If the days were hard, the nights were torture. Even that poor, tormenting, futile hope that left her sick and shaken was better than hopelessness. There were no stars in the darkness that brooded over her heart after the sun went down. As she lay with clenched hands, counting the ten thousand woolly sheep whose agility in overleaping an obstructive wall is for some mysterious reason assumed to be soporific in its influence, she was conscious of a sort of terror of the thoughts lurking in ambush, ready to spring out upon her if she were off her guard for an instant. It was useless to tell herself that she was no poorer than before, that nothing had changed. In her heart she knew better. She had worked on through the gray years, facing a colorless future, without a word from her one-time lover, to tell her that he lived or ever thought of her, and yet a dream, too vague and illusory to be named hope, had been her stay and solace. Now as she stared wide-eyed into the dark, she asked herself what was left.
It was no wonder that the gray crepe grew apace. For the first time in her well-disciplined life, Persis gave up the struggle with refractory nerves, left her bed night after night and sewed till daybreak. For whatever might fail, her work was left, that grim consoler, who, masking benignity by a scowl, has kept ten million hearts from breaking.
The gown was finished at daybreak, one bright October morning, and that evening Persis tried it on, in the apathetic mood that mercifully relieves tense feelings when the limit of endurance has been reached. It was late, according to Clematis standards. For almost twenty-four hours that dreadful, unbeaten hopefulness would be quiescent. Thomas Hardin had come and gone. Joel was in bed. Persis Dale put on her new gray gown and scrutinized herself in the mirror. She had lost interest in her personal appearance, but her professional instinct told her that the dress was a success.
"It would be real becoming if my hair wasn't strained back so. A dress can't do much for you when you look like a skinned rabbit, all on account of your hair." She recalled the coiffure in which Annabel Sinclair had presented herself the previous day, and loosening the coil of her hair, as glossy and abundant as ever, she imitated with a skill which surprised herself, Annabel's version of the latest mode. She was studying the effect when some one knocked.
It was quarter of nine. It occurred to Persis that some one of the neighbors must be ill. There seemed no other explanation for such a summons at that hour. She crossed the room hurriedly and opened the door.
A man stood outside, and after a moment of hesitation he entered, putting out his hand.
"Good evening, Miss Dale. I hope you haven't forgotten me."
Persis recalled afterward with the amazement self-discovery so frequently entails, that the one thought for which her mind had room was an intense thankfulness that she had arrayed herself in the gray dress. That emotion was infinitely removed from vanity. The new gown had become an armor. Except for its aid she would have been at too great a disadvantage in this encounter.
The hand she extended was quite steady. "Of course I haven't forgotten you, Justin. Won't you sit down?"
Justin pulled up a chair for her before seating himself. He had an impulse to gain time, the result of being taken by surprise. This was not quite the Persis he had expected to find. In recalling that early affair of the heart with the indulgent smile its absurdity demanded, Justin's imagination had drawn an unflattering sketch of the object of his boyish devotion. But his first glance told him that Persis Dale was still a good-looking woman, with an unmistakable dignity of manner, and, surprising as it seemed, some commendable ideas as to dress. His eyes dwelt on her with approval. He really wished he had called earlier.
They talked for a little of the most obvious matters as old friends will, meeting after many years. He was less at ease than she, and asked her permission to smoke, finding the manipulation of his cigarette a help in concealing if not overcoming his unwonted sense of embarrassment. The talk turned presently to common acquaintances, dangerous ground, he realized, though he asked himself what other interest they had in common. Persis was able to give him considerable information concerning friends, some of whose very names he had forgotten. She left him to direct the conversation as he would. He reflected that she was more quiet than he would have expected to find her, more reserved, but by no means a woman to laugh at. That had been his mistake.
He was lighting his second cigarette when he caught sight of the plush-framed photograph. He stared till his match went out, and rising, crossed the room. As he scrutinized the likeness of his callow self, he gave way to laughter, his first spontaneous expression of feeling since he entered the room.
"Upon my word, Persis," he cried gaily, using her name for the first time and seemingly unconscious that he had done so. "It's been extremely charitable of you to give this jay house-room for so long." He scratched another match, lit his cigarette and laughed again. "I wonder if I could have been such an unconscionable donkey as I looked."
Persis moved slightly in her chair, but failed to reassure him on that point.
"We really wore our hair in that style, didn't we?" he continued humorously. "And yet the thunderbolts spared us. And that classy thing in ties! By jove! Persis, you'll have to make me a present of this for old times' sake. This pretty picture of smiling innocence gets on my nerves. I shall feel easier when it has been consigned to the flames."
From the armchair Persis spoke. Her voice was low and distinct.
"Let that picture alone."
The accent of authority was unmistakable. Justin Ware turned, and stood transfixed by what he saw. Persis' cheeks were crimson, her eyes ablaze. His astonishment over the discovery that she was angry, blended with surprised admiration. Persis in a fury was almost a handsome woman.
He went back to his chair, a trifle uncertain as to the next move. He had made a study of women, too, but this country dressmaker baffled him for the moment. Her heated defense of his picture would have suggested a conclusion flattering to his vanity had it not been for the incongruous fact that seemingly her anger was directed against himself. There was a piquant flavor to the situation gratifying to his epicure's taste.
"It's good of you to stand up for the fellow, Persis. You always were kind-hearted, I remember. But really isn't this stretching charity too far? Such a Rube is meant to be laughed at. There's nothing else to do with him. And to think that he and I were one only—let's see, how many years has it been?"
"We won't talk about that picture any more."
He regarded her humorously through the haze of smoke. "And why not?"
"He's a friend of mine. I don't care to have him laughed at!"
"But you forget my relation to the gentleman, my dear Persis. If any one should be sensitive, it surely is I."
"You've nothing to do with him," Persis declared, biting off her words in peppery mouthfuls. "You're as much of a stranger to him as you are to me. We'll just let him alone. There's things enough to talk about, I should hope, without making fun of that poor boy."
"Suppose I give you one of my late photographs in exchange for the cherub with the curly locks."
"I don't want it."
Justin was a trifle taken aback. He had hardly made the offer before he had accused himself of indiscretion. To be sure Persis was taking a very proper attitude. She showed no inclination to presume on the sentimental phase of their former acquaintance. She had said distinctly that they were strangers. And yet it was as well to be guarded. The bluntness of her retort gave him an almost rueful conviction of the needlessness of caution.
The flame of Persis' anger had burned itself out almost immediately, but the red embers still glowed in her eyes, and her cheeks were hot. She changed the subject with no pretense at finesse: "You seen Minerva Leveridge yet?"
"I don't seem to recall any one of that name."
"She was Minerva Bacon, and she married Joe Leveridge, old Doctor Whitely's nephew. You must remember him. Quiet sort of boy with a cast in his eye."
"Oh, yes. I remember the fellow now. His name was Leveridge, was it?"
"Yes. He died six or seven years ago. He left Minerva comf'tably fixed, judging from the mourning she wore. When a widow's crepe veil reaches to her heels it's pretty sure her husband left her some life insurance. You been to the Sinclairs' yet?"
"Why, yes." Justin looked a little guilty. As a matter of fact he had found time to drop in to see Annabel more than once. "I met Mrs. Sinclair on the street near the hotel one afternoon, and she asked me to call."
"That's why she was in such a hurry for the net," thought Persis. Aloud she said: "Her Diantha is an awfully pretty girl, as much of a belle as ever her mother was."
"No? I haven't happened to see the girl, but it's hard to think of Mrs. Sinclair as the mother of a grown daughter."
Ware realized with amazement that he would not again be allowed to broach the subject of the photograph. He had that fondness for playing with fire which so frequently survives in the adults of both sexes, and he gave the conversation a semi-sentimental twist more than once, only to be brought back sharply to practicalities by the lady in gray. There was no doubt that Persis meant to be mistress of the situation.
"I shall see you very soon again," he said, as he shook hands for good night. He would probably have said this in any case, such consolatory assurances being instinctive with him, but for a wonder he meant it. He had looked forward to this meeting with reluctance and had only made the call because even his complacent conscience had assured him that to omit it would be inexcusable. And virtue had been unexpectedly rewarded. He had enjoyed himself. He wanted to call again.
"Good night," said Persis, and neglected to assure him of her pleasure in the anticipation of his speedy return. She withdrew her hand. "Good night," she repeated. And if she recalled their last parting in that very room, she was not sure whether the contrast was a ground for laughter or for tears.
'TWIXT THE CUP AND THE LIP
The night following Justin Ware's visit, Persis slept as soundly as a tired child. It was not that the interview had relieved her apprehensions nor in any way set her mind at rest, but after prolonged uncertainty, even the realization of one's worst forebodings may come as a relief. She slept late and rose more weary than when she went to bed. Yet in spite of that numbing sense of lassitude which clung like weights to her limbs, and for all her unaccustomed aversion to the thought of work, she knew her battle was won. Never again would she watch and listen and strangle at their birth, poor futile prayers for some assurance that a man's heart was still hers.
