"It's Miss Gibbie Gault! Oh, Aunt Katherine, it is Miss Gibbie Gault!"
Without warning, two strong young arms were thrown around her neck and on her lips a hearty kiss was pressed. "Oh, Miss Gibbie, I'm so glad to see you! /I'm so glad!/ I'm Mary Cary who used to live in Yorkburg. You don't mind my kissing you, do you? I couldn't help it, I really couldn't! It's /so/ good to see some one from Yorkburg!" And she was hugged again, hugged hard.
"Nearly three years ago!" Her lips quivered. "And a different world you've been living in since. Somebody was really glad to see you. It makes a great difference in life when some one is glad to see you!"
Was it fate, chance, circumstance that had brought the girl to her? She did not know. Once she would have said. Maybe God needed them together, was Mary's view, and she never commented on Mary's views. In that at least she had learned to hold her tongue. But it did not matter. They were here in Yorkburg, lives closely interknit, and here, in the home in which she had been born, she was to live henceforth. And if but close to her she could keep the girl who had warmed her heart and opened her eyes she would ask nothing more of life.
For two years and more they had been together. Instantly she had wanted her, and, never hesitating in efforts to get what she wanted, a month after the meeting at the little Inn of Le Bon Laboureur she invited her to be her guest in a trip around the world. The invitation was blunt. She had long wanted to take this trip, had long been looking for the proper companion. She had a dog, but he wasn't allowed to come to the table. Would she go? Her uncle and aunt would not let her miss the chance. They made her go. Doctor Alden and his wife were sensible people.
And then the night in Cairo when Mary came in her room, sat on the stool at her feet, and, crossing her arms on her lap, looked up in her face and said they must go home. The holiday had been long and happy, but more of it would be loss of time. And home was Yorkburg. A visit to Michigan first, long talks with her uncle and aunt, and then whatever she was to do in life was to be done in Yorkburg. There was a little money, something her uncle had invested for her when she first went to live with him, until she decided on some sort of work. She would teach, perhaps, and she would rather it would be in the little town in which she had found a home when homeless and without a friend. She was not willing to live with anybody or anywhere without work. She was anxious to be about it. When could they start?
"And of course I started. Started just when she said. Did just what she wanted and some things she didn't. Trotted on back to the old pasture-land where old sheep should graze, and here I am to stay until the call comes. Whoever thought you'd come back to Yorkburg, Gibbie Gault! Back to shabby, sleepy, satisfied old Yorkburg! Well, you're here! Mary Cary made you come. She loves it, always wanting to do something for it; helping every broken-down old thing in it; laughing at its funny ways, and keeping straight along in hers. And for what? To-morrow everybody will be talking about the meeting to-night. About other things she's doing. Small thanks she'll get, and if you tell her so she'll say if you do things for thanks you don't deserve them. Bless my soul, if it isn't raining!"
A sudden downpour of rain startled her, and she sat upright; then, at a noise behind, turned and saw Mary Cary coming in the door.
"Oh, Miss Gibbie, I could spank you! I really could! You aren't even five years old at times. It has turned almost cold, and raining hard, and here you are sitting by an open window!" She felt the gown of the older woman anxiously. "I believe it's damp. If you don't get in bed I'm going to—"
"Do what?" Miss Gibbie got out of her chair, threw off the mandarin coat with its golden dragons, and kicked her slippers toward the door. "What are you going to do?"
"Put you in it. Get in and let me cover you up! Are you sure you aren't cold? Sure?"
"Sure." Miss Gibbie mimicked the anxious tones of the girl now bending over and tucking the covering round her warm and tight. "What did you come in here for, anyhow? Go to bed!"
"I knew you'd left the window open, and it has turned so cool. I was afraid there was too much air." She stooped over and kissed her. "Good-night! Don't get up to breakfast. I'll see you during the day." With a swift movement she turned off the light on the candle-stand and was gone, and under the covering Miss Gibbie hid her face in the pillow.
"Dear God," she said. "Dear God, she's all I've got. I'm an old woman, and she's all I've got!"
"Muther say, please, sir, send her four eggs' worth of salt pork, and two eggs' worth of pepper, and five eggs' worth of molasses. And she say I can have pickle with the last egg."
The eyes which had been critically searching the pickle-jar on the counter as the eggs were carefully taken out of a basket looked confidently in Mr. Blick's face, and a red little tongue licked two red lips in quivering expectation of the salty sourness awaiting them.
"Please, sir, I'd like that one." A dirty little fore-finger pointed to a long, fat cucumber lying slightly apart from its fellows. "That's the one, Mr. Blick. No, not that one—/that/ one!" and the finger was pressed resolutely against the jar. "And would you please, sir, give it to me before you weigh out the things?"
"Oh, Peggy dear, what a little pig you are! The very biggest in the jar, and such a wicked-looking pickle, Peggy! Why not get an apple, instead?"
Peggy turned joyously at the sound of the voice behind her. "Oh, Miss Mary Cary, I'm so glad it's you. I thought it was Miss Lizzie Bettie Pryor!"
Mr. Blick laughed. The relief in Peggy's voice was so unqualified that the man, standing in the door watching the little group, laughed also. Miss Cary turned toward him. "This is Peggy, John—my little friend, Peggy McDougal. Wipe your hands, Peggy, and speak to Mr. Maxwell, who has come from New York to see Yorkburg, and—and the places he used to know."
Peggy wiped her hands carefully on the handkerchief held out to her, then advanced toward the man, still standing in the doorway, but now with his hat in his hand.
"How do you do, Mr. John Maxwell from New York?" she said, gravely; in her eyes critical inspection of the face before her. "I know about you. Muther says you used to live in Yorkburg, but your muther didn't like it. I hope you like it, and will stay a long time and come again. Miss Mary Cary says it's nicer than New York."
John Maxwell took the offered hand as ceremoniously as it was given. "Thank you! I do like Yorkburg, and I hope to come again." He laughed amusedly in the upturned eyes which were searching his. "It is nicer than New York. Miss Cary is quite right."
"New York's bigger, ain't it?"
"Yes"—hesitatingly—"some bigger. But I don't believe there's anything there like you—"
"Plenty more here like me."
"Hundreds, I reckon. Yorkburg's most all children and old maids, muther says. We've got nine children—four girls and five boys. The last one was a girl, which would have made us even, but it died. Billy give it a piece of watermelon rind to play with and it et it. But, Miss Mary, muther /did/ say I could have a pickle, she did." And Peggy turned to Miss Cary, anxious entreaty in her eyes.
"I don't want an apple—I want a pickle. And it won't make me sick. There's seven of us to have a bite, and one bite wouldn't give anybody's stomach a pain. Oh, Miss Mary, you ain't Miss Lizzie Bettie Pryor. Please don't tell me not to get it. Please don't!" And the little fingers twisted and untwisted in tragic intensity of appeal.
"I ought to tell you." Miss Cary looked doubtfully at the pickle-jar. "But if you get it will you promise not to ask for another for a long, long time? They are almost poisonous. Mr. Blick, I wish you wouldn't keep them. They are such a temptation to the children. Isn't there anything else you could keep instead?"
"Yes'm, plenty of things. But that's all I would do. I'd keep 'em. I tell you times ain't like they was, Mary Cary, and if you don't sell what people want to buy, they'll buy from the man who sells what they want. And then what would Mrs. Blick and the babies do?"
Mr. Blick's bright little black eyes beamed first at Miss Cary and then at the gentleman in the door, but, neither venturing an answer, he cut off a piece of pork and wrapped it carefully. "Not being in the missionary business, I have to meet the times, for if we don't stand up we set down, and folks walk right along over us and don't know we're there. I don't approve of pickle, or cocoanut, either, as for that"—he tapped a jar filled with water, in which soaked broken pieces of the fruit of the tree forbidden by most Yorkburg mothers—"but business is business, which I ain't attendin' to or I'd be takin' your order 'stead of wastin' your time." And again the black little eyes gleamed like polished chinquapins sunk in a round red peach.
"Oh no! Peggy was here first and her mother is waiting for her. You give her what she came for while I look around for what I want."
Mr. Blick, knowing further words were unwise, began patiently to do up the eggs' worth of pork and pepper and molasses, and John Maxwell, watching him to see in what proportions they would be meted out, grew as interested as Peggy, whose shrewd little eyes had so early been trained in weights and measurements that she could tell quickly the number of eggs required for an ounce or quarter of half a pound of the purchase to be made. Putting the packages in a basket, she turned; then, remembering a final order, stood again at the counter.
"I forgot, Mr. Blick. Muther say won't you please send her nine of them little blue-and-red-and-white birthday candles? She wants 'em for the twins' birthday. It comes on the Fourth of July; they will be nine on the Fourth, Washington and Jefferson will, and muther's been wanting ever since they been born to celebrate their birthday, but suppin' always happened; somebody was sick, or Wash and Jeff been fightin', so she couldn't in conscience give 'em a party. But the last time 'twas her fault—she mashed her finger; so she say she thinks she'll have it now if'n it is May 'stead of July, cause there ain't nothing the matter, and she knows there will be if she waits till the right time. She say she'll send the eggs for the candles as soon as Grandpa Duke and Miss Florence Nightingale lays 'em. She knows Mis' Blick likes their eggs best. It will take a dozen, won't it?"
