the snow to her daily task. He did not dream that she saw, instead of the snowy road before, a long stretch of dreary future, brought about by that very rebuff. But she was quite merciless with herself. She would not yield for a moment to regrets. She accepted that stretch of dreary future with a defiant acquiescence. She bowed pleasantly to the acquaintances whom she met. They were not many that morning, for the road was hardly passable in places, being overcurved here and there with blue, diamond-crested, snowlike cascades, and now presenting ridges like graves. Half-way to the school-house, Maria saw the village snow-plough, drawn by a struggling horse and guided by a red-faced man. She stood aside to let it pass. The man did not look at her. He frowned ahead at his task. He was quite an old man, and bent, but with the red of youth brought forth in his cheeks by the frosty air.
"Everybody has to work in some way," Maria thought, "and very few get happiness for their labor."
She reflected how soon that man would be lying stiff and stark under the wintry snows and the summer heats, and how nothing which might trouble him now would matter. She reflected that, although she herself was younger and had presumably longer to live, that the time would inevitably come when even such unhappiness as weighed her down this morning would not matter. She continued in the ineffectual track which the snow-plough had made, with a certain pleasure in the exertion. All Maria's heights of life, her mountain-summits which she would agonize to reach, were spiritual. Labor in itself could never daunt her. Always her spirit, the finer essence of her, would soar butterfly-like above her toiling members.
It was a beautiful morning; the trees were heavily bent with snow, which gave out lustres like jewels. The air had a very purity of life in it. Maria inhaled the frosty, clear air, and regarded the trees as one might have done who was taking a stimulant. She kept her mind upon them, and would not think of George Ramsey. As she neared the school-house, the first child who ran to meet her, stumbling through the snow, was little Jessy Ramsey. Maria forced herself to meet smilingly the upward, loving look of those blue Ramsey eyes. She bent down and kissed Jessy, and the little thing danced at her side in a rapture.
"They be awful warm, my close, teacher," said she.
"My clothes are very warm, teacher," corrected Maria, gravely.
"My clothes are very warm, teacher," said Jessy, obediently.
Maria caught the child up in her arms (she was a tiny, half-fed little thing), and kissed her again. Somehow she got a measure of comfort from it. After all, love was love, in whatever guise it came, and this was an innocent love which she could admit with no question.
"That's a good little girl, dear," she said, and set Jessy down.
Maria did not go home for the Christmas holidays. She was very anxious to do so, but she received a letter from Ida Edgham which made her resolve to remain where she was.
"We should be so very glad to have you come home for the holidays, dear," wrote Ida, "but of course we know how long the journey is, and how little you are earning, and we are all well. Your father seems quite well, and so we shall send you some little remembrance, and try to console ourselves as best we can for your absence."
Maria read the letter to her aunt Maria.
"You won't go one step?" said Aunt Maria, interrogatively.
"No," said Maria. She was quite white. Nobody knew how she had longed to see her father and little Evelyn, and she had planned to go, and take Aunt Maria with her, defraying the expenses out of her scanty earnings.
"I wouldn't go if you were to offer me a thousand dollars," said Aunt Maria.
"I would not, either," responded Maria. She opened the stove door and thrust the letter in, and watched it burn.
"How your father ever came to marry that woman—" said Aunt Maria.
"There's no use talking about that now," said Maria, arousing to defence of her father. "She was very pretty!"
"Pretty enough," said Aunt Maria, "and I miss my guess if she didn't do most of the courting. Well, as you say, there is no use talking it over now. What's done is done."
Aunt Maria watched Maria's pitiful young face with covert glances. Maria was finishing a blouse which she had expected to wear on her journey. She continued her work with resolution, but every line on her face took a downward curve.
"You don't need to hurry so on that waist now," said Aunt Maria.
"I want the waist, anyway," replied her niece. "I may as well get it done."
"You will have to send the Christmas presents," said Aunt Maria. "I don't very well see how you can pack some of them."
"I guess I can manage," said Maria.
The next day her week of vacation began. She packed the gifts which she had bought for her father and Evelyn and Ida, and took them to the express office. The day after that she received the remembrances of which Ida spoke. They were very pretty. Aunt Maria thought them extravagant. Ida had sent her a tiny chatelaine watch, and her father a ring set with a little diamond. Maria knew perfectly well how her father's heart ached when he sent the ring. She never for one moment doubted him. She wrote him a most loving letter, and even a deceptive letter, because of her affection. She repeated what Ida had written, that it was a long journey, and expensive, and she did not think it best for her to go home, although she had longed to do so.
Ida sent Aunt Maria a set of Shakespeare. When it was unpacked, Aunt Maria looked shrewdly at her niece.
"How many sets of Shakespeare has she got?" she inquired. "Do you know, Maria?"
Maria admitted that she thought she had two.
"I miss my guess but she has another exactly just like this," said Aunt Maria. "Well, I don't mean to be ungrateful, and I know Shakespeare is called a great writer, and they who like him can read him. I would no more sit down and read all those books through, myself, than I would read Webster's Dictionary."
"You can take this set of books up in your room, if you want them," said Aunt Maria. "For my part I consider it an insult for her to send Shakespeare to me. She must have known I had never had anything to do with Shakespeare. She might just as well have sent me a crown. Now, your father he has more sense. He sent me this five-dollar gold-piece so I could buy what I wanted with it. He knew that he didn't know what I wanted. Your father's a good man, Maria, but he was weak when he married her; I've got to say it."
"I don't think father was weak at all!" Maria retorted, with spirit.
"Of course, I expect you to stand up for your father, that is right. I wouldn't have you do anything else," Aunt Maria said approvingly. "But he was weak."
"She could have married almost anybody," said Maria, gathering up the despised set of books. She was very glad of them to fill up the small bamboo bookcase in her own room, and, beside, she did not share her aunt's animosity to Shakespeare. She purchased some handkerchiefs for her aunt, with the covert view of recompensing her for the loss of Ida's present, and Aunt Maria was delighted with them.
"If she had had the sense to send me half a dozen handkerchiefs like these," said she, "I should have thanked her. Anybody in their senses would rather have half a dozen nice handkerchiefs than a set of Shakespeare. That is, if they said just what they meant. I know some folks would be ashamed of not thinking much of Shakespeare. As for me, I say what I mean." Aunt Maria tossed her head as she spoke.
She grew daily more like her brother Henry. The family traits in each became more accentuated. Each posed paradoxically as not being a poser. Aunt Maria spoke her mind so freely and arrogantly that she was not much of a favorite in Amity, although she commanded a certain measure of respect from her strenuous exertions at her own trumpet, which more than half-convinced people of the accuracy of her own opinion of herself. Sometimes Maria herself was irritated by her aunt, but she loved her dearly. She was always aware, too, of Aunt Maria's unspoken, but perfect approbation and admiration for herself, Maria, and of a certain sympathy for her, which the elder woman had the delicacy never to speak of. She had become aware that Maria, while she repulsed George Ramsey, was doing so for reasons which she could not divine, and that she suffered because of it.
One afternoon, not long after Christmas, when Maria returned from school, almost the first words which her aunt said to her were, "I do hate to see a young man made a fool of."
Maria turned pale, and looked at her aunt.
"George Ramsey went past here sleigh-riding with Lily Merrill a little while ago," said Aunt Maria. "That girl's making a fool of him!"
"Lily is a nice girl, Aunt Maria," Maria said, faintly.
"Nice enough, but she can't come up to him. She never can. And when one can't come up, the other has to go down. I've seen it too many times not to know. There's sleigh-bells now. I guess it's them coming back. Yes, it is."
Maria did not glance out of the window, and the sleigh, with its singing bells, flew past. She went wearily up to her own room, and removed her wraps before supper. Maria had a tiny coal-stove in her room now, and that was a great comfort to her. She could get away by herself, when she chose, and sometimes the necessity for so doing was strong upon her. She wished to think, without Aunt Maria's sharp eyes upon her, searching her thoughts. Emotion in Maria was reaching its high-water mark; the need for concealing, lest it be profaned by other eyes, was over her. Maria felt, although she was conscious of her aunt's covert sympathy for something that troubled her which she did not know about, and grateful for it, that she should die of shame if Aunt Maria did know. After supper that night she returned to her own room. She said she had some essays to correct.
"Well, I guess I'll step into the other side a minute," said Aunt Maria. "Eunice went to the sewing-meeting this afternoon, and I want to know what they put in that barrel for that minister out West. I don't believe they had enough to half fill it. Of all the things they sent the last time, there wasn't anything fit to be seen."
Maria seated herself in her own room, beside her tiny stove. She had a pink shade on her lamp, which stood on her little centre-table. The exercises were on the table, but she had not touched them when she heard doors opening and shutting below, then a step on the stairs. She knew at once it was Lily. Her room door opened, after a soft knock, and Lily glided gracefully in.
"I knew you were up here, dear," she said. "I saw your light, and I saw your aunt's sitting-room lamp go out."
"Aunt Maria has only gone in Uncle Henry's side. Sit down, Lily," said Maria, rising and returning Lily's kiss, and placing a chair for her.
"Does she always put her lamp out when she goes in there?" asked Lily with innocent wonder.
"Yes," replied Maria, rather curtly. That was one of poor Aunt Maria's petty economies, and she was sensitive with regard to it. A certain starvation of character, which had resulted from the lack of material wealth, was evident in Aunt Maria, and her niece recognized the fact with exceeding pity, and a sense of wrong at the hands of Providence.
"How very funny," said Lily.
