Just here a page brought in a letter which she glanced through with an "Excuse me, please."
"Oh, dear! Now Laura can't come to-morrow! She is certainly the most unfortunate being in the universe. She became very much interested in a deaf man that she met in her settlement work, and so as to give the poor thing employment she appointed him Superintendent of the Working Boys' Club. Now the working boys refuse to play with him and the directors have had a meeting asking Laura to remove him at once. I do think they might have endured him one season when I gave him a twenty-dollar ear-trumpet, but some people are utterly unreasonable; and here I am, in need of advice every moment, and Laura kept in the city!"
"Haven't you any family?"
"Not a soul; have you?"
"No one but a cousin."
"I believe nobody nice and interesting has a family nowadays. Laura has no one but an uncongenial stepmother, and that is the reason we are so intimate. I am so giddy and frivolous, and Laura is so noble and self-sacrificing that I try to form myself on her now and then, when I'm not too busy."
"You live with her, do you?"
"Oh, no! I don't live anywhere in particular. Of course I have a house and a lady housekeeper, but she doesn't count. I've been staying mostly with a Mrs. Beckett, an old friend of my mother's. She is the dearest and loveliest woman in the world and I can't bear to be away from her."
"Why can't she join forces with you if you are so alone in the world?"
"Because there's a son."
"Is he too young, or too old, to join forces?"
"No, he's just right, and he'd be only too glad to join forces, or anything else that had me in it, but he mustn't, and that's the reason Laura made me come here!" And with this she punched the sofa-pillows rebelliously, looking more like an enraged Angora kitten than anything else.
"It's your hour for cold spray," said Jimmy, the page-boy, peeping in at the crack of the door.
"I'll come!" she responded unwillingly. "Now do steal in again," she whispered, turning to me, "for I must talk to somebody, and if Laura could see you I know she would think you safer than anybody here."
That afternoon, as I swung in my hammock in the grove below the sanitarium, I looked up at its three stories of height and its rows upon rows of windows, and wondered how many cases of neurasthenia under its roof were traceable to a conflict between love and conscience. "I begin to have an interest in that chatterbox neighbor of mine," I thought drowsily, "and that, after vowing not to make an acquaintance in this place. Love will be a side dish, not the roast, in her bill of fare, if I am any judge of character, and why does her Laura attempt to stem the natural tide of events? It is almost wicked of the Fates to give such a featherhead any problems to solve; she ought to have her what's-his-name, Beckett, if she wants him, particularly if he wants her. As for the noble Laura, I long to make her acquaintance. I can almost hear the uncongenial stepmother, the feverish cook, and the infuriated directors, clamoring for a providence to remove her from their field of vision, and substitute some thoroughly practical and ignoble person in her stead."
* * * * *
I was very happy all the morning; so happy that I forgot my tonics, massage, and sedative tablets; but the doctor called at noon and spoke of the wonderful way in which my system responded to his remedies, so I said nothing.
Cousin Sarah forwarded me a letter from Richard Morton, who is superintending some surveying near a small town in Pennsylvania. He knows that I am not well and away from home on a visit to the country, but, of course, he is not aware of my exact whereabouts. It was just one of his gay, friendly letters, with an undertone of something warmer in it. Among other things he said:
How weak a thing is man! Now that you are so far away and I am exiled in a village where there is but one post a day I suffer pangs of hunger for a word from you. So far the one daily mail would have been all too ample for your desires, since you have not written a word as yet; but there is always the hope! I have been speculating to-night upon the frightful risks and dangers surrounding the man who is waiting for a letter. It seems to me the very best postal service is inadequate to take care of a letter from you to me! Think of the uncertainties and perils to which it is exposed in transit! You give it to a maid to drop in a pillar post-box, but she may forget and leave it in her pocket, or she may lose it. Or say she drops it in; it must be removed from the box by an ordinary human being who has no conception of the issues involved in the rigid performance of this particular duty. The letter is then taken to the branch office of your section, then to the general post, and then to the railway, where new dangers menace its precious existence. The train may be robbed; and if a single letter is stolen it will be yours to me. No man alive could resist a letter of yours after he had once read one.
