The man glared angrily at her, but being too thick-skinned to take in the full meaning of the child's words, he caught only the familiar name she had spoken. "Miss Wayne?" he bellowed. "A nurse? Is she here?"
"No, but she was once. She took care of me. Has Essie still got her doll?"
"Doll!" snarled the father savagely. "She can't think of nothing else. The lazy jade!"
"I knew it, I knew it!" cried Peace, clapping her hands triumphantly. "I told Miss Wayne that Essie and her mother were all right. 'Twas just you that wanted that plug of tobacco. Why didn't Essie's mother come, too?"
"O!" Peace was staggered by his blunt, indifferent reply, but before she could frame another question, Miss Murch appeared from an inner office, at the same moment that Miss Keith stepped through the doorway from behind them in search of her truant patient; and Peace suffered herself to be led docilely away. So absorbed was she in her new discovery that even her pleasure in her ability to walk again was forgotten.
Dr. Shumway and Gail had disappeared when she reached her room, and the nurse reported that they had gone motoring; but the fact that they had neglected to invite her to accompany them failed to bother her much. Her busy brain was seething with new schemes. She must find Essie Martin and talk with her. Where was the head nurse? She would know all about the case. There, Miss Keith had gone to answer someone's bell. Peace clapped her hands in silent glee, and making sure that the eagle-eyed nurse was actually out of range, she hurriedly set out to find Miss Gee, knowing full well that that kindly woman would be able to tell her what she wanted most to learn.
The next day when Gail appeared, prepared for a storm of passionate reproaches, Peace pounced upon her with the exclamation, "O, sister, I've got the most questions to ask and the most things to tell! It's been ages since I've seen you. I hardly know where to begin,—whether to tell about Essie first, or—"
"Who is Essie?" laughed Gail, settling herself composedly for the torrent of prattle that was sure to follow.
"Why, Essie Martin, the little girl which Miss Wayne told me about,—the one she sent two dolls to. One got burned up, you 'member."
"O, yes. Well, what is the news about her?"
"She is here in the hospital. I met her father yesterday. Her mother died three months ago, and Essie has been dreadful sick with appendage-itis. It's cut out now, and she is going to get well, but her father don't want her any more. She is only a girl and it will be years before she's big enough to keep house. So he means to put her in an orphant asylum,—just give her away, Gail, for someone to adopt! Isn't it perfectly heathenish?"
"But maybe she will be better off, dear, than she is now," Gail answered gravely, recalling some of the sad incidents connected with unfortunate Essie's brief history.
"That's what Miss Keith said when I was telling her about it, but it seems dreadful for an own father to give away his only little girl. I couldn't bear to think of her in a 'sylum, Gail, for she is an awful sweet little thing. I've been in to see her, and she looks lots like our Allee. So I asked Miss Gee if she didn't s'pose Aunt Pen could make room for her at Oak Knoll, and we've written to find out. How I'd like to see Miss Wayne again and tell her that Essie does love her doll and that her mother didn't want that tobacco. Essie don't want to go there—to the 'sylum, I mean,—but she doesn't want to go home, either. Don't you think Oak Knoll would be a nice place for her?"
"Yes, indeed, and I am sure she would like it there, too. If Aunt Pen can possibly find room for her, she will certainly do so. I am glad Miss Gee has written already."
"So'm I. It will be nice to have Essie in Martindale where I can go to see her sometimes. She is so nice. I know Allee will like her, too. She brought her Christmas doll along when she came to the hospital, and is wild to see Miss Wayne. The doll is dressed ever so cute, and is just as clean as when she got it, in spite of her father being such a hoggy-looking man. She must have had hard work to keep it like that if the rest of the family are as dirty as he is. Miss Wayne thought all the Martins wanted of her was what presents they could get, but you see Essie really loves her doll. She has named it Helen, after Miss Wayne. Why, there she is, now. I've a good notion to holler to her." Peace, having glanced casually down into the street below, suddenly started up from her chair with a gleeful shout.
"Who?" demanded Gail, startled at the exclamation.
"Miss Wayne, of course. She is sitting in Dr. Race's auto, and isn't in her uniform today, either. I wonder why. That is the third time I have seen her riding with the doctor when she didn't have on her white clothes. She can't have very many cases these days, I guess. Aren't there any sick folks to take care of?"
"Why—er—I think she is going to take care of the doctor after this," laughed Gail, a conscious blush flooding her pretty face.
"Is he sick?"
"No. O, no. But Miss Wayne is soon to become his wife, my dear."
"His wife! Mercy sakes! Ain't that just my luck? O, dear!" wailed the small sister in distress.
"Why, what in the world is the matter?" cried Gail in great surprise. "I am sure that is a delightful sequel to a beautiful romance. Dr. Race is such a good man as well as a wonderfully successful physician, and Miss Wayne will make an ideal wife for him. Think how happy they will be in a little home of their very own."
"That may all be so," Peace reluctantly admitted, "but what am I going to do now for a pattern? She was an old maid—she said so herself—and I'd made up my mind to be just like her; and here she's going to be married after all. That's the way it happens every time with me. I thought Miss Swift wanted Dr. Race for a husband. The nurses used to joke about it all the time, and if Miss Wayne was going to get married at all, I don't see why she didn't pick out Dr. Dick. I like him best of all. O, I forgot to tell you,—he broke his leg last night."
"Who?" Gail flew out of her chair like a ball from a cannon's mouth.
"Peace Greenfield, what do you mean?" shrieked the older girl, seizing the small sister by the shoulder with a grip that hurt.
"Ouch! Leggo! Don't you ever pinch me like that again! His automobile ran into a telegraph pole when he tried to turn out so's he wouldn't hit a baby playing in the street, and he fell out and broke his leg. It's a wonder that he wasn't hurt eternally. They brought him here and Dr. Kruger set it. My, but he's ugly! I've been in to see him already this morning. I just had to get even with him for the trick he played on me when I first came here, so I told him that when he wanted to walk to remember he would find four legs under his bed. But he never thought it a bit funny. Doctors and nurses do make the meanest patients when they are sick of anyone I know," concluded Peace sagely.
Gail had stood like one petrified as Peace chattered volubly on, but now she found her voice and excitedly interrupted, "But Dick—Dr. Shumway—where is he now? Why didn't anyone tell me before?"
"He's in Room 10, down the hall,—though I don't see why you should be told any sooner than—"
But Gail had vanished; and Peace, after one long, amazed look after the fleeing form, grabbed her crutches and started in pursuit, muttering as she hobbled along, "I'm going to see what's the matter."
At the threshold of the doctor's room, however, she paused, transfixed at the sight of Gail bending over the prostrate figure on the narrow bed, kissing—yes, actually kissing—a pair of mustached lips.
"Mercy!" she gasped, backing out precipitately.
But the lovers neither heard nor heeded.
"I thought you would never come!" the doctor was saying fervently, while he held Gail fast in his arms. "Kruger promised that he would 'phone you last night."
"I never knew a word about it until Peace told me a minute ago," Gail protested.
"What would we do without our Peace?" he murmured. Then discovering the shocked face in the doorway, he exclaimed, "Why, here she is herself! Hello, chicken!"
"You—you kissed her," Peace exploded. "I saw you!"
"Yes," he answered brazenly, "and I am going to do it again."
"Are you—have you gone and got married,—you two?"
"Not yet," he laughed boyishly. "But we are going to do just that very thing as soon as I can coax her to set the day. You don't mean to say that you object?"
"No—O, no. If she's got to have a husband, I don't know of a better one than you, except St. John, and he is already married once. But—I—am—surprised! Isn't she—er—rather young?"
And she could not understand why they laughed.
