"Stuff!" said Miss Vance. "St. Francis, indeed! I observe, by the way, that he crosses himself after his meals. Are you making a Romanist of the child? And you speak French to him, too?"
Mrs. Waldeaux's color rose. "His mother was French and Catholic," she said. "I will not have Lisa forgotten."
They went on in silence. Miss Vance was lost in thought. Was George Waldeaux equally eager to keep his wife's memory alive? Now that the conceit had been beaten out of him, he would not make a bad husband. And her child Lucy had always—esteemed him highly.
The next day was Sunday. George jumped out of bed with the dawn. He whistled and sang scraps of songs as he took his bath. The sun shone. What a full, happy world it was, anyhow! And he had given up the game last night? Why, life was just beginning for him! He was nothing but a boy—not yet thirty. He would make a big success soon, and then try to win—to win—— He stopped, breathless, looking into the distance, and his eyes slowly grew wet with passion and longing.
He left the house and struck across the country through the woodland and farms. He did not know why he went—he had to go. When he reached the Dunbar woods, he stood in the thicket for hours, watching the house. She came out at last and sat down on the steps to play with the dog. Last night in her white, delicate beauty she had not seemed real—she was far off, like an angel coming down into his depths of misery.
But to-day she sat on the steps in her pretty blue gown, and laughed and rolled Tramp over, and sung snatches of songs, and was nothing but a foolish girl. For so many years he had been thinking of work and money-making and bosses. All of that mean drudgery fell out of sight now. He was a man, young, alone, on fire with hope and passion. His share of life had been mean and pinched; yonder was youth and gladness and tranquillity. The world was empty, save for themselves. He was here, and there was the one woman in it—the one woman.
He looked at his tanned, rough fingers. Last night she had folded them in her two soft little hands, and drawn him on—on into home!
He would go up to her now and tell her——
George pushed aside the bushes, but at that moment Lucy rose and went into the house. After a moment he crossed the lawn and sat down on the piazza, calling the dog to him. She would come back soon. Tramp's head rested on his knee as he stroked it. It was here her hand had touched it—and here——
The scent of roses was heavy in the sunshine, the bees hummed; he sat there in a hazy dream, waiting for the door to open and the joy of his life to begin.
He was dragged roughly enough out of his dream.
Miss Dunbar's landau drove to the door to take her to church. George looked up, carelessly noting how quiet and perfectly appointed it was, from the brown liveries of the negro coachman and footman to the trappings on the black ponies. There were no horses of such high breed in Delaware. He stood up suddenly, his jaws pale as if he had been struck. What money there was in it! He had forgotten. She was a great heiress.
She came out at the moment. He scanned her fiercely, the plain, costly gown, the ruby blazing on her ungloved hand. Then he glanced down at his own shabby Sunday suit. She was the richest woman in Delaware, and he had not a dollar in his pocket, and no way to earn one.
He went up to her, courteously took her hand when she held it out, blushing and dimpling, bowed to her aunt, saying that he had merely walked over to put her into her carriage, and, having shut the door, looked after them, hat in hand, smiling when she glanced shyly back at him.
Then he laughed loudly. If he had the salary that she paid her negro driver he would be lucky! And he had meant to marry her. He laughed again and took his way homeward.
His mother was waiting to give George his breakfast. Whether he chose to lie in bed until noon or to walk twenty miles at dawn, she smiled a joyful approval. But neither the crisp toast, nor the fried chicken, nor any of her funny stories, would penetrate the blackness of his gloom.
"Oh, by the way!" she said; "here is a letter that came by last night's mail. I forgot to give it to you."
He glanced at the envelope. "Great Heavens! It is life and death to me, and you forget it to tell Jack's pert sayings!" He read the letter and threw it down.
"What is it, George?" she asked humbly.
"Burnett & Hoyle offer me a place in their house."
"Mr. Hoyle is an old friend of mine. I wrote to him. What is the salary, George?"
"Forty dollars a week. I could earn more as a coachman—for some rich heiress."
"But George dear—— It would be a beginning. They are brokers, and there are so many short cuts to fortune in that business! Do try it, my son."
"Of course I'll try it. Do you think I'm a fool? It will keep me from starving. But I want something else in life than to be kept from starving, mother."
He stretched out his arms with a groan, and walked to the window. She followed him with wretched, comprehending eyes. Why did not Lucy give him her fortune? Any woman would be honored who could give George her fortune.