As if some evil spell had been broken, she recalled with pangs of self-reproach various duties she had neglected, in her unwonted self-absorption. She had not even kept her promise to Doctor Ballard to see his obdurate patient. Persis realized how completely she had regained her poise when she chuckled over the plan which had suggested itself as she listened to Doctor Ballard's diagnosis of Mrs. Richards' ailment.
"I'm so kind of headachy and restless that my sewing's bound to be a fizzle. I'll run in to see Charlotte this afternoon. It's a shame I haven't been there before. Don't know what the doctor'll think of me."
Considering that she was merely planning a little friendly call on a sick neighbor, Persis made her toilet with surprising care. In putting up her hair she again selected Annabel Sinclair as a model. She donned the gray crepe, a startling innovation, for in Clematis to wear a new dress on week-days, for any occasion less important than a wedding or a funeral, argued constitutional extravagance. As a final step in her preparation she rubbed her cheeks violently with a rough crash towel, the resulting brilliant complexion successfully obliterating all traces of weariness, the flotsam and jetsam of anxious days and haunted nights. And then with a jauntiness remarkable under the circumstances, Persis departed, resolved by fair means or foul to distract the thoughts of Mrs. Nelson Richards from the occupancy of a reserved apartment in the Heavenly mansions.
Charlotte Richards had always been a pretty woman of that ethereal type of beauty that is not noticeably diminished by fragility. Persis, looking her over, estimated that the thirty pounds the doctor credited her with losing had been appreciably increased since he made his appeal for aid. At the same time, the dressmaker admitted with grudging admiration the effectiveness of the picture the invalid presented as she lay back in her rocking-chair, bright-colored pillows heaped about her, a slender figure in black, the wide blue eyes matched by the blue veins in the temples, and with violet shadows below. In the bright, prosaic little sitting-room she looked as out of place as a Raphael's cherub in a kindergarten, a creature unmistakably belonging to another sphere.
"Dear Persis," breathed Mrs. Richards, and extended a transparent hand. "You'll forgive my not getting up," she added gently.
"Don't mention it." Persis' ringing tones had a heartiness which seemed plebeian contrasted with Mrs. Richards' subdued murmurs. "You look the picture of comfort in that big chair. I'd hate to have you disturb yourself."
The faintest imaginable shadow crossed the other's face.
"I have very little strength, Persis. Day by day I am growing weaker. But don't think I am complaining. I am quite happy as I lie here picturing the glories of the New Jerusalem."
"I've found that rare beef was the best thing in the world for that kind of thoughts," responded Persis. "I buy the round and scrape it. You can take it raw if it's ice-cold, but I like it best made into a ball and just scorched on both sides, enough to heat it through."
The invalid's smile was distinctly superior.
"You are trying to encourage me, Persis, but you have nursed too many of the sick not to see that I'm very near the river. Earthly remedies are of no avail," declared Mrs. Richards, who had the constitutional incapacity of numberless people to speak of death and the hereafter, and yet remain simple and unaffected. "But I do not find the thought depressing. Far from it. My heart is light when I think of the joys that await me."
"I didn't know but on your husband's account you'd feel like making an effort."
Mrs. Richards sighed.
"Poor Nelson! Yes, my heart bleeds when I think of Nelson left in his loneliness. But it won't be for long. He will soon follow me."
Persis elevated her brows.
"Well, no, Charlotte. Don't deceive yourself about that. Nelson will feel your going, and for a time he'll take on something terrible. But he won't die of it. He comes of good long-lived stock, Nelson does, and though he's no boy, he's likely got twenty-five or thirty years ahead of him. And that brings me around to what was in my mind when I came over."
She relapsed into silence, studying a figure in the carpet, and apparently not quite certain how to continue. "Well?" questioned Mrs. Richards, and for the first time during the interview there was a querulous note in her voice.
"It's about Nelson's future. Of course, as far as you're concerned, there's no reason to worry. There's some folks that are naturally constituted to enjoy Heaven, and there's others who seem to belong to this earth. Nelson's one sort and you're another." This time her pause was protracted.
"Well?" Mrs. Richards prompted feverishly. "Go on."
"I really don't know, Charlotte. Maybe I've been a little mite impulsive speaking out this way. Perhaps I'd better not say anything more."
"Anything more? You haven't said anything yet, as far as I can see," returned Mrs. Richards tartly. "Don't be mysterious, Persis."
"Well, for some days now, I've been deliberating opening up my mind to you. They do say that folks that are kind of on the border-line between the two worlds, can see things plainer than other people. But I won't say another word unless I get your solemn promise that what I tell you don't go any further."
"Of course I shall respect your confidence, Persis." Mrs. Richards swallowed impatiently. "I always tell Nelson everything, but except for him—"
"But Nelson's the very last one I want to hear this. Never mind, Charlotte. I see it was a crazy idea, my coming over this afternoon. I don't know what got into me. We won't talk about it any more. Did those dahlias grow in your garden, Charlotte? They're the finest I've seen this year."
"Persis Dale, you certainly can be an aggravating woman when you try. What about Nelson?"
"Do you promise you'll never breathe a word to any soul alive, least of all to Nelson himself?"
Mrs. Richards hesitated. But curiosity was not altogether foreign to her saintly nature, and Persis' reluctance to impart the confidence naturally increased her desire to hear it. "I promise," she agreed, with an effort to keep the eagerness out of her voice.
"Well, then, this is what I was coming at. Of course I see that as you lie here you're bound to be thinking about Nelson, and worrying over what's going to become of him while you're enjoying yourself on the other side."
"That is all arranged," Mrs. Richards interrupted. "His sister Hetty is coming to keep house for him."
"Hetty's no kind of companion for Nelson. He's a man who likes cheerful company, and Hetty's what I call a natural widow. You know some folks are born that way. They kind of hang crepe on everything they touch. Hetty drizzles tears as easy as a sponge."
"Well, really, Persis, as long as Nelson and I are satisfied with the arrangement I don't know as you have any call to trouble yourself."
Persis met the invalid's irritated protest with an air of disarming frankness.
"Of course you wouldn't see, and that's just what I'm coming at. I suppose Nelson has told you that he and I had a little boy and girl affair when we was both of us too young to know our own minds."
Mrs. Richards' incredulous gasp indicated with sufficient clearness that she had not been favored with her husband's confidence regarding that chapter in his past.
"You and Nelson?"
"Yes. Now, I don't mean, Charlotte, that we was ever engaged. Mother thought I was too young to have steady company, and Nelson was just a boy, and he took her snubbings to heart more'n he would have done if he'd been older."
"He's always given me to understand," said the wife with dignity, "that I was the only woman he ever cared for."
"I guess they generally say that, don't they, Charlotte? It's kind of like the 'honor and obey' in the marriage service. Women say it when they know they can't honor and they won't obey. It's just a form. But as far as Nelson goes," explained Persis thoughtfully, "I dare say he could fix that up with his conscience without any trouble, seeing our sweethearting never got beyond a few kisses at the gate. He did give me a ring once, but 'twas nothing but carnelian. Land! Who'd think of that twice?"
Mrs. Richards, breathing hard, had no comment to offer on that delicate point.
"Now the case is just this." Persis spoke briskly. "After you're dead and gone, Nelson's bound to marry again. A widower just can't help himself. What with all the women scheming to catch him, he's got about as much chance as a potato-bug turned loose in a chicken-yard. Queer thing, the difference between bachelors and widowers," mused Persis, straying temporarily into generalizations. "By the time a bachelor's as old as Nelson, the women have kind of given up on him. But if a man's been married once it proves that he's got a soft spot somewhere, and all that's needed is for them to keep on trying till they find it. But as I was saying. Charlotte, I thought that it might ease your mind to know that he ain't going to be allowed to throw himself away. While I don't want to seem boastful about it, I don't mind saying to you that there's not another woman in the town who would stand any show alongside me, if Nelson was free to pick and choose. And I'll give you my solemn promise that he shan't put anybody in your place that you'd be ashamed to acknowledge for your husband's second wife."
Forgetting her pitiful lack of strength, Mrs. Richards sat erect, her hollow cheeks aflame.
"Persis Dale, have you got the nerve to sit there and tell me to my face that you're going to set your cap for my husband after I'm dead?"
"Now lie down, Charlotte, till I explain." Persis' soothing tone suggested readiness to excuse the natural peevishness of an invalid. "You mustn't go to exciting yourself, and hastening the end."
Mrs. Richards promptly resumed her recumbent position.
"I've talked plain to you, Charlotte," Persis said, "because you're not of the same clay as most women. You've always been wrapped up in celestial things since you was a girl. But a woman can't live with a man as long as you've lived with Nelson and not feel responsible for him. And I've told you this so there won't be a single shadow on your mind these last days. I'll look out for Nelson." She spoke with the air of one accepting a sacred trust.
"I never heard of such a thing," breathed Mrs. Richards from the pillows.