A HOSPITAL WEDDING
Peace, with writing pad and pencil in hand, climbed laboriously up into the deep window recess overlooking the wide lawns of Danbury Hospital, and propped her crutches against the sash, so that by no chance they could fall to the floor out of her reach while she was composing her weekly letter to St. Elspeth.
"I've got so much to write her," she sighed, chewing her pencil abstractedly. "I wish I could work a typewriter. 'Twould be so much easier to 'tend to all my letters then. It's tiresome writing things by hand. If it wasn't Elspeth, I wouldn't try today. It's so lovely and cool just to sit here and watch folks pass along the street. I 'most wish now that I had gone with Gail and Dr. Dick in their auto.—There, that's the first thing I must tell Elspeth. She'll be awful glad to know Gail is going to have such a nice husband. And the ring he gave her is too pretty for anything. Everyone has diamonds for their 'gagement rings, but it takes someone with brains to think up a ring out of sapphires and topazes, 'cause his birthday is in September and hers in November. When I get married, that's the kind of a ring I want, only I hope my husband's birthday stone is a ruby, 'cause I like them best of all."
Peace paused in her soliloquy long enough to write the date at the top of the page; then again thrust the pencil point into her mouth as she gazed reflectively out of the open window.
"Well," said a voice with startling abruptness almost at her elbow, "I shouldn't want to be in her shoes. No matter which place she chooses someone is going to feel hurt."
"That's what she gets for being so popular," laughed another voice, which Peace recognized as that of Miss Keith.
"You should say 'they,' instead of 'she,' for Dr. Race is as popular as Miss Wayne," interposed a third speaker; and the pair of startled brown eyes peering around the corner of the window seat beheld a quartette of white-capped nurses seated at a long table in the hallway, busy with heaps of snowy cotton and great squares of surgeon's gauze.
"I wonder what Miss Wayne has done now?" thought Peace, when, as if in echo of her thoughts, the fourth member of the little group asked hesitatingly, "What is all the fuss about? You see, I am so new here that I don't understand."
"Well, Miss Kellogg, neither do some of us older ones," retorted Miss Swift with an unpleasant laugh. "It seems to me that it is 'much ado about nothing.' Whose business is it if a doctor and a nurse decide to get married? Why don't they go to the justice of the peace or some parsonage and have it over with, instead of making such a stew—"
"You see, Miss Kellogg," interrupted Miss Keith mischievously, "our friend Swift had her eye on the doctor—"
"Now, girls," suggested the quiet voice of the first speaker, gentle Miss Gerald, "don't enter into personalities, please. They always breed ill feeling. You have met Helen Wayne, have you not, Miss Kellogg?"
"Yes, indeed. I think she is lovely."
"So does Dr. Race and all the rest of us," put in Miss Keith, unable to resist another wicked glance at her neighbor.
"Well, they are to be married very soon, and neither of them has any relatives living here in Fairview, so—"
"All their friends began to interfere," said Miss Swift.
"O!" But Miss Kellogg still looked mystified.
"Now don't pretend that it was as bad as all that," protested Miss Gerald. "It seems that Dr. Shumway was a classmate of Dr. Race, and they have always been great friends; so Mrs. Wood, Dr. Shumway's sister, asked them to be married at her house. But Dr. Kruger's wife and Helen graduated from the same school, and the Krugers urged them to have the ceremony performed at their place."
"And then Dr. Canfield bobs up with the assurance that he will feel most dreadfully hurt if they don't honor him by coming there," interrupted Miss Keith. "Miss Wayne nursed her first case under him, and he thinks her popularity is due solely to the recommendation he gave her,—the dear old fogy!"
"Also the Fairview Club, to which Dr. Race belongs, wants them to be married at the Club-house. O, it's great to be popular!"
"Why don't they simplify matters by having a church wedding?" asked Miss Kellogg, much interested.
"Ha—ha—ha!" laughed her three companions. "That's where the joke comes. They belong to different churches, and are both intimate friends of their pastors' families."
"Well, that does complicate matters, doesn't it?" said the newcomer musingly. "She is surely in a dilemma, isn't she?"
"Don't you agree with me that she would better patronize a justice of the peace?" asked Miss Swift.
"I don't," replied a decided voice just behind them, and the quartette jumped nervously at the unexpected sound, for not one of them was aware of the hidden listener.
"You don't what?" they gasped, as the curly brown head came into view from the deep recess.
"I don't think she ought to patternize the justice of the p'lice," replied Peace, limping over to the long table where they were all at work, "I'd just be married here at the hospital and fool 'em all."
"At the hospital!" echoed Miss Keith.
"What utter nonsense!" flashed Miss Swift.
"I think it is a novel idea," put in the new nurse decidedly.
"And why not?" asked Miss Gerald, after her first gasp of surprise. "Who would have a better right? Helen Wayne graduated from this institution, and Harvey Race was house doctor for a long time."
"But whoever heard of a wedding in a hospital?" exclaimed Miss Swift sarcastically. "It is utterly ridiculous."
"The ceremony could take place in that bay window at the end of the hall," planned Miss Kellogg, ignoring the attitude of her sister nurse. "It would make a lovely archway."
"And the roses are just at their best now," added Miss Gerald. "That is her favorite flower."
"Miss Foster is a musician, isn't she?" asked Miss Keith, entering into their plans with spirit. "We could get her to play the wedding march."
"On what?" inquired the dissenting member of the party. "Our lovely little baby organ which has an incurable case of asthma? Or the grand piano which we don't possess?"
"The grand piano, by all means," replied Miss Keith, nettled by her companion's words.
"Perhaps the hospital's fairy godmother will turn up with a piano for the occasion," suggested the gentle little peacemaker nurse. "We certainly need a decent instrument badly enough."
"Maybe we could hire one for just that night," Peace excitedly proposed. "We did that in Parker. Our school didn't own a piano, so we hired one when we needed it."
"You make me laugh," jeered Miss Swift. "You talk as if it were all settled. Do you suppose for one moment that the Hospital Board would listen to such a thing?"
"They meet today,—we'll ask them," quietly answered Miss Gerald.
"And supposing they should consent to such a preposterous scheme, do you think the doctors would allow their patients to be excited and disturbed over having such an event in this building?"
"It would be the best kind of a tonic for every soul under this roof. 'All the world loves a lover,' you know."
An audible sniff was the only reply their disgruntled comrade made; but at that moment Dr. Race himself entered the corridor and beckoned to Miss Gerald. So the quartette dispersed to take up other duties.
Peace, her desire for letter writing forgotten, wandered forlornly away to her room to await Gail's return, mentally chiding herself that she had allowed the big sister to go motoring without her. "I could have gone as well as not; but they prob'ly wouldn't have driven very far if I had; while as 'tis, they'll likely stay till dark."
She curled up in a comfortable bunch on the couch, propped her head against the window sash and fell to daydreaming, until the big eyes grew heavy with sleep, and she drifted away to the Land of Nod, where she dreamed that her beloved Miss Wayne was married to the man of her choice by a blue-coated policeman, on the flat roof of the Martindale fire-house, while all the doctors and nurses and sick folks from Danbury Hospital marched around and around in procession, vainly seeking some means of mounting to the room also.
Then suddenly the small sleeper was aroused by feeling a pair of strong arms encircling her and lifting her into somebody's capacious lap.
"You precious child!" she heard a familiar voice saying, and a warm kiss was pressed upon her forehead.
Her eyes flew quickly open, as she cried, "O, I know who you are—Miss Wayne! Are—are you married yet?"
"No, goosie. Did you suppose I could get married without having you there, too? You're almost as important as the bridegroom."
"Well, I dreamed you were, but I'm glad to hear it isn't so. Have you decided who you're going to hurt yet?"
"Whom I am going to hurt?" echoed Miss Wayne in surprise. "I hope I'm not going to hurt anyone. That isn't my business."