John Maxwell turned toward Miss Cary, his forehead wrinkled in puzzled inquiry. "In the name of chicken-science, what is she talking about? If I oughtn't to ask, don't tell me, but—"
"It's a new world I told you you'd be finding." Mary Cary laughed, running her hand through a peck measure of black-eyed peas. "And where but in Yorkburg will eggs serve for currency?"
"But when Grandpa Duke lays the eggs? What does she mean?"
"That the big black hen was a present from Mr. Duke, Mrs. McDougal's father, and named in honor of him. All Mrs. McDougal's hens are named—honorably named. Her roosters, also. But having few roosters and admiring many men, she bestows on her lady chickens the names of distinguished gentlemen. It's her only way of keeping in touch with great people, she says. You must know Peggy's mother. She is one of my good friends. Would you like to go to the party?"
Before he could answer: "Peggy!" she called—"Peggy, come here and tell us when the party takes place."
Peggy, package-laden, came slowly toward the door near which Miss Cary and John Maxwell were standing. The top end of the precious pickle had been bitten off, and Peggy's face, wrinkled in distorted enjoyment of its salty sourness, was endeavoring to straighten itself before making answer.
"Oh, Miss Mary Cary, /will/ you come to the party? Will you? There's going to be flags and poppers and lemonade and—and a lot of things. Muther say she's been intendin' to give a party ever since she's been married, but she ain't ever had a minute to do it in. The reason she is goin' to give it to the boys is because they was born the same day the United States was. They'll be nine on the Fourth of July and the United States will be—" She shook her head. "I don't know how old the United States is, but muther say being born when they was, and being named for Presidents, she's bound to teach us patriotics, and a party is the best way she knows of. She'd give it to me or Teeny if our birthdays stood for anything, but they don't. I'm ten, goin' on eleven, and ain't anybody yet remembered when my birthday comes."
Peggy was red in the face and out of breath. The eagerness of her invitation had dried her throat, which needed moistening. Ducking her head, she bit off the other end of the pickle and, in an effort to swallow naturally, blinked furiously.
"That's all and no more," she said, nodding explanatorily at Miss Cary. "I always take the two ends. They're toughest, and you can chew 'em longest. The other children get the middle," and she put said middle carefully between the pork and pepper. "If you don't want me to, I won't eat another for—for how long mustn't I eat it, Miss Cary?"
"For six months." Miss Cary's voice made effort to be severe. "They will ruin you. They really will. But run along and tell your mother we are coming to the party. What time did you say it was to be?"
"I didn't say. Muther ain't said herself yet. She say out of nine you can always count on suppin' happenin' that oughtn't, specially when five is boys. But I reckon it will be about four o'clock, and she thinks Friday will be the day. If muther can get 'em all washed and keep the lemonade from being drunk up she will have it at four. If'n she can't she will have it when she can. But please 'm, oh /please 'm/ be sure and come!"
She started down the street, then turned, as if suddenly remembering, and came back to the man still standing in the door, watching her with amused eyes.
"Muther will be glad to have you come, too," she said, nodding gravely, "Mr.—Mr.—what did you say your name was?"
"Maxwell." And again the hat was lifted.
"Maxwell," she repeated. "I hope you will come, too. I don't know whether muther knows you or not, but if you was Satan himself she would be glad to see you—if'n you was a friend of Miss Mary Cary."
"Now, ain't I glad to see you! Come right along in and set down, unless you'd rather set out. I'm that proud to have you here I'm right light in the head, that I am!" and John Maxwell's hand was shaken heartily. "Lord, what a big man you've gone and got to be! Your dotingest grandma wouldn't have believed you would grow into good looks when you was fifteen. You were the ugliest, nicest boy I ever seen at fifteen, and look at you now! Look at you now!"
Mrs. McDougal stood off and gazed with admiring candor at the man before her, and the man, laughing good-naturedly, seated himself on the railing of the little porch and threw his hat on a chair at its far end. "If I've changed it's more than you have. Just as young and gay as ever," he said, nodding toward her, "and still a woman of sense and discrimination. Nobody but you knows I'm handsome."
"I ain't sayin' you're an Appolus Belviderus. You ain't. But you look like a man, and that's what many who wars pants don't. And good clothes is a powerful help to face and figger. I certainly am proud to see you. I certainly am!"
"And I certainly am glad to see you. I certainly am!" He bobbed his head in imitation of Mrs. McDougal, whose words were always emphasized by gestures, and laughed in the puzzled eyes of the girl beside her, pulling off her long gloves. "Miss Cary asked me the other day if I didn't want to know you. She didn't know you were a friend of mine before you were a friend of hers. Remember those apple-jacks I used to get from you? Bully things! Don't have anything like that in New York."
"Don't have the same kind of stomach to put 'em in, I reckon. Anything is good to boys and billy-goats, but edjicated insides is sniffy, they tell me. Set down, Mary Cary. Here, take this rockin'-chair. Ain't anything been spilt on this one, and it's the only one what ain't. I'm that thankful nothin's caught on fire that I was thinkin' of settin' down myself, but 'twon't be no use. Look-a-yonder! If that Bickles boy ain't tied a pop-cracker to Mis' Jepson's chief rooster, and right on to its comb! Hi, there! Don't you light that thing!" And Mrs. McDougal waved vigorously with her apron in the direction of a small group of stooping watchers, hands on knees and eyes eagerly intent.
The warning was too late. An explosion, a frantic crow from a once lordly cock, a scurry to safer quarters, jeering cheers from heartless throats, and then silence as Mrs. McDougal's waving arms were seen.
"Let me go down and see what they are doing," and Mary Cary laid gloves and parasol on the chair, unpinned her hat and put it beside them. "We were so late I was afraid the children would be gone. Look at that little rascal tying two dogs' tails together!" Down the steps she ran and across the yard, and as she approached there was a rush toward her. Instantly she was the centre of a crowding, swarming group of children, all talking at once, and all trying to see what she had come to do, but as she raised her hand there was momentary stillness.
"Now I can set down." With a sigh of relief Mrs. McDougal took the chair offered to Miss Cary, folded her arms, and began to rock, her eyes fastened on the man still on the railing of the little porch, but now with his back against a post and hands clasped over the knee of his right leg.
"I can set down in peace for a few minutes anyhow," she went on, "for as long as Miss Mary is out there things will go right. Some women is born with a way to manage children. She was." She nodded toward the yard. "Remember how she used to do those 'sylum children? Led 'em into more mischief than all the rest put together, but she always led 'em out, and they were like sheep behind her. Loved her. That was it. Ain't it funny the things folks will do for a person just on account of lovin' 'em? And ain't it funny how you can't love some people to save your life? You know you ought to, specially if they're kin, and you try to, but you can't do it. The very sight of some folks makes the old boy rise up in you, and you wish they was in—well, I ain't sayin' where you wish they was. My grandmother always told me you'd better keep some wishes to yourself.
"But there's one person in this town what makes me want to do to her just what Billy Bickles did to that rooster just now. She's that superior, and so twisty in the corners of her mouth, that I'm always wishin' I could fix the kind of fall her pride's goin' to have some day. Bound to have it, pride is. 'Ain't no law to hold it up any more than an apple in the air, and both of 'em is got to come down. When folks pass other folks what they know in the street, and don't any more speak to 'em than if they was worms of the dust, they think it's on account of bein' who they are, and they don't know it's on account of bein' what they is. Of course a person can't be blamed for bein' born a fool, but a fool ought to know better than to be fooler than it's bound to be. I don't mind Mrs. Deford not noticin' me, but Susie, who sells her all her hats, says—"
"Mrs. Deford?" John Maxwell, who was only half listening, and who had been watching the children, turned toward Mrs. McDougal. "You mean Mrs. Walter Deford?"
"That's who I mean, though I don't see what she's called Mrs. Walter Deford for, being as 'tis Mr. Walter Deford don't seem to enjoy her company any more than I do. If he's been in Yorkburg for eight years, nobody's heard of it. When she dies she oughtn't to be res'rected. In heaven there'll be saints, born plain. She couldn't associate with them. In hell there'll be blue-blooded sinners, and she can't mix with sinners. The grave's the place for her, and won't anybody round here weep when she's put in it. But Lord-a-mercy, what am I wastin' time talking about an old teapot like her for? She's hurt Susie's feelin's so often, Susie bein' like her pa, and not havin' much spirit, that I get kinder riled when her name is mentioned. But my grandmother always did say if you didn't like a person, spew them out of your heart and shut your mouth. And here I am talkin' about a nothin', 'stead of askin' you 'bout yourself. It's been a long time since I seen you. Them other times when you've been down I ain't even had a chance to glimpse you on the street, but the children told me, Susie and Hunt did, that you was a New-Yorker all right, and you is that. I tell you good clothes and an easy air don't hurt anybody." She nodded her head. "You look like where you come from."