"Of course while you were living, Charlotte," Persis continued, as if the release so cheerfully anticipated by the invalid had already been consummated, "I never should have allowed myself to think of Nelson twice. But I own I've blamed my mother more than once for sending him about his business the way she did. Nelson is a man in a thousand, steady and affectionate and a careful provider. If he's been so good to you, Charlotte, just think what the second wife has reason to expect!"
In muffled tones Mrs. Richards confided to the pillow that never in all her life—and seemed unable to proceed further.
"Well, I must be going." Suiting the action to the words, Persis rose. "Send for me any time, Charlotte. Ever since I heard about your state of health, I've felt drawn to you, same as if you were a sister. Mind, I'll drop my sewing and everything any time you want me. And as for Nelson's future, don't you give yourself an anxious thought about that."
"Good-by," said Mrs. Richard's faintly, and closed her eyes. And with a commiserative glance in which lurked a spice of humor, Persis withdrew. At the door she encountered Nelson Richards hurrying home early from his work to spend as much time as possible with his wife. Anxiety had left its signature on Nelson's jovial face. He walked with dragging step and drooping shoulders, apprehension counterfeiting age. But at the sight of Persis he roused himself from his customary abstraction.
"Hello, Persis. Well, I declare you're a sight for sore eyes." He regarded her with frank admiration, an unconscious tribute to the effectiveness of the gray crepe. "Looks like you was renewing your youth," he continued with heavy gallantry. "Ain't seen you look so handsome since you was sixteen."
Persis had not invented the episode of Nelson's boyish admiration. In all important details she had held rigidly to the truth, though it is doubtful whether those innocent, sexless kisses at the gate had been recalled in the past dozen years by either party to the transaction. But it was true that Nelson Richards had always had a warm spot in his affections for his first sweetheart, and the cordiality of his greeting was by no means perfunctory.
Persis smiled upon him kindly.
"Thank you, Nelson. Wish I could say as much for you, but to tell the truth, you look to me a little peaked."
"Well, I have felt better." He lowered his big voice discreetly. "Fact is I'm worried pretty near to death over Charlotte. What do you think about her, Persis? Doctor says he don't find nothing out of shape with her organs. Looks as if she'd ought to pick up, don't it?"
He swallowed hard as he put the question, his eyes eloquent with dumb misery, and Persis laid a friendly hand upon his arm as she answered with reassuring certainty: "Don't you worry, Nelson. I feel it in my bones that Charlotte's going to be better before long."
"I'd as soon take your say-so as any doctor's." The big man looked at her gratefully. "Come in as often as you can, Persis. There ain't nobody we'd rather see."
He tramped into the house, armed in his splendid masculine obtuseness, stooped to kiss his wife's hot cheek, and said, as was inevitable, the last thing he should have thought of saying.
"Saw Persis Dale out here just now, and I'll be darned if she ain't getting better looking every day."
"I can't see that that's enough to excuse profanity," said Mrs. Richards witheringly. "Persis Dale is a coarse scheming creature." Then as her husband burst into astonished protests, she showed signs of hysteria.
"Oh, of course you'll stand up for her. I wouldn't have expected anything else. You go out to the ice-chest, Nelson Richards, and heat up that cup of beef tea you set away last night." Left to herself she lay back upon the pillows, gazing at the ceiling with vindictive eyes.
"As long as she hasn't got the decency to wait till I'm in my grave," said Mrs. Richards tearfully, "I'll fool her. I'll show her there's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip."
A CONFESSION TOO MANY
People were talking. That system of wireless telegraphy which ante-dates Marconi's invention by ten thousand generations, had done effective service. In the remotest farm-houses it was known that Justin Ware had called on Persis Dale twice within a week. He came between half past eight and nine, so said reliable rumor, and the lateness of the hour of his arrival as well as of his departure, made only too plain the relaxing influence of city life on country-bred standards.
Annabel Sinclair heard and turned faint and sick, so closely does jealousy counterfeit love. As far as Justin Ware was concerned, the news of his untimely death would have affected Annabel less than the information that the chops had not been sent from the butcher's in time for dinner. But he was a man and that he should choose to spend two evenings in a week with another woman, after she had given him to understand that his society would be agreeable to herself, argued a decline in her powers of fascination. She told herself that she hated Persis, that she hated Justin, that she loathed life and the miserable business of being a woman, and she ended by finding pretexts for daily excursions past the Clematis House, always arrayed in the most fetching street costumes. When on the third day she encountered Justin, that gentleman responded gallantly to her pensive tender reproach. His was no Jericho heart, to demand a seven-day siege. He had found Persis Dale unexpectedly interesting, but Annabel was unexpectedly pretty, and a liking for pickles does not preclude a taste for sweets.
Thomas Hardin's married sister, Mrs. Gibson, heard the news with consternation. She had long been aware of the state of her brother's affections, this indeed arguing no especial insight, since an infant in arms would have possessed sufficient intuition to read the heart of the guileless Thomas. Mrs. Gibson had regarded Persis in the proprietary light of a prospective sister-in-law, even going so far as to criticize her with the frank freedom which is the prerogative of kinship. When the first rumor of Justin's attentions reached the good woman's ears, she made a hurried trip to town for the sole purpose of interviewing her brother.
As good luck would have it, business was slack at the moment of her arrival, and Thomas left two lanky country-women to the care of his assistant, and followed his sister to a dingy space in the rear which, primarily serving as a store-room, was also by virtue of a certain gloomy privacy, peculiarly adapted to the discussion of a subject of such delicacy.
Mrs. Gibson dusted a chair with needless ostentation and then focused her regard on her brother who stood before her a self-confessed culprit, conscious guilt as manifest in his attitude as in the flaming confusion of his face.
"Thomas, what's this I hear about Persis Dale?"
"I don't know, Nellie. What have you heard?"
Mrs. Gibson's glance expressed her scorn of the evasion.
"Is it true that Justin Ware is going with her?"
"Why, I've heard, Nellie, that he's been over there once or twice. Old friend of Joel's," explained Thomas, with a futile effort to speak convincingly.
"Fiddlesticks! If I thought you really believed that any man would walk from the Clematis House out to the Dale place for the sake of hearing Joel Dale talk about the latest cure-all, I'd be ashamed to own you for my brother. If he goes, he goes to see Persis. Now, what do you mean to do about it?"
"Nellie, I haven't any right to interfere. If she wants Justin Ware's company it's her own business. She's not beholden to me."
"No," snapped Mrs. Gibson. "And why ain't she? Because you've been shilly-shallying along as though 'twas her business to pop the question. You men are getting nowadays so you can't do a thing for yourselves, you just hang back and leave us women to do it all."
Thomas squirmed like an impaled beetle. "Guess I'd better go back into the store, Nellie. George means well, but he hasn't much of a head-piece—"
"Thomas Hardin, you stay where you are till I'm done with you. Now tell me straight. Have you ever asked Persis Dale to marry you?"
"Well, Nellie, to be candid, I never have got really to the point. I want her to know the worst about me first. I wouldn't take her in for all the world, and then have her sorry afterward."
"Take her in! Of course, you'll take her in. If all men stopped for that, weddings would have gone out of fashion long ago. And it's well for women's peace of mind that they don't have to know the worst about the men they marry. I'm ashamed of you, Thomas! To think you've got no more gumption than to stand around like a ninny and let that city man walk off with the woman you've always wanted."
"If she'd rather marry Justin Ware," Thomas began and failed to finish his sentence, his voice strangled by his inward anguish. His sister snorted.
"Good lord! Thomas, a woman's going to marry the man that asks her. By all accounts that Ware won't be mealy-mouthed. If he wants her, he'll not stand back and let another man have the first say."
There was a reasonableness in this presentation of the case which impressed Thomas as his air of irresolution showed.
"Then you think I've got a chance, Nellie?"
His sister groaned her exasperation. "You had all the chance till this Ware turned up. Of course when a woman's got a choice it makes a difference. But there's nothing gained by holding off and letting him have everything his own way. If you don't ask her, of course she'll take him, provided she gets the chance. And if you do ask her, she may take you. So you won't lose anything by trying."
As a result of this plain unflattering counsel, Thomas Hardin dressed that evening with unusual care, and with the approach of darkness turned his face toward his familiar goal, his emotions befitting a participant in the charge of the Light Brigade. His throat was parched, his heart hammered. While absolutely certain that Persis was aware of his aspiration, the thought of expressing it, of making a formal offer, was distinctly terrifying. And moreover there was a disagreeable preliminary that must receive attention, the confession of another of those misdemeanors of his past, as irrepressible a brood as hounded poor Macbeth. The episode dated back to his twentieth year, when Annabel Sinclair was just waking up to the knowledge of her beauty and the power it gave her over the susceptible sex. Thomas blushed to recall how ignominiously he himself had capitulated.
Fate was on his side that evening. Joel was absent. Persis was kind. She sat by the lamp stitching, and the inevitable suggestion of comfortable domesticity was in itself an inspiration. He thanked Heaven for her lowered gaze, confident that if he were forced to meet her candid eyes, he should never find courage to begin.
