"She bathed my ankle, and said 'My dear,' and waited on me, when she'd never set eyes on me in her life before. How did she know but that I was an—an impostor? And she let us have her dear little house to live in—"
"Yes, yes—oh, yes, she let me live in it!" Laura Ann interposed. "You ought to have told us she was dead."
"She isn't dead. She's fallen downstairs and broken her hip. The doctor says it's so bad she won't ever walk again without crutches, her brother wrote. He said he wanted her to stay and live with him, but she wouldn't listen to it. She wanted to come home as soon as she possibly could. So she's coming—he's coming with her, to 'start' her."
T.O. fingered a letter in her hand in a nervous, undecided way, as if she were half inclined to read it to the other girl. It was not Emmeline Camp's brother's letter. It had come ten days ago, and she herself knew it by heart. How many, many times she had read it! She had cried over the wistful cry in it, and over Amelia's death—for the letter said that Amelia was dead.
"My dear," it said, "I've lost Amelia—you'd think she would have stood by her mother in her trouble, wouldn't you? But she hasn't been near me since. It seems queer—perhaps after people break their hips they can't 'feel' anything else but their hips! Perhaps it breaks their imaginations. Anyway, Amelia's dead, my dear. Sometimes I think mebbe I'd ought to be, too—a lone little woman like me, without a chick or a child. Old women with children can afford to tumble downstairs, but not my kind of old women. John is real good. He wants me to stay here, but I can't—I can't, I can't, my dear! I've got to be where I can limp out to the old pump and the gate and the orchard, on my crutches—I've got to see the old hills I was born in, and Old '61 marching past the house, and the old neighbors—I've got to die at home, my dear. So John can't keep me. I wish I was going to find you there. I keep thinking how beautiful it would be. You'd be out to the gate waiting, the way people's daughters wait for them. And mebbe you'd have the kettle all hot and we'd have a cup of tea together just as if I was the mother and you was—Amelia! All the way home I should be thinking about your being there. It's queer, isn't it, you went limping in that gate first, and now it's me? A good many things are queer, and some are kind of desolate. I've decided, my dear, that daughters have to be the kind that are born, to stay by a body in trouble. They have to be made of flesh and blood, my dear—and Amelia wasn't!
"I've written this a little to a time, laying on my back. Mebbe you won't ever read it. Mebbe I won't ever see you again, but you will remember, my dear, that I've loved you ever since I took off your stocking and saw your poor, sprained ankle. If the Lord would perform a miracle for me, I'd ask for it to be the bringing of Amelia to life and finding her you."
T.O. did not show the letter to Laura Ann. She put it in her pocket again, and they walked home slowly, talking of Mrs. Camp's sad accident. At the supper table it was voted that they all write a joint letter of sympathy to her, and express, at the same time, their united and separate thanks for her kindness to them in lending them her home.
Loraine wrote the letter, Laura Ann copied it, they all signed it. Into cold pen-and-ink words they tried to diffuse warmth and gratitude and sympathy, but the result was not very satisfying, as such results rarely are. Still, it was all they could do. Billy and Laura Ann went off to mail it.
"Do you begin to feel lonesome?" laughed Loraine softly, as she and T.O. sat on the steps in the dark. "Thinking of being left all alone in the Hive, I mean? The rest of us begin to feel lonesome, thinking of being left out! We had a grist of good times all together, didn't we? Remember the little 'treats' when you always brought home olives, and Billy sage cheese? Laura Ann used to change about—sometimes eclairs, sometimes sauerkraut! Always sardines for me. Oh, do you remember the treat with a capital 'T,' when we had ice cream and angel cake? And Billy wanted to divide the hole so as not to waste anything—there, I don't believe you've heard a word I said!"
She had not, for she was not there. Loraine put out her hand in the darkness, but could not find her. She had slipped away unceremoniously.
She was down in the road, walking fast and hard. The battle was on again.
"I thought I had it all decided—I did have! Why do I have to decide it over again?" she was saying stormily to herself. "I said I'd do it, and I'm going to do it—what am I down here fighting in the dark for?" But still she fought on.
It was so still about her, and with all her girl's heart she longed for noise again—car-bells and rattling wheels and din of men's voices. There were such wide spaces all about, and she longed for narrow spaces—for rows on rows of houses and people coming and going. It was the city-blood in her asserting itself. She had had her breath of space and freedom and green, growing things, and exulted in it while it lasted. Now she pined for her native streets. But all the sympathy and gratitude in her went out to the little old woman who was coming home to a lonely home—whose one dream-child was dead.
No one had ever really needed her before—to be needed appealed to her strongly. And in the short time between her own coming to Placid Pond and the coming of the other girls, a bond of real affection had been established between Mrs. Camp and herself.
But hadn't she been over all this before? Long ago she had decided what to do. Now, suddenly, she wheeled in the dark road and went hurrying in the other direction. She would go back to Loraine on the doorstep, and laugh and talk. She had decided "for good."
The stars came trooping out, and she lifted her face to them with a new sense of peace. They were such friendly, twinkling little stars.
T.O. was humming a lilty little tune when she came up the path in the starlight and joined Loraine again on the doorstep.