Is there not a note of tenderness here, a note that has crept in only during the last few months? But what if there is? It occurred to me after dinner that the question of his feeling for me is not the only, nor even the principal one to be considered. The point under advisement is, shall I allow him to love me when there is something better in store for him?
Miss Blossom had scarcely left my room this evening when I heard a pattering step and a hurried tap on my door. On my saying "Come," my opposite neighbor slipped in and turned the key in the lock. It was an unconventional and amusing performance, but I didn't mind. Somehow one couldn't mind anything with such a spoiled baby.
"Good-evening, Zuleika!" she said. "No, you needn't smile and raise your finger at me as if you were dying to tell me your name is Abigail! Miss Blossom has gone for the night, hasn't she? I thought so. You know it's the nurses' ball this evening, and there's only one attendant on duty in each corridor from now to half-past nine. May I have this big chair by the window? I am so bored with this place that it excites me even to think how stupid it is. I almost wish I had a symptom or two, just by way of sensation. Did you have Somnolina for supper? I did, and some time I shall make a scene in the dining-room when I watch the hundred and fifty dyspeptics simultaneously lifting cups of Teaette or Somnolina to their parched lips."
"You ought to be ashamed," I chided, "when you know almost every one who is here needs to be put upon a diet. You wouldn't expect champagne, terrapin, and canvasback ducks?"
"I know it; don't scold, it makes you look like Cassandra. Isn't the moonlight enchanting, and if this weren't a health resort wouldn't it be a heaven upon earth?"
The broad, unscreened windows were wide open and vines of woodbine or honeysuckle framed them on every side. A lake shone like a silver mirror in the distant landscape and the elms and maples and chestnuts swayed in the summer breeze. Little groups chatted on the broad piazzas, and here and there on a rustic bench in the moonlight sat a man and a woman—two minds with but a single thought, and that thought his or her own solar plexus.
It was an hour for confidences, and I remember that my troubled heart cried out for a strong, tried friendship on which to draw for counsel and sympathy. What wonder, then, that the Angora kitten, deprived of her Laura, emptied her silky little head of some of its worries, divining that I was older and graver and perhaps would find her lost ball and give it to her to play with again.
"There's no telling when Laura will be here!" she exclaimed despairingly. "When there is any duty within a thousand miles she stays to perform it. Mrs. Beckett has poisoned herself with mercury and Laura thinks she ought to go and nurse her for a day or two—as if Mrs. Beckett hadn't six maids and twenty thousand a year to spend in nurses! Laura can't bear Tom, his incurable levity gets on her nerves, and why she wants to martyr herself by staying in the house with him when I'd be only too glad to go, passes my comprehension!"
(I can't explain it, but at this juncture I seemed to have visions of Laura flirting with the Beckett during the Kitten's absence.)
"Sometimes," she continued, rippling along as if natural speech had been denied her for hours, "sometimes I wish I hadn't selected such a superior being for a bosom friend, and then again I despise myself for harboring such a mean feeling. I'm forever trying to climb, and Laura is continually trying to drag me to her level, but I suppose I don't belong there, and that's the reason I keep slipping off and sliding down. At this minute, if she'd let me be the groveling little earthworm I am by nature, I could marry Tom Beckett and be as happy as the day is long."
"What is the matter?" I asked sympathetically, though rather ashamed to drop a plummet into so shallow a brook. "If you love his mother so dearly, and love him too, and are sure of his affection, why don't you marry him? Isn't he suitable?"
"Oh, yes; he's almost too suitable; that's one of the lions in the way. His family is good, he is as handsome as Apollo, and he has a much larger income than mine, but you see there's another man."
"Another man! You didn't mention him yesterday."