"Persis, there's something I want to tell you. It ain't pleasant to speak about it, but I think it's one of the things that ought to be said before—I mean I'd be a good deal easier in my mind if you knew all about it."
"I don't believe it's anything so very bad, Thomas," Persis said with unaccustomed gentleness.
"Well, I don't know. She was so pretty and cute that it sort of went to my head, but that's no excuse."
"Who was pretty?"
Persis let her work fall. Her eyes met her lover's with a challenge that did not tend to lessen Thomas's confusion.
"Well, Persis, you've a right to know. Of course I wouldn't mention it to anybody else. Not that she was a mite to blame," interpolated Thomas with instinctive chivalry, "for it was all my fault from start to finish. It—it was Stanley Sinclair's wife."
Absorbed as he was in relieving his conscience of its intolerable load, it did not occur to Thomas to emphasize the fact that on the occasion when he had played so culpable a part, Annabel still bore her maiden name. It was a good two years before the dignified Stanley Sinclair had recognized in the giddy, shallow, little beauty, the fitting mate for his staid maturity. And that his failure to make this point clear might lead to a serious misapprehension on Persis' part, failed to present itself as a possibility to the honest blunderer.
"Well?" Persis' tone was crisply interrogative. "What happened?"
"Why, she looked so like a kitten, Persis, that you can't hardly help petting, that I put my arm around her. And I—" He cleared his throat, his eyes, fortunately for his resolution, fixed upon the floor. "Well, I might as well make a clean breast of it. I did kiss her. Of course I ought to be ashamed—"
"Yes." Persis agreed icily. "You ought."
She had listened with a sort of sickened revolt to Thomas' stammered confession. Nothing that Annabel Sinclair could do would surprise her, nor did she wonder when boys of Thad West's age yielded to her lure. But that this man, this staid, stanch Thomas, on whom she had counted more implicitly than she knew, should have proved so easy a victim shook her native faith in humankind. "All men are alike," thought Persis, in her haste betrayed into one of those sweepingly unjust generalizations such as King David penitently acknowledged.
Thomas' eyes came up from the carpet at her tone. He looked at her with a sort of terror. The fixed sternness of her face made her seem a stranger. Little as he had relished the idea of acknowledging his bygone weakness, he had not dreamed of a result like this.
For a moment he gazed at her with dumb appeal, then faltered: "I was—was afraid you'd be disgusted with me, Persis."
He swallowed hard as if her answer were a mouthful that resisted mastication. For a little they sat silent. Persis picked up her work and resumed her sewing with a brave show of indifference though the seam ran into a blur before her eyes. And at last Thomas spoke.
"I'm sorry you take it this way, Persis, but it couldn't be helped. I had to clear up things before—I didn't feel it would be fair to ask you anything that would bind you till you knew the worst about me. And now—"
There was another long silence. Then Thomas found himself upon his feet, feeling for his hat, groping like a blind man.
"Good-by, Persis. I wish I'd been a better man. But the fact is I ain't fit to tie your shoe-strings, and that ends it. Good-by."
He held out his hand, a formality unprecedented. She realized that he meant it for good-by, not good night. Some perversity kept her eyes upon her work, her hands occupied.
The door creaked ajar. There was a pause. It closed reluctantly. She heard him stumble at the steps, go haltingly down the path. She stabbed the fabric in her hand with her needle as if that minute tool had been a weapon.
"Men are all alike," repeated Persis, the tears running down her cheeks. "But there's a difference in women. And the Annabel Sinclair kind, with brains enough to keep 'em from being downright bad and not enough conscience to make 'em good, are the worst of the lot. If the devil couldn't count on their help in laying traps for good men, he'd be dreadful handicapped."
She swept the tears from her cheeks with a swift gesture, swallowed those which had not yet fallen and fell to sewing frantically for there were steps outside. But the late caller was not Justin Ware as for the moment she had feared, but Mrs. West entering with the ponderous dignity inseparable from two hundred pounds avoirdupois. Persis rose hastily and pulled forward the big armchair, her action due to a well-grounded fear for her furniture in addition to the impulse of her native courtesy.
"Set down, Mis' West. You're looking first-rate."
"If I am it's more than I feel," the stout woman returned in a hollow voice. "I'm so worried about Thad that I wonder there's anything left of me."
Persis, politely forbearing to call attention to the fact that enough of Mrs. West remained for all practical purposes, regarded her friend with kindly concern. "My, is Annabel Sinclair pestering that boy yet? I thought—"
"Persis, it's not Annabel now. It's the young one—Diantha."
"Oh!" Persis resumed her sewing, with heightened color.
"Yes. I used to think he was as crazy about that woman as anybody could well be, but that wasn't to be named in the same day with the state he's in now. He goes around as if he was in a sort of daze. Sometimes I have to ask him three times over if he'll have another helping of pie."
"Well, it may not be sensible, Mis' West, but it's nature. I guess there's nothing to do except put up with it."
"But, Persis, she's so young."
"She's younger than her mother, that's sure. And that's in her favor."
"And she's Annabel Sinclair's daughter."
"Well, that's better'n if she was somebody's wife."
"It's easy for you to make light of it, Persis. But if he was your boy—" Mrs. West produced a voluminous handkerchief from about her person, hid her face in its folds and sobbed.
"If he was my boy, Mis' West, I guess I'd act as foolish as other mothers. But seeing he ain't, I can look at the affair kind of detached and sensible. I don't suppose you're especially set up over the idea of Diantha Sinclair for a daughter-in-law, but if mothers picked out wives for their sons, there'd be mighty few girls who'd pass muster, and the balance would have to settle down to be old maids."
"It isn't that I don't think anybody's good enough for Thad," said Mrs. West in hasty disclaimer. "I can see his faults fast enough."
"Yes, you can see his faults, and you can excuse 'em, too. That's what being a mother means. And you can see Diantha's faults, and you can't excuse 'em without a struggle. Yet she's as pretty as a pink, and a sweet-dispositioned girl, too. She's a long ways yet from being a woman, but as far as I can see, she's started in the right direction."
"I'd hate to think of my Thad leading the life Stanley Sinclair's had to for the last fifteen years," said Mrs. West with feeling.
"Well the cases ain't the same. When youth mates with youth, there's hopes of them learning their lessons together and not making such hard work of it, either. But what can you expect when a man along in the forties decides it's time for him to settle down, and ties himself up to some giddy young thing, so brimful of life that it's all she can do to keep her toes on the ground. It's like hitching up a colt with some slow-going old plug from a livery stable. YOU drive 'em that way, and either the colt's spirit is going to get broken, or else the plug will travel at a good deal faster clip than he likes."
Mrs. West's attention had plainly wandered during Persis' homily.
"Beats all how that girl grew up all in a minute, so to speak," she said irrelevantly.
Persis gave her entire attention to her work.
"It don't seem any time since I was here and she came in to ask about some sewing of her mother's. Her dress was up to her knees, and her hair hanging in curls. Except for being tall she looked about ten years old. And the next thing anybody knows, she's a young lady with all the airs and graces."
Persis preserved a guilty silence.
"I didn't know but you might have some idea," Mrs. West suggested hopefully, "You know you agreed to see what you could do about Annabel, and then Thad got tired of her all at once, so there wasn't any call for you to interfere."
With a determined shake of her head, Persis declined the new commission.
"No, Mis' West. I'm not going to have a finger in this pie, and I advise you to let the young folks alone. If you don't want him to marry her, your one chance is to leave 'em be. And if they do make a match of it, either one might have done worse."
While Persis gave no hint to her caller of her own complicity in the situation Mrs. West deplored, at the bar of her own conscience she made no effort to disclaim the responsibility. It helped to ease the hurt due to the revelation of Thomas' weakness to busy her thoughts with other people.
"If they do take each other it's got to be for better instead of worse. I made that match without meaning to, but as long as I had a hand in it, I'm going to see that both of 'em behave."
THE MAIL BAG
"I should 'most think you'd have to give up the dressmaking business or else hire a secretary. It takes considerable time to attend to such a correspondence as you're getting to have."
Joel slammed a bunch of letters down upon the table, his ill-temper expressing itself as naively as that of a child. Nor was its occasion a mystery to his sister. Numerous letters marked the recipient as an individual of consequence. Joel's mail was limited to communications from the distributors of quack remedies to whom he had communicated his symptoms in accordance with instructions set forth in their benevolently inquisitive advertisements. When Persis received several letters on the same mail, the possibility that he might be a person of secondary importance in the establishment presented itself to Joel with disquieting force.
"Like enough they're from some of my customers asking when I can spare 'em a little extra time," Persis suggested soothingly.
"No, they ain't. Least ways some of 'em are from men. And I must say, Persis, it don't look well, your carrying on a correspondence with two or three men-folks and your own brother not know anything about it. As the poet says:
"'A lost good name is ne'er retrieved.'
"Who's this that's writing you from the Clematis House, anyway?"
"I haven't looked to see," Persis replied dryly, but her comely face took on color.