Maria said nothing. Lily had seated herself in the chair placed for her, and as usual had at once relapsed into a pose which would have done credit to an artist's model, a pose of which she was innocently conscious. She cast approving glances at the graceful folds of crimson cashmere which swept over her knees; she extended one little foot in its pointed shoe; she raised her arms with a gesture peculiar to her and placed them behind her head in such a fashion that she seemed to embrace herself. Lily in crimson cashmere, which lent its warm glow to her tender cheeks, and even seemed to impart a rosy reflection to the gloss of her hair, was ravishing. To-night, too, her face wore a new expression, one of triumphant tenderness, which caused her to look fairly luminous.
"It has been a lovely day, hasn't it?" she said.
"Very pleasant," said Maria.
"Did you know I went sleigh-riding this afternoon?"
"Yes; George took me out."
"That was nice," said Maria.
"We went to Wayland. The sleighing is lovely."
"I thought it looked so," said Maria.
"It is. Say, Maria!"
"He said things to me this afternoon that sounded as if he did mean them. He did, really."
"Do you want me to tell you?" asked Lily, eying Maria happily and yet a little timidly.
Maria straightened herself. "If you want to know what I really think, Lily," she said, "I think no girl should repeat anything a man says to her, if she does think he really means it. I think it is between the two. I think it should be held sacred. I think the girl cheapens it by repeating it, and I don't think it is fair to the man. I don't care to hear what Mr. Ramsey said, if you want the truth, Lily."
Lily looked abashed. "I dare say you are right, Maria," she said, meekly. "I won't repeat anything he said if you don't think I ought, and don't want to hear it."
"Is your new dress done?" asked Maria, abruptly.
"It is going to be finished this week," said Lily. "Do you think I am horrid, proposing to tell you what he said, Maria?"
"No, only I don't care to hear any more about it."
"Well, I hope you don't think I am horrid."
"I don't, dear," said Maria, with an odd sensation of tenderness for the other, weaker girl, whom she had handled in a measure roughly with her own stronger character. She looked admiringly at her as she spoke. "Nobody can ever really think you horrid," she said.
"If they did, I should think I was horrid my own self," said Lily, with the ready acquiescence in the opinion of another which signified the deepest admiration, even to her own detriment, and was the redeeming note in her character.
Maria laughed. "I declare, Lily," said she, "I hope you will never be accused of a crime, for I do believe even if you were innocent, you would side with the lawyer for the prosecution."
"I don't know but I should," said Lily.
Then she ventured to say something more about George Ramsey, encouraged by Maria's friendliness, but she met with such scanty sympathy that she refrained. She arose soon, and said she thought she must go home.
"I am tired to-night, and I think I had better go to bed early," she said.
"Don't hurry," Maria said, conventionally; but Lily kissed Maria and went.
Maria knew that her manner had driven Lily away, but she did not feel as if she could endure hearing her confidences, and Lily's confidences had all the impetus of a mountain stream. Had she remained, they could not have been finally checked. Maria moved her window curtains slightly and watched Lily flitting across the yard. She saw her enter the door, and also saw, quite distinctly the shadow of a man upon the white curtain as he rose to greet her when she entered. She wondered whether the man was Dr. Ellridge, or George Ramsey. The shadow looked like that of the older man, she thought, and she was not mistaken.
Lily, on entering the sitting-room, found Dr. Ellridge with her mother, and her mother's face was flushed, and she had a conscious simper. Lily said good-evening, and sat down as usual with her fancy-work, after she had removed her wraps, but soon her mother said to her that there was a good fire in her own room, and she thought that she had better go to bed early, as she must be tired, and Dr. Ellridge echoed her with rather a foolish expression.
"I don't think you ought to sit up late working on embroidery, Lily," he said. "You are looking tired to-night. You must let me prescribe for you a glass of hot milk and bed."
Lily looked at both of them with wondering gentleness, then she rose.
"There is a good fire in the kitchen," said her mother, "and Hannah will heat the milk for you. You had better do as Dr. Ellridge said. You are going out to-morrow night, too, you know."
Lily said good-night, and went out with a smouldering disquiet in her heart. When she asked Hannah out in the kitchen to heat the milk for her, because Dr. Ellridge said she must drink it and then go to bed, the girl, who had been long with the family and considered that she in reality was the main-spring of the house, eyed her curiously.
"Said you had better go to bed?" said she. "Why, it isn't nine o'clock!"
"He said I looked tired, Hannah," said Lily faintly.
Hannah, who was a large, high-shouldered Nova Scotia girl, with a large, flat face obscured with freckles, sniffed. Lily heard her say quite distinctly as she went into the pantry for the milk, that she called it a shame when there were so many grown-up daughters to think of, for her part.
Lily knew what she meant. She sat quite pale and still while the milk was heating, and then drank it meekly, said good-night to Hannah and went up-stairs.
She could not go to sleep, although she went at once to bed, and extinguished her lamp. She lay there and heard a clock down in the hall strike the hours. The clock had struck twelve, and she had not heard Dr. Ellridge go. The whole situation filled her with a sort of wonder of disgust. She could not imagine her mother and Dr. Ellridge sitting up until midnight as she might sit up with George Ramsey. She felt as if she were witnessing a ghastly inversion of things, as if Love, instead of being in his proper panoply of wings and roses, was invested with a medicine-case, an obsolete frock-coat, and elderly obesity. Dr. Ellridge was quite stout. She wondered how her mother could, and then she wondered how Dr. Ellridge could. Lily loved her mother, but she had relegated her to what she considered her proper place in the scheme of things, and now she was overstepping it. Lily called to mind vividly the lines on her mother's face, her matronly figure. It seemed to her that her mother had had her time of love with her father, and this was as abnormal as two springs in one year. Shortly after twelve, Lily heard a soft murmur of voices in the hall, then the front door close. Then her mother came up-stairs and entered her room.
"Are you asleep, Lily?" she whispered, softly, and Lily recognized with shame the artificiality of the whisper.
"No, mother, I am not asleep," she replied, quite loudly.
Her mother came and sat down on the bed beside her. She patted Lily's cheeks, and felt for her hand. Lily's impulse was to snatch it away, but she was too gentle. She let it remain passively in her mother's nervous clasp.
"Lily, my dear child, I have something to tell you," whispered Mrs. Merrill.
Lily said nothing.
"Lily, my precious child," said her mother, in her strained whisper. "I don't know whether you have suspected anything or not, but I am meditating a great change in my life. I have been very lonely since your dear father died, and I never had a nature to live alone and be happy. You might as well expect the vine to live without its tree. I have made up my mind that I shall be much happier, and Dr. Ellridge will. He needs the sympathy and love of a wife. His daughters do as well as they can, but a daughter is not like a wife."
"Oh, mother!" said Lily. Then she gave a little sob. Her mother bent over and kissed her, and Lily smelled Dr. Ellridge's cigar, and she thought also medicine. She shrank away from her mother, and sobbed convulsively.
"My dear child," said Mrs. Merrill, "you need not feel so badly. There will be no change in your life until you yourself marry. We shall live right along here. This house is larger and more convenient than the doctor's. He will rent his house, and we shall live here."
"And all those Ellridge girls," sobbed Lily.
"They are very nice girls, dear. Florence and Amelia will room together; they can have the southeast room. Mabel, I suppose, will have to go in the best chamber. Perhaps, by-and-by, Dr. Ellridge will finish off another room for her. I don't quite like the idea of having no spare room. But you will keep your own room, and you will be all the happier for having three nice sisters."
"I never liked them," sobbed Lily. It really seemed to her that she was called upon to marry the Ellridge girls, and that was the main issue.
"They are very nice girls," repeated Mrs. Merrill, and there was obstinacy in her artificially sweet tone. "Everybody says they are very nice girls. You certainly would not wish your mother to give up her chance of a happy life, because you have an unwarrantable prejudice against the poor doctor's daughters."
"You have been married once," said Lily, feebly. It was as if she made a faint remonstrance because of her mother, who had already had her reasonable share of cake, taking a second slice. She had too sweet a disposition to say bitter things, but the bitterness of the things she might have said was in her heart.
"I suppose you think because I am older it is foolish," said her mother, in an aggressive voice. "Wait till you yourself are older and you may know how I feel. You may find out that you cannot give up all the joys of life because you have been a few years longer in the world. You may not feel so very different from what you do now." Mrs. Merrill's voice rang true in this last. There was even a pathetic appeal to her daughter for sympathy. But Lily continued to sob weakly, and did not say any more.
"Well, good-night, my dear child," Mrs. Merrill said finally. "You will feel very differently about all this later on. You will come to see, as I do, that it is for the best. You will be much happier." Mrs. Merrill kissed Lily again, and went out. She closed the door with a slight slam.
Lily knew that her mother was angry with her. As for herself, she considered that she had never been so unhappy in her whole life. She thought of living with the Ellridge girls, who were really of a common cast, and always with Dr. Ellridge at the head of the table, dictating to her as he had done to-night, in his smooth, slightly satirical way, and her whole soul rose in revolt. She felt sure that Dr. Ellridge was not at all in love with her mother, as George Ramsey might be in love with herself. All the romance had been sucked out of them both years before. She called to mind again her mother's lined face, her too aggressive curves, her tightly frizzed hair, and she knew that she was right. She remembered hearing that Dr. Ellridge's daughters were none of them domestic, that he had hard work to keep a house-keeper, that his practice was declining. She remembered how shabby and mean his little house had looked when she had passed it in the sleigh with George Ramsey, that very day. She said to herself that Dr. Ellridge was only marrying her mother for the sake of the loaves and fishes, for a pretty, well-kept home for himself and his daughters. Lily had something of a business turn in spite of her feminity. She calculated how much rent Dr. Ellridge could get for his own house. That will dress the girls, she thought. She knew that her mother's income was considerable. Dr. Ellridge would be immeasurably better off as far as this world's goods went. There was no doubt of that. Lily felt such a measure of revolt and disgust that it was fairly like a spiritual nausea. Her own maiden innocence seemed assaulted, and besides that there was a sense of pitiful grief and wonder that her mother, besides whom she had nobody in the world, could so betray her. She was like the proverbial child with its poor little nose out of joint. She lay and wept like one. The next morning, when she went down to breakfast, her pretty face was pale and woe-begone. Her mother gave one defiant glance at her, then spooned out the cereal with vehemence. Hannah gave a quick, shrewd glance at her when she set the saucer containing the smoking mess before her.