The other two girls were coming slowly back from the little country post office, both to hurry and have the pleasant walk over. Billy had been saying nice things about the portrait of Amelia they had found hanging on the wall.
"It's a dear!" she said heartily. "I wish I could make a picture like that."
"You've made one a thousand times better!" cried Laura Ann. "I saw it this afternoon."
"Me—make a picture?" Billy's voice was incredulous. "I couldn't draw my breath straight!"
"It was a beautiful one. I stood still and looked at it. Your background was fine, dear—woods banked against a late afternoon sky, with bits of red light straggling through the branches, a little box of a house in the foreground, with patches of new shingles on the 'cover'; a crooked little front path, a funny little well, a little rosebush all a flame of color—"
"Mercy!" Billy's little triangle of a face put on alarm. Was Laura Ann losing her mind?
"But that—all that—was only the setting. The heart of the picture, dear, was an old man marching up and down the path—did I say it was a moving picture? He was whistling a tune in a wheezy way, and keeping step to it grandly. Once he seemed to lose a few notes; then he went into a little box of a house, and I heard an organ—"
"Oh!" breathed Billy, assured of the other's sanity, "you mean Old '61 practicing! That's the way he does—he's learning to march through Georgia without the organ, but he misses a step or two sometimes. That was the picture, was it?"
"It was a beautiful one," Laura Ann said softly. "You needn't tell me you can't paint, Billy! That's the kind of pictures we shall find hanging in the Great Picture Gallery."
They walked on for a little in silence, with only the piping chorus of the little night creatures in their ears. The sweet, cool damp was in their faces.
"Here we are at Jane Cotton's Sam's," Billy whispered by and by, to break the spell. She could not have told why she whispered.
"So we are. Billy, look, he's studying like a trooper! That boy is going to walk straight into college in September! Let's go straight home and hug Loraine—come on! Take hold of my hand, and we'll run."
"Wait—wait! Look, there's another of your pictures, Laura Ann!" Billy's lips were close to the other's ear; Billy was pointing. Into the little lighted room where Jane Cotton's Sam sat poring over a book, had come another figure. As they looked, it stopped beside the boy and bent over him.
"That's just the setting—all that," Laura Ann murmured. "The heart of the picture is her face, Billy!" For Jane Cotton's face was radiant.
* * * * *
The day at last came for their return to the city and to the work they were so much better able to do. The little, green-painted house was in spotless order to leave behind. As Mrs. Camp was to come the following day, they had filled the little pantry with food—not remarkably light cake or bread, not especially flaky piecrust, but everything flavored with sympathy and gratitude and good will.
"Go on, all of you; I'll catch up," Billy said, as they stood on the steps with the door locked behind them. "When you get out of sight I'm going to kiss the house good-by!"
"T.O. had better stay behind with you, to kiss the pump!" Loraine said. "Or we'll all stay—I guess we can all find something to kiss."
"Did anybody think to take down the Wicked Compact?" demanded Laura Ann suddenly. "It would be awful to leave that behind."
They were at the gate. T.O. stopped suddenly, pointing. What they saw was a tiny, tiny mound, rounded symmetrically. "There it lies—I buried it," T.O. said briefly, but added, "And let no one keep its grave green!" They looked at her a little curiously. Perhaps they were thinking that it might have been appropriate for her to take it home with her and hang it on the wall to keep her company in the lonely little B-Hive. But they only laughed and tramped on cheerfully to the station. They were a little late, and had to run the last of the way. The train was already in, and they scrambled aboard.
"Well, here we are leaving Eldorado!" sighed breathlessly Loraine.
"And all of us heart-broken but T.O.—girls, where's T.O.?"
She was not there. The train was getting under way. In a flurry they huddled to the windows.
"Good-by! Good-by!" shouted a gay voice from the platform. A little white envelope flew in at one of the open windows. T.O., quite calm and unexcited, stood out there waving to them.
"What in the world!" ejaculated Laura Ann, then stopped. For she alone could see a little ray of light. "Read the letter," she said more quietly. "The letter will tell us."
They all read it together, their heads bunched closely.
"Dear girls, I'm going to stay. I never was needed before, but I guess I am now. And maybe you'll think it's funny, but I'm wanted! An imaginary daughter can't wait on a poor little cripple—it takes the flesh-and-blood kind. I found out she wanted me, and so I'm going to stay. It would have been lonesome, anyway, all alone in the Hive! I bequeath all my rights to you—"
"As if she had any now, any more than the rest of us!" muttered Billy fiercely, her eyes full of tears.
"Sometimes when you're going and coming, some o' you listen to the car-wires sing, for me, and the wheels rattle," the letter went on. "Bump into somebody sometime for me! Good-by. You're all of you dears.
At the signature they choked a little, and looked away at the flying landscape without seeing it at all. Laura Ann saw another picture—a girl waiting at a little gate. Woods and dusty road and humble little homes for background, and an old stage rattling into view in the foreground. She saw it stop—in the picture—and a helpless little old figure be taken out. She saw the girl at the gate spring forward and hold out her hands. But the heart of the picture was the face of the little old woman on crutches. It was another picture for the Grand Gallery.