"Looks bad when a man right in the same town's ashamed to say what he's got to say to your face. Has to seal it up in an envelope. If you were a little readier to ask advice, Persis, it would be better for you. You women, sheltered and guarded all your lives, ain't expected to know much about the world, and if you just won't seek counsel from them that's able to give it, of course some unscrupulous rapscallion is going to make fools of you."
"Well, Joel," Persis promised with unimpaired good humor, "if I ever get in a tight place where I need your advice, I'll ask for it." But she made no move to investigate the contents of the promising pile upon the table, and without attempting to mask his umbrage, Joel withdrew his offended dignity to the porch. Even then, in splendid refutation of the theory that curiosity is the cardinal vice of her sex, Persis completed the task on which she was engaged before putting herself in a position to answer Joel's inquiry as to the identity of the correspondent using the stationery of the Clematis House.
It was her first letter from that source for many a year and she scrutinized the address long and thoughtfully. "I shouldn't even have known his handwriting. If anybody'd told me that six months ago, I'd have laughed in his face." But now instead of laughing she sighed, and her face remained grave throughout the reading of the communication.
"Dear Persis—I am unexpectedly called out of town and shall not be able to see you Thursday as I had expected. I do not think, however, that I shall be away more than six weeks or two months at the longest. There are some good business prospects here, which I have not as yet brought to a satisfactory termination, but apart from that, the temptation to see more of my old friends is too strong to be resisted.
"J. M. W."
"I guess he means the Hornblowers, by 'business prospects,'" mused Persis, and replaced the letter in its envelope. For Mrs. Robert Hornblower's anticipations of a life of luxurious ease had been temporarily thwarted by the unexpected and unprecedented opposition of her hitherto compliant husband. Even a worm will turn. Robert Hornblower, after a lifetime of meek submission, had suddenly become contumacious and unruly. The wifely authority, exercised so long under another name, had as yet been powerless to bring him to the point of disposing of his farm. The man had aged under the strain, had lost flesh and color, along with sleep and appetite, and yet to the surprise of his acquaintances and his own secret amazement, he had proved that he had a will of his own by stubbornly reiterating his refusal to be coerced into acting against his best judgment. And while Mrs. Hornblower was confident of ultimate victory, it was not easy for her to forgive her husband for delaying in so unjustifiable a fashion their entrance into the Promised Land.
The second letter to receive Persis' attention was addressed in a hand which, like Justin's, seemed hauntingly familiar. Persis studied the post-mark with the result of piquing her curiosity, rather than satisfying it.
"Warren, New York. First time I ever heard of that place to my knowledge. Beats all how folks can know your name, when you hadn't even found out that their town was on the map." With a mounting and pleasurable sense of her own importance, Persis opened the letter and looked first at the signature of the writer. Then with an exclamation of interest, she gave herself to the perusal of the communication, forgetting Justin Ware for the moment as completely as if he had never existed.
"My Dear Miss Dale—A friend of mine, Mr. Washington Thompson, has asked me to write requesting you to forward him at once a letter of mine which has come into your possession though I am at a loss to understand how. I have told Mr. Thompson that after all this time the letter is perfectly worthless, but he does not seem to be of that opinion. Accordingly I am troubling you by this request. Mr. Thompson will be at the Munroe Hotel, Cincinnati, from the twelfth to the fifteenth, and for the week following at the Hollenden Hotel, Cleveland.
"Warren, New York."
Persis sprang to her feet and ran out upon the porch. The irate Joel, nursing his wrongs in dignified silence, experienced a new sense of injury at the sight of her radiant face.
"Joel, when you happen to pass young Mis' Thompson's I want you to stop and tell her that I've got a piece of goods here that maybe belongs to her. Ask her if she'll come in the first time she's by. You might say, Joel, that I'd be much obliged if she'd make a point of coming soon, as I have a general cleaning up along about this season, and I like to get rid of all the odds and ends that are cluttering up things."
Nothing in Joel's expression indicated that he had even heard the commission, but his look of gloomy abstraction did not deceive his sister who was perfectly aware that he understood her request and would take a certain satisfaction in executing it. She returned to her mail, making short work of an advertisement of a new substitute for silk linings and another which offered a fashion periodical at bargain prices. The last letter in the pile again aroused her curiosity, for the upper left-hand corner bore the legend, "Delaney and Briggs, Attorneys at Law."
"Lawyers, too. Well, I don't blame Joel for feeling exercised." She recalled the implied threat in a recent communication from Mr. Washington Thompson regarding the return of his property, and the thought crossed her mind that possibly he had invoked legal aid for its recovery.
She was standing as she began to read. Half-way down the page she uttered an exclamation and staggered to a chair. She finished the letter, laid it down, took it up again and reread it. Then rising, she busied herself with various tasks about the room, doing over several things she had already completed and ignoring some obvious needs. This accomplished, she read the letter for a third time and brought out her sewing. After five minutes of desultory work, she folded the garment and laid it away. For the next two hours she might have served as a study of contemplation. Her chin upon her hands, her eyes musing, she sat motionless, almost rigid, as the big clock ticked off the seconds.
Joel shuffled into the room on the stroke of twelve. "Mis' Thompson says she'll likely go by sometime to-day or to-morrow and she'll stop in."
Persis did not reply, and for the first time Joel noticed his sister's unusual attitude. He looked at her and then at the clock.
"Ain't dinner ready?"
"Yes, dinner! What ails you? You act as if you'd never heard of such a thing as meal-time."
"I didn't think it was time for dinner yet," Persis answered, rousing herself. Again Joel inspected her sharply.
"Haven't you been sewing this morning?"
"No, I did start, but I didn't feel like keeping it up."
Joel's face expressed mingled concern and amazement. That Persis should sit idle a morning from choice was extraordinary enough to be alarming. "Don't you feel well?"
"Me? Oh, yes, I'm all right." Persis went into the next room and began her preparations for the meal. It took her longer than usual. Joel watched the clock with frowning vexation, but some quality abnormal and vaguely disquieting in his sister's manner kept him from putting into words the impression that a man who is kept waiting a full hour for his dinner is hardly used.
His mood softened when at length appetizing odors diffusing themselves through the house, indicated that the pot roast of day before yesterday which under Persis' thrifty management had as many final appearances as a prima donna, was soon to grace the table as an Irish stew. Joel dearly loved that savory concoction, and though he was on his guard against allowing her to suspect the fact, he privately placed his sister's dumplings on a par with Addison's poems. Forgetting both his grievance of the morning and his later anxiety, due to Persis' singular conduct, he gave himself up to cheerful anticipation.
The problem which for generations has exercised the wits of amateur debaters was settled satisfactorily in this instance, at least. The joys of anticipation far exceeded the pleasure of realization. Joel took one swallow of the stew and dropped his spoon with a splash.
"What in Sam Hill! What kind of a mess do you call this?"
Persis took a hasty sip, looked incredulous and sipped again. Slowly the shamed blood crept to the roots of her hair. Yet she spoke with a self-control fairly brazen.
"Looks as if I'd made a mistake and put in sugar instead of salt."
Joel's gaze swept the table, hawk-like in its searching eagerness.
"Where's the dumplings?"
"I—well, I declare, I forgot the dumplings."
He experienced a chill of actual terror. This was his sister Persis, Persis the practical and reliable, this woman who sugared the stew, and allowed the chef-d'oeuvre of the dinner to slip her mind. He was immediately aware of a singular flush staining her cheeks, a feverish glitter in her eye.
The gentleness of his comment took her by surprise. "I guess, Persis, it was only that you was thinking of something else."
"That was it, Joel." She hesitated, then moved by his forbearance spoke out plainly. "I was thinking, Joel, how it would seem to be rich."
Again his heart jumped. Such vague vain wishing, so characteristic of many women, was absolutely foreign to his sister's temperament. He could not remember the time when she had overlooked the present satisfaction, however poor and meager, in favor of some joy of fancy.
"I wouldn't let my mind stray off to such things," he said uneasily.
"Well, Joel, I guess I'll have to face it. The fact is, you see, I am rich."
Her words fell like a thunderbolt, confirming his worst fears. He sat aghast, unable to decide whether Persis had lost her mind, or this was the delirium incident to some acute seizure. In tones of such unnatural gentleness that his sister started as they fell on her ears, he offered the only suggestion which occurred to him at the moment.
"Hadn't you better go lie down, Persis?"
"Me? Why, I feel all right."
"Well, even if you do, lying down won't hurt you. It's the best thing known to lengthen life. You'd ought to take better care of yourself, Persis. Half an hour a day—"
His sister interrupted him with a burst of laughter in which his preternaturally acute senses detected the wildness of mania.
"Joel, I know what ails you. You think I'm taking leave of my senses. It does sound that way, I own, for a Dale to be talking about being rich. I don't mean the Vanderbilt kind of riches, you know, but a nice little income so I can keep a servant girl and never do any more sewing and maybe buy an automobile."
"Persis Dale," exclaimed Joel, "you're as crazy as a June bug."
"Look for yourself, then." Persis turned to the secretary where she had placed the letter she had received that morning. She felt more like herself than at any time since she had perused the contents of that final astonishing communication. In combatting Joel's incredulity, she was able to set at rest certain disquieting doubts of her own as to her sanity.