"Miss Gerald said so many folks wanted you to be married at their house that you were bound to hurt someone's feelings no matter what you did."
"O, but you fixed that for me beautifully, Peace Greenfield!" and she kissed the white forehead again.
"I'm going to be married here at the hospital. The Board invited me to! What do you think of that? Surely everyone ought to be satisfied with that arrangement."
"O, goody!" Peace clapped her hands gleefully. "I was afraid the doctors wouldn't let you. Miss Swift said they wouldn't."
"Miss Swift—oh, you mustn't remember anything she says,—poor girl."
"Well, I won't, but I guess she wanted your doctor herself—"
"Hush, childie. Don't say such things. I couldn't help it. I didn't try to make him love me."
"I'm glad he had some sense. I had picked out Dr. Dick for you, but my own sister Gail got him; so it's all right. I like Dr. Race next best. When are you going to be married?"
"Next week Wednesday."
"So soon? Why, I thought it took heaps of time to get ready for a marriage,—making clothes, and baking the cake and—and all such things as that."
"I have taken heaps of time," smiled the woman whimsically.
"Why, I didn't know that. When did you get time? You have always been busy nursing since I knew you."
"Years and years ago, when I was a little child, my father made me a beautiful cedar chest, and on every birthday mother laid away some pillow slips or linen sheets, or a piece of silverware. When I grew older, I made some quilts and hemmed towels and napkins by the dozen, embroidered sofa-cushions and doilies, and even fashioned some window draperies for the 'den' of my house to be. Only my own clothes remained undone when we decided to go hand in hand the rest of the way through life; and much of that work a dressmaker has done, because I have had neither time nor talent."
"Did she make your wedding dress?" asked Peace eagerly. "What is it like? And are you going to have a veil?"
Miss Wayne hesitated. "Well, I had thought some of being married in my uniform—"
"Uniform!" Peace interrupted in keen disappointment. "Just your old white dress and cap and apron? Why?"
"Because I am to be married here at the hospital."
"But—but—that won't be pretty. What will the doctor do for a uniform,—so's folks will know he is a doctor, I mean? Will he wear his automobile gloves and lug his medicine v'lise?" Peace inquired.
Miss Wayne drew her breath in sharply, unable to decide whether the child in her lap was sarcastic or in earnest. But before she could make reply, Peace continued, "Everyone knows what you look like in your nurse's uniform, but we've none of us seen you in a sure-enough wedding dress. You'd look lovely in one, I know, even if you are fat—I mean plump. I don't see why you are so stuck on being married in a white cap and apron."
"Well, as to that, I only thought it might be more appropriate. Some of the nurses hinted—"
"O, yes, that sounds like that Swift person's plan; but I don't think it is at all nice. How does Dr. Race like it?"
"O, I haven't told him yet. In fact, I really haven't fully decided. I have mother's wedding dress. Sister Lucy and my cousin Dell were married in it, and perhaps I—"
"O, do!" shrieked Peace enraptured. "Those long-ago wedding dresses are always so homely and cute. I just love 'em. Grandma still has hers, and she said she hoped some of us would want to wear it when we marry, but I guess she didn't 'xpect any of us would be ready for it quite so soon. She was awfully 'stonished when Dr. Dick wrote that he wanted Gail. I wish she was going to be married when you are. Then we could have a double wedding. I've always wanted to see one of those things."
Miss Wayne smiled at the child's ingenious plans, but said seriously, "Well, if I am to be married in a satin gown and lace veil, we must do things up properly all around. I'll have Gail for one of my bridesmaids, and you must be my flower girl."
"O," gasped Peace, breathless with delight. "Wouldn't that be grand! But I can't, Miss Wayne. A limpy flower girl would be dreadful. Let Essie Martin be flower girl, and I'll whistle for you to march up by. How will that do?" She looked up eagerly at the face above her, but Miss Wayne had not heard her question.
"Essie Martin!" said the woman in grave wonder. "What do you know about Essie Martin?"
"She is here—"
"Upstairs in Miss Blake's ward."
"Since when? How did she get here? Is she very sick? How did you know her and why didn't you tell me before?"
"I hain't seen you myself since I found out that Essie was here." Peace suddenly remembered her grievance against her beloved friend. "You haven't been up once for weeks. I've seen you only from my window when you were riding with Dr. Race. Essie has got appendicitis, but it's cut out now and she is almost well enough to go home,—that is, to Aunt Pen, for her father is going to give her away. She still has her doll, and it is named 'Helen' after you, and her mother is dead, and she would be awfully pleased to be flower girl at your wedding, 'cause she likes you. She didn't want that plug of tobacco, nor neither did her mother. And her father looks like the hog you said he did, only he is dirtier."
With quick intuition, Miss Wayne listened to this amazing jumble; then gently slid Peace back onto her couch as she said with abrupt decision, "I must see Essie. Anyway, here comes Gail. You will want to talk to her for a while, and it will soon be time for tea. Good-bye, little Heart o' Gold."
She was gone, and Peace was left alone with the big sister to tell all the marvelous things that had happened that one afternoon.
So it was decided that Gail was to be bridesmaid with Miss Keith, Miss Gerald, and Miss Crane; Essie Martin was to be flower girl, and Billy Bolee the little page. Miss Foster was to play the piano, borrowed for the occasion, with Peace to whistle the accompaniment.
O, it took hours of the most delightful planning! Then nurses and doctors got busy. Miss Wayne was banished from the building entirely, and Dr. Race was bidden to go his rounds with his eyes shut. There was much rustling and bustling as the host of eager friends decorated the wide, white corridor for the occasion. No sound of hammer must disturb the patients housed within those walls, but it was marvelous what miracles a few thumb tacks and bits of string accomplished. Long ropes of smilax and syringa, intertwined with pink tulle, swung from the high ceiling. The great chandelier and lesser lights were festooned with the same delicate greenery. The elevator shaft was completely hidden by woodland vines which Gail and Keturah Wood had gathered, and huge jardinieres filled with waxy snowballs occupied every available corner. The big window where the bride and groom were to stand was hung with fishnet, twined and intertwined with ferns from the forest and sweet wild roses with the dew sparkling on their rosy petals, for the wedding was to take place in early morning.
At last everything was in readiness, everyone was dressed in his best, the nurses and convalescent patients were assembled in one end of the corridor, the outside guests in the other end, and it lacked only the presence of the bridal party to make the beautiful scene complete.
Peace, resplendent in filmy white, had stolen from her place behind the piano for one last glimpse of the festive decorations, while she waited impatiently for the chimes of the distant court-house to strike the hour. "O, but it's lovely," she breathed in ecstasy, as her eyes wandered from floor to ceiling. "How everyone loves Miss Wayne!"
"Do you know why?" asked a voice at her elbow, and she looked up into the grave face of the kindly matron.
"No," she managed to stammer. "Why?"
"Because she has a heart of gold."
Miss Wayne's parting words of yesterday flashed through the active brain, and Peace asked with breathless eagerness, "O, tell me how to get a heart of gold, then."
"The good Lord gives us each one when we come into the world," answered the gray-haired woman earnestly. "But many of us are content enough with the glitter of the fool's gold which is found a-plenty in every life; and we don't delve for the real gold. We slip along in a don't-care way, neglecting the opportunities that come to us to better humanity; seeking the easiest tasks, satisfied with that kind of existence. The miner who digs in the bowels of the earth for his gold has to work and struggle and strive. So we, too, if we make the most of God's gifts to us, must work and struggle and strive."
A little perplexed, for poor Peace could not understand many of the long words which the matron had used, she seemed to grasp the "tiny text" of the little sermon, and said thoughtfully as she turned away, "Then I'll work and stumble and thrive, for I want a heart of gold like Miss Wayne's."
