"She'll come out all right, all right," said Father Kelly, with the hammer-like gesture of his right fist which his congregation knew well for a storm signal. "She's a good girl. This is no fault of hers, this foolish contraption to make money; I'm one with Conner, there; but the girls aren't to blame. Freda's a good girl, too. That's she coming."
The German heroine of this miniature Nibelungenlied was tall and slender, fair haired and fair faced. Her face wore a placid air; she looked perfectly serene and had assumed unconsciousness as a garment; she did not talk, only faintly smiled in return to the greetings that met her on every side. To right and left, before and behind her, walked her two aunts and her two neighbors, women of substance and dignity. They walled her about as might a body-guard, sending eye-blinks of defiance at the hilarious young Irishmen. Mrs. Orendorf, of the guard, went the length of twisting her head for a final glare of disapproval at Norah, in passing. Norah laughed. "I used to know Freda Burglund last week," said she, "but I guess she has forgotten me."
"She's too busy with the blackboard, doing arithmetic," joked one of the young men.
"You ought to see old Fritz!" cried another; "he's clean off his base. He's mortgaged his farm to Nichols. Nichols didn't want to lend, but he would have the money."
"Well, I guess we'll give him a run for his pile."
"He's mortgaged his farm!" said a third young man; when his voiced sounded, the very slightest of movements of Norah's head betrayed that she listened.
"I'd mortgage two farms if I had them," was the gallant comment from the first man, "if Miss Norah needed votes."
The third man felt the rustle of every dollar he had, drawn out of the bank that morning, and now bulging his waistcoat-pocket in company with a bit of ribbon that had dropped from Norah's hair; but it was easier for him to make money than talk; he was ready to push the last of it over the voting-table for Norah, but he wasn't ready of tongue; he put his big honest hands in his pocket, and lest he should glower too openly at the fluent blade, sent his eyes after Freda Berglund's yellow head and fine shoulders. Norah could see him. She stiffened.
"I don't think it very nice of her to let her father mortgage his farm," said a fourth partisan of Norah's; "he'd better buy her a watch out and out; you can get a good one for ten dollars. She'd ought to stop the old man. Her mother would if she were alive."
"Fritz ain't so easy headed off," said the third man. "Miss Freda is a very nice young lady; I don't believe she knows about it."
He kept his eyes on the yellow head, this unfortunate bungler, who had been in love with Norah since he had worn knickerbockers, and Norah held her own head higher in the air. And she let Mr. Williamson, the new book-keeper at Conner's (he who would have mortgaged two farms for her), take her to the ice-cream table, leaving the bungling lover (christened Patrick Maurice, his surname being Barnes), to jostle dismally over to the apron table, where Freda was.
Norah laughed at Mr. Williamson's jokes, and asked him questions about the business college from which he had recently been graduated, and was the picture of soft animation and pleasure; and the while her heart was like lead, and she hated Freda Berglund. Sitting at the table she heard snatches of talk, all tinctured by the strong excitement of the evening. "I can't help it if they do quarrel," she thought, angrily, answering her own accusation; not even to herself did she say that she hated Freda.
Her eyes wandered a second over the hall; they saw the Vicar-General's pale, handsome face, a half-head taller than Father Kelly's good gray head; they saw a square-jawed, black-haired, determined, smiling young man behind the ballot-box turning his eyes from Pat Barnes to an elderly man who held up his hand, waving a roll of bills.
"Ah, I see Berglund has arrived," said Williamson. "You are going to do a lot to build the church, Miss Norah."
Berglund was rather a short man; his hair was gray; he limped from the old wound received at Shiloh. Something clutched at Norah's heart as she looked at him. Williamson made some trivial joke; she did not hear it; she was hearing over again the words of the German woman to Mrs. O'Brien that afternoon. Impulsively she sprang to her feet. "Will you excuse me, Mr. Williamson?" she exclaimed. "I have to go to the voting-booth one moment." She went so swiftly that Williamson had much ado to keep pace with her, besides overpaying the waitress in his hurry. Father Kelly swallowed a groan of dismay at the fresh strain on his faith when he perceived her beckoning a ring-laden hand at the custodian of votes; and the Vicar-General involuntarily frowned. They both with one accord pushed up to the table—to the visible relief of the young man behind it. "I don't know what to do," he confided to Father Kelly, before the latter could ask the question quivering on his tongue—"I don't know what to do. Miss Murray wants me not to take in any more money 'til I hear from her again. She'll be back. And here's old Berglund wants three hundred and fifty dollars' worth for Miss Freda, and here's Barnes with a big bunch for Miss Murray, trying to scare off the old man. What'll I do, Father?"