"Didn't I? How funny! But after all it was our very first interview, and even silly I have my reserves."
"Do you love them both equally?" I asked, trying to keep the note of sarcasm out of my voice.
"Certainly not. I care nothing about anybody but Tom Beckett, but Laura says that such a marriage will simply mean a life of self-indulgent luxury, idleness, and pleasure. She says marriage is something loftier and nobler than pleasing one's self; that it ought to mean growth and development both to the man and the woman. She says that I should have no influence on Tom, and that I need somebody strong and serious to steady me. She says Tom and I would only frisk through life and leave the world no better or wiser than we found it. She even says" (and here she turned her face to the honeysuckles)—"I don't like to repeat it, but Laura is so advanced she makes my embarrassment seem simply idiotic—she even says that the children of such a union would be incurably light-minded and trivial; and oh, Zuleika, if one isn't a bit advanced in any way, doesn't it seem hard to keep from marrying somebody you love just for the good of a few frivolous children you've never seen in your life?"
It was neither the place, the hour, nor the subject for laughter, but I forgot my neurasthenia and gave way to a burst of wholehearted mirth! Every second of time seemed to increase the unconscious humor of her point of view, and only fear of the nurse on duty in the corridor enabled me to control myself at all.
"Have I been funny?" she asked delightedly, as she drew her head in the window. "I never can see my own jokes, but I'm glad to have amused you, only I did hope for a little sympathy. Everybody can't be Zenobias and Vashtis and Lauras, superior to common weaknesses!"
"I do, I do sympathize," I said, wiping the tears of merriment from my eyes, "and I agree with you much more than with Laura. Now the 'other man' is, I suppose, all that is grave and reverend—a complete contrast to the too trivial Thomas?"
"Yes, and he's as good as good can be; trustworthy, talented, honorable, everything; you know the kind? I never get on with them."
"Does he love you?"
"Laura thinks he does, but I've no reason to suppose so. We've always been friends, while Tom Beckett and I squabble and make up twice a week; but anyway, even if he doesn't adore me in Tom's silly way, Laura says I ought not to mind. She says it would be noble of me to help him to a splendid and prosperous career, and thinks I ought to remember how much my father wanted him for a son-in-law—you see he is awfully poor."
At this coupling of fathers and poverty a sudden light blazed in upon my consciousness and I sat bolt upright among the sofa-pillows. How could I have guessed that the love-affairs of this rosy-cheeked dumpling, the casual acquaintance of a rest-cure, could have any connection with my own? If she hadn't been the sort of person who confides at first sight we should have learned each other's names at the beginning and been on guard. The truth is, I had thought of no one but Tom Beckett in her confessions; the personality of "the other man" had stolen into the chronicle so late in the day that I had taken no interest in him.
"Are you Amy Darling?" I asked her plump.
"Yes, but how mean of you to pump Blossom! I wanted to go on thinking of you as Zuleika and have you call me something imaginary and romantic."
"I am Philippa Armstrong. Did you ever hear the name?"
"No, but it's all right; it looks like you, and it's nearly as pretty as Zenobia. Now if Tom Beckett had only chosen you and I could have obliged Laura by falling in love with—"
"Don't mention the other man's name!" I cried hastily; "it just comes to me that I may have met him."
"Met Dick Morton?"
It was true then! Here was the girl whom Richard ought, for his worldly good, to marry, and she was not a woman at all, only an Angora kitten, and moreover a kitten in love with Tom Beckett!
"Yes, I have met him, but I only this moment suspected it!"
"Have you known him long?"
"Less than a year."
"That settles it!" she cried, leaping to her feet excitedly. "If Dick Morton has known you for a year he won't want me and I can marry Tom! Goody, goody, goody!"
"Stuff and nonsense!" I said quickly. "Richard Morton is only a very dear friend."