Joel's jaw dropped as he read. "Mrs. Persis Ann Crawford. Why, that must mean Aunt Persis."
"Sure. The one I was named for. And I guess it's a good twenty-five years since we've had a line from her." She laughed a little hysterically, dabbing her eyes with her handkerchief. "I don't s'pose I'm crying because she's dead, seeing I took it for granted that she'd passed away years ago. And yet all the time to leave me her money. Ain't life the funniest mix-up. Yesterday I couldn't have afforded so much as a sick-headache. And now if I want a run of typhoid fever or my appendix cut out, it's nobody's business."
Joel laid down the letter with a gulp. The impression uppermost in his mind was the singular blindness of fortune in selecting the recipients of its bounty.
"It's a good deal of a responsibility for a woman," he said ruefully. "Seeing I'm the oldest, it's rather odd Aunt Persis Ann didn't realize that I was the proper one to inherit. But I guess she thought it was all in the family, and you'd be guided by my advice."
Persis' answer was irrelevant. "Joel, seems to me that so far my life's been for all the world like a checked gingham, if you know what I mean."
But Joel did not know. "Checked gingham! I never heard such crazy talk."
"Made up of the same little things, all just alike," Persis explained patiently. "And nothing especially bright or cheerful about any of 'em. I've a feeling as if I'd like a splash of color now, velvet as green as grass and fire-red satin."
"Sounds as if you had the Scarlet Woman in mind," Joel said disapprovingly, and before Persis had time to explain, young Mrs. Thompson had knocked. She was a sorry figure for a wife of less than a year's standing, a drooping little woman, pale, listless and heavy-eyed.
"Mr. Dale said something about your having a piece of my goods," she explained with such an effect of indifference that Persis wondered she had taken the trouble to call. Then her gaze went to the table and the untouched meal. "I'm afraid I've interrupted you."
"Not a mite, Mis' Thompson. Walk right in! Joel!" Persis' authoritative glance in her brother's direction indicated the propriety of his withdrawal. Joel rose reluctantly. It was not a fitting that was in prospect nor even a discussion of styles where questions might arise which could not suitably be debated before one of the opposite sex. But since Persis only wished to return the young woman a piece of goods that had been overlooked when her dress was sent home, Joel felt not unreasonably that he might have witnessed the transaction without offending the most rigid notions of what was seemly.
Persis searched in her piece-bag and produced an infinitesimal scrap of green voile. Young Mrs. Thompson accepted the offering with evident surprise.
"Yes, that's my goods," she acknowledged. "But it's so little, I don't see how I can use it."
"You never can tell when a scrap like that will come in useful," Persis declared convincingly. "And by the way, Mis' Thompson, I wonder if your husband happens to have handy that ridiculous letter that was meant for another Thompson."
The worthless scrap of green dropped from the young wife's shaking hands. "Why, what makes you think—"
"That letter," Persis explained steadily, "was written to a Mr. Washington Thompson. I don't wonder he shortens it to a W., do you? To have Washington for your first name must be a good deal like having the Washington monument in your front yard, sort of overpowering. Of course, as Enid says—Enid's the girl, you know—a love-letter as old as that ain't of no real use. Love-letters and eggs are a good deal alike. You can keep 'em in cold storage month in and month out, but while they don't exactly spoil, they ain't the same as fresh ones."
Persis was talking to give the little woman time. From the pigeonholes of her secretary she produced the letters she needed, and meanwhile kept a wary eye upon the camphor bottle, always within reach for the benefit of sensitive patrons likely to succumb to the ordeal of fitting. To judge from young Mrs. Thompson's colorless face, she might need it at any moment.
"I own I kind of interfered with what was none of my business," Persis acknowledged with as pleasing a frankness as if such interferences were not in line with her normal activities. "But I kind of worried over having a love-letter wandering around that way and not getting where it belonged. That might make lots of trouble."
"But who was 'Her'?" demanded young Mrs. Thompson wildly. And Persis, whose sense of responsibility for her kind extended even to her unknown correspondents, looked grave as she answered.
"Dearie, I don't know. But I'm sure of one thing, that it wasn't you. Here's his letter to me, madder'n a wet hen, he was, too. And here's hers. You see it's the same writing as the one your husband has; I'm glad she wrote her name right out plain, because I said particular that the 'Enid' would be enough."
Then Persis dropped both letters and caught Mrs. Thompson in her arms. The younger woman was small and slender, and under the stress of excitement Persis lifted her to the couch as easily as if she had been a child. Then she sprinkled the white face with water from the pitcher on the table and brought the camphor bottle into play, all the time murmuring words of endearment and sympathy whose restorative effect was possibly not second to that of her other remedies. Young Mrs. Thompson returned to consciousness to hear herself called a "lamb" and a "poor dear." She opened her heavy eyes and gave back a rapturous smile to the other woman's comprehending gaze.
"I—I don't believe I ever was so happy," murmured young Mrs. Thompson. "Then he did leave it in his pocket just for a joke. And, oh, dear Miss Dale, if it's a girl I'm going to call her Persis."
The Dale homestead was undergoing repairs. For years Persis had patched up the roof when it leaked and papered with her own hands such rooms as had become too dingy to be longer tolerated. Now she was giving free rein to her exuberant fancy in the matter of improvements. A telephone had been installed in the house the day following the communication from the legal advisers of the late Persis Ann Crawford and this in spite of Joel's passionate protests.
"May be a hoax for all you know. Better wait till the money's in your hand before you run into extravagance piling up debts for us to work off later. I guess it's a true saying that if you put a beggar on horseback, he'll ride to the devil."
Within a week the innovations had reduced him to a condition of disapproving dumbness. Paperhangers and plasterers had taken possession of the old house. The roof was being reshingled. The new electric lights gave to each successive evening an air of festive brilliancy. The sagging porch was in process of reconstruction. It was the dull season from the builder's standpoint, and Persis had no difficulty in securing workmen in sufficient numbers to hurry the work with what seemed to herself, as well as to Joel, almost magical despatch. A generous check deposited to her credit in the Clematis Savings Bank had relieved Joel's earlier apprehensions. The bequest was no hoax. But his constitutional parsimony rebelled against the outlay as if each expenditure had meant want in the future. While his dignity demanded that he should cease the protests that were disregarded, his air of patient martyrdom expressed his sentiments with all the plainness of speech.
The feminine half of the population of Clematis was in despair. For Persis Dale had announced with every indication of finality that after she had finished the gowns in hand, her career as dressmaker would immediately terminate. Mrs. Robert Hornblower, bitter because Persis' fortune had materialized before her own, commented freely on the fact that Persis Dale hadn't the strength of mind to come into money without beginning to put on airs. Mrs. Richards, who was so far convalescent that she had been able to attend divine worship the previous Sabbath, rolled her eyes Heavenward and deplored the effects of pomps and vanities on certain constitutions. Even so true and tried a friend as Mrs. West was driven to remonstrate.
"I don't say that you ought to work the way you've done all your life, Persis, rushing from one dress to another, fit to break your neck. But it does seem as if after always being busy you couldn't be real happy to settle down to idleness."
"I guess I wasn't cut out for a butterfly, Mis' West, even if I'd got started in time. I'm not afraid but what I can find plenty to do. As far as the sewing goes, I feel like a man I read of who laid a wager he'd eat a quail a day for thirty days. Well, he got along fine. Didn't seem to mind it a bit. When it came the twenty-fifth day and everybody was congratulating him on making his money so easy, he up and quit. 'No use, boys,' he said, when they began to tell him what a fool he was. 'I've just naturally got to the stopping-point.' And it's the same with me. I've done my sewing and haven't fretted over it, though when I think of the millions and millions of stitches I've taken in twenty years, I wonder I haven't turned into a sewing-machine. But I've got to the stopping-point now. It's more'n likely I'll buy my own clothes ready-made, after this."
In a month's time the old house was transformed beyond recognition, the fresh paint of the exterior holding its own bravely against the pretensions of the fresh paper and new carpets within. Thomas Hardin had sent to Boston for those carpets, the patterns in stock not satisfying Persis' exacting ideas. The transaction had been conducted with businesslike despatch on both sides, though on one occasion Thomas relaxed his dignity sufficiently to say, "Guess you're going to look pretty fine up there."
Persis dryly admitted the prospective improvement. "Some folks can't bear to part with what's old, but I own I've got a liking for new things. When I can afford a change, I'm glad to have it."
"Friends the same as carpets," Thomas thought with a little bitterness for which he at once reproached himself. For, after all, Persis' friendship had been stanch and steadfast till his own confession had disclosed his unworthiness. He atoned for his momentary lapse by making her a substantial discount on the linoleum she wanted for the kitchen.
The seal of silence Joel had placed upon his lips was broken when the question of engaging a servant girl came to the fore. "Ain't you going to leave yourself nothing to do?" he demanded wildly. Then with a cunning for which few would have given him credit. "You'll get as fat as Etta West sitting around all day and being waited on."