"I always have heard that brokers know the short cuts to wealth," she said calmly. "You go on the Street some day, and come back a millionaire."
"That is a woman's idea of business. Instead, I will sit on a high stool and drudge all day, and on Saturday get my wages, and after three or four years I'll make a fight for ten dollars more a week, and thank God if I get it. 'A short cut to fortune!'"
Mrs. Waldeaux carefully averted her eyes from him. "You may marry," she said, "and it may happen that your wife also will have some little income——"
"Mother! Look at me!" he interrupted her sternly. "I will never be dependent on my wife, so help me God!"
"No, George, no! Of course not. Don't speak so loud. Only, I thought if she had a small sum of her own, she would feel more comfortable, that's all."
In spite of his ill temper George threw himself into his work with zeal. After a couple of months he came home for a day. He was dressed with the quiet elegance which once had been so important in his eyes.
His mother noted it shrewdly. "A man has more courage to face life, decently clothed," she said to herself.
He did not come again until winter. Lucy happened to be spending the day with Mrs. Waldeaux. There were no liveried servants, no priceless rings, no Worth gown in sight. She was just the shy, foolish girl whom he had once for an hour looked upon as his wife. George talked about Wall Street to her, being now wise as to stocks; took her out sleighing, and when in the evening she took Jack in her arms and sang him to sleep, sat listening with his head buried in his hands. Mrs. Waldeaux carried the boy up to bed, and Lucy and George were left alone. They talked long and earnestly.
"She consulted me about her affairs," he said, after she was gone, his eyes shining.
"I am afraid she does not understand business!" Mrs. Waldeaux replied anxiously.
"Oh, like a woman! That is, not at all. Her whole property is in the hands of The Consolidated Good Faith Companies. I reminded her of the old adage, 'Never put all of your eggs into one basket.'"
"But that is so sound a basket, George!" "Yes. It is thought so," with a shrug.
"Poor child! She needs a guardian to advise her."
Waldeaux's countenance grew black. "She should employ an attorney. It certainly will never be my duty to advise Miss Dunbar," he retorted irritably.
George showed himself shrewd and able in his work. Mr. Hoyle was a powerful backer. Before spring his salary was doubled. But what was that? The gulf between him and the great heiress gaped, impassable.
Lucy spent much time with her old friend, and Frances at last broke the silence concerning him.
"The boy never before knew what love was. And it is you that he loves, child."
"He has not told me so," said Lucy coldly.
"No. And never will. It is your wealth that makes him dumb. I wish it was gone," said Frances earnestly. "Gone. You would be so happy. What is money compared to being——"
"George's wife?" Lucy laughed.
"Yes. George's wife. I know what he is worth," his mother said boldly. "You might give it away?" looking eagerly in the girl's face. "In charity."
"I might do so," said Miss Dunbar tranquilly.
One morning in April Mrs. Waldeaux saw George coming up from the station. She ran to meet him.
He was pale and breathless with excitement. "What is it? What has happened?" she cried.
"Hush—h! Come in. Shut the door. No one must hear. The Consolidated Companies have failed. They have robbed their depositors."
"Well, George? What have we—— Oh, Lucy!"
"Yes, Lucy! She is ruined! She has nothing. It was all there." He paced up and down, hoarse with agitation and triumph. "She mustn't know it, mother, until she is safe in another home."
"Another home?" "Oh, surely you understand! Here—if she will come. Poor little girl! She has not a dollar! I am getting a big salary. I can work for you all. My God! I will have her at last! Unless—— Perhaps she won't come! Mother, do you think she will come?" He caught her arm, his jaws twitched, the tears stood in his eyes, as when he used to come to her with his boyish troubles.
"How can I tell?" said Frances. "Go and ask her."
In July Miss Vance returned unexpectedly. Her charges had tired of travel, and turned their backs upon India. She dropped them in Chicago, and came to Weir for rest. The evening of her arrival she strolled with Frances through the park, listening to the story of George's sudden wooing, and the quiet, hurried wedding.
"It had to be quiet and hurried," said Mrs. Waldeaux, "in order to keep her ignorant of her change of fortune. He took her to the Virginia mountains, so that no newspapers could reach her. They are coming to-morrow. It won't trouble her to hear that her money is gone when she is here with us all, at home. As for me," she went on excitedly, "I am beginning to advertise the summer resort. I must put my hand to the plough. I don't mean that she shall miss any comfort or luxury as George's wife."