"Any difference in New-Yorkers and other people? Mind my smoking?" He took a package of cigarettes out of his pocket, lighted one and put the rest back. "In New York I tell people I'm from Yorkburg. Could I have arranged it I would have been born here. Not my fault I'm not a Virginian." He laughed, knocking the ashes from his cigarette. "You've got a bunch of them. All those yours?"
She peered above the railing and counted. "Ain't but five of 'em mine. The four oldest works. Susie stays in Miss Patty Moore's millinery store, Lizzie lives with her grandpa, Hunt is at the woolen mills with his pa, and Teeny helps Mrs. Blick with the children. The youngest is twins, they're seven. The next is twins, too. They will be nine on the Fourth of July, and over who was to be invited that I had to keep 'em in bed all day yesterday, and not let it be their party at all. I told 'em 'twas Peggy's, but I'd do the invitin' myself. I didn't want that Billy Bickles, but if I hadn't asked him there'd been trouble for me as long as life. I know his ma too well. Don't reckon you ever knew Mis' Bickles? She's one of them kind of women who's always seein' she gets what's comin' to her, and takes what ain't. Her husband lives up the country. He warn't much to leave: one of them lazy, good-natured kind what always had a pain handy; and Mis' Bickles says she left him while her family was small. Mis' Bickles says she left him while her family was small. Mis' Bickles's got more sense than you'd think from lookin' at her, and a tongue what tells all it knows and makes up what it don't. It don't do to get that kind of a tongue down on you.
"Them two children over there"—she pointed vaguely toward the now shouting group—"those two with red hair and red ribbons is Mr. Sam Winter's little girls. I don't like 'em, but if there's any one woman in this world I feel sorry for it's Sam Winter's wife, and so I invited 'em. Ain't they the ugliest, freckledest little things you ever saw? Don't reckon you remember their ma, either? She used to stay in Mr. Pat Horston's bakery and confectionery when you lived here. That's been—"
"Ten years ago this October."
"That's so. I remember it now like 'twas yesterday. Never will forget the day your father died so sudden, just like Mr. Pryor, and everything in Yorkburg seemed to stop. He was the kind of man who makes wheels go round, and everybody thought when he died the shoe factory would shut down and the 'lectric-light plant would go out; and people round here say they would if you hadn't put your foot down and told your ma they had to keep up. Sixteen was right young to be buttin' into business matters, but some folks is born older than others, and I reckon you've got right much of your pa in you. And that's what I told McDougal I like about you. You knew what you wanted, and when you made up your mind to do a thing, 'twould be death or you would win. And my grandmother always did say, for winning, will was worth more than anything else on earth.
"But I ain't asked you what kind of business you're in, or how you're gettin' on in it, nor how your ma is. I hope she's well. And your sister, too. They tell me she's married—"
"She is. Living in California. Got two children. Mother is very well, thank you. She's abroad just now. I'm in the law business. I get my bread out of it, but not much jam yet. You were speaking of Sam Winter's wife just now. I remember her; used to sell us cakes and pies, and so afraid she wouldn't get the change right she nearly wore her fingers out counting on them. We used to borrow a big piece of money—a dollar was big in those days—just to watch her face get red when we'd tell her the change was wrong. Little beasts! Somebody ought to have beaten us."
"That they ought. And somebody ought to beat Sam Winter every day in the week. Ain't nothing I would like better than to have a whack at him. I've often wished I was his wife for just five minutes. He'd be jelly or I one when 'twas over. Some men need lickin'. Sam's one of the kind who thinks when the Lord made woman He made her to be man's footstool when she warn't anything else he needed at the time. Certainly is funny how many people talk like they had a private telegraph-wire running right up to the throne of God, and you'd think they had special messages from Him from the cocksure way in which they tell you what He says and means. And specially 'bout women. The Bible is a great stand-by with some men when it comes to women. But I reckon women has brought a lot of it on themselves. They ain't had a chance to fight fair in life. Being mothers has made 'em stand a heap they wouldn't otherwise. A woman will stand most anything for her children."
John Maxwell laughed. "You are looking at me as if I didn't agree with you. I do. I know some men of the Sam Winter kind. And they always get the wrong sort of wife. Now if Sam had married you—"
"He'd be dead or different by this time. There ain't much in life to be sure of, but you can be sure of that. A woman is a human being, if she is a female, and I ain't ever seen a male creature who had any respect for a female one he could step on. And that's what poor, meek little Fanny Winter lets Sam do, and of course he takes advantage. 'Tain't in human nature for a man not to kick something every now and then what sits at his feet all the time."
"Good Lord! He doesn't beat her?" John Maxwell turned suddenly, in his eyes a queer light. "You mean he strikes her?"
Mrs. McDougal brought her chair closer to the railing. "I don't believe those children are ever goin' home. Some come at three, and it's after seven. They've et up all there was to eat, and drunk a washtub full of lemonade, but that Bickles boy and Fuzzy Toone and Mineola Hodgkins will stay till next week if I don't make 'em go. I believe the little Winters is gone. Look at Peggy! Ain't she havin' a grand time? I'm glad you and Miss Mary didn't come till the first rush-round was over. There's been twenty-one of 'em here includin' of my five, and I tell you when you get through feedin' and fillin' of twenty-one hollow stomachs you're ready for rest. How many out there now?"
"Eleven. Let me see." John counted again. "No, ten. Miss Cary makes the eleventh. I believe she's going to tell them a story. They're getting ready to sit down under your mulberry-tree. Yes, that's what they're going to do. Let them alone. They're having a good time."
"And so am I. Certainly am enjoyin' of myself hearin' all about you. I tell you the mother of nine don't often have time to set down and rock in daylight, and at night I'm so tired that if 'twasn't for the basin of cold water I keep on the back porch to put my face in I'd go to sleep before I'd read a page."
A fresh cigarette was lighted. "Like to read? Why didn't you tell me? Got a lot of books I don't know what to do with. Will send them down if you want them—"
"Want them?" Mrs. McDougal sat upright, hands up also. "It's the sin of my life, readin' is. But it's saved me from losin' my mind. When a person gets up at five o-clock three hundred and sixty-five days in the year, except Sundays, when it's six; cooks, washes dishes, cleans, sews, cooks, washes dishes, sews, cooks, washes dishes, and in between times scrambles round doin' dozens of odd jobs that don't count, life ain't true poetry, and if 'twarn't for risin' out the world I live in and gettin' into a book one at night I'd gone crazy long before this. Makes my mouth water just to think of havin' some books of my own. All I read is borrowed, and I have to hide 'em under the mattress to keep the children from gettin' 'em dirty. I thank you hearty, Mr. John; I certainly do."
John Maxwell took a note-book and pencil out of his pocket. "I've a good forgettery and if I don't put that down you'd have to write, perhaps. How about Mr. McDougal? What kind does he like?"
Mrs. McDougal's jolly laugh reached to the mulberry-tree and the children looked up. "Books! McDougal!" Her hands came down on her knees with a resounding smack. "If McDougal has read a book since I've been married to him he's done it in the dark. Books ain't his line. He's a good man, McDougal is, but you couldn't call him lit'rary. You see"—she settled herself back in her chair and again folded her arms— "he hasn't got what you might say was imaginations. He can't understand why some days I'd so much rather use the axe on the kitchen stove than in the wood-house, or why the sight of a dish-pan makes me sick in my stomach. As for my chickens—calling hens and roosters by names of big people is tommy-rot to him, and he don't any more know my longin's for a look at high life and for people who use elegant language and paint pictures and play the pianer than I understand how he can live in a teacup and not smash it. He's one of the kind what believes you ought to stay where you're put, but in my opinion them what believes that, as a rule, ain't got sense or hustle enough to get out. I'm not sayin' McDougal is lazy or lackin', but his own ma couldn't think he had a brain that was lively. He ain't got it. Did you ever see a mule goin' round a cider mill? That's McDougal. In the daytime he's as given to silence as I am to talk, but couldn't anybody beat him snorin'. Sometimes I think the roof has gone."
John Maxwell coughed. The smoke from the cigarette had gone the wrong way and his eyes were watery.
"But he's a good man, McDougal is," his wife continued, "and everything he makes he hands over to me. A woman couldn't ask a man to do more than that, even if she'd like a little more to be handed. But we ain't never had no quarrels about money. Some men is so cussin' mean about money, and some women is so cussin' onreasonable in demandin' of it, that it's caused more trouble between husbands and wives than any one thing on earth, I believe. No, we ain't ever had no words that way. But I know a lot what has. Sam Winter is one of them kind of men who thinks a woman don't need to know the color of cash. When he married his wife you'd think he'd bought her by the pound. She's his. He gives her what he feels like, and his feelin's are few. What'd you ask me about her just now? Did he strike her? No, he don't strike her, not with his fists, but there ain't a day he don't hurt her some way. It don't do to have too tender feelin's, and there ain't much show for a woman born meek and humble. A man can't stand it. I don't blame him much. Nothin' is so wearin' on you as humbleness. Good gracious, if it ain't strikin' seven o'clock!"