"I guess you better not do anything," said Father Kelly, with a twinkle in his eye. "Norah Murray is apt to have a good reason for her asking. Shut the booth down, and I'll take charge while you go off for a cup of coffee."
The Vicar-General nodded approval.
"Well, just's you say, Father," said the young man; "it's kind of unprecedented."
"What do you suppose it means?" puzzled the Vicar-General, in an undertone, as the vote-taker disappeared; and the crowd fell back a little on Father Kelly's bland announcement that Mr. Duffy had been called off for a few minutes, and there would be a recess in voting.
"'Tis beyond me," said Father Kelly, "but watch the girl; she's gone straight to Freda Berglund. There, they're talking; they're going off together with Mrs. Orendorf. I can't give a guess, but she's a good girl. I'm hopeful."
Norah had indeed gone straight to Freda Berglund. She addressed her in so low a voice that only Freda and Mrs. Orendorf, bending across Freda's shoulders at that instant, the better to cheapen a darning-bag for stockings, could hear her words. "I want to see you, Freda," she said. "Won't you and Mrs. Orendorf come away somewhere so we can talk? I have got something important to say."
"I—don't—know," faltered Freda.
"I want Mrs. O'Brien, too," said Norah, firmly. "It's all right; you'll think it all right, Mrs. Orendorf. Come, come; don't you see those men who have been drinking? Don't you hear them? Don't you see Mrs. Finn, who used to think there was nobody like Mrs. Conner, looking the other way so's not to see her? Can't you hear the quarrelling all round? They've stopped voting, but they haven't stopped quarrelling. Come!"
Although she had dropped her voice, the listeners were so close that they caught snatches of the sentences, and craned their necks forward and hushed their own talk to listen. Mrs. Orendorf was not of a nimble habit of thought; but she felt the electric impetus of the Irish girl; besides, was she not bidden? Could she not protect Freda from the machinations of the enemy?
"Dot's so, Freda," she concluded, stolidly. "Koom den, der only blace vere we can talk py uns is dot coal-closet wo is der eggstry ice-cream freezer. Koom. I see Meezis O'Breen."
Amid a startling pause, every eye questioning them, the three picked up Mrs. O'Brien and sought the coal-closet. Then Norah turned. In the dim light her face shone whitely. Her full melodious voice shook the least in the world with haste and excitement. "We've got to stop this," said she, "and I know how. Freda, I am going to withdraw my name. I wish to Heaven I never had let them put it on. You may have the watch."
Freda's tall figure was only an outline in the shadow; they could not see her face; but the outline wavered backward. Her voice was stiff and cold.
"I don't think that's fair. You have more votes than I have."
Mrs. O'Brien opened her lips and shut them tightly. It was so dark no one saw her, or Mrs. Orendorf, as she sat on the freezer gulping down inaudible opinions regarding Norah's sanity.
"I sha'n't have," retorted Norah, impatiently, "when your father spends all his money that he mortgaged his farm—"
"What!" cried Freda.
"She not know; ve keep it von her," muttered Mrs. Orendorf. "Fritz make me promise not to tell."
"Well, he didn't make me," said Norah. "I'll tell. He raised the money, and he was trying to buy the votes, and I saw him. I haven't any father. I can't remember anything of my father except his leading me about when I was a little thing by the finger, and how kind his voice was; but I miss him—I miss him all the time; I know he was a good man, and loved me; and he'd have done anything for me, just as your father is doing; and I couldn't have borne it to have him, and I was sure you couldn't, either. Freda, it's all wrong, this spending more money than they can afford on us; I've felt it all along. Now let's stop it. The church has got enough."
"Is it true about papa?" said Freda, in German.
"Ach Himmel! Yes, my child. Dost thou not know thy father yet? For all he seems still and stern, thou art more than all the world to him." Mrs. Orendorf spoke in the same tongue; her other listeners could not understand it, but they marvelled over the soft change in her voice.
"It's true enough, Miss Freda," said Mrs. O'Brien, gently. "And maybe you're in the right of it, Norah darling, though 'tis a bit hard to give in; but, yes, I'm sure you're right."