"Her mother has told her," she thought. She also thought that she herself would give notice were it not for poor Miss Lily.
Lily's extreme gentleness, even when she was distressed, was calculated to inspire faithfulness in every one. Hannah gave more than one pitying, indignant glance at the girl's pretty, sad face. Lily did not dream of sulking to the extent of not eating her breakfast. She ate just as usual. She even made a remark about the weather to her mother, although in a little, weeping voice, as if the weather itself, although it was a brilliant morning, were a source of misery. Mrs. Merrill replied curtly. Lily took another spoonful of her cereal.
She remained in her own room the greater part of the day. In the afternoon her mother, without saying anything to her, took the trolley for Westbridge. Lily thought with a shiver that she might be going over there to purchase some article for her trousseau. The thought of her mother with a trousseau caused her to laugh a little, hysterical laugh, as she sat alone in her chamber. That evening she and her mother went to a concert in the town hall. Lily knew that Dr. Ellridge would accompany her mother home. She wondered what she should do, what she should be expected to do—take the doctor's other arm, or walk behind. She had seen the doctor with two of his daughters seated, when she and her mother passed up the aisle. She knew that the two daughters would go home together, and the doctor would go with her mother. She thought of George Ramsey. Now and then as the concert proceeded she twisted her neck slightly and peered around, but she saw nothing of him. She concluded that he was not there. But when the concert was over, and she and her mother were passing out the door, and Dr. Ellridge was pressing close to her mother, under a fire of hostile glances from his daughters, Lily felt a touch on her own arm. She turned, and saw George Ramsey's handsome face with a quiver of unutterable bliss. She took his arm, and followed her mother and Dr. Ellridge. When they were out in the frosty air, under a low sky sparkling with multitudinous stars traversed by its mysterious nebulous highway of the gods, this poor little morsel of a mortal, engrossed with her poor little troubles, answered a remark of George's concerning the weather in a trembling voice. Then she began to weep unreservedly. George with a quick glance around, drew her around a corner which they had just reached into a street which afforded a circuitous route home, and which was quite deserted.
"Why Lily, what in the world is the matter?" he said. There was absolutely nothing in his voice or his heart at the time except friendliness and honest concern for his old playmate's distress.
"Mother is going to be married to Dr. Ellridge," whispered Lily, "and he and his three horrid daughters are all coming to live at our house."
Lily sobbed quite aloud.
"Hush, poor little girl," said George. He glanced around; there was not a soul to be seen. Lily's head seemed to droop as naturally towards his shoulder as a flower towards the sun. A sudden impulse of tenderness, the tenderness of the strong for the weak, of man for woman, came over the young fellow. Before he well knew what he was doing, his arm had passed around Lily's waist, and the pretty head quite touched his shoulder. George gave one last bitter thought towards Maria, then he spoke.
"Well," he said, "don't cry, Lily dear. If your mother is going to marry Dr. Ellridge, suppose you get married too. Suppose you marry me, and come and live at my house."
The next morning, before Maria had started for school, Lily Merrill came running across the yard, and knocked at the side door. She always knocked unless she was quite sure that Maria was alone. She was afraid of her aunt. Aunt Maria opened the door, and Lily shrank a little before her, in spite of the wonderful glowing radiance which lit her lovely face that morning.
"Good-morning, Miss Stillman," said Lily, timidly.
"Well?" said Aunt Maria. The word was equivalent to "What do you want?"
"Has Maria gone?" asked Lily.
"No, she is getting dressed."
"Can I run up to her room and see her a minute? I have something particular I want to tell her."
"I don't know whether she'd want anybody to come up while she's dressing or not," said Aunt Maria.
"I don't believe she'd mind me," said Lily, pleadingly. "Would you mind calling up and asking her, please, Miss Stillman?"
"Well," said Aunt Maria.
She actually closed the door and left Lily standing in the bitter wind while she spoke to Maria. Lily heard her faintly calling.
"Say, Maria, that Merrill girl is at the door, and wants to know if she can come a minute. She's got something she wants to tell you."
Then Aunt Maria opened the door. "I suppose you can go up," she said, ungraciously. The radiance in Lily's face filled her with hostility, she did not know why.
"Oh, thank you!" cried Lily; and ran into the house and up the stairs to Maria's room.
Maria was standing before the glass brushing her hair, which was very long, and bright, and thick. Lily went straight to her and threw her arms around her and began to weep. Maria pushed her aside gently.
"Why, what is the matter, Lily?" she asked. "Excuse me, but I must finish my hair; I have no more than time. What is the matter?"
"Nothing is the matter," sobbed Lily, "only—Oh Maria I am so happy! I have not slept a wink all night I was so happy. Oh, you don't know how happy I am!"
Maria's face turned deadly white. She swept the glowing lengths of her hair over it with a deft movement. "Why, what makes you so happy?" she asked, coolly.
"Oh, Maria, he was in earnest, he was. I am engaged to George."
Maria brushed her hair. "I am very glad," she said, in an unfaltering voice. She bent her head, bringing her hair entirely over her face, preparatory to making a great knot on the top of her head. "I hope you will be very happy."
"Happy!" said Lily. "Oh, Maria, you don't know how happy I am!"
"I am very glad," Maria repeated, brushing her hair smoothly from her neck. "He seems like a very fine young man. I think you have made a wise choice, Lily."
Lily flung herself into a chair and looked at Maria. "Oh, Maria dear," she said, "I wish you were as happy as I. I hope you will be some time."
Maria laughed, and there was not a trace of bitterness in her laugh. "Well, I shall not cry if I never am," she said. "What a little goose you are, Lily, to cry!" She swept the hair back from her face, and her color had returned. She looked squarely at Lily's reflection in the glass, and there was an odd, triumphant expression on her face.
"I can't help it," sobbed Lily. "I always have cried when I was very happy, and I never was so happy as this; and last night, before he—before George asked me—I was so miserable I wanted to die. Only think, Maria, mother is going to marry Dr. Ellridge, and he and his three horrid girls are coming to live at our house. I don't know how I could have stood it if George hadn't asked me. Now I shall live with him in his house, of course, with his mother. I have always liked George's mother. I think she is sweet."
"Yes, she is a very sweet woman, and I should think you could live very happily with her," said Maria, twisting her hair carefully. Maria had a beautiful neck showing above the lace of her underwaist. Lily looked at it. Her tears had ceased, and left not a trace on her smooth cheeks. The lace which Maria's upward-turned hair displayed had set her flexible mind into a new channel.
"Say, Maria," she said, "it is to be a very short engagement. It will have to be, on account of mother. A double wedding would be too ridiculous, and I want to get away before all those Ellridges come into our house. Dr. Ellridge can't let his house before spring, and so I think in a month, if I can get ready." Lily blushed until her face was like the heart of a rose.
"Well, you have a number of very pretty dresses now," said Maria. "I should think you could get ready."
"I shall have to get a wedding-dress made, and a tea-gown, and one besides for receiving calls," said Lily. "Then I must have some underwear. Will you go shopping with me in Westbridge some Saturday, Maria?"
"I should be very glad to do so, dear," replied Maria.
"That is a very pretty lace on your waist," Lily said, meditatively. "I think I shall get ready-made things. It takes so much time to make them one's self, and besides I think they are just as pretty. Don't you?"
"I think one can buy very pretty ready-made things," Maria said. She slipped on her blouse and fastened her collar.
"I shall be so much obliged to you if you will go," said Lily. "I won't ask mother. To tell you the truth, Maria, I think it is dreadful that she is going to marry again—a widower with three grown-up daughters, too."
"I don't see why," Maria said, dropping her black skirt over her head.
"You don't see why?"
"No, not if it makes her happy. People have a right to all the happiness they can get, at all ages. I used to think myself that older people were silly to want things like young people, but now I have changed my mind. Dr. Ellridge is a good man, and I dare say your mother will be happier, especially if you are going away."
"Oh, if she had not been going to get married herself, I should rather have lived at home, after I was married," said Lily. She looked reflectively at Maria as she fastened her belt. "It's queer," she said, "but I do believe my feeling so terribly about mother's marrying made George ask me sooner. Of course, he must have meant to ask me some time, or he would not have asked me at all."
"Of course," said Maria, getting her hat from the closet-shelf.
"But he walked home with me from the concert last night, and I couldn't help crying, I felt so dreadfully. Then he asked me what the matter was, and I told him, and then he asked me right away. I think maybe he had thought of waiting a little, but that hastened him. Oh, Maria, I am so happy!"
Maria fastened on her hat carefully. "I am very glad, dear," she said. She turned from the glass, and Lily's face, smiling at her, seemed to give out light like a star. It might not have been the highest affection which the girl, who was one of clear and limpid shadows rather than depths, felt; it might have had its roots in selfish ends; but it fairly glorified her. Maria with a sudden impulse bent over her and kissed her. "I am very glad, dear," she said, "and now I must run, or I shall be late. My coat is down-stairs."