Persis listened unmoved, her rather enigmatic smile suggesting that she clearly foresaw a way out of that difficulty.
"I'm not afraid but what I can find enough to keep me busy. Besides, I need a servant girl to look after things when I'm away."
"Away? Are you going away?"
"I'm going whenever I happen to feel like it. And the first time'll be next week, Monday."
"Persis, where are you going?"
"To the city for a week or so."
Joel deliberated. He rose and paced the room, halting at length in a dramatic posture, face to face with his sister.
"Persis, I've got no love for the city as you well know. As the poet says, 'God the first garden made and the first city, Cain.' But I'm ready to sacrifice myself for what's best for you. I'll go along."
Persis regarded him without any indication of fervent gratitude for the sacrifice so nobly announced.
"It's good of you, Joel, but it won't be necessary."
He waved her protest away with a dominating gesture.
"It is necessary. It won't do to turn a woman like you loose in a city like Boston. As long as you didn't have any money, it wasn't so much matter. But now there'll be folks to sell you gold bricks, and when you unwrap 'em, they won't be nothing but plain ordinary bricks after all."
"They can't sell me bricks if I won't buy 'em, Joel."
"You don't know what they can do. You never went up against a professional sharper. Women ain't any match for that kind. They'll probably give me a bed at the hotel that hasn't been used since sometime last winter, but never mind. I'm going along to protect you."
"Joel!" Persis' tone for all its gentleness showed plenty of decision. "Thank you, but this time I don't want you."
"Some other time when you feel like running up to the city for a few days, we'll go together. But just now I've got some business to attend to."
"You mean I'd be in the way?"
"Persis." Joel spoke in heart-broken accents. "I guess the Good Book ain't far wrong in calling money the root of all evil. Up till you come into this prop'ty, you was all a man could ask for in a sister." Like many another, Joel found his blessings brightest in retrospect. "But now you're as set as a post and as stubborn as a mule. It's pretty dangerous, Persis, when a woman gets the idea she knows all that's worth knowing. As the poet says, 'A little learning is a dangerous thing.' I feel in my bones that there's trouble coming out of this wild-goose chase of yours."
It was not characteristic of Joel to keep his grievances secret. Wherever he went for the next few days, he fairly oozed reproach and resentment. And on the Monday when Persis took the ten o'clock train for Boston it was generally understood that she had declined the pleasure of her brother's company and was bent on an errand whose nature she alone knew.
"She'll put up at a hotel, I suppose," said Mrs. Hornblower. "She'll have to, for there's nobody in Boston she knows well enough to visit. A single woman staying alone at a hotel sounds dreadful improper to me. Robert would never allow me to do such a thing, never for a minute. And nobody even knows what she's gone for."
But Annabel Sinclair thought she knew. "I shouldn't wonder," she told Diantha, "if when Persis Dale gets back we'd see startling changes."
Her confidential tone was balm to Diantha's spirit. For since the daughter's sudden leap into maturity, the relations between the two had been strained, the instinct of sex rivalry overmastering such shadowy maternal impulses as had outlived Diantha's babyhood. The girl responded eagerly to the advance.
"Yes, I shouldn't wonder if she'd have lots of new clothes."
"She'll need more than clothes to make her presentable, and she knows it, too." Annabel's voice was rasping. "They have beauty-shops in the cities, you know, where they fix over old women who want to look young, skin off the wrinkles and all sorts of things." She flashed a glance at the mirror—there was always a mirror convenient in the Sinclair establishment—and smiled with malicious enjoyment. Annabel did not need skinning.
Diantha edged away with sudden distaste. "I don't think Miss Persis would do anything like that, mama."
"Why not?" Her mother spoke fiercely. "It's the sensible thing to do when you need it. After her good looks are gone, there's nothing left for a woman." The bitterness of a participant in a losing fight flung a black shadow across her fairness. For defy Time as she would, the day must come when he would triumph. She looked again at herself in the mirror as if already he had stolen the bloom from her cheek and the gold from her hair and shuddered at the thought of what must be.
Persis had said to her brother that she might be away a week. On the sixth day came a brief note to the effect that her business was not quite finished and that she would let him know when to expect her. Another week went by, and one afternoon Joel received his first telegram.
He stood staring at the sinister brown envelope with its black lettering, and a chilly fear clutched his heart. One catastrophe after another suggested itself, each to be discarded in favor of another more appalling. Persis had lost her money. She had met with an accident. She was dead. His bony hand shook till the envelope rattled, and the small boy who had brought the message eyed him with curiosity.
The question was reassuring. It suggested that Persis was still to be reached by mundane means of communication. Joel regarded the lad appealingly.
"Say, son, do you know what's in this?"
"Naw!" The boy's tone showed impatience tinged with contempt. "Why don't you look and see for yourself?"
The suggestion seemed reasonable, and Joel followed it. The typewritten enclosure blurred before his eyes, and so strong is the force of apprehension that he seemed to see words of ominous import staring up at him through the confusion. Then the mist cleared and his forebodings with it.
"Home on four-twenty train not necessary to meet me tell Mary to have plenty for supper.
Joel felt the sense of grievance which is the almost inevitable sequel to groundless fears. "There's no answer," he told the boy gruffly. The urchin sidled away and Joel stood rigid, regarding the slip in his hand. His first move was to count the words. Seventeen! Joel groaned. What extravagance. If she had said "unnecessary" instead of "not necessary" there would have been a saving of one to begin with. And the closing injunction might have been omitted altogether. "Tell Mary to have plenty for supper." What an extraordinary request to telegraph from the city of Boston. Could it be that in the metropolis of New England she had lacked for food to satisfy the pangs of appetite?
So absorbed did he become in attempting to solve the riddle that he almost forgot to impart the contents of the telegram to Mary. The fresh-colored farmer's daughter who had found life extremely monotonous without the vivacious presence of her mistress, heard the news with elation and showed no surprise over the concluding request.
"I've heard how they feed folks in them city places. Ma's cousin was a waiter in a Boston boarding-house onct, and she says she was fairly ashamed to set before folks the little dabs that was served out, for all the world like samples. I guess after two whole weeks of that kind of food, Miss Dale's good and hungry."
Joel noticed with irritation that Persis had carried her independence to the point of suggesting that it was not necessary for him to meet her, though she was well aware that his presence at the station when the four-twenty train came in, had taken on almost the sacredness of a religious rite. "Looks as if she wasn't in any dreadful hurry to see me," Joel mused. It occurred to him that it would be a fitting return for Persis' perverseness for him to retire to his room and refuse to leave except at her humble and reiterated entreaty. It is unfortunate that so often the course of conduct consistent with one's dignity involves a painful sacrifice. As train-time drew near, Joel realized that he would not be equal to the ordeal of absenting himself, even for so worthy a cause as to teach Persis a much-needed lesson.
There was the usual number of loungers on the station platform, and Joel was soon surrounded by an interested circle. As the brother of a woman of property, he had acquired a certain vicarious importance in the last few weeks. Information as to what Persis was doing, or about to do, was sought eagerly in all directions, and Joel's vanity was flattered at finding himself the center of attention, even though in his heart he was well aware of the reason.
"Sister having a good time up to Boston?" inquired a florid man, who despite the chilliness of the late fall day was in his shirt-sleeves.
The uncertainty in Joel's mind as to whether Persis had spent her time attending the theater or in the surgical ward of a hospital, caused him to evade a direct answer.
"Oh, so-so. I'm expecting her home on this train."
The countenances of the group brightened. Some of them had come a long distance to await the four-twenty train. Pressing work was on the consciences of several. It was agreeable to know that their sacrifices were not thrown away. They would see Persis Dale step off the train and would be able to tell their wives at supper whether, as far as their obtuse masculine powers of observation had been able to determine, she was arrayed in the spoils of city shops.
The train screamed at the crossing half a mile below and made its appearance with the usual accompaniments of smoke and rattle. Passengers looked with weary interest at the crowd on the platform, and the crowd on the platform watched eagerly for alighting passengers. A farmer living in the vicinity left the smoking-car to be given scant welcome, for the lookers-on were anticipating something more impressive. A fat old woman with a basket and a couple of shawl-straps was also coldly received. Then some one caught Joel's arm with an exclamation, muffled but profane.
There was a parlor-car at the rear of the train, a concession to the passengers for Montreal. From this a rather striking procession was descending. It was led by a dark handsome boy about twelve years of age, while a fair girl, a little younger, followed behind. Another boy and then another girl, smaller and chubbier than their predecessors, were next to receive the assistance of the obsequious porter. And lastly he gave his attention to a woman who carried a baby in her arms. The woman wore a hat and coat new to Clematis, but there was something not unfamiliar in her erect carriage, and the capable fashion in which, she directed the movements of her little flock.
"Straight ahead, children. Algie, you walk right toward that hack with the two gray horses, and the rest of you follow Algie. Well, here's Uncle Joel come to meet us."