Then slowly the silvery toned chimes began to ring, there was a rustling sound on the stairway, and Peace had just time to slip into her place again when the strains of the piano began the measured notes of stately Lohengrin. From somewhere Dr. Race and the minister appeared and took their places beneath the canopy of wild roses, but Peace paid scant attention to them. Her eyes were glued upon the other end of the corridor where the bridal procession was already approaching, with Essie Martin in the lead, and—could it be?—yes, it was golden-haired, radiant Allee marching beside her, both scattering rose petals from dainty baskets hung from their arms. How had Allee gotten there? Peace almost forgot her part when her amazed eyes fell upon that familiar form. But close behind the little flower girls came the four bridesmaids, gowned in delicate and garlanded with wild roses; and the sight of the older sister's sweet face restored the young musician's composure, so that after only one or two quavering notes, she whistled more blithely than ever. This certainly was a day of delightful happenings!
Following the pretty bridesmaids toddled wee Billy Bolee, clad in white from head to toe, and bearing in his chubby little hands a tiny white velvet pillow upon which rested the simple gold wedding ring. The bride was almost too lovely to describe, dressed as she was in the heavy brocaded satin gown which had been her mother's forty years before, and half hidden by the clinging, filmy veil, which floated like a fleecy cloud about her.
Peace never could remember what happened after that. She saw the bride take her place beside Dr. Race, and she saw the black-frocked minister stand up in front of them. Then someone gave a signal and a shower of rose petals fell from the bell above their heads and covered doctor and nurse with sweet fragrance. Immediately the guests began to file past to greet the happy couple, and a subdued murmur of voices filled the long corridor.
"But when is the wedding to be?" demanded Peace in surprise. "Seems to me folks are in an awful hurry. Why don't they wait till the wedding is over?"
"The wedding is already over," answered Miss Foster, laughing at the child's dismay.
"They aren't married yet?" protested Peace in great astonishment.
"Yes, they are, and the wedding breakfast will be served directly at Dr. Kruger's house."
"But—but—doesn't it take longer to get married than that?"
"I—I thought it would."
"Well, it took so long to put the dec'rations up, and for everyone to dress, it seems 's if the minister might have talked a little longer. They'd hardly stood up together before it was all over."
Again Miss Foster laughed merrily. "Just you wait, little girl, till it comes your turn to stand up while the minister talks, and you will think it is plenty long enough," she warned, rising to join the bridal party moving slowly down the corridor toward the waiting autos in the street below.
At last the wonderful event was over, the happy doctor and his smiling bride had departed on their honeymoon amid a shower of fragrant rose petals; and Peace, clinging fast to Allee, was again in her room with Gail.
"O, but it was beau-ti-ful!" she sighed blissfully. "I hope my wedding will be as nice. Didn't the music sound lovely? I 'most forgot to whistle when I saw Allee coming along with Essie Martin,—I was so 'stonished! Nobody had hinted a word that she was going to be here. I didn't even 'spect Miss Wayne knew her. My! but the day has been full of s'prises! There was the wedding first,—I'd no idea it could be so pretty,—and then there was Allee's coming when I thought she was at home in Martindale. And then Dr. Dick told me while we were at breakfast that I could go home in two weeks more, and right after that along came Mrs. Wood and said you and Allee and me were to be her guests for the last week we were here. And now Essie Martin has just been in to tell the best news of all,—Miss Wayne, I mean Mrs. Race—is going to adopt her, and she won't have to go to Oak Knoll after all. O, Gail I do feel 's if I could flap my wings and crow,—I'm so happy!"
Tenderly Gail drew the small sisters closely to her side, and smiled radiantly down at the two up-turned faces, as she said simply, "And I, too."
THE SEVEN MCGEES
The last week at Danbury Hospital rolled by almost too quickly to suit even Peace, busy saying good-bye to the hosts of friends which that great roof sheltered; for now that the time had come for her to go, she found herself strangely loath to leave the little white room where she had spent so many months.
"I knew, of course, that I loved all the doctors and nurses," she explained in apologetic, troubled tones to the sympathizing sister, Gail, "but I never s'posed I'd hate to go home so bad when it came time. I—I really want to go home, too, but somehow—I'm going to miss the hospital dreadfully, Gail."
"Certainly you will, dear," the older girl answered with an understanding heart. "You have been here such a long time and had such a delightful experience for the most part,—"
"And made so many really, truly friends," Peace chimed in eagerly.
"Yes, and made so many friends, that it is no wonder you rather hate to leave it all, even if you are going home. But you wouldn't want to stay here always—"
"O, mercy, no!" Peace shivered. "There are too many sick folks here. They ache and yell and cry, because they can't help themselves. Now I didn't hurt real much this time, though it's taken a long time to finish the job, but I could have 'most anything to eat and could get around in my wheel-chair or with my crutches for weeks and weeks; while most folks are so awfully sick that they have to live on mottled milk and beef juice, and they get so skinny and white and weak that they don't know what to do with themselves. That must be dreadful hard and I'll really be glad to get away where I can't see so many sick people. Yes, it is awfully nice to have such a lovely home to go to, and it'll be so much fun to get around again, even if 'tis on crutches. There are lots of games I can play no matter if I can't run, and Allee and me are going to plan out lots more while we are visiting Mrs. Wood. I 'xpect maybe she will be able to help us some, too, 'cause Billy Bolee won't ever be able to run about like other boys, and he'll want to know some nice, int'resting games that can be played sitting still."
"Yes, I think that will be a good scheme," Gail agreed, wondering why Peace never seemed to suspect the secret of those awkward crutches. "But now you better rest awhile, for Dick—er Dr. Shumway will soon be here with his auto ready to take us out to his sister's house, and you want to be bright and fresh for dinner tonight."
So with much laughter and many regrets, the hospital staff and all the patients watched Peace depart from its portals,—laughter, because she was to be strong and well once more; regrets because of the void she left behind her. And Peace, surprised that they cared so much, went her way almost content. It was such a joy to be out-of-doors again; so wonderful to get close to the heart of nature once more; and she improved every moment of the week that followed in getting acquainted with every being, beast and bird on the place, from grave-eyed Mr. Wood who was at home only in the evenings, down to Twitter, the yellow-coated, golden-throated canary, which sang all day in his cage. She romped with Billy Bolee, made pies with Kate, the cook, played checkers with their kindly host, and tried to master the art of embroidery under Mrs. Wood's instruction; but her favorite occupation was stumping about the grassy yard with her crutches, and it surprised and delighted her to find how little they really hampered her. When she tired of her explorations, there was a great elm by the fence where she loved to rest, and it was here that she sat playing with Billy Bolee one hot afternoon when she was startled to hear a strange voice demand, "Are you truly lame?"
Glancing up in surprise, she beheld a fat, dirty face, crowned by a shock of tumbled red hair, pressed against the lattice-work, while a pair of alert, gray eyes peered at her through the narrow opening. So unexpected was the query,—for Peace had not been aware of another's presence,—that she could think of nothing to say, and merely grunted, "Huh?"
The stranger outside the gate obediently repeated, "Are you truly lame?"
"'Cause Ma says she guesses this must be a lame house," piped up another voice close by, and Peace discovered a second dirty-faced, red-headed youngster peering between the slats.
"A lame house?" echoed Peace in bewilderment. "How can a house be lame?"
"Aw, Antonio don't mean the house, nor neither does Ma. They just mean that every one what lives in it is lame."
"I don't see how you make that out," Peace began, still puzzled.
"Well, you're lame, ain't you?"
"And that little baby is lame."
"And the doctor man is lame—"
"But not for keeps," Peace eagerly interrupted. "He just broke his leg and some day it will be all well again, and he won't even limp or need a cane."
"Oh!" The first speaker seemed relieved.
"And will the baby some day walk all right?" asked the second tousled figure.