Miss Vance looked at her. "Frances, give up your planning and working. Let George work for you and his wife," she said curtly. "It is time for you to stop and rest."
"And why should I stop and rest, Clara?" said Frances, amazed.
"Surely you know, dear. You are not as young as you once were. Your eyes are weak, and your hearing is a little dulled, and——"
Frances threw out her hand eagerly. "You think I am growing old! It is only my eyes and ears that are wearing out. I am not deaf nor blind," she said earnestly. "I am not old. I find more fun and flavor in life now than I did at sixteen. If I live to be seventy, or a hundred, I shall be the same Frances Waldeaux still."
Clara gave an annoyed shrug. "But really, I make the thought of death my constant companion. And you are older than I."
"'After the busy day Comes the calm sleep of night,'"
she quoted, with a sententious sigh.
"Calm and sleep do not appear to me to be the highest conditions of life. No! I will not be set aside, even when I am dead, like a burned-out candle!" The indignant tears stood in her eyes. "Why, even in that other world I shall not be a barren stock, thank God! I have given a family to mankind. To watch a long line of your descendants at work, to see in them your own thoughts and your own soul reaching out, live powers through all eternity—I often think of it. That will be—not calm nor sleep."
Miss Vance touched Mrs. Waldeaux's arm affectionately. "What a queer idea, Frances. Well, I never argue, you know. Drop in the harness, if you choose. Let us go in now. It is chilly."
The older woman looked after her, and smiled good-humoredly. After a moment she raised her hand, examining it attentively. Her hand had been very beautiful in shape, white and dimpled, and she had been vain enough to wear fine rings. Now it was yellow and wrinkled. The great emerald looked like a bit of glass upon it.
"Yes, I see," she said, with a miserable little laugh, and then stood looking out into the far distance. "But I am not growing old." She spoke aloud, as if to one who stood apart with her and could understand. "Even out in that other world I shall not be only a mother. I shall be me. ME!" touching her breast. "After a million of years—it will still be me."
There stirred within the lean body and rheumatic limbs depths of unused power, of thought, of love and passion, and, deeper than all, awful possibilities of change.
"I have it in me still to be worse than a murderer," she thought, with whitening face.
She stood a long time, alone. A strange content and light came slowly into her face. "Come what will, I shall never be left to myself again," she said at last, speaking to a Friend whom she had found long ago.
Then she went in search of the boy. "Come, Jack," she said cheerfully, "there are busy days before us."
George and Lucy that evening reached Dover, prettiest of American towns. They strolled down the shaded street out into a quiet country lane. Lucy sat down upon a fallen tree, and George threw himself upon the grass beside her.
"To-morrow we shall be at home," she said, pushing his hair back. "Do you know that your profile is absolutely Greek?" Her eyes half closed critically. "Yes, we shall be at home about eleven o'clock. I wrote to Stephen to order all the dishes that you like for luncheon. Your mother and Jack are coming. It will be such a gay, happy day!"
He took her hand. He would tell her now. It would not distress her. The money weighed for nothing in her life. He was her world; he knew that.
"Lucy!" he said.
She turned, startled at his grave tone. The color rose in her delicate little face, and there was a keen flash of intelligence in her blue eyes. It vanished, and they were only blue and innocent.
"Lucy, would you be willing to come to my house? To take it for home? To be a poor man's wife, there? God knows I'll try to make you happy in it."
"No," she said gently. "That is your mother's home. She has made it. It is not fair to bring young queen bees into the old queen's hive. We will live at your house, Dunbar Place, George."
"It is not mine nor yours!" George broke out. "Oh, my darling, I have hidden something from you. It is all gone. Your property, income, every thing! The Consolidated Consolidated Companies failed. Their depositors are ruined."
"Yes, I know," said Lucy, brushing a fallen leaf from her gown. "But they had no control over my affairs. I withdrew them from their management in February."
George started up. "Then you—you are a great heiress still?"
"No." She rose, holding out her hands, laughing. "My husband, I believe, is a rich man, and I shall have what he gives me."
But he did not hear her. He walked away down the road, shaken by a dumb fury. He had been tricked! Who had tricked him?
Then he heard a miserable sob and turned. Great God! Was any thing on earth so dear as that little woman standing there? She was crying! Had he struck her? He was a brute. What had he done?
He ran to her, and taking her outstretched hands, kissed them passionately.
"They are mine—mine!" he whispered, and knew nothing beyond.
They walked together like two happy children down the shady lane toward the golden sunset. The money was forgotten.