"Don't say anything before your aunt Maria, will you?" said Lily, rising and following her.
"No, of course, if you don't want me to."
"Of course it will be all over town before night," said Lily, "but someway I would rather your aunt Maria did not hear it from me. She doesn't like me a bit." Lily said the last in a whisper.
Both girls went down-stairs, and Maria took her coat from the rack in the hall.
Aunt Maria opened the sitting-room door. She had a little satchel with Maria's lunch. "Here is your luncheon," said she, in a hard tone, "and you'd better hurry and not stop to talk, or you'll be late."
"I am going right away, Aunt Maria," said Maria. She took the satchel, and kissed her aunt on her thin, sallow cheek.
"Good-morning, Miss Stillman," said Lily, sweetly, as she followed Maria.
Aunt Maria said nothing at all; she gave Lily a grim nod, while her lips were tightly compressed. She turned the key in the door with an audible snap.
"Well, good-bye, dear," said Lily to Maria. "I hope you will be as happy as I am some day, and I know you will."
Lily's face was entirely sweet and womanly as she turned it towards Maria for a kiss, which Maria gave her.
"Good-bye, dear," she said, gently, and was off.
Nobody knew how glad she was to be off. She had a stunned, shocked feeling; she realized that her knees trembled, but she held up her head straight and went on. She realized that worse than anything else would be the suspicion on the part of any one that Lily's engagement to George Ramsey troubled her. All the time, as she hurried along the familiar road, she realized that strange, shocked feeling, as of some tremendous detonation of spirit. She bowed mechanically to people whom she met. She did not fairly know who they were. She kept on her way only through inertia. She felt that if she stopped to think, she would scarcely know the road to the school-house. She wondered when she met a girl somewhat older than herself, just as she reached the bridge, if that girl, who was plain and poorly dressed, one of those who seem to make no aspirations to the sweets of life, if she had ever felt as she herself did. Such a curiosity possessed her concerning it that she wished she could ask the girl, although she did not know her. She dreaded lest Jessy Ramsey should run to meet her, and her dread was realized. However, Maria was not as distressed by it as she thought. She stooped and kissed Jessy quite easily.
"Good-morning, dear," she said.
A shock of any kind has the quality of mercy in that it benumbs as to pain. Maria's only realization was that something monstrous had happened, something like mutilation, but there was no sting of agony. She entered the school-house and went about her duties as usual. The children realized no difference in her, but all the time she realized the difference in herself. Something had gone from her, some essential part which she could never recover, not in itself, no matter what her future life might be. She was shorn of her first love, and that which has been never can be again.
When Maria reached the bridge on her way home, there was Lily waiting for her, as she had half expected she would be.
"Maria, dear," said Lily, with a pretty gesture of pleading, "I had to come and meet you, because I am so happy, and nobody else knows, except mother, and, somehow, her being pleased doesn't please me. I suppose I am wicked, but it makes me angry. I know it is awful to say such a thing of my own mother, but I can't help feeling that she thinks now she can have my room for Mabel Ellridge, and won't have to give up the spare chamber. I have nobody to talk to but you, Maria. George won't come over before evening, and I am scared to go in and see his mother. I am so afraid she won't like me. Do you think she will like me, Maria dear?"
"I don't see why she should not," replied Maria. Lily had hold of her arm and was nestling close to her.
"Don't you, honest?"
"No, dear. I said so."
"You don't mind my coming to meet you and talk it over, do you, Maria?"
"Of course I don't! Why should I?" asked Maria, almost angrily.
"I thought you wouldn't. Maria, do you think a blue tea-gown or a pink one would be prettier?"
"I think pink is your color," said Maria.
"Well, I rather like the idea of pink myself. Mother says I shall have enough money to get some nice things. I suppose it is very silly, but I always thought that one of the pleasantest things about getting married, must be having some pretty, new clothes. Do you think I am very silly, Maria?"
"I dare say most girls feel so," said Maria, patiently.
As she spoke she looked away from the other girl at the wintry landscape. There was to the eastward of Amity a low range of hills, hardly mountains. These were snow-covered, and beneath the light of the setting sun gave out wonderful hues and lights of rose and blue and pearl. It was to Maria as if she herself, being immeasurably taller than Lily and the other girls whom she typified, could see farther and higher, even to her own agony of mind. It is a great deal for a small nature to be pleased with the small things of life. A large nature may miss a good deal in not being pleased with them. Maria realized that she herself, in Lily's place, could have no grasp of mind petty enough for pink and blue tea-gowns, that she had outgrown that stage of her existence. She still liked pretty things, but they had now become dwarfed by her emotions, whereas, in the case of the other girl, the danger was that the emotions themselves should become dwarfed. Lily was typical, and there is after all a certain security as to peace and comfort in being one of a kind, and not isolated.
Lily talked about her bridal wardrobe all the way until they reached the Ramsey house; then she glanced up at the windows and bowed, dimpling and blushing. "That's his mother," she said to Maria. "I wonder if George has told her."
"I should think he must have," said Maria.
"I am so glad you think she will like me. I wonder what room we shall have, and whether there will be new furniture. I don't know how the up-stairs rooms are furnished, do you?"
"No, how should I? I was never up-stairs in the house in my life," said Maria. Again she gazed away from Lily at the snow-covered hills. Her face wore an expression of forced patience. It really seemed to her as if she were stung by a swarm of platitudes like bees.
Lily kissed her at her door. "I should ask if I couldn't come over this evening, and sit up in your room and talk it over," said she, "but I suppose he will be likely to come. He didn't say so, but I suppose he will."
"I should judge so," said Maria.
When she entered the sitting-room, her aunt, who was knitting with a sort of fierce energy, looked up. "Oh, it's you!" said she. Her face had an expression of hostility and tenderness at once.
"Yes, Aunt Maria."
Aunt Maria surveyed her scrutinizingly. "You don't mean to say you didn't wear your knit jacket under your coat, such a bitter day as this?" said she.
"I have been warm enough."
Aunt Maria sniffed. "I wonder when you will ever be old enough to take care of yourself?" said she. "You need to be watched every minute like a baby."
"I was warm enough, Aunt Maria," Maria repeated, patiently.
"Well, sit down here by the stove and get heated through while I see to supper," said Aunt Maria, crossly. "I've got a hot beef-stew with dumplings for supper, and I guess I'll make some chocolate instead of tea. That always seems to me to warm up anybody better."
"Don't you want me to help?" said Maria.
"No; everything is all done except to make the chocolate. I've had the stew on hours. A stew isn't good for a thing unless you have it on long enough to get the goodness out of the bone."
Aunt Maria opened the door leading to the dining-room. In winter it served the two as both kitchen and dining-room, having a compromising sort of stove on which one could cook, and which still did not look entirely plebeian and fitted only for the kitchen. Maria saw through the open door the neatly laid table, with its red cloth and Aunt Maria's thin silver spoons and china. Aunt Maria had a weakness in one respect. She liked to use china, and did not keep that which had descended to her from her mother stored away, to be taken out only for company, as her sister-in-law thought she properly should do. The china was a fine Lowestoft pattern, and it was Aunt Maria's pride that not a piece was missing.
"As long as I take care of my china myself, and am not dependent on some great, clumsy girl, I guess I can afford to use it," she said.
As Maria eyed the delicate little cups a savory odor of stew floated through the room. She realized that she was not hungry, that the odor of food nauseated her with a sort of physical sympathy with the nausea of her soul, with life itself. Then she straightened herself, and shut her mouth hard. The look of her New England ancestresses who had borne life and death without flinching was on her face.
"I will be hungry," Maria said to herself. "Why should I lose my appetite because a man who does not care for me is going to marry another girl, and when I am married, too, and have no right even to think of him for one minute even if he had been in earnest, if he had thought of me? Why should I lose my appetite? Why should I go without my supper? I will eat. More than that, I will enjoy eating, and neither George Ramsey nor Lily Merrill shall prevent it, neither they nor my own self."
Maria sniffed the stew, and she compelled herself, by sheer force of will, to find the combined odor of boiling meat and vegetables inviting. She became hungry.
"That stew smells so good," she called out to her aunt, and her voice rang with triumph.
"I guess it is a good stew," her aunt called back in reply. "I've had it on four hours, and I've made dumplings."
"Lovely!" cried Maria. She said to herself defiantly and proudly, that there were little zests of life which she might have if she could not have the greatest joys, and those little zests she would not be cheated out of by any adverse fate. She said practically to herself, that if she could not have love she could have a stew, and it might be worse. She smiled to herself over her whimsical conceit, and her face lost its bitter, strained look which it had worn all day. She reflected that even if she could not marry George Ramsey, and had turned the cold shoulder to him, he had been undeniably fickle; that his fancy had been lightly turned aside by a pretty face which was not accompanied by great mental power. She had felt a contempt for George, and scorn for Lily, but now her face cleared, and her attitude of mind. She had gained a petty triumph over herself, and along with that came a clearer view of the situation. When Aunt Maria called her to supper, she jumped up, and ran into the dining-room, and seated herself at the table.
"I am as hungry as a bear," said she.
Aunt Maria behind her delicate china teacups gave a sniff of satisfaction, and her set face softened. "Well, I'm glad you are," said she. "I guess the stew is good."
"Of course it is," said Maria. She lifted the cover of the dish and began ladling out the stew with a small, thin, silver ladle which had come to Aunt Maria along with the china from her mother. She passed a plate over to her aunt, and filled her own, and began eating. "It is delicious," said she. The stew really pleased her palate, and she had the feeling of a conqueror who has gained one of the outposts in a battle. Aunt Maria passed her a thin china cup filled with frothing chocolate, and Maria praise that too. "Your chocolate is so much nicer than our cook used to make," said she, and Aunt Maria beamed.