She got up, pushed her chair back and started down the steps. "Excuse me, Mr. John, but if I don't send them children home they'll stay to supper. That they will. I'll be back in a moment."
It was ten minutes before she came, and John Maxwell, who had changed his seat and was now on the upper step of the little porch, rose as she and Miss Cary, followed by the five children, approached, and held out his hand.
"Hello, Peggy! Had a good time? Much obliged to you for inviting me. Sorry I missed the fireworks. Miss Cary's fault. She was an hour late."
Peggy shook hands and also her head. "Miss Mary ain't never late. 'Twas you, I reckon. We've had a grand time. Wash and Jeff drank thirteen glasses of lemonade apiece. I counted. Mineola and me didn't drink but five. We couldn't." She turned to her mother. "You sit down, muther; I'll fix supper. Good-bye, Mr. Maxwell. Good-bye, Miss Mary. That was a beautiful story you told, but I don't believe it. There ain't fairies sure 'nough." And marshalling the boys before her she disappeared in the little hall and closed the door behind her.
Mary Cary put on her hat, wiped her face, and handed John her gloves. "Put them in your pocket; it's too warm to wear them." She turned to the woman beside her and laid her hand on her shoulder. "It's been a fine party, Mrs. McDougal. The children had a lovely time and certainly did behave nicely."
"Lor', Miss Mary, you didn't see 'em. Half was gone when you got here. The hour to come was four, but some come by three. Becky Koontz says she always goes early to a party, 'cause if you don't there's just scraps, and she don't like leavin's. I did all the invitin', and when I thought out who I'd ask I felt downright fashionable. That I did. Ain't a child been here this evenin' that I care shucks for, 'cept two; and they tell me that's the way they do now in high society. You don't ask the folks you like or really want, but the folks what's asked you or you think 'twould sound nice to have. I ain't familiar with high life, but you have to do a heap of things for peace and politics, and Milltown and King Street does pretty much the same things in different ways, I reckon. If there's anybody in this town I ain't got any use for it's Mis' Feckles, but Mr. Feckles is my boy's boss, and if her children hadn't been invited she'd never let up till she got even. Some women is like that. And there was that frisky little Mary Lou Simmons. She's a limb of the law, Mary Lou is, and my hands just itch to spank her. But I had to invite her. Her mother invited Peggy to her party, and her mother's right smart of a devil when she gets mad with you. But I certainly am sorry you've got to go. It takes me back to old times to see you, Mr. John. And what a shakin' up there's been since you young people lived here ten years ago! Funny you ain't either one married. I don't blame you. There's a heap to be said both ways, and times when you'd wish you hadn't, no matter which one you went. Good-bye. I certainly have enjoyed hearin' of you talk. Come again. Good-bye." And as long as they could be seen Mrs. McDougal's arm was waving up and down at the backs of the unthinking couple, who forget to turn and wave in reply.
JOHN MAXWELL AND MARY CARY
"She's had a good time all right." John Maxwell turned to the girl beside him and laughed in the face which looked into his and laughed also. "I never even tried as much as a sentence. She must have some sort of an automatic arrangement somewhere inside of her. Does she never run down, never stop talking?"
"Never." Mary Cary was looking ahead at the windows of a large building some distance away. "But she's a dear all the same, and does the work of four people every day of her life. She hasn't, as she says, an educated tongue, but her understanding of human nature is greater than mine or yours is ever likely to be. And she doesn't mind saying what other people think. I like her." She stood still. "Did you ever see such an improvement in a place as there has been in the woolen mills in the past year? Every window, back, front, and sides, has its box of flowers, and the grounds are downright pretty. I know you thought it was nonsense when I asked you to put flower-boxes in the shoe factory's windows, but you don't know what a help it's been to the hands. Their pride is as great as their pleasure, and since the prize of fifty dollars was offered for the best general showing the rivalry is threatening to give trouble."
"Of course it is, and then there'll be a strike. But they do look better, both buildings." And John Maxwell looked critically first at the large and now rather shabby factory of which he was the owner, and then at the newer woolen mills of which Mr. Moon was president. "I suppose I did think it was nonsense, putting flower-boxes in factory windows, but if the people like them I'm glad they're there. It must be rather dreary pegging away on leather six days in the week, and if the flowers help, certainly it's a pretty way of helping. But a man wouldn't have thought of it. As a suggester a woman might get a steady job. How did you make Mr. Moon go in?"
"Sarah Sue made him. Solemn, sensible Sarah Sue told him it was his duty. You don't know what a help she is. We were born the same year, but she's ages older than I am. And the flowers were just the beginning. They were andirons, you know, and now the factories are so much cleaner. Each has a rest-room, and something we call a dining room, where coffee and sandwiches and soup are served every day at cost, just a few pennies for each person. Some of these times we hope there is going to be a real dining-room and kitchen in all the factories, but of course everything can't be done at once. Don't go that way." She put her hand lightly on his arm. "I want to stop a moment at Mr. Bailley's and leave him this book. He was paralyzed last week."
The book was left and again they started up the long, partly paved street, never called by a name, which separated Milltown from Yorkburg, or the silks from the calicoes, as Mrs. McDougal put it, and soon were on King Street. The asylum, where the early years of Mary Cary's life had been spent, stood out clearly against the soft dusk of twilight, and the street, now quite deserted, stretched in a straight tree-bordered line as far as the eye could see. The usual chatter of neighbors on each other's porches was nowhere heard, for the hour was that of supper, but through the open doors and windows came the high notes of children's voices and an occasional clatter of knives and forks.
The sun, which had sunk in a bed of golden glory, had left behind a sky of shifting purple and orange and pink, and, as the colors were absorbed, grew warmer, fainter, widened, narrowed, and were lost, the glow of the dying day faded, and out of the soft grayness one by one the stars appeared.
Walking slowly and more slowly, and all unconscious of their lingering steps, John Maxwell and Mary Cary watched in silence the changes in the sky; noted the soft green of trees and grass, the blossoming of old-fashioned flowers in gardens of another day, reached out hands to pull a spray of bridal wreath or yellow jessamine, and as they neared the asylum both stopped, though why they hardly knew themselves.
"Study hour," said Mary Cary, explanatorily. "Poor little things! Of course I am very impractical, and I would never do for the head of anything, because I have such queer ideas, especially about children. But I don't believe they will ever learn anything in a book that would do them as much good as a beautiful sunset. And yet they're shut up in the house on an evening like this studying something about the sun, perhaps, and not allowed to see its glories and wonders, because it sets at an hour that is set apart for something else. Sometimes"—she pulled a bit of bridal wreath to pieces and threw its petals on the ground— "sometimes I wonder if more harm isn't done by too much system than by too little."
"Doubtless it is." John Maxwell smiled, though in his eyes were other thoughts than those which were filling hers. "But there's been a big change in this place since you were here. That wing was a great improvement. Looks now pretty much like a big home instead of a place for herding humans, as it once looked. How I used to hate it!"
"Hate it?" They had resumed their walk and she looked up. "I don't see what you hated it for."
"Don't you?" He took out his handkerchief and wiped his face, and as he put it back in his pocket he looked in her questioning eyes.
"It was because you were in it and I couldn't take you out."
She shook her head. "It was well you couldn't. You wouldn't have known what to do with me, and—"
"I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted mother to send you to the finest school in the country, get you beautiful clothes, and give you everything you wanted until I could marry you. Then I was going to pay her back."
"What a silly boy!" She laughed, but she did not look at him. They had turned the corner and were now at the end of the asylum yard, enclosed by its high wooden fence, and as they started to go down the street which would lead into the road to Tree Hill she laid her hand again on his arm.
"Wait a minute." Her foot was against a certain paling, and with her heel she made a hole in the ground. "Do you remember this?"
"Of course I do." Sudden color filled his face. "You used to put your apple there. Every time I came for it my heart nearly jumped in the hole you hid it in, I was so afraid I'd be seen and would have to stop coming. I never ate one of those apples. I couldn't."
"I don't see why you didn't. They were awfully nice apples. I loved them."
"I know you did." He looked straight ahead. "That's why I couldn't eat yours. It used to make me so fighting furious to think—to think things were like they were that every night I'd throw rocks at the brick wall in front of the house for half an hour before I went home. Did you know the first time I ever saw you you were hanging over that wall? It was on a Sunday afternoon and I asked the boy with me what was your name. From that Sunday to the week you went away I never missed going to Sunday-school. Mother couldn't understand it. She didn't know you were compelled to be there. That's the one bit of system I approved of in your institution.
"I don't remember whether it was on the next Sunday after I saw you looking over the wall that I made up my mind I was going to marry you, or the Sunday after, but it was one or the other. That was over ten years ago, and—"
"We ought to be home this minute." She started down the half-dark street. "I'm not going to listen to things like that. Besides, it's after supper-time and Hedwig will be tired of waiting. You walk so slow, John!"