"No—o, I don't s'pose his short leg will ever catch up with the other one now," Peace reluctantly admitted. "But he's not very lame anyway. He don't limp much."
"Neither do you," persisted the boy called Antonio, "but you use crutches. You're worser off than the rest of the bunch."
"But I don't live here," she flashed triumphantly, bound to uphold the honor of that household at any cost. "I'm just visiting for this week."
"Oh!" This time the exclamation expressed such regret that Peace asked solicitously, "What's the matter? Did you like to think of a whole bunch of lame folks living in one house?"
"No," the older boy declared, "but we was in hopes you lived here, for then we could come over sometimes and play with you maybe."
Peace surveyed her two uninvited guests dubiously and then glanced at her own spotless frock and at Billy's spandy new rompers. "Who—who—are you?" she finally stammered, unable to keep her pert little nose from showing some of the disgust she felt.
"My name is Tobias McGee," he answered pompously, as if proud of the fact. "I'm ten years old. Tony—he's one of the twins—he's eight."
"I am Antonio," the second boy interrupted, bristling belligerently. "How many times has Ma told you to quit calling me Tony?"
"She's told you to leave off calling me Toby, too," retorted Tobias scathingly, "but you hain't did it. Gus is the other twin—"
"Augustus," corrected the offended Antonio.
"See here," blustered Tobias threateningly, "are you telling this, or me?"
Peace, watching with fascinated eyes the pending scrap, became suddenly aware that her guests had increased in number, and, glancing over her shoulder, she found five other dirty, ragged, red-headed, unattractive looking children lined up outside the fence, peeping at her through the slats. "Are—are there any more of you?" she demanded, taking a rapid inventory of the new arrivals.
The largest of the visitors, a girl of perhaps twelve years, swept her eyes down the line and answered briefly, "Nope."
"Well, how'd you get here, Feely?" asked Tobias, forgetting his battle with the twin in his surprise at his sister's presence. "'Twas your turn to go with the milk today."
"The Carters and Moodys quit taking," she answered indifferently. "There was only the Bowmans to d'liver."
"The Carters and Moodys quit?" echoed Tobias and Antonio in dismay.
"That's what I said," she answered sharply.
"But what for?"
"I dunno." She gathered up the smallest of her kin, a fretful, whining child of about two years, and set it upon the fence-rail so its dirty, bare legs dangled on the inside of the enclosure.
"Does Ma know?"
"She ain't to home yet."
"Y' know she said it would mean another washing if any more of the milk customers quit us."
The oldest girl nodded her head dully.
"Who do you s'pose she will get?" persisted Tobias.
"How d' you s'pose I know?" snapped the girl.
"P'r'aps Mrs. Wood might let her do her clothes again," suggested Antonio, in wheedling tones.
"Mrs. Wood?" asked Peace, rousing suddenly to speech. "My Mrs. Wood?"
Seven dirty, frowsy heads nodded solemnly.
"Is your mother her washwoman?"
"She used to be," the whole line chorused.
"Why ain't she now?"
"'Cause Mrs. Wood quit her."
"But what for?"
There was an embarrassing pause while the tribe of McGee glanced inquiringly from one to the other. At last Antonio timidly ventured the explanation, "She said Ma's tubs got iron rust all over her clo'es."
"Ain't that reason enough for Mrs. Wood to quit?" demanded Peace, cocking her head judiciously.
"Ma was awful careful," the girl called Feely defended.
"But her tubs are awful old," half whispered a smaller girl, who up to this moment had stood silently sucking her thumb.
"Shut up, Vinie, she ain't talking to you," commanded Tobias, raising a threatening hand.
Vinie stuffed her thumb hastily into her mouth again and shrank back against the fence, the picture of fear; but Peace forestalled the blow by crying, "Let her be, Tobias McGee. She can talk if she wants to."
The boy flushed angrily and muttered, "She's always butting in. She's a reg'lar tattle-tale."
"Well, you're a reg'lar coward," Peace sputtered. "She's lots littler than you."
"I wouldn't have hit her."
"You would, too," Vinie removed her thumb long enough to say.
"If you're going to fight, you can go straight home," Peace interposed. "Mrs. Wood wants Billy to grow up a gentleman."
"We ain't fighting," they chorused indignantly.
"You looked like it all right. You're always jawing each other, and I don't like scrappers."
"We won't jaw any more," they meekly promised, "if you will let us come over and play."
"I—I'll have to ask Mrs. Wood," she stammered, for, while the newcomers interested her, their slovenly appearance made her recoil from any closer contact.
"Then we can't come," wailed Antonio despairingly.
"'Cause Mrs. Wood don't like us."
"How do you know?"
"She won't let us play with Billy."
"P'r'aps you are too rough."
"We wouldn't hurt him the least speck."
"Maybe it's 'cause you are so dirty."
A chorus of indignant denial arose, but at that moment Mrs. Wood herself appeared at an open window and called for Billy Bolee. Immediately the McGees scattered like startled pheasants, and Peace wonderingly turned her steps toward the house, surprising her hostess as she entered the cool room by the blunt question, "Don't you like the McGee family?"
"Why—er—I can get along nicely without their company," Mrs. Wood answered evasively.
"But what's the matter with them?" Peace insisted.
"Nothing, I guess, except they are never clean," laughed the woman, and Gail looked up from a letter she was writing long enough to ask, "Who are the McGees, Peace? Your latest acquaintances?"
"Mrs. McGee is a widow who takes in washing," explained their hostess, without giving Peace a chance to make reply. "She and her seven children live in that three-room shack across the field. When her husband died she took plain sewing to do for a time, but couldn't earn enough at it to keep her family from want, so she turned to the washtubs. She does her work well or did at first, but of late she has attempted more than she can handle satisfactorily, and has grown so careless that several of us have had to take our washings elsewhere."
"'Twasn't careless," Peace interrupted earnestly. "It's her tubs. They are so old and rusty now."
"Then she should get new ones if she expects people to hire her. I can't afford to send my clothes to the wash and have them come back all spotted up with iron-rust. It is almost impossible to get it out."
"I guess maybe she hasn't money enough to buy more tubs," Peace hazarded. "All her milk customers are quitting her."
"I can't say that I blame them," Keturah Wood shrugged her shapely shoulders.
"Did you quit her?"
"No, I never took milk from there."
"Ain't it good milk?"
"It ought to be. Their cow is a Holstein and gives lots of milk. But someway I can't stomach the children."
"Can't stomach the children?" echoed Peace wonderingly.
"They are so dirty," Mrs. Wood explained in apologetic tones. "Mrs. McGee used to keep them as neat as pins when I first came here to live, and her kitchen was simply spotless. But she has too much to attend to now, and the children run wild."
"Would you get your milk there if they were clean?"
"Possibly. My milkman isn't real dependable. Sometimes there will be three or four days in a month when I can't get all I need, and if I ever want any extra, I always have to tell him two or three days before. The McGees seem to be able to supply a body at any time with any amount. But no one enjoys having such inexcusably dirty children bring their milk even if they know the milk itself is absolutely clean. Somehow it takes away one's appetite."
"Why don't that big girl keep the others clean? She's old enough, ain't she?"
"She's too lazy. They all are. They fight all day sometimes over whose turn it is to carry the milk or bring in the wood. Mrs. McGee never has trained them to help her a bit, and though Ophelia is past twelve years old, she is as useless as the baby when it comes to doing the housework."
"Ophelia—ain't that a funny name!"
"Ridiculous!" laughed Mrs. Wood. "But so are all the rest. Having no fortune to endow his children with, old Pat McGee gave his offspring as 'high-toned and iligent names as iver belonged to rich folks.' They are Ophelia and Tobias, Antonio and Augustus, Lavinia and Humphrey, and the poor little babe Nadene. Commonly they are known as Feely, Toby, Tony, Gus, Vinie, Humpy and Deanie. Their real names are just for dress-up occasions."