"I've got some lemon-cake, too," said she.
"I call this a supper fit for a queen," said Maria.
"I thought I would make the cake this afternoon. I thought maybe you would like it," said Aunt Maria, smiling. Her own pride was appeased. The feeling that Maria, her niece whom she adored, had been slighted, had rankled within her all day. Now she told herself that Maria did not care; that she might have been foolish in not caring and taking advantage of such a matrimonial chance, but that she did not care, and that she consequently was not slighted.
"Well, I s'pose Lily told you the news this morning?" she said, presently. "I s'pose that was why she wanted to see you. I s'pose she was so tickled she couldn't wait to tell of it."
"You mean her engagement to Mr. Ramsey?" said Maria, helping herself to more stew.
"Yes. Eunice came in and told before you'd been gone half an hour. She'd been down to the store, and I guess Lily's mother had told it to somebody there. I s'pose Adeline Merrill is tickled to death to get Lily out of the way, now she's going to get married herself. She would have had to give up her spare chamber if she hadn't."
"It seems to me a very nice arrangement," said Maria, taking a spoonful of stew. "It would have been hard for poor Lily, and now she will live with Mr. Ramsey and his mother, and Mrs. Ramsey seems to be a lovely woman."
"Yes, she is," assented Aunt Maria. "She was built on a different plan from Adeline Merrill. She came of better stock. But I don't see what George Ramsey is thinking of, for my part."
"Lily is very pretty and has a very good disposition," said Maria. "I think she will make him a good wife."
Aunt Maria sniffed. "Now, Maria Edgham," said she, "what's the use. You know it's sour grapes he's getting. You know he wanted somebody else."
"Whom?" asked Maria, innocently, sipping her chocolate.
"You know he wanted you, Maria Edgham."
"He got over it pretty quickly then," said Maria.
"Maybe he hasn't got over it. Lily Merrill is just one of the kind of girls who lead a man on when they don't know they're being led. He is proud, too; he comes of a family that have always held their heads high. He wanted you."
"You can't tell me. I know."
"Aunt Maria," said Maria, with sudden earnestness, "if you ever tell such a thing as that out, I don't know what I shall do."
"I ain't going to have folks think you're slighted," said Aunt Maria. She had made up her mind, in fact, to tell Eunice after supper.
"Slighted!" said Maria, angrily. "There is no question of slight. Do you think I was in love with George Ramsey?"
"No, I don't, for if you had been you would have had him instead of letting a little dolly-pinky, rosy-like Lily Merrill get him. I think he was a good match, and I don't know what possessed you, but I don't think you wanted him."
"If you talk about it you will make people think so," said Maria, passionately; "and if they do I will go away from Amity and never come back as long as I live."
Aunt Maria looked with sharp, gleaming eyes at her niece. "Maria Edgham, you've got something on your mind," said she.
"I have not."
"Yes, you have, and I want to know what it is."
"My mind is my own," said Maria, indignantly, even cruelly. Then she rose from the table and ran up-stairs to her own room.
"You have gone off without touching the lemon-cake," her aunt called after her, but Maria made no response.
Lemon-cake was an outpost which she could not then take. She had reached her limit, for the time being. She sat down beside her window in the dark room, lighted only by the gleam from the Merrill house across the yard and an electric light on the street corner. There were curious lights and shadows over the walls; strange flickerings and wavings as of intangible creatures, unspoken thoughts. Maria rested her elbows on the window-sill, and rested her chin in her hands, and gazed out. Presently, with a quiver of despair, she saw the door of the Merrill house open and Lily come flitting across the yard. She thought, with a shudder, that she was coming to make a few more confidences before George Ramsey arrived. She heard a timid little knock on the side door, then her aunt's harsh and uncompromising, "No, Maria ain't at home," said she, lying with the utter unrestraint of one who believes in fire and brimstone, and yet lies. She even repeated it, and emphasized and particularized her lie, seemingly with a grim enjoyment of sin, now that she had taken hold of it.
"Maria went out right after supper," said she. Then, evidently in response to Lily's low inquiry of where she had gone and when she would be home, she said: "She went to the post-office. She was expecting a letter from a gentleman in Edgham, I guess, and I shouldn't wonder if she stopped in at the Monroes' and played cards. They've been teasing her to. I shouldn't be surprised if she wasn't home till ten o'clock."
Maria heard her aunt with wonder which savored of horror, but she heard the door close and saw Lily flit back across the yard with a feeling of immeasurable relief. Then she heard her aunt's voice at her door, opened a narrow crack.
"Are you warm enough in here?" asked Aunt Maria.
"Yes, plenty warm enough."
"You'd better not light a lamp," said Aunt Maria, coolly; "I just told that Merrill girl that you had gone out."
"But I hadn't," said Maria.
"I knew it; but there are times when a lie ain't a lie, it's only the truth upside-down. I knew that you didn't want that doll-faced thing over here again. She had better stay at home and wait for her new beau. She was all prinked up fit to kill. I told her you had gone out, and I meant to, but you'd better not light your lamp for a little while. It won't matter after a little while. I suppose the beau will come, and she won't pay any attention to it. But if you light it right away she'll think you've got back and come tearing over here again."
"All right," said Maria. "I'll sit here a little while, and then I'll light my lamp. I've got some work to do."
"I'm going into the other side, after I've finished the dishes," said Aunt Maria.
"No, I won't. Let George Ramsey chew his sour grapes if he wants to. I sha'n't say anything about it. Anybody with any sense can't help knowing a man of sense would have rather had you than Lily Merrill. I ain't afraid of anybody thinking you're slighted." There was indignant and acrid loyalty in Aunt Maria's tone. She closed the door, as was her wont, with a little slam and went down-stairs. Aunt Maria walked very heavily. Her steps jarred the house.
Maria continued sitting at her window. Presently a new light, a rosy light of a lamp under a pink shade, flashed in her eyes. The parlor in the Merrill house was lighted. Maria saw Lily draw down the curtain, upon which directly appeared the shadows of growing plants behind it in a delicate grace of tracery. Presently Maria saw a horse and sleigh drive into the Merrill yard. She saw Mrs. Merrill open the side-door, and Dr. Ellridge enter. Then she watched longer, and presently a dark shadow of a man passed down the street, of which she could see a short stretch from her window, and she saw him go to the front door of the Merrill house. Maria knew that was George Ramsey. She laughed a little, hysterical laugh as she sat there in the dark. It was ridiculous, the two pairs of lovers in the two rooms! The second-hand, warmed-over, renovated love and the new. After Maria laughed she sobbed. Then she checked her sobs and sat quite still and fought, and presently a strange thing happened, which is not possible to all, but is possible to some. With an effort of the will which shocked her house of life, and her very soul, and left marks which she would bear to all eternity, she put this unlawful love for the lover of another out of her heart. She closed all her doors and windows of thought and sense upon him, and the love was gone, and in its place was an awful emptiness which yet filled her with triumph.
"I do not love him at all now," she said, quite aloud; and it was true that she did not. She rose, pulled down her curtains, lighted her lamp, and went to work.
Maria, after that, went on her way as before. She saw, without the slightest qualm, incredible as it may seem, George Ramsey devoted to Lily. She even entered without any shrinking into Lily's plans for her trousseau, and repeatedly went shopping with her. She began embroidering a bureau-scarf and table-cover for Lily's room in the Ramsey house. It had been settled that the young couple were to have the large front chamber, and Mrs. Merrill's present to Lily was a set of furniture for it. Mrs. Ramsey's old-fashioned walnut set was stowed away. Maria even went with Mrs. Merrill to purchase the furniture. Mrs. Merrill had an idea, which could not be subdued, that Maria would have liked George Ramsey for herself, and she took a covert delight in pressing Maria into this service, and descanting upon the pleasant life in store for her daughter. Maria understood with a sort of scorn Mrs. Merrill's thought; but she said to herself that if it gave her pleasure, let her think so. She had a character which could leave people to their mean and malicious delights for very contempt.
"Well, I guess Lily's envied by a good many girls in Amity," said Mrs. Merrill, almost undisguisedly, when she and Maria had settled upon a charming set of furniture.
"I dare say," replied Maria. "Mr. Ramsey seems a very good young man."
"He's the salt of the earth," said Mrs. Merrill. She gave a glance of thwarted malice at Maria's pretty face as they were seated side by side in the trolley-car on their way home that day. Her farthest imagination could discern no traces of chagrin, and Maria looked unusually well that day in a new suit. However, she consoled herself by thinking that Maria was undoubtedly like her aunt, who would die before she let on that she was hit, and that the girl, under her calm and smiling face, was stung with envy and slighted affection.
Lily asked Maria to be her maid of honor. She planned to be married in church, but George Ramsey unexpectedly vetoed the church wedding. He wished a simple wedding at Lily's house. He even demurred at the bridal-gown and veil, but Lily had her way about that. Maria consented with no hesitation to be her maid of honor, although she refused to allow Mrs. Merrill to purchase her dress. She purchased some white cloth, and had it cut and fitted, and she herself made it, embroidering it with white silk, sitting up far into the night after school. But, after all, she was destined not to wear the dress to Lily's wedding and not to be her maid of honor.