"You are right," said Freda, "and it's all been wrong, all wrong. But I've got to see my father first. Please come with me."
As Norah had led them in the first place, Freda led them by an equally potent although entirely different force now; it was Norah's turn to follow, blindly.
A hush everywhere in their wake betrayed that a consciousness of their conference and its importance was in the air. Freda was pale, Norah's cheeks burned, but neither girl looked to the right or the left; and both the matrons following avoided their friends' curiosity by a soldierly "eyes front." Freda walked up to her father, who looked up, not altogether pleased, at her light touch on his arm.
"This is no place for thee, my child," said he; something in her face made his voice gentler than common. She looked, he thought, dimly, as she had looked when they got the news about Otto.
"I have to say something," said Freda.
"You beples stand back!" commanded Mrs. Orendorf, with a backward impulse of her elbows.
"Yes, you stand back, ladies and gentlemen, please," begged Mrs. O'Brien, smiling; "'twill all be explained to yous." Only Norah stood her ground; and Pat Barnes kept in the front rank of the bystanders.
"What is it?" growled Berglund, bristling at the circle of faces much readier for peace than war.
"She wants to give the watch to me," explained Freda, rapidly repeating almost word for word Norah's offer. As she spoke suspicion wrinkled the corners of old Fritz's eyes.
"Maypi sie know sie vill git peten," he muttered, loud enough for Norah to hear. Then, as he saw her color turn, his hard face softened. "No," he said, clearly, "it don't be dot; dot Pat Barnes got his pocket full of moneys; no, sie is a goot schild, und her fader he vas a goot mans; sie haf a hard dime mit no fader to look oudt for her." He turned to Norah, whose swimming eyes met his full. Pat Barnes tried to cough down his emotion and made a strange squeak; but nobody smiled; the crowded hall was curiously still as Fritz limped up to Norah. "No, ve don't can take it off you; can ve, Freda?" said he.
Freda slipped her hand into her father's arm. "No, Norah," she said. "I withdraw my name. And I'm prouder to have my father than all the watches in the world!"
"Sure, you're right there, mavourneen," cried Mrs. O'Brien. "Whisht, all of you! These blessid children have got the way out of all this mess; they're better Christians than anny of us." Mrs. Orendorf frowned fiercely, reached for her handkerchief, and wiped her face.
Father Kelly felt it time for his own word, and stepped into the circle. A sentence or two from Mrs. O'Brien made the quick-witted old Irishman master of the incident.
"As I understand it," his full, rich, Celtic tones purred, "'tis the feeling of both these young ladies that there is hard feeling and strife and wasteful spending of money coming out of what was meant to be a good-natured contest for the good of the church; but this disputing, this spending, are neither for the good of the church nor the glory of God—far from it—God forgive us our weakness. So both these young ladies withdrew their names. We have cause to be proud of them both, as they surely have cause to be proud of the loyalty of their friends." (Irrepressible applause.) "And the kindest thing their friends can do is to shake hands all around." (A voice—in point of fact, the voice of the widow Murray: "But what will the sodality do with the watch?") "The watch is the property of the parish." Here Father Kelly paused, his persuasive argument rolling back on himself; he didn't know what to do with the watch. It was too perilous to run the risk of new discords over it. The priest cast a distress rocket in a look at the Vicar-General; but the Vicar-General perfidiously smiled and looked away.
Up spoke Norah, her sweet voice not quite steady, her cheeks crimson—but they all heard her: "It's a large gold watch. Why can't we give it to Father Kelly?"
The Vicar-General's lifted hand stilled the shout that rose.
"Why not?" called he. "Father Kelly is not a young lady, but he is popular."
And Father Kelly, putting both hands over his blushes, ran away from the frantic roar of applause and laughter. The Vicar-General pursued him to say:
"You were right, Kelly; she is a good girl—and a wise one!"
Perhaps the only person in the hall who was not either shouting or screaming, according to sex, was Norah's mother; and the cloud on her face lightened when she saw Norah coming to her on Pat Barnes's arm and Pat's face aglow.
Freda saw them too; she slipped her hand into her father's arm.
"Liebchen!" said he, stroking it with his rough fingers, "I will get thee a watch some day, never fear!"
But it was not the thought of a watch that made Freda's heart lighter than for many a day. "I don't want a watch," said she. "Oh, I'm sorry for Norah, who can't even remember about her father!"