Some one pushed Joel forward. With his jaw dropping and his eyes protruding, he looked like a criminal urged on toward the scaffold rather than a man of affectionate disposition welcoming home a family circle unexpectedly enlarged. The hoarse gurgle which escaped his lips might have gassed for a greeting, or it might have presaged an epileptic seizure.
"Well, Joel." Persis nodded affably, at the same time patting the baby which, frightened by the proximity of so many strange faces, was beginning to whimper. "As long as you're here, you might as well see about our trunks. Give Uncle Joel the checks, Algie. No, not that pocket. You put 'em in the right-hand one."
The crowd surged nearer and a piping voice made itself heard above the confusion. "Miss Dale, looks as if you was going to have lively times with all that company."
Persis cast a benignant gaze in the speaker's direction. She had never held curiosity in low esteem as do the more rigid moralists, acknowledging indeed, her full share of that characteristic. And moreover she was quite willing that her old friends and neighbors, the most of whom had congratulated her so heartily on her recent good fortune, should know of her latest acquisition.
"I guess we'll have a lively time all right, Mr. Jones, but these children ain't what you call company. I adopted the whole lot up to Boston, and every one of the five's a Dale, as hard and fast as the law can make 'em."
A WOMAN AT LAST
Even if Joel's command of English had enabled him to express himself freely regarding his sister's latest acquisition, the opportunity was not immediately forthcoming. The demonstrations of five excited children, introduced into an environment entirely unfamiliar, proved absorbing to all the household. With the exception of the baby who clung shyly to Persis, refusing to leave her side, the new reinforcements to the Dale family at once organized exploring expeditions about the premises. Little feet clattered on the stairs and shrilly sweet voices announced discoveries from garret to cellar. Joel, who had improved the first opportunity to withdraw to his own room, pushed the heaviest chair against the door in lieu of a key and sat in the chair. And though his knob rattled a number of times, the investigations of the juvenile explorers ceased at his threshold.
When the summons of the supper-bell sounded through the house, Joel was uncertain whether to indicate his displeasure by remaining in his room or to present himself as usual, allowing Persis to see with her own eyes the condition to which her selfishness had reduced him. He decided on the latter course, not so much as a concession to his appetite as because he feared that in Persis' present absorption, his absence would hardly be noticed. Wearing the expression becoming one stricken by the hand of a friend, he left his room and faced the invaders below.
The dining-room table had been extended to a length which carried his thoughts back to his childhood. The baby, a frail-looking child, between two and three, had not yet attained the dignity of a place at the table but sat in a high-chair at Persis' left and drummed with her spoon upon the adjustable shelf which served the double purpose of keeping her in place and supporting her bowl of bread and milk. The renaissance of the high-chair was responsible for a curious surge of emotion through Joel's consciousness. Persis herself had once occupied that chair and for a moment his sister's matronly figure at the head of the table was singularly suggestive of his mother. He dropped into his place with a hollow groan.
"Has he got a stomach ache?" inquired five-year-old Celia from the other end of the table. The echoing whisper was distinctly audible. Betty, ten years old, pink, prim and pretty, blushed reproachfully at her new foster sister, while Mary, who was just bringing in the milk toast, was agitated by a tremor which imperiled the family supper.
"Sh!" Persis temporarily subdued the outbreaking of her new responsibilities by a lift of the eyebrows, and began to serve the milk toast with lavish hand. Joel waved away the plate Mary brought him.
"I can't eat that truck. Truth is I haven't got a mite of appetite, but just to keep up my strength I'll take a soft-boiled egg. I've got to have something sustaining."
"Two eggs, Mary," said Persis to her hand-maid. "And give 'em just two minutes and a half." The order failed to attract the attention of Celia, absorbed at the moment in allaying the pangs of appetite. It was not till the eggs were brought in and placed by Joel's plate that the irrepressible infant was roused to the realization of the enormity of the situation. She dropped her fork with a clatter.
"Oh, Aunt Persis, see what they've gone and done."
"What is it, child?"
"You said that little chickies came out of eggs." There was no further pretense of whispering on Celia's part. Her voice rose in a tragic wail. "And now he's going to eat up those eggs, and I wanted to save 'em to make chickies of. Oh, dear, dear!"
"'Tain't the right time of year for chickens, dearie," Persis explained soothingly. "We'll have plenty next spring." But Joel glanced at the objects which had called out Celia's protest with an air of extreme distaste.
"It's enough to take away a hearty man's appetite," he complained. "I guess if my victuals are going to be grudged me, I'd better eat up-stairs."
"Don't gobble, Malcolm," said Persis, ignoring her brother's burst of ill temper and addressing the little lad on her right. "And tuck your napkin under your chin so you won't get anything on your blouse."
At this point the tactful Betty created a diversion by inquiring, "When shall we start going to school, Aunt Persis? Monday?"
"Looks to me as if to-morrow'd be the best day. It's my idea that if a thing's worth starting at all, you can't start too soon. Some folks save up their good resolutions for the first of the year, but it's a better way to begin right off as soon as you think of it. And then when the New Year comes, you're just that much ahead."
"I'm going to study awful hard," declared Algie, with an air of putting this good counsel to immediate application.
"Well, I'm not," announced Malcolm with equal decision. And then as Betty emitted a protesting and shocked murmur, he explained: "Of course I'll study some, but I've got to save the most of my strength for playing football when I'm big."
Joel pushed back his chair and took his egg cup from the table.
"I guess I'll go to my room, Persis," he said in a hollow voice. "Maybe up-stairs where it's quiet, I'll be able to eat a little. And to-morrow you'd better have Mary make me some beef tea. I've got to have something to keep up my strength." Slowly and solemnly he mounted the stairs, convinced by the increased animation of the voices in the room below that his departure had not cast an irreparable gloom over the cheerful spirits of the diners.
This time he did not feel it necessary to barricade the door. Indeed he left it a trifle ajar, and so was party to the cheerful confusion of getting the children to bed. The baby—Amaryllis was her impossible name, though she looked too fragile to sustain its weight—was to share Persis' quarters. The two older girls occupied the chamber adjoining. The two boys had been assigned to a snug little room on the other side of the hall.
"Close by me so I can hear every mite of their rowdy-dow," Joel thought with bitterness. But in spite of himself he listened. The children were calling to one another across the hall. Apparently their previous acquaintance had been slight, and in addition to the excitement of finding themselves in a new environment, they were experiencing the more intoxicating novelty of becoming acquainted all at once with a fair-sized contingent of brothers and sisters.
"'Most ready for bed, children?" Persis' voice sounded rich and deep, contrasting with the piping chatter. "Time you was asleep, for to-morrow's a school day. And you've got to say your prayers yet."
"I said mine on the train coming down," explained Malcolm with his quaint drawl. "Thought I might as well save the time as long as there wasn't anything else to do."
"I've got a new prayer to say," announced Celia, flashing into the hall, a diminutive apparition, white-clad, with twinkling pink feet. "It's this way:
"'Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool? Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.'"
"I think I can teach you a nicer prayer than that," Persis said serenely, while the older children laughed with the vast superiority of their wider knowledge. Joel uttered an exclamation of horror.
"Children are natural blasphemers. Persis ought to take that little limb [Transcriber's note: lamb?] in hand. If she don't know the difference between Mother Goose and praying, she ought to be taught quick. Old Doctor Watts was in the right of it.
"'Lord, we are vile, conceived in sin, And born unholy and unclean.'"
The murmur of conversation in the adjoining rooms died away. Once or twice after quiet descended, a little voice spoke out like the chirp of a drowsy bird, brooded over by mother wings. Persis went softly down the stairs. Joel waited long enough to make his advent impressive and followed her.
She sat as he had seldom seen her, thrown back in the roomy recesses of the big easy chair, her hands lying loosely in her lap. Her attitude suggested the relaxation following fatigue. Her eyes were half closed, her lips smiling. An indefinable rapture radiated from her. All her life Persis Dale had been a resolutely cheerful person. But that consistent, conscientious optimism was as unlike her present lightness of heart as the heat of a coal fire, carefully fed and tended, differs from the gracious warmth of June.
Singularly enough the sight of her satisfaction stirred her brother to instant indignation. Up to this moment a sense of grievance had been upper-most. Now he found himself shaken by hot anger. The instinct of the male to dominate, outlasting the strength which sustains and protects, spurred him on to have his way with her, to master this madness which threatened the peace of his life.
"Persis," he began in a loud angry voice, "what's the meaning of this piece of tom-foolishness?"
She opened her eyes and looked at him. After her two weeks' absence, their longest separation in twenty years, she saw him almost as a stranger would have done, a slight, undersized man with a bulging forehead which told of nature's generous endowments, and the weak chin, explaining his failure to measure up to the promise of his youth. His disheveled hair and burning eyes gave an unprepossessing touch to the picture. But the maternal feeling, always uppermost where her brother was concerned, had been intensified by the children's advent. Persis felt for the moment the indulgent disapproval of a mother toward an unreasonable child.
"Why, Joel!" Her voice, with its new depth and richness, caressed the name it uttered. "What's foolish about it?"