The wedding was to be the first week of Maria's spring vacation, and she unexpectedly received word from home that her father was not well, and that she had better go home as soon as her school was finished. Her father himself wrote. He wrote guardedly, evidently without Ida's knowledge. He said that, unless her heart was particularly set upon attending the wedding, he wished she would come home; that her vacation was short, at the best, that he had not seen her for a long time, and that he did not feel quite himself some days. Maria read between the lines, and so did her aunt Maria, to whom she read the letter.
"Your father's sicker than he lets on," Aunt Maria said, bluntly. "You'd better go. You don't care anything particular about going to that Merrill girl's wedding. She can get Fanny Ellwell for her maid of honor. That dress Fanny wore at Eva Granger's wedding will do for her to wear. Your dress will come in handy next summer. You had better go home."
Maria sat soberly looking at the letter. "I am afraid father is worse than he says," she said.
"I know he is. Harry Edgham wasn't ever very strong, and I'll warrant his wife has made him go out when he didn't feel equal to it, and she has had stacks of company, and he must have had to strain every nerve to meet expenses, poor man! You'd better go, Maria."
"Of course, I am going," replied Maria.
That evening she went over and told Lily that she could not be her maid of honor, that her father was sick, and she would be obliged to go home as soon as school closed. George Ramsey was calling, and Lily's face had a lovely pink radiance. One could almost seem to see the kisses of love upon it. George acted a little perturbed at sight of Maria. He remained silent during Lily's torrent of regrets and remonstrances, but he followed Maria to the door and said to her how sorry he was that her father was ill.
"I hope it is nothing serious," he said.
"Thank you," said Maria. "I hope not, but I don't think my father is very strong, and I feel that I ought to go."
"Of course," said George. "We shall be sorry to miss you, but, if your father is ill, you ought to go."
"Do you think one day would make any difference?" said Lily, pleadingly, putting up her lovely face at Maria.
"It would mean three days, you know, dear," Maria said.
"Of course it would," said George; "and Miss Edgham is entirely right, Lily."
"I don't want Fanny Ellwell one bit for maid of honor," Lily said, poutingly.
Maria did not pay any attention. She was thinking anxiously of her father. She realized that he must be very ill or he would not have written her as he had done. It was not like Harry Edgham to deprive any one of any prospective pleasure, and he had no reason to think that being maid of honor at this wedding was anything but a pleasure to Maria. She felt that the illness must be something serious. Her school was to close in three days, and she was almost too impatient to wait.
"Ida Edgham ought to be ashamed of herself for not writing and letting you know that your father was sick before," said Aunt Maria. "She and Lily Merrill are about of a piece."
"Maybe father didn't want her to," said Maria. "Father knew my school didn't close until next Thursday. If I thought he was very ill I would try to get a substitute and start off before."
"But I know your father wouldn't have written for you to come unless he wasn't well and wanted to see you," said Aunt Maria. "I shouldn't be a mite surprised, too, if he suspected that Ida would write you not to come, and thought he'd get ahead of her."
Aunt Maria was right. In the next mail came a letter from Ida, saying that she supposed Maria would not think she could come home for such a short vacation, especially a she had to stay a little longer in Amity for the wedding, and how sorry they all were, and how they should look forward to the long summer vacation.
"She doesn't say a word about father's being ill," said Maria.
"Of course she doesn't! She knew perfectly well that if she did you would go home whether or no; or maybe she hasn't got eyes for anything aside from herself to see that he is sick."
Maria grew so uneasy about her father that she engaged a substitute and went home two days before her vacation actually commenced. She sent a telegram, saying that she was coming, and on what train she should arrive. Evelyn met her at the station in Edgham. She had grown, and was nearly as tall as Maria, although only a child. She was fairly dancing with pleasurable expectation on the platform, with the uncertain grace of a butterfly over a rose, when Maria caught sight of her. Evelyn was a remarkably beautiful little girl. She had her mother's color and dimples, with none of her hardness. Her forehead, for some odd reason, was high and serious, like Maria's own, and Maria's own mother's. Her dark hair was tied with a crisp white bow, and she was charmingly dressed in red from head to foot—a red frock, red coat, and red hat. Ida could at least plead, in extenuation of her faults of life, that she had done her very best to clothe those around her with beauty and grace. When Maria got off the car, Evelyn made one leap towards her, and her slender, red-clad arms went around her neck. She hugged and kissed her with a passionate fervor odd to see in a child. Her charming face was all convulsed with emotion.
"Oh, sister!" she said. "Oh, sister!"
Maria kissed her fondly. "Sister's darling," she said. Then she put her gently away. "Sister has to get out her trunk-check and see to getting a carriage," she said.
"Mamma has gone to New York," said Evelyn, "and papa has not got home yet. He comes on the next train. He told me to come and meet you."
Maria, after she had seen to her baggage and was seated in the livery carriage with Evelyn, asked how her father was. "Is father ill, dear?" she said.
Evelyn looked at her with surprise. "Why, no, sister, I don't think so," she replied. "Mamma hasn't said anything about it, and I haven't heard papa say anything, either."
"Does he go to New York every day?"
"Yes, of course," said Evelyn. The little girl had kept looking at her sister with loving, adoring eyes. Now she suddenly cuddled up close to her and thrust her arm through Maria's. "Oh, sister!" she said, half sobbingly again.
"There, don't cry, sister's own precious," Maria said, kissing the little, glowing face on her shoulder. She realized all at once how hard the separation had been from her sister. "Are you glad to have me home?" she asked.
For answer Evelyn only clung the closer. There was a strange passion in the look of her big eyes as she glanced up at her sister. Maria was too young herself to realize it, but the child had a dangerous temperament. She had inherited none of her mother's hard phlegmaticism. She was glowing and tingling with emotion and life and feeling in every nerve and vein. As she clung to her sister she trembled all over her lithe little body with the violence of her affection for her and her delight at meeting her again. Evelyn had made a sort of heroine of her older sister. Her imagination had glorified her, and now the sight of her did not disappoint her in the least. Evelyn thought Maria, in her brown travelling-gown and big, brown-feathered hat, perfectly beautiful. She was proud of her with a pride which reached ecstasy; she loved her with a love which reached ecstasy.
"So father goes to New York every day?" said Maria again.
"Yes," said Evelyn. Then she repeated her ecstatic "Oh, sister!"
To Maria herself the affection of the little girl was inexpressibly grateful. She said to herself that she had something, after all. She thought of Lily Merrill, and reflected how much more she loved Evelyn than she had loved George Ramsey, how much more precious a little, innocent, beautiful girl was than a man. She felt somewhat reassured about her father's health. It did not seem to her that he could be very ill if he went to New York every day.
"Mamma has gone to the matinee," said Evelyn, nestling luxuriously, like a kitten, against Maria. "She said she would bring me some candy. Mamma wore her new blue velvet gown, and she looked lovely, but"—Evelyn hesitated a second, then she whispered with her lips close to Maria's ear—"I love you best."
"Evelyn, darling, you must not say such things," said Maria, severely. "Of course, you love your own mother best."
"No, I don't," persisted Evelyn. "Maybe it's wicked, but I don't. I love papa as well as I do you, but I don't love mamma so well. Mamma gets me pretty things to wear, and she smiles at me, but I don't love her so much. I can't help it."
"That is a naughty little girl," said Maria.
"I can't help it," said Evelyn. "Mamma can't love anybody as hard as I can. I can love anybody so hard it makes me shake all over, and I feel ill, but mamma can't. I love you so, Maria, that I don't feel well."
"Nonsense!" said Maria, but she kissed Evelyn again.
"I don't—honest," said Evelyn. Then she added, after a second's pause, "If I tell you something, won't you tell mamma—honest?"
"I can't promise if I don't know what it is," said Maria, with her school-teacher manner.
"It isn't any harm, but mamma wouldn't understand. She never felt so, and she wouldn't understand. You won't tell her, will you, sister?"
"No, I guess not," said Maria.
"Well, I won't tell her."
Evelyn looked up in her sister's face with her wonderful dark eyes, a rose flush spread over her face. "Well, I am in love," she whispered.
Maria laughed, although she tried not to. "Well, with whom, dear?" she asked.
"With a boy. Do you think it is wrong, sister?"
"No, I don't think it is very wrong," replied Maria, trying to restrain her smile.
"His first name is pretty, but his last isn't so very," Evelyn said, regretfully. "His first name is Ernest. Don't you think that is a pretty name?"
"But his last name is only Jenks," said Evelyn, with a mortified air. "That is horrid, isn't it?"
"Nobody can help his name," said Maria, consolingly.
"Of course he can't. Poor Ernest isn't to blame because his mother married a man named Jenks; but I wish she hadn't. If we ever get married, I don't want to be called Mrs. Jenks. Don't people ever change their names, sister?"
"Sometimes, I believe."
"Well, I shall not marry him unless he changes his name. But he is such a pretty boy. He looks across the school-room at me, and once, when I met him in the vestibule, and there was nobody else there, he asked me to kiss him, and I did."
"I don't think you ought to kiss boys," said Maria.
"I would rather kiss him than another girl," said Evelyn, looking up at her sister with the most limpid passion, that of a child who has not the faintest conception of what passion means.
"Well, sister would rather you did not," said Maria.
"I won't if you don't want me to," said Evelyn, meekly. "That was quite a long time ago. It is not very likely I shall meet him anywhere where we could kiss each other, anyway. Of course, I don't really love him as much as I do you and papa. I would rather he died than you or papa; but I am in love with him—you know what I mean, sister?"
"I wouldn't think any more about it, dear," said Maria.
"I like to think about him," said Evelyn, simply. "I like to sit whole hours and think about him, and make sort of stories about us, you know—how me meet somewhere, and he tells me how much he loves me, and how we kiss each other again. It makes me happy. I go to sleep so. Do you think it is wrong, sister?"