"It takes me back to Parker days," said Gail reminiscently. "Only the McGees are worse off than the Greenfields were, for there are seven of them and all so small. What would happen if the mother should slip away as our mother did?"
"O, the orphan asylum would open its doors, of course. But even at that they might stand a better chance than they do now. They never will amount to anything, growing up as they are, like weeds. She can't give them the attention they ought to have, and she is not teaching them to be independent or helpful in any way. Toby and the twins are almost beyond her control now. Some of us neighbors have tried to get her to send part of the tribe at least to a Children's Home. Such an institution would certainly give them the training that she can't—"
"O, but think of having to eat oatmeal every morning without milk or sugar," interrupted Peace in horrified accents, "and your bread and potatoes without any butter, and never having any pie or cake, and meat only once a week, and hardly any fruit, and—ugh! I'd starve!"
"Peace, oh, Peace," called Allee's voice from outside the window, "come see what I've found." And the crippled sister, hastily adjusting her crutches, went to discover what was wanted.
The next day while she was sitting alone under the great tree in the back yard, she heard a stealthy rustling in the grass beyond the fence, and glancing up from the book she had been trying to interest herself in, she again saw the dirty face of Tobias McGee peering at her through the lattice work. Then Antonio appeared, followed one by one by the rest of the tousled McGees. She surveyed them critically from head to heels and then scathingly remarked, "I sh'd think you would be ashamed to go so dirty."
"We—we ain't none of us got such pretty clo'es as you," stammered Tobias, much confused by this unlooked-for reception, and he thrust both grimy hands behind his back as if that would hide all his filth.
"You don't have to have pretty clothes to have 'em clean," Peace retorted.
"Ma ain't got time to keep us washed up," explained Tobias, apologetically.
"Why don't you do it yourselves then?"
"But—we—can't," they gasped in chorus.
"I don't see why."
"We ain't big enough."
"You are, too. Feely's as old as Hope was when we were in Parker, and Hope kept after us till we were glad to wash our faces and hands and brush our hair. Of course she helped, but there were Cherry and Allee and me all younger'n her. And we helped Gail, too. I churned the butter once, and we helped houseclean and—and pick chickens, and run errands and bring in the wood—"
"Huh, us boys do that," broke in Gus scornfully. "Girls ain't s'posed to fetch wood and water."
"All our boys were girls," replied Peace loftily, "and some of us had to bring in the wood or else how would it have got there?"
"Did you wash dishes?" asked Ophelia, with a slight display of curiosity.
"Cherry washed and I wiped."
"How old was Cherry?" demanded Antonio.
"O, about ten, when we lived in Parker, I guess."
"Feely's twelve and she don't wash the dishes yet," tattled Vinie, and was promptly rewarded with a smart slap from the older sister.
"Shame on you!" cried Peace indignantly. "You are the meanest family I ever knew. Mrs. Wood said you are always fighting, and that's all you've done every time you've been over here."
"I don't care, Vinie had no business to say that," muttered Ophelia, scowling sullenly. "She can't never keep her mouth shut. I just hate to wash dishes."
"So do I," Peace cheerfully agreed. "But I don't go around slapping folks' faces 'cause of it. Besides, Gail had all she could 'tend to without bothering about the dishes. We had to do them or go hungry. Who does them at your house?"
"Ma," volunteered Vinie once more, edging warily out of range of the big sister's hand.
"After she's washed all day?" asked Peace in horrified accents.
Ophelia was scowling threateningly; Vinie drew a little further away and nodded silently.
"Don't any of you do anything to help her?"
"I mind the kids," said Ophelia defiantly.
"I should think you would keep 'em scrubbed up a little cleaner, then," observed Peace critically. "They—you are all so dirty you—you—smell. I don't wonder folks won't buy milk from you."
"Ma takes care of the milk herself and washes the buckets and covers 'em all up careful before she gives 'em to us to tote," cried Tobias, much insulted by Peace's frank words.
"I don't care," retorted that young lady with dignity. "Mrs. Wood herself says she can't swallow you children, you are so dirty; and she would take milk from you if you were clean, 'cause I asked her."
Silence reigned while each young McGee dug his bare toes into the soft earth and chewed his finger or thumb. Then Tobias growled, "Mrs. Wood is too p'tic'lar. Ma says so."
"I'll bet Mrs. Moody and Mrs. Carter are just as p'tic'lar," Peace declared hotly. "If you'd ask them why they quit taking milk of you, and just made 'em tell you the truth, I'll bet they would say that you kids were always so dirty it made 'em sick to look at you."
Vinie withdrew her thumb from her mouth, stopped shuffling her dirty little feet in the grass, stared thoughtfully at the candid young hostess on the other side of the fence, and quietly disappeared, followed by solemn-eyed Humphrey. No one noticed her going, no one missed her from her place in the rank, but while belligerent Tobias was still arguing the question with stubborn Peace, Vinie returned with Humpy still at her heels. She had hurried, and her breath came quick and fast, but before she had reached her place in the line-up again, she called excitedly, "That pretty girl is right. We're all too dirty to suit Mrs. Moody and Mrs. Carter."
"Wh—at?" shrieked the brothers and sisters, wheeling about in consternation to face their new accuser,—one of their own kin.
"Well, I asked 'em honest true, just like she said to do, and after a bit they owned up that it wasn't the milk they didn't like, but the looks of us was too much."
Ophelia stared dully at the small sister for a long moment, then suddenly slumped down in the tall grass and wept. Tobias, Antonio and Augustus all followed suit, and even baby Nadene lifted her voice in lament, though she did not know what she was crying about.
Surprised, awed and troubled, Peace drew near to the fence and pressed her face against the lattice work to watch this unusual performance; but Vinie, after one contemptuous glance at the snivelling group, turned energetically away toward the little green shack across the field, still holding fast to Humpy's grimy fist.
"Where you going?" demanded Antonio, peeping at her from under his arm as he lay sprawled in the clover.
"I ain't got time to bawl," she flung back over her shoulder. "I promised to go home and clean up Humpy and me. Then Mrs. Carter's going to give me two cents to go to the store for her."
Peace watched the two little figures trudging off across the meadow, and then she said thoughtfully, "She's right, and I b'lieve you could get back all your milk customers if you'd everyone clean up once and stay clean. Why don't you try?"
Antonio lifted his head, looked at his twin and began slowly to struggle to his feet. Augustus joined him, then Tobias, and finally Ophelia. She looked timidly toward Peace, and asked meekly, "Don't you s'pose Ma would scold?"
"What for? Washing your faces? No, I don't. She's a funny mother if she does. It's easier work to sell milk than to do washings, and I should think you'd try to help her all you can so she won't get sick and die and all of you have to go to an orphant asylum."
The round-eyed children gazed at her in affright, then swiftly made off through the tall grass in Vinie's wake.
They did not return that day or the next; and Peace had concluded that they were angry with her; but the third morning bright and early they appeared at the gate, unlatched it, and marched in solemn file up the path to the house. Mrs. Wood herself, with Peace close behind, answered their timid knock, and Ophelia, clad in a clean, neatly patched gingham dress, with her hair hanging in two smooth plaits down her back, faltered, "Ma wants to know would you like to get milk of us? The little heifer has just come in fresh and we've got plently to sell."
"Ma'd 'a' come herself," piped up Vinie from the rear, "but she's sick today."
"It's just a headache," hastily explained Tobias, beginning to scowl at the family chatterbox, and then heroically smiling instead.
"She's lost another customer," confided Vinie, "a wash customer, 'cause her tubs are so rusty, and it made her cry."