"Stuff and nonsense yourself! No man with an eye in his head could be a dear friend to you! And Dick Morton is the hero sort who doesn't care for Dottie Dimples, but worships Vashtis and Zuleika-Zenobias. Have you any money?"
"Not a penny!"
"Oh, dear! I might have known you wouldn't have, with that hair and those eyes. Never mind! I'm certain that Dick would rather have a pauper goddess than a rich little earthworm."
"You mustn't talk any more about the matter," I said with as much dignity as I could muster in the midst of her laughter-provoking nonsense, which made the most sacred subjects seem a natural matter of discussion. "I know through Mrs. Taunton all about the circumstances—your father's wishes and his letter to Richard. If you can possibly love him you must accept him, advance his fortunes, and do your duty by your father. I am determined to be as noble as Laura Simonds in this matter and I refuse to be a stumbling-block!"
The girl fell limply into the lounging-chair.
"Oh," she said despondently, "if you are going to be noble, too, there's no use discussing the matter. What an example we shall be for the heathen nations! You will be noble and give up Dick Morton; I shall be noble and marry him; and be noble at the same time in giving up Tom; Tom will be noble in suffering me to marry anybody but himself; Dick will be noble in obliging my father and marrying me instead of you; Laura is always noble! We could use up a whole order of nobility among us! And it is all so silly! Do you suppose my dear father would want four of us to be unhappy, his own daughter among them? It's really only Laura who matters, and if you had any ingenuity you could pacify her and persuade her that it is my duty for once to follow my ignoble inclinations. I am afraid of her, but you needn't be! You could blaze and flash and tower, if you only would, and save us all!"
"You seem to forget," I urged, "that Mr. Morton has never asked me to marry him."
"That's nothing; he has probably been thinking how he could get me nicely disposed of, or how he could earn a roof under which he could ask you to step in wet weather. He's been too stupid and moody and dull this last winter for any use, and now I understand him. Has he ever seen you like this with your Rebecca-at-the-well hair down?"
"I thought so; or he'd have forgotten the necessary roof!—Come in!—Goodness! it's your room and I locked the door! Do excuse me; I'll open it. A telegram for you.—Wait outside for an answer, Jimmy."
I tore open the envelope, confidently expecting that Cousin Sarah had been struck with paralysis; instead of which I read:
Archville, Pennsylvania, June 16
Have this moment secured a large and important contract assuring two years' lucrative work. May I come to see you immediately? Name earliest day.
I handed the message to the Kitten, who read it and exclaimed: "I knew he was only waiting for the roof! You see he doesn't worry about my prospects—selfish pig! Answer it and say Thursday—you can get well by Thursday, can't you?—for I want to send for Tom on the same day. There's a polo game at home on Saturday, and Tom has a new motor car. Tell Dick the best hotel in the town is the Brooks House. I must wire to Laura, too. I shall say, let me see: I shall say: 'You shouldn't have left me. I couldn't be noble alone.' That's just ten words. She'll understand fast enough, and it will pave the way for you when you explain the situation to her. We'll leave the sanitarium Friday and get your Cousin Sarah to chaperon us on the journey home. Here, I've written my messages, now do yours—hurry! There!—Jimmy, you're too old to play with matches, aren't you?"
"Very well, then, you can be trusted with these two telegrams. Don't hold them near the fire; there's a match in each of them."
* * * * *
As a patient Dr. Levi says I am almost as great a credit to the institution as Mrs. Chittenden-Ffollette herself.
Monday.—I slept all day, waking only for meals.
Tuesday.—The handcuffs slipped off my wrists and the balls and chains off my ankles.
Wednesday.—My headache, sideache, backache, and shoulderache disappeared. Breakfasted with the doctor on coffee, hot biscuits, beefsteak, and griddle cakes with sausage.
Thursday.—Richard Morton came.
Friday.—Dismissed as completely cured.
"The dimensions of this mercy are above my thoughts," as Cromwell wrote after the Worcester fight.
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