"All right." He joined her and together they turned into the Calverton road, up which at the top of the hill was the home now her own. "If you don't want to hear me I'll wait until later." He smiled in the half-knowing face. "You are tired, aren't you, of my asking when you are going to marry me? I'm perfectly willing to stop, but not until you tell me."
"Do you think I'd marry anybody for years and /years/ and YEARS?" She rolled the "years" out with increasing emphasis on each. "I have just begun to really live here—to start some things; to get used to having a home of my own; to knowing all the people. And then" —she looked in his face, indignant protest in her eyes—"there's Miss Gibbie. Do you think I would go away and leave her like this?"
"It is asking a good deal, I know." Out of his voice had dropped all lightness and in it were quiet purpose and gravity. "And in asking it I may seem selfish, yet I do ask it. For ten years I have had but one thought, one hope, one dream, if you will. It took me through college that I might please you; made me settle down to work at once when through with study; made me hold all my property interests here because I know you loved the place. But not until two years ago did I ask you to marry me."
"What did you ask me for then?" she interrupted, pulling a branch of a mock-orange bush on the side of the road and stripping it of its leaves. "We are such good friends, John, you and I. We have always been, and I don't want you to marry anybody—not even me." She turned to him, but she did not hear his quick, indrawing breath. "I need you too much, John. You always know the things I don't, and you unravel all the knots and straighten all the twisted strings when I get mixed up, but if we got married it wouldn't be the same at all."
"Why wouldn't it?"
"It wouldn't." She shook her head. "I'd be thinking just about you, and that—"
"Wouldn't be bad for me." His steady eyes looked into her unawakened ones. "I should ask nothing more of life."
"But life would ask something more of me. Don't you see it would be just selfishness. Mary mightn't mind"—her forehead puckered—"Mary always was self-indulgent, and if Martha didn't watch her—" She threw the stripped twig away impetuously. "I am not going to get married, I'm not. I don't see why men always tag love in. Just as soon as I get to be real friends with a man and like him just—just as he is, he turns round and spoils it! Why can't they let love alone?"
"Love will not let them alone, I imagine." He looked down on her, frowning slightly, in his eyes sudden pain as of fear for her.
"You are such a child, Mary. Many things you can be serious about. Love alone you treat lightly. I don't understand you."
"And I don't understand love—the kind you mean. And if it is going to make me as cross and huffy and injured as it seems to do some people I don't want to know. I thought love was the happiest thing in life."
"It is. Or the unhappiest."
She turned. The note in his voice was new. Bitterness did not belong to John.
"Are you going to do like that, too, and—be like the rest? Why can't we keep on in the old way, John, and be as we've been so long? We were happy and—"
"Because I can't go on in the old way and be happy. I want you with me. I need you. And you—you need me, Mary. You are so alone here, except for Miss Gibbie, and you know so little of—of so many things in life. When are you going to be my wife?"
"I really—do—not—know!" With each word was a nod. "I am too busy to get married. I don't want a husband yet. He'd be so in the way." She looked at him, eyebrows slightly raised. "I don't think that expression on your face suits you. And if I've got to look at it all through supper it won't make things taste very nice. That is one of the troubles about getting married. The foot of the table could be so unpleasant!"
With a half frown, half sigh, he turned his head away. "I wonder if you will ever grow up? And I wonder, also, if in all your thought for others you will ever think of me?"
He stood aside that she might pass between the vine-covered pillars marking the entrance to Tree Hill, and looking ahead saw Hedwig standing in the porch.
"There is you friend faithful," he said, and his face cleared.
THE FORGOTTEN ENGAGEMENT
Then minutes later they were at the table and again alone. Hedwig had left them, and John, leaning forward, held out his glass.
"More tea and less ice, please," he said, nodding between the candles and over the bowl of lilacs to the girl at the head of the table. "I don't see why women put so much ice in these queer-shaped glasses, anyhow. All ice and no tea makes—"
The glass he had handed her came down with a crash, and Mary Cary's hands were beaten together in sudden excited dismay.
"Oh, my goodness! Guess what we've done—/guess/ what we've done!" she repeated over and over, and now it was her elbows with which the table was thumped. "It is your fault, John! You know I haven't a bit of memory about some things, and you ought to have reminded me! I told you not to let me forget! You know I told you!"
"In the name of thunderation!" John Maxwell put down his fork and pushed back his chair. "Is it hydrophobia or hysterics or brain trouble or—For the love of mercy—"
"What time is it? Do you suppose we have time to go now, or is it too late? Why /did/ you let me forget?" And now, standing up, Mary Cary looked despairingly first at John and then at the clock, at sight of which she sank back limply in her chair.
"Would you mind telling me what crime we've committed?" John got up and filled his glass with tea.
"It's worse than a crime. It's a discourtesy. Anybody might forgive any sort of sin, but nobody forgives rudeness. The council meeting will be nothing to this."
"But what have we done?" John, still standing, put one, two, three lumps of sugar in his tea. "I thought you were having a fit, and convulsions were going to follow. You scared me silly. What's the fuss about?"
She leaned forward dejectedly, elbows on the table, then put her hand over the sugar-bowl. "You can't have four lumps! You know sweet things don't suit you. We were to take tea with Mrs. Deford to-night. You knew we were, and you didn't remind me. Sit down. You haven't a bit of manners."
"Good heavens! Is that what you've been making all this row about? I thought something was the matter." He put down the sugar-tongs, went back to his seat, and took out his watch. "Quarter-past eight. What time were we to be there?"
"Seven o'clock. Everybody has supper at seven o'clock in Yorkburg."
"Too late now." He put his watch back and helped himself to another piece of fried chicken. "Terrible in you to forget such a thing as that! Terrible! But I'm much obliged to you for doing it. I was so afraid you'd remember, I—"
Her hands dropped on the table and she half rose. "Didn't you forget, too? John Maxwell, do you mean—"
"I do. These certainly are good rolls." He broke one open and let the steam escape. "Mrs. McDougal and I have much the same opinion of Mrs. Deford, and what's the use of taking tea with people you don't like? No, I didn't forget, and if you'd remembered and made me go, I'd gone. As you didn't, I took the part of wisdom and opened not my mouth. Your lack of memory is excuse enough for both. Can I have some more tea? These glasses are frauds. I'm not going to have glasses this shape when I get married."
"Indeed you are! I like this shape. I mean when I get married I'm always going to use this kind." She put the glass down. "I'm not going to give you another drop. You didn't forget and you didn't remind me. Don't you know what it is going to mean? To-morrow everybody in town will be told of my rude behavior—and the asylum will be blamed for it. Everything I do wrong socially is attributed to my childhood's lack of opportunities for knowing enough, and everything I do wrong in every other way is due to my later opportunities for knowing too much. Mrs. Deford doesn't like me, anyhow, doesn't approve of me, and this will end us."
"That won't be bad for you. Do you like Mrs. Deford?"
"No, I don't. I don't exactly know why, either. I see very little of her, and she is polite enough. Too polite. She doesn't ring right."
"Then what did you accept her invitation to tea for?" He put out his hand to bring back the plate Hedwig was removing. "What have I done that my supper should be taken from me? I'm not through."
"There some salad is now, sir." And Hedwig looked helplessly first at the head and then at the foot of the table.
"Oh, all right." He waved her away. "I just didn't want to be held up." He put his elbows on the table, and his chin on the back of his hands and looked at the girl in front, whose eyes were fastened indignantly on him. "If you don't like her why did you accept her invitation?"
"If that isn't Adamic! Why did /I/ accept her invitation? I didn't until you had done so first. You said you'd come with pleasure. I thought you meant it. You were almost gushing."
"And you were almost crushing. You were so indifferent I tried to be polite enough for two. When a woman hits you in the face with an invitation you don't expect a man to run, do you? I always accept, but never go if I can manage to stay away. And I generally manage. It is purely automatic, written or spoken, this 'Thank you so much. I will come with pleasure.' Some people would say it in their sleep if waked suddenly."
"Some people mean it."
"I know they do. It takes little to give some people pleasure. Parties and picnics and teas, and even dinners, with the wrong sort of mixtures, are the breath of life to certain types. But I am like you, I don't like Mrs. Deford. She is a friend of mother's and visits her at the blink of an eye. I always have business out of the city when she is at the house. She puts her head on the side when she talks. I can stand almost any kind of woman but that kind. She's got a tongue, too, like Mrs. McDougal's friend, one that tells all it knows and makes up what it doesn't. Why aren't you eating your salad?"
She pushed back her plate and reached for an olive from a dish near the bowl of lilacs. "I don't want it. I don't like asparagus."
"Then what in the name of heaven did you have it for?"
"You like it. Do you mean Mrs. Deford doesn't tell the truth?"
"That's what I mean. And she's got a bad memory. Great drawback to a good liar."
Mary Cary sat suddenly upright, her eyes like big turquoises, staring unbelievingly at him.