"But we're going to get her some new tubs," interrupted Antonio excitedly, "and then we can come for your clo'es if you want us to."
"We've got seventy cents in our banks," said Augustus shyly.
"And if you need any wood chopped or piled, or carpets beat up, or errands run, we'll be glad to do it for you—cheap," recited Tobias, in a curious singsong voice, as if he had learned the words by rote.
"But what about the milk?" reminded Vinie, when the sudden pause which followed had grown too oppressive.
"O!" Mrs. Wood roused to a realization that seven eager bodies were listening for her answer. What should she say? Once more her eyes travelled the length of the line. What a transformation had taken place! Each face was polished till it fairly glistened in the sun, each pair of bare, brown legs was clean and spotless, each fiery red head had been brushed till not a hair was out of place, and each small figure was clad in stiffly starched garments which looked as if they had just come from the ironing board.
As if reading the unspoken question which burned on Mrs. Wood's lips, Tobias informed her, "We've cleaned up for keeps."
"Ma's going to give us each a penny every week that we stay clean so's not to need more'n one waist or dress in that time," eagerly explained Antonio.
"'Cause, you see," tattled Vinie, "we ain't none of us got more'n two, and we've got to stay clean so folks will buy our milk."
"That girl," lisped Humpy, pointing a stubby forefinger at Peace in the doorway, "thaid we wuth too dirty."
"Oh!" Mrs. Wood was enlightened, and her memory flew back to a certain day a few weeks before when Peace had told her some unpleasant truths which had nevertheless changed the course of events in her life. She had called the child "rude" at that time, but perhaps it was not rudeness after all. It was certainly effective anyway, and she smiled amusedly at the neat line of McGees.
Encouraged by the smile, Vinie said coaxingly, "She said you'd take milk of us if we wuz clean all the time."
"And you will, won't you?" asked Peace, finding her tongue for the first time since the queer little procession had marched up to the door.
Recalling the usual appearance of the young McGees, Mrs. Wood could not help shivering, but she must be game. It shamed her to think that already this brown-eyed child on crutches had more of the true missionary spirit within her than she, a woman grown, had ever possessed; so she forced a smile to her lips and a sound of heartiness to her voice, as she answered, "Yes, I will take a quart every morning."
"And about the wash," Vinie reminded her, when the elated brothers and sisters were about to retreat.
"Come for it Mondays as usual," answered Mrs. Wood meekly, wondering all the while what had taken possession of her that she should give in so easily.
"Thank you." Vinie bowed profoundly, and to the amazement of the woman on the steps, the whole line of McGees stopped abruptly, touched their hands to their heads in a truly military style, and thundered as one man, "Thank you!"
Mrs. Wood beat a hasty retreat with her hand over her mouth, but Peace stood thoughtfully leaning on her crutches in the doorway as she watched their morning callers scatter through the wet grass when the gate had clicked behind the last one of them.
So absorbed was she that Gail, who had been a silent spectator from behind a curtained window, gently asked, "What is the matter, girlie? Is anything troubling you?"
"No—o," she slowly answered. "I was only wishing that the McGees lived in Martindale, so's our Gleaners could make 'em some clothes, like we did for Fern and Rivers Dillon. Think of having only two dresses apiece! Mercy! I don't see how folks can expect 'em to keep clean."
"Why, our Ladies' Aid does work of that kind," gasped Mrs. Wood, her laughter forgotten. "Why didn't I think of that before? We have lots of good material on hand now to make over, and I know the ladies will be glad to do it for Mrs. McGee. I will call up Mrs. Jules right away. She is our President, and the society meets next week Thursday."
"O, dear," sighed Peace. "We go home in two days more. I wish I could stay and help. But then I'm glad the kids are going to have some decent clothes anyway."
"Well," sighed Peace blissfully, while Mrs. Campbell was helping her dress for Sunday School the first Sunday after her return from Fairview, "this has been a busy week. There hasn't been a minute to spare, yet it doesn't seem like this could be Sunday already. Where has the time gone to?"
"I sh'd think you would know," grunted Allee from her seat on the rug where she was laboriously lacing her shoes. "You have walked your legs off, pretty near,—haven't you?"
"Mercy, no! I haven't done half the tramping I could have done if these old crutches didn't make walking so slow."
Behind her back, the white-haired grandmother smiled her amusement, for since Peace's home-coming five days before, the child had not been still a minute. From garret to cellar, from garden to river, and from one end of the street to the other she had hopped, renewing old acquaintanceships, relating her experiences, and thoroughly enjoying herself. After her long absence from Martindale and the weary months of imprisonment, it was such a wonderful privilege to be able to get about again, even if it must be with the aid of those two awkward crutches. There were so many things to tell and so many people to tell them to. So the grandmother smiled behind Peace's back, for it seemed to her that no one person in perfect trim could have accomplished more in those five days than had the brown-eyed maid on crutches.
"I can't see as they make much difference," Allee persisted. "You have gone everywhere you wanted to, haven't you?"
"O, yes, except to St. John's and of course his whole family's been away on their vacation, so I couldn't see them. I 'xpect they are home now, though, 'cause he is to preach at his own church today. Grandpa said we'd take the horses this afternoon if it doesn't rain and drive up there. It don't look much like rain now, does it, though it did when we first got up. I do hope it won't,—not until we've got started too far to turn back anyway. I want to see Aunt Pen, too. My! I can hardly wait for afternoon to get here. It has been such a long time since I've seen them all. Bessie is 'most a year old now, ain't she? She won't know me, and I s'pose likely even Glen has forgotten. I telephoned three times yesterday in hopes they would be home, but no one answered, so I guess they didn't get back till night."
"Have you 'phoned them yet this morning?" asked Allee, whisking into the counterpart of Peace's freshly starched dress, and backing up to Mrs. Campbell to be buttoned.
"No, I haven't had time. We didn't get up real early, and breakfast was so late, and Gussie had such a heap of dishes to wash, 'cause Marie didn't do 'em last night, like she said she would, and Jud was fairly purple 'cause his necktie would not tie right, and Grandpa couldn't find some papers he needed for Sunday School, and Dr. Dick came to take Gail to church, and then I had to get ready myself."
"And it is time we were going now if we get there before the morning service is out," suggested Mrs. Campbell, settling a white, rose-wreathed hat on Allee's golden curls, and reaching for her own turban, which lay on the dresser close by.
"Then come on. I'm ready," responded Peace, hopping nimbly down the stairway. "Doesn't it seem funny to see me going to Sunday School again? What do you s'pose folks will say when I hobble in all by myself? Won't it be great to see the s'prise on Miss Gordon's face when I go into my old class with the rest of the girls? I made Gail and Faith and everyone else promise not to tell her I would be there today. I want to s'prise her. Just smell the roses! They ain't all gone yet. And someone's been mowing grass! Isn't it perfectly lovely out-of-doors today? Why, there's the church! I'd no idea we were so near. It hasn't changed a bit, has it? But it seems as if it was years since I was there last."
So Peace chattered blithely on, and Mrs. Campbell, watching her, felt a great lump rise in her throat. Peace, their own laughing, sunshiny, irrepressible Peace had come back to them once more. It was a song of thanksgiving that her heart was singing, yet her eyes were filled with tears.
"There is Myrtie Musgrove!" Mrs. Campbell's meditations were interrupted by the girl's enthusiastic exclamation, and with a start of surprise she saw the great stone edifice looming up directly in front of them, with scores of spick and spandy boys and girls assembled on the lawn, waiting for the church service to come to a close.
"And there's Gertrude Miller and Dorothy Bartow," said Allee. "Everyone is out today."
"No wonder," returned Peace. "It's such a lovely day. I don't see how anyone could stay at home. Hello, Myrtie and Nina and Fannie and Julia and Rosalie, and oh, everyone!"