Maria remembered her own childhood. "Perhaps it isn't wrong, exactly, dear," she said, "but I wouldn't, if I were you. I think it is better not."
"Well, I will try not to," said Evelyn, with a sigh. "He told Amy Jones I was the prettiest girl in school. Of course we couldn't be married for a long time, and I wouldn't be Mrs. Jenks. But, now you've come home, maybe I sha'n't want to think so much about him."
Maria found new maids when she reached home. Ida did not keep her domestics very long. However, nobody could say that was her fault in this age when man-servants and maid-servants buzz angrily, like bees, over household tasks and are constantly hungering for new fields.
"We have had two cooks and two new second-girls since you went away," Evelyn said, when they stood waiting for the front door to be opened, and the man with Maria's trunk stood behind them. "The last second-girl we had stole"—Evelyn said the last in a horrified whisper—"and the last cook couldn't cook. The cook we have now is named Agnes, and the second-girl is Irene. Agnes lets me go out in the kitchen and make candy, and she always makes a little cake for me; but I don't like Irene. She says things under her breath when she thinks nobody will hear, and she makes up my bed so it is all wrinkly. I shouldn't be surprised if she stole, too."
Then the door opened and a white-capped maid, with a rather pretty face, evidently of the same class as Gladys Mann, appeared.
"This is my sister, Miss Maria, Irene," said Evelyn.
The maid nodded and said something inarticulate.
Maria said "How do you do?" to her, and asked her to tell the man where to carry the trunk.
When the trunk was in Maria's old room, and Maria had smoothed her hair and washed her face and hands, she and Evelyn sat down in the parlor and waited. The parlor looked to Maria, after poor Aunt Maria's sparse old furnishings, more luxurious than she had remembered it. In fact, it had been improved. There were some splendid palms in the bay-window, and some new articles of furniture. The windows, also, had been enlarged, and were hung with new curtains of filmy lace, with thin, red silk over them. The whole room seemed full of rosy light.
"I wish you would ask Irene to fix the hearth fire," Evelyn had said to Maria when they entered the room, which did seem somewhat chilly.
Maria asked the girl to do so, and when she had gone and the fire was blazing Evelyn said:
"I didn't like to ask her, sister. She doesn't realize that I am not a baby, and she does not like it. So I never ask her to do anything except when mamma is here. Irene is afraid of mamma."
Maria laughed and looked at the clock. "How long will it be before father comes, do you think, dear?" she asked.
"Papa comes home lately at five o'clock. I guess he will be here very soon now; but mamma won't be home before half-past seven. She has gone with the Voorhees to the matinee. Do you know the Voorhees, sister?"
"I guess they came to Edgham after you went away. They bought that big house on the hill near the church. They are very rich. There are Mr. Voorhees and Mrs. Voorhees and their little boy. He doesn't wear long stockings in the coldest weather; his legs are quite bare from a little above his shoes to his knees. I should think he would be cold, but mamma says it is very stylish. He is a pretty little boy, but I don't like him; he looks too much like Mr. Voorhees, and I don't like him. He always acts as if he were laughing at something inside, and you don't know what it is. Mrs. Voorhees is very handsome, not quite so handsome as mamma, but very handsome, and she wears beautiful clothes and jewels. They often ask mamma to go to the theatre with them, and they are here quite a good deal. They have dinner-parties and receptions, and mamma goes. We had a dinner-party here last week."
"Doesn't father go to the theatre with them?" asked Maria.
"No, he never goes. I don't know whether they ask him or not. If they do, he doesn't go. I guess he would rather stay at home. Then I don't believe papa would want to leave me alone until the late train, for often the cook and Irene go out in the evening."
Maria looked anxiously at her little sister, who was sitting as close to her as she could get in the divan before the fire. "Does papa look well?" she asked.
"Why, yes, I guess so. He looks just the way he always has. I haven't heard him say he wasn't well, nor mamma, and he hasn't had the doctor, and I haven't seen him take any medicine. I guess he's well."
Maria looked at the clock, a fine French affair, which had been one of Ida's wedding gifts, standing swinging its pendulum on the shelf between a Tiffany vase and a bronze. "Father must be home soon now, if he comes on that five-clock train," she said.
"Yes, I guess he will."
In fact, it was a very few minutes before a carriage stopped in front of the house and Evelyn called out: "There he is! Papa has come!"
Maria did not dare look out of the window. She arose with trembling knees and went out into the hall as the front door opened. She saw at the first glance that her father had changed—that he did not look well. And yet it was difficult to say why he did not look well. He had not lost flesh, at least not perceptibly; he was not very pale, but on his face was the expression of one who is looking his last at the things of this world. The expression was at once stern and sad and patient. When he saw Maria, however, the look disappeared for the time. His face, which had not yet lost its boyish outlines, fairly quivered between smiles and tears. He caught Maria in his arms.
"Father's blessed child!" he whispered in her ear.
"Oh, father," half sobbed Maria, "why didn't you send for me before? Why didn't you tell me?"
"Hush, darling!" Harry said, with a glance at Evelyn, who stood looking on with a puzzled, troubled expression on her little face. Harry took off his overcoat, and they all went into the parlor. "That fire looks good," said Harry, drawing close to it.
"I got Maria to ask Irene to make it," Evelyn said, in her childish voice.
"That was a good little girl," said Harry. He sat down on the divan, with a daughter on each side of him. Maria nestled close to her father. With an effort she kept her quivering face straight. She dared not look in his face again. A knell seemed ringing in her ears from her own conviction, a voice of her inner consciousness, which kept reiterating, "Father is going to die, father is going to die." Maria knew little of illness, but she felt that she could not mistake that expression. But her father talked quite gayly, asking her about her school and Aunt Maria and Uncle Henry and his wife. Maria replied mechanically. Finally she mustered courage to say:
"How are you feeling, father? Are you well?"
"I am about the same as when you went away, dear," Harry replied, and that expression of stern, almost ineffable patience deepened on his face. He smiled directly, however, and asked Evelyn what train her mother had taken.
"She won't be home until the seven-thirty train," said Harry, "and there is no use in our waiting dinner. You must be hungry, Maria. Evelyn, darling, speak to Irene. I hear her in the dining-room."
Evelyn obeyed, and Harry gave his orders that dinner should be served as soon as possible. The girl smiled at him with a coquettish air.
"Irene is pleasanter to papa than to anybody else," Evelyn observed, meditatively, when Irene had gone out. "I guess girls are apt to be pleasanter to gentlemen than to little girls."
Harry laughed and kissed the child's high forehead. "Little girls are just as well off if they don't study out other people's peculiarities too much," he said.
"They are very interesting," said Evelyn, with an odd look at him, yet an entirely innocent look.
Maria was secretly glad that this first evening She was not there, that she could dine alone with her father and Evelyn. It was a drop of comfort, and yet the awful knell never ceased ringing in her ears—"Father is going to die, father is going to die." Maria made an effort to eat, because her father watched her anxiously.
"You are not as stout as you were when you went away, precious," he said.
"I am perfectly well," said Maria.
"Well, I must say you do look well," said Harry, looking admiringly at her. He admired his little Evelyn, but no other face in the world upon which he was soon to close his eyes forever was quite so beautiful to him as Maria's. "You look very much as your own mother used to do," he said.
"Was Maria's mamma prettier than my mamma?" asked Evelyn, calmly, without the least jealousy. She looked scrutinizingly at Maria, then at her father. "I think Maria is a good deal prettier than mamma, and I suppose, of course, her mamma must have been better-looking than mine," said she, answering her own question, to Harry's relief. But she straightway followed one embarrassing question with another. "Did you love Maria's mamma better than you do my mamma?" she asked.
Maria came to her father's relief. "That is not a question for little girls to ask, dear," said she.
"I don't see why," said Evelyn. "Little girls ought to know things. I supposed that was why I was a little girl, in order to learn to know everything. I should have been born grown up if it hadn't been for that."
"But you must not ask such questions, precious," said Maria. "When you are grown up you will see why."
Harry insisted upon Evelyn's going to bed directly after dinner, although she pleaded hard to be allowed to sit up until her mother returned. Harry wished for at least a few moments alone with Maria. So Evelyn went off up-stairs, after teary kisses and good-nights, and Maria was left alone with her father in the parlor.
"You are not well, father?" Maria said, immediately after Evelyn had closed the door.
"No, dear," replied Harry, simply.
Maria retained her self-composure very much as her mother might have done. A quick sense of the necessity of aiding her father, of supporting him spiritually, came over her.
"What doctor have you seen, father?" she asked.
"The doctor here and three specialists in New York."
"And they all agreed?"
Maria looked interrogatively at her father. Her face was very white and shocked, but it did not quiver. Harry answered the look.
"I may have to give up almost any day now," he said, with an odd sigh, half of misery, half of relief.
"Does Ida know?" asked Maria.
"No, dear, she does not suspect. I thought there was no need of distressing her. I wanted to tell you while I was able, because—" Harry hesitated, then he continued: "Father wanted to tell you how sorry he was not to make any better provision for you," he said, pitifully. "He didn't want you to think it was because he cared any the less for you. But—soon after I married Ida—well, I realized how helpless she would be, especially after Evelyn was born, and I had my life insured for her benefit. A few years after I tried to get a second policy for your benefit, but it was too late. Father hasn't been well for quite a long time."
"I hope you don't think I care about any money," Maria cried, with sudden passion. "I can take care of myself. It is you I think of." Maria began to weep, then restrained herself, but she looked accusingly and distressedly at her father.