"And you were going to take supper with her to-night; going to sit at the table with some one you knew was untruthful? Wanted me to go—"
"My dear Mary—" He turned to Hedwig, who was bringing in a bowl of raspberries. "Will you please get me some tea from the pantry, Hedwig? Your mistress is very stingy with tea. Bring it in a pitcher, will you? I have only a glass thimble to put it in, and it's more convenient to have the pitcher by my own side. What were we talking about? Was I going to sit at the table with some one I knew was untruthful? If I didn't I'd eat alone pretty often. You may be a learned lady in many things, Miss Cary, but you still have many things to learn. One is the infinite variety of liars there are in life and the many assortments in which lies may be labelled.
"My grievance against Mrs. Deford isn't merely that she is an— exaggerater, let us say, but she's such a lover of lucre, clean or not. She can smell money on the way, and the chance of any one's getting it is sufficient cause for her cultivation of friendship. You don't want to know her. It's better to be polite to her, but she's a good kind to let alone." He looked at his watch. "Nine o'clock. Well, something has got to be done. What's the best fairy-tale to make up?"
"I'm not going to make up a fairy-tale." Mary Cary rose from the table, and John Maxwell, pushing her chair aside, stood waiting for her to lead the way to the library. "I'm going to write her a note to-morrow and tell her we forgot. I didn't want to go, but I hate bad manners. She just asked me because—"
"She knew I wouldn't come without you? She's got more sense than I thought. But don't be silly—there are few times in life when an untruth is justified, but many times when you don't have to tell all you know. What's to-night, anyhow?"
"Are you sure she didn't say Saturday night? Sure she said Friday? Now I think of it, seems to me there was something about Saturday. And was it seven or eight o'clock? If we will just say, 'Friday or Saturday?' 'Friday or Saturday?' 'Seven or eight?' 'Seven or eight?' over and over some forty or so times, we won't know what she said, and we can ask her to be certain. I'm going to ask her now. Where's your telephone?"
He rang up before she could protest.
"Hello! that Mrs. Deford?" she heard him say, and as he waved his right hand at her, the left holding the receiver, she dropped into a chair some little distance off and waited for what was to come.
"How are you, Mrs. Deford? This is John Maxwell. Miss Cary and I are having an argument as to your invitation to supper. Is it eight o'clock to-morrow night? She says seven o'clock is the—what? What's that? /To-night?/ Good gracious! You say /to-night/ was the night and you waited an hour? In the name—Well, we must by crazy! We've been talking for the last thirty minutes about our engagement with you, and I wasn't sure of the hour. What's that? I don't wonder you're mad. It is inexcusable, but it was my fault. I'm entirely to blame, and Miss Cary will be distressed to death to hear of our bad behavior. You know how particular she is about things of this kind and never breaks an engagement. You are going to forgive us, aren't you? Put it all on me. It was my fault entirely. When am I going home? Possibly to-morrow, though I'm not sure. Looking for a telegram. What? Oh, sure I am. Will certainly see you before I go. It's awfully good of you to forgive us. Good-night. Oh yes, of course. Good-night."
He hung up the receiver and wiped his hands. "What's the matter with that? A microscope couldn't find a microbe of untruth in it. By this time to-morrow night she'll be all right."
Together they walked out on the porch, and in the damp night air Mary shivered slightly, and John turned back into the hall for half a moment.
"It is too cool out here for you with that thin dress on," he said, putting around her a long warm cape of come soft white material. "Here, take this chair and lean back in it good. Are you tired? Too tired for me to stay? I'll go if you want me to."
His penetrating eyes searched her face with sudden anxiety. It was the thing he was always watching, this look that told of spent energy. There was no fleeting shadow or hint of weariness he was not quick to understand, and to keep his strong arms at his side meant control of which she was as unconscious as a child.
"Of course I'm not tired." She lay back in the chair and put her feet on the stool he had placed for her, drawing the cape over her shoulders, but leaving her throat open. "And smoke, please. You'll be so miserable if you don't. What did she say? Was she mad?"
John took a seat on the top step of the porch, lighted his cigar, leaned back against the post, and laughed in the face opposite his.
"Mad? Hot as a hornet. But she'll cool off. We've been walloped all right, though. Could tell by her voice. What a blessed provision of nature our ears can't catch the things people say about us. I hope our ears will never be Marconi-ized. No two human beings would be on speaking terms if they were, except you and me."
She leaned forward as if something had just occurred to her. "John, have you heard from Mr. Van Orm as to when he can begin the surveying of the streets?"
"Yes, I have, but subjects don't /have/ to be changed with a popgun." He blew out a puff of smoke and watched its soft spirals curl upward. "I had a letter from him this week. He will send down two men the first of July."
"Isn't he coming himself?"
"Is he?" John smoked in silence, looking ahead rather than at the girl beside him, and out of his face went all laughter and over it a frown swept quickly.
"I don't know. I wish he was. The Traffords say he is one of the very best civil engineers in the country, and Yorkburg doesn't at all understand how fortunate it is to have his men resurvey the town and get things in shape for the curbing and paving, and planting of trees. I am so glad he was willing to let them do it. I think it was very nice in him."
No answer. John's eyes were straight ahead. Looking up, she saw his face and suddenly understood. For half a moment she watched him, chin down, eyes up; then she leaned back and her fingers interlaced.
"Everybody says he is such a fine man."
"He is certainly doing splendid work. His name is at the very head of his profession, and he'll be rich some day."
"Do you think"—elbows on knees and chin in the palms of her hands, she leaned toward him—"do you think Mr. Van Orm would be a nice man for a girl to marry?"
"I do not."
"I don't, either. I am so glad you think as I do." She gave a great sigh, and he looked up quickly.
"I mean I would just as soon marry a cash-register. If he hadn't told you himself I wouldn't speak of it, but I'd be crazy in a week if I had to live in the house with a man like that. A straight line is crooked to him and a plummet much more apt to go wrong. I never could understand how such a correct person could have imagined he wanted to—"
"Marry you? He still expects to. He's the most conceited ass in the country. He can't take it in that you won't change your mind. Thinks it's because you are young that you aren't willing to marry yet. Told me so last month."
He looked toward her, then threw his cigar away. "I have thought a great deal about the kind of man you ought to have for a husband, Mary, but I've never seen one good enough and never but one I'd be willing for you to marry."
"Who is that?"
"That was very easy. Serves me right for not thinking about what I was asking." She got up. "I am tired. Please go home. And bring me to-morrow those plans of Hay & Hammond for the high-school, will you? I like theirs best, though of course a committee is to decide." She held out her hand. "Good-night."
He took it. "What terrible manners you have, Mary." Again he looked searchingly in her face, and again put the cape around her, picking it up from the floor, where it had fallen from her shoulders. "Are you very tired? You've done too much to-day. What time must I come to-morrow?"
"I don't know. Telephone about ten and see if I am ready for you." She pressed the button, and, as Hedwig appeared, turned to her.
"Keep the light in the porch until Mr. Maxwell gets to the gate. Good-night, John," and with a nod she turned and left him.
A DAY OF ENTERTAINMENT
Miss Gibbie pressed the bell on her writing-table four times. Four rings were for the cook. They were rarely sounded, and therefore caused not only sudden cessation of work in the kitchen, but instant speculation as to what was wanted and what was wrong. Hearing them now, Tildy reached hastily for her clean apron and hurried up-stairs.
Ordinarily orders for the kitchen came through Miss Jane, the housekeeper, whose mother before her had kept the keys of the Gault house from the day of Mrs. Gault's death to her own. When a direct order was given, or direct questions were asked, by Miss Gibbie, there were reasons for it which usually served for conversational material in the servant's quarters later on.
Tildy stood before her mistress, hands clasped in front under her full blue-and-white check gingham apron, and feet wide apart.
"How you do this mornin', Miss Gibbie?" she asked, curtseying in a manner known only to herself. "I ain't seen how you was for mos' a month, and I certainly is glad to look on you for myself; I certainly is. That lazy nigger Ceely is gittin' so airy and set up, 'count o' bein' parlor-maid, that she thinks it's belowerin' of herself to talk to the kitchen about how things up-stairs is, less'n we have company, and I don't ax her nothin', that I don't. I hope you's feelin' as peart as a young duck after a good rain, this mornin'. You look like it. Ain't never seen anybody wear better than you do, that I ain't!" And Tildy looked admiringly at the lady before her.
"And there never was anybody who could waste words like you do. If you don't stop eating all that sweet stuff they tell me you live on you'll be dead before you're ready for judgment, and too fat to get through gates of any kind. I want to know about the things for lunch. Is your part all right?"
"Yes, ma'am! And the only things fittin' to eat, cordin' to my thinkin', is what's been made right here. All that truck what's come from Washington is just slops, and, if you mark me, you'll be dead if it's et. I got too much respect for my insides to put things in me what looks like them things Miss Jane's been unwrappin' all the mornin'. And I tell you right now, Miss Gibbie, you better not be puttin' of 'em in you. They's flauntin' plum in the face of Providence. My stomach—"
"Is not to have a taste. And mine can take care of itself. I sent for you to tell you I want vegetable soup for dinner to-night, thick and greasy. The fish must be cold and no sauce, the goose half done, ham raw, vegetables unseasoned, rice pudding with no sugar, bread burnt, and coffee weak as water. If you see that this is done I will give you five dollars to-morrow. If anything is fit to eat you don't get a cent."