A chorus of delighted cries greeted her, and immediately the two sisters were swallowed up by a group of excited, clamoring schoolmates, while Mrs. Campbell, from the background, watched the pretty tableau.
Suddenly the strains of the Doxology rolled out on the summer air through the open church windows, followed by a brief silence, and then the great doors swung open and the motley congregation thronged out into the sunshine.
"Church is over," said Peace, as she saw the people hurrying past. "Let's go inside."
"O, Peace," cried an eager voice at her elbow, as she climbed the stone steps to the vestibule, "Miss Gordon told me to give this to you—"
"How'd she know I would be here?" demanded Peace aggressively.
"Why, Dr. Shumway told us—"
"I might have known someone would squeal," was the irritated reply. "Men folks are worse than women about gabbling. They never can keep their mouths shut. I wanted to s'prise the people myself."
Miss Gordon's message-bearer drew back somewhat disconcerted by her reception. But the cloud on the small face, growing rosy and round once more, abruptly lifted, and Peace, with a gleam of mischief in her eyes, inquired, "Did he tell you his secret, too?"
"What secret? No, you tell us about it," they clamored.
The aisle was almost blocked at that point by the tall form of Dickson Shumway, leaning on his cane, for his injured limb was none too strong yet, and Peace purposely waited till she was directly behind him, when she said in a shrill, high voice, which made everyone look and listen, "Why, Dr. Shumway is going to marry my sister Gail as soon as ever he can get her to settle the day. Now will you give away any more of my secrets, Dr. Dick?" For at the sound of her voice the young giant had turned a startled face toward the delighted crowd at the door, but a burst of tempestuous applause drowned whatever he might have replied; and Peace, triumphant, slipped past him to her seat, while the congregation showered him with congratulations.
Not until she had taken her place among her classmates did Peace find time to glance at the scrap of paper which Miss Gordon's messenger had thrust into her hand, and this is what she read:
"'The Handwriting on the Wall.' Dan. 5:25-27. Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting."
Turning to the girl who had given her the bit of writing, she snarled, "You're trying to April Fool me. Miss Gordon never gave you that."
"She did, too. It was our Golden Text a few weeks ago. Today is Review Sunday, and when the superintendent calls on our class you are to read what is on that piece of paper."
"But I can't read it," Peace protested.
"Why not? It's perfectly plain writing."
"Well, what does it mean, Agnes? I never saw such words before. How do you pronounce them?"
Agnes rattled off the text without a glance at the paper, and Peace lapsed into indignant silence. As if anyone would suppose that she could believe such an outrageous thing as that!
Agnes saw the look of unbelief in the brown eyes, and said haughtily, "If you think I'm lying, ask someone else."
"I'm going to," was the frank retort. "Where is Miss Gordon? Ain't she going to be here today?"
"Yes, but she will be late. She had to go back home for something she forgot, and she thought maybe our class might be called on 'fore she got here again. Ours is the third lesson."
Peace glanced about her. Already the orchestra had begun to play, and she would attract too much attention if she left her seat, but she must ask someone else what those queer words meant. O, there was Faith coming down the aisle. She probably would be cross about it, but she would know. Peace leaned over the arm of the pew and seized her sister's dress as she passed. Faith raised her eyebrows questioningly, but halted long enough to say, "Well?"
"How do you p'onounce these words?" asked the smaller girl, holding out the wrinkled slip; and Faith glibly read under her breath, "'Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. Thou art weighed in the balances and art found wanting.'"
Peace glared at her witheringly, and snatched the paper from her hand. Did everyone take her for a fool just because she had been in the hospital six months?
Her glance fell upon the stately figure of President Campbell, just settling himself comfortably in the Bible Class, a few seats in the rear. "He won't lie to me," she whispered confidently. "Nor he won't joke me, either."
Frantically she beckoned to him, but he did not see her, and as the music had ceased by this time, she caught up her crutches and hobbled back to consult him. It seemed as if every eye in the house was focused upon her, and her face burned hotly as she stumbled down the aisle; but she must know what those words meant before it came her turn to speak, else the whole congregation would laugh at her.
The President took the crumpled slip, and, after a hasty survey, whispered slowly, "'Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. Thou art weighed in the balances and art found wanting.'"
Poor, bewildered Peace crept back to her seat. "I don't see any sense to it," she pondered, studying the cryptic message with puzzled eyes. "It must be right, or Grandpa wouldn't have said so. Sounds like 'pickle,' but it's spelled with a 't.' It must be 'tickle,' I guess."
A sharp nudge from her nearest neighbor's elbow brought her out of her revery with a start. The superintendent was calling for the Golden Text of Lesson III.
Peace leaped to her feet, her crutches forgotten, and her voice rang clearly through the big room. "Minnie, Minnie, tickle the parson. Thou are wanted for the balance that is found waiting."
There was a moment of intense hush, then a ripple of amusement swept over the congregation, but before it could break into the threatened roar of laughter, the superintendent with rare tact announced, "Let us sing Hymn Number 63, 'Sweet Peace, the Gift of God's Love'."
As the notes of the organ swelled through the house, Peace sank into her place, apparently overcome with confusion and mortification. Immediately an arm stole gently about her shoulders, and a familiar voice whispered comfortingly in her ear, "Never mind, little girl, there is no harm done." Miss Gordon, flushed and breathless, had slipped into the pew behind her class just in time to hear poor Peace's blunder; and knowing how sensitive a child's heart is, she sought to make light of the matter.
But Peace, scarcely heeding, vaguely asked, "Never mind what? O, their laughing? I'm used to that. I don't care."
But she looked disturbed, distraught, and it was very evident to her that she neither saw nor heard the rest of the service. Even when the benediction had been pronounced and hosts of friends gathered about her to express their delight at her presence with them once more, she seemed abstracted and made her escape as soon as she could get away.
This was so unlike harum-scarum Peace that her sisters wondered, although they attributed it to chagrin over her blunder, and considerately refrained from asking questions. But when they had reached home once more, and were gathered in the cool library waiting for Gussie's summons to dinner, Peace abruptly burst forth, "I b'lieve I could walk without those old crutches. I stood up without 'em this morning when I forgot about using them."
She glanced defiantly from one face to another, as if expecting a storm of protest; but to her great surprise, Mrs. Campbell smiled encouragingly as she mildly inquired, "Why don't you try it, dear?"
The crutches fell to the floor with a crash. Peace took several halting steps across the room, as if afraid to trust herself. The blood flew to her pale cheeks, dyeing them crimson, a look of wonder, almost alarm, shone in her eyes, her breath came in startled gasps, and clasping her hands together in rapture, she half whispered, "I can walk, I can WALK! I CAN WALK! My legs are all right again!"
Suddenly she let out a scream of wildest exultation, seized her hat from the library table where she had thrown it, and rushed pell-mell from the door.
"Peace!" cried Mrs. Campbell, starting up in alarm.
"O, Peace!" echoed the sisters, giving chase.
"Stop, Peace!" thundered the President, hurrying after them all.
"Where are you going?" the whole family demanded.
"To tell St. John and—"
"But we haven't had dinner yet" protested Gail.
"It doesn't matter!" Peace was out of the house and down the steps by this time. "I must tell St. John!"
"But childie, Jud hasn't harnessed the horses."
"O, Grandpa, I can't wait. It will be so long. My feet won't keep still! I can walk! I must tell St. John!" Shaking her hat at them as she ran, as if to ward them off, she fled down the quiet Sunday street, leaving the family hanging in open-mouthed amazement over the picket fence, staring after her. And the last glimpse they caught of their transported Peace as she whisked around the corner was a pair of lithe, brown-clad legs climbing aboard a northbound car. She was on her way to tell St. John and Elspeth the wonderful tidings.
Peace could walk again!