"I had to settle the house on her, too," said Harry, painfully. "But I felt sure at the time—she said so—that you would always have your home here."
"That is all right, father," said Maria.
"All father can do for his first little girl, the one he loves best of all," said Harry, "is to leave her a little sum he has saved and put in the savings-bank here in her name. It is not much, dear."
"It is more than I want. I don't want anything. All I want is you!" cried Maria. She had an impulse to rush to her father, to cling about his neck and weep her very heart out, but she restrained herself. She saw how unutterably weary her father looked, and she realized that any violent emotion, even of love, might be too much for his strength. She knew, too, that her father understood her, that she cared none the less because she restrained herself. Maria would never know, luckily for her, how painfully and secretly poor Harry had saved the little sum which he had placed in the bank to her credit; how he had gone without luncheons, without clothes, without medicines even how he had possibly hastened the end by his anxiety for her welfare.
Suddenly carriage-wheels were heard, and Harry straightened himself. "That is Ida," he said. Then he rose and opened the front door, letting a gust of frosty outside air enter the house, and presently Ida came in. She was radiant, the most brilliant color on her hard, dimpled cheeks. The blank dark light of her eyes, and her set smile, were just as Maria remembered them. She was magnificent in her blue velvet, with her sable furs and large, blue velvet hat, with a blue feather floating over the black waves of her hair. Maria said to herself that she was certainly a beauty, that she was more beautiful than ever. She greeted Maria with the most faultless manner; she gave her her cool red cheek to be kissed, and made the suitable inquiries as to her journey, her health, and the health of her relatives in Amity. When Harry said something about dinner, she replied that she had dined with the Voorhees in the Pennsylvania station, since they had missed the train and had some time on their hands. She removed her wraps and seated herself before the fire.
When at last Maria went to her own room, she was both pleased and disturbed to find Evelyn in her bed. She had wished to be free to give way to her terrible grief. Evelyn, however, waked just enough to explain that she wanted to sleep with her, and threw one slender arm over her, and then sank again into the sound sleep of childhood. Maria lay sobbing quietly, and her sister did not awaken at all. It might have been midnight when the door of the room was softly opened and light flared across the ceiling. Maria turned, and Ida stood in the doorway. She had on a red wrapper, and she held a streaming candle. Her black hair floated around her beautiful face, which had not lost its color or its smile, although what she said might reasonably have caused it to do so.
"Your father does not seem quite well," she said to Maria. "I have sent Irene and the cook for the doctor. If you don't mind, I wish you would get up and slip on a wrapper and come into my room." Ida spoke softly for fear of waking Evelyn, whom she had directly seen in Maria's bed when she opened the door.
Maria sprang up, got a wrapper, put it on over her night-gown, thrust her feet into slippers, and followed Ida across the hall. Harry lay on the bed, seemingly unconscious.
"I can't seem to rouse him," said Ida. She spoke quite placidly.
Maria went close to her father and put her ear to his mouth. "He is breathing," she whispered, tremulously.
Ida smiled. "Oh yes," she said. "I don't think it anything serious. It may be indigestion."
Then Maria turned on her. "Indigestion!" she whispered. "Indigestion! He is dying. He has been dying a long time, and you haven't had sense enough to see it. You haven't loved him enough to see it. What made you marry my father if you didn't love him?"
Ida looked at Maria, and her face seemed to freeze into a smiling mask.
"He is dying!" Maria repeated, in a frenzy, yet still in a whisper.
"Dying? What do you know about it?" Ida asked, with icy emphasis.
"I know. He has seen three specialists besides the doctor here."
"And he told you instead of me?"
"He told me because he knew I loved him," said Maria. She was as white as death herself, and she trembled from head to foot with strange, stiff tremors. Her blue eyes fairly blazed at her step-mother.
Suddenly the sick man began to breathe stertorously. Even Ida started at that. She glanced nervously towards the bed. Little Evelyn, in her night-gown, her black fleece of hair fluffing around her face like a nimbus of shadow, came and stood in the doorway.
"What is the matter with papa?" she whispered, piteously.
"He is asleep, that is all, and breathing hard," replied her mother. "Go back to bed."
"Go back to bed, darling," said Maria.
"What is the matter?" asked Evelyn. She burst into a low, frightened wail.
"Go back to bed this instant, Evelyn," said her mother, and the child fled, whimpering.
Maria stood close to her father. Ida seated herself in a chair beside the table on which the lamp stood. Neither of them spoke again. The dying man continued to breathe his deep, rattling breath, the breath of one who is near the goal of life and pants at the finish of the race. The cook, a large Irishwoman, put her face inside the door.
"The doctor is comin' right away," said she. Then in the same breath she muttered, looking at poor Harry, "Oh, me God!" and fled, doubtless to pray for the poor man's soul.
Then the doctor's carriage-wheels were heard, and he came up-stairs, ushered by Irene, who stood in the doorway, listening and looking with a sort of alien expression, as if she herself were immortal, and sneered and wondered at it all.
Ida greeted the doctor in her usual manner. "Good-evening, doctor," she said, smiling. "I am sorry to have disturbed you at this hour, but Mr. Edgham has an acute attack of indigestion and I could not rouse him, and I thought it hardly wise to wait until morning."
The doctor, who was an old man, unshaven and grim-faced, nodded and went up to the bed. He did not open his medicine-case after he had looked at Harry.
"I suppose you can give him something, doctor?" Ida said.
"There is nothing that mortal man can do, madam," said the doctor, surlily. He disliked Ida Edgham, and yet he felt apologetic towards her that he could do nothing. He in reality felt testily apologetic towards all mankind that he could not avert death at last.
Ida's brilliant color faded then; she ceased to smile. "I think I should have been told," she said, with a sort of hard indignation.
The doctor said nothing. He stood holding Harry's hand, his fingers on the pulse.
"You surely do not mean me to understand that my husband is dying?" said Ida.
"He cannot last more than a few hours, madam," replied the doctor, with pitilessness, yet still with the humility of one who has failed in a task.
"I think we had better have another doctor at once," said Ida. "Irene, go down street to the telegraph operator and tell him to send a message for Dr. Lameth."
"He has been consulted, and also Dr. Green and Dr. Anderson, not four weeks ago, and we all agree," said the doctor, with a certain defiance.
"Go, Irene," said Ida.
Irene went out of the room, but neither she nor the cook left the house.
"The madam said to send a telegram," Irene told the cook, "but the doctor said it was no use, and I ain't goin' to stir out a step again to-night. I'm afraid."
The cook, who was weeping beside the kitchen table, hardly seemed to hear. She wept profusely and muttered surreptitiously prayers on her rosary for poor Harry's soul, which passed as day dawned.
Maria had always attended church, and would have said, had she been asked, that she believed in religion, that she believed in God; but she had from the first, when she had thought of such matters at all, a curious sort of scorn, which was half shame, at the familiar phrases used concerning it. When she had heard of such and such a one that "he was serious," that he had "experienced conviction," she had been filled with disgust. The spiritual nature of it all was to her mind treated materially, like an attack of the measles or mumps. She had seen people unite with the church of which her mother had been a member, and heard them subscribe to and swear their belief in articles of faith, which seemed to her monstrous. Religion had never impressed her with any beauty, or sense of love. Now, for the first time, after her father had died, she seemed all at once to sense the nearness of that which is beyond, and a love and longing for it, which is the most primitive and subtlest instinct of man, filled her very soul. Her love for her father projected her consciousness of him beyond this world. In the midst of her grief a strange peace was over her, and a realization of love which she had never had before. Maria, at this period, had she been a Catholic, might have become a religious devotee. She seemed to have visions of the God-man crowned with thorns, the rays of unutterable and eternal love, and sacred agony for love's sake. She said to herself that she loved God, that her father had gone to him. Moreover, she took a certain delight in thinking that her own mother, with her keen tongue and her heart of true gold, had him safe with her. She regarded Ida with a sort of covert triumph during those days after the funeral, when the sweet, sickly fragrance of the funeral flowers still permeated the house. Maria did not weep much after the first. She was not one to whom tears came easily after her childhood. She carried about with her what seemed like an aching weight and sense of loss, along with that strange new conviction of love and being born for ultimate happiness which had come to her at the time of her father's death.
The spring was very early that year. The apple-trees were in blossom at an unusual time. There was a tiny orchard back of the Edgham house. Maria used to steal away down there, sit down on the grass, speckled with pink-and-white petals, and look up through the rosy radiance of bloom at the infinite blue light of the sky. It seemed to her for the first time she laid hold on life in the midst of death. She wondered if she could always feel as she did then. She had a premonition that this state, which bordered on ecstasy, would not endure.
"Maria does not act natural, poor child," Ida said to Mrs. Voorhees. "She hardly sheds a tear. Sometimes I fear that her father's marrying again did wean her a little from him."
"She may have deep feelings," suggested Mrs. Voorhees. Mrs. Voorhees was an exuberant blonde, with broad shallows of sentimentality overflowing her mind.
"Perhaps she has," Ida assented, with a peculiar smile curling her lips. Ida looked handsomer than ever in her mourning attire. The black softened her beauty, instead of bringing it into bolder relief, as is sometimes the case. Ida mourned Harry in a curious fashion. She mourned the more pitifully because of the absence of any mourning at all, in its truest sense. Ida had borne in upon her the propriety of deep grief, and she, maintaining that attitude, cramped her very soul because of its unnaturalness. She consoled herself greatly because of what she esteemed her devotion to the man who was gone. She said to herself, with a preen of her funereal crest, that she had been such a wife to poor Harry as few men ever had possessed.