"Jehosaphat hisself!" Tildy's hands went up under the apron and the latter fell backward over her head. For a moment she rocked, then threw the apron off her face and dropped in a chair opposite Miss Gibbie, head protruding terrapin-wise, and eyes bulging.
"Now what in the name of—"
Miss Gibbie nodded toward her. "Did you understand what I said?"
"Yes, ma'am, I understand. That is, I heared it." Tildy's head was shaken from side to side. "But 'tain't Gault doin's to put high-falutin', Frenchified, crocheted-rosette food before some folks what ain't used to it, and field-hand grub before them what's the airiest in town. Ain't nothin' like that ever been done in this house, what's been known for its feed for fifty years, and I don't believe your pa would like it, that I don't. But—"
"A man was once hung for not minding his business, Tildy. Ever hear of him? Now you go right straight along back to the kitchen and see that what I want done is done. For the lunch you must do your best. Things are to be as good at that as they are bad for dinner to-night. Are you sure you understand?"
"Yes'm. I hear you. And that five dollars—"
Miss Gibbie waved her out. "Depends entirely on yourself. Not a penny unless I am satisfied. You understand that, too, don't you?"
"I does that." Tildy's chuckle was heard down the hall, and again Miss Gibbie pressed the bell on the table. Three rings were sounded this time, and Jackson, hearing his signal, hurried to her sitting-room, and at the open door stood waiting until she was ready to speak.
"At lunch to-day," she said, not looking up from the desk at which she was writing, "you had better have both dry and sweet wine. Sherry, too, if any one wishes it. I don't think the ladies take wine for lunch, and I don't know the kind they care for. But have it out and begin with Sauterne."
Jackson bowed. "Yes'm," he said, and waited. Miss Gibbie's writing continued, and after a moment Jackson put his hand to his mouth and coughed.
"To-night," he said, "just champagne or—"
"Just nothing. Not a drop of anything. If anybody wants water they can have it, but not even water out of a bottle."
"Nothin' in the gent'men's room up-stairs?" Jackson stopped and stepped backward into the hall Miss Gibbie was looking at him.
"You can go, Jackson. Nothing to drink anywhere, and no cigars. Wait a minute! For every mistake you make to-night there is fifty cents, but there mustn't be more than ten. No discourtesy of course —just blunders. Am I understood?"
Jackson bowed again. "Yes'm, you is understood." And as he went softly down the steps he wiped his forehead and twisted his handkerchief into double and single knots in an effort to unravel a puzzle whose purpose was beyond guessing.
Out on the lawn as he cut and trimmed bush after bush of old-fashioned flowers, wheeling his barrow from place to place, and gathering up the clipped twigs and branches, he talked slowly to himself, and presently his brow cleared and the weight of responsibility lifted.
"'Tain't my doin's," he said presently. "And 'tain't my business to tell other people how cracky some of their doin's look to onlookers. But it beat me that this heah kind o' dinner is a goin' to be give white folks in Mars Judge Gault's house. Ain't never seen such eatin's anywhere as ladies and gent'men have sot down to in his day, and to think what Miss Gibbie is agoin' to do to-night is enough to make him grunt in glory. That 'tis. I often wonder how he gits along, anyhow, without his juleps.
"But there's a reason for what she's a doin'." He looked critically at the branch of pomegranates in his hand, then let it fly back to its place near the top of the bush. "You can bet your best shoe-strings there's a reason, but in all Gord's world there ain't nobody but her would act on it. I wonder if Miss Mary Cary knows about it? She ain't agoin' to be here, and I bet Miss Gibbie ain't told her what's in her mind. She sho' do love her, though, Miss Gibbie do. But Miss Gibbie's bound to let out every now and then and be Miss Gibbie-ish, and you mark me if this heah doin's to-day ain't a-lettin' out."
Through the open window he heard two rings of a bell—the housekeeper's signal—and, with a glance upward and a soft chuckle, he carted his wheelbarrow behind the stables, then went into the house to make ready for lunch.
In her room Miss Gibbie pushed pen and paper aside. "Well, Jane," she said, "is everything ready?"
"Everything. You are coming down to see the table before the ladies come, aren't you? I never saw anything so beau-ti-ful in all my life!"
"Oh yes you have. What did I send you to New York for, make you go to the best hotels and have you look into table arrangements and menus and things of that kind if you are to come back here and think a Yorkburg table is the most /beau-ti-ful/ you ever saw?" She mimicked Jane's emphasis of beautiful, then got up and stretched out her arms. "I'm getting as stiff as a stick. Well, come on. Let's go down and see this French feast. Yorkburg hasn't had anything new to talk about since the council meeting. Some unknown dishes will help them out for a day or two. If anybody stays later than three o'clock set the house on fire—do anything to make them go home. There must be time to rest before the next invasion. You see that I get it!"
She walked slowly down the steps into the dining-room, and as she entered it she stopped in surprise, then went closer to the table. For a moment she stood with her hands upon it, then walked around, viewing it from one side and then the other, and as she finished her survey she looked up.
"Mary Cary did this, I suppose?"
"Yes'm, she did. She wouldn't let me tell you she was down here. Said she knew I had so much to do, she just ran in to help fix the table. Did you ever see anything as lovely as that basket of lilies of the valley and mignonette? They look like they're nodding and peeping at you, and these little vases of them in between the candlesticks are just to fill in, she says. She brought her candle-shades because she didn't think you had any to go with lilies of the valley and mignonette. These came from Paris and were very cheap, she says; but ain't they the prettiest things! These mats are the finest Cluny she's ever seen, she told me. I don't see how she can remember so many different kinds of lace. I hope I won't forget to close the shutters and light the candles. She didn't want to put the candlesticks on the table; said they were for to-night, and she thought it was nicer to have daylight and air than lighted candles and dimness. But I read in a fashion magazine that candles were always used in high society these days, though not of course where people do natural things, and I begged her to let them stay on. She did, but she said you must decide."
"Shut up, Jane! You're such a fool! Your tongue and Mrs. McDougal's, as she says, are two of a pair, and, once started, never stop. I'll do some things for some people, but I perspire for nobody. This is the latest spring and the hottest May I've ever known, and if those shutters were closed there'd be trouble. The second generation uses candles in the daytime at a sitting-down lunch. This house is over a hundred years old. Take them off!"
She waved her hand toward the table, then looked around the large high-ceilinged room, with its wainscoting of mahogany, its massive old-fashioned furniture, its portraits of her great and great-great- grand-parents on the walls, the mirror over the mantel, the heavy red velvet hangings over the curtains at the long windows, the old-patterned silver on the sideboard, the glass and china in the presses, and again she waved her hand. This time with a wide, inclusive sweep.
"Next week this room must be put in its summer clothes. Red in warm weather has an enraging quality that is unendurable." She turned toward the door. "You've done very well, Jane. I want lunch promptly, and, remember, things to-night must be as plain as they are pretty this morning. Did everything come all right?"
"Everything. Mickleton always sends beautiful things. I know the ladies never ate anything like them."
But Miss Gibbie did not hear. Again in her room she rang once more. This time but once the bell was pressed, and almost instantly her maid was at her side.
At her dressing-table Miss Gibbie turned. "Get out that light-gray satin gown with the rose-point lace in the sleeves," she said, "and the stockings and slippers to match it. To-night I want that old black silk, the oldest one. When the ladies come tell Celia to show them up-stairs in the front room if they wish to come up. You will be up there. And keep my door closed. To-night do the same thing, only see that my door is locked to-night. If it isn't, Puss Jenkins will lose her way in there trying to find it. What time is it?"
"Quarter to twelve."
"I'll be down-stairs at one-twenty. Lunch is at one-thirty. Some will get here by one o'clock. Show them the drawing-room if there are signs of wandering round the house. You can go!"
Emmeline closed the door noiselessly, and Miss Gibbie, left alone, put down the pearl breast-pin she had been holding and took her seat in the chintz-covered chair, with its gay peacocks and poppies, and put her feet on the footstool in front. In the mirror over the mantel she nodded at herself.
"I wonder what makes you such a contrarious person, Gibbie Gault? Wonder why you will do things that make people say mean things about you? But that's giving people pleasure. Some people would rather hear something mean about other people, especially if they're prosperous, than listen to the greatest opera ever sung. Not all people, but even good people, slow at everything else, are quick to believe ugly things of others. Isn't it a pity there can't be a little more love and charity in this world, a little more confidence and trust?"
She unfastened the belt at her waist and threw it on the table. "Mary says there's more of it than I know, and maybe there is—maybe there is! But won't Benny Brickhouse be raging when he leaves here to-night! He's been smacking his lips and patting his stomach all day over the thought of a Gault dinner. I know he has. Terrapin and canvas-backs, champagne, and Nesselrode pudding are all a jumble in his mind this minute. And to give him vegetable soup and ham and cabbage and half-cooked goose!" She beat the arm of her chair and screwed her eyes tight in anticipation of his disappointment, then again nodded to the face in the mirror.
"Next time, Mr. Benjamin Brickhouse, you will probably be more careful how you talk of ladies. Miss Gibbie Gault is a stingy old cat, is she? She's too free in her speech for you, talks too plainly, is a dangerous old woman with advanced views, is she? And she oughtn't to have let a young girl like Mary Cary go before a lot of men and talk as she talked last Monday night in the council chamber, ought she? But she knows how to give a good dinner all right. You'll give her credit for that. The trouble with people who make remarks about cats is they forget cats have claws, and the trouble with Mr. Benjamin Brickhouse is he made his remarks to Puss Jenkins. Percolator Puss can't keep from telling her own age, and a woman who does that who's still hoping isn't responsible for the words of her mouth.
"And Snobby Deford will be here, too. She has heard I entertained lords and ladies in London and is anxious to see how I do it. I'll show her how I don't. I'm an old crank who tries to ride rough-shod over everybody, she says, and I spend much too much money on my table; but if I do it she don't mind eating my good things. Don't she? Well, she'll get a chance to-night. In Miss Patty Moore's millinery store she strew these posies at me, and Annie Steele caught them. Assenting Annie didn't throw any back, as Annie is merely as assenter, but neither of the honorable ladies who were coming to break my bread knew that Susie McDougal's ears were hearing ears. Susie says pompous-class people often act as if plainer-class ones weren't made of flesh and blood.
"And Mrs. Deford thinks, with Mr. Brickhouse, that there's to be champagne to-night. She is fond of cocktails and champagne—things I prefer women not to care for—but she will get neither here. A mistake never escapes her eagle eye, and the use of the wrong knife or fork is a shuddering crime. If Jackson would drop one or the other down the back of that very low-neck dress she wears so much I'd give him an extra dollar. I don't suppose I ought to mention it but"—she took up a piece of paper on the table at her side and examined it carefully—"if it could be arranged—" She waved the paper in the air. "Now that is as good and wholesome a bunch of women as are on earth! And they aren't stupid, either. Pity so many good people are dull!"
Again she examined the paper, reading the names aloud: "Mrs. Corbin, Mrs. Moon, Mrs. Tate—Buzzie isn't the brainiest person in the world, but one of the funniest—Mrs. Tazewell, Mrs. Burnham—I like that young woman, she's got sense—Miss Matoaca Brockenborough, Miss Mittie Muncaster, and Miss Amelia Taylor. I'm the fourth spinster. For a place the size of Yorkburg that's an excellent group of women, though they don't speak French or wear Parisian clothes. Mittie Muncaster says she makes all of hers without a pattern, and they look it, but, as women go, they're above the average."
She took up another slip of paper and glanced over it: "Mr. and Mrs. Porter, Mr. and Mrs. Steele, Mr. James and Miss Puss Jenkins, Mr. Brickhouse and Mrs. Deford, Judge Lynn and myself. They haven't left a leg for Mary Cary to stand on since her talk before the council, and yet, on the whole, I haven't heard as much about it as I expected. That little piece of information concerning her English grand-father was efficacious. That her father was an unknown actor has long been a source of satisfaction to certain Yorkburgers, and to learn that his blood was not only Bohemian but blue, and worse still, distinguished, was hard on them.
"Yes"—she tapped the table with the tips of her fingers—"I was sorry it was best to mention Mary's English relations, but it was. As long as people are weighed and measured according to what they come from rather than what they are it is at times necessary to state a few facts of family history. Stock rises or falls according to reports. Some mouths have to be treated and the sort of salve one uses depends upon the sores. Not yet can a person be taken at face value. Ancestor-worship isn't all Chinese. An ill-bred gentleman-born is still welcomed where an ill-born well-bred man is not invited. Queer place, this little planet in which we swing through space, Gibbie Gault, and nothing in it queerer than you. A million or two years from now we may see clearly, approach sense and civilization, and in the mean time you get up and dress yourself so as to be ready for your guests!"
She held out her hand. "How do you do? Where is Mary this afternoon? Sit down and stop staring at me like that. I'm no Chinese idol. If I choose to put on a mandarin coat and sit on my front porch, whose business is it but mine!"
"Nobody's, madam!" John Maxwell bent over and shook Miss Gibbie's hand vigorously. "You are indeed no Chinese idol. But in such gorgeousness you might be twin sister to that fearless lady of long finger-nails and no soul, the Do-wagger Empress of China, as Mrs. McDougal called her. She was a woman of might and a born boss. I understand you are letting the people of this town know you are living here again. I've come to hear about the parties."
He drew a chair close to Miss Gibbie's, and took from her lap the turkey-wing fan. "That's a fine coat you've got on. Did you wear that yesterday?"
"I did not. Too hot. And then Annie Steele has such poppy eyes they might have fallen in her soup-plate had I put in on, and her husband can't stand any more expense from Annie. She's the kind of wife who cries for what it wants, and he's the kind of husband who gives in to tears. But they're happy. Neither one has any sense. Where's Mary?"
"I don't know. Seeing something about a party she is going to give the orphan-asylum children on her birthday, I believe. Some time off yet, but she's always ahead of time. I went by Mrs. Moon's this morning, and several of the lunchers came in and told of the war-whoops of the diners. Best show I've been to in years. From their reports I thought I'd better come up and see if there were any scraps of you left."
"I'm all here." Miss Gibbie took the fan from his hand and began to use it; then threw back her head and laughed until the keen gray eyes were full of tears. "Wasn't it mean of me? Wasn't it mean to invite people to your house and not have for them one single thing worth eating, especially when they had come for the sole purpose of enjoying a good dinner, and finding out whether or not I followed the traditions of my fathers? What does Mary think about it?"
John bent over, hands clasped loosely between his knees. "Pretty rough. She is particular about who she invites to her house, but, having invited them, she—"
"Treats them properly. Very correct. Mary is young and life is before her. I am old and going to do as I choose."
"But why do you ask people of that kind to your house? If you don't admire them—"
"What nonsense!" Miss Gibbie's chin tilted and she looked at John with an eye at an angle that only Miss Gibbie could attain. "When one gives formal dinner-parties people are usually invited for a purpose not pleasure. I have known my guests of last night for many years. 'Tis true I've seen little of them for the past twenty, but I'm back here to live, and it was necessary they should understand certain things they didn't seem to be taking in. They're a bunch of bulldozers and imagine others are in awe of them—socially, I mean. In all their heads together there aren't brains enough to make anything but trouble, but empty heads and idle hands are dangerous, and kings can be killed by cats. Don't you see this town is dividing itself into factions? Already one element is arraying itself against the other, and Mary Cary is the cause of it. It was time to let the opposing element understand I understood the situation; also that I had heard certain remarks it had pleased them to make; also, again, that I am not as extravagant as they had been told. A good, plain table is what I keep—only last night it wasn't good. You should have seen it!"
Miss Gibbie leaned back in her chair and fanned with wide, deliberate strokes. "I fixed the flowers. They were sunflowers fringed with honeysuckle in a blue glass pitcher—colonial colors as befitted my ancestried guests. The pitcher was Tildy's. My dear"—she tapped John's knee with the tip of her fan—"don't bother about them. You can't make some people mad. As long as they think I have money they won't cut my acquaintance. They'll abuse me, yes. Everybody is abused who can't be used; but they'll come to the next party if it's given to a celebrity and there's the promise of champagne. Of course last night I couldn't say all the things I wanted to say; that's the disadvantage of being a hostess, but I think they understand Mary Cary is a friend of mine. Mary doesn't approve of my methods. Sorry, but methods depend upon the kind of people with whom you have to deal. Love is lost on some natures, and certain individuals use weapons she doesn't touch. Anybody can stab in the back; it takes an honest person to fight fair, and a strictly honest person is as rare as one with good manners. All Mrs. Deford wants is the chance to stab. But what about the lunch? Was that abused, too?"
"Not on your life! Didn't you say you had some cigars around here? I've used all of mine and can't get your kind in town." He got up and started indoors. "As I order the kind you keep for company, I don't mind smoking them. May I have one?"
She waved her fan. "In the library behind the Brittanica. Keep them there to save Jackson from the sin of smoking them. Best darky on earth, but helping himself isn't stealing, of course. What did they say about the lunch?"
John lighted his cigar and took a good whiff. "You're a sensible woman, Miss Gibbie, to let a fellow smoke a thing like that. It begets love and charity. What did they say about the lunch? Let me see: Most beautiful thing ever seen in Yorkburg, most delicious things to eat, most of them never tasted or heard of before; perfect service, exquisite lace table-cloth or lace something, patriarchal silver, ancestral china, French food, table a picture, you another. Said you looked like a duchess in that old-fashioned gray satin gown. Mrs. Tate declared anybody could tell you were a lady the minute they saw your feet, even if they didn't know who you were, but Mrs. Burnham thought it was your hands that gave you away. Your hands are